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Two Fantastic Tales

Kate Rauner


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Table of Contents


Cosmological Constant

What Endures Through Time

Sneak Peek - cult colonizes Titan

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Cosmological Constant


"Hey, a new posting." Chaz paused at the corkboard outside Professor Klein's office and flattened the notice with one hand. "I didn't know Klein was accepting students yet." He read out loud. "Summer semester, Exploring the Multiverse. An empirical lab in theoretical physics."

"That's an oxymoron." Li Na leaned forward and Chaz caught a whiff of herbal shampoo clinging to her smooth black hair. As she ran a finger along the printing, her tawny hand came close enough to his to make his pulse race.

"They'll use the quantum computer Klein brought with him from Bucharest," she said. "Rumors say it's a really powerful machine, but I can't find any official description. I'd love to try it."

Chaz cleared his throat and read on. "Anthropic Theory holds that physical constants in the universe are fine tuned to allow life to evolve. Students will propose a range of values for the cosmological constant and calculate values for the other so-called-constants such that complex organic molecules could form."

He smiled down at her. "I haven't found a modeling class my advisor approves of yet. But no one can reject this. It's a cutting edge hypothesis modeled on a groundbreaking system, from the department's latest star - the mysterious Doctor Klein."

"Space limited." Li Na pulled out her phone. "I'm applying now."

"Should be no problem getting in," Chaz said, dropping the pack from his skinny shoulders and fumbling for his own phone. "Graduate level students only, with an impressive list of pre-reqs."


***


Doctor Klein presented a brief orientation in the small control lab. They gathered around a console covering half a metal desk. The system's name, Qbit, was scrawled on a piece of tape. The computer itself hummed away in an adjacent room, shielded behind a concrete block wall.

"I offer a significant challenge this summer." Klein was a short man with diamond-sharp eyes in a head like a cubist sculpture. His papers were brilliant and provocative and, in his tweed jacket, Chaz could imagine him arguing uncertainty with Heisenberg or black holes with Hawking. No one knew how the university had lured him out of Europe, or how Klein managed to bring Qbit with him.

When Chaz told friends he'd be studying with Klein, they'd shook their heads and whispered gossip. Bucharest threw him out because he's crazy. Worse, they shared dark rumors of lab assistants disappearing without a trace. That's why he's never been nominated for the Nobel.

No way, Chaz told them. The physics department wouldn't give Klein a research lab if anything weird was going on. Not even if Qbit did jump their reputation to top tier status overnight.

It was an honor to work with him.

"Do you know the Anthropic Hypothesis?" Klein spoke slowly with a roll to his Rs.

Chaz was saved from saying it seemed more philosophy than physics because Klein continued without a pause.

"I propose to modify this hypothesis and prove an undeniable theory - that only significant constant in any universe is cosmological constant. All other parameters derive from this energy-density measure, and such relationships constrain the multiverse. I will return Einstein to his proper, preeminent place in physics. Will create a true Theory of Everything.

"How will we discover these relationships?" Alfie was a goofy slope-shouldered guy, blond and even whiter than Chaz. All his weight seemed to have slipped off his sunken chest and settled on his hips. They'd had classes together - theoretical physics was a small department - and Alfie was brilliant, but an unlikely competitor for Li Na's attention.

"Ah, that's a question," Klein said, pointing upwards with a stubby finger. "That's the empirical portion of our endeavor. I have failed to derive relationships based on theory. Need more examples of successful universes to intuit the structure. You will provide such examples by inputting values and relationships you choose into Qbit, and observing outcomes it simulates."

They left through the building lobby, Alfie slouching off to hand in the last of his spring semester papers.

Li Na set her backpack on the low stucco wall that surrounded the entrance patio. "I love the view from here."

The physics building fronted a street running along the top of a hill, with more of the university's peach-colored buildings to the left and right. Below, at the bottom of the hill, was the library - also peach stucco with a red tile roof and square bell tower. Trees surrounding the library made it an oasis.

Chaz had something besides the view on his mind. "Want to have dinner with me later? My treat so it'll be a date." He cringed inside - that sounded stupid.

"I'm too busy with my thesis," Li Na said. "I need the comfort of friends right now, not the drama of dating."

