By Jason X. Bergman
Fred held the control unit in his hand. He was nervous. He wiped a sweaty palm on his jeans. He had devoted ten years to studying the fundamental building blocks of the universe, and at long last he was going to put his theories to the test.
He stood in his kitchen next to the bulky transport machine. It wasn’t pretty, a pile of wires and parts cannibalized from appliances. The control unit was a little gray box with a single button, taken from an old television remote, and a dial from an old toaster. The dial would theoretically allow him to fine tune his jump to a specific dimensional frequency, but since he wasn’t sure any of this would actually work, he had never hooked it up.
Fred was nervous, but he had resolved to take the plunge tonight. This was it. The validation of his life’s work. He looked at the clock on the wall, a cheap piece of white plastic with thin black hands he had purchased at Walmart. It was 2:30 AM.
He took a deep breath and pressed the button.
A short click and then light flooded around him. It seemed to pierce his forehead, a million little daggers stabbing him over and over.
And then, just as suddenly as it attacked, the light receded. He was standing in his kitchen, as before. The clock still read 2:30 AM, but its face had changed. Instead of the cheap clock in his kitchen, this one appeared to be slightly nicer. Not much nicer, but it was a faux mahogany. And where Fred’s kitchen had been filled with broken and discarded bits of machinery, this one contained actual, working units.
“It worked!” Fred exclaimed. “It actually worked!” He was overjoyed. “I’m the first person to successfully travel to a parallel universe!”
From down the hall, a light clicked on.
Fred suddenly remembered that any alternate universe would naturally contain a parallel version of himself, and he was about to meet him. This was so exciting!
“Hello?” Fred said, leaning toward the hallway. “Is anyone the—”
“Hey,” the Fred from this universe grumbled as he emerged from the bedroom. “Let’s get this over with. Some of us have to work tomorrow.” His slippers made scratchy noises on the floor as he shuffled down the hallway.
This universe’s Fred held up a hand, stopping him mid-sentence. “Gimme a sec, okay?” He didn’t look pleased to see a visitor from another dimension. He was wearing a bathrobe and squinting. He sat down at the table and put his head in his hands. A sniff, then a deep snort and he rubbed his eyes. “The machine works.” He let out a yawn. “Good for you.” Another snort, this one longer, like he was really working to get something up there. “Bad for me though, because all of you stupid Freds just come here. In every universe your machine exists, it only takes you here. And in this universe, I’m not an amateur scientist, or a professional scientist, or a science-anything. I sell cars. And I have to go to work tomorrow, unlike you.” As he spoke, he pointed an accusatory finger at Fred. “So please push your big red button and go back to where you came from.” He stood up, then reached out and put Fred’s hand on the button.
Fred started to protest. “But—”
“Goodbye, Fred. Congratulations. Don’t ever come back.”
He pushed the button, and Fred disappeared.
A click and then light flooded around him. So much light. It seemed to pierce his forehead, a million little daggers stabbing him over and over again.
The light dissipated and Fred found himself standing in the same kitchen as before, but where his kitchen had been filled with broken and discarded bits of machinery, this one seemed to be filled with actual, working appliances. The clock read 2:45 AM, same as before, but instead of his own blue dial, this one was some kind of faux mahogany.
“It worked!” Fred exclaimed. “It actually worked!” He was overjoyed. “I’m the first person to successfully travel between universes!”
“Read the note!” called a voice from down the hall.
“Excuse me?” Fred replied, a little confused. He craned his neck to try to see the person. Was that the Fred who lived in this universe?
“NOTE!” the voice called back.
Fred looked down at the kitchen table. There was a note, hastily scribbled in blue ink on the back of a junk-mail envelope. He picked it up.
“Dear Fred,” the note read, “Congratulations. Your machine worked. Unfortunately you have landed in the home of the only Fred who doesn’t care. He has to work tomorrow.”
“Is this a joke?” Fred replied, still confused.
“Just. Go. Away,” the voice called back.
Fred lay in bed and waited for the flash of light that let him know his intruder had left. Maybe this is the last one, he thought, but he doubted it. He may not be a scientist, but even he knew that there were an infinite number of parallel universes, adding up to an infinite number of invaders in his kitchen. A flash signaled the arrival of yet another traveler. Fred winced.
