Author Terence Kuch delights in this sci-fi story.
Robert Morgan sighed, shifted in his narrow seat as the plane made its final approach. In two days, he’d be giving a paper about his discoveries in quantum mechanics – discoveries no one had bothered refuting. His talk would have few attendees, he expected, few questions. Then he’d have a tense lunch among strangers where everyone else at the table seemed to know everyone else but him. Then he’d fly home to the scientific obscurity he’d never really left.
The plane descended through dark clouds and sudden gusty winds that unnerved him. Far below, he saw whitecaps and a rocky coast. The plane jolted, hard, and a few passengers gasped. But the plane recovered, leveled, made its final approach. He glanced at a blonde woman across the aisle to reassure her, to reassure him. Smiles, nods.
# # #
Morgan watched the bags go round and round. One batch had already been dumped onto the carousel, and he could hear another truck moving into position, sounds of thumping and crashing, shouts of “Over here, Smitty, dammit!” and “OK, OK!” He hoped his own bag would be in this batch.
And then she was there at the carousel, the woman he’d seen on the plane. Thirties, he guessed; slim, tall, angular, blonde except for the roots.
“You were across the aisle from me, weren’t you?” he said.
“Thought I recognized you,” she said.
He ventured to keep the conversation going over the noise of the creaking carousel: given names (hers was “Mandy”), current niceday status, the weather, and didn’t that seem like a close call?
There was no exchange of phone numbers, addresses, dearest wishes, secret fears. Neither told the other why they had flown here.
He was about to venture further, offer to share a cab into the city if that’s where she was going, but her bag arrived first. “Well, hope you enjoy it here,” she said, picking it up. She waved a cheery good-bye and walked off toward the grey, taxi’d curb.
“You too,” he called.
The bag scrum resumed: suitcases, duffels, backpacks ascending the upclimbing belt, then pitching down on bags that had fallen before, crashing into them, a few tumbling to one side, others riding triumphantly on those they had mounted.
He mused that he would probably never see the woman again. Why hadn’t he had the courage to … Just then his bag hit the carousel.
# # #
Morgan maneuvered crab-wise around a maid and her cart in the narrow corridor.
“Pardon me,” he said.
The maid was silent.
He arrived at room 803, swiped his keycard. He knew what would await him, here in a hotel far from home. Too-made bed, too-cold A/C, too-large TV, pamphlets about swimming-pool hours, room service, local musn’t-misses.
The room door clicked open.
He unpacked, thought idly about the woman – Mandy, was it? – wished he been more forceful, willing to take a risk. He again had pleasant fantasies of their sharing a cab, getting to know each other, but the dice-roll of bags had sent her away while he was still waiting.
He pulled the curtains aside. A smirk of sunset mocked his thoughts. Still overcast, still Middling America, one coast or another. Cluttered roofs of buildings seemed the same here as anywhere. An airliner like the one he’d ridden was nearing the distant airport. A few sirens called from the distance.
Morgan studied the conference schedule. Registration had already begun; the reception would start in a few minutes, both events in the Enterprise Solutions Room. He viewed his hair, adjusted a few filaments, descended to the conference area.
He got in line for registration, noticed the blonde woman – Mandy, was it? – checking attendees in and handing out conference materials. He had several minutes to study her.
Again she seemed pleasant. Not really his type, but then Morgan had never really had a “type,” had he?
Finally, he presented himself. “Hi,” he said.
her badge said,
Conference Synergystics, Inc.
The “smile!” had been hand-written.
“Hi! again,” she said in person, as she gathered up his agenda, badge with the red banner of speakerhood trailing below, and various advertising handouts. “From the airport, right?”
“Yes,” he smiled, “yes.” Lame, he thought, pretty lame. He should say more. Mandy handed him his conference materials. Perhaps now he ought to say…
“Name, please?” she smiled at the next supplicant in line. Morgan stepped aside.
Moving toward the reception area, he put on his badge and checked the day and time of his presentation. He maneuvered to the bar. Bourbon, no ice. No, he didn’t have a favorite brand. Yes, that’s fine. A little more, please? He gestured with two fingers. Yes, that’s fine. He paid for his drink and tipped too much.
For the next hour, he wandered the room in search of conversation. But everyone seemed to be in knots of three or four, shoulder to shoulder like guards and tackles. He caught a few wisps of physics shop-talk, profanities about politics, a buzz of “Wasn’t it awful…?” and “Wonder if anyone…?” etc.
