Aphelion Issue 273, Volume 26
June 2022
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Causal Effect

by Roderick D. Turner

The ball curled, spinning, upwards and sideways, slicing beyond the top left crossbar. A miss, again. Well, almost. I felt the little shiver, the slight lurch, the now familiar blink. The back of the net bulged. I smiled, raised a fist in the air and yelled, my teammates echoing the shout. Amateur to pro in a matter of weeks.

"You lucky son of a bitch." Eddy was self-styled team captain. Like all the rest he couldn't quite figure it out. "I don't know how you do it. A month ago you couldn't pass to save your life, and now you thread the needle like Maradona. Way to go." He thumped me on the back, the others crowding round to follow suit. The winning goal. First time, the winning goal. I swaggered just a little as I left the field and headed over to where Lena stood beside her little Suzuki.

"I never thought of you as an athlete," she said. Her eyes sparkled with their usual energy, an impudent smirk on that unforgettable face. "I figured this was just for fun. You know, a little gentle humility is always good for the soul."

My buoyant mood suddenly vanished, the balloon of my ego deflating with an almost audible sigh. "It is," I said. "And you're expert at bringing me back to earth. I don't know why I hang around with you."

She opened the passenger door and ushered me inside. "No debate on that one." She slammed the door and swung into the cockpit. "You can't stand to be without me. I'm your ball and chain, Paul. Not to be denied."

The skycar lurched as she yanked back on the stick, vaulting us into the air. In seconds, the field was a green patch far below with colored ants massing along its edges. We swung into the cross-town traffic on layer six. Lena hit the autopilot, turned, gave me a hard look.

"So what's going on?" she said. "I mean, for real. Your buddies on the field know something is up, but they don't have the nerve to ask you the direct question." Again, the impish smile. "I do."

I'd debated this moment in my mind for over a week, knowing it would come, not sure how I would respond, but this was Lena. Only the truth would work.

"Lena, you ever hear the word causality?"

"Yeah, it's like one thing leads to another, all that stuff. Cause and effect. You hit someone in the nose and they bleed."

I could always count on Lena to paint a colorful picture. "Something like that. Except it's all crap. I spent three years of university learning all about classical physics, then a little quantum, until eventually they quietly began mentioning this guy Feynman and his theories. And you know what? Everything else is just crap. Filler. Because what comes out of Feynman's work is so very simple that it invalidates everything else, yet so profound that nobody seems to have really understood the implications."

She nodded. "Sure. Fine. Mister Fine Man. What does this have to do with your little stunts on the soccer field?" She flipped back to manual drive, shoved the stick forward hard and we nose dived groundward. "Yeee-haaa!" she yelled. At the last instant she leveled us out, a gut-wrenching lurch that brought us into street traffic a block from our apartment. "What a rush."

I took a deep breath, waited for my head to stop spinning. "Why do you always have to do that?"

"It's my way of messing with your causality. Dive steep enough, sooner or later you'll crash. Even with the automatic avoidance systems. Cause and effect. But until that happens, there's no buzz quite like it." She pulled the skycar into the parking garage, swerved into a spot and shut down. "Reminds me of what you're doing on the field, Paul," she said. Her gaze was cool, the words chosen carefully. "It's like you're riding the odds and winning every time. Picking the best outcome from each situation. But sooner or later causality will catch you. Mess around with nature enough, and it'll get you." The smile was back. "Every time."

"I should've expected an observation like that from a Philosophy major," I said. "But you're only partly right. Yes, I'm picking my outcomes. Doing it in real time, but I'm not changing any natural laws. More like--" I floundered for the words, "scanning the possibilities. Choosing the ones I want."

"Bull." Lena unbuckled and climbed out, headed for the elevator. She did not even glance back.

Lena was a dangerous companion at the best of times, but really scary when she got like this. Still, tired as I was I could not let the situation escalate. I caught her just as the elevator door opened, squeezed inside with her. In that crowded space we could not talk, not really, merely nod mechanically, and mutter token greetings to the other passengers. Even when we stepped out onto the seventy ninth floor, we were not alone. It was not until we were safely behind our apartment door that I grabbed her by the shoulders and spun her to face me.

"This is for real, Lena," I said. "I've figured it out. Cause and effect."

