by Ed Carmien
Every time Hana walked past the old Hyundai hybrid that nearly filled the small space behind the house, she remembered her father driving to the NKJ plant when she was younger. He had a better car now, all electric. The old hybrid had a bad muffler, and the engine smoked, too. She wrinkled her nose against the memory of the oil stink. Now that her father was a shift supervisor he left for work almost before she woke up for school, and when he came home he was too tired to help with her projects in the shed.
Hana ran her fingers along the faded plastic side of the car. The surface was smooth beneath the grit. The door to the shed opened without a sound. Hana waited for the light to come on, just a moment’s pause while the little sun-powered light decided how many watts it could provide to the bulbs. Impatiently, she flipped open the lid and overrode the programming, and the lights came on all the way. She snorted under her breath at the conservative algorithm that operated the sun-light. It had been one of her first projects in the shed. “Appa,” she’d said, “it is too dark to see.”
“Then you shall make a light, Hana da,” he’d replied, touching her briefly on the side of the head as he liked to do.
Hana let the old network terminal sit quietly. She’d salvaged it from a neighbor when she was ten, found the problem that had made it go dark. For a year it had provided a welcome diversion. Her favorite had been the technology group she’d joined using her Appa’s ID, but eventually she’d asked the wrong question once too often. Suspecting she was not Changeun Park, they shunned her. Unseen and unheard by others, all Hana could do then was watch.
Her current project was spread out on the work table, photo-electric pads and obsolete fiber-optic cables and an old bit of circuitry the size of her ID card, just smart enough to remember and execute instructions from her ped. Out of her pocket came four small magnets. She’d rescued them from the refrigerator. With a bit of glue she attached them to her project.
It should work. Before being ignored by the technology group she’d explained what she wanted to try. They’d told her it was a childish idea, it couldn’t work, wouldn’t work, that she’d be silly to carry out the experiment. One patient member had tried to explain about magnetism, about the spin of electrons and the charge of protons (or was it neutrons?), about the impossibility of lifting yourself off the ground by grabbing onto your boots and pulling, about gravity. The Earth’s magnetic field was a million times too weak! One had admitted she had an interesting way of applying electricity to magnets—using fiber optic cable and a photon converter was far from the most efficient way, but using copper would cause problems for her magnets.
Hana didn’t understand all of the things she’d been told, but she didn’t think anything she’d heard meant her idea wouldn’t work. She knew about magnetism, had made a special study about it for a school project, had missed part of gym class cleaning up the mess she’d made with the iron filings. Hana loved the double halo a magnet made, invisible to the eye but beautiful nonetheless, loved the process of tricking the magnet with electricity to change that halo into something with teeth.
Before she could plug in current, the radio crackled. That had been a project, too, made from an old radio and the monitor her parents had used to listen to her breathing when she was a baby.
“Hana? Hana, come inside now.” As always, there was a bite behind her mother’s voice, a little bit of frustration that her daughter was out in the shed, playing at being a boy.
Trying not to feel rushed, Hana connected the power. The fiber optic cable lit up. The small screen on the circuit board displayed the binary code for “functioning.” But the magnets didn’t twitch, didn’t move a centimeter.
Hana sighed. More study, to see what had gone wrong, would have to wait. It was time to leave for Mt. Naejangsan.
Hana waved at Chisato, their maid. She was smiling, for once, her narrow Japanese face almost pretty. Hana knew Chisato was smiling because she would have the house to herself until the end of the week and would probably have her friends from Seoul visit. Hana didn’t think they needed a maid, but her mother did, and besides all the NKJ managers hired maids for their families. Her father pulled out into the street, the car silent except for the sound of gravel under the tires. Her mother did not wave at Chisato. Hana knew it had to do with Great-Grandmother, and an old war with the Japanese. It seemed too long to hold a grudge to Hana, and besides, having to work as a maid to send money home to bankrupt Japan seemed punishment enough.
She turned herself around in her seat and pulled out her ped. It was a long drive to the park. Hana imagined how much more fun it would be to fly to Mt. Naejangsan, to see the brown ridges and dark grey rock from high in the sky. By the time the car left the tightly packed houses and apartment buildings and entered the farmlands framed in gentle curves she was deep into a twenty-year old text about physics she’d copied from the network. It was in English, but with her ped she could make sense of it. Her parents chattered about how much cleaner the air was now than when they were younger, leaving her to the ped and her project.
Hana drew diagrams with her stylus and tried to guess what she had missed with her model. When the car pulled up to the little cabin at the foot of the mountain, she was sure what she would do next, if she could find the parts.
“Hana!” her mother scolded as she started listing what she would need on her ped. “Come help with the luggage. We are here! Isn’t it beautiful?”
“Yes, Umma,” Hana replied. She needed to scoot fast when she heard that tone. Her ped had been confiscated more than once, and she didn’t want that to happen again.
