FMBR Short Story Winner 2016
A Quantum of Understanding
by Kevin Kiser
Rear Admiral Corbin O'Neill parked his old 2032 Mustang in his reserved spot at the Office of Naval Research's highly classified Quantum Effects Division. He loved the car as much as when he bought it fifteen years earlier, but lately his heart had been captured by another muscle car: the 2048 Ferrari 898 Lineas-- the cheapest car Ferrari made, but still ten times what he had paid for the Mustang.
Corbin's voyage from Captain to Admiral had been sudden and completely unexpected. When Vice Admiral Beasley had assigned him to the top secret Quantum Parallel Extrapolation Engine project three years ago, Corbin thought he had reached the crest of his career wave in the Navy. Then he and his team discovered they could use each new generation of QPEE to design its successor and the project went into hyper-drive. Natural quantum limits finally stopped them, but by then the Navy had the most advanced quantum computer in the world -- so advanced that it seemed almost supernatural. Corbin and his team had saved at least three years and 15 billion dollars in development. After a stunning top-secret QPEE demo, Congress had unanimously voted to confer an admiralty on Corbin and award him, his team, and the Navy, a large bonus. After filtering through the GAO, the SASC, the DOD, and the Navy for two months, a large sum had finally landed in Corbin's bank account, and for the first time in his life, he could afford the Lineas . . .barely!
The only problem was Libby. Somehow his wife had gotten the idea in her mind that they should do some good in the world with the money. Her big idea was to start a foundation for Naval widows. It was a fine idea, but totally incompatible with his.
That was what had brought Corbin to the base on a Saturday: he would use the QPEE prototype to simulate scenarios for talking his wife into letting him get the car. He just needed to find a way to keep Libby happy and still buy the Ferrari. Easy-peasy.
"How's Kewpie?" he called out to Lieutenant Commander Garrett as he entered the lab. The QPEE had been immediately nicknamed Kewpie by the team.
Garrett looked up from the flex tablet he was tapping on. He was QPEE's top designer, and never seemed to go home.
"She had a rough night, sir," said Garrett. "Two decoherence cascades, apparently triggered by cosmic rays, probably ancient extragalactic supernovas. But she's OK now."
"I want to ask her if I should use my bonus to buy a Ferrari Lineas."
"Cool car! Why don't you use the VWB." Garrett flipped a switch and the lights came on behind a window just to the left of a bank of monitors.
The Virtual World Booth was a full sensory-immersion interface to Kewpie. The booth had been entirely designed by Kewpie, and used nano-interfaces to send simulated sensory data directly to the dermal nerve endings.
Corbin stepped into the neural-haptic suit that dangled from cables in the center of the booth and sealed it. As he pulled on the super light-weight helmet he entered the virtual world of Kewpie. Everything looked completely unchanged, except there was no suit, and no helmet, just him standing in the booth.
"Hello, Rear Admiral O'Neill." The voice was soft and gender-neutral, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. "How may I help you?"
"I'm interested in a car."
A full-size car immediately appeared in front of him, while the small room somehow stretched to accommodate it. He gasped. It was the 2048 Ferrari 898 Lineas in his favorite shade of blue. "How did--" He really wanted to know how Kewpie knew exactly what he had been thinking of, but he suppressed the question; the computer always answered, but the quantum reasoning it used was far beyond his comprehension. A 20 quadrillion qubit quantum computer was about as close as human beings could ever expect to get to real magic.
He climbed into the driver's seat. The car was fully equipped for autonomous-driving, but also allowed a driver to have complete control to the extent allowed by law.
"What's its top speed?" he asked.
"The manufacturer suggests a top safe speed of 250 mph, but Sportster 'Zine clocked it at 287 mph on the Utah salt flats." His yearning for the car increased by about 15%.
"Music." His favorite classical music began to play.
"Test drive," he said. Suddenly the car was racing down a deserted freeway. "Salt flats," he added. Instantly the freeway was replaced by a vast expanse of hard-packed white salt and sand. He pressed the accelerator and watched the speedometer climb quickly. At 276 mph, he felt tiny sand ridges pulling at the tires, causing the slightest horizontal vibration.
