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August 2022
 
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The Quantum Effect

by E. S. Strout

Dedicated to the memory of Ray Bradbury 1920-2012.



Quantum: the smallest amount of a physical quantity that can exist independently in nature.

I saw and heard and knew at last
The how and why of all things past
And present and forevermore.
The universe cleft to its core
Lay open to my probing sense ...

Edna St. Vincent Millay 1892 1950

1.

Aspen Colorado. 4 July, 2012. The New York Times Science page:

Physicists working with CERN's Large Hadron Collider in Geneva announced today that they had discovered a new subatomic particle fitting the configuration of the Higgs boson.

2.

0830 hours, Friday 29 May 2015:

Chief of Subatomic particle Research at Brookhaven National Laboratories Professor Darwin Royal reviewed his hand scribbled notes as he paced in his office. At 0900 hours he would present new features of his recent discovery to 75 year-old white haired Claire Holcombe, Professor Emeritus Director of Science and Technology. He first must dissuade her from joining Geneva's CERN in a course of potential disaster.

0900 hours:

Royal gulped Gatorade from its plastic bottle and cleared his throat. "I have carried out a thorough investigation on the quantum subject in question with the collaboration of my associate, Dr. Edward Pollock. We feel there is another course of investigation considerably less dangerous and with potentially greater scientific and cultural advancement if I'm right. Please allow us to pursue it."

Professor Holcombe asked if he was prepared to proceed with CERN in Geneva on their plan of creating a quantum singularity using information gleaned from their recent new particle discovery in 2012.

Dr. Royal objected. "Irreparable damage and civilian deaths could result in the creation of a micro black hole. There are reputable groups of physicists who believe that such a quantum singularity could result in devastation of our Earth. I am one of them. The proof of the existence of a Higgs boson like particle has opened the way for investigation into previously unexplored areas much less perilous, such as ..."

The Director held up a hand. "Do you really believe this hogwash, Professor Royal?"

Darwin maintained his quiet demeanor. "I do. If in fact the new particle is the true Higgs boson, creation of a quantum singularity would be possible. It would gain mass. This puts us in a situation new in subatomic particle physics. To proceed without further study is dangerous ..."

The Director shook her head and gave Royal a tired smile. "Nonsense. The people at CERN in Geneva have been at this much longer than we and they are proceeding. Professor Royal, you must agree to join them in this project."

Professor Royal insisted, "This endeavor will result in a self-sustaining quantum singularity. My studies suggest a snowball effect will commence, leading to an immense black hole from which there would be no escape."

Holcombe was adamant. "I have read the reports and seen your odd computer image. Your project has definite merit but please, you must agree to put it on the back burner until the quantum project reaches culmination."

Darwin shook his head, shrugged and headed for the door. "Thank you for your attention, Director."

3.

Professor Darwin Royal, a 47 year-old divorcee, has prematurely graying sideburns and inquisitive hazel eyes. Reading half-glasses hang from a fragile silver chain around his neck. In defiance of Brookhaven's dress code he wears a bright red vest over a plaid shirt, khaki trousers and white Reebok running shoes. His only remaining family since his divorce is his daughter Alexandra, a graduate student at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. He has followed her academic career with unabashed pride.

27-year-old Alexandra Royal holds PhD's in Art History and History of 19th and 20th Century poets. Her paintings were influenced by cosmic events as described by her father when she was a child. One of her works was entitled Cosmos. It consisted of swirling clouds of brilliant multicolored dots in the configuration of a gaseous nebula. She had refused an offer of $1,500 by an art collector and presented it to her father as a birthday gift. He displays it with parental pride on the wall of his office behind his desk.

4.

Afternoon the same day.

Alexandra read her father's e-mail with interest and concern. She responded: "I'm confused, Dad. First you were working on the Higgs boson, whatever the heck that is, then something odd that's going on at Brookhaven. What's odd? Anything you can tell me about?".

Less than a minute later, he replied: "Something worrisome. Call me, Alex. I want to hear your voice. E-mail is so impersonal."

She replied, "I'm waiting to see if I get the faculty position I applied for, Dad. Not great salary-wise but it's an Assistant Professorship. I'll call tomorrow around seven your time."

