/ Language: English / Genre:sf

Kent State Descending the Gravity Well: An Analysis of the Observer

James Gardner

First published in Amazing Stories,  Vol. 69, #3, No. 592, Winter 1995. Published in 2005 as part of Gravity Wells short stories collection.

Kent State Descending the Gravity Well: An Analysis of the Observer

According to the Kerr-Newman model of a rotating black hole, there is a region just outside the event horizon where certain space and time vectors switch properties with each other. This is just mathematics, you understand, merely a quirk of the formulas — physically, nothing changes wildly until you get inside the black hole itself, and then who cares what happens? Double-deluxe chocolate-chip cookies could spontaneously spring into being and it wouldn’t matter to the universe outside. Reality may break down inside a black hole, but the effects never percolate back into our familiar space.

Just outside the black hole, however, if it’s rotating, if the model is correct, there is a region called the ergosphere where certain vector fields describing the flow of space and time do a flip-flop. When I was trying to understand what this meant, I told myself that places became moments and moments became places.

Think of that. Places became moments. Moments became places.

Years and years ago, I did my master’s thesis on black holes. In those days, I could have explained the math to you... but now I’ve forgotten it all. I look at the book containing my thesis and the only thing I remember is how hard it was to type all those equations. The meaning of the equations has dribbled out of my understanding a grain at a time, and now all I hold is this: just outside a spinning black hole, in a region called the ergosphere, places become moments and moments become places.

Think of that.

Kent State University entered the ergosphere at 12:24 P.M. on Monday, May 4, 1970. That was the moment the Ohio State National Guard opened fire on demonstrators protesting American involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia. Four students were killed; nine others were wounded.

Kent State ceased to be a place and became a moment. Like Hiroshima. Like Chernobyl. Kent State fell off the map and became thirteen seconds of gunfire on a warm spring day. And maybe it kept dropping down the gravity well, from the ergosphere straight into the black hole.

Here is an ugly truth: back in 1970, when I heard the news about the Kent State killings, I felt smug.

I was fifteen years old. I was Canadian. It pleased me in a spiteful way that the U.S. had so blatantly screwed up.

I was fifteen. I was self-righteous. I had never been to a funeral.

The vectors that flip-flop in the ergosphere indicate symmetries in the gravitational field. One vector is timelike; it indicates that the laws of gravity don’t change over time. The other vector is space-like; it describes the rotational symmetry of the black hole.

These vectors are called Killing vectors. Really. They’re named after a Professor Wilhelm K. J. Killing of the University of Mьnster. He gave his name to such geometrical objects in 1892, many decades before Kerr and Newman used them in their model of a rotating black hole.

Killing vectors.

May 4, 1990, was a Friday, but all the local newspapers saved their Kent State retrospectives for the weekend editions. I bought three papers that Saturday — the Globe & Mail for its book reviews, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record for local movie listings, and the Toronto Star for Doonesbury.

I didn’t realize it was the twentieth anniversary of Kent State until I saw a commemorative article in the first paper I read. That article was written by a Kent State journalism student who happened to be in the right place at the right time to get the greatest news story of his life. The reporter told about his day: the rumors that something bad had happened at the noon rally, his race to get his camera, his sneaking through bushes to reach the parking lot where the killings took place, many details about the aftermath... but strangely, the reporter omitted any information about the victims themselves. He didn’t even give their names.

The article in the second paper talked about the effect of the killings on the American psyche. Was it really the turning point in the Vietnam War, the moment when public consciousness crossed some unerasable line? Or was it just another straw on the camel’s bending back?

The victims weren’t named in this article either. Just four dead students. Four dead in O-hi-o.

Kent State is about 270 kilometers from my living room. I’ve never been there; it feels like a very distant place.

My wife’s parents live more than 450 kilometers away. We visit them several times a year.

It was only in the third paper that I found an actual list of who died. Four students, two women, two men:

Allison Krause

Jeff Miller

Sandy Lee Scheuer

Bill Schroeder

This was the only information given about the victims: just their names. The article in the third paper was about the backroom machinations that made sure no charges were successfully laid against the National Guard.

