by Paul Levinson
Jon slammed the piece of mail on the table, knocking off a buttered half of bagel in the process. It teetered on its edge on the floor for a moment, then fell down squarely on the buttered side.
"Another wrong credit card charge," he called up to Trudi between curses. "Seems we stayed at the Coach and Chariot Inn last month."
"With or without the kids?" Trudi walked in and sighed. She picked up the credit card statement and shook her head. "This is—what?—the third mistake like this since the new year?"
"Cancel the card." Jon scooped up the bagel, surveyed the sticky dust, and tossed it in the garbage. "If these people are too lame to get their charges straight, we’ll go elsewhere."
"We need the credit line," Trudi said. "I just got a cash advance—"
"Do whatever you want, then." Jon waved his hand in disgust. "But let’s at least call the company and explain that we were at your mother’s house getting heartburn on her cooked-to-death chicken when they say we were in the whirlpool at the Chariot."
"Right," Trudi said, "as soon as I finish with the Motor Vehicles people about why my new registration isn’t here yet. And my mother’s chicken is manna from heaven compared to your mother’s hydrochloric pot roast."
The woman on the speaker phone was about what Jon and Trudi expected.
"Have you folks moved recently?" she asked.
"No, been here for four years," Trudi said.
"Has your mail been reported stolen recently?"
"Uh, no," Trudi said. There was that time several months ago when their mail had been mixed in with several of their neighbors’ mail, but nothing had wound up lost as far as she knew. It was pretty funny, though, seeing the kind of pornography that old Mr. Gleason up the street subscribed to.
"And you’re certain you and your husband didn’t sneak away for a quickie at the Chariot—"
"Believe me, we’re certain," Jon replied.
"Well, I don’t know what to tell you then," the woman said earnestly. "The hotel admits that they have no physical record of your being there—no signed receipts, or that sort of thing. But their computer record is quite clear that you were there."
"Haven’t you people ever heard of computer hackers?" Jon asked. Jeez.
"Well of course we have, Mr. Goldman. But what would a hacker stand to gain by charging a room to your credit card, and not using the room?"
"I don’t know," Jon said. "Look, I’m not Sherlock Holmes—I can’t tell what makes a criminal tick. I just want this charge taken off my credit card."
"Well, of course. I already told you that the hotel has no physical evidence of your having been there, so of course we’ll remove the charge. But we’d like to get to the bottom of this."
"So would we," Trudi said. "What do you propose?"
"Well, for a start, we’re putting a special photo-hold on your card. Starting today, you and your husband won’t be able to use your card without showing a photo ID to the retailer. And of course no mail orders or phone or computer orders will be allowed."
"Fine," Trudi said, sarcastically. "We’re the ones getting hacked, but we’re the ones being treated now like criminals. Fine."
"We’re doing this for your benefit, Mrs. Goldman."
"For your benefit, too—these credit thefts cost you time and money," Jon said.
"Which all comes back to you, Mr. Goldman, because these losses oblige us to raise the interest you and our other card holders pay us. Anything more I can help you with today?"
Jon riffled through the Saturday morning mail. "Card from Auntie Kira in Florida . . . bill from the plumber . . . something from Chandler at MIT. I don’t know why he didn’t send this to me at the lab—"
"Any mail for me, Dad?"
Jon smiled at his eight-year-old son. "Yep, here’s a card from Ari. Looks like it has something scribbled on the back."
Noah laughed. "It’s a code, Dad."
"Ah. And here’s something for you, sweetheart." Jon handed a piece of colorful advertising over to Samantha, their two-year-old, who promptly put it in her mouth.
"No, no, that’s not good for you, honey." Trudi leaned over and pulled the advertisement away. "That’s good to look at, not—"
"Goddamn charge again!" Jon exploded. He waved the statement in the air. "This one’s nineteen dollars and twenty-eight cents—from the Parthenon diner three weeks ago. We didn’t eat there then, did we?"
"No, and we wouldn’t have gotten out of that goldmine for so little if we had." Trudi took the statement and stared. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and jabbed a number.
"Look, I know it’s a Saturday," she said tersely into the phone after giving her credit card number, "but I want to speak to your supervisor. Right. It’s about the fourth wrong charge to our credit card this year, this time from a diner that we last ate in maybe six months ago. That’s right, we have a photo-hold on our card and everything. Thank you."
