best friend, blake, college, friends, horror, Matthew Blake, MIT, mutation, observer, observer theory, quantum theory, scary, sci fi, science fiction, short story, student horror, students, technology, tools
“I want to find the thread that unravels the universe,” Thad says.
“What do you mean?” I ask. Thad is always levels above me in thinking. But I’m his best friend, his go-to guy, the only one even approachably intelligent enough to serve as his confidant.
“Exactly that, Jim. The thread that unravels the universe. Have you read about the study at MIT that found that normal people, when connected to random number generators, can affect the probability outcome?”
“I have,” I say. Indeed, I had read about the study just that morning, whilst going about my breakfast routine of eating in front of the computer, skimming articles on all the relevant news sites. “So how does that relate?”
“I think that I could do better.”
“The study was done with average people. If they can subtly affect the world, I bet I can substantially change it.”
“I see,” I said, but I only dimly understood. What is it you aim to do? With the unraveling and all?”
“Back in the 90’s, scientists used to debate about some sort of “universal equation” that would explain the nature of the universe. Since then, it’s turned out it’s a bit more complicated than that. This study could be the key to it, though.”
I furrow my brow, unsatisfied. “And?” I say, in the tone that I know antagonizes him to no end.
“And I’m going to become a god.”
I went to bed that night not really giving it much thought. Thad is prone to grandiose claims, and though he often comes through on them, I don’t make much of anything until I see the results.
But when I woke up, I noticed that the color of my comforter had changed overnight. Originally navy blue, it had changed to an angry shade of red, like magic.
I knew it was Thad.
“What did you do?” I asked him, angrily storming into the tiny office he rented in the Osborn building.
“So it worked, then,” he said, swiveling around in his chair and facing me.
Something inside of me dropped from my head to my feet like an anvil. “So it really was you, then?”
“Your comforter? Yes. Last night I figured out how to change small things, and I thought that might convince you. It was simpler than you’d think.”
Perhaps now would be a good time go back a bit, so that I’m not assuming you know all of the things that I know by instinct now:
Thad and I met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We were both freshmen, and had been put into the same dorm room by happenstance.
Before then, I had always been the “smart guy” in the room. The one that some gravitated to for intellectual discussion, and more flocked away from for the same reason. I was the riot of the intellectual minority in the party. And I was always the smartest.
But then I got to MIT. Quickly I was surrounded by greater minds than me, and I realized I had found what I’d always wanted: a community of the best young minds our country had to offer.
I hated it.
I was no longer the best, the brightest. I was just the middle guy, regarded by the elite as a bit of a “dumbass”.
But then had come my move. My original dorm mate, a fresh-faced, tall, and awkward Presbyterian from Kansas, had only made it through a quarter before he fell ill to depression, making a “call for help” suicide attempt one night while I was dozing lightly after a long study session in preparation for a test.
I heard his little cry as he made a futile attempt at slashing his wrist, and then I was up in a moment, jerking the razor out of his hand almost before I was awake. I don’t remember how it got there, but when I was talking to the dorm advisor later, I remember looking at my palm and seeing it was covered in blood. I had no wound.
The blood is what I remember most about the incident, little as it was.
After the police had gone and the dorm had been properly cleaned, the university told me that I’d be having a new roommate. Like hospital managers, those in charge of dormitories were never ones to waste a bed.
The couple of days before Thad arrived were unremarkable, and that was great for me. I studied constantly in those days, trying to forget about the incident and the blood and basking in the silence. They were the two fondest days of my life, I realize now, looking back at the whole thing with so much bitterness.
A few hours before Thad arrived, I was reading a Michael Crichton novel in my bed silently, I remember. I had just gotten to the part when the park starts to break down, when suddenly the picture of my parents and sister that I had hung up over my desk fell from the nail that had been holding it to the wall.
I remember vividly how I put my book down, got up, and studied it, wondering what had caused it to drop. The only force in the room was a slight draft coming in through the window.
