Let's Put It All on the Line
Editor’s note: This is part 4 of a 5-part short story by Nebula Award finalist Jeffrey A. Carver. Part 1 is here , part 2 is here, part 3 is here and part 4 is here. After all the exploration of how we craft reality and the costs of that, we come to the climax.
Reality School: In the Entropy Zone
Faces begin appearing in the candle rim... faces like luminous glass, to match the voices. Danny...? Roberta...?
Later that day, Harvey Snowden came running in yelling that the woods were dying. That was the first we knew that a total ecological catastrophe had set in.
"What do you mean, dying?" I yelled back from the rec room/battle center. A group of us had been trying to will reality back to normal, without effect. We'd just been listening to the TV for any mention at all of protesters, or of us. But all of our opponents, including Reverend Patwell, seemed to have vanished from the face of the Earth.
"Dying!" He glared at me as if I were an idiot. "Don't you know what that means?"
"I know, and you don't have to yell!" I shouted. But his wild, reddened face scared me. Clearly something had scared him, and badly. "What did you see?" I asked, as the others gathered around.
"Dead trees—a lot of them—all dried out, like it was winter or something."
"It's not winter. It's May. Or June, maybe," said Lottie Gerns, sneezing for the hundredth time that hour. Poor kid had come down with allergies, bad, and the infirmary had no more medicine.
"No foolin'," said Harvey. "But look down in the valley, and you'll see a lot of trees that don't know that." He waved his delicate feminine hands in the air. "It's weird. Way down in the valley, it looks like fall—everything's all red and yellow and brown. But closer up to us, everything's just dead. Shriveled."
"What's it mean?" asked Lottie.
"How the hell do I know what it means? But it isn't right. And whatever it is, it's coming from here." He looked at each one of us in turn. "And it's spreading out into the rest of the world."
We learned more about it on the one staticky channel that remained on the television. The forests were indeed dying, and the effect was spreading rapidly. A wave of forest and plant death was rippling outward from our location. The trees first turned fall colors—and then, instead of going into hibernation, they died.
It had something to do with their chloroplasts. Plants everywhere were losing their ability to photosynthesize. It was spreading like a virus, or a plague, but much faster. No one knew what was causing it or how to stop it; but if it wasn't stopped, it would spread over the whole planet. And if photosynthesis stopped, well, that was it. Not just for humanity, but for everything that lived on the Earth. Except maybe for some bacteria that lived on the bottom of the ocean and lived off nothing but chemicals from volcanic vents. Except for them, nothing. Not even the cockroaches would survive.
Our world was fast disappearing. We could no longer reach anyone by telephone, because the phone lines were gone. I'd last talked to my parents two days before, and I felt a terrible emptiness inside; I wondered if they were even still alive in this reality. Mr. Tea and Mrs. Randolph took a car to venture down the mountain into town, to try to buy food and learn what was happening. They didn't return.
The rest of us met to decide what to do.
Mr. Playstead suggested, and we all finally agreed, that we had no choice but to go out into it, straight into the heart of the entropic fold. The disturbance seemed to emanate from a bank of fog that kept advancing and retreating within the woods flanking the school. We had been afraid to venture near it, wary of its unpredictable effects, fearful of dying for nothing. Without the shaping amplifiers, we had only our own powers, and those not fully developed. But everything we'd tried from outside the entropy zone had been futile. Perhaps from within, we could do more.
It was a terrifying prospect—but as Ashok pointed out in his quiet voice, if we didn't take the risk now, while the world was still recognizable, then our own reality-thread would just move farther and farther away. Soon it would be too late for us to have any chance at all of regaining it. Whatever the risks, this was our only hope.
Mr. Playstead stood before us, tugging at the frizzy grey beard he'd sprouted in the last three days. "For what it's worth, I'm going to go with you. I don't have your skills, but I can't just stay out here waiting for you to return. Perhaps... my experience will be useful, somehow." He hesitated and glanced at Miss Jennings, who nodded silently and stepped up beside him. She was not about to be left behind, either.
