My name is not important. Neither is what I do — I’m an investigative ontology researcher. It’s a field you’ve probably never heard of, at a comparatively undistinguished university you’ve definitely never heard of.
In my line of work, I periodically declare scholarly pronouncements in the form of scientific articles no one has any interest in, except my fellow academics who cursorily thumb through and subsequently evaluate my work based on their ever-fluctuating level of pettiness and professional jealousy.
Long story short, I’m an alcoholic …
It’s a sunny morning out there. I draw the black curtains of my university office, trying to concentrate on anything except the relevant task at hand — an academic piece on the Great Convergence — a perpetually confounding event and a once-fashionable research subject I’ve been sweating over for several millennia.
* * *
The ancient scrolls of Wahatta Upanishad define the Great Convergence as an event of divine origin alleged to bring about the ultimate victory of good over evil, ensuing after many visually stunning celestial battles and breathtaking cataclysms.
Another ancient text — Quantum Mechanics — describes it as a sharp acceleration of the subatomic disorder on a macro scale, culminating in a complete and irreversible reorganisation of the elementary building blocks of nature.
The modern science refers to the matter at hand in a more concise, if a tad dry, manner: Big Bang inside out. Combine the three together, and you’ll get a reasonably accurate characterisation.
* * *
I sink deeper into my armchair behind a rickety desk littered with heavyweight folios, torn-out pages and half-empty whisky glasses — six of them in all. Exhaling loudly through my nostrils, I keep jotting down impulsive ideas until I catch myself scribbling silly shapes on the page margins. I empty half of the glasses and refill the rest. Three down, three more to go.
The ominous silence keeps throbbing in my head. I toss a crumpled note into the ecological wormhole disposal shaft to my right. Down it goes with a soft and melodious tinkle. A puff of pink smoke fills the study with a pleasant scent of vanilla. The familiar ding confirms that the pellet has reached its destination — Planet Earth, the twenty-first century — the time of the Great Convergence. Coincidently … Or not …?
* * *
Enchanted by the palliative impassivity of the ceiling, I switch gears, deciding to do a paper review. You ought to know, the scientific papers remain the universal currency we academics are required to manufacture in ever-growing quantities, whether of benefit to science or not.
Before it’s green-lit for a publication, every paper needs to go through the anonymous peer-review process. In practice, the go-ahead comes from the small band of narrowly specialised savants, who not only directly compete with you for the very same grants, but — more often than not — also research the very same subject. Effectively a conflict-of-interest rookery, the system isn’t without its perks, especially since it affords the disgruntled academics a solid chunk of the cold-served tit for tat.
I shudder as the alcohol burns my throat and pull the stapled-together sheets from the top of the neglected stack. And what do you know? It’s The Not-So-Great — The Great Convergence by Scott Amsberg-Limburg, my ex-PhD fellow student, currently a quantum semantics investigator at the Bauer-Richter Academy of Speculative Sciences — our direct competitors.
‘Coincidence?’ I dry another glass.
Here’s Scott’s short bio. Some time ago, Scott bursts out of an abyss of ignorance and joins the ranks of our university as a PhD student. He spends his time doing absolutely nothing apart from toadying to our supervising professor. All the while, he turns my life into an unendurable Gehenna. The reason? No reason at all. Eventually, Scott defects to Bauer-Richter, taking with him many collectively developed ideas, which he then claims as his own.
I fix my gaze on the point-blank act of war posing as a scientific paper. There it is. Stretched on my desk with its soft underbelly exposed. Silent. Alone. I promptly reach for the red crayon and begin skimming through the paragraphs. Although it pains me to say, Scott’s take on the Great Convergence does contain valuable insights. I would go as far as to say it makes sense in certain isolated areas.
‘More red here … And here …’ I repeatedly stab at handsomely constructed equations with the stone-cold crayon tip.
Home at last. A simple supper with Trudy — my wife. We eat in the garden under the sunset-stained sky. The garden is pretty. Trudy has planted about twenty varieties of rose bushes. The result’s definitely worth the effort. The evening is pleasantly warm with a slight hint of the autumn breeze. The chirping of the octopoids flying over our heads proves to be slightly disconcerting, though.
I prod the dessert with the fork, formulating valid complaints. Trudy keeps interrupting. She says that I should let it go. She says that I should think more about myself and less about profound existential matters. In fact, she says, I should just — think less.
'Scott's paper's out, and I'm the reviewer.' I make the sombre announcement. 'He contradicts my findings without much basis. Bunch of baloney, overall. Not all of it, to be fair. Wrong in principle. Even if sufficiently advanced. On the face of it, that is. Some would argue the argument is there. Only that it isn’t.’
'More tea?' Trudy nibbles on a raspberry pie.
‘Obviously, I’m going to trash it and hopefully block the publication altogether. For all his silver-tongued glib, Scott’s wrong. I’m right. And that’s that.’ I flick my index finger against the rim of the teacup.
'Is that a yes?' Trudy says.
'It should have been me. It should have been my paper making the splash,’ I say. 'Just can't get the numbers right. My perfectionism. My methodical nature gets in the way.'
'There you go.' Trudy pours the amber-coloured liquid into my cup from the round tea kettle with roses printed on both sides.
