Fiction: The Quantum Error by Michael Kurland

a ButterCornPad excursion by
Michael Kurland




– Professor Asimov, do you think there could be
laws of physics that we haven’t discovered?
– Yes, but if so we have not discovered them.
– Isaac Asimov, 1983

“It may be dirty poetry
But obscene verse.”
Randall Garrett, 1983

I have often felt that Greenwich Village, and particularly MacDougal Street, exists at least partly outside of time and space, and is a nexus for much that is weird and wonderful – or sometimes merely weird – in the universe. For perspective on the value of my insights I should add that I have heard pigeons muttering obscenities under their beaks as they strutted past me on the sidewalk; I have held long conversations with the espresso machine in the Café Rienzi – the one that looks like an overweight Buck Rogers rocket ship; I have often felt that ancient wisdom is hidden in fortune cookies. I am aware that people wait for hours so they can get in front of me on line at the supermarket or take the last table at a restaurant just as I enter. I have heard cats squatting in window ledges giggle at me as I pass by. And there, just at the edge of my vision, occasionally lurks a unicorn. I could be wrong.

This all took place a long time ago. Although if you turn your head sideways and squint just a little it may not have happened yet if Schrodinger is right about the cat. The cat, whose name incidentally is Sniffles, is uncharacteristically silent on the subject.

(An aside here – you may find much of this story unbelievable. That’s all right. We would probably find much of your life unbelievable, and yet you go on living it anyway.)

My name is Michael Kurland, and you probably don’t know about me without you have read a book. Any one of three books actually, Chester Anderson’s The Butterfly Kid,The Unicorn Girl, or Tom Waters’ The Probability Pad. You might consider them biographies, but I wouldn’t if I were you. They’re more like alternate histories that have the unfortunate habit of flickering into reality when you aren’t looking.

It all began during what passed for a fairly normal day in early September at the Figaro Coffee House on MacDougal Street. Fishfry Mackay was arguing with the manager as I came out of the kitchen. And, since Fishfry was the manager, that involved a bit of fancy footwork. A bridge game was going on at the back table pitting a nun and a guy in a space suit against Lousy Lazlo and a cave man. Wendy Wonder, my current love and one of the Figaro’s waitpersons was threading her way through the tables with cups of espresso, latte, mead, and something green with a sort of iridescent foam spilling over the rim, balanced on different parts of her fascinating anatomy.

Phil Klass, a slim, bearded man who, under the name ^of William Tenn, wrote perfectly crafted inciteful science fiction stories that so well captured the human condition that most people thought of them as humor, was sitting by himself at a corner table, and he looked up and smiled as Wendy slid a large latte in front of him.

I had an interesting experience last night,” he told me as I paused by his table.

“How’s that?” I asked.

I met myself at a party.”

This stopped me for a second. “You met yourself?”

“I did.”

Tell me about it,” I suggested.

Later,” he said. “I want to think about it for a bit first.”

“Well,” I said, “you do write science fiction.”

“I used to think so,” he said.

I went on. Randall “Your Lordship” Garrett was sitting by the window nursing what I assumed was a cappuccino, meditating on the four empty shot glasses he had set up on the table in front of him. Chester the Barefoot Anderson, poet, novelist, musician, who did all three with equal zest and consummate skill, had recently taken up the electronic zither and was at our table by the espresso machine entertaining two teenage girls and a teenage boy with zithering and tales of the wonderous world of Greenwich Village, with occasional asides.  And Chester’s asides were marvels of construction, with lacy frameworks balanced on beds of solid supposition.

The teenagers looked not so much as if they had escaped from some strange religious cult but as if they had brought the cult with them. All three were identically dressed with not-to-short short pants of a peculiar shade of brown with red buttons up the fly, open-toed workboots over socks striped red, blue, and green, and mauve turtleneck short sleeved shirts covered with small blue dots. My friend Tom Waters was partial to short-sleeve turtlenecks, but his were black. Very black. These turtlenecks had deep red stitched mottos across the front that read: “I and Thou in a Probable Now.”

I thought about asking about the motto, but I decided that on the whole it was probably better not to, so I wandered over to the bridge table. As I approached I notice that they were playing with a well-thumbed Tarot deck.

Greetings,” I said, ever ready with the perfect bon mot.

“Yeah, Whatever,” said Lazlo.