"We should sue them, Mom," Noah said. "I hate that place—"
"Shhh!" Jon held up a warning finger. Meanwhile, Samantha deftly pushed her father’s plate so that it was just about half over the edge of the table, where it sat with the half-eaten scrambled eggs when the family was interrupted by the morning mail delivery.
"That’s right." Trudi was talking again. "It’s getting to the point where this card is more trouble than it’s worth—my husband and I have to look at every statement like hawks to make sure we’re not being charged for something that— Right. I know there’s a lot of this kind of theft going on and you’re doing your best to control it. But—"
Trudi took the phone away from her ear in exasperation and held it out at arm’s length. The supervisor’s voice was squeaking about people needing to be careful about crooks looking over their shoulders in department stores when charging merchandise. Then he said something about a new retinal scan that the credit card company was introducing—
"Cancel the card already," Jon said. "I’ve had it with this!" He jabbed in the air to make his point. His elbow brushed his plate—and pushed it over the edge. It landed face down on the floor with his eggs. There was something going on here that, given half a chance, was working against him.
A very slightly different universe, almost the same as ours in all respects . . .
Jon kissed Trudi full on the lips at the front door. "So we’re finally making a little progress on the finances," he said.
"We’re still in debt," Trudi said.
"I know, but at least we’re starting to move now in the right direction." He blew Trudi another kiss and walked to his Prius in the driveway. The doors clicked open at his approach. This Prius was one of the reasons they were in debt so deeply. Jon knew this, but also felt that the Prius was worth every penny.
The drive from home to Fordham University was precisely eighteen minutes. This was one of the things Jon loved about his job. He parked his car, walked quickly to Everett Hall, and bounded up the three flights of stairs to the Theoretical Physics Digital Lab. He grabbed a cup of coffee from the shiny new machine and entered his little sanctum.
Eugene, the current grad assistant, was already hard at work, rendering some old analog video clips into digital. Jon clapped him on the back and proceeded to his own workstation. There was a piece of mail on the desk. Jon shook his head.
"Mail room brought it up just a few minutes ago," Eugene offered. "Another missive from Scott Chandler—you going to just throw it out like the others?"
Jon played with the envelope and laughed. "You know, it’s sad. He says he sends his really important messages through land mail, because he’s afraid his email doesn’t always get read. And now I’m proving that the same can happen to paper mail." Jon tossed the envelope. It made a neat fluttering descent into the trash basket.
Eugene chuckled. “It’s the price of your success. You attract crackpots.”
Jon started up his desktop. No one other than Jon—not even Eugene—knew what Jon had here. Jon scarcely believed it himself. His Russian former graduate assistant, apparently a budding computer genius, had left it in this machine. "My gift to you," she had told him, "to thank you for being such an inspiring teacher."
Jon called up the program, started work on a transaction—
"Jon." Jill Barnes, a colleague, was in the doorway. "We’re due at that faculty meeting in fifteen minutes."
"Right." Jon cursed to himself and logged off the machine. He’d forgotten about the stupid meeting, which he was obliged to attend. He shut off his computer and smiled at Jill. "Let’s go, then."
He took his coffee and waved good-bye to Eugene as he left the office. Eugene thought about it for a few minutes after Jon was gone, then quickly fished Chandler’s letter out of Jon’s trash.
Our universe . . .
Jon entered the digital lab, sipping a cup of perfectly brewed coffee. He wrestled his suddenly ringing cell phone out of his pocket, flipped it open, narrowly missing the coffee as he put the phone to his ear and mouth. "Yah, good, honey," he said to Trudi. "We’ll do fine with just the bank card. We did the right thing canceling the Ameri—" He realized he was talking loudly, and Eugene could hear. "Okay, good," he said quietly to Trudi. He snapped the phone shut, nodded to Eugene, and sat at his temporary computer station.
It had been temporary for almost two months now, and he felt bad about that, not only because he had been deprived of his own work place, but because his old desk had had Sasha’s present upon it. She had given it to him as a parting gift before she’d decamped for her doctorate at CalTech. "Something very special for your computer," she had told him. "My gift to you, to thank you for all the extra credit and belief you have had in me."
