Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Quantum Mechanic: Chapter Four

The Quantum Mechanic
A Superhero Story of Ethic Contortions

Chapter 3 - Chapter 4: Opposition - Chapter 5

"To be good is noble; but to show others how to be good is nobler and no trouble."
- Mark Twain


Over the next few weeks, Douglas decides to communicate his presence directly to law enforcement agencies, just because he can. It strikes him as an easy thing, and it may prevent a whole lot of unnecessary trouble. He can remote view all of Hawaii from Maine now, and teleport groups of people safely with only a modicum of effort. This, he figures, ought to be sufficient safeguard against anything the cops could conceivably throw at him, should negotiations break down.

Negotiations break down almost every single time.

In Utah, Salt Lake City police do not take kindly to the intrusion, as the Quantum Mechanic appears abruptly in the middle of the precinct. Every gun in the room is trained on Doug's metal puppet. It chuckles.

"Officers, please stay calm." A pile of bullets appears upon the floor. "Your guns are no longer loaded. They will be reloaded after I have gone." Shouting. Commotion. Scrambling. Hammers click impotently into empty chambers. Half a dozen cops make a mad dash for the bullet pile, which disappears with a sigh from the automaton. Douglas muffles the din with a judicial application of noise-cancelling pressure waves through the air. The Quantum Mechanic's voice rings clear and calm above the dull roar.

"I want to get one thing straight, right off the bat. I am here to stay, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. If you don't like that, tough." Muffled shouts of protest ensue, angry fists pump in the air, accusing fingers point in exasperation.

"That said, I assure you that I mean you no harm. I am, in a word, 'above' you. None of you is a threat to me. And so I shall not make myself a threat to you. There's just no point." Quiet now. Douglas stops squelching the air. The officers feel helpless. Nobody moves.

"My only aim is to prevent crime, and to turn in criminals to you. I will not interfere with you in any way. I will work with you, if you will let me; if not, then I'll just do my thing and try to stay out of your sight. I've said my piece, are there any questions?"

"Yeah, how about you put in an application like the rest of us?"

"If you insist, Officer Babcock. I find paperwork tedious, but I have just now filled out an application and placed it in your personnel office. It only lists information pertaining to my identity as the Quantum Mechanic, however."

"What about IA?"

"I don't care how you police yourselves, Officer Franklin. Do what you like. I only want to stop people from hurting each other."

"No, I mean you and IA."

"Ah, I see. I've filled out my application, but I do not intend to be employed here. I need no money, I don't answer to you, and - "

"Just who the Hell do you think you are?!"

"Sergeant Wilkerson, I am only myself. But I cannot in good conscience sit idly by while evil is afoot. I'm sure you understand."

"So you think you're above the law?"

"Yes and no. Your human laws are often petty and arbitrary, and I have little patience for them. I have read them all, and they make little sense. What does make sense is the moral law, which begins and ends with 'do no harm.' I intend to abide by that maxim, and enforce it where I can. The rest is details." More shouting. "Please, one at a time. Can we do this in an orderly fashion?"

"What makes you so goddamned special?"

"Umm, I can manipulate reality at its most fundamental level by force of will alone. I'd say that makes me pretty goddamned special, Detective Morrissey. Wouldn't you agree?"

Things do not go any smoother for Douglas Orange in the following months. A nationwide manhunt is declared, with the stated intention of apprehending the Quantum Mechanic and anyone who has aided him. Nothing solid turns up. Ever. Not one good lead, not one hot tip. Every suspect is quickly absolved as the Quantum Mechanic spontaneously appears on the scene to exonerate the accused. A person can't be in two places at once, after all.

"My fellow Americans," President Sibley says from a lectern, "These past two months, we have been operating under what may be the first-ever terrorist threat that is not of this world. Someone, or something, calling itself 'the Quantum Mechanic' has been interfering with our daily lives with disturbing regularity, and we - " Crackle. Poof.

"I'm sorry, Madam President, but I am afraid I must correct you."

"You what?"

"A terrorist, by definition, is a person who seeks to instill terror in others. I seek no such thing."

