Of all the New Yorks in all the Worlds


A student of multiversal time travel slips from  one version of New York to another, discovering that love may transcend timelines, but so too can heartbreak…

 

 

This version of Union Square unfolds in front of me like a gathering of New York City stereotypes. Hare Krishnas in diaphanous robes give the collective babble of the crowds a drumbeat. Lithe hipsters in striped shirts and tight jeans add their own clattering syncopation of skateboards on sidewalk. Tattooed, shirtless hard-asses play hacky-sack to show off their sinewy flexibility, while students read on the steps and lovers kiss away the fading evening. The odours of roasted peanuts, stale urine, and cigarette smoke from the big guy with dreadlocks standing next to me combine to create one of those curious perfumes familiar to a city-grown boy like me. I sit down and watch the last remnants of sunlight being leached away by the darkening fall sky, watch the streetlamps begin to glow on cue, the red-shirted Union Square cleaners sweeping amidst the passing parade of activity.

To be entirely honest, the other versions of New York City I’ve been to look pretty much the same as this one. But then I’ve only been to five. I’m still in my twenties. Some have jumped to twenty, even thirty altEarth timelines, like my parents.

Same as the others or not, there’s something comforting about being back in the world you started out in. This New York under my feet is my New York, the one I grew up with on TV and movies and in books back in India, even if it’s no more or less real than the others.

I sit and wait as the city rolls into night.

She arrives a little bit late, adorably aloof in a short overcoat—my ex-girlfriend’s altself. She doesn’t notice me until we’re a few feet apart. Her name’s Aditi. I’ve met this Aditi once before, pretty soon after my training expedition to other timelines. We watched a movie and walked around Greenwich Village, inevitably talking about the other Aditi’s romantic brush with me in NYC5.

“Don’t worry, girls like the dark mysterious brooding thing,” Aditi had told me, referring to said aftereffects of terminated relationship with her altself, including severe moping. “And,” she continued, crunching down the last of her gelato cone, “girls like a dark mysterious brooding sticer most of all. You’ve got major quantfreak cred, Mr. Time Traveller.” I offered my jeans in lieu of her tattered napkins, and she hesitantly wiped her fingers on them.

That was months ago. As I look at her now, I am once again struck by how different she looks from her self in NYC5. We hug. “Met anyone yet?” she asks about my training after the usual pleasantries. I tell her no, the dark mysterious brooding thing does not work as well as she predicted.

“I bet you never mention you’re a spacetime-travelling romantic,” she says with a smile. It’s true, I don’t. I don’t mention that thinking about Aditi’s altself every passing day probably doesn’t do much for my romantic motivation.

 

Aditi was the one who got in touch with me, not the other way round. I was still in New York City decomping, days after the return from my training trip into the multiverse. Returning from an alt-trek takes a lot of physical and mental adjustment, which is best done by staying in bed twenty-four hours a day, in MVAssoc’s cloistered, quiet decomp quarters. I don’t live in New York City, never have in this timeline. I spent a year living in five other versions during the trek, though my absence from this one was less than a day. I came here because Randall’s Island Node was my sticepoint; because, as a trainee sticer, I was assigned to observe this city across timelines, and not any other.

Vomit-lipped and hazed out on re-acc pills, I received a call from MVAssoc. They told me that the woman I’d acted as comm for had asked to get in touch with me personally. She made the request after receiving the letter from her altself, which I’d couriered across the multiverse in a biochip under my skin, injected right in the crook of my elbow like a fossilised droplet of stolen spacetime. My gut tight with terror of a most peculiar sort, I let them put her in touch with me, let that oh-so-familiar voice flood my drugged and decomping body over like bitter morphine. And I talked to her over the phone, calm and polite, like the stranger she was.

We made plans, and the next day I met her for a chat and a movie.

Aditi was one of thousands who send in applications for MVAssoc to establish contact with one of their altselves in the multiverse. She was among the few randomly selected every year. I was given the duty of being her comm, in addition to surveying and logging journals that I’m still getting paid to edit, rewrite, and upload to the Multiverse Codex.

I didn’t have any reason to meet her before I sticed. I just saw her application forms. The little passport-sized photo that was too small to give any real impression of what she looked like, the dancing stamp of the holo-strip DNA sample, the brief bio—Bengali-Nepali family, Indian immigrant and green-card holding resident of the United States, in part-time social work and the service industry, etc.

