Short story: Event cloak

I’ve converted space into time, torn a gap in the smooth surface of the light cone in Minkowski space and stitched the jagged edges together. Story by Ken Liu Illustration by Dean Falsify Cook

Lecture 14: Concerning the Event Cloaking Device and Practical Applications Thereof.



The principles of time cloaking are simple. Take a source of light, call it A, an event illuminated by it, B (this clock), and an observer, C (that is you). Now create two paths for the light between A and B, AB, which is shorter, and AB-prime, which is longer, and two similar paths for the light between B and C, BC and BC-prime.

It matters little how you create these two paths. You can bounce the light from here to the shoulders of Orion, or you can trap the light in a maze of mirrors in a box, as I have done here. Light is like water: it has no taste, no smell, makes no judgment as it flows. Make the maze as dense as you please, and the light shall linger as long as you wish.

I begin by corralling light along the path from AB to BC-prime. Keep your eyes on the clock. Do not complain in your heart that I am wasting your time; do not blink; do not assume you can ask your neighbour what happened if you miss it.

Now I shall divert the light to AB-prime by flipping this switch.

You detect no change. The hands of the clock tick forward, oblivious, like the stars spinning overhead. What you are seeing is a delayed image, the light draining from the trap that is BC-prime like grains of sand from an hourglass.

Now the light is almost all gone. Let me flip this other switch to channel the light that has filled AB-prime along BC.

Observe the hands of the clock jump from five to ten past. For the time it took the light to traverse the length by which BC-prime exceeds BC, and by which AB-prime exceeds AB, there was no light illuminating the clock. It was cast adrift, outside of observation, suspended from the rules of causality. I’ve converted space into time, tore a gap in the smooth surface of the light cone in Minkowski space and stitched the jagged edges together.

What have I hidden in that gap?

You imagine secrets in the darkness, affairs, eyeless beings wriggling their way through some underwater cavern. You imagine whispers on summer nights, sweaty hands clasping finger to finger, memories as uncertain as the dreams between midnight and 3 AM.

You see my hands spread innocently, my shoulders shrug in harmless confusion, my discreet cough to show you there is nothing untoward.

You can bounce the light from here to the shoulders of Orion, or you
can trap the light in a maze of mirrors in a box.

When it happened, I was at Mauna Kea, where the twin 10-metre lenses stared into the sky, great irises at the top of a mountain rising from the floor of the sea. One moment, LK–409A was where it had always been. The next, it was a few fractions of a second of a degree away.

We checked the computers as though we were hunting for an intruder, trawled through the digital streams with a fine net that glistened with every errant bit. We scanned the lenses for days, noted each microscopic imperfection, modeled the path of each photon through the polished, slow-flowing vitreous sea, took into account each aberration, the possibility of dust, of air shimmering in a thin band around this round, bluish globe like breath in winter.

And everything confirmed what we saw. There was no error, no side path, no comforting explanation. The spectrum and phase of light from before did not match the light from after. We have deciphered no message. There was a gap, a tear that had been stitched back together, roughly, the skin of space-time stretched so thin on each side it was translucent.

What was hidden in that gap? Who might want it to be veiled? Who might have whispered, Stars, hide your fires.

I have thought of the sky going dim; I have thought of world-encircling rings, mirrors hanging in space like false stars; I have thought of blazing stones raining down upon a gridded landscape, each a mark punctuating conquest, extermination, the apex of a pyramid, a web of deceit.

I have thought of things we are all too familiar with, as well as things we have never seen and would not believe. The rise of empires; the fall of a tree in a forest. The first strange sail over the horizon; the gaze averted from the past. Life that we would not believe is life, intelligences that would not consider us intelligent.

Ships passing each other in long, graceful arcs carved by gravity, winking like fireflies. Civilizations growing like pearls hidden in a turbulent, obscure sea.

All these moments lost, sniffed out like a trail of footprints while more snow falls. History a blank page.

Death, the end, the passage of time suspended in a bubble that does not rise. Erased. Not forgotten. Never having existed.

The heart of an imperfect species imagining the heart of another like two beasts in a dark forest, groping about in terror, startled by every sound.

If you ask, you will be met by denial. In secret, there are men calculating the distance from LK–409A to here, wondering if we’re next, estimating how much time we have left. But they will deny your questions wearing masks, because they think there is nothing we can do.

We are not alone; we are not protected; we might already be ripped from the tranquil river that is time.

I have chosen to tell you this in a caesura, before the jumping of the clock, for the duration it takes for light to complete a maze, spiraling around tightly wound fibres, a miniature galaxy.

The light glows softly against your face, and time seems to stop. Tenderness crawls up my heart like children upon an ancient vine. This is an observation neither true nor false. We are here; we are alive; we are now.

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