The walls of the square room are made up of matte black panels, each one around three meters by three meters. They have a strange, scratchy look to them, like the texture of sandpaper. But, somehow, still smooth to the touch—deceptive. I enjoy the deceptive. The things that appear to be one thing then are another. I dated a magician once. She told me I need to “enjoy the show of life.” That relationship didn’t last long.
This is the Black Box, at least its most recent iteration. I was not around when the project started and the room itself has gone through several reconfigurations. In the uppermost corners of the room are thin, rectangular strips of light illuminating all six faces of the Box. The only other two features of the plain room are a square desk with a wooden kitchen chair and, two meters in front of the desk, an ovular object covered in a simple, white sheet. As if a ghost is standing uncomfortably in the center of the room.
The kitchen chair is amusing. Did they pull it from a break room? They had a budget for what is an overwhelming slew of recording equipment stashed in the walls and the salaries of over a hundred researchers, but a comfortable chair is too much. The other object is far less amusing. The Mirror, an object refusing inquiry. At the base of the white sheet, four thin spokes hold the oval upright. The air in the room feels electric and smells faintly of salt. No, smells faintly of the sea. A more complex and confusing aroma.
A voice crackles into existence from the top left corner behind me. “Viv, the desk flips open, you’ll find a box inside. Take a look.”
The voice is familiar, Dr. Fredric Vasquez. Everyone on the project calls him Fred, but I met him back in college as Dr. Vasquez, professor of Theoretical Physics at the City University of New York. He is a serious man with warm, brown skin and salt and pepper hair, and he’s built like a damn barrel. I worked in his lab for a few semesters during undergrad. It was dry work—lots of mathematics and spreadsheets. But I did meet my fiancée Anna while working in his lab. She was the supervising graduate student. A few late nights of work and a beer or two landed us in a relationship together. Apparently, Dr. Vasquez thought I did reasonable work. And I’m sure Anna put in a good word for me. After I graduated Dr. Vasquez sent me an email offering work in his private lab. He told me the job pays well and could help me get into graduate school. I was working as a tutor at that point, which did not pay nearly enough, so I was more than happy to take Dr. Vasquez up on his offer. I was also excited to work with Anna again.
If only I knew what I was in for, but that’s the point of all the red tape around this lab, isn’t it? Only a handful of people know what morbid occurrences take place in the Black Box. Even fewer have ever been inside it. The government grants are coated in protective jargon and a handful of outright lies. After four years on the project I am only the thirteenth person to enter this room. If I was superstitious I would call that unlucky. I’m not superstitious. Maybe I should be. I’ll certainly need as much luck as possible today.
The desk opens at the front and angles upward, like a child’s school desk. Inside is an oak box with a simple metal latch holding it closed. With a palpable eagerness, I snatch the box up, close the desk lid, undo the latch, and pour the contents of the box out: a small, rectangular clock with ‘10:00’ emblazoned in blocky, red numbers; a pencil; a yellow legal pad; a rolled-up stack of white papers; and a single orange pill all come tumbling out in a hurry. These are my tools for tinkering with the universe today.
There is a lip at the back edge of desk that raises up to keep the desk surface out of view from the Mirror. As I understand things, that’s important. I quickly arrange the items neatly on the smooth, grey surface before taking a seat in the uncomfortable chair. My workspace is in order.
“Fred, get a better chair for whoever comes next,” I say. An attempt at humor.
Fred’s voice comes through the speaker once again, his tone serious. “We tried, but anything more mechanically complex breaks down too fast.”
A fair point and perhaps something Fred does not want to dwell on. I have not been involved with any of the more human aspects of the project. Fred and Anna had me on data work before my break from the project. Particle pattern analysis, spectroscopy, temperature readings, that kind of stuff. I never had to listen to someone in the Box meet a painful end.
I was only allowed brief peeks at the Mirror through the data I was given. I never saw the thing, or the people going into the Black Box. Well, until now. I suppose I only ever got a rough outline through the numbers. Numbers are beautiful like that though, especially with something this abnormal.
