Science Fiction

Fugue in a Minor Key

By Stewart C Baker
Sep 18, 2017 · 5,748 words · 21 minutes

What they do is sit me in a folding chair in a white-walled room with a single fluorescent bulb on the ceiling.  Two techs in white (one short and female, one skinny and male) sit there and tell me this is real, that I was never a world-famous concert pianist, never married and never mourned my husband, and never never never had a daughter. 

As such, the skinny one says, it is impossible for her to be in any danger. 

Is she in danger?  I ask. 


But I don't let him finish.  If she's all right, I say, I'd like to see her. 

Ma'am, the skinny one repeats.  You can't see her.  She isn’t real. 

Are you the police? 

No, the short one says.  We’ve been through this before. 

We are experimental psychologists with the University of —, the skinny one says, and you have spent the last eight minutes immersed in a holistic simulation designed to test the human mind’s response to stress. 

The name of the school is white noise, a distant burst of static that doesn't obscure anything else.  I can't make it out. 

A holistic simulation, I say. 


Eight minutes. 


The University of . . . 

The skinny one doesn't answer.  Instead, he taps his clipboard on the table.  The clipboard, I know, is signed with my maiden name, Katja Maczyk, and cuts twenty-odd years from my life. 

You are not the police, I say. 

No.  (The short one, with a note of relief clear in her voice.)

Are you, I try, the CIA?  The FBI?  Interpol officers, terrorists, a rogue A.I.?


Is this some kind of joke? 

Ma'am, the skinny one says.  Ma'am, Ms Maczyk, ma'am, please.  You're experiencing an uncommon, but I assure you short-lived episode of extreme disorientation.  Once it passes, you will remember signing these papers and being hooked into the machine, and you will come back to yourself and reality. 


Yes, he says. 

The shorter one stands, adjusts her glasses.  Let's show her the machine, she says.  Maybe it will help. 

There’s not much to it, this machine they tell me has scrambled my memories.  Just a couple of electrode pads connected to a computer by silver-and-clear-plastic cabling that looks like some kind of transparent caterpillar.  There's also a mask, a weighty black conglomeration of mufflers and sunglasses, with a latex mouthpiece and nose-cover that doesn't have any holes in it except for one that's attached to a tube for breathing. 

The pads go here and here, the shorter one is saying, tapping the sides of her forehead just below the hairline.  She shows me a mirror and I can see the marks they left, set into my too-young skin, but I'm not convinced. 

Still, the tape marks are there, and there's no imprint on my ring finger.  No wrinkles, brown hair that doesn't look dyed, and no clear thoughts in music alone.  No memories of music at all, for that matter, or of Ben when he was alive.  Or Sophie.  Only memories of memories, the feeling that something happened without any details of what, or when, or why. 

A solitary stave, instead of orchestration. 

It looks like something out of a movie, I say. 


Can I try it again?  I ask.  Just to see. 

A pause, and then a no from the skinny one.  It's not a good idea, he says.  You're already confused, and it's unlikely you'd see the same scenario a second time in any case.  There's a tightness to his voice that belies his outward calm. 

That’s fine, I say.  It’s amazing how much better I'm already feeling.  Thinking the whole time this can’t possibly be right, that there’s something they’re not saying.  Something I’m missing.

The two of them steer me down the hallway, past the room with the chair and table, and out into a lobby where the sun pools thickly through a big double window, warming the backs of my arms. 

Go out now, the skinny one says.  Immerse yourself in the world and you'll see how quickly it comes back to you.  Jennings here (he gestures to the short one) will meet you for lunch at the student cafeteria in a few hours' time to see how you're doing. 

Okay, I say.  Sure, okay. 

And I'm out the doors and into the sun, where it smells of concrete and dogwoods and exhaust.  The to-ro-ril of the birds and distant hum of traffic can't overwhelm the absent strains of music I can't reach, or the sound of Sophie's fading laughter. 

