From above, the Interreality Support Network was a mass of undulating cables. Initially a spider's web, it had now grown to resemble millions of centipedes writhing in ecstasy.
The sight made Cyndy visibly sick. She quickly turned from the flyer's window and reached for the sick bag. It shot out from the back of the seat in front of her and wrapped around her mouth. As she emptied her lunch into the receptacle, calming sprays of peppermint scented liquid washed her mouth before an attbot helped remove the bag for her.
The attbot swivelled its cube head towards her, a pink emoticon smile digitised on its face. The smile moved to make words in her mind. "The jump site can cause nausea," it said. "The undulation your biological sensors perceive is the shifting between dimensions. The cables are fixed and straight and don't move in the real world."
"Thank you," said Cyndy, coughing the last bit of bile away. "I'll try not to look at it again!"
The flyer banked left and Cyndy was relieved to see standard buildings that didn't move.
The attbot hadn't left.
"Was there something else?" she asked.
The attbot showed a face with a wavy line for a mouth.
"We are about to enter one of those tubes in a few moments," it said. "The transition may be a bit disconcerting."
Cyndy indicated the bag. "I'm sure I have nothing left," she said with a wry smile.
The attbot nodded and slid away.
She wondered what it would feel like to shift between parallel worlds. She was excited and terrified at the same time.
Would it hurt?
The flyer banked right again and lowered onto a moving platform. Clamps held it in place.
A force field filled the cabin, locking Cyndy's movements. With even her eyes frozen in stasis, only her consciousness was aware of what was happening.
Everything took on an unclear hue, as though reality had been deliberately blurred. Then, just as suddenly, reality snapped back and everything seemed normal again.
The attbot returned. She was sure that it had changed the colour of its face.
"Blue suits you," she said.
"Thank you," it replied.
"Does your programming allow you to decide colours, or is it automatic?" asked Cyndy.
The attbot busied itself with health checks, making sure the transition had been safe for Cyndy's body.
"I have always been blue," said the attbot.
Okay, thought Cyndy. It was her consciousness that had shifted, not her body. She was already in a parallel universe, one in which her other body already existed. Perhaps her other self had shifted to her previous body.
She reached into the film on her shoulder pocket that hid her life card, and activated the archive. There were more pictures, and some she had never seen before. One of them was with her boss. A hug at a party last week. But she had never hugged him. Certainly, not like that. Otherwise, the pictures were mostly similar to her life.
This would take some getting used to, she thought.
"You can enter," said the attbot, sliding out of her way.
She deactivated the restraining field and stepped out of the shell seat, making her way down the net steps to a footriver. The buoyant mercury-like path slid her down the main corridor of the flyer and, then spiralled to a waiting pool at the bottom. There were others there.
"P24N3" said a quasi-human, introducing himself. "I am pleased to make your acquaintance."
Cyndy looked him over but couldn't tell whether he was a Dayer or Nighter. Nighter's were a lot more fun. Then she realised that his front was completely flat. A Dayer then.
"Pleased to meet you," said Cyndy, not so pleased. P24N3 just nodded.
Cyndy decided that keeping quiet was her best option. Afterall, she really had nothing to talk about, and couldn't reveal her mission here anyway.
Two attbots appeared and took P24N3 one way and Cyndy another. The others in the group were taken away by attbots, medbots, selbots and others. All on their own missions, she guessed.
All were attempting trade with multiple versions of their own worlds.
The dark silver walls, grey rib-like ceilings, and black iron tables leant a very clinical air to the proceedings.
A few flowers would have been nice, Cyndy thought.
Across the table sat a mirror image of herself. Well, almost a mirror image. Blue hair endings on her doppelganger were the only major difference to her purple ones, and her purple hair wasn't even hers anyway. It looked like there were multiple ways to cross the multiple realities.
"These aren't negotiations," said her other self. "We know what each other is thinking and any kind of acquiescence would be considered a fake compromise, and suspected."
"I agree, Cyndy said, "So, all cards on the table and we'll see what we can work out."
The other Cyndy pulled out an identical document to Cyndy's. They both looked at each other in surprise.
"I think we're talking to the wrong mirrors," said Cyndy Two.
"No, my physical agenda is incorrect. I exchanged perceptions, not possessions. This document belongs to the Cyndy I have swapped with."
"So, you are not wanting to trade for coffee?"
"No, we have coffee to trade. We wish to trade for oil."
"Excellent," said Cyndy Two. "We can come to some agreement."
It was more like an exchange of sales rather than a negotiation. Both offered good terms and there wasn't any need for a currency exchange. Coffee beans were identical in value to petrol. The interbrokers had chosen the correct parallel realities to deal with.
