Through the Looking Glass
Through the Looking Glass
by Ken Wharton
© Copyright 1997, All Rights Reserved
Capt. Edward Simms slowly made his way up Silo #1, waving to the throng of cameramen, reporters, scientists, officers and politicians who watched from below. The next John Glenn, they were already calling him. Ed knew he didn't deserve that sort of praise... yet. The real test would be the next ten minutes of his life.
One hundred and ninety more steps and he reached the top, his helmet still securely under his arm. The crowd was animated but silent, as if they feared the sound of their voices might ruin the whole experiment. Ed's gaze panned over to Silo #2, an identical structure only twenty meters away. Twenty meters, twenty microns, Ed thought to himself. It might as well have been on the far side of the moon.
And one day it probably would be, he knew. If all went well...
The techs were beside him, then, helping to fasten the helmet and run the diagnostic checks. There was no turning back now. Ed gave one final wave to the crowd, picking out Hannah near the front. For the last week she had claimed to be more worried about the landing than the jump, but Ed knew she was lying. Still, the landing was something to focus on, something to keep him from getting nervous.
Quickly he scoured the room for Mr. Snickers, and found the little guy in his cage on the back wall. The black-footed ferret was the only one who knew exactly what it was going to feel like. And even so, Mr. Snickers wasn't talking. Ed caught a glimpse of his beady little eyes, and then turned to face the airlock door. The ferret had survived, he told himself as he stepped inside. The ferret had survived.
Inside the airlock at the top of Silo #1, he mechanically ran through the final tests. Everything checked out. Exactly one minute after he entered, the roughing pumps engaged. He could feel the vibrations shake the frame, but the faint humming sound faded away as the airlock was evacuated. Then came the turbos, then the cryos, and finally the pressure was low enough to open the floor. Ed sat on the edge of the hole, watching while the center disk moved silently aside to reveal a faint orange light below.
This is it, he thought. He swung his legs into the hole, finding the foot-latches by feel. They snapped onto his boots. "Trigger lasers ready?" Ed said into the suit microphone.
"Trigger lasers ready," came the response.
Ed smiled. It was Frank's voice. They had let him run the show after all. Ed almost said hello, but stopped himself at the last instant. Too many people were listening. "Antiproton traps filled?" he said instead.
"Antiproton traps filled and holding."
Ed took a deep breath. "Extend the bridge."
A metal plank with two handholds emerged from the far side of the hole, extending towards him horizontally. When it arrived on his side he grabbed hold, and his suit's knuckles snapped firmly into place.
"Unlock foot-latches," Ed intoned.
Ed could feel that his feet were now free to dip forward. "Retract the bridge."
A pause, and then the plank started to pull him across the hole, straightening out his body. His toes rotated downward, his muscles tensed, and the next thing he knew he was dangling, spread-eagle, over a 100-foot drop. He tried to focus on the nets and padding at the bottom.
"Ready for countdown, Frank." Whoops. Ed had spoken the project leader's name out loud. Hopefully the history books would forgive the lapse in protocol.
"Copy that. Beginning countdown." Ed held tight. The whole countdown bit was a useless formality, he knew. The laser triggers below him would time the primary discharge to a microsecond, no matter when he jumped. It just looked better this way, they had explained. More like a rocket launch.
"Five," said the voice, and Ed's heart caught in his throat. He had assumed they would start from ten. Five less seconds to mentally prepare.
Ed tensed his arms and legs, lifting his torso upwards to make his body as flat as possible. He didn't want to finish this thing with any missing limbs.
Ed never heard the final digit. All he knew was that he was falling. He still clutched the handholds, but they were no longer attached to anything else. The four latches had released at the same instant, and he was in perfect free fall, without even the occasional air molecule to slow him down.
The ring that marked the halfway point was approaching fast. Ed knew he just had to speak, to say anything at all, and the experiment would abort. He'd fall naturally all the way to the bottom, ready to try it all over again. But everything felt right this time; his body was straight as a board, his trajectory seemed to be near-vertical, his fully-extended arms came nowhere near the silo wall. He was ready to jump.
A faint red flash signified that he had passed the trigger lasers. He knew the machine would fire in another 500 milliseconds...
But nothing happened. And the bottom of the silo was approaching fast. "Damn," he muttered, already hitting the first net. He easily broke through he tenuous fabric, barely slowing him at all, but the next net felt more substantial. After breaking through four more, with an stronger jerk each time, he hit bottom, faceplanting into the foam.
