by Mark English
I pretend an interest in the dusky view through the train window, but I am focused utterly on my reflection. I wonder if my vitreous shade can still hear Martin’s screams echoing in her head, feel the weight of his limbs in her hands, and bear the guilt as do I.
I stare at my mirror-self, which in turn critically appraises me. I wait to see if she twitches in the window, but instead she matches my non-blinking stare, her face a closed door to the secrets we must not divulge.
In the seat across from me, my guard looks up from his newspaper as the sliding grind of the first-class carriage door, accompanied by the rush of track and corridor noises, heralds the return of his colleague.
I observe their reflections as I stare at the train window. They exchange glances; a raised brow, a head shake. A line wrinkles in the corner of my eye as I focus on imagining they are not really with me, but exist only in the reflection; with her. My ears hear them, reporting the lie; the illusion breaks.
The guards change positions and the new arrival takes on the stewardship of the newspaper. He shakes it out as the first guard leaves the carriage. I see the headline. News of my husband’s ‘defection’ is still being reported despite a security clampdown. I should be thankful — if not for the leak I would have been disappeared in the same ‘accident’ and fire that destroyed my lab. As a news item I am more titillating than the cold-war. From what I have read, I can see that there is one truth for the people and another for the military.
The real truth comes back to me in shards and slivers — this I keep for myself.
Years of research, applications for grants, and sheer elbow grease stood assembled before us. In many ways a structure of great beauty–winding copper coils, coolant valves, power cabling, and a full-height silvered mirror as the centerpiece. I fancied it as the fairy tale mirror from Snow White captured by science into an iron frame. The summer sun through the hangar windows sparkled on the machine; a cold, glittering readiness.
The deepening frost in the cold-war had compressed our schedule. The weekly reviews became daily reviews, and very firm. The increased military presence on each review board brought a gritty reality to the pure research dream. We wanted to demonstrate the use of parallel universes as a method of transport. The demand to show results pushed us to deliver early.
I wound my arms around Martin’s waist, poked my head over his shoulder and gazed at the sum of our efforts.
“Pity it doesn’t work.” I bobbed my chin against his bony shoulder and squinted at his profile. A stray hair escaped my headscarf tickling my cheek; I puffed it away.
“Yup. Perhaps it needs more power, Jean.” He attempted to move towards the distribution box.
“No. We are looking at a weak effect–the evanescent wave on the mirror is already in place, showing light from the mirror dimension.” I tightened my grip, squeezing a cough from him. “This is Everett’s many worlds hypothesis made real–exactly as per my theories!”
The view in the mirror was not a reflection; a reciprocal world shone into ours. The pitch to the research board seemed so long ago — the proposal to move matter across the interface and bring it back through a different mirror.
The military heard about it–only they had seen more and further. They grasped the potential to bring another army over from the mirror dimension, to borrow and reinforce from that universe, or materialise an atomic bomb anywhere. Deep in the science as we were, we had greeted news of the military funding with a mix of horrified disquiet and blinkered excitement.
“Perhaps the mirror isn’t smooth enough?” he queried, twisting his neck to face me. He puffed at the stray hair also, his efforts making me blink.
“No.” I smiled at him. “I think it doesn’t work because we don’t want it to.” He knew what I meant.
“Well, I want it to work just so we know you were right.” A smile wrinkled his cheek.
I moved my mouth close to his ear, to breathe my response. “You know very well we haven’t applied the Everett field pattern to the mirror yet. However, I took the precaution of blacking out the security cameras. What say we get this baby rocking? Then we could take it to pieces and burn all the notes. Though we’d probably live out our lives in prison, at least we’d be together.”
He wriggled in my locked arms, turned and hugged me back. He leaned in to me, his breath tickling my ear, “Okay, you minx, let’s pull Frankenstein’s lever.”
I pushed myself from his arms and semi-danced across the concrete floor to the bulb-ridden control panel. I pulled a fuse from my trouser pocket, waggled it at him playfully, lifted a hatch on the panel and slipped the fuse in place. I dithered my hand over the switch.
If this worked, we would have to destroy our notes; this machine would be horrendous as a weapon. If it did not work, it would be a relief on the one hand, but I knew my failure would shake me — deeply.
My face started tingling as the doubts mounted, I could see a shake in my hand. I glanced at Martin, imploring him for reassurance, but he held back knowing this moment was mine.
A smile cracked his rigid expression, “Breathe, Jean, breathe.”
I inhaled deeply, blinking away the dots that began dancing before my eyes. With a loud yell I gulped air, and slammed the switch home.
A high pitched whine dashed around the vaulting of the hangar, fading to a sibilant hiss as the coils started building to their peak. A few minutes and I would know the truth.
I woke to a sharp stinging pain in my cheek, the odour of burnt hair, and the abrasive calls of approaching sirens. A blurred face loomed over me, yelling. Strong hands shook me.
“Where is your husband? How did the fire start? Where are your notes?”