5.

1920 hours, Saturday 30 May.:

Snippets of a Mozart piano sonata alerted Darwin to her cell call. Alex's voice was soft but vibrant. "I got the position, Dad. It could lead to an Associate Professor slot if I impress enough Liberal Arts folks."

"That makes two of us with advanced college degrees. I'm so proud of you, Alex. Right now I'm gazing at your fantastic Cosmos creation. I'm hoping you would consider doing an interpretation for me. Applying your artistic eye to a discovery of mine and Eddie Pollock's."

There was a long pause. "A discovery? You said something odd. Something worrisome. What exactly does that mean, Dad? Why can't you tell me now?"

"Please come, Alex," he asked in a quiet but urgent voice. "I'll explain when you get here. Just bring your artistic eye."

There was a long pause. He could hear Alex's soft breathing. "Dad, I'll be on a plane tomorrow or Monday soon as I can grab a flight. You are scaring the living crap out of me. Don't do anything till I get there, okay? I'll let you know a flight number."

6.

Brookhaven Airport, Shirley, New York. 1445 hours, Monday 1 June.:

The Delta shuttle flight had been delayed an hour by a rainsquall. Darwin watched from under an umbrella as the passengers deplaned. Alex was the fourth off, excited, looking around for him. She was tall and thin with long auburn hair fashioned in a ponytail. Her eyes were inquisitive gray-green in an attractive but pale oval face. She wore a denim jacket, Levi's and black Adidas running shoes. Spotting Darwin, she took off at a run and grabbed him in a crushing hug. "I got the position, Dad. Junior faculty but lots of upward steps."

Darwin held her close, popped his umbrella over them as another shower began. "I'm so glad, Alex. I know how anxious you were about this. I had the ultimate faith in you."

Inside the small terminal Royal shook drops from the umbrella, folded and stuffed it in a pocket of his raincoat. "Alex, I want you to look at something Eddie and I have discovered."

Her stare was sharp as an icepick. "You never use the words odd or worrisome. I know you too well, Dad. You are scared of something. What are you not telling me?"

He nodded. "I'm glad you're here. I'll explain later."

The shower ended with the afternoon sun slanting brilliant prismatic spears through rifts in dissipating rain clouds. A rainbow arcing across the sky of the Eastern horizon provoked a gasp from Alexandra. "California has nothing to compare, Dad," she whispered as she snapped several photos on her Smart Phone. "These will inspire a painting. Maybe more than one."

Darwin nodded. "I may be able to show you something else that could inspire you, Alex."

She paused, eyed her father with concern. "Don't bullshit me, Dad. What does something else mean?"

7.

"Later." Darwin said. "Dinner first. In Patchogue we have The Oar. Surf and Turf. Seafood, good steak, good ambience. Service a bit slow but worth the wait."

It was. Alex wolfed down the last bite of her shrimp scampi and pasta, then took a swallow of chardonnay. "Dad, this is a real treat after months of Stanford's cafeterias and Palo Alto IN-N-OUT burgers. I lost four pounds last semester."

She wiped her lips with a red cloth napkin, then her demeanor turned serious. "What will my artist's eye see, Dad? Our last phone call was disturbing. What's got you so uptight?"

Darwin nodded. "The astrophysicist Stephen Hawking posited a theory that there could be parallel timelines similar to ours within our universe. The discovery of the Higgs boson-like particle has opened the doorway to a number of possibilities, including this one."

"I Googled that Higgs thing, Dad." Alex said, her voice an urgent whisper. "One of those possibilities is creation of a black hole. I know you work on stuff like that. Some scientists are concerned that its creation could result in destruction of the Earth."

Darwin took a deep breath and nodded. His voice was soft but urgent "Myself included. If the CERN discovery is the true Higgs boson, it would make a quantum singularity possible by providing it with mass. It's all conjecture at present, but I'm worried."

Alex reached across the table and grabbed his hands. "I've never seen you freaked out like this, Dad. What will you do?"

"Escape could be possible if I'm right, Alex."

"You're scaring me again, Dad. Escape from what? To where?"

Royal nodded. "That's a tough question, Alex. Perhaps to someplace like this, but not here."

