“This was all the wrong choice.” I lean into my pile of laundry and scratch at the nodes wiring my scalp. My nail catches a scab and I peel it off, digging into slick flesh.
Mari’s face flickers. “How do you know it was wrong?”
A thousand kilometers away, my therapist sees the whites of my rolling eyes. I curl my hand into a fist so I’m not looking down at my coppery fingernails––and neither is she. “Uh, because I’m on academic probation? Because everyone else can be ‘objective’ about abnormal psych, and I’m the one living it and putting up with their bullshit?”
“Isn’t that why you’re doing this research? To stop their ‘bullshit?’”
“Oh yeah, the proposal that no one will approve––” I snort, plucking at the nodes until the connection between us shivers, “––in a program I wasted a million Credit on and read vintage pulps instead.” The neuro-cap translates my synapses into a projection of the glistening skyscrapers from my favorite pulp, Quark Explorers.
I waver, and Mari catches the pause. “Tell me what you’re seeing right now.”
“But you can see it too,” I protest, but the image just keeps growing inside my cubicle of an apartment. “Fine.” I sigh, “All the buildings are tall and smooth, covered in solar panels––because there’s a fucking sun. On the street, people are strolling through parks full of trees and grass and whatever else they had back in the day. They’re wearing bright colors and there are flying cars with vapor trailing behind them like fresh rain. And the sky’s… blue.”
Mari breaks through the illusion. The skyscrapers dissolve, replaced by her hovering image. “Thank you, Æsc.” She scrunches her eyebrows up in that sympathetic way she thinks will convince me. “You’re allowed to take time for yourself, you know.”
“I don’t even like reading them anymore,” I say, glancing at the overflowing bookcase in the corner. The vintage paperbacks are thrown on each other in the way only untouched books can stay without falling. The sight wraps a wire around my throat. I can’t breathe while looking at the mess, but I can’t will myself to move it either. I hook my nails into the bloody patch on my scalp. It pinches and starts bleeding again. I wrestle my eyes away and I can breathe.
Mari’s disembodied sigh turns to static.
My head tingles with the repairing cream I smeared on it this afternoon before going out. There are crusty blue gobs of it in my hair from last week and the color makes my skin look sallow. I feel sticky.
I toss my projector from hand to hand and a couple of passersby wince every time it travels through space. All I can think of is that show-off-y sharp-shooter from one old sci-fi serial or another. They never dropped the––shit.
There’s only one new scratch on it this time, but I quit it and shove the silver sphere in my pocket, creating an awkward bulge on my hip. I’m in the psych wing now and everyone already thinks I’m an absolute mess as it is. And now I’m turning around in the middle of the hallway because I passed the offices while I was busy dropping my shit. That’s fine.
“My office hours are––Oh, Mx. Han.” His voice falls flat on my name. The cold, blue light of floating holoscreens makes the red cluster of veins in his right eye stand out.
I set the silver sphere on his desk and swipe my arm through the air, sliding his holoscreens aside so I can set up my projector before he can protest. It flickers on. “Would you mind looking at my proposal again?” I pitch my voice up. “I think you forgot to send me your feedback last––”
He turns my projector off. “Æsc, there was no feedback because it’s not getting approved.”
My molars grind against each other. “Did you even read it?”
I didn’t need to––you’re on probation. You lost your assistantship. You haven’t been to class in weeks.”
“Because no one is letting me study what I came here for!”
“This is why. You can’t treat the illness you have yourself.”
“No one else is,” I mutter.
“What was that?”
“We can’t keep exporting our treatments.”
“We don’t even know if they’re effective.”
“Æsc.” He stops me in my tracks. “Decades of research have led us to AlteRx. I––I understand your mother underwent treatment. It’s always harder on family members than patients, but you must understand that it works. Maybe––maybe this world isn’t the one you were meant to thrive in.”
