“Many Worlds Away” – Fiction by Damien Krsteski

By NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Ariz. (NASA - Comets Kick up Dust in Helix Nebula) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Comets Kick Up Dust in Helix Nebula – NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Ariz., 2007

The grand finale of our Spring 2015 issue is Damien Krsteski‘s “Many Worlds Away,” a cosmic odyssey through death and what comes next.

{ X }

TO DIE IS TO JUMP. Small pounce, huge leap, big skip or tiny hop, you end up doing it anyhow. (If you want to be all philosophical about it, you could ask whether it’s you that moves or the entire universe that changes lanes—swerving, not a single pop nor screech to warn you—while you remain immobile, believing to have taken flight.)

My first such movement happened at thirteen, in my Grandpa’s library, balancing on two stacked chairs to reach the thick tomes behind which he kept his pistol; I hoped to brandish it before the school jocks whose hands had begun straying toward my developing girl-parts. Just as I started to climb down, the bottom chair cracked, wobbled, gave in, and I tumbled down, revolver in hand, hit the ground with a thud and the distinct click of a pulled trigger. Panting, blinking tears, the clutched gun pointing toward my chest. Unloaded.

Years later I decided that was the precise moment when I began living in Everett-2.

Switching to Everett-3 also happened unknowingly, four years later, when distressed, angry and depressed I ate half the pills from my parents’ medicine cabinet—goddamn Vincent and his goddamn jealousy fit cause I’d dared to like somebody else, calling me a dirty dyke, and whatnot—with cognac to wash it down. I woke up in a hospital to many concerned expressions, in a whole other World.

It was in Everett-7 that I met them—

“Hey, you,” she hollered at me, holding up a cardboard sign at an intersection corner, “how many times have you died already?”

Hurry on. Ignore the freaks. Sip your coffee. But I glanced back; in a fraction of a second my eyes absorbed her whole, and my brain decided to like her. Close-knit wool hat, spotted gloves matching her scarf, blue eyes, pale skin, sophisticated, pretty; she didn’t resemble a crazy street hustler.

“Zero, unfortunately,” I shrugged, taking a sip of the scalding take-away latte to my immediate regret.

She took a step in my direction. Sharpied on the cardboard, the words, Too important to disappear.

“You’ve traveled, girl,” she said after a prolonged look into my eyes, then handed me a business card. Coated paper, slick, only a street address printed on it.

I went to see them that night. Maybe it was my conservative upbringing, my paranoid, prepper brothers, or just too much TV, but I expected robes, candles, pentagrams, goth music. Instead I walked in on a party—crab cakes and white wine, folding chairs and people in T-shirts tucked into jeans talking passionately about politics and science and what have you.

Klara looked nicer without the winter garments, her hair draped over her shoulders. She introduced me to Peter, their leader.

A middle-aged man, bald, salt-and-pepper beard, who made himself understood despite a thick Swedish accent. Like, nodding at you emphatically when you spoke, furrowing his eyebrows when you referred to something touching, laughing with you, all so that he was listened to when it was his turn to speak.

After a couple of days of hanging out, they explained everything to me. I’d studied organic chemistry for two years before dropping out, so I wasn’t scientifically illiterate, but these guys, they bombarded me with stuff way beyond me. Quantum physics and mathematics and diagrams and observers that the universe never allowed to die. Everett’s Many Worlds interpretation, and quantum immortality.

“The universe was a seed,” Peter explained. “Then it grew, ballooned in size, blossomed. Complexity increased as particle-soup turned into gas, planets, rivers and life. We are the pinnacle of that growth. Not our hearts, or kidneys, or bladders, but we, our brains. Consciousness is the ultimate organization of matter, the fruit which emerges from that first seed planted billions of years ago.”

Their spiel was a bit on the strange side, but their company somehow suited me, Klara’s company suited me, so I let myself get carried away.

“You don’t perish,” Peter said. “The universe doesn’t let you dissolve just like that. It changes. It adapts to keep you functional. You are too important to disappear.”

To start with, they made me recall all my close encounters with death, to chart out when and how I’d been spared, been left alive by a World which had changed for me.

That’s how I figured my Everett-2. My 3 and 4 and 5 and 6 and 7. The brawl at Deni’s; that time Mom slammed the brakes and we skidded to a halt inches away from the precipice; Rashid’s magic mushrooms and our magical afternoon of cramps and regurgitation in the fetal position; the morning the elevator cable popped out of its socket, when we had to wait for the maintenance crew to get us out. Hops from one World to another, Worlds identical in every way save for a teeny variable which allowed for me to live on, to keep observing.

