The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree
Enjoy “The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree,” by Michael Swanwick, a story inspired by an illustration from John Jude Palencar.
“The Woman Who Shook the World-Tree” is part of a five-story series curated by senior Tor Books editor David G. Hartwell. All five are based on a singular piece of art by John Jude Palencar and will be released for free on Tor.com every Wednesday in March.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor David Hartwell.
She was not a pretty child. Nor did her appearance improve with age. “You’d better get yourself a good education,” her mother would say, laughing. “Because you’re sure not going to get by on your looks.” Perhaps for this reason, perhaps not, her father demonstrated no discernible fondness for her. So, from a very early age, Mariella Coudy channeled all her energies inward, into the life of the mind.
It took some time for first her parents and then the doctors and psychiatrists they hired to realize that her dark moods, long silences, blank stares, and sudden non sequiturs were symptomatic not of a mental disorder but of her extreme brilliance. At age seven she invented what was only recognized three years later as her own, admittedly rudimentary, version of calculus. “I wanted to know how to calculate the volume defined by an irregular curve,” she said when a startled mathematician from the local university deciphered her symbols, “and nobody would tell me.” A tutor brought her swiftly up to postgraduate level and then was peremptorily dismissed by the child as no longer having anything to teach her. At age eleven, after thinking long and hard about what would happen if two black holes collided, she submitted a handwritten page of equations to Applied Physics Letters, prompting a very long phone call from its editor.
Not long thereafter, when she was still months shy of twelve years old, some very respectful people from Stanford offered her a full scholarship, room and board, and full-time supervision by a woman who made a living mentoring precocious young women. By that time, her parents were only too happy to be free of her undeniably spooky presence.
At Stanford, she made no friends but otherwise thrived. By age sixteen she had a PhD in physics. By age eighteen she had two more—one in mathematics and the other in applied deterministics, a discipline of her own devising. The Institute for Advanced Study offered her a fellowship, which she accepted and which was periodically renewed.
Twelve years went by without her doing anything of any particular note.
Then one day, immediately after she had given a poorly received talk titled “A Preliminary Refutation of the Chronon,” a handsome young man fresh out of grad school came to her office and said, “Dr. Coudy, my name is Richard Zhang and I want to work with you.”
“Because I heard what you had to say today and I believe that your theories are going to change the way we think about everything.”
“No,” she said. “I mean, why should I let you work with me?”
The young man grinned with the cocky assurance of a prized and pampered wunderkind and said, “I’m the only one who actually heard what you were saying. You were speaking to one of the smartest, most open-minded audiences in the world, and they rejected your conclusions out of hand. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. You need a bench man who can devise a convincing experiment and settle the matter once and for all. I may not be able to generate your insights but I can follow them. I’m a wizard with lab equipment. And I’m persistent.”
Mariella Coudy doubted that last statement very much. In her experience, nobody had a fraction of the persistence she herself possessed. She’d once heard it said that few people had the patience to look at a painting for the length of time it took to eat an apple, and she knew for a fact that almost nobody could think about even the most complex equation for more than three days straight without growing weary of it.
She silently studied Zhang for as long as it would take to eat an apple. At first he tipped his head slightly, smiling in puzzlement. But then he realized that it was some sort of test and grew very still. Occasionally he blinked. But otherwise he did nothing.
Finally, Mariella said, “How do you propose to test my ideas?”
“Well, first . . .” Richard Zhang talked for a very long time.
“That won’t work,” she said when he was done. “But it’s on the right track.”
It took a year to devise the experiment, debug it, and make it work. Almost fourteen months of marathon discussions of physics and math, chalkboard duels, and passionate excursions up side issues that ultimately led nowhere, punctuated by experiments that failed heartbreakingly and then, on examination, proved in one way or another to be fundamentally flawed in their conception. Occasionally, during that time, Richard gave brief talks on their work and, because he met all questions with courteous elucidation and never once replied to an objection with a derisive snort, a blast of laughter, or a long, angry stare, a sense began to spread across the campus that Dr. Coudy might actually be on to something. The first talk drew four auditors. The last filled a lecture hall.
Finally, there came the night when Richard clamped a 500-milliwatt laser onto the steel top of a laser table with vibration-suppressing legs, took a deep breath, and said, “Okay, I think we’re ready. Goggles on?”
Mariella slid her protective goggles down over her eyes.
Richard aimed a 532-nanometer beam of green laser light through a beam splitter and into a mated pair of Pockels cells. The light emerging from one went directly to the target, a white sheet of paper taped to the wall. The light from the other disappeared through a slit in the kludge of apparatus at the far side of the table. Where it emerged, Richard had set up a small mirror to bounce it to the target alongside the first green circle. He adjusted the mirror’s tweaking screws, so that the two circles overlapped, creating an interference pattern.
