Second Thoughts

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For 41 years the dream haunted Trevor's sleep. It dragged on his conscious like an anchor snagged on the distant horizon.

Four decades of hearing Shreya ask, "Are you sure I'm ready for this?" His hasty answer, "Your aaji will be so impressed at what a smart, Mumbai girl can do with two boards strapped to her feet." His cell phone capturing her hesitant takeoff. Her initial slalom turns, jerky, off-balance but smoothing out as she built velocity atop the packed powder. Swoosh. Swoosh. Swoooosh. Shreya attacking her first ever blue run as she had every challenge he'd witnessed. With zeal. Utter determination. Conviction.

And speed.

"Not too fast," his voice, captured on the recording, was almost a plea, so Shreya's grandmother had told him later while watching the last video of her youngest granddaughter. The wrong plea, her aaji had said. At the wrong time. Too late.

And so it was. Much too late.

It was....

It was a flawed instant lodged within the information narrative that Trevor vowed to amend. Caught on time's horizon. Now, some 41 years later and with Shreya's help, he would free the snagged anchor. Not just dislodge it either. 'He' would become 'we' again.

In his right desk drawer, his fingers extracted the top page of a yellowed stack of papers. As always, his eyes focused first on her curled scrawl, sapphire and sweeping across the printed title as she'd scribbled her note and presented the gift to him at Union Square, their favorite Stanford University hangout.

'Wish me luck. Wish them enlightenment.'

This was how he'd come into possession of Shreya's doctoral thesis in theoretical physics--her first draft--the final dissertation for which she had been unable to defend when classical physics had intervened on that snow-covered mountainside.

Carefully he folded the frayed page into quarters before tucking it into his jumpsuit pocket. Though it had required four decades of his life, Shreya's preeminent postulations in quantum theory were at long last about to be realized, in the glorious fashion only an experimental physicist could deliver.

Trevor left his office and descended to the third sublevel of the Fermilab Quantum Test Institute where his head was shaved bald as a billiard ball. The techs fitted him with a skullcap containing 10 million electrode filaments. 10 million provided a significant improvement over the 8.5 sported by the previous prototype. Not to mention the 12 prototypes prior to that one. As Moore's Law dictated, the technology underpinning the experiment will endlessly improve, forever tempting the scientist with the vicious tease of waiting for that next, even better apparatus.

Trevor drew the line at cap P-14. He'd waited long enough. The information narrative was not getting any younger. Neither was he.

He scooted into the Dentist Chair, so the techs referred to it, his jumpsuit fabric dragging across supple leather. Buzzing around him in their stark cleanroom smocks, the techs immobilized his every appendage via countless Velcro straps, the last of which settled across the bridge of his nose before it cinched tight.

"How's that, Doctor Douglas?" a muffled voice asked.

"Peachy," he answered. "Any luck making this sneeze-proof?"

"The next prototype addresses that. Do you want up? I can let--"

"Get on with it."

The techs fitted a massive fiber optic umbilical to his skullcap. They then lowered the Chair so he was fully reclined on his back. Motors hummed and the Chair glided into the heart of the Fermilab Quantum Core. This plus the cap and the hyperscale computing farm controlling both amounted to his life's work. A whole life devoted to one theory put forth by another life that, by all rights, should be here at this very moment.

"Professor?"

"Mmmf?"

"If you would be so kind, do your meditations while we calibrate."

Trevor quelled thoughts in his mind and waited. The calibrations were noiseless. The entire Core was shrouded in dead silence. Silent as the dead, who consciously know no information narrative anymore. Or perhaps they do, of a different sort in a different place. Infinite narratives spanning infinite directions but only one that mattered to him.

"OK, Professor. Press and hold the deadman switch." His left fingers curled. A sharp click echoed. "Fine. Any problems, just relax your grip. Testing will commence at the tone. When you become aware of the narrative flow, traverse it to yesterday morning, the moment you decided what to eat for breakfast. See if you can induce a different choice, just as we rehearsed, then follow the ripple effects forward in the narrative."

"Like rehearsal. Right."

Trevor didn't wait for the tone. The instant nothingness yielded to awareness, he sent his mind back to a fateful spring day in a California ski resort. With it, the information narrative--his narrative--unspooled to a point where a vital question had been asked.

"No," he admonished Shreya. "You aren't ready. Better stick to greens."

"Oh," she said. Instead of the disappointment he'd expected, she almost seemed forlorn. "Then why don't you try it? Give me your phone."

"Me? I thought we'd ski down together."

She shrugged. "You know my aaji kind of likes you. She says you're the do-er while I'm the thinker--a promising match. Show her what you can do."

Trevor beamed, reached out his left hand. His fingers uncurled from his cell phone. It dropped.

"Professor? Professor Joshi, you released the deadman. Are you injured? Shreya!"

"I'm... I'm OK. Extract me, please."

"It'll take a few moments. What happened?"

"Failure. The narrative is unstable. Not traversable. Need more research. Much, much more. No further testing without my authorization."

Waiting in the void, Shreya contemplated the experiment's frightening result and the agonizing cost of that knowledge. Her cost.

It must stop. Permanently.

He wouldn't have understood. Couldn't. He'd have kept trying despite all the dangers.

Shreya strained against the bindings, pressing until paper crinkled in her jumpsuit pocket. Then she wailed, sobbing for the boy she had loved, lost and lost again.

About the Author: 
Todd Thorne is a slinger of fiction mostly tilted toward the darker side. In between spinning out tales, he lives in the Piney Woods of East Texas with his wife and one fuzzy black cat who is very much alive and free even when she isn't being observed.