Going Dark: read an exclusive new sci-fi story by Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat

Illustration of a person disappearing in front of the Large Hadron Collider
Illustration of a person disappearing in front of the Large Hadron Collider

By the time you read this I will have ceased to exist.

I’m being precise. I’m not talking about dying. I don’t mean someone will have pushed me off a building or under a train or squashed my head with a well-chosen rock or any of the kind of things that might naturally happen to a person in my line of work. I mean that as you read these words, there will be no trace of me in the world. I won’t have just stopped living, I will never have started living in the first place. I won’t just stop existing, I will never have existed at all. These words, if they still cling to this page – as I hope somehow they can – will have been written by someone else.

If you mention my name to the people who used to be my parents, they won’t know who you’re talking about. If you visit the woman who divorced me four years ago, she will look blank when you ask about me. If you decide to be thorough and go to my old school, there will be no record of my attendance. No one there will have any recollection of me. The place where I carved my name under a low bench in the first floor Boys cloakroom will be unmarked. Or perhaps another name will be there. Maybe the name of the child my parents had instead of me.

This is not a trick. This isn’t some sinister conspiracy to erase the facts of my existence. This is the actual erasure of every moment of my life from the physical world. I know how this sounds, but take me seriously. By the time you finish reading this you might never have existed either.

I could tell you a little of my background, but it seems pointless now none of it really happened. So let’s just say I’m someone in a line of work you would barely understand, and would certainly not meet with your approval. When people ask me what I do, I’m used to shrugging and saying I’m a sort of troubleshooter. I have perfected a brief smile and a glance at my feet that reliably ends the conversation. Now and then people persist. Once a slightly drunk woman called Evie asked if troubleshooting involved any actual shooting. For some reason, perhaps boredom, I told her the truth: ‘Yes.’ She was excited when she asked the question, but something in my tone when I answered it made her frown. I glanced at my feet to end the conversation and when I looked up again she was gone. Not gone in the sense I am gone – just walking away, a little unsteadily and a little too rapidly. From the set of her shoulders she was clearly still frowning.

I mention Evie, because it was in that moment, as I watched her weaving among the other party guests, that I first laid eyes on the chimp woman.

I am going to be as exact as I can now. You have a particular responsibility when you write about people who no longer exist, and events that never happened, because your words are all that is left of them: the only trace remaining anywhere in the real world. This is the testimony of the never were.

She was tall, perhaps a shade too thin. Her dress was a poison green and strikingly asymmetrical: the right sleeve extended all the way down her arm, looping around her thumb, while her left arm was bare. Her hair was dark, elaborately styled and tumbled round the face of a grinning chimpanzee. I stared at her, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. Her cartoon eyes stared back at me, comically wide, and her teeth were bared in a banana-shaped grin. Even through the mask, I could tell she was looking directly at me.

She was standing near a partly open door at the other end of the restaurant, motionless and composed, her hands clasped in front of her. She stood so still it was if she had always been there. I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed her: the party was petering out by then with only twenty or so people still loitering. One or two of them glanced at the chimp woman, but preferred to look away again; whoever she was, it was late and she wasn’t their problem.

She wasn’t my problem either, I decided, and turned away. I fetched my coat from the cloakroom, and briefly considered saying goodnight to my host. I could see him a few feet away, laughing and joking with his wife and a few friends. I pictured how his face would fall if I joined them for a moment to say goodnight; I imagined the questions that would inevitably follow when I stepped away. In truth, Jonathan had invited me out of a sense of obligation that he would rather not admit to: I had done some work for him, and it is in the nature of the services I provide that people would rather not talk about requiring them. I liked him though, and appreciated his kindness in letting me be there among his fellow scientists. I decided to be equally thoughtful and made my way to the exit. With one foot on the pavement outside, I found myself glancing back at the chimp woman. She was gone and the door she had been standing next to was now clicking shut.

I hesitated. I could have hailed a taxi and gone home. If I had, you would not now be reading these words and I would still exist. But the truth is, I was bored and curious. So I walked back across the restaurant, stepped through the door and began my long fall out of this world.

I was standing in a narrow, cluttered corridor. There were stacked boxes and crates, and another opened door led to the clatter of a kitchen. Beyond it, at the end of the corridor, a wooden staircase rose up to a narrow landing lit by a single bare lightbulb; as it flickered, a green dress passed below it and a moment later I heard high heels climbing the next set of stairs.

I should have stopped then. Forgive me – if I hadn’t followed her, you would not be in the danger you are now in. Perhaps, if curiosity hadn’t got the better of me, the universe would have left me alone.

