Most people probably didn’t grow up having visited a parallel universe. Nathan Sanchez did.
He wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but that’s what it was.
His dad had taken him along on a trip to pick up dinner at Sonic Burger. It was hard to find those back then. Impossible now, obviously. Nathan couldn’t remember what was special about their food, but had a vague notion that they had good milkshakes.
But that’s not important. After they finished at the drive-thru, Nathan asked his dad if they were going to go back home now. He was probably just wondering if they were going to do any other errands, get groceries on the way, something like that. It was a long drive from their house to Sonic, all the way from San Diego to Santee, so maybe that’s why he asked. He was only four at the time, but the administrative part of his brain was fully active much sooner in life that in most people. Probably why he spent most of his adult life in government.
But that’s also not important. What is important is how his dad answered the question.
“Well,” he said, drawing the word out. “We’re actually going to go to a different home.”
“Different home?” Nathan asked.
“Yeah! A house that looks just like our house, but a little different. With a mom just like your mom, but different.”
“Does it have a little brother?”
“It does! It has a little brother just like our house, but different. Everything will look the same, but it will actually be different.”
Nathan had known his dad for all of his four years, but he still didn’t really know him. He didn’t know he was playing a game. He had seen Nathan’s simple, obvious question as an opportunity to be silly. He was practicing the classic “yes-and” improv technique, though he didn’t know that’s what it was called, or that it was a technique. It’s where you agree to anything your partner says and then elaborate on it, often taking it to ridiculous extremes, then see where the other person takes it next. He’d probably learned it growing up as a middle kid among four siblings, where cleverness and cunning were critical survival skills.
Nathan didn’t know any of this. He only knew that this was his father, and that he was strong and clever and focused. So when he told him they were going to a house like their house but not their house, Nathan was fascinated.
Nathan remembered pulling up to the dark driveway, looking at this house, this double. He studied it carefully, looking for differences. The similarities were obvious. Everything was similar. He was in awe, nearly to the point of fear. But his curiosity was beyond all that.
They parked and entered, carrying the food. The walls and the lights and the sounds and smells were all so shockingly like those at Nathan’s home. In the family room was a baby in a walker, suspended there where he could scoot around freely. Nathan looked closely for differences, and it looked like the walker was worn in inconsistent ways. A different scuff here, a different one there. The hair was different from his brother’s. Maybe a lighter shade of brown. His cheeks weren’t as round. His smile a little different.
Nathan turned and saw the mother. She looked just like his mom, sounded just like her. They all took the burgers and fries out of the bags and ate in front of the TV and Nathan’s shock faded. He started to accept that maybe he was just going to stay at this copied house. Maybe he wouldn’t see his real brother and mom ever again, but these ones were pretty close. His dad definitely didn’t seem to mind eating and getting cozy with these doubles, so maybe Nathan shouldn’t mind either. Also, it’s amazing how eating fatty foods can calm anxieties.
Eventually Nathan was taken to a room just like his and he went to bed. When he woke up the next morning, he was sure it had all been a dream. There wasn’t any worry or doubt. It wasn’t until years later when he knew his dad better that he realized it had all actually happened. That he had fully believed he’d entered a world parallel to his own, a duplicate, slightly different. That he’d had no reason to doubt it.
Both that quick acceptance of the fantastic, and the learned mistrust that had grown out of the later revelation of the truth, were at play now. Now, in this imposter world.
The acceptance was why he’d had so little trouble accepting how the new world worked. In many ways it was just like the one they’d all left. He could notice the differences here and there if he looked hard. Almost the same, but not. A world like the one a god or fate or blind chance had created, but one instead made by humans. Specifically, humans of the TAW organization, of which Nathan was a leading member. Or had been.
He remembered when he’d argued that calling the first world “Prometheus” was trite and obvious. He remembered Carini telling him she was going to double Prometheus and then mirror it to create the foundation for a pet world-building side-project she wanted to work on with Tanaka. He remembered being doubly annoyed when she insisted on calling that mirror world Pan to reinforce its place as an opposite. He remembered being relieved when she let Tanaka be in charge of naming all the cities in Pan, since he was more inclined to be clever in such things.
