Omphalos Psychosis

Private Journal, April 8, 104, A.T. [the year 2073, Gregorian]:

My latest government assignment ordered me to the Peace Frog, which is a Mary Jane establishment in Pasadena, California. I wish I could say my feminine wiles lured in my target, but really all I needed to do was show up.

  “Yep. That’s right,” the man slurred. “I invented the thing. I invented the Scotty. I get to say that because I was head of the department, you know. Pretty cool shit, right? But believe me, it wasn’t easy.”

  I was trying to appear absent-minded as I listened to the condescending babble of this clearly-under-the-influence old fool. I’d been allowing him to hit on me over the last ten minutes. What a lame pick-up line, telling strange women that he was the one who actually invented the Scotty! He might as well claim to have invented Velcro. Okay, sure, he was telling the truth as it turned out, but I was the only one besides him who actually knew that. I’m also certain I was the only woman that line had ever worked on, and that only because I had to pretend it did.

“You see,” he paused, taking a drag from some absurd miniaturized hookah, “the main problem was resolution. We were easily able to transport matter from point A to point B in an instant, but if we dematerialized, say, a block of stone, all we’d get when it re-materialized at its destination was a pile of sand. If we used a block of wood, all the receiving end got was something resembling sawdust.”

  “But then you realized that the process had to be fine-tuned to below the Planck-length level,” I completed the thought for him, trying to speed things along.

  His bloodshot eyes gave me a look of surprise. “How the hell did you know that?” 

  “I was an engineering major. Besides, it isn’t like this stuff isn’t common knowledge, or anything.” That was certainly true. Name a matter-transport device ‘The Scotty,’ after the Chief Engineer on the Starship Enterprise, and every science fiction geek will want to learn all about it. At least he finally looked at my face instead of my tits for one damned second.

  “Oh,” he finally said. “That’s impressive, uh – sorry, sweetheart, what was your name again? I forgot.”

  “Sarita,” I answered, trying not to look annoyed as I offered him my hand. “Sarita Johansson.”

  “Roger Avon,” he said, accepting my hand, and then planting a disgustingly wet kiss upon the back of it.

“Yes, I remember.” I snatched my generously moistened hand back. Jeez, this guy was as baked as a Hostess cupcake. You know, for the record, I hate hash bars. If Uncle Sam hadn’t ordered me to be there, I wouldn’t be.

  “Um, okay. Well, uh, where was I?”

  “Resolution.”

  “Ah, yes! Well, we did eventually get the resolution issue solved, but it took five whole years at trying to refine the goddamned process. Brownian motion wreaks havoc with the whole thing, you know. Stray atoms got nudged into the wrong places. Wood blocks came out intact, but without any visible grain pattern. A G.I. Joe action figure would come out looking alright, until you tried to pose it, and found that the movable pieces were welded together. But then, you see,” he then brought his face uncomfortably close to mine, “we finally realized that speed was the key. Transport an object fast enough and it doesn’t have any time for the random jostling motion of atoms to have any effect!”

“And that’s when you decided to attempt transporting living animals?” I said, trying to skip to the end of the story.

  He gave a startled laugh which sounded like the snorting of a pig. “Of course not! First, we had to fine-tune the process. We eventually did this, of course. You know, we got so good at it, that we could pour out a pitcher of water on one side and watch the stream never even hit the ground, but on the other side see it materialize into a perfectly positioned glass! So, we started fooling around with it. We put a Mr. Potato Head toy into the Scotty, and had it re-materialize with eyes, mouth and nose in the wrong places. We put a mixed-up Rubik’s cube in, and had it re-materialize solved. Then and only then did we feel that we were ready for living test subjects.”

  “But they didn’t materialize quite right,” I said. It was a flat statement rather than a question. I felt I already knew what he was about to say. But he surprised me.

  “Oh, no! They materialized just fine! We used bacteria at first, and they survived perfectly. Then yeast cells and then plants, and they all came through with no problems. But then we tried our first mouse. It also came through in perfect condition – except that it was dead. We did an autopsy but couldn’t find any cause as to why it died. The same thing happened with the second mouse, and the third. It took us a long time to figure out what was killing the poor, little devils.”

