December 7th, 2006

The Sleeping Lamp

Our story so far:

They arrive in the Capital City in early evening, just as people are waking up and going to work. The autocar speeds away as they check in at the hotel. Atubis gets her own room, Dess and Joli share a room with twin beds. The arrangement is familiar, as is the hotel clerk's confusion - people always assume Joli and Dess are a couple.

Dess's meeting is scheduled for just after midnight, so there's time to catch a nap. Of course they've all been traveling, so their schedules are all screwed up and they're ready to catch some sleep even though the stars are out. Dess turns on the sleeping lamp.

Like Humans, the Gilkesh like to sleep in the dark. But for Gilkeshna, the natural tendency is to sleep in the shade, during daylight hours. So it's not darkness itself but bright light followed by darkness that calibrates the Gilkesh body clock, and every space traveler depends on a sleeping lamp, a full-spectrum lamp that bathes the user in bright light for a few minutes, allowing her to drop off to sleep when the light is turned off.

So Dess and Joli bask under the sleeping lamp silently, and then crawl under the covers to try to catch a few Z's.

Joli isn't on a schedule, eager though she is for her dangerous liaison. Dess is still largely clueless about what it is, exactly, that she's supposed to be doing on the Homeworld. All she knows is that it's some kind of job offer from the Astronomy Ministry, which would normally mean monitoring space travel hazards like meteors and radiation - but there's something different about this, and not just the generous pay package that the cryptically-worded message had mentioned. Well, whatever, life is an adventure. She figures she'll find out soon enough.

Now they're lying in the darkness with the blackout panels on the windows pulled shut to help them sleep - it's partly psychological (what they'd do if the suns were out) and partly to shut out the noise. But they're too wound-up to sleep; so they talk.

Time Bubbles

[This episode now appears in sequence.]
Our story so far:
Previous episode:

The hotel room is invitingly dark and quiet as Dess and Joli stare at the ceiling. They're both tired, and Dess needs to get some rest before her mysterious job interview, but they both feel the need for conversation. Joli has some questions on her mind.

"Okay, I know I'm not too bright about this kinda stuff," Joli is saying. "Explain this hyperspace thing one more time?"

"Well, there are other universes parallel to this one - maybe infinite numbers of them - and some are almost identical to the one we're in right now. When you make a hyperjump, you leave one universe and enter another. Jumping allows you to pick the point in spacetime where you enter."

"But if I'm going into another universe like this one ... why don't I run into another one of me?"

"It's like musical chairs. At the same time that you're making your hyperjump, the 'other you' is making a jump into still another universe."

"Hmm. I think I see. But in musical chairs, you're always short one chair."

"That's true! And when you hyperjump, there's always a small chance that the 'other you' is making a different decision. So theoretically, there's always the possibility that you might meet her. Hypertravel is never completely predictable."

"Dess, we've both hyperjumped lots of times ... it seems weird to think that you're not the same person I saw before my last jump."

"Well, think of it this way: I'm not the same person you saw yesternight, either. Or an hour ago. I've changed - and so have you. The universe is always changing, and we change with it."

"Can you change the past and future with hypertravel?" Joli asks.

"You don't need hypertravel to change the future. You do that at every moment, with every choice you make in life. But I think I know what you're asking. Suppose you traveled to the future - say tomorrow - and then you threw a pair of dice. You might see an eight on your dice, but if I stayed where I was, and waited until you arrived, I might see you roll a three or an eleven. Why? Because you - the 'you' that I saw leave - are now in a different timeline.

"Now," Dess goes on, "suppose you traveled to the past. Let's say you went back in time, and ... " She's about to say, " - and killed your mother" because that's the example people usually use; but she stops herself, because she doesn't want to bring up painful memories for Joli. So instead she says, " - and, uh, did something to change the future, maybe you visited your mother when she was young and convinced her not to have babies. That wouldn't make you stop existing, because nothing you could do in the new timeline would affect anything in your own past."

There's a long pause. Dess has a moment of dread, because she's afraid Joli is goiing to ask her whether her mother is alive in another universe. And Dess doesn't know how she's going to answer that one. But that's not what Joli asks.

"Are there people from our future out there? And why haven't we seen them?"

The question catches Dess off-guard.

"Hmmmmm. Well, remember, they wouldn't be our future, exactly ... "

Dess is stalling, and Joli knows it. "But they'd be from a future like ours, right?"

"Yeah," Dess says quietly.

"So where are they? Has anybody seen a Gilkesh spacecraft from, say, 500 years in the future?"

The answer, as far as Dess or anybody else knows, is no.

