by Zachary Ash
Part 1 and Part 2|
appear in this issue.
“Tall as a handsome cab and fine as fluted crystal,” Kyra said, stepping past her father, in a whisper, in exultation. On the threshold they stood now, spellbound. “Cor blimey! Never have I seen anything so beautiful. It glitters.”
The floor, he told her, is inlaid with diamonds and pearls to refract the bell’s quantum flux. Is there any point asking — Kyra wanted to know, laughing — how it works? Only if she had weeks to spend, Professor Snow told her, listening to a lecture on quark theory and cosmology. If he were right she hadn’t even days.
“All I need,” Kyra said, “is to say goodbye.” And in the folds of her pale blue gown her hand touched a pocket watch.
“Kyra, you must promise one thing,” said Professor Snow. “Change nothing. With this experiment we weave ourselves like a needle into the fabric of the cosmos. Carelessness may cut a thread and unravel the tapestry.”
“All I want,” Kyra said, “is to tell Ian goodbye.”
But even that, her father told her, was forbidden. Any contact there might upset the balance of space-time. Ian’s world and theirs, he tried to explain, were bound in unknowable ways, mirror images, and as easy to crack as a mirror. The entanglement! All Kyra could do, he went on, was see Ian, safely, from afar. Nothing more.
“After all,” her father said, “isn’t that what you want?”
Turning away from her father, Kyra gazed at the bell sparkling like a fountain of ice. On its crystalline surface a door flowed smoothly in one curve from stem to skirt. And beside the bell stood a lever on a brass box.
“Is he in Wellington? Does Ian still teach at the Conservatory?”
All that has changed, he told her. In the highlands in New Spain Ian now lives. And of course he has never met Kyra. “You are,” Professor Snow told his daughter, “less than a memory.”
“To spend a day in his world is all I want.”
“A day? Kyra, you’ll have one hour. Didn’t I explain? This is a prototype. Any longer and the bell will shatter. Decoherence! Forever, then, you would be lost in the dust between time.”
“You’re not going on holiday, Kyra,” he said sharply. “This is no lolly scramble!” Then the professor lectured a while on the bell jar’s propulsion. To send Kyra and the bot to Ian’s world, he explained, he’ll pull a lever on the brass box, and instantly the bell will fill with a swirl of leptons and galvanic flux. This catalyst, he told her, will wing them across the quantum line. And then, an hour later, he’ll lift the lever and bring the travelers home.
“Father,” Kyra said, irritably, “I can’t watch Ian and a clock.”
“Why else then is a bot going?” he said. “To keep time.”
With these words, Kyra’s mechanical escort shuffled into the vault like a portly chambermaid and halted beside Professor Snow, its face cheerfully bland. Was there, in her father’s voice, a tincture of doubt, unease, suspicion?
Anxiously, Kyra looked at the bot, wanting one last time to check its storage core for the valise, knowing she could not. Without it, why go? She must remember Ian. Even if that means deceiving her father, ignoring the rules. Besides, Kyra thought, these gifts — a photograph, a pocket watch. Trifles.
And then, without another word, the professor crossed the threshold into the cavern and unlatched the bell’s glass portal. The door, as he swung it open, sparkled like sunlight on a waterfall, fleeting and unreal, revealing within a circle of incandescence wide enough for two. His eyes met Kyra’s.
Then Kyra touched her slate-blue bonnet, smoothed her gown, and stepped forward. After her clanked her bot. And as the two stood there inside the glittering bell, the professor held the door, hand trembling, with a look on his face of a juggler who’s tossed into the air one too many axes.
“Remember, Kyra,” he said. “Change nothing.”
“No worries,” whispered Kyra, stone-faced, staring past her father who had already shut the bell door. She heard him throw the lever. Instantly a storm of smoke and color spun inside the crystal dome like a child’s kaleidoscope coming apart, and a menacing wind raced in circles. Time and space unraveled. Her world vanishing, her whisper lost in the maelstrom, Kyra knew in an hour’s time, come what may, she would have no regrets.
* * *
It dazzles her. A mountain lake as lovely, Kyra thinks, as any in the southern Alps, any fjord or glacier, or any afternoon on the Tasmanian Sea. Kyra wanders down a cobblestone path, her clattering bot a step behind, and takes in the wonder of Ian’s world. It looks nothing like a world on the brink of war.
Kyra hurries. Twenty minutes gone already? In a meadow in this alternate universe, after they had arrived, Kyra took the valise from the bot’s hollow core and told her companion to hold it. What’s inside, Kyra thinks now, is why she’s here. To remember Ian. How can this be wrong? All she wants is to say goodbye. How can this change anything? Bosh! Her father and his silly numbers.
In her mind these thoughts spin like blades on a thresher. Where is he? Her eyes scanning water and woods, her ankle-length dress buffeted in the late afternoon breeze, Kyra picks up her pace, rounds a bend, and — stops dead. Her senses snap taut like a mainsail in a squall. Music! Softly, inexpertly, a man sitting alone on an outcrop in a cove plays guitar. Kyra ventures a step, squints — then feels her knees buckle, her breath catch, her heart jump.