Within about half an hour documents had been irised and copies committed to lobe storage. Orders were placed, messages transmitted via ISN's interreality message exchange, and shipments were flashed to their respective worlds. Of course, ISN took a small percentage from the exchange.
Cyndy had a day to explore the area. She left the ISN headquarters and walked the streets in wonder. Buildings were solid gold with diamonds inlaid. People were tall and thin in the slightly lighter gravity and seemed to glow with health and energy. The low light dwarf star and limited use of vocal chords meant all faces were lineless. She had no idea of the age of anyone.
Then she saw him. P24N3. He seemed to be waiting for something.
"Hello P24N3," she said, her long purple hair flicking in the slight breeze.
The quasi-human turned to her and smiled. "This reality is two minutes behind. Hello Cyndy."
"Two minutes behind?" asked Cyndy, curiously.
"I thought you would get here two minutes ago," he said cryptically, tapping his head. "One of my other selves is talking with one of yours right now. Parallel world 258. Our conversation will be a bit different now."
Cyndy didn't know what to think about this development. Why was a fake human interested in her?
"We need your help," said P24N3 simply.
P24N3, she decided to call him P, took her to an opulent cafe. Initially she baulked but P allayed her fears. "Everything is free. There is no currency and the ISN gets 1% of everything from trade. That means the property is overstocked with everything from multiple worlds. Literally everything. The ISN can live in luxury forever.
Having scanned their lobe chips when they had entered, a dribot slid over with a tray of their favourite drinks.
Cyndy looked at P's tray in surprise. Fake humanoids don't usually consume, but his tray had a wine glass of dark red liquid. Shiraz.
"I always do my best to fit in," he said.
She nodded. "So, why do you need to see me?"
"May I," he asked, indicating her forehead.
His finger lightly touched her lobe, a protective security encryption field briefly encasing the connection, and then sat back.
Knowledge of a future cataclysm affecting all of interreality was instantly opened and broadcast to her mindview system.
She absorbed everything in moments and shook her head, wanting to rid herself of the image. The mindview screen faded away and she was able to focus.
She frowned. "Are you some kind of conspiracy nut?" she said, disappointed. "Maybe a doomsday cult?"
P shook his head. "We have no emotions. We only observe."
"It's still a prediction," Cyndy murmured, picking up her hot lapsang souchong and sipping it.
"It is not," said P. "Some worlds operate at slightly faster time speeds than others. This is from one of them."
Cyndy looked at him. "If the world has been destroyed, why hasn't ISN gone with it?"
"This has happened before," said P. "ISN has had fail safes for centuries. At least 30 future worlds have perished in the last ten years alone. There are an infinite number so ISN isn't interested. It just contacts the next one where another ISN is ready to make the connection. ISN now has a billion Earths in its charter."
Cyndy was going to ask 'why her?' but thought better of it. She knew why. Her world must be next.
"So, I'm just one of 10 billion humans on my world," she stated. "What could I possibly do?"
"We don't know," said P. He sat back and sipped the wine. The liquid stained his lips ruby but then automatic cleaning sensors in his skin covering returned the colour to standard light pink.
He looked at her carefully, yellow eyes flicking left and right, human-like concentration but flicking just too long for it to be real. Cyndy blinked.
"We only know that you are at the centre of whatever happens," he said, putting his hands together. "The destruction of the past 27 worlds have featured you, not long after you do your first interreality trip. This is the point in history that it begins. We would like you to monitor what happens to you, and things around you, and keep us updated."
"Why not come to my world and investigate for yourself?" she asked, but she knew the answer to that before she asked, too.
"If you knew a world was going to explode, would you want to go there?" said P, sadly. "Only those who are from there will help, and in our past experience, the ones we've asked for help haven't been close enough to the situation. You are the closest so far. I hope we find a solution soon."
"But, I don't understand," said Cyndy. "Why are you even doing this? There are billions of parallel worlds. Life is cheap now. We only have our personal feelings left. Everyone is replaceable. Even entire worlds. It really doesn't matter whether mine or anyone else's world is destroyed. It'll exist somewhere."
P looked closely at her. "It is what I am programmed to do. My government sent me. They don't want their world to be destroyed. As we read the energy now, we have about six months left before it happens to ours. Of course, there are other versions of me from other worlds trying to save theirs."
"Couldn't you just find a world that has similarities but survived the explosion, and work backwards?" asked Cyndy.
P shook his head. "We don't know the alternative. The explosion cuts off the planet from the interreality system. We've been able to set up alternate interreality message transmissions systems to find out what happens next. Unfortunately, all planets quickly turn into black holes, then swallow their star. We have yet to find a world with one where the explosion never occurred, the black hole never happened and yet, have a record of an 'almost' explosion. We are running out of time."
