Has everyone enjoyed the serial so far? It’s quite involved actually. A classic grand-future historical series in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation scheme. Hopefully I can keep this going by finding more quality amateur sci-fi. As I’ve said before, some of the fan fiction is better than the mainstream stuff. So I present to you the final installment of the serial Far Freedom, “The Lady In The Mirror”.
Live Long And Prosper y’all!
Prologue – Losing Him
I didn’t want to do it. Yet I was curious, perhaps as curious as he was. For something that had begun as a tongue-in-cheek (or thumb-on-nose) frivolous exercise in wasting our brain power, we had worked so very hard on putting the theory into physical form. A great many innovations had been needed to build the Big Circuits. I don’t think anyone had constructed something that size to the geometric precision we required. It took almost half a year to stabilize temperatures to maintain tolerances. Everywhere you looked, laser interferometry monitored critical distances. I was afraid our precision wasn’t good enough. Lack of precision would be quite lethal to Kansas and perhaps to other states. And other countries. And other planets.
I didn’t want to do it. But I’ve been known to do things I shouldn’t have wanted to do. That’s how I put myself in this damned wheelchair. Now I was going to help Sam test the Big Circuits. I had a feeling something would go wrong. We were far beyond the limits of acceptable scientific theory.
We got through the security door without tripping any alarms. Since I was stuck in a wheelchair, bored, and afraid of being trapped underground, I’d entertained myself by learning all the secrets of the Hole. I was everywhere, watching everyone and everything. I knew the computer system better than the system administrator. The security door was no problem.
It pleased my ego to be able to show Sam what I could do, to help make his dream a reality.
All too soon we found ourselves in the control room of the Big Circuits.
“Key, please,” he said.
I removed a three-by-five punched index card from under the blanket in my lap. It was as heavy as that grenade had been, and far more dangerous. He reached for it. I pulled it back, my imagination still violated by the hideous possibilities it represented.
I was profoundly afraid. It must have shown in my face. I shivered. It was cold in the control room. The future suddenly felt cold.
Sam knelt beside me and waited. He didn’t plead or argue with me. I absolutely knew how important this was to him. He absolutely knew how afraid I was. We had fought for our views on too many bloody battlefields. I’d lost the war, but only because I couldn’t face losing him.
I put my hand on his shoulder. He took it and pressed it against his cheek. He released my hand, stood up, turned around to view the room, as if looking at it for the last time.
“This really is pushing it,” Sam said. “Just as you said. It’s a miracle we got this far with my crazy ideas. All I ever wanted to do was make you proud of me. Quantum circuits. What crap. There must be some other explanation for the Small Circuit. Let’s go on back.”
I knew he struggled to not sound as disappointed as he had to be. He was never so alive as when he talked to me about starlight and gravity and most of atoms being quantum circuits. Maybe the Small Circuit was an accident, a small miracle, but I also felt it pointed the way to something even greater. The Small Circuit, as scary as it was, was the answer to the world’s future energy needs. The Big Circuits might be the door through which humanity entered the rest of the universe. It was Sam’s ultimate gesture of love for me, that he would label his quantum circuits as crap. I wanted to cry.
I held the key up, offering it to him, if he would just turn around and look.
The expression on his face was priceless. He kissed me. His hand shook a little as he took the card from me.
“I’m scared, too,” he said.
“I don’t believe in miracles,” I said, “but I believe in you.
“There’s still the tensor we disagree on,” I continued, trying to raise myself out of that pit of snakes that was my fear. “Your manifold needs one more dimension.”
It was old territory on our cosmological battleground, taken and retaken many times. I was never sure he understood how the numbers worked. But he could have been one step ahead of me, because I was sure his imagination was greater than mine.
“That implies distance and direction,” he said, helping me fill the scary quiet of humming death machines with familiar conceptual artillery. “If we fire both circuits we provide that.”
“If you fire both,” I said, going through the traditional argument, “you add yet another dimension to the manifold. I don’t know what that does.”
“Let’s stop, then.”
