It’s been exactly a month since I was last employed full-time. One of my goals for the inter-gig session was to spend more time writing, and branching out from snarky blog entries and technical content in particular. I entered two short stories in the ESPN/Stymie Magazine sports fiction contest, and then only two days into free agency I discovered the Wheaton/Scalzi fan fiction contest. I decided I had to enter.
Minor problems include: I’ve never written fan fiction, and haven’t read much of it to get a sense for the range and scope. Aside from my two sports stories, I’ve never written fiction of any sort. It’s the kind of thing that takes years of practice to get character development, voicing, and plot development out of rambling mode and molded into something that others might want to read. Finally, since the two characters involved are one of my favorite sci-fi authors (John Scalzi) and a former sci-fi TV show actor (Wil Wheaton), I felt I had to wade into the sci-fi pool a bit.
On the other hand: The contest will benefit the Lupus Alliance of America, and knowing a few people who battle this chronic illness, if there’s a chance my writing might help then it’s great leverage. I set a simple goal for my time off and intended to meet it. And I figured I could start with “write what you know” and see where it took me.
One old idea about quantum physics expanded into a 500 word outline. One new idea that tied together two of my favorite things in Las Vegas (that write what you know bit) and provided a sensible plot and setting for the story helped. Two good writing sessions, two hours of editing, a bit of effort to refine and fix cross references and it was done. There’s a 2,000 word limit, and I started north of 2,800 before coming in perilously close to the upper bound. Breakfast with equally unemployed buddy Sluggo helped tremendously; I was on the fence about finishing this and after sharing my goal of “writing some more” with him I felt obligated to finish. He’s also a bond trader by profession, and was therefore indirectly responsible for some of this. Thanks, old friend.
Within a minute of hitting “Send”, I got an acknowledgement from Scalzi’s web site that my text was received and ready for entry. That’s significantly better than ESPN did; I have no idea if they got what I sent or even care. The Scalzi-Wheaton fest is also non-exclusive, so with only a mild set of disclaimers, I’m including the entire story here for comments, criticisms and perhaps enough sympathy to warrant someone sending me a box of chocolate chip cookies. Letting others read your writing (especially something that might truly suck) is like hearing your own voice coming out of a 1970s-vintage Radio Shack cassette recorder. You wince, until someone says that you sound like that all of the time and they don’t mind.
Disclaimers: (1) It’s not entirely safe for work. There are four letter words in it, but nothing you haven’t heard me say before and no f-bombs. (2) What’s below is the whole story, but I added links to relevant bits of context for the uninitiated. (3) Reading this you might think I dislike bond traders, banks, or action figures. All untrue. This is a fictional story, not news reporting. (4) If you haven’t clicked on the link above that points to the contest announcement, do so, or none of this makes any sense whatsoever.
Without further ado, here’s Don’t Touch My Stuff.
I am walking overhead. BD4 repeats this at least twice a day. He is a bond trader at our very large bank. Merely casting his throaty screams into code, turning math in money, is all overhead in his moneyed game. BD4 reflects neither his proper monogram nor surname subscript; it’s how I differentiate him from BD1 through BD3, who are better traders and entrusted with even more capital. BD4 is compensating. I may be walking overhead, but they are the Big Douches, one through four in a fortunately very limited series. As long as they don’t touch my stuff, they can name-call all they like, because I get paid mid-six figures to sling code in an office graced with well-placed, highly visible action figures. It’s my only outwardly visible affectation. Very few people know about my wide variety of death and dead body phobias, for example (I’ve never been to a funeral). What matters is that everyone in the office is clear on the basic premise that nobody can touch my shit, or the code will not flow.
I’m in this job because I’m really good at math but pretty much suck at accepted physics. Dabbling in string theory was fun during my brief period as a physics major, because it relied on the mathematical power that comes from being able to describe the obvious and invisible parts of the universe with a pencil. I did, however, learn some politics in the physics mix. You don’t challenge local convention; you don’t question the Albert’s intentions; you don’t use the word “entanglement” in a situation without double entendres. Fail any of these implicit intelligence tests and you’re beaten back into the math building by the higher-order nerd phyla.
