And Then There Were (N-One)
by Sarah Pinsker
I considered declining the invitation. It was too weird, too expensive, too far, too dangerous, too weird. Way too weird. An invitation like that would never come again. I’d regret it if I didn’t go. It lay on our kitchen table for three weeks while I argued out the pros and cons with Mabel. She listened, made suggestions; I countered her, then argued her part, then made both arguments, then reversed them again.
“How do I know it’s not a hoax?” I asked, studying the list of backing organizations for the twentieth time. “The website looks legit, but how could it not be a hoax?”
“Look at it this way,” Mabel said. “Either you’ll be part of a ground-breaking event in human history, or a groundbreaking psych experiment. Someone benefits either way. And you’ve never been to eastern Canada, so at least you get to see someplace new even if you just end up standing in a field somewhere looking silly.”
She always had a way of making an adventure out of things that would otherwise stress me out. Four months later, I flew to Nova Scotia, took a bus to a seaside town too small for a dot on a map, boarded a ferry to Secord Island, and stepped through the waiting portal into an alternate-reality resort hotel lobby swarming with Sarah Pinskers. At least two hundred of us by my estimation, with more straggling in.
It was easy to tell who had just arrived. We were the ones planted in the lobby, bags in hand, eyes wide and mouth open. My body and face, even my expression, reflected back at me in two hundred funhouse mirrors. Stranger even than that, an energy in the air that I couldn’t quite explain, a feeling that every single Sarah had stepped through to the exact same thought, to the same curious-amazement-horror-wonder, to the same rug-yanking confirmation that the invitation had been real and we were no longer alone, or maybe we were more alone than we had ever been.
Large groups gathered around the hotel check-in desk and SarahCon registration, no doubt trying to pick themselves off the long lists of near-identical names. A third faction, which I decided to join, had adjourned to the lobby bar, hoping to use alcohol to blunt the weirdness of coming face to face with our multiverse selves. I found a barstool and shoved my suitcase and backpack under my feet. Space was tight amid the other suitcases and backpacks.
“The stout,” I said when I caught the bartender’s attention, pointing at the third tap handle.
He grinned and held up a glass. “Seventh one in a row. You all go for the stout or one of the good whiskeys.”
I filed that information away. Took a sip. The Sarah next to me did the same. We both put our glasses down at the same time. Both raised eyebrows at each other.
The bartender hovered. “Room number for your tab?”
“I haven’t checked in yet. Cash isn’t okay? Oh. The cross-world currency thing.”
“You can put her drink on my tab,” said the me next to me. She wore her hair in a long braid down her back. I’d worn mine that way when I was thirteen.
I lifted my glass and toasted in her direction. “Thanks. Appreciated.”
“My pleasure. I’ve never bought myself a drink before. Well, not like this anyhow. Do you know how many there are altogether? How many of us here, I mean.”
I shook my head. “No clue. You could ask someone at registration.”
A third Sarah, maybe a decade older than me, joined our conversation. My parents were married years before they had me. I’d always wondered if I’d still be me if they hadn’t waited. “I’m sure she’ll tell us the numbers in her opening address.”
“She?” asked One Braid. “Sorry if it’s a stupid question. I checked into my room but I haven’t braved convention registration yet. I hate lines.”
Older Sarah rummaged in a SarahCon commemorative tote bag and pulled out a program. She turned to a bio page and started reading. “’Sarah Pinsker [R0D0]’—I don’t know what ‘R-0-D-0’ means—‘made the discovery creating the multiverse portal. She is a quantologist at Johns Hopkins University.’” She looked up. “I think that’s her over there. She’s been rushing back and forth as long as I’ve been sitting here.”
We followed her pointing finger to a Sarah bustling through the lobby, walkie-talkie to her lips. Her hair was pixie-short, defeating the frizz that plagued me. She looked harried but better put together than most of us, elegant in a silk blouse and designer jeans that fit and flattered. I had never been anything approaching elegant. Never had the guts to cut my hair that short, either.
