Christian squeezed his eyes shut, fully expecting the Toyota Tundra to smash him to the pavement, smearing his body into paste, and crushing his beaker of plasma balls into a coruscant fireball. But none of that happened. He wasn’t exactly sure what had happened. Only that the mid-morning chill and smell of wet snow had been replaced by a warm numbness and the faint scent of curried lime. And though he had leaped, he still hadn’t landed. His body had stopped falling but hadn’t touched the ground. Maybe it would help if I opened my eyes.
He did, but whether it helped or not was debatable. He was back at Hubert’s off-campus lab—unit 411, at the corner of Violet Street and Corporate, in a small warehouse four miles away from campus. The warehouse was vacant except for a workbench and the remnants of his dinner from the night before. The scene looked the same as it had in Christian’s memory at his moment of clarity back in Hayman’s office: empty containers of coconut soup and brown rice, scattered equipment, his over-turned toolbox, and at the center of the warehouse, blast marks from the explosion that had created the beaker’s contents. But how did I get here? Did I really open a portal? Why does everything look fuzzy? And why haven’t I fallen?
He dared to glance down and wished he hadn’t. His feet were floating above the warehouse floor and between it and his shoes was a curved band of white that spread out in a faded sheath up and around his body like a giant soap bubble. He must have created the bubble the moment he’d leaped, forming it around himself like a protective shell. It reminded him of the plasma coating surrounding the photons—the “tongues of white fire”—in the beaker. How did I do that? Why can I do that? His eyes drifted back to the blast marks. And his earlier memory returned like an electric shock.
The previous night, he’d replicated one of the last student projects Hubert had stolen, following the steps outlined in an article the student had written to protect his invention. It was a truly amazing piece of technology, a device that converted light beams into portals which transported you from one point to another in a literal instant.
But the student, a freshman named Mitch Campbell, was a clumsy builder. The device was clunky, too large and awkward, thoroughly impractical for everyday use. He’d called it the Canopy, an apt name given that it covered its surrounding space with a sideways umbrella of azure blue. Light portals were embedded in the big blue matrix, hundreds of holes dotting the artificial sky. The Canopy was a beautiful miracle, but thoroughly impractical for everyday use. Though Hubert had found a buyer (the North Korean spies), for the average consumer, it’d be a hard sell. Few people had a whole room they could devote to just one device, no matter how incredible or innovative it might be. But people would appreciate portable portals. And Christian knew that he could adapt the freshman’s tech to make not just one but a slew of them.
So, on his way out of the CASE building, following his interrogation, Christian discreetly slid Campbell’s article off Hubert’s stack of stockpiled projects and vowed to use his newfound freedom to remake the freshman’s invention according to his better vision.
That night, at the warehouse, the experiment succeeding beyond his wildest imaginings. When he’d flicked the switch, the light portals formed, embedded in the same azure matrix, but instead of being stuck like flies in amber, each portal was encapsulated in its own plasma skin and dangled from the matrix like drops of dew, ready to be picked and pocketed, as portable as pearls. He’d done it!
Before Christian could celebrate his victory, something went wrong. Through one of the dew drops, he witnessed a cataclysm that expanded from its point of origin until it violently rocked the surrounding matrix. His version of Campbell’s Canopy exploded. The plasma-coated dew drops rained down like meteors from their artificial sky and though several fell to the floor of the warehouse, the rest bored into Christian, piercing his skin like white hot nails, searing his muscles, flowing through his extremities, out to the tips of every nerve. He was everyone, then no one; everywhere, then nowhere; splintered across an infinity of dimensions, but simultaneously dimensionless. He screamed and screamed, the sound a multitude of voices, a chorus of Christians crying out. At the height of his immolation he passed out and while he slept, he dreamt of a million suns.
