Far overhead, a multitude of stars twinkled at me. Although men have looked to the heavens for centuries seeking answers, tonight I saw none. Instead, I lay alone on the dewy hillside, staring blankly into the infinite. My black eye throbbed painfully.
Footsteps approached me from up the hill. “You can try to stare down the universe,” a familiar voice told me. “But it will never blink first.” Sometimes I could swear that Lari could read my mind.
“Sometimes I really can read your mind,” she told me causally as she sat down next to me on the grass. Even on this moonless night, I could sense her smile as it shaped the words from her lips. “It’s been a pretty unusual evening. You always come out here when you’re looking for answers.”
Larissa’s knack for understatement once again revealed itself. The word ‘unusual’ was much too weak to convey the sense of this evening. No word in the English language was superlative enough to describe the pretty-unusualness of this evening.
I made up a word to fill the role: a good word, in my opinion. It started with an f, ended with a z, and had two q’s and a percent sign in the middle. The second q was silent, and it wasn’t pronounced quite like it was spelled.
“No kidding. This is probably the most foqq%uz day of my life.” I stared up at a particularly bright star. It was Vega, the brightest in the constellation Lyra. I remembered it from my sophomore astronomy class, but that’s not relevant.
Larissa reached over and pressed a cold, damp cloth against my eye. “Is it still sore?”
“It’s fine,” I lied. There was no swelling, but it was still painful. The cold compress helped a little.
“You’ve been out here for hours, staring up at the universe. Have you learned anything?”
“A theoretical physicist could make a career out of learning what happened this evening.”
“Humor me,” Larissa insisted.
I sighed, taking the cold cloth from her and holding it against my eye. “Ok… at this very moment, in an insignificant portion of the vast ocean of alternate realities known as Universe Six, parallel me is very happy.”
Though I could barely see her silhouette in the darkness, the feel of her hair brushing back and forth across my cheek hinted that she had shaken her head. “Too specific. A lesson is a generalization from a specific experience.”
“More generally… there are alternate universes where I’m happy, so I should be happy that I’m happy somewhere. Somewhen. Somewhat.”
She shook her head again. “Isn’t there anything to be happy about within this plane of existence?”
“No matter what choices I make, another me in an alternate universe chooses differently. So I am happily relieved of any moral dilemmas?”
Larissa elbowed me. “For a lesson learned, that one’s a little amoral,” she said. “We’re friends. We’ve always been friends. And we always will be.” There seemed to be a hesitancy in her voice, a waver in Lari’s typical sunshine-on-a-moonless-night demeanor. “Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
If this conversation sounds geeky, it’s because the story has been colored by my own perceptions. In the ten years that Larissa and I have been friends, I’ve called her beautiful, silly, funny, sunny, and falling-down drunk. I have never called her geeky, but being the dear friend that she is, she’ll humor my own geekdom from time to time.
Tonight, though, she wasn’t humoring me. To explain, I must jump backwards in time. (That is to say, in the form of a narrative flashback. Drunken engineering ramblings notwithstanding, I have never built an actual time machine. Exotic matter, much like a woman, is something I can never get my hands on.)
A Summer Evening
In the beginning, the universe was created. No one knows exactly how it happened, though plenty of people have written books on the subject.
Scientists claim that it originated in an explosion that created space, time, matter, and energy.
There are some who attribute it to an omnipotent being who called out, “Fiat lux!”
Others say that the universe began when the Earth had a sordid fling with the sky, or when sweet and bitter waters mixed, or when an unlucky god had his penis hacked off. (Ouch!)
Quite a number of people in certain parts of the world believe that our universe is a dream in the mind of a sleeping creator god.
Since I wasn’t around for the creation of the universe, I can’t say which is closest to the truth. All I know is that the real story must be much stranger than any of those myths suggest.
Unlike the universe, my story began earlier today. Every once in awhile, all the stars align to create a perfect summer weekend: clear blue skies, bright sunshine, and a few dollars in my pocket. What better day to drag the charcoal grill out to my apartment deck and invite a few friends over?
