Monday, November 2, 2009

The Quantum Mechanic: Prologue

The Quantum Mechanic
A Superhero Story of Ethic Contortions

Prologue - Chapter 1

"I think I can safely say that no one understands Quantum Mechanics."
- Richard Feynman


Randall James shows his ticket to the usher and then files into the auditorium to watch the magic show. His seat is at the far right of the front row, a great viewing angle for debunking illusionists who usually play to the audience directly in front of them. Randall takes his notebook from his jacket pocket, clicks his pen into the "write" position, then adjusts his baseball cap and settles down to wait for the Amazing Orange.

Douglas Orange is an unassuming man in his early thirties, a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Montana by day who recently began doing magic shows on weekends. Orange quickly gained internet fame by word of his students as an illusionist whose techniques could not be discerned by even the most careful of observers. Many would-be internet debunkers claimed that his tricks were nothing more than smoke and mirrors, old hat to erstwhile professionals like Randall. Yet none could duplicate Orange's illusions as he had performed them, and Orange was consistently able to demonstrate that he did not rely on any known methods to achieve his results.

And so it happened that Randall James travelled across three states to see the Amazing Orange with his own eyes. The tuxedo-clad magician looks directly at James and winks as he walks out from backstage, waving warmly at the audience as he basks in their applause.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen! Are you all ready for some theoretical physics?" Silence. "Very well - magic it is!" Applause. Orange begins to remove his coat. "So many of my colleagues wear long sleeves, but I find that this only invites accusations of hiding various tools inside them." He lays the coat over a small oak endtable. Rolling up his shirt sleeves, he continues, "I choose instead to bare my arms," now folding up his jacket, "And that way, so long as I do the magic right," a sly glance to the audience, "The criticisms just seem to... disappear!" And so does the jacket. One moment he was holding it, folded into a neat sort-of square, and then it just disappeared behind his arms. Applause ensues. Randall jots down some notes.

"Well, that was fine for a warm-up." The magician claps his hands together and rubs his palms vigorously against each other. "For my next trick, I'll need a deck of cards and a volunteer." Pulling his hands apart, a deck of cards appears. "Well, one down, one to go!" Hands shoot up among the crowd. "You there, in the green shirt - pick a card, any card." The cards fan out, and every single one is an ace of spades; laughter erupts. "Terribly sorry! Here, let me try again." Orange rearranges the fan back into a pile, then fans them out again; the usual array of cards appears this time. "You know what? Why don't you just take the deck?" Orange hands the cards to the young woman in green, then turns his back and instructs her to select a card, show it to the crowd, then put it in her pocket and hold on to the rest of the deck for good measure. She complies, revealing a nine of diamonds as Orange patters on.

"Now watch closely," and the magician pulls a black handkerchief from his pocket, shakes it out, then lays it carefully over the small endtable. Concentrating, Orange places his hand palm-down upon the covered table, then his hand disappears through the handkerchief. Then his forearm. Then his elbow. "Almost there." The magician is up to his shoulder in endtable, a twelve inch square of wood perhaps six inches deep with obviously inadequate capacity for so much arm. "Got it!" The arm comes out, and the nine of diamonds is revealed, but the design on the back is wrong. "Oops!" More laughter. The woman in green checks her pocket, but looks puzzled. The card is presumably gone. "Well, the young miss seems to have misplaced her own card, as well! Perhaps the man to your left can't keep his hands to himself?" Orange cocks an eyebrow at the gentleman. "If you please, check your pocket, sir." He does, producing a nine of diamonds to his surprise. "And you, to her right, you've also got a suspicious look about you. Your pockets?" Another nine of diamonds. "You, in the back with the Bobcats jersey. Have you also got a card in your pocket?" Yet another nine of diamonds. "Oh, my. You know what? Everyone, check your pockets. I think this trick has gone all wrong." Randall checks his pocket and finds a nine of diamonds. Unbelievable. More notes, more applause.

"Well, that's enough card tricks out of me. How about pulling things from a hat?"

After the show, Orange holds a brief Q&A session during which he hammers away on two central themes: the first being that a good magician never reveals his secrets, the second being that children can learn all his tricks and more by paying attention in school and staying creative. James heads backstage when the magician does, flashing his press credentials at the lone security guard. He knocks on the door, and the physicist answers in jeans and a blazer.

"Doctor Orange, I presume?"

