Of Infinite Ends

By Emily M. Dietrich In Proton Reader One

The hardest decision of my life was also the easiest.

We hike up the steep spiral staircase of the Quantum Containment Center, but it’s slow going with Sammy straddling my shoulders and my wife stalling behind. She clicks between her teeth and her cheek as if prodding herself to keep pace, a tick I’ve heard a thousand times. It started nine years ago, but it’s never come bounding back at me from all directions at once.

The echo bounces through the Center’s hollow belly, rattles across the distant scaffolds, and doesn’t stop until we enter the affectionately named Observation Deck in an era where observation has become obsolete.

Placards blip to life, and we follow a narrow aisle as a neon montage of scientific success plays above our heads.

The leap of qubits from underground facilities and absolute zero temps to the power behind near-instant calculation.

The first time superposition was witnessed with the naked eye.

The moment Dr. Tia Corvinway’s coffee was both an espresso and an Americano, served simultaneously black and doused in pumpkin spice too.

The season of celebration when the Center opened to all, so we could stand jampacked along the deck to peer into the split realities where those other states continued.

The cheer heard around the world when the lottery selected the first person to not just view the split reality, but to finally step through.

All of it made possible by a single discovery that launched a revolution. Catapulted quantum mechanics from theory to applied science. From the laboratory to the public domain. From our world’s domain to that of infinite ones.

How we are now able to hold many worlds in the palm of our hand—

The day observation itself became an abstraction.

“Is this it, Daddy?” Sammy’s knees dig into my head as her little hands, smaller than those of most four-year-olds, grip my chin. I can barely confirm before a Proxy appears.

Without a word, the woman scans us and frowns at the readout.

“Just the one?”

I nod. My wife whimpers, still a couple steps away as if she can’t bring herself to get too close. The Proxy looks up at Sammy and gives a small smile. “Well, you’re a sweet girl. The oldest, I presume?”

“Actually,” Sammy squeezes her legs harder which means she’s puffing up her chest, “Daddy says I’m the youngest.”

“Is that right?” The Proxy glances again at her scanner, then around me to catch my wife’s eye. I don’t dare look back to see if she lets her.

To my wife and me, Sammy is our fourth. Our beautiful baby girl who forever changed the course of our lives. But to this word, she is our oldest. Our only. The one who survived. The one who in mere minutes from now, will no longer even be that.

If I don’t swallow the emotion beating against my face, I’m going to start crying right here and never stop. So I turn Sammy toward the deck because it’s all she’s wanted to see since I told her today’s the day we’re going to meet her siblings.

“Have a safe journey.” The Proxy inserts a coded index and then slips away as fast as she came.

The deck activates. With a spark of visible light, a frame forms. Inside, energy begins to writhe. It refracts with a piercing quality that looks like a beam lancing a telescope, but then the array condenses into an eerie shimmer, as if circulating an airborne sweat. Shadows take shape within, bulbous and distorted but growing sharper as they near.

Sammy nearly leaps from my shoulders. “Is that them?”

I can’t respond because the lump’s too big in my throat. I scoop her down and hold her against my chest. I stuff my nose in her hair, inhaling her briny, sweet scent. The shadows crisp      into the silhouette of a family of five.

Sammy squeals in delight, pushing toward the floor and tugging my hand. “Can I go first? Please, please, please.”

A strangled sound escapes my wife, but I respond. “Of course. You go ahead. We’ll be right behind.”

And for the first time in Sammy’s short life, I tell a lie. Because I know she’ll never go through if she knew the truth.

The Center’s prime stipulation is that you can’t enter a world in which you’re still alive.

Sammy takes her first step, the point of interference folding over her where this world doesn’t just meet the next but is simultaneously this one and the next. Where in this world, Sammy’s pediatric heart surgeon chose to perform the fetal surgery in utero, while in the next, the cardiologist elected a neonatal procedure instead. Nine hours of excruciating back labor produced a squealing, pink-faced sunny side up Sammy in my world. In the other, Sammy took too long to be born. But in this world, no amount of corrective surgery will ensure she makes it to five.

A child born in one universe with certain odds she will soon die, while she isn’t born in another where she most assuredly would have lived.

Sammy’s fingertips graze mine for the last time. Her hair bounces in a final flutter that I’ll never see again. I stare as my child is absorbed not just into another world but into another family that could have been mine.

Tears streak down my face, and my wife finally catches up and clasps my hand. Hers is ice cold, and I’m sure she’ll shatter as soon as she’s forced to move. For now, we stand frozen together as the three other children we never had come into view. They radiate joy and sweep Sammy up in a hug like they’ve always known she’d be back.

It breaks me even as it makes me whole.

They say the quantum revolution paved the way for infinite possibilities.

But they are wrong.

It simply confirmed what we knew all along—

Our lives are our own to love and to lose.

Emily M. Dietrich is a technical science writer by day and a speculative fiction writer by night. Among her published short stories, “Alterity” won first place in the Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards for Science Fiction / Fantasy. Emily spends her free time imagining parallel universes and wandering around outside. You can find her at emilymdietrich.com and on Twitter at @emilymdietrich.

Proton Reader One

Welcome to Proton Reader
A foreword by Sami Lawson

Suck It Up
Flash fiction by Claire McNerney

A Mari Ad Astra
A short story by dave ring

Of Infinite Ends
A short story by Emily M. Dietrich

The End of Forever
A novelette by Amanda Cecelia Lang