Originally published in Continuum Science Fiction last Fall as “The Gorjun is Free”.
Twenty minutes into our trip to South Padre Island, the Impala’s air conditioning failed. My ten-year-old son Isaiah had prudently brought a spray bottle — for the last week, the AC had burped and whined its terminal respirations — so we rolled down the windows and spritzed ourselves liberally.
Daydreaming, I imagined a thousand other Texas highways just like this one, with its arrow-straight plunge to the horizon, its mini-malls and car lots shimmering in the distance.
“It looks so unreal,” I said.
“Sure does,” Isaiah said. I wondered: was this a genuine Father-Son Moment?
Pure ping pong, these conversations with my son: I would make my point or lose it in the return. I could reply, Distortion of light by convection currents, analogous to Schlieren lines in a glass of hot tea, but he knew that already. Or I could say, It’s like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle on the macro scale, but I knew he wouldn’t appreciate the simile. A demon for precision regarding all things scientific, Isaiah had no tolerance for poetic speech. Finally I realized I didn’t have to say anything. We were sharing the moment together.
But then he killed the moment with a question.
“What are you gonna say to Mom?”
Isaiah learned how to manipulate me at the age of two.
“You can ask that all you like, Iz, but the answer’s the same: I don’t know. You’ll find out when I do.”
“Would we be better off if Mom had died?”
“What the hell kind of question is that?”
“It’s a perfectly valid question.”
I knew better than to argue with him. He would declare the question grammatically correct, or point out the validity of analyzing a hypothetical situation. And so we settled back into our usual silence, the only cool thing in the car.
Southbound I-37, leaving San Antonio, a butterfly smacked the upper right-hand corner of the windshield, well outside the wiper’s arc. My gaze kept shifting to the creamy yellow splat.
“Why does Mom want to see me?”
“She’s your mother.”
“Then why didn’t she want to see me last year?”
Such an obvious question — I should have seen it coming.
I signaled to take the next turn-off.
“Tank’s three-quarters full,” said Isaiah.
“I need to clean the windshield.”
“You’re kidding me, right?”
I added a quarter tank just to use the station’s windshield scrubber. It took some effort, cleaning that smudge, and before long, my cotton shirt clung to my back and chest and sweat ran into my eyes. I’d get sick if I didn’t get a cold drink. So would Isaiah.
Where the hell was he?
Just past the air and water station, someone had parked a trailer on a patch of dirt and set out a vast array of junk. Isaiah loomed over the tables; I knew he would find some especially useless bit of junk.
Other places had garage sales. Here, we had trailer sales.
I hollered, “Watch out for ants!”
He heard me all right because he started kicking up dust. He wore Bermuda shorts, top-siders with no socks: South Padre Island attire. Kid was obviously excited to see his mom . . . not that he’d admit it. I had to intuit his emotional state from his choice of clothing.
“Dad, come look.”
Not again. Last time this happened, I’d had to spend twenty-five dollars on a collection of rusty gears.
“You have money.”
“Not this kind of money.”
I couldn’t go into his room anymore. I’d cleaned it once and he wouldn’t talk to me for a week. (He’d said: Just because you don’t understand the order, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.) We had a different definition of garbage, Iz and I, and an entirely different attitude towards chaos.
I brought the car around to the side, twenty feet from the trailer sale, and trudged across hard-packed yellow clay, my eyes on the ground, scanning for fire ants. Sun-baked clay couldn’t be the easiest thing to dig through, but fire ants never seemed to care. I’d seen them erupt from cracks in the road, the asphalt so hot and sticky the ants became mired in the goo, but they didn’t care. More poured out, parading over the bodies of their less fortunate comrades.
A large woman in a yellow sun dress straddled a leather trunk. Her irises were the color of wheat, same color as her skin. She worked her few teeth with a toothpick.
“Fine boy,” the woman said. “What is he, eight?”
“Ten-and-a-half,” said Isaiah. “Dad, look.”
He held up two handfuls of metallic lumps: long, knobby, the color of pewter.
“Shaped like coprolite,” I said.
“Coprolites are fossilized dinosaur feces,” Isaiah explained to the woman, who returned a blank stare. “Dad’s a geology prof at the university.”
“Hundred bucks for those,” she said.
