- Publisher: Spilogale, Inc.
- Available in: Paperback, Single Issue Magazine
- Published: June 1, 2004
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction is a digest-size pulp magazine featuring stories by the top writers in the field.
Here is the short story by A. A. Attanasio that appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction June 2004
He looked a lot like a donkey, with a head much too big for his body and bristly hair blue as ashes. His long rabbit face and big teeth appeared almost friendly, except for those devilish eyes, narrow and wickedly tapered. It was a face that made people leave him alone.
He preferred that. Work used him up and depleted any ambition to explain himself. “The conquest of zero,” he told those who pressed, and that usually sufficed. For those who insisted on more, a forlorn sigh escaped lungs crushed by the hopelessness of explaining himself. “I’m a mathematician obsessed with Dedekind domains – partitions of real numbers – in particular, algebraically closed fields called combinatorial Nullstellensatz – a German term that means ‘zero place theorem’ – where infinity and the empty set of zero are related. I call myself a zero hero.”
In the dream where he first met her, she sat at the foot of his bed in the moon’s milky blue light. He knew he was dreaming. It was a lucid dream, in which he marveled at the precision of details evoked by his sleeping brain. His austere room appeared exactly as in waking life. Her presence alone informed him he was dreaming.
She had hair white and watery as spider’s milk. Veins crossed her brow like a washed out road map. Loneliness completed itself in her eyes, stunned pupils and irises blue as stretched rainbows on bursting bubbles.
“Suppose time is like space. Exactly like space.” She spoke tenderly, her voice quivering starlight, words almost defeated by silence, by enormous distances traversed from far within her brain.
Dreams are like that. One knows the most impertinent things. He knew that her brain loomed vast and menacing as night, the very brink of outer space, and her voice was the hem of infinity. He accepted this, because he knew he was dreaming.
“If time is like space,” said he, choosing to play along with this antic reverie, “then change is an illusion.”
Her smile cut his heart. “You understand!”
He noticed she wore odd garments, gauzy and tattered as a desperate angel’s and printed with breathing paisleys conspiring across the contours of her body like shadow puppets. “Time is space,” he spoke in his dream, feeling not a little foolish. “That’s Einstein’s general relativity. The distribution of mass configures spacetime. Enough mass and spacetime bends around itself. Black holes.”
She leaned her head to one side as if listening deeply to music, and those bursting blue eyes glistened brighter, blown pupils abruptly tightening to pinprick apertures before his brilliance. “Then, you accept that events do not become, nor have they been, and so, they will not be? Events simply are. Yes?”
“Yeah, right.” He shrugged and wondered if he should just lean forward and kiss those blond lips, that butterfly mouth, his own soul’s tender, vulnerable stinginess. No boundaries to a dream, he thought even as he chose instead to speak, “If time is space, we reach events in the future by displacing ourselves in time. And so, change does not exist. Change is an illusion. There’s just an immense now with a vast range of points. It’s like going to the kitchen. The kitchen doesn’t come into existence because we go to it. It’s always been there. Same with the future.”
The butterfly mouth opened to a lavish smile, tears sparked, flung arms embraced him, and the soft blow of her body knocked him awake. From across the gulf of the dream, her breath touched him between heartbeats with surprise and terror, the tip of a claw, “I think I love you.”
For a week after that dream, his heart swung heavy with misery. Inhumanly beautiful, the only woman he had ever loved was a dream he would never have again. What was this hugeness a dream had transformed his heart into when he wasn’t ready for it? He was in love, in the hardest way, with a figment, an irreality, insubstantial as zero.
The irony occupied him like inoperable cancer. His obsession for work, for the infinity of zero, had transformed into an obsession with this dream woman, this beautiful emptiness he had never asked for.
His work stopped. This upset his employers, who wanted to create a qubit computer. The qubit, data encoded in the superimposed quantum states or entanglements of single atoms, enabled the performance of stupendously large numbers of calculations simultaneously – in subatomic space. The challenge lay in preserving the coherence of this data as the quantum system interacted with its environment. For that, they needed a quantum error correcting code, which in turn required a weak Nullstellensatz ideal, a way of defeating the complexifying polynomials of decoherence, the noise that smeared encoded data to zero. To defeat zero meant protecting quantum coherence – and the qubit.
