Crisis of Vision

The first time Dr. Fitzclarence took Catherine to the old aerospace factory, their voices and footsteps had echoed in its emptiness. Over the past month the techs had transformed the space so completely she was hard-pressed to recognize the barren factory floor she'd toured that day.

She threaded her way through the equipment with care, not wanting to risk damaging a multi-million-dollar device with a careless jostle. Although she knew the theory of quantum cross-temporal imaging well enough – she wouldn't be Dr. Fitzclarence's graduate research assistant if she weren't working on her own PhD in quantum dynamics – she didn't know exactly how every machine in this place worked. But even she, a specialist in the quantum underpinnings of human consciousness, knew that careless contact could decohere a critical quantum entanglement and set their experiments behind by months.

Dr. Fitzclarence was already at the control center, reviewing documentation. He looked up only long enough to verify Catherine's identity before returning to his work. "We'll start the tests promptly at 2200 hours. I trust you are prepared and ready to begin."

Catherine reminded herself he didn't mean to be rude, that when he got wrapped up in a project, the social graces escaped him. The man was so brilliant in his field that if you wanted to learn those things, you put up with it. Quite honestly, considering how social signals tended to zoom past her, especially when they were things she didn't want to hear, like "set aside what you're enjoying and present to those around you as being fascinated by something that bores you to tears," she didn't have a lot of room to judge. "Yes, sir. I have the biometric sensors in place and I'm ready to go."

The techs assisted Catherine into the seat and helped her connect all the sensor leads to the medical monitors. All this monitoring was overkill – peering into another timeline wasn't so dangerous. But the university's Human Experimentation Review Board had insisted on it as a condition of approving the experiment, so she curbed her annoyance. A tech who shared her interest in the history of the US space program had pointed out that the Apollo 1 fire was so deadly because nobody considered a routine test dangerous, so they didn't have any firefighters or emergency equipment present, just the ordinary technicians, the "pad rats."

By the time everything was ready, Catherine was thinking about how the early astronauts must've felt during the hours-long waits on the launchpad before liftoff. So it was with as much relief as excitement that she drew the cap of silvery mesh over her head and activated the switch to begin the experiment.

One moment she was sitting in a chair in an old factory in St. Louis, and the next she was standing on a beach, looking at a slender black and white missile a few miles downrange. Definitely Cape Canaveral, and that was a Redstone rocket. Without binoculars she couldn't be sure, but it looked like it had a Mercury spacecraft atop it.

Not that she needed to speculate, since she was seeing through the eyes of someone with a radio – about the size of an e-reader, but in the early 1960's when transistors were still new technology, it would've been considered small. It enabled her to listen to the capcom feed, in addition to the countdown and news reportage over a loudspeaker the rest of the crowd had.

As the countdown reached zero, exhaust billowed around the launchpad and the rocket began its rise into the sky. On the capcom feed a deep New-England-accented voice announced, "We have liftoff, and the clock is started."

As Freedom 7 rose the first few thousand feet, everything seemed to go as it had on the historical videos Catherine had watched so many times on YouTube. On the capcom feed, both Shepard in the spacecraft and Slayton on the ground were all business, the time for levity past.

She heard Shepard's muttered, "Oh, crap," and then a fireball engulfed the rocket. Catherine searched the sky, willing herself to see the escape tower lifting the Mercury capsule to safety, but all she could see was debris falling through the air amidst the expanding clouds of smoke, far too much like the videos of Challenger's final, fatal launch.

She heard someone say they'd found fragments of Shepard's spacesuit. Then she was back in the present, back in St. Louis, sitting in a chair surrounded by scientific equipment. She blinked, realized her eyes were filling with tears.

It took her a moment to recover control of her breathing enough to give a summary of her experience. Try as she might, she couldn't keep her voice from cracking.

One of the techs put her arm around Catherine's shoulders. "That must've been awful, especially how you've always admired the early astronauts."

"Uh, thanks." Catherine swallowed hard, determined to pull herself together for the next test. There was too much riding on this experiment, not the least her own doctoral dissertation.