Alex gasped, dropped her fork. "Will you please explain? Now I'm freaking out too. Please say something I can understand."

He shook his head, emptied his wine glass and gave her a perplexed smile. "It's something I don't fully understand myself, dear."

She was quiet for a moment, swallowed the last of her wine and then nodded. "But you're going to figure it out, whatever it is. I know you will, Dad."

Darwin waved the wine steward over, ordered another bottle of California chardonnay. "I hear you, Alex. I appreciate your vote of confidence. The opposition comes from the top of the Brookhaven food chain."

Alexandra gave a nod of understanding. "Your boss." She took a swallow of wine, reached across and grasped his hand. "Please tell me, Dad."

"If I'm right, Alex, what Eddie and I have discovered may overturn all scientific thinking since the 6th century Greek Pythagoras proposed that the Earth was round."

Alexandra poured herself more wine, took a large swallow. "This is a lot for someone without a scientific background to digest. Let me sleep on it, okay?"

He was quiet for a time, then nodded. "I'll be showing you computer images of something that nobody else in the scientific community has ever seen. You will be the first artist to view it and hopefully confirm it."

She looked up with a tired smile. "You could always get to me like this, Dad. The curiosity factor, like you used to say when I was little."

8.

They arrived at the Brookhaven complex at a little after 0100 hours, June 2. The Air Force MP at the gate said, "Good evening, Professor Royal." He glanced at a clipboard page. "This must be your daughter." He walked to the passenger side. "Please lower your window, Alexandra." She did so, and blinked at the flash of the facial recognition camera. The MP pressed a stud, read the screen and nodded. "Good to go. Have a pleasant stay."

9.

Professor Darwin Royal's quarters in the resident scientists' apartments area had a small living room, kitchenette, two bedrooms and a bathroom with a shower. "You have the back bedroom, Alex. Stow your gear and get some sleep. The coffee pot is set for seven."

Alex's sleep was troubled by nightmares. They were inhabited by formless wraithlike emanations that whispered of hidden terrors inhabiting black holes and alternate timelines. She awakened to raucous arguing of blue jays in a maple tree outside her window.

A glance at her wristwatch. Ten AM. She grabbed a quick shower, pulled on some clean clothes and then stumbled to the dinette gaping a humongous yawn. "Did I miss breakfast, Dad?"

Darwin looked up from his crossword puzzle. "You just got caught up on a few hours of jet lag. I'll get you some coffee. Relax and enjoy it. I'll scramble you a couple of eggs later."

She held the cup in both hands to warm them, then stirred in some Coffee-Mate, blew to cool it and took a couple of long swallows. "I had nightmares. You and your theories. Do I get a look of your Relativistic atom smasher thing today?"

"Do you want to rest today? We've still got another day."

"Another day? For what, Dad? Stop scaring me. Show me what's got you so psyched up."

He reached into his briefcase. "You will need to wear this." He handed her a clip-on plastic laminated badge that had a green border and a bright orange slash across it. ALEXANDRA J. ROYAL was printed across the top over the words CONSULTANT IN ARTISTIC DESIGN in stark black letters.

Alex stared. "Me? A consultant?"

Darwin nodded. "Something to distinguish you from the tourists." He handed her a typed authorization on Brookhaven National Laboratories letterhead with his signature over Chief of Subatomic Particle Research. "Just show this to Security if they ask."

10.

The drive to the main research complex took five minutes. The MP Sergeant acknowledged Professor Royal with a smile and nodded to Alex. "I apologize for the inconvenience, Ms. Royal. Regulations."

"I know." She lowered the rain-spotted passenger side window and handed over her badge and authorization memo. The guard flashed the information on his Smart Phone, waited, then nodded and handed the items back. "Good to go."

11.

Dr. Royal unlocked his office door with a key card and flipped a light switch. Banks of fluorescents on the ceiling flickered, then assumed a steady daylight glow. Darwin wheeled a padded chair next to his desk for his daughter. "Be right back." He checked all the file cabinets and desk drawers. All were secure. "Routine security check, Alex," he said.

