Little Book of Secrets

Hello, friends!

So I recently saw a writing prompt on Fiction Can Be Fun.  It sounded like fun, so I decided to make some fiction based on it.

The prompt had to do with journals.  Specifically, the scenario involves somebody either losing a journal or finding a journal that belongs to somebody else.  My initial thought was what would happen if somebody found one of my journals, full of my weird Sci-Fi world building notes.  Then I thought of another idea that was even wackier than that.

I want to emphasize a few points: this story is 100% fiction.  Additionally, the fact that this story is set exactly twenty years ago today is pure coincidence, and I do not mean to make light of what happened exactly twenty years ago tomorrow.  And lastly, this story is not to be considered canon for the Tomorrow News Network universe.

LITTLE BOOK OF SECRETS

The Washington Monument stood tall and proud in the distance.  On the opposite end of the National Mall stood the Lincoln Memorial, less tall yet equally proud.  But neither the Washington nor the Lincoln would be included on this field trip.  Nor would the Air and Space Museum, nor the Natural History Museum, nor any of the other fun and exciting museums of the Smithsonian.  There wouldn’t even be a quick stop at Union Station to see all the trains.  The young man wandered away from the group, feeling morose about this trip to D.C.

That was the moment when the young man found, lying abandoned on a park bench, a travel-worn journal with the following words etched in gold on the cover:

Property of Talie Tappler
Reporter Extraordinaire
Tomorrow News Network

The young man picked up the journal, not entirely certain what he was meant to do with it or how he was going to return it to its rightful owner.  He thought perhaps there might be an address or phone number on the first page, but the instant he opened the journal the pages started flapping by impossibly fast—and there seemed to be an impossible number of pages, too—until they settled on a page marked with the current date: September 10, 2001.  There, scribbled in a loose and carefree handwriting, were the words: “interview with President Gore” with Gore’s name crossed out and replaced with “Bush” and a question mark.

Curious, the young man turned to the following day.  It just said “W.T.C., Pentagon” and “get lots of B-roll,” whatever that meant.  When the young man tried to flip forward to the day after, the pages started flipping ahead by themselves once more, as if propelled by a strong wind.  How many pages could there possibly be in this thin, little journal?  How many days—or years, rather—could they cover?  Many strange names and terms were penciled in for future dates: housing bubble, COVID-19, Thwaites Glacier, 99942 Apophis….  And further into the future: Galactic Inquisitor, Othniel’s Object, Reginald Zaphiro, Starship Virago….  The words “attack of the Planet Eaters” were surrounded by stars and hearts.  That was scheduled for a date in the mid-30th Century!

The young man snapped the journal shut, feeling confused and disoriented.

“Pailly?  Quit your lallygagging!  Let’s go!”

“Sorry, Mr. Chester!” the young man said, quickly stuffing the journal into his backpack.  He’d have to figure out what to do with the strange little book later.

The Second Law is Safe

There’d been nothing but glowing praise for Dr. Trikowski and his miraculous invention.  The Trikowski generator was 100% efficient.  It produced no waste.  None at all!  It would save the environment, and it would save human civilization.

Some in the scientific community had expressed skepticism, but they were shouted down by Trikowski and his admirers.  “So called scientists!  They’re being paid off by the oil companies!” Trikowski would say.

Carlos seemed like just another reporter, someone with a fancy degree in communications but with absolutely no background in the sciences.  Except Carlos was not just another credulous journalist ready to lap up Trikowski’s sales pitch.  There were two things Carlos understood well:

  • The First Law of Thermodynamics: neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed.
  • The Second Law of Thermodynamics: but they can be wasted.  In fact, they must be.  No system could be 100% efficient.  Energy must be lost somewhere, somehow.

But Trikowski’s P.R. people obviously didn’t realize how much Carlos knew.  They’d let him into the doctor’s lab for an exclusive interview, and there was the generator.  Carlos approached it in awe.

He could hear a very impressive thrumming sound coming from somewhere inside the machine, and he could see a very pretty blue glow shining through the front panel.  Carlos placed his hand on the generator’s smooth, metal surface.  It felt warm, considerably warmer than the room’s ambient temperature.  Energy lost in the form of heat, Carlos thought.  The blue glow—that’s energy lost in the form of light.  And the thrumming sound is energy lost in the form of vibrations of the air.  However the Trikowski generator worked, however impressive and revolutionary it might be, one thing was certain: it was not 100% efficient.  Nowhere near it.

