“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
― Albert Einstein
Artie Fischer began his day convinced he was on the cusp of something big. The theoretical physicist had focused on his pet research project for months. A breakthrough so close, it lay in tasting range.
Those months passed, one season blurring into another. Artie scarcely knew the time of day. Eating had no priority. His team worked non-stop. They’d say, ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead…’ Then they’d laugh. No one had died so far.
Artie hoped humor would get them through this crunch.
Artie’s main IT guy, Derrick, petitioned to add four hours to each day. They could work twenty and still sleep a full eight.
If his theory proved out, Artie’s legacy would have historical implications. The computer models supported his dream of a Nobel Prize bearing his name.
He left before his family awakened. He didn’t remember the commute. Artie barely knew his name. His identity and this project were fused.
He settled into his desk chair, entered some code and ran a test. A warning flashed that a bug needed attention.
“What now…?” Artie tapped his fingers. ‘Computers are so slow…’
Artie knew some discoveries were incidental to the research goal. An unpredicted result appears, is analyzed, and recognized. Innovation takes over. Something no one sought presents itself and changes everything. Millions of people benefit from a meaningful detour. The original purpose may become superfluous as the discovery captures the news.
Ever hear of penicillin? Who would expect moldy bread to save lives? The list goes on.
This anomaly would be okay, as long as he could isolate and develop it. It doesn’t always work out. Either way, he needed to solve the problem. Today.
Derrick had been seeking the elusive bug for days. He’d say he had it. Then report its mysterious disappearance. Frustration plus exhaustion wasted time.
Artie received Derrick’s latest test. His intuition kicked in. He tweaked the data.
Aha! The light went on. The trail was hot.
‘But no. That can’t be.’
He stared at the screen. He broke away and walked around the compound. It made no sense. He stopped at a mirror. Was that his reflection? Or hallucination?
‘What’s going on?’
He double checked his calculations. All sound. But the conclusions defying belief, were unmistakable, and undeniable. They made no sense. Months of data proved he, Artie Fischer, did not exist.
As in: Artie Does Not Exist.
“Impossible!” Artie threw a cup across the room. He didn’t look when it smashed. He rolled his eyes. That’s not his style. “But this!”
He walked to the kitchen. He expected each step to sink through the linoleum. But that wouldn’t happen. He didn’t exist.
Withholding the results, Artie sent Derrick the computations for analysis.
Derrick ran the sequence, shook his head, and scribbled some notes. He made a calculation and reran it.
He said, “I see… no, wait! No… It can’t be…” He looked at Artie on the screen. “I don’t get it. I thought I caught it. But no. Your code is perfect. I’m sorry.” He turned away and sobbed. “How can this be? I loved working with you.”
Artie cleared his throat. Derrick composed himself. Their eyes shifted from one screen to another, from their images to the stark results.
“Wait! It’s ridiculous. You’re not dead. You’re there, on the screen.”
“Derrick. It says I don’t exist.”
“When’s the funeral?”
“Focus Derrick. They don’t have funerals for what doesn’t exist. There’d be no time for anything else. Funerals celebrate the dead. And I’m not dead.”
Derrick nodded. “That makes sense.” But it didn’t. “How do you feel?”
Sitting in separate offices, they stared at each other via their monitors.
“How do you think I feel?”
“You checked the calcs, Der. Do they lie?”
“No. Yes. I don’t know… They’re your numbers. Are they wrong?”
“They cancel everything I know to be true. I don’t feel non-existent… But I’m a scientist. My feelings don’t count. I observe the physical universe. I trust the data.”
“Maybe everything you know is wrong and you’re living a lie.”
“Like when in a random series of numbers, what appears to be a non-random series appears…”
“Like 1, 2, 3, 4…”
“Exactly. It seems wrong. Our pattern hungry minds try to impose order. They project non-randomness. True randomness has no pattern.”
“Sure. Basic Chaos theory…” Hands to his face, Artie slumped back. “We’re so close, Der. Now what?”
“We’ll continue. Or I will.”
“Why stop? I know where you were headed.”
“We can’t let this get out. The grants are to me…”
“I don’t know, Artie. The truth will out, and all that. You look good on grant apps. But I own the grunt work. Somehow, it always falls to me. And I’m the one getting results.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’ll be straight. I should have those grants. You’re the front man. I do the work.”
This was new. Artie cocked his head. “You!”
“Be real. Has anyone ever seen you up close?”
