Whoever or whatever had disturbed James last night was not there now. The noise had been jarringly loud, the glare of the light strong, the event intimidating, even though the entire episode had lasted no more than two nerve-jangling minutes. But, in the grey light of a drizzly day, everything looked normal. Maybe there had not really been anyone there last night at all. Maybe it was some freak of nature. All the same, James was checking.
He was a slightly-built man, tall and rangy, sporting salt and pepper hair, not much good with his fists but much better with his mind, especially with words. Not that they were much good to him alone in the woods with only his faithful dog for company. He was still grieving the passing of his sister in a road accident just over a year ago, and that would continue for some time yet—perhaps even to the end of his life.
The accident had left him empty. He had never married, had never seen the point of it, and now, at fifty three years of age, he was unlikely to tie the knot even if he wanted to. Janice had been his shoulder to cry on when things went wrong, his home from home when life’s burdens grew too great to carry on his own slim shoulders. She had been his proverbial rock, and he had been the moss that gathered thereon.
Three years ago, they had bought the holiday cottage together, combining their savings to pay cash for the rather small, dilapidated old stone building that stood at the edge of the woods. The location was great—if you liked solitude—but the condition of their purchase left much to be desired.
They had spent two-years-worth of weekends giving the cottage new hope: breathing life into its creaking timbers, reviving its broken walls, refreshing its stained floors, and replacing its broken windows. They had even put a new roof on the place, risking life and limb in that endeavour, and laughing about it after the job was done. It was a team effort, full of comraderie, but a year ago the team had suffered a cruel blow.
The car crash had come out of the blue. An initial phone call to check his identity almost immediately followed by two police officers arriving at his rented house in the city around nine in the evening. He hadn’t believed them, of course, not until they’d asked him to identify the body.
They had stayed with him until a police social worker arrived, and then left with a plethora of condolences. Jean, the social worker, fussed over him like a mother hen would her chicks, but she was not Janice, could never be really. But she did stay until dawn broke and he had once more gathered his wits.
A week later there was the funeral and after that he had moved to the cottage, which had now become a shrine to his sister and would be his forever home. Her photographs were everywhere except his bedroom, even in the kitchen. He needed her around, in spirit if not in body.
And he still had his job. Above all else he was good with computers and their mystic languages, so he continued his work as a freelance app developer. He knew most of his peers were half his age, but that didn’t bother him. He viewed the work as a challenge, as well as being highly lucrative when he hit upon something novel that the masses would crave. He had done that on two occasions, and the cash was still rolling in.
He was happy at the cottage, as happy as he could be, but last night there had been a fearful irregularity. At ten in the evening, a weird buzzing sound had shaken the cottage’s rafters. James had gone to the front door and peered uneasily into the night. Even when the noise stopped, the throbbing still tormented his eardrums for several seconds.
Taking a deep breath, he’d stepped outside into the small front garden. Usually at that time he would hear the sounds of the night: frogs croaking, an owl or two screeching, crickets chirping, birds roosting, even the occasional sound of passing traffic from the country road at the end of the dirt track that led to the cottage. But last night—after the buzzing—there had been no sounds, just a wall of silence.
It had unnerved him, but he had walked further down the garden path to the intersection with the track. Up above, a few stars had shone through low, threatening cloud, and a crescent moon had done its best to light his way. But the night had remained quiet, as if he were alone in the middle of an ocean.
Maybe the noise had been surging electricity lines, but he’d thought that unlikely as the cables were underground. He was about to return to the cottage when a flare of light erupted no more than a stone’s throw away in terrain that was normally just covered in bushes and tall grasses. It froze him to the spot. White light, carrying the full spectrum, silent to the point of being deafening.
After the brightness had gone and his eyes had readjusted, he’d walked over to where it had originated. In the semi-darkness, he could see nothing. But the hairs on the back of his neck had risen, and a shiver had coursed its way down his spine. He retreated to the cottage. He would check in the morning. He would case the area, as Janice would have said.
Seemingly trying to match his mood, the morning had dawned with grey clouds and a slight drizzle. Nevertheless, James, suitably attired, ventured out and plodded over to the area where he had witnessed the bright light. The grass was slightly bent over because of the rain but there was nothing to suggest the presence of heavy equipment. And it would have been heavy, James reasoned, for there to be such a dazzling light.
Samson, his beagle, was with him, but showed little interest in the area of concern. The canine just sniffed around as usual, did his toilet, and then headed back to the cottage. It was a mystery that would not be solved, James thought; a conundrum of significant proportions that warranted further study—if it ever happened again.
That night, it did happen again. On this occasion, the noise lasted a little longer, was perhaps a little stronger. Not only that, it was around the same time. Feeling anxious, but also rather foolish, he donned his sunglasses, grabbed a torch, called Samson, and stepped out into the night.
Once he was outside the cottage, it grew quiet again, just like the previous night. Thankfully, it had stopped raining. Out of habit, James ran his torch over the roof. Everything seemed okay; there were no loose tiles, nothing lying shattered on the ground. He stepped down the garden path.