“Quantologist,” I repeated.
Older Sarah paged through the program. “It looks like there are four other quantologist Sarahs on the host committee.”
One Braid scratched the back of her neck. “I’ve never heard of quantology. I don’t think it’s a real field of study where I’m from.”
“Not where I’m from, either. Where are you from? I mean, answer however you want.”
“I’m from all over the place,” One Braid said. My usual answer. “But I live in Seattle.”
Eerie. “Me, too. I went out for a job after college and stayed.”
“Same! Summer job, then I met my girlfriend and settled for good. I’m in West Seattle. How about you?”
“Ballard.” I raised my glass to clink hers, though that particular girlfriend and I hadn’t lasted.
Older Sarah chugged her beer and waved for another before turning back to us. “Our Seattle was destroyed in an earthquake.”
We both stared at her. She sipped her fresh beer and continued. “I never got out west myself, so it wasn’t a personal thing for me, but it was horrible. Four thousand people died. The city never recovered.”
I pictured our little house bucking and buckling, our yard splitting down the middle. Mabel, my friends and neighbors, the coffee shop up the street. Shuddered. It was too much to imagine. “This is so damn weird.”
Older Sarah waved her program at me. “That’s the name of the first panel. ‘This Is So Damn Weird: Strategies for Navigating SarahCon Without Losing Your Mind.’”
One Braid and I both reached for our beers.
The registration line thinned as a programmed cocktail hour began in some lounge somewhere. Since I’d already been drinking for a while, I took the opportunity to check in and register.
“Find yourself on the list,” said the Sarah behind the convention registration table. I could tell she was fried, like she was already too tired to remember how to put expressions on her face. I knew that feeling.
Looking at the list, it was easy to see why she’d had a long day already. My mind was still boggling at the handful of Sarahs I’d met; she’d come face to face with all of us.
The list grouped us by surname first. Mine the most common, a trunk instead of a branch. I paged past, curious. Mostly Pinskers like myself. Made sense if we were the closest realities to the Pinsker who had invited us. There were other random surnames I chalked up to marriage. A full page of Sarah Sweetloves. I’d never really considered changing my name for anyone, even Mabel, but apparently others had.
After surname came city, divided evenly between Seattle, Toronto, and Baltimore, with a few outliers in Northampton, Somerville, Asheville, New York, Pretoria. After that came birthdate, occupation. The occupation list read like a collection of every “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I’d ever answered. Geneticist, writer, therapeutic riding instructor, teacher, history professor, astronomer, journalist, dog trainer, barn manager. I was the only insurance investigator. In fairness, it had never exactly been on the greatest hits list.
Address messed with me the most for some reason. Someone else here shared my full name, birthdate, and address. She worked as a program director at a non-profit. That was the only place our lines on the list differed. Where else did we diverge? Did we move around our house in the same ways at the same times? Had she fallen in love with the kitchen first, too? Did she live with an alternate Mabel?
“There’s a Making Connections board over there.” The volunteer behind the table pointed to a poster on the far wall of the lobby. She sounded like she’d said it a hundred times already. “In case you come across somebody you absolutely have to meet. Judging from your face, you just found somebody on the list who intrigues you. Somebody who wears the same life as you, or near to it.”
It brought to my mind those grade school puzzle pages with six or nine near-identical cats or robots drawn in a grid, where you were supposed to find the matched pair hidden among the ones with slight differences. In the same moment I had that thought, a Sarah perusing another copy of the list said it to me.
I looked her over. The invitation had said, “Be yourself.” We both wore jeans and Wonder Woman T-shirts, hers with a graphic from the 70s TV show and mine from the 2005 Gina Torres movie. We both had our hair pulled back in messy ponytails. The only difference I noticed was that her skin was much better than mine.
The volunteer didn’t bother to look down at the list when I highlighted my name and returned it to her. She handed me a program and a tote bag. “You can decide whether you want to bother with a nametag.”
I looked at the markers and stickers piled on the table. “Is there a point?”
