** QUANTUM SHORTS 2019/2020: SHORTLISTED
"I'm sorry for your loss."
Lucy forced the expected half-smile and thanked her co-worker for the lovely flowers. Arrangements of every color adorned one end of the funeral chapel, where the body was supposed to be.
The body. Jason's body.
Her mind shied away from it. A dynamic person like her husband didn't just cease to be. He couldn't. It couldn't be real.
Assuming reality was actually a thing.
Her mirthless laugh drew a bemused glance from Jason's mom, but Lucy just shook her head. Her mother-in-law wouldn't appreciate why the idea of reality felt absurdly irrelevant. She didn't know the circumstances of Jason's death; she'd only been told there'd been an accident at the lab. Of course, she wouldn't have understood the details anyway. Lucy was a project lead and still struggled to wrap her mind around most of it. Things used to be so simple when scientists still thought the world could be studied and measured, but quantum theory had a way of unraveling certainty.
The lab had kept the body for autopsy. They killed him, she thought savagely, but she knew it was a lie. Jason had volunteered for the experiment. Insisted, even. He'd said he didn't want to put anyone else at risk testing his design, but Lucy suspected he'd also wanted to go down in history as the first human to travel successfully by quantum transfer.
So much for that.
"My condolences, Dr. Scott." She was startled from her thoughts by Dorian Tate, the CEO of Quandata. "Jason was a great man. He'll be missed by the entire scientific community." She mumbled something appropriate, and he continued. "HR tells me you plan to keep working, but if you change your mind, take as much time off as you need."
"Thank you, Dr. Tate, but I'd prefer to stay busy."
"I understand. Well, if there's anything we can do, don't hesitate to ask. And Lucy... I want you to know we aren't giving up. I swear we'll figure out what went wrong, and make sure Jason's work—and his sacrifice—was not in vain."
Lucy nodded mutely, and her boss took his leave.
Her coworkers tiptoed around her all week, but Lucy couldn't find the energy to care about their discomfort. Work had given her something to focus on, and had taken her out of her echoingly empty house. But today she'd almost stayed home.
Jason's project was not the only one at Quandata. Lucy's team worked with quantum entanglement communication devices and had a number of working prototypes in long-term testing. Matching equipment had been distributed to other departments, and every morning, one of the other project leads would contact Lucy using their set of entangled particles to confirm operation. Usually she found it exhilarating to see her work paying off.
But today was Jason's day to call.
She sat staring at the device that matched the one in Jason's lab, wondering if anyone would remember the comm test. She jumped when a signal pinged right on time.
"Good morning, beautiful." The voice came through perfectly, but it was wrong, all wrong. She was hallucinating. Delusional. Jason could not be talking to her. Jason was dead.
"Luce? You there?" The familiar note of concern wrung tears from her eyes.
"I—yes, I'm here. But you," she took a deep breath and ordered herself to be rational. "You can't be here. You're dead."
"I'm what?" Jason laughed. "I may be a little tired from a week of celebrating, but dead is stretching it."
Feeling increasingly crazy, Lucy explained how the transfer experiment had gone wrong. How the transporter had failed to capture the sheer volume of shifting electrochemical data in the human mind. How Jason had transferred flawlessly in every way except the most important one; he was brain-dead.
"Luce, if this is some weird joke, it's kinda freaking me out. The experiment worked perfectly. The party lasted all weekend, and half the department is still hung-over."
"Jason, I went to your funeral. If there's a joke, it's on me by some real bastard."
"Okay, let me think here," he said, dropping into what she'd always called his brainstorming voice. Brain-dead brainstorming... she stifled a hysterical laugh as he continued. "Let's assume for the moment we're both rational and our experiences are valid. The first question is how." He clicked his pen as he thought, a habit that used to annoy her back when small things mattered. "Hmm, Many Worlds theory maybe? All possible outcomes happened simultaneously, branching off into different universes, so in some I lived, and others," he swallowed audibly, "I didn't. But if that's true, how are we talking?"
Lucy reluctantly joined in the problem-solving. "In theory, the entangled particles in the comm devices could still exist in superposition, but that's..."
"One of all the possible outcomes?"
"So it seems."
A long silence followed.
Suddenly Jason swore. "Dammit, Luce, I have a meeting. I've gotta review the project with the board so we can get funding for the next phase. I'd skip it, but..."
"Go. It's important. I understand."
Still he hesitated. "Listen, I... I'll call you as soon as I get back, okay? We'll figure this out."
Her voice broke. "I love you."
"I love you too."
Lucy sat at her desk with tears running unchecked down her cheeks. We'll figure it out, he'd said, but she knew better. Even with all their fancy tech, nobody could make time flow backward. The best she could hope for was sporadic comm calls, knowing Jason would go home each night with his own Lucy. Could she be the other woman, if both women were her? It would just be a slower death.
She stared at the screen on the device.
At least she'd gotten to say goodbye, she thought, and wiped the hard drive. Then she began an email. "Dr. Tate, I've reconsidered about taking that time off."