My eyes start to burn from the holoscreens glowing in the background. “That has nothing––everyone knows someone––it’s not like she’s dead––ugh!” I snatch up my projector and stomp out of the room. What fucking right does he have?
I storm down the hall, one student pulling his buddy out of my path. I should have never gone out. I should’ve never––I should’ve––should’ve––should’ve––
“Æsc––it’s been a while.” Wynn’s apartment is dark, her eyes glow faintly in the doorway. “I thought you might’ve gone Alternate.”
“Some people wish I had,” I say as I come inside.
At the sound of my voice, the holoscreens in her living room turn on, projecting grainy photos of Earth’s sky. The screens illuminate her work desk, covered in wires and soldering tools that are still glowing orange. Wynn’s thick black hair is tied up in a bun; I can see the faint horizontal scars at her temples. A few baby hairs float around her forehead.
“Well, if you did and met another version of me, let me know if she has a better collection of bad movies.” She grins and goes to turn off the soldering iron, which was starting to smell a little funky. “Guess what I got my hands on?”
“Uhh, another Trek reboot?”
“Descriptive. Audio. Original. Prequels.” She punctuates each word with a little bounce.
“Oh shit!” I swear I hear my jaw pop when I smile. Nice to know where I was keeping that tension.
“We’ve gotta watch them tonight,” she said, “You have time, right? Still expelled or whatever?”
“Or whatever.” I roll my eyes at her but can’t stop smiling.
After extinguishing all the fire hazards, we curl up on the couch like we used to do all the time when we were younger. Chunky yellow text begins to crawl across the holoscreen and the booming voice of the narrator fills the room. I used to trip over my tongue trying to read the text fast enough for Wynn. Or I’d get so caught up in describing the scenery that she’d miss half the plot and we’d have to rewind. None of the new shows have descriptions anymore, not even when everyone knows that no prosthesis works the same for everyone.
Wynn’s light fingers brush through my stubbly hair, dried repairing cream crumbling onto her couch. She runs her thumb over the missing half of my right eyebrow.
“Remember the first time you asked me to shave your head?”
“Yeah,” I mumble, half asleep with her hand running over my scalp.
“Let me know if you need anything like that, Æsc.”
“This is perfect.”
I wake to a bloodshot light that shrivels my eyes. Creeping shadows make my dog-eared books grow twice their size, the neuro-cap’s wires become a tangle of limbs. I yank the blackout shutters down and the harsh light settles into the muted blue of holoscreens gliding across the walls. I shrug into the jacket I’d slept on––my copy of Quark Explorers is already in the pocket. The musty taste of sleep is still in my mouth as the sun draws everything around me in crimson.
I walk. Buildings rise around me like stolid bricks from the earth. Other insomniacs are black and red shadows. We can’t see each other’s faces, only the sickly, stretched phantoms trailing ahead of us. The book in my breast pocket is heavier on nights like these, when I’m starving for the future it hoped for. We live in a half-hearted solution. The world sacrificed night and day to patch the hole in the ozone, leaving the surface barren. Space colonies became our outsourced, floating economy. The dream of a panacea for cancers became a drug that simply paralyzed the lesions––suspending patients in the moments between wellness and the first signs of illness.
I thumb through the novel and stop at a photograph between the pages. The picture becomes a twisting silhouette––the atmosphere playing tricks on my eyes. I have a photo of someone who never existed. Or, someone who exists somewhere else now. They say there’s a utopia out there for everyone. The old pulps use the word parallel. Everyone here calls it an alternative. It could be a spare world too. A second chance like the pamphlets say.
I melt into my surroundings; another shadow moving across the red fog.
I don’t feel like I exist.
The insides of my cheeks are raw from chewing on them. I wish I could just eat the repairing cream I use on the scabs dotting my hairline. I go for my second-best solution: “I want to sign up for AlteRx.”
Mari punctuates the silence: “What.” It’s less of a question and more of a series of images flashing in our minds––hospital rooms––lines of data––sparking wires––the face of a man who looks lost. The neuro-cap gives me a headache as Mari regains her bearings. “Æsc, you haven’t run out of options.”
