My name’s Irit Ziv. I have a low-rent apartment in the East Village that I used to share with my girlfriend, Shirley Chen. It’s April now, and Shirley died four months ago. Ever since then, I’ve been visiting Ma and Pa’s flat in Brooklyn Heights a lot. An awesome spot, with a full view of lower Manhattan. The trees by the river are turning green.
I’m a grad student at NYU, trying to finish a PhD thesis in the physics department. Physics was probably a bad choice for me, but it’s too late to change. My thesis is about consciousness. I’m riffing on the quantum physics idea that you alter things by observing them. I dream of basing a technology on that.
My research? Well, I’ve been spending a lot of time meditating in an MRI machine in the university labs. I’m lucky to have access to that thing. At first, I was really happy about the numbers and graphs that the MRI prints out. But then, the last time I saw Shirley alive, she said my graphs were worthless.
“Logged my hundredth hour on the MRI today,” I was telling her that night in December. It was snowing, with all Manhattan clean and still. “I feel like I’m approaching a state where I can tweak the cosmos,” I said. “Doing it with my head.”
“You’re beating a dead Schrödinger’s cat,” said Shirley. “Or is it alive?” Being a hard-core physics prof, she wasn’t taking my ideas very seriously.
“Listen, Shirley, after my session today, I did a bunch of coin flips and I scored nine heads in a row.”
“The odds against that are over five hundred to one!” exclaimed Shirley, mocking me with fake enthusiasm. “Final proof that Irit Ziv’s mind has attained direct matter control! Quantum telekinesis!”
“Why do you always tease me?” I asked. “Can’t anyone around here be smart except you?”
“You’re smart, Irit, but you’re up a blind alley. Listen to me. The physics department is not going to approve a pile of self-aggrandizing crap. You’re like a little girl making up stories about herself. I can fly! Watch me jump off the couch!”
“You’re supposed to be my thesis advisor,” I said, suddenly close to tears. Shirley had never spoken quite so harshly to me before. “I’ve been counting on you to win over the committee.”
“I adore you, Irit, but there’s only so far I can go. Everyone knows we’re lovers. If your thesis is crap and I push it—then I look crooked. Or like a fool. You have to give your ideas an academic slant, babe. Make them look respectable.”
“In my introduction, I have a whole history-of-science thing about Leibniz’s Monadology,” I said. “Which for some reason you refuse to read. Everything’s a monad, right? Particles are monads, but so are bricks, dogs, and cities. There’s no preferred level of scale.”
“What would a monad look like if it was actually real?” asked Shirley.
“They’re like, uh, little balls or blobs. They’re shiny and they reflect each other. Like ornaments on a Christmas tree. And thanks to the reflections, the monads are in eternal harmony. They’re computing the world in parallel.”
“The committee’s going to ask what’s inside one of those mirror balls,” said Shirley.
“A parameter,” I said. “The secret code for the world.” I smiled, happy with this idea. “It’s the same parameter inside every monad. The monads are like a zillion parallel computers crunching away on the same program.”
“Not bad,” said Shirley. “Be sure to say it’s a quantum computation. And say it’s all happening in Hilbert space. That’s what quantum physicists like to hear about.”
“Okay, fine,” I said. “And instead of saying the monads reflect each other, I can say they’re quantum entangled. So if you change one monad, you change ’em all. But don’t forget I want to work my way around to direct matter control. If you can connect with the secret code inside even one monad, you’re like a god.”
Shirley paused for a minute, then sighed and shook her head. “That kind of talk is not going to fly, Irit. We’re the physics department, okay? No superpowers. You’ve got to produce a formula. A formula that specifies how your monads behave. Call it Monadrule.” Shirley was writing on a piece of paper while she talked. Something she liked to do. “You’ll say that our universe is being computed as Monadrule[secretcode]. The secretcode is an arbitrary initial input. Like a number, or a specific point in Hilbert space. Maybe you can suggest some possible toy-universe-type values for secretcode. But mainly you need a precise symbolic description of Monadrule. Otherwise you’re coming into your thesis defense like a crazy mumbling acidhead. And I’d have to vote thumbs down.”
“What about my graphs of me meditating inside the MRI?” I said. “Aren’t they enough?”
“They’re worthless crap,” said Shirley. “Nobody cares about them. Stop stalling, Irit. Do some actual frikkin’ work.”
