Issue 196 – January 2023

3390 words, short story

Pearl

For Vera Florence Cooper Rubin
Astronomer, pioneer in the discovery of Dark Matter and the “Galaxy Rotation Problem”

[Transcript of the inaugural LOUOU mission launch press briefing, delivered by Dr. Florence Maxwell-Rubin, Codirector, VRMT]

Published in The Solar Citizen, 2180:34 (3).

The Vera Rubin Memorial Trust is thrilled to host the launch of the Large Observatory for the UnObservable Universe; an ambitious and unprecedented initiative pioneering interdisciplinary deep space research. Supported by the Trust, in coalition with the League of Nameless Astronomers, scholars at LOUOU will be free to pursue greater knowledge of the cosmos, unfettered by either governmental or commercial pressures. Which is to say, our scientists may work without fear of their research being patented and sold as “Dark Matter Lite,” or of being distracted by a patriotic scramble to vault the first national flag into a black hole.

[scattered audience laughter]

This project is eighty-four years in the making—the life’s work of some of the greatest minds in human history. We at the Trust also commemorate the engineers, contractors, and construction workers responsible for the on-site assembly and preparation of the station during its experimental phases. Without their courageous and trailblazing efforts, LOUOU would have remained a mess of blueprints, sketches, and diagrams.

They have given humanity a gift of incalculable value.

Let us honor them and their families today with a moment of quiet contemplation.

[Thirty-four seconds of silence follows, broken occasionally by a cough or the shuffle of feet]

[Dr. Maxwell-Rubin clears her throat]

Our dearest wish at VRMT is for the Large Observatory to become a bastion of progress, experimentation, and curiosity that endures far beyond our lifetimes.

Tomorrow, we send our first research cohort into the black—where, I am sure, the most miraculous of discoveries await them.

[Thunderous audience applause]


06/06/2263: LOUOU Station, in orbit around Kepler-10b, Monoceros Constellation

It was about the size and shape of a pill. The edges were smooth where they weren’t hinged, marked in the middle like the calcium tablets they had to break apart to swallow. Lux held it between thumb and forefinger with the reverence they usually reserved for lovers—watching it phase in and out of view; impossibly dense and fluid and weightless all at once.

Their allotted garden panel was already overrun with machinery in various stages of rust and regrowth, and consequentially the remaining soil was sparse. Several intrepid slugs, covertly swiped from one of the smaller greenhouses, were making the most of it; leaving oily, iridescent trails where the dirt thinned and exposed the metal beneath. Lux had fortified the garden with as much of their own excess waste as possible, but could only produce so much, and skimming their neighbor’s latrine felt rude. Looking across at the intricate, illegible topiary obscuring Roz’s apartment, she clearly had habits of her own to fertilize.

Reluctantly, Lux uprooted some pet projects—a first generation prismatic compass (scrambled anyway); a wire cutting from the archives (easily replicable); and the old telescope they’d built with their father, which they thought might actually be cathartic to toss down a disposal chute. With a whispered apology, they plucked several shimmering slugs from the discarded experiments, who curled into themselves, disgruntled, before adapting to their new locations with unfurling bodies.

Then, like a new parent settling an infant in its crib, Lux took the kernel from its Petri dish, placed it tenderly into a small depression, and patted it over with dirt. They were unsure how the modded slugs would react to this clot of strange, warping cells—if they would rush to reabsorb it, as they had done once before, or remain indifferent, as they had many times more. These inscrutable creatures had already been enhanced to endure the limitations of off-planet farming. Lux had merely encouraged some of their more obscure mutations. In their private notes, they’d classified this strain as Non-Baryonic Mollusks—a wild stab at formal-sounding astrobiological nomenclature. The NBMs weren’t state-of-the-art biotech, sure—considering Lux wasn’t really a bioengineer. On paper, they were simply a technician with too much free time.

Spare time was one of a handful of luxuries still available on the Large Observatory. LOUOU (a terrible acronym and running joke in the few journals still paying attention) had a vague and hubristic mandate that was matched only by its renowned Specialists, who believed themselves better qualified to operate the Large Parascope than its technicians (even after the incident with the open lens and jettisoned debris). This presented a particular problem for Lux, parascope operation having been their primary role on the station. It was also why they’d ended up becoming part maintenance crew, part janitor, part amateur astrobiologist, on a defunct research facility at the farthest edge of Earth’s nearest black hole.

