TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories


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By Constantinos Marcou

The material was strange to work with, slippery and utterly rigid. Although they were supposed to be a sort of mirror, the plates did not reflect images in any ordinary way…at least not most of the time. We spent forty-eight hours pumping the box out to a state of near-perfect vacuum, and then sealed it off. While the pump was running, Ion instructed me to mount a series of wire loops on the table, loops which could be charged to produce a weakly guiding magnetic field.

We set the box in the middle of the loops, and that was about it. A transparent box like an aquarium with a glass top. Ion called the box a time-tunnel, but I found this colorful description misleading. We ran our first tests with an electron beam. The idea was that a signal could come out of one end of the box before it went in the other. We got the results Ion had predicted, so we moved up to atomic nuclei, and then to a series of larger and larger iron bullets.

Shooting the bullets into that phase-mirror box made me a little nervous…. I expected the box to shatter. I assumed it was because the quarkonium plates were, in some sense, liquid, and thus able to close up after a rapid enough object. I believed that for a while, anyway. But where was the energy coming from? And where did it go? Ion had an explanation. But I was not ready to accept his description of what we had built. That way lay madness. The twins had already left the table to do their homework. I glanced at Ion, and he gave me an encouraging nod.

Until now I had been sworn to silence. Klara looked a bit nervous at my question. Ion was, I had learned, something of a philanderer. What a fool to betray a woman as wonderful as Klara!

Experiment 1: Lucky Number

She tilted her head back, away from the smoke, and looked at Ion questioningly. He smiled his broad, mirthless smile. Klara arched her eyebrows at me. Perhaps you have solved the energy crisis? This is a very expensive machine to build. We have used most of the quarkonium in the world to build it.

But Ion thinks …. Ion was pouring himself a glass of wine, and the carafe clattered against his glass. We have built a time-machine. She blew a thick stream of smoke and put out her cigarette. Then I could see what the castle looked like in , before the French blew it up. And fashions one thousand years from now. Ion was breathing heavily. He had had several glasses of kirsch before lunch.

This quarrel had been brewing for three months. Ion could see this in my eyes. He stood up suddenly, almost as if to attack me. Was he, on top of it all, jealous of my attentions to Klara? I tried to keep this out of my eyes. I stood up clumsily, and my chair fell to the floor behind me. Ion acquiesced, on the condition that they bring a certain toy.

We all bundled into our coats…Klara wore a charming fox coat sewed in herring-bone strips…and we walked the three blocks to the Physics Institute. The twins ran ahead of us, screaming and trying to slide on the frozen puddles.


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Klara walked between Ion and me, linking an arm with each of us. The sky was low and grey. The eternal mist seemed to form a circular wall around us, always ten meters off. Ion pursed his lips and shook his head. Klara has to see it to believe it. And if we shoot a bullet through it, the bullet seems to come out the right end before it goes in the left. Klara laughed. We could use one of your machines in the tunnel under the castle…where those dreadful traffic jams are.

The twins had brought the little car, a bright red-yellow-blue mass of Lego blocks. On the top was a battery-run motor, with a cog wheel linked by a black plastic chain to a gear on the single front wheel. The core of it was the shoe-box-sized vacuum chamber made of phase-mirrors. You could see in quite easily. The thick loops of the guiding-field wires arched over the box like croquet wickets. I removed the rifle from its mount on one end of the lab-table, and waited while Ion got the car from the little girls. Then, bustling a bit, he lined up his three women in chairs against the wall, and set the car down at one end of the table.

I cleared my throat, preparatory to telling them what they might expect, but Ion shushed me. The Lego car made a pretty big test-particle. In all frankness, I expected the experiment to be a failure. The car would roll up to the phase-mirror box, bump into the side and stop…nothing more. But I was wrong.

As the little car labored across the table towards the left end of the box, something happened at the right end. Seemingly out of no place, an identical Lego car pushed out of the right end of the tunnel and went chuffing on its way! She was right. For a few seconds there were three Lego cars on the table. Car 2 : The one moving in the tunnel, from right to left. Car 3 : The new one moving away from the right end of the tunnel.

And then car 1 and car 2 met at the left-end mirror. They melted into each other…nose into nose, wheel into wheel, tail into tail. It was like watching a Rorschach ink-blot disappear into its central fold. One of the twins squealed and ran to catch car 3 before it ran off the other end of the lab table. I took it from her and examined it closely. Car 3 appeared to be identical to car 1. We had already done this experiment with electrons and with small bullets…but one bullet or electron is much like another. But it certainly looked as if car 3 really was car 1. If we think of the zigzag line as the history of a particular object, what we have is this: First, car 1 goes forward in time till it gets to the left phase-mirror.