That was yesterday. He hadn’t remembered coming to and driving home, nor floating to his bed flush with a fever that seemed to radiate up from his bones. Yet he woke a few hours later feeling oddly euphoric as he dressed for his meeting with the president. And instinctively, he avoided the mirror in his closet, irrationally afraid of what he might see. Now here he was, transformed, floating in a bubble of his own inner light, and, just at the edge of his perception, hearing whispers of the multitude that voiced the pain of his immolation. Oh, god, don’t let me see my reflection again.
A futile thought, for the door to the warehouse bathroom was open, the mirror above the sink clearly visible, and in the mirror he saw the faces of the multitude—his face repeated over and over, trapped in portals from ever possible dimension. He yelped and shook his head, but the faces didn’t disappear.
An army of Christians, yelling at him as they pounded their fists against their plasma prisons, had through some quantum anomaly of the Canopy’s explosion, become embedded, like the dew drops, inside of his body. All but two of them yelled the same thing as they fought to get out of their plasma shells. “It should be me! It should be me!”
The other two—embedded in his gut and forehead—were even more unnerving. Forehead Christian, unlike the others, stood quietly in his portal, staring at him intensely, but aging with each passing second. Not shouting or fighting, just silently contemplating while slowly becoming an old, old man.
Like the others, Gut Christian raged, but struggled against his prison with focused, hateful purpose. “It will be me!” he shouted, punching his shell. “You’re weak and stupid! I will replace you!”
And in that moment, this dimension’s Christian felt real danger. Each whack from Gut Christian echoed like an earthquake and instinctively he knew that over time Gut’s shell would break. The realization filled him with terror, and he could almost feel the splintering, the disassembling of himself that surely would follow once any of the subsumed portals were breached.
His eyes burned, his body shook, and a pressure like fire built in his chest. He felt on the verge of losing control.
Don’t, said a voice from inside his head, unlike the others. You are Prime. Stay in control.
He closed his eyes and concentrated, willing the pressure to move from his chest and into his hand. He stretched out. A tendril of light leapt from his palm into the bathroom, vaporizing the mirror, silencing the multitude of voices.
His protective light bubble burst, bringing him to his knees on the warehouse floor. Carefully, he set aside the beaker of dew drops. Tentatively, he felt inside himself. He’d bought some time, but the danger of splintering was still there. For the moment he had it under control. If he strung together more of these moments, the splintering might never occur.
Christian’s analytical mind took over. The key to keeping control was learning about everything his newfound power could do. He refilled his toolbox, righted the workbench, cleared the smart board, and wrote at the top “Christian 2.0”.
Then, concentrating, he opened his hand and, in his palm, formed another ball of plasma. “Alright, Christian Prime. Let’s see what you can do.”
“Prepare to be dazzled!“
Larry Knight tapped the computer lab’s smart board and couldn’t help but smile at the collective “Oohs” and “Aahs” that rippled through the class as a large, shimmering cube materialized above their heads. He tapped the board again, and the same shimmering light erupted from its stylus, encircling his hand. Now for the true pyrotechnics. He stepped onto the sensor array directly beneath the ceiling projector. Immediately, the glow from the stylus spread up his arm, to his head, then all around his body until he was engulfed in bright yellow, virtual flames. A nearby student gasped.
Turning his mic up to full volume, Larry flung back his head and let loose a wild laugh that reverberated through the room.
“Behold!” he said, wide-eyed. “I am the Sun! And I give you…Light!”
With a dramatic flourish, he stabbed the stylus at the cube. A fake bolt of lightning shot out that pierced the box’s side, then exploded into a brilliant cascade of colorful waves before coalescing into a single pulsing, white dot. The light, now a particle, zipped randomly around the cube, dragging a cloudy-blue vapor trail that soon obscured its path.
“See how the Sun’s essence seeks to hide?” he asked, still affecting a theatrical tone. “Who among you dares to find it?”
