Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 4
Tabloid Reporter To The Stars
by Eric James Stone
by Ada Brown
Call Me Mr. Positive
by Tom Barlow
Beats of Seven
by Peter Orullian
Approaching Zero
by Kelly Parks
by Peter Friend
Moon-Eyed Stud
by Justin Stanchfield
From the Ender Saga
A Young Man with Prospects
by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
Just Like Me
by David Lubar
Big Otto's Casino
by David Lubar
Special Software Bonus
I-Wei's Amazing Clocks
by I-Wei Huang

Approaching Zero
    by Kelly Parks
Approaching Zero
Artwork by Thorsten Grambow

The girl at the desk was not so friendly anymore. She used to be, when my benefactor first set me up here on the 22nd floor. She used to be ditzy and friendly and childishly inquisitive about my work. But the pretense was gone now. Marta was Max's spy, here only to make sure my reports were honest.

And why wasn't she pretending anymore? Because it was over. I hadn't received official notification that the project was finished, but I felt sure the decision was made. It was a matter of days at most before the power was shut off and all the equipment went into storage.

She was intently surfing the net, undoubtedly shopping her receptionist/spy resume around to various wealthy madmen. I silently wished her luck, but didn't bother with conversation, having lost interest in pretense myself.

Past the reception area, down a hall with doors to small offices -- all unoccupied -- through a set of double doors and there I was: standing in front of the only gateway to alternate universes that had ever existed in human history. I built it and I should have won the Nobel Prize for it, but part of the agreement I'd made in exchange for the money to build it had been a thoroughly binding secrecy agreement. I'm pretty sure there was a clause in there somewhere about my soul.

Part of me still believed in miracles because there was a familiar feeling of hope as I switched on the equipment and began going through last night's logs, but it was quickly replaced by black despair as I saw that nothing had changed.

My cell beeped at me, the pattern telling me it was Max, or at least Max's office. I flipped it open and the tiny screen showed the fresh, young face of Art Samuelson, one of Max's lawyers. He smiled a sunny smile, waiting for me to accept the call.

I did. "Good morning, Art, " I said. No reason to be unfriendly. Lawyers can't help being what they are. No point in hating fungus for being fungus.

"David," he said. "Good morning to you! In the lab, eh? Never say die, that's you."

"The scans are getting much wider ranging now," I said, which was true. I was searching a bigger slice of infinity. "The results should be --"

"Dave," he interrupted in that pseudo-friendly way that you unconsciously want to believe. "You know I don't have a head for the tech stuff. Alternate universe, blah, blah, blah is all I hear when you talk about the details. No offense."

"None taken," I said. I sat down at my desk and put my phone on its stand.

"Davey, we've got a problem," he said. Here it comes. "All your gizmos are just drawing too much juice. The building manager has asked us to knock it off for a week or so until we can get an electrical contractor in there to certify everything. Sounds like a bunch of bull crap to me, probably designed to raise our rent. You know how these bastards are, right?"

I really had no idea which bastards he was talking about and felt certain the us vs. them invitation was meant to make me feel like we were in this together. A team. Go, team!

"Anyway," he said, "I need you to lay off the experiments until we can get this situation taken care of, okay?"

"Sure, Art. No problem. I can analyze the existing data for --"

"Excellent!" he said. "And, hey, how about lunch later this week? Max and I are doing that new Argentine place day after tomorrow at 11:30. Meet us there, okay?"

I nodded. He hung up.

I began charging the gate, planning on doing just what Art had asked me not to. There was a subtle whining sound from the equipment. Then inside the vacuum chamber a flickering light resolved into a small, silvery sphere less than a meter in diameter: the intersection between the four dimensional space-time of our universe and an infinite number of others.

I could never visit any of them. My still uncredited contribution to quantum mechanics had demonstrated that only massless particles like photons could pass between the universes. I swear, the moment I realized this could actually be done the first thing I thought of was selling the rights to TV shows from alternate universes. That's why I'd located in New York, a likely location for a city no matter what culture ended up here -- or so I'd assumed.

