The Jack-O-Lantern Sun

by: Chris Thompson

An evil lurks beneath the sun’s warm and pleasant facade…

The scientists at NASA had missed it at first. The image was one of thousands from the Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite shared with the public on its mission website. This particular image of the sun however, had caught the attention of a sharp-eyed graduate student named Josh Hendrick who had been battling a terrible case of insomnia. He had been pouring over the publicly available satellite images in the basement of the California Institute of Technology’s library late one October night when suddenly, he froze. Something about the image just wasn’t right. Its pattern of twisting and snapping magnetic fields were unsettling, and so he fired-off an email to the SDO team’s director, a Dr. Rosemarie Summers, with the image attached, a subject heading of “Curious-Halloween?” and a hastily jotted note:

Dr. Summers,

Please see attached image. Curious anomaly in solar active regions 8 October 2014 15:18:18 UDT as documented by SDO satellite. Possible “Jack-o-lantern” sun in 193 and 335 Angstrom extreme ultraviolet light?

Regards,

Josh Hendrick

The sun had been at the peak of its eleven-year solar cycle that October in 2014, and the Solar Dynamic Observatory’s science team had been buried under a crush of data from the overactive star. The preponderance of solar flares and coronal mass ejections were wreaking havoc with Earth’s communication grid and Dr. Summers was under tremendous pressure from the world’s top governments to develop a better “space weather” forecasting model. So it made sense that the image would have gone unnoticed by NASA. The SDO scientific team was just far too busy to examine the gigabytes of data the diligent satellite generated each day. It wasn’t until two weeks later, on October 23rd, that Dr. Summers noticed the doctoral student’s email in her inbox. She had been ridding her account of its excessive spam, of which she had amassed a considerable amount due to her love affair with deal-of-the-day websites like Groupon and Livingsocial, when the email’s subject line had caught her eye. Intrigued by the curious wording, Dr. Summers had clicked on the message.

The very next day, a NASA press release played-up the sun’s uncanny resemblance to a grinning Halloween pumpkin, and the news outlets and websites had a field day with the story. In no time at all the SDO’s solar photograph had gone viral and even had its own Facebook and Twitter page. NASA playfully christened the phenomenon the “Jack-o-lantern Sun”, crediting its discovery to Dr. Summers and her talented corps of scientists, and not one Josh Hendrik, insomniac-plagued graduate student. In its release, Dr. Summers and the SDO team claimed that several active regions of the sun had combined to resemble something like a solar jack-o-lantern’s face, but that it was only visible in extreme ultraviolet light. Dr. Summers, in numerous phone and in-person interviews, went on to state that it was a harmless coincidence that the sun resembled a Halloween pumpkin, and it was simply a matter of fortuitous timing that had led to the capturing of the incident at all. “The sun is a chaotic and dynamic star,” she reminded the public as she spoke on ABC’s Good Morning America. “As we speak, this remarkable feature is already subsiding, lessening as it is absorbed by the natural magnetic rhythms of the sun. The sun’s surface is like a fiery ocean, existing in a perpetual state of flux. It never looks the same way twice.”

When Dr. Summers found another email in her inbox marked “Urgent-Halloween!!!” from the same graduate student that very evening, she didn’t wait until two weeks to open the message. The press had had fun with the Jack-o-lantern story, especially with the impending arrival of Halloween, and it had been a welcome distraction from the litany of questions surrounding the damaging solar storms. But Dr. Summers was worried that Mr. Hendrick was angry that he hadn’t been given credit for the phenomenon’s discovery. If he was looking to make waves it could be a PR nightmare for NASA and a black-eye for the SDO program. I’ll crush this little punk, Dr. Summers nastily thought as she clicked on the email. I built this program from nothing. Without my efforts there’d be no image gallery for him to thumb through. No noteworthy snapshot for him to find. This discovery is mine. As she read the graduate student’s sparsely worded message however, her concerns disappeared like the switching off of a light.

Dr. Summers,

Please see attached image!!!! Same anomaly on 24 October 2014 14:00:08 UDT as seen on 8 October 2014 15:18:18 UDT. Be advised, phenomenon has not dissipated. Repeat: not dissipated. How is it possible that “Jack-o-lantern” sun in 193 and 335 Angstrom extreme ultraviolet light still persists?

Trying not to panic,

Josh Hendrick

This kid sure is persistent, Dr. Summers thought as she called up the SDO image database on her laptop. Quickly, she scanned the list of files until she found the folder marked “26 October 2014.” Her slender, well-manicured fingers moved deftly about her laptop’s touchpad, scrolling rapidly through the hundreds of images that made-up the gallery. We need to write a better indexing script, she thought as the blurs of oranges and reds, purples and pinks spun past her. I’ll tell George to come-up with something in the morning. When she found the image in question she too, like the inquisitive Josh Hendrik, froze. There it was again. The same grinning strands of charged magnetic fields. The same hollow-looking eyes and sharp-pointed nose that were present on October 8th. Dr. Summers nervously picked-up her office telephone and dialed her colleague in Rome.

Dr. Dominick Graves answered the telephone on the tenth ring. It was five hours later in Rome than it was in New York City and he had been asleep for several hours, owing to his strict adherence to a nine thirty bedtime.

“Caio?” Dr. Graves mumbled into the telephone, throwing his legs over the side of the bed and sitting up. He glanced annoyingly at his watch as the hollow-sounding voice on the other line spoke.

“Dommy, it’s me Rosie. Did I wake you?”

“Si…”

“I’m-I’m sorry my friend but it couldn’t wait. I need you to check something for me.”

“I watched you on the American television program’s Rosie. You seemed like you were having fun.”

“Ah…er, yes. Yes, I did get a kick out of that. I welcomed the opportunity to bring our discoveries to the world. But that’s not…”

“The television made you look fat.”

