"Beer atoms," says Marker Lesbian. "We split beer atoms with a chisel."
"Excuse me," says Astro, "I wanted to get started on talking to them about black holes?"
The houses of the Betelgeusians, as they cling to the cliffside, are unsuitable for people who cannot also cling to cliffsides. Ramon, Aristede and I are sitting in one of the house's few shallow alcoves that have been carved into the rock - -essentially we're crammed in a cabinet. Klunk is floating in the space between us and the two Betelgeusians on the opposite wall. Marker Lesbian is a bit broader than Astro and a more blue-green to Astro's yellow-green.
Marker Lesbian is holding a big dry-erase marker as she clings to a space next to a whiteboard. "We can talk about black holes after I'm done," she says. "Theoretical astrophysics is so boring anyway, I don't want everyone to be asleep by the time we get to my part."
"Excuse me?" Astro crawls across the whiteboard and tries to grab the marker from Marker Lesbian. "I named myself after theoretical astrophysics and you expect me to take that comment lightly?"
Marker Lesbian scuttles away. "You can call yourself what you want but you're still just a stripper," she said as Astro chases her. "I bet you don't know the first thing about -- "
I clear my throat and say, "SHUT UP!"
Both of the Betelgeusians turn to look at me.
"I weigh about three hundred and fifty pounds," I say, "And most of that is muscle. That's not to say I'd try to squish either one of you -- " Both betelgeusians gasped in horror at this insult -- "But if I were to scoot out of this cabinet and fall I bet I would make a hole in your wall. Now, neither of you want that, so kindly be quiet and tell us about black holes. We need to figure out if we actually have any time to waste."
Astro takes the marker from Marker Lesbian and scuttles back to the whiteboard. "Ahem. Yes, thank you. Now, to begin with, and Aristede if you interrupt me again I will drop you through a window. Black holes." She draws a big circle on the board and gestures to it. "This, this circle. It is not the hole. The hole itself can never be seen, for light cannot escape it. Nor can the event horizon itself be seen, for it is a function of gravity and time, not a line drawn as if with a marker. Let us say that this circle represents the Accretion Disk, where matter falling into the black hole piles up enough to become as hot and bright and radioactive as a star." She draws some radiating lines off the circle.
"I don't feel particularly hot," says Aristede. Astro glares at him but he continued. "I don't feel radioactive either. We haven't even got close to that yet."
Astro looks puzzled. "Why would you be getting close? Are you foolish enough to approach a black hole?"
Klunk explaines the current galactic predicament.
Betelgeusian eyes do not get wider, but they do become brighter, and Astro's eyes are lighting up like bulbs. "Okay," she says. "Okay. Okay. I would have appreciated knowing about that earier. I would have liked to be warned that we were all in danger of dying. Thanks for letting me believe that this was purely theoretical and that i could take my sweet time." She twirls the marker nervously. "Black holes. Right. Where was I? Accretion disks. Hot and radioactive and noisy. Where stuff piles up." She glances out a window. "And Aristede says we're not there yet."
"But we did see a star," says Ramon. "The one star that's lighting up all the planets around here. It can't be the accretion disk because it's not a disk. Right?"
"It never looks like a disk," says Astro. "The hole bends light around it, so you wind up seeing the entire thing at once. Did any of you get a good look at this star?"
Everyone shakes their head.
Marker Lesbian scuttles out a window as Astro continues. "So we're outside the event horizon, outside the Ergosphere, outside the usual spacetime boundaries associated with a black hole. So why would spacetime be folding like this? It is possible that the Apparent Horizon is large enough at this point...but that would be inside the accretion disk...maybe if a black hole is the size of a galaxy its ergosphere is correspondingly large..."
Marker Lesbian scuttles in through the window and says, "I got a look at that really bright star in the southern quadrant."
"You mean the really bright star in the northern quadrant," says Astro.
"It's in the southern quadrant now," says Marker Lesbian.
"That's it then," says Astro. "We're in the Ergosphere and we're in constant movement compared to outside observers. That bright star is all the galaxies beyond us. The reason your vehicle couldn't get anywhere using the warp drive is because it's already too late to move in any direction counter to the rotation of the black hole."
"So why can we walk to the strip club?" says Ramon. "Shouldn't everything be moving with the rotation by now?"
"Call it a matter of relativity. You can move this way and that relative to the planet, but relative to the black hole there's only one direction. Unless you have enough acceleration. But if even your special warp drive can't do it..."
"We haven't figured out all the features of the car yet," says Aristede. "We may yet be able to go faster, and get out of here."
"But why would we bother?" said Ramon. "Everything we know is in this galaxy. What difference does it make if we're in an ergosphere or not?"