I didn’t need to know about her. The MVAssoc in the altEarth timelines would get me in touch with Aditi’s altselves, if they existed and were reachable in those worlds.

From Node to Node, I was just another sticer, phasing into each new Randall’s Island shivering and too naked to be an interuniversal threat. Each time, standing in the windowless phase chamber, it would be like falling asleep while standing, and waking up to the sensation that I’d just woken from a dream—the dream being the timeline I’d lived my life in. Each time, I’d be given a disinfectant-perfumed plastic bucket to puke in. Disposable towels to wipe away the sweat produced by the human body in shock when travelling the multiverse. I’d sit in silence while my datapacket was extracted from the fleshy part of the forearm (a pinprick of pain, like blood being drawn) to obtain identity and assignment, and a tracking chip injected (creepy, but so my alien self could be found if I got lost in a timeline—it was removed once it was time to leave). I’d be scanned, clothed, interviewed, and processed. I’d be assigned temporary sticer visitation lodging. Finally, after a shell-shocked shower, minimum ten hours of rest and dead-zone sleep, I’d be let out into a new universe—a new New York City—that looked suspiciously like the last, except two to four years in the past (going by the Gregorian calendar, standardized in all the jumpable worlds, since they’re all so similar). A side effect of jumping timelines.

In NYC1 and NYC2, there were no altselves for my assigned Aditi. In NYC3, Union Square isn’t called that and holds a rather abrupt-looking (to my eyes only, perhaps) monument to a Revolutionary War hero I’ve never heard of, who probably got his brains blown out before he could do anything famous in my universe. But I waited there all the same, looking for the statue of George Washington and being unable to find it. It was where MVAssoc had set up the meeting with Aditi’s altself. She didn’t show. The other two NYCs had Union Squares identical to ours, and I waited in those too. Only in NYC5, which was four years behind my timeline, did an alternate Aditi finally show up.

That’s how I met my now ex-girlfriend. I think of her as Aditi1. The next time I waited for Aditi in Union Square was in this universe, and she wasn’t my ex-girlfriend. I think of her as Aditi0, because even though I met her after Aditi1, she’s the one who exists in the universe I grew up in. It’s not accurate, but it’s like she was here first.

 

Aditi0 and I walk down Broadway to the Lower East Side, where she introduces me to Turkish cuisine at a harshly lit restaurant. I’ve been on five altEarth timelines and never eaten Turkish food. But I’ve never actually seen the worlds of those Earths, only their Manhattans. I did, however, try Ethiopian cuisine for the first time in NYC5. Aditi1 said it was her favourite food.

Aditi0 takes prim nibbles off her stuffed vine leaves, using the tips of her fingers to hold utensils or food, as if performing some delicate operation on the serving tray. Even though Aditi1 had plunged her hands into our shared Ethiopian platters with gusto, unabashed as she slid her curried fingers in my mouth to feed me the mutton and rags of injera she couldn’t finish, there was something about the way she held the pieces of meat, the way she licked her fingers spotless clean like a studious feline, that ghosts Aditi0’s restraint. Aditi1 was four years younger than Aditi0, a student my age. There is an unmistakeable weariness to Aditi0’s still cheerful self that wasn’t there in Aditi1. I wonder if she’s still (or ever was) a bit of a stoner like Aditi1 was.

Aditi0 thankfully doesn’t notice my glances. Slow, measured, close-mouthed chewing—almost identical to her self, right down to the dimples that wink over her cheekbones with each bite. I stab at my kebabs. They squirt hot juice that mingles with spicy red sauce, little bleeding hearts on my plate.

 

When I went from decomping quarters at Randall’s Island to Penn Station to meet Aditi0 for the first time, I had no idea why she had asked to see me, her comm. People don’t usually even notice that there’s another human being between them and their altselves making the link possible. It isn’t too difficult to understand why I agreed to see her.

It was awkward at first. We talked pointlessly at each other over sushi and cold, lime-throttled Coronas (a beer I’d never seen Aditi1 drink), asking each other about our work and life, she making the usual wide-eyed inquiries about what it’s like to travel the multiverse. I avoided asking why she’d wanted to see me, didn’t mention anything about her altself, didn’t ask about the letter I’d carried in my arm. We watched a decent sci-fi action flick in a theatre on West Thirty-Fourth Street, and wandered over to Greenwich Village on her suggestion, bantering all the while about the movie and our shared love for the medium (shared also by Aditi1).

