Abyss & Apex: January/February 2003

five to nothing

Five to Nowhere

by Benjamin Buchholz

Mellifluous Horticulture swiveled his high-backed chair away from the desk and kicked his bare feet onto the window ledge. Outside birds chirped, the sounds of the city ebbed and flowed across the lawns of the university and the faint tracery of clematis flowering beneath the window’s lip smelled like grace incarnate. All Mellifluous cared about, however, was the sunshine.

“I’m almost finished. But the image won’t hold still.”

“Hmmmph,” Facility Hedgerow said, not yet ready to break from his senstream.

“Taste was easy,” Mellifluous said, plugging out, “I’m no Epicurean; so intravenous doesn’t bug me like some. Sight was necessary, smell good riddance, hearing overrated in the first place. No offense of course.”

“None taken.”

“Ah! You are listening.”

“Always.”

“But I couldn’t give up the feeling of sunlight warming my skin.”

“It’s small pleasures that ground us. Good for the mind.”

“Like your Beethoven?”

“I couldn’t survive.”

“Just think though, complete immersion—the last fifth. You would pentaflop again.”

“You too, my friend,” Facility said, dialing into Mellifluous’ stats.

“The problem is,” the older man replied, “I’m going to have to give it up. I think I’ve reached a Gordian Knot here. I’ve attacked it in color. I’ve listened to it, chewed it, swallowed it and sampled its aroma. But the issue has a tactile component. Unless you can drop out of that atmosphere study for awhile…”

“No chance. The EPA pays for my bloodstream.”

“Then it will have to be me,” the professor sighed.

He turned his head, briefly, to catch the vibrations in the air where his friend breathed next to him.

“I will miss the sunshine.”

#

In ones and zeros the hallway outlined itself beneath Mellifluous’ toes as he edged his way forward. The waxed floor felt truly slippery. The echoes of his footsteps reflecting from the near walls and from the far windowed balustrade at the hall’s end had an enjoyable percussive quality. The dust itself, settling slowly, smelt of books and the sweat of a janitor who had passed through in the late of the night. Despite such glorious resolution, Mellifluous hesitated.

Quickly, he flipped between raw senstream and his four fully daptered inputs, testing their compatibility with the trial touchdapter he wore. Sight worked fine. The resonance of his bitfelt steps mirrored true sound very closely. Smell reported on its own without any cross linkage to the touch nodule and there really wasn’t anything in the hallway to compare against his tastedapter’s sensitivities.

Almost satisfied, he slipped his hands and feet out of the sillicynth bath that modeled the feeling of true immersion into touch adaptation. He hadn’t purchased anything yet and he was being very selective about the brand.

“What I really want, though, is warmth,” he said.

“We got warmth?” the salesman called over his shoulder.

“Yah,” another voice replied.

A new data arena slid into place.

“Look at that!” Mellifluous said. “It’s Barbados.”

A sudden thought struck him. With distrust flavoring his voice he asked: “You’re not cross-tabbing me are you? I’ve already got a travel agent.”

“No,” the salesman said, feeling Mellifluous plug out with three channels and prepare for full evacuation, “we’re scrupulous with our clients and their marketing data.”

“Good. I was worried for a moment. Scene from my childhood.”

“Random luck, I assure you.”

“Okay, then. May I?”

“Of course. Delve in.”

With hands and feet once more submerged in the gelatinous bath, Mellifluous luxuriated in a rattan lounge chair on a deck overlooking the Bridgetown Careenage’s pearl blue water. They had supplied him with a snifter of good brandy, a polka band harrumphing through Tudor Street somewhere in the background, a copy of the Journal of Mathematical Physics and even a bottle of Hyrcman’s Zinc Oxide, already dabbed on his nose in a bright blue splotch.

Not cross-tabbing my ass, Mellifluous thought, although he appreciated the noticeable restraint. No porn or fast food advertising at least. Barbados though—that made him queasy. How could they know?

He dismissed the coincidence as quantum fuzz and made a mental note to get his skipgear serviced.

“Yes, this is better,” he said at last as he flexed his tanned fingers and felt the burn of a previous day’s suntan pink on his shoulders.

“In perpetuum then? Or limited contract only?” the salesman asked, anxious to finalize the deal.

“It’s my fifth.”

“Jesus,” the voice in the background swore.

The salesman stammered uncertainly.

