So I took a science class last spring. An actual, honest-to-God science class. With p-sets. And math. And things.
It was sort of a soft-astrophysics class. And if you’re wondering how on earth astrophysics can be made “soft,” well the answer is it can’t really be and the class was very hard (though not as hard, of course, as an astrophysics class that hadn’t masqueraded as soft). In the end, I scraped an A, mostly because I got away with de-sciencing the final project by convincing someone to let me write a science-fiction short story, rather than design an experiment or go to a local elementary school to try and soften quantum theory even further.
The end product was an eighteen-page romp through a future Pasadena, peppered with fancy jargon (which I understood when I wrote this and since have completely forgotten), which did its absolute best to make it look like I actually understood the theoretical science I was using to send my maniacal antiques dealer through to a parallel universe. The result is absolutely ridiculous; I lifted heavily from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine (explanations turn into a whole lot of handwaving at crucial moments) and the tone I struck sounds somewhat like a weak parody of the 40s and 50s scifi I love so much shot through with a good dose of wannabe-Douglas Adams.
I reread this yesterday while doing anything I could to avoid writing a paper on Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and, since it’s been long enough that its ridiculousness makes me laugh rather than cringe, here it is.
(Let it be noted that, since this was a final for a science class, I wrote it in the science library, which definitely legitimates my entire project.)
“Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory does not understand it.” Niels Bohr, 1927
“Nobody understands quantum theory.” Richard Feynman, 1967
Elgin stopped scrolling—he’d read enough. Owen had done it. All those years of trial and error in a Caltech basement (well, Elgin wasn’t really sure whether it was a basement. Owen was probably important enough to have an office or a lab or whatever it was physicists had) hadn’t been for nothing and he’d done it. This could—no this would—change everything.
The excitement over the low-bandwidth ion transfer had been something. But after nothing more concrete had come of it, people had moved on to other things. There wasn’t much point in parallel universes if they couldn’t be seen, couldn’t be reached, couldn’t be visited. It was interesting to think about, sure. And of course there were the half-dozen or so religions it had spawned, but which—with the exception of the Quantum Immortalists—had largely petered out in the years since.
Intra-world teleportation was the up-and-coming thing. The Australians were leading the charge and progress was being made. Once it became available to the masses, it would revolutionize transportation, revolutionize the world. Elgin hadn’t the first idea how it was meant to work, but he knew enough to have several stakes in the budding companies behind it. But this—Owen was onto something with this. The superfluid dark matter, gravitational shadows of neighboring worlds stuff all sounded like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo to Elgin, but if it were all true and reliable transportation across the boundary of parallel universes was indeed possible, he needed to be in on it. This had potential.
He just had to make sure Owen saw that potential too.
Taking a sip of his increasingly lukewarm coffee, Elgin closed the LA Times and tapped out a quick message to Owen, inviting him out to a celebratory lunch. He had to tap the send button three times before his iPad registered it. The poor old thing was going to need servicing again soon and it was getting harder and harder to find people who knew how to work on Apple products. Elgin made a mental note to tell Jonathan to find him someone reliable once he got into the office.
Five minutes later, he was out the door and cruising down California in his 2027 Cadillac EST. As they approached him, the self-driving cars that flooded the roads slowed, making Elgin grin. He enjoyed slowing the traffic around him, setting the pace. It was part of the reason he still bothered with the manual car, despite the ever-increasing maintenance fee. That as well as the fact that it was only a matter of time before that bill banning non-self-driving cars from city centers was passed. Until then, Elgin was determined to get all the use out of his antique he could.
He slowed dramatically as he approached Lake and turned right past the construction site for Pasadena’s first teleportation hub. His name would be on the wall in there, once the thing was done. He’d been looking forward to the ribbon-cutting ceremony since he’d gotten the mayor’s invitation, three months back. But if Owen had really achieved what the Times was reporting, then Elgin had a feeling he wouldn’t even be thinking about intra-world teleportation when the time came. He drummed his forefinger excitedly on the steering wheel. Infinite parallel universes. Infinite hims. Which was strange and something he didn’t like to think about too hard, but there it was. But more importantly: worlds where Picasso’s The Teacher survived that SwissAir crash back in 1998, where that crazy Romanian woman hadn’t burned those Monets and Matisses from Rotterdam, where World War II hadn’t happened and the Library at Alexandria hadn’t burned, where the Parthenon was whole and Baldessari hadn’t taken it into his head to burn more than ten years of work. All of them, everything that had ever been lost or destroyed, existing in parallel universes.
