*This piece was originally published in Between Worlds Zine, which is no longer around. Bummer.*
In this universe, everyone had shrimp allergies. Other than that, it was the same as Marc’s. Same job, same schedule, same wife, same kid. He swiped left on his phone and the profile picture of the shrimp allergy universe—a cute shot of one of its nebulas—flung to the left and off the screen. The earth underneath him moved with his finger after a small delay. The sky, the people, the buildings and all of the universe’s space-time went along with it, too.
The earth beneath him was the only part of the process that he would call an inconvenience. It almost tripped him every time. It felt like he was standing still on a moving treadmill. He could never time the delay right enough to jump with the swiped universe to avoid stumbling into the next. Reporting the problem yielded one in-app response from the developers: We’re looking into it, Marc. Thank you for being a beta tester. A t-shirt is on its way.
Marc already had a t-shirt.
He swiped left, hopped up into the air, landed on the still-moving earth and fell onto a carpeted floor, holding onto his phone as tight as he could. He was in the local library now. Space-time was never exactly consistent between universes, according to the FAQ on the Inter app. On his second match—a universe where children just adored patricide—he appeared in a different city, half inside a brick wall. In a stroke of luck, the wall made way for him and not the other way around, but it seemed shady of the developers not to put a warning or something in the FAQs. It will affect my review, Marc thought. He doubted they read those.
This universe—its profile picture a fetching shot of its largest galaxy—was erudite. Its bio said as much: Erudite, 13.8 billion years young universe searching for some like-minded individuals. Not just DTE. Looking for the right few. The place looked beyond that adjective to him. The local library was full of people, from young to old, each with their head between the cover of a book—large books, too. Almost novelty sized tomes. In Marc’s home universe, the local library had all but shut down. It had water damage and more raccoons living in its ceiling than people checking out books or reading. This one was not only full, but it was clean. And not in that trite, pure white, dystopian and suppressive way, either. It still had that rustic, old world charm of ornate wood features and shelves. Trolley carts and people with glasses.
He checked his phone. The contacts updated over Inter’s patent pending multiverse Wi-Fi to reflect his life in Erudite. He only had two, now: Pizza and Reggie. His wife’s number was gone, his boss’s too—and all of his friends other than Reggie, who he only met once five years ago at a college party back home. He texted him a smile, thinking he’d need to build a relationship there if he were going to stay. And he was thinking of staying, because why not? He liked books, sort of—he wanted to like them, at least. His mother always used to say he could stand to be better read.
He took a short, solo tour of the library. The building must have taken up three city blocks in size. Shushes broke out from reading areas if he walked too fast through the stacks, so he had to move at a reverent pace. Every other browser in the stacks was doing the same. Marc watched how they moved, then matched their feet.
A woman in a light gray sweater and dark-frame glasses eyed him from the reference desk across the stacks. He spotted her from between two shelves, one shelf of Proust and the other of the Bronte sisters. The woman waved him over. Halfway to her, she sent him a near flat smile.
“Inter, huh?” she said before he could introduce himself. “Lots of you people have been popping up in the past.” She paused. “And the present. I guess the future, too.”
His t-shirt had the company logo in bold on his chest. He got it in the mail with his invitation to be a part of the beta.
The woman continued, “Swiping right? I warn you, his standards are—well—you can see. This is the universe, essentially. Knowledge. Books. You get it.” She judged him from shaved head to sneakered toe.
“He?” Marc asked. “They don’t have genders.”
“They. Whatever. Do you like to read?” Tying back her hair, she spoke like she already knew the answer.
“I love to read. Proust is my favorite.” Think of a novel, Marc thought. Something intelligent.
“Proust is a blowhard—some okay ideas in Lost Time, though.” She rested her head on her hand. Someone coughed.
“The Bronte sisters are good.” Think of a damn novel from high school. Wuthering what. Wuthering what.
“That’s more like it. Emily or Charlotte—Anne?”
His left hand vibrated. He’d been holding the phone for so long he couldn’t feel it much when it shook anymore. He held his index finger up to the woman and excused himself from the question. The phone’s screen brightened with a text message from Reggie:
“Hey, Marc. I can’t talk. Reading Wind in the Willows again. Mr. Toad, man! Living the life, right? Pizza later before book reports?”