Around six o’clock, all of the usual suspects had arrived. Chris and Jason, whom I’ve known since the age when climbing trees and playing lazer-tag was the most fun afternoon we could imagine. My old college buddy Danielle brought her on-again boyfriend Arnie. And of course, Larissa was ever-present at my gatherings.
In hindsight, the evening started to go astray around 7:47. Everyone was gathered on my apartment deck, watching Jason grill and drinking the meager selection of beer in my cooler. Across the way, my neighbors sat in their rocking chairs, pretending not to eavesdrop as we talked about current events.
I carried a box of frozen hamburgers in each hand.
“Couple-a dogs are ready,” Jason told me, not bothering to look away from the grill. “And I mean a couple. There aren’t any more.” I set the burgers on the table beside him and began to assemble a chili dog.
“Hey, where’s my beer?” Arnie asked.
“At your feet, unless you’re too lazy to bend over and pick one up.” I assumed Arnie was joking around, since my abused styrofoam cooler with the dent in one side was directly beside his feet.
Arnie frowned. “You told me you had Kingfisher.”
“How’d you know that?” There were a few bottles in the back of my spare refrigerator.
“Dude, you’re losing it,” Jason said. “Two minutes ago when you brought me the burgers, Arnie asked if you had any imported beer.”
“Uhh, dude, I just brought the burgers out now.” I pointed to the frosted-over box of cheap supermarket-brand ostensibly beef patties.
“Uhh, dude…” Jason lifted the lid of the grill. A dozen frozen pink patties were already in the process of thawing-slash-browning over the charcoal. “…you brought these out a couple minutes ago. By the way, you should thaw these before a party.”
“The hell? I know I only bought two boxes of these burgers.” I scratched my head, looking first at the burgers on the grill, then at the unopened boxes I had just brought. I shrugged. “Ok. I’ll put these back in the freezer and get Arnie a Kingfisher.”
“How many beers have you had?” Danielle joked as I returned to the kitchen.
“Just a brain freeze dude,” Jason told me. “We’re all getting older.”
In reality, my brain had not frozen, nor was I drunk at the time, though both became increasingly true as the evening went on.
Here be Dragons
Had I looked outside my front door to see the empty parking space where my car should have been, I might have figured out that something strange was going on. On the other hand, reporting a stolen vehicle to the police would have caused even more confusion later on.
Instead, I attributed the beer and the burgers to my own poor memory, and tried to get back into the spirit of the festivities. Arnie got his bottle of Kingfisher, I ate my chili dog, and my so-called brain freeze was quickly forgotten.
Things got weirder at 8:10 that evening, as I was in the bathroom relieving myself.
At that exact moment, my car pulled back into its parking spot. I stepped out of it with a bag of groceries, and entered my apartment.
To make things stranger, at the same moment, I stepped out of my bedroom and rejoined my friends on my deck.
The twilight air was still comfortably warm at this time of the evening. On the hillside behind my deck, the crickets were warming up for their first performance of the night. On my deck, a cheap radio, set to the exact volume to bother my nosy neighbors without incurring the wrath of the police and the local noise ordinance, played a party mix.
“I’m back, guys,” I heard myself shout. Strange to hear my voice coming from elsewhere in the apartment.
From the direction of the deck, I heard what I later realized was the sound of a half-dozen beer bottles hitting the ground simultaneously. A few expletives followed.
“Uh… I picked up a Belgian beer for you, Arnie.”
As quickly as practical (it takes a surprising amount of time to finish urinating, flush, fasten, zip, and wash hands), I rushed out of the bathroom to see what was happening on the deck.
All of my friends were still here: Danielle and Arnie, Chris, and Jason, and Lari. The expressions on their faces were a mix of shock and horror. Two newcomers were present, with their backs toward me. I stepped through the sliding glass door and onto my deck.
“Hello?” I asked. The two strangers turned toward me. “What… the… fark?” I blinked, rubbed my eyes, looked again at the two strangers standing on my deck.
The pair stared back at me with my own face. Every facial feature was identical to my own: hairstyle, eye color, the shape of the cheeks, the mouth, the five o’clock shadow. They even wore my clothes.
I looked at one of the me, then the other of me, then back to my horrified friends.
