Writer’s Digest is running a science fiction writing competition that I’m considering entering. As such, I’ve expanded and modified one of my short stories, Future Imperfect. I’ve posted the old version here before, but I would also like to get some feedback on the new version, which is hopefully superior. I am not a fan of the short story format, but placing in the competition would have obvious advantages. The deadline is the 14th of this month, so here it is again:
Major Taylor knew full well he was under the influence of the military equivalent of beer goggles, but the lab technician with whom he was making small talk was, at the moment, the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. He was on his way to a meeting with his boss, Colonel Darius, when he abruptly made a left turn into a laboratory, following the sweet scent of perfume and chlorofluorocarbons. There, he met Veronika Sharpikova (or something like that), who was responsible for maintaining the equipment that could achieve within a few K of absolute zero. The technician, and the equipment of her specialty, were all part of a larger machine, one that Taylor and his superiors were very interested in keeping safe. Still, there were many civilians involved in the project, and none of them were as comely as Veronika. In fact, in the two days he’d been staying there, he’d only seen a few other women.
“I’m surprised you don’t have a probability readout displayed in here,” Taylor was saying.
“I’d never get any work done with a distraction like that,” she replied.
Taylor almost recognized her subtle accent. If it wasn’t Moravian, it was most certainly northern Slovakian. He was about to venture a guess when Darius stuck his head in from the hallway.
“Major, come on, they’re waiting for us,” he said, with only a hint of impatience.
“Yes, sir,” he replied, then to the technician: “It’s a beautiful day on the surface. Cold, of course, but sunny. This meeting won’t take long. Do you want to meet at motor pool and go out for coffee in about ten minutes?”
“There’s plenty of coffee in the conference room,” she said, on the edge of coyness.
Taylor smiled. “Plenty of terrible coffee. I’ve got to go, I hope to see you up there soon.”
Without waiting for a reply, Taylor exited to the hall. Darius tried to look severe, but his eyebrows betrayed his amusement at Taylor’s apparently ceaseless efforts. They arrived at the conference room and took their seats, ready at last for a discussion of the much-vaunted QER.
The Quantum Entanglement Receiver was the result of several years of research into the theory of quantum entanglement. Every three hundred milliseconds, a subatomic particle was sent through a supercollider, dividing it into two smaller particles. Each division was sent along a path, one short, one long. At the midway point of the long path, the particle was nudged into a slightly higher energy state. Due to the property of quantum entanglement, the particle sent down the short path also jumped into this energy state. The result was that the change in energy state could be detected before the modified particle returned to the starting point.
An infinitely long path for the particles was invented using a high energy plasma field at temperatures near absolute zero. The particle was sent in a stable, permanent orbit around a magnetic coil, keeping it in transit for as long as the operator wished. This device also lead the way to the creation of the first cold fusion reactor by Russia a few years later.
The QER used this process to receive information from the future. The Mark I QER could only receive one basic but crucial piece of information: whether or not the machine was still working however far into the future the signal was sent. When the machine was activated, the first answer was received 900 milliseconds later, and gave a date of September 27, 2251. However, 900ms later, a different date was received, this time being almost ten million years in the future. At first it seemed as if each iteration would result in a different date, but after tens of thousands of results were collected, some obvious commonalities had been shown. The nearest date was only one week later, and the latest date was more than four billion years later, but in 31% of the collected dates, April 22, 2370 (at 0931 and 15.523 seconds) was the last reported date. In 19% of reports, the date was somewhere around 2534. Of the remaining dates, less than 2% were near, and far less than 1% were identical.
In the minds of many researchers, this proved the theory of multiple universes. Each iteration of the machine was reporting a different future, a future that was changed every instant by an infinite number of variables. The only thing that could be predicted with any regularity was a tendency, and it was the greatest tendency of the machine to stop working in 2370. That cold day in January, in a bunker below a mountain in Colorado where the device was kept, a small group of scientists and military men met to discuss the results.