As he approached the light zone, Samson stopped. The beagle stood on three legs, left front paw off the ground, looking accusingly at his master. James was familiar with the look, recognised the whitened turn of his dog’s eyes. Samson yelped and bolted.
James held his ground, mostly because nothing was happening. But then it did.
Close by, the darkness was challenged by a blaze of white light and a low hum briefly assaulted his ears. The sound stopped and the light dimmed, but the glow did not vanish completely as it had done on the previous night.
Nerves tingling, he took a step closer. A cogent thought springing out of nowhere made him turn off the torch. He peered beyond the dark windows of his glasses then removed them.
The light was still there, not glaring but a constant sheen of gentle silver, like a pond reflecting moonlight. He moved forward, heart quickening, throat tight and mouth starting to dehydrate. He looked around, wondering if Samson had returned. Not there. A curse escaped his lips. He was deserted in his hour of need.
James stopped and tried to rationalise what he was seeing. He could, of course, have joined Samson and fled the scene. But that would not have solved anything, for he knew this phenomena would keep returning until he took the necessary action—whatever that action turned out to be.
An idea sprang into his mind. He drew the torch backwards and tossed it underarm in a gentle loop towards the light. Nothing dramatic happened. The torch appeared to vanish. And then the strange light went out.
Have I done the wrong thing? He stood for some seconds trying to make sense of it all, then turned around to make his way back to the cottage. Samson met him halfway, tail wagging furiously, as if the dog had not expected him to return.
James spent all the next day scouring the internet.
James found lots of information about strange lights at night, but none of it helped. Most of it concerned UFOs or UAPs. There was nothing that came even close to what he had witnessed—well, with the exception of portals, but they were mostly described in works of fiction and located in outer space. He began to wonder whether the whole thing was a figment of his imagination, instantly dismissed the idea, and determined to be more aggressive in his approach.
Much to his surprise, there was no buzzing sound that night. However, in accordance with his more pro-active stance, he went outside at the usual time, trod the well-trodden path, and paused near where the vertical pearly pond had appeared. Samson didn’t go with him. He just wouldn’t come.
The mirror suddenly materialized. No sound this time, just an oval light, about his height, silver as before, maybe not quite as shiny. He calmed his breathing and walked towards it, expecting it to flicker out at any moment.
This time he had dressed for the occasion. He wore strong shoes, his most comfortable jeans and blue shirt, a fleece-lined suede jacket and a black peaked cap. Just to be sure, he carried a kitchen knife in the back pocket of his jeans. A small backpack full of nutrition of various sorts hung from his shoulders, not that he thought he would really need it. He expected to be back at the cottage in a matter of minutes.
He paused two steps from the portal. It was almost close enough to touch. Not that he was going to do that. Or was he?
He tried to look beyond the light but could see nothing but silver. And then he heard Janice’s voice: “Step through, James. It’s quite safe.” He was sure it was her. But she had died. She had died a year ago.
Looking towards the nearby trees, James sought the signs of wind, hoping to see rustling leaves that may have explained what he heard. Tears leapt to his eyes. This was a trick, a cruel trick. His fingers checked the knife was still in his pocket, then he stood perfectly still, pricking up his ears for the sounds of the night.
“It’s quite safe.”
The voice again, definitely Janice’s.
James inhaled deeply, took a look at the overcast sky, and walked into the light.
The other side was a disappointment. Wherever the portal had taken him, it didn’t seem too much different from home. But then he noticed the moon. It was full, shining brightly from a cloudless, star-studded heaven.
He crouched down and felt the grass. It was dry, but it should have been wet, full of moisture from the day’s intermittent showers. Turning, he saw the portal was still there, not silver anymore but orange—perhaps a different world’s perspective. Should he step back and return to the cottage? Did he want to?
He walked around the portal, looking for the way back home. He took steps towards the garden path. The grass was too long and the path was nowhere to be seen. Straining his eyes against the night, he recognised that the garden was not there, and neither was the cottage.
James looked back at the portal. There it was, glowing orange. So what now? Back through the portal or explore some more? He did the only thing he could do. He called out Janice’s name; he called out for her just like he had done when she was alive.
Janice looked at the holographic image and smiled. So far, things had gone well. It had been over one hundred years since the research into parallel worlds had revealed the tantalising prospect of lateral transfer. A century of technical mishaps, missing people, and imported diseases. But now, she thought, they had gotten it right.
There was not just a single parallel world; there were many. Conjecture had it that they were really alternate realities, the sum of all potential parallel universes being termed the multiverse. So the possibilities were endless—infinite, she supposed.
The concept had been born from an eons-old idea by physicists and mathematicians and grown into a physical reality. The result of their endeavours was a miracle of contemporary quantum mechanics combined with free-thinking philosophies that transcended the obvious certainties that most people were accustomed to—even if those people unknowingly crossed dimensions from time to time. Not only did parallel universes really exist, they interacted. That is, rather than evolving independently, nearby worlds influenced one another by subtle forces only the privileged few understood.
