Friday, November 20, 2009

The Quantum Mechanic: Chapter Seventeen

The Quantum Mechanic
A Superhero Story of Ethic Contortions

Chapter 16 - Chapter 17: Confrontation - Chapter 18

"Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer."
- Sun Tzu

"Try to relax, Mister Gleck. That creeping stupidity you feel is me. I have shut down the parts of your brain that are capable of the higher mathematical functions you need to perform in order to manipulate reality as I do. Your powers are suspended.

"As you flail and sputter, helpless as a worm on a hook, our new friends are dismantling and consuming your horde of mindless killing machines. It's over. To put it in your language, you have two choices in front of you, Entropic Engineer: repent, or perish. You can join us civilized persons, or I will kill you here and now."

Gleck beats his hands against the arms and chest of the automaton, to no avail.

"Unhand me, you fiend! I shall not bow to you!"

"I'm afraid you misunderstand me, Mister Gleck." The Quantum Mechanic leans in closer, its grip tightening. "I do not ask you to bow. All I ask is that you kindly stop trying to kill everyone who doesn't want to live like you. I'm going against my own promise to kill you, in order to give you one last chance to play the civilization game with the rest of us."

"Why? What's the point? What for?" The puppet leans back, cocks its head to one side.

"I don't understand. What do you mean, 'What's the point?' Living is its own point. Don't you want to live?"

"Not in this imperfect world, I don't!"

"Wait a second, I'm still confused. What other world is there?"

"I long for Heaven, you simpleton! I want more than this!"

"More than all that there is? What more is there beyond reality?"

"But - but - there's no ultimate meaning in any of this! No higher purpose! All we're doing is twiddling our thumbs as we wait for something to come along and wipe us out! It's all nothing, it all came from nothing, and it's all going to wind up going back to nothing! There's no point at all, nothing comes from nothing! I - I can't - I can't fucking stand that!" The Quantum Mechanic regards the struggling man coolly for a moment.

"Ha! You sound like a nihilist. Fine, let's say that the lack of a supernatural point means that there's no point at all. So what?"

"So - so what? So what?! How can you ask that? How can you be satisfied with nothing more than this frail and fleeting reality?"

"Well, it's fun, for one thing. And I like fun. I also enjoy helping other people have their fun."

"Fun?! 'Fun,' he says! I'm pursuing ultimate truth, metaphysical meaning, true purpose, and you prattle on about fun?! You small-minded ignoramus!"

"Mister Gleck, my mind spans the whole of this galaxy. I know of no limit to my full reach. I do not understand what meaning of 'small-minded' you could possibly be using."

"Oh, so are you an infinite consciousness, then?"

"Of course not. There's no such thing. As much as my consciousness expands - even if it goes on growing forever - at any given moment it is only that big and no bigger."

"Do you know everything?"

"Of course not. That's also impossible. Even if I keep accumulating facts, even if I build a complete model of reality, it is impossible to know everything in an infinite Universe."

"Do you still have limitations?"

"Of course I do. I still cannot turn back time, nor can I tell the future. What's your point?"

"God is my point, you foolish mortal! You insufferable braggart! You infidel swine! God is infinite, God knows everything, and God has no limitations!"

"That's the stupidest thing I've heard in the last thousand years. Really? I mean, come on - really?! A thousand years after we've left the Milky Way, and you still cling to that antique myth?"

"It's not a myth! God is watching, and he will judge you in the fullness of time!" Gleck continues to shriek and struggle against the imperturbable automaton.

"Why the wait, then? If God doesn't like me, he can say so himself. I'm sure not gonna trust anyone who claims to speak on his behalf, though. Not unless God himself tells me, personally, that you're his duly appointed representative. So where is this 'God' you keep going on about?"

"God will not submit himself to your pointless testing. God would never lower himself to that."

"Then why should I believe that such an entity exists at all?"

"You have to have faith!"

