Athéne — the Athéne who was never mine — used to say that I was always slow to catch on. Even if it wasn’t true to begin with, it’s become true, and so I guess it makes sense that I didn’t understand how serious the tether break was until the consequence ran smack into me. I doubt she’d appreciate the irony.
In my defense, I wasn’t there when the break occurred. Athéne didn’t like it when I monitored her runs — she called it pathetic — so I restricted myself to preparing calculations for the next run while she was in the tilism. I spent a good hour checking this client’s request (chemical simulations, again, and the kind that the tilism excelled at), and when I emerged from my exile in the cafeteria, there was already a commotion by the capsule.
Kassim hurried past, monitor lenses pushed up on his forehead, their cable dangling down his back. “Tether?” I asked.
“Break,” he said, turning to glance at me just inside the capsule chamber. “Worst yet. You do know it was Athéne in there —”
“Yes, I know,” I said, before he could be kind. “She’ll be fine somewhere.”
The capsule isn’t much to look at — only the inclusion of the monitoring equipment keeps it from resembling a latrine — but the tilism effect makes up for it. So long as it’s still moored in infinite-fold reality, the capsule is a blur, millions of minuscule differences shivering across its skin. As I followed into the chamber, the capsule resolved into one single image, the setup just slightly askew from what it had been this morning.
Kassim cast a quick look back at me. ”Dr. Vourlis?” he called. “There’s been a severe tether break —”
“Yes, I know. It was hard to ignore.” Athéne opened up the capsule and glared at him. Someday my heart would stop turning over when I heard her voice. ”We’ve been studying the effect in my fold of reality, too.” She extracted herself from the capsule, all long limbs in tight black clothing. I looked away. “Well, this fold looks close enough to what I left. I assume you’ll be running a reelback?”
“A what?” someone said.
Athéne sighed. “A reelback. The process of tracing my path to see where I intersected with other folds? The possibility of return? I certainly hope this fold has advanced that far at least.”
“Oh, that,” the same person said. “Yes, we call it the Piracha-Moussami Process.”
“Good, I —” She stopped. “Piracha?”
I turned to leave; it never helped the project to see the team leader turn vicious, and I didn’t want to provide the excuse. But I couldn’t resist a quick glance to the side so that I’d see her in my peripheral vision.
Athéne leapt away from the capsule, shoved past Kassim and the others, and slammed into me so hard I knocked against the wall. “Seema,” she whispered, turning me around so that I was once again looking up at her, closer than we had been in a decade. “Seema, you’re alive.”
And before I could say anything, even her name, she kissed me hard and sweet. My knees went weak as they always had. The tether crew gaped at us, except for Kassim, who knew our history. “I am,” I said, took Athéne’s face in my hands, and kissed her back.
For a very long time we treated the multiple-folds theory of reality as pretty but practically useless; once an observer was introduced, the infinite possibilities collapsed down to one. In my first tilism notes — and the first notes were mine — I hypothesized otherwise: an observer in a tilism state becomes part of that state, thus collapsing reality only to the subset of folds that includes them. It’s a smaller infinity, but still useful for running simultaneous parallel calculations along billions of folds, producing in one run what would take non-parallel computing two million years to process.
That was the basics of it, and the project’s since borne it out: Kassim and I engineered the tilism state capsule, and Athéne took over from there, adding the spark and fire and funding (cryptography, molecular simulations, many-body systems; everyone wanted time on the tilism). The trouble came from the observers — namely, bringing back the right one. A broken tether doesn’t result in the return of a capsule from an entirely different fold of reality; there’s a set of folds in which we’ve constructed a tilism, after all, a smaller subset in which we use the observer-collapse method, and a still smaller subset depending on who is in that capsule. Send William into the tilism and you won’t get Bob or Nina back, but you might get Bill instead.
We’d undone some of the consequences of severe breaks — one version of Kassim who turned up here had a pronounced limp, while ours had a brief sojourn in a Francophone fold before they ran the P-M process — but the closer the two folds were to identical, the less likely it was that we could send someone back. Since most of us had done observer runs to keep up with the demand, this meant that probably a quarter of the people in the project were now from folds that were just a little askew from our own. You could sometimes tell them by how they paused at the vending machine or surfed channels in the lounge.
This was the first time I’d fully realized how much leeway the subset of folds allowed.
We ended up in bed together, of course. Maybe not immediately — there was the “reelback” process to start, and her analysis to examine and compare to our own — but just like ten years ago, there was never any question of where we’d end up. “I knew from the minute I saw you at the conference in Baltimore,” Athéne said, her long arms clasped around my waist. “I thought, that’s the woman I want to be with. The only question was how.” She nuzzled the back of my neck.
I reached up to stroke her hair. She’d had it cut more recently than this fold’s Athéne. “Me, I didn’t know until we got to talking in the hotel bar. Slow Seema, always last to understand. Stupid Seema,” I added drowsily.
