The Fattest Cat’s Car Keys
By Kendall Evans
The sound a thunderous final exclamation of the world mountainous boulders rolling down slopes in a place where mountains will be no longer constant din of objects falling from the sky impacting earth objects materializing suddenly on the pavement before her, on flanking lawns and sidewalks many unidentifiable but some obvious like now the bowling ball that comes crashing through her electric Nissan Leaf’s windshield shattering implosion and explosion of rectangular bits of glass . . . fragments and pointed splinters she covers her eyes against the crystal spray exposed flesh abruptly bleeding from too many places to count splinters impaling flesh through her blouse her exposed suntanned midriff a plane of painful lacerations, bleeding, bleeding, beads and drops, within an Armageddon of chaotic catenation and searing sun-raying fission . . .
HOW IT ALL BEGAN:
Some of it was easy enough to decipher. It had begun when? Four days ago, when Elspeth gave Su Li the car key ornament with its LED lights and chip-activating buttons. It seemed like so long ago.
Yet it all had to do with Elspeth, and Su Li had known Elspeth for ages. Start with a week-and-a-half ago. Organize the events in that manner.
Elspeth had called on the weekend, inviting her over to help complete a homemade Tesla coil. It was handmade, a coil of conductive wire wound around a firm tube.
The day was off to a hot start. Global Warming? Climate change? Who knows for sure; not me. Her name was Su Li Zhou, and she wrote freelance science articles for the layperson – which went a long way toward explaining her friendship with Elspeth as well as her present situation. Anyone interested in science could not help but be entertained by Elspeth’s hobbies as well as her professional work, and she had provided Su Li with research information resulting in a number of published, well-accepted pieces. Her friend Elspeth worked at Silicon Tech, up in the mountains – no doubt a contributing factor, the place Su Li hatefully blamed for her outrageous, rapidly shutting-down endgame.
She spent much of that weekend and Monday and Tuesday nights of the following week helping her friend wind the extremely fine wire for the Tesla Coil, each winding of wire butting up against the spiral’s previous revolution exactly flush, the tube turned by an electric motor so that they could hold the wire and run a thumb over it at the same time, making sure the thread-fine wire was placed correctly flush with the previous winding and not gaping open or winding back on itself. “No overlap,” Elspeth kept insisting. “I want it to be a perfect spiral.”
Once it was completed, disconnected from the motor and hooked up to its power source, it produced beautiful blue sparks; and Su Li knew even before hearing Elspeth’s explanation, these displays were a high-volt low-amp effect. If you held your fingertip within an inch of the surface, the aurora-like sparks jumped the gap, but there was no sense of an electric shock; only the vaguest tingle and the impressive neon blue branchings and zig-zags like miniature split bolts of lightning. Not as powerful as Tesla’s, of course, and it didn’t look anything like the one Su Li had seen up at Griffith Observatory. That one was huge, constructed vertically, and built by Tesla himself. This one was small and horizontal, resembling one of Edison’s earliest phonographs, missing the big sound horn.
Su Li had first met Elspeth maybe five years ago when she was researching a science article, and Elspeth had been kind enough to help her out. Afterwards, the two had become friends, and Elspeth had helped with more than one additional article. But it had been more than a month, maybe two, since she had last talked to Elspeth, before she called about the Tesla Coil.
And then, what had it been? Four days ago? That zany conversation, over the phone, that began it all.
Over her cellphone, actually, just before Su Li accepted Elspeth’s insistent invitation to drive over, the other had said something about “fattest cat’s car keys.” Su Li didn’t figure it out at the time; didn’t think much of it.
“Get out, get out,” Elspeth said as Su Li depressed the button and the driver-side window descended. Elspeth’s meaning, she knew, was not that Su Li should turn back around and leave as soon as arriving, thus “getting out” of her driveway, but that she should climb out of the car right away.
As soon as she was out of her Nissan Leaf, Elspeth handed her a small box-like object with a keychain ring attached. “Hold this, and stand right over here.” Elspeth pointed out the spot.
Su Li stood where indicated and held up the little black box.
