“It’s a Perfect World After All”
by Russ Colson
Levin Alache managed to keep his feet on the sidewalk, but the woman’s packages scattered in every direction. Had he not known better, he’d have thought she walked into him on purpose. But that didn’t make any sense, and in Levin’s tidy physicist-world everything had to make sense.
“I’m terribly sorry.” Blonde hair peeked through the black fur of the woman’s hood, stirring in the chill breeze.
He managed a small grin and extracted himself from the hand clutching his arm. “No problem.”
He stooped to help retrieve the packages lying around them like crater ejecta, reaching with his left hand to ensure she noticed his wedding band. Amy could always trust him. He liked that. Trustworthy, like the universe. They corralled the wayward packages and stacked them at the edge of the walkway.
She removed her thin black gloves and offered her hand, smiling. “I’m Jillian Werk.”
He took it hesitantly. “Levin.”
She brought her other hand to cover his, pressing something soft into his palm. “Here’s something for your trouble.” With one smooth motion that belied her former clumsiness, she picked up the stack of packages. “It can protect you.”
With that, she disappeared among the holiday shoppers.
Levin turned his attention to the small rabbit’s foot in his hand. Fortunately, his universe didn’t depend on such superstitious nonsense. His universe was orderly and reasonable, as a physicist’s world should be, with reasonable effects following proper causes. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to corrupt such a trustworthy system with a magical talisman.
He slipped the object into his pants pocket and hurried on to the lab. He trotted up the narrow flight of stairs that led from the alley door to the privately-held acoustical facility above the renovated downtown music store, relishing the smell of old wood, dust, and electrical equipment.
“What’s up, Lev,” Rob hollered from his office. “You took almost half your lunch hour.” He laughed.
Levin hung his coat in the cubby near the door. “Ran into some shoppers.”
“Well, it’s good for you to not be at work all the time,” Rob said.
Lev grinned through Rob’s open office door. “I’ll try to keep that in mind.”
He’d resented the owners bringing in Rob as an outside manager two years ago, but then Rob introduced him to Amy and was best man at their wedding. A real friend.
One of these days, he’d take Rob up on the offer for a guys’ night out to one of the orbital space stations, famous for amusement parks, ritzy nightclubs, and views to die for. Better than all that, there was some pretty cool science taking place on some of them, according to Rob.
He tossed the rabbit’s foot on the lab bench he used for a desk. It hit with a loud thump, and a flash of blue gleamed through a break in the fur. Odd. He retrieved it from the desk and peeled back the fur revealing a metal object, smooth and oval, underneath. The light came from a crystal inset into the metal.
Phil, their main computer guy, had just arrived and was taking off his coat. Levin waved him over. “Hey, Phil. Take a look at this. What do you think it is?”
Phil stepped toward his desk but froze ten feet away, his eyes fixed on the metal device. He took a couple of steps backwards. “Rob! Get in here!” Phil’s voice squeaked.
Rob poked his head in. “What’s up?”
Phil was still backing away. “He’s got a certainty amplifier.”
Levin had no idea what he was talking about.
Rob’s eyes narrowed on the object. “Shut up, Phil. We spend three years planning and you mess it up in three seconds. Get Amy. I’ll take care of this.”
Amy? What did they want with Amy? A tingle of concern crept past Levin’s confusion. Somehow this had to all make sense. He examined the object again. Its glow had faded.
He raised his eyes to find himself looking at a small dart gun and Rob’s grim face. “How much did they tell you, Levin?”
Levin’s simply stared for a moment, struggling to understand. “Tell me about what?”
Rob’s finger tightened on the trigger. “Never mind, Lev.”
Levin dodged, tripping over his long legs and falling to the floor. The dart whistled past and pinged against one of the metal lab tables behind him.
“What’re you doing?” His wrist burned from the fall, providing sharp reality to the surreal events.
Rob calmly reloaded what looked like a tranquilizer dart while Levin scrambled backwards, crablike, until he ran into the far wall. Rob followed. “We’re not ready for you yet, Levin.” He raised the gun. “But, trust us. We’re not going to hurt you.”
Levin pressed his back against the wall. “Yeah. I can tell.”
He remembered the odd metal device still in his hand. Jillian told him it could protect him. Okay. Why not? He had nothing better to try. He waved it at Rob like a cross before a vampire.
Rob fired, and the rabbit’s foot flashed a bright blue. The dart bounced off the air in front of him as though off an invisible rubber wall.
Rob’s eyes widened and he backed away like a cat facing a bigger foe and debating whether to fight or flee. “Crap.” He turned and ran for the exit. Levin heard his feet clattering down the old wooden steps.
Levin retrieved the dart, the needle bent at a sharp angle like the unexpected bend his life had taken. He tossed it aside and stood, the post-adrenaline calm leaving him dizzy.
