“All we wanted to do was unshackle the world!
No, no, that was a poor choice of openings, wasn’t it? I’m terribly sorry; if I’m going to tell you this story, the least I can do is present it to you in a more logical manner. I’ll select a more appropriate starting place; the beginning.
My name is Dr. Jacob Simon, and I very nearly redefined reality as we know it.
It was about ten months ago, and my colleague Dr. Gregor Lewis and I were finishing a rigorous set of laboratory trials on what I liked to call my ‘Quantum Divergence Spectacles.’ In short, these spectacles allow one to see points of quantum divergence that will occur as a result of an action taken.
Ahh, I see the question in your eyes; quantum divergence is what I like to call the ‘path not taken’ phenomenon. If you get to an intersection and turn right, your life plays out a certain way. You get to the bakery and buy a cake, for instance. But the path you didn’t take also actually happened. Another ‘you’ turned left—in a parallel universe—and that other you leads a newly separate and distinct life. Perhaps in that parallel universe you stopped at the library and met a special someone, leading to marriage and children.
These spectacles allow the wearer to see the results of these points of divergence and to know the immediate outcomes of each choice, to see a short distance into each possible alternate universe. It breaks the chains of linear perception that bind us all.
It’s a wondrous and, dare I say, frightening experience to wear them, but the feeling of empowerment is simply overwhelming.
Dr. Lewis and I were ecstatic! We’ve invented spectacularly useful devices before, many of them in fact, but can you imagine a greater force for positive change in the world? Now we weren’t complete fools; we saw the potential for misuse, but forewarned is forearmed as they say, right? This was undeniably the greatest innovation in foreknowledge yet devised.
Then there was the matter of our plans for the technology.
Dr. Lewis always did have his eye on his wallet, I’m afraid. I suspect he has a bit of the Scots in his blood … but that’s of no matter now. His eyes were gleaming as I’d never seen them before while he went on about the vast riches in store for us.
I don’t want to give you any false impressions; I’m fully in favor of earning one’s fair share for work they’ve done, and I expected reasonable compensation for our achievement. Still, I felt that Lewis was being a bit unseemly about it, and let him know it in no uncertain terms. Ahh, hindsight; if only I’d chosen to hold my tongue.
THAT right there is where it all went wrong, you see. Not our technology, not even our expectations, but rather, our fight. Oh yes, we did fight. And what a row it was! I can only imagine what poor Hannah must’ve thought from her desk outside Mr. MacKay’s, our boss’, office. Then again, perhaps she wouldn’t have noticed; Mr. MacKay spent so much of his time watching dreadful reality television. Our fight may well have sounded like just another competitors’ fight on the tube.
I swear we must’ve shaken the very walls of the laboratories. We shouted and screamed obscenities I’ll not repeat here, and it may even have come to blows at the end. My memory goes a bit fuzzy at about that point, so I can’t say for certain, though the evidence certainly suggests it; I had a bruise on my cheek for weeks, and poor Lewis … well, he sported some marks of his own, and at least one of those seemed to be in a rather uncomfortable location. I won’t go into that, either.
When we came round to the end of our scuffle, we saw just what an incredible mess we’d made of the lab. Furniture was spilled, papers scattered, at least one expensive computer was ruined, coffee and tea splashed all about—and the prototype was missing.
Not just kicked under a desk; that I can say that for sure. It had been locked in a case that had remained undisturbed during the fighting. Or rather, it was undisturbed by us.
Dr. Lewis and I were both quick to come to the same realization; somebody else must have entered while we were fighting. The prototype had most certainly been there before the fight started. He must have snatched it from the case while we were tussling. Ahhh, bitter irony, that all of this bother could have been prevented had only one of us put on the spectacles before throwing a punch.
But not all was lost. As I said, Dr. Lewis and I have invented a great many useful devices, and we immediately raided our stores. I grabbed an earlier pair of spectacles I’d worked on that functioned much as infrared goggles do, only more compactly. They’re meant for viewing subtle temperature variations—perfect for chasing down a fleeing thief by following in his footsteps, I must say! Lewis grabbed what he termed a ‘netcaster,’ but which I think of as a glop-gun. It can immobilize a target, but only from a very short distance away. I’m sure you can imagine how it works.