From down the hall, he could hear, “It worked! It actually worked!”
Another flash. Great, Fred thought. They’re overlapping now.
“Holy crap,” he could hear the second traveler say, “it worked! It actually worked! I’m the first—”
“Second, actually,” the other traveler interrupted.
“You mean you—”
Fred couldn’t take it anymore. He pulled himself out of bed and threw on his robe. He shuffled down the hallway for what seemed like the hundredth time.
“Hello,” one of the travelers called out to him as he approached. The traveler held out his hand, but Fred brushed it aside, slumping down at the table.
“Hey,” he replied. Did they have to all be so damned happy to see him? “I’ll make this quick. Your stupid machine works. As you can see, I am you.” He looked from one traveler to the other. “Both of you, I suppose.” Fred stood up again and started to walk out of the kitchen. “Do what you want here, but then please, go home. Just let me sleep.”
Another flash. Fred groaned. His head hurt. He turned back to the other two travelers, who were staring as another visitor slowly materialized before their eyes. “Do me a favor. Fill the new guy in, will you?”
Fred dropped down on the bed just in time to hear, “It worked! It actually worked!”
He looked over at the clock. It was 3:00 AM. He had to be up in four hours. Did these guys even work for a living?
Twenty minutes and three visits later, Fred had an idea. A silly idea. Giggling to himself, he lurched out of bed and put his robe and slippers back on. He shuffled down the hall to the kitchen and opened the door to his garage, shuddering as the cold air wafted in. He stepped inside and grabbed a steel lawn rake off its hook. Then he stepped back into the kitchen and closed the door.
He looked down at his kitchen floor. A few hours ago it had been spotless, but now there was a black circle — a mark created from the constant flashes of interdimensional travel. He carefully placed the rake on the edges of the circle. He then taped a note to the opposite wall, just below the clock, that simply read, “GO HOME.”
Laughing to himself, he walked back to his bedroom. Now he just had to wait for his next visitor to arrive.
It didn’t take long.
A flash and then, “It worked! It actually w—”
“Ow! My node! I tink I broke my node!”
From the bedroom, Fred could hear the visitor stumbling about, confused. Finally it seemed, he read the note.
“Go. Home. Whud? Id dis a jogue?”
After a few more minutes of audible confusion, there was a flash and his invader was gone.
Lying there in bed, Fred smiled. He might not be able to get any sleep tonight, but maybe he could have some fun with his other-dimensional counterparts.
The first death was an accident.
Fred had been cleaning up. It was almost 4 AM, and he hadn’t had a visitor in over ten minutes. He had some fun with the last few visitors, but was happy to be done with them. He was standing in the kitchen with the rake under his arm when a flash went off behind him.
Fred turned around in surprise, just as the visitor materialized in front of him. It hadn’t occurred to him that someone might materialize around the rake he was holding, but that’s exactly what happened.
When the visitor finally solidified, he did so with the rake’s handle buried in his chest. Fred looked at the invader, who could only stare at the thing protruding from his chest. Their eyes met for a moment. Then a look of horror slowly crept up the face of the visitor, as he realized what was happening. He tried to raise a hand up to pull out the handle, but it was too late. His heart had stopped beating, and life was draining out of him. All the poor traveler could do was gasp and stare in confusion.
The visitor gulped for air a few times, then slumped down. Fred was still holding the rake under his arm, connecting him to the doomed traveler. He let go and the visitor crumpled to the floor, lifeless.
Fred stepped back, unsure of what to do. It had been an accident. But now there was a dead body — his body, technically — lying on the kitchen floor.
His hands were shaking as he crouched down to examine the traveler, who was still holding the control box in his right hand. Fred grabbed a spatula from a kitchen drawer, stepped back, and used it to depress the big red button on the control unit. A flash of light and the body disappeared. The rake, which had been supported by the traveler’s body, fell to the floor with a metallic clang.
Interesting, Fred thought. He wasn’t a scientist like these invaders had been, but in his youth, before he had been distracted by cars and girls, he had possessed an inquisitive mind. That part of him was most intrigued by this turn of events.
He walked over to his refrigerator and grabbed it on both sides. He started to drag it out away from the wall. He pulled the heavy refrigerator left and right, inching it along the floor until it was directly over the black circle.