Elspeth faced her with a committed expression. “Did you already put your car keys away? Take them out of your purse again. Oh, and your wallet, too. Hold them up in front of yourself, so that I can see them. No, not with your hands enclosing them; dangle them down so that they’re in sight.”
Elspeth aimed in her direction what Su Li assumed must be a camera – except that she was wrong. She complied with Elspeth’s instructions, frowning, waiting for her to say: “Say cheese.” But she didn’t.
Elspeth moved to a different angle and pushed a button on the “camera” again. Rather than a flash, it produced an eerie blue glow that reminded Su Li of the Tesla coil’s sparks. Elspeth did several takes and then held out the device. “O.K. Now it’s your turn. Trade places with me.”
“You want me to take your picture, now?” Su Li wondered what was going on. Why take a picture of my wallet and keys?
“We aren’t taking pictures. This isn’t a camera. Well, I call it a ‘quantum-camera’, but that’s actually a misnomer. It tracks and measures alignments, so that they can be reproduced at will later on, with these little quantum-zapper gizmos”—this last said as Elspeth pointed to the little black box with the keychain ring attached.
They traded places. Now Elspeth held up her purse, her car keys, and what she had called a “Zapper”. Su Li focused the quantum-camera on her and looked through the lens. There was Elspeth’s intent freckled face with its halo of red-brown hair, the purse dangling by its strap, a set of car keys, and her house in the background of the framed view as seen through the tiny lensed aperture. Per Elspeth’s instructions, Su Li took several “shots”. She was beginning to comprehend that she was not taking photographs, but still in a state of confusion – of uncertainty.
Su Li leaned up against her Nissan. “All right,” she said. “Now that we’ve accomplished that, would you kindly explain what the hell is going on?”
“Sure. I’ll explain and give a demonstration at the same time. Come on in the house for a few minutes”
Elspeth, as always, seemed in a hurry. Once they were seated with coffee beside them in Elspeth’s living room, she got all serious-efficient again.
“Get out your Zapper.” Elspeth had a habit of standing with one hip canted, as if flirting. But Su Li knew her friend only liked men. Elspeth lifted her own Zapper and gestured at it with her free hand. “The little keychain thingy I gave you.”
Su Li fished it out of her purse.
“OK.” Elspeth leaned forward. “Now, close your eyes,” Elspeth continued. “And let’s pretend that you’ve somehow lost your car keys. Feel for the little button on the far left of the device, and push it.” There were five buttons spaced around the edges. After locating the one Elspeth had indicated and closing her eyes, Su Li pushed it.
“Now open your eyes and look around,” Elspeth’s voice sounding a little like a teacher’s, as always.
Su Li did. She found her car keys sitting on the sofa next to her.
“What’s this?” She asked. “You doing magic tricks these days?”
“No magic tricks. Like I told you on the phone, it’s “fattest cat” behavior – quantum behavior on our macro scale, right here before for us to see. I had you push the button I programmed as associated with your lost set of car keys. Now, where do you think your regular set of car keys was, before you pushed the button?”
“In my purse, of course. Didn’t you see me put them there?”
“Go ahead, get them out. They won’t be there.”
But they were. Su Li fished them out, on a chain with her house key and some padlock keys for the side gates flanking her home, and tossed the set of keys onto the sofa adjacent their duplicates. They landed in an identical fanned-out pattern; seeing the two sets next to each other was like looking at the separate halves of a 3D image. Not a duplicate set of keys in the sense of one being like a Xerox copy of the other, she reminded myself, but the exact same set of keys in two places at once.
Impossible . . . but right before my eyes. And sitting here beside me on Elspeth’s sofa.
Elspeth frowned deeply, looking concerned. “That shouldn’t have happened. As soon as you perceived one set, the other set should have disappeared. Listen; let’s both try closing our eyes again.”
So Su Li closed her eyes, and assumed the other closed hers too. When Su Li opened her eyes again there was only one set of keys on the sofa cushion. Elspeth could not have been responsible; she was all the way across the room, and Su Li’s eyes had been closed not much longer than a blink.
