This was originally written for /r/WritingPrompts: “[WP] In a world torn apart by a war between the right handed and the left handed, an ambidextrous child is born.”.
I definitely stretched the prompt for this one, but seeing as I’d recently read Roger Zelazny’s Doorways In The Sand, there’s no other direction I could have taken it. I’d like to think I at least acknowledged my plagiarism by naming the main character Fred Cassidy.
Ever seen a Mobius strip? You can make one yourself, easy enough. Cut out a strip of paper, twist one end, and glue it into a circle. It’s a neat little thing to look at - if you start on the inside and go around, you’ll wind up on the outside, and then back on the inside again. You could draw a little man inside and see the man go around and around until he got back where he started. Draw him with a bigger left hand than right. Why not? If the paper’s thin enough, and you can see through it, you can see the little man from either perspective. From the inside looking out, he’ll have a bigger left hand. But from the outside looking in…
The chemistry was simple. Amino acids are left-handed. Amino acids make up proteins, which make up organelles, which make up cells, which make up life. Every enzyme in every human being is left-handed. And on every planet we settle, we make sure to bring our left-handed bacteria and plants and animals with us. We make entire left-handed ecologies, whole left-handed planets that way. And life was so rare in our part of the galaxy, and so different from ours, that we never worried about this. The Flats dwelling on neutron star surfaces, or the Magesterium of living self-sustaining magnetic induction fields, or the Circumincession whose forty-seven planets were all ice giants colder than Pluto and bigger than Jupiter? None of them were going to care much what we did on the planets either too hot or too cold or too small for them to settle in. And the feeling was mutual.
Unless one of them sent the Ordovicians to Rasalhague out of sheer spite. Which is as good a guess as any. The odds of one planet being settled by two species simultaneously, with one based on left-handed amino acids and one based on right-handed? That happening by chance was mathematically impossible. Fermi can take his paradox and stuff it.
The humans on Rasalhague had already committed; without the kind of launching laser that it takes a full civilization to sustain, there was no conceivable way of making it to another habitable star system or even to another planet of Alpha Ophiuchi without starving to death in space. And if they expanded only slowly, making sure not to release any left-handed life into the barren world, they’d quickly find the world outside grow less barren, but with life antithetical to theirs. Unless they acted immediately, they’d be trapped in their handful of domes and bunkers, and sooner or later die off. This was the prisoner’s dilemma. It was basic game theory.
The Orodivicans, evidently, also knew about game theory.
And so the strangest war in history begun, in which the goal was not death of the other side but an overflow of life. The humans remade and remapped genome after genome, coding for maximum replication, and established an entire archipelago of left-handed life. But it wasn’t enough. Weird prion-folding plagues swept through the colony. Medicines would reverse their effects. Foods would change taste, or become inert, or even be suddenly poisonous. Just having some of the world conform would never be a stable solution; the entire world had to be either left-handed, or right.
And so then they made me. I’m a living Mobius strip.
The text on my screen lit up. “Mr. Cassidy, we’re ready for you.” It had been years before I could be taught how to use my ability, and I was still practicing whenever I could, still trying to understand what it was they had given me. Mentally, I walked through a tunnel and emerged out back into the daylight, but a different daylight than the one I’d seen a moment before.
“.υoγ ɿoʇ γbɒɘɿ ɘɿ’ɘw ,γbiƨƨɒƆ .ɿM”
I might as well get used to it.
It was a long trip to the outskirts of the Ordovician territory, but traveling by ship was the only way I could get there without seeming like a threat. Three or four miles off the coast of their northernmost island, an aircraft descended in front of me, and a modulated voice boomed out.
“Something will-stop something something must-be-taken-to something be-discussed.” Ordovician verbs were a lot easier than nouns, so I got at least the gist of it, and powered down the boat as the aircraft lowered what looked disturbingly like an opaque diving cage. When it reached the deck, a door unlocked with a chunk and swung open, showing a padded and unfurnished interior I was evidently to get into.
This was even better than I’d hoped. Now I get to show off my party trick.
After three hours, the jostling stopped, and the padding lit up with the picture of an Ordovician. Obviously their display technology was better than their clumsy mechanical locks. The background gave me no indication of where I was, or if the Ordovician was even in the same room.
“Something be-discussed something something something you-come?”
“I have come here as an emissary”, I responded. “Do any of you understand English?”
“We-exclusive-understand something something something. Something something you-all-not-hide.”
“We have not hidden our language from you ever since I was born,” I said. “because I have a gift for you too important to hide. Do you know why I have come?”
“We-exclusive-know war.” That was a noun I recognized. It was short in both our languages.
“Yes. Thus far, that’s been the most important thing to know. But I came to show you how we can end this war.”
“We-all-not-ending something war. You-all-ending something war or we-exclusive-ending something war.”
