Issue 168 – September 2020

12080 words, novelette



Here you are. Take a look around you and remember it all: the gray sky that reveals no sun and casts no shadows, the dense blackness of trees encircling this place like a crown. You step out of the car, crushing wet gravel underneath your shoes, and marvel at how little this feels like a dream.

Behind you, Lomas shuts the door to the driver’s seat. You both squint at the sleek structure looming in the near distance, the crown jewel against the surrounding forest. You imagine the building was designed to look formidable, modern, but to you it just looks lonely. The concrete façade is punctured by thin, black windows and angular frames, steadfast against the sky as it cleaves fast-moving streams of clouds. You are hardly an expert in anthropology, but you’ve seen enough of Lomas’ field to know that this is not a place dedicated to it. But what else could it be? When Lomas had broken the news to you back in Cambridge, his only justification for the half-day’s travel and two-night stay deep in the Appalachian forests had been a single, cryptic sentence. I have been informed of a machine with great abilities.

“Jesus,” Lomas mutters, and you can only imagine what aspect of this situation he is referring to. He taps the side of his temple and reads something off the Iris of his eyes. “Well, at least we made good time.”

You tap your temple too, and a small display blinks into your vision, the numbers 4:50 hovering over the tops of trees. You close out of the screen and exhale slowly, taking stock of yourself. Your neck aches, your limbs cramped and deadened, the hairs on your arms prickling at the chill. Despite everything, though, you can’t help but feel a little giddy that you’re standing here. This place hangs in your mind like a memory, a ghost. As if you are fated to be here. Lomas walks past in your peripheral vision, setting off toward the entrance, and the fog is beginning to soak through your jacket. Still, you let yourself stand here, just for one moment more, and breathe.

Axiom #1: Lomas never tells you anything. This used to drive you crazy in the beginning—so many times you’ve sat seething at your desk, caught uninformed and unprepared, barely resisting the urge to splash coffee all over his ratty clothes and quit right then. But now you have come to accept this quirk as a kind of fundamental truth, and this time when he tells you to pack your bags, you are not too surprised.

Lomas doesn’t actually teach at the university, either. He says he prefers his research, and you’re quietly dubious of his abilities as an effective lecturer anyway. Consequently, for all the time you’ve spent with him, and all the acclaim he’s garnered as a professor, you’ve learned surprisingly little about the field of predictive anthropology. Most days, your tasks are painfully menial: fetching books, transcribing interviews, documenting artifacts, and the like. That’s Axiom #2: never get your hopes up. But now you and Lomas are trekking through the damp grass, the thick glass doors you approach leaking a silvery light, and you feel yourself doubting your own adages, wondering if this time might be different.

The first floor past the entrance stretches as tall as the structure itself, subsequent floors wrapping around the perimeter, a mandala of endless coiled hallways. You feel caught inside the body of a giant, its rib cage expanded and taut with breath, about to give to a gusty sigh. In the center of the floor, a young woman perks up when she sees you enter. Her white lab coat flaps behind her as she rushes over, her footsteps echoing over the marble floor. She shakes Lomas’ hand and introduces herself as Celine, principal researcher. Lomas nods, prior communication evidently established, and unthinkingly you mouth her name to yourself softly—Celine. The name suits her, you think. Her dark hair is cropped at the shoulder, and her brown eyes gleam as they jump to your face. You realize it is from her own Iris, the micro display bright with open windows. “You must be Professor Lomas’ assistant, right?” she asks, extending a hand.

You take it, stammering. “Jules.” Iris technology isn’t anything new; the majority of the population has gotten the necessary operation by now, effectively obsoleting the need for cell phones altogether. Sometimes it still throws you to watch someone’s eye shift and flicker like that, their presence always slightly veiled. Then again, it might just be her actual face that’s making you nervous.

The corners of Celine’s lips turn up slightly as she meets your eyes, but her gaze shifts back to Lomas after barely an instant. “I apologize that the Director couldn’t be here to meet you,” she says. “He had to finish up some work first. Life at the lab can be like that, I’m afraid.” The lab. The syllable drips with ubiquity, a monosyllabic pervasiveness.

“No need to apologize. In all the time I’ve known him, I don’t think he’s ever been on time,” he replies breezily.

So Lomas knows this man. Celine laughs politely, digging through her coat pocket. “Well, I’ll show you to the Director’s in the meantime. I’m sure you two must be starving.” She hands you each a key card, VISITOR printed neatly and dangling from a metal clip. You pin yours to your lapel and she walks you over to the elevator, the giant’s great glass spine. You step inside the compartment as she swipes her ID and presses the last number from the dense array of buttons, to floor 82. The ground starts to distance itself from your feet, and you can feel Celine’s eyes watching both of you. The car rattles skyward.

After a few long minutes, you slow to a stop and step into a dimly lit foyer. Only now do Celine’s last words really register with you, and you realize you are standing in someone’s living quarters. The apartment’s escher-esque layout unfolds before you, open doorways throwing isometric shadows over the bare, cream-colored walls. A long table is set with plates and glasses to your right, beside sleek floor-to-ceiling windows. To your left, pristine couches and throw pillows surround a lit fireplace. Every doorway you can spot reveals only hazy darkness, and you suspect this intimate gathering space obscures the floor’s true size.

Celine glides through the apartment, taking one look at both of your faces and hiding her smile. “It’s tradition that the penthouse is passed on to every Director,” she explains. She reaches the windows and peers down at a blurry, tannish patch in the distance. “Though the rest of us aren’t far.”

You squint and realize you are looking at the roofs of long, squat buildings, barely wider than trailers. You look back at her.

“You live there?” Instead of answering, she shrugs and points you and Lomas to the dining table, murmuring that the Director should just be a few minutes longer. You take a seat and instantly feel a little ridiculous, a trio of seats occupied at an expanse that should seat at least twenty.

Celine sits too, folding her hands together and turning her attention to Lomas. You notice she’s closed out of her Iris as she asks about his work, revealing the true amber of her eyes. You would hardly describe Lomas as a charismatic figure, but her attentiveness seems to invigorate him, and he ambles on easily about his research interests, case studies, and academic papers stuck in peer review hell. When he finally draws a breath, she asks how he knows the Director.

Lomas stalls for only a moment. “We’re old friends from university.”

Celine cups a candle in the palm of her hand and frowns. “Didn’t realize he had any friends.”

The elevator dings and the conversation falls silent. After a moment, the doors slide open and a man strides into the room, his face stretching into a broad smile upon seeing the guests at his table. You know instantly that he must be the Director, and yet he looks nothing like you were expecting. There is not an ounce of mad scientist in his slick appearance; his face is all sharp features mellowed with slight salt-and-pepper stubble, the lab coat uniform swapped for dark slacks and a crisp button-up.

Lomas rises from his seat as the Director approaches, and the two men grip each other as they shake hands. Lomas’ worn, pilling jacket and scruffy face stand in particular contrast against the newcomer, who laughs as he takes in his appearance.

