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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

Quantum Entanglement

Rajan Khanna is a fiction writer, blogger, narrator, and graduate of the 2008 Clarion West Writers Workshop. His work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, GUD, Podcastle, and The Way of the Wizard among others. His articles have appeared at Tor.com and LitReactor.com and his podcast narrations can be heard at Podcastle, Escape Pod, PseudoPod, Wired.com, Starship Sofa, and Lightspeed. Rajan lives in New York where he's a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. His personal website is rajankhanna.com and he tweets, @rajanyk.
***Editor's Alert: This is an adult story, featuring sexual situations and actions***
[Click]


The shutter opens and closes, the analog camera a sequence of moving parts. Lucas finds it comforting--things coming together, things coming apart. On the opposite side of the lens, her mischievous smile flashes, captured on the film inside the camera. Not an invitation, that smile, no, but more of a dare. Are you ready? it seems to say.
He feels ready. The moment is captured but not realized. Inscribed but not experienced. He lowers the camera and moves forward.


[Click]


The light switches off, allowing the glow from the street to wash down over her body, to paint lines along her curves. One long leg stretches out from behind the sheet. Even in the dark he can see the scrawl of his name where he had written it on her. Not to mark as property, but to inscribe. To conquer distance.
A matching mark adorns his shoulder, a bruise from Tina's bite when they were pressed together, bodies crushing with almost violent force as they clawed for more than the boundaries of their skin would allow.
Their legs slide against one another, the friction causing heat and electricity that courses beneath the skin. He pulls her close again. The smell of her skin fills his head. His mouth finds hers, tastes the blood where he bit her lip. He has written on her, but she is written all over him.


[Click]


He snaps on the light as they lay between sheets damp with sex. Tina exhales a long ribbon of smoke into the air. Lucas usually doesn't like smokers, but in her it seems less distasteful.
"We call it Observer One," she says.
"Not the most inspiring name."
"It's a riff on quantum theory. And really, it explains what it is we're doing."
"Explain it to me again," Lucas says. "You know how all this quantum theory messes with my brain."
She smiles and runs her fingers through his hair. "You at least know the basics. Other dimensions exist as infinite potentials. But the moment you observe one it collapses the waveform and is fixed."
He nods.
"That's what we're doing. Observer One will observe other realities, collapsing the waveforms. We'll have a window into another reality, but only that one. Essentially, it's like a big television remote--we're switching channels, seeing what's on each station."
"Or a slide projector," he says, flashing back to school and images projected onto a white screen. Photos. A press of a button, a whir, a click, each image thrown up in front of them, different worlds contained within every one.
Tina nods, then stamps out the cigarette in the ashtray. "Only we can never go back. The moment we switch to another reality, the previous one is lost."
"That seems like a lot of pressure," he says.
She smiles, then pulls him toward her. In that moment, he tries to grasp hold of the sight of her, the feel of her, her smell. He tries to store it away in his mind. Like taking a picture. With all his being, he wills it to stay.


[Click]


Lucas switches the stereo on then joins her on the sofa. She cradles a half-full glass of wine in her hand. His stands on the floor. The night has been good so far. Dinner. Drinks. A lingering taste in their mouths.
Her gift to him sits on the table--an antique camera for his collection. His predilections still amuse her, but she supports them. It doesn't stop her from gently ribbing him, calling him a Newtonian.
He smiles at that, pokes a finger at her. "So you think that quantum physics can explain everything?"
"Almost," she says. "It even aligns with far eastern spirituality."
"Aha," he says, scooping up his wine glass. "You said 'almost'."
She nods. "And I meant it." She slides one finger around the rim of her glass. "Love. It doesn't explain, or govern, love."
He shrugs. "Are you sure? There's physiology involved. Endorphins are released, blood flows, neurotransmitters close gaps in the brain." It's a sequence, he thinks. A path. One that's led to the diamond ring stashed safely in his desk drawer. The one he hopes to give her later.
She sits up, puts down the wine. "Is that all you think it is? Mechanics?"
The words leave his lips before his thoughts catch up to him. "When it comes down to it, we're just machines. Special machines. But still mechanical."
She rubs her long fingers together. Her eyes are glassy. Her face reddens. "But there's so much more than just a series of dominoes falling. So many places things could have fallen apart. Your sister could have chosen not to take that free month at the gym. I could have pulled out of the Pilates class like I'd intended to. I might never have met her. No her, no us. That's part of the wonder for me. That the atoms that made you and made me, elements birthed in the heart of stars, came together in the same time and same place, and that we met. And then... that we somehow became more than just our separate parts. When you think about it, it's fucking remarkable."
He sits back, chastened. "I guess... I never thought of it that way."
"I just think that love is something special in the universe," she says. "Something that doesn't necessarily follow any physical rules."
He flushes. "Of course it is," he says. "You're right. It's remarkable. You're remarkable." He reaches out to her, takes her hand, but something's changed. A switch has been flipped. The circuit is broken and the night's energy is rapidly tilting to black. Now is not the right time, he thinks, to give her the ring.
She tells him later that she's going to go home, check on her cats, get some work done. That hadn't been the plan. She was supposed to stay the night. But she smiles and kisses him and says she'll see him tomorrow.
The door closes.


