Abyss & Apex : January-February 2005

VARIABLES Illustration


by Matthew Cheney


1. The first indication of my insanity: within the course of one hour I thought I was a woman, and then I thought I was a small metal cube, and then I thought I had engendered the universe.

2. Clearly, I have been spending too much time playing a computer game.

3. Another key to my insanity: I had created a computer game without having any knowledge of how to create a computer game. Friends have described me as one of the most technically inept people they’ve ever known, a man for whom the brewing of a cup of coffee is a monumental endeavor.

(My memory is too full of holes for me to explain any of
this. But I’ve got to try — I’ve got to grasp at something,
record a few impressions before they leave me, put down in
words what I barely know in reality—)

4. Reality is such an amusing word.

(Let’s try this again.)

1. Two hours ago, I was a woman. I had a woman’s body and I thought I had been a woman from the moment of my birth. My name was Clarissa Regen, I was thirty-nine years old, with a Ph.D. in linguistics (and a certain amount of infamy for a book I’d written challenging various truisms within the concept of generative grammar), and I was overwhelmed by a desire to kill myself, though I don’t remember why I wanted to do this.

2. After a few minutes of having been Clarissa Regen, I realized that I was not the person I’d thought I was, and that I was, in fact, a small metal cube with remarkable computational abilities. I had no name or clear identity, but I did have a strong memory of having spent at least ten million years collecting all sorts of data my current mind could neither explain nor comprehend, but which had something to do with what might awkwardly and imprecisely be called “time warps.”

3. Soon after realizing I was a small metal cube without an identity, I realized that everything in the universe was my fault.

4. All of this is delusion, of course. I am not Clarissa Regen, nor a cube, nor anything remotely resembling, for lack of a better term, God.

1. My name is Morris Leachman and I am the fifty-nine-year-old proprietor of a frustratingly dusty and unorganized antiques shop in rural Vermont in the northeastern United States in the year

(Oh god what year is it?)

1. I am sitting in front of a computer that I do not remember buying, playing a computer game I know I designed and programmed, which allows me to travel back in time and affect any event I choose within the historical database(s) of the computer.

2. It’s a remarkable game, really. So far I’ve assassinated Hitler and Stalin, married my mother, pushed my grandfather off a cliff, and deposited money in a British bank two hundred years ago then collected it with compound interest. Recently, I’ve been trying to stump the game, to come up with esoteric and miniscule moments that it should know nothing about, such as the time when I was ten years old and lost the knife my grandfather had given me for my birthday.

3. In the computer game, I went back and found the knife, which I’d left in the woods behind the house I grew up in, and returned it to my ten-year-old self. That self, for reasons I cannot explain, then opened the knife and slit his wrists.

4. The graphics are remarkably realistic. I see everything from my own point of view as a time traveller, and though I don’t understand how, my fingers type codes that cause my thoughts and desires to be acted on. I see the woods, I walk into them, I see the spot beside a tree where I was cutting a branch when my mother called me into the house, I see the knife lying where I dropped it, I pick up the knife and imagine a sensation of weight in my hand, the weight of the knife, and a dampness from where it has been on the ground, and yet my hands are on the keyboard, are typing, and I walk to the house and see my mother and father and my younger self sitting down to dinner at the dining room table

they don’t see me

I put the knife into my younger self’s pocket

and time is speeding up

I am in the bathroom

the boy is in the bathtub, water all around him, the knife in his hand, and he runs it calmly up the insides of both arms

the blood flows into the water

(My name is [  ])

1. Two and a half hours ago I was a woman, and then I was a small cube, and then everything that happened in the universe happened because I caused it, and then I was a fifty-nine-year-old man named Morris Leachman who thought he had created a computer game.

(I must remember this.)

2. Time is not a linear sequence.

Electrons do not exist.

Binary switches will not produce new computer games.

The superposition
of linear time
is electrons.

New switches will
not sequence.

Computer games produce superpositions.

not time.

the binary
is new.


1. This morning when I woke up my head lay on the keyboard and drool slipped down between c and v. Within that moment everything was possible. I decided to have a cup of coffee, and yet I could not raise my head. My body had moved across the room to get a better view of the sunrise over the burning city. Smoke slithered across the yellow sky and within that moment I decided to stretch out across the landscape, feeling every grain of soil, every blade of grass, every leaf on every tree and every molecule of asphalt on the road, every sheen of metal, every screech of flight, every word I have not used here, for within that moment the sky had grown dark with smoke and a taste of bleach filled my coffee and between c and v lay the answer that would win the game, I knew, but I had forgotten within that moment everything except the howl of a dog trapped beneath rubble in the burning city beneath the sunset.

5. Game Over. Score: X     Would You Like To Try Again?

(Solve for X.)