Fred and Anna were here for each person interacting with the Mirror, walking them through the process, talking to them. Anna told me once that there is a matching ten-minute clock on the observation deck, but it is larger and positioned overhead. It’s a reminder to those leading the project.
I knew there were people on the other side of my numbers giving their lives up for scientific progress. Anna and Fred had to keep that in mind as well. I just I never imagined what kind of chair those people sat in. Maybe I should have.
“Your vitals are spiking,” Fred says, this time softer.
I take a deep breath to calm myself. “Right, sorry. Started thinking too much.”
There is a grunt in response from Fred. He’s frustrated. He’s trying not to let it show, but it’s there. He tried talking me out of going into the Black Box, but after my break from the project, from friends, from being a person, I need this. Even if it took months to convince Fred, I was destined to end up here.
And isn’t that the point of the Mirror? Deterministic proof that we’re all on a fixed track. Pieces in a molecular machine chugging forward? I would always find my way here to this seat. Fred would always help me cross this threshold.
We’re still in the early days of exploring what the Mirror can do. There is sometimes so little space for new breakthroughs in science. The miraculous space. That’s it. That’s where I’m at. The Black Box. The space of miracles in which a paradigm shift may occur. Anna and I believed in the magic that can happen in that space. We both believed that the people dying in here served a greater purpose. She would oversee the project and I would tinker with the universe’s numbers and together we would make those deaths mean something bigger.
That magician I dated, she never got it. It’s not that I don’t like magic, it’s that I like to know how the magic works. The show is fine, but the trap door, the smoke and the mirrors, they’re infinitely more fascinating. Anna gets that.
Fred’s deep voice brings me back. “Please take the pill and then read the paper aloud for the recording.”
Right, the official business. Less philosophizing. I quickly pop the little orange pill and unroll the white sheets of paper. The first page has a simple statement in regular black font, followed by a handful of instructive diagrams detailing each step of the experiment. The mirror is represented by a floating black oval on the paper. A black hole ringed by a diagram of me and a desk. Simple little drawings representing time ticking down.
Initial Encounter, Confirmation, Open Question. Each section with a timestamp. One minute, eight minutes, and then one minute respectively. It’s not a lot of time to ask what may be some of the most important questions in the history of scientific discovery. I’ve thought obsessively about these ten minutes. Broken them down to the seconds. I have a plan. A plan Fred doesn’t know about. Anna was convinced that project was stalling.
I clear my throat and then begin to read the statement. “For this experiment, I, Vivian Richards, will be subject 13b and will therefore speak second during the Initial Encounter phase. I give my consent to the recording of all relevant information while in the Black Box. I will follow the outlined script for the Initial Encounter and Confirmation phases of the experiment then will have one minute to ask personal questions. I, being of sound mind and body, accept the risks of the experiment.” Not the most legally sound statement, but it’s more of a safety net than anything. I signed four stacks of legal papers two weeks ago, including an NDA. I also created and signed a Final Will and Testament two days ago, which included consent to an extensive list of postmortem procedures. The asses have been covered and maybe that’s part of the project stall. Part of Anna’s disappearance.
“Thank you, Viv. Give us just a few moments now,” Fred says.
I begin to twirl the pencil between my index finger and middle finger. Something to do while I wait. Something to keep my hands busy. Has everyone coming in here been this nervous? Or am I just this nervous because of the asinine stunt I’m going to pull? No, I can’t back out now, I need to finish this.
I take a deep breath to steady myself and begin humming Anna’s favorite song: Crimson and Clover. The Joan Jett cover, not the original. The tune rises and falls against the soft palate of my mouth and vibrates through my nostrils.
Aside from all the legal shit, I completed a psych eval. That was not nearly as difficult as it should have been. Lying to the psychologist was easy with how fucked up I am. An irony. I wonder what allowances are made for lies by people like me. How many mentally healthy people are volunteering to walk into a room they can never walk out of?