Lux watched the slugs begin to investigate the seedling, until the persistent Muzak favored by LOUOU’s productivity algorithms got louder, letting them know it was time for shift. They hadn’t had a chance to note down their observations, which was unfortunate, because their executive function had been dipping with their mood, and there would certainly be details they’d forget. Nothing for it. They swiped one of the aerated glass tubes littering the garden and gently coaxed one of the slugs inside before replacing the stopper and slipping it into the pocket of their overalls.

On the way out of the Burbs, they caught up with Roz, who was already power walking toward the lift, her sure feet propelling the crisp, geometric outline of her body. Almost out of breath, Lux wheezed out a greeting. Roz cocked her head amiably.

“I don’t know why you bother rushing. The lift’s barely past 1.”

“I’m aware. And yes, I . . . I am sweaty and red in the face. I know.” Their hip hurt, too. The other techs and maintenance workers in B4 gradually assembled, chatting as the lift display crawled through Burbs 1-3.

Due to an enthusiastic initial donation to LOUOU, they were overstaffed, and due to the never-ending research setbacks and bureaucratic loopholes that contractually extended their stay, crew morale was low.

There were perks, however. In addition to personal quarters, non-Specialist staff had assigned bunks in the upper decks of the observatory, because shifts were long, if quiet. Their collective janitorial approach could generously be called lackadaisical. Many workers simply held vigil for the legal end of their contracts. Disused rooms and corridors gathered dust and debris without comment from upper management, who reliably trod the same blinkered routes to and from their labs each cycle. Mostly, maintenance personnel milled around waiting for a light or buzzer to notify them when something actively needed cleaning or screwing back in. Other workers had installed little holograms of friends or loved ones in theirs, or pinned letters wishing them luck, telling them they’d be missed (collaging had become an unexpectedly popular pastime on the station). Lux had opted to rig a little twinkling light show in their bunk instead—which, given their immediate proximity to the yawning void of space, they found oddly soothing.

Those pictures and cards they thought might rouse some sentimentality had gone the way of all other papers with their un-name. A name which, in a way, they had liked at the time. Vera, whose namesake was one of the first scientists to identify the irregularities in the fabric of the universe that today we call dark matter, overlooked and underestimated as she was in her time. Vera, at 14, unwrapping a Hannukah present to find the Make It Yourself! Telescope she’d requested. Vera, who followed a hunch all the way to their own reality-bending insights into dark matter synthesis and symmetry at twenty-four—briefly catapulting them into scientific celebrity. Vera, who, no longer Vera, was stuck on this fucking space station at sixty-three, bioengineering slugs for fun. This was all useful to consider on occasion, as a matter of perspective.

The platform took them up to their parascope-adjacent sector, which was just below the gate to the parascope proper. This was a first port of call for Specialist assistance. What was really great about it, though, was that they could filter the more irritating requests to other sectors. It was a privilege their sector tried not to abuse, but nonetheless were generally unpopular for, which Lux thought was fair enough.

Roz went directly to the set of makeshift shelves in the corner of the room. She had put herself in charge of the Non-Specialist Recreational Lending Library, a tiny collection of adventure, romance, drama, and genre fiction. She pulled another two books out of her satchel, a look of genuine pleasure spreading across her face.

“I finally convinced Joaquin to donate the last book in the series.” The air quotes on either side of “donate” almost audible.

“ . . . Did you trade your shit for them?” Lux teased. Roz’s smile widened without offering an answer. She was responsible, by barter, charm, or trickery, for most of the volumes now in the public domain. Those who had at first been reticent to contribute tended to relent eventually, often simply out of boredom (with or without having stirred any nascent belief in the virtue of a shared repository of knowledge). Across the room, Vashti perked up at the sound of Roz reshuffling the library and dragged herself over to see.

“Is that—”

“The final Millennium Moon book, yes.” Roz finished

“You cracked that smug fucker!” Joaquin was generally reclusive, moody, and fondly teased in B4.

After rereading the first couple chapters of some gritty post-postapocalyptic cyber-dystopian paperback, Lux’s LED’s blinked orange, meaning it was snack time somewhere in Parascope Facet 8—Observations and Data Collation.

The parascope was housed in a massive, multitiered dome ringed with scaffolding. Ladders and hydraulic platforms provided access to various levels, many of which were abandoned or disused. Each prime facet was assigned a Specialist research team. In this case, the Facet 8 cohort had gotten peckish. Incidentally, this was great news for Lux and the restless quantum slug concealed in their pocket, the lab close enough to the outer dome to hope for a couple of spooky particle collisions.