Cyndy swallowed the rest of her tea and sat back. "So, I return to my body, monitor the situation, check in with you here with updates. How long have I got?"
P swallowed the rest of his wine and got up. "One week," he said. "Two days should give you enough time. Meet me at this cafe then and we'll update each other on what we've learned." Then he bowed and left.
Cyndy sat and reviewed. Then began to shake. One week. There were so many people she wanted to say goodbye to. So many things she hadn't done in her life.
Perhaps she could find a way to shift to another world if the time came and she would see other versions of all the people she would lose on her world. And there was still a chance she could avert the destruction.
Her mind made up, she took a flyer back through the interreality tunnel and returned to her Earth.
In the lift to her level, all she could smell were cigarettes. Had her other self taken her body somewhere smoky? She felt slightly queasy too, like she was missing something. Had her other self been feeding her?
Her boss went to kiss her in the lift and she recoiled, “Mr Joule!" she said, shocked.
Had she made it back to the right reality?
"Er," said her boss surprised, then disappointed. "I guess you're back. Please forget I did anything."
Cyndy remembered the picture in her interbody. "I take it you had some enjoyment with my body while I was away?"
Her boss went red and stabbed at the next number that was coming up. He needed to cut the conversation short.
"All I can say in my defence, Miss Williams, is that the other Cyndy was engaged to her other boss and assumed it was the same here when she arrived," he said, as the lift door opened. "She was quite passionate."
He exited quickly.
The doors closed behind him and Cyndy shuddered. The boss was not her type in this universe. How could he have been in the other one? What changes had happened there?
She looked down her body and noticed a pink mark on her cheek. Surely they hadn't done much. She had only been gone 18 hours. She went to the bathroom and looked herself over. Relieved that there was no evidence they'd gone further than some heavy petting, she headed back to the office.
Her desk was as she left it. She checked her bank account and found a charge for a packet of cigarettes. She didn't smoke. No charges for food. Her second drawer contained the packet. Two were missing. On it was a note. "You should take it up. Relax a bit. - C"
Cyndy shook her head. Obviously her other self was a lot less caring about other selves bodies. She wondered if perhaps that was the cause on the other worlds. More selfish Cyndy's destroying the planets.
She wrote up her negotiation report and submitted it, looking up the next assignment. In two days time she had to negotiate a wheat for corn deal. It seemed pointless. Why not exchange with more alien versions of Earth and get very different things?
She left her desk and walked around the office. How could this little business cause a planet to explode? They were just brokers. Negotiating deals and skimming, just like ISN. They were just a little cog in a massive machine.
She checked the schedule. All the girls were doing interreality deals. None of the people in the office she really knew. They were all alternate versions. She noted on the schedule that Virginia had recently left and that the body that was here was an alternate Virginia. Maybe she could ask her about her world.
She checked her locator chip and found her on level 12. Mr Joule's office.
Cyndy frowned. Something wasn't right about that. Virginia never needed to go to the office.
Cyndy took the lift and exited next to Mr Joule's corridor. His office was down the end and she could hear voices. Then she heard the clink of glasses and laughter.
She stopped, suspicion forming. Surely not.
Then she heard Virginia's voice. Or rather, the alternate Virginia. "Oh God, I want you now." she said.
Cyndy had heard enough and went back to the lift and back to her desk.
Feeling sick, she suddenly had an idea as to how an entire planet could be destroyed by a tiny business.
She began investigating.
P was exactly like she remembered. The glass of shiraz was served, and this time she received lemon tea. Her other self had updated her lobe preferences. She wondered what her other self had done when she'd reviewed the exploding planet materials. No record was left in the chip.
"What have you discovered?" asked P.
Cyndy sipped her lemon tea, ignoring the cigarette cravings this body had, and frowned.
"Alonzo Joule is a bastard," she said.
"It is the same on the other worlds," said P. "He decides on a female, researches a reality where they are already having an affair, then sends the non-responsive one to that world to negotiate a pointless deal, while he has fun with the one passionate about him."
"In our office he has either passionately kissed or slept with at least half the staff, and none of them have mentioned it, accepting it as a 'one off' situation and a side-effect of the job," said Cyndy with a frown. "After all, there are no laws to prevent it, and any recording on our world would show it was completely consensual. One young lady had been saving her virginity for her husband on her wedding night. She killed herself when she found out her other self had lost it on Mr Joules."
"I'm very sorry to hear that," said P, attempting sympathy. "Have you worked out how your little brokerage firm could destroy the planet?"
