Alfar Anthology - AA VV - ebook
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The Best 12 Alfar Series short stories of Science Fiction and Fantasy Fiction.'Perpendicular By Brendan Higgins' - A deadly virus has wiped out three quarters of the world's population. Medical research scientist Dr. Jary Coble had sought -- and failed -- to combat the pandemic. 'Counter Program' by Dennis Coleman- Miles and the robot servants on space station Ursa Five are programmed to obey humans without question. 'Red One' by Ivano Massari- Set in a post nuclear war landscape, the elite rebel team of Red One battle against the forces of planetary domination.'Ticket Please' by Lee Brown- Following a life changing mistake a young man boards a train hoping to leave the past behind. 'Outpost Omega Seven' by Nina Tozzi- Cathy and Wayne are a young couple who man a remote outpost at the junction of three trade routes in the boondocks of space.'Beyond This Point There be Ogres' by Robert Bresloff - The last of the great dragon slayers, Salvi believed that he had killed his last dragon. 'Inducing a Dream' by M. Travis Leake - Kyna is an up-and-coming skyke racer. Courted by a corporation to endorse a product she despises, she exchanges her principles for victory. 'The Thirst for Power' by Wolcott Wheeler- A paranormal investigator learns that a certain notorious world leader—the most feared and powerful man in the world—is not what he seems. In fact, he’s not even human…'Fate' by Eddie Grant- Roll was an ordinary teenage girl who's lately been suffering from a serious case of Deja Vu, and horrific dreams. After shocking revelation, her night of fun soon turns into a walking nightmare that will change her life forever.'King of the World' by Paul Martin- When the Turtle first appeared before an awestruck world, it seemed nothing would ever be the same again. 'Orienteer' by Clémence Roche - Within a post-apocalyptic world, watch how the clash between the environment affects the mortals who continue a form of survival. 'The Great Fairy' Tale Hoax by Chava Klahr - Forget everything you ever read about these seven classic fairy tales.

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COVER

Copyrights

Alfar Anthology

Science Fiction and Fantasy Short Stories Anthology

ALFAR

Sci-fi & Fantasy Series

Anthology n. 1

ISBN 978-88-9774-72-91

First published : November 2016

Stories

First published: May 2016 © Volume Press

‘Perpendicular’ by Brendan Higgins

‘Counter Program’ by Dennis Coleman

‘Red One’ by Ivano Massari

‘Ticket Please’ by Lee Brown

‘Outpost Omega Seven’ by Nina Tozzi

‘Beyond This Point There Be Ogres’ by Robert Bresloff

‘Inducing a Dream’ by M. Travis Leake

‘The Thirst for Power’ by Wolcott Wheeler

‘Fate’ by Edward L. Grant

‘King of the World’ by Paul Martin

First published: July 2016 © Volume Press

‘Orienteer’ by Clémence Roche

‘The Great Fairy Tale Hoax’ by Chava Klahr

Cover by VolumePressGT

Editor in Chief: Massimo Cimarelli

Art Director: Francesca Eleuteri

© Volume Press

www.volumepress.nl

Volume Press

Roef 12 - 1319AK Almere - The Netherlands

NL855776821B01 - KvK 64681327

Copyright © Volume Press

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduce, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the Publisher, the copy bought is only for the personal use of the buyer, any violation will be prosecuted according to Law.

Perpendicular

By Brendan Higgins

Iremember the first time I saw him. It's not like I could forget. It isn't every day you wake up to a stranger sitting at the foot of your bed, waiting for your dreams to end and the nightmares to begin. His face was cold, angular, bathed in shadows under a Stetson from another time. I didn't startle when I saw him. Maybe, somehow, I was expecting him.

"Why are you here?" I asked, before I even sat up.

His voice clawed forth from the depths of some wretched place.

"To show you the way," he told me, struggling with each little word.

I don't remember getting out of bed. I don't even recall agreeing to follow him. My legs were moving and my mind was churning and I couldn't stop either one. We were walking on soft, padded moss. Darkness was fading and a pale blue light was breaking through the trees high above. The trees. They reminded me of the lush oaks and maples against the summer night sky. I would lose myself in them as a child while the katydids sang until dawn. I hadn't seen a tree in bloom in more than three years. I watched these ones sway as the stranger led me deeper into an unfamiliar and uninviting wilderness. And yet, it was liberating. Nothing about my surroundings spelled safety. But the world I had anticipated waking to only hours later was much worse. Gone were supermarkets and shopping malls. Stadiums and entertainment faded like a vapor. All we had left was survival. And most of us didn't even want that.