Amy. They were going after Amy.
He grabbed his coat and ran down the street to his hover-car. About half-way home he tried calling. No answer, so he left a message. “Amy, there’s some trouble. Don’t let anyone in the house. I’m on my way home.”
Weaving at high speed through the four lanes of traffic, he pressed “911.” The dispatcher answered.
“What’s your emergency?”
“My wife’s in danger.” He explained the situation, gave his home address, and disconnected the call.
Taking the steering lever with both hands, he pulled out from behind a truck and accelerated past. He cut to the right-hand lane through a wave of cars and exited onto the main artery feeding the housing development.
Two minutes later, Levin pulled up by his house and ran up the walkway without bothering to turn off the car or close the door. He found Amy standing in the living room, coat on and purse in hand.
She appeared uninjured.
He nearly choked in relief, taking a moment to get enough air to speak. “Amy, we have to get out of here.”
Just then Phil stepped into the living room from the kitchen. He froze when he saw Levin.
Levin looked from Amy to Phil in confusion. “Amy, what’s . . . why’s he here?”
Amy had a gun in her hand aimed his way. “Just come with us, Levin. Things can still work out.”
“Are you having an affair?” He struggled to keep his voice steady. An affair didn’t fit all the other things going on, Rob’s attack at the office, the rabbit’s foot device, but Levin couldn’t get his mind around it all. He needed time to think.
She bit her lip and stepped closer. “You don’t understand, Levin.”
Apparently true. Levin reached into his pocket for the rabbit foot.
Amy raised the gun—she’d let it sag toward the floor during the exchange. “Don’t, Levin.”
Ignoring her, he brought out the metal device, and Amy pulled the trigger. The bullet ricocheted off an invisible wall—like the dart had done at the lab—breaking a lamp on the end table. The tinkle of glass hitting a ceramic urn in the corner continued after the concussion faded.
“For heaven’s sake, Amy,” Phil shouted, “we don’t want him dead.”
“I was shooting at his knees. We have to get him to the station before he learns how to use it.”
Levin turned and fled. Two policemen were walking up the sidewalk, their patrol car hovering by the curb and casting red and yellow strobes across the yard. Amy shot them from the doorway.
She was killing people? His Amy? He felt an urge to throw up.
He heard more shots, but kept his hand on the rabbit’s foot and ran for his hover-car, its door still open and the motor idling. He backed from the driveway and raced down the street, not looking back.
What was the rabbit’s foot and how could it respond to his wishes, like magic? That upset the laws of physics, which bothered him a great deal. Worse, Amy and Rob’s actions upset his laws of friendship, which bothered him even more. Without trust, trust in science, trust in Amy, what was the point to life anyway?
There must be some explanation, he just didn’t have enough information. Yet.
There was a police station about two miles away, but a police cruiser pulled him over before he got there. He lowered his car to the pavement and waited. One officer approached while the other kept him covered from behind the open door of the patrol car. “Get out and put your hands on the hood of your car,” the first said.
Levin got out but tried to reason. “Look, I haven’t done anything. I need help.”
The officer twisted his arm sharply behind him and threw him against the hood. “Your wife tells us you shot two cops.”
“No. Wait. That’s not true.” The officer pressed his head down, smashing his lip between his teeth and the hood. He tasted metal, whether paint or his own blood he wasn’t sure. He felt handcuffs on his wrists, cold in the winter air.
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and—”
A woman’s voice interrupted. “Sorry, guys, but you’re making a mistake.”
A flash of blue reflected off the windshield of Levin’s hover-car and the officer holding him stiffened and slid to the ground. In the hood of the car, right under Levin’s nose, a narrow ribbon appeared in the white-painted metal, absolute black like a crack in reality, deeper than the vacuum of space. The ribbon collapsed with a small pop, wrinkling the metal around it as though a part of the world ceased to exist and the rest tumbled into the hole left behind.
Levin’s eyes were still on the wrinkled metal when the woman spoke from behind. “We need to get you out of here.” He turned to see Jillian, still in the dark coat, hood thrown back and blonde hair falling about her head in a waterfall. She knelt by the fallen officer, looking for the electronic key. In a moment, he felt the cuffs click open.
She stood and took his hand. Hers felt warm in the cool air. “We’ll take my car. The police are looking for yours.”
Her confidence offered orderliness in his suddenly unordered universe. “Did you kill them?” he asked, looking at the two policemen on the ground.
“They’re not hurt. I used a certainty amplifier.”
That name again.
He followed to her car, a red Cerano, curiously adapted for wheels rather than hover ability. “This certainty amplifier, what does it do?”
Jillian pointed him to the passenger side and took the driver’s seat. “Whatever we expect. We’re hoping you can expand its abilities.”
