Worlds Enough

I know exactly what Socrates meant and he fucking meant it literally. It’s just that most people aren’t smart enough, or not smart in the right way, or not weird enough, basically not enough like Socrates, to realize what he was saying. But I am.
OK, so the bit I mean – the thing about his daemon talking to him? It wasn’t a metaphor. He wasn’t only talking about intuition, or good ideas or any of that shit. I mean, he might not have meant an actual daemon, but he did mean it spoke to him, and that he heard it. I have the same thing, from time to time. Probably not as much as Socrates did, and maybe not as clearly, but I get good or interesting ideas out of the main stream of my thinking that I hear (in my head, I’m not actually crazy) as sentences, things said or expressed verbally by something, some bit of my mind. Or you know what? Maybe it is a fucking daemon. Or even a demon? Who knows? I’m way less sure about the ontological catalog the Universe gets to pick from after this afternoon’s experience.
I’m gabbling a little bit, and getting ahead of myself here. That’s understandable, but I need to slow down if only to get my thoughts in order. That could be especially important right now. And I really want to have all the main parts figured out before Laura gets here.
So I’m in the lab, it’s a Sunday afternoon, and I’ve absolutely fucking had it. With everything: Laura, Neil, the research program, the university, the Universe, the whole fucking thing. My whole life basically. And in the end with my own mind, my psychological configuration, my whatever-the-fuck-a-human-personality-is.
I’ve always been good at science and math. Obviously. And not just that, but the imaginative modelling that plays with them to see how they could fit the world. Or worlds. But that’s about all I’ve been good at. My Mom had me do this thing at the start of High School to place me on the spectrum and maybe get some help with my challenging personality. Help for her that is, I never found my personality that challenging. Not until these last few months anyway. But I passed. Or failed, depending on your perspective, or hoped-for outcome. Mom took it as a failure.
The point was, I wasn’t diagnosably Asperger’s or high-functioning autistic. I’m just fucking smart and I tend to get pissy with people when they do stupid or thoughtless stuff. It would be way easier for me if I was one of those spectrum guys (I mean I wouldn’t be here for a start). Because the cogs they have missing from their emotional machinery definitely seem to make it easier for them to cope with how screwed up or just plain rare their relationships are. I mean I’ve seen it play out for these guys, friends of mine some of them, and they’re in these really horrible relationships that they seem not to mind, or even notice half the time. It’s not even a coping mechanism, it’s just how they’re aimed at the world. I’ve occasionally been envious of this.
But I’m not one of those guys. Which means I’ve had one long shitty ride with friends and girls and all of that. It’s never gone right and I have definitely wanted it to and minded when it hasn’t. I’ve tried to make it work and not, contra unhelpful remarks by Neil, just by figuring people out as if they’re complex force vectors or relationships are strategic interactions among which Nash equilibria can be sought. I’ve really tried in a lot of normal type ways.
Anyway, Socrates right? Daemons, demons, whatever. I’m sitting there in the lab, like I say, having fucking had it, working over all the stuff Laura had said to me, to see if there was any way to unpick it. But there fucking wasn’t.
I can be inattentive. I get that. But that isn’t the same thing as being inconsiderate. What’s weird was that, for a while during the last fight, Laura was acting like I was on the back foot, morally, about her having been fucking Neil for, like, six months. And the reason she felt able to yell at me from up there on the moral high ground? Allegedly, around four months ago, she had pretty much told me what was going on and I hadn’t listened or taken it seriously. Now what I wanted to say here, was that I genuinely have no recollection of this. But I can see she’d claim that proved her point, or seemed to.
I don’t think it’s pure bullshit, this story about having told me. But I doubt she really said what she said she said. It’s way more likely to be one of those edge cases, where she says something in a weird, indirect way that is verbally, emotionally and logically messed up and I tune it out because it’s too much effort to figure it out and it probably doesn’t matter in the long run. Obviously this one did matter in the long run.
Anyway, the conversation pretty much went to shit from there. She was really upset and angry and crying and got to this point where she just wasn’t finishing sentences. I felt like a few of them held crucial information, but some instinct told me that asking her to repeat or finish them could exacerbate things. So she stormed out, having told me that it was totally over and that we could maybe be friends again ‘in like a year’ but that she didn’t want to see me again for a while, ‘and in case you’re wondering, I do mean literally. I don’t want to be near you or come across you. We work in different enough areas that that should be possible without involving the authorities.’