*****

The virus had come like a thief in the night. The world woke to breaking and alarming news. It had become airborne when it mutated somewhere in the States. Patient Zero was public enemy number one. He was probably dead before we knew what was happening. People grew paranoid. And those that didn't paid for it with their lives.

I was a medical research scientist then, working at George Washington University Hospital. Three of my colleagues and I were tasked with finding the man who brought it here, dead or otherwise. If we could find him, we could stop its spread, we believed. We thought we'd done it within the first week. He was a tourist from West Africa. He was dead, but all the evidence pointed to him as our culprit. So we celebrated our feat. There were no new cases for eleven days. The world breathed a collective sigh of relief. But it was tragically premature. Cases re-emerged, even stronger than before, fomenting a widespread panic.

We had been wrong.

I returned from a macabre odyssey across America not six weeks later. Alone. Shaken. I must have aged six years in those six weeks. I was alive and I probably shouldn't have been. The Washington I returned to had its population cut in half in the time I was gone. And the city was a ghost town. No one even bothered to clean the bodies off the streets. I didn't blame them. That was too dangerous.

It only got worse.

Looters reigned. Business and commerce died with the souls that operated them. Food grew scarce. Wildlife was not immune, nor was the summer foliage. A dense smog crept in and never left. Whatever was birthed in us had risen into the troposphere, and not a living thing on our planet was unaffected. Survivors holed up under ground and waited it out. But no amount of waiting would suffice. The sight of a young family of four, arms locked, tearfully emerging from their shelter and bidding farewell to one another as they allowed for the virulent menace to run its course, was almost too much for me. We so frequently hear about the triumph of the human spirit in times of trial and tribulation. No one wants to know about the ones who abjured. I had a front row seat to it all from my apartment window – my university-assigned safe haven. And I happen to know that those four were not the only ones choosing death over perseverance.

*****

The stranger took me to the forest's edge. He said nothing. And neither did I. The mystery of it all was better than anything I'd endured since the virus rose to power. Better to be kept in the dark than brace for more bad news, I thought. In the distance, a cluster of lights came clearer into view. A sprawling community was secretly thriving in a world on its last legs. At least, that's what I presumed to be true upon a hasty first impression.

Once again, I can't recall going any further, or even deciding to investigate. In an instant, I was alone in a bright, white room, though there was no electricity in this place. It was like the inside of a cube whose edges were imperceptible. It had the gleam of fresh snow – the walls, the floor, the ceiling. It might as well have extended eternally in every direction, like something I had imagined as a child when I'd conceptualize artificial serenity. The stranger was gone. Maybe the rest of the world was, too. Maybe I had finally escaped, like that family of four and most of the rest of us. A voice boomed into the room with pristine clarity.

"Jary Coble," it said.

"Yes," I responded, without thinking.

I hadn't heard my name in so long. It sounded foreign, but I knew it. I remembered it like an old friend. Solace was all I'd known for seven months, when peers put an end to all fraternization. They left me alone to my research in vain. Until the stranger appeared at the foot of my bed, I'd had no human interaction since they let me be. And now someone was saying my name.

"You've been shown the way," the voice said.

"What way?" I asked. "What is this place?"

"It is freedom, Dr. Coble. We are freedom."

I'd grown too pessimistic to smile, but I wanted to. I had hoped for hope each day I got out of bed. I had also hoped to be the one to deliver that hope. Part of me was disappointed, to be honest. I was supposed to be the one to end the most abject era of human existence. Me. Someone beat me to the punch. However, this revelation that there was a punch flew in like an angel from heaven and supplanted my pride. We were on the fast track to extinction. And now, it appeared, we weren't. That was enough for even a stubborn bastard like me to lighten up a little.

"Did you find a cure? Can we mass produce it?"

"We did. And we have."

I was incredulous. My knees buckled. And then I was on the floor. I had never felt so many emotions wash over me like they had when those words were spoken. If only for a moment, I basked simultaneously in feral bliss and calamitous disappointment. But all those things were fleeting. Because what the voice said next I could never have prepared for.

"Would you like to meet the man who led us out of the darkness?" it asked.