Hi!” said the nun, who with the wimple, if that’s what they call it, turned back, seemed to actually be a fifteen or so year old boy in a nun suit.

“A pleasure to meet you, Earthman,” said the guy in the space suit, the words muffled through the closed helmet.

Two cups,” said the caveman.

Three wands and a bippy,” said the guy in the space suit.



Double,” said the caveman.

The fifteen year old boy nun stretched. “I guess I’m dummy,” he said, laying out his cards.

“I wish I’d known you had the Sorcerer and the Chariot,” grumbled the guy in the space suit. “But never mind.”

Lazlo, after much consideration, lay down the Four of Cups. I turned away from the table.

The boy nun got up. “Can I get a cup of coffee?” he asked me.

“Sure,” I said, gesturing toward the counter.

“I meant would you – oh, you’re not a waiter?”

“No, the pretty girl with the apron on is the waitperson. We were going to call her a ‘waitron,’ what with the new gender-free world, but then Universal Robotics came out with a real Waitron, so we reverted. But you can just go up to the counter.”  Then I realized that I was still wearing my full-body white apron. “Oh this,” I said, gesturing. “The dishwasher didn’t show up this evening, so I volunteered. I like washing dishes, it puts you in a state of grace. Speaking of which –” another gesture, this time in his direction, “why the outfit?”

The kid came close to blushing. “You see…” he said. “I, ah, ran away.”

“From what?”

“From Maxwelton Academy. It’s a military school in Alabama.” “Dressed like a nun?”

“Yes, well – I’d get stopped and sent back if I went in uniform. And you’d be surprised how easy it is to get a lift if you’re a nun.”

I considered that. “Makes sense,” I admitted.

I’d like a coffee too,” came the muffled voice of the space man who seemed to have missed an important point of the conversation.

“How are you going to drink it with that helmet on?” I asked.

“There’s this tube here,” he said, indicating a port on the side of the helmet.

“Why don’t you just take it off?” I asked.

“It’s attached at the other end,” he said.

“I mean the helmet. Why don’t you just take the helmet off?”

“What?” he demanded. “How do I know I can breathe the air?”

Having no answer to that, I made myself an espresso and went over to the table by the window and sat opposite Randall.

“Ah, Michael,” he said, indicating the four shot glasses, which were set in a neat row in front of him, “ponder upon the eternal question exemplified by these glasses.”

“What question?” I asked, going along with him, certain I would regret it.

“Let us take this first glass,” he said, “and let us imagine it filled with Scotch whisky, say Glenlivit, said to be so fine that it goes down singing hymns.”

“All right,” I said cautiously, “let us imagine.”

“And this second glass, it should mayhap be filled with a fine Kentucky Bourbon, say Blanton’s Single Barrel 20-year old.”

“Mayhap it should,” I agreed cautiously.

“Now the third glass – the third glass should perhaps hold Midleton Very Rare Irish Whiskey,” he went on.

“Okay,” I said.

“Now the question is, the question is,” he said tapping each of the four glasses on the rim. I sighed. He took no notice. “Yes?” I asked, regretting it already.

The question is, of what king does this remind you?”



“I have no idea.”

“Philip the Fourth!” he said, shaking his fist above his head triumphantly.

There was a pause. Many of Randall’s, ah, pronouncements are followed by a pause from the onlookers. “Of course,” I said finally.

My cellphone sounded the opening bars from the overture to “My Fair Vampire,” and I got up and headed over to a quiet spot to answer it: “Hello, Tom.”

Tom Waters’ head appeared on the screen. It appeared to be bathed in a blue light.

“There’s something wrong,” he said. His voice sounded distant and crackly. I tapped the phone with my knuckle. Now his head turned green. It was, I decided, time to upgrade the phone. This one must be six months old already. They claim they don’t purposefully downgrade the signal every six months to make you buy a new one, but then they also claim that kale is a vegetable, so who am I to believe.

“There’s something very wrong.” Tom sounded serious.

“Is this a political statement,” I asked, “or something closer to home.”

“I think I’m on Mars,” Tom said in a low, intense voice. “Mars.”

“Has Chester offered you any orange juice recently?” I asked.

“Orange juice?”

“Chester tends to dissolve his various drugs in orange juice, and sometimes forgets to tell his friends what they’re drinking.”

“Oh,” Tom said. “That would explain – but no, this time no orange juice. I think I’m on Mars. Really on Mars.”