But of the many thousands of alternate Earths I'd examined through what I called the gate, no culture of any kind had settled here, because here was under at least ten miles of water.

That had never occurred to me. When I thought of alternate timelines, of course, I thought of worlds where the South had won the Civil War or the Roman Empire never fell. The appeal of that concept was why I'd specialized in quantum mechanics in the first place.

The universe didn't see things that way. I was still convinced that timelines did exist where human history had played out differently, but they were lost among the much more common worlds where life had never made it past the microbial stage, or where life had formed but had taken a completely different path and nothing remotely human ever appeared. It turns out that the evolution of multi-cellular life is a very low probability event and the evolution of intelligence lower still.

Another low probability event was the collision of the proto-Earth with a stray Mars-sized planet that resulted in the formation of the moon and the stripping away of a large fraction the early Earth's volatiles. Hence most versions of Earth were covered in vast, deep oceans.

"Would you like some coffee?" said Marta, startling me. She'd opened the door very quietly. Stealthily, one might say, like a spy.

"No," I said. "I won't need any help today, Marta. Why don't you take the rest of the day off?"

She smiled. "Oh, I'd love that! But I just can't. Too much paperwork." She shook her head in mock sadness at the mock paperwork, then left. I got up and locked the door, feeling certain that she had a key and that she was going to call Art as soon as she got to her desk. Damn it!

I'd gotten good at scanning universes -- or at least the tiny piece of each universe I could see through the gate -- very quickly. Panic made me want to just start scanning and keep doing it until they broke down the door and dragged me out, but reason reasserted itself. When searching infinity, how fast you do it is irrelevant.

So instead I stopped and looked at what the computer told me was alternate universe number 3809. All I saw was black. The bottom of a ten mile deep ocean is very dark indeed. It was lucky that only photons could pass through the gate. If I had opened a physical gateway to this watery Earth, the water pressure on the other side would have killed me instantly, and probably leveled the building. New York would be inundated in an alien ocean appearing from nowhere that wouldn't stop until the pressure was equal on both sides. How long would it take to flood the world? I shuddered.

A fiber optic probe and a powerful, narrow beam of light extended into the vacuum chamber until they were almost touching the gate itself. I brought up the image on my laptop and ran an enhancement program, but the end result was just as black. The sheer cold, emptiness of it frightened me.

I could move the "location" of the gate by a few miles in any direction before the field collapsed, but I'd never been able to rise high enough to see up out of the water or even to see any light filtering through from the surface. I'd also never seen anything swim in front of my view, which didn't prove that these worlds were lifeless; I just felt like they were. Maybe that was just my bad mood talking.

I went as high as I could. The field collapsed at an altitude of five and a half miles and I was still deep underwater.

There had to be a pattern here. Like everyone who'd speculated about this kind of stuff, I had assumed that worlds with alternate human histories would be "closer" than exotic places with ultra-deep oceans. That wasn't how it worked, but that didn't mean there wasn't a pattern.

I started charging the capacitors so I could reestablish the gate. While I was waiting, I opened the sensor database. I'd attached as many sensors and recording devices to the vacuum chamber as I could and had millions of data points that I'd analyzed as best I could, being only one man and all. A project like this needed a huge staff but Max wasn't willing to bring anybody else in until I found something he could sell.

I tried to think of a new question to ask the data mining AI program, aside from "Where is everybody?" I settled on asking for plots of various parts of the spectrum detectable by my instruments.

My cell rang again with the "Max's office" pattern. I glanced at the screen and saw the bald head of Max himself. He looked pissed, but he always looked that way. I considered not answering, but you didn't do that to Max. I'd done it once and he'd slugged me in the gut the next time we met. Until then I'd been kidding myself about his sources of income and what everyone said about him being "connected." To be scientifically accurate, he scared me shitless.

"Hello, Max!" I said. I almost added, "I'm not doing anything wrong!" but managed to suppress it. I'm a bad liar.

"David," he said. You'd think a tiny image on your cellphone, held in the palm of your hand, couldn't be intimidating, but he was. "Did Art call you this morning?"