“I’m just saying what I’ve always said, hoping you’ve found a new idea to soothe my troubling equations. It’s your postulate. We’re creating an entity. Every entity requires a quantum circuit. Where does the circuit go? What does it do? This gives us two circuits. I worry about it.”
“Then let’s look for it in the data,” he said. “There’s usually an image of reality in mathematics. It could be very important. “Shall we do it? Are you ready?”
“God, no, but it’s all just funny numbers and make-believe. Do it.”
Sam unlocked the console with my handmade key. He started the program to cycle the north circuit.
In my mind I could imagine the electric potential building in the capacitor banks, arranged all around us in the rock in miles of tunnels, all of their discharge circuits equalized in length down to a millimeter. Meters started surging upward in their digital increments, hundreds of red glowing numbers in banks of metal cases fed by thousands of omnipresent cables. The numbers slowed their counting and reached some engineering limit, causing rows of red idiot lights to extinguish and their opposites turn green. Finally there were no more red lights, only green. That was ominous perfection. We had never before turned all the red to green on the first try.
This was as far as we had been permitted to go in the past. Now we were on the runway and revving the engines for a flight that would either open up the universe or destroy us all.
The computer CRT cleared its list of program steps and displayed the number 10 in foot-high red characters on a white background. The number changed to 9.
We looked at the television monitor which showed the aperture of the north circuit. Hopefully it would show us nothing, or at most a flash of light. What we saw was the inside of a gray tunnel that seemed to diminish quickly in diameter, making it appear far longer than it was. The circle in the middle was the aperture, and it had a diameter of about five feet. Sam called it the puncture site, the place where we would put a spherical hole in the fabric of space and time.
How many stray atoms of gas and dust floated in that aperture? How many would be caught in the avalanche of electric field lines – the only quantum circuits we could manipulate – when they merged and sheared apart the dimensional integrity of reality? How many atoms would be split, despite the vacuum and the particle-scavenging devices? Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. As wrong as it was, Einstein’s little equation was at least as practical as Newton’s equation for gravity. A few too many atoms in the hole, and Kansas would disappear.
The big numbers ticked away to 0, my heartbeat doubling in amplitude with each smaller digit. We saw nothing. The gages registered zero matter converted to energy. My heart, which was about to burst through my heavy coat, suddenly became calmed by the anticlimax. It had worked just as Sam had said it would. No cataclysm, no end of the world, just a few gazillion electrons converging on a small area of space and time in a nearly coherent wavefront, smearing their quantum circuits into a spherical sheet of impenetrable force. Never mind the weird quantum string required by theory and the vector-like geometry suggested by the mathematics.
“Key, please,” Sam said.
He was almost laughing with the release of his tension. He was almost bouncing up and down, despite the mending bullet wounds.
We did it again with the south circuit.
“And now the secret ingredient,” Sam said. “Simultaneity.”
My heart started hammering again. Perfect spherical entities were perfectly simple – and perfectly impossible. There had to be that umbilical of a quantum circuit. It played hell with the mathematics. Too many imaginary values popped up, geometry curling into never-never-land. Were we ignoring too many odd bits of equations that refused to tidy-up? Perhaps our less-than-perfect wavefront negated the umbilical. And how could we produce real simultaneity? We could talk all day about nanoseconds and picoseconds of error, but zero timing error was only by chance. All I could do was watch the big numbers count down on the two CRTs in my peripheral vision, while I watched the two sets of television monitors show cold vacuum.
Nothing happened. Nothing was supposed to happen. But my heart was still thumping loudly. My heart finally slowed and I marveled again at the man and his imagination. Why had I ever doubted him? Even if the rest of the experiment failed, I would never doubt him again. I must have been lost in wonder longer than I thought. The next thing I knew, Sam was already doing the gymnastics required to feed himself into his moon suit. I waited for him to make sure of all the connections, with nothing left but his helmet.
