The skinny tech checked his vitals. He didn’t seem rattled about being in the presence of a convicted killer. In fact, no one seemed uptight at all. “Technically, it’s not an execution.”
Garvey kept his hands at his sides. Deep breath.
Everyone was focused on their fifteen minutes of fame. There was a flat-screen mounted in the upper corner of the room, so they could all watch the world watch them. Excellent high-resolution.
In the foreground was TrueNews correspondent Fay Carson, her stunning face even more stunning next to the haggard Dr. Cull. They chatted in the observation room. A handful of VIPs sat nearby. Behind Dr. Cull was a glass wall and beyond that was Garvey, fresh from death row.
Every few moments there was a merciless close-up. The camera didn’t add ten pounds—it added ten years. For most of a decade, the unbreakable metal mirror in Garvey’s cell told him he was a respectable forty. High resolution argued a hard fifty.
Garvey pulled his eyes away from the TV and looked down. They had him in simple coveralls and canvas shoes. He stood on a low platform like a large table without legs. It felt like the gallows. But there was no trapdoor here. Not technically.
When they had first brought him in here and taken off the cuffs, he had felt hopeful. It was a thrill being ordained by the media and seeing Fay Carson in the flesh. But after the brief buzz of locking eyes with a celebrity, it had all quickly gone stale. All the prep had gone on for hours.
Let’s get on with it.
He had spent the past week researching what he could and had felt pretty confident he would survive. But actually being here—now he had doubts. After the token smile from Fay Carson, no one would look him in the eye.
The general stirrings of the room settled down. Both Skinny-Tech and Ugly-Tech stole glances at themselves on TV. The guard tried to watch televised and reality Fay Carson at the same time. This was good. Distractions would help.
Fay Carson looked at the camera, but spoke to Dr. Cull. Garvey could hear her muffled through the glass and almost simultaneously from the flat-screen. “Dr. Cull, give us your take on the Blight.”
“The Blight is still a mystery.” It sounded rehearsed. Cull had probably practiced in front of a mirror. A breakable mirror that could be smashed into a dozen throat-cutting blades. Not like the one in Garvey’s cell. No suicide allowed on death row.
“The best way to explain the mystery of the Blight,” Cull said, “is to use another mystery. In the 20th Century, certain people seemed to suffer from a cumulative effect of everyday chemicals. They became vulnerable to a perfect storm of substances. It was called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome. The Blight is like MCS Syndrome—but the cause is apparently technology. Our technology has become so woven into the infrastructure of existence, it’s beginning to interfere with itself. This is probably why the Blight defies diagnosis. We can’t even properly study it because anything used for analysis is corrupted by the Blight in the process.”
“That’s why we’re here at this specific location?” Fay Carson asked.
“Yes, we needed a location unaffected by the Blight. But as soon as we begin, it will almost certainly begin infecting this place as well. It doesn’t take long for the Blight to zero in on any complex technology.”
Garvey moved his feet a fraction of an inch to the right. Even the slightest progress would make all the difference in a few moments.
Fay Carson tilted her head slightly, listening to her earpiece. “I realize we don’t have much time, so let me cut to the chase. Has the Blight escalated efforts toward interstellar travel?”
“Yes, Fay. The Blight has progressively crippled our way of life, so we have turned our eyes once again to the stars.” Cull was waxing pathetic. “We have fast-tracked the completion of the transfixion engine.”
“They call it the Fix,” Fay Carson said to the camera.
“Yes. Transfixion is capable of moving an object must faster than light.”
“Yes, very amazing. But it can only move an object the size of a virus.”
“Yes, very challenging.”
“Any thoughts about the odd shape of the spacecraft?”
Dr. Cull laughed a little. “Hard to say. For no apparent reason, the transfixion engine works most efficiently in vessels with nine sides. Apparently, the universe is amenable to the movement of nonagons. And it also seems to prefer they be blue.”
“Midnight Blue in particular, right?” Fay Carson smiled. “A very specific color.”
“Yes.” Dr. Cull smiled to himself. “The quantum world is full of odd preferences and profound coincidences.” He returned his attention back to the camera. “If we successfully miniaturize Garvey, we will eventually be able to shrink a whole colony, put them on a nonagon ship, and transfix them to another habitable planet. We will escape the Blight.”
“What happens when they get there?”
“Well, I suppose they’ll stay miniaturized until they can deduce the viability of the environment.”
Fay Carson gestured at the glass wall. “Which brings us to right here and now.”
All eyes fell on Garvey. He flinched, but he didn’t move. Not yet.
Dr. Cull moved aside to give the world a better view. “The Blight has also fast-tracked the amendment allowing volunteers from death row. Regardless, this is not cruel or unusual.” He smirked. “Well, I suppose it is unusual. But this gives a criminal a chance to redeem himself.”
