Sons and Mothers
by Sergio Hartshorne
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Wrassian and Renata Wilse stood outside the gantry. Twelve feet below waited an odd-looking contraption. It was shaped like a dihedron, with the bottom half sunk in concrete. It looked like some riparian beetle emerging from a cocoon. It had a door in the side facing them, and it was open.
Wrassian held a wireless remote in his hand. He pushed a place in the center of the screen. There was a loud beep, and then the door slid closed with a loud clank. A window in the door filled with azure light. The remote, a scavenged smart phone which had been new a hundred years ago, showed the following message onscreen in red letters: EXPERIMENT TERMINATED DUE TO UNACCEPTABLE SUDDEN LOSS OF OXYGEN IN POD.
Wrassian sighed. His sister squeezed his shoulder. “We’ll try again next week.” Wrassian was older by three years. Renata was better at intuitive leaps, while Wrassian was more data-driven. The dihedron, concealed in the bowels of an abandoned factory, was their crude attempt at a time machine. So far, almost nothing had gone right. Wrassian had been so sure! Sure that the software issues had been resolved and the oxygen containment field would work.
Renata turned to leave. “You coming?”
“I’ll be along. I just need a minute.”
“Well don’t take all night. Doug will be pissed if he cooked dinner for his gorgeous wife and her nerdy brother only to have it get cold before you’re done.”
Wrassian nodded absentmindedly and took a piece of folded paper from his pocket.
I’m so, so sorry to leave you and Renny so soon, my son. The drugs they give me take away the pain, but only for about an hour. After that I can feel the cancer burning in my bones, gnawing at my guts, giving me a migraine so bad the nurses’ shoes sound like thunderclaps in my skull as they make their rounds. I can feel the end is near now. I will enjoy seeing your father again, and I will wait until the day when we are all together again.
I want you to know I don’t blame you for not coming to see me. I would say I forgive you, but, simply, there is nothing to forgive. Who knows, maybe one day my son will invent a new spaceship and all those cheesy “explo” flicks will come true, and be even better in real life! I’m sorry. Bad joke. That’s the best I can do right now. Take care of your baby sister.
Wrassian folded the letter slowly, gingerly. It was written on actual paper, from trees, because the hospital his mother had been at when she died had been happy to take their insurance so long as the money went towards the drugs, but too cheap to give his mother access to a data drive. Also, they couldn’t even spare a piece of the synthetic plastic made from sustainable sources that had replaced wood-derived paper in 2050.
He walked out of the factory. The dihedron would be fine. It was made of a composite, inside and out, that was indestructible and so heavy it would take the same type of trailer that used to be used to move radio telescopes of the giant kind to budge it.
Wrassian waved down a cab and told the driver to take him to Renata’s and Doug’s house. The door was made of black mahogany. He pressed the button to the side of the door. There was a chiming noise and then it opened on soundless hinges.
Doug enveloped him in a crushing bear hug. Doug was a big man whose size contrasted sharply with the image of most Department chairs in Theoretical Astrophysics. He stepped aside and Renata gave Wrassian a hug that was less dangerous to the alignment of his spine and a quick kiss on the cheek.
The couple ushered him into the dining room. There was a turducken prepared with mashed potatoes, collard greens and sweet potato pie. Renata chattered on about her students and whether or not Sally Orsan would really be retiring from her post as Department chair.
Renata stopped talking. There was a silence of a few seconds and then Doug put down his silverware. “Renata tells me the latest attempt failed today. Care to share?”
“Nothing to it, really,” Wrassian said. “The damn thing won’t hold the oxygen in the capsule. Without the oxygen in the capsule to insulate me when I slide back in time, I’ll freeze to death before I can go and find Mom at the hospital. Plus I’d die from asphyxiation. I’d never make it out of the capsule.”
“Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Can I see the equations? One more time please?”
Wrassian stood up and put his data card into the appropriate slot on the wall. A projector noiselessly turned on and splashed a series of numbers and mathematical symbols on the opposite wall.
Doug stood up and placed his finger on one part of the equation having to do with gaseous dynamics. “I was out on the beach for lunch today. I saw a seal haul himself onto an ice floe to escape a shark. He looked so uncomfortable there, sitting and shaking. He waited ten minutes after the shark gave up. It was one of our now native Greenland sharks, so naturally he had no inclination to go busting up a mass of ice like an Orca would. Then it hit me, the seal preferred being in the water. He badly wanted back into it even though there could have been five dozen sharks waiting for him.”