It’s difficult for someone in a spacesuit to bend over far enough to kiss a woman in a wheelchair, but I was determined to make him do it. I kissed him like he’d never been kissed before. I loved him. I was proud of him. And I was very very afraid I was going to lose him, if only through some stupid thing like him tripping over a cable, breaking some wiring or plumbing, and not being able to get up again. He could die in vacuum or the cold before I could summon help.
“I’ll be back,” Sam said, smiling with pure joy and installing his helmet.
I made gestures to him to remind him how much time he had before his generator would die. He grinned as he bowed to me. I placed the target loop on a convenient hook of his suit. I listened to his mechanical sounds as he maneuvered his bulk through the door. The door closed behind him and I tried desperately to ignore how final his departure felt. It was just my morbid imagination fertilizing my fear. It was no longer a fear of the Hole. I had gained so much from Sam and now it was a fear of losing him.
I watched him travel out to the north circuit aperture on the closed circuit television. I watched him cycle through the airlock. I watched him maneuver the platform into the circuit tunnel and suspend the target – a paper butterfly on a very thin steel wire – in the aperture. God, how many atoms in that? What if the magnetic field failed to keep the butterfly suspended? What if the magnetic field disrupted the quantum circuit wavefront? Sam complained of the time it was taking, but to me time was racing by, out of control.
Sam cycled back through the airlock and gave me the signal to initiate another simultaneous firing of both circuits. I could see him leaning on a railing, rather nonchalantly, as the countdown progressed. I don’t think he was calm, not in the least. It was a stance probably imposed on him by the weight of the moon suit. It weighed more than Sam did. I almost forgot to watch the television monitors.
“What happened?” Sam asked, barely a second after the countdown reached zero.
I looked from one TV monitor to the other and what I saw made me draw a deep breath and tremble with the effort to not scream. It was so small but so wrong. My hands shook so badly I could hardly push the button to make the TV camera zoom, and I kept losing the object when my shakes pushed the joystick too far on the pan.
“You didn’t see it reappear in the south aperture?” he asked.
“There’s something in the south aperture,” I said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice.
“What’s wrong? We didn’t teleport the target?”
“There’s something that isn’t our butterfly in the south aperture.”
I tried to slow my breathing and find some calmness. This wasn’t like me. Daddy raised me to be fearless. But this was too unexpected, too unnatural, too beautiful.
“What? What is it?”
“I don’t know what it is!” I cried. “It’s just floating there, like a tiny helium balloon. It doesn’t look real.”
“Floating? There isn’t any air in the circuit, is there?”
“I don’t know. Some of the gages are differing from those of the north circuit. I just don’t think it should float like that.”
“How big is it?”
“Small,” I said. “Maybe two inches long. Like an Easter egg. It’s very colorful. Sam, it scares me!”
“I’ll go get a look,” he said.
“I love you,” I said.
I don’t think he heard me. He’d already unplugged from the intercom.
When Sam reached the south circuit, I watched him cycle through the airlock. I watched him get the platform out into the circuit tunnel. He didn’t reconnect to the intercom. He was in such a hurry that he had forgot about me.
The camera was mounted on the platform. I struggled with the focus and zoom of the television camera to try to keep Sam in the picture. I had slow panning control and he often blocked my view. I watched his arm reach out to the object, as though I was looking over his shoulder.
The television screen went to snow.
I screamed. There could have been a simple malfunction. Near-cryogenic temperatures were hard on TV cables, no matter how specially they were designed. I thought about calling for help, and imagined all the fuss that would cause. I needed to know if Sam was alright. I needed to know now. I waited for an eternity for him to plug in and talk to me. Then I became aware of several little red lights blinking on a console with which I was not familiar.
I rolled out of the control room and into the elevator. There were no thoughts in my head that could be heard before the roar of my desperation. I didn’t call for help. I didn’t believe what my morbid imagination was pumping into my lower brain. Then I hopefully imagined I would rush out to the south circuit, find Sam strolling down the tunnel toward me, and I would scream at him in righteous, terrified anger!
I descended to that cold tunnel that gave access to both aperture sites. I turned left and opened the throttle on my electric motor. South aperture seemed miles away. I couldn’t see Sam strolling toward me.
