Prose Header


by Graham Storrs

Part 1 appears
in this issue

The way people’s dependence on the skyballs had crept up on us suggested that the addiction grew just a tiny bit stronger each time the ball was used. From my own experience I could tell that the depth and power of the experience kept steadily increasing, becoming more and more overwhelming.

I tried locking Mary up, but she always got out. When I tied her to the bed, trying to make her quit cold turkey, her screaming and raving went on for two weeks until she was starved and exhausted and on the point of death. So I gave her her skyball back and at least after that she would eat if I fed her and she didn’t look at me with hatred or horror any more.

The day she Ascended, I woke to find her high, and she stayed that way for eighteen hours straight. By then I knew it was coming. I sat beside her and held her hand and wept for her until I realised her hand had grown cold.

It was sometime in the days of grief and pain that followed that I first used my own skyball. I looked deep into its pearly grey depths, they way I’d seen Mary do so many times, and asked it for relief from my suffering.

And relief came.

It was a stupid moment of weakness, and every time now that I picked up my ball and gave myself to the unutterable joy of communing with the Gods, I cursed the day I ever started. I used to think I could quit but I knew now that I couldn’t. The very thought of life without that beautiful escape made my stomach clench and my hand reach for my skyball. It was killing me, destroying my mind, but what could I do?

Well, perhaps one thing.

I approached the lab buildings from the back, taking a small detour to the generator shed. Lins hovered in the doorway, humming a tuneless little series of notes as I went in and started up the generators. The big machines growled and whined into life, drowning her out. I breathed a small sigh of relief as I always did.

The city’s power had gone out nearly a year ago but the labs had backup generators. I had to break in to get to them but by then nobody cared enough to stop me. The same with the diesel fuel I needed. There were so many trucks and vans abandoned in the streets that I could just drive them over to the labs and siphon their tanks. Last month, I went out and found a tanker lorry full of the stuff. I brought that to the labs too. I would never run out.

But if my generators ever broke down, even a simple repair might be beyond me. So I held my breath every time I pressed those starter buttons.

Up in my lab — the lab I was using anyway — I went about switching on the machinery, piece by piece; the lasers, the computers, the racks of tuners, amplifiers, oscilloscopes. Lins watched me as I dodged around from one to the other, checking off settings from the whiteboards I had propped up on every bench and wall. I’d gathered whiteboards from everywhere I could find them, scrawling calculations on them and running off for more when they were full.

I had to wait while the systems came to life and the lasers did their magic. A ‘high temperature’ Bose-Einstein condensate wasn’t quite as warm as you might expect. I had mine set in a bath of liquid nitrogen for a start, and even then the lasers needed to suck some more energy out of it and sort it into virtual crystal lattices before the boron atoms I was using went into lockstep, sharing their quantum state, ready to listen in on the chatter of the Universe.

I looked across at Lins and with a start realised she was lying on the floor, skyball in hand. I thought for a moment she might be dead, but then I saw her twitch and realised she was just high. I went to stand over her. Her slack features and shallow breathing set off a hunger in me and my fingers found my own skyball. Just one more before the big experiment? How could that hurt? It wasn’t as if I was in a hurry or anything.

With a cry of anger, I wrenched my eyes away and pulled my hand off the ball. My last use of the ball had been as a prize to myself, a celebration that all my preparations were complete. It was so insidious the way I found excuses for myself to keep using the damned thing. I had to watch myself all the time now.

I forced my attention over to the rack of oscilloscopes. I hadn’t had the time — or the concentration if I was honest with myself — to write the programs that would analyse and display all my sensor readings, so I just fed the signals into a pile of oscilloscopes and read off the raw waveforms. It would do.

I studied the squiggles now, looking for the patterns that would say it was all working. A few changes, tiny adjustments, and it was there. I realised I was panting from the effort of focusing so hard. It shouldn’t have been that difficult but it was. Had my mind sunk so low, then?

