Herman Bexley lay dreaming. He is a child again, sitting upon his father’s lap, one tiny hand exploring a coarse and complex expanse of dark knuckles and crenulated nails. Music plays in the background, a light electronic piece by Wendy Carlos, its synthesised sounds building scaffold memories that will affect Herman’s lifelong musical appreciation. Somewhere, away from the obelisk stereo and French windows where he relaxes with his father, the gentle rhythm of typing describes his mother at work. A clichéd soundscape maybe, but one of security, contentment and love. He’d need all these foundations in the future – a terrifying place where their tripartite secret would be challenged time and again.

      Specialists in the medical profession knew he was a hermaphrodite. In hushed tones they had questioned his parents’ decision to let Herman choose his gender, or whether he even needed to make up his mind. He loved them for that. His formative personality having to mature beyond its years, but not hating, not resenting.

      He’d gravitated towards the male in pre-school, but had accepted the guidance that he was special, that his physical complexity was best kept within a close-knit circle. A trusted few.

      He could no longer hide at high school. His mother and father suggested home tuition, but Herman had refused. His slim shoulders, delicate hands and full lips had repelled his peers, the truth of his third base chromosome writ large as they collectively flailed towards puberty.

      Why had he stayed to weather the slings and arrows of misunderstanding and overt abuse? Love. Of course it was love. He knew that now.

      No surprise the outsider found his peers in study, a sense of homecoming in the physics and computer labs, inspiration in the tuition of Doctor Raynor and Mr Lincoln – practical men whose minds were open to experiment, complexity, shift and change.

      It was here that he had met Velvet Templeton, while marvelling over a cloud chamber, atomic particles leaving vapour trails like microscopic jets blooming in an air display of randomness. Their wonder drew them close.

      He sees himself with her now, unfashionable glasses perched on her permanently blushing face and he scoffs at the tweeness of it all. Two proto scientists finding rational sense in the observable universe. The school’s lab coats were filthy, tousled, thread-bare at the cuffs and ill-fitting, but the science was didactic and liberating.

      “Oh, this is all so… so Dickensian!” Herman exclaims and is surprised to find his voice. The dreamer as critic as well as observer it seems.

      He looks again at the scene and gives a wistful sigh with his newfound speech. What a wonderful girl Velvet had been, a friend in the absence of all friends outside of his family. Later she had tried to become his lover, but nothing had ever felt right – all elbows, knees and frustration, their friendship untangling in the wake of repeated failure.

      She dematerialises now, or at least that’s Herman’s first impression as he watches her fade, but it’s the scene that has shifted. Only the image of himself sustains, his back hunched as he dedicates himself to his lab bench. Unchanged? Not quite. He moves his spectral perspective around and observes that he is older. Then he realises that the setting is the computer research lab at his old university.

      He has started work on vagaries of quantum logic, even though he doesn’t realise it as yet. Chaos Theory pushing his interest in mathematics as fast as he’s pushing the limitations of the hardware in front of him. Ensconced in the flow of machine code, but already feeling around the edges of the sub-atomic and the practical problems of turning electrons into data carriers. Heat, miniaturisation, interference, deep and uncorrectable errors that require a new type of coding to steer programs back to the accurate, the true. It’s all virtual simulations for a time, and then comes the nanite revolution and he’s pleading for access to electron microscopes. He builds his enclave void first, to shield against decoherence, then painstakingly assembles everything at the atomic level and dares to wonder at the electronic consequences of his prototype, his limbo gate.

      A TV interview now. His invention a reality and the era of quantum computing, if not dawning, is definitely turning the ether away from shadow and gloom. His success with the limbo gate engenders a new confidence in who he is, what he wants. There are two others on the uncomfortable couch beside him, listening or responding while the simpering questions fly from the host’s mouth. A starlet who actually seems interested in what he’s been working on and a politician who’s displaying all the historic confusion about what Herman presents at a gender, or maybe even a pheromonal level.

      He has started wearing his hair long and his clothes could easily be described as foppish, but he’s calm, charming and then hits them all with a series of simplifications that captivate.

      “You see,” the dream Herman leans forward, holds the host’s baffled gaze before pushing on, “Previously, computing was like a pipe filled with flowing water. You could increase its diameter and give the illusion of simultaneity, but there was always a source, and there was always an outlet.”

      “Like a tap?” The wax-faced compere plays for laughs, but Herman takes them in his stride.

      “Yes, exactly like a tap. But now, with quantum computing, the process is more like rain. Organic and flowing freely somewhere within the datasphere. A weather system, if you will, but one in which the limbo gate acts as uncanny meteorologist. It masters a level of prediction way beyond anything in the physical realm.”

