Kyle Wihry sat on a stone outside a hotel called Gershwins drinking an orange beverage and observing the sunset on the last day of a conference on alcoholism. He was covering the conference for a newspaper called, like many others, The Star. He was, at the time, sixty, with the slight stoop sixty years often bring. Unruly rusty hair encroached on his forehead. He wore an ill- fitting white suit of a kind favoured by certain dandies in the writing trade. His mind wandered as the weary sun eased itself into a cushion of cloud.
Then, in the middle distance, a house rose into the air.
Events that seldom or never happen are more difficult to put into words because no one ever needed to invent a vocabulary for them. In this case it was easier to say what did not happen. The house did not explode. It did not grow instant wings. It was not hoisted into the sky by a helicopter or other technology. And into the sky was precisely where it was going, rising slowly like a hot-air balloon. Eventually it caught the rays of the sinking sun. It looked like a two-storey, though, for the moment, the usual certainties no longer applied. Pieces seemed to fall away, part of the foundation perhaps, or floorboards or flower pots—who knew what would hold together in a situation like this.
Kyle did a psychological inventory: I’m not going crazy; I’m not drunk; I didn’t fall asleep. No one was rushing out of the hotel to see this wonder. Yet there the house was, wafting in the direction of a few white clouds, and eventually enveloped. He waited for it to reappear, but it did not, and the evening returned to normal. He resisted the urge to rush into the hotel and shout the news. Amazing things often had perfectly normal explanations, though rarely in the history of earth did something as abnormal as this actually happen.
He hurried to the rented car. There should be no trouble finding where the house had been. There was bound to be a hubbub.
He drove around the suburb for an hour, first at random, then systematically. But there was no hubbub, no consternation. People were out walking, others driving. They seemed neither excited nor otherwise abnormal. He was tempted to stop and ask them, but what would he say? ‘Did you see the house taking off?’ He couldn’t do it. He could try something more roundabout. ‘Are you sure there was no one trapped in that house that went sailing away?’ But no one wants to be regarded as a nut case, even by strangers. They say the person going bonkers is the last to know. But damn, he concluded, I saw it.
He drove back slowly to the hotel. The news would be on television, probably with a disappointingly simple explanation.
‘So how was the conference?’ Beth asked when he got home.
‘Boring, it was boring.’
They had been married thirty-five years. They had exhausted all the surprises and settled on domestic formulae that saw them through the day. He knew Beth didn’t want to hear about the alcohol conference—unless something startling had happened. He couldn’t tell her about the floating house, not until there was confirmation, because Beth didn’t suffer fools lightly. He checked his computer, checked CNN on the hour, and was rewarded with the usual litany of trivia that passed for news.
Kyle was not a gregarious man. While he did not dislike people, he seldom warmed to them, except to romance Beth until three children resulted and life became routine again. This remoteness made it easier to keep his secret to himself.
A week later, a rival paper reported that an airline pilot had seen from his cockpit a cow high in the sky. Kyle had been scooped.
‘It must have been dead,’ the pilot said, ‘but how it got there, or why it didn’t fall back to earth, well, your guess is as good as mine.’
Kyle searched the media but could find no confirmation of the cow story. The pilot might have taken an illicit drink before take-off.
‘Did you see that story about the cow?’ he asked Beth over the lasagna.
‘What story?’ She was thin and taut. She had bulging eyes, caused, Kyle was convinced, by peering too long and intensely at computers, her profession and passion. She hid behind bronze-tinted glasses that, she said, allowed her to stare down the computer without frying her brain—her terminology turned esoteric when she talked technology. When the children went into the world one at a time, Beth, born, she insisted, to be a mother, was bereft. She seemed to be waiting for the next worthwhile thing, and Kyle felt he wasn’t it. Thus a distance had grown between them, a no-man’s land. They bridged this gap on good days, especially when the children visited. But mostly they were cautious, waiting until both were in the mood for whatever it was, banter or business or, occasionally, intimacy.
‘In the paper. A pilot saw a cow at thirty thousand feet.’
‘It’s not possible, dear.’
‘Of course it’s not possible. I’m just telling you what was in the paper.’ That settled it. He could not tell her about the house that had taken off at low speed.
‘Some people like to bring attention to themselves.’
‘Or it could be drink. Pilots are under a lot of pressure, terrorists and everything.’
‘People are very complicated.’ Kyle was unsure what she meant by this but would not ask.