When she felt confident she could handle the second test, she adjusted the mesh cap, then flipped the switch. Once again her consciousness bridged the gap between timelines.

She rode in a helicopter, flying over a choppy sea and scanning the sky. Yes, there, a fast-moving mote, descending from the clouds. Moments after she picked it out, a parachute bloomed over it, slowed its descent to make a perfect splashdown. Definitely a Mercury spacecraft, but which one?

Even as one of the other helicopters descended to grapple the spacecraft, there was a flash of movement on the tiny capsule's side. Behind Catherine, someone yelled, "Why the heck did he blow the hatch now?"

Moments later a silvery-suited figure jumped from the spacecraft and began to swim. That's Gus Grissom.

At first Gus seemed to be handling things well enough. Within minutes Catherine could tell that the combination of a waterlogged spacesuit and the rotor downwash from the three helicopters was overwhelming him. His efforts to attract their attention grew weaker with every wave that crashed down on him.

Catherine shouted at the other occupants of the helicopter, trying to get them to lower a horsecollar so Gus could get out of the water. But they were too engrossed in the struggle to save the Liberty Bell 7 to notice the astronaut fighting for his life less than a hundred yards away. Desperation giving way to despair, Gus reached up one last time in appeal before the final wave overcame him and he vanished into the sea.

"Major Grissom! Gus! Gus!"

Even as Catherine called out in one last hopeless appeal, the quantum field cut out, leaving her in her seat in the experimental apparatus. Aware of everyone staring with her, she flushed hot with embarrassment. "I watched him die."

She got some weird looks. Realizing what they must be thinking, she explained, "No, not the Fire, his Mercury flight. They didn't get him out of the water and I watched him drown. He looked right in my eyes before he went under the last time."

"You're overwrought." Dr. Fitzclarence probably meant it to comfort, but his tone stung like a slap. "We need to recalibrate some of the equipment before the next test, so take ten and recover your composure."

Catherine forced out words of gratitude while the techs unhooked her from the medical monitors. One of the women offered to accompany her to the restroom, but Catherine declined. If she did lose control altogether, she didn't want anybody watching.

Splashing some cold water on her face helped, if only by washing away the tears she'd fought so hard not to shed and cooling away the heat of being caught out. Not to mention that walking to the restroom and back again gave her time, and thus mental distance from what she'd just seen. By telling herself that she'd homed in on that timeline because she'd been feeling like the space program was dying ever since the last flight of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, and that it had landed on the fiftieth anniversary of Grissom's Mercury mission, she almost had herself believing it.

Still she couldn't erase from the whiteboard of her mind the image of those eyes staring up at her, pleading for a rescue that never came. As a result, a certain foreboding hung over her as she returned to her station for the next round of tests.

This time the shift thrust her onto the flight deck of a carrier, looking up a bright spot in the clear blue sky. Behind her, a guy with the NASA logo on his cap and a headset to his ear shouted, "Crap, the retro-pack didn't hold. His heat shield's coming loose."

Overhead, the bright spot of light turned into a broad streak. Even without binoculars Catherine could see fragments breaking off.

Although the Challenger explosion had been before her time, Catherine had been a teenager living in the piney woods of Texas when Columbia broke up and burned on re-entry. Already space-struck, she'd been outside waiting to see the orbiter go over, and had watched in helpless horror as the disintegrating spacecraft blazed like a daytime comet. Nothing had come down on her family's property, but one of her dad's coworkers had heard a thump on her roof and went up to find a hand, charred and shrunken until it looked more like an eagle's claw. It had been particularly hard because that woman had been working in downtown Manhattan on 9-11, and human remains from one of the planes had landed on the ledge outside her office.

All around Catherine, people were cursing, praying, mourning. Again and again she heard the same words repeated: "Godspeed John Glenn."

And then Catherine was back in the present, fighting back the tears of grief for another world's lost astronaut. By force of will she mastered her emotions so she could tell Dr. Fitzclarence exactly what she thought of having to watch how a man who was still living, a former US Senator no less, might have died.