The week passed quickly. There was nothing Hana could do to work on her project. She particularly liked hiking with her father, who over the days of their vacation lost the haunted look he’d worn since being promoted to supervisor at the plant. “Appa,” she’d say, then ask him a question that would help her with her list of parts.
Finally, he laughed. As big as she was he grabbed her by the waist and picked her up. Her braids swung down into his face as he peered at her. “What are you up to, Hana da? Do you need more toys for your projects in the shed?”
“Project,” she almost told him, but held her tongue. It was then she knew what she really wanted. She wanted him to join her in the shed for projects, like in the old days. He would bring home bits and pieces from the NKJ plant and they’d find uses for it, or stow it away for later. Sometimes he brought home broken things, and they fixed them together, first finding the problem and then figuring a way to work around it. Her favorite remained the robot hand that held her coat in her room. It understood the words “hold this” and “let go.” Sometimes while talking on the phone in her room her coat would fall on the floor, and she’d realize the robot hand had heard her say “let go.”
“Yes,” she said, laughing as he finally put her back on her feet. They were in a stand of pine. Down below was their cabin. They’d climbed so high on this hike the roofs were tiny squares. They would have to go back soon or risk walking home in the dark.
“Well, what do you need?”
Hana had thought hard about how to make this request. She didn’t understand why he liked the old Hyundai so much. It was up on concrete blocks and hadn’t run for years. Even when it had been running, the engine had been rough and loud, and it burned oil. The batteries had lost some of their ability to hold a charge, too.
“Well, I need some big batteries, and some big magnets.”
He frowned. “We don’t have those sorts of things at the plant….”
Long ago she’d learned to let him think out loud.
“Oh,” he finally said. “Let us begin walking home. Mother will have some dinner for us.”
Hana was very hungry when they walked up to the cabin, where the lights were already burning in the deepening dusk. The smell of rice and something else came from the windows, and she felt her stomach growl. “What is that, Appa?”
“Your Umma has made kalbi as a treat, Hana,” he told her. Grinning, he raced her to the door.
“Jiyoung, Hana here has a project in mind, back home,” her father said after the food was in their bowls, rice next to short pork ribs still steaming from the gas grill.
Her mother narrowed her eyes. “Yes?”
“She would find parts of the car useful. Since it does not run any more….”
“Oh,” said her mother. “Well.”
Hana watched her father pat her mother on the hand. What was it about that car?
“Don’t you think it would be appropriate for Hana to make something out of that old car?”
“Make something?” Her mother grinned. “Yes, it would. So long as she does not make something in the car, please.” Her parents both laughed, and her father gripped Umma’s hand across the small table.
“There will be no accidents,” he said, and they laughed even more, saying together as if rehearsed, “yes, no beautiful accidents.” They looked at Hana with these words.
She realized she’d been holding her breath in anticipation. “So I can use the parts?” she blurted out. Hana nearly always understood her parents, making small moments of mystery such as this curl her toes with frustration.
Her parents laughed some more at their little joke. Picking up their slim metal chopsticks, they nodded. Later, Hana marked off two important items from the list on her ped.
Back home, she heaved the last of the luggage into the house and ran to the shed. After a full week of charging and no use at all, the sun-light did not hesitate to make the bulbs nice and bright. On the work table sat her project. The magnets hadn’t lifted. The field was too weak, just as everyone had said.
Her father’s voice made her jump with surprise. “So this is the new project?”
“What does it do?”
She hesitated. Ever since the members of the group had told her it was impossible, she hadn’t told anyone what the project was supposed to do.
“You can tell me, Hana da,” he touched the side of her head.
“It should fly.” She almost whispered the words. “It should, but it doesn’t yet.”
Because he was her father, he did not laugh. “I see,” he said, and glanced at the network terminal.
“Did you know,” he said, looking serious, “that someone used my ID to join a NKJ discussion on the network? Whoever it was spoke about making a flying machine out of magnets.”
Hana’s legs wobbled. The technology group had been NKJ?
“When they asked me about it at the plant, naturally I said I hadn’t joined the group. It is all engineers and researchers, not a place for a supervisor, like me.”
She felt tears appear in her eyes. “I am sorry,” she said, and hated her voice for quavering. “I did not know it was people from your company.”
He raised his hand and she quailed, thinking he would hit her, but he only laughed and clapped her on the shoulder. “The funny part is it took them three months to catch you, Hana da. Three months! Those are the egg-heads with big degrees, they figure out what the plant should make. But Hana, please understand, you are only 12 years old. There are many things for you to learn in school, and at a university if you wish. If this does not work, well, it is not because you are not smart.”
She nodded and wiped the tears from her face. Hana wasn’t sure what felt worse, that she’d been caught, or that he’d known all along what she’d been doing with his ID and hadn’t told her.