At the top of the stairs, there was another corridor and a row of doors, only one of them open. Beyond the door, there was an almost empty room: bare floorboards, a burst sofa under a grimy window, and a rough wooden table, with two chairs. She was sitting in the chair facing me, as calm and still as before. I stood in the doorway and looked at her. She didn’t speak so eventually I did.

‘Hello,’ I said.

Her voice was ordinary enough, a little muffled by the mask. There was a trace of an accent I couldn’t identify. ‘Please step inside and close the door.’

‘Why would I do that?’

‘There is absolutely no reason why you should, and many reasons why you shouldn’t.’

‘Such as?’

‘Possibly you value your life. Though given its superficial nature, probably not very much.’

I thought about that. It was possible she knew about me. It was equally possible she was insane. I thought about my journey home and how long it would take. I thought about my flat and my cat who would need feeding. I had no reason I could think of to be standing there talking to a woman who, it seemed likely, was out of her mind. I could just walk back downstairs and leave.

Instead, I stepped into the room and closed the door. ‘There’s a key in the lock,’ she prompted. I locked the door, slipped the key in my pocket. ‘I’m keeping the key,’ I said.

‘I suppose that’s a sensible precaution.’

‘I’m glad you think so.’

‘It won’t do you any good though. Would you like to sit down?’

‘Not especially.’

‘It won’t make any difference, but suit yourself.’

‘I intend to.’

‘You haven’t so far.’

‘What makes you say that?’

‘What made you follow me up here? What reason could you possibly have had?’

‘Curiosity.’

‘Curiosity is not a reason – it’s an impulse.’

‘Impulse then.’

‘Impulse, yes. The literal opposite of self-control.’ I still couldn’t place her accent. The plastic chimp face leered at me. ‘Step a little closer, please, and place your left hand, palm down, on the centre of the table.

‘Why would I do that?’

‘Because you’re right handed.’

‘Why would I do anything you tell me?’

‘Because nothing else will happen till you do.’

From below there was a burst of laughter, like someone had opened a door to the party. The door closed again. The chimp face stared at me, waiting.

‘I could just leave,’ I said.

‘You could. And you should.’

I could walk away. I could be home in less than an hour. ‘Are you going to take that mask off?’ I asked her.

‘I would like to.’

‘Go ahead then.’

‘Place your left hand on the centre of the table.’

‘Who are you?’

‘No questions will be answered, literally nothing will happen, till you place your hand where I tell you.’

She was clearly intelligent, obviously educated; there was a well-controlled tremor in her voice so she was both sensible enough to be afraid, and strong enough to conceal it. I could feel events starting to slip out of my control and as always it was thrilling. I knew I should leave. I also knew my cat would survive a night without me.

‘Science lesson one: just because something’s ridiculous doesn’t mean it isn’t true’: Steven Moffat - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph
‘Science lesson one: just because something’s ridiculous doesn’t mean it isn’t true’: Steven Moffat - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph

I crossed to the window, looked out. There was no one in the street who drew my attention but the building opposite was in darkness, and anyone could have been watching from one of the windows. I found the cord for the blind and lowered it.

‘Are you telling yourself you’re being cautious?’ she asked.

‘Fortunately I never believe a word I say.’

‘I believe you. Place your hand.’

I placed my left hand in the centre of the table, palm down and looked at her. ‘Is something going to happen now?’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m waiting.’

I didn’t have to wait long; I was barely aware of the knife in her hand before it was in mine. For a moment there was no pain. I looked down at my hand. The blade had slammed straight through it into the wood of the table and the point must have burst through the other side.

‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘It’s a necessity.’

‘What the f--k are you doing??’ I managed to say.

‘Carving your neurons.’

‘You’re carving my f--king hand!’

‘Collateral damage, my apologies. I have to reinforce the wave function. Now look at my face.’

The mask was gone. ‘Look at it. Study my face.’

The pain and shock were jumping in my vision now, my breath was roaring in my ears – but I found myself looking at her face. She was gaunt, mid-forties, pale enough to look ill. Her eyes were bright, fierce, liquid. ‘Memorise my face. It will be harder than you think.’

‘I’m kind of focussed on my hand right now.’

‘You are experiencing an adrenaline shock, it will change the way you store your memories.’

‘What the f--k are you talking about?’

‘As I explained – I’m carving your neurons. Now study my face. Memorise me.’

‘You think I’m going to forget you?’

‘It’s almost impossible that you won’t. I’m about to list three names. Memorise them too.’

Blood was flowing round the blade and pooling round my hand. I fought to control the panic. ‘You ever heard of maybe writing things down?’

‘Arthur Pendle. Say it back to me.’

‘Jesus, I can remember a name.’