“A hundred bucks for coprolite?” I asked.
“Dad . . . please?”
“They assemble . . . you wouldn’t expect . . . Ach!” He threw up his hands. “Just look.”
He took something resembling a leprous banana and stood it on end. It remained that way, canted fifteen degrees off vertical. He took a second piece that looked like a warty, broken cigar, and set it at right angles across the banana, forming a lumpy T. Then he took a convex disk that looked like a used condom . . . for a horse. He placed it atop the T, and spun it.
The whole thing rotated as a unit, precessing like a gyroscope.
“Wild, huh?” he said. “The pieces are balanced. There are seven here, like a Soma cube or a tangram. It’s a toy.”
Nothing shaped like that should have balanced so well, nor spun so smoothly. I couldn’t take my eyes away. I remember thinking, If I blink, it’ll fall apart. Isaiah could never make that a second time.
“Hundred dollars,” I said.
Isaiah must have heard it in my voice, that sense of wonder. He smiled; he must have known he had me on his side. But the trailer lady misunderstood me.
“The gorjun’s free,” she said. “Hundred bucks for the story.”
“It’s free, Iz,” I said. “Let’s take it and go.”
“Dad!” He turned to her and said, “Gorjun. Like the Gordian knot?”
She blinked. “Huh?”
“The Gordian knot,” he said. “Tied by Zeus, impossible to unravel, whoever solved the puzzle would rule all Asia . . . you know!”
She shook her head, and he gaped, flabbergasted. Hell, I’d forgotten the Gordian knot. Sometimes Isaiah made the wildest assumptions about what the rest of us knew.
I gave her five twenties and suddenly we were family, enveloped in her arms in a muzzy, beer-scented group hug that had to be as painful for Isaiah as it was for me. A wave of nausea crashed over me and my ears buzzed.
But then Isaiah said, “Thanks, Dad,” such a heartfelt thanks I knew I’d done the right thing, and the buzzing subsided.
He added, “You won’t regret this. You’ll need an ally when we get to South Padre.”
I gave him a curious look, thought about what I should say; but then the woman began her story.
“I was set up on the 59 northeast of Beeville,” she said, pointing vaguely across the highway. “Just after sunset, not a car for miles around, and who drives up but a little grey alien on a moped. Little grey alien with cat’s eyes, a turned-up nose, and scales. He looks over my wares and says he needs my Osterizer. Says the motor is just what he needs to fix his ship.”
“I don’t believe this,” I said.
“Neither did I. Imagine, telling me it’s just what he needs to fix his ship. This guy couldn’t haggle worth a shit! So I told him what I told you. One hundred dollars.”
“Let me guess,” said Isaiah. “He didn’t have any money, just a bunch of alien credits, worthless on Earth. But he did have the gorjun.”
“That’s about the shape of it,” she said. “But now it’s yours, and I have my hundred bucks.”
Isaiah said, “Did he say what it was?”
“Nuh-uh. All he said was, I needed it more than he did.”
Isaiah put the road atlas on his lap and began working with the gorjun. The Impala’s shocks were a bad joke, and the atlas hardly provided a level base, yet he created perfectly balanced seven-piece sculptures one after the other. And such sculptures: tangrams and Soma cubes you could form into shapes that meant something. No matter how he arranged these lumpy things, they looked like metallic stools floating in zero gee.
How did they balance like that?
“You believe it’s from outer space?” I asked.
“Of course not,” he said, not taking his eyes off the gorjun.
“How can you be so sure?”
“She would have asked a lot more than a hundred dollars.”
“You’re forgetting — not everyone’s as bright as you.”
That gave him pause. I thought he might toss my question back at me, but he didn’t.
“I was just wondering,” he said. “What are you gonna say to Mom?”
“What do you think I should say to Mom?”
He looked up from the gorjun. That look on his face: why couldn’t I read it? Such a young smile, eyes moist. Was he relieved? Happy?
Isaiah said, “Tell her she needs to come home.”
Sure, maybe I expected a tearful reunion scene when Cynthia opened the door, but she and Isaiah exchanged a “hey,” and I got a look. We drifted into the living room and Cynthia asked him about school, whether he had a girlfriend, what books he was reading. Her patter seemed stiff enough to be scripted, and she ran out of steam after five minutes.
