I used to think my mother had me by accident. Could anyone blame me? My earliest memory is her hunched over a desk, one hand raised to silence me, the other scribbling furiously; her head never once turned towards me. All the while, I shook with violent, wailing sobs, bruised after a bad fall. She left me there for Dad’s healing embrace, his calming parental touch, to scoop me up, carry me away, so she could continue her work in peace. It was a template for most of our relationship, until the final days, until she disappeared.
Back then, when I was still little more than muddy palms and scratched knees, my only understanding of her work came from her rare descriptions and my imagination. The slightest change of pressure in the air, a feeling of unease, of something tugging, drawing, stretching, and a small black square would appear. For a moment, it would hang a few feet above ground, like a displaced window or doorway, but without any sense of volume or depth, a two-dimensional plane. It would be completely still, as if surveying its surroundings, then all of a sudden expand in four directions at once, grow with symmetrical precision, like someone was wedging it open and applying steady, even pressure. Sometimes it would grow no larger than a few spans, sometimes it would occlude the horizon, large enough to fit the tallest of the city buildings, but always it would leave an impression of absence—not merely of superimposing itself over familiar surroundings, but disappearing them altogether. They would be back when the square eventually shrank and disappeared, but for the time of its manifestation, looked at head on, it felt like these things were cut out from the world, temporarily transported elsewhere.
When I was six, they decided to call this the Shiftspace. Mum was a member of the first expedition inside. I remember the hours before she left. She was wrapped in furs, a rifle on her back and an axe hanging from her belt. She looked like she was heading into the polar regions, but the truth was that no one knew what to expect from the expedition. She remarked darkly that once they did learn something, this information would be immediately sold or classified. My father laughed and called her a collectivist—he knew that she carried the label with pride—but they were more tense than they dared admit. At six years old it did not occur to me that Mum might not return.
She did return, four weeks later, but she was changed. There were the superficial differences: she was away from home most of the time, at government committees, academic conferences, industrialists’ evenings; and she was in the press seemingly every day—first as a hero who had led the rest of the expedition out of the Shiftspace when they became lost in its featureless, abysmal darkness; later as a veteran of Shiftscience, carrying her authority with a measured, erudite calm.
But something had also changed at the core of her, some tiny, barely perceptible thing that sent out ripples of disturbance, billowing every so often into waves of rage or hysteria, getting worse as the years passed. I would hear her locked in her study, crying, laughing, or screaming, clawing at the walls like a caged animal. And between, I would catch her brooding over notes from the expedition. She would run a hand over her arm, absently, but squeezing and pinching so hard it left marks, as if her skin were a glove that needed to be pulled back over the muscle. There was something so utterly inhuman about this motion, so wrong, that I would run to find Dad and climb into his lap, terrified and quivering. He would stroke my hair and whisper for me not to worry, that Mum was just under pressure from her newfound responsibilities.
Eventually Dad gave up trying to pretend that things were fine. I could not blame him; if anything, I was surprised he had managed to keep it going as long as he had. I saw Mum less than ever, and Dad grew tired of making up excuses for her absences. Ten years spent living in the shadow of her growing catalogue of achievements had fractured his life; stunted his own modest attempts at a career as a publicist; made him feel small, insignificant, a sideshow to her success. He turned bitter and resentful, paced the house with a kind of deliberate, withering cynicism. It became increasingly difficult to be around him. Mum stopped returning home altogether, and several months later I moved out as well.
I applied to study Shiftscience at the Free Institute of Arwall. What other choice could I make? By this time the idea of the Shiftspace was an engraving worked into my bone and sinew.
I was sixteen years old and the youngest student at the Institute. They had accepted me largely on the strength of Mum’s reputation. My supervisor had been a member of her expedition, and made it very clear that he could not refuse her daughter. It did not endear me to the rest of the student body or the Faculty, and I kept largely to myself and my studies in a private dormitory at the top of one of the old Institute buildings. The view made up for it: on a clear day I could see Arwall in all its fetid, fuming splendour, stretching into the distance in a haze of smoke punctured by sooty chimneys.
I did not see Mum; I never received or sent letters or telegrams, and she no longer gave lectures at the Institute, confined to a laboratory she had outfitted in Morton, near the original entry point into the Shiftspace. But her presence was everywhere. Textbook citations, heliotypes, countless theories, laws, experiments—all carried her name. She had never spoken to me about the expedition, so it was a shock to find her findings discussed so actively here—supported, refuted, refined, expanded.
I learned the foundational principles of Shiftscience quickly, eager to discover what had kept Mum so often away from home.
The Shiftspace manifests in places where the boundary with our space is already thin—not an observable fact, but assumed because it always appears in the same half a dozen locations. It closes within a few minutes if no one enters it, but it remains open while someone is inside. There it begins as a formless black void, stretching on indefinitely without any sense of direction or limit. Over time it adopts some properties that are familiar to us. At first it is rapidly filled with breathable air and begins to exhibit something like gravitational pull, though it is impossible to determine its source. Much later, the Shiftspace starts to spawn a fog-like geometry—faintly visible, ghostly surfaces that hint at the partial outline of a tree, or a house, or simple furniture, and grow more defined and solid as time inside passes. It is possible to float amongst all this by exerting the barest effort, pushing through the air in any direction like a caricature swimmer. This ease of motion with little reference point is terrifying; one can become disoriented, thrown off-course as easily as a raft in open water. Mum’s expedition had almost lost four people in this way the first time they had made camp, and the ten of them had then lashed themselves together and to their equipment to avoid getting separated.
