Experimental psychologist Jim Marchuk has developed a flawless technique for identifying the previously undetected psychopaths lurking everywhere in society. But while being cross-examined about his breakthrough in court, Jim is shocked to discover that he has lost his memories of six months of his life from twenty years previously—a dark time during which he himself committed heinous acts.
Jim is reunited with Kayla Huron, his forgotten girlfriend from his lost period and now a quantum physicist who has made a stunning discovery about the nature of human consciousness. As a rising tide of violence and hate sweeps across the globe, the psychologist and the physicist combine forces in a race against time to see if they can do the impossible—change human nature—before the entire world descends into darkness.
Available March 1st from Ace Books, Robert J. Sawyer’s Quantum Night explores the thin line between good and evil…
I said it didn’t bother me if people examined my résumé, and that’s true—with one exception. When other academics look at it, they shake their heads when they see I did my undergrad at the same institution I teach at now; that’s always considered fishy. Although I love the University of Toronto’s “Prof or Hobo?” web quiz, which asks you to identify by their photos whether a person is a vagrant or a faculty member, we tenure-track types are supposed to be more like male chimpanzees: once we reach maturity, and have proven ourselves intractably irascible, we’re expected to leave our native community, never to return. Welcome Back, Kotter was a bad-enough scenario for a high-school teacher; it was anathema to those of us in academe.
But my own career had brought me from doing my bachelor’s degree here at the University of Manitoba—my flight had gotten in last night—back to being a tenured professor at the same institution. When asked why, I cite several reasons. “A fondness for bitter cold,” I’d quip, or “An abiding love of mosquitoes.” But the real reason was Menno Warkentin.
When I started at U of M, in 1999, Menno was teaching the same first-year introductory-psych course that I myself taught now. Back then, I was eighteen and Menno was fifty-five. He was now seventy-four and had emeritus status, which meant he was retired but, unlike some of the figurative if not literal bums who were eventually shown the door, was always welcome in his department, and, although drawing only a pension and not a salary, could still do research, supervise grad students, and so on. And, for all those years, he’d been my friend and mentor—I’d lost track of the hours we’d spent in his office or mine, shooting the breeze, talking about our work and our lives.
More than just his age and professorial status had changed since I’d started being his student; he’d also lost his sight. Although he happened to be diabetic, and blindness was a common side effect of that condition, that wasn’t the reason. Rather, he’d been in a car accident in 2001, and while the airbag had kept him from being killed, its impact had shattered his beloved antique glasses, and shards had been thrust into his eyeballs. I’d once or twice seen him without the dark glasses he now wore. His artificial blue eyes were lifelike, but didn’t track. They just stared blankly forward from beneath silver eyebrows.
I found Menno sitting in his office with his headset on, listening to his screen reader. His guide dog, a German shepherd named Pax, was curled contentedly at his feet. Menno’s office had an L-shaped dark-brown shelving-and-counter unit against the back and side walls, but he had everything out of the way, up high or pushed to the back, so he couldn’t accidentally knock things over. And whereas I always had stacks of printouts and file folders on my own office floor, he had nothing that he might trip on. His office had a large window that looked not outside but into the corridor, and the white vertical blinds were closed, I guess on the principle that if he couldn’t see out, no one should be able to see in.
Today, though, in the summer heat, his door was open, and as I entered, Pax stood and poked her muzzle into Menno’s thigh to alert him that someone had arrived. He took off the headset and swung around, my face reflecting back at me from his obsidian-dark lenses. “Hello?”
“Menno, it’s Jim.”
“Padawan!”—his nickname for me since my student days. “How was your trip?”
I took a chair, and Pax settled in again at Menno’s feet. “The D.A. really worked at discrediting me.”
“Well, that’s his job,” Menno said.
“Her job. But yeah.”
“And she brought up some stuff about my past.”
Menno was sitting on a reddish-brown executive-style chair. He leaned back, his belly like a beach ball. “Oh?”
“Stuff that I myself didn’t recall.”
“Do you remember 2001?”
“Sure. Saw it in a theater when it first came out.”
“Not the movie,” I said. “The year.”
“Oh.” He made a how-could-I-forget-it gesture at his face. “Yes.”
“Jean Chrétien was prime minister then, right? And George W. Bush was sworn in as president.”
“Umm, yeah. That’s right.”
“And what were the biggest news stories of 2001?”
“Well, 9/11, obviously. Beyond that, off the top of my head, I don’t remember.”
“But you would,” I said.
“You would remember others, if you gave it some thought, right?”
