Idea Contest Story: “The Solomon Equation”

It’s finally time: you pitched me your ideas. You voted on the idea you wanted to see become an actual story. And you picked a winner. In case you don’t remember, the winner was Mark with his excellent pitch:

A physicist/geologist/mathematician accidentally proves the existence of Hell, but he can’t get anyone to believe him–not his colleagues, not religious leaders, not even his family. Eventually he realizes that he’s inadvertently created his own personal Hell on earth.

And now I proudly present to you the story inspired by Mark’s winning idea…

THE SOLOMON EQUATION

© Joanna Parypinski

Three weeks after he was nearly struck by a drunk driver, Dr. Mark Solomon discovered the existence of Hell.

He had received his Master’s at Stanford and his Ph.D. in particle physics at MIT. Now he lived in Boston with his wife Cheryl and their six-year-old daughter Peyton, where the salty smell of the harbor invigorated the braying seagulls during his drive to work at the lab. Lately he had been focusing on the creation of a Theory of Everything, which would explain the entire physical world and all its mysteries.

Right now he was observing the data from a double-slit experiment, which revealed the dual nature of matter. Light could be directed to one of two paths, showing that it can appear as either a particle or a wave. As Dr. Solomon redirected the light path again, he considered his paper on the findings and what journal might decide to publish it.

As he did, his thoughts turned to the drunk driver from two weeks before:

The driver could have taken one of an infinite number of paths, but he had taken the path that led almost, but not quite, to Dr. Solomon’s demise. He had taken a path that led him straight through the night and down the winding side road where Dr. Solomon happened to be taking his evening stroll and smoking his evening cigarette. In a fraction of a moment, Dr. Solomon had spotted the swaying headlights like two angry beams of an alien spaceship, dropped his half-smoked cigarette to the sidewalk, and dove out of the way of the swerving car, which had rocketed over the curb and crushed its front end on a fire hydrant.

He remembered the way the still-lit cigarette had emitted that wispy, wave-like strand of gray smoke from the sidewalk.

At the lab, he was trying to combine his work with the double-slit experiment and the theory of quantum tunneling—the phenomenon where a particle tunnels through a classically impenetrable barrier. He knew there was something here that he was missing, but he couldn’t quite grasp it yet. It was as if he were able to see into two dimensions with the first experiment: one in which matter was particles, the other in which matter was waves. Somehow his vision was able to tunnel through the barrier between these dimensions and observe something fantastic.

Somewhere, in some far-off galaxy, that drunk driver had killed Dr. Solomon, or maimed him so profoundly that he was left a drooling, brain-damaged, limbless beast.

But this world had taken a different path.

The cogs in his brain clicked.

The Schrodinger equation stared back at him from the page filled with numbers and constants.

The particles and waves of matter danced through the barrier between his brain and the universe.

And Dr. Solomon, conceiving the possibility that this far-off galaxy existed parallel to his own, began writing his own equation.

* * *

He worked on it until the early hours of the morning. The particle-wave duality was actually evidence of matter seeping from one universe to another, of the quantum tunneling that occurs between them. Dr. Solomon only needed to harness the power of quantum tunneling, and he could unravel the fabric of the multiverse.

Leaving the lab under the sickly light of the yellowing moon, he threw his papers into the passenger seat of the car and sped home as if demons were on his tail. In another universe, he was pulled over by a policeman and given a three-hundred-dollar speeding ticket, but in this one, he arrived safely in his driveway, threw off his seatbelt, and raced into his house with the stack of papers clasped tightly under his arm.

He was greeted by the mewling of his cat, which wound sleekly around his legs like a black worm.

“Schrodinger,” whispered Dr. Solomon, out of breath. “We’ve done it. This is the defining moment of my life.”

“I thought that was our wedding day,” came his wife’s groggy voice from the stairway. She stood in her bathrobe, curls of hair frizzing astray on her wan face. “Mark, it’s nearly four o’clock in the morning. Where have you been?”

“Making the discovery of a lifetime,” he replied as he hurried past her up the stairs, making a left into the study instead of a right into their bedroom. “I’m sorry honey, but I can’t sleep, not a wink, not tonight. I have more calculations I need to do, experiments to plan; I’m going to need to plug all of this information into a computer program to create a virtual simulation. The possibilities… extraordinary…”

Cheryl crossed her arms as she watched him power up the computer from the doorway, then turned and disappeared into the bedroom. Dr. Solomon hardly noticed.

