The Other Side by John J. Staughton
IT WAS DARK AND SMELLED like his roommate’s old socks when he woke. His typically furtive thoughts were slower than usual, just like he felt under the blanket after it had been warmed in the morning sun – his favorite place to disappear.
But he wasn’t underneath the blanket, nor in his bed. He didn’t recognize the material on which he was lying – smooth and tepid – unlike the cozy tangles of carpet or the firm inner heat of wooden planks. He stretched his left leg, testing his surroundings, and felt it brush against something metal, with a solid corner that conveniently scratched a secret itch.
He rolled his neck around unconcernedly, assuming that he had mistakenly slipped into a catnap somewhere strange, and that the light of day had turned to night. He didn’t like how calm and collected he felt upon waking – none of the surging panic and furtive energy he usually felt.
As he rose to his feet and cracked his back, he realized that his eyes were adjusting slower that normal to the room. He took a tentative step forward and felt his face press into a smooth wall, room temperature, the same material as the floor, and smelling very strongly of burnt wood.
As the last clouds of sleep finally lifted from his mind, he felt the old anxiety swell, and he turned, only to run into another wall and crack his right leg into a second metal edge, or perhaps the same one. He heard the rattle of glass to his right, and he turned, seeking some exit from this small, pitch-black labyrinth. He let out a low moan of panic, uncontrollable, as he found the final wall.
Before allowing full-on mania to set in, he quickly traced around the outer edges of the wall, stepping carefully over the unknown metal instrument, only to find his worst fears realized. He was confined, sealed in a prison of an unknown design. He stretched up to the blackness above him and felt the ceiling, softer somehow than the walls – conspiratorial in its lack of tension.
In an attempt to get more leverage and press on the only discernible weak point in the room, he tried to brace against the wall and shove upwards and out, but he fell backwards, managing to catch himself on all fours.
“Good,” a voice that he faintly recognized said from somewhere above him. “He’s awake.”
“Well, now we know that he survived his imprisonment, but I still don’t know what any of this will prove,” a balding Swiss man in a smoking jacket criticized from the corner. With one thumb, he pressed down a stringy pile of tobacco into his pipe. His tone was dismissive, as though brushing away an argument he’d already had many times before.
“You know that you don’t need to be here, Wolfgang. I only invited you as a courtesy.”
“This entire display is a means of criticizing my life’s work… and yours. I wouldn’t miss it. I only wish Albert were here.”
“The world is too busy clamoring for his genius,” Erwin commented, a slight hint of disdain buried in the offhand grace of his words.
“So what do we do now?” Wolfgang pressed, puffing sporadically on the pipe as he lit it with a long match. The bursts of blue smoke obscured his face from view, and for a moment, Erwin could only see the disembodied shoulders of his colleague. In the blink of an eye, the façade had shifted and partially disappeared, as though the smoke were everywhere and nowhere at once.
“Now, we wait.”
“For how long?”
“Until he dies,” Erwin answered matter-of-factly, unshakably confident of the experiment’s inevitable result.
“Or doesn’t,” Wolfgang quipped, eliciting a grimace from his serious, bespectacled companion sitting on the edge of a chaise lounge a few feet away.
Wolfgang Pauli was a plump, cocky man who seemed perpetually comfortable. He made himself at home in any room, as though his reputation preceded him even to the perfectly shaped divots on the sofa cushions of strangers.
Erwin Schrodinger was a stringy, nervous man with a short temper and no physical strength to express it. Instead, since childhood, he had relied on his sharp, often cruel wit to disarm and defeat any would-be bullies and naysayers.
Seeing his friend beginning to lose himself in thought, and knowing the great pains it would take to dredge him from those introspective depths, Wolfgang again spoke up. “But doesn’t the discussion really begin now? How can we wait until he’s dead? That isn’t the point, Erwin.”
Erwin’s eyebrows scrunched for less than a second, more a tick than a reaction. His tone was declarative, like an annoyed professor answering the same question for the third time. “That is because there will always be a now and a then. Whether he dies now, in ten minutes, or in four days, there will always be a present moment that precedes the next one. That is the point.”
