Three teenagers step into a booth.
It’s the oldest story in the world. Some dumb kid always wants to put it to the test. “It” could be any number of things. Jumping when the d-mat process starts to see if it makes you taller. Spinning in a circle anticlockwise in the hope of being switched from left to right. Squeezing thirteen people in at once just in case the one with the guiltiest secret disappears.
Or, in this case, the Bashert Ostension.
“It’s never going to work,” said Damon. The tallest of the three, he also thought he was the smartest, but that distinction probably went to Lydia, Jude’s girlfriend. Lydia was skinny like Damon, but with angular hips and long hair in a braid down her back. She was cloud-pale and gray-eyed, and the opposite in almost every respect to Jude. Jude was short, muscular, and dark. She had a tattoo of a small, gray mouse above her left breast. That was how she thought of Lydia, she said: permanently close to her heart. But really it was more about the mouse. Jude liked to dominate.
“Scared?” she said.
“Not at all,” said Damon, running a hand through his thin, brown hair. It needed a wash. It usually did, but particularly today. Maybe he was a little on edge. “Just being practical. What you’re talking about is magic. D-mat isn’t magic. It’s a machine. Urban myths are fun and all, but they’re not real.”
“Who says? Maybe this one is.”
“Rituals are real,” said Lydia. Her voice was soft. Generally her friends stopped to listen. “We’re on a legend trip—you know, checking out a graveyard or a spooky old house? That’s what it’s called. On the way we tell stories and prove our bravery and bond, and … oh! We should’ve brought beer.”
Jude produced a small silver flask from her back pocket. “Way ahead of you, babe.” She took a swig and passed some of the burning liquor to Lydia through a messy, wet kiss.
Damon sniffed. “I don’t need to prove anything. And you two do enough bonding as is.”
Lydia laughed, pressing a hand to her sternum, where warmth was spreading outward in waves.
“Chicken,” she said.
“Yeah, chicken out if you want, Lame-o Dame-o,” said Jude. “We’re going anyway.”
He reached for the flask. She gave it to him. He wiped the neck on his sleeve and deliberately took too much—an asshole tax, he thought of it, not realizing that made him the asshole. For a second he thought he might cough, which would have been devastating.
“So let’s do it,” he said in a thin, tight voice.
Jude looked at Lydia, who nodded and took her hand.
“Take us to the Bashert Ostension,” Jude said in a clear, loud voice.
The booth doors slid shut. Mirrored walls enclosed them, throwing reflections to infinity in all directions. Light flashed. The three of them held their breaths and were silent.
There are lots of different versions of this particular urban myth, but they all boil down to the same thing.
Sometimes you jump somewhere by d-mat but don’t arrive where you’re supposed to. It looks like the right place, but it’s not. There are small differences buried down deep in the details. At first you think you’re going crazy, but it’s actually the world around you that’s crazy—because it’s not your world anymore. You’ve gone sideways, into the universe next door.
Sometimes there’s a sting in the tale.
Look around you. Look CLOSELY. Maybe it’s already happened to you, and you just haven’t noticed yet.
You can usually write off such tales as older kids messing with younger ones. It’s a tradition that dates right back to the first hominids, to whoever or whatever first discovered that language is a powerful tool to mess with those around you, for fun or profit. Some people have argued that the fun-or-profit motive actually drove the evolution of language. Either way, the urban myth predates religion and science and will probably outlast both of them.
The version of the story Jude, Lydia and Damon knew possessed one critical extension.
You can make it happen by asking for a specific destination.
The name of that destination was the Bashert Ostension.
The lights went down. The doors slid open. All three teens peered out.
Their reflections parted to reveal a forest of spindly pine trees painted warm yellows and oranges by sunset. Damon noted the crescent moon in the sky above. Jude sniffed at a faint tang of deer musk. Lydia heard a swallow call and saw a flash of white through the branches that might have been the bird responsible. She had read that swallows were albino here, sometimes.
“Are we having fun yet?” asked Damon.
“Be real, dumbass,” said Jude. “Give it a moment.”
They stepped out into the dusk to examine their flourishes. This was part of the ritual that Damon had devised. If the myth was true, the booth wouldn’t take them somewhere else in their world, like d-mat normally did; it would take them somewhere that looked the same as their world, except for some tiny details. So each of them had brought a trove of things they could tell quickly had changed—because who could remember if a leaf had fallen or changed color or whatever?
If they were going to do this they were going to do it right, he said, and that meant testing the hypothesis in a methodical way.