Then he stepped back and waited.
At 4:23 AM, there was a flash of light, followed by a bump from inside his refrigerator.
Fred walked in a circle, inspecting it from the outside. He could see a finger — no, four fingers — on one side. On the other he could see an entire arm, and at the end of that arm, a hand still holding the control unit tightly. That was a relief — the last thing he wanted was to have the body get stuck in this dimension. This was all fun and games until he was stuck with a dead guy in his kitchen.
He opened the door. Inside, the traveler had materialized around the clutter. The fridge had been mostly empty — Fred hadn’t gone shopping for the week yet — but it contained the usual assortment of condiments and liquids. A bottle of aging milk, a jar of peanut butter, some ketchup and so on. Several items were gone entirely, presumably they were lodged inside the person who now occupied the bulk of the space inside the unit. But certain things like the shelves appeared to have won the tug-of-war for space, segmenting the traveler’s torso into three pieces. Upon closer inspection, the shelves had a number of gaps within them and the traveler’s flesh filled in these spaces.
Fred hadn’t defrosted the freezer in some time, and when he opened it, he couldn’t even see the head, just two large blocks of ice. Blowing off some frost revealed that the head had materialized in there. Closing the freezer, he checked down below and found the feet in the vegetable trays, shoes and all.
Fred didn’t learn much from this little experiment, but it was certainly interesting. It was doubtful this traveler had ever regained consciousness in this universe. As deaths go, this one was probably pretty humane.
Once he had examined the remains, he pushed the red button and disposed of the body. Remarkably, following the flash of light, his refrigerator and its contents remained intact. Not that he planned to keep any of that stuff. He wasn’t completely sure, but he guessed that being inside a corpse wasn’t very good for peanut butter.
Fred couldn’t help but be curious about the way bodies were materializing around objects. Not to mention the way they all disappeared when the button was pressed. He had never felt this way before. He felt so scientific.
For his next experiment, he decided to take a more direct action. He pushed the refrigerator back to its normal resting place, noting with some sadness the scuff marks left on the kitchen tiles. Then he went into the garage and grabbed a hammer.
He crouched down behind the kitchen table and waited. After a few minutes, another visitor appeared.
There was a sickening crunch as Fred slammed the hammer down on the back of the visitor’s head. The blow wasn’t enough to crack his skull, but it did knock him down. Fred crouched over the traveler, who was looking up at him, confused, and probably in a fair amount of pain. No doubt as final visions go, seeing a version of himself was very strange. Fred brought the hammer down again and again, turning the visitor’s head to a bloody pulp.
This caused an enormous mess in his kitchen, not to mention Fred’s bathrobe. But that was all part of the plan.
When he fell, the traveler had dropped his control unit, and it now lay several feet away on the floor. The blood which was seeping out of the many wounds in the traveler’s head was pooling around it, making the box a sticky mess.
Fred looked down at the disgusting state of his kitchen. If his theory was correct, pressing the button would yield very interesting results. He was anxious to see what would happen next.
Fred took a deep breath and pressed the button.
The resulting flash of light was much larger than it had been previously, owing, Fred suspected, to the increased surface area of the traveler. Fred’s own bloodstained robe flared up as well, little dots of light exploding from his chest. But when it was all over, his kitchen and clothes were exactly as they had been before.
It was like the traveler had never been there. Even the control unit had disappeared from his hands, returning with the body.
When the next traveler arrived Fred brought his hammer down, knocking his victim unconscious. He then took a knife and sliced open the visitor’s wrist, causing blood to spray across the floor with surprising force. He was in the process of covering various parts of his kitchen with arterial blood when another flash went off.
Fred quickly dropped his unconscious victim and stepped away from the black circle on his floor. But something curious happened. Rather than create some kind of monstrosity with the two bodies fused together, the light started to move away from the kitchen, and before he knew it, a new visitor appeared down the hall. It was as if the process was smart enough to avoid materializing two Freds on top of one another.
Fred was amazed at this turn of events. So much so that he forgot that he was covered in blood, holding a knife, and standing over the unconscious body of his own other-dimensional self.
“It worked!” this new visitor said, after materializing in the hallway. “It—”
The traveler stopped mid-sentence as he looked into the kitchen. He stood there, utterly dumbstruck at the grisly scene before him.
