Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Little Bear

Be it the northern or the southern sky, the constellations on a dark night look as they do from only one point in the universe; from Earth. It’s not like being lost at sea, or in the desert, where knowing their patterns can set you on the right path. Constellations are stories, convenient memory markers existing purely in our minds so we don’t have to experience the truth of our position in a great and indifferent space.

Violette thought this as she looked up into the night, searching against the setting gleam of Venus for the white engine-track of a returning craft. She felt without a shadow of doubt that the expanse of outer space was a bagatelle kind of nothing, compared with the space she’d become aware of as it grew inside her mind: the distance between herself and her husband Guy.

Someone had once told her that she might try to imagine infinity thus: Picture a steel ball the size of the Earth. A fly lands on it once in a million years. When the friction caused by the fly’s feet has worn the steel ball away to nothing, infinity has not even begun.

Space is Time, Time is Space. She had written that as the last line in her thesis. The constellations above her had travelled with her since then, apparently much unchanged by either aspect of the continuum, as far as she was aware. But she was much changed by time. It had grooved her face and bleached her hair and was close to swallowing her whole. As for space …

She touched the eternity ring she had bought for herself on finishing her studies—a circle, naturally, because she had hoped, against her logical conclusions, that spacetime was a doughnut shape and, as a sugar-mote on its surface, her life lay safely perpetual there, always to be returned to, always repeated as space progressed along the doughnut’s roundel of time, although she could not experience it that way. The ring had a diamond, a small one, and two flanking stones like tiny gateposts. Her finger counted them as she watched Venus decline in the west. Slowly she let out the breath she’d been holding.

The spinnaker of her small boat billowed with freshening wind and rode the swell with a drunken swagger quickly smoothing into a surf. She released the ring and took hold of the helm again, reassuring herself by the feel of the boat’s lively passage resonating in the wheel. Above her Orion was sinking and his dogs were quick on his heels. Dawn was coming and already the glow of the sun had begun to erase the clarity of the stars in the eastern sky. Soon the single planet would be her only guide.

Time is space wasn’t news even then. Einstein had said it decades ago. But in Violette’s interpretation of the physical laws it had to be re-stated. Time was a space of no volume. Hence one could not go back to a point in it, navigating one’s way by the look of past and future worlds, constellations there of people and actions, of objects in their exact array and bearings tuned by the flavour, smell and zest of a single instant viewed from all directions. Time was a cusp, the wave’s crest, a moment of perpetual immanence. Guy was lost in space, since his mission failed to return all those years ago. But she didn’t believe him dead. She considered him dislocated in time. Although this might make no difference to the facts it made her feel less alone. In one part of the continuum, Guy was still there.

She reached into the inner pocket of her oilskin and removed a laminated photograph. Looking at Guy’s picture—it seemed only an instant ago that he’d gone. How could that be so far away that she could never get there? Of course, if they allowed her to work the machine again, she might try to get there, which is why it was shut off in its bunker, never to be used again. They thought Guy’s mission a sufficient loss, in the wake of all the events after the machine’s first use and no doubt that was the wisest way. Teleportation remained a dream, even though Violette knew first hand that it was not.

A wave recklessly covered the deck and fell to nothing, draining in the sluices and drenching her feet. It splashed the photo and she wiped it clean as she put it away before turning a degree to the south. She’d built the boat—Arrowflight—herself, learning via several false starts and many hard hours as she went along, determined to attempt a full circumnavigation of the world by star and sun before she died. She’d left Les Sables a week ago and hadn’t switched on her radio since. On the third day she’d become aware that direction didn’t matter.

Wherever she went Guy would never be. The trail of a spacecraft that should have come in a long time ago was only in her mind’s eye, a nervous tic of hopeful longing. She reasoned that there had been a miscalculation on board and the moment of return had failed to find Earth where it should have been in space, materialising behind or in front by a critical margin to discover … to do nothing in fact, for to miss utterly was to cease to exist in a timely manner, at least in this universe.

Violette did not believe in discontinuity—where objects could dot in and out, not there one minute but there the next, skipping time steps like a child over chalked hopscotch lines. Guy had gone out to test their theories in the only safe place they could think of and he was lost.

***

Guy took a seat in a café bar near Montmartre. It was the time of evening when his father had liked to light a cigar and ask his mother to provide him with a glass of fino. Guy liked neither but ordered the sherry anyway and when it came, tasted its woodiness and dryness with a hidden grimace. He only had to wait for a few minutes and then Rafaella appeared, slinking like a cat out of the shadows. Her face was contorted with the pressure she was feeling. It spoiled her beauty, made her look older and more disappointed than he’d hoped.