Doing it right to Lydia also meant finding exactly the right place to do it. They needed somewhere atmospheric, to enhance the ritual, yet at the same time somewhere away from other people. After a lot of research she settled on Pripyat, an abandoned town in the Ukraine. It was near an old nuclear reactor that had blown up a century or so ago, long before d-mat. She had never heard of it, but radioactive isotopes have a long memory, and people still couldn’t live there. The booth was for scientists studying the wildlife. There were more interesting critters out there than just albino sparrows.
Doing it right to Jude meant being with Lydia and winding up Damon until he snapped. They had been friends from an early age. She knew how to have fun with him. He must be getting something out of it too, she reasoned, otherwise why was he still hanging around?
“I read that they call it the Red Forest because of all the blood of the workers who died here,” she said, crossing to where her backpack lay on its side in the leaf litter.
Damon didn’t bother correcting her. Jude privileged stories over facts, and he could only fight misinformation one factoid at a time, armed in this case with a small but fiendishly complicated three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle that he had first solved at the age of five. By now he knew the sequence by heart. Moving swiftly, ignoring the others, he took the pieces one by one from their tin and assembled them with familiar, deft movements.
When it was done, he rocked back on his heels, feeling something less than complete satisfaction, even though there were no pieces missing; the crystal skull was cas it always was.
A sharp tug and he pulled the puzzle to pieces again. It was as good a litmus test as any other. If something was going to change, why not a crystal skull? Unless his brain changed too. What if it had been a crystal dolphin in his home universe and his memories had changed along with it?
While Damon considered the deeper ramifications of his experiment, Jude was scanning swatches of translucent cotton fabric for pulled threads and changed patterns. They were family heirlooms her grandmother had left her, mementoes of affluent times buried in a time capsule to preserve them from the Water Wars and retrieved when things got better. There was no material value to such mementoes from the past; nowadays, anything could be scanned and copied in moments. But these swatches had never been scanned, and never would be. They were perfectly imperfect, right down to the grubby fingerprints Jude had left on them as a child—a crime for which she had been soundly beaten.
The fabric was unchanged.
That just left Lydia’s collection of rare moths, unaltered in number, shxade and sex. Nor was the suitcase altered, or its position, which she had marked out carefully on the ground, or the twigs she had arranged in a rough square around it, or the stones she had placed at each corner of the square. Testing the urban myth may have been Damon’s idea, but Lydia was the most meticulous in pursuing that idea to the limit. She liked following other people because it absolved her from having to make moral, or at least practical, judgments, but she was in her own way very competitive.
They compared results.
“Well, that was a bust,” said Damon.
“Not necessarily,” said Jude. “We might not have found it yet, the thing that separates this world from ours.”
“Don’t tell me we’re going to go look for it. I’ve got better things to do with my life.”
“It could be anywhere,” said Lydia, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. She wanted to keep every option open, even as she packed up her moths in preparation for going home.
“Perhaps we should try it again,” said Jude. She didn’t feel disappointed. If anything, she felt a heightened sense of anticipation. Rising to the challenge.
“No skin off my nose,” said Damon. “It’s still not going to work.”
“Guys,” said Lydia. She was facing the booth, the doors of which had shut behind them. “Was that graffiti on there … before?”
“I think so.” Damon remembered it because he had taken a photo of Jude and Lydia after they’d laid out their flourishes, with their backs against the booth. He had noted the Cyrillic alphabet, which he couldn’t understand.
The word traced out in thick but hasty white lines in a diagonal across the booth’s front was лох.
“It means stupid,” said Jude. “I looked it up.”
“Just then?” said Lydia.
Jude nodded. “The Air works here. So that’s another strike against having gone anywhere.”
“Oh.” Lydia couldn’t help but feel a little deflated. She had been sure the graffiti would be the critical difference. If the Air worked and Damon remembered seeing the graffiti, then maybe this universe really was home after all.
“Uh … wait,” said Damon. He had called up the photo in his lenses, and he sent it to the others now.
There, behind the girls, in identical white lines was a single word in Cyrillic, only instead of лох it was хуёвый, which meant worthless.
“The words are different,” said Damon, staring from the booth in front of him to the one in his lenses. His mind fizzed a little, as though he was a Coke and reality had just given him a bit of a shake. “The words are definitely different.”
Jude stared at Lydia with her mouth wide open, then let out a loud whoop and swept her up in a whirlwind dance around the clearing. Her enthusiasm was infectious. Even Damon grinned a little, as he stared down at the grinning skull and wondered, So how do we get back?
