Random Fire -A

Random Fire

Van Aaron Hughes


June 10:

I never kept a journal. I made day-to-day notes on my research, but a file for personal thoughts always struck me as vanity. Today, however, a little vanity is appropriate. Someday, people will wonder what went through my head at this moment.

This is the big one, the breakthrough I always dreamed of.

I try not to think of picking up a prize in Stockholm, but at a minimum it means a full professorship, perhaps the department chair since Randolph has one foot in the grave. Or maybe I’ll tell the dean what I think of him and go talk to Stanford or MIT. Not Caltech, of course. Harwell shares my area of expertise, with no room for me next to his ego.

My breakthrough is a variation on the double-slit experiment. The standard experiment fires particles at a plate cut with parallel slits; particles passing through interfere with each other before striking the screen on the far side. Even a single particle interferes with itself as, in a very real sense, it passes through both slits at once. Only an observer’s presence collapses the wave function and forces the particle to “choose” which slit to pass through.

My version uses an electron gun with tiny variations in the firing sequence, variations independent of the magnetic field or the electron’s topology or spin or string rotation, which creates a random element as to when the gun fires. The key was randomizing the gun just the right way so the wave function controls when, not where, the particle fires. In essence, I’m conducting a double-slit experiment with the slits offset in time rather than space.

Incredibly, I have detected a temporal interference pattern in the electrons’ impacts.

People are just getting used to the idea a particle can be in two places at once, but this shows it can simultaneously occupy the same space at different times. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle applies not only to where a particle is, but when.

The university is quiet since finals ended, and I’ve made great progress working without interference. Good thing I’m alone: I’ve caught myself a few times doing my old cool-science dance from years ago, back when I conducted experiments for the thrill of learning something new, before physics became a job.

I’ve told no one about my results except my wife, who didn’t understand much more than the fact that I was very excited. This only earned me her fiery eyes of doom. I had to promise Felice three times I will not be off doing experiments when our baby arrives.


June 23:

Every day I come up with new variations on the experiment.

I should be pushing toward publication, and get my name on this before anyone else stumbles on it. The university is unsubtle with their reminders. They wallpaper the hallway outside with blow-ups of abstracts and illos from papers authored by my faculty peers: constant reminders to keep my eyes on the publication prize.

But my mind keeps wandering, giddy with the implications of finding that an observer can collapse a wave function to alternate times. Of course one can’t extrapolate from elementary particles to a macro scale, and yet . . .

For the first time since reading H.G. Wells as a boy, I half-believe in the possibility of manipulating time.

Distracted, I find myself even more detached than usual. This morning I took the Olds right through the new stoplight at Everson Drive. Why is that light there? I never see any traffic coming down off the Flatirons to that intersection.


July 8:

Still not close to publication.

The paper should include Bloch spheres corresponding to my temporal results, but I have difficulty conceptualizing them. I tried to look up St. Andrews’ web page on applying algebraic topology to quantum mechanics, but it’s disappeared.

There’s no denying the Internet’s usefulness as a research tool, but I find it so frustrating. Give me old-fashioned books, where whatever is on the page stays on the damned page. On the Web, you find something you like, then a moment later it’s deleted or changed without explanation.

Memory says Bremen did that topology page, and he’s now at Caltech. Surely coincidence, but I must be alert to any possibility Harwell’s team is researching along my lines. I tried to call Bremen, but he’s at the Antwerp conference. Where I should be. But Felice would never forgive me for being gone when the baby arrives.


July 13:

I didn’t mean for this journal to include thoughts unconnected to the experiments, but I can’t help it.

I’m a father!

Yesterday I was Professor Terence Bienemy. Today I’m also Daddy.

Felice went into labor late Friday night. It took over 24 hours, but Felice never complained. Well, she complained a little. Maybe more than a little. But she never stabbed me in the eye with a hypodermic needle, and I’m grateful.

We named our daughter Allison. I call her Allie. Felice doesn’t much like the nickname, but that’s fine. Somehow I must arrange it so no one else calls her Allie. I will share Allison with my wife and with the world, but Allie is all mine.