“I can’t believe how long it’s been. Look at you,” he says, his voice rich and steady. Lomas chuckles in reply, and you can feel their rapport become palpable, years of rust shed instantly. The Director turns to you next and shakes your hand, his smile mesmerizing. It’s hard to look him in the eyes. Celine disappears behind a door, coming out quickly with covered platters and a bottle of wine, and the Director tells you all to dig in.

Dinner turns out to be delicious, a stream of dishes you can’t name and certainly could not afford. You plaster on a grin for most of the meal and pick at your meat, some kind of lamb, while the two men reminisce about past rendezvous and acquaintances. At one point, the Director disappears into a hallway and comes back with a stack of old photos. You and Celine sit together and sift through the pictures, squinting at the fuzzy faces. This is the farthest back you’ve glimpsed into Lomas’ past by far, and you’re amazed at the sight of his tufts of hair, his unlined smile. In one picture you see him standing alongside two men: one a grinning, handsome Director, the other appearing to be the Director’s clone, with the same sharp jaw and light eyes.

The Director glances over, noticing your puzzled expression. “My brother,” he says quickly. Lomas stares at the picture until the Director hands it to him. Lomas takes the photo wordlessly and tucks it into his jacket. You look down and remember your axioms.

The night goes on. The conversation moves to the fireplace, and the Director pours both you and Lomas a copious amount of wine. You take slow sips and grimace at the musty taste; Lomas reaches his third glass. The Director speaks generously, if not a bit vaguely, about the lab and its amenities. He paints a sweeping picture of the campus, where employees enjoy scenic bike paths, private gym facilities, wild buffalo sightings.

When that conversation meanders into silence, the Director leans back in his chair, his face basked in a warm glow, and runs a finger around the rim of his glass. “You haven’t asked about it yet,” he says abruptly.

Lomas’ eyes flicker up, his face slightly flushed. “Hm?”

“Frankly, I’m a little hurt. You’re not even a little bit curious about my machine? After everything I’ve told you about it?”

Lomas’ face hardens. “I am sure I’ll see it in due time,” he says quietly.

After a few moments of silence, you can’t bear it. “Wait, that’s not true.” Lomas’ look shoots daggers at you, but the Director’s eager eyes steels your resolve. “I want to hear more about your machine,” you tell him.

The Director smiles, swirling the remnants of his glass around. He sets it down lightly. “If you had the power to go anywhere, at any time, Jules, where would you go?”

You stare at him, unable to process his question. “I . . . I don’t know.” You can hear Lomas’ tight breaths beside you and heat starts to creep into your cheeks.

“That’s alright. It’s quite the question, isn’t it?” the Director says. “Imagine all the answers you could give: requests to see around the world, into the future and the past. My machine knows all of it.”

You stare at him. “Sorry?”

“It is called Laplace’s machine, and it is my life’s work,” he continues. “It creates simulations of our universe so precise that any extrapolation is possible and completely accurate.”

You sit in silence, with only the sounds of flames bursting into existence, crackling away just as quickly. “How is that possible?” you ask. “That’s so much information to account for. An impossible amount, even.”

Celine speaks up, for the first time in a while, smiling wanly at the obvious. “The lab has a lot of resources. We make do.” Her sympathetic expression does nothing to comfort you, her words explaining nothing.

You finally look to Lomas, who averts his eyes. “You believe this?”

“I don’t know,” he says softly.

The Director lifts his hands in concession. “Understandable. Tomorrow, I will show you Laplace’s machine. Then you will see the truth in everything I am saying.”

Lomas nods, his face turning to stone. The Director’s claims stay heavy in your mouth, souring the wine that lingers in your throat, but you can’t fathom what else to ask. Before you know it, Lomas makes an excuse to turn in. The Director bids him a brief farewell, and you find yourself in the elevator again, descending the 82 floors to the ground.

Outside, you get your bags from the car and Celine conjures what appears to be a deluxe golf cart to the parking lot. She tells you your next stop is the residencies, the network of buildings you had viewed from afar, where you will stay with the rest of the five hundred or so employees. You load your bags and get into the back seat, and soon you are zipping around the lab, Celine taking the wheel with a force that leaves you gripping onto your seat. The sun has set and rolling fog spills from the trees, bringing cool night air with it. You glance back at the lab, which has taken on a lunar, ghostly glow.

After a few minutes, hazy lights in the distance become glowing gas lamps, yellow billowing around each globe like smoke. Celine pulls into the lot and parks, then points you to separate rooms in the first row of buildings. You turn to your right, hoping to catch Lomas’ eye, to beg him for a crumb of an explanation of tonight’s events. But he’s already gone—you watch him swipe his card and disappear behind the door to his room. You look the other way and see empty air. Celine has disappeared too.

With a sigh, you start shuffling over to your own room. You swipe in, and once the lights flicker on you take stock of your accommodations. The room is plain, a far cry from the magnificent penthouse in which you had just dined, but adequate by any motel’s standards. You sit on the queen bed, the day’s events playing in the back of your mind, the conversation with the Director ringing loudest of all. You drag your fingers lightly across the comforter, watching minuscule folds form and shift in its topology, almost imperceptibly thin threads catching underneath the ridges of your fingerprints. You close your eyes and exhale. The thought that any entity could fully capture all the information just contained in this room makes your head spin.

Then there’s a pounding at the door, jolting you into reality. Celine is waiting when you open up, peering at you over an armful of folded towels. “What are these for?” you ask.

“The rooms don’t come with them,” she says shortly.

You nod and then stand there awkwardly for a bit, not sure what to say. “Thanks for doing all this,” you finally manage. “I’m guessing this isn’t really supposed to be your job.”

She snorts. “No, it’s not.” The wind blows strands of hair in her face, which she pushes away mindlessly. “But you should know that anything to do with Laplace’s machine is top secret. Most of the employees here don’t actually know about it. There’s no one else but me.”

You process her words, at the same time constructing all your questions to be as casual as possible. She sees you take a breath and silences you with a hand. “Save your questions for tomorrow. Seriously, it’s not a good idea to get into this now.”

You close your mouth and bow your head in acquiescence. For another moment you and her just stand there, less than a foot apart and separated by a doorframe. Then Celine steps away and clasps her hands. “I should get some towels to your boss.” And then she is gone and you are staring at empty space. The sounds of her footsteps on gravel slowly diminish and despite the mundanity of the interaction that just happened, something in you aches just a little.

You step back and close the door, overwhelmed, relieved. At least this first day is over. You’re in need of a break.

You go somewhere different, someplace before. You haven’t met Lomas yet; you won’t for many years. You are traveling down a river in the paddleboat your father built a few years ago, painted red by two brushes of different sizes. The water flows a little faster today, as the lake it runs out from has swelled from last night’s rain. Mist pours on your face and leaves teardrops on your eyelashes as you battle the harsher currents that twist your trajectory.

