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Authors: Colin Sullivan

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“Have you checked behind the filing cabinet?”

“Um, no. Should I?”

“It's probably not worth it. I'm afraid that your destiny has been mapped out in the stars and—”

“That doesn't sound very likely. I checked my stars this morning, and they didn't even mention meeting a stranger, let alone anything about destiny.”

“Please,” the old man said, gruffly. “I've been practising this bit for weeks.” The slightly tinny sound of dramatic orchestral music struck up. “Your destiny has been mapped out in the stars. It falls to you to take the first steps from your universe towards a future of unparalleled knowledge and—” The connection filled with static, the music cut out and the image of the old man distorted and flickered dangerously.

“Oh bugger, we're nearly out of time. Look, the future of science needs you, the last editors have vanished and if we don't manage to stabilize the journal, it will start leaching data from your world. You may have already seen it happen — we're certainly starting to get random Greek letters coming through, which probably fell off some equations in your world.”

“Can't say I'd noticed.”

“Well, the process tends to start with the less-used characters. When was the last time you saw a tau?”

“Tau?”

“Yes, tau. Squiggly bugger. Looks like a little umbrella.”

“Um, not sure…”

“Exactly — no one ever notices them disappearing. Still, the fact remains that unless you take the plunge, your world will rapidly regress to the Stone Age.”

Michael couldn't help but puff up his chest a little. If this wasn't a prank, and he had been chosen, well, it was destiny, right? “What do I have to do?”

“There'll be a bridge somewhere nearby that will link you through to this plane.”

“Will I be able to get back?”

“From time to time, yes — the holiday terms are pretty reasonable. Look, grab the paramunicator and use it to find the portal. It won't be far and it will be looking for you. The portal will make the green light come on. Just step through and you can follow your destiny.”

The image flickered again and the buzzing grew ever louder. With a pop the old man disappeared.

Michael retrieved the device from the pile of bills. All of the lights were off and the humming had stopped.

He walked over to the filing cabinet and peered behind it. Wall stared back at him. He scanned the office for signs of hidden cameras. Drawing a blank, he opened the door and poked his head into the corridor. All was quiet.

He turned back to the office in time to see the waste-paper basket begin to rock of its own accord. Nervously, Michael edged towards it. The paramunicator buzzed and the green light came on. The plastic bin wobbled back and forth, bumping against the desk as it did so. Michael gingerly reached out his hand and felt a slight tug towards the gaping mouth of the bin. Instinctively, he pulled back, but like a sniffer dog, the bin seemed to have caught his scent. The paramunicator buzzed again.

“That's it,” the now-familiar voice of the old man returned, albeit quieter — as if he was stuck at the bottom of a well.

Michael reached out his hand again. He began to feel a cool wind around him, a mini hurricane with the bin at the eye of the storm. His hand touched the rim of the bin and he immediately felt as if someone had grabbed his arm. Someone with an iron grip. Michael pitched forward, his head disappearing into the bin. With a loud sucking noise he was pulled across the pandimensional bridge. For a moment his feet poked out from the top of the bin and then, with a satisfying
thwock
, they were gone.

The bin stopped rocking.

As the wind died down, a few faint words drifted across the pandimensional bridge. “Hang on. Did he say
Michael
Trye? Oh bugger, we were supposed to go to the
third
brane on the left.”

In the empty office, a bill for three bottles of cheap red wine gently floated back to the pile from which it had been dislodged by the storm. As it drifted down, it passed the sign on the door.
Michael Trye. Handyman, gardener and science-fiction editor. No manuscripts refused.

II

In events not dissimilar to those described above, the baton of editorship for the award-winning Futures column in
Nature
was passed from the founder, Henry Gee, to me in 2012. The actual ceremony didn't involve me sticking my head in a bin (despite what Henry insisted), but the bits about entropic piles of paper (and cheap bottles of red wine) bear more than a passing resemblance to the truth.