Cyndy shook her head. "I don't know if it is relevant, but my other self is quite selfish. I'm sure she is having him in the office right now, using my body."
"It might be so," said P. "What did you write on the note and how do you think she'll respond?"
Cyndy laughed, knowing that now P was ahead of her. "Nothing specific. Just a general private memo to everyone involved. I sent them facts of his other affairs."
P nodded. "What do you think would happen if Mr Joule's partner from each world learns that, firstly, he's not really their partner on your one and, secondly, that their Mr Joule's is doing the same thing?"
"Oh," said Cyndy, as the realisation hit her, knowing the power of women scorned.
P smiled. "You have found the cause," he said. He tapped his head. "My other selves are also being informed by other Cyndy's. We need to remove all the Mr Joules'."
He held out his hand and shook hers. "Thank you!" he said. He bowed and left.
Cyndy drank her tea. They were going to save Mr Joules?
But surely there had been other P's on other worlds who had found this solution and tried to extricate him. How could she second guess other situations? What would happen next? Crazed, used women storm his protective enclosure and kill him? What if they couldn't get to him? Would they work out another way?
Then she realised. The women had already thought this through for months. They'd felt abused and violated and would have thought through every possible and probable outcome. Killing Mr Joules wouldn't work. They needed to prevent future Mr Joules'. And the way to do that was to attack the source.
They would try to destroy ISN.
She ran out after P, but he had gone.
It was up to her.
The flyer had been delayed and she couldn't transfer back into her body. Her other self was not at the exchange point. She waited and looked for other options.
A more expensive option was to transfer as a full physical. She didn't want to do it but she had no choice. She'd be stuck in this addicted body if anything happened to her other self. But with only 5 days before her planet was due to explode, she didn't have much choice.
The product transfer systems were huge. Shipping entire cargos between the worlds instantly. A swing crane picked up one cargo box, a wormhole opened, and it swung it through the hole and quickly swung back again. Nets in the other world caught the cargo and shipped it to the location.
Another wormhole opened and another cargo box was thrown by crane. A slow process.
She walked past to the people transfer section. Boat shaped transfer ships waited to be filled while physicals got on board. The crane lifted them and threw them through. It was too risky to use any kind of propellant or electromagnetic propulsion. The slightest difference in the vibration and the wormhole would collapse or redirect to the wrong location.
Her boat arrived and she took her seat.
It was lifted and, after a momentary weightlessness which had her gasping, she felt the ship being held by a net and lowered in her world.
She quickly got off and headed to her office.
What had caused the flyer delay?
Her office was deserted. No one on any levels. No access to locations. All staff had turned their locators off.
She tried contacting other franchisors, even some competitors. No answer.
She tapped into the news. A massive protest had developed outside the main ISN area. Thousands of women were screaming. Hundreds of thousands.
Surely Mr Joule hadn't had that many.
Then she realised. It wasn't just her boss.
Every brokerage involved in dealing with the ISN had a boss doing it. In fact, the entire business had been set up as the modern version of a harem. The boss taking a percentage of the trade, employing women to do the negotiation, then having a bit on the side from everyone without them realising.
Now everyone had realised. Her simple note had set the ball rolling. People had taken to social media and found there were others just like them. Within 48 hours the world had discovered the truth. News services had released the details.
The women were angry. Very angry. And with no laws to cover this and no way to take any man to court, and even if it were possible, there wasn't enough money in the world to compensate every woman, there was only one business responsible that could take their wrath. ISN.
And ISN had a weakness. All the interreality portals were sensitive. Even an ancient mobile phone could set them off.
Cyndy looked at the screen of the protest. She looked at the angry women shouting.
Then she smiled and leant back in her chair.
She knew P had given her an incorrect timeframe. Perhaps he knew. Perhaps not. Perhaps in some alternate reality, her other self would find a way to fix the problem. Perhaps another self would want to fix the problem. For her, though, she knew the explosion would be quick.
The women stormed the barricades and threw themselves into the dimensional vortexes. Cyndy pulled out a cigarette and lit it. She inhaled, enjoying the feeling in this other body.
The feed cut out, there was a rushing, grinding, screeching, crushing noise, a high pitched whine that became steadily lower, and then silence as another Earth became a miniature black hole.
"I was an hour early," said P24N3.
"You were waiting for me?" asked Cyndy, her long green hair flicking in the slight breeze.
"Yes, I was wondering if you could help me."
Author Notes: This story first appeared in Alien Dimensions: Science Fiction, Fantasy and Metaphysical Short Stories Magazine #1 in October 2016. Find out more about Alien Dimensions at: http://www.AlienDimensions.com