Feedback (A Short Story)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
An unnamed scientist builds a mysterious device. As she does so, we see how she has struggled with the loss of a daughter she barely got to know, an event that tore her life apart.

Submitted: July 13, 2012

A A A | A A A

Submitted: July 13, 2012




All she had ever wanted was a child of her own, her flesh, her blood. No adoptions and no fostering. To her, those options weren’t options. She wanted a child of her body, from her womb. David had never understood. The birth of their first - and only – child, Cynthia had left her unable to conceive. Barren, that was the word the doctor used, a word so cold, so desolate. That news, delivered scant hours after Cynthia was taken from them, had devastated her. She’d held those tiny hands in hers that one time and then she was gone. A brief connection severed with finality. Still raw from the birth she had felt hollow, like she might collapse in on herself. How could David think those ‘options’ – as he called them –compared to the bond of mother and child? And so soon after? It was beyond insensitive. It was tasteless. His ridiculous ideas were rejected in short order, as had he not long after.

A fat blob of solder sat like a pearl on the soldering iron’s burnt-black tip, thin curls of smoke rose off the liquefied metal filling the air with an acrid aroma. It was thick in her nostrils, her throat was raw with it from hours hunched over the circuit board. She didn’t care. Nearly there, not long now. David had never really understood. That thought repeated like a mantra, a broken record caught in a loop, the needle jumping back to the start position. Thinking he could or did understand had been a delusion, she saw that now. A transitory a neurological imbalance called love. Five years at CERN working on projects together, getting to know each other, falling in love; then marriage, another five happy years hampered only by their frantic attempts to conceive. The memories seemed like someone else’s life, the naïve daydreams of an adolescent though she had been in her thirties. And all the while David had been a massive blind-spot, a man she thought shared her values, wanting the same things she did. Foolish. Dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin: those neurochemicals had a lot to answer for. Love stopped you thinking straight. Perhaps men were incapable of understanding women. That was a common theme in the television serials that played on the small portable in the corner of the room. Not that she watched them, it was there to fill up the silence, but these things were absorbed by osmosis. It probably wasn’t that simple though, because she was yet to meet a woman who understood also.

She set the plastic cover over the circuit board and pressed each button, flipped every switch, checked the ammeter to make sure the controls were functioning. They were. The heavy control pad made a dull thud on the counter as she set it aside and started lifting segmented lengths of coils from the shelves. She wondered whether David was still at CERN. Idle curiosity. Irrelevant questions often came to her when she was doing manual work requiring little concentration. Carrying, moving, cooking: all would be accompanied by thoughts of the husband she hadn’t spoken to in three years and the job she’d held beside him. Her mind would slide away from thinking of important things like the device, and the daughter she never got to know. Perhaps it was a defence or coping mechanism. If she dwelt on Cynthia she might not regain her concentration.

Better to think about her husband, remembering how he once was. Brilliant. A pioneer. Even now, with all the hard words that had flown back and forth between them she was still proud of David, thankful to him. After all, it was his research that made the device possible. But he had been blind to the possibilities. Time and again in those first days since her ‘eureka’ moment she had struggled to explain it to him, fighting her ineloquence and his scepticism in equal measures. He’d dismissed it out of hand. When she wouldn’t drop it, they’d fought. He called it her “obsession”. He would do that, dance round what he really meant, finding words that met his meaning at oblique angles. It actually impressed her how he’d managed to avoid calling her crazy every time they fought. Every time but the last.

That was a long time ago though: David, CERN, all of it. Yet it was hard not to think of him as she worked. The equipment reminded her so much of that time, that familiar blue light bathing her face as she fed a test current through one set of coils, warming them up, setting toroidal segments revolving. Each segment rotated in the opposite direction to its neighbour, alternating clockwise and anticlockwise. The blue light escaped through small cracks between each toroid, as if within spun sapphire jewels twisting to catch incoming light, throw it out again at pulsating intervals.

At CERN the devices had been bigger, neither portable nor practical. Everything they had done there had been theoretical, unapplied blue-sky thinking. It had taken purpose and need to give it an application.

Her purpose. Her need.

When all eighteen coils were connected they would form a feedback loop and each pulse of light would be a little brighter than the last until that critical moment when she would either have success or failure.

