The invincible human moth
FICTION: a short story about the real magic hidden in quantum physics
When I place the gun in his little hands I feel subtle tremors. Those are new, and I note them to myself as the boy, whose name is Tomas, brushes back the bangs that have grown long during the months we’ve been on the road. His face is pale and his eyes are very wide. He didn’t use to be this nervous when we did this. Months ago he would hold the gun and point it at me in toyish delight, utterly prepared and utterly faithful. He is beginning to suspect the truth. Perhaps he deduced it for himself, or simply read online about my methods.
The camera flashes are bright, so Tomas moves into the folds of the heavy curtains behind me. The news teams and reporters will not stop chattering and adjusting their equipment. This is my first live televised event and the media do not know how to treat me. It is said that my tricks cannot be real, must not be real. People are unsure what to do with true miracles.
I turn to the cameras, kneeling now, while signaling Tomas to come up behind me, the curtains winging closed. My frame, even on my knees, hides him in the shadows. The cameras cannot see him as he raises the gun and presses the muzzle, which is quite cold, against the back of my head. Each time I feel that rounded pressure it consumes my world, drawing me in, down, away. I have to fight to ignore it and concentrate on the act.
“This is no trick. It is real magic. I am now going to teleport an elephant on camera in front of a live audience. There are weight sensors on each platform. I have invited several prominent skeptics here today. There will be no smoke, no mirrors. Just teleportation. There will be only this elephant, which is now on platform one, and then, in an instant, it will be on platform two.”
The crowd hushes itself. There are no spotlights, no mist or fog, no hidden contraptions, no distractions. I can hear Tomas breathing at my back. I clear my throat. The cold circle of the gun grows larger and larger in my mind.
“Three. Two. One.”
The air claps like thunder as it fills the vacuum where the elephant was.
I could, of course, give you backstory. Loads of it, and quite poignant too—my father, out on oil rigs for months at a time in far corners of the world. My mother, long dead. My fault, in a way. I would stay with my aunt, a rounding woman whose children were appropriately mountainous, and I, merely a thin reed who disappeared amid those hurricanes of movement and noise. I barely talked to any of my cousins, except sometimes the eldest brother. He gave me boxes of his old comic books, and he was the reason I read The X-Men, Spiderman, The Swamp Thing, Batman, Superman, and especially Doctor Strange. In my room I spent hours staring at lamps, pens, figurines, bottle caps, trapped insects buzzing inside bottles, trying to make them move. I was sure that my lack of remarkable traits was a mistake, a cosmic blunder. But I did learn how to make it seem like things vanished. I learned sleight of hand, and each time I sat on my bed alone and lifted the top card of the deck and saw the card I had selected earlier I felt the tiniest thrill of impossibility.
When my father came home I could feel his detachment, his wonderment at having raised a son like this. I knew he was unnerved by the way I stood and watched, the way I hovered at the entrances of rooms, never seeming to enter. He felt there was something of an insect about me, like a moth stilling itself. An older patience.
Ultimately, this is why my backstory matters little. I am inexplicable and unique. The human moth.
The backstory of my magic, however, matters quite a lot. Its origin is in the local library, which became my fortress of solitude, reading at first comic books, then later, popular science. At state college I ambitiously decided to study physics, thinking it would be a community where my social awkwardness wouldn’t matter. This proved a disappointment. I couldn’t do the math, and provoked only middling support from my professors.
I applied to twelve graduate school programs but didn’t get into any of them. So I returned to live at my father’s house and worked at a local deli ringing in orders. I practiced magic in my room and began putting my first show together. On the bus to work I still occasionally read physics papers.
It was while reading on the bus that I came across a 1987 paper by Hans Moravec. In it he proposed a thought experiment called “quantum suicide.” It’s a version of the famous Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment, where a cat is put in a box with some method of releasing poison gas if a Geiger counter clicks. The Geiger counter picks up atomic decay, which, in the box at least, is totally random. According to the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics, two universes branch at each moment that the Geiger counter could or could not click. In one universe, the cat dies. In the other universe the cat lives. But Hans Moravec imagined instead that a person climbs into the box, not a cat. As the multiverse splits, one version of the person lives while the other dies from the poison gas. Consciousness, by definition, always continues on in the one who lives. So to a person who climbs into the box it seems like the Geiger counter never clicks. Your consciousness automatically defaults to the universe in which the poison is never released. You are by definition only aware in the worlds where you do not die, and by the rules of quantum physics, there are always worlds in which you do not die.
I began to think about the thought experiment incessantly, like digging at a scab. And the comic books continued to pile up in loose stacks throughout my room.