In the midst of a silence filled with sweat and harsh grins, I punched up my courage and said, “We want you to come home, Cynthia.”
I thought maybe she hadn’t heard me. She said, “Where are you staying tonight?”
“Here, I thought.”
She arched an eyebrow. “It’ll get a little crowded when Glenn gets home.”
Isaiah and I said together: “Glenn?”
I’m not sure what happened after that. I remember dull anger, raging incoherent thoughts, a dim awareness that Isaiah had holed up in the den while I followed Cynthia into the kitchen, not knowing what I would do or say next. Now I stood in the kitchen, six feet away from my wife whom I hadn’t seen in over two years, while Isaiah played with the gorjun behind two slammed doors. So much for an ally.
She dried a wine glass with a terrycloth towel. My eyes moved from her slender fingers to her red hair (tied in a bun), to her shirt (V-neck, royal blue), to her denims (tight). I wanted her and I hated her for making me feel that way.
“I could have prepared him for it,” I said.
“Smart as he is? He had it figured out a long time before you.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Ask him,” she said. She wouldn’t look at me.
“What, and humiliate him even more?”
“He’s the one who’s humiliated?”
Oh, how I hated her.
“Please, Cynthia. We need you to come home.”
“And it’s all about you, isn’t it? But don’t you see? It’ll be the same as before. You’re the same. I saw what you did to the pillows on the sofa. You didn’t think I’d notice?”
I kept my mouth shut. I couldn’t remember rearranging the throw pillows, but I didn’t doubt what she’d said.
“You say things will be different,” she said, “but I’ve heard it a million times. Nothing ever changes — you’re still you.”
I brought in Isaiah’s suitcase and set it next to him. “What are you doing?” he said.
“I’m going to the Holiday Inn,” I said. “I’ll come by tomorrow and say goodbye before I leave.”
He put the gorjun pieces into a burlap rice sack the trailer lady had given us for free. “I’m going with you,” he said.
I didn’t argue with him. For that matter, neither did his mother.
We camped out at the Holiday Inn with no plan other than the vague idea we were on vacation. That first morning, we drove to Brownsville and hit a Borders Bookstore, then came back and camped by the pool. I’d bought Carl Hiaasen’s latest book and Isaiah picked up his third copy of The Two Towers. Why he couldn’t just remember to pack the damn book, I’d never know.
Before we went to the pool, Isaiah made me lock the gorjun in the Impala’s trunk. He claimed he was afraid the housekeeper would take it, but I suspected he had other motivations. The night before, he’d stayed up past midnight playing with it.
On our second night, he returned it to the sack after playing for only twenty minutes.
“What’s the matter?” I said.
“I can’t stop thinking about it.”
“Just like a Soma cube.”
“It’s awful,” he said. “I keep rearranging it in my head. Have you noticed that every piece can grip every other at least three different ways?”
“No, I haven’t. You won’t let me play with it.”
“It wouldn’t be healthy for you.”
The next night, we ate fried scallops at Joe’s Crab Shack, came back to the hotel, and Isaiah didn’t even take the gorjun out of its sack. I watched an old Black Adder on cable while he read The Two Towers. He’d made a lot of progress.
“SHIT!” Isaiah slammed down the book, opened the burlap sack, and dumped the pieces on the round oak table near the window. I thought of Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, building mountains from mashed potatoes. Of kids spending hours on end playing the same computer game.
Then I remembered Rick Barnes, whom I’d known since college. Rick lived in Austin, where he practiced patent law and ran ads on cable: Market your invention now!
Cynthia may have griped about money, but I’d always been happy on a professor’s salary. Or rather, I would have been happy, had she not been so damned unhappy. No, if I’d been alone, this crackpot idea never would have occurred to me. But I had Isaiah to think of, too.
Isaiah insisted on going everywhere the gorjun went. Like a Vatican bureaucrat, he feared Rick and I would defile his Shroud of Turin.
“How do you know X-rays won’t hurt it?”
“We need to know if it’s homogeneous,” I said. “I don’t know any better way to do it.”
“How do you know we can spare a milligram for the mass spec? You’ll unbalance the whole thing.”