A pretty straightforward threat to get some kind of injunction, whether with an actual lawyer or just the Dean of Research I don’t know. Totally unnecessary too, I’m really not the clingy, stalky type. Instead I go into myself, mope, analyze, plan, design, build etc.
And that’s what got me here, back in the lab where we had the fight, a week later, having calmed down, thought things through and decided, in the light of what I felt this demonstrated about my life and what it could ever be like, to kill myself.
It felt pretty good actually. Well, maybe not good exactly, but clear, unconfused. Definitely a relief. And it was in that moment of relief, just as I was gonna start thinking about methodology, that the daemon spoke to me. Here’s what it said: “You know what? If you’re gonna do this thing, then with the right experimental design you could also check whether Moravec, Tegmark and all those guys are right about Quantum Suicide, and also send some kind of message to Laura about how you did actually love her. If only for the fucking record.”
I’ve never been a ‘shut up and calculate guy’ exactly, but neither would I call myself an ontology freak. You only get to do quantum physics as your day job if you can calculate, but you probably only really want it as your day job if you’re at least curious about what lies beneath the equations, even if the answer is ‘No really, it’s just equations all the way down.’
So I’m somewhere in-between, but kind of leaning over toward the yeah-but-what’s-really-down-there?’ side. I mean, I’m here, on this program, because I want to see how this stuff can be set to work in engineering. We’re a bit late to this, us solid-state guys, and weirdly, and kind of humiliatingly, the path was found by fucking biologists. Or ‘stamp-collecting motherfuckers’ as Neil called them once, in earshot of at least three of them.
Anyway, the bottom-line for me, motivation-wise, is building cool shit. In prototype form anyway. There’s a lot of product development people hanging around the periphery of the Institute, snouting around to see if the latest trick we pull with Bose-Einstein condensates, say, can somehow be tooled into a faster washing machine. But I don’t bother with any of that. I’m practical, but not that practical.
Apart from today that is. Having heard the daemon I realized that the way forward here, the way to get this right, would involve building a very specific device that worked reliably. I mean, I’m going to kill myself right? That’s decided. But having decided it, I really don’t want to just die, you know, accidentally. Especially not because of some goofy screw-up like not getting the spin-state reader clamped on right.
I got so lost in the setup, in building the thing, that I started to really enjoy myself and got to thinking ‘You know, maybe things aren’t so bad. I mean if work can be this good, who cares about love?’ But then I used some of that cognitive therapy stuff Laura used to try to push on me and reminded myself that life isn’t like this all the time, not even enough of the time actually. And when you snap out of it back into normal life all that other shit’s still there and probably been getting worse while you were zoned in the lab. And, as I now know in something like the way I know theorems, it’s never gonna work out right.
I’ve probably overdone the explosive. Over-engineered it. Going too far is the only way to be sure you’ve gone far enough, and I don’t want there to be any worlds, at least not nearby, where I’m still alive but all fucked up with missing limbs and part of my head and face gone. And this raised an interesting problem. I really, really don’t want to kill, or even hurt Laura. In any world. I want to rule it out. And if she’s in the room with me, with one of me, off on one of the other branches where I rolled a 0 rather than a 1, then, with the stuff I’ve packed against my heart she might get hurt. I don’t want that. And I definitely want her to realize that I don’t want it, and that she’s safe, when I tell her what I’ve done.
So I started playing around with some RFID kit connected to the door entry mechanism that would interrupt the signal sent from the spin-reader to the device I’m wearing. But, like I said, I want to totally rule out hurting Laura, in all possible, or conceivably nearby worlds and I realized that would require a bit more thinking. Working through the logic of how I wanted the door-trigger, the spin-reader and the kill-device to interact based on who came and went, when, and in what order, ended up raising the bigger, or at least different, question of what I actually wanted from this situation.
Not all of which could be expressed on the network diagram.
See the core problem here, what led to all this, is that Laura doesn’t actually believe I love her. Or even like her that much. OK, so she also no longer loves me, and now loves Neil. But the reason she no longer loves me, I’m sure, is that she doesn’t believe I loved her. She thinks I need and seek female company out of a mixture of status recognition, boredom, sex, and as some kind of salve for my particular suite of neuroses. Now, with the exception of boredom (I’ve never been bored in my life, not even for five minutes) those are some of the reasons I need female company. But not the only ones and not the main one.