On an age-worn flight of wooden steps on the path to the university's track stadium, I sit and wait for something to happen.  It's pleasantly warm, and there are still those birds with their incessant song, but despite that—because of it, maybe—nothing seems real. 

There's nobody in the stadium, just a pick-up truck with a sweep behind it, going round and round the track in slow, methodical circles.  From somewhere in the distance, I can hear people's shouts as they practice some game or another. 

The combination unnerves me, as if somehow there are people on the track and I just can't see them.  I wonder if I should have tried the music hall, but it didn't seem like a good idea.  If in the simulation I was a pianist, and I'm trying to get away from those false future memories, shouldn't I avoid the piano?  Music?

The sun, at least, feels nice against my skin.  I close my eyes and take a deep, slow breath.  The mixed scents of lilac and honeysuckle.  Rich, earthy dirt beneath it all. 

Dirt, I think.  When's the last time you smelled dirt?

That drives it home somehow, in a way none of the psychologists' words did.  Maybe when I meet up with Jennings I can suggest it for the next subject, I think.  A half-smile spreads lazily across my face.  I laugh at myself.  A simulation, and I had thought it real. 

Eyes still shut, I push to my feet and stretch my arms as high as they'll go, arching my back, pulling muscles just for the hell of it, enjoying the too-taut feeling it leaves in the back of my thighs. 

I had thought it real. 

When I open my eyes, there's someone in the grassy area at the center of the stadium.  I think for a moment she's a student, but then I see she's a little girl, wearing a light purple day dress and just standing there, looking at me, while the truck continues circling. 


I open my mouth to shout something, but my tongue is dry, my lips as rough as sand.  I can't breathe, there's a pressure in my eyes, and the world goes fuzzy.  The bird-song fades away, the shouts of people with it, until the only sound is a persistent high-pitched hum just at the edge of hearing.  Like a T.V. monitor running on mute in the bushes nearby.  There's a krck behind me, a branch snapping on the grass, and I feel cold suddenly, as if somebody's approach has shrouded me in shadow.  Jennings?  Or . . .  ?

I turn to see, but there's nobody there, just an empty field, and wispy cotton-ball clouds floating through the afternoon sky.  I'm warm again, the sounds coming back, but I shiver.  When I look back to the stadium, it's empty too, just that same pick-up truck endlessly turning.  The white lines on the track make the lanes look like a score with the colours inverted, the bars warped and pulled beyond recognition, a mockery of purpose and music. 

I've only been waiting at the cafeteria a few minutes when Jennings comes in, polishing her glasses on a small microfiber square.  I let her look around for a minute before half-standing in my booth and raising one hand in greeting. 

How are you doing?  She says, as she slides into the chair opposite mine. 

I shrug, non-committal. 

Want a coffee?  Something to eat?  She waves a little plastic card.  Incidental expense account, she says.  My treat. 

Coffee would be good. 

Okay, she says.  Back in a sec. 

I watch her thread through the crowd of students, realizing again that I'm one of them.  A few memories unhook themselves: roommates; classes; endless hours of practice at the music hall's piano. 

Piano, I think.  So I do play, after all.  Funny how I'd forgotten.  How I'd assumed that that, too, was part of the simulation.   A guy across the room waves to me, and suddenly I can remember the morning’s events: how I’d signed up for the experiment to get extra credit In Dr. Edwards’ class; how I’d been surprised to find one of the techs was a woman; how her touch when she set the mask on my temples made my cheeks flush.  

By the time Jennings comes back to the table with our coffees, I’m just sitting there, red-faced, thinking of how I've been acting.  Thank god I hadn't said anything about the track, or she'd really think I'd lost it.  And I don’t want her to think that.  Sitting with her like this reminds me of Jenny, my best friend in high school, whom I’d secretly had a crush on for years and who’d turned me down when I confessed.  Now we were roommates—no hard feelings.  I only wished I’d told her how I felt earlier, instead of keeping it to myself. 

Staying quiet here doesn't seem right, either.  This is supposed to be a check-up, after all. 

