The Key

“Find the key,” the voice intoned raspily. “Promise me you’ll do it!”

Nolan Ainsling awoke from the dream in a tangled sweat, as usual. “Damn it!” he thought. “Two years on, and I still can’t get rid of her ghost!” He glanced at the ceiling to see the time displayed there. Four in the morning – too early, but he knew he wouldn’t get back to sleep for a while after the dream, and by the time he did, it would be time to get up anyway. Sighing in resignation, he tossed the covers aside and threw his legs over the side of the bed. As he sat up, he yawned and stretched his nightmare-tightened back muscles, then swept his sweat-slicked brown hair back from his forehead. His feet automatically found their slippers on the floor at his bedside, and he stood and shuffled his way to the washroom in the manner of all people rudely awoken at some ungodly hour of the morning.

After going about his morning routine, Nolan stepped into his kitchenette, sporting a terry cloth bathrobe, still dripping from his luxuriously long shower. His coffeemaker, having been alerted by the other appliances in the apartment that Nolan was up and about, had a steaming cup of coffee ready and waiting, and the message indicator on the communications center blinked with voice calls that had been routed through to his mailbox after he’d turned in the night before. As he picked up his coffee, he tapped his ear once with his finger to signal his cochlear implant to start playing the messages. The first was from his older sister, who could never seem to keep the time zone difference straight, wondering about plans for Christmas. Nolan sighed. Once again, he would be far too busy over the holidays to spend much time with family or friends. Maybe he could catch a flight out for a day or two, just to placate the rest of the family. The next couple of messages, which had obviously been forwarded from his work number, were from different people in his department asking questions about how to proceed on certain aspects of the project they were working on. He would deal with those when he got in to work later, but not before. The next call was from his younger brother, who was well aware of the time zone difference, but didn’t care, wondering if he could stay at Nolan’s place when he came through in for a couple of days. Nolan sent a reply through to Drew’s machine, smiling crookedly at the time code that would be attached. After clearing up the last couple of messages, he tapped his Ear again to close down the message center. Finishing his coffee, he turned to the news, by blinking the pattern that would tell his ocular implant to turn on and begin showing the news summaries collected in the night. First, he had his AI scan through for anything related to his work, then when that didn’t turn anything important up, he scanned through manually to find articles that piqued his interest. After an unproductive hour reading the latest news and opinions, Nolan figured it was probably late enough in the morning that he could consider heading in to work without drawing too much attention to himself. Some enterprising co-worker might think he’d had a breakthrough if he headed in too early. It was still earlier than he usually went in, but not the earliest he’d ever been. He grimaced as he remembered the reason he was up so early, and tapped a request for an appointment with his therapist on the floating virtual keyboard his Eye overlaid on his sight. He would get a notification from her calendaring AI when and if his request was accepted, but he would have to wait until more normal hours to find out when he could go. For now, he dressed quickly in comfortable slacks and a button-down t-shirt, and headed out his apartment door.

There were, of course, no other people in the corridor outside his door this early. Many of the people in his apartment complex telecommuted, rarely leaving the perceived safety of their apartments. With on-demand delivery of almost anything, Nolan was sure there were a couple of his neighbours who hadn’t set foot more than once or twice outside their homes since moving in. While he had heard the occasional tale of meetings with muggers, or worse, in the apartment’s concourses, he dismissed them as urban myth, mere rumours designed to justify an insular existence whose only contact with the outside world was regular robotic deliveries and electronic connections.

“What a way to live,” he thought to himself as he made his way to the bank of high speed elevators provided for those tenants who, like him, left their residences on a regular or semi-regular basis. The smart building already had a car waiting for him, door open invitingly. Nolan braced himself as the elevator lurched into motion, picking up speed for its almost ten minute descent from the 356th floor. He appreciated the floor space that having super-tall living quarters made available to anyone with the means, but it meant an interminably long and boring elevator ride to and from the apartment every day, and that was just to get to the base of the tower more than a kilometre below. After that, it was public transit to work, which usually took another half-hour or so, even at the speeds the trains were allowed to travel.

By the time he was letting the retinal scanner outside his office door identify him, it was almost a reasonable time for an early riser to be at work. Nolan sank gratefully into the comfortably worn armchair behind his broad desk and just sat for a minute, appreciating the quiet in the normally bustling office block. Soon enough, reality would impinge on his serene sanctuary and the distractions would abound, but for now, he might be able to get some work done uninterrupted. He connected his desk to his Eye, he launched the project he was leading in its latest incarnation. The 3D representation of the latest calculations floated over the desktop, sent to his Eye by the desk’s link to the project files. He glanced over at the attached files and expanded the shared workspace until it covered the entire surface of his desk, or at least appeared to. Something was amiss in the work, but he couldn’t place what it was. For the last couple of weeks, he’d been chasing down the elusive bug in the calculations, but every time he thought he’d ferreted it out, it would turn out to be nothing. Something somewhere was wrong, and he and his team could not find it. Very soon, Nolan suspected, he was going to be forced to go outside his project group for assistance. Neither he nor his project members wanted to admit defeat, but unless they could nail down the source of the problem, they would have no choice. While the 3d model looked mostly accurate, there was a sense of wrongness to it, as if some vital component had yet to fall into place. Nolan was convinced that an error big enough to interfere with the proper rendering of the calculations should be easy to spot, since it had a macro impact, but so far he’d had no luck.

