Somewhere Between Limbo and Lightning

By Chris DeFilippis
(author of the QL novel, "Foreknowledge")


Note from the author:

Just for some background, the editor of the First Light zine wrote a first paragraph and then challenged contributors to use it in a short story. I saw it as the perfect opportunity to do a post MI piece. Though I don't think the first paragraph is especially written in my style, it served well enough. I'm proud of the story. I'll leave it up to fans to say if they think it's any good...

More by Chris DeFilippis





The yellow light in the cracked green window flickered and then by degrees began to grow dim, throwing the thing that sat on the warped porch into shadow. Wind stirred leaves; they rustled like paper, dry and ready to ignite with the smallest spark. Cold rain forestalled that.

Sam could smell wood smoke on the breeze. It reminded him of lengthening fall nights in Indiana, the promises of winters long ago. But there was something else, a salt tang that was almost as familiar. Fat drops fell around him, spattering bare arms--his arms, which were pebbling with goose bumps as he watched. It would take some getting used to, being able to see beyond the aura to his own skin again. He climbed the porch steps, welcoming the shelter.

His gaze returned to the window, the green pane in its bottom corner starting to glow in the gathering dusk. The wind shifted and the dying candle sputtered to brightness again, cutting a feeble lime swath from the top of a weather-bleached basket chair set below the window.

With no wind to carry it away, a tune Sam hadn't realized he'd been whistling echoed off the eaves.

Georgia... Georrrrgia....

Sam sat heavily, the weight of the memory an unexpected companion. He could see Beth, eyes closed, swaying in time to the music, her fear when he had called her name--the tears sliding toward her chin, as if his news was drawing the hopelessness out and away. "Al's alive, and he's coming home."

His own vision blurred as he recalled her smile. The emptiness Al must have felt, when it had vanished from his life. No. Not anymore, Sam thought. I fixed it. They'll live the life they were meant to. He can finally be happy. It wasn’t just a hunch, like those he’d gotten on countless other Leaps. This time, he knew.

Sam let out a laugh and wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand. The joy was almost overwhelming. Was this what it would be like from now on, retaining memories from one Leap to the next? The notion was bittersweet. What if he had been cradling a dead Lonnie Harper before he Leaped, or been kneeling over the grave of poor Hilla Danner? What if he’d just Leapt out of Jesus Ortega? Only now was he beginning to realize what a blessing his perpetually swiss-cheesed brain may have been.

“How? How am I supposed to Leap into fresh situations if I have to carry the emotions with me?" The rain thrummed an indifferent beat on the roof. But he already knew the answer, and it didn’t sit any better with him now than the first time he’d heard it. He could see the Bartender leaning intently on the bar, intractable, indifferent. That's the way it is. Clearly, another thing Sam would have to learn to deal with, if he decided to keep Leaping.

If. That was the strangest part of it all. Stranger than multiple incarnations of Moe Stein and the LaMatta brothers, stranger than Stawpah’s dazzling exit, stranger even than the white hair and crow’s feet that had intruded on his own reclaimed reflection. Sam’s proclivity for rationality, his natural gift to observe, analyze and ultimately see, had all but failed him in that bar-that-was-not-a-bar. That in itself was troubling enough. But the idea that he had been Leaping himself for the last five years bordered on insulting.

Despite the sheer wonder of the lives he had lived, the satisfaction of histories successfully altered--all the supposed good he had done--he had only done it for fear that he wouldn’t keep Leaping otherwise. Ultimately, returning home had been his overriding concern. ...Hadn’t it?

Al’s gravelly voice floated up from somewhere in his memory, so clear that the Observer could have been standing on the porch staring pensively over the handlink. “You’ve got a lot of boy scout in you, Sam.”

“Or a lot of fool,” Sam murmured, tersely holding up his end of the imaginary conversation. He had been raised to do good, to help others if and when he could. But only a fool would sacrifice everything for people he didn’t even know, and who would never know him.

None of the miners in the bar had remembered Stawpah’s role in saving Frank and Jimmy--Tonchi and Pete? The entire Leap was still a swirl of confusion--after the cantankerous Ukrainian had Leaped. He had been a fixture one moment, forgotten the next.

And though he had no way to be certain, Sam would be willing to bet that Beth had likewise forgotten all about him the moment he Leapt out, chalking up her decision to wait for Al to undying love. And didn’t that just say it all?

“You finally get a shot to go home and what do you do?” But the bitter tone had a hollow ring, the recrimination dying in the face of simple truth.

