Prose Header

Other Echoes

by Zachary Ash

Part 1 and Part 3
appear in this issue.
part 2 of 3

Some time later, after climbing spiral steps to a hilltop, in the shadow of a looming bell tower, they stood together on a terrace overlooking the Royal Gardens. This was a prospect Kyra knew well. Here two summers ago her life broke apart.

Her father, frowning, rummaged in his greatcoat pockets for crumpled papers and a slide-rule; finding them, he beamed and turned to Kyra. His work, he told her, was not just theory and conjecture. Data confirmed everything. Time and again, the equations all came out the same in the Babbage Engine.

“The mathematical loom?”

“What a noble invention!” the professor said. His research would be nowhere without one — a steam-powered calculating machine. The Quantum Laboratory, he told her, had the most up-to-date model. “It does the work of a hundred men with a hundred slide-rules.”

And as her father recited algorithms and theorems, chattering on about Hilbert space and Bloch spheres, Kyra let her mind drift. Her eyes fixed on a spot in the sky that was by now seared in her memory. Then or now, here or there — in her mind it was one.

“...and so the numbers say it should work. It took me five years to build and another two to calibrate. In no other laboratory, I think, will you see such a machine.” The professor looked to the sky. “Kyra, this is my grand achievement.”

“Your machine?”

“It’s almost ready.”

“And what does it do, Father?” she said, confused. There was something she’d missed.

“Kyra, haven’t you been listening? I told you.” Professor Snow looked out at the sea and the sails. “It’s a frigate. Made of pearls and quark stuff. And with it you can make the journey.”

“To where?”

“To the other worlds.”

* * *

What was it he had lost? And where? Once, Ian thinks, he knew something rare, something gemlike, unearthly. Or someone? In his mind instead of memory — this memory — there is nothing. Nothing but bits and shards — one day a word, a touch the next — and always a forgotten song, swirling in darkness like ash in the wind. Are these memories?

A guitar quiets his unease. Old and cracked, a thrift-store reject, the Les Paul has been his friend since he bought it on a whim one August day, learning the chords easily, naturally, as if he were born for music. Who knew he had this gift?

He wanders now past a ski shop and a tavern, down a cobblestone path to a lake, and stops by a pine grove at the water’s edge. Here is sanctuary. Alone in the shade, facing the water, one foot on a boulder’s cleft, he plays. And remembers.

A professor in graduate school, his dry contempt. Always the past had entranced Ian — strange and compelling as another world — and in essays and exams he tried to shape into argument the music he heard when he reflected on the shifting lines of history. He grappled with its conundrums. The past he believed was many, not one, a kaleidoscope of ever-changing patterns, infinite and unknowable as the future. And yet always on paper these ideas turned to gibberish. So he quit Berkeley and gave Hollywood a shot, peddling screenplays, until this too led nowhere.

An actress with a part in a movie he’d never seen. Today, he wonders, would she recognize him? Dressed as he is in second-hand clothes — a woolen shirt, Levis, work boots — and with his straw-colored hair gone long and wild, his face lost behind an eleven-month growth of whiskers?

He remembers the first day he saw the Sierra Nevada, rambling up here out of L.A. in his second-hand Jeep, looking for a place to write, bringing with him an iMac, a change of clothes, and a footlocker crammed with CDs, books, and DVDs. His cell phone he left behind.

Today he earns his keep designing Web sites, riding the 21st-century tech boom, and selling the odd invention. Flying toys, mostly. His passion, though, is elsewhere, free, in the clouds. To him a hawk in flight is holiness.

Now Ian changes chords, strums a darker tune. And tries not to think of the world outside the high Sierra, about the news he sees on the Internet, news of zealots with bombs, rogue states rattling sabers, terror breeding terror, war and the rumor of war.

His song finished, Ian casts his eyes to the setting sun. A red storm on the horizon? It’s time to go back.

* * *

“Professor? The question is woodwinds and counterpoint.”

In the main hall of the Conservatory two hundred students waited. Seconds, then minutes. Coughing, pencil tapping. Awkward glances.

“Miss Snow?”

On stage, like a garden bronze, her mind gone numb, Kyra stood. Someone had asked a question, and as she’d started to reply, brushing ivory keys on a grand piano, she knew she knew nothing. All thought left her. Kyra’s lecture today was the history of the concerto: Bach to Mozart, Chopin to Brahms, Sanchez to Yee. And then words lost all meaning. Lecture notes in hand, Kyra stared out into the hall, caught in the teeth of a ghastly vision.

She watched Ian die. Falling in flames. The memory of an August day two years ago left her shaken and mute. Once or twice before in class, she’d succumbed to bouts of grief, but always they’d passed and she’d pulled through. But not now. Students in back rows began to slip out; the rest waited. Time froze.

