“Did you feel that?” Gilly asked.
A few steps ahead, Sampson sunk his ice axe into the crusty snow. “No. I didn’t feel anything.”
The couple was at nearly 9,000 feet resting on the edge of the glacier that corkscrewed precipitously to the top of Guth Peak, elevation 10,627. It was mid-morning, the early September sun bright and dangerous.
Gilly frowned, and he smiled serenely back, and she remembered why she was here. That smile. Sampson wasn’t all that memorable as a doctoral physics lab partner, but when he talked about climbing, he glowed like the Milky Way. Like she was staring into immense and mysterious power.
Gilly had wanted to experience that power first hand. Her work at the linear accelerator lab wasn’t enough anymore. It had opened the doors to mind-bending wonders of inflationary cosmology and the hidden realities of bubble universes.
When she had first been wrestling with the concept of cascading realities, Sampson had used the analogy of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay standing atop Everest. Their potential energy, should it be tipped by a small quake or gust of wind, could send them hurtling five hard miles down. The potential energy released in such a calamitous fall would engender a slew of realities. Inflaton fields such as these existed everywhere waiting for a quantum jitter to form one or more pocket universes.
Gilly had wanted to stand atop a mountain and feel that potential energy. And, yet, a dozen times during their ascent this morning she had felt a tremor, a jitter, rushing up her spine and spreading out along her shoulders and arms. Each jolt had left her tingling with trepidation. When she told Sampson about the sensation, he’d merely chalked it up to nerves.
She was sure it was nerves, though there was more. Her vision had begun to waver. As Sampson started to probe the path ahead of them, she began to see two of him. Two Sampsons, poking at the snow with his ice axe. One finding the safe path, the other plunging down the steep mountainside. A strange double vision, a splitting probability wave. Gilly knew she was sliding to the edge of what was real.
And here she was on a literal edge. She wondered if she was suffering from altitude sickness. Was she oxygen deprived? She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Thinking about Sampson’s cobalt blue eyes could leave her breathless. A strange sensation ran up her spine. She shivered and dug her fingers into the snow trying to steady her nerves.
“Remember, Professor Joiner’s lecture on the Inflationary Multiverse?” she asked suddenly. “Do you believe that stuff?”
Sampson stared back at her. “Stuff? We’re physicists. You want to be more specific?”
“Inflaton fields with enough potential energy, so that even a quantum nudge can bring a whole universe into being—birth a new reality.”
Sampson sighed. “Gilly, if we’re going to get into quantum jitters, I think we’re done for the day. You gotta focus on this reality if we’re going to make it safely to the top.”
“But don’t you wonder, if every step we take shakes a new reality into being, wouldn’t we feel it? Wouldn’t it somehow register?”
Sampson’s laugh boomed out over the glacier. “Not here. Mother Nature won’t suffer that kind of competition on a day like this.” He offered Gilly his hand. “Let’s go down. You’ve done amazing for a first ascent.”
Gilly felt an unexpected tingling in her neck that flowed down her shoulders to her fingertips. She squeezed Sampson’s hand firmly. “Let’s finish this.”
He eyed her carefully. “You sure? No jitters?”
“Plenty, but they’re not small enough yet.”
Sampson considered the enigma that was his girlfriend for a moment, then he went into mountain guide mode. He checked her gear and his, then their ropes and, once more, went through the plan before they stepped out onto the glacier.
Gilly, still tingling, followed.
They made the summit in an hour and a half. After taking a few pictures of the magnificent view, Gilly went to Sampson who was carving their names in the ancient snow with his ice axe. She put her arm around his waist. He pulled her close.
A universe jittered. Theirs, too.