The Q-Factor

Two young friends are introduced to a new, bizarre kind of drug that has the power to change probabilities, an apparent ‘luck pill’. But they discover that messing around with the deep mathematics of the universe has unintended consequences.

Bexley flicked numbly through the TV channels, searching for a daytime show that would suitably reduce his mind to the consistency of mashed potato. He was working his way through a monster hangover, and was not in the mood for thought of any real quality. He settled on something to do with antiques. Five minutes into the brain-melting horror of it all, he turned on his laptop, resting it precariously on his stomach and was surprised to find he had apparently been halfway through downloading Prince’s entire back catalogue when he’d shut it last night. The relevant Wikipedia page was also open in his browser. He quickly went to eBay to check he hadn’t bought anything ridiculous, and was relieved to see that his inebriated internet use hadn’t quite advanced to that extremity of foolishness. Shutting the laptop disconsolately, he considered his options. The only food in the house was half-eaten and in a Styrofoam container. It sat on the floor a few feet from him and, if the ill-gotten thing had eyes, he knew they would have been staring balefully, challengingly. Yes, kebabs were a food that hated the universe for calling them into being: malformed hybrids that they were. He got up and made his way to the fridge. He had put a pizza in there a few days ago in a rare fit of preparation, but then neglected to follow up on this uncharacteristic foresight and had just left it there. How long is refrigerated pizza okay for? Bexley didn’t know the answer to that. He considered Googling it, but he thought his computer might just rise up in open rebellion if he used it for that. There was only so much such a clever machine should have to put up with. Surrendering to the bleak inevitability of fate, he took out the box and carried it back to the sofa in the living room. He opened it, tried to remember anything at all from his microbiology lectures, then shrugged and bit into the chilled, leathery pizza and chewed it thoughtfully. It was not a complete abomination, and he decided that meant he had come out on top of the deal.

He was making good progress with what he reluctantly admitted to himself was breakfast when there was a knock at the door. He frowned, waited for a little while, then another, slightly more insistent knock came. He hauled himself up, still carrying the pizza box in one hand and a limp slice in the other and walked to the door. He kicked the post from the last few days – all trash or, at best, bills – out of the way of the door and, holding the slice of pizza in his mouth, opened it. It was brighter than he’d realised outside. “Yo, Bex,” someone said.

“Mmph?”

“What?”

“Sorry.” He took the pizza out of his mouth. “What?”

“Bex? You okay?”

His eyes had started to adjust. “Oh. Claire. Yeah. Come in. You want some pizza?”

“You ordered pizza at eleven in the morning?”

“No, it was in the fridge.”

“I hate fridge pizza.” She followed him through the hall and back into the living room where she plonked herself down on the beanbag by the TV. Bexley returned to the sofa. “You hungover?”

“Yah.” He took another bite of the pizza and carried on watching Antique Hunting With Fuckwits while Claire dicked about with her phone.

“Seen this picture of you?”

“Nope. What am I doing?”

“Fucking a post box.”

“Oh yeah.” He laughed shortly. “I forgot I did that.”

“You go down the Arches?”

“Yah.”

“Who was in there?”

“Dave. Sal. Jim the Mong. Uh…I think I saw Creep too. Hard to tell.”

“I thought Creep moved back home.”

“Nah, you’re thinking of Jimmy. They have that same, you know, thing with their eyes.” He mimed the thing with the eyes.

Claire nodded and pointed her finger. “Yeah, that’s it. I hate those guys.”

“Me too. Anyway, yeah, all of them. And I talked to Gordon and his weird friend.”

“The fat guy?”

“Yeah. I think his name’s John, or Josh or something? Not important. He wasn’t very interesting. Where were you anyway?”

“Working,” Claire said dismissively. “My boss was a dick. We had, like, no customers at all. Complete waste of fucking time.”

“Well, it wasn’t very good. Usual shit.”

“Yeah, sounds it.”

“Anyway,” Bexley said, finally deciding he’d had enough of the cold pizza, “what’s up? Why are you here?”

“I can’t just come say hi?”

“Not in the morning when I’m hungover, no.”

“Okay,” she said, “well I found something I thought you’d like.”

“Is it bacon?”

“No.”

“Is it…sausage?”

“No.”

“Is is eggs?”

“No.”

“Fuck. It’s something with bran in it, isn’t it?”

“It isn’t food!”

“Then what is it?”

“Drugs, dickhead. Lovely, lovely drugs.” She swung her battered satchel off her shoulder and rummaged around in it, having to constantly flick her multicoloured fringe out of her eyes. “Okay, right.” She took out a clear plastic sachet with two pills in it.

“No, fuck off,” Bexley said, holding up his hands, “no more pills. I spent a whole weekend last month lying on the floor screaming. My body physically cannot take MDMA anymore. Those days are over, Claire.”

“These aren’t Es, you fucking fucktard. And, also, that is bullshit. You will absolutely take pills again because you can’t listen to dance music without them.”

“That is true. I could just never go to a club again though.”

“Ha. Yeah.” Claire sat up from the beanbag and passed the sachet over to him and he reached over to take it. He examined them critically. “It’s not E,” she said again.

“Okay, so what is it?”

“Q.”

“Original. What’s in it?”

“How the fuck would I know? You’re the one with the science degree.”

“Yeah, not in fucking…weird drugs I never heard of that my loser friend just brought round when I’m hungover on a Thursday morning.”

She laughed. “Who would do that degree?”

“The audience is a little limited, yah. So, come on, what’s the story? You taken this before?”

“Nope, I wanted to share this moment with you.”

“Aww. That’s sweet. Most of my friends buy me stupid novelty shit, but you, Claire, you bring me drugs.”

