The Unfolding Universe

These original science fiction short stories are copyright © Karl Dahlke, 2020, and are self-published on in standard e-book format. For an improved reading experience, please download this book from Amazon. Some devices, such as Kindle, can even read the stories to you. If you enjoy these stories, please share them with others. To get a sense of these stories, here is the beginning of one.

Don't I Know You?

Bart needed to relax after a stressful day at the office, and the air was cool and inviting, so he walked the mile and a half to his favorite cafe. He opened the door and went inside, and waved to the server behind the counter. She already knew his order, a cranberry orange muffin and a coffee, one cream one sugar. He was about to take a seat at an empty table when a woman with long red hair caught his eye. “She's pretty.” he thought to himself. “No wait - she's familiar. Where have I seen her before? Did she work at Google? It's been a long time since I worked at Google, and I certainly don't remember all my co-workers, or even the people I casually met in the cafeteria, but she just looks … familiar. Well I guess there's only one way to find out.”

He walked over to her table and introduced himself. “Hello, my name is Bart, Bart Thompson.”

“I'm Allison.” she replied looking back at him with deep blue eyes. She didn't offer her last name, nor did she show any sign of recognition. Maybe it was all in his head. They shook hands, and Bart waved towards an empty chair. “May I?” he asked politely.

“sure, sit down. I could use the company.”

“I'm sorry,” he began as he took a seat across from her, “it's just that … you look familiar. Don't I know you from somewhere?”

Allison looked back at him. “I didn't think so, not at first, but as I look at you…” She gazed at his tall frame, his dark brown hair, his dark eyes, and his neatly trimmed beard. “Yes, I've seen you before. Did you work at Cook County Hospital in Chicago?“ she asked excitedly.

“No - no I've never been to Chicago.”

“Well all right then, maybe we just met a couple of times in a park or a restaurant.”

“Let's find out.” said Bart, pulling out his smart phone.

“biographies?” she asked with a laugh. “You won't find anything there. They only hold public records: when we were born, where we lived, where we worked, etc. If we just met a few times in the laundry room of an apartment building, it won't show that.”

“Well it could tell us we lived in the same building at the same time, or perhaps we worked for the same company at the same time. It doesn't hurt to try. Let's compare biographies.” He called up his own biography, something people did often, just to satisfy their own egos. “May as well start at the beginning.” he said to no one in particular. He scrolled through a series of events in silence, then froze. “Allison? Allison What? I mean, what was your maiden name?”

“Sparks.” she said simply.

Bart looked down at the screen, then back across the table at her. “We were married.” he declared, as he slid his phone across the table to her. There it was, Bart Thompson and Allison Sparks, with her picture, a perfect likeness. Her red hair was shorter then, but it was her. She stared at it, dumbfounded. “Shut - up!” she blurted out, after several minutes. In disbelief, she pulled out her own phone and called up her biography, skipping ahead to the relevant year. There it was, “Married to Bart Thompson on June 17”, with his picture, although he didn't have the beard at that time, but it was definitely him. She looked back across the table and asked the obvious question. “How could we not remember that? We were married for 8 years and we forgot it completely?”

“Bart.” The server called from behind the counter. She knew his name, as well as his order. He had forgotten all about the coffee as he tried to reacquaint himself with his ex-wife.

“Be right there.” he said as he rose from the chair and walked to the counter. He paid with cash, and took his muffin and coffee back to the table, then he tried to answer her question as best he could. “The human brain only has so much memory. We're not a computer, we don't have near infinite storage. New memories replace old ones, and we just forget.”

“I know,” said Allison, “I understand that, but an entire marriage?”

The Ladder in the Sky

When the school year opened Mark appreciated the privacy of his single. He could have asked for a double, and it would have been cheaper, but why hassle with a roommate? For the past three years he made good money working for Microsoft, and he could certainly afford a room of his own. But now, as fall gave way to winter and the days grew short, the silence of his room seemed oppressive. A roommate would be welcome company. He sat alone, staring at his topology book, trying to prove that the completion of a metric space was complete. What does a cauchy sequence of cauchy sequences look like anyways? The whole thing made his head spin, and he slammed his book shut with a gesture of finality. Outside his door, other students drifted past, heading for the dorm social in the student lounge. Nobody stopped; nobody invited him to come along. He thought about closing his door and listening to Genesis, The Lamb Lies Down, but that was a stupid idea, and he knew it.