Levin waited for an explanation, but she was soon busy merging onto the freeway. He eased his shoulders back against the seat, allowing himself—or compelling himself—to relax. “Thanks for helping me.”
She gave him a brief sideways smile but stayed focused on driving. They took a secondary street north, out past the old granaries falling into disrepair and into the shadow of the Commodities Ejector Rail still under construction. A few miles out of town the road turned to gravel. Aha. That explained why she didn’t take a hover-car, the jet would have blown gravel around like shrapnel. He felt his muscles start to tense up again, pulling his shoulders back off the seat. An unpaved road wasn’t likely to lead to reasonable authorities.
“Where are you taking me?” He watched her face, immobile, locked to the road.
“You’ll see when we get there.”
At fifty miles per hour, his chances of jumping from the car without injury seemed slim. Even if he succeeded, there was no place to flee except for bare fields broken by narrow belts of river woodlands.
She glanced over, no doubt noticing his hands clamped tight over his knees. “Take it easy. I’m one of the good guys.”
He forced a smile. “How ’bout you take me back to town then?”
She returned her attention to the road. “I can’t do that.”
“Ah.” He coughed as dust seeping in from the road grew thick.
Jillian drove down a short incline into a copse of trees where the sound of the wheels quieted as they rolled onto a bed of moldering winter leaves. She stopped the car and laid a hand on his arm. “We walk from here.”
Levin peered through the trees, trying to spot the road. “I think I’ll head back to town if you don’t mind.” He wasn’t sure that was a great plan, but he needed to recover some sense of control.
“We’re too far to walk. Trust me.”
Levin gave a short laugh. “If I’ve learned anything today, it’s to not trust anyone.”
Jillian unbuckled her seat belt and looked at him with what might have been disappointment. “That’s a stupid thing to learn.”
She got out of the car and Levin followed. “Well, let’s see. My best friend tried to drug me. My wife tried to cripple me. The police tried to arrest me. What do you think I should learn?”
Jillian opened the back door and tugged out a pack. She swung it to her shoulders and eyed him again. “How about ‘don’t betray people?'”
Levin stared for a moment, only half hearing. “I think I’ll take my chances walking back.” He started up the short rise toward the road.
He heard the click of a bullet sliding into a firing chamber. He turned to find a small, black handgun trained on him.
“Sorry, Levin. We need you,” she said.
He fingered the metal device in his pocket.
She smiled nervously. “Don’t count on it, Levin. I have one too. I’m not your equal, but I’ve had a lot more practice. And I’ve got the gun.”
He considered resisting, but didn’t know where else he might go anyway. No place to hide. No one to trust.
He followed her down to the creek—easily forded by a short jump—then up a hill on the other side. The air had warmed with afternoon, stirring a faint smell of fallowed soil from the fields to their left.
“What’s a certainty amplifier?” he asked.
She scanned the landscape. “You know about the Uncertainty Principle?”
“I’m a physicist.” He didn’t bother to hide his annoyance.
“Then you understand that measuring something influences what’s being measured. There’s a competing principle, the Certainty Principle. Our expectations cause a convergence toward what we expect. This device amplifies that.”
Levin raised an eyebrow. A universe governed by billions of conflicting expectations didn’t seem very orderly or trustworthy at all.
Jillian shrugged. “You’ve seen it work.”
“Why’d you hide it in a rabbit’s foot? Why not just tell me what’s going on?”
“You didn’t like our little drama?” Jillian’s smile spread wider on the left side of her face than the right, idiosyncratic and intriguing. “Actually, the amplifier is more effective at a subconscious level, so telling you about it would have made it work less well. Plus, we didn’t want to let the others know we know about you.”
“I think they know.”
“Yeah. That didn’t work out.”
She approached a metamorphic boulder about ten feet wide and three tall left behind by glaciers ages ago. She bent over, put her fingers under it, and lifted. To Levin’s surprise, the rock rose smoothly, like the hatch of a submarine. Apparently it wasn’t left by glaciers after all.
Jillian waved him down a stairway into the earth. Stains marked the concrete wall where water had seeped for years, but the air smelled fresh. Their footsteps pinged in the narrow space.
“So, should I expect Dr. No? Or Dick Smart?”
Jillian laughed. “There used to be a strip mine here. The military built this facility during the reclamation. Soon enough they realized it wasn’t a great idea, but what can you do? Tax dollars were already spent.”
“So, you’re with the government?” He tried to sound casual.
“Sort of.” She pressed him ahead with a hand on his back.
“What do you want with me?” His voice echoed in the hollow space of the stairs. He turned halfway towards her on the narrow steps.
She nudged him ahead again, less gently. “Some people have stronger expectation than others. You’re one of those people.”
Levin shook his head but continued down the stairs. “Certainty really isn’t my thing. I’m more in favor of skepticism.”