The quantum suicide thought experiment has a strange punch-line. If a truck is speeding toward you there are some universes where the bus simply goes through you. It is a cosmically rare event for a solid object to phase through another unharmed, but according to quantum physics, it can happen. Of course, in most universes you die. But your consciousness, by definition, continues only in the very few improbable ones where you live, the ones in which the truck, by some incredibly unlikely outcome of waveform collapse, passes through you like a ghost. So you never die. You never die. Every time you are about to die, it seems to you that some incredibly improbable event saves your life. Think about the times in your life where you slammed the breaks down just in time, or caught hold of a railing before falling down the steps. Did versions of you not? How many times have versions of you pulled out into the street without looking? Or hit your head on the concrete bottom of a pool when diving. Or choked while eating alone? Perhaps you are the beneficiary of a great cosmic irony without knowing it.
I found Tomas because I could not do it myself. Holding the gun to my head in a hotel room, I swore I would pull the trigger if the card at the top of the randomly-shuffled deck didn’t come up the way I wanted it to. I could hear the murmurs and laugh-track of the television next door through the wall. I had performed my first stage magic act earlier that night. The audience had left in a small trickle throughout the show. The lights had been murderously hot, and I had stinging sweat in my eyes at the end when I retreated behind the curtain and sunk to the floor.
In my hotel room I swore and cursed and promised myself I would do it and cocked the gun and put it to my temple and raged and then counted down. The laugh-track from the neighboring room sounded through the thin walls. And I didn’t pull the trigger. I couldn’t.
But someone else could. Someone who didn’t know the consequences. Tomas was a ward of the state who I met at a magic shop. I fed him popsicles and let him leaf through my comic books. He had a mop of wheat-colored hair and constantly sticky fingers. I told him I would take him far away from his guardians, that it would be like running away with the circus. I told him I would show him real magic.
The elephant appears with a low moan and a creak of wood on the second platform. There are screams and gasps from the audience, and then a thunderous applause. It is the first time my act has been on national television. It will not be the last. I like the feeling of knowing that people are sitting at their couches, their chairs, their kitchen tables, watching and wishing they could do what I do. They could, of course. They just don’t have the courage.
I turn and take the gun from Tomas’s hands. He is smiling a gap-toothed smile from the darkness of the curtains. I brush his hair aside and pocket the compact gun.
The praise of the journalists means nothing to me. When I see myself on the television later that night I look like an insect stuffed inside a magician’s outfit. My skin is pale and pathetic and patchy fuzz rings my chin. My fingers are long and I notice that when I talk they move around me on their own.
I care only that I am a superhero. That I am The Moth.
My reign as the greatest living magician was spent mostly hiding out in my trailer, never staying in one place for more than a few days at a time. I would put on impromptu shows and let them be captured by camera-phones and circulated on the Internet. The Moth became a national hero, a villain, a legend, part of American mythology.
Of course, eventually my secret got out. All superheroes have their identity revealed. All magic tricks are explained, especially if they really are magic. A famous physicist and skeptic figured it out and wrote several articles about my methods. He explained that at each act there is a small chance that the magic trick I wish to perform at that moment would occur via a very improbable quantum waveform collapse, a trillion in a trillion chance. The card comes up my way. Or the elephant, in some astronomically improbable universe, actually gets teleported. What I do is simply eliminate myself from all of the universes in which my magic trick does not happen. So I always end up in one where the trick occurred.
Let me put it plainly: I commit suicide if my trick doesn’t work. Thus by default my consciousness ends up only in one of the universes in which the immensely improbable event, the trick, actually happened. I make correlation look like causation. I use the axiom that I cannot die to demand the impossible of reality.
It is strange to only live in the improbable worlds. Once I was teleported instead of the elephant, and Tomas’s bullet whizzed past my ear and cut a hole in the far side of the circus tent. He dropped the gun as the crowd panicked, his eyes wide and rolling in fear. In whatever universe I was in he had never seen the gun go off before.
That same night Tomas told me he wouldn’t do it anymore. He told me had figured it out, that it all made sense now, that it was horrible. That he was a murderer. I told him I could show him how it worked, that it would all be okay. We were in our trailer, which was full of red velvet, tassels and beads, and dirty dishes. He raged against me and pounded my chest and then clung to me as if drowning. I told him it would all be all right and went to the lockbox and got out the handgun, which I loaded while he rocked back and forth in a corner. He saw me loading it and tried to stand and run but I moved to the door and blocked it and he retreated to the back of the trailer, lowing like an animal. I hushed him and held the pistol to his head and told him that it was alright, he was going to be fine, we were all going to be fine. I shuffled the deck. I asked him what the top card was. He wouldn’t answer for hours. But he finally did, exhausted. And then I was nearly deaf and covered in hot splatter, like heated oil.
I buried him in the New Jersey woods in a small and shallow grave. His tiny body was surprisingly heavy and it hurt my back to dig so much. I was not upset. I knew that he had gotten the answer right in some universe. Now he could go on to be god of his own little worlds.
If you’re horrified I ask you this: how precisely did it matter?
Six months after my national debut, in a garage in Maine, surrounded by medical alcohol, bright lamps, and the thin alien silver of surgical instruments, a doctor I bribed installed a home-made laser into the back of my skull, aimed at my brain. I can still reach up and feel it, a rough and jagged scar where the hair never grew back. This is how one becomes a superhero.