Collectors would pay millions for those missing pieces. And Elgin meant to make that possible.
It was with a spring in his step that Elgin breezed through the front door of Elgin & Spencer, dealers of fine art and antiques, at 9:30 AM sharp and made his way through the carefully arranged clutter to the desk at which Jonathan stood, Bonham’s catalogue and highlighter in hand. Elgin liked Jonathan, which was good for Jonathan, as six of his predecessors hadn’t even lasted a month under Elgin.
Jonathan was tall and solid and looked more like he belonged on the bench with the Lakers than behind the desk of an antique store in Old Town Pasadena. But he knew what he was doing, which was more than most people could say. He’d done Applied Physics at Columbia before an existential crisis had landed him in the Art History department half-way through his junior year, and now, six years and one MFA from UCLA later, here he was, examining Fabergé eggs with his shirt untucked.
“Jonathan!” Elgin rarely employed exclamation marks; Jonathan looked up.
“Have you seen the news?”
Before Jonathan had a chance to open his mouth, let alone reply, Elgin pushed on: “Owen’s done it! Sent a mouse or two or six, I don’t know, through to a parallel universe and got it back every time! You’ll probably understand it better than I do. Something about superfluid thingamy and ion states and quantum reformulation. But he’s done it—and it’s only one step from mice to people and from people to inter-universal tourism and—” Elgin interrupted himself: “Those Australians aren’t going to be happy this has happened before they unveiled their teleportation network. Owen’s completely stealing their thunder.”
“I always thought it was pretty funny the Australians were the ones to make the breakthrough with teleportation—they are off in the middle of nowhere, after all.” Jonathan was full of random, unhelpful remarks like that. Elgin ignored him.
“The point is that all those parallel universes are reachable now. All that stuff Feynman and Hawking and whoever else used to go on about—”
“Actually, Peter, I don’t think Stephen Hawking ever believed in the multiverse or much cared—”
“It’s all attainable. Just think! Universes where Dresden was never bombed and The Stone Breakers is alive and well!”
“Well I think if we’d never firebombed Dresden there’d be a lot of other things, people to be specific, that’d be alive and well, too. And they’d be alive-alive.”
Again, Elgin ignored him. He’d begun to pace now, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his khakis. “There’s business to be had in this. We just have to convince Owen to give us exclusive rights or some sort of priority or something. We’ll have to look into the legality of it, see if there’s a precedent. . .”
“A legal precedent for importing artwork from parallel universes into a universe in which those same artworks were previously obliterated? Oh, yeah, I’m sure there’ll be loads of precedent for that,” Jonathan said, flipping a page in the catalogue
Elgin went on as if Jonathan hadn’t spoken. “It’s too bad Owen already went public with this. . . otherwise we could have kept it all hush-hush—wouldn’t have had any competition. Wouldn’t even have had to say where they came from. A few paintings turning up here and there in people’s attics, happens all the time. They’d pass muster at the hands of the greatest experts. And we’d have a monopoly on it, set the laws, the precedents ourselves. Now the government’ll have to get involved, set a few rules. Well we’ll just have to see what we can do with Owen when I see him for lunch today.”
“What’s Mr. Spencer think about all this?” Jonathan asked, “Is he going with you?”
“Hm?” Elgin looked momentarily surprised, as if he’d forgotten Jonathan was there. “To see Owen? Haven’t even told him yet. But Mort’ll agree with me. And if he doesn’t, he will eventually. Doesn’t much like a fuss, does Mort.” This, Jonathan could most certainly attest, was true.
“So you’re going to see Owen today to propose this scheme to him? Have you worked out the details at all? I don’t really see how it’s all going to work. . . to start with, can you bring stuff back from the alternate universes? Being able to get there and back doesn’t mean you can take stuff with you and even if you could, how can you know in advance which alternate universe will have whatever you’re after intact? For every universe where something survived, there have to be at least as many where it didn’t.”