It’s my mind’s turn to invade our shared space––rejected proposals––tufts of hair on Wynn’s bathroom floor––my mom’s face distorted by the red sky. I see her. She was so relieved when she brought home that first pamphlet. There was the waiver I found in her coat pocket, detailing her next and last visit to the hospital. The way she tried to explain it: I’m just so tired of doctors not listening to me. And maybe they’re right––there’s a different place that’ll take me as I am. I don’t think I believed her then. Do I believe her now?
I shake my head. The neuro-cap’s wires rattle next to my ear.
“My mom’s doctor decided she was better off somewhere else. Where she wouldn’t forget to feed her kid. Where I wouldn’t have to see her cry every day. Nothing else worked. We have half the same biology, don’t we?” I pluck a node off with each statement. Mari’s image cuts out. Then her voice. When I rip the rest of the neuro-cap off, static pinpricks run down my scalp.
I’m alone again.
The hospital feels like cold daylight. Holoscreens shift rapidly on all the walls. Blue light aches in my periphery as Dr. Sala presses steel needles between the vertebrae on my back, each one hissing into place, guided by a flexible framework that prevents them from shifting around and doing any permanent damage.
I stare at my wrist. Wires are itching along my veins and protruding from the power cell strapped to my chest. Each one of my heartbeats make it pulse faintly as the system sifts through millions of realities that have some extra space for the DNA its wiring nestles in. I trace the faint purple where the machine meets my skin.
“––bilities? Ms. Han? Did you sign the waiver?”
“What? Yes.” The room sharpens, the needles prickle. I grind my teeth together. “It’s Mx. Han.”
Dr. Sala grimaces and begins punching in a series of codes into the power cell. “As I was saying. This cell will find each alternate reality that’s compatible with the AlteRx program. Tomorrow, you’ll be sedated and one of our staff will use the cell’s code to determine which reality will be most therapeutic for your conditions. I suggest resting as much as possible in the next forty-eight hours. Even unconscious, rifting with your genetic code input will take its toll.”
“Wait. I don’t choose where I get sent? I don’t get to see my, uh, options?”
“Of course not,” he says, “You’re not stable enough to make that kind of decision.”
“You’re saying I’m irrational?” I narrow my eyes.
Dr. Sala continues in his monotone, “Similar clinical tests done decades ago had very low acclimation rates when the subject saw more than one viable reality. And of course, going through that many rifts in a limited amount of time takes its toll on the subject.”
“Your vitals look fine. Don’t worry, Ms. Han, most patients are able to adjust relatively well. The research is very advanced.” He straightens up and abruptly leaves the room. I get the sense that he craves being perceived as a busy man.
“––that research is outdated.” I finish my sentence, but the door has already shut behind him.
A persistent chirping brings me out of my two A.M. daze. The sound is coming from the power cell hooked to my chest and a soft, green light blinks in time with the chirps. I touch the light hesitantly and jump when a holoscreen projects itself from my sternum. The name Dr. Bertrand Sala blinks in the top right corner. In his haste to get away from my prying questions, the doctor had forgotten to reset his security clearance.
Two lists run parallel down the holoscreen:
|VIABLE ALTERNATIVES FOR|
ÆSC HAN // 2337-01-01-0987 //
|OCCUPIED BY ALTERNATES OF|
ÆSC HAN // 2337-01-01-0987 //
They list my name, ID number, and a brief code identifying me as the original Æsc Han residing in Reality One. At least, until I get my paperwork reprocessed in any of the empty Alternatives waiting for me. Ugh, Sala was a prick. He better not be choosing where I go. The first list goes on and on, seemingly cataloged in order of “viability.” I scroll through it, stomach twisting at the number of realities and people contained in this data. Did my mom do this? No, she didn’t get to choose where she got sent. I can’t believe I used to be so mad at her. Now look at me––making the same big kid decisions as she did.