Then he flipped the manual control on one of the cells, changing the applied voltage and rotating the plane of polarization of the beam. The interference pattern disappeared.
He flipped the control back. The interference pattern was restored.
Finally, Richard slaved the two Pockels cells to a randomizer, which would periodically vary the voltage each received—but, because it had only the one output, always the same to both and at the exact same time. He turned it on. The purpose of the randomizer was to entirely remove human volition from the process.
“Got anything memorable to say for the history books?” Richard asked.
Mariella shook her head. “Just run it.”
He turned on the mechanism. Nothing hummed or made grinding noises. Reality did not distort. There was a decided lack of lightning.
The randomizer went click. One of the overlapping circles on the target disappeared. The other remained.
And then the first one reappeared. Two superimposed circles creating a single interference pattern.
Richard let out his breath explosively. But Mariella touched him lightly on the arm and said, “No. There are too many other possible explanations for that phenomenon. We need to run the other half of the experiment before we can begin celebrating.”
Richard nodded rapidly and turned off the laser. One circle of light disappeared immediately, the other shortly thereafter. His fingers danced over the equipment. Then, methodically, he checked every piece of it again, three times. Mariella watched, unmoving. This was his realm, not hers, and there was nothing she could do to hurry things along. But for the first time she could remember, she felt impatient and anxious to get on with it.
When everything was ready, the laser was turned on again. Twin splotches of green overlapped.
Richard switched on the apparatus. One light blinked off briefly, and then on again. (Richard’s mouth opened. Mariella raised a finger to silence him.) The randomizer made no noise.
The interference pattern disappeared. Three seconds later, the randomizer went click. And three seconds after that, the interference pattern was restored again.
“Yes!” Richard ripped off his goggles and seized Mariella, lifting her up into the air and spinning her around a full three hundred and sixty degrees.
Then he kissed her.
She should have slapped him. She should have told him off. She should have thought of her position and of what people would say. Richard was six years younger than her and, what was even more of a consideration, every bit as good-looking as she was not. Nothing good could possibly come of this. She should have looked to her dignity. But what she did was to push up her goggles and kiss him back.
When finally they had to stop for air, Mariella pulled her head away from his and, more than a little stunned, managed to focus on him. He was smiling at her. His face was flushed. He was so, so very handsome. And then Richard said the most shocking thing she had ever heard in her life: “Oh, God, I’ve been wanting to do that for the longest time.”
That night, after they’d gone to Mariella’s apartment and done things she’d known all her life she would never do, and then babbled about the experiment at each other, and agreed that the title of the paper should be “The abolition of time as a meaningful concept,” and then went through the cycle all over again, and her lips were actually sore from all the kissing they did, and Richard had finally, out of exhaustion no doubt, fallen asleep naked alongside her . . . after all that, Mariella held the pillow tightly over her face and wept silently into it because for the first time in her life she was absolutely, completely happy, and because she knew it wouldn’t last and that come morning Richard would regain his senses and leave her forever.
But in the morning Richard did not leave. Instead, he rummaged in her refrigerator and found the makings of huevos rancheros and cooked her breakfast. Then they went to the lab. Richard took pictures of everything with a little digital camera (“This is historic—they’ll want to preserve everything exactly the way it is”) while she wrote a preliminary draft of the paper on a yellow pad. When she was done, he had her sign it on the bottom and wrote his name after hers.
Mariella Coudy and Richard M. Zhang. Together in eternity.
Mariella and Richard spent the next several weeks in a blissful mix of physics and romance. He bought her roses. She corrected his math. They both sent out preprints of their paper, she to everybody whose opinion she thought worth having, and he to everyone else. No matter how many times they changed and laundered them, it seemed the bed sheets were always sweat-stained and rumpled.
One night, seemingly out of nowhere, Richard said “I love you,” and without stopping to think, Mariella replied, “You can’t.”
“I have a mirror. I know what I look like.”
Richard cradled her face in his hands and studied it seriously. “You’re not beautiful,” he said—and something deep inside her cried out in pain. “But I’m glad you’re not. When I look at your face, my heart leaps up in joy. If you looked like”—he named a movie star—“I could never be sure it wasn’t just infatuation. But this way I know for sure. It’s you I love. This person, this body, this beautiful brain. You, here, right now, you.” He smiled that smile she loved so much. “Q.E.D.”
Their paradise ended one morning when they encountered a clutch of cameramen standing outside Mariella’s office. “What’s all this?” she asked, thinking that there’d been a robbery or that somebody famous had died.
A microphone was thrust at her face. “Are you the woman who’s destroyed time?”
“What? No! Ridiculous.”
“Have you seen today’s papers?” A copy of theNew York Times was brandished but she couldn’t possibly read the headlines with it waving around like that.