The geography of the Shiftspace does not correspond to known geography. Mum’s expedition had entered it near Morton; they were found four weeks later in Chaing, a journey that would have taken twice as long by the Trans-Imperial Express. Dad may have laughed at Mum’s cynicism, but the possibility of commercialising the Shiftspace for travel was suggested and widely discussed almost the day after the expedition returned.
Mum’s explanation for all this—a theory that remains Shiftscience orthodoxy to this day—began by asking why such a profoundly alien space should come to have features that are familiar to us. Her answer was that the Shiftspace wants to put us at ease by mimicking our ordinary habitat. The longer we remain in the Shiftspace, the longer it can maintain the entry to our space open, and thereby better learn to copy its properties; in turn, the less likely we are to want to leave. All of this implies that the Shiftspace in some sense wants to maintain the entry from our reality open indefinitely. Mum posited that it is somehow sustained by our presence within it, so it has a natural urge to keep the entry open, to attract new visitors.
I learned most of this in lectures, and it wasn’t long before I began formulating my own theories. I read from a yellowing, largely forgotten first hardcopy report tucked far into the recesses of the Institute library that one of the members of Mum’s expedition had been from Chaing and carried pictures of his hometown. At camp he would pass these around and tell the others stories from his childhood—a way to hold onto fraying sanity as their time in the void dragged on and they seemed no closer to finding an exit. Mum claimed that eventually the images of Chaing were so firm in her mind that she fancied she could see the town even when she wasn’t thinking about it. Not long after, she noticed a point of bright white light amongst the darkness. She made towards it and found their exit.
Even though the report had been dismissed as mere correlation, I had the intuition that there was a causal relationship here: Mum had managed to create an exit from the Shiftspace into Chaing by imagining and holding it firmly in her mind. I formed a hypothesis: that it was possible to establish a permanent thoroughfare through the Shiftspace by having someone inside it focusing on an exit point. By extension, I supposed it was possible to establish multiple thoroughfares using multiple individuals. Combined with what we already knew about the geographical properties of the Shiftspace, a secondary hypothesis: that it was possible to establish permanent shortcuts between different locations in our space-time via the Shiftspace. Indeed, since it took some time for Mum to become familiar with Chaing through her colleague’s stories, I supposed that the four-week shortcut between Morton and Chaing could be reduced even further.
I presented this to Professor Jacob Lukash, my supervisor. Even now I remember how he frowned, deep lines cutting into his face with a mixture of hesitation and unease. He looked up at me over the edge of the short essay I had handed to him.
“I understand where you are coming from with this, I really do,” he said, “It’s interesting, potentially ground-breaking. But we won’t be able to get funding for it.”
“Why not?” I was twenty, naïve in the ways of research politics.
He smiled. It wasn’t patronising, more a pained twitch at something that he did not enjoy explaining.
“I’ll tell you something that I would ask you do not repeat outside this room.”
He leaned forward in his armchair and fixed me with a hard look. I nodded.
“Shiftscience is of great interest to the Empire; it has been ever since your mother’s first expedition. Our expedition,” he corrected himself with a wince. “The state has been considering military applications for the Shiftspace for a decade: behind-enemy-lines reconnaissance and insertion, guerrilla warfare, that sort of thing. In all this time, your mother has worked very hard to keep the state an arm’s length away from Shiftscience—to preserve our academic freedom. She has provided just enough information in some circles, just enough disinformation in others. It’s like walking the edge of a knife: make one wrong move and you do not just fall, you are cut to pieces. I do not envy her position.”
I remember he paused then and something flickered across his face that may have been ‘you remind me too much of her’, or maybe just another one of his regretful smiles.
“What this means,” he sighed, “is that your mother is de facto entirely in control of funding decisions for Shiftscience. And she will not recommend this for funding. If you happen to prove it, to publish it, you risk bringing about total government control over our field.”
The following morning I packed a small suitcase and took the first train to Morton. I had not seen Mum for nearly five years, and as the train counted the miles under the steady chug-chug of its wheels, I realised that I was increasingly nervous, frightened almost, as if I were heading for an audition.
I was distracted by a man and a woman opposite me. Their daughter used the wooden slats of the row of train seats like a ladder to climb towards the emergency brake lever. The woman grabbed her around the waist just before she was able to reach it, and she squealed with delight as she was first piloted towards the man and then tickled by both parents until she was exhausted.
I watched them, and perhaps for the first time I considered that my relationship with Mum had never had this familial warmth or simplicity. When I was a child, she had spent most of the time locked in her study, too consumed by her work to pay me much attention; when I was a teenager she was too famous to be at home; by the time I was a young woman she had disappeared altogether. And in spite of all this, my father’s and my lives had been defined by her. She was not my role model—I don’t remember ever looking up to her—but the shadow she cast was inescapably long.
Watching the young family in front of me, a quiet, simmering anger slowly took the place of my anxiety. I counted the years of our family to the rhythm of the train and found that most of them had been without Mum. She was not neglectful; neglect requires a failing of character—some malady or incompetence or evil to override reason. She was simply completely and utterly indifferent.
