Craig looked over at Dr. Pollack as he turned off the car in the parking lot of his research facility. Craig had just finished his story a couple of minutes ago and he was waiting with some trepidation for Dr. Pollack's reaction. What he got surprised him. Dr. Pollack pulled the keys out of the ignition and then sat very still for a moment staring at the steering wheel while saying nothing. Craig could've sworn he heard Dr. Pollack mutter swear words under his breath but he knew he must have misheard because that would've been so completely out of character for a man like Dr. Pollack.
Dr. Pollack opened his door and exited the car. “C'mon guys. Follow me,” he said as he strode towards the entrance.
They entered the building and Dr. Pollack went through a security door motioning the boys to wait for a moment. He returned with four clip-on ID tags and a tablet computer. “Sorry about this, but I need you guys to fill this in and sign here,” he pointed at the touchscreen, “then I have to counter-sign. No more visitor badges, the government put all this new security stuff in last week after...well, we'll get to that. Just go ahead and fill it out guys. This file will be linked to that ID tag I gave you so you'll be able to be inside without setting off any alarms. Be warned though, there's a proximity sensor relative to my ID badge. You need to stay within thirty or so feet of me or it won't be pretty in here.”
Joel, Jamie, and Craig filled out the requested information silently. Craig handed the tablet to Andrew, but he shook his head and explained that he already had a file linked to his badge since he had been here with his dad before today. The five of them walked through a metal detector and waited while Dr. Pollack swiped a card key at an elevator door. The elevator arrived and they filed in, with Dr. Pollack again swiping his card key inside before pressing a button. They elevator descended. There were no indicator lights in the elevator but it felt like it was maybe one or two floors down when the doors opened once again to reveal a long corridor. They exited and began walking. Dr. Pollack started speaking. “Okay, first things first,” he said as they strode down the light blue painted dimly lit corridor, “Craig and Joel, about your story. Don't worry, I believe it. Sadly, I have good reason to do so. Let me explain.” They reached the end of the corridor and Dr. Pollack again swiped his card key and a door clicked open. Another corridor branched at right angles on the other side of this door and they began heading left down that one. “Sorry about this, but I'm going to have to get a bit technical again. Any of you guys, I mean other than Andrew, know what my specialty is these days?”
Craig answered, “String theory.”
“Right. I could go on for hours about this, but I'll try to water it down to the barest nuts and bolts. Everybody, I'm sure, knows who Einstein is? And at least has heard about something he came up with called the theory of general relativity?”
The boys nodded.
“Okay, general relativity explains gravity and spacetime. But it doesn't explain quantum physics. Like the double slit stuff we were talking about. In fact, Einstein had a real problem with quantum physics, but that was before some things were experimentally verified. Nowadays, lots of people are trying hard to figure out how both could be true. We know relativity works, because we can measure it. In fact, things like the GPS satellite system has to take relativity into account or it wouldn't work and your GPS in your car would send you miles in the wrong direction. We also know quantum physics is true for much the same reason, like the experiments we talked about. But the theories are kind of incompatible, so we know we're missing something, or have something wrong somewhere. People have been trying to figure this out for decades, to come up with some so-called 'theory of everything' to explain it. That's where string theory came from. It's one of these attempts. It has a huge problem though.”
They reached another door and again Dr. Pollack swiped his card key. On the other side of this door was another elevator car. They got in and it began descending. Craig noticed that Dr. Pollack hadn't swiped a card key or pressed a button on the inside.
Dr. Pollack asked, “You guys are taking science classes. Who knows about how basic science works? How do you use science to try and find out things?”
Craig answered, “You look at what you know and use it to try and figure out an idea, or hypothesis to explain how something happens, or why something works, then you figure out an experiment to test it. You try and falsify it, show how it's wrong.”
“Yes, well mostly anyway. There's actually a lot of different ways to do good science.” said Dr. Pollack, “The experiment you think up is designed to try as hard as you can to make your hypothesis fail. To see if it holds up. That's why science on most TV and movies are so ridiculous. When you see some TV scientist proclaim, 'my experiment failed!' that's silly. In real life, either your hypothesis holds up, in which case you learned something, or it doesn't, in which case you learned something. That's science. The problem with string theory has always been that there has been absolutely no way to design any experiment to test it. So a lot of people said it was a crock, a weird idea with nothing to stand on.”
The elevator doors opened and they entered a big room full of regular boring office desks on one side, and large odd looking equipment on the others. Cables ran along one of the walls between the computers on the desks and the odd equipment. The smell of ozone from all of the electronics was strong in the air. That combined with the cold fluorescent lighting and the lack of plants, pictures, or other personal touches made the room feel cold and sterile. A dirty coffee machine sitting on a filing cabinet in one corner was the only thing tempering the sterile look of the room. Somehow though it just made it worse.
