Dr. Ray Candle created a bridge to the unknown. Deep in the C&B Building in Seattle Washington a historical event takes place with no fanfare and few witnesses as Dr. Candle prepares to embark on a daring experiment.
As a kid Dr. Candle created bridges out of old cedar logs to span streams. Now he creates a one-way bridge and becomes the first person to step through.
A story of exploration and bravery, and the triumph of will.
When I say I walked out onto the bridge what does that tell you? If I capitalize it, and it should be capitalized, something this important, does it tell you anything more? No. Bridge or bridge, it makes no difference at all.
For me the word ‘bridge’ brings up associations of rough bridges Stan, my brother, and I built over the streams on our parent’s property in eastern Washington, north of Spokane but not so far east as to be in Idaho, out in the sticks when we were kids. Those bridges were all mushroomy cedar logs thrown down across the stream, the long strips of bark peeled and twisted into crude ropes that we used to lash them together. The cedar smell mixed with decay and stagnant water and gassy, slippery mud.
The Bridge, the capitalized one, is nothing like those bridges from my childhood at all. The smell of this bridge is sharp metallic, purified and crackling ozone. But like my childhood bridges, I did build this one.
It exists not in the outdoors under fresh air and the quiet drooping limbs of the older cedars but inside the C&B building in the heart of Seattle, not so far from Homer M. Hadley memorial bridge, the longest floating bridge in the world built to carry the mad rush of daily traffic. My Bridge is nothing like the Homer M. Hadley bridge. There are no traffic lanes, just one platform wide enough for my expanding waistline. We’ve painted the platform with a band of yellow and black caution stripes as if anyone working here needed to be cautioned.
In a way this Bridge, beneath the cold, bright LED lights, is a suspension bridge because there are spider-steel strands, each the width of a human hair, stretching out from the platform to the distant dark walls.
With each step I expected the Bridge to sway, to vibrate, for the strands to hum, but it was steady and quiet. The hiss and hum of the air filling my isolation suit was louder than I’d like. I had a coppery, medicinal taste in my mouth from the decontamination. We’d sent machines across the Bridge, and now a man would need to cross.
If my brother was still alive, he’d be the first to volunteer. He was always a leap-without-looking kind of guy.
My Bridge ends at a place I can’t see. Literally, it can’t be seen. It doesn’t reflect any light. Photos hitting the field keep going and don’t come back, which violates all sorts of laws, but there it is.
I intend to come back.
That’s the plan anyway. If I didn’t sign the checks that employed everyone in the building I wouldn’t even be standing out on the Bridge alone with the LED lights cutting off at the edge of the field. A quantum edge, sharper than any knife imaginable.
Dark doesn’t make it clear what I saw when I looked at the field. Blindness was a better way to think of it. When I looked at the field I was blind, except on the far edges of my peripheral vision where my eyes managed to catch the gleam of the lights on the stands holding the platform. That faint sense of the room around me was a ring of light around the blindness at the center of my vision.
No light came from the field. Not a single stray photon. Nothing that went in came back. So looking that way created a void where the eye got nothing back. Look at the edge of shadows and there’s backscattered light like faded memories. Nothing like that here. Looking into the field was like looking into blindness, except I could look away and see again.
My Bridge is one-way. Unlike the reversible lanes on the Homer M. Hadley bridge it only goes the one way. It’s like time or my life. It cares nothing for regrets, for the broken and discarded lives I left along my path to billions of dollars and an international global business specializing in the latest breakthroughs in quantum computing.
I licked my chemical-tasting teeth and drew a deep breath of sterilized, dry air.
“Dr. Candle? Are you okay?”
The voice on my overlay was young, male and nervous, just like I was the first time I asked a girl out on a date. Peter Hundley is one of my bright young team in the C & B Special Projects division. My division. The whole reason that I even built C & B from the ground up. I wanted to do cool things, and figured out at an early age that making boatloads of money let me do what I wanted.
