Thanks for seeing me, sir; I'm going to tell my story as quickly as possible, then we can go back over the details, OK? See, this last year I came up with an entirely undocumentable technique for cross-dimensional travel. It's the next best thing to electronic solipsism, and frankly, even if I demonstrated it to you right here on the spot, I'm pretty sure that for all outward appearances it would simply have failed utterly. Did I say "electronic"? I meant "electrical," of course. Silly me. Yeah, I know that's a pretty tall story, but if I could just have another couple of min- Thanks, I'll be as brief as possible. You won't regret it, sir, I promise.
It's simple, actually. By using my technique, which is a combination of an electron-, um, electrical device built of common components, along with certain mental focusing exercises, the user can transmit his or her mind into a congruent mind in another, alternate universe which meets certain specifications, those specifications being parameters to the technique. No, no, I made that sentence up myself, can I go on?
The mind most congruent with your own, of course, is ... your own. So if you exist in that other universe, you'll find yourself being yourself, only with a different past. If you don't exist over there - "you" have already died, or your parents never met, or the Nazis won World War II and gassed your grandfather in the Poughkeepsie Camp, for instance - then the technique may have undefined results. I think that the technique will naturally gravitate to the most congruent mind possible in the target world, so that if you do in fact exist there, you're more or less forced into that role.
Nazis? I'll explain that later. Bear with me and I'll try to cut to the chase.
Anyway, it's interesting, that definition of "you". How "you" is a you that's younger? Older? French? Perhaps we could expand our locus by jumping to successively different expressions of our basic being, and the sum of those small deltas could add up to any change we want, so that by small increments you could start as a potbellied stock trader from New York and end as the Supreme Potentate of the Caliphate of Atlantis, famed for his mutant powers of telepathy.
Sorry, got a little carried away there. But take it from me: there are certain single jumps that can be ... of surprising extent. So maybe that supreme potentacy isn't so farfetched a notion. Of course, there's no way to prove this, because, well, my original version of reality isn't here. It's somewhen else. But my last jump but one was a real doozy. And the last one was even worse.
Maybe I should start at the beginning.
This whole thing really started a couple of years ago, when President Gore fell victim to the Presidential Curse. You know the one - since Abraham Lincoln, every president elected in a year ending in a zero has died in office. They stretched it a bit for Reagan, since he stayed in his coma until Bush had already been sworn in. Yes, yes, I know, this isn't your version of history, sir; it's cross-dimensional travel, and trust me, it will all make sense, just let me continue.
Anyway, Gore was shot in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; while he was touring the New Orleans relief effort, a stray bullet fired by a Blackwater "consultant" at a looter caught him right between the eyes, a miracle of accidental targeting. Well. That was the official story for the first two months, anyway - they never found the looter in question and there was no explanation offered for how the consultant had gotten so close to the presidential entourage in the first place. And it doesn't matter now, because it never happened, at least as far as you're concerned. I'm not even sure how much of this is even going to make sense to you, but I'm doing the best I can.
All that you need to know about it is that Vice-President Bush became President of the United States of America. Gore had named him on that black day in September of 2001, in a bid to unite America after the terrorists had blown up the World Trade Center and Vice-President Liebermann had died in the simultaneous attack on the Pentagon. Um, various big buildings. I'll - right, I'll explain later. Anyway, since Bush had come so close to the Presidency, Gore said, (they'd nearly tied in the electoral vote) he reached out to him in a spirit of unification to help lead America in its time of troubles.
They ran again on a joint ticket in 2004, nominated by both parties, and won handily, since there were no real competitors; Howard Dean was second in the Democratic primary, and the Republicans toyed briefly with the notion of nominating Dick Cheney, but the Gore/Bush ticket beat them both out.
When that bullet killed the best President we'd ever had, it shocked me to my core, but I wasn't prepared for what came next. Bush named Dick Cheney his Vice President, and Congress started investigating the circumstances of Gore's death. Turned out the shooter had been of Iranian descent - his parents had fled the takeover of the Ayatollahs and apparently he had never forgiven America for failing to stand up for the Shah's government. The Shah. Of Iran. Never mind, I'll explain later. Let's just say that this explanation didn't make much sense.
But somehow, Bush made it the justification for an attack on Iran. The nation, insane with grief, threw itself behind the war effort - and three months later, when Saddam Hussein turned out to be behind the 9/11 bombings, the war was extended to Iraq as well. Five months later, Tikrit was a glassy plain and Tehran was too radioactive to support human life. "Radioactive." Um, I'll explain it later. Really big bombs. No, not very honorable.
So anyway, I thought - what if that had never happened?
I'd lost my business, of course. The economy had nosedived when America went rogue, China and Japan getting out of their dollar support faster than Bugs Bunny getting out of rabbit stew. Bugs B- um, never mind, right, later. So the dollar crashed, followed within microseconds by the markets, and it was probable that half of us would starve by Christmas.
And I kept thinking - somewhere, that bullet hadn't hit Al Gore. Maybe it hit somebody else. Maybe it hadn't been fired at all. Maybe somewhere, life was still livable, the planet wasn't coming apart at the seams, and I still had something to live for.