"Well, we are all in terror of you. Like it or not, I'd say that makes you a terrorist."

"No more than a hurricane or a tornado. Is there such a thing as terrorist weather?"

"Don't get smart with me, this is the President of the United States of America you're talking to here!"

"I'm well aware, Madam President. But what terror I cause is beyond my control. It is not my goal, but an unfortunate byproduct of who I am, and who others are. If a person cannot help feeling terror because of me, there is nothing I can do about that."

"You could leave us alone, for one thing. Nobody asked you to start terrorizing our great nation."

"I could do that, in one sense. And in another, I can do no such thing."

"What on Earth are you talking about?"

"Madam President, I am bound by conscience to do what I do. I did not choose to be this way, I simply am how I am, and I do what I do. In this sense, I am no different than the rest of humanity."

"What, you don't have free will? You can move mountains, but you can't change your mind?"

"Nobody has free will, Madam President. Not in the strongest sense of the term. What you call your will is in fact something of a psychological afterthought, an illusion that your brain tells itself. In the sense that you are not forced to do this or that particular thing, you are indeed free. But in this way, people are free only as undammed rivers are free, as a wise person once said. The river runs its course, as do we all."

"That sounds like a rather bleak outlook on things, Mister."

"Perhaps. But uncomfortable truths should be accepted because they are true. Your comfort level is, quite frankly, irrelevant."

"So if you can't do otherwise, then what's the point of doing anything?"

"Doing good is the point itself."

"And what makes you think you're doing good? You flout the law, you disrupt our private lives, you make light of turning our world upside-down. What good is this?"

"I save lives. I prevent suffering. And I am something of a cheerleader for peace, love, and the scientific method. Are these not good?"

"Of course they are! But at what cost? Too high, I say. And many of my constituents would agree with me." Cheers erupt from the audience. The Quantum Mechanic waits for the roar to subside.

"Very well. Do as you please, Madam President, and I shall do the same. I'm sorry we can't see eye to eye on this, but you cannot stop me. Nobody can."

"We'll see about that." Crackle. Poof. "My fellow Americans, terrorist or not, this Quantum Mechanic is disrupting our way of life, as you have just seen. Maybe we cannot stop him, but we can make our voices heard. And if there's one thing this man has shown us, it is that he cannot ignore us." She resumes her address after the next round of cheering subsides.

Meanwhile, Douglas is having problems of a more human nature. He can read minds now, and he really needs to tell his wife, but he doesn't know how. She will be upset with him no matter what. Oh, well. He accepts the uncomfortable truth, summons all the courage he can muster, and goes to find Alvina.

"Bea, honey? We need to talk."

"What's the matter, Doug?"

"I can read minds. Yours was first. And I know you're going to be mad. But I need to tell you." Confusion surrounds her neural network, followed by anger, disgust, resentment, and a whole host of other unpleasantness. "I'm sorry I waited so long. I don't know what else to say, except that I should have told you earlier. I fucked up."

"Well, now." She closes her eyes for a moment. "You surely did fuck up. Now what?"

"I don't know." He wants to touch her hand. She wants to be miles away. He knows this, and does nothing. Then he reaches for her anyway. She withdraws. A glimmer of hope gnaws upon his heart, and he winces.

"Don't. Just don't. I need time to think."

"I know."

"Stop that! Just fucking stop!" She stands and storms off. Moments later, she returns. "I'm coming back, OK? I just need to be away right now. So - yeah." She turns away again, and is gone. Doug feels weak. He stops moving the Quantum Mechanic around, and instead simply teleports would-be assailants at the last second, without any explanation. His attention flits hither and yon, remote viewing each state a minute at a time. A schoolyard bully in Florida has an asthma attack after being teleported into an empty bathroom stall; Douglas synthesizes bronchodilators and corticosteroids in his bloodstream, and the child calms down.

Alvina walks through the Montana snow, clad in as many winterizing garments as she could gather before screaming. Things are better, now that she's out of the house. Blocks away, she starts to organize her thoughts. Doug can read minds. This is fucked up. She takes her privacy very seriously, and though she values her most intimate moments with her husband, she wants to be able to keep her thoughts to herself. She can't do that any longer. He will know, and he will judge, and she won't be able to do anything about it. What can she do?