Fred began walking toward the new visitor.
Fred growled and leaped on the traveler, swinging his knife wildly. The visitor instinctively raised a hand up to cover his face, dropping the control unit in the process. Fred slashed down at him repeatedly, making small cuts across his arms as the visitor helplessly clawed back, trying to deflect the knife.
Fred dropped the knife and looked down on the visitor. He had a pretty nasty scratch down his left arm, but that was the only real wound Fred had managed to inflict, and it wasn’t very deep.
Fred was suddenly sickened by what he was doing. What had he become? He fell backwards, his robe spilling open. He moved back across the floor, his hands growing sticky from the pools of blood in his path.
The latest visitor was confused, taking labored breaths and sobbing as he desperately tried to make sense of things. “Please … just … stop. Are you … me?”
Fred continued to scuttle backward across the floor. His hand slid in a pool of blood, coming into contact with his hammer. His fist closed around it.
The visitor picked his control unit up, clutching it to his chest. He was inhaling deeply, trying to calm himself. “I’m sorry. I’ll leave. I just need to press this button. Please don’t hurt me.”
Fred stood up, hammer in hand, slick with blood. He couldn’t just let this visitor leave. He had come too far.
Fred walked toward the visitor. He swung the hammer just as the visitor pressed the button, disappearing from this universe.
Hm, Fred thought, that can’t be good.
The light receded, and Fred could tell from the gray dial on the clock that he had returned to his own universe. He dropped to the hallway floor. His arms, his hand and his face were all covered in cuts from where that maniac had attacked him. None of them were too deep, but they stung.
What just happened? He was totally unprepared for this. He walked back into his kitchen and stared at the floor. His floor was fine, but he couldn’t get the image of the body he had just seen out of his mind. Was that another version of myself already dead? Am I some kind of crazed killer in that universe?
Suddenly, a bright light materialized in the center of the kitchen.
Oh no, he’s found me!
Fred ran into the bedroom and slammed the door, throwing the control unit on the bed. There wasn’t any lock on the door, but he wedged a chair behind it. He got down on the floor and curled into a ball.
“Fred?” from the kitchen a voice called out to him, “Hello?”
“GO AWAY!” he yelled, almost sobbing. “I didn’t see anything. I swear!”
“It’s okay! I won’t hurt you. Please come out. It’s okay.”
The voice came closer. Fred suddenly realized this person was … female? Fred was confused. “What do you want?”
“I just want to talk.”
Fred moved the chair away from the door and opened it a crack. Standing there in the hallway was himself. But not the same. It was — she was — a woman. She had long brown curly hair and wore glasses, but he could see his own basic features in her face.
“Hi,” she said. She held up her hands. “I’m unarmed, I swear. I won’t hurt you.”
Fred opened the door. “Are you … me?”
“Kinda, yeah. My name is Frederica, but most people just call me Fred.” She smiled. A nice smile.
“That’s … confusing.” Fred took a good look at his female counterpart. She was wearing jeans much like his own, but they looked better on her. He found himself filled with thoughts that were weird and unsettling.
She touched his arm, snapping him out of his daze. “Are you okay? Did Fred10hurt you?”
“A little … it hurts.” Fred looked at his bloody arms. “But I’ll live. Wait, what did you call him?”
“Let’s sit down and I’ll explain.” She led him into the kitchen and gestured to the empty chair. “Would you like some—”
“Green tea? Yes, that would be great.”
She smiled at him. “I figured as much. We are the same person, you know.” Realizing the obvious flaw in her argument, she pointed to her notably different body. “Just one chromosome apart.”
She knew her way around his kitchen, that much was clear. And she hadn’t attacked him with a knife, so that was also a plus.
“So,” she said, as she filled the electric kettle, one of his few unmolested appliances, “let’s start at the beginning. As you already figured out, your theories about the multiverse are correct. There are an infinite number of us out there, most of whom are, like yourself, either professional or amateur scientists.”
“I teach 10th grade math,” Fred said, a little embarrassed. “I couldn’t afford the tuition at MIT.”
She nodded. “That’s common. In most universes, we either got that scholarship to MIT or had to fend for ourselves. I guess I was one of the lucky ones.”