It was only on that walk that we started getting comfortable. The humid summer day mellowed into one of those breezy evenings in which everything crackles with so much energy and life that the sharp light of sunset burning between buildings seems a multiversal breach, as if all of New York City were just about trembling into explosive communion with its other versions across spacetime. It was on that walk, during a pause by the fountain in a crowded Washington Square Park, that she told me she knew about my relationship with Aditi1.

“She told me in the letter,” she said, smoothing over my surprised silence.

“That’s why…”

“I wanted to see you, yes.” She nodded.

“Right,” I said, blushing. It felt very strange, at that moment, to realise that Aditi0 knew about my relationship with her altself.

“Why? If you don’t mind me asking,” I asked, cautious.

Her eyes darted to the fountain pool. She was embarrassed too. But she looked up again, made eye contact. “Don’t worry. She was very glad to have met you. Only had nice things to say. You obviously meant a lot to her.”

I squinted into the cracks of sunset reflecting off apartment windows in the distance.

“She was the one who suggested I meet you,” said Aditi0.

I nodded, unsure how that made me feel. “Did she say why?”

“No. But if I were to guess, I’d say she was—is just worried about you. I’m her only connection to this timeline. Your timeline.”

“Well, that’s kind of you. To babysit someone else’s breakup-case.”

“Oh am I babysitting you right now? Didn’t realise.” She gave a brief laugh. “She’s kind of not someone else. She’s me.”

“Yeah. I guess she kind of is. But thank you. On her behalf and mine. You really didn’t have to meet me.”

“Obviously, I know that.” She smiled, flicking the surface of the water with her fingers. “I met you because…it was very strange, writing a letter to myself and then, getting an actual reply. I felt like I owed my other self for writing back to me, and owed you for bringing her letter to me. And yes, I know it’s your job. But anyway. You didn’t have to agree to see me either. So we’re even.”

“I’m, you know. I’m fine.” I returned her smile, weakly I’m sure. “It was probably a really dumb idea to get involved with someone in another timeline. Especially someone I was a comm for.”

Feathers of light flicked across her face, stirred off the pool by her fingers. She sat down on the stone lip of the fountain and patted the surface next to her, gesturing for me to sit. I did, on the tattoo of wet fingerprints she left on the stone.

“Listen. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. But—” She grimaced a little, as if wondering whether to go ahead. “Wasn’t it natural for things between you and her to end, considering…you know? Did you not expect it to end?”

“I guess I didn’t expect her to end it a week before I was due to leave. The fact that we were from two different timelines—you have no idea how much that ups the romance. It’s like Romeo and Juliet but instead of different families it’s different branches of spacetime, you know? I went kind of crazy over her. I thought she did over me too.”

“She…did,” she said, insistent but soft. “She might not have shown it as much as you do, I mean, you’re clearly a bit of a heart-on-sleeve guy, not a bad thing but you know. Well, sometimes a bad thing but anyway, god forgive my rambling. What I’m saying is that I know how crazy in love I can get too, and she is another me, so.”

I wished then that she’d tell me what Aditi1 wrote in her letter, though I didn’t blame her for obscuring it.

I took a deep breath. “It’s not like I didn’t know I couldn’t stay in her timeline forever. Even three months in I was beginning to lose my memories of this timeline. Like forgetting a dream. It’s pretty scary. The memories come back to you once you’re back here, but if you stay long enough in another timeline, the assumption is that the memory loss might become permanent. Out of the five New Yorks I’ve been to, I stayed in that one the longest, and I knew I was pushing it. And I knew she couldn’t come here either, even if she were a sticer, which she isn’t. Because, she already exists here. Uh. You do, I mean.” I cleared my throat. The words felt uncomfortably accusatory.

If she was offended, she showed no sign of it. I continued.

“I just thought, maybe. That I could leave and come back, and just keep doing that. That I could ask MVA to let me survey that altEarth timeline exclusively. I was determined to try anything.”

“A long-distance relationship on one Earth is hard enough. One across timelines and separated by years is, I’m guessing, impossible.”

I laughed. “I know. But we didn’t get to jumping across the multiverse without trying, right? I mean, you wrote a letter to your past self, and got a hand-delivered letter back from her. How ridiculous is that? There are supposedly closed-off altEarths out there where the laws of physics might be so different from this one that humans can’t even access the multiverse—where it’s nothing but a theory. We’re living an impossibility.”

She didn’t say anything.

