Escape Pod 655: And Then There Were (N-One) (Part 4)
And Then There Were (N-One), Part 4
by Sarah Pinsker
Back in my room, I stripped my wet clothes off and replaced them with another T-shirt and boxer shorts. The whiskey didn’t do the job I’d hoped it would, so I spent the night in imaginary conversation with Mabel. The rain battering the window filled in her side of the dialogue. I walked through the order of events, everything I’d found. I had ideas, but they weren’t cohering. The timing was important, I knew that. Murder weapon would be lovely, but I didn’t expect a forensic report any time soon. As for suspects, for all the people giving me alibis and vouching for themselves and each other, it could still have been anybody.
I drifted away from the case itself. The host said she wasn’t the Prime, wasn’t the trunk of a branching tree, but she’d labeled us all in relation to her. We were all in close proximity. Even the most distant of us were still recognizable. Tiny differences. I hadn’t run into anyone who lived in a post-water shortage America, or post-flu, or post-oil. We all knew how to flush toilets.
What would it look like if we had radiated out from me instead of the host? Or if we had all radiated out from the hotel clerk, whom the quantologist had said was one of the farther iterations? There were other realities between these, ones she hadn’t chosen. N Sarahs, in N realities, where N was unknowable and constantly changing. Why had she chosen us and not others? Was I the most interesting of a string of insurance investigators, or the only one available this weekend? I had more questions than I’d had before I arrived.
Why did I go into detective work, not one of the sciences? I hated my calculus teacher, dropped it after a few weeks; because of him, I didn’t get far enough in math to pursue a college major in bio or physics. Maybe he didn’t exist in the other worlds, or maybe the science Sarahs hadn’t let him get the better of them. Maybe they pushed themselves to spite him. Some went on to become geneticists or researchers or science fiction writers. Same mind, applied differently. Choices, chances, undecisions, non-decisions, decisions good and bad.
Maybe I shouldn’t have come. Maybe one of me was sitting at home with Mabel right at this very moment, another me, another Mabel, another reality where my curiosity hadn’t won out. But if I’d stayed home, who would be asking questions for the Sarah in the fridge? If nothing else, I was good for that. Even if I hadn’t yet found any answers.
It was still raining when I woke. The thin carpet felt vaguely damp, like the weather had come up through the foundation. My head hurt. I had a vague sense that I had unlocked something in my sleep and forgotten it again.
I took a quick shower, hoping it might clear my head. No luck.
Breakfast was served buffet-style, which was good since I was ravenous after only eating a roll the night before. I built a tower of eggs, potatoes, and toast, a second tower of fruit, and deposited both plates on the nearest empty table. When I came back from the tea station, the table was full.
“How are you enjoying the weekend?” asked the Sarah next to me. I didn’t think I’d met her before. “Other than… You know.”
“I haven’t had much time to do anything,” I said between mouthfuls. “Duty called. Well, not a duty I expected to have, but I’m trying to figure it out.”
“Oh, were you the one who got pulled away from the table last night? It would be a shame if you didn’t get to go to anything.” That was Dare; I remembered him from dinner, with his copper and silver beard and mustache. His talk on gender was one I’d circled when I thought I’d get to actually attend programming. “It’s not like we’ll have this chance again.”
“You don’t think so?” another asked.
Dare shook his head. “No. Somebody died. That’s not exactly an encouragement to the backers to bring us back for a sequel. Even if it was an accident, the logistics of explaining her death on the other side of the portal will be a nightmare.”
“Infinite variations,” said another Sarah. “Maybe next year we’ll get invitations from an iteration where she didn’t die.”
That made my head hurt. “I think I need to get back to work after I leave breakfast. I still need to interview the hotel staff, and anyone who talked to her yesterday afternoon…”
My neighbor speared a chunk of pineapple and waved it at me. “Stay. One talk won’t hurt you. We’ve got a big-group discussion on ‘Horses and Dogs and Cats, Oh My’ in this room right after breakfast. All you have to do is not stand up.”
Her argument on its own might not have been persuasive, but inertia won out. Inertia and jealousy and a bad feeling I shouldn’t have eaten as much as I did and I might still be sick if I moved very quickly. Besides, everyone else had already had a chance to get to know each other a bit, and all I’d talked about was one unfortunate dead person whose death I wasn’t even supposed to be investigating anymore. I lingered as the mics were set up and the buffet tables cleared.