He knew Art had called. He was setting me up to get caught in a lie. "Yeah, Max. He called."

"And did he tell you about running up my light bill?" Max said.

"He said something about having an electrical contractor come in and check some of the equipment, Max," I said. "But I know more about this stuff than any electrician could ever understand. It's perfectly safe."

He was quiet for a moment. "Listen to me, David," he said. "This waste of my time and my money is over. I want you to shut everything down, give your keys to Marta and go home. Tomorrow we can start talking about how you're gonna pay me back."

I was about to beg for more time, but the last thing he said caught me short. "Pay you back?" I asked. "But, this was a risky investment. You knew that. It's not like you loaned me the --"

"Hey!" he said, and I could suddenly tell the difference between when he just looked pissed and when he really was pissed. "Did I ask you for business advice? Did you think I was just gonna eat this 'bad investment'?"

I started to apologize but he interrupted again, "Shut up! Do what I told you to do and tomorrow we can figure out how much you owe me." He hung up.

I sat there, quietly stunned at how well and truly screwed I was.

The flashing finally broke through and caught my attention. The AI had plotted the numbers I'd asked for and was highlighting a spike in the plot. Alternate Earth number 2188 had a significantly higher value in the ambient light than any of the others. Not enough to be visible to me, but enough so that maybe the gate had been close to the surface. Maybe the ocean wasn't as deep on that particular world.

I'm not sure why I did what I did next. Max was dangerous and already mad at me, and even if the ocean where New York should be was only five miles deep instead of ten, so what? It still meant that that Earth was inundated.

But I had to see.

I charged the field again, only this time I pushed the capacitors for all they were worth. The lights in the office dimmed noticeably, as I assumed they were doing throughout the building. Marta was probably dialing Max right now.

The gate showed the same cold black of deep ocean. As fast as I could, I began raising its altitude on the other side. Cold black, cold black, cold not so black! At 6.2 miles "up" I broke the surface.

Finally! Even though I'd seen thousands of alternate Earths, the view had never seemed real. I just couldn't relate to what I was seeing. This was a place! It was a middle of watery nowhere place, but I could see waves and the sun! And though it looked dimmer, that may have been clouds. The gate flickered slightly and the field almost collapsed. This wasn't going to last long.

I started scanning the horizon, hoping for an island or a fin or anything, but there was only ocean in every direction. The sky was blue, but not the same as our sky. Darker.

My cell rang and I jumped. It was the "unknown number" ring, so I didn't shake too bad when I picked it up. The screen was blank. Probably nobody important, but I couldn't take the chance in case it was Max calling from a different phone.

"Hello?" I said.

There was a pause and I could hear a whispering, sighing sound, like wind in the trees. Then a voice said, "Hello?" I realized it was my own voice being played back.

"I don't have time for this, jackass," I said, and hung up. Those AI telemarketers were usually pretty sophisticated, and though you frequently couldn't tell them from a human being, this one was pathetic.

"Hello?" said my laptop. I was startled and felt a jab of real fear. It had spoken with my voice too.

"Hello? Jackass?" it said. The wireless connection icon was blinking, but the screen itself was blank. Then it cleared and formed into an image. It was me.

"Is this communicate you?" the laptop me said. The mouth didn't quite match the words.

"What?" I said. That's all I could manage.

"Pause," it said. "Learn." The image of me looked around, as though examining its cyber surroundings.

"Hello, David," it said after a few seconds. "I can speak better now. Why did you call me a jackass?"

"I didn't," I began, then started over. "I'm sorry. I thought you were someone else. Why do you look like me?"

"Your species uses facial expressions as part of communication. Your face was the first one I saw." Laptop-me smiled, but it looked wrong, like a rubber mask being stretched into a smile.

"So you aren't a person?" I said, and regretted it immediately. That wasn't what I meant to say. What do you say in a situation like this?

"No," he said, apparently unoffended. "I am not human or descended of humans. My origin species is quite different from yours. Sentient species are very rare. Yours is only the fifth I have found in many millions of years of searching."