What went wrong? he wondered, even as he bounced into the air for a second landing. Concentrating on his form, he managed to get to his feet after another tumble, and soon was able to make his way to the exit. He ripped the padding away from the airlock door, started for the handle, and then stopped in shock. The roman numeral II was emblazoned above the door. He was at the bottom of Silo #2. He had made the jump after all.
"We did it!" he shouted into his radio. "Frank, you hear me?"
"Copy that," same the response, even as Ed was forcing his way into the airlock. "We register a successful jump. Your vitals look normal. How do you feel?"
"I feel great!" He slammed shut the inner door behind him. "Vent this baby and let me out of here."
For the minute it took to come up to air, Ed could hardly contain his anticipation. He had done it. He had been the first human to be teleported across a room. He felt dizzy with excitement; even this familiar airlock seemed new to him somehow.
Finally the green light blinked, the outer door opened, and Ed stepped outside. The flashes were blinding, the crowd barely held back by uniformed naval officers. He knew his suit was being scanned by hundreds of IR lasers, capturing the moment in perfect 3D. Ed twisted off his helmet, beamed at the crowd, and a cheer went up.
"Houdini!" he yelled above the din. "Eat your heart out!"
Now the cheers were louder, accompanied with applause. Ed noticed with amusement that some people were so excited they were holding their "Ed Simms, World Hero" banners up backwards.
Suddenly everyone was converging on him. Hannah was there, planting a big kiss on his lips. A medic grabbed his helmet away from him, someone else ripped the radiation counters off the outside of his suit. Even Frank had come down from the control booth, an open bottle of champagne in his hand. Ed watched with a smile as Frank took a swig straight out of the bottle, then shook it up and sprayed him and Hannah with foam. Hannah let out a happy shriek and dodged aside. Ed grabbed the bottle, wrestled it away from Frank, and then took a swig himself.
It tasted like a mixture of battery acid and lemon juice. Instantly he spat it out to one side. "Frank!" he yelled. "You trying to poison me?"
The project leader shook his head, confused, then grabbed the bottle back and had another swig himself. "This is good stuff!" he yelled back. Ed just rolled his eyes.
The children converged on him next. All part of the 'planned spontaneity', Ed knew. Each of them clutched a little autograph pad and a pen. Ed crouched down to their level, shaking hands, smiling, signing his name. He made sure to put the date underneath his signature, knowing it would raise the value tremendously. Most of the kids left quickly, though, once they got what they came for. Frank glanced up to see a few nine-year-olds studying their prizes with baffled looks on their faces.
"I didn't know you were left handed!" Frank shouted at him.
What was with Frank today? he wondered. Ed looked down at the pen in his right hand, waved it at the project leader. "I'm not!" He turned back to the kids, pausing occasionally to give a thumbs-up to the rest of the still-cheering crowd.
Suddenly Hannah was there, kneeling down next to him. "What's with the signature, Ed?" she asked. I don't think the kids think it's funny."
"All this backwards stuff." She pointed at the pad he was currently writing on. "And the numbers, too. How can you even do that?"
Ed looked at her, then looked at the pad. His signature was completely normal, the way he had signed it for thirty-odd years. "Backwards? What are you talking about?"
Backwards. Something about that word struck a chord in the back of his head. Backwards? He stood up, really looking around the large bay for the first time. Things were backwards. The stairs in the back, the position of the crowd... He turned behind him to look at the silos, and his heart fell. He had come out of the wrong silo after all. Why was everyone celebrating? After all, Silo #2 still stood over to his left.
Only... His mind spun as he looked up at the large sign, placed there yesterday for the benefit of the public. It didn't say Silo #2. It said "1# oliS". Mirror imaged.
Ed spun around, quickly realizing the full scope of his situation. He had jumped all right, but into a world where everything was backwards. The signs, the silos, the entire bay. The furor was still going on around him, but he no longer felt like celebrating. Something had gone wrong after all.
"Ed? Ed are you all right?" It was Hannah's voice. He didn't respond, still turning around and taking in the scene. "Frank, get someone over here, now!"
The crowd started to quiet as they realized Ed was acting strangely. Soon a pair of medics rushed over with a stretcher. Ed sat down on it, not knowing what else to do. "Hannah?" he said, grabbing her hand. "You're all backwards. I don't understand..."
"Coming through! Coming through!" yelled Frank, and then Ed was being ferried off to the waiting ambulance. He clenched Hannah's hand tightly as she ran along with the stretcher.