She slumped in her seat and crossed her legs, kicking the loose sole of her cheap flip-flop against her foot. He regarded her with a fondness he felt correct for a father to feel towards his daughter. The lamplight coming from the bar’s interior made her look more like Violette than ever.

Rafaella batted a moth away with a flick of her hand and crossed her legs the other way. A waiter appeared as though summoned by majesty, and she ordered wine without rewarding him with a single glance. She caught Guy’s look of amusement at this naked display of feminine power,

“Don’t look at me like that.”

“You remind me of her.”

“And don’t say that.”

“What? I have to say something. It’s the reason we’re here.”

“I hate anniversaries. It’s pointless nostalgia.” She raked her gaze over the other people on the street and, finding nothing in them to grip her attention, looked up at heaven for patience.

“Then why did you come?”

She snorted, “To humour you, of course. You think she meant to come back.”

“You don’t.”

“If she’d meant to then she would have—cuh!” Rafaella took her wineglass from the offered tray and took a big swallow, bigger than she intended. A line of red ran down her mouth and dripped onto the boho chic-ness of her outfit. She swore and ignored it.

Guy said, “The solicitor thinks it’s time to ask the court to declare her legally dead.”

Rafaella focused her emotion on the distant stars and didn’t look at him. Her flip-flop counted away a minute and she glanced at her watch.

“’Plane to catch?” He cursed his own sarcasm even as he said it.

“I’m meeting Paul,” she said and then heaved herself around as if it was a Herculean effort. “If we do this, what does it do?”

“It means that her will can be executed,” he replied, the words and their meaning a simple skim on the surface of his mind, not allowed to disturb what lay beneath. “You’ll get some money. I will. The house…”

“Is not going to be sold,” she declared, taking a swallow of wine.

“Be reasonable,” he began, but she cut him off.

“It’s the only place she knows. What if she comes back and we’re not there? What if she goes there and nobody knows who she is? What if it’s all she recognises?”

Guy sighed and watched a young couple walk by, their arms entwined, nothing in the span of their regard except each other. He and Violette had walked like that once. He wanted to believe they would again. Perhaps they were doing so even now, in some other time and space which he could not find. He didn’t know how to explain to Rafaella that her mother might be missing on another Earth. He didn’t want to believe it himself.

The house in question was far away in rural Yorkshire, but he could feel its presence as though a lodestone in the walls pulled at him twenty-four seven. He could feel its emptiness and the chilly transparent dome of its roof, above which the Great Bear pawed the northern sky and pointed helplessly at the single unmoving mote of Polaris, the North Star, with her tail.

Rafaella believed her mother had suffered a stroke causing a kind of amnesia and had simply wandered off. Or that she had had an affair and created a clever story to cover her absence. It had been years, and although she’d left home by then anyway, the idea of Violette’s abandonment of her was too hard. Guy knew that the moment hadn’t been anything so mundane. There was a chance Rafaella was right and that the house and its co-ordinates were the only points in the universe where Violette might return.

“Little Bear,” he said fondly to Rafaella, hardly realising he spoke aloud.

She shot him a cold look but could not sustain it and returned to watching the people pass by.

***

If universes intersect one another at all, then they must do so at at least one point. However those points are mapped, a moment and a space or both are shared. This could be used as the focus of all maps that serve to describe those separate worlds, no matter how giant or how fleeting.

Why shouldn’t this be a house, or a heart?

***

The machine towered over them, humming with power—so strange to think that such a small wattage could achieve so much—as Guy and Violette watched the their chosen test object vanish from sight. The telephone rang in the outer office. Violette answered.

“Oui?”

There was a breathless pause.

“Vraiment?”

Another beat, another mark that nailed down each moment to its position without ambiguity.

“Guy!” she shouted, the phone raised high like a staff of power. “He has the bottle! Alain has the bottle! In Greece! Right now!”

But at the time they’d never thought on where the bottle might have been when it was neither with them, in Paris, or with Alain, in Athens. Between one second and the next, how much space could there be? And for his part Alain never mentioned, thinking it bad luck, that the old Châteauneuf-du-Pape was foul and corked beyond drinking.

***

Violette searched the sky again for the one unchanging constant, following the blunted end of Thor’s Hammer. The North Star was faint as she angled the boat away from it. A fresh update on the monitor revealed that none of the satellites heard anything of Guy’s scout mission, and why should they? He was full fifty years lost and the machine in its laboratory was thick with dust, guarded by young soldiers who didn’t even know what it was for and thought maybe it was an old Cold War thing.

Alain had texted her—OK ld grl?