He had done it for Al. He would do it again. Had it been for anyone else, there might have been second thoughts. Besides, if Sam really was in control of his Leaps, he could still go home anytime he wanted to. And even if some small part of him couldn’t help but grudge the delay, he had only to think of Beth’s smile. Dazzling, radiant--

Sam’s breath hitched with sudden memory. He was a spark of thought buffeted by waves of cascading energy, a blue-white maelstrom that stretched out all around him. It was as if insanity had turned itself inside out. In it all he was a speck, an embryo just discovering his eyes, and with them a heretofore-impossible reality. Yet it was a sight as familiar as the Big Dipper, as comforting as his mother’s smile.

Hollow echoes accompanied Sam’s footsteps as he walked to the porch rail, trying to make sense of it all. He leaned into the breeze, absently studying the lightning that flickered on the horizon.

Each time Sam Leapt, the transition between hosts seemed instantaneous. But according to Al it took longer, sometimes up to a week, before a new Visitor bounced into the Waiting Room. Sam had always wondered at this unaccountable lag time.

Now he understood the odd solace he had derived from the churning blue chaos. Besides Al, it had been his only constant for the last half-decade, the place he went between Leaps. And if he was like an embryo within, then the limbo was the womb of his consciousness. Every time he entered, the cares and trials of the previous Leap melted away and he was just Sam again, complete, at peace. Every time he left, he left bits of himself behind.

Sam was glad of the solid wood beneath his arms as he struggled to wrap his mind around the enormity of it all. Even in his confusion, he began to sense that what he perceived as chaos was really an order so far advanced that he couldn’t begin to comprehend it. It was the most prodigious symphony conceivable, underpinned by brilliant, breathing mathematical precision, a four-dimensional equation, the shape of which he could just barely glimpse, the sound of which he knew he would be able to hear if he could just teach himself how to listen.

Forming the nexus of each of those ever-branching quantum strains was... opportunity... to have an influence, however minor, on the symphony’s final form-to do some composing of his own.

Sam wondered if this broadened vision was the up side of the increasingly tougher Leaps he would be facing. Was it his reward for the “difficult new assignments” the Bartender had mentioned? Or was it simply a necessity? After all, he had clearly stepped beyond the boundaries of the Project. Ziggy might be able to tell whether Sam was alive or dead, but without a Visitor to fix the date, Sam could see no possible way for the parallel-hybrid computer to even track him, much less tell him what bit of history needed fixing.

Was this why Al’s Place had been so confusing and contradictory? An Al with no answers, a Ziggy who couldn’t even spell his own name... Was it all just a testing ground set up by God, Fate, Time or Whatever to see if Sam was ready to work on his own? A catalyst that would force him to start thinking in new ways and place more trust in his instincts? And if he was now beyond Ziggy’s programming, was he also liberated from the String Theory on which he had based it? Could he now Leap beyond his own lifetime?

My own lifetime!

The thought seemed to come screaming down from the heights of Sam’s brain, loosing an avalanche of memory that obliterated these esoteric musings. He all but staggered as his own life came crashing back to him in the most stunningly mundane detail.

Katie hated the color purple, a fact she disclosed only after he and dad had spent the entire day repainting Tom’s old room to surprise her; Dana LoNigro had been born in Wilson, Arkansas; he named the first calf he’d ever helped birth Galileo; Donna’s favorite poem was--


Sam pushed away from the railing and rushed back to the window, only now truly seeing it. The green pane of glass was unmistakable. This was her family’s cabin in Chatham. That was why the salt air had such a familiar taste. He’d been here dozens of times.

Reality finally cut through his confusion and for the first time Sam considered the question of his current Leap. He certainly knew where he was. But despite his supposed control over his Leaps, he couldn’t fathom why. He had no memory of making a decision to come to the Wojohowitz summer cottage; in fact, he had no memory of any kind of decision-making process at all.

But here he was. And he was apparently alone, though he couldn’t help but glance around expectantly. The lit candle made it obvious that Donna was here. It was her habit to keep one burning in the window, almost a superstition. She was probably off beating the storm that was rolling in, getting some last-minute emergency supplies: a bottle of white wine, expensive cheese and cheap crackers, maybe a new book. She relished the rainy nights most of all. He couldn’t wait to see her face, hear her laugh, take her in his arms--

An agonizing sorrow tore through his chest as he thought of the last time he had held his wife.

Sam rushed through the Control Room on his way to the Accelerator Chamber, snugging into the Fermi Suit as he went. There were only seconds left to save Al.