A month after my initiation, they invited me to travel with them.

The machine they’d set up was too complicated for me to grasp fully; a switch, flipped and it emits a particle which careened left or right, releasing either poisonous gas into the chamber or ordinary air, based on the randomly chosen direction. They’d done it plenty of times. I was scared shitless.

We sat in a circle, discussing trivialities, and I kept glancing toward the air grilles, biting nails, waiting for somebody to flip the damn switch and get this over with, when Peter looked at his wristwatch, smiled, and said, “Congratulations on your trip.”

Everyone laughed, clapped.

I tugged at Klara’s sleeve. “What happened?” Their freaking clapping grated on my nerves.

“We flipped it an hour ago.” Taking an ostentatious breath through her nose, “Just air.” Grinning. “Welcome to your next Everett.”

We traveled often, and in time I learned to relax. By Everett-17, I’d lost all traces of travel-sickness—no more stomach butterflies before jumping; by Everett-24, I’d flipped the switch myself, and by Everett-31, I was ready to admit I was in love with Klara.

We lay on her futon one evening in Everett-75, I was stroking her arm, tracing the old Straight Edge tattoo on her wrist with a finger. “Do you believe we travel separately?” I said.

Nonchalant (doped up on codeine), she said, “We switch Worlds as a group. The gas either kills us all off or it doesn’t.”

“I meant in general, not Peter’s arranged jumps.”

Her leather jacket squeaked. A shrug. “Dunno.”

Rubbing my eyes with thumb and forefinger, “I think we do it alone.” Red spots swam before me. “And you know what we leave behind?”

“No.”

“Bodies.”

She pulled her arm away from me. Silence, then, “That’s the way the universe works.”

And her words, slurred as they were, had the effect of a train crashing, one wagon at a time, into me. The way. The universe. Works.

“Suppose you’re right,” I said, and shut up, drawing a deep, labored breath.

I lost my appetite for a week. Had trouble sleeping.

The Way the Universe Works robbed me of the happiness I’d gained from my new friends, drained the fun out of jumping, out of everything. With every passing car I pictured Worlds where it had driven right over me, or over her, pictured burials, diseases, murderers, one of us crying over the other, and worst of all this wasn’t academic, I knew my reveries were truth somewhere, to some other me and some other her.

By Everett-103 my disillusionment had reached its apex. I confronted her. Begged her to leave town with me, leave Peter and the gang behind, to start over and hope to forget.

It did not go well. She cried, told me I’d ruined her hard-won peace, told me to fuck right off and get out of her life forever, in every possible World if I could. Pleading with her, but she shoved me, hit me, pushed me away.

That fight, no worse than any other we’ve had, really, was the straw which broke the camel’s back—all my childhood misery rushed back to me, and as that dormant anxiety of mine climbed up for a piggyback ride, I said, “Is that what you want?”

Crying, she pushed me out of her room into the burgundy-carpeted hallway. “Go. Away.”

“Fine. That’s what you’ll get, then.”

And I kicked open the door to the stairway, shouting in rage, running up the steps to the roof.

On top of the building, balancing precariously at the edge, watching an entire city live its minuscule life below. I brushed the wind-swept hair out of my tearful eyes, looked up, thinking what if I was wrong, what if all that switch-flipping had never happened, what if Peter was a liar, preying on the vulnerable like Klara and myself—

Toppling over, tumbling down, wind rushing and enveloping me like a bubble of warmth—

“Oh God, oh God, oh God.”

—somehow my body straightened up, falling feet first, and the street concrete grew closer, expanding, came so close that I shut my eyes expecting nothingness—

Thunk. A wobble, trampoline-like. Up and down. Like tied to a bungee cord.

Opening my eyes. Another bounce before I dove into quicksand, buried up to my waist in the middle of the busy, four-lane street.

Passers-by rushed to help me struggle out of it, completely unperturbed by the sight; vehicles drove around.

I breathed heavily, heart pounding in my ears, while they spoke underwater sounds to me, pulling me out by the arms.

Once on my wobbly legs, I dusted off my jacket, tapped the tip of my foot on the spot from which I’d emerged unscathed. Quicksand stiffened into asphalt again.