The entire weekend I doted on Felice and Allie. Saturday and Sunday nights, the nurses wheeled Allie back into our room every couple hours for feeding, and each time I was overjoyed to see her, no matter little sleep I’d gotten. Felice was so exhausted she would have slept through a kamikaze attack: she snapped awake the instant Allie cried, but I was much more surprised at my own reaction.

I’ve behaved compulsively in the past, like when I lost track of time in that undergrad computer lab and worked for four days solid, but this feels different. For one thing, that time in the lab I gained a good ten pounds on Snickers bars, but at the hospital I didn’t eat a bite. My sister-in-law Diana came on Sunday, and she asked when I had eaten last and I simply couldn’t remember. It must have been nearly two days, but I never felt hungry. I thought only of Felice and Allie.

This gives me hope for myself, that I won’t always be chained to my worst fixations. Can having a child give you a sense of perspective? Suddenly whether I am first to publish my experiments doesn’t seem so important.


July 19:

It’s my first real day back in the lab.

I didn’t want to come, but Felice ordered me to work, saying I would drive her nuts hovering over her and Allie.

Heading to campus, I felt somehow more connected to my surroundings. Not one missed stoplight. Tromping into the lab, I noticed the dew clinging to my shoes——does that always happen? Why had I never noticed this before?

Like a tourist, for the first time I noticed the monotonous uniformity of the campus buildings, all the same sandstone brick and red tile, even the accursed football stadium. And why are the massive bike racks still full, when most students are gone for summer? And everything is so green!

I find it difficult to focus on quantum physics right now.


July 29:

The initial glow of fatherhood has faded, and I am ever more exhausted. Her relatives have all gone home, as if the worst were over, but it isn’t. Allie wakes about every hour at night, clearly hungry but still unable to latch to Felice, who refuses to give up breastfeeding.

But except for exhaustion I still enjoy being a father. Plus I spotted Felice in the mirror last night, watching me rock Allie back to sleep, and saw the same loving expression in her blue-gray eyes that there had been when we first dated. I didn’t realize how much I missed that.

I remember the pride I felt dating Felice, not just because she is beautiful and brilliant, but because I had to overcome my nature to win her. When you’re introverted it’s so easy to go with the flow, let the current carry you along; I had to swim upstream to be with Felice. In the past couple years, I’d gone back to being an introvert: with the baby and the breakthroughs, I feel like I am rejoining the rest of the world.

Even with new baby fatigue, I’m making real progress on my research. I’ve refined the electron gun, and my understanding of the wave function’s temporal aspect grows every day.


August 6:

Progress continues rapidly.

I really should concentrate on putting this research into publishable form. Lord knows my career could use the boost. Everyone in this department shares a burden of inflated expectations, because CU boasts three Nobel Prize winners for physics——not for any genuine breakthrough, mind you; two of them got it for building a better refrigerator. So while the Colorado name carries little prestige in the outside world, inside the school nothing short of a Nobel impresses anyone.

But with significant advances coming daily, I can’t bring myself to postpone my new experiments just to write up what I’ve already done. Luckily I have a light lecture schedule next semester, so there should be time yet to assemble a paper.

I spoke yesterday to Bremen, who kept tight-lipped about work at Caltech but made some cryptic remark like, “You never get time back once it’s passed.” I can’t shake the hunch he is working with Harwell along similar lines as mine, but if so, it doesn’t upset me the way it would have a month ago.


August 17:

All afternoon I stared at these results. I now understand most of the relevant mathematics and they make sense, no matter how counter-intuitive. I have repeated the latest experiment four times with the same outcome. Yet I don’t believe it.

I have succeeded in manipulating the collapse of the wave function so a predictable percentage of randomly fired particles hit the screen before they leave the electron gun.

This has to rank among the most amazing experimental results ever reached in a laboratory.

And the most remarkable part: it’s the second best thing that happened today.

I watched Felice breastfeed Allie this morning, and like one of my electrons I felt suspended in time, caught in a transcendent moment. Allie has finally learned to latch without difficulty and watching her against my wife’s chest, catching her infant scent, knowing I was part of it, I belonged there, was the most powerful feeling.