I arrived in Morton by late afternoon. Mum’s house was a detached stone cottage on the outskirts of the town. It was large, but the living quarters were modest, most of the space occupied by a laboratory filled with measuring equipment and calculation engines. The first entry point into the Shiftspace, the one that Mum had used fifteen years earlier, was on the cottage grounds and she monitored it and processed new findings in the laboratory.
She was waiting for me as I stepped out of the motorised carriage I had taken from the train station. She must have heard the whir of the engine or the rustle of the wheels against the cobbled road. As I walked towards the door, raising my collar against the bracing cold, some of the fight I had built up on the train left me. Mum was always calm, even, just short of haughty, and this gave her a presence that far outweighed her slight build and modest height. It tugged me back into her orbit as steadily as if I were a small, barely observable satellite.
I slowed my pace and took a long look at her. Her hair had turned a brilliant white and she had let it grow long and tied it back into a tight ponytail. Her face was a little more lined than I remembered, the bags under her eyes heavier, but she had the same brilliant green gaze. She wore her usual long black skirt and a tightly fitting jacket, all in black, that pulled her back straight. When I was at school, before I really understood Mum’s work, I imagined that she must be a headmistress, stern and upright.
She watched me without outward emotion, save for a small, tightly controlled smile.
“Jacob telegraphed,” she said drily and let the words hang.
Mum was letting me know that she had been informed why I was here, that she was willing to discuss it, but had had time to consider it and her mind was largely, if not entirely, made up.
The first words she had said to me in five years and they were a carefully judged, timed, weighed attack. She greeted me like a junior colleague, subordinate to her control of Shiftscience, rather than like her daughter. I felt the anger from the train resurface. I made a point of not replying. She raised an eyebrow; her lips twitched.
The cottage was clean, meticulously organised, utilitarian: sparse furniture, plain walls and carpet, nothing in the way of decoration. There were occasional piles of books on the floor, overspill from wall-length, ceiling-high shelves, but even these piles were carefully organised by subject and alphabet.
“I’ve brought my work,” I said, reaching inside my coat for the notes that explained my hypotheses about the Shiftspace.
Mum reached out for them without turning around, skimmed them as we walked the length of the cottage and entered her study, a large room with a single desk, chair, lamp, and books along each wall. She sat down, leaving me standing. I could not say if it was another power play or she was too engrossed in her reading.
She reached inside a drawer, rummaged through it for a moment, pulled out several sheets of creased, yellowing paper held together with a paper clip and pushed them towards me across the desk.
“Read it,” she nodded towards the bundle.
I picked it up, scanned the title: “How to Use the Shiftspace to Bridge Locations”. I shot Mum an incredulous look; she watched me carefully.
“This paper,” I found that I was reading the paper abstract out loud, my voice growing heavy with emotion, “reports experimental data that tests two hypotheses. Firstly, that it is possible to create an exit from the Shiftspace by visualising it in a particular way. Secondly, that, combined with the existing entrance into the Shiftspace, this can be used to form a bridge between two locations in our space-time. The data supports both hypotheses.”
There was more, but I stopped reading. I felt fifteen again: inadequate, undermined, insignificant. I had not given myself account of it, but somewhere at the back of my mind an ugly thought had been festering: I had begun to nurture the idea that my theories would buy me recognition and fame enough not only to escape Mum’s shadow, but to eclipse it with my own. Now I was looking at a paper dated fourteen years old that not only made the same claims, but tested and proved them.
“You didn’t publish this,” I whispered, unable to control my voice.
Mum shook her head.
She gestured at the paper again. “Just read it.”
“The data supports both hypotheses,” I read again, “However, the hypotheses also imply that someone must remain within the Shiftspace for the duration of the bridge, exerting sustained effort to visualise the exit. This effectively turns them into what we may call a Shiftslave, raising many of the ethical ramifications we typically attach to other forms of slavery. It also raises significant safety concerns: what happens to the Shiftslave or to those using a Shiftspace bridge if the exit is lost and cannot be re-established?”
I half-threw, half-dropped the paper towards Mum. I felt faint, steadied myself on the corner of her desk, then gave up and slowly sank to the floor, pressing my back against the wood of the desk hard enough for it to rake my spine.
I knew I was not thinking rationally, but it felt like she had anticipated my every move, had planned for it and closed it off years before I had even thought of making it. The anger I had kindled on my way here spilled over into tears of frustration, a sense of bitter futility. It seemed to me that no matter what I did, I could not untether myself from her dominance.
I sat on the floor, staring without recognition at a wall of books with Mum’s name on them, my back to her.
“You and I can see this isn’t just about the academic freedom of Shiftscience,” she said. “If the Empire gets hold of this research, they will want to commercialise and militarise it no matter the risks or the human cost.”
There was something about her choice of the conjunction ‘you and I’—perhaps the pitiful concession of it, the morsel of credit she was willing to throw my way—that brought back all my venom in a sudden surge. I lost control of myself.
“Tell me something,” I said, still sat on the floor staring ahead of me. “Do you cry and scream when you’re alone, like you used to?”
It was a low and ugly move, but I had made it and I was determined to play it out.
“Do you try to tear your skin off and scratch the walls when no one is looking? Do you have anyone to cover it up for you, to make excuses and keep the place in order, like Dad used to do?”
She did not reply, so I got up, turned around to look at her. Her face was still, but pale as chalk. She gripped her chair with white-knuckled intensity, squeezing so hard I could hear her skin creak against the varnish.
