Most people probably didn’t grow up having visited a parallel universe. Nathan Sanchez did.
He wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but that’s what it was.
His dad had taken him along on a trip to pick up dinner at Sonic Burger. It was hard to find those back then. Impossible now, obviously. Nathan couldn’t remember what was special about their food, but had a vague notion that they had good milkshakes.
But that’s not important. After they finished at the drive-thru, Nathan asked his dad if they were going to go back home now. He was probably just wondering if they were going to do any other errands, get groceries on the way, something like that. It was a long drive from their house to Sonic, all the way from San Diego to Santee, so maybe that’s why he asked. He was only four at the time, but the administrative part of his brain was fully active much sooner in life that in most people. Probably why he spent most of his adult life in government.
But that’s also not important. What is important is how his dad answered the question.
“Well,” he said, drawing the word out. “We’re actually going to go to a different home.”
“Different home?” Nathan asked.
“Yeah! A house that looks just like our house, but a little different. With a mom just like your mom, but different.”
“Does it have a little brother?”
“It does! It has a little brother just like our house, but different. Everything will look the same, but it will actually be different.”
Nathan had known his dad for all of his four years, but he still didn’t really know him. He didn’t know he was playing a game. He had seen Nathan’s simple, obvious question as an opportunity to be silly. He was practicing the classic “yes-and” improv technique, though he didn’t know that’s what it was called, or that it was a technique. It’s where you agree to anything your partner says and then elaborate on it, often taking it to ridiculous extremes, then see where the other person takes it next. He’d probably learned it growing up as a middle kid among four siblings, where cleverness and cunning were critical survival skills.
Nathan didn’t know any of this. He only knew that this was his father, and that he was strong and clever and focused. So when he told him they were going to a house like their house but not their house, Nathan was fascinated.
Nathan remembered pulling up to the dark driveway, looking at this house, this double. He studied it carefully, looking for differences. The similarities were obvious. Everything was similar. He was in awe, nearly to the point of fear. But his curiosity was beyond all that.
They parked and entered, carrying the food. The walls and the lights and the sounds and smells were all so shockingly like those at Nathan’s home. In the family room was a baby in a walker, suspended there where he could scoot around freely. Nathan looked closely for differences, and it looked like the walker was worn in inconsistent ways. A different scuff here, a different one there. The hair was different from his brother’s. Maybe a lighter shade of brown. His cheeks weren’t as round. His smile a little different.
Nathan turned and saw the mother. She looked just like his mom, sounded just like her. They all took the burgers and fries out of the bags and ate in front of the TV and Nathan’s shock faded. He started to accept that maybe he was just going to stay at this copied house. Maybe he wouldn’t see his real brother and mom ever again, but these ones were pretty close. His dad definitely didn’t seem to mind eating and getting cozy with these doubles, so maybe Nathan shouldn’t mind either. Also, it’s amazing how eating fatty foods can calm anxieties.
Eventually Nathan was taken to a room just like his and he went to bed. When he woke up the next morning, he was sure it had all been a dream. There wasn’t any worry or doubt. It wasn’t until years later when he knew his dad better that he realized it had all actually happened. That he had fully believed he’d entered a world parallel to his own, a duplicate, slightly different. That he’d had no reason to doubt it.
Both that quick acceptance of the fantastic, and the learned mistrust that had grown out of the later revelation of the truth, were at play now. Now, in this imposter world.
The acceptance was why he’d had so little trouble accepting how the new world worked. In many ways it was just like the one they’d all left. He could notice the differences here and there if he looked hard. Almost the same, but not. A world like the one a god or fate or blind chance had created, but one instead made by humans. Specifically, humans of the TAW organization, of which Nathan was a leading member. Or had been.
He remembered when he’d argued that calling the first world “Prometheus” was trite and obvious. He remembered Carini telling him she was going to double Prometheus and then mirror it to create the foundation for a pet world-building side-project she wanted to work on with Tanaka. He remembered being doubly annoyed when she insisted on calling that mirror world Pan to reinforce its place as an opposite. He remembered being relieved when she let Tanaka be in charge of naming all the cities in Pan, since he was more inclined to be clever in such things.
That was all the acceptance part. The mistrust part was why he was right now doubled over on his hands and knees, the deep cuts all over his arms and torso bleeding down into the golden grass of a wide, dry valley. That mistrust drove him to insist on returning to the real world. Leaving the copy. The fraud. He’d felt like a child again, just along for the ride and out of control, but he wasn’t content to accept the copy this time.
He’d wanted to get to the door hidden in the cliff face ahead of him. Get inside and set off the special bomb he had strapped to himself. Get inside and destroy the control center for Prometheus and Pan and all the worlds he and his colleges had created. But unfortunately, one of his bosses, Dawson Benet, was blocking his path. As were two large men standing on either side of her, dressed like Secret Service agents.
Nathan looked up at Dawson Benet, one of the four founders of the TAW. He looked at her stern, very English face, which was beading up with sweat because she insisted on dressing very English out here in a high desert. Neither she nor her two bulky companions carried weapons. They didn’t need any.
“What are you going to do with me?”
Dawson shrugged. “The TAW can’t die, so I can’t kill you.”
Nathan smiled, trying to show defiance through levity.
Dawson’s face softened. “Why do you keep fighting us? Your insistence on going back doesn’t make any sense.”
“Because I know what you want to do. You won’t just keep everyone here for a couple hundred years…waiting until Earth is ready. You want to keep everyone here forever.”
Dawson frowned. “It’s not just about letting Earth heal. Think of the resources we can put into education, now that we can end war in a moment, without any bloodshed. Here, food shortage will become an old legend. There will never again not be enough. Any amount of land, any amount of resources. Any need taken care of at the moment of desire. No hunger, no disease, any injury healed instantly, we may even be able to live forever. This is what humanity has been searching after for its entire existence. We finally have it. Here.”
“And you’ll of course run the place with unwavering integrity.” Nathan chuckled. “Forever.”
Dawson folded her arms. “We’ll do the best we can.”
“Yeah, no thanks. This world was supposed to be a place for us to wait. Staying here indefinitely is a bad idea.”
Dawson nodded to one of the men standing beside her. “When you see it, you’ll understand.”
One of the Secret Service look-alikes reached out a huge hand and grabbed Nathan around his neck. His fingers almost went all the way around. The man lifted up Nathan off the ground and his vision closed in around him like he was falling into a black hole.
Dawson took a step toward him as everything faded. Before he drifted off, Nathan heard her say: “One day you’ll wake up and see. But not for a very long time.”