Since its original inception back in 1999, Futures has published more than 500 short stories in both
Nature
and
Nature Physics
. So popular did it prove that an anthology of 100 stories was released back in 2008 in the then highly fashionable ‘dead tree' format. Towards the end of 2013, that paper version was brought up to date and converted into the electron-driven ebook format. Around that time, we realized that it was about time we pulled together a new anthology — and so, here we are. Another 100 stories drawn from the pages of the world's leading science journals.

This project would not have been possible without the ongoing support for Futures from
Nature
editor-in-chief Philip Campbell and
Nature Physics
editor Alison Wright, who revived the column's presence in her journal at the start of this year. This ebook would have struggled to get off the ground without the support of our publisher, Sarah Greaves, and the cover would have been nothing without the contribution of Futures' long-term — and long-suffering — artist Jacey. More than anything, I need to thank Henry Gee for letting me take control of one of the most exciting and genuinely enjoyable jobs publishing has to offer. Last but not least, I need to thank my much-missed former manager Maxine Clarke, who graciously agreed to me expanding my role to take on Futures — and it is to her memory that I would like to dedicate this new collection. Without her advice and support over the years, I wouldn't be here and neither would this book.

A Pocket Full of Phlogiston

S. R. Algernon

Dmitri's ship hovered above the Moon, its impetus spent. Like attracts like — as Aristotle once said — so lunar quintessence exerted no pull on his iron ship, so he hovered. Dmitri did not miss gravity, but the stillness of the aether worried him. If his engines failed, the Lunar Sphere contained no external force to nudge him Earthward.

More than anything, except for Svetlana and little Sasha, he missed momentum. Once, his own passion had driven him, but now he worked off his indenture to the Astrologer.

Dmitri missed the Moon, too — not the defaced cue-ball in his viewscreen but the cratered one that had entranced Svetlana when they had lain on the grass and watched the night sky. He reached out with withered hands and activated the harvester. He winced. Sympathetic pain shot through the scarred skin of his palms and fingertips as the device carved another scar into the lunar surface.

The words of the Astrologer echoed in the back of his mind.

“Your world is nothing but ash. You work for me now.”

*   *   *

“Who will notice?” the Astrologer had asked, a few days before launch, when Dmitri had questioned the wisdom of mining the Celestial Spheres. “The gods and titans quarried the Moon long ago. Why not us?”

Why not?

Dmitri wished he had asked himself that question. Back home, he had built a bridge between realities and revived — or perhaps discovered — an ancient physics, steeped in sulphur and mercury. He had buried himself in dusty tomes and sifted through esoteric recipes until he had put the old sages to shame. In that final moment, he had held the philosopher's stone in his hands. An instant later it had burst into flames, and even then it had not occurred to him to ask … why not?

A charred photograph, nailed to the hylomorphic scanner's display panel, now served as a reminder. Svetlana and Sasha were black silhouettes against grey. The edges had crumbled. The shape of Svetlana's hair and the curve of her shoulders gave him enough detail to complete the image in his mind.

The picture had been in Dmitri's wallet when the Astrologer had found him — dazed and smouldering — on an electrum launch pad. The Astrologer had appropriated Dmitri's wedding ring — gold is gold in any reality — and tossed the picture of Svetlana and Sasha onto the dirt along with Dmitri's melted stack of credit cards.

“I don't work for you,” muttered Dmitri as he gunned the caloric engines and set a course for the Sun. “I work for them.”

*   *   *

The Astrologer had no need for the Moon's quintessence, and was not fool enough to try to bring it down from the heavens. He believed, however, that the Sun burned with elemental fire. Harvested quintessence would shield Dmitri against the Sun's fury long enough to carve out a piece of that fire and bring it back to Earth.

Dmitri tacked into the solar wind. The hylomorphic scanners picked up caloric shot through with plumes of phlogiston.

Phlogiston. Quencher of fire. Dmitri welcomed it like an old friend. Back on Earth, ladies were eager for phlogisticated skin creams. Firefighters waited to replenish their stocks of the miracle weapon. With a cargo hold full of phlogiston, the Astrologer would go easy on Dmitri for a few weeks until the profits tapered off. Dmitri hoped it would be long enough for him to rebuild the bridge and go home.