How long will all this take?  I ask Jennings. 

She blinks and hands me my cup, which is still steaming, and sits back down.  Well, she says, if you have something to do . . . 

Something about her reminds me of Ben, I think.  The tone of her voice when she’s disappointed, perhaps, or the set of her shoulders.  The colour of her eyes?   I can't remember any more, and that's somehow worse than my earlier certainty. 

No, I say.  Not this meeting.  This . . .  this confusion.  Using the skinny psychologist's word.  This not knowing who I am, or where, or which life is real. 

Jennings shifts in her chair, her cheek quirked up on one side.  To be honest, Ms Maczyk—

Kat, I say.  Please. 

Kat, then.  Her face relaxes, and she leans forward on her elbows, fiddling with the coffee stirrer.  To be honest with you, there's no way of saying for sure. 

You mean you don't know?

She waves one hand—dismissive, but not belittling.  Not like that, she says.  It's just everybody's different.  And of the fifty people we've run this experiment on so far, only three have had confusion lasting more than a few minutes.  Yourself included. 

The other two?

One for about a day, and the other . . . 

I remember the tightness in the male tech’s voice.  Longer?  I ask.  Oh god, how long?  A month?  A year?

She laughs.  Nothing like that.  We've only been doing this for a few months.  Our fifth subject’s symptoms lasted a week and a half, though, and he almost lost us all our funding by going after the Dean of Behavioral Sciences with a pair of scissors.  We eventually got clearance from the Ethics Review Board to start up again after he got better and argued quite well that he was suffering no long-term effects, but Marquez still gets edgy whenever someone comes out and can't remember straight away. 

So he's okay now?  I ask.  The man, I mean. 

Sure.  Back with his family for over a month now.  Keeps sending us little cards to try and apologize. 

Family, I think, but I don't say anything. 

We sit there for a while without talking, nursing our drinks, letting the flow of the campus ebb around us.  Enveloped in noise and the milky scent of cafeteria coffee. 

Then Jennings looks at her watch.  I should get back, she says, leaning back in the booth.  Now that we know you’re okay, we're doing another subject at five. 

Can I watch?  I ask. 

Jennings hesitates, one finger tapping on the table, eyes carefully blank. 

I really think it would help, I say. 

I don't know if Marquez . . . 

I reach across the table, put one hand over hers.  Please. 

Well, she says.  Um.  Okay.  But not this one.  Come by in the morning at about six and you can observe. 

What should I do until then?  I ask. 

Go home and rest.  Talk to friends, family.  People you know.  Try to forget about the whole thing.  If you're still uneasy tomorrow, come by the lab.  Marquez doesn't get in until eight most days, so it should be fine. 

I smile, meet her eyes.  Thank you, I say.  It really means a lot to me. 

Well, she says.  Um.  She coughs, looks away.  I’m Sarah, by the way. 

Sarah, I repeat.  It sounds like the first bar of a symphony. 

Be seeing you, she says with a smile, then scoots out of the booth before I can respond. 

I stay in my seat, watching her duck through the crowd and out the door, and then she's gone. 

On the way to the apartment I share with Jenny, I test my new-remembered life.  The dogwood-lined street with its ramshackle student apartments calls up my first day on campus, my parents treating me like a child; late night visits to the cafeteria at finals time.  Walking seems to help, and seeing scenery I’d almost stopped noticing, before all this. 

Muscle memory, I think, and visual stimuli.  Terms I’ve heard in a class, maybe, or read in a textbook.  Last night?  A week ago?  Or fifteen years from now in that other life, half-asleep on the sofa with only the radio for company in the dim evening hours after Sophie’s in bed? 

I shake the thought aside. 

Nobody’s at the apartment, but there’s a note on the fridge from Jenny.  She won’t be in before Monday, the note says.  Back home for a family emergency, and will I let my parents know when I get the chance. 

I hang around anyway, trying to relax, but it feels too much like wearing a stranger’s skin.  I keep stumbling into furniture, hearing little noises that turn out to be nothing when I check. 