Brian, my new boy, could just sit in the crowd and hold the remote. I stopped bullets in midair shot at me by audience members. I lifted and threw a truck thirty feet in Times Square. I gave the President of the United States a heart attack and then stopped it with a click of my fingers on national television.
To be able to do what no one else can do, to actually have superpowers, is like inhaling the sun. There are rules, of course. Don’t demand things which fall outside the rules of quantum mechanics. Random events are the easiest, like winning the lottery (I didn’t even bother to claim the money). Making others drop dead. Teleportation is okay, under the right conditions. But things must be visible and discernible to the one pulling the trigger. Sometimes this is especially difficult.
When they brought the body of the girl to me I knew that I was going to perform the greatest magic trick. Christ’s trick. Brian held the remote to my skull laser and I knelt down in front of her gray and rubbery skin. Phones were held up to record the scene. There were protestors outside, holding signs which said that what I did was illegal, inhumane. They had pelted my car with eggs and rocks when my driver pulled up. They screamed I was going to die. They screamed I would make someone a murderer. But there are no laws concerning what I do.
The girl’s name had been Shelley. I laid my hands on her cold chest and I counted to three and then a scream burst from the dead girl’s mouth and she flushed with color and rocketed upright, vomiting a black substance composed of the river bed she’d been found in. As horrified yells and spoken prayers echoed from the audience the girl flayed upwards, her fleshy, still-swollen body falling off the platform. Her family members ran up, crying her name. And so, for a brief moment, I was truly Jesus Christ. The greatest of superheroes.
Of course, the thing inside was not Shelley. As the days went on and all she did was moan and rock back and forth and refuse to eat the family accused me of returning a random idiot to them, an animal. On CNN Shelley’s mother said that the thing now in Shelley’s body didn’t know the family, had tried to bite them. She said it had eaten their cat.
I told Brian it was his fault, even though I knew it wasn’t. Asking the boy to distinguish between when I brought back something and when I brought back Shelley was too complicated.
The reason my trick is the best magic trick that has ever been invented is that no one else can ever imitate it. Of course, I have seen people try. And I have watched them die, always horribly, on stage. I saw a man drown in a swimming tank. I saw another hang himself. Jokingly, some copy-cat magicians passed out raincoats to those in the front row, for the blood splatter. The attention the press and public paid to magic skyrocketed. It was a national trend. But the probability of me ending up in a universe where another performer survives the trick is miniscule. The trick only works from the first-person perspective. But when they die I never laugh. I always pay them respect, in my way.
When the police finally come for me I let them into my trailer with almost relief. My knee aches, and I walk with a hunch. One eye is gone and only a tender scar remains from where the bullet skimmed against the surface of my skull and came out the socket. Electric burns run down my neck. I have a guarantee of never dying, but no promise as to what the continuation will be. Maiming is possible in my strange worlds, even, I’m beginning to understand, more likely than not.
So when they storm into my trailer with a warrant I am lying amid the dirty piles of clothes and dishes. Tyler was never as good at cleaning as the others, and in this universe I killed him a few weeks back, so the troopers have to kick aside rotting take-out food boxes and tangled robes to get to me. They take me limping to a police cruiser and call me a monster. They still do not understand what I’ve demonstrated, what it means for them.
I’m accused of four counts of first degree murder. A hiker found the little rows of graves in the woods. There are actually six, two that I put into landfills at night, but who’s counting? I taught them all real magic, in the end, and anyways they’re all fine in their own worlds.
The jury obviously found me guilty, although my lawyer got them to consider me criminally insane. The very idea of being imprisoned for a duration of time is laughable to me. As if the normal concepts of life and death applied to anyone, let alone me, and were not just collaborative illusions.
Now I wake every day only to stare at the ceiling, relieving myself in tubes. Every movement is pain. I am covered in scars and burns, which run up and down my torso. My legs, which are prosthetics, tremble. Just shifting my weight in my bed hurts. I have been here for decades, perhaps centuries. I don’t know anymore. Cancer has debilitated me without killing me. They won’t let me out of my room. I can’t remember the last time I was outside. They say I am insane.
I need a gun. I am full of courage now. I am sure I could do it, that I could hold it to my head and pull the trigger. I could make the walls disappear and escape. I could make the orderlies drop dead from heart attacks. I just need a gun.
It’s taken decades but everyone has forgotten me. The rules have gotten lax. A young boy has begun to come by, and I’ve started talking to him as much as I can still talk. His name is Jonas and he is autistic. An orderly told me years ago that most children are autistic now. Jonas’s mother is incarcerated here too. I gave him some of my Jello. He told me about his father and his collection of old guns. I told him I will show him a magic trick if he brings me one of his father’s guns. I will show him the greatest magic trick he has ever seen. I will show him an old man who becomes young again.
Now I wait for the gun and plan. This time around, my ambitions will be far grander. With this long invalidism with which to mull things over, I have grown detached from the word “superhero.” I’ve found a word with a more enticing ring instead: “God Emperor.”