“Look, do you want to know what it’s made of, or not? Wasn’t it you who said, ‘Maybe it’s made of some mineral that’s never been seen before on Earth?’”
In the end, he agreed to let us take samples from each piece, but after we took the first sample he insisted on playing with it for twenty minutes, just to be sure.
The results were far from exotic. The pieces were isodense and homogeneous, composed of a nickel-tin alloy with traces of copper, silver, molybdenum, and iron. Isaiah, Rick, and I read the report together and exchanged glances.
“What do we do now?” I asked Rick.
“You need a working prototype,” he said. “You have a working prototype.”
“You can’t have this one,” said Isaiah.
Rick said, “I know a good plastic extrusion man.”
Three weeks later, we had our first plastic prototype. Isaiah took it into the kitchen and shooed us from the room. Ten minutes later, he joined us on the deck, looking like his hamster had died.
“Well,” he said, “now we know whether the alloy’s important.”
Rick clucked his tongue and sighed. “This might price us out of the low end toy market,” he said.
“Not at all,” Isaiah said, grinning fiendishly. “It spins like a top.”
We made it our summer project. Isaiah and I learned everything we could about manufacture, distribution, and marketing. Rick said we were wasting our time, but he didn’t understand; we couldn’t hand over control without some knowledge of the process.
As for Cynthia, we heard not a peep. Neither Isaiah nor I mentioned her again.
On Rick’s advice, we decided to market the gorjun through LenCo, a local distributor of scientific toys like Grow-Your-Own Mystic Crystals, Uncle Josey’s Silkworm Farm, Monty’s Metaphysical Magnets, and Angelica’s Amazing Flower-Pressing Kit. Rick figured the gorjun would create its own sensation. He maneuvered a sweetheart deal for us with LenCo, so that when the gorjun turned into the next Rubik’s Cube, we’d have a lion’s share of the profits.
Not that the money mattered, really, but college tuition wasn’t cheap, and Isaiah had his heart set on early enrollment next year. And besides, it was the principle of the thing. Why should some multinational make a killing off the gorjun?
We called it Wacky Wiggle Worms, by the way. That’s market research for you.
Two weeks after we released our first lot of five hundred, Isaiah went back to school. He soon fell into a routine: he’d come home, finish his homework, eat dinner with me, then play with the gorjun. I had a similar routine, except instead of playing with the gorjun, I read the emails to our website.
Note from LenCo: We’ve cleared five hundred units in under three weeks. Figure we can place another fifty thousand nationwide.
Note from Rick: Here’s that background information on international distribution contracts. Don’t sweat it, I’ve done this before.
I sprinted into the kitchen. Last time I’d heard anything like that, he’d cut himself slicing a bagel. Two seconds later, my heart pounding, I found him all in one piece standing over the gorjun.
Nevertheless, he looked funny. Pale.
“What is it?”
“How well do you remember the beanie?”
He held the piece that looked like a giant used condom. AKA the beanie.
“What do you mean?”
“Look. The perimeter is studded with big bumps and little bumps . . .” He explained the pattern to me, but I couldn’t follow him. He finished with, “Get it?”
“If you say so.”
“Look at it now.”
The beanie felt cool and slick. Two large knobs interrupted each group of small knobs. The central portion, which used to be uniformly convex, was now half convex, half concave, each region flowing into the other like a yin-and-yang symbol.
“It’s different,” I said. Something cold opened in the pit of my gut.
“It’s the same for the others,” he said. “Every piece has changed.”
I didn’t doubt him. If anyone knew those pieces, he did.
We’d kept one plastic gorjun for ourselves in the garage, still in its neon-bright wrapper. Isaiah studied the pieces for thirty seconds, and said, “It’s the same as the one in the kitchen.”
“How . . . ?”
I said, “But it’s just a shape.”
“I’ve been thinking,” he said. “A tangram starts as a square. A Soma cube starts as a cube. Maybe this thing started off as a hypercube — a four-dimensional cube — or maybe an even higher-dimensional object.”
“Oh, come on! You’re talking like you believe that trailer lady’s nonsense story.”
I pleaded: “It’s just a shape.”
“I think it’s a four-dimensional shadow of a higher-dimensional object,” he said. “We’re only three-dimensional beings — four, if you count the fact that we exist in time — so all we can appreciate are the objects’ four dimensions.”