I sat in my living room, three thick newspapers on the floor around my chair, and I wondered why all three treated the victims as if they were irrelevant to the story. Certainly, the National Guard didn’t specifically target those four students; the Guard could easily have killed four different people, or a dozen people, or none. But why should that matter? Randomness shouldn’t mean irrelevance.

The papers bypassed the reality of the victims, their lives, the grief of their friends and family, as if those things had nothing to do with the “real” story.

As if the four dead students were only there for the body count.

As if the students had no reality either before or after the shootings, but only in the moments when they lay bleeding on the pavement of a parking lot.


McGregor grimaced as he reached the door of the time chamber. Inside, the lights had been muted from their usual glare to a moody brown tint. Dimness meant a funeral run: the group going out this morning would not be coming back.

If he’d been in charge — McGregor spent much of his time dreaming how the Corrections Institute would change if he were in charge — if McGregor ever got to be in charge, he’d scrap the gloom and doom, maybe put in something extravagant like orange flashers or a circus-holo show. People going out on a funeral run were depressed enough already. They didn’t need the brooding browns, and the staff talking in hushed tones. Why not throw a bash instead? Crack open the booze, crank up the music, give the poor bums some last good memories of the twenty-third century. But the Executive Board were all tight-collars, sending out memos about “good taste” and “appropriateness,” and they never, ever had to push the button that sent people off to die.

McGregor passed an eye over the four people in the chamber — not lingering long enough to fix the faces in his memory because he had enough bad dreams already, thank you very much — but he wanted to see whom he was dealing with. His subjects. Two male, two female. Apparent ages somewhere between 18 and 24. No way to tell if they’d been sculpted for the run or if these were their actual faces. Some correction jobs had specific requirements, some just needed bodies.

None of the people, the  subjects, looked familiar. McGregor prided himself on his knowledge of history. A good grasp of history was what distinguished a professional from a mere button-pusher. He’d recognize faces taken from history if they were important. These weren’t; they were just faces. And he’d spent far too long looking at them. Tonight in his dreams, he might remember that dimpled chin, those sleepy eyes. He didn’t need that crap, especially not when Joanne already complained how restless he was in bed. Grunting, he turned away from the door and stalked to the control booth.

“You’re in a hell of a mood,” Tanya Ramirez said as McGregor threw himself into his chair. “Joanne on the rag?”

“Ha-ha,” he replied. He had no intention of talking about his feelings to Ramirez. She didn’t give a damn whether this was a funeral run or one of the truly upbeat correction jobs, like the times they inserted top-of-the-line medical teams to save important lives. Only jerks got involved with the subjects; she’d said that once. So now, out of pride, McGregor pretended to be as blasйas she was and of course felt like a jerk for pretending.

“Who have we got today?” he asked, trying to sound breezy.

Ramirez waved her hand at McGregor’s display screen, where separate windows showed the official correction authorization, temporal navigation charts, the latest chronal flux reports, and background data on the people in the time chamber. “We have your typical funeral-run volunteers,” Ramirez said. “Afflicted with your usual grab bag of terminal conditions, none contagious, and also afflicted with your garden-variety burning need to do something meaningful before they sink down the gravity well. If you want more details, read the History Thanks notices in  Corrections Daily.”

“Forget it,” McGregor told her. He had his newsreader programmed to skip the History Thanks column. After he’d sent someone on a funeral run, he didn’t need to know that the deceased did needlework or had once dreamed of being an architect. “What time are we trying to hit?” he asked.

“Early January 1970, late December 1969 if we have to,” Ramirez replied. “The correction goes down May 4, 1970, but we have to insert them early enough to establish camouflage.”

“They can establish camouflage in only four months?”

“Prep department says it pulled out all the stops building background this time. Birth certificates, employment records, vaccinations — that Prep creep Terry Ying was in just before you got here, trying to impress me. You wouldn’t believe how bad he wants into my pants. Anyway, Ying said four months was the max for camouflage on this group because that’s the most the doctors can guarantee. Wouldn’t want the subjects to die of natural causes before their date with destiny.”