Two conflicting emotions collided in me: a sense of liberation, because now all my doubts had evaporated, Peter’s teachings were true; and utter horror, because I’d just entered an absurd and alien World. Jumping off buildings doesn’t kill you.

“Thank you,” I managed.

My helpers waved me off, resumed their busy lifestyles.

I ran back into the building as my face split in an inane grin, too nervous to wait for the elevator, up the stairs, because I had to tell her of my awesome feat, right before her apartment, pounding on her door until footsteps approached and she opened.

Only the girl wasn’t Klara. There was a resemblance, sure, but hazel hair was blond now. Horn-rimmed glasses instead of contacts. A pink top, a skirt.

She hated pink.

“Klara?”

“Yes?”

Out of breath, propped with one hand on the door frame, I said, “Umm … I’m sorry about before … I didn’t mean … what I said. Klara? How did you … when did you change?”

She gaped at me like she wasn’t sure whether to call the police or not, and without her saying a word I knew I’d jumped too far, knew this wasn’t my Klara at all.

Crestfallen, I apologized, left.

I hung around the World a while, but it was foreign, weird. I tried to like it, really, I did, except Everett-104 bared its teeth at me at every turn—its changes, its uncanny strangeness.

My whole life I’ve felt alienated from other people, like my gene for empathy had been engineered away at birth, and now, even those few with whom I’ve managed to forge links had dissolved into the featureless crowd of strangers. That was a bitch to bear.

I got creative to keep jumping, because I realized I had no choice. Regardless of the trail of bodies I was leaving behind, I couldn’t stick around long in any one particular Everett, alone, among the unfamiliar.

Shotguns to my face, hangings, drownings, only to find myself in Worlds where no guns worked, ever, or where all ropes broke, or water became breathable, and people were killing each other in preposterously bizarre ways which I might have found amusing had weirdness not become my norm.

In Everett-241 people lived on clouds. They air-swum between places, like in dreams. It took me a month to plot a suicide attempt.

I was a bit quicker in the next one, where the clouds were also a source of food. I overstuffed myself with nimbus (just as delicious as it sounds), and made it to Everett-243, vomiting lumps of iridescent cloud along the way.

By this point, my anatomy was no longer immutable, and began altering in perceptible ways to preserve me and keep me observing.

I grew three stomachs and a pair of wings. My height varied, I was giant-like in one World, then shrunk to miniature proportions in another. A sixth sense was added to my arsenal, a seventh, then I became blind and deaf for a while, before regaining those abilities along with ten others. I was remade into a man in one World, which I thought was all I’d ever wanted, then I reverted to a female form a couple of jumps later, to my great joy.

It all made me wonder about the nature of Nature. If my consciousness was tossed around between Worlds just to keep on functioning, then why didn’t the universe rid me of that very knowledge? If it could grant me wings than surely it could alter memory, too, making it the most effective way to keep me from harming myself.

Had I never learned Peter’s teachings, I wouldn’t have gotten so far, into absurd Everett-731 where I was discorporate, my mind fashioned into a network of on/off switches based on space-time vacuum fluctuations.

But I remembered a more basic system, then, back from my student days. Natural selection. A force without intent or long-term goal, taking into account immediate benefits only. Likewise, the universe, set to keep the guttering candle of consciousness burning, passes it in cupped hands toward an adjacent World, considering just the current problem in need of fixing.

My realization made me smile—or perform Everett-731’s equivalent of a smile—and a wind ruffled billions of vacuum bits as if space-time were a rye-field.

I pictured an intricate system where conscious beings are ferried from one World to another constantly, countless transports on Planck time-scales, so that they continue observing, all while maintaining the illusion to those staying behind that they’ve perished, and so on, ad infinitum, on a never-ending carousel of life, and being, and living beings. I pictured old people, waiting to die in their sleep, but never quite doing so. I pictured weird accidents whisking humans off to strange Worlds, as my dive into concrete did. I pictured bereaved families, thinking their loved ones are gone forever, not knowing that they’re a mere hop away.

Black space stretched in all directions around me, though I saw it as neither black nor around me. My very self was woven in it, as step by step Worlds had stripped me of my body in confiscations meant to keep me from harm’s way.

I was planets and moons and suns. A comet once broached my shining outstretched arms, and I caught it, mussed up its hair for laughs, spun it around my form once, and it beamed at me, saying it’ll be back, before I let go, flung it away to hibernate among cold stones. I liked her.

The cosmic order brought me a semblance of calm, though perhaps I was entering the acceptance phase, turning indifferent toward a fate of eternal jumps.