I glance over at the second list that’s labelled “occupied.” My breath hitches. Shit. There’s a version of me in every single one of these realities. An Alternate Æsc. I can feel my heart pounding in my ears and a blue light begins blinking rapidly in the corner of my eye.
Blue. I stop breathing. A blue sky in one of these worlds. And a version of me who’s never known red. Even without the neuro-cap to project my thoughts, the white skyscrapers rise around me, reaching toward a blue sky––a sky that changes and casts everyone beneath it in color.
Trembling, I reach out and select the first option in the second list.
INITIATE RIFT TO R-000.000.602-AEH-A12?
INITIATING… PREPARE FOR RIFT RECOIL
“Prepare for wha––” A scream swallows my question as a surge of energy shoots through my chest, white hot like a lightning bolt striking my sternum. My muscles seize up; my bones arch, near snapping. I feel like one of Wynn’s copper wires coiled tight enough to snap and then touched to a spark. A green light shivers the air around me and tears through my corneas.
One shock of pure energy and the power cell rips a hole in my own reality just quick and narrow enough to squeeze me through to someplace else.
And then I’m writhing on a spongey floor. The heat coming off my skin fogs the air.
Soft green blurs in the corners of my vision. I roll over onto my back and crack my lids open. A haze of green light dapples across my face. Giant columns rise from the earth, not skyscrapers, but… trees?
I let the moss sponge up between my toes. Branches cover the sky like thousands of hands interlocking their fingers. Running in spirals around the trunks are platforms, I think, and tiny ants of people are going about their day. I stand up, craning my head around me. At the base of the trunks are crumbling cement buildings, including the hospital I was in. A massive root burrows through its guts.
I don’t think my lungs have ever been so full of air as I climb the platforms, the wood smooth and solid beneath my feet. I guess I never realized how fucked up the air got in Reality One. Hanging from them trees and set into the grooves of the bark are flowering gardens full of vegetables and fruits I’ve never seen in my life. Well, I’d never seen a vegetable that hadn’t been grown in a lab before either. There are people balancing on ladders and pulleys, tending each crop by hand. Sweat prickles down my back as I start to realize I could run into myself. I start whipping my head around at every head of short black hair and tan skin, wondering if it’s me.
I slam into a railing and see how far I’ve climbed. My eyesight goes blurry––I’ve never seen this far down before. At home it’s all tight rooms and holoscreens and shadows and red––red––red––could I ever feel at home someplace so alien? Is this the sort of “therapeutic” world Dr. Sala would have sent me? So terrifyingly alive––ripping me out of the airless red and never asking me if I knew how to live someplace so green and open.
Could this have been my every day? My mom’s? Waking up at dawn and scaling ladders at dawn, plucking the dead leaves off baby plants? Not a thing to worry our pretty little heads. But no––no, he said he knew better––that I’d get overwhelmed seeing this. Like I am now, breathing all the air in the world but absolutely suffocating. I always thought I’d be a researcher. Or helping people. Building things. Making the world more… blue?
My hands scratch at my chest. I can’t stay here. Would they have just left me here? Not their problem anymore if I panicked or cried or shaved all my hair off somewhere else? A button pops off my shirt. My fingers graze the controls and a holoscreen projects itself against the forest.
My palms hit smooth wood––tile––moss––concrete––my vision twitches and I swallow lightning and I see a thousand worlds flicker over each other until there’s a rift between––
YOU HAVE ARRIVED IN R-000.344.496-AEH-Q07
My lungs rattle in my chest and I feel like I’m swallowing my tongue instead of air. The power cell is flashing red and I squeeze my eye shut, the color aching in my temples. I can’t lay my hand flat on my chest over the cell, but I hold it just under my collarbone and try to breathe slower. If I wasn’t actually getting air, I’d be dead by now. Probably.
