Remix of images by Nick Fewings, John Peters, and Paul Volkmer
Better than Stealing
by Andrew E. Love, Jr.
A full trashcan sat in the dark just outside my alternate-dimension self’s office. Housekeeping came by every morning, so obviously this lucky “me” was still employed here, working during the daylight hours. I was the unlucky me who was stuck prowling dark hallways at 2 am on a Tuesday.
Inside the office, the smell of old coffee aggravated the throbbing that had been growing in my skull ever since I transited. The flicker of the fluorescent hall lights added to the aspirin-proof pain reminding me that it wasn’t healthy to be in someone else’s universe. No time to waste. BioChemEng wasn’t paying me to find out how long it took for the blood vessels in my brain to fail.
The smell was coming from “my” blue mug decorated with the chemical structure of caffeine. It sat on a desk filled with printouts of chemical analyses and notes on experiments. Bingo! Other me had been busy, so maybe I was lucky after all.
My fifth guess unlocked the computer. Thank God for forgetful executives who insisted that IT relax their three-failure lockout rule in every universe. I inserted the terabyte thumb drive and started copying everything.
While the data transferred, I looked around. Sticky notes were piled by the computer with file names and other reminders and Monday’s paper was in the corner. All just like home. Keeping an eye on the progress bar, I dug through the old sticky notes. This version of me postponed doctor’s appointments and had overdue library books, too. Huh.
The file transfer finished, and I pulled the drive. Before I left, I dropped an old “Call doctor for physical” note on top of the pile – if you can’t pester a different version of yourself, who can you pester? – and took the newspaper with me.
I hoped the files had useful results. My last three late-night visits hadn’t been very productive, and Mike was getting impatient. I used to think “publish or perish” was bad when I was in academia. But now “perish” is literal.
I went down the staircase two steps at a time and jogged back to the transfer point. I was cutting it close; it was 2:35, and any minute I would get dizzy, nauseous, and confused (the just-out-of-surgery version of those feelings, not the fun out-too-late-partying version). Besides, the guards on my Earth patrol this floor at 3 am. I couldn’t afford to be caught by a guard whose watch was fast.
Back in the room where I had first appeared, I stood on the X I’d chalked on the floor when I arrived. I tucked the newspaper under my shirt, gripped the thumb drive in one fist, latched my wristband snugly – the more skin touches an object the better the odds it will return with me – and pressed the button on the wristband.
Instantly, I reappeared in my own office building, back in the painted circle I had left from. The room had been intended for executive conferences but was empty in every alternate world I’d ever visited.
Both the smell of old dust in the alternate version of the room and the smell of desperation in this one depressed me. If they ever made a movie about Alternate World Transfer, I’d be surrounded by shiny equipment with flashing lights and people in white coats. Instead, I’m in a barren room with nothing but the circle I was standing in and an old desk in the corner. The actual AWT equipment (power supplies, field generators, control system, cooling, and all) is downstairs. It doesn’t look like a movie set there either; it looks like what it is: a computer server room stuffed with too much equipment.
Behind her desk, Dakota stood and said, “Welcome back.” She traded me a bottle for the thumb drive and wristband, and I gulped the water down, while she got to work downloading the drive into the secure network.
“Did you get anything good?” she asked.
“I hope so. It looked like this alternate has been busy, so I might have lucked out. We’ll see.”
I grabbed the handbag I’d left on Dakota’s desk and headed for home, taking the newspaper with me. If it didn’t have to do with biochemical results, it wasn’t Dakota’s problem.
As I left, I waved to Victor, who had just arrived for his 3:15 transit. “Good luck and watch for the guards,” I said.
He laughed and said, “Hope their watches aren’t slow.”
He’d stop laughing when the headache hit. He gets them worse than I do.
Next morning while I had coffee and a cinnamon muffin, I skimmed my alternate’s newspaper. I wouldn’t be up to doing anything more strenuous until after lunch. While it’s creepy to see a desk that looks almost exactly like your own, in an office almost exactly ditto, I have no problem reading news articles from alternate worlds: it’s usually fun to see the differences that show up.
But today it was less fun. I read about Alfredo Taber, the top NFL draft pick in the other universe, and someone I’ve never heard of here (Google tells me that in this universe he plays arena football in Atlantic City). Nothing upsetting about that – but then I saw that he’s the top pick because he won the Rose Bowl for my alma mater. And that reminded me of how far I’d fallen since I was in college.
Sometime in the last few years, the other universe’s Taber got a lucky break that put him in position to become a star. In this universe, the break didn’t happen (or some bad break did), and he’d never know how close he’d been to being a star. I know that some of my alternates are still doing the protein biochemistry that I dreamed of doing when I was in college – uncovering the secrets of life and health was how I thought of it then – while now I celebrated if I find something good to copy from some other me.
In other news, the weather yesterday in the alternate world was a beautiful spring day in the low 70s. Here it was rainy, windy, and about 45 degrees, with the prospect of slush by the weekend.