I went insane, pretty much. Well - the world had, so why shouldn't I? And by Christmas, I was pretty damned hungry, but I'd come up with a Device, and a supporting Mental Technique, and I was ready for my first trial.
It was a simple one.
Money. Just two hundred bucks so we could buy a decent meal, some rice and beans. It was small and simple and it couldn't possibly have repercussions. I worried about unintended side effects of "changes" I made. At the time, I was thinking in terms of changing things in the world, but now I know I'm just moving, not making. But it could still be potentially lethal to come into too different a world, not to know that stepping on an anthill in this world might trigger the kill reflex of the killer fire ant or something. Yeah, "fire ants," they're from Brazil originally, big deal in the South. Never heard of them here? Jeez. Lucky you. They don't actually kill you, just hurt a lot...
So anyway, the change I wanted to make was small. I specified that I would have found two hundred dollars for supper. Well, there was a lot of inflation, and two hundred wasn't much.
Ignoring the rumbling in my belly, I prepared myself mentally, punched the button, and settled down for the meditative focusing exercises I'd prepared.
Nothing happened, of course. Disgusted with my idiocy for fiddling with this crap when I could have been finding food for my family, I turned the damn thing off and stomped up the stairs ... where my wife was just cooking supper. Rice. And beans. No, I had a wife, just work with me here on this; it's all going to be clear in just a bit and then you can ask me anything you want.
Anyway, I stammered, "Uh, wh-what's that, honey?"
She beamed at me. "It's supper! I still can't get over your finding that cash in the garage! Lord knows we've been over it often enough!"
Mouth watering, I joined the kids at the table. It was the best rice and beans I'd ever had.
It worked. It fricking worked.
In retrospect, I wonder. Was there another "me" who'd found that money, then went up the stairs to find it had never happened? Or had I simply copied myself over that "me", and an identical "me" had gone up the stairs to find that the machine hadn't worked? If the latter, had I commited suicide by killing a slightly different "me"? Fratricide?
I don't know. I really don't know. At the time, I didn't care, of course. My family and I had eaten. And for that night, it was enough.
But - obviously - that didn't stay the case for long. I wanted to fix the world. That's why I'd built this thing in the first place. The next day, I wanted to try something more ambitious - I wanted an income.
Before the Crash, I'd been a programmer of online databases. Internet business was gone damned fast post-Crash, of course - with 35% unemployment and 60% inflation, plastic money was no longer a valid concern. If you had any money at all, you certainly weren't going to entrust it to a bank (most of them had folded already), and even if you had a stable bank you certainly weren't going to trust public-key encryption to get your money out of it. Uh, sorry, by your glassy look, that whole paragraph was gibberish to you, wasn't it? Questions later, yes, yes, you're clearly getting the idea. But .. ha, I've got you hooked, now, don't I? Good.
Anyway, the upshot was that I was out of luck entirely; what I did, just didn't exist any more - ah, of course, I'm exaggerating. It existed; the Internet, like steam engines - you know about steam engines, right? Right, there are inventions that just can't be uninvented, thank God. Like Heinlein said, it steam engines when it's steam engine time - the worms can't fit back in the can. Charles who? No, I read it first in Robert Heinlein, I think. You know, Heinlein? No? Well, no matter - my point was that even though the worms won't go back in the can, and the Internet was still there, there was still no money in database work, none at all. That might change as the exchange rates normalized, and a Hoosier would be cheaper than a Ukrainian, but it still hadn't gone that far. There was a far smaller piece available of a far, far smaller pie.
What? Well, because the work had gone to Ukrainians and India, because they could work so much more cheaply than Americans - well, right, but when the work gets there and back in a couple of seconds ... that's the point, you see? Tell you what - let me finish my little story, and we'll talk about these technical details at your leisure. You'll love it, I promise. Patents out the wazoo. The wazoo. "Lots of patents." We're wasting time, sir. Let me go on.
So I didn't know exactly what would happen when I selected my target, right? All I knew is that I'd be employed, if all went well, and instead of a one-shot rice purchase, my family could afford something like prosperity again.
I went downstairs after our rice-and-beans breakfast, carefully set up the selection parameters, cleared my mind, pushed the Go button, and om-mani-padme-hummed my way to ...
My eyes flew open as earsplitting cacophony of explosion made my ears ring, but blazing light and furnace-like heat forced them back shut instantaneously.
What the f-, I thought frantically, why am I outside? Unscrewing eyes as well as possible, I slowly made sense of my surroundings. I was outside, all right, and it was blazing sunlight and desert heat that - crash - made it difficult to interpret what else was going on, which was that my buddies and I were under fire. In the desert. Outside, yes.