The setup was loosely structured, with a leader and a few planned speakers to kick things off. The first storyteller sat to speak. She was trim, polo shirt tucked into worn jeans. She looked like she’d spent time in the sun.
“When I was a teenager, I spent my summers working at a trail riding stable in upstate New York.” Several Sarahs snapped their fingers. I realized a system had developed while I was snooping around. Snap to say that had been your experience too. Too late for me to snap with them, but so far this story was mine as well.
“I had a favorite horse, Smokey. An Appaloosa.” I snapped along. She didn’t bother describing his color, like a white horse that had rolled in dirt, or his dustbroom mane and tail. I had loved him even though he was ugly as anything.
“One afternoon, a man drove up with a little girl, maybe five or six years old. My boss put the little girl on Flicker. Flicker wasn’t the first choice for someone that small, but the kid-friendly horses were both out with another guide. There wasn’t even a children’s-sized saddle left, so we had to run the stirrups all the way up to the top hole and then flip them over. Even then, she had to stretch her toes to reach.”
We all snapped quietly. We knew this story.
“I took them on the usual circuit: through the woods, circling the pond and the far field, back into the woods, then looping out to the dirt road. The road was the problem. We sometimes raced the horses home that way when we were goofing around. It was a dumb thing to do, teaching the horses to rile themselves up and anticipate the run back to the barn, but all the teenagers working there had been doing it for as long as anyone could remember.
“I spent the whole hour thinking about ways to avoid trouble. I decided to take them back through the field so they wouldn’t race, but we still had to cross the road. Smokey jigged a bit as we crossed, but listened to me. It was Flicker who bolted toward home. She probably didn’t even realize there was someone on her back, the kid was so small.
“Make your horse WALK,” I remembered shouting to the father before I took off after his child. “Don’t let him race us.”
It wasn’t hard to catch up with Flicker: Smokey was much faster. The problem was stopping a running horse from the back of another running horse. I couldn’t think of a safe way to do it. If I tried to grab Flicker’s reins, I’d pull her head to the side, and her body would bow away from me, and the kid would be thrown.
Even after a summer of tossing hay bales, I knew I wasn’t strong enough to pull her onto my horse. The only thing I could do was reach over and steady the girl, who was clinging like a burr to the saddle. I kept picturing her little body slipping off onto the hard-packed dirt, or the barbed-wire fence that ran parallel. All I could do was hold her where she was.
I held the girl up there until the horses reached the top of the road and stopped, just like that, race over. Flicker dropped her head to graze. The father came up the road just behind us, grabbed his daughter, called me a hero. When we got back to the barn, he explained to my boss as if I had saved his kid from a freak occurrence. I would have said I minimized the damage in a totally avoidable near-catastrophe.
At summer’s end, my boss offered to let me take Smokey home for the off season, as thanks. I wanted to say yes so badly, but I knew it was impractical. I did the research, visited a dozen barns, worked out the expenses, and finally called the barn, weeping, to say I couldn’t afford to take him. The next summer when I went back to work, he wasn’t there. I couldn’t bear to ask where he’d been sold, since I knew I’d blown my chance at any claim on him.
“In the end, I found a way to make it work to bring him home with me,” the storyteller said, going off the script as written in my head. I had forgotten she was still talking. Up until she changed the story, she’d sounded just like my own interior monologue. “I found a barn that let me give lessons on him to cover board. I saved enough to buy him the next spring. He was my extracurricular, my only extracurricular, the joy my whole life revolved around. When I decided to go to community college for large animal management instead of going to university, it was for him. From talking with all of you, I’m pretty sure this was a major divergence point, so I thought I’d tell you I had him until he died of old age at thirty-two.”
I wiped a tear from my eye. The sniffles around me suggested others were doing the same. One was openly weeping, another holding her. “It wasn’t your fault,” the second one said, loud enough for me to hear. “You couldn’t have saved her. We couldn’t all save her.”
