It’s the lollipops that break you. The thought of your child sucking on one during a lockdown drill carries enough cognitive dissonance that your brain has trouble actually comprehending it. You know the purpose—the methodology behind it all—lollipops in their mouths will keep preschoolers quiet, and surely the sugar can’t hurt. But the fact that your preschooler needs to know how to behave in case there’s an active shooter is so disturbing that you wish there was a way to retreat into your shell, like a defiant hermit crab.
That’s not possible. It’s never possible.
Life has touched you in the ways that it touches everybody; half-healed scars and wounds that fester, all of which you bury deep so that you can function on a daily basis. You collect them inside you: the news stories that have haunted you since high school, the shooters who are unrepentant, the radical ideologies of supremacism and hate that power it all. It makes you feel small and ineffectual like you are staring into the eye of a hurricane. Some people pray to their gods and some people rail against the ways of the world; you do neither.
You try to build perfection instead.
• • • •
The draft of the quantum computer program is just a draft at first. A half-cooked idea that you have one day after a night of drinking too much. One of those ideas that you would normally reject, but which seems just right enough when you’re faced with a throbbing headache and a hangover that won’t quit. You tell yourself that you’re too old to drink this much; that people with children don’t have lives like this anymore, and you shouldn’t have had that last shot of tequila. Or that first shot, for that matter.
Regardless, you indulge in thoughts of coding the program, long enough that you actually try to do it. It’s an exercise in wishful thinking: If a calculation can be made that will change the universe just enough that guns will be outlawed, is it worth doing? Can an algorithm affect the world in a way that will not have ripple effects on everything else? Is it possible to find the one thing that needs to change in a quantum simulation of the universe without fucking up the entirety of human existence? You don’t know the answers to these questions, but if the alternative is fearing for your children’s lives each time they leave for school, you’re willing to try to solve them. Advanced degrees are good for something, after all.
• • • •
The superstition is so deeply ingrained in you by this point that you simply cannot not do it. You must kiss your children goodbye before they leave the house; if you miss the kiss, something bad will happen to them or it will happen to you, and you can’t tolerate that. There is no actual magic involved in the simple act of expressing your love, but it soothes something wild in you. All of the structure of your life does something, lends itself to a rhythm that keeps you and your family running. The invisible music of your world has a beat that will not stop, and you can do nothing but run with it. So you do.
Parenthood has made you both more cautious and more reckless. There are lives that depend on you, but fetters on your freedom. It is not precisely that you want to be young again, but that you want the option of doing things that you’ve never tried before. It has taken you a long time to come to this realization, and even longer to realize that for the foreseeable future, society expects you to subsume your life in service of your children. There are times when you feel like you only exist in an eigenstate of anticipation, always on the precipice of something great, if you can only reach out and find it.
• • • •
The concept itself is simple enough: You will spend your days and your nights playing with qubits, manipulating them in an attempt to build an entire quantum simulation of the known world. If you manage to make the simulation accurate enough, it will run through the billions and trillions of possibilities before the superposition collapses back into zeroes and ones. And somewhere, in that collapsed state, there will be the answer that you are seeking.
There are technological limits, but with determination, you will surely be able to bypass them. In the beginning, you are fueled by pure optimism; not only will you find a way to ensure your children’s safety, but you will be the ultimate savior of mankind.
This is a bullshit dream.
There is no easy way to build a quantum simulation, and the technological development in the field of quantum computing moves at a glacial speed at times. The limitations on the number of qubits can be daunting, even with the newer technology of the 2020s. But you are determined. You are willing. You have years left of your life to dedicate to it.
It may not be enough.
• • • •
The changes begin so slowly that at first you are not aware that they are even happening. Someone’s favorite shirt is a different color, the wall in your office has a different generic artwork hanging on it, and the street around the corner has a different name on the sign. You chalk it all up to stress and sleep deprivation. You are embedded so deeply in this project that there are times when you only come up for enough air to kiss your children, before you go back to hitting your head against it in the lab. You are not entirely sure why your spouse hasn’t left you yet, but you find the possibility of examining that too frightening to contemplate it. Ignorance is not literal bliss.
There are more shootings because there are always more shootings. The news stories prick at you and stab at you, little words that mean nothing, but cut sharper than a knife. You are not entirely sure why you cannot remember seeing any of the news anchors before.
• • • •
Your manipulation of the qubits seems pointless. The technology lags behind your vision; you are becoming more convinced of the uselessness of it all. Nothing seems to work or matter or even make a difference.
