The Therapist and the Collider by Steven Mathes



Steven Mathes

After years of traveling the back alleys of consciousness and logic, years of pulling the strings of pattern, years of squeezing through tunnels of paradox, my search for our only hope succeeds. The hut perches high in an ordinary mountainous guru neighborhood, and for me the door is open.

What happens in reality? If I knew I would not need to make this dangerous climb, but I have come here to rely on the unkindness of this stranger. To ask about reality.

“Reality? Life is but a dream,” the guru tells me with a giggle.

It smells of flatulence, and I kneel at his feet. The room’s furniture consists only of his single colorful beach chair. A big, hairy, taut, round belly sticks out from under his Burning Man shirt, and the alpine desert light from the windows and open door makes harsh polygons on the floor. His beard could use a haircut. He could stand to wash. But at least through the stains the beard is mostly wisdom-white. I figure he knows why I climbed this mountain.

“It seemed like one chance in a billion, running the collider at that wattage,” I say. “We ask too many questions. I admit it. We seek answers no matter what the risk, almost like it’s an animal instinct. But this seemed orders safer than an flying in an airliner. We didn’t consider how this might be an airliner carrying all of humanity, so to speak.”

The drunk guru smiles in encouragement, and the gentle sound coming from his seat promises more odor. But his eye shows impatience, as though he would like to be elsewhere. He swigs his beer.

“Go on.”

“Right now the singularity is just a tiny thing, sub-atomic. Just as abstract as me talking to you. We’ve kept it contained in the vacuum, but the math is pretty straightforward, the forces increasing in a scary exponential curve. It looks pretty bad. The end of everything, you know. Of course you know.”

“What I know isn’t important. This session is for you.”

His smile reminds me of my boss, who says “Hi, there,” because he cannot remember my name. I’m just one of hundreds of researchers. This session is much more than my one big intellectual breakthrough. This is a real place, if not technically Reality, and what this unwashed-up wiseman knows is my only hope. I cannot afford the therapist doubletalk.

“I disagree,” I say with anger. “What you know is everything. Getting here required me using all of QuantumNet for a full two hours. I had to hack it by faking an accidental crash. I had to barricade myself in a hardened bunker, and I’ll go to jail when I get back. I’m the Edward Snowden of metaphysics.”

“I can help you help yourself, but I’m just an abstraction, a shadow on the wall of Plato’s cave. Or his ski chalet. So to speak.”

He chuckles mirthless anger right back at me.

Abstraction? Distraction is a better word. The entire world rushes to contain the singularity. Get it away. Into orbit, maybe, but mostly out. Out of the solar system if possible. We can’t develop the technology in time. We can’t lift all of that into orbit!

“We have no time for this!” I shout. “Everything will be gone!”

His smiling silence, his rumbling beer belly— — I breathe deep to contain my impatience, my rage— — but I smell— — flatulence. He challenges, puts truth in my face. The anger builds further, but I know this abuse is just what I need.

I gather myself. I grope to center my thoughts around the opportunity of the moment, as much as I would like to kick his chair out from under him, as much as I would wipe that smile off his face. Instead, I take a calming breath. Breathe in through the nose, hold it, then release slowly, through the mouth. I could dump that tall can of beer (or was it a bottle?) down his shirt. Instead, I take a breath.

“I’m sorry. I know. We did this to ourselves, we lived on borrowed time.”

He considers. His look softens in a contemptuous way.

“What are your thoughts about time?” he says. “You keep bringing up time.”

Finally. I feel like we’ve addressed an issue, finally hit a nerve.

“Time,” I say. “That’s just it. Past and future. We see the past but can’t change it. Believe me, I wish we could change the past.”

“And the future?”

“Just the opposite. We can’t see it, but we change it. Like a blind man fumbling in a drawer full of knives. Like the Universe is designed to be cruel.”

“Anything more?”

“What more could there be?” I protest.

“How about now? Do you think it might have changed your behavior if you’d lived in the now?”

“Now?” I repeat.

“Here and now.”

Oh, that? Living in the moment, like they say on those bunmper sitckersstickers? Like I pretend to do during yoga in the Lab’s workout center? Pretty soon, “the moment” will crash into the end of everything! Live in the moment. Boom!

“I’ve thought about it, but it confuses me.”


“Is here and now simply my location, or is it my actual self?”