Plus, the public will eventually learn about what happened here in our solitary Black Box. And that means the public must think those of us that entered the Black Box were doing it with ideological purity. Or, a lie they can swallow. Fred tries to keep everyone’s mind off the public image. He says things like, “There are people paid far more than you that are worrying about that problem.” Of course there are. You don’t get a private research lab like this through goodwill.
I’m thinking too much. The pencil isn’t helping and the Mirror is there, covered. I wonder what mirror me is doing. Is she just beyond that white sheet, impatiently twirling her pencil, sitting in an uncomfortable kitchen chair that digs into her thighs? Is she mourning? Is she digging grief out of her chest? Letting it curl in the corners of the Black Box? Is she looking for divergence, praying that on the other side of the mirror, Anna is alive and well? Well, I’ve got bad news for my reflection.
The speaker crackles and Fred’s voice comes through again. “Viv, we’re going to run some rudimentary tests, there’s going to be a handful of bright flashes of light and then a few sounds,” Fred says.
“Right, go for it,” I respond. My chest feels tight. We are getting closer to beginning.
“We can stop this,” he says.
My jaw tenses. “No, Fred. I’m already in the Box, I’m committed to this.”
That will unfortunately be on the record now. It will be someone’s responsibility to go through all recorded audio from these moments. Picking it apart. Analyzing tone and pitch. Word choice. Someday there may be a paper or a book that picks apart this very moment in the Black Box. Fred knows that.
“Fine,” he grunts. “Beginning preliminary exposure now.”
A flurry of multicolored lights stream from the rectangular strips in the corners of the room. The afterimage of the room is splattered across my vision as I shut my eyes tight. Then, with a quick “click,” the room goes pitch black. Sensor calibration. The lights then click on, becoming a deep, unsettling red that I can see through my closed eyelids. I blink my vision clear as three alarms bells sound, one right after the other. Not high-pitched as I was expecting, but deep and low like a church bell. I can feel the chair beneath me and my teeth vibrate in unison as that nonexistent bell tolls for the final time. The hair on the back of my neck is standing straight up.
I know from my research that the Mirror carves a hole in all this light and noise. While it is covered, it’s total absorption. A perfect zero positioned in the middle of the room refusing the red light and the tolling of the bell. The room lights return to their normal too bright white as the air in the room heats up. I can feel sweat gathering in my armpits, whether from nerves or the temperature change I cannot say.
I watch as the panels of the floor, walls, and ceiling glow a bright white before they cool back to that same matte black. The room’s temperature quickly returns to normal. It’s a little bit of everything. The philosophy in the Black Box: hit it with the kitchen sink.
Fred’s voice comes over the speaker once again. “Viv, mic check?”
“Loud and clear, let’s do this, Dr. Vasquez,” I say. He probably grimaces at me not calling him Fred, up in his observation chamber. He has a whole team up there monitoring all kinds of data in real time. That data will later pass on to a team of analysts who would break down each millisecond in the Box. I miss it. There was always an air of mystery around whatever new data we were given, especially when we started to compare to previous experiments. Why was there a difference in air temp of ten degrees between two experiments? How are the properties of photons being shifted as they enter and leave the mirror? That one is of constant interest to the research team as the photons leave the mirror as a kind of radiation. The little pill I took will help keep that radiation off for a time.
My favorite mystery is the disappearing second. When you’re measuring experiments in milliseconds with at least twelve different highly precise scientific instruments running in the walls and a second just disappears, the folks watching those instruments are bound to notice. Plenty of different theories were floated: quantum tunneling, space compression, looped time. No definitive answers, but that made it fun. Back when things were fun.
The speaker hidden in the corner of the room clicks on. “Get your clock and script in place, we’ll start on your count.”
I nod, before realizing Fred can’t see me. For all the measurement devices in here, there is not a single camera. A necessary precaution. It’s strange, the way the Mirror can weaponize simple images. Those same photons that come out of the Mirror as radiation can be passed on through images of the Mirror. The level of quarantine used in the Box is important.
I place the stack of paper in front of me and move the small clock to the inner edge of the shield at the edge of the desk. It’s surreal, being able to see the time I potentially have left marked so clearly by these glowing red numbers.