Jude had it all figured out. First they would explore the clearing as long as they dared (the radiation wasn’t going to kill them any time soon, but the thought of it was still scary) in the hope of finding any more differences (they didn’t), then they would get back into the booth and she would do her thing.
“Take us to the Bashert Ostension,” she said just as loudly and as confidently as before. The Bashert Ostension wasn’t a place, she had reasoned. It was a code, like Improvement or Togetherness or any of the numerous memes circulating at any given time. Jude and Lydia had tried Togetherness once, but they hadn’t ended up physically blended into one. Of course. Such things were impossible, or at least utterly illegal and therefore improbable. The fun lay in the imagining and in the attempt, and the reminder that all skin is special, like friendship.
So, saying the code words should take them back. That was Jude’s assumption, and it seemed reasonable to Damon. Inasmuch as a situation like this could be reasonable. D-mat still wasn’t magic. There had to be an explanation that made sense, if only he could think of it.
Lydia watched him rubbing his thumb and forefingers together, over and over. She knew what he was thinking, and maybe a little of what he was feeling too, but figured it would all be okay when they got back. Then he could pretend it hadn’t happened, as he always did with problems he couldn’t solve.
The doors of the booth didn’t close.
“Take us to the Bashert Ostension,” Jude said again. Still the doors stayed open.
“Is that what you said last time?” Damon asked.
“So why isn’t working now?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know. Let me think.”
She began to pace. Lydia stepped back to give her room. The booth was a bit more crowded than before, now the flourishes were back in with them too.
“Maybe that’s something else that’s changed here,” Lydia said. “Maybe the code is different.”
Jude snapped her fingers. “Right. Let’s look it up.”
The Air told them the term didn’t exist.
“So we can’t get back?” said Damon, his eyes wide and a little white around the outsides. “We’re trapped here?”
“Unlikely,” said Lydia soothingly. “The urban myth will be here too, just like the trees and the leaves and the moon are here too. All that’s different, apart from the graffiti, is the code.” I hope, she added silently to herself.
Jude had a wild idea. “Do you think we could call ourselves?”
“Why would you want to?” asked Damon.
“I’m going to try it,” Jude said, and received an immediate error, of course: it’s not possible to call yourself through the Air. So instead she sent a chat request to her little sister.
Xena answered immediately. “Get back here, you midget dike bitch. Mum’s going to kill you if you don’t—”
Jude ended the call. No changes there. “Seems I’m not at home.”
“No, you’re here,” said Damon. “But not here here. You’re there here.”
“We’ve swapped places with our other selves,” he explained. “They’re exactly the same as us, which means they tried the urban myth too. They’re back where we came from looking for our code words, while we’re where they came from, looking for theirs.”
Jude could accommodate this new development if she concentrated hard enough. It was better than thinking about her screwed-up family. Apart from two minor details—the graffiti and the code—everything in this universe was the same as her other self’s, which meant she wasn’t going to run into herself any time soon. Unless the other Jude was trying to jump back right now…?
The booth was still and silent. No one was going anywhere.
She took out the flask and had a solid swig, then passed it around to the others. Lydia allowed herself a taste. Damon waved it away. His lenses were scrolling light right up into his irises.
“I’m searching the urban myths,” he said. “Help me out, will you? Nothing fits so far.”
All three of them searched, Damon immobile in the booth, Jude pacing in circles around it, and Lydia sitting on a tree stump outside.
Eventually he said, “I think I’ve found something. Look.”
He bumped them a link to an urban myth that initially seemed nothing like theirs.
When you use d-mat to go from A to B, you don’t go in a straight line. You don’t even go in one piece. Your pattern is broken up into tiny packets and each packet follows a different path through the Air, along cables, by satellite or via whatever means are available. Normally it doesn’t matter which means it takes. The booth at the other end assembles all your packets the same way. But a system this big is like a maze. There are lots of places where things can go wrong. Dead ends and loops and crossed wires and knots … and holes.
Holes are a particular problem when you’re dealing with quantum computers that access the computational power of parallel universes. Engineers call them quantum leaks. There’s one particular quantum leak that you can use to get to a world that looks just like ours, but isn’t. Not quite. Some people go there to steal stuff. You get there by asking for Wodhams’ Gate. Be careful, though: there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get back. Curiosity killed the cat, remember?
“Quantum leaks,” Damon said. “That almost makes sense.”
“Gee, I bet the universe is relieved,” said Jude.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “Are you going to do it or what?”
“Take us to Wodhams’ Gate,” Jude told the booth.
The doors closed. The light flared.
