Double Jointed a story by Shirley
Fresh from a shower, Paula was still wrapped in a towel as she used a wrench to tighten up the shower head where it was leaking. After a final torque, she took the wrench out of her field of view and waited. As she stared, the water slowly gathered and dripped in a heavy drop. She decided it was good enough and put the wrench back on the floor, where it had been since the leak started. She took off her glasses to put lotion on her face. There was a slight metallic smell on her hands from the wrench that mixed with the scent of the lotion.
From the bathroom, she could hear the television in the main room quietly playing the news. Before the newscaster said goodnight, they read out the latest cautionary message, “A reminder to all residents in the area: due to the high air quality index readings from the fires, there is a stay-at-home advisory with instructions to keep all windows closed. Continue to monitor the AQI levels and use a filtered mask if you must be outdoors.”
As she put her glasses back on, Paula called out, “Russ? Did you take Satchel on his last out?”
“Yeah,” Russ answered loudly enough so Paula could hear.
“Did he poo?”
Satchel’s collar clanged against his water bowl as he lapped up some refreshment before he crunched on his dog kibble. Russ shut off the television and the sounds of the news were replaced with him stacking plates as he started to do the dishes.
Paula got dressed and fished her asthma inhaler out from the drawer under the sink. She checked to see how many doses were left and pondered for a moment whether or not to use up one of them. She decided to take a puff and then proceeded to brush her teeth as she haphazardly tossed the inhaler back into the cluttered drawer.
After finishing up in the bathroom, she flicked off the light. The light from the kitchen did not bend around the hallway and it was dark. Before her eyes fully adjusted, she effortlessly made the short trip to the bed via muscle memory and sat on the edge of the mattress to kick off her slippers.
As she reached to take off her glasses, an unsettling feeling flowed through her body. She could still hear Russ and Satchel in the other room, but she felt a presence right next to her.
Her heart rate rose and a flush of heat crept up behind her ears and around the sides of her face. She reached for the lamp on the nightstand with one hand and tried to steady herself with the other. Her hand planted on something unexpected.
Startled, she missed the lamp switch and accidentally punched the lampshade. Both hands instinctually grabbed forward to catch the lamp.
“Ouch!” A voice exclaimed.
Paula jumped up and switched on the lamp. She stood with her back firmly against the wall as she clutched the lamp without a lampshade to her chest. She stared back at where she was just sitting and saw a woman rubbing the side of her head.
“What the hell, babe?” The woman groggily muttered with her eyes still closed.
That’s when Paula saw that a man was also in the bed, tucked under the covers. He woke up from a deep sleep and turned to face them, “Hmm? What?”
The woman’s eyes slowly opened and met with Paula’s gaze.
They screamed in identical pitch at the sight of each other.
Russ and Satchel came running from the other room. Satchel’s barking and heavy-pawed steps boisterously announced their arrival. Russ was still wearing dishwashing gloves and water droplets trailed from the kitchen to the entrance of the bedroom.
From in between Satchel’s barks, the sound of a small sneeze drew Paula’s attention down to a basket on the floor full of clean laundry that she planned to fold anytime between later and never. Resting on top of the laundry was a sleeping baby.
The woman threw off the covers and jumped out of the bed toward the laundry basket. “My baby!”
She scooped up the baby and jumped back onto the bed where she and the man, now fully awake, huddled with their backs against the headboard. They reached toward their temples as if to tame a headache.
Other than Satchel’s barking, everyone was silent and bewildered. Russ herded Satchel into the bathroom. Shutting the door effectively quieted his barking which left Paula, Russ, the woman, the man, and the baby in an eerily quiet room.
With a fully lit space and everybody in an upright position, they all realized that despite slight differences, the woman and man were doubles of Paula and Russ. It was like a pair of twin couples looking at each other.
The woman held the baby to her chest and backed up closer into the arms of the man. Her voice cracked as she began to speak, “Where are we? Who are you?”
The baby was now awake, but seemed relaxed and cooed at the ceiling. With the baby present, Paula tried to keep her voice at a calm volume but spoke an octave higher than usual. “‘Who are we?’ Who are you! You’re in our bed!”
