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WIP: The Journeyman - Orphaned Scenes

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Parvati was doing her routine daily engine maintenance when she heard voices drifting down to her from the galley above. Max and Aethel, she thought. The conversation seemed to be going fairly well…at first. But then it seemed to Parvati that Aethel’s voice got quieter, while Max’s surely got louder. And angrier.

She had finished her work and was tucking her tools back into the storage locker when she heard Max exclaim, almost shouting in frustration, “Captain, that is heresy!” She immediately climbed the ladder to the galley. Are you going up to stop them from fighting, she asked herself. Or are you going up to watch?

She arrived to find Max sitting at the head of table, his hands pressed flat on its surface framing an open book, glaring at Aethel, who sat off to one side. He was all tense-like, his shoulders bunched up tight, but Aethel looked relaxed. So I can see who has the upper hand here at the moment, no matter what it’s about.

“Uh, ‘mornin’ Aethel, Vicar Max. Have I, ah, interrupted anything?” Parvati sat down at the table, diagonally across from the Captain and at least two paces from Max, just in case he exploded or anything.

Like a pteroray to something that had just died, Felix sauntered into the galley and slipped into a chair at the table across from her, his eyes keen. “Hey, boss,” he said to Aethel. “Couldn’t help but overhearing — sounds like you two are having an, um, interesting parlay.”

“Max is upset that I have brought up Planckian Mechanics,” Aethel told them.

“An heretical notion,” Max muttered.

“What?” Felix sounded baffled.

“It’s a branch of physics that deals with extremely small things. The things that make up atoms,” Aethel said.

“Electrons and whatnot,” Parvati offered, and Aethel nodded.

“So what’s the problem?” Felix asked.

“Standard physics is very good at describing and predicting the behavior of bigger things, like rocks, and for a long time, scientists assumed that the smaller things behave like that, too,” Aethel said. “But it turns out that when you start to actually work with these very small things, they don’t. The same kinds of math you do for rocks doesn’t work — something happens at that small scale, and you have to shift to a whole new form of math to deal with it. This suggests that those very small things are in fact not solid things, like rocks, but something else. But if you’re used to thinking about the universe in terms of solid things — or if your whole worldview depends on it,” she said, looking at Max “ — it’s very difficult to deal with.”

“The universe isn’t solid things?” Felix asked, sounding confused. He poked at the table with an experimental air. “Seems solid to me.”

Max chuckled darkly, but Aethel looked serious. “It’s a good observation,” she said to Felix. “We’re talking about that very small scale, though. At the scale at which we perceive things, things seem solid.”

“'Seem solid'? Things are solid,” Max scoffed. “It’s nonsense to believe otherwise.”

“But the math suggests otherwise,” Aethel said to him.

“It’s incomplete,” Max said, frowning.

“What does the math say?” Parvati interrupted before it could develop into a spat.

Aethel looked at her. “It says that if you are in a situation where something — something on this very small scale, I mean — could be in one state or another, you can find out the odds of those states, but the you can’t make a definitive prediction — the odds are all you get,” she explained. “You have to then make an observation. Then, and only then, do you know what state it’s in.”

“It’s incomplete,” Max repeated, crossing his arms. His frown was now a full-blown glower.

“So what?” Felix said.

“According to the Plan,” Max said stiffly. “All events are predetermined. There simply cannot be a situation, the outcome of which can’t be predicted in advance. The reason why it seems so is because our understanding of the math is incomplete. It’s one of the things that’s holding humanity back from discovering the Equation. What the Captain is talking about is Labor Physics.

Parvati could tell from the way he made his disdain fairly drip from the words, that he held “Labor Physics” to be a bad thing. Which, of course, only made Felix sit up straight, a malevolent gleam in his eyes.

Labor, huh?” Felix said. “Is this some kind of Iconoclast thing? Because if it is,” and with this, he leaned in towards Aethel, radiating hostility in the direction of the ship’s vicar. “I want to learn more.”

“No, you don't, Felix,” Max told him. “It’ll land you in Tartarus.”

“Oh? Then I definitely want to learn more,” Felix snarled.

“I just want to know what it is,” Parvati said quickly.

Aethel held up her hands, capturing Felix and Max’s attention, and then folded them. “Max, you know the history, don’t you?”

Of course he does, thought Parvati.