“Ready,” I say. This is it, the big leap. There’s no going back once I start the countdown. The Black Box will seal for at least twenty-four hours. A safety precaution backed up by failsafe after failsafe. But this is my chance to find out what happened to her. What really happened to her. “Commence curtain drop in five… four… three… two… one… drop.”
And with that, the clock begins its tick downwards as the white sheet slides forward off the mirror. The sheet hits the floor and there it is, that strange oval, perfectly smooth, perfectly clear, reflecting all it can see. There is a slight whirring sound as the Black Box shifts and settles. I can hear that same whirring sound echoing back from the mirror.
And there she is: reflection me. She sits in the same desk, the edge of it shielded from view. Her hair is a disaster, just like mine. Messy red strands pulled back into a ponytail. She’s wearing the same peach colored sweatshirt and blue jeans and I can just see her black converse under the table. She has dark circles under light blue eyes. Sleep has been restless and infrequent for the last six months.
She chuckles. “You look like shit.” It’s strange to see your reflection talk without your mouth moving.
I give her a tired smile. “Thanks, you too.”
“Should we get to it?” she asks.
I nod and look down at the crisp, white sheet of paper with thick, black letters stamped into it. A routine. The steps to a dance. Both of us spiraling inward towards some monumental discovery. At least, that’s what Dr. Vasquez wants. He’d be up on the observation deck right now overseeing an entire team of researchers, thinking this will be the same as every other experiment. For as much as I like the man, he still lied to me.
“Are you Vivian Richards?” my reflection asks.
“Yes, I am Vivian Richards.” A simple but important question to start. A confirmation of identity and name. Every experiment with the Mirror starts like this. My turn to ask the question on the page. “Do you live in the Ashland apartments?” A small apartment complex in Chicago. We don’t need to get as specific as address, not yet. Just handshakes to start.
“Yes,” she says. “In high school did you date a boy named Robert Conrad?”
I chuckle at this. They keep our halves of the script separate, so I wasn’t expecting that question. That’s what I get for telling Dr. Vasquez about that boy over one too many beers with him and Anna. “Yes, and he was a terrible kisser,” I say. She smiles at this, too. There’s relief in the familiarity here. Her smile is my smile.
Ten more rounds of questions follow like this. The back and forth of simple information about our lives, but we both already know the truth: we are the same person. We both unfortunately kissed Robert Conrad before discovering boys aren’t for us. He kissed like a wet trout. Maybe that should have been the question, something more personal.
Did Robert Conrad kiss like a wet trout? Yes, and he always wore ugly shirts with flames and motorcycles on them.
Reflection me stifles a chuckle at what must be the same thought. My plan might work. Especially if we’ve both already planned it.
That’s the beauty of the Mirror. A hole between worlds existing at the same moment in time in both universes. If someone in one universe sneezes, so does the person in the other. If I woke up this morning, planning to go off script, so did mirror me. And if she didn’t, then that’s a divergence between the two worlds, exactly what we’re searching for.
Exactly what they’re searching for. I’m not a part of the team anymore. Not since Anna went missing. I’m out here in the lone depths now, with only my reflection to keep me company.
Eight minutes left on the clock. I can already feel my skin prickling and my heart quickening. I glance down at the palms of my hands and there are deep red splotches beginning to appear under the skin. The photons moving from our world into the other bounce back as what we’re calling “inverse” radiation. It’s picking me apart molecule by molecule. Hell, it’s picking everything in the room apart. The edge on the lip of the desk provides some cover so the paper and the clock don’t degrade in the middle of the experiment.
Ten minutes is roughly how long a subject in the Black Box can withstand this radiation and still be coherent, and that’s with the help of that little, orange pill. It only does so much. At this point, cells across my skin are rupturing. My retinas are permanently damaged. It’s almost a certainty that chunks of my genetic material have degraded. Mirror me and I have chosen to walk into the heart of a nuclear reactor to find out what happened to Anna. The image of myself becomes death and salvation.