Elgin waved his hand dismissively, “Details, details. Trust me, Jon, this is it. This is going to be huge. We’ll be able to go international. We’ll be household names—Elgin & Spencer, the finest art dealers in the world,” he paused, looking Jonathan up and down. “And Young, too, if you like. We could raise you up to full partner. Elgin, Spencer, & Young. I rather like the sound of that.”
“I think you’d better see if any of this is even possible before you start making promises, boss.”
“That’s what Owen is for. Owen’ll make it happen. That’s what he does. I’ll supply the ideas, he, the methods. We’ll probably have to give him a cut of course—wouldn’t be right, otherwise, having known each other since Kindergarten and all. But he’ll come though—ah, wait, this might be him now.” Elgin’s earpiece was vibrating. Holding up a finger to Jonathan—unnecessarily, as Jonathan was already busy again with his Bonham’s—he tapped it sharply.
“Owen! The man of the hour!” Jonathan was sure Elgin had never used this many exclamation points in his life. There was a pause while Elgin waited for Owen to speak and then, “Now? Of course—of course—we’ll be right over.” He tapped his earpiece twice and turned back to Jonathan. “We’re going over to Caltech.”
Since, despite having grown up and gone to school across the street from Caltech together, Elgin had never been to his friend’s office, Jonathan and Elgin met Professor Owen Krieger in the lobby of Caltech’s Experimental Physics Department. Jonathan, who had never met Krieger before and, because of his experience with university labs, expected all scientists to be wearing long pants and close-toed shoes at all times, was surprised to see that he was wearing a lab coat open over a short-sleeved shirt, cargo shorts, and hiking boots. He looked like the kind of guy who went for long runs in the Arroyo, biked to work, and never drank. All of these things were true.
“Owen!” Elgin practically shouted. “This is my assistant, Jonathan. Jonathan, Owen Krieger. We went to Poly together,” he added, as if Jonathan hadn’t heard this 100 times before.
Krieger shook Jonathan’s hand firmly and turned back to Elgin. “So what’s up, Pete?” (Jonathan had never, ever, heard anyone call Elgin “Pete.”) “I’m sorry about lunch, by the way—an interview got moved up and, well, you can’t really say no to those people. What’s all the rush, anyway?”
Elgin looked around the lobby—which was deserted save for a bored-looking undergrad manning the reception desk—and, apparently deeming the location not clandestine enough for this conversation, asked, “Perhaps we could go to your office?”
The office in question was most certainly not a basement, but it didn’t have much else to recommend it. Books and papers were everywhere and it took a moment for Krieger to find anywhere for his guests to sit. In the end he simply dumped a chairful of cheap Sci Fi novels onto the floor and offered it to Elgin. Before he could give a second chair the same treatment, Jonathan indicated that he was quite content leaning against the doorframe.
“So,” said Krieger.
“So,” said Elgin. Krieger raised his eyebrows. Elgin continued. “So this machine of yours—”
“Well it isn’t really a machine,” Krieger cut in. “Much less H.G. Wells, much more “Beam me up, Scottie,” really. Though that’s hardly it either. You see it ended up being about finding a substance that weakened the fabric between worlds enough that one could create space for high bandwidth energy and then matter to filter through.
“We’d been experimenting with Plaga’s idea of using ion-traps to exploit “weak-couplings” between universes to communicate for ages—which is how we confirmed the multiverse in the first place—but tech is still lagging too far behind to allow for anything but medium bandwidth communication. So, eventually, after we’d used the experiment to prove the multiverse, we had the ability to send low quality video into another universe as much as we liked, but it wasn’t really getting us anywhere and we never got any answer, so that was a little boring.
“We ended up turning our attention to exploiting the potential of various other “weak-couplings” between worlds and hit on dark matter—you with me?”
“I’m not sure what you’re saying,” said Elgin, “but I’m listening.”