But the dream of the woman with spider milk hair had dismantled his obsession, and no enticements of money, status, or perquisites could build again the heart she had broken.
The day he lost his job, she came to him. He was sitting in the park, watching a kid’s kite tracing infinity’s sign in the sky. From the edge of sight, a bright minnow of radiance turned his head. She stood in the sharp sunlight between trees, wearing wraparound glasses black as beetle shells. Her slick, white hair glistened with sugary light.
He stood up and sat down again with a loud cough, “You!”
Whatever she said got swallowed by a jet’s sham of thunder. The wind pressed peculiar pleats of her moth-skin gown sleekly against the curves of her body. As she walked toward him, the fabric’s shadowswirl pattern unraveled fluttering glances of nakedness.
“Who are you?” he asked in a stricken voice.
She flowed onto the bench beside him. “Your creator.”
The lucid dream, her beauty digressive as an angel’s, and that chill fragrance peeling from her like a vast babyblue exhalation of heaven made him ask, “God?”
“That’s the Creator, silly.” Her laugh glittered. “I only made you.”
“You, the weather, everyone in it – this whole world – is born out of us, beings like me.” Her pale smile pressed closer. “But you’re all mine. I made you.”
With roundabout eyes, he looked to see if anyone in the park were watching. Children scrammed across the sward chasing a rubber Buckyball. Bicyclists swished along distant bike paths. A dog walker bent to his odious task in the silks of sunlight under a nearby oak.
When he faced her again, he glimpsed twin reflections of his fisheyed fright in her dark glasses. She said, with a brisk smile, “Change is illusion – and so, effects can be their own causes.”
He heaved a big, nervous laugh. “That’s absurd!”
“Only because you’re addicted to time.” Islands of cumulus drifted across her dark lenses. “I thought you knew better. We talked about this. Remember? Our bedroom chat?” She cocked her head knowingly. “You’re not one of those chronocentrics convinced that reality consists of a series of nows, are you? Come on!” Her face pulsed with silent laughter. “You really think moments pass from the past to the present and on into the future?” She placed slender hands on his shoulders and addressed him like a child. “Special relativity urges a contrary claim, you know. Time passes at a different rate depending on how fast a person is moving. One person’s now is another’s past – or future.”
“So … someone from the future can – change the past?”
“Effects can be their own causes.”
“And you?” Inside its cage, his heart skittered like a small animal. “You’re from – the future?”
“I’m from the world your qubit computer will make possible.” A turn of the wind, and her hair rippled between them like white acetylene. “I made you – to make me.”
Dogs frolicked, bicycles shuttled under the trees, and children chased a black-and-white Buckyball back and forth across the sward. “Why are you here?”
“We have always been here. We’ve been in touch with this world from the beginning. In fact, we built this world.” Her fingertips, cool as mirrors, traced the edges of his face. “The future already exists, and we are generating, down to the smallest detail, the specific everyday reality of life on earth that you take for granted.” Her thumbs glided over the wings of his nostrils. “We arranged the distribution of matter and its motions in this corner of the universe to generate the features of time that seem so ordinary to you. Coincidences, accidents, all manner of interactions on microscopic as well as macroscopic scales are effects whose causes have yet to exist.” She pressed the tip of his nose like a doorbell. “Your emergence as a species – and even as an individual – has origins not in the past but in the future. Time travelers and their influences from the future are far more common than you realize.”
“You’ve fabricated … everything?” His thick features congealed to a frown. “Why?”
“Think of it as an art gallery – or a movie set.” In the slant light, she removed her shades, revealing the diamond blue irises and coma-caliber pupils of his dream. “Everything is arranged.”
“A necessary game,” she answered in a spicy whisper. “A flight of creativity. We are building the reality that we want for ourselves. It’s impersonal really. Of course, this truth is a terrible burden for you. That’s why you’re not supposed to know.” She sat back heavily with a lopsided smile and looked tenderly sick. “But I fell for you.”