Just as things seemed like they were about to escalate, illuminated projections appeared. They were made of small sources of light, the size of grains of sand. The light grains grouped together like pixels in front of the faces of the people on the bed, including the baby. The projection was in the shape of a flat rectangle, but the image was visible from most angles with minimal distortion. The television in the bedroom and Paula’s phone lit up. They could also hear the startup chime of Russ’s desktop in the other room. All the screens that turned on showed the same image as the projections. It was of two people laughing.
Paula and Russ recognized the people, or at least one of them. It was Zephyr Gingham, an attention-hungry entrepreneur, putting his arm around what looked like his twin. They were both smiling from ear to ear.
They all felt a deep vibration that turned into audio. It was not overwhelming, but it sounded as if it was playing directly into their heads.
“Hello!” the two Zephyrs chimed in unison. They looked at each other and laughed as they each pretended to give the other right-of-way. It was apparent they both wanted to speak first. One of them stole the moment.
“Hello, people of this Earth! I can’t believe I’m saying that. Well, we have visitors! It’s only been a few minutes since our special guests have arrived and with the high-tech intel I’ve just received I can already say, this whole situation is more fantastical than you can imagine.”
Zephyr could hardly contain his giddiness and looked over to his twin with a big smile. “Well, I mean, I’ve definitely been working on this tech and I know a lot about it already, but it’s just really great to see it in action.”
He inhaled as if to speak but halted even though nobody was stopping him. Then he waved his hands as if he was declining dessert and said, “Okay, okay, I was going to get into it, but I’ll let the visitor Zephyr say it. Or, let’s call him ‘V-Zephyr’. V! For visitor that comes in peace!” He put his hand with two fingers up to make a peace sign.
V-Zephyr smiled back at Zephyr in a way that seemed like he was already annoyed with him. He did a quick eye roll before facing the broadcast and turning his charm up to maximum. “Hello, everybody! Thanks to my very good looking friend here for getting us started.”
He gestured toward Zephyr, whose grin grew wider.
V-Zephyr raised his eyebrows and took a deep breath as he got to the point. “I apologize to everybody that it took so long to contact you. It took me almost four whole minutes to ensure proper audio and subtitle localization could reach you all using this tech. Seeing the rudimentary state of the technology on this world has informed me that I need to simplify my explanation of what is going on.”
The condescending jab made Zephyr’s grin shrink to a closed mouth. He crossed his arms before V-Zephyr continued.
“I have calculated about sixty percent of our respective populations are side by side with our doubles right now. This was an error on our part but, I assure you, this is nothing to worry about.”
Putting his two palms together, he intertwined his fingers to visualize a cross-hatch. “Imagine a moment in time as a sheet of fabric, but instead of being flat and woven together with regular thread, it is nebulous and linked by a complex series of interlocking labyrinths that each hold the same moment, but in a different reality.”
He then straightened out his fingers to pantomime a fish swimming in water. “And every turn you take is a chance to follow a path to where the labyrinths potentially overlap. That is where it is possible to exchange information and knowledge.”
Nodding to nobody in particular, he pulled his hands apart and held them in a position like a professor would before delivering a lesson. “A long time ago, we discovered the ability to connect between the infinite realities where they meet. This information has allowed us to anonymously and infinitely advance our own knowledge and, in turn, help other worlds advance theirs.”
In the background, Zephyr had been latently mimicking V-Zephyr’s pantomimes to act like he understood the explanation, but it was apparent he did not understand it at all. At some point, he transitioned to making movements like he was shooting free throws into a basketball hoop.
V-Zephyr was distracted by all the activity in his periphery and paused to recenter himself. After a moment, he made the decision to stop trying to teach the history of the phenomenon and to start explaining how to fix the current situation. “The moral treatment of this technology is to only transfer knowledge between the worlds, not matter.”
He pressed his palms back together into a prayer pose, asking for forgiveness. “And this brings me to our error. The short version of the story is, we are in a testing phase for a GRAIN upgrade that was supposed to roll out during the holidays. As you can tell, it rolled out prematurely, and wrong! But don’t worry, before encountering and indoctrinating the moral code, we had a wealth of experience in jumping and we fully understand how to jump back to our path. We’ll be out of here as soon as possible. As I said, the tech here is really, really slow. I have to code the old-fashioned way and it might take a few minutes.”