Marc had no idea what to say to most of that. Home’s Reggie wouldn’t touch a book, as far as he knew. He was so far out of his depth here, but if thrown into a foreign country, one will be forced to learn the language. He never challenged himself at home; no one challenged him at home. Now the entire universe would challenge him—force him to be better. And then—out of the castle mists of his memory—a book appeared, lithe and seductive. Victorian and Romantic.
“Dracula!” Marc said, rushing back over to the reference desk, his eyes wide. “By Bram Stoker. They killed him with knives, you know. Not a stake.” He smiled—a haughty one. “That’s a common misconception, popularized by the ancient Universal film.” That sounded so good, he thought. Erudite enough, surely. This would be him, now: a resident of this universe. One of those people in the library with their noses touching a world on paper, engaging the theater of the mind.
The reference woman shut a tome—The Incomplete Works of Everyone—after adding a blood red Returned stamp to an infinite list of them on the first page. She shut the thing with some speed, too, and it thundered. No one in the library minded the sound—however loud—of a shutting book.
“You look so proud,” she said. “You know this isn’t an interview. Just swipe.”
Marc figured, “Maybe I should chat with it first.” He opened Inter on his phone again and tapped the chat icon. He typed an innocuous greeting—hello—and sent it out. The label beneath his message went from sent to read.
“Just swipe,” Erudite responded.
The reference woman nodded in an assured way. She scratched her pointed nose and sat back. “I’ve met your parallel here. The Erudite Marcus, trim and slim-fitted. Chatted me up right where you’re standing every day. Brought me coffee.”
“And?” he said. “Everyone has coffee here.” Everyone did have coffee. Marc could see an espresso machine in the back office.
“It’s the gesture,” she said. “But he left us too, when Inter came calling.” She raised an eyebrow. “Say Erudite accepts you—say you measure up. He left eventually. Wouldn’t you? Is there such a thing as a ‘place’ for you anywhere?”
Marc rebutted. “We are not our parallels.”
The reference woman had nothing to say to that. She smirked and went back to her duties.
Marc swiped right. The earth didn’t move. He held his breath. A loading icon swirled, overlayed on the universe’s profile, for three seconds. Then the earth moved, quicker than all the others had. Not a match—an explicit rejection. Marc tripped, near tumbled, into the next universe, clutching his phone to his chest.
Marc should have guessed right away by the profile picture—a racy shot of some black hole—that Uber-Fantasia, the next universe, wasn’t quite correct. Marc blushed for a second when he saw the picture, then wondered if he should even be blushing. Maybe, he thought, it would be a fun universe to hang around in after being so mistreated by Erudite. Its bio: Every dream you can imagine is mine to make real. You bet your atoms I’m DownToExpand. Wink.
Universes never use emoticons.
Marc tripped into his bedroom, it looking the same as Home’s. The contacts on his phone: Pizza, Reggie, , ^*&%, and then further assortments of symbols, down through the list. He called Reggie, who answered before the first ring.
“Marc!” Reggie said, his jovial voice well-realized. “How’s it going? Could you do me a big favor?”
“You’re on my phone again. We barely know each other, Reggie.” Marc sat on his bed; it was pristine like it had never even been used.
“I get that! You always know the right things to say. But dude, do you have a credit card on hand? I found just what you’re looking for.”
Marc’s phone buzzed in his ear with a text from Reggie. He put the phone on speaker.
“Lonely? Tap the link for your dream: httpi://connectioninter.dte.com” A notification from Inter popped up in a balloon next to it. “Warning: We’ve detected that you’re in a charlatan universe. Swipe left or tap the home button. A t-shirt is on its way.”
“Why would you care if I’m lonely?” Marc said, his finger hovering over the link. “You’re not real.”
“I’m real. I’m still a parallel Reggie. Your best friend, Marc.” Reggie said this with empty conviction.
“We met once.”
“I know. It’s sad, isn’t it? You only met your best friend once.”
“Sasha got pregnant that night—around that night. Three days later and I was on a pretty set path, Reggie.” His finger drifted closer to the link. “And even now that I’ve seen so many different paths—thousands, now—none of them have been all that satisfying. Either that or the satisfying ones didn’t want me.” Some static trickled into Marc’s ear during the pause after. “And how much would this cost?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Reggie said. “Just use your parallel’s emergency card; I’m sure it’s wherever you keep yours.”