Something nagged at me. She had left out a few things, to the point where I didn’t know if they had only happened to me. My boss had sat me down after the father and daughter had driven away. We spent an hour going over what had happened, with him suggesting different phrasings, different ways of thinking. “If anyone asks, you don’t need to mention that Flicker isn’t normally a kid horse, right? Or that the stirrups were too long?”
That was the seed of my investigative career: the hour where we sat at the picnic bench and massaged the truth into something litigation-proof. I was exhausted, drained of adrenaline, at once sickened and fascinated at the way the story changed before my eyes. I understood the need for the lie, understood that he’d lose the business if he was successfully sued, went along with it. At the same time, his casual erasure of the truth horrified me.
All these other Sarahs had either missed that moment or internalized it in some other way. Was the rabbi here? Maybe this was the incident that started her search for meaning. Maybe the quantologists had launched their careers looking for a way to do that day over again.
Part of me wanted more than anything to trade places with this barn manager. To have had sixteen years with a horse I loved, to have made a decision based on gut instead of practicality. I knew that ship had sailed, but I still wanted it. That one change had defined her life. She was happy. I was happy too. I’d left that incident alone as a disappointment but not a defining one, or maybe a defining point but one that had shaped me without tearing me down. The weeping Sarah might argue otherwise. Divergence points. Divergence points were the key to everything.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to the woman who was still crying over the little girl, as I got up to leave.
The hotel manager was standing in the lobby talking to a couple of her employees when I passed. I debated telling her where I was going, decided against it. Probably stupid, I reflected without slowing, as I walked down the mildewed-smelling hall to knock on a murderer’s door. I heard footsteps inside, and the door swung wide; she opened it without checking who was on the other side.
“I know.” I didn’t need to say more. She’d believe me.
I pictured her hitting me over the head, running down the hall and out into the storm. That was the movie scenario, the dramatic culmination: the two of us wrestling on some wind-wracked cliff. Why wasn’t I afraid of that? I knew she had considered it and rejected it in the same moment. That wasn’t the kind of person we were. I was pretty sure of that, though not as sure as before I figured out what had happened.
She let me in. She was still wearing the No Good Deeds T-shirt, which looked even more rumpled than before. When she turned away there were sweat stains under the arms and all down the back, like she’d been exercising.
“I was going to take a quick shower,” she said. “Do you mind? You can look around.”
I nodded, let her go. She didn’t bother to close the bathroom door, or left it open out of courtesy to show me she wasn’t plotting anything.
I poked through the DJ’s stuff, scattered on the second bed. An ancient laptop, an ancient MP3 player, decent looking headphones. More pills. A twist-tied baggie with a brown lump in it, another baggie of what looked like ground coffee. A few T-shirts, one pair of ragged jeans.
She emerged from the bathroom in a towel, the picture of good health.
“Do you mind?” she asked, and I moved aside for her to take a pair of underwear off the pile. She poked her finger through a hole in a seam. “I didn’t think about this part. How I’d have to wear someone else’s used underwear.”
“Was it worth it?”
She cocked her head, gave me a sad, unstained smile. “That’s kind of up to you, I think.”
I hadn’t considered it that way, but as she said it I knew what she meant. If I told the authorities—whatever that meant in this context—the real DJ would still be upstairs in the fridge wearing someone else’s clothes. It would all have been for nothing.
“Why?” I asked. “Why her, specifically? What’s the divergence point?”
“There are a hundred thousand divergences between her and me. She wasted herself, wasted her life. She was a decent DJ, but she was otherwise a total fuck-up. Tried a hundred times to get clean. It never stuck.”
“She was nice to me,” I said, thinking about our brief interaction, her jittery enthusiasm. “Seemed pretty cool.”
She pulled on the jeans from the bed. They fit, but not as well as the designer pair she’d worn the day before. “I researched her for a while. Trust me. She may have been nice, but she was a four alarm fire. Smoked everything in her life other than music.”
“But just because she was a mess doesn’t mean she deserved to die. I mean, you’ve still got a lot going in your life, right? You invented cross-dimensional travel. Why would you want to take on her life if you think it’s so shitty?”
She reached into the backpack on the bed and withdrew the DJ’s wallet. Pulled out the ID and tossed it in my direction.