I eventually figured out that it must have been a combination of the drafts from my window, that I routinely kept cracked, and from people opening and closing the door. Imagine, all of those tiny movements rocking the picture back and forth on the nail holding it onto the wall, until at that moment it finally slipped off and crashed to the ground. All those tiny movements, one micro movement after another, building up to that one moment. I still marvel at it.
It was instantly clear that Thad was smarted than me. “You look like you’ve read the writings of Dr. Percival,” was the first thing he said to me.
“…Yes,” I admitted. It bothered me that he had summed me up so accurately in one glance.
“Ah, great! I trust that you have considered the implications of his research, then?”
“Er, that the mere act of observing an experiment can interfere with the outcome. I’m James, by the way.”
“Not quite, Jim. I think it shows that we can affect outcomes, solely with our thoughts. There’s some research in Massachusetts that I think will eventually show this even further.”
That was the start of it, now that I think of it. The start of this strange new world.
“I guess,” I said. “Your room is the one on the left. I can help you move some of your things, if you want.” I could feel my cheeks flushing.
“Simple? How so?”
“It’s just a manner of applying the observer affect, like I’ve told you before. People daily affect the universe with just their thoughts, without even thinking about it. I’m applying myself and my big brain to it,” he said, tapping his temple with his right index finger
I noticed that his hair had gotten longer, much longer than it should have grown in the roughly twenty-four hours since I’d last seen him. It was also getting thicker, much thicker than any other hair I’d seen. I could see the layers the hair grew in, like the greasy strangles coming out of Thad’s hair were leafless, miniature palm trees, they were so thick.
“The observer affect hardly explains how my comforter changed color,” I said.
“But it does.” He leaned back into his computer and started rapidly typing in code, his keystrokes so fast that it sounded like the clatter of a horse, fast-forwarded at five times the normal speed. I could tell that I wasn’t going to get anything else out of him. When he zoned out like that, he was lost to the world.
The first time I saw him like that was the night he moved into our dorm room. He spent two hours getting his huge, dual-monitor system set up, and then proceeded to veg out in front of his computer, randomly perusing articles on the internet. Or so I thought.
What he was really doing was researching and experimenting. I learned that night that that he did little else than that. His entire life was a research lab. Give him a computer and an internet connection, and he could do wonders. Anyone can, really, in our age of unprescedented connectedness. With enough internet savvy and research skill, almost the entirety of human knowledge had been networked by that point, 8 long years ago.
When I woke up the next morning, I found him still sitting in front of his console. “Hey John, take a look at this,” he said. I remember rolling my eyes that he got my name wrong before walking over. Thad was always bad with names, the sole thing he didn’t appear to be instantly gifted at.
But then when I got to the computer, I saw that he had an enormous spreadsheet out, covering both of his monitors, with indecipherable characters filling those drab Excel boxes.
“What is it?” I finally asked.
“I hacked into NASA’s servers last night, downloaded a bunch of encrypted pics they had. I found pictures of three discs that were covered with some kind of writing, something out of this world. The closest thing to it is Mandarin writing, though that is only a pale comparison. I’ve been deciphering it with this spreadsheet I’m making.”
I stepped closer, and viewed his monitors. The spreadsheets were indeed filled with characters that were not of human origin. There was something vaguely resembling an “O” with a tiny cross in the middle of it, and another character that looked a bit like an uppercase “F” reaching out to grab a tiny, baby lowercase “e”. They made me nauseous, looking at them.
“What…what does it mean?” I asked.
“From what I’ve deciphered so far, on the second moon landing they found an alien bunker, apparently set up by them as a getaway when they were doing genetic engineering tests to turn chimpanzees and other closely-related primates into us,” he said, sounding almost bored.
“You can see the data for yourself when I’m finished. Maybe this afternoon. Around ten tonight, at the very latest. I trust you’ll be able to understand the data?”
“Yes,” I mumbled. Even then, I was falling into his spell. His gift, the gift that would eventually turn into hell for the whole world.
“Well then, I have some work to do,” he said, arching his brow at me in a silent gesture to give him space.
I turned and walked out of his room.
