Paths To Otherwhere
Copyright © 1995
James P. Hogan
Sometimes Hugh Brenner thought he'd been born on the wrong planet.
It seemed as obvious as anything could be that people achieved
more when they learned to get along than they did when they fought
over things. If they put as much time and energy into fixing problems
instead of blaming each other for being the problem, there wouldn't
be any problems left. So far they'd had two full-dress rehearsals
for wiping out what passed as civilization. This time it looked
as if things might be leading up to the real performance.
He looked from the car along a rubble-strewn side street while
they waited for the lights to change on the two-mile-long slum
of University Avenue leading to the campus. An orator in a forage-style
cap and gray-shirted uniform was pounding the air and shouting
into a microphone from a raised stand. Below, a line of linebacker-size
Grayshirts stood facing a crowd of a couple of hundred, mainly
students and local derelicts. A banner above the stand read: NATIONALIST
ACTION COALITION. Youths in parkas and leather jackets were gathered
farther along the block. Around the corner, police in riot gear
stood behind armored vans with mesh-covered windows.
"Looks like more trouble today," Chris said from the
passenger seat. Hugh's route into Berkeley brought him past the
pile of one-room rental conversions that Chris shared with nine
other students. Not many sophomores drove these days. As part
of the measures to prevent Detroit from closing down altogether,
regulations and taxes were designed to clear older cars off the
roads. The light turned green below the cluster surveillance cameras
covering the intersection. Hugh sighed and shook his head as he
eased the car forward. It was a GM Ocelot that he'd bought used
and well worn, built south of the border.
Behind them, Alice turned to peer through the rear window. She
had started appearing with Chris two or three mornings a week,
almost a month ago now. Hugh didn't know much more about her than
that she could have looked better if she had a good meal more
often; she came from San Antonio; and she was majoring in political
sociology, whatever that was. Hugh didn't have much time for politics.
A physicist of twenty-eight, unattached, with no dependents, no
dependencies, no payments, he was one of those oddities who still
thought life could be simple and honest.
"At least they've got plans for doing something,"
Alice said, turning back.
"It's all a mess and too far gone," Hugh answered. "What's
anyone going to do now?"
"Well, somebody has to. How else are we going to get things
back on track?"
Hugh knew the line: Security is Strength. Pride through Duty.
Honor and Sacrifice. Liberals and speculators were the cause
of all the problems. Chris had been sounding more radical lately.
Hugh had wondered where he'd been getting it from. He wasn't in
a mood to be indoctrinated just now. "Chris says you want
to come over to the lab and see our machine, Alice," he said
to change the subject.
"The QUIC," Chris said, turning his head to look back.
"You mean so you can show me how smart scientists are?"
Chris shrugged indifferently. "You don't have to. I just
thought you might want to see something different. If you'd rather
stick to another day of same-as-usual, that's okay by me."
"As if we didn't see enough machines everywhere all the time.
They're always going wrong, and they make life too complicated."
"I told you, this one's different."
Hugh could sense Alice searching for a put-down to come back with.
He didn't understand the fad that made younger people try to act
so hard all the time. Perhaps it was part of an affected worldliness
that fashion demanded. Maybe it just reflected the insecurities
of the times. Eventually she settled for a grudging, "It's
something to do with communicating with other universes, right?"
Twenty years before, she wouldn't have believed it. But there
had been enough in the news and the popular science media to make
it fairly common knowledge that the "parallel universes"
conjectured by theoreticians for a long time were now generally
accepted as fact.
"Not communicating, exactly," Hugh said. "It extracts
information from them-information that you can use."
"Such as for what?" Alice asked.
"When you decide to come over, you'll see," Chris told
"Why not make it right now, when we get in?" Hugh suggested.
There was a pause. Neither of them, it seemed, could find anything
wrong with it. "Okay," Alice conceded finally. "Why
"There you go: easy," Hugh said. "Why is just keeping
things simple so much of a problem these days? I don't understand
They turned left at the end of University to make the circuit
around to the east side of the campus. Coils of razor wire lined
the top of the wall to the right. The street-facing windows of
the university buildings were protected with screens. A lot of
disgruntled people thought that all students were privileged rich
kids. The gates had barriers with armed guards, like military
One thing, at least, to be said for the slump was that it made
parking easier. Hugh found a place near the East Gate, opposite
Stanley Hall. As they got out, a man in a soiled reefer jacket
came over and scowled. He was big, with a blue chin, flattened
nose, and stained teeth. He slammed the wing of the Ocelot with
the flat of a hand that looked as if it could as easily have punched
through. "Mexican garbage! Waddya wanna buy this crap for?