Second, inside the tunnel it flips and moves backwards in time, but still left-to-right, and we call it car 2. Third, upon passing through another phase-mirror it flips back to run forward in time again, and is called car 3. By evolving into car 3 , the original car 1 manages to come out of the right end a few seconds earlier than it goes in the left.

Just think of moving that space-axis upwards through time, and see what happens. Then suddenly something happens at the right end of the tunnel. Car 2 and car 3 come into existence together—by a process called pair-production. Car 3 is matter and car 2 is antimatter. With enough energy present, you can convert zero Lego blocks into plus-forty-nine Lego blocks and minus-forty-nine Lego blocks. You can get something from nothing…as long as you get anti-something too. My voice was baying evangelically. Ion hid a smile by pretending to rub his nose.

Matter plus antimatter makes pure energy. But quantum mechanics does allow for action at a distance. Advanced potentials. Klara looked quite blank by now. I broke off the exposition and made my point. Car 2 is antimatter traveling forward in time, not car 1 traveling backwards in time. And car 3 is just a sort of correction term. Klara looked from one of us to the other, smiling a bit.

Whether the thing in the tunnel is a particle going backwards in time or an anti-particle going forward in time. She had to break off and grab one of the twins, who had been about to try to stick her finger into a phase-mirror. A smell was filling the room, and we noticed that the other twin had opened one of the propane gas-valves set in the table.

And William, you must be very clever to have helped Ion build this! I picked up the toy car and examined it closely. Even I had trouble believing my description of what had happened. How would the right end know to produce pairs in the right order to build up car and anti-car from nose to wheel to tail?

And where would the energy have come from? Granted that a fantastic amount of energy was stored in the fantastically expensive quarkonium, but still …. Ion was sitting at his desk writing, his back to me. Despite what Klara had said, the two descriptions did not come to the same thing. Was this car the same as the original car, or was it only an identical copy? I had to know! Suddenly I thought of a way to test the difference. I would let the car roll towards the tunnel, and at the last minute I would stop it from going in.

A decisive experiment. Suppose Ion was right. Suppose that car 3 was just a time-traveled car 1. What then? If car 1 did not go in the tunnel, then car 2 and car 3 would not come into existence. But suppose I was right. Car 2 and car 3 would already have been created even if, at the very last second, car 1 did not actually enter the tunnel. I started the car and set it down. I fixed my mind on grabbing the car at the last possible instant before it went through the…looking-glass.

I leaned over the table, concentrating. I seized car 1 just before its nose touched the phase-mirror. Then I stepped back and looked down the table. There was no car 3 at the other end…and no antimatter car 2 at my end. Ion was right. A car moving right to left is the same as a car moving left to right and backwards in time. Suddenly I could see the pair-production and the mutual annihilation as corners in time. Ion was right, he really was. We had time-travel, admittedly over just a three-second range, but time-travel nonetheless.

Even the strange fact that the phase-mirrors turned things backwards as well as reversing them in time made sense. The fact that the front of the car moved backwards in time as soon as it passed through the left end meant that a normal observer had to see it as disappearing first. But how does the car get through the phase-mirrors? They felt so hard when I was gluing them together. Ion shrugged. It is the property of a mirror to produce images. But this particular mirror works only when the guiding-field is on. As I said the word to myself, my last remaining question dissolved. If car 1 was car 2 was car 3 , then no mass or anti-mass at all was really being created or destroyed.

So of course there were no huge energy drains or blasts going on. Looked at differently, the quarkonium plates were a closed system which could pass energy back in time…so the pair-producing drew its energy from the annihilation, even though it happened first. The next question: What if one were to stop car 1 if and only if car 3 has already appeared? The fear. Suddenly fatherly, he patted me on the shoulder. I want to write all of this up before…before I continue. I nodded and left him there. I spent the next few hours drinking Schlossquell beer, and then I went to the Eros House, a shabby building full of legal prostitutes.

With the lights off, I could almost believe I was with Klara. Later I had more beer. I slept badly that night. In the dream, through some transmutation, the Heidelberg castle is… science. Endless corridors, doors, people to meet. On the white plaster walls there are things like fire-alarms, little hammers mounted over glass plates. Behind the glass is… cyanide , thick gas, swirling, deadly.

I hurry down a hallway, a sheaf of papers in my hand. Someone is in front of me, tangible, but invisible.

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My other self? Somehow the person moves so as to always be in my blind spot. A question is posed, the unspeakable question which the castle itself embodies. My tongue is slow and sticky. Yes and no. A bell is tolling. The hammers quiver…. The world is clouds and fog patches, a confused smear which no magical apparatus can sharpen up. The cat knows. That morning I found Ion sitting at his desk.