That night, I had a dream about an alien solar system. Everything about it worked perfectly, over billions of years, which were compressed into my short hour of sleep. But then, the sun started to change color, from yellow to green. It expanded, bigger and bigger, until the planets drifting around it started to twirl into its mouth. It ate the planets circling around it, growing bigger and bigger after it swallowed each marble-sized tidbit.
When all of the planets were swallowed up, the sun, now turned swamp-green, grew a mouth and smiled at me. It’s smile looked like Thad’s.
I had nausea when I woke up the next morning, not looking forward to what Thad had to show me. I remember distinctly how the air smelled when I woke up and stared at the pristine-white ceiling above me, a habit I’d adopted in the short time I’d been living in the dorm. There was something so fresh and so free about the place back then. It felt like my old house when I was a kid and my parents would go out to a movie, leaving me to myself for a couple of hours.
The first few times they did it, I’d feel giddy after they left, almost high. I’d run about the house for a bit, shouting obscenities because I could, reeling at how good it felt to be able to shout out whatever I wanted.
But then, around when I was 12, they started letting me watch my younger cousin as well, so that my mother’s sister and her husband could come along on my parents’ regular weekend dalliances. I remember I was so excited that night, forcing myself to not jump around as I politely wished the grownups a good evening. I was close with my cousin, two years my junior, and I was sure we’d find something interesting to get up to.
We discovered the flammability of hair spray, using a barbecue lighter I found in the kitchen to spray out spouts of flame, chasing the fireball with the can and moving it about the house. When my cousin had casually mentioned it to his parents that night after he went home, I wasn’t allowed to babysit or be in the house by myself again until I was 15.
I take a cold shower, a habit I’d started in high school when I found that it helped me shake off the last of the sleep. After shaving and brushing my teeth, I start to feel like myself again. For a moment, I wonder if everything with Thad had been a dream. The comforter, his hair turning to insect antennae, everything.
It wasn’t. When I walk out into the common room, I see Thad clattering away at his computer. Somehow he’s lost at least 50 pounds over the night, looking sickly and gaunt, the sockets of his eyes prominently sticking out of his skull, shriveled, sunken eyes sitting in their pits. His hair had gotten thicker, greasier, more insect-like.
“Thad, you have to get some sleep,” I say.
“I no longer require sleep,” he says, continuing to work away at his console. I noticed that the veins in his arms were turning a deep shade of purple, and seeming to float up to the surface of his arm, a classic sign of varicose veins. How he’d gotten them overnight was a mystery to me, though I suppose it shouldn’t have been.
He finished up on whatever he was typing, and then swiveled his chair around to face me. To my shock, I saw that…his legs and torso had shrank, as if the lower part of his body had been transplanted with a midget’s. My eyebrows rising and the corners of my mouth rapidly turning downward, I rapidly sucked in a breath, making a strange “whoop!” sound that I’d never heard from myself. I remember thinking he looked like the little alien in Men in Black, the one that was living inside the head of some robot-human, guiding him like a Gundam bot. He wasn’t as small as the alien in the movie, but the image fit.
“I know, I know. I’ve found the right method, but I’m still tinkering with it. There seems to be some side effects to using the program I’ve made.”
“I see,” I said, gasping the words out.
“Did you need something from me?”
“I just…what’s going on?”
“Don’t make me repeat myself again. You know what I’m doing. Creating the world in my own image. You know how the Mars rover miraculously came back online yesterday, after a year of inactivity? That was me.”
“But, do you think changing…probability fields, whatever it is, is a good idea?”
“All of my ideas are good ideas,” he said in a tone that invited no argument. He started to turn back to his console.
“Wait!” I said, shouting for the first time I could remember.
“What?” he asked, turning back. I saw that his body had shrunk even further in the short interim since I’d studied it last, and it started to fill me with nausea.
“Have you seen yourself? Whatever you’re doing, it’s changing you. Killing you, maybe.”
“Just a small kink in the plan. I’ll figure out how to fix it soon. I’m willing that I will.”
Not knowing that meant, I turned around and shirked out of the room. How can I stop this?
Two weeks after Thad moved into my dorm, I saw who he really was.
I’d decided to throw a party, and after some initial protest, Thad had agreed to it. I wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t agreed.