Jillian stepped past him and keyed a number into a pad at the base of the stairway. “Look, I’m not a certainty mathematician, but a lot of people believe stuff easily on the surface without much foundation for it, so they doubt deep down. Maybe your surface and deep down beliefs are more in sync. You can read Arasmith’s treatise yourself if you like.”
They stepped through the door into a room about forty feet square. An air compressor filled most of its two-story height and, combined with its panels of electric bus bars and pressure piping, about half its floor space. Corrosion and dust suggested it hadn’t been used in some time.
A bald man stopped them at the door before recognizing Jillian and nodding them through.
“Is Paulsen in?” she asked.
“In his office.” He eyed Levin. “This him?”
“Yes. Let the security people know we’re here, would you Bill.”
They walked a series of bare-walled hallways to Paulsen’s office where he waved them to two old fashioned chairs—the kind with the adjustable back and a seat that spins on a short post.
“Did the Utopians follow you?” He tapped a pencil on his metal desk.
Jillian took one of the chairs and Levin the other. “No. I was careful.”
Paulsen eyed him. “I hope the guy’s worth the risk. You aren’t trying to make up for Nour are you?”
Jillian flinched but continued. “Where do I take him?”
Paulsen scrunched his face in thought and stopped tapping the pencil. “To the old lobby. It’s close, and he should be comfortable there.”
Jillian frowned. “Comfortable, but hardly secure.”
Paulsen waved a hand dismissively. “If they learn you brought him here, there’s not much we can do anyway.”
Jillian seemed unconvinced, shrugging faintly, but she rose to leave. “Alright. Let me know where he needs to go next.”
Once out in the corridor, she herded him back the way they’d come. “I don’t like the lobby idea,” she said. “I’m going to take you to my quarters. They can’t take you from there without engaging security.”
Levin felt the skin on the back of his neck crawl, but he kept his eyes ahead, watching Jillian in his peripheral vision. “You don’t trust Paulsen.”
She put a hand on his back, urging him to quicken his pace. “There’ve been some odd breaches. So, no, I guess I don’t. I didn’t tell him I was bringing you here.”
Levin snorted. “He knows now.”
“If it leaks, we’ll know he’s a mole. He won’t risk that.”
Levin didn’t quite agree with her logic, but hoped she was right. They took a branch to the right and headed back toward the room at the bottom of the steps.
“Who are the Utopians?” he asked after a pause.
“Your wife and friend are Utopians.”
Not really an answer to his question, but nevertheless something he wanted to know. He felt an ache in his gut thinking about Amy. “She shot two police officers. That doesn’t seem very utopian to me.”
They approached the room with the air compressor, and the sound of their footsteps changed as it echoed into the larger space.
“The Utopians don’t think anything that happens in this reality matters.” She stepped into the room ahead of him. “They think they can make a new and kinder world.”
“By killing people?”
“By using the certainty amplifier. The Utopians are gathering individuals with strong expectations on their station in orbit. That’s why they want you. They think if they get strong enough, they can alter natural law. Create their version of utopia.”
Her words provided an odd sense of comfort. At least Amy betrayed him for a cause.
“What’s so bad about utopia?”
She started walking again, the archway only another ten paces. “Not bad I suppose. Dangerous. I was one of them, a few years ago. Odd things happened, and some of us thought we should slow down, wait ’til we understood the Certainty Principle better.”
A shout interrupted them. They turned to see Bill running from the hallway they’d just left.
“We’re under attack. Get—” He disintegrated before finishing as a wave of energy overtook him, rippling the walls and making the air sparkle with colored stars. The wave engulfed the air compressor and melted it into a glowing pool of metal.
Jillian grabbed his arm. “The amplifier.”
Levin curled his fingers around it and immediately felt her thoughts enter his mind, intimate and close. Faintly erotic. Her expectation merged with his, guiding, as together they willed a barrier against the advancing energy. It swept over them, around them, and passed, leaving them unharmed.
Amy stepped from a corridor on the far side of the slagged compressor, shouting at Paulsen who appeared behind her a few seconds later. “He’s not in the lobby, you idiot. We might have killed him.”
Levin turned and fled with Jillian. They passed through the archway, down a corridor, and came to an enclosed courtyard with plants and a small waterfall. It smelled of wet vegetation.
A black ribbon, forty feet wide and fifteen tall hid the far side of the courtyard, windows and doorways ending abruptly at the edge of the blackness. Except for its size, it resembled the dark ribbon in the hood of the police car. No sparkles in the darkness, no texture where light struck a dark surface. Just crystal-black nothingness where walls and air should be. Stygian tentacles on its edge licked at the surrounding universe as though hungry to consume it.
The ribbon collapsed with a sharp crack, and the courtyard shrank abruptly, walls and floor buckling to accommodate. Windows crumpled like plastic wrap, leaving wrinkled glass as a surreal testimony of the ribbon’s passing.
