The Cat and the Box
Oscar got the message from his boss to call in at the station. The inspector sounded worried, which was not usual.
It was another missing persons case. The subject was a male, in his thirties; no known associates and no obvious reason for him to disappear. His landlord made the call when the subject, name Jorge Lombardi, hadn’t shown up as usual to pay the rent (he always paid promptly and in cash, though the landlord had no idea what he did for a living).
– Unusual name.
– Unusual person, the boss replied.
– But still. People go missing all the time. Why do you need me to look into it?
– Lombardi was working in Estados Unidos when he was younger, in the place where they design all the computers. His landlord thought he’d been some kind of scientific prodigy and that checks out, up to a point. He came home about ten years ago and no-one knows what he’s been doing since.
– That still doesn’t explain.
– There’s some kind of device left in his flat. The officer who took the call got the landlord to let him in. It was a mess inside. Seems Lombardi didn’t let even a cleaner in. There was no sign of our boy, just this thing.
– What kind of thing?
– We don’t know. That’s the point. There’s an ordinary little laptop, connected to a metal ball that’s heavy and a box that seems too light to have anything inside. The officer thought it might be something terrorists would make, so he didn’t touch anything apart from to unplug the electricity at the socket.
– That was brave, but a little foolish. And?
– And nothing. There’s nothing else in the flat but a few sticks of furniture and some old clothes; and a stack of notebooks and papers that takes up most of the spare bedroom. Perhaps I should call the security services, but you know what they said last time. I’d feel like an idiot if we‘re only dealing with a harmless crank once more. You’re the intellectual of the department. I thought you could call round with Jose; have a look, check out the notes. Think about whether it’s something we need to take seriously.
– There are experts for this kind of thing.
– I know, I know: but if it’s something ridiculous we don’t want them laughing at a bunch of ignorant policemen.
Jose met him downstairs, disappointed to hear that there was no need to use the blue light for this journey. The flat was just as the inspector described. The landlord was a short, skinny man wearing only a vest and a pair of greasy black trousers in the heat. He had a thin face contrasting with thick dark hair that stood out at every angle. His front teeth were too prominent and he made the effect worse with a nervous smile that Oscar often saw on the faces of those who were not comfortable around policemen. After he let them in, he excused himself, saying that he lived in the flat downstairs if he should be needed. Oscar could hear the words of the adverts playing on the television in the room below. Not an ideal place for study.
The landlord said that he hoped everything would be well with Snr. Lombardi. He was a good man, even though no-one ever saw him or spoke to him.
– I suppose that means he pays the rent regularly, Jose commented, when the man had gone.
The only thing that stood out in the room was the box and its attachments. The box itself was a cube of about one metre and a half. It seemed metallic, but Oscar could not be sure. The cube and the ball stood on the floor, but the computer sat on a tiny metal frame table. It was an ordinary laptop, not even high spec. The ball was slightly bigger than a football, definitely metal and studded with irregular indentations and what looked like ports that could be opened or else plugged into. The three items were connected by a thick sheath of cables, or possibly flexible pipes, that were bundled together and roughly bound with insulating tape. It all seemed very homemade.
Oscar knelt down and touched the metal football.
– It’s warm.
– What does that mean?
– Perhaps it’s still working, even without a mains connection. There’s no hum. Maybe it has its own power supply.
– Powering what?
Oscar didn’t reply.
A black cat jumped up onto the sill of the half open window and down into the room. The effect was startling, but the creature looked like an ordinary street cat; thin and slightly battered. It ignored them completely and stalked to a corner of the room where a saucer and bowl were set out on the floor. Oscar could see that what remained of the contents of these had been there so long that it had fused with the plate. The cat inspected the situation then padded away in disgust: it remained, watching them from a safe distance.
Jose took a few steps towards the window.
– The fire escape comes down this way, he said. That’s how it gets in. Shall I close the window?
– Looks like the cat lives here.
Jose left it as it was.
– You know what’s strange, he told Oscar. There’s no router and no telephone connection. A supposed genius and it looks like he doesn’t even have internet.
– It seems he’s cut himself off from the world these last ten years.
The notes in the spare bedroom were even more numerous and disorganized than Oscar had expected.