Like a ghost haunting her own past, Kyra saw the day unfold: A picnic at the Royal Gardens; a pocket-watch held in her hands; Ian laughing and pointing to the clouds where crows spun and danced; and then Ian rolling to the edge of a promontory his invention — a flying machine. He had built it — a delicate thing of canvas and steel — in his free hours in his first year teaching at the Conservatory. Kyra’s first year too.

Now, with pride and exhilaration, she watched as the man she loved set his winged contraption in motion, sped to the precipice, and took flight. Time me, he’d told her, laughing. Let me know how long I’m gone. Then the watch is yours!

Into the sky Ian sailed and glided, climbed and dived, drifted and soared. On one looping pass directly over Kyra, who stood rapt on a terrace, counting seconds, Ian waved to her, she waved back, and his machine glittered in the sun.

And then — a burst of flames! Ian’s machine on fire, tumbling out of the sky, trailing thick bands of smoke, and smashing into a field of marigolds. And now, two years later, this memory of Ian — her last — was all that was left. She hadn’t even a photograph.

How long did she stand there transfixed? At last, letting her notes fall, Kyra spun, fled the stage and took the first exit, stumbling down steps to a courtyard. Then she staggered down one street, then another, faster and faster, nearly tripping in her rush, and finally — in a mad, desperate panic — ran to the far end of Wellington.

* * *

“Impossible,” Professor Snow said. He sat, nibbling on a Chelsea bun, at a roll-top desk in his office at the Institute; behind him graphs and symbols, diamonds and bells swam in confusion on a chalkboard. “The calculations are incomplete.”

“Father,” Kyra said, wild-eyed, catching her breath, “this is my one chance.”

Professor Snow twisted his wedding ring. The machine — it was untested, far from ready. Her scheme was reckless! And as he watched his only child, wan and distraught, fidgeting in a wing-back chair, where his students often sat complaining about a grade or pleading for an extension, he reached for a fountain pen, a long ago gift from Kyra’s mother. He held it tight. This mad request, he expected; but there was only one answer. Even saying no to his students, though, was hard.

“Reckless?” Kyra said. “What I propose is logical. You’ll learn your machine works and I’ll see Ian — one last time.” Smoothing her beret, she scrambled to think of something a physics professor would find convincing. Then smirked. “Father,” she said, “the Hawking Prize.”

The professor listened now more closely, weighing variables in his mind and running equations. Such a risk! The quantum order, space-time, the laws of nature — all these might come undone if they made even one mistake. His work, he saw now, was no more than theory; he dared not gamble.

Again Kyra argued. Theory or practice, she maintained, years of research or one bold gamble — if her father’s right, it’s all the same.

“And if I’m wrong?”

Kyra dug her nails into the musty red upholstery and wrenched her mouth into a sour grin like someone who’s been told a bad joke. Then she explained how she had just fled in panic from her lecture hall. Kyra rose now and went to her father’s bookcase, sweeping an open hand across the countless volumes, the knowledge of minds living and dead. In all the possible worlds, in universe after universe, Kyra thought, somewhere, surely, there’s Ian. Somewhere he didn’t die.

“If we try this, Kyra...”

At the bookcase Kyra gazed a while out a lead-pane window at fallen leaves scattered on the green and then touched the glass. Her reflection was phantasmal. “I’m nearly round the bend,” she whispered. “In a year’s time I’ll be in the King’s Asylum, in some cellar, chained and gibbering.” Now Kyra stepped from the pale sunlight to her father’s desk; her hand she rested on his, letting it fall gently like a cat settling somewhere safe. He nodded, then looked away, trembling. Those eyes, her mother’s eyes. Lavender.

And in a murmur Kyra said, “Father, let me go.”

* * *

Late the next night Kyra’s father stood hunched, gnome-like, in an alcove in the Institute’s basement, head bent, hands cupping heaps of ticker-tape tumbling to a granite floor. Behind him stood a cabinet of brass and teak, bulky as an ox, humming. It gleamed. Here pipes gurgled and shook. And out of a crystal box jutting like a beak on the cabinet’s sleek face, under a row of knobs and dials, spilled an endless ribbon of tape, cascading in loops, tangled and overflowing.

“The Babbage Engine’s been working round the clock,” he said, up to his knees in white like a half-melted snowman. “Look at the equations! An alternate world within reach.” Then he held out — like an offering — the ribbon inked with numbers, rune-like symbols. His voice trembled. “Kyra,” he said, “we’ve found him.”

There were no words.

An hour earlier Kyra had made her way down a spiraling iron staircase in near darkness, floor after floor, to a warren of tunnels and dusty rooms. On the cold bricks gas-lamps, set low, lit her way.

The basement was a mausoleum. Cool and dim, a thousand feet underground. In the shadows in all directions was a cobweb of noise — the rattle of gears, the stamping of pistons, the gurgle of steam pipes.