“I don’t,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“The D.A. surprised me with an article about my grandfather from the Winnipeg Free Press. I went to the DaFoe Library this morning, and they pulled the microfilm of that edition. I started looking at other headlines from that day, but none of them stirred any memories, and neither did the front pages of the Free Press from other days around then. So I went online and looked at the covers of Time and Maclean’s from 2001. I didn’t recognize any of the stories until the summer. Two thousand, no problem. The second half of 2001, yeah, it all came back to me. But the initial six months of 2001 are a blank. The first thing I can pin down from that year is the day after Canada Day. July first fell on a Sunday that year, so people got July second off work. I remembered being pissed that I’d tried to go to the post office on that Monday to pick up a parcel, only to find it closed for the holiday.” I spread my arms. “I’ve lost half a year of my life.”
“As far as I can tell, yes. I mean, I remember being disgusted when the US Supreme Court handed down the decision in Bush v. Gore—but that was in December of 2000. I don’t remember Bush’s actual inauguration, although there had to have been protests, right?”
“I imagine so.”
“And in June of that year, Carroll O’Connor passed away—Archie Bunker himself! You know how much I love All in the Family. I simply couldn’t have missed that bit of news, but somehow I did. Until today, I’d always assumed he was still alive in retirement somewhere.”
“And you just realized you had this gap?”
“Well, it was nineteen years ago, right? How often do we think about stuff from that far back? I do remember 9/11. I remember being right here, on campus, when I heard about the planes hitting the World Trade Center; I’d just started my third year. But other things from that long ago? How often would they come up?”
Menno shifted his bulky form in his chair. “Any idea why you can’t remember those six months?”
“Yes,” I said, but then fell silent. Menno had known me back then, but I’d never told him about this.
“And?” he prompted, reaching down to stroke Pax’s head.
I took a deep breath, then: “I died when I was nineteen. Legally dead. Heart stopped, breathing stopped. The whole nine yards.”
Menno halted in mid-stroke. “Really?”
“What happened?” he asked, leaning back again.
I pulled my chair closer to his desk. “I’d gone back home to Calgary for the Christmas break. My sister was off in Europe, and my parents were on a cruise—but I wanted to see my friends. I remember New Year’s Eve, of course. Yes, the whole world had celebrated big-time a year before, on December thirty-first, 1999, but you know me: I held out for the real beginning of the twenty-first century, which was January first, 2001, right? Not 2000.”
“Because there was no year zero,” supplied Menno.
“Exactly! Anyway, I’d attended a party at the house of one of my high-school friends, and that night—that is, like 2:00 a.m. on the morning of January first, 2001—when I was heading home, I was attacked by a guy with a knife. It was a cold, clear night. I remember the stars: Orion standing tall, Betelgeuse like a drop of blood, Jupiter and Saturn near the Pleiades.”
“You and the stars,” he said, smiling; I’m secretary of the Winnipeg Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada.
“Exactly, but it’s relevant, see? I was doing what I always do. Cold night, I’ve forgotten my mitts so my hands are shoved into my jacket pockets, toque pulled down over my ears, and I’m walking along looking up—not ahead of me, but up, finding the ecliptic, looking for planets, hoping to maybe see a meteor streak across the sky. Sure, I’d checked for traffic before crossing the street, but that’s all I did. I wasn’t looking to see what was happening on the other side. Oh, I probably registered that there were a couple of people there, but I wasn’t paying any damn attention to them. And so I crossed diagonally because I was heading in that direction, right? And when I got to the other side, suddenly this guy wheels around, and he’s got this pinched, narrow face and teeth that are sharp and pointy and all askew, and his eyes, man, his eyes are wild. Wide open, whites all around. And he shoves me with one hand, palm against my chest, and he snarls—really, it was a total snarl, his breath coming out in clouds—and says ‘What the fuck do you want?’
“I look over at the other guy, and, Christ, he’s covered in blood. It seems black in the yellow light from the street lamp, but that’s what it’s got to be, blood all over his nylon jacket. That guy’s been stabbed; I’ve walked into a drug deal gone bad. I stammer, ‘I’m just heading to the C-Train.’
“But it’s no good. The guy is crazy or high or both, and he’s got a knife. The other guy takes the opportunity to try to get away: he starts running—staggering, really—onto the street. But he’s badly hurt, and I see now that he’d been standing in a puddle of his own blood, a puddle that’s freezing over.
“But the guy with the knife is looking at me, not him, and he lunges at me. And I’m me, right? I don’t know jack about street fighting. I don’t know how to deflect a blow or anything like that. I feel the knife going in sideways, and I know, I just know, it’s going in between my ribs, just off the centerline of my chest. It doesn’t hurt—not yet—but it’s going deep.
“And then it pierces my heart; I know that’s what’s happening. And he pulls the knife out and I stagger a half-pace backward, away from the road, clutching my chest, feeling the blood pouring out, and it’s hot, it’s like scalding hot compared to the chilled air, but it’s not ebbing and flowing, it’s not pumping. It’s just draining out onto the sidewalk. I fall backward, and I’m looking up at the sky, but it’s too bright here, the streetlamp is washing everything out, and I’m thinking, God damn it, I wanted to see the stars.