A new ribbon formed closer to them, and they turned to flee, but found themselves facing Amy’s pistol. Levin felt a surge of anger at Amy’s betrayal, at her risking of the world by creating the black ribbons, but his anger tangled with longing for what he’d thought they had together.
Jillian stepped between him and Amy. “I’ll keep her busy. You get out of here.”
Jillian sent a wall of energy toward Amy. Toward his Amy.
Despite her betrayal, she was still his wife. With a touch to his amplifier, Levin deflected Jillian’s attack, his unskilled efforts sending Jillian flying against one of the short concrete pillars in the courtyard. A potted tree, thirty feet tall and a good eighteen inches at the trunk, toppled from the pillar and pinned one of her legs to the ground.
Amy’s eyes shifted between Levin and Jillian in surprise.
“You help me?”
Levin shrugged. “I’m loyal.”
Her eyes softened, or he thought they did. “I did love you in a way, Levin. You have to believe that.”
“You loved something else more.”
Jillian interrupted, her voice sharp. “She betrayed you, Levin. She’ll do it again.”
At the edge of his vision, he saw the black ribbon creeping closer to Jillian.
“Why do this, Amy?”
“It’s for the greater good, Levin.” She shook her head faintly as though puzzled he couldn’t see it on his own.
“Why not just ask for my help? Why try to drug me? Shoot me?”
“You’re strong, Levin. We had to be sure.” Her voice held a pleading quality, wanting him to understand, however thin her reasons sounded.
Levin waved at the black ribbon licking and growing just a few feet from Jillian. “The amplifiers aren’t safe, Amy.”
She twitched her gun slightly to the side in dismissal. “Not safe within the present natural laws, but we can remake the laws. Remake reality itself, without its limitations.”
Levin heard the passion in her voice. A true believer. Part of him wanted to believe with her.
“Why didn’t you trust me?” he asked.
He could see the thoughts stirring behind those warm, brown eyes as she remembered the trust he’d built up with her through two years of faithful marriage. With only a moment of hesitation, she holstered her gun and put the amplifier away. “What if I trust you now? Will you join us?”
He relaxed his grip on his amplifier. “Maybe.”
She nodded. “Good enough for me.” She pressed a button on her lapel. “This is Amy Alache. Cancel the operation. Return to base.”
He hadn’t realized Amy was in charge. Weirdly, it made him proud of her.
She backed away. “It’s best if you aren’t with us yet, Levin. I’ll give you a call when we’re ready.”
She ran down the corridor and disappeared.
The black ribbon was now only inches from Jillian. Her face twisted in fear as she shifted as far from the blackness as her pinned leg allowed.
He put both hands under the log and, bracing his elbows on his knees, lifted. Jillian staggered up, favoring her right leg. She leaned on his shoulder for support, and they fled the courtyard. Behind them, the black ribbon collapsed with a clap of thunder.
“Are you really going to help them?” Jillian glanced at him the fear apparent on her face.
Levin shrugged. “Them. You. What’s the difference?”
“I’m trying to protect you.”
“Are the Utopians really so bad?”
Jillian paused, her eyes lowered. “I left someone I cared about in their hands. They killed him.”
They were approaching the end of the corridor where it opened into the room with the melted air compressor. “I’m going to join them. But not for the reasons you think,” he said.
He straightened a bit as she shifted more weight to her right leg. “I’m joining in order to stop them. When any of us go contrary to accepted science, we undermine the fabric of reality. We get a black nothing, like the ribbons that appear whenever the amplifiers are used. The Utopians are going to put the whole world at risk.”
She touched his arm, the warmth of her hand both startling and reassuring. “Levin, even if you keep the black ribbon from Earth, it will engulf the Utopians. If you’re with them, you’ll die too.”
He read real concern in her liquid blue eyes. “If I don’t have anyone to trust, I don’t have much to live for anyway.”
The corners of her lips turned up tentatively. “You can trust me.”
He tried to return her smile but couldn’t. “If I’d met you first, maybe.”
She paused to lean against the melted compressor, now a frozen distortion like Dali’s painting of melting watches. “What if they’re right, Levin? What if they can heal the flaws in our universe?”
“If natural law is the result of consensus, then it must be a balance among the needs of everyone,” he said, clinging to the last vestige of orderliness in a world with certainty amplifiers. “Maybe it’s already the best it can be. Maybe even the flaws are necessary.”
The base was in shambles. Bodies and partial bodies, not entirely disintegrated in the energy attack, lay strewn about. Paulsen had fled. They reported what they knew to the handful of survivors, and then Jillian took him to the car and they drove back to town.
He spoke little on the return drive. He’d trusted Amy and that failed. He’d trusted the universe and that failed. Why should he trust himself?
“I have no idea how to stop them,” he said as they came into town.