She twisted away viciously, her glare icy as a flash freeze. "You are so full of it, Paul," she said softly. "I don't need this. Either you come clean or I'm gone."

I tried to take her by the shoulders again but she wrenched herself free. "Lena, please—"

"What have you got yourself into? Some experiment at the university? Are you some kind of weird guinea pig, or a lab rat sent out into the world to test a new theory?"

"I worked it out on my own." I said. "I'm the only one who knows. Well, except you, now. I guess I am kind of experimenting, learning as I go."

"That's enough." She pushed past me heading for the bedroom. I sighed, took a deep breath, and followed. The infamous hitchhiker's backpack was already on the bed by the time I walked in.

"Let me show you." It was the only way, now. I held her wrist. Before she could pull away, I completed the shift. Still holding her wrist, I knew both of us had gone. She still had a hand out ready to unzip the bag. But there was no bag on the bed.

"What the--" Her gaze held a mix of anger and confusion now, and I knew I'd made my point.

"We're all connected, Lena. Every physical location, every time, all connected. It's all in the probabilities. If you put a bag on the bed and reach out to grab it, the highest probability is that you'll succeed, but there's a finite chance you won't. In fact, there's even a small chance the bag will not even be there."

She stared at me, the muscles of her jaw working. "Where is my bag, Paul?" she said at last.

I could not really know for sure, but that was not an answer she wanted to hear. "Perhaps it's still in the closet."

She strode to the closet, pulled open the door. The backpack was there, thank goodness. But--already full.

"What have you done?"

"For any moment in space and time there are an infinite number of paths leading in or out. And that means, there are an infinite number of paths in parallel to our present one. Time doesn't work the same in all of them. We might have been born a hundred years earlier, later or not at all. But the closest paths are those that spread out forward in time from a very recent moment. Say, from our arrival in the parking garage. In all the nearby paths we're standing here in the bedroom, but in some just a little further away, we might be in the kitchen. Or still in the garage, arguing." She was listening now. "I've learned how to shift between paths. The nearest ones, mostly, while I'm getting the hang of it, but lately, I'm going further."

"The soccer," she said. "You're scanning parallel paths to find one of those that allows you to get past an opponent, rather than being tackled. To get the ball into the net, rather than it going wide." She reached down and hefted the backpack. "The bag."

I nodded. "Until that, I'd only shifted by myself. And I'm worried that if I go too far from here, I'll end up losing my connection to you." This time when I took her by the shoulders she did not pull away. "Will you come with me, Lena?"

Her dark eyes were huge as she stared into mine. "Where?" she whispered.

"Exploring. Realities. Time. The universe."

Her throat moved convulsively as she swallowed. Then a quizzical look stole across her face. "Why are you the only one that can do this?"

I laughed. First a chuckle, then as I thought about it, a full-bodied laugh, as much with relief as humor, stunned at how perception could be so blind. After a few moments, she laughed too in spite of herself. "I'm not the only one, Lena," I said at last. "We all do it. Think about it. The times you're sure you put your keys in a certain place but when you look they're gone. Or moved. You shifted, involuntarily. In your original path, the keys are still where you put them."

"What happens to the version of ourselves that was already in the other path? The other one of us?"

"I'm not sure, really. All I know is I've never seen another me, but then I haven't shifted far. Who knows what we'd find if we go further out. My guess--when we shift, they shift, and so on in a giant cascade. Millions, maybe billions of paths change all in parallel. But so slightly that nobody really figures out what's happening."

She digested this. "How do you do it, Paul?" she said. "If we all do this involuntarily, how do you consciously change paths? Choose paths?"

I walked to the window, looked down at the tiny people on the street far below. "Those meditation classes you insisted I attend with you were the key," I said. "Once I understood the concepts, I wondered how the connection might be made, but didn't really see what was going on until I started examining my own thoughts, my own being." I turned back to look at her. "And then suddenly I realized what was really going on inside my head while I was floating in peaceful bliss—all that background noise in my brain was not noise at all. For centuries we've known our minds are vastly more powerful than we could ever fully understand, that we use only a small fraction for daily function. The rest, it's like a big space-time locating device, a causal GPS system. It fixes us in space and time but is fully capable of locking onto different beacons, if you will. I learned to use it in scan mode." I was beside her again, my arms round her shoulders, drawing strength from her gaze. "And then, how to latch onto new coordinates."