That was all the acceptance part. The mistrust part was why he was right now doubled over on his hands and knees, the deep cuts all over his arms and torso bleeding down into the golden grass of a wide, dry valley. That mistrust drove him to insist on returning to the real world. Leaving the copy. The fraud. He’d felt like a child again, just along for the ride and out of control, but he wasn’t content to accept the copy this time.
He’d wanted to get to the door hidden in the cliff face ahead of him. Get inside and set off the special bomb he had strapped to himself. Get inside and destroy the control center for Prometheus and Pan and all the worlds he and his colleges had created. But unfortunately, one of his bosses, Dawson Benet, was blocking his path. As were two large men standing on either side of her, dressed like Secret Service agents.
Nathan looked up at Dawson Benet, one of the four founders of the TAW. He looked at her stern, very English face, which was beading up with sweat because she insisted on dressing very English out here in a high desert. Neither she nor her two bulky companions carried weapons. They didn’t need any.
“What are you going to do with me?”
Dawson shrugged. “The TAW can’t die, so I can’t kill you.”
Nathan smiled, trying to show defiance through levity.
Dawson’s face softened. “Why do you keep fighting us? Your insistence on going back doesn’t make any sense.”
“Because I know what you want to do. You won’t just keep everyone here for a couple hundred years…waiting until Earth is ready. You want to keep everyone here forever.”
Dawson frowned. “It’s not just about letting Earth heal. Think of the resources we can put into education, now that we can end war in a moment, without any bloodshed. Here, food shortage will become an old legend. There will never again not be enough. Any amount of land, any amount of resources. Any need taken care of at the moment of desire. No hunger, no disease, any injury healed instantly, we may even be able to live forever. This is what humanity has been searching after for its entire existence. We finally have it. Here.”
“And you’ll of course run the place with unwavering integrity.” Nathan chuckled. “Forever.”
Dawson folded her arms. “We’ll do the best we can.”
“Yeah, no thanks. This world was supposed to be a place for us to wait. Staying here indefinitely is a bad idea.”
Dawson nodded to one of the men standing beside her. “When you see it, you’ll understand.”
One of the Secret Service look-alikes reached out a huge hand and grabbed Nathan around his neck. His fingers almost went all the way around. The man lifted up Nathan off the ground and his vision closed in around him like he was falling into a black hole.
Dawson took a step toward him as everything faded. Before he drifted off, Nathan heard her say: “One day you’ll wake up and see. But not for a very long time.”
Chapter 1 (Part 1)
“Don’t be easily seduced by elegant theories for extremely complex problems.”
“I’m not being seduced by anything.” Lines formed on Detective Travis’ forehead as he turned away from Detective Soma Dan, his partner at both Helison’s police station and in currently commuting home in the little transit car. “I’m just telling you what the guy said. That a psychic told the guy you locked up to kill his girlfriend, and that’s why he did it.”
Soma shook her head, a thin strand of jet black hair breaking free from the bun tied behind her head. Her head was itching badly from her hair being up for fourteen hours straight. “Your tone implies that you believe him.”
“My tone? Dan, can you please switch off your lie detector mode when you’re talking to me. I don’t believe him. I’m just…I think it’s interesting. You’ve never been much for believing in supernatural stuff, though.”
“No, I haven’t.” Soma turned to look out the window of the shuttle car and past the reflection of frustrated lines around her oval eyes, baggy after the long day. Streetlights flashed by in a blur, houses moved past in a hurried walk, green hills behind everything sauntered by at their own, calm pace. Concrete, defined movements in her frame of view, following principles of optics. Observable, measurable, non-deceptive principles. “Police detectives don’t chase ghosts and demons.”
