Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Quantum Mechanic: Chapter Nine

The Quantum Mechanic
A Superhero Story of Ethic Contortions

Chapter 8 - Chapter 9: The Villain - Chapter 10

"And I heard, as it were, the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, 'Come and see.' And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer."
- Revelation 6:1-2

Douglas was ready when the shockwave hit. He had felt the approaching heat and light from far away, had foreseen the collision, had prepared for the conflict. And so when the sky turned red as blood, when the seas boiled and the earth was baked dry and cracking, every living animal on Earth found itself surrounded in its own cooled private atmosphere.

Douglas had wondered where Proxima Centauri had gone, but he wondered no longer. It was coming straight at him now, moving at tremendous speed even for an astronomical object.

A second sun grows in the sky over the Western hemisphere. People walk out of their homes to stare at the heavens, even as the world burns around them. Douglas doesn't see much point in protecting property he can simply restore later, and so he lets this new antagonist put on a show. Wishes, conversations, and the Interview are put on hold - he needs as much attention for this as he can muster. In Montana, Alvina holds her husband tightly and shuts her heart against the approaching fear, facing the ominous sky with open eyes. The Quantum Mechanic stands alone in the geometric center of the United States, somewhere in the panhandle of Oklahoma.

A lone figure descends from on high, glorious and radiant. Its features cannot be discerned from the gleaming white light surrounding it, but for its flaming eyes and a pitch-black ω in the middle of its forehead. It speaks with a voice that levels buildings. Literally. Even magical private atmospheres are susceptible to crushing pressure waves, and so Douglas muffles the sound to a dull roar for anyone in earshot.

"I am the angel of the Lord. Your world is coming to an end. Repent, or be consumed in righteous fire." Douglas is taxed by the effort of sustaining the planet against the overwhelming might of the star. The Quantum Mechanic regards the white figure coolly.

"Piss off, buddy. We don't need you here. I don't know if you noticed, but we finally got a good thing going on, and I'm not about to let you ruin it."

"Hmph. You may speak, and speak, but it shall profit you nothing. The righteous shall be spared, and the wicked shall be culled. Your time grows short. You cannot escape the coming flood."

"You've come to rain on our parade, then? I've got news for you. I can pump nutrients into these folks' bloodstreams and sustain their little bubbles as long as I feel like it. Shall we leave this to a staring contest? Or perhaps an arm-wrestling match? I'm telling you, you're better off having your fun elsewhere, because you'll only wind up bored here."

"Your arrogance is matched only by your ignorance. You have your warning. I shall return with the Heavenly Host, who number more than the sands upon the beach."

"Is that at ebb tide, or flow tide? And all the beaches, or just some of them? You see, I've counted, and I'd like to - " The puppet is cut short. The angel extends a hand, and a tremendous current of energy erupts forth. Douglas was not expecting so much, and his prosthetic body is vaporized. "Neat trick," says another, having just arrived on the scene. "Now let's see if I can - " The puppet stops abruptly once more, but stands intact.

Douglas can't see the angel.

He sees a tremendous amount of electromagnetic radiation flowing from where he knows the angel ought to be. He sees cancelling waveforms radiate before the ω, making it appear unnaturally black to observers. He sees the fire where the eyes ought to be. But where the gleaming white body ought to go, there is only - nothingness. No air, no light, no heat, no anything! Nullity. Nothing for him to strike out against.

"You clever son of a bitch," the robot says at last. "I see how it is. All right, I can't kill you, and you can't kill me. Looks like we've got ourselves a good old-fashioned philosophical debate here."

"There is no debate. You shall perish."

"What? You just vaporized me, and I am miraculously unharmed. What makes you think you can kill me?"

"I am sent as your opposite, your antithesis, your undoing, your end. You are cause. I am effect. For all of your action, I am the consequence. You bring about chaos, and I impose order. You are messiness. I am tidiness."

"And how exactly do you propose to 'tidy me up,' pray tell?"

"The same way any particle may be tidied up: with its antiparticle. Your time is short. Use it wisely." With that, the phantom disappears. Proxima Centauri is gone once more. The Earth is healed, showing no signs of the recent disturbance. People return to their homes, and regularly scheduled programming resumes. Alvina Orange holds her husband tightly, stroking the back of his head as tears wash over her breast.