The sensation persisted even when Felice turned her eyes of doom on me, after Allie buried a fist in her hair and yanked. Felice would have cut her hair ages ago but I begged her not to. The texture, the smell of it always take me back to our first kiss——the same reason I can’t bear to part with that rickety Oldsmobile. What I remember most about that kiss is the sensation of puzzlement, wondering what Felice could see in me, a chubby, older, absent-minded professor. But she was right. We must be perfect together, or we could never have created Allie.

I could scarcely be more surprised by this feeling. The events in my life always disappointed me. I never had a religious experience.

Perhaps I still haven’t, but this is the first thing in my life that feels beyond natural explanation.


August 26:

In the words of Daffy Duck, I may be a coward but I’m a greedy little coward. As if sending elementary particles backward through time weren’t enough, I find myself dead set on achieving a similar result on a macro scale before I take this work public. An absurd goal, except the math works.

The experiments don’t, however. For the first time in months, I’m spinning my wheels. It doesn’t help that I have less time free now classes have started, or that every afternoon the lab thrums to the marching band practicing in the field outside. Of course, the sensible thing is to publish the results I already have, but I resist.

I have resolved to contact Harwell. If he is working on the same problem, we should combine forces. There will be plenty of awards and accolades to go around.


August 31:

I spoke to Harwell, and after fifteen minutes’ coy and evasive conversation we divulged our current projects.

There is no race to publish. Harwell has his team working furiously on a project completely unrelated to mine. I revealed more of my work than I should have, but no matter. He responded with courtesy but no real interest. On reflection, I understand why: the whole thing is preposterous. If I hadn’t seen the lab results first-hand, I would never believe it myself.

I actually felt disappointed I won’t be working with Harwell on this. I continue to get no results on the macro-level and his perspective would be welcome. Perhaps I should get to know some of the school’s graduate students better. None has shown much interest in my area, perhaps because I’m in it and have a reputation as a loner, but a few hints at these results should entice a hungry doctoral candidate or post-doc.


September 4:

I started in for the lab this morning expecting to make a big push on my research, forgetting as I do every year the insanity of Saturdays in autumn. For the hundredth time, I vow to locate and stomp on the grave of the clown who put the football stadium across the street from the physics building.

I clearly need help to finish this work.

There is a sharp student in my theory seminar I should try to recruit, one who asks questions I haven’t heard ten times before. Last class I noticed he looked familiar. As I waited for a particularly noxious chalk cloud to settle, I placed him as a former student in an undergrad intro class I got roped into teaching a few years back. He must have stayed at CU for his graduate work.

It’s unusual for me to remember any underclassman. (There’s a reason the main elevator in the physics building doesn’t even have a button to stop on the undergrad-infested first floor.) Perhaps he just stood out for his dark complexion and retro mustache. Italian, maybe? More likely, it was his uncommon interest in the subject. He reminded me of myself at that age, when physics seemed like magic, a code I could crack to understand and control the whole universe. I lost that sense over the years, until now.


September 9:

I had a panic attack today. This morning I dropped Allie off for my sister-in-law to babysit, then five minutes later had to turn back to see her, suddenly convinced something terrible had happened.

Even after I got to Diana’s, holding Allie right in my arms, I felt certain something was wrong. She was hurt or getting sick or in danger. Diana had to talk me out of taking her straight to the hospital.

I just spoke on the phone to Felice. She insists this is a normal experience for a new parent, but I’m not convinced. I still fear something is very wrong.


September 16:

The research has stalled. Knowing there’s no race with Harwell takes the pressure off, and I can’t concentrate.

The new-parent anxieties persist. I wake up at night, sometimes several times a night, with an urgent need to check on Allie. She is always fine. Better than fine. Last night I went in to find Allie already awake in her crib. She smiled at me and everything was perfect. But the moment I walked away, the apprehension returned.

On the bright side, I may manage to bring that promising grad student, Ty Duncan, into my research project. I saw his advisor in the Cookie Room before last night’s colloquium, and she nearly kissed me when I asked her about Ty. Apparently he has been discouraged with his doctoral research and considered quitting the program. She seemed to regard this as a potential catastrophe, and it took some time before I gathered the reason for her concern: Ty is the only African-American in the entire bloody department. (I guess he’s not Italian.) Why this should matter more than the fact he’s a bright, original thinker is beyond me, but I know better than to question.