Zephyr felt slighted from the comments about the technology he usually paraded as his own prized innovation. He squirmed in his seat and his face was now in a full frown.
V-Zephyr brought his hand up to the side of his face and pointed to his temple where a dim light pulsated from below the skin. “So, people from my world, you’ve probably noticed that other than this broadcast, your GRAIN doesn’t function. We need the full wavelength to be clear to prepare for the jump back, so they’ll be turned off again after this. None of the tech on this world is on the same level as the GRAIN, therefore it doesn’t conflict.
Oh, and about this world, I’ve also heard news of some contagious viruses, environmental and atmospheric issues, and some other problems depending on circumstances…? Wow.”
He produced a grimace on his face and sucked in air through his teeth. It was an expression of sympathy along with an equal amount of relief that it was not his problem. “For the people of my world, don’t worry. When we get back your GRAINs will conduct a scan and we’ll all go through a diagnostic wipe in the crystal ships, similar to your biweekly health scans and wipes. Those of you who got the new hardware trial, your implant incisions may not have completely healed yet. Make sure your GRAIN remains firmly implanted. Don’t pick at it!”
The GRAIN in V-Zephyr’s temple lit up brighter, perhaps to drive the point home on how important it was to make sure the visitors kept it safe to enable their jump back. Zephyr was absolutely hypnotized by it.
V-Zephyr addressed his hosts, “And for the people of this world, I’ve started to download much of the information of our tech into your data centers that can hopefully be of help, but there is just so little data space and it is so slow. I’ll transfer as much as I can while I code our jump out of your way! Everybody sit tight and I’ll let you know when we’re ready to go.”
The broadcast abruptly ended. All the screens and GRAIN projections went dark.
Russ sidestepped toward Paula which made V-Russ and V-Paula tense up. He put one hand on Paula’s arm and realized he still had dishwashing gloves on. He snapped them off and threw them over his shoulder before putting his arm around Paula.
He flashed a polite smile. “Okay, I think we can agree that this is, uh, quite… unreal. Or, at least to us,” he said as he motioned between himself and Paula. “And don’t worry, we’re not sick. We have been distanced for about two weeks and just did a test yesterday. Maybe we, uh. Maybe we could all go calm down over some tea!”
Russ opened the bathroom door on his way out to the kitchen. Satchel associated teatime with treat time and had heard the exciting news through the door. He wagged his tail but paused to look at V-Russ on the bed in the same way he would look at a reflection of Russ in the mirror. Satchel’s floppy ears perked up and his muzzle was at a concentrated point. He remained still until the sound of water filling a kettle broke his trance and he remembered the prospect of treats. He happily trotted out of the bedroom. The sound of his nails clicking on the floor echoed in the hallway.
Paula loosened her grip on the lamp she was still holding and slowly put it on the nightstand. She tried to balance a now-crumpled lampshade on it and gave the couple an awkward smile. Still maintaining her distance for both their comfort and hers, she used her big toe to drag each of her slippers closer to her. She jammed her feet into them and shuffled out of the room while blurting out, “See you out there!”
She made an attempt to tidy up and, while it was still quite messy, she successfully got the dining table cleared off. Russ set out mugs and an assortment of teas. Slowly but surely, V-Paula, V-Russ, and the baby emerged from the bedroom. The main room was better lit than the bedroom. They stood at opposite ends of the dining table and got better looks at each other. They observed their similarities and differences.
V-Paula and V-Russ wore smooth silk pajama sets and had a youthful and spry demeanor. Paula and Russ wore limp piecemeal pajamas and had an invisible weight on their shoulders.
Both Paula and V-Paula had the same birthmark on their arms, but only Paula had a vaccination scar next to her birthmark. Both Russ and V-Russ had facial hair, but V-Russ did not have the hairless patch on the side of his jaw from an old injury like Russ had.
Where a small bump of flesh housed the GRAIN on V-Paula’s and V-Russ’s temples, Paula and Russ instead had deep smile lines.
They marveled at the sight of each other until the whistle of the tea kettle broke their concentration.
“Russ got me this rapid boil kettle for my birthday! Or, I guess our birthday?” Paula said pointing between herself and V-Paula.