Eventually I give it up and go to the music hall in the center of campus, an old red-brick building in the Colonial style, fronted by white trellises and sprawling green vine.  Violin and drum and bassoon spill from its various windows, and I stand there awash in it all, in the glorious energy of music.  This is life, I think.  This is real. 

Maybe a session with the piano . . .  . 

But at the last minute I think, what if it doesn't work?  What if I’m wrong, and that, too, is a mixed up relic of a life I’ll never live? 

I go to the library, instead, in through its concrete walls to a huge wooden desk where a woman with gray hair and red lips sits clicking a pen open and closed, open and closed, her eyes out of focus. 

Excuse me, I say. 


Do you have any books on psychology?


I'm trying to find out what would make someone confused, and how to fix it. 

That gets a look, a quick, sidelong glance before she goes back to her pen.  click-clk.  Of course you are, that glance seems to say.  Of course you are. 

I fidget in place, clear my throat. 


I'm trying to—

Basement three, she says.  You'll want the RC 400s.  Or mezzanine, BF 30s.  Her voice sounds nothing like she looks.  Polite and clear, almost musical.  She smiles. 

Okay, I say.  Thanks. 

There’s no computer anywhere nearby, and I wonder if maybe she was just processing the request the first time I asked, instead of ignoring me.  Retrieving the results with perfect recall. 

Down in the stacks, I browse through the books at the numbers she gave me until I find a few on stress, on confusion, on psychiatry in general.  They're filled with phrases I don't understand, like dissociational trauma and persistent avoidance and physiological reactivity.  Amygdala nuclei, another book lists helpfully.  Hypothalamus and cortisol and adrenal glands.  Medial temporal lobes. 

I go back to the shelf and find something that says it's a dictionary, but it's the same, endless strings of words and numbers which taunt me with their print, dangling meaning just out of reach.  I flip through pages for hours, willing the characters to coalesce into some sensible combination, trying to avoid thoughts of Sophie, of long tours away from home with the orchestra in foreign cities whose residents smile good-naturedly when I mispronounce everything, and who compliment me on my music. 

The intercom crackles on in a burst of static, and the gray-haired woman’s voice announces that the library is closing for the night.  I head back into the streets, letting my feet go where they will.   

I wind up in front of the music hall again—dark now, empty—and stand there so long I lose track of time, just trying to figure out my feelings, my life.  Or which life is real.  Even now I can pull up all the dates that mattered: Sophie’s birthday, the week before Christmas; the anniversary of Ben’s death in early spring, when Sophie and I would go together to his grave and leave daisies.

I’m remembering the smell of fresh-cut daisies when movement in a top floor window of the music building catches my eye.  My tongue dries up, sticks to the roof of my mouth.  There’s someone here, but there can’t be anyone here, not at this time of night.  I stare hard at the glass, that high-pitched hum from earlier today coming back into my ears.  I can just make out a hand, I think, the palm of a child’s hand pressed against the inside of the window, visible only as a subtle shade of grey against the night-painted dark.

Sophie, I croak.

But what could she be doing here?  And how—


I spin around so fast I almost fall over.  It’s Sarah, standing there one hand on her chest, eyes bulging.

Jesus, she says.  You scared the hell out of me.

Something about the way she says it makes me laugh, and once I start I can’t stop.  It bubbles out of me, dripping from my lips like sunlight, so bright all the shadows I was trying to see into just disappear.  By the time I finally calm down, I’m sitting in the grass next to the path, holding my stomach and with tears in my eyes.

I can tell by looking at Sarah that she doesn’t know whether to help me up or call the cops to take me away. 

I’m fine, I gasp out.  I’m fine.


I nod.  Want to take a seat?

She hesitates for a minute, still on the fence, I think, so I put on my best smile and say, Sit.  Please.

What are you doing out here, anyway?  She asks me, after setting down her bags and joining me in the grass.