He had another bourbon, tried to make contact, some live human touch. He managed to say a few words to other attendees but didn’t find anyone willing spend more than a few minutes with him.
Later, the crowd thinned and the bar was closing. Bottles were replaced in cartons, paper napkins tossed into bins. Morgan had his back against a wall, pretending to pay attention to his drink. He was about to leave the reception, intending to have dinner in his room, when he heard “Hi,” and turned around. It was Mandy.
“Hi!” she said again, “Sorry I was abrupt with you at the registration desk, there were so many people waiting. But I’m off duty now. Bob, isn’t it?”
It took him a second to respond. “‘Robert,’ actually, but you can call me ‘Bob’ if you…”
“It’s been a really hectic day,” she continued on from “isn’t it,” “and I’d like a drink, and I thought of you,” she said. “You’re the only one here I know even a little.”
Before he could think of a useful response, she said “There’s bar service by the pool. The nice brochure said so.”
“Ah – OK.”
He was amused at her forwardness, even though a little off-put. But he needed company, really desperately now, and she wasn’t, after all, unattractive, and…
# # #
Forty-five minutes later they were sitting beside the pool. Two or three families were splashing in the shallow end. Mandy was drinking her second margarita (frozen, no salt). Morgan had begged off, having had two drinks at the reception. But they were watered, I’ll bet, she’d said, and you need to keep me company. She winked and he ordered a Scotch this time, Glenfiddich, and then another. He wasn’t, after all you know, a bareknuckle bourbon drinker, not really, and it was more civilized, more cultured to…
After a moment of quiet: “Penny for your thoughts,” she said, “even though a penny isn’t worth much anymore.”
“My thoughts aren’t worth much anymore, either,” he said. She laughed in a nice way. It occurred to him that he’d said too much. Honesty can be debilitating.
“Oh, come on!” she said, tugging him up from his chair and pulling on the red banner hanging from his name tag. “You’re one of the speakers!”
She gave him a playful shove. He pushed back. Then she did, harder. Morgan lurched arms-flailing into the pool, floundered gasping, groping for the bottom with one foot. Still thrashing, he looked from side to side. No one except Mandy seemed to have noticed what an awful, embarrassing thing had happened. He felt stupid.
Mandy pulled at his arm, and he grasped the side of the pool. Between their joint efforts he was ultimately beached, lay panting. “Never was too much for swimming,” he said.
“I’m really sorry!” she said, looking regretful. “I think I owe you a new pair of shoes.”
“No, I’m just…” he was about to say “clumsy,” said “a little Scotched right now.”
Mandy clucked with sympathy, stood him up, tried to slick off as much water from his blazer as she could, smoothed his hair then ruffled it again. “There!” she said. He would have liked to be anywhere but “there” at the moment.
“Look,” she said. “Perk up! It was fun, wasn’t it? A little less stuffiness, now, please!”
He frowned, then smiled.
“That’s better,” she said. “Let’s get you a change of clothes. What floor are you on?”
“Ah – eight.” Looking at her, sunlight of a virtual kind crept into his mind. “Let’s find the freight elevator.”
“You’re kidding! Afraid to let anyone see you all wet?”
“Just humor me, please.”
“Oh, all right,” she mock-pouted.
# # #
The scene half an hour later: dry, embarrassment re-dressed, Morgan sitting on the bed, Mandy in a chair.
“Ah” – he said, “would you like to get comfortable?” He patted a place beside him.
“Oh, Bob, let’s don’t spoil this. I’m enjoying myself, and I’m enjoying you. The first time I’ve ever pushed a really attractive man into a swimming pool. I could get used to that!”
“I hope I’m not the target next time you want to enjoy yourself.”
Mandy laughed, said “Maybe someday we can enjoy ourselves without benefit of pool. In the meantime, why don’t we raid the mini-bar?”
He found the key, studied the price list. He’d had enough already, but what the hell. They compared the tiny bottles, chose two. Caps off, clink together, two gulps each. His head was whirling like a centrifuge. “I don’t think I’m fit to go out to dinner,” he said.
“Then how about room service?” she asked.
“OK, that’s OK.” His pulse rose slightly.
They studied the menu. Both agreed that the tuna salad platter was least likely to be inedible.
“Do whiskey and tuna mix?” he asked, with a wink.
“Down here, somewhere,” she said, patting her stomach.