"Catherine, please, there's no need to be upset." Yet again it was clear that Dr. Fitzclarence meant well, just in his usual socially tone-deaf way. He thrust a tablet computer into her hands. "See, nothing happened to Glenn just because you looked at a possibility we averted."

She skimmed the Wikipedia article, reloaded it just in case, and satisfied herself that the former Senator was indeed alive and well in Columbus, Ohio. As fast as Wikipedia got updated when a well-known person perished, even at weird hours of the morning, she could rest assured that absence of evidence constituted evidence of absence.

Finally she felt ready to begin another test. She flipped the switch, and for a moment she thought it hadn't worked – until she realized just how primitive the instrument panel before her was, and recognized it as belonging to a Mercury spacecraft. This time she'd managed to shift right into the astronaut himself, seeing through his eyes as he flew his mission.

Scott Carpenter's Aurora 7 flew after Glenn, but this astronaut wasn't Carpenter. Then Catherine remembered Delta 7, which never flew because Deke Slayton got grounded over a minor irregularity in his heartbeat. Except in this world either it had slipped past the flight surgeons or he'd beaten down their objections to fly the mission anyway.

Just as Catherine was really getting into the experience of spaceflight, she became aware of a pain in her – no, Deke's – chest. In moments it grew to a crushing agony.

Could he be having a heart attack? In her world, he'd clawed his way back to flight status and never had a bit of trouble on the Apollo-Soyuz linkup mission. But that was after an intensive vitamin therapy regimen, so it would be possible--

Already he was struggling to breathe against the pressure, like taking fifteen g's on the centrifuge. Back at Edwards he'd trained himself to take high g-loads when there was a shortage of g-suits, but none of his old tricks were working. His vision went gray, and the capcom's voice grew weak and faint as if at the end of a long pipe.

If Deke died, could it take her with him? How long did she have left before the timer cut out the quantum field? Catherine's own alarm rose in tandem with her host's.

And then the pain was gone and she was back in her own, most definitely female, body. She heard a voice saying, "Oh my god, oh my god," realized it was her own.

"What's wrong?" That was the tech who'd comforted her the first time, after she'd seen Shepard's original flight end in a fireball a few thousand feet over the Cape.

"I felt him die. I was inside him, and I felt every minute of the heart attack that killed him."

"Killed whom?" Dr. Fitzclarence didn't even bother to hide his irritation.

"Deke Slayton."

The name might not mean anything to Dr. Fitzclarence, but the tech recognized it. "But Deke never flew his Mercury mission."

"In that world he sure did." Catherine's throat grew tight as the grief hit her. "And he didn't deserve to have an uninvited visitor from another world inside his mind, watching while he had a massive heart attack."

"Catherine Anne Sullivan." Dr. Fitzclarence spoke in the tones of authority. "Do not be ridiculous. That man was not the real Deke Slayton, just an echo of what might have been, a shadow of a road not taken."

What could she say in response to that? Catherine bowed her head, agreed that becoming emotionally involved with one's subjects was not professional, and that she would continue the test sequence to the end. Nothing to do but hope for the best.

There was something reassuring about shifting worlds and seeing Deke Slayton at the capcom console. Yes, Aurora 7was flying, although Catherine couldn't tell whether Scott Carpenter had taken Deke's place as he had in her own world, or if this were one where Deke got to fly but escaped the fate she'd witnessed the lasttime around.

The conversation between pilot and capcom was technical enough that most people wouldn't recognize the problem unfolding. Catherine had studied enough about Project Mercury to know the situation had gone from bad to worse before the stricken look made it to Deke's face.

As Catherine waited for the timer, there was nothing to do but watch the mission controllers discussing what to do, bringing Rene Carpenter and their children into the control room for one last, private conversation with a man now in a hopeless orbit after re-entry failure had bounced him off the atmosphere. The whole time she felt like a voyeur, unable to look away because the person whose eyes she was using had duties that kept him looking at the heartbroken wife who would soon be a widow.