Travis chuckled. He shifted in his seat and looked back. They were near the end of this route, so the car was empty, just floating along in the grass-covered trough in the center of the road. Going where the transit system told it to go. Travis sighed. “I know your husband believes in some stuff.”
“He was raised in a home that believed in Seven. Then he grew up and left home and put away fairy tales about old gods.”
The car was silent a moment. Travis lowered his voice. “What fairy tales did you put away?”
Soma looked straight at his light gray eyes, shrouded in the light wrinkles of a grin.
A dull, mechanical voice crackled over the car’s PA: “NOW ARRIVING. AT H-TWO- FOUR-ONE, HOUSE SEVENTEEN.”
The car slowed and the door opened. Soma sighed and stepped out onto the widely-spaced pavers of the sidewalk.
Travis called out as she was about to walk off: “You’ve got a secret. Did you have a favorite old god growing up?”
She held his gaze a moment, then turned and walked to the path leading to her house. Behind her she heard the pill-shaped shuttle’s door shut and the electromagnets hum back to life. The hum faded as the shuttle moved away down the road.
As Soma approached her front door, irrational foreboding manifested in her. Things rarely went well with her husband and her two girls whenever she ended the day with an argument with Travis.
She was trying to think of something interested that had happened at work as she dug for her watch in her purse, which she didn’t wear while working. She couldn’t find anything in her head to think of, but she did find her watch faster than normal.
She pressed the watch face against the gearlock on the door and twisted, listening to the clicking of the tumbler magnets and then the hard snap of the deadbolt.
“Ignore worry, focus on now,” she whispered under her breath as she opened the door and walked in. She heard a one of those cheesy adventure shows her girls loved playing on the radio in the kitchen. This was one about a little girl that defended her home town from dragons. Or transformed into a dragon. Or defended dragons from her home town. She couldn’t remember which, but she liked the musical score.
It wasn’t even a big deal, having Travis get on her case. It was tiny. She always let little these things bother her. Swinging the door closed behind her, she let out a sigh and dropped her purse on a chair and set her watch down on the armrest next to it. “I’m home.”
“Has something been going on downtown this week? Tying up all the shuttles? You keep coming home really late.” Her husband’s voice came from the kitchen.
Soma bit her lower lip as she walked toward it, the radio getting louder. Alec was standing there, leaning against the island in the center of the room, looking bored and annoyed. Behind him, sitting at the breakfast nook, were their two daughters. The youngest, Melody, was doodling with an orange crayon in a coloring book. The oldest, Grace, was reading a book. Both were still wearing their school uniforms and both had their frizzy hair in stubby ponytails, which made Melody look like a miniature version of her sister. The cuteness of that thought did help calm Soma a little.
“No.” She brushed past Alec to get a glass from the cupboard. She felt him looking at her as she filled it with water from the sink. “The chief gave this long, boring lecture today because there’s some serial killer out in Lieutenia. Has the public spooked.”
“Why are they bothering you about that? That’s seven hundred kilometers away.”
Soma pivoted around to face her husband. “Because he wanted us to make sure we knew how to answer people’s questions about it. The killer is driving the police there crazy and the media is eating it up. Chief wants us to tell people that we won’t let something like that happen here. It’s just PR stuff.”
“It wasn’t my choice!” yelled the radio sitting on Melody and Grace’s table, then the show’s dialogue dropped back to more muted tones. Tense music was slowly building. Soma wondered how Grace was able to read with the show playing right next to her.
Alec mumbled something and walked over to look at what Melody was drawing. He looked down at his daughter but addressed Soma. “Alright. I guess it’s not as bad as how it was a couple years ago. We only got to see you for maybe an hour every weeknight.”
Soma’s eye twitched. She took a drink from her glass as her forehead tightened. That wasn’t a good memory. “That’s not going to happen again.”
“It will if your chief actually is worried that a killer like that will show up here.” He snorted a chuckle. “You be thrilled to have a problem like that to solve.”