Back home, at Inter’s beta orientation held at a dirigible hotel in Pasadena, the company glossed over parallels in one of their video presentations. A beta invite is only given out to those with parallels who have also applied in their respective universes, they said. When pressed on this in the Q&A portion of the evening, they fired t-shirts from a cannon into the crowd. The atmosphere was rich with excitement and merchandise. Everyone thought of themselves as the brave new frontiersmen and women because that’s what Inter kept saying: they shoved buzzwords like “elite” and “select few” and “cromulent” down the masses’ throats.
Space was almost conquered—or at least conquered enough for the population to lose interest. Flying cars were a scant two-thousand dollar bill. Inter asked what else. It asked what else to a conference room full of waiters and bank tellers like Marc. A few academics, too—adjunct professors and school teachers. Only a handful of those who Marc would say were prepared for the beta test—military personnel, cosmonauts, a couple of self-aware robots—were invited. But still, Inter asked them all, equally, what else.
Marc ended the call with Reggie and deleted the text. He shouldn’t steal from this parallel, out there on Inter trying to find the same thing as him. Or out there on Inter scamming other universes like a charlatan. He hadn’t thought about the latter before deleting the text. He lay back and took a nap in his bed, on top of the comforter. A respite before swiping left.
Sasha was resting next to him—facing him, her eyes open—when he woke up. In his foggy, half-asleep state, he reached out and tried to touch her. But she was just an image, and his hand went clear through.
“Is everyone a hologram here?” Marc said, pulling his hand out of her stomach with some frightened speed.
“No, Marcus, we build our dead celebrities from organic material,” Sasha said, her soft cocoa features as pleasant as they were at home. She had scan lines roving across her mellow brown eyes. She smiled like she would when she was half-joking.
His hologram son, four years old and spritely, came into the room and jumped on the bed with his parents. He had no weight to him, so he didn’t depress the mattress, but he still acted like any child jumping on a bed.
“Now why did this Marcus leave?” Sasha said, sitting up on her knees, her son hopping behind her.
Marcus got up and went to the touchscreen wall across the room. He tapped it twice to change it to a window. Outside, on a summer day in the city, hologram people were going about their business like any real people might. Uber-Fantasia was much closer to Home than he’d realized. He pinched together and opened his fingers on a hologram dog playing hologram Frisbee in the park; the window zoomed in and tracked the genuine, jubilant pup. Just a charlatan universe? Marcus didn’t believe that. Filled with scams or not, this was a universe as real as any other.
“The same reason your Marcus left, I think.” He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.
“And what’s that?”
Marc turned away from the window. He shrugged. “I don’t know. For him. For his sanity, maybe.”
“Well, if you see my Marcus, tell him to keep that finger off the home button.” She caught their son mid-bounce and tickled him, both of them making monster noises. “We’re fine. We’re just fine.”
“My Sasha would say the same.”
“Yeah, we’re kind of smart.” That smile again. It didn’t do much for him anymore.
Marc picked his phone up off the bedspread and opened the Inter tab. “Could you forgive him?”
He swiped left before she could answer, deciding it was best not to know.
Please just stay. Not DTE. So needy in its bio, thought Marc, but not ashamed of it. This unnamed universe—its profile picture just some nondescript black and white tree, the kind Marc had seen on Venus—was empty, save for the universe. Marc didn’t stumble or trip into anything but a vast expanse, floating and spinning among the galaxies and cosmic dust. He could breathe, though, and his contacts—Pizza, Reggie—had updated. His phone lit up with an Inter chat request from the unnamed universe. Marc accepted.
“Hello?” it said in text. “Don’t swipe left, please. Not yet. I have a lot to offer. I’m giving you oxygen right now, but I can do so much more.”
“Hello,” Marc said, saying it aloud as he typed to drown out the sheer silence. “I won’t. What’s your name?”
“Oh, thank you. So many Inter users show up and just leave when they see me. Your parallels included, Marcus.”
Marc thought about swiping left just when he arrived, but then he thought that is exactly the kind of thing he and his parallels would do—the sort of thing Erudite probably hated. More than that, though, he thought to be needed by the universe would be nice.
“Your name?” Marc said.
“I haven’t had one of those before. Let me think.”
Floating in the aether, he watched comets flow by like highway traffic. He snapped a picture of himself with Andromeda in the background while waiting, then tried cross-posting it to all twenty of his social media accounts, but he didn’t get much of a signal.
