Escape Pod 654: And Then There Were (N-One) (Part 3)
And Then There Were (N-One), Part 3
by Sarah Pinsker
The swipe card worked on the first try. I stepped inside. The light had been left on. The furniture looked like hardwood instead of plywood, and the room was maybe a foot or two wider, but I didn’t really see anything to justify the cost difference between this space and mine.
Three dresses hung in the open closet, in styles similar to the dead woman’s. Worn gym clothes lay crumpled in the corner next to the first bed, a pair of sneakers half-buried underneath the pile. The closer bed had obviously been slept in; if she was the organizer, she’d probably been here a night or two early to get situated before the rest of us arrived. She’d dumped her suitcase—mostly underwear and bras—out on the second bedspread. Maybe in her world hotel bedspreads got washed along with the sheets.
A toiletry bag had been emptied on the bathroom counter. Ipana gel toothpaste, the exact same product I used. How much could toothpaste change from world to world? The makeup was an assortment of familiar and unfamiliar brands, so maybe I was wrong. A damp towel hung over the shower curtain rod. So far, this was the room of someone who had assumed she would be coming back. I flushed the toilet for her, as a courtesy. Immediately regretted it as disposing of evidence.
The room door clicked shut, startling me. Had I left it open? I didn’t remember closing it when I’d entered. Maybe someone had gone into another room on the hall and the wind had pulled this one closed. I’d lived in houses where that happened. I opened the door and peered down the empty hallway.
I’d left her second bag for last, under the hope there was a clue waiting somewhere for me. A clue, like I was a real detective, not somebody who flushed away evidence. The bag was an expensive-looking leather satchel. My style, if I had the cash for it.
There were a few things I was expecting to find and didn’t. I’d expected a registration binder like the one I had in my bag. I didn’t see a walkie-talkie or charger, though maybe the charger was in the convention’s Ops room the manager had mentioned earlier, wherever that was. I did find a program, with a couple of items circled. Not the ones I expected. “Sarahs in the Sciences” on Sunday morning and a penned in Information Desk shift from 12–4 PM on Saturday. Not the keynote. Maybe she didn’t have to circle it because it went without saying.
The rest of the bag was filled with the usual odds and ends I carried: pens, gum, emergency flashlight, loose change. A dog-eared paperback novel called Parable of the Trickster.
No wallet. I looked in all the places I’d have left a wallet if I were her: all her bag pockets, the TV stand, the nightstand, even the sink. There wasn’t a room safe, so it couldn’t be there.
I wouldn’t have noticed it at all if I hadn’t kicked it on my next circuit of the room, hidden half-under the second bed. Maybe she’d tossed it in the bed’s direction in a hurry and missed? Or knocked it to the ground as she left? It was unlike me. I wasn’t the neatest person in the world, but I was careful with the important things.
I kept making assumptions she’d think like me, and they kept paying off. Still, I had to keep reminding myself we weren’t the same person. We were and weren’t. Our experiences had shaped us, the differences in our worlds. Something had convinced her to become a quantologist, but whatever had driven her would have had a different effect on me, in my quantology-free reality. Given all that, it didn’t seem unreasonable we would have different opinions on where to leave your wallet in a hotel room.
The other option, obviously, was that somebody else had been in here. How hard would it be to flash the desk clerk an ID and say you’d lost your room key? Or even without ID, to rattle off one of the numbers the hotel had used to differentiate us? Whoever it was might even have still been in the room when I entered. That would explain the door shutting while I was poking around the bathroom. In which case, the question now wasn’t only what could the room tell me, but what couldn’t it tell me? I would never know if something was missing.
I opened the wallet. No cash, but that wasn’t unexpected since we couldn’t use it here. No driver’s license, since that was in the body’s pocket. Two credit cards, car insurance, Johns Hopkins ID, some store discount cards. The university ID could be important, if only a few Sarahs worked there.