In the afternoon, I was at work and over the AWT hangover. I was still not ready to hear “Did you bring home anything good last night?” when I passed my supervisor’s office. Mike had been the first person to use the AWT device; on his alternate’s desk he found the research results that kept our company going (there had been rumors of bankruptcy) and got him his promotion and a raise.
He got a nice office, too. I went in and said, “I’m still digging into Omar’s summary of the data. Most of what I recovered last night is results we already have, but there are a few hints that they may be on the track of something new. I was just on my way back to the secure room to get into the details.”
I spend most of my days in the cramped, shielded room where all data from other universes is kept (hence the empty trashcan outside my real office). The company doesn’t want anyone to know about the AWT or what we learn from it.
Mike said, “Damn. Too bad there’s no way to go to the same universe twice. It’d be great to visit these guys next week and see what they’ve come up with by then.”
“I’d be glad to set up some experiments to follow up on what Omar found so far.”
He sighed. “Lindsey, I know you want to do real research again, but the company is not going to approve paying people to study protein folding or anything else when we’ve got the AWT. Getting results without paying for researchers? It’s better than stealing.”
It is stealing, I thought, but said, “I know. But why not do a little research the old-fashioned way? It would backstop our AWT work in case of dry spells like the one we’re in.”
He glanced at the large diagram posted on his wall. It looked like a bush growing from the bottom, with branches growing upward and outward, and more and more branches splitting off the further up it went. Each branch of the bush represented a set of possibilities, of alternate universes, which grew as time went on. Every world version any of us visited was recorded as a branch, with our best guess of what differences had happened in each.
Mike said, “If the dry spell lasts any longer, we’re all fired. I’ll stop by later to see how you’re doing. I hope you’ve dug up something valuable by then.”
I hurried off, stewing, with no one to vent to. Someday I’d be mad enough to mention the plaque I saw a few weeks ago – placed in memory of his alternate, who died six months ago. Even if my warning saved his life, he wouldn’t like learning that he’s not perfect. He’d been embarrassed enough that he left his shoes behind on that first trip. His socks had kept the shoes from making enough contact against his skin to be transferred with him. I leave off the socks when I travel.
Friday morning, I was back at the AWT for another 2 AM transit. This time, things weren’t as productive. We can’t aim the AWT (what does “aim” mean anyway when talking about going to an alternate universe?), so I never know what I’ll get.
There’s plenty of room for variation even with just a few years of differences snowballing after whatever quantum divergence separated two alternates. I’ll never find a world where Wallis Simpson was the Queen Consort, or Zayn is still in One Direction, because of physics equations I don’t understand that limit us to worlds that diverged no more than a few years before the AWT was invented. I don’t know why Anders and Isabella always use alternate British royalty and boy band breakups as their examples of variant worlds and I’ve never figured out which one of them is a history buff and which one is a groupie. What matters to me is that in some worlds, versions of me find scientific results that I haven’t.
What I got this time was an office that belonged to someone else. My key wouldn’t open “my” lock when I got there, and I didn’t recognize the name by the door, though the names nearby were familiar. There were two possibilities, and no point in sticking around in either case, so I headed back to the transfer room.
Every time I go to another universe, I find one that branched off from ours sometime in the past. Nguyen, Anders, and Isabella (theoretician, engineer, and engineer) tell me that interference effects prevent visiting worlds that have branched off more recently than twelve months, and we can’t get to worlds that separated very much before the invention of AWT either. I’ve worked at BioChemEng for almost ten years, but in this world, I don’t. I hoped that my alternate had a better job in this world and wasn’t dead.
After a minute to recover in my world, I hit the “activate” button for another try.
The second alternate world I visited that night was disturbing in a different way. My alternate’s office was a mess – the kind of mess I recognized. She had discovered something odd in her results and was digging in to figure out what it meant. Jealousy stabbed at me as I looked at her scrawled notes. Even though I knew it didn’t matter (I wouldn’t have to clean up any messes), I carefully maneuvered around the stacks of papers and books, looking for (damn it!) results to steal. She’d been at work all day, testing idea after idea to find the key factors that could be investigated next. The smell of sweet and sour chicken pervaded the office – she’d had had dinner here, which meant she’d stayed late, too. This could have been me, doing what I had been doing before the AWT was invented.
A sound in the hallway snapped me out of my reverie; I’d been wasting time being jealous of my alternate self when I should have been focused on more important things – like the guard checking office doors around the corner. He wasn’t early – I’d forgotten spending ten minutes in the locked-door world. I grabbed my alternate’s experiment notebook, and as many of the scattered pages of calculations as I could hold and left down the hallway parallel to the one the guard was coming up. I was being quick and quiet until my return timer went off, telling me that I had spent enough time outside my own universe for the night (I sure had).
The guard’s keychain jangled. His night had gotten a bit more interesting, and he moved a lot faster than I expected. I got around the corner before he saw me, and while he was reporting to his supervisor that he’d found an unlocked office, I slipped into the stairwell and got away.
The next afternoon Mike came to my office to give me a bonus and a handshake. He said, “I appreciate your dedication in making two trips in one night.” and “If the material you got on your second trip pans out, you’ll earn a ten percent cut of the net licensing fees the company earns.” and several other things like that. I think he’s read an article on motivation.