I do, you know, love her. I mean I guess that’s what it is. I struggle with the concept a little bit, but mainly because it’s so obviously used in a sloppy, dishonest and inaccurate way by a lot of people. I also don’t find it easy to express that stuff without being overwhelmed by feelings of self-conscious ridiculousness, and, yes, I definitely get distracted by work and things like work, but I have feelings for Laura that aren’t just sex and comfort and all that other stuff. Thinking about this it occurred to me that one thing I’m struggling against here is a lack of vocabulary. I literally don’t know what sorts of things to say to express romantic love.
So I Googled it. And got kind of lost for a while in a bunch of Wikipedia and faculty homepage links on romanticism and romantic love. Most of them total junk. But some of it was pretty useful in a surprisingly direct way. Because a lot of it was about death, and a lot of the death stuff was about suicide. Which meant I was already thinking along the right lines, even without the benefit of an English or Western Civ minor.
Turns out killing yourself to prove to someone that you love them is a pretty common strategy for people who’ve had their asses dumped in the kind of categorical and hurtful way that happened to me. A lot of times there is some spite mixed up in it; like the main point is to make the person who dumped you feel incredibly bad. But not always. Sometimes, it just feels like an appropriate response to feeling that life is about love, one particular love, and that without it, it’s better not lived. Again, a pretty reasonable approximation of where I am.
The big drawback of the approach though is that you never get to see the effect of your death on the person it’s meant for. Which means that if it turns out to be a game-changer for them, like they think ‘Oh right. He really did love me, so much so that me not loving him back made him not want to live any more,’ you wouldn’t be around to pick up this second chance. Which would be bad for both of you.
Here’s where Quantum Suicide, and the device I’ve set up here, comes in. It is in principle possible for me to make this point to Laura. For me to say that I have in some sense, and in some worlds, actually killed myself. I can even put a number on how many times. Eighty six according to the counter. Probably around a hundred if she gets here by three. I’m not going to make a big deal about the number. That’s the kind of thing that will annoy her. A bunch of times is the point.
The click the kill-device I’m wearing against my heart makes is exactly the same noise as the door mechanism and this is starting to put me on edge a little bit. But she’ll be here soon.
Oh my fucking God she’s beautiful. A lot of times it was hidden behind these facial expressions that always seemed kind of bogus to me. A fake mask of dynamism, happiness and clued-upness that didn’t look to me like it fooled anyone and just straight out wasn’t as pretty. That’s a shallow assessment I know, but that’s the way it hit me. But not now, here, with just the two of us in the lab. Not after I just explained everything to her.
There’s more than one kind of negative emotion in her face, her eyes are fucking huge and already half-full of tears. I just stand there. She obviously needs a few moments to work this through, to shuffle all those different emotions and work out which one to yell at me about first. Plus I just don’t trust myself to say anything more helpful at this point.
She looks to the side, almost as if to a like-minded companion, or maybe a sitcom audience, then up at me and her mouth drops open, ready to talk for a few seconds before any words come.
“How unbelievably fucking crazy are you, Lawrence!?”
Not hopeful, and definitely a rhetorical question. But like I said, there’s a lot of different emotions in that face, or so it looks to me, and this could just be the sound of one of them. So I’ll just stay silent for a bit longer.
“I mean, look, have you got to the point where you no longer know how crazy you’ve got!? Can you hear the words you’re saying to me?”
“Yes. I thought about what I’d say before you came here. You know you’re not in any danger right? Anywhere I mean? In any world? You heard me say that?”
If anything, the confusion, and the pile-up of emotions in her face increases. She’s way better than me at handling emotion, but there’s a lot there, even for her, and I really can’t think how to help. If anything, anything I say seems to make it worse. But I can’t just say nothing because I bet my face looks kind of impassive, like I don’t give that much of a shit.
“Lawrence, you weren’t always like this. I think maybe you shouldn’t have come to work here. Spending all day with this stuff has just… I don’t know, warped you. You’ve lost sight of… I don’t know, the line, where this stuff all ends and where normal life begins.”
Ah, I get it. She doesn’t get it. At all. Even with her credentials, and her role here at the University and the time she spent around me, and Neil and those parts of the program she manages. So, dilemma time – do I explain? It could just make me sound like more of a freak, more of the monster she thinks I’ve been turned into by hanging out down where shit gets probabilistic and non-local.
