William A Gardner
Fantasy & Science Fiction
Flash fiction, and scenes of life and travel
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OTHER STORIES & SKETCHES
Everything about the relationship between thought and reality changes when you start looking at the world through the lens of Quantum theory. Despite the comment by Einstein about God playing dice with the universe, at the quantum level the universe does appear to be probabilistic, and from there it is a short leap to suggest that what we think, our mental capability, can effect the universe, or multiple universes. We have the ability to choose and thus what we choose to think has consequences in a complex universe.
Choices have consequences and my last choice, innocent as it had been, was threatening to put an end to my life as I knew it. I considered this solemnly as I sat at the bar watching the bar girl serve drinks to the patrons. She had that lovely Latin American tanned skin that was almost too flawless to be real and her hips moved when she walked back and forth as if she were practicing her rhumba. There was a tattoo of a rose on her shoulder. She must be a dancer I thought as I ordered another margarita. My phone chimed and I saw that Jammer had answered my text message. b there soon was all it said. I picked up the drink and moved to a booth that I knew was poorly covered by the Pubsec cams. It wasn't just that they would pick up sounds. The software could read lips as well as faces and I didn't want a record of our conversation being run through the Pubsec algorithms, now or anytime in the future. The phone chimed again. It was a text from Caitlin. wtf where r u. I texted back: patience, stay there. What else could I say at this point? I sipped the drink and stared at a picture of some ancient derelict Irish castle on the wall while I tried to figure out just how I was going to explain things to Jammer.
The drink was making me feel better which was both good and bad. Since the financial meltdown in 2021 and the subsequent social unrest the government had implemented a whole range of measures, one of which was to mandate the addition of Somnol to all ethanol. Thus every time you had an alcoholic drink you were being drugged into a pleasant lethargy. They were clever too, removing all taxes from alcohol so it was cheaper than bottled water and with the general poverty everyone now drank like there was no tomorrow. People pretty well knew about the Somnol even though it was supposed to be a secret, but facing reality was a bummer and it did cut down on the suicide rate.
"Eh, what's up doc?" said Jammer as he slid in beside me. He had this thing about old cartoons and Bugs Bunny was one of his favourites. Perhaps it had something to do with wishing for an older less complicated time. Jammer was his online name and we all called him that. His real name was Barton Delaney. He was tall and skinny with serious blue eyes, a shock of unruly blond hair and a surprising amount of him turned up for feet. The big feet helped him win a lot of swimming competitions when we were in school together. We had been friends ever since and I knew I could trust him.
"Want a drink," I said.
"Nah, I'm relaxed enough as it is."
"You may not be for long when you hear what I've got to say. Perhaps you should order one. It's on me." Jammer shrugged assent so I signaled the waitress and ordered a shot of Jager. There was silence. When it arrived, Jammer took a sip and then leaned forward with a quizzical look on his face.
"Caitlin's gone," I blurted out, feeling my panic level rising again. I took another drink and felt the acid bitterness on my tongue. "Or at least she's gone from this timeline, this present, this reality. Hell, I need your advice." I looked around to ensure there was no one who might be hearing the conversation.
Jammer pointed his finger at me. "So, did you two have a fight? As if that hasn't happened before, you being the absent-minded science nut and she being the sexy sharp-tongued Irish tempest in a shot glass. Where has she gone now? Mora's place?"
"No, God no. I wish it were that simple." I shook my head and looked for a moment at the black-painted ceiling. "You remember how I started that crazy PhD project to keep from getting drafted into Pubsec? Well, my theory not only works but it works too well. Now I've opened a Pandora's Box and if I can't figure out a solution I will be royally screwed." My voice was rising so I took another drink.
"Yeah, I kinda remember what your work was about, but remind me. And where's Caitlin? Did you blow up the lab with her in it?" he said with a laugh. "You are such an idiot." Then he paused and his face became more serious. "But what do you mean she's gone from this timeline? You didn't hurt her did you?" I could tell that Jammer was starting to understand this was more than just a lover's tiff. His face was now starting to register real concern.
"Well, last year after finishing the Masters about the effect of focused thought on plants it seemed like a great idea to look into the effect of focused thought on a Quantum computer."
"Yup, I remember," said Jammer.