We were standing there, locked together, when the world lurched. Our building rocked, then went into a series of trembling vibrations. A gentle rumbling crept into my subconscious. "Earthquake," I said. Already scanning. Shifting.

The room was the same but the rumbling, the shaking were gone. Outside the late afternoon sun shone bright in a blue sky, a faint orange glow glinting off the west-facing windows of the apartment tower across the street.

In our bedroom before the quake had begun, there had been no apartment tower across the street. And the sky had been cloudy and grey.

"Paul." Lena was staring into the closet, and at first I did not notice the change. Then I realized that her backpack was not the same, a different size and style, empty not full. As I looked more carefully the small differences became more obvious. Yet it was the apartment tower that really had me on edge.

"I panicked," I said.

"How far did you shift?"

I had reached out almost blindly across the paths, chosen one without plan or intent, and shifted. Who was to say how long our building would have lasted if I hadn't reacted. That earthquake....

"Lena, don't let go my hand," I said. My thoughts went back to the moment I felt the first shaking--and I realized it had not been the first change. I'd been staring at the rug on the floor, my mind fully engaged on the explanation to Lena. As the shaking started--the rug had changed. Different shape. Slightly different colors. "It was another me. Another you. They shifted out of the path that held the earthquake. We were bumped out of our path into theirs. And then, I took us to yet another path." My mind was working frantically, trying to figure out what had happened. Why I'd never experienced this kind of sudden change that was out of my control.

"It must be that there are two of us now," Lena said. "Shifting together. Maybe it causes a larger disruption than just one person alone."

"I'm not giving you up, Lena. We go together, or not at all."

This time I sensed it. I noticed subtle changes, felt the shiver run down my back, noticed the blink as we shifted. "It's happened again." I ran to the window, still clutching Lena's hand. People were like bugs on the street below us, and I realized that our apartment was not just seventy nine floors up – there had to be hundreds of floors below us. Yet the panic in my chest was not reflected in Lena's gaze. She touched my cheek with her free hand. "Let's work it out, Paul. What can we do to control this?"

"We've caused some kind of rippling across the paths. Like a stone thrown into a pond. Given enough time, the ripples should die down?" I had never been more unsure of my thoughts.

This time I could see that Lena felt the lurch as we shifted. The blink must have lasted a full second. My explanation, my hope that the ripples might be dying away shattered in an instant. The apartment was now a one room, single bed in the living room-dining room with a tiny kitchenette. Out the window the ground had suddenly rushed up to meet us, and we were no more than three floors up. The street was poorly maintained, filled with the ancient ground cars I had only ever seen in old digital images.

"We have to get out of this room," I said. I could hear the hysteria in my words. Still holding Lena's arm I headed for the apartment door. Hauled it open, out into a dingy hallway whose only exit was to a graffiti-encrusted stairwell. We stumbled as we descended the second flight, the stairs suddenly crumbling beneath us, dropping us three meters to the ground. The apartment tower, the buildings were all gone. We lay in a heap amongst the remains of what had once been a structure. There was not a soul in sight. A wasteland lay around us, a smoking ruin, as though it had been leveled moments before by a vast explosion.

Sobbing, I pulled Lena to me and held her. She stroked my hair, soothing. "It's ok, Paul," she said. "Enough for one day. I think the lesson is learned."

The shift was so sudden and so jarring that I felt gravity had abandoned us. My grip on Lena was a lifeline, my only remaining connection with reality. The blink was in slow motion. Like falling through a hole in the fabric of the universe. I realized I had closed my eyes. When I opened them, we were standing in our bedroom. The backpack was on the bed, Lena reaching for it. My hand on her wrist. Realization hit me like--a punch in the nose.

"Lena, you--"

"Had to help you with your training before you got too out of control."

She smiled. Mischievously.


2013 Roderick D. Turner

Bio: Mr. Turner says, 'I like writing stories, and am particularly pleased when I find I enjoy what I have written. That is the best part of writing - you are after all most often your only audience. Second best is when you start writing about a character and they take over, almost literally writing the story themselves. Then you read it through and the characters surprise even you. Several of my stories have appeared in Aphelion, most recently Drift in November 2012. For more of my material, both prose and other media, visit www.rodentraft.com.'

E-mail: Roderick D. Turner

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