Her hand was still on the knife: now she twisted it. Pain burst through me like fireworks. ‘Say it back to me.’

‘Arthur Pendle.’

‘Madeline Preston, Tariq Baddaur.’

‘Madeline Preston, Tariq Baddaur, what the f--k is this??’

‘Find them.’

‘How?’

‘I know you will be able to because I know who you are – find them.’ She removed her hand from the knife and stood. ‘May I have the key please.’

‘I just give it to you, do I?’

‘The sooner you give it to me, the sooner I leave. Then you can do something about getting help, you’re bleeding rather a lot.’

I handed her the key. She looked down at the blood spreading across the table as if she found it mildly troubling. ‘You have a phone, I presume?’

‘Of course I bloody do.’

‘Then I suggest you phone someone.’ She went to the door, unlocked it. As she stepped through it, she turned back to me. Her smile seemed almost sad. ‘Tell them you need a hand.’

I never saw her again. In fact, as it turned out, I’d never seen her at all.

*

Sometimes dreams are so vivid, it takes a moment or two to figure out if they really happened. When I woke up, I even checked my hand to see if there was a wound. There wasn’t, of course.

I was still piecing it together over my morning coffee. There had been a party, yes, and rather against my better judgement I had gone. Drunk Evie had asked about my troubleshooting and I’d alarmed her with my answer. But there had been no chimp woman, no journey up the stairs, no knife through the back of my hand. I had simply left the restaurant without saying goodbye to Jonathan, hailed a cab, and gone home to feed my cat.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that it had been real though: it was still impossibly vivid. Her bright, liquid eyes, the slight tremor in her voice, the shattering pain of the knife. I found myself checking my hand again. No wound, not a trace, nothing. I tried to remember how the dream had ended. One moment, I’d been trapped there, my hand pinioned to the table, the next… I was in a cab home. But the cab journey had been real; the chimp woman, and the knife and the strange, empty room – none of that had really happened. So how could it feel so real? The words ‘carving your neurons’ floated into my head. Her urgent stare, her sad smile as she left. ‘You are experiencing an adrenaline shock,’ she’d told me, ‘it will change the way you store your memories.’

By midday, I’d managed to stop thinking about it – but that was when my phone rang. I didn’t recognise the number, so I let it go to voicemail.

When I played the message back this is what I heard. A man’s voice, quite young by the sound of it; breathy, tense. ‘Hello, sorry. Sorry to leave this message, but I need to talk to you urgently. I promise this not a trick or a scam, I just… I just need to talk to you, and it’s really, really important. I’m on this number, please phone. My name is Arthur Pendle.’

***

‘You know about the Higgs, right?’ Arthur Pendle had just turned 29, but he dressed and acted like he was seventeen. He sat on the edge of his single bed, rocking compulsively, wrapped in a hoodie that looked four sizes too big. His arms were tightly folded, like he was trying to twist inside himself, and bleached hair sprouted from under the hood over his thin, bone-white face. His blue eyes were so pale they barely seemed to have any colour at all. Downstairs, I could hear his mother in the kitchen and the clink of crockery. She’d looked startled when she opened the door to me, and then astonished when I said I was looking for Arthur Pendle. ‘Are you a friend of his,’ she’d asked.

‘I need to speak to him. He phoned me to come round.’

She looked at me, so curious. ‘He doesn’t have a lot of visitors.’

‘Well there’s one of me, so I guess that’s still true.’

‘So you’re a friend then?’ she asked again. It wasn’t just curiosity, I realised. It was hope.

‘Shall I bring you up some tea,’ she’d asked, as she’d showed me to the stairs.

‘No, I’m good, thank you.’

‘It’s no trouble. I’ll make you some tea. You can take tea together, it will be nice.’

The clink of crockery from downstairs had stopped. I wondered if the tea things had been loaded on to a tray, ready to come up. Her son was still rocking on the bed, waiting for an answer. ‘The Higgs,’ he repeated. ‘The Higgs boson. You know about that?’

‘No. Higgs Boson, who’s that?’

‘Jesus, you don’t know about the Higgs??’

‘I don’t know about Higgs boson, I guess you could tell me though.’

‘Are you even a scientist?’

‘No, I’m not a scientist. I’m also not a grown adult who lives with his parents.’

He frowned at me, but not angrily. Like he was used to insults and in the habit of ignoring them. His frown was just puzzlement. ‘What are you then? What do you do – for a living?’

‘It doesn’t matter.’

‘Everything matters.’

‘Ever had a girlfriend, Arthur?’

He stopped rocking for a moment, which was something. ‘None of your business!’

‘You see how this works?’

He considered that. Started rocking again. ‘The Higgs boson is not a person, it’s a particle.’