Artie waved at Derrick’s image. “Of course. You’re talking to me right now.”
“Ha! Says ‘Zoom – Man of the Year.’ I mean face to face. You’re pixelating.”
Artie patted his body. It felt solid. “What’s your point?”
“Has anyone met you in the round? On your best day, two dimensions is the best you can muster. When did you actually touch another person?”
“Social anxiety doesn’t cancel my existence, Derrick. What are you driving at?”
Derrick shrugged. “I’ll be honest, Artie. You own the Zoom screen. On screen, you are better than anyone. But an opportunity called to me. So, I removed your third dimension.”
“That’s absurd. Who would do that? Anyway, Quantum mechanics is theoretical. It doesn’t manifest in the macro world.”
“Frankly, I didn’t think you’d notice. Who could predict your existence, or ‘non-existence,’ would pop up as a bug in that read out?”
“Remember? We’re scientists. Prediction is the job. Follow the evidence...”
“You did that. What now?”
“I can’t believe you betrayed me. You came to my house. We partied. Laughed together… Played with my kids.”
“Admitting you have a problem is a powerful first step, Artie. Siri and Alexa whisper behind your back.” Derrick yawned. “Face it. You’re a digital cousin to Ready Kilowatt.”
“Never met him.”
“I’ll send you a picture.”
Derrick made a notation.
He said, “If you’ll excuse me, I have work. Day dreaming may be a welcome diversion but is rarely productive.” He returned to his printout.
Artie felt dismissed. He’d been project director. This was his company. ‘Now I’m reduced to its digital mascot?’ Derrick’s coup opened his eyes. ‘What a fool I am…’
He Skyped his wife, Harper.
“So, they taught you how to hit speed dial.”
Artie told her what happened.
“You don’t exist? That’s why you’re never home. My life has been an illusion. Finally, I’m free. You only found out now? I’ve known for years.”
“Harp, I fathered your children.”
“In your dreams.”
Artie realized he never dreamed.
She pressed her advantage. “Remember? Your hard drive kept crashing? Talk about bad timing…”
He got defensive. “Go ahead, laugh. But expect my salary to disappear.”
That gave her pause. She leaned in to the screen camera. “You look great on the internet ads. That’s the only face time we’ve had… in forever.”
Artie told the truth. “I’m not happy.”
She nodded. “So sad… You do look a bit pixelated.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Who does your hair? The Mario Brothers?”
“I have to go.”
“See you on the web.” Her screen went dark.
Artie realized his life had become a digital feedback loop. He didn’t exist. The lie of his life was the only thing not virtual about it.
His computer sat impassively awaiting his next command.
“What do you know?” he asked it with a shaming tone. He turned it off.
He stepped onto the balcony and gripped the cool metal railing as the sun retreated behind some clouds. The day was warm.
‘Am I but a ripple in the quantum soup?’
He’d often heard people recounting their dreams after waking. Artie realized his life was his only dream. He went dormant, but never slept. ‘Sleep is reserved for those present in their bodies, who exist.’
A tinkling melody drifted up from the street. Artie saw about a dozen adults and children gather around a brightly colored food truck. He’d never seen such a thing.
‘Someone should tell them about their awful sound system…’
Inquisitive at his core, Artie had to investigate.
Artie ran down the stairs, through the lobby and onto the lawn. A flock of crows took flight as the door burst open. Red and orange leaves fluttered from the trees.
As he approached the truck, he saw everyone eating something wrapped in paper. The children stood in a loose circle, giggling between bites.
He approached a man in business attire and asked, “Excuse me. What is that you’re eating?”
The stranger looked at Artie as if he were an alien. He nodded toward the truck decorated with dozens of bright pictures of various ice cream delicacies. He swallowed and wiped bits of chocolate and cream from his mouth.
“Ice cream cone. You haven’t lived ‘til you eat one of these.” He pointed to the distinctive wrapper.
Several of the kids held their identical cones up and said, “Yeah!” The rest began to laugh.
Artie walked up to the truck with its side propped open like an awning. The man inside smiled.
Artie said, “Do you have any more of what they’re eating? What are they called?”
“They’re popular, those Dream-ices.” The man rummaged in the freezer and held a Dream-ice by the protruding stick. “Your lucky day. Last one…”
Artie paid the man and took the paper covered object. Steam ran down its sides and cooled his hand. He carefully ripped the paper open and took a bite.
Flavor exploded into his mouth. He’d never tasted anything like it.
For the first time in his life, Artie began to live.