Wednesday, October 1, 2014

"The Far End of the Curve"

The Far End of the Curve

                Doctor Christopher Harvey sighed as he knocked on the door.

                "Mr. Hickenlooper, are you ready?" he called. There was no answer.

                "Mr. Hickenlooper," he called a bit louder, "it's time for our session, may I come in?"

                He heard a sound from the other side of the door, and decided that it was as close to an invitation to enter as he would get. He turned the knob and pushed the door open. Inside a man wearing white pants and a white t-shirt sat on a bed with white sheets in a room with white walls. There was a wooden desk with a wooden chair in the room, both painted white, and on the desk was a stack of composition notebooks and a pair of fountain pens. The man was sitting, just staring at the wall. His face wore an expression of terrible  sadness, and a familiar aching of empathy for the man filled Dr. Harvey’s chest.

                "You're not writing today, Mr. Hickenlooper?" asked Dr. Harvey.

                "I've asked you before to call me Robert," said the man, not unfriendly, but without much emotion.

                "That's true, Robert," answered the psychiatrist, "my apologies."

                "No worries, doc." said Robert.

                "Why aren't you writing today? I think this is the first time I've come in when you aren't scribbling like mad in one of those notebooks," he said with a smile, but winced when he caught his choice of words.

                The man's lips twitched, and Dr. Harvey realized it was the first trace of a smile he'd seen on the man in the month since he'd been here.

                "Don't worry about it, doc," said Robert, "I've finished."

                "May I sit down?" asked the doctor, and Hickenlooper nodded towards the desk chair.

                "So, you don't have anything more to write?" asked the doctor.

                "Nothing that I can think of. It's all in those notebooks. I finished the last one this morning. It has the schematics, diagrams and materials list, along with my formulas."

                "For your time travel device?" asked the doctor.

                "I've told you before," said Robert, exasperation touching the quiet words, "it isn't time travel."

                "Right, I'm sorry," Harvey replied, "the... reality changing device? I'm still not sure I understand what you're describing."

                Robert sighed. They'd been through this before. The first few days he hadn't understood what was going on. How could a psychiatrist have not even heard of the multi-verse theory? And why couldn't he just Google it and read the damned Wikipedia page? Once he began to understand, however, he realized the reason for the doctor's ignorance.

                "Look, doctor," he said, "I don't really want to talk today. I've written everything down."

                "You don't really want to talk any day," said the doctor, "you usually begin by answering a few questions, then get frustrated, and tell me to leave so you can keep writing."

                Robert shrugged, and Harvey sighed. This wasn't getting him anywhere. He turned to the stack of notebooks.

                "May I?" he asked.

                "Be my guest," was the answer.

                Harvey looked at the top of the stack and saw the words "Hickenlooper Probability Manipulator" written on the top notebook. He picked it up and began to leaf through it. He was surprised to see many complex mathematical formulas, many beyond his understanding, at least at first glance. He saw diagrams with parts listed that he'd never heard of, and he saw quite a few Normal Distribution Curves.

                One diagram that had several formulas with arrows pointing to different points on the curve piqued his curiosity. He looked over at Robert. He braced himself for the conversation ahead.

                "Could you... could you explain the device again? Not how it works," he added quickly, "just... what its purpose is?"

                Hickenlooper sighed.

                "It's hard to explain," he said after a moment, "I hadn't understood how little frame of reference you would have before."

                "I want to understand," said the doctor, "please try."

                Hickenlooper stared at him for a moment, apparently trying to gauge whether he was serious or not. Finally he took a deep breath and began:

                "Okay, I'll give it a shot," he exhaled, "Okay, picture a coin. If you flip it, it could land on heads, or it could land on tails."

                "Obviously," said the doctor.

                "So imagine you had a decision to make," continued Hickenlooper, "you've weighed the pros and cons, and both decisions have equal merit. For instance, you had a choice between going to medical school at Harvard or Yale. You decide to flip a coin to decide. If the coin lands heads, you choose Harvard. If the coin lands tails, you choose Yale. In our example, let's say the coin lands heads, and you choose Harvard. Now you've chosen Harvard, but there was a fifty-fifty chance you'd go to Yale before the coin was flipped. Are you with me so far?"

                The doctor nodded.

                "There is a theory among some scientific circles known as the 'multi-verse' theory, that states there are an infinite number of universes. For example, the probability of that coin landing heads was fifty-fifty, so at that moment, the universe split in two. We live in the universe where it landed heads, and you chose Harvard. However, in this split universe, that coin landed on tails, and you chose to go to Yale. Are you still with me?"

                "I think so..." said the doctor, "you're saying that there is another me, somewhere, that chose Yale over Harvard."