Krieger smiled. “Well a few decades back some guy realized that dark matter was a Bose-Einstein condensate, meaning it has the properties of both a superfluid and a non-superfluid, making it a brilliant conductor for quantum effects. This had a whole lot of implications for the way we understand the universe, but it also meant something else: if we ever had the ability to get into deep space, dark matter was collectible. And so, as soon as we got into deep space, we collected it. It was Hyperion VII that managed the job, I think.”
“Hyperion VII?” asked Jonathan. “But wasn’t that in like the 30s?”
“2039, yup. We’ve had bottles of the stuff sitting around in special conditions at JPL ever since. No one was really sure what to do with it after it’d been studied to death. Well, at least not until my team had the idea to use super-condensed superfluid dark matter to create a gravitational anomaly and pretty much rip a hole in the fabric of our universe.”
“A hole. So you’re saying what you’ve invented is basically a big fancy pair of scissors for cutting up the walls between worlds?” Elgin asked.
“Well, no. It doesn’t work quite like that. It’s more like a bridge. Think of dark matter sort of like the gravitational shadow of matter in other universes—it’s a link between our universe and other ones, a weak spot. And so when we collect it, condense it, and then excite it we can harness it to essentially create a bridge between our world and a parallel one. It sort of pushes the atoms in our world apart, leaving space for those of another world to mesh with them, creating a temporary connection between two universes of blended matter. Once we achieved that, it was only one more step to figure out how to transport things across the bridge.”
Elgin was looking impatient. “So now you can transfer things across world, so you can do people right?”
“Theoretically, yes. But it hasn’t been done.”
“Can you pick the destination?” Jonathan asked. “Or is it random? You just send whatever it is somewhere?”
“At first it was totally random. But here’s the really cool part—and I get to say that because I didn’t actually have this idea, a student of mine did—now that we can send physical matter to other worlds, we have the ability to send videocameras through which can transmit low quality video back using the ion-trap procedure. So we actually have a little army of hundreds of quantum crawlers roaming parallel universes and transmitting video data back to us right at this very moment.”
“Quantum crawlers,” said Elgin.
“Like web crawlers,” said Jonathan helpfully. “But I don’t get it—why doesn’t the public know about this? That you’ve been watching parallel universes unfold for years?”
Elgin brightened at this. “You could live-stream it. Make people pay a small fee. Half the people in the world would.”
Krieger paused for a moment. “The thing is, it would have to be carefully chosen and edited beforehand. It’s hard to grasp abstractly what an infinitude of universes means—what every possible universe could possibly yield up, but when you see it for real, it can be pretty disturbing. There’re ones that look entirely foreign to us, but that’s actually easier to deal with than the ones that look exactly like our world until you notice one fundamental difference. And then of course the cliché ones exist too: the ones where Hitler won the war, or the British beat down the American Revolution, or JFK was never shot. We’d have to talk to the Fed extensively about it, maybe even the UN. Definitely the international scientific community. Which we’ve begun doing now, but it seemed like too much of a hassle before, so we kept it on the down-low.
“And the other thing we have to remember, which is perhaps the hardest of all of it to grasp, is that these other universes are real. Real real. As real as we are. And the people—or beings—who inhabit them are, for the most part, just like us, living real lives with real feelings and real emotions. Whether or not they’re aware they aren’t alone in the multiverse, we have to respect that they aren’t just an experiment. They aren’t just our lab rats to observe as we please—even though that’s essentially what we’ve been doing.
“The ethics get really slippery. We have no precedent for any of this so up until now we’ve just been forging ahead, but now we’ve gone public, we’re going to have to tread much more carefully. Take it a lot slower. Telling the public out of the blue that we have the ability to survey other universes didn’t feel right. Let alone the commercialization of that ability. So we haven’t done it yet. We’re easing people into it with the idea of matter transfer and eventually we’ll get to the ‘we can watch other universes like TV if we want to’ bit.”
“You still haven’t answered Jonathan’s question, though,” Elgin pointed out before Krieger could get going again. “Can you choose a destination?”
“The short answer is yes. We can single out a specific universe we’ve surveyed and send a mouse or whatever there, but as for accuracy within that universe, we’ve managed to narrow it down to an error margin of several thousand miles, but no better. So I can send you to a world where JFK didn’t die, but I can’t ensure you land anywhere near him, you know?”
