Yancy heard the ship roaring from the hangar but didn’t turn to watch. He paused to listen for a moment, whilst keeping his eyes firmly fixed on Neena’s back as she negotiated with the Professor for access to his underground lab. He wondered why they hadn’t just followed the directions Phil had given them, but she’d insisted; he’d acquiesced after seeing the look in her eye, with the fervent hope that he’d never have to see it again.
Somewhere in the distance an owl hooted, joined soon by its compatriots as they swarmed back into the hangar. Just another of the twisted little details about the world Yancy found himself in, though at that one was fairly benign as oddities went. The owls were still hooting at each other when the Professor looked over at Yancy and motioned him toward the lab. Which was odd. Yancy glanced over his shoulder at the hangar, wondering what the critters were so worked up about.
“Yancy, my boy.” The Professor held out his hand and weakly grabbed Yancy’s shoulder. “I don’t know why you two are planning to visit the sewers and, frankly, I don’t care if you drown down there. However, since you are going, perhaps you could look out for a few radiated stool samples I flushed away this morning?”
“Auh...” Yancy blinked and tried to hide his grimace. “Are you asking me to look for your poop?”
“Oh my, yes. It was an experiment I was conducting, on the effects of certain radioactive isotopes on kitchen appliances such as toasters. Unfortunately I mixed up the yellowcake with some hard buggalo cheese, and, well...” he waved a hand toward a covered cloth in the corner of the lab. The air above it was shimmering. “Hermes is convinced there’s someone stealing company food but frankly I think I may just have used it in an experiment without noticing. Anyway, I’d like my isotopes back.”
Yancy took a deep breath. He gave the professor a half-hearted nod. “I’ll see what I can do, Professor.”
“Ahh, good man... now, if you two will just step a little closer...”
The professor indicated the patch of floor immediately before him. Leela and Yancy stepped onto it with a little apprehension – more in Yancy’s case. He knew what was coming.
“I suppose you use some sort of-” Neena managed, before the floor dropped away beneath them. Yancy was impressed that she didn’t scream even though it was her first conscious visit to the laboratory complex. At the same time he felt a little put out, since he had screamed the first time, all the way down, convinced he was going to be smashed to pieces at the bottom of the elevator shaft. He reached out his hand just a fraction and felt Neena’s reaching toward him. Their fingers twined together and she looked at him with a nervous half smile on her lips. But then the look was gone again.
Her reaction to the complex itself was cool at best, with barely an acknowledgement of the sheer volume of the cavernous chamber. She looked around it once from their vantage point on a wall-mounted cargo elevator above the majority of the ‘city’, made a vaguely appreciative noise and turned to stare down at the nearest road.
“Neena, why are we down here? Phil gave us directions-”
“I know, but we’re going to the sewers and I’d rather not be seen climbing down there out in public.” Neena looked at him and smiled, so that he was almost convinced. But not quite. “People might get the wrong idea.”
“I don’t think-”
“Yancy, don’t argue with me!”
Neena slammed her fist against the railing, hard enough to bring a sympathetic tear to Yancy’s eye. She grimaced, muttered something unrepeatable under her breath and turned away from the view. Her eye, holding the emotions it held right then, was a terrible sight to behold.
“I don’t know why but this way is...” She pressed a shaking hand against her forehead and seemed to shiver. “It’s better. It feels right.”
Neena turned again slightly, watching the Professor as he bumbled around the elevator. They were descending toward the floor of the chamber already. Yancy hadn’t even noticed, had no idea when they’d started moving but it didn’t seem to matter to Neena. She paced back and forth, her eye fixed on a building in the middle-distance, just beyond the large warehouse that Professor Farnsworth kept some of his larger experiments in.
They drew to a halt with a rumbling jerk. The elevator, free-standing, bounced from side to side a few times as it settled into place and then the railings fell away on either side with a loud hiss, to permit an exit. Neena looked at Yancy and the Professor, then marched away down the street without a backward glance.
“What’s got into her?”
“Ohh, she’s female,” Farnsworth mused. “I uh, didn’t want to say anything before but I suspect the strain of being in such close proximity to a duplicate of her own mind is causing a few... irregularities?”
“What do you mean?” They started walking after Neena, moving at a much reduced pace so that the Professor could keep up with Yancy. Normally Yancy was used to walking a lot faster than most people, though he was never sure why he did it. It felt safer, as if maybe the past wouldn’t catch up with him. Regardless, the pace of their progress was frustratingly slow.
“You understand the implications of such duplication?”
“Not really... isn’t it just like cloning?”
Farnsworth shook his head. He brushed the gauzy red strands of his fringe to one side as he spoke. “A mere clone would not have this effect. The problem is that they are duplicated at the quantum level. In fact they are the same particles, in essence, occupying the same quantum probability space even if they appear to be separate events at the macroscopic level.”