On his first trip Mike had brought back a breakthrough for manufacturing proteins that promote bioaccumulation of toxins in plants (useful for cleaning up toxic waste sites). Before he was over the transfer nausea, the company’s business strategy changed to “leverage alternates’ research and monetize the results” (I understand management jargon, but I prefer the engineers’ running gags about finding songs people’s favorite bands never got around to making, or to seeing the effect of royal love affairs on World War II) – and my job became finding the next miracle. I bet upper management would send me out to rob (alternate) banks if I could get to one and back to the transfer point before dying.
Mike’s praise embarrassed me; I hadn’t earned anything. I sometimes wonder if the breakthrough he’d found on his alternate’s computer had been stolen the old-fashioned way from a competitor; no version of Mike seems to understand the joy of discovery itself.
After he left, I got back to work reviewing my lucky alternate’s moments of insight and trying not to feel like a fraud. Maybe someday, I’d steal something that looks so promising Mike’s boss would have no choice but to let me complete the last steps to discovery with real research. That hope, not Mike’s clichéd compliment, was enough to keep me going. So far.
The following week, Victor had a bad fall in a stairwell when the lights went out in the alternate world he was visiting. He’d spent almost sixty minutes struggling back to the transfer point and passed out the moment he got back. Lucky. If he’d passed out on the wrong side, Anders figures he would have died an hour later, leaving the alternate BioChemEng with a very confusing corpse.
After Victor’s accident, the company installed a defibrillator and other medical equipment in the transfer room and gave Dakota some training, but Victor wasn’t going out again. The knee would get better, but the local hospital had detected heart damage that wouldn’t. The doctors were puzzled by such rapid deterioration in a thirty-five-year-old, but they didn’t know about AWT. Whether it was too many trips or the one that lasted too long, he wasn’t fit to transit anymore. The company put him to work with Omar analyzing results, but that left even more pressure on the remaining three of us who could still get results, while we worried about our own health, too.
Mike told me he had great faith in my ability to find the next gold mine. After all, I’d done so well during my last trip, but I could read between the lines. The truth was, with only three of us, the whole program would shut down if we didn’t deliver, and who’d want to hire an out-of-work chemist from a defunct company, who might have mysterious heart problems, too?
Two weeks and five fruitless trips after Victor had been taken out of action, I arrived in an alternate world and was greeted by a meter-wide sign on the transfer room wall:
“STOP STEALING! GO AWAY!”
I hit the return button without thinking; I hadn’t even chalked an X yet.
Back in my world, I sat on the floor and hugged my knees, shaking and panting. Dakota spilled her drink when I returned only seconds after leaving, but she had the oxygen mask half on my face before I could say anything.
After explaining what happened, I added, “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m going to find out. Tell Mehcad and Jade not to transit tonight. I’ll take the responsibility.”
I wasn’t going to fresh territory every trip; I had been walking over trapdoors every time. And I needed to know why.
I got everyone I needed into the secure room by nine the next morning (a tight fit for a room that normally had four people working on terminals on a central table). I’d been in the office since six, getting things ready. To his credit, Mike helped by corralling the key people I needed. The only ones missing were Victor (still recovering) and Nguyen who was listening in from her office (she’s a friendly person but does not do well in crowds – and in this cramped room, more than three people made a crowd). I told them what had happened, and then turned to Isabella and Anders.
“You told us that the AWT would never visit the same universe twice, even if we wanted to. You said we were ‘sampling individual points in a continuum of possibilities’ and no matter how many universes we reached, they still amounted to a ‘measure-zero’ subset of the continuum, or some such jargon.”
I paused to take a breath and to drain a little of the sarcasm from my voice before adding, “So, how could anyone know I was coming last night?”
Isabella and Anders looked at each other, as if deciding who would start. After a moment, Isabella took the lead. “We did tell you that there’s no chance you’d ever see the same universe twice. And we don’t think you did.”
She continued, “We should have seen it coming. We thought that the branch point between worlds would always be a few years before we invented the AWT. We were wrong.”
Anders said, “It’s hard to tell exactly when a world diverged from ours. The AWT readings don’t tell us that. We have to figure it out by looking at the data you bring back. For a long time, it looked like all the divergence points could have been about twenty-eight months before the AWT was invented. But now we can see that the divergence points have been drifting forward.”
Nguyen spoke up through the speaker phone, “I looked at the numbers last night, and reviewed our best theoretical model. It looks like divergence points are always between eight hundred and nine hundred days of the present, not of when we started using the AW—”
“What does that have to do with anything?” I said, louder than I intended. Nervous scientists will obsess about the damnedest details if you let them. I’d apologize later for interrupting.
Anders answered for her. “Last night you went to a world that some other version of you or the others had already visited. We’re not the only world that has the AWT anymore.”
“Oh,” I said. I could feel the blood draining from my face. I was starting to get the picture.
Isabella added, “The people who put up the sign must be going crazy trying to figure out how someone got into their secure facility; you’re lucky there weren’t guards posted in the room when you got there.”