                "Right," said the man, "now think about everything that would be different. You would have different friends, different influences. You'd have received different job offers, probably working somewhere else, probably seeing different patients. That coin flip created an alternate universe where things are different in many little ways!

                "Now imagine, instead of a coin flip, a lottery ticket. There are millions of players and millions of combinations. Popular multi-verse theory would state that there is one universe where each number combination is possible. Someone different wins the lottery in each one. What do they do with all that money? Do they buy nice things, do they donate some to charity? Do they start a company that employs hundreds of people that might be working elsewhere if a different combination of numbers came up? Try to wrap your mind around all of the possibilities. That is why I said that the theory is an infinite number of universes."

                The doctor thought about it for a moment. Every decision made by every person in the world, and there were, what? Two billion people on Earth? Every decision, every possible outcome.

                "The flip side," continued Hickenlooper, "is that there are millions of universes out there that are damn near identical. Do you tie the right shoe first or the left? One sugar or two in your coffee? Decisions that don't matter in the slightest."

                Hickenlooper paused, and Dr. Harvey nodded his understanding.

                "My device is meant to allow the one who holds it to slide into the alternate versions of himself in different universes," said Hickenlooper.

                "So, using your device, I might be able to become the version of myself who went to Yale?" asked the doctor.

                "Not exactly," said Hickenlooper, "it allows you to slide between outcomes of things that happen when the device is active."

                "That's why you went to the casino?" asked the psychiatrist.

                "That's right," said Hickenlooper, and his face fell into that sad look the doctor had come to know, "but what I didn't realize was that the multi-verse theory was wrong."

                "Wrong how?" asked the doctor.

                "There aren't an infinite number of universes," said Hickenlooper, "the number is extremely finite."

                "What do you mean?" asked the doctor.

                "To use that example of the coin flip to decide on schools," Hickenlooper answered, "there may be a universe where that coin landed on tails, but the universe didn't split there. That universe might have split a hundred years ago, and the Nazis won the Second World War. It might have split two hundred and fifty years ago, and we lost the War of 1812."

                "I'm not sure I understand," said the doctor, who was now very confused. The Second World War? What was the man talking about?

                "I went to that casino and sat in the high-rollers room," the man continued as if he hadn't heard, "I put a thousand bucks on black 17, and used the device to tap into the correct universe, the one where black 17 hit. I left all thirty-six grand on black 17, and used the device again so that it hit again. I had over a million bucks. I could have stopped, but I got greedy."

                The desperate, pleading note in the man's voice sent a pang of regret through the doctor. He wished he'd never started this conversation.

                "I let it ride one more time. Black 17 hit, of course, and I had almost fifty million dollars. What I didn't know was that there was only one universe where black 17 hit three times, and it was this one. I thought reality would just branch off there, in that casino, but it didn't. I don't know when reality branched from my universe to arrive in this one, but I know it was years ago."

                "I think that's enough for today," said the doctor.

                "No!" the man almost shouted, "No, I want you to know the story. I need to tell someone."

                The man's voice was so pleading that Dr. Harvey couldn't help but let him finish. He nodded and waved his hand in an invitation for the man to continue.

                "The odds of hitting three times in a row were less than one in a million," Hickenlooper continued, "I was lucky this universe existed at all. I don't know what would have happened if there was no universe with that occurrence.

                "I began to collect my winnings and I noticed the people around me were giving me strange looks. Then I noticed the way they were dressed. You all dress like people from the 1950s around here. I asked for chip racks and realized that the racks the dealer gave me were wood. They always use plastic where I am from. I brought my winnings to the counter, and was told they needed my identification..." he stopped for a moment, "no, they asked for my 'papers' so they could record the winnings for tax reasons. I showed them my ID, and they asked what the hell that was. When I couldn't produce the proper paper documents they had me arrested, and sent here. I've since learned that there is no such person as Robert Hickenlooper. I slipped into a universe where I don't exist. I told the cops just to Google me - that I was a somewhat famous scientist. They had no idea what I was talking about."

                Hickenlooper noted the doctor's blank look, and a wry, mirthless smile forced itself on to his face.

                "It's called a search engine, doc," he said, "where I'm from, we have machines, personal computers that we carry around, that are connected to a network that covers the whole world. News and information can be looked up within seconds. It's like... every newspaper, encyclopedia, and book all at our fingertips. We send all our letters using it, get all our music from it."

                "That sounds very... well, very useful," said the doctor.

                Hickenlooper rolled his eyes.

                "Well that's my story doc. I don't know where the device is, or whether I could even get back to my own universe. They took the thing from me when they arrested me at the casino."

                Hickenlooper looked up at the doctor pleadingly.

                "You really don't know where it is, do you?" he asked, almost hopelessly.

                "No," said the doctor, "I'm sorry Robert, I don't."

