Proton Willow was adrift, floating in the ether with no anchor, no fellow protons, and especially no neutrons. Time had no meaning here - there were no electrons whizzing around her in orbit, the revolutions of which Proton Willow usually used to gauge the passage of time. There were no other protons or neutrons around to decay into quarks or other elementary particles. Just one lonely Proton Willow, alone with her thoughts.
Although not that much time could have passed. First of all, I've only been bemoaning my separation from the other particles for a short while. First there was denial, then anger, and now, gradually, acceptance. And I've only felt each of those things once so far. Unless I've gone crazy and I only think I've thought each of those things once, and this is the ninety-eighth time I'm having this thought process. Hm. Well, if I'm crazy, I'm crazy. Better to postulate that I am not crazy, and not much time has passed, and go from there.
The safe, snug nucleus had been torn apart before - fundamental particles were always in motion, it seemed. Proton Willow had once been one of 92 other protons that made up the nucleus of a uranium-235 atom. With 143 neutrons also making up the center of the atom, the nucleus was a crowded place to be. All of the other protons, like Willow, were positively charged - meaning their natural inclination, electromagnetically, was one of repulsion. The neutrons, being neutrally charged, didn't repel anyone, but they also didn't attract anyone. Only the strong force kept their happy home intact.
The strong nuclear force was, as its name implied, the strongest force in the known particle-verse. Its job was solely to glue together the protons and the neutrons in the central cores of every atom. It only worked at close range, however - meaning the protons and the neutrons were packed together tightly, with almost no room to move around.
The U-235 nucleus was where Proton Willow had met Neutron Tara. It was Willow's first assignment as a subatomic particle, one for which she had eagerly signed on after graduating from the Proton Academy. Her parents had urged her to join the nucleus of a more stable element, like carbon ("Just think of all the particles you'll meet from the carbon dating!") but instead, Willow had signed up for the unpredictable world of radioactive metals.
"I need to go where the action is," she had explained to her parents. "And the reaction."
The Proton Academy had prepared Willow well with statistics, reaction rates, and probabilities of decay, but all her book learning fled her mind when she met her first actual neutron, Neutron Tara.
Neutron Tara was a graceful particle who always seemed to be in balance. She had been around the subatomic block a few times, serving at various times in the nucleus of other elements before returning to the plasma for reassignment after a supernova, or a planet collapsing into its sun, or any of the dozen other phenomena she had encountered. But none of her adventures seemed to throw her off her equilibrium.
"What was it like being iron?" Willow had asked.
The two particles had struck up a fast friendship, as closely as they were situated in the nucleus. Willow admired Tara's inner strength and peace, while Tara appreciated Willow's energy. With 91 other protons in the nucleus, a large number of neutrons were necessary in order to keep the protons a little farther apart, so the electromagnetic repulsion of the protons was mitigated by the neutrons and the strong force could work better.
"It's not that I dislike the other protons," Willow confided to Tara one evening. "It's just that they're not as interesting as you are."
Willow had enthusiastically agreed, and from then on, Proton Willow and Neutron Tara were inseparable.
The U-235 nucleus had continued on its way for quite some time, relatively speaking, until an alarm had sounded one day.
"Tara, what's happening?" Willow had asked, her voice quavering.
Willow had learned about fission at the Academy, but learning about an abstract concept was very different than experiencing it. Not all U-235 nuclei were as stable as her and Tara's home. Some neutrons, by virtue of being flighty, broke off from their nucleus and flew away at high speeds. Normally this wasn't a problem, and the nucleus just went on to a peaceful existence as U-234, but the problem occurred when too many nuclei were packed into one space.
When critical mass was achieved, the neighborhood was just too crowded. Runaway neutrons which previously had careened off harmlessly into space instead crashed directly into the nuclei of other U-235 atoms. The speed was sometimes enough to cause the whole nucleus to fall apart.
"Willow! There's a neutron headed right for us! I want you to concentrate on giving me mesons - and I'll give them back. We have to stick together!"
Life as a cesium atom had been idyllic, almost, after the stressful environment of the U-235 nucleus. Willow felt like much less of the weight of the words was riding on her protonic shoulders. She and Tara had more time to converse, and exchange mesons, and just generally enjoy each other's company. And to tease each other.
"You think I'm insane."
Until the most recent catastrophe, however, that had shattered Willow's world and torn her apart from Tara. Willow still wasn't sure what had happened - some of the passing electrons had predicted the apocalypse, but she had dismissed their concerns as the typical negativity one would expect from an electron. Whatever it was, it had made the chaos of the fission reaction seem tame. This time, there was no sticking together after the shuddering and the rumbling of the nucleus had reached its fever pitch. Willow was simply torn away from Tara, from the other neutrons, and all the other protons.
And here she floated, alone, adrift, and unsure of how much time had passed.
Well, moaning and groaning until I decay into my component particles won't do me any good. I'm going to sit here and think, and focus on Tara. How she always was so together. How she could be teasing me and at the same time make me feel like I was the only proton in the universe. How she laughed at my bad jokes about being top quark, and how we laughed together at all the other bosons and leptons and their silly intermediary stages. The look on the surface of her corporeal neutron being when I'd tell her that I always wanted to be with her. How I could never accurately tell her exact position and momentum simultaneously. Oh, Tara, where are you?
"Ow!" Something had bumped into Willow.
Willow flung her proton self at Tara, determined to reinstate the strong force. "Quick, take some of these mesons!"
Tara caught the mesons, and gave Willow back some of her own. Just like that, they were back together again.
Tara's usual equanimity wasn't in evidence, however. "Willow, I got so lost."
"But I found you. I'll always find you."
Tara clung to Willow. "It was so horrible. I didn't know where you were, or where I was. Where any of us were."
Willow clung to Tara with the same fervor. "But we're together again now."
"I know, I just feel so unstable."
Willow glanced at Tara. "Well, no wonder. One of your down quarks has come loose." She patted the elementary particle back into place. "There, all better now."
Tara smiled, feeling instantly more steady, though she still was determined not to let Willow get even .000000000001 microns away from her.
"So what's next, Will? Do you want to go join up with some more particles? We could try being something new, like xenon, or silicon. I hear it's the wave of the future. Or we could even go back to uranium, if you wanted."
"What about you and me just sticking together, Tara? I'm tired of the hectic environment of heavy metal. Together, we make a pretty great hydrogen ion, don't you think? After all, we've been through a lot, and it sounds kind of nice to be a light element for a while."
Tara smiled. This was exactly what she had been hoping Willow would say. "Baby, yes. I'd love to stay together, just you and me. Are you sure it's what you want?"