Physical Terror by A R Yngve
Dr. Yogini Parvatiyan yawned as she walked into the psych ward. Her night shift had just started, and she already had a headache. She was a sturdily built woman, thirty-three years old.
Too many things were on her mind: the impending staff cuts at the hospital, difficult patients, the constant terrorist threats in the news, two cities flattened in nuclear explosions over the past three days, her strained marriage, the baby she always postponed having…
Sometimes Yogini wished it was possible to live one’s life and just concentrate on one thing at a time – like some of the patients did. How much easier the life of the monomaniac seemed…
The male nurse Maitreya sat in the office, watching the surveillance monitors. He nodded at her when she slid in the door.
“Hi, Trey. How’s it going?”
He handed her a clipboard with a few papers attached to it.
“You’d better have a look at the patient we just got in. He refuses to eat, and he throws up everything we feed him.”
Yogini skimmed the papers with passing interest. She took mental notes: University teacher, paranoid schizophrenic, violent, committed at a request from supervisor at work and family…
“Did you try drip-feeding?” she asked, looking at the newly taken photo of the patient: shaven bald, dark spots under the eyes, skinny and wild-eyed.
“He ripped out the tube and hurt his arm. A real wannabe Yogi.”
“All right, I’ll have a look… but I’m busy.”
It was a conscious lie. Yogini was just not in the mood for listening to paranoids tonight. She had her own worries to think of – so much so that it wouldn’t help to see someone who had it worse than herself. At least the drugs helped…
“Did you hear about that atom bomb explosion in Japan?” Maitreya said, frowning. “Horrible.”
“Must be one of those doomsday cults.”
“Another one? I wonder.”
“Are you on something? How can you go to work like nothing’s going on?”
“My special recipe. Don’t tell anyone.”
“Where’d you pick him up? This report’s kinda sketchy.”
“Right outside campus where he worked. He was naked when we found him, and he’d shaved off all his body hair. No prior rap sheet. Lost his job at the university for acting too weird. They finally had him committed when he got into a fight with a faculty member. He hit the nurses when they tried to put clothes on him.”
Yogini nodded, thinking about her husband. She had been suspecting him of being unfaithful lately, but she hadn’t asked him about it. Maybe it was better not to know. Maybe it was just her imagination…
“Kharti Keya,” she read from the report. “Physics professor. Haven’t we got a mad scientist in the open wing? Maybe they could talk to each other?”
“Room fifteen. Careful, he can be violent.”
“I won’t be long.”
Suppressing a yawn, Yogini put on her professional face and non-threatening clenched-lips smile (don’t show your teeth to schizophrenics). He stared at her fearfully, and she stopped a few feet from his bed.
“Professor Kharti Keya?” The naked man did not move, and looked at his own pale knees. “I’m Doctor Yogini Parvatiyan. Could you please tell me what happened before you were sent here?”
Peering at her, he said in a hoarse, weak voice: “You’re not going to force-feed me, are you?”
“Relax, Kharti. I want to help you. Don’t you feel cold? How about putting on some warm clothes.”
Anger added energy to his voice: “Cut the condescension! I’m not crazy.”
“But please eat something. If you don’t eat, you’ll die. At least drink your orange juice. So your teeth won’t fall out.”
“I want my teeth to fall out. Each tooth weighs several grams. And I want a pair of scissors, a nail clipper and a razor. And tongs… to pull out my teeth.”
“No sharp objects. Not until you’ve explained your behavior. If you’re not crazy as you say, then tell me what’s going on. Why do you refuse to wear clothes or eat?”
“I just want to lose mass, that’s all.”
“But I assure you, you’re not fat.”
“Mass! Not body fat… mass! Each gram equals energy to the sum of mass times the square of the speed of light… do you know how much that is? My mass equals the energy of several hydrogen bombs…”
“Please try to breathe steady. Steady… take it from the beginning. When did you first become aware of this mass-energy thing?”
“I can’t say. You’ll think I’m crazy.”