That’s my boy, unfazed by the impossible. I felt defeated by his even tone, his persistence. The indisputable fact of the gorjun’s changes made my feelings and everything else irrelevant. Maybe some idiot alien on a moped really had needed an Osterizer motor to fix his ship. It didn’t matter: the gorjun existed, and that required a logical explanation. I’d have to deal with it just as Isaiah dealt with it, as a puzzle to be solved.
I said, “So. If you can reassemble a tangram back into a square, and a Soma cube back into a cube, what do you think the gorjun makes?”
I’d never seen him with such a wicked grin.
We spent the rest of the evening in the kitchen, monkeying with the gorjun. We worked well together, I noticed, and it wasn’t lost on me that this odd collection of shapes had succeeded where a half dozen parenting books and thirteen hundred dollars’ worth of family counseling had failed. The gorjun had brought us together.
I thought, too, of the Gordian knot, the impossible knot of Zeus: whoever unraveled it would rule Asia. The legend attributed the puzzle’s solution to Alexander, who solved it by slicing the knot with his sword. Folks usually interpreted the story as a metaphor for violent conquest, but Isaiah and I knew otherwise: Alexander had been thinking outside the box.
We tried to do just that. We approached the problem intuitively, no preconceptions, long on instinct, short on analysis. I kept thinking: Just because you don’t understand the order, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
By 3:30 AM, we were both too tired to go on. I pushed the pieces together into a pile.
The beanie leaped above the pile. Suspended midair, it spun clockwise over the other six pieces. A minute later, it reversed its rotation. A minute later, it reversed again.
“Rick, I think you should come over here.”
“The house in Leon Springs. You need to see this. The gorjun is . . . doing things.”
Silence at the other end of the phone. Rick believed all business could be conducted by modem. He probably dreaded the trip down from Austin.
“Why don’t you just tell me what it’s doing.”
“You wouldn’t believe me. Oh, and Rick? Can you tell LenCo to hold distribution of the next fifty thou?”
More phone silence. Then, “They shipped last night, man. No can do.”
Isaiah and I stared at the gorjun. We hadn’t touched it since morning, and the beanie still spun like a top.
“It’s a perpetual motion machine,” I said. “This isn’t supposed to happen.”
Before, whenever we’d spun the gorjun it would wear itself out. And it had never leapt into motion of its own accord.
“It’s not exactly a perpetual motion machine,” said Isaiah. “It spins forty-seven seconds clockwise, then the same interval counterclockwise, then it repeats. If you average it out over time, the angular momentum would cancel, wouldn’t it?”
I said, “It’s not supposed to work that way, and you know it.”
Isaiah pointed at the spinning beanie. “Something else you ought to know,” he said.
“Our toilets are flushing funny. It’s happening at school, too.”
The doorbell rang. It was Rick. Isaiah led him into the kitchen, and the three of us stared at the gorjun.
Rick took the salt shaker.
Isaiah said, “What are you . . . ? Oh.”
Rick unscrewed the shaker’s top and poured salt over the beanie. A cloud of crystals swirled midair . . . then reversed.
We drove back to that same service station off I-37, but the trailer lady wasn’t there. Then we went to the only other place we could think of — Highway 59, northeast of Beeville, where she’d supposedly encountered her moped-riding alien. Ten miles outside of Beeville, we found her at the roadside, hawking “authentic Navajo spirit jewels” to a busload of Canadian tourists.
“No refunds,” she said when she recognized us.
“That’s okay,” said Isaiah. “We only want to talk.”
She squinted at us.
“I brought money,” I said, and she brightened.
Isaiah said, “We want to know if that story you told us is true.”
She motioned for us to wait. When the last Canadian tourist had left, she took a twenty from me, then another twenty, smiled, and spat on the ground.
“Bullshit, like all my stories,” she said.
“Then where did you get it?” I said.
She thumbed a low, oak-stippled hill five hundred yards off the road.
“I was closing up for the evening when I saw this explosion. I went to take a look, and found a meteor cracked open like an egg. Meteor’s all smoking red and fuming, but this thing was inside, cool as a pint of sherbet.”
“No bullshit?” said Isaiah.
She shook her head.
“Then, why’d you make up the other story?”