"Ah, Randall 'The Randificent' James! Glad you could stop by, come on in." Randall steps inside and readies his notebook for another round.

"That was quite a show you put on, professor."

"Mister James, my students call me professor. My role models can simply call me Doug." Randall smiles, taken aback.

"You flatter me, Doug. Your illusions are on a scale I could never match, not even in my prime." The notebook lowers.

"I'm sorry, you misunderstand me. It's your work for the Skeptics Coalition International that I find fascinating, though your performances were also quite admirable."

"Ah, I see! That's actually what brings me here today. I'm sorry to say it, but I'm here to debunk you for a SkepCo article. Though after such a performance, I have to say that I haven't the slightest idea how!"

"That's fine. In fact," Orange glances over his shoulders, "I'll give you your scoop, if you want it. I know I'll rob you of the thrill of figuring it out, but I think you'll find it worth your while." Randall cocks an eyebrow, notebook at the ready once more.

"All right, then let's have it." Orange takes a deep breath and concentrates.

"Look at the table." Randall does so, and after a few moments, a rabbit appears. No flash, no bang, no scarf or hat or patter - a rabbit simply appears whole upon the table, where before there was only air. "There's nothing to debunk, Mister James. I perform what could probably be called actual magic." Randall puts his hand out and leans on the wall. "But there's nothing to it. The patter is only to keep the audience engaged - they don't want to see actual magic, they want to think they're being fooled. The shows I put on are just practice."

"I feel lightheaded," he says quietly. "That's not possible."

"Oh, it's very possible, it's just also very complicated. I'll tell you the whole story, if you like. Would you care for a drink?"

"I could sure use one."

Hours later, the two men have worked their way through a twelve-pack and the last eighteen months of the professor's life.

"You said earlier that your shows are practice," James says at one point. "Practice for what?"

"Multitasking." Douglas is now drinking a tall glass of water. "The magic is the easy part, but by doing other things at the same time, I am able to practice managing several things at once. This helps me do bigger and better magic."

"Do you have to keep calling it 'magic?' It's just so, so - what's the word? - boring, I suppose. What you do is so much more exciting!"

"What else should I call it? I don't have a better word for it. These principles don't have names, and they're not exactly well-documented in the literature."

"There's your career, right there! Or you could take the SkepCo prize for proving paranormal abilities, if you want to keep it a secret." Douglas waves his hand dismissively, unaffected by the mounting excitement of his guest.

"Small potatoes, man. I mean, I could sure use a million dollars, but - no offense - my goals are bigger than that. What you saw today is the result of months of practice; imagine what I'll be able to do a year from now!"

"But you could do so much good! If you became a cop, or part of the military, or even a science advisor to the White House of some kind, you could make so much progress!"

"Doing what? Following orders from my superiors, assisting the USA in achieving dominance over the rest of the world, or putting down local crime? Small potatoes once again. I want to do more than that, and that means keeping things pretty quiet for now. Otherwise," Orange looks downcast, "I have a strong suspicion I'd be labeled as a threat if I didn't comply with whatever politician tells me what to do. Maybe I could stand up to them, but I have family and friends, and I can't protect them all the time while also helping the rest of the world. I'd have to play their game, or spend all my time keeping my loved ones safe."

"Well, what about vigilantism? I'm sure you could do some real good as a masked man, preposterous as it sounds. Think about it: you have actual superpowers! Who could stand in your way?" Douglas scoffs.

"Really, now? A superhero, like in the comics? Don't be ridiculous. Besides, my name is Douglas Orange - that's about as far from superheroism as names get. What would I call myself, the Orange Avenger?"

"How about, umm," Randall waggles his fingers in the air, as though literally grasping for an idea as he trails off. "What do you think of 'The Quantum Mechanic?' I think it suits you." Orange considers for a moment.

"Hm. It fits. It's got a ring to it. All right, I'm sold!"

"Great! Well, you've got your powers, your name, all you need now is a side-kick and a base of operations, maybe even a front organization. I think SkepCo might serve well, and as for the sidekick," Randall shrugs and smiles, "I know your secret identity."

"Now we're getting ahead of ourselves." Douglas shakes his head and paces. "Listen to us. Talking about using SkepCo as a front while maintaining total secrecy? I still have a whole bunch of practicing to do before I can seriously take on the world, anyway."

"Well, we'll see." Randall stands up and extends his hand to Orange. They shake. "You practice, and you think about it. I'll be in touch."

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