A Possible Serenity
Another reprint from another one of my early stories. This one is quite quick and concise, and I was lucky enough to get artwork (shown below) provided by Andromeda Spaceways (original print here).
Fun fact: A Possible Serenity sat in queue for 7 months. Publishing is a slow business, even when your stories are short.
A Possible Serenity
by S Dean
Absalom’s daughter came into existence under his watchful gaze. For sixty seconds, Serenity’s world comprised a womb of light, until Absalom pressed a lever down to open the capsule lid, expanding her universe to an entire room.
Timing was crucial. The first attempt, he had unbolted the capsule too soon and found only disappointment as she decohered from shock. Repeated endeavours refined his parameters for when it was safe to open the capsule lid. Less than fifty seconds was always fatal, but so was more than ninety. Serenity needed to be observed in the right duration, to have any chance at stabilising.
“Gentle, now.” Absalom leaned into her field of view, and checked the safety restraints. He’d installed them after previous versions had panicked and flailed. “You’re not stable enough to go anywhere yet.”
“Where am I?” Serenity craned her head up and around. Absalom was careful to adjust things as little as possible between his many attempts. Consoles stayed against one wall, spare equipment on the other. Output screen behind her, where she couldn’t see it. Trailing wires tethered her capsule to his computer workstation.
“You are somewhere safe.” The familiar words rolled out of him by rote. “You are my daughter, turning twenty-four next month. You assist me with my research, and there was an accident in my lab. It was very serious. We must establish your quantum existence in the next few minutes or you will decohere again. When we’ve done that, I can explain everything else. Do you understand?”
Serenity looked at Absalom’s hands, as dark as her own but veined and dry with age, then at the crumpled grey lab coat—a match for her grey pyjamas— and up at deep-set eyes in a face wracked with exhaustion.
Absalom, meeting her gaze, attempted a smile.
Her brow creased. “Where’s… Mum?”
“She’s just in the next room.” Absalom stuck tiny pads with trailing wires to her neck, temples, and wrists. One of the screened-off machines began ticking, registering life signs. Observing, measuring, quantifying.
A selection of items were laid out on the bench next to the capsule. Absalom showed her the first: a battered stuffed dog, ravaged by a child’s love.
“Pups!” she exclaimed, and her life signs flickered erratically. “Where’d you find him? Could have sworn I threw him out.”
“You did, but I rescued him in secret,” Absalom lied. His Serenity had never thrown Pups away, no matter its poor condition. Such a stubborn girl.
“I’m glad you did,” she said.
“Dad knows best,” Absalom said with a wink, then took out a vidgraph of her sixth birthday, surrounded by little friends. Himself in the back. Smiling. Gripping a cake-knife. The scene sprang to life, playing out.
“Huh? That’s not right,” she said, wary and confused once more. “I was sick, you had to cancel… I don’t remember this.”
“Don’t you? Never mind.” Absalom put the vidgraph away before she could get distressed and discreetly scribbled a note in his log. He had tried to stick to key events, since the quantum changes between possible Serenitys were usually small. But the multiverse was infinite in its variety.
He moved quickly to distract, and showed a vidgraph of her high school graduation. “How about this?”
“I… do remember that,” she said, and Absalom relaxed a little. “I think, anyway. Are there any more of those pictures?”
“Of course, Serenity.” Together, in pieces and careful words, they reconstructed her life through the various vidgraphs and trinkets he’d collected. He snuck periodic glances at her life sign measurements. The results were good, stabilising significantly faster than any previous attempt, even with the early hiccups. He breathed in a moment of peace. A possible success? He hoped so. He hoped so.
“And what about this?” Absalom held up her lab badge.
“Summer break, from university.” Serenity fidgeted. She never liked to be still for very long. “I remember now. You and Mum wanted help with research. On—” she wavered briefly—“Schrödinger’s Engine.”
A thrill ran through him, at mention of the engine. “Very good, you remember.”
“But how did I get here, in this thing? What actually happened?” She eyed the console. “Isn’t that part of the Engine? Where’s the rest of it?”
“I told you.” Absalom could feel his smile threatening to flatten. “There was an accident… it’s very complicated. There’ll be time enough to explain it later.”
But Serenity wouldn’t let it go; never did, any of the times. “I don’t remember an accident. The last thing I remember was you and I arguing.” She paused. “Why isn’t Mum here? She practically built this thing. If something went wrong—”
“She’s just in the next room. We made an important discovery, and it’s keeping her busy.”
Serenity frowned. “More important than my accident?”
“Listen.” Absalom would never get tired of telling her, afresh. “Serenity, my dear. I was right, and you were wrong. Schrödinger’s Engine works!”
“What?” She blinked in rapid succession, thrown by the change of topic. “No way. We tested every substance we could. Everything collapsed into nonexistence, every time.”
“Consciousness makes the difference, just as I theorised.” Absalom preened at his labcoat with both hands. “Oh, what a breakthrough! And to think, all those months we wasted, experimenting with inanimate materials.”