They all let out their own version of a polite laugh and motioned to sit down. The visitors looked down at the chairs and inspected them until they eventually sat in their seats. Paula pushed the assortment of teas closer to the center of the table and took off her slippers before tucking her legs into a crosslegged position on her chair. She and Russ made their choices and dipped the teabags in to steep. V-Paula and V-Russ kept their hot waters plain.
“Is it okay if a borrow a small blanket or scarf or something? I think I’m going to feed her,” V-Paula asked as she squeezed the baby’s foot.
Paula enthusiastically jumped up, “Oh! Of course!”
She didn’t take the time to put her slippers back on and padded on bare feet to the bedroom. She picked up a towel from the same laundry basket the baby was lying in and made it back to the dining table in record time. “Here you go! This one’s clean.”
V-Paula smiled and took a quick sniff of the towel to make sure it smelled fresh. She hesitated for a moment and then draped it over herself and the baby.
“What is her name?” Russ asked quietly.
“PJ! She’s 9 months,” V-Russ belted out proudly.
“You don’t have any children?” V-Paula prodded as she looked around the room.
Paula shook her head and explained, “We tried for a while, but it didn’t work out.”
Paula and Russ got used to replying with that explanation when asked about children, but they had not fully come to terms with it.
“Oh, with us it was first try, and boom. Pregnant. I almost wasn’t ready! But I just can’t imagine our lives without our little one here. We are so lucky.” V-Paula smiled as she pinched the baby’s thighs. PJ’s feet kicked from under the towel.
Paula’s eyes remained somber, but the edges of her mouth pointed into a smile and she exhaled a laugh, “That’s great.”
After a few beats of silence, Russ cut in with an anecdote, “We’ve got our little Satchel though!”
Satchel happily nibbled on some treats that Russ lodged into a toy in an attempt to make them last longer.
Paula’s eyes changed into a genuine smile and she pivoted the conversation. “So, what do you all do?”
V-Russ perked up and seemed to like the transition to smalltalk. “Paula and I both work for Popsi.”
“Oh, like the drink?” Paula asked.
“Yeah, among other things. Like, they invented these GRAINs,” V-Paula pointed to her temple.
V-Russ elaborated. “Guided Resonance Amplitude In Nanotechnology. It was the Gingham family that discovered the application for the GRAINs through some old machinery and archaic coding. But that was many years in the past, I don’t even know how many generations ago. They’ve run Popsi ever since and Zephyr’s the head of it now.”
Paula’s and Russ’s eyes grew wide and they inquired with syncopated questions.
“Used quantum computing?”
“And invented a technology that enabled travel between universes?”
V-Russ smiled, “Yeah, they used to do periodic jumping in the past, but now they’re primarily used for information and communication. Before I went on family leave, I was working with an interactive building model that people of all ages can play collaboratively and build into the real world. It’s supposed to go live with the holiday upgrade. I can’t wait to get back to it. We both work in the entertainment division. I’m in toys and Paula’s in writing.”
This piqued Russ’s interest, “Oh, yeah?”
V-Paula chimed in. “Yeah! Well, it feels like forever since we’ve been able to dive in. Russ has been spending so much time at his workbench at home, making mockups and things. But we’re both really excited to get back to work in about three months or so.”
V-Russ made a silly face. “I know, we’re going back a bit early, but we just love our projects and we hate the feeling of not creating. But I guess it’s a perk to still get paid as we spend time with this little one. What do you both do?”
Russ and Paula were in the middle of doing the mental math of how much time the visitors’ world had in paid family leave from work and were caught a bit off guard with the question. They both had been in and out of jobs for the last year and longed for the time and financial security to enjoy all the things that a lot of people want to do, like raise a family and pursue their creative dreams.
Paula answered for the both of them. “Uh, we’re in between things right now.”
“Oh,” V-Paula and V-Russ acknowledged.
Russ’s phone buzzed with a video call alert which surprised everyone. He looked down at the lit up screen to see who it was. “Ugh, it’s Chester.”
“Ugh,” Paula groaned in the affirmative.
V-Paula’s face brightened. “Oh, Chester!”
Paula tried to hide her aversion to the man. “Is he your landlord, too?”
V-Paula shook her head, “He’s our dearest friend!”