My sight lurches. I almost think I’m back home with blocky buildings rising out of the horizon––but the sky is softer. All purple and pink with just enough light to give the world texture. The buildings are covered in glass here, instead of being slabs of cement with little windows shuttered against the light. The air is staler, but at least it feels a little more like home.
I walk, taking familiar lefts and rights through a maze of tall buildings, like this might be an echo of the paths I prowl in the middle of a sleepless night. A quiet tick-tack-tick-tack bounces off the walls. I’m not sure what’s so familiar about it, but I follow the sound.
Rounding a tight corner, a thin white cane clacks against a basement window.
She catches the whisper out of the air and stops in her tracks. “Æsc?” Her voice is uncertain.
“Yes! It’s me!” I run up to her, not expecting to see her eyes flashing red, the way they do when she starts tearing up.
She throws one arm around my shoulders and the other brushes over my stubbly hair. “You came back?”
“I, uh––I’ve never been here before.” I say sheepishly. Of course, I’m not the friend she knows. “I’m the Æsc from R-1. I, uh, decided to go Alternate? Commandeered the system, sort of.”
“Oh.” Wynn pulls away from me.
Fuck, did I just mess everything up?
She traces her thumb over my cheek and says, “Could you… come with me? Even if you’re not the Æsc I know?”
This Wynn’s apartment has no holoscreens floating around the room, but picture windows invite me in with a deep purple sky. The faint smell of burning hangs around the walls and it tugs at my chest.
Wynn stirs a mug of coffee. “Æsc went Alternate last week. I didn’t find out until two days ago. I thought you’d––they’d––tell me, at least, you know?”
I feel like I’m not the one supposed to be having this conversation, but at the same time, I didn’t exactly tell many people back in my reality either. I tug at the skin behind my ear. “I––We––ugh. I don’t know. I thought it’d be easier.”
“How?” Wynn snapped, then remembered that I wasn’t the one who’d left this reality. “Sorry.”
“No, no. I guess––it was just so hard with mom, you know? I saw her planning it for months. The physicals at her age and the doctors’ appointments.” Jeez, had I even brought this shit up with Mari? “The anticipation was the worst part. And I hated to think about the fact that she was supposed to be happier somewhere else––without me.”
Wynn bites her lip. “All I wanted was for you to feel better. But you can’t decide how I’d feel about your leaving.”
“I––ugh, I couldn’t even make it work here and I disappointed you twice now.” Some coffee spills from my mug.
Wynn puts her hand over mine, steadying the mug. “Æsc, it’s okay that it didn’t work here. Sometimes it doesn’t. You’re just so stubborn, always thinking abstractly about helping others. Think about the people around you, first.”
I clench my teeth. Why is Wynn always right about everything? “I––I’m sorry. I can’t give you excuses about depression being a bitch. You know how fucking tired I’ve been.”
“I know.” She squeezes my hand. I squeeze back.
“If I decide to leave R-1 after all, I promise I’ll talk to Wynn first.”
“Please.” Wynn said, “And thanks for coming here. Æsc would be glad you did.”
“I am,” I chuckle. “I think I’m going to make one more stop. But before I go, do you have any movies?”
I’m actually moving slow enough to see the rift this time. The power cell squeezes me into a line of atoms that can march through sheets of time and space gliding over one another. A spark jumps through my marrow. I can still feel Wynn’s fingers on the back of my neck.
When the spots stop drifting over my vision, they break up into a clear, blue sky.
YOU HAVE ARRIVED IN R-000.010.031-AEH-X10
I feel like I should be screaming or crying right now. But the rifting feels like it’s dried up all the fluids in my body. Even my eyes feel crusty. I just stare at the sky, imagining the gleaming white skyscrapers or waiting for a car to fly overhead, leaving a vapor trail that smells like rosewater or some other miracle of engineering. I’m afraid if I sit up, none of it will be real. Or, I’ll look around and see a blackened, dead earth like the one at home, with only the sky to give me comfort.
But there’s no way I’m going back without seeing the world I always wanted.