By the time we’d geared up, the trail was already growing cold, but there was just enough of a trace left for us to race after the dastardly villain. I took the lead of course, and the two of us stirred up quite a commotion as we tore through the building. I knew we were gaining on the bastard; the glow of his tell-tale footsteps grew brighter the closer we got to him. We had to catch him before …
The footsteps led outside. What a disaster! He could head off in any direction, and if he got far enough that my specs lost the trail, we might never catch him. There was no time to lose.
Oh, and it was raining.
The lab was situated at the corner of a T-intersection, so we had three possible directions to cover. Fortunately, the fading footsteps showed the way; he’d tried to dodge around the corner to throw us off, since there was no convenient crowd to get lost in at that time of day, more’s the pity for him.
I dashed around the same corner, regretting the recent fight and the toll it had taken on my energy, and saw—nothing!
He was nowhere to be seen, and there were no side streets nor even alleys that he could have ducked into.
Lewis crashed into my back and with a lurch, I kept going onward. Standing around would only allow the trail to grow colder, literally.
Just then a clattering and and clanking caught my ear, and I snapped my head up just in time to see a leg vanish over the edge of the building wall and onto the roof. A fire escape! But the ladder was drawn up. I grabbed Lewis’ arm and pointed.
He pointed too, with the muzzle of his glop-gun. A sticky gray mass of net shot from the gun and latched onto the retracted ladder of the fire escape. With a clatter and crash, it fell back down. Avoiding the sticky netting, I leaped up the ladder and gave chase, Lewis right behind me.
When I got to the roof, his trail was difficult to spot. The rain was cooling his footsteps too quickly; we had to gain on him fast, or he’d be lost to us. Luckily there weren’t many places for him to go, so we took off in the direction he had to have gone.
It was shocking how fast he was moving, especially across the roofs. We had to make several jumps across the gaps between buildings; it was rather impressive, if I may say so myself! And each time, his trail grew just a tiny bit brighter.
It didn’t take long to recognize that the building heights were dropping, and sure enough, after the fourth crossing, he deviated from his straight, flat-out run and veered off toward the street. A painter’s ladder extended down to street level, only one storey, and I leaped on and slid down in pursuit.
I immediately realized we were in real trouble down there. Hundreds of people were passing by on the sidewalk in each direction, laying down new thermal imprints that would render my tracking specs useless!
No matter. We had to get closer still, force him to make quick decisions—
Ahhh, yes. The downside to the quantum divergence spectacles. They don’t make the wearer all-knowing; you can only see the direct results of the decision you’re contemplating. You don’t get to see infinitely down all the possible chains of decisions. Forcing him to make quick decisions would severely limit his foreknowledge, and perhaps overload him with too much information to process.
We charged out after him. My spectacles were useless immediately of course; his trail, short as it was, was already lost. Instead I focused on the people around us, and Lewis did likewise. I began to despair. There were just so many!
But as I searched, one man began to stand out. He was smallish, unassuming, but wearing spectacles that could have been our prototype. And he was starting to look a bit frantic, a feeling I remembered well from trying them on in limited testing conditions; how much worse it must have been, having to constantly choose left or right, speed up or slow down, while dodging other pedestrians on a crowded sidewalk!
I grabbed Lewis’ arm and we caught him from behind, giving him no choice at all, and I grabbed the spectacles from his face. Moments later he was covered in rope-like gray strands of hardening sticky netting from Lewis’ glop-gun. We marched the man back through the streets to the lab and up to Mr. MacKay’s office, ignoring his threats and curses the whole way.
Honestly, I can’t blame him for the harsh language. The rain was unkind to Lewis’ liquid netting; the fellow’s suit was ruined, much as he deserved it and so much more.
And so we triumphed, and just in the nick of time. Mr. MacKay was in a temper; not so unusual for him, really, but this time worse than most. He’d arranged for our prototype to be demonstrated before some rather wealthy investors later that very day. He must have been awfully glad to see the prototype returned safely. You’d never have known it for all his storm and bluster.”
“Simon, are you boring these poor people with your work stories? For heaven’s sake, have another margarita! Nobody wants to hear you go on about all this bother until you’ve had a few in you. Or at least until they have!”
“Oh, do just ignore him. So that’s how we came to be here, Dr. Lewis and I. Retired here to the south seas, rich off our hard work, but driven into hiding from the shame of the exclusive licensing agreements.
We just wanted to make the world a better place. Instead, our technology is in the hands of reality television producers who use it to decide who to focus their cameras on. Pffaugh! Drives me mad …
I think I’ll have that drink.”
This story originally appeared at Fiction Improbable.