Richard held up both hands and said, “Gentlemen! Ladies! Please! Yes, this is Dr. Mariella Coudy, and I’m her junior partner on the paper. Dr. Coudy was absolutely right when she denied destroying time. There is no such thing as time. There’s only the accumulation of consequences.”
“If there’s no such thing as time, does that mean it’s possible to travel into the past? Visit ancient Rome? Hunt dinosaurs?” Several reporters laughed.
“There’s no such thing as the past, either—only an infinite, ever-changing present.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” somebody asked.
“That’s an extremely good question. I’m afraid that I can’t adequately answer it without using a lot of very complicated equations. Let’s just say that the past never really goes away, while the future exists only relative to the immediate moment.”
“If there is no time, then what is there?”
“Happenstance,” Richard said. “A tremendous amount of happenstance.”
It was all ludicrously oversimplified to the point of being meaningless, but the reporters ate it up. Richard’s explanations gave them the illusion that they sort-of kind-of understood what was being talked about, when the truth was that they didn’t even have the mathematics to be misinformed. When, eventually, the reporters ran out of questions, packed their equipment, and left, Mariella angrily said, “What the hell was all that about?”
“Public relations. We’ve just knocked the props out from under one of the few things that everybody thinks they understand. That’s going to get people excited. Some of them are going to hate us for what we’ve done to their world.”
“The world’s the same as it ever was. The only thing that’ll be different is our understanding of it.”
“Tell that to Darwin.”
That was the bad side of fame. The good side was money. Suddenly, money was everywhere. There was enough money to do anything except the one thing Mariella wanted most, which was to be left alone with Richard, her thoughts, a blackboard, and a piece of chalk. Richard acquired a great deal of what was surely extremely expensive equipment, and hit the lecture circuit—“Somebody has to,” he said cheerily, “and, God knows, you won’t”—to explain their findings. So she was alone again, as often as not.
She used these empty spaces in her life to think about existence without time. She tried not to imagine he was with other women.
Whenever Richard returned from the road, they had furious reunions and she would share her tentative, half-formed thoughts with him. One evening he asked “What is the shape of happenstance?” and Mariella had no answer for him. In short order he had canceled all his speaking engagements and there was an enormous 3-D visualization tank in his lab, along with the dedicated processing power of several Crayflexes at his disposal. Lab assistants whose names she could never get straight scurried about doing things, while Richard directed and orchestrated and obsessed. Suddenly, he had very little time for her. Until one day he brought her in to show her a single black speck in the murky blue-gray tank.
“We have pinned down one instantiation of happenstance!” he said proudly.
A month later, there were three specks. A week after that there were a thousand. Increasingly rapidly, the very first map of reality took shape: It looked like a tornado at first, with a thick and twisting trunk. Then it sprouted limbs, some of them a good third as thick as what Richard dubbed the Main Sequence. These looped upward or downward, it seemed to make no difference, giving birth to smaller limbs, or perhaps “tentacles” was a better word for them, which wound about each other, sometimes dwindling to nothing, other times rejoining the main trunk.
Richard called it the Monster. But in Mariella’s eyes it was not monstrous at all. It had the near-organic look of certain fractal mathematical formulae. It flowed and twisted elegantly, like branches frozen in the act of dancing in the breeze. It was what it was—and that was beautiful.
It looked like a tree. A tree whose roots and crown were lost in the distance. A tree vast enough to contain all the universe.
Pictures of it leaked out, of course. The lab techs had taken snapshots and shared them with friends who posted them online. This brought back the press, and this time they were not so easy to deal with, for they quickly learned that Richard and Mariella were an item. The disparity of age and appearance, which would have been nothing were she male and he female, was apparently custom-made for the tabloids—louche enough to be scandalous, romantic enough to be touching, easy to snark about. One of the papers stitched together two pictures with Photoshop and ran it under the headline BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. There was no possible confusion who was supposed to be what. Another ran what even Mariella thought was an unfair rendering of her face alongside the map of reality and asked WHICH IS THE MONSTER?
It astonished her how much this hurt.
This time Richard was not so accommodating. “You bastards crossed a line,” he told one reporter. “So, no, I’m not going to explain anything to you or any of your idiot kind. If you want to understand our work, you’ll just have to go back to school for another eight years. Assuming you have the brains for it.” Furiously, he retreated to his lab, the way another man might have hit the bars, and stared at the Monster for several hours.
Then he sought out Mariella and asked, “If time is unidirectional in Minkowski space, and there is no time—then what remains?” Initiating another long, sexless, and ecstatic night. After which he left the mapping project for his grad students to run without him. He obtained two new labs—exactly how was never clear to Mariella, who was so innocent of practical matters that she didn’t even have a driver’s license—and began to build another experiment. Half his new equipment went into one lab, which he called the Slingshot, and the rest into the second, on the far side of the campus, which he called the Target.