“Ever a broken record, Erwin. You’re getting caught up in the scale, as always.”
“And you are ignoring the scale of reality.” Erwin stood up from the couch and paced twice, then leaned his ear down towards the box on the table.
The bulkier man, seated firmly on the sofa, crossed his legs and adopted the pose of a grandfather sharing war stories – incontrovertibly wise.
“Consider this, old friend,” Wolfgang began. “Think beyond this room, this afternoon, and even this half of the world. Somewhere, it is autumn, and the world is drying up and dying. Somewhere else, it is spring, and the world is just beginning to bloom. Somewhere at this very moment, a government is likely being overthrown, while another is being elected for the very first time. A family is being torn apart by war in Africa, while a new family is being created in a cheap bedroom in Brussels.”
Satisfied with his short speech, Wolfgang clamped his teeth authoritatively on the pipe, and smiled around it, giving him the appearance of a smug wolf.
“You’re speaking of different systems and different lives, which are subject to thousands of different, disconnected variables. There is no link there – no dichotomous system in which they all play a part. Individual existence within one system presupposes separation.”
Wolfgang shook his head almost sympathetically. “Why is this room, or even this box, one system, while our planet is not? In comparison with the vast stretches of the universe, does Earth not live on the same insignificant scale as this box does in comparison to our planet? You must see the relativity there.”
The wordplay, delicately formed, though flippantly delivered, caused Erwin to pause for a moment, but he quickly presented his riposte.
“Yes, but as the scale increases, so too do the variables. Just because something is a contained system does not mean that an ultimatum always exists. The smaller the scale, the more controllable the system.”
Not dismayed, Wolfgang pushed his assumed advantage. “The windows are closed. Is it raining outside?” Pauli had always enjoyed countering rational science with intangible metaphors; it had won him more debates in university than he could count.
“I have no idea, but it wasn’t raining earlier when I went out for the paper.” Erwin’s answer was cautious and calculated; he felt that he was being baited into a trap, but was willing to spring it.
“But it could be raining. And what about four streets over? Is it raining there? Or at my apartment across the city? Could it have rained there an hour ago?”
“I suppose it could be, but we have no way of knowing.”
“And yet, the same cloud system, composed of a swirling mixture of molecules, is releasing them at apparent random to fall onto city streets. Our windows are closed, so we have no idea of their trajectory or destination. However, if we open the window and see that the street is damp, but there is no rain in the air, we will draw the conclusion that it rained in the past. If we open the window to find a dry street, we assume that it has not rained.”
“This all seems quite obvious,” Erwin coaxed his companion on, suspecting a twist, but not yet seeing it clearly.
“Yes, but if we do not open the window at all, the street is both dry and wet. Furthermore, what if it had rained, but the sun dried the street, and the skies cleared? We would assume that it had not rained, no? Are we any less correct in our evidenced knowledge than the man who had been caught in the deluge?”
A rattling whine from the box on the table distracted them from a discussion that could have continued for some time. It was the same conversation they had shared over a half-dozen parlor cocktails in the past two years – the endless debate of transient life, the duality of existence, chance, change, and the echoes of the tiniest atomic worlds bouncing through the utterly inconceivable universe.
The dull murmur of the men’s voices told him that he was not asleep. No one ever spoke in his dreams. However, the mystery of his surroundings did not create the same calm in him that his waking life usually did. Without his eyes to see, he had to rely solely on the sense of touch, and he continued to nervously prowl the edges of his prison.
He pressed his ear to the coarse wall and attempted to make out the words being spoken, as though they came from a great distance away.
Over the course of his normal life, he had been subject to many long-winded speeches from the men on the outside of his confines, and had eavesdropped on many more from the thresholds of doors and other secret spaces.
He had enjoyed being an invisible shadow to his captor for many years, unobserved but nonetheless present. He felt separated from that leisurely plane now, unable to see them, unsure of his surroundings, and uncertain of his place in the room, in the cage, or in the larger world.