“What breakthrough?” She didn’t seem to share his excitement; most of the Serenitys didn’t. No one understood the hunger for knowledge that never gave him peace; the wolf in his mind.
Absalom beamed. “You, of course. I put you in a state of quantum superposition, using Schrödinger’s Engine, and then brought you back. Reconstituted from infinite possibility.”
“Wait… you tested it on me?”
“Don’t worry, my dear. You’re here now. It worked. Your consciousness allows you to reform, a kind of self-observation effect. Isn’t that fantastic?” Irrational guilt had troubled him some, with earlier incarnations, but Absalom had learned across hundreds of attempts to put such things behind him. It would be for the best, in the end. When he fixed it. When it was right.
“Are you seriously telling me,” she said, voice rising to match her pulse, “that you’ve replaced me with a different self, without my consent? Just to prove me wrong? What the hell!”
“Not just for me—but for society. The applications are endless!” Absalom jerked to his feet, pacing and pacing. His shoes had worn grooves into the floor from repeated passage. “Imagine placing a violent criminal into a state of quantum superposition, and having another version of him emerge. One who is law abiding, kind, sane. Imagine decohering every sick or disabled child, every corrupt politician or uncouth citizen, in that same way, to re-select their best possible self. Imagine, Serenity, imagine—but maybe you can’t. Your mother couldn’t. She wanted to pull the plug. How could she want that?”
Serenity stared. “Where is Mum?”
“Mum had an accident, too.” Absalom hadn’t meant to hurt his wife, but she’d been hysterical over Serenity. Swearing, screaming, call him a murderer. “She’s resting, in the next room.”
“What? Dad, let me go help her! Let me out of this thing!”
“Aha, yes. This is rather embarrassing.” Absalom stopped pacing and consulted his notes. “Serenity, my dear, I can’t seem to get the calibrations quite right for the Engine. Consequently, I cannot let you out of the capsule until you have achieved the necessary quantum stability. Your mother refused to understand that.”
“What the hell are you talking about!”
“I’ve run the Engine over and over, but every time, you collapse back into nonexistence within an hour.” He gave an embarrassed shrug. “If this is yet another failure, then you have perhaps ten minutes before you decohere.”
“Less than…” Serenity paled. “Dad. Let me see the research. Let me work on it with you. I can help, we can fix this!”
“We’ve tried that already, Serenity. It only makes things harder in the end.” What a fool he’d been, to let her out before. When their joint efforts had inevitably failed, she’d refused to get back in the capsule, until he’d held a gun to her head. Didn’t she understand that he had to bring her back more permanently? He could not fix this if she refused to cooperate. Such a stubborn girl.
“How many… how many times have you done this?” Fear made her seem younger, childish.
How many times? How many times? Somewhere the number was tallying up, but he dared not check. Absalom scraped sweat off his brow. “Never mind that. What matters is that I get closer with each attempt. In the beginning you lasted mere minutes; now, you last an hour. Progress, my dear.”
“You can’t just let me die!” She fractured into tears, emotions fraying. “It won’t be me who comes back. Don’t you get it? I will be gone! Every time you bring me into existence here, another me in another universe dies. You’re wiping me out in every universe!”
“Oh, it’ll be you. From my point of view, anyway, which is what matters.” Wasn’t it? Once, her perception had mattered too—but no, he would not think of it. “Just be patient. I’ll fix it, bring you back.”
Absalom flicked a lever and the capsule slammed shut. Always be quick, or doubt waited to overtake.
Serenity swore and shouted, but he’d already installed sound dampeners many incarnations ago. So much better when he couldn’t hear his daughter, didn’t have her cries slowly driving him insane.
Now to wait, to wait, to wait. Vitals, stable. Readouts, good. His spirits rose like a dying plant refreshed by the promise of rain, and he knew a moment of contented peace.
The timer sang.
Absalom caught his breath. The sixty-two minute mark; she had lasted more than an hour. More than an hour. The lever trembled in his grip, ripe for throwing, but he would wait with fatherly patience, to surpass the margin of error. Just another four minutes.
On his wrist, the second hand moved like thunder and her vital signs began to flicker. Erratic heart rate, sometimes detectable, sometimes not. Life fading in and out. From inside the capsule, Serenity screamed; disappointment washed over him. Why couldn’t she just do as he expected? Remain stable, as he predicted? Such a stubborn girl.
Her fault, all her fault; she did this to herself. If only she would be good, he could stop; but she wasn’t, so he couldn’t. His daughter needed him to correct her.
The screaming faded away as the life signs went flat. Absalom marked down the duration. Not a total loss: sixty-six minutes was a new record. He re-adjusted the calculations to include a longer margin of error.
“Closer every time,” he murmured. “Almost there, Serenity.”
After he brought her back, she would never need to know about the accident, or his endless trials. The incident with his wife could be explained away. Serenity would be thrilled with his breakthrough, and naturally he would give her due credit for her part.
Absalom laid out all the books, the vidgraphs, the things of his daughter’s life in neat rows around her capsule. In a few minutes, it would be time to calibrate Schrödinger’s Engine and select another possible Serenity.