I continued. "I thought it would be interesting and besides, as long as I was in academia it kept me out of the Corps." I looked around again checking for anything out of the ordinary. There was a man standing with his back to the bar who was looking in our direction. Paranoia among the population had risen in parallel with the number of Pubsec cams and the realization that everything one did online or otherwise was most certainly observed, analyzed for public security threats and stored forever. Hell, even making a disparaging remark about the idiot in the next apartment who kept his TV too loud could be considered a threat to peace, order and good government in this bloody day and age. You never knew when the Pubsec bureaucrats would show up with their workpads and questions wanting to know about your alcohol consumption or if you ever had feelings of violence toward someone. If you weren't almost an alcoholic it meant a special notation in your file as a potential threat. Nobody admitted to being a non-drinker.
I recounted how I had scored a grant - the government was happy to provide grants just to keep people off the street - and had set up a lab in the basement of one of the University buildings. That didn't bother me. I knew that the University Administration didn't take me too seriously and thus my little project was relegated to a tiny space in the basement. Shit, I didn't even take myself seriously. The room was private and I could work at my own pace. I had a small sixteen-bit Quantum computer - I called it Quandary just because I like to name things - that had been cast off by a larger research firm and had set it up inside a metal shell, essentially a Faraday cage made with copper mesh and sitting on insulators, so that it could be isolated from outside EMF's. Also inside was an old dentist chair that I had found at a bankruptcy auction. During an experiment I would relax in the chair, enter my meditative state, and try to get Quandary to determine the number Pi, or at least as many of its digits as the computer was capable. When I couldn't get any decent results I had found an old Tesla coil generator and used it to charge the cage with high voltage. I had hypothesized that this would reduce all interference including mental interference. The odd high voltage spark was impressive but not really dangerous. It did however cause some complaints from the people above me on the main floor when their lights dimmed. I would set the generator on a timer, climb into the cage, initialize the Quandary routines, then relax in the chair and enter my deep meditative state. Once there I would focus my attention on Quandary and pose a question with a numerical answer. The detailed experiment log that I kept had satisfied my thesis advisor Vladimavich and even if I didn't get a definitive result, well, the point was to stay out of the Corps, not change the world. Things were fine and then the totally unexpected happened.
I had knocked back several drinks at lunch with Caitlin and then started the afternoon's experiment. I was very relaxed and entered the meditative state more quickly and deeply than usual, perhaps because of the extra Somnol. In that relaxed but super aware state I realized that I could FEEL the computer and the superpositioning of the Qubits. Somehow my subconscious had actually become linked to the computer at a quantum level and I could feel the indeterminate superpositioning plus almost a desire - if I could call it that - of the Qubits to collapse into a particular state. Then it became even more unbelievable, for I could actually see the different possible futures. They were flickering in and out of focus like a sideways scrolling listicle. When I opened my eyes the entire room was flickering. I felt as if I were watching frames in a movie running in fast mo'. Then the superpositioning collapsed into a particular state and it was over. I was in the lab and everything looked and felt normal other than me being totally freaked out. It was both exciting and frightening. Was that real or was it a dream I thought? I didn't write what had happened that day in the experiment log, nor did I ever. I faked it. The best way to avoid a Pubsec visit was to be boring and this was anything but boring. I did share it with Caitlin though.
Later, as I was better able to control the scrolling of the flickering future frames - I started to call them shards because the images sometimes broke into pieces - and I could see them more clearly. With practice my mind could slow down the speed they scrolled and then I could mentally choose the one with the future that I wanted. I likened it to driving down a highway at night with your headlights showing the road ahead. By turning the wheel at intersections the lights showed a different future. I perceived each image like a cone getting smaller and dimmer into the distance. It became a game and then I had another idea. If I could choose a timeline by seeing a day or so into its future, why not use this to my advantage? I managed to get a large flat-screen TV and mounted it on the wall where it was visible from where I sat in the cage. It was easy enough to see the TV clearly through the copper mesh screen. I switched it to a financial channel and ran another experiment. Sure enough, the TV showed the price of various stocks and indices for the next day or two in particular shards. It was like finding a foolproof way to cheat at Vegas. I set up a brokerage account with WealthUp and pretty soon I was watching my account balance skyrocket. All the trading was done online. I didn't even tell Caitlin why I seemed to have so much money but she liked the high-end restaurants we visited and the new electric car. With so much poverty around it was a bit dangerous to be spending this much money but it seemed foolproof. Being wealthy still wasn't against the law and I paid my taxes diligently. I was enjoying not having to take the local electric trolley bus to the University. Anyway, Caitlin and I were having a great time. She would stay over frequently at my new larger apartment on West Second in Kitsilano. We had talked about moving in together but we still valued our separate lives. She was my height, smart, red-haired, with green eyes and freckles, and had a personality that could switch from tender loving concern to volcanic outrage in a heartbeat. I attributed that to her Celtic Irish background. I had even thought of marriage but couldn't make up my mind about her. Did I love her? The answer always came back yes, and no. We had talked about leaving the city and finding a place with more freedom. Cities were safe but there was no freedom of thought or action. She wasn't working right now having lost her job in the latest string of layoffs from that clothing outlet store. She was living on the guaranteed annual income that the government had started providing to all citizens. You could live on the GAI but it hardly paid the rent and it wasn't keeping up with inflation.