Soma, her grip on the cup becoming very tight, forced herself to lower it to the kitchen island very slowly and gently. “That’s…why do you say things like that?”
“No it’s not. I’m not some freak.”
“I didn’t say you’re a freak. Just…obsessive about weird things.”
“How is that any better?”
“Look, stop turning this into something it’s not. I’m just saying—”
“I don’t like having murderers in our city. You’re not saying it, but you’re implying it. Stop it.” The room went silent. Soma looked at her daughters. The older kept reading, as if she’d heard nothing. Melody kept drawing, as if she’d heard nothing.
Soma looked down, her eyes watering up. This kept happening. She kept having these stupid arguments. Apparently, they were so common that her children just pretended they weren’t happening. She was one of those parents now. She was turning their home, the place that was supposed to be safe, into a place where at any moment harsh, selfish words would be thrown out in anger. Forcing children to learn how to pretend to be strong.
She walked out of the room, rubbing her eyes. She leaned against a wall and forced herself to breathe as she listened to the protagonist on the radio sob out a poorly acted complaint. “I trusted you. And you lied to me!”
She shut her eyes and clenched her teeth, but forced herself to breathe as strength drained out of her. She had to apologize. She didn’t even clearly remember what she was just angry about. It was something about…it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter who was right or who was wrong. She was going to go in there and make peace right now. She wasn’t going to be one of those parents. She was going to lay aside what she thought she wanted and needed in order to prevent evil from existing in her house. From hurting her children for no reason.
She drew in a breath more easily as she stood up straight and opened her eyes. Clearing her throat, she headed back into the kitchen.
No one was there.
She frowned. She hadn’t heard anyone walk out. She saw the book Grace had been reading, sitting on the table next to the radio.
“Make sure to subscribe so you don’t miss the next episode of The Dragons of Angeles, releasing every Thursday morning data dump! Brought to you by—”
Soma turned off the radio, flooding the kitchen with silence. She looked out the glass sliding doors that lead to the yard but saw no one out there. She looked through the door on the other side of the kitchen, leading to the small guest suite. No one was in there. She turned back and looked at the kitchen.
“Melody? Grace?” She said the names louder, a bit of annoyance getting into her voice.
No one replied. She looked down at the orange crayon sitting on the coloring book. Melody had been coloring a heron with it. Soma stepped over and picked up the crayon.
She searched the entire house. The bathrooms. The storage room with their bicycles. The bedrooms upstairs. Alec had left his watch sitting on the nightstand, so she wouldn’t be able to find him that way. She checked the closets in the bedrooms. She checked the cluttered, messy, funny-smelling office that no one except Alec ever went into.
No one. Anywhere.
She ran outside.
Silence. It was late and a Tuesday and no shuttles were humming by right now. The sky was fading from orange to blue and she couldn’t hear any children playing outside.
She ran to a neighbor. They hadn’t seen anything. She went to another. They hadn’t seen her husband or her daughters. She went to another and another, systematically going to every house within two houses of her house. No one had seen anything.
Her forehead tight with frustration, she returned to her deathly silent home. She was hungry and needed to make dinner. Or she needed to ask Alec if he’d already ordered to have something delivered. Or she needed to ask what Grace wanted, because she was eternally picky about her food. She couldn’t eat until she talked with them. With all of them. And she was tired. If she spent the whole evening running around looking for them, she’d be exhausted at work tomorrow.
She searched every room in the house again. Each time she went into a room she felt an odd expectation. She rehearsed in her head how she’d yell at them for hiding from her. But she’d only be upset for a few seconds, then she’d finally be able to relax. Another room, another blip of stupid, stubborn hope. Until there weren’t any more rooms left.
“Why would he just…run off without saying something?” she said as she came back into the living room. The room didn’t answer back. She had been the one who was irritated during the argument, not Alec. He wouldn’t have snapped and taken off with the girls over that. It didn’t make any sense.