Over the next several weeks, people disappear. Not most, but a great many. And why not? If an entire star may be hidden and moved freely, right under his nose, what's a few people here and there? There's nothing he can do about it, if he's sabotaging himself. Beating his head against a wall is no use, especially when that wall is built specifically to take his particular brand of pounding. Every loss is a tragedy - but Douglas does not know whether these people are alive or dead, only that he cannot see them any longer. He fears the worst, but resigns himself to the truth that people disappeared before his rise to power, and maybe he shouldn't be surprised that some things never change. Douglas puts his paranoia to constructive purposes, hatching a plan for the ultimate contingency: the second coming of Jesus Christ. He laughs and thinks to himself, As if there were a first one.

The stellar herald comes to be known on the internet as the Entropic Engineer. A few insist on calling him Gabriel, Michael, Gideon, Azrael, Remiel, Duriel, and a whole host of other silly names; only the Entropic Engineer sticks, for it is a unique name of fitting symmetry to Doug's own pseudonym. The Quantum Mechanic creates from nothing and lets people go as they please, while the Entropic Engineer would seek the dissipation of its nemesis and probably tell everyone what to do with their lives if it could.

Space stations are born from nothing in geostationary orbit, Earth's solar orbit corrected subtly to compensate for the added mass of the Earth-plus system. Scientific progress continues, accelerated beyond the wildest dreams of any science fiction writer, under the careful guidance of the Quantum Mechanic. Truly sterile environments may now be constructed, and the question of grant money or any other resource is rendered moot. The whole of the lunar mass is converted into layers and layers of computronium substrate, freely sliding past each other on insulating lubricants while tiny superconductive ball bearings complete circuits, all powered from a central battery of neon-orange lightning. Each layer runs on the waste heat generated by the next-innermost layer. The whole device is the province of the newly-expanded Skeptics Coalition International & Education Networking Center of Earth, their corporate acronym proudly emblazoned upon the light side.

"I don't think I should ask this question," Gleck says at some point. Douglas has put the Interview mostly on auto-pilot, several days of answers ahead of himself. The occasional elaboration distracts him for but a moment.

"Believe me, if there were any danger whatsoever, I would have simply skipped it. Please, continue."

"If you say so." Ben clears his throat and continues. "Do you have a weakness?"

"Butterscotch pudding. I can't resist it. But seriously, I depend upon my organic human brain, as far as I can tell. I am a unique and powerful man, but I am still just a man, behind this mask."

"Well, not literally behind the mask, I should hope. Didn't the Entropic Engineer vaporize one of your puppets? If you can read minds, then couldn't he? What if he finds you out?

"Hey, slow down! All right, in order, you are correct that my 'real' body isn't inside this or any other suit. That would be the height of foolishness. If the Entropic Engineer can read minds as I can, then he'll have a hard time finding me, because I mask my brain waves to make it look like I'm just another person. I've even gone out to my whole light cone to make sure that there's no trace - a trick I learned from the Proxima Centauri incident. To find me out, the Entropic Engineer would have to kill everyone on Earth - and seeing as how he plans on doing that anyway, well, I should hope it's apparent that my weakness is of no particular added danger."

"Wow. Yeah, I guess you're right. That's pretty thorough, there. Just to keep a secret identity intact?"

"Secret identities are important, Ben."

Colonies are built on other planets and their moons, populated by teleportation first, and then in the usual way. Massive satellites are poofed into existence in all manner of wild solar orbits, designed by the hopes, whims, and dreams of their immediate occupants. Video games give way to alternate reality games, where non-players are insensate fleshy automatons, real human beings to all appearances so long as a command prompt is not spoken.

"Doug?" He knows the question before she speaks it. It's been on her mind for months. This will be tough.

"Yeah, Bea?"

"Do people ever ask you to fulfill their sexual fantasies?" The question is strained, but innocent. She wants to know. She already does, in a way. There are plenty of reasons, she thinks, for him to ignore the libido of the human race - but none that he would call 'good reasons.' He decides to play it straight.

"Yes. Quite often, I'm afraid. I'm sorry if that's a problem."