“What’s going on here?” I and my identical triplets asked in unison.
By 8:33 we had mostly worked out what was happening, and had reached varying levels of acceptance. We had moved into my apartment, away from the prying eyes of my neighbors.
Arnie’s reaction had been the most negative. After taking one look at the three of us — three of me — he shook his head. Then he took the six pack of Belgian beer out of the hands of one of my duplicates, popped the top of one can, took a mighty swig. He then walked past me, through my apartment, and out my front door. Soon after, I heard the sound of a car engine quickly receding into the distance.
Jason handled the situation slightly better. He stood in one corner of my living room, facing the wall. “No way,” he kept muttering, shaking his head and staring forward vacantly. “No way. No way.”
Chris was more positive about the matter. “Yes! This is awesome. It’s like that Star Trek episode where Worf travels between parallel universes.”
“This is very bad,” Danielle said to herself, studying me and my two duplicates. She was the only one of us with a true physics background. “Quantum realities are not supposed to merge like this. Not on a macroscopic scale. No, this is very bad.”
I and my two duplicates sat equidistant around my dining room table, uncertain what to do. “It’s like looking into a mirror,” I commented.
“Not exactly,” Danielle said as she walked from one of us to the next, scrutinizing all three. “Mirrors flip an image left-to-right. This is more like seeing an identical twin. Or triplet, in this case.”
Larissa, the only non-geek of our group, took the situation in stride. “I’m used to seeing more than one of him at these parties,” she told Danielle with a shrug, before tipping up her green bottle and finishing the remander of her beer with a single chug.
Jason approached us at the table. “I think I’m going to pass out,” he said uneasily, taking a seat across from Lari.
“I’m used to doing that at these parties, too,” Lari replied.
One of my doubles spoke. “I spilled a chili dog on my pants,” he explained. “I was in the bedroom changing, then I went back out to the deck and saw… well, you two.” He pointed to me and my other double.
“I went to the store for some beer,” my other double said. “We were out of hot dogs… and I figured I should pick up another import for Arnie.”
I nodded. “I was going to go to the store,” I told my doppelgängers, “but after that brain freeze where I brought the two extra boxes of burgers, everyone said I was too drunk to drive.”
We weren’t too surprised when another man, wearing my t-shirt and denim shorts, emerged from my bedroom, but our new quadruplet was. We quickly explained the situation to him.
“8:33,” Danielle noted.
“This started at 8:10,” Chris mentioned.
Danielle shook her head. “No, it started at 7:47,” she told him. “Every twenty-three minutes. We should expect it to happen again at 8:56.”
“This is confusing enough already,” the newcomer me said. “How will we keep this straight with more?”
Larissa came up with a solution immediately. Taking a sharpie marker, she wrote “#1” on my hand. Then she went to my first duplicate, “#2”, followed by #3 and #4. “I’ll keep this sharpie handy,” she said.
“Maybe Dr. Truchomme could help us,” suggested Danielle.
I balked in quadruplicate.
“Tricky Trook?” I asked.
“From Physics 205?” said #3.
“He’s crazy!” #2 and #4 said.
“So is this situation,” Danielle replied. “Besides, he’s doing groundbreaking research in the interaction of parallel quantum universes.”
“No offense, Danielle,” I said, “but Devlin College isn’t exactly a world-renowned epicenter for groundbreaking theoretical physics.”
“What the fark?” Number Five emerged from my bedroom.
“Come on over and sit down,” Number Three said as Lari marked his hand with a large numeral 5. “It’s a long story.”
“I’ll call Dr. Truchomme,” Danielle said.
Number Four asked, “Can you reach him on a Saturday?”
“He’s my graduate advisor,” she said. “I have his mobile number.”
Tricky Trook, as we used to call him in freshman physics class, was nothing if not punctual. By a quarter past nine, he was in my apartment, dressed in a tweed jacket and polyester slacks that would have been unfashionable even in the ’70s, scratching his thinning grey hair and adjusting his glasses as Danielle recounted the details of the evening.
“Remarkable,” he announced, examining Number Two’s teeth as though he were a racehorse. “Identical quantum twins. And it’s repeatable? Every twenty minutes?”