She studied the man revealed in the display. By her standards he was primeval, in both looks and intellectual capacity. He was taller than the males of her world, bulkier too, although that was only to be expected from a realm that had been held back by the devastating conflicts of negative thought.
Her planet, uncluttered by wars and turmoil for eons, was at least five thousand years more advanced than her current captive’s world. But this man was different from the other experimental lateral transfers. For one thing James was still in one piece, for another he was her proven brother from an alternate universe.
She wondered whether to send out the collector but decided against it. She would let him wander at will for a while, let him discover the city, perhaps even find some enjoyment in his cascading emotions. Janice could see the pheromones and DNA spirals that ran across the bottom of the display, images that confirmed James was indeed related to her, albeit across a gulf of time and interdimensional space.
“Got you,” Janice whispered through small, rounded lips. “Got you, my universal brother.” The sound was like the twittering of birds.
Now and again checking that he could still see the portal, James stumbled onward. He took deeper breaths than normal, although fully aware that the air may not be suitable for his body. He deemed it was more important to quell the strenuous beatings of his heart and soothe his jangling nerves.
The sky was already getting lighter, much earlier than it would have done at the cottage. The first totally unfamiliar object he noticed was the tall and slender vertical pillar that climbed forever into the sky. He gazed in awe. What the hell was that? A pathway to orbit? A space elevator? It was impossible for such a structure to support itself unless it was anchored by an orbiting counterweight.
It appeared that he had entered some kind of future world.
As he surmounted a small rise, he saw the city. Not New York, not London, not Brasilia. It was a city the like of which he had never witnessed, not even thought possible. A vast area of innumerable hovering spheres of various sizes spread to his left and to his right, reaching as far as the eye could see. Beneath the spheres there was a verdancy that belied description; an immense parkland that contained bushes, grasses and trees sporadically decorated by breathtaking splashes of colourful flowers. It looked like heaven and perhaps it was. Except, portal or no portal, he was pretty sure he was still alive.
James sat on his haunches and watched the sun rise over the spheres. It was a magnificent sight, a surreal panorama of gold, red, and silver reflections as the sun ascended into a cloudless light blue sky, and the green growth beneath them grew greener still. There was no noise, no traffic, no pollution, nothing that he associated with an Earth city.
Something on high caught his attention—a flash, no more than that. Maybe some kind of soundless transport, maybe a satellite. It was only then that he realised the sun was different from the one he knew. The size was much the same, but the star’s blaze held a hint of red beyond that of a normal sunrise.
He took a glance back to the portal. With a start, he saw that it was no longer there. Rising swiftly, he hurriedly retraced his steps. There was no doubt—it had vanished. There was just an endless plain covered in unattractive greenish-brown grass.
A bird took wing from beneath his feet. His mind construed it as a bird, but it was more like a flying lizard. James returned to the small rise that overlooked the city, sat down, unshouldered his haversack, withdrew a bar of chocolate and let the sweet taste calm his mind.
In the city, some of the spheres had started to move, perhaps awoken by the sun, touching each other as if they were exchanging information or maybe sharing energy. It was wondrous, beautiful, but also filled him with fear, for it was beyond his understanding and reinforced the fact that he had lost his way home.
He stood up and yelled, “Janice! Are you there?”
The reply did not come instantly, but it did come. As he despondently sat down again there was a shimmering in the morning air, and a two-men-high version of a city sphere settled on the grass no more than five metres away.
Once more he was on his feet and backing away. The sphere didn’t look dangerous but you never knew. He put his head on one side and studied the new arrival. There was no door, no way he could enter. It looked metallic, shiny, reflecting both sky and ground.
“Do not be afraid, James. It is quite safe.”
James licked his lips. It was definitely Janice, or someone or something that sounded just like his terrestrial sister. “Where are you?” he croaked.
To his surprise, he was answered by a lilting giggle. “Close by yet far away.”
“Am I to meet you?” He wasn’t wearing that it was Janice. That was just impossible.
“You have already met me. I am your sister.”
James was suddenly drenched in a cloudburst of emotion. It felt like his very soul was being wrenched from his body. “That is not possible,” he whispered. He looked at the sphere warily expecting some kind of emergence to take place.
“We will meet now,” Janice’s voice proclaimed, and James was engulfed in a cloak of darkness from which there was no escape.
Janice was sympathetic to James’s plight. It was essential that he understood what had happened, but revelations must be slowly introduced. He would be expecting his Earth sister, and she was surely not that. Her society was light years ahead in so many ways.
The culmination of the parallel world deportation research had still not been reached, but she was confident that it had now stretched far enough for James to be safe. And she had convinced her peers that James should meet her alone. After all, she knew him better than any other living creature on her planet, if not the entire multiverse.
Observing the display and his physiological output, she perceived that James was becoming fearful. She ordered the conveyor to bring him in. It would be quiet and swift. Then they could get acquainted.