Dmitri aimed for a plume and covered his nose and mouth with a filter that protected his lungs from phlogiston-befouled air while allowing him to exhale the phlogiston that built up in his lungs.

Dmitri missed breathing oxygen, even though phlogiston metabolism was more convenient for space travel. Oxygen burned. Sometimes it exploded. Phlogiston smothered and choked. It exuded from places where energy had once been.

Working by rote, Dmitri opened a hatch behind the cockpit and connected it to a long rubber hose. Phlogiston flowed through. At the other end of the hose, a compressor turned it into a solid brick. Dmitri carried each new brick to the back of the ship and stacked it with the others.

Phlogiston vapours flowed over Dmitri's skin, easing the pain of his burns. He wished he could force the phlogiston back into the scar tissue until the scars reverted to their original state, but phlogiston snuffed out cellular metabolism as easily as it extinguished fires. Dmitri would need a healer for that sort of therapy, and the Astrologer would keep him from seeing one, out of spite.

Dmitri had nearly filled the cargo hold before he hit upon an idea. He placed the picture face up on the floor of the compression chamber and shut the door. At the end of the compression cycle, he removed the brick and peeled the photo from its underside.

The edges of the picture were incomplete, seemingly melted, where the ash had crumbled away. Aside from that, no traces of fire remained. Ashen specks — now rephlogisticated — had become yellow, magenta, cyan; the colour of flushed cheeks; and hair in winter sunlight. Dmitri no longer strained to remember Svetlana's face.

The brick slipped from Dmitri's hand. Phlogiston poured from his lungs as he gasped for breath.
So many details,
he thought.
How could I have forgotten?

The caloric engines sputtered. Solar fire imparted its impetus to Dmitri's ship, pushing it past the Venusian, Mercurial and Lunar Spheres.

Earth attracts earth.
Dmitri gained speed.
Malice attracts malice
, as the Astrologer would discover soon enough.
Passion attracts passion
. Dmitri looked down at the picture and thought of home.

Dmitri savoured the feeling of movement.

It felt like momentum.

S. R. Algernon studied fiction writing and biology, among other things, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He currently lives in Singapore.

The Chair

Madeline Ashby

The physicist sleeps, systems well within the parameters of a safe and known history. His chair eels from system to system, checks the house one last time. First the simple signals from chips embedded in the watches and documents of sleeping assistants: no more than homing pigeons, endlessly chirping location and temperature. Then the active surveillance, staring inward, staring outward, sifting vast rich deserts of manufactured information: the minutiae of lived history, the spontaneous soliloquies and contagious choreography of their little doll's house. The chair listens for whispers in the ether, for suspicion masquerading as concern, for little sparks of realization that might start larger, more dangerous fires. Hearing none, it moves on.

The bathroom. The toilet whines: ketone and oestrogen levels of the day's users, medical flowcharts of drugs and dosage, the most recent ex-wife's ovulation schedule. The chair had liked the most recent ex-wife: so fixated on the politics of accessibility that she'd signed over unprecedented amounts of control, convinced that the illusion of autonomy could somehow compensate for the frailty of her husband's dying flesh. She'd left when her particular vein of interest dried up: when the bone marrow proved unviable, and there could be no baby. The chair had encouraged her, spoken for its passenger as it always did —
You have given me so much, darling, more than you can ever know
— and if she ever knew the difference, she was far past caring.

The drains report blood and saliva in the catch-traps, impoverished keratins shaved from drooping skin. Despite the chair's best efforts, the physicist's illness marches on.

The kitchen, now. The refrigerator bellows statistics on volatile antibiotics before cataloguing and dating the samples in the special drawer. The dishwasher reports on the sterility of dishes and flatware, then asks permission to download a recommended patch. (The chair grants it, if only for the sake of routine; tomorrow a mere shadow of itself will perform these tasks.) By the time the dishwasher reports success, the chair has already shifted its attention to the security system.

BOOK: Nature Futures 2
13.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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