Are Our Thoughts "Things?"
Editor's note: This is part 3 of a 5-part short story by Nebula Award finalist Jeffrey A. Carver. Part 1 is here and part 2 is here. This is a story about, among other things, what it looks like to shape our reality. Today's question, to my mind, takes us back to a common childhood question--do my inner thoughts make a difference in the outside world? On the one hand, we all learn that the answer is "no." But, as life goes on, in another way, we learn that the answer might actually be a different sort of "yes" than we would have guessed in those early years. Take a read.
Reality School: In the Entropy Zone
The voices and faces have faded. I sense a planetary surface beneath me, and the hazy glow of an atmosphere. I have come to rest, pressed against a rocky surface, stars twinkling overhead.
Where am I what am I who am I...?
I live I breathe I think I feel...
In the gloom of an unearthly dawn, I curl my fingers in front of me, and I can just make out their webbed, bony shape.
Terrified, I shut my eyes, and imagine a place of darkness where Chaos lives and reaches out to destroy this universe... and I begin to feel that this Chaos has needs and wants of its own, and it is insatiable. And somehow it is testing me.
I hear a rumbling groan... of something living, something in pain. I stand and look around. I am on a tiny island in the midst of a green sea.
I am halfway up a small, rocky knoll, and I climb it on my webbed hands and feet. I peer over a ledge and see a bloated, toadlike monster, bellowing to the sky, bellowing...
It was May, and out on the playground some girls were practicing unamplified "makings"—little cloud castles floating along the hedgerow separating our school from a convent on the grounds behind us. There wasn't much that could happen with unamped makings; it was more like projecting little holograms, using the outdoor landscape programs. Except this time something did happen—something terrible.
I was in the cafeteria with Lisa and Roberta. We heard the yelling and ran outside. Across the playing field, kids and teachers were gathered around someone on the ground. Some of the kids were screaming.
"Who is it? Who is it?" Someone was running beside us—Tommy Harte, I think.
"You children stay clear!" shouted Mr. Playstead, turning to wave us back. We crept close enough to see that they were all gathered around the still form of a child. At first we couldn't see who it was. Then Lisa cried, "It's Judy Keller! It's Judy! Is she dead?"
Of course she isn't dead, I thought. But then I took a good look at Mr. Playstead's face—and I knew at once that she was dead. For a long, breathless moment, I wasn't so much scared as curious: Why was Judy dead? What could she have done that made her dead?
And then I felt fear and grief rush over me, in a great crashing wave.
It soon became obvious that the teachers were wondering the same thing I had wondered. Mr. Playstead raised his voice through the yelling and confusion. "Kids, listen up! This is important. I want you all to stop any shapings right now—even little ones. And I want to know, did anyone think, or imagine—even for a second, even in play—that Judy might die?"
"No!" "No!" We all frantically proclaimed our innocence, terrified of being blamed for Judy's death. All, that is, except poor Ellie Cottman, who burst into tears.
"Ellie?" Mr. Playstead asked, straining to make his voice gentle when you could tell he wanted to scream. "Did you... think about Judy dying? Or have some sort of feeling about it?"
Ellie nodded, sobbing. "Playing, we were only playing—" she babbled, and I looked at Lisa and she looked at me, agreeing with our eyes that we would never have done something so awful, and at the same time knowing that we could just as easily have done it. Then we all had to get out of the way, because the school infirmary people were there with stretchers and emergency gear, and they were trying to resuscitate Judy and they wanted us out of the way now.
I had a fleeting thought that maybe I could do something to help Judy—maybe some sort of a shaping that would restore her to life. It wasn't that I wanted to be a hero or anything; but I was so scared at this new thing, death, that had invaded our school that I would have done anything to drive it out. I was about to raise my hand and tell Mr. Playstead, when he seemed to sense my thought—or maybe what a lot of us were thinking. He suddenly barked, "Whatever happens, I don't want any of you trying to think Judy back alive! Is that understood?"
He turned, glaring, and that was when I saw the ground shifting and bubbling around the stretcher that Judy was lying on, and I realized that someone had already tried to do just what I was thinking. I followed Lisa's gaze and saw that it was Danny Hutton—you could tell by the crestfallen look on his freckled face—and Mr. Playstead probably saw it, too, but he didn't say anything. He began herding us forcefully toward the buildings, saying over and over, "We have to find out what happened... my God, what could have happened...?"
The beast looks up at me with fiery eyes, its breath hissing like a great steam engine. Behind it, something is thrashing in the water. The beast roars in anguish and scrabbles helplessly at the edge of the cliff overlooking the sea. The water erupts. A second creature bursts into the air, struggling... and crashes under again. The first beast claws helplessly at the ledge, and glares up at me with eyes that are not threatening, but pleading.
I look at my webbed hand, and shudder with understanding. No no no no... I'm terrified of deep water... the thing is huge, how could I possibly...?
The creature's roar shatters my thoughts. I don't know this creature, don't want to know it, don't know the rules here, don't know what is happening.
Through my cowardly shame I see, or imagine, a squirming patch of darkness in the sky. Entropy. Chaos. Feeding on my fear, my inaction.
I climb awkwardly over the stones, scuttling past the creature, burned by the pain in its eyes. I gaze down and see its mate, a blotch deep in the green water, sinking.
I hesitate a long moment before I leap.