* * *

Three days later, Dr. Solomon was nearly finished with a device he called the Quantum Tunnel; it was a portal of sorts, a doorway that cut through the physical barrier between universes and allowed larger objects to gain access by reducing them to their quantum states. If Dr. Solomon could allow the passage of a living creature through the Quantum Tunnel, then he would effectively prove the Everett Interpretation that many universes existed simultaneously, splitting off every time a potential outcome occurred by realizing each of the possibilities in different universes.

The computer program was taking longer, but it was coming along. He paired it with an experimental module that actually created virtual particles and sent them to the other universes it could reach by use of his creation, the Solomon Equation; in turn, these particles would return with the data from those universes and use it to simulate a virtual reality of the other universes.

Schrodinger slunk around his feet, mewling petulantly and staring up at him with two bright green eyes in the darkness.

“I’m almost done,” he murmured to the black cat, reaching one hand down to idly pet the sleek fur. “A few more days. I just need to finish the algorithm…”

He ate only when Cheryl deigned to give him a lukewarm plate from the microwave, left the study only to use the bathroom, and took intermittent catnaps on the couch. Somewhere in the back of his mind he was aware that Cheryl had stopped speaking with him, he hadn’t seen his daughter in several days, and a rough layer of graying stubble now peppered his chin. Then, in the middle of the week, he went to the lab and stayed there for a day and a half, eating vending machine food and washing up in the bathroom sink.

When he was finished, Dr. Solomon returned home, went to his cozy king-sized bed, and slept for thirteen hours. He dreamt of bobbing yellow lights in the darkness.

* * *

He awoke to the cat pawing at his nose. Dr. Solomon batted the paw away and scratched behind Schrodinger’s ears. “Do you think it’s time we reveal it?” he asked, rubbing his eyes in the sunlight and glancing over to the neat, empty side of the bed.

After gathering his work from the study, he found Cheryl in the kitchen.

“Oh, are you gracing us with your presence now? Well, you’ve just missed Peyton, she’s off at school. She asked me why Daddy doesn’t like her anymore,” said Cheryl, sipping coffee from a chipped mug and staring coolly at him over the rim.

Dr. Solomon rubbed the crick in his neck from such a long sleep. “Don’t worry, I’ll explain it to her,” he mumbled as he pulled out the orange juice.

“Why don’t you explain it to me?”

Pouring himself a glass, he sat down at the table, heart beating quickly with excitement. “Hun, I’ve… I’ve made a huge discovery. I’ve done it. I have the theory of… of everything. It’s going to make my career—my life. Our lives.”

Cheryl sat down across from him, looking skeptical. “Ok. What’s this theory?”

“I’ve explained to you Schrodinger’s cat, right?” he asked.

She quirked an eyebrow. “You mean, that thing you named our cat after?”

“Yes,” he said. “Okay, so there is a box, and in it, the cat is both dead and alive—you can’t know which until you open the box. If there are multiple universes, every event that occurs is a branch point, leading to a different possible universe. Now, both the dead and alive cats exist, but they are in different branches of the universe and cannot interact. But what if they could? What if there was a way to traverse between the universes? What if every choice, every outcome of every event, branched off into a different but still entirely real… let’s say, dimension?”

Cheryl shrugged. “This sounds like science fiction.”

“Science, yes,” he said. “I just need to run some tests, and then I’ll be able to prove that everything that never happened in this world has happened in another. Not only is everything possible, but everything is—we just can’t see it yet.”

His wife stood and dumped the rest of her coffee in the sink. “Well, you let me know how that goes,” she replied scornfully. “Until then, I’ll be at work.”

She left, and Dr. Solomon raced to the lab, smelling the salty Boston breeze as he hummed the whole way there. The first thing he did was plug his program into the computer at his station and run the simulation.

There was a world somewhere in which he had been hit by that car. He wondered if he could find it. There were so many branch points—so much data to configure.

Then he remembered the last time Cheryl had taken him and Peyton to church. He had largely ignored the sermon, but he remembered afterward, Peyton had asked about Hell.

“It’s where bad people go,” said Cheryl.

“But why?” asked Peyton, bobbing up and down in her white shoes as they walked to the car.

“Because they deserve to be punished.”

“But what is it?” she persisted.