She shrugged. “That’s what I do.”
Less than ten minutes later, we crested the hill. We found no trace of a meteor or crater. We did find a quarter acre of tropical rainforest.
When we got home, the gorjun was still spinning.
This was not the only special shape.
A seven-year-old boy in Wichita formed his gorjun into something resembling a conjoined-twin giraffe. The rigid plastic giraffe necks softened and entwined, unwound, then entwined in the opposite direction. It blew every fuse in his house.
A Winnipeg girl Isaiah’s age formed her gorjun into a three-foot-tall tower that began hopping in place. The room became glacial so fast the girl had to be treated for frostbite.
At first we followed the gorjun’s progress by our emails — some bemused, others threatening litigation. Later, as the wonders multiplied, we didn’t need to read emails. The changes were as obvious as the sun in the sky.
Sunsets were green now, and the aurora borealis could be seen as far south as Monterrey. Blue dust devils appeared on the streets, glittering like fireworks. Nights lasted eighteen hours, and no two days were the same length. On the coast of Southern California, the surf was spectacular.
The last week of September arrived, traditionally one of the hottest times of the year for south central Texas, yet we didn’t have a single daytime high above seventy-six degrees.
One morning, I awoke to find Isaiah frying hamburger meat, breakfast for a small brown dog: a chihuahua, the plump variety they call ‘cobby’.
“Since when do we own a dog?” I asked Isaiah.
“Pendejo,” the dog said. “Who says you own anybody?”
Last night, Isaiah and I spent the evening on the deck drinking virgin Margaritas and watching the aurora. Life was good.
This morning, I woke up to find Cynthia sleeping beside me.
I shook her until she opened one eye. “When did you get here?” I asked.
“I love you,” she said, and rolled over.
I found Isaiah in the kitchen fixing French Toast. “Mom’s back,” I said.
“I know.” His face had a freshly-scrubbed glow. “She tucked me in last night, kissed me on the cheek.”
“You two are nuts,” said the dog. “That bitch has been here for weeks.”
We both ignored him. One of these days we’d have to ask him his name.
“Do you understand any of this?” I said.
Isaiah flipped the toast. “All I know? I have to stand back three feet when I flush the toilet, or else I might get sucked in. If I don’t put a teaspoon of salt into the French Toast batter, the Toast burns every time. My tennis shoes won’t stay knotted so I have to wear loafers. It’s easier to pedal my ten-speed at the highest gear ratio than the lowest. The fire ants are weaving flower necklaces and hanging them off the deer grass.”
He poured me a cup of coffee with cream, no sugar.
“And I know that Mom kissed me on the cheek last night, and told me that she loves me.”
I sipped the coffee. Nowadays, it tasted much better without sugar.
I’d have to learn to accept change.
A vivid rainbow encircled the moon, and smaller glories ringed the stars. The air smelled of sagebrush and cinnamon. At my side, Cynthia draped her arm casually around my waist as if it were the most natural act in the world. She squeezed me tighter and gave an excited ooh when a red shooting star cleft the sky, leaving a wake of violet ripples. Isaiah peered into his telescope, muttering to himself about subtle shifts in the fundamental constants; Cynthia and I exchanged a glance, the smile of proud parents.
When Cynthia ducked inside to make tea, Isaiah said, “Are you happy now, Dad?”
Something about his question chilled me. Like he expected a thank you.
“Isaiah, I’m still wondering . . . do you understand what’s happened?”
He laughed to himself and rested his arms on the deck railing.
I said, “You solved the puzzle, didn’t you?”
“There are lots of solutions. Just like a tangram or a Soma cube.”
“But what about all those other gorjuns, son? When the hell will things stop changing?”
Isaiah gave me an exasperated sigh. “What do you want, Dad? Mom’s home.”
He looked hurt. Frustrated. That moment, he wasn’t the prodigy who would start classes at University of Texas next month. He was the ten-year-old boy suffocating in a state of pique because his dad just doesn’t get it.
A trio of violet orbs sped across the sky, accompanied seconds later by a low sonic boom.
“Sure, kid,” I said, and his expression softened. I hugged him close. “Life is very good.”
Yeah, life is very good . . . for now.
Copyright me, Douglas Hoffman, forever