                "I know you don't believe me," said the hopeless man, "how could you? Multi-verse, computers, Internet, Google... you don't even have the frame of reference to understand what I mean."

                The look of sadness on the man's face was making the doctor feel awful.

                "Look," said the doctor, "I'll make some inquiries to the police that arrested you and at the casino. Maybe one of them knows where your device is."

                The man looked at him, without even a bit of hope in his eyes.

                "You can try," he said, "but you won't find it. The last doctor said the police had no idea and the casino wouldn't even return his calls. Just do me one favor, okay doc?"

                "What favor?" asked Harvey.

                "Just take the notebooks," he said, "they may not have everything, but some of the stuff in there should be enough to get someone on the road to building computers, and bringing this world into the real 21st century. Christ," he snorted, "do you guys even have television?"

                "I don't know what that is," said the doctor.

                "It's like a box, with a screen, that can play movies in your home. You do have movies, right?"

                "We do have movies," said the doctor. Hickenlooper rolled his eyes.

                "Just take the notebooks," he said, "I don't even care if you use them for yourself. You could make a fortune off the patents."

                "I'll look through them," said the doctor.

                "Then that's all I've got to say," said Hickenlooper.

                The doctor got up, picked up the stack of notebooks, and walked towards the door. As he opened it, he heard Hickenlooper say, "Take care of yourself, Dr. Harvey."

                Harvey stepped out, and closed the door behind him.


                When Dr. Harvey got back to his office, he sat down at his desk and set the notebooks down. He opened the one labeled '20th and 21st Century Discoveries in Physics', and began to read.

                Three hours later, Dr. Harvey stared dumbfounded. He'd read a bit of the physics notebook, but halfway through he was no longer able to comprehend. He had opened a notebook labeled 'Inventions - 1' and began to read. Many of the ideas were brilliant! Things with strange names, but that were ingenious, were described by a mind that could only have been a very advanced engineer. Things like the 'Cathode Ray Tube', 'Transistor Radios', 'Large Number Calculators'. Things that, even if he couldn't understand all of the math and schematics, should work!

                When he next looked at the clock he saw that another six hours had passed. It was 1:00 in the morning. The things he'd read in these notebooks were incredible. Was it possible Hickenlooper was not insane? Was it possible that his story was true? The thought disturbed him.

                He opened the notebook he'd been dreading to open - the one he'd opened earlier in Hickenlooper’s room. It was the manual for the device. He flipped to the section describing the operation of the device. When he'd finished, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small brass key. He looked at it, and made his decision. He leaned down and opened the locked bottom drawer of the huge desk.

                Inside was a metal cylinder, about a foot long and maybe five inches in diameter with rounded ends. He pulled it out carefully and found what he was looking for. He slid the mechanism to the left, and heard a click. He then unscrewed one of the ends. Once the end was unscrewed, the cylinder opened in the center, and he saw what he'd feared.

                It was exactly as the manual described. A type of screen lit up, with formulas streaming across. He closed it quickly, and screwed the end on.

                "It's not possible!" he said to himself. But he now knew it was. He tried to convince himself that it couldn't be possible, but he couldn't. Once he accepted that he couldn't make himself believe it was impossible, he knew what he had to do.

                Dr. Harvey stepped out of his office, the surprisingly light device wrapped in a newspaper under his arm. He walked toward the low-security ward, and opened the hall door. He walked down until he got to Hickenlooper's room, and knocked heavily.

                "Mr. Hickenlooper!" he called, "Robert, are you awake?"

                There was no answer. He banged on the door again.

                "Robert!" he shouted, "I have it! I have your invention!"

                Still no answer.

                Dr. Harvey unlocked the door and stepped in.

                The room was no longer a uniform white. A huge pool of red was spread across the floor, and a huge red stain covered a chunk of the pillow and the top of the bed. Hickenlooper lay on the bed, a fountain pen next to one hand, the other hand hanging over the edge, and a slash across his jugular vein where he'd opened it with his fountain pen.

                Dr. Harvey screamed down the hall for someone to call an ambulance as he ran to check the man's pulse. There was none, and the body was cold. He must have done this just after Harvey had left him.

                "It's all my fault," said Dr. Harvey to the dead man, "I'm sorry Robert... If I had given you your device..."

                The device!

                A crazy thought raced through Harvey's mind. If he could use the device, he might be able to fix this!

                He quickly opened the device, and remembering the careful instructions in the operation manual, he began to activate it.


                Dr. Ashley Bryan sighed as she approached the patient's door. She knew what was coming. More raving about other dimensions from the weird guy they had found in the ward after he'd killed a patient. It was strange that they never did identify the patient, but the man in the old style suit who'd killed him was a raving lunatic. He kept claiming to be a psychiatrist. Oh well. Just part of the job, she supposed.

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