I invited 8 friends, and 7 showed up. The missing friend, a Joseph Jessup, had called in at the last second, badly feigning a cold over the phone. Joe got out lucky on that one.
The party went well at first. Thad got along well with my group of friends, composed of two couples, one single girl, and two single men. He was telling jokes charming the single girl, whose name I cannot remember.
But then, after the drinks had been flowing, he’d whispered something into the ear of the girl, causing her to lose interest in Thad completely, turning to talk to one of my friends. I never found out what he’d said to her to ruin his game, but the situation quickly became heated. It was as if he felt his looks, charisma, and prodigy-level intelligence made him somehow entitled to any woman he fancied.
“I should just beat the shit out of you right now,” he said out of the blue to my friend, Jeremy, whom the girl had shifted her attention to.
The memory is infallibly coded into my mind. How the energy and sound was suddenly sucked out of the hitherto buzzing room, as everybody turned to look at Thad, their faces uncomprehending, hoping they’d misheard him. Jeremy’s mouth was opening and closing soundlessly in the classic sign of dumbfoundedness.
The rest of the night went off without another hitch, and Thad managed to convince them all he’d just been joking. I knew he wasn’t, that he’d steered away from an insane course at the last moment, but I half-convinced myself otherwise. I knew deep down then though, who he really was. He was just so goddamned charismatic.
Against my better judgment, I remained friends with him. He was my roommate, after all. What, was I going to argue with him until the semester change, when we could maybe get our rooms switched if we bothered the housing advisor enough? I’m not going to justify my decisions to you. It was apparent that he was going somewhere, and despite his actions that night, he maintained a certain level of charisma that is impossible to describe. It was like success was dripping off of him, and if you stayed close enough, you might be able to lap some of it up off the floor. I was content to coast comfortably on his coattails.
I slip back to the present day, this nightmare come real. Last night Thad was delighting in changing my shoes from loafers to sneakers to boots to high heels and then back again, laughing despite my protests.
“This new headset amplifies my abilities tenfold,” he says, pointing to the circular mass of wires and plastic that encompasses his head. It looks like he used the chassis of a large pair of headphones to house this most recent invention. I see that some strands of his insect-leg hair are poking through the device, as if he’s worn it so long that his hair grew through it, though he didn’t have the device yesterday.
“Look, Thad,” I start.
“Don’t bother. I’ve already seen every iteration of every argument you might come up with, and you don’t have a chance of changing my mind.”
I turn to walk off. “You could have it too, you know.” I stop. “What?” I ask.
“You could have it too if you wanted too. You already have it to an extent, everybody does, particularly the intelligent. You just need to develop it. Do you ever have a deep thought, and the lights flicker for just a split second? Or the show you’re half-watching on your side monitor starts to go out when you’re working on a particularly thoughtful project on your main mon?”
I move my mouth like I’m talking, but no sound comes out. These kinds of things have indeed happened to me, with such alarming regularity that I’ve wondered about it several times. “How would that work, exactly, us both pushing the universe to the probability field most to our desire? What if we don’t have the same vision of things?”
He laughs. “That’s easy, basic many-worlds theory. The universe would split off into a universe where things go my way, and one where things go your way.”
“So we’d just split into different universes, never able to see each other again?”
“In a way. You’d still have a version of me in your world, but a version of me whose wants conveniently coincides with your own. And I’ll have a version of you in my universe who will do the same.”
“It sounds scary, we won’t see each other again.”
“We won’t and we will. By my calculations, I’ve already switched through several thousand iterations of the universe, so the you that I talked to in my iteration originally is already different. We’re always switching through universes randomly, I think, from the random ways our minds affect the universe. It’s exceedingly likely that, while growing up, your mom was a different woman each day, hour or minute even, just so imperceptibly different that you didn’t even notice, as her soul and yours bounce through reality infinitely. We already experience everything imaginable in the quantum universe, what I’m doing is just a way to steer the story.”
Scrawled in the same alley in New York, in changing color and degrading quality, from west to east: “People don’t change, only technology does!”
“Woe to our willful master!”
“The end is near.”