Someone had taken his wallet—that hologram Sasha was the only one that could have, but he let it go. She deserves it, he thought. It felt something like penance.
The universe said, “I’m glad you waited. I’ll be Elder.”
Marc could imagine its voice now; it sounded, in his head, like the comforting droll of a bygone grandparent. “Elder? How old are you?”
“Older than most.”
Cosmic dust swirled in the distance. A meteor burst into a trillion pieces and joined the dust for a radiant, harmonic waltz. They danced toward Marc, becoming a heated and molten one halfway there. The combination cooled moments before its gravitational pull embraced him and laid him down against its earth. The land was only just wide enough for him to sit on cross-legged.
“What would you like?” Elder asked. “More earth? Oceans? People?”
“A park would be nice—some birds, too.”
“There are plenty of atoms to make a park and some birds.”
A seagull evolved right next to Marc from an atom to a cell, and so on. When it reached the Oviraptorosaur stage, he had Elder pause the evolution for a minute so he could behold the reptile. It tried to tear his throat out, so the process continued soon after. When complete, the bird ruffled its feathers and yelled at Marc.
More cosmic dust and fragments of asteroids and the like joined his small, floating rock. A meteor—careful not to spill—brought water over. It crashed into the short earth, forming a basin of cold liquid. Blades of grass spread outward from the pool. Then a tree sprouted from the ground and grew as if it were in time-lapse before Marc’s eyes. It moved through the seasons of its life, settling in the late fall, when its plumage was most varied in color. It shed its leaves and split into fine timber, which Marc used to build a small bench—like his dad once showed him—facing the water. Another autumn tree took its place, pushing the roots of the old one out of the earth. The seagull flew over the water like they do. It dived down and ate one of the two evolving fish beneath the surface and had eyes on the other.
Marc called Reggie, who didn’t answer. The number Marc had dialed was not in service. He hit send on Pizza, which didn’t answer either.
“Elder,” he said, frustrated. “Do Reggie and pizza exist here? Their contacts showed up.” Another bug, thought Marc.
“Pizza is the one constant. Reggie must be your personal constant.”
“We met once,” Marc said in a feeble way. “Is he here?”
“Murdered, I think. About ninety billion years ago, some mugging went wrong. His atoms—traces of him out there—must be giving off a signal to the app. That is some connection.” She put an ellipsis after her last sentence.
“You are old. It must be lonely.” Reggie’s murder was not lost on Marc, but there are infinite more Reggies, he told himself. Still, he wanted to talk about it with someone the way he would if a loved one had died. This universe wasn’t equipped to help him. It seemed more jealous than anything.
Elder laughed—an uneasy one. “Did my profile not give that away? I just want one last someone to spend these final days—eons—with. Soon I’ll be all black holes and absolute zero temperatures. I don’t need much.”
“I won’t live eons.”
“I could split you apart on an atomic level and make that possible. I can make many things possible. You can outlast the slim lifespan of this app and every other one that will come out after.”
“No,” Marc said. “That’s okay. That’s not what I’m looking for.” Elder didn’t respond right away as it had been, so Marc followed up with: “But this is good—this is nice.” For the time being, at least. He couldn’t stream any music but found he had a song pre-loaded onto his phone. Something he’d never heard. It would do for whenever it was too quiet. Whenever he ached for a human voice.
Elder was too old to do much for Marc, despite its assertions. It built him a city, but the walls had the consistency of sand and the place half-crumbled into cosmic dust and fragments of dirt. Marc asked for more people, but they never evolved past apes. It did give him books—tomes similar to and larger than Erudite’s—,but he didn’t read them. The universe didn’t force him to read.
A few Inter users showed up over the next days, only to see Marc alone with his seagull and a family of apes, drifting across space in their park and ruined metropolis—a four-mile slice of a planet—like a captain and crew on a ship.
“Is this all there is?” asked one, a Chinese cosmonaut Marc remembered seeing at the beta orientation. She didn’t accept Elder’s chat request and just swiped left.
“I should take the profile down,” Elder said.
“No,” Marc snapped back, sitting against the tree under the apes who didn’t care for him much. He startled the seagull, who he had begun talking to whenever he spoke with Elder. It helped to put a face—any face—to her voice.
“I’m sorry,” Elder said. “Don’t leave.”
