Fiction: Thought Experiment
Photo Source: Pixabay
The trolley races down the hill. The operator is unconscious, slumped over the controls. At the bottom of the hill a group of five cheerleaders gather on the tracks.
Alan shouts at the cheerleaders. They don’t hear him. He waves his arms. They’re taking a selfie.
He spies a switch next to the tracks. He sprints, grabs and yanks. It will not budge. He pulls again. Nothing. The trolley is gathering speed. Alan plants his feet against the base and leans his body away, using all his weight. The metal creaks. Bit by bit, the lever moves. The trolley is almost there.
Alan strains. Sweat drips down his face.
The track has shifted. The trolley rattles past and heads onto a siding. The cheerleaders are saved.
But a man is standing on this other track, his back to the trolley. Pedestrians scream, but he’s wearing ear buds. People watch in horror as the trolley drags his body beneath its wheels.
* * *
Ten minutes later, the ambulance arrives. The paramedics can do nothing. Death was instantaneous.
The deceased’s name is Bill Doyle. Thirty-two. Has a pretty blonde wife named Dana. No kids. Lifelong resident of the city. Works downtown in the 1st National Trust Building.
* * *
The debate rages over the ethics of Alan’s actions.
The Unitarian minister argues pulling the lever was the right thing to do. “Yes, it’s a tragedy about Bill,” she says. “But if Alan didn’t act, all those girls would have died. That’s much worse. Five lives trump one.”
The Chair of the Philosophy Department at the local university disagrees. “Head down this utilitarian path paved with good intentions and you’ll save five people in need of transplants, by killing one healthy patient to harvest his organs.”
* * *
At home one evening Alan’s phone chirps. He checks his message and shouts to his wife, Carol. “I’m going to the bar!” Before she answers, he’s out the door.
He walks past the bar and turns down an alley. In the dim light a figure approaches. It’s Dana, Bill’s widow.
Alan reaches into his coat pocket and retrieves a pistol.
Her eyes grow wide. “Put that thing away,” she says.
He looks at the gun and shoves it back in his pocket. “Are you getting cold feet?”
“Of course not.” She wraps her arms around him and presses her lips to his.
He kisses her back enthusiastically. “If you don’t want the gun, then what’s the plan?”
She glances at her watch. “Right about now a package is being delivered to your wife.”
“What’s in the package?”
Dana smiles. “A radioactive isotope, a Geiger counter and a container of poison gas.”
* * *
“I was at the bar. I had nothing to do with my wife’s death.” Alan is sitting in a metal chair, handcuffed to a table in a dull gray interrogation room.
“Nope,” says the detective. He picks up a folder. “The M.E.’s report says your wife was in a state of quantum superposition. Then you come home and wham!” He slams his open palm on the table. “You collapsed the wave function and she’s dead.”
“You can’t prove anything,” says Alan.
The detective reads from the report. “Time of death is 11:05pm. The exact moment you arrived home.”
“Your girlfriend’s talking with my partner right now.” He sneers. “Whichever one of you talks first gets to live.”
Alan does the math. If he says nothing, they have him on the gun charge. Good for a year, maybe eighteen months. If Dana or he betrays the other, one will go free while the other heads to the gallows. If they both confess, they’ll live, but each face a long prison sentence.
They’d both be better off if neither confesses. But he can’t be sure what she’ll do. He has to act in his own self-interest. Cold hard logic, trumps love. Sorry, Dana.
“Okay, I’ll t—”
The detective’s partner walks in the room. “Dana just flipped. And that’s not all. Seems they had a plot to kill her husband as well. The trolley was a fortunate coincidence.”
The first detective laughs and runs his finger across this throat.
* * *
With dozens of eyewitnesses to Alan’s actions and the testimony of Dana, the prosecution has a slam-dunk case. In less than an hour the jury returns verdicts of guilty on two counts of Murder in the First Degree.
“I can’t sentence you to hang more than once, but I will add this stipulation,” says the judge.
“It is the order of this court that Alan Albertson be hung at dawn on a day next week to be determined by the Department of Corrections. But the condemned is not to know when his life will end until the morning of the appointed day.”
The courtroom gasps. The judge bangs his gavel. No one notices the smile on Alan’s face.
* * *
The jailer brings Alan his dinner. “You seem awfully cheery for a man facing death.”
“That’s the thing. The judge fouled it all up. I’m safe as the gold in Fort Knox.”
“The judge said I have to be hung next week, Monday-to-Sunday, but I am not allowed to know what day it will happen.”
“Well, I can’t be hung Sunday. When I wake up Saturday morning and they don’t hang me, I know it’s got to be Sunday. But I’m not allowed to know. So, Sunday is out.”
“Just hang you on Saturday,” says the jailer.
Alan shakes his head. “Since Sunday is out, when I wake up Friday morning and they don’t hang me, it will have to be Saturday. But if I know it’s Saturday, then that’s out too.”
The jailer lets out a low whistle.
“By the same process Friday is out, then Thursday, and so on.” Alan laughs. “That old judge was too clever by half. I’m certain to outlive him.”
* * *
Wednesday morning Alan is eating breakfast in his cell. He’s completely surprised when the jailers arrive to take him to the gallows.
James Blakey lives in suburban Philadelphia and has climbed 38 of the 50 United States high points. Visit his website at