"It's - it's not a problem," she lies. She's not even angry with him. She's had months to get over her anger at the prospect. Now she's only sad. "I'm sorry. Yes, it's a problem. I have a problem with that."

"I appreciate your honesty, but I don't know what to do."

"Well - I mean, for fuck's sake, Doug!" Tears roll down her cheek. She realizes her pun and tries not to laugh. "What am I supposed to think? How would you feel if I went and fucked another guy behind your back?"

"There's - I - look, Bea. I know this is hard, but please, listen to me. There's a difference."

"Oh, it's different, huh? The all-aware, all-good, all-fucking-powerful Douglas Orange has a seam-ripper for the fabric of reality, and that makes it OK for him to cheat on his wife, right?"

"No. It doesn't make it OK. I should have told you earlier, and I'm sorry."

"You damn well ought to be! What were you doing, just hoping I'd never ask?"

"I didn't know what I would say."

"Well, now's your fuckin' chance! What do you have to say for yourself, mister?" Douglas takes a deep breath. He's assembling buckyball cages for chemists on Pluto right now, and he doesn't want to fail them, but he needs to center himself in Montana at the moment.

"It's different because I don't participate in the fantasies. I can see everything that everyone does, and I pretty much don't care, as long as nobody gets hurt. It doesn't make me horny, it's their thing and I just let it happen. Whether I supply a lobotomized meat puppet or not - that doesn't matter. It's simulation. It's not about me, it's about them. So I give them their toys and I make sure they play nice. Are you with me so far?" Alvina sniffles, glistening lines outlining the curves of her face below bloodshot eyes. She nods, numbed for a moment. "OK, now I want you to listen very carefully. I said there was a difference, and this is it: I facilitate the sexual fantasies of billions of people. You, and you alone, are the only one who I have ever asked to facilitate mine."

Alvina could be knocked over with a feather. Her emotions pull her in a thousand directions at once. She needs time to process this, and she has to do it on her own - Doug can see that his touch will only make things more painful in the moment. He has to let her work through this by herself, and it kills him to be unable to comfort her. He stands and looks at her helplessly, letting her see his real weakness, while he makes himself useful in another room by invisibly packing a pipe full of dry green leaves. That will be useful later.


Cathy S said...

Out of interest: on what time scale does these transitions to a virtual environment occur?

This chapter is a tangent from the previous ones, in that a 'divine' being rivals Prof. Orange: where did you catch on this idea? [It's a little tempting to later attempt to "kill god" and 'his' company--as the Pullman trilogy His Dark Materials goes.]

Cathy S said...

The pedantic speaks again [last time, it was on Newton's 3rd law]...

For some reason, people see the mysteries of electromagnetism [It's currently storming in Sydney, with about 4-10 coulombs of excess charge moving like crazy!], despite the fact that we know a lot about it [Thanks to Maxwell and Faraday, particularly!] Probably because we are used to the metaphor of energy or power as some semi-physical substance, like light...

D said...

I was talking with Zach on the phone, and he said I needed more superheroism. I said that it's hard to come up with genuine rivals for a guy who can do, uh, anything; so Zach recommended a villain with similar powers. We discussed various ways to do that, and this is what came out: a symbolic mirror image. There are a few neat places this could go yet, so I'll stop talking there.

I'm not sure what you mean by "transitions to a virtual environment." Everything stays solidly grounded in reality; the alternate reality games are actually taking place on other planets, where people go with their real bodies to live out the adventures designed for them by others. But the whole chapter spans maybe a couple of weeks - things move fast with a Quantum Mechanic at the helm!

I like the picture that says, "And God said, [Maxwell's equations], and there was light." But energy does exist in discrete quanta which can be generated in almost any way you'd like, so long as there are enough atoms around to tip their electrons into different orbitals - all at the same time, in an impossibly coordinated dance.

Although now we're right back to "where does the energy come from?" Umm... let's see how technobabble-hand-wavey I can get... there's no "actual" tipping, it's really just a suggestion. A corollary of the observer effect, as it turns out: by understanding the probabilities at a certain level of detail, an observer can manipulate the actuality simply by envisioning it.

There! Halfway between the correlation effect from The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, and whatever it is that Jane does in Children of the Mind. And remember, at the end of the day: Quantum Mechanics is magic (just like dragons is magic).