Silence continued. She still held the orange crayon in her right hand, turning it over and over and turning the inside of her index, thumb, and pinky fingers all orange. She looked down at her purse and watch. She sighed and picked up the watch with her free hand. She tapped the face twice and held it up in front of her. “Emergency. Police Override. This is detective Soma Dan of the Helison PD. I need to file a missing-person’s report.”
Chapter 1 (Part 2)
“How can you believe the Name creates people just to send them to hell?”
Susie frowned at Paul as she answered, “The book talked about that argument. People always try to use it. But it’s not like that. It’s just that if he knows everything that’s ever going to happen, then he knows that some people are going to go to hell. He knows even before they’re born.”
Paul stood up and brushed sand from his shorts. So much for a romantic moment on the beach, very possibly leading to her going home with him for the night. Today had gone so well, too. A great day, that seemed to be leading toward a great night, was a much bigger deal for the two of them than most people. He instantly regretted standing up, because now he couldn’t just focus on Susie’s face. Now looking at her meant looking at all of her, with just small shorts and a tight t-shirt on over her bathing suit.
Most people fell for each other and had sex and then took it a day at a time from there forward. Then, when they’d decided they wanted to stick together, they’d have a wedding reception and work out the logistics of turning in their credit halves to the Medicine Guild to receive the fertility treatment. Then they’d have a child, maybe save up enough money to buy another treatment and have another. Life was all very straightforward and simple. Especially for a city like Lieutenia, with sun and beach and cool breezes available to everyone most days out of the year.
But not for Paul and Susie. They were followers of Seven, so the first time they had sex would mean they were married. And divorce was nearly forbidden, so there was a lot of pressure on the idea of a first night of love making. So much pressure that, starting a week or so ago, after four months of serious dating, after two years of being friends, they’d began discussing it.
Paul was on board. Susie was on board. But Paul was uneasy because Susie’s father didn’t really like him. Said he was too gloomy and irritable. Susie would tell Paul about indirect, but decided statements he’d make that assumed failure: “I’m sure Paul will be a wonderful husband for some girl someday,” or “Oh, Sue, I wouldn’t worry about all that. You’ll find someone who really knows you.”
Susie didn’t think much of these comments. She thought her dad was just being obnoxious, and that it wasn’t an issue. She trusted her dad fully, but Paul did not. Paul felt family disapproval hanging over the whole situation like smoke from an approaching brush-fire. The wedding reception that both families would be expecting one month after the marriage night might not be the time of celebration it was supposed to be.
Paul wanted to hear her say, “I love you and I’ll marry you no matter what anybody says.” He was very confident she would have said that tonight if this current argument hadn’t come up. But he was too stupid and stubborn to just say, “oh, that’s fascinating, my love.” No, he somehow had a stronger urge to clarify why he disagreed than to swallow his pride and finally have sex with the girl he was losing his mind over.
It didn’t matter anyway. She’d know he was upset and pry it out of him, so he was damned no matter what he did. He tried to regather his thoughts. The topic was double-predestination, which she’d read about in a found-book. An ancient book on theology. From Earth, so that made it special. To her. He concentrated on making his tone casual: “It makes all our choices in life just a tease. With his—I mean, he should at least be as just as the Alephs.”
Still sitting on the sand, Susie rolled her eyes. “The Alephs. Mebar’s gods. We might as well be living in Babylon. All these false gods people believe in. Alephs, the TAW, Irse, all that nonsense.”
Paul frowned. “Most people don’t actually believe in all those, other than the TAW bringing us here after they left Earth. But they still get held up as ideal examples.”
“All I know is what the Remnants say. And don’t worry, I still trust them more than some found book. They say that the one and only god isn’t some enlightened human who used hidden knowledge to rescue humanity, gain immortality, and let…suicides come back to life as monsters.” She snorted a dry laugh. “He judges the living and the dead, and he’s the only one who has a right to, because he’s just. And he’s good.”
Paul put his hands in his pockets and looked at his sandaled feet. “I wish I understood him better.”