She hadn’t replied yet, she thought, although she fancied that she was replying, had already replied—OK.

After the first few attempts they’d given up trying to calculate how many fresh universes had peeled away from their one original with each repeated use of the machine. Violette had no idea whether or not there were many of her sharing this space right now, others turning about, others reckoning the sky, others at home, far away, watching old movies with Guy and Rafaella in the house below the hill.

In her mind that Violette in the house was the real one. Somehow she had become one of the pale copies instead, her consciousness slipping away from its true course and into this unsatisfactory illusion. She took comfort from the knowledge that it was only a shard in time that separated her from this perfect life, even though crossing back into it might be impossible. Other Violettes may make it. And other Guys may never have left with the astronauts to verify the fracture by viewing it from the outside—travelling into a sister reality.

The wind was as strong in any other world. The boat made a tortured banging sound as it drove into the waves. The bowsprit surfaced to point up at the three Norns and Violette switched on the autopilot, exhausted, and went below.

***

Rafaella uncorked the bottle of wine and stood on the balcony in the humid night heat, the stone of the terrace barely cool against her feet. She could hear Alain playing Chopin on the piano. Its notes were bell-like in their melancholy patterns, picking out the essence of her emotion without her having to articulate it. How like him to know what to play at an hour like this, she thought, and how like her father to wander off to the bottom of the garden, a white shape in the gloom like a ghost.

In the dining room the legal documents lay crisp below the stare of another wine bottle—this one in a protective glass case. The original Châteauneuf of the first experiment was fragile enough to break these days, without much encouragement from anyone. It was the thinning of its walls that had first suggested danger in the method. Not only had it lost something during its travel to Athens that night, years ago, but with every subsequent use of the machine another integral layer had been peeled from its substance. Its label was unreadable, the printing ink flayed off. The glass itself was, at a microscopic level, pitted with holes until it resembled a peculiar bone, the fossil of an ancient time. Since the wine itself had gone down the sink in Athens, nobody knew what had happened to that.

Rafaella thought of the papers there, awaiting her signature. Guy’s was still drying on the page. He was convinced Violette must be dead or never coming back. Rafaella felt she ought to sign, if only to end the suspension of his life, to allow him to move on, but a more bitter, stubborn piece of her wouldn’t let her. The bottle’s problem was that it had moved unpredictably through space because of its predictability in time. Violette was the opposite. Rafaella was sure she was alive somewhen soon, and they did not, as Guy insisted, live in a Universe which had allowed her to vanish from it absolutely. Matter could not disappear like that from all coordinates of the continuum, ergo her mother was out there somewhere and she was not going to sign away the one point of contact they might have.

When is it?

Rafaella set the corkscrew on the terrace wall, started pouring a libation down the stones, then let all the wine run there, each rivulet of darkness winding its own way over the rough and porous surfaces. Where is the crossing where all these worlds collide?

Guy said it was at Ago, at the first use of the machine. They couldn’t get back there, because they’d already been.

But what if it was in the future? What if there was a universe in which the machine never worked? THAT universe couldn’t possibly intersect with this one in the past. In fact there must be an infinity of worlds in which the machine did not exist or had never been used, and an infinity of crossroads from this world in which it did, presenting chances to jump over. But Guy would only laugh at this reasoning of hers.

In the garden her father’s white form walked towards her. He looked up as he came into the terrace lights.

“There’s always another possibility,” he said as the final chord sounded from the piano. “That she might have stepped out of existence only for a certain length of time. In which case, she hasn’t moved in space at all.”

Rafaella stared down at him, brushing a moth away from her hair. “What?”

“But even if she did,” he continued. “The world has moved on. Literally. In space. The planet has moved. The galaxy has moved. Nothing is where it used to be. Even positions that seem to be fixed have altered beyond recognition.”

The moth returned, blundered against her cheek, corrected itself and fled up into the brilliance of the terrace light. Dust from its wings powdered the air. She listened to it battling against the glass, beating itself to death with the force of its determination to reach what it had mistaken for the moon.

***

Alain checked the set up for the eighth time. In fact there was nothing to check, but he smoothed the tablecloth over the cold marble top one more time and walked around the invisible perimeter of the three beacons, noting their alignment. According to theory the bottle should arrive two millimetres above the cloth. He didn’t know what would happen if it came in any lower, but then again he didn’t know what would happen to the air it displaced on its arrival either. He put his goggles on and moved back to the safe distance of his cane chair.