Elgin was nodding, a slow smile quirking the corner of his lip. “Really,” Krieger continued, “it’s easiest not to attempt to input the coordinates of a specific location. There were a couple times, really early on, where we sent a few camera-equipped mice directly into space. The view was lovely, but the mice didn’t get to enjoy it. We’ve found that when we don’t attempt to specify location, the bridge forms essentially between analogous points in the two universes. Which generally ends up meaning the place corresponding to where you are in our universe. It’s more reliable and takes a lot less math that way.”
There was a short silence while Jonathan and Elgin digested all this information. Eventually, it was Jonathan who spoke up. “Can we see it?” he asked. “The thing, the apparatus, the room, the whatever it is that creates the bridge? And—can we see footage of another world? I really don’t think you can say no, now, having told us it exists. That really wouldn’t be fair.”
Krieger grinned at him. “I thought you’d never ask.”
The room was dark when they entered and full of a low humming. It didn’t particularly look like the kind of place that held a bridge to another world, but then again nothing at Caltech possibly could. There were thick cables running around the base of all the walls and then from one corner to a metal plate, about 3 feet across, which sat right in the center of the room, directly under a large metal ball affixed to the ceiling. Against the back and right walls was a long counter covered in various monitors and switchboards.
“That’s it?” asked Elgin. “I’d expected something more. . . well, more.”
“Told you it looked a bit “Beam me up, Scottie,”” said Krieger with a laugh. “But trust me, you won’t be saying that if you ever see the thing in action.”
“You mean you aren’t going to turn it on?” asked Jonathan.
“We don’t have any trials scheduled for today and it takes far too much power to just switch on on a whim. If you’re interested, I could probably get you in to watch a trial when we start them up again in a few weeks.” Jonathan nodded eagerly. “I might even have a video of it in action somewhere. . . I know I took one.”
“So how’s it work?” asked Elgin, circling the plate.
“Well,” said Krieger, “whatever it is we’re transferring goes on the plate. Using those monitors over there—” he indicated the ones directly behind the plate on the far wall, “we select a destination universe. It’s pretty easy when we aren’t trying to specify a location. Look, I’ll show you.”
He crossed the room in a few short strides and flipped a switch on a control bank. The monitor before him sprang to life to display a list of sequences of letters and numbers. “Our quantum crawlers.” His finger hovered above the screen for a moment, considering, before he tapped a sequence and suddenly the monitor was filled with an aerial view of a vast desert plain, broken here and there by a dry crack in the earth. There wasn’t much to look at.
“The quantum crawlers fly?” asked Jonathan, coming closer.
“It seemed easiest. They’re miniature drones, really. Miniature drones fitted out with quantum optical equipment.”
“What’s that?” Elgin asked, gesturing at the screen.
“Well, according to our coordinate calculations, it’s somewhere around Calgary.”
“What?” “Canada?” Jonathan and Elgin exclaimed at the same time. Kreiger nodded. He swiped backwards and selected another sequence. This time the view was more familiar: a bustling European city street. Krieger did something and the image zoomed in. “This is Budapest. A Budapest existing simultaneously with ours in a universe where, as far as we can tell from analyzing video of this world, synthetics haven’t yet been invented.” Elgin and Jonathan leaned in closer.
“I was getting an old-timey vibe,” said Jonathan. “That would explain it.”
“In any case,” continued Krieger. “The process isn’t hard without coordinates. You simply select a destination,” he pressed a button on the edge of the monitor, “lock it in,” another button, “and from there you prime the the dark matter,” he indicated a control board to his right, “and place whatever you’re transporting on the plate. When this little light turns green, the dark matter is primed and you’re ready to go. Press the start button,” he pointed to a button protected by a little plastic case, “and hey presto, you’ve got a bridge to another universe.”
“That seems way too easy,” observed Jonathan.
“We’ve streamlined it a bunch. It turns out if you’re not bothering with the coordinates there really isn’t much to do, since the Inter-state takes care of most of it.”
“Is that what you call it?” Elgin asked, eyes still glued to the street in Rome.
