Monthly Archive: April 2017

The Technological Event Horizon – INTRODUCTION

 Captain Amanda Wellington tried to keep the fear from her voice as she activated the comm circuit and shouted, “Baxter, I need all available power routed to the engines immediately or we’re all dead!”

Chief Engineer Baxter Poole took an agonizing number of seconds to reply. “I’m giving it everything I can, captain, but that explosion took out our port side EM drive.”

Amanda stared at the telemetry display. Two colored lines crossed each other. One represented the ship. The other represented their doom. A clock rapidly counted down the seconds toward the intersection of the two. “Helm, plot me the ideal heading and minimum thrust we need to break orbit, and send all data to engineering.”

“I’m on it,” the helm officer replied, “but it’s going to take a bit. Our telemetry gets less reliable the closer we get to the event horizon, the computer will have to extrapolate some of the numbers using dead reckoning.”

“Baxter, how long before you can get that engine back on line.”

“At least three months. That’s the travel time to the closest shipyard that can replace it.”

“I need answers, not jokes.”

“That’s not a joke,” the engineer replied, “the port engine is beyond saving. I can overdrive the starboard engine and get you thirty percent over spec, at least for a while. That’s the best I can do.”

“I can work with that,” the helm officer interjected. She tapped at her terminal for several seconds. “We can’t break orbit with that, but I can plot us a sub-orbital bounce that puts us close to Hawking Station.”

Amanda took a deep breath. It was an all or nothing gamble. A bounce would delay disaster and give the Hawking Science Station time to mount a rescue, but if it failed, they would be worse off. They would eventually plunge toward the black hole at even greater speed.

Precious seconds ticked away.

“Do it,” she ordered. The helm officer immediately turned her attention back to her console. Amanda tried to remember the officer’s name. Julia something. She’d only just joined the bridge crew yesterday. Amanda hadn’t even gotten around to her usual welcome speech yet. No time for that now. “Richard, contact the station, tell them what we’re doing, and have them ready every available grav tug to meet us.”

“Got it,” the communications officer replied. Amanda turned her attention toward the engineering damage report.

It was not good. The explosion had taken out one of the engines, damaged one of the primary power manifolds, and destabilized the fusion core. Baxter must be holding things together with vacuum tape and spit. Oh, and the satellite they’d been sent to repair had instead been knocked off its orbit and sent spiraling toward the black hole. Hawking Station would not be happy about that.

Richard interrupted her thoughts. “Captain, Hawking Station isn’t responding.”

“What, we’ve lost communications now too?”

“No, I’m still getting a signal from them. They’re just not answering my specific hails.”

Amanda brought up the comm screen on her own console and began reviewing the message queue. There was a lot of messages. Personal messages to individual crew members. Messages directed to her from Fleet Headquarters. Too many messages, all sent in the last few seconds. Then she noticed the time code on a recent message. It was dated two years in the future.


She switch from comm back to telemetry. She looked at the line showing the path of the ship, dipping dangerously close to the event horizon before curving up into a sub-orbital bounce. Then she looked at the error bands, a colored region around the line reflecting the amount of guesswork the computer had engaged in because of telemetry problems. The lower bound of the error band dipped below the event horizon.

“We’ve already crossed it.” Amanda gasped, her voice cracking as hope fled. The rest of the bridge crew fell silent. She turned back to her console and flipped back to the damage report. There it was. Damage to the power manifold had deactivated the shields. They’d fallen victim to relativistic effects. Because of the rapid speed of their decaying orbit, time was passing more slowly for them than the rest of the universe. That had thrown off their calculations.

Jason was tapping at his console. Amanda looked up to see him scrolling through the message list. She could see understanding overtake him as he took in their contents. He finally spoke. “We crossed the event horizon only seconds after the explosion, at least from our perspective. We’ve been spiraling toward the singularity for several years already. We are well and truly screwed.”

“No, there’s got to be something…” Julia couldn’t finish. She knew the physics of it as well as the rest of them.

Hawking Station wasn’t answering because the ship’s signal wasn’t reaching them. Nothing could escape the event horizon. Not light, not radio transmissions, and certainly not the ship. Stuff still flowed in with no problem, so they could still hear the station. But from the outside they were long gone and beyond reach.