James awoke slowly, just like he did at home, stretching vigorously and blinking heavy eyes. He was lying down, but then the entire bed began to tilt slowly into the upright position.
“Hello, James. You can step away from the cradle.” Janice again, loud and clear, friendly, not authoritative.
He did as requested, paused on unsteady legs, and looked around, searching for the source of the voice. She was standing five metres away—and was not what he was expecting. In fact, she looked more alien than human. At about 1.5 metres tall, she was significantly smaller than his sister. Her ashen face was slim with slightly sunken cheeks, her build slimmer yet under a short-sleeved green tunic and leggings; a will-of-the-wisp creature, totally unlike Janice. Her hair was closely cropped and white.
But it was her face that particularly stunned him. The oval, brown eyes were human-like but appeared large in such a narrow countenance. The nose was very small, the mouth rounded and thin-lipped. No ears whatsoever were visible.
They were in an area that had three straight walls and one curved. The floor and ceiling were flat. Everything was light grey, even the lighting that appeared to emanate from every surface of the room.
She spread her slender arms in greeting. “Welcome, James.”
His eyes locked with hers. They were not hostile, but appearances could be deceptive.
“Where am I?” The words came out rather shrilly and James repeated them in an effort to appear less afraid. Fat chance of that. My face must be completely devoid of blood.
Some kind of machinery to his left buzzed into action, and a three-dimensional image hovered against the wall. “This is my planet, third from its star like yours. It is called Earth, like yours.” She put her head on one side. “But it is not yours.”
“You speak my language,” James said, finding his normal voice between deep breaths. “How can that be?” He was trying to get his heart rate to slow but wasn’t sure whether he was succeeding.
She shook her head, “We are communicating through the ether, as if by radio waves. Our people are what you would perhaps call telepathic, but we are much more than that.” She gave him a long, hard stare. “And my name is Janice. I am your interuniversal sister—your sibling from a parallel world.”
James could not believe what he was hearing, he just couldn’t, and he said as much.
Janice took a step towards him, and he shrank away in fear. “Do not be afraid,” she said. “We can touch each other.” She held out a hand that was long and narrow, half the width of his own, totally white, even the nails.
James licked his lips, emotions hurtling through his mind as if they were invisible passengers aboard an out-of-control rollercoaster. Wiping his right hand on his jeans, he felt the caress of the knife, then slowly extended his arm. She grasped his hand fleetingly and then the moment was gone.
She was close to him now, somehow vulnerable, and James searched for some similarity between her and Janice, his real sister. He couldn’t find any. There was only the voice, and that was probably some kind of AI creation.
“I would like you to call me Janice,” she said, lips hardly moving. “For that is my name. Believe it or not our interuniversal DNA is half-shared, exactly as per a conventional brother and sister.” She smiled, sort of. “You are truly my interuniversal sibling.”
There it was again. Could it be true? James shook his head. “This is hard for me to believe.” It wasn’t just hard, it was impossible. It all felt like a dream from which there was no escape. Perhaps it was a dream, and any minute now he would wake up in the comfort of his own bed.
“I understand.” There was silence for a moment, then she added: “Perhaps if I showed you our city.”
Janice’s sphere descended to the gardens without collision or mishap with others of its kind, and they disembarked through a wide portal that had swished open as they came to rest. The sounds of nature immediately filled the air, not too different from back home—if you happened to live in the middle of the Amazonian rain forest.
There were other people about, assuming they were people, dressed similarly to his companion but in a variety of colours. They were all small, pale, not ill-looking though, far from it. In fact they appeared quite sprightly. They may have been communicating with one another but not primarily by words, although James did catch various subdued sounds that may have been emotional intonations.
“These gardens,” Janice proclaimed, “are entirely self maintained. The plants are in perpetual harmony with each other. We do not interfere. There is no need.”
James was astounded. “Do they provide food?” he asked.
“They do. But unlike yourselves, we do not slaughter the creatures that live here.”
“You are vegetarians,” James stated.
“Correct. For many thousands of years.”
They strolled together down a narrow pathway, seeking solitude from the other walkers. James was impressed by the variety of the flora, some plants small and hugging the ground, others tall and broad and stretching skywards, but he did wonder how the sun’s rays filtered down beneath the spheres.
Janice sensed his dilemma. “Our homes gather the sun’s energy on top and transmit it from underneath, depending on the prescribed amount of light required by the local vegetation.” She stopped, plucked a fruit from a tree, and held it to her mouth. She didn’t bite—perhaps she sucked, for the fruit reduced in size before she dropped its spent casing to the ground. “For the invertebrates,” she said.
“Are there dangerous animals?” James asked, interest piqued and full of questions.
They had stopped beneath a particularly large tree, and as James peered upwards he made out a monkey-like animal perched in its upper branches.
“There used to be,” Janice replied. “Quite a few of them. But not now.”
“You eradicated them?” James was shocked. These diminutive beings did not seem capable of such violence.