"You didn't answer my question, Mister Gleck, you only gave me an order. I asked you for an explanation. Let me ask again," the puppet leans in close, almost nose-to-nose with Gleck. "Why should I believe?"

"I'm telling you, you have to have faith, or you'll never understand!"

"Says who?"

"Says God, dammit! God says! What part of this don't you get?"

"I don't get the part about why I should buy that."

"I just told you, you have to have faith!"

"And so you come full circle: you've said I have to have faith to believe in God, and I have to believe in God to have faith. You're giving me orders which I shall not obey. I'm asking you for explanations, and you tell me I can't have them. You've explained nothing, you've only told me what to believe without showing me any reason to believe it. So why should I care about anything you have to say?"

"You arrogant twit! You wanna know why? Hell is why! I'll show you Hell, if you want! I'll fucking kill you!"

"You will do no such thing. The world is watching, Mister Gleck. Now, let's take it from the top again: why should I buy anything you say, including your ideas that I need faith and that God exists and all of that horse shit? Why should I believe any of it? What can you show me?" Gleck calms down. His arms drop to his sides. The Quantum Mechanic lets go of his throat.

"All right. Let me see if I can turn it around on you. How can you stand there and deny the existence of anything greater than yourself?"

"I don't deny it. I just don't see any reason to believe in this or that supernatural critter, and you've refused to give me one."

"How can you not? How can you look around and not think that there must be something more than this?"

"I don't know. I just don't, I guess. Can you give me a reason to change my mind?"

"Apparently not. If you refuse to have faith - "

"You mean, if I refuse to follow your orders?"

"That's what faith is - submission to God."

"A God whose existence I can't even establish. Tell me - which idea of God is the real one?"

"All mortal ideas of God are off-base, no person can truly understand him without first submitting."

"Even you?"

"Stop trying to twist my words."

"I'm not trying to do anything of the kind. I'm trying to find out why I ought to submit at all. I'm trying to understand."

"Well, you can't! You can't understand God like you understand your precious fucking physics! And the more you try, the more you embarrass yourself!"

"Funny. You're the one shouting here." Gleck glowers at him. "Well, then I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree. But you've sat here for the last thousand-odd years and asked me all about what I think. How about I ask you some questions?" The Quantum Mechanic sits down. Gleck stares dumbly for a moment, and then joins the puppet once again.

"Fine. Ask away."

"Why do you believe?"

"I have faith."

"Right, I got that. But why? Why do you do that?"

"Because I believe in something greater than myself."

"Well, yeah, but there are a whole lot of great things around. Why do you believe in that particular greater thing, though?"

"Because of my faith, I told you."

"No, I'm asking you what's behind 'all of it,' all at once. I understand your circle, I'm asking why you bother to maintain it." Gleck is silent for a long time.

"I guess I don't have a reason. I just do. It's just what I believe." Now the Quantum Mechanic is silent for a time.

"Hmm. I see. So neither of us is going to convince the other. What next?"

"I guess that's up to you. You're the one strangling my brain."

"You tried to kill me, Mister Gleck. You tried to kill everyone. I think some caution is warranted."

"You flout holy law. You ignore God's commands, I can't just stand idly by and watch as you go about doing whatever you please."

"Why not?"

"Argh, we were just over this! It's just my faith, OK? And I won't let you trample all over it!"

"I'm not trampling all over your faith, Mister Gleck. I'm just living my own life as I see fit. You are free to live your own as you see fit, but I will not allow you to impose your will on others. You must learn to live in peace with those who are different from you."

"But - but - " he trails off. Ben knows where this is going. He tries to get ahead. "But then why do you dogmatically insist that others do no harm? That sounds an awful lot like you're imposing your will on others."

"A fair objection. However, I think the more reasonable interpretation is that I simply prevent anyone from imposing their will on anyone else. I don't do harm to prevent harm, I simply prevent harm. Would you rather I harmed people? Or let them harm each other? Or harmed you?"