“I didn’t understand a word of that but, please, go on talking.” Yancy shook his head. Perhaps he should have paid more attention in science class.
“Quite... well, you at least understand how parallel universes work?”
“I saw a TV show about it when I was a kid but it seemed a bit unlikely.”
“Yes, yes, it seems completely preposterous on the surface...” Farnsworth slowed down a fraction from his already frustratingly slow pace as he rubbed his chin. “Say you have just two parallel universes. Normally they would occupy the same physical space but they are completely isolated from each other, in separate quantum probability spaces.”
“Like two pictures on the same piece of paper?”
Farnsworth stared at Yancy for a good few seconds, just long enough for Yancy to wonder if he was having another stroke until the old man shook his head and sighed.
“I’d have more luck explaining it to an electronically enhanced monkey... oh, now that would be an interesting experiment, but how would I power it? Sunspots?”
“Wha? Oh yes, the universe thing. Yes. I... maybe some sort of a hat...”
Yancy grabbed the Professor’s arm and pulled him to a halt. “Professor Farnsworth, you have to tell me what’s going on!”
“Oh... yes...” Farnsworth shrugged off Yancy’s grip and rubbed his arm, glaring reproachfully at Yancy as he did so. “Where was... ah yes, the quantum probability space. Yes. Each probability space describes a possible form for the physical universe if its quantum waveform were to collapse at that point. The problem comes when you take a particle from one space and transfer it into another. You see the effect that would have, surely?”
“Well... no, not really.” Yancy rubbed the back of his head and tried to think. “They, I dunno, try and... sit on each other or something?”
“Remarkably enough you’re completely wrong. Ah but, you’re thinking in the right direction.” Farnsworth began walking again, humming to himself as he went. “We’re seeing a quantum particle in a superposition of states, which is meant to be physically impossible. Normally just observing a particle collapses it into the most probable quantum state for a given quantum probability space. In this case there seems to be some resistance to that collapse.”
“And this is a bad thing.”
“I have no idea,” Professor Farnsworth said, rubbing his hands together with unconcealed glee. “But I’m going to enjoy finding out, oh my yes. The paradox may just resolve itself in a nice, painless way but there’s always the possibility that it will resolve by collapsing back into a single, observable state. In the, uh, meantime there’ll be a lot of very interesting science to be done. It could open up all sorts of possibilities!”
“Professor, I really don’t understand what you’re getting at.”
They slowed as they reached Neena, who had stopped in the middle of the street. She was staring at a manhole cover that, Yancy realised, looked like it had been moved very recently. There was even a faint cut in the road surface where the cover had scraped as it was pulled back into place.
Farnsworth tilted his head, staring at the cover without actually looking at it. “I wouldn’t expect someone of your mental capacity to even begin comprehending the ramifications.”
“Well uh... all right, you see the problem is that these identical particles are effectively entangled. You know what entangling is?”
“Kinda,” Yancy said. Neena was still staring at the cover, unmoving as a statue. It was disturbing. “It’s where two atoms act like they’re the same thing, right?”
“In a manner of speaking. The science of your time had barely begun to probe quantum theory but they saw quantum entanglement as something that had potential to revolutionise long-distance communications. Of course about twenty years after you left, your brother invented the anteluminal interstellar radio, rendering the concept obsolete...”
“Dammit!” Yancy ran his hand over his face and stared toward the distant mural on the wall that had haunted every moment of his life. “Is there anything he didn’t do?”
“I uh... well...” Farnsworth frowned, wrinkling his brow a little more than usual. “That doesn’t matter! The point is, when two particles are entangled at the quantum level, one particle will reflect changes made to the other. They communicate, instantly, no matter how far apart they are.”
“So what does-”
“These two are made up of billions of entangled particles, but their entanglement is a result of the particles being the same instead of merely being linked to each other.”
“But what does that mean?”
“I can describe the results of observation, but explaining the mechanism behind it would probably give you a brain haemorrhage even worse than the one I’m having right now.”
Yancy rubbed the back of his head and sighed. “So really what you’re saying is, you haven’t a damn clue what’s going on?”
“Great...” Yancy stepped to one side of Neena, the better to see her face. She was staring at the manhole, her eye fixed and steady, barely even blinking. He waved his hand in front of her face and snapped his fingers a few times, which seemed to grab her attention. “Neena, wake up.”
“What... Yancy?” She shook her head and squeezed her eye shut, taking a deep breath and then sighed. “Sorry, I was... actually I have no idea what I was doing.”
Neena knelt down and touched the manhole cover. When she looked up her face was pale but determined. Yancy knelt down beside her.
“Neena, why are we down here?”
