The Shadow of a Doubt

Incorporate a lot of horror elements; feeling of twistedness/off-ness. Gothic sci-fi?


rating: +1+x

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.


Sunlight fell from the curtain of space onto the surface of Europa. It scattered to the horizon of the infinite icy plain and drifted through clear port windows into the dining hall.

Lisa sat at a table next to the window. Her fingers casually swiped the air in front of the small glass surface, through projections of words written in light. For a brief moment, her eyes leaped up to the window to take a glance at the vast desert of ice and scattered rock that lay before the synchotron building. Jupiter hung in the air like an idol, obscuring the cosmos behind it. Lisa blinked from the bright and direct sunlight flooding into her eyes, and tried to refocus on the report.

She had barely done so when the doors swiveled open and Julian shuffled into the dining hall, carrying a somewhat empty tray of food in his hands.

"Got the latest bulletin?" he inquired, sitting down opposite Lisa.

Lisa looked briefly up at him and set the tablet down. The words sank back into the glass. "As a matter of fact, I just received it. Naturally it's the usual stuff - minutiae from the journal editors that I have to respond to, some messages from family. But there's one message in particular that I think you should read for yourself." She activated the holographic pad again and put it in front of the junior engineer.

"Revolutionary new paper published," read Julian, putting his fork back down onto the plate. "Explaining the shape of spacetime…disputes over accuracy of claims…possible theory of everything…proving the quantum foam…" He trailed off. "Uh, what exactly am I reading here? I'm not so strong on the theoretical aspects of this stuff."

Lisa sprang into action. "Alright. It's quite easy to grasp, actually. So this team of theoretical physicists from Antarctica put forth a really interesting and controversial theory about the nature of reality. Specifically, what they speculate is that there is a particle operating at a — at a lower level of reality to the rest of matter, and that the fabric of spacetime is simply an emergent property, so to speak, of the motion of this particle. The contour of reality is just the vibrations of this imagined particle from somewhere deep below."

Jupiter moved to eclipse the sun, creating a long streak of half light that swung across the room as she spoke.

"If this can be proven true, it will be momentous," explained Lisa animatedly. "It's the expression that relates general relativity and quantum mechanics. It's the reason why the fundamental constants of the universe have the values that they do." She looked down and let out some breath in amusement. "It's also a pretty unbelievable theory. Most of the scientific community is very much challenging it."

"As I'd imagine they would. That kind of idea seems impossible to even prove one way or the other," Julian mused.

"Well — not quite. And that's actually why this paper is relevant to us. Guess what we're going to do." Lisa smiled a keen smile.

Julian raised an eyebrow and casually dug into his lunch.

"Exactly! We're going to try and find out if these particles exist. Now, as you know, that's a hard sell. They're supposed to operate underneath space and time itself. How are we expected to try and detect something not even 'in' reality? Here's my brilliant idea — we need to access an area where spacetime doesn't exist. A black hole. We're going to analyze a black hole. How familiar are you with quantum mechanics, Julian?"

"Um…not at all, really. I'm just an engineer. You're the one running this whole show. I'd love to know what's going on, though."

Lisa leaned over the metal table, intently expounding. "I've got this all figured out. And cleared with the committee on Earth, by the way. Our experiment's going to depend on quantum entanglement. Entanglement is a freaky concept. Imagine a pair of photons that interact with each other then separate. These photons are now entangled. Their states are also in superposition — when unobserved, they exhibit all probabilistic states simultaneously, and only take a single state when measured. You can separate these photons by unimaginable distances, and measuring the state of one photon will invariably affect the measured state for the other photon. It is as if they know about each other's states, as absurd as that notion seems."

"Okay, slow down," Julian laughed. "What does this mean for whatever we're going to do in the collider?"

"Sorry," she reflexively said, immediately launching back in. "What we'll do is take two photons and entangle them — and then create a singularity around the second photon. Then, we'll measure the state of the control photon. You see where this is going?"

"That would change the state of the photon inside, I guess. But to measure that you'd have to go through the black hole. You can't do that reliably…any information sent from inside it will get affected by the si—oh." The engineer nodded in satisfaction. "You're indirectly trying to extract information from whatever's deep inside a black hole through entanglement. That's how you'll figure out if there's something down there that would act like a particle."

Lisa took a long sip of coffee. "See? Easy concepts. I'm confident enough about this that I've set experiments to begin tomorrow evening. Everyone else on the team should be receiving a forwarded copy of the experimental protocols as soon as I can get to it — which will be once I have a moment of peace."