‘Okay.’

‘Do you know what that means?’

‘It mean it’s not a person, it’s a particle.’

‘I don’t have time to explain why it’s important.’

‘I’ll contain my disappointment.’

A brief halt in the rocking again. ‘You’re kind of rude.’

‘I’m sure we’ll get along famously.’

A little flash of a smile, then more rocking. ‘Okay, I’ll give you the idiot’s version.’

‘From what I’ve seen of you so far, that shouldn’t be a stretch.’

‘There was… a theory, okay? You know what a theory is?’

‘Is it like a palm tree?’

‘A palm tree??’

‘I know what a theory is, Arthur. I was experimenting with sarcasm to see if you understood it.’

‘I know what sarcasm is.’

‘You see? Famously!’

‘I’ll start at the beginning.’

‘Popular choice.’

‘There was a theory about… well, basically, the way the universe was formed. The way it’s built.’

‘You weren’t kidding about starting at the beginning.’

Another flash of resentment on that bony face, like he wasn’t used to being interrupted. But then, he probably wasn’t used to anyone else being in the conversation. He set his jaw, or what there was of it. ‘She didn’t mention any of this then?’

‘Who didn’t?’

He waited a moment, like he knew he was about to land one on me. ‘The chimp woman.’

I said nothing. It wasn’t difficult as nothing was exactly what came to mind.

‘You saw the chimp woman, right? The one you thought was a dream.’

I checked my hand again. No wound, nothing. ‘It was a dream,’ I said. When I looked back at him he was checking his hand too. We stared at each other for a moment.

‘Carving your neurons, right?’ he said. ‘Guess it worked.’

‘She was a dream.’

‘Which we both had.’

‘I know it didn’t happen.’

‘So do I. But if the pain of a knife through the hand is what preserved the memory – how does that work if there never was a knife?’

I showed him my hand. ‘There’s no wound.’

‘She gave me your number. I’m guessing she gave you my name. How can a dream do that?’

I tried to think about it. It jangled in my head. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Then maybe I talk, and you listen, yeah?’

I wanted to tell him to go to hell, but it was just anger – and the anger was just confusion. I didn’t trust myself to speak so I nodded.

‘Higgs boson is the name of a particle that nobody could find.’

‘Okay.’

He shook his head, irritated. ‘No! No, no! Don’t say okay, don’t say that. Say ‘How can a particle have a name if no one even knows it’s there.’’

‘Can we just imagine I said that?’

There was a timid knock at the door. I could hear the tremor of best china on a tray momentarily balanced on one hand. ‘Jesus!’ said Arthur, rolling his eyes.

‘Who knows, but more likely it’s your Mum.’ I stood and opened the door. I noticed she had changed her cardigan

‘Arthur, I brought some tea for you and your friend.’

‘Tea’s s--t,’ said Arthur, ‘I want coffee.’

***

The cafe was deserted except for me and Arthur and the server leaning at the counter, glowering at us for intruding on his solitude.

‘The Higgs was a theory,’ Arthur was explaining. He paused, frowned, examined my face like he was trying to figure out just how simple he would have to make this. ‘Okay. Okay. The universe is made of particles, right? Lots of particles doing stuff – we good so far?’

‘Like atoms.’

‘Smaller than atoms. Atoms are made of particles. Lots of little particles buzzing about, doing s--t.’

‘Okay.’

‘Up to speed?’

‘Clinging on.’

‘Just fix it in your head. The universe is made of lots of tiny, little particles whizzing about. You, me, this coffee, these chairs, the past, the future, the moon, the stars, the space between the stars, Emilia Clarke’s arse, the snot in your nose – all of it, everything, is just particles doing s--t. Got it?’

‘Still clinging on.’

‘I mean they’re small. They’re awesomely tiny. Some of them are so small the only properties they have are mathematical. Forget that last sentence – it’s beyond your brain.’

‘My brain says thanks.’

‘Your brain is welcome.’

‘My brain made of particles apparently.’

‘Not just your brain. Your thoughts too. Your thoughts are made of particles because everything is made of particles, you need to get that.’

‘I got it all the way to my particles.’

‘So these particles, all these different kinds – we’ve basically found them.’

‘Yeah, well they’re everywhere, right? Whizzing.’

‘We’ve studied them, we’ve got a handle on them. We’ve named them.’

‘Always a mistake, you only get attached.’

‘When I say we, I don’t mean me. I mean we as in scientists. I mean the scientific community of which I am a part. I was a kid when a lot of this was going on.’

‘You were probably still living with your mum.’

‘But there was a particular particle – one very important particle that had to be there – that we couldn’t find.’

‘Higgs boson.’