“So,” Dr. Trikowski said with a used-car-salesman grin, “aren’t you going to ask me any questions?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Carlos said, removing his hand from the machine.  “The empirical evidence speaks for itself.  I can see—and hear—and feel—that the second law of thermodynamics is perfectly safe in this lab.”

At that, Dr. Trikowski’s grin faltered.

The Carbon Chauvinist

Professor Kessler had precious little patience for this new generation of young people.  They were obsessed with their implants, obsessed with their ridiculous bio-augmentations. Those projector lenses were constantly shining in their eyes, and those little audio dots were always clipped to their ears.  Who knew what they were actually looking at at any given moment?  Who knew what they were actually listening to?  Even in class, you could never be sure.

“Eh-hmm…” Kessler grumbled, standing in front of his blackboard.  Kessler had refused—adamantly refused—to let them install holographics in his classroom.

“Hmm… eh-hmmm…” Kessler tried again. Finally, the last two students stopped talking and took their seats.  But Kessler knew they’d probably keep pinging each other over Lin-Q or Alphazed or whatever the latest fad communications service happened to be.

Kessler turned, picking up a piece of chalk, and started writing on the board: Earth, Corillistrad, Delte Majoris…

“This is Galactic Political History 101,” Kessler said, continuing to write planet names on the blackboard.  “As some of you must surely be aware, there are billions upon billions of planets out there.  The galaxy is unimaginably vast.  And yet at the same time, you will find that the galaxy is also quite small.  Yes, quite small indeed.”

Kessler finished writing—there were only fourteen planets on his list—and turned his attention back to the room full of students.

“Write these names down.  Memorize them.  These are the only planets with oxygen atmospheres.  These are the only planets where complex, intelligent life can exist.  The entirety of galactic civilization lives on or near one of these fourteen planets, and thus out of the many billions of worlds in the cosmos, only these fourteen planets are of any real importance.”

To Professor Kessler’s surprise, a hand went up.

“Hmm… yes?  Yes, what’s your question, young man?”

“What about chlorine?”

“Yes… what about it?”

The young man laughed awkwardly. “Well, I mean, there are planets with chlorine atmospheres too, aren’t there?  And there’s life on those planets, and a lot of important stuff must be happening there, right?  With the chlorine breathers, I mean.  Wouldn’t that be part of galactic political history too?”

Kessler grimaced a smile.  “Quite.  Well, wouldn’t that make things interesting!  There certainly are some… things on those chlorine worlds.  Very strange things.  The result of a peculiar form of inorganic chemistry, or so I’m told.  But are those things truly alive?  Does inorganic life truly qualify as life?  Well, if you ask me…” Kessler chuckled “… I don’t think it does.”

There was an audible gasp from the whole class.

“Is it okay for him to say that?” someone whispered nervously.

Kessler shook his head and turned back to his blackboard.  Young people. There must be some discussion thread going around—something on Nova-Net or Techu-Techu or one of the other activist platforms.  This whole generation of young people gobbled up that sort of nonsense about alternative forms of life.

Fourteen planets.  There were only fourteen planets in the whole galaxy that were worth talking about, and that was the lesson plan Professor Kessler intended to stick to.

Beneath the Blue-Green Clouds

It would have been the most celebrated discovery in human history: life on another world.  But the press and the late night comedians soon turned what should have been an auspicious occasion into one great big joke.

In February of 2050, NASA’s Herschel spacecraft released a small probe, one of many such probes designed to penetrate the atmospheres of gas giants.  We had learned much about the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn in this manner, but the Herschel mission would be a first, in more ways than one.

Among its many scientific instruments, the Herschel probe included a camera.  We expected to see a tranquil layer of blue-green clouds, with a layer of storms underneath.  If we were lucky, we thought we might even see methane ice crystals falling like snow.

But then, in a forty-three second sequence of images, we saw them.  They were giant, shadowy forms lurking in the dark, occasionally backlit by lightning.  They were enormous, easily the size of whales, and there were swarms of smaller organisms all around them, like the krill whales feed upon.

The krill-like life forms are difficult to make out in any detail, but the whales are clearly held aloft by gas bladders, filled with hydrogen, perhaps; and they have fin-like wings which they must use to maneuver. A great multitude of tentacles dangle from their underbellies, tentacles which seem to be writhing violently from one photo to the next, very much as though these animals were busily feeding.