I sit up so quickly it gives me vertigo, but when my head stops spinning, the world isn’t dead. It’s not gleaming skyscrapers and flying cars, but it’s clean with trees like the old photos in the university archives. There are short little houses and cars hovering along shiny metal plates running down the wide streets. There’s a park and some kids and some parents strolling through it. Little holoscreens project from bands on their wrists. It’s abso-fucking-lutely perfect.
I’m thankful for the clothes Alternate Wynn lent me––well, gave me, since I’m probably never going back to R-344.496 as the locals call it. Torn up hospital sweats would stick out badly. And there’re so many people here. Not like, crowded, but they’re outside, just enjoying themselves. What a concept.
I marvel at the neat rows of houses and little trees and the orange rats scuttling through their branches. Now this is a place I could live. This feels like it could have been… the solution? Imagine what I––shit. I dive behind one of the trees because holy shit. There I am. Yes, that is absolutely me but not me. I’m––they’re––walking out of one of the miniature houses, head covered in black peach fuzz and jeez, do I really slouch that much?
My heart’s racing, but I really shouldn’t be surprised. I’m rifting across the “occupied” list of Alternatives. Of course, I––they––live here. I don’t want to freak them out, but the curiosity is killing me. Am I happy here? Is this the reality where it all… worked out for me?
There’s only one way to find out and I’ll just hope it doesn’t count as breaking and entering if it’s my Alternate self’s house. That’s, uh, totally how inter-dimensional law works. I dated a lawyer once.
Before I hurl rock through one of the windows, I notice the door has a retinal scanner like any civilized household. So, when Alternate Me is well down the street, I just mosey on into this neat little house. It’s really not that much bigger than my apartment, but the ceilings are high and there’s an open loft in the back. There’s so much clear light, no blackout shutters like in R-1, and there are neat rows of books lined up against the wall. A few sci-fi pulps I recognize, but this me definitely has a broader range. Their life is so together.
If I had just grown up here I might have been… okay.
I open the door to the bathroom and the illusion gets ripped out from under my feet. I couldn’t not notice the tweezers and little black eyelashes swept under the sink. I start opening the cabinets and find little see-through bottles of prescriptions and some over-the-counter sleeping pills. And then I’m back in the kitchen, scrolling through the home screen full of reminders; there’s a repeating appointment set every week and holy shit.
Sending me somewhere else was never going to cure my depression.
Or the anxiety.
Or the trich.
But here they are: another Æsc with the same brain that can’t make its own damn chemicals, going outside in the middle of the day, being all well-read and living in this little house that doesn’t have laundry all over the floor. But that doesn’t make their brain any less sick.
It just means that no one actually wanted to treat me in R-1.
AlteRx just made me someone else’s problem.
Maybe I would’ve ended up somewhere that had the resources. Or someplace that wouldn’t care if I didn’t.
Well, now they’re never gonna get rid of me, because I’ve seen myself fucking thriving.
And I’m bringing that home.
Wynn opens the door, her room dark and the smell of solder overpowering.
“Æsc?” I hear the tiny gears shifting in her eyes as they flash green, trying to turn my features into an image.
“Back from finding out if every Wynn in the universe has superb taste in movies.”
“What does that mean?” She laughs.
“That I missed you,” I say, running my thumb over her knuckles. “I’ll tell you all about it after we watch the originals.”
“With descriptive audio?”
C. E. Janecek is a Czech-American writer, poetry MFA candidate at Colorado State University, and managing editor at Colorado Review. Janecek’s work has been featured in Lammergeier, Peach Mag, the Florida Review, Permafrost, and others. On Instagram @c.e.writespoems.
Ren / foul.lorraine is a 21 year old creator. Ren is person in recovery, and makes radical art about that. Ren also makes art about abolition and the small beautiful joys in a world that can be horrible. Right now, Ren making silly mostly radical illustrations of creatures for the modern kvetch! Ren’s Instagram is @foullorraine