Flash Fiction: Looking At Ourselves

“Looking At Ourselves” is a flash fiction inspired by the prompt “New life” from Chuck Wendig over at Terrible Minds.

“That’s the fundamental issue,” said Doctor Smith. “Life is a continuum. Any divisions you make are simply arbitrary.”

“Be that as it may,” said Doctor Lin, “The momentum can be shifted. The life you live before having children is not the same as the life after children, for example.”

“The child’s life certainly changes.”

Lin snorted. “Well said! But from that point forward, whether the child has agency or no, it is all one life.”

“Swapping out universes might make it new,” said Smith. “An utter change in context, however similar the new universe might be.”

“Life as the interaction between the one living and the environment in which it lives,” mused Lin. “That is an interesting proposition. Quantum theory states that at any decision point the universe bifurcates, and the one with the alternate decision recedes into the multiversal distance.”

“I find that thought alienating,” said Smith. “That means the first time we make a decision we irrevocable lose the people who existed with us at the moment of our birth. All we are left with is close approximations.”

“That also raises a question,” said Lin. “Assume—and this I grant is an odd one—assume that somehow the choices at whatever level—quantum, nano, gross, and so forth—were structured in such a way that a population of people would stay in the same quantum reality for an extended period of time. Through sheer happenstance, of course, since how could we possibly do such a thing on purpose? Would we notice when the split finally occurred?”

“Interesting. We can’t perceive the universe at a level where such changes take place. Does that mean that we chart a path through the multiverse, or is it the multiverse which moves on a path through us.”

“The medium really is the message?” said Lin. “McLuhan must be jumping for joy in his grave.”

Smith frowned and stared at the bottle between them. “Through the bifurcations of the universe, no matter the location and cause of the incident of bifurcation, we exist. We have memory and agency.”

“Determinism says…” began Lin.

“Determinism is a fool’s game!” snapped Smith. “If we choose to believe in determinism it is no different than being predestined to believe in free will.”

Lin gave Smith a wounded look. “I was only going to say that determinism dictates that each state of the universe is predicated upon the preceding state.”

“And indeterminism says that, though A and B are fixed, there are myriad paths between the two.”

“Bringing James into the conversation?” said Lin. “I think we need more bourbon than this!”

Smith chuckled. “Apologies. The idea of a locked universe presupposes that we operate on a level where we can perceive the mechanism of the locking.”

“True,” said Lin. “But we do seem to have edged closer to that state every year.”

“And what a time of miracles and monsters that would have been,” said Smith, “When we could see the fundamental mechanisms of change. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, weaponized.”

The two were silent for a time, as the universe around them bifurcated furiously.

Eventually Lin ventured. “Narrative depends on causality, of a sort. In a very literal way, everything has precedent. If the universe is recreated in every instant then we are also recreated in every instant, along with the memories of everything which brought us to this moment.”

“Narrative is a tricky one to reconcile with the many universes. Consider the fact that no two people remember an event in precisely the same way.”

“Facets and viewpoints,” said Lin. “No two of us have charted the same path between A and B, so the angle at which we view the thing itself varies. A sort of cosmological parallax. The things closer to us move more quickly through our awareness.”

“So each of us has our own universe. Intriguing. The universe as self-awareness. With that as criteria the universe must be an endangered species on this planet.”

Professor Lin chuckled around a sip of bourbon. “Along with everything else. Still, no need to be cynical. Students are students in every universe. But it does raise the question of the existence of the universe without an observer.”

“Alan Watts said we are apertures through which the universe is exploring itself.” said Smith. “That puts us at the mercy of the whole. It moves the level at which agency inspires causality to the other end of the scale. Too big to comprehend, instead of too small.”

“I find that thought both disturbing and comforting,” said Lin. “It brings a sense of completeness, but at the cost of a sense of futility.”

“But,” said Smith, “It also frees us to chart our own course at the level at which we live, without worry of disrupting the pattern of the whole. Freedom, within the limits of our awareness.”

“Infinite and bounded, though we were beginning to test those boundaries. And the testing is the work of many lifetimes. It requires a narrative outside the temporal limits of human experience.”

“Well, this human experience, anyway.” said Smith. “But a good story, properly told, can change the course of the world.”

“Within the limits of causality, of course.”

“True. Even a meteor is not without precedent. It’s inevitable, really.”

This brought about a lull in the conversation. The bourbon was gone. Lin pulled from a small satchel a bottle of vodka. Smith eyed it warily.

“Artificially changing the efficacy of the observer will change nothing in the universe.”

“Maybe,” said Lin, “But there are some things which we might not want to observe too closely. How much time do we have?”

“Minutes at most,” said Smith.

“So much for a new life,” said Lin.

“You never know,” said Smith, “But you should probably pour that vodka quickly.”

Lin did so, and the two shared a toast.

“To new life,” said Lin. “May it fare better and longer than the stuff down here.”

“To good health,” said Smith. “May it last as long as your life.”

In the distance sirens sounded, and the light took on a reddish hue as the old friends drained their mugs.

Smith grimaced. “Is this the best you could do?”

“Regrettably, it was,” said Lin over a sudden roaring of wind. “I doubt we’re the only ones doing this.”

All around them, the universe blinked.