And at this point I lost it. “Snobby goody-goody,” I yelled. “I wish you were dead.” And then I stormed into the soft snowy night and hooked up with a cute woman from the Physics 101 lab section I was in charge of. Spent the night at her place.
The next morning I hear that Shirley is dead. Run over by a cab. And I felt like it was my fault. So I started compulsively feeling around for the Monadrule formula that Shirley had been asking for, brooding over it night and day, stuffing myself with technical physics papers, continually fiddling with patterns of symbols in my head.
And then things came to a head on this April morning I’m telling you about.
I’m in my parents’ apartment and Pa is sitting on a high stool at the counter beside our kitchen sink, staring at the water dribbling from the sink’s faucet. He’s painstakingly adjusting the flow to the point where the stream stutters into broken drops. Our little mutt dog Ralphie is sitting attentively at Pa’s feet, wondering if food might drop off the counter.
I need to get to my Physics 101 lab, so I push past Pa and turn the faucet on high so I can brush my teeth. I can’t use the bathroom, because Ma’s in there singing—she likes the echoes. Right now she’s ramping up to perform as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Meanwhile I have my unfinished formula rotating in my brain, surrounded by a cloud of jiggling mirror-monads. It’s an obsession—stronger today than ever before. Maybe I’m almost there, like a critical mass about to go thermonuclear. My teeth are symbols. Two to the tooth power.
“Thanks for ruining my faucet setting,” says Pa. “I was just about to video the drip for data extraction.”
I should mention that Pa trades derivatives on the commodities exchange. His clients imagine he uses insider tips and computer algorithms. But in point of fact Pa bases his predictions on natural chaos. This is a trick I taught him. It’s lame to use a cheesy random number generator on a computer. It’s better to use Mother Nature. Find something wobbly and chaotic. With this in mind, Pa has fixated on our kitchen sink. Which can be a little inconvenient.
“The other traders don’t make it so hard on their families,” I tell him. “When I said to use natural chaos, I meant you could, like, monitor the hiss on the radio. But no, you’ve got to take over our sink. And last night I even saw you filming Ralphie scratching his ear.”
Hearing his name, the dog thumps his tail on the floor.
“One thump means sell,” says Pa, smiling at me. “Two thumps is buy. The world brims with secret wisdom. That’s what my daughter the physicist taught me.”
“Your daughter who can’t finish her thesis,” I say. “Meanwhile I better get to the lab.”
“Wait,” says Pa. “Scatter this box of toothpicks onto the floor. I’ll video that, too. The dripping water will stand for oats, and the toothpicks can be palladium. I’ll make a killing. And finally I’ll pay off your student loans, speaking of your never-ending thesis. Which you mainly started as a way to impress Shirley Chen.”
“If you had something against Shirley, why didn’t you say so while she was alive,” I snap at Pa. “Before she got mowed down by a moron in a cab. You’re so—”
“Irit,” interrupts Pa. “We loved Shirley. You’re driving yourself crazy over I don’t even know what.”
I press my hands against my eyes. The phosphenes look like symbols. “Shirley said I needed to find a special formula, and I yelled at her, and then she was dead. If I can find the formula it might bring her—”
“Don’t go down that road,” says Pa. He pats my shoulder. “Throw those toothpicks, okay? Scatter them real good. And be thinking about palladium.”
“What does palladium even look like?” I ask.
“Ingots,” says Pa with a shrug. “I’m trading palladium ingots against credit swaps on USDA Number 2 oats.”
“Sow the oats!” I cry, flinging the toothpicks onto our kitchen floor. A welcome distraction, really. It’s jazzing me up. I visualize the toothpicks as being the size of pencils—and then I see them as femtometer gluons connecting quarks. The half-finished Monadrule in my head jiggles and glows, reflected a zillion times within the mirrors of my mind.
In the bathroom. Ma’s voice hits a peak—the F above high C.
“Perfect,” says Pa, busy with his camera. “The voice can be—a correction term.”
“Yes,” say I.
My formula is a stack of dishes balanced atop my head. They rattle and shift. I’m in the eye of a hurricane. In the funnel of a tornado.
“Behold!” sings Ma. She strides into the kitchen, making an expressive solo of that one word. Her voice rises to a peak on the second syllable. She fixes her pale gray eyes on me, knowing and sympathetic. She always knows where I’m at. Even when I don’t.