“You know,” I said, trying to coax more out of him, “anybody could learn all this stuff by watching Science News on the Wideweb. It’s a popular Netstream show.” 

  “Yeah,” he said, “but I know stuff that was never documented.”

  I narrowed my eyes on him and lured him in further. “Like what?”

  “Like how the nanotech people got involved.”

  This didn’t strike me as anything like an important detail, but I decided to go off on this tangent with him, anyway. “Yeah, well, I understand that matter-energy and nanotechnology were neighboring divisions in the same R&D department of Gormann Industries. Naturally, they ended up collaborating. So what?”

  He softly chuckled at me. “Oh, no, no, no. We may have been divisions in the same company, but that didn’t mean we got along. We hated each other! The animosity probably originated with minor stuff like budget disputes and squabbles over resources, and the nanotech people usually won because they were the corporation’s biggest cash-cow. But over the years it got personal. One division manipulated extra work onto the other one just before the CEO’s inspection tour, or one scientist undermined another’s promotion, sometimes minor sabotage of experiments – you know, stupid, petty shit. Still, we needed some insight into why only animals died when put through the Scotty, and we determined that experimenting with a batch of nanobots might just give us a clue. So, we swallowed our pride and asked the nanotech division for two tiny batches of 100 general-purpose nanobots – enough for only a few experiments. You know what? They refused even that! Can you believe that shit? They had billions of nanobots at their disposal, and they couldn’t spare a mere two C’s! And all because somebody made a pass at somebody else’s wife at last year’s Christmas party, or some other nonsense. So, there we were, totally stuck! We didn’t know what to do. So, we decided, maybe because we were a little bit desperate, to do the only thing we really could do after that.”

  He paused for an agonizing length of time as he sucked on his stem. That was some very coherent talk for someone who was supposedly wasted! I certainly wasn’t so eloquent the few times I’d gotten stoned, and indeed, I was struggling to stay focused just from the second-hand smoke in this place. Then again, certain people become more coherent and philosophical the higher they get. High-functioning stoners. Perhaps this was that sort of guy. Just my luck. A little more curious about the story now, I asked, “You simply bought some nanobots?”
He gave me a look as though I’d just suggested he ought to wear a tutu. “You mean spend our own money? Don’t be silly. No scientist worth his salt ever does that!” He drew a long drag off of his hookah, and while exhaling the smoke, softly breathed, “We stole them.”

  I raised my eyebrows. He was right, that little detail never got onto the Net. “You stole them?”

  “Sure.” He inhaled through the stem again, then gave a long and casual exhale. “Some fool left them on a counter right near the door. All a body had to do was walk in and palm the vial.”

  Okay, this was getting interesting. But how long did I have to keep him talking before he would finally stick his head into the noose?

  He was gawking at my hooters again as he spoke. “We had swiped about 500 nanites, so we decided to put them through in batches of fifty. That would give us ten trials. But the first five all had the same results.”

  “What results?”

  “They died.”

  I crinkled up my brows at him. “That doesn’t make any sense. Nanobots can’t die. They’re microscopic machines.”

  “Well, stopped working is what I mean.”

  Odd mistake for a scientist to make, even a baked one. “How come?” I pressed.

  He annoyingly took another hit before answering. “That’s just it, we didn’t know. The only people who could tell us were in the nanotech department. So, we were forced to confess to our crime and ask them for a post-mortem.” He snorted. “You can imagine their reaction! They complained loudly about how that particular kind of nanobot had taken months to develop and then went on at excessive length about how much work and money our little stunt had cost them. Not only did they refuse to tell us what had killed their little bots, but they went and infested our lab with a new variety of nanite which coated everything with an ultra-slick substance that wouldn’t wash off. We were slipping and sliding all over the place for days before we were finally able to replace all the affected surfaces!

  “But we got back at them. You see, we struck a deal with the quantum-linking development team. They’d perfected a technique which allowed them to link to a specific point anywhere in space using gamma radiation inter-dimensionally.”