Lydia nursed a small worry, like a kitten too new and fragile to uncover. It was too late to raise now: they were going somewhere. And she knew that she was the fragile one in the kitten metaphor, and that some worries grow roots like oaks when exposed to the light.
For the second time that day they peered out at the Red Forest, only now it was dark and they could see barely anything beyond the white light spilling from the booth. The sun had fully set while they were searching the Air and the new moon was on its way. A faint tang of deer musk still pricked Jude’s nose, which was a good sign.
“How do we know for sure?” asked Damon, sweeping in long strides from one side of the clearing to the other. There were their footprints in the leaf litter. There was the rectangular outline of Lydia’s suitcase.
“I can think of one way,” she said. “Search on Wodhams’ Gate.”
That produced nothing. There were no references to that term anywhere.
“So we’re home?” said Jude.
“Not necessarily,” Lydia said, braving the fear. “We have to search on the Bashert Ostension to be sure.”
Damon sank down on his haunches and put his head in his hands. “Fuck. Seriously?”
“Is this possible?” asked Jude. “We’re in another universe?”
“There are an infinite number of them,” said Lydia. “If two are connected, why not three?”
“We shouldn’t have done the second search,” said Damon. “We might never have noticed, otherwise.”
“And when the versions of us who live here turned up?” asked Jude. “What then?”
“Maybe they wouldn’t have. Maybe they would have been happy where they ended up too.”
“It still wouldn’t be right,” said Lydia. “We’d always wonder. Or I would.”
“What’s so special about our universe anyway?” Damon grumbled, but he let up and joined them in the search for another way out.
Lydia was getting the hang of it now. Here there was neither a Bashert Ostension nor Wodham’s Gate. Instead there was a Junction 666 that sounded promising.
“It’s a joke,” said Damon, “but I’ll go with it if it takes me home.”
They held hands in the middle of the booth with their flourishes on the floor between them as Jude made the request. The doors shut. The light flared. The doors opened.
Pine forest. Nighttime. Deer musk and leaf litter.
But there was no point checking the Air.
There, in the middle of the clearing were another set of flourishes, left behind by someone else.
“Damon’s right,” said Jude. “This is a joke. It has to be.”
She held two swatches of identical fabric, one in her left hand, one in her right. They had the same chocolatey fingerprints, front and back. The same tiny hands that had held them, years earlier, had tried in vain to ward off her mother’s blows. Different hands and a different mother in a different universe—that was what they were being asked to believe. But there was another explanation.
“Someone’s messing with us,” she said. “They’re editing the Air while we’re in transit, so it looks like the memes have changed, but they haven’t really. They changed the graffiti, too. And now they’ve fabbed copies of our flourishes. We’re not going anywhere at all. We never left. It’s all one big art-prank, and the joke is on us.”
“How do we prove it?” asked Damon. He was juggling two crystal skulls, kind of hoping he would drop them so they would shatter and the pieces would get mixed up. That was a challenge he had never attempted before.
“One of us stays behind,” Jude said. “That’s how we prove it.”
Lydia stared at her with wide eyes. “Who?”
Nobody said anything for a long moment.
“Do we really need to test it?” said Damon. “Can’t we just accept that you’re right and leave it at that? Yeah, yeah, yeah—you would always wonder, Lyd, but I wouldn’t. Near enough is good enough for me. What’s stopping me from going home right now and staying there—if it is there?”
“Nothing,” said Lydia.
“So why don’t I?”
“You tell us,” said Jude.
He gripped the skulls tightly in his fists. Veins stood out of his forehead.
“I’ll stay behind,” said Lydia. “You two go. I’ll wait and make sure the meme doesn’t change. That way we’ll know for sure. Then we can all go home together. The legend trip will be over. We can get that beer … okay?”
Slowly the tension left Damon’s face and posture. He put the second skull back where he had found it, and nodded. “All right.”
Jude was less sure.
“Are you certain you want to do this?” she asked Lydia.
“Yes.” Lydia didn’t look at the second suitcase. The temptation to send it off with the others was strong, but there was probably a limit to how many moths one should have. “Don’t worry. I’ll be here when you come back. I’m not going anywhere … because neither are you, remember?”
They hugged. Damon retreated to the booth, already searching for the next meme. It was called the Fistula, which made him think of unfortunate medical conditions and bodily fluids, and his father, and the creeping disease that had killed him. Damon’s stepfather John had called it The Ague. When Dad died, John had wept for five minutes, then walked out the room and never come back.
Lydia outside the booth. Jude and Damon inside. The mirrored space seemed empty with only two people.