She urged me to speak with Ty about working together, which I did after the seminar this morning. He expressed interest, if I have a good research project in the works. That made me smile.


September 23:

I finally showed Ty all my results yesterday, and the poor kid nearly had a heart attack. It’s amazing how human beings can become blasé about anything. I got so familiar with my own research, I almost forgot how much ground this is breaking. What a delight to share it with Ty and see his amazed reaction.

When I told him the macro-experiments I want help with, he reacted like a kid at Disneyland. Physics had started to seem dry, he said, then this madman comes along and asks for help transporting objects through time. He hasn’t stopped grinning.


September 27:

Researching with Ty is a pleasure, although I’m having a hard time getting used to working again on a team, even such a small team. Every time I look around the lab, things seem disturbed, moved about. And this morning, I actually looked to signs in the hallway for guidance, always a mistake. This is the building with “Wash your hands” signs outside the lecture halls but not the laboratories, where a sign pointing left to the physics library doesn’t mention you’re on the wrong floor.

The macro-experiments still aren’t showing the results I expected. The current heat wave doesn’t help at all. I’ll never get used to Colorado weather, which slips out of phase at random. Any given day in September can bring July heat or January snow. With the A/C in the lab badly overmatched, by mid-afternoon it is ungodly hot, and Ty and I often have to break off without managing any headway at all.

More troubling are my fears about Allie. The sensation grows stronger and doesn’t subside even when I hold her. It isn’t anything wrong with Allie, like an illness, but some ineffable anxiety about her very presence. Perhaps it’s just feelings of inadequacy as a father. My own father was such a wretch maybe my subconscious worries whether I will be there for Allie when she needs me.


*    *    *    *    *

October 5:

I am confused, disoriented, like I’ve been drinking heavily – but I haven’t.

A while ago I found myself on Everson Drive, at the new light where I always have to stomp on the brake to stop in time. I was standing on the side of the road. I don’t know how I got there. I walked around the curve toward our house.

I felt nauseated. Sweat dripped off me in the heat, when I’m sure I woke to freezing rain. I bent over, needing to vomit. Suddenly I stood straight, waving my arms like a maniac at an approaching car. I was in front of the bend, so the driver should have seen me a long way off, but he nearly hit me before swerving just in time.

It was my car. I don’t mean it was a blue Olds, I mean I saw the license plate and it was my car. I caught a glimpse of the driver as he passed, and he looked just like me. And here is the bizarre part: I was not surprised.

I stumbled back to the lab. It seemed only a few steps, when that spot is a half-hour’s walk from the lab on a good day.

At the lab, some odd equipment lay in the middle of the floor. I had never seen it before. Some kind of metal plate, with two attached handles.

I picked up the handles and felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I did vomit then. I may have passed out.

When I came to my senses, the equipment was gone.

I don’t understand. Something is wrong with me. I know I can be distracted, but I’ve never felt this mixed-up in my life.

Perhaps the failures with our macro-experiments have upset me more than I realized. It’s absurd. The time dilation of individual particles is plenty to astonish the whole community. I will tell Ty to back off the macro-experiments. We should focus on publishing what we have already.

Meanwhile, I need to spend more time at home, and enjoy that beautiful daughter of mine.


October 8:

I no longer feel sick and disoriented like before, but I sure don’t have myself straightened out. For the past three days the strange feeling keeps growing that things are wrong somehow.

The lab seems all wrong. Everything’s rearranged, the experiments set up wrong. This morning, Ty walked in and for a moment I didn’t recognize him. I nearly called security before I managed to place his face. I told him I wasn’t used to his mustache, and he looked at me like I’m an idiot, which I suppose I am, for certain exotic values of “idiot.”

Even this journal seems wrong. I read it over, and there are parts I feel like I’m reading for the first time, while other parts are missing. For one thing, there is nothing in all caps. I am certain a section should be in all caps. A very important section, and yet I can’t remember what it was about. I have this image of the word “God” in all caps. But I just searched this file for “God” and got only one hit, where I said it was “ungodly hot” during the heat wave a couple weeks ago, which I do not remember writing. Do I even use that expression?