“Not with a name like yours, unless you have a nickname you think is particularly original. Though it probably isn’t. There are a few non-Sarahs. They’re the only ones who really need to bother. Right at the beginning we tried making people choose a nickname, but the first eight tried their identical middle names, and then four had the same roller derby name, and three asked for the name they all used as counselors at Girl Scout camp, and we gave up.”
It didn’t seem worth it. I went over to the hotel check-in line, made slightly easier with individual registration numbers. The desk clerk was one of us too, in a business suit and a manager’s gold nametag that suggested this was probably her home reality.
“The credit card you registered with will be charged by a third party billing company that’s handling the cross-world weirdness. Bill anything you buy to your room.” She spoke with an accent I couldn’t place.
“Where are you from?” I asked her.
“I live just over on the mainland. You?”
A sympathetic look crossed her face.
I tried to change the subject before she told me Seattle was gone in this reality too. “So why is this being held on Secord Island?”
“Everyone asks.” She smiled, showing gapped teeth. She’d never gotten braces. “It’s a sovereign island off the east coast of Canada. You know Canada?”
I nodded, wondering what variation had prompted that question.
She continued. “Sovereign island, at least in this reality, so the organizer didn’t have to worry about visas or passports. You’re all allowed here, then back to where you came from.”
“What if someone tried to skip off this island? Not that I would. I’m an insurance investigator. Professional questioner of motives.”
Another grin. “That’s why all the boats were sent away for the weekend. We’re stuck with you, or you’re stuck with us.”
She put a keycard in a paper sleeve and pulled out a pen. “Do you have keycards in your world?”
“Yeah.” I glanced at the number she’d written, committed it to memory, pocketed the card, and handed her back the sleeve to discard.
“You’re the only one so far to do that,” she said. “Congrats on being original.”
I gave her a little salute and went to find my room in the annex, the cheapest room available when I’d registered. Her directions led out of the original building and down an L-shaped hallway tacked onto the back. I passed a stressed-looking housekeeper pushing a cart full of cleaning supplies, then two Sarahs trying to wrangle a cot into a tiny room, under the direction of a third, who looked up and waved. They must have taken advantage of the room-sharing option in the questionnaire that followed the RSVP. I’d liked that offer; it meant the Sarahs who attended wouldn’t only be those with the time and privilege to do so. That had even gotten Mabel to tone down some of her teasing about the whole event.
Around the next bend, a different type of cold than the air-conditioned lobby, that of Canadian November penetrating a closed system. Someone had propped open the fire door at the hall’s end. I unlocked my door, dropped my bags in my bathtub, then went to get a look outside.
When I leaned out the fire door, I found two Sarahs smoking, shoulders hunched against a biting wind. A vivid bruise of a cloudbank pressed down overhead, making it seem much later than it was. The air tasted like cigarettes and salt water. We had a dramatic landlocked view of a loading dock and a couple of dumpsters, but I felt the sea lurking nearby. I felt oddly displaced, jetlagged without the jet. Portal lag, maybe.
“Join us?” The curls spilling down her shoulders were dyed carrot orange, a color that said it was not trying for anything natural. They looked wild and luxurious, when I only ever managed feral at best.
The other looked less healthy. Beneath her toque, her cheeks were gaunt, and the No Good Deeds T-shirt under her bomber jacket swam on her. She held out a pack of American Spirits.
“I’m good,” I said. “But hey, No Good Deeds. They were a cool band.”
She grinned, showing yellowed teeth. “ARE a good band. Bam! Divergence point! In my world they’re on album number six and still awesome.”
“The hall isn’t getting too cold, is it?” Orange Curls asked. “The door locks if we shut it. I had to walk around the whole building earlier. It’s huge.”
The other lit a new cigarette off her old one, then stubbed out the butt with a worn combat boot. “I’ve got to go back inside in a minute anyhow.”
She didn’t look like she was in any hurry. I assured them it wasn’t too cold, mostly because I didn’t want to be That Person, which they probably knew. We didn’t like to inconvenience people.