If he could hear, but not see, was he no more than a shadow? If he could create sound, but could not be seen, had he faded to an echo? His tiny mind reeled with the possibilities and questions he had never imagined before. In that dank mysterious cube, he felt disconnected from breath and sunshine, trapped in the limbo of nightmares.
The air was also becoming stale, smacking less of old socks and more of his own delicate perspiration – the tangible trail of his anxiety that he left behind with every step and brush upon the walls. His leg bumped against something cold and smooth, quite different than the sharp angular metal of earlier. Circling the small glass container carefully, he delicately sniffed what he assumed to be the top, but recoiled as his nose rubbed against something pocked and dull that reeked of decay.
He had crossed paths with death before, namely in the decaying creatures found while stalking the nearby fields, and he understood it as the end of all things. A car had once struck him as he crossed his road, injuring him for a few weeks and instilling in him a lifelong fear of automobiles. He understood the dangers of gravity, slamming doors, loud noises, and sharp objects, but had never smelled anything that so boldly connoted death. He no longer feared his prison for being a source of incarceration, but rather for being a tomb.
More importantly, a sensation ran up his flexible spine that warned him of his captor’s ignorance. Death could come at any time, with no one to observe his final gasps.
“We are talking about life and death, Wolfgang, not the state of governments or the weather forecast. How many fallacies are you trying to include in a single discussion?”
The pipe-smoking physicist inclined his head slightly, taken aback by Erwin’s harsh tone. Wolfgang was getting under his old friend’s skin – exactly where he liked to be.
“Erwin, what would Albert say? That at the bottom of all things, a man and a government and a piece of stardust are all the same, composed of identical bits of information, spinning wildly into every form we see, sense, and are. Therefore, where does this foundation of matter stop? Is the death of a man any less significant than the death of an idea?” Wolfgang postulated.
“You and Albert have always shared a view of mortality that I simply cannot accept.”
“If an idea can be used as a weapon, then can it not impact flesh? If a society crumbles from within, can you distinguish that collapse from the breaking of a bone, or the snapping of chemical bonds under the pressure of a magnet?”
“Wolfgang, you’re comparing belief with bone; surely you see the difference.”
“That is precisely what I’m suggesting, Erwin. It is not about seeing the difference, or pointing to black or white, right or wrong, living or dead… I am merely suggesting the possibility of duality,” Wolfgang pounced on this final point, like a cat cornering its prey, and tore the pipe from his mouth as he leaned forward, feeling his rump slip forward on the satin seat.
“A possibility is not proof,” Schrodinger dismissed from his desk, but Wolfgang thought he head a quavering slip in the man’s voice.
“Erwin, for a brilliant man, you are dangerously stubborn. You have seen the tangible proof of a possibility. We are both Austrian, are we not? We have both felt and seen the danger of ideas. The danger of duality and division is in our blood. Dealing in absolutes is foolish… and narrow-minded.” The stocky man’s demeanor had turned hard, as the discussion shifted from hypothetical to brutal reality.
“Wolfgang, you confuse philosophy with physics too easily.”
“And you are too quick to divide them,” Wolfgang snapped back, hungry to win the point.
“You cannot touch a philosophy. You cannot hold an idea in your hand,” Schrodinger was fending off the attacks with half his attention, the other being devoted to the box on the table, which had grown still and silent.
“That is where your mind fails you, Erwin. It always has. The things that we have seen and discovered… the conclusions we have drawn about this mortal existence… how can you argue that there is no inherent weight within philosophy? Our theories define our lives, and the lives of millions of others. We have stripped away the façade of reality and delved into worlds that didn’t exist save in papers and tangled suppositions. Are those real? We cannot touch them; yet we can see them. Once again, I see ideas boiling and brewing all around me, just as I did twenty years ago. We could not touch those ideas either, but they still left 15 million men dead in the mud.”
Schrodinger’s gaze snapped back to Pauli’s face, which was stone cold in its seriousness. The pipe was left forgotten on the table, and his elbows dug deep into his fleshy thighs, daring a reply.