  “They did what?” I asked, playing dumb.

  “Uh, they figured out how to operate a nanobot by remote-control,” he clarified. “Pretty useful, since nanobots can’t be controlled with radio waves. They even developed a way to move distant atoms around using this same trick.”

  “You mean, like a long-distance laser-tweezers?” I asked him.

  “Yes, exactly!” he answered, beaming. “Just imagine, a doctor in Sri Lanka could do molecular-level gene therapy on a patient in Los Angeles!”

  “Yes, yes, but how does all this relate to the Scotty?” This guy was turning out to be a lot of work.

  “Oh, right. Sorry, I got a little distracted. Anyway, the quantum-link people also had an axe to grind with the nanotech people. I won’t bore you with the details as to why…”

  Too late, I thought.

  “… but when we offered them a few of the nanobots we’d swiped earlier – oh, we didn’t return all the ones we’d stolen – they were quite ready to help us in return. Using the bots we gave them, they quickly perfected the ability to remote-link with them, and even worked out a method on how they could build one remotely by joining the necessary atoms together out of ordinary dust particles.

  “And here’s where we really lucked out.” He started getting wild-eyed, even for a pothead. “Those type of bots were so valuable because they could not only replicate themselves, but any other type of nanobot as well! Build one of these babies at a distance, they can replicate and then then specialize into specific task-oriented bots. Before you know it, you can build anything, anywhere!”

  A light-bulb was beginning to brighten over my head at this point. “So, let me guess: You decided to build a Scotty receiver in a hidden spot right inside the nanotech department?”

  He laughed. “You bet we did! And then we transported an unwrapped wheel of limburger cheese beneath one of their workbenches. Have you ever seen what a typical laboratory workbench looks like? It’s completely enclosed and bolted to the floor! It took those morons over a week to figure out where the smell was coming from!” He cackled like a banshee, taking over a minute to recover.

  When he finally did, he went on. “Well, after that, they begrudgingly agreed to help us. After all, if we could transport anything into or out of their laboratory at will, there was no telling what we might do! They diagnosed the reason the nanobots had ceased functioning, and it was so simple, I’m ashamed to admit that we didn’t figure it out.”

  I had to wait as he paused to smoke again, the infuriating man. “What was it?”

  “Well, anything that re-materialized did so in a perfectly stationary state, you see? That’s why the nanobots stopped. Give the bots a little electro-chemical jolt and they would start right back up again. No big deal for plants or eukaryotic cells, they’ll start up again on their own. But an animal materializes without any heartbeat or neural activity. Those had to be re-started after materialization. So, we sent through another mouse, and immediately defibrillated it as soon as it appeared at the receiving end. Wouldn’t you know it, the little critter revived splendidly! The quantum guys then figured out a way to do a remote jump-start without having to use a defibrillator, and the next mouse barely even realized it had been transported at all! Before long, we were transporting dogs, cats, monkeys, and then we all volunteered to go through the machine at least once, and we all made it! We now had the makings of a true matter-transport system.”

  “Wow!” I answered, enthusiastically. I was genuinely impressed, but was trying to appear more so than I actually was. “I can only imagine the sorts of things that you could do with this new device. Things which haven’t been reported by the news feeds yet.”

  He smiled broadly. “You don’t need to imagine it anymore,” he said. “Now it’s reality. You know, if you can re-materialize the original thing, all it takes is a little more energy, plus the computer-memory of the molecular pattern, and you can materialize it again to make a copy. A working replicator! With a Scotty attached to a solar array in every desert, you could turn acres of harvested energy directly into good, nutritious food! 

  “And if you can make things you need, you can also get rid of things you don’t need. You can remove all the salt from seawater at a rate of mega-gallons per minute. Landfills for garbage become unnecessary. Or perhaps you want to lose a little weight? You can step onto a Scotty pad and have your fatty tissues transported right off your body. Women could eat up, have all their belly fat removed and none of the fat removed from, uh, well, other parts of their body, if that’s what they want.”