The only thing personal—the only thing personal I’d noticed in the whole room, really, if you didn’t count fashion—was a cropped photo tucked behind her health insurance card. I tapped it out, sucked in my breath. It was a picture of her—not me, I told myself—standing with my friends on a mountaintop at what I was fairly sure was the Grand Tetons. I had gotten somewhat used to the surreality of seeing my face on strangers, but there was something even odder about seeing a picture of myself, with my friends, in a place I’d never been. Mabel, my Mabel, with an arm wrapped tight around another Sarah’s waist. All in someone else’s wallet.
It was impossible to tell which details were piquing my interest because they were pertinent, and which were piquing my interest because they were me. What would it be like to be this Sarah? I remembered my own professors’ homes, pictured myself coming and going from a majestic old house with a glassed-in sunroom. Did she live with alterna-Mabel? This Sarah lived in Baltimore, not Seattle; I couldn’t imagine Mabel leaving Seattle.
If I stayed any longer I’d start trying on the dead Sarah’s clothes, and I was pretty sure they wouldn’t fit, mentally or physically. I left everything where I’d found it.
The Sarah in the room across the hall and I both closed the doors at the same time. I panicked for a second before realizing I was supposed to be there. Or at least I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
She gave me a curious look. “Are you the detective?”
“Yeah. How did you know?” I looked her over. Another flowered dress, freckles, runner’s build. Another short haircut. She’d either had her breasts reduced or run all the fat off her body. The body of somebody with a whole lot more determination than I had. One of the quantologists from the committee, I guessed.
“I’m in charge, and you’re coming out of her room.” She gave extra weight to the word “her.” “The hotel manager said she’d called you in. Thank you for your help.”
“You’re in charge? In place of the, ah, host? The quantologist?”
“In place of? Everyone on our committee is a quantologist, but I’m the one you’d call the host. I’m the keynote speaker.” She waved a sheaf of handwritten papers in my direction.
“Wait—is the speech still going on?”
“We moved it, obviously. It’ll be in the dining hall. The dance is cancelled, out of respect.” Her walkie-talkie squawked and fed back, loud enough to generate an echo. She dialed the volume down without looking at it. “And I rewrote my speech, of course.”
“But we were looking for you—the manager thought you were the dead woman. Do you know who she is?” As I asked, I understood. “Oh, I had the wrong one. She’s one of the others from your committee.”
Her face crumpled for a second, like she was trying not to cry. She pulled herself together. Bit her lip until it turned as white as her teeth. “Yes. We hadn’t known each other that long, obviously, but she was tremendously helpful. Working with her, well, it was like working with myself, if that doesn’t sound too narcissistic. We were on the same page about everything. They said they’d given you a registration list? She’s the one from R1D0, by our designation. I’m R0D0. I ID’ed her when the manager took me up to look a few minutes ago.”
“It’s not my fault you’re identical,” I said, a little angry with myself for not having considered the possibility. “I’m not even this kind of detective.”
She patted my arm. My feeling of inadequacy blew over as soon as I said it, leaving her gesture as sincere commiseration, not condescension. Her smile was genuine, sympathetic. “I wouldn’t have suggested getting you involved in all of this, but I wasn’t there when the hotel manager panicked. I think she must have fallen off the stage and hit her head, but we’ll bring in the authorities as soon as the weather lets up. No need for you to worry about it.”
Everything I’d learned was still lurching and settling into new positions. The clothing change made sense if it was a different person. Everything I knew about the one fit the other.
“How close are your worlds? I mean, do you know the divergence point? I don’t think I’ll get the science of it, but I get the divergence points concept.”
“I’d love to talk more,” she said, “but my speech is supposed to start in a few minutes.”
“Do you mind if I walk with you? I have a couple more questions I wouldn’t mind asking. Even if you think I don’t need to investigate.”
She shrugged and started walking. I followed. “Why didn’t you answer your radio when they called for you?”
“I was in the shower. I must not have heard it.”
“Do you know what she was doing in the nightclub?”
“No clue. Looking for me, maybe? Or adding something to the Hall of Fame display? A few people brought items they hadn’t mentioned on the questionnaire.”