Russ swiped the phone screen to answer the call. There were two Chesters filling up the screen, one with a face of disdain and the other with a face of pure glee.
Chester spoke with a monotone voice, “He wouldn’t shut up until I called you.”
V-Chester spoke with great energy, “Hi, Russ! Oh, you look terrible! Did the jump do that to you? Where’s Paula?”
Russ realized V-Chester mistook him for V-Russ and flipped the phone around to point the front facing camera at the visitors. He reached out his arm to get the phone closer so they could see each other better. Their faces lit up from the brightness of the screen and at the sight of the Chesters.
V-Chester’s voice boomed from the phone speakers, “There you are! Where’s my little princess?”
V-Paula plucked PJ off from feeding and brought her out from under the towel. She held her up and said, “Here she is, Uncle Chessy!”
“There’s my Princess PJ with that cute little milk-drunk face!” He waved emphatically before switching his attention to talk to PJ’s parents. He kept the same high energy level and animated facial expressions as he talked to them. “Apparently we’re just across the street from each other but there’s something wrong with the air and some people are sick and keeping separate? So I thought I’d just link with you instead, but then I remembered the GRAIN wavelength is being conserved. Then finally! This guy here, he finally said we could link using this phone thingy.”
“It’s all so weird isn’t it? It’s like we’re trapped in some dystopian fiction novel! I mean, this is seriously giving me the best writing prompts!” V-Paula guffawed, forgetting her current company.
“Oh, stop it, P! Russ, you need to keep an eye on her!”
“Oh, you know I try!” V-Russ responded with an open-mouthed smile. “So, are we still on for lunch?”
“If we can ever get out of this place!” V-Chester’s near yell turned into laughter.
Russ had been holding the phone across the table with a fully extended arm and he adjusted his weight slightly to relieve his elbow. Paula cleared her throat and took a sip of her tea, hoping that these actions reminded others that they were within earshot.
Chester, unable to roll his eyes any further, had no qualms about interrupting the conversation. “Yeah, they’ll see you when the Doomsday Clock strikes midnight.”
The screen went dim, as did the visitors’ faces. Russ turned the phone back around to see what happened. “Oh, it looks like he hung up.”
“Sorry, the Chester we know is kind of an ass. But it’s good you get along with the Chester from your world though!” Paula remedied.
PJ cooed. V-Paula looked down at the baby and smiled. Her smile turned into a flurry of investigative sniffs. “Uh oh. I think we got a steamer. Can I use your bathroom?”
“Of course!” Paula pointed down the hall.
“Give me a hand, would you, Russ?” V-Paula called out.
Instinctually, Russ motioned to get up but he caught himself before making any actual movement. V-Russ sprang up and lightly jogged down the hallway, “I guess it’ll be a family affair!”
They closed the door but everything was audible through the paper thin walls.
V-Paula sounded frustrated. “Here, just hold her up, I don’t want to put her down on anything in here. It’s gross.”
The faucet turned on for a moment and shut off almost immediately. V-Paula’s voice escalated. “No! Just use the paper! I don’t trust the water. Thank goodness they don’t have any kids. They can hardly take care of themselves. This place is a dump.”
V-Russ spoke at exceptional volume. “This whole world seems like a dump, I can’t wait to get out of here.”
V-Paula changed the volume of her voice to more of a whisper. “I’m sure if given the chance, they’d switch places with us in a heartbeat.”
“Well, protect your GRAIN. Don’t give them a chance.” V-Russ’s attempt to whisper was not as successful.
As they overheard the conversation, Paula and Russ looked at each other. They both realized that it was not so far fetched of an idea to want to switch places with people from a better world with better circumstances. They found it difficult to think about anything else and continued to sip on their tea.
Only a minute or two passed before V-Paula and V-Russ came back down the hallway. PJ’s onesie was noticeably less bulky in the area where her diaper had been. V-Paula held out a balled up sheet of premium fabric, “Normally we’d zap this for cleaning, but in this case… is there anywhere I can dispose of this?”
“Oh, yeah. No problem.” Russ got up and took it from her to toss in the trash.
As Russ washed his hands, Paula riffled through a kitchen drawer. “We have some tea towels here. Do you want to use one? For like, a makeshift diaper?”