Lydia gave Jude a tiny wave as Jude called out the name of their destination and the doors slid shut on her friends, leaving her alone in the clearing. It was suddenly dark. She wrung her hands in front of her, imagining radioactive ghosts crowding in all around. That was what she had expected of the legend trip, not this weird existential crisis. Ghosts and other supernatural beings. Aliens, maybe.
The booth whirred and clicked to itself. Maybe it was aliens, she thought, tinkering away in the background and tittering to themselves as their subjects began to show signs of stress. She swore she wouldn’t give them the satisfaction. Tucking her long legs up to her chest, she sat on the suitcase and hugged her knees, and waited for her friend and her lover to return.
Two minutes later, the doors opened and Lydia was exactly where she had been, except sitting down now. She looked up when the light fell over her, then stood up, then lit up when Jude emerged, her darkest fears unrealized. Jude had half expected to find the clearing empty and Lydia gone—vanished into another dimension or kidnapped by unknown tormentors. That she hadn’t gone anywhere restored her confidence greatly.
They embraced. “Anything weird happen?” Jude asked her.
“Something rustled in the bushes, that’s all.”
“A Pripyat rat with two heads and four glowing eyes?”
They had joked about this before coming to the Red Forest. Mutant rodents to match the mutant swallows. “Almost certainly.”
“What about changes?” Damon asked, coming out of the booth and looking around suspiciously. “Is the Air still the same?”
“Exactly the same.” She had been watching it as closely as she had been watching the undergrowth. “The meme hasn’t altered one bit. Which means—”
“Which means…” He took over the sentence, then deflated suddenly, collapsing down into himself as though his bones had suddenly d-matted away. It was relief making him weak, and a sense that drama was required. “We didn’t go anywhere. We’re safe. We can go home. It’s over.”
“Hoo-frigging-ray,” said Jude.
She raised the flask in one final toast and passed it around to the others. Damon took an extra half-swig to cover a slight tremble in his hands.
“Back to my place?” he said. “I’ll fab some pizza while we work out how to track the people who did this to us.”
“You really want to do that?” asked Jude. “Track them, I mean. Not pizza. Pizza would be awesome.” Her stomach rumbled at the thought.
“Credit where credit is due,” Lydia said. “This was a great stunt. We were totally taken in.”
“Until the end,” said Damon with satisfaction. He was wondering what to do with the extra flourishes. “I’d kinda like to rub it in their faces that we worked it out before the big reveal.”
“They were reaching a bit with the last name, I thought,” said Jude. “Was that a dig at us, do you think?”
Lydia frowned. “What do you mean?”
“The Fistula.” She made a lewd gesture when Lydia still looked puzzled. “You know? Or are you pretending for Dame-o’s benefit that we haven’t done that?”
“I, uh, don’t know you’re talking about,” Lydia said. “The last name wasn’t the Fistula. It was Addison’s Adit. The Fistula was the one before.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. We used it to get here, and I’ve been staring at it for five minutes solid. It hasn’t changed a bit … but…
She pulled away from Jude, who looked hurt.
“But you have changed,” Lydia said.
“Or you have!” said Damon. “We’re exactly the same as before.”
“I don’t understand,” said Jude. “What’s going on?”
“They’re still screwing with us,” said Damon with a definite snap to his voice. “They changed her while we were in the booth just like they changed the Air and copied that crap we brought with us. That has to be what happened.”
“It’s not like that at all,” said Lydia, amazed by his willingness to jump to that conclusion. “I stayed behind. You two came here. But you aren’t the same two I came here with. They’ve gone on to the next world—where another me is waiting, just like the me you left behind. We’ve got all split up!”
“So what do we do now?” asked Jude, staring at a Lydia who said she wasn’t her Lydia, even though she looked exactly the same. Perhaps there were subtle differences she would only discover on a close examination—which wasn’t as thrilling a thought as she might once have wanted it to be. “Do Damon and I stay here while you go forward? Will that bring us back together?”
“I don’t know,” said Lydia. “I don’t know!”
“Don’t listen to her,” said Damon. He looked wild-eyed and feverish. His thumb and forefinger were working again. “She’s part of it. They’ve changed her. They’re in her head now. She’s one of them.”
“That’s not possible,” Lydia said, certain of that much. “You can’t just reach into someone’s head and change the way they think. You’re crazy.”
“They’d want us to think that,” he said. “Don’t listen to her, Judy. She’s lying. We know where we are. We know we haven’t gone anywhere. Don’t play their games anymore. They’re laughing at us, and they have been all along.”