“That’s better,” Espeth was still holding her Zapper. “Although I don’t understand why decoherence would take place so slowly. Theoretically, it should be instantaneous. We shouldn’t be able to see both possibilities at the same time. But at least it’s successful, if a bit tardy—
“And just think, Su Li,” Elspeth added. “What a money-making item you hold in your hand. Everyone will want a quantum Zapper. No more lost socks or car keys or coat-hangers or whatever.”
* * * * *
On the phone Elspeth had muttered about “fattest cat’s car keys”. Now Su Li understood Elspeth’s meaning — if the other had talked about a
fat cat, a term Su Li was familiar with, she’d have understood right away.
In the famous double slit experiment, a photon can pass through one of two slits in a box. If it passes through either, its position of impact is altered by interfering waves from its twin before it strikes the back of the box. The interfering waves are interpreted by theoretical physicists as indicating the particle actually passed thru both slits at once, thus occupying two positions simultaneously.
“Cat,” a physicist’s slang term for a Shroedinger’s Cat situation – quantum weirdness or superpositions containing numerous atoms or other quantum entities approaching the macro-scale. If a larger particle passes thru the two slits at once, it’s called a “fat cat.” Ten years ago, a research team had successfully coaxed a buckminsterfullerene molecule containing approximately sixty carbon atoms into passing through two slits simultaneously. This, of course, would mean that it had occupied two different positions – in other words, the same molecule, as impossible as it might seem, was in two places at once.
There had been an ongoing effort ever since to create bigger and bigger “cats”, involving more and more atoms and larger molecules, and at some point the physicists had shifted their jargon to calling them “fat cats.”
So this “fattest cat” Elspeth had mentioned must be some kind of truly astonishing macro-quantum effect breakthrough.
* * * * *
Elspeth pointed out the button programmed for Su Li’s car keys, the one associated with Su Li’s wallet, and one which would produce a duplicate Zapper.
“Wait a minute,” Su Li said. “If my Zapper’s lost, how can I push its button to find an alternate or duplicate Zapper?”
“Hmmm, I hadn’t thought of that,” Elspeth admitted.
And then her friend laughed. “Tell you what; I’ll give you two Zappers, just in case you lose one. Oh, by the way, these other buttons, the extra ones, I don’t think I programmed those yet, unless they got cross-programmed with some of my belongings. Anyway, as I was saying, no more lost car keys or personal items. Just push a button and you’ll produce the quantum duplicate of the item, thus doubling your chances of finding it quickly. Everyone at our research facility was given several of the Zappers to test. That’s hundreds of trials going on this weekend. If everything works out as expected, we’ll be marketing them in less than a month. And I’m very certain it will be the biggest money-making invention Silicon Tech has come up with, in addition to changing our way of life and our way of looking at the world.”
* * * * * *
That had been on Sunday. By Wednesday everything was getting very strange indeed. Quantum events had manifested themselves in ways that Su Li found frightening. There were one or two odd happenings on Tuesday, but on Wednesday morning, just after she showered and was dressing for work, Su Li found what she was sure must be someone else’s lost stocking in her bureau drawer. At the very least, she didn’t recognize it. So it was either one she’d lost years ago, or someone else’s. And certainly, when Elspeth had aimed the device she called a “Quantum Camera”, she had not focused it on any of Su Li’s socks. The only thing in line of sight had been her car keys, one of the zappers, and her wallet. Oh, and Su Li, of course. Certainly not any stockings; even the ones she was wearing she was certain had been below the line-of-sight of the device, in terms of how Elspeth was aiming it. If Elspeth had been taking a photo of Su Li, it would not have included her feet. More like a from-the-waist-up image.
And then there were too many tooth brushes in the bathroom. Su Li lived alone, so where had they coming from? She counted them. Three extras, and she did not recognize them. One was a child’s toothbrush, and she’d never had any children. She did not even have young nieces and nephews. Su Li was reasonably certain she had never seen any of these toothbrushes in her life. Yet there they were. One lay prone in the medicine cabinet beside the tube of toothpaste. One had been set atop the toilet tank’s top. And one of them shared the toothbrush holder with Su Li’s own toothbrush. Not a good sign, she decided. She did not like it at all.