We waited for the elevator. A couple more Sarahs joined us, giving the same curious once-over we were all giving each other. If they were staying in this tower, they were likely on the richer side of the spectrum. Both were dressed the way I’d dress if I could afford nicer clothes, but one had cut her hair shorter than I’d ever cut mine before, the back shaved, the top still curly. It looked good; I wished I had the guts. Neither wore glasses. Contacts or surgery or some fluke of genetics? I’d have asked if I wasn’t more interested in the host.
I didn’t want to question her much in front of strangers without knowing what had already been said to the general public. I searched for a more neutral topic. “Why did you choose this hotel?”
The elevator chimed and let us in. We stood silent while it descended; I used the time to study the others. Hair and clothes had been the easiest ways to catalogue differences at first, but I was starting to see that we fell into a few different basic phenotypes. The host and the other athletic Sarahs on one side of a spectrum that ranged lean to soft. Still no way to suss out anything beyond the superficial without asking.
Once the other Sarahs had walked away, the host answered my question as if there had been no gap. “Secord Island is a tiny dot in the Atlantic. I won’t bother getting into the geopolitics, but it’s independent in nine identified worlds. Three are home to private mansions, six to private resort hotels. In this one and only this one, one of us is manager, though she’s one of the more distant iterations I identified, from a subset who went to university in Nova Scotia and then stayed in the east. This place was perfect. So inhospitably perfect we were able to guarantee to our sponsors and grantees that nobody would go AWOL. One weekend, in and out. No risk.” She flashed a rueful smile.
“What do sponsors and grantees get from this?” Mabel had asked me, and I’d wondered ever since. I repeated Mabel’s question.
“The usual name recognition, for those in worlds where they exist. And if it goes well—if it had gone well, I guess—the chance to explore doing it for other purposes: recreational, educational. There’re a couple of travel companies, a couple of charitable foundations, a couple of think tanks. I’m hoping I’ll still be able to convince them her death would have happened anywhere, nothing to do with the event.”
I nodded. “One more thing. Is there a way for me to talk to your other committee members? You’re the ones who would have known her best.”
She looked for a second like she was going to say no, but then she lifted her walkie-talkie to her lips. After a brief back and forth, they agreed to meet me at registration after the keynote.
“Anything else?” she asked. “I still say there’s no point in you investigating before the police get here, but if you think there is, I’ll cede to your expertise.”
I wasn’t sure if that was a dig or not. She was probably right. I had no idea why I was still asking questions. Except I did like having something to do, and I was suspicious of anything dismissed too easily. If I were lying in a hotel fridge, I’d want someone asking questions for me.
A crowd bottlenecked at the dining hall entrance; I guess none of us liked arriving too early. We didn’t like jostling either, so the result was a polite alternate-right-of-way situation that worked itself out pretty quickly. The room was still arranged in a constellation of eight person tables, but a microphone had been set up on one end of the room. I peeled off to find standing room beside the entrance, where I could watch the speech and the crowd at the same time.
The host walked to the microphone. She wore small heels with her dress. Heels always made me walk like a moose on a frozen lake, but she came across comfortable and confident. I couldn’t help coveting her poise. She glanced at the clock above the door—for a moment I thought she was looking at me—and then started to speak without consulting her notes.
“Welcome, friends. First, I think by now many of you have heard we’ve had a death at the conference. One of my committee members, perhaps the person who worked most closely with me, Sarah Pinsker. It’s so strange to say that name, my own name, the name that many of you call your own, in this context. We’re still waiting for the authorities to arrive to tell us what happened. We’re also working to inform her family, and to find the proper way to memorialize her. I’m sure she’s in all our hearts.
“I say ‘in all our hearts,’ and I know it sounds cliché, but it’s literally true. She is every one of us. So we can imagine what her loss will mean to her own world and her own family. At the same time, it’s impossible to imagine. Even now, when I say her name, you picture yourself, not her. Not the things that made her distinct from you or me. In that way, we grieve her as friend and family, not a stranger, even those of us who didn’t know her as an individual.”
The door creaked, and I looked over to see the DJ slipping from the room. The speaker continued.