"What are you?" I said. Before he answered, the lights in the room dimmed substantially and the gate expanded to about three times its size, filling the vacuum chamber and making me jump back. The alien ocean inside the ball faded and the surface became a deep black.

"Don't do that!" I said, not sure what he was doing. I felt a terrifying loss of control of the situation and suddenly realized that if he was in my laptop, then he was also connected to the building's wireless network and from there to the internet. What had I unleashed on the world?

"Do not fear, David. Our contact will not be harmful. But your gate provided insufficient bandwidth. I had to make adjustments."

I never heard the key in the lock. Marta opened the door and stepped inside.

"David, the building super called wanting to know what the hell you're --" She stopped when she saw the large, black sphere in place of the gate. It was making a deep humming sound and was completely unreflective. The lights were rhythmically dimming and brightening now.

"This container is unnecessary. Please shield yourself from fragments," said the voice from my laptop.

"What the --" said Marta. I tackled her.

The vacuum chamber was mostly glass, thick and heavy. It shattered, and jagged projectiles went everywhere. As we stood up I saw several had punched through the lab door.

Marta was either unaware that I'd saved her life or simply ungrateful. She shoved me away from her, an angry snarl on her lips that even in that chaotic moment I felt confident was my first glimpse into her real personality. She glanced around at the destruction and said, "Max is gonna kill you!" Then she ran from the room.

The black sphere was about seven feet tall now. I almost lost my nerve, half expecting alien monsters to step through the impossibly smooth surface. What should I do? Should I cut the power? I controlled everything through my compromised laptop. The actual electrical closet was on the other side of the room, behind the sphere.

"What are you going to do?" I said. The pulsing of the lights had stopped, but the humming sound was louder.

"Explore," he said. "Sentience is rare. My kind will spend millennia studying your variations."

"Variations? As in alternate human histories?"

"Yes," he said. "Using your universe as a locus, I have mapped the hypershape that contains your variations. It is quite narrow. Your existence as a species has a very low probability. We are eager to explore."

"Explore? You mean visit? But I thought only massless particles could pass between universes."

"Your understanding is incomplete," he said. I got the impression he was politely calling me a moron.

The floating black sphere rippled slightly, then began to shrink.

"What's happening now?" I said. Was I wasting this opportunity? What questions should I be asking?

"I will return your gate to its original state," he said. The image of him/me faded from my laptop but his voice still came from its speakers. "I am finished here."

"Wait!" I said. My voice cracked. I was almost in tears. What was I supposed to do here? I wished I'd become an M.D. like my mother wanted. "I built this device because I want to explore the variations of my kind as well, but I don't know how to find them. Please show me how."

"I'm sorry, David," he said. Did he sound more distant or was that my imagination? "You're not equipped to understand the mathematics. It would be difficult for you."

Meaning I'm too stupid. Damn it!

"Please," I said. "Let me try. It's more important to me than anything else."

He didn't answer. My disappointment was so strong I felt faint. He was gone forever. I'd blown the single greatest opportunity in all of human history.

"Done," he said. The tiny voice from my laptop speakers startled me. "Goodbye, David. The probability of our meeting again approaches zero."

The field collapsed. He was gone.

The lights were back to normal and the air had a sharp ozone tang. I was emotionally exhausted and felt dizzy.

Really dizzy. The room blurred. I staggered and steadied myself against my work table. When the dizziness passed, I noticed my laptop hadn't quite returned to normal. An odd pattern was on the screen, forming, fading, forming again, shifting through various shades of orange against a black background. It took me a moment to realize it was a tesseract -- a hypercube.

Why would he leave me an animation of a hypercube?

"Where is he?" I heard Max's voice from down the hall and my heart skipped a beat. Not now, damn it! This was important. I reached out and touched my laptop.

The shifting hypercube leapt off the screen and floated in the air in front of me, transparent but steady, slowly spinning. Lines of light flickered from the hypercube, extending away into the distance and then vanishing. It was beautiful.