Jillian’s grip on the steering lever tightened. “You can stay with me for a while. Learn about them. I was one of them for five years.”
Jillian parked on a side street near her apartment complex. “I think the Utopians will leave you alone as long as they know you plan to join them,” she said.
Levin stepped from the car. “Won’t they need to train me or something?”
Jillian walked quickly toward the apartment complex. “If they wanted to train you, they’d have brought you in before now.”
Levin scrambled to catch up. “Yeah, why didn’t they?”
“Maybe they’re afraid of you.”
“Then why not kill me?” Levin rubbed his hand on his thigh, thinking about all the times Amy could have taken him out. When she made his breakfast. When they made love.
They reached Jillian’s ground floor apartment and she unlocked her door and waved him in before answering. “I can only guess they need you more than they fear you.”
Pictures sat on every free surface in the apartment. Levin waved toward one with two adults and three children.
Jillian closed the drapes of the window overlooking the parking lot and walked up beside him. “Yeah. I don’t see them much now. Afraid the Utopians will use them against me.”
A picture of a grownup Jillian with a dark-haired Middle Eastern man sat on the end table by the couch. Levin picked it up.
“You were married?”
Jillian looked away. “No, never made it that far.”
“What happened? Nour, right?”
“Yes. Some of us decided to leave the project, and Nour didn’t make it to the ship on time. With the Utopian security force closing in, I decided we couldn’t wait. I planned to go back for him, but they killed him first.”
She avoided his eyes. “So you see, I know about betrayal. I betrayed someone I loved.”
Levin set the picture down. “You did what you had to.”
“There’s always options.”
Jillian continued after a long silence. “I’ll get some blankets. You can have the couch. Sorry I can’t offer better. I only have one bed, unless you want to share it.”
She said it like a joke, but didn’t get the tone quite right. Levin laughed, embarrassed. “The couch will be great.”
Jillian returned with sheets, blankets and a pair of pillows. “I’ll be in and out tomorrow, but you should probably stay in the apartment.”
Levin helped tuck the sheets and blanket into the couch and then tossed the pillows to one end. “Can I get a copy of the Arasmith treatise?”
She nodded. “I brought a digital copy with me when I escaped.”
Jillian was gone most of the next day. Levin pored over the treatise.
It was mostly mathematical with a small amount of explanatory text. He felt disturbed by how it undermined what he’d known of science, but comforted by how it tied the seeming-magic of the amplifiers to the mathematical world he trusted.
By evening, Levin felt hungry. He found a bit of rice and canned vegetables and made a casserole. He was taking it from the oven when she got home.
His hand brushed hers as he set out the silverware and she the plates, sending a tingle all the way up his arm. Sharing her bed might not be such a bad idea. His commitment to Amy was apparently a farce anyway. If he was facing death—as he expected from his understanding of the black ribbons—what was the point of maintaining his loyalty?
On the other hand, if he was facing death, what else but his life of loyalty did he have?
He enjoyed the meal, its warm odors real in an unexpectedly unreal world.
“What do the Utopians hope to do?” Levin asked after finishing his meal.
“They think they can eliminate hunger and suffering by taking away the limitation in resources. Maybe even eliminate war and crime.”
Levin snorted. “Limitation of resources is an intrinsic property of the universe.”
Jillian started collecting the dirty dishes. “This universe. In our universe, energy can’t be created, which makes it a zero-sum game. The entropy arrow means there’s a tendency toward decline. They believe a universe without those limitations would be a universe without evil.”
Levin rose from the table and rinsed his plate. “How can they change the laws of nature and still have a world that makes sense?”
“You remember string theory?” Jillian took his plate, bumping the edge of her hand against his.
“Of course.” Levin ran his fingers over the warm spot where her hand touched his.
“One of the things that arose from that work was the idea of multiple universes, each like a bubble in a super-universal froth. Each with its own set of universal constants and natural laws. The theory faded away when no one found a way to test it, but it introduced the idea that different, internally consistent sets of natural laws are possible.”
“Even if it’s possible, I don’t think it’s safe.” He held out his rinsed fork for her put in the dishwasher.
Jillian took it and shrugged. “It’s not clear we know what’s safe. That’s why some of us wanted to wait.”
Amy contacted him three weeks later. She arranged for him to pick up a Utopian space car at the local port, a green Ford Vetron coupe, the more expensive model with two air locks and bucket seats. He sat down, unconsciously running his hand over the soft fabric, imitation fur of some sort. The car took him to the station on autopilot. He felt uneasy being alone in the car, or maybe he was uneasy about what he had to do when he arrived.
The metallic, antiseptic smell of a space station greeted him as the air locks clanked open. Rob stood just inside. “It’s good to see you again, Levin.”
He sounded sincere. Levin felt a twinge of guilt at his planned betrayal. “It’s good to see you, too.”