“No.” She looked at James and opened her eyes wide. “We changed them,” she remarked demurely.
James shook his head. The inhabitants of this world seemed so much in control of their lives and their environment. Was this what people on Earth would become?
“Maybe, maybe not.” Once more, Janice had read his thoughts.
James threw his arms out wide. “Is all your world like this?”
“I will take you to the edge of the city tomorrow,” Janice proclaimed. “But now we should go back and I will tell you more about how you came here.”
“Parallel worlds do exist,” Janice was saying. “All living creatures populate the multiverse. All originated at the same time, or so we believe.”
They sat across from each other at a small table in the room where he had awoken what seemed like an eternity ago.
James had heard the theory, never accepted it as true. One universe was enough for him—more than enough.
With some effort, he mustered a challenging glance. “You said you are my interuniversal sister. How do you know?”
“From the weirdness of quantum mechanics,” she answered mysteriously. “From our studies across our interacting universes.” She touched her forehead with both her hands. “And I can show you.”
“I can show you your home, even show you your animal friend.” She leaned a little closer, taking him by surprise. Somehow he managed not to flinch. Deep brown eyes scanned his face. “And I can show you our shared genes.”
James bit his lip. His life was being invaded, albeit by his self-proclaimed, alien-like sister. Doubt swamped his thoughts. Well out of his comfort zone, he just shrugged. All this bizarre technology was wearing him down.
“Watch,” Janice said. “But after this you must rest. Crossing universes is tiring, and your body will be feeling a drain of energy. Tomorrow you will feel better.”
James didn’t think he would ever sleep again.
Against the left hand wall, the holographic machine thrummed into action. There before him, Earth, his Earth, rotated slowly on its ever-changing axis.
Janice strolled over to the image and gently touched the surface of the planet with one petite finger. Initially, nothing happened, but after a few seconds twin spirals of what resembled genome strings ran down her sylphlike arm, twisting and turning as if they sought urgent release from her body. The double helix then shunned Janice and swept towards the image of the planet, eventually to settle into orbit where it gained speed and became a narrow, blurred ring, as though joyously celebrating a release from faraway Saturn gained by a quirk of cosmic fate.
James watched in fascination. This was way beyond his expectations.
At some unheard command, the head of the genetic spiral plunged to the planet’s surface, and for a while the entire display became opaque. Surprisingly, James then saw his cottage bathed in sunshine. And there was Samson sitting forlornly at the front door, no doubt awaiting his return. His lounge room was next revealed, looking as neglected as his canine comrade.
“You can spy on our world,” James said, resentment rising in his throat, a sour taste flooding his mouth.
Janice shook her head. “Not spy on—trace. This is how I found you, my brother. We can locate your genetic footprint, wherever you are. It can take weeks, sometimes months, or maybe only days, but we can eventually link with our interuniversal brethren on your planet.”
James said, “But I am not there. I am here.”
Janice smiled her strange smile. “Your traces are all over your abode. You do not need to be there”
“If it can take days,” James countered, “do you have to maintain contact with your machine for all that time?”
Again, Janice shook her head. “The machine can store our blueprint. What you saw was just the culmination of my early searches for you. That is why it took only minutes.” The display dwindled to nothing as she spoke, and the room became as it was.
James frowned, suddenly feeling exhausted. But there were still numerous questions coursing through his bewildered mind.
“So where is your brother?” he demanded. “Where is the equivalent of myself on this world?”
Janice qualified her reply. “A fair question. But the answer will have to wait until tomorrow. You must sleep now in order to awake refreshed.” She gestured to his arrival bed, which had remained in the vertical position. “Let the cradle take you to sleep. We will talk in the morning after you have eaten.”
James risked one more question. “Are there other siblings from other worlds?”
Janice seemed to take an eternity to reply. “There are other worlds,” she responded eventually, “but yours is the first we have accurately synchronized. It is, perhaps, the one we like the most.”
James did not quite know how to take that. Could it even be a threat?
Janice gestured at the cradle. “Sleep.”
The bleakness of the surrounding land stretched as far as the eye could see. There were no trees, no plants of any kind, not even the strange grass of his arrival site, and the distant sky was awash with an unhealthy mish-mash of pale grey and green that the rising sun did nothing to alleviate. Nearby, he could see what he had taken to be a space elevator rising onto the sky.
Following a shared breakfast of fruit and cereal steeped in some kind of bean extract, Janice had directed her spherical dwelling to the edge of the city. Once the sphere had landed upon the verdant periphery, they had disembarked and walked a short distance into the surrounding area.
Underfoot, away from the garden, the ground was harsh and stony, black and brown pebbles littering the expansive terrain. Here and there, angled shale-like rock strata occasionally broke through the surface, never rising more than knee height. It was pure desolation, and James wondered whether there was a reason for the abrupt lack of life. The contrast with the city’s flora could not have been greater.
His thoughts were interrupted by Janice answering the question he’d posed the previous night.