[Click]


"I fucked up, Rebecca," Lucas says.
His sister's voice on the other side of the line is reassuring. "You said she didn't seem mad when she left, right? I'm sure it'll be fine tomorrow."
He curls the phone cord around his wrist, feels it stretch. Tina had teased him about that, an analog phone in a digital world. A rotary phone, no less. She had teased him about all the things he kept--the old television set, the turntable and the cassette deck, the typewriter. Everything except his collection of vintage cameras. Those she had stared at in awe.
"It's not an affectation, is it?" she'd said. "You really just love these old things."
"They have weight," he'd replied. "I can feel them work, feel the parts move. Hear them." He shrugged. "It just makes more sense to me."
She'd grabbed his hand and curled it around her, and he'd pulled her close. He'd felt the muscles shift beneath her skin, seen the pulse beating there.
"Hello?"
Rebecca's voice brings him back to the call. "Sorry," he says.
"It'll be fine," she says. "I'm really happy for you, even if she did leave you for the night. It's time you settled down. Found something solid. And it's all because of me." He can hear the smile in her voice.
Lucas reaches for the small velvet ring box, snaps it open and stares at the diamond inside. "Rebecca," he says. "I'm going to..."
A beep on the line signals another call. "Hang on," he says. "Call waiting." He presses down on the switch hook and clicks over to the other call.
"Lucas?" a female voice says, tremulous.
"Yes?"
"It's Clara." Tina's sister. "There's... been an accident." The rest of Clara's words dribble over him like rain. He knows what she's saying, but it's not sinking in. His veins have turned to glacial shards.
He reaches for the box and snaps it shut.


[Click]


He stares at Tina in the hospital bed. She has been marked again, this time by a careening truck, written upon with violent script. The long red line and shaved patch from her cracked skull. The purple, swollen flesh of the supraorbital fracture. The puckered incision trailing down from her neck.
His hand glides down her arm, carefully skirting the site of her compound fracture. It comes to rest on her fingers. He squeezes them around the blood pressure monitor.
There is no response there. The only motion in the room, aside from his own, comes from the wheezing thump of the respirator. Colored lines jump on the wall monitors, beating out a steady tempo. All except one which remains flat.
Clara walks in, her face red and swollen from crying. She says, "It's time." She crosses the room to him and puts a hand on his shoulder. Her other hand clutches a wadded tissue.
Lucas nods. He doesn't blame Tina's family. She wouldn't really want this anyway. She was a creature of impulse. Of light. And now that part of her has escaped, jumped away to... where? Just her body is captured here. Not what made her unique.
The family files in, a canvas of tears and sniffles, red noses and red eyes. Lucas keeps his eyes fixed on Tina. Even broken as she is, he wants to hold on to this sight. Store the pieces of her in his memory as if he were taking a photograph.
Despite the computers and the monitors, the screens and equipment all around her, when the end comes, it comes with a series of switches. The doctors depress them and the room quiets and stills. One by one. Click by...


[Click]


He closes the door behind Rebecca, watches her black-clad figure get into her car and drive away. Then he lets the facade drop, puts down the brave face and wears his naked grief. The funeral had been the usual. A somber graveyard ceremony as they lowered her casket into the ground. He'd thrown dirt over the grave, then moved to the church and the revolving door of loved ones, each shotgunning their memories out into the crowd. Lucas didn't speak. Words seemed unsuitable containers for his feelings.
Later, he drives to the gun range and holds a revolver in his hand. He pops out the cylinder, spins it around, then pops it back, feeling the pieces move then fall into place. He thumbs back the hammer, feeling the weight of it as it snaps open. The trigger is as thin as a whisper.
He fires until the chambers are empty. Fills them again. Fires again. Something about the process is calming. Reassuring. Motion. Reaction. Newtonian physics.
The revolver spins onto another chamber.