I paused in my story, looking at Jammer who had stopped checking his smartphone every thirty seconds. Evidently what I was saying had now caught his attention. "I was wondering about your sudden wealth," he said. "I thought perhaps a rich uncle had died." "Well," I said. "There's more. When I was busy choosing futures and making money I had always assumed that there was just a single future. That is, when I chose one, then that was the only one that existed. You couldn't go back in time but you could choose the path forward. Unfortunately, I was wrong. The universe is a little more complicated than that." "What do you mean, more complicated," said Jammer, twisting his head to one side and looking at me sideways. You could almost see his mental wheels turning. "And what's this got to do with Caitlin? What did you say before about her not being in this timeline?"
"Well," I said, "you'll understand in a minute. This afternoon Caitlin showed up at the lab with a bottle of Irish Cream. We were knocking it back and talking about the holiday we planned to take together later in the spring. It was a great spring weather day and we were joking about how to fake out the Pubsec bots. Then she said that she wanted to try it for herself, you know, connecting to Quandary and choosing a future. The Somnol had certainly impaired my judgement because I agreed. It was just one of those thoughtless choices one makes in the moment when you sense danger but the little voice in your head says, what harm can it do? After all, Caitlin already knew the basics and she had taken meditation training. She had been intrigued about the possibility of choosing futures and wanted to try it."
"So Bugsy, you set her up in the cage and revved up the system. Great work," said Jammer sarcastically. He called me Bugsy when he was irritated. "So, then what happened?"
"She just disappeared. I was frantic as I tried to figure out what had happened. Finally, I just sat down at the lab desk and stared at the empty cage while I slowly drank the rest of the Irish Cream. You know, it's strange what you do when faced with something totally unexpected and completely terrifying. It was like borrowing the family car and then running it into a tree. You just stand there like a zombie because all the options are terrible and you can't decide what to do. You only know that you are in deep, deep shit. Anyway, then my phone text chime went off and it was from Caitlin. It said where r u. why did you disappear. Then I knew what had happened."
Jammer was getting pretty upset by this time. He really like Caitlin and evidently wasn't too happy about what I was saying. In fact he was angry and his voice showed it. "So what did happen, and where the hell is Caitlin?"
I shrugged. "I think she accidentally chose a future where I somehow I didn't exist, where maybe my grant is terminated, the lab is shut down and I'm gone. For all I know she's standing in the room with people dismantling the lab and nobody knows where I am, if I even exist anymore in her universe. Do you see, there isn't just one possible future, there are many timelines and she and I are no longer in the same one."
Jammer was looking at me like I'd just got out of a psychoblob hospital, one of those places where they tank you up with a rotating combination of hallucinogenic drugs and Somnol until you're so confused you'll believe any thought they incept in your brain. It's typically for citizens who start to understand what really is going on and for whom the Somnol by itself isn't enough. That is, when they start to act out their frustration at living an increasingly meaningless and controlled life.
"The good news is we can communicate," I said. "She must have had her cellphone in a pocket when she went into the cage and it ended up being connected across timelines. Maybe it was trying to ping the tower at just the right moment. She can text me and I can text her back. They're entangled." I showed Jammer my cellphone with the text thread from Caitlin. He stared at it, scrolling up and down.
After a long silence he looked up at me. "So, you're the scientist, what's your plan? I do hope you have one."
"I'm going to try and find a timeline where we both exist," I said. "Perhaps the two timelines will intersect at a point where we're together. Then by choosing that particular one all should be OK. What do you think?"
"I think the whole bloody thing is insane," said Jammer. "Nobody believes in parallel universes and nobody will believe your story. I'm having trouble believing it myself. If you tell them this story the Pubsecs will likely think that you killed her and disposed of the body. You'll never get out of the local psychoblob ward. If I didn't know you so well I'd think the same thing. You are royally screwed my boy." He drained the remainder of the Jager and sat back with his arms crossed.