“Fine. I’m fine. Savoring the moment.”
“We have other volunteers,” Peter said for the hundredth time. Probably thinking I was having doubts. “You don’t have to do this yourself.”
Like I was going to give someone else the opportunity. Why build the Bridge only to let someone else cross it first?
I wanted to be the first to cross. I did. And the first to return. It wasn’t like I had any family left, not even my brother. This was my chance to do something daring, and as world-changing as the first man walking on the Moon.
I said that the Bridge was one-way and that’s true. Matter and energy can’t come back across the field which is the real Bridge, the platform is just the means to reach the field. Matter and energy, two sides of the coin, can’t come back across but information can.
The machines we sent included some that were quantum entangled with machines here, allowing them to send back key data points on survivability of the environment where they arrived. Atmospheric pressure, temperature, gravity and the like were all relayed as simple data points, yes/no for human survivability.
We got green lights across the board. Whatever was on the other side of the Bridge, the environment for the current field settings was hospitable to human life.
We’ve opened the Bridge many other times with different field settings and sent machines through. Sometimes we got a few green lights, other times none.
“Sir, the generators are overheating.”
It was time to go. The Bridge could only remain open for a few minutes at a time, given the massive power drain.
I thought I should say something important, but what was there to say? I wanted to peek behind the curtain.
“Keep a candle burning,” I said, enjoying the word play on my name.
I stepped into the field.
I had a split second of fear before my feet hit the ground and I stumbled, dropping to one knee. Bright light replaced blindness with painful intensity that blazed through the front of my isolation suit. It brought with it heat that quickly was going to make the suit unbearable.
Ground, solid ground crunched beneath my foot and knee, like sand or gravel. A roaring, rhythmic sound could only be the noise of waves as if beside an ocean. I pushed myself up, took a step and my foot hit something hard, with a metallic clunk and I tripped. I banged my shin as I fell, the pain sharp and immediate. Right as I caught myself a shadow passed overhead and I caught a glimpse of long, wicked claws, chipped and stained yellow, reaching out for me and missing my head — apparently because I had fallen.
I rolled onto my side and shielded my eyes as I watched the enormous winged creature flap back up into the sky. A bird? Whatever it was, it was a beast with a gigantic wingspan, dark against the bright sky. As big as it was, I didn’t think it could possibly have carried me off, but that didn’t mean it wouldn’t dive again. Something that big might easily attack something on the ground.
My eyes were adjusting to the harsh light. My breath rasped in the hot confines of the suit and I felt as if I were suffocating. Wherever I had found myself, it wasn’t currently the most pleasant place in the universe.
Far above me the monstrous bird-thing flapped higher, using the blinding sun to its advantage. Sneaky bastard.
I looked for shelter. I was on a slopped grassy bluff covered with some sort of wispy sea grass that lay in limp clumps on sand. Scattered around me were the machines that we had sent over the Bridge like a bunch of discarded children’s blocks. Some really were block-shaped, metal though, not wood. Others were round. They’d been designed to survive in environments as diverse as the deep sea and outer space. Some were so tough they could be thrown into a volcanic eruption and survive.
None of that did me any good as the gigantic bird started its next attack run. It dove out of the sun, a dark speck in the blinding sky.
I spun in place. Uphill or down? Given my size, downhill was preferable. I ran down the sandy slope, each step digging furrows in the treacherous sand, waddling like a crazed penguin toward a gentle ocean that extended to the horizon, the waves and water a sort of purplish hue.
I ran in the rasping, stiff, sweltering isolation suit toward the small waves rolling in. I looked up and back, just as the bird was nearly upon me.
I threw myself to ground, hitting with bruising force on the sand.
The predatory bird-thing was committed and couldn’t change course fast enough. Thick claws slammed into the sand only a meter in front of me. Wide wings smacked the sand, and flapped, sending up clouds of the stuff. It was a scaly-looking monster with a reddish stripe on the back of its tumorous head. The look in its eyes was one of sheer madness, of a beast driven to the brink. By hunger? Rage?