I tell her how I’d gone to the library, and how I still wasn’t feeling completely back to normal, so I came to visit the music hall.

Familiar places, you said, I remind her. 

We talk for a while about this and that.  How she moved cross country for grad school (reminding me that here and now she’s older than me—I'd been thinking of her as young), her nerves at working with Marquez, who is apparently pretty well known in his field. 

She tells me that she hasn’t had much time to socialize, or really get to know anybody, and I smile and say, Maybe we can fix that.

I’d like that, she says.  Are you sure you’re okay?

I insist that I am, and wave away her offer to walk me home.  I just want to stay here a minute longer, I say.  And you have an early morning tomorrow, right?

But still, when she’s gone, I let myself in to the music hall through the door that always sticks open.  I walk up the stairs to the top level, heart pounding, not really sure what I want to be real any more. 

Sophie?  I ask as I open each door, but each classroom and recital room is as empty as the air is silent. 

The building is filled with the particular silence that always follows music, a sense of expectation in the air that never lets up.  You can feel it on your skin, tempting you, begging you to call up sound and fill it.  With this silence pulling on my hands, I sit until dawn in front of the concert grand, my wrists on the edge of the key slip, the tips of my fingers just barely not touching the keys.  

Asking myself, now: Sophie?

In the morning, on my way to the psych building, I swear I can hear whispers through the birdsong, little snatches of voice that almost make sense. 

I hunch my shoulders push, my hands down into my pockets for warmth, telling myself it’s just because it’s cold.  My fingers brush a hard little box I don’t remember putting there.  Matches, I see, when I pull it out.  A box of matches.  Does Jenny smoke?

You have to get out, somebody says.  I look around, but can’t see any people. 

I walk a little faster.  Ben died in a fire.  A disconnected thought, a sudden memory of an event I didn’t know I’d experienced until just now.  Grey rain on grey ashes, grey smoke signaling nothing to a grey dawn.  Grey everywhere, and Sophie’s hand in mine, our guilt at being gone when he needed us.  How we kept going anyway.

I whistle.  Have to cover up the birdsong.  Even the humming was better than that.

The psych building’s still closed when I get there, so I stand around outside fiddling with the matches in my pocket.  Trying not to think.  After an hour or so, Sarah shows up. 

Sorry, she says.  Running late.

She unlocks the door, all business, hustles me inside, and hands me one of the white coats she and Marquez were wearing when I woke.  I shrug it on, and when the test subject arrives Sarah introduces me as an intern. 

The subject, a man in his forties who works in the English department, doesn't seem fazed by this.  He just smiles, scratches one stubble-black cheek, and shakes my hand.  Keeping the system afloat, eh?

Sarah keeps up a steady stream of chatter while she gets things ready for the experiment, explaining what the machine does and how it works.  Sensory deprivation, she says, effected by the mask and an injection of a propofol-fentanyl mix which dulls the body's sensations and induces a semi-hypnotic sensibility. 

Did she do the same for me?  I can't remember—the time before that unreal future life is blurry, out of focus.  A series of events I can recall with detail, but which don't connect one to the other.  Still, when I try to I can feel what it was like to live through them. 

My life with Sophie, on the other hand, is memories of memories: a series of connections with no individual depth.  If only I could reconcile the two, I think.  If only.  The matches in my pocket a small, persistent itch. 

Then these electrode pads here, Sarah is saying as she sticks them to the man’s temples, send a low magnetic pulse into the brain which induces sleep spindles.  The result is something like REM sleep, but stronger, and the brain does the rest by itself. 

The subject, who's been nodding the whole time, asks how they measure the results.  He touches the pads lightly with the first two fingers on each hand, tucks a loose strand of hair behind one ear.  Like a soloist before a performance, I think.  Making sure the instrument is ready. 

Sarah shrugs her shoulders, smiles, and says, it's a little complicated.  And it's time to start, anyway. 

Sure, the man says. 

Sarah helps him pull the mask over his ears and eyes and nose and mouth, gives him the shot, and flips open a laptop.  This is what we use for the pulses, she tells me. 

