December 10, 2018

Shine Now, Fiercely Forever
by Eric Robert Nolan (short, PG-13)
Cover image.
Image credit: Sand Pilarski. More info.

~~~

I am going insane. I have watched my husband burn to death at least 1,000 times.

It always begins the same. It begins with beauty.

Stars wheel and blaze in the limitless Nevada firmament -- a billion points of light in a blue-black eternity. We're several hundred miles from Las Vegas -- and near Edward's childhood home -- so the city's lights cannot dim that fierce starshine. Shadowed mountains rise in the distance -- far from the flat sands surrounding the multi-level platform. Their rises, slopes and cliffs look slate-metallic-gray, ascending into silver in the moonlight. The vistas in every direction -- which I have seen ad infinitum -- are so lovely that, in my increasing present madness, I am no longer certain that I am not dreaming them.

Then there are flashes of violet -- strobes of dark purple that form mid-air squares and rectangles of light -- in advance of the Graviton Propulsion Unit's (GPU's) arrival.

Finally the GPU appears, growing from a dime-sized sphere to a globe more than 12 feet in diameter, alighting this vast platform, 10 feet from where I sit at the keyboard.

Violent violet lightning erupts from the bottom of the GPU, striking the sand below with quick, spindly fingers of plum-colored fire, and splashing rare, strange shades of electric Tyrian everywhere beneath the elevated platform.

The GPU itself appears strange as a conveyance. It looks like a hovering globe of mercury -- a perfect floating sphere of liquid metal. There is no enclosure. A traveler simply steps in and out of that moving liquid, wearing goggles and a respirator, and holding that incongruously low-tech looking box with the plain red button that starts the jump. To enter the GPU is to insert oneself into spinning, shining, liquid tin.

Edward emerges, holding the box with the button, and snatching away the goggles and respirator. For the longest and most painful moment, I am reminded of precisely how much that I love him.

Keen blue eyes rest among the Nordic features of his face and below his blonde hair. They are the most intelligent eyes I have ever beheld -- gentle cerulean blue and penetrating at the same time. And behind his tall, broad frame is the proof of his genius-- the most revolutionary machine that any man ever created, a great silver miracle, a device allowing him to travel through time.

I'm weeping.

"I'm back!" Edward yells. "Clarissa! I made it!"

"Edward!" I scream, too many times by now to count. "Something's wrong! The machine is affecting the platform! We're stuck in a temporal loop! This ... this keeps happening! Over and over! We're stuck in a temporal loop!"

And then a rare expression of confusion crosses his sharp features. He furrows his great, broad brow. "A loop?"

And then he burns. His body, having moved faster than the speed of light, reacts unexpectedly with the atmosphere (or quite expectedly, where I am concerned). Flames of burning turquoise rise from his limbs. A pastel high-blue steam seeps from his torso moments later, ascending to sear his surprised face. His hair catches fire. His skin blackens. His eyeballs ignite, and burst in their sockets.

He screams.

And then Edward and the GPU are gone.

The stars wheel and blaze, the silver mountains shimmer in the distance, and the Nevada night is quiet.

Seven minutes elapse.

And then those flashes of violet lightning begin again, signaling the GPU's impending arrival.

"I'm back! Clarissa! I made it!"

I want to die.

One of the peculiar things about Edward's invention of the GPU is that he indeed preferred the term "time travel." Other scientists do not. Most quantum physicists in the mid-21st Century believe the term is a misnomer, suggesting that a traveler can move forward and back in time in the same manner as a person can travel back and forth between points in space. They instead allow only for the one-way, forward "time dilation" that has already been proven possible by relativistic physics.

Edward differed. His hypothesis about bona fide "time travel" was linked closely to string theory, which states that each quantum one-dimensional "string" could "vibrate." These vibrations caused infinite quantum states that were actually infinite parallel universes. Vibrating strings emitted gravitons, and therefore a gravitational force.

Edward asked what would happen if a string could simply be "plucked," and if its resulting gravitational force could be harnessed. Could the person doing so then ride it like a wave, as a surfer rides an ocean wave? Could he ride it forward and backward in time, cruising along the "string" that is our particular universe?

As it turns out, he could. Edward proved it. Edward proved it with the endless hell in which he placed me.

"I'm back! Clarissa! I made it!"

"Edward! This madness has got to stop! We're stuck in a temporal loop! I'm living this over and over! And ... you burn. You ..."

