E. Mark Mitchell is a loquacious maximalist. To his mind, there’s never a sentiment expressed in 6 words that can’t be equally expressed in 60. Therefore, short story writing is difficult, but if boiling a story down to its essentials makes it more powerful, then that’s a worthwhile effort. Mr. Mitchell has many unrelated nicknames in use amongst his friends, who are scattered across several countries on several continents. He currently lives in Chicago with his lovely wife and his adorable and brilliant giant mutant daughter.
This story first appeared in the June 2005 issue of Analog.
It was a large, blocky machine, not unlike an old-time industrial boiler, in a huge sterile room; Bill had to put on a smock and booties and go through an anti-static hallway to even go through the door. While most of it held blank metal plating, one whole side was covered with displays and keyboards and monitors. Bill circled it, stepping over cables and pipes. It was an impressive piece of work. “What does it do?”
“Gives us glimpses into branching universes.”
Bill stopped. “Okay. How?”
“Have you done advanced post-doctoral work with subatomic phenomena? No? Then I imagine my explanation wouldn’t make much sense. Suffice it to say that, for a brief time, we can examine several different ‘option paths’ from a given phenomena. I’m framing it as a proof of the Everett-Graham-DeWitt many worlds theory, which can be interpreted to say that anything that can happen, does happen, given enough branching universes and the proper probabilities.”
“Sure! Look, everything you do could create a branching universe. Whether you scratch the itch on your nose with your right hand or left hand, or even your index finger or thumb, creates a whole new set of universes, or timelines, if you will, in which all possible options are explored. We organize them in order of probability. We figure most options don’t have much impact on the probabilities of other actions, and so most branches stay pretty much along a single timeline, perhaps bundled together like wires in a cable. That’s the metaphor we’re using, at least...”
“Stick to the point, Greg.”
The scientist grimaced, cleared his throat, and continued. “However, some choices have significant impact, and spin timelines off in completely different directions. Can you imagine? Sufficiently developed, we could use this technology to find the perfect outcome of any given choice...”
“Um... hold it.” Bill had to break in, before Greg went off on one of his sweeping quasi-philosophical monologues. “What can you tell me about side-effects?”
“Er, none. The effect is limited to within this machine.”
“I think Mr. or Ms. Trout would have something to say about that. I’m thinking your machine has done something to screw up the universe, started messing with probabilities.”
“So is having a trout spontaneously appear. Or at least, it’s very improbable. Why couldn’t you just put a cat in a box and see if you could turn it into a probability wave, something normal like that?”
“Because that’s Schrödinger. Related theory, but completely different guy. Schrödinger’s major premise was...”
“Crikey!” Bill jolted as if he’d been shocked. “I need to feed my cat! I got so caught up, I never made it home. Come on, tell me why I’m wrong in the car; you’re not off the hook, yet.”
“Hope your cat likes fish...” Greg looked significantly at Bill’s jacket pocket.
“Oh, no. This is evidence. Come on.”
Outside, where Bill’s subcompact had been parked sat a big SUV. The parking lot was nearly deserted, and there were no other cars nearby. Bill noted the SUV wore his license plates, and his key still fit the lock. The seats were incongruously covered in hideous pink brocade; Bill couldn’t help but think it seemed familiar, somehow. He power-unlocked the doors, and Greg eased into the passenger seat, wincing at his surroundings. Even in the dimming evening light, the upholstery was punishing.
“Still think I’m crazy? I hate these sport utes; now my car’s turned into one, and I’m probably stuck with it unless we can stop whatever it is that’s happening.”
“The only thing that makes me think you’re crazy is this color scheme. Seriously, Binky, what were you thinking?”
“Don’t call me Binky,” Bill growled, as he pulled out the parking lot. “It’s bad enough this fat car makes my head look small...”
None of the customary yowls greeted them as they entered Bill’s apartment. Further, Bill immediately noticed someone had been redecorating.
“Dear God,” he said, gaping at the monstrosity. “How did that even fit through the door?”