You enter it all by hand?

No, it's too complex for that.  Marquez got together with a few people in the Comp Sci and Philosophy departments and they threw together a few frameworks to build series of life events.  We send one of those through the system and the brain does all the heavy lifting. 

She taps a few keys, then stands back.  Now we just wait. 

And the results?  I ask.  They have to be measured somehow. 

The receptors do that too.  They track CRH levels in the cerebellum and a few other things, and output that into the system here. 

And then?

Well, that's really it for now.  We're not to the point where we can make any significant findings yet—we need more data.  But everything is stored in the system, and the preliminary analyses suggest quite a lot of interesting things about the role played by the locus coeruleus.  We think . . . 

I let her go on about it, trying to build on the connection we had yesterday by being happy at seeing her so energized.  But the words drift past me like the notes of some too-distant sonata, impossible to comprehend.  The test subject, still in the chair, hasn't said a word the whole time.  The only sign he’s alive is his deep, steady breathing. 

Can he really be living some other life?  It seems impossible, too much of a mismatch with the evidence of my eyes and ears. 

And this is real, I think, and this is science.  This is life. 

I have to use the bathroom, I say, cutting off Sarah in mid-sentence.  She blinks, adjusts her glasses, and says, um.  That same wounded look in her eyes from yesterday lunch time.  Down the hall on your left, just before the foyer. 

I leave the room quickly, fingering the matches in my pocket, trying not to think of Sophie or music or Ben, the agonies of childbirth and fire.  All the myriad ways of being and ceasing to be. 

The bathroom is one of those big communal deals from the seventies, with nothing but cheap plastic curtains hiding each stall.  I slam the door and pull the deadbolt, then go about tearing the curtains off their hooks, crumpling them up into balls and stuffing them into the corrugated metal trashcan by the door.  By my estimations I have about six minutes before the subject wakes, and who knows how long this will take to trigger the fire alarm.  But I know I have to do it.

I snap a match free from the matchbook and hold it in my hands, already planning what to do next.  How I'll have to get Sarah out of the way before I can put the subject back under, or put myself under. 

But just as I move to strike the match, a voice comes from above me.

Mama, it says.  Mama, don’t.  Listen; you’ve got it wrong.

I drop the match, my hands shaking, and then I turn around.

Nobody.  It’s just like the field near the stadium.  You’re never there, I hiss through my teeth.  Never never never.

But then I hear a clank from above me, from inside the ceiling somewhere.  There’s a vent above one of the stalls and I stand on the toilet, gripping the walls of the stall and tilting my head.  Sophie?

Mama, can you hear me?

Yes, I say.  Mouth dry.  That high-pitched humming again, driving out any sort of tone from her voice, but I can still hear her.  I can still hear my Sophie.

Listen, she says.  You were put in here quite deliberately, all of you, and it’s been a very long time.  Longer than it seems.  There are things you’ve forgotten. 

What?  I ask her.  Why?

I can’t explain it now, but you’re fighting the wrong people.  There’s nobody there you can blame for this.  But you can still get out.  You have to get out.  You have to go to—

Go where?  I ask. 

—through.  They’re—



I hammer on the vent and tear it off its hinges, try to clamber up through the hole it leaves, ragged and gaping, in the cheap ceiling tiles.  Sophie, I shout, Sophie!  My voice echoing strangely in the uncovered space.

But there’s nothing else.  She’s gone again.

I drop down into the stall and sit with my head in my hands, ignoring the passage of people outside the door, their occasional knocks and rattles.  Eventually I drop the rest of the matches in the sink and leave, down the now-familiar corridors and through the foyer doors, out into the warmth of the afternoon sun. 

Sarah's voice follows me outside as the door slides closed behind me, but I don't stop, don't turn around.  I just keep going.  I have to get out.

The sun's straining down from the West, thick and orange, and the truck is gone, but otherwise the track looks the same as it did yesterday.  Same overgrown grass.  Same deserted bleachers.  Same gate drawn shut and chained across the entrance-way.  Undergoing maintenance. 

