Today's Reading

I checked my watch. Just past seven A.M. No rush. I liked to get in to work by seven-twenty so I could have time to prep for the day. But I didn't actually need to be there until eight.

I pulled out my phone and checked my email.

TO: Astronomy Curiosities [email protected] 
FROM: (Irina Petrova, PhD) [email protected] 
SUBJECT: The Thin Red Line

I frowned at the screen. I thought I'd unsubscribed from that list. I left that life a long time ago. It didn't get a lot of volume, and what it did get, if memory served, was usually pretty interesting. Just a bunch of astronomers, astrophysicists, and other domain experts chatting about anything that struck them as odd.

I glanced at the waitress—the customers had a bunch of questions about the menu. Probably asking if Sally's Diner served gluten-free vegan grass clippings or something. The good people of San Francisco could be trying at times.

With nothing better to do, I read the email.

Hello, professionals. My name is Doctor Irina Petrova and I work at the Pulkovo Observatory in St. Petersburg, Russia.

I am writing to you to ask for help.

For the past two years, I have been working on a theory related to infrared emissions from nebulae. As a result, I have made detailed observations in a few specific IR bands of light. And I have found something odd—not in any nebula, but here in our own solar system.

There is a very faint, but detectable line in the solar system that emits infrared light at the 25.984 micron wavelength. It seems to be solely that wavelength with no variance.

Attached are Excel spreadsheets with my data. I have also provided a few renders of the data as a 3-D model.

You will see on the model that the line is a lopsided arc that rises straight up from the sun's North Pole for 37 million kilometers. From there, it angles sharply down and away from the sun, toward Venus. After the arc's apex, the cloud widens like a funnel. At Venus, the arc's cross-section is as wide as the planet itself.

The infrared glow is very faint. I was only able to detect it at all because I was using extremely sensitive detection equipment while searching for IR emissions from nebulae.

But to be certain, I called in a favor from the Atacama observatory in Chile—in my opinion the best IR observatory in the world. They confirmed my findings.

There are many reasons one might see IR light in interplanetary space. It could be space dust or other particles reflecting sunlight. Or some molecular compound could be absorbing energy and re-emitting it in the infrared band. That would even explain why it's all the same wavelength.

The shape of the arc is of particular interest. My first guess was that it is a collection of particles moving along magnetic field lines. But Venus has no magnetic field to speak of. No magnetosphere, no ionosphere, nothing. What forces would make particles arc toward it?

And why would they glow?

Any suggestions or theories would be welcome.

* * *

What the heck was that?

I remembered it all at once. It just kind of showed up in my head without warning.

I didn't learn much about myself. I live in San Francisco—I remember that.

And I like breakfast. Also I used to be into astronomy but now I'm not?

Apparently my brain decided it was critical that I remember that email. Not trivial things like my own name.

My subconscious wants to tell me something. Seeing the line of blood must have reminded me of the "Thin Red Line" title of that email. But what's that got to do with me?

I shimmy out from under the bed and sit up against the wall. The arms angle toward me, but still can't reach.

Time to get a look at my fellow patients. I don't know who I am or why I'm here, but at least I'm not alone—aaaand they're dead.

Yes, definitely dead. The one closest to me was a woman, I think. At least, she had long hair. Other than that, she's mostly a mummy. Desiccated skin draped over bones. There's no smell. Nothing is actively rotting. She must have died a long time ago.

The person in the other bed was a man. I think he's been dead even longer.

His skin is not only dry and leathery but also crumbling away.

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