The next stage is Confirmation. It says so on the paper and is accompanied by a little diagram showing me rattling off equations. We’re supposed to check that the universes match. Seventeenth digit of pi. Speed of light. Planck constant. I’ve already poured over the numbers from the last twelve people in the Box. The universes are the same and continuing to confirm that repeatedly will continue to get us nowhere.
“How long has Anna been missing for?” I ask solemnly.
Dr. Vasquez’s voice immediately crackles over the speakers on both sides of the mirror, “Viv, you’ve got to stick to the script. You’ll have time to ask those questions at the end.”
Mirror me answers before I can. “A minute, Fred. You give us a minute for these questions and that that has been useless. Shut up and let me handle this.” She sounds fierce. The only answer from the speaker is it clicking off. She turns back to me with an uneasy intensity. “One hundred twenty-seven days ago. What’s the official story?”
“Bad car crash, police said a drunk driver slammed into her going over ninety. Her body was unidentifiable.” I shift uncomfortably in my seat as I glance up at the corner of the room Fred’s voice has been coming from. He’s almost certainly losing his shit. I had to convince him to let me in here after Anna’s disappearance and that was only with a psych eval and multiple promises that this had nothing to do with ‘self-destructive urges.’ I think he wanted to believe me. He wanted to believe I was coming in here for the scientific endeavor.
Mirror me nods. We have six minutes left and I can see the left shoulder on her sweater is soaking through with blood. I bring my hand up to the right side of my sweater and I feel it, the skin sloughing off underneath the fabric. The blood working its way up through the thick threads. We need to hurry if we are going find answers. The two of us, reflections of a shared grief.
“What was the last thing she said to you?” mirror me asks.
My mouth feels dry and tastes like copper. I can see her, the matte red lipstick, her light brown hair hanging straight and neat, the tips of each strand of hair a faded blue, her hazel eyes, the way she raises her eyebrow at me from the bedroom doorway. “She told me, ‘I have to run into work, an emergency with the Mirror, someone fell into the damn thing. I think it’s a door after all.’ I remember each word. Vividly. I’ve replayed it a thousand times.”
I can see mirror me nodding along. She lost her Anna too. She’s felt the emptiness eating at her. The loss like a gaping wound. She was lied to and that loss has turned into anger. Anger at the Black Box, at Dr. Vasquez, at the Mirror.
The speaker clicks on once again. There is a crackle of static and a brief pause before Fred speaks. He sounds older, exhausted. I know more than he imagined and he must deal with that now. “Viv, don’t do this. We couldn’t tell anyone what happened.”
My reflection and I scowl and speak in unison. “Fuck you, Fred! You lied to me!” I push the desk away and stand to face the corner Fred’s voice is coming from. As I stand, I feel my left leg cramp, the muscles refusing to extend as I fall onto the floor. The panels of the Black Box are smooth and cool. I glance over at the mirror and my reflection has also fallen to the floor. A puddle of blood forms underneath her. Underneath us. It’s a strange feeling, dying. I know it’s happening. My body is degrading rapidly.
“Viv, you’re running out of time. Is this really what you came here for?” Fred asks.
I grit my teeth and turn to drag myself towards the Mirror. “Yes. Tell me what happened.” I’m almost there. We still have time to find an answer.
“Okay, listen. Viv, please… listen. We had someone, someone who lost a lot. Someone just like you sitting in that chair. Something different happened, we aren’t exactly sure how, but they went into the Mirror. We needed everyone on the observation team to come in. Anna came in and insisted on breaking lockdown procedure. She said she had a theory and needed to test it. She said we might be able to get that person back and that this was the divergence we’ve been looking for.” He sounds like he is pleading.
The Mirror is only a few inches in front of me. My reflection and I maintain constant eye contact as we drag ourselves forward. We’re running out of time but we’re almost there. We must be under three minutes now. “Keep talking, Fred, I want to know everything.”