“The planet?” I asked.

“No,” he snarled, “the candy bar! – of course the planet. I’m on the planet Mars. I’m talking to you from the planet Mars.”

“That’s highly improbable,” I told him.

“Don’t you think I know that?”

“Okay,” I said reasonably. “Then – how did you get there?”

“On the subway. The F. Got on at West 4th. Got off on Mars.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, that makes sense.”

“You’re making fun of me. You don’t believe me. Well, that’s okay. I’m not sure I believe me either.”

“Okay,” I said. “Why do you think you’re on Mars?”

“Well, there is the sign on the subway wall that tells you what stop it is. You know, like West 4th or Grand Central?”


“Well, I didn’t notice until after I got off, but this one said ‘Mars.’”

“That’s it?”

“Well, under that it said, ‘Change here for the Outer Planets – Upstairs one level for the Asteroids.’”

“Come on,” I told him. “Why are you getting so upset? This isn’t like you. You’re the most unflappable man I know.”

“Yeah, well…”

“It’s some sort of elaborate practical joke. You go upstairs and it’s going to be West 34th or Times Square or something. Somebody’s probably shooting a movie.”

“That’s what I thought. Then I went upstairs. Two levels – I didn’t want to go to the Asteroids.”

“Where are you now?”

“I’m still inside the station. On Mars.”

“Look,” I said reasonably. “Think of the time delay.”

“I have other problems,” Tom told me. “Like I’m on Mars. I thought of going back downstairs and getting on the next train, but who knows where I’d end up. Neptune. Or the Bronx.”

“No,” I said. “I mean think of the time delay that should be happening if you were actually on Mars. Light takes eight minutes to get here from the Sun, I think. And Mars is – I’m guessing now — another six minutes. So since radio waves travel at the speed of light, I shouldn’t see you or hear you until six minutes after you say whatever you say. Which means when you say something it should take twelve minutes for you to hear my answer. And if Mars is on the other side of the Sun from us at the moment, it’s more like half an hour round trip.”

There was a brief silence at Tom’s end. Then he said, “It’s even worse than that; there aren’t any cellphone relay towers between the Figaro and Mars, so what the Hell is carrying the signal?”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “That too.”

“Nonetheless…” Tom said.

“Show me,” I told him. “Show me where you are.”

Tom turned the cell phone away from him and panned it around. He was in a large room with white metal chairs scattered about and what might have been a full-sized replica of the Wright Brothers’ flying machine hanging from the ceiling. The walls were glass – or at least clear – and outside was a sort of dimly-lit rocky-deserty landscape (Marsscape?). There was a corridor going off on one side, with a sign above it that read Medusae Fossae. Off in the distance to the right of the corridor a series of white domes could bbe seen through the glass. They looked small, but they might have been merely very far away.

“Excuse please,” came a voice from somewhere off camera; a sort of deep, Plummy voice that overemphasized the “s”s.

“What’s that?” Tom looked up, turning the cellphone camera, toward whomever was speaking to him. (Notice the “whomever” – Chester would be pleased).

“Please…” A hand came and covered the camera lense. “There has been a mistake. Please.”

“Please what?” Tom asked. “Who are you?”

“There has been a mistake,” the plummy voice said. “The transmatter device malfunctioned. You are not to have been here – supposed to have not – anyway you should be elsewhere.”

“Where should I be?” Tom asked, a not unreasonable question.

“It is of no consequence,” the voice said. “Where would you like to be?”

“Well,” Tom said. “What about the Figaro Coffee House? That’s on…”

“Please!” the voice said. “We know where the Figaro is. Greenwich Village in the New York City, not? Does not William Tenn the writer go to the Figaro?”

“Yes,” Tom said.

“And Harlan Ellison? Does he also not go to the Figaro?”

“Yes,” Tom said. “I mean no, I mean yes. He does.”

“We shall rectify this mistake,” the voice said. “We will take you to the Figaro. You will, in time, forget about this, or you will think of it as a dream.”

“I suppose you don’t want me to tell anyone?” Tom asked.

“Tell them what?”

“Well, where I’ve been. Where I am now.”

“Who would believe you?” the voice asked. “Now, come!”

The cellphone screen went dark and the random noises of the Universe came through the speaker. I hung up. Strictly speaking, I touched the off button. We old people call that “hanging up.” I was, I will admit, alarmed. But I couldn’t think of anything I could do about it at the moment.

