Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Quantum Mechanic: Chapter Three

The Quantum Mechanic
A Superhero Story of Ethic Contortions

Chapter 2 - Chapter 3: Revelation - Chapter 4

"If there were no god, it would have been necessary to invent him."
- Voltaire

Douglas begins scanning police radios for crimes to interrupt. He hears of a bank heist in northern Idaho, and it is time for the show to begin.

Four men with ski masks and pistols shout at frightened civilians while a fifth barks orders to a trembling banker at gunpoint. The silent alarm has tripped and the police are on their way, but the getaway car is running outside and the men are almost done. The air crackles, hairs stand on end, and the room is swallowed in a moment of eerie silence. An orange spark erupts in the center of the lobby, and a gray figure appears, eyes afire behind a metal faceplate.

"Gentlemen," the newcomer says calmly. He is interrupted as one of the gunmen raises his weapon. Miles away, Douglas Orange concentrates, and his perception of time dilates. Before the would-be robber can pull the trigger, the gun flies from his hand, brilliant orange arcs dancing upon the metal surfaces. The disarmed man stumbles back in shock, trips over a kneeling hostage, and bumps his head as he hits the ground.

No sooner are the other weapons raised than they, too, are compelled through the air. The Quantum Mechanic places all five weapons gingerly upon the floor after plucking them one by one out of the air.

"What the," a masked man trails off.

"As I was saying," the Quantum Mechanic continues, "Gentlemen, please cease this foolishness." Tires squeal outside, and then an engine chokes in a fit of orange sparks. The doors lock, and now all six men are in the firm grip of fear. "The police will be here soon, and I shall hand you over to them. The rest of you, please, make yourselves comfortable. These men are no threat to you."

Silence once more. A woman coughs. Slowly, a man in a polo shirt rises from the floor and dusts off his trousers.

"Hey, uh, thanks," he says. "Who are you, man?"

"You can call me the Quantum Mechanic." Sirens approach, flashing lights shine red and blue through the floor-to-ceiling windows. "Ah, good. The cavalry has arrived." One of the masked men faints. Doors swing open and a dozen officers pour into the room, guns at a low ready position.

"Everybody freeze," one of the officers shouts. Nobody has moved for some time. "You in the, uh, in the helmet. On your knees, hands on your head. Slowly, now - make a move for those guns and I'll shoot!" Douglas laughs from his Montana home; the Quantum Mechanic complies without a word. "Brady, Campbell, you round up these jokers. Baker, up here with me, collect those weapons. Everyone else, fan out and keep your eyes peeled."

Baker picks up the pistols with a gloved hand and places them into individual plastic bags. Brady begins to zip tie the hands of the perpetrators behind their backs. "All right, pal," the officer says to the Quantum Mechanic, gun trained on his center of mass. "Get that helmet off, I need to see your face."

"This is my face, officer Jones."

"Funny, smartass. Take the helmet off, or you'll add resisting arrest to your rap sheet."

"My apologies, officer, but you misunderstand. I had nothing to do with this incident."

"Bull fuckin' shit. We got word of six men with guns; that's one outside in the car, four in here, and you with your five pistols. You do the math."

"There's a man in a ski mask who has fainted behind that counter."

"Baker, check that out. I'm not taking my eyes off this guy."

"Yeah, Jones, black ski mask over here, just like the rest of 'em."

"OK, pal. So you mean to tell me you're just a law-abiding citizen who disarmed five guys at once?"

"He totally did, officer," says the man in the polo shirt. "It was awesome, you should have seen it!"

"Quiet, buddy," Jones responds. "We'll take a statement from you later." To the Quantum Mechanic once more: "Now you take that helmet off, or else. And slowly; don't let your hands out of my sight."

The Quantum Mechanic sighs, and its gloved hands move slowly down to either side of the faceplate. Douglas manufactures an artificial clicking noise as he silently separates the plate from the rest of the head, revealing -

Nothing. No flesh and blood, no masked man, no circuitboards or wires or glowing orbs. Nothing but a hollow metal head, with a few articulated joints near the jacket collar.