You ashamed of bein' American or sump'n, huh?"
Hugh looked him in the face, candid and wide-eyed. "My mother
left it to me. . . . It was only a month ago."
"Oh . . . yeah." The gorilla faltered. "Then I
guess that's different. Okay, I didn't know, okay?"
Hugh shrugged and showed his palms in response to Chris's pained
look as they turned from the car. He didn't see it as taking work
away from American auto workers. Hell, most of them were in Mexico,
Inside the Biophysics Department, they entered the lab from a
corridor of plain yellow walls lined by doors on both sides. A
technician in shirtsleeves and jeans was working at an opened
electronics cabinet, one of several clustered in the center of
the room. On the far side, a girl operating a desk terminal waved
a hand without looking away from the screen. Chris went into an
inner office to check the morning's E-mail. Alice stood looking
around while Hugh hung his windbreaker on a peg behind the door.
It was the typical jumble of untidy desks, wire-entangled cubicles,
and half-filled equipment racks that electronics researchers everywhere
seemed to revel in. Charts and notice boards filled the walls
between shelves sagging with books and binders. A bench running
along one side carried a collection of oscilloscopes and other
test gear, soldering irons and tools, and unidentifiable gadgets
in various stages of assembly or dismemberment.
"Do you know what quantum paradoxes are?" Hugh asked
as he came over and began entering initialization commands into
the touch panel of an improvised console. Most people at college
would know enough to be familiar with the gist.
"Something to do with things being waves and particles at
the same time, isn't it?" she said.
Hugh nodded. "Things like photons and electrons, that people
usually think of as particles, can also interfere with each other
like waves." He made throwing motions in the air with both
hands. "You know when you toss a couple of stones into a
pond-each one makes circles of waves that spread out. Where the
circles start to overlap, you get a criss-cross effect of flat
spots and rough spots. That's called an interference pattern."
"Okay. . . . And quantum whatevers do the same thing?"
"Right. Except there's a difference: They can do it with
themselves-apparently. It's as if you only threw one stone, but
you still get the pattern."
Alice thought about it, made a face, and shook her head. "That
doesn't make sense."
"Which is why they used to be called paradoxes. But the answer
turns out to be that what the particle-or whatever-is interacting
with isn't itself, inexplicably, in the universe, but counterparts
of itself, or 'ghosts,' if you like, in these other universes
that you read about. In fact, that was what persuaded most physicists
to accept them as real: the way they explain the paradoxes."
Chris reappeared in the doorway from the office. "Just routine
stuff, mainly," he told Hugh. "You've got a note to
meet Theo in Strahan's office at eleven sharp." Theo Jantowitz
was the professor that Hugh worked with-Chris was one of their
technical assistants. Stan Strahan ran the department.
"Probably to do with these government people who are supposed
to be coming today," Hugh said.
"What do they want?" Chris asked.
"You tell me. Nosing around the project, I guess."
Alice looked puzzled. "I thought that you guys were working
on something to do with evolution. What does the government care
about giraffes' necks or where chickens and eggs come from?"
"Tell me something that the government doesn't care about,"
"It started out as something to do with evolution, but it's
kind of taken on a life of its own," Hugh said. "We'll
find out soon enough what they want. Anyway . . ." He indicated
one of the regular, five-foot-high cabinets. Its side panels had
been left off for easy access, revealing several racks of electronics
filling the lower part. The top section consisted of a metal frame
holding three tiers of aluminum boxes, each about the size of
a paperback book, arranged in rows. Another cubicle stood behind,
and a confusion of pipes, metal coils, and valves connected to
a cooling system stacked by the wall. "That's it. Meet the
QUantum Interference Correlator. QUIC, this is Alice."
He waited while her eyes darted uncertainly, seeking a hint for
a hopefully sensible question to ask. She didn't make a joke by
talking to it. Too intense. The ones who were into politics were
always too intense.
"Okay, so these other universes are real," she said
at last. "This machine here-you're saying that it connects
to them somehow?"