“Why? Because he could swim better than he could walk?”
Doug pointed at the equations again. “No. Because in our globally warmed ocean, and who knows maybe before, he was colder out of the water than he was in it. The water acted as a thermal insulator for him. And a solution of oxygenated saline could do the same for you in your time capsule. If I may?” He gestured towards the switch on the table which allowed a user to edit the data.
Doug thought back to a problem posed by one of his professors. It had been about fluid dynamics, specifically the mathematical equation for entropy and heat loss, and how that process could be slowed down markedly. He put the appropriate formula on the wall and solved it, showing a decrease in heat loss of 60%.
Wrassian and Renata peered over his shoulder. Renata gasped. Wrassian snapped his fingers loudly and smiled.
“Just remember,” Doug said, “you promised to bring me back some brownies, the duty-free kind they stopped selling in 2051.”
* * *
Wrassian waited inside the dihedron. Funnily enough, all he could think of was the blueprints he’d left on his desk. They outlined schematics for a multi-purpose fortress/mini factory, heavily armed and squat-looking. He’d lectured on that topic a year ago, but no one had taken him seriously. He shook his head to clear it of these thoughts.
All the tests they had done before now had confirmed Doug’s hypothesis. Surrounding him was a saline solution that had been died emerald for visibility. He had a mouthpiece attached to an oxygen-nitrogen tank on his back which fed him oxygen from the mix at a safe rate.
He saw Renata and Doug right outside the capsule. Renata was crying soundlessly, wondering if she would ever see Wrassian again. They stepped back, ten meters from the dihedron. There was a flash of blue light. Electricity arced then vanished. Wrassian blacked out.
When he came to it was to the sound of gurgling fluid as the CPU tried to open the outside door where delicious, relatively warm air waited. There was a message on the console. AUTOMATIC DOOR OPENING MECHANISM INOPERATIVE. OPEN MANUALLY.
Wrassian felt the cold seep into his bones like spilled ink on newspaper. He spat out the mouthpiece and swam toward the door handle. After an eternity, he got to it and pulled downwards with all his might. It didn’t budge. His last thought before the darkness claimed him was to wonder if one could laugh at oneself with one’s mouth full of fluid.
* * *
Wrassian heard voices talking, hushed and full of concern. He opened his eyes slowly. He wondered which realm in the afterlife he was in. But it looked exactly like New Jackson, Michigan as he remembered it twenty years ago in 2061. The past! It had worked!
The voices belonged to a thin kid in a threadbare hoody and an older man with grime on his face.
“I think he’s a terrorist, Mel,” the kid said.
“No, no. He’s an angel,” the old man said. “Who else but an angel could have survived that contraption? I mean when you pressed that bright red button by the door and he fell out, he was blue like an alien, but alive! Look! He’s awake!”
Wrassian was indeed awake. And he felt like hell. His head pounded in slow waves. His mouth tasted like he had swallowed a twenty-pound bag of sand. His eyes felt like they had been taken out of his head and put back crooked. “Who are you two?” he croaked slowly.
“What’s he saying, Mel? Is it Spanish?”
“No,” the old man said, “it sounds like Greek, but I can’t be sure. I dropped out before I could finish Greek 1.”
Wrassian struggled to contain himself. “I’m speaking English! Same as you two!”
The old man took Wrassian’s shoulders gently in his hands, as though Wrassian were made of glass that could shatter at any moment. “Listen to me, son. Calm down. We’re gonna take you to someone who can help you.”
The kid blew out a breath of air in a rush. “What are you doin’?! There’s no way he knows what you’re saying!”
Mel looked at the kid intently. “Doesn’t matter. You can calm someone down by speaking slowly and gently. I know about that from the War. So if you can’t do that, then please leave. All right, Fred?”
“Geez, all right already.” Fred offered a hand to Wrassian and helped him stand. It was then that Wrassian noticed their surroundings. They were in an alley off disused street with rusted cars lining either edge. He saw some Fraag Sunrises, formerly sleek and now dented and half-decomposed, as well as a plethora of vintage Vierbahn Hammers, hulking and massive even in their desuetude.
Wrassian leaned on Fred’s arm. “I want to go to the hospital. I have to see my mother. She’s dying. Of cancer.”
Fred looked up at him and smiled reassuringly. “Sure, dude. Sure.”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by Sergio Hartshorne