Beyond the shuttered windows the low growl of traffic persisted, overshot with the bright, sudden notes of the calls of birds, which were gathering to roost in the eaves of his hotel. They weren’t swallows, he knew that, but birds weren’t his thing, navigation was his interest. Migrations from one continent to another over vast distances had intrigued him since his boyhood. Geese had been the first animals he’d studied for his dissertation, and then the wandering albatross. A curious mixture of the Earth’s magnetism, the stars and the sun traced their paths for them. The turning year and the flares of solar agitation or tropical storms could cast them far beyond their routes. The memory of routes also passed on from generation to generation, even when conditions at the destinations altered, became less desirable. How curious he’d been to discover that instinct was so powerful, even when its drive took you in the wrong direction. He wasn’t sure himself if this position he was in was less desirable. He didn’t like the idea of the machine and hoped it would fail.

His watch, in regular contact with an atomic clock, counted the moments to midnight. The church at the end of the street chimed in early, its hand-rung bell marking the hours, the end of the day, the start of something. Bathed in the moment, suspended between past and future, Alain wished for nothing.

There was a sharp bang, like a muted gunshot, and a softer thud.

Wings beat suddenly against the shutters, a flurry, and were still.

A bottle of wine stood on the table, the meniscus just visible beneath the collar label, quivering.

He was surprised it didn’t startle him. He mustered enthusiasm, rang Paris as he moved forwards to inspect it, briefly wondering why they hadn’t bothered to wipe the dust off it before they sent it over. Violette’s delight was so infectious he found himself starting to laugh, to smile. When he rang off he was grinning as he took out his keys from his pocket, undid his corkscrew from the Swiss army knife and opened the bottle.

The cork came out easily and with it a soft, resiny odour quickly turning sour. He poured it and took a sniff. Pure vinegar. The cork in his fingers was slimy. What a bad omen, he thought then, his smile fading. He resolved never to mention it to the others but quickly watched the bottleful splash its way down the plughole. Probably he should have saved it for testing, but the glass would be enough.

He suddenly remembered that in all the excitement he’d forgotten to turn off the recording equipment. It only took a few minutes to roll back the tapes and erase what he’d done.

***

“He’s not coming back,” Rafaella said, her voice almost drowned out by the cries of the children, fighting over a toy. She sounded weary rather than irritated to Violette, who cradled the receiver against her chin as she guided the boat back to its mooring.

“I know,” she said. “But I like to look.”

“When are you coming home?”

“Soon,” Violette assured her. “The estate agent says the house is sold. I have to pack it up—that will take a while—and then I’ll be coming. I’m selling most of the furniture, unless there’s something you particularly want.”

“No,” Rafaella said, pausing to administer some kind of hasty discipline. Violette heard her saying, “We’ll get another Little Bear, don’t worry about it,” and then Martine’s voice whined, “Don’t want another. Want that one.” She came back on the line, “But if you find anything personal of Dad’s …”

“It’ll all come back with me,” Violette said. “You can look through it yourself. Did you get Alain’s card?”

“He still signs himself off ‘A Friend of Your Father’s’ as if I didn’t know who he was.” Rafaella sighed. “Yes. And a hundred Euros, even though I’m thirty five and earn more than his pension.”

“He feels responsible,” Violette said. “I have to go, the wind is changing.” She hung up and brought the vessel about just in time to make it safely around the harbour buoy. Gulls circled the mast lazily, giving her the once over, not even bothering to call out from their frozen postures in the air.

A week later, kneeling in the attic on the Rue St-Denis, she dragged over a wooden packing case from the very back. It wasn’t the last to be cleared out, but nearly the last and must have been there since the day they moved in, she reckoned—a strip of 1989 Le Monde hung from its slats. She brushed filthy grey dust from it and sneezed, pausing to wipe her face with a tissue and seeing black marks stripe it as she put it away again. In the light of the single weak bulb she wondered if she could be bothered to check it, or whether she should simply leave it here for the new owners to find. Whatever was in it hadn’t interested them for forty years, why should she want it now?

She opened the lid anyway and looked at the unexpected top of a bottle of wine, her heart thudding suddenly loud in her chest. It had been for Guy’s return of course, she thought, to celebrate, and then, unable to throw it away, she’d put it up here. The bottle itself was clean and new-looking but she couldn’t help thinking it must have gone bad after living through so many hot summers up here. She couldn’t bring herself to read the label or hold it in her hands, thinking of the time it ought to have been uncorked and the emotions she’d hoped to feel.

A pigeon, perched on the tiles above her, burbled its ridiculous love-warble. She heard its claws tacking and the sudden muffled clapping of winged escape.

That settled it. She pushed the case back into the darkest shadow and backed up on her hands and knees along the grimy length of carpet until her foot found the top rung of the ladders again.