If you look behind you, you can catch a glimpse of your big black dog, Reno, barking and bounding down the riverbank, trying to keep up with you. You and him have grown up together and are nearly inseparable at this point. You are watching him mid-leap when your world literally turns upside down, your head dropping into the water like a rock and forced downward by the hands of malevolent beings. These river gods drag your body through the coursing water, brief spasms of solid force hitting your appendages with the wooden planks of your boat and the river floor, disappearing and reappearing below your feet sporadically. You feel endlessly caught in this blinding rush, and yet cannot seem to change anything about it. Your journey to wherever this river takes you feels inevitable. Something inside you accepts that this is it.

And then you are thrown back by a sudden force, by bared teeth clenched onto the back of your shirt collar. You thrash your arms wildly and something gradually drags you to the banks of the river. You lie there dazed, feeling ribbons of water course across your skin, and then you realize your face is above the surface, and you take a deep shuddering breath.

An immeasurable amount of time passes and then you can feel something nudging your hand, licking your face. You open your eyes and it’s Reno. Your fear and gratitude leaves you sobbing and gripping onto his body, face buried in his fur.

But now—now you are here again, and you are getting up from the mud, and you see the jagged branches that lie across the river, allowing someone to drag themselves to shore. You reach out and stroke Reno’s fur, which drips and glosses under your touch, as if it hadn’t been wet before. Reno is an old dog at this point. He could barely keep up when you were still in the boat.

You have come back here because you want to know. Reflecting on the incident years later, it made no sense. But in this moment, washed up on the shore, you believe so much that Reno had saved you, that he had dove into the water and dragged you from your doom. But did it really happen that way? Are you certain?

Your Iris wakes you up the next day, swelling gentle orbs of light onto the inside of your eyelids until it becomes uncomfortably bright. You sit up and it takes a minute for you to realize where you are, fine mist still clinging to your eyelashes.

As you’re pulling on your socks, you hear the golf cart outside rev its dinky engine. You open the door to the parking lot, where Celine is waiting for you. You look to your right and you see Lomas squinting in the sunlight as well.

The lab is deserted when you walk inside, and you remember that it’s a Saturday. Celine leads you and Lomas to the elevator once again, but this time she swipes her ID and quickly presses the first floor button three times. The elevator jolts into motion, and your head becomes light. The ground through the glass begins to rise, shrouding you in darkness and confirming that you are, indeed, moving downward. Your body still hurts for sleep, but the descent drops your stomach and you shudder.

The elevator settles and the doors slide open. Lomas steps out first, his head craned up, and lets out a low whistle. He glances back at you and Celine. “Damn.”

The first thing to notice about this place is the height. The chamber you step into is huge, confusingly so: it seems just as tall as the lab when you were on its telescoping ground floor, as if in the time you’ve been in the elevator a large stage crew was replacing everything in sight, while you weren’t even moving at all. But this can’t be so. You grapple with the fact that this place must truly be underground, another vast space stacked right below where you were just standing.

The three of you walk to the middle of the chamber, much smaller than the plaza of the first floor. Encircling you are black walls that seem to glow; you realize upon second glance that what you are looking at are actually many, many computers, stacked up on one another to form steep cylindrical surfaces. Cool air circulates around the room and brushes against your skin. On the floor, thick desks are strewn with paper and sag under the weight of massive monitors.

In the opposite corner of the room, like the north notch of a compass, lies a small cavity with a sloping ceiling that converges at a flat, blank screen. Other monitors with tiny blue text hug the walls’ beveled corners. In the middle of this space you spot the Director, sitting in a black chair with his legs kicked up on the desk. He turns around and watches you approach, grinning and loosely holding a mug.

“Good morning, guys. Welcome to the office.”

Lomas’ expression stays steely. He eyes the mug, and you recall he hasn’t had any coffee today. “Is the explanation for how this works going to hurt my brain?”

“Jumping right into things, are we?” The Director shrugs and then looks at Celine. “I’ll let the principal researcher do the talking.”

Celine looks back to you and Lomas. “How familiar are you two with modern physics?”

You exchange glances. “Yeah, not very.”

She nods. “Okay. Um, I’ll give my best high-level description and just stop me when you have any questions. So this project—Laplace’s machine—has been in the works for decades. The theory was first proposed back in the nineties by the previous Director of this lab, Sergey Novikov. He imagined a machine built on a single, irrefutable truth: that the universe is inherently causal, and therefore deterministic. The world we live in is a product of the world that came before it, and it is the only possible product. If we gave our creation everything there is to know about the state of the universe, even for one instant, any instant, the rest of time and space could be known to us by extrapolation.

“The idea was pretty controversial at the time. Concurrently, Novikov was in the process of dismantling the canon that was quantum mechanics, disproving it with his own radical experiments—most of them done here at the lab, actually. Quantum logic inherently went against Novikov’s idea because it introduced randomness into the universe, an existence in which some things we could not definitively compute. But Novikov pioneered a new theory, seed theory, which broke quantum particles into smaller, more fundamental vectors, and developed equations that, while seemingly erratic, made the outcomes of their interactions predictable.”

She stops to catch her breath, leaving you to stare at her dumbly. You glance over at Lomas to see if he’s doing any better. He’s gazing at the machine, lost in thought.

“That’s a pretty big if, isn’t it?” He looks to Celine. “You said if you captured an instant where you knew everything about our universe, then you could extrapolate from there. Sure. But we just don’t have that kind of information, do we? I mean, we don’t even know what’s at the bottom of our oceans.”

Celine nods for a moment, collecting her thoughts. “Okay, good question. Well, that’s the other component of seed theory. It states that there exists a beginning of the universe, a point zero on the proverbial axis of time. This ‘seed’ of the universe occurs before what we call the big bang, when everything was at its most dense, when there was the most order. We pooled all our efforts and computational resources into identifying the seed, testing and refining combinations of particles until we extracted the true one. Once found, the rest was just a matter of implementation and design—now Laplace’s machine has grown into all that you see around you.”

Everyone takes a moment to soak up the machine again. You gaze at the glittering sky of blue lights and let out a low breath.

“You want to see it in motion?” the Director pipes up, reading your mind. He spins around in his chair and starts to type. The whole chamber surrounding you starts to hum and flicker, every inch of this massive computer coming to life. The blank screen flickers to life and illuminates a slate gray rectangle. Small, white numbers pour into the screen until it is filled, their values morphing into each other seamlessly. You walk closer and strain your eyes as each number blinks in and out of existence, replaced with one just as equally arbitrary. You look back at the Director, not sure what you should say.

“This is it?” You wince as the words come out of your mouth. Not that.

The Director lifts an eyebrow. “What, numbers?” His face, previously full and handsome, looks gaunt in the harsh illumination. “These numbers represent vectors of particles, their energy and their momentum, their position in reality. These numbers in particular show the obliteration of Earth when it is engulfed by the expanding sun, five billion years from now. These numbers can show you the trajectory of your life, the fate of your bloodline. These are the numbers, Jules.”

You nod your head tightly at him. Celine pipes up from behind you. “That being said, we do understand visualization would be nice,” she says, advancing toward the screen, turning and leaning on the desk so that her back is illuminated. “I’m leading a project designed to do just that.”

You try to wrap your head around what that would mean, everything that you could witness. A shiver runs through your body. “So we can see everything.”

