Weight of an Echo
“You can back out of this, you know.”
The voice was like an echo from my past, catching up to me in the present. But this was different: The circle would be complete. That was the plan, anyway.
“I’m scared,” Gu revealed to me through my ear bud. His accent was light, which was odd considering few Chinese bothered learning or using English anymore. “You must be scared. It’s okay.”
I shook my head slowly, knowing my collar mic wouldn’t pick it up, and continued on down the musty alleyway, passing a plastic dumpster that bore the stench of chemicals and false breakthroughs. I soon found the door I was looking for: gray, unremarkable, and barely visible in the five stories of windowless wall. Being a side entrance, there were no signs telling me I had the right place, but I knew this was the lab door for the Hong Kong Quantum Research Center.
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“I’m here,” I said. “Putting the key in now.” I took the special blank card key Gu had given me out of my front pocket and carefully pushed it into the slot.
“Okay, give me some time.”
Gu was silent while the tiny LED on the visible half of the card blinked red a few times; then it blinked green, and I heard the lock recede. “Got it,” Gu said lazily, as if unlocking a security door remotely was as mundane as putting his shoes on (not that he did that often).
As I pulled the door open, I looked back toward the street and took a last deep breath of the outside air—quickly wishing I hadn’t as my lungs rejected the city’s smog with vehement intensity. I stepped into the lab area coughing and wondering how long it would take a foreigner to get used to this endless filth-cloud from the mainland.
“So no alarms, no guards, right?” I asked, feeling the squirm of anxiety in my chest for the first time just as the door clanged behind me. It wasn’t until I was immersed in the building’s silence that I noticed what had been the cacophony of the city streets.
Gu gave a grunt of exasperation. “I took care of it, okay? Go and take the staircase on the left down. That should take you right to the magnification facility, okay?”
I followed his instructions. The hall I had entered into was dim and empty; I shuttered against the unfriendly stare of strangely vacant walls. This place was a lot like hospitals back in America—only there were no doctors rushing to and fro spouting news of death and broken futures, and the air was not clean but rather dense, stifling. On the stairs, I let my mind wander to those memories always close to the surface, the reason I was there.
“You don’t understand. We can’t hire you. You’re on a blacklist for life, buddy.” The decade-old voice rang dauntingly in my mind.
What choice did I have? A four and a half-year college graduate with average grades and no great achievements facing a job market where the best of the best go unemployed for five years most of the time. Accounting firms had better options, if they needed them, but I still had to eat.
Another voice, less dimmed by time: “We won’t own you, we’ll own your employment. Legal jargon, y’know.” I signed my life away, of course. Just another misstep in a line of shortsighted mistakes. What other options, though? Defect? Too uncertain. Downgrade and forfeit my education? Not wise in the wake of the “no second chances” legislation.
“Ethan, hey, are you there yet?”
I jumped, slightly startled to hear Gu’s voice. I realized I had left the stairs behind and walked down another, larger hallway—also chillingly desolate—almost to the end, where on the right wall there was a large transparent section leaking a ghostly glow and breaking the weird banality of all I had yet seen in the building.
“Yeah, I’m here,” I said as I peered through the window to the white, perfectly-square room beyond. “Hey, it’s just a room. Nothing here.”
“The room is just a test field. The important parts are elsewhere.” A few moments of silence passed. “Go through the door by the viewing panel and wait in the next room, okay? Okay…”
The next room was small—apparently a sort of intermediate step between the hallway and the test field room: There was a translucent door inside leading into the glowing whiteness. This must be it, then. This was the door that would lead me to an escape, to my grand farewell to the creeping reverberations of my past. Beyond was my absolution.
It had only taken one of Gu’s attempted explanations for me to realize I would never understand how it worked (physics never quite grasped me, nor I it). I know it involves taking a certain phenomenon that exists at a subatomic level and magnifying it to macroscopic size. I know a connection, something that’s hidden away at the quantum level, becomes visible. I know a computer algorithm can manipulate the nature of the connection and what, exactly, it connects to. Most of all I know that entering the connection when it has been properly manipulated (Gu assures me) will theoretically change the universe around the matter that entered.
This would change my universe. I was getting a chance not to make the same mistakes.
“Whew!” Gu’s voice sounded in my ear once again. “All done. Listen, give it about thirty more seconds to max out and trigger the room’s gravity field, okay? After that, you can go in safely.”
I looked and indeed could see a tiny dimple in the fabric of the air within the room. It seemed to double in size every few seconds until it was a massive sphere of nothingness taking up three quarters of the room, at which point the progress abruptly halted. I opened the door. The orb before me wasn’t black: It was nothing. And yet it was something, because the sheer mass of it bent the space around inward, as if it was a gaping mouth sucking in space itself.
“You have about a minute,” Gu told me. “Step completely into the room and touch it when you are ready, okay? Wait…you still don’t have to do it. Stay. I’ll even give you your money back. Your life cannot be that bad. This could be death.”
“I know,” I said as I stepped into the room, feeling an ethereal vibration through the bottoms of my sneakers.
But something stopped me. Another memory.
It’s three years ago, the last time I saw my mother alive. Her voice is clear in my mind: “Stop dwelling on the past. People make mistakes. Deal with it. Make your own future.”
Isn’t that what I’m doing? Making my own future? A new future? No. I’m escaping.
The lifeless void gazed menacingly at me with its single vacant eye. Still watching it, I stepped back out. But why? This was what I wanted. I had known all along that I was escaping. Certainly that couldn’t be the cause of my sudden reluctance. No, it was something deeper.
“Are you still there?” This time Gu’s voice was faint and monotonous. When I didn’t answer, he began muttering in Cantonese.
I had been selfish, too engulfed by self-pity that I failed to see what I had. I came here. I did this. A corporation may own my life, but they don’t own my future. Maybe I’ll never have the life I wanted, the life I worked so hard to attain, but there were other lives in other places.
With a drone like muffled static, the sphere of nothing receded into the center of the room back to the quantum world.
“Hey Gu.” The shrill noise in my ear brought me wholly back to reality, and I grinned. “How do you like living in Hong Kong? The air gets better, right?”