“I wonder. And what do you care?”

He wonders? What kind of answer is that? He guzzles beer, wipes his mouth with his arm and belches. By the time he sets the bottle back onto the floor, it brims full again, so cold it beads with icy moisture even in this arid air. He can do that, but he can’t save us?

He challenges me with another goofy grin.

“Do you have trouble accepting what is?” he asks. “Do you have trouble concentrating on living?”

I suspect that his point is to make me angry by proving he can save us all— — and then when he has made his point, hold back from actually helping us. Just to laugh at us? Truly? I have trouble concentrating on living, when the end of the world is imminent. Everyone does. But something dawns on me. An irrelevant breakthrough, although maybe enough to keep him happy.

“Yes! That’s just it! Here and now. We reject it. We question and we fight because we refuse to accept! Progress, striving and excellence are a refusal to live in the now.”

“No matter what you can control? No matter whether you even understand? Do you think your research would have followed a different course if you had enjoyed the research? Instead of merely enjoying the breakthroughs?”

I think. If I want to change things, if I want to strive for a solution, I must do and say what the drunk bastard wants.

“Maybe?” I say.

He slaps his tight, round belly and rubs it with bored satisfaction. He smiles at me, smug, happy, and red-nosed.

“Excellent,” he says. “I think you did well. I think we made real progress.”

Wait! My hour already up? He stands, pulls me off my knees, shakes my hand, and leads me to the door. He pushes hard on the small of my back until I stumble out.

Perched on the ice by the entrance is a desk with a receptionist. She puts down her nail file and turns to the computer. She types. She squints. She turns back, smiles a bright smile. Her fragile, youthful, open face makes me catch my breath. Finally, a person I can relate to.

“You’re all set,” she says. “See you next time.”

She sees my infatuation with her. Her smile fades to serious, her feelings more guarded, not encouraging. Prehaps Perhaps I have misjudged her sexual orientation? She is hesitant, cold, but honest.

“Anything else?” she says.

“When will next time be?” I ask.

“His Reverence will have me call you.”

What kind of wisdom would the secretary to a holy man have? There is a touch of sadness in her eyes, but where that sadness angered angers me with the guru, it kindles hope with her. Does she know the world is ending? Or is she immune to that by being up here where it’s so transcendent?

“How about you?” I ask. “Do you live around here? Do you commute all the way from reality?”

“I live a little farther down, but right in the neighborhood.”

She looks directly at me, open, honest— — but sad. I feel the need to concentrate on the world’s problem, come to a solution, but something draws me to chat.

“You live here? Here in the Heights? Isn’t it a harsh environment?”

“A little,” she says cooly. “A little isolated, too, but living so close to Enlightenment saves time.”

“Time?” I ask. “Time?”

From inside the shack I hear the drunk guru burst into laughter. My impatience clenches, ruins the moment, and I turn toward the path downward. At first I thread through little patches of dusty ice and huge rocks, but as I get closer to reality, there are tumbleweeds, blasting sand, and the occasional dry lizard scuttling from shadow to shadow. My nose itches and my eyes burn. I cough. I can still hear the guru laughing and laughing, his ridicule piercing down through the layers of reality.

I think about what I need.

“Here and now…” I mutter, as I decide.

I can see the ripples in the air where the QuantumNet interface has wrenched my native reality into this higher dimension. I am that close to home. But I turn from the ripples, turn back toward Enlightenment.

Apotheosis is always hard, I guess. I feel dizzy by the time I regain the summit. A stone in my shoe warns me of my metaphysical limits. I notice that I hold something, see that I clutch a handful of dust. The young receptionist sits inside the chalet, drinking beer. The bearded guru holds down the fort at the front desk, filing his nails and chewing gum. I wanted to ask the receptionist out, but I need to deal with the unexpected. I change my plan. Time. I need time.

“I have to ask you something before the world ends,” I say to the guru. “Please. Could I take you off this mountain? Buy you supper?”

He looks up at me, tapping the nail file against his palm. He wears glasses now, the little narrow ones for reading that he can look up over when he raises his eyebrows. But then he looks down, and uses the end of the file to dig something out of his navel.

“You want to, sort of, seize the day?” he says. “With the only pretty girl around? As if that’ll solve all your problems?”

`I point toward the door to the chalet. I hear a delicate belch come through the door, possibly some tittering.