Jade spoke up. “I’m not getting paid enough for that.” Neither was I.
Anders projected a chart onto the screen on one of the walls – I recognized it from the diagram posted in Mike’s office – and pointed to the center of the bush. “This is the branch we’re on. When the AWT was invented, we could explore every branch that split off less than thirty months before, so we had a wide variety of alternates to raid – worlds that never funded the AWT project and fully funded your research or Mike’s….”
Nguyen whispered, “Or worlds where I never recovered from the car accident.” (She’s not all the way back in this world, in my opinion.)
Mehcad, who was standing in the back (since there was no room for any more chairs), said, “There are probably worlds where the government took over AWT research and moved the whole project to Area 51.”
Nobody laughed. Anders just pointed back to the image, this time to a point not quite halfway up the central branch, “A few months ago, we were here. We’d lost access to all these worlds.” He pressed a button and the outermost branches turned red and vanished.
“There are still an infinite set of possible worlds to visit, but by this point, many of them have the invention of the AWT in their pasts.”
“Not all of them would have gotten it working as well as we did – otherwise they’d’ve shown up here first – but those that got it working even partially would have done the same things that we did. Like looking for research results in alternate universes.”
“How could you miss that?” I asked.
“I know it’s obvious now, but we focused on the fact that AWT travel can’t go back to the same universe twice. We assumed that meant that nothing we did on one trip could affect the next one. We were wrong.”
Nguyen added, “Particle physicists are not used to taking people’s behavior into account when making their analyses.”
I snapped, “Particle physicists who want funding need to think about people’s behavior.”
After a moment, Mike said, “So now we’ll have to have to watch out because some alternate worlds will know we’re coming. That’s going to cut down on our success rate.”
Mehcad turned to me. “Imagine how you would have freaked out if the sign had said ‘Stop stealing, Lindsey.’”
I didn’t laugh. “It was worse than that,” I grimaced. “The sign was in my handwriting.”
Silence. I could see Isabella looking uncomfortably at Anders. I leaned forward and said, “There’s worse, isn’t there?”
She nodded. “The other thing that happens on worlds that invent the AWT is that BioChemEng stops doing their own research.”
Like we did in this world. Meaning more and more Lindseys would be wasting their best years playing burglar instead.
“Shit. We’ll have no one to steal from.” That was Jade.
“Yep. That’s why we’ve been seeing more dud trips. Your alternates are using the AWT and storing the harvested data” (Isabella never said “stolen”) “on the secure system, not in their offices.”
Mike asked, “When will others start trying to raid us?” Trust Mike to think of that! (Still, I should have thought of it first).
Isabella answered, “We did a rough calculation. There’s a 1 in 15 chance it happens tonight. By the end of this month, the odds are more than 99% that we’ll get visitors every night. It may have already happened. How carefully do you check your own office for signs of visitation?”
Jade, Mehcad, and I exchanged glances, and I could tell we were all thinking about the same thing. Isabella didn’t know that when we raided our alternates’ offices, we weren’t neat. I stole notes a few weeks ago that my alternate must’ve spent hours on. Mehcad told me that he took other souvenirs, like a favorite mug that he’d cracked, but his alternate hadn’t. Even when we just copied computer files, we made no effort to cover our tracks. The idea of that happening to us made me feel guilty and scared, and I could tell it was the same for the other two. None of us answered Isabella’s question.
Instead, I summed things up. “So, we’ve run out of worlds that have information we can use, trying to get more data might get us killed, and even if we go back to doing our own research, we’ll still have people trying to raid us.” My voice cracked a bit at the end, which I hated.
Colin, the big boss, said, “Today, we force a password change across the building. I’ll have IT push a random password generator to everyone.” He looked at Mike and added, “No more guessable lock combinations on the secure room either.”
Mehcad asked, “What will visitors do when they realize they can’t get information? Trash my office? Go up to executive row and trash things there? You can make a big mess in a half hour and still get back to the transfer point, if you really want to.”
Colin looked like he was thinking about the good points of boobytraps. “We’re in a classic Prisoner’s Dilemma. Even if we do our own research and stop raiding other worlds, we’d be raided anyway – and all our alternates are going to think the same way.”
Mehcad said, “We could seal up the transfer room. We wouldn’t be able to use the AWT anymore, but no one else could either.”
Nguyen said, “Actually, we have enough leeway to adjust the transfer coordinates to aim for the hallway outside the room. So could any other version of us.”
Dakota said, “Sometimes I leave the stuff Lindsey, Jade and Mehcad bring back in my desk until the morning. That won’t be safe anymore either. I’ll need to lock it in the secure area every night as soon as the last one is back. Wait! We set up the secure area only a couple of months after Mike’s first trip. Once our alternates realize no one’s doing research, they all can go to the secure room to steal what we … harvested.” (I appreciated her delicacy – even though I was a thief.)
“Can’t we use cameras instead of guards, Colin?” Mike asked.