In that moment, my symbols finally click into place. The Monadrule—a formula that generates our world from a parameter named secretcode. I can see it in action, a writhing pattern in infinite-dimensional Hilbert space, a dancer that sculpts the shapes of me, my parents, and the whole seething Earth. Monadrule is the dappled sea wherein I swim. Can I touch this ocean’s floor?
Knowledge is power. I order the sea to roll away—and it obeys. The homey real world shivers and dwindles; it rushes away from me on every side. I’m renormalizing the axes of my observational Hilbert space. The scene around me assumes a new look. Like an oddly encoded video whose chunky pixels smooth into hi-res.
I’m alone. A kid on a beach. Dressed in my favorite outfit from when I was eleven years old—pale jeans and a striped cotton sweater. I’m standing upon an undulating dune of shiny monads. They’re like pebbles and grains of sand.
The ocean has ebbed way far out, yes. Tame old consensus reality is taking a break. I’m free to roam. I trot down the dune, feeling peace and joy like I’ve never felt before.
The exposed ocean floor is a gravel of monads, some of them as big as eggs or fists. It’s like I’m walking on the scree you might find on a mountain slope. A chaotic clutter of variegated stones. The monads aren’t being heavy-handed about reflecting each other—they merely sketch each other’s images, using flecks and nicks.
Heading further from the dune, I encounter some—talismans. Like I’m in a medieval painting, with physical graffiti and heavy metaphors. Parables of unknown meaning.
I see a meter-long section of a soda fountain counter, with a milkshake in a steel mixing container. Part of the shake’s been poured into a tall glass. A mound of whipped cream tops the glass, plus a sprinkle of nuts and a monadic slice of banana. Blood on the side of the steel container. I steer clear.
I see a blackboard hanging in midair, with Schrödinger’s famous wave equation chalked onto it. A fundamental axiom of quantum mechanics. Part of the equation has been erased, or no, the chalk has crawled down the board. It’s not chalk, actually. It’s a swarm of pale ants.
Further on, I find a seaman’s logbook on the pebbles underfoot. The book has a tooled leather cover—embossed with Shirley’s initials. Leery of opening the book, I fling it into the air. It spins and flutters. It flaps like a butterfly, rustling its pages, thumping its covers. A single, gossamer-thin sheet drifts my way, swooping right and left.
My new formula is written on the page. My world-generating Monadrule, refined down to ten symbols, including a pair of brackets around the spot where the secretcode parameter is supposed to go. Feeling a fierce rush of joy, I press the sheet against my face. It melts into my skin like lotion.
Right after the book, I find a classic pirate-style treasure chest. It’s half open, with a plump, warty sea cucumber resting upon the colored, gem-like monads within. The echinoderm sets smoky sparks to sputtering from its forked feelers. The sparks sketch my formula in mid-air, and I feel another spasm of exultation. I’m the queen of this hidden world.
I find a chair beside a table laden with a roast turkey, a loaf of bread, and a bottle of wine. I’m hungrier than I’ve ever been. I plump myself down and devour every scrap of the repast—including the glass bottle and the turkey bones. And then I eat the table and the chair.
My stomach bulges. I overate. I’m feeling weird cramps. I totter onward, and here’s the final talisman. Shirley Chen’s corpse. Awkward on the ground in a splatter of blood. Her skull is deformed from the taxi’s impact. One of her dead eyes has popped from its socket.
I look away. A distant roar. A crenellated shape on the horizon. A giant wave. The ocean of daily drone is on its way back. I barely have time to resurrect Shirley, if that’s what I’m going to do. But how?
A band of pain clamps my abdomen. Somehow I’m controlling this. I’m giving myself—labor pains? I collapse upon the gravel. I convulse and strain. I tear off my jeans and open my legs. My crotch splits up to my navel—and a shining egg squeezes out, bigger than a baby.
I press my hands to my belly and my torn flesh closes up. The surcease of pain is delicious. I sit up and check on the monster wave. It’s still a few kilometers away, but it’s closer than before. Hurry, Irit.
I focus on dead Shirley Chen. I’m running on automatic, with a chain of syllogisms pouring forth from the monad that is me. That shiny egg I birthed—obviously I should open it. With a single motion of my will, I form a hatchet in my hand. My cosmic, ten-symbol Monadrule is engraved on one side of the blade.
I slam the hatchet into the egg. It splits open; and, yes, something’s inside. The parameter known as secretcode. It doesn’t look like a number, or like a point in Hilbert space. It—no, she—looks like a foot-high, cream-colored giraffe with rust-colored spots. Her spots bulge out like knobs. Her head is—odd. A blank, eyeless bulb with a hole in one side.