[Click]


Lucas breaks into Tina's laboratory. It's remarkably simple. He still has her key card, and she'd already shown him how to enter through the back door. He recalls the time they'd come there together, remembers the beep and the clunk as the door unlocked. He'd been there a few times when she was working, of course. All the scientists filling the room like white-feathered birds. The nervous energy. Focused intent.
But that night, it had been just the two of them. "I like it when it's quiet here," she'd said. "Just us and other universes."
Now it is cold and still. Just him and the other universes. And his bottle of whiskey.
He thumbs on the power switches and the lab fills with light. There are no moving parts here, he thinks. No pumps or rotors. But the room still hums, and coils and plates generate fields that power their devices.
He's stopped cold by Tina's desk. It's still there, just like it always was. Perched prominently at its front is a picture of the two of them, one he took with his camera, their bodies pressed close together. He hears the flick of the flash. He swears he can smell her hair.
He pushes the frame down against the metal table.


[Click]


Lucas pulls open the door to the Schrodinger Box. He recalls Tina telling him about a joke that the scientists were fond of making. Something about a cat gone missing. He opens his mouth to laugh, but what comes out is a strangled sob.
He moves inside, pushing away the probe that can see into other universes. Tina told him that it takes readings--observing the physical conditions in those other universes. A computer sifts through the data, trying to assemble a picture of the other realities around them. This happens every thirty minutes, unless of course the door is open.
Lucas pulls the diamond ring from his left pocket. Since Tina's death, he's carried it everywhere with him. He thinks of carbon ejected from the heart of stars, sent hurtling across the galaxy, colliding with other matter. He thinks of great pressure and friction forming it into a beautiful gem. He thinks of how unlikely this all seems.
He once asked Tina if she thought that other realities might have invented observers of their own and she'd said it was quite likely. He wonders if any of them are seeing him now. And if so, do they just see a man?
He no longer feels human. He feels like a singularity. A black hole, collapsing under the gravity of his own grief.
He reaches for the door and pulls it shut.


[Click]


The machine hums and he is smeared across reality like a bug across a windshield. His component parts scatter through space-time. And yet...
And yet... he still is. Scattered as they are, his particles are still entangled, they still communicate with one another across vast distances. He is a ghost stretched plastic-wrap tight across the universe. He understands now that he has been wrong. It is all mechanical. It is all the interplay of forces, of particles and waves, of time and space, of things colliding and separating, coming together, coming apart.
He can feel his particles, feel them resonate with others, other related parts in other universes. Then, another awareness. He remembers something Tina said.
"I think sometimes, when we're together, as I'm trying to pull you closer, into me, beneath my skin, that our atoms are mingling. That the electrons that make up our bodies are crossing lines that our bodies can't."
And he understands.
She is written all over him.


[Click]


He reaches for those particles, communicating across distances infinite and yet infinitesimal.
With a burst of will, he somehow shifts through space and time. Worlds, other realities, switch by. He sees scenes that never were, possibilities that might have been. He clicks through them like slides in a projector, glimpse after glimpse, click after click. Then...


[Click]


She sits on the sofa, her wine no longer in her hand.
"I just think that love is something special in the universe. Something that doesn't necessarily follow any physical rules."
Lucas stares back at her and reaches for her hand. "All that matters to me is that I love you and I want to be with you. I don't care if you can measure it or not, or where it comes from. Just that I know it exists and it's important."
Lucas moves closer, kisses her. "Stay the night?" he says.
She nods.
Later, Lucas gets up and moves to his desk, removes the felt box there. He gets down on his knee. "Will you marry me?" he says.
Her eyes fill with tears. She looks up from the ring. "Yes," she says.


[Click]


He knows that here he is the observer and that by witnessing this, the waveform is collapsing and this reality is now defined. In this world, Lucas proposed to Tina. In this world she stayed the night and so will not be at the intersection when the truck runs the light. In this world, things are different.
Somehow, that is enough.
He lets go and his atoms decohere, this new universe overwriting him with its reality.
And his atoms fall into stars, waiting to be reborn.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 11th, 2013


This story grew out of something Connie Willis said while I was at Clarion West in 2008. She said to write about what scares you. At the time of the genesis of the story, I was just getting serious about my current relationship. It was a heady time and I thought that I didn't want it to end. The thought of having it snatched away from me scared me, and the story arose out of that. The characters in the story are highly fictionalized, but it was still difficult writing about loss--I kept trying to hide it behind the language and I ultimately had to pull back a bit to make it work. Whether or not I was successful, I leave to the reader.

- Rajan Khanna

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