You get the idea. Time travelers dropped onto the Kent State campus for the purpose of dying. Their deaths were necessary to shape the future properly — otherwise, opposition to the war in Vietnam wouldn’t intensify fast enough and the future would go to hell. I could invent an appropriate description of such a hell if it became relevant.

I wrote the above passage on Saturday, May 5, 1990. The notion that sparked the story was, of course, that the four Kent State students hadn’t really existed before they were shot; they were dispatched from the future.

Partway through the writing, in the passage where McGregor scans the faces of the people waiting for the funeral run, I needed to know what the victims looked like. I made a quick trip to the library (only two blocks away), picked up three books on Kent State, and hurried back to the computer so I could keep writing. One of the books (The Truth About Kent State,  by Peter Davies) had pictures of the four students on a page close to the front. I made note of Sandy Lee Scheuer’s dimpled chin, Bill Schroeder’s sleepy eyes, and went back to writing.

Conscience didn’t set in till later.

Look: the real students weren’t terminal patients who nobly volunteered to die — they were simply people in the wrong place at the wrong time and they died by random chance.

And they weren’t just characters of convenience, devoid of families, people with no personality apart from what I might need in a story. At the end of a day of writing, I thumbed through those books from the library and I read interviews with parents, friends, people who had known the victims all their lives. The students didn’t come out of nowhere — they came from homes and neighborhoods that mourned, prayed, lost sleep, wept, all trying to come to grips with grief.

Reading those interviews I felt ashamed.

Consider what an observer sees when an object descends into a black hole. For convenience, assume that the object is a burning candle that’s somehow tough enough to withstand the tidal forces of gravity around the hole.

As the candle falls, it takes longer and longer (from your point of view) for each particle of candlelight to climb the gravity well and reach your eye. Light particles emitted near the very edge of the black hole may take thousands of years to fight their way out to the universe at large. The result is that you perceive the candle falling for a potentially infinite length of time. Every now and then, another light particle struggles free of the black hole’s pull and reminds you of the candle’s descent.

It’s an obvious metaphor for grief. Hot and burning at the start, dimming over time... but even after many years, memory particles surface now and then to remind you of a life that’s gone.

I should point out that the candle’s infinite fall is only in the eye of the outside observer. A trick of the light. From the candle’s point of view, it drops straight down and crosses the event horizon without pause. Inside the black hole its flame may still be burning; it’s just that the light doesn’t reach the outside world anymore.

The next morning, Sunday, May 6, 1990, I reread what I’d written, wondering if there was anything that could be salvaged. I was struck by a new regret: I’d written about some guy named McGregor, not about the students.

I knew why I’d written it that way, of course. I didn’t believe I had the right to put words in their mouths, thoughts in their heads. How could I presume to speak for the real people? I could only deal with characters.

But I’d gone too far into the fiction. In my story, like the newspaper articles, the victims were only there for the body count. Without thinking, I’d started to write the story of a button-pusher who was troubled by his conscience, but who went ahead and did what he had to do for the good of history.

Sound familiar?


Bannister sat in the time chamber, cradling his gun. An M-1 carbine in pristine condition. According to the antiquities database there were only five M-1s still in existence, four in museums, one in the hands of a collector who’d bought hers on the open market. You could assume another twenty or thirty still in secret collections around the world... maybe even a few in the arsenals of the Quarantined states, since most of the Q’s were too stupid to realize the black market price of a single twentieth-century firearm would buy a hundred twenty-third-century E-guns.

Call it a nice round number of forty M-1s on the entire planet. And Bannister had one.

Admittedly, this weapon could just be a replica; but he doubted it. The Corrections Institute disdained replicas. If they needed some antique, they sent back a Special Services team to steal one. Bannister had gone out on plenty of those runs himself — popping into foxholes to pull Lee-Enfields from the cold fingers of gas victims, or materializing in the cargo holds of boats shipping AK-47s to terrorist groups. But as of today, Bannister had graduated from such gruntwork. As of today, he was going to make history.

“You about ready in there?” he called to the two techies in the control booth.

The woman of the pair flicked a switch and said over the intercom, “What’s your hurry? Got a hot date waiting?”

“You got it,” Bannister answered. “The date’s May 4, 1970.”