She tilted her joyful eyes upward in disbelief. “So freely rendered, you were supposed to be just another artifact among the kaleidoscopic atoms. I’m as surprised as you. I’m in love with your crazy obsession to vanquish zero – with your big hee-haw face – and your galumphing walk – and your body odor like roasted pecans – and the stupid way you’re looking at me now, wondering if all this is a dream. I’ve fallen in love with you – with my own creation.”
He honestly thought he had lost his mind. With an ache in his heart, he knew this was not some dream. He was awake. A soccer ball rolled up to the bench, the spherically wondrous geometry of a truncated icosahedron. She picked it up and handed it to the boy who ran over to retrieve it. Her babydoll profile appeared so ordinary. The boy thanked her brusquely and didn’t think there was anything at all strange about retrieving his Buckyball from a denizen of a time yet to be.
Exultant in her slim smile, she said without looking at him, “1017 seconds ago, that boy, his ball, and every atom in this entire universe was pure energy at the instant of the big bang.” She inhaled deeply the tang of pollen and the acrid nearness of the city. “And the second before that?”
“You set off the big bang?”
“No. We’re locals. But I can introduce you to the ones who did.” She waved her hand dismissively. “But that’s not why I’m here. I came to tell you that I love you.” She said this, but all he could really hear was the sound of his heartbeat. “I want you to come with me. You’re mine. I created you, and I want to bring you to a life bigger than this rigid diurnal sculpture. Sunrise and sunset – a rock spinning in the void. There’s so much more I want to share with you. Come away with me.”
She stood in leaf shadows that could have been Chinese letters. He wanted to speak, to express his apprehensions, but his breath had so tightly coiled that if he had opened his mouth he would have screamed.
When she saw this, her pale smile tightened. “Just think about it,” she whispered. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s not a good idea to take you for myself and deprive you of everything familiar.” She fit the dark glasses to her face and nodded softly. “But I just had to try. Ain’t love crazy?” She shrugged and strolled off among the incandescent trees.
He watched after her avidly, expecting some kind of starflash or pixel dissolve. She simply walked away and gradually blurred into the afternoon’s pastels.
He sat on the park bench until sunset lay like a bloody pelt across the skyline. Then, he went home and got back to work with a fury.
The soccer ball had clarified for him the algebraic geometry necessary to segregate quantum chaos from data encoded in the qubit. Dedekind boundaries – the sets of real numbers that represented noise from the environment – possessed partitions like the white hexagons of a soccer ball. They fit together symmetrically, because every positive number correlated to a negative number. The infinity of positive numbers and the infinity of negative numbers cancelled perfectly to zero. Those polynomials that did not cancel isolated themselves in the ideal defined by the Nullstellensatz – the soccer ball’s black pentagon.
The conquest of zero had rolled to his feet as a soccer ball! Sitting on the floor of his spartan apartment, blond strands of sunlight in his upturned palms, he experienced fear puzzling together wedges of doubt and speculation: Would he have discovered his quantum error correcting code without the soccer ball? Why should he care? Would he have even noticed the soccer ball if she had not been there – she from Not-Yet?
He was drinking his third cup of coffee when she arrived. He was thinking how the darkness of the universe ferried light to earth from distant galaxies and how light itself had no rest mass and so traveled free of time. At the speed of light, time stops. Yet, looking at the stars, we feel time with our eyes. What else is reality but what we see with our own eyes?
Minnows of silver light schooled across the sunstruck walls, and when he looked over his shoulder, she was there. Fear and awe thronged in his chest. Like Arthurian lovers, their eyes brought them together, and he took hold of her hands, hands cool as silver. “Cup of coffee?”
While she sat beside him at his desk sipping her mug of coffee, he prepared the data files his employer required to create the qubit computer. “Suppose I don’t send them?” he asked, his devilish donkey eyes glinting with mischief. “No qubit computer – no you.”
