QUANTUM SHORTS 2013: FIRST PRIZE, YOUTH CATEGORY
“You wanted it to fail.”
“I did not.”
“Yes, you did. You wanted your own experiment to fail. Why?”
Juana looked at Phil moodily over her coffee and took a scalding sip. It was the cheap stuff from the supermarket and there hadn’t been much creamer left, but she needed the caffeine. Without it she would simply lie on her bed, and stare at the ceiling, and know she was empty. That all humanity was empty.
“I didn’t want it to fail,” she said, more out of a principle of stubbornness than because she thought Phil would believe her.
“Juana, look at you. You’re the front page of every newspaper in the world, you’ve solved air pollution and let a hundred million more kids go to school or to the doctor, every last equation you slaved over worked out exactly as you dreamed it- or didn’t you dream it? We’ve known each other, what, nine years? You think I can’t tell when you’re not happy?”
“It worked,” she said bleakly. “The three tanks of particles, and the measurements, and getting around uncertainty- a man stepped into our teleporter here and came out in Korea. Exactly as he was.”
“And that’s wonderful.”
She was silent.
“Okay,” he said, in his what’s-up-with-her-now tone. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
“No. That’s it. Nothing. Nothingness. That’s what’s wrong.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You’re a neuroscientist. Your life has been spent working against what I’ve just disproved in one awful sweep.”
He didn’t see it. None of them saw it. Juana stood with her cheap coffee and moved out onto the back porch even though it was freezing. She buried her face into the steam from the drink. The sky was a mass of blank white. She could not see the sun.
And suddenly in one violent motion she hurled the coffee mug as far as she could out into the yard. It shattered- one large piece and a lot of little chips- and she turned away.
“I don’t have a soul,” she said, to the faceless sky and the running coffee and all the swirling chemicals and electrons in her brain. “There is no such thing as a soul. No one ever living has ever had a soul, or seen a soul, or known what a soul is. The experiment worked and I don’t have a soul.”
The sky and the coffee did not answer. The chemicals did. But it didn’t matter. They could wreak what havoc they liked with her. None of it was real. Just all little evolutionary tips and tricks- reward Juana with happiness and she’ll work for what she wants. Let her love, and she’ll reproduce. Let her grieve, and she’ll protect. And if she wants to believe there’s some kind of meaning behind it all, some reason for her existence more than a collection of molecules starting to make more of itself an eternity ago in some ancient sea, well, that’s okay. She can’t help it. It’s the reactions in her brain.
Phil came outside, with little Amy perched on a shoulder wearing flip-flops. She was walking a plastic dinosaur through her father’s graying curls, and at the sight of her Juana was filled with such dizzying love that she had to clutch at the railing. And none of it was real. Nothing she felt for Amy meant anything.
“I’m sorry,” she said to Phil. “It’s not you. My experiment means…”
Phil set Amy down; she attached herself to her mother’s leg.
“I’ve explained to you, of course, how teleportation works. You’re not sending one person to a different place. You’re using entanglement to copy all her particles- it’s complicated- and making a new version of her step out somewhere where different particles already were. The original copy is destroyed in the process. It’s like- like building a person where you want her.”
“I understand that. Well, the basics.”
“And- it worked. Yesterday. We sent a man through and it worked. We copied just his particles. And he could act, and think, and remember, and feel, exactly like the first version of himself.”
“So? That’s good, isn’t it?”
“It means that everything we are is particles,” said Juana slowly. “There’s nothing me out there, no purpose to my existence, no meaning of life except that this is the way it turned out… All I am, all any of us can say he is, is a hunk of gray-pink meat on a stomach and a couple of sticks.”
“Oh,” said Amy briefly, and went back to playing.
Phil laughed, and for a second she really was going to slap him. Then she remembered that her anger was nothing but particles, and his condescension was too. There was no point.
“That’s what’s been bothering you?”
She could still derive some chemical satisfaction from putting venom into the word Yes.
“Juana. I’m a neuroscientist. I have to think about that every single day. And guess what?”
She glared. His grin was the widest she’d ever seen.
“You can choose to deny it,” he said. “Just because there’s nothing intangible floating around inside you doesn’t mean there’s no you. No one else’s chemicals are like yours. No one else’s brain is like yours. You may be only a hunk of gray-pink meat, and I may be too, but mine loves yours and yours loves mine. These feelings exist. Does it matter how they’re created?”
“Phil-” she began, and stopped. His shadow stretched off towards the house. So there was a sun somewhere to cast it. She cocked her head. “…I broke a coffee mug.”
In one hand he held Amy’s. The other held Juana’s. His finger was over a collection of gold and carbon atoms that was exactly that, and more.
They went and found all the pieces.