And, as it turned out, in East Podunk, Syria, where we were stationed in Theater #4 of Bush's Global War on Whatever the Hell He Wanted. My sheer inability to comprehend this situation made my commanding officer consider shipping me out to Germany on psych leave - or so he said, before he remembered once again that our German facilities were no longer ours to command. Germany was where our medical facilities were, for a long time, it's a long story. No, we flew them there. In airpl- right. Later. Anyway, my commander wasn't too sane at this point, of course. The wars were going badly, very badly indeed, as the dollar dried up and America's fighting men and women were forced to live off the land. Yes, yes, women, too. Questions after. In Iraq, of course, guys like General Petraeus had successfully taken the oilfields and were living quite well, but the Syrian theater was dirt-poor and there just was no way to consider giving men a break for mere insanity. There wouldn't have been anybody left.
But that was a real problem for me, of course - I had had no military training at all. Oh, my local alter ego clearly had, and it took me a while to find out why; he hadn't talked much to his fellow soldiers. But a few weeks later, miraculously not having died in ongoing firefights attempting to wrest the control of the Syrian state from the latest revolutionary cadre, I finally got a copy of my file sent from home.
I'd signed up after my wife and kids had been killed in rioting.
As you can imagine, this hit me pretty hard. I mean, not just my local alter ego, who had obviously been hit pretty damned hard, since he, like I, had been a dyed-in-the-wool pacifist. I mean me, who'd just wanted a job to feed his family. I'd gotten the job, all right, but I had killed my family to do it! Or so I thought at the time.
I drank for a while - liquor was in plentiful supply even though ammo was short whenever the Iraq contingent "forgot" to send it over, usually after we'd had troubles paying them off - but I've never really been into self-medication, so pretty soon I found myself hoarding electron- uh, electrical components. It took me a few days to realize why - my subconscious had realized that I could just ... move on, as it were. Find another world better to my liking. Get my family back.
The guys made fun of it, of course, but they didn't push it. They knew I'd had some kind of psychotic break a couple of weeks ago, and since it could have been any of them (or so they thought) they looked out for me. So one night, after finally getting all my components together, finagling a soldering iron and some wire from Dobranski at the comm shack, and assembling it all, I was ready.
I didn't want to screw it up again, so I had thought long and hard about the parameters this time. My family back, that was the first and most important. But at least as important, an end to this fucking war, pardon my French - no, really, don't act so shocked, it's just a word - and an end to the ill-considered American Imperium. Peace in our time.
Somehow, I managed to compose my mind and twist the wires together that served as my Go button, and went into deep meditation. I just hadn't considered one little thing - I was thinking a lot about my wife, after three weeks without sex, and that made it really hard to meditate (at least food was plentiful enough; after my months of hunger, the iron rations in the Syrian theater tasted pretty fantastic.)
But soon, the intermittent thunder of the guns to the east suddenly fell silent, and the snores of the men around me in the barracks were gone, too.
I opened my eyes. It was still night, and I was still bone tired, and it was blessedly quiet and the bed blessedly soft, so I turned over and fell fast asleep. What the hell, the morning would come soon enough and I'd figure it all out.
I slept a long time, waking in the afternoon, back in my own bed, in the peace and quiet of small-town Indiana, golden light streaming in the windows and the sounds of healthy bustling in the kitchen downstairs. It had worked! Everything was back to normal, and it even sounded and smelled as though there were food to eat - and that boded well!
Stretching languidly under the covers - I felt physically incredible, even my backache was gone - I savored the peace and quiet for a moment, then sighed contentedly and thought about my wife and how good it was going to be to, you know, know her again. I needed it bad, after the battlefield trauma of the last month, and the thought of those lovely curves, nearly all I could think about last night while trying to meditate, were driving me crazy. Not to mention I wasn't wearing any pajamas, and the blanket on my bare skin felt incredibly good.
Heart thumping, I realized the kitchen sounds had stopped and she was coming up the stairs. I was so horny I could burst, but one of the games we often played was to feign sleep as the other started the act, so I closed my eyes and forced myself to relax.
She opened the door quietly, and walked over to the bed, but stood over me for a moment instead of slipping beneath the covers for the conjugality I was fervently expecting. Finally I opened my eyes and looked at her in exasperation.
She blinked, and said, "Oh, you're awake! Great!" Sitting on the bed next to me, she continued, "Would you like some breakfast? You must have been up all hours to sleep this late!"
Stunned, I said, "Yes, ahem, breakfast." I tried to clear my throat, it had a frog in it. "Breakfast would be -" cough, cough, it wouldn't clear. I sat up, and she averted her eyes as the blanket fell away from my breasts. I felt my nipples crinkling from the cold air, and entering a mental state best described as "near psychosis", I looked down at my own body, which exhibited every curve I'd dreamed about in my meditative state. In retrospect, it seems obvious, but all I could think at the time was "Ah, hell - I'm a girl!" No, see, I was a man before that. Oh. I guess you didn't get that part. Sorry.
So as you can well imagine, I gasped at this discovery, and my wife - was she still my wife? - whoever she was to me now, Sarah gulped, and I looked back up at her. She was looking at me with undisguised longing in her eyes, and I managed to gasp out, "Well? I need you!"
So she kissed me, and I kissed her with a month's need and a widower's desperation, and I came long and hard, squeezing my hand between my legs for all I was worth. Don't look so embarrassed, it was very enjoyable. And then she did take off her clothes and slip under the covers for everything I'd wanted, and if the consummation of my desire wasn't what I'd been expecting, well, she was alive and I loved her. You get that, right? OK, I'll skip the details from here on out.
