part 5


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Her breath is the air I breathe. All I need in her eyes. Count the breaths.

They're all I have left.

She says, "You can't keep all your promises. Nobody can."

Watch me.

You watch. Now jump. You can do it.

Trees. Green. Fragrant smell sharp shattered pine. Air dry and smooth. Yellow red rock warm like soft.

Down is horizon is far far away. The wind hisses past like a breeze like a caress.

I imagine my hand out. Reach for her touching. Reach for her reaching.

Come this way. To me.

Stay.

"You can't climb with that ring on."

"Then I won't climb."

"Don't...think you have to get from there to here."

"I'll just stay here."

"That doesn't make sense."

"I'm not moving."

"Then neither am I."

"You need to go. You have things to do."

Hanging. "Hanging from this rope? Naw. Don't think so. Think I'll wait for you forever."

If it takes forever.

"Wanna close that door?"

"Huh?"

Hand to the forehead. It's still there. Table here. In the lab. Night in Antarctica. Only light is yellow blue man-made.

Ryan's looking up over his glasses. Down at the screen then up at me. The lab. At pole. I'm here.

Again.

"Holy...I just had the most intense hallucination," I say, because I wasn't here two seconds ago. Not at all. Was Yosemite. Rock face. Outward Bound. Roped in with Jana. Jana. I'm supposed to remember.

Now I'm here.

"It's kind of chilly. Could you...?"

"sorry." I slam the door closed behind me.

"Did you--did you hear me come in?"

He looks at me as if I'm turning to stone.

"I don't remember coming here."

"You should sit down, then," he says. He rolls a chair over for me. Next to him, I see the screen. Big letters, on top. "Lookie here. Ring any bells, Rambo?"

AMANDA

"AMANDA? The particle thing there..."

"Right on. We were catching neutrinos from the sun. Photodetectors sunk in the ice. One, one and a half kilometers down. And then we replaced AMANDA with ice cube so we didn't really need it anymore. Someone got the idea to swap the detectors for transducers. So we could send signals as well as receive them."

"To where?" I ask him. "Who are we trying to reach?"

He types a couple of commands. Charts come up. Graphs. Histograms. Colors.

"It wasn't really a who or a what, or even a where. Sort of a, just to see what happens."

"Which was?"

"Do you know what a phase conjugate mirror is?"

I shake my head. Remember Jim saying something about it.

"If you send photons right back where they come from, interesting things happen."

"Like a seeing your reflection in a mirror?"

"You're sharp. Yeah, a killer mirror. Not only does light go back where it came from, but it goes back on exactly the same path. It's kind of wild. Light and time are intertwined. Remember your special relativity?"

I did. I said so.

"What happens if you can bounce all the light that comes to you back exactly where it came from along the same path?" he asked me. Then without waiting for an answer, he pointed at the computer screen.

I shrugged. The measurements on the screen were all zero.

"What are these numbers?"

Ryan said, "Well, this is neutrino flux, which is usually pretty high but shows darn low because it's so hard to measure. This is the thermal background, which is usually not as low as this. Here's beta decay."

There was an array of numbers that wasn't zero, but wasn't changing. "What's this?"

"The clock," he answered.

Didn't make sense. "That's not right. Time's not stopped. We're talking. That computer's working."

"Digital's all froze when the transmitters went on line. We lost AMANDA then. It's there, but follow the wires, there's no more holes in the ice. See, we weren't planning on turning it on till the physics was worked out, but then it got turned on and, poof. Most of the rest of the world, just gone. We can't see Jupiter in the optical telescopes anymore. Orion's up there, but it's way out of shape. No more nebula. Just big blue stars. Radios stopped working. Satcom went down. We may not even be in the same universe as the earth we know. Maybe a million years into our future or past. Maybe another dimension. Who knows? Really? I mean--and then all this started happening. Look at your watch."

I'd thought my watch had started working again when we got out of the plane, but I was wrong. The numbers were visible, but not changing.

"And so we have all this going on. You've got that Forbidden Planet monsters of the id trick you pull. Zoe thinks she's in a Disney movie..."

Woah woah. "Wait-- I'm not getting this."