I walk over to the worn-out wooden steps and sit there again, waiting.  For Sarah?  For Sophie?  For whoever “they” are?  I can't say.  For anyone or anything, maybe. 

From somewhere I can hear a trumpet, playing the same ten-note sequence over and over.  Practice, I think.  Another form of filling time.  A way to improve through tiny, endless variations on a theme.  The same thing over and over again without end.

What Sophie said in the bathroom comes back to me: It’s been a very long time.  Longer than it seems.  How her voice seemed deeper than I remembered, more measured and mature.

How long have I been here, then, I wonder.  It seems like only a day, but . . .

Down on the track, a huge black bird alights on the chain-link fence next to the gate, which is closed still and bolted.  A crow, probably, or something related.  It looks at me, its head tilted slightly to one side.  I expect it to caw when it opens its mouth but it doesn't, just wags its beak open and closed, open and closed. 

This was never real, I say.  This is the experiment. 

They put you in here, all of you.

I stand up.  An experiment, or worse. 

A frisson of liquid ice runs through me, though the air is warm.  Fluid in my veins, I think.  Maintenance.  Of course.  The pick-up in the warmth of the late morning sun, endlessly turning.  Piano keys, warped beyond use.  That shadow, falling from nowhere to chill the ground I sat upon. 

How could I ever have thought this was real?

I turn around, facing the soccer field, which is empty as before, and when I face the stadium again, the gate is wide open.  The bird flaps its wings and lifts over the emptiness, dragging itself upwards and out across the darkening campus sky.  A figure is standing in the grass at the center of the track.  Waiting for me. 

I blink three times, then stretch my eyes open as wide as they’ll go; I take the steps two at a time, run down the slope to the stadium so fast I almost stumble.  I shout, I laugh, I throw my arms in the air and babble happy nothings, music building just below my fingertips in that way it does when I am at my best. 

I stop at the edge of the track, still laughing, short of breath, resting my hands on my knees.  Then a bird calls, that same tororil I heard when Sarah showed me out of the lab after that first interview with her and Marquez.

My legs feel rubbery; there’s sweat beading under my arms.  Birdsong and the smell of dirt.  My feet still ache with the solid impact of the ground beneath them as I ran.

I close my eyes, focus on my breathing, on the slow, cool pressure in my lungs and throat.  I replay that moment of awakening, that interview with Sarah and Marquez.  I can see Sarah cleaning her glasses in the cafeteria, hear the hurt in her voice.

This is real, they say.  This is real, and so far as they know they are right.  This world may be a lie, but the others are here, just as I am.

I remember what I thought, watching the man from the English department being tested.  How I’d wished I could reconcile my broken lives and form of them a whole.

And then I know what I have to do.  I can’t leave.  I can’t get out.  Not while Sarah is here.  Nobody is free until everybody is free.  I heard that once, or read it somewhere.  We have to pull the system down to see into the real.

After one last ragged breath, I open my eyes.  Sophie walks towards me, hand outstretched, but I back away.

I’m sorry, I say.  Tears, I feel tears. 

—, Sophie says.  Her voice is white noise. 

I think of air conditioning ducts; the engine of a pick-up droning in ever-widening circles.  Maintenance.

I’m sorry.  I have to stay.  You understand, right?  You’ll be there, waiting for me?


I turn away and walk back towards the campus.  Sarah will hear me, I think.  Sarah will trust me.  I’ll tell her about Sophie, about what she said of the real, and together we can come up with a plan.  We can escape together, hand in hand, and bring the rest tumbling along behind us.

Behind me I can feel Sophie’s presence, a there-ness and this-ness that burns against the back of my neck, demanding my attention, but I can't let myself turn back, can't let myself be free.  I just keep walking, thinking of Sophie, of Sarah, of the tingling beneath my fingertips that foretells the coming of song.

This story originally appeared in Galaxy's Edge.