“Why bother? You know the person raiding Lindsey’s office will look like Lindsey. For that matter, we’ll have to keep all researchers out of the secure room and offices except for specific, pre-set times – or we’ll have guards mistaking our researchers for an intruder. We’d be better off if the damn AWT had never been invented.”
That set everyone off shouting ideas.
“How about guard dogs? No, robot guards!”
“Robots aren’t the answer to everything, Jade!”
“We could sabotage the alternates’ AWT equipment each trip.”
“And they could sabotage us!”
“Maybe we could move the facilities somewhere else?”
“We’d have the same problem again in a year – and we can’t keep moving over and over.”
“Plus, we’d be losing our main advantage: no one to raid if our offices moved.”
“Not to mention the added the expense of moving all the equipment and stuff.”
Colin banged his mug on the table, spilling coffee all over. “Enough of this. Missions are cancelled for tonight, at least.”
He glared at each of us in turn. “I want you to go off and think about the problem. And don’t let me catch anyone updating their online resumes.”
“Tomorrow at eleven, we’ll meet again to talk about solutions. If we don’t have one by then, we may as well give AWT to our competitors and let it screw up their lives, too, or sell it to the government. I’ll bet the NSA would pay a lot to contact alternate versions of themselves.”
The government would find a way to make private use of AWTs illegal. We had painted ourselves into a corner.
Halfway through the doorway, Colin turned to Anders and Isabella and added, “One more thing. We paid a lot for the AWT support equipment, and it’s still pretty new. Before tomorrow, give me an inventory and an estimate of what its resale value is.”
I was happy to get out of the overheated secure room and its air of despair, but my office didn’t feel safe anymore. I knew I was being a hypocrite, but I still couldn’t sit at my desk without wondering if tomorrow I would find the office trashed (or containing a dead alternate). I left the building instead. Maybe a walk would help me think. Or maybe I’d just keep walking and never come back.
At first, all I thought about was the danger I was in, not just in alternate worlds, but in my own. But if we stopped using the AWT, I’d lose my connection to the other Lindseys, and the chance to enjoy their successes vicariously. I missed real research so much.
It wasn’t always fun, of course, but when I’d had an experimental system set up just right and could detect the effects of a one percent change in concentration or temperature or when I’d built a mathematical model that matched my results, I’d fall asleep at my desk with a smile on my face. I wanted that again. It was crazy that being able to visit alternate universes got in the way.
What would I do if the company shut down the project? I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone what I had really been doing for the last few years; it would look like I had lost my knack for productive work. Mehcad, Jade and Victor were in the same boat.
I’d read about the Prisoner’s Dilemma in college. If the suspects could communicate, they could convince each other that they could be trusted. But I couldn’t communicate with my alternates; even if I left a note, I couldn’t get a reply.
I reached the corner. All around me drivers obeyed the stop signs, so pedestrians could cross. There were no lights at this intersection and no police nearby, but somehow people were taking turns. They couldn’t communicate except with a hand wave or a blinking light, either, but they managed. Further on, a bush near the sidewalk reminded me of Anders’ illustration.
Mike had seen valuable results in his alternate’s office and had decided to steal them, setting the pattern for all our dealings with other universes. What would I have done if I had been the first? What could I do now to create a new pattern?
The answer hit me all at once: We’d been applying business strategy, following Mike’s lead. But science uses a different kind of strategy: publish or perish. And I knew how to make it work to get Colin and me both what we needed.
I ran all the way back to our building.
Anders, Isabella, and Nguyen got the idea at once (they were scientists, after all). The problem was that they weren’t in charge, and neither was I.
“I don’t think Mike will go for this,” I said.
Isabella said, “No way. And Colin is already looking to cut his losses and get out.”
Anders added “If we don’t do something soon, the equipment will be sold off, and the building will be abandoned.”
I said, “That’s why I’ll have to go tonight. You’re supposed to be inventorying anyway, so you’ll have an excuse to hang around. I’ll persuade Dakota to join us, too. She’s got that first-aid training that I might need.”
We spent the rest of the day working on the details. Not many people were around to wonder why I was putting binders together. I think Mike spent the rest of the day emptying his office of anything that couldn’t be replaced. I hoped to make that a wasted effort.
At 2 am, I nerved myself to transfer to yet another alternate world, glad I wasn’t risking anyone but myself. Dakota, Anders, and Isabella would be safe in our world, I hoped.
Before I stepped in the painted circle, Isabella said, “Be quick and be careful. It’s been less than twenty-four hours since your last transit, so you may feel worse than usual this time.”
She wasn’t kidding. My head started aching the moment I arrived, and when I turned on the wristband’s LED so I could see my way out of the empty transfer room, the light blinded me. As I touched the doorknob, I heard dogs barking and a voice shouting, “Intruder on the third floor!”
I was back in the chalked X and over to my world before the guards saw me, but I’ll bet the dogs were confused.
I told the gang what had happened and finished with “I’m going again.” They didn’t look happy, but neither was I.
This time, the migraine was worse. I was smart enough to cover the light with my shirtsleeve. However, when I got to the door, I couldn’t get out. The handle had been removed, and I could see no gap around any of the edges. Another wasted trip.