And then Catherine was back in the present. "This has gone far enough. I don't care if they're not the real astronauts, or if its no different from looking at how our own close calls could've gone differently. It's still morbid, ghoulish, and disrespectful to the astronauts."

Dr. Fitzclarence gave her a curt nod. "Then you're going to throw your entire dissertation away and start over?"

Now there was a prospect to give her pause. How much market would there be for an all-but-dissertation in quantum physics? Probably better than an ABD in history or English lit, but the thought of teaching at the high school or community college level for the rest of her life didn't appeal. She wanted to do research, dammit, maybe even work with NASA or somebody else who was going places and doing things, not drum the basics of Newtonian mechanics into one after another set of unreceptive heads, semester after semester.

But it didn't make the prospect of two more tests any more pleasant. Imagining how Gordon Cooper's Faith 7 could've killed him was easy, since that mission was right up there with Gemini VIII and Apollo XIII on NASA's roster of narrowly averted catastrophes. But Sigma 7 had been about as close to technically perfect as any of the Mercury missions, and Catherine really didn't want to see how it could've come apart on Wally Schirra.

Dammit, she wanted to see a happy world, one in which things went right for the astronauts. Willing with all her might, she pressed the switch.

When she first saw the spacecraft, she thought she was in Skylab. Pete Conrad's crew had saved it from the damage it took on launch, but that process could've gone awry so easily--

But no, there were a multitude of differences – it looked more like some of the early "wet workshop" plans for converting a used Saturn V third stage after emptying its propellant tanks. And the astronaut floating beside a window was most decidedly not Pete Conrad, not with that full head of dark hair. Were her eyes deceiving her, or was that an Apollo lunar mission he was watching?

Yes, that was a Lunar Module docked to the nose of the Command-Service Module. As it passed by, its heat-equalizing "barbecue roll" enabled the astronaut to observe its entire surface.

"You're looking good, Deke. Have fun on the Moon."

Catherine's chest went tight with joy. She'd found a world where NASA was able to run overlapping missions, where Deke Slayton got a real career instead of just a sop tossed his direction because Apollo was ending and somebody felt sorry for him. But who was the other astronaut? She felt like she should recognize him, but couldn't place his face.

And then he turned to look at her, and she realized why – because he was older than any photograph she'd seen, older than he'd ever gotten to be in her world. He was Roger Chaffee, who'd died in the Apollo 1 fire before he even got to fly in space.

Oh, god, this wasn't just a world where NASA had its act together so well it could run concurrent missions. It was a world where the disaster of the Fire was averted and all three of those astronauts got to have full lives. Maybe even Gus Grissom as the first man on the Moon the way Deke had planned. Longing filled Catherine until she felt her heart would burst.

And then the timer cut out and slammed her back into a world where the Space Shuttle had been retired with no solid plan to replace it, just a bunch of ideas that might never come to fruition for want of funds. She wanted to scream, to throw up, to smash something in sheer frustration at the monstrous unfairness of it all.

But there was no way she could talk about how it hurt to see a world so right that this one seemed like wreckage in comparison, how it was worse even than the grief of worlds where one after another Mercury mission ended in disaster, and presumably the US space program with it. She had no great desire for a scolding about selfishness, about how one must always focus entirely upon the victims, not anybody else's pain, and certainly not one's own.

"We're going to have to keep a lid on this one, out of respect for the families of the Apollo 1 astronauts."

Dr. Fitzclarence wasn't ready to give up yet. "But to know that somewhere out there their loved ones are still alive--"

"Maybe." Catherine stared into the distance, struggling to find the words that would shut things down for good, so she wouldn't have to keep looking at the wonders of a world she couldn't have. "Some people would find comfort in theories of quantum immortality. But for other people it would be just salt in their wounds, a mocking reminder of what they've lost. And there's no way to ask them which way it is without risking inflicting that pain on them."

Even as she spoke the words that would get her heard and not criticized. Never again would she be able to tell herself that she lived in the best of all possible worlds. She'd seen that one, and she would always long for it, because there was no way to travel bodily to live there.

Copyright 2017 by Leigh Kimmel

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