“Well.” The Director leans back into his chair. “Not everything. We know the nature of every fundamental particle at every instant of time. That explains the formation of planets, the minutiae of a rainfall. But even with a perfect snapshot of someone’s brain chemistry, I cannot explain why they feel the way they do. The one thing my machine cannot understand—emotion.” He fixes his eyes on Lomas intensely. “That’s where you come in.”

The room freezes with those words. Lomas cannot speak for a moment, dumbstruck. “What?”

The Director’s calm demeanor doesn’t waver. “You loved someone, once,” he says brazenly. “Using Celine’s visualization algorithms, I want to give you closure, show you the truth. And in exchange, I want to study you.”

The two men stare at each other, with Celine the first to intercept. “I’m sorry, sir, but you didn’t tell me that we’d be performing a personal query today.” She glances at you, too, but you can’t give her any answers.

Lomas forces a burst of laughter, but quickly drops his smile, still in shock. “I don’t think this is a good idea,” he says softly.

“You’ve come all this way,” the Director replies.

“I thought this was about—you made it sound like—” Lomas, becoming more and more agitated, doesn’t finish his sentence and just shakes his head in silence. “I’m not interested,” he says, finality evident in his voice. “I’m sorry.”

The Director’s expression is indecipherable, but it strikes you as thoughtful rather than anything else. He swivels his chair away and shrugs. “Of course. I won’t force you into anything.”

Lomas looks taken aback. “I—I appreciate it.”

The Director waves his hand at Celine, his eyes glued to the screen. “In that case, then. Why don’t you show them more of the lab?”

Celine is similarly duped. “Should I—what?”

“Start with the library,” the Director says. “I need to finish up some work here.”

After a beat, Celine stands up and smoothes down her lab coat. She looks tersely at the both of you before heading back toward the elevator shaft. Inside, Celine presses the button for you and stands there wordlessly. You can tell that her bafflement has morphed into ire, though you’re not sure to whom it’s directed. After a moment, her glare pierces through her Iris, flickering to life. Lomas stares at his feet the whole way up.

The elevator slows to stop halfway up the building, and you follow Celine down a deserted hallway. Sturdy, industrial-looking doors pass by on your left, while on the right you’re walled in by a thick pane of glass. Peering through it, you can see floors with near-identical hallways spiraling below you, the same speckled tile and harsh LED lighting.

You catch Lomas’ eye in the reflection. “Are you okay, sir?”

He exhales loudly and rubs his eyes. “Shit, I need coffee.”

You are reminded of Axiom #3: Lomas cannot function without caffeine. The first thing you would do in the mornings is get him some coffee, so this does not bode well.

Celine stops in front of a door suddenly, and you halt alongside her. The placard beside the door is embossed with the letters #L0B. She says something about being big fans of Borges here, a statement so witty it momentarily breaks Lomas out of his spell and makes him chuckle. Then she swipes her card, the door handle lighting green, and lets you inside.

You get the sensation that you’ve just stepped back into Cambridge, sent somewhere on campus to fetch Lomas a book. The room is around two levels high, with rich mahogany bookshelves that curve around you. What you see filling them are not the spines of books, however; it takes a moment for you to figure it out, but you realize they’re brimming with piles of scrolls, bound paper spirals that bloom like a bouquet of roses from each chamber. The air is warmer here and smells woody and sweet. It’s all very jarring from the sterile hallway outside, but drastic tone shifts at the lab aren’t anything new anymore.

“Welcome to the library,” Celine says, leading you down the shelves to the open space in the center. “Here we keep a record of every simulation we’ve run on Laplace’s machine.”

You look around, taking in the heaps of scrolls. Glancing at Celine for permission, you slide out a tube from the nearest shelf labeled Ferns. The scroll itself is sealed with a strip of tape that has a large, scrawled number. You undo the tape and gingerly unroll the thick paper. Inside is a wall of small, inky numbers, just like the ones you saw flash on the screen down in the machine room. It’s exactly what you were expecting and still a perplexing sight.

“Don’t tell me you can read this,” you say.

She shrugs. “Once you get the hang of it, it’s not as hard as it looks. The syntax has a top-down design, so events are easily abstracted.”

You study the scroll again, the numbers still meaningless. Behind you, Lomas mumbles something about wanting to look around on his own, and Celine lifts a yielding hand. He wanders off and disappears into an aisle. You roll the scroll up carefully and slip it back, suddenly very aware it’s just you and Celine.

“I don’t want to sound rude, but . . . why print all of this? Can’t it just be saved on a computer?”

Celine smiles dryly. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the Director likes his theatrics.” Her mouth twitches as she stares at the walls of scrolls surrounding her.

You chuckle weakly. “Yeah, whatever just happened back there—that was theatrical as hell.”

You instantly wish you hadn’t said it. Celine flushes red. “He really should have told me he was going to do that,” she says apologetically. The contempt you saw in the elevator floods back into her expression. “God, I wish he would tell me anything. Sometimes I don’t know how he expects me to do my job.”

You cast your eyes above you, where Lomas has gotten himself onto the second floor and is now lurking through shelves. You think back to Axiom #1.

“Somehow I think I know exactly what you mean.”

Celine exhales, studying you carefully, and then she seems to soften. With a blink, she closes her Iris and motions you down an aisle. “Come on, let me show you some of the things we keep around here.”

Celine leads you around the first floor, showing you various scrolls of interest. She tries to teach you how to read them, too, dissecting what she calls the “parent vectors,” but after a couple fruitless efforts on your part she drops the cause. Her explanation of what each represents is more than enough. You find the difference in magnitude striking; some, like the one you randomly plucked off the shelf, record endearingly short events. Things like the life cycle of plants or a bird egg hatching can be verified easily within the lab’s walls, Celine tells you. And then there are the big events, ones that recount the formation and destruction of stars, the beginning of the universe. When you read the labels of these scrolls, which droop under their own weight, your stomach can’t help but drop. Celine points out a particularly battered scroll, already splayed open on a table, and mentions that the destruction of the Earth is one of the Director’s favorites.

You stare at the scroll’s contents, the numbers a little faded from repeated unrollings. You wonder how anyone could work on this machine and keep sane. “Can I ask, um. Are you—”

A crashing sound from upstairs interrupts you. Lomas peeks his head out behind a railing from the balcony. “Sorry, sorry,” he says hurriedly. “I just—I tried to—”

“It’s okay, they’re really heavy,” Celine says. You follow her up the stairs. Lomas is stooped down and picking books off the floor, the first actual books you’ve seen in this library. They do look pretty hefty, with thick bindings in rich colors.

He shoves them back into the shelf, looking embarrassed. “I can’t read them,” he offers. Celine tells him it’s fine another time and then Lomas slinks off again.

You approach the bookshelf as one book threatens to tumble over. You catch it before it does and hold it up to the light. It’s dark blue, embossed with a single word in gold. Celine.

You stare at the letters. Then you look at her. She looks back awkwardly. “You can look,” she says finally. You open it and thumb through a few pages, each covered in an unyielding mass of numbers, stacked like bricks.

