Into Thin Space
by David Rich
Pocketing the powder-filled bag, Heath O’Malley spotted a delicious opportunity to diffuse his worries. His troubles had mounted weekly since he’d agreed to peddle drugs at school. Despite the risks, Heath had been divvying with his buddies the free samples his dealer had intended for seeding customers.
Heath tapped the nearest member of his posse and pointed at wee Herb Weaver. Quickly, they began their familiar chant, “HERRR-bert, HERRR-bert.”
Heath smiled when he saw Herb’s lips clenching. Herb was about to get wet...
* * *
A pathetic swimmer, Herb splashed and kicked. Then he realized it was the shallow end. Heath’s gang was gone by the time he’d slogged his way out.
Mr. Fulbright arrived and launched into a tirade. Rattled and intimidated, Herb could barely unclench his lips to defend himself as the victim of a cruel prank. So, Herb marched to the office for the first time in his sixteen years of life.
After leaving numerous voice messages, Herb was near ready to thrash his phone. It was a long wait considering that his sister Emma worked nearby at Krawling Laboratories, a company in Trenton concerned with aerospace, physics, and other stuff he knew nothing about.
His sister was always frustratingly difficult to locate. She rarely answered her mobile phone. Herb recalled the administrative assistant in Emma’s department once joking that Emma would often enter the laboratory and simply vanish outright for hours.
Finally, near the end of the school day, she showed up. But by then, he was dry and could have ridden home on the bus. The car trip home was silent until Emma squished a spider on the driver side window.
“Why’d you do that?” Herb blasted, identifying with the spider unable to protect itself.
“What?” Emma asked casually, balling up the tissue full of spider guts. “What went wrong at school?”
Emma was ten years older and his legal guardian. Herb knew full well she didn’t enjoy discussing his problems. He supposed Emma, always all business, only considered it her obligation to ask.
She was a brilliant physicist. But he wasn’t bright, handsome, or good at sports; he had nothing going for him. To add insult to injury, Emma was four inches taller.
“You wouldn’t understand,” he answered frostily.
* * *
The next day, Herb wished he could disappear into thin air. It began with an onslaught of Heath’s spitballs. Consequently, Herb was clenching his lips and wincing in fright when Darlene Luvina threw a passing glance. This mortified him unspeakably.
Lovesick, he’d been pining to himself for two excruciating years. To Herb, Darlene was unquestionably perfect. He found her compassionate, brilliant, sleekly-shaped, and though even shorter than Herb, astonishingly athletic. He imagined that in another universe they’d have made a perfect match.
* * *
That night, Emma quietly observed Herb flipping channels catatonically. Though genuinely wanting to understand how he felt, Emma required his partnership. It was plainly impossible to accomplish what she wanted on her own, and Emma felt comfortable with no other option than Herb. So, Herb’s despondent daze made her hesitate only briefly. “I need your assistance with something at work.”
“Talk to your work friends,” Herb muttered, eyes never leaving the screen.
Emma frowned, finding uncomfortable the term “friends” to describe her colleagues. Her collection of friends included three college companions with whom she only spoke occasionally.
“I can’t trust anyone at work with this. No one at work knows about it. But I trust you. My little brother.”
That won his attention a bit.
“While the universe seems infinite,” she said, “truthfully, there are infinite universes, each with unique—”
Emma caught Herb’s grimace before his gaze swung back to the TV. She knew he wouldn’t understand everything, but this was important. “Are you listening?” she persisted. Then solemnly: “Herb, I’ve discovered means to transfer matter from one universe to another.”
“I have no clue what you’re talking about.”
Seeking a different approach, she stepped out and returned lugging a spacesuit with a reflective coating. Herb’s jaw dropped.
“Put this on,” she said, again exiting the room.
Moments later, she dragged one in for herself. Emma showed him how to secure it. Within 20 minutes, they were suited and connected by headset.
“Why the ‘metally’ color?” Herb asked via two-way radio.