“Calm down, Dame-o,” said Jude, reaching out to touch his shoulder. “You’re getting a bit worked up.”
“Yes? And why not? I’m tired of this. I’m tired of being patronized by you two. I’m tired of being the third wheel. I’m going home to get pizza. You can come with me if you want, or you can stay here. I don’t care.”
That he did care was made very evident by the way he hesitated. He was waiting for one of them to side with him. But neither of them did. They looked at each other, and once it was clear that Jude wasn’t going anywhere, Lydia decided to stay too. The precise nature of their relationship had yet to be determined, but parting was not an option this time.
“I want to figure this out,” said Lydia. “There has to be an explanation.”
“Fine,” said Damon, stomping in a huff through the booth’s open doors, crystal skull held tightly in one hand. “Seeya, then.”
“Oh, don’t be such a big baby,” said Jude, but it was too late. He had said “Home” and the doors were already closing. The booth knew the address, which was evidence in its own right, but tantalizingly inconclusive.
Lydia and Jude waited in silence, unmoving, for the booth to finish working. When the doors opened, the interior was empty. Damon had run from another unsolvable problem.
“Shit,” said Jude. “Now what?”
“We keep going,” said Lydia. “We see this through without him.”
“How? I mean, what address do we use now? I’m confused.”
“Addison’s Adit,” she said. She wondered if her Jude looked this lost in the next universe along. Perhaps if they left quickly enough, they’d catch up. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
Jude nodded miserably and followed her inside.
On the other side of Addison’s Adit, there was no sign of anyone else, apart from the flourishes, still abandoned in the clearing. The meme in that universe was called The Long Way Home, and they took it without hesitation, and the one after, and the one after that. Lydia and Jude stayed at opposite sides of the booth, not talking, barely even looking at each other. Damon’s absence cast a long shadow across their moods. Every time they arrived at another Red Forest, Jude half expected to see him or receive a message from him, but there was ever only silence, which disconcerted her even though it didn’t surprise her. It was as though he had dropped off the face of the earth.
The Shortcut led to The Ultimate Escape led to Intersection 391, where the deer musk was mysteriously absent. They took Intersection 391 to God’s Gateway, and there, without warning, the flourishes also vanished. It was as though part of Jude vanished with them, and she fell to her knees in the clearing, not knowing if she wanted to scream or weep.
“Why won’t they show themselves?” she asked Lydia, staring out at the trees. “Why are they still messing with us like this?”
“I don’t think this sapling was here before.” Lydia had been taking snapshots with her lenses and comparing the image with the reality of their next location. There were changes, but they were subtle. It wasn’t just the Air and the graffiti and the flourishes. She was convinced now that the worlds weren’t the same. They were still being messed with, but not in any simple art-prank way.
Jude pushed past her, ripped the sapling out of the ground and threw it into the bushes. “There. Is that better?”
Lydia knew not to say anything.
God’s Gateway led to the first screaming match in the entire three months of their relationship. There was no inciting incident. It just happened. They were suddenly going in circles around the inside of the booth, Jude pressing, Lydia retreating, both shouting passionate, vindictive things they had stored up for weeks. Jude’s reactivity. Lydia’s passivity. Jude’s bossiness. Lydia’s stubbornness. Both of them wanted it to stop but neither of them knew how. Being in love with someone took practice, Lydia told herself, trying to see the positive. It was just like sex in that regard, so why not arguing as well? This was their first time. Of course they were doing it badly. They would be better next time they tried it, if they got through this time.
Jude just wanted it to stop. All of it.
“Damon was right,” she said. “We’re not stuck here. We’re not prisoners. No one’s making us do this. It’s us, all us, and we can end it any time we like.”
“Don’t go, please,” said Lydia. She clutched at Jude’s arm, afraid of being alone.
“Why not? I’m tired. I’m thirsty. I’m sick of the view. But not sick of you,” she conceded, although she did pull away, feeling slightly guilty. Lydia wasn’t her Lydia, after all. Was this cheating? “It just has to stop.”
“It will soon, I’m sure of it.”
Jude didn’t know how Lydia could be sure of anything. And by this point, Jude really had to be sure. The legend trip was poisoning them. Whoever or whatever was behind it, she needed them to give up now.
Silently, while Lydia searched the Air for the next link in the chain, Jude called the peacekeepers. She told them she was in trouble and she told them where. She didn’t look too closely at the interface in her lenses. She didn’t wonder why it was black rather than blue. She didn’t ask why the PK had never heard of Pripyat and wanted GPS coordinates instead. She just got it done.