“Twenty-three,” Danielle corrected.
“In fact, the next one should be here in a few minutes,” Number Three observed.
“Far out,” Tricky Trook said to Danielle, ignoring #3. “That’s about 2.6 times ten to the forty-sixth Planck intervals.”
“Is that significant?” I asked.
The professor looked at me in surprise, if only now aware of my existence. He thought about my question for three seconds. “Probably not,” he told me.
“Guys, we have a problem,” Number Four returned to the table. “You remember the nosy neighbors? They were at the door.”
I sighed. “Did you tell them we’re having a party?”
“Of course, but I think they’re suspicious,” said Four. “I’m going to close all the blinds.”
Suddenly we heard an awful commotion from the bedroom. It was followed by a moaning noise.
“Would your nosy neighbors sneak into your bedroom?” asked Jason in a whisper.
“Not a chance,” I said in a hushed voice, shaking my head. “They’re nosy. They’re not felons.
Danielle pointed toward the clock. “It’s 9:19,” she mouthed.
“What the hell?” Number Two whispered as the ruckus continued. “That hasn’t happened before.”
“What if it’s some creature from space?” Chris asked. “Like an alien… mutant… cthuloid… bodysnatcher.”
“No way.” Jason moved away from the bedroom. Everyone drew closer together, away from the door. We listened to the unearthly noise.
“What if it’s you from a universe where the zombie apocalypse happened?” Chris speculated.
“Highly unlikely,” Dr. Truchomme said dismissively. “We should investigate.”
“Yeah,” I agreed absentmindedly. Everyone fell silent, looking to me. A muffled percussive noise penetrated the walls, like a dull heartbeat.
“It’s your apartment,” Danielle prodded.
I looked around the kitchen counter for a defensive weapon. Finding only a greasy spatula, I picked it up and stepped cautiously towards my bedroom door. The pounding noise and inhuman moans seemed to grow louder.
My hand found the doorknob. I turned it as slowly as possible. Zombies? The Thing? Whatever was behind the door, I did not want to attract its attention. Silently I eased open the door and peered inside.
“OhmyGodinheaven!” I screamed, immediately slamming the door. I tried to run away, but in my haste I tripped over my own feet. As I fell, the spatula flew across the room and clattered across the laminate flooring of the kitchen. I heard screams from both the bedroom and the dining room. “Oh God ohGodohGod! Oh!”
Danielle and Chris rushed toward me. I held up my hand. “Stay back,” I shouted. “Don’t go near the bedroom!”
“What?!” shouted Chris as they reached down and helped me to my feet. “What is it?”
“An extraterrestrial?” asked the professor.
“The Blob? Zombies? The Doctor and his TARDIS?” Chris continued. “What? What?!”
“No way,” Jason said anxiously. He had already backed himself away to my front door, and his hand was on the doorknob.
Numbers Two through Five ransacked my kitchen for any weapon more formidable than my spatula.
Larissa leaned back in her chair and laughed at the commotion. “I know,” she said in the midst of her laughter. “I know.”
The bedroom door opened, and Number Six stepped out cautiously. He gripped a baseball bat in his right hand, obviously to fend off an intruder that turned out to be himself. His left hand held up a towel, wrapped hurriedly around his waist. “What the fark?”
A moment later, Larissa stepped out of the bedroom as well. Her long brown hair was tussled, and she wore only a bedsheet, loose around her body like a toga on an Olympian goddess, skin glistening with perspiration. “Weird,” she said, blushing, as she saw our bizarre group in the kitchen/dining room.
In the kitchen, my Larissa continued laughing. “Yep.”
Two newcomers to our universe now sported a number 6 on their hands, drawn in sharpie by Larissa. My duplicate wore slacks and a button-down shirt; his Lari borrowed one of my t-shirts and khakhi shorts, which fit her like a garbage bag. They still appeared embarrassed over being caught in the act. I was shaken up, myself.
“Should I be number six or number two?” Lari #6 asked Lari Prime. Both sat at the dining room table.
“You’re with #6, so you’re Larissa #6,” her counterpart replied. “I have the sharpie, so I make the rules. Want a beer?”