Nevertheless, Hawking Station hadn’t just written them off. They knew it would take decades for the ship to spiral into the singularity, even if it felt like mere minutes to the crew. They’d spent those first years sending farewell messages from family and friends, the transmission slowed enough that the ship’s computer could keep up.

Amanda flipped back to the comm screen and opened a message from her sister. The tone was sad but affectionate, expressing how much she was missed even as it filled her in on all the family news. It was like a wistful Christmas letter.

The comm app chirped with another incoming message. She glanced at the header and saw it was from the head of research at Hawking Station. She skimmed. He prattled on in his usual long winded manner, so Amanda nearly missed the reference to a research paper titled ‘The Application of Gravitational Warp Field Theory Toward the Breaching of Event Horizon Barriers’. She went back and reread the section.

She read on. She read past the scientific jargon to the deeper story it told. The scientific community had caught fire. The story of the lost science vessel had captured the public imagination, unleashing a torrent of research into gravitational warp field theory. The technology that powered starships across the galaxy might provide the key to their rescue. It was a race between gravity and human ingenuity.

Amanda stopped reading. Her vision had grown blurry. Her initial hope was being overtaken by a sense of amazement. An often fractious galaxy had united around the mission of their rescue. She tried to wipe her tears from her console and only succeeded in closing the comm app.

She laughed. The rest of bridge crew looked at her like she’d gone crazy, but she laughed again. Somehow, beyond all probability or understanding, they had reached up through the impenetrable event horizon to reshaped all human society. Whether or not they were actually rescued seemed secondary to that.

Julia finally interrupted her musing. “Captain, I’m seeing something strange on the sensors.”

Ships were appearing in orbit, just outside the black hole’s event horizon, moving at seemingly impossible speed. A structure was taking shape. Something massive. The ships were bees around a growing hive. The giant machine was like nothing Amanda had seen before. Dozens of kilometers across, with massive antenna-like structures pointed down toward the singularity. The ship’s spiraling course took them directly under it with each orbit.

Amanda activated the ship-wide address system. “All hands to duty stations. Secure for acceleration.”

“What is it,” Richard asked, “what’s going to happen?”

“I don’t know,” Amanda answered. She switched the main display from aft to forward sensors. The approaching black hole disappeared, replaced by the growing machine above them. The ship’s clock ticked away years like seconds. “But I think it’s going to be miraculous.”

* * *

Despite first impressions, this is a work of non-fiction. No, the preceding events did not actually happen. That mini-story only serves to introduce concepts that are central to the larger work. I needed to talk about singularities and event horizons, but I struggled for some time deciding how to go about it. Ultimately, I fell back on the mechanism I’m most comfortable with, fiction. I will likely continue to use this tool going forward.

What do we mean when we talk about a singularity. When you put “definition of singularity” into Google, it comes back with several answers. One definition is “a point at which a function takes an infinite value, especially in space-time when matter is infinitely dense, as at the center of a black hole.” Another is “a hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence and other technologies have become so advanced that humanity undergoes a dramatic and irreversible change.” That second definition is inspired by the first. Such a world changing event is more properly called the Technological Singularity, but in the appropriate context it is often shortened to just the Singularity. It’s an apt metaphor. In mathematics or in space, a singularity is a point at which the usual rules break down. Extending the metaphor, Google defines an event horizon as “a theoretical boundary around a black hole beyond which no light or other radiation can escape; a point of no return.

Think about that for a moment.

In our story, the singularity isn’t the critical point of transition. That would be the event horizon. It’s the point of no return. Beyond that barrier, the forces at play will allow movement in only one direction, toward the singularity, and at ever increasing speed.

Scientist and futurists argue about when and even if we will reach the Technological Singularity. Some say it’s only years or decades away, others say centuries. Some say it’s a fantasy that will never occur. I’m not going to argue about the time line. Don’t expect me to stick a pin in a calendar predicting when it arrives. But I will suggest this… we have already crossed the Technological Event Horizon. We are beyond the point of no return. I can’t predict exactly what is coming, but like our heroes on the ship, I can be sure of one thing.

It’s going to be miraculous.