– It might take months even for an expert to understand any of this, he said. I don’t know what the boss thinks I can do. You see these notebooks on the shelf; that seem to have some kind of order? Yes I thought so. Seems to be some kind of journal. I’ll try to make some sense of that, but I’ll need a couple of hours. Find out what the neighbours can tell us. And he must have bought groceries somewhere nearby. Make the landlord a little less comfortable than he seems to be already.
Jose nodded and ambled away. Oscar busied himself with the endless pages of dense handwritten script. A little less than two hours later, his partner returned. He went straight into the kitchen and returned with a couple of loaded saucers.
– Something for the cat, he explained.
The cat was curled in a corner of the main room. It waited until he’d put down the saucers in the usual place and moved away before stretching and moving to inspect.
– The landlord is a decent enough type, Jose said. He just doesn’t trust policemen.
– Can’t blame him for that.
– The neighbours don’t see our man. He doesn’t make noise: doesn’t come home late.
– What about the local shops?
– They had some churros left over from the morning. Not bad. Jose brushed at his sleeve and licked some sugar off his fingers. I’d have brought you some, but I know you don’t like. The bar has good coffee.
– Nothing then.
– How about you?
After two hours of reading his notes, Oscar knew Lombardi better, but still he wasn’t sure if the man was sane. He’d started out working of ways to make computers faster and more powerful: that had been his job. In the beginning he kept mentioning something called Moore’s Law. Oscar knew that this was the idea that technology doubled the amount of information that could be held in a silicon chip every two years. To most people, that was incredible, if it was true; but to Lombardi this rate of progress seemed feeble and without ambition.
Lombardi’s notes were scornful of rivals who discovered ever more intricate pathways for information. He said that they were only resolving the map into greater detail, when the adventure was to find new territories and make the journey time between them shorter. Electricity was too slow for him (what did he propose to use instead, light?) and he wrote for page after page about the unacceptable limitations of binary code. On or off was all very well, but it was only two variations. If you could add even one other possibility, that he called on and off, that meant there would be three possibilities at every juncture and the speed at which you could express and resolve even the most complicated questions in such a system would be beyond imagining. But how could something be on and off at the same time, Oscar wondered?
His headache had started at that point, but he persevered. It seemed that Lombardi had not been content with theory.
– According to his journal, Oscar told his partner; Lombardi was able to develop a new kind of computer: very powerful. But while he was working on it, he became obsessed by probability. There’s a lot in here about that famous experiment that expresses the idea that a closed system can exist in contradictory states simultaneously, until it’s measured. The act of observation causes the uncertainty to collapse and resolve.
– It’s famous, said Jose. Actually I never heard of it before, whatever it was you just said.
– You know, the cat is in the sealed box, with a radioactive source and some cyanide that is triggered if an isotope is released. Until you open the box and look the cat inside is both alive and dead.
Jose looked across at the small black furry creature lapping at the milk he’d put down.
– No-one really put the cat in the box, Oscar told him. It’s only illustrates an idea. Lombardi was trying to explain how he’d built a supercomputer in his room and used it to create what he called a probability generator.
– Ah, so he was mad then, Jose sounded relieved.
– Perhaps, Oscar nodded. And did you notice the strange thing about our box?
– You mean that when you look closely you can see that one side is like a door, that can be opened up and closed?
– You’ll make a good detective yet, Jose. Did you think that maybe the door can be closed from the inside?
– Dios mio. You mean the crazy man could be inside. Trapped maybe. We should open it right now.
– Not so fast. It might be dangerous, for everybody.
– You mean it could be a bomb, after all?
Oscar was thinking through the confused notes that he’d hurriedly scanned. He believed that Lombardi had always intended to build and go into the box, even before he’d known it. He’d written about probability in terms of parallel worlds that existed side by side and perhaps could be made to converge momentarily. Oscar wasn’t sure if real scientists talked like that: he’d jumped to the last pages, because there wasn’t time to read everything. He’d read passages about the possibility of an individual experiencing the consciousness of divergent realities. The reasoning was hard to follow, but these lines were mixed with reports of experiments that Lombardi had carried out with the box, or imagined that he had, with objects placed in the box and recovered later. Lombardi claimed that some of the objects were different when they came back, but there were no unusual physical objects in the flat, so far as they could see.