“You all took such pains to get here, it didn’t feel right to cut the weekend short. I’m sure she would have wanted it to go on, because I know I would have wanted it to go on, after all our work. Tonight’s dance is cancelled, out of respect. There’ll be rooms available tonight and tomorrow for support groups if anyone needs to process in that setting. There will also be a Shabbat service in the chapel tomorrow morning at ten if anyone wants to say kaddish for her, led by Rabbi Sarah Pinsker. Stand up, Rabbi?”
A Sarah stood, raised a hand in solemn greeting, then sat again. The only rabbi, I thought. Was there a panel on our more unexpected career choices? I knew what had led me down my road, but not what had led her down hers.
“Without invalidating anyone’s grief or confusion, I have to say that this death, tragic as it is, highlights the reason we’re here: to learn from each other. I’ve got a panel tomorrow where I’ll explain in more detail how this all works, but I think this is a fitting moment to explain the basics, to explain how we are all different and the same.”
Her tone changed, as if she was now on more comfortable ground. “It’s human nature to center ourselves in the narrative, but I encourage us all to consider the larger picture. I’m standing here before you not because I am the first, or the best, or the trunk of a branching tree. I’m here due to two things I can own: a discovery and a decision. I’m the one who figured out how to open a door; I’m the one who invited all of you to walk through it. Nothing more, nothing less.
“There are others among us who are as accomplished in their own fields, who could invite us through other doors, figuratively speaking. There are others among you who made ordinary decisions that nonetheless changed you significantly: leaving school, pursuing higher education, adopting children, or not. Even the smallest decisions, like kissing someone instead of waiting to be kissed.”
I wondered how many of us thought of Mabel.
“I’m sorry I’m not feeling up to doing my whole intro to quantology speech, but I can leave you with one more thing to think about, something that may provide comfort on a night like tonight. Not only can I say nobody here is prime, I can also say all of us have always existed. It’s hard to wrap your head around, but it’s true. Those divergence points, where we discuss pets and girlfriends and boyfriends, wrong turns and big decisions? They work backward and forward. The moment a divergence point sparks, the new one has always existed too.
“I tried to invite Sarahs with some variety, to learn from each other, but Sarahs who are still recognizably us. This conference exists in infinite variations: some where I invited a different group of Sarahs, some where you chose a different dessert, where you sat next to someone else at dinner, some where my friend Sarah is still with us. They are no more or less valid for having diverged, no more or less real. You are all you, we are all we, constantly shaped by and shaping worlds.”
It was a good line, delivered by a good speaker, meant to buoy everyone. What would it be like to be a good public speaker? To be a discoverer of worlds? We all clapped, both for her speech and her attempts to reconcile the moods of the occasion. That was why I clapped, anyway. I kept extrapolating outward from myself.
I spotted the older Sarah I’d had a drink with earlier, and went to stand beside her as the crowd started to file from the room. “In the bar a few hours ago, you pointed at someone and said she was the host. How did you know?”
She shook her head. “Sorry, that must have been somebody else. I haven’t been to the bar. Sober ten years.”
There was more than one older Sarah, or more than one who looked older than the rest of us. A good reminder not to make assumptions, even here.
Three Sarahs stood clustered around the registration desk, as promised. I didn’t see the host, but I was pretty sure she was still behind me in the dining hall. I’d already spoken with her anyhow. So a committee of five, minus the host and the dead woman. They all wore silk; I guess they didn’t sweat the dry cleaning bills.
They agreed to talk to me one at a time, in the lounge seating area between registration and the bar. The bar was starting to fill up again, but it wasn’t yet too noisy for conversation. A knot of Sarahs with guitars gathered on the other bank of couches, but the odd timbral similarity of their voices made them easy to tune out. They’d found a way to eke joy out of the situation, and for a moment I envied them.
I’d have saved time by talking to the committee members altogether; their answers might as well have come from the same mouth.
Q: Where were you between four-thirty and six pm?
A: Registration, then the cocktail party, then up to take a nap and shower. I figured a shower would be worth being a little late for dinner.
Q: Were all of you at the cocktail party?
A: Yes! I think. At the beginning, anyway.
Q: Including the one who passed away?
A: Yes. I think. It’s hard to say. We were mingling.