When I got back, I said “Someone liked Mehcad’s idea about sealing the transit room. Give me a minute to rest and I’ll go back.” Dakota insisted on checking my vitals first. I faked a smile. The migraine aura hadn’t disappeared when I got home. Not a good sign, but I went ahead anyway.
The moment I arrived in the new universe, the pain in my head redoubled. Even in the dark I saw a kaleidoscope of red and yellow images flashing, and when I turned on the flashlight, it got worse. Was I risking a seizure? I got up to “my” office as fast as I could. As I opened the door, the lights came on. Another me held a taser aimed at my midsection.
I said, “I’m not here to steal.”
“It’s after 2 am, you’re not from this universe, and I found my office turned upside-down last week. What am I supposed to think? I’ve been sitting here in the dark waiting for a thief, and here you are.”
If she tased me, I’d never come to. So instead of running away, I walked in, slowly. She was standing in front of my chair, so I sat on the one with the torn back I keep for visitors. A wave of dizziness struck me as I sat. Not that much time left. I had to make it count.
“I admit it. Up until last week, I was raiding alternate universes. You knew to wait for me here, so I’ll bet you were doing the same.”
The other me looked disgusted. “Nobody here has been stealing anything. After my office was wrecked, Mike briefed me about something called a WorldJumper that Koch and Castillo are working on. Can’t you think of anything better to do with it than stealing?”
Being face to face with another me was so much worse than I had ever imagined. The other Lindsey didn’t look like the person I see in the mirror. She looked like my driver’s license picture, not just reversed, but grim. This Lindsey was the one who belonged here, not me. I couldn’t pretend that the diploma on the wall, the framed certificate from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, or even the old textbooks on her bookshelf were mine, not with her right in front of me.
A bead of sweat dripped into my right eye as I struggled to focus.
“I’m just like you, with a year and a half head start. If you don’t listen, you’ll be in the same boat, when your bosses figure out that they can cut their research budgets by sending you to steal. You know Mike would do that in a minute.”
“Him? So what? He’s not my boss. If you’re trying to convince me someone else made you a thief, I’m not interested.”
“I’m trying to get us out of the hole we’re in. In my universe, we got into stealing when we realized it’s not possible to revisit a universe – there’s no way to aim the AWT. Did you know that?”
“What does that have to do with sneaking around at 2 am?”
It was infuriating that someone who looked like a picture of me didn’t understand what I was talking about. I threw the binder onto the desk in front of her. The smack of it hitting echoed in the quiet of the pre-dawn building; I’d never done anything so loud while in an alternate. “It’s all in here. Just look at it. Quickly.”
“What are you talking about?”
“No time to explain. You’ll have to use your brain. Does your team understand the limits of Alternate World Transport?”
“Dr. Anand didn’t tell me anything about limits.”
“Then they’re not done inventing it yet. What happened to Dr. Nguyen?”
“Minh Nguyen? She’s not here anymore. She had a car accident and never came back to work.”
Our Nguyen was right that her absence would’ve mattered.
It was getting harder to focus. I kept getting distracted by the aura’s flashing lights and by the way the other Lindsey lounged among my things. (Her things!)
The other Lindsey moved the taser slightly, which eliminated my distraction, at least for the moment, and I continued, “When they get it working, someone will think of stealing research from other universes. Maybe they’ll justify it because other people raided you. But it can’t work for long. It only worked for us because we were first. That’s not true for us anymore, and it won’t be for you either.”
She said, “I get it. You’re running into universes where they’ve already invented Worldjumping, or where someone else with a Worldjumper has already stolen their stuff. That’s why you’re miserable.”
“No. I was miserable before that. Even when I was stealing and getting rewarded for it. Especially then. The budget for doing anything else was eliminated, and suddenly I’m doing nothing but ran…ransacking offices to get what the company wanted.” I paused to take a breath. I needed to concentrate to get the words out right.
“A few weeks ago, I visited the office of one of us. She’d had a breakthrough. I remember what that felt like. I don’t want to be a thief, anymore; I want to be her or you, and I can. We can.”
I pointed to the binder. “With that.”
Alt-Lindsey put the taser down (still in reach for her, but not me) and opened the binder. “All right, but first I need to see your machine.”
“How?” I showed my wristband. “The rest is located back where I come from.”
“Then explain how it works.”
“I’ll show you how it works. But we’ll have to go downstairs. I can’t transfer from here.”
I’d hoped she had started to trust me, but she picked up the taser and motioned for me to go first.
As we crept down the stairs, I told her about the machinery required to punch across infinitely branching universes and describing the effects on my health. In the transfer room, I stood on the X. “This is the transfer zone.”
“Good. Thanks for the binder. With this, I can keep them from volunteering me for the Worldjumper.”
She smiled and pushed the button on my wristband.
“Damn her!” I said once on the other side, making the welcoming committee jump.
I didn’t explain. I didn’t like what I was learning about myself and didn’t want to tell my friends about it. I told Isabella, “Give me another binder.”
She protested, but only for a moment. She knew the stakes.