He dangled the stylus in front of them like a prize, and a dozen hands raised into the air. He’d barely gifted it to the closest eager student before she jockeyed him away from the sensor array and began furiously waving the stylus at the cube. Soon, other students rallied around her, shouting encouragement and suggestions. Larry found himself squeezed into the back of the room, edged out by the students’ fervor.
Fantastic, he thought. Just the reaction I wanted.
The “Particle in a 3D Box” problem could not be drier. Even he, physics geek that he’d been freshman year, had fallen asleep when Dr. Forbus had taught it. Now here he was, Forbus’ teaching assistant, still geek enough to love the topic and vain enough to not want to be dull teaching it. With the old man out sick, he’d re-worked the lecture, adding interactive visuals and motion capture. Cheesy as they were, the theatrics and graphics had everyone in the class on their feet and engaged—a vast improvement over the usual reactions to Dr. Forbus’ stale delivery. Each student was completely invested in solving the problem and Larry was sure they would. Once someone remembered what a smart board stylus was for.
“Let me try!” Dean Chambers, one of the more technically savvy students, forced his way to the front. Billy Hoag, the latest failure, gladly handed him the stylus.
This should be good, thought Larry. Chambers is pretty sharp.
He was anything but. The kid merely added jumping and slashing to all the stylus waving. Larry shook his head and laughed.
“Not workin’,” said Billy, deadpan.
“Maybe we need magic,” said Steve, Billy’s bench mate. “Try a spell.”
“Unh!” Dean grunted, still jumping up and down and waving. “Don’t know any. Uhn! Yell some at me.”
“No, Billy,” Maggie Heinz giggled. “That lifts things. Duh!”
They spent the next ten minutes tossing out faux Latin phrases and quotes from Harry Potter which, to Dean’s credit, he repeated unironically, but to no avail.
“My turn,” said Maggie with a grin. She hip-checked Dean off the sensor array.
“Try the spells with a British accent,” Billy suggested.
Try thinking. Larry stopped himself from saying it. The point of the exercise was for the students to solve the problem on their own—a feat this crew should be well-equipped to do. They were Gabriel Bische’s Innovation Program superstars; the up and coming cream of the crop; the smartest of all the freshman classes. Surely one of them knew that smart board styluses were meant for writing, not just waving. From there, the solution should present itself—just write the 3D wave function and voila! Problem solved.
Seconds later, as if reading his mind, the ever-astute Maggie, shouted, “Guys! I think we can write with it!” She held down the button on the side of the stylus and with a flick of her wrist, drew the sigma for a calculus integral in mid-air. “Yippee!” she squealed with delight. Her success inspired a fresh round of shouted suggestions from the class. Soon, the blue vapor faded as Maggie deliberately wrote out each part of the wave equation. Larry took a moment to pat himself on the back. Nobody’s sleeping today.
Then he heard a deep sigh behind him and felt less joyful. He had completely forgotten about the lone hold-out still seated and staring glumly out the window. Mitch Campbell, normally one of the more engaged students, had withdrawn into himself a few weeks ago, and had remained that way since. Oh, he turned in assignments and scored well on tests. But the ebullient Mitch from the start of term had devolved into a pensive, taciturn worrier, fretting over minor mistakes and apologizing for less than perfect scores.
Old, happy Mitch would have been the first to raise his hand, and probably would have solved the problem in the first five minutes; he was the sharpest of this bunch. Today’s Mitch just sat completely lost in thought, and not in a good way. Whatever this quiet was that had descended on the boy could only have been born of some unvoiced distress. Should I bring it up with Dr. Bische? What’s eating the kid?
Copyright © 2020 AJ Kilgore
Thanks for reading this preview!
Finally we’re catching back up with Mitch, but he most definitely is not in the mood. What is eating that kid?
There’s an answer to that and more questions in the preview for Chapter #3. Take a look!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
AJ Kilgore’s first words were “light” and “door”. Her fascination with both has never ceased. She lives in Denver, the light of Colorado, but considers herself a citizen of the world.