She chuckled. “Hardly. You invented this fold’s reelback process, after all. Always knew you had it in you.”
I was silent a moment. It wasn’t all I’d invented… but maybe things were different in her fold. “That’s not what y— what this fold’s Athéne said.”
Athéne went still. “You’re talking about that fight.” She unclasped her arms, shifting out from behind me. “The one we had back at my place in Chicago.”
“Yes. That one.” I sat up, missing her warmth at my back, and scooted around on the bed to face her. “That was the end of it for us, here.”
Athéne bowed her head, then drew her legs up so she was sitting cross-legged. She’d never minded arguing naked; I hated it and always wanted to cover myself. “I can understand why. I just… after you left, I realized just how horrible I’d been. I called all our friends, trying to figure out where you’d gone —”
“Zach’s place,” I said. “He had the spare bed.”
“Really? He must have been out of town in my fold… I ran to the bus station to catch you, and I —” She put one hand over her eyes. “I meant every word of that apology, I swear, and I did my damnedest to prove it to you.” I drew her hand away, and Athéne gave a shaky laugh. “It’s tough talking about this, you know? You always said forget it, it was in the past.”
“That wasn’t me,” I said.
“I know that,” she said, and was again someone I knew. “About two years ago, you had a presentation in Zurich, and there was a fire in the subway —”
I never made it to Zurich for that conference; Athéne had flown in to talk up the project and come back with loads of funding and more than a few admirers. This Athéne had the same charisma, I thought, gazing at her face; give her twenty minutes, and she’d have entire departments wrapped around her finger. The biggest difference seemed to be that she still loved me.
As if hearing my thoughts, she caught my hands in hers. “I’ve decided. No matter what the reelback says, I’m not going back.”
“I can’t go. Seema, you — every day I missed you.”
I stroked her hair, and kissed her, and loved her as I always had. Somewhere the Athéne who was never mine was probably suggesting adjustments to that poor Seema’s techniques. If we didn’t go through with the reelback here, then if that Athéne returned, it would be to a fold negligibly like this one, with a Seema negligibly like me. But here, she wanted to be in my arms, to the point of refusing a reelback.
My hands stilled. I was even thinking of the P-M process as a reelback now.
I cradled her against me until she slept, trying to remember what it felt like when we did this before, whether this time was different.
Some hours later, Athéne woke and clasped my hand tight. “You’re up for a tilism run tomorrow, aren’t you?”
“I am.” My first, and until the tether break I hadn’t really expected it to happen. Athéne had cancelled the others, claiming redundancy, but she’d been the one to make them redundant. For all the work I’d put into the tilism, I’d never even been inside. But now we’d repaired the tether, the capsule was fine, and the calculations were the same ones I’d prepped. Everything was set.
“Don’t go.” She sat up, blinking down at me.
“Please. I lost you once, Seema, I —” She shook her head. “Don’t go.”
I gazed at her a long moment. My hair had come undone early on, and strands tickled my face, longer than I’d ever grown it when Athéne and I had been together. “That wasn’t me,” I said again, and pulled her down for a kiss.
“I can’t lose you,” she said as our kisses deepened. “You’re just as I remember,” she whispered, cupping my cheek.
I kissed her back, and our lovemaking tasted of salt.
I canceled the run, claiming more tether work needed to be done, then waited until Athéne went into full debriefing with the heads of the project (most of whom were narcissistically curious about their other fold-selves). I found Kassim in the capsule chamber, finishing up the tether adjustments. “Can you monitor a run?” I asked.
“You’ll need more than just me —”
“Not really. I can monitor the tether from within, and the monitor’s still set up for one person. We designed it that way, remember?”
He wasn’t buying it. “And the tilism?”
“Shallow run,” I lied. “Anything worth noting I can handle from inside.”
Kassim gazed at me a long moment. After Chicago, he’d been the one to prop me up and make me finish my work. It was because of him that I had started the tilism project in the first place. “You’re sure?”
“I’m sure,” I said.
Somewhere, I told myself as I closed up the capsule, somewhere in the folds of reality there were many versions of me, many lovers and scientists and maybe even some who spearheaded the tilism project. Somewhere among them, there must be some who would be happy to be just as Athéne remembered her, who would be good with her.
One of them would find her. But if I stayed, we’d just make the same mess out of each other. I was not her Seema, and she was not my Athéne. No Athéne had ever been mine.
The tilism sparked into existence, enveloping the capsule into its myriad folds. A single window showed the chamber — not blurring, as the capsule seemed to do from outside, but brilliant and irrelevant, a world outside. To either side, the screens lit up with the calculations that could only be performed here, just as I’d hypothesized a long time ago. I remained unchanged within the capsule, even as billions of Seemas did the same.
I glanced down at the tether control, then deliberately reset its coordinates to a random string.
A shudder ran through the capsule as the tether snapped, and the tilism darkened briefly. I waited for the light to return, then turned away from the window, to the screens where my work waited.