This time, the transfer room on the other side wasn’t empty. Another version of me was there.
We stared at each other for a long moment, then I held out the binder to her. She knocked it out of my hand, and while I was still in shock, she shoved me into a chair. Next thing I knew she was behind me, zip-tying my hands together behind my back. Then she tied my legs to the chair. She’d come prepared for trouble, and tonight’s multiple transits had wrecked my reaction time.
I said, “I’m not here to steal from you.” It came out more feebly than I intended.
The other Lindsey said, “Damn right, you’re not. I got here first, and I don’t want you interfering. You can just wait here until your auto-return takes you back.”
She left the room without hesitation, even as I yelled “Wait!” and “Come back!”
I didn’t have an auto-return. My arms were bound together, so I couldn’t push the return button, and the other me might not be back until I was unconscious. I started to hyperventilate. Was I already passing out? The pain of the cold metal of the chair’s back cutting into my arms was keeping me awake for now, but how long would that last?
I forced myself to stop struggling, calm my breathing and think. The return button was on the side of the wristband, where the knob on a wristwatch would be. The metal bar that was pressing into my arms went horizontally across the back of the chair. If I pulled my arms up in just the right way, I might be able to push the button against the bar.
A moment later, I landed on my ass when the chair under me disappeared. The zip ties around my legs disappeared, too; they’d been around my pants, not my skin. I fell back onto my still-tied arms, my weight twisting my fingers and straining my shoulders.
I rolled over, like a turtle trying to right itself. “Can someone cut me loose?”
Dakota did. I got to my feet, rubbing my left elbow, which I’d smacked on the floor (I’d have a bruise there, too). “Bitch,” I muttered.
Dakota glared at me. I said, “Not you. Thank you for getting me out of those.”
I didn’t tell them any more details. I was too shaken by the attack. What in the world (her world) had turned me into that? I did ask Isabella if they’d ever considered an automatic return device instead of the return button.
She replied, “Yes, but we decided the wristband button was a better idea. Why?”
“Maybe we should use both. I’m ready to go again.”
Isabella said, “Shouldn’t you give up for tonight? You’ve taken four trips in thirty minutes. You’re pushing your luck.”
“Things are getting worse. By tomorrow, it might be war. I’m not kidding. I’ve got to break the pattern tonight.”
Dakota said, “This is your last trip. No matter what trouble we’re in now, it would be worse if we had to explain to the police how you badged in at midnight and never badged out.”
On that cheerful note, I grabbed another binder and left.
No one in the transfer room. Good. I hurried out of the stairwell to my office.
Something poked me in the back and my own voice said, “Keep walking.” I should’ve looked both ways.
She sounded angry and nervous. I was both. When we got to my office door, she shoved me through the doorway.
“Don’t try anything. I’ve got a gun,” she said.
I put my hands up and turned to face her. She had me covered with the gun in one hand and was holding her phone awkwardly in the other one – until she got a good look at me.
Shock spread across her face as she recognized mine.
She said, “W-What’s going on?” I hate when I stammer, and I didn’t like it any better from an armed version of myself.
I rushed through the same explanation I had given Taser Lindsey, but it took longer, because she didn’t have the same background. Either this universe was lagging way behind in AWT development, or she was out of the loop.
Partway through the explanation, she tossed the gun onto her desk.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s a fake. Ever since the break-in two weeks ago, I’ve been carrying it around to make myself feel better whenever I’m here late. I was coming back from the restroom when I heard you in the stairwell and decided to play hero.” I nodded. I was playing hero, too, wasn’t I?
I went on. There was so much to tell her, and I was getting lightheaded, and not just from the déjà vu of giving this same explanation less than an hour before. Soon, this Lindsey asked, “How?” just like the last one.
I pointed to the binder. “With that.” I couldn’t waste time letting her figure it out, since the very concept of alternate worlds was new to this one. “It summarizes all my research – what I did and what I stole. Everything. Giving it to you doesn’t hurt me. Go ahead. Read enough to convince yourself it’s real. But hurry.”
Alt-Lindsey started skimming, as I struggled to stay conscious.
I asked, “Did you ever get that checkup?”
She looked up, “No. What?”
“See, we really are the same person. Still putting off taking care of ourselves. In half the universes I visit, I see the sticky notes about calling for a checkup.”
She smiled, then pointed at the binder.
“A lot of this stuff, I already know, but some of it is new. Did you…”
My timer went off, and the other Lindsey jumped. She said, “You have to go now?”
When I tried to stand, I wobbled. I focused on the other Lindsey’s face, but she was spinning along with the room. I fell back, and the corner of the bookcase hit my spine, but I didn’t fall any further.
“Alternate worlds aren’t healthy to linger in.” I carefully stood, and by crouching a bit, I kept my balance.
“Let’s get you home then.”
Footsteps. The guard walking down the far hallway.
I asked, “Can you distract him until I get to the stairwell?”
She shook her head. “You’ll never make it. You can barely stand. What happens if you don’t get back soon?”
There was no time to be gentle. “I’ll die. But first you need to know – ”
“Tell me as we go.” She ducked under my arm so I could lean on her. “Where to?”
