An Experiment in Futility

by Jennifer Davis

            Jim and Sarah decided that building a stargate in the basement of a U.S. post office was the most sensible option.

            They had considered the lecture hall at a nearby university or the large shoe room of the three-legged celebrity, Tripodia—given that her aluminum shoes would help conduct electricity—but neither option panned out.  

            The university had strict requirements that greenery should hang in the presence of any hazardous scientific experiment, and Sarah tended to sneeze unicorns whenever she saw green objects. The celebrity Tripodia had demanded a rent fee of three human hearts in exchange for her otherwise unengaged shoes. But Jim and Sarah had only two hearts between them, and they’d noted in previous scientific experiments that living without a heart left one to ask silly questions.

            (Sarah furthermore had suspicions that Jim was not human, and so his heart would not have fit the price.)

            That left the only other location in town where building a stargate was not considered an offense against the modern education paradigm–-the U.S. post office.

            “Yeah, sure,” said the employee behind the desk. He smiled like a horizon as he spun their dollars between his fingers. “Just be careful—we rented the space out two months ago to some weirdos. They might have left some of their stuff.”

            “Like what?” Jim asked.

            “I don’t know. I’m just saying. You might not be the only things down there.”

___________

            Upon descending the stairs to the basement, Jim flicked on the lights.

            Sarah looked around at the green walls, and her face twisted. “Oh no.” And then she sneezed. In the space before her, a small unicorn formed.

            The unicorn huffed a bit at his violent expulsion and looked up to her, tilting his head. “My brethren are cramped in your nasal cavity,” he complained. He sprouted wings and began to flit away.

            “I know,” Sarah moaned. She pressed her hands to the skin beneath her eyes. “I can feel their hooves.”

            “Can’t you just go colorblind?” Jim asked. “Or get a surgery?” He turned around to inspect the room, pulling tarps off of lumpy objects to discover an old couch, a half-decomposed body, and a cardboard cutout of Winston Churchill.

            “I’ve tried, but it’s expensive to get your unicorn glands out.”

            “I had mine removed when I was six.”

            “Your family’s rich. Not everyone can afford it, you know?”

            The two fell silent until the dead body suddenly twitched and sat up, and Jim and Sarah jumped.

            “Oh, sorry,” said the dead body as it blinked at them. A few remaining strands of hair fell from its skull. When it tried to raise its hand, the fingers began to fall apart into glitter. “I’m still in the middle of a process here. Do you mind?”

            Jim hesitated. “No, not at all. You just surprised me.” And then he placed the tarp back over the body.

            The body’s voice was muffled. “Thanks, man. You’re a real sport.”  

            “I don’t really like sports,” he admitted. 

            “…We can still be friends,” said the dead body, but disappointment shrugged his form beneath the tarp.

___________

            Over several months, Sarah and Jim worked on their stargate, without much luck in maintaining secrecy.  

Sarah began to run a unicorn petting zoo for the nearby suburbs, using the proceeds to buy materials for their project, as well as to pay for extravagant lunches from a deli down the street. It was run by a taciturn woman and the ghost of her lover. The walls of the deli were a welcoming dark gray, and Sarah tended not to sneeze there.  

            “Heard you’re building a stargate,” said the woman as she handed Sarah her change. “Why the hell would you do that?”

            She accepted the coins and grabbed to the sandwich bag. “Secrets of the universe? I didn’t trust the government when they said nothing great happens.”

            The deli owner huffed in amusement. “Girl. I got the secrets of the universe floatin’ around here somewhere. Just stick around.”

            As Sarah began to leave, she felt a cold chill run through her, and the outline of a man solidified onto the material plane. He had dark red eyes, and he towered above her. “You should know,” he murmured quietly, “I worked on the first stargate experiment with NASA. Guess what happened.”

            “I don’t know, what?”

            “I was so disappointed, it killed me.” When he smiled, his teeth were sharp.

            Then he looked back at his lover, and suddenly they both laughed too hard. The fire alarm went off from the heat of the woman’s breath, her lips smoking with mirth.