“Yes, but those ideas were obviously absolute; an entire war was fought over them. Two sides. Right or wrong. Good or evil.”
“Don’t be naive, Erwin. Albert would be appalled. Were those boys in the trenches the ambassadors of right and wrong? Were they fighting to make a point, or to survive? Do not be so foolish to believe that evil was committed by one side alone. At times, those men and boys hated themselves as much as their enemy. Who are you to decide the absolute nature of strange minds drunk on powerful ideas?”
“I feel that you’re grasping at strings, Wolfgang… mixing contexts and blending metaphors, arguing like an underclassman in your first debate.” Erwin’s temper had always been quick to boil, and discourse was a drug for him, kindling his words. Unfortunately, the same was true of his afternoon companion; the box on the table lay forgotten. Anything could be happening inside, and neither man would be any the wiser.
The larger man had risen from the sofa and now strolled the room near the edges, staring at the cornice, musing on his thoughts before launching his next salvo.
“In the past century, man has attempted to destroy God. Many would say that we have succeeded. Darwin struck the first blow, but we have landed many more. We have shattered faith, destroying ancient ideas as surely as bombs destroy buildings. Albert, you, me and hundreds of others have created truth by destroying fiction. Yes, destruction and creation in the same fell swoop. Death and life united in causality. We are mushrooms blossoming on fallen logs.
Unfortunately, most minds are limited to only seeing one side or the other – the same duality of which you seem so certain. As you huddle in your laboratory, you hope that your findings lead to one conclusion, but you cannot know where those ideas will lead. Tomorrow? In a year? A century? You believe that knowledge leads to freedom, but in the wrong hands, could your knowledge not be used to deny that same liberty? In those unforgettable moments of discovery, are you not also creating an infinite number of outcomes?
Have you spoken to Albert? In his last telegram, I could almost smell his fear. He is skirting the edges of greatness, and that closeness brings him close to great power. He trusts only himself, but one cannot trust an idea; they morph and twist as easily as the morality of weaker men. Remember that a seeker of truth can also be a destroyer of worlds – in the very same instant.”
“So what do you suggest, Wolfgang? Stasis? Unwavering acceptance of only what we already know?”
“Of course not. The opposite, in fact. Flux in all things. A consideration of every side, and every potentiality. Awareness of this flexibility in reality is the only way to move forward.”
“Yes, but we started somewhere else entirely. Answer me this, in this moment, right now, are you not alive? Are you not speaking to me right now? Is your heart pumping blood and your brain sucking breath?”
“Of course, but you are still thinking in a straight line, Erwin. I am alive today, in this moment, but has the harbinger of my death already been released? Every cell in my body is not alive, but enough happen to be. Is the hair I found in my sink this morning still a piece of this ‘life’ or another? From another perspective, a century from now, I am already gone. The light of my life is already a dead echo that may be found by someone else – or never seen again. You cannot be limited by the idea of the past moving ever towards the future. What if the future is merely a fork in the road to which we have not found our way back?”
“That is the basic nature of existence, Wolfgang. The direction of time. What are you really challenging here? Albert’s theories on time are on the edge of madness. We can look back at our lives, not live back through them.”
“According to whom? Have you not already seen wonders the world could never have imagined when you were a child? Has your life not divided the minds of millions? Has your very presence on this planet not affected the myriad paths of infinite atoms, the effects of which will not expire until you are long buried and forgotten? Is the impact of your ideas less powerful once their source disappears?”
Discouraged and battered by the barrage of questions, Erwin once more turned his attention to the ominous box that had brought the men together.
Despite being the silent source of their conflict, it had been largely ignored, a discouraging, variable-shifting fact that Erwin couldn’t help but admit. He had not written down the precise time when he’d last heard something from inside, although he remembered it as something like the tinkling of a distant dinner bell. His oversight, decidedly unscientific and far from diligent, seemed to highlight the impossibility of certainty. He felt the knowing silence from his companion, as though Wolfgang had also just refocused his attention on the potentially fatal paradox on the coffee table.