The slugs had begun feeding on these exotic particles, at this point almost completely weaned off organic nutrients, and much hungrier for the spectral stuff invisibly streaming through the parascope lenses. With repeated exposure, a small bolus of hypothetical matter formed inside them, like a pearl inside a clam—subatomic irritations colliding and accumulating, unable to pass through the dense mollusk-flesh. That, at least, was the theory.

This specimen was reaching maturity and had inside it the beginnings of a quantum pearl. Another cycle inside the lens, soaking up the rapid-pulsing quasars, Lux hoped would be enough inspiration for its pearl to emerge. Then, it would become another part of itself, a sibling, a cousin, an echo, some sort of vaguely addled reflection.

So close to the bare lens of the parascope, it was twisting and twitching its eyestalks inside the vial. Lux thought of this squirminess as a kind of self-directed mating dance—the anticipation of full unity with itself, then schism. They recognized the urge. Head down, they set the tray of biscuits on the break room table. The Specialists muttered thanks without looking up from their monitors, providing Lux with an opportunity to slide open a panel beneath the desk of an unused processor, unstop the vial, and let the NBM creep inside. The opening led directly to the processor’s sampling system, which was connected to the glazed glass of the Facet itself. They left the vial inside the hatch, where the slug would hopefully return when it was fully saturated.

Watching the slow, peristaltic contractions of its foot was kind of hypnotic, but also kind of stressful. It needed to creep all the way up inside the hatch so that Lux could clear up its weird, thick, and unpredictably luminous slime trail. These trails tended to swell and pool in a way Lux found frankly disproportionate to the creature’s body mass, though this might well be a normal feature of station-adapted mollusks. It was hard to say for sure, given that they were not a xeno-malacologist.

Too soon, the self-serious scientific mumblings of the Specialists broke up into gossip and idle chatter, growing louder as they strolled into the break room.

“ . . . problem is lack of . . . ”

“A failure to detect the background radi—”

“ . . . problem is with the machinery, really—”

“ . . . if they’d get off their asses and do just a little bit of work . . . ”

“ . . . have better things to do, clearly.”

Lux had heard this conversation, or variations of it, many times over. The issue was usually that the equipment hampered the Specialists’ ingenious calculations, or that the mission was mismanaged, or that they’d have made their breakthrough already if those pompous assholes on the Central Aperture actually did their jobs, or maybe it was the Astromaticians on Facet 12 who were to blame. Lux would normally ignore these exchanges, but now there were four Specialists crowding the biscuits, and the slug was only just disappearing into the hatch, freely distributing slime as it went.

They hated to let the secretions go to waste, but considering their limited resources, Lux grabbed a tea towel and tried to soak up as much of it as possible. Unfortunately, the liquid was congealed, mercurial, and apparently resistant to human intervention. In a last-ditch, disaster-comedy move, they settled for just sort of standing in front of the puddle with the towel draped over it, hoping no one would notice it undulating ever so slightly.

“Well, if it isn’t Ms. Reznik come with the tea!” Morty Gates, a cosmologist five years their junior, held up a chocolate crème as if to toast them. Wilkes, an even younger, generally considerate, computational physicist, coughed on his lemon wafer, and managed to say, very quietly:

“ . . . not Ms., Professor—” but Morty had already pulled up the game of chess he’d been playing on his personal comms for the last week and was considering his next move. He’d set it to expert. A couple shifts ago, Lux had reset it to nightmare.

Once everyone seemed suitably preoccupied, Lux fished out a sample bag and began trying to convince the slime to part from the floor with minimal fanfare. They managed to scoop about two tablespoons, shoved the rest into the hatch, and swiftly jammed it shut, hoping it wouldn’t leak through.

Much later, it occurred to them that they should probably have brought along gloves.


After shift, they struggled to sleep. The randomly generated soundscapes of the station’s artificial nighttime were more grating than usual. Relenting to insomnia, they rose to visit the remaining slugs in the garden. Even at their approach, they felt the creatures’ meta-luminescence (a placeholder word for a light Lux knew to be from, but not of, organic origin) begin to lull them. They observed with quiet awe as the slugs plotted bright trails with their bodies, how these trails would cross and combine and split and mirror each other.

Lux saw these pathways trace out hypnotic, fractal patterns, mapping impossible geometries. The stains on their arms and hands and the spots where they had rubbed their eyes seemed to shift and pulse. They were now very close to the pearl, face inches from the ground. They held out a hand, just to see what would happen. Just to find out whether they were still only observing this moment, or if they had become a part of it. A single slug nestled into their palm, something bright and restless moving within them.