“Remarkable,” Dr. Truchomme proclaimed. “I have theorized that divergent quantum realities might converge on a limited scale. Yet to see proof at a macroscopic scale, and outside of laboratory conditions… remarkable!”
“An extraterrestrial would have been five times cooler,” Chris said.
“Some interpretations of quantum theory suggest that there are alternate, or parallel, universes,” the professor said. “That are created…”
Chris waved his hand. “Everyone knows about parallel universes now, professor.”
“Ah, ok. Moving along… Quantum realities only interact under rare circumstances,” Dr. Truchomme explained, stealing the sharpie out of Larissa’s hand. He started writing the Schrödinger equation on my dining room wall in black permanent ink.
“Hey!” I protested. “My landlord doesn’t even let me paint the wall!”
“You remember this from freshman year,” Dr. Truchomme told me, oblivious. He quickly scribbled more… math… on my wall. “Now, my work suggests that a disturbance on our universe’s M-brane could cause a recollapse of the probability wavefunction…”
I sighed, quickly finding myself staring at a wall of math.
Number Two whispered to Number Three. “Do you understand any of this?”
“Not a word,” replied Number Three. “I doubt even Danielle understands it.”
I leaned in. “I doubt even Tricky Trook understands it.” Whatever the professor actually said was far in advance of my engineer’s knowledge of physics. Listening to Dr. Truchomme and Danielle, all I could do was pick out a few theoretical physics buzzwords now and then, and watch in dismay as they covered my dining room wall with their notes.
It amounted to this: only parallel universes very similar to ours could cross over accidentally. A universe where I spilled a chili dog on my pants during the party was closer to our universe, in M-theory terms, than a universe with bizarre alien brainsuckers and zombie hordes. Therefore, chili dog universe was more likely to converge with our universe than brainsucker universe.
“Furthermore, the crossover is a difference function,” Dr. Truchomme continued rambling. This was his third attempt to dumb down the physics for our benefit. Danielle nodded, following along with Dr. Truchomme and occasionally assisting him in vandalizing my wall with his left-brane M-Theory stream of consciousness.
Me — all of the mes — listened. Chris pretended to understand. Jason stood in the corner, watching from a distance.
“Your bedroom is largely identical in every nearby universe,” Tricky Trook summarized, circling an ungainly blob of Hebrew letters, mathematical symbols, angle brackets, and lopsided diagrams with permanent marker. “Only the difference, that is, the people who randomly enter and leave, cross over.”
“So how do we stop it?” asked Chris. “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flux or something?”
“Theoretically?” Dr. Truchomme asked. “I don’t know. I myself am uncertain how this sort of quantum coalescence can occur on the scale of a bedroom, which is easily two times ten to the thirty-fifth Planck lengths. Perhaps we are imagining the whole situation.”
“I don’t think so,” said Numbers One through Six, simultaneously.
The kitchen timer on my microwave beeped: Danielle had thoughtfully set it for the time of the next crossover.
“What the fark?” Number Seven said, peering out of the bedroom door at the gaggle of quantum duplicates and the writing on the wall. Danielle shepherded him into the kitchen, and Lari stole my sharpie back from Dr. Truchomme long enough for Seven to receive a mark on his hand.
“So… you and Lari…” I said quietly to Six, approaching him in the kitchen when I saw an opportunity. Danielle and Dr. Truchomme were still giving an M-Theory lecture to the group. The two Larissas were still drinking together. Jason was in the bathroom taking a leak.
“Yeah,” he said sheepishly. “You mean you two never…”
“Nah,” I said regretfully. “She’s great, but…”
“You never told her how you feel?”
“I have, actually.” I kicked absentmindedly at the kitchen cabinet. “There was a time when I think she was interested, but…”
Words fail me in explaining the awkwardness of talking to myself about my own romantic life. Was this an issue for a therapist, or a theoretical physicist?
“So how did you two get together?” I asked, trying to sound casual. I doubt I fooled myself.
“Out of the blue one day,” he said with a shrug. “We’ve always been friends. Lari and I just took a chance to see if there was something more.”
