Kernel

6 minute read

A lullaby played somewhere in the distance. Gene couldn’t see anything, yet she had the distinct impression of form. There it was: her silhouette, swaying to the sound of… M83’s Beauties Can Die. A chorus sang out over the piano, or xylophone, or whatever instrument played from an invisible music box.

Where were her hands? Where was anything? She struggled to orient herself in the darkness.

A few moments passed before the melody began shifting. Now, there was no melody. The steady cadence of a synthesized tone reminded Gene of those bamboo fountains she’d seen in Japanese gardens.

Gene could tell she was breathing. In, out. First in time, then out of time, then back again. The two rhythms seemed to wander along together until they were slowly joined by a third. There was no mistaking her heartbeat as it synchronized with the synthetic sound. Gene felt a flash of anxiety.

She inhaled and found herself being swept along with a rapidly flowing stream. A lattice rippled across her entire field of vision as she seemed to tumble downward. Gene watched a clockwork of color and shape evolve until a dim spot captured her attention. She focused on the point as it grew larger and brighter still, slowly revealing its structure. Clouds formed and reformed around the exterior until…

Gene opened her eyes and gasped. Her old roommate, Alice Connolly, knelt down and kissed her on the forehead. Alice had joined the faculty as a neurologist years ago.

“Welcome back, lovely,” Alice whispered as she sat down at the foot of the bed. “Just relax,” she added with a warm smile.

“Alice,” Gene murmured as she sat up. “What happened? Where’s Don?” Amazing, she thought, the room was almost a perfect reflection of the one in which she’d closed her eyes.

“Don is fine,” Alice replied. “He’s resting down the hall. And you need to take it easy—you fainted about half an hour ago.”

Gene’s eyes widened as she recalled her last conversation. The heart rate monitor next to the bed sprang to life.

“Alice, I’m not ok,” Gene panted as she began hyperventilating.

“Look at me, Gene,” Alice instructed while taking Gene’s hands. “Breathe when I do.” The old friends sat together, eyes locked, slowly coming to breathe as one. Gene recalled their first night as roommates. She and Alice stayed up until dawn swapping stories, mending wounds, planning adventures—growing together.

The memory was so intimate. Gene felt her heart sigh.

The pair also broached skepticism that first night, leaving them both with a tenuous grasp of truth. They promised to never doubt each other as the sun rose on their friendship. It was no surprise they each ended up working with minds.

“Not so bad, right?” Alice asked. She couldn’t have been more reassuring if she’d tried. “I’m going to perform a standard neurological exam on you. You had quite a night, so I want to be thorough,” she added.

They ran through a series of procedures that felt choreographed but not mechanical. Alice finally sat back down next to Gene and put her arm around the patient. “You’re fine, just a little worked up,” she whispered, putting her head on Gene’s shoulder.

“Thanks, Alice,” Gene said as she took her hand. “Do you remember the night we met?” she asked, her voice quavering a little.

“Of course,” Alice replied. “I always thought of it as the night we became sisters.”

Gene thought she was going to dissolve into molecules. “Me too, Alice,” she sniffled. She could see the dorm room clearly: Alice’s pillow pile, her broken futon, that awful poster of Audrey Hepburn. She chuckled before her mind returned to its main thread.

“Do you remember talking about Descartes?”

Alice looked Gene over for a moment. That part of the conversation hadn’t come up for fifteen years.

“Yes, I do,” she said, glancing at her watch. “My shift actually ended a few minutes ago. How about we take care of some paperwork and walk the campus loop—you know, see where we end up?”

They signed a few documents before entering the hallway. Don looked comfortable, even content as Gene peered in through the glass. “How is he now?”

“Don will be fine. The stroke was a big blow but he’s a resilient man. I’m glad you came to see him.” Alice and Gene held each other’s gaze for a moment, then made their way down a stairwell and out into the morning light.

Campus was teeming with life. People scurried about on pathways and lawns, dressed in everything from tank tops to scrubs. A few undergraduates arranged a slack line between two trees and performed their best circus act for passersby. The scene was wholly familiar and unsettling.

“Sometimes coming back makes me feel like I was never here,” Gene remarked as a bicycle whizzed past. She wondered about all the nondescript spectators strewn across her memories.

“I wonder which ones live in our old room,” Alice responded without missing a beat. She had unmatched intuition for balancing people.

The pair ambled around a turn and found themselves next to the Anderson Collection. “Shall we?” Gene asked giddily. They had shared many cherished hours observing artwork.

“Of course!”

They checked their bags into lockers near the entrance and climbed the main staircase. The museum seemed deserted as they studied color fields and abstractions. Then it appeared.

The canvas could have still been wet. Lucifer really did feel like a direct channel to Jackson Pollock’s unconscious. There was at once nothing and everything happening within the drippings covering the rectangle.

“Let’s play a game,” Alice began. “Pick two points with the same color and see how many pathways connect them.”

“Ooh ok, how about these?” Gene said, pointing to a couple drops of green that were shoulder-width apart. Alice went to work, crossing and re-crossing the terrain.

“Three. Now these,” Alice instructed with a little smirk.

Gene squinted and grinned; the diagonal was almost ten feet. “The deeper blue?” she clarified.

Alice nodded. They moved to opposite corners and began tracing, occasionally checking in on each other’s progress.

“Path integrals are beautiful constructions,” Gene said absentmindedly.

“How so?”

“They’re so whimsical. Take quantum mechanics: the probability of transitioning between two states,” Gene reached back to find her starting point, “is the sum of all the probabilities of all the possible paths between the two states—even the absurd paths.”

“I like that,” Alice said as she made a mental note of her position. She then shifted her gaze toward Gene. “Do you think it’s generally true?”

Gene fixed her eyes on a patch of blue and green. She breathed deep.

As she exhaled, she followed the stream back down the staircase and through the front door of the museum. Soon she looked back at the earth from the edge of the atmosphere. The view was arresting—tracts of light simply emerged from an anonymous landscape.

Gene left her planetary system behind entirely. Glowing discs and clusters steadily faded, giving way to a latticework of particles enjoying their degrees of freedom. The scene was something out of Fantasia. She observed for what seemed an eternity before closing her eyes. Then the maestro raised her arms, bringing countless logic gates into sudden harmony.

“Yes, I do,” Gene replied, hugging her sister.


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