“So why are you here?” Orange Curls was the chattier of the two.
“What do you mean? I got an invitation.”
No Good Deeds shook her head. “She’s asking what made you accept. Excitement, curiosity, wonder, a desire to exploit? Not that you’re limited to those choices.”
I thought about it. Mabel had said the whole thing was an exercise in narcissism.
She’d read the invitation, then tossed it on the table, laughing. “Who discovers how to access infinite realities and then uses that discovery to invite her alternate selves to a convention?”
“Some other me, apparently.” As I’d said it, I’d known it was true. “Why, what would you do?”
Her response came easily. “Talk to world leaders or scientists. Find out why one reality is running out of water and another is doing fine, or how one made the transition from fossil fuel to solar. Check in on the state of democracy. Something useful. Anyway, you hate decisions. This’ll just make you question every choice you ever made. Should you have gone to grad school? Should you have stayed with this ex or that one? How would your life be different if you’d managed to buy that horse you loved as a teenager? If I were you, I wouldn’t want to know the answers. I mean, you’ve got to go, obviously, but it’s a wasted opportunity if you don’t talk about some of that stuff.”
Everything she’d said was true, like usual.
I looked back at Orange Curls. “Curiosity. I guess I’m here because I’m curious. And maybe a little because if I stayed home I’d always wonder about it.”
The smokers shot each other a satisfied look.
“She’s asked twenty-one Sarahs that question now,” No Good Deeds said, “and that’s been the answer every time. Even the same phrasing.”
I retreated to my room. Stripped the bedspread, checked the mattress for bedbugs. Searched the room and the bathroom for cameras and peepholes in case we really were all part of someone’s psych experiment.
Concerns assuaged, I dumped my backpack’s contents onto the table and repacked the stuff I wanted to carry with me for the evening, then flopped onto the bed to read the program. It contained a basic explanation of the multiverse theory, a welcome note, a sponsor page, a thank you page, a map, and “Fun Statistics!” based on the questionnaires we’d filled out prior to arriving. Ninety two percent of us played instruments. Five percent of us owned horses, thirteen percent owned cats, eighty percent owned dogs. One person lived in a world where dogs had been rendered extinct by a virus. So much for fun.
A program schedule took up the rest of the pages. Some of the serious stuff Mabel had wanted to see was mixed in: “Let My World Solve Your World’s Water Problem,” “Climate Change Strategies That Actually Worked.” “The Way It Could Have Been: Political Divergence Points.”
Alongside that, the topics piquing my own curiosity. “Gender, Sexuality, and Me.” “Driving Forces: Favorite Cars, Stolen Cars, Those Who Never Learned to Drive.” “Let’s Talk Family.” “The Babysitting Incident and Other Divergence Points.” “Why We Live Where We Live.” “Horses and Dogs and Cats, Oh My.” “Outliers.” “Yes, Another Horse Panel.” “Music and Art.” Some were listed as panels, others as moderated large-group discussions.
The second evening was filled with concerts and readings and art shows by the more creative among us. Tonight featured a keynote speech by the host, followed by a DJ’ed dance. Normally that wouldn’t be my thing, but the thought of a dance with a self-curated song list—I pictured upbeat soul, Bowie, 80s pop—and an entire room full of enthusiastic but uniformly terrible dancers, excited me more than I’d admit. There’d be nobody to watch who wouldn’t understand. Maybe I wouldn’t even be the worst dancer in the room. A girl could dream.
I glanced at the clock on the table. Enough time for a nap before dinner. The organizers of “This Is So Damn Weird” were probably sitting in an empty room, sighing to themselves, wishing they could grab a few minutes’ sleep too.
We had all just started on our salads in the banquet hall when the Sarah from hotel registration approached my table. Her uniform still made her one of the easier ones to recognize.