Mr. Playstead cleared his throat. "I want to emphasize one thing to you all. When the shapers were lost, we think it was because of a conflict with the other shaper teams. That must not happen again. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
There were some murmurs of assent, and some of impatience.
"I'm saying, we have to work in harmony. Whatever we find in there—and I don't know what it will be, but people—" and his voice was strained as he searched for words "—if we're going to defeat this thing, we have to do it together. Any one of you alone might not be strong. But the combined strength of a dozen shapers, in the fold—" He paused for breath, but then he seemed to run out of words, and he shrugged. He looked very old to me, and tired.
I turned to look at Lisa, and her eyes met mine for just a moment. She was scared, but soberly so. I was stunned by the maturity I saw there in her gaze, and wondered what was wrong with me that I wasn't so grown up myself. I was still petrified at the thought of not being a kid anymore. And terrified of what we had to do. I felt an impulse to grab her hand and hold it, the way we had that first time we'd seen the graduate shapers at work. But almost as if something in her had sensed my urge, I saw her reach out and find Danny's hand, on the other side of her. I saw Danny squeeze back. Stung, I looked away.
The decision to go was unanimous. We began joining up to go out in pairs. We would fan out in force, but each of us would have one primary buddy to watch out for. I looked at Lisa, and saw her eyes searching Danny's, their hands gripping each other's tightly. Humiliated all over again, I turned to see who else needed a partner.
Roberta, eyes full of fear behind her glasses, looked at me questioningly. I took a breath and nodded back.
We all walked into the dying forest together, abreast in a line. There was very little talk, just the rustle of leaves and the snapping of twigs beneath our feet. When we came to the wall of fog that marked the boundary, Roberta and I exchanged final glances.
Mr. Playstead raised his hand, surveying our lineup. "Godspeed," he said.
As one, we stepped through...
And I stepped, alone, into the steaming jungle.
We are gathered in the circle of the candle now... like swimmers facing inward from the edge of a pool. Some of my classmates look like fire elementals, rising from the molten lake, while others are extrusions of the walls, their waxen faces bulging. Danny, Roberta, Judy... (isn't Judy dead? I wonder)... Dzaou, Ashok... not everyone has made it here, but a lot of them have. I don't see Lisa. Or Harvey, or Mr. Playstead, or Miss Jennings. Those who are here look human, but clearly all have been through wrenching changes. Some look like children, still; others like adults tempered by experience; and a few look... indescribable. Children's faces with ancient eyes... or eyes bright with youth surrounded by wrinkled and weary skin. I wonder what I look like.
It is a strange reunion: all of us gazing across the glowing lake at each other, but no one speaking. My feelings are indescribable. I know, without asking, that each of them has been through a terrifying journey—nine faces, nine harrowing trips through the corridors of chaos, struggling against... what? A dark master, on the throne of entropy? Or the meaninglessness of random decay? I know that we all meant to do something, but I'm not sure what. I wonder if any of the others know.
Someone begins singing, softly. It's Judy, I think. She's alive, and I wonder if it's because she never really died, or because we somehow brought her back to life. I don't quite recognize the song, but it has the sound of a lullaby. Then someone else, Danny, starts humming a hymn from church—a familiar tune, though I don't know the name. It's beautiful, and moving in a way it never was for me before. On the far side of the circle, half-hidden by the flame, I see the movements of someone dancing. I think it's Ellie, but can't be sure. But I imagine that Ellie, who thought Judy into death, has more reason than anyone to rejoice at her being alive and among us now.
The flame begins flickering brighter, hissing. It seems to be gathering power from the songs and the dance. The flame, I suddenly realize, is our expression, not entropy's. It is a kind of shaping, a way of reaffirming who we are—of saying, yes, we are still here, still human. I'm not sure what to do, but I feel memories bubbling up within me.