‘Correct. It was a theory. Just a theory. Okay. Need real focus now. ’ He leaned forward, took my coffee cup away and placed it out of my reach on the window sill behind him, like even that could split my focus now. ‘We needed the Higgs boson to solve the problem of electroweak symmetry breaking.’

‘Yeah, well who doesn’t?’

‘You don’t understand, right?’

‘No, but I’m beginning to understand your girlfriend problem.’

He pressed his finger to his temples. ‘Okay. I’m going to keep it super, super simple. I’ll give you kind of the journalistic version, yeah? It’s not strictly accurate. But it’s not strictly inaccurate.’

‘That does sound like journalism.’

‘So. We had a theory about how the universe started – but if our theory was right, we needed one more particle. Which only existed, for a tiny moment, right after the universe began. We knew this particle only by its effect, by what it did – but there was no way to find one because none of them were still around. You with me?’

‘Like finding a footprint. You know there’s been a man passing by recently but he’s gone now.’

‘Yes. Well, no. Well, yes but worse than that. Like finding a footprint but you’ve never seen a man, or even know what a man looks like, and now you have to reconstruct what a man is from a partial print of the shape of his shoe, yeah?’

‘Okay.’

‘We called this particle the Higgs boson.’

‘Do you have someone in charge of snappy names? Because I have notes.’

‘So this was our idea. If we couldn’t find a Higgs particle, maybe we could make one. Have you heard of the Large Hadron Collider?’

‘Yes.’

He looked surprised. ‘Okay, that’s good. That’s something. What do you know?’

‘Well mainly that there’s a picture of it on your teeshirt just below the words ‘Large Hadron Collider.’

He sighed. ‘Okay, okay. Basically it’s a big machine and… it collides stuff. Particles. Kind of you shoot particles at other particles and see what trouble they cause.’

‘Trouble shooting.’

‘Kind of. I think that’s what my boss used to call it. Really all you’ve got to understand there was a plan to make a Higgs boson. To use the Collider to create the exact circumstances which – in theory – would generate a Higgs particle. 27 kilometres of underground tunnel in a big ring, full of superconducting magnets, so we could recreate the big bang that kick-started the universe!’

‘Really?’

‘No, not really – but you got to put something in the press release when you’ve got that amount of funding. More accurately – more boringly – they made a machine that could make a Higgs particle. That was the plan. And the moment there was a plan, that’s when everything went weird.’

‘Weird how?’

Arthur didn’t reply. He was staring over my shoulder now, like he’d just seen something that scared the hell out of him. I glanced round but there was nothing to see. ‘You okay?’ I asked him. He blinked, seemed to turn even paler, and then his eyes found mine. ‘I just realised something.’

‘Realised what?’

‘You’re about to realise it too. And it might freak you out.’

 ‘You shoot particles at other particles and see what trouble they cause’: the Large Hadron Collider - PA
‘You shoot particles at other particles and see what trouble they cause’: the Large Hadron Collider - PA

‘What might freak me out?’

‘This cafe. This cafe we’re sitting in.’

I looked round the cafe; the bored guy at the counter, the flaking paintwork, the faded mural of some old Italian town, ‘What about it?’

‘How did we get here?’

‘Excuse me?’

‘How did we get here?’ There was a new, hoarse note in his voice; suddenly he was afraid. I studied his panicking face. His question was stupid, of course. Why was he even asking it? ‘How did it happen,’ he insisted. ‘Actually think about it. What happened, how did we get here? What was the sequence of events?’

‘We went looking for a cafe, we found this one, what the hell does it matter?’

‘My Mum came in, remember? She said she’d brought us tea.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I said ‘Tea’s s--t, I want coffee’ and…?’

I thought about it. I thought some more. It was like walking into a room and for a moment forgetting why you were there. Except it was worse, because there was nothing. I reached for a memory and there was absolutely nothing there.

‘Think about it, really think. I said ‘I want coffee’ then what happened?’

I concentrated; I knew I’d remember in a second. It was on the tip of my tongue. But still I found nothing. Nothing.

‘I’ll tell you what happened. Nothing happened. I said coffee, and suddenly we were sitting here. Boom! We cut like a movie. We just cut here – new scene. Like when you’re reading a book and there’s a gap and asterisks.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘We left the house, you said there was a cafe nearby –…’

‘Stop it! Stop it now. That’s just your memory filling in the gap, there’s nothing really there.’

‘But we must have walked here, there’s no other way –…’

‘Where is this cafe?’ asked Arthur. ‘How long did it take us to walk here? The guy at the counter, did we talk to him? What was his accent? Was he nice? Have we paid for the coffees yet, or are we paying after?’