Dr. Pollack stopped and turned to look at the four boys. “I said there wasn't any way to test the theory. That was true. Until about three months ago.” He walked over to a stainless steel cabinet against the wall and opened a door, pulling out a portable device that looked for all the world like a 1980's era “ghetto blaster” stereo with the case cut open in various spots. A cord was attached at one point and at the other end of that six foot cord was a wand like device.
“Uh, why does that look like an old tape player, Dad?” asked Andrew, pointing.
“Huh? Oh! Because that's what it was. Or at least the case to one. It was about the right size case, so I pulled out the stereo and replaced the electronics with my own.” He smiled at the boy's amused grins. “Hey, we're on a budget here. No fancy movie sci-fi stuff.
“The strings we talk about in string theory refer to quarks and electrons in atoms. We believe that instead of 0-dimensional objects they're actually 1-dimensional oscillating strings....”
“Dad! Grade 8, remember?”
“Woops. Sorry. Okay, it's like this. There's way more dimensions than you think. Maybe eleven. Or more. They're real dimensions, just like length, width, height, and time. We just can't see them. They're there though. That's why gravity is so weak....well, again, it doesn't matter right now. Anyway, we found that some of those dimensions can connect to other universes. The ones that split off. Kind of useless though, since we can't see them.” He held up the recycled tape player. “This thing can. It will do two things. Detect the remnants of a large scale superposition, and detect vibrating strings connecting universes. Why I built it I'll get to, but for now, come over here guys. I want to check something.”
They moved close and Dr. Pollack turned the device on by pressing the original power button. Jamie giggled at this and Dr. Pollack just shrugged. “Hey, the button was there, why not use it?” He waved the wand like it was an airport's portable metal detector near Jamie, and then near Andrew. “Did you guys hear that?” he asked.
“Hear what?” asked Joel.
“Exactly. Nothing. Now, let's try this.” Dr. Pollack waved the device near Craig, and then Joel. A loud squealing noise began emanating from the speakers of the device every time the wand was within six inches of any part of their bodies.
“There you go,” said Dr. Pollack.
“Uh, what?” said Craig.
“Well, that proves it. You and Joel both recently have undergone a massive superposition event translating you along an n-dimensional oscillating string axis into an alternate spacetime.”
“Dad!! Grade 8! Grade 8! Grade 8!” said Andrew.
“You've changed universes,” said Dr. Pollack smugly.
“Uh. Well. We kinda knew that,” said Craig, a nonplussed look on his face.
Nobody said anything for a few seconds. “Uh. Right. Of course.” said Dr. Pollack finally.
They were sitting in what was obviously a lunch room just down a short hallway that branched off from the large room with all the equipment. Dr. Pollack had found some snacks and they were eating them as they talked.
“Didn't you guys just have about three or four pizzas an hour or two ago?” asked Dr. Pollack as he continued to scour the cupboards for food.
“Yeah. That's why we're hungry. That was almost two hours ago,” answered Jamie with a smile.
Dr. Pollack shook his head and smiled back. “Right. Teenagers. Never mind, how silly of me.” He found a box of cookies, shrugged after looking at the expiry date, and put them on the table. He sat down.
“Okay. This is classified as of a few weeks ago. So I'm not supposed to tell you this. But, under the circumstances, it's too late for that. I'm going to tell you what I think happened, but, unfortunately, there's some bad news after that. Well, a lot more than just bad news I guess. I hope you guys are ready.”
Joel said, “Dr. Pollack. We've spent a year surviving on our own in an empty world. I think we can manage.”
Dr. Pollack glanced at his son and Jamie, but decided to continue. “We, that is, Dr. Cornish and myself, figured out how to create an artificial superposition field. We can even control to some extent the broad parameters of the universe connected to that field. Andrew, you remember what I told you a long time ago when you asked about why this place is so far underground?”
“Sure, you said the bedrock here had something in it to protect your gear from cosmic rays and electromagnetic interference,” said Andrew.
“Right. That's why this facility exists. This one and the other one in southern British Columbia,” said Dr. Pollack, his finger touching a spot on a large map on the wall. “The right bedrock.”
Joel and Craig stared at each other at this news, and at the location of Dr. Pollack's finger on the wall map. They knew exactly where he was talking about. They had found it by looking at carefully drawn intersecting lines on their own map.
“We figured it was safe, but unfortunately the effect was far larger than we thought,” said Dr. Pollack.
“What effect?” asked Joel.
“Joel, Craig, I need to ask you something. Try hard to remember. On June 8th, between 5:30 and 6:00 AM, do you remember where you were?”
Craig said, “Sure, that was they day we moved. We got to the house around 6:30 AM I think. Mom drove all night because she needed to meet the movers here that morning.”