“Anyway, it was clearly unwise of me to be expecting anything,” I told her.

“You’re still a sticer. Are you heading back out there to the great temporal yonder?”

“Yes. After I’m done getting my permit.”

“What difference does that make?”

“I get to do more stuff in the other timelines if I’m a registered sticer, interact more with the MVA in them, compare research, do detailed analyses of how timelines differ. Like my parents do. It’s pretty cool, they work with scientists, activists, people from all disciplines to kind of help create like, a hive mind across the multiverse, to pool their work and tackle global problems across timelines. Global warming, capitalism, you know. As a proper sticer, I can take part in all that instead of just chilling and observing things. And I can travel—as a trainee I have to stay in the city I’m assigned.”

“Cool.” She paused. “Are you…gonna try and meet her if you go back to her timeline?”

I laughed softly. “I’ve thought about it.”

She nodded. I realised that I felt much younger than Aditi0, despite being only two years apart from her age.

“I know it’s not my business. But I don’t think that’s the best idea,” she said.

“Did she tell you that in the letter?”

“Hey, now,” she said and smiled. “You had your time with her. I know it wasn’t a long time, but there’s an entire multiverse out there, and she’s not the only person in it. You’re a sticer. Not everyone can do what you do. Explore the multiverse, do your hive mind shit! It’s crazy that they even allow people so young out there. Not that I don’t trust you. Just saying, don’t waste your time—or should I say timelines—being sad over a months-long relationship that had to end in a breakup.”

“Thanks, big sis.”

“You are welcome, young man,” she said, exaggeratedly. “Listen, you know how people say there are plenty of fish in the sea, blah blah blah. That’s like, doubly, infinitely true for you. You have potentially a million altEarth timelines to explore. Trust me, you’ll meet someone. Who knows, maybe by the time you return from your next trek out you’ll be some kind of interuniversal Don Quixote.”

“I’ll be a delusional madman? Sounds about right.”

“I mean Don Juan, whatever.” She elbowed me in the arm, her laugh exposing teeth so familiar I had to look away. A pigeon fluttered into the air in front of us, filling the air with frantic sound despite the calm silence we both fell into.

Aditi0 looked around. “I want some gelato. Do you want some gelato?”

 

Aditi0’s apartment is tiny, but cozy, every lamp covered in fabric to soften the light into a warm, multicoloured cocoon. I never saw it the last time, because I had my decomping quarters to return to back then. We had parted ways after that conversation in Greenwich Village, and I thought I’d probably never see her again, until the succinct message from her a week ago: Thinking of going to Randalls Island Node to see eternity next weekend. Let me know if u wanna come down to NY and accompany me? xx. I knew what she was talking about—when there was a scheduled sticing at the Node, people often gathered by the fence to “see” the little-understood ripple or wave someone leaving a timeline causes. Since I didn’t have too much homework for the weekend, I took the bus from the Lancaster County MVAssoc training campus where I live, and an Amtrak from Lancaster City to New York, with nothing but a backpack stuffed with underwear and socks. I walked from Penn Station to Union Square to meet her.

Here I am, in the home of this fiercely independent woman who’s barely eking out a living in one of the most expensive cities across the multiverse, and the last time I met her I was complaining about the fact that I waltzed across spacetime only to get dumped. I feel vaguely ashamed, especially since we’re both immigrants, and I probably got into MVAssoc because of my parents’ work in the Bangalore chapter. My stipend for doing the high-risk (memory loss and all that) work of multiversal surveying is what pays my way through the training program.

Putting away foil-wrapped leftovers in the fridge, Aditi0 insists I take the mattress in her bedroom (her roommate is away somewhere) and leave her to sleep on the couch. She won’t have any arguments, and I give up and accept.

“Don’t worry, this thing is really comfy.” She leans back on the couch in the tiny living-and-dining room and stretches. I feel the abrupt stirrings of arousal push against the crotch of my jeans. I adjust my position, discomfited. She doesn’t look quite like Aditi1, who had lustrous locks that played a key role in enchanting me. Aditi0 has a pixie cut. But she is still the same person, after all, in body if not entirely in soul. Every movement she makes, the way she languishes catlike but oblivious of her beauty on the couch, the constant apologies for being a bore when she’s not, the little, specific mannerisms of speech, all of this evokes in me the presence of her other self who is four timelines away, every resemblance jumping out at me to eclipse the fact that she’s not the Aditi I met. She has never felt lovelier to me than she is right now, and it makes me feel like an asshole because all I see is Aditi1.