***

Alain walked the last mile to Guy’s house in the dale. It took him an hour and many pauses, resting against walls, sitting on his shooting stick, stumbling over the rocks on the back road. He was tired when he got there, but it was worth it. For every mile he’d covered since Paris the weight of the bag had become lighter and now he could hardly feel it in his hand.

Rafaella was there, looking thin and irritable. She let him in. The place was warm but smelled of damp nonetheless. They should have let it go, moved somewhere with a more temperate climate, Alain thought. England had its beauties but he would have traded them for the comfort of the Avignon villa. But it hadn’t been up to him. The girl had never stopped hoping that Violette would come back here and Guy hadn’t had the heart to stifle her hope. It was a pity, because now Rafaella was getting too old for children and too bitter for marriage and Guy was, like himself, simply a relic awaiting destruction.

He said as much as they sat down to a whiskey.

Rafaella was taken aback by his bluntness.

“There’s not much time for games,” Alain shrugged. He pushed at the bag with his foot. “Open it.”

She did so and unwrapped the bottle from a swatch of heavy velvet curtain. Her glance at him was quizzical, “Why now?”

“It’s my fault she got lost,” Alain said. “I never told you that the wine in that bottle was rancid. Something was wrong with the whole thing. I could have said so but it didn’t seem that important at the time. I thought it was a coincidence.”

“You couldn’t have known,” Guy began, trying to brush Alain’s grimness aside.

“No, but I could have guessed. We said before that what’s known in space must be uncertain in time if it leaves the continuum here at all. And if time was certain then space would be the opposite. She was gone for five minutes and in that time we forgot that we would have MOVED, Guy. Moved forty thousand bloody miles … and when she came back it’s us who wasn’t there. Nothing was there.”

Rafaella was staring into nothing. She said, into the silence that followed, “I wonder if it’s the same bottle. Is there any way of proving that?”

Her father took his glass from his mouth halfway into a sip and swiped a line of whiskey from his lip. Alain’s face grew even more bleak. She could tell they hadn’t considered this, as she hadn’t, until now. The bottle’s decay had stopped, which they had taken to mean that the universes had ceased to peel away from one another or, if that theory was entirely wrong, that at least whatever dimension had leached its substance away was now stabilised, all reactions come to their natural conclusions. She hadn’t been a part of the science, barely understood any of it, but she said now,

“I mean, was there any way of telling it to be the bottle you sent, dad? Or could it be from a different continuum? Maybe we switched bottles with someone else’s universe and they didn’t get one in return. Maybe this bottle is trying to get back to its own space and time.”

They stared at the offended item and then, with a single, swift movement Rafaella lunged forward and sent it hurtling against the wall. It smashed instantly and the shards of glass scattered, tinkling on the floor with a sound like stars ringing in an empty heaven.

“No more uncertainty,” she said, sitting back, withdrawing her hand carefully as though it were a snake that might strike again. “I can’t stand it any more.”

Guy crossed over to her and put his arm around her shoulders.

Alain looked at the shining splinters. “See,” he said, his voice cracking as he pointed a shaking finger at the patterns they made on the floor. “It’s Andromeda, and Leo.”

A smile moved from one to the other of them beginning with Guy and passing to Rafaella, and then to Alain before it faded away. Alain tried to look at the glass and see no pattern in it but, no matter how hard he tried, he saw more and more familiar shapes as the minutes passed until he had to look away.

“Do you remember her?” Rafaella said. “Because I can’t. Only little things. Her smell. The shape of her chin. The way her eyes looked when she smiled. But not all at once. I can’t see her anymore. I always thought that’s how you lived forever, in people’s minds, but it can’t be true, because we can’t remember like that. If she walked in here now I sometimes think I wouldn’t know her.”

Guy stood up and began to pick up the pieces, gathering them in his hand.

Alain got up to go.

There was a knock at the door.

They glanced at each other, eyes wide, and saw hope in the others’ faces, impossible to extinguish but already beginning to twist with resigned disappointment. Nobody moved to answer it.

***

© 2005 by Justina Robson.
 Originally appeared in Constellations, edited by Peter Crowther.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Justina Robson

Justina-RobsonJustina Robson is the author of several science fiction and fantasy novels plus a collection of short stories and has been shortlisted for a variety of genre and literary awards. She is published in the UK, USA, and Europe. Her most recent series of books is Quantum Gravity, a wry story of love, the supernatural, and machine transformation.  She is presently working on SF again although rather slowly because there are small children at home, school has not quite started yet, and she is in the middle of a glorious binge of reading other people’s work.