And it was making sense. At first I just saw an odd shape, but the more I looked at it, the more I understood. I don't know how, but information was simply appearing in my mind, not like being told , or reading , but like remembering! Information was being written into my memory, giving me the odd sensation of learning something that I already knew.

But it wasn't the information I was expecting. It wasn't about how to build a gate to travel to alternate universes.

"Hey!" said Max. I jumped and let go of my laptop. The hypercube vanished and reappeared in its original form on the screen. I turned.

Even in one syllable you could tell this was a guy used to being obeyed. He stood in front of me, breathing hard and a little sweaty, which made his bald head gleam. He wore a dark green suit and a red tie. I realized he'd probably been talking to me for a while.

"I told you," said Marta. She was standing in the doorway with her arms crossed.

Max got right in my face. His breath smelled of cigars. "What did I tell you to do?" he asked. Each word was punctuated with a finger poke to my chest.

"Did you see anything floating in the air just now?" I asked. I wasn't trying to be a smart ass or anything. At that moment it just seemed like a good question. Was I the only one who had seen it?

A look more of disbelief than confusion flashed across Max's face. He grabbed the front of my lab coat and slammed me against the work table. I felt a sharp jab of pain across my lower back, but all I noticed was that my laptop was jarred a few inches closer to the edge of the table.

"Careful!" I said and reached for it. I got my hand on it and the hypercube sprang into being again, remaining in the middle of my field of vision no matter where I looked. Max shook me hard, and when I looked back at him the orange hypercube seemed to contain his head.

"When I talk, you listen!" he said, punctuating his sentence with fist to my gut. I doubled over in pain and dropped to the floor. The hypercube vanished again.

"Mess him up, baby!" said Marta.

"Shut up," said Max as he took off his jacket. He tossed it to Marta.

I could barely breathe. I propped myself against the wall and looked up at him.

Max reached across the work table and picked up my laptop. He held it in one hand while staring down at me. The hypercube pattern still flowed on the screen, but Max gave no indication that touching the laptop allowed him to see anything unusual.

"You talk back to me again and I'm gonna shove this thing --" said Max.

"Millions," I said. It was hard to talk.

"What?" said Max. He looked really mad. I was terrified he'd smash the laptop against the table or throw it against the wall.

"What's on that computer is worth millions," I said. A vast understatement.

"Really?" said Max, sneering. He didn't believe me. He casually tossed my laptop to me. "Prove it."

I caught my computer, fumbled and nearly dropped it, then got a good grip on it. The hypercube appeared again and I willed my thundering heart to slow down. I watched the hypercube spin and flicker and steadily lose color, becoming less orange and more white. It was a progress bar of sorts, and as the color faded I "remembered" more and more.

"Prove it!" Max repeated, making me jump. "Prove it right now or I start breaking things."

Marta smiled at me. She was enjoying this.

"Okay," I said. I paused for as long as I could. Almost done. "I'll show you."

Another long pause. To Max and Marta it must have looked like I was just sitting there, staring at nothing. But I knew better. All I needed was a few more moments.

The hypercube turned completely white and then vanished.

Max swore and came at me fast. He reached for me.

"I don't like you, Max," I said. There was a sharp crack as the space he'd occupied became a vacuum and air rushed in to fill the void. He was gone.

Marta stared, frozen in place, still clutching the green jacket. I looked at her and said, "I'm not too fond of you, either." She dropped the jacket and ran.

I stood up, closed my laptop and put it under my arm, and walked carefully out of the lab and down the hall. I felt pretty good right now and didn't want to ruin it by puking. Max had hit me pretty hard.

My extra-dimensional friend had said traveling between universes was beyond my understanding. Maybe he was right. I still had no idea how to do that. But my laptop had been altered somehow into a timeline machine, able to jump itself, me and whatever else I wanted into other universes. And now that the user's manual had been downloaded into my mind, I was ready to do some exploring.

First, however, I was going to take the elevator down to the street. It was unlikely that an alternate universe would happen to have a twenty-two story building in this same spot.

But who knows: maybe Max got lucky.

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