"What on Earth," Jones trails off, jaw hanging. He blinks a few times. "Baker! We're gonna need more backup."

"That won't be necessary, officer. I've done my good deed and I'll be on my way."

"Not so fast. You're not going anywhere."

"I disagree." Orange energy crackles around the Quantum Mechanic, and it disappears. Jones is aghast.

"Baker, what on God's green Earth did we just see here?" No response. "Baker?" Jones looks around. Baker has fainted. "Son of a bitch."

In downtown Denver, a man holds another man at knifepoint in an alcove between buildings. In a brilliant orange flash, the knife disappears. Another flash, and the Quantum Mechanic steps through the wall right next to the victim.

"What the fuck? What the fuckin' Hell-ass-balls? Holy shit!" The mugger scrambles backward, slips, and falls to the ground in terror. The erstwhile victim is silent, eyes large as dinner plates.

"It's not nice to take other people's things, George." A gloved finger wags disapprovingly in the air. "Didn't your mother ever tell you that? Now run along, and don't try anything funny. I'll be watching you." George scrambles to his feet, mumbling incoherently, and runs for his life. "Sorry to startle you, sir. I hope your day improves." Another flash, another disappearance.

All over the Western United States, crimes are suddenly interrupted by the mysterious hero. Not all crimes, but enough for people to take notice. Cops are furious. American media outlets are thoroughly divided, as is the clergy and the internet. Other nations scoff at the silly Americans losing their collective mind. All of this, in only three days since the bank heist in Idaho.

"This masked crimefighter, this so-called 'Quantum Mechanic,' he's a coward! A silly old fool who's lost touch with reality." So opines Riley Williams, host of "Riley's Rants," a live nightly show on the Fawkes news channel. "Why the mask? Why the act? Why doesn't he join the police?"

"Police have jurisdiction, Mister Williams." The audience gasps, while Riley screams and nearly falls over in his chair.

"How the Hell did you get in here?" The camera swivels to reveal the Quantum Mechanic, standing motionless in the studio. "Security!"

"That won't be necessary, Mister Williams."

"How dare you, you charlatan! How dare you interrupt my show with your antics?"

"You asked a question. Several, in fact. I presume they were directed at me. Did you wish to know the answer, or were you only whining?" Security shows up. They try to restrain Doug's puppet body, but they cannot so much as budge it. After several frustrating moments, they give up. Riley regains his composure, and the camera returns to him.

"Fine, then. Let's have a talk, like civilized men. Why don't you come sit up here with me. Can I get another chair up here?"

"As you wish." The Quantum Mechanic walks up to Riley's desk and conjures a chair, then sits in it.

"Well, this is unexpected! A world exclusive, I think! Tell me, is this your first television appearance?"

"I believe so. My first deliberate one, at any rate."

"Well, OK. So, Mister - what should I call you? 'Quantum Mechanic' is just too long for casual conversation, let alone a thirty minute show with commercials."

"Quinn. Tom. Mack. Nick. Whatever you like, really. Susan, if it tickles your funny bone."

"Nick it is. So, Nick, why the mask? What have you got to hide?"

"My secret identity, of course. I couldn't bear to endanger those I love with my, ah, 'antics,' as you called them. I attract attention, and I'd rather not have to watch my back all the time."

"Don't you think that alienates people?"

"Of course not! People are comfortable with anonymity, there's an entire community out there, I think it's called 'the internet,' you should check it out." Laughter from the audience. Riley glowers, briefly. "I think it's actually my abilities that alienate people. Of course they'd be afraid of someone who can teleport at will and move objects with his mind. I'm different, I'm foreign, I'm new and scary. I'd be afraid, if I couldn't do it myself."

"Don't you think that's a little hypocritical? Gallavanting about in your suit, frightening the poor citizens, how can you sleep at night?"

"Don't be silly, Mister Williams. Would you rather I allowed crimes to be carried out? Would you rather I allow a person to harm another person, if I could stop it? What would Jesus do?"