V-Paula declined. “Oh, no thanks. It’s really important to use the best materials for diapers. It’s what’s best for the baby. She should be fine for now.”
Paula slammed the drawer with a little more strength than she intended and nodded. “Yeah, okay.”
Just as the visitors’ stay was starting to feel a bit too long, all of the nearby screens and the visitors’ GRAIN projections lit up. The audio filled their heads like before. It was only V-Zephyr present on the broadcast this time.
He clapped his hands together. “Well, the time has come! People of this world, thank you so much for offering us your hospitality with your modest possessions during our erroneous stay. Good luck with everything. People of my world, the crystal ships await! Prepare to escape back to normalcy in ninety seconds!”
The broadcast ended and all the GRAIN projections and screens went dark.
“Oh, yes!” V-Paula and V-Russ exclaimed and gathered together. They stood as if they were posing for a family portrait.
Paula and Russ walked over to maybe shake their hands, but it was clear V-Paula and V-Russ did not want to touch anything they did not absolutely have to. They were close enough to see the GRAINs light up in the visitors’ temples. There was also a dim shine from behind their pupils. The light was pretty in a subtle way. Paula thought that she could reach out and touch the GRAIN if she wanted to.
“Well this has definitely been an experience!” V-Russ said as he scratched his temple. The GRAIN was nestled just under the skin and it made a sound like someone flicking their fingernail.
V-Paula held PJ straight out in front of her by her armpits and rocked her like a doll. “Say bye-bye to Auntie Mommy and Uncle Daddy!”
PJ had a big open-mouthed smile on her face and put her arms out. Russ smiled and reached forward with intentions to gently squeeze the baby’s hand, but V-Paula pulled her away, almost like she was taunting him.
Seeing Russ treated that way made Paula angry. She felt a rage inside of her that she had not felt before. She was almost blinded by the emotion and felt a lack of control cloud her inhibitions. Satchel came over to sit near her feet which neutralized her mood. She regained her composure and let out a sigh.
V-Paula almost appeared disappointed but a smile formed on her face and she waved goodbye. V-Russ waved and reached over to make baby PJ wave her little arm, too. V-Paula called out as if they had just completed an evening of dinner and boardgames with friends, “Thank you so much for having us!”
Paula could not believe how annoying her own voice sounded and reluctantly held her hand up to say bye. Russ bent down to help Satchel stand on his hind legs and lifted one of his front paws to wave.
Ninety seconds seemed simultaneously like a long and short amount of time. Their smiles shrunk as the seconds counted down to zero. Then they vanished.
Paula and Russ looked at each other and then looked at Satchel. Satchel wagged his tail. The extra mugs on their table, a balled up towel, some soiled toilet paper in the toilet, and a poopy cloth diaper were proof that everything had just happened, but they were still in a state of disbelief.
They sat next to each other as they finished their tea and looked for some updated news, but there was not much. They expected there to be some sort of special bulletin, but all of the television stations were either off the air or playing regularly scheduled programming. So they put the television on a channel that was playing reruns and scrolled through social media on their phones.
Their screens were filled with image after image of people all over the world with their doubles in all kinds of settings, weather, and timezones. They saw how other people spent their time with their doubles and laughed as they realized they had not even thought to take a picture. They wagered that their experience was boring in comparison to most. It was amazing the creative things people did with their doubles in such a short amount of time and how quickly they got their posts up.
Sets of twins and multiples posted pictures of themselves and their doubles pointing at their childhood photographs that joked #JustAnotherDayForUs.
A dance challenge called #ManInTheMirror already had plenty of renditions that showcased a variety of choreographed dances. Even some celebrities participated and uploaded their own versions. Several of these videos caught the moment of the visitors’ jump on camera.
There were advertisement posts for videos that promised intimate details. “About to make sure we’re identical in every way. Want to see? Sign up for monthly access, cancel at anytime.”
They also noticed posts of complaints from people that did not experience doubles. “Okay, I just landed. What is going on? None of us on this plane had a twin. No fair!”
Other than some complaints of not having a double, there was a surprising lack of negativity on their social media feeds. They checked and saw that, oddly, Zephyr’s accounts all went quiet. His last post was from before the initial broadcast. All it said was, “You’re not going to believe this!!!!”