“If this works,” he said, “it will change everything. People will be able to travel from and to anywhere in the universe.”
“So long as there’s the proper machinery to receive them when they get there.”
“Yes, of course.”
“And provided it doesn’t simply blow itself to hell. I have my suspicions about the energy gradient between your two sites.”
There was that grin again—the grin of a man who knew that nothing could possibly go wrong, and that everything must inevitably work out right. “Don’t you worry about a thing,” Richard said. “You’re still the senior partner. I won’t do anything until you assure me that it’s perfectly safe.”
The next day there was an explosion that shook the entire campus. Mariella ran outside and saw people pouring from all the buildings. A black balloon of smoke tumbled upward over the rooftops.
It came from the Target.
Richard had told her he’d be spending the entire day there.
Somehow, Mariella was running. Somehow, she was there. The entire building had been reduced to smoldering rubble. Parts of what remained were on fire. It smelled like burning garbage.
A hand touched her arm. It was Dr. Inglehoff. Laura. “Maybe Richard wasn’t in the building,” she said. “I’m sure he’s all right.” Her expression was grotesque with compassion.
Mariella stared at the woman in perplexity. “Where else would he be? At this time of day? Why would he be anywhere else?”
Then people whom she had never before appreciated were, if not precisely her friends, at the very least close colleagues, were leading her away. She was in a room. There was a nurse giving her a shot. Somebody said, “Sleep is the best doctor.”
When she awoke and Richard was not there, she knew her romance was over. Somebody told her that the explosion was so thorough that nothing readily identifiable as human remains had yet been found. That same person said there was always hope. But that was nonsense. If Richard were alive, he’d have been by her side. He was not, and therefore he was dead.
Q., as he would have said, E.D.
The ensuing week was the worst period of her life. Mariella effectively stopped sleeping. Sometimes she zoned out and came to herself eight or ten or fifteen hours later, in the middle of frying an egg or sorting through her notes. But you could hardly call that sleep. Somehow she kept herself fed. Apparently her body wanted to go on living, even if she didn’t.
She kept thinking of Richard, lost to her, swept away further and further into the past.
But of course there was no past. So he wasn’t even there.
One night, driven by obscure impulses, she found herself fully dressed and hurrying across the campus at three a.m. Clearly, she was going to Richard’s lab—the surviving of the two new ones, the Slingshot. The building loomed up before her, dark and empty.
When she threw the light switch, mountains of electronic devices snapped into existence. Richard’s first experiment could have been run on a kitchen table. This one looked like the stage set for a Wagnerian opera. It was amazing how money could complicate even the simplest demonstration proof.
Mariella began flicking switches, bringing the beast to life. Things hummed and made grinding noises. Test patterns leaped to life on flat screens and then wavered in transient distortions. Something snapped and sparked, leaving the tang of ozone in the air.
This was not her bailiwick. But because it was Richard’s and because he had wanted her to understand it, she knew what to do.
There was, after all, no such thing as time. Only the accumulation of consequences.
But first there was a chore to do. All of Richard’s notes were on a battered old laptop lying atop a stack of reference books on his desk. She bundled them together and then attached the bundle to an email reading simply, “So you will understand what happened.” This she sent to his entire mailing list. Surely someone on it would have the wit to appreciate what he had done. Her own notes were all safe in her office. She had no doubt there would be people looking for them in the wake of what she had to do.
The experiment was ready to run. All she had to do was connect a few cables and then walk through what looked uncannily like a wrought-iron pergola, such as one might expect to find in a Victorian garden. It was entirely possible that’s what it was; Richard was never one to hold out for proper equipment when some perfectly adequate piece of bricolage was close at hand.
Mariella connected the cables. Then she checked all the connections three times, not because it was necessary but because that was how Richard would have done it.
She did not bother to check the setting, however. There was only one possible instantiation of happenstance the apparatus could be set for. And she already knew it would work.
She walked through the pergola.
In that timeless instant of transition, Mariella realized that in his own way Richard possessed a genius approaching her own. (Had she really underestimated him all this while? Yes, she had.) Crossing to the far side of the campus in a single step, she felt a wave of she-knew-not-what-energies pass through her body and brain—she actually felt it in her brain!—and knew that she was experiencing a sensation no human being had ever felt before.
The air wavered before her and Mariella was through. Richard stood, his back to her, alive and fussing with a potentiometer. For the second time in her life, she was absolutely, completely happy.
“Richard.” The word escaped her unbidden.
He turned and saw her and in the instant before the inequality of forces across the gradient of happenstance grounded itself, simultaneously destroying both laboratories a sixteenth of a mile and eight days apart and smashing the two lovers to nothing, a smile, natural and unforced, blossomed on Richard’s face.
Copyright © 2011 by Michael Swanwick
Art copyright © 2011 by John Jude Palencar