“As you know,” explained the technician, “we don’t actually conduct any of our own research here. We merely continue the work of others: work that simply could not be completed within one lifetime. The box, however, is…”
“I’ve always wondered,” interrupted the senator, “why they didn’t just do the work in a rocket travelling at relativistic speeds.”
“Because that’s not how relativity works,” explained the technician, trying not to sound condescending. “You can’t extend your lifespan just by moving quickly…well, unless you’re jogging!” He snorted at his own joke, but, awkwardly, the senator didn’t join in. The technician moved on. “But the box,” he continued. “The box is interesting.”
They came to the polished steel lift that would take them down into the facility. The technician considered that this would be a good time to explain to the senator some of the science behind the box. The lift would be an appropriate backdrop to the explanation, and had the advantage of being fairly early on in their journey: the technician had the impression that he would have to explain quite slowly.
“You are familiar,” he began, as the doors slid shut, “with the ‘Schrödinger’s Cat’ thought experiment?”
“Hmmm. Moderately familiar,” the senator drawled, “but it couldn’t hurt to refresh my memory.”
“Well,” he continued, “way back in the early days of quantum physics, a man called Schrödinger suggested that if a cat were put in a box with a device that had a fifty percent chance of killing it, the cat would, until the box was opened and the result observed, exist in two states—alive and dead—at the same time.”
“And this is the box I’ve been dragged down here to see? Some sort of unreliable cat killing machine?” The lift stopped, the doors opened and the senator stepped out briskly, his shoulders hunched. The technician had to scurry to catch up.
“Oh no,” he replied. “Our box came several decades later. There’s no cat in it, and it works on an entirely different principle…”
“What’s all this talk about cats, then? If there’s no cats then why do you bring them up at all? Don’t you know I’m an exceedingly busy man?”
The technician quickly gave up all hope of explaining the workings of the box. Instead, he focused on regaining the senator’s attention and good humour. “Actually, there was once a cat in this box.”
“Hm?” The senator slowed down and the technician nearly bumped into him. His shoes squeaked on the polished floor as he spun to avoid making contact.
“Yes,” he said, regaining his balance and falling in line beside the senator. “Doctor Kirkwood, the scientist who developed the box, had a bit of a sense of humour. You see, he used a cat to test the box, as a little nod to Schrödinger.” He snorted again.
“Well, was there anything interesting about this cat?”
“Not when it went in, no. For scientific purposes, it had to be a perfectly ordinary cat. But Kirkwood put it into the box when it was only a kitten, and didn’t take it out again until it was fifty-five years old!”
“So your box ages cats instead of killing them? Is that so impressive?”
“No no.” The technician waved his hands frantically. “Kirkwood waited fifty-five years before opening the box again, but that’s the thing. The cat aged at a normal rate, but fifty-five years is a truly remarkable lifespan for a cat, even if it did only survive for a day or two after leaving the box.”
“What did it die of?” asked the Senator.
The technician shrugged. “Old age. It was the box that was keeping it alive.”
The senator was genuinely becoming interested. Despite all the hype about the facility, generated by the approach of its four hundredth anniversary, it had never struck him as anything more than a curiosity. It had never until now promised anything truly impressive. Dense as he was, he was beginning to see what this “box” was supposed to do.
“So, this box. It’s a sort of immortality machine?”
“You might call it that.” The technician nodded, eager to keep the senator interested, even if it was apparent that his grasp of the device’s function was more than a little vague.
“How does it work, then?”
The technician almost allowed himself to try again, but stopped at the last possible second. “If all goes well,” he said, dramatically, “Doctor Kirkwood will be able to explain that himself. But I don’t think I would spoil the occasion for him by describing, roughly, what his box is supposed to do.”
They had, by now, reached the viewing window. Beyond this lay a sturdy metal structure, like a large cupboard, complete with door. “This is the box?” asked the senator.
“A part of it, yes,” replied the technician. “More specifically the entrance. The name’s a little misleading. The ‘box’ is in actuality Doctor Kirkwood’s entire laboratory, which lies beneath our feet. He had it proofed against any possible disaster and fitted with all the things necessary to sustain him during his five century stay. He’ll be expecting somebody to greet him—the experiment was well-publicised when it began—but, due to the nature of the box, he doesn’t know that the employees of this facility have been watching over him for the past four hundred years.” He smiled. “It’ll be a pleasant surprise, don’t you think?”
“Hmm. Quite. But you were going to tell me about the box.”
“Oh yes. Well, thinking back to Schrödinger’s Cat… Doctor Kirkwood didn’t believe that the cat in that box would be alive and dead simultaneously.”