“So you mean you’re—”
“A full-time engineer, yeah. I scored some pretty lucrative patents right out of college, so I had access to more resources than most of us. I completed my machine almost six months ago.”
Fred was impressed. And more than a little bit jealous. Not that he minded his life all that much. He had gone to a state school and things hadn’t worked out so badly for him. But MIT! It had been hard to give up on those dreams.
She poured his hot water into a mug and placed a tea bag in it.
“I was the first to jump between dimensions. I jumped in and took notes quietly, waiting for the rest of you to catch up to me. You can refer to me as Fred2 if you like.”
“I take it there’s no Fred Prime because—”
“Because we’re all the same. I didn’t want anyone to think I considered myself the progenitor.” She handed him the mug.
He smiled and fiddled with the tea bag. He would have done the same thing.
Fred cocked an eyebrow. “Wait, so what number am I?”
She smiled. “You’re Fred94.”
Fred whistled. “Wow.”
“Fred10’s world is a nexus. I’ve seen others, but his has turned out to be the biggest one by far. Freds are just drawn to that world, for some reason I’ve yet to discover. Last night about thirty of you turned on your machines and jumped into his kitchen. Unfortunately this Fred turned out to be … unstable. And he’s no scientist. He’s a car salesman, if you can imagine.”
“I can believe that,” he said. Fred had been interested in cars as a kid. Big, bright sports cars. He loved to build models of them and would stare at them for hours. “If I hadn’t decided I was more interested in the engine than the car, I might have done the same thing.”
“I was the same way. We are all the same person,” she reminded him again.
She stood up. “Well, Fred, I’m sorry, but I have to leave. While we’ve been chatting here, 10 has been on the loose.”
“Wait,” Fred said. “What are you going to do? Can I help?”
“We’re going to stop him,” she said. “You can come with me, if you like. You have as much right as any of us — more, even,” she gestured to his wounds, which weren’t bleeding anymore, but still looked nasty. “Do you still have your control unit?”
“It’s in the bedroom,” he said. “But it only goes to one place, and that’s his dimension.”
“That’s where we’re going,” she said. “Let’s hurry. The others are waiting.”
Fred10 paced around his bedroom. He was worried. At around 7 AM the visitors stopped appearing, and he knew something was up.
It was possible, he supposed, that the rest of the Freds out there were going to a different dimension, or even that there were no more Freds jumping between universes. But coming so soon after he had let one slip away? He didn’t buy it. Something was clearly wrong.
He had already discovered that blood was key. It had taken a lot of work, but he had figured out that by creating ever-increasing circles of blood, he could direct the visitors to different locations. All he had to do was smear a little blood on each wall, and they would materialize in a different room. It all felt so … biblical. He embraced the reference, painting doors with a bloody X.
Doing this had invigorated him. By painting his whole house, he could get them to materialize in his backyard. Which really confused the travelers, who left from their kitchen and appeared behind the house. They appeared in a daze, stumbling about. It made knocking them out almost too easy.
When he had made full use of the bodies, he piled them in the garage. They would probably start to smell in a couple of hours, but he had other problems right now. He knew — he knew — that they were going to come for him. It was, after all, what he would do, and weren’t they all the same person?
He didn’t have much to fight back with. His chef’s knife, a hammer, a baseball bat. But more than anything he needed a plan. A way to get out of this universe, this life.
What was keeping him here, after all? He was an okay salesman, but it’s not like he was ever going to run his own shop. He just didn’t have the head for it. He liked driving cars, not selling them. And the truth was that he probably cared more about the engines than the cars themselves. He just hadn’t admitted it to himself before.
But these visitors … these guys had the life! They had enough disposable income to build machines capable of interdimensional travel! They had to be loaded.
All he had to do was figure out how to take someone’s place. He wasn’t totally sure how just yet, but he already knew that the blood was the key. He just needed more of it.
“So uh, now what?” asked Fred94. He was standing across the street from his house. Only it wasn’t really his house he was looking at, it was Fred10’s house. It was all very confusing. Not helping matters was the fact that he was standing next to three copies of himself, each from different dimensions. The four of them had just arrived, and he was very anxious to get on with it.