Not a hundred percent comprehensible, but that was Sasha, better at code than words. He looked at the computer now on his temporary desk, his current computer, and sighed. Some student had spilled soda on his computer with Sasha’s present the day after Sasha had left. Hey, if faculty didn’t follow the "no food and drink in the lab" rules, why should the students? And he had never had a chance to even touch his original computer since then. It had been out for repair, the techies still not clear exactly what was not quite right about it—
"Jon." That would be Jill Barnes, here to walk with him to a faculty meeting as per their appointment. "We’re due at the meeting in fifteen minutes." He’d rather have walked by himself, but what could he do? He couldn’t be rude to a colleague.
"Right." He stood and knocked over his coffee. He’d barely had a sip. He cursed to himself, but smiled at Jill.
"I’ll clean it up; you’ll be late," Eugene said.
"Oh, thanks!" Jon said. He turned to Jill. "Let’s go, then."
"Some mail came in for you," Eugene called out as Jon joined Jill at the doorway.
"I’ll get it when I come back," Jon said.
The slightly different universe . . .
"What do you think they’ll tell us about the salary freeze?" Jill asked Jon as they walked across the campus.
Jon winced slightly in the sharp February breeze. "Won’t make much difference to me, one way or the other, given my mortgage." And also the fact that he’d tapped into the new source of income.
"Yeah, tell me about it," Jill said, referring to the high cost of living.
"I just think it’s wrong that they increase the number of students in our classes, but keep our salaries on hold," Jill continued. "I mean, I know the economy’s still bad, but enrollment has been up and—"
Jon’s ringing phone interrupted Jill’s critique. Jon was grateful. He smiled apologetically at Jill, threw his nearly empty coffee cup into a nearby receptacle, and took the call. "Hey, on my way to a meeting," he said to Trudi.
"Oh, right, sorry," Trudi said. "The meeting about the salary freeze?"
"Yeah," Jon replied.
"Well, don’t let them intimidate you. You’re entitled—"
"Okay. I just had a quick question—about a new after-school possibility for Noah. Can you talk?"
"Sure. More or less," Jon replied.
"Well, the school has some wild bird expert who’ll be running a special program in ID’ing birds in the New York area. You know how much Noah loves that."
Jon nodded. "Absolutely."
"But it’ll cost us $200," Trudi said. "I know we’ve been doing better with that long-range installment plan you worked out for us online, but—"
"Let’s do it." They’d been doing a lot better with that "installment" plan, which required no payment at all, not even for the purchases themselves.
"Okay," Trudy said, mostly happily, but with a tinge of unassuaged concern.
"We’re here," Jon told Trudi as he and Jill reached their destination. Jill scowled, in continuing anger at the university administration.
Our universe . . .
The walk across campus was uneventful. Jill was droning about the outrage of the salary freeze, but Jon had more pressing financial problems to think about. What the hell was going on with his credit card? Okay, he’d canceled the one with the phantom charges, but why couldn’t the credit card company get to the bottom of it? And if he was being targeted by some super hacker who had acquired his credit card, what was to stop him or her from moving to another one of Jon’s cards?
His cell phone rang. It was likely Trudi. Jon didn’t answer. He needed to think about this more. But he didn’t blame his wife in the slightest for being so worried. He supposed the next step would be to go to the police, but Jon didn’t relish being an official victim of anything, and the time that would take out of life.
He and Jill reached the meeting hall. Her talk subsided into a scowl about the university administration.
Faculty were milling around the hall, breath visible and frosty this early February afternoon. Jon looked them over. He was not particularly close to any of them—he often said he preferred his students to his colleagues—and—
Wait a minute! Jeez! Was that Chandler? Yes, it was him, and he was walking right toward Jon, and it was too late for Jon to pretend he didn’t see him.
"Jonathan!" Chandler extended a big, beefy hand.
"Scott—good to see you. What brings you to the Bronx?"
"I was visiting Liu in the Math Department—we’re doing a conference together next year—and I called your office, and your grad assistant told me you were on your way here. I’ve been trying to talk to you about something for a few weeks now. I’m not completely sure what it means, but—"
"Why didn’t you call or send email?" Jon knew the answer, but saw no advantage in making this easier for Chandler.
"I don’t like talking about these things on the phone," Chandler said in a conspiratorial tone. "Same thing with email. I was only calling your office to see if you were in, so I could drop by. I have sent you a few letters, by the way—in fact, I sent one just last week, letting you know I’d be on campus today."
Jon shook his head derisively. "Mail’s getting less and less reliable."
