Nobody was eating stale cookies anymore. Jamie and Joel had moved to a corner of the table and were talking quietly. The usually outgoing, sarcastic, glib Jamie looking anything but. Joel had a hand on Jamie's shoulder and was talking quietly and insistently to him in a quiet voice. Andrew and Craig were sitting next to each other but not touching. Each lost in their own thoughts. Dr. Pollack had moved to a whiteboard at one end of the room and was writing furiously on it, calculations undecipherable by the boys. He looked around at the faces of the four boys and set down his marker with a sigh.
Dr. Pollack moved back to the table and sat down, calling the four boys to him. “Guys, listen. It's not hopeless. That's why I've been working so hard the last few days, it's why the government, and the military, are here. We're trying to find a solution. Look, here's the problem. Something is keeping the universes blended. Connected. I'm pretty sure I know what that something is.”
“You know how to fix this?” asked Jamie, a small spark of life in his eyes once again.
“I don't know, but we have an idea. It's not a good one, but it's an idea. There's a few problems though. Well, actually, a whole lot of problems. But we're trying to solve them, one by one.” Dr. Pollack stood up again. “Come on boys, let's go back into the superposition generator room. I want to show you something.” The boys dutifully stood up and followed.
“This equipment,” Dr. Pollack said, pointing at the large apparatus covering one side of the room, “is what we use to generate the superposition field. It's what Dr. Cornish used last Wednesday and what we used in June. This field is deactivated. But something is keeping the universes interlocked. We think that it's the other facility in British Columbia, and that Dr. Cornish may have gone there and is somehow working to keep it going, though I have no idea why that would be the case.”
“Well, that's great news, Dad,” said Andrew, “all the government has to do is get someone to fly out there to turn it off.”
“No Andrew,” said Pollack, “I wish it were that simple. That facility is already off. It's been locked down tight.”
Andrew frowned in puzzlement. “But I thought you just said it was on. And that Dr. Cornish is there.”
“I did. He is. In the other universe.”
The boys looked at each other for a moment. Craig spoke up, “Um, Dr. Pollack? There's nobody there, in that universe, or nobody there that I know of, nobody is there to turn it off. Or to stop him.”
Dr. Pollack wiped his brow with his sleeve. “Yes Craig. We know. That's the problem. We're trying to use the field here to figure out a way to translate a well equipped team into that universe to turn it off, and bring back Dr. Cornish.”
“Oh. Okay, well, when do they leave?” Joel said.
“As soon as we can solve a few major problems. One, we haven't figured out how to send equipment through. Only people. Equipment can't 'choose' and doesn't have free will. It can't get through the field. People do have free will. That one can be solved, the team would just have to gather still working equipment on that side, though it would take time.
“Two, there's the time difference. Those extra dimensions I was talking about. Time runs along a different axis over there. That's why you guys came back only an hour or two after you left when the field collapsed, even though a year passed over there. This effect gets worse with mass. So the higher the mass we send, the more they will be adversely affected by the sudden temporal distortion. They need to be able to move and work immediately, not recuperate for a month first. Anything over about 55 kilos will mean some real issues for those people. And we need to know roughly 'when' they will arrive. The higher the mass the more inaccurate it will be.
“Three, we'll have to send the team from here, this facility, due to the field in the other universe blocking our B.C. facility in this universe from opening a compatible field to that universe. That means the team will need to be prepared to travel many hundreds of miles over uncertain territory and terrain in that universe, with unknown dangers. They will be required to have knowledge, survival skills, and an ability to cope with whatever may come their way on an arduous trip. Then they will have to turn off the facility, by whatever means necessary, and apprehend or otherwise stop Dr. Henry Cornish. With that facility down, the connection between the universes will fade fast. They will un-blend.