By the time they got us all gathered for a meeting in the school auditorium, I knew that the world had been altered in some new and terrible way, that something had torn us loose from reality's moorings. The meeting was hopeless, just a lot of whispered conferences among the teachers and school officials. Once in a while they turned to the kids to comfort us, or ask something, or sometimes just to gaze helplessly over the room. They admonished us not to use our powers until they learned what was going on. We could smell their fear. They didn't know what had gone wrong, but the implications clearly went beyond the death of one student, however awful and shocking that might have been.
I sat in my seat, cloaked in a strange, foggy calm. Once in a while, the numbing fog swirled, and I trembled in helpless terror. But whatever had happened, the older shapers would take care of it; they had to. We should just sit tight until they found out what had gone wrong, and fixed it. That's what the teachers kept saying, and we tried to believe it. Lisa, beside me, chewed her knuckles, and cried softly over and over, "Judy's dead, Alexandri... she's dead... Alexandri, what are we going to do... what are we going to do...?" I don't think she actually looked at me once the whole time; she didn't look at anybody.
Despite the warnings, a lot of kids were having trouble keeping their imaginations in check. The auditorium kept trembling with little quakes of suppressed shapings, imaginary beings and objects flickering in the air, then vanishing. The teachers must have announced a dozen times that we were about to move into the shielded training rooms, where even our random shapings could have no permanent effect. The first few times, I felt reassured—something was being done—but there was always some delay, and we stayed in the auditorium while maintenance people rushed about trying to put up temporary shields.
The teachers themselves were looking more and more panicky, and we all wished that we could hear them talking among themselves—and I guess someone finally wished hard enough to make it happen. We suddenly heard Mr. Tea's voice boom out into the auditorium as he whispered to Miss Jennings: "—A NEW ENTROPIC FOLD—THE SHAPING CENTER IS GONE! IT'S VANISHED COMPLETELY! CERN AND KYOTO, TOO. WE HAVE NO ONE LEFT BUT THE STUDENTS. GOD HELP US!"
And that was when Mr. Tea realized that everyone was hearing him. He closed his mouth and turned pale, as the auditorium fell dead silent.
The sea crashes around my ears. I am breathing water. I blink, and my vision clears. This is the element my body was made for, not the harsh rocks of the island.
I cry out, and hear my voice booming out in great echoes over the seafloor. Rolling, I peer downward and see the base of the atoll slanting into the shadowy depths, and far below, the drowning creature. I plummet in pursuit. By the time I come alongside it, I am swimming in a twilight world. I hook the being's arm, circle around it, and find myself squarely before its eyes—dark and sightless. I have come too late... I waited too long, too fearful...
I release her body to sink into the abyss. And the grey of the undersea world closes in around me.
No need to belabor the bedlam, the near breakdown of order in the school, the disappearance of the counselors and most of the teachers.
No need to belabor our panic, when four of us vanished, swallowed by a wall of fog that materialized in the courtyard, neatly dividing us as we were walking back, in exhaustion, to our dorms.
No need to belabor our helplessness.
Had one of us somehow caused this? There was no reason to think so. And yet... Judy had died, and I could think of many times when I'd thought mean things about one or another of my classmates, or teachers—and any one of those times might have caused the same thing to happen.
Outside the school, it took a few days for the world to catch up with what had happened. What Mr. Tea had said was true, but, as we soon learned, only part of the truth. Apparently a new shaping center had come on line, somewhere in China, without any coordination with our center or the ones at CERN or Japan. The result was some sort of conflict—disharmony, they called it—in the shapings from one center to the next. No one knew exactly what the conflict was, but the result was that all four centers vanished, shapers and all, into a newly created entropic fold. And our school hovered right at the brink of the fold. The continuum-bubble provided some protection for the outside, but ripple effects were being felt all over the world: freak storms, unexplained computer failures, bridges collapsing... and all being blamed on us.
The political uproar was incredible.
A lot of people called for us to be shut down at once. We weren't really doing anything at that point, since it was just the students and a handful of teachers left, and no shaping amplifiers; but that didn't stop them from calling for our heads. The school perimeter was physically sealed off, though we still had electronic communication, and we were dependent upon supplies and electric power from the outside. Security for the power lines was beefed up right away. The integrity of the continuum-barrier was essential; it was the only way to keep whatever terrible thing had swallowed our people from swallowing the rest of the world, too.
The scientists said that the new fold in the entropic zone appeared to have produced a strange doubling over of the continuum-bubble that enclosed our reality school. Something similar must have happened in China and Japan and at CERN, but there the folds had closed in upon themselves and vanished, swallowing the shaping centers whole. The training school at CERN had vanished, too; the one in Japan, located farther from the shaping center, was reportedly safe, but isolated from the fold. Only we were poised at the very edge of the entropic boundary.
There were rumors that a manmade singularity floated somewhere deep in the entropy zone, wreaking havoc, but our scientists said there was no evidence for that. To us kids, it was a meaningless question; we just knew that what was happening was bad. And there seemed nothing to be done about it. We were the only ones left. But what could we do—especially without the amps and our helmets?
Someone pointed out that Judy's death had happened just after the disappearance of our shapers—the result of a stray thought on the part of a student. So whatever had gone wrong, it meant that we students could exert more power than before. And that meant... bad things could happen even without the amps. But perhaps good things could happen without them, too.
That thought gave us hope. Not much, but it was something.
Part 4 comes next week.
Copyright © 1995 Jeffrey A. Carver
First appeared in Science Fiction Age, March 1995.
Also appears in the story collection Reality and Other Fictions, by Jeffrey A. Carver (www.starrigger.net/ebooks.htm)