The intercom clicked off loudly. He wondered if the woman was annoyed at his attitude. Maybe she’d been making a pass at him. Maybe he should have said, “No date yet, but when I get back I’ll really be looking for action.” The woman’s lab coat hid her tits and her ass, but the way she moved when she walked, he could tell she was thinking of her body all the time. Feeling it move, tuned in to being sensuous. A night with a woman like that would leave a memory or two.

And all of the psych profiles said he’d be horny afterward. It was sick when you thought about it, but if horniness was natural, it was natural. You didn’t lose sleep if your body wanted to fart after eating beans — you just farted, didn’t you? So if Bannister’s body wanted to get laid after pulling the trigger on four strangers who died three hundred years ago...

The intercom clicked again and the male techie said, “Departure in thirty seconds.”

“Going to be a bumpy one?” Bannister asked. He was trying to sound cool, but the words came out too sharply. It was eagerness, only eagerness. He hoped the woman in the booth wouldn’t interpret it as nerves.

“The sea’s calm as glass all the way back to 2042,” the male techie replied. “Turbulence there, of course, but you’ve got clearance for one of the calmest straits in the area. Someone’s definitely pulled strings on this run — smoothest route we’ve been authorized to navigate since the beginning of the year. The Executive Board must really want these kids dead.”

“It’s crucial to world peace,” Bannister said.

“Yeah, right.” The man clicked off the intercom again.

Bannister wanted to shout back some kind of self-justification. The mission  was crucial. No one liked killing, not even when it was necessary, but trading four lives for several hundred million... it had to be done. The deaths were the catalyst for change; so someone had to be the catalyst for the deaths. Someone had to start the shooting up on Blanket Hill, had to spur the Ohio National Guard into putting Kent State University on the map.

Same setting as the piece I wrote the previous day, but someone different in the time chamber. Someone who would join the National Guard and instigate the tragedy. Someone who would have to face what he had done and eventually... well, I didn’t know what would happen to Bannister. As the story unfolded, as I got to know him better, I’d discover whether he went mad, found wisdom, became a soulless killer, whatever. Sometimes the reason you write a story is to learn how it turns out.

I spent most of Sunday morning on the Bannister story, but as time went on my doubts grew. By lunch I had to admit that my second try was just as corrupt as the first one. I was trying to reassure myself there was an underlying purpose to the events, that someone somewhere knew the price and made a choice. But I didn’t believe that. Furthermore, I didn’t believe in letting the National Guard off the hook by suggesting they were spurred on by an outside provocateur. As I sat in my study and comfortably sipped mint tea twenty years after the fact, it wasn’t my place to lay blame; but it wasn’t my place to make excuses either.

The Kerr-Newman model of a rotating black hole can be mathematically extended by recoordinatizing, using a scheme suggested by the work of M. D. Kruskal (1960). The result is a model where the black hole has a white hole on its flip side. Just as a black hole is a phenomenon that no slower-than-light object can leave, a white hole is a phenomenon that no slower-than-light object can enter. Light and matter can flood out of a white hole, but nothing can get back inside. Beyond the white hole, the extended model shows an area of space whose physical characteristics are the same as our own familiar space — “another universe,” if you want to look at it that way.

Extending mathematical models is a dicey business. I could, if I wanted, extend the mathematical model of temperature below absolute zero Kelvin and find that (wow!) there was a whole other universe down there where temperatures were negative instead of positive. Mathematically, I could argue the idea was valid; but physically, it’s nonsense. One mustn’t get carried away believing scribbles on paper.

But the black hole/white hole model is more satisfying than an unadorned black hole. The white hole completes the black hole’s story. Things vanish into a black hole and it seems they are gone forever; but unbeknownst to us, they pass through the darkness, through crushing forces, through a moment of infinity at the very heart of the black hole, and then they flood out the other side into a new and brightly illuminated universe.

It could be the oldest story in the world. Ra in his sunboat. Jonah in the whale. Dying heroes and deities from every culture on the planet.

The journey into blackness. The dark night of the soul. The moment of trial and grace. Glorious liberation and rebirth into a new world.

Kerr-Newman has it all.