That something might be the word ‘possible’. Urgh. I would need three sets of vocal chords to properly make some of those sounds, but I gave it my best shot. “We-all-ending possible war”, is what I tried to whistle, say, and sneeze, simultaneously.
The Ordovician, somehow, understood. But he didn’t buy it.
“We-exclusive-not-live something something you-exclusive-live. Something something to-be-decided. Something something war.”
“If I can leave this cell, I can show you why that’s no longer true.”
The Ordovician didn’t change facial expression, but increased in volume: “No! Not-you-possible to-leave!”
If that’s not a perfect setup, I don’t know what is. I pushed the door open, effortlessly, and took one step out of the cage.
It was quite a bit before things settled down again. Guards in what had to be their equivalent of hazmat suits had immediately pinned me to the ground, and the delegate or functionary I’d been talking to (who was, surprisingly, not too far outside my little cell) had been evacuated, along with his whole entourage. Did that guy bring his own translators and still leave me with not so much as an English-Ordovician dictionary? Jerk.
While still pinned, other guards went to examine the cell, and were properly mystified. Nothing had touched the outside of the door. The locking mechanism turned and locked just like it should. And yet, the door had swung open when I pushed it. How?
It wasn’t until they tried closing it again that they figured it out. The locking bolt was facing the wrong way. It could be opened, but without being unlocked, couldn’t be closed again, instead of vice versa. I was glad, in retrospect, that I hadn’t also mirrored the electronic locking pad. The poor guys might have gotten even more confused.
After sending some kind of request to their leaders and getting a response, I was dragged back over to the cage. Without complaint, I touched the bolt, mentally carried it as I walked through the tunnel, and came out the other side. I then went into the cage again, and pulled the door behind me. It closed with a satisfying chunk.
For the next hour or so, I could hear damped scuffling noises outside. My guess is that the guards were told to reinforce the door so that no matter what I mirrored and in which direction, I couldn’t get out again. They could have sealed the room with duct tape, for all I knew. Colonies have to make due with whatever mismash of high and low tech they can get. That’s universal.
Finally, the panels lit up again. The Ordovician had a somewhat higher volume than he’d averaged earlier.
“Something something you-singular-decieve!”
I hadn’t had any luck finding their camera, or cameras, but if they’d bothered to give video to me I couldn’t imagine that they wouldn’t want to see who they were talking to. I reached down, and pictured the entire cage around me, and stretching my ability to its limits, heaved it through that mental tunnel and out the other side. When I opened my eyes again, the image on the screen was reversed, and from the scrambling outside, this had been too big not to believe.
“No. You know what I can do. You know how important this is. We’ll give it to you. And then we all can win this war.”
“Something that-which-to-be-given-to-us?” Huh. I guess future passive participles had been important to learn after all.
“Search my ship. You’ll find it. It looks like a little loop, way too small for a person, but it’s all you need to start. Pass something through it. See what comes out the other side.”
“We-all-not-be-possible something something something to-return!”
“You can switch your ship back the way it was when it’s time to launch colonies of your own, or to send a return ship home.”
“Something something something you-exclusive-not-change?”
I paused. The simplest, most selfish answer is that we didn’t feel like doing all the work. But I was told to be as diplomatic as I could. “One of us has to break the symmetry.”
“Symmetry”, the Ordovician said. That noun I understood, too.
The screen shut off.
It wasn’t until an hour later that the Ordovician returned.
“How you you-all-make? How something you-all-made?”
“We didn’t. You can’t make something like this out of purely three-dimensional materials…but if you have one already, you can make more. We found something that broke the symmetry, smaller than a grain of sand. We used it to make small mirrors, and used those to create bigger mirrors, and used a bigger mirror to create me. And we’re giving one of these mirrors to you. You can do the same thing.”
“Yes. We-exclusive something you-exclusive something something something death. We-exclusive-must-break something something symmetry. Something something war.”
I remember hoping that whatever message they’d sent to our archipelago was more intelligible than that. But I think I got the message, and I ignored any undertones of grudging acceptance I may have gleaned from it.
“You-singular-leave possible. We-exclusive-return you.”
The Ordovician suddenly stopped whistling and sneezing, and with a single set of vocal chords made a hesitant attempt a single, short phrase. “Thank you, Fred Cassidy.”
It wasn’t great English, and strictly speaking, all I know about the first word was that it ended in a ‘k’ sound. But I like to look on the bright side of things.
Early colonies can’t afford much in terms of parades, but given the circumstances, I can’t blame them. I didn’t think I had all that much to do with the peace - if it hadn’t been me chosen to be achiral, it would have been somebody else - but if it made people happy to include me in the parade, I wasn’t going to say no. It had taken a week to arrange my transportation back in a way that wouldn’t result in their plane getting shot down, but it was done, and I’d finally gotten back to where I’d started.
As I looked at the crowd outside, I saw a large banner, which reminded me that I hadn’t quite come all the way back.
I was about to switch back, but then, I changed my mind.
I could understand it either way.