Oh. “Seattle’s gone in your world.” It wasn’t a question.
She nodded, tears in her eyes. “Not only Seattle. Everyone. I lived in a house with five of my closest friends during grad school. I was visiting our parents back east when it happened, but everyone else was in the house when the earthquake hit. I was on the phone with Kelly when it happened—they were all watching Labyrinth—and I heard the whole thing. It took ten days to dig them out. Too late, of course. They all still exist where the DJ’s from, and she sits in her shitty apartment pretending they’re not out there. Ignoring their calls when they try to check in on her. Estranged from our parents and sisters. She never even met Mabel. There are a million Sarahs I could have chosen and wouldn’t have because they still had people.”
“But you still have other people,” I said. “What about them?”
“My lab staff might miss me, but that’s about it. Mabel left me the night I made my big discovery, when I skipped out on our anniversary dinner because I was on the verge; I got home to tell her and she was gone. Our family would have felt terrible, of course, and I felt terrible about leaving them. But they would have been comforted by the way I lived and died, I think. Knowing I did everything I had set out to accomplish. It was a good life. They knew I loved them.”
“A good life you’re willing to leave behind?” I was still trying to imagine that. “You’ll trade tenure and fame and everything for whatever she’s got left?”
“That stuff is good for my ego, but it doesn’t matter. Not like having a home. Not like people. I’ll trade it all in a second for a world where everyone and everyplace I love still exists. Where I could find her world’s Mabel—they never even met!—and see everyone else again.”
“Even if they hate you?”
She didn’t hesitate. “Yes. Relationships can be repaired. Even if they hate me, I know they’re still out there hating me.”
“And that was worth bashing her head in?”
I watched her face carefully. I could imagine the horror I’d feel if I’d lost everyone in such a terrible way, and the guilt of knowing I’d have been there with them if I hadn’t been out of town, and even sitting on one side of that haunting phone call, but I still didn’t think it would drive me to murder.
“She didn’t feel it. Dropped like a stone. She doesn’t even own a bra,” she said, rummaging in the bag. “I haven’t gone out without a bra since I was twelve years old.”
“You did last night. I saw you in the back at the keynote.” I watched her pull a T-shirt over her head for a band I didn’t recognize. “Why did that other quantologist take your place? The real R1D0?”
She sighed. “If I say we’re exactly the same, I mean we are exactly the same. Literally the only difference in our lives is that the night I actually made the discovery, she went out for an anniversary dinner with Mabel, and I cancelled dinner and stayed in the lab. That’s our divergence point. She’s pissed she didn’t stay in the lab that night. She wants the glory. She’s let that supersede everything else, thinks she’d be happy if only she were in my shoes. That’s all. I mean, I’d be pissed too, but I don’t think she’s seeing clearly. She’s still with Mabel. That matters way more than a name on a paper, even one this huge.”
“Her decision must have been spur of the moment,” I said. “I think she heard the call you made, and switched clothes with the body when she realized she was the first one there. I’m not sure why she took both radios, but maybe that was panic. I heard the second one inside her room when I was standing in the hall with her. Anyway, I saw her speak last night. She could be you perfectly.”
“She is me. Nobody will know the difference. She can have them. Now I don’t have to feel guilty about leaving my family, even; it’s her world that’ll have to deal with her absence. Anyway, she might have been headed up to the club to do exactly the same thing I did.”
I shuddered to think that was true, and how many murderous Sarahs actually existed in that case. “Was that your whole motivation for going into quantology? To switch places?”
“No! We were already in a physics masters program, so finishing that degree and going into quantology wasn’t a stretch. We wanted to know if there really were realities where Seattle still existed. Where Kelly and Taylor and Allison and Scott and Andrea were still alive. Not to go there, just to know.”
I didn’t know who Andrea was, but Kelly and Taylor were my best friends other than Mabel, and we’d all lived in Scott and Allison’s house in Capitol Hill when I first moved to Seattle. I couldn’t imagine the guilt of living in a world where they had all died and I had been spared by some quirk of timing. And Mabel had broken up with her on top of that. She’d lost all of them. Even hearing her say it, it hit my gut as if I’d lost them myself.