“Oh, thanks Dommy. You know, you really can be a jerk.”

“Then don’t call me so early in the morning Rosie. It’s the part of the day when I only speak the truth. Now, tell me what you are calling about before I hang-up and go back to sleep.”

“I need you to double-check an image for me. I wouldn’t call if it wasn’t so important Dommy. It’s from the SDO’s image dump for October 24th.”

“What’s the image timestamp?”

“14:00:08 UDT. Extreme ultraviolet. 193 and 335 Angstrom filters.”

“One moment. I’ll need to go downstairs to my office to take a look.”

Dr. Graves placed the phone’s receiver on the bedside table, besides his reading glasses and a time-worn copy of Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence. In the pre-dawn light of Rome, he threw on his flannel robe and shearling slippers, shuffling slowly downstairs to his home office one-flight down. It wasn’t too early for him, he had recently passed into his seventies and he found that he was sleeping less, but he still didn’t appreciate Dr. Summers constant late-night interruptions and obliviousness to the time difference between them. He was in no rush to oblige his younger, more spry colleague’s fanatical whim, and stopping in the kitchen, he poured himself a glass of milk and enjoyed an almond biscotti before making his way to his desk.

Dr. Summers did all she could to not stare at the grinning orb before her while she waited for Dr. Graves to pick-up his office line. It gave her the creeps to look at the ultraviolet image of the sun, its false-color rendering sending a chill down her spine and a spasm of goose-bumps across her pale-toned skin. This can’t be real, she thought as the seconds spent in silence passed slowly by. She could hear the hissing static of the solar wind as it buffeted the Earth’s magnetosphere through the telephone’s receiver. The telecom companies had been giving her research team hell these last few months. The federal government as well. They all wanted to know when this was all going to come to an end, or if not, when she would be able to predict the next big solar strike. Feeling overwhelmed and anxious, Dr. Summers lit-up a cigarette from a crumpled pack of Pall Mall’s she kept beside her desk. It was a lingering habit from her younger days, and a ritual she partook of whenever she felt overly anxious. It was the oral fixation, the hand-to-mouth motion, more than the actual smoking that calmed her, and as she waited, she drew deeply of the cigarettes pungent smoke.

Dr. Graves returned to the line with a deep groan, as if a grizzly bear were suddenly on the other end. He confirmed the validity of Dr. Summers image and guaranteed with one hundred and ten percent certainty that the image had not been indexed in error. “It’s real Rosie,” he growled into the phone. “How are you going to go onto the television and explain this one?”

“I’m not Dommie. And neither are you. I’ll be in touch, just sit tight.”

“I always do my little TV star. Arrivederci.”

Dr. Summers hung-up the telephone and stood-up from her desk. She walked over to the floor-to-ceiling windows, a series of enormous glass panels that formed the walls of her thirty-sixth floor office. Looking out over Lower Manhattan, to where the Hudson River flowed into the Upper Bay, she finished her cigarette, deep in thought. The moon was beginning to rise above the Statue of Liberty, and as she stared at it, she could’ve sworn that it had taken on a tinge of crimson red.

Eleven years after the discovery of the phenomenon called the Jack-o-lantern Sun, the fiery star was once again progressing through a period of high activity. There are innumerable cycles to our existence and intricate patterns to be found in our complex reality. From the lowliest bacterium as it multiples in a sun-kissed droplet of rain to the interplay of the galaxies as they drift out amongst the great deep, there are rhythms to our world. The sun was not immune to these rhythms, and as it reached another solar maximal, its coronal mass ejections and solar flares peaked as well. But the Earth that it bathed in its radiating glow was not the same planet that it was those eleven years ago. No, things were much different….

It had all started with the blood red rains that fell on October 31st, only a few short weeks after the discovery of the Jack-o-lantern Sun. Then followed months of perpetual night followed by even more months of perpetual day, the halting of the Earth’s rotation wreaking havoc with the planet’s already fragile ecosystem. Then came the plagues of locusts and hornets and toads that blighted out the sky and choked the air and the ground with their swarming masses. After that followed the hordes of giant spiders who wove great webs across the lands, their sticky latticeworks large enough to swallow entire city blocks and entrap its inhabitants by the thousands. Then came the waves of The Undead, who attacked with ferocious savagery and a limitless might the bastions that Man had hastily built to protect itself. After that there was a pause, a reprieve of several weeks, that found the survivors of Earth rejoicing in the idea that the worst was finally over. That a normalcy would return to the lands. But this conclusion was short-lived, for on October 31st, the second year under the Jack-o-lantern Sun, appeared the almighty trinity of evil: the Vampires, the Werewolves and the Witches.

Everything imaginable, and some things unimaginable, then began to awaken upon the planet as an evil descended like a blanket upon Earths tortured lands. It was an evil as old as Time, borne of the same ingredients as the planets and the stars and controlled by a powerful creature that resided within the heart of every sun. A creature who, like the cosmos, had a rhythm to its existence. A billion-year cycle of dormancy and rebirth. It was like a slumbering phoenix that had been re-born into the million degree furnaces of a star, and as it grew more powerful, the creature reached out its senses to touch the minds of Man. As it searched, it found humanity’s deepest and darkest fears. The terror and dread that plagued their delicate minds and with a malevolent glee it manifested those fears down on the planets surface. The sun was no longer the chaotic and dynamic place that Dr. Summer had described. It was alive and had found its name, the Jack-O-Lantern Sun, dwelling in the fear-plagued minds of man. Eleven years after it had first appeared, the sun’s unsettling Jack-o-lantern face was still there, its fiery demon living comfortably inside and staring down with a wicked delight as it watched all the madness and chaos that it had created unfold.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *