Thursday, April 13, 2017


Dirac's Cellar
By Matthew Harrison

Chief Accountant Masie Heisenberg was a very pragmatic girl. When she heard that the other Chief Accountant of Planck Industries was paid more than her, she went straight to her boss Max Fermi to complain. Max, however, was not a practical man. Instead of justifying her lower pay on grounds of seniority or relative performance or the randomness of corporate existence, he said, with a mysterious smile, “The amount by which you are underpaid, Masie, represents your value to the company.”
This remark perplexed the literal-minded Masie. She wrestled with it, she struggled, but she could not come to terms with it. And whether because of this or some unrelated sensitivity in that portion of space-time, when she returned to her office, she found something rather strange.
It was as if the grubby carpet had been replaced by a mirror. Masie’s foot rested on the identical foot of an inverted version of herself, poised in an inverted version of her office. An inverted desk hung beneath her actual desk, suspended over an equally inverted ceiling. And below, Masie could see another inverted image of herself, and another and another, in an ever-diminishing chain towards infinity.
With remarkable self-possession, Masie lifted her foot – at which the myriad images below her also moved – and stepped back. Then, trembling, she shut the door.


This experience would have flummoxed most of us. But Masie was fortunate in having a friend who had just finished a thesis on Dirac’s contribution to quantum mechanics.
The friend – Patty Bohr of IT – listened with great interest to Masie’s story.
“All the way down?” was her first question.
Masie nodded excitedly. “And the thing is, we’re on the ground floor! It was like – I don’t know – a multi-storey basement!”
“And did you look up?”
Masie shook her head.
“Then we should go back and check,” Patty said.
Masie protested, but with Patty her only hope of support she eventually submitted to her advice.
It took courage for Masie to open her door. And indeed this time the experience was even worse. For not only did the carpet disappear, leaving her standing again on an inverted image of herself, but it was very apparent that her skirt and underwear did not match!
“Look up!” Patty commanded.
Shaking, Masie obeyed. The ceiling had also dissolved, and her fearful gaze was met by rank upon rank of images of herself regressing to infinity – each image the right way up. It was almost… in fact it was too much to bear. Masie would have fallen (and goodness knows where she would have fallen to) but for Patty’s steadying arm.


Near exhaustion, Masie wanted only to rest. But Patty pressed her to go and see Max again.
When Masie got to his office, she found Max looking sheepish. He invited her to sit down, and asked very solicitously if she was comfortable in her office.
Masie admitted to feeling just the tiniest bit un-comfortable.
“Ah!” said Max. He apologised. Then with greater formality he said, “I do understand your concern of this morning, Masie. I have given it thought, and I would like to make up the deficit in your salary.”
The interview closed cordially enough, with Max hoping that Masie would find her office more satisfactory, and she thanking him and hoping the same.
It took a long time for Masie to summon up courage to enter her office. But this time everything remained solid. Seated at her desk, Masie from time to time looked nervously up, and even more nervously down, but ceiling and carpet greeted her with their respective shabbiness. The fabric of reality had somehow been stitched back together as if it had never been sundered.
And that was the end of the incident at Planck Industries. Max took care from then on to avoid roundabout formulations of what he meant to say. Patty completed a doctorate on the implications of Dirac for the modern corporation. Masie spent some of her pay rise on coordinated underwear. And as for the positive and negative infinities that underlie everything around us, they returned to their normal job of cancelling each other neatly out.

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Matthew Harrison lives in Hong Kong, and whether because of that or some other reason entirely his writing has veered from non-fiction to literary and he is currently reliving a boyhood passion for science fiction. He has published numerous SF short stories and is building up to longer pieces as he learns more about the universe. Matthew is married with two children but no pets as there is no space for these in Hong Kong.

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