They made quite a scene, standing there. As the only woman of the group, Fred2 was the most different from the others. Fred94 was doing his best to ignore her physical distinctions, but he found his eyes constantly wandering back to the way her shirt hung on her body. Fred16 looked almost the same as Fred94, but with about thirty more pounds of muscle mass, and a skin tone that suggested he had recently spent time at a tanning salon. He was wearing a sleeveless t-shirt to show off his muscular arms and holding an aluminum baseball bat. He generally looked like someone Fred94 wouldn’t want to mess with, but his presence here was somewhat comforting. Fred22, on the other hand, was Fred16’s polar opposite. This guy must have taken the extreme academic route, as he looked even more weak and intellectual than Fred94. His glasses were thicker than Fred2’s, and his posture was hunched, like he hadn’t gotten up from his desk in a decade. He was the only one of them not wearing jeans. Instead he had on some well-worn slacks. This guy didn’t look like the jeans type.
“It’s quite simple, really. We talk to Fred10 and get him to stop with all this foolishness.” And with that, Fred22 started to walk toward the house.
“Hold up,” said Fred2. “I’ll go.”
Fred22 turned and looked at her. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. No offense my dear, but your … feminine aspects may make an already bad situation significantly worse.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she shot back. “Of all of us, I’m the one with the most experience talking to alternate versions of ourselves.” She stood there for a moment, thinking. “Why don’t we vote on it?”
Almost immediately, Fred16 spoke up. “I’m with the professor,” he gestured with his thumb toward Fred22. “If there’s any trouble, I’ll come busting in.” He held up his baseball bat with pride. “But I think we should give him a shot first.”
“Thank you, 16,” replied Fred22 with a nod towards his burly counterpart. “That’s two against one. What say you, 94?”
They all turned to look at Fred94.
“I, uh,” he stammered.
Fred16 poked him in the chest. “Spit it out, dude. There’s a psycho on the loose.”
“I think it should probably be 22,” Fred94 said.
“Hmf!” Fred2 clearly wasn’t pleased.
“I just think he has a point. What if this guy is a crazy rapist or something?”
“Indeed,” Fred22 said. “We have no way of knowing how he’ll react to seeing a woman. He’s shown every sign thus far of extreme psychopathy when it comes to his interdimensional counterparts. He may project onto you feelings of sexual aggression, and we’ve already seen he has no boundaries.”
“Fine,” Fred2 conceded. “Let’s just get it over with.”
It was nearly 8 AM when his doorbell rang.
Fred10 opened the door. Standing there on his front porch was a copy of himself. A particularly nerdy copy of himself, but still distinctly a Fred.
“Greetings, Fred,” his doppelganger said. “May I come in?”
Fred10 stepped back and gestured for his visitor to come inside.
“We number ourselves for easy reference,” said the visitor as he stepped over the threshold. “You may refer to me as Fred22.”
“Which one am I?”
“You’re number 10.”
Fred10 led Fred22 into the kitchen and gestured for him to sit down. They had to step over several pools of blood along the way. Fred10 had gotten used to this, and if it bothered 22, he kept it to himself.
Fred22 sat down and hunched over the table.
“Can I get you a—”
“Tea? No thank you.”
“Was gonna say beer, actually,” Fred10 said. “You cool if I grab one for myself?”
“By all means,” replied Fred22.
“Thanks. It’s been a long night.”
“I suppose it has,” Fred22 deadpanned. “Now 10, as I’m sure you have surmised, we’re a little concerned by your recent actions.” He gestured to the blood on the walls.
Fred10 nodded in silent agreement. He opened the refrigerator and rifled around. “Crap. I’m all out of cold beer. Should have another six pack in the garage. You mind if I go get it?”
“Not at all,” Fred22 replied.
Fred10 walked out into the garage.
Fred22 sat there, looking around. He couldn’t see them, but he could definitely smell the bodies in the garage. This whole situation deeply disturbed him, but he was certain he could reason with Fred10. This unseemly business with corpses aside, 10 was the same as himself. Underneath that coarse exterior, he should be a reasonable man, open to civil discussion. And thus far everything was perfectly fine, all very formal and cordial.
He glanced at the clock. It had been five minutes. “Is everything all right out there?”
“Just peachy,” Fred10 called back from the garage. “I’m still looking. That beer is around here somewhere.” Sounds of Fred10 rifling through boxes came from the garage. “So hey, Mr. 22. Are you well off? In your universe, I mean.”