A bunny named Maxine appears in the air before me, and a donkey named Eeyore, and a bear named Berlioz. These are my friends who played with me in my first days at the reality school, when I was just a child. But there are other memories that want to come up, too—painful memories that ring with disharmony in my mind. My selfishness with a shaping... my rejection by Lisa... my cowardice... I don't want to let them come, don't want my failures and shame brought into the light. I struggle to hold them in, but I cannot. My shame begins to bubble out.
The faces of my friends are turning transparent. They take no notice of my shame. They begin moving about the circle, passing through one another; three or four of them are singing, their song swelling the flame. I see other people's memories taking form like ghostly photographs in the air, and I realize that I am not the only one who has experienced failure. It comforts me a little.
But now everyone seems to be looking up.
New faces, overhead, gaze down from the haze of the outer nothingness... faces peering like ghosts of haunted pasts.
It takes me a moment to recognize those faces... even Lisa's. She is trapped, they are all trapped, in a nothingness outside the warmth of the candle flame. They seem to be prisoners of the devouring entropy, while we somehow are regenerating our reality here in the shelter of the candle. There is a gulf dividing us, and they cannot cross it. They cannot join us.
"Lisa?" I whisper.
Her eyes turn slowly to meet mine.
I can hear the plea, unspoken. And I cannot answer it. If they cannot cross that gulf, how can I help?
I want to call out to her, to tell her to do it herself, to come to this place where we are gathered, singing. I want to tell her to come out of the darkness into the fire.
Lisa's eyes, pale and frightened in the sky, will not release mine. But I don't know how to escape from that darkness any more than she does.
Or do I?
My mind reverberates with memories: of our play together at the school, the excitement and fear we shared, learning to be shapers. Shapers. The memories flash in my mind, fiery with the flux of entropy. Something in that entropy does not wish me to remember. We are shapers. I remember her choosing Danny over me; and even now, I tremble with anger and hurt. So much time has passed. Must I still be angry? I tremble with the memory of my aloneness, of the times I sensed her presence across the infinity of space and time, and could not speak to her.
Was it that I could not, or would not?
We are human. We are shapers.
Out there in the darkness beyond the fire, my friend is trapped. Perhaps she could come here, into the light of the fire, if there were a space for her. I am aware of Danny gazing up at her in desire and anguish, and I wonder, Can he not help her? And without quite knowing why, I know he cannot. It is not his anger that keeps her out. A space must be made in the circle for her, and it is not Danny who must make it.
The flame of the candle beats hot with the singing, with cries of, We are shapers! We are! coming from the others here with me... and I almost imagine that I hear the voice of God Himself saying, I am who I am! from the flame.
I am suddenly certain that there is no room for any other here, unless I make it myself. And how can I possibly make room, unless I take Lisa's place out there, in the void and the darkness, in the chaos?
The songs quicken with urgency. A hundred memories shimmer and dance in the air. I am not alone in my anguish. The others face similar choices. But only I face my choice.
A memory looms before me: a monstrous-looking being dying in the depths of the sea, because I was afraid to save it. Because I was afraid.
I am a shaper.
Help me! whispers a gaze from across the gulf of darkness. Last time, you let me die.
Electrified with fear, I make the decision. I begin to move away from the light... rising to challenge the hissing chaos. To trade places with Lisa.
The transformation takes forever, hurting hurting hurting. The candlelight recedes in the darkness, but not quietly. I feel the darkness and light shuddering, clashing; and I am caught between them, the dark fires of entropy flashing around me, charging me with despair. Will I die here? Or live in the darkness forever?
I feel Lisa's presence passing me, on its way into the light. My anger burns all over again. Why have I given my life, when it was Danny she wanted? Why?
The chaos swirls around me. I am being swallowed by the anger. I have tried again to forgive, and failed. I wail into the darkness, "Help me, please!" and my cry is wrapped in silence.