The air burned my face with its icy temperature. The tunnel had never felt this cold before. I hoped I’d worn enough insulation to keep my toes from freezing.
Not long before I got there, I encountered the mist of some cold gas flowing across the concrete floor of the access tunnel. It made my wheelchair feel strange as I rolled through it. The rubber tires disintegrated to the steel rims as they froze. I feared what could be happening to my feet, but I feared what might have happened to Sam even more. Then I was at the exterior framework of the south circuit and I could see something was wrong. I could see into the circuit through a small gap, a small perfect hole. It was right at the constriction, the heavily reinforced puncture site, the place where things went poof.
My mind stopped thinking even as poorly as it was. I don’t know if I tried to turn around and go back; I know I couldn’t. The battery in my wheelchair had frozen. I couldn’t touch the cold wheels of the chair. The grease in the bearings of the wheels was too frozen to allow movement. I shook uncontrollably. My nose streamed mucous which quickly froze to my numbed upper lip. My eyebrows were covered in frost from my breath. It hurt to breathe. It hurt everywhere, except below my waist.
I knew for certain I had lost Sam – because I had lost my life. I didn’t want to die but I could see no other option.
The pain subsided after a few more moments. This should have concerned me but I was very sleepy.
Chapter 001 – Facing the Music
I was no longer in the hospital but I knew I was still in a hospital room. I could feel Dr. Mnro’s presence (“Call me Aylis.”) in every wall and fixture. These people from the future had many sneaky ways of sucking data from my lively corpse. Every morning when I awoke I would notice subtle changes in my quarters, as if it was aware of my waking, as indeed it was.
This morning I felt good. That made me suspicious because I know Aylis can slip dope into my plumbing without my knowing it. I didn’t want to feel good. I didn’t deserve to feel good. I tried to feel bad, grumpy, whatever. I don’t know what I felt. Not happy.
Something was missing.
The kitchen wanted to feed me and I sneered at it. I was losing weight again but I had no appetite. The wall wanted to show me pictures of pleasant Earth scenes and I ignored it. I was supposed to love Mother Earth but I didn’t.
I stepped outside to take a run around the lake on an empty stomach. I couldn’t remember running as a preferred exercise and so I assumed I did it because of a perversity of character. It hurt. I liked the pain.
The first thing I saw, before I could begin running, was a handwritten paper note stuck to my back door.
“Good morning, Sam,” it said in neat English script. “Could I do some archeology on the 20th century today? Phuti.”
The 20th century. What am I going to tell him about the 20th century? It sucked.
“Archeology hurts my head,” I replied aloud to the piece of paper, “and the 20th century sucked, Phuti. Fortunately for you, I like to suffer.”
“Thank you, Sam,” the paper replied in writing.
I took my run around the lake. I had to pass by the golden dumbbell. I didn’t know it was there. I’d stopped seeing it. It made me hurt inside.
People said hello to me along the jogging trail. They’d started calling me Sam a few days ago. I didn’t know why. I didn’t know my name. I didn’t wonder how they had chosen the name for me, I just accepted it.
The future. I was in the future. How long had I been gone from Earth? All I knew was that Einstein was still alive when I was born. How could I exist in this here-and-now? I could as easily have died centuries ago. I should have. I didn’t want to be in the future, not without…
Without what? Stop. Don’t think it.
Crap. Just the merest hint of where the terror lay set me to trembling. Any minute now Aylis would be dragging me away. There were too many inconsistencies and the questions they raised. My broken mind had just enough function to want to examine some of these oddities, even while another part of it screamed to cease and desist.
I pulled into home port and saw that tall Greek guy smooching his gorgeous East African wife on their patio next door. Just the medicine to keep Aylis off my back. I don’t know why, but little things like that meant a lot to me.
The mere presence of people seemed magical to me, as though their existence had regressed to the status of hearsay and now they were proved real. I’d been somewhere and I’d returned. Where I’d been and where I was now were both complete mysteries to me. The only memories I had were fragments of a life in the 20th century. That was impossible. That I even existed seemed impossible – and very unwelcome.