“So that means perpetuum, yes,” Mellifluous instructed. “But not yet. I have some loose ends to deal with first.”

#

Like most other physicists, Facility considered his friend’s research rather passé. Who cared about a Unified Field Theory anymore now that quantum infinity was gospel?

“You’re sure about going tactile?”

“Like I said, it’s slippery math. And I’m so very near.”

“Near to what? And how’s Margaret going to deal with it when you tell her?”

Mellifluous began to reply but Facility cut him off, adding: “And what will you do with yourself when you finally pen the solution, huh? I’ll have killed the atmosphere equation by month’s end. Prudent Fenland is leagues ahead on interstellar piloting and there really isn’t any other foreseeable research for a four-channel computing professor; let alone five!”

“I’ll write a book.”

“Your memoirs?”

“No. A description of what it’s like. I’ll be the first you know.”

“I never took you for an exhibitionist.”

“I’m going to Barbados.”

This abrupt twist to the conversation caught Facility off guard. He wanted to ask ‘why?’ but held his tongue. Judging from the sound of Mellifluous’ voice the plan was not up for debate. Mellifluous waited patiently for Facility to recover.

In the end, Facility decided to delve right into the heart of the matter. “How long has it been since you’ve talked with Meghan?”

“Oh, Margaret keeps her informed on the subject of me.”

“Yeah, but…”

“You’re right. The answer is never.”

“Not at all?”

“Talked to her, when she was an infant. But Margaret and I split up before Meghan could hold any sort of a conversation. So, no, never with her.”

“And she’s natural, right? Like Margaret.”

“Fervently.”

#

The whole island, actually, was natural. And, on top of Meghan, that was Mellifluous’ fault too. When he’d discovered the Quantum Traverse Infinity Function (which gave individual humans the freedom to change at whim their sphere of existence from among the multitude of continuously spawning possible universes) they’d given him the island of his childhood in several of the central Universe veins as a sort of memento. He, in turn, gave Barbados to Margaret and she promptly divorced him to found the naturalist movement. She set the island aside as a reserve: no dapters, no genetic manipulations and definitely no skipping dimensions like the rest of the world. You were dealt cards at birth and forced to live with them.

“He’s a monster,” Mellifluous felt Meghan say as he emerged from the ship’s bay onto the dock.

“Be careful what you say,” Margaret warned, keeping her voice low.

But the sixteen year old charged forward, brash and unthinking. “He can’t hear, mom! He’s daptered. Look at him. It’s all wires—out of his eyes, ears, up in his nose. Gross.”

“But the bare feet,” Margaret said, “He can still feel. The vibrations are like words.”

“I’ve turned the machines off, Margaret,” Mellifluous answered, not able to pretend like he was oblivious, “out of respect for you and your project here.”

“Good.”

She was curt.

“I can’t undo the genetics or unplug the wires. The contracts are permanent.”

“So you still see the world through your feet?”

“Yes. But not right now. My vizdapter’s off. I’m not working on anything. Just listening to you.”

“For once.”

The distance between them was legion.

“Well, I assume that means you’ll need to eat?” Margaret added, taking a small step closer.

“Yes.”

“Like Bajan food?”

“Nourishment, that’s all.”

“Can’t you feel how good it tastes when your tongue vibrates?” Meghan asked, defensively.

Reverting to reflex, Mellifluous scanned the outflow of Universes, looking for one in which his daughter did not act so severely. But the few veins in which Barbados existed as a natural reserve all presented similar obstacles. The girl’s demeanor had changed. Mellifluous sighed, plodded on into the here/now and connected his tactile impressions to his vizdapter for the first time. His breath caught. The mother and daughter standing on the pier saw his eyebrows arch and his face tighten.

“No wonder you chose this life, Margaret,” he said. “You are as beautiful as the day I first met you.”

#

Meghan did not warm very quickly to her father. The initial turbulence only subsided when she began to realize, behind the wires and without the density of data swarming through his four closed senses, her father was human and could relate to her. A bridge between them finally presented itself when they discovered they shared a common interest that Margaret abhorred: spelunking. Margaret would do the tourist spots, Harrison’s Cave all lit up prettily and Animal Flower Cave with its 19th century ballroom dance floor and tidal swimming pool. But the whole of the island was peppered with little sinkholes, crannies to explore, places through which a body could barely squeeze but, once through, surface into an unheralded atrium.