I’ve never heard anyone talk about the black hole/white hole model from a theological viewpoint. No one is comfortable with theology anymore. I know I’m not.

But I’m comfortable with ghost stories.


Walpurgisnacht came a few days late in 1990. Blame it on precession of the equinox, global warming, or whatever your pet cause might be — Walpurgisnacht 1990 fell on the night of May 4.

The honor of the first sighting went to Benjamin Howe, third-year math student at Kent State University, Kent, Ohio. May 4, Howe spent an uncomfortable evening sitting on the floor in Taylor Hall, hoping to intercept one Catherine Weiss as she left a night class. For the past six months, Howe and Weiss had shared a relationship; but that afternoon a discussion of what they would do over the summer break had not gone well. It had, in fact, sucked rocks. Neither of them shouted; neither of them cried; but after they went their separate ways, both felt sick in the pits of their stomachs, wondering if this was it, if it was all over, if they had ruined the best chance at love they would ever get. By suppertime, both wanted to apologize as profusely as necessary. It was just a matter of finding each other before it was too late.

Howe knew that Weiss had a night class somewhere in Taylor Hall. He drove there and wandered the corridors, peeping into classrooms without spotting her. Eventually he settled down on the floor near the exit that Weiss was most likely to take on her way home... provided she didn’t take a different door as she headed for a sleaze-up at the pub with some slimy classmate. (Unbeknownst to Howe, Weiss hadn’t gone to class that night. She’d parked herself outside Howe’s apartment building and was waiting for him to come home, thinking he had probably gone to the pub to get sloppy drunk with his buddies from differential geometry.)

Hours passed. Benjamin Howe watched the classes get out, tried to scan every woman who went by but not too closely, not threateningly for fear one of them would report him as a potential rapist. He stayed an hour after the last class went home, not because he believed Weiss was still in the building but because he had no idea what to do next. He considered going to the pub to see if she was there; he considered phoning her friends; he considered phoning the hospitals; he considered walking aimlessly around campus in the hope that fate would bring them together again, the way it did in the movies.

Finally he decided to go home.

When he got to the parking lot, his was the only car left. That made it easy to see the long dark smear trailing out from underneath. “Great,” he muttered to himself, “the end of a perfect day. Must have spun up a stone through the oil pan.”

He got down on his knees to look. It was after eleven o’clock, and even though the parking lot was well lit, he could see only darkness under the chassis. A deep darkness, a black lump blocking out the light that should have been visible on the other side of the car.

Jesus Christ, he thought, I hit something. A dog. I must have hit a dog. Nothing else could be that big except... no, it had to be a dog.

He looked again at the smear on the pavement. The parking lot’s blue-white streetlamps bleached out most of the color, but he could convince himself the smear was red.

Howe didn’t want to touch the body, but he couldn’t drive off with something stuck under there. Standing up, he walked to the edge of the parking lot and back to build up his nerve, then squatted at the rear of his car and reached under.

It was like reaching into a freezer: cold and a bit clammy. The night was warm and he couldn’t imagine how it could be so cold under there, but first things first. Pull the damned body out, then worry about thermodynamics. He swept his hand back and forth, trying to grab some part of the animal, trying to do it blind because he really didn’t want to look at it any sooner than he had to. Nothing, nothing but the cold. The dog must be farther under than he thought.

He went down on his knees again and looked. From this angle, the light was good enough that he could make out a running shoe.

For a moment, he couldn’t breathe. He’d known all along, hadn’t he? It had been too big for a dog, he just hadn’t let himself that... that he’d killed someone. He’d killed someone. It wasn’t possible, but he’d killed someone. Run a person over, dragged the corpse under his car. Almost without thinking, he reached out to touch the shoe.

His hand felt only cold air.

Darkness or not, he could see quite clearly. His hand reached straight through the foot.

And then, because this was Kent State, and because every student knew this was  the parking lot, Benjamin Howe realized what he was seeing.

He got into the car, started it carefully, and backed up. There was no sound of dragging, no sound of flesh and bone crushing under the tires. When he’d backed up far enough, there was only the sight of a body bleeding on the pavement. A guy about Benjamin’s age, wearing ratty jeans and a T-shirt.

