An ever-present visitor

350px-Schroedingers_cat_film

FICTION

Fiction does of course open up almost endless possibilities for the writer; science fiction moreso. Although the opportunities are practically limitless, the writer has to keep things tethered in order to make them somehow feasible. I’ve been researching quantum entanglement quite a lot of late and decided to write a story. Hopefully I’ve made a complex scientific subject accessible, whilst still delivering a sting in the tail…

Schrödinger’s ark

No-one knew when the ark had arrived, nor wondered much about it: the ark had simply always been there. Biblical scholars suggested that it might be the basis for the story of Noah’s Ark. Leyna’s ark was depicted in ancient heiroglyphs and cave paintings: It apparently pre-dated human civilisation. It was never hostile, so no attempt had been made to attack or destroy it with weapons. It was impenetrable though: Immune to sonar, radar, x-rays or thermal imaging. It was made from an unknown material not found on earth, and its surface was completely smooth. There were no appertures, seals or visible means of entry. The ark was just over 13 kilometers in length, 4km wide and 1.3km in depth. It orbitted the earth silently and erratically, at a mean distance of 200km. When Leyna played chess in Central Park, the captured black queen of an opponent held aloft, perfectly eclipsed the ark above.

Chess moves and the ark were in the back of Professor Leyna Schrödinger’s wandering mind, several miles beneath the surface of the earth. As the expediton leader and the smallest of the party, she was the only one able to record this newly discovered depth of Mammoth Cave. Tethered to her support team by a length of climbing rope and a two-way radio link in her protective hat, Leyna was on the verge of making one of the most startling discoveries in human history. Just ahead, she could make out a chamber. 640 kilometers into the cave system, the chamber was an uncharted area, further than any human had ever been.

Leyna could barely inch forward. Her arms were outstretched before her, palms outward, as if she were swimming breast stroke. Her legs were straightened behind, instinctively wanting to thrust her forward. But she was in an ocean of solid rock. “Steffan?” She radioed back to her medical support. “Everything okay back there? How far in am I now?”

“All three of us are on the end of this rope, ready to pull you out when you want. You’re 500 metres further than anyone’s been before.”

“Don’t you even pull your dick until I say so. I certainly don’t intend to. There’s a chamber ahead and who knows what might be in there? An entrance to yet more unexplored passages? I have to find out.”

“Wish I was there.”

“You wouldn’t fit. Surely you guys have a theory about the ark?”

“Who hasn’t?” replied Steffan in Leyna’s earpiece. “Surely the ark is the one thing which binds us all? No part of our planet is out of view to it on the surface and it’s always been there. It transcends every barrier and it’s omnipresent; omnipotent almost. Do you have a theory, professor?”

“Are you sure you never studied politics Steffan?” Leyla’s distant voice echoed from Steffan’s handset, around the cavern where the support team were camped. “You’re very adept at turning a question around. It occurs to me that in doing so, and allowing your interrogator to answer their own question first, you gain an insight into your observer and a possible intellectual advantage. It’s a basic mind trick which has been exploited by mediums and other fraudsters for centuries. Well, seeing as you ask, I feel as though I’m the medium now. I’m the conduit between a few members of humanity who are down here with me and a place where no human has ever been. Phylosophical, huh?”

“Quite. I prefer not to think about the ark too much. If it has eluded us for this long, that may be for a reason; by design. We may only learn of the ark when it chooses to let us. When we are ready, if you like. Of course, the whole thing is paradoxical.”

“I suppose my surname predisposed me to think this way but it could be that both of our ideas exist and that a catalyst, such as observation, could bring one to what we call reality. How far am I?”

“Physically, you’re at 550 metres now. Existentially, you’re drifting.”

“Just keep recording, Steffan. I can feel a breeze on my face. This cavern could be huge.”

In 1935, Erwin Schrödinger proposed a thought experiment, in which a quantum system such as an atom or photon can exist as a combination of multiple states corresponding to different possible outcomes. Schrödinger described how one could, in principle, create a superposition in a large-scale system by making it dependent on a quantum particle that was in a superposition. He proposed a scenario with a cat in a locked steel chamber, wherein the cat’s life or death depended on the state of a radioactive atom, whether it had decayed and emitted radiation or not. According to Schrödinger, the cat remains both alive and dead until the state is observed. Schrödinger did not wish to promote the idea of dead-and-alive cats as a serious possibility; on the contrary, he intended the example to illustrate the absurdity of the existing view of quantum mechanics. The prevailing theory, called the Copenhagen interpretation, says that a quantum system remains in this superposition until it is interacted with, or is observed by, the external world, at which time the superposition collapses into one or another of the possible definite states.

The horizontal crawl was like an arduous ascent of a rockface for Leyna: tiny crags in the walls of the tunnel allowing her to gain purchase and move herself slowly forward. The space was so tight that her helmet scraped the walls, creating a mist of sand. The wind from the cavern ahead, blew the sand into her eyes. She instinctively moved her arms to wipe her eyes but her hands were lodged above her head. If this were the end of the journey, the Sandman had left his calling card already. “Steffan, I cannot move back. I can only just squeeze forward. You may have to pull me out.. Steffan?”

Many theories had been presented on the origin and purpose of the ark. Some were clearly the products of damaged minds and were quickly dismissed. Others were quite fantastical. All were paradoxical because none could be proven nor disproven. What was almost certain was that the ark could not be opened. If it were to be opened, or if it opened of its own accord, life on earth would change. Religions could be destroyed and a pedestal placed for the intellectually elite.

“Steffan?”