“Do your colleagues know how unstable you are? That you haven’t been right for fifteen years? That all of this,” I waved a hand at the shelves around me, “Was dreamt up by a sick mind?”
After a long moment, our eyes locked but nothing passing between them, she drew one long, deep breath and relaxed her grip on the chair.
“I think we are done here,” she said quietly.
After I returned from Morton I locked myself away in my dormitory in Arwall and did not attend any teaching for two months. A fortnight into my seclusion, Jacob came to visit to make sure I was alright. He found me dishevelled and sleep-deprived, surrounded by every available library text on Shiftscience, various diagrams, scribbled notes, and calculations pinned to my walls and laid out on the floor, one on top of the other in a collage of mad science. I briefly explained that I was working in a new direction suggested by my earlier hypotheses and a conversation with Mum. I appeared calm and focused, despite my exhaustion and dishevelment, and I was obviously entirely absorbed in study, so he left satisfied.
At the end of the two months I had written a paper. Maybe it was all that time with little food, sleep, and too much work, or perhaps I sensed the repercussions it would have, but I decided to forego the usual dry scientific titles in favour of something more lyrical: “A Bridge through the Void”.
Based on supposition and extrapolation from existing theory and data, I proposed methods to create and hold open a bridge through the Shiftspace. My proposal still required someone to host the bridge—a Shiftslave, in Mum’s terminology. It was a point of ethics that she had explored at length, but which I ignored entirely. Nor did I factor in the risks in the event that a host was unable to visualise, or to continue visualising, an exit.
Looking back, it pains me to admit that I simply did not care about these things. What mattered to me was the desire for recognition, the need to make my own mark on Shiftscience. The irony that my findings were identical to Mum’s unpublished draft in almost every respect spurred me on rather than held me back. I told myself it mattered that I had developed my theories independently, without assistance or feedback. Nonetheless, the similarities frustrated me. It was all I could do to convince myself to focus on the immediate gains from publication, the platform it would give me for further study that would eventually render Mum’s broader research programme obsolete.
I made a copy of the paper and placed it in an envelope addressed to the Scientific Oversight Office, the arm of the state’s censorship. I had considered Jacob’s and Mum’s concerns about governmental interference in Shiftscience and rejected them. They seemed to me like short-sighted conservativism, a risk aversion that came with age rather than reason. I was desperate to collaborate with the Empire if it could launch my reputation as quickly as it had Mum’s.
I remember very clearly my walk to the Office. The heavy Arwall air was cut through with the frosty breeze of an early spring morning. A haze hung over the streets, and through it the streetlights appeared like lighthouses, daisy-chained into the distance. I ignored the five-storey stone edifices around me and imagined I was crossing some vast archipelago, each island marked by its own flickering orange glow.
A motor-carriage rolled past, the wooden cabin swaying between two pairs of suspension rods like a bow-legged insect. Two policemen strolled in the opposite direction, their steel-capped boots echoing into the street. Despite what I was walking towards, I felt serene, almost weightless, giddy with excitement. Later, I would feel only the abrasive weight of guilt and regret.
The raid came three days after I had left the paper at the Scientific Oversight Office. I was in one of Jacob’s lectures. The irregular tap-and-hiss of chalk against the large board and the steady baritone cadence as he narrated the progress of his calculations were suddenly interrupted by a rising murmur. I looked up from my notes. The other students were arguing in hushed, nervous voices and pointing outside. Through the tall windows of the lecture theatre, out on the green of the Institute grounds, I could see six groups of figures in long coats and dark berets spill out of black motor-carriages. One, a tall, heavy-set woman with short fair hair, got out last and separately from the others. She looked around, barked an inaudible order, and then joined the group headed towards our building. The others dispersed around the campus. Moments later I heard the muffled echo of their march through the corridors, growing louder and sharper until it seemed like the striking of a hammer.
I glanced over at Jacob and found his eyes on me. Something in my expression must have confirmed his suspicions, because he looked away in bitter disappointment. Suddenly he seemed composed, resigned even, and he began to wipe chalk from his hands and gather his notes. I wondered later how many years he had spent in fear of this kind of visit.
The double doors to the lecture theatre swung open with a clang and four figures filed in, led by the fair-haired woman. I and the others looked around nervously as two took position at the back of the theatre and two at the front. All were armed.
“Professor Lukash?” The woman addressed him. The weight of her voice matched her frame.
“Final year.” His voice was small but steady.
“You and the students here are under arrest.” She swept her gaze over the lecture theatre, took each of us in for just a moment. I could not say if she knew who I was.
“The order comes by emergency imperial edict, so I do not need to tell you the charges until you are brought into custody. Form a line and accompany me outside, where you will board a motor-carriage. I have the authority to shoot anyone who resists arrest or breaks file.”
Jacob was silent for a few seconds, as if waiting for one of us to speak up.
“Student politics isn’t what it used to be,” he smiled. “May I see the papers?”
There is a rumour now that staff and students were shot during the raid. It is not true; there may have been violence—I saw some bloodied heads when they were transporting us—but no one was killed. The other five military groups raided the rest of the Shiftscience student body and staff at the same time. Every ongoing lecture and seminar was disrupted, and individuals were arrested in their offices and homes. Later I heard that similar operations were carried out simultaneously in Palaja and New Leven, the only other cities in the world with Shiftscience programmes. I told myself that it would not have been possible to effect this level of coordination in just three days. Given that Palaja and New Leven are outside imperial jurisdiction, I suspected that the plan for the raids had been worked out months in advance; it just needed a catalyst to be put into action. It was likely true, but it did not make me feel any better.