“I'm lonely, so I'll close my door and hide in my room. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense!” He pushed his chair back from his desk, stood up, and crossed his room in three quick strides. “It's an open party,” he proclaimed, “and I'm going!”

As Mark entered the lounge he saw people dancing, milling about, and talking as best they could over the music, which was just a bit too loud. He recognized most of the students, but none of them could truly be called a close friend. Just a name and a casual hello in the cafeteria. He strolled over to one of the side tables and tried to act nonchalant as he reached for a potato chip. He was really interested in Mary, who was reaching for the pretzels. In Mark's fantasy world they became good friends, dated, got married, and had three beautiful children. From 9 to 5 he wrote software, as he had done before, then the evening was spent with his family. When the kids were asleep he and Mary made love, slow and passionate. In this dream world there was no time for topology or algebraic number theory, and he would miss those things, but it would definitely be a step up. He would give anything to have a wife and family, and Mary seemed like a perfect match. True, he didn't know her well, but he was captivated by her beauty and intelligence.

Mary studied law, and her keen mind brought insight and historical perspective to almost every topic. While Mark danced among abstract rings and fields, Mary evaluated international treaties, teasing out their political and economic ramifications. Their academic interests were as different as night and day, but they both wanted a family and a fairy-tail relationship. The difference: Mark wanted it now, while Mary, five years his junior, was willing to wait. She had another year of law school to go, then the bar, and beyond that she couldn't say. So when Mark asked her out she was always polite, and sometimes she even said yes, but at the end of the day she invariably returned to her books.

“Mary.” he said, gently touching her on the arm. She turned, and then recognized him.

“Hi Mark, glad you could come. I probably can't stay long, but I had to get away from torts for a while.”

“They're actually playing a good song - care to dance?” Mark was 28; too old to be shy. Hell, what was the worst she could do? Say no? That's the same as if he hadn't asked - so a quick calculation produced a positive expected value for the outcome, and that was that.

“Sure.” she replied, stuffing the last three pretzels into her mouth. They went out on to the dance floor and he held her tight. Her long brown hair fell against his face. It smelled clean and fresh, as though she had just washed. He wanted to give her a quick kiss, but she was not ready for that, and he knew it. They danced through two songs, then scurried back to the snack table as rap came pouring out of the speakers. Neither one of them considered this music, and though you could dance to it, they didn't really know how.

“I'd better get back to my books.” said Mary apologetically. “It's hard to talk in here anyways.”

“We could go for a walk.” offered Mark. “It's nice out, for early December.”

“Not tonight. I've got a test in the morning and I really have to hit the books.”

“Fair enough.” said Mark, hiding his disappointment. He sat down in one of the blue couches and watched the other students socialize. They were obviously better at this than he was. He closed his eyes for a moment and issued a fervent request to nobody in particular. “I wish I could find the love of my life, a true friend, a companion for all my days.”

Suddenly the sound stopped. The music, the voices, everything - replaced with silence, as the couch beneath him was transformed into a hard wooden chair. He felt the arms of the chair, smooth and polished. Finally he opened his eyes. The chair was situated on a shelf that was perhaps three meters wide. His chair backed up against a wall, and two meters ahead of him, along the tile floor, the shelf ended abruptly. Beyond the security of his ledge, a horizontal ladder seemed to stretch to infinity. The rails and rungs were painted yellow, and it reminded him of his elementary school playground. Kids use to walk hand over hand, rung to run, from one end to the other. Of course that was only three or four meters across; this ladder stretched as far as the eye could see, until the rails seemed to meet in the distance. Two more ladders bracketed his, one on either side, and still more ladders to the left and right, forming an entire plane of rails and rungs. Adjacent ladders seemed to merge together in the distance. Below the ladders, kilometers and kilometers of empty space. There was no floor below; no formations at all. And there were no supports holding the ladders in place, at least none that he could see. Surely they would bend under their own weight, yet they seemed fixed in space. This couldn't be real; it had to be a dream. He was at the party, sitting on a couch. Mark closed his eyes again, then opened them slowly. The shelf was still there, and the ladders.

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