She leans back in her chair and keeps looking at me intensely.
'The missing pieces. I need to find them. I can still prove my side of it. I can fix this.’ I hold up the cup, spilling the tea all over the table.
Trudy flings a handkerchief in my direction and calmly goes for another piece of the pie. She chews in silence but doesn't say anything.
‘My tenure’s on the line!’ I slam the table with my open palm. ‘I could murder for a tenure. I know some who have.’
‘Pie?' Trudy holds up the small plate.
'You just don't understand. Every day scientists like me pay with our lives to uncover the fundamental truths about … everything. Everything that matters.’ I snatch the slice in two fingers.
'… Or run about like a bunch of kindergarten kids, yelping and trying to trip one another up at every turn. The only difference being — you use bigger words,’ Trudy says. ‘Sure it’s not the ego-thing with you, again?’
‘It's about being right when one is right,’ I say. ‘Which I could prove, if I only had … more funding. More time. Peace of mind. But then, there's distractions. My teaching duties. The students. Few as they are.’
'Tell them you are sick,' Trudy says.
'I am sick. I'm sick of it all!' I jump to my feet, then freeze.
'That's the spirit,' Trudy says.
I stuff the whole slice into my mouth and slump back into my chair.
'Scott this, Scott that, the ultimate wrong versus ultimate right, ozons, bozons and the fate of the multiverse is all I hear.’ Trudy collects the dishes. ‘Time you took a breather, you know? The Q-particles hunt. The Aranea Ferventis psilocybin pools. Antimatter enema …'
Her corpulent figure evanesces into the house. The rustling steps grow faint. I let my head hang down on my chest until everything goes quiet.
* * *
There’s a muffled bang on the garden table. I must have dozed off. A small fishbowl appears before me. Rupert, our pet frog, bobs in the crystal-clear water.
‘With or without this Convergence-thing: here we are — for better or worse, is my take on all this. Multidimensional catastrophes, quantum hurricanes and whatnot, who cares, really? We can still laugh at each other’s jokes and enjoy the pie,’ Trudy says with her hands resting firmly on her ample waist.
‘I suppose that explains why there aren’t many women scientists …’ I think to myself.
‘Go. Blow off some steam,’ Trudy says.
‘What, now …?’ I look up and blink a couple of times.
‘Yes, now,’ she says. ‘Have some fun, come back, then take the rest of the week off. We could go someplace nice. Like you’ve promised. Again and again.’
I look blankly at the fishbowl with Rupert in it.
‘Can’t let you go without an amphibian, you know that,’ she says.
That’s the thing with Trudy — convenient or not, safety always comes first.
‘Off you go.’ She pushes the fishbowl towards me.
Trudy’s eyebrows come suddenly together. Heck, maybe I should.
‘Aren’t you coming?’ I say.
‘Nah, gonna watch some TV.’ Trudy hops back into the house. ‘Something with real life in it. The sandwiches are on the kitchen table.’
I hold the fishbowl with both hands and look into Rupert’s bulging eyes again.
‘Croak.’ He swirls around.
* * *
The sun sets, the skies grow dim. I pull out a tablet from the satchel and compose a quick email to HR. Should spare me the embarrassment of conducting a lecture to the crowd of three. I seal it with a kiss and press send. After a couple of stretches, I head back into the house and don the protective apron over my lab coat, which has become an inseparable part of me. I exit through the garden door and proceed down to the garage. I drag my time machine out into the little courtyard and switch the floodlights on.
It’s an outdated model. It’s loud and bulky, and it uses way too much fuel. I could never part with it. I clean the red-metallic exterior, first with a hose, then I move on with a sponge and soap, laboriously washing away the grime and dust. I polish the body and the chrome bumpers until I can count every tooth of my reflection's grinning smile. The octopoids’ chirping melts away in the tranquillity of the evening. I look up at the darkening sky for a while, then walk back into the kitchen and grab the sandwiches.
‘Sure you don’t want to go?’ I shout at the ceiling.
‘On the table,’ Trudy shouts back from the bedroom.
I slog back to the car and throw the sandwiches into the boot. I pick up Rupert from the garden table and gently put the fishbowl onto the passenger seat.
‘Have fun,’ I hear Trudy call out again.
‘Fun, yes … Let’s have some,’ I say.
I shut the car door, hang a little tree air freshener on the rear-view mirror and start tinkering with the autopilot.
‘I don’t know … The Schönburg-Glauchau methane falls? Too far … The Kalckreuth Lava Springs? I’ve been there already. I think … The Frisky Gekkota Caverns? Nah. I don’t know. I don’t know …’ I inhale the mint flavour for a while with my eyes closed.
It’s not the maths. Not the general premise. It should work. And yet. Each time I put the final touches to my carefully constructed rationale, I come across ever more quirky little details that turn the whole thing upside down. Everything seems to shift, like in a kaleidoscope. Scott’s paper, on the other hand … The more I look at it, the more sense it makes. Even though it shouldn’t.
‘To hell with empty entertainment,’ I say, jarred by a discomfiting premonition. ‘Let’s find those missing pieces.’
I set the dials back to 2022 and kick the crank.