___________

            The post office was busy that day, with a spaghetti cook attempting to send one metric ton of noodles to a yet-unborn descendant. Second in line stood a woman with a small package that—depending on the angle—looked like either an iguana or the face of a well-known congressman.

            Sarah turned away and opened the door to the rented basement, locking it tightly behind her. “I’m back,” she called. “Jim, I got a tuna-lion sandwich for you.” She set the bag down beside Jim, who was sitting on the floor, petting the most recent unicorn to be sneezed from Sarah’s sinuses. Then she moved to the half-decomposed body under a tarp. “And I got a high-fructose corn syrup smoothie for you. I heard it makes you decay faster.”

            The dead body shifted a bit, and flecks of glitter slipped out from beneath the tarp. Its voice was frail. “Oh, thank you. I need all the help I can get.”  

            Jim began to unwrap his sandwich. “Good news, I think we’re set,” he said. “I got the particle converter from that Canadian goose with the top hat.”

            Sarah nodded. “Good, I’m glad he had the hat. You can’t trust them if they don’t have one.”

            “Even better, I hooked up the converter, and it ran a successful simulation test. I think we can activate it for trial phases.”

            “If the simulation was sound, then yes.” She grabbed her glasses from the nearby couch, along with her tablet of calculations. The main console to the stargate had taken her the majority of several months to complete while Jim had built the framing. It bore a complex array of controls, with wires streaming around the corners of the basement in a manner most likely against building safety codes.

            She flipped the first switch, and the metal frame of the stargate jerked in place, humming.

            “Am I okay so far?” the stargate asked. Its voice mimicked that of the dead body’s because it liked the poor soul.

            Sarah narrowed her eyes at the outputs. “We’re okay. Loading in the plasma barrier now.”

            The stargate complained, “That feels terribly cold. I don’t like that part. Can I have a blanket, please?”

            Jim patted one of the stargate’s pillars as he munched on his tuna-lion sandwich. “Sorry, man. You can’t wear a blanket while you’re plugged in, remember? You could catch fire.”

            “There should be a law requiring that I wear a blanket,” the stargate said. “I’m going to have a conversation with electricity about this.” But it continued to hum at a higher pitch while the plasma sunk through tubing to stretch wide into a bright array of lights around its center. “Am I still okay?”

            “Yep,” Sarah said. “I’ve got your anxiety pills right here too, just in case.”

            The stargate’s voice was small. “Okay.” And then it reached one-hundred percent output, the lights surging in arcs.

            Jim was only half-way finished with his sandwich, still holding it in his hand as he approached the stargate. “Based off your calculations, we’ll land in worlds with breathable air, right?”

            Sarah pulled away from the console. “Yes, although some planets have a slightly higher nitrous oxide concentration in the atmosphere. I would prepare for a slight sedation effect, and that their inhabitants might also be a little high.”

            But as they beheld their reluctant creation, the stargate’s lights began to brighten further. The plasma barrier shook with waves. And then it fully straightened out into a window, from out of which exact copies of themselves appeared, down to Sarah’s black glasses and the tuna-lion sandwich in Jim’s hands.

            Sarah blinked.

             “Oh,” the Other-Sarah said. She peered at them curiously, pushing up her glasses. “Um. This isn’t what I was expecting.”

            “What’s going on?” The Other-Jim looked up from his sandwich and paused at the sight of himself staring at himself. He thought that odd, having expecting to see the landscape of an alien world, or at least the north pole. 

            The Other-Sarah struggled for words. “It appears we’ve...interrupted our work?” She bit her lip. “I’m terribly sorry. We just finished our stargate and were testing it out. We wanted to know the secrets of the universe.”

            The Jims and the Sarahs looked at each other. “That’s nice,” Sarah said slowly. “So did we.”

They all fell silent but for the dead bodies, who slurped on their smoothies.

About the Author

Jennifer Davis graduated with a B.A. in English and writing. She works as a content developer and editor, as well as a freelance online writer. She has been published in Allegro Poetry Magazine, Blink-Ink, and Delmarva Review.