The moderator, of sorts, was a 60-year-old physicist from the University of Florida by the name of Roger Cerenkov. He was joined by Michal Groombridge of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, age 47, Ichihiro Nagita of the Japanese Empirical Consortium, age 67, and Steven Haley of the University of California, age 34. There were members of the Japanese military in the room as well, but they were content to remain silent and listen to the discussion.
Cerenkov sipped from his coffee cup and stroked the side of his white mustache. When the chatter in the room had settled down, he spoke.
“Gentlemen, you have all read the report. The average date that the machine stops working is in April of 2370. Let’s discuss the implications of this.”
“It seems simple to me,” Groombridge began. “Based on all possible futures, the QER is most likely to stop working on 2370. Trying to predict the reason why is pointless.”
“Why do you believe that?” asked Haley, adjusting his horn rimmed glasses.
“The way I see it,” continued Groombridge, “there are three basic reasons why the machine stops broadcasting in that year, or in any year. One, it is simply shut down. Two, it stops working due to a mechanical failure. Three, it is destroyed. Insofar as the last item, it is either destroyed by man or by nature. In any case, we cannot predict how this occurs as there are infinite variables controlling the future. The simple act of dropping my coffee cup could ultimately change the shut-down date somehow.”
“Yes,” said Nagita, scratching his balding head, “but I would argue that by its very nature, the QER is predicting all possible futures. The longer we leave it on, the more accurate it is. If 2370 is the most likely shut-down date, then I believe it is, in fact, correct.”
“I agree,” said Cerenkov. “I would add that there is nothing stopping the average shut-down date from changing at any time, for reasons we may never know. Unless a future version of the device is created that can send more than just one piece of information, we can only say with certainty that the way things are going today, the shut-down date will be ‘X,’ and nothing more. No proactive measures can ever be taken to change that date.”
“I disagree,” said Haley. “I believe further study is necessary to determine if a single action can change the shut-down date. I propose the following experiment. First, we build another QER, so we may shut it down at any time. Then, we can create variables to see how the future results react. For example, let’s say that a man is given a choice between two arbitrary things, I don’t know, say doughnuts, within two minutes. The proctors of the experiment have been instructed to turn off the QER if the man chooses a frosted doughnut, and to leave it on if he chooses a chocolate doughnut. If the QER machine returns a result of anything other than 100%, then we know that the man’s choice is absolutely predictable.”
Nagita shook his head, and said, “Why not just ask the man what kind of doughnuts he likes? No, the experiment must involve quantum particle behavior.”
“But isn’t it ultimately the actions of man that we’re worried about? We have far more to fear from the destructive abilities of man than of nature. If a giant asteroid is heading for Earth, then we will try to intercept it. It is much harder to predict who will become the next Hitler, or try to prevent it.”
“Let’s not get bogged down with this tangent,” said Cerenkov. “Building another QER will be very expensive, and obviously we can’t use the current one for those experiments without losing the ultimate shut-down date. Hopefully our benefactors will agree to fund another device, because I too am intrigued to engage in further experimentation with chance and choice. Until then we must limit ourselves to the one we already have.”
Groombridge nodded, and said,” Agreed, but I would be remiss if I did not point out that multiple QER devices would serve another purpose. Each device could be assigned to a specific event. A perfect example is the San Andreas fault. We haven’t yet had the “big one,” so a QER could be assigned to it. The operators are instructed to terminate the device when an earthquake of a sufficient magnitude occurs. Then we could know the most likely date of the cataclysm. Surely that certainty would be worth the added expense.”
“That is an excellent idea,” replied Haley. “Think of the lives that could be saved. It would also give us the ability to know when it is time to start changing the infrastructure of the area. If the quake hits tomorrow, there is no point in spending a single dime. If it hits in one hundred years, then by all means continue to develop the area and build earthquake-resistant buildings.”