"Watch your tongue, Nick. Jesus respects our free will."

"Free will is an illusion, and I do not respect the will of those who would harm others. And just so you know, there is no Jesus."

"Hmph! A bit haughty, don't you think? What, did you check the whole Universe for God and come up empty?"

"Why, yes." More laughter, mixed with heckles.

"I guess I'll have to take your word for that, Nick. Getting back to your powers, how did you get them?"

"Radioactive milk on my breakfast cereal, and a tanning bed that runs on gamma rays."

"Wait, what? Really?"

"Of course not! Truth to tell, I don't know how I got my powers."

"Well, then how do you know you're safe? What if you're giving me cancer, just sitting here and talking to me?"

"Ah, that's a good question, Mister Williams. Let me see if I can explain. You see, I can perceive reality at the quantum level: the most fundamental bits of mass-energy that there are. I can move those about, seemingly just by thinking about them."

"Really? That's fascinating. You must have sharp eyes."

"Ha ha! No, it's not so much about visual acuity, as being able to do a whole mess of math really, really fast."

"What, like a computer?"

"Faster. Anyway, as I look at you right now, I see your body just like you do. But behind that, so to speak, or perhaps underneath it, I also see the chemical structure of your cells, the physical structure of the molecules, all the way down to the teeniest, tiniest bits. All at once, all the time."

"Sounds like a lot to take in."

"It is. I'm still getting used to it, in fact. Point is, I see everything that's going on, and I can assure you that there is no harmful consequence to my presence, or my powers. I am perfectly safe, unless you try to harm someone else."

"OK, fine, I guess I'll have to take your word on that, too. Moving on, what's your master plan? What are you up to?"

"I just want to make the world a better place. That's all."

"A noble sentiment. You think you can do that by policing the world?"

"Among other things. I am growing, Mister Williams. Day by day, I become stronger. Now, I fight crime. But I don't know what's next. I can't see the future."

"Is there anything else you can't do?"

"Change the past."

"Can you read minds?"

"Maybe soon. Not quite yet. I can see your whole brain, but it's noisy and messy and I'm not sure what to make of it."

"So why pursue it? Don't you think that would be an invasion of privacy, reading people's thoughts?"

"I never said I was pursuing it. I'm not interested in what you think. But if, some day, I find that I can make sense of all that commotion up there, well - I guess that will be that."

"Huh. All right. Well, enough with the kid gloves, I've got some hard questions for you next: think you can handle 'em, Nick?"

"Sure. You might not like the answers, though."

"We'll see. So if you're such a hot-shot, why are you talking to me instead of stopping crimes right now? Why take a break? Why give criminals a pass, even for a moment?"

"It's a slow night and I thought I should put in some facetime with my adoring public. I'm not a cop. Just a private citizen with a conscience and some neat tricks up my sleeve."

"But what about all the people who get hurt while you're gabbing here?"

"It's a tragedy. What are you doing about it?"

"Hey, man, that's not my calling. My place is here."

"So it is. Why isn't policework your calling?"

"We can't all be cops. You can, though."

"No, I can't. I couldn't have a private life, like other police officers can. My loved ones would be in constant danger, and - I'm terribly sorry, I have to go right now. I'll return shortly."

In Denver, George has just snatched a purse, and he runs directly into the Quantum Mechanic. He falls over backwards, and curses once he realizes what's happened. "George, I'm disappointed in you. I told you I'd be watching."

"You, you - you sick fuck! What, don't you have anything better to do? Get the fuck away from me!"

"It's too late for that, George. You're coming with me."

"The Hell I am!" Even as he speaks, his body is lifted into the air on a cloud of orange vapor. His body is unrestrained, but he cannot move himself through space.

"Here's your purse, Sandy. I'm terribly sorry for what George has done to you. But I think you'll like what you're about to see." Its eyes flash, and a television in a dark storefront window shows Riley Williams flabbergasted at his desk. Another flash, and the Quantum Mechanic is back in the studio, holding a standing George by the arm.