“Yeah, I’m a pretty special lady. Anyway, I scored them off this physics student. He’s some kind of genius.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, you could tell because he smelt really, really bad and kept staring at my tits.”

Your tits?”

“We’re not having another conversation about my tits, Bex. Anyway, so he was this loser, but he got hold of this new stuff. It’s called Q, short for quantum.”

“Quantum? That’s…”

“Gay? Yeah, that’s what I said. Anyway, it’s not like any other drug you’ve taken.”

Bexley held up the sachet and looked at the pills sceptically. They looked pretty normal. Just little pink pastel nubs. “Right. What do they do?”

“Well, it’s complicated. And I don’t exactly understand it.”

“You don’t understand cocaine either, but that didn’t stop you rubbing it into your gums in that pub toilet that time.”

“Oh yeah.” Claire laughed again. “When was that?”

“Fuck knows. Anyway, come on, I’m dying of anticipation here. The fuck is this stuff?”

“Okay, well…” She sat forward. “The way this nerd guy explained it to me, there’s no chemical reaction going on at all.”

“I…right, okay. So not really drugs at all then?”

“Not in the conventional sense no,” she said with a raised finger and a small smile, “but they do fuck you up good and proper. See, the way it works is, they kind of mess with probability.”

“Huh?”

“They don’t affect you; they affect the world around you.” She moved her hands around here in a circle and widened her eyes theatrically.”

“Bollocks,” Bexley scoffed, “how would that work?”

“How should I know? It’s physics, innit! Anyway, the idea is that when you take these pills, it affects the local space on, like, a quantum level. And it changes probability, so unlikely things happen.”

“What? No, bollocks. Bollocks bollocks bollocks.”

“Honestly!”

“Honestly that’s what this guy fucking told you. How much did you pay?”

“Tenner each? Not that much. But, seriously, Jacques said he tried it, and it was apparently fucking mental.”

Bexley raised an eyebrow. “How mental?”

“Like, acid trip in Soho mental.”

He let out a spontaneous burst of laugher at the memory of the time he had Claire had dropped enough acid to seriously inconvenience a horse and wandered down to Soho in the midst of the ensuing trip. It had indeed been pretty mental. “What happened?”

“Just mad stuff, he said. It doesn’t affect your body at all, it just changes everything around you. He said that, like, he threw a coin and it kept landing on its side.”

“How many times did he throw it?”

“He said loads!”

“So, let me get this straight,” Bexley said, “Jacques, known to us as Jacques the Ripper, the everlasting king of getting off his absolute tits on whatever he can scrounge of every lowlife dealer in town, the man who once took so much ketamine that he spent two days talking to a cactus in Spanish – which he had to teach himself there and then, because he didn’t actually speak it. And I don’t speak Spanish, but what he was speaking wasn’t fucking Spanish, so fuck knows what was going on his chemical-addled little brain. Anyway, you’re telling me that this guy, whose lust for drugs has as yet no known limit, took this and then spent hours just tossing coins to see what happened?”

“Yes!” Claire said. “Exactly!”

“Yeah, good point. Let’s take ’em.”

“Awesome. Tonight?”

“You got work today?”

“No.”

“Fuck it, we’ll do it now then.”

Claire considered. “Yeah, all right.”

Bexley grinned and climbed off the sofa to sit on the floor next to Claire. He upended the sachet and they each took one of the pills in their hand. “So, it just makes unlikely stuff happen?”

“Apparently.”

“Because of quantum?”

“Yeah.”

“That, itself, sounds pretty unlikely.”

“Must be working then I guess.”

“Oh man, this is going to fuck my head, isn’t it?”

“Probably.”

She bent her head back and tossed the pill into her mouth. Bexley held his own up and looked at it again then, with a shrug, did the same. They sat there for a few seconds. “Okay…so…” he said, “what happens now? Does it take a while to kick in?”

“No idea.”

“I mean, I don’t feel any different. I don’t feel any more…improbable…”

“We should try something,” Claire suggested.

“Like what? Tossing a coin?”

“No. Oh, hang on, I have something better.” She rummaged in her bag again and took out a deck of cards.

“Why do you have a deck of cards?”

“I slept with that magician guy.”

“Tony the Magnificent?”

“He isn’t called that. And he isn’t magnificent, believe me.”

“But you swiped some cards off him?”

“He had loads of packs of them under his bed. Like, loads.”

“I guess magicians get through a lot of cards.”

“Sure. I took a few anyway.”

“Why?”

“Because…free cards?”

“Stolen cards,” Bexley corrected her. “Everything’s free if you just steal it.”

“I know, it’s great. Anyway.” She shuffled the deck and then fanned them out in front of her. “Pick a card!”

“What?”

“Do it!”

“All right.” He picked one at random and turned it over. “Ace of spades.”

“Hey! Spooky!”

“What? No it’s not – there was a one in fifty-two chance of picking that one.”

“So pick another one then.”

He sighed and took a second card. “Okay, it’s,” he turned it over, “king of spades. Huh.”

“Now, that is pretty spooky…”

“Not really. You probably just didn’t shuffle them right and they’re still in order. I bet I picked the card next to the one I took first.”

“Okay then, well take one from the end or something, so you know it wasn’t next to the last one.”

Bexley did as she suggested and turned the card over. “Queen of spades…”

“This is freaky!”

“Oh yeah, I’m tripping balls here, sitting on my floor picking cards…”

“Take another one!”

“If you insist. Okay…jack of spades…”

“Again!”

He frowned, but did it. “Ten of spades. This is bollocks. Okay, one more. Nine of spades!”

“Mental!”

“Fuck off. This is a trick. Shuffle them again.” She did as he asked and he reached for another card. “Eight of spades! Fuck off!” He kept going, running all the way down to two of spades. “Okay, that was a bit weird,” he admitted, “but I’m still pretty sure this is a trick. Tony the Magnificent probably taught you it, and you just gave me a mint or something as misdirection.”

“It’s no trick. Look, let’s try it with another deck.” She took more cards out of her bag. “Look, these ones are still sealed. I can’t have fucked with them or anything.” Hastily, she unwrapped them. “Take the top card.”

“Okay. Ace of spades.”

“Holy shit!”

“Ah, but that doesn’t mean shit, because you didn’t shuffle them…”

“Good point. Hm. I’ll try.” She placed the deck on the floor, cut it in the middle and took the card on the top. “Huh?”

“What?”

She turned it around. “Ace of spades!”

Bexley held up his own card. “No, I have the ace of spades here.”

“Well so do I.”

“Well, there’s only one in each deck. That’s kind of the idea.”

“Take another card…”

He took the top one. “It’s…the ace of spades again…”

Claire snorted. “This is a duff deck or something.” She flipped the cards over and flicked through. “They’re all the pissing ace of spades!”

He shook his head. “See? Perfectly rational explanation.”

“Man, that’s so weird. I’ve never seen that. Must have been a fuck up at the factory or whatever. What are the chances?”

“I guess pretty low…oh, hey…” Bexley scratched his head. “If they make a million packs a year, something like this probably only happens once in the whole batch, if that.”

“True.”

“So…this is a pretty improbable event, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. Wow. This is…”

“Let’s try something else!” He jumped up to his feet and cast around the room for something else to have a go with. “Ummmm….ummm…oh!” He picked up the laptop. “I’ve got an idea. Shout out two words!”

“Fuck shit!”

“No, better words. Random words.” He opened the laptop up and quickly typed away at the keyboard.

Claire thought about it. “Cantilever…hermaphrodite…”

“Okay, let me Google that. Right, here we go. Boom!” He turned the screen around. “Googlewhack!”

“What?”

“You never heard of a Googlewhack?”

“No.”

“It’s when you Google two random words, and you only get one hit. Someone wrote a book about it. Uh…who’s that comedian?”

“Which one?”

“Ginger guy with a beard. Shit, what’s his name?”

“Dave Gorman?” Claire suggested.

“Yes! You know who I mean?”

“No,” she said, “but here’s that book you just mentioned.” She held it up.

“What? I don’t even own that book!”

“Well apparently you do now.” She looked at the back. “Okay, I get it.”

“Seriously, I have never bought that book.”

“It could be Dan’s?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“What could be mine?” Bexley and Claire both looked around to see his housemate, Dan, standing in the doorway. “Oh, hey, I was looking for that,” he said, pointing at the book.

“Holy shit,” Claire said.

Dan crossed the room and took the book from her. “What’s going on?”

“Why are you home?” Bexley asked.

“Oh, there was an accident at work and we had to shut. Fucking weirdest thing: we had a burst pipe, whole shop floor flooded, and Julie couldn’t find a single plumber!”

“What, in the whole city?”

“Yeah! No plumber available in the entire metropolitan area, apparently! What are the chances of that?”

“I guess extremely low,” Claire said with a significant look.

“Just a crazy coincidence,” Bexley said with narrowed eyes, “since it takes you half an hour to get here from work right, Dan?”

“I got a lift, actually.”

“With who?”

“Jimmy.”

“Jimmy? I thought he moved home?”

“He was going to, but he put his last fifty quid on Portsmouth last weekend and, well, you know how that went, so now he can afford rent. What are you Googling? Shemales again?”

“Fuck off. No, we were just dicking around. It’s a Googlewhack.”

“Oh, hey, like this book.”

“Exactly,” Claire said.

“What is that website?”

“I don’t know. Just a Googlewhack.”

“Hey, look at the name.”

“Huh?”

“That’s Jimmy’s blog.”

“What?”

“Jimmy. Who just gave me a lift. With the eyes?” He mimed the eyes. “That’s his blog.” He pointed at the screen. “See?”

“Holy shit…”

“What does Jimmy blog about?” Claire asked. “How to be fucking weird?”

“No, just random stuff.” He reached over and clicked the search result. “See, this is a whole thing he wrote about whether you can eat refrigerated pizza. Hey, why were you downloading Prince?”

“This is fucking trippy,” Bexley said to Claire.

“I know…”

“Did the internet cut out again? This download limit is shit. Try next door’s wi-fi.”

“It’s encrypted.”

“Shit.”

“Although…” He clicked the wi-fi icon on the taskbar and tried to connect to next door’s. “Nah…thought they might have changed it. I was feeling lucky, you know?”

“Try and guess the password,” Claire suggested.

“Hey, that’s a good idea. Ummm…” he typed a mostly random string of characters, then turned the laptop around to show Claire. “Boom!”

“How’d you do that?” Dan said, aghast.

“I’ll tell you in a bit. How long does this Q shit last, Claire?”

“Jacques said only about an hour.”

“We have to get some more…”

*

“You need to be careful with this stuff, guys,” Claire’s physicist acquaintance told them in his nasal voice as he handed over the pills they’d just purchased. “It’s powerful stuff.”

“Yeah, we know,” Claire said, “I told you we tried it the other day.” They were in a quiet alcove of a sprawling bar, built into an old Victorian terrace. There were little side rooms and nooks all over the place, so no one asked any questions.

“You should only take one at a time,” he warned them, “we don’t really know what the effects are.”

“But you’re selling them in pubs?” Bexley asked, as he counted the pills in the sachet.

“I need the money.”