“The same could be done for the Yellowstone caldera,” added Cerenkov, “or any number of natural phenomena. We could even extend that use to a man-made event, like the first world-wide thermonuclear war, God forbid, or something more auspicious like the first manned mission to Mars. For now, I’d like to get back to the topic of our current QER. Obviously we would like to believe that the event in 2370 is not a cataclysm, man-made or otherwise. It is possible that the device is simply reassigned to another purpose once a better model is created; that is up to our successors to decide. I would prefer that this device remain devoted to predicting the end of human civilization, and any responsible scientist would agree. However, we cannot predict the mindset of our counterparts three hundred and fifty years from now.”
“We could pass a law requiring it,” said Nagita.
“Laws get repealed all the time,” replied Haley.
A research assistant by the name of Bethlehem suddenly burst into the room and ran directly to Cerenkov.
“Sir,” he said breathlessly, “we just got the next batch of results in and you have to look at them.”
“This couldn’t wait?” asked Cerenkov. “We’ve got a lot of important people in here.”
“You need to look at this now.”
Cerenkov shrugged. “Fine, put it on the monitor.”
“I think you’d better see this in the other room, sir.”
“You weren’t around during the discussion about full disclosure, Bethlehem. We don’t have anything to hide from our observers. Put it on the monitor.”
“Have it your way.”
Bethlehem moved over to the conference table and accessed a computer console. A large plasma-screen monitor was mounted on the central wall, and it lit up upon the young man’s command. A real-time graph appeared on the monitor. The X-axis was time, in years, up to AD 1000. The Y-axis was the percentage of iterations. The graph showed an 89% tendency for the device to stop working on August 18, 2020, at 1547 hours, and 20 minutes. The average number of seconds was constantly changing.
“That’s five minutes from now!” Exclaimed Cerenkov.
The scientists and military personnel looked at each other in confusion, and a hushed conversation began in earnest. During this muted chaos, Taylor stood up, and before anybody noticed he was standing at the front of the room, pointing a M9 pistol at the others.
“Excuse me,” he said calmly, “but I have an explanation.”
“What the hell are you doing, Major?” roared Darius.
“Proving a theory. In my left hand I hold a wireless detonator. It is connected to a series of explosives I set up over the past two days. When I press this detonator, this entire facility will be destroyed. I see that I have an 89% chance of accomplishing my mission. That’s reassuring.”
“Why are you doing this?” asked Cerenkov, distraught.
“I’m a spy. I wish I had a more poetic way of describing myself, but I’m a spy. For whom is not important. My employers do not believe that the United States and Japan should have sole access to this technology, so I’m here to steal it. I just got confirmation that our download of the schematics from your computers is complete, so I’m free to destroy this facility and the device.”
“Won’t you be killed as well?” asked Haley.
“No, this room should be safe. I’ll have to finish you off myself.”
“Is there any way we can change your mind?” asked Groombridge.
“There is an 11% chance that we can,” said Nagita.
Taylor smiled, and looked at the clock on the wall. “You have about three minutes. Tell me why I should betray my employers at the last moment, after having come this far.”
“I say we rush him,” growled Darius. “We also have an 11% chance that we can overpower him before he detonates the explosives.”
“It’s also possible that your explosives will fail,” added Haley.
“I’ll tell you what,” said Taylor, pointing to an unopened box of doughnuts on a table next to the coffee machine. “I like the doughnut idea. If there is a chocolate cruller in there, then I’ll deactivate the detonator. In exchange, you let me walk out of here. Otherwise, boom.”
“You’re insane,” said Haley.
“Hey, professor, this was your idea. Come on, what do you say? Is there an 11% chance that the guy at the doughnut shop added crullers to the mix? Aren’t you curious to find out?”
“You’re serious,” said Cerenkov.
“Then I agree. Open the box.”
Groombridge was the closest one to the box, so he stood up and moved toward it. He reached for the lid and everyone in the room held their breath.
“Look!” declared Bethlehem.
On the monitor, the average had changed, and was once again displaying 31% for April 22, 2370.
“Do you understand the implications of this?” said Cerenkov excitedly.
“Yes,” said Taylor, activating the detonator. “Your machine is useless.”