“So you weren’t always going to kill someone?” I was still having trouble imagining this ambitious Sarah ditching everything she had to become a DJ, but it didn’t seem as far-fetched anymore. Something else bothered me too. I believed everything else she’d said, but I still couldn’t picture myself bashing in somebody’s head, or taking the time to position her beneath the stage in the hopes of making it look like an accident. Every step screamed intention.
She ran her hands over her short hair, smoothing the flyaways. “I only decided for certain when she came back with her second crate. She must’ve gotten herself messed up in between; she could barely answer my questions when I tried to talk to her. Anyway, I’m sure there are other realities spawned at that moment where I decided not to.”
She believed what she was saying, I could tell, but I didn’t. I was certain she’d waited up there, taken the time to pick the perfect weapon from the show and tell table. She might even have picked in advance, when the questionnaires had come in, researching the offerings until she found the award that she could turn into a weapon; that would explain why the Hall of Fame was in the nightclub instead of someplace people could browse it throughout the weekend. It was disorienting, to hear her lying to herself and recognize it for what it was. I wasn’t her, I reminded myself again. We’d made different choices to bring ourselves to this point.
“And in case you’re wondering, I wouldn’t have killed you for your Seattle, either. You haven’t squandered it. Most haven’t. Anyway, when I started my research I thought I would be happy if I just proved that they were out there somewhere, in some other reality. That’s why we all got into quantology, to prove there were other possibilities, not to change places. And that felt like enough until I started researching all of you to figure out who to invite. Until I found her—” she pointed at herself “—and realized there was a way to make it happen. If I didn’t try, I’d always wonder about it. You’d do the same thing, right?”
I didn’t answer. I didn’t think so. I hoped not.
She kept talking. “When I reached out to the other quantologists, I picked ones who had diverged before I had that idea. Or so I thought, anyway. Maybe I was wrong about that, at least in the case of R1D0. I didn’t think about the ways they’d diverge because of the influence of my inviting them to help plan this. That was short-sighted. Do you think the others know I switched?”
“I don’t think so.” None of them had mentioned it to me. If they didn’t know, that meant they hadn’t thought of it; if they hadn’t thought of it, that left only one or two capable of murder.
“Yeah, I hope not. I want to think I’m the worst of us, other than her.” She stood before me, wearing the clothes of the DJ I’d met the day before, wearing her life. “So what are you going to do? Are you going to tell them? Turn me in?”
“Did you ever chase down a runaway horse?”
She looked confused, then nodded.
I thought about divergence points. I’d never felt I could have done anything else in that moment on the road, which was a good thing. Even the tiniest choices paralyzed me; I tried to play out every decision’s every repercussion. Better not to have time to think.
Up until I came here, I’d tried to tell myself that once I made a choice it was done, I had to own it. We all built the future with our choices every day, never knowing which ones mattered. Now I still had to own it, but I knew others were stuck living the other side of my decisions, or I was living theirs. I wasn’t even sure yet if that was paralyzing or freeing. If I let her go, if she was anything like me, guilt might wear her down to nothing. That was a punishment in itself. If I turned her in, would it be justice for the DJ, or merely proof I could solve a crime?
“If you turn me in,” she said, as if I had spoken out loud, “there’s going to be a whole lot of confusion in a whole lot of places. I have no idea how any authority will deal with it. There’ll be a dead body in one world, an accused killer in another. If you let me go, think of all the good I can do. I can repair her relationships with our friends and family. I can find her world’s Mabel. This Sarah was never going to pull out of her spin, I swear. She would be dead tomorrow or next week or next month. And she’ll still be dead tomorrow. I could do some good there in her world.”
Somewhere out there, iterations were sparking. Variations on the host, deciding and not deciding to go through with her plan. Killing the DJ, changing her mind and walking away. More iterations yet: the second quantologist, making and unmaking her split-second decision to leave her life and slip into one that was identical in all ways but a crucial one. Somewhere, another me turned in the second but not the first, the first but not the second. Both. Neither.
Some other place, the DJ had never died. She put another record on her turntable, slowed the beat to match the song already playing, shifted seamlessly from one into the other. Some other place, a hotel nightclub full of Sarahs danced awkwardly to their favorite music, shaped by their worlds, shaping new ones.
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.