As they both gazed out at the desolation, she said, “You asked about my brother.” She turned towards him, the look of anguish upon her face taking James by surprise, for he would not have expected such a demure and alien countenance capable of such an intense expression. “Alas, he died. He died, in fact, on the same day as your sister.” Diverting her gaze, either to mask tears or just to hide the creasing of her features instigated by the memory of the event, Janice uttered a single strange sob. It was the only sound in the morning air.
A cold shiver ran down James’s spine. The two worlds appeared to be linked by parallel events that were similar but not always identical. “So we have something else in common,” he declared.
And then he did something that yesterday he would not have dreamed of doing—he approached Janice, wrapped his arms gently around her slim shoulders, and gave her a gentle hug. She felt frail beneath her tunic, almost insectoid, and he stepped back full of remorse. “I apologize,” he mumbled. “It is what we do on my world to convey comfort.”
Janice nodded. “I know. I understand. You are remembering your sister, also.”
He was, too, James admitted; it was a shared and somewhat haunting remembrance across universes.
They stood for a while in silence, drinking in the vast emptiness that lay before them.
At length, James asked, “How many cities are there?”
Sadness overcame Janice’s face. “Not as many as there were. Six on this continent. Twenty five in total on others.”
“But you have been around for countless millennia. There must be so many of you.”
With a brief shake of the head, Janice replied, “No. Not as many as there were.”
On the near horizon, the pillar that was the space elevator shimmered orange in the morning sunlight.
“What happened?” He had an inkling, of course, but he wanted confirmation.
“Interminable global conflict and disease, stupidity and greed, many, many thousands of years ago. Many cities lost, many people killed.” She raised her face to his, and perhaps for the first time he recognized the depth of soul within her dark, brooding eyes. And he knew this was truly his interuniversal sister.
James nodded. “Been there, done that,” he mumbled. “Heading that way again.”
“It was difficult to recover from. Nobody wanted to have children that would be swallowed by future combat. Our minds and bodies were very badly affected by the consequences of warfare. Even today, after millennia, the population grows very slowly.”
Strangely then, she grabbed his hand and offered a short-lived, alien-like smile. “It is better now. We trade with the other cities, not over land or sea, but via orbit.” Releasing her grip, she gestured to the nearby tower. “It takes time, but it is efficient.”
“Are there no children at all in this city?” James ventured to ask. “I didn’t see any in the garden yesterday.”
“Very few in this one, and then they are just visitors. In the larger cities, yes. Here, and for the benefit of all, we are solely dedicated to research and technical advancement. That is our task. Offspring would divert our energy.” After a pause, she added: “If we want to start a family, we move to other cities where it is encouraged.”
James was shocked. But, in a way, it was yet another common link between the two worlds. Janice, his flesh and blood sister, had never wanted children, and neither had he, for that matter. They had been content as they were.
Undeniably on a roll, he asked another question. “Why do you want to find parallel worlds anyway? What’s the point?” He was rather afraid of the answer, afraid of invasion and technical superiority. All the things you saw in the movies.
“Just like humans on your world, we want to explore and break through boundaries. Because they are a mystery. Because it is challenging and fascinating.” Janice offered a smile. “And because we want to meet out interuniversal brethren.”
He found another important question, important to him, at least. “Do you have a military?”
Janice immediately sought his eyes. “You need not fear aggression. We are done with war. We are done with military and we are done with weapons.” As if to emphasize the point, she added: “War debased us, physically and mentally. We could not breed, or even think of breeding. It took us eons to repair the damage. We are done with all of it.”
James wondered if that were true. How could Janice and her fellow citizens be sure that there were no despots hatching interuniversal battle plans somewhere on this planet?
Changing the subject somewhat abruptly, Janice asked: “Are you ready to go home?” Then she put it another way: “Or do you want to stay?”
“Your technologies are way beyond me,” James replied, frowning. “Am I not just an early experiment? I can be of little use to you here.”
“You could learn,” Janice responded. “Maybe study the gardens.” She put her head on one side. “Are you not lonely back on your world?”
“It is good to be with you,” James countered, “but I do not fit in here—interuniversal brother or otherwise. And I have a four-legged soul mate who waits for my return. He will be hungry and fretting.” He shook his head. “No. I must return.”
They walked slowly back to the sphere. “That is not to say that I do not love you as my sister,” James proffered. “I can see Janice within you.”
“Yes,” his cosmic sibling replied. “And I can see James within you.”
They had agreed that James would return on occasion accompanied by Samson. There was no mention of the dog’s interuniversal counterpart. For all James knew it could have been the creature he spied in the garden.
Their farewell had been more emotional than he had anticipated. Both of them had shed tears. He had said words that just days ago he would only have said to his Terran sister. And this Janice was certainly not that.
“I will know when you are coming,” Janice had whispered finally. “The machine will tell me.”
He had leaned down to kiss her on the forehead, gently brushed tears from her cheeks with his hand. Cold under his touch, her skin carried blood of a different type, perhaps evolved by their immense galactic time difference and the ecosystem of this planet. It mattered not.
