The Quantum Mechanic
A Superhero Story of Ethic Contortions
"It's like they gathered up the city, sold it to the Devil, and now
It's gone to Hell, and they wonder how"
- The Protomen, Light Up the Night
"Can you give superpowers to other people?"
"You know, I honestly have no idea. I often simulate superpowers in alternate reality games, but I've never given 'actual' superpowers to anyone else. I'd hesitate to do so, if only for the reason that it could create problems."
"What kind of problems?" Gleck starts down another one of his elaborational tangents.
"Um, you've seen the Entropic Engineer, right?"
"Yeah, I think we all have."
"Well, that seems to be a result of my powers. It may be the case that there's no way to get rid of it without also getting rid of me. And if so, then I guess I'll just have to step down."
"You - you would do that? After all that you've done for - for everyone? You would just walk away from it all, kill yourself to eliminate a threat?"
"If that's what I have to do - then that's what I have to do."
Alvina's brow is furrowed, even as her head lays on her husband's chest. She half-listens to the Interview as Douglas runs a hand through her hair.
"Honey?" She lifts her head to look at him.
"I want you to teach me to do what you do." Now Douglas frowns.
"Maybe I'd understand you better, that way. Maybe we can teach everyone. Maybe we can all be as gods, and no one will have to depend on you. You could set people free for real."
"Yeah. Maybe." Alvina shifts under the covers, folding her arms over Doug's torso.
"Well, c'mon - don't you think it's worth a shot?"
"I don't know. I don't know what would happen. I mean, what if everyone gets their own Entropic Engineer? What if that doesn't happen, but people turn against each other again?"
"Well, then that happens. But the Universe is flat and infinite, right? Couldn't someone just take off if things got too hairy for them?"
"Yeah, sure, but what if someone decides to create some life and rule as a tyrant over an entire species? Or several of them? What if someone deliberately creates lesser life forms just to watch them suffer? I don't think I could live with myself if I allowed that to happen."
Alvina is silent for a long moment. Her mind is confused now, messy with uncertainty. "It's like this, babe: it doesn't matter whether I could make people powerful or not. I'd need to make them good, first. Otherwise, I'd be abusing my own power, carelessly trusting it to other people before being sure they'd know what to do with it. Like the military giving a rifle to someone on the first day. It's just irresponsible."
"I guess you've got a point there." She thinks for a moment. Douglas sees the question form in her mind even before she does. "Can you still teach me?" He sighs in that resigned fashion that lets her know he's going to give in. She smiles.
"Yeah. I guess I had better. Someone's gonna have to carry on my work if I die."
Ben Gleck reads another question from the paper in front of him. "How will you fight the Entropic Engineer when he comes back?"
"There are a variety of things we can do. I fully expect him to lead a multi-pronged assault, so I have stockpiled smart rifles and powered armor for everyone in the solar system. We'll need everyone we can get, and even if you don't want to fight - well, the fight's probably coming to you, anyhow." Gleck swallows hard.
"And if that doesn't work?"
"Then we're all dead." Gleck stares mute for a moment before asking the next question.
Douglas teaches physics to his wife. He starts with vectors, the same place his own education started in high school. Trigonometry, calculus, force diagrams, tools and concepts organize themselves into an integrated conceptual hierarchy in Alvina's mind, under the expert tutelage of her husband. He senses when she is tired, frustrated, or not understanding, and he tailors his teaching style specifically to meet her needs. Her experience as a science journalist prepares her for dealing with concepts she can't quite wrap her mind around, and one by one, principle by principle, Douglas helps her overcome the hurdles and wrap her mind fully around each facet of reality, in the general order of increasing subtlety.
In two months, she is attending his lectures, a fantastic student just like all of Doug's other charges. She soon surpasses even them, for her private sessions do not stop. The Interview continues apace.
"What is the good?"
"It's many things. First and foremost, it's a word we made up to describe what helps us give meaning and purpose to our lives. But if you want to know what contributes best to a flourishing life, I've found four things: happiness, peace, love, and wisdom. We need all of these things."
"So what's happiness, then?"
"Many things to many people. So long as we do no harm, we should strive to accommodate as many different visions of happiness as we can."
"Simply the absence of violence. Like happiness, it manifests in many ways."
"Love seems obvious, but does it have any special meaning to you?"
"I think of it as resonance, in a metaphorical way. Identifying so well with another that their happiness means as much to you as your own. There's admiration in it, respect, a little bit of expectation, and a whole lot of forgiveness. It's complicated. But you don't need me to tell you that."
"Fair enough. What about wisdom, though? What's that?"
"Here's the part where I'm supposed to get all mystical on you, right?"
"I dunno, you tell me. You're the guru."
"Heh. I guess so. I don't think wisdom can really be 'explained,' because apprehending wisdom is the same as having it. There are ways and ways of coming at it, but the answer all by itself won't mean anything to an unwise person. Wisdom isn't just having answers, it's understanding. That's not something you can give someone in words. You can tell someone all the answers you want, but wisdom comes from understanding the questions in a more robust way. And from understanding that you'll never have all the answers."
"This is 'wisdom' we're talking about here, not a carburetor. It's not a 'thing,' it's more like an attitude. It's a way of attacking the big questions: an open mind, a calm heart, and a willingness to see things for what they are, no matter how uncomfortable that might make you."
"So how do you know if you've got that?"