The question was too flummoxing to respond to. It was past tense. I felt my head nod, though I didn't command that of it. A door, if one could call it a door, slid open. A familiar figure filled the frame. He wore a sport coat and jeans. On his lapel, an ID badge. He looked healthy, confident, though reluctant. He looked like me. He stepped into the room, a plaintive expression on his face. The door sealed shut behind him. The closer he got, the less I believed it. Sometimes when we look into a mirror, we're surprised by what we see. I didn't think I looked like that, we tell ourselves, as the person staring back betrays the one in our mind's eye. This was no mirror. This was a living, breathing me, or, Second Me. He was the me I could have been – should have been – with a better track record and some exercise every now and again. He was prepared. I was not. But neither of us said a word for what seemed like minutes. When he finally opened his mouth, everything I knew to be true about life and the universe rebooted with a resounding wallop to the gut I'll likely never recover from. The world as I knew it, was a mere fabrication.

*****

"You're a clone," I told him.

"No," he said.

"What's happening here? I'm dreaming?"

"No," he said again.

My heartbeat sped. I couldn't speak. Fear is a destructive agent. It hinders the spirit and it slays armies. It crippled me in the room as I looked into my own eyes. In spite of whatever he did to prepare for this meeting, it could never have been enough. He wasn't gripped by fear, but he was not unaffected. The door slid open again. He gave me a half nod that seemed to express sympathy, if I had to guess. It was a communicative gesture I'd probably delivered hundreds of times; I just never knew what it looked like. And with it, he disappeared from the way he came.

I blinked, and I had changed locations again. I couldn't recall any dreams between watching myself walk out of the white room and then gazing at a team of surgeons standing above me, so I know I didn't sleep. I'm an avid dreamer. Up until the virus spread, I used to write down where my subconscious had taken me the previous few hours. I had planned to study dreams one day – maybe examine the correlation between one's fantasy and reality. My own dreams were fun, but my tangible, material life was better. The university enabled me to travel, make landmark discoveries, save lives. When the world went to hell, I didn't much see the point in documenting my mind's unbridled fantasies. Dreams used to represent hope. Now they were just empty escapism.

One of the surgeons thanked me for my time, and then they left me there, just as the Second Me had. I sat up, checking every inch of my body. No bandages. No injuries. There were no remnants of whatever they had done. When I stood, I didn't feel lightheaded. I took a moment to gauge my surroundings. It looked like a pediatric room, and it smelled of rubbing alcohol. It was comforting, in a sense. It reminded me of a time when what ailed us was treatable, and doctors still cared. I followed the surgeons out the door, but I was too late to see where they'd gone.

The hallway resembled a hospital's, but not like any I'd ever seen. It was warm and homey, like it could envelop me in an embrace if I would let it. As I began to traverse it, toward a series of doors at the far end, I noticed framed photographs on the walls. They were family portraits. I'd seen them before. In my childhood home. The mother and father were my own parents. The children were myself and my little sister. There we were, ebullient smiles for the camera. And this was but one in a series of many lining that hall. I'd seen each of them before. Obviously, someone had burgled my parents' Gaithersburg home and decorated this place with its contents. Obviously.

In confounded panic, I sprinted for the door at the end of the hall, bursting through it to a sunny day. Birds sang. The trees were so green they might as well have been uprooted from a rain forest and planted here. The sky was just as it was meant to be: vast and blue and adorned with spectacularly white clouds. It was a frightening paradise from which I had to escape.

I wouldn't get far.

*****

I felt the shot before I heard it echo across the knoll. It was like a wild animal leaped from the earth and clamped its jaws into the back of my thigh. That thought rocketed through my head just before the rifle blast reached my ears. I probably yelped like the fleeing coward I was. Clawing at the ground with one hand, gripping my thigh with the other, the tree line through which the stranger had led me here seemed to be drifting further from view. Less than a minute later, the hot breath of a German Shepherd was introducing itself to my neck.

I blinked, and I was back inside. I don't know who picked me up or how they brought me back, but my recent behavior suggested I didn't put up a fight. I had always expected that in the face of turmoil or injustice, I'd be the type that defends the marginalized, or at the very least, would stand up for myself. The virus proved I wasn't the former. And this little hiccup told me I wasn't even the latter. It's a humiliating epiphany – learning what you're really made of.

