Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Quantum Mechanic: Chapter One

The Quantum Mechanic
A Superhero Story of Ethic Contortions

Prologue - Chapter 1: Origin - Chapter 2

"Sometimes the truth is stupid."
- Roger Williams, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect

Douglas Orange sits alone in his study on a Saturday evening in March. He has just finished grading a round of exams and is looking forward to the rest of the weekend at long last. Leaning back on his chair, he puts his feet up on one corner and contemplates the silence. He breathes deeply and lets his mind wander, Maxwell's equations lining up and leaving his mind as orderly as dorm dwellers during a disaster drill.

The house settles, a groan snapping the man out of his reverie. He inhales sharply and stands up. It's time to find his wife.

Alvina Belinda Orange had the ill fortune to be named after her father's mother, Alvina Begalski. She is a science correspondent for the Montana Ash, an independent online news source with a Humanist bent. At the moment, she is typing an article on her laptop from the living room couch, NPR on the radio and local news on the television. Creaks and groans sound throughout the house as her husband approaches, then drapes his arms around her shoulders and nuzzles her neck.

"Hey, babe," she says, leaning back. "How goes?"

"Mrff. Goes well. Done with physics." Doug's voice is muffled as he speaks directly into the collar of her sweater.

"Oh, yeah? What's next on the agenda?"

"Hrm. I was thinking about anatomy," his hands begin to wander as he trails off.

"Mmm, I like where this is going. Can we do a detour through nutrition first? I'm hungry, baby."

"Sure thing. It's all biology. Got a taste for anything in particular?"

"We got 'sketti?"

"Oh, yeah." He nibbles her earlobe. "You finish up, I'll go get started."

"You're the best!" She turns and pulls him in for a deep kiss. "I'll be right with you, darlin'."

Douglas floats into the kitchen on a cloud. His life could be better, but not by much. He loves his work, his students love him, and he's madly in love with his wife. Peppers, onions, and ground sausage dance about the kitchen under his expert guidance as pasta boils and store-bought sauce supervises from the pantry shelf. Alvina saunters in at some point with a plastic bag full of dried leaves and a pipe. She sits at the kitchen counter and grinds the leaves, packing them into a pipe before handing it to the chef.

"You read my mind," he says, taking a small lighter from his pocket, and then a long pull from the pipe. "You know," he croaks, struggling to make intelligible sounds without exhaling, "I think that marijuana is the perfect drug. As long as you keep your brain active, there are practically no negative side effects, aside from some mild damage to the lungs." He exhales and hands the pipe to his wife. She takes a hit, looks thoughtful for several seconds, and slowly exhales.

"Some recent studies have shown long-term damage to short-term memory capacity after prolonged cannabis use."

"Aww, horse-shit," Doug responds. "There's that guy, wozname," he takes another hit. "He's got bone-itis, works on Wall Street, one of the last Federal medical marijuana patients left alive. Guy smokes pot day and night just to keep his bone tumors in check, and he has to trade stocks from nine to five. If one guy can smoke that much dope and stay a sharp trader, then I guarantee that a whole mess of people could smoke at least half that much - which is still way more than you and I smoke together - and keep their wits about 'em." She's already taken a hit while he's been pontificating, so he hits the pipe one more time and gets back to cooking.

"Huh. Well, that's neat. I guess more research is needed."

"As always. Reality's complicated. It's hard to know just what does what, without a huge amount of testing. I have to say, though, I'd like to take a look at those studies - marijuana research is notoriously underfunded, so I wonder how they came up with their figures."

"Yeah." Alvina spaces out watching her husband cook. Douglas is lost in his own thoughts, imagining the transfer of heat from rapidly oxidizing organic compounds through metal into slightly salty water, which in its turn heats and hydrates the starchy noodles. He can almost see the transfer of energy. Time seems to slow down as Douglas envisions the energy released by chemical bonds breaking down and reforming, radiating heat through the metal pot and into the surrounding atmosphere, making the hot air look all wavy as the miscellaneous molecules speed up and pass on their energy to yet other molecules, the newly-freed kinetic energy bouncing and jiggering in a vaguely outward direction.

It's all travelling disturbances, he thinks to himself. Light, heat, mass, life, all travelling disturbances. Different configurations of mass-energy, twisting, bouncing, spinning, as they rush along the fabric of spacetime. Waves in a sea of quantum foam, that's all anything is. He steals a glance around the room, and for a moment he imagines that he can see the underlying constituents of reality. He closes his eyes and chuckles to himself, the flight of fancy banished from his mind as he stirs the boiling pasta. He's a human, after all, with an organically evolved brain that has only had to deal with objects and areas about his size; maybe a couple of orders of magnitude larger or smaller. Perceiving reality at the quantum level just wouldn't be useful to his recent ancestors, so there's no reason to think he ought to be able to do such a thing.

