The Flicker Men

Eric Argus is a washout. His prodigious early work clouded his reputation and strained his sanity. But an old friend gives him another chance, an opportunity to step back into the light. With three months to produce new research, Eric replicates the paradoxical double-slit experiment to see for himself the mysterious dual nature of light and matter. A simple but unprecedented inference blooms into a staggering discovery about human consciousness and the structure of the universe.

His findings are celebrated and condemned in equal measure. But no one can predict where the truth will lead. And as Eric seeks to understand the unfolding revelations, he must evade shadowy pursuers who believe he knows entirely too much already.

Ted Kosmatka’s sci-fi thriller The Flicker Men is available July 21st from Henry Holt & Co.

 

 

I sat in the rain with a gun.

A wave climbed the pebbly beach, washing over my foot, filling my pants with grit and sand. All along the shore, dark slabs of rock jutted from the surf, sharp as broken teeth. I shivered as I came back to myself and for the first time realized my suit jacket was missing. Also my left shoe, brown leather, size twelve. I looked for the shoe, scanning the rocky shoreline, but saw only sand and frothy, sliding water.

I took another pull from the bottle and tried to loosen my tie. Since I had a gun in one hand and a bottle in the other—and since I was unwilling to surrender either to the waves—loosening my tie was difficult. I used the gun hand, working the knot with a finger looped through the trigger guard, cold steel brushing my throat. I felt the muzzle under my chin— fingers numb and awkward, curling past the trigger.

It would be so easy.

I wondered if people had died this way—drunk, armed, loosening their ties. I imagined it was common among certain occupations.

Then the tie opened, and I hadn’t shot myself. I took a drink from the bottle as reward.

Another wave rumbled in. If I stayed here long enough, the tide would roll over me, drown me, and pull me out to sea. This place was nothing like the dunes of Indiana, where Lake Michigan caresses the shoreline. Here in Gloucester, the water hates the land.

As a child, I’d come to this beach and wondered where all the boulders came from. Huge, dark stones like pieces of shipwreck. Did the tides carry them in? Now I knew better. The boulders, of course, were here all along—buried in soft soils. They are left-behind things. They are what remains when the ocean subtracts everything else.

Thirty yards up the beach, near the road, there is a monument—a list of names. Fishermen. Gloucestermen. The ones who did not come back.

This is Gloucester, a place with a history of losing itself to the ocean.

 

The wind gusted.

I told myself I’d brought the gun for protection, but sitting here in the dark sand, I no longer believed it. I was beyond fooling myself.

It was my father’s gun, a .357. It had not been fired for seventeen years, five months, four days. The math came quickly. Even drunk, the math came quickly. Always my most resilient talent.

My sister, Marie, had called it a good thing, this new place that was also an old place.

A new start, she’d said over the phone. Away from what happened in Indianapolis. You can do your work again. You can continue your research.

Yeah, I’d said. A lie she seemed to believe.

You’re not going to call me, are you? Of course I’ll call. A lie she didn’t. There was a pause.

I mean it, Eric, call me. If anything goes wrong.

Farther up the beach, a white-winged tern leaped into the air and hung stationary against the wind, frozen like a snapshot, before it wheeled and lifted into the sky and was gone.

I turned my face away from the ocean and took another burning swig. I drank until I couldn’t remember which hand held the gun and which the bottle. I drank until they were the same.

 

Chapter One

During the second week, we unpacked the microscopes. Satvik used a crowbar while I used a claw hammer. The crates were heavy, wooden, hermetically sealed—shipped in from some now-defunct research laboratory in Pennsylvania.

The sun beat down on the lab’s loading dock, and it was nearly as hot today as it was cold the week before. Perspiration dripped from my forehead.

I swung my arm, and the claw hammer bit into the pale wood. I swung again. It was satisfying work.

Satvik smiled, straight white teeth in a straight dark face. “Your head is leaking.”

“Melting,” I countered.

“In India,” he said, “this is sweater weather.”

 

Satvik slid the crowbar into the gash I made, and pressed. I’d known him for three days, and already I was his friend. Together we committed violence on the crates until they yielded.

The industry was consolidating, and the Pennsylvania lab was just the latest victim. Their equipment came cheap, bought in bulk, shipped in by the pallet load. Here at Hansen, it was like a birthday for scientists. We opened our boxes. We ogled our new toys. We wondered, vaguely, how we had come to deserve this.