   I knew what he meant. He was staring at my tits again when he said it. Pervert.

  “Or men could make themselves, um, taller. Or maybe the bodily patterns of someone aged 21 could be stored and then applied to someone who is older, thus making him or her young again. An endless fountain of youth! Or how about space travel? If you can build a Scotty to another laboratory, nothing keeps you from building one to a nearby star-system, except maybe the additional math. You could remote-build an entire ship in Alpha Centauri, then Scotty on board a crew, and voila! An instant Starship Enterprise. We were so right to name it the Scotty! And if you can travel through space in an instant, there’s nothing to prevent you from traveling through time as well, because space and time are the same continuum. You could build a Scotty receiver in the past. Or the future! You could visit your grandparents, shake hands with Einstein, maybe even meet Jesus! Or maybe you could see how your favorite stock is going to do years from now…”

  That last comment in his tirade caused him to trail off, so I tried to prompt him into going on. “Sounds wonderful!”

  “Wonderful? And terrible!” he said, turning somber. “Do you realize how truly evil this invention could be if it were ever weaponized? A few elites having knowledge of future markets could easily undermine the global economy overnight! Soldiers could materialize inside of any compound, no matter how secure. Or prisoners could escape from any jail. A bomb could appear suddenly, anywhere, anytime! One tank could become a thousand. The Scotty could be used for super-surveillance, as any remote drone or camera could materialize or disappear at any hidden location. George Orwell’s 1984 writ large! And if all this weren’t bad enough, we have to realize that a person’s brain-patterns are part of what is stored when the Scotty is applied for transport. No one has figured out how those Scotty-patterns translate into thought-patterns yet, but it would only be a matter of time before someone does. People could have their minds read. Or possibly even have their brains wiped and reprogrammed with new memories. Or maybe…” He stopped. It was as if he didn’t want to think about it anymore. “No, it’s simply too much. I can’t let them have it. I can’t!

  “Can’t let who have it?” I asked.

  “What? Oh.” Apparently, I’d snapped him out of being lost in thought. “Sorry. The government, of course. They’re desperate to get their hands on our research. You can imagine why.”

  That’s when I decided to go for the kill. If I let him dwell on that thought too long, he might cast it my way. “Well, then,” I said, cheerily, “we might not have much time to lose. When do I get to try it?”

  He looked startled. “Huh?”

  “Oh, come on, when do I get to travel somewhere with a Scotty? I’d love to see the Great Wall of China. Or how about the Coliseum in Rome? No, wait, I’ve got it.” I took his hand and gave him one of my sexiest looks. “How about a romantic weekend in Paris? Wouldn’t that be grand? We could tour the Louvre tonight.”

  He pulled his hand away, looking very worried. “Um, look, I really can’t…”

  That’s when I pounced. “Yeah, I thought so! You’re just some huckster who sells that story to every woman who catches your eye in here. Jesus Christ, I should have known.” And with that, I started to storm off.

  “No! Wait! It’s not that. It’s just…”

  He trailed off as I stopped on my heel to turn around and give him one last annoyed look, doing my best to feign total exasperation.

  “There are side-effects,” he confessed.

  I sneered, putting on my best jilted-consumer look. “Side-effects to what?” I was trying to sound pissed, but I almost had him.

  “Side-effects to using the Scotty,” he said. “Omphalos psychosis.”

  “Ompala-what?Gotcha, I thought.

  “Omphalos,” he tried to explain. “It’s the Greek word for navel, you know. Not naval as in maritime, navel as in belly-button. You see, it was once thought that Adam and Eve had no belly-buttons because they were instantly created in the Garden of Eden, and so would never have needed an umbilical cord, much less a belly button, because they were brand new people…”

  “What are you babbling about?” Of course, I knew damn well what he was babbling about, but I wanted to keep him talking.

  “Don’t you see?” He held his hands out, palms up, imploringly. “I went through the Scotty transporter three weeks ago. That means I’m only three weeks old!

  I stared at him, knowing what he meant, but needing more. “What?