‘Still, it makes one wonder,’ he ventured. ‘About gravity and all. If that had been a balloon and not a cow, we’d pay no attention.’
‘Balloons are different.’
It was useless. Of course balloons were different. It was no surprise that the world was in disagreement about nearly everything. Humans fought like cats and dogs about trifles. Otherwise reasonable people were willing to be killed, and if necessary to kill, for causes none of them understood. Ditto political parties and, of course, nations, the most out of kilter entities of all. Kyle longed to let loose about all this. He wanted to hear how it would sound, wanted to get feedback. But Beth had no time for hypotheticals. She could talk forever about the children and now the grandchildren, or about the gossip that passed for conversation when her friends came to play cards. Just don’t ask her to cope with an abstract thought.
‘Ah, ice cream. My favourite.’ It wasn’t his favourite, apple tart was, but he needed to paddle back to the safe shallows of domesticity.
‘Do you think the earth might be coming unglued, dear?’ she asked casually as he transferred the dirty dishes to the kitchen.
‘Beats me,’ he suppressed his surprise. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘No reason at all.’
A few days later, as Kyle sat at his desk in the newsroom, the Pocket Oxford Dictionary rose into the air without obvious cause, hovered near the ceiling for a few moments, then slowly sank back until he could grab it. No one in the newsroom seemed to notice. He held it as if it were a foreign object, but it seemed to be the same book as always. He placed it on the desk, picked it up again. He wasn’t used to this; no one was.
He went early to lunch, alone as usual. He needed to think. In addition to ordinary life there was magic. Then there were miracles. He had been reading up on everything, unsure through which door or window an insight might come. Miracles sometimes suspended the laws of nature. If, that is, one believed all that. Magic, in Kyle’s estimation, was more iffy. Lastly there was the human mind itself, which blew a fuse under certain circumstances.
But it wasn’t just the mind, that shadowy faculty said to reside amid the lobes of the at-best mushy brain. The mind in turn relied on down-to-earth data. It saved one a lot of guessing and supposing if one could put one’s hand on a book and feel it was real. Similarly, seeing and hearing and other faculties were priceless short cuts to whatever the average human needed to know.
Doubt was one of the biggest, most obstinate words in any language. Kyle had seen with his own eyes. On the other hand, the eyes sometimes fooled the mind. The world was full of fooled minds. Nature got glitches. Headaches, for example, were never part and parcel of the head, they were aberrations. Toothaches, too. Likewise, laws about houses staying put were presumably liable to exceptions.
For a journalist this raised added issues. The journalism world was full of slogans, such as publish and be damned, testimonies to human ambivalence. The ambiguity surrounding gravity wasn’t yet widespread. What happened wasn’t common, but if it could happen to a cow or a book, it could happen to anyone. The consequences were awesome.
‘Did you hear about the bombing?’ Beth asked.
They had agreed not to watch television during dinner, a strategy to avoid becoming strangers. ‘Which bombing was that?’ he tried to sound interested.
‘Probably the Middle East or one of those places.’
‘You know whose fault that is…’ Kyle said.
‘It’s not a question of fault.’
‘And what is it?’ Talking at dinner was a good idea, he had to grant Beth that much, but there were few topics they could agree on. Kyle had a theory that people got along better when they just grunted and gesticulated the way we started out. Once language set in, it made possible too many areas of disagreement.
‘Here’s what I think.’ Beth put down knife and fork as if she were about to deliver a long speech. ‘What’s missing is love.’ She hesitated, as if she might say more, then picked up the knife and fork.
‘How do you mean?’
‘I don’t know.’ She was flustered. ‘I don’t know how to put it. Once upon a time there was love. And now it’s gone.’
‘You mean, like sex?’
‘Of course not.’ She pushed the spaghetti away. She was a computer technician. This vaguely defined occupation always left her at a loss when he asked about work. It seemed very focused and, as she liked to say, recherché, while Kyle’s own brief at the newspaper was the great sweep of things. Thus the micro and macro often clashed at the dinner table, but this thing about love was a horse of a different hue. ‘It’s not the saturation coverage, Kyle, not the repressive regimes. There’s that, but that’s not it. Human nature has changed. People seem the same as before except that the love is gone.’
She came back to the subject every day for a week.
‘It’s as if the capacity for pity has been taken away.’
‘But otherwise we’re the same, you’re saying?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t notice anything else missing.’