How strange he looks! Shaggy and lean, a frontier scout lost in the wild. And yet Kyra knows him: the man she loves, the man she had watched die. This miracle jolts her. Watching Ian strum his guitar, the sun sinking to the ridge, Kyra tries not to run to him. Tries, fails. Aflame, lit with rapture, she bounds now swiftly as a doe lost in a thunderstorm sprinting home.
Ian looks up. His expression runs through a medley — alarm, confusion, delight. Then he makes an effort, it seems, to say Kyra’s name. Bewilderment darkens his eyes. He says nothing.
“I heard you playing,” Kyra says. Will her voice, she thinks, be to Ian a poem he heard once and forgot? “Such a sad song.”
“Just an old ballad,” Ian says, letting this stranger’s eyes — lavender eyes — caress him.
“You have a gift for music,” Kyra says. Ian was the Conservatory’s finest cellist. Those mournful, burnished notes — she thinks she hears them. And a memory of their duets swims now in Kyra’s mind, a memory she thought she’d lost forever.
“Sometimes I come here to play old songs,” Ian says, “and watch the sun fall past the ridgeline. It helps me think.”
“About the past?”
He looks startled, enchanted. And then he listens to this oddly dressed beauty, who regards him with the reined ardor and longing of a heroine in a Thomas Hardy novel.
“It’s always on my mind,” Kyra says, leaning back on the sheltering rocks. Ian eases back too. Here they rest then, face to face, standing by the water’s edge, shyly trading half-smiles and glances. This unlikely intimacy, all but wordless, all but perfect. An accidental tryst.
In the past she lost something, Kyra explains, something rare, and ever since she too has been lost. Without it she can’t go on. Hands behind her, Kyra palms cool stone. “Does that sound absurd?”
The past, Ian tells her, is more complex than people know. It never ends. History is as unknowable — as infinite — as the future. On and on it goes. From what we can’t recall to what we can’t foresee. History’s endless waltz. Ian drops his head, draws a breath. “Does that sound absurd?”
“Yes — that is, no!” Kyra stammers, laughs. “That is — oh fiddlesticks! More quantum confusion.” Then Kyra draws a breath, levels her gaze. “Each moment in time—”
“Twenty minutes!” cries Kyra’s companion, idling nearby on the cobblestone path. Iron hands clutch a valise. That donkey! And only now does Ian notice: Kyra’s ungainly friend, eyes blank, hovering like a chaperone. Then Ian glances at his wrist. Blinks. His watch — when did he lose it? Where? His wrinkled face says he can’t remember. In his gray eyes is a sense of things lost in twilight.
“There’s time,” says Kyra. “I’ve traveled far. And there’s nowhere else I want to be.”
The best time of day, he tells her, is almost here, when the April sun goes down and the western sky turns red. The rim for a time burns like wildfire.
“So I’ve been told,” Kyra says. Then tells Ian she’ll remember instead the way it is now. Watching Ian rest in half shadows, she aches to hear more hints of those lost, burnished notes. “Play some more?” Lifting his guitar, he strums a few chords. The same song Kyra had heard when she’d found Ian here — how long ago? A few minutes, a lifetime.
“Do you know the words?” she says.
“I’m no Sinatra.”
Puzzlement — and need — tightens Kyra’s wan, heart-like face.
Then he begins, haltingly, to give voice to the lyrics, underscoring lines here or there, skipping others: “All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go... don’t know when I’ll be back again... I’m leavin’ on a jet plane... oh babe, I hate to go...”
When he’s finished, the tune vanishing in twilight, Kyra looks out at the lake, mind a-flutter. Time is short. Ian’s world! This hour, she knows, will be a memory to sustain her the rest of her days. It isn’t enough.
“The words — so strange. What do they mean?”
“Nothing much. Heartache, hope,” Ian puts down the guitar, “frequent flier miles. Next time I see you,” he adds, “I’ll take another request.”
“There won’t be a next time,” Kyra says, locking Ian’s eyes with hers. In silence she tries to say everything she’s kept to herself for two years. Tries and fails. Mute with despair.
“Ten minutes!” cries the bot. “Kyra, we must go.”
Dim recognition wracks Ian’s face, as if hurly-burly half-shaped thoughts had awoken.
“Kyra?...” Ian says, blinking, ashen, as if struck by vertigo, as if locked inside a falling elevator. “Kyra?” A joyful tumult lights his eyes. “I know you.” Wonderstruck, aghast, he says again, again: “Kyra.”
They look at each other a long while — befuddled, lost, delirious — searching for words, words that will anchor the moment. Fix it in time. They find nothing.
And so finally Ian says: “Déjà vu.” Then he shuts his eyes, as if steeling himself to live this day onward bereft, bereft of memories bountiful and bizarre, ecstatic, conjured by a stranger’s name. “I must be wrong.”
Abruptly Kyra turns now from Ian to her escort waiting on the cobblestone path, signaling to it with a wave. The bot pulls from the valise a wooden box trailing a black sheet, fixed with a set of iron legs, assembling it quickly, and then aims the thing at the couple by the lake. “May I?” asks Kyra. Eyes of lavender kindle in the day’s last light. “To remember us here today.”