Rob showed him to his quarters. “The room has a shower, real water even. You have access to the station computers from the wireless in the desk. Meals are served in the cafeteria.”
Rob left, and Levin tossed his duffle on a narrow dresser, unpacked, and washed his face.
Amy stopped by an hour later. He lowered the bed from the wall and sat on the end. She took the chair.
“What we’re doing is a good thing, Levin,” she said. “It’s worth everything that’s happened.”
He nodded. “What are we doing exactly?”
He barely avoided saying ‘you’ rather than ‘we’.
“We want to make a world where there’s plenty for everyone. Free from decay and loss.”
Levin played with his fingers, unsure how far to press his questions. “Doesn’t it make sense to experiment on a smaller region and not risk the whole Earth?”
She shifted a bit on her chair, uneasy despite her apparent assurance. “There’s a threshold problem. If there aren’t enough people involved, the new world might disintegrate into the black curtains that formed when we tried to capture you.”
He took a breath and let it out slowly, looking up from his fingers but not directly into her eyes. Eyes that still had the power to move him. “Why try to capture me, anyway? Did you think you could force me to cooperate?”
Her brows drew together, not angry so much as intense. “Rob and I knew you’d believe in what we’re doing, once we explained it.”
“Then why not explain it to me two years ago?” His voice broke as the ache of her betrayal caught him from an unexpected direction.
She surely heard the crack in his voice, but she gave no indication. “We need more than your strength, Levin. We need your trust in the rational order of the universe. Nothing is ever quite real to those of us experienced with the amplifiers. But things are real to you. You expect things to last, to make sense. We need that belief in realness to make the new world permanent. We couldn’t risk exposing you to the amplifiers too soon.”
Levin left off playing with his fingers and let them lie still. Amy’s concern was justified. Already, he felt his trust in a rational universe slipping. “If I think the world makes sense, how can I possibly help you turn it into something that doesn’t?”
She laid a hand on his knee and looked into his face, earnest and confident. “You will make it make sense, Levin.”
Levin didn’t press further. If Amy became suspicious, he’d have no opportunity to stop them.
“When do we start?”
“Tomorrow.” She rose to leave. “You need to rest. We all do.”
Levin’s skin grew chill. He’d expected more time.
She hesitated a moment, then kissed him on the cheek. “Tomorrow we’ll have a new world, Levin. A better world.”
She paused in the doorway and turned. “We’ve no choice but to trust you, Levin. I know the last weeks have been hard. Please don’t fail us.”
She left. A sense of guilt swept over him. She believed in what she was doing. By her own measure of integrity, she’d betrayed no one.
He thought about the complexity of trust and betrayal. He thought about death and what might lie beyond. He thought about Jillian, whom he’d never see again.
He took a shower and tried not to think about anything at all.
They brought him into a gymnasium with hardwood floors marked for basketball and bleachers bolted to the floor around the perimeter. Three circles of chairs were set up in the center of the gymnasium, about fifty chairs in the inner circle and perhaps two hundred fifty in the outer two. Most of the chairs were already occupied, presumably by the strongest three hundred of the Utopians. A stack of several hundred amplifiers lay in the middle of the three circles. The Utopians took his amplifier and piled it with the others, explaining that the amplifiers were still accessible but only to the group, not to individuals.
That didn’t help his feeling of vulnerability.
They led him to the innermost of the three circles. He took a chair, holding Amy’s hand on his left and Rob’s on his right. It felt like some kind of alien ritual, everyone staring into the center at nothing.
He supported their efforts for a while, feeling laws and principles yield like soft clay under the fingers of his expectation. A bubble of new reality formed around them, growing, reaching out past the gymnasium, past the space station itself. No escaping the black ribbon now; the station and everyone in it were firmly entrenched in the changed reality. At least he’d save Jillian.
He made his move before the bubble of change reached Earth, stopping the expansion with a flick of trust stronger than the Utopians’ trust in their manufactured reality. The Utopians continued to shape the fabric of the world he had helped them build, but, without his support, the danger couldn’t reach Earth. Amy glanced at him, too busy in her own concentrated effort to act, but with a look of betrayal in her eyes.
Paulsen rose from one of the chairs in the outer circle and drew a gun. Levin dropped Amy and Rob’s hands and ran for the exit. A bullet ricocheted off the wall ahead of him, and he dove for cover behind the bleachers at the edge of the room.
His fingers clutched for his amplifier, but of course it lay with all the others inside the inner circle. He heard Paulsen’s steps approaching and peered through a gap in the bleachers, spotting Paulsen along with the backdrop of three hundred Utopians who continued their trance-like journey into the new world.
Levin began to feel the changes taking place around him and in his own thoughts. His thinking no longer consumed energy. The more he thought, the more time and energy existed for thinking. He felt his mind expand without limit into an infinite universe of infinite wealth.