And as she’d descended here, Orpheus-like, Kyra’s steps were matched by clunking thuds; at her heels, climbing down with oafish haste, was a bot. In a muslin shift, a duvet wrapped around tin shoulders, stout and obsequious, it followed Kyra like a lady-in-waiting. Loyal to a fault. In its core the professor’s daughter had hidden a valise.

A useful donkey, this one, Kyra thought.

At the bottom of the staircase, breathless, Kyra had taken out her big pocket watch and studied it a moment under a low hissing flame. Midnight. Tunnels bent in sharp angles and ran mazy through the bowels of the Institute. What direction to take?

In time Kyra came upon etched letters on a brass plate: ‘Quantum Space Research.’ Her father’s laboratory. And then in a room cavernous and weirdly bright, her bot close behind, Kyra had beheld a scene of luminous confusion.

On benches all through the lab, hissing and sputtering, sat instruments of brass and iron and glass, simmering on burners. Overhead pipes ran in a gleaming spider’s web, leaking steam, and connected here and there with barrels, iron chests, fan-like pumps, leather bags swelling and shrinking, drums, pyramids of copper and gold spinning on plates, rattling cages, towering nests of beakers and jars, a grandfather clock telling time backwards, and brass spheres the size of small ponies rising and falling on rods, rotating madly. This hurly-burly mirrored-walls reflected on and on like a funhouse. And the pipes led to a furnace hulking in a corner and belching fire like a pet dragon. Here all was sunny as a summer’s day.

Now Kyra listened to her father, in the calculating alcove, recount his findings. Ian’s world, he explained, was their world, but in a parallel cosmos. The same people. A different past.

There were countless other worlds, he told her, alternate worlds, where Ian may be alive, but Professor Snow and his Babbage Engine hadn’t yet found them. And there was no time.

He ran his eyes over the Byzantine loops of white as if they were the lost bones of a griffin. The numbers told a dreadful tale. Ian’s in a world gone wrong, a world where history has spun out of control.

Then the professor looked from his daughter’s face to the thunderous furnace. “Ian’s world,” he said, “will end in flames.”

How, Kyra wanted to know; but Professor Snow had few answers The trans-dimensional numbers he couldn’t yet decipher. All was entangled. But one thing, he said, was certain. In days this other world will burn to ash. Darkness and smoke. Cities turned to rubble, toadstool clouds leering in a red sky.

Why, Kyra wanted to know; and this time Professor Snow was able to tell her. The mathematics revealed what had gone wrong, how time’s flux on this parallel world had led to catastrophe. So now he collected his thoughts and began to elaborate. A pivot in time, he called it, an incident some two hundred and thirty years ago. No more than a footnote in the history books.

“Kyra,” he said, “have you ever heard of the uprising of 1776?”

She shook her head, confused.

“Rabble-rousers and hooligans in the northern colonies stirred up trouble. Merchant ships looted, rioting, the King’s troops ambushed.” In time, he explained, it was put down and order restored.

“And then,” the professor said, “the Empire flourished and two centuries of peace began. A peace we enjoy today. Pax Britannia. On every inch of earth — Zurich to Zanzibar, Alexandria to Apache lands — flies the Union Jack.” Kyra’s father took a breath, then squared his shoulders, a proud bulldog. “The world is an English shire.”

In the alcove now he paced, voice raised, as if lecturing in a five-hundred seat auditorium. Is the Empire fusty and commonplace? he asked, rhetorically. No! It’s the dream dreamed long ago by philosophers and kings. The world hasn’t known war, he said, since the days of Napoleon. Instead it’s enjoyed a renaissance of art and thought lasting longer than the Golden Age of Greece.

A renaissance, he told Kyra, that has nurtured the poetry of Keats, Lincoln, and Tennyson; the epic chronicles of Tolstoy and Churchill; the delicate scrollwork of Hirohito; the wisdom of Custer, the mercy of Capone; and, of course, the Himalayan conquests of Proust, Hilary and Stalin. At last he fell silent.

Then the professor turned to view his sprawling laboratory. It was lonely, somehow, with all his grad students gone. Robotic techs shuffled from bench to bench, assembling glassware and mixing compounds. “And it’s a renaissance,” he said, adding a coda to his lecture, “that has let us build machines to solve the riddles of space and time. Like the one I have here in this laboratory.”

As he spoke, the professor led his daughter past lab benches to a far chamber roomy as a ship’s cabin. And behind a door cut from a slab of British steel was his machine.

“A thing of rare power and delicacy, Kyra,” the professor said. “Forged of crystal, gold and comet dust.” He took from his frock coat a skeleton key, then turned it, and pulled back the door. “And here it is.”

The light inside was hazy gold, the air laced with a scent of wormwood, rue and za’atar. The roof, the walls, the floor were rock; inside murmured low echoes like a mountain brook. And in the heart of the cave was the professor’s machine, regal and aloof, like a princess in a tower: A bell of shimmering glass.

“How wondrous, Father!”

“A carriage to take you to another world.”

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2007 by Zachary Ash

Home Page