“It feels right,” she said, before levering the manhole cover out of its rest and pushing it to one side, narrowly missing Professor Farnsworth’s feet. He didn’t seem to notice. The smell of stale sewage drifted up out of the dark pit, sulphurous and dank, but not overpowering. “I don’t know why, it just feels...”
She shook her head and shrugged, leaping into the darkness of the sewer before Yancy could react. He shouted after her, then looked about himself in frustration before settling on the Professor.
“I guess I should follow her?”
“That’s what I thought,” Yancy said quietly. He patted Farnsworth’s shoulder, then clambered down the surprisingly clean ladder to the sewers below.
“And don’t forget my isotopes!” The professor’s voice echoed around the dim sewer like a forlorn lost ghost, bouncing back from the distant, invisible tunnels until it distorted into a meaningless incoherence. Yancy ignored it and stepped away from the ladder.
The first thing that struck Yancy was just how dark it was, even a few feet from the safety the light immediately under the manhole. The second was how dry everything felt underfoot, as if this part of the sewer wasn’t used very often. He stumbled a few steps into the darkness and stopped.
His voice echoed through the tunnels and back at him, distorted and much louder than he’d expected, and returning for longer than he thought possible as the sound reflected back and forth in numerous side tunnels and tubes. It was like being greeted by a crowd of hollow-voiced relatives. Yancy put out his hands and shuffled forward until they pressed up against a dry, smooth brick wall. He didn’t want to think about what was on the wall’s surface.
He couldn’t tell where she was, but at least she was still around. Yancy stumbled along the wall for a few years and stopped again. He held his breath; another, quiet regular breath sounded a short distance away. “Neena, is that you?”
“I can’t see a thing.”
“Huh. Take my hand.”
Yancy felt a hand grab his arm, then his shoulder, before settling on his face. He blinked in the darkness; if he concentrated he could just about make out the shape of Neena’s head and hair in front of him so he reached down and-
“Sorry...” Yancy gingerly removed his hand from Neena’s chest and sought out her arm.
He nodded, curious if Neena really could see that well down here. She gave his arm a sharp tug as she set off down the tunnel, which meant either she could see, or just didn’t care whether he was ready or not. Yancy’s inner cynic decided it was the latter, unfair as the rest of his mind thought that might be.
They strode silently through the tunnels, passing from the dim, musty dryness of the disused sewers beneath the complex to other, damper and much more potent passages. At first Yancy tried to block the smell out but, after a while, it felt like his nose had shut down – all he could feel was the irritation of ammonia and sulphur in the air, stinging his eyes and tickling at the back of his throat, and the slick warmth of methane gas drifting past his skin.
“Neena, this isn’t the way Phil said-”
He thumped into Neena’s back, almost knocking them both to the ground until Neena managed to right them. She turned in the darkness and peered at him which, in itself, was interesting, as he hadn’t expected to be able to see anything at all down here. He realised there was a faint light casting down from somewhere high above, filtering in from side-tunnels and shafts into the sewers.
“His directions were wrong,” she said, turning away again and looking around the tunnel. She held up the map for a momen, then quickly screwed it up into a ball and tossed it away into the darkness. Yancy stepped away and almost leaned against the wall until he remembered where he was. He shuddered.
“How do you know?”
“I don’t know, it just... feels familiar. Like I’ve been here before.” She frowned at Yancy, her gaze almost accusing. “Why would he try to send me in the wrong direction?”
“Maybe the sewers are laid out differently in his universe.”
“Maybe.” Neena nodded slightly but the frown remained, fixing that little crinkle to her brow. She reached out for Yancy’s arm and resumed their trek along the tunnel.
Hermes knelt down in front of the fridge for what seemed like the hundredth time that day, carefully listing and sorting the contents into a neat set of piles graded for consistency, texture and colour. There was definitely something missing. Half of his jerked pork supply, for one thing, as well as twelve slices of bread, four pickles and six point five portions of the gellatinated non-dairy Gouda flavoured calcium-enriched cheese-style paste. He’d accounted for the food eaten by their new guests and potential employees – the tax breaks from that potential employment more than offset that little loss as long as they didn’t become actual employees – but there was still a discrepancy.
He piled the food back into the fridge, making a note to find some way of rationing the remainder to maintain the current food budget. Then he returned to his office, his mind racing gleefully through the number of forms he’d have to fill in to record the unidentified possible theft. It would give him a chance to try out the new stamping technique he’d read about in Bureaucrat’s Monthly for April 2998. It had just been delivered that morning.
As he passed by the hangar he noticed a drift of tobacco smoke in the air. He stopped to look into the hanger. “Bender? You in there, ya useless machine?”
No answer. Hermes shrugged and carried on his way, oblivious to the eye staring down at him from the hangar roof.