Fred22 smiled with a bit of pride. “I don’t like to brag,” he said, which was of course, a complete lie. He loved to talk about his accomplishments. “But I’ve made a fair amount of money, yes. Investments here and there. Interdimensional travel is really just a hobby for me.”
“Sounds like you have quite the life.”
“I enjoy myself.”
“I’m sure you do,” said Fred10, suddenly back in the kitchen.
Fred22 turned around to see 10 standing above him, holding a long black cable.
“I think you’ll do just fine.”
Fred 10 slipped the cable around 22’s neck and pulled it taut. 22 raised his hands to grab at the cable, but it was thick and Fred10 was pulling it very, very tight. He kicked his legs out in a vain attempt to hit something, anything. He reached back to try and scratch Fred10, to get him to stop. Nothing worked. Everything went black.
“He’s been in there too long,” said Fred94. The three of them had moved across the street and were standing, staring at the house. It had been twenty minutes since 22 entered, and they hadn’t heard a peep since then.
Fred2 nodded in agreement. “I’m starting to think you’re right.”
“Let’s go get him,” said Fred16. He tapped his bat against his leg.
Fred2 nodded again. “I don’t think we have any choice. But let me go in first. I don’t care what 22 said. I think I can talk him down.”
“Fine,” said Fred16, swinging his baseball bat through the air. It made an impressive whiff sound as it struck the air. “But I’ll be right behind you.”
“Me too,” added Fred94. He wasn’t sure what exactly he could do, but he had agreed to come along, and by God he was going to contribute.
Fred2 approached the door. “You two ready?”
Fred94 and Fred16 were crouched behind a tree. “Let’s do it,” called out 16.
Fred2 nodded and knocked on the door.
There was no answer.
She knocked again. No answer.
Fred2 leaned in and pushed the door, which swung open with a soft creaking sound. “Hello?” she called out.
There was no answer.
She stepped inside.
Fred94 watched 2 go inside. “Should we go after her?”
“I’m not going to chance it,” replied Fred16, standing up.
“Hey, wait for me!” Fred94 got up and followed 16 into the house.
The house was a horror show. There was blood — Fred blood, 94 assumed — everywhere. It was thick and dry and seemed to have been smeared on the walls by hand. The hallway was covered in thick puddles of congealing blood.
From the bathroom down the hall came a shriek that could only have been Fred2.
Fred16 and 94 ran down the hall, avoiding the blood as best they could.
They entered the bathroom.
Fred2 was standing there looking down at Fred10, who was lying in the bathtub, naked and nearly unconscious, his eyes struggling to stay open. Despite his condition, he was smiling. Next to him was the body of Fred22. The corpse had several dark bruises on his neck, but that probably wasn’t what killed him. There was a tube running from Fred22’s arm into 10’s wrist. It looked like Fred10 had attempted some kind of blood transfusion.
Given his inexperience in such things, it had been an inefficient process, to say the least. Most of the blood pooled in the bathtub around his bare legs. In his left hand Fred10 clutched a control unit, probably the one 22 had used to get to this universe.
“Almost … done,” said Fred10, although it was clearly a struggle to speak. “Just a little bit more and I’ll be ready to go.”
Fred16 dropped his baseball bat. He stumbled backward down the hall. “I … I need some air.”
Fred2 turned to 94. Tears were rolling down her cheeks. “We’re too late.”
“Not for me, lady,” croaked Fred10, still smiling. He tilted his head at the control unit. “I’m out of here.” Fred10 raised the control unit. As he lifted his left arm, Fred94 saw for the first time the wound that ran along the vein. Fred10 must have drained most of his own blood before starting the transfusion. It had been patched up hastily with electrical tape, but was still bleeding. What was the point of all of this?
Fred2 leaned in. “Please, don’t do this. You don’t know what will happen.”
“Yeah I do,” said Fred10. “It’s the blood. The blood is how it all works.”
She was cut off by the sudden flash of light. Fred10 had pressed the button.
The light was unlike anything any of them had ever seen. It flooded out from Fred22’s body, from the walls where his blood had spattered, from the floor where it had dripped. The tube that connected Fred22 to 10 lit up, casting light across the bathroom. The tub became a shimmering sea of light.