Later, nestled in her arms and capable of rational thought again, I cleared my throat. "So, about that breakfast..."
She chuckled. "Ah, youth. Although it might just be genetic. Your brother sure liked his food after ... afterwards." She had never been comfortable talking about sex. But I was still stuck on ... youth?
Getting out of bed and taking another blessed breath of nipple-crinklingly cold air (sorry, sorry, but it was such a relief after that damn desert), I padded over into the bathroom.
I must have made some involuntary sound of surprise, because my wife said, "What is it?" as I looked, astonished, at the lovely girl in the mirror. The young girl in the mirror.
"Uh, nothing, nothing, just ... cold. Is all," I choked out, as I got the shower running.
"Ha. Don't use all the hot water, OK?" She got out of bed, then, and said, "Ah, what the heck, if we're on these terms now I'll just come in with you."
She was a lot more confident than I remembered her. Unnerved, I didn't say anything, just got in the shower and smoothed the water down my skin. And I do mean smooth. OK, sorry, I don't mean to make you uncomfortable.
My wife stepped into the shower behind me, and playfully brushed against me to get under the water. We'd done that in our somewhat younger years, of course, and it never failed to be fun. When had we lost that fun? I smiled. She wasn't nearly as much shorter than me now; I must have lost some height along with my manhood.
She watched me watching her, with the indulgent and mildly befuddled expression on her face that I remembered from our courtship years before. Suddenly, she said, "I can't believe I waited this long. I've wanted you since even before Alan died." Seeing the look on my face, she immediately apologized, "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to ..."
"No!" I was reeling at hearing myself called the dead man, but I was striving for a little more aplomb, so I went on, shakily, "No, Sarah, really. I miss Alan," boy, did I, "but it's not your fault." I hoped. "I love you and always have, and I'm just happy we can be together." That should do it, I thought.
And I was right. Eyes leaking tears, she hugged me right there in the shower, and in the interests of not embarrassing you further, I'll refrain from discussing my physical reaction thereto. Happy? Ha.
Sniffling, she put shampoo on her head and lathered up, presently continuing, "Sorry. It still hits me like this. He was..."
I finished the thought. "We both loved him, Sarah." OK, I'll skip the rest of the chit-chat, you're right, it's just ... I'm kind of nostalgic, you know? We were married for a long time, and that day was pretty nice. Well. Started out nice. Anyway, we got out of the shower, and throwing her clothes back on, she bustled back downstairs, calling back, "I'll just get that breakfast ready for you then!" And then I was alone again, sitting in a bathrobe on the bed and looking in the mirror on the closet door at a really healthy girl who was easily fifteen years younger than the man I'd been in the barracks the night before. Right, now you're starting to get it, aren't you?
I could move on, I thought. Go down to Radio Shack, put together a new unit. Get closer to home. But ... but my wife looked so happy today, in love with someone new, kind of.
And - to be honest - I was a total hottie. Seeing a sexy woman making love to my wife was incredibly stimulating, sorry for being so blunt again - apparently even if I were the other woman. So I figured, maybe it wouldn't hurt to stay a little. At least long enough to get the lay of the land, as it were, and see how the geopolitical landscape had changed. After all, if the insanity were fixed, and my family was financially comfortable and still alive, and I had a fulfilling sexual relationship with my wife that, frankly, beat the past few years all hollow anyway - well, maybe that was good enough. Plus it looked like I might live an extra fifteen years anyway.
Nodding firmly and decisively at the girl in the mirror, I shrugged off the bathrobe and stood blinking, gawking at my own reflection, for only a couple of minutes tops, before turning to the dresser and rooting around for panties and, gulp, a bra. The closet held my wife's clothing, which I pretty much recognized, and women's clothing in a slightly larger size which I took to be my own. So I put some of it on.
I tied up my hair quickly and went downstairs.
Breakfast was lovely.
Sarah and I made small talk - mine carefully edited of anything of substance, hers full of weird little references to current events which I couldn't follow very well - and finally, she got up and went back into the kitchen, reminding me in passing, "Hey, you'd better get down to the UN office and check in - it's Wednesday and it's already afternoon."
"Uh, thanks. I will." Wherever the hell that was, and whatever the hell it meant. Oh, the UN? Stands for United Nations, it was ... no, no, never mind, questions after I'm done. You'll see in a minute, anyway.
Getting a coat from the closet, and pulling on some sneakers, I went - sneakers, you know, rubber-soled shoes, really comfortable? Well, yeah, there's probably a market there. Anyway, as I was saying, I went out the door and realized I'd forgotten the car keys. Hmm. The car was gone, anyway. Yes, a personal combustion engine vehicle, but the point is, it was gone, right? Questions later. Anyway, I went to the garage and got a bicycle; I needed the exercise anyway ... well, no, now I didn't, as much. But it still sounded attractive, so I hopped on the bike and pedaled on my merry way. My plan was to go to the town square, then ask some stranger about the location of the UN office, as though I were lost. It wasn't the best possible plan, but I didn't want to alarm Sarah that I was losing my marbles or anything.