Susie stood up and stretched. Paul watched her, transfixed by her figure and natural grace in the execution of such a simple motion. He thought about how friends laughed playfully when they found out he believed in the Name, one of the old gods, as if he was telling them he was a fan of a team that never made it to the playoffs. He thought about how difficult it was to explain the whole, “one time means marriage” to people. People who lived in a world where STDs had been eradicated centuries ago and pregnancy was deeply coveted.
But then she smiled at him and all the thoughts were washed away. “Just remember. We don’t know who the Name will save, so we can’t give up hope. We try to save everyone. No matter how good or evil they may seem to us.”
Paul nodded, but found zero comfort in that. He knew Susie did, but he didn’t understand how. He wished he had a better understanding of the Remnants, but it was so hard reading through them. He wanted Susie to be wrong, but didn’t know how to prove that she was.
They stood there in awkward silence for a while, then Susie took his hand and they walked down the beach together, going south. Her tone changed. “One thing’s for sure, though. There’s definitely evil in the world.”
Paul dragged a little behind, Susie’s hand feeling hot and soft in his. “You heard about the other killing.”
Her grip on his hand tightened. “She was from the neighborhood I grew up in. Thirty-one years old. In school to become a teacher.”
“Yeah, I read the story.” Paul looked at the dimming glow of the western horizon. He frowned, realizing he may have sounded rude in the way he’d just said that. “Sorry. It’s just—really depressing.”
Susie nodded. They walked along, silent, for maybe a hundred meters. Susie took in a deep breath. “I’m getting pretty tired. You want to meet up again tomorrow for coffee? Memory Bean is supposed to have a new band playing.”
The words killed his last bit of hope for the night. It made his response dull: “Are they another one of those gray-market cover bands? I’m getting kind of tired of listening to the same stuff played over and over by different people.”
Susie shrugged. “I dunno. Guess we’ll have to find out.”
Paul nodded. “Sounds good. I’ll walk you to the station.”
Paul had a sharp pain in his forehead the entire walk. He was fuming as they walked past a dark cluster of touristy beach shops closed for the night. As the road curved around and a handful of shuttle cars came into view, Paul wanted to ask Susie why having a book be written on Earth made it relevant. The book didn’t know about them.
Susie smiled and pulled her hand free and tapped her watch on the console next to the front-most shuttle car. She told the shuttle where she was going and got in. She leaned out to kiss him, a light, soft peck on the lips. “I love you.”
She disappeared into the shuttle and the door closed before Paul could reply.
The shuttle floated off down the road.
Paul was alone. His stomach filled with an unclear dread that something terrible was about to happen, possibly worse than going home alone, but that seemed unlikely. He ignored it and turned inland to walk toward his apartment in the cheap part of the beach district.
Stuffing his hands into his pockets, he sighed as he looked up and at the stars. In an hour or so, light pollution laws would kick in and all non-safety lights would shut off. More stars would be visible. Right now, only the stars behind him, the ones over the ocean, were bright.
He continued walking from the heavenly light and into electric dullness. He cleared his throat and picked up his pace. He had some books he wanted to read when he got home, so he decided to let himself be distracted by that.
“Excuse me,” said the low voice of a man off to Paul’s side.
Paul stopped, looking at a dark corner of a closed sandwich shop. “Yeah?”
“Could you help me with something?” The man didn’t leave the shadow. Paul couldn’t quite make out what he looked like.
“Uh. It depends, I guess.” Paul took a step forward. He then stumbled back as a black-shrouded figure lurched from the darkness and grasped him. As the figure moved and passed under a street light for a brief moment, it almost looked like his skin was dark gray. The man was terribly strong.
Paul was about to say something, but the man then brought a large, strong hand over his mouth and pressed down with so much force that his lips hurt from being pinched against his teeth. The man’s skin felt like cold stone.
Paul felt warm breath on his ear and heard the softly spoken words: “I need you to be very, very frightened, my friend.”