“If you’re really special, you get a book,” Celine says softly from behind you. She points to the first book on the bookshelf, where there’s around five in total. “That red one’s the Director. And then the one after that is the previous Director, Sergei.” She touches a green book, slimmer than the rest. “This last one is for the Director’s late brother, Theo. You saw a picture of him earlier.”

The weight in your hands feels paralyzing. “Have you read all of it?” you ask her.

She glances back at the book in your hands. “I’ve read some,” she says, chewing her lip. “Once you get past the present, it’s a little addicting. But I made myself stop, eventually. I had seen enough.” You notice there’s a thin gold bookmark sticking out the top, what you gauge to be sixty percent into it. You turn the book in your hands over and over, simultaneously impressed by her self-restraint and horrified by what she could have read to make her stop. A fresh sense of alarm is unfolding out of your body, all the anxiety that has been collecting since your arrival suddenly becoming unbearable.

“How can you deal with this?” you ask, unable to keep your voice from exposing your dread. “How can you go to work every day knowing that this book is here, too? Knowing that you can’t change anything it says. That none of your choices matter.”

Celine blinks, stunned by your reaction. She’s quiet for a while, considering the question. “All of my choices matter,” she says finally. “Our actions are always informed by the circumstances of our past. That means there is a reason for everything, a world I am building. That book right there is proof of that. It gives me intention. It hands me a promise.” She walks over to your side and takes her book from your hands, re-shelves it next to the others. “It’ll be okay,” she says. “I promise.”

Your knuckles burn where her fingers had momentarily brushed them. But it’s enough to siphon away your fear, like a lightning rod grounding you to reality. When you experience it this time, you are surprised at how quickly the moment passes, how briefly her hand touches yours, an action sewn together with the lightest thread. You go back and feel it again.

There’s a day you have in mind, many years in the future. Here, reading is seen as an antiquated skill, but you are old and used to your ways. You scroll through news articles on your Iris, now called OEIs (Ocular Enhancement Implants) per the new government regulations. The name has never felt right to you, and the interface is foreign, unnatural. Your generation once pioneered this technology, and now it slips more out of your grasp with every update cycle.

An article catches your attention, an obituary. The name means nothing, but a location sticks out to you in the brief preview of the article, a place you can almost locate in your mind. After a few mis-selects, you pull the article up and skim over the opening words. Something in your head clicks. Every sentence dredges up images, sounds, even smells that you can barely hold onto. You can envision the laboratory they mention, the towering structure with those incredible chambers, the things you witnessed during that faraway weekend. You had met the deceased when you were a young man. He had held the position of Director for nearly thirty years, says the article, practically working up until his death. The article details his most significant discoveries, the impact he made on the field of physics overall, and his education at the same university you had worked at all those years ago.

She takes up barely more than a sentence near the end, but when you read her name, the entirety of her becomes vividly real. The article quotes her sentiment to continue the lab’s most ambitious and groundbreaking work, to honor her predecessor’s legacy. You read the sentence again and bask in every syllable, each a kernel of new information, proof that she has continued to exist beyond that weekend.

Eventually you close out of the article and wonder if memories can ever just belong to the past. All those times you’ve replayed each interaction in your head, poring over scrolls together in that labyrinth of a library or taking towels out of her arms. Weren’t you changing them a little every time? Every fresh coat of paint a slightly different color, so much so that now you aren’t even sure if the words she says to you are hers or your own invention.

And then you think back to that space below the ground, where there exists a single version of that weekend that is true. You wonder if he ever discovered what it all meant. You wonder if she knows now, too.

The next stop in the tour is a place Celine calls the greenhouse. This room stretches higher and longer than the confines of the library, with windows for walls and marble ceiling panels that diffuse daylight into soft, golden pools. Thick trees sprout from the soil floor and stretch to the ceiling, casting dappled shadows at your feet. Lining the pathways that cross the ground are the most verdant, lush ferns you’ve ever seen. They spill onto the walkway, threatening to trip you on any misplaced step, though Celine winds her way through like it’s nothing. She stoops down to show you a tag attached to the base of a fern, and you think back to the scrawled numbers on the fern scrolls in the library. You kneel down next to her and listen to her talk about the symbiotic relationship between the shady trees and temperate ferns; Lomas stays standing, gazing upward at the trees, his head evidently somewhere else.

Eventually, Celine notices this too. She follows his gaze to a small glass enclosure that juts out of the glass wall, connected to the ground by a ladder. “Our magpie roost,” she explains, getting up and brushing soil off her palms. “We can go up if you want. The view is nice.”

Lomas eyes the enclosure warily. “Animals aren’t really my thing.”

Celine shrugs and turns to you, and you nod tentatively. Together you make your way toward the enclosure. At the base of the ladder, she takes off her lab coat and stuffs it into a basket on the floor. “Might want to leave any shiny things down here. Otherwise, be prepared to fight for it.”

You hastily unclip your ID and deposit it before climbing after her, leaving Lomas by himself. You emerge into a small enclosure with an eclectic collection of mirrors, aluminum sheets, and other metallic surfaces sitting at your feet. Wooden birdhouses hang neatly down an aisle of shrubs, though you’re not sure if any are currently holding birds. Seconds later, a chattering screech answers your question for you.

“Why magpies?” you ask Celine, who is cooing into a box. She reaches in and extracts a black and white bird, which fluffs its wings impatiently.

“In terms of testing, they’re more sophisticated than ferns, I suppose. But I think the Director just likes birds.” She strokes its down and you notice a small tag poking out on one of its legs. “Did you know a magpie can recognize itself in a mirror? They’re smart things.”

The magpie glowers at you and you edge away, approaching the edge of the enclosure where the walls slant down until all that stands between you and a plummet down the side of the lab is a knee-high barrier. From this vantage point, you can see a dizzying lay of the land: the residences across the field, the forest rolling away from you, and a sizable body of water you hadn’t noticed last night. The oblong orb shimmers slightly in the cloudy afternoon sun, specks of people orbiting slowly around the perimeter.

Celine joins you and follows your gaze. “Oh, yea. Lake Novikov.” Her watchful expression is almost scornful. You stay silent, not wanting to admit to your phobia of bodies of water that has been instilled since childhood. The lake is a tiny marble from here, but still dread twists into your stomach like a knife.

Celine must mistake your silence for judgment, though, and quickly amends her words. “There’s nothing wrong with it. I just—I grew up around the ocean, and it isn’t really the same.” Wind blasts into the enclosure and Celine wraps her arms around her coatless body. You try to imagine her as a young girl, on the beaches of some infinite ocean.

“Have you ever considered leaving the lab?” you ask her.

She blinks at you and then quickly shifts her eyes away. “No, never.” She stands there with crossed arms, shivering. “The work I lead here is . . . irreplicable.”

“So you think the Director’s doing the right thing,” you say.

She gives you a strange look. “It doesn’t matter what I think.”

“Sure it does. You’re principal researcher.”

She shakes her head. “It doesn’t matter what I think,” she repeats, backing away from the ledge and toward the exit. You turn her words over in your head until the cursing starts.

You look over, and Celine balks down the ladder. “What happened?” you ask.