I kept reaching for the memories. I kept finding nothing.

‘Okay, so don’t panic. Just keep sitting here, keep concentrating, don’t let your mind wander.’

‘What the f--k is happening?’

He sat there for a moment, like he was trying to control his breathing. Finally he gripped the table, steeled himself, and said: ‘Wave function collapse.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘Reverse causality.’

‘What the hell is that?”

‘It’s what happened when they went looking for the Higgs particle.’

‘What happened?’

His eyes were twitching round the room, like he was checking it was all still there. ‘You know when you send an email, and then you recall it? Because, like, you made a mistake, or something?’

‘Sure.’

‘Okay, I know how this sounds. But what if it wasn’t just emails that could be recalled… what if you could recall actual physical events?’

‘Well I’ve only got a Mac.’

He considered a moment, and then he was on his feet. ‘We should keep moving.’

‘What difference will that make?’

‘F--k knows, but I feel safer when we’re moving. We can’t let it happen again!’

‘Let what happen again?’

***

The streetlamps were flickering on and I had no clear idea where we were headed. Arthur just kept striding along, talking faster and faster and turning corners seemingly at random.

‘Holger Bech Nielsen of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics in Kyoto. These are serious guys, okay? Proper scientists.’

‘Okay!’

‘Keep a hold of that thought. Cos what they said, it doesn’t sound serious. They said the hunt for the Higgs particle wouldn’t work out, because the universe didn’t want it to.’

‘The universe?’

‘They said the universe didn’t like Higgs particles.’

‘Didn’t like them??’

‘Nielsen said this – exact words: ‘It must be our prediction that all Higgs producing machines shall have bad luck.’’

‘Which is nuts, yeah?’

‘Totally nuts. Except…’

‘Except?’

‘Except they did have bad luck. They totally did.’ He was walking faster now, like he was trying to get away from something. ‘First attempt at recreating the Higgs, The United States Superconducting Supercollider, got cancelled after billions – literally billions – were already spent. That was an event so improbable it was called an anti-miracle. The European one, the Large Hadron Collider, the one on my tee-shirt – the moment they switched it on, the connection between two magnets vapourised and closed the collider for a whole year. A particle physicist, working on the one of the Collider experiments was arrested by the French police, on suspicion of conspiracy with the North African wing of Al Qaeda. I could go on. You know how bad it got? How freaked they all got? They had a plan to draw cards to figure out if they should keep going.’

‘Excuse me?’

We had reached a cross roads. Arthur looked both ways, hesitated, then gave me a wild look.

‘Choose!’ he demanded.

‘Choose what?’

‘A direction. Choose which direction, don’t think about it, just choose!’

I pointed left. Arthur nodded, wheeled around, and headed right. He was walking faster and faster and I took a moment to catch up. ‘What are you talking about, they drew cards?’

Faster and faster. ‘They designed a game of chance – basically a card drawing game run on a computer, to make their decisions for them. If the outcome was sufficiently unlikely – like you draw one heart in a deck with a million spades – the machine would either not be run at all, or run at too low an energy to create a Higgs particle. Like, they deliberately invited bad luck in, to see if it would show up. They were going to give the universe a chance to stop them. They seriously talked about that, they did. They had meetings about a card game to choose what they did with one of the most expensive scientific projects in human history.’

‘That’s crazy.’

‘They all thought it was crazy too. But they’re scientists – they also thought it was just crazy enough to be true.’

‘But they went ahead, yeah?’

‘With the card game?’

‘With the experiment, with the Higgs boson thing.’

‘Sure they went ahead.’

‘So they calmed down, stopped being crazy, and found the Higgs boson, yes?’

‘They did, yeah. In 2012.’

‘So the universe wasn’t plotting against you. Like anyone sane or sober could’ve told you. What is the point of this story exactly?’

‘Who says the universe wasn’t plotting against us? Maybe we just beat the universe. Or maybe the universe just delayed us till the right time, till it was ready. Whatever. The thing is, that was just round one. That’s before it got really nasty.’

‘Nasty? What do you mean, nasty, what are you talking about?’

‘My house.’ For a moment I thought he was answering my question, then I realised he was pointing. We were now standing right across the street from the very house neither of us could remember leaving. It was a very ordinary, detached house but it somehow seemed crouched and quiet in the gathering dusk. ‘My house,’ he repeated.

‘I assumed that’s where we were going.’

‘That’s where I was trying not to go.’

‘Why?’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ He sighed, looked around. There was a bus shelter a few feet along from us. ‘Doesn’t matter an arsing s--t,’ he continued. He walked to the bus shelter, and sat on the little plastic bench inside. His shoulders were hunched, his hands rammed in the pockets of his hoodie. He looked desolated, defeated. I wasn’t sure what to do so I went and sat next to him. ‘I don’t understand,’ I said.