About four minutes later Tom came cautiously through the front door of the Figaro and looked around. When he saw me he almost smiled, which for Tom is a sign of great pleasure. “Michael!” he said.

“Tom!” I said.

“Wait,” he said, “how do I know it’s really you?”

“I’ve often asked myself that,” I told him.

A man who can best be described as “round” came in behind Tom. His head was round, his body was round, his legs, his arms – he looked as close to a balloon-animal man as is possible, and still, somehow, almost human. “You see,” he said, with a slightly odd emphasis on the “s”, I have returned you.”

“How do I know this is real?” Tom asked him.

“I am not a student of epistemology,” the round man told him. “You must resolve this for yourself.”

Tom thought about this for a second and then turned to me. “Tell me something that only you and I know,” he said.

I thought of some things that I decided not to mention in case anyone else in the room was paying attention. Then I remembered one of our brief riffs that was a sort of in-joke. “I commend to your attention,” I told him, “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“But Holmes,” Tom said, “the dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“You are mistaken Watson,” I said, “examine your shoe!”

“Michael!” Tom said. “It is you.”

“Indeed,” I agreed. “Welcome back.”

We mimed hugging, although we were both too masculine to actually touch.

“Your friend is remarkable,” the round man told me, “for a human.”

“Is he?” I asked. “How is that?”

“While we were being transmatted here he did some remarkable tricks with a deck of cards.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Yes. Four different tricks that were seemingly impossible. Almost like, I might say, magic.”

“Years of practice and self-denial,” Tom said. I joined him as we finished, “and eating yak dung in the Orient.”

“Please,” said the round man, “As while I am here must be, which of these is Harlan Ellison?” he indicated the customers with a broad wave of his hand.

“He’s not here at the moment,” I told him.

The round man looked crushed. “I had hoped…” he said. “But no matter. Is the master – William Tenn – is he here?”

I pointed to the corner table. “That gentleman,” I said. “that is Mr. Tenn.”

“I must!” the round man said. “But do I have time? Of course – what is time but a five dimensional expression of yaggle space?”

Tom nodded. “Just what I’ve always said.”

I led the round man over to Phil’s table. “Here’s a gentleman, or whatever, who would like to meet you,” I told him.

Phil looked up. “Which one of me?” he asked. “This one or the other?”

“Mr Tenn,” the round man said, “my name is” – and he made a screeching sound – “and it is a pleasure, an honor, to meet you.”

Phil looked at the round man, and then at me, and then all around, trying to figure out what the gag was. “It is?” he asked.

“Your name is honored throughout the galaxy,” the round man said.

Phil relaxed and smiled. Okay, he’d go along with the joke. “You have no idea how pleased I am to hear that. The whole galaxy?”

“Well, the near galaxy,” the man told him. “East of the Yang quadrant. Your story ‘Firewater’ has received many coughs and blinks from the cogs and scenties. You described the Biddle People perfectly. Such nuance!”

Really?” Phil asked. “That’s nice, I guess, but I’ve never written a story called ‘Firewater.”

The round man reached out an arm – how could I not have noticed until just then that he had four arms? – and patted Phil on the shoulder. “You will, Mr. Tenn,” he told him. “You will!” With that he turned and headed for the door, pausing for a moment to look over the bridge game. “Play the Hanged Man,” he told the man in the space suit, and then went on.

He pushed open the door to what I hoped was still MacDougal Street, and then turned back to us. “Hail and fairwell!” he called, waving two of his arms.

“Yeah, whatever,” said Lousy Lazlo.

And if you believe that ……

(I acknowledge the influence of Chester CVJ Anderson for important parts of this memoir)


Editor’s Note:  If you believe that, as Michael wrote, you may also believe this:  The Quantum Error is a short story (mmm, maybe) that takes place within the universe established within the pages of The Greenwich Village Trilogy (maybe), and was offered to Amazing Stories by the esteemed author following the announcement of the re-release of The Butterfly Kid (Chester Anderson), The Unicorn Girl (Michael Kurland) and The Probability Pad (T.A. Waters), and the publication of reviews of those books here.  All three authors appear as characters (maybe…strong evidence suggests that the ‘novels’ are in fact autobiographical) in the trilogy, just as some of them, along with others, are featured in The Quantum Error.  We, like the author, leave the reader to come to their own conclusions.

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