One more day. Just one more day, and I’ll be out of here.
Lisa stepped into the relative warmth of the entry room and shed her jacket. SueAnn called out to her, “New one just in. Your turn.”
One more day. Let this be the last!
Lisa acknowledged with a nod and reached up, almost out of habit, and pushed the happy button on the side of her head.
HAP-py. HAP-py. I could do this forever!
Lisa entered the search cubicle. The prisoner was a big, sweaty, sneering woman, and none too clean.
Happy. Happy. Happy? Hap? Too soon, too soon, why is the high getting shorter every time I do it?
Lisa strip-searched the prisoner and handed her a grey prison uniform. She left the search cubicle already forgetting her.
SueAnn, blonde and owlish, leaned over the white-painted metal counter and blinked her ice-blue eyes. “So. You decided what you’re going to do yet?”
“No.” Lisa poured herself a cup of Instant Wakeup. It steamed, proof against the lingering cold of Lisa’s daily trudge from the guard barracks, through the bitter wind, past the hump of snow by the crevasse that the guards told newbies was an abandoned igloo, and which was really snow-plough droppings.
“Same old story, huh?” Asked SueAnn. “You had enough credits accumulated two blocks ago for a very nice set-up.”
“I know. But this time I’m really getting out. I’ve been here too long.”
“Same here. Well, I better be on about business.” SueAnn put on her outside jacket and said, “Bundle me up in a rabbit skin.” SueAnn always said that. It was a private joke between SueAnn and SueAnn.
SueAnn read a list of empty bunks on a clipboard, said, “Hut 16,” and prodded the new prisoner outside.
Lisa sat down and watched the monitors, or pretended to watch the monitors. There was never anything on them but snow. The kind that fell from the sky and got all over everything.
SueAnn came back in, stamping her feet and rubbing her nose. Fresh snow crystals gleaming on her parka fell wetly to the floor as she hung up her guard jacket next to Lisa’s.
Lisa announced, “I’ve got it narrowed down to two. The problem is, they’re so dissimilar, I can’t decide.”
“Same old story, cupcake. You want to be an artist, or a whatever. What’s the whatever this time?”
Lisa sighed. “You know, I made an artwork once. Without official approval, I just went out in the woods and gathered some staining berries and painted a rock.”
SueAnn shook her head. “So go be an artist. You’re always talking about it. You’ve got enough credits.”
“I know. But something always holds me back. I want to rent an occupation this time that’s really wildly intellectual.”
Lisa looked at her reflection in the glass of the security monitor screen. She still had the vague outlines of a pretty woman. In the imperfect reflecting medium, she couldn’t see the cracks at the corners of her chapped lips.
“I’ve got enough credits to rent Theoretical Mathematician for one block and still have enough left over for one of the middle occupations.”
“So do it. I’m tired of seeing you come back here block after block looking sorry for yourself. You need a change.”
“Yeah,” Lisa sighed.
The next day, Lisa checked into a hotel in the city of Bay Valley. She took a really hot shower. Through her implant, she scrolled through the menu of post-shower scent treatments, and selected Wild Roses in the Woods. The perfumes, carried on a puff of pure oxygen, filled the narrow shower stall as Lisa turned for the dry cycle, running her hands through her hair and lifting her arms for the hot air jets.
Lisa made sure the mass of buttons, plugs, inlets, outlets, lights, and black squares of indeterminate use that lived on her right temple were completely dry, although all implants were rated waterproof. Then she got out of the stall and dressed in a perky red and yellow floral print, the opposite of her dull guard uniform.
The day was hazy, partly cloudy, with a chance of rain by mid-afternoon, according to the news feed on her implant. The first day after coming back to a city after the prison outpost always surprised her with the level of automated info coming through her implants all the time. She knew she would get used to it again in a couple of days, though.
The Bay Valley library did not contain books, nor did it contain the electronic equivalent of books. Those she could get through her implant. The library contained things that could not, by government mandate, be copied or sold: occupation disks. Lisa stood for a long time in the preview area, weighing on the one hand, Artist, official this time, with a government-provided studio, government-provided materials, perhaps even a few government-provided assistants, able to exhibit her work in government-provided galleries, and on the other hand, Theoretical Mathematician, an occupation so far beyond her experience she could barely imagine what kind of work space one might need.
What does a Theoretical Mathematician do, anyway? Invent new imaginary numbers?
Her curiosity won out. She selected the Theoretical Mathematician disk and went into a reading slot. She backed into the slot and put the disk in the appropriate place on the wall, and plugged herself into the library with the port next to her happy button. The library computer identified her and confirmed that she had accumulated enough credits from taking blocks in the very undesirable occupation of prison guard to take one block in a very desirable plus one in a middle; or six in a middle; or twelve in a lower-middle; or forty-eight in a lower. She did not have enough credits for an extremely desirable occupation, like movie star. The library confirmed that the one she had selected was designated very desirable.