I grabbed the first thing that came to my hand, a sort of spiral shell sticking out of the sand and yanked it free. A nest of thin, red, wormy tentacles thrashed about beneath the shell.
The bird lunched around, screaming from a thick, hooked beak. Mucus dripped from its mouth.
I threw the shell at the bird-thing.
My aim was good for once. Not professional baseball good, but good enough for this. The shelled creature struck the bird in the side of the head and immediately those red tentacles thrust into the tumorous neck of the creature.
Again the bird screamed, but this time the rage was overridden by obvious pain. It thrashed and rolled in the sand, sending up great clouds of the stuff. Then it collapsed and as the sand settled I saw that two more of the tentacled shell creatures had attached themselves to the bird. One lower on its neck, the other on the thick breast. The tentacles pulsed and swelled as if they were sucking away at the bird.
I scrambled to my feet — watching my step carefully because these things were potential landmines. Now that I knew what I was looking for I saw them scattered throughout the sand. Most were burrowed down far enough to hide, just waiting to pierce the unwary with their shells before latching on with their deadly tentacles. A wrong step could risk puncturing the isolation suit and my flesh.
Not exactly the sort of destination I had hoped to find on the other side of the Bridge. Not that I’d known what to expect, that was the point. This was a habitable world, that didn’t make it safe!
Making my way carefully back up the slope, watching each step, I returned to where our machines waited. There was more of the thin grass, limp and sprawling on the sand here. The grasses spread out like blood vessels across the hill and the vampire shell creatures didn’t seem to like this firmer ground. I reached the machines a minute later and sat down on one of the cubes.
Sweat ran down my face, salty and reminding me to drink. I sucked on the water tube that supplied fairly cool water from the bladder on my back. The isolation suit appeared undamaged as I checked it over just in case one of those things had managed to poke me when I fell.
Everything checked out. I was sore, hot, scratchy and aching all over. It’s true, the bigger they are the harder they fall and I’m not a small man. I loom over people, physically and mentally, intimidating those around me.
Not here. The things here just seem to want to see if I’ll be a suitable lunch.
I activated my overlay and interfaced with the machines scattered around me. This was the difficult part of the whole experiment. As we suspected, the Bridge opened to another world. Or another time? An alternate universe? It would take time to answer those questions. There would have to be measurements and tests done to confirm any answer. Even in our universe, with billions of galaxies each full of billions of stars and countless habitable worlds, there was no telling where the Bridge had ended up taking me.
The bigger question right now was whether or not I was going to make it back.
Two of the machines — planning for redundancy — were designed to measure the Bridge field from this end, locking down the coordinates back to Earth. It had to be done from this side as the information was too complex to be sent back and the field could only be measured from this side. If it worked then the other machines had everything I needed to construct a new Bridge back to Earth.
The question was, had it worked?
My overlay interfaced successfully with the machines. Linkage approved, Bridge field coordinates showed recorded by both machines.
Except that each machine had recorded a different set of coordinates.
Both checked out on internal checks but my overlay confirmed that the Bridge field coordinates weren’t the same.
I didn’t have a clue how that could have happened. Both should have recorded the same thing. At least that was what I expected, but we had never been able to measure a field from the receiving end before now. Was it a fault of one of the machines? It had to be, but how could I tell? Both set of coordinates passed the verification program that I had designed, appearing as valid coordinates.
I activated diagnostics on both machines. While I waited I kept an uneasy eye on the sky and had a chance to take in this new world I had discovered.
World. That’s another word like ‘bridge,’ it doesn’t really tell you anything.
This place was bright sun and white sand beaches, with an ocean tinted purple, almost as if someone had dumped food coloring into the waters. Most likely that was from some sort of microorganism in the water, if I had to guess. I hadn’t specialized in biology in order to make my money.