“Downstairs. That conference room they never finished.”
“Let’s go. If I leave the lights on and the door open, the guard will waste time calling security to report it.”
We headed to the stairwell as fast as I could manage. Walking down the stairs was even slower. At each step I moved my left foot down and then my right, rather than risk a fall. I kept a death grip on the railing with one hand and my other arm around alt-Lindsey’s shoulder.
Once off the stairs, I could talk again, “Stealing worked when my world was the only one that could. Now it won’t for mine or for anyone else’s. But we can do something better. We can share our results. Then both of us benefit. Even if my experiments fail, you’ll know what to not waste time on.”
“How can we share? I’ll never see you again, right?”
“Just leave your results in that transfer room, and we’ll do the same. Some version of me will get it. We’ll do the same once I convince Colin to go along. But if I can’t convince you, how can I convince them?”
I was babbling, just like in college after an all-nighter. The other Lindsey must be tired, too, but she had the home universe advantage. I didn’t dare look at her/my face to see if I was getting through to her. I just kept moving, and talking, as much as I could.
“Gonna take time to get other alternates on board. The first page in the binder explains everything we know about operating AWTs –- no need for you to start from scratch.” And “Ask Anders to calculate what will happen if this goes on.” And “It’s not ‘Prisoner’s ‘lemma’ if the other prisoner is you, too.”
Even that got to be too much effort.
As we turned the corner, towards the hallway with the transfer room, the other Lindsey stopped.
From around the corner, the sound of footsteps, stopping, and a muttered, “Stand by for report on fourth floor, north.”
“What’s wrong?” I whispered.
“You left the door open to the conference room, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” I said, and leaned against the wall, in exhaustion and despair.
“The guard checking this floor spotted it.”
“Damn. He’ll see the ‘X’ I drew on the floor.”
“Great,” she replied, “He’ll call all the others to take a look. No matter what happens, they’re not going to let you in the room until it’s too late. Hold on.”
The other Lindsey ran off, leaving me slumped against the wall. I held on, by not falling. A minute later the shatter of glass echoed from the far side of the building.
I peeked around the corner. The guard rushed out of the transfer room, shouting into his radio, as he hurried away.
A moment later, the other Lindsey was back. She said, “That binder better have enough in it to keep me from getting fired.” She put my arm over her shoulder again. “Let’s get you out of here.”
When we reached the transfer room, she was half-carrying me. I couldn’t stand, so I sat on the floor.
But when I reached for my wristband, Alt-Lindsay grabbed my hand. “Two things before you go. Look at Schulte’s paper in the July 2015 issue of Molecular Metabolism and you’ll get the pointers you need to go further with the toxin-concentrators.”
“And?” I asked, with my finger already on the button.
“Did you ever run into a universe where My Chemical Romance didn’t break up?”
I was laughing through tears of pain and relief when I reappeared in my own universe.
“I did it. Real contact with another me. Better than stealing,” I said, before everything went black.
Six hours later, I found out they had met two other versions of me while I was on the other side. One hit her own return button instantly – but the other one took a binder before leaving.
By eleven, we were ready for Colin’s meeting, with a copy of that paper that Fake-gun Lindsey mentioned. We were able to show him that with that (non-stolen!) information, we could make Mike’s toxin-collecting proteins at least 20% more effective. That was enough to get Colin to restart everyone’s research “as a pilot project only,” and to authorize my other ideas, too. The moment the decision was made, I let go of the tension that I had been building since I had made my first transit. I could see the signs of relief on the other faces in the room, too, even Mike’s. I’d won, but he hadn’t lost.
Fifteen months later: As I arrived in the alternate world, the lights were on, and the conference room wasn’t empty. A sign on the wall said “Welcome”, like the one in the room I just left, but with a different font and hung in a different place. There were also cookies – each of us knows just what our alternates’ favorites are.
I dropped the last week’s records of our experimental results under the arrow marked “In” and picked up a thumb drive from “Out” box. Less than two minutes later, I was home enjoying a couple of chocolate chip cookies (I could always take the ones that we left in our own transfer room, but those are for guests).
I wonder sometimes about the versions of me that didn’t figure this all out. Somewhere in a timeline I’m never going to reach, zip-tie Lindsey might be getting ever more paranoid about being self-plagiarized. Or she might have been killed by some elaborate security measure or another version of herself. I’ll never know.
Even in the first few weeks, it was a relief not to worry about desperate other versions of ourselves sneaking around at night. And soon enough, we started getting reports from other worlds, and every one of them included “low-hanging fruit” (that’s slang that both the managers and engineers know) that we could use immediately.
Real research isn’t a pilot project anymore. It’s even better than it was before the AWT. We don’t have to worry about dead ends. When I’m not sure what approach to take, I just choose at random – and then pass what I find to all my partners/sisters across the universes. One of us always finds a path forward.
By now every version of me I see remembers that moment when I (we) figured out that the scientific method has always meant publishing your work so that it can be shared and built upon. And that really is better than stealing.
LIKE WHAT YOU READ?