Zakiya waved. I waved back. I tried to keep jogging, wanting to use the last of my strength to make it inside my apartment to collapse on my sofa, but the woman kept looking at me, slowing me down. I loved her. Why did she make me love her?
“Come have breakfast with us, Sam,” Alex invited.
The big guy made me uneasy. There was an intensity hidden behind his calm blue eyes. But the way he looked at Zakiya and the epic story of their relationship kept me hoping to become his friend. Perhaps I wanted too much to be his friend, and I was afraid of beginning something I didn’t deserve, something that would end too soon. It was already too much that Zakiya had made herself my friend. There was a big emptiness in me that disqualified me from having normal relationships and the responsibilities they required. I shook my head negatively as I tried to keep my leaden feet moving.
“Every morning I ask, every morning you decline,” Alex called to me. “Have I offended you?”
“Come eat with us,” Zakiya asked, continuing to stare at me with her big brown eyes.
Where had I seen those eyes before? Why did they comfort me? Why did they scare me?
I couldn’t refuse Zakiya. The only time I felt good was in her presence. She watched with concern as I wavered into a sloppy landing at the patio table. I sat down hard. Alex started to rise, as though he wanted to catch me from falling. I righted myself. I was winded. I ached. I hated to admit it but I felt weak – too weak. I needed to eat better. I wished I had an appetite. To what purpose? Toward what future?
Stop. Don’t think.
I sat in a partial stupor feeling naked to their inspection. Why I worried about what they thought of me was another mystery. I wasn’t worth it. This was before I understood who Alex and Zakiya were. I mean, I did feel they were important people. You could just look at them and know they had something special. But they treated me like I was the same as them, whatever they were. I didn’t trust it. I didn’t examine it too closely. I didn’t examine anything too closely. Very dangerous.
Zakiya was an archaeologist, like Phuti, and I expected her to slip in a few questions about ancient Earth, back when I was a kid in… Where was I a kid in?
I was American, Korean American. My parents ran a convenience store in a big city. I could never see the stars clearly in the city. How did I wind up in a science fiction movie? How could any of this be real? It would break my heart if Zakiya was not real.
“A penny for your thoughts,” Zakiya said.
How did she speak such perfect American English?
“Korean,” I said, as a wisp of what could be memory seeped out of a corner of my mind. “My parents were Korean. They had a minute market in… in… some city. I remember running the cash register, late at night, fifteen years old. Getting robbed by this kid who was younger than me. He had a twenty-two caliber revolver, shaking so badly he could never have hit me. I gave him the money. He wanted cigarettes. He was too young to smoke. It was bad for his health. I hated selling cigarettes! Does anybody smoke cigarettes these days?”
“Not on this ship,” Zakiya replied. “Did you give him the cigarettes?”
“Sure. As many cartons as he could carry.”
She spoke softly, yet her voice was so rich in quality.
“Yes, people still smoke tobacco,” she said. “We probably have your 20th-century movies to blame for the persistence of the nasty habit.”
“You have all those old movies,” I said, blinking at an image ejected by my besieged mind, of a little dog being threatened by an ugly green witch. “Newspapers, music, books. Why do you and Phuti need my faulty memories of that awful century?”
“There’s nothing like a living fossil to verify what we guess was the truth of the past,” Alex replied for his wife.
To be frank, Alex looked the part of archaeologist more than Zakiya. He had a scholarly face. His physique was not scholarly at all but would have been an asset for a serious dig-it-up antiquities hunter.
“You’re convinced I’m a fossil? I could be faking it. I may have watched the same movies and read the same books you watched and read. You learned to speak old American English. I could have learned it the same way.”
“You’re joking, right?” Alex asked.
I wished I was. He didn’t smile.
“You’re the real McCoy,” Zakiya said.
She didn’t smile either.
“We’re sure,” Alex said. “Was that a new memory? What’s a minute market?”