"Oh, are you trying to hint to me something?" Julian asked wryly, getting up from the chair with his now-empty tray.

"That's up to you to decide." Lisa was back to casually scrolling through the pad, barely registering the other person in the room.

Julian coughed. "At the very least let me go and…" The box at his upper arm began to vibrate. "Just a sec. This fucking moon." The small machines inside whirred as he held out his hand and spat out a shimmering gray-green capsule. He threw it into his mouth, let it liquefy inside, and finally muttered, "The lengths I go to for science. Tearing apart my DNA and putting it back together again, day after day after day…"

"There's a number of good reasons we're on Europa, you know," said Lisa, her eyes still firmly on the tablet. "We're not under the jurisdiction of any country like we would be on somewhere like Mars or Ceres. Being cut into the ice reduces the impact of cosmic rays on measurements."

He nodded, swallowing.

"Small price to pay for accurate science," she concluded as she slipped a pill of her own into the corner of her mouth.

Julian paused as he headed towards the door. He looked at Lisa again; her figure was set against the decadently lit cosmos behind her. The expansive cafeteria felt desolate in comparison. "You know, I've always found it kind of amusing that you physicists always seem so confident in yourselves."

"Why is that, Julian?" she asked.

"You don't work with anything physical, Lisa. You deal in theories about things too large and small to see. You try to create meaning out of everything at once. That's what you do. All you do is imagine, and yet you're so sure of it all."

"No, I deal in truths. The basic laws of mathematics. The understandable behaviors of motion and matter. The elemental binding that holds knowledge together."

Julian's voice became more strained. "You know in the back of your mind that there may very well be no so-called elemental binding. If that were the case, we wouldn't need the goddamn Foundation watching everyone's backs! We've known for decades that there are phenomena that exist that the tenets of physics cannot explain. We've just been told to graciously ignore it and let someone else take care of it for us. But Lisa, you are no less in the dark than the rest of us." He sighed. "That's what bugs me about this whole operation. What happens if we're right? Or if we're wrong? Will that change the way humanity lives their lives? What are we doing this for?"

Lisa swallowed hard, mostly in frustration, and set the pad down against the table hard. She responded, "I don't need your skepticism, and I certainly don't need it right now. This is what I've chosen to dedicate my career to, and that's the end of it. But fine. Let me engage you on this. Yes, science is incomplete. It will probably be incomplete for a long time. But I live according to the idea that reality has understanding built into it. And, I don't know. It comforts me to think that everything I do is in service of that."

"It comforts you, but it worries me. We're pushing and prodding at the universe—"

"And you worry that the universe might push back," she stated coldly.

"I worry that the universe would prefer us sticking to our own corner of existence. Because I just don't see where this all ends. Sooner or later, humans will hit the bottom of the rabbit hole. I'm not sure if the fall will be pretty."

"Julian, the universe isn't a beast that mustn't be awoken. This isn't nanorobotics, or mindbuilding. Spacetime is a substrate, not a being, and any life or intent we see in it is a reflection of our own."

Julian moved his mouth to speak, before stopping. Finally he sighed and said, "Then look inward, Lisa, and see if this is really a road we want to travel."

Lisa ran her hands through her hair uncertainly before standing up. "I understand your concerns, Julian. I really do. I—" She walked briskly to the door. "I'm going to be careful."

Julian heard the sound of the glass double doors mechanically swinging open and brisk footsteps abruptly leaving the room. He looked back through the wide glass windows. Jupiter had covered the sun completely, leaving a murky slate ocean in the sky, the stars like drifting embers falling to the seafloor.


" What happens if we're right? Or if we're wrong? What are we doing this for?"

Lisa found herself transfixed by the blinking of the clock projected onto the wall. The ticking was the only thing in the world that had any order to it. All her life she had demanded a reason for everything, as if there was one in the first place. As her eyes followed the clock's lazy cycles in the artificial moonlight, she told herself that if everything else failed her, her unshakable faith in the sanctity of reality would not.

And if logic failed her, and reality failed her, what was left for her to hold onto?

Nothing.

The idea of nothing moved through her mind, flowing in between each memory, filling in the cracks, freezing and melting, eroding away the last traces of order. The anchor broke free and fell away.

The circling of the light clock projected on her wall finally began to mesmerize her, and as Lisa felt herself drifting into the waters of unconsciousness, she thought she saw a shadow fly across the light, but she was unable to focus her eyes on it long enough to remember it.

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