The Infinite Matrix

Stories Columns Archive FAQ Home


  Viper Wire by Richard Kadrey



The Probability Box


Even at the height of its popularity, no one really understood how Probability Boxes worked. It was possible, in fact, that they didn't work, and that the whole Probability Box phenomenon was built on malfunctioning technology. That uncertainty was the other problem with the Probability Box. Besides not understanding it, no one was sure where it came from. The consensus was that it was probably based on alien technology smuggled out of the notorious Vladivostock landing site sometime between late 2012 and the quarantine in 2013.

What, exactly, was a Probability Box? Looking like an old television "box," a Probability Box was a video medium which displayed a range of possible and impossible signals. The technology first gained popularity in academic and techno-geek circles when the initial working sets would spontaneously play movies and television shows that didn't exist: Casablanca starring a young Ronald Reagan. Orson Welles' never-filmed versions of Don Quixote and Heart of Darkness. A run of the TV series Kung Fu, but starring Bruce Lee. An extra season of Twin Peaks.

When stories of the wonders that could be viewed on the boxes crept into the mainstream media, the public response was immediate. At the end of the first year of retail distribution, the Probability Box had become the most popular consumer electronic device of all time. Then things began to go wrong.

Along with variant versions of movies and television shows, viewers would sometimes catch news broadcasts or emergency reports. Like the movies, many of these seemed to be from some alternate timeline where, for example, a story on the Aztec invasion of modern Paris made perfect sense. What truly disturbed viewers were the broadcasts that seemed to come directly from their own futures. A grey-haired version of their local newscaster would appear and announce that the viewer's town had been wiped out by a freak asteroid fall or some mysterious viral outbreak. Other viewers might catch a story regarding their own murder or fiery death in a freeway pile-up.

Worse yet, habitual Probability Box viewers began to see an alternate world even when the devices were off. Living rooms would melt into radioactive wastes in a post-apocalyptic landscape. Traffic in the street would morph into a herd of bison or triceratops, heading for green grazing lands. For these viewers, the skies were always full of transport zeppelins and pteranadons.

Theories as to what was causing the hallucinations — if they were hallucinations — were plentiful. The most popular was that because the Probability Box was based on a not-well-understood extraterrestrial technology, the sets were giving off an unknown radiation that was mutating the rods and cones in viewers' eyes into some alien configuration. Three months after the first hallucinations were reported in the press, the sale and possession of a Probability Box was outlawed by Federal mandate. Citizens turned in the devices to hazmat teams at their local fire and police stations. The boxes were burned, sealed in leaded glass, and buried in the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

Of course, even the most diligent government effort couldn't account for all of the boxes. To this day, secret websites and underground newsletters hint at a thriving collector's market. Customs officials regularly seize shipments of DVDs burned from those impossible movies and series. No one is sure what effect viewing Probability Box images away from the sets will have. Possibly none. But, for some viewers, it's likely that mastodons and Graf-Zeppelins will haunt their streets and skies forever.


[ Previous ]  [ Next ]

Richard Kadrey is a member of a small group of innovative writers, including William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, Pat Cadigan, Tom Maddox, and others, who changed the face of science fiction in the 1980s. He also creates art. He lives in San Francisco.

home | stories | columns | archive | faq |