“Don’t leave me again.” Donna’s voice brought him up short. It was bleak, as close to breaking as he’d ever heard it. “I don’t think I could stand it if you left me again.”

She didn’t care how many times Al had saved him. And why should she, really? But Sam cared, and she knew that he would never be able to forgive himself if he let his best friend die while it was in his power to prevent it. “It’s not fair Sam,” she said in a final, frustrated protest. He could only stare, no solace to give. She was right. It wasn’t fair. “Go!” she finally said.

Sam pulled her into a languishing kiss, losing himself in the feel of her skin, the smell of her hair. “I’ll be back,” he said, “I swear!”

He hadn’t needed to make a decision to come here. He had a promise to keep. On some level he just knew, and Leapt accordingly.

The wind shifted again, a hard gust that made its way through the crack in the glass and extinguished the guttering candle once and for all. As his eyes adjusted to the last shreds of twilight, Sam could make out the reflection in the darkened green pane. Sure enough, his own face stared back. Split. Troubled.

“So now what?” He felt ashamed at the conflict building within him. “Which reality do I accept?”

Memories of Donna pulled him in one direction, the happiness they had known in the thirteen years from their first meeting at Project Star Bright to Sam’s ill-judged hop into the Accelerator Chamber-a happiness he had worked so hard to secure during one of his early Leaps.

The quantum composition pulled him in another, an unfinished symphony composed of eddies of chance, dimples of probability, colliding, bisecting, creating unexpected iterations, unforeseen paths of plausibility, stretching off into infinite time, infinite space, infinite planes of existence. The sparkling blue equation began to cast a new light on his experiences of the last five years.

Maybe that damned Bartender had been right. Maybe he had been Leaping himself. His intellect was thrumming with these first faltering steps toward comprehension, toward this threshold of new understanding. What would crossing it bring? All those possible lives, all those possible futures, the challenge of grasping his role in the complexity of it all.

He hated the choice he was being forced to make, hated himself for even considering that there was a choice. Donna clearly didn’t have the same doubts. She had been waiting for him for five years. He knew her resolve. She would continue to do so.

But why did he have to choose between the two? He was a time traveler, wasn’t he? He wasn’t constrained by three dimensions. If he was truly autonomous now, couldn’t he come back to Donna whenever he wished? He could travel to the depths of Time and back, yet still Leap home in time for dinner. From her point of view, it would be as if he’d never left.

But even as the thoughts surfaced they began to sink again under their own selfish weight. Sam realized they were nothing more than scanty justification. Never mind questions of paradox, or the original history of endless waiting and seeming hopelessness that Donna would force herself to endure. The very fact that he was even debating himself about the matter said it all. Whichever reality he decided to accept wouldn’t amount to much if he failed to accept the truth.

If he Leapt on, he might never return home.

After all, if he had discovered this much about the true nature of his Leaping in just the time it took for the sunlight to fade from the treetops, then who could tell what revelations awaited? What further discoveries would keep spurring him forward? Would there ever be an end?

He didn’t know. And he wouldn’t allow Donna to suffer because of his ignorance. She deserved better. Thunder pealed on his left, a whip-shot of agreement. He turned his head toward it just as the lightning came, transforming the porch into a splash of brilliance.

Something jumped out at him in the sudden light, an object that had escaped his notice until then. Sam retrieved it from its hiding place in the shadow of the basket chair. New frontiers in Leaping notwithstanding, sometimes the old methods were still the best. The newspaper was dry, fresh. A rueful chuckle escaped Sam as he noted the date. September 6, 1979.

All that mental debate, and it turned out that his subconscious had again decided things for him. Not only had it dictated where he would Leap, but when. 1979. A good three years before he and Donna had even met.

He had done it for Al and Beth. He had to do at least as much for Donna. Maybe he could convince her to marry the man she left at the altar before him. She’d be dating him by now, just getting serious if his newfound memory was serving him correctly. Or maybe he would just tell her to steer clear of any man named Beckett. He didn’t know. But one way or another, he would find the words to set her free.

His heart rose in his throat and tears sprung to his eyes as headlights swept across the wall in front of him. She was back. Sam fought to keep calm, did his best ignore the self-serving voice in his head that told him to damn logic and beg her to wait.

As bad as it is for you, you’ll be sparing her a lifetime of something far worse, he told himself. And once you’re gone, she won’t even remember you. It’s for the best. And as he turned to greet her, windblown and breathtaking as she rushed up the porch steps and out of the rain, he knew he was right.

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