The crinkling splash of breaking glass woke him from an unexpected nap. The darkness had been disorienting, and he found himself slipping into old habits, finding a particular spot of warmth and settling in for a long think, which inevitably slid into an extended slumber. Naps were unpredictable little deaths in which to revel, and were a specialty of his.
The sound of gentle destruction, however, dragged his eyes open, where he only found darkness – and a small red light he had not seen before. It lay halfway up a wall, partially illuminating, with its feeble reach, the edge of the ceiling, which held thin brown creases. He wondered at the strangely macabre scene, almost forgetting the sound that had roused him, more entranced by the gift of vision after the unknown hours in the dark.
He tasted the air again, wiggling his nose for maximum effect, and then felt his nostrils crumple instinctively against a strange, distressing scent that he had smelt earlier. The tang of it was metallic, like licking the inside of a can, or sucking on bloody pennies. He stopped, unsure of what it meant, and sat down to consider the pile of glass at his feet.
He had just been sleeping, so he imagined that his strange mood was the slow clamber to waking life. He had simply kicked something over in his dream. He stretched his limbs, grateful for the slight glowing change in his surroundings.
The harsh-smelling liquid had soaked into the soft floor, which was now damp and wet. Despite its rank odor, the strength of it made him feel delirious and lightheaded. He dug his claws into the material of the floor, feeling it tear and rend like soggy sand. In the next moment, however, his tunneling slowed and his eyes jerked back towards the red light, his head suddenly taken from his control. He once again heard the grey murmur of voices from far away, as the electric red light of his vision swam and swelled.
A burst of panic surged in his belly as he felt the top portion of his body stiffen. He kicked wildly outwards, flailing shards of glass to the edges of the box. A small hammerhead, barely illumined in the shadows, stopped the sweep of his leg. His ears perked up for a final time, and then he lay still, as his fur soaked up the gangrenous fumes.
“I believe that we have strayed from the point, Wolfgang.” With their attentions both turned back to the box, Erwin was taking the time to regroup his arguments.
“No, Erwin, we’ve been talking about the same point since we put him in that box. You believe that things must be one way or another, and you cannot stand the fact that for all your calculations and expectations, absolutes cannot exist. You can’t reconcile what you already know with what you have seen, and it kills you to admit that what you know is wrong.
Entropy is a law of the universe that we too often forget, but it is no less important than gravity. You cannot see things from one perspective and expect to understand the whole picture. Is the world going to fall into ruin once again? Perhaps. Will dangerous ideas win the day? Conceivably. Are we falling or rising? Neither. The uncertainty of every moment will define that future. Whether things are getting better or worse depends on perspective, and what side you choose to stand on. Every variable plays its part, independent of one another, but powerful as a whole. That being said, the universe has a way of making exceptional things out of chaos.”
Exhausted and veritably beaten into submission, Erwin looked at the floor and shook his head. “Alright, Wolfgang. Uncertainty wins the day. Things can exist somewhere between absolutes. But what should we do about this?” Erwin gestured towards the box, holding his outstretched finger a few inches from the cardboard edge.
“Well, how long are we expected to let this experiment run?” Wolfgang’s proselytizing tone faded to a preaching growl after Erwin’s apparent concession of the argument.
Erwin was looking carefully at the box, the argument forgotten, and spoke almost to himself. “I suppose it has been long enough.”
He reached for the folded-over lid and pulled it open, then stepped back from the table, gesticulating for Wolfgang to do the same. The two men now stood as equals, on the far side of the room, patiently waiting for the air to clear, just in case.
After a minute or two had passed, Erwin strode forward to the box, sleeve pressed firmly across his face, and peered into the small interior of the box.
The taste of rust struck his nose and Erwin reared back to face the larger man, who had taken a cautious step forward.
“Well? How’s the cat?” Wolfgang demanded, the eager expression of a scientist once more glowing on his face.
“Well, I suppose we can’t be sure, but it doesn’t look good.”
Tangle your brain around the rest of Sheriff Nottingham 5: Groundhog Day – available on Amazon!