With no limitation in resources, his sense of competition and conflict faded. He felt no need to fight Paulsen. There was plenty for them both. With limitless energy and limitless potential for healing, neither of them could do any harm to the other anyway.
He saw the same realization in Paulsen’s eyes. Paulsen stopped his advance, and the gun slipped from his fingers, a useless tool in this new reality.
Levin looked at Amy and Rob, his heart racing in surprise. Had they been right? Was a utopic world without limitations or conflict truly possible?
He returned to his place in the circle and took their hands again. Rather than laws based on limited mass and energy, the Utopians were making laws where reactions maximized energy. They’d planned ways to make interacting rules consistent. Planned how a human mind could work in a universe with different laws of thermodynamics. Planned how reactions could reach chemical equilibrium in a universe with no limitations.
With growing excitement, Levin poured in his own expectation, confident in this world’s permanence for the first time. He’d feared the black ribbons, but now he saw no room in this new reality for them. The old reality would, indeed, vanish, but would be replaced by the world they created, not by emptiness.
Even so, he held them back from Earth. If the experiment worked, Earth could follow at her leisure. He came here to protect his world, and he would.
It was a good thing. At the height of his excitement, he realized something was wrong.
One by one the others were dropping out. He felt his own interest in the joint effort waning. There was no need for it. Given the unlimited nature of this new reality, there was no need or want for anything and therefore no need for mutual effort.
The initial joy he’d felt at their joint success was changing to joy at his own sufficiency. He felt a disconnect from Amy, Rob, and the others. The disconnect felt like loneliness, but without any sense of loss. He felt comfortable and satisfied. Wealthy. A new type of happiness came with that abundance.
He didn’t need friendship or love, nor did anyone else need his. This boundless world provided everything he needed within himself. He was being drawn into that self-sufficient world, like a sailor tossed into the swirling maelstrom.
He sensed something else, a voice reaching him like a lifebuoy from a ship anchored outside the whirlpool. Jillian’s voice.
“Hold on, Levin.”
He felt nothing for Jillian. Nothing for Amy. Nothing for anything but his own infinite prosperity in this new world.
Nevertheless, he held on to Jillian’s voice. And to trust. He remembered the concept only vaguely as he teetered on the brink of a world that didn’t need it. Trust in the Universe. Trust in Jillian. He felt Amy and Rob’s hands pull away. They disappeared into the whirlpool below.
As his mind readjusted to his former reality, he realized that the station was gone, no longer protecting him from the vacuum of space. Jillian must be maintaining a corridor of air with her amplifier. Looking up, he saw her strained face in the window of a red Vetron coupe, an amplifier in one hand and a rope in the other. One end of the rope drifted near him. He grabbed it and clambered along to her space car.
“The skin of the station disappeared,” she said as she sealed the airlock behind him. “Everyone inside was flickering. You were flickering.”
“Their plan worked,” Levin said.
“They made a universe with different laws?”
Levin nodded. “The dark ribbon wasn’t the real danger.”
Jillian turned the space car toward Earth, flooding the windows with clouds and ocean, bright and full of hope. “What was the danger, then?”
Levin took a breath, struggling to understand the meaning of his experience. “In a universe with unlimited resources, there’s no need for cooperation. How can anyone learn friendship or love? In a universe with unlimited resources, there’s no suffering. How can anyone learn compassion?”
Jillian’s expression registered somewhere between skepticism and horror. “They created a universe without friendship or compassion?”
Levin nodded. “I felt those leaving me, like water spiraling down a drain. Infinite satisfaction, but only because of my own comfort. If you had come just moments later, I wouldn’t have returned.”
She glanced at him sideways, unsure. “Are you sorry I came for you?”
Levin squeezed her hand and, leaning over, kissed her on the cheek. “No. Thank you for coming.”
She smiled. “I’m glad I could.”
Levin looked over his shoulder at the dark circle of empty space where the station had been. “They’re out there somewhere, living in boundless riches, with no crime or war.”
Levin nodded. “That doesn’t exist in their universe.”
He paused. “And I doubt they can remember what they’ve lost.”
Russ Colson is a professor of geology and planetary science at Minnesota State University Moorhead, a former national professor of the year, author of the science fiction novel The Arasmith Certainty Principle (Chanticleer International Book Award 1st Place Category Winner), and coauthor of the non-fiction book Learning to Read the Earth and Sky (NSTA Press, 2016). He has written several contemplative short stories published in Worlds of Wonder, Interzone, Stupefying Stories, and others, most recently publishing “The Fossil Beds of Asgard” in Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine. He has worked at the Johnson Space Center in Texas and at Washington University in St. Louis where, among other things, he studied how a lunar colony might mine oxygen from the local rock. More about his writing can be found at russcolson.com.