I will make it work, Hana told herself. I will make it work.
Every day after school but before her chores Hana worked on her flying machine project. She was so sure she would find the fault in the model that she began taking the parts out of the Hyundai. The batteries came first, after a stern lecture from her father about the perils of electric current. The rear seat was a mess when she was done, but she removed the heavy cells safely. After reading about reconditioning such old batteries on her ped, Hana followed the directions and finished by putting them on a trickle charge from the same panel that ran her sun-light.
The magnets were much harder. The car was equipped with a regenerative braking system that used magnets. Hana got herself very dirty pulling off the wheels and fiddling with the brake systems. Her father brought her tools from work, and even spent one happy evening helping her use a laser torch to cut a few cast metal components apart.
Every day, she fiddled with her model, but nothing helped. The magnetic field was simply too weak for the magnets to catch hold, no matter what tricks she used. Hana wired and rewired the little magnets, and she tweaked the control software that fed power to them. It would not fly, much less float.
Hana knew she was on the right course. If she held the top of the model and turned on the current the weight in her hand decreased dramatically. It was almost holding itself up. That alone was something the people on her father’s technology group discussion had said was impossible.
It was at the store that Hana realized what she was doing wrong. Her mother took her shopping in the vain hope she would learn some of the tricks of keeping house. “You are too much like your father, always fiddling with things,” her mother said.
“Yes, Umma,” Hana replied, like she always did.
The store reminded Hana of America, the America one saw on TV and on the network. Just a few years ago they had shopped on a market street where the goods were cheaper. She still remembered the noise and the crowds with a smile. This store was brightly lit, and everything was shiny and new. The floor was polished, the chrome-edged shelves full of foods she recognized and foods that came from far away. At the new store there were no food vendors with gas-fired woks selling rice rolls or minced beef dumplings, though sometimes there were samples of those things set out on round plastic trays.
They didn’t taste nearly so good as they had at the open market.
It was the clerk who startled Hana into thinking of her problem in a new way. She was a tiny person, wizened and gray, and hardly taller than Hana herself. One of the little people, she realized, from the north. Her mother had explained the little people to her once. They had been starved in the old times, before the country came together again. Not enough food kept them from growing as they should, and so they were tiny, little people, especially the old ones.
Her magnets needed more food. What could give it to them? They needed to be farther apart on the cable. Hana stood, dazed with the revelation, until her mother snapped at her to help with the bags.
Once home she could hardly stop herself from rushing to the shed. First she helped put away the groceries, then she helped Chisato with the laundry. Hana straightened her room without being asked and quietly went to the shed.
She cut a longer strand of fiber-optic cable, and transferred the other elements of her model to it. She was so eager her hands shook.
“Hana! Dinner!” It had gotten dark without her noticing. Hana went inside and ate her meal, then sat patiently while her parents finished. She worked her toes back and forth within her shoes with frustration. Fidgeting was not allowed, but no one could see her toes. At times like this, she remembered that in English TOE meant Theory Of Everything, that and other details from the books she’d read swam through her mind, keeping her calm while the seconds crawled by.
Back in the shed she finished assembling her new model. Closing her eyes, Hana connected the current. She heard a rustling sound from the table. Grinning, she opened her eyes.
Rising from the tabletop nearly to the shining bulbs of her sun-light, her model stood straight and tall, tugging against the power cord that held it in place. The cable was vertical, shining with a deep blue light. The magnets, swathed in copper wire, were spaced like beads on a necklace from the top to the bottom, where the power lead joined the circuit board.
Hana wanted to shriek with relief, with joy. It had worked! By placing the magnets farther apart they had more lines of magnetic force to “pinch.” Enough pinches, and they appeared to grab onto the air, holding themselves and the rest of the flying machine apparatus erect.
She wanted to dance and sing and yell and scream, but Hana did none of these things. She wouldn’t be done until she could fly, until she could show her father that her machine worked. There were things to prove, measurements to be made, software to write for her ped, which she would use as a controller. There were things to scrounge, starting with four hundred meters of industrial fiber-optic cable, the clear-shelled kind because that would be pretty.
“Hana da?” came her father’s voice over the radio. She panicked for a quick moment. A loud click came over the radio. “Hana da, it is time for bed.” Hana breathed in and out twice to calm herself.
“Yes Appa,” she said, voice level and even. Hana unplugged the project, but it floated for a few seconds before falling limp into her waiting hand. “Strange,” she said to the empty shed.
It rose with such a jerk Hana was glad she’d taken the time to attach not one but two shoulder belts to the seat from the Hyundai. They crossed her chest and made her feel secure even as the wind rushed down upon her. It wasn’t until she reduced the current without changing her rate of ascent that Hana felt for a moment that she was drowning in fear. Her hands reached for the seat belt releases by instinct—if she could not stop, she must jump. The yawning sky surrounded her. Anything would be better than being lost in the clouds.