So I bicycled downtown to the courthouse. Which ... had blue-helmeted soldiers in front of it. With big guns. And scaffolding on the west side door, which I didn't remember. And a tank taking up most of the street parking in front. Apparently I'd found the UN office. No, not a water tank, a military ... an, um, a mobile gun emplacement, OK? Now let me finish.
Tentatively, I locked my bicycle next to the tank, then walked diffidently between the two soldiers into the building. They were unabashedly ogling me, but I ignored their banter - easy, since it sounded vaguely Slavic and wasn't a language I understood.
There was a line. I stood in it for an hour and a half, and finally got to the desk, where a bored-looking man asked in a thick accent, "Identification, please?"
I made a show of patting my pockets - when I patted my back pocket, he looked less bored - and pulled a face. "Oh, I'm so stupid. I forgot my card!" I tried to sound young and female, a dismayingly easy task that day.
Looking beneficent, he said, "Don't be worried, miss, just this once for such pretty girl, UN can believe you. What is your name, and I will personally mark you for this week?"
My name? Oh, crap. "Uh, my name? It's, um," I was drawing a blank, "Richards." Surely my last name wouldn't have changed if I was my sister. Right?
He blinked. Didn't quite scowl, but was clearly considering it. "And first name?"
I stared at him like a deer in the headlights - hell, they'd shoot me right here! Seized by inspiration, I looked wildly around at the people behind me in line, and fainted.
Not my best thaumaturgical effort, I suppose, but since my foot slipped on the snow-dampened marble courthouse rotunda floor just as I was executing this move, and I whacked my skull a solid one on said floor, it did actually stun me with sufficient verisimilitude that he bought it.
Ivan A and Ivan B ran in from the front, and all three of them gabbled for a while as my own townspeople murmured in scandalized shock. It's not right, treatin' an American girl like that, they whispered. She prob'ly deserved it, they whispered. Why didn't she have her card, anyway, they whispered. Musta had somethin' to hide. Damn UN, why can't they just butt out?
I winced inside at the word "butt", since Ivan B had groped mine pretty solidly as he'd placed me on the stretcher, but other than that, they were perfect gentlemen as they packed me off to the hospital.
The nursing staff were solicitous, clucking over my head at my fainting spell, and then the doctor came in and studied my chart, a faint scowl on his face, but otherwise without expression. He looked familiar, but I couldn't quite place him.
Finally, after he'd looked up at me wordlessly for a moment, I said, "I'm feeling much better now. Can I go?"
He looked furtively at the door, then finally said, "I'm sure you're feeling fine. But I don't think you should leave yet; you need to be under observation for an hour or two. Is there anyone I can call for you?" He gestured me over a bit, so I could look out the door. Ivan A was posted there, studiously not looking in, but my heart skipped a beat anyway.
The doctor had scrawled a prescription, handed it to me. I glanced at it, then looked more closely. "UN has you in custody/ident chkpt evasion. You clrly didn't faint. Need help?"
I gulped, looked at him. "Can you call my wi- my sister-in-law? Sarah Richards? She can bring my ID; I forgot it when I left the house today." Huh? "ID" is short for identification, a card with your picture - you do? OK, then you know what I mean.
Anyway, the doctor looked vastly relieved at that point. "Oh, sure, Sarah - oh, you must be Melissa! Right? Alan's sister?"
Yeah, that fit, kind of. I nodded frantically. "Yes, ha ha, yes, right, Melissa. That's right. Melissa Richards, Alan's sister." Somehow I managed to stop babbling before the doctor ... Dr. Samuels, oh yeah, now I remembered him, vaguely. I didn't actually know him well, of course, but they lived down a couple of houses. Perhaps he'd attended my funeral.
I wondered what I'd died of.
Samuels was on the phone to Sarah - why did he have our number? - and was just saying, "So can you come down for her? Oh, just your bicycle, sure. Well, I can pick you up, then. I'll be there in ten minutes. No, no, it's fine, it's my lunch break anyway, and it's just a couple minutes drive, not like there's traffic, ha." He clicked off his cell phone. Cell phone, that's a - um, never mind, let me finish this story. Anyway, he looked at me for a minute, then got up and left.
What the hell was that all about?
Ivan A came in and gestured for me to accompany him to a waiting area, and I meekly complied. He didn't speak any English, but I do understand Gun fluently, so there was no ambiguity at all. And a couple of minutes later, Sarah came in, looking out of breath and worried.
"Oh, Melissa, honey! What happened?"
Ivan A looked very suspiciously at her and blocked her from hugging me, shaking his finger and saying something with too many consonants, and with a glance at his Big Gun that wasn't nearly nervous enough, Sarah showed him my ID.
"See? She's ours. No worries, right?"
Ivan took the ID and studied it, glancing between the picture and me to be sure, then beamed in delight that this little matter had been satisfactorily resolved, and pulled out a radio to tell boss man the good news. A radio, a handheld ra- yeah, later.
