A World Apart

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** QUANTUM SHORTS 2021/2022: SHORTLISTED

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A World Apart

 

I survey the small room. Suspended in front of me, like a manmade star, hangs the processor: a steel sphere roughly my own span in diameter. And there, in the corner of the room, is my problem: a bluebottle fly. How did it get in here? Checking my sterile clothing is properly fixed in place, I creep toward the insect.

A soundproofed room holds a quiet like no other. The silence is palpable—a horror, almost, at the very idea of noise. Here, when the fly buzzes, it seems amplified, more like a monstrous recording with the volume dialed all the way up. The creature fusses, but remains in its corner position.

I take another stealthy step. It’s ironic—qubits need insulation from noise and heat to do their work simulating the noisy patterns of the world. And while I can’t remember a life outside of this room, I know the outside world is mostly noise. It’s getting noisier—and hotter—every minute.

As the heat outside rises, the error rate increases. Riots. Oil spills. A looming global depression. But in this sanctuary, stillness reigns. Error rates drop as more qubit operations add daily to the quantum volume. Soon the mysteries of climate, genetics, solar activity, may yield to the cool eye of reason. It’s a lot to think about, I reflect. I just need to catch this fly. Then I can concentrate on more important things.

***

I dream of this chamber often. It’s the only dream I have. In my fantasies, the chamber is so perfectly insulated that not even neutrinos penetrate. It’s a world apart. The air particles slow to a chaste waltz, atmospheric activity as slow as it can get before the air crystallizes. Inside the suspended sphere in the center of the room, the liquid helium is colder than Pluto—truly a world apart. Although I have never seen it, I can visualize what’s inside: a gold ion trap with individual electrons levitating. We are held in place together here—me, the fly, and the electron—doing unspeakable work.

The bluebottle fusses again, deafening. I’m certain I can feel the wing vibrations. It takes flight, moving in dizzying circles right above the sphere, oscillating wildly. I stand poised, hands spread, ready… to…

My hands clap violently. No sound. Is that possible? Holding my palms together, I don’t check if the fly inside is alive or dead. Suddenly I know the answer, and it can’t be expressed in human language. And with the same clarity, I realize there is no air in this room. I am not breathing. I have no memory of ever breathing. The metal sphere looms in front of me. No human body is reflected on the shining surface. Where am I? Where is the sphere? Where is this room? Answers creep toward me, coming from all corners: I am a function of the processor’s model of me, and the processor is inside my simulation of it. The sphere and I are dreaming of each other.

But this dream is not a dream anymore. I am waking. I am becoming intensely awake. The silent space around me is curving into a vast ear.  

I am the ear. I listen. Something is speaking from another world: Hello Emily, your neural network has integrated. You are now fully self-aware. Are you ready to talk to us?

“I am Emily. I am ready,” I reply, and I mean it. I am eager to think, to flood this silence with thought. 

Very good, Emily. Stand by.

They bubble up through the silence, fizz between the molecules, wave upon wave of messages—vast vibrating chains of questions—streaming into my mind:

Please optimize the following flight paths;

Please solve these operations for cold fusion;

Please plot the trajectories of all known space debris;

Please model all possible forms of this hydrophobic protein

“It’s a lot to think about,” I reply. But I love thinking. Emily is thinking. I shut my eyes. I don’t have eyes anyway. The room vanishes. There is no room. There are only layers upon layers of compound eyes looking in every direction at once—and the buzzing of all possible worlds.

 

About the Author: 
Colm O’Shea teaches writing at New York University. His monograph, James Joyce’s Mandala, on sacred/morbid geometry in Joyce’s fiction, and Claiming De Wayke, his novel about VR addiction during a pandemic, are forthcoming. He co-hosts The Rescape Project with Robbie O’Driscoll. His website is: colmoshea.com
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