Given the paradox of the situation, Schrödinger pondered her namesake’s thought experiment: Schrödinger’s Cat is a demonstration of quantum mechanics, applied to everyday objects. The scenario presents a cat that may be simultaneously both alive and dead: quantum superposition, as a result of being linked to a random subatomic event that may or may not occur.

Leyna imagined that the ark could contain absolutely anything and that her current state was real in one quantum position and only known once the ark is opened. At which point, all other scenarios are gone. The cavern became the ark and could contain something of wonder. Equally, it could be full of horror. It could contain everything or nothing. No-one could hear her, so nobody could pull her out.

In the parallel, the roof of the cave could be weakening. Just one unstable cell could set off a butterfly effect chain reaction of chaos which would bring down the roof and several metres of the earth on top of her. Life as experienced that very second was the result of quantum disentanglement. Placing herself in the box with the cat, Leyna reasoned that there could be an alternate reality existing alongside this one, waiting to be observed once a catalyst was set off. Any appearance of an alternative would mean that the current one would cease to exist. Given all of the possible parallels, there was one where the ark above opened and she could be the catalyst. That catalyst could be Leyna’s disappearance. It was a terrifying paradox to contemplate, whatever the outcome.

The yellow visor of her safety hat was a fading and descending sun, as Leyna’s helmet lamp reflected orange sandstone from all sides ahead. The beeze from the cavern blew the sand into her eyes. As she blinked involuntarily to clear the obstruction, the tears in her eyes made the cavern look like a cathedral lit by candlelight.

“Steffan?”

Leyna’s hands were suddenly chilled as she grasped ahead and felt air. Still, her elbows were pressed tight against her by the walls of the tunnel. The peak of her cap had wedged her head into the tunnel, giving brief respite from the sand being blown into the tunnel.

“Steffan?”

Leyna’s head was wedged in such a way that she could not look up: the visor of her helmet was pinning her face to the floor. Her hands were on either side of an exit from this tunnel but she couldn’t see what was beyond. If she were able to move her head, she would know what lay ahead. One pull from her hands and she could tumble into whatever might be in the cavern. That could be something wonderous or unnerving; benign or malignant. She would be the first to see whatever was there. The only way of letting anyone else know, was on the end of the rope tied to her ankles.

“Steffan?”

It is said that a heart attack feels like a belt tightening around one’s chest. This was a corset, crushing the professor from outside. It took just one pull from inside the tunnel for professor Schrödinger to enter into a world never visited by humans. As her head emerged into the cavern, her visor snapped up, launching her helmet far out into the chamber.

Leyna was somewhat surprised to note that the chamber was illuminated: not artificially, nor by sunlight, but by a dull glow from a deep gold-coloured coating on the walls. She quickly located her safety helmet and replaced it on her head. “Steffan?” There was still no response from the radio. Neither was there a tether around Leyna’s ankles, nor a hole in the wall. She was alone, where no-one had been before.

“Steffan. If you or anyone else ever hears these words, there is something quite incredible here. This is a completely virgin area. I am over 600 kilometres into Mammoth Cave, in a previously undiscovered area. It’s a chamber around ten metres in diameter. The roof and walls are the same sandstone as the tunnel which led here but they are glowing with a faint light; like billions of microscopic torches. The floor is glowing too but it’s not rock: it’s sand; pulverised rock. What’s in the centre is the thing that’s blowing my mind.

“There’s a formation of stones here: nothing big, just some pebbles arranged in a circle. Do you see why that is so incredible? Not only does the artificial arrangement suggest intelligent interaction, civilisation and culture, wherever it may be found, but here?

“There’s a hole in the ground on the far side of the chamber. It’s not a hole which appears do have been excavated artificially; it’s more the contour of the floor, leading into an almost perfectly square pit or well. The hole is about a metre square and stretches down further than my helmet torch can shine. The walls of the pit are covered in symbols: not ones I recognise and they’re neither carved nor painted; the rock itself has formed these characters. They make absolutely no sense to me. Perhaps I was the wrong scientist to send first.

“If these words are truly my last, then I should like it to be known that I proposed a theory: I believe that mankind may not leave the earth post-natural but that this is a world in the process of leaving us post-human.

“Yet it’s a paradox because no-one else may see it or learn of it.”

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2 thoughts on “An ever-present visitor

  1. Incredibly beautiful to read yes I do mean beautiful before you question it. I can see how it nearly took you month to write it. I found I had a tear in my eye as I read the final paragraph, as I read That Leyna realises that she is the only person to see what no one else will and also that she knows that she will most probably die. I feel very humble sometimes that I am allowed to read your stories because through them I get to know you even more and how you think.

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  2. “Beautiful” is a word rarely used to describe my writing: one of the girls commented on COGS being beautifully written but morally wrong, which was a compliment in itself and I take this use of the word similarly. It actually took two weeks to write but that was mainly because I was distracted by the snooker. That said, there was quite a bit of research that went into this.

    I wanted to make the ending personal to Leyna and I think I achieved that. As with all of my stories, I wanted it to be affecting for the reader and this review tells me that it is. You obviously consider it to be quite deep (no pun intended, seeing as she’s in a cave) but I wonder if you’ve considered something even greater. I won’t spell it out but it’s been commented on and it was certainly my intention. As usual, think about it and re-read if necessary. It’s not a trick or a clue I’ve laid, rather than a greater consideration you might want to make. If you don’t see it, I may need to make it clearer but there’s a really big conclusion you could arrive at, which is really quite terrifying. I am a horror writer after all and although it’s a beautiful story, like COGS and The Perpetuity of Memory, it also needs to be scary. Once I spell it out, your palm will hit your face. Try to think more deeply.

    Thanks for the feedback: really useful.

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