“My ex visited from London last week. I had such an amazing time with him,” she says, looking at the ceiling. I’m touched by this—she wants to confide in me. Common ground. Relinquished romance. I try and return to conversational mode. I feel envious seeing how little the ex-ness of her ex seems to bother her, but it also makes me realise I have at least managed not to talk about Aditi1 at all this time around.

 

The next day we take the subway to Randall’s Island and walk to the edges of the Node, all too familiar to me. There’s a sticing scheduled for the evening, and Aditi0 wants to join the spectators by the fence to see the wave. She’s never seen one. I tell her they’re not always visible; that it might just make her sick and not much else, but she’s too excited to change her mind.

We arrive at around four thirty in the afternoon. We both slept in late, since it’s Sunday and she could, and I felt uncomfortable walking around my host’s apartment by myself. It’s already pretty crowded. People are camped out by the high chain-link fence, some sprawled on blankets, some sitting on the grass, some on folding chairs.

The signs on the fence warn that being in the vicinity of a Node facility when the hazard lights are on might cause “disorientation, nausea, and mental confusion for up to 24 hours.” Aditi0 is undaunted. Cigarette and weed smoke occasionally drifts up above the scattered watchers to catch the sunlight. We still find a good spot not far from the fence and sit on the ground, breaking out some PBRs (which she laughed at me for choosing in the liquor store, but didn’t refuse to share). The grass tickles our palms, cool and damp. Above us is the constant muted hiss of the pneumatic Acela line, which casts a pleasant shadow over the field.

“It’s like a giant picnic out here. I can’t believe I’ve never bothered to see this,” observes Aditi0, lighting a cigarette and offering me one. I quit together with Aditi1 and am instinctively compelled to tell Aditi0 that she promised not to start again. I stop myself and refuse with thanks.

The Node itself is about half a mile from the fence. The informal party outside the Randall’s Island Node fence during sticing is an accepted tradition now, and no one from the building comes out to see the crowd. The annoyance lies in getting there, since subway stops anywhere near a Node are equipped with weapons scanners and require you to carry government-issued photo ID just to exit stations.

The Node’s array grows out and over the buildings, looking from that distance like a delicate, multi-branched filament of black metal reaching into the sky. When Aditi0 asks about its height, I have the exact answer (271 feet 2 inches; taller than Lady Liberty, but not when she’s standing on her pedestal), which makes her smile. The sun is snagged on the barbed tip, casting a long shadow across the field between the fence. It’s a perfect spot to relax, fence aside; the Bronx on one side, Queens on the other, and the sun on its way to falling behind the skyline of Manhattan Island to the west.

I’m relieved by how much easier it is to make small talk with Aditi0 this time around. There remain long moments of silence during which she compulsively burns away her cigarette or lights a new one and I panic and try to think of something to say. But we come to accept these more easily as we lighten our cans of beer.

When I take off my sun-warmed jacket, she is well into her second beer and emboldened enough to touch my arm and ask about my marker tattoos. I show her the various imprinted circles. One on my forearm, where my datapacket was; one on my wrist, where my survey journal was stored; and of course, the one nestled in the crook of my elbow.

“That’s where you carried the letter,” she says, placing the tip of her finger against the circle as if to draw out the biochip that was once there. My arm prickles with goosebumps at the touch, and she moves her hand away. “The letter from me,” she adds, like an afterthought.

“From you, and then from another you.”

She smiles around her cigarette, her dimples making a brief appearance. “How come you never read it?”

“It’s confidential. As your comm and hers, I can’t.”

“You’re a real Boy Scout, aren’t you,” she says, straightening her back. “How did the letter get from her to your arm?”

“Um, I give her a little recorder. She talks into it, alone. The recorder turns the audio into text so that it’s a, you know, a facsimile and not an actual recording from that universe. She gives it back. I extract the biochip from the recorder, inject it into my arm. I return to my timeline, take the chip out. MVA downloads the text, puts it in a read-only wafer, seals it in bubble-wrap and an envelope, and mails it to you.”

As I mime these various actions with varying degrees of accuracy, I remember the mailroom of the Node. Stacks of puffy silver envelopes, each holding a wafer of digital text. Communiqués from other universes, subject to the mundanity of sorting. I had gone to check on the letter I’d couriered with the concern of a new mother, having carried it in my arm all the way back through five universes, and more importantly, having made love to the woman who was the source of the words it held. It had been sealed and ready to go, looking identical to the rest of the envelopes except for Aditi’s address and name on its printed label.