“Creates a Faraday cage. Easier to isolate transfer targets,” Emma replied, only afterwards wondering if that meant anything to him. “Voice recognition on. Set universe c=2.99792455, authorization Emma-12267.”
Readings flashed in her visor:
“Initiate,” Emma affirmed.
Immediately, they were floating in space, exactly where she’d expected. Around them, stars sparkled with unique hues of violet and green. She clutched Herb’s suit, and through his helmet, glimpsed his dumbfounded smile.
She knew she’d made an impact. “Thrust-0.05.”
They sped toward her cherished vessel floating nearby. Upon reaching the entryway, they crawled inside and cycled through the airlock. Once in the cabin, they removed their helmets, latching them to their suits.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“One of countless universes, each entirely different. The vessel’s name is the Griffin. I’ve spent years building this, Herb, but it’s finally ready. I first imagined it just after Mom and Dad...”
“What? When Mom and Dad what?”
Emma paused reflectively, then continued, “In college I wrote my first journal publication on using alternative universes as a means of launching spaceships without needing to escape Earth’s gravity well. That’s when Krawling Labs started recruiting me. They managed to wait until I’d finished graduate school. Herb, they’re trying to develop this technology. I’ve been keeping them happy by feeding them scraps, but they have no idea how far beyond them I am.”
“Where did you build this thing?”
Clutching monkey bars across the ceiling, Emma floated to the opposite wall containing the viewscreen and navigation panel. Glancing back, she watched Herb fumbling after.
“I assembled it right here in this universe. The boards for interdimensional matter transfer are behind this panel. I started building them in grad school, but that’s where all the magic is. Otherwise, the Griffin’s not much more than an airtight bucket with elementary thrusters. When you’re already in deep space, you don’t need rocketry to fight gravity or even wind resistance,” Emma explained, then mumbled, “You’d be amazed at the money in some of these projects at Krawling. They don’t pay much attention when equipment and materials disappea-”
“Umm, how’re we getting back?”
“Herb, you’re witnessing another universe and worried about getting home!? Relax. We’ll return essentially where we left. All universes are connected by spatial coordinates—”
Emma stopped when noticing his eyes roll. She stared him down to ensure he paid attention.
Turning back to the navigation panel, Emma resumed, “Our coordinates in this universe align with our home in New Jersey. When we move ten feet here, we move ten feet there. When we transfer back to our home universe, we re-emerge ten feet from where we started... In fact, we’re continuing to follow the Earth’s momentum from rotation and transl-”
“Are there planets here?” Herb interrupted.
“Stars, planets, asteroids. And things that lack words. But they’re in different spatial coordinates compared to Earth. That’s why we’re in deep space.”
“Umm, Emma, this cool, but I don’t know anything about this stuff!”
“Don’t worry; it’ll be easy. We’re going to travel from universe to universe together, Herb! Analyze the phenomena! But it isn’t a one-person job. I’m not even sure it’s a two-person job. There are going to be times when we’ll need to operate equipment in different universes simultaneously. But I’m going to teach you how to use all this stuff, and we’re going-“
“Study stars? That sounds boring.”
Emma’s head was near exploding. Herb was in a separate universe where the speed of light differed by 0.000001%, and all he could muster was “boring?”
More importantly, she needed help, and Herb was the only person Emma unequivocally trusted. Fortunately, she knew Herb well enough to have prepared for his reaction.
“Would you be impressed if we dashed through space and re-emerged inside the Pentagon?”
“We can do that?”
“Easily, by flying the Griffin 170 miles to coordinates in this universe that correspond southward to Washington, D.C. When in precise position, we transfer back to Earth’s universe. In fact, I can transmit images between universes. You can watch the screen as we ‘travel’ through buildings.”
“Cool! Can we be, like, spies?”
“No, we’re not going to be spies! We’re studying the astrophysics of exo-universes.”