Douglas opens his eyes, but the vision persists. Odd. He doesn't usually hallucinate from THC. The quantum foam bubbles and swirls all around him, and he can't shut it out. Very odd, indeed. He calls out to his wife.

"Hey, Bea?" He refuses to call her Alvina; it's just not a sexy name, he insists, and she is very sexy indeed.

"Yeah, hon?" Her voice sounds distant as the air between them vibrates in response to the motion of her vocal cords. He focuses on her: he knows her, he knows what she looks like, how she stands, how that sweater falls upon her body. The flurry of foam gives way to discrete atoms, which in turn build into chemical compounds, themselves organized into cells, then organs, then organ systems, and finally her body. The time dilation is gone, the all-pervasive quantum foam locked securely at the back of his mind. Douglas shudders.

"Did you put anything extra in our herbal supplements tonight? I think I just had a hallucination."

"Huh. No, I didn't. This is the same stuff we smoked last night, and the weekend before. Maybe there was something in that particular nug - I dunno. I'm not feeling anything out of the ordinary."

"Hm. Weird." He goes back to stirring the pasta. They chat about the news, they complain about the national deficit and the dismal education budget, they eat their meal while watching an animated sitcom. Then they retreat to their bedroom to enjoy that noblest of human acts: loving each other in every way, all at once, all night long.

Alvina dreams of a bright future, then of falling freely through space, and then about nothing at all. Douglas dreams of quantum foam, of travelling disturbances and collapsing waveforms. But the dream does not dissolve when he wakes. He slides his arm out from under Alvina's pillow and sits up in bed.

Douglas concentrates on where he knows the dresser to be, and the image flips like a Necker cube. The foam is gone, replaced by the whole dresser, and the rest of the bedroom ripples into place. That was much easier than last night, he thinks. He flips the image back, and the swirling foam dominates his field of view once more. Back to solid matter again, but this time reality seems to shimmer and undulate just below his level of perception, like a mirage; a suggestion of underlying impermanence flickers across his mind. Well, that's true - nothing lasts forever, and all travelling waves do eventually dissipate. Entropy swallows all things.

Wait a minute, he thinks. I must be going crazy. I can't see quantum foam - I just can't. But he focuses his mind once more, and his perception shifts yet again. This time he can see the outlines of things, but the foam still dominates his vision in all its swirling and shimmering. He tries to concentrate on one thing: the front right corner of the dresser. He sees the corner, he sees the color of the wood and its grain and shape, and he sees the parts as they come together and now it's all blurry again - he shakes his head and stares once more. Smaller now. Douglas focuses his attention on the very tip of the corner, and the foam begins to show up. But there is so much in just that tiny space, he can't possibly see it all at once - that's precisely why his brain filters his visual sense data and organizes it into what he thinks of as discrete objects.

After a few moments, Douglas gets used to the swirling foam and can look at it without his eyes hurting. It looks strange, but he can't think of a word for it. Almost "mathy," he thinks briefly. There is so much more to see than his mind can take in at once, and he knows it, yet his brain seems determined to try anyway.

Suddenly, Alvina's brain stirs and crackles with new patterns, new rhythms. He shifts his attention to her, and time dilates once more as her nerves light up in the coordinated dance of waking. She shifts, yawns, stretches.

"Morning, baby," she says sleepily.

"Top of the mornin', sunshine." His smile is warm, if a bit distracted.

"Whatcha thinkin' about," she asks, her eyes drawn to his pensive countenance.

"Nothing, just thinking about the whole process of waking as I watch you." She pauses, confused.

"You're watching the dresser." He starts. So he is.

"So I am." He turns at last to look at her with his eyes. "Sorry, must have spaced out. Miles away, you know how it goes."

"Do I ever." She sits up, wraps her arms around him, and rests her head behind his heart. "You sleep well?"

"Of course." His voice is reassuring. His expression is distant, but her eyes are closed and he strokes her hand with his fingertips. She doesn't notice his faraway gaze. "Honey, what would you do if I went crazy?" He can feel her smile. She doesn't take him seriously. That's good, he doesn't want to worry her.

"I'd have you committed and I'd miss you terribly." She kisses his back and squeezes his arm with both hands.

"OK, I think I'm going crazy." Her grip loosens, her mouth freezes. "That hallucination I thought I had last night, I think it's back. I can't make it go away."

"Aw, fuck, Doug! Why didn't you say something earlier? We should get you checked out."

"I don't think it's that bad, it's just weird right now."

"Honey, no, there are a million things that could cause a persistent hallucination, and some of them are really fuckin' scary. C'mon, let's get dressed and go to the hospital."