“Hmph,” grunted the senator. “Quite right. That sounds like nonsense.”
“Yes, well. This was way back when quantum mechanics was still in its infancy.” The technician struggled to keep his voice free of sarcasm. “These people hadn’t had the kind of education that you’ve had. Of course you’re well aware that even before the box was opened, the universe had split in two: in one universe the cat was alive, and in the other the cat was dead.”
“Yes,” agreed the senator. “I am well aware of that.”
“This splitting, naturally, happens whenever a situation has more than one possible outcome. The rolling of a die, for example, could be considered to produce six subsequent universes: one in which a one was rolled, one a two, etcetera. Of course, realistically the roll of the die would produce a virtually infinite number of alternative universes since the die could land virtually anywhere on the table—or off of it.”
The senator squinted at him for a moment. “Quite right,” he said.
“What Kirkwood’s box does,” explained the technician, “is not to interfere with this process. Instead, it merely monitors the events inside it. The world inside the box is not entirely connected with our own, and instead from our perspective can be considered a conglomeration of multiple universes. As Doctor Kirkwood will be with us momentarily, may I skip over some of the more technical details of his project?”
“If you must.”
“Essentially, the box has not actually granted Doctor Kirkwood immortality. It merely ensures that, when we open it in a few moments, he will by some miracle of chance still be alive in the particular universe that becomes connected to our own. There will be a vast number of alternate histories in which this is not the case. In some, he will have had a heart attack inside the box. In others, the machine recycling the air will have malfunctioned and he will have suffocated. The box can actually only contain a tiny, tiny fraction of the universes that exist: it will not contain a universe in which Doctor Kirkwood was hit by a bus on the morning he was due to enter. Frankly, it would take a very, very peculiar string of events to have preserved Doctor Kirkwood’s life for five hundred years. However, if any such string of events is possible, the box will ensure that they, and no other, become incorporated into our own history today. The unnatural longevity of his cat proves this.”
The senator was well and truly lost. “Ingenious,” he said. “I look forward to meeting the man who came up with such an idea in such an unenlightened time.”
“I’m sure you do,” smiled the technician. “But just in case…” he took a phone from his pocket and pressed a button before speaking into it. “Teams A and B please report to the viewing room. Both A and B, thank you.”
The senator turned to see a large group of armed men appear from a door to one side of the lift in which he had arrived. They wore the latest body armour, sealed head to toe and proof even against the void of space. The technician waved them into the room ahead, where they took up positions around the box, weapons trained on its great steel door.
“What…but…” the senator began to stammer.
The technician patted him reassuringly on the back. “This is just a precaution, I assure you. We deeply hope that Doctor Kirkwood will emerge through that door safe and sound and in his right mind, though almost certainly very, very old. However, please understand that the box could reveal any possible outcome of his stay in which he is alive. It makes no other guarantees about his condition.”
“You mean he could be…mad?”
“After five hundred years locked up alone in there, that’s very likely. It’s actually one of the less unpleasant outcomes of this particular project. Think of what we know: the box does not contain a universe which cannot exist. That would be impossible. It also does not contain any of the possible universes in which Kirkwood is not still alive at this very moment. That whittles it down to just the miracles.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad.”
“But even among miracles,” continued the technician, “some things are more likely than others. The fifty-five year old cat was a miracle, but only a small one. I’ve heard of cats living up to forty or so with proper care. While none of them are very likely, there are probably quite a lot of ways a cat could survive up to fifty-five.”
The senator was confused. “Well, if a cat can do it, why not a person?”
“That’s the thing. I don’t think any possible series of events could extend the human lifespan by five hundred years.”
“But you just told me that the box couldn’t do anything impossible. Are you saying that Kirkwood is dead after all?”
“No,” replied the technician, “he must be alive. I’m just saying he’s no longer human.”
There was a soft click as the door of the box unlocked, and the thing that had once been Kirkwood burst out, screeching. One of the soldiers was thrown into the toughened viewing window and remained dangling limply, lodged halfway through. The senator caught just a glimpse of the thing from the box before it was demolished by the guns of the others, but that glimpse would last him a lifetime. “I’ll see this place shut down!” he barked at the technician. “I’ll see that you can’t do anything like this again!”
“That’s the thing,” explained the technician. “As I said, we don’t actually conduct any of our own research: we just look after other people’s. In four hundred years, we’ve collected quite a lot of projects like this—many based on Kirkwood’s box itself—and most include some sort of failsafe. Without our continued attention, many would open of their own accord, and it’s getting difficult to prevent that with the resources at hand.”
The senator gawped at him.
“I was really hoping you’d be willing to organise some more funding…”
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