“He fucking took the jacket,” she says, then swings down at a speed that makes you fear for her safety. You clamber down after her. When you reach the floor, you see that the coat is indeed missing from the basket, and only your small keychain and ID remain. Celine looks around wildly, but Lomas is long gone. “Where did he go?” she asks you, panicked.

You don’t want to tell her you have no idea. Celine, getting this anyway, groans and starts to pace. You open your Iris and attempt to check his location and send him a message, both to no avail. Your face starts to burn. You rack your brain, retracing the steps you took today, desperately trying to figure out why Lomas went rogue.

Then it hits you. “Wait. I think I know where he is.”

You tell her and she gives you an exasperated look, but you can tell she is convinced. “I cannot believe—okay, listen, we need to intercept him as soon as possible.” Her face contorts in concentration. “But without my ID . . . I’ll have to go down to security, where I can check the cameras. If you’re right, I can give you temporary swipe access, and then you’re going to go in there and get him out.” She waves a finger at your face. “And noneof this reaches the Director, do you hear me?”

You split up. Celine descends to the security office, and you hustle up flights of stairs until you reach the floor you’re looking for. You race down the sterile hallways, passing endless, identical doors, but eventually you reach the three letters you’ve been repeating to yourself in your head and you find yourself at the entrance to the library once again.

Celine’s plight takes longer, and so you stand there with only the sound of your breath until she finally pings you and tells you to go in. You swipe your card like Celine had done and the handle lights up green. You lean your body weight into the door and enter quietly.

Warm air rushes to meet you as you walk through the rows of shelves. Your eyes are trained on the second floor, and soon enough the tails of Lomas’ brown overcoat appear, swaying slightly from the balcony. You advance up the staircase, unable to decipher his motion, until you stand at the top. You cough awkwardly. Lomas jerks around, hiding his hands in the folds of his jacket before you can catch what he’s holding.

“Jules. Hi.” He looks around, confirming you’re alone.

“What are you reading, sir?” You crane your neck slightly to the side, and he turns with you.

“It’s nothing.”

You shift your weight back and glance around. This situation would be almost comical, you think, if the circumstances were any less bizarre. “For what it’s worth,” you try, “I think the Director’s proposition is insane too. Y’know, trying to . . . solve you.”

Lomas scoffs. “That’s his plan? He thinks he can just look at the chemicals in my brain and know love. He thinks it’s that easy.” He fixes his gaze on you now, with a chilling intensity. “Do you know what love is, Jules?”

You swallow. “No, sir.”

“Well, it isn’t this.” He gestures at the table between you, strewn with unrolled scrolls. “Numbers. It’s more than numbers; it defies them.” He takes a breath, looking pained. “Love is wading into a river and giving yourself to the current. It’s choosing against what makes sense, what is safe.” His voice is heightened, now, his expression agitated, daring you to respond. All you can do, however, is slide your eyes from his face to his exposed hands, which clutch a thin, green book. Celine’s words echo in your ears, and you can picture her next to you, pointing out the spine, explaining its contents. Your eyes slide back to Lomas and the dots connect themselves for you.

“You loved him,” you say. “Theo.”

Lomas’ silence is enough. You nod at the book. “How did he . . . ?”

“A boating accident,” Lomas answers, averting your gaze. “He was alone. I told him not to go.”

“Oh,” you say. The words sink in. “Oh.”

Lomas looks down at his hands, and you realize he had been reading the last few pages of Theo’s book. You imagine him poring over the numbers, trying to pick apart their meaning, to comprehend the death of a person through the trajectory of his atoms. It occurs to you now how weary Lomas must feel, to be thrust into such a trip, to be given such a decision.

“I can’t bear to watch him die,” he says, his voice barely above a hoarse whisper, “but do I owe it to him? He deserves to have someone with him, right? Even like this.” He looks up at you imploringly, and when you meet his eyes you are stunned to realize that Lomas is truly seeking your direction.

All those times you waited for Lomas to ask for your opinion, and now finally when he does you find yourself unsure to speak. You take a breath. “Sir, I think you’re the only one who can make that decision.” You stop and think about the Director, about his almighty ability to relive what was, simulate what wasn’t. “But I would remember that he can go back and forth, and we can’t. We only do things once.”

You wonder if you should say more, but Lomas’ face shifts in a way that tells you he understands. You give him the time he needs. And then it’s time to go.

You jump to a little over a year in the future. You are hovering at the doorway to Lomas’ office, clutching an envelope and watching him read at his desk. It doesn’t take long for him to notice you and with a raise of an eyebrow you are propelled inside.

“Jules,” Lomas says. His face is clean-shaven, a rare occurrence. When he stands, you notice he’s ditched the usual grimy brown suit for a clean, pressed black one. “This is a surprise.”

You shift your weight from foot to foot. “I just wanted to check in, sir. How was the service?”

Lomas rubs his nonexistent stubble. “Oh, it was good. Nice to see people again.” You both stare at his desk, newly lavished with several bouquets of flowers. He chuckles. “The entire time, all I could think about was how much he would have despised having two of ’em. Would have called it pointless.”

You shrug. “Well, a lot has happened since the first one.”

Lomas grunts in agreement, then nods toward your hand. “What do you have there?” “Oh.” You look down at the envelope, creased by your tight grip. “It’s . . . actually my two weeks’ notice.” You brace for a reaction. He doesn’t do much, just stares at you curiously. You clear your throat. “It’s been a great two years, sir, really, but . . . ”

“But you need to move on. Understandable,” Lomas finishes for you. He holds out his hand and takes the envelope from you, glancing over it for a second before discarding it on the desk. “No one wants to be an assistant forever, Jules,” he says, looking amused.

“Yeah,” you agree.

You look down again, at a loss for any more words. Underneath the flowers and cups of to-go coffee—Axiom #3—a familiar color peeks out. You take a moment to recall where you’ve seen that dark green with golden trim before, and even as you recognize it as Theo’s book it feels jarring to see it here, as if a year ago the lab was a set and Lomas had stolen a prop from the production.

Lomas follows your gaze to his desk. “Oh, right. You’re probably wondering about that.”

The machine room is just as dazzlingly tall and cold as you remember. You and Lomas walk to the center of the room, where Celine is standing with her arms crossed, speaking to a seated Director. They turn around to spot you in unison.

The Director’s eyes light up. “I’m glad you’ve come around,” he says, sounding pleased. Your eyes meet Celine’s, and her strained smile tightens.

Lomas stands there awkwardly as you all wait for him to speak. He searches for words for a few seconds before giving up, raising his arms half-heartedly and just saying, “Show me.”

The Director nods. He turns in his chair toward the desk, starting to type rapidly. The walls blink to life and a resonant hum courses through the room, just like the first time you were here. You realize with a jolt that that was only this morning. Today has felt longer than you thought possible.

You locate Celine, who has migrated to her own desk. She catches your eye and nudges her head toward the empty chair next to her, a silent invitation. You leave Lomas in the center of the room. His eyes are glued on the screen, which first flashes with chunks of garbled text and then slowly fills with the numbers you’ve seen so much of today. Next to you, Celine works at her monitor, her Iris-lit eyes darting across the screen. “I really hope this works,” she whispers to you.