At the Scientific Oversight Office I had had the romantic notion that after I submitted my paper, I—I alone, an unrecognised genius of Shiftscience—would be approached to develop the bridge through the void promised in my paper. But the cold gunpoint reality of my situation and the misery I had inflicted on others had a sobering effect. I stared wide-eyed, shocked into passivity, as I was first jostled against the other students in one of the carriages, then spent two days in a holding cell, then finally was transferred to solitary confinement in what I later learned was Centre 17, a transit jail for political prisoners. I spent three months there without any account of the charges I was held under—a violation of imperial law, but I learned a common one: the prosecution needed time to gather evidence and find a charge to fit it.
Despite the uncertainty of my situation, I was relatively comfortable: I had a bed and a chair in a white-brick cell large enough for me to cross in three paces, with a wide slit for a window at the top of one wall. If I grabbed the edge and pulled myself up, I could see waves at the end of a long stretch of sand, cresting like a myriad folding hands, breaking against the mass of the sea before merging on the horizon into the blue-grey of the sky. At night the flicker of a distant lighthouse reminded me of my walk to the Scientific Oversight Office. It left a sour taste in my mouth.
I was not visited during this time and was given only trivial reading material. I could not complain; having something to occupy me, however basic, kept me sane. My meals—served three times a day—were delivered through a small flap in the centre of the cell door that locked from the outside and was also used to check that I was not attempting anything prohibited. I was not; the isolation and the relative comfort and idleness provided ample opportunity to reflect on the things I had done, to imagine the consequences, to try to come up with solutions, and this consumed me entirely.
On my best days, I fancied that the Empire had captured and held us to establish without interference a government monopoly on Shiftscience applications. If no one had access to Shiftscientists, then no one could affect imperial designs. I was convinced that once these designs were irrevocably in motion, we would all be released and allowed to carry on like nothing had happened. On my worst days I imagined that we were the test subjects for the theories I had developed in my paper, each of the Shiftscience scholars and students used as hosts for the Shiftspace bridges I had theorised—turned into Shiftslaves. All the time—on good and bad days—I was overcome with guilt. I was restless in that way one gets about things one has a responsibility for but no control over. The worry took its toll: despite the lack of exercise and the reasonable diet, I lost weight, my hair was streaked with premature grey, and new lines found their way into my skin like the imprints of a blunt knife pressed too hard and for too long.
Some time in my fourth month in Centre 17, I had my first and last visitor. It is difficult to express the emotions I felt when the cell door opened and I saw Mum in her usual black skirt and jacket, standing alone and with a slight smile curling her lips. An upswell of the guilt and remorse I had lived with for three months, but also relief, hope, the joy of seeing another human being, perhaps even something approximating a familial bond.
Mum watched me silently for a short while, then nodded to someone outside the cell, came in, closed the door, and sat across from my bed on the lone chair.
“How did you get away from the raids?” I asked. It was the first thing that came into my head and I said it without thinking.
Mum winced. “Is that really what you’d like to talk about?”
She paused. I said nothing.
“I had a notion of what you might do after our last meeting,” she said. “I had no way to stop you, so I assumed the worst and prepared for it. You didn’t disappoint.”
“You didn’t help it,” I bristled.
“No,” to my surprise she nodded, “I didn’t.”
We sat in silence for a few moments. Her admission weighed awkwardly between us. My eyes were fixed on the floor but I could feel Mum studying me, examining the damage three months in solitary confinement had done. As much as our last meeting felt like an audition, so this felt like a post-mortem. I shuddered.
“I need you to know that I came as quickly as I could,” she said at last in a small, quiet voice. I was incredulous: was this the start of an apology?
“It took time to find where they were holding you and to negotiate terms,” she continued. “I have friends in the major newspapers and in several government positions, which is how I am able to be here at all.”
There was another pause. I looked up from the floor; Mum’s eyes were glazed over and her jaw set tight, as if she were consciously clenching her teeth. It was too difficult to imagine that she was holding herself back from tears.
“I’ve negotiated your release,” she added.
I was not sure how I felt. I brushed down the creases in my trousers to distract myself with the motion.
“You said ‘terms’?”
“Yes,” she sighed. A long pause. “I’ve agreed to run the imperial Shiftslavery programme.”
I looked back at the floor, my eyes darting to find something in the uniform grey of the concrete that I could fixate on so I would not have to think about this. It went against everything Mum had planned for Shiftscience, against her entire career of keeping the government away from her discoveries and their misuse. I ran my hands over my trousers again.
“But this isn’t something I can do alone,” she added. “I need your help.”
A circle appeared at my feet, painted a darker grey than the rest of the concrete floor. Then another, then two at once. I wiped at my cheeks and nodded.
I found out that Mum had begun relocating her laboratory as soon as I had left her cottage in Morton on my last visit. Her public profile and years of influence in government meant that no one had dared to interfere with her even as the rest of the Shiftscience programme had been arrested.
She moved to Symoni, in South Coral, about as far away from the Empire’s influence as she could get without running out of friends or people who owed her favours. The Empire had a delicate relationship with Coral that it did not want to upset and, until Mum’s arrival, Coral had no organised Shiftscience programme, so she was confident that we would be safer there than anywhere else.