"What's wrong dear, what's wrong?" she kept asking, almost panicked.
What waswrong? Ed wondered if it even mattered. So things were a little backwards. They still were going to turn out all right. He smiled up at Hannah, and she smiled back, her eyes filling with tears. "I'll be okay," he managed. "I'll be okay."
"Just one more," urged the gray-haired psychiatrist. "Tell me what you see."
"You know very well what I see," snapped Ed. "It's all the goddamn opposite of what you see. I'm not doing any more of these stupid tests." He looked over at Frank, sitting patiently against the wall. "Frank? I want to know what the hell happened to everything."
"It's not everything," Frank said calmly. "It's just you."
Ed looked up to see Dr. Samuelson entering the room, a folder in his hand. "Well?" Ed asked.
The doctor nodded. "It's a complete reversal. Heart, major organs, all flipped. Even the PET showed your language centers are now in your right brain. And what's more--"
"Frank? What did you do to me?"
Frank sighed. "I don't know, Ed. I mean..." He stood up, paced toward the door and back. "I can tell you there are three fundamental symmetries in the universe, Ed. The laws of physics are CPT symmetric. C, that's charge; symmetry between matter and antimatter. T is time. Forward in time, backwards in time. And then there's P. That's what apparently happened to you. Your parity has been flipped. You came out as a mirror image of yourself. Must have been some topological twist in the teleporter. I don't really understand, though. No one predicted it. The theorists are already--"
Ed shook his head, cutting him off. "Wait a sec. If the rest of the world is exactly as it was, and I'm still working normally, then why can't I see things the way you do? The light coming into my eyes is the same for me as you.
"Your brain must be processing the image differently," said the gray-haired man from across the table.
Frank nodded. "That's right. You still get the same image on the back of your retina, but your brain thinks that right is left and left is right, so you see things backwards."
Ed nodded, then smiled at Hannah, still quietly sitting in the corner. "But I should be okay, right? I'm not hurt. I'm just processing everything differently." He tried to think through the consequences. "Frank, you said it was six months until we could get enough antiprotons to teleport again. So until then I'll have to learn to read differently, and type on a new kind of keyboard, but I'll be okay. Right doc? As long as I don't need a transplant, of course."
Doctor Samuelson just frowned. "I'm afraid it's more complicated than that."
Ed didn't like the look on his face. "What do you mean?"
The doctor exhaled sharply, then looked up at the ceiling. "It's not just your brain that's processing things differently," he said at last. It's your whole body.
"Right," said Ed. "My heart's on the wrong side, but--"
"No, Ed. On a more basic level. Your cells. Your DNA."
"My--" He looked down at his hand. "I don't get you. How do my cells--?"
"There are twenty amino acids that our bodies use," the doctor broke in. "Nineteen of them are chiral. That means they have a different mirror image molecule. Sugars are chiral, too. And nucleic acids."
Ed stared at the man, thinking about the champagne. "Sugars are backwards? So food will taste differently?"
"Yes, taste receptors are chiral as well. But the real point is that food isn't really food anymore. From now on, your body won't be able to use most of what you eat. As far as you're now concerned, there's no food anywhere on Earth."
Ed didn't respond for a long time. He locked eyes with Hannah, Frank, and then Hannah again. Six months, was all he could think. I have to make it for six months. "Water?" he asked at last.
"Water's fine," said the doctor.
"And we can't make... mirror food? In a lab or something?"
The doctor shrugged. "You mean, make enough for you to live on, inorganically? I know we can make most amino acids from scratch, but..." He scratched his beard, looking upwards again. "Maybe. Maybe there's enough worldwide facilities to keep you fed. But mirror-image nucleotides would be even tougher than amino acids. Your body might not be able to repair itself." He shook his head again. "Carbos might nourish you somewhat, but there's no way to make any fats. You probably won't last four months."
Ed swung his gaze over to Frank. "Then we need to speed up the antiproton production. What can we do?"
Frank was already deep in thought. "CERN," he said at last. "They're trying to do this, too. They have plenty of antiprotons, but their experiment isn't working yet."
Hannah perked up. "Then we can buy them! We can ship them over here..."
Ed shook his head. "But we don't know how to ship antimatter overseas, not in those quanitities. That's why we built our experiment so close to Fermilab. Transport difficulties."
"Yes," said Frank. "But we can go to them. Bring our equipment. Help convert their facilities. Now that we know what we're doing, we might be able to rebuild the experiment in a month or two."