“About a year. Notice the ring on her finger?” I had noticed many things about Lari #6 since I walked in on her in the bedroom, but her hand was not one of them. I glanced in her direction: Lari #6 was at that moment showing off a sparkling 1-carat engagement ring to Lari #1.
Lari #1 congratulated her, and they toasted with their beers, and laughed, and hugged like old friends. Which, in a way, I suppose they were.
“Today was the day,” Number Six said. “Perfect weekend, y’know? Clear blue sky, sunny…” He laughed. “Hell of an engagement party, isn’t it?”
Chris took a break from the physics lesson to join the two Larissas at the table. “So Lari,” he asked, “how did you know what was going on in the bedroom? I heard you laughing the whole time.”
“Oh, it was his reaction,” she told Chris with a chuckle. “I’ve only seen him blush that red when he accidentally saw me topless.”
“Whoa! What?” Jason had just returned from the bathroom. Chris’s reaction was much the same.
“I remember that,” Larissa Number Six commented. “A few years back…” She looked up and noticed me. “Look, he’s blushing again.”
I sat down next to Lari at the table. “Sorry,” she told me, putting her arm around my shoulder. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you, but it just wasn’t that big a deal to me. We were at the beach. It was just a stupid wardrobe malfunction…”
Number Six gave me a firm pat on the back. “I was just as embarrassed when it happened to me,” he reassured me.
“Are they making any progress?” Larissa asked.
I glanced down the hallway, where Dr. Truchomme and Danielle had moved in search of more blank wall space. The mathematics they used might as well have been ancient cuneiform writing, for all the sense I could make of them. The landlord would certainly take the cost of new paint out of my security deposit.
“Well, they’ve covered my dining room wall with symbols in five different alphabets,” I observed. I tried to listen in on the conversation.
“…ok, the bulk pseudo-force that I’ve been calling eka-gravity?” Danielle said to her graduate advisor. “That diagram I drew of it looks kind of like the Japanese kanji for the word blood, so I’m going to represent it with that character. Now… if the curl of the blood field on the 19-brane exceeds a critical value…”
“…then obviously, this bulk force intruding on our universe could cause the quantum wavefunction to spontaneously de-collapse,” Dr. Truchomme concluded. “Groovy! You’ve figured it out! And look…” he circled part of Danielle’s equations. “…these constants, taken together, are in units of inverse time.”
Danielle nodded. “I bet if we knew the values of any of those constants, they’d work out to the twenty-three minute period we’ve been seeing.”
I turned back to Larissa. “Other than progressing to a new alphabet, no, no progress.”
Eleven’s a Crowd
By 11:30, a few minutes away from the arrival of Number Twelve, there was a sense of business as usual. Everyone circulated between the kitchen, living room, and dining room, occasionally shifting around as Danielle and Dr. Truchomme needed additional wall space for their notes. The apartment smelled of beer, burgers, and bacon. My quantum twins and I (we were fine through Number Ten, but when Number Eleven arrived we couldn’t agree whether we were hendectuplets or undectuplets) made our rounds, talking with each other and everyone else, trying to identify the increasingly significant differences between our universes.
“A Star Wars fan?” I overheard Chris exclaim to his only double. “Me? Never! I’m a Trekker for life!”
His double thought for a moment, then appeared surprised. “Star Trek? I didn’t think anyone younger than Dr. Truchomme ever watched that show!”
A third Larissa was also present, though she and my counterpart from that universe were not intimate. She had passed out in my bed after the party, and still half-believed that this was a dream. The other two Larissas were talking to her.
A Jason appeared at 11:14. He handled the situation better than ours, and now the two of them were sharing stories. “The Army isn’t that bad,” his double told him. “Boot camp was tough, but I think it helped me get my life squared away. But I’m not going to make a career of it…”
“I hate to interrupt your hieroglyph party,” I told Danielle and Tricky Trook, “but the universes are becoming more divergent. If this keeps up much longer, we’re going to have a hard time keeping it secret.”
“We might see something bizarre come through the convergence,” Danielle agreed. “Like Chris’s alien brainsucker.”
“Or a rave,” added Dr. Truchomme. “Two dozen stoned love-in participants might be difficult to hide from the neighbors.”
