Slush Pile 1: The Universe in a Box
This is going to be my first entry into what is likely going to be a long series. I’ve written a number of sci-fi and fantasy short stories, and I have been putting some effort into getting them published… but at some point, I run out of potential venues to sell them to.
Thus, when I give up on a story, I’ll go ahead and put it up here for your entertainment. Of course, since these are stories that have been rejected a few times, I’d love to have some feedback on where they have gone awry.
This particular story, “Universe in a Box,” exists in several forms; I’ve also written (and had rejected) a related story called “Sandbox,” which I’ll be posting later.
She was reading a paper on the latest techniques in miniaturization. She was fascinated by the description of improved methods for controlling the dynamics of a solar system compressed to the size of an atom.
But her time of quiet reading did not last. As usual, once she had finally found a moment to catch up on the literature, she was interrupted by a chime at the door. She pushed the holographic text aside and said, “Come in!”
The doors slid into the walls, revealing her newest student. He seemed worried and embarrassed at the same time. He pulled nervously at his whiskers, and a few tufts of his fur stood on end. “Uh, professor? Do you have a few minutes?”
“With that kind of face? I think I have a few more than a few minutes.” She resigned herself to finishing her reading at another time, and gave the command for a seat rest to emerge from its place in the wall.
The student was too nervous to take the rest. Instead, he paced, rattling his fingers against the walls whenever he wandered close enough to reach them. In her small office, this was often. “I, uh, made a mistake with one of the boxes. I set some of the constants wrong. Well, a lot of them wrong.”
“That’s all right,” she said patiently. “We have thousands of different models running. Even if one universe has slightly different parameters than we originally planned, that’s perfectly fine. Besides, it’s easy enough to make a new box with the correct values.”
“That’s not it,” he said urgently. “It’s a whole set of things that are off. And how they’re off. I… picked up the wrong input descriptor file. The baryon fraction is too high, so there’s too much ordinary matter. The strong force is a little stronger than it should be, so the nuclei are a little more stable, and a little more energy is released when they fuse inside of stars… the electromagnetic force is a little too weak…” His whiskers twitched.
“Easy there. As I said, you can just make another box. I’ve made the same mistake before. Is there some reason this is bothering you so much?”
“I didn’t realize that anything was wrong until after it had been running for a while. Billions of years, in the internal time. I slowed it down, to normal time, to get some measurements on the star formation properties…” His whiskers twitched again, and he paused for breath before finally blurting out, “And I noticed there was planet formation happening.”
“Frell,” the professor said. “It’s not a copy of our universe, is it?”
“It’s an accelerating cosmology,” he went on rapidly, punctuating his words with paces, “Cosmological constant is pretty big. So they’re heading towards heat death, after an incredibly long time. It’s not at all like how our universe is going to collapse under gravity in a few billion years and hit the big crunch and all get crushed into a black hole, but…” He gave her a desperate look.
“There are good reasons we don’t run models with planet formation. Any models.” The professor gave her student a stern look, mirroring her own fears. “You’d better show me.”
A few short minutes later, they had reached the simulation room.
The control sensors were in the center, lights on the panel glowing dimly. They cast long shadows in the large chamber. The floor itself was clear of obstructions, but the walls were covered in neatly spaced boxes. Each cube was roughly the size of a person’s head, carefully contained by metal rods precisely aligned along the edges. Some were utterly dark. Some glowed throughout, with the dim warmth of a cooling gas. Some were brighter, representing temperatures hotter than that of any star, but filtered down and color-coded. It would not do to have them loosing gamma rays where people would be working. Still other boxes shone with drops and filaments of light. Some of these showed the glittering of nearly uncountable stars, or represented other material invisible to eyes of any species. The images on every single cube were projections of the contents, as direct interference would compromise the experiment.
Worlds in miniature. Each one was a universe in a box, created by their own appendages. The professor loved this room. The grandeur visible here more than compensated for the tiny office. She always felt a rush when she walked in, knowing that here they had built more than anyone had ever dreamed possible. And they could do it again, on a whim. It was the power of a god, multiplied a million times. Intoxicating.
Eons ago, the best models had only been electric signals in silicon wafers, and later, carefully controlled spin states. But even the best quantum computers could only go so far. Without more memory, faster calculations, running the better simulations that were necessary for their current studies would take more years than a single graduate student would need to complete his degree, perhaps even longer than he could expect to live. That was too long. Research into the grand scales, the shape of the universe as it was and would be and might have been, stalled.
Then had come the discovery of true miniaturization, allowing them to build entire universes to spec. Scientists were no longer restricted to merely imagining other worlds, describing them with a sequence of numbers in a machine. Now, they created them.
They still limited the volume of each miniature universe to a box with periodic boundaries, much like the old days of computer modeling. Anything crossing through one face of the cube would just end up reentering from the parallel face on the other side. It saved power by allowing a finite universe to be made.