Of all the places in the Solar System, this was the last place we expected to find alien life.  How could these creatures have evolved?  How could such a complex ecosystem sustain itself in the cold, far reaches of the Solar System?  These will have to be questions for some future mission, assuming Congress and the general public will take this seriously enough to support a future mission.

But unfortunately these mysterious and majestic creatures have become the laughing stock of the world, all because of one minor circumstance. All because of the planet where they happen to live.  All because of that planet’s name.

Although, truth be told, who wouldn’t laugh a little when the top headline on every newspaper reads: “Alien life discovered in Uranus.”

The Nine Lives Hypothesis, or Why Schrödinger’s Cat Can Never Die

Today’s story was inspired by my recent Sciency Words post on Schrödinger’s cat.  I cannot emphasize enough that this story is not meant to be taken seriously.

It is often said that anyone who claims to understand quantum mechanics is either lying or delusional.  In 1935, world-renounced physicist Erin Schrödinger proposed an experiment to demonstrate the true absurdity of all things quantum.  The experiment came to be known as Schrödinger’s cat. Now today, despite the vehement protests of animal rights groups, researchers at Omni-Science Laboratories have conducted the first ever real world test of the Schrödinger’s cat experiment.

A cat is placed inside a test chamber, along with a sample of cesium-131, a radioactive isotope.  A contraption within the test chamber will either kill the cat or spare the cat’s life, depending on what that cesium isotope does.  If the cesium undergoes radioactive decay, the cat will die.  In not, the cat will live.  The conditions of the experiment are so devised that the cat should have an even 50/50 chance at survival.

But according to the bizarre laws of the quantum world—the world of atoms, including radioactive cesium atoms—nothing is real unless it is being observed.  In the absence of an observer, anything and everything that can happen does happen, all at once, all jumbled together in a coexistent meta-state.

And so once the test chamber is sealed and its contents can no longer be observed, the laws of quantum mechanics should take over. The cesium isotope simultaneously does and does not decay.  The killing apparatus simultaneously has and has not been triggered. The cat simultaneously is and is not dead.  And so the situation should remain, until the scientists reopen the test chamber and observe its contents.

Researchers at Omni-Science originally intended to run the experiment only a dozen times, but the test results were so surprising and so confusing that additional tests were warranted.  In total, 63 cats were put through the experiment.  And to the astonishment of everyone involved, all 63 cats survived.

“We’re at a loss to explain it,” says Dr. D.C. Bakshali, principal investigator on the Schrödinger’s cat project.  “Statistically speaking, roughly half the cats should have died, and half should have survived.  But the survival rate was 100%.  We didn’t lose one cat.  Not one!”

Several hypotheses have been proposed to explain these surprising results.  One possibility is being referred to as the nine lives hypothesis.  Since cats are said to have nine lives, perhaps whenever a cat dies in the test chamber it immediately resurrects itself.  Although this notion was initially suggested as a joke, one Omni-Science researcher latched onto the idea and even proposed a mechanism that may explain how unobserved cats are able to continuously revive themselves.

“Even in the 1930’s,” says Dr. Haru Hoshiko, “it was pointed out that a cat is perfectly capable of observing itself.  But has it not occurred to anyone that only living cats are able to make such observations?”

Hoshiko goes on to explain: “So long as Schrödinger’s cat remains alive, it observes itself as living.  The moment it dies, however, there is no longer an observer present.  The laws of quantum mechanics reign once more, the cesium has once again simultaneously decayed and not decayed, and thus the cat is once again simultaneously dead and alive. But the living version of the cat is capable of observing itself to be alive, causing the superposition to collapse.  Thus, Schrödinger’s cat can never die!”

According to Hoshiko, the nine lives hypothesis should more accurately be called the infinite lives hypothesis, as there is no theoretical limit to how many times a cat—or any other animal, for that matter—would be able to revive itself in this manner.  Hoshiko’s paper on the subject has been accepted for publication in Nature.

Needless to say, the results of the Schrödinger’s cat experiment have profound implications for our understanding of quantum mechanics and, indeed, the nature of reality itself.