He gave a bitter little laugh. ‘You don’t understand how much you don’t understand.’

‘Tell me then.’

‘What time did you come round to see me?’

‘About one o’clock?’

‘How long have we been talking?’

‘An hour, maybe a bit more. Maybe two.’

‘Then how come it’s dark?’

I looked around. A moment ago it had been twilight; now the sky was dark. I tried to keep my voice calm. ‘Doesn’t time fly when you’re having fun.’

‘Doesn’t time fly when you’re being unwritten.’

‘What the hell are you talking about?’

He was rocking again. ‘Okay. Try this. What’s your name?’

‘I told you my name.’

‘I don’t think you did, in fact. But tell me now.’

I told him.

He was silent a moment, then looked at me, impatiently. ‘I said, tell me your name.’

‘I did, I just told you.’

‘Tell me again.’

I told him again. This time he laughed. ‘You think you’re speaking, don’t you. You think you’re telling me your name. You’re not. You’re sitting there in silence.’

‘I told you my name.’

‘Okay, let’s try something else. Think your name. Don’t say it out loud, just think it.’

I thought of my name – or at least I tried to. I reached for my name and there was nothing there. I tried again. Nothing. Nothing. Suddenly the night was very cold. ‘What’s happening? Explain this!’

‘What do you do for a living? I asked you before, you said it was none of my business. So don’t tell me – just think it. Just think about what your job is.’

I focussed, I concentrated – nothing. What was I, what did I do all day? Who paid me, what did I do in return? I reached for the memory; there was nothing there, beyond vague and violent fantasies – a lot of adolescent nonsense about being some kind of hero. A trouble-shooter. Even now I can’t quite rid myself of the notion; but the fantasy is masking a truth I can no longer locate. As you may soon discover yourself, when your past is disappearing, you start filling in the space with anything at all.

Arthur was speaking again, in a low terrified voice. ‘It’s like we’re being winnowed away. Piece by piece, dissolving. Like the universe is healing around us. It’s hard to see it when it’s happening to you. I mean, suddenly your head is full of blind spots – but blind spots are exactly the things you can’t see.’

‘What does that mean? What does any of that mean, just explain.’

‘The chimp woman knew. She noticed it, she knew it was happening. She knew she was being… written out, erased. That’s why she wore the mask, that weird dress. It’s why she stabbed our hands. To be memorable.’ He frowned. ‘Why a chimp mask? Do you think that’s important? Or was it just a strong visual image? To be hard to forget, to burn herself into our memories.’

‘Carving our neurons.’

‘That’s what she said, right?’

‘But she was dream.’

‘She became a dream. Because just possibly that’s what dreams are. Dreams are the things that used to be real. And that’s why they fade.’

I thought about it. It was insane. But I still couldn’t remember my name or who I was or what I did.

‘Dark matter,’ he said.

‘Dark what?’

‘Dark matter. The biggest, best secret in the universe. The Higgs is peanuts next to dark matter. If reality wants to keep a secret that would be the one.’ He was rocking faster and faster now. ‘Okay. Okay. So dark matter is composed of particles that do not absorb, reflect, or emit light. So there is no way, none whatsoever, of us ever seeing it or observing it directly. We only know it’s there because we can see its gravitational effect. We’ve found the footprint, but we can’t see the man. If the universe is hiding something, that’s it, that’s the big one.’

‘How can the universe be hiding something?’

‘Why shouldn’t it? Why not? You can hide things, I can hide things – we’re much simpler entities than the whole universe. Suppose the universe has… like an immune system. Yeah, all of reality – all of history and the future, has something like an immune system. Maybe it’s important that some things are never known, never witnessed, never observed. Maybe the act of some things being observed can be like… like a cancer. Like a cancer on reality. What if the universe has… I don’t know, the equivalent of antibodies. And if a bunch of scientists gets too close to finding dark matter, they get… rewritten. Unwritten. Unpicked from the fabric of reality. Recalled like an email. The antibodies attack, and whole lives just get… burned away. Dissolved piece by piece in the time stream.’

‘It’s ridiculous.’

‘Science lesson one: just because something’s ridiculous doesn’t mean it isn’t true.’ He stopped rocking, pressed his fingers tightly against his temples. ‘I have this idea. The chimp woman, I think her name was Madeline Preston.’

‘You recognised her?’

‘No. Yes. I don’t know – how do you recognise someone when your memory keeps changing? I think she was a scientist and I used to work with her. There was me, her, some guy called…’ he tailed off, shook his head. ‘No, it keeps fading, I keep losing it.’

