The Lorelei Signal


Cards Against Cosmology

Written by Liam Hogan / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow


The two sit on plain wooden chairs in the midst of infinity, a small folding card table between them. The man, Sage, sits primly as the woman, Fool, shuffles a fat deck of cards. Please don't get hung up on the details, or indeed, their names. They may, or may not, be abstract constructs. Allegorical, allegedly.


“What game are we playing?” Sage asks, annoyed he does not already know.


Fool slips one of the cards to her side of the table, and continues shuffling. “A game of creation. Or description. Or, categorization. Truly, it is hard to tell.” She waves at the darkness that surrounds them. “We two shall divide up the cosmos between us, into the known and knowable on your side of the table, and the unknown and unknowable on mine.”


Sage puffs out his chest. “Then there won't be much on your side of the table,” he boasts.


She slips another card closer to her.


Irritated by this, but still unsure of the rules, Sage is too polite to make a fuss. “Deal,” he instructs, curtly.


She raises an eyebrow, riffles the pack three more times, and places it in the middle of the table. “Cut.”


He divides the stack precisely in two. She puts the deck together again while he wonders if he has fallen into some sort of a trap. She slides another card over to her side of the table.


“Would you stop doing that!” he says. “You're cheating!”


“Am I?”


“Science and knowledge can describe anything,” he insists.


She hands him his first card. He turns it over and frowns. “Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem? The proof that there are truths that cannot be proven?”


“I thought I'd play that card early,” she says, “to make sure you didn't accuse me of cheating.”


“A trick…” he mutters.


“Science and knowledge,” she says, “has arrived at points in the past when it thought it was complete. Any number of times, from the Greeks to Isaac Newton. Usually, they were lacking the tools to look beneath the surface of their reality. And, when those tools are developed, by chance or by design, they tend to throw up many more questions than answers. So, tell me, where are we at now?”


“Yes, yes,” he admits, begrudgingly, “but you did say knowable.”


“I did.”


“Then it does not matter if the tools don't currently exist, if they will in the future.”


She slips two more cards to her side of the table.


“Two?!” he splutters.


She smiles, and deals him a flurry of cards. He turns them over one by one, glancing at their images, their names. Classical mechanics. Particle physics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics. Special relativity. General relativity. Keystones of the physical world. With these, all the wonders of the universe could be explained.


She slides another to her side, and flips it over as he watches. The image is impossible to focus on, twisting his sight, sucking hungrily at recognition and at meaning, mocking him. “Dark matter,” she says.


“Unknowable?” he gasps, half in terror. He has barely begun the search for it!


She shrugs, finger still resting on the card, before sliding it to the edge of the table, equidistant between them. “The jury is out.”


He sighs in relief, then shakes his head. “Surely then it will be solved, eventually? It's only a matter of time?”


“Ah yes,” she says, sliding another card her way. “Time.”


The stacks of cards are roughly equal now, and Sage begins to suspect that if the game is not rigged, it may still be unwinnable. He hazards a glance away from the table. So absorbed has he been in the card play he hasn't noticed what is happening all around. The empty space they are in is no longer anything of the sort. There are mountains, and forests, and rivers, with their orchestra of sounds and kaleidoscope of visions. Beneath them, an older, slower layer, the churn of solid rock over mantle lava, the inner dynamics of a still young planet. And above, twinkle the bright lights of stars, of galaxies, of other, more remote planets.


As he lowers his eyes from this clockwork universe, governed by the precise rules of gravity, by the nuclear furnaces sparked into existence by vast aggregations of dust under the thrall of those weak but steady forces, Fool shows him the bounded surface of an event horizon, and slips it her way. It is his turn to shrug. “If we were on the other side…” he says.


“—there would still be an event horizon and beyond it you would know nothing about this side.”


“Singularities, then. That is what is in your pile? Black holes and the Big Bang? You have far too many cards for that.”


“True, your mathematics struggle with the infinitely big, as well as the infinitely small,” she says. “And those are often artefacts of your coordinate system, as much as anything else. Even so, there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”


“Hamlet,” he responds automatically. “Act one, scene five. Misquoted.”


“I hope you are not criticizing me for not calling you Horatio? The point is that there are things you cannot understand merely by taking them apart, or by smashing them together.”


“But if I can build everything from those fundamental particles…?”


“Can you? What about life? Death? Consciousness?”


“Artificial intelligence—” he begins to say, but she shuts him down.


“A.I. understands nothing. Even when it knows everything.”


Sage worries that is how she views him. “Sophistry,” he accuses her, hurt. “Mere concepts.”


“You dismiss them so easily, simply because you cannot put them under your microscope? Cannot collide them in your accelerators?”


He sits glumly and there is silence for an age.


“I mean no offence,” she says, softly. “Let's play on. Here, one for you.” But as she passes him the card, a second, momentarily stuck to it, drops to the table. She lets it lie.


“Quantum mechanics!” he exclaims, beaming, before glancing at the spilled card. “But wait: 'The collapse of a wave function'?”


“I wasn't sure—” she admits.


“Damn you! You KNOW we don't—can't—understand that.”


“Perhaps, in the future?” She gestures towards dark matter, to neutral territory, but he frowns, eyeing the cards on each side of the table. She is offering him victory.


“It might end up being effectively another singularity,” he sighs. “You'd best keep it, for now.”


And with that, once again, their piles are even. One card discarded, and one card left to play for. One card to decide who wins. If that is indeed the object of the game, whatever that first card she took obscured. And now he intuits how there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns; the cards she has shared, and those she has kept to herself. It still nags at him, still feels like a deceit, even as he remembers what the uncertainty about dark matter did to him so shortly before. To reveal any of those cards…


Has she been protecting him all along?


He narrows his focus to the last card. Stares at its back, the simple tessellated pattern that tells him nothing.


“May I?” he asks, and she nods.


Hand trembling, he flips it over. It is a stylised image, a heart that looks nothing like a true heart; the chambers, aorta, the muscles, the electrical fields that pulse and pulse and pulse... The organ he can describe in all its complexity; the way it sprang from the protein-folding code written in the DNA, to the myriad ways it can go wrong.


But this isn't that. This symbol; this is…love.


Sage looks into Fool's waiting eyes, and gulps. The moment, and the game, and maybe the whole cosmos, hang in the balance.


He reaches out a hand, gently takes hers.


“Teach me?” he asks.

L Hogan.JPG

Liam Hogan is an award winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 & 2019, and Best of British Fantasy 2018 (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others.


He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London.


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