Cheryl glanced at him for help, but he simply shrugged. “It’s everything bad. There isn’t any good down there, which is why only bad people have to go there—because they suffer, since it’s such a bad place. Everything that could go wrong does go wrong for them. Understand?”

Peyton kicked at a large ant. “I guess so.” She took Cheryl’s hand as they crossed the street. “Kind of like that day where everything went bad. I fell and hurt my knee, then I lost my doll, then I stepped in sticky gum.”

“Sort of. But don’t you worry,” said Cheryl. “You’ll go to Heaven, because you’re good.”

Dr. Solomon stared at the computer screen.

Somewhere, there was a universe in which Peyton had not experienced the skinned knee, loss of Polly, and gum-stuck shoe. But somewhere else, she experienced that every day without respite.

Somewhere was a universe in which everything that could go wrong did. Where only bad things happened, and everyone suffered.

Dr. Solomon reeled back from the computer, sliding the wheeled chair over the tiled floor. Somewhere, Hell existed. Hell was real.

As horror washed over him, he knew that he had to find it. That was the universe he would look for. He didn’t know why he had to see that one, out of all the infinite possibilities, but something took hold of him—that same morbid curiosity he’d felt when he’d seen those drunken headlights coming towards him—and wouldn’t let go.

He didn’t tell anyone about his search—not at first. He needed to find it. He needed to locate the barrier between his dimension and that one so that he could tunnel through. Though his obsession still burned like a resilient flame, he went through the motions of other daily activities after work. He ate dinner with his wife and daughter, went to his study, gave Peyton a kiss goodnight, worked some more, and then went to bed once Cheryl was already asleep. He then woke before her and returned to the lab as dawn broke red over the horizon.

When he thought he’d located it in the virtual multidimensional space created by the computer program, he typed in the command that would allow him to access it. His fingers hesitated over the keys… then pressed firmly down on “Enter.”

Code appeared on the screen, streaming down as time ticked on in both universes. He couldn’t read everything in the code, but Dr. Solomon knew that he was looking into an alternate dimension, and his adrenaline spiked.

As it scrolled down the screen, the code fractured into messy fragments. This other universe was cold—dark. The sun was blocked out by something, and many things that were currently living in Dr. Solomon’s universe were dead there. This much he could gather from the code. Everything that might have gone wrong in his world had occurred in this other one.

When he showed the code to his coworkers, they frowned and scratched their heads. “I don’t understand. Is this some computer game you’re working on?” asked one.

They weren’t very bright. Neither had a Ph.D.

He took the information up higher: his boss.

“It’s an interesting theory, Mark,” said Dr. Bolger. “But the many-worlds interpretation… it’s not exactly the kind of thing we’re studying here. I hope you haven’t invested too much of the lab’s time and resources into this nonsense.”

“It isn’t nonsense,” snapped Dr. Solomon, pointing at the equation. “I solved it. I combined gravity with particle physics, and I solved it. Do you know what this means? It means a Theory of Everything.”

Dr. Bolger frowned, putting the paper down on his desk and folding his hands on his belly. “You come to my office telling me that Hell is real, and now you’re telling me you have a Theory of Everything? It isn’t possible. There is no such theory. What we need to focus on is actual possibilities.”

“I made a device,” said Dr. Solomon, instantly regretting the words but needing to expand on them now that they were out of his mouth. “I haven’t tried it yet, so it may not work, but it should have the ability to tunnel through—”

“Mark, if you insist on missing work, conjuring ludicrous theories, and using the lab’s resources to build time machines, we’re going to have to discuss—”

Dr. Solomon scoffed. “Please, there’s nothing to discuss. After this discovery, I don’t need this, and I don’t need you. Save it; I quit.”

He gathered up his papers, cleared out his desk, and left the lab.

Cheryl didn’t take kindly to hearing what had happened.

“You quit?” she shouted. “Just like that, without consulting me? Just because he didn’t agree with your theory?”

“Hun, I just need some time to organize my thoughts, get some data, and write a report, and then we’re going to be rich and famous and I won’t need that job—”

“Yes, but right now you do need it. You can’t expect me to support this family on a part-time salary.” She paced to the other side of the kitchen and leaned against the counter, her eyes boring into his like lasers.

“It’s okay. I’ll get the news out even before I write it. I’m going to take my research to other labs. I’ll take it to the folks at Harvard. You’ll see.”