But she smiled at him - warmly, he thought.

"Can I walk you to your next class?"

"Sure. It's in Harlan Hall." A flight of concrete steps led them down the hill and past the library.


***


Alfie leaned against Qbit's console, eagerly watching Doctor Klein pull a stick drive from one of the ports.

"I activated the virtuality interface." Klein lifted a box onto the desk. "I find it easier to absorb the totality of simulation via these sensory devices rather than tables and diagrams. Qbit must calibrate each individual's brain patterns for you to experience the simulation correctly. It will send known stimuli to your eyes, ears, and skin and map your responses."

"Me, me," Alfie said. "Calibrate my brain first." He plopped into the operator's chair, squeezing his hips between the arms.

"I recognize the tinfoil hat." He lifted a cap studded with electrodes. "But this one sends aliens into my mind."

To Alfie's satisfaction, Li Na chuckled and Chaz groaned. He flattened his hair with one hand and wiggled the cap on snuggly.

Klein helped Alfie fit a pair of small tight goggles, like the ones swimmers wear, over his eyes. Next came a glove reaching halfway to his elbow.

"Process takes approximately five minutes." Klein settled a pair of soft headphones over his ears.

"Ready in three, two, one." Alfie tried to curl fingers into his fist, but the glove was too stiff.

A white sphere appeared in the center of his vision, floating against blackness and lighted from above. It turned pink and then red. Faint tones, like a hearing test, played in one ear, then the other. Alfie giggled with delight.

The sphere shaded towards orange and his hand became warm. The sphere continued to morph through a rainbow of colors while the sounds in his ears shifted to deep echoes and his hand grew cold.

As the tones ended, the sphere deepened to black and disappeared. Alfie couldn't feel his hand anymore. He fidgeted, or tried to, but his butt felt numb too. Like he'd been sitting for a long time.

"Hey, guys. I think the calibration's done." He couldn't hear the vibrations of his voice in his skull. He tried to grip the armrest, to feel the hard plastic edge with his ungloved hand, but that had disappeared too.

Irritated, Alfie reached for the headphones, but nothing happened. The chair disappeared entirely. He was floating, tumbling in slow motion through blackness and silence.

"Alfie!" Chaz yanked everything off his head. "Are you okay?"

"Why'd you leave me in there so long?" he said, or rather, mumbled. His tongue was like mush.

"Has been precisely five minutes," Klein said.

Li Na snapped open a first aid kit on the desktop and fished out a tiny tube of antiseptic.

"What's that for?" Alfie asked.

"You hit your head when you fell forward," she said.

He wiped his forehead with the ungloved hand and stared at bloody fingertips.

"Cool. I was totally out-of-body and outside time. Who's next?"


***


When he arrived for their next session, Doctor Klein frowned at an old recliner positioned in front of the console. Blue corduroy covered worn arms and a sagging seat. Thoroughly disreputable.

Alfie grinned proudly. "My roommates helped me drag it in," he said. "No more falling out of the chair."

Chaz and Li Na both seemed pleased, and Klein wanted to keep them working, so he said nothing.

"I inserted slate of parameters yesterday for Qbit to run." Klein tapped the stick drive protruding from the console. "Is grouping I've run before, so I will view outputs to ensure proper operation." He sat stiffly on the recliner seat.

"Grab the arms, Professor, and push with your butt," Alfie jerked the back of the chair so the footrest bounced up.

With more decorum, Chaz and Li Na passed Klein the interface devices and, once encased, he gestured to start Qbit's playback.

The ugly recliner dissolved and Klein floated in a soft reddish fog. Gradually, threads congealed into three-dimensional patterns - no, four-dimensional. The patterns were twisting gracefully over time.

Yes, this was the universe he'd seen before. But Qbit didn't simply present a saved simulation - it had recalculated and would never produce precisely the same result twice. Even now, because he observed the quantum system, he changed it.

Klein imagined his hand reaching up to rub his crooked nose. Changed reality, too, though exactly how was unclear.

And dangerous.

But how else could he prove his hypothesis? These students, eager and full of new ideas, were volunteers and he would award full credit for the seminar to each. With the prerequisites he specified, they had the tools to understand. He never forced anyone. His missing laboratory assistants - they were somewhere.


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