It wasn’t like she’d expected anyone else at CERN to help her, or even realise the potential of what she was doing. That’s why she’d held her secrets tight, keeping them from everyone except David. And David, the one person she’d trusted enough to tell, just had not understood. It had been he who sat her down for ‘the talk’.

“With what’s happened,” he told her, using that quiet, hypnotist’s voice that meant he was trying to be dignified, “with Cynthia and us. The way it’s affected your work. The board has tried to be understanding but it’s become clear that, in your current condition, you’re not capable of working in the lab.” He’d taken his glasses off then, rubbing them clean on his lab coat, and looked up at her eye to eye as if peering over the rim of his glasses: ““I’ve recommended to the board that you’re given mandatory sick leave and they agreed, on the proviso you visit a psychiatrist.”

She’d sat there in his office and accepted it in silence, accepted it gladly. That’s when she realised David didn’t understand. He had no way of comprehending how helpful he was being.

“In light of your of your obsession,” he added, hesitating on the last word as if substituting it for another, “I think visiting a psychiatrist would be a good thing.”

Of course he had been blind to the irony. She could work a psychiatrist with ease: I’m ‘stressed’, ‘anxious’, ‘incapable of handling a work environment’ – all the while stringing along the sick-pay and funding her project. For two years now CERN had been bankrolling her “obsession”.

Thanks David.

Thinking back to that conversation still gave her a twinge. Not the indignity of being fired by her ex-husband – she couldn’t care less about that – but the reminder of Cynthia. Everyone –David, the hospital staff, her colleagues – had told her the anguish would abate. Time heals all wounds, they’d said. They were wrong. Her child was stolen, snatched from the maternity ward without a single witness. Grief and anger had filled the abyss Cynthia had left in her, a yin-yang turbine that drove her ever since. It turned over and over, getting stronger, like the flashing blue rings of the device. The pain ebbed and it flowed, but it never, ever left her.

She began slotting the eighteen coils together in the sequence demanded by the white numerals she’d crudely painted on each. No attempt at neatness or presentation had been made, it would be irrelevant. When every piece was in place, she slid her toes into the insulated rubber suit and began pulling it up. The rubber, elastic but stiff, was tight and uncomfortable, clinging to her skin and tugging at the fine hairs of legs and arms. It was probably unnecessary, but best to be safe in case of a surge. Once the suit was on, so taut it felt like the cap would pull her hair out, she fastened it and pinned the control unit to her waist where it sat like a bulky utility belt. She looked down at the coils on the counter and smiled.

Maybe David would understand now. Now the device - her “obsession” - was a reality rather than clumsily blurted epiphany half-explained in an excited rush. He might understand – he was certainly intelligent enough - if only she could make him take the time to look at it, read her notes, examine the schematics. But that would be too much risk. He might interfere and that would ruin everything. So many times he tried to dissuade her, make her see the danger, explain to her that time travel was a physical impossibility; and that even if it wasn’t impossible it was impracticable, you couldn’t change the past.

But I don’t want to change anything; I just want my daughter back.

He would just have to thank her later.

A clasp held together the join on first and final coils, 1 and 18. With shaking fingers she undid the clasp and separated them. The excitement was almost overwhelming. So many years of work and it was finally time to reap her reward. She began wrapping the coils around and around her body: first waist, then chest and arms; down her back, around each leg, up her front to where she re-joined the links above her head. Densely packed metal and plastic weighed her down, a fossilised snake. Reaching to her waist, she flicked all but one of the switches on the control pad. Pulses of warm blue light licked her face. It was like she was standing in the water on a beach, sunlight bouncing blue off small waves, illuminating her smile. David had never understood. It was almost sad. Months of frustrated argument passed before he gave up trying to convince her time travel was impossible. However, he couldn’t resist contending on every front, fighting to convince her it wouldn’t work long after she’d given up trying to persuade him it would. Logic was his weapon of choice, the logic of time travel. Causality, continuity, paradox: he used the words like bludgeons, trying to break her resistance. He’d told her if she could travel back in time she couldn’t change a thing. There was no way she could stop Cynthia being taken from that hospital.

“Poor David,” she said out loud as the blue pulses grew to a blinding intensity, a crescendo of light, “I won’t change anything.” Someone stole Cynthia, nothing could ever change that fact. But she could be that someone. And in a bright blue flash she intended to.

“All I ever wanted was my child.”

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