I try to catch the knobby giraffe, but she dodges me and takes off, skipping along atop the larger monads, nimble as a goat on stepping stones. Monads crack open beneath her hooves, hatching out smaller knobby giraffes, and the smaller knobby giraffes stampede off, and their smaller hooves are cracking open smaller monads, releasing yet smaller giraffes. Each of them bears the same pattern of spots. I’m in the midst of a tippity-tapping herd, me still standing by Shirley’s corpse.
I manage to catch one of the littler giraffes, and I cup her between my two hands like a trapped mouse. I can feel the flutter of her legs. I coo to her, I form petitioning thoughts, I project empathy, I imagine I’m capable of love. And now this particular giraffe and I are quantum entangled. A monadic dyad. She can’t run away from me until I say so.
She stands on my right palm—poised, tense, alert. With a blank lump at the end of her neck instead of a head. Perhaps she sees via the bulging, velvety spots on her body. Or via a complex process of deduction. She is, after all, the secret seed that generates the world.
I bend the knee of giraffe’s right front leg and the scene around me shifts—as if she were a game controller. The ocean floor tilts. Hummocks segue into vales. The milling herd of her sisters drifts to one side. Each of them is holding their right front knee at the same angle. The light seems yellower than before.
But Shirley stays dead. Even though my one desire is to raise her. My knobby giraffe knows what I want. I manipulate her legs some more—with all the other giraffes in synch. To no avail.
By now the reality-tsunami is less than a kilometer away. A flowing wall that reaches into the sky. Airborne droplets of spray dampen my face. I’m pleading to my giraffe, yelling at her—and then, finally, I think to take hold of her unfinished-looking head.
A tingle travels up my arm and down my spine. A jolt. I scream Shirley’s name. The knobby giraffe’s voice echoes me—hoarse, eldritch, shrill. The other giraffes are screaming too. The sound goes on and on.
I kneel beside Shirley and kiss her lifeless lips. She twitches, blinks, warms to my touch. Stands and smiles. We hug.
The great wave’s subsonic vibrations are beating in my chest. Shirley and I run for higher ground. As we reach the summit of our dune, the wave breaks. Foamy currents surge around our legs. We leap upwards—and emerge into my parents’ apartment.
Shirley and I are alive, looking normal, and, yes, I’m still holding that one knobby giraffe. But nothing in the family’s apartment looks right. My parents aren’t here. Three hipsters loll on what was once my father’s favorite couch. The buildings outside are covered with neon signs.
I nudge the knobby giraffe. The walls of the apartment flow, and Pa is back. He looks sad. Without him even saying anything, I know that Ma is dead. I bend the giraffe’s leg and press one of her knobs. Across the river, Manhattan is a flat mound of rubble. I wiggle the giraffe’s long neck. Brooklyn is a grassy field with cows and UFOs.
“Maybe we stay here?” says Shirley, still at my side. She understands what’s going on. “Hilbert space is big. So many possible values for secretcode. If you keep this up, things might get worse.”
“One more try,” I say. “My giraffe can do it.” I focus on my happy times with Shirley. Like it was before. I don’t physically prod the knobby giraffe. But mentally I’m begging her.
I’m in my parents’ apartment with Ma and Pa. It’s that same New York morning in April, and I’m supposed to monitor that lab after I stop by my apartment. And those toothpicks are on the floor. Shirley’s not here with my parents, but I feel sure that she’s in our apartment, lying in our bed reading a research paper, and—
“Yes, yes, I’ve made things the way you want,” says the knobby giraffe. Her voice is a thin, raspy whisper from the hole in her head. “And now you’ll set me free.”
“Okay,” I say. “And thanks.” I feel a tingle in my palm, and the secretcode creature is gone. I’m slyly thinking that I haven’t really given up anything. The Monadrule formula is safe in my head.
“What was that?” Pa is asking me. “Did something just happen?”
“I really do have to go.”
“Good luck,” says Ma, watching me. The Queen of the Night.
On the street outside my parents’ apartment building, I look into my mind to check that, yes, I still have ten symbols lined up. But—wait. That’s a frikkin’ Manhattan phone number? Oh my god, that’s Shirley’s mobile number!
I take out my phone and dial.
“Hi, Irit,” says Shirley. “Where have you been? I’m waiting.”