Then it turned ugly.
Light started to come from Fred10. But not his whole body, just the inside of his body. “Something’s wrong,” he managed to say. Light started to pour from his eyes, from under his fingernails.
Fred2 turned her back on 10 and grabbed Fred94’s hand. “You don’t want to see this. Come on.”
She led him down the hallway just as the screaming started.
It took a full five minutes for the light to subside. Even standing outside, the three of them could hear the screams as Fred10’s body was torn apart from the inside.
When it was all over, the three of them quietly went through the house, finding control units and pressing buttons, removing bodies and blood from this universe, sending them back to where they belonged.
Fred10’s body was a nightmare. It looked as if it had been hollowed out from the inside. His chest was sunken, his limbs limp and drained of blood. His eyes were pure white and his mouth gaped open, a look of pain and horror on his lifeless face.
“I can’t look at that,” said Fred16, walking out again.
Fred94 just stood there, staring. “What happened to him?”
“I don’t know,” said Fred2. “When he pressed the button, Fred22’s blood went back to its native universe.”
“That blood had been in his veins,” Fred94 said, finishing her thought. The process had hollowed him out. He shuddered. “Should we clean that up, maybe bury him?”
“I-I can’t,” Fred2 replied. “I just can’t.”
Fred94 nodded. He couldn’t either, and Fred16 was obviously too squeamish to do it. In a few days, the neighbors would notice the smell and call the police. They would find Fred10 there in the bathtub, and it would be an local mystery for years to come.
Fred opened his eyes.
The process had hurt. Far more than he had expected. So much pain, and then so much light. He never expected it to end, but then … it did. And he found himself home. Or close enough, anyway.
He stood up and looked around. It was like his own kitchen, but different. Sitting on the floor, next to the refrigerator was an ugly silver box. This, Fred assumed, was the device connected to the control unit he held in his hand.
His body showed no signs of the trauma it had been subjected to. Or any at all, come to think of it. He wasn’t sure how this was possible, but a childhood scar on his left shoulder was gone. And he felt … great. Things made sense all of a sudden. He knew how the machine that had brought him here worked. How was that possible?
He walked around the house, amazed. He had done it. He had actually done it. All that was left was to explore this new life of his.
Fred94 went back to his universe. The others went with him to say goodbye, but there wasn’t much to say. He was happy to be home, and didn’t much care for company, even if they were all the same person, more or less.
Fred sat at his kitchen table — his own kitchen table — drinking tea, staring at the ugly machine that had caused so much trouble. He had spent ten years of his life working on that machine, devoting every moment of his spare time to it. And it worked. But he didn’t like what he had found.
Fred resolved right then and there to dismantle it. His universe wasn’t a nexus — Fred2 had told him as much. He would devote himself to making his life in this dimension better. Maybe he wasn’t an engineer, but he had seen what his scientific mind was capable of, and it disturbed him.
Let the other Freds explore the multiverse. This Fred was perfectly happy teaching math.
A click and then the light flooded over him, a million little daggers of light.
When the light dissipated, Fred found himself standing in the same kitchen as before, but where his had been filled with broken and discarded bits of machinery, this one appeared to be filled with actual, working appliances. Nice, high-end appliances, even. The clock read 9:45 PM, same as before, but this one was an antique pendulum clock, not his own wrought-iron model.
“It worked!” Fred exclaimed. “It actually worked!” He was overjoyed. “I’m the first person to travel to a parallel universe!”
“Not quite,” said this universe’s version of himself, as he walked into the kitchen. He was smiling. “You’re far from the first, I’m afraid.”
“Oh yes, there are lots of us. So many that we call each other by numbers. That would make you Fred115.”
“Wow,” said Fred, excited by the possibilities. “What number are you?”
He held out his hand, smiling. “I’m Fred10. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Jason X. Bergman has worked in the video game industry for a very long time, acting as producer on games such as Bioshock, the Sid Meier’s Civilization series, and Fallout: New Vegas. He is currently at work on The Evil Within, which will be released in 2014. When he’s not working on games or spending time with his family, he can be found writing short stories or comic book scripts, the overwhelming majority of which will probably never see the light of day. He can be found on twitter at @jasonxbergman. For more information visit http://about.me/jasonxbergman.