This room was not like the others. It wasn't warm. It did not remind me of my adolescence, nor of something from my imagination. It looked like a vacated office – like someone had quit a while back and was never replaced. It had the skeleton of a corporate space, yet it was cavernous, if there can be such a thing in a twenty by fifteenfoot box. Again, I was alone, left to my rambling thoughts and misgivings. I played the recent events over and over in my head. How I got here, why I was taken, who these people were, and how or why there was a better version of myself walking the halls. When I became aware that I was lying down, I tried to stand, and the pain shot through my leg like lightning. They had bandaged me up at least. But why they left me in this place was just as cryptic as everything else.

I called for help. Screamed, is more like it. No one came. There were no clocks in the room, though I watched the light fade on that gorgeous day from a window I never could have fit through. I lied there, imprisoned in an anonymous room and in my chaotic mind. I swam in my memories, thinking mostly of my childhood. Seeing those photographs of my family awakened a regret I had chosen to suppress for most of my life. We drifted apart when I finished medical school. There were financial discussions, geographic conversations, and lifestyle chats. None of them were friendly. We all seemed happier the less we saw each other. It wasn't deliberate; the e-mails and phone calls just grew fewer and further between, and then one day they stopped altogether. As the virus ransacked the world, I went looking for them. I found nothing. I told myself they were all right, and that was enough to bring peace to my cold heart. But this place told the truth. These posthumous monuments on the wall indicated they were most certainly not all right. I punished myself for the selfishness that had been so easy to ignore. Then I punished myself for not finding Patient Zero, for maybe the six-hundredth time. When self-inflicted, regret is our cruelest foe, and most intimate companion.

My eyes were heavy. The only light now emanated from the celestial bodies against the inky black sky. They were magnificent. I hadn't even realized I'd missed them. I strained my eyes, and just as I thought I'd identified Jupiter, a bang on the door startled me from my reverie.

"Come in," I said, with a wry smile.

A key unlocked the door and it pushed open. Light from outside flooded into the room. My eyes didn't adjust well. When they did, three men and one woman stood in the doorway.

"Can you walk?" one of the men – the Speaker – asked me.

"I don't think so," I said.

"Good," he said. "Come with us."

"How can I come with you if I can't—"

I blinked, and we had changed rooms again. It was bright in here, yet the light did not affect my eyes, as if we'd been here awhile, though I had no recollection of our transfer.

"We can show you, but you're not going to like it," the Speaker said.

"What?" I asked, snapping back to reality.

"I said you won't like it."

"I won't like what?"

The four chuckled. I can only imagine what they thought of me.

When I examined their faces, I recognized one of them. The woman. She was a colleague of mine three years earlier – one with whom I'd scoured the States on our illfated hunt for Patient Zero. I had something of a crush on her. We almost kissed once. We hadn't even been drinking. The sadness that struck me when we found her body was profound. She was the first of our team to die. I don't know if my grief was directed more toward her or myself. She could have been a girlfriend, or a wife, even. Now, she was just a corpse, like so many that would follow. But, implausibly, here she was, in my presence, like I'd traveled to the past.

"How are you here?" I asked her.

"Do you have a listening problem, Dr. Coble?" she asked.

"I don't have a listening problem, Ellie; I have a science problem."

"I'll tell you again: I'm not who you think I am."

"You're Ellie Fenders. You're a researcher at George Washington University. And you're not supposed to be breathing."

"I'm some of those things, Jary," she said with a tragic smile.

My anguished frustration boiled over when she felt that was a sufficient explanation for whatever the hell was happening to me. I erupted, and for some unfathomable reason, they didn't see it coming.

"I woke up last night to a man in a cowboy hat in my bedroom. He took me through the woods and led me here. I met my clone, or whatever he was, I was shot in the leg, left for dead in a room the rest of the day, and now I'm standing face to face with a woman whose body I buried three years ago!" In their eyes, a man on the precipice of madness was merely spewing nonsense. So they shared a look, and the Speaker gave a measured, unreasonable response:

"If you're unable to restrain yourself, we're not going to be able to help you."

"Help me what?!" I pleaded.

"You said you wanted to be shown the way," he told me. "We cannot show you if you're not ready to see it. And if you see it before you're ready, it may be your undoing."

"What is this place? I'm ready for that. Just tell me that. What is this structure we're in? Why does it... why does it remind me of... I don't know... of myself?"

They shared another look. I rolled my eyes.

"What, you guys afraid you might say something controversial?" I snapped.

The Speaker cocked his head, studying my disposition. He didn't like what he saw, but he opted to be a swell guy in my moment of despair.