Claire frowned. “For what?”

“I have expensive hobbies,” the physicist said evasively.

“Porn? Because you don’t really have to pay for that, you know…”

“No, not that.”

“Is it Warhammer?” Claire asked. “My brother does all that stuff and it’s stupidly expensive.”

Bexley looked at her. “Warhammer?”

“Yeah, you know, the little figures. Orcs and Elves and stuff. And you paint them and…oh never mind…”

“Just give me the money please,” the dealer sighed.

“Sure, here you go.” Bexley handed over a handful of notes. “This is kind of a false economy, you know. I won this money after we took the last pills and bet on…”

Claire nudged him in the ribs. “Thanks again,” she told the physicist with a patently false smile. “We’ll probably be back for more.”

“Just don’t take more than one at a time,” he warned them again.

“We won’t!” Bexley reassured him, holding up the sachet full of pills and shaking it at him. “We are very experienced users of illicit substances of all kinds. Don’t worry your enormous physics head about it.”

“Okay then. Have fun.”

They walked back towards the bar. Bexley handed Claire the Q and she put it in her bag. “Did you see that? He didn’t take his eyes off my tits once!”

“So?”

“It’s fucking demeaning. Little freak.”

“What do you care?”

“I don’t want him thinking he has a chance with me, just because I buy drugs off him.”

“Stop buying drugs off him then.”

“No! Come on, let’s take them now.”

“We just dropping one?”

Claire had the sachet out already. “I dunno…he said to only take one…”

“But, he also stared at your tits the whole time, and he has really bad BO, and he paints little models, probably. What does he know about anything?”

“Yeah, good point. We’ll do a couple each, see how it goes.”

“Mega. Come on.” They divvied up their supply and tossed back two each then opened a door and stepped into the main bar, which was already thronged with people. The music was loud and they had to shout to be heard.

“Whose round is it?” Claire asked.

“I spent all the money on the pills!”

“Let’s find some then!” She looked around. “Fruit machine?”

“Huh?”

She pointed. “Fruit machine!”

“I never figured out how to play them!”

“Just try!”

Bexley laughed, but sidled up to the machine anyway. “I haven’t even got a quid…”

“Here.” Claire picked up a pound coin from the floor.

“That was good…”

“Plenty more where that came from, I’m sure.”

He put the coin in the slot and the fruit machine lurched into bewildering life. “Seriously, I have no idea how this even works.”

“Just press buttons!”

“Okay…” He jabbed at the illuminated buttons at random and the wheels on the machine spun. They settled on a combination that meant nothing to him, and then a big jackpot logo started flashing. “Hey!” Everyone nearby turned around as coins began to rush out and filled the well at the bottom. Claire knelt down to catch them as they spilled out, and started shovelling the rest into her bag. “Is that even possible? I only pressed a couple of buttons.”

“Possible, but highly improbably, I’m sure.” Other bar patrons were gathering around, watching them with interested smiles. “How much did it just pay out?”

“Fuck knows! Hey, who wants a drink?” A big cheer went up.

The night passed in a chaotic whirlwind of booze-fuelled laughter. Claire eight-balled a guy who’d turned up with his own cue at pool and won thirty quid off him. He accused her of hustling him and Bexley interfered. The guy took a swing at him, then slipped on a beermat on the floor and fell right into a table full of girls who, it transpired, were from a village just outside Bexley’s hometown and spent the rest of the night hanging out with them. Bexley found a fifty pound note shoved down the back of the chair he was sitting in. They played some cards, and found another deck that was entirely made up of aces of spades. Then another. And a third. There was a pile of board games in one corner and they started drunken experimenting. Claire built a Jenga tower that everyone was pretty sure was physically impossible, but which nonetheless balanced perfectly on the rickety bar table. Bexley couldn’t stop rolling double-sixes with the dice in the Monopoly set. It started to get annoying, so he hurled them away and they bounced off a wall, right back into his hand. It was a crazy night, and he was doing pretty well with one of the girls, until she said something a little odd. “Wait, your dad used to own the White Horse?”

“Yeah. On Station Road. Do you know it?”

“Know it?” Bexley scratched his head. “My uncle used to be the landlord…”

“Oh my God!” the girl said, “When?”

“Like…in the nineties? I guess maybe up until ninety-eight, ninety-nine?”

“But that’s when my dad…wait…Bexley?”

He stared at her, then realisation dawned. “Hannah?!”

“Holy shit! You’re my cousin Bexley!”

“And you’re my cousin Hannah! Wow, this is…awesome…I haven’t seen you since we were kids…”

“I know! God, it’s so awful that our parents don’t talk any more since Vera’s funeral.”

“Yeah, that was it…” Bexley had forgotten the whole business. “So…you’re my cousin…”

“Oh, this is so cool! So how have you been?”

“I…hey, do you need another drink?”

“Sure!”

He made his way to the bar, where Claire was waiting to get served. “You look shell-shocked,” she observed.

“I just found out the blonde I’ve been chatting up all night is my cousin.”

“That’s amazing!”

“It’s fucking annoying is what it is. Now I’ve got to sit there talking about family stuff with her all night. Shit.”

“Hey, I guess your luck can’t last all night. Maybe the Q’s wearing off?”

“Maybe…it does seem to be taking you a while to get served…”

“Good point.” Claire leaned across the bar. “Hey! I got a handful of twenties here! I’m gonna buy a loooot of alcohol! Serve me!” That got the attention of a barman and he sauntered over, cupping a hand to his ear. “Okay, let’s see. We will have some tequila please. No, scratch that, we will have all of the tequila. And…what’s that stuff in the blue bottle?”

“It’s gin,” he told her.

“Can you drink neat gin?” she asked Bexley.

“You can certainly put it into your mouth and swallow it. Whether it counts as ‘drinking’, I don’t quite know.”

“Just a load of beer then, please,” she said, turning back to the barman. “Like, I guess maybe eight beers? Yeah, eight. And,” she turned back, “do you like martinis?”

“I dunno.”

“I feel like cocktails. Do you feel like cocktails?”

“You already ordered half the bar – they’ll run out of alcohol.”

“Not with our luck!”

“I thought we decided it had worn off?”

“Whatever. Hey, can you make a white Russian?” she asked the barman.

“Yeah.”

“Six of them please then.”

“Who’s going to drink six white Russians?”

“You can get your cousin drunk.”

“Why would I do that?”

“So you can fuck her, obviously.”

Bexley made a disgusted face. “Why would I want to fuck my cousin?”

“She’s fit!”

“She’s related to me!”

“Cousins are fine!”

“Would you fuck your cousins?”

“All my cousins are way older than me. Oh hey, here’s all the booze I asked for. Here you go…” she handed over the money and the barman started counting it with a sigh.

“Look, can we get out of here?” Bexley asked.

“I just bought all these drinks!”

“I’m getting bored. Winning everything is no fun. Let’s go and smoke some weed like normal people.”

“Excuse me, love,” the barman said.

“How can you be bored of winning?”

“Oi, love!”

“It’s just…hey, he’s talking to you.”

“Wha’?” Claire spun around. The barman was holding her money still. “Where’d you get this money?”

“What? I won it. Uh…I think? Off the guy from before…” she pointed vaguely in the direction of the pool table.

“Yeah, well, it’s forged, innit?”

“What?”

“This is counterfeit money, love.”

“That little shit!” She looked around the bar accusingly. “You were right, Bex. Let’s fuck off home. We must have taken some dud pills or something.” She started to walk away, but a firm grip on her arm stopped her and she turned to see a bouncer looming over her. “What the fuck? Let me go, you twat!”

“Sorry, love,” the barman said, “zero tolerance on counterfeit notes. I’ve got to call the old bill, like.”

“Whoa,” Bexley held up his hands, “we won that money off someone else. We’re not involved. We’ll leave and let’s say no more about it.”

“Sorry, mate. Rules is rules, innit?”

Claire’s eyes went wide. “You can’t call the filth! I’ve got pills in here!” She waved her satchel with her free hand.

“Is Q even illegal?”

“If it isn’t, it will be once the fucking police find it!” She made a sudden lunge for freedom, and easily slipped the bouncer’s grip. Bexley called after her as she vaulted over a barstool, then careered around a table, making a dash for the door. At that moment, a group of men came through the door, already boisterous and drunk and, as they threw open both of the double doors, and Claire hurled herself headlong towards them, her head made violent contact with the door and she went pirouetting down onto the tiles to land in a crumpled, inert heap on the floor. There was a collective “Ooooh” from everyone in the bar.

“Shit..” Bexley said.

*

Two days later, Bexley was back in the bar, and he saw the guy he’d been looking for. He sidled up to the table and slid into the bench opposite and the man sat back and looked at him warily. “Sorry,” he said, “I didn’t catch your name the other night.”

“Andrew,” said the physics guy.

“Hi. Bexley.”

“Yeah, I saw you on the news. How’s your friend?”

“In a coma. Doesn’t look good.”

“I’m sorry,” Andrew said awkwardly.

“Forget sorry. I need Q.”

“What? Why?”

“Because Claire needs some luck right now.”

“I thought this would have taught you a lesson…why do you want more of this stuff after what happened?”

“Huh?”

Andrew stared at him, then sat back and rubbed his hands over his eyes. “Why did I get involved in this?” he asked himself. “Don’t you get it?”

“Get what?”

“Q doesn’t make you lucky, it just changes probability!”

“What’s the difference?”

Andrew sat forward again. “Lucky is when the outcome of seemingly improbable events favours you. But the universe doesn’t know what you want, and all Q does is play around with quantum uncertainty. Some good stuff will happen, but so will some bad stuff. Like your friend being in a coma.”

“How so?”

“Well, what are the chances of the sequence of events that occurred happening? First she has counterfeit money, right?”

“Uh huh…”

“Then she runs, and a bunch of people happen to come through that door at just the right moment, she has to hit it at just the right angle, and fall in just such a way that…”

“Okay, okay, I get it. I don’t believe it, but I get it.”

Andrew frowned. “What don’t you believe?”

“Well, I don’t know that I believe any of it to be honest. But it seems like just a coincidence. Like, okay, so when we first took it, my housemate came home early because a pipe burst at his work. But that must have happened before we dropped the Q. So…just a coincidence, right?”

Andrew shook his head. “No. With Q, there are no coincidences. You’re thinking about it all wrong. What it does is change certain quantum outcomes in the area of spacetime local to whoever takes the pill, right?”

“Right…”

“So it’s not like some things are caused by the Q and some things aren’t. Everything in range is affected by it, but not all of the outcomes are meaningful. So you notice how you bump into an old friend, or throw heads a hundred times in a row with a coin, but not how all the subatomic particles in the room have the same spin.”

“But…how can it affect things in the past?”

“It doesn’t…not exactly. Look, in any system, there are only so many possible permutations of variables, okay?”

Bexley nodded. “Okay…”

“There’s a phase space of all the possible ways the system can exist, and some are more probable than others. Do you know about thermodynamics?”

“A bit…”

“Okay, Second Law, entropy. All closed systems tend towards chaos – homogeny, on the macroscopic scale. Like, if I was to pour my coke into your lager, they’d mix together into a brown fluid, yeah? Common sense. Thermodynamics is all based on probability, mathematically speaking, and you can prove that that outcome – the particles from both fluids becoming evenly distributed throughout the system – is essentially a certainty. But non-even distribution is still possible, just massively unlikely. What Q does is narrow down the phase space of all possible outcomes, and inverts the likelihood in local spacetime. We did an experiment in the lab. How much Q did you take the other day?”

“We dropped two pills each,” Bexley admitted, “then I took a few more later to try and fix things. All that happened was I kept running into the same doctor in the hospital.”

“And probably a lot more things,” Andrew said darkly, “but there should still be some left in your system after that high a dosage. Watch.” He took a big gulp from his glass so it was only half full, then took Bexley’s pint and poured it in. The lager sat on top of the coke like an oil slick, so that there was a layer of dark and a layer of gold, sitting in the glass, perfectly separated. “See?”

Bexley leant down and stared at the glass. “That’s…”

“It defies the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It’s totally messed up.” Bubbles were still rising in the coke, and were beginning to agitate the layer of lager, which was becoming quite fizzy itself as a result. “See? It’s not supposed to work this way. It messes with other physical properties. And that’s how Q does what it does. You start with a simple system – two liquids in a glass – and then the unlikely permutation that Q causes to happen has effects which propagate and then makes other weird stuff happen. Your housemate, with the burst pipe was it? Yeah, well, that burst pipe was always possible, just not probable. When you took the Q, the probabilities around you got warped, so that unlikely event occurred instead of the more likely occurrence of the pipe going on just fine as it had up until now. It doesn’t matter when it happened: but as soon as you, who took the pill, came into contact with some effect of that event, the one which happened was one of the least likely.”

“No, that’s bollocks. Because it happened already. If I hadn’t taken the Q, he still would have come home early…”

“How can you know that? The quantum world is a very strange place. You’ve heard of Schrödinger’s Cat?”

“Uh huh,” Bexley nodded.

“Well, the whole point of the thought experiment was that you can’t apply quantum uncertainty to macroscopic objects. The cat, whose life is controlled by the decay of a radioactive isotope, which is controlled by changes on the quantum level, is both alive and dead until the box is opened because, as per the observer effect described in the Copenhagen interpretation, the participle whose emission releases the cyanide occupies both possible states simultaneously.”

“But,” Bexley interrupted, “you just said that you can’t apply uncertainty to macroscopic events…”

“Right. Of course the cat isn’t both alive and dead, not in any meaningful sense. That’s absurd. But Q turns the problem on its head. The decay of the isotope ceases to be random – in effect, it is always in a state of being observed, so the Copenhagen interpretation no longer applies. The cat is now definitely either alive or dead – whichever is the least likely. Your observation becomes meaningless. So you can open the box, but it doesn’t affect the uncertainty in the system any more. But that system may have been in place prior to you taking the Q. Nonetheless, it can still be affected by it. Causality is meaningless, because all the systems are linked and reach backwards, so a different outcome can lead back to different starting conditions, if it’s unlikely enough. The more improbable the observed outcome in the present, the more the changes propagate down the chain.”

“My head hurts…”

“Let me put it this way,” Andrew continued, “how improbable would it be for me to transform into Hitler?”

“What?”

“Just suddenly become Hitler before your eyes.”

“Would you always have been Hitler, or do you change?”

“Let’s assume, for the sake of simplicity, I’ve always been Hitler.”

Bexley furrowed his brow. “Okay…well, I think that’s just impossible, not improbable.”

“It’s not impossible, not if you go back far enough. First, I’d have to not be here. Not so improbable. Then, Hitler would have to have a reason to be here in my place.”

“Hitler’s dead…”

“We’re working backwards. Let us assume an extant Fuhrer. He’d have to have a reason to be here, talking to you about this. Not very likely, given what we know of him, but not at all impossible. Then he’d have to be in the area. Difficult, given that this would still be hostile territory. Unless he won World War II. But then, you probably wouldn’t be here. So we’d need Germany to have won, but you to still have been born. Hugely unlikely, I’d say. But not impossible. How could Germany have won? Well, that’s a complex question, but it’s easily possible.”

“We’re still taking billions and billions to one though.”

“A value still greater than zero. It’s technically possible, within the phase space of the universe, for me to be Hitler instead. Say it’s a trillion to one. A trillion possible things could be happening now, here, at this moment, and just one of them is me being Hitler. Take enough Q, and that value converges from one in a trillion, to just one. But, for that to happen, all the other stuff I just described needs to have happened too. So, if I was to change into Hitler – a possibility, albeit a vanishingly unlikely one – Britain would also have lost World War II, Hitler would still be alive, he’d have a reason to be here, and you’d be talking to him right now.”

“You’re saying,” Bexley said slowly, “that if someone were to take too much Q, they could change history…?”

“In a manner of speaking. Now do you see why I only told you to take one?”

Bexley shook his head. “How is this even possible?”

“I wish I knew…”

“What?! I thought you made this stuff?”

Andrew looked surprised. “Did Claire say that? No, we were sent them by a Ukrainian lab. We’re just studying them.”

“If you knew these things were so dangerous though, why did you start selling them?”

“It wasn’t like that!” Andrew protested, “I didn’t think people would take it like it was a drug! It has no chemical effect…”

“If you wanted to make some money, why didn’t you take some yourself and go bet on some horses?”

“Because it’s not luck! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you! The universe doesn’t know or care what you want to happen. It just messes with probability. Bad stuff happens too, like your friend being in a coma. You can’t control it. We had so much fun with it in the lab, in controlled environments. I thought it would be fine. I didn’t think people would get addicted to it.”