The words washed through me as the face snapped into focus, security-standard mirrored sunglasses reflecting back an image of the woman, unharmed. Me. I sobbed at the evidence of a loose end.
“He’s gone. Forever. All gone, all burned.”
The sirens stopped. Running feet approached. Medics pushed my interrogator roughly aside and lifted me onto a stretcher. I lapsed back into a blurry unconsciousness.
The coils took a few minutes to fill with the terrible charge required to trick the universe. It would take some time for the Everett field to collapse once the power was turned off.
Martin and I scarcely breathed, the seconds interminable until the circuits clicked over and the full charge was applied to the mirror.
Air moved past me chilling my skin like a fresh breeze, I checked over my shoulder to see if a window was open. The mirrored surface roiled like hot oil in a frying-pan, cells of silver expanding out, clashing with each other then shrinking back down again. We stepped towards the surface, entranced by the eldritch sheen, trying to observe any differences between worlds; anything that would tell us we could slide matter into their world without a change in ours.
Our reflections gaped back at us, identical. The math must be correct; with the uncertainty applied to the evanescent wave there should be minute, visible differences.
The reflections ducked and weaved, matching our own jerky motions as we tried to catch sight of any delay in movement. There was nothing visible.
We both stepped forward cautiously. Martin reached out, tentatively poised to touch his image.
“Look at it Jean — just as you predicted,” his hand wavered in front of the mercurial sheen, “but why is the Everett shift not visible to us?”
“Back away Martin, I may have got the order of magnitude wrong.” Even as the last word left my lips and faded into a hush, his fingertip came to rest on the phantom surface. It was a gentle motion, tender as a touch on a lover’s neck.
That fragment of time locked itself in my memory. Within one breath my intellectual conquest would be realised. Without trying, I can take my mind back to that moment: dust motes speared by light in the air between Martin and his shifting reflection, his chin and neck stubble, the skin under his eyes dark from the long days building to my designs.
That quantum of time I now see as a meniscus between our life together and the ensuing madness of absolute loss. My chest thudded once, hard, my heart kicking off with the dump of adrenalin, and time rolled onward.
The nurse sat on the foot of my bed, clean, precise, smiling. “How are we doing?”
I pointed to the television which burbled to itself on a trolley in the corner. “Could you turn that off, please, and bring it here next to my bed?”
The nurse frowned as though being helpful were an affront, but did so, wheeling the now reflective screen closer. I turned away from her and gazed at my new bedside companion.
“How’re we doing?” I repeated. “We’ve been abandoned and burned.” I lifted a hand, moved it back and forth rapidly, staring into the screen. “What a dumb question.”
The nurse stood and left, her figure retreating deeper into the screen’s dark interior.
Martin pressed his finger firmly into the mirror. “My reflection is tracking me, Jean, so looks like we’ll get crossover.”
I expected Martin to pass through the surface and join his reflection. It appeared we were getting the second predicted result — Martin and his reverse twin exchanging through the interface. Neither of us foresaw a third possible solution to the field equations.
Martin’s finger progressed inwards, but did not appear in the reciprocal view of the mirror. The surface swallowed his fingertip like liquid mercury, disappearing under the surface. He did not appear in the reflection, and nothing came out into our world.
Martin wrenched his arm, trying to pull back, rocking the iron-framed mirror. “Jean! My finger is stuck, like concrete. I can’t feel anything from it.”
I leaped forward and grasped his elbow as the roiling silver swallowed his hand. I pulled back with all my weight — to no avail. He was locked in place. I dashed to the control panel and opened the switch. The coils emitted a contented, languorous, malevolent sigh.
Nearly tripping in heart-thudding haste, I grabbed back at Martin’s arm. In the seconds I stood at the control panel he had sunk to the elbow on his right arm. His left, braced bloodless and straining against the frame, must have touched the flowing metal; the sinister silver drew it in. I grabbed his shoulders, jammed my foot against the frame and pulled back, hard.
My legs and arms shook. Martin shrieked, eyes wide, face paling as his reflection sucked him into a terminal embrace. In the oil-on-water calm of the mirror, our counterparts writhed and screamed with us, every movement and scuffle matched in synchronicity.
Martin sobbed as his fringe touched the metal. He ripped his head back, leaving hairs standing proud of the mirror. He stared as they wriggled, turning and shortening as though drilling their way into the silver. “Jean, stop pulling me — it’s no good. By the time the coils dissipate, I, I .. it will be too late for me.”
I hugged him around the waist and kissed his cheek, a dark parody of earlier. “Minutes, that’s all we need, just minutes. It could stop at any time now.” My tears rose up, choking my throat as the adrenalin ebbed.
He turned his head to kiss me back. “I know… I know how much this work means to you, but this device is not what you described. Now let me go, before you get sucked in too.”
I released him. The cooling breeze from the mirror sucking in the atmosphere left a chill on my arms. A breathy warning from the deadly surface.
Martin arched his back, his arms sunk to the shoulders, holding himself away as long as possible. “Jean, destroy this! Destroy it before it gets abused. Destroy our notes, everything.”