“Tell me what it looks like,” Meghan said to her blind father ahead of her in the darkness.

“There is a fountain of stalactites and a running stream and a shelf of rock between them where we can sit for lunch.”

It was the last day of his visit. He would return to the university, stateside, that evening. He had yet to tie up any loose ends.

Meghan extracted a flat cake of cassava bread, a local delicacy, and broke it in half, passing a portion to her father. He chewed it mechanically and swore as one of his dapters flickered to life, feeding him a bit of trivia: “Cassava, from Taino caçábi: any of several plants (genus Manihot and especially M. esculenta) of the spurge family grown in the tropics for fleshy edible rootstocks which yield a nutritious starch; contains poisonous cyanogenic glycosides that must be removed during cooking.”

He felt outward in the darkness until he saw Meghan next to him. Shockingly, a small wire trickled out of her right eye and down toward her mouth. She had sprouted a vizdapter and a tastedapter both. He felt her listening to the sight of him and probing the cassava with her fingers.

Quantum fuzz again, he decided, flotsam and jetsam. I knew I didn’t manually open my senstream.

But, before he could skip back to the Barbados he had earlier inhabited, the new, daptered version of Meghan spoke: “I’ve been tempted to visit the us in this cave ever since you bought me my first set of skipgear.”

Mellifluous was intrigued. He decided not to return to the natural reserve, not until he heard his daughter out at least. The Meghan speaking to him now had an eerily prescient tone to her voice.

“You’re dead, you know,” she said, “back there in the protected veins.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. All of them. Mom baked the bread. I fed it to you. But I don’t know why. I’ve surfed this whole timeslice and it’s really strange.”

“Quantum strange?”

“Totally.”

“And so you’ve waited to pounce until now?”

“I had to. Mom’s got the other veins locked. Sealed off. Every vein where I lived with her is shut down to me. I had to piece it together and guess what was going on.”

“So how’d you get here?”

“Shorted out my identity stabilizer.”

“Meghan!”

“I know. I know…”

“No you don’t. This is mad. It’s probably a vein far from True EarthNow…”

“…and at any moment we could cease to exist. Turn to frogs or something freakish. Lecture number 39, you’ve told me a million times already, dad. I’m not a kid anymore.”

“Everything could cease to exist.”

“I researched this skip. Don’t worry,” she said, sounding like a miniature copy of Margaret, utterly meticulous. “It’s safe for at least another hour forward for the whole of the Milky Way’s Cygnus arm at least. That good enough?”

“Well…”

“Well what? I gotta know! You and mom are the two most divorced people in the whole of history! All my friends at least have one or two veins with a nice Cleaver family outing to enjoy. But not me. All I’ve got is a four-daptered dad and a zen mom who has shut herself into a few little veins I can’t reach! What’s the big secret you’re hiding?”

“God.”

“God what?”

“God is the big secret.”

“Yeah, so?”

“I’m close.”

“Your research?”

“Uh-huh.”

“And what’s that got to do with mom’s over-protectiveness?”

“She thinks it will tempt you.”

“How? I don’t care about God. Or science for that matter either.”

“But the you in Mom’s world does care, I think. Margaret’s set up something she calls a reserve and has decided to go natural.”

“You mean like those people who chant and wear robes at the skipports?”

“Yeah, except she’s the High Priestess of the movement in these veins. She’s got all of Barbados set up as a genetic and dapter free zone.”

Meghan raised her hand to her face and trailed one supersensitive finger along the bit of wire that connected her nose, eyes and mouth. The finger stopped at her lip. Silently, she mouthed the word “God.”

At last she asked the question that had really been rankling her, “So, after sixteen years you decided to come back and visit mom’s Meghan, huh? Wasn’t I good enough for you anymore?”

“It’s not that, honey. It’s, well, for my research I’m going to have to give up my feet. That means I wouldn’t be able to visit you in Mom’s world again. And I was concerned for you.”

“Why?”

“You’re growing up fractured. I don’t think it’s healthy. And mom doesn’t want to discuss it. Blames it all on me.”

“Because she’s sealed me off from myself?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s just perfect,” the girl moaned. “Just what I’ve come to expect from the two of you. Your little fight over God puts my whole adolescence at jeopardy.”