"I guess you really can't. It's not something you can 'get,' it's more like something you 'do.' If you're doing it right, then you'll have those things: an open mind, a calm heart, and a willingness to see things for what they are. You'll probably also start seeing a whole lot of things as rather silly, and you'll probably be OK with that."
"So, what, are wise people just happy all the time?"
"No, that's happiness, which is an emotion. There's no guarantee that wisdom will lead to happiness."
"Well, then what's the point of being wise, if it won't make you happy?"
"Nothing, if all you want is to be happy. But if you want to be wise, then wisdom can help you see that maybe happiness isn't all it's cracked up to be - I mean, it's great stuff, but we have other priorities, too. There's no single end-all, be-all for life. We are complicated critters."
"OK, so is it a kind of emotional asceticism?"
"No, not exactly. But that's one way of coming at it."
"I'm starting to see what you mean about this being complicated."
"Good! Now you're getting it!"
The Entropic Engineer appears at Megiddo. Extending an arm to the sky, a great pillar of light rises, a beacon to signal the destination for Heaven's approaching army.
"I'm sorry," the Quantum Mechanic says to Ben Gleck, "I'm going to have to call a recess. We've got work to do."
"Wh-what do you mean?"
"The Entropic Engineer just materialized at Megiddo. And I can feel a great gravitational pull from - from - oh, my. From everywhere." A laser rifle appears in the Quantum Mechanic's hands, and it extends the weapon to Gleck. "Here. You'll want this."
"But I - I've never fired a rifle before!" He takes it in his hands anyway.
"Don't worry. It's bonded to you now. It knows what to do."
"Which is - what, now?"
"Kill angels. What else?"
People all over the solar system are filing into great ships, small pods, suits of powered armor, and trying to make some sense of the mounting threat. The Quantum Mechanic appears at the Entropic Engineer's beacon, head cocked at the spectacle.
"Ah, you've decided to show yourself."
"Here I am. Are you planning to rock, as tropical storms are wont to rock? Or is it still possible for diplomacy to stem the tide of battle?"
"I suppose that if you repent of your sins, you may yet be written in the Book of Life. Accept Christ into your soul, and you shall be forgiven. All others who do the same shall walk with us, and be spared the coming flood. But Earth, Sol, your civilization - this all ends today. There shall be nothing left here when Heaven's work is done."
"That may well be. I'll tell you what: if Jesus Christ himself comes down - " A man appears next to the Entropic Engineer, looking for all the world like an itinerant prophet of the Ancient Near East who has been through Hell. "I, uh, wasn't finished, you know." Silence. "OK, fine. I am finished. What do you want, guy?"
"My son, I want you to forsake your sinful ways, to accept me into your heart, and put an end to this foolishness. There need be no death on this day, but evil shall be ended once and for all. The decision is yours as to what side you shall take."
"That's all very nice, but I hope you understand that I'm just a bit skeptical. I mean, I could poof some harried-looking preachy-types into existence, too, if I wanted. Here, watch." Half a dozen figures appear, Mithras, Horus, Mohammad, Moses, Elijah, and the Buddha. Each of them starts shouting prophecies in their native tongues. They prattle on for a few seconds, then disappear as abruptly as they had arrived.
"My friend Thomas was skeptical, until I allowed him to put his fingers through the holes in my hands. We stand here on the brink of war, and if a simple word or deed will bring you into my father's house, then I shall be happy to oblige you, my son."
Douglas thinks. How could God prove his divinity? He himself is able to do all the things that God is said to have done, so how can he know that he's not just being tricked by the Entropic Engineer? The Quantum Mechanic strokes its metal chin with a gloved thumb and forefinger. What has the Entropic Engineer never done? What has he himself never done?
"Very well, I am willing to let this be settled on one question. Answer it correctly, and I am your man. I shall fight at your side, if need be, against any who do not follow me to your kingdom. Is this a satisfactory deal?" Christ nods. "OK, and if you can't answer my question? What then?"
"Then, my son, I am sorry to say that we shall be at odds. If you are not with me, then you are against me."
"Oh, really? I could have sworn that Luke 9:50 says, 'For he that is not against us is for us.' Or do I have that backwards?"
"But in the gospels of both Luke and in Matthew, it is written, 'He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.' Do not quote scripture lightly."
"Fine, but Mark 9:40 says, 'For he that is not against us is on our part.' We need a tie-breaker, don't we?"
"Enough of this foolishness. Ask your question."
"As you wish. What is my real name?"
"Hello? My real name. Y'know, the one I used in school, it's written on my birth certificate. The All-Knowing King of the Universe ought to know that, yeah?"
"Look, you could at least give me some kind of answer at all." But Douglas has cleaned his light cone of all traces that could expose his secret identity. There is no evidence. It must be known from nothing, and cannot be found. Not even Douglas himself could find it, even if he tried: government records, papers, driver's license, even if these jokers knew his true face, they could never match it to his real name. Douglas Orange doesn't even exist on paper any more. The Quantum Mechanic hums the theme song from Jeopardy. Christ makes no move. The Entropic Engineer steps out from the beacon, and Christ disappears.
"All right. You win. Now prepare to die."
"You really have no idea who I am, do you?"
"Not a one. What of it?"
"Then you are not me. You are not my reflection. Nor are you of divinity. You are someone else. You are mortal."
"Guilty as charged. But again - what of it?"
"You have one chance to surrender, or I will find you, and I will eliminate you as the threat you are."
"Hmm. I see. And I do not surrender. But you have no idea who I am, either - do you?"
"And so the race is on."