The air grows hot, then, with searing turquoise flames -- deadly bright electric pastel blue. My husband burns before me.

I wonder about string theory. While I occupy this vibration of the string, confounded in its malfunctioning endless loop of time, what about the infinite other Clarissa Holdens? What might be transpiring for my counterparts in parallel universes, if they were each incrementally different in their outcomes? Might other vibrations offer merciful fates for other 'me's? Were other versions of me unsnared by this loop? Do these fortunate analogs, to whom the fates have shown mercy, grieve for Edward, and then cope and move on following his loss?

And what terrible turn of the fates had happened here, to cause the time loop? Edward's initial reality-bending excursion had caused it somehow ... had the GPU simply tangled the string of our universe?

"I'm back! Clarissa! I made it!"

"Edward." I am sobbing so heavily that I cannot adequately form words. I want to tell him that we are both in hell.

This time, I remember to turn away before his eyes explode.

During my cyclic seven-minute reprieves, I've tried so many times to prevent Edward's return. I have cut power to the machine itself, but its energy is largely kinetic, and connected with that unstoppable spinning mercury sphere. I have deleted the string navigational grid while the unit is in transport. I have smashed the keyboard in front of me to pieces beneath my fists. Nothing can avert the outcome, though. Edward always arrives and dies. His screams are always made strange as his larynx incinerates.

I have even simply leapt from the platform and tried to run away. I have raced for the unattainable heaven of the western horizon -- that forever-away, thin line between black-shadowed land and the cooling air of a violet-onyx universe. But the radius of the machine's relentless magic extends farther than I can run. One moment I am bolting, the sound of every muffled footstep in the sand is a soft, vain promise of possible relief. Another moment, and I am seated beside the unearthly, agonizing beauty of that moving, tall ball of bright burning nickel.

"I'm back! Clarissa! I made it!"

"I love you. I hate you. You did this to me -- to both of us."

"You what?"

I can feel the heat on my face every time. Even when I squeeze my eyes shut, that terrible turquoise light sears my irises. Even when I cover my ears, I can hear my husband screaming.

The platform here, in this arid, remote, and hidden stretch of sands, is arguably the most advanced laboratory in the world. Erecting it here near his childhood home was a key passage in Edward's odyssey. It looks like a strange, cluttered and busy elevated oil rig. The nocturnal Nevada sands, cooling from the day's merciless heat, are the platform's ironic sea.

The platform contains all manner of tools and toolboxes, containing everything from wrenches to soldering guns to black market circuit boards. I bolt for the oversized, firetruck-red toolbox at the southeast corner.

No sooner is the boxcutter in my hands than I am opening up my left forearm, lengthwise. I stare desperately at the dark red, gaping effusion of the wounds along my veins. I do not think I can even feel the pain. But I can fall into a childlike squat on the metal floor of the platform, and gaze at my deliberate mortality dumbly.

Dizziness arrives, a dull, promising angel.

Somewhere, Edward calls, "Clarissa?" But his voice is very small now, and it comes from very far away.

I had to do this. I had to. The alternative is an endless hell of starshine, the eternal agony of distant silver mountains. The alternative is to grow angrier at my husband and his hubris, every time he returns, for all of time -- my horror turning to cruel, mad gloating when he burns, yet again. What inhuman thing might I become, then, as my soul is affected by the millennia stretching ever before me?

I think that I can actually hear the individual drops of blood now falling from my slim wrist, falling from the platform to strike the dry and timeless floor of the cooling desert below me.

Can darkness have a temperature? Can it be hot or cold? Because the darkness falling over me now is calm and vast and welcome, and so very, very cool.

Then I am seated at my keyboard again. I cannot count the minutes I am there. The part of my mind that was able to do that has finally been eroded.

But those minutes must number seven, because my love returns to me again.

Violent violet lightning arrives like clockwork. There are strobes of dark purple -- mid-air squares and rectangles of light. The lightning makes quick, spindly fingers of plum-colored fire, splashing rare, strange shades of electric Tyrian everywhere.

"I'm back! Clarissa! I made it!"

Now arrives the predictable burning turquoise. I smell cooking skin.

My eyes fall to my left forearm. It is smooth. It is unblemished. It is white alabaster. It is a narrowing white snowdrift. It is as white as pearl. It is as white as porcelain. It is as white as the stars themselves, which will shine now, fiercely, forever.

I start to scream.






Originally published by The Bees Are Dead in January 2017.

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Article © Eric Robert Nolan. All rights reserved.


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