“I didn’t mean anything quite that crazy. Even something as mundane as another Arnie running out the way our Arnie did… or an alternate renter of this apartment.”
“He’s right,” Danielle said to the professor. “If this just continues for a few more hours, we simply won’t have enough space in this apartment to hide everyone.”
Dr. Truchomme nodded. “Yes. Our focus must be on stopping this convergence. But how?”
“Maybe we should notify the authorities?” Danielle suggested.
“Authorities, bah. Who has authority over the cosmos?” Sometimes I wondered if Tricky Trook had been a hippie prior to his physics career. He was about the right age, and made the news a few years back for his controversial views on the legalization of LSD. “If we work out the theory behind it, perhaps a practical solution will present itself.”
Twelve was apparently the breaking point. “I’m tired of this!” exclaimed Number Two. He had been here the longest, and drunk the most beer by now. Everyone except Danielle and the Professor was a little past buzzed. “All I’m hearing is mathematical mumbo jumbo!”
“Take it easy!” Number Nine rushed in to try to calm him down. Two shoved him aside roughly.
I rushed in as well. “Calm down, Two. We need to keep our–” Crack. My head snapped to one side. The room spun. I crashed to the floor, clutching my face. People were screaming, and I heard them running in all directions.
When I opened my eyes, four Larissas hovered over me. I blinked painfully, rubbed my eyes, and the four resolved into only two.
“How many fingers do you see?” one of the Larissas asked me, holding up one hand.
I squinted. “Sixteen? What happened?” One of them, Larissa #1, ran to the kitchen. I heard the icemaker crushing ice.
“Number Two slugged you pretty good,” Lari #6 explained. “It was a sucker punch. Can you sit up?”
I sat up, then ran my finger around my left eye socket. It was already throbbing, and even more painful to touch.
“You’re going to have a pretty ugly black eye tomorrow,” Lari #6 said.
Lari #1 brought a cloth full of ice and pressed it to my eye. “This will stop the swelling,” she told me.
“Where’d he go?” I stood up, with a Lari on either arm to assist me. In the hallway, four people were crowded around my bedroom door, pounding on it.
Danielle shouted through the closed door. “Two! It’s almost midnight! Get out of there!”
“Or what?!” a voice identical to mine shouted back through the door. His speech was slurred, drunken. “I’ll turn into a p-pumpkin?”
“Listen,” Truchomme said in a raised but calm voice. “We cannot predict what might happen if matter from yet a third universe is present at the interface during the coalescence!”
“Mumbo jumbo! More trick talk from Tricky Trook!”
“Break the door down!” shouted one of me, whose number I could not see.
“Don’t break down my door!” I shouted back, rushing towards the group. “Don’t! Don’t break down my door!”
Midnight struck. Since I do not own a grandfather clock, there was no dramatic tolling of bells. My microwave beeped, the kitchen timer set by Danielle having reached zero. My wall clock simply ticked past midnight without fuss.
“Two? I said as I reached the bedroom door. Everyone else hushed. “Two?” I asked again. Then, hesitantly, “Thirteen?”
Dupli-Chris handed me a straightened paper clip, which I inserted into the center of the doorknob. The privacy lock released with a click. “Hello?” I opened the door, not wishing a repeat of Number Six.
I stepped inside. I looked around. “He’s gone!”
“Disintegrated?” Chris asked.
“Maybe he’s back in his own universe,” said Ten.
“Or in a random one,” Danielle and Number Seven speculated at once. Those two always seemed to be on the same page. “He could be in Thirteen’s universe, for all we know.”
“Unlikely,” said Dr. Truchomme. “At this point, I would speculate that the dvi-gravitational flux imprints a multiversally unique signature on–”
“Stop,” I said, slurring the word a little from the alcohol and the blow to the head. “Just… stop. I don’t want to hear about m-branes. I don’t know what eka-anything is. Just… please… explain things in plain English.”
Dr. Truchomme looked questioningly at Danielle.
“Each of us carries a sort of universal id?” Danielle translated.