“Jill? ARE YOU THERE?!?!?!?????”
“Changes, n0ne. Same, aLL.”
That night I lay awake in bed, struggling to comprehend how Thad had gone so far past me so fast. I’d paid meticulous attention to exercising both my mind and body, where had I gone wrong?
What was I overlooking? I knew it was close.
I rolled around in bed, turning from my back to my chest and propping an elbow under my chin.
Mind, Body, soul.
I spring up in my bed and stretch my arms out in a gesture of triumph, so hard that I knock over a few of the debate trophies I have meticulously stacked on my headboard.
In the morning, I find that Thad has grown even smaller, now he’s approximately the size of a rhesus monkey. His insect characteristics have furthered themselves; now his skin appears carapace-like, as if he’s wearing human-colored armor. “You’ve thought about what we talked about,” he said. There was no hint of a question in his voice.
“Yes,” I answer without thinking, the words floating out from my mouth before I even realize I’m saying them.
“And what have you decided?”
Again speaking before my mind can catch up, I say “That you’re right.” He doesn’t say anything more. The rest of the day goes uneventfully, me leaving him alone in his room, his thick oaken door separating him from the world.
That night I think, focusing hard on what I want. I might not be as good as him, but maybe if I think I’m smarter than him, if I can really convince myself, maybe I can do this. Maybe this is what he wants, maybe we’re going down the road that he didn’t think likely; the one where our interests coincide.
To focus my mind into the sheer emotional power I think I’ll require, I think of Trilene, my high school sweetheart. It hurts to even write her name, and tears are just starting to trickle down my face after I write this. Radically change the world and nothing, but his makes me weep. Funny world.
The next morning, I fry up some bacon and eggs, and then take a plate of it into Thad’s room. It’s an act of atonement I suppose, for the thoughts that I put on him last night
He is now roughly the size of a wood beetle, and almost indiscernible from one. He sits on a little cotton ball in the middle of his headphones, which sit on his computer chair. I could have reached out and crushed him with my fist. Thought of it, even.
“Busy student needs his breakfast,” I say, setting the plate in front of him on the chair, as if nothing is any different. He makes a shrill chirping noise that’s barely audible, which I take as thanks and walk out of the room. It’s working.
When I get back from work, he’s the size of a flea, barely discernible on his computer chair. The eggs and bacon look untouched, and are starting to acquire a slight green tinge.
His computer still works rapidly though, processing information so fast it looks like it’s on some sort of automatic scanning process, going back and forth from research to writing out documents and figures. He’s come up with some sort of mental interface. It won’t be long now.
He chirps again as I walk out the door, and I smile at his dot in return, fighting down the vomit wanting to escape from my mouth. I stumble into the living room, and sit in front of the television, which is playing some “reality” show, the kind of “reality” show where they shun all pretense of reality and make due with non-actors poorly acting out badly-written scripts.
There was a massive flood in China today after part of the Three Gorges Dam mysteriously imploded, and elsewhere in the world, Russia invaded Kazakhstan. I know it was Thad. He’s acting out some convoluted plan that only he can keep track of. My best guess is that he’s trying to set up a chain of events that leads to a unified world government, as that was always one of his passions before his new pet project, but that’s just my best guess.
I have to do it tomorrow. If I let it go any longer, if I let him transform into whatever it is he’s becoming, we’ll all be doomed. Well, not doomed exactly, but under his control. He’d be the Old Testament God and we’d be the Israelites wandering through the desert.
I can barely concentrate in school the next day. At some point, my sleep-driven mind not even logging the time in my memory, one of our student advisors came up and asked me about Thad. “Why hasn’t he been in class lately? He’s shown such promise,” she says. I mumble out some intelligible reply and she wanders off, her eyebrows arched. I think she’s more worried about me than Thad now.
An earthquake hits off the coast of China just as I’m getting out from my last class, followed by an unprecedentedly large tsunami shortly thereafter. I know it’s him. There’s not much time now. The only way is to stop him without him expecting it, without him destroying me first. I have to try it, though I know there’s no way I can pull it off. He’s too smart, so much more intelligent than I. He’ll see me coming from a mile away. He probably has already figured out what I’m thinking, even now.