I remembered the names from the dream. ‘Tariq Baddaur?’ I suggested.

‘Tariq, yeah. Tariq Baddaur. There was another guy. Peter. Peter something, I can’t remember. But I think we were close. Really close on dark matter. And… and then…’

‘And then?’

‘Where are we? Where are we all now? What happened to us?’

‘Whatever happened to you, why would it be happening to me too?’

He was on his feet now, pacing. ‘I’m not even a scientist any more, not a real one. You know what I do? I’m an assistant lab technician in a secondary school. I help high school kids do lab experiments. How did that happen??’ He was staring at his house now. ‘I didn’t used to live with my Mum. That’s not how it was! I was married! Why am I not married anymore?? Why am I living with my mum, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s like I’m… eroding. Disappearing, bit by bit!’

I tried to sound calm. ‘Or it’s something else. Something simpler. Maybe we’re both… I don’t know…’ I tailed off – I had nothing. It was cold and dark and I didn’t understand a single thing about what was happening to me.

Arthur was staring wildly at his house. ‘Mum,’ he said; then, louder. ‘Mum!’ He was striding across the road, heading towards his front door. I started after him. ‘Mum!!’ he bellowed like a terrified child. He was fumbling his key in the lock, now starting to push his way through the door.

I raced up the garden path, in time for the door to slam in my face.

Silence! I waited to hear any shouting from inside, but there was nothing; just the faint sound of laughter from a television. I didn’t know why, but the silence chilled me. Why wasn’t he shouting now? Why didn’t he call for his mum again? My hand was shaking as I rang the doorbell.

It took almost a minute. There was the shuffle of feet, then the rattle of a door chain being put in place. The door eased slightly opened. Arthur’s Mum was peering at me through the crack. She’d changed her cardigan again. ‘What do you want?’ she asked.

‘Sorry. I was with Arthur. He just came in, he was shouting.’

She looked mystified. ‘No one came in.’

There was a cold wave through my stomach. ‘No, Arthur did. Arthur came in, he was shouting at you. I’m Arthur’s friend, remember me?’

I knew what she was going to say before she said it. ‘Who’s Arthur?’

*

Finding Tariq Baddaur’s phone number was easy enough once I got online, although when you read this it will have become impossible: neither the number nor Tariq Baddaur will still exist. By the time I got back to my flat and logged on, my meeting Arthur had already become a dream: as with the Chimp Woman, a new memory track had overwritten it. In the new version, I had gone to Arthur’s house, and his Mum had answered the door. But she had no knowledge of anyone called Arthur.

‘Your son,’ I insisted.

‘I don’t have a son. I’ve never had a son.’

As I turned to leave, she grabbed my arm and there was something wild and haunted in her face.‘How did you know?’ she asked almost in a whisper.

‘Know what?’

She hesitated – then: ‘If I’d had a son I’d have called him Arthur. I was always going to call my son Arthur.’

Underneath this new memory, the dream still rippled – hazy, fragmented and fading fast. Writing it all down has helped me fix it in my mind, but still none of it feels quite real. I know better, of course – because I know what dreams really are; the scar tissue of the surgery the universe does on itself; fossils of the once real. As I write this, I wonder if that’s what fiction is too. Perhaps all the stories in the world once really happened before the universe rewound their forbidden knowledge and overwrote them. ‘Wave function collapse,’ as a man who had never existed had once never said to me. I have an idea that these words I’m writing might somehow reach you, but I wonder in what form. Perhaps something you read online, or in a magazine: perhaps a story in a book. Your past, even now, is being written. In a previous reality you were a scientist: by now you could be a lawyer or a doctor or a high school teacher. Please understand, everything I have written here is true – or it once was – and as the last survivor of the Dark Matter team your very existence is in danger. It is, of course, too late for me; but I only understood that when I tracked down Tariq Baddaur.

I could only find one physicist by that name online; he was listed as having done some groundbreaking work at CERN with someone called Peter Dong (you, of course.) It seemed they were in pursuit of something called Chronometrically Interacting Massive Particles – or ChIMP for short. There was a brief mention of four people being on the research team, but for some reason only two names were listed. Perhaps it was a mistake. Or perhaps two of them had ceased to exist. Perhaps. My hand was shaking as I reached for my phone. In every possible sense, time was running out.

I tried Baddaur’s cellphone first, but it was engaged. I then tried his landline. It was in that moment that the last piece fell into place, and I understood that I was leaving this world. Because when I called Tariq Baddaur’s landline, the phone on my own desk started to ring.

This story will appear in Collision: Stories from the Science of CERN (Comma Press, £9.99), published on January 12