"But that's different. Punishing sin is - "

" - Foolishness. Harming people does not help them."

"Shut up and let me finish! Punishing sin is good. Sometimes you have to punish people for their own good."

"Says who?"

"I - you - OK, fine. I'll play your stupid little game. Who says we shouldn't harm each other?"

"Wait a second - do you want to be harmed?"

"No, of course not. Nobody does."

"Great. Done. We agree. Now let's not harm each other. Next?"

"No, dammit! You didn't answer my question!"

"Yes, I did. You asked, 'Who says we shouldn't harm each other?' The answer, apparently, is 'everyone.' So we're agreed that no one wants to be harmed, so let's just not do it. What's so hard about this?"

"But what about what's right?"

"What about it?"

"Well - oh, you son of a bitch! You don't care about higher purpose, or ultimate meaning, or anything of real value!"

"I care about a great many things of real value. But real value just means that someone values it."

"No, it doesn't!"

"Then what does it mean?"

"Your petty human values have no meaning in the final analysis!"

"Nothing does. So what?"

"There you go again! Refusing to acknowledge the value of faith, of higher purpose, of ultimate meaning!"

"What value? What are you talking about? Faith only has meaning to people, too. In the final analysis, it doesn't mean anything, either."

"Then what's the damn point of anything? Why don't we all just kill ourselves and be done with it? Why bother going through the motions at all?"

"The point is to do what we like, and find joy and meaning on our own, despite the temporary nature of everything. It's fleeting, but that's OK, because we can always go find more - we just can't reasonably expect that anything will ever be 'solved forever.' If there's no point in living, then there's no point in dying, either. We bother going through the motions because we find the motions we like. But I won't let you force other people to go through the motions you want to go through, if they don't want to." Gleck throws his hands up in the air.

"Well, then we can't ever see eye to eye on this. Can I go now? Or are you going to kill me?"

"I guess that's up to you. Are you going to try to kill anyone else?"

"Well, if you won't let me, then I guess I can't. No point in trying. Are you happy now?"

Douglas is flabbergasted. Benjamin Gleck is being perfectly honest. He really and truly means what he's saying. He's finally ready.

"Why - yes! Yes, I am! Ecstatic, in fact!" The Quantum Mechanic stands up to shake Gleck's hand. He balks at first, but then takes the automaton's hand in his own and goes along with the vigorous motion. "Welcome to the civilization game, Mister Gleck." The Quantum Mechanic sits back down, and Douglas releases his stranglehold upon Gleck's brain. "Now that we've gotten past that unpleasantness, I want to thank everyone for their patience while we dealt with this threat." In Montana, Douglas walks up behind his wife and wraps his arms around her. She smiles and continues chopping vegetables. Back in the studio, his puppet says, "OK, I guess it's finally safe for me to reveal my secret identity. No point in keeping the secret any longer."

Douglas vanishes from Montana, reappearing in the studio with Ben Gleck and the Quantum Mechanic. He speaks in his own voice.

"Hello, humanity. And to our newest guests, as well - it looks like they've finished mopping up outside. My name is Douglas Orange. I'm a professor of theoretical physics at a Montana university. You might have seen me in my magic act back in the Milky Way, under my other alias, The Amazing Orange."

Gleck watches as Douglas lays out his life story to the camera. So smug, so blithe, just going on about his pointless bullshit. It's just not fair! How can he be so happy, so optimistic, when there's nothing to look forward to in this life but more of the same damn old boring, imperfect, monotonous crap? How can he just do what he likes and pretend that it's anything more than meat going through motions? How can he be so fucking joyful without Heaven, or God, or anything that has real lasting value?

Wait a minute, he thinks. I've got my power back. That fool let his guard down. He's just going on about how great he thinks he is, but here I am with all my power restored, and he isn't even paying attention. I can see right into his mind! He's not even looking at my thoughts! He was a fool to trust me - now I can finally teach him a lesson, for a change! And then it will be my turn to run the show, and nobody will ever ignore the will of God again! I'm going to save everybody from themselves, whether they like it or not - starting by liberating this overgrown calculator from his mortal coil. Take that!

Mid-sentence, Douglas Orange explodes. The Quantum Mechanic sits motionless, covered in gore. Ben can hardly believe what he's done, his enemy's blood sprayed all over himself. He takes a moment to revel in his victory.

Alvina has practiced her maneuver many times. There is no warning whatsoever as she steps sideways through spacetime and thoughtlessly plunges her kitchen knife into the base of Ben Gleck's skull. She closes her eyes and imagines her husband of five seconds ago, just as she saw him. He returns, exactly the same as he was, atom for atom, only having lost five seconds of time. Douglas really did die five seconds ago, she just made a copy exactly like him, no more different from the Douglas of yesterday than the Douglas of yesterday is from the Douglas of two days ago. The man she loves draws breath once more.

"What was I saying?" He perceives everything around him and infers what must have happened. "Oh. Oh, my." His shoulders slump. "You know, I was really pulling for that guy. I thought he finally made it." He runs a hand through his hair, closes his eyes, and sighs deeply. "Oh, well. I guess you can't win 'em all."

Questions flood into the Interview database. People want to know why Gleck was killed instead of having his power permanently stripped, or why the Quantum Mechanic didn't simply change whatever was wrong with his brain. Douglas cleans up the bloody mess, disposes of Ben's body, and addresses the camera.

"I know what you're asking. I know what you're thinking. And I'm sorry. Benjamin Gleck could not be trusted, apparently, because as soon as I let down my guard, he tried to kill me. Maybe I should have done something differently. I honestly think the damage was done all the way back when I showed him as I see with no warning, no lead-up, no education. Too late now. I'm sorry."

But why can't he bring Gleck back, as Douglas himself was just brought back? Why won't Douglas re-make him? Fix him? Help him be better?

"I offered him a chance to join us. He accepted, then went back on it. I'm done trying. His miserable life is over. I don't think you all understand what has to go on in a mind for a guy to hunt people for a thousand years in a galaxy, finding nothing, endlessly pursuing just to kill. Not for food, not in self-defense, but for some twisted idea of righteous punishment. I can't fix that, and if I did, he wouldn't be the same person. He was - how can I put this - incorrigible. Too far gone. Not worth saving. What's the point of swapping out a guy's brain for another one?"

The questions keep coming. Douglas ignores them. The Interview is over. Douglas and Alvina return to their home in Montana and get on with their lives.

"You know," Alvina says to him at some point, "You're kind of a hypocrite, in a way." Douglas sighs.

"I don't care. It's complicated and messy and I just don't care about it any more."

"I know." She squeezes him. "It's just fun to see you admit that you're still human like the rest of us." He grins. Laughs. Kisses her. "So now what?"

"Well, I've learned my lesson the hard way, I think. It's kind of strange that that one little mistake all the way back then could have caused so much trouble."

"Yeah. So what are you gonna do about it?"

"Live with the regret, I guess. Oh, well."

Douglas and Alvina hold each other for a very long time.


Cathy S said...

I take from this chapter [it's been a little while since I last commented...] that the small things in life are very important. We can have grand philosophies of life, but what's the use of them if they're unrealistic? Woe to the guy who prefers a 'philosophy of life' for life itself!

D said...

"Woe to the guy who prefers a 'philosophy of life' for life itself!"

Absolutely. Welcome to Action Wisdom!

Ebonmuse said...

If I haven't mentioned this already, I'm really enjoying this story. And way to go, Alvina! It pays to have a secret weapon.

That being said, not to be nitpicky about plot holes, but, well, I'm going to be nitpicky about plot holes. :) How is it that Doug could instantly tell from scanning Gleck's mind that he was the Entropic Engineer, but Gleck couldn't tell the same about Doug?

D said...

Thanks for the comment, Ebonmuse (and no, you hadn't said you enjoyed it to me yet, so thanks very much for saying so now!)!

By all means, please nitpick away. Not only do I want to avoid plot holes, I'd also like to avoid their perception. I'm unsure how to tell this in the story, so I'm open to suggestions, but here's what I'm working with: "quantum powers" confer the ability to delete all evidential footprints of an event, up to and including presenting a "false image" of one's own brain. Gleck figured out how to do this, and calls them his "sanctifying wards," but he didn't know how to identify another quantum mind (which Doug & Bea figured out how to do by looking at each other and comparing themselves to the rest of the world).

Put differently, Doug was able to perceive the "tether" between Gleck's body and his phantom projection (all he was doing was creating a hologram) as soon as Gleck stopped concentrating on cleaning it up. Doug would have been doing the same thing, able as he is to perceive brains in full detail and infer mental states from such perceptions (it was how he showed Gleck the world through his own eyes, without revealing his secret identity in the first place). They were hiding from each other, and Gleck had to stop hiding to deal with the crisis brought on by his army being overwhelmed. Also, Gleck is a "frozen" and "corrupted" version of Doug's power; he doesn't keep learning as Doug does, he just takes the power and tries to turn it against its source in anger, so he gets left behind in the brain race (he does steal FTL travel for his angels, though!).

Is that any clearer? And if so, do you have any suggestions for how to communicate that better (without a spoon-feeding section, that is)? Or some other plot device to justify it? I'd like to keep the handwavium coefficient to a minimum, but sometimes the cure is worse than the disease, so to speak.

Ebonmuse said...

I didn't mention that before? Well, my apologies! Yes, I really have been enjoying this. It's kind of like the Singularity versus the Second Coming - and that's just too brilliantly high-concept a plot for me not to like it. :)

Not that this has any special relevance to the plot, but just in the interests of establishing background: Are Doug's abilities something that anyone can be taught to do? The story as I understand it implies that this is the case.

I think you've actually got a pretty good explanation going there: Doug and Alvina could examine each other's minds and compare them to normal people's to see how a quantum mind is different, while Gleck doesn't know the identity of any other quantum minds and therefore has no standard for comparison, so he didn't know what to look for. (Can a quantum mind examine itself? Maybe there's an infinite-regress-of-self-monitoring-type problem there.)

If you wanted to put this material in the story without doing it as a big block of infodump, how about another retcon section from the Entropic Engineer's viewpoint, maybe from around the time of his first confrontation with the Quantum Mechanic? It could be a part about how he's been scanning the minds of everyone on the planet, but he hasn't found anything, so he assumes his adversary must be concealing his thoughts - and that would be a good detour into a section about how he himself is doing the same thing to keep from being found out.

jemand said...

if there were lots and lots of quantum minded beings... they'd probably have condemned doug to permanently watching all of Gleck's actions until which point that 1) he decided he'd had enough with life and died himself, or 2) millenia in the future, Gleck's mind finally did become civilized.

That generally seems to be the morality of most "ascended" beings in sci fi... so it was what I was expecting. However, Doug and Alvina are really just the first, and honestly, I'm not convinced that just lack of existence isn't more moral than making Gleck live for thousands of years more in his current state anyway.

I do wonder if maybe he'll lead some sort of a campaign like the Million Minds to see if all of humanity & now the sage creatures will agree to Gleck's fate after a set period, whether he will be resurrected or not, and maybe his brain mined to find the remnants of the people he kidnapped from the planet and killed. To maybe bring them back too (they I'm pretty sure have the capability of being reformed into society).

Ebonmuse said...

Actually, D, I think I owe you an apology. I was rereading the earlier installments, and I see that you did address the question I posed in chapter 9. My fault for not reading more carefully the first time.