‘I don’t know, either,’ Kyle said. It was great to be able to say one didn’t know. Human ignorance was one of the few certainties left. ‘I can only speak for myself, but I feel as much, you know, compassion as ever for, well, for people, for the unfortunate.’
‘Me, too,’ Beth said. ‘There are still exceptions. It’s a process.’
‘This would be huge if we had a way to measure it.’ Kyle thought Beth was looking very well of late. The hairdresser had done wavy things with her hair. She was more interesting. She had set him thinking.
‘About that cow the pilot saw,’ she said out of the blue at the weekend. ‘I think I know what’s going on.’
‘Really?’ He was instantly alert.
‘It’s not just the cow, it’s the whole universe, it’s everything.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘The universe as we know it may be passé.’ She had returned from the market and was putting away vegetables. ‘Everyone says there are a hundred billion stars in our galaxy.’
‘Do they indeed?’
‘More or less. Astronomers say. And there are a hundred billion galaxies, they say. With moons and asteroids and black holes and what have you.’ Kyle had often seen the fat books lying about but never dreamed she was delving so deeply into whatever it was—the universe presumably. Beth was a changed woman. ‘We know all this because of progress,’ she went on. ‘It’s only a few years since we thought the earth was flat, and look at us now. And you know what made the difference? Computers are the difference.’
She had a narrow mind fixated on the computer, he thought benevolently. Had she gone into plumbing instead, plastic pipes would be the difference.
‘You’ve lost me,’ he said, the simple truth.
‘It’s cyberspace, don’t you see. A few years ago, cyberspace was empty, nothing there. But look at it now. Click a button and books are bought, rockets launched, movies made full of logical impossibilities that turn life as we know it upside down. All of a sudden we’re living not only here but in outer space. Ordinary hackers are creating new universes every day. Soon we’ll be able to simulate universes with self-conscious people in them. People who think for themselves, not like computer games that have to be programmed.’ Kyle was astonished at the big interesting mind she had hidden for so long. ‘People who make decisions.’
‘Whatever you want to call it. Scholars call it the multiverse.’
‘And what are they saying?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I don’t know where the computer leaves off and something else takes over. What if some civilisation we know nothing about has already made a better computer? If they can make little green people— we might as well call them people—who think for themselves, then they can just as easily simulate the laws of biochemistry. They call it simulating but it’s really creation. The simulators wouldn’t have to wait millions of years, as we did, for new creatures to evolve. All they would have to do is simulate computer supergeeks who could then programme their supercomputers to do the rest.’
When he went for a walk, a stone rose up from a heap of other stones in the park. It rose a few feet, then fell back. I should be afraid, Kyle thought. He looked around and there was no one. It was not a prankster. I need guts, he thought, and picked up the stone. It was a roundish rock, about as heavy as one would expect.
The following day, as he drove to work in his rusty Volkswagen, he saw a shiny red Honda win the war with gravity. It was already too high to tell whether it was occupied. He pulled over. Other vehicles were passing in a steady flow. He pointed at the car in the air, but it was at Kyle the drivers stared. He buttonholed an elderly pedestrian.
‘Did you see that car?’ He pointed at it.
‘What car?’ The old man scanned the sky.
‘Eyes not too good?’ Kyle suggested.
‘My eyes are fine. It’s your head needs fixin’.’
‘All the same, there’s a car up there.’ Kyle drove on to work determined to tell his colleagues. All day he watched for clues of a conspiracy or some monumental joke. It was disorienting to observe the unseemly nonsense with which they filled the paper. Yet he didn’t tell them, couldn’t risk looking foolish.
At home, dinner was rushed because the girls were coming for bridge.
‘Every six seconds someone dies of AIDS,’ Beth said, applying Thousand Island dressing to the salad.
‘Love wouldn’t have saved them.’ He guessed where she was going.
‘Or it may be every six minutes. The world is changing.’
‘You’re damn right it’s changing.’ Frustration prowled around in his head and descended into his gut. ‘I could tell you about change.’
‘Oh?’ But she wasn’t paying attention.
‘What about a car rising into the air?’
‘It couldn’t, Kyle. Cars don’t do that.’
‘I know they don’t. But this one did.’
‘Are you saying this actually happened?’
‘A mile up the road.’
‘You must be mistaken, dear.’
‘And a stone. I saw a stone rise into the air.’