“You still don’t get it.” She took another sip, her blue stare smiling through the steam. “It makes no difference whether or not you send your files. The future is already there.” She put down the mug and stood up. “But if you don’t transmit… ” She shrugged, and he could see the throb of her heart in her throat. “You’ll drink my tears. Time is precisely like space – it is immeasurably deep. There’s plenty of room to make what we need. But there’s only one you. When I fell in love, I fell a long way here to you. Yet, maybe you’re not here for me. Maybe I have to climb back up that distance love falls – alone, without you, and rise above losing you and everything between us that is unfinished. Is that what you want?”
He sent the files.
She took him with her. Upon a blue noon under summer castle clouds in the crystal silence after a storm, he found himself iridescent, a spherical mirror, an unblinking presence of peace. She was with him, and everything sayable was said. Gleaming transparencies, they reflected each other, naked light, serene as angels.
A virtual face in hyperspace, he gazed upon the iridescent mirror of his beloved. No sun illuminated them but radiance from within shining outward. The irreversible moment reflected from her his remembered face and the forgotten heartbreak of ugliness – the loneliness that had turned him inward to the Nullstellensatz, the conquest of zero – and eventually her, reflecting him reflecting her, splintering mirrors to infinity.
In deep time, the accelerating expansion of the big bang had stretched the fabric of space to the Planck limit, to where the compact dimensions underlying the brane-structure of the universe floated like a herd of icebergs in the true vacuum. Atoms had long ago exploded, ruptured clockworks, protons and neutrons boinging into the void like sprung springs, eventually unraveling into quark triplets, and those, in turn, bursting open into the fractal horizons of the compact dimensions, which he had initially mistaken for summer cloud castles.
Others like her lived in convoluted fractal crannies of the gigantically dilated Planck foam at the end of time. They hovered in the blue emptiness like radiolarians – silver spheres, pyramids, and trapezohedra. Each existed as the descendents of artificial intelligences from distant worlds, distant times. They clustered like metallic roe, sharing uncommon histories and interpretations of reality. For as far as he could see, they floated sparkling – hot dust motes in the blue shine of vanished space.
Her home wafted in this azure void, indistinguishable among the countless others. But her iridescent diatom, her congregation of artificial intelligences had a common ancestor out of Earth. From here, she had reached back through time and had created him to create her – and to here, in this truncated icosahedron, this chrome-bright Buckyball, they came together to mingle their souls.
A boundless dream awaited him in that soccer ball at the end of the universe. The sphere hovered directly above the fractal cloudshapes that reflected the section of spacetime where the Milky Way had once pinwheeled. The actual fabric of spacetime embedding our galaxy had long since expanded into infinite dilution – yet, every single point of the galaxy’s 4-dimensional construct shimmered in those clouds near the chrome Buckyball. Every single point down to the ultimate granulation of Planck foam remained visible in that event horizon.
And there he was – his big donkey face staring at himself from the cumulus heap at the boundary of 5-space. As he glided toward those thunderheads, their contours resolved to a honeycomb of mirrors in whose cells an endless succession of more mirrors spiraled to infinity, each mirror filled with his big head and bristly hair, his long rabbit face gazing in dumbstruck wonder.
Did that warning come from her or from his startled mind?
Don’t look at yourself! It’s a regression loop…
Floating in the blue aft-continuum, on his way to a boundless dream in a silver Buckyball occupied by the last generation of intelligence in the universe, he panicked.
He understood that these swarming geometric colonies could view all prior time from the moment of the big bang to that instant when the runaway expansion of dark energy ripped spacetime apart. Yet, he was shocked to see his own stupefied face at the final instant before he left earth to come here – to this placeless place at the end of everywhere.
He understood that she and her kind could actually manipulate the pleated moments that wove the fabric of time. They could change the past. They could do this, because all of spacetime floated as a reflection in those cloudshapes. And those clouds were the boundary to higher dimensions. Realizations had begun to string together in his mind, forming a comprehension of how this was possible – and then he saw that startled face – that regression loop to his last instant on earth – and dazedly he grasped that there is only one instant and that instant would never again be on earth…
But he had looked. He had looked back at the world taken away. And the strangeness of where he found himself collapsed on him. For one moment, he yearned for the moment-ago, the farewell of it – it – an afternoon a hundred billion years ago at his computer keyboard with the Nullstellensatz and his human animal body and the flurry of the world outside his window and the seas and mountains and the seasons – all gone…
Not. Not gone. Not abandoned. In the shining democracy of time’s emptiness, all moments remained intact. This he knew.