“How could we not? It’s the power to…to…break reality!” He stopped as a plopping noise from Andrew’s glass drew his attention. The layers had finally collapsed, and now there was just a light brown swirling liquid sitting there unappetisingly.

“Your dose has worn off,” Andrew explained, “maybe this can be the end of it now.”

“No! Claire’s still in a coma. What are the chances of her coming out of it spontaneously?”

“I know what you’re thinking…”

“I need more Q. Just enough to play the odds and save her.”

“Not possible. I keep telling you it can’t be controlled.”

“Surely it’s just a question of dosage? Did you calculate how much one pill affects probability?”

“No, it’s not that reliable.”

“Approximate it then! Fuck!”

“You don’t understand!”

“Sure I do.” Bexley stood up and levelled a finger at Andrew. “I need more Q. Get it for me.”

“It’s locked away, in the lab.”

“All of it?”

Andrew paused. “Yes.”

“Bullshit. You have some don’t you?”

“One pill! I only have one!”

“How much?”

Andrew shook his head firmly. “No. It’s too dangerous. You’ve caused enough harm.”

“How much?”

“No amount of money.”

Bexley sized the other man up. “Okay then. What would I have to do to you to make you give it to me?”

Andrew shrank back into his seat. “Now, let’s not talk crazy…”

“I’ve got to try and help Claire! This is the only way!”

“Okay, okay. But this has to be the end of it. I’ll help you out now and we’ll save your friend if we can, but only because I need to supervise this. Before you were just playing games – now we need to do some calculations.”

“You said it was unreliable,” Bexley said as Andrew stood up and put his coat on, “now you think we can do the maths?”

“It’s unreliable because the effects propagate out from the individual who takes the Q, affecting their lives and the lives of people they know. If two people close by, or who know each other, take it the effects are cumulative – our findings showed they increased geometrically.”

“Which means?”

“Okay,” Andrew explained as they left the bar, “you take one dose, it twists probability a certain amount, okay? Take two, it twists it twice as much. But if two people take the same amount, the effects on things that involve both of them don’t double – they quadruple. If they take two pills each, the effect on, say, a close friend they share, might be sixteen times that of a single dose!”

“Wow…”

“Exactly. But that might work to our advantage. If we take one pill each, because we don’t share any acquaintances, or have much in common at all, really, the effects won’t be too extreme. But, since we both know Claire, she’ll get a full blast of the long odds.”

“That makes sense to me,” Bexley said.

“I’m glad it makes sense to someone…” Andrew replied darkly.

They got into the university’s physics building without incident. Andrew led Bexley down darkened corridors until they reached a door protected by a keypad. Bexley stood to one side, moving impatiently. “Well?”

“This is as far as I can get us – I’m just an undergrad. I don’t have the code.”

“You don’t?”

“No.”

“So what do we do?”

Andrew reached into his pocket and pulled out a sachet. “You need to take this.”

“Me? Why?”

“Because you’re going to guess the code, and the Q will change the odds so you’ll get it right.”

“Why can’t you do it?”

“Because I’m not allowed to know the code, am I?”

“What?”

“Remember this ends tonight,” Andrew hissed angrily, “I don’t want to wake up tomorrow, knowing how to break into this lab. I’m never going off the rails again.”

“Fine.” Bexley swallowed the pill. “But they might be a bit more pissed off when they see all their experimental quantum drugs missing…” He squared up to the keypad as Andrew turned away, thought about it for a moment, and then just pressed 1-2-3-4-5-6. The door clicked open. “Classic,” Bexley grinned. They ghosted into the lab and Andrew went straight to a cabinet against the far wall. He unlocked it with a key he retrieved from a high shelf and took out several bulging plastic bags. “Holy shit!” Bexley said. “How much of this stuff do you have?”

“A lot…”

“And it was all sent by some guy in Russia?”

“Ukraine. Yes.”

“How did he make them?”

“We don’t know. We’ve been trying to reverse engineer them.”

“What’s in them?”

“We don’t…”

“Okay, forget it.” Bexley held out his hand. “Just pass them here and we’ll get started.”

Andrew shook his head. “No, let’s get to the hospital first, then we’ll figure out the right dosage based on the situation. If we take them now, we’ll risk the effects wearing off.”

“Okay, sure.”

The hospital wasn’t that far away. The hardest part was getting in, but Bexley’s earlier dose of Q meant that their luck held – they were able to dodge porters and wandering nurses, creeping down inexplicably empty corridors, and finally reaching the Intensive Care Unit. Bexley looked out from behind a corner. “I see her,” he whispered.

“How does she look?”

“She’s in a fucking coma. How do you think she looks?”

Andrew peeked out too. “Yeah, okay, it looks pretty bad.”

Bexley nodded. Claire looked pale and thin, lying motionless on a bed, hooked up to seemingly dozens of machines. “What do you reckon?”

“Okay, well, how often do people spontaneously come out of comas?”

“How should I know?”

“If we could see her charts…”

“Look, we know what we’re aiming for, so let’s just take Q until it happens.”

“Well…what are we aiming for?” Andrew asked.

“For Claire to just wake up suddenly, right? That’s pretty unlikely.”

“Yeah, but there are other, slightly less unlikely things too. Like her condition suddenly worsening. If we don’t take enough Q, we might cause that to happen.”

“Shit.” Bexley looked back at his friend. “We have to do something!”

“Okay, all right.” Andrew took a deep breath. “I know the numbers. I’ve been running it through my head the whole way here. Okay…okay…five each.”

“Five?!” The loudness of his own voice took him by surprise and he cringed, looking out to check he hadn’t been heard. “Shit…someone’s coming. Quick!”