The hotel employee knelt by the Sarah to my left, who had my haircut and who was wearing the same T-shirt as me, only with a long sleeved shirt underneath it. She was the only one I’d seen with a prosthetic hand. It was a good prosthetic; I wouldn’t have noticed it if we hadn’t stood at a washroom sink next to each other before the meal. Other than the hand, she’d looked more like me than most; I desperately wanted to figure out where we’d diverged, but hadn’t worked up the nerve to ask her yet.
“Pardon,” said Hotel Sarah. “Did you say earlier you were a detective?”
Prosthetic Hand shook her head. “I wouldn’t have said that. Not anymore. Go fish.”
I traced the scar on my own left wrist and wondered how many worlds you had to travel away from mine before you reached one where Go Fish wasn’t a game.
Hotel Sarah straightened up, put her hands on her hips, scanned the room. I debated not identifying myself, just to observe how she approached the problem of discreetly finding the sole detective in a room full of functionally identical people. My curiosity over why she was looking for me won out. Curiosity and pity; I recognized the panic just under her surface. Everyone at the table recognized it. It rippled over us like a wave.
“Right table, wrong person,” I said in a low voice. “How can I help you?”
Her relief was so obvious I felt guilty for having considered withholding. “Would you mind coming with me?”
Seven faces watched as I stood up from the table: prosthetic hand Sarah, left handed Sarah, bearded Dare, bearded Josh, stubble-faced Joshua—the three of them had sat together to compare notes, they’d said—and two random Sarahs I hadn’t yet managed to meet or distinguish because I was more interested in the others. They reopened questions I had closed for myself. From the way we had all allowed them to center conversation, I guessed that was the case with everyone else who’d sat down at this table, too.
All seven had pushed the olives to the side of their salads, as I had. I pictured dishwashers scraping the entire room’s worth of olives off our plates at meal’s end. Wondered how the organizers had proactively made the entire weekend vegetarian, but forgotten to tell the kitchen we didn’t like olives. Maybe whoever had set the menu was an outlier who assumed they were in the majority.
I stuffed a dinner roll into my bag in case I missed the entire meal. The others all nodded approvingly, knowing we didn’t work well when hungry.
Hotel Sarah led me through the lobby and down another doglegged corridor, this one in the opposite direction of my own. I pictured the building’s aerial footprint, a sprawling figure. We
passed a tiny convenience store, a shuttered boutique, a small arcade where a lone Sarah manipulated a claw machine. An elevator waited open at the end of the hall. Once inside, she
used a key to unlock it and pressed for the third floor, the top.
The elevator was the slowest I’d ever ridden. I waited for her to tell me where we were going, or why. When no explanation came, I concentrated on figuring out the observable differences
between us. There were none, or none beyond the superficial. Her tailored uniform, her short, tight curls versus my shaggy ponytail. She was sizing me up in the same way; I wondered what she saw.
The elevator opened onto a dark room. An enormous nightclub, I realized, as my eyes adjusted. There was a long bar down one side, and on the opposite side a row of well-dressed folding tables holding some kind of display. In the center of the room, dozens of small tables ringed the perimeter of a dance floor. Beyond the dance floor, a high stage with a single podium and a
DJ table. It took me another few seconds to notice the slumped figure in the stage’s shadow.
As I approached, I saw what had the hotel manager so spooked: a dead Sarah.
About the Author
Sarah Pinsker’s fiction has won the Nebula, Sturgeon, and Philip K. Dick Awards, and she has been a finalist for the Hugo, World Fantasy, and other awards. Her first collection, Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea(Small Beer Press) and her first novel, Song For A New Day (Berkley), were published in 2019. She is also a singer/songwriter with three albums and another forthcoming. She lives in Baltimore with her wife and dog.
About the Narrator
Mur Lafferty is the co-editor and sometime-host of Escape Pod.
She is an American podcaster and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She is the host and creator of the podcasts I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers. Her books have been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, and Scribe Awards. In the past decade she has been: co-founder/co-editor of Pseudopod, founder of Mothership Zeta, editor or co-editor of Escape Pod (where she is currently).
She is fond of Escape Artists, in other words.
Mur is the 2013 winner of the Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly the John W. Campbell Award).