But there is the cat.
This morning, when you left for work, you kissed your children goodbye. Two girls, one boy, all of whom galloped around your legs with as much joy as the family dog.
“Kiss, Rover, too!” they yelled at you, so you bent to kiss the damn dog on the top of his head. The scent of his doggy breath haunted you, as you went out the door.
When you return from work, ten hours later, Rover is missing. But not just missing. There is no Rover; there has never been any Rover. Your children and your spouse claim to have no recollection of there ever having been a Rover who lived with you.
There are no dog dishes in your house; there is no dog harness waiting by the back door for someone to sling onto Rover’s rotund body. Rover’s dog crate is missing, his dog toys have vanished, and the plastic bin in the garage that held extra dog food is full of old toys.
But your house does have cat dishes, and cat toys, and one blue litterbox in the basement that needs to be cleaned.
And one perfect, white, Persian cat named Fluffy.
There has always been a Fluffy, your family says.
• • • •
The more you work on the quantum simulation, the more the changes begin to accumulate. There are days when you return from work to find that your children are different genders than they were in the morning; this does not make you love them any less, although it makes your head hurt. Some days, you have a spouse, and some days, your spouse is missing. Their gender changes as well, in some perplexing game that you do not know the rules of. Fluffy becomes Rover, and Rover becomes Fluffy, and occasionally, Goldie the fish appears. You begin to think you are losing your mind when Dragon the gecko joins you one evening.
When you try to discuss this with your colleagues at work, you discover that your colleagues have no knowledge of the project you are working on. They show you grant documents detailing the project you are supposedly researching; it has no connection whatsoever to the quantum simulation that you have spent the last five years of your life working on. You are unsure whether you are actually trying to model the known universe or whether the known universe is now trying to model you. These are philosophical questions that a physicist is not necessarily equipped to answer; in particular, you feel that you are not sure how to even begin to contemplate them.
If your quantum simulation of the universe has worked, is it possible that it can do more than figuring out how to outlaw guns and ensuring the safety of your children? Are the things it might do—limitless free energy, reversing entropy, the transmission of information faster than the speed of light—so improbable? Do they hold the potential to violate the laws of thermodynamics by their very existence? And if the laws of thermodynamics are violated, is it so far-fetched that the universe could be changing things to avoid this?
It is your experiment, after all, and you are the observer of it. If the universe is changing randomly, then is it only your universe, or is it the universe that everyone else perceives as well? You take long walks and try to hold on to why you began this project in the first place.
• • • •
The answer that you are seeking is not an easy one. You have spent ten years of your life—ten mutating, changing, ever-shifting years—trying to figure out a way to make your family safer. You have watched them grow, mature, and begin new eras of their own lives, as you have mortgaged yours to the call of potentially theoretical science.
There are still guns, and there are still shootings, and there are still people who cry every night for the people they have lost. When you look at your family, you are not sure that you have not lost the people they were meant to be. By somehow altering the universe, in ways that you are not even now entirely sure you have actually done, have you irreversibly changed the people you love the most? In trying to protect them, have you harmed them instead?
Your children still let you kiss them each day. Your spouse still inexplicably loves you. Today’s pet is Rover again, older and grayer, but still a smelly dog underneath it all. You give in to the children’s urging, and join them on their walk with him. Rover is so excited that he acts like a puppy, and runs in a circle around you, wrapping his leash around your legs. For a moment, you see him flash through all the stages of his doggy life before your eyes—elderly dog to puppy to elderly dog again. He flickers in and out of existence, like a fading picture, before he fuzzes back to himself. No one else seems to notice.
You keep walking down the main street in your neighborhood, letting the children lead you where they want. A shoe store blinks into a bookstore, which blinks into a supermarket, swirling through potential iterations, before finally settling on a movie theater playing the latest superhero flick. You are the only one who sees this, just as you are the only one who sees Rover vanish completely from your group. The children abandon all pretense of being sophisticated teenagers, and drag you inside.
There are tickets to buy and snacks to negotiate. One child wants candy, another popcorn, and the third refuses anything but nachos. You are swiping your phone to pay for it all when the glass in the movie theater door shatters.
For once, everything in your world stays the same, as you hear the distinctive crack of bullets and see the kid working the snack counter dive to the ground. There’s no time to think—only to suddenly know—that the answer you are seeking has been there all along. That for all the quantum beauty of the universe and the science that can explore it, despite everything that is part of the great unknown, there is a perfect simplicity to the actual solution.
You grab your children and you run.