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Short Stories by Peter Dabbene

“Inferno/Paradiso”

  

INFERNO

 

 

            1,451,992 different worlds – and counting.

            Sandoz makes a single cramped mark in his notebook. The notebook is nearly filled, its interior dark with ink and growing darker by a measure each time he activates the Quantum Trigger Device. The marks, which began as a careless afterthought, have become the only record of his futile attempts at finding a perfect world, and the sole documentation of his long descent into misery. As he leafs through the book,  the marks grow smaller and more crowded, each page charting the course of his initial optimism fading into despair upon the realization that infinity will take a very, very long time to explore.

            Time, a concept whose definition is somewhat slippery under the best of circumstances, no longer has any meaning at all. It is impossible to track its passage as Sandoz shifts from one world to another, witnessing random, meaningless sequences of sunsets and moonrises which by now have lost even their aesthetic appeal.

 

            His journey in search of perfection – in search of heaven – has come to this. At parallel world number 400,000, he decided that he had been blindly optimistic in thinking he could find perfection quickly. At 750,000, Sandoz, never a religious man, wondered if there was a God, and whether this was perhaps a test. Maybe it was only when things looked bleakest that he would be rewarded for his faith in science.

            At 800,000, he became a believer, remembering as much as he could from the readings of the Prophet.

            At 900,000, he became an atheist.

            At 1,000,000, an agnostic.

            Worlds utterly unique, which he still discovered regularly even after so many, no longer held sway with him. With a cynic’s trained eye, he searched for signs of imperfection as all possible speed and, having found them, dismissed the world out of hand; it held nothing for him, on to the next. Once, he remembered, he had almost started a new life on one of these worlds. If only he could have…

 

            Now, after 1,451,992 worlds, solipsism has taken hold; delusions of grandeur infiltrate a once-sharp mind dulled by routine.  The theme of destiny takes prominence in his solitary musings, and he wonders if there is not some greater purpose at work, whether predetermined by a greater power or simply fallen to him as the first being to traverse so many worlds.

            Destiny seems a safe topic of thought; it is guilt that causes Sandoz to doubt himself and his motives. Is it not selfishness, after all, which motivates his search for heaven? Even so, he realizes there is no other purpose to which he can possibly apply himself. Ignorance is bliss, he suffers its opposite. He knows, in all too much detail, the flaws of everyone, everything, every place he sees.

            Something must be missing from his calculations – no, no, he realizes, that isn’t true. He must force himself to remember that it could take billions, even trillions of worlds, before a perfect one is found.

            The fundamental theory that drives him arose not with the invention of the Quantum Trigger Device, but with his early work after graduation, in the still-burgeoning field of chaos theory. It was his suggestion that chaos, though an integral feature of the universe he knew, might not necessarily be required in all universes. If chaos was not required, then it did not need to exist, and if somewhere chaos did not exist, what would stand unchallenged in its place?

            Order. Order and perfection. A world without death, pain, fear…

            Without error.

            Remembering the fundamentals of his early theoretical work in the context of his own subsequent actions, he finds an oversight, an… error?

Wouldn’t a perfect world be inhabited by perfect beings?

Even if he found a world without chaos, could it stay that way with him in it? Wouldn’t he, an imperfect being, corrupt it, making it imperfect? He might destroy, might have already destroyed, several heavens simply by his very presence!

Was this his fate, then? His destiny? To be no more than an agent of chaos, spreading the virus of disorder throughout the multiverse?

            His mind reels in horror. No – it can’t be. But even as his mind pleads for the answer to be no, he knows he is right.   

            The promise of heaven is all that has prevented him from taking his own life. But even as he realizes at last that his former quest is hopelessly quixotic, he feels a new purpose taking shape.  A purpose that could be met, an attainable goal that would justify not only his existence, but everything he had done with that existence, including random visits to 1,451,992 worlds.

            The opportunity to achieve fulfillment through the Quantum Trigger Device is still there, he believes; he has simply taken the wrong approach. Infinity and entropy might have equal hold of his imagination, but now he realizes that the human brain is ultimately suited to only one of them; only one holds any promise of satisfaction, of happiness. How foolish he has been, to have chosen the wrong side!

            Infinity is incompatible with humanity, he concludes. Thus, he will be Sandoz the Pilgrim no longer; instead, he will be Sandoz the Destroyer, Sandoz the Conqueror, Sandoz the Agent of Chaos. For it was chaos which gave birth to the beginning, and it is chaos that will rule again in the end.