“And then—nothing. None of that tunnel bullshit, no bright light except the sodium one from the lamp; none of it. I’m just gone.”
Menno had switched to leaning forward, and about halfway through, he’d steepled his fingers in front of his wide face. They were still there. “And then what?” he said.
“And then I was dead.”
“For how long?”
I shrugged. “No one knows. It can’t have been too long. Man, if the word ‘lucky’ can be applied to that sort of situation, I was lucky. I’d fallen right by that street lamp, so I was in plain view, and it was bitterly cold. A medical student coming home from a different party stumbled upon me, called 911, plugged the hole in my torso, and did chest compressions until the ambulance got there.”
“My God,” said Menno.
“Yeah. But, given the timing, it has to be what’s affecting my memory.”
Silence again, then, at last: “There was doubtless oxygen deprivation. You likely did suffer some brain damage, preventing the formation of long-term memories for a time.”
“You’d think—but there should be more evidence of it. During my missing six months, if I wasn’t laying down new memories, I’d have had enormous difficulty functioning. I was in your class then. Do you remember me behaving strangely?”
“It was a long time ago.”
“Sure, but I also was one of your test subjects in that research project, right?”
He frowned. “Which one?”
“Something about … microphones?”
“Oh, that one. Yeah, I guess you were.”
“You had a cool name for it, um …”
“Right! Anyway, I was helping you with that before the knifing, and—well, I don’t know: that’s the whole point. Maybe I was part of your study afterwards, too?”
“I honestly don’t remember,” said Menno.
“Of course. But could you check your files, see if you have stuff about me going that far back? I’m looking for anything that might jog my memory.”
“Sure, I’ll have a look.”
“I must have been laying down long-term memories during my … my ‘dark period.’ I mean, how else could I have functioned?”
“I suppose, yeah.”
“And I did a half-year course in science fiction then, one semester, January to April. It was required that I take an English course, and that seemed less painful than CanLit.”
“Anyway, I found the reading list from it still online. Apparently, we all read this novel about a biomedical engineer who discovers scientific proof for the existence of the human soul—but I don’t remember ever reading it; I only know that’s what it’s about because I looked up the title on Amazon today.”
“Well, there were more than a few assigned books I never got around to reading during my undergraduate days.”
“Yeah, but I did an essay on this book. I found the WordPerfect file for it still on my hard drive.”
“Could you, y’know, have bought the essay? From one of those services?”
I raised my hand palm out to forestall any more of this. “Sure, sure, you can explain away any one of these examples. But all of them? Six months with no new memories laid down and yet me apparently functioning normally? There’s no way to explain that.”
“All right,” said Menno. “But, you know, Jim, if the barrier to you remembering that period is psychological rather than physical—well …”
“If your subconscious is repressing something, maybe you’ll want to just accept that. You’re fine now, after all, aren’t you?”
“I think so.”
“The missing memories aren’t affecting your work or your personal life?”
“Not until that D.A. tore me to shreds.”
“So, just keep in mind that the cure might be worse than the disease.” Pax was still at Menno’s feet but her eyes were now closed. “Sometimes it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.”
Pax did look at peace. But I shook my head as I rose. “No,” I said. “I can’t do that.”
* * *
As I looked out my living-room window at the Red River, I thought perhaps I’d been unfair back at the Atlanta airport. If Fox News was a thorn in the side of every Democrat unlucky enough to hold public office in the United States, it was perhaps fair to say that the CBC was equally vexatious to any hapless Conservative trying to do his or her job in this country. The irony was that the CBC was a public broadcaster owned and operated, albeit at arm’s length, by the federal government. There is little if anything Barack Obama could have done to deflect attacks from Fox News, but year after year of Conservative government in Ottawa had whittled the CBC down to a fraction of what it had once been, and even after Harper was finally given the heave-ho, tough economic times kept the CBC’s funding from getting fully reinstated.
I had CBC Radio One on. The female announcer intoned: “Although their attempt to blow up the Statue of Liberty was thwarted over the weekend, it’s been revealed that the two would-be bombers, both Libyan nationals, entered the United States from Canada, crossing over from Ontario into Minnesota near Lake of the Woods eleven days ago. This is the second time this year that terrorists from Libya have entered the US via Canada. President Carroway was clearly frustrated at his press briefing this morning.”
The announcer’s voice was replaced by a clip of the president: “I’ve expressed my deep concern over this issue to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Perhaps if the killers were flowing in the other direction, he’d take it more seriously.”
As the newsreader was moving on to the next story, my iPhone played the Jeopardy! theme music, meaning a call was being forwarded from my office line, the one published on the university’s website. The screen showed “KD Huron” and a number with a 639 area code, one I didn’t recognize. I turned off the radio and swiped the answer bar. “Hello?”