It was hot, but as my overlay icons informed me from the sensors in the machine, the temperature was only at 37 degrees Celsius, with 50.5% humidity. Pretty comfortable temperatures if you were running around on the beach with nothing but good SPF sunscreen and a pair of swim trunks. Not so good cocooned inside the isolation suit. Its cooling systems struggled to keep me from baking like a potato.
And the clock was ticking down. I was supposed to assemble the equipment and open a new Bridge back home.
It was impossible to draw too many conclusions about this planet from my tiny perspective. I had machines measuring the air composition, wind patterns, motion of the sun and clouds, air pressure, gravity and everything else that my people could think to pack into the devices. All those wonderful details that made the place unique and special.
Just not the sort of place where you wanted to go for a barefoot stroll on the beach.
I never associated the beach with heat before now. When I was kid my parents sometimes took us over to the Washington coast for the day. It wasn’t so far to drive, heading out highway 12 through Aberdeen, and out to Westport in most cases. We went out to the beach to cool off on hot days. The breeze was usually cool coming off the ocean, sometimes it was even overcast, and my brother and I would spend the day building castles and moats, complete with drawbridges of driftwood.
I’ve been to Hawaii, to warm beaches and warm oceans with water as clear as glass, but still when I think of beaches I pictured cooling off.
Not this place. Planets aren’t the same all over, just look at the difference between the Washington and Hawaiian beaches, so I’m sure there are nicer spots than this deadly beach, baking in my isolation suit. That’s just not where I ended up.
My overlay threw up a status report over the deceptively peaceful beach, where the bird’s body had attracted more of the shelled vampires, dragging themselves out of the sand to latch onto the bird.
The diagnostics were detailed as they scrolled over the unpleasant scene, but the bottom-line was that both machines checked out.
If there was a fault in either machine, I couldn’t see it here from the internal self-diagnostics. I’d have to get them back to the lab on Earth and hook them up to equipment there. We’d tested them extensively, measuring the field coordinates from our side of the bridge and the results were always consistent with the settings used to open the Bridge field. I’d ordered two sent through simply for the extra redundancy, since not having the coordinates back would sort of suck. As sturdy as the machines were, we couldn’t rule out something damaging them.
The most likely explanation was that some high-energy particle from that bright sun had struck the equipment just right to throw off the coordinate calculations without triggering a fault. We were talking about quantum calculations, it was possible that a small change could lead to a problem.
I stood up and went to wipe the sweat from my face. I didn’t realize what I was doing until my glove hit my faceplate.
I was baking. The isolation suit was just about intolerable. I had to open the new Bridge. Once I did that I could cross, but I’d be crossing blind. It was a coin toss what was on the other side. Assuming one of the machines had detected the right coordinates to return me home and they weren’t both wrong.
If I got back we’d change the protocol. Have the machines automatically detect the field and send back a yes/no indication if they were in agreement. If both agreed, then we’d know that we had good coordinates for the return Bridge.
If I got back.
If I wanted to go back.
I turned and looked out away from the ocean, putting it at my back. This was a big world, the horizon was far away, the gravity .13 gees higher than back on Earth. It would have mountains and rivers. Glaciers and lakes. Maybe even forests. The ground rose away from the ocean in a series of undulating hills, the limp grassy vines sprawled across the sand gave way to taller, woodier plants. Not trees, but bushes, that gave the hills a varied and lumpy look, done in shades of green and red-brown hues, with the occasional lighter green or yellow plants. Much further away purple mountains rose up against the sky with rounded, old shoulders like sleeping giants.
Distant dark spots in the sky suggested other large avians looking for prey.
Was this a new frontier? Were there natives out there, other intelligences?
The urge to pull off the isolation suit — stronger because it was so uncomfortably hot — and go exploring was compelling.
Yet I’ve always been a methodical man. When my brother and I built bridges, I planned them out, drawing plans in my notebooks for each one. I’ve always approached things that way. Building C&B, taking care of our parent’s estate for my brother even as he let his life disintegrate in a flood of alcohol and reckless behavior. The same thing led him to lose control of his motorcycle on a sunny summer day riding around the corners of highway 101 down the coast. He always wanted to see what was across the bridges, what was around the corner, or down the next road.