“Ready,” said Lydia. The name was the Frehling Aperture. She held out her hand. “Shall we?”
Jude hesitated, then nodded stiffly but ignored the hand.
“It won’t change anything,” Jude said.
Lydia took what looked like fatalism as an affirmative, and took them onward.
The doors opened. White flashlight beams were dancing through the trees. They both could hear shouting in the distance. To Lydia it was a complete mystery. Jude understood that the PKs were coming to rescue her through the Red Forest, since their booth was in use.
“Wait here,” said Jude. She didn’t want Lydia to know that she had called them.
“No, don’t go out there.”
Lydia didn’t like this. She was already searching the Air for the next step, the next name.
“It’s okay,” Jude said. “Don’t worry.”
She stepped out into the clearing and stood up on tiptoes to see through the scrub. The PKs were almost upon them. She waved her hands over her head, although surely they could see the light of the open d-mat booth. There was nothing else for miles.
Angry voices barked in a language she didn’t know. She had just enough time to think Why angry? when they burst out of the trees and were on her, six men and women in black light armor and face masks, wielding automatic weapons. They physically threw her to the ground, and when she resisted, clubbed her with a rifle butt to stun her, then splayed her out on the ground, face down. Jude blinked rapidly in fright, not knowing what was going on. She could see Lydia through the door of the booth, mouth open in shock. Such delicate lips. They were the first thing about Lydia that Jude had noticed. They were bloodless now.
Jude felt something cold and hard tap the back of her skull. It felt like the barrel of a gun.
The sound made Lydia physically recoil as violently as though she herself had been shot. She fell back into the booth, away from the sight of Jude’s ruined face, and somehow the booth heard her words through the hands pressed tight against her mouth. “Shut the door!”
They had killed Jude. Whoever the people in black were, they had really killed her, and they were going to kill Lydia too if she didn’t move quickly. Already the weapons were turning her way, dark visors gleaming expressionlessly in the reflected light of the booth.
“The Infinite Intersection—and don’t open the door at the other end!”
Light flashed. Engines of transformation worked, turning her from matter into energy, then from energy into information, and then back again. Lights dimmed. The doors stayed shut.
Through them she heard voices, then the hammering of fists against the metal. She pressed hard against the back of the booth and searched for her only way out.
She jumped and jumped again, tears pouring down her face, legs shaking, but mind working, searching, questioning, hoping. Maybe in one of the worlds there would be no banging at the door, no shouting foreign tongues, and Jude would be alive. Maybe even her Jude, if she could ever be so lucky. If she never gave up.
Another jump. Another. It was silent outside the booth. She sat inside for five minutes without going anywhere, gnawing her fingernails and thinking, thinking. What if it was a trap? What if this universe’s equivalent of the people in black were lying in wait for her? What if she opened the doors and they leapt in, dragged her out into the clearing and shot her too?
Who they were and where they had come from were lesser mysteries. Even why they had done what they did. Different universes, different rules. It wasn’t just little things that changed, obviously.
“The Bridge Beyond,” she said, certain that if Jude had been out there she would have said something, and certain also that she didn’t want to die.
Three more jumps and she was ready to brave the silence.
The trees were black but the sky was pink. Sunrise. Had she been really in the booth that long? Maybe, if the jumps took longer than usual—which wasn’t an unreasonable hypothesis given she was universe-hopping by means unknown.
There was blood in the clearing from a carcass rendered unidentifiable by the gnawing and tearing of sharp teeth. Standing over the body was a gray wolf with bloody jowls. Calmly, it looked up at Lydia for no less than five seconds, as though considering whether or not to eat her as well—maybe it had cubs somewhere, or pack mates, or was just greedy, Lydia thought, trembling with fright—but then it looked back down at its meal and resumed crunching and chewing through something that might once have been Jude but could be anything Lydia wanted it to be.
Not Jude, she decided as the wolf ate on. So hope remained.
Alone with an infinite army of reflections, Lydia pressed on. Why? Because she couldn’t go back, and she couldn’t stay still. Onward was the only option.
The sun rose higher in fits and starts, depending on how long each jump lasted. The entire morning passed in less than an hour from her perspective, and that perspective contained nine different versions of the Red Forest. The clearing shrank and grew larger, contained animals and nothing at all. The trees around it changed from pine to birch to palm to bamboo.
Into the afternoon and the weather began to change too. Sometimes it was hot, other times cold. Once it was snowing, and she spent several minutes in icy melt water to replenish her thirsty tissues. She emptied the suitcase and filled it with snow in case it was a while before she saw water again, then shivered through ten more frigid Pripyats until the Sneak’s Retreat brought her to a desert.