"This is a center for disease prevention and care. It was designed by Doctor Jary Coble. I believe you two have met. If it looks familiar, it should. It's an homage to his memories. To your memories," the Speaker said.

I shook my head and slammed my eyes shut. I could feel my throat choking up and the moisture squeezing through my eyelids. I wasn't sad; I had just never been so furiously confused.

"I don't understand what you're telling me. I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT YOU'RE TELLING ME!"

"Dr. Coble, please," said the Speaker. "Let us help you—"

"Am I dead?"

"Dr. Coble, if you'll let us explain what—"

"AM I DEAD?!"

He was silent for so long, I expected him to tell me I was. I wish I'd been that lucky.

"You're not dead, Jary," Ellie said, affirmatively. "But the trauma you've endured today has been quite damaging to your mental state. We'd like to show you the way, but we fear any more information could put you further at risk."

"Ellie... no. I deserve to know. Keeping this information from me will put me at risk. You know me. You know my compulsions. Not knowing this will—"

I blinked.

"—kill me!"

But no one was there to hear it. I was back in that vacant office, as best as I could tell. It was dark still. Had I just awoke from a terrifying dream, or was I suffering some neurological time loss? This office was a tangible place. And it was not my bedroom. My leg was still throbbing. I could still see the trees silhouetted against the stars. I was not home.

The door opened and closed again, in just enough time for a figure to sneak inside. I backed up against the wall and threw my hands up in a pathetic excuse for a fighting stance. No way I was going to transform into a valiant warrior in this bizarro world,

blinded by darkness, and nursing a busted leg. But I faked it anyway.

"Is it really you?" came a hiss from the blackness.

I searched for the outline of my intruder, but I saw nothing.

"What do you want? Get out. What do you want?" My questions and command were contradictory, if not honest.

"They said you'd come," the hiss declared.

I grasped for a few straws in my last ditch effort to create a defense.

"I built this place, you know," I told him. "I can make one call and have you put down with no questions asked."

An illuminated face manifested not six inches from my own. Over the light of a oneinch flame, a revolting man made himself known. I recoiled at the sight of him: sallow skin, deep set eyes, and a knowing grin sans even a single tooth to support it. His breath smelled like a cadaver. And his hair was gray and oily, dangling to his shoulders.

"Did they show you the way?" he asked, that grin still stretching from ear to ear.

"If you can tell me where we are, and what's happening to me, I'll let you go," I told him.

He cackled like a chronic smoker trying to survive a joke. It was almost enough to do him in. When he found his breath and his senses again, he spoke the most efficient words I'd heard all day:

"I cannot tell you, but I can show you. You musn't lose time. If you do, you'll never escape."

*****

He gave me something for the pain. It was potent, like Vicodin, but he said it was a natural substance. And it did the trick. We crept through the halls like a couple of sly convicts. I didn't know where he was taking me, but it didn't much matter. It had to be better than the vacant office. And it had to be better than D.C. We made it to the stairwell and went down. I was rehearsing what I'd say if we were spotted. I'd be cool, comfortable, maybe authoritative – like the Second Me. Surely I could convince whoever stopped us that I was him. It never came to that. No one had seen us, save for the security cameras, to be sure. But my hideous guide had a bead on them. We burst through a first floor exit and scrambled through a parking lot.

Dawn was on the cusp of breaking. I estimated I had been here approximately twentyfour hours. We hit the tree line and dashed off in a new direction than the one from which I arrived. The entire facility looked as if it had been constructed in an undisclosed location right smack in the middle of a dense forest. In tattered linen garments, my guide ran, and I tried to keep up. He was swifter than he should have been for his age, but in hindsight, his age was just as mysterious as he was.

I blinked, and we were there. My guide knew it happened. He also probably knew it was inevitable. My blank slate face gave it away. I hadn't a clue where we were or how we got here. It was a two-story glass building in a corporate part of town. It looked like

D.C. – the D.C. I remember before we killed it.

"Second floor," he hissed. "His name is Tsao, with a 'T'. Make sure you knock to the melody of Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

"Who is he?"

He lifted his eyebrows and offered a clandestine smile, turning his head from view. "Just another fool," he said, and scurried across the slumbering streets.

I took the stairs to the second floor. My leg felt good as new, which was a bit alarming considering the slug that may have been lodged in there still. They were medical offices

– pediatrics and general practitioners. Tsao's suite was at the end of the hall. I had never heard of him, much less encountered him.