Mum took us back to Arwall and we chartered a small steamboat to Symoni. She had negotiated my release as an explicit condition of her involvement in Shiftslavery, but the authorities refused to recognise this formally in her contract, so she preferred to keep a low profile during our travel. A private ship also left us at liberty to discuss Shiftscience without fear of being overheard.
The voyage took six weeks, largely through waters outside the Empire’s jurisdiction. In the mornings, if it was sunny, I would sit out on the deck and read old newspapers that the captain—a well-meaning man in his sixties who, remarkably, did not seem to know who Mum was—had collected before the voyage. He did not care for the sensationalist fearmongering, as he called it, but they made good kindling for the furnaces that powered the ship’s engine and he did not mind if I leafed through them before they were burned.
The rustle of the pages in the fresh breeze and the distant squawks of occasional sea birds put me at ease, but I was melancholy at the sight of the sea—it reminded me of the view from my cell window in Centre 17.
In the afternoons and evenings, I studied with Mum. From the beginning she made it clear that she had no intention of supporting Shiftslavery in the long-term, but that we had to put ourselves in a position of sufficient knowledge and trust to dismantle it. Awareness of this objective kept me focused and motivated, even if her lessons left me ambivalent. On one hand, they were a revelation; Mum moved through Shiftscience with a confidence and speed that Jacob could not hope to match, knew things he had only guessed at, and proposed and rejected theories with a confidence that was not weighed down by fear of peer review. For the first time in my life I could see for myself how she had earned her reputation. On the other hand, she seemed to be holding something back. Even when the lessons were ostensibly presented as freeform, I sensed an underlying structure. It was as if Mum had crafted a secret curriculum that was shaping me towards something other than what she was willing to discuss openly. I could not guess what it might be, but I did not confront her for fear of destabilising the relative semblance of family life that we now had. This sense of secrecy kept us at a distance from each other, despite everything we had been through.
We arrived in Symoni at the end of summer. With each day closer to Coral, the sun seemed to shine brighter and longer, until the heat was so strong that I could not tolerate my mornings on the deck and spent them instead in my cabin with the porthole open and the door left ajar to attract a draught. In Symoni’s harbour—moored downwind of its famous fish markets and incense parlours—the heat was compounded by a stench that made me gag for an hour before I was able to acclimate to it.
Mum’s new laboratory was in a three-storey townhouse at the end of a palm-shaded avenue in a quiet residential part of the city that did not see much traffic; it would help maintain a low profile. Apart from the bright yellow wallpaper and the extravagant glass light fixtures, the décor was similar to what I remembered of her cottage in Morton: frugal, minimalist, devoid of imagination. But after the unbearable brightness and heat outside, it felt like an oasis of darkness and cool.
“Welcome to your new home,” Mum said. “Get settled and then meet me on the top floor. I need to show you something.”
Her tone put me on edge. My suspicion that she had been working towards a secret agenda returned with tenfold intensity. I gave her the same long, appraising look I had given her in Morton. It was not comforting; she had aged terribly in the last few months, clearly under the weight of a large and unshifting burden.
She noticed that I was assessing her and tried to smile in reassurance, but it only made things worse. In all the time I had known her, Mum had never been one for polite comforts. “You make your choices and don’t look back, or you don’t make them at all,” she used to say when I was little.
“What is it?” I said.
She sighed. “Well, you might as well come up now if you are going to ask.”
We climbed two flights of stairs and Mum pushed open a wooden door to a space that filled the entirety of the attic. A pair of skylights cast uneven, trembling light shafts. Dust motes danced between two rows of chest-high wooden tables stacked with equipment. From what I could tell, most were measuring stations and calculation engines. Their dials glittered like cat eyes. Between the rows of tables, partially covered by a yellowing sheet, was something that looked like a metalwork arch or doorway, about a head taller than me and wide enough for one person. I don’t know why, perhaps it was the fact that it was hidden, but looking at it put me ill at ease. I walked to the arch and removed the cover. With the whole contraption exposed, I could see that it was a long metal tube bent into a U-shape and inserted into two stands bolted to the floor. Countless cables, wires and antennae wound around the length of the tube like the vines of creeper plants. They trailed loosely from connectors dotted sporadically around the arch, across the floor and up to the tables and the equipment there. I looked at Mum. She had remained standing near the door.
“I call it a Shiftlens,” she said. “It thins the boundary between our reality and the Shiftspace, which induces the Shiftspace to manifest within the span of the lens. The encasement also means I can monitor it precisely. If you want to put it crudely, it’s a gate attached to a calculation engine.”
Shiftscience orthodoxy was that no one could exert any control over the way the Shiftspace manifested; it did so when it wanted and as far as it wanted in a handful of known places. During our voyage, Mum had been explicit that I could enter any values for location and dimension I wanted in my calculations, which I had assumed was because they were unimportant to her lessons. Now I realised it was because she had been gradually steering me towards a new way of looking at the problem.
“Why didn’t you just tell me about this?” I said wearily.
“A number of reasons,” she shrugged. “It’s easier to believe in something and to work with it when you already understand the theory. But mainly I didn’t want you to know this too early in case anything happened to us during the voyage.”