"The end of the drivable space is approaching," said the soft voice. "Shall I reset your position, or reverse your direction?" Corbin saw what looked like rocks in the distance.
"I'll do it," he said. He began a gentle turn, throwing up a beautiful rooster tail of sand as he swept the car back in the other direction. Zooming across the salt flats at nearly 300 mph gave him a calm, peaceful sensation that he hadn't felt since he fell in love with Libby. He had to have this car; it was like great sex and enlightenment all rolled into one.
"End simulation." The car and the salt flats disappeared, leaving him sitting in a bucket seat in the center of the booth. He stood up and the seat vanished.
The moment of truth had arrived. It was time to mastermind his strategy for Libby.
He cleared his throat. "Home with Libby."
Instantly he was standing in the front hallway of his house.
"Hi, Libby!" he shouted.
"Hey, honey," she called back. "I'm in the studio."
He found her perched on a stool, hunched over one of her oil still-lifes, adding highlights of fuchsia to a beautiful bouquet. She was wearing one of his old dress shirts, covered with wild colorful splotches of paint.
"I've been thinking about how to spend the bonus," he said.
"Me too!" Libby said, spinning to face him. "I'll bet you're thinking the same thing I am! We can really start that foundation now! I'm so excited!"
How did Kewpie know about the foundation idea? Quantum weirdness.
"I want to buy a car. A sports car."
"You already have a sports car. Did something happen to the Mustang?"
"No. I mean something new, something. . .a bit more expensive."
Libby crossed her arms and frowned. "How expensive?"
This was not going the way he had hoped. "Pause simulation." Libby froze on the stool, and a nearby electric fan abruptly stopped spinning.
"Kewpie, is there an argument I can use that will convince Libby that the Ferrari is a good idea?"
"There are three lines of argument that have a greater than 95% chance of convincing Mrs. O'Neill to let you buy the car without bringing about long-term damage to your relationship. Each of these lines of argument is fallacious."
"What do you mean, fallacious?"
"Since there is no positive outcome from purchasing the car that rises above a 13% probability, buying the car is a bad idea -- no matter how you might convince your wife to the contrary. The probability of an unacceptable outcome exceeds 62% in every Hilbert space matrix extrapolation, with a maximum variance of five point--"
"Mute!" he shouted. This kind of talk always made his head spin. "I just wanted to know how I could buy the car -- I didn't ask you if I should buy the car!" He thought about that for a moment. "Should I buy this car?"
He dreaded hearing the computer's answer. But he didn't hear anything. The room was quiet. "Should I buy this car?" he repeated. A gentle buzzing noise made him look down. A small circle on the floor opened like the iris of an old-fashioned camera. A thin metal pole rose straight out of the hole until it was about shoulder height. A foot-long arm popped out of the side of the pole, dangling a white flag. In the center of the flag was the single word, "No."
"Oh, very funny." Then he remembered that he had muted the computer, and it needed some way to communicate with him. "Un-mute."
"Tell me why I shouldn't buy the car, and make the answer simple enough for me to understand." He hoped this would work.
"Extrapolation of the quantum wavefunction for the 22 billion most likely scenarios results in a theta-function inflection point in 98.7 percent of--"
"Mute!" he shouted. Totally useless! Corbin yanked off the helmet in frustration. The metal pole and the hole in the floor disappeared, and he was once again dangling in the haptic suit.
Garrett looked up as he came out. "You weren't in there very long, sir. Did you decide about the car?"
"No, I damn well didn't!"
"Sorry, Chief," Garrett said looking sympathetic. "Just remember, this thing ain't God, and even God doesn't always give us the answer we want to hear."
Corbin sat behind the wheel of his Mustang in the parking lot and fumed. Who was this stupid computer to tell him not to buy his dream car? He was a man of action, a decision maker -- he could make up his own mind. Besides, it was just a freaking car, for God's sake. Maybe he couldn't talk to Libby about it, but it wasn't her bonus--it wasn't her decision. He slammed his hands on the Mustang's steering wheel and made up his mind.
Despite the city's traffic web keeping him legal he made it across the city to the dealership in record time. He pulled out his banking card and pressed his thumb on the sensor to check his balance. The bonus money was right there. . .waiting.
