by P. Orin Zack
There was a knock at the door. It was just after midnight, and the overweight man, who we shall know as ‘Jerry’, turned from what had once been a view of the World Trade Center, and strode across the recently installed carpet of the vacant condo to greet the third member of their party. ‘Inez’, the petite brunette on whose insights he had designed the device, had come with him. The two had been the principals in the secret project that brought them to this version of New York City. The man waiting outside the door of what should have been their covert financial-district lab was their political dealmaker.
The wry smile that Jerry flashed upon seeing his old friend again hid the overwhelming loss that he shared with them, a loss that no one would have believed, even if any of them were foolish enough to reveal it. “I’m glad you could make it,” he said as the door swung shut.
The nebbish in the long coat shrugged. “On the anniversary of our success? How could I stay away?”
Call him ‘Max’. Without his contacts, Jerry and Inez would never have been able to get the funding, much less the black project support that their experiment had required. Still, he did insist on being with them when they ran the test, just to be certain that if it did what she had described, he would likewise be shifted from one reality to the next.
Inez stood near the entry to the kitchen, cradling a shot of something. “It’s the niggling little details that I find so hard to live with. My favorite vice back home turned out to be rotgut here. I’ve had to go back to square one and sample them all to find something palatable.”
Max laughed. “Yes, I know. The political landscape was no different. You wouldn’t believe the depths I’ve had to plumb to restock the show windows of government in this country.”
“Before you two start comparing scars,” Jerry said as he returned to his view, “there’s something you should both know.”
“Oh?” Inez replied, joining him.
“I think we may have a bit of a problem to deal with. It seems that the aberration I told you about has finally been noticed. Some people have started to question the pictures this fine old building didn’t appear in. At first, those photos and videos were just accepted as real. Then a few crackpots started working out theories about how they might have been made – things like some top-secret augmented-reality project that could insert non-existent airliners into legitimate images. And it might have caught on, too, except that the faked-up pics didn’t even agree with one another. The truthers might buy into the idea of some pseudo-governmental junta fielding a technological cover-up, but they’re not foolish enough to think that anyone with the nerve and the tech to pull that off could be so incompetent as to leave a thirty-seven story building out of the model.”
Max looked out at the city-lit cloud deck drifting past over Manhattan for a few moments. “You’ll need some cover for it, then. How about this: what if I could arrange for 19 Rector to be missing from some of the major 3D models of the city, like someone screwed up and made it a park or something? That way, it could look like the theoretical agency that planted those pictures used a faulty commercial model for ginning up the fakes?”
Inez downed her shot, and winced. “You could do that?”
“Sure. There’s lots of places been scrubbed from public records. Of course, some of them have to be outed once we’ve moved on, just to appease the curious.”
“You mean like Area 51?”
“Uh huh. The thing is, it puts the bloodhounds after the big bad company with the screwed-up data, and we skate. It’s a shoo-in.”
Jerry took Inez’s glass. “I’ll get you something more appropriate for a toast.”
While he was busy in the kitchen, she turned towards Max. “This has been a hell of an adventure you’ve booked yourself on. Was it worth leaving everyone behind?”
“More than worth it. I’d wager that I’m the only political advisor on Earth with first-hand knowledge of what the world would have been like if Al Gore had become president in 2000. It’s pretty heady if you think about it.”
“Which path would you choose, if there was a way to do it?”
Max chuckled. “That’s a loaded question. You’re asking me to pick between what’s better for the world, and what’s better for the people who think they run it. How can I choose between a world full of people displaced because of war, and one where they’re displaced because of peace? Either way they’ve got nothing. At least with the one we’re on, a few dozen companies are getting rich. I think I’ll just duck your question and say it’s moot. We’re stuck here now. As violent as it’s become, this is the world we’ve got.”
Jerry stepped between them and held out two glasses of wine. “Are you two having second thoughts?”
“I have been feeling uneasy about it lately, yes,” she said, taking hers.
“Always,” Max added.
He reached back for the glass he had set on a nearby table, and raised it. “A toast, then. To the best of all possible worlds, whichever one that might turn out to be.”
“Whichever,” Inez echoed.
Max looked at each in turn. “You do realize what we’ve done, don’t you?”
“Hijacked a whole world, of course,” Jerry said matter-of-factly.
He took a sip. “That, yes. But if there are two versions, there are undoubtedly more. And versions of us on them as well, all conspiring to jump ship and find better quarters on some other version of the world.”
“Don’t let it go to your head,” Inez warned. “After that crack you made in the White House about the reality-based community got quoted in a tell-all book, I was afraid they were going to have you committed or something.”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But people are willing to believe almost anything, as long as it doesn’t undermine the ground beneath their feet. I got away with that because there’s always some way to cause the truth, however weird it might be, to make sense without changing anything. That’s why everyone just laughed it off as arrogance. But I was serious. What if someone yanks the world back out of our hands?”
“How would we know?” Inez asked pointedly. “We could wake up tomorrow morning to a world in which Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize, and just accept it as a sign that the panel that awards them had lost their minds. It wouldn’t look any more different to us than this world did after we ran our experiment. Something strange happened, sure, but there was a ready explanation for it. In our case, the only evidence was a missing building. If this world gets hijacked, it could be anything, even something so minor that nobody would ever notice.”
Jerry ran a finger around the rim of his glass. “Mankind has done a lot of things to take control of his destiny. It’s taken the form of inventions and discoveries, of wars and treaties, but until now it’s always been limited to this one small planet. But now... Now, we’ve opened the door to a different level of conquest. And the worst thing about it is that you can’t even tell you’ve been conquered. So the world has changed again. So what? That happens all the time. Except that sometimes, sometimes there are a few lucky souls like us, a few people who stepped across the boundary between what is and what might be, and who remember.”
“How can you be so sure?”
She drank the rest of her wine and set the glass down on the sill. “How can you be so sure that there aren’t people out there who can tell when the world’s been yanked one way or another, people who wake up in the morning remembering two different versions of yesterday, and are okay with that. How can you be so sure?”
Max gazed at her for a long moment. “You think that some people can tell? That we weren’t the only ones who know?”
“Stranger things have happened. And if there are, if they do, what else might they be capable of? Is the black science we used to get here the only way to do this? What if those people could do it on their own, if enough of them got together? What would they choose? What’s their idea of the best of all possible worlds?”
He took a long breath, and stared at the clouds. “Got any more of that rotgut?”
“I think I need a drink.”
Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack