The Quantum Mechanic
A Superhero Story of Ethic Contortions
"Lead, follow, or get out of the way."
- Thomas Paine
From Alaska to Panama, Maine to California, and even in Hawaii, the world is remade in the image of Douglas Orange. With all of North and Central America under his watchful eye, he has become like a deity of old, a provincial god of miracles and mysteries. Bullets no longer hurt people, accidents no longer happen to people, weather no longer damages people's property, no violence of any kind befalls man, woman, or child. Cancer remits in flashes of orange lightning. Dying folks wishing for one more day find themselves face-to-face with one of many spontaneously generated gunmetal gray puppets, offered a truly renewed lease on life. In almost every unpaved space grow all manner of food crops: wheat, corn, grapes, strawberries, apples, bananas, eggplants, pomegranates, potatoes, celery - you name it, and it's growing within a mile or two of just about anywhere, with a blaze orange sign in view saying, "Free! Take all you want." Not everybody does, but nobody starves to death in this part of the world any longer. Nobody dies at all, actually, unless they're well and truly ready for it.
In Montana, Douglas Orange still loves his wife, his job, and his students. He makes his mortgage payments, pays for the utilities he uses, and gives the rest of his wages to charities. All income is now disposable, since people can sleep safely on bare earth under open sky. Other than that, the economy is rather remarkably unchanged: people still work to pay for their toys, and other people still make toys to pay for more toys still.
"America, what have we done to ourselves?" Ben Gleck stares at his tiny reflection in the videocamera, his puppy dog eyes glistening with moist condescension. "What have we done to each other? What are we becoming?
"We were once a great nation, America. We stood tall, we worked hard, we earned our place. Now, a man in a mask who, by his very nature, cannot know the value of a hard day's labor - a man who pretends to listen to each one of us, but is really only stalking all of us - a man who will tolerate no dissent from his single, solitary, uncompromising principle - this man would give us all we need, and we don't even need to ask.
"In fact, we didn't ask. Well, maybe a few of us did. I didn't! I wouldn't! The red American blood that pumps through my veins will not allow me such weakness!" Bitterness now. His brow furrows beneath an impeccable crew cut.
"Weakness, America! Weakness! Our pseudo-benefactor laughs to think of us growing fat, suckling at his electric orange teat! To that I say, 'No, thank you, sir.' I shall remember the value of hard work. I shall remember what it means to be an American. And I shall not bow to the Great Orange Genie."
"Great Orange Genie, indeed. Gee Oh Gee. Gog, the prince who would crush us Godly folk, the monster who shall in the fullness of time be laid low by God himself. Oh, yes, America: this is not the end, not for us, not for him, and not for God! There shall be a reckoning, the temptor shall be struck down, and then we shall reclaim our noble heritage as a hard-working and Godly nation.
"So stay strong, America. Keep working hard, and you shall have your reward in the fullness of time. To those who do not heed my warning, you have your reward. What shall you do when it is taken from you? And finally, to the Quantum Mechanic, I have a question: how do you sleep at night?"
"In the arms of my beautiful wife, of course."
"Ha! Speak of the Devil."
"And he shall appear."
"Well, now. Mister Orange Lightning himself! In the flesh, as it were. Once again, you grace the Fawkes network with your illustrious presence. So is it true? Do you actually sleep at night? Do you keep us safe, even in your dreams?"
"Eh, yes and no. My body sleeps. My mind never rests. Not any more."
"It must be exhausting, wrapping our great nation around your gloved finger."
"Don't be silly."
"I assure you, sir, I am deadly serious."
"Same thing. For you, anyway. Are we done here, or what?"
"Weh-heh-heh-hell! That's really up to you, now isn't it? What sway could a mere mortal like myself hold over the likes of you?"
"You asked a direct question, Mister Gleck. It would be rude of me not to answer. Is there anything else you want?"
"From the Great Orange Genie? Of course not. The only two things I want, you cannot give to me."
"Ha! Try me!" Gleck leans over onto his elbows, staring at the automaton from beneath an exaggeratedly cocked eyebrow.
"Meaning and purpose. Meaning. And purpose." The puppet and the pundit regard each other coolly for a beat. The Quantum Mechanic slaps its knee and then leans back into a hearty guffaw.
"Oh, Mister Gleck! You never cease to amaze me. You're right, you know. I cannot give you meaning, and I cannot give you purpose. As far as I can tell, you are a meaningless and purposeless man."
"Do not mock me, you impudent swine!"
"And why the Hell not?!"
"Because I am -"
"A man. Nothing more. I am a man, and quite a bit more."
"Ooh, you never tire of that acidic derision, do you?"
"Not as long as you keep feeding me lines. But I know what you mean, Mister Gleck - better, perhaps, than you do yourself. I still cannot give you meaning and purpose, not in the way that you want, because such things are arbitrary. You choose the meaning of your life, you choose the purpose of your labor. I cannot make these choices for you."
"Pearls of wisdom from the pig of pigs! You speak of life and labor, but you know nothing of such things. You cannot be killed, so your so-called 'life' means nothing. You cannot be stopped, so your so-called 'labor' means nothing."
"You cannot be silenced. Do your words mean nothing?"
"I can be silenced. By you, by my employers, by anyone! My words have meaning, because people choose to listen to me."
"I will not silence you, nor will I allow another to do so. But making noise is no guarantee of being heard. What's more, by your own logic, my 'electric orange teat' has meaning because people choose to suckle at it."
"Hmph. People will do almost anything to survive."
"Yes. They will work. They will steal. They will kill. Is that what you want?"
"I want to work for my bread! I want to toil for my spoils! I want to prosper by the sweat of my own brow!"
"Then for the love of all that is good, do that thing!"
"What good is it to till the land, when grain grows everywhere?"
"Wait, are you complaining that there's finally enough to go around?"
"Oh, you are a clever snake! Is there no low to which you shall not stoop?"
"To save lives? To do good? Of course not. Others' lives mean more to me than my pride. I don't care what you think of me. I don't even care if you understand."
"Well, I don't understand! I can't! You are foreign to us, behind your inscrutable mask. This is not the American way! This is not our way of life! We cannot understand you."
"I can fix that."
"Fix? How? What 'fixing' is there for this?"
"I can make you understand. I can make you see the world as I see it." Gleck scoffs.
"Surely you jest! You simply must be bluffing."
"This is no bluff, Mister Gleck. Choose your words carefully. All you have to do is ask, and it shall be done."
Benjamin Gleck steeples his fingers and breathes deeply. He is nervous, but he is also proud, and he does not wish to show any weakness. The trouble is that he does not know which is the weaker response. Refuse a challenge? Or play his opponent's game? Panic. Desperation. What would Jesus do?
"I accept your offer," he says at last. "Thirty seconds. Let me see as you see for thirty seconds. Then we shall see what's what."
"Very well." The Quantum Mechanic nods slowly. "Please, try to relax. This will not hurt, but it will be very disorienting." Gleck rises into the air upon a cloud of orange sparkles. His desk and chair slide to a wall.
"Do your worst. I have nothing to fear from you."
"My friend, you have no idea how right you are." Orange lightning arcs from Gleck's shaking body. His eyes roll back and his scream fills the room.
"No! NO! It can't - I won't - you, you - " The words give way once more to inarticulate screaming.
Thirty seconds later, Ben Gleck is a gibbering heap upon the studio floor. Douglas frowns and squeezes his wife's hand. This isn't how he wanted things to go. This isn't what he wanted to do. He messed up somewhere, and for the first time in years, he has no idea where. This shouldn't have happened. Across America, millions think about the ninth, twelfth, and twenty-sixth chapters of the book of Acts, and one line in particular resonates amid the chaos: "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?"
The Quantum Mechanic takes a knee and embraces the quivering lump that was once Ben Gleck. Now, he's something else. Maybe more, maybe less. Douglas doesn't know right now. Putting a hand underneath each shoulder, it helps the man to his feet.
"There's no... there's no anything. It's all nothing. It's all from nothing. It's all for nothing. Oh, God. Oh, God - there's no God! There's no me! There's no anything! It's all, it's all just nothing." His fingers waggle through the air. "Travelling disturbances. Dust in the wind."
"Ben - I'm sorry. I didn't know it would do this to you." Gleck's eyes turn to face the puppet. He truly understands. Sadness pours down upon his face.
"No, no, no. Oh, God, no. I'm sorry. I'm so fucking sorry. I - I - I can't. I can't. I don't know. I'm sorry. Oh, God. Oh, God!" He freezes. His head turns to the camera. "America, I am so sorry for what I have done to you. For what I tried to do. For - everything!" Back to the puppet. "Do the Interview. I'm your man. That's my purpose now. I want to help."
Silence. Douglas doesn't know what to do here. He decides to give the man what he wants. The Quantum Mechanic nods without a sound. Satellites materialize in geostationary orbit. Channel zero can now be accessed from every television set in the world. Word quickly spreads that the Quantum Mechanic is now taking questions, from anyone and everyone, and answering them in order, one at a time, on a brand new television channel. It's called the Interview, it's backed up on the internet, and a transcription is made simultaneously. All this is done by Douglas himself, but groups quickly spring up all over to sort and organize the Interview into a coherent narrative rather than the ultimate Q&A session.
The questions range from the insipid to the insightful, the obvious to the obtuse. The Quantum Mechanic answers them all, placing them on a sheet of paper that Ben Gleck holds in his hand. For his part, Ben reads the questions aloud, sometimes commenting, sometimes pontificating further, sometimes asking questions of his own. He has found new meaning, new purpose in life, and he pursues it with all the diligence and exuberance he can muster. Guests take his place when Ben feels like sleeping, eating, exercising, or taking a bathroom break.