So here I am with the guys with the nice hair and nicer clothes and nary a femtosecond of appreciation for science fiction, online comics, or the feng shui of properly selected and placed geek accoutrements. It’s a job. In the words of a much-revered engineer, I only work to pay for my hobbies, and this weekend, that hobby entails a comic and sci-fi convention road trip to Vegas. If there’s a ticket to be purchased, or a line in which to stand, I will be there.
Thursday evening’s itinerary: bolt out of the office, subway to train to Newark airport. Once through security I drop myself next to the gate to catch up on today’s web comics, having been denied the guilty pleasure by BD4’s early morning insistence on a code change. Knowing that Wil Wheaton is speaking at this con, I dig through the Diesel Sweeties blog archives to find the pixelated image of Wheaton wearing his bête noir clown sweater. Stitches stretched to the point of visual pain are captured perfectly by cartoonist Richard Stevens. Re-reading the backstory on Wil’s blog takes the edge off of the pre-travel cattle herding with a few laughs. It’s visual schadenfreude – Wil looks miserable and that picture has been disseminated so broadly on the internet that it’s effectively indestructible. It will, in fact, survive a nuclear attack. I know I’ll be punished for even mere bad thoughts about someone who has become one of my favorite blogger-authors. But it doesn’t stop me.
My flight is called. I clam the laptop and slip it into my backpack only to recoil in horror at seeing That Thing in my bag. I know I had not double- and triple-checked my packing with enough thoroughness. The karmic payback will begin very shortly, I fear, because I’m upsetting the quantum balance of our known universe in a Very Bad Way. That Thing isn’t the spawn of one of the Fantastic Four, nor a not safe for work toy that one of the BDs slipped into my office. That Thing is why I’m a financial engineer and not a physicist.
Einstein never liked the idea of quantum entanglement. He called it “spooky action at a distance” and was mildly freaked out that particles in one part of our visible world could affect the states of others, possibly far away, instantaneously. It’s tantamount to faster than light travel. It’s the fictional stuff of hard science fiction. Hard core quantum physics experimentalists have been trying to entangle photons in their “don’t cross the streams” uber-cautious and utterly precise manners. They were less than impressed when I saw the whole thing as a huge stack of probability functions that could be manipulated using much more mundane devices. Any physical event that bumps into these quantum probability functions serves as a starting point, like writing and rewriting the same sector on a USB memory stick to force a quantum tunneling effect in the semiconductor substrate.
My physics potential was shunted to ground when I suggested a bit too publicly that FTL information conveyance could be stimulated through an act as regular and simple as repeatedly copying a porn collection to removable media. Physicists have such shitty senses of humor when kicked in their quantum mechanical nads.
Here’s the rub: I found a way entangle USB memory sticks if you blast the bits through them with the precision of a nanometer scale gem cutter. That’s the genesis of That Thing, which seemed like a good idea to reduce latency on the trading operation, giving our guys a few milliseconds of lead time over the rival banks. It was a thoroughly good idea, but screwing with quantum mechanics has messy side effects. Instantaneous communication between floor and exchange was great until I root-cause diagnosed the side effects of forcing probability waves to be somewhat less random. Remember that day when the market crashed in about twelve seconds, and then mysteriously recovered?
This shit works provided you tolerate its random behavioral and environmental artifacts. Then again, I’ve never separated the Thing pairs more than a few miles, and I’m not really sure what happens at distances quantified in measurable fractions of a light second. The side effects never bother me, because they are no worse than the real-world crap I get from real-world co-workers. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, not in the real world, not in the trading floor world, and not in the quantum world. Einstein wasn’t completely wrong. You get action at a distance from the entangled pairs, but it comes at the cost of injecting more randomness into the local region on the other end. Heisenberg also plays here: forcing quantum states on one end means you get whopping weirdness waves on the other. And of course it’s highly observer dependent. You need a pretty graphic imagination to even attempt to make sense of what might – and does — happen.