I was the successful one. He was the daring one.
I could go off traipsing across this world. There were emergency supplies with the machines, but then I’d be taking a page from his book.
I’d built the Bridge and I crossed it first. That was daring enough. Now I’d be the first person to open the Bridge back and the whole world would change.
I turned my back from the distant mountains and focused on the machines. My hands waved as if I was conducting to an invisible orchestra as I expanded my overlay and opened up the control menus for the machines scattered like children’s toys around me.
Cubes and spheres, pyramids and octahedrons split at their seams and opened up like a bunch of mechanical flowers. On treads, wheels and legs, the machines unfolded themselves, connected together, performing a complex origami dance to build a new Bridge.
While they worked, I stood and sweated and kept a wary eye on the skies.
When the machines finished, this Bridge stood on stout metal legs built from the exterior cube casings. A ramp rose up from the sand, the grating made of many diamond shapes that had expanded as the machines pulled the panel wide. It rose up and leveled off like a Bridge to nowhere. I didn’t have a clean room here, but if the coordinates worked then this end of the Bridge platform should line up with the suspension platform in the clean room.
No fall this time.
I was an hour past the estimated connection time when the machines finished and the sun had moved across the sky toward the ocean. The glare was blinding, just glancing that way set my eyes watering. My overlay flashed warnings about the isolation suit’s systems. Soon it would fail and I would have to leave the suit.
No more time. I wished I’d brought a coin to toss, to help me pick which set of coordinates to use, but I was just going to have to pick.
I activated the Bridge field using the first set of coordinates.
A circle of blindness appeared in the air at the end of the platform. Standing back like this, it was easy to take it all in, that absolute blackness that didn’t let any light through from the other side — or anything else. Nothing but a quantum field. Walk through that and everything was instantly shifted to a new location in the universe, preserving momentum and everything else. At least I thought it was the same universe, that solved the pesky problem with conserving stuff in this universe.
The remote power generators didn’t have much time. I couldn’t throw the environmental sensors through and find out what was on the other side because those were entangled to report back to the C&B building in Seattle. Either they’d show up in the clean room or they’d be somewhere else if the coordinates didn’t go back home. Wherever they ended up it wouldn’t help me.
And I wouldn’t have the equipment on the other end to build a new Bridge if this one sent me somewhere else — assuming that I survived.
My overlay was flashing a warning about the power. I ran, lumbered might be more accurate, but I’ll say ran, up the ramp of the new Bridge platform. It trembled beneath my steps.
My breath rasped in the confines of the isolation suit. With my eyes fixed on the Bridge field I was charging as blindly as a bull in a China shop.
I went through.
And ran out onto the platform in the clean room. The bright LED lights were dim compared to the sun back on the world I had left.
“Dr. Candle!” Peter said. “Are you okay?”
I unfastened the catches on my isolation suit, and tore open the seals. I pulled the hood off my soaked head and drank in lungfuls of the cool, sterilized air. It was a risk if I’d brought anything through on the suit, but I couldn’t stand it any longer.
The metallic and ozone smell of the clean room was comforting. I breathed and as I caught my breath I started to laugh.
I’d done it.
I coughed, cleared my throat, and said. “I’m fine, start going over the data.”
With a wave I activated my overlay transfer, sending all of the data collected into the system. Including finding out where that other set of coordinates went, if anywhere. I was going to be in quarantine until we were sure that I hadn’t brought anything back but that wasn’t going to stop me from planning the next phase of Bridge building.
I went out and came back.
I’d built the ultimate Bridge, the one that would take us to strange new worlds and all of that stuff that Stan and I had dreamed about when we were kids.
I couldn’t wait to see what we would find.
This story is the 59th weekly short story release, written in June 2014. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Stay Extended.