Jacob Kelley’s family is turned upside down when an old friend turns up, waving a gun and babbling about an alien quantum intelligence.
The mystery deepens when the friend is found dead in an underground bunker…apparently murdered the night he appeared at Jacob’s house. Jacob is arrested for the murder and put on trial.
As the details of the crime slowly come to light, the weave of reality becomes ever more tangled, twisted by a miraculous new technology and a quantum creature unconstrained by the normal limits of space and matter.
With the help of his daughter, Alessandra, Jacob must find the true murderer before the creature destroys his family and everything he loves.
David Walton’s Superposition, a quantum physics murder mystery, publishes April 7th from Prometheus Books.
Elena clutched the gyroscope and stared Brian down. I couldn’t think of any scientific explanation for what Brian had just done. A gyroscope stays upright because of its angular momentum. Ideally, it would never fall, since the torque that gravity supplies is not sufficient to offset its gyroscopic inertia. In real life, however, friction gradually erodes the rotation, causing it to precess more and more, until finally the rotation degrades and gravity takes hold.
This left one of two options. Either Brian had managed to eliminate any appreciable friction from our tabletop—not to mention air resistance—or he had a way to inject more energy into the system without touching the gyroscope, thus overcoming the effects of the friction. I couldn’t think of any way he could do either of those things.
“Okay, I give up,” I said. “How did you do it?”
Brian looked grave. “They showed me. The quantum intelligences.” “I see. The little fairies are spinning the gyroscope?” I tried not to let the cynicism creep into my voice, but it was hard.
“Of course not,” he snapped. “It’s ground state energy. The energy of a single particle’s spin. It never stops. It’s an infinite source of power.”
I hesitated, finding it hard to believe, but at the same time hard to discount the evidence of the gyroscope. “So you took a feature of the quantum world and made it apply in the larger world,” I said.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” Brian said quietly. “Gonna change the world.”
“If it were real, that would be a technology worth trillions of dollars,” I said. “Is that why you’re here? Are there people chasing you, trying to get this from you?”
“They’re chasing me,” he said, “but they’re not people.”
I threw up my hands. “You’d better start talking sense.”
“One more example, then,” he said. He reached under the table, and suddenly there was a Glock 46 in his hand, the barrel pointing at Elena.
I was on my feet in an instant, my chair toppling over behind me. I held my hands up, palms out. “Put it down,” I said. “Brian, listen to me.”
Elena stared into the gun’s barrel, motionless, hardly breathing. “Don’t do this,” she whispered.
“It won’t hurt you,” Brian said. “The bullet will just diffract around you.”
“You’re talking crazy,” I said. “Look at me.” He didn’t move. “Look at me!” I shouted. He looked. “It’s a bullet, not an electron,” I said. “If you pull the trigger, it will kill her. You don’t want that.”
He stood. “You won’t believe me unless I show you.”
I started to ease around the edge of the table toward him. “I do believe you,” I said. “Let’s just sit down, and you can tell us all about it.” “No, you don’t. You call them fairies and make fun of me. But they’re real, Jacob. I’m not going to hurt anybody. I just want to prove it to you.” “Point the gun somewhere else, then,” I said. “Point it at me.”
“It won’t hurt her,” he said, and pulled the trigger.
I grew up in South Philadelphia, no stranger to violence. My father was a petty thief and a drunk who died in prison before I was two. I had two uncles, my mother’s brothers, who took an interest in my life. They were boxers, mostly the illegal, no-holds-barred type, and they taught me how to fight. I was red-haired and freckled in a mostly Italian neighborhood. I did well in school, though I tried to hide it. I learned early in life that on the street smart didn’t matter for much. I was only as good as my fists.
Besides, it felt good to fight. I was angry all the time, angry at my mother for drinking instead of working, angry at the men she brought home, angry at my father for dying, angry at my teachers for telling me how much potential I had if I would only apply myself. Striking out with my fists relieved some of that pressure, put me in control. Nobody could tell Uncle Sean and Uncle Colin what to do, and I wanted to be just like them.
By the time I was thirteen, I was boxing in kids’ leagues, but it was just a sport, with gloves and rules and manners. I was bigger than most kids my age by then, and I was constantly getting cited for punching too soon, or too late, or in the wrong part of the body. They weren’t the rage-fueled battles that my uncles’ matches were, the air thick with cigarette smoke and the smell of blood.
By that age, I knew my uncles were owned men. They were deeply in debt to bosses in suits who quietly ran the books and manipulated the outcomes. They couldn’t stop fighting, not if they wanted to stay alive. Even so, I knew that was my future. It was the only thing that mattered that I was good at. One day, the bosses would own me, and I’d never get out either.
Then when I was fifteen, Uncle Sean was killed, and everything changed. An opponent kicked him repeatedly in the head when he was down, hard enough to push his brain stem out through the base of his skull. He died on the floor of the ring in vomit and sawdust. No one even called the hospital. The bosses disposed of his body quietly; I don’t know how. I aged ten years that month, and suddenly the thought of staying in that neighborhood and that life was unbearable.