The professor put aside her unending delight in her work when her student stepped into the control circle. He summoned the box in question with a gesture, and drew up its parameters with another.
The box had been set aside against a far wall, and now drew close enough to touch. It hovered at eye level. This box had been set to show true colors, and it glittered with pinpoints of light. Galaxies, filled with stars, darkened by clouds of dust and gas, were strung out like beads along invisible threads.
The description of the nature of that little universe was less delightful. She looked over the list, and the equations that tied it all together. The listed parameters were far too close to their own universe. There were moral hazards in making something so similar to home, and it was generally prohibited on those grounds. The box itself, suspended from the ceiling by intangible fields, now seem to be filled with outlines of claws around looming monsters of darkness.
She should have paid more attention to what her student was doing. Too late. Now, the only choice was to correct the problem. She turned from the box and display to the nervous young scientist in training. “How did this parameter set get past the warnings? There should have been an automatic block against something like this.”
“I… uh, I don’t know. I may have overridden them on accident, since I was sure it was fine. And I might have been in a hurry, since I was trying to get ready for exams…”
She felt her own whiskers droop. “I don’t need to hear excuses. How long has this been running?”
“A bit under 14 billion years.”
She sighed. “That’s long enough. Stand aside for a moment, please,” she said, quickly occupying the best position for reaching the controls. She gestured again, and watched the projected datastream as she searched through a small sample of stars in one particular galaxy. The search ended quickly, triggering on her narrow selection criteria. She skimmed over the details before showing her student.
“This,” she said, stepping back, “is why you’re not supposed to use parameters that are too close to our own.” The hologram projected before them was an image drawn from deep inside the box, at moderate-high zoom. The view was from the surface of the night side of one of the planets that should not have formed. The atmosphere was just thick enough to make the stars twinkle, ever so slightly. The star it orbited was not visible, but the silvery crescent of an unfamiliar moon lingered above the horizon.
Two alien forms, only dimly illuminated by a red light they carried, walked to the top of a dark hill, though some kind of low scrub. They managed well for creatures with only two legs. They gestured at each other, working around the objects they carried. Perhaps they spoke audibly, but the projected image lacked sound, and differences in atmosphere and language would surely render the result unintelligible to the ears of the observers.
The professor watched grimly as the two creatures reached the top. Once there, one of them set up a tripod. Then they both fussed over a long object they placed on top of it. A telescope.
The professor turned to her student. “This is only the first one I’ve found. Billions of people live on this planet, and I’ve only searched through a billion stars. Less than a hundredth of the stars in this galaxy alone. Congratulations. You are now responsible for trillions of sentient lives, at the very least.”
The student watched the image, horrified. “I didn’t realize this could happen. Until I saw that there were planets in this one, and I was worried that…” He reached towards the command sensors. “Now that we know how far off it is, can we just clean up by telling it to end the run…”
“No! No, we can’t do that.” At his confused look, she said, “You were right to bring this to be before just clearing and replacing the box. It doesn’t matter what the philosophers say about our work. Remember that these universes are, for all intents and purposes, real. Ethically, we are required to treat them as such. By hitting that button, you sentence more living beings to death than live in our entire galaxy.”
“That’s… what I was afraid of.” From the way his whiskers twitched, she could tell that the idea of being the instigator of the worst imaginable xenocide did not sit well with him. “Then… what do we do?”
“Can they tell that their universe is periodic?”
“No, the light-travel time across the box is way larger than the age of the universe. And once the cosmic acceleration really kicks in, after a few billion years longer, they’ll lose sight of even galaxies that were once nearby. There’s no fear of that.”
“Good,” the professor said. “I’ll need to speak with the director about this. Meanwhile, I think you need to get in touch with all of your progeny.”
“My… progeny?” The professor watched his fur stick up. “But they’re just…” He waved back at the projected image of the alien astronomers, who still watched the sky, unknowing.
“You created them,” the professor said. “Legally and morally, you’re responsible for all of them. To them, you’ve been a very negligent parent for the last fourteen billion years. You will have to correct that error, and I will help you do it.”
“But… that’ll take forever!” Then he stopped, and added, “Well, not forever, since the volume is finite, but it will take a very long time. Even if I had a lot of help and multiple dedicated AIs to speed it all up. And… I’m not even sure what I would say.”
The professor closed her eyes for a moment in thought, and to calm her frayed nerves. When she opened her eyes again, she let them bore directly into her students’. “I believe that you owe them an apology and an explanation, at the very least. You will need to be especially careful of the less technologically advanced. We are not gods, but it is hard not to view the being responsible for the creation of your entire universe as such.” The professor sighed. “On the bright side, you’ve found your thesis topic.”