Lombardi had cut himself off from the world because he was afraid of the effect he might have if he left it and came back as someone who had been a different person all his life; or if he didn’t come back and it turned out he had never existed. He was prepared to take the chance for himself but concerned about how he might alter the lives of anyone he had touched. The solution was not to allow himself to interact with anyone. Maybe the device was a kind of bomb after all. It might open to a world in which none of them existed.
– Keep thinking boss, Jose said to him. There’s no hurry. Obviously we’re dealing with a lunatic here, but if he sealed himself in that, I don’t see how he could have survived. He should have suffocated or starved by now.
– Perhaps, but I don’t think he meant to kill himself. He intended to enter the probability field so that he could experience multiple probabilities in a single consciousness. He was thinking about alternate universes.
– Maybe he should have thought about how he would get out of the box.
– You’re right, but it could be something went wrong or was interrupted. The officer unplugged the laptop remember. The ball doesn’t need power and the keyboard is only a controller that translates what it should do, but if there wasn’t enough life in the battery to complete the programme, then I don’t know.
– Best get it open then.
– Except that, if he’s inside, it’s possible that he’s alive or dead. At the moment he could be both, but once we take the measurement and open the box, it’s one or the other.
– I suppose you mean we might kill him now. But if we wait longer, it’s inevitable that he’s dead. So we may as well get on with it. What choice do we have?
– I don’t know. We should speak to the landlord again first. He was the first person to see all this. There may be some detail we’ve missed.
Jose went to fetch the man. Oscar was left alone to reflect on Lombardi and what he’d read of the man’s obsessions. Some of what he imagined made him shudder. He was glad when Jose returned with the landlord, who seemed more even more sheepish than before.
– It’s important that you think very carefully, Oscar told him; and tell us every detail of what you found when you first came in the flat. Don’t leave out anything, however insignificant.
– I told you everything already, honest, the poor man insisted. There wasn’t anything else.
– Absolutely sure.
The landlord could not hold Oscar’s stare.
– Certain. Apart from; well I did look in the box of course. But I only looked. I didn’t take nothing. There was nothing to take.
– What do you mean, you looked inside?
– Well, look at the fittings and things on that side. I mean, it was obvious that it was some kind of door. I only thought that the gentleman might have been working on the equipment and got trapped inside, honest.
– Calm down. Tell us exactly what you saw inside.
– Nothing at all, sir. The box was empty. It’s the truth.
There wasn’t anything else he could tell them. When they’d seen the empty chamber for themselves, they reported back to the station. Jorge Lombardi must have left his flat and there were no clues as to where he might have gone. Oscar took the final notebook away with him, guilty that he was removing evidence. It occurred to him afterwards that the strange machine might be giving out some kind of radioactivity, so the team they sent to remove it wore protective suits.
But they reported back that when they went into the flat they found nothing there; only a ragged black cat that hissed at them and took off through the open window and down a fire escape. There was no device of any kind, and no piles of notes that they’d been told to collect. They asked the landlord about it of course, but the poor man said that he had the only key to the flat. He seemed genuinely unable to remember that he’d ever had a tenant called Lombardi.
It was certainly strange; but even more curious was that no-one seemed to mind. More than anything else, the boss hated paperwork that didn’t include a neat conclusion, but he seemed unconcerned about the Lombardi file. Oscar thought that maybe he’d lost it; either deliberately or accidentally.
When he spoke about the case to Jose a day later, he was shocked to realize that his partner had no proper recollection of it. He only listened to Oscar as if he was humouring him; apart from every now and then he’d frown as if he suspected that yes, there was something that they had both seen if only he could remember what it was.
Oscar knew that his own memory of whatever had happened was no longer to be trusted. The thought made him so anxious that he hurried to his office, where he’d secured the journal for a more thorough later examination. He was relieved when he found the book still in his desk drawer, where he thought he’d left it. The book felt solid enough. He opened the first page: it was blank. All the other pages were blank white paper. By the end of the week, neither Oscar nor anyone else remembered Jorge Lombardi: who he had been or where he had been, or even where he might still be.