Alex gave him a suspicious glance. "Do I detect a bit of paranoia creeping into my normally outgoing and personable father?" she asked. Then she zeroed in on the wall behind Darwin's desk, where her framed birthday gift was hung and smiled. "Cosmos."

"Your perception of the heavens is remarkably accurate. Are you ready to cast those artist's eyes on my oddity?"

She gave him a vigorous nod. "Finally. I Googled Stephen Hawking on my laptop, Dad. He mentioned something about alternate timelines but didn't say much more."

Darwin nodded and booted up his desktop Mac, then entered his password. The page that came to the screen showed a flattened white disc on a black background. "This is an image from our heavy ion collider. It represents a collision between billions of gold ions at nearly the speed of light."

Alex wheeled her chair close, perused the screen and shrugged. "Okay, gold ions colliding. What am I missing?

Darwin pressed another key. The screen showed another flattened disc structure. "This image appears only at one crossover junction between our two concentric ion racetracks. It began appearing a week ago and has been present ever since. Tell me what's hidden in this weird recurring image from our ion speedway, Alex."

She leaned forward and squinted. Then she stood and took several steps back. Shook her head. "It looks different. Can you give me other views? Like rotate the image?"

"Something?" her Dad asked, his voice hushed and anxious.

Alex held her chin in one hand with a perplexed but thoughtful look on her face. "I see what you mean odd. That disc now has a faint irregular dark, solid shape inside it. I work better with color matrixes, Dad."

"I can get you that," Darwin said. He pressed more keys. "Give it a few minutes."

While they waited, Darwin's office door cracked open and a young man poked his head in. He was adorned with a trim mustache and a short dark chin beard. He wore a white lab jacket having a wrinkled slept-in appearance. "Heard you had a guest, Darwin."

"C'mon in, Eddie. This is my daughter Alexandra. I'm converting our enigmatic image to a color matrix for her."

He nodded. "Your Dad tells me you are a very good artist, Alexandra."

She turned and smiled. "Eddie Pollock. A Jackson Pollock relative, perhaps?"

He chuckled. "Third or fourth cousin, they tell me. No such talent. I'm stuck with your Dad chasing subatomic particles."

12.

Darwin's computer dinged and showed the image in color. "Alex?"

"There is definitely something inside the disc now," she said. "It's faint but it has substance, like a solid object. Can you give it some depth? Some contrast?"

Darwin pressed more keys. A holographic representation appeared. He pressed another key and the image slowly rotated. "Stop right there," she said. "It's clearing now."

Alex expressed a startled shout. "Wow. It's a building. There's a sidewalk, and steps up to the front door."

Darwin slid a photograph across the desk with a trembling hand. "Like this one?"

Alex gave a shocked gasp. "Yes. It's this one. Your lab."

Darwin's voice was tremulous with excitement. "Look at the sign over the entrance on this photo. Read it to me."

"Brookhaven National Laboratories. RHIC Control. Okay, now what?"

"Read the sign on the hologram." He clicked a key and it enlarged.

Alex's eyes gave startled rapid blinks. "Brookhurst National Laboratories. RHIC Control. "It's the same building but the name is different. I don't understand, Dad."

Eddie looked over her shoulder, clapped his hands. "You were right, boss. A parallel timeline. Alex has confirmed it for us."

"It may be our avenue of escape, Eddie. Perhaps repeated collisions of the gold ions have somehow disrupted the intervening veil and opened a pathway to an alternate reality."

"Wait one," Alex said, standing with hands on her hips. "There's that word escape again, Dad. Escape from what?"

"Show her, Eddie."

13.

Dr. Pollock replaced him at the computer and hit keys. A headline from the New York Times appeared:

Tuesday, June 2.

Scientists at CERN in Geneva and Brookhaven National Laboratories in New York together plan to create a quantum singularity (micro black hole) late tomorrow June 3. Their physicists assure the public no untoward effects will occur.

"We must do it now," Darwin said.

Dr. Pollock said, "I've disabled the safety alarms. We know the exact junction where the lab image appears. When the gold ions reach that point and collide, they will form a plasma of component quarks and gluons. If we've done the math correctly, whoever stands in close proximity to the event will be absorbed into the plasma and be deposited in that parallel timeline."