In a moment of panicked self-doubt I ran over the theory of universal entanglement in my mind, my eyes following the equations across all those whiteboards. The conditions just after the big bang, the quark soup fireball that was then inflated to become our universe, should have entangled every particle with every other. I’d been working on the theory when the Salvator arrived.

It was just a fascinating puzzle to me in those days, offering the prospects of instantaneous communication, even teleportation, anywhere in the whole Universe. Then, as the world sank into lethargy and decay, I realised I could perhaps use it to send out a signal, a cry for help. It became the straw I clutched at to keep me from drowning. Somewhere out there would be a race more advanced, more compassionate than the Salvator’s and they would come if I called them. They would save us.

My eyes snagged on a calculation dealing with the tuning of my quantum antenna. I couldn’t quite see what I’d done, how I’d justified that conclusion. I clutched at my head in frustration. I knew the calculation was right. I’d checked it a hundred times. Why couldn’t I see it?

Never mind. It was all set up and working. That’s all that mattered. I picked up the microphone and spoke. “Help us,” I said.

On one of the scopes I saw the pattern of my voice dance in superposition with the waveform of the condensate. Across the whole Universe, wave functions should have collapsed in synchrony with my voice. At least, I hoped they would.

Any race using universal entanglement for communications should detect it. Any race god-like enough to help us would know what I was asking. “We are intelligent, self-aware beings,” I said. “We have been invaded and are being destroyed. Help us. I beg you. Help us.”

I looked up at the big speakers, hearing only the faintest hum, the slightest hiss. I ramped up the gain but that just made the hum louder. The signal from the condensate was steady and clean. Nothing was coming back.

I repeated my message and listened again. Again there was nothing. I tried again and again and again. In the end I stopped because my voice was hoarse and, anyway, I was sobbing too much to speak any more.

I lowered myself to the floor and sat with my back to the lab bench. It hadn’t worked. It had failed. I had failed.

For the first time since I had begun working on my transceiver, I was struck by what a fantastically long shot it had been. To take an unproven theory, all those untried, unreviewed calculations and build that complex jury-rigged gadget from them, using odds and ends that I had found in the lab and scavenged around the university — it was the act of a desperate lunatic! What was I thinking of?

I remembered the years of toil, of how I’d stuck at it while everything around me crumbled away, while my own wife had... There was no way I would have the strength to start again. No way I could go back and check all that theory, all those calculations, rebuild all that equipment. I didn’t have that kind of strength left in me, and even if I did, I knew I’d make more mistakes now, worse ones. My concentration was going. My mind was turning to sponge inside my skull.

I sat there for who knows how long, crying sometimes with eyes long dry, railing at myself and the folly of believing I could save us, of having the stupidity to hope at all.

I must have fallen asleep because I woke to Lins shaking my shoulder. It was a grey dawn outside but inside the lights still burned. Lins was looking into my eyes with the deep, anxious devotion of a faithful Labrador and it sickened me to see it.

“You’d better go,” I told her. “Go and hang out near the food. Stay close to the Church guys. They’ll be the last to go, I suppose. The Gods seem to want us to destroy ourselves voluntarily. They seem squeamish about just wiping us out with bombs or germs. Perhaps They’re just making a point. Anyway, I’m pretty sure They’ll keep you alive as long as you want it.”

“I’ll stay,” she said.

“I’m finished here. The experiment is over. No-one can hear me. Either that or no-one can be bothered to reply. Hell, for all I know, the whole damned Universe is in on it.” I shook my head, subsiding into despair. “It doesn’t matter. No-one’s coming.”

I don’t think she understood. I was just making her more anxious. So I reached into my pocket and pulled out the skyball. I showed it to her and she gave a small smile at the sight of it.

“I’m going away soon,” I said, as gently as I could. “You know what I mean?” She showed no sign. Her face returned to its Labrador expression. I turned away from her and looked into the ball. A flicker of awareness deep inside it told me it was waiting for me, eager and hungry. “OK, you bastards,” I said to it. “Come and get me.”

Copyright © 2009 by Graham Storrs

Open Challenge 324...

Home Page