Q: When did you first realize something was wrong?
A: When the hotel manager came to find us, toward the end of dinner.
A: The committee. She found all of us except—her.
They all gave the same weight to “her” that the host had upstairs.
Q: What did you do then?
A: Figured out which of us she was. Cried. Freaked a bit. Talked about what to do next.
Q: How did you figure out which of you she was?
A: Um, a roll call. I know that sounds silly, but I can’t tell any of the other four apart without asking them questions or knowing what they’re wearing. I had friends in seventh grade who were identical twins, and I never had a doubt which of them was which. This is different.
Q: Did anyone use the radios to contact any of you?
A: Not that I heard? I might have been in the shower.
Q: Is there anything else you know about her that might be helpful? Anybody who she was angry with? Anybody who was angry with her? Jealousies, rivalries?
A: There’s no point in a cross-world rivalry. We were all a little jealous of R0D0, of course. She made the breakthrough we were all trying to make. But not R1D0.
Q: Do you know your divergence point from the others on your committee?
A: Eleven days before the big discovery, R0D0 and R1D0 made a mistake in an equation. The rest of us got it right. It was the mistake that was the key. The three of us differ in ways barely worth mentioning, all within a month of each other: a hospital visit, a sprained ankle on a run, a birthday party the rest of us skipped.
Q: What about R0D0 and R1D0, then? Where do they diverge? Would there be any reason for the host to be jealous of the deceased?
A: If anything it would be the other way around. They diverged an hour before the discovery. R1D0 went out for an anniversary dinner with her girlfriend; R0D0 cancelled dinner and stayed in the lab. If I were R1D0, I’d have carried a little resentment over that, but if she did, she never showed it. Anyway, someone said it was an accident, right? Is there any chance it was anything else?
“She hasn’t been examined,” I said. “She’s got one hell of a knock to her head.”
I left it deliberately vague, to see if any of them gave anything away. They all gave me the same look, stressed and relieved, hopeful and guilty about that hope. I found myself wishing all of my insurance interviews were with Sarahs. My job would be much easier if I recognized every expression on everyone’s face.
I was desperate for something to break one of them from the pack, but nothing came. Even their divergence points were mundane. They were the same person. I thanked them for their help and let them go. They had all looked genuinely upset. I had believed all of them, and the identical answers were as good as corroboration. They were all willing to help, but convinced it was an accident. They couldn’t figure out why I was still asking questions when the answer seemed obvious.
In their shoes, I’d be desperate to believe it was an accident too. Better than thinking somebody might have it in for me. If I were one of them, I’d be terrified and trying to hide it. I’d be looking around every corner for a killer, trying to live up my last moments, to settle accounts, just in case; except we were all trapped for the weekend, unable to contact anyone we loved or go anywhere.
I was one of them. Without the science background, without the urge to be the first or the best or whatever it was driving them. Which was an interesting line of questioning I hadn’t followed at all: what was driving them? Why were they so ambitious, when the rest of us weren’t? What had made them go into quantology? Could any of them still make the same discovery, for their world, or had the host Sarah spoiled it for everyone? I looked over to see if they were still standing by registration, but they had all gone.
The bar was half full, and when I slid onto the nearest empty stool, the bartender handed me a tumbler of bourbon, neat, without my needing to ask. The guesswork was gone from his job: there was a plastic cup over the handle for the stout. I hoped he had another keg somewhere that he hadn’t had time to tap yet. Down the row, six other Sarahs sipped from identical glasses.
“Cheers,” said the Sarah next to me, holding up her drink. She was wearing a Wonder Woman T-shirt too, an Alex Ross illustration, deflecting bullets. She looked exhausted, like she’d spent the evening deflecting bullets herself. “It’s hitting you too, huh?”
“The difference question. You’ve noticed a thing about yourself, or a thing about someone else here that isn’t true of yourself. You can’t quite tell if you should feel bad about it, if it’s a flaw in you, if there’s something you did wrong along the way. You thought one more drink might let you fall asleep without it keeping you up all night.”
We clinked glasses.