"I don't understand a word you guys just said," Alex blurted, "but you are scaring the living hell out of me. Dad?"

He put an arm around her shoulders. "Alexandra, what CERN and Brookhaven are doing is incredibly dangerous. The quantum black hole they create will have mass furnished by the Higgs boson. It will continue to enlarge until it devastates our Earth and perhaps more. Please trust me on this."

"How do we know that the same thing won't happen in the parallel reality?" Alexandra snapped.

Eddie nodded. "We don't, Alex. If we get there, your Dad and I will have a little time to try and convince their Brookhurst Director of the threat facing them. The worst case scenario is that we are wrong. We go nowhere and we die in the black hole that will be created in our timeline."

Alex shook her head in disbelief. "You and my Dad are certifiable. Our counterparts in your parallel timeline will freak out and call the cops to arrest three crazy people who have just popped into existence from out of nowhere."

Darwin nodded. "You make valid points, Alex. I'll admit much of this is theory. We hope to convince their Director Holcombe that her parallel reality is about to be destroyed as well."

"Science fiction," Alex screamed. "You two insane people go ahead. You have no idea what will really happen. Leave me out of this. I'm going back to California and have a quiet existence teaching artists and poets."

"Alexandra, you are all I have. Please reconsider," Royal pleaded.

"I'll find my own way out and grab a cab to the airport," Alex screamed, tears streaming down her face. "I'll pray for you, Dad."

14.

Dr. Edward Pollock checked his wristwatch as they descended the staircase entry to the underground twin ion racetracks tunnel and said, "Thirty seconds till the run starts, boss. I'll understand if you decide to stay."

Darwin gave a sad head nod. "Thanks, Eddie. It's okay. Alex has always been a strong willed individual."

The hum of racing gold ions pervaded the surrounding atmosphere as they circled, urged onward by thousands of magnets toward the speed of light and collision. Eddie and Darwin stood close at the junction, eyes closed, immersed in their own thoughts.

There was a slight pressure which startled Darwin out of his reverie.

"You didn't think I could ever let you do this alone, Dad," Alex said as she grabbed his arm.

"Five seconds," Eddie Pollock said.

Darwin held his daughter tight with one arm. With his free hand he grasped Eddie's hand. There was a soft tone from the digital timer.

15.

In the instant when the gold ions collided, a brilliant plasma formed. The protons and neutrons disintegrated into their smallest components and encompassed the travelers.

16.

A nanosecond later:

They were ascending the staircase from the core of the RHIC twin concentric heavy ion racetracks. Technicians nodded acknowledgement as they passed. Darwin's office looked right. Everything looked right. The desk calendar read Tuesday, June 2, 2015. His iPhone beeped. Darwin listened. "Director Holcombe, my decision on the quantum singularity is negative. This is a matter of urgency. I need you to view some enhanced images that my daughter Alexandra has just uncovered."

He nodded, then hung up. "Tomorrow morning Director Holcombe has agreed to view our enhanced images," Darwin said. "We'll run her a real time image to compare with our previous ones."

A chirp from her Smart Phone interrupted Alex. Her eyes reflected shocked surprise. "Oh hi, Ellen," she stammered. "No, I'm okay. Yeah I have the course outlines done. We start a week from next Monday. I'll be back in a couple of days. Thanks. Bye."

"My roomie at Stanford. Confirming our first art and poetics workshop," she explained.

Darwin smiled. "I know you will do well, Alex. I'm so glad you decided to be with me here at Brook, ah, Brookhurst."

She grinned and gave him a high five. "You really know how to show a girl an interesting time."

1000 hours, 3 June.:

Director Professor Emeritus Claire Holcombe took a seat in front of a 70-inch plasma video screen in Professor Royal's conference room. She unscrewed the top of a Smart Water bottle, took a long swallow and set it on the chair arm. "Proceed, Professor Royal. You have twenty minutes."

"Thank you, Director." Darwin pressed a key. "This is the image that I showed you before. It occurred at one of the crossover junctions of the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider on a routine run." He pressed a key.

"Doesn't look like much has changed," Director Holcombe commented. "Still a compressed disc of gold ions colliding. Is that little defect something?"

