I was standing on the granite ledge where the foundation of my parent's dream house still lay incomplete. After the crash the project had fallen to us, but Catherine wanted to wait until we were more financially secure before we started construction. Now it looks like the house may never be completed.
The sun was beginning to set and not wanting to be caught in the dark, I scrambled down the rocky ledge to the small pebbly beach below. Starting back towards the trailhead which led to the road, I was surprised to see a man standing a short distance ahead with his back toward me.
He seemed to have appeared out of nowhere since there was no easy access to the small cove except by boat. As I approached him, I could see that he was fidgeting with something in his hands. He turned to face me and there was a long silence before I fully realized the situation. I was looking directly at my own face.
My surprise must have been apparent, because my double immediately began to reassure me, "Don't be alarmed! This happens whenever I meet an alternate."
How could this be possible? The stress and exhaustion at work must have finally taken their toll on me. As I studied him more closely, I realized his body was not solid, but resembled smoke trapped inside a bottle.
The visitor continued, "You think you've lost your mind or something, or that you're dreaming? I assure you this is no dream. In fact, you will be able to prove for yourself that I am who I say I am." He paused for a moment to check the device in his hands and then began his fantastic story.
He was from an alternate universe at the exact same time as myself, a different isochron as he called it. In his universe he had discovered what he called a proximal integrator which allowed nearby universes to exist in a state of superposition around himself. It seemed that our lives were nearly identical. The only difference seemed to be that he had discovered the integrator, while I had not.
He was unable to tell me exactly how it worked but he was able to describe to me how to build one. After he had finished his explanation he powered the device down and disappeared.
I slowly walked up the narrow trail towards my truck as if in a dream. The slam of the door echoed in my head as I texted Catherine that I would be working late. I wanted to build a prototype of the device as soon as possible in order to immediately determine if the whole encounter was real or merely a hallucination.
Arriving at the lab, I placed two field generators in the orthogonal configuration he described to me on the beach, setting their frequencies such that their vector product was equal to a squarefree semiprime. I wondered why I hadn't stumbled on this before since it seemed obvious to me now that the secret had been revealed.
When I switched on the device nothing immediately happened, but as I increased the field strength hundreds of copies of me suddenly appeared, each one occupied in a different activity. In a panic I killed the power and the alternates instantly disappeared. It had become clear to me why it would be wise to test the device on the beach. There was much less chance of meeting an alternate and therefore less copies would be encountered.
I decided to make the device portable and it was daylight by the time I finished. After locking up the lab, I dropped the integrator into my pocket and headed home to grab some breakfast before the second test. In the kitchen, Angelique sat at the table finishing homework while Catherine was packing her lunch.
"Good morning my darling Angelique." I said while I popped a bagel into the toaster. Catherine raised her eyebrows at me barely looking up and I immediately apologized, "Got caught up in something at the lab. Lost track of time. Sorry, you know me." I poured myself a very large mug of coffee.
Catherine stopped slicing celery and chimed in, "Honestly, we don't want you to burn out again. Pace yourself, okay?"
I attempted to change the subject, "What are you working on Angel?"
"An acrostic poem for my teacher at school. We have to think of words that start with each letter of another word. Then we can write those across -- and I got the word science." She slowly traced the first letter with her finger. "All that I've come up with so far is salamanders."
"Hmmm -- Salamanders? Why's that?" I said after finally locating some cream cheese in the fridge.
"You know daddy. That is what I want to study when I grow up!" Angelique sat defiantly with her arms folded and then twisted up her face.
"Right of course. Sure. I knew that." I said as I kissed her on the cheek and then wrapped my bagel in some foil.
"Robert, just where do you think you're going? There is nothing more for you to do there anymore. Your grant money retreated and you didn't get tenure." Catherine shook her head, "I really can't believe they still let you into the lab."
"I just don't see myself working in a cubicle, you know? Of course It's a great job and Seattle sounds fun, but I love my research and I never really cracked it. I suppose that's why I didn't get tenure in the end, the math never came out right."
"We both know how hard you've worked, but try to be grateful for things you do have in your life, like me and Angelique."
"You and Angelique are important to me, but I've wanted to be a scientist ever since I was a kid."
"Well, if you ask me I can't wait to get out of this town. I think we're all due for a change, don't you?"
I started inching toward the door and Catherine stopped me, putting her arm around my waist, "So you're really leaving?"
"I just have to dip back into the lab and run some more tests. I promise I'll be back before lunchtime."
"Hey daddy what about me? You forgot to say goodbye to me!"
"Goodbye my darling Angelique!" I said as I waved my hand gallantly and then kissed Catherine on the cheek. "I promise. Before lunchtime. I love you."
I jumped into my truck, carefully balancing my bagel in one hand and the mug of coffee in the other. When I arrived at the beach, I powered up the device and increased the strength until I saw a single copy of myself appear. As I approached him, I was surprised to find in his hands, a proximal integrator.
He shouted at me, "Don't come any closer! Let me power this off first," then flipped a small switch on his device. He continued short of breath, "We both had an active field at the same time and that's dangerous. At least I've been told it is."
"Why, would we create a black hole or something?"
"Theoretically it's possible that we could swap universes. Or maybe both of us end up in some random universe in between our own. I'm not sure if I believe it, but let's not take a risk, okay? "
"Fair enough." I shrugged my shoulders and continued, "So, we both have an integrator. I guess our two lives must be pretty similar."
"Well, to be honest, I don't know about you, but I just got tenure. Man, I thought I wasn't going to get it, but then by chance I learned how to build this thing. After I published the phenomenal paper on it," he looked at the integrator in his hands, "that cinched it for sure."
"That's the real truth." I said, "It's always been a dream of mine -- or a dream of ours I guess -- to finally arrive as they say. You know what I mean." I am not sure why I lied at that moment. "I assume you're married to Catherine like me? And don't forget my darling Angelique?"
"Yep. I woke up early and already took her out to the lake today. It was beautiful and all the water out there this morning was as smooth as glass." He made a gesture with his hand to demonstrate. "She's sure is special, isn't she?"
"Yeah, she sure is." I said, "And especially after all the trouble Catherine had getting pregnant." Suddenly, out of nowhere, he lurched toward me powering on his device.
"What are you doing?" I said, "I thought that was dangerous!" As I backed away there was a blinding flash of light. He had disappeared. I powered down my integrator and headed back to my truck, replaying the events in my mind. Why would he power up his device and move toward me like that? Is it possible we had switched places like he had warned? I didn't feel any different.
On the ride home, I thought more about the meeting I had on the beach. Even if it was possible to switch places, did it really make any difference if we had? It seemed like our lives were virtually identical, except for the fact that in his universe, he wasn't denied tenure like me. He could stay in town and build his parent's dream house. And with the knowledge of the proximal integrator he would easily become a famous scientist. Would it really be so terrible if we had really switched places?
By the time I found myself turning down our street, my mind was swimming with possibilities. As I approached the house, I was confused to find that someone had parked a sailboat trailer in our driveway.
I stopped the truck in the street and got out, looking up and down the street for the owner. Giving up, I headed inside to find Catherine hoping she would know what was going on. My stomach sank as I finally looked up at the boat and saw its name emblazoned the stern. I cried out in anguish with tears in my eyes, "My Darling Angelique!"