"No, I'll just call Doctor French's office and set an appointment. We don't need to go to the ER or anything."

"What if this is serious, Doug? What if it can't wait until Monday, or Tuesday, or whenever Doctor French has time? What if you're actually going nuts?"

"Bea, listen, crazy people don't know they're crazy. They think they're fine and the rest of the world is going nuts."

"OK, what's your hallucination, what do you think you're seeing?"

"It's hard to describe. It feels like I can sense reality at its most fundamental levels. It feels like doing a whole lot of math all at once, really fast and in all directions."

"All right, you've convinced me. That sounds crazy."

"I know, that's why I'm worried. But I know, in my head, that that's impossible. So I've still got my wits about me, it's just like the world is turning upside down."

"What did you say thirty seconds ago about crazy people thinking the rest of the world is going nuts?" Douglas stares ahead for a few moments, thinking this over.

"OK, you're right. Let's go." He kisses her and gets out of bed to take a shower. No sooner does he turn toward the bathroom than his towel hits him in the face. Alvina screams.

"What the fuck, Doug! What the fuck?!"

"I don't know, Bea, just try to calm down." Doug tries to make his voice as reassuring as possible, but his hands are shaking. He wanted his towel. It came to him. Now what?

"I can't fucking calm down, Doug! Your towel just flew through the air and hit you in the face for no goddamned reason!"

"Baby, baby, just listen for a sec, OK?" Doug's mind is racing. He thinks he's dreaming. He feels like he's on rails. "Look, we'll stick to the plan. We'll go to the hospital, you can drive. I'll get checked out, we'll find out what's wrong and we'll get to the bottom of it. We'll stick to the plan, OK sweetheart?" Alvina is shaking, her breath rapid, tears welling up in her eyes.

"What if something else happens?" She is hysterical, not sure what's going on. "What if something else fucking crazy happens? What can we do? What if someone finds out, someone important, and they take you away and cut you up and I never see you again? I don't know, I don't know what to do, I don't know what's going on, Doug."

"What's going on is that I love you and we're going to get through this together." He drops the towel and puts his arms around her. "Now listen to me. I don't know what I did, but we can figure this out, and we'll make it all right. And if we can't, then I guess you'll have me committed and you'll miss me terribly." He smiles through fear. Alvina laughs nervously, tears streaming down her face.

"Doug, I wasn't serious. I don't know what I'd do. I don't want to lose you." He gently lifts her chin with his thumb and forefinger. His voice calm and sure, he says,

"Then don't give up on me. Deal?"

A moment passes.


"OK. Good. Now let's think. I wanted to shower, and I thought, 'I need my towel,' and there it was. What did you see?"

"I, uh, I saw the towel move, it kind of just jerked off the hook and flew at you."

"All right. Let's see what I can do here." Douglas focused on the towel on the floor. Float, he thinks. Nothing. I need you to float, he thinks. More nothing. What if he did something reflexively, but it takes more care to do it deliberately? That might require a subtler approach.

"Nothing's happening," Alvina thinks aloud.

"I know. Just thinking for the thing to float doesn't do anything. Or that I need it to float. I'm going to try something else." His vision is dominated by flurry and shimmer once more as he tries to focus on individual air molecules. It's all travelling disturbances, he thinks, It's all just waiting to go this or that way, and all I have to do is tip it in the right direction. He tips a few molecules, a few more, then triggers a cascade of air flowing off and away from the towel, more molecules than he can count rushing every which-way except onto the towel, leaving a near-vaccum above. It flutters slightly as air from beneath rushes up to relieve the pressure differential. Alvina fidgets nervously. "OK, I can do that by thinking about air molecules. Let's see what else I can do."

Circles, he thinks. Go around in circles. Not too fast, just fast enough for me to feel. A whirling breeze forms before his eyes, he can feel the air rushing past his skin and he can see the small torus of air swirling before his very eyes. Alvina stares wide-eyed.

"What are you doing now?"

"I'm trying to," and the whirlwind is gone. "Hm. I was trying to make a circle of air. I want to make the towel move like a magic carpet. It's hard to think of that and talk at the same time, though."

"Oh. Sorry, I didn't know."

"Please, don't be. I'm new to this, you see." He winks at her over a crooked grin. She giggles nervously, the tears gone but the fear bubbling just beneath the surface. He focuses on the air once again. Circles, circles, around and around in circles, he chants in his mind as the mathy foam bends to his will, guided only by his understanding. The tiny whirlwind appears once more, and he lowers it slowly to the floor. So far, so good. He twists the circuit of air and wraps it around the towel; the towel rises and dances, ragdoll limp and loose ends aflutter. With care and patience, Douglas coaxes the towel into rising, then floating in the air just like a magic carpet.