1. This evening when I woke up I had been a woman named Milton Lowry who is not the person who programmed a computer game that has been criticized as being little more than a small metal cube that will engender the universe named Constance Roman who was forgotten long ago when the library at Alexandria burned her ink into ashes. The computer told me I was insane and suggested that my husband was a woman named Milton Lowry who criticized the library at Alexandria for waking up beside Constance Roman, but I have forgotten who I am and any suggestions would be welcome.

4. To suggest that I am, and have been, throughout time the same person, of the same name, of the same sex — to suggest all this is — and I hope you’ll pardon my tendency toward judgment — absurd, or at least it is not a suggestion worth considering within what we know of the laws of the physical universe, though of course such laws could be based on faulty evidence.

3. Aristotle died in Khalkis, formerly Euripus, in 322 B.C.E.

2. I know this: I was not Aristotle. I may be Aristotle, though.

1. When I woke up this morning, I realized everything was my fault. I made myself a cup of coffee and sat at the kitchen table and looked out at the silhouetted skyline of the city. The note on the table said, “Please don’t follow me.” I knew everywhere he would go, knew how he would hold the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles would turn white, knew he would drive too quickly, knew he would get off at Exit 32, drive through seven intersections, turn, park at the parking garage, take the elevator up to his apartment, and get ready for a day without me. The coffee tasted terrible because I had cleaned the coffee pot yesterday and hadn’t rinsed it carefully enough, but I kept drinking, because it gave me something to do, an object to focus on, a taste to pull me away from thinking about anything other than the coffee. I should be thinking about all the work I have to do, the millions and millions of lines of code that need to be edited, the possibilities identified and limited, but I’d rather just sit here and drink the terrible coffee and watch the light of morning drift across the sky.

2. If I were a writer of sappy greeting cards, here’s something I would write: Love makes two into one, past into future, future into present. On the inside of the card, it would say

(I don’t know what to say.)


That time when I said it felt like we’d met before and you said perhaps I’d had a time machine and had traveled back to before we met and planted the seeds of what would become our friendship. I laughed and said it was a good idea for a science fiction story and you said you’d rather write it as a computer game, let the player choose what era to go back to and see what the result would be. I said I thought it was a great idea, but the more I thought about it the more impossible it seemed, because if I’d gone back in time the ripple effect of my appearance at a place where I hadn’t been would do more to change the present than just give us a sense of déjà vu. I told you this when we were in that little antiques shop in Vermont, and you said, Oh yes that’s true, and then you held up a yellowed piece of sheet music for a song from World War One and said, Perhaps you would have whistled this to me and we would have remembered the war. I smiled, though I didn’t understand what you were getting at, and you said, Well it would make about as much sense as that. I bought the sheet music for five dollars from the old woman behind the counter, the woman with short grey hair and bloodshot eyes who said her name was Candice, and she smiled and said it was one of her favorite songs. Then she began to sing it quietly, and we listened and smiled. Do you remember when you said it felt like we’d met before? Déjà vu, you said. I suggested a time machine, one that would let you travel back to before we’d met. Perhaps you found me at a café in Paris (I might as well have been at a café in Paris, though I’ve never been to Paris) and you asked me for directions. Perhaps I smiled at you, or you at me. And then you went off to do whatever it was you went off to do, kill Hitler before he was anything more than a failed artist or something. You said it sounded like a sci-fi story, but I’m tired of sci-fi stories, so I suggested something more real: a computer game. You liked that idea. But when we were in Vermont, you said it was much too complex. I hadn’t realized you’d still been thinking about it, or you’d taken it seriously. I took an old 78 from a pile of them, a record of a song from World War Two, and said maybe you’d gone back in time to hear somebody sing this song, and you just happened to encounter me a couple decades before I was born. The idea made about as much sense as the idea of a time machine, or of déjà vu. You said I was being nonsensical. I’m always being nonsensical, I guess. The old man who owned the store liked the record and wouldn’t sell it to us, but he said we could have some sheet music instead, if we wanted. But no. We didn’t want anything.

4. When I fell asleep in the morning, I left the record player on. The record was old and scratched, the needle jumped back and forth, and the song became nothing more than four words playing over and over: give me no man’s give me no man’s give me no man’s give me no man’s

until the needle wore out and the song became noise, the whisper of time and all that’s been forgotten. I woke to silence and darkness. I woke alone.

Endless possibilities.

5. You were right. I was sputtering nonsense. We never met before we met.

1. The final indication of my insanity: I gave up on building a time machine.



Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction at online venues such as Failbetter, Ideomancer, SF Site, and The Internet Review of Science Fiction. He has just begun a monthly column for Strange Horizons, has a story upcoming at Pindeldyboz, and writes somewhat regularly about SF, literature, and sundry other topics at his weblog, The Mumpsimus.



Copyrighted by the author unless otherwise noted.


Art Director: Bonnie Brunish

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