Her image fritzed out for a second but then suddenly sprang back to life, “By the way, I’m going to Dervic One with James tonight to watch the pollen migrate. I’ll be home by midnight.”

Then she disappeared.

Mellifluous was alone. The water burbling around him in the cave continued to seep into the pores of the earth. He debated for a moment whether simply to skip back to his office or to stay here and finish out the trip. There were several Universes in which he hadn’t decided to come to Barbados at all. He could be back home and fitted with his touchdapter in time for his nine o’clock lecture. In the end though, he decided it was worth one last try.

#

With real eyes and a wireless mouth, Meghan stared at her father.

“Yoohoo,” she said. “What’re you thinking about? You seem a million miles away.”

Mellifluous got right down to business.

“I think I’m dying,” he replied.

Her eyes flitted guiltily to the loaf of cassava bread beside her. She sensed a strange calm in her father, like death no longer mattered to him.

“Mom made me do it. She said you were trying to turn me into a monster, like you. That you’d connect me up to machines and make me exist in a million places instead of really loving and appreciating just one…”

In the way only those who are truly at peace can, Mellifluous ignored the rationale of his murderers. He had more important quarry to pursue (and other Universes in which to live).

He asked, “Do you believe in God?”

“Mom’s an atheist.”

“So?”

“I don’t know what I believe.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“It’s fuzzy in here,” Mellifluous said, another wave of flotsam, of quantum flux, passing over him. “Damp maybe. My wires keep crossing.”

“Like being a teenager?”

“Like being an infinite teenager.”

She started crying.

“I’d like to know what you know. I’ve heard, from friends mother doesn’t like, that you can go a long way in just a moment. Remove yourself. They say it’s really neat.”

“And really dangerous. It’s sort of standard practice to set your skipgear to double check your own integrity before you parallel over anywhere. But some of the joyriders now, I’m pretty sure they don’t. That’s why there are the accidents.”

“Mom says it’s all bad. To skip.”

“It might be.”

The girl paused.

“Is God out there?”

“You know, I told a colleague of mine the answer was no. But he still slogs on with science. I think it is faith that keeps him going. In a world where anyone can have anything, change anything instantly, science is rather irrelevant. But faith keeps him slogging.”

“What’s he study?”

“Clouds, mostly.”

“And that requires faith?”

“Only if you’re looking for anomalies in the patterns of momentary Universes.”

“Whoa.”

The burbling of the subterranean brook again filled Mellifluous’ one open input channel for a shadowy second.

“You’re looking for God too, aren’t you dad?”

“Yes,” he said. “And I’m very close to finding Him. But to capture any meaningful essence only two routes exist—follow the debris of His infrequent subtle mistakes, like my friend…”

“Or?”

“Sacrifice the fifth input channel and embrace the total equation. It’s called a Unified Field Theory.”

“But then you’ll be, what? Gone?”

“I’ll be gone from your world now, when I die, anyway. Mom’s killing me in all her natural strands.”

The silence loomed larger than before.

“But you could come to me, if you want. Just leave Barbados physically. You don’t need to buy gear. They’ve got skipports elsewhere in this vein. There’s one in Miami.”

The girl could say nothing else at that moment other than — “Okay. I’ll remember that.”

When she emerged alone from the cave entrance a few minutes later, parting fronds of date palm, she turned her face toward the sun and shivered away the clinging cold.

#

Back in his office at the University, Mellifluous and a small group of his peers, including of course Facility, toasted his impending fifth immersion. As he plugged himself into the touchdapter and began wading through an aggregate of data from five dimensions he fed their inadequate two, three or four daptered channels a picture of his progress. The party so firmly fascinated themselves with Mellifluous’ descriptions of the tunnel of light and the smell of home-baked cookies that the old fashioned envelope which feathered through the mail slot in the office door caught no one’s attention.

Only later, when Mellifluous had withdrawn into a region unreachable to any of them, did Facility discover the handwritten note. He read it aloud to himself: There is a third way — spend an evening in the darkness listening to your father’s voice.

 


Five to Nowhere is Benjamin Buchholz’s first published work of short fiction. His long voodoo poem Songs in the Key of Ibo, also set in Barbados, is forthcoming in Snow Monkey. He balances his writing addiction with the joy of raising two strapping sons, aged 2 and .5. He attended the United States Military Academy and the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he studied Arabic and Classics. 





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