I sense Lisa's presence, not fleeing to the candle and safety, but returning for me. "Go!" I scream. "Go to him before it's too late! Damn you, go!" And suddenly my anger disintegrates, and I find myself shuddering with pain, and crying to Lisa to save herself, and this time I mean it without any anger at all. Lisa, go! Why do you think I did this?
In that moment, the distant light flares brighter, reclaiming power from the darkness. Light and darkness clash in a fury. The energies of chaos flail about me, defying the light's power to reclaim me. But I have made my peace. My anger is gone, my battle is won... and it is the chaos fighting the rearguard battle. The darkness begins to shrink, hissing.
And I hear Lisa's voice whispering, "Come back to the light, Alexandri, come back to the light. You are a shaper... we can shape together..."
And the light blooms around us both.
It is a breathtaking sight, the flattening out of the entropic fold like an enormous soap bubble. I can see the candle, with its light and all of its faces, slowly distorting with the refraction, transmuting into a crazy, stretched-taffy image. The singing changes, brightening into strange and beautiful harmonies.
And around me, I hear the hiss of Chaos fading... and I hear Lisa calling me, and Danny.
Whatever I have done, I am not the only one. I hear other voices of gratitude... other victories claimed alongside mine. I watch as the memories clustered in the air above the candle slowly come together, like a backwards explosion. And the entropic fold flattens and vanishes...
"Lisa?" I murmured, blinking, feeling the grass under me. I looked around, stunned by the bright sunlight on the playground, the sky so blue it made my eyes ache, the whisper of a breeze cooling my face.
"Alexandra!" she cried. "You're safe! Thank God!" I gazed at her in wonderment, but before I could ask what she remembered happening, she threw herself into my arms, and we hugged and cried like grown women, like best friends who had not seen each other in years. And then we turned and wept with Danny, and Roberta, and Judy... and we all ran laughing across the school yard to see who else had returned.
Most of us made it back, but not all. We never saw Ashok again, or Lottie, or Harvey, or Mr. Playstead, or Miss Jennings. Mr. Tea and Mrs. Randolph were here when we returned, and a couple of the counselors. But none of the graduate shapers.
Why? We have no idea.
I'm sometimes asked if that is fair. And I ask in return, what does fair have to do with war? We waged war against Chaos and we won. But those people were casualties. And there will undoubtedly be more casualties, the next time we have to wage this war. And we will: we have not eliminated entropy from the universe, though we seem to have closed this rift. Is there still a micro-singularity floating out there somewhere, waiting to cause more mischief? No one knows. And so we vow to maintain our watch.
How many others vanished from the Earth that we don't know of? I can't even guess. I find myself wondering sometimes: didn't I have a younger brother once, in another reality? Marie doesn't remember, nor do my parents; but they don't have my perspective, either. Everything to them is as they think it was.
How much has the Earth itself changed? The sun seems a little cooler. I know that the political climate is different; I remember living in a nation called "the United States of..." I cannot seem to remember the rest of the name. I dream sometimes of orbiting space stations glinting in the night sky, and I think perhaps it is more than just a dream. But we have not yet gone into space, and the sky is full of stars, and the two moons, but no spaceships.
Variable persistence of memory. I feel my own memories slowly slipping and blurring, and I wonder—will these words, tomorrow, accurately reflect reality as it is then?
I can only guess at my parents' feelings at seeing their child a grown adult—and not just an adult, but an adult tempered by fire. A soldier. I am physically and emotionally almost their age, perhaps even older in some ways, and they don't quite understand why. But with Lisa and some of the others, I sit on the oversight committee of the Reality School, training those who will follow us in maintaining the integrity of our existence.
And I ask myself: What qualifies me for this job? What qualifies any of us to decide what reality is the real, or right, one?
I wonder who I have become, and I think of a little girl who rode a fusion-powered turbocruiser into the school yard not so long ago, jumping up and down with glee.
That was only a few months ago, wasn't it?
A few months ago... by the calendar.
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)