The library computer began its sequence. First came the ordinary information: where her house would be, how to get there, what kinds of services and assistance would be available to her, the names and contact information of other Theoretical Mathematicians, etc. Then the occupational skills sequence began. For the past twelve blocks that part had been on prison guard skills, like how to use a gun, a radio, a tracked snow vehicle, and so forth. This time her mind opened onto new vistas so vast and intricate her human mind squirmed under the onslaught. The memories were stored in her implant, of course, so that at the end of the block they would automatically wipe themselves; Lisa would remember what she had done, but would not remember how she had done it. But she had to comprehend the new information in her implant with the wetware nature gave her, and it was a lot to process.
Then it was complete. Lisa unplugged and stepped out of the slot, and returned the disk. The other people in the library were a mass of the year’s most fashionable colors, but she had no names for the different shades, for she had not selected Artist and had not received that teaching.
She went outside, and the sun came out from behind a cloud. She found that she knew how far away it was, and why the Earth rotated around it, and how long it took for its light to reach her.
On her way back to the hotel, she passed a bum begging for food. Bums no longer begged for money because there wasn’t any. Lisa didn’t give him a second glance. She had no patience for those who lacked the self-discipline to take the undesirable occupations for long enough to fund their preferred lifestyles.
Lisa gathered her things and set off in a helitaxi for her new home. She enjoyed the way her hair blew around, and how the pilot’s headgear made him look like a great big bug. She measured distances in an eyeblink, judged the helitaxi’s speed and altitude without trying, counted the number of people she saw below her. She liked the sound of the motor, and she found she knew its basic operating principles, too. Her head was full of equations, numerous ideas sorting themselves into usable organization.
Her new house was everything she could have asked for. It was filled with modern conveniences, fully automated, beautifully designed and decorated. Of course, most occupations came with houses like this, even the undesirable ones. Hers had just been out in the wilderness.
Days passed into weeks. Lisa had lively debates in cyberspace with various brands of mathematicians and scientists. She reviewed all the most recent work in her field and gloated over her understanding. She published papers, took long, hot showers, doodled on rocks in her rock garden, and forgot to count the days.
Lisa was out in her rock garden, watching the clouds go sailing by, and during a pause in the conversation in cyberspace, she idly developed a model of planetary weather systems.
Her implant told her she had a letter from her mother. Lisa responded to the inquiry that yes, she was happy. And she was. And she had not used her happy button since she left the prison outpost. Lisa calculated her chances for losing happy tolerance, and concluded that they were good, as long as she did not use her button during the rest of her block. Addiction was a known quantity in her time, the only tricky variable being genetic.
Lisa went back inside, sat at her real wood desk, rested her feet on the cream carpet, and gazed at “Festival in Fairyland.” It was a painting by her mother. Lisa had carted it around to every job she had ever had. Lisa smiled, and there was no pain; her lips had healed completely.
An aerospace engineer contacted her with the little “Exciting!” tag that manifested through her implants as a yellow bipedal dog with wide eyes and a long pink tongue jumping up and down excitedly. Lisa went to the discussion. Her colleagues were threading up cyberspace with the revolutionary idea that an object that crossed over into another universe where the speed of light was greater than it is in ours could travel at FTL from the perspective of our universe. Thus, the invention of hyperdrive.
Lisa went to sleep in her cozy, warm house, dreaming of the multiverse equations. She awoke in the middle of the night and grabbed the notebook she kept by her bed, and scribbled in the darkness.
Where U= the universe as we know it
And O= an object
U(to the n) yields (infinity symbol)(to the n)
(infinity symbol)(to the n) > (infinity symbol)
S (to the infinity symbol) = (f)U
S(to the infinity symbol)(to the n) > S (to the infinity symbol)
O[(f)U(to the n)]=O(S(to the infinity symbol (to the n)))
An object which crosses into another universe can possess greater than infinite speed from the perspective of our universe. Greater than infinite speed translates back to our universe as arriving before it left.
Lisa whispered to herself, “I just invented time travel.” Then she fell back to sleep.
In the morning, Lisa woke up, checked her notebook, and thought, What is this chicken scratch?
By Erin Lale
Erin Lale is the author of Planet of the Magi and other books. She is the originator and curator of the Time Yarns Universe. She owned The Science Fiction Store in Las Vegas, published Berserkrgangr Magazine, and was the Acquisitions Editor at Eternal Press. She reviews books for Eternal Haunted Summer Magazine.