Raising her face, she’d kissed him on the lips, a mere peck, just like his Earthly sister used to do, even when they were parting for the briefest of times.
These memories he would hold dear for eternity.
Around mid-afternoon, standing on the green grass of home, the portal a mirror behind his back, the cottage a short stroll away, he nearly turned back. But then he thought of Samson, a picture of misery on the cottage’s front steps.
At first, nothing seemed different. However, as he neared home, James noticed the vehicle. His blood suddenly ran cold, stopping him dead in his tracks as if a huge wall of ice had materialized before him. There it was, parked in the laneway at the end of the garden path. Not only that—it was his and Janice’s car. His brain froze. His heart skipped a beat.
What he saw was impossible. The vehicle had been a complete write-off.
Insane thoughts skipped through his mind. Could the portal have sent him back to a different world, or had he been mistakenly sent back in time? Neither prospect filled him with joy.
Nobody was in the car, but as he entered the garden, the cottage door opened and Janice walked briskly towards him, Samson trotting at her heels. She saw him and a huge smile spread over her face. “Hi, James. How was your walk?”
There she was. Slim and tall, sweater and blue jeans as usual, long hair dyed light brown, pert features glowing with a welcome, genuinely glad to see him. He was unable to rationalize what he was seeing. She was literally sparkling with life.
Samson barked, scooted forward, and collided with his legs, almost bowling him over. James staggered backwards. Steadying himself, he regarded Janice with suspicion. Was she real, or was she a ghost? A small part of him whispered that he should be thankful, but he wasn’t. He was freaked out.
“I’m just off shopping,” she said brightly. “Anything you especially want?”
Stunned by a sudden bout of light-headedness, James’s vision became hazy. The blood in his head must have rushed to his quaking heart. It was as if he was occupying a surreal world, a world of illusory images and ghostly spectres. He stared at her, still not believing his eyes.
She stopped a pace away, her expression becoming one of concern. “James, you look strange. Are you okay?” Although familiar, her voice was indistinct, as if she was inside the house talking through the front door.
“Shopping,” he parroted.
“That’s right. Anything you want?”
Overcome by profound dread, he surged forward and snatched the car keys from her hand.
Janice yelped. “What the hell are you doing?”
“No, you mustn’t,” he said. “I’ll go.”
“You? Go shopping?” Janice laughed nervously, then looked at him strangely. “You never go shopping.”
Thoughts of the other world barreled into James’s mind; a world where his counterpart had met an untimely death. His mind buzzed like a frenzied bee trying to make the hive before sunset. “We’ll get the shopping delivered,” he declared eventually. “No need to drive at all.”
“This is crazy,” Janice responded. She made an attempt to grab the keys, but James held them behind his back. Samson’s tail dropped, and he looked at them in turn as if they were both crazy.
“You can’t stop me from driving the car,” Janice exclaimed, slightly red in the face. “That’s stupid.” She turned away and started to walk back to the cottage.
James watched her go. She was angry and she was right—it was stupid—but it was necessary. Neither of them must drive the car again. Neither of them must take any risks at all in the future. They must stay in the cottage and its immediate surrounds.
He sighed heavily. He would have to explain, of course. He couldn’t make Janice a virtual prisoner for no good reason. But it troubled him that the reason was so bizarre. Just thinking about the words he would use induced a throb in his temple.
Samson had gone back to the cottage and he slowly followed the dog, neural pathways in overdrive. Everything he thought of sounded weird, just totally insane. She would never believe him. There was only one thing for it—he would have to show her the portal. Not for her to go through, of course. Just to give background to his story.
Janice was sat in the lounge. Tears were running down her face. If looks could kill, he would be six feet under. He went over and sat down beside her. She held out her hand, obviously expecting him to give her the car keys.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, “I can’t.”
She looked at him through bleary eyes. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”
Putting his hand on top of hers, he said, “Just listen.”
He told her everything. He told her about the portal, about the other Earth, about the other Janice, and even about the accident she was about to have. She snatched her hand from under his grasp and leapt to her feet, turning around to face him, a look of contempt dominating her face. When she spoke, James was shocked to hear the bitterness in her voice. It was something he had never heard before. “You’re irrational. This is madness.” She stomped her foot. “I won’t be held captive by you. I want my freedom. I can’t live in your bloody pocket every day of my life.”
He hung his head. She had never spoken to him like that. Never. Looking up, he locked eyes with Janice. “Then I must show you the portal.”
Part of him wondered why Janice had suddenly become so antagonistic, and he wondered if she had a secret lover, someone she saw clandestinely when away from the cottage. He instantly dismissed the idea. They had both sworn off relationships. They were happy as they were.
Anger rose within him, bubbling to the surface like obnoxious gas from a hot spring. She obviously didn’t believe him. He sprung up and grabbed her arm. “I’ll show you the portal. It’s quite close by.”