She screams in the snow-damped silence. A man across the street is smoking a cigarette on his porch.

"You OK, lady?"

"I - yes. No. I don't know."

"Somethin' on your mind?"

"A million things."

"You wanna talk about it?" She shrugs non-committally, but walks toward him just the same.

"Not from across the street," she says, climbing the porch steps.

"Understandable. So what's eating you?"

"My husband. He - we had a fight. Long story short, he crossed a line, and now I'm really mad."

"He didn't hurt you, did he?"

"No, not physically. Emotionally. I don't think he could help it, now that I think about it. But I'm still mad. I still wish he hadn't done that, you know?"

"Yeah." He takes a long drag.

"Anyway, I just needed to get out of the house for a while. Blow off some steam. It's really not that big of a deal, now that I think about our relationship, y'know?"

"Totally. Lots of people get worked up over nothin' all the time. It's embarrassing. I mean, some dude's running around cleaning up the streets, and people are still bickering at each other? What's the point, right?"

"Yeah. Exactly." She stares out at the snow.

"So which is it? Was he being a dick? Or just being a dude?"

"Well, I suppose he was being a dick. For a long time, too. But he told me about it just today."

"Sleeping around?"

"No! Oh, no. But he did betray my trust, in a way. Now there's no going back, and it hurts, y'know?"

"I know. People hurt each other every day. S'part of being human, I guess. Relationships are hard work, you have to put a lot of effort into loving someone."

"Yeah. Wow. Now that you put it that way."

Silence.

"Hey, y'know, you're a really good listener."

"Thanks. I try."

"What's your name?"

"I'm Mark. Pleased to meet you." He extends his hand.

"Alvina. Likewise." She hugs him.

"Hey, now. Go home. Hug your husband and tell him you love him."

"Yeah, I will. Um, thanks. A lot. You really helped me get some perspective."

"I'm glad I could help. We're all in this together, right? The Quantum Mechanic can't solve all our problems for us."

"Yeah, I guess you're right."

Alvina feels much better as she walks home. Her nose is red on the outside, stiff and dry on the inside. She sniffles as she walks in the door. Doug is slumped forward on the living room couch, elbows on his knees, frustration on his face. He perks up as he notices her.

"How you feeling, Bea?" She sighs contentedly.

"Better. You asked."

"I wanted to hear you say it." She sits down next to him, and they embrace. She buries her cold nose in his warm sweater. "I love you, baby. Even the parts that hurt me sometimes."

"I know. I just needed to remember that, I guess." A moment passes. "Does it ever stop? Can you turn it off?"

"No."

"Oh, boy. That's gotta be rough."

"I'm used to it now. It was pretty gradual. I dreaded telling you because I didn't want to make you mad, but I knew you would be, no matter how I put it."

"Yeesh." She thinks. "I'm sorry there was no good way to tell me."

"Not your fault, darling." He smiles warmly at her. "I still shouldn't have waited so long."

"Whatever. I'm over it. It doesn't matter now. It's just hard to get used to, you know? All of this, all of you, all that's happened. It's a lot to take in."

"You don't say."

"I just - it still hurts, you know? I have thoughts, and I like the idea that I can keep them to myself. I feel exposed. I'm worrying, and I don't know why." She doesn't want to hear it from him. He remains silent. She figures it out on her own, soon enough. "I'm worried that you're just going through the motions."

"Bea, I need you to listen to me very carefully, OK?"

"Mm-hmm."

"I love you very much, but I am always going through motions. We all do, all day, every day. Sometimes, it's just that; sometimes, it's more. But I love you, and for me, right now, that means that you're the one who makes it worthwhile to go through the motions at all. You know I don't need to stick around. You make me want to. You make me want to have a secret identity. You make me want to have a private life. I'm more than human now, but you make me want to stay human, too. I think that's good for me, and so I love you."

Alvina listens, and thinks. A long moment passes. She starts to sob. "I can stop working, if you want."