For some, like Satvik, the answer was complicated and rooted in achievement. Hansen was more than just another Massachusetts think tank after all, and Satvik had beaten out a dozen other scientists to work here. He’d given presentations and written up projects that important people liked. He’d impressed someone.

For me it was simpler.

For me this was a second chance given by a friend. A last chance. We cracked open the final wooden crate, and Satvik peered inside. He

peeled out layer after layer of foam packing material, making a pile on the floor. It was a big crate, but inside we found only a small assortment of Nalgene volumetric flasks, maybe three pounds weight. It was somebody’s idea of a joke—somebody at the now-defunct lab making a statement of opinion about their now-defunct job.

“The frog is in the well,” Satvik said, one of his many opaque expressions.

“It certainly is,” I said.

I had cause to come East again. I had cause not to. Both had everything, and nothing, to do with the gun.

The sign is the first thing a person sees when driving up on the property: hansen research, in bold blue letters, tastefully offset from the road and surrounded by an array of carefully assembled shrubbery. A hundred feet beyond the sign are the gates, decorative and black, left open during business hours. From this entrance, you can’t see the building at all, which in the real estate sector surrounding Boston speaks not just of money but money. Everything out here is expensive, elbow room most of all.

The lab complex is tucked into a stony hillside about an hour upcoast of the city. It is a private, quiet place, shaded by trees. The main office building is beautiful—two stories of reflective aluminum spread over the approximate dimensions of a football field. What isn’t aluminum is matte black steel. It looks like art, or like what art might look like if translated into an architectural structure built to house the world’s best scientific minds. A small, brick-paved turnaround curves up to the main entrance, but the front parking lot is merely ornamental—a rudimentary asphalt pad for visitors and the uninitiated. The driveway continues around the building, where the real parking, the parking for the researchers, is in the back. Several smaller adjunct buildings stand at the far end of the lot. These are the out-labs, buildings north and south. The tech facilities and lab spaces. Beyond there, standing off by itself like a big gray battleship, is W building, the old warehouse unit.

That first morning, I parked my rental car in front of the main office and walked inside.

“May I help you?”

“They’re expecting me,” I told the receptionist.

“Your name?”

“Eric Argus.”

The receptionist smiled. “Please take a seat.”

I sank into a leather cushion. There were exactly three chairs and a nice, complicated painting, done in reds and blues. The painting could have doubled as a technical schematic of some kind, all lines and angles, suggestive of some hidden order. The exact sort of thing an engineer might pick if charged with the task of decorating a lobby. Two minutes later, a familiar face rounded the corner, and I stood.

“Jesus,” he said. “It’s been too long.” Jeremy shook my hand and pulled me into a quick back-clap. “How the hell are you?”

“I’ve been worse,” I said. Which was the truth.

He hadn’t changed much in the intervening years. Not quite as skinny. His unruly blond hair now tamed into a business cut. But still that same easy way about him. That same easy smile.

“And you?” I asked.

“This place is keeping me busy, I’ll say that. More than a hundred and fifty researchers now and growing all the time.”

He walked me back to his office. We sat. And then came the offer, like this was just business—like we were just two men in suits. But I could see it in his eyes, that sad way he looked at me, my old friend.

He slid a folded sheet of paper across the broad desk. I unfolded it. Forced myself to make sense of the numbers.

“It’s too generous,” I said, sliding the paper back to him. “We’re getting you cheap at that price.”

“No,” I said. “You’re not.”

“Your work at QSR more than justifies it. We can set you up with highscale integration, parallel cores, whatever you like.” He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a gray file folder. He placed the folded sheet of paper inside. “You can pick up where you left off.”

“I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”

“Just let us know what you need. Considering your patents and your past work—”

I cut him off. “I can’t do that anymore.”

“Can’t?”

“Won’t.”

That stopped him. He leaned back in his leather chair. “I’d heard that rumor,” he said finally. He appraised me from across his desk. “I’d hoped it wasn’t true.”

I shook my head.

“Why?”

“I’m just done with it.”

“Then you’re right,” he said. “I don’t understand.”

“If you feel I came here under false pretenses—” I began climbing to my feet.

“No, no.” He held up his hand. “The offer is still good. That’s a solid offer. Sit down.”

I sank back into the chair.

“We can carry you for four months,” he said. “We hire the researcher, not the research. Probationary employees get four months to produce. That’s our system here.”