Unless…unless I can think hard enough.
The next day, when I go into Thad’s room to wish him off, he’s no longer visible. His headphones are still sitting on his desk chair, and information is stull blurring by rapidly on his computer screen, but I can see nothing else. A picture flashes in my mind of him as a flea, gasping at the fibers on his computer chair while his mind rapidly processes information on his computer. “Have a good day Thad,” I say, and then duck out of the room.
I can’t concentrate on classes. I sit through Advanced Quantum Theory without hardly a thought, save when the teacher singled me out and asked me a question about the Randall theory, thinking I’d be an easy target. I answered it without looking up, and, I could tell by the way that she went right on with the lesson that I’d given the correct answer.
Mostly I focus on not focusing. Hiding my plan in some inner part of my mind, the center of my brain, the reptilian part, working on it while I use my outer cortex to pretend to pay attention in class and occasionally respond to one of the people that the school calls my “peers”.
In sociology class, my professor gives a particularly impassioned speech, the only thing so far that manages to pull me out of my abyss. “Most of us cannot envision the future. But there are a few that can. Among you in this room are the most likely to lead the next revolution in human technology and innovation.”
I really took that to heart. I’d always thought of me and Thad as a couple of young idiots living in a shitty, dirty little dorm room in Massachusetts, creating the future. Now Thad had gone too far, and he had to be stopped.
After class, as I’m just outside mine and Thad’s room, I say a brief prayer to myself, and then enter.
It’s dark, darker than I’ve ever seen the room before. Like there’s a thick, black smoke in the room, though I can’t smell any hint of combustion. I start to worry that he’s already figured out my game, smoked me out, but then I calm myself keeping my fingers on my neck and monitoring my pulse until it gets down to its resting rate, and venture further into the room.
The living room has somehow become covered in a thin brown dust in between when I left for class and now. I can feel it beneath my feet, finer than sand, finer than flower, so fine that it feels wrong to walk on it.
“Thad?” I ask, closing my way to his door. A high pitched hum greets me in return, and I take that as acquiescence. “Need to talk to you about something buddy, you at your chair?” I hear another chirp, and come around the corner to find him seated still in front of his console. Now he’s about the size of a cockroach, looking something like a mix between a mouse and a roly poly.
What is it, I’m busy, he asks, and only when I open my mouth to reply to I realize that I heard him in my head, not through my ears. A chilly jolt of electricity starts to run itself up and down my spine.
And I know I have to do it then, or else he’s going to stop me or I’m going to chicken out or something else will happen to disrupt this. Because he’s become the master of probabilities. I have to do this, I have to kill him. Even if he was a good guy once. The guy who walked me home after my girlfriend back home dumped me for her Jack in the Box manager, me drunk off my ass and sobbing so hard the whole walk that half of my words were unintelligible. The guy who would always stop whatever he was doing and help me out every time I was having trouble with a paper or understanding a new concept in my Astrophysics 423 class. He’s not that guy anymore, he’s a bug.
Almost without thinking, definitely before I fully realized what I was doing, I reached my left arm out in one swift motion, formed my hand into a fist, and brought it down on Thad as hard as I could, the same way I’d done with a multitude of insects, my muscle memory taking over. He feels crunchy and wet as my fist obliterates him.
His computer explodes instantly in a way that only computers in movies do in real life, normal computers not containing the materials or energy to cause an explosion. But Thad’s does still, spewing sharp, broken chunks of plastic out the front. I jump out of the way, just dodging a large bit of monitor casing that was set to smack me in the forehead.
I walk out of the room battling a smile, wondering how I’m going to get it cleaned up before anyone starts to wonder about Thad.
That night, I sit in front of my computer and read. There’s another civil war in the Middle East. Muhaaleers are slaughtering civilians like crazy, cutting off their heads and leaving them on the tops of busses to make a political statement. Elsewhere, UN workers are still struggling to deal with the multiple disasters that I’m sure Thad caused in his convoluted plan.
I can fix it all. I know I can. I have the tools.