Dr. Pollack looked at him. “Which way did you come into town?”
“Uh, Along route 68 I think, we drove right by this place. I remember because I knew you worked here, and I saw one of your lectures on the 'net.”
“So that would've put you on the highway near the facility between 5:30 and 6:00?”
Craig thought, and nodded agreement.
“Joel,” said Dr. Pollack, “what about you? Do you remember where you were?”
Joel thought. “Uh, that was a Saturday, right? Okay, that may have been the day Dad and I went fishing up around here. He heard about the fishing at Three Valley Lake and wanted to try it.”
“The lake a half mile from here, right?” asked Dr. Pollack, pointing south.
“Yeah, I guess. We would've been here about the time you said. We came out on Friday night and camped on the shore. I got up early and paddled the canoe out onto the lake to watch the sunrise. Dad wasn't up yet.”
Dr. Pollack rubbed his face with his hands before looking up. “Guys. I'm sorry. I think this is partly my fault.”
“Your fault?!” said Craig.
“Well, partly. Mine and Dr. Cornish's. We had a disagreement. He convinced me to try and create the field before we were ready. An artificial superposition field. Like the steel box for Schrödinger's cat. It turned out to be far larger than it was supposed to be. It spread out a mile. Just to the highway. And the lake. Guys, you were caught in it. It changed your, well, your connection to the universe.”
“What the hell?” Joel said, his face unreadable.
“Look, it's like this, as best I can figure out. We're pretty sure that human free will is actually a quantum effect. It's why we have free will. Otherwise we'd just be deterministic machines. No choice in what happens. But when we make a choice, we're going into one universe, and an alternate version of you that made the other choice is going into another universe. We quite literally live in the universe of our choosing. Think about that. This is a bit different though. Thanks to the field, I think instead of splitting the universe, one of you must've been thinking hard about something, wishing something was different, and it translated both of you to a universe that kind of fit that description.”
The room became silent. Craig went deathly pale. “A wish? No, you're shittin...I mean, you're kidding me, right?”
Dr. Pollack shook his head sadly.
Everybody was looking at Craig. He was trembling badly. His face was sickly white. He couldn't help remembering his thoughts before going to sleep that night, after the day at school, after the fight with his mom. “This was all my fault?” He sniffed and his eyes darted around at the others. “I should've known. I knew it. I always screw things up. What a fuck up I...”
“Craig, shut up!” Andrew grabbed his shoulders and forced him to look at his eyes. “Gimme a break. Jeez, I thought you were over that stuff. Of course it's not your fault. Think dude!” He shook Craig gently, staring into his eyes.
Craig looked back into Andrew's warm eyes, seeing the openness, the support. He didn't want to believe it, but Andrew wouldn't look away. Craig found he couldn't look away either. Despite himself, he felt some of Andrew's warmth seep into him. Craig closed his eyes and thought hard. He mentally shook himself. That kind of thinking wasn't helping. He opened his eyes and managed a faint smile at his boyfriend and gave him a quick hug. “Thanks Andrew.”
He looked around at the faces in the room. Most were smiling slightly. Joel, however, was looking at him oddly. Visibly trying to reconcile his own thoughts. Joel finally blinked himself and gave Craig the tiniest of smiles. His eyes looked haunted though.
Dr. Pollack raised his hands to get their attention. “Guys, listen. Craig, Andrew's right. It's not your fault. You got caught in the crossfire. Sorry about this, but remember how I said I had bad news? Well. I'm really sorry...” He stopped and was breathing deeply and blinking rapidly. Craig could've sworn his eyes became moist. He finally continued. “I think we're in trouble. Big trouble. Wednesday morning early, at 4:08 AM,” Craig and Joel looked at each other again, eyes wide. Dr Pollack continued, “Dr. Cornish came into the facility. We had argued again on Tuesday. He wanted to set up another field. He thought he could control the translation. He thought he could find a way to translate at will. At 4:08, he turned on the field. He vanished. The security camera footage shows this. We haven't seen him since. The superposition collapsed shortly afterwards, I think that's when you two returned, or more likely you made another wish just at the right moment, but there's something wrong. You talked about part of it, Craig. I don't know how much you noticed, but there's some odd things happening all around us...”
“We noticed,” said Craig. “Stuff from the other universe seems to be blended in with this one. That's why I asked you about that.”
“Right. This shouldn't happen, but somehow the strings have weaved. Blended. Guys. They'll fix themselves. They'll unweave. But, I'm pretty sure...Well, according to my calculations...”
“Get to the bottom line, Dad,” said Andrew.
“Well, both universes. This one and the one Craig and Joel were in, well, they're going to collapse. Disappear. Soon. Weeks, maybe days. Guys, this is going to sound horribly trite and maudlin, but I'm sorry. We're...well...we're all doomed.”