After clicking around on their phones for about twenty minutes, Russ ended up on his list of recent calls. The list showed a bunch of Paulas, some spam numbers, and Chester. Other than the most recent one, all the other calls from Chester were about rent. Regardless, Russ asked, “Should we… go check on him?
Paula frowned but then nodded in agreement. “What’s the AQI?”
Russ checked his phone. “In the five-hundreds.”
Paula shrugged. “Okay. I guess. Need to drop off rent anyway.”
They dumped the lukewarm water that V-Paula and V-Russ declined into some house plants and put the mugs in the sink with the other dishes.
Russ quickly scribbled the rent check and tore it out. As he put it into an envelope, Paula reached for their masks. It had been a few years of wearing masks for protection from air pollutants and viruses, so Satchel recognized this as a sign they were all going outside. He got excited until Russ said, “We’ll be right back, Satch.”
Satchel relented and rested his chin between his paws. His eyes slowly blinked and closed to prepare for a nap. They put on their masks and shoes and headed out the door.
As soon as they stepped outside, Paula and Russ noticed how quiet it felt and thought it was unusual. Despite the advisories and curfews, there were still always people out and about. After looking both ways, they crossed the empty street.
They reached Chester’s doorstep and Russ knocked on the door. No answer. Paula knocked again. After waiting for a few moments, she took the envelope from Russ to drop in the mail slot through the front door.
Just as she was about to release the envelope, it was snatched out of her grip from the other side. The door forcefully ripped open. A man emerged with a bloody gash in the side of his temple. It looked as if something had violently picked into his skull. Part of his brain was exposed and he was initially unrecognizable.
Russ and Paula reached out and grabbed each other by the forearms. They recoiled at the sight. One of them finally got enough air behind their vocal cords to speak. “Oh my god. Chester? Are you okay?”
It was not Chester. It was V-Chester. As he opened his mouth, his wound began to heal before their eyes. “You know… I shouldn’t be talking to you, but I just have to say it. Every single timeline, he does this.”
He pointed to his head and then put his hand on his hip. “Which, by the way, he doesn’t have to go at so hard. It’s literally right under the surface of the skin and could be taken out with a pair of tweezers.”
He waved the envelope with the rent check enclosed. “And every single timeline, I hear you both come to check on me. Well, I guess you’re checking on him, but you know what I mean. You knock, and you wait, and you earnestly try and talk to the man. When I don’t answer, you still drop this off. It’s sweet, in a way.”
He laughed as he pointed the envelope at Russ and Paula and playfully bopped their masks with it. “Well, not as sweet as it’ll be when a version of you finally makes the grab for the GRAIN! Ah, the GRAIN,” he shook his head, “it’s just a routing and tagging tool. These ones have an automatic jump location that only gets activated when it’s ripped out, like so.”
He tapped the envelope on his temple, blotting what was now only a small amount of blood from a shallow cut. “You’re so primitive here, you don’t even know what a simple livestock tag looks like.”
By this time, V-Chester’s wound was fully healed and he looked better than ever. He shrugged his shoulders and put his hand out like he was about to do a magic trick. “To get where I’m going, you don’t need a ‘GRAIN’. You just need to know where to turn.”
Without the fanfare of the GRAIN illumination like when their doubles jumped, V-Chester vanished. The blood-dotted envelope floated to the ground. Russ and Paula stood perplexed in front of Chester’s empty home.
Chester arrived on the visitor world. The jump left him in a momentary stupor. His head was tilted upward and he was staring directly at the moon. It looked like the same moon he had always known. His eyes focused and he realized he was looking through a skylight from inside a gigantic warehouse. He touched his temple to feel where he had jammed the GRAIN in, but it was smooth. He looked down at the backs of his hands and flipped them over to view his palms as if he were expecting them to be marred or dirty. They were completely clean.
Looking at his immediate surroundings, he noticed he was standing on one stair of a spiral staircase that was along the wall of a large, glass room. Cascading up and down the staircase were other people who looked like they were equally as confused, but also trying to maintain their cool. It was all so overwhelming that until that moment he did not notice he was nude, or that everyone else around him was also nude.