I knocked to the melody, as best as my musically daft knuckles would allow. I heard the soft footsteps on the other side of the door. The deadbolt unlocked and a bespectacled thirty-something Asian man with a benevolent face stood half behind the door. He had the air of an avuncular fellow, and drank me in with some apprehension. He was expecting me, but I sensed he wished it hadn't come to this.

"You're Tsao?" I asked.

He nodded and ushered me inside.

There was hardly anything unique about his office. He was a physician, not unlike hundreds I'd met before. I was about to learn what set him apart. And it turned out Ellie and the Speaker were right: I wasn't ready for it.

"I can only imagine how frustrating this has been for you," he began.

"Yeah. Listen, Dr. Tsao, I'd rather if you just—"

"Sam, please. Call me Sam. Nothing else sounds right coming out of your mouth."

"I've never seen you before."

"Right. But it's still you. I know Jary Coble very well. And that's who you are." He paused to let that have whatever desired impact he'd intended. I wasn't in the mood for more riddles. "Want me to look at your leg?" he asked.

"No. Sam – or whatever – just tell me things. Tell me what all this is before what's left of my mind is gone."

"I take it you're losing time?"

"I guess that's what you'd call it."

He exhaled and leaned in, flashing me a deadly serious frown. "You're Jary Coble," he told me. "But you're not the only one on the planet right now. The two of you are identical in every way. Your DNA is a one hundred percent match. Your beliefs, passions, and vices hold no discrepancies. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"

"NO!" I yelled, pounding his desk with a balled up right hand.

"Okay. Row, Row, Row Your Boat. The song you played on the door..."

"Yeah..."

"Everybody knows it, right?"

"Right."

"No. Not right. That's the only way I knew it would be you. Jary, the reason there are

two of you in the world right now... is because this is not your world. In your world, everybody knows Row, Row, Row Your Boat. In this world, only a handful does. Our world and yours have course corrected over time. Certain things have fallen by the wayside. That song came out of the minstrel shows in the 1850s – in your world. No one knows who wrote it. It was just there one day, published soon after, and in the memory banks of every American a decade later. Now, we had the minstrel shows, too, but a discrepancy occurred sometime around that song's composition. Maybe the writer met a transitioner. Maybe he was a transitioner. Whatever the case, you got it; we didn't. It was an inconsequential bit of Americana that needed no correction. We got Steady to the

Fort in its place. The melodies sound nothing alike."

"What's a transitioner?" I asked. Because I didn't know what else to say.

"Transitioners are the ones who can pass between the two. They’re unique to one world or the other, unlike you and me. They have no replicas. Like the man who brought you to me. He's not part of either world. He passes from one to the next. He's paid handsomely for his loyalty to this side."

"You know him?"

"I don't know him. No one knows these guys. They're barely human. Every time they pass, they lose a little bit of themselves. But they don't know what else to do. It's like they were born for this. They're dumpster divers when they're not transitioning. They live on the streets, mostly. It's disgusting."

"The man in the Stetson, who took me to the facility... he's a transitioner?"

"He must have been. But I had nothing to do with that."

"Wait, who pays these guys?"

"I don't know. Government, probably. Your world has them, too. We're no different, in that respect."

"What are you telling me? You're saying this is a parallel universe? Is that what you're saying?"

He sort of nodded through strained eyes and balanced his hands like they were two parts of a wavering scale. "I wouldn't say that exactly. 'Universe' denotes a fixed cosmic location. As far as we can tell, we have the same celestial map in our respective cosmic neighborhoods. Wherever we are and wherever you are, must be separated by so many thousands of light years, we'll never be able to pass between the two in a physical sense.

For all we know, every universe in existence is a carbon copy of another, contained within some impenetrable bubble, and subject to something greater than ourselves."

"That sounds like a parallel universe."

"But there are discrepancies, like I said. And now whatever the hell happened in your world, has set it so far off course, there can never be correcting. For the petty things, one has always caught up to the other somehow, leveling the playing field, so to speak. That can't be done this time. It's not a parallel universe. It's the opposite. It's a perpendicular one."

I was quiet for a long time. Maybe I couldn't wrap my head around everything this man had just told me. Or maybe it blindsided me so hard, it knocked the will to live right out of me. That was one thing suddenly replicated. I wished for death in my world. And now I wished for it here also. I've looked back on these moments and conceived many questions of astrophysics, time and space theories, and the like. But instead, when I finally spoke, I asked Tsao something else:

"Why do you want me to know this?"