Su Li was in a hurry, having overslept, but she made up her mind to call Elspeth on her cell-phone on the way to work.
And then, just as she drove out of her own driveway and accelerated toward the corner, she spotted an extra house in the neighborhood. A duplicate of Elspeth’s house. If the toothbrushes had been disconcerting, this was terrifying. You can’t have extra houses appearing in a neighborhood; Hell, there isn’t even space for an extra house.
Had the block mysteriously lengthened, to squeeze in this additional burden? Or had one of the neighbor’s houses disappeared to make way for it? Cause and effect shouldn’t be this far out of whack, even if quantum effects could now exist on the macro level. She was reminded, too, of how she had sometimes joked with Elspeth that she was so absent minded, she could probably get lost on the way home, and not be able to find her way, or her house. And she also remembered how Elspeth’s house had been in the background when Su Li focused her Quantum Camera and pushed that little silver oval button. Had she somehow inadvertently programmed and pushed one of her own Zapper buttons?
She turned on her hands-free phone and spoke Elspeth’s name. The phone responded to the verbal cue and coded in Elspeth’s number automatically.
“Am I ever glad I got hold of you,” Su Li answered, feeling relieved. “Elspeth, this whole damn ‘fattest cat’ thing is way out of synch. I mean, totally out of control. I feel like the world is freewheeling, falling all apart and coming to an end. Extra toothbrushes everywhere, and now your house, or rather a duplicate of your house, has appeared on my street.”
“Slow down, Su Li. Run all that by me again. I really don’t know what you’re talking about”
“Of course you know what I’m talking about. Your company’s new invention. Your Quantum Camera and your little keychain Zapper. That’s what I’m talking about.”
“Su Li, this isn’t like you. If I didn’t know you better, I’d be tempted to ask what you’ve been smoking.”
Su Li made the next turn on automatic pilot, not really aware of where she was going. “Quit joshing me, Elspeth. Your Zapper thing is dangerous, I’m sure of it. You’ve got to stop all the testing and experimentation that’s going on. Did you say several hundred were being tested starting last weekend?”
“Su Li, what are you going on about?” Elspeth was beginning to sound a little putout, as if someone’s joke had gone too far. But if there is a joke, Su Li decided, it’s on all of us.
“My company’s latest creation is the Trinitron transistor chip,” Elspeth paused, sounding thoughtful. “And it’s top secret; I haven’t even told you about it yet. The lid won’t come off until April.”
She seemed so sincere. And then it hit Su Li. Elspeth had been in the sights of the Quantum Camera when Su Li punched its button. Could this be an Elspeth from another possible world, were the Zapper had not yet been invented? But how could that be? How could this Elspeth, the one I’m talking to now, have been Zapped, in a world without Zappers? And if Elspeth had a twin, a duplicate, it should definitely be an Elspeth with the same memories, an exact replica of the Elspeth Su Li had Zapped – otherwise quantum weirdness should not take place.
“Never mind, Elspeth. I call later, when I’ve got a better grip on all this.” Except that I’ll never get a better grip on this shit.
She told the cellphone to sign off, turned around her car, and headed home. Things were getting too strange today to go to work. She decided to stop in at Elspeth’s duplicate house – the one that had suddenly appeared on her block – and see if she was in. If so, which Elspeth would Su Li find?
Some theorists believed that the quantum split of a particle existing in two places at once represented the splitting-off or formation of an alternate universe. They asserted an infinity of alternate worlds, one for every possibility. That might explain an alternate Elspeth. It might even explain the child’s toothbrush Su Li had found in her bathroom; perhaps in some alternate cosmos, she actually possessed a child. A little girl, she speculated.
But thoughts like that, attempting to accommodate so many contradictions, were giving her a splitting migraine headache.