His voice picks back up, desperate. I’ve never heard him like this. “She canceled the lock down and stormed in there. You know how she gets, determined, unstoppable. The plan was for her to be in and out as quick as possible. The emergency covering for the Mirror was activated so no radiation, no communication from the other side, no danger.” I can hear him sobbing. “Something broke the covering and dragged her into the Mirror. We had to keep it a secret. For everyone’s safety. Dammit, Viv, this is exactly what I was afraid of!”
I lock eyes with my reflection. We both know how determined Anna can be, but Dr. Vasquez should have told us. Should have done something. Fuck.
We’re both only a few inches from the Mirror. Her face is reddening. A side effect of the radiation. She looks determined. This is the entire reason we came in here; to follow Anna and we’re not giving up now. Wherever Anna is, she’s alone. We both reach out towards the Mirror. No, towards each other.
“Viv, she wouldn’t want you to…” the rest of the sentence is cut off as I touch the Mirror.
I feel my ears pop as my vision blurs. I quickly blink to find myself in a strange place. The first thing I notice is that directly above me is an enormous body of water in place of a sky. It’s like looking up at the bottom of a fish tank, but it’s so much bigger than a fish tank. The surface spreads out in every direction, out to the moonlit horizon. The water is a mix of bright blues and greens. I can see shapes moving in the water.
I try to stand, but my legs won’t work. Pain shoots through every inch of me. Pricking my skin. I feel this white-hot pain pushing at the borders of my consciousness.
That’s when I feel the ground underneath me. It’s gravel or silt and I notice that around me are grey canyon walls. It’s a valley. I’m looking up from an enormous valley.
It looks like the bottom of the ocean, but all the water is above me. Held there by some invisible ceiling. Where am I?
“You don’t look so good,” I hear a voice behind me splutter out. I turn and it’s her. Me. Sprawled out on her back in a puddle of her own blood. There’s no mirror between us. No border.
I pull myself closer to her. “Are we still dying?”
“Yeah, I think so. At least it feels like it. It’s beautiful.” She points up at the inverted body of water. The reflection of an ocean. The air around us is pleasant and cool.
I flop to the ground next to her. “Is it weird to hold my own hand?” I ask.
“Any other day, it would be,” she says, still looking up at the bottom of the ocean.
I take her hand in mine. It’s covered in blood, but it’s soft and feels warm. We lie there, watching upside down ripples and waves break across that strange surface of the water. This is where Anna went. This beautiful inverted place.
That’s when we hear it. A roar that echoes, shudders, and breaks. The sound shakes the ground. Rocks begin to tumble from the canyon walls around us.
Then, slowly, it begins to rain. No, not rain. Both of us glance back upwards to see the surface of the inverted water breaking. Droplets at first and then entire waves sloughing off the body off the ocean and falling downwards. My reflection points directly above us.
“There,” she says. She’s pointing to an enormous shadow in the water. The shadow quickly grows larger and larger, turning a vast space in the water above us a dark blue.
I watch on, horrified, as the head of the giant sea creature breaks through the falling waves. Its head comes to a sharp knifelike point and its skin is a dark and sickly green. The knife head points down at us as it breaks the surface and the thing’s enormous maw opens wide to let loose another unimaginable roar. I can see rows and rows of sharp teeth in this creature’s mouth. The wet, fleshy inside of its mouth is a deep crimson and scattered across its body are deep pockmarks. Each pockmark is a tunnel in its flesh descending as glowing, ominous yellow canals. Then, as the monster dives downwards with all its might, breaking further out of the falling ocean. In all the thrashing, I make out a single, large, sickly yellow eye marked only by a thin, black slit. Oh god, it’s looking right at us.
My reflection and I turn to each other the puddle of blood under me feels warm against my cheek. our eyes are wide and bloodshot. We smile as best we can and she says what we’re both thinking, “It’s a door, not a mirror. Anna must have figured it out.” She’s right. There’s hope that Anna is still alive here. In this otherworldly ocean floor. There’s hope that she made it here in a better state than we did. We found exactly what we were looking for. An answer to a senseless question. The creature roars again, closer this time.
Then, still holding hands, we turn to watch the ocean break and fall.