“What would I be doing?”

“We pride ourselves on our independence; so you can choose whatever research you like, so long as it has scientific merit.”

“Whatever I like?”

“Yes.”

“Who decides merit?”

“Peer review, ultimately, in the publications, assuming your work gets that far. But before that, you have to get past our review board here. Probationary hiring is at the recruiting manager’s discretion, but after four months, it’s not up to me anymore. I have bosses, too; so you have to have something to show for it. Something publishable or on its way. Do you understand?”

I nodded. Four months.

“This can be a new start for you,” he said, and I knew that he’d already talked to Marie. I wondered when she’d called him.

I mean it, Eric, call me. If anything goes wrong.

“You did some great work at QSR,” he said. “I followed your publications; hell, we all did. But considering the circumstances under which you left . . .”

I nodded again. The inevitable moment.

He was silent, looking at me. “I’m going out on a limb for you,” he said. “But you’ve got to promise me.”

That was the closest he’d come to mentioning it. The thing people were so careful about.

I looked away. His office suited him, I decided. Not too large, but bright and comfortable. The window over his shoulder looked out on the front parking pad, where I saw my rental parked. A Notre Dame engineering diploma graced one wall. Only his desk was pretentious—a teak monstrosity large enough to land aircraft on—but I knew it was inherited. His father’s old desk. I’d seen it once when we were still in college nearly a decade ago. A lifetime ago. Back when we still thought we’d be nothing like our fathers.

“Can you promise me?” he said.

I knew what he was asking. I met his eyes.

Silence.

And he was quiet for a long time after that, looking at me, waiting for me to say something. Weighing our friendship against the odds this would come back to bite him.

“All right,” he said finally. He closed the folder. “Welcome to Hansen Research. You start tomorrow.”

 

Chapter Two

There are days I don’t drink at all. Here is how those days start: I pull the gun from its holster and set it on the desk in my motel room. The gun is heavy and black. It says ruger along the side in small, raised letters. It tastes like pennies and ashes. I look into the mirror across from the bed and tell myself, If you drink today, you’re going to kill yourself. I look into my own blue-gray eyes and see that I mean it.

Those are the days I don’t drink.

There is a rhythm to working in a research laboratory. Through the glass doors by 7:30, nodding to the other early arrivals; then you sit in your office until 8:00, pondering this fundamental truth: even shit coffee— even mud-thick, brackish, walkin’-out-the-pot shit coffee—is better than no coffee at all.

I like to be the one who makes the first pot in the morning. Swing open the cabinet doors in the coffee room, pop the tin cylinder, and take a deep breath, letting the smell of grounds fill my lungs. It is better than drinking the coffee, that smell.

There are days when I feel everything is an imposition—eating, speaking, walking out of the motel room in the morning. Everything is effort. I exist mostly in my head. It comes and goes, this crushing need, and I work hard not to let it show, because the truth is that it’s not how you feel that matters. It’s how you act. It’s your behavior. As long as your intelligence is intact, you can make cognitive evaluations of what is appropriate. You can force the day-to-day.

And I want to keep this job; so I do force it. I want to get along. I want to be productive again. I want to make Marie proud of me.

Working at a research lab isn’t like a normal job. There are peculiar rhythms, strange hours—special allowances are made for the creatives.

Two Chinese guys are the ringleaders of lunchtime basketball. They pulled me into a game my first week. “You look like you can play” was what they said.

One is tall, one is short. The tall one was raised in Ohio and has no accent. He is called Point Machine. The short one has no real idea of the rules of basketball and for this reason is the best defensive player. His fouls leave marks, and that becomes the meta game—the game within the game—to see how much abuse I can take without calling it. This is the real reason I play. I drive to the hoop and get hacked down. I drive again. The smack of skin on skin. Welts take the shape of handprints.

One player, a Norwegian named Ostlund, is six foot eight. I marvel at the sheer size of him. He can’t run or jump or move at all, really, but his big body clogs up the lane, huge arms swatting down any jump shot made within his personal zone of asphalt real estate. We play four-onfour, or five-on-five, depending on who is free for lunch. At thirty-one, I’m a few years younger than most of them, a few inches taller—except for Ostlund, who is a head taller than everyone. Trash is talked in an assortment of accents.

“My grandmama shoots better than you.”

“Was that a shot or a pass? I couldn’t tell.”

“Ostlund, don’t hit your head on the rim.”

