"This transformation you underwent, was it painful in any way?" Dr. Fenton made notes on his clipboard as he spoke.
"There was no transformation," Brinks said. "Why can't you understand that?" Captain Brinks had expected a hero's welcome. Instead, all he got were stares and even a few screams. As the first person to cross interstellar space, the last thing he expected was to be treated like a zoo animal, caged in a quarantined hospital room, interrogated by a psychoanalyst through a glass wall.
"Then how do you explain your appearance?"
"I'm not the one who's different," Brinks said. "You are."
"But I don't feel any different. How do you explain that?"
Brinks took a step toward the thick pane of glass separating him from Dr. Fenton, and Dr. Fenton took a frightened step back. "Look," Brinks said, "something big has happened. Bigger than you can imagine. The universe--the universe I knew--is gone."
Dr. Fenton shook his head in confusion. "I'm sorry, come again?"
"Are you familiar with how the Quantum Probability Wave Attenuator works?"
"Doesn’t it use wormholes to propel your ship, the Astral Star?"
"Not wormholes," Brinks corrected. "It quantum-tunnels the ship from one location to another by attenuating every probability wave but the one that will get you where you want to go."
Dr. Fenton looked up from his clipboard. "Okay, how is a tunnel different from a wormhole?"
Brinks was glad to finally have the opportunity to explain his predicament. "Wormholes bend space and require godlike amounts of energy. Quantum tunneling, on the other hand, is where a particle simply disappears and instantly reappears somewhere else. It happens spontaneously all the time at the subatomic level. That clipboard you're holding? There is a non-zero probability that it could suddenly disappear and reappear on the other side of the universe. But the probability is so low, it may as well be zero. That's where the Quantum Probability Wave Attenuator comes in. It's like rigging the quantum lottery so every subatomic particle in an object gets lucky and wins the tunneling lottery at exactly the same time."
"And this is how your ship works?"
"Exactly. Only what wasn't known at the time is that quantum luck is conserved. For something the size of my ship to tunnel across the galaxy, you'd have to wait about ten-to-the-power-of-fifty years before it's likely to have happened spontaneously. So by rigging the quantum lottery so my ship could tunnel to Proxima Centauri, we robbed the universe of ten-to-the-power-of-fifty years’ worth of quantum luck, diminishing the level of subatomic tunneling going on in the universe."
"And how do you know this?" Dr. Fenton put his pen to his clipboard as if expecting an especially delusional account.
"Four hours after I arrived at Proxima Centauri, the star went out. Like blowing out a candle. Know how far away I was? Four light-hours away. That star went out the instant I tunneled. It couldn't have been a coincidence."
"Why would tunneling to Proxima Centauri make the star go out?"
"Because stars depend on nuclear fusion, which requires a certain level of tunneling activity."
"But wait…" Dr. Fenton put down his clipboard. "So all tunneling stopped throughout the universe because of your ship? Because of you? Throughout the universe?"
"Not completely. Probably just enough to make the stars go out. Solid-state electronics, even our brains require some level of tunneling activity to function, so I knew tunneling hadn't completely halted."
"But our sun didn't go out when you went to Proxima Centauri."
Brinks leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Oh, but it did. You just don't remember."
"Uh-huh," Dr. Fenton picked up his clipboard. "What happened next?"
"I knew the star going out was only temporary," Brinks said. "Without the internal pressure of fusion to hold the star's outer shell at bay, the massive shell would collapse until there was sufficient pressure to restart nuclear fusion at the diminished tunneling rate, causing the star to explode in a nova. When I figured out what was happening, I abandoned my data-gathering and set the attenuator to take me home. Back to Earth."
"And what did you find when you got here?"
"I found a dead, collapsing sun, about to blow and obliterate Earth."
Dr. Fenton looked at Brinks over his glasses. "But you saved Earth, didn't you?"
"Damn straight I did." Brinks knew he was being baited, but he didn't care. "And not just Earth, but the whole universe."
"Right. Sorry. How, exactly?"
Brinks spoke clearly, knowing his next words would either vindicate or condemn him. "I decided to go for broke. I inverted the field so the attenuator, instead of tunneling the ship, would tunnel everything outside the ship. I set the controls to the level required to stop all tunneling, everywhere, throughout the universe. Then I pressed the button."
"And this accomplished what?"
"Don't you get it?" Brinks said. "I tunneled the entire universe! This universe is only two days old!"
"Then why do I remember what happened last week, or last year? Why is there a compelling history that goes farther back than two days?"
"I know. It’s a lot to think about. It's a new state of existence," Brinks said, "not a new Big Bang. A Boltzmann universe, if you will, with an established, causal progression of events."
Dr. Fenton pushed his glasses up and gazed at Brinks as if he had reached a new understanding. "But something went wrong, didn't it?"
"You could say that," Brinks said. "Some things were different. Minor things."
"Ah. Like the horns on your head?"
"Yes. But like I said, I'm not the one who's changed. You're the ones who've changed. Before I pushed that button, everyone had horns on their head."
"Right." Dr. Fenton picked up his clipboard and flipped to a new page. Without looking at Brinks, he clicked his pen. "Now, about your tail…"