Nearby, he could see other glass rooms identical to the one he was in, full of people. There were so many glass rooms in the warehouse, they went as far as his eyes could see. He remembered the crystal ships that did the health scans that V-Zephyr mentioned and sighed in relief. His heart was still pumping hard and fast from the excitement of the jump and what he did to get there, but he was somewhat relaxed.
A light mist sprayed from all angles of the crystal ship. It tickled and felt sort of refreshing. Some of the moisture seeped through Chester’s slack jaw and landed on his tongue. It tasted sweet.
Just as Chester thought about what the health scan would be like, something from below the staircase began to whir. The depth of the steps grew more shallow and the angle more acute as the mechanical sound intensified. It got to the point where he had to put his hands out in front of him to not slide into the person on the step below. The person behind him did the same thing and ended up causing a domino effect of falling bodies. The mist made everything slippery and nobody was able to gain good footing. Annoyed grunts turned into screams as the crystal ships started to move and turn on their sides. The ninety degree turn caused people from the opposite ends of the ship to come crashing down onto the side Chester was frivolously trying to grasp onto. The sounds of hands and feet sliding against the walls of the crystal ship squeaked mercilessly.
Chester was face to face with a man who had fallen on top of him. It was Zephyr Gingham. Just as he made this realization, the crystal ship started to turn another ninety degrees. Muffled screams turned into silence. The ramps that were once the spiral staircases turned into sharp blades. The ships were now in the correct, upside down position for the next step.
The sounds of the blenders overtook all else until the process was complete. A nearly silent filtration process followed. Automatic taps connected to the narrow top of the crystal ship and the fresh puree systematically pumped into signature Popsi bottles that looked like exact miniatures of an upright crystal ship. Printed on the glass was the famous Popsi logo with the slogan below: “Tastes like home!”
As the bottles flowed down the factory line, a projection lit up with a broadcast from V-Zephyr. He looked happy.
“Okay! I think we just had our best haul in a while. The current fifteen minute formula seems to be working at an optimum. Half of us got our catch! That calculates to about thirty percent of the total population. Not too shabby at all, people!
The new additions of the light-up GRAIN that we’ve used in the last few runs have really increased returns. It seems that when people know exactly where the tags are located, they are more likely to find ways to get it out, thereby activating it. The ninety seconds before a jump proves to be the right amount of time for them to decide to grab the GRAIN.
Those of you who are getting catches, keep doing what you’re doing. Recent tasting reports have had the best ratings to date and the pulp retrieved from the filtration units is facilitating the most balanced rhizomorph readings in this generation. I’m sure this batch is even better.
The recipe calculation was right. There’s something about the mix of eagerness, adrenaline, and panic that makes the cortisol levels optimal for both taste and fuel. Much better than when we used to just bag ‘em and tag ‘em. That’s exactly why bag-n-tags aren’t allowed anymore and don’t count toward your quota.
And we’ll know if you bag-n-tag! We can see it all during the post-mortem. So don’t even try to get away with it, even if you’re having trouble with your catches.
For those of you who didn’t get a catch during this run, just work on your lure scripts a bit after you get the new cycle reports. It helps to build yours into my base lure script. You know yourself best. Use the magic words and actions that would make you take the bait. We’ll assess during our next quota review.”
V-Zephyr adjusted his collar and straightened his posture pridefully. “And, well, not to brag, but those of us with a one-hundred percent success rate are picking up the slack for you! Every catch feels great, even if it stings a little sometimes!”
He stuck out his tongue and mockingly rubbed his temple. After a quick chuckle to himself, he put on a more serious expression. “Also remember, by doing this work, we are helping. That last timeline’s world is just as bountiful as ours, but I don’t think they were as resourceful with it. Maybe this is the reset they need to realize that. With less of a population to accommodate, maybe each of the timelines we visit can have a chance to figure it all out. Think of it that way and let that help you try harder next time.”
V-Zephyr held a fresh Popsi bottle up to his lips and took a big sip. He gulped it down and flashed a toothy grin. “Well, that’s all for now! Don’t forget to pick up your complimentary bottle of Popsi. See you all on the next run. Same place, different timeline!”
The broadcast ended. The projection and all the lights went dim. Moonlight peered in through the skylights. The clanging sounds of glass rang throughout the vast warehouse as a sea of Popsi bottles systematically flowed down the factory line.