There was another body not far off. A woman’s. A third corpse farther along, and a fourth in the middle of the road out of the lot. He cranked the wheel hard, hopped over the curb onto the grass, and kept driving.

When Benjamin Howe got back to his apartment, Cathy Weiss was still there. She thought that he treated her coldly at first, but he seemed glad to see her.

Back on campus, more bodies were appearing. At 11:30 the village of My Lai materialized in the football practice field beside the Taylor Hall parking lot — the village was close to Kent State in spirit, if not geography.

This materialization was observed by chemistry grad student Rebecca Kendall, who’d been awake 36 hours studying for exams. The sight of the phantom village terrified her... not because she thought it was a ghost, but because she thought it was a hallucination. The prospect of her mind breaking down filled her with fear, cold and pure. Her brain was all she had — no friends, no easy social graces, no Playboy bunny face and flesh, just her brain. And now her brain saw a ragged clutter of huts and butchered bodies out in the middle of a football field.

Rebecca started shivering and couldn’t stop. If someone had convinced her she was seeing a ghost she would have felt nothing but relief. As it was, she walked home in a cold sweat and went straight to bed. She didn’t fall asleep for hours.

On campus at quarter to twelve, a crowd of martyrs flickered into existence atop Blanket Hill... not the usual martyrs celebrated for clinging to their beliefs in the face of death, but the ones who died meaninglessly, without the chance to take a stand. Innocent women accused of witchcraft, hanged and drowned and burned. Civilians whose homes lay in the path of marching armies. Tribespeople who succumbed to disease, starvation, and sorrow in the cargo holds of slave ships. Hundreds of unmoving bodies appeared on Blanket Hill, many of them touching or overlapping: a young widow cremated in suttee, lying with her head on the chest of a teenage boy who froze in Siberia because his uncle denounced Stalin; a drowned passenger from KAL 007 linking arms with one from the Iranian Airbus A300.

As midnight approached, more and more bodies accumulated: in the roadways, on the Commons, inside buildings. Fearing panic, university security evacuated an on-campus pub when Bhopal gas victims began piling up the dance floor. “Nothing to worry about,” the security guards said as they hurried students out. “We’ll take care of it.”

“What are you going to do?” someone asked. “Call in the National Guard?”

That was my question too. What was I going to do? Call in the National Guard?

Look: ghosts appear because they have unfinished business. And if anyone has unfinished business, it must be those who were killed senselessly. But what can they do to finish their stories? Should the four Kent State students haunt the living National Guardsmen and torment them for their acts? That’s so cheap: just crude revenge.

Should the bodies be brought back to life at midnight, whereupon they could have a single hour to come to terms with their deaths? Maybe the same thing happens twice a year like business conventions, Walpurgisnacht and Hallowe’en, each get-together hosted by different committees — the soccer fans at Hillsborough, say, or the Jews and gypsies and gays processed through Nazi death camps — and the goal is simply to purge anger and regret, a little bit more each meeting, until finally the soul is ready to let go and move on. I could envision the Kent State students wandering their old campus, talking to night-owl students, trying to find peace...

Students at Kent State were demonstrating for peace when the four victims died.

I broke off writing for supper. Sunday supper, traditional time in North America for family and conviviality. I don’t remember how convivial I was. I could have been distracted because I wanted to get back to writing after dinner.

But when I went back, I realized I had trivialized my subject again. It wasn’t just that the tone of voice was flippant; it was the glibness with which I tossed off references to tragedy. My Lai, for example — what did I know about the My Lai massacre except that a lot of Vietnamese civilians were killed? I could research and find more details, but that wasn’t the point. I had used the name My Lai for its immediate guts’n’gore familiarity, not out of genuine feeling for the victims. The same for all the other ghosts — I had used them to give the story color, nothing more. They were only empty names. They were just body count.

I stared at the computer screen for a long time, wondering what to write... wondering if there was anything I could write that wasn’t just exploiting someone else’s pain.

Nothing came to mind.

A mathematical singularity is a place where a function, a formula, breaks down. Often the breakdown happens because the function “goes to infinity” at that point; for example, the formula for the function may try to divide by zero.