Garvey knew what was coming next.
“As everyone knows,” Fay Carson said. “Fifteen years ago Mavelle Garvey killed his brother.”
If everyone knows, why mention it? Garvey studied his brand new canvas shoes. They would have good traction.
“Most people know him as Cain,” Fay Carson added.
Dr. Cull noticed a signal from Skinny-Tech. “Looks like we’re ready.”
“One last thing, Dr. Cull,” Fay Carson spoke quickly. “Please explain the cradling.”
The doctor moved toward the glass wall. “Miniaturization is not like in the movies. You can’t just shrink a person and expect him to interact with his surroundings as he usually does. When we shrink Garvey, all his atoms, all his molecules, all his organs will of course be much smaller. Eventually his lungs will not be able to process the air normally, since in comparison, the air molecules will be far too large for him. The same goes for gravity and sound waves and such. The cradling is a sophisticated, semi-permeable barrier that protects the subject. As he decreases in size, it will reduce anything attempting to interact with him to a manageable level. It essentially translates factors from his immediate surroundings. The smaller you get, the more vulnerable you are to nature, so the cradling is designed to cushion the blow, so-to-speak.”
“Fascinating,” Fay Carson said. “Like those old, clunky deep-sea diving suits.”
“Something like that.” Dr. Cull turned to the glass wall. “Are we ready?”
Short-Tech gave a thumbs-up.
Dr. Cull straightened his lab coat. “Excuse me.” When he opened the sealed door, Garvey took another deep breath, hoping to catch a faint whiff of the outside world. But it was sterilized and odorless.
When Dr. Cull had made sure the door had huffed closed, he turned and walked straight up to Garvey. “Are you ready? Once we start the process of diminishment, we won’t be able to stop it. You will continue to shrink regardless of any further action we take.”
That’s what I’m counting on, Garvey thought. He didn’t say anything. He just nodded.
“But we’re confident you will reach a point where forces will resist any further decrease and you will automatically return to normal size.”
Garvey had heard all this before, but it was nice to hear it again.
Raising his voice, Dr. Cull turned to face the observation room. “There are four primary forces in the universe. They keep things running smoothly. However, as Garvey becomes smaller and smaller, these forces will become more antagonistic to him. But not to worry,” he said with a small laugh. “We’re counting on these forces to push him back up to us. Think of it as jumping feet first into a deep lake. Once he reaches bottom, he can sort of push off and resurface again.”
Both techs left the room. The guard waited at the open door.
After looking the console over, Dr. Cull went back over to Garvey. “Try to not move. The platform is designed to support you no matter how small you become. But keep your eyes open for flaws or openings. You can fall in. Just do your best to stay on the surface.” He thought for a moment. “Okay, one last thing. Just before we start diminishment, you’ll feel a fuzzy sensation. That’s the cradling meshing with you.” He held out his hand. “Good luck.”
Garvey took the doctor’s hand. “Thanks.”
Dr. Cull eyed everything in the room one more time. He gave one more look at Garvey. “Not everyone gets a chance to be a hero.” He left the room, followed by the guard.
A chance to be a hero. That sounded ominous. You only gave pre-game talks like that to someone who was probably going to be honored posthumously.
Now, even more, Garvey was unsure about this. This was beginning to feel very one-way. They were going to shrink him down to a speck and then cross their fingers that the universe might simply regurgitate him unscathed. But there was a strong possibility the universe might simply digest him.
The console clicked. The room hummed.
A fuzzy sensation washed over him. It felt like a sweater three sizes too small, but all over his body.
On TV, he could see he was glowing. Then the TV abruptly turned off.
Now all he could do was watch everyone through the glass wall as they watched him. The room began to growl.
I change my mind.
He wanted to un-sign the documents. He wanted to go back to his cell.
No, he wanted to go back to when he was innocent. If there was ever a prisoner who was reformed, it was him. His brother haunted what few dreams he had. Garvey had the guilt. He had remorse. He just needed an open door.
An immense light filled the room. It was a burst of illumination he could actually feel. A soft pressure.
He closed his eyes.
Was it working?
He opened his eyes.
The glass wall moved away from him—the edge of the platform pulled away. He looked up at the ceiling and saw it rising.
It was happening.
He hesitated. If he started too soon, they would see him running. But each second he waited meant that much farther to run. The platform already looked like it had tripled in size. It was happening much faster than he had thought it would.
He had waited too long.
Hoping the flash had blinded everyone, Garvey turn and sprinted.
The glossy white platform stretched out in front of him. It was already the size of a gymnasium and getting bigger. The texture under his feet changed as he went, becoming rougher. Each time his feet touched down, the surface of the platform looked more complex, patterns of the material that were only visible to someone the size of—A golf ball? A peanut? A pinhead?