"Yes you are. We've been here, what, a hundred times? A thousand? I explain this to you and you understand it a little better each time. Watch--"

He holds his hand out over the desk and shuts his eyes. In seconds, the air beneath his palm begins to sputter and spark. A tiny purple dragon materializes. It smiles, burps fire and a tiny blue cloud of cigarette smoke, then scrurries off under the table.

"They pop, eventually."

"Pop," I say. I feel numb. Distant. Like I'm floating.

"That's the way she's got it set up."

"Zoey?"

"She thinks it's a Disney movie, now. You've got Forbidden--"

"Planet," I finish his sentence because I want to know, "If it's her dream how come you can do that?"

"It's all of our dreams together. We're sharing."

"Sharing?"

"Took us a while to figure it out. Jim went from plumber to one James Bond movie or another. Kyle's got Groundhog's Day. We keep doing this over and over."

"And you?" I'm going along with it, but something's churning in me. I think I'm scared. If I go along, maybe I can keep myself calm.

"Vladimir Nabokov wrote a book called Transparent Things. The premise was something along the lines of, if you look at something long enough it loses all it's meaning. The line between dreams and reality blurs. Like that. So that's part of it."

"How do we make it stop?"

"Simple. Shut off AMANDA."

"Why doesn't anyone?"

"You mean, why don't you? You turned it on. Only you can turn it off. Part of someone's dream we haven't figured out yet."

I got up. "Where's the switch? I'll go turn it off now."

"Well, we all wish you would. Switch is in medical."

I started for the door. This was going to be easy. Then I thought out loud, "Medical? Why not in the dark sector?"

"Wire didn't reach," Ryan said, and he went back to typing on his computer.

"The wire? For the whole frigging gazillion dollar instrument--it didn't reach?"

"Yep."

"I'll just go turn it off and be right back," I said to him, but it didn't seem he was listening.

I reached the door and Ryan said, "But you never do. You walk out just like that, but between here and there, you change your mind."

"That's ridiculous."

"Yeah. Ridiculous," Ryan says.

I step into the hallway and fall from the antarctic night to brilliant summer daylight. The rope catches me. I'm in harness. Clipped in. Jana is ten feet above me.

"Are you okay?"

The rock wall. I slipped. Climb with your legs, not the arms, I remember as I make my way back to the ledge. When I'm up and situated, I hear myself saying, "See--you can't get hurt. If you let go, the rope will catch you. Just remember to shout 'falling.'"

"I'll be too busy screaming," Jana says. She's frozen on the rock face. Happens all the time, the guides told us. Only we can't go anywhere without her. We all have to make it.

"I can't do it," she says. Now crying.

"Yes you can."

"I can't."

Gotta get her to focus. "Look at me, honey. Look straight at me. Look in my eyes. I won't let you fall."

She glances at me, then away.

"Don't look down. Look in my eyes. Take my hand. I won't let you fall," I reach for her. Imagine the touch of her fingers against mine. "You have to let go."

She moves. Something hits me in the face.

Opening my eyes. Moving. Lights across my vision, head to toe. On my back. Something hurts. Hurts my head hurts my back hurts everywhere.

"Jesus..." I can almost say it. No way to move to diminish the pain.

Zoe looks down. Jim looks down. They're moving me. I'm on a stretcher. Going to medical, they say. Good. That's where the switch is.

"What's happening? Jim? What happened?"

"Spider bite," he says. "They're poisonous. Hang on, we have an antidote."

I have to tell him what I found out but it's so hard to breathe I can't waste my breath talking. Maybe on tiny sips of air. I've got to let him know.

"Jim--"

"Save your breath, pal," he says.

Bastard. Goddamn. Brilliant suggestion. I gotta tell him about the Transparent Things.

"I can't wake up."

They can't hear me. I'm not loud enough. Dear God, it hurts to breathe. Less space in my lungs.

"I can't wake up."

Jim crouches toward me. Good. Get closer. He says, "What'd you say, pardner?"

"I can't--"

The last words go off the cliff at Yosemite.





previous episode: light cone
next episode: the look in her eyes
first episode: STENDEC

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