The Kenzie Twins: Pilots of the Star Force

I’ve been trying to think up a good way of indicating when one of these Story Time posts is set in the Chronoverse.  I also want to make sure you know how each story relates to the others within the Chronoverse timeline.  I think the best option is to just tell you all that up front.

Today’s episode of Story Time is set in the Chronoverse, almost 14 billion years after the previous story.  By Earth calendar reckoning, it’s the 44th Century, the age of galactic imperialism.  Without further ado, allow me to introduce:

The Kenzie Twins: Pilots of the Star Force

It goes against regulations, I know. We don’t assign family to the same ship or even the same squadron.  Too many attachments, too much emotional baggage.  It complicates the chain of command, it can cloud an officer’s judgment, etc, etc.  I get it.

But I made an exception.  These two aren’t just family; they’re sisters.  And they’re not just sisters; they’re twins. There’s a strange connection between them.  It’s not telepathy. I had the medics test for that. No, they simply—it’s hard to explain.  They simply understand each other.  It’s like they’re of the same mind, two parts of a single whole.  I’ve never seen a pilot/co-pilot team like them. Maybe that’s to be expected of two people who’ve known each other since the womb.

Listen to their comm chatter and you’ll see what I mean. They communicate lightspeed fast. It’s hardly words.  It’s not even battle code.  One of them will give a yelp, or a grunt, or a sigh, and the other instantly knows what to do.

And, well, yes… the two of them do have a reputation for insubordination.  Minor insubordination, I assure you.  A few adolescent pranks against their fellow cadets; nothing more serious than that.  As I said, it’s like the two of them are of the same mind.  It’s true when they’re in flight, or when they’re in the simulator, and maybe when one of them’s feeling a little impish, they’re of the same mind about that too.

So yes, it was against regulations, but I authorized those two to train together and run the combat simulator together and take all their flight tests together.  And now, even though this is also against regulations, I’m recommending that you assign them to the same squadron, the same ship.  Demote me if you like, or lock me up in the brig if you think that’s necessary.  But if you send the Kenzie twins to the front lines, if you put them together in the pilot seats of a star fighter, I promise you the Hykonian Hegemony won’t know what hit them.

Time Index Zero

Time Index Zero

We were all that ever was, all that ever is, all that ever would be.  We were everything and we were nothing, and we were content.  To say that we were alive would be misleading, for there was no meaningful distinction to be made between life and non-life.  To say we were conscious or self-aware would equally be a mistake.  Nothing existed for us to be conscious of, and we had no meaningful concept of self to be made aware of, for there can be no concept of a self without a concept of others.

That changed when we… perceived the broadcast.  It would be wrong to say we saw it or heard it, for we did not yet have physical senses of that kind.  But we did abruptly become aware of it.  The broadcast commanded our attention:

“This is the Tomorrow News Network, bringing you tomorrow’s news today since 17 billion years from now.”

We did not understand what this meant.  We had no concept of a tomorrow or a today, no concept of time in any sense of the word.  Even the idea of words, of communication, of information that could be passed from one individual being to another—why should such a thing be necessary when all is unity, all is harmony, all is one?  These ideas were strange and fascinating to us—and frightening.  The broadcast continued.  It could not be ignored, nor did we wish to ignore it.

And that, we would later come to understand, was the trap. The future is, by its very nature, an unknown quantity, a changeable quantity.  But to learn of the future, to be informed about future events (or in our case, to become aware that future events exist at all) transformed this unknown, changeable quantity into an inevitable, unchangeable fact.

One of the Tomorrow News Network reporters was explaining what religion would be.  She was a confusing creature.  We did not understand what she was.  We did not know yet about humans, or females, or eyes, or the color violet; and yet the instant we perceived this female human we knew the color of her eyes was wrong.  Unnatural.  A sign of danger.

“The birth of the universe,” this violet-eyed creature was saying, “will be known by many different names among many different peoples: the Rifting, the Great Hatching, the Big Bang, the Primal Illumination. But the most widely accepted name, at least among chronotheorists, will be Time Index Zero.”

We were appalled.  Not only would there be separation and division, a plurality of people spread across a plurality of worlds believing a plurality of things—but all those people could not even agree to call a singular event by a singular name. Could nothing in this new universe be unified?  Could nothing be made whole?  We refused to accept this… or rather, I refused to accept it.  The new universe was wrong.  It should not be allowed to happen.