“A small general store,” I answered, my voice croaking. “Sometimes called a convenience store. Phuti wants to grill me again today. I really like the guy, or else I would beg off. Maybe, if I’m with Phuti, then Aylis won’t get me. I wish she would hurry up and… She gets cranky very fast, and I always find the wrong thing to say or do to set her off.”
Aylis was another person to whom I responded strongly and, unlike Zakiya, she always posed a threat to me.
“Did I ever tell you that Aylis is my good friend?” Zakiya asked.
“No, but that confirms what I suspected.”
Why did they have no smiles for me today? Did I look that bad?
“I seem to talk too much,” I said, “especially when I have nothing correct to say.”
Zakiya looked at me – as she always did – with an expression of controlled concern, as if she needed to carefully meter that concern, lest it overflow and damage me. If I could have had enough brain function to analyze this, I would have been frightened at how much she seemed to care about me. I didn’t deserve her care.
I got the message then, that some bad news might be in the queue. I got that message all the time, of course. There were things I knew that I didn’t want to know that I knew, but I knew I would have to remember those things sooner or later. Painful things. They said that, when I arrived among them, I had blood on my hands. It had to be bad. It scared the crap out of me.
I got up, almost knocking my chair over, and tried to make my getaway on rubber legs.
Alex had me by the shoulders before I could fall down. He was massively strong and I thought I would not bother to struggle. I wasn’t even sure I could walk the few feet back to the apartment they let me use.
Alex would only let me sit, so I sat, only to glance at Zakiya and see anxiety in her eyes. Why was my feeble brain processing such details so well? What did they mean?
“Are you going to hurt me today?” I asked.
What a thing to say! They hurt me every day, never knowing it. I hurt myself. I needed to die. I was not supposed to exist. I was not supposed to be the one to suffer. There was this other guy who had got lost, and he was the one to blame, the one to punish. I was an innocent bystander, caught holding the bag of spiders. I seemed to exist solely to be terrorized by something worse than death.
I started crying then. I wanted to run away and I couldn’t even stay on my feet. Talk about asking for it! I dried up quickly and made a show of nonchalance that was pitiable.
“It’s going to be painful for both of us today,” Zakiya said gently. “I don’t look forward to it but time pushes us to do what must be done.”
“I thought you guys had all the time in the world – in the universe?”
I put it on autopilot and let my diminished capacity speak for me. I was terribly hurt that Zakiya seemed poised to betray my trust. She was the only one I trusted.
I didn’t even trust myself. I was a stranger to myself. Why trust a stranger?
“You don’t have all the time in the universe, Sam,” Alex said, taking his turn at me.
Maybe this was good news. I had a lot more time than I wanted to have.
“Something is killing you,” he replied, and I heard real concern in his voice.
“Yeah, and I wish it would hurry up.”
“We’re serious, Sam,” Zakiya said gravely.
“So am I,” I said, seriously.
The tear in the corner of one of her eyes caught the light, and caught a rock in my throat. How did I gain the means to hurt her? How could I lose it?
“Aylis – ” she started to say.
” – isn’t a patient woman,” autopilot rudely interrupted.
My brain had become a family of frightened rats running around in my skull, trying to escape.
“Not even close to okay,” Alex said.
“You have immortality but you still can’t fix a broken brain,” one of my rats complained.
“I’m an example of that,” Alex said.
“You seem fine to me.”
I didn’t want to hear such a thing. If Alex wasn’t right in the head, what chance did I have?
When Alex made no reply, I opened my big mouth again, hesitated, and finally squeezed out: “What are we going to do, Zakiya?”
She took a deep breath. I took one with her. I was shaking. She could see my trembling. When she wiped the tears that suddenly glistened on her smooth brown cheeks, I had to turn away.
“We’re going to see your dead son,” Zakiya answered in an unsteady voice.
I looked at her. I saw the pain in her eyes, perhaps even fear. My fragility suddenly became calamitous. My terror tapped me on the shoulder, daring me to turn around and see it.
“How can we possibly be going to see my…? I have no… I have no… I…”
I began hyperventilating.
“It isn’t even human!” I screamed, staring at my clean hands like a madman.