‘Did you really?’ Her tone switched from mild curiosity to mild concern.
‘I really did.’ He would be on record. He would save the floating house for a more opportune time. ‘Do you know what I think?’
‘Gravity is a thing of the past. Gravity has had it.’
‘Could you put a match to the fire, Kyle.’
‘You don’t believe me.’
‘Have you told anyone?’ Her tone implied she hoped not.
Nero didn’t fiddle while Rome burned. There were no fiddles. So Nero played bridge instead. Kyle retired to his office and warmed up the laptop. The central problem was credibility. Neither torture nor bribery had ever been able to force belief. This was frustrating considering the outlandish things people did believe for no good reason.
Google coughed up untold references to gravitation. Kyle began with Wikipedia, fountain of knowledge for the amateur. Aristotle was mentioned at once—that man got credit for being the first to think of nearly everything. But he wasn’t the only one. The Indian Brahmagupta explained in 628 of our era that ‘bodies fall towards the earth as it is in the nature of the earth to attract bodies, just as it is in the nature of water to flow.’ Not great, but it was probably news in 628. Then there was Newton, on whose head the apple allegedly fell, a wake-up call, who said: ‘Every particle in the universe attracts every other particle with a force that is directly proportional to the square of the distance between them.’
This was no immediate help when someone’s Honda had taken leave of what the poet called the surly bonds of earth. Newton seemed to say a thing had gravity the same way it had size. But along came Einstein, who mentioned spacetime, which only gives the impression that bodies have weight although they don’t really. Kyle made notes whenever he thought he knew what they were talking about.
Beth always summoned him when the girls broke for tea. The Macki sisters were social activists and heaped vituperation on American president George W Bush.
‘Einstein had a theory about spacetime,’ Kyle tried to broaden the discussion.
‘Einstein wouldn’t have known Bush,’ Debra said. ‘Or is that how spacetime works?’
‘On the subject of gravity,’ Kyle persisted, ‘if things have no weight in themselves, and if spacetime is as unpredictable as it sounds, then things here on earth, not to mention planets and whole galaxies, could begin to act, let’s say, differently.’
‘It’s that Bush and his crowd,’ Debra Macki fulminated. ‘Can they be relied upon to stay in the orbits they’re in?’
The penny dropped. Recent emotional turbulence in the mundane universe made sense, Kyle decided, only if some interloper were interfering with the status quo. It had to be a wily interloper, a resourceful interferer, because the status quo was a tough nut to crack. The only such agent Kyle could think of was the hacker mentioned by Beth in the simulation scenario. He decided to call it a hypothesis, namely that our world, somewhere back there, had become a cyberworld invented on a state-of-the-art computer by some advanced brain on a faraway planet whose citizens combined a sense of humour with a touch of cruelty. It would take heroic research to determine at what point our old world gave way to this new simulation. A smart hacker would have made the transition surreptitiously, would have eased us into the alternative nightmare where we would scarcely notice that we had left the Garden of Eden or whatever story explained us previously. A flying house was only a hiccup compared with bigger irregularities we had grown to take for granted, from Noah’s Ark to world wars, from the dim-witted Bush to current celebrities who on closer inspection had bunions on their feet of clay.
Only gravity had held the thing together until now. Gravity couldn’t be expected to do the impossible indefinitely.
‘Let’s get back to the cards,’ Emily Macki, a gynaecologist in real life, was saying.
Another few seconds and Kyle would have told them about stones rising into the air. That’s how close I came to making a fool of myself, he reflected. The aim now is not to lose my head. Great minds can go soft in a jiffy if enough odd stuff pops up. Stray dilemmas buzzed about in his brain like midges at a picnic. Why was gravity the only bête noir while everything else seemed to chug along as usual? Why didn’t the little green hacker let him run a three-minute or, better, a two-minute mile? Why didn’t women, for a change, throw themselves at him? Of all potential aberrations, the gravity mix-up was the least inspired imaginable. Yet there was no higher authority to appeal to. If no further nonsense happens, he decided, I’ll put it all behind me. I can’t be accused of anything, not even negligence.
Later in the week, returning from the airport, he saw a woman rise slowly into the air. She was wearing jeans, that was how clearly he could see her, a robust woman, legs and arms spreadeagled. Kyle slammed on the brakes as traffic rushed by. He ran toward the spot. He shouted as he went. People looked at him but no one looked at the woman. Then she slowly sank back into somebody’s garden, so slowly she might not be hurt.