“Okay. Okay… but just don’t interrupt me, okay? I’m pretty tired, and I won’t explain myself twice.”
“I work in theoretical physics, and the study of cosmology is my specialty. A few weeks ago, one of my students came to me after class and proposed a hypothesis about the expansion of the universe.
“His name was Lester Ghitnan. He was the fattest student of my freshman class. The other students called Lester ‘The Cosmological Constant,’ because he expanded so much, heh-heh. I can’t say I liked Lester, but he was bright. Anyhow… he proposed to me the following hypothesis: the acceleration of the cosmic expansion is caused by the pressure of virtual energy created in the vacuum of space.
“Don’t interrupt me! I’ll explain. In every cubic inch of empty space, positron-electron pairs wink in and out of existence on a constant basis. No one knows why, they just do it because they can. And every once in a while, Lester proposed, the virtual energy of space ‘slips,’ and a real photon emerges out of nowhere.
“As the size of the cosmos expands after the Big Bang, the probability of random photon creation increases – and after a certain time, the process becomes self-reinforcing. The created photons push against spacetime and accelerate the expansion… which in turn increases the amount of space in which photons can be created… and further accelerates the expansion, et cetera. That was his proposal.
“Lester also claimed to me, that we could predict exactly when the expansion will accelerate to a critical velocity, beyond which the universe creates an infinite amount of photons from empty space. And since heat and photons are one and the same, all life would then be roasted by a burst of heat that pervades every corner of the cosmos.
“Of course I laughed at him. Had to. The idea that matter is created spontaneously out of space is not new. Sir Fred Hoyle killed his career on putting forth that theory. And no scientist worth his salt accepts the concept of infinite energies. But he got me thinking.
“I called up an astrophysics guy I know, and asked him if anyone had thought of measuring increases in the average temperature of the universe… to check if the universe might be heating up. And he told me something that really set my mind working. They had done some recent measurements of the temperature of empty space, as a side effect of reading the cosmic background radiation.
“What they found was that although the expansion of the Universe is accelerating slowly, which ought to cool down empty space, the overall temperature of the Universe is not decreasing as much as expected. In fact, the temperature seems to be increasing, but only by a minute fraction. He and his colleagues were debating whether there was an energy ‘surplus’ that filled in some of the new empty space created by the cosmic expansion. But no observational evidence exists of such a surplus.
“When I told Lester Ghitnan this, he got angry… heh-heh. He thought I was lying to discredit his theory. He claimed that new energy simply had to be created in empty space to explain the accelerated cosmic expansion. After that he refused to talk to me, and stopped coming to my lectures. For a few days I tried to forget his whole proposal. But the thought of an ‘energy surplus’ in the Universe refused to leave my mind. I talked to other astronomers, sent e-mails around the globe asking if the Universe really was expanding faster – maybe, I asked them, it wasn’t really happening, maybe it was some sort of optical illusion?
“The astronomers were adamant: there was no doubt the cosmic expansion was speeding up. I lost sleep, and weight, heh-heh… until I saw the truth one night. How simple it was.
“You see, there is no ‘surplus’ of energy being created in the Universe. Everything has to balance out. The Universe hangs together by an infinitude of particles interacting with each other. When enough photons are spawned out of nowhere and inflate space, something else has got to give. Space cannot produce infinite energy, as Lester believed. What happens instead, is space does produce energy – but at the price of becoming hollowed out… like a Swiss cheese. Eventually, as the holes are inflated by the ever-faster expansion, they get big enough that entire particles can drop into them and vanish into the sea of virtual energy. But that alone isn’t going to stop the accelerated creation of photons and cosmic expansion, heh-heh.
“Haven’t told you the worst part. I can explain the atomic explosions across the planet lately. They have nothing at all to do with terrorists or rogue nations. It’s those little holes in the fabric of spacetime, between the atoms… they’re getting too damn big! The smallest particles fall in first… the electrons. An atom can lose pretty much all its electrons in a few seconds, that way. And once that happens, you’ve got a free atomic nucleus flying around in space. The planet becomes ionized. Some of the free nuclei, if they move at the right speed, can smash into other atoms and split the nuclei. The fragments fly off and split other atoms, and so on. Chain reaction. Boom. Heh-heh.