“Of course I do,” said Max. “Back on Earth, just before the Great War between Labor and Capital, certain lines of scientific inquiry were being pursued by certain disreputable people.” Aethel raised an eyebrow at this, but did not interrupt him, so he continued. “It had already been well accepted and supported that the universe operates on a deterministic model. These people were trying to prove otherwise.”

“Iconoclasts,” said Felix.

“This is well before the birth of Iconoclasm, or even Scientism, Felix,” Max said. But then he said, somewhat grudgingly, “although you’re correct in that these ideas eventually found their way into the thoughts of the people who developed that heresy.”

He took a breath. “At any rate, during the War, the proper kind of physics came be known as ‘Capital Physics’, and this degenerate exploration was called ‘Labor Physics’. It’s a shame that Labor Physics wasn’t entirely stamped out when Capital finally triumphed over Labor. As for this idea, the one about the math of very small things — the Labor Scientist who made the primary discovery hated the idea, as I understand it,” Max said. “Even he knew it was heretical.”

“Erwin Schrödinger,” Aethel supplied. “You’re correct; he didn’t like the implications of what he had figured out. That’s why he came up with his cat-in-the-box thought experiment.”

“I recall it,” Max said. “We learned about it in seminary. It was a cautionary tale.

“Cats?” Parvati said. “You mean like thundercats?”

“Animals from Earth,” Max said. “Not thundercats. Much smaller. But close enough.”

Felix blinked. “You’re telling me that scientists figure out physics by putting these little thundercats in boxes? That’s kind of cool, actually.”

“This doesn’t involve real boxes or real cats, son,” Max said patiently. “It’s just a story to illustrate what it means when the math only gives you probabilities as the answer instead of an actual answer.”

“Okay?” Felix said. He didn’t convinced, but at least sounded like he was willing to go on, and Parvati was pleased, because she was at a loss also.

“Imagine you set up a shielded box,” said Max. “Inside, there’s a very small remote-controlled medallion-tossing mechanical and an N-ray generator.”

“Medallion-tossing mechanical?” Felix asked. “Like to decide who serves the tossball first?”

“Yes, exactly,” Max said. “It’s a fifty-fifty chance as to how the medallion lands. If the medallion lands heads-up, the mechanical triggers the generator to release a lethal N-ray. Tails-up, no N-ray. You put the cat inside, close up the box, and remotely trigger the toss. You have no way of knowing which side the medallion landed on, and subsequently whether or not the mechanical triggered the N-ray, so you have no way of knowing whether the cat is alive or not. There’s a 50% chance that it’s alive, and a 50% chance that it’s dead.”

Felix narrowed his eyes — always looking for loopholes, our Felix. And he did. “I’d be able to hear the N-ray cook off or not, wouldn’t I?”

Max sighed and Parvati put a hand over her mouth to stifle a smile. Making him work for it. “Say that the box is soundproofed and laminated so that you can’t hear anything that’s happening inside it and the N-ray can’t leak out,” Max said. “There’s no way to tell what’s going on inside the box from outside of it.”

“Okay, I suppose,” said Felix.

“Why would anyone want to kill a cat like that?” Parvati asked, unsettled.

“The cat isn’t real, Parvati. It’s just a thought experiment,” Max replied.

“Well, even if they’re in my thoughts, I don’t like the idea of killing cats,” Parvati said firmly.

Aethel spoke up, gently interjecting. “In the early 21st Century, a scientist named Elder—ah, Doctor Carroll postulated another version, using a sedative instead of something lethal. So the cat is either asleep or awake.”

Parvati smiled. “I like that much better.”

“Won’t the cat try to get out of the box?” Felix asked Aethel. “And it’s a thundercat. There’s no way you’re keeping a thundercat in a box if it doesn’t want to be there. Just how big is this box?”

“Maybe it’s a teacup thundercat?” Parvati said.

Aethel nodded. “That’ll work. And Felix, you yourself said that thundercats love boxes. Let’s pretend this is the cat’s most favorite box and it likes to be in there.”

“Okay, I can do that.”

“Let’s put a comfy blanket in the box,” Parvati suggested.

Max pinched the bridge of his nose with an expression that made it clear that this conversational sidebar was literally painful to him. “The point is that you won’t actually know what happened with the cat until you open the box. Until you open the box, the best the math can do for you is say that the cat is dead — all right! All right!” He held off his hands to stave off Parvati’s protest. “Asleep — and al..awake at the same time: in two states simultaneously. It’s only when you open the box that you discover which state it’s in. The math implies that it’s the act of opening the box that causes the cat’s two states to settle into one or the other.”