‘I made a beeline for the house behind which she descended,’ he told Maurice Cadwell next day. ‘A semi-detached yellow house. I tried the little gate, not wanting to waste time. In case she was hurt. Do you mind if I smoke?’
‘Do you need to?’
‘I haven’t smoked for twenty years.’
‘Have you a cigarette?’
‘No. I thought, perhaps, you might.’
He had found Cadwell in the directory. He had tried four other therapists, who could not fit him in sooner than a month. He told one of them that civilisation could be gone to outer space in a month. Cadwell promised him half an hour. Now it had stretched to two hours.
‘You were trying to get into someone’s garden?’
‘The gate was locked, so I rang the doorbell. A petite housewife answered. I told her a hefty woman had dropped from the sky into her garden. She said I was mistaken. It’s disconcerting that what sounds so rational can sometimes be so wrong. It’s probably next door, she said—the dead body. No one mentioned a dead body, I reminded her.’
‘So I went next door. Knocked on the big brass knocker, but there was no one home. I explored the back garden but found nothing. I went from door to door, the entire street, then the surrounding streets. If only I had found a body, I could have gone public. Dead or alive, she was the evidence I needed.’
‘Evidence of what?’
‘Am I really seeing it, do you think, doctor?’
‘What do you think?’
Out on the street, the sun was cheerful, unusually bright. If the sun came any closer to earth, or vice versa, there would be damn little margin for error. People would be burned to cinders and the oceans would boil and bubble and there would be no one left to care or sound the alarm. He buckled himself into the old Volkswagen. He felt light, as if a breeze might blow him away. The Volkswagen, a vintage Beetle, felt fragile as tinfoil. He imagined a cosmic hacker playing idly with a keyboard, bored or inquisitive. Kyle, being a man, imagined the hacker was male, that was typical. The hacker was taking it easy: nothing extravagant like making a planet much less a multiverse; more down to earth in fact, if in fact any longer meant anything. He worried that the hacker might do a double-click on the gravity button. He realised he was sweating. The hacker in the sky had hit the sweat button. Then the panic button.
It was reassuring, when nothing terrible happened, to see how normal life was: traffic all snarled at rush hour and pedestrians putting one foot in front of the other in that fascinating way.
The devil we know, he knew, is better than the devil we don’t. People too. People were streets ahead of any alternative he could think of. Exasperating at times, unreliable to a fault, nevertheless he could not imagine a hacker out there who was likely to improve on the average human.
‘That thing you were talking about,’ he said after he had washed the dishes, started a fire of aromatic logs, fixed two mugs of decaffeinated coffee. ‘This isn’t the same universe we started out in.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It all started when I was at that conference and a house floated away.’
‘You never mentioned it, dear.’
‘An advanced civilisation could do it. Those billions of galaxies aren’t there for nothing, just floating about. Something is going on. People, I suppose. Probably quite advanced. Imagine other civilisations experimenting with life for billions of years before we even came along. Once they made a virtual world, and gave virtual people free will, the rest was easy.’
‘You’re scaring me, Kyle. You sound like science fiction.’
‘It’s nothing to be scared of. There are no little green men. It’s only us. We’re the ones we’ve been waiting for, and writing the science fiction about, only we didn’t recognise ourselves. Until now. Look at you, how you’ve changed.’
‘You’ve changed too, dear. I was afraid to mention it in case the bubble might burst.’ Her eyes, he noticed, had lost that desperate, haunted look. The glue she had been missing was returning, though he was loath to call it love as Beth did. ‘Just look at you, you little green man,’ her face danced with what looked suspiciously like joy, Beth who had laughed so little lately.
‘See what I mean? You’ve changed. You’re more amusing. Not to mention pretty.’ Kyle grabbed her. Nearly a generation had passed since he’d tried anything so risqué.
‘Oh, stop it, Kyle. Act your age.’ But she gave him a big old kiss smack on the lips. After which one thing led to another.
Later, he went for a walk. He was profoundly relieved, almost walking on air. The scent of roses was coming from a garden. Birds flew. People were unworried and even laughing. His Volkswagen in the driveway was a reassuring sight. Even the flat tire was practically normal. Kyle sighed, a traditional human reaction to the real world. And thought: even if some sly trickster wanted to simulate a multiverse, he would never think of a Beetle.