            Sandoz embraces his new role, and during his visits to the next few worlds, finds some assurance that this – this, not some mythical fairyland which may or may not exist – is the purpose to which he was created. 

He is still only one man, and though he grows to hate every self-satisfied society he encounters, it is not in his power to destroy them outright. But Sandoz is clever, and he wields knowledge like a sharp dagger, stealing up in the dead of night, often trusted as a friend.

            He quickly becomes adept at sizing up a world and deciding the best way to set it upon the course of its own destruction. If a world is not technologically advanced, he might share his knowledge with them, despite their unreadiness. In these places, they call him Enlightener or Light-Bringer, and they do not realize what he has done to them until it is too late.

            If a world is weak and he is not of a mood for subtlety, then he gathers men unto him and destroys it outright. These worlds know him as the Great Enemy or the Adversary.

            And if the inhabitants of a world possess greater powers than his own, he undertakes to set them against each other through lies and deceit. Once they realize his betrayal, they curse him as the Lord of Lies, but it does them no good; he has introduced mistrust in greater measure than ever before. In time they will destroy themselves, but Sandoz will have long disappeared.  

 

            After 1,700,000 worlds, Sandoz has perfected his role and, more importantly, grown to enjoy it. Not only does his arrival to a world guarantee its imperfection, it also significantly hastens its destruction. He is Sandoz, Bringer of Chaos, Spoiler of Pristine Worlds, Defiler of Perfection; and, for the first time, he is content.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PARADISO

 

 

            The man, whose name is Sandoz, places the Quantum Trigger Device on the ground and pats his body, verifying that he has, in fact, solidified into his familiar form. He checks his instruments to verify the parameters of the land mass he stands upon, and quickly sees that on this world, continental drift has taken a very different course. 

Looking down at the terrain and up toward the firmament, he thrills as his mind checks off similarity after similarity to the world he has left behind – green grass, brown soil, blue sky, white clouds. This comforts him. His theories, grounded in probability and statistics, indicate that virtually all parallel universe worlds accessible from his own should share similar characteristics in atmosphere, composition, climate, and a dozen other prerequisites for life. But, as with the shapes of the land masses, he knows that differences will exist, and in those differences lay his hopes, his aspirations.

            The sun is just up, hanging low in the sky, and Sandoz surveys the unspoiled landscape for signs of human activity using a handheld, long-range infrared detector. From his readings, he sees that he has not transported himself to a barren world. He tracks the nearest signal along a trail of low-to-ground vegetation, following it for several miles, admiring the bucolic serenity that extends to the horizon in every direction. His only point of reference to such an unblemished landscape is a farm he once visited as a child, but that memory is now literally a world away.

As he nears the infrared source, he makes for the crest of the highest hill in sight. From it, he surveys the landscape, calculating his next move. Shading his eyes from the sun’s glare, he catches a glimpse of movement down below.

            A woman.

            She is young, tall and raven-haired, her lean musculature straining as she inches a fallen tree from the path that descends from Sandoz’ hilltop.  Her clothing is simple, a large animal skin draped over the shoulders with smaller skins underneath. Occupied by her efforts, she does not see him.

Sandoz stares and imagines being welcomed into the woman’s tribe, his scientific prowess winning her undying affection and marking him as a great man, even a god, among her people...

He reminds himself not to draw parallels – smiling a little at the joke – between this world and his own. Despite appearances, there is no telling whether what he sees truly reflects the extent of human capability here. The scene before him could simply be a post-technological anachronism wherein the people, by choice or by necessity, have undertaken a simpler way of life.

            He watches, and as the woman moves about, completing her tasks, a small village gradually reveals itself. At first glance, there is little to indicate the presence of other human life, but as his eyes adjust to the subtle color changes in ground cover, the slightly varying thicknesses of grass from one area to the next, he begins to pick out the thatched covers of underground shelters, well camouflaged but not quite invisible. Every so often, a man or woman emerges and quickly disappears into the tall grass fields, as another pulls the tunnel cover shut behind. After some time, one cover opens and remains open, and children of all sizes emerge and begin to play. 

            To Sandoz, native of a smog-choked, crowded urban environment, it seems an ideal world. Fields best described as Elysian, the soft gurgling of running streams… many would call it paradise. But Sandoz cannot help but wonder: Why have they chosen to build underground? The only explanation, he thinks, is to seek protection from something – rival tribes, predators, perhaps nothing more than bad weather.