Dr. Samuels said, too heartily, "Seems like Melissa slipped and hit her head at the UN office! She's fine now, though. We'll just watch her for a couple of hours." Turning on his heel, he left, saying, "Excuse me now, I've got the rest of my rounds." And he was gone.
I turned back towards Sarah, who had a certain worried glint in her eye. But she didn't say anything, just sat down next to me in the waiting area there, and took my hand.
Presently, Boss Man came, with a form for me to sign, and a warning citation, and we parted on relatively friendly terms. I resolved to Google current events before saying another word to anybody about anything at all. Goog... - right. Let's say I resolved to read some newspapers and leave it at that until I'm finished.
So we walked home. It wasn't that far, and it wasn't that cold, and still Sarah didn't say anything. But she kept holding my hand, and in a way, even though I had no idea what was happening in the world around me, it was a very nice way to spend an evening, falling in love with the woman I married.
When we got home, the kids were full of questions - "Hey, Melissa, what happened? Are you OK? Mom, is Melissa OK?" but Sarah just assured them I was fine, nothing was wrong, I'd just slipped at the courthouse and hit my head, nothing to worry about.
We helped them with their homework, and had supper, and finally got'em packed into bed, then Sarah led me up the stairs to ... our bed.
I asked suddenly, "What will they think?"
She just smiled. "Who, the kids? They dote on you, you're their favorite aunt, and you've slept up here in the bedroom since ... well. There wasn't room on the sofa anyway. You've slept here for months. They don't care what else we might do in here."
She casually changed into pajamas, and slipped into bed. I hesitated, then stripped in front of her almost defiantly and jumped in next to her. I reasoned that if I'd been sleeping nude last night, that must have been my usual habit, and hoped I hadn't been wrong, no matter that we were unrelated women sharing a bed in the American Midwest.
I wasn't wrong, apparently, because when I finally worked up the nerve to look, she was just smiling at me, but didn't seem to find it odd.
But then she stopped smiling. "So, now that we can talk ... what the hell," she said quietly but with menace, "was that all about today?"
"Uh..." was all I managed, but she wasn't listening, fortunately.
"After all we've gone through after Alan, that you could possibly do something so stupid! What could you possibly have been thinking!" She continued in this vein for a few minutes, then finally ran down. "I was so damn worried. After this morning, you know?" She reached for my hand again, so I kissed her. And kept on kissing her, and finally just moved over and laid my head on her shoulder and let her stroke my hair until she fell asleep.
I couldn't sleep, of course. After an hour's tense scrutiny of the ceiling, which wasn't telling me anything in the dark, I gave up, found a bathrobe, and prowled around the house looking for a computer to Google from. Um, OK, looking for a newspaper.
There wasn't a single computer in the house. Argh, you need to understand this part in order to understand what I'm trying to say. There was a public information network accessible by electrical means - kind of like personal telegraphs connected to all the public libraries and newsrooms in the world. You could ask questions and get news without - this is important - without involving other people. It was all machines. OK? So within certain limits, I could ask questions without arousing the suspicion of others. The machines kept a log book of the questions, of course, and the police could sometimes look at these logs - in my original timeline, that required a court order, but it could be done unless the owner of the specific machine (and there were many, millions actually, everywhere in the world) had erased that information. Here, there was the worry that the friendly men with blue hats and big guns probably wouldn't need a court order, but if my questions were general, they wouldn't arouse suspicion. Or so I hoped.
But - there were no, um, terminals in the house, and that was weird, because what I used to do was set these systems up. Everybody in the house had a comp- uh, a terminal, and there were old ones gathering dust in the shed, you know. Like cobblers and old shoes.
You may be able to understand that instant access to comprehensive information is very difficult to do without, once you've had it. Trust me, you can't really understand until you've experienced it, but it really has many things in common with drug addiction. Except that it's like a drug that makes you smarter - or at least, better informed. Oh, ho, I see I have truly interested you at last!
So this is all a longwinded way of saying that sure, I was a woman now instead of a man, and sure, my nation seemed to be occupied by a foreign occupation, and sure, I seemed to have died a couple of months earlier - but it wasn't until I couldn't find out why that I really started to get scared.
I crept back upstairs, and sat on a chair in the freezing dark looking at the bed with my erstwhile wife in it, until my feet got numb, then I folded my legs up under myself and tried not to think about what was keeping my feet warm now. And that's how Sarah found me in the morning.
"Oh, jeez, honey, what's the matter? God, you're freezing! Get over here under the covers." I was confused for a moment - had I dozed off while working? - but did as ordered, then jolted fully awake as it all came back to me when my crotch met her leg. Holy hell! But I was freezing, and she and the bed were toasty warm, so I relaxed into it.
When I managed to stop shivering, I decided I had to take the plunge. "Um, Sarah, where are the computers?" The terminals, you see.
She hesitated. "But M- Melissa, they took them all. You remember, right? How badly did you hit your head? After Alan-" She stopped.