I guess a better question would be, why is it that Douglas was able to mask his quantum mind and still operate in his human body in the real world, while Gleck could only hide himself at the cost of having his quantum consciousness completely disconnected from his regular body? Maybe this ties in to what you said about his powers being an inferior version of Doug's.

jemand said...

@Ebonmuse, I'm guessing it's because Gleck cared nothing for humans, there was no tie to his normal body because he didn't *care* for there to be one. The only thing he wanted was annihilation of everything.

Then again, Doug and Alvina have each other, and that probably also helps them keep grounded in their physical bodies even as they are able to holographically project their consciousnesses.

D said...

You have Zach L to thank for the Singularity vs. Second Coming aspect - giving quantum powers to Ben Gleck was his idea. Before that, I didn't really know where I was gonna go with this.

You also seem to be anticipating the next chapter - naughty, naughty! No, but in all seriousness, quantum powers are something that anyone can learn in principle, it's just a matter of education (according to the story). Silver Garou and I discussed that a truly benevolent deity would want to share its knowledge and abilities with its creations, to create peers and not just sycophants (if it created anything at all), so Doug's going to succeed where God failed. That's actually the central theme of the book: Doug is better-behaved than any extant god could possibly be said to behave.

Your self-reference problem is actually something I'm struggling with right now. I've decided that Doug can't hide himself from himself, and that Gleck is not the introspective type, and so I think the rest is gravy. Doug & Alvina need each other to see what known hiding minds look like from outside. I think your suggestion is a good one, though, and seeing things from the adversary's perspective is a literary device for which I have a deep well of affection. It's a way to get more details in, and provoke more understanding in the reader, without spoonfeeding or infodumping. Thanks!

No apology is necessary, and I'm actually kinda flattered that you went back and re-read to see if you missed something. I see the problem as dialectical - somewhere between my writing and your reading, there's a misunderstanding; I can't control your mind, I can only control my words, and I'm the author so I think it's up to me to write something accessible. Then again, it does incorporate mystery elements and psychological suspense (I hope!), so perhaps that expects a bit more attention than your standard superhero novel - boo for genre expectations!

Douglas makes a "quantum cloaking field" around the transplanted solar system. Gleck's tether is able to "go around" it, so even though he's aware of what's going on in the Interview and (to a more regularly human degree) inside the bubble, as well as an approximately planet-sized sphere around his prosthetic hologram, he can't find a way to orient the two in relation to each other. Douglas is scrambling spacetime itself, but the Ben Gleck/Entropic Engineer connection goes "another way," and he lacks the understanding to follow the connection itself without resource to "classical" 3D space (he has the powers, but doesn't understand them). I think I can solve all this with another vignette for the EE, so I'll see how that goes. Wish me luck!

D said...

Gleck's fate is something I've been toying with revisiting; you've given me some inspirations for interesting ways to tackle it, so thanks for that! I really like the idea of Doug being sentenced by his new peers to try to set right what had been done wrong (or at least sloppily) at first. It reminds me of "chasing the dragon's tail," a gaming term from Vampire: The Requiem which I can't find explained on the internet. The idea is that you follow the consequences of an action and observe, observe, observe. Oh, and it never ends.

But yes, the problem of Gleck's warped mind is a big one, so hopefully I can make something interesting of the discussion without descending into tedium.

You're pretty much close enough to count on your response to Ebonmuse, too (in terms of Gleck's psychology, if not the actual answer to his question). It's not so much that Gleck cared nothing for humans, though, as that he saw the way things are as fundamentally flawed for not conforming to his idea of perfection. But perfection is just a word, and words are made up. Gleck's sin was to reject reality as laid out before him, in favor of fantasy that could never be achieved. That's what causes the sudden awareness to drive him nuts: he couldn't take the cognitive dissonance between his rigidly enshrined idea of how things morally "ought" to be, and the undeniable fact of how they are (as foisted upon him), and so he sought to resolve the conflict by changing the world because he refused to change his mind.