I land in Vegas and make it to the MGM Mirage hotel. Actual time, jet lag, excitement about three days of nerd festivities and abject horror at the little friend I’ve accidentally brought along conspire to make me pass out immediately after checking into my room. I’m anticipating tomorrow in every possible way. Perhaps more than I’d bargained for.
John Scalzi hosts the first session Friday morning and it’s a pitch-perfect way to start. I love Scalzi; he’s decanting old people into new bodies and laughing at politics and social situations all at once. I keep a copy of his Judge Sn Goes Golfing in my office, mostly to make the BDs think I know something about life on the links. This thought is foremost in my mind as terror rears its quantum entangled skull only moments after I sit down.
Scalzi takes the stage as an orc, looking as though he just stepped off a Hollywood back lot.
One of the BDs has obviously touched my shit; I’m guessing he moved the limited edition battle orc (custom green skin, done by my friend at the comic shop in Midtown) on top of the Scalzi novella. The randomness has been injected via the New York lunch break side of That Thing’s peer.
Scalzi has some kind of creepy green makeup on his skin, and very high quality rubberized mask that blends with the skin tones perfectly. He looks like the love child of Sue Sylvester and a badly rendered Shrek with armor. The visual is so lifelike, so real, so horribly frightening that I do what any properly trained engineer would: find a unicorn chaser in a new browser tab.
Wireless connectivity in the Mirage hotel isn’t great to begin with, especially in the revamped “Event Center” that used to be home to Siegfried and Roy and their fluffy tiger friends. I’m hoping that I can purge the persistent image from my retinas before Scalzi brings local comedian Mac King to the stage for whatever comes next. Mac King is yet another of my heroes; he lambasts the established entertainment circuit and yet pays pretty serious magic homage to old S&R. In his regular daytime gig, King trades places with a stuffed tiger flying over the audience in a box. That funny combination of artistic allusions goes horribly wrong expanding into a set of probability wave functions when King uses the same mechanic to summon Wil Wheaton onto stage.
The next tenth of a second goes something like this:
A flash thunderstorm rumbles over the Strip as the fake volcano in front of the Mirage erupts. The front of house is hit by lightning, making the volcano interesting for the first time this decade.
My MacBook sucks enough packets out of the ether to load a Boing Boing unicorn chaser story, painting over the Evil Clown Sweater image last seen as I left the East Coast. Shit shit shit bad bad bad.
A peripheral flash of light tickles my eyes; a few photons confirm a disturbance of the quantum balance in the local region.
Wheaton roars, somewhat literally, out of Mac King’s cardboard box suspended over the stage. He’s wearing the clown sweater, riding a large cat with a unicorn’s horn (uh oh) that’s attempting to fly with wings that look like they were grafted (badly) from a model shop Pegasus and OMG THAT GEL HAIRED SON A BITCH TOUCHED PEGASUS I’M GOING TO CRUSH HIS THUMBS WITH MY THOR HAMMER.
My saving grace, if there can be one at this point, is that I wasn’t skimming the archives of alt.wesley.crusher.die.die.die as this scenario unfolded. I can explain some things, but not the repercussions from that one. I am not a dick, even though I work with some.
There are more camera flashes at this very moment than I can believe; some are people trying to capture the absurdity of the moment and the rest are more classically trained attendees trying to illuminate the guy wires and effects props they’re certain are responsible for this reality-bending visual.
This huge influx of photons helps nullify the effect of entangled bits wreaking havoc. Local region stability improves when there’s a puff of smoke and Wheaton walks across the stage to Scalzi, who is removing his rubber orc head and putting his glasses back on so the two of them don’t trade weapons blows by accident. I wish that I had hallucinated the whole thing, but there’s photographic proof. Images devoid of JPEG artifacts and Photoshop defects surface and are circulated wildly after the session.
Along with a few hundred other people, I dutifully walk the perimeter the casino floor to get in line for a Wheaton signing, hoping that I’ve exhausted the randomness stored in my little quantum stowaway. I want to enjoy a randomness-free fifteen seconds of fame encounter that were a primary reason for making this trip.
When I finally get to the table, he fixes the best Evil Wil Wheaton stare at me, and says plain as day “There’s a dead body by the monorail tracks.”
Balance is restored and I still like him.