"What the - Riley Williams? Am I on TV? What did you do to me, you freak?!"

"Riley, this is George. George, please tell America what you just did to Sandy. Remember: she's watching you now."

"I - you - erm - what?"

"I'm waiting." George's shoulders slump. He is defeated.

"I tried to steal her purse."

"What did you do to steal her purse?"

"I - I pushed her into a wall. I hit her. And I shouted a dirty word at her."

"And what did I tell you three days ago?"

"That you'd be watching me."

"And why am I watching you?"

"C'mon, man - my dad watches this show! I don't want him to - "

"Then why'd you do it, you little snot," Riley shouts. For a brief moment, he feels like he's back in charge.

"Why am I watching you, George?"

"Because I tried to rob a guy at knifepoint." More slumping. Tears now.

"OK, I think I've made my point. You're free to go, George. I'm still watching you, though." And in a flash, George is gone. "Sorry for the interruption, Mister Williams. Some people are stubborn." In Denver, a TV turns off with an orange crackle. Sandy smiles, briefly, and then walks home with a sore head and a fearful heart.

"So you're, what, the nation's nanny now?"

"Hardly. George is a pet project of mine."

"You know him?"

"Not from more than three days ago. Do you still think me a coward, Mister Williams?"

"Well, you're not a brave man. Bravery is doing what's right, despite personal danger. I don't think any human is a threat to you, and if you can't be put in danger, then you can't be brave. And if bravery is impossible to you, then I don't know what else to call you but a coward."

"I suppose you have a point, but there's a third option, Mister Williams. Could it be that bravery and cowardice simply do not apply to me? Or could it be that I am not a brave man because I am not a man at all?"

"What are you, then? An inhuman monster?"

"Rocks are inhuman. Are they monstrous?"

"Rocks don't tell people how to live their lives."

"You seem to think that your God does."

"I - that's different!"

"No. It isn't. You only imagine that it is."

"Listen here, you insufferable little - I think you've overstayed your welcome, Nick."

"Fine. Then I will leave you in peace." Crackle. Poof.


Cathy S said...

The story's good so far [I know: I have too much time on my hands!]. But the Quantum Mechanic sounds more indifferent towards the end of this chapter, it seems...

D said...

Thank you so much! I'm glad you like it so far (and how is there such a thing as "too much time" on one's hands?). And that's very perceptive of you: one of the things I'm trying to wrestle with is to make it difficult for Orange to hold on to his humanity. In a strong sense, he is no longer human, but he very much wants to be. I think you'll enjoy some of the places this goes, if I may be so bold.

Thanks again for the comment, and stay tuned!

Zach L said...

the whole thing felt a loooooooooooooooooot like Dr. Manhattan's interview.

Careful not to devolve into pure didacticism (is that the right word?)! The action is important, and I dug it, but the second half -- it didn't exactly drag, it was interesting, but it was just kind of talking heads. Which I know is important, of course, but part of what makes superheroes compelling is the relationships between them and the 'normal' world. Dr. Manhattan isn't interesting because he has the power of a God, but because he has regrets and desires like a Man.

Anyways, he's more interesting as something of a prankster. Far bet it from me to suggest anything particular, but I think cultivating a sense of humor is a good way to keep grounded.

D said...

I don't care if didacticism is a word or not, I totally grok your lingo, dude. That's a good point, and this is exactly why I need input. I don't want to descend into tedious lecturing, I want to make thought experiments fun!

I was really trying to channel some Bill O'Reilly (needs more bluster), the Doc Manhattan stuff was incidental. Both Manhattan and Orange struggle to reconcile godlike powers with the human condition, so I suppose some similarities are inevitable. But what I'm really trying to do is to make a trinity out of Doug, Bea, and the puppet: he, she, and it; the three who are one. It's just, y'know, a process and not a constant state.

Godliness isn't interesting, I totally agree; and I'll see if I can work in more humor (irony and satire, not just yuks). Thanks for the tips!