In the showroom he saw it immediately: the blue Lineas, the exact car he had just driven across the salt flats. The car he had come to look at every week for the last two months.
"Admiral O'Neill, welcome back." Bob the salesman was always warm and welcoming when Corbin stopped in. "You ready to buy the Lineas yet? I could have it prepped and licensed for you in no time." He grinned broadly.
"Let's do it," said Corbin evenly.
Bob batted his eyes a few times. "You're ready to buy? For realsies?" His grin came back, twice as big as before.
Corbin nodded. "The exact deal we talked about two weeks ago. Right?"
"Absolutely, I already wrote it up." He pulled a reader out of his pocket and tapped the screen, then let Corbin push his card into the slot. "Just put your thumb here."
In seconds the transaction was done. "Can I take it now?" asked Corbin.
"Yes sir, she's still got dealer plates, but come back in a day or two and we'll install your new plates."
He nodded. His hands were itching to hold the wheel of the Lineas again, only this time the real thing, and this time. . .his!
Corbin sent his Mustang home on auto-drive, then hopped into the Ferrari, revved the electric turbine, and took off. The traffic web prevented speeding, but he could still feel the power and responsiveness of the vehicle as he drove.
Two feelings were arising in him simultaneously, bliss and guilt. . .and guilt was winning. He was quite capable of making decisions on the base that involved millions of dollars, but at home he and Libby pretty much had to agree on every dollar spent.
He already knew his common sense would win out in the end and he would return the car tomorrow. But right now, he owned the car and he might as well take it for a real spin. The interstate skyway was an autobahn: no speed limit, just speed! He got in the turn lane for the nearest on-ramp, but just missed the light. As he pulled to a stop he saw a motion to his left.
A hooded man in ragged clothing stumbled across the street toward the Lineas holding out a big dirty rag in one hand and a blue spray bottle in the other. Oh, no! The car was about to get slimed! He rolled down his window as the man reached for the windshield with the rag.
"Get away!" he shouted. "The car is brand-new!"
The man looked toward him and Corbin saw that he was young and had intense blue eyes. The man sneered and dropped the dirty rag to show Corbin that he was holding a gun. Corbin's eyes opened wide. What a fool he had been! The car's windows were unbreakable polycarbonate, but they couldn't protect him when they were rolled down.
"Get out of the car!" the man barked. Corbin started to roll the window back up, but it was too slow. "Another inch and I'll have to clean your brains out of my new car," the man said stepping closer. Corbin took his finger off the window button.
"Get out or die, your choice. . .five seconds."
Corbin forced himself to wait for six, then opened the door and climbed out. Might as well make the bastard wait for it.
The ragged man dropped into the driver's seat, pulled the door closed and leaned out the window toward Corbin. He raised his gun and pointed it at Corbin's head. "You took too long, old man."
Corbin could see the man's finger squeezing the trigger and he tried to jump away, but he was too slow. The muzzle flashed.
Corbin didn't know what had happened. Was he dead? Everything around him was perfectly still, and there was no sound at all. Even the muzzle flash was frozen on the end of the gun, and a bullet was floating in the air about three inches in front of the gun.
A buzzing noise made him look down. A hole in the road opened like a camera iris. A metal rod rose up until an arm popped out dangling a white flag with a message, "Simulation probability has dropped below 90%. Continue simulation?"
Simulation? He reached up and pulled off the VW helmet. He had never left the booth! Kewpie had tricked him! "Un-mute!" he gasped. "Why did you do that?"
"Was that answer sufficiently simple for you to understand, Admiral?" asked Kewpie.
Corbin threw down the helmet, ripped off the suit and staggered out of the booth.
Garrett looked up as he came out. "You were in there a long time, sir. Did you decide about the car?"
"I'm going to use the money to start a foundation to help Naval widows."
"Good for you, sir," Garrett said, "that's a big step up from buying a sports car."
"That's no step," said Corbin, "it's a frickin' quantum leap!"
Copyright © by the Author, All Rights Reserved
Kevin is the author and co-author of several children's books, as well as a ghost writer and writing consultant. He has over 35 years in the software industry, and an MBA from Stanford University. Kevin also has an intense curiosity about how the universe works, at both the physical and spiritual levels, and is currently working on a book about the physics behind metaphysics.