Parvati squinted thoughtfully. “So it’s you opening the box that makes the cat either asleep or awake?”

Max settled back with that satisfied air that told her he was about to start pontificating about the superiority of Scientism.

She was not wrong. “That is the mystical, Philosophist interpretation,” he told her smugly. “That there’s something special about animal consciousness that can affect the universe somehow, that it’s the act of observation that determines the result. Scientism knows this is ridiculous. The thought experiment simply demonstrates that our understanding of the Plan is not complete, that we don’t fully understand the Equation. Once we do, we’ll be able to accurately predict what happened to the cat without needing to open the box.”

Parvati looked to Aethel, saw that Felix was also looking to Aethel and, out of the corner of her eye, saw that Max was seeing them both looking to Aethel; the muscles at the corners of his jaw abruptly stood out in sharp relief.

“That is the mainstream interpretation, yes,” Aethel said, a mischievous twinkle in her eyes.

Max’s face went both stony and pinched at the same time, the same way it always did when he knew Aethel was about to say something out of line with Scientism, something that Parvati knew would be wild and wonderful and that both she and Felix would love, even if they didn’t get it, because it would drive Max crazy. She could see the struggle in his face — all he has to do is keep his mouth shut.

But this was Max. “You have another?” He asked Aethel tightly. “What do you think the math implies?”

Aethel smiled. “There are two cats.”

Max’s eyes widened and his face flushed as if he’d just been punched in his nose. Parvati could see several veins in his head and neck start to throb. “I’ve no idea where you’re going with this, but it’s utter nonsense,” He growled. He pushed away from the table. “I don’t want to hear any more of this garbage. You two shouldn’t listen to it. But of course you will, won’t you?” He threw up his hands. “Whenever the Captain’s done spewing her ludicrous magical fantasies at you, come see me, and I’ll set you straight.” With that, he stormed off to his cabin.

Ha ha! As if! Parvati waited until the door to his quarters was shut. Then: “I don’t understand,” she to Aethel. “How can there be two cats?”

“In such a situation, when the math says there is a fifty-fifty chance, one way of looking at it is as the vicar suggests: that the math is incomplete,” Aethel said. “Another way is what he called ‘Philosophist’ - that the math is complete, and that the cat is both alive and asleep at the same time until a conscious observation causes a specific outcome. But there is a third way, which also says that the math is complete, but also that no consciousness is needed. It says that when such a situation occurs, what happens is that the universe splits into two universes.”

“Two universes?” Felix asked dubiously.

“One where the cat’s asleep, and one where it’s awake,” Parvati said to him, getting it, and was rewarded with a nod from Aethel.

“But doesn’t this kind of thing happen all the time?” Felix asked.

“Probably,” said Aethel.

Parvati tapped her fingers on the table, an idea growing in her mind. “Can these events happen with people? In people? Like me?”

“In or around, yes,” said Aethel.

“So if this split happens, where do I go?” Parvati asked. "Do I chose to be in one or the other somehow?"

Aethel shook her head. “You’re like the cat in that case,” she said. “There would be two Parvatis.”

Felix blinked. “You mean there are a bunch of universes out there with a bunch of Felixes in them?”

“I’m sure the vicar would be appalled, but that's the implication, yes,” she replied with a grin.

Felix seemed delighted, but then appeared to have a terrible realization that wiped the delight from his face. “Ugh,” he said gloomily. “That means there’s a bunch of universes out there with a bunch of Maxes in them, too.”

Aethel laughed. “Yes.”

“Is there any way to prove this?” Parvati asked. “Experiments, like?”

At this, Aethel looked cagey. “Not as such, no.”

Parvati leaned forward. “You’re holdin’ out, Aethel. C’mon, give us the scoop.”

Aethel leaned back and let out a little sigh. “I can’t. It’s just…it’s complicated,” she said. Then she put her hands on the table and levered herself up. “I’m not really a physicist,” she told them. “I’m a bodyguard. I study these things because I enjoy them, but I’ll need to do some research to really explain it to you correctly. And the books I need…well, just say they are most likely not Board-approved. If and when we can rescue the Hope, I’ll be in a better position to talk about it.”

But Parvati was left with a feeling that Aethel did have more that she could say. What isn't she saying?