Thumbs poised over the orange-red release buttons, Hana forced herself to stop, to think. She’d hoped for a short test flight, just a quick rise to fifty meters, close enough to shout for her Appa to hear and come stumbling out upon the driveway to stare into the sky, see her dangling below the fiber optic cable. That wasn’t going to happen. Why not? Work the problem, she heard her Appa say, his hand touching her lightly on the side of her head.
Looking down, she saw rooftops the size of tiny squares and remembered her father say how high they had climbed that day on Mt. Naejangsan—two kilometers.
Checking her ped, she saw barely a minute had passed, and still she rose, the air pounding down upon her so hard she struggled to breathe. Her ped could check both the old American and the new Chinese positioning systems and both said she was higher than two kilometers and moving at more than 100 KPH. Her ped was out of range of the house network, and just for a moment she felt a flash of anger her Umma had not allowed her to upgrade it to a real phone.
Working the problem had not saved her, but Hana felt no fear. A lean exultation gripped her. She was probably going to die. That was sad. Appa would not see her fly. That was also sad. Then she heard her father’s voice tell her that “probably” was not science, data was science and maybe Hana should record some data. Dying for no reason would not only be sad, it would be stupid, so she went back to work, cradling her ped between her legs while the wind howled around her.
Another minute passed as she calculated the variables of her observations, and then another as she called forth the notes from the meteorology project she’d completed the previous year. One of the screens she clicked past suggested that if left to the whim of the winds she would drift across the ocean to North America before moving south to cross the ocean again—that was the fast wind pattern. If she was not found and recovered for years, she would end up moving north to the pole as part of the slow great cycle. Hana shook her head to clear it of such thoughts and spent another fifteen seconds querying her encyclopedia about the height of Mt. Chomolungma.
“Shit,” she said, the English word springing from her lips from somewhere she couldn’t imagine. Hana winced. “Sorry, Umma.” Mt. Chomolungma was the only mountain she knew that required oxygen to climb to the very top, and at the rate of her ascent she’d be approximately nine kilometers into the troposphere within minutes. Working on the terms of the problem had calmed her, at least. Even so, a grim feeling was in the pit of her stomach.
The air blasting down upon her was frigid, but Hana guessed she would pass out before she froze to death. She gave one minute to finding a solution to her dilemma. Even setting the power to “off” didn’t change a thing, and it was then she smiled despite the knives of frost she felt digging into her face. “I found something new,” she said, and the exultant feeling warmed her for a moment. The shape of the puzzle appeared vaguely in her mind. Controlled passage of photons through a strong electromagnetic field—Einstein, she remembered, and gravitons? Hana felt a pang of regret that she would not live to unravel the last mystery. Time to record her data.
Hands nearly immobile, Hana managed a few quick notes on her ped before her head reeled and her gasps for air made it impossible to write. Hands shaking, fingers clumsy, she tucked the ped inside her light jacket. With her project data hard-saved on her ped, someone, someday would solve the puzzle. The glowing fiber-optic line would be impossible to miss, and she trusted her father to look in the proper place, the air, when he discovered her project was no longer in the tiny yard, coiled like a dragon between the shed and the house. Even if she were lost forever, he would find her project notes on the shed terminal.
Narrowing her eyes against the blast, she looked up at the glowing vertical line that stretched above her, a beautiful accident pointing at the darkening blue sky. The seat swayed from side to side, and at the edge of each arc she could see all the way up the 400 meters of glowing cable, see each of the magnets from the Hyundai. There was an eerie deep blue glow around each one. Fighting the shivers that raced through her like minnows in a barrel, Hana pulled out her ped and aimed it skyward to take a picture of the phenomenon. Evidence of what it looked like, if nothing else, should the effect wear off.
Ped safely zipped away once more, Hana felt the shivers ease. She knew that should she rise high enough the air would warm again. A wave of dizziness swept her, and she closed her eyes. The darkness behind her lids expanded, and she forgot the pain in her chest, the cold fire on her cheeks. Now that she was done with her ped, Hana wondered what it would be like to die. She hadn’t left a personal note on it, she realized. Hana hoped—knew—that Appa would know her discovery, this strange new force, was her message. A tear, feeling hot for just a moment at the corner of her eye, froze on her face. She could not return home, but news of her project would. The noise of her passage ebbed away and soon all Hana could hear was her heart, each lub-lub coming more slowly than the last.
Hana felt warm, and she smiled.
Ed Carmien is a writer and academic. His story “The Beautiful Accident” won first prize in the professional division of the Heinlein Centennial’s writing contest in 2007, and he’s pleased the Kelsey Review accepted it to be seen by a wider audience. He’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) and more can be found about him at edwardcarmien.com.