  “When the original Roger Avon stepped onto the transporter pad of the Scotty, he was instantly converted from matter to energy. Don’t you see what that means?” He really looked worried, now. “He died! The real Roger Avon died at that moment. I, that is, the new Roger Avon, was created at the receiving pad, with all Roger’s memories implanted within me!”

  All I could do was stand there and shake my head from side to side with a puzzled look on my face. “That’s crazy talk,” I said, baiting him.

  “Is it? It wasn’t a slip of the tongue when I said that the nanobots died when put through the Scotty. In a real way, they did. And so did I. Maybe I have all the same memories, the same fingerprints, even the same allergies, but some part of me knows that I’m not really Roger. I’m his facsimile! Little more than a copy. Maybe I’m a strange kind of clone, even, but definitely not the original. Do you realize how that knowledge can fuck with your mind? Do you?”

  I gave him a look as though he’d just told me that he was pregnant. After all that yakking he’d done, did he really just go and make it this easy for me?

  “No,” he finally said, shaking his head. “I can’t put you through that. I mean, look at me! The original Roger never smoked weed a day in his life. But I’m smoking like a chimney, drinking like a fish, and being totally reckless with women I don’t even know. I’m not doing it because that’s a healthy state of mind, I’m doing it because I know, fundamentally, that I’m a copy of a dead man, and I can’t stand it. And on top of that, at any given moment, I’ll probably have to demonstrate my little invention to others by getting onto that damned transporter pad and dying again! So, I just figure, what the hell? What could it matter, you know?” He paused in his sermonizing, and then accidentally tripped over the reality of his situation with what he said next. “You’d just end up being one more liability walking around. All your friends would notice your changed behavior. And if the government ever learned about this particular side-effect because of it, they’d have just the excuse they’ve been looking for.”

  “Truer words were never spoken,” I said, and then showed him my badge.

  “Wha-? F.B.I.?!

  “I lied to you, Doctor Avon,” I confessed. “I didn’t study engineering, I studied psychology. And my name isn’t Sarita Johansson. It’s Sarita Shantay.”

  His eyes grew wide. “The Sarita Shantay?” he whispered. 

  Yeah, I’m famous. The most publicized undercover Fed agent since Donnie Brasco. I’ve taken down more domestic terror cells than any field agent in history. They even made a movie based on me. Of course, that means many people recognize my face, but it’s amazing how well a bit of red hair coloring masks my identity.

  “As a licensed mental-health professional employed by the Federal Government, I’m forced to officially diagnose you as mentally ill. And because the nature of your work constitutes a significant potential threat to public safety and the United States and her allies, we’ll have no choice but to seize the work you’ve done at Gormann Industries in the interest of national security. I’m personally placing you under arrest for recklessly endangering the safety and well-being of the general public.”

  “No!” he shouted. “You can’t do this! It’s my project! Mine!

  “It was the original Roger Avon’s project,” I corrected him. “But you’re not the original Roger Avon, remember?”

  “No!” His hands flew up to his temples as if his head were about to explode.

  “We had a fair case against you before,” I said, removing the surveillance device from between my breasts, “but your recorded admission as to your imbalanced state of mind makes things so much easier.”

  “You can’t do this! You can’t!” he wailed.

  “Oh, come now,” I scolded. “Blabbing information that could undermine your research to any Jane Doe who happens to catch your eye in here? That’s not very rational behavior, doctor. You even said so, yourself. You were practically begging Uncle Sam to intervene on this.”

  “No! I won’t let you do it! I won’t!” And with that, he bolted out the front door – right into the arms of the two fellow agents whom I’d had waiting outside.

  Such a shame, really. He was such a brilliant man, and he and his team made a truly remarkable breakthrough. Funny how some scientists are destroyed by the unforeseen side-effects of their own discoveries. Marie Curie died of radium poisoning, Wilhelm Röntgen died of exposure to X-rays, Elon Musk got killed while on board one of his own tourist space shuttles, and now Roger Avon has succumbed to omphalos psychosis, induced by his own matter-transport device. How very tragic. Still, that meant that he was out…

And I was now in.

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