“There's a good chance, almost a certainty actually, that the members of that volunteer team will not be able to return to our universe. Ever. They probably will have to live out the rest of their lives in that empty world. It's a one way trip for those poor volunteers. Basically a suicide mission of sorts. Guys, believe it or not, those are the minor problems.”
“Okay,” Craig said, “What are the major problems then.”
“Well, really there's one main one. We need a predictable way to ensure we can get someone safely disconnected from this universe and find a connection to the other one. In our work so far we have been unable to do this. We can disconnect people, but we are having a hard time predicting with any certainty where they will reconnect to. It depends what they're thinking about when we do it. What they're 'wishing.' It could be any of the virtually infinite universes in existence.”
“So how did Dr. Cornish get to that one then?” asked Craig.
Dr. Pollack scratched his chin. “My guess is similar thinking. Both you and Dr. Cornish wanted roughly the same thing. For whatever reason. Your universe was some kind of compromise between the two. I'm fairly certain that when you translated there, creating a connection to that universe, Dr. Cornish simply followed through the existing connection. Joel got pulled through too because he was in the original superposition field, and that free will thing again. Maybe one of you wanted company?”
“Oh,” said Craig, feeling guilty, remembering his birthday wish.
The group stood looking at each other in silence for a moment. Wondering how Dr. Pollack's team was going to solve these problems.
Craig's mind, as so often happened to him when stressed, was wandering. His attention on several other issues, including his budding relationship with Andrew, how he was going to tell his mom what had happened to him, and what the end of the universe would be like. The part of Craig's brain that solved problems and thought about things in the background though, it had kept working.
And now it was persistently and annoyingly knocking on Craig's conscious thinking. He finally noticed. His eyes widened. Craig's thoughts began whirling. He made a few connections in his head. He began sweating, a sickly cold sweat. His heart rate rose, and rose again. He was trembling. His mouth was dry, he tasted copper. He couldn't move, couldn't talk. He couldn't do anything.
Maybe he should stay quiet. Maybe he should run. Or slink away and hide. He desperately wanted to. But he knew he couldn't. He had to. He had to. Somehow.
Craig forced himself, sweating and trembling, to talk. His voice was shaky. He had to try twice before he could get any sound out. He said, “Uh...Dr. Pollack? You...uh...you said you need a small mass person, who knows how to find gear and equipment, knows where they're going, has survival skills, knows how to deal with electronic gear, and, most importantly, has a quantum connection with that universe?”
Dr. Pollack, and three young teenagers stood looking at a small, scared, pale, trembling boy in a cold sterile underground lab.
One by one, the expressions on the faces around Craig changed. Realization struck. Jaws dropped. Eyes widened in horror.
Andrew was the first to move. Tears were flowing freely down his face. He took two fast steps forward to stand between Craig and his father. He looked up at his dad. Then at Craig. Then back at his father. His shoulders were hunched. His fists balled up tightly. His voice was strangled, panicky. “No!!! No fucking way!!! You can't do it!! You're not going to do it!! You can't...you're not...you absolutely can not send my boyfriend away to get killed!!”
Craig realized it at the same time that Andrew did. Not only had he expressed his profound concern and worry for Craig. He had also just outed both of them to his father.
With the universe ending, you'd think that would be utterly unimportant. You'd think that would be the least of their problems. Being a young teenager though is a funny thing. To two scared teenage boys, despite everything, it didn't seem unimportant at all. To a young gay teenager, outing yourself accidentally to your parents, and the world ending, often happen to be exactly the same thing.
Craig was so wrapped up in his own emotional turmoil he was slightly slow on the uptake. He began to move towards Andrew, he knew Andrew needed the support, but Joel's hand on his shoulder stopped him. Joel nodded towards Andrew, who was now being led by Dr. Pollack to a chair a few feet away. “Let his dad talk to him, Craig.”
Craig nodded, secretly relieved despite everything. He dropped cross-legged to the floor, holding his arms tightly to himself, thoughts whirling, knowing he'd just volunteered for a suicide mission.