            He continues to observe, not wishing to rush to judgment just yet. For him, time has frozen at the instant he left his homeworld. He cannot age, making him, for all practical purposes, immortal. He takes great comfort in this. He has all the time in the world.

            He sits and watches a while, until he notices a disturbance in the fields at the far side of the village. He tracks a shimmering wave through the sea of grain until finally, three men emerge. They call to the raven-haired woman in an unrecognizable tongue. With all the time in the world, he thinks, perhaps he will spare some of it to learn their language and culture, perhaps even research the history of their development.

Two of the men carry crude spears cocked on hunched shoulders as their interlocked arms support the weight of the man in the middle, who has been injured. Sandoz looks through his binoculars and sees that a three-inch gash has been opened on the man’s forehead, and that while he appears to be conscious, he is unable to stand under his own power.

            Aside from the immediate concern that armed humans are dangerous humans, and dangerous humans often do not take well to strangers, there is a larger issue. The injured man is obviously in pain, and whether the wound has been inflicted by humans, some other predator, or by accident, the result is the same: pain; danger; fear. Chaos has arisen within the system.

            Though curious to see how the village responds to the man’s wound, Sandoz pulls himself from the scene, retreating behind the hilltop to consider his options.

            He has all the time in the world (worlds, he corrects himself) to wait and watch, but although promising at first, this is obviously not paradise – merely another permutation of the flawed world he already knows. It is time to move on.

An acceptable defeat, he thinks – after all, what is the probability of hitting his goal the first time out?

*

            For Sandoz it was, by far, his greatest triumph. Although no one else would ever know it, he had just proved that the theory proposing the existence of parallel worlds was, at least in part, correct.

            During the development of the Quantum Trigger Device, the search for proof of its functionality had led to countless experiments attempting to send inanimate objects to a parallel universe. These objects included several versions of the Trigger Device itself, rigged to activate automatically and, it was hoped, return home. None of the objects ever came back; they disappeared and did not reappear, whatever novel ideas were tried. It was not a surprise when the sent objects failed to rematerialize, since even if the object arrived safely in a parallel universe, and even if the Trigger Device was successfully activated a second time, probability suggested that the chance of a traveler returning to the point of origin, out of all the infinity of possibilities, was so small as to be effectively nil. Anything, or anyone, using the Quantum Trigger Device would become a permanent refugee, able to move from one random world to another, but never to return home.

Thus, though the project’s sponsors believed the Quantum Trigger Device showed great promise as a weapon, as a transport mechanism it was ultimately useless. There was simply no way of knowing whether the objects had arrived safely in another universe, or if they had been permanently blinked out of existence. 

The only way to know was to go.

            Sandoz knew it, and other physicists, minds greater than his own, had arrived at the same conclusion. No matter how many thousands of experiments they conducted, the only proof of success would come to an observer willing to use the Trigger Device to exile himself from his homeworld forever. 

             In light of such ominous implications, it was decided that no human experimentation should be permitted until a safe transit and retrieval cycle could be completed. The quest for proof was the life’s work of the scientist, but Sandoz agreed with the consensus: it was not worth risking one’s life or irrevocably abandoning one’s home planet simply to prove that transit between parallel worlds was possible.

            Behind his eyes, however, Sandoz never faltered in his plan to use himself as a test subject for interdimensional transit. The concept of a limitless number of worlds, with a limitless number of possible developments on those worlds, had introduced to Sandoz another idea, one that he had decided was worth risking one’s life.

            Would it work? That was the question, not just as it pertained to the Quantum Trigger Device, but

 

for Sandoz’ grander plan as well. For the other scientists, curious but paralyzed by the unknowns, that had

 

been the end of it. But for Sandoz, it was only the beginning.

 

 

*

 

            Sandoz suppresses a swell of triumph – it is too early for celebration just yet. Can this truly be the end of his journey, after only two attempts? He knows that probability is against it, but he also knows it is not impossible. For a theoretical physicist living in the 21st century, trailing a career marked by one surprise after another, there was not much that was impossible.

            This second world is the antithesis of the first, Sandoz thinks, as he marks glorious shining towers in place of dirty underground burrows, and realizes how foolish he has been to think that the primitive world could possibly have meant fulfillment of his quest. This world, though… this world is like a dream, ripped from his most childlike imaginings of a futuristic utopia. 

The pristine air buzzes with the sound of hovercars, and Sandoz smiles, admiring the vehicles not for their sleek aesthetics, but for their simple practicality. They do not make contact with the ground, so none of the long asphalt tombs so common to his own world-era are necessary to keep the flora in check. Pathways are marked by different-colored flowers, the hues so bright they can probably be seen for miles overhead. No noticeable pollution spews from the hovercars as they dart from one place to the next. He cannot be sure of the mechanism powering them – magnetism, perhaps?