      He had said that, condensing all those years of driven yet faltering thought into something that made the inconceivable palatable. They – the studio guests, the wider viewing audience – accepted what he said, were reassured by this strange man and his peculiar dress sense. The alchemist transmuting his ugly theories into gold.

      The tone of the music changes subtly, and Herman is perplexed to realise it has accompanied him throughout all of these visions. The electronica of Wendy Carlos continues, but now it is a slow and ominous pulse. The Funeral of Queen Mary.

      Herman is about to groan out loud, the trite obviousness of the piece grating with his age-tempered sensibilities, but then the scene emerges in front of him and he is mute.

      An operating theatre. He is looking down upon a slumped female form. The surgical cloths that covered her formative breasts have been ripped away, the iodine stained skin is laid bare. There are marker pen hieroglyphs written here and there, a cross connected to a circle via a line sitting just above the slim figure’s lowest rib. Herman wrinkles his nose at that and then recoils in an understanding of what he is seeing. A body still unfamiliar to him despite the months of therapy, an alien entity reconfigured on a hormonal, psychological and physical level. His commitment to a deeper and more true sense of self.

      He looks up to the calm half human/half plastic piped cyborg face and sees his own face held in intubatored sleep. No. Not sleep. The staff are rushing en masse, wide eyes above their masks, white gloved hands grabbing for defibrillator paddles, contact jelly, pawing at his flesh… Her flesh.

      The scene shifts again.

      “No” Herman says. Again. “No.”

      He is standing on a spiral staircase that appears to be made of ancient marble. It hangs in the sky with no visible means of support. White clouds are carried on a light wind along with an electronic film score that he cannot place. Both draw his perspective away from the steps in front of him and he looks out at an identical ascent coiling perfectly around the stairs he stands upon. An indistinct figure is mirrored in his position, a brother or sister image of himself. He instinctively raises a hand to wave, and the person opposite mimics him exactly.

      Herman, confused, looks away and concentrates on the twisting spirals that loop and re-loop above. He shakes his head at the obviousness of it all.

      “Is this some kind of joke?” He calls and hears the faintest of echo of his own voice. “You can’t make Qbits out of DNA.” The wind catches his words in a careless gust.

      A cloud moves over the stair where he stands and the chill of suspended water propels him into motion. He suddenly feels refreshed and cool, but with no recollection of being hot and uncomfortable before. He begins his ascent and, in doing so, becomes aware of his body; the bland hospital gown, now slick with water, clinging to his skin.

      Looking upwards he sees little within the foggy shroud of the cloud, but two amorphous shapes appear to be descending towards him. The cloying mist drifts away and he’s instantly dry, the forms snapping into bright solidity before him. Herman gives a nervous grin and shakes his head in instant recognition of the two men present here, waiting for him in the sky on this improbable spiral staircase.

      “Why you?” He questions.

      Turing smiles in return and shrugs. He is wearing a light cotton shirt tucked into comfortable slacks – as if he’s about to go and play croquet on a lawn somewhere. He moves to the side of the broad staircase creating a gap between himself and his companion. Heisenberg. The other man also moves aside, his tight lips shifting into a mere hint of a smile. His bright eyes make up for the lack of warmth in the rest of his face. There is space between the two now, but Herman is scared to advance in case he endangers them. Ridiculous, he realises, as they’re both already dead. He is close enough to touch Heisenberg’s jacket, to place a hand upon his striped tie. Instead he pauses. There is a choice to be made here.

      Turing absentmindedly brushes his fringe from his eyes and gives him a look of apologetic resignation. Herman glances up the stairs, across at the mirror trio standing on the companion side of the double spiral and then, finally, back the way he has climbed.

      Taking a step downwards, he senses that this is the right direction for him to go, but the sudden, tangible weight of his foot as it slaps against the marble is worrying. A glance over his shoulder brings some reassurance. Turing and Heisenberg have moved together once again, watching his descent with gentle acceptance.

      He takes another hesitant step and the increasing weight of his body buckles his knees. Gravity hauls him down the next three steps, pulling him onto his backside so he can only shuffle like a nervous child. A pounding grows in Herman’s chest, weak at first and then regular and powerful like a pile driver beating his sternum. Another step passes, scrapes at his back and he thinks he is about to implode. The stairs stretching away in front of him, their sharp white edges starting to blur. Where do they lead? He has no idea, but pushes forward regardless, simply trusting that it will be somewhere different, somewhere new.

(Copyright © 2013 by J. E. Bryant. All Rights Reserved.)