I stopped boxing and threw myself into my school work. I didn’t know much about life outside of South Philly, but I knew the only way out of that neighborhood was to go to college, and the only way to go to college was to get a scholarship to pay my way. My mind had always held on to concepts like a magnet, but before, it didn’t seem to matter. Now it was everything.
For three years, I studied harder than I had ever worked at anything, not because I liked school, but because it was my way out. I was angrier than ever, but I learned how to keep it in check—too many fights in school would ruin my chances. Every night, I pounded the speed bag in my basement until my hands bled.
Physics came as a complete surprise. It was simple and beautiful. It explained the world in clear lines of power, motion, and speed. It wasn’t the violence of it that attracted me; it was the unequivocal nature of it. So much of the rest of my life was complicated. Physics was simple. It was how the world ought to be.
We’d been learning about Einstein, a relative nobody who, in his spare time as a patent clerk, came up with four papers that turned the world upside down. I thought if he could do that, then I could at least get myself out of Philadelphia. In the spring of my junior year, I applied to Princeton, Berkeley, and MIT. I was lucky enough to match perfect grades with a political academic environment that made it desirable to accept applicants from low-income neighborhoods. I was accepted, with full-ride scholarships, to all three.
By then, Uncle Colin was in prison, and my mother hardly knew I was alive. I left them behind without looking back, packed most of what I owned in an old suitcase of my father’s, and took the bus to Boston, Massachusetts.
MIT was mostly what I expected—it seemed like everyone I met was either a rich American kid with a home in the Hamptons and a chalet in the Alps, or else the favored, oldest son of a politically connected family in Korea or China or Vietnam. Nobody’s background was anything like mine, and it was hard to make friends. But the physics! Everything I loved about it was right there, codified in perfect, uncluttered symbols. Torque and inertia, linear motion and angular displacement, force equals mass times acceleration, decisive action with equal and opposite reaction. It made sense. It meant the world made sense.
The professors treated us like we were the cream of the new generation. There was a spirit of excitement at MIT, no matter where you were from, a sense that we were at the center of the scientific world, a specially chosen elite, given this great opportunity to study with the best in the field. I’d never felt that way before, and I soaked it up. I loved physics more every day.
The anger receded into the background, like a pit bull chained in the shadows. I still worked out with the bags in the gym, but I didn’t talk much about my background. I wanted to leave it behind. I was a scientist now, someone who believed in the inherent order of the universe. The chaos was behind me.
The gun went off with a deafening blast. The coffee mug Elena was holding exploded into shards. I didn’t think; I just reacted. I leaned toward Brian, pivoting my hips and throwing my weight into a right cross as hard as I knew how. The punch knocked him backward, sending him sprawling in a jumble on the floor. I looked at Elena.
She still sat at the table, eyes wide and mouth slightly parted, her face ashen. Her mug lay shattered in front of her in a pool of coffee.
“Are you hurt? Elena!” My ears were ringing; I could hardly hear the sound of my own voice. I rushed to her side. She was still sitting in the chair, breathing, stunned but apparently unharmed. I couldn’t believe it. I thought at first the bullet must have deflected off of her coffee mug, but no—in the wall behind her, following a direct line through the middle of her chest, there was a hole punched into the drywall. The bullet had gone straight through her.
“Call 911,” I said.
She didn’t move.
She jolted, as if startled awake, and fished the phone out of her pocket to make the call. Brian hadn’t moved from the floor. He was still breathing, but the punch had dazed him.
“Yes,” Elena said into the phone. “Someone . . . a . . . a man just fired a gun at me in my house.”
Brian stirred and looked at Elena. His eyes focused suddenly, and he shook his head. “What are you doing? Are you calling the police? Don’t do that.” He looked at me. A trickle of blood was running out of his left nostril. “Please!” he said. “Look at her—she’s not hurt! The bullet diffracted around her, just like I told you! I was just showing you.” He stood shakily to his feet.
“Right here in the kitchen,” Elena said. “Please hurry.”
“Please, put the phone down,” Brian said.
I stepped between them. “Get out of my house.”
“Jacob,” he said, his voice pleading. “I need your help.”
I advanced on him, fists raised, heedless of the gun he still held in one hand. He turned and started yanking on the door that led to the backyard. It didn’t budge. He fumbled at the lock. I didn’t help him. It was all I could do not to hit him again. Finally, he managed to turn it and yanked the door open. With one last backward look of reproach, he ran out barefoot into the snow.
The stairs thundered with descending feet, and Claire, Alessandra, and Sean burst into the room, all talking at once.
“What was that sound?” Claire asked.
“Did he shoot a gun at you?” Sean asked, eyes wide.
“It’s all right,” I said. “He’s gone now. Go and get dressed. The police are coming, and I’m sure they’ll want to talk to you, too.”
Elena was shaking. I put my arms around her, and she clung to me. I felt her slim neck and delicate bones and stroked her hair and thought about what might have happened. About what my life would be like if she were dead. I felt the pit bull in the shadows, tugging at its chain, wanting to get free. I wanted to hurt someone. I had it under control, for the moment, but I knew that if Brian came to my house again, that control wouldn’t last.
Elena didn’t let go, and neither did I, and we stood that way until the police arrived.
Excerpted from Superposition © David Walton, 2015