Regardless, he has faith that his counterparts in this world, the engineers and inventors and maybe even the physicists, have formulated an optimal arrangement. In this apparently perfect world, he is certain the hovercars are able to stop on a dime, armed with internal sensors and fail-safes and built-in redundant systems that remove any possibility of collision.

            Sandoz stands and stares, taking it all in like a glutton stuffed to capacity but still desirous for more. Every detail fascinates him – the sights, the smells, the sounds…

He grimaces as one of the hovercars passes a little closer than the others.

            The sounds?

Noise.

            It occurs to him that the hovercars sound quite a bit like mosquitoes, and with that thought, the soft background buzz of the hovercars becomes intolerable.       

            A hovercar whizzes past, and he pinpoints the source of the sound as a muffler-type attachment that has no doubt diminished the noise output from the hovercar dramatically. But the noise, though diminished, is still there. He tries to ignore it, but it is impossible; he is all too aware of it now. He tries to distract himself with other aspects of the new world, but cannot make himself forget. 

            Could a true paradise have irritants like noise?

Sandoz reluctantly moves on, knowing that the two worlds he has seen are, despite his most fervent desires, not perfect; they have merely been distractions, temptations on the road to his ultimate goal.

            Turning his back on the skyscapes he had once dreamed of seeing, he continues his search. He has all the time in the world…

*

 

 

One thing Sandoz had not bargained for was the loneliness.

He considered himself a solitary person, more comfortable in a deserted lab or classroom than at a cocktail party. But he found himself remembering the unimportant little social interactions that had marked his days at the Quantum Trigger project, and longing for them. 

He recalled the laborious meetings with colleagues, back when they were formulating the details of how one might transport a person between parallel universes. Their impotent conjectures and speculations had tried his patience, for his companions seemed to consider only the most trivial of the mind-boggling implications of parallel world theory. The history buffs wondered at the thought of worlds which saw different outcomes to similar historical events. Some called upon their imaginations to conjure images of technological innovations that had not been dreamed of on their own planet, but which might well be commonplace on any number of other worlds. They were brilliant men and women, but as Sandoz saw it, they were guilty of thinking small, missing the forest for the trees. Only he had realized the possibility of a much more important goal, perhaps the highest goal conceivable to man.

He remembered his meticulous preparations to bid farewell to everything he had ever known, retreating within his world of numbers, checking the formulas again and again, every time arriving at the same inescapable conclusion. There it was, before him: the promise of infinity over entropy. If the number of parallel worlds was truly limitless, which even the most skeptical mind had to admit appeared true, then on one world, somewhere, entropy may not yet have arisen.

A world where chaos, which some men mistakenly called evil, had never come to be; a world perfect in every way.

Paradise.

Heaven.

 

*

 

 

            As Sandoz continues his search, he discovers many less than perfect worlds; most of these he departs as quickly as he arrives.

            He also finds many strange and wonderful worlds, any one of which could satisfy an adventurous description of heaven – almost.

            He sees:

 

A world where humans have traded their flimsy, failing outer skins for synthesized wrappers which promise immortality… but where shallow rivalries and prejudices of outer appearance also carry on in new forms, equally immortal.

 

A world where human consciousness exists as free-floating orbs of thought, freeing man from the concerns of a physical body entirely… but, Sandoz reflects, also destroying any possibility of the joys that only a physical body can know.

 

A world where formerly bitter enemies have united in peace, forgetting their differences… but only under the threat of a deadly, uncontrollable virus which threatens the extinction of them all. 

 

            He finds worlds that are too hot or too cold, too bright or too dark. In many of these, Sandoz sees tantalizing near-perfection. He considers settling down on one of the nicer worlds, but the numbers, oppressive in their logic, will not allow it. They beckon to him; they promise assurance that one day his quest will be fulfilled, perhaps with just another jump or two. And if not in a jump or two, then maybe three, or surely four, or five, or…  

 

The Quantum Trigger Device, activated, begins to hum, rising to a crescendo until it once again unfolds time and space to create a passageway for its bearer.  Sandoz will continue his quest, having sought heaven, having found only a new definition of its opposite.

 

 

END

 

 

 

Publication details:
Dabbene, Peter. (2009). "Inferno/Paradiso." peterdabbene.com (accessed ).

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