That summer the school burned down.
It happened in August, during the holidays. People said it was arson. They meant that naughty boys had got in and set fire to the school. But the police said there’d been no sign of a break-in. And the fire engine people said it must have been an electrical fault.
Spookie was determined to find out the real cause.
One night, at about 3 o’clock in the morning, she woke Dyspepsia and they quietly put their clothes on. They knew where the backdoor key was kept, so they both crept outside, locking the door behind them, making as little noise as possible so as not to wake Mummy and Daddy.
Outside in the street, everything was dark and quiet. It was the same street they knew so well—and yet it wasn’t, because there was no daylight, no traffic and no one about. Dyspepsia found herself walking on tiptoe, until Spookie said it was silly.
They reached the school. It was ruined and blackened, and surrounded by barbed wire. Spookie had come prepared. She got her wire cutters out, and soon she’d opened a hole in the fence.
They hurried across the dark playground. It was all so familiar, and yet so different—and not just because it was the dead of night. They made for a blackened gap in the middle of a ruined wall. Dyspepsia hardly recognised it, until she realised it had once been the main entrance.
Once through the gap, it was hard to imagine you were in a school. Because when you looked up you saw stars. Dyspepsia shut her eyes, trying to picture where the corridor to her classroom had been. They had to step over lots of burnt slats from the ceiling. Soon they were standing inside a big blackened square shape on the ground, which she recalled having been the classroom. She picked her way across ash and rubble towards Teacher’s desk. There it stood, covered in plaster, burnt out of all recognition.
Suddenly Spookie grabbed her from behind and pulled her backwards, almost off her feet. This time she hadn’t kept her claws in.
“Ouch!” Dyspepsia said. “Why did you do that?”
And then she saw it.
The moment her foot had touched a lump of broken plaster, a needle-thin shaft of brilliant mauve light had jumped up in front of her. Up and up it went until it was lost among the stars. Dyspepsia felt the whole of Sunderland could see it—if anyone had been looking out of their window at three in the morning.
Spookie said sorry. She patted Dyspepsia’s arms where she’d scratched them, and kissed them better. Then she picked up a charred slat and held it in the beam, waving it to and fro. It gave off a thin stream of smoke that made the beam shine bright. Bits of charred wood fell off and plopped in the ash. The beam was cutting the slat like a hot knife through butter. If Spookie hadn’t grabbed Dyspepsia and pulled her backwards, the beam would have cut her clean in half—vood!—right through her nose to the back of her neck, and the two halves would have fallen over in opposite directions. Shocked and terrified, she turned and clung tightly to Spookie.
But Spookie only muttered to herself, “That’s Hawking radiation—as sure as I’m a quantum cat. But how can it be? How?”
They put a loose breeze-block over the beam to shut it off. Spookie said the beam would take a long time to burn through the block, which meant it wouldn’t be a danger to aeroplanes.
Back home, in their kitchen, Dyspepsia was still trembling from her lucky escape. Spookie got two cans of Dr Pepper out of the fridge and they sat and drank them, even though it was the middle of the night.
“Well,” she said, “now we know why the school burnt down.”
“That beam, going up into the sky! Is that what did it? What was it?”
“Hawking radiation. Light given off by a black hole.”
“Isn’t a black hole black?”
“Strange to say, no. Not a mini black hole. A clever man called Professor Stephen Hawking proved that a mini black hole actually gives off light. Lots of it! That’s why it’s called Hawking radiation. It doesn’t come from the black hole itself: no light can escape from inside that! Just from very close up to it.
“Our pet spark! It got out and went through the floor under Teacher’s desk. Was it really a black hole?”
“Nothing else gives off Hawking radiation, so it must have been. And it must have got a whole lot bigger than when you took it to school in a bottle. The light we saw back there was bright enough to burn through wood and set it alight.”
Dyspepsia said, “Why did the light make a thin thread? Shouldn’t it have spread out in all directions?”
“No doubt it does,” said Spookie. “But it’s coming up from deep underground. Up through the tiny hole you saw under Teacher’s desk. The hole in the ground must have glassy sides, and the light is squirting up it like an optical fibre. That’s why it’s so thin.”
Then Spookie shook her head. “How can I possibly have made a black hole—just by collapsing a bubble in a can of Dr Pepper? There’s only one person I can think of to tell me. And that’s someone I don’t want to talk to, ever again.”
…to be continued.