* * *

But she didn’t.

The physics department at Harvard barely gave him the time of day. Every lab he visited went over his work, then told him that it wasn’t possible. He had made an error somewhere. He showed them that he had solved the equation, but they shook their heads and said they needed actual proof.

So he took his notes to a place that asked for no proof, instead relying on faith alone.

“I’ve discovered Hell,” he told the priest as they sat in the back office of the church. A gruesomely detailed wooden crucifix hung from the wall, the crown of thorns bleeding down Jesus’ agonized face. “I’ve breached the barrier between this world and that one using a computer program. No one in the science community will take my research seriously, but I need to share this news with the world.”

The priest put his palms together as if praying, pressing the tips to his nose as he stared at Dr. Solomon. “You know, the Church has come a long way. We now embrace the modern world and modern knowledge.”

“Yes, exactly,” he said, relief flooding his veins. “I was hoping you would say that. I don’t think it’s such a stretch for science and religion to work together. Why not? What I discovered isn’t an afterlife per say, but it’s certainly a dimension that reflects what you would consider Hell—”

“You misunderstand me,” said the priest, looking troubled. “These days, the Bible is used as a morality guide—an allegory. We no longer believe that Hell is a physical place. It is a concept, a fundamental part of our moral structure. It is a representation of all that is evil and helps people not to be swayed to do wrong. What you’re telling me is impossible. Even if Hell were to exist, it is only in God’s reach; there would be no way for man to access it from this life.”

Dr. Solomon stared at him. “You’re a priest. But you don’t believe in Hell?”

“I believe in the divine moral structure of the universe,” said the priest.

“Well, in another universe,” said Dr. Solomon, “you are suffering the endless torment of self-doubt; you succumb to that evil you profess to deny; God has forsaken you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

He snatched up his papers from the desk and left the room, emerging into the main atrium of the church. Rows of pews stretched out before him, the altar at his left. Above it hung a writhing Jesus on his execution cross, and Dr. Solomon thought that this universe might have been Jesus’ hell. In another, he had been a normal son of a carpenter and died of dysentery.

Frustration laced the empty, echoing footsteps that resonated through the church. Dr. Solomon squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose as he walked, grasping for another avenue. He had in his hand the answer to what happens when you make a choice. Somewhere, he was already becoming famous, but not in this universe. In this universe, he was all alone.

He left the church.

* * *

Back home, he locked himself in his study with the Quantum Tunnel and the computer program. Schrodinger meowed and scratched at the door, so he let him in and then went back to staring at the code that drizzled down the screen. He wished he could visualize what the code was trying to tell him about the other universe.

“We have to test the Tunnel,” he mused. The cat meowed in response. “But how can we safely do that?”

The cat stared at him.

“We need funding,” he grumbled, looking from Schrodinger to the computer and back again. “We need something.”

He finally came out as Cheryl and Peyton were finishing up dinner. She hadn’t even set down a plate for him, so he fixed up some of the leftover scraps they hadn’t eaten and ate them cold while standing at the counter. Peyton gulped down the rest of her milk and then ran down the hall to play with her toys. Cheryl started cleaning up the plates.

“I’m trying, hun,” said Dr. Solomon.

She turned her back to him. “Not hard enough.”

Something desperate clawed at Dr. Solomon’s heart. “You do believe me, don’t you?”

Cheryl put the plates into the dishwasher, dried her hands, and slowly turned to face him. Her face was a stone mask. “I can’t take much more of this. Peyton and I are going to go spend some time at my mother’s. I’ve already packed up most of my things.”

The love he’d forgotten he felt for his wife burst into a thousand shattered pieces, slicing through his insides until they were bloody and raw. “I just need more time.”

“There isn’t any more,” she said. Though her face was hard, her eyes were sad. “I don’t even know who you are anymore.” She finished up in silence, and then, before she left the room, she said, “I’ll let you know when I get the divorce papers. So you can prepare.”

She left the room without looking at him, and Dr. Solomon felt his breath catch in his throat. He felt as if Cheryl were rapidly receding from him, an object in motion whose velocity was the opposite of his, and he would never get a chance to be close to her like they’d once been. His life was splitting at the seams.