An odd silence for a moment, then a hesitant female voice: “Hi, Jim. I was in town so I thought I’d look you up.”
“Who is this?”
“Kayla.” A beat. “Kayla Huron.”
The name didn’t mean anything. “Yes?”
Her tone was suddenly frosty. “Sorry. I thought you might be happy to hear from me.”
It’s hard to talk and google on your phone at the same time, but fortunately my laptop was up and running on my living-room desk. I cradled the phone between my cheek and shoulder and typed her name into the computer. “Yes,” I said, “of course I’m glad to hear from you … Kayla. How have you been?”
The first link was to her Wikipedia entry. I clicked it, and the article came up with a photo that was surprisingly good by Wikipedia standards, showing a pretty white woman in her mid thirties.
“Well,” said Kayla, “it’s been a lot of years, Jim. Where to start? I mean, I’m fine, but …”
“Yeah,” I said, still stalling. “A lot of years.” The first line of the entry said she “explores consciousness at the Canadian Light Source”—which sounded like some flaky new-age institution.
“Anyway,” she said, “I’m here for a symposium at UW.” The University of Winnipeg was the other university in town. “And, well, I saw your name in the paper today, and figured, what the heck, I’d see if you might like to have coffee, you know, to catch up …”
I scrolled down the Wikipedia entry: “… earned her MS (2005) and PhD (2010) from the University of Arizona following undergraduate work at the University of Manitoba (1999-2003) …”
“Yes!” I said, much too loudly. We’d been contemporaries here at U of M—including during my lost six months. “Absolutely!”
“Okay. When would be good for you?”
I wanted to say, “Right now!” But instead I simply offered, “My afternoon is open.”
“About one? Suggest a place; I’ve got a rental car.”
I did, we said goodbye, and I put the phone down on my wooden desk, my hand shaking.
I took a deep breath. I had several hours to kill before I needed to head out to meet Kayla, and, well, if my memory loss was indeed associated with the stabbing, then starting by researching that event seemed the logical first step.
There were normally numerous hoops to jump through to access patient medical records—even your own—but fortunately I knew one of the staff psychologists at the hospital I’d been treated at in Calgary; she and I had served together on the board of the Canadian Psychological Association. It was noon in Winnipeg, but that was only 11:00 a.m. in Calgary, so it seemed like a good time to try my call. I tapped my way through the menu tree to get the person I wanted. “Cassandra Cheung,” said the lush voice in my ear.
“Sandy, it’s Jim Marchuk.”
Genuine warmth: “Jim! What can I do for you?”
“I’m hoping you can cut through some red tape. I need a copy of my own medical records.”
“Your own? Yeah, sure, I guess that’s no problem. You were treated here?”
“Yeah. I came in on New Year’s Eve 2000—well, after midnight, so it was actually January first, 2001.”
“That’s a long time ago,” she said, and I could hear her typing away.
“Hmmm. You sure about that date?”
“Were you maybe an out-patient? Not all records from that far back are in our central system.”
“No, no. It was emergency surgery.”
“My God, really?”
“Were you brought in via ambulance?”
“I’m not finding anything. Do you remember the name of the surgeon?”
“Butcher,” I said.
“Ha,” replied Sandy. “That’s funny.”
“That’s what I thought!”
“But there’s no Dr. Butcher in the system. Are you sure it was this hospital? Could it have been Foothills instead?”
I wasn’t sure of much at this point. “I … I guess. Um, can you try my last name with a typo? People sometimes put a C in before the K: M-A-R-C-H-U-C-K.”
“Ah! Okay—yup, here it is, but … huh.”
“Well, the date wasn’t January first—no one gets to have elective surgery on New Year’s Day: there’s too much likelihood that the operating rooms will be needed for emergencies, and all the surgeons who can be are off skiing.”
“That’s right. On Monday, February nineteenth, 2001, you had an infiltrating ductal carcinoma removed.”
“It’s a breast cancer.”
“I’m a man.”
“Men can get breast cancer, too. It’s not that common, because you guys have so little breast tissue, but it happens. Says here they cut it out under a local anesthetic.”
“No, no; that’s got to be somebody else—somebody with a similar name. Besides, I was a student at the University of Manitoba then; I wouldn’t have been in Calgary.”
“Well, what do you think you were here for in January?”
“I was attacked with a knife.”
“Jesus, really? What’d you do back then? Tell someone you’d voted Liberal?”
“Something like that.”
“There’s no record of you being treated here for anything of that nature.”
“Are you sure?”
“Um, okay. Thanks, Sandy.”
“Jim, what’s this—”
“I gotta go. Talk to you later.”
I sagged back into my chair, my breath coming in short, rapid gasps.
Excerpted from Quantum Night © Robert J. Sawyer, 2016