None of this makes any damn sense. I don’t believe in God, why should I write about God in this journal? And:


What is happening to me?


October 12:

I tried to stay home from work, but that’s even worse.

Allie is all wrong, like this journal.

It’s the same feeling I’ve been writing about ever since that first anxiety attack a month ago, only it became stronger after the weird episode last week.

How Allie is wrong I don’t know. She has the same brown hair and green eyes as before. Isn’t that right? Did she have green eyes? I could have sworn I mentioned that in this journal, but now I can’t find it.

Every time I see her, the sense of something out of place gets more powerful.


October 14:

I need help.

At the lab, I can’t sit still. I feel agitated, like an electric current is running through the floor. Ty asks me what’s wrong, and I stare at him like he’s speaking Mandarin.

Last night, I held Allie in my arms, and it felt so wrong. Wrong on a gut level, just the way it felt so right when she was born. Then, I knew her coming to Felice and me was just as it should be, our best destiny. Now that sense is reversed.

Please, someone help me.


October 15:

It’s the middle of the night, but I am in the lab, afraid to go back home. Earlier tonight, I was staring into space, then looked down to see my hands around Allie’s throat. It didn’t feel like I was squeezing hard, but her lips were blue.

Could I really hurt Allie?

Part of me could, and it is growing stronger. That dark part of me doesn’t wish Allie harm, but it knows she should not be here. It is wrong for her to be here. On a deep level I can sense but not consciously understand, her existence undermines everything, the very fabric of the universe.

I know that sounds insane. But in my research these past weeks I have discovered things I never would have believed a year ago. And I think I am not insane.

But it doesn’t matter. I don’t care.

I don’t care about the fabric of the universe.

I care about my little girl.


October 16:

Felice doesn’t believe me, doesn’t believe I could hurt Allie. I tried to tell her, and she didn’t even give me the Fiery Eyes of Doom. It’s just outside her vision of the world for me to be a potential threat. She says my fears are from stress, that I should take a vacation.

I tried to take a vacation. In the mental hospital next to campus. I told them I was dangerous. The dickheads put me in a room on the second floor, with an unlocked window.

No one will help me. My daughter is in danger and no one else can protect her. From me.

If I got in the Olds and drove away, how far would I get before the dark part of me turned the car around? If I went back to the mental hospital and got them to lock me up for real, how long would it last? They might decide I’m okay. Felice thinks I’m okay, just a little stressed.

Nobody understands what I could do. Nobody will believe it until I do something dreadful. And that something dreadful will be to Allie.

That can’t happen.

I will not allow it to happen.


October 16:

I have a revolver. I thought that would be difficult in Boulder, but no. The pawn shop just north of the city takes credit cards, does the background check in minutes.

I think that dark part of me believes I bought it to kill Allie. That’s okay. I have beaten that part of me.

I wasn’t sure I could summon the nerve, but I hit on an idea that helps. I only put bullets in two of the chambers. Spin wheel, pull trigger, repeat as necessary. As I repeat the process, the likelihood of death approaches unity, but each time it will feel like the odds are in my favor. I have practiced a couple times without bullets, to accustom myself to the muzzle’s bitter taste in my mouth.

First I will burn this file to a disk and leave it with my personal things here at the lab. Maybe it will be preserved. Maybe Allie will read it one day, when she is old enough.

Allie, I know you will believe I abandoned you, and for that I feel deep regret, almost as deep as my regret that I will not be there to watch you grow up.

Know that I would do anything for you, my sweet child. I would break the world with my bare hands. I would rearrange the universe to protect you. I would give my life for yours in a heartbeat. And so I will.

I love you, Allie.

I love you so much.


Van Aaron Hughes was a winner of the 2010 Writers of the Future Contest. His fiction has appeared in Writers of the Future Vol. 27, Glorifying Terrorism, and Linger Fiction. In real life he is a lawyer and has argued before the United States Supreme Court. He lives in Denver with his wife and three children.

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