“To oversimplify, yes,” the professor confirmed. He appeared lost in thought for awhile, just on the verge of speaking. “An analogy. When you flush your toilet, the water flushes down into the plumbing system. If we clog the plumbing with some foreign matter, however, it will back up when flushed, and spew its contents instead.”
“Ok,” I said. “That made sense. It was disgusting, but it made sense.”
“We should get everyone in the room twenty-three minutes from now,” concluded Danielle.
“Including the original,” Dr. Truchomme added. “Number One, as he is labeled. I believe the presence of Number One at that moment will clog the drain, so to speak, and spew the fecal matter of the other universes back where they came from.”
“In other words,” Chris said, pointing to me, “you’re the clog that’s going to overflow this quantum toilet.”
“I’m grossed out and offended, but optimistic.”
“Yes,” said Tricky Trook. “This should correct the entire problem neatly and end the phenomenon. Or potentially turbulently disperse the various collections of subatomic particles randomly across many different universes.”
“By ‘collections of subatomic particles’,” one of me said, “I assume you mean us?”
Dr. Truchomme nodded. “Yes, and by ‘turbulently disperse’, I mean…”
“We got it,” several of us insisted.
And so, twenty-three minutes past midnight, I stood in my bedroom with Numbers Three through Twelve, along with two Larissas, a Jason, a Chris, and a very confused tabby cat.
“Thirty seconds!” announced Danielle from the other side of the bedroom door. “This is going to work!”
Number Ten prayed. Six embraced his Lari, kissing her softly as Danielle announced fifteen seconds. Jason calmly removed a blunt from his pocket and lit up, ignoring my protests. “Whatever happens, dude, it’ll be better if you’re high.”
“Ten seconds. Nine. Eight.” We’ve all heard a ten-second countdown, so I’ll skip ahead. At zero, there was no flash of light, no swirling fog or trippy colors, no trumpets, no theremin music. I stood alone in my bedroom.
“Anyone there?” asked Danielle, knocking on my door.
I was so stunned that no sound came from my mouth.
“Are you ok?” This time it was Larissa, concerned that I might have vanished.
“Hello? Anyone there?” The doorknob rattled.
I swallowed, then tried to speak again. This time with success. “Just me!” Then I sat down on my bed and laughed.
The rest of the evening was anticlimax. Danielle used her smartphone to snap photos of all of their notes, before getting a ride home with Dr. Truchomme. She grumbled something about “that no-good boyfriend of mine” before saying goodbye. Dr. Truchomme offered to let me come down to the university for an extensive battery of medical tests. I declined.
“You throw one hell of a party,” Chris told me as he and Jason prepared to leave.
Jason surveyed the walls. “We’ll help you paint them next weekend, dude,” he said. “Match the color, and the landlord will never know.”
While I cleaned up the paper plates and other garbage, Larissa helped me gather all of the empty beer bottles and cans. Twelve universes of beer bottles overflowed my recycle bin. Nothing was left in my refrigerator but eggs and baking soda.
“You want me to stay awhile?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I just need to get some fresh air.”
By one o’clock in the morning, my apartment was empty again.
“We’re friends,” Larissa said as we lay together in the damp grass, watching the summer triangle of stars pass overhead. “We’ve always been friends. And we always will be. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
I listened to the sound of our breathing. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. I could almost hear the beating of my own heart. For a fraction of a second, I could even sense the motion of the stars, and the rotation of the Earth.
“Of course it does,” I said at last. “I just…”
“…want more. I know it. And there was a time when…” she trailed off.
A line of Shakespeare came to mind, from the literature class where I met Lari. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Her hand brushed across my arm. She squeezed my hand. “Homo Faber,” she said. “Man is the maker of his own destiny.”
I felt Lari lying in the grass beside me. Both of us occupied the same little corner of the world, breathing the same summertime air, listening to the same crickets, and gazing up at the same stars.
“Does that mean there’s a chance for us? In this world, I mean.”
She sighed quietly in the darkness. It was not one of exasperation, or despair. It was almost a sigh of contentment. We held hands. The star at the tail of the swan, the beautiful Albireo, winked at me. Nothing else existed but the stars, and the crickets, and Larissa, and me. I waited for her to speak.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the universe where she answered my question.