When the NBMs divide, the newly congealed creature catches more impossible particles inside of itself. Each time, its form is more unpredictable, its composition increasingly beyond Lux’s capacity to understand or classify. They likened it to a sort of quantum meiosis—reproducing versions of themselves across dimensions, across fields of matter, space, and time. The thought underscored the molecular kinship they felt with the slugs—the subtext left consciously unexamined in their notes.


Another cycle, another shift. Another orange LED flash for tea and biscuits from Data and Observations. Time to check if the little non-baryonic monster had returned, and what state it had returned in. This time, the Specialists did not appear to register Lux’s presence at all, so they soundlessly deposited the snack tray in the break room. They knelt and prized open the panel under the data processor; dried residue from the luminescent slime flaking off at its edges. Inside the narrow shaft they found only the empty vial. The NBM had absconded. On closer inspection, Lux noticed, with raised heart rate and mild to moderate panic, that while the trail leading deeper into the tunnel began as one, it had then abruptly split into three, then five, then seven, before disappearing entirely into the dark.


During the next quasar shower, they dreamed of being back in the tree house—the highest vantage point. Rickety. The memory of a feeling, of wanting to split off from themself—to peel away in a seamless motion of supersymmetry. They felt that desire keenly, simultaneously now and then, written into the ribbons of their body; intuitive and fathomless.

On an exhale, they were unpeeled and wide awake in the Central Aperture of the Parascope. This was hallowed ground for all residents, a mute portal in open supplication to the universe. Though few lingered, most made regular pilgrimages—a jolt of the sublime punctuating the mundanity of station life. One of the few spaces cleaned and tended to with care and without question.

As Lux tried to find their bearings, they thought their eyes were still coated with sleep. Failing to rub it away, they realized it was not just their eyes, but the whole room that was coated with something.

The domed lens was smeared and dripping with kaleidoscopic slime. Sparse on the floor but thick on the glass above. Then, Lux began to see them, wriggling and wavering on the lens like a mirage. A mass germination of star slugs, bursting with the speed and grace of an algal bloom. Moving around and above them, so many more than they thought existed. How could a tidal wave escape notice? From which vents, chutes, and panels had it poured? All crevices filled, there was no telling now. These creatures, their cousins ignominious on Earth, here exquisite beyond measure, coming together and pulling apart in fractal codes and patterns Lux could almost, but would never fully, understand.

Through the remaining slivers of clean glass, the inky vacuum of space held its secrets. But, filtered by that slow-spreading mucous, every moment, every kind of matter, rushed and spiraled through the thin film between the outside and inside of the clear dome. They lifted a hand, looking into the secretions dripping from it as if for the first time. Inside, they found an unfathomable number of tiny para-lenses—microscopic keyholes into other realities and dimensions—into other forms of being, impossibly alien modes of existence. Everything the Specialists longed to see, but never would, was visible only through the grime on the glass.

The scene was dizzying, Lux all but incapacitated as countless fragments of unknowable, unthinkable universes flared up and fizzled away before them. The pageant passed through and overwhelmed their every human sense, alighting upon many others that were not human at all. They couldn’t tell if they were standing up or sitting down. They couldn’t tell if their eyes were open or closed.

Then, all at once they are there in the tree house again, with the Make It Yourself! Telescope, pointing out stars. Every point of light identified, and its corresponding negative space seeps into them, finds a home there, no longer as light or dark but as its own self, its own dimension. Its own body.


In another place and time, Lux feels liquid spreading on a cold metal floor, thinks maybe they have wet themself, or climaxed, or that perhaps they are bleeding out.

Part of them knows, of course, that it is the slime they are emitting—a branch of its trail leading only to them. Glittering and viscous as novelty nail polish, marbled and singular. And as it pools around them, it makes a mirror.

Author profile

Felix Rose Kawitzky is an illustrator, researcher, and game designer. They are a PhD candidate at the University of York in the School of Arts and Creative Technologies, exploring links between queer speculative fiction, collective storytelling, and tabletop roleplaying games. They have an undergraduate degree in Fine Art, and a Master’s in Theatre Making from the University of Cape Town. They have facilitated world-building and character creation workshops (IMT Gallery’s I am a Not Me, 2020, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, 2021), and presented papers at conferences such as Trans Studies, Trans Lives (UCL, 2019), Productive Futures: The Political Economy of Science Fiction (Birkbeck, 2019), and Current Research in Speculative Fiction, (University of Liverpool, 2018). Their essay “Magic Circles: Tabletop Roleplaying Games as Queer Utopian Method” was published in Performance Research (Training Utopias) in 2021.

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