Time was like space. Exactly like space. He could reach out and touch any moment, even his last moment on a planet vaporized long ago by a solar wind itself blown to a dark cloud. And with that thought, with that reckless desire to love the transience of his planet, the forever-gone grass blades, the expected wonder of sunset, and the heap of sunsets he had forsaken – desire opened like a trapdoor.
He stood alone in his room staring at a sunstruck wall, where minnows of silver light schooled – and were gone.
The memory of what had transpired at the far end of the universe dispersed like smoke from a wicked out candle. His wish had come true. He was home.
His mind, thoughtless and clear as a pail of water, tried to recall the many wondrous truths that had illuminated him. Nothing restored itself.
Nothing. Zero. The Nullstellensatz.
He had come back to his solitary apartment and his computer keyboard, the bridge from within his mind to the outside world. And his work waited for him here like a troll – and his loneliness like the troll’s crazy hair.
He might have convinced himself his overworked brain had hallucinated everything about her. It all seemed so unreal. No evidence remained of her more than a dream or a delusion – until he saw on the table the white ceramic coffee mug from which she had drunk. When he took it in his hands and felt its heat, his soul crashed into the apartment.
The mug stayed hot. Hour by hour, it never cooled. Maxwell’s demon. Some thermodynamic incubus possessed the mug, much as the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell had imagined in his infamous thought experiment of 1871.
For Maxwell, the haunted object was a box with a partition down the middle and a molecular door controlled by a demon that permitted only the fastest molecules to pass one way. Eventually, half the box chilled and the other half warmed.
Only demons can scorn entropy. But why would a demon bother? he wondered. Aren’t demons allies of entropy?
He left the mug in the freezer. His thoughts scattered. He couldn’t pull them back together, because he kept getting up every few minutes to open the freezer. The mug remained hot.
His humiliated hands ran through his bristly hair as if feeling for the brain hidden under there. He knew he should call someone. If he shared the impossible, he might be able to let go of these thoughts that could not be thought.
Eventually, he fell asleep on the floor beside the refrigerator. Sunrise flowed like blood over the windowsill.
When he pulled himself awake, he opened the freezer and found the mug woolly with smoke and just as hot. The ice cubes he had put inside it had melted. Yet, delicate filigrees of nearby frost remained intact.
His knees unlocked. On the floor, he scrutinized the depth of field in the tiles. He traced his fingers over the patterns and pondered ways of exploiting the mug. Attached to a thermocouple – two dissimilar metal wires – the heat of the 90oC mug would produce a small voltage. He visualized a wire of bismuth telluride doped with selenium and another wire of antimony, a combination that could efficiently convert the mug’s thermal energy and generate a current ample enough to power a tiny motor in a perpetual motion machine.
He would spin a toy clown’s head carved with Isaac Newton’s bewigged face cranking out tiny laughter in perpetual mockery of the second law of thermodynamics. Or he’d play Stars and Stripes Forever forever. By midmorning, he had recognized the scope and trajectory of a plan that could profoundly change the history of the world with a coffee mug.
Soon, however, he put aside all intentions of telling anyone about the mug – or the improbable story of its undiminishing heat. The authorities would take the mug and leave him with only his mad story as a memento of a hopeless love.
He began using the mug to keep his coffee warm. He drank from it copiously, hoping its prodigal heat might imbue him with some wider understanding. It didn’t.
At night, he slept with it. Maybe its indefatigable energy would inform his dreams. Maybe he would meet her again in the lucid depths of his sleeping brain. But she wasn’t there, only the usual absurd poltergeists haunting the aftermath of sleep, knocking from inside his skull with fragmentary news of unfulfilled ghosts.
Why didn’t she come back for him?
Maybe – maybe she had never left. Time is like space. Exactly like space. But what about thermodynamics? Isn’t time thermodynamic? Ice cream on a summer’s day. A smoke ring fulfilling its resemblance to zero. What had cordoned off time from her coffee mug?