In the heart of a Kerr-Newman black hole there is a singularity in a function called R, the Riemannian scalar curvature, a measurement of gravity. R goes to infinity. It cannot be measured.

For a long time, physicists wondered if the singularity was genuine. Maybe it was simply a result of their choice of coordinates: the way they wrote out the formula for R With the right choice of coordinates, one can extend the black hole model past the singularity into the white hole beyond. Perhaps with another choice of coordinates the singularity in the middle would go away. Perhaps it was only the ruler that broke down, not the universe that the ruler measured.

In the late 1960s, mathematicians proved that the singularity existed in all coordinates. All possible rulers broke at the same point. At the heart of the black hole’s darkness, physicists could only throw away their rulers and stand back in blank contemplation.

Days and weeks passed. I kept thinking. Nothing more, just thinking. I didn’t see the dead students in my dreams. To tell the truth, if I wanted to remember their faces I had to go back and look at their photos in the book.

Kent State didn’t haunt me. It niggled at me.

The library books came due. I wrote the names of the books in my files and took them back. I also recorded the names:

Allison Krause

Jeff Miller

Sandy Lee Scheuer

Bill Schroeder

Those names hadn’t appeared anywhere in my three story attempts. I had to write them down separately so I would remember them. Otherwise I’d lose the names and be left with three uncompleted story-scribbles that all missed the point.

Now and then I would open my “ideas” notebook and see my original jottings about Kent State. Time travel. Ghosts. But I couldn’t travel backward in time. I couldn’t summon ghosts or lay them to rest. I could stuff my stories into the empty spaces surrounding the tragedy, but the stories themselves walled off the reality, put it out of reach.

The situation reminded me of a white hole. A white hole floods its universe with light; but you can never touch it.

And so I began thinking of white holes, black holes, and a mathematics thesis whose math had leaked away, leaving behind only metaphors. The result wasn’t a story about Kent State. But at least it was my story to tell.

Imagine an object falling into a black hole: something small like the body of a young man or woman, or perhaps something large like the campus of a university.

Imagine an outside observer, a distant spectator far removed from the immediate pull of the black hole. He shines a light toward the falling object — the object casts no light of its own, so if the observer wants to see it he must provide his own illumination. He waits for the light to strike the object, then return to his eye.

There are several possibilities for what happens next.

The light may strike the object as it falls through the ergosphere, a region where places become moments and moments become places. That close to the black hole itself, the returning light particles may take years to climb back out of the gravity well and reach the observer. But someday the light will return.

Or the light may not reach the falling object until the object has crossed the event horizon. If the object is inside the hole, the light may strike the object and bounce, but it cannot reach the observer outside. The light will only bounce deeper into the blackness. The observer will never see it.

Or perhaps, if the cosmos deigns to conform itself to mathematics, there is a third alternative. The falling object plunges through the heart of the black hole and out a white hole on the other side. By the time the observer’s light enters the black hole, the object is gone. The light finds nothing but blackness. There is no contact. To the observer, the object has fallen into an impenetrable dark; but in another universe, perhaps the object tranquilly sails on.

The outside observer waits for his light to return. He wonders if the object has fallen so far he will never truly see it. There is no way to tell until the light actually comes back. If it ever does.

Other observers have given up and gone home.

The outside observer waits.

Author’s Notes

This is the one story I’ve written as me, Jim Gardner, rather than from some fictional point of view. It’s not quite a true story — I never actually sat down and wrote out the “scribbles” as they appear — but the ideas did cross my mind as I saw how the press tried to deal with the twentieth anniversary of the killings at Kent State University. Our beloved media (as they so often do) wrote around the facts without ever truly connecting to the reality of what happened.

The shootings seem like ancient history now; but for the sake of our souls, we have to remember that history is about real people with real lives and real deaths. There’s something disturbing about the air of unreality with which we often view the past — as if anything that happened more than a few days ago took place in some alien dimension that doesn’t have much to do with who we are now. I’m certainly guilty of feeling that way, too... which is one reason I wrote a story about fading memories and trivializing other people’s tragedies.