“I don’t dare ask her, but up at this level of abstraction, I’d say it’s about re-ordering priorities. Like friendship and love being a higher level of being?”

“I think that path has been beaten to death.”

I point to the door again.

“So has booze. But some things never get old.”

“Beaten like a dead horse. I’m not convinced,” he says with a little smirk. “The horse will soon be dead.”

I suck a breath of desperate, thin air. Why do these gurus have to hang out at such high altitude? What is it with the controlled breathing?

“Then there’s nothing to lose by having a good conversation,” I say.

He raises those caterpillar eyebrows once more, slides off the glasses, and finally swings his lawn chair in my direction with a screech. At first I think he might say yes, but he might also be getting ready to tell me off.

“So what’s that mean to me? A buddy for chit-chat? I have work to do.”

Clouds build below us, as space and time at the lower levels threaten. They represent the crisis. Symbols. Metahpors Metaphors that will destroy everything. Maybe even this abstract refuge, at least in a mundane cause-and-effect way.

“I could take you somewhere dry,” I offer. “A place to get out of the coming storm?”

He is as sober as a judge. A judge? Of course! I show him my handful of dust. My fear.

“Just a little dinner until the storm passes,” I say.

“That would be nice,” he admits.

He pulls an opened beer out from behind the reception terminal’s screen, finishes it in a gurgle, and tosses the empty into the door of the chalet. The receptionist shouts for him to watch it.

“Oh what the hell,” he says. “Let’s go. But just dinner.”

From inside the house I hear laughter, then cheers and applause. The woman comes out. She has her purse, her phone.

“We can decide about the universe over dessert!” she tells the guru.

The guru clears his throat, still hesitant, as the receptionist takes him by the arm, and they lead me downward. Thunder tumbles thorugh through the valleys below, but already I can see small breaks in the clouds. I do not quite remember the mathematics required to get me here, and I cannot imagine how I will get back without their help. No human is that brilliant.

I really want to save humanity, though, and not just to keep myself out of jail.

They lead me, and their way is quicker— — straight into the storm clouds. There may be signs of clearing, but there are still plenty of thunderclaps, flashes.

Everyone stops.

The guru pulls up his shirt, so that his hairy gut is fully exposed. He lets go of the receptionist’s arm, raises his hand with a flourish, and smacks his belly. The slap, too, is like a thunderclap. It produces a blinding flash. All of it followed by the longest, deepest, wettest burp so far.

“So classy!” the receptionist laughs. “Spectacularly unoriginal!”

The guru pinches my cheek.

“Just a little unanticipated anomaly,” he says. “Just a serendipitous malfunction in your containment device. I mean, what do you people think anti-time is for?”

We step into the first rain squall, and the water washes over us, soaking me through. A fundamental parameter has shifted. Even I feel it. There is green here, and the world seems transformed, gone into a different alignment. I open my hand. The dust. The rain dissolves it through my fingers along with my fear, leaving me physically hungry, very hungry.

“At least he didn’t save your universe with a fart,” the receptionist says.

“It’s not exactly saved, just allowed to be a little longer ,” the guru says. “I hope the bar has a lot of taps. Let’s eat at the bar.”

Now I know that the guru and the receptionist are two aspects of the same … What? Do I care? The receptionist takes me by one arm, the old guru takes me by the other. I feel like a perpetrator getting walked to a jail cell, a feeling I will probably get used to when I get back to reality. Still, as they lead me to the churning air of my improvised portal, the rain stops as suddenly as it started. Clouds part. My face warms in a beam of heavenly sunshine. I fear consequences, especially if I cannot pay for what the guru considers supper, but the whole point was to buy time, even if I have to serve it in jail.

I have no idea how, but I have bought the Universe the only thing we can really have. A little more time.

Food for thought

Why have the most significant results in ontology and epistemology in the last hundred (or so) years been produced by mathematicians (Godel’s Proof, Axiom of Choice, etc.), physicists (quantum theory, relativity, etc,, etc.), computer and cognitive scientists (AI, etc.), and so on. Is it only possible to find the bigger answers by not looking directly at them?

About the Author

When Steven Mathes is not risking rejection by writing short stories, he is making rejection a certainty in his day job of teaching Calculus. He compensates for his love of dark fiction and The Mean Value Theorem by having a soft spot in his heart for dogs and gardening. Links to more of his published work can be found at

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