"No. Don't you dare let someone get raped or killed just 'cuz I'm crying. You're still here, right?"

"I'm distracted."

"I don't care."

He tightens his grip on her, cradles her shaking body in his arms. This is what she wants, right now. He gives it to her gladly. The hope that gnawed on his heart has grown, it makes him giddy and sad at the same time. Giddy, because they still love each other. Sad, because he knows that Mark is right: hurting each other is part of being human. There are only two ways for them to stop hurting each other for good, and Douglas knows this so well it hurts.

Stop being human, or stop loving each other. There is no third option here.

8 comments:

Cathy S said...

This chapter resonates with my own thoughts about the contorted idea of free will: it is something which we want to distinguish ourselves from other organisms on the planet, but there's a hint of human-centredness in the idea.

[I've been exploring this interesting website :
http://www.naturalism.org/freewill.htm]

A side-note: I've been troubled by the fact that many people have been quick to assume chemical industry and Big Pharma are morally deprived [but not as bad as 'bankrupt']. This has the unfortunate consequence of a lack of discussion over the ethics of chemical research and applications...and the hysteria and negative stereotyping of the researchers themselves--as if they suddenly became nonhuman.

D said...

That site looks pretty cool! I've read Strawson's Luck Swallows Everything, though I forget where it was linked from (curse my human memory!). Great stuff! I can't wait to tear through that site in December when I have more time to read.

Your side note reminds me of this recent article in Wired. Cures that work will always be more profitable than cures that don't - unless you can't tell them apart. All this head-scratching has restored my faith in the industry's people, and trashed my faith in the industry's future.

Thanks for another interesting comment, Cathy. Stay tuned!

D said...

Hoo-ha! Found it!

Cathy S said...

...that side-note was my first impression of the story: I have seen too many instances of the 'mad chemist/scientist' image in the popular imagination..and can't seem to shake it off. [Or am I just imagining such a connection?]

I wonder about what factors have allowed the existence of the placebo effect article: wishes are forever, but chemistry is too close to our comfort zone, for it seems to erode the essence of human life. I reckon this perception came about, because chemists [most of all, in my opinion] have broken intuitive distinctions between life and non-life and what it takes for something to be 'natural'. Repelled by this outlook people have instead turned to 'alternative' medicine.

I'm currently studying chemistry at uni, and these thoughts naturally [!] come from time to time...and it troubles me, as chemistry has lend itself in the past to solve our problems. Honestly, it can't have that bad of a reputation.

[I mean: do I suddenly become like a amoral being when I do these experiments?]

D said...

Chemistry is the essence of all life. We are nothing if not molecular replicators, each of us a society of chemicals cooperating and warring and working and living and dying.

I'll be opining on psychology and placebo soon, shooting for Friday. I'd like to hear your thoughts. Anyway, the little hand says it's time to novel some more (I've been catching up on my reading and studying the wild internet believer in its natural habitat so far... good thing I worked ahead...).

Cathy S said...

Just a question or two: are you dodging my questions? (They're in brackets, by the way.) Or am I being too serious? [I hope not!]

D said...

Only de facto dodging, double-promise! You're not too serious, I just didn't know that brackets were your highlighter, s'all.

A connection between mad scientists and my story? I think so. Maybe. Douglas isn't nuts, he's just trying to do what he thinks is right. Well, I suppose mad scientists are doing that, too... actually, yeah, I think there is a connection, and even I didn't see it until you pointed it out! Megalomania. Doug's just a nice tyrant (of the first kind), the ultimate benevolent dictator.

Actual chemistry in the actual world is not amoral. It has profound impact upon human happiness. Using it to help people is good, using it to hurt people is evil, and using it for idle curiosity alone is wasteful (I have mixed thoughts on waste). The study of chemistry in and of itself (i.e. as abstracted from actual reality), however, is amoral (as are all things - consequences are what matters).

Cathy S said...

Just on the question of waste: there's been the fortunate rise of Green Chemistry
during the past decade. Fortunate, because we can avoid making harmful waste in the first place, by use of catalysts, harmless solvents and the like. If only more people knew...