Some researchers go to restaurants on lunch hour. Others play computer games in their offices. Still others work through lunch—forget to eat for days. Satvik is one of those. I play basketball because it feels like punishment.

The atmosphere in the lab is relaxed; you can take naps if you want. There is no outside pressure to work. It is a strictly Darwinian system— you compete for your right to be there. The only pressure is the pressure you put on yourself, because everyone knows that the evaluations come every four months, and you’ve got to have something to show. The turnover rate for probationary researchers hovers around 25 percent. Friendships with new hires can be fleeting.

Satvik works in circuits. He told me about it during my second week when I found him sitting at the SEM. “It is microscopic work,” he explained.

I watched him toggle the focus, and the image on the screen shifted. I’d used an SEM in grad school, but this one was newer, better. As close to magic as I’d ever seen.

A scanning electron microscope is a window. Put a sample in the chamber, pump to vacuum, and it’s like looking at another world. What had been a flat, smooth sample surface now takes on another character, becomes topographically complex.

Using the SEM is like looking at satellite photography—you’re up in space, looking down at this elaborate landscape, looking down at the Earth, and then you turn the little black dial and zoom toward the surface. Zooming in is like falling. Like you’ve been dropped from orbit, and the ground is rushing up to meet you, but you’re falling faster than you ever could in real life, faster than terminal velocity, falling impossibly fast, impossibly far, and the landscape keeps getting bigger, and you think you’re going to hit, but you never do, because everything keeps getting closer and sharper, and you never hit the ground—like that old riddle where the frog jumps half the distance of a log, then half again, and again, and again, without ever reaching the other side. That’s an electron microscope. Falling forever down into the picture. And you never do hit bottom.

I zoomed in to 14,000X once, like God’s eyes focusing. Looking for that ultimate, indivisible truth. I learned this: there is no bottom to see.

 

Satvik and I both had offices on the second floor of the main building, a few doors down from each other.

Satvik was short and thin, somewhere in his forties. His skin was a deep, rich brown. He had an almost boyish face, but the first hints of gray salted his mustache. His narrow features were balanced in such a way that he could have been alleged the heir to any number of nations: Mexico or Libya or Greece or Sicily—until he opened his mouth. When he opened his mouth and spoke, all those possible identities vanished, and he was suddenly Indian, solidly Indian, completely, like a magic trick, and you could not imagine him being anything else.

The first time I met Satvik, he clamped both hands over mine, shook, then said, “Ah, a new face in the halls. How are you doing, my friend? Welcome to research.” And that’s how the word was used—research—like it was a location. A destination that could be arrived at. We were standing in the main hall outside the library. He smiled so wide it was impossible not to like him.

It was Satvik who explained that you never wore gloves when working with liquid nitrogen. “You must be sure of it,” he said. “Because the gloves will get you burned.”

I watched him work. He filled the SEM’s reservoir—icy smoke spilling out over the lip, cascading down the cylinder to drip on the tile floor.

Liquid nitrogen doesn’t have the same surface tension as water; spill a few drops across your hand, and they’ll bounce off harmlessly and run down your skin without truly wetting you—like little balls of mercury. The drops will evaporate in moments, sizzling, steaming, gone. But if you’re wearing gloves when you fill the reservoir of the SEM, the nitrogen could spill down inside the glove and be trapped against your skin. “And if that happens,” Satvik said while he poured, “it will hurt you bad.”

Satvik was the first to ask my area of research.

“I’m not sure,” I told him.

“How can you not be sure? You are here, so it must be something.”

“I’m still working on it.”

He stared at me, taking this in, and I saw his eyes change—his understanding of me shifting, like the first time I heard him speak. And just like that, I’d become something different to him.

“Ah,” he said. “I know who you are now; they talked about you. You are the one from Stanford.”

“That was eight years ago.”

“You wrote that famous paper on decoherence. You are the one who had the breakdown.”

Satvik was blunt, apparently.

“I wouldn’t call it a breakdown.”

He nodded, perhaps accepting this; perhaps not. “So you still are working in quantum theory?”

“I’m done with it.”

His brow creased. “Done? But you did important work.”

I shook my head. “After a while, quantum mechanics starts to affect your worldview.”

“What does this mean?”

“The more research I did, the less I believed.”

“In quantum mechanics?”

“No,” I said. “In the world.”

Excerpted from The Flicker Men © Ted Kosmatka, 2015

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