Not what. Who.
He didn’t have the heart to name the feeling that the mug carried once he realized that she was using it to reach back to him from the future. Was the mug’s obstinate heat her warmth – her love?
For a long time after that, it was enough to coddle the thing. Then, he became fearful he might break it. So, he swaddled it in bubble wrap and locked it away in a fireproof safe he set in the wall behind the refrigerator.
Weeks at a time, he never saw the miraculous mug. It was enough for him to know it was there – that she was there beyond the stars, beyond the crumbling of the stars.
Days rolled in as regular and inexorable as the surging horses of the sea. Ordinary days, under-extraordinary days full of mundane ferment possessed him and assured him life was not a dream.
He changed jobs, worked for a while on cryptography for a communications company, and then took a teaching position at a nearby university. He met new people. He tried to make friends, cherishing the notion that, if he bonded with the right person, he could share what had happened to him. He could reveal the mug.
The frustrations and irresistible desires of the people he met – desires for new experiences, for precious things, for sex and communion with other people (but never with him) – intrigued him only briefly. Inevitably, his friendships became boring, and he discarded them like half-eaten apples.
He got sick. Adrift all day in sleep, he woke feverish in the dark and wrestled a sweaty, muscular homunculus through the night. Days later, when he recovered, he realized that death fit him like a shoe, like a tailored suit that would hang empty in his closet long after he was gone.
Two years had passed since she had come for him, over seven hundred days, and the mug still felt hot. He carried its wonder on his shoulders more heavily than ever, hunched over, pondering what would happen when the warmth had wafted away from his corpse. Would the mug’s flamboyant heat continue? When the sun had exhausted its hydrogen and flared away, blasting the earth to fugitive rubble, would the mug – or its shards – prevail? Would it glow infrared and immortal in the absolute cold of the void?
Thoughts of mortality left him feeling all feathery inside. He removed the mug from its safe and slept with it several nights in a row. But that didn’t diminish his anxiety about death.
An idea hummed softly in his brain. He could tell he was about to realize something. But thinking about anything since he had met her – reasoning through anything – had become a method of pain.
The miraculous world that he had experienced outside the illusion of time defeated logic. Now, rationality hurt, because he had known time as distance. Before, he had assumed reality was arbitrary and absurd. Thinking had been a way of inventing truth and making it do his work.
But if effects could create their own causes … and heat refused to disperse … and time tilted precisely like space … then, reality was designed and not a dream at all but a map of before drafted from the schematics of after.
Sitting at a window bare of curtains and blinds, numb face brushed by sunset’s fluent hair, he understood she would always dream after him. He was going down into darkness. Emptiness waited like an angel.
The earth itself and the sun – every star in the sky – on their way to that dark angel, crossed the distance of time without a word. Only people asked why. Dreaming after him, she had told him why. Yet, the answer was hard – and harder yet to remember.
He had been covetous of the mug’s power, as if possessing it could make him something more than a lonely and mortal man. She had given him that chance – to be other than lonely and more than a mortal man. She had exposed the illusion of time and offered him reality naked.
But he had preferred truth dolled up in evanescence. His allegiance to the familiar – to his donkey-ugly face, to the gnawing growl of lawnmowers and the fragrance of cut grass, to the trillion little hallelujahs of life on earth – had seduced him stronger than her love.
Sunset ebbed in the surf of time, and darkness soaking through the soft air revealed the real country of his allegiance: boundless empty space. He had no right to keep the supernatural mug for himself. He had to give it up before something happened to him and its cupful of infinity was overlooked and lost. Death had expectations.
Chronocentric thinking. Watching fireflies bleeping in the vest pocket park down the alley outside his window and across the street, the thought haunted him that all along he had misunderstood the mug. It was not a memento of her love. That was chronological thinking.
His heart thumped.
She had given him a token from the future. He had to accept what that future wanted to make of him. He had assumed the authorities would take the mug away if he revealed it. But that was the gumption of a chronological assumption. Smug reasoning.
Night sat in the window and revealed hidden lives flowing below as taillights and headlights, blood and lymph of the city’s dark body. The future had already changed every one of those lives forever.