She shrugged off his grip and just stood there staring at him. “Please,” he said. “It’s important I show you.”
Janice shook her head. “Madness.” Her look became one bordering on hatred, as if he had physically assaulted her or somehow violated her privacy.
“Please,” James pleaded. “Then you will understand.”
They stood facing each other for several seconds, then Janice shrugged. “Sure. If that’s what you want.”
James nodded. “Good. That’s good.” She was patronizing him, he knew that, but he also knew that once she saw the portal her mindset would change, and she would completely understand.
They walked away from the cottage, James leading, Janice trailing behind. Neither of them spoke. A feeling of déjà vu overwhelmed him, and his thoughts turned to that recent fateful night when the portal was revealed in all its inscrutable glory. He recalled the full moon and the heavens full of different stars, the utterly alien twinkling of the spheres. It had been an amazing experience after the humdrum of his everyday life.
And so there was no stopping the cry of dismay that escaped his lips as he realized that the portal had disappeared. There was nothing there at all. He ran over to where it should have been and inspected the ground. Not one blade of grass had been disturbed, and not even one minor indentation was evident.
Turning in desperation to Janice, Jamie cried, “It was here. I swear to you. The portal was right here where I’m standing now.”
Janice shook her head. “You’re delusional, James.” She held out her hand again. “Please. Give me the keys. Finish this charade. Let me go shopping.”
Jamie held his ground. He was totally confused. Everything about this was wrong. He raised his arm high and threw the keys as far away as he could, out into the long grass beyond where they were standing. They would be safe there. She would never find them.
Janice screeched. “Idiot! What the hell are you doing?” She swore and turned heel, started back to the cottage, intent in every stride. James saw her shoulders heaving, thought he could hear sobs as she walked.
He stood there for a while, wishing against all hope that the portal would appear. It didn’t. Reluctantly, he retraced his steps. Maybe he should try again: explain in even more detail, describe the otherworldly city, the wonder of the spheres, and tell more of the other Janice, even the strange animal in the tree.
As he went through the front door, his sister was nowhere to be seen. There were muffled noises from her room. Overcome by sudden dread, James raced to her bedroom. He tried to open the door but it was locked. He kicked hard at the latch and it gave way with a sharp, whiplash-like crack.
Janice was packing, her suitcase on the bed, already half-full.
James, framed by the doorway, stared in disbelief.
“I’m leaving,” she said. “I don’t understand what’s happened to you.”
For a brief moment he thought no more do I, then he said: “You can’t go. Not after all these years.”
She threw the last of her things into the suitcase and slammed it shut. “Let me pass, I’m leaving. At least until you come to your senses.”
He could have stopped her then, hit her, floored her—but such behavior just wasn’t in him. And there was some hope in her words. She would be back. He knew she would.
He stood to one side. “Where will you go?”
She shook her head, swept past him, left the cottage in a rush.
Would he really see her again? Then he remembered that she was not going to survive anyway. This was not his real world. This was some other time, some other reality. In his real world she no longer existed, killed in a car crash that he had tried to prevent in this abominable time-slipped construction of life.
Feeling weak in the legs, he sat on the edge of her bed. After a few minutes he lay down. He was totally exhausted, whether from his trip through the portal or from the energy-sapping debacle with Janice, he did not know or care. As soon as his head hit the pillow, he fell asleep.
The noise returned, stirring James from his slumber. Initially, he thought he was dreaming, but then, suddenly wide awake, he saw the light at the window. His heart started to race. He glanced at his watch. He’d been asleep for five hours!
“Janice,” he called. “Are you back?”
There was no reply. He hadn’t really expected one.
Making his way to the front door, he stared outside.
The car was still there, of course, bathed in the eerie half-light of a different setting sun.
The sound had stopped now but he knew the portal would still be there. Walking to the end of the garden, and hoping against hope, he peered down the dirt track towards the main road. There was no sign of Janice.
She wasn’t coming home. She was gone for good. And probably not to survive for too much longer.
Samson joined him, also forlornly looked down the lane, tail between his legs and tucked up against his belly. James bent down and stroked the dog’s head. “Come on,” he said softly, “let’s find you some new scents.”
Together, they walked towards the portal and with not even a moment’s hesitation, they passed through. Within seconds the gateway vanished, and it was as if neither of them had existed at all.
This time Janice had taken her dwelling near to the interuniversal gateway, disembarked, and now stood watching as the human and his canine companion suddenly appeared in her world.
The plan had worked well. Inevitable conflict had ensued and James was now free of his own world’s chains. There would be other chains, though. Ones that linked him steadfastly to her. But he would get used to that.
Her colleagues would be impressed. It was extremely rare to capture a fully functional interuniversal specimen. Very few of her kind had succeeded. For most of them, those without her guile, it was like grasping at clouds.
She smiled her strange smile. She loved her new interuniversal brother! Of course, he wouldn’t last. None of them ever did. They either got homesick or body sick.
An alien greeting ready on her lips, she walked towards the other James.
Maybe this time it would be different.