"Well, I gotta try," I said. "With the sixteen Qubits there are 65,536 possible states so I'd need some luck to find an intersection. Perhaps I can figure out how to reduce the options. I'm just not sure how much time I've got before people in this timeline figure out she's missing."
Hours later we had no better solution and it was almost morning. The last thing he said was "You'd better find her Peter. Find her and marry her. You know she loves you." I purchased a bottle of scotch at the 24-hour liquor store and drove out to the University as the sun rose. Point Grey was more green than usual in April. People said it was because of the global warning. I didn't care. At the campus I parked, plugged in the car and walked quickly to the lab. Once there I got out the scotch and poured myself a cup. You couldn't buy Somnol by itself since it was supposed to be secret but I needed it to achieve the right meditative state. While I sat drinking it I looked around the room. The cage was in the middle of the room with Quandary inside, the cryoflask of liquid nitrogen was against the opposite wall, and the TV was on the wall to the right. The Tesla coil apparatus was in the far left corner. I contemplated whether I should leave a note on the experiment log and decided against it. The laptop had likely been infiltrated by the Pubsec web crawlers anyway. Then the phone rang. I answered and the voice on the other end said he was Fred Hollister from WealthUp and that we needed to meet. Apparently the Board of Unusual Securities Trading, or BUST, was suspicious about my trading success and had concerns that I might be getting insider information. It was a serious matter. He was quite persistent. Could we meet later today? I arranged to come to his office at five and hung up. I was sure that I was safe. They'd never figure out how my trading was so accurate and I could always do a few bad trades to throw them off, and then perhaps that problem wouldn't even exist in my next chosen timeline. I was considering the options when the text chime went off. It was Ruth, Caitlin's best friend and roommate. have u seen kate it said.
Things were getting really complicated. Ruth was a great girl and just as persistent as Caitlin. I had to give her an answer to buy time. she is here but busy I typed and tapped the send icon. It wasn't entirely wrong. Caitlin would be in the lab, just not in this timeline, so technically she might be here. This experiment had to work, but how to find the right shard? That's when the idea popped into my head – evidently my subconscious was working overtime.
I pulled out the phone and texted r u there to Caitlin's number. I poured myself another cup of scotch and sipped it while I waited. Please answer I begged, waiting. Then the phone chime went off and there it was. about time me boy u have some explaining to do. I ran and turned on the TV and tuned it to CTV. There was a cooking show in progress, some sort of celebrity chef program. Anything that dumb could only be on one channel. Then I changed the channel.
r u in the lab and can u tune the tv to the ctv celebrity cooking show, I texted.
yes, but why, came the reply.
just do it, pls. its important. I added a happy face emoji.
ok but if this is a game u are toast. Caitlin always was very direct.
I took a last swallow of scotch, set the timer, checked the temperature of Quandary's Qubit chip, launched the initiation sequence and sat in the chair. The Somnol was kicking in and it really helped to calm the panic that was churning in the pit of my stomach. This had to work. I settled down and went through the mantra that I used to enter a deep meditative state, humming the tone and relaxing the various muscle groups in sequence. Then the familiar sharp feeling was there and I was scrolling sideways through the flickering images, imagining Caitlin and watching the TV on the wall outside the cage. There were so many possible states. It was impossible to keep the superpositioning indefinitely but I if I could just keep it long enough to find the right future where Caitlin's timeline intersected with one of my own… I could feel the increasing ‘desire' of the Qubits to collapse into a fixed state but had to keep going. Then I saw it, the TV on the wall showed the cooking show just for an instant. I focused on stopping the scrolling and going back to that one image. I had to decide soon or Einstein's universe and fate would decide for me. I focused on the image and chose, allowing the Qubits to collapse into the timeline that I had chosen. I felt the world settle. Then I was reclining in the old dentist chair and watching one of the rich and shameless talk about preparing something called a ravigote sauce on the TV. From my right a welcome voice spoke.
"Well, it's about time me boy. I'm about wanting to give you a piece of me mind surely. That is after I box your ears for a bloody fool, and you leaving me here all alone." I looked and saw her sitting at the desk with her red hair like a halo and her green eyes sparkling above a smile that said how much she was glad to see me. It was clear now how I felt about her. I wondered if any of our children would have green eyes too.