“What happens to the audio recording?” asks Aditi0, having lapsed into her own silence with me.

“It decays during the transition to another timeline. Same as video recordings. Ends up sounding like some, I dunno, a warbling insect alien from another dimension. Creepy. Video becomes pixel mud.”

She laughs. “I know that, silly. What happens to the decayed recording. Can you hear it? Can I hear it?”

I look at her. She waves away a bug trying to fly into her eye.

“It really doesn’t sound like anything.”

“I know.” She purses her lips.

“I can retrieve the decayed audio file and bring it to you the next time we see each other.”

She touches her red, grass-speckled Keds, her bare ankles. “No no, please don’t. Do I sound like a weirdo, asking to listen to that?”

“Not at all.” She looks wary when I say that. She raises the can to her mouth and peers over it at me.

“You don’t have to answer,” I say, looking away. “But, what made you want to contact an altself?”

She blows into the can and puts it down. “It’s…corny, like the thing that people say online when those questions go around, what would you say to your past self if you could. I wanted to tell her it’ll be okay, that…she survived.” My heart leaps at that word, at the immensity of sadness it reveals for a second under her tipsy nonchalance.

I nod. It feels like forever passes before I’m able to tell her, “She told me a little about her struggles, the depression. She was, she seemed okay, most of the time. If it helps.”

“Seemed,” she murmurs, as if mulling the word. “You know, at her age, I wasn’t dating you…obviously. I had some pretty intense relationships with some, bad, dudes. Blamed myself each time. I know better now, that some types of vulnerably—” She shakes her head, tongue-tied by her low tolerance for alcohol. “Vulnerability, can attract predatory people. So anyway, thank you for treating her well. Even if you were bummed out when she bailed early.”

“Don’t know if I deserve thanks for that.”

“Oh, you probably don’t,” she laughs. “Guys and bare minimums, right? I’m glad she met you and not one of my dickheads, that’s all. But you didn’t know her long, Sid. There was more on her mind than you knew. You made her happy. But she wasn’t, isn’t, happy. I knew she probably wouldn’t be, if that timeline is so similar to ours. I mean, who is, right? I told her that whatever my word is worth to her, as her…self, four years in the future, I have found it to be worth it to survive the worst days. So far.”

I don’t say anything, because I suddenly feel like crying. I take a swig of my beer instead.

“Sid. Will you come back and visit me again?” she asks, her voice humming as she speaks into her can. The change of tone seems forced, the cheerful giddiness bringing back a full-body memory of lying in Aditi1’s arms, both of us drunk and stoned in her room, as she asked me: Will you remember me when I don’t exist? I said, laughing, You do exist in my timeline, you literally wrote to…you, that’s how we met.

Pedant, she said.

“Of course I will, Aditi,” I say.

She slams her can down on the ground. “Yes! I like new friends. You’re a peach.”

 

At seven thirty, with the skyline glittering right at the edge of becoming a nightscape, the array lights up. The lights that stud its branches blink in and out of existence. This makes the array look like a giant cybernetic Christmas tree perched over the Node’s buildings. By eight, the blue hazard lights on the fence poles are flashing, and people start clapping and cheering. Aditi0 and I have long finished the six-pack. I brought no more because it’s not the best idea to be drunk here.

My gut tightens around a beery bladder as the familiar anticipation hits hard. Without warning, it turns into fierce nostalgia. I’m looking, after all, at the gateway to the timeline that holds the woman I’m still in love with, and will probably never see again. Will never see again, I tell myself. A gateway I walked through not so long ago. I suddenly want to climb the fence, run towards that blinking array, that beacon calling out to the sticeroute that is now hard coded into the nav-biochip I still have in my head. I look at Aditi0. She looks nervous, which is natural.

“Aditi.”

“Yeah.”

“You might not even see the ripple. But you will feel it. No, don’t get up. Sit on your knees. Help keep you from falling down if you get disoriented. Which you will. Stay as still as you can, don’t move your head or body too much when the wave hits us. Just expect it. You’ll be fine. Okay?”

She looks at me and nods, pulling her overcoat close over her chest.

No sirens, no countdown. The crowd goes silent. Many of them are holding glowsticks or lighters. The silence is strange, deafening, washed with the sweeping strobe-glare of the fence.

Abruptly, the lights stop flashing.