He puzzled over the calculations while minutes ticked by slowly. He was startled out of his contemplation of the problem before him by a movement seen in the corner of his eye. Glancing up in surprise, he saw one of his co-workers moving quickly past the open door to his office, on the way to her own.

“Morning Rachel,” Nolan called out.

“Good morning Nolan,” she replied, slowing just at the doorway. “Figured it out yet?” the formidable blonde asked him, a teasing smile on her lips. Dr. Rachel Jennings was one of the most brilliant people working for Nolan, and he privately suspected she was even smarter than he was. When the problem had first appeared, she’d bet him that she would be the one to find the bug, and not him. Now every time they worked together, they’d ask the other if each had found the solution. While Nolan was more concerned with someone, anyone, tracking the rogue error down, he certainly wouldn’t mind one-upping the lovely researcher in the process. He was unselfconscious enough to admit that there were probably even odds that Rachel would find and correct the error, given her familiarity with the nitty gritty of the project, and he didn’t really begrudge her that, given the coup it was just to have someone of her calibre working on the project in the first place.

Rachel Jennings came from one of the oldest moneyed families on the east coast. While she could have gone the route of the trust-fund kid, her parents had instilled in her the same kind of work ethic that had made the family successful in the first place. She’d had a leg up on getting in to the best schools, but once enrolled, innate talent and hard work had been what brought her success, not the position her parents held on various boards. Once at the college level, Rachel had applied herself with equal intensity to the study of quantum realities, with a particular emphasis on the interaction of parallel universes. By the time she’d graduated with her PhD in quantum physics, she was well on her way to earning her first patent on a piece of equipment designed to pierce the veil between alternate realities. All of this had brought her to Nolan’s attention, and he’d persuaded the penny-pushers responsible to his department to offer her a position working on his project. Money was never going to be a draw for someone from her kind of family, so he’d banked on the chance the project had of furthering humanity’s understanding of the possibilities lying in wait on the other side of the universe’s boundaries. Rachel had jumped at the chance to work in her chosen field, and if she resented working for someone only marginally more qualified than her, she’d never voiced it. She did, however, enjoy the game of one-upmanship that she and Nolan had developed as part of their working relationship over the past couple of years.

Nolan shook his head out of his woolgathering and answered Rachel, “No nothing yet, but I think I’m getting close!”

“You said that last week,” Rachel laughed melodiously. “And the week before that!”

“That’s because I get closer every day,” he replied, smiling.

She laughed, “Dream on! We’re spinning our wheels, and you know it!” She looked at him earnestly, while leaning on the door frame, “It’s time to bring in a specialist on this, Nolan. We could spend the next few months poring over the calculations and never find some simple mathematical mistake right in front of our noses.”

Nolan sighed and shrugged in agreement. “I know,” he assented, “I was hoping we’d have figured it out on our own by now.”

“I know,” Rachel smiled back knowingly. “The all-powerful wizard doesn’t want to admit defeat.”

“Hah! I only wish I was all-powerful,” Nolan said. “I’d have this licked in no time!”

“True enough.” She paused, “Who would you bring in?”

He looked thoughtful for a second. “I’m not sure,” he responded slowly. “I’ve spent so much time thinking we could take care of the problem I haven’t really considered who else would be capable, and willing.” He shrugged, “Probably someone from Bethany’s department.”

Rachel nodded back at him, “That makes sense – they’re all supposed to be math geniuses.”

Nolan shrugged again. “We’re not exactly slouches in that department ourselves,” he said. “Between me, Daniel, Roland and a couple of the others, we should be able to kick down any problems.”

“What about me?”

“Oh yeah,” Nolan smiled mischievously. “I sort of recall sometime someone said once about you being all right with some basic math stuff.” He trailed off and glanced slyly at her.

“Okay?” She mock-shrieked, “Only ‘okay’?”

“You know you’re the smartest one of us,” Nolan said.

“And don’t you forget it,” Rachel smiled back at him. “Well, I’d better get to my office. I have a couple of things to take care of before morning staff meeting.” With that, she ducked back into the hallway and headed to her own, slightly smaller office three doors down from Nolan’s. He smiled after her fondly. While he’d occasionally considered asking her out, he knew that it would only complicate things around work. “And besides,” he thought to himself, “she’s way out of your league. She’s a scion of a small financial empire, and you’re a nobody from the middle of nowhere.”