He still hadn’t swiped left or right, and he could tell Elder was getting impatient; all their conversations led to that issue, one way or the other. Left, he thought; he couldn’t be here like this anymore. It’s just one swipe, and it would be over. No. He had to tell Elder first—he had to be better than he was with Sasha. After tapping play on his one song, he put the phone down on the grass next to him. He stood up and stretched, shutting his eyes to enjoy the guitar and piano beginnings of the driving, obscure power ballad.
A spool of cosmic dust unraveled across the park grounds. The apes climbed into the tree—the seagull, too. The dust lifted Marc’s phone from the ground before he noticed its chilling, gritty presence around his ankles.
“Marcus,” said a human voice—Marcus’s voice.
Marcus opened his eyes to see a cosmic dust construction of himself—a cosmic parallel—holding his phone in its glistening hand. The music continued to play.
It said, “I think I’ll swipe right for you, Marcus.”
“Elder,” Marcus said, reaching out for his phone and stepping closer. He thought back to the Inter FAQ: A match is binding in beta. Updates forthcoming. “Elder, I’m going to swipe right. Don’t worry. I’ll do it right now.” He spoke in a soft tone, as he would to a frightened animal.
Elder-Marc let Marc take his phone back but moved beside him so it could see exactly what Marc was doing. Marc, shaking some from his lie, opened Inter. He put his finger against Elder’s profile and was only able to half-swipe left before Elder-Marc caught on and knocked him to the ground. More cosmic dust rolled in and formed other parallels. They held Marc down and wrenched the phone from his hand, their touch—his touch—chafing his skin.
Marc said, “You can do all this, but you can’t build a city, Elder?” He struggled.
“I’m killing myself doing this, Marc,” Elder said with the parallels’ mouths. “For both our sakes. You never stay—none of your parallels wanted to, and neither do you. You should be different—decent and sympathetic to a dyingthing. But no, you are your parallels and they are you.”
“We are not our parallels,” Marc said.
“You shouldn’t be, no. You should deviate in some sizable ways—choices made, people met, actions taken. Instead, Marcus, all of you leave. Not one has found their match. There is a constant to your core, Marc. Across all universes, there is a constant to your core.”
Marc seethed at the universe. She was trying to trick him, he thought.
A sun went supernova a safe distance away from his slice of planet, but its light silhouetted the place like fireworks would.
Marc tore through the cosmic parallel hands holding him after a few moments of struggle. They were strong dust, but still just dust. He surged at this parallel and sank his fist into and through its face. He could scrap; he could fight. Elder-Marc stepped out of the punch, unfazed and with its finger against the screen positioned in the perfect swipe right position. Marc went for his phone and managed to tear it and the parallel’s hand away. The hand crumbled. In the tussle, they’d opened Rocket Racers, a self-explanatory game. The cosmic parallels were on him in swift measure. He tackled one into dust, landing so their faces touched for a moment before one crumbled away.
Another star burst to death. This one was closer.
Marc fled, fiddling with his phone as he went.
Some other star died. This one shook the city to more pieces.
His phone was slow—Racers always took up too much RAM with its advertisements. He gave it a two-star review because of this, and the developers did nothing about it. He passed the edge of the park and headed down the diminishing city streets, checking on the cosmic parallels giving chase after the first block. There were only two now. He went another block, and the pursuers dwindled to one. At the edge of the city, Marc stopped just outside an empty pizza parlor, which smelled like a bustling shop—cheese and pepperoni and dough.
Inter opened, greeting Marc with its minimalist logo.
Across the expanse of Elder, Marc watched a billion stars die brilliantly at once. Elder-Marc crawled, unable to maintain much shape, looking like a cheap department store mannequin discarded in the middle of a street. It left a trail of cosmic dust behind it. Marc went over, his finger over Elder’s profile picture.
“What is there, Marcus?” this Elder Marc asked. “What else is there for you?” Its eyes were his.
“There are infinite universes,” Marcus said, grinding his words. “Something else is bound to be in one of them.”
“They are all finite. I can’t go through this alone, Marcus. You’re needed here.”
Marc thought about Reggie. They did hit it off, five years ago. They talked like old, dear friends as soon as they met. That’s what he wanted, now—for now. Sure. A new universe with Reggie.
The back of the phone burned in his hand. Marc looked down at Elder; pieces of her fell away with each rupturing star. He pressed his finger against the screen and swiped.
Unfortunately, Inter has stopped.