If he could get off this platform, he was confident he could find a way out of the building. Off the platform, there had to be all kinds of crevices and gaps he could use to navigate his way to freedom before he returned to normal size. The diminishment process and the cradling shrugged off any detection. Cull wouldn’t be able to track him. Garvey wasn’t even a blip. When he didn’t reappear, the world would just assume he had become a speck and stayed that way.
Garvey ran full-out, focused on breathing, on moving forward. He had to be getting close to the edge by now.
The landscape had taken on the appearance of crisscrossed bamboo. He still couldn’t see the edge. His initial hesitation may have ruined everything.
Every stride was shorter than the last. He was shrinking faster than he could run.
Then he saw the edge of the world. Beyond the platform, the world was a vast blur. It looked eerily unfinished. He thought about stopping, but the point of no return had been twenty seconds ago. No, the point of return had been fifteen years ago.
He covered the last few inches? Centimeters? Millimeters? And jumped.
At the same time, he realized the air currents were much greater than he anticipated. As he leaped into the air, a maelstrom swept him into a spin. Garvey lost all sense of up, down, forward, backward—and consciousness.
He had loved his brother. No one seemed to understand that. He still loved his brother.
How could you ever truly hate someone who had been so vital to your own life? He had killed William, but he loved him.
That day of red anger hadn’t taken that away. In fact, every year it felt even more and more like Garvey was remembering someone else’s mistake. That person—Cain—had died with William.
It wasn’t until his second week on death row that Garvey remembered the stupid clubhouse.
It was a stray memory, but it had busted him into a million weeping pieces. The guards had ignored him.
Years ago in Oklahoma, they had started a secret clubhouse. When Mom and Dad were out bowling, he and William carefully removed two boards from the wooden fence in the backyard behind the shed and reattached them with a hinge—the secret entrance. The plan was to discretely transform the shed into a clubhouse. They both knew they were too old for this kind of thing, but they planned to make it impressive. You would walk inside the shed and only see tools and stuff. But behind a false wall there would be this really cool place only they knew about. A place for guys who saved the world.
They spent a whole week arguing about the secret knock. After much debate, they decided on something simple, but meaningful. Three knocks for the years between their ages. Two for two brothers. One for unity. Three, two, one.
But that was all they finished. The secret entrance. The secret knock. They never got around to the rest of it. Eventually the world grabbed both of them and pulled them in two different directions. Then one day, Garvey rose up and slew William.
Am I my brother’s keeper?
Yes, I am. I keep him in my head.
He was shrinking. Would his head eventually become too small to hold William?
He was shrinking. Three, two, one.
He was shrinking. He was on his back.
He was shrinking. He had to get up. This was his chance.
Scrambling to his feet, he looked around. He was pretty sure he had escaped the platform, but he had no idea where he was now. The floor? Had the currents swept him up onto the consoles? Everything in the room was the same bland white as the platform.
But now the terrain was filled with ravines that ran in all directions. Even as he got to his feet, they yawned wider.
How long had he been out? Every second meant one second smaller. How small was he now? He could be less than a pixel by now. Less than a micron. Nano-sized.
Garvey could feel pressure. But it wasn’t like sinking to the bottom of a lake. It was like sinking to the bottom of the ocean.
Maybe he would stop shrinking. Maybe he was about to bounce.
But the ravines grew into canyons. The ridge under his feet became rougher. What was he standing on? For all he knew, he had landed on a cookie crumb or the back of a cricket.
He started running again, trying to map out a path along the ridges. They had swelled to the size of highways. The surface he was on took on the texture of lace, growing tiny holes.
Whatever level of purification they had attempted faltered at this level. There were huge drops of water shuddering on the ridges. Some of them tumbled into the dark as he watched. And not far away, a large worm-like organism slid out of one darkness and into another.
Distracted, Garvey missed his next step, his foot catching the edge of a sudden hole. He sprawled. He tried to grab onto the edge. But it swelled under his hands, rejecting his grip and he fell.
His fall went on forever. He slid into holes inside holes with holes, descending down into the tiny nothing places. All his clutching and grabbing was useless. Finally, he tumbled into a cave that looked like it was made of gray coral. It was darker down here.
The cradling felt weak. The pressure increased and now there was pain. His head ached and his hands tingled. Something had to happen soon. Either he would bounce or he would dissolve.
The floor of the cave bloomed tiny pores, which began to expand. Garvey scrambled to his feet, as the openings gaped.
But the swelling of the universe seemed to be slowing down. The holes were still growing, but he was pretty sure it wasn’t happening as fast. It was going to happen. He was going to bounce.
Then it dawned on him.
He was about to return to normal size. If he didn’t get out of this place, he was dead. If he couldn’t get outside or at least back to the surface of the room, he was dead. He would be crushed by his own expansion. After all this, the miniaturization wasn’t going to kill him. The trip back would.