She never changed but the scenery constantly did. It began to feel like a dream, and she wondered whether the entire legend trip was some kind of hyper-real simulation. Was she going to wake up in a couch somewhere with wires coming out of her head? Were her friends laughing at her, the last to give up and leave the simulation? She didn’t think so. They would cheer her on, she was sure of it. They would want her to break the game.
Civilizations ebbed and flowed outside the booth. Once she found herself in the centre of standing stones that looked thousands of years old. Another time she was surrounded by planes of brilliant glass and metal populated by people so beautiful they looked like machines. The booth was the other constant, she realized, apart from herself. She could only leave one universe and enter another one through a booth just like the booth she was in.
Several times the Air failed to respond to her commands. When that happened she had to chase down people outside, if there were people nearby and if they spoke her language and if they weren’t trying to shoot her. Sometimes they gave her food, clothes, access to a toilet. Sometimes they just shrugged, unable to communicate. But there was always a way to keep going. There was always onward, even when it seemed that she had reached the end of the line. She could count on that—so in that sense there were actually three constants. Herself, the booth, and the quantum leaks. Everything else was in flux.
As the bedrock rose and fell and the skies turned from blue to green to a garish yellow from horizon to horizon, she became more and more certain that she was getting somewhere. Or maybe something was getting nearer to her. Either way, proximity was in the air. It could be Jude, or it could be home. Or something else entirely. But when she found it, she was positive that she would know what it meant. This couldn’t be for nothing, all this effort, all these strange journeys nowhere.
Nowhere, and yet everywhere. She gazed out at infinite possibilities with a sense of wonder no less authentic than when she had first stepped into a d-mat booth and seen images of her radiating outward in all directions. There was both wonder and horror in confronting the unending universe, just as there is both wonder and horror in reaching the end.
Lydia had long lost count by the time the doors opened on an earth with a poisonous atmosphere. Two breaths saw her pitching forward to the ground, trying from long habit to find the way out in time. The words were there—The Long Delay—but she could no longer speak them clearly, just gasp and gurgle and cough. She didn’t know if there was just one jump left to go, or a million, or what the booth heard her say, ultimately. But she tried. The last thing she saw as the booth closed for the last time was herself staring up at the mirrored ceiling, her head pillowed by the bag that had once contained Jude’s precious swatches. She had traded them long ago for a loaf of bread.
There was blood on her lips, she saw. Her skin was so pale. Not constant after all, she thought. Not constant at all.
Three teenagers enter a booth. One dies, one disappears … and the last one?
By the time Damon comes back to the clearing in Pripyat, it’s all over. The clearing is empty. There’s no sign of anyone. He’s reconciled to the fact that his room in this universe is the wrong color and his father died a year earlier than he should have. What he can’t stand is the thought that he’s being used. It’s occurred to him that the most important thing about urban legends and legend trips—the thing that separates them from horror stories and tragedies—is that if everyone dies, the legend dies with them. Someone has to survive to propagate the meme.
And it seems that in this case that someone is him, which is an intractable position to be in. He can’t tell anyone or they’ll think he’s crazy. But this isn’t a secret he can keep forever, either. Jude and Lydia are going to be missed. He has to tell the peacekeepers something, and what else if not the truth? Does the third one always have to be the lunatic no one believes but whose story everyone remembers?
The meme propagates. The meme wins. All it needs is someone to pass it on.
But what if he doesn’t do that? What if he kills himself right here and now? What if he runs into the forest and lets the radiation that turned the trees red eat him too, pull at his cancer-riddled body until it sinks down into the dirt, devoured before its time?
Beside him, the booth doors close and the machines start working.
He sags and laughs in despair. Who is he kidding? The meme spans every possible universe. It’s covered against every possible outcome.
When the doors open, Jude leans out to smack him on the back of the head.
“I knew you weren’t going anywhere, you big baby,” she says. “What would you do without us?”
Tell stories, he thinks. Or die. It isn’t much of a choice—but is this worse or better? These friends aren’t the same ones he knew. They’re just identical. Sure, the three of them can pick up where they left off for now, but the odds of none of them ever leaving is zero, right?
“Chicken,” adds Lydia with a knowing twinkle in her eye, and as he steps through the doors Damon thinks, Dead right.
(Author’s note: The idea of a “Togetherness” meme first appeared in Jack Wodham’s story “There is a Crooked Man” in Analog, 1967.)
This story originally appeared in Kaleidoscope.