That wasn’t entirely accurate, as far as it went, but it was undeniably true that they had very little in common outside of their work on the quantum realities project. The germination of the project had begun some ten years earlier when Nolan was working on his undergrad degree. Scientists and researchers had wondered for years what lay on the other side of the Wheeler boundary (otherwise known as the event horizon of the universe). Ships passed through it daily using the Quantum Tunnelling drive, which pierced a hole in the Wheeler boundary, great engines which pushed a vessel through into another universe, then back out into our own again. And while the ships certainly existed for some time in the other universe, no one had ever been able to measure the interval, or observe the universe into which they travelled. The vessels simply arrived, hours, days or occasionally weeks after they left, but with no time having passed for those aboard. Unmanned probes sent on a delayed timer recorded non-sensical data that wasn’t congruent between trips, or even occasionally on the same trip. Any manned ship that crossed over without immediately returning never came back at all. Scientists weren’t even sure if the ships crossed into the same alternate universe every time, though the math seemed to suggest it wasn’t possible – there were apparently an infinite number of universes of different sizes, where things were closer together or further apart, depending. The course the ship set, plus the strength of the engine, seemed to determine which universe the ship would use to traverse the distance, with the stronger engines pushing the ships into ever-smaller universes in order to reach more distant shores.

Nolan’s idea was to use a modified quantum tunnelling drive to open a hole into another universe, and then to stabilise the hole without the engine disappearing into it for travel. In essence, he’d be starting the engine up, then tying it down to prevent it from going anywhere. The calculations his team had done seemed to indicate that it should be possible, but so far, all the physical modeling they’d done showed flaws in the implementation. Since Nolan and the rest of the team were convinced that their underlying premise was correct, they assumed the error lay in the calculations designed to build the modified engine in the first place. No one wanted anything to go wrong when they finally built the thing and tested it. Rumours had circulated for years within physics circles of some disastrous early tests of a tethered drive, with consequences to the universe into which they’d been tunnelling, and strange manifestations of quantum energy in our own universe.

Nolan’s theory on why no one had ever managed to see the inside of another universe sounded absurd whenever he explained it, but he was certain he was right. Given the sizes of the universe, possibly universes, through which they travelled, and given the volume that the human ships had to occupy to be in both the starting and ending position simultaneously, and the fact that the mass of the ship didn’t change during transit, other than the annihilation of some small pieces of antimatter, he posited that the ships would be as insubstantial as interstellar gas. “There could be,” he would opine whenever a visitor enquired, “thousands, even millions of ships from some larger universe travelling through our own to cut their trips short, and we’d never know because we’d never see them, nor they us. How can you communicate with fog?”, he’d ask rhetorically.

This was one of the fundamental problems that Nolan and his team were trying to overcome. The QT drive had been conceived to travel to and through these much smaller universes, in which Nolan could have no contact with even the matter of that place. One of the modifications they’d made to the drive was for its drive strength to be diminished to the point where it would have no choice but to not seek out a universe through which to travel, but, being weak, to find one roughly equivalent to our own, so that scientists looking through the quantum tunnel might be able to at least see the alternate universe. Regulating the flow of power from an antimatter-matter annihilation to such low levels required a precision fundamentally more precise than current science allowed, so Nolan’s team had to invent an alternate way to power the drive enough to get it through and back, but not enough to lose containment and fail.

It seemed as if each triumph led to a new setback, and to top it all off, every time they modeled the drive in the computer, there was something wrong with the way it worked, or was put together, or looked. While Nolan was discouraged by their early failure (at least in the software models), he was more convinced than ever that his basic premise was sound, and was determined to test it. If only he could nail down whatever it was that was causing the problem in the drive.

After a few more fruitless minutes spent staring at the calculations and model, Nolan realised it was time to get ready for staff meeting. He broke the connection between his Eye and the desk, and headed out the door to the boardroom down the hall. Arriving, he once more admired the long, polished wood table that dominated the center of the room, surrounded by a dozen or so comfortable chairs. The boardroom had been a hard-won concession from his employers. He’d argued that since most of his staff were on-site, a shared workspace would be more valuable than remote telepresence conferences could be. A couple of the more far-flung colleagues might join them for a while during a meeting or brainstorming session, but it was the people in physical proximity to each other that had solved most of the vexing problems that had cropped up over the few years the project had been in action.

“Somehow,” Nolan thought to himself, “there seems to be a gestalt effect when people are working together.” For whatever reason, having people in the same room, working on the same problem, seemed to spur everyone on to be more than they could on their own. This conference room had seen its fair share of breakthroughs for Nolan’s project. This morning, however, it would be the site of a simple update and progress report from the various people involved in the project.

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