"Because it's true. We have the right to know what's true. When I heard you were here, I knew I had to tell you."

"Why didn't the virus wipe out this world, too?"

"I wish I knew. It makes no sense."

"How did you know I was here? And how do you know me, if I don't know you in my world?"

"The transitioners talk. And they talk to me. Not directly. It's a system we use. They trust me."

"They think you're a fool."

"That's true," he said, accepting. "This crusade I'm on is going to kill me. It's why I haven't left my office in months. There are those that know here, and there are those that know in your world. Knowing is enough of a crime to get us killed."

"So how do you—"

"Right. I met you – or, him – when he returned from his search for Patient Zero. I examined him. Not Patient Zero; he was dead. You. Or, him. Jary."

"You said the worlds course correct. Why is it too late this time?"

"Because you've lost three-quarters of your population, according to recent reports. There's no way—"

"Not for my world, Sam. For yours."

"What do you mean?"

"What if the correction is not survival, but destruction? All your world needs is time to catch up."

*****

I blinked, and I was army crawling across Tsao's carpeted office floor. My head felt funny, and the blood creeping toward my left eye tickled my brow. I saw his reflex hammer on the ground. He stood over me and picked it up. I figured he must have thrown it at me. He clubbed me in the back of the head, but I kept crawling. I struggled clumsily to my feet and stumbled into the hall toward the stairwell. Tsao caught me from behind and tried to wrestle me to the ground. This time, I fought back. I had remembered watching some self-defense tactic, which identified a whip-slap to the neck as more stunning and effective than a punch. It sure was. I hit Tsao so hard in the side of his neck, he almost fell backward. The pain shocked his system long enough to enable me to escape down the stairs. I knew he wouldn't follow, not with his precious life in danger.

Whether it was my last comment that set him off, or something trapped in my lost time, I don't know. But I meant what I said. I could be the one to set our worlds back on course. And I knew just how to do it.

I had to have been close to the facility. I didn't have the stamina to sprint all the way from there to Tsao's office. Now I just had to get back. I hailed a cab, impishly pretended to be none other than myself in a drunken stupor thanks to a night of heavy drinking, and asked the driver to take me to George Washington University Hospital.

They let me in without my ID. Despite whatever successes the Second Me had had in this world, he kept the same office, maybe for nostalgia's sake. Inside, I found files, medical records and journals that the Second Me had kept. That's something we still had in common, regardless of the three-year discrepancy. And within their pages, I found what I needed.

Another cab had me on my way back to the facility. I had found the address somewhere in the office of the Second Me. Getting inside again, I figured, would be a tall order. Fortunately, as fate would have it, we swung by the red light district, and I saw a familiar face.

I had learned a day prior that I lacked the action hero persona I reasoned must have been laying dormant all my life, just waiting for an opportunity to explode onto the scene in a time of crisis. It's an innate attribute possessed by a specialized percentage of humankind. I did not fall into this group. But I'd seen enough movies in my day to fake it. I couldn't be the hero. So I settled for the villain. And I had a willing hostage by my side, comfortable acting criminally for a little bit of money. I brought nothing from my world into this one, but I knew all of Jary Coble's PIN numbers and passwords, and was happy to share them with our new passenger: my hideous guide.

He was ever compliant as we stepped out of the cab and toward the front entrance. Part of him was enjoying this. He seemed like the type that got a sick thrill out of the most depraved acts. Guards stormed us like they knew I was coming. What they didn't know, and what I convinced them to be gospel, was what I shouted next:

"This man is a transitioner! He's been infected in the other world! If I don't treat him within the next half hour, he's our new Patient Zero and we're all dead!"

The looks on their faces almost made me break character. It was working, and I could hardly believe it. We took the stairs to the third floor. The guards followed, but they were afraid to shoot. They knew the release of bodily fluids would only expedite the spread.

I found the lab on the third floor, and used my thumbprint to gain entry. By now, the Second Me, or Ellie, or one of the others had surely heard I was here. I didn't have much time to find what I was looking for. It didn't take long. The freezer had them all in storage. I found the one with my name on it, literally.

"The PIN is 7974," I told my hideous guide. "His password, for everything, is 'gelding24'. Don't ask what it means."

He cackled and scampered off, much to the alarm of the guards waiting outside. When I emerged a moment later, I gave them the scare of their lives.

With the needle imbedded into my neck, I pressed my thumb against the pump of the syringe, ready to send this place into my