No, fuck it. It’s the only way forward, if there’s any way forward at all. It’s what my life means, what the science tells us, what all that romanticism stuff tells us, and part of what her life means too. It’s the only way I can explain because it’s the only way I can make sense of this at all. And if she doesn’t hear it, or want to understand and just leaves, walks out the door, then, well, that’s what I already decided on, and built into the experimental design, anyway.
“Laura, there’s no line. It isn’t anywhere. We know this. We’ve been looking for it for over a hundred years and there’s definitely no line. It’s spooky shit all the way down and all the way up. I mean, that’s what this Institute is about, the all-the-way-up stuff. It’s true of every aspect of our lives and definitely true of the deepest bits of our lives. That’s what I discovered. And don’t you come to reflect on the deepest stuff, life, death etc, when you think about love? Isn’t love related to that, like a bunch of poets and composers always said?”
OK, this is looking better. There’s just sadness there in her face now. Lots of it; enough to push all that bitterness and anger stuff away. Sadness and pity I think. I’ve seen her look at me this way before and she was always nice to me afterward, even if we’d had a fight about something. It looks like forgiveness. And she’s stood up in a kind of resolute way.
“You know, you’re partly right. The quantum is relevant. But not in the way you think. Not in a way that can be used to fucking hack romantic love!” She almost laughed there. At me I think, which I’m not totally comfortable with, but it definitely took more of the tension away.
“Instead think about the world-line you went down two years ago. You weren’t always like this. You chose this way, this absorption. Maybe because the other stuff frightened you. I don’t know. The world branches all the time, in all directions. So while you might think you’re the lucky one to be here, still alive in the lab with a bomb strapped to your heart, what about the other Lawrences who went other ways? Not the ones blown to pieces in labs that are probably still on fire. But the ones who never got to the point where that seemed like a solution, never got into the kind of problems where being this crazy would even seem appropriate. D’you know what I wish? I wish I was the me in one of those worlds, where you broke the other way and didn’t lose yourself, totally, entirely, in all this, and we had a relationship that was real and right now, whatever the fuck ‘right now’ could mean, we’re together somewhere quiet and fun on a Sunday afternoon, relaxed and happy.”
I know it’s only imagination, and emotion, and my endocrinal system, but my mind feels like it’s stretched over into exactly the world and time she mentioned and my body feels stuck here in this one, paralyzed, its motor functions gone with my world-departed mind.
I guess I decided upon suicide because I felt that things would always go, if not this way specifically, then this kind of way in all worlds. But if Laura’s right and there was some decision point where I, here, could be the me in a world that went the other way, that found a way to make this stuff all work together… It’s heart-breaking. I can’t bear it. And I think there’s something in what she says, though I can’t really remember two years back. But the idea that it’s true makes it worse, more unbearable.
So I let the paralysis hold me as she turns and walks toward the door and the failsafe that stops her ever getting hurt but overrides the spin-reader if she leaves the room without me. Jesus, what I did know when I set that up? It’s like… wisdom or something. I now want the thing that’s about to happen to happen for a totally different reason than the one that was in my head when I built the system. I know it’s not magic, but I close my eyes and try to wish myself across to one of the worlds she mentions. And it feels like they’re close, like they’re open to something like a soul sent into miserable, extinguished exile from these worlds. Because there’s no way back, or across. And I want no further along this path.
She leaves softly, not in a rage, so I hear the door make the indistinguishable click noise and before any other sound, feel the pressure push into my heart and expand up toward my face.
Like a wave I guess.


  1. At first, the narrator was so insufferable that I wanted to commit quantum suicide. But since his personality is the point of the story, well done.

  2. Nice story. Reminds me of some of my colleagues :-).

    Just to be ultra-pedantic (I’m a terminologist, after all): the fastest nerve impulses travel around 120 m/s, while sound travels at 330 m/s.
    No way you could feel the blast before hearing it.

    Still enjoyed it, though.

  3. Hi Jonathan, thanks for your comment.

    You know, I kept the physics stuff at an impressionistic level to avoid getting busted too badly as a non-scientist.

    But when I came to the final scene with the blast I genuinely had the thought ‘This is where I fuck the science up.’

    And so it proved. 🙂

    Thanks for the correction and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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