I've been staying up too late studying world stats and the company's internal textbooks since he first mentioned the possibility of a promotion to analyst. My mother used to say I was born reaching, which is true. She also used to say it would get me killed, which it hasn't. Not yet, anyway. Not here.
Before I head home, I swing by Starla Saeed's place. I'm nearly too late, and I approach her apartment among a stream of people in uniforms moving out boxes of her stuff.
She's standing in the yard, flanked on either side by immigration enforcement. Her eyes are glassy, but clear. She might have been crying earlier, but she's done with it now. She looks strong, defiant, head held high like she hasn't lost everything in the world. I hope I look like that when they come for me.
When she turns to me she looks neither surprised nor particularly pleased, but when she looks down at the basket of apples in my hand, she gives a little smirk.
"We're not all Ashtowners, Caramenta," she says. "Some of us have tree fruit in our homelands."
I look down. Most traversers come from the encampments outside of walled cities; I just assumed the other towns were like my wasteland. Starla comes from outside of Ira City in the Middle East, one of the biggest and oldest walled structures nestled in the space between what used to be Iraq and Iran. Maybe the settlements outside of Ira are full of fruit and white bread and everything else Ashtown doesn't have.
A man carrying a box walks too fast, and the sound of glass clinking against glass rings out between us. She watches him like he's dragging her baby by the foot. She looks like she might yell—she's known around the office for her quick temper—but her eyes flick to the enforcement agent standing closest to her and she swallows it down. She's furious, but helpless.
"I just thought you'd like something. I know it's a long flight." I hold out the basket. "You can still resent me, even if you take them."
She smiles again, her mouth wide and full. "I intend to."
She takes the basket, but it's more out of pity than wanting the fruit.
"I'll miss you," I say.
"So look for me," she says. "I'm only missing on a few hundred worlds, and this is just one more. I recommend Earth 83 me. She's my favorite."
A woman in a jumpsuit tells the agents they're done, and the men push Star along. She looks at me over her shoulder.
"Don't waste your time feeling guilty," she says. "It'll be you soon enough."
Over my dead body...but that's not what she needs to hear. She needs my absence more than anything. A witness to the shame makes it worse, even if it's a friend. So I nod goodbye, and turn away.
There are infinite worlds. Worlds upon worlds into absurdity, which means there are probably worlds where I am a plant or a dolphin or where I never drew breath at all. But we can't see those. Eldridge's machine can read and mimic only frequencies similar to ours, each atom on the planet contributing to the symphony. They say that's why
objects like minerals and oil can be brought in easily, but people have to be gone from the world first—their structure is so influenced by their world's unique frequency there's no possibility of a dop. Before we lost 382, there were rumblings of war. I'm not sure how many nuclear bombs it would take to change the song of a place until we can't hear it anymore, but we lost 382 over the course of an hour: a drastic shift making the signal weak, then another, then nothing.
It should scare us more than it does, but they were already an alien territory anyway. That's why the number was the highest. Each number indicates a degree of difference, a slight frequency shift from our own. Earths One through Ten are so similar they are hardly worth visiting. When I pull from there, no more than twice a year, it's just to make sure the intel is still exactly like ours. Three of the worlds in which I still live are in the first ten Earths.
There is something gratifying about going places where I'm dead and touching things I was never even meant to see. In my apartment I keep a collection of things from those places in sealed bags on the wall. I've never catalogued them, but I can identify each item on sight: dirt from the lot where my childhood home would have been in a world where the slums never made it that far; smooth rocks from a river that's been dead on my world for centuries; a jade earring given to me by a girl on another Earth who wanted me to remember her, but who only let me love her at all because she didn't know where I came from. There are hundreds, and when I get back from Earth 175, there will be one more.
The worlds we can reach are similar to ours in atmosphere, flora, and fauna, so most of their viruses already exist here. But just in case, I seal my souvenirs in the bags Eldridge used to use for specimen collection, before they got bored playing biologists and shifted hard to mining and data collection.
This excerpt ends on page 16 of the hardcover edition.
Monday, December 14th, we begin the book The Mirror Man by Jane Gilmartin.