My mind washed over with white, then burned red as my breathing sped up; Martin was disappearing, my husband, partner, my balance in the world.
“No!” I jumped forward, grabbing at the clothes on his back, pulling uselessly as he pitched forward, his face touching the metal. The machine drew him in as though desperate to finish him with the last ebbing charge. I grasped his ankles, felt his legs spasm then fall still as his head passed across the shining veil. I could see my counter self, hands grasping ankles that led to limbs that led to me. Tears tracked from unblinking eyes, crossing her bloodless cheeks.
The coils ceased their whining as Martin’s knees passed through the surface. I stared at the other woman, at the other end of the other legs. I knew the mirror dimension existed, and that she looked at me with the same shaking lips and dazed expression as I displayed to her.
Without the support of the negating mirror, Martin’s limbs gathered weight. The truncated remains slid down the shining stilled surface, trailing blood.
The feel of the heavy dead flesh of my lover in my hands, the bloody tracks before me, whirled my vision. A dark wave rushed through my mind like a blow to the head, not hard not violent, but muted and muting. It took me like a rip-tide, whirled me around, swept me out of sight, out of mind.
Moments may have passed, or hours. I struggled up from the floor to stand and look at the gruesome evidence. The blood streaked mirror, the remains of my Martin. I stepped up to my reflection, placed my hand on the cold, quiescent surface, touching glacial palms with my new heart-bound partner.
“I’m sorry for your loss. He was a good man.” I saw her lips move, but heard my voice.
Martin was no longer in either universe. Could you go to heaven if your soul was erased? I shuddered, everything must be destroyed. I looked back to my collaborator. We both accepted the task before us; Martin was dead, it all had to go. It would all burn, but there must be no evidence of neatly excised bones or any notion that the machine had been run. The woman in the mirror straightened her shoulders and nodded encouragingly at me.
I crossed to the machine and started it up; the coils sighed back into life. While they charged I gathered my note books and all the designs, then sat waiting for the surface to boil into life.
The charge swept across the surface with a sharp click — my cue to feed the documents into the shining void. Once the paper was consumed, I gently lifted Martin’s legs, their cold weight impressing into my memory.
I flicked my gaze to my reflection, then we sent our lover’s remains on their final voyage.
“See you soon, Martin,” we chanted in unison, grief-matched faces across the metal haze. We felt the draw to launch into oblivion, be removed from this loss; but the machine had to be destroyed. This would not be our way out. We turned our machines off, waved au revoir.
Together we took fire-axes to all electronics and cabling, then swept the remains into a pile at the base of the mirror. Stepping onto the wreckage, I watched the figure in the glass douse herself in ethanol from a flagon, shaking it liberally above her head and over the stacked remnants of her experiment. The scene leapt brightly as I saw her flick a cigarette lighter to yellow life. A second later, the room lit with the blue ghosts of ethanol flame that danced over her body and the heaped machinery. I saw her gasp, drawing blue flame into her mouth. I screamed, and crumpled in pain as I saw her sag into unconscious bliss.
The huddle of doctors outside my door clearly did not care what I heard. Their conversation wafted quietly into my room.
“All she does is stare at that blank screen, and now and again she will move a hand or foot. The defection, and brutal attempted murder has scrambled her. In my opinion she is no longer of any use to the programme.”
They questioned me many times. Could I tell them what had gone on? I could not explain to them without revealing the results of the experiment, or Martin’s fate. I kept my own counsel. My eyes sought out the dead television to draw solidarity from the friendly gaze of my sister in silence.
They asked if Martin had defected, gone over to the other side? They meant the Russians, but this question threw me into a violent hysterical fit. The ensuing struggling spasms always resulted in sedation. I grew to welcome the needle-sharp announcement of the stupefiers.
From the questions they asked, I gleaned that they had recovered nothing. They had no idea the machine worked, and there were no records of my theories.
My survival from the fire became a closely guarded secret. If not for the leak to the press about the ‘scientist defection’, I am sure I would have been taken somewhere discreet, and both Martin and I accounted for in the inferno that destroyed the lab.
It was decided that I was to spend time out of contact, somewhere I could be guarded and coaxed back to sanity.
My silence on all fronts left me open to many interpretations, none of which bothered me. I turned to check my dark reflection –- she smiled at me knowingly and winked. Neither of us were bothered.
The woman in the train window smiled grimly at me as the pastoral scenes slid past under a glowering sky. We would be having time in the country. In the words of our psychologist — time to reflect.
Mark English is an astrophysicist and space scientist who worked on the Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn. Following this he worked in computer consultancy, engineering, and high energy research (with a stint at the JET Fusion Torus). All this science hasn’t damped his love of fantasy and science fiction. It has, however, ruined his enjoyment of rainbows, colourful flames on romantic log fires, and rings around the moon. He has previously been published in Stupefying Stories Showcase, Everyday Fiction, Escape Pod, Perihelion and also at Antipodean SF where he is part of the narration team.