"Douglas, I - that's amazing!" Alvina is entranced, unable to believe her eyes, all fear washed away by sheer awe. Douglas winces; the towel drops. His hands go to his head. "You OK, hon?"

"Yeah, I just have a headache. That takes a lot of concentration."

"I imagine it would! You just moved a towel with your mind. Am I dreaming?"

"You and me both, sugar. This is weird."

"Yeah, it is." She is suddenly downcast. "So - what now? What comes next?"

"I," he starts, but trails off. After a pause, "I don't know. I can't just fly to work on a magic carpet every day, people might get suspicious." Alvina's eyes roll back in her head.

"Duh. I mean, what about us?"

"What about us?" Douglas does not share her concern. He sees this in her eyes. "I mean, I don't think this changes anything. I still love you." He sits down on the bed next to her and rubs her shoulder with one hand. "Listen to me, OK? I'm not going anywhere. I'm still your husband, and I still love you, and I don't want to leave you. But now I'm also this other thing, too. And it's new and it's scary and even I don't know how it's going to end. But I want to find out with you." Her heart melts. It's exactly what she needs to hear. Douglas knows this, because he watches her brain calm down even before the love registers on her face. He feels dirty, but he doesn't know what else to do. Now is not the time for a discussion about telepathy, and he told her the truth anyhow - he just had some assistance in phrasing it properly. No matter. For now, her head rests on his shoulder and her breaths are calm and even.

The next weeks are run on a strict schedule: Douglas is a mortal husband Monday morning through Friday afternoon, and Friday evening through Sunday night are for exploring his newfound superpowers. Like a muscle, the more he practices, the easier it gets. Progress is slow, but steady; there is no workout routine for manipulating reality at the quantum level. The minds of others are more difficult for him to read than that of his wife, but this, too, comes with time. After two months, Douglas can look at reality with his quantum eyes twenty-four/seven. At six months, he can perform remote viewings the next room over. At twelve months, he is able to make macroscopic portals based on principles of quantum tunneling, and he gets the idea to start a magic show for practice and extra cash. Fourteen months and he can teleport a whole orange; sixteen months and he can teleport a rabbit; at seventeen months, the rabbit even survives the process!

Reality has become much clearer to Douglas Orange. He knows, better than any person, that the Universe is both flat and infinite. He can see the heart of the Sun, the core of the Earth, and the dark side of the Moon. He still loves his wife, his job, and his students, but now he also loves being the world's only real magician. And one month later, he meets with Randall James to discuss his future career as a superhero.


Cathy S said...

It reminds me of the movie "Matilda"!

D said...

Really? That's interesting. I read Matilda, the book, but I never saw the movie. From what I remember, a super-smart chica gets telekinetic powers and then messes with her teacher's head. Which, I mean, is cool and all, but I don't really see how that's applicable to everyday life, aside from "Fuck the haters." That's a good lesson and all, I just think that a lot of people don't take it as seriously as they ought to.

Anyway, thanks for the comment! If you liked The Quantum Mechanic thus far, then I recommend sticking with it throughout November. That's when I'll be writing it, after all. Have a great one!

Cathy S said...

Not to mention Darwin's [of Origin of Species kind] quote:
"Mathematics seems to endow one with something like a new sense."

As a result of wondering how physicists simulate worlds, I can now have a crack at imagining the machinations of the universe--but at some level, I secretly envy the fictitious powers of fictitious Prof. Orange!

D said...

Wow, I never heard of that Darwin quote. It resonates deeply with me, though. Hooray for math, the first-ever explicitly codified idea!

Yeah, this is totally a power fantasy thing. I'm just trying to make it interesting by throwing moral dilemmas every which way - the problem is not figuring out what he can do, but what he ought to do. Superman doesn't seem to question this very often, so I find him uninteresting because he's just too stupidly powerful. Doc Manhattan is more interesting because he seems to have no sense of ought, only wrestling with moral issues at the very end of the story. He's a force of nature, not a person any longer. I wanted Orange to be more interesting than that, and maybe I'm making a few false moves here and there... but that's what National Novel Editing Month is for!

Thanks again for the comment. Reading others' thoughts provides me with opportunities for much-needed reflection and refinement.

Cathy S said...

I was just saying in in jest! But I better stick to the fact that I'm self-aware, rather than to wish for things I don't want.

Speaking of not wanting things, I thought that a proper conclusion to the old proverb "Be careful what you wish for" is...

"Because the law of unintended consequences, Murphy's law and the 2nd law of thermodynamics will be chasing after you." It just sounds true to me!

D said...

Wonderful! Well put!

I'd want the powers so that I could do good. I'd probably be a lot more boring, doing things from the shadows and not for credit. Or, yeesh, I might get all megalomaniacal like Light from Death Note. Hoo, boy... that might scare me.