“The likelihood of a random chain reaction occurring in any piece of matter – rock, flesh, water – is directly proportional to the amount of mass and the density of the first atom that loses its electrons.
“Last week, my former student Lester disappeared in a nuclear explosion that destroyed his home town. They said it was terrorism; Kashmiri separatists, al-Qaeda, anyone. I knew better… heh-heh. Lester exploded from a nuclear chain reaction, and he leveled his home town in the process. He should’ve slimmed down, the big slob, heh-heh. The chain reaction must have started in the densest matter on him – in the gold ring on his finger, or the lead particles in his lungs.
“I went to a dentist and had all my fillings removed. Threw away all rings, belt buckles, all metal, sold my house, went to live in a tent. But there are trace elements of metal in all human beings. Lead seeps in through the air we breathe. I used a breathing mask.
“But it can’t be stopped. Soon the probability of chain reactions increases to the critical rate. Things are gonna blow up like crazy as the cosmos inflates exponentially and space itself becomes this incredibly thin, hollow mesh. We should be able to see holes and rends appear in the sky itself, on the surface of the Moon… the Sun. Maybe we’ll fall apart completely before the whole planet explodes in a giant random chain reaction. Maybe not. It doesn’t matter. The Universe is set on an irreversible self-destruction course… a balloon that inflates itself too fast, and… boom. Boom.”
“So you see now, you have to understand… I must reduce my mass. Or I’ll explode. Heh-heh.”
“There now, professor. No one is going to blow you up. I’m not a thin woman… and you don’t see any holes in my spacetime, do you?”
“I told you, I’m not going to put up with that patronizing tone.”
“What you need is a good night’s rest. I’ll give you something to relax.”
“I see… this is where I start to laugh like a maniac and say things like, ‘You fools! You’ll all be sorry!’“ He was too exhausted to get angry, and wrapped his arms around his coiled-up legs. “What’s the use?” he muttered. “Any moment now – tonight, tomorrow, or the next minute – the acceleration of the cosmic expansion goes into overdrive. Nuclear explosions go off here and there, and the night sky goes darker as the holes in space merge and inflate. Next time you look yourself in the mirror, doctor, you might find a lot more pores in your skin.”
His threat shouldn’t have phased her at all. And yet, she felt a cold shiver, instead of the comforting sense of being sane compared to the sad state of the patient. She was irritated; she was tired, her headache was returning and she had her own damn problems to think about.
“Enough of this nonsense. The nurse’ll give you your sleeping shot. Good night, Kharti.”
“How did it go, doctor?”
She shook her head. “Boy, is that one nutty professor. He’s suffering a paranoid delusion about the end of the world. Most paranoids don’t have his kind of imagination, though. Wait until you read my report, it’s going to be rather entertaining.”
The lit, white corridor was quiet. The great ceiling windows showed the black night sky, and a full bright Moon. His gaze drifting, Maitreya looked up at the Moon. He blinked, and looked again, squinting hard.
“Hey… did you see that? A flash in the sky.”
Yogini craned her neck; she was standing right below the Moon. “Where?”
“Up there… where the Moon is. Wait a minute. Something’s happened to the Moon. A new crater.”
Yogini felt a vibration in her feet; her heartbeat quickened, and she thought quickly: Go home, get some sleep, you’ll forget this. “Did you feel a tremor?” Why the hell did she ask that?
Maitreya lowered his gaze and frowned at her; it seemed to her he was looking past her. Hysteria bubbled up in her mind, and she couldn’t repress a laugh; she gave him a wide grin.
“Say,” Maitreya said with sudden urgency, “what’s that big hole in your gold tooth?”
This is a dream, she thought, I’ll wake up soon. Tomorrow I’ll go to the dentist and have all my fillings pulled out…
“I don’t have anything in my to -”
Cover pic provided by the author.