Involuntarily looking around, she said, "They didn't bug the bedroom. I've been told they can't, legally. I hope they're right. Look, I know I've never talked about this, but Alan didn't actually commit suicide." Suicide? Gulp. "We were actually ..." She pulled the blanket over our heads, as if that would stop a bug, and - no, not an insect, a microph- uh, a listening device, yes, amazing, but let me go on. Under the covers, she whispered, "We were organizing against the UN. There are people in Europe sympathetic to the American Resistance even after all that happened, and we were talking to them to work against the Occupation. We never told you about it, because Alan didn't want to put you or the kids in danger. Anyway, they got wind of it, and Alan, he ..." She stopped, just as it was getting interesting. I hardly dared to breathe, and finally she went on. "He put some C4 in his pocket and made it most of the way into the courthouse before they brought him down. He did bring down the west entrance." She scowled at nothing. I said nothing. C4? It's an explosive, used in construction, like TNT but better. No, I don't know anything about chemistry, actually. Bear with me.
Finally she looked at me. "It was just stupid, Melissa. He didn't even get anything out of it. So it was suicide. And naturally they didn't want it to come out in public, so they let the insurance pay out, and so we're pretty comfortable. There was no reason to connect his stupid little gesture to me, but they rounded up all the computers in the house anyway to be on the safe side. There's nothing on them, of course, Alan was nothing if not good with computers. So we're safe. But no, there aren't any computers. And they took the car, too, of course."
"So should - should I go to the library to find out what's going on?" I figured there was nothing to lose.
She gave me a long, concerned look, and finally said, "Oh, baby, don't worry. I'll talk to John - Dr. Samuels - and we can see what happened to you. Do you remember anything at all?" By which, I thought she might have meant whether I remembered her, yesterday morning before the "amnesia", so I snaked an arm up and stroked her hair gently, and she relaxed a little.
"I remember yesterday just fine," I said. "It's the UN I'm fuzzy on. Why are they here again?"
She unrelaxed instantaneously. "The blue bastards. Where should I damn well start? If that jerk Kucinich, may his corpse rot in hell, hadn't called them in after President Cheney was shot, none of this would have happened. Alan would be fine now."
I tried not to act surprised. But ... Kucinich? I always liked him. And Cheney had never been prez, just Bush's lickspittle veep; how had that happened? "Just ... assume I can't remember anything from the 90's on. Give me a rundown."
She laughed, which was a nice relief and pleasant to experience from my vantage point nestled in her warm bosom. "Babe, you don't remember anything earlier than that anyway. You were, what, nine years old when Clinton was elected?"
"I dunno, I guess so. What happened after Clinton?"
"Well, he was impeached, you remember that, right?"
"Sure, sure, impeachment, right. So in 2000..."
"Well, Gore ran for reelection in 2000, and lost to George Bush, remember that? But then Bush was brought up on cocaine possession before the inauguration, so the Supreme Court decided his running mate Dick Cheney should be President."
"Right, OK. President Cheney." Holy hell. I could almost imagine the rest - Cheney was one card short of a full deck, and this Cheney seemed to have knifed Bush in the back in that world - but she was already going on.
"So after the towers were attacked on 9/11, and Cheney retaliated against the Saudis, he was assassinated in 2003. And so Donald Rumsfeld succeeded him, and when his killer turned out to be sent by Saddam Hussein, President Rumsfeld declared a second war on Iraq. And then Iran bombed New York, or so they said, and we bombed Tehran in retaliation, that's when Dennis Kucinich finally brought up a resolution to have the UN Security Council occupy America 'for the good of the world.' But it didn't actually pass until Kucinich was lynched."
Gulp. Sure, everything in this world was juuuust fiiine.
"So then the UN troops came in, and -"
"And they occupied Indiana?"
"Well, no, they occupied Washington, of course, but when Rumsfeld was killed resisting arrest, and -"
"Wait, so who was his vice president?" I needed some kind of libretto or something, these guys were dropping like flies.
"Rumsfeld wanted somebody respected, but having nothing to do with oil, so he tapped Richard Lugar, and they confirmed him without any debate at all."
Actually not such a bad idea. Lugar's got foreign relations experience out the yin-yang, comes from the conservative state of Indiana but isn't typically considered part of the in crowd, OK, yeah. Better than Dan Quayle, anyway. Another Hoosier, yeah. Never heard of him? It's not really important.
Sarah went on, "So Lugar fled Washington and declared Indianapolis the capital of the United States of Free America, so..."
"So the UN occupied Indiana. That almost makes sense. Yes."
"Right. Lugar's now the President-in-Exile in the Californian Republic, and he's represented here by Vice President Quayle." I winced invisibly under the blanket.
"So anyway, that's been the status quo for four years. The UN locked down America, and the entire Internet, and Alan hated that. And there's been no system of redress at all. Not to mention that the troops stationed here are shaking everybody down for bribes on a regular basis - it's killing us. America needs to be free again, but nobody seems to want to go forward. That's what killed Alan, in the end. He just couldn't bear the idea of the free Net withering on the vine. We all seemed so close to making the world work, up until the end of the 90's." She sniffled. "Oh, I'm sure it'll all work out in the end, but Alan, well, you remember. All of a sudden, a couple of months ago, he just snapped. He'd been working in the basement a lot, then one day he started talking crazy, and blew himself up. Oh, honey, maybe you don't remember. I've got to call John about this."