Capacity to suddenly appear anywhere on Earth was a side benefit she’d considered carefully. Sail through walls. See others without being seen. Steal, sabotage, or murder with perfect cover.
In fact, she knew Krawling Labs had also considered this carefully and that their motives for seeking to develop interdimensional travel were in no way pure. She’d overheard it discussed time and again how Krawling Labs, should the project somehow be successful, intended to sell the technology to shady governments and corporations around the world. Knowing where the contract money was coming from, Emma easily deduced that it was her own government secretly most eager to get its hands on this entirely theoretical technology. In her worst nightmares, she imagined the world in chaos.
It’d been a painful catch-22 for Emma. She wanted to see interdimensional travel realized but used for discovery and knowledge. She certainly didn’t want to help Krawling Labs invent what would be used for sinister purposes. But if she left Krawling, she’d never know how close they were to success or how the technology was being utilized. She believed that to achieve the best outcome, she should stay on the project at Krawling but skim the resources she needed to accomplish it first on her own in secret.
This topic of trust was too important to be minding the ship’s operation panel. So, she swiveled her gaze directly toward Herb.
Emma asked with sincerity, “You understand what other people might do with this technology... why I couldn’t tell anyone about it but you?”
Herb was silent. She hoped that meant he grasped her comment’s gravity.
“Could we be superheroes?” Herb asked.
Emma sighed with an uncomfortable titter. He’d somehow hit a nerve.
“Seriously,” Herb said. “Like, hang out in rough neighborhoods... but hiding in the ship. We watch the screen, and when someone’s in trouble...”
“The dimensional transfer thing. Save the day.”
“I hate to break it to you,” Emma said with dry sarcasm, “but to be a superhero, you need strength, speed, or some legitimate superpower.”
“Wait, we do. We’re invisible.”
“Invisible? That’s understated. Invisible means you cannot be seen. Here, you cannot be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or felt.”
“Right. So, we have guns pointed before they even see us!”
“And we escape instantly by transferring back to the other universe,” Emma blurted immediately. “Herb, you’re being thoroughly ridiculous.”
“You know that’s what Mom and Dad would’ve wanted.”
“No, it absolutely would not!” she snapped, irritated that he’d tread there.
“That’s what they did. They were cops.”
“Mom was a cop. Dad was a forensic laboratory manager.”
“Why are you always correcting me?”
Years earlier, when Emma was in college, their parents were on a wedding anniversary hot air balloon ride that struck a zip line. The basket flipped over, and they fell to their deaths.
Her parents had wanted Emma to use her mind for public service. Preferring physics, Emma felt she couldn’t please them. Since then, she’d refused to reflect on how their deaths affected her emotionally.
“I wanna go home,” Herb said.
* * *
The next day, Emma disappeared into a refuge where she could redirect anxious thoughts toward science and invention. Not even Herb knew the location existed.
During Emma’s early experiments with interdimensional matter-transfer, she’d turned a giant boulder buried in a storm water basin into an asteroid in an alternate universe. The accompanying water formed an exquisite outer layer of ice crystals.
After hollowing the interior painstakingly with matter-transfer technology, Emma had made it her workshop. The selected alternate universe was fortuitously perfect. Brilliant star clusters provided the solar arrays enough light to power instruments and machine tools.
Emma poured her efforts into her newest gadget. Meanwhile, she reflected on her thirst to explore every universe and understand why each evolved so uniquely. Though Emma wanted to transform science, secrecy was essential.
Yet the one person she could trust to respect the grand power she’d invented was uninterested in science.
Herb was a conundrum tougher than any physics stumper. She recognized he was miserable but didn’t have guidance to offer him. This pained her terribly.
Emma wondered why she’d thought Herb, having no interest in astrophysics, would ever care about her scientific quests. Also, the soundness in Herb’s crazy suggestion irked her. Their family had been dedicated to law enforcement. In the right hands, interdimensional travel could be an unprecedented tool in defending public safety.