A grin spread across Ed's face. "Can you keep me alive that long, doc?"
The man nodded. "Over a month, I think, even without any food at all. What's your body fat percentage?"
"Five," responded Ed, a wince on his face. "Shouldn't have stayed in such good shape, I guess. Or at least stuffed some candy bars in my spacesuit." The doctor just nodded.
"I hope it works," Frank muttered. "We'll still only have enough antimatter for one shot. And..."
"And what?" asked Hannah.
"Ed, you have to understand it still might not work. Mr. Snickers..."
Ed gulped. "That's right. Mr. Snickers wasn't flipped."
Frank shook his head. "It might be a chaotic topology. We'll go back and check the inanimate objects we sent through, but as far as I can remember most of them were symmetric to begin with. It might be tough to tell if they were flipped or not."
Ed massaged his forehead, wondering what his chances were. "Regardless, though. We have to try."
"Of course," said Frank.
Ed made eye contact with Hannah. She looked like she was about to lose it. Ed tried to keep his composure, tried to think of something else. "Too bad Mr. Snickers is okay," Ed said at last, attempting a smile. "Otherwise I could have had one more dinner."
The intensity of the public response was more that Ed could have possibly imagined. Sometimes it seemed the whole world was pitching in, just to save his life. Frank said that the donation money far outstripped any possible expenses they might have, and was thinking of re-donating it to some of the bio labs. Those labs were redirecting entire research budgets just so Ed might be able to have a few tiny pellets for dinner. Ed thought it was a great idea; as tasteless as those pellets were, they were infinitely better than the shakes that the biochemists reconstituted from his own waste. Not that they tasted particularly terrible; he just couldn't put their origin out of his mind.
One week he got a special treat: two entire plates of mush, supposedly extracted from the organic components of his spacesuit. In hindsight Ed remembered that some of the lightweight suit had been constructed from organic membranes and polymers. Apparently someone thought it would be worth it for him to eat. And it turned out not to be such a bad idea; for the three days following the mush, he hardly felt tired at all.
Most of his food, though, was the regular stuff. He ate both to get carbohydrates and to keep himself from being hungry, although his sense of taste had changed radically. He learned the discovery of taste as a chiral mechanism had been relatively recent, barely pre-Mil. Some group back in the 1980's had decided the perfect artificial sweetener would be zero-calorie mirror-image sugar, and they sank a lot of money trying to produce it. Eventually they made a tasteable amount and discovered it was wasn't very sweet after all.
But raw horseradish... Now that was good stuff, Ed discovered. And brussels sprouts suddenly had transformed from his least favorite food into candy balls. He spent much of his first two weeks simply tasting foods, Hannah helping him chop vegetables and mix spices. The rest of his time was spent in interviews, tests, public appearances, and various strategy meetings with Frank. And all the while, the documentary crews were hovering like vultures, buzzing everywhere he went so they could stock up on precious footage.
Politicians wanted in on the attention, of course. Resolutions were passed, money allocated, all by unanimous votes. Mostly, though, it was all meaningless PR. True, the president himself had offered to fly Ed and Hannah to Europe on Air Force One, but apart from that it just seemed like a lot of talk.
Frank assured him all was going well. Everything but the silos had been shipped to Europe already, and CERN had approximately duplicate structures they could use. Most of the project team was there already, and France and Switzerland were both cooperating, using round-the-clock shifts to get the work done in time. Nobody had ever worked under this sort of a deadline before, but there were no complaints. Everyone knew what was at stake.
Still, Ed knew the stake was slowly wasting away. They wouldn't let him exercise, always stressing calorie conservation, and he had lost most of his muscle mass in six short weeks. Even if he did start exercising, the doctors told him his body wouldn't be able to repair itself properly with his nucleic acid deficiency. Ed could tell in their eyes that was going to be a close race.
Hannah helped the doctors take care of him, but she, for one, refused to act as if this might be their last few weeks together. She was always optimistic, always talked about how one day they'd look back on this and laugh. She'd joke about how they'd always wanted to go to Europe, how at least they didn't have to worry about birth control, and somehow managed to keep Ed from feeling sorry for himself. He was a national hero, Hannah reminded him. And national heroes were supposed to tackle adversity with a smile.
Ed did his best to take her advice. But while his outward optimism may have been inspiring people all over the world, deep down he couldn't forget that his body was slowly eating itself to death. One way or another, it would all be over soon.
The big day finally arrived.