What number to dial? He turned the card over. Yes, here it was: zero. The way he felt after having a woman in his hotel room with tuna salad as his only conquest. He dialed zero.
“Room service, please.”
Silence. Click. Click. Click.
“Room service?” To Morgan, it sounded like a question. If they didn’t know, he thought, how could he?
“Ah, tuna salad platter, please, two of them.”
“Yes, sir. About twenty minutes.”
# # #
Mandy put her plate aside. “Bob, what’s your scientific paper about? Some new discovery that will put us all in our place in the universe?”
Morgan didn’t know quite what to say. Quantum mechanics wasn’t something you explain to just anybody. It was all very complicated and obscure, even to most physicists. Not to mention there were twelve major theories and about seven hundred points of view. But she seemed really curious, not just polite.
So he took a deep breath, and said, “Do you know anything about quantum physics?”
“I think I heard it mentioned on TV once, some big deal, but I don’t remember what. Maybe on a quiz show?”
Mandy was the first person Morgan had met in a while who didn’t claim a firm, absolutely unshakable belief in one version of quantum theory or another, with abrupt dismissal of all the rest as irredeemable idiocy.
“OK,” he said. “I’ll give it a shot.” He stood unsteadily and assumed a professorial stance. “Now for many years,” he began, “there’ve been experiments that seem to show that if one thing or another could happen – this is in the lab, you know – at the subatomic level you know – well, both happen.”
He waited for some reaction. Eliciting none, he continued.
“The experimental result has been replicated over and over. But there’s no agreement on why it happens. One theory is that every time there are alternative futures, both happen. A new world, a new universe is created – or rather, our world has branched into two, or twelve, or thousands or millions – and all these branching worlds go their own way, accumulating more and more branches, more and more new worlds.”
“Wow,” she said noncommittally.
“But my theory is, if there were true branching, with multiple worlds separating instantaneously and immediately going their own way, we couldn’t explain why our experiments seem to show us more than one of these worlds at the same time. If branching is how it’s usually thought of, then we’d see just a single experimental result, and we’d never guess there could be branching worlds.”
He couldn’t tell if she was following him or not.
“My idea,” he continued bravely, “is that the branches don’t completely diverge all at once. Instead, they’re like braids: when the branches split, they run side by side, separate slowly, sometimes rejoin then split again. There’s ‘leakage’ from one world to another, before their differences accumulate and they separate forever.”
“So much for having to make all those fussy decisions,” she said, “if everything happens anyway.”
“Ah,” he said, wondering whether what she said was profound, or dumb. (“Or perhaps both,” his mind said to him, “at the same time.”)
“So there’s no such thing as luck,” he said. “There are worlds, for example, where you always win the lottery, and others where you always lose.”
“I’m in the one where I always lose,” she said. “Well, five dollars once…”
“Now,” he asked, “how long would this ‘leakage’ persist? How long could multiple worlds overlap, run more or less together before splitting forever?” Nodding toward her, he answered his own question. “I don’t know. A few nanoseconds? Probably longer. Possibly much longer. Sometime. I haven’t figured it out yet.”
When is sometime?
How many days until sometime?
she sang, startling him.
“Oh, that’s just an old Frank Sinatra song,” she said. I’ve got all his songs on my tab. – But I shouldn’t have interrupted you.”
“No, no, that’s OK, I’m finished. That’s really all there is to my theory, when you get down to it. I’ve dressed it up with a lot of equations, but basically that’s it. There’s more research to be done.”
She brightened. “And you’ll be doing it!”
“I hope so,” he said, mental fingers crossed. “Ready for the next grant!” which wasn’t certain to appear, he silently added, at least in this branch of the universe.
“But it’s just a theory, isn’t it? Like you said,” she said.
Something like that.” he concluded uneasily. “It’s just a theory. A theory,” he repeated.
Mandy stood up and kissed Morgan on the cheek. “Good luck at your session tomorrow,” she said, not hinting as to whether she thought he’d need luck, or was in possession of eternal wisdom so profound that luck was unneeded. Or, as he’d said, there wasn’t any such thing as luck at all. She left. The door closed itself behind her. Too late, he realized that they hadn’t made plans to meet the next day.
He went to bed and dreamed of wings, rocks, voices calling over water.
# # #
Morgan was awakened by the robotic voice of the wakeup service. After shaving, dressing, realizing that he had indeed packed a second pair of shoes, he went downstairs to the hotel lobby, looked for Mandy, didn’t see her. He had a lonely buffet breakfast, although the scrambled eggs were good.