You look at her. “You don’t know?”

She clacks away some more. “I can’t remember everything I read.”

From this angle, Lomas’ back is the only dark shape against the white rectangle of numbers. The humming around you has grown surprisingly loud, and you watch the Director study Lomas’ face. His lips move and Lomas dips his head in a small nod. Then, the Director cranes his head and yells, “It’s all you!”

Celine takes a deep breath and taps her keyboard. The screen freezes instantly, numbers vanishing. An image appears and rapidly starts to refine, bright blocks of color growing edges and definition, then flushing with texture and shading. You begin to recognize what you see. Swaths of deep blue focus into frozen hills of water and fill up the bottom half of the screen, their crests brushing up against a dull, stormy sky. Far away, a small bright shape perches on the side of a wave at a treacherous angle. A boat.

Your hands, suddenly very clammy, ball up, and your nails dig into your lap. The water, of course, unnerves you, but there’s something more. It’s almost like you’re sitting in a theater, but something about this image is uncannily unlike a photograph, something unnamable. Whatever it is, it does not faze Celine, who stares at the screen with triumph blazing in her eyes. With another keystroke, she sends it all catapulting into action. Millions of gallons of water shift all at once, their static rushing toward you, potent sound you were not prepared for. On screen, perfect arcs of water crash into each other like cymbals, destroying and reforming each other endlessly. In the center, the white boat plunges into the troughs of the ocean, nearly overturning, before being thrown skyward again.

Lomas stands there, and his posture is almost majestic, as if he is the Wanderer above the Sea of Fog waiting to be swallowed by the toppling waves. You want to reach out and drag him back, but the sight of such an immense body of water is paralyzing. Instead you watch him advance forward, mesmerization in each slow footstep.

“Closer,” the Director commands from the front of the room. He and Celine share a glance, their expressions brimming with the same electricity. Celine sends the scene gliding forward, through foamy spray and clear sheets of water, until the boat takes up most of the screen. You bob up and down with it, the dizziness is almost unbearable. You close your eyes for a few seconds, and when you open them, a man is standing on the boat. He’s fruitlessly tugging at ropes, dodging surges of water that crash onto the deck. Lomas is so close at this point that he obscures a good part of the screen, but you can still catch glimpses of the man’s face as he ricochets across the deck like a ragdoll. It is unmistakably the third person you saw in that old photo, with the likeness of a young Director and an expression contorted with fear. It’s Theo, brought back to life, and now about to die in front of you.

Despite your phobia, the authenticity of this moment amazes you. And yet every time his boat just barely misses capsizing, your heart seizes, anticipating the one time it doesn’t. You tear your eyes away from the screen and whisper to Celine. “How long until . . . ?”

She studies her monitor. “Not long. Maybe a minute.” She looks over to you and notices your agitation. “Are you doing okay?” You grit your teeth and nod, watching the seconds tick up on her computer, feeling your heartbeat ring in synchronization.

When the boat finally does overturn, it does so within a wave, so that you cannot see the body fall out of the vessel. It’s such a small moment, something you didn’t even realize happened until the white underbelly of the boat surfaces seconds later. And then you realize it happened, it’s over. The scene plays out for a few more seconds before Celine halts the simulation, freezing the sea’s wrath, silencing the roar to a dull hum.

You look over to Lomas and realize he is on his knees. He stays down for a while, small and unmoving. Then he staggers to his feet and speaks to the Director in low tones. The Director ponders whatever was said and then turns back to the computer. He makes the ocean on screen disappear, replacing it with white numbers once more. He also waves his hand at Celine, who scrambles at her own desk and types fervently.

She enters a command and the screen blushes with calm, pink skies, where you can soon make out sand, hear the sound of wind rushing through trees and waves lapping on shore. Eventually you see the body. It is mercifully in the distance, far enough away to obscure the inevitable mess, and instead it looks like Theo is sleeping.

You look at Lomas, suddenly nervous. He says something to the Director, who looks at him curiously. Together they study the Director’s computer, and the Director traces a stretch of numbers with his finger. Lomas touches them too, grazing them softly while the Director tears out a scrap from a spare notebook and hands it to him with a pen.

A seagull caws somewhere, musical and distant. Lomas’ hand closes over the pen, his silhouette arching over as he starts to write.

“You know,” Lomas says, back in his office, still looking at you looking at the book, “It’s not like he can’t make another one. It’s a souvenir, just like the coordinates.”

You can’t tear your eyes away from Theo’s book. “But you can’t—?”

“Nope. I don’t want to, either. Sentimental purposes only.”

“Oh.” You crease your brow, memories of that weekend still flooding in, flashes of her. “Would . . . you go back there, sir? To use the machine again, maybe see the future this time.”

Lomas looks amused. “You’re that worried about your future, huh?” You shrug, not bothering to correct him. He looks at you thoughtfully. “No, I don’t think I would. Of course there are events I’d be curious to see. But I think I’m done meddling with the order of things. Besides,” he adds, “I doubt I’ll ever get the opportunity. I don’t think either one of us will visit that basement ever again.”

You mull over this for a while and then Lomas reaches over to clap your shoulder. “You’ll figure something out. Doesn’t have to be today, though. Enjoy your day off, kid.”

You give him an appreciative smile as you go, looking back a final time when you reach the doorway. “I’m glad you found him, Lomas.”

“Me too,” he says, and then you leave.

You can’t sleep. Back at the residencies, you toss and turn in your bed and stare at the cracked ceiling, the day’s events engraving themselves into your memory like a vinyl plate. The ocean you witnessed only a few hours ago rushes to devour you, a violent, familiar weightlessness overtaking your body, and in the murky darkness all you can make out are boats and scrolls and white numbers.

At some point you can’t take it anymore. You swing your legs off the bed, move past the takeout boxes you had half-heartedly accepted earlier that evening, and exit the room. Outside, the sky is the clearest it’s been all weekend, and the moon hangs low, milky and nearly full. You walk toward the desolate parking lot and stop just short of it, taking a seat on a nearby bench that basks in the glow of yellow lamp light. You think about what she’s doing: if there’s a chance she could be up at this hour, too.

A rustling on your left interrupts your train of thought. You hold your breath as you scrutinize the source of the sound, anticipating a buffalo, maybe. Eventually a human-sized figure emerges instead, shuffling along the gravel path. You strain your eyes and realize a little too late that it’s the Director. He spots you around the same time and waves, gesturing you over. Your heart sinks.

“Can’t sleep either?” he asks you once you trudge over. You shrug and mumble something agreeable. The Director’s eyes glint golden, reflecting the lamps. “I like to walk this path during my bouts of insomnia. There’s a lake nearby, good for thinking. I can show you.”

You follow him along the path, passing through clusters of pine trees. Soon, reeds sprout in fistfuls from the earth and water comes into view, still like glass. The Director descends through the soft grass of the bank and stands at a small dock at the edge of the lake. You hover a few feet behind him.

