The Town Drunk  
Improbable Times

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Bill knew there was trouble when he found a live trout in his briefs. It was getting his arbitration notes all wet, flopping weakly around the inside of the briefcase. A small example of the rainbow species, he judged. He blinked at it. It gazed back at him with one expressionless goggle-eye, and steadfastly refused to disappear like an obedient hallucination. The odor of fresh fish and river water wafted gently out into the air-conditioned meeting room, causing his client to furrow his brows in confusion. Bill gently closed his briefcase.

He couldn’t do anything for the poor fish, and he certainly couldn’t hand over those waterlogged papers to anyone; his reputation for oddity wasn’t helping his business, and he didn’t want any more stories to spread. He did the only sane and careful thing he could do.

He asked to reschedule.

Back in his cheap little car, windows rolled down to the spring warmth—rare in Chicago—driving distractedly in the general direction of home, Bill mulled over what could have happened. Occasionally, at a stoplight, he would raise the lid of the briefcase sitting in the passenger seat and take a peek at the trout. It always seemed to be looking back at him as if to say “Don’t ask me, I’m just as confused as you. Plus, I’m dead.”

Spontaneous generation? Could random subatomic particles have just decided to come together into the form of a fish? No, even if something so cosmically unlikely were to happen, the water would have been too much to ask. Teleportation, then? That seemed to fit the evidence; seemed like the poor guy had been just swimming along, minding his or her own business, and then bam, shoved into a hostile alien environment with a lawyer. Bill automatically rejected the idea that the fish might have teleported itself; even if it were capable of doing so, nobody would willingly go to a place where they couldn’t breathe. Similarly, the idea of divine intervention didn’t make a big impression; whatever god or gods may exist rarely operated in such a direct and dramatic fashion these days. So, who would have done this? And why? And how? He settled in behind a moving truck to think, letting the big vehicle govern his speed.

Bill swiftly came to the conclusion that he just didn’t have the kind of data he needed to figure this out. He needed someone with a deeper understanding of the esoteric, he needed someone who might know something about teleportation and spontaneous appearance and...

The back doors of the truck flew open spontaneously, fractured pieces of the ruined padlock banging across his hood and fetching up against his windshield wipers. He stood on his brake pedal, skidding to a stop just as the huge, ugly, very solid-looking sleeper couch, a monster in pink brocade, toppled out of the truck, slamming onto the pavement scant inches from his front bumper. He blinked at the couch as the truck stopped, and burly men hustled back to apologize to him. He ignored them, turning to mutter to the trout, “You know, I think I know just the guy who might be able to help.” He backed up and made a U-turn, leaving the relieved movers behind.

The air of the research facility was cold, sanitized, and smelled vaguely of ozone. The décor reflected the same sensibility. Mostly. Bill arrived in the office suite Greg shared, pushing open the nondescript door, and was confronted with a huge, heavy, pink brocade couch and an equally huge, heavy, and pink receptionist. The former looked like the more pleasant conversationalist, and the latter seemed to have more comfortable padding. Nevertheless, Bill announced himself to the woman and took a seat on the couch, which was disturbingly like the one that had almost made his subcompact a sub-subcompact. He was told Dr. Greg was on his way.

In typical fashion, it took Greg another fifteen minutes to arrive. The man seemed to operate within his own personal time-space continuum. Bill had just identified which “Far Side” cartoon lady the receptionist most resembled when Greg bustled through the hall door, hands full of metal and plastic and circuit boards and trailing wires. He plopped the mess on the receptionist’s desk and strode toward Bill, who was still struggling free from the horrible sagging clasp of the pink couch. Greg drew Bill into his gangly, surprisingly strong arms and just about squeezed the life out of him.

“Binky!” Greg exclaimed. “It’s been years!”


“Oh, sorry. Happy to see you, is all.”

“Please, Greg, don’t call me Binky.”

“What, your oldest buddies can’t call you by your nickname?” Greg playfully jabbed Bill in the shoulder. Bill sighed; he never liked that nickname, and Greg was the only friend who still bothered to use it, but nobody could alter Greg’s behavior, sometimes not even Greg.

“Skip it. Good to see you, too.”

Greg draped his arm over Bill’s shoulders and steered him down the short hallway toward his personal office. “So, what brings you all the way out here? Need some legal advice?”

“Very funny. No, there’s something unusual going on, and I wondered if you might have any ideas.”

“I always have ideas.” Greg was a genuine genius, with wide-ranging skills and knowledge, almost none of it useful in day-to-day life. He could barely heat soup, and his wife had banned him from his own kitchen after the one time he took apart the new microwave to see if the wavelength emitters were adjustable. Were it not for his wife’s efforts in clothing the man, his entire wardrobe would resemble either the fluorescent eyesore that was his tie or the pink couch in the reception area. He was not one to ask about an everyday problem. But deep theory, abstract thinking, technical operations—that was where he lived most of the time, that was his true passion. If anyone could help Bill solve this mystery, it was Greg.

“First off, how do you feel about fish?”

They both stared at the trout, sitting in the middle of Greg’s desk. Most of the water had evaporated, and it was getting a touch stinky. Still, it stared accusingly back at them.

“Okay...” Greg said slowly. “Okay. Eliminate the impossible. Whatever remains, however... improbable,” he hesitated slightly on that word, “must be the truth.”

“Sherlock Holmes’s credo. And good advice in my profession, as well.” Bill shifted his gaze to Greg’s face. “But if you eliminate the impossible, the whole problem goes out the window, and that’s obviously not going to help.”

“It’s not that, it’s... well, I suddenly thought it might relate to the project I’m working on.”

A kind of tingle started at the base of Bill’s neck and put slivers of ice between his vertebrae. He kept his voice calm, though he wanted to yell. “Greg. What is it that you’re working on?”

Greg leaned back, steepling his fingers. “You were always a widely read guy, for a law major. What do you know about branching universes?”

“Hmm. I read a Robert Anton Wilson book about them once, lots of sex but some physics, too, right? Something like, for every possible outcome of a given decision, a new universe splits off from the original, or something. Einstein and a couple of other guys didn’t like that very much, as I recall...”

“That would be Einstein, Podolsky, and Rosen. I think you’ve got the basics, though you’re glossing over a great deal...”

“Quantum physics isn’t my strong point.”

“True, true...” Greg suddenly leaned forward. “Look, there are innumerable mysteries in this world, particularly in physics. We don’t even actually have a theory that completely explains all the intricacies of how electricity works, and we’ve been playing with that phenomenon for more than a hundred years. Point is, there’s a lot of usefulness in just researching the basics, finding out why very simple things happen, and then seeing what you can do with them.”

“Greg, you’re starting to scare me.”

“Look, I’m just saying that what we’re doing here is essentially basic research, not necessarily intended to develop a specific technology or anything. It’s about finding out what makes the universe tick.”

“Greg, if you don’t start explaining to me what the hell you’re talking about, I’m going to take my fish and...” Bill didn’t have anything to follow up with, so he stood up and took the trout and put it in his pocket.

Greg stood, hand out. “Binky, wait!” He paused, then tilted his head. “Want to see it?”

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