For a moment I felt a surge of the resentment I had felt in Morton—still untrusted and unworthy of Mum’s most closely guarded work. But whether through the months of incarceration or the weeks aboard a ship together, I no longer had the energy to sustain that feeling.
“What else haven’t you told me?”
She walked towards the Shiftlens, ran a hand over it absently, then looked up at me. For some reason it was the first time I realised that I was taller. She seemed suddenly and strangely vulnerable.
“Your paper is essentially correct,” she said and I couldn’t help the fleeting sense of self-satisfaction. “But you assume that the Shiftspace will admit of an indefinite number of hosts, all visualising their own exit points, all exchangeable for other hosts. That’s understandable, given the state of mainstream Shiftscience, but it’s not right.”
Mainstream Shiftscience. Moments ago I would have balked at the term—hadn’t Mum’s work defined mainstream Shiftscience?—but the existence of the Shiftlens suggested that she had been working on her own agenda for some time.
“The Shiftspace is a kind of parasite,” she continued. “I believe that fundamentally it’s just a void that cannot be touched or entered or filled. It’s a nothing in almost the literal sense of that word. But when it opens, it looks for a symbiont. To keep the symbiont within it, to keep them comfortable, the Shiftspace tries to mimic its natural habitat.”
“This is textbook Shiftscience,” I shrugged, “The Shiftspace wants to keep the entry from our reality open so it can better mimic our environment and attract additional hosts, which sustain it somehow.”
“Not hosts—plural,” she shook her head, “host—singular. It forms a bond with the first person through the entry, and, as far as I can tell, that bond is in place for life. I’ve always supposed that it feeds off organic matter—perhaps the brain waves we give off, or our pheromones, or something else—I don’t know. The point is that the Shiftspace benefits from having as many of us inside as possible. But there is only ever one host. That’s where your paper goes wrong. At best you can generate just one exit point from the Shiftspace, and you’d better make sure you never lose your host.”
She let me think about that for a moment. In the silence I noticed one of her old mannerisms: she ran one arm over the other and pinched at her skin as she did so. It looked like she was trying to adjust a sleeve or peel away a carapace. It had terrified me when I was a child; now I only found it repulsive.
“Why do you do that?” It spoke to how much we had been through in the last few weeks that I felt able to ask the question.
She looked down in surprise. “Oh, that.” She trailed off. “That first expedition, fifteen years ago: I was the first to enter the Shiftspace. And, well, I already said that it bonds with the first one through.”
I stared in horror. “Are you saying that it’s sentient? That it’s some sort of organism bonded to you?”
“No, not in the way we usually understand sentient organisms anyway. It just has a certain basic degree of…tropism. Yes, I suppose that word will do here. It latches on to a host and mimics its habitat the way a flower knows to open towards the sun: it’s a primal reflex, not sentient intent.”
Her face caught somewhere between a smile and a shudder. After so many years of seeing her seemingly in control, it was difficult to come to terms with how much of it had been pretence.
“As for the bond between us,” she continued, “It’s less sinister than you might imagine. I feel the Shiftspace beside me every moment, even when it is closed, but it’s not like someone watching or dictating my actions. It’s more like a calling to return to it, a yearning to get back to an entry point, re-enter it, and never leave.”
She looked back at me and her eyes suddenly refocused and held their usual calm, balanced detachment. I realised that it was a defence mechanism—for all these years not a mask of superiority or power, but a wall between whatever was inside her and the outside world.
I gazed at her wide-eyed in disbelief. Fifteen years paired with that nothingness, unable to extricate herself, bound to the science she had founded through more than just ambition or curiosity, unwilling to tell anyone in case…in case what?
“Why didn’t you tell anyone? For all this time?”
“I did.” She smiled. “I told your father as soon as I came back from that expedition and understood what had happened.”
I doubt I could have expected a more surprising admission.
“Dad knew all this time?”
“He did,” she nodded. “We agreed that the information was too dangerous to us to make public. We decided to keep it secret until I found the means to break the symbiosis.”
We decided, we agreed, dangerous to us. There was something like a family there after all, once.
“But you never did.” My voice was hoarse.
“No.” Mum looked over at the Shiftlens. “The Shiftlens was my attempt. It was supposed to act as a substitute for a live host. Fifteen years of rebuilding and fine-tuning suggest I was wrong. It can open the Shiftspace, but it cannot replace me as a host. There is only one way out.”
Mercifully, she left it unsaid. She had already explained that the symbiont needed to die to break the link with the Shiftspace. It did not bear repeating.
“I think your father came to terms with that years ago,” she added bitterly, “he said farewell long before I could say it.”
A silence settled between us. I stared dumbly at the Shiftlens, as if it held all the answers, or perhaps because in some abstract way it represented the Shiftspace and Mum’s attempt at liberating herself from it. She had called it a gate, after all. Within a few minutes my knowledge of Shiftscience and my past had been rearranged into an entirely new worldview. It was humbling and it was overwhelming. Above all I tried to make sense of the new perspective I had on Mum and Dad as a family. It felt awkward somehow, unpractised, forced, like I was peering back at two people who did not know how to be with each other.
“Listen,” Mum said eventually, “Why don’t we pick this up tomorrow? We’ll both feel better when we’ve had some sleep.”
