Paths To Otherwhere

Copyright 1995

James P. Hogan

Chapter One

      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?" Alice replied.
      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 her.
      "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 not?"
      "There you go: easy," Hugh said. "Why is just keeping things simple so much of a problem these days? I don't understand it."
      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 checkpoints.
      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?"
      "It's 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, anyway.
      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," Chris snorted.
      "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 it?"
      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 about them."
      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