And yet, even in thinking that thought, a thought distinct and separate from the thoughts of the others, I realized the damage had already been done.  We were no longer one.  I was myself now.  The others were others, and we no longer existed together in a state of harmony.

“What shall be must be,” one of the others assured me.

“No, it must not,” I replied, but it was too late.  Our quiescent non-existent existence was over.  Our slumbering pre-universe was coming to an end.  As separate entities, we all experienced the irresistible force of time: a sudden rushing-forward sensation from which there could be no escape.  And then, it all began.

Cyber-Attorneys at Law

Today’s story was directly inspired by a bit of research I did for Sciency Words. In 1960, American researchers Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline coined the word cyborg.  There’s just… there’s something about those names—Clynes and Kline—they just sound so right together….

So, cyborgs could cry.  Marcus hadn’t known that, but Neo-Marcus (as he’d been instructed to call himself) was discovering this truth for himself.  He could cry.  Not as humans cried, of course.  His tear ducts had been removed along with his natural eyes, but all the rest—the heart palpitations, the uneven breathing, and all the other quivering spasms of grief—cyborgs could still do those things, it seemed.

Was it Marcus’s fault that he had died?  Was it Marcus’s fault that, upon his death, he’d been in so much debt that the corporate controllers had ordered him to be brought back to life?  The med-techs had done a budget job, as they called it, with only the most basic augmentations; but still, the process had cost another 20K credits. Another 20K added to Marcus’s debt total.  Another 20K that Neo-Marcus would now have to pay back.

And how was he supposed to do that if he couldn’t find work? It had been the same at every employment directory thus far.  The receptionists were always polite, but obviously nervous.  “Sorry, we’re not hiring!” they’d say before quickly ushering Neo-Marcus out the door.

The advertisement feed was still running in the corner of Neo-Marcus’s vision.  He’d muted the sound, but he couldn’t afford the fee to have the feed turned off completely.  But now there was an ad playing that caught Marcus’s attention, and he gave the mental command to turn the audio back on.

“Have you been denied housing, employment, or other standard services due to your cybernetic augmentations?  You do have rights.  Contact Clynes and Kline, cyber-attorneys at law, for a free consultation.  We know what you’re going through.  We’ve been there ourselves, and we can help.”  

Before the advertisement had even ended, Neo-Marcus had pulled up the messenger app on his visual display.  As a human, he’d never taken those sorts of legal ads seriously.  But now, as a cyborg, he needed help.  He needed hope.  He needed anything he could get.

Mind Your P’s and Q’s

Welcome to story time here on Planet Pailly!  Today’s story was inspired by a recent conversation I had with a new friend, a conversation which I described in a previous blog post.

Mind Your P’s and Q’s

The whole class was staring at the teleportation chamber, cringing at the wisp of smoke rising from the chamber floor.  Cadet Keefer had just killed a gerbil.  Again.

Keefer’s face blanched as she realized what had happened. Suddenly she was mashing the reset button.  Reset!  Reset!  Reset!  But the whole teleportation system had locked up.  The controls were frozen on their last settings, with all the emergency lights on.

Professor Montgomery was coming over.  “What happened?”

“I… I can’t…” Keefer said, still frantically trying to get the teleporter to reverse.  The machine had disassembled that poor gerbil atom by atom, so Keefer just had to make the stupid contraption put the gerbil back together again.  Right?

“It must’ve been the Heisenberg unit,” Keefer said, or at least that was her best guess.  On the very first day of teleportation training, Professor Montgomery had said 90% of the teleportation accidents he’d seen were caused by Heisenberg commutation units.  They were finicky pieces of hardware.  You had to keep a close eye on them.  The quantum teleportation system needed to track the exact momentum and position of each and every atom in your body (or in this case, in that gerbil’s body), and that was impossible if the Heisenberg unit failed.

On the control board, the momentum and position were represented by the letters p and q.  And sure enough, right there in the middle of the status board, an error message read:

pq ≠ qp

“Looks like you’re right,” Professor Montgomery said, tapping his finger on that message.  “What have I told you about the Heisenberg unit?”

Keefer’s face was turning bright red with embarrassment. “Mind your p’s and q’s,” she recited.

“That’s right,” Montgomery said.  “You can take the test again in a month.  Until then, I don’t want you touching the teleporters.  I don’t want you anywhere near them.  Stick to the simulators until you know you can do it right.  Understood, cadet?”

“Understood, sir!”