Jill, who had been talking to a gaggle of faculty nearby, waved at Jon. "I’m going in," she mouthed at Jon in exaggerated motions, and walked to the entranceway.
Jon was glad for the excuse to get to the point with Chandler, who had seen Jill’s departure. "Okay, so what did you want to talk to me about?" he said to Chandler. "I’m sure it will be more stimulating than what I’ll hear in there." He gestured to the building.
"I ran into a student of yours in California last month." Chandler’s tone was lower and more conspiratorial. "Sasha Humek?"
"And, well, I guess she had too much vodka," Chandler continued. "She’s brilliant, you know. Her paper on inter-alter-matrices was really something—raised a lot of eyebrows. All hypothetical, of course."
"Yes," Jon replied.
"But she had had a lot to drink, as I told you," Chandler said, "and I couldn’t completely understand her—you know, between the accent and the drink—"
Jon nodded again.
"But I think she said something about actually developing a program that could do that," Chandler said, "and I’ve been thinking about that ever since, and it’s been bothering me—"
"Do what?" Jon asked.
The slightly different universe . . .
Jon looked around at the faculty walking and talking around the front of the building, like geese honking on a lawn. Jeez—there was that noodge Chandler! What the hell was he doing here, stalking Jon? Jon spun around quickly, neatly, and walked away, to the other side of the building. He thought he heard Jill telling him she was going in. He waved over his shoulder without turning around. He didn’t want to risk Chandler spotting him, if he hadn’t already.
Jon thought he knew what Chandler wanted to talk to him about—he had read Chandler’s first letter. Jon had thought then that it would be best to avoid this conversation for as long as he possibly could. He had the same opinion now.
Jon ducked into a side door, then into a men’s room, and hoped this would be the last he would see of Scott Chandler. He’d hang out in the bathroom until the meeting got under way, walk carefully to the rear entrance, and look around. He doubted Chandler would wait around if he didn’t see Jon either entering the meeting or in the meeting once it started. Then Jon realized that the safest course of action, if he wanted to avoid Chandler, was to leave this hall altogether, and just go home without attending the meeting at all. Jon knew he could count on Jill to attest that he had indeed been here, even if she didn’t see him leave after the meeting. What kind of psycho, after all, would walk all the way across campus to a meeting, only to walk out before it started?
As for Chandler, he’d survive. True, Chandler had sent Trudi and him congratulation cards when Noah and Samantha were born, but that wasn’t the important thing now. Jon had to protect his kids from the financial vicissitudes that sooner or later struck everyone, especially in the current world.
Our universe . . .
Four faculty walked by Jon and Chandler—Chandler pulled back from Jon and held a finger to his lips. "We shouldn’t just be standing here, talking in the open like this," he said, in a volume so low now that Jon could barely hear.
Jon looked at the hall in which the meeting was about to commence and thought quickly: No one will miss me at this point if I don’t attend this. Jill will say to anyone who asks that she walked with me to the meeting, and who would be so crazy as to walk all the way to a faculty meeting, only to walk away before the meeting starts? Well, maybe not so crazy, for anyone who knew how boring faculty meetings could be, but—
Jon realized that Chandler was waiting for a response and beginning to edge even farther away. "Of course," Jon answered. "You’re right, of course. Let’s just take a nice little stroll around the campus—we’ll be able to see anyone we’re approaching, or approaching us, and we can stop talking if need be." Jon took Chandler’s arm and began escorting him away from the building.
Chandler nodded slowly, reluctantly. "But your meeting?"
"It’s okay," Jon replied. "My colleagues will fill me in. . . . So, you were about to tell me what Sasha told you, in her Russian accent, when she was a little drunk."
"A lot drunk," Chandler said.
"And she—" Chandler started, and stopped talking in deference to two students who were walking by.
"Hi, Professor!" one of them said brightly to Jon.
"Hey, Angela, how are you doing?" Jon replied. Then, to Chandler, "And?"
"And your student Sasha told me she had written a program that permitted inter-alternate-universal transactions."
"Don’t play dumb with me," Chandler replied, suddenly losing his trepidation. "You know exactly what I mean—she was your student. If she really wrote such a program she must have learned it from you."
Jon considered. "She was one of those students who already knew a lot more than I did the first day she stepped into my class; that’s why she was my grad assistant," he said truthfully. "Did she tell you what she intended to do with such a program?"
"She said she was leaving it and the decision about whether and how to use it in your hands."