He glances back. “You know, Jules, you’re the only one who didn’t need to be here this weekend.” You say nothing. His tone irks you, but you cannot deny the statement is true. He continues: “But, well, you’re here. And if you have questions, you might as well ask them.”

You look up at him carefully, unsure if he’s serious. His eyes tell you that he is. You swallow, thinking about everything that’s happened today, the new world order to which you have become privy. You think about all the things you could ask him, like what your life will look like, how it will end. How it will all end. But then it occurs to you that even if you did ask all of those questions, you’re not sure you’d want to hear the answer.

So instead you ask something else. “Alright. I have a question about your big problem, or whatever you call it. Why people think and feel the way they do.” The Director inspects the rocks at his feet as you knit your thoughts together carefully. “If the machine knows everything that will happen, it knows whether you solve your problem. So can’t you just check? If you succeed, you get the answer from the future. And if you don’t, well . . . you don’t.”

The Director skips a stone across the lake’s surface, and the water ripples out like fireworks. “You’re smarter than you look, Jules,” he says quietly.

You frown and decide not to respond to that.

He looks up at you and grins. “I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone, okay? I do come to an answer. I’ve checked. Of course I’ve checked. But for whatever reason, I—I keep it in my head. Never write it down or speak it out loud. Can you believe that?” He chuckles and shakes his head at the stars, as if chiding some cheeky celestial force. “The one secret I have to know, left in the one safe I cannot unlock.”

He lets out a theatrical yawn and drops his rocks, brushing by you as he walks up the bank. When you look up he looms tall on the path’s elevated plane. His face, moments ago expressive and almost tender, now reminds you of a mask. “I’ll be on my way back to the lab, then. Good night, Jules.”

You give a slight nod and watch him disappear. Invisible crickets chirp softly around you, cradled within the reeds. You walk up the bank and start in the opposite direction, a tingling exhaustion finally washing over your limbs; you make your way toward the residences, toward sleep, and toward morning.

This morning, the package arrives. When the bell rings, you open the door and look to your feet. You can’t recall ordering anything recently, but the box is unassuming enough to pick up, and you turn it over carefully in your hands, inspecting each blank side. Perhaps you were written a new back pain prescription, you wonder, or your nephew had sent you a gift from abroad. But then you bring the box into the kitchen and slice it open; the flaps unfold to reveal another sleek white box, which when shimmied apart reveals the small, silver chip, and you realize this isn’t a regular delivery at all.

On the third day, your Iris wakes you up a quarter before eight. Celine said she’d be there on the hour and arrives exactly on time, just as you are cramming the last of your clothes into your bag. You step outside and morning fog creeps in from the edges of the horizon, thick enough to obscure the surrounding forest and swallow the path to the lake that you visited mere hours ago.

You ride to the main parking lot, everyone sleepily silent. Upon arrival you notice the Director is nowhere in sight. Celine gives Lomas an apologetic look as she takes the keys out of the vehicle.

“He must have overslept. It was an exhausting weekend.”

If Lomas can sense the generosity in her statement, he doesn’t seem to care. He acknowledges her words with a dazed shrug and then gets into the driver’s seat of the car, not bothering to glance behind him.

You are left to load bags in the trunk with Celine. You move your luggage with your heart in your throat, knowing your time is running out. Celine closes the trunk with a thud, and then you turn to face her squarely.

“Come with us.”

She stares at you. “What?”

“Come with us. Leave the lab, leave everything, and make a new life in Boston. You don’t have to be controlled by the machine or the Director anymore.”

She looks at you sadly. “Jules, I can’t.”

“Yes, you can.” Your voice trembles with urgency, startling both of you. “We can get you a job at the university. You’re smart enough, you’re definitely qualified enough. You’d be happy there. You can visit the ocean every day.”

She searches your face, and you can tell your proposal is getting through, that she is imagining your proposed future. For a suspended moment you stare at each other, and you truly believe that you have convinced her.

But then she breaks your gaze, and you know her answer before she can even say anything. “You don’t have to rescue me, Jules,” she says gently. “I can take care of myself.” She watches your expression deflate and reaches out to rest her hand on your wrist. “The lab is where I belong. It always has been.” Her words hold no malice, no speculation, no bite. She says them so simply that it leaves you no doubt that they are just true.

She lets go of your arm and you straighten up, clear your throat. Lomas turns on the engine, the car breathing to life, and you struggle to find words to leave her with.

“I hope our paths cross again someday.” She smiles at you ruefully. The way her face looks as you leave her is already searing into your mind.

“Yes,” she says. “I hope so, too.”

The weekend is ending. You wonder if you should just pause and exit right here, with Celine still standing so close to you. But you let yourself get into the car, feel the ground rumble beneath you, her figure receding to nothing in the side view mirror. You wind through the forest, down gravel roads, toward civilization. And then finally you leave your body in the past and open your eyes in the present.

You sit at your kitchen table, back in your apartment, right where you started. In its absence, the vividness of the past startles you; now, the present feels dull, colorless. Your window curtains stir, leaking darkness. How long have you been sitting here? Everything had happened so quickly; mechanically, you had brushed back the hair behind your left ear, inserted the silver chip into the thin slot in your head, and waited for the click, just as you’ve done for countless other Iris updates over the years. When the interface launched, you dragged your finger in the air, sliding the playhead back to the beginning and taking the course of your life with it.

If you had the power to go anywhere, at any time, where would you go? Why has the answer always been that weekend? You breathe quietly, memories freshly unraveled in front of you, dead emotions sprung to life again. You close your eyes, stuck in a different kind of past. You have never escaped her. Her smiling at you, brushing your hand with hers, touching your wrist. Her expression as you left the lab’s campus, that quiet resignation and dignity etched onto her face. Her standing alone at the very bottom of the machine room, the years slipping through her fingers, breezing through her hair, until she had become what she had once so despised. In the moments between that weekend you have seen how it all connects, and yet you still find yourself with no further answers, just remembered questions and renewed pain.

Your eyes flutter open again, and they drift across the dim room to the white box. You hold your gaze, struck by a moment of steadying clarity. You had become so preoccupied by what this chip had shown you that you had forgotten to ask why? And by whom? But now they beat in your head like a drum, echoed by your thumping heartbeat. An answer flutters to your mind, and it feels unreal.

You reach across the table. The delicate layers of the box peel back easily, your hands moving through the thin tissue paper and light styrofoam like water. It takes some time, some shifting and tilting, but finally the slip of paper clunks against the lip of the box. Your breath catches in your chest as you pick it up. It’s neatly creased in half, and you take a second to hold it lightly in your fingers, savoring its potential. It is everything it could be: a world unto itself, that neither you nor anyone else can decipher yet or even describe. Maybe not even her.

Author profile

Isabel Lee is a writer, artist, and creative technologist from Chicago, Illinois. Her interests include exploring the intersections between code, art, and fiction, and you can find her work online at She also enjoys painting and watching Korean thriller movies. Isabel is currently a senior at Yale University. This is her second publication; her first story can be found in the September 2020 issue of Clarkesworld.

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