The moon climbed between the buildings and up the skyline like a queen in a gauze veil. By the time she squatted on the penthouse across the street, he had worked out several pliant and plausible ways to make a gift of the mug to the world.
Then, in the cocoon of light around the moon, he recognized another possibility. The woman with the spider milk hair wanted him. With breath-held fear, he dreamed back to his first encounter with her: “If time is like space,” he had immediately recognized, “then change is an illusion.”
Her smile had cut his heart. “You understand!”
“Sure.” That syllable had flown from him like tossing a shoe aside. He had thought then he was merely dreaming and everything she had said was weightless of implication. But now –
Now, the other shoe dropped. “There really is no change!” he said aloud. “Time is one eternal now in mosaic.”
An opalescent idea illuminated the darkest crannies of his brain, where intuition permeated the membrane between inner and outer. Something other than change hauled him through the distances from one moment to the next.
Moonlight curdled around him like milk gone sour. Sitting in that coagulated light, he realized there were many ‘Nows’ – not as in the ‘many worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics, where history forked with each quantum decision – but without paths, without forks, just probability, a haze of ‘Nows’ like this moonlight.
The ‘Nows’ with the highest probabilities actually occurred. Memory, history, fossil records, motion, thermodynamics – all appeared as clots of probability. And the mug that would not cool existed as many low probability ‘Nows’ clotted out of the quantum haze of the universe by her – a scab healing over a wound.
That wound was the distance between him and her. She had reluctantly let him go, to live the terrestrial ‘Nows’ for which he had so glibly abandoned her. He had returned to his life, to the existence she had created for him with the Nullstellensatz and the qubit computer that no longer needed him and the consolation of a mug that never cooled. With it, he could still be with her, not at the far end of time but right here on earth. Together, they could change the world, dismantle reality. All the many ‘Nows’ that could have existed without this holy mug would smear away in the probability fog as new, unexpected ‘Nows’ coagulated.
“Or not,” he thought aloud, grunting as he heaved the refrigerator away from the wall. “If you’re not coming back for me, if you’re forsaking me to this – this – what did you call it?” He spun the safe’s combination lock. “This diurnal sculpture. This sunrise and sunset rock spinning in the void. If you’re not coming back for me, it’s only a dream. Why should I play along?”
He took the mug out of the safe and carried it in both hands through the dark apartment to the window. It glowed invisibly.
“Time does not exist,” he whispered to the mug and opened the window. “It is an illusion. Nothing. Zero.” He upheld the hot mug to the night. “Reality is one. The endless one. Now.” The white ceramic shone glossily with reflected city light. “One and nothing. You forever real – and me, an ephemeral thing, a dream, a figment of your imagination.”
“Come back,” he plaintively called to the few stars rattling above the city. “Come back for me. Please. Take me with you. I thought I belonged here. With the seasons. With the fragrant earth. I made a mistake. Can’t you forgive me? I want to live with you on the shores of infinity and all creation gone before.”
He felt suddenly foolish talking to the night, waiting at his window attentively, alert for some furtive verdict. “Look, I don’t want this mug. It doesn’t belong in this ‘Now’ – not in this rabid world. You must know that. Aren’t you the one who made us? You must know. This is a world of ambition without reason. Greed poisons all our enterprises. You must know that. What good can come of this cup? Answer me that. What good is freedom without purpose?”
The maroon night made no reply.
He sighed. She had reduced him to talking to himself, as if she expected him to finish his own meaning. “You created me,” he said finally, not bitterly but defiantly, speaking in a hushed voice to the vehement silence beyond the seething street noise, “yet, even so – ” He dangled the mug out the window by one finger. “Do you hear me? Even so, I can do just as I please.”
He released the mug, and as it fell, he thought, Nothing is forever.
The mug disappeared in the dark, then reappeared in a sheet of window light from the lower storeys. It shattered in the alley. Shards spun across the asphalt, clattered against the bricks of his building and the adjacent building, ricocheted – and slammed back together with a clack loud as a shut lock. Intact again, the mug rocked softly, dully shining far below, a shivering piece of moon fallen to earth.