The installation techs left only one instruction: Do not operate in the dark. Large black print on thick metal, screwed to the microscope table and visible across the room.
Researchers came from across the world to use the machine, and they wondered at the odd, solitary guideline. But the installation team had rushed to the airport and taken the first flight out, and they could not be reached for details.
The Omikron MX-4000 Photonscope was the gleaming heart of the Antarctica Max Planck Institute. Huge yet sleek, charcoal-colored, each piece custom-made and hand-fitted, from the bulky vacuum-chamber to the thirty-inch screen at the top. The world’s most powerful microscope—so cutting-edge, it could look inside an electron, the smallest particle known to science.
The news stirred up the world when the Okinawa Institute for Advanced Physics announced the discovery. A photo of chubby little particles clumped together, like the cross-section of a pomegranate, made the cover of TIME Magazine. Names were bandied about. Twitter polls taken. At last, the Institute named the particles therasons: the new smallest building blocks of the universe.
Then research stalled, inexplicably.
No new findings came for two years. The original team vanished from the public eye while the Institute refocused on unrelated projects, ignoring misconduct rumors and accusations of hindering scientific progress. Only after conspiracy theories popped up and political allies started talking sanctions, did they, with taciturn impatience, agree to train a small team of foreign physicists to use their machines. Soon after, the newly operational Antarctica Max Planck obtained the MX-4000, and with it, its sole instruction.
Do not operate in the dark.
The Okinawa Institute declined comment.
Prof. Dr. Hildegard Majen and her star graduate student regarded the instruction with bemusement. Perhaps a joke by the installation team? After all, there was no light in the vacuum chamber: only a glass plate and a stream of bouncing electrons.
They looked at a gold atom first and joked about alchemy. They zoomed to its electrons, and at last, inside the electrons, to the beautiful therasons, plump and shiny like pomegranate seeds.
But Dr. Majen had loftier goals: her team would be the first to see inside a therason. In the depths of the last indivisible particle, she foresaw answers humanity had sought since its beginnings: The origin of life, of the universe itself. The Mother Force, Dr. Majen called it—more fundamental than gravity and electromagnetism, the primal force that held life together at the hinges.
But the therasons refused to break.
Two years Dr. Majen tried, exhausting grant funds and public patience. The failure defied logic: by all measures, the resolution of the MX-4000 was sufficient for the job. Yet every experiment failed.
Perhaps, her student guessed, therasons truly were the smallest building block, impossible to break down.
But to Dr. Majen, impossible meant only that your methods were faulty. She had the MX-4000 inspected and found a photon trapped inside the vacuum chamber. One photon, messing up image resolution. A fabrication error from the Okinawans. No wonder their research stalled.
Dr. Majen ordered the photon removed.
Her student pointed, jokingly, to the black-printed plate. Do not operate in the dark. Photons were what light was made of, after all. Without it, the vacuum chamber would be truly dark.
Dr. Majen flushed the chamber to remove the photon.
Do not operate in the dark.
They looked inside a therason.
At first, no one noticed anything wrong. Communications fritzed often—bad storms, magnetic disturbances, blown fuses when some oblivious lab tech ran fifty centrifuges at once. A few hours silence from the Antarctica Max Planck set off no alarms.
By the time someone realized the other Antarctic stations had gone silent too, a bad storm had formed off the coast, and the routine check had to wait.
The storm raged a week with record-breaking wind speeds. News talked of climate action and meteorologists revised storm season algorithms, while the world waited, feverishly, for the fate of the silent scientists. When the gales waned at last, the EU dispatched search teams, which found no trace of the scientists, nor any clue of what had happened.
They also found no trace of the Max Planck, or any other facilities.
Antarctica had reverted, for no apparent cause, to a pristine state: weeks of arduous search in the crisp, endless days of midnight sun revealed no brick or roof slate, not a single tent pole, not so much as a discarded Coke bottle to prove humans had ever stepped there.
Fear lit the international community. Rumors and accusations abounded as countries sent their own teams to investigate. Nuclear accident. Submolecular weapon. Defrosted ancient microbes. As searchers combed Antarctica futilely for the vanished settlements, reputable news stations began employing words like wormhole and eldritch.
Someone requested a new MX-4000, for measurements and samples. The Okinawa Institute could not be reached for response.
Weeks later, at the end of summer, when the light turned dimmer and shadows lengthened, the Institute sent back one message. It was marked “urgent,” and it contained a single line.
Get out before dark.
Some search teams listened to the warning.
Others stayed. As polar night fell, they admired the softening of sunlight into twilight purples, and the snow glinting coral blue under the rising darkness. And in the night, they learned the answers they’d come for.
The Mother Force washed over them in silent, gentle ruin, like a blanket draped lovingly over a sleeping child.
Hush, it said. Your day is over. Let others have a turn.
Months later, when the sun rose again over still, white-tinged waters, Antarctica was gone.
Committees formed worldwide. The search resumed, baffled and subdued, while news cycles moved on. Slowly, maps were redrawn, named charities started, and another item added to the list of “humanity’s greatest mysteries.”
Below the waters where the Max Planck once stood, in icy depths unreached by sunlight, the Mother Force bore new life.
And it waited for nightfall.
Ana lives in New England with her partner and their mutt who loves to eat socks. She’s a cognitive scientist by day, and at night writes about badass ladies finding happy endings (& occasionally eldritch-devouring their enemies.) Her works have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Corvid Queen, and others.
At Night, The Old Mothers Come by Ana Gardner is the winner of the Apparition Literary Magazine August Flash Fiction Challenge, which was based on the featured image for August: From Mother Earth Flows the River of Life by Daphne Odjig