After Cheryl and Peyton left, Dr. Solomon threw himself entirely into his work. He did not leave the study. Most of the time, he stared at the Tunnel as if waiting for it to do something. Often he would write and rewrite his theory and the equation, as if by some miracle he would suddenly understand what he needed to do to prove it to everyone else.

He looked at Schrodinger. “I need your help,” he said. “You’re all I have; there’s no one else. I don’t have any money.”

The cat meowed in response.

He turned on the machine and connected it to the computer algorithm that was producing the code. A gentle whirr picked up as particles were moved around, separated. Something shifted in the air at a microscopic level where the portal stood against the wall of the room.

“Go, but come right back, okay? I’ll have treats when you come back.”

He hugged the cat to his chest for a moment, then tied a long string around Schrodinger’s midsection, put him down in front of the portal, and gave him a little push. The cat arched its back, looked at him, and then stepped forward tentatively.

The air crackled with static electricity as the barrier was breached, and there was a loud snap and a bright flash of light as Schrodinger disappeared into the wall.

Dr. Solomon held his breath and stared at the spot where his cat had stood and where a long string lead into nothingness.

He hoped that his beloved pet was alive, but there was an equal possibility that he was now dead.

A full minute passed. Dr. Solomon’s lungs were on fire with anticipation; the world swam from the lack of oxygen. Finally, he tugged on his end of the string to monumental resistance, before something gave. There was another snap and a flash of light, and Schrodinger reappeared through the Quantum Tunnel.

But he looked different.

The cat that returned was ragged, the fur matted and singed off in still-smoking patches. Its green eyes were wide and they looked almost deranged. Its tail was pushed down between its hind legs, and it took one limping step, spotted Dr. Solomon, and hissed fiercely. He held out a hand to placate the animal, crouching down to try and help, but Schrodinger backed up, hissing again, his whole body quivering. Some of the burnt patches began to ooze blood and pus.

Before the cat could try to dart away from Dr. Solomon’s hands, it collapsed in a twitching heap on the carpet, gave a few gasping breaths, and then went still.

“Schrodinger?” he whispered to the last companion he had left. The cat was silent.

He buried it in the backyard next to the tulips Cheryl had planted last spring.

And for the first time, Dr. Solomon was entirely alone.

He spent so much time deciphering the code that he thought he might be going mad. In the other world, there was an endlessly burning fire, some toxic waste that fueled itself on radioactive decay and would not go out. The air was ripe with smoke. Humanity had destroyed the atmosphere and lived in a constant state of pollution and rot.

As he withdrew from his own reality, Dr. Solomon felt increasingly more connected to the alternate world he called Hell.

The divorce papers came, along with bills that he was no longer able to pay. The hot water was shut off. He kept the electricity bill low by turning off all the lights and living by the dull blue glow of the computer.

Dr. Solomon left his house once. He went to a church, knelt down in an empty pew, and stared ahead at the candles behind the altar. He begged for a sign that he was right about everything. Nothing happened.

So he went to a bar and got hammered on cheap whiskey, then slid into the driver’s seat of his car with the salty harbor breeze following him inside. He lit a cigarette and swerved down the street, seeing everything double through the haze of smoke. He thought maybe if he drove his car through the Quantum Tunnel, he would nearly hit an alternate version of himself, but the alternate him would jump out of the way just in time and he would plow over the curb and into a fire hydrant.

This didn’t happen; he made it home, parking the car diagonally in the driveway, the yellow headlights spilling drunkenly onto the cement. He stumbled out, the stars swirling above him, and dropped his still-lit cigarette on the ground where the smoke curled up in gray tendrils.

Dr. Solomon knew what he had to do.

He went upstairs and into the study; he hooked up the Quantum Tunnel to the computer program; he loaded the algorithm for the dimension he called Hell.

What harm could it bring him? He was already in Hell. He had turned his reality into a living nightmare with the damned Solomon Equation that haunted his dreams.

He stared into the shifting, crackling air inside the portal—then stepped through.

Turned out he was wrong: he’d destroyed his life in his own universe, but Hell? Hell was much, much worse.

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9 thoughts on “Idea Contest Story: “The Solomon Equation”

  1. Your writing keeps getting better and better. That story is too good to be given away for free, you should be selling that. There might actually be a marketing idea somewhere in the concept of writing a story for someone based on their plot outline.

    If I ever get another cat I am going to name him Schrodinger. I had forgotten about Schrodinger’s Cat Paradox.

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