No press this time, Frank had decided. Just the necessary scientists, technicians, and a few of Ed's family and friends. Of course, Ed had a lot of "friends" these days, the president and several European leaders among them.
As the small group watched, Hannah pushed Ed's wheelchair into the old CERN hangar. Some of them hadn't seen him lately, and caught their breath at the sight. In nine weeks Ed had managed to lose 65 pounds, and the weight loss was only accelerating. Anyone could see that he wouldn't last much longer. The doctors had real concerns that even if the teleporter worked, his weak frame might collapse from landing at the bottom of the silo.
But Ed wasn't worried about the landing. If he made it that far, flipped back to his old parity, he felt he could handle anything. He was more worried about the drop itself. His body was clearly too weak to use the original technique; he couldn't hold his body straight in freefall, let alone hang there before the drop. Instead they had designed a stiff spacesuit and a new release mechanism. Someone would have to come into the airlock to help him, but it would have to work.
And now that someone was walking right toward his chair, suited up and ready to go. "Frank?" Ed couldn't believe it. "You're coming in with me?"
The project leader smiled. "You think I'd trust anyone else?"
"I'm glad." Ed craned his thin neck to look around the hangar. Two silos stood side by side, just like back in the states. "You didn't put any nets at the bottom of number one, I hope."
"Don't be silly, Ed," said Hannah from behind. "Even if you abort, we can still try again."
Ed nodded. "So where's my suit?"
Frank motioned toward the platform by the top of the silo. "It's all up there. We even have an elevator for you, this time."
"And I thought you were going to carry me."
"I am," said Frank. "Into the airlock."
After a series of little coughs, Ed nodded. "Let's do it then. Hannah?"
"I'm not saying goodbye, Ed," she said. "See you in a few minutes. Either way."
"Hope I'll be the right way. I love you."
Hannah gave him a kiss on the forehead, then turned away. Frank took the chair and wheeled Ed into the elevator, pushing the button to send him to the top.
After the short ride, a pair of techs helped him off and started the preparations. Ed was most of the way into his suit by the time Frank got up the stairs. "This thing is ridiculous," Ed commented. "More of a straightjacket than a suit."
"Yeah," said one of the techs. "The bad part will be when you bounce around at the bottom."
"Well, a broken arm is the last thing I'm worried about." Ed looked up at Frank. "How am I going to know if I flip or not? Any words to read down there?"
The spacesuited project leader just shook his head. "Don't worry about it, Ed. At that point, just assume it worked and try to land the best you can."
A few minutes later, Frank and the others helped carry him into the airlock on a stretcher. The only obvious new piece of equipment was a structure dangling from the ceiling; it looked like some sort of device for patients in traction. The techs proceeded to lower it, attach it to his suit, and raise it back up again. Once he was dangling above the still-closed floor shutter, the techs locked the two of them inside.
"No dress rehearsal this time?" joked Ed over the radio.
"Actually we had one," replied Frank, "Jean-Pierre stood in for you. He landed okay. A bit bruised, I mean, but nothing broken."
"Jean-Pierre's probably in better shape to start with, though."
A new voice came over the radio. "Ready to pump down, guys?"
"Roger that," said Frank.
"Roger that," managed Ed.
The usual routine followed, and soon enough Ed was staring straight down the 100-foot drop. Frank squeezed a final handshake, apparently not able to find the right words. He manually lowered Ed until he was just level with the floor.
Ed heard Frank's voice over the radio. "See you through the looking glass, Ed."
"Same to you."
The countdown had begun, Ed belatedly realized. Still, there was nothing to do but wait.
"Two. One. Zero."
Down he fell. Was everything happening slower this time, Ed wondered? Or maybe all of his senses had somehow sped up. Ages seemed to go by before the laser flash, and a bit later he knew he was through. Certainly he was past the halfway point. Whether or not anything had happened...
He tensed his body as the first net approached. It probably wouldn't slow him down much, but--
A bright flash, and the sensation that his body was thrown upward by the impact. But the first net was just supposed to be a flimsy web, he knew. And where did that flash come from?
The next one was even worse, and the flash was brighter too. Why the massive impacts? The last one felt like it had almost stopped him completely. It was as if he was inducing explosions--
The answer to his questions hit him almost as hard as the blasts. The game was up. Ed didn't know if the teleporter topology was P-symmetric or not, but he knew with an instant certainty that this time C-symmetry was involved. He had come through as antimatter.
Before he landed, Ed wondered how much of Europe he'd take out with him.
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