I wandered back toward my room still mulling it over. Wind whipped down the chilly hallway, but I saw only one figure silhouetted against the open door, with her mass of flaming curls.
“Where’s your friend?” I asked, leaning out. A gust hit me hard enough to knock me off balance; in its wake, the air was heavy with the promise of rain. The smoker whirled to face me when I spoke. “Sorry if I scared you. I was the one who chatted with the two of you out here earlier, in case you can’t tell.”
She shrugged. “Haven’t seen her. I heard she found the body. Maybe she needs some alone time. I know I would. Drink?”
She held a flask out to me, and I took it with a nod of thanks. Bourbon. Cheaper than the stuff the bartender had served, but still decent. Another gust of wind tore the top of a dumpster off its hinges and sent it tumbling over the loading dock wall. We both watched it cartwheel away.
“New question for tomorrow,” she said, taking her flask back. “You get to test it first. What are you most afraid of?”
My answer was instant. “Everything. Earthquakes. Bombs. Random violence. Falling tree branches. Losing people I love. Cancer. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This storm. Missing out on something because I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. Missing out on something because I’m afraid. I try not to let it control me—my job helps desensitize me a little—but… yeah. Long answer to a short question. You?”
She took a long drag on her cigarette. “I’d have stopped at ‘Everything,’ but, yeah, same basic theme. Pretty amazing that we’re all here despite being chicken. Afraid to ride bicycles but willing to step out of our own reality completely for a weekend.”
“Maybe it falls under ‘Afraid of missing out on something because I’m afraid?’ We all push ourselves in the same ways?”
“Maybe. I guess I’ll see what everyone else answers tomorrow. You know what you didn’t list, in that long list of things you were afraid of?”
“What?” I replayed my answer in my head to figure what I might have missed.
“Dying alone, far from the people you love, surrounded by strangers who wear your face and mirror your thoughts. I would think that would make your list, since it makes mine.”
I considered. “The first part, maybe. I’m starting to get used to the second part. And I’m still more afraid of the storm than the other Sarahs.”
Lightning cracked the sky open to punctuate my sentence, close enough to make the hairs on my arms stand on end.
“Bam. Divergence point,” she said, with less enthusiasm than her smoking buddy had earlier. “I’m getting a distinctly bad vibe from all this. Do you have Agatha Christie in your world? Isolated island, bad weather. I’m still waiting for us all to be picked off one by one.”
“And yet you were standing out here all alone. So either you’re not as scared as you say, or…” As I said it, I wished I hadn’t. If I was joking, it wasn’t funny. If I was implying she was a suspect, well, everyone was except me, since I knew I hadn’t done it. That didn’t make it a smart move to address the subject directly.
“…or I’m the killer, in which case you’re the one in trouble, not me.” She gave me a look that told me she agreed my comment had been in poor taste, and held out the flask, daring me to take it. “I’m not a killer. I can’t prove it, of course, but I know I’m not. Which makes me pretty sure none of us are, because I can’t imagine the circumstance that would bring me to kill someone.”
“I can’t imagine killing someone, but I also can’t imagine the circumstance that would have turned me into a smoker.” I swigged whiskey. “Or a hotel manager, or a quantologist, or a DJ.”
She took one more drag, then dropped the butt and crushed it with her boot. “It’s the storm and the island that made me say the Christie thing. I’m way more nervous about this storm than being killed by a serial Sarah, at least while there’s still only one body. Hopefully I won’t have cause to revise that. In the meantime, there’s facing fear and there’s being stupid. We should probably go inside before we get hit by lightning.”
As if in response, the sky opened up. We were both drenched in the two feet to the doorway.
“If the lights go out, start counting Sarahs,” Orange Curls said before squelching off down the hall.
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 the co-founder/co-editor of PseudoPod, founding editor of Mothership Zeta, and the editor or co-editor of Escape Pod (where she is currently).
She is fond of Escape Artists, in other words.
Mur won the 2013 Astounding Award for Best New Writer (formerly the John W. Campbell Award), and the 2018 Hugo Award for Best Fancast for Ditch Diggers. She’s been nominated for numerous other awards and is always doing new things, so check her website for the latest.