“That’s it. They just sticed,” I tell Aditi0.

“I don’t see or feel anything,” she says.

“It hasn’t reached us yet. You can’t see it from the outside, only once it’s passed us.”

She breathes out, staring beyond the fence.

“Don’t worry. Here.” I hold out my hand. Aditi0 looks at it. “I’m okay, thanks,” she says, but takes it anyway. I give her hand a squeeze. Her fingers are cold as they wrap around mine. I look back up and the world warps. I hear a huff of breath from Aditi0 and hold on tight to her hand. There is a moment of utter, thrilling panic as perspective loses all meaning and I feel like I’m drowning in a sub-dimensional deluge, and then we’re inside the wave.

Time appears to slow, and sound with it, flooding my ears with a low hum.

Everything. The people, the stars in the sky, the ruddy smear of sunlight still burning in the clouds behind Manhattan, the lights of New York City, the glowsticks now arcing through the air above us. Everything grows persistent trails that crawl across the dark blue evening air in shimmering banners and strings. Aditi0 is replicated a hundred times until she is surrounded in a glimmering tracery of herself. The entire world etches the expanding mark of its passage on to the surface of reality. We see the potentialities of past and present grow around us for what seems like infinity but is actually just a few moments. As this multi-hued, crystalline geometry of our movement and Earth’s movement through spacetime grows more and more complex it begins to ripple and fade like a wake, so the tearing meteoric lines of the city’s lights fracture into what looks like a thousand overlapping New Yorks and a thousand starscapes splayed out across the horizon, before vanishing into the singular skyline we know.

The dancing replications decorating reality stream away to nothing and time hits its normal pace again, letting sound rush in like an explosion. I stagger back at this effect, gasping as I take in the world, which now seems to be moving too fast. It takes a few seconds of staying still to keep from throwing up at the contrast. Aditi0 lets her shoulder sag against mine.

After a minute or so of silence, the crowd begins to clap and cheer again. Glowsticks bounce off the fence in a neon shower. I want to turn and look at Aditi0 but know I’m too dizzy right now.

“I saw it,” I hear her say, voice thick with tears.

I realise we’re still holding hands. I decide not to let go, though our palms are clammy. It feels like forever has passed between before and after the wave, instead of a few seconds. In truth, we glimpsed only a miniscule, negligible fraction of forever.

 

We walk across the Triborough to the Upper East Side. There, we find an underground bar with a cheap cover charge and a mediocre band playing boilerplate indie rock, because Aditi0 needs to sit down somewhere. We listen to music too loud to allow for conversation, while I grow worried. Aditi0 excuses herself to go to the restroom and vomit, or so she shouts into my ear when she returns. Then, wide-eyed, she asks me if I want to go back outside to the city, and we do, we walk for hours, not stopping. We watch people moving through spacetime, letting the exhaust-tinged breeze cool our flushed faces while Aditi0 wonders aloud what weather is winding its way down the streets of New York Cities beyond this one. We eventually end up in front of a food truck, eating burritos at one in the morning, watching sleepless urbanites fill the sidewalks. Neither of us is able to muster much of an appetite, so we leave with warm greasy packets of leftovers and begin limping back to Aditi0’s apartment. Somewhere out there in the multiverse, there is another world where we both exist, and another Siddharth and another Aditi are in love. Another where we’ve never met, but still exist. And that, perhaps, is enough. That, perhaps, is why I’ve never applied to have a comm contact one of my altselves. I might, after all, find a Siddarth barely surviving his loneliness, barely surviving the onslaught of time, writing back the other side; or an exact replica of the Siddharth I am. So far, none of my other selves have written to me either. Most people don’t. So I keep walking with Aditi. Not kissing, not having sex, not marrying her and raising children with her. Just walking with her, the hum of passing vehicles in the soles of our shoes.

“I can’t walk anymore, kiddo. I’m sorry,” she finally tells me, sticking out her lower lip in a sad pout. I am quietly relieved. Smiling, I give her a reassuring side-hug that doesn’t even begin to express the swell of affection I feel for her at that moment. Holding her, both of us dazed and sleepy, under the blazing light of a Megastore that wasn’t there in NYC5, I feel like Aditi’s friend, instead of a heartbroken ex from a time neither of us belong in.

 

“Of all the New Yorks in all the Worlds” copyright © 2022 by Indrapramit Das

Art copyright © 2022 by Ashley Mackenzie



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