Jon said nothing. He knew where the program likely was, now.
"You going to pretend you know nothing of this?" Chandler pushed.
“Some student spilled sticky soda on my computer before I even had a chance to load Sasha’s program.”
"So you’ve never used Sasha’s program?" Chandler asked, not completely believing what Jon had just told him.
"No," Jon replied, and his eyes flared with the beginning of understanding. "But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been used."
The slightly different universe . . .
Jon was in his Prius, ignition on, when he realized he had left the transaction he had started in his office incomplete—interrupted by Jill and their apparent need to go to that stupid meeting. But the meeting was no longer an issue. So what was keeping him from his desk and that transaction?
Chandler could come looking for him in the office, after not being able to locate him in the meeting, but Jon had no intention living the rest of his life in fear of a conversation with Chandler. And completing the transaction in the office shouldn’t take more than a minute.
Jon grinned as he turned the car off, stepped out, locked it, left it, and made his way back to his office. The nice thing about being so way beyond the cutting edge was no one could see what you were doing, even if you were doing it right before their very eyes.
Well, he supposed one person could. Not a person in this universe, this reality, though. But the Jon in that other universe, the Jon whose card was being charged for his, this Jon’s, purchases: he would certainly see the results; he of course would see the charges and would feel their impact.
But a few charges certainly couldn’t bankrupt anybody. They might cause a little discomfort, a little concern, but, hey, for all Jon knew, his alternate self was a rich man, a millionaire who wouldn’t feel or mind the little debits at all. Hey, Jon had come close to making it big in this world himself—a better book deal, more high-paying jobs as a consultant to complement his teaching career, any one of a dozen slightly different breaks could have put him in the upper strata right now. For all Jon knew, his alternate self had done all of this and more, and wouldn’t notice or care at all about a charge from a hotel he had never slept in.
Jon bounded up the three flights of stairs to his office.
Our universe . . .
Jon was determined to get a look at Sasha’s program and get to the bottom of this insanity. Could the inexplicable charges on his credit card really be the result of his alter-self—in an alternate, parallel universe—having made the charges, but via Sasha’s program somehow gotten those charges to show up on Jon’s credit card right here in Jon’s universe? Jon fingered the card in his wallet inside his jacket pocket, then clenched and unclenched his fist in anger. "I think I know where my computer with the program is right now," he said. "You want to come with me to our tech repair center?"
It couldn’t hurt to have Chandler standing by, in case Jon had trouble using the program—assuming his beleaguered computer was in some sort of working condition now. Jon was good with computers, but Chandler was better, a classic nerd case of clumsy with people, smooth with equipment. Conceivably he could get Jon’s computer to work, when Jon and the techies could not.
"Sure," Chandler replied. "Locate the program and destroy it—leaving it out there in the world, especially with techies around, is not a good idea."
"Exactly," Jon lied as the two approached the gleaming new tech center. He had no intention of destroying Sasha’s little present to him—at least, not before he’d had a chance to use it, and set the universes straight. And maybe make a little profit for himself. He thought for a second about disinviting Chandler—no, unless Jon was able to resurrect his computer, he would not even be able to get a look at Sasha’s program.
The slightly different universe . . .
Jon sat at his workstation. Eugene was nowhere to be seen—he was probably out to lunch. Good. Although Jon didn’t worry much about doing his special transactions with Eugene around—who would not know what he was looking at, if he happened to glance at Jon’s screen—Jon still preferred doing this without any possibly prying eyes.
Jon booted up his computer. He went directly into that miraculous little program Sasha had provided. He clicked the icon that would make it work now in the background, as Jon went to the Fieldstone school web site and made the $200 payment for Noah’s after-school bird identification course. And the sweet, incredible thing was that this charge would never show up on his credit card. Sasha’s program would shunt it to the parallel universe, where it would be charged to Jon’s alternate self’s card.
He finished the transaction and leaned back in his chair with his hands clasped around the back of his neck. Ethical issues aside, this was indeed one fine piece of business. It thrilled him as much as it had the first time he had attempted it. Trans-universe transactions were positively addicting.
Our universe . . .
Jon walked into the head tech’s office, with Chandler a little behind him. "Professor Jon Goldman," Jon announced to the head tech, and pulled out his faculty ID.
"I know who you are," the head tech said, without a trace of a smile.
"Good. Well, I’d—"
"