"The Student Loan Company is in this galaxy," I say. "They can't go faster than us, I know that much. If we escape the galaxy then we're in the clear...kind of...although reaching another galaxy would be like trying to sail to an island you weren't sure existed and didn't know the locals and weren't sure if their food was palatable. A risky move at best. But that's beside the point." I fold my arms. "I'm here, here on Betelgeuse, because this planet has something that can actually fix the problem. Or it should. Marker Lesbian, if you would care to explain?"
"THANK you," says Marker Lesbian as she takes the marker from Astro. "AS I was saying, we need to split beer atoms with a chisel." She draws a big barrel of root beer on the white board and thumps it with her fist. A barrel appears in mid-air, and then drops, making a barrel-shaped hole as it crashes through the wall below.
"That doesn't make a lick of sense," says Aristede.
"Precisely," says Marker Lesbian. "Betelgeusian Pictoral Logic runs on pure nonsense. We Betelgeusians were inspired by our observation of Earth. We saw that you got more results by being stupid, willfull and irrational than by being reasonable. The very last president of a place called the United States, as I recall, rode into office on the strength of his stubborn angry stupidity. We saw your customers getting free stuff because they were deliberately, agressively dumb. We saw so many of your leaders achieve power by telling lies as big as possible. And so we thought, what if we did that so hard that we could write our wills on reality itself? And it worked." She drew a sign on the board that said RENT CHEWING GUM FOR FIVE FLINARI. She thumped the board and the sign fell out of the board, and down through the hole. "Whatever we demanded from our drawings, we got as long as it was stupid, or funny, or both. It can be hard sometimes to avoid letting reason creep into our ideas -- you can't get anything reasonable out of a Betelgeusian drawing, unless it's funny."
"But," says Klunk, "The last president of the United States was the man who sent my people to the stars because we had to escape the nuclear war. Being aggressively dumb is a bad way to get something stable. My people prefer to work with solid matter, not this Betelgeusian nonsense."
"Your people," says Marker Lesbian, "are far too reasonable. That is why you don't get all of what you want."
"Precisely," says Klunk. "And your people are far too willful -- "
"AHEM," I say, "regarding this instability. What if someone were to, say, make a tiny silly little car that could fit everything inside of it? What would happen when that particular device broke down?"
"Oh god," says Marker Lesbian, "Did she actually do it? Did she make the goddamn clown car? I told her that was too dangerous."
"I told her," says Astro. "I told her it would probably work using a controlled black hole. If The car broke down and the black hole got out -- "
"Then it would be a teeny tiny black hole," says Ramon. "Right? And it would only vacuum up, like, one chair at a time."
"That's not how black holes work," says Astro. "They're not fucking vacuum cleaners. They're something you roll into and can't roll out of again, like you're a penny rolling around the drain hole. If you stay far enough away you're fine. We should be fine. We should be. We're not even near the -- Marker Lesbian, go check to see if we're closer to the Accretion Disk."
Marker Lesbian makes a quick sketch on the board and thumps it, and a tape measure falls into her hand. "This will do the trick."
"You're seriously going to -- Right. Betelgeusian Pictoral Logic. Let me know how that goes."
Marker Lesbian scuttles out a window and Astro continues. "Circling the drain. Every galaxy has a super giant black hole at its center and we're all circling the drain, but never falling in. Like any orbit, really. Suns, planets with moons, everything big enough to loom menacingly in your viewscreen has enough mass to bend both space and time around it so you wind up rolling slowly around it. With most things, it's imperceptible. You orbit a planet and age just a little more slowly than people on it. But black holes..." She draws a circle, and then arrows spiraling into the center of the circle. "They have infinite mass, which means they bend time itself, so that all paths forward in time, which is the only path you can take in time, will bring you closer to the singularity. Once you're past the event horizon, the singularity represents all possible futures, in time and space."
"But you said something about a controlled black hole," says Aristede. "As if it would let people in and out. That makes no sense."
"Precisely why it worked for Sword Lesbian," I say. "She wanted it, and it happened. But then it broke down. But it should have created a small uncontrolled black hole. Something very dangerous and very sticky, but possible to avoid if the room was big enough. So if this black hole IS her fault..."
"Think about it," says Ramon. "What's the one thing she always does with that little car?"
"Try to stuff something in it. But putting Captain Bones in wouldn't have -- "
"Unless she didn't stop with him," says Aristede. "She fit an entire island in that car. Why not go bigger?"
Marker Lesbian crawls back in through the window, without her tape measure. "OK," she says, "So the hook end of the tape measure got burnt up at the accretion disk but I think I measured about an angstrom's worth of distance. In the meantime, I still don't understand what Betelgeuse is supposed to make that would help you out of this."
"Whiteboards", I say. "Make as many whiteboards as you can."
"How many is that?"
"All of them."