“Is that a pun?” Jonathan asked, delightedly. “Because Everett’s whole idea of Many-World Interpretation revolved around the idea of states? Whenever a measurement was made, and a system forced to settle into one of its possible states, there’s a split. Each state produced a new universe. So bridges between the universes are bridges between the states. Inter-state. I like it.”
Krieger was looking at Jonathan with a new admiration. “I did physics in college for awhile,” Jonathan explained bashfully.
Just then, there was a knock on the door frame. The bored looking undergrad from the front desk was standing there, looking, if possible, even more bored. “There’s a girl from The Tech waiting for you in the lobby, Professor Krieger,” he said. “Says you’re expecting her.”
“Oh, well, she’s a little early, but I suppose I’ll come. Do you two mind?” he asked turning to Jonathan and Elgin. “This won’t take long, just a photographer from the school newspaper.”
Jonathan shrugged. “I don’t mind, as long as I can keep watching this,” said Elgin, turning back to the view of Rome.
“I’ll be back in ten, then,” said Krieger, before disappearing after the undergraduate.
Immediately he was gone, Elgin swiped backward on the screen to the list of sequences and selected the top one. An image of dense rain forest greeted them. Elgin swiped back and tapped the second sequence.
“I’m not sure we should be messing with it while Professor Krieger isn’t here,” began Jonathan slowly, though his eyes were glued to the image of a crowded city street, full of taxis and pedestrians. Even a horse and carriage.
“Oh Owen won’t mind,” said Elgin, zooming in on the image, eyes scanning it quickly. Jonathan refrained from pointing out that if this were the case, Elgin wouldn’t have waited for Krieger to leave before touching the monitor.
Elgin froze suddenly, the image tight on a bus shelter. “This is New York,” he whispered.
“I thought that was obvious.”
Jonathan looked. “What am I supposed to be seeing?”
“Look at the ad.” Elgin pointed. Behind and to the right of the two ladies sitting on the bus shelter’s bench was an ad with a large emblazoned M in one corner.
“It’s an ad for an exhibit at the Met.”
“Look at what the exhibit is.”
Jonathan squinted. “Oh my God,” he said. “It’s Michelangelo’s Leda and the Swan. The one that was lost.”
Elgin was looking at Jonathan with wild eyes. He opened his mouth, but Jonathan got there first. “No. No. Don’t even think about it. Don’t you dare.”
“Jon. I have to. There might never be an opportunity like this again. We might never find this universe again—”
“They’re catalogued! Write down its ID, for God’s sake! Just don’t do anything stupid.”
“Jonathan. I’m going. You’re free to stay here, but I have to go. It’ll take years before this is all approved by the government and procedures are decided upon. It could be destroyed again in that time!”
“But there will always be a universe in which it exists!”
“And the chances of finding that one where it still exists are one in infinity. This was fate. I’m going.” He pressed the button to initiate the lock the universe in.
“Won’t you just think for a moment? Even when you get there—if you get there—how are you going to steal a Michelangelo from the Met? It’ll be the same as trying to do it here! There is absolutely no point!”
Elgin didn’t even reply as he busied himself with pressing the buttons Krieger had pointed out. Suddenly he looked up at Jonathan. “I need you to press the button.”
“You have to. I can’t if I’m standing on the plate.”
“Well I won’t do it. Do you even know how you’d get back? No—you don’t. I’m leaving to find Professor Krieger so he can stop this madness.” With that, Jonathan strode out of the room without a backwards glance.
Elgin hesitated a moment, before carefully lifting the lid off the start button and propping it open with a credit card braced against the edge of the counter. Moving to the plate at the center of the room, he stood upon it and quickly tugged off his shoe. He weighed it in his hand for a second, before aiming carefully and letting it go. It arced, hesitated a moment at the apex of its trajectory, and came down directly on the button.
When Jonathan and Krieger returned to the room five minutes later, there was no sign of Elgin. The monitor still played the footage of New York. Nothing had changed, save the addition of a single brown leather Oxford shoe lying on its side beneath the monitors on the back wall.
“Shit,” said Krieger and Jonathan together.