That's when the blue boots knocked in the front door, thundered up the stairs, and took her away screaming. Apparently they did have a bug in the bedroom.
To my shame, I cowered naked in the bed, wrapped in the blanket, as large men tossed the place looking for evidence, finding none. At one point, one pulled me to my feet and yanked the blanket away. To be sure I wasn't hiding any papers, I suppose. He whistled at the view, and said something to his buddies, who laughed uproariously, but he handed the blanket back in the end. But he didn't look at my face the whole time - just my chest and my crotch. And he didn't look anywhere else afterwards, just stared at me. It was fucking creepy. Sorry, I didn't think. But you can see why I feel the need to underscore the intensity of my feeling - yes, sir, it's a bad habit, cursing. I'm trying to stop, but I haven't been here for very long.
So anyway, after a while, Boss Man from the previous day came into the room, and sat on the chair, looking at me. He lit a cigarette - some filterless Euro cra, uh, junk - and held it like a joint while he sucked in about half of it on one breath. He was kind enough to blow it out away from me.
"Miss Richards. We meet again. How interesting that you should forget your ID yesterday, then speak out of turn today. After your brother's demise, I should think you'd have learned your lesson." His English had improved since I'd met him. "But we extend our thanks for your help in discovering the complicity of your sister-in-law in your brother's terrorism. We had almost given up hope of trapping her."
He handed me a piece of paper. "As sole remaining member of the household, here is a receipt for you. We have taken your niece and nephew into protective custody, of course, and we may be able to return your sister-in-law to you, assuming her cooperation in her interrogation. Please stay in town," he smirked, "and we will be in touch."
I looked at the paper. It was in French, and listed my kids' names and explained the legal ramifications of protective child foster custody under UNESCO in occupied territory. I might be able to visit them next week, if Boss Man cleared me. For fifteen minutes. Under close supervision.
I sat there on the bed, wrapped in my blanket, and cried for a while, then got up and got dressed, and started cleaning up the mess the UN had left as they searched the place. Eventually I made it down to the basement, where I ... where Alan had had his shop. And workbench. And electronics. Anything bomb-like was naturally gone, but there, sitting on the workbench, was a harmless-looking little device.
Suddenly I realized why Alan had suddenly felt different about his situation a couple of months ago. I wonder still just what kind of a world he'd come from, to think that blowing up the courthouse was going to make a difference, or was a reasoned tactic. Maybe he was a different kind of Alan to start with. But what hit me like a ton of bricks at the time was this: up until that point, I had thought I was rewriting the universe when I did my thing, but that logic didn't hold up if another me - at least - was out there doing the same thing at the same time.
Now it's clear that I'm actually moving between worlds, not changing a single one. So I had a dilemma at that point. I could move on, hoping to find my family still intact somewhere else - but that meant that this family would still be in the clutches of the occupying forces. Not to mention that by moving to that other Alan's life, I'd be stealing his family. And maybe killing him.
In the end, of course, as you can see, I decided to move on anyway. After a week of interrogation, they released Sarah. She never spoke again. Our daughter committed suicide in foster care, and our son ... we never heard anything from or about him. I try not to think about it. I had another brief love affair with the bottle, but this time it was even easier to leave - after all, I already had the machine working.
I fumbled the parameters a little as I set the box up - I wasn't too sober that night - but what I clearly remember is a burning desire to fix all this. Away with the UN, away with interrogations, away with the damned Internet, away with all this modern claptrap. Turn the clock back, I thought, to a simpler age, before I could skip across the worlds discovering the worst of human nature, back to childhood.
Childhood. I still can't believe I could have been so stupid. But I'd rather have a bottle in front of me, than have to have a frontal lobotomy - ha, what, you've never heard that one? Yeah. It's hilarious.
So as you can see, after that last jump forced me into filling Melissa's role instead of Alan's, I seem to be stuck in it - I'm Molly Richards here and now, in this Year of Our Lord 2008 in the Union of North American States. Alan's my big brother. Sarah's alive and ... not insane, and they're going steady. They're, oh, Alan must be seventeen now and going to college soon, making Sarah sweet sixteen. They're very cute together. I have every expectation that our, I mean their, kids will be born on schedule.
The real drawback in my present situation, of course, is that my own birth certificate says I'm eight years old. I've told you this story because there's clearly no way an eight-year-old girl could possibly have invented it, or even memorized it. I'm way out of my timeline here, sir, and locked up in my head is some pretty good stuff, but as an eight-year-old, I can't use it yet, and I'm impatient. After I saw in the newspaper that you're still alive in the here and now (you were born and died a lot earlier in my own world, but then maybe you're just naturally bound up with this level of technology we have here), well, it was easy enough to slip away from the farm, and relatively easy to catch a train for New Jersey, and, well, long story short, here I am.
So here's my question, Mr. Edison. Could I interest you in the purchase of an Internet?