He attended a keynote speech in a sterile “ballroom” that he was sure had never hosted a ball. He attended a few technical sessions, migrating from one small, stuffy room to the next. Then it was coffee-break time, but he went straight to the room where he’d be presenting. Loud people in work clothes were setting up the podium, 123testing the PA equipment, yellow-taping cords that splined along the floor. They ignored him.
After a few minutes, the session chair and the three other presenters entered the room. The four introduced themselves, vacuously complimented each other’s research without revealing if they’d been aware of it before that very day. The chairman wiggled the lectern, tapped the mike, nodded vague approval, studied the agenda, confirmed the order of appearance. Morgan would be last.
One by one, a few attendees wandered into the room. They circled the empty chairs like cats looking for a place to sleep, sat down.
At five minutes past eleven, the session chair cleared his throat. He introduced himself and the four speakers, read off their affiliations and honors.
Professors Caves, Fuchs, and Finkelstein spoke in turn. Their topics ranged from “The Everettian idea of an evolving universal wave function,” to “An information-theoretic interpretation of quantum mechanics”; and then it was Morgan’s turn.
During his talk, he experienced a dizzying feeling that he didn’t understand a word of what he was saying. But the audience seemed no more bothered than they would have if he’d been making sense. A few were listening; others were texting or contemplating their agendas. He became increasingly uneasy about the prospect of handling questions. He could say “No questions, please,” but that just wasn’t done. He looked at his notes, didn’t understand them, finally read his paper verbatim.
As he finished, he looked around the room for questions. But there were none, not even from the session chair, who was traditionally expected to toss a softball. The room shuffled empty of its few people.
Disconsolately, Robert left the room, but immediately encountered Mandy in the hall. Today she was wearing a bright red dress that showed off her height and slimness to striking advantage.
“Hi, Bob!” she perked.
For the first time that morning, warmth crept into his limbs. He breathed deeply. “Hello, Mandy. What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been listening to your talk. From out here in the corridor, you know. I thought it might distract you if I went inside. Besides, I’m just temp staff, not one of those super-scientists like you.”
He had an “aw, shucks” moment.
“You’re an undiscovered genius!” she said.
“Undiscovered, for sure,” he responded.
“Oh you’re just being modest,” she said. “Look, I’m off-duty till two o’clock. How about lunch?”
They had lunch in the hotel’s dining room. There were envious looks from Caves, Fuchs, and Finkelstein, which made Morgan feel good.
After lunch, they strolled by the hotel’s pool. “Not going to push me in again, are you?” he asked.
“Not unless you push me first,” she said, winking.
“I don’t think I will; this is my last pair of shoes.”
“You’d be the barefoot physicist!”
Silence. He heard the blood vessels drumming behind his ears. What now? She’d already declined to go to bed with him, just yesterday. Not likely that today would be different. He thought of a new approach, turned toward her. But she was already talking.
“About your theory, Bob, I’ve been thinking. About worlds entwining like snakes?”
“Something like that, I guess.”
“Suppose something – suppose something happened on the way here. The plane. It all seemed so odd. That jolt we had on the way down? And seeing the surf and those big rocks – you know, when I got to the hotel there were lots of sirens from that direction. And people were saying things like “How awful” and “My God,” and “I hope it was nobody I knew,” and so on.
“Ah –” mumbled Morgan, remembering that he’d also overheard comments like that.
“Suppose today is sometime.”
When is sometime?
“The maybes all happen, don’t they? That’s your theory, isn’t it? Maybe we crashed. Or, we really did crash in one of those branching worlds – or lots of them. But in another branch, this is what would have happened, maybe: I would have run into you at the baggage claim. I would have seen you here because we’re at the same hotel. We would have had drinks. I’d remember you afterwards, call you once we were back home. We’d get together. In world after world we would have been together. Are together.”
Morgan looked at her uneasily.
“And that might have been a very nice thing,” she added quietly.
“I suppose,” he said. “If something could happen, it will happen.”
He felt another jolt, and his world suddenly…
# # #
A swirling black cloud, the plane pitching and shaking, masks tumbling down, the front of the plane ripped away into gyring air, the whitecapped rocks below larger, larger, the falling, the plane lurching from the sky. Then sirens. Then silence.
Robert Morgan imagines a conference he will never attend, a woman he will never meet, but then he will, and won’t, and will again.
When is sometime?
How many days until sometime?