It took an enormous, catastrophic, World-wide event to change everything.

A soundless shift happened in the distant horizon. A tremor. Turbulence. A giant magnifying glass passing over everything.

Far off, starlight bent like a silhouette around a circular vortex of black, swayed left, stretched out, shifted right, dissolved. Then the wave hit. First I went up with all my mass, then dove down, though truly there was neither up nor down.

Like a piece of cork on a tidal wave, lifted and swept away, carried off in the distance as a giant parcel of space-time was displacing itself. Pale stones, the asteroids, gamboled around me. The sun—the beautiful, warm sun—ripped to shreds, way behind me, receding into the distance, along with wisps of debris left by the planets.

I have no idea how long we traveled. Just me and dead asteroids, a necklace around my ever so important consciousness.

Past star systems, beyond the galaxy, the local group, all paling in the distance. I watched the Milky Way eject an enormous amount of debris—like a whole civilization’s worth of spaceships scrambling away from a dying planet—but the destruction didn’t frighten me, every conscious creature was safe in one World or another.

I drifted a long, long time. The debris dispersed, was extinguished and swallowed up by the dark.

Not a single dot of luminescence flickered as far as I could observe; the only light was my own. Swimming a leisurely backstroke, my fists closing up on viscous debris, squeezing, opening up to reveal flashes of star-birth. Where and when I was, I didn’t know. I’d lost all frames of reference.

I’d lost count of the Everetts, too. By now I’d stopped worrying about numbers.

Somewhere along the way, another shift—

It seemed that history was repeating itself, at first, when the distant horizon began to simmer. Bubbles of effervescent light, bloating, bursting, vanishing. Fiery elastic bands stretching, ripping, winking out.

I braced myself for a second space-time tsunami. When that failed to happen, I focused the beam of my consciousness on the bizarre event, analyzing.

When realization dawned on me—it did take time, to be honest—I cried. The universe had taken mercy on me, had given me the gift of company. Another being. It had to be. The way it moved, a ballerina in vacuum, resembled no natural occurrence that I’d witnessed so far.

Three distinct circles of flame-blue, dancing with one another, then five, ten, fifteen, as they waltzed closer.

I dubbed her The Beauty.

Whether it was an entire colony or just one creature, I’d decided the best way to prepare for contact was to engage in communication immediately. I mustered strength, scraped the surrounding space for matter, asteroid-debris, gaseous nebulae, every little bit I could find, shaped them into spiral arms which I began to flail around, hoping my giant squid act would make The Beauty notice.

The waltzing circles altered their pattern. One over the other, skipping stones of brightness on a dark pond. She saw. If I’d had my three stomachs they would’ve been making flips.

The lights formed a line on the horizon, encircled me whole, like a belt, tightening up.

To communicate—but what? I cast all clichés aside—messages of peace, Hello World greetings, mathematical games—and began with what I knew.

{ X }

So, I told you my story from the very beginning. How dying is jumping, my first Everett, and all others which led me to this very moment of holy communication.

Excitement courses through my arteries by way of the quantum foam which simulates them.

You sail closer as I repeat my story in a language conveyed with the motion of photons. I know you’ll understand.

When you are near enough that I can make out your pretty face, confusion stirs in me. You aren’t there. There isn’t a you—

But a wall, closing up, light boiling over its surface, spiral arms thrashing about squid-like.

My own words come to me, then, as a distorted, luminous reverberation off the enclosing bubble.

I’ve been speaking to a mirror.

{ X }

With fingertips made out of starstuff I reach out, touch the surface of my protective cage. Curved, glossy, reflective. I see my face and it is beautiful.

Nothing will ever hurt me. The universe works its way around you to preserve its sacred fruit. Separating the “I” from everybody else. It has always been this way.

My words bounce off the inner shell in a constant retelling of my tale, the tale of all conscious beings, really.

I listen with relish—

—for a crack, a sign of the egg breaking, of my reemergence into normalcy, my rebirth as a human among other humans…

But it remains stubbornly intact, not cracking but whispering of all I’ve thrown away.

{ X }

DAMIEN KRSTESKI writes science fiction, and develops software. His stories have appeared in Plasma Frequency Magazine, Bastion SF, The Colored Lens, Kzine, Perihelion SF, Mad Scientist Journal, and others. He lives and works in Skopje, Macedonia. Online, he can be found at http://monochromewish.blogspot.com and @monochromewish.

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