She walked up the walkway with its familiar border of mini-roses. It felt spooky, approaching Elspeth’s front door when she was on her own street, where the house did not belong. But no one was home, neither the Elspeth from Su Li’s world, nor any other. At least, no one answered the bell. She rang it three or four times and kept waiting. Finally she gave up, but by the time she left, Su Li felt more befuddled than ever.
She went home and started dinner. There was an extra chicken in the fridge.
* * * * *
So now it had come to this. It was Thursday and she was driving home through a blizzard of lost objects – quantum wallets, rings, necklaces, and other jewelry; car keys, credit cards, eyeglasses, fluttering sheets from lost reports and manuscripts; mate-less shoes and socks; and the assorted odd unpredictable. Of necessity she’d driven very slowly, a fearful creeping forward, maxing at maybe five kph. Smaller, lighter objects striking the car tended to accumulate on the hood and pile up over the base of the windshield, so she had the wipers going constantly, scooping debris aside to compensate.
Su Li was third generation Chinese. Her grandparents spoke no English at all, excepting a few mispronounced words or phrases here and there. Her second generation parents spoke fluent English with a slight accent, even though they had never been college educated. Su Li could speak accent-less English when she wanted to. But maybe not now, and perhaps not ever again. Her nerves were on edge, felt permanently short-circuited, skewed into a state they could never come down from.
Far more than her way of looking at the world had been changed.
Tract houses always tended to be a bit too similar one to the other, but Su Li suspected some of the houses she was passing now were actual exact duplicates, right down to the alignment of their individual sub-atomic particles.
It had been exactly four days since Elspeth gave her the Zapper.
None of this made any sense at all. Once these lost objects were perceived, the other ones, the originals, should cease to be. But “decoherence”, as Elspeth described it, was not taking place. The duplicates were accumulating instead – a cataclysmic accumulation – and filling the sky with a storm of misplaced items. Of course she wanted to speak with Elspeth about it, she was the only one Su Li thought might be able to shed some light on what was occurring, so she was on her way to Elspeth’s original house. The one in its own neighborhood, not the one in Su Li’s; its own city. But she became convinced she would never make it. Her car was taking a beating. So she turned around and now she was attempting to drive home. And Elspeth still didn’t answer her phone.
God help us. God help us all. —And Su Li was not a religious person at all. And yet the thought felt inevitable.
Not that it mattered, now, really; things had probably gone way beyond Elspeth’s or anyone else’s control. And why is this barrage of items at such an extreme distance from the misplaced mates? She knew about electron position probability. Theoretically, an atom might be in California and in extremely unlikely moments one of the atom’s electrons somewhere in Rhode Island, but that seemed far too oddball to be a norm – more a theoretical state, Su Li had always believed, than a real one.
Time and again her mind grappled with the fact that decoherence was not taking place. Quantum effects were increasing at an exponential pace. It seemed as if some strange chain reaction might be happening. Or as if, once quantum weirdness actually became established on the truly macro level, here in the everyday universe, it broke down the structure of reality as Su Li had once known it to be. Like, a mere week ago.
What if, Su wondered — what if only the people who were given zappers got forced into a different world, a world where quantum macro effects have become the norm? I’d be one of them, since I was given a Zapper. If Elspesth had never given her the zapper, everything would be fine. But that was just another crazy attempt to explain the inexplicable. There was no way Su Li could even begin to test her theories.
The barrage continued: lost gloves, umbrellas, birth certificates, bras . . . and most likely stolen items too, she realized – stolen purses and wristwatches and bicycles. . . . The din was astonishing, like the mother of all hailstorms pounding her car, but different, too, because some of the impacts were muffled and some intense, depending on the size, weight, and density of the striking object.
A misplaced bowling ball came crashing through the windshield and landed in the passenger seat. Had it struck about a meter to the left and back a little, most likely she would no longer be contemplating all this madness.
Like some nightmarish parade route, the sidewalks were lined with lost lovers and missing children – a slow torrent of forsaken silhouettes and haunted faces – and Su Li was weeping lost tears.
Feeling numb, she drove on. Perhaps she should choose any house for shelter.
Except that it’s far too late to matter now.