Emma recognized the empathy Herb maintained for helpless victims. She wondered if she could unlock the valiant Weaver inside him. Despite his lack of self-worth, he was upright and trustworthy to the core. Undeniably, there was something magnificent in him. She wanted to explain that to him, but she knew he’d take it as insincere. She needed a better way to let him know.
Then, a thought petrified her. In her silly proposal about sneaking around Washington, D.C., could she have subconsciously led Herb to suggest his ludicrous crime-fighting proposition? And was it possible there was some Weaver in herself?
Emma vacuumed the dust from the gadget she’d completed. As she admired its sleek teardrop shape, Emma acknowledged that the tragic loss of her parents gave her a critical responsibility for which she felt inadequate.
This required from her extraordinary measures.
* * *
At 4:45 pm, as always, the field near the Weavers’ apartment was free of Little Leaguers. Respecting his ritual, Herb stood at home plate with the bat his dad had gotten him when he was nine. He remembered that Christmas, the last without his parents. One-by-one, he belted a pile of stones.
The first rock was for Heath, the following for each of his rotten friends. The next set was for everyone at school who’d ever laughed at him. Then he lifted a larger stone and contemplated his bat’s next victim.
Tall, brilliant Emma and her damned science experiments.
Herb recalled how she’d been in college when their parents died. Emma was building a new life, while Herb was left with lonely Aunt Jenny. There was nothing awful about Aunt Jenny; he just didn’t want to live with her. He needed his family back. Only years later, after Emma had secured her Ph.D. and a job back in New Jersey, did she accept his guardianship.
After bashing several rocks in succession, he hurled the bat down the third base line. Respiring heavily, Herb wondered if losing their parents had grieved Emma as much.
* * *
Herb’s homework kept him up late that night. When Emma stopped by his door, Herb hardly glanced up from his desk. He really didn’t care what she had to say.
“I built you something,” she sasid.
He responded suspiciously, “Yeah? What?”
Emma placed the gun on his desk. It had an unusually large, loopy trigger and guard, giving the weapon a teardrop shape.
Herb offered a blank stare.
“It’s a firearm,” she said. “Designed for space gloves. Get your suit. We’re subduing villains.”
* * *
Floating in the Griffin, Herb sought to grasp Emma’s strategy.
“Why California?” he asked.
“Far enough that authorities can’t place us there,” Emma said. “Perfect alibi.”
On the viewscreen, Herb witnessed a rapidly moving view across the continent. They could peer into Earth’s universe while being altogether undetectable. What an upper hand!
* * *
Herb was drowsy, having stared at seedy San Francisco streets for hours. Abruptly, a band of hoodlums came smashing mailboxes and garbage cans with iron rods. They accosted a slender brunette who’d just exited a strip club. She squirmed as the men attempted to grasp her.
That awakened him. Donning their reflective spacesuits, Herb and Emma instantaneously emerged behind the gang.
The young thugs laughed upon turning around. Spacesuits, Herb imagined, were beyond San Francisco’s fashion boundaries. Then, brandishing their iron rods, the hoodlums advanced toward them.
Herb felt his lips clenching. Following Emma’s lead, he fired stray warning shots. The gang scattered quickly.
The roar of bullets triggered in Herb a cascade of euphoria. Herb had worried that the fear of killing someone would keep him from firing the weapon.
But it didn’t.
In fact, the power it offered alleviated the pain of insignificance and indignity he’d suffering for so long. Then he examined the frightened dancer lying against the storefront. Being her hero felt so foreign and delicious!
Police sirens blaring, Emma commanded, “Home universe, initiate!”
Promptly, they were floating in space staring at the Griffin.
“Why’d you do that? I wanted to see if she was okay!” Herb radioed in frustration.
“We were done.”
There was a period of silence.
“Why can’t we switch universes right back into the spaceship? We wouldn’t need these stupid spacesuits.”
“We’d have to be synchronized perfectly with the Griffin’s interior coordinates or risk re-emerging in the hull. But I’m working on it.”
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by David Rich