"My daughter Alex is visiting from California. She's an artist. I showed it to her and she asked for a color matrix. I converted it to a 3-D holographic image. This is an enlargement of the defect we saw inside the disc." He pressed another key.

There was a gasp of surprise from Director Holcombe. "It's a building. This one. But the sign over the RHIC Control entrance says Brookhaven. Please explain."

"It confirms Stephen Hawking's theory of a parallel timeline and history within our universe. We have tapped into it somehow. Occasional variances may occur, such as the name change," Darwin said, "but I believe the overall history will not be altered."

"Does it repeat?" Director Holcombe asked.

"Eight days in a row." He aligned the images in order on the screen. "As you will note, they are identical."

"Please show me one from today," the Director said.

A soft hum announced the start of the race to collision of billions of gold ions circling along the parallel tracks. As the run ended, another image appeared. "This will be a view from the junction where we recorded the enhanced images you just saw," he said.

Royal squinted in surprise. "Something has changed. The image of the Brookhaven Lab inside the disc is different. I'm applying Alexandra's magic now."

Nothing happened.

Darwin pressed keys and an enlarged image of the changed structure appeared. It was a solid black mass with bright points of light at its periphery.

"Please explain, Professor Royal."

"This makes no sense, Director. The RHIC run must have malfunctioned." He ran a self-diagnostic program, read the page that appeared, shook his head. "No malfunction. This image is at the precise location of the previous eight."

With fearful hesitance, Royal typed Identify image, waited. A new page appeared a minute later. His face reflected shock and horror as the following text appeared on the 70-inch screen:

Image is consistent with a large gravitational singularity...

Darwin slumped and stammered. "A black hole. Planet Earth in our timeline is gone, as I had predicted. The new particle CERN discovered is the true Higgs boson. Quantum singularity achieves mass, followed by rapid replication and snowball effect."

Director Holcombe stood and motioned. "No time to lose, Darwin. Please come with me. Bring Dr. Pollock and your daughter. Now, please. We must hurry."

17.

In her office Director Holcombe picked up a red phone, punched a single digit and waited while the call was shunted to Geneva. Her voice was low and urgent. "Abort the quantum singularity attempt now. I have undeniable proof that Professor Royal is correct. He will stream that proof to you at once." She mopped her brow with a Kleenex. "Whew. Not a minute to spare."

Director Holcombe took her water bottle in a trembling hand and took a long swallow. "I was lucky," she said in a barely audible voice. "I saw the destruction of Earth in the Brookhaven timeline. My counterpart in that timeline had no such good fortune. Nor did your counterparts.

It was quiet in the office for minutes as Professor Emeritus Holcombe whispered solemn farewells. Then she nodded to Royal. "You three came from the Brookhaven timeline and saved our asses. You are more than welcome here."

"How did you know, Professor Holcombe?" Alexandra asked.

She reached over and touched Dr. Pollock's chin with a fingertip. Eddie here didn't have a beard, and your name in this timeline is Alexis. I'm sure your DNA will match our records. Do you have a simple explanation, Professor Royal?"

Darwin breathed a deep sigh and nodded. "Sir Isaac Newton's third law of motion. Every action is countered by an opposite and equal reaction. We are most pleased to be yours now."

"You still seem troubled, Professor Royal," Director Holcombe continued. "What's bothering you?"

Darwin's voice was quiet and thoughtful. "The plural, Director. Hawking said multiple similar timelines, not just one. How many, I wonder? Tens, hundreds, thousands? How many succeeded? How many failed?"

Professor Holcombe dried her eyes and nodded. "I'm sure I can arrange a large Federal science grant to fund your investigation of this matter, Darwin."

The End


© 2012 E. S. Strout

Bio: Stories by E. S. Strout (M.D.), a.k.a. Gene or Gino, have appeared in Planet Magazine, Anotherealm, Millennium F&SF, Beyond-sf, Jackhammer (Eggplant Productions), Static Movement, and Bewildering Stories. And, of course, many of his stories have appeared in Aphelion (most recently Deep Freeze, November 2012).

E-mail: E. S. Strout (Humanoids: replace '_AT_' with '@')

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