He was so focused on looking for a way out, he didn’t watch his step. Flailing only ruined his balance and he descended again. The abyss was always hungry.
The fall twisted him around and backward and down. Always down. The Rabbit Hole without the rabbit. Only a vast Wonderland. But there would be no nonsense down here. There would only be the cold, sensible laws of physics.
He landed hard and it took him precious moments to get oriented and back on his feet again.
He was surprised he could see. He expected it to be darker. This cavern was blue. There was blue light down here. On the far side of the cavern was a faceted, metallic blue structure. It was narrow and tall, resembling an oddly cut sapphire. There were figures around its base, moving like people. As Garvey watched, one of them abruptly pulled away from the structure, coming toward him.
It was someone riding a vehicle of some sort. Kind of like a motorcycle with spherical wheels. This wasn’t right.
Maybe Cull and his people had secretly sent other criminals down here before. A whole penitentiary worth of bad guys lost in the nooks and crannies of the world. But as the vehicle drew closer, Garvey realized these weren’t Cull’s criminals. In fact, they weren’t even human.
The driver wore a protective suit that made him look like a large insect. As the vehicle came to a stop, Garvey realized the driver wasn’t wearing a suit. The driver looked like an insect.
What were they? Some kind of bizarre micro-mite or nano-tick no one knew about? But these were intelligent. And they looked—they looked out of place. Their heads were incredibly narrow. The body bristled with multiple limbs folded in strange, but efficient ways.
These creatures weren’t from here.
The driver watched Garvey with tiny eyes. Garvey could now see its body also held the soft glow of cradling.
In the distance, the blue structure trembled. A pulse of light erupted and shot upward. Garvey had to blink to get his vision back.
He knew why the structure seemed to have an odd symmetry. It was a nonagon. It was a midnight blue nonagon.
These things were from somewhere far away. So far away that it took a nonagon using transfixion to get here. To get here and hide in the tiny places.
Until they can deduce the viability of the environment.
The quantum world is full of odd preferences and profound coincidences.
Someone out there had figured everything out a little faster. They had sent a transfixion nonagon here with a colony. Maybe they had sent several of them. Garvey had merely happened on this one by chance. By quantum-infused chance.
Another pulse of light. It shot up toward the outer world. Like a tank firing shells. This was an attack. This was sabotage. This was—
So this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a crumb-sized invasion.
The driver still just watched Garvey. It was probably also trying to figure out if he was more than a protozoa. They eyed each other.
The driver started to shrink. No—Garvey was enlarging. He was bouncing.
Garvey grabbed the driver and used his own sudden size to send it sprawling. Then he jumped on the vehicle. He had to get outside fast.
The vehicle was designed to grip any kind of terrain. After wobbling a little, Garvey was able to solve the basic controls and drive it upward and out, climbing quickly, even as the vehicle shrank beneath him.
It all made sense now. The Blight was a veiled invasion, blinding any attempt to detect it. They had zeroed in on this location as soon as Cull started prepping the diminishment. Everywhere, these imps snickered down in the tiny places, gnawing at the world.
Garvey flew up a slanted tunnel as it grew smaller around him. He barely made it out of that passage into the coral caverns.
Go, go, go.
In the end, it was easier than he hoped. Just as the vehicle became the size of a tricycle, he felt the night air and he was shooting out into the cool, beautiful darkness.
His fall was more frightening this time. But even as he fell, he could feel he was more in synch with the forces around him.
He flew over the grass like a damaged hang-glider above a rainforest. He fully expected to break his back on a pebble, but he actually landed decently on the dead fluff at the base of a dandelion.
He grew. The world shrank. The blades of grass became less like redwoods, and more like a field of corn.
He took in deep breaths of fresh air. The unsterilized, imperfect beautiful air.
Within another minute, it all stopped. The cradling toyed with him a little more and then fizzled out. He was normal-size and he was alive.
The moon looked incredible. He stood on the front lawn of the building, just enjoying each breath. He was about twenty feet from the main entrance.
The building was bright. Inside, everyone was probably still watching the blank platform. Waiting.
He could just walk away. It would be easy.
He could leave them to it. He could let the quantum invasion continue. Garvey owed the world absolutely nothing.
He stood there in the cool evening. He stared at the moon for a while.
After a few moments, he walked to the main entrance. The guard didn’t notice him. So Garvey knocked. Three, two, one.
A few moments later, the door opened.
Bret Carter is a high school teacher in Denver. He enjoys reading, writing, and forcing his students to do the same. As a kind of apology, he writes a full-length play each year for their annual stage production. His short fiction has appeared in a few small publications, including Perihelion Magazine and Boston Literary Magazine. In 2008, he went to San Diego to be constructively tortured by Orson Scott Card in Card’s Writing Boot Camp. Bret and 5 billion other people have a blog, but his can be found at www.almostbruce.blogspot.com.