Andrew distributed the pills with shaking hands and Bexley quickly shoved them in his mouth, swallowing them all in one go, patting his chest to send them all the way down. Andrew took his more sedately. Bexley looked around. “Okay…nothing’s happening…”

“Gentlemen?”

They spun around, mouths open, to see a female nurse standing right at their elbow. “Where the fuck did you come from?” Bexley demanded.

“We’re just visiting!” Andrew squeaked.

“I know,” she smiled, “you always say that. Come on, boys.” She took them each firmly by the elbow and led them down the corridor.

Andrew looked bewildered, but Bexley squinted at the nurse. “Hold on. Don’t I know you?”

She grinned. “Of course you do, Bex.”

“Fuck!” He yanked his arm free and flattened himself against the wall. “Claire?!”

“Yes?”

He stared. It was indeed Claire, but removed of anything that made her Claire – her hair was its natural brown, which he’d never even seen on her before, and her face completely free of any piercings. She looked…normal. Andrew was gaping too now. “What…what happened to you?”

“Come on, Bex. Let’s get you back to your room.”

“My room? What’s going on?”

She took them both by the elbows again and now her grip was more insistent. “I know you’ve been playing your games again, but it’s time for bed. What was it this time? Spies? Knights and dragons? Dimension-hopping physicists?”

“This is bad, this is bad, this is bad,” Andrew whispered to himself.

“Too right it is!” Bexley wrenched free of the anti-Claire’s hold again and grabbed Andrew by the scruff of his neck. He had to drag him back down the corridor, but the physics student soon got the idea and started running after him. The other Claire was shouting after them. “Come on!” Bexley called. They skidded back around the corner to the ICU, and Bexley stared. Where Claire had been just a few moments ago was now an old man, hooked up to the very same machines. “What the hell is going on?”

“This is bad, this is bad, this is bad,” Andrew said again, leaning against the wall and holding his head.

“Can you explain any of this, physics boy? Claire is a nurse? We have ‘rooms’ and…” he looked down at himself, “I’m wearing pyjamas? Am I a patient here? How is that possible?” Bexley snarled.

“It’s improbable, but not impos…”

“Bullshit! I remember being me! I have a house, and I remember Claire being…Claire. How can that just change?”

“Well…we did have one slightly out-there theory…”

“Which was?”

“Have you heard of the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics?”

“Sure.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, I’ve seen sci-fi shows. I thought that was bollocks?”

“It’s a pop-physics idea, yes. It doesn’t really mean anything. But, one of the ideas we had when we were trying to figure how Q worked was that it might actually move the subject through adjacent quantum universes.”

“You mean, alternate realities where stuff happened differently?”

“Yeah. I mean, it’s not an unreasonable explanation.”

“So we’re now in a universe where we’re hospital patients and Claire is some straight-laced nurse who looks after us?”

“Apparently…”

“But, we still shouldn’t be able to remember what happened before, in our own universe, should we?”

“Well…no…unless…”

“Unless what?”

Andrew scratched his head. “The thing is, the effects of Q are always consistent. That’s what made us think about many-worlds. Everything always matches up neatly – no one notices the changes.”

“Exactly. Stuff doesn’t just appear.” He tugged at his inexplicable pyjamas. “And yet…”

“There’s only one scenario that makes sense here.”

“Go on…”

“Well, we still remember everything, right? Our regular lives?”

“Yes, we’ve established that, Andrew…”

“But apparently those lives aren’t real. We just…Qed them out of existence…”

Bexley swallowed. “Right…”

“We’re actually patients in a hospital. Who think they’re not who everyone else thinks they are. Who remember a life that, from everyone else’s perspective, never happened.”

Bexley felt his blood run cold. His knees were feeling weak and there was a dull lump in the pit of his stomach. “Andrew…are you suggesting that we somehow created a universe in which we’re a pair of paranoid schizophrenics in a mental ward?”

“Oh God…” Andrew sank down to the floor, putting a hand across his head. “It’s the only internally consistent scenario! The only way for all of these improbable things to still add up is for us to be insane! No matter how much Q you take, the effects are always within the realm of possibility. That’s the trick…that’s the trick…”

“Jesus…” Bexley looked around. “Someone’s going to come find us soon. We need more Q. We can get out of this. Escape. Get back.”

“How?”

“Well…okay…how improbable is it that…that…this is all a dream? That none of it ever happened? How much Q would we need to take for that?”

“It’s no good. It would just make it worse. Oh God oh God oh God…”

“Come on, man!” He tried to haul Andrew to his feet, but the other man just remained sullenly on the floor. An alarm started to sound. “You hear that? They’re coming for us! Get up!”

“How could I have made a mistake this huge,” Andrew murmured, “our lives hardly overlap. Even that much Q shouldn’t have rewritten our entire reality…”

“Well it did I guess! Your sums were wrong!”

“I should never have become a physicist,” Andrew wept, “mum and dad and Hannah were right.”

“There’s no time for…wait…did you say Hannah?”

Andrew nodded soddenly into his hands. “My sister.”

“Skinny blonde with a nice rack?”

“Hey, do you mind? That’s my sister.”

“Did your dad used to run a pub called the White Horse?”

Andrew stared at him. “How did you know that?”

Bexley sank down beside him and started to laugh. “What are the chances? Two cousins, showing up within days of each other.”

Andrew blinked at him. “Ohhh…you’re that Bexley.”

“No,” Bexley said, shaking his head helplessly as hospital orderlies appeared around them and began to close in, “I’m not him at all, it seems. Not any more.”

This entry was posted in Contemporary, Magical Realism, Science Fiction, Short Story. Bookmark the permalink.

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