"Kind of. Interference between universes at the quantum level
means that information transfer takes place between them."
Hugh patted the top bank of silver boxes. "The guts of it
all is in these. They contain a special kind of circuit chip with
precisely configured helical structures integrated into the electronics.
Think of them as molecular-scale antennas. They tune to the quantum-level
information leakage and couple to their other-universe counterparts,
just like the 'ghost' particles."
"Oka-ay . . ."
Hugh tapped one of the boxes again. "So this machine is actually
a lot bigger than what you see. It operates in combination with
thousands of copies of itself, that exist in other universes."
Chris stood by them, watching the befuddled look spread across
Alice's face and enjoying it. She shook her head. "This is
getting weird. I mean . . . So what does it do?"
Hugh rolled a chair up to the console. "Well, let's have
a look and see. You can be driver." Alice sat down and waited
while he tapped in a line of text. When he had finished, the words
on the screen in front of her read:
This is a test sentence to show what the QUIC can do.
He indicated it with a nod. "Now you just copy what I've
typed there again, underneath. But I want you to make an error
in it somewhere." As she was about to begin, Hugh said, "Remember,
there are thousands of other Alices at thousands of other machines
in thousands of other universes, all doing the same thing."
She hesitated, eying him suspiciously. "You're sure this
isn't some kind of joke?"
"Just go ahead and do it," Chris said behind her.
"Make a mistake somewhere, right? Anywhere I like."
Hugh nodded. Alice started copying the line. The timing of the
characters did not synchronize with her keystrokes-they appeared
after varying delays of fractions of a second. She either failed
to notice or didn't mention it. When she got to the word sentence
she typed, s-e-n-t-e-m-c-e. . . . But on the screen,
the word appeared correctly. She blinked and glanced up at the
other two. They said nothing. She finished typing.
"It's a con," she accused. "The copy is automatic.
What I do doesn't make any difference."
"That's what you'd think," Hugh agreed. "But in
fact what's going on is a lot more interesting. See, the machine
doesn't only respond to what you type. It combines it with
what all the other Alices are typing too. They all put in an error
somewhere as well, but they didn't all pick the same place. Statistically,
the odds of any given place being picked are low. So, the letter
that you picked got typed right far more often than it got typed
wrong, and the machine went by the majority vote. And the same
was true for every other choice too. So all the Alices got a correct
sentence, and they're probably all staring pretty much the way
that you're staring at me right now."
"A self-correcting keyboard," Chris said. "Like
The tech who had been working on the cabinet was watching. "Neat,
eh?" he said to Alice.
She slumped back in the chair. Finally her defenses were down.
"This isn't real," she muttered.
"Oh, it's real," Hugh assured her.
She found that she could make the cursor trace an almost perfect
circle on the screen-because the random wobbles made among the
Alices in the many universes tended to cancel each other out.
Or, instead of combining the results from all universes together,
the machine could simply deliver the first response from any of
them. In simple problems like matching shapes and finding names
on a street map, in all but one try out of twenty, the machine
had the solution before she did. It meant that another Alice somewhere
had found it faster.
Chris had moved away to talk to the tech working on the cabinet.
Alice looked up at Hugh. He had smooth, tanned features with high
cheeks and deep, distant brown eyes, the legacy of a dash of Cherokee
somewhere back in the gene line. His hair was black and wavy,
collar length; his face was fringed by a wisp of beard and another
across his upper lip, forming a humorous excuse for a mustache.
Her calculating eyes regarded him curiously. The line of the mouth
softened a fraction. He saw that expression two or three times
a week. The offer was there: frank, unashamedly opportunistic-ready
to trade in the sophomore for a lean, laid-back, not-bad-looking
postdoc. Mobile too.
No, he liked life simple, he told himself. And it was already
complicated enough. Don't even think about it. Besides, cutting
Chris out like that wouldn't have been his style.
"Alice," he said, lowering his voice, "there are
problems that I don't need." He gave her an easy smile and
shook his head. "Even with thousands of me out there to think
It could be tempting, though. For a moment the thought came into
his head of asking her if she had a friend who wasn't attached
right now. Then, after a second or two, he dismissed it. He wondered
as he did so how many of the other Hughs in the other universes
had made the same decision.
Baen Book 10/20/95
Copyright © 1995 by James P. Hogan