He was asleep, with his head on his crossed arms. One of the phase-mirrors was cracked! Had Ion had some sort of tantrum? I examined the hairline crack. Of course the vacuum was ruined now. I wondered if the quarkonium plate could be repaired. There were some individual Lego-blocks scattered around the floor and table. Apparently Ion had been there all night. I stood over him for a moment, looking at him with something like affection. I had been worried, too worried to even …. His eyes flickered open, then shut. This struck me as a very odd question.

It was, in fact, a marvelously sunny day, the first taste of spring. The sky was a delicate blue and the birds were singing. And I thought it was raining. There seemed to be something under his arms, some sort of pillow. I picked up the lab book lying on his desk. It started with a description of the apparatus and the first experiments we had conducted. Nothing new there. I flipped forward a few pages. There was a diagram like the one Ion had drawn for Klara.

Under it was a sketch of the Lego car and a description of the two experiments, the one where the car comes out of the time-tunnel before it goes in, and my variation, where the car is stopped from going in, and therefore does not come out. Ion had conducted a third experiment. The car was to roll towards the tunnel while he watched both ends. His plan was to stop car 1 if car 3 appeared, and to let car 1 go if car 3 did not appear.

This meant that a car would come out of the right end of the tunnel if and only if no car came out of the right end of the tunnel. Yes if and only if no. Think about it. Case I: Car 3 appears. So Ion stops car 1 from entering the tunnel. So Ion lets car 1 into the tunnel. So car 3 appears. Question: When Ion actually ran the experiment, did car 3 appear? Answer: Yes and no. I closed the lab book and looked around the room. The scattered bits of Legos…how many? The two faces looked at me, each of them a bit translucent, a bit unreal. The phone began to ring. Eyes which reached deep into my mind.

She sounded angry, accusing. Ion let the phone drop and walked over to the laboratory table. The no-head, the mean one, was doing the talking. Whichever head was talking tended to be bigger. It was as if the silent head corresponded to some part of Ion which was father away…drifting towards some parallel universe. I ran the paradox. It had to come out both ways. It was dangerous to be restarting it without a vacuum in the chamber. The no-head bent down, peering into the cracked phase-mirror.

/gosha rubchinskiy/

He was still talking to me. Actually it feels…marvelous. I could feel myself going mad, as surely as cloth tearing. I seized the phone to speak to her. There was a crash behind me. I whirled around. The time-tunnel was billowing smoke and the phase-mirrors had smashed into pieces. A tangle of twenty or a hundred thin necks writhed out of his open collar, and on the end of each tentacle-like neck rode a tiny grimacing head, and every little head was screaming at me in a terrible tiny voice….

He dispersed completely after that. Klara forged his signature on the letter. The wart-like little heads. Some look like me, and some look like him. I still have the specs for the time-tunnel. Mixed states happen all the time. Say someone asks you whether or not you want to kill yourself. But answering the question is like being born.

You have to stick out a yes-head or a no-head to answer. And the other one has to get shaved off. It could be any question. Do you like milk? Who are you going to vote for? Are you happy? In a way, mixed states are nice. Not naming things, and not forcing them to be this way or that, but just…letting them go. My original face. A mixed state. Out there, in the wind, one needs not choose this bank or that. My family and I lived in Heidelberg from to I was there on a two-year grant from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The grant came through just as I was losing my first teaching job in Geneseo a.

Wankato, a. My formal duties in Heidelberg were zero: I was given a soundproofed office and a typewriter. The second diagram for this story seems to suggest an interesting new result: that a time-reversing mirror would have to spatially mirror-reverse objects as well. The seed for this story was a drawing I made for my cheerfully horrified children of a Santa Claus with a thousand heads, answering phone-calls from every boy and girl in the world at once.

She was big.

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Fine big legs and white feathers glued all over her head. I had to have a piece of that. She brought me another bowl of slop and I gave her a thousand credit note. She dimpled and sat down across from me. Charlie and I had only been out of the Regulator for a month, but I was back up to keys already. I had an exoskeleton with gold chasing and rubies at the joints.

Those white feathers on the bare scalp were a perfect touch. She signaled the other waitress to cover for her. She rested her big breasts on her folded arms and leaned across the table. Soliton flange? She cooed sympathetically, and I decided to whip a little more out of it. It was a week before the landlord happened to open up our apartment. You had to go out to get food. They had stores.


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She made an O of her bright yellow lips, flexing her juicy tongue. I looked at the room around us. You could eat for free at home, but people still liked to come out. They had some noise they called music, and things to look at glued to the walls. A car-wheel, a 2-D TV set, a formica table-top…and animals, lots of stuffed animals. Pollution had cut the gene pools that far and a domino effect was setting in. Suddenly everyone wanted a stuffed animal to remind them of our glorious heritage. The whole last generation of animals ended up on mantelpieces and barroom walls.