"Well," Dess says awkwardly, stalling again, "there are limits on how far you can travel in hyperspace. Even our best ships can't travel five hundred years into the future."

"But in the future they'd have better technology, right? So why haven't they ever come to us?"

"Maybe they're just not that interested. We're their past. Maybe they're not all that interested in where they came from."

"But isn't everybody?"

This time, the silence is total. In a way that neither one can articulate, Joli's question has revealed a fundamental difference in their natures.

With no answer from Dess, Joli breaks the silence.

"Well, maybe they can't. Maybe they're stuck inside some kind of space-time bubble or something."

Dess thinks about this. "Yeah," she says at last. "Or maybe we are."


1. "I was one of the assholes."

On the Sunday of the Thanksgiving weekend, I was sitting in the Victoria Street Cafe when a man about my age went up to the counter and ordered a coffee. He made conversation with the young woman behind the counter, and I overheard a few words. "Excuse me," I said, "did you say you were in town for your twenty-fifth high school reunion?"

"That's right."

I told him I was in Connecticut for the exact same reason. His school was one of the ones in the local area - northeastern Connecticut - and I went to school in the Manchester area. He introduced himself as Ben. We compared notes about high school. "You know," I said, "it was good to go to my reunion. I had a really hard time in high school, and some of the kids picked on me pretty bad. But I made it through okay, and it was good to see my old friends again. You know, people change - we all grow up."

He nodded agreement. "Did you have a similar experience in high school?" I asked.

He grinned sheepishly and shook his head. "No - I had a 1.37 grade point average. I was one of the assholes.

"In my senior year, there was this one kid that I used to torment mercilessly. I'd threaten to beat him up so he'd give me his excuse notes and I could cut class. One day I was so stoned I forgot to put the note in the teacher's mailbox, and we both got caught. We had to do detention together. We got to talking, and by the end of our detention we'd become friends. I took him out for beer afterward."

[The legal drinking age in Connecticut was 18 in those days.]

A few days later, I spotted Ben driving in as I was crossing the parking lot, and we waved at each other. Ben drove around the lot to find a space, and must have crossed paths with some guy in an SUV. I don't think there was an accident, just a dispute over a parking space. The other guy got out and started yelling at Ben, calling him names, and threatening to kick his ass. Ben just drove out of the parking lot, shaking his head nonchalantly. When his car passed me for the second time, I caught his eye and jerked my thumb toward the other driver. "Hey," I said, "looks like some people never grow up!" Ben laughed and drove off.

2. "Better them than me."

I got an airport limo to take me back to Bradley from Putnam - not that much more expensive than renting a car, and a lot less hassle. The driver was a short, wiry woman named Jean. It was a long drive to the airport, so we got to talking.

"In grade school I was getting beat up all the time, because of my size," she said. "When I hit high school, I decided it was going to be different. I got tough. My philosophy was, Better them than me. I'd walk down the hall and people would make way for me. I started going with the two biggest guys in the class, and I'd walk around with them on either side of me. Instead of taking all the crap, I started dishing it out.

"I didn't finish high school - got expelled in my sophomore year for fighting. Eventually I got my GED, and went into security work. I got a technical degree and went to work installing electronic security systems. Then I had to leave work to start a family.

"When I went back in the workforce, my degree was obsolete. That happens fast, especially in technical fields. So I went to work driving for the limo service. The pay isn't as good, but the hours are regular. I'm hoping I can get back to school soon so I can go back to what I was doing before.

"I hated being scared all the time as a kid. I'm glad I learned to take care of myself. But if I had it to do over again, I think I woulda done it different."

Woe to Hice!

I stopped by New Renaissance Books hoping to get a book I'd seen there before - a study of the art of John Waterhouse. It was by a Japanese scholar - I think his name was Minato - whose father had been an artist in Japan. (I'll bet mosellegreen knows the book I'm talking about.) They didn't have it in stock, but one of the owners was there and she said she'd try to find it and order it for me. Meanwhile I had to content myself with a book of postcard reproductions of Waterhouse, including the famous "Lady of Shalott".

(I'm working my way through Neal Stephenson's 'The Cryptonomicon' right now and I have to restrain myself from giving the artist's name as "Woe to Hice". But I digress.)

Also got a lovely Mara Friedman calendar. Was hoping to find a Jewish calendar, but no luck. Now, NRB has a great selection of calendars - lunar calendars, astrological calendars, herbal calendars, and even a Maya Natural Time calendar. But Jewish calendars? Those are not to be found at New Renaissance Books. (Grrr.)

Anyway, for your enjoyment, here's the Lady of Shalott.