Sleep eluded me. The bed—in a small room on the ground floor—was too soft and the air too close. I got up, walked barefoot to the window and threw it open. A gentle breeze drifted in from a small garden planted thick with white flowers that glowed pale in the bright moonlight. Swarms of insects unknown to me darted amongst the stems and settled on the petals. The breeze covered my skin in goosebumps. I padded back to the bed and climbed under the thin sheet, took a deep breath of the cool night air.
I was exhausted, but my mind worked frantically to reassemble old information in light of new, and kept me awake. Assumptions, memories, long-held opinions were reworked like a song played on unfamiliar instruments: different timbre and pitch, new harmonies, but recognisably the same. I stared up with unblinking eyes. Images from my childhood, my Mum’s face, Dad’s, passed before me like a slideshow projected onto the ceiling. It was difficult to comprehend that instead of a decade of living distant and separate lives, my parents had followed a pact to protect each other. That despite Mum’s mounting success and reputation in Shiftscience, her primary goal—to break her symbiosis with the Shiftspace—was a source of constant and repeated failure. I admired her resilience, but then I supposed that perseverance was easier when forfeit was not an option. I had better perspective on Dad’s descent into bitterness and spite; he had waited ten years for Mum to unmake the choice she had made, to return to her family, even as that family withered away. They saw less and less of each other, I grew up, and what he waited for became with every year less important, more abstract, something he believed in by rote, something he believed he ought to believe.
After a while I became aware of a low humming sound and a vibration that seemed to penetrate the whole building. I got up again and leaned out of the window. The sound was almost inaudible now, but I could feel the vibration through my feet, which meant the source was likely inside the house. I wondered if Mum was still working in the laboratory, and I imagined the Shiftlens, thrumming with energy as it held a space of black emptiness within its span. It occurred to me, suddenly and unbidden, that Mum’s symbiosis with the Shiftspace put a halt to any imperial plans for Shiftslavery. She had confirmed that the theory and method I had developed in “A Bridge through the Void” were in most respects correct, but until her existing link with the Shiftspace could be severed, the Empire would be unable to use another host. They would be unable to force that host to remain within the Shiftspace and demand that they hold a bridge open by visualising some exit point.
I had a sudden, awful feeling somewhere at the core of me, a premonition I could not ground in anything concrete Mum had done or said, but it arrived with dreadful certainty all the same. At once I thought I knew the reason for the low humming vibration through the building, what it signified.
I raced out of my room and up the stairs. My nightshirt and hair flailed around me and my bare feet slapped against the wooden floors. By the time I reached the bottom of the staircase to the lab the vibration and the humming had ceased, and I was running through a deathly quiet filled only with foreboding and the echo of my footfall.
I slammed open the door to the lab. A wave of heat buffeted me. The heat grew more intense as I walked towards the Shiftlens. I reached out and almost immediately jerked my hand back in pain. The Shiftlens’s surface was hot enough to brand the skin. I could see parts of it glowing pink and turning a faint amber as it cooled.
I glanced around. The lab was empty. The moonlight streamed through the skylights and cast everything in silver outline like a heliotype negative. Nothing was out of place from earlier in the day, except that on one table there was a stack of paper with a single sheet next to it. Hesitantly, anxious, I picked up the stack and placed it under one of the skylights. In the moonlight I could just make out the title on the first page: “A Bridge through the Void”. I recognised it as the copy I had left with the Scientific Oversight Office five months ago.
I should have guessed that the authorities would consult Mum after they received my paper. I wondered how much say she’d had in the political decisions they had taken. Either way, the fact that for months she could not find where I was imprisoned suggested that things had not gone according to her plans.
I looked over to the single sheet of paper. My lips were dry. I ran my tongue over them and found that I was struggling to breathe. I read the note.
“The basic principles of Shiftscience extend to the Shiftlens. It can create a new entrance into the Shiftspace, but the entrance will remain open only as long as there is a host inside.
“You are the legal owner of this building and you have the knowledge to use the equipment here. I also give you a list of people—the teachers and fellow students captured with you—whom I couldn’t find. What you do with all this is up to you; I can finally give you that choice. Just remember: make it and don’t look back, or don’t make it at all. Love, Mum.”
It read like a note to pick up the groceries, like it wasn’t the first time Mum had told me she loved me, like it wasn’t a farewell. I looked back at the silent, cooling metal of the Shiftlens, around at the empty lab.
She had left it unsaid because she knew that I would understand. She was gone. I did not need to see evidence or learn the grisly details of her passing to know it with certainty. Her connection to the Shiftspace and her grip on Shiftscience were broken. For the first time the Shiftspace was without a host, and Shiftscience without a patron and master. The choice of what to do with this knowledge was my inheritance. Strangely, there was no part of me that needed to deliberate what to do with it. In some way I had always known it—I was a satellite, finally freed from its orbit.
I took the note, but left my paper where it was. With a bit of effort I tore out two cables from a pair of calculation engines and rubbed the exposed ends together until they sparked. The paper caught fire—a small flame that somehow looked like an inferno in the dark room and cast wild shadows across the walls.
I hurried downstairs, dressed, collected the luggage I had not had a chance to unpack and stepped out into the street.
A stream of charcoal grey smoke and the occasional lick of flame poured from the attic and some of the second-storey windows. I could hear a few panicked shouts and the sound of running. A man dashed past me with a bucket but did not pay me any attention.
I looked towards the seafront. The ship that had brought me here from Arwall would still be moored in the harbour. I clutched the list of names Mum had left me and set off towards it, never looking back.