I used to spend a lot of time here back then. The menu they had! Have you ever even seen meat, baby? She smiled and shook her head. The statute of limitations had run out, but still …. I was just getting by, back then, living off computer fraud. It was easy…so easy I sometimes suspected the Feds had a special slot on the payroll for computer con-men.

I figured I fell somewhere between wino and social worker. The night I met Charlie I was just sitting there looking at the beautiful golden skin of a roast chicken. Suddenly my table flipped over and the dishes went flying. Lying on the floor in front of me was the fattest…hell, he was obese. It was hard, really, to even tell where his head was.

There was just metal tubes and little motors and yards of bouncing cloth. He had fifty keys on me easy. You could tell from the way he had a deep crease circling his wrist. I only had those at my ankles. My servos followed suit and we shook. In a sense all really fat men look alike. But there are differences if you know how to look for them.

I could tell that Charles Laxman was rich, educated and a little flaky. I liked him already for being fatter than me, and it was clear from his clothes that he was rich. As usual I charged it to the OIT. Am I correct? His eyes were blank. He held up five fingers. Fifty million in gold. He wanted me to help him break the Bin. I figured he was crazy, but talk is just talk. And he looked lonely. Our exoskeletons walked us a few blocks together.

The whir and clank of the servos in the night air was relaxing. I lit a cigar and heard him out. Any news-paper column psychologist could tell you why I eat so much…after all, mamma is the Latin word for tit. No, he had gotten fat on purpose. Apparently he had made his fortune by inventing a gravitational condenser.

Fill it with garbage, flick a switch…and you had a tiny black hole which would boil off in radiation before long. Every big city dump had one. In any case, he wanted to pull off the crime of the century. He wanted to rob the Bin, the Earth-Moon gold transport. The Moon colony had seceded from Earth shortly after they discovered the helium caves in By every power plant on Earth had a super-cooled, quantum-effect liquid helium core, and most freight was being shipped in helium-filled zeppelins.

Paid in gold. Obligingly we Mudders had built them a robot-operated gold transport armed with missiles and lasers. He called his gizmo a Regulator. You fed energy into it and something seeped out…loosening things up in such a way that time near the Regulator had very little to do with the time in the rest of the world. You could live out a year at the time it took an egg to fry. It always took the fat ones much longer to die. He was still rummaging in his clothes. Finally he gave up the search and looked at me, blinking.

Well, it was just starvation they died of. And you and I could live very comfortably for a week on nothing but water. I was beginning to get it. My Regulator works the other way too. The girl across the table from me was grinning back. She held an atomizer out towards me.

I whistled and my car pulled up. There was room for her in back with me, and I instructed the robot to take us out to my house. Study the dictionary. Read naked. Find and read a newspaper from the day you were born. Or any old newspaper. Learn another language, then read a novel or poetry in that language. Read philosophy. Fill it up and buy another one. Read collections of short stories. Read both print and online journals. Read the history of the town you grew up in.

Read Grace Paley. Read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Read long into the night until the characters walk around in your dreams. That story knocked me out. I think I read the whole volume in one sitting. I was 38 years old and falling in love, for the first time, with literary short fiction. Up until then I believe I thought that short stories had been discontinued after Like most people I knew, I read novels exclusively.

I read whatever was on the bestseller list. I read The Thorn Birds on the train in to work. I read the latest Stephen King. In I was living with my family in Australia. My days and nights were given over to childrearing. Slack-jawed from sleep deprivation and lack of adult contact besides the checker at the grocery store, I needed an outlet. It completely woke me up. I was the suburban housewife amidst the sweetest group of young hippies and surfer dudes there ever was. We were given prompts and wrote exercises, but the instructor wanted us to keep in mind that by the last class we were to have completed a Short Story.

All I could remember of short stories were the obligatory stories we read in English Edgar Allan Poe and Mark Twain and so forth. Was I supposed to write something like that? Short stories. American ones. The best. I still have it. On some of the pages there are scribbles courtesy of an impatient toddler made to sit on my lap while I read. Looking at the book now, I feel the same rush of joy I felt when I read it in I saw what a short story could be and what it could do. I wanted to write stories this good.

I wanted to learn everything and to read every short story I could get my hands on. This book was my primer. Each story held a lesson or a revelation. The tender parts are all the more moving if there are funny parts, too. The holy truth that is childhood. And my own childhood was worth writing about.

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TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories
TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories
TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories
TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories
TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories
TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories
TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories
TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories
TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories TALES FROM THE SOFT UNDERBELLY OF CONFUSION: A collection of short stories

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