Wordlessly, they drift from the rocks, shoulders brushing, like old friends who one day find themselves in love. Side by side they pose. And rather than a smile, each has a look that an old man in winter might have, letting go at last and thinking of a summer’s day. Kyra takes Ian’s hand.
Hunched behind the camera, under a photographer’s hood, the bot holds aloft a steel cone packed with magnesium. Adjusts a lens on the box, waits a second, and pulls a cord. There is a white flash. Quickly now the bot takes apart the box camera, replacing it in the valise, along with the plate to be developed in the Conservatory dark room.
“Hurry!” it says. “Five minutes.”
Kyra, face contorted, dashes to the cobblestones and on to the meadow. On the shoreline Ian watches the travelers flee. They are almost gone.
Then Kyra stops, whirls, her sky blue gown snapping like a biplane’s canvas wings, and one last time runs to Ian. Embraces him. A lover returned from exile.
“One minute!” shrieks Kyra’s escort.
As she lets go, rent with anguish, Kyra kisses him once, then whispers: “Remember me, Ian. The world’s on fire.” And then before she’s gone, Kyra presses something — solid and cool — into his palm.
Once more Ian watches Kyra rush away, her companion lumbering alongside, onto the cobblestones and to the meadow. There they sink behind a crest, and in a heartbeat are gone. Ian follows. He reaches the shadowy edge and looks down, where the meadow falls in unbroken folds a hundred yards down to the forest. Where is she?
Ian lets his gaze fall. In his hand, warm from a stranger’s touch, is a pocket watch. Heavy and silver, something a man might own. Lifting it close to his face, in the half-moon twilight, he sees the watch has a lid. Gently he thumbs it open. On the back, etched in Old English, is an inscription. Time jackknives. Memory somersaults. And the words he reads are his:
“Kyra — we share one song — Ian.”
Staggered, he looks up. He searches the landscape one last time. On the horizon there is a ridge silhouetted in sunset, darkly smoldering, like a perfect flame.
* * *
In a maelstrom of color and noise, space knitting together, Kyra opened her eyes inside the bell jar, her escort beside her, and noted instantly something was wrong. A lacework of cracks. On the gem floor shards of soot-dark crystal. And as the door swung open, she stepped out into a nightmare: the vault littered with debris, the air dense with smoke, and the laboratory ransacked. Horror struck her. Everywhere she looked — broken equipment, upturned benches, spilled chemicals. In one corner, hacked to pieces, was the Babbage Engine. The furnace was dead.
Nowhere was her father. Instead one of the professor’s bots, blackened and mauled, lay clinging to the bell’s lever, insane with fear. Gibbering. After it had fulfilled the professor’s command to bring his daughter home, the bot had broken down, steam hissing from its core, sputtering and jerking like a man convulsing with rabies.
And now Kyra kneeled beside it. Before dying the thing mumbled scraps of words, senseless and disjointed: marauders, birds of prey with wings of iron, students shot in the streets, scholars rounded up and taken to slave ships, wheeled beasts belching fire, cities in flames, an empire in ruins. And Kyra’s escort, who had seen another world, stayed now in this wrecked chamber, refusing to abandon the dead bot.
Donkeys. Kyra’s off-hand remark days ago stung her. You simply can’t trust them. Gently now she touched the grieving machine, caressed steel plates beneath a muslin shift. Felt the thing weep. No fidelity. And heard it murmur — softly, so softly — a lullaby, a prayer, balm for the dead. What else was left?
Alone then Kyra went on. In darkness she climbed the stairs out of the basement and found the Institute empty, the streets empty, the city empty. Hours later, valise in hand, she staggered homeward past smoking wreckage that once was a world.
* * *
One day a year and a half later, Ian sits at a lakeside café leafing through a book — a copy his editor had mailed him, in advance of the novel arriving next month in bookstores. Ian wrote it in a whirlwind of inspiration. The idea had hit him — quick and intense as a solar flare — the day after he had met a stranger, one with lavender eyes. How she captured his imagination! And so he began to write: an epic of romance and adventure spanning alternate worlds. Where the idea came from, even now he couldn’t say.
Resting under the seven-hundred page book — Kyra’s Quest — is the day’s newspaper scattered in sections. As he sips an espresso, Ian scans the headlines: ‘One more nation joins peace talks’; ‘Disarmament treaty signed’; ‘Bloodless revolt topples dictator’. For more than a year now, against all expectations, the world has steered a course toward sanity, history once more on the right path. This too Ian can’t explain.
Ian sets down his book, slides back his chair, and then, before rising to go, pauses a moment, eyes closed, and listens to a fine, musical ticking. A sound as lonely as winter’s last icicle melting drip by drip. When was it he first heard this melancholy chime?
In time he opens his eyes again, as the memory of a stranger dies, and gently closes the pocket-watch. And as Ian sweeps it into his hand, twilight’s haze striking it, the timepiece glints like a spark of fire.
Copyright © 2007 by Zachary Ash