“Oh, I get it,” said Greg. “You had your car interior made to match your couch.” He paused. “Actually, I don’t get it. That’s just plain odd, man. Even I know that.”
“I didn’t do any of this! This pink couch is following me, ever since the trout.”
“Whatever you say, Binky, it’s your theory.”
“Which you weren’t able to convince me out of. And don’t call me Binky, please.”
“Can you just feed your cat? Deanna’s going to kill me as it is.”
“Give her a call; phone’s in the kitchen. Tell her I said hi.”
Bill glanced in all DaVinci’s usual hiding places in the living room and bedroom, but the fat tabby was being unusually devious. The food dish by the bathroom was nearly untouched. He added some wet food to the dry kibble in the bowl as a kind of apology, and stepped into the hall to track down Greg. The physicist was standing in the doorway, speaking Japanese into the kitchen. As he approached, Bill glimpsed an elderly Asian man in a bathrobe, standing in a room that looked nothing like the one that was supposed to be there. And there was a glimmer of sunlight in the far window. As it had gone completely dark on the drive over here, Bill knew it was wrong, wrong, wrong.
“Binky, this guy wants us out of his kitchen. I thought you lived here.”
“Yeah, and I thought it was night, as well. Make our apologies, and let’s go. This is very, very wrong.”
Bowing low, they backed out of the kitchen, and turned to find DaVinci. At least, the collar on the growling Rottweiller had that name emblazoned on it. Saying “nice doggie” only worked for so long; Bill had to sacrifice his wobbly-headed “Mr. T” figurine before they could escape into the hall.
“I thought you had a cat, Binky.”
“Don’t... ah, forget it. Let’s go.”
It started to rain as they drove back to the research facility. “Okay, let’s break it down,” Bill muttered. “I start with a fresh trout in my briefcase, then I start seeing the couch. Then this blasted giant sport ute. Then the apartment and Japan. Obviously, it’s escalating, and things are just getting weirder. Why me?”
“Why not you?” Greg wondered. “I mean, perhaps it’s just because of your relationship to me. I’ve been the only one running tests today.”
“That does seem to fit. I wonder if anyone else is having problems.”
“Well, of my friends, you live the closest. Deanna and I live farther out, now. I’ve got Bruce and Julie’s number back at the lab; we could call them, see if anything unusual is happening there.”
“If we get back to the lab...” Bill trailed off. Snow was gusting across the road, and was swiftly piling into drifts. Chicago weather was unpredictable, but this was ridiculous. He began to think they would have use of the SUV’s four-wheel drive soon; finally, a good use for the damn things. The snowfall was getting thicker by the second, a sudden blizzard in late April. “I really don’t like the looks of this. I can barely see the road.”
“Shapes ahead,” Greg said, squinting into the swirling white. “Is that a horse?”
Indeed, a smallish horse galloped out of the snow, its fur-clad rider brandishing a sword. The metal of the blade shone wickedly bright in the headlights. Greg screamed, and Bill swerved away. He heard a metallic impact, then noticed the side mirror was suddenly missing. More riders on ponies could be seen in the snow. The SUV seemed to have left the road and buildings far behind; there was no curb, no structure, nothing to stop Bill from swinging the vehicle around and flooring it. Greg twisted to stare out the back window, Bill kept glancing in the rear-view. A few scattered dinging noises across the back announced hastily fired arrows bouncing off the roof.
“Mongol raiders, it looks like,” said Greg with wonder in his voice. He turned to face forward again. “Winter weather, Mongols... can’t be happening.”
“Tell that to Ghengis Khan,” Bill muttered, peering through the snow to find a destination—any destination. The city seemed to have vanished, and he had no idea where he was going, but as long as he was fleeing the Horde, he was happy enough.
“Look out for that... thing!” Greg yelled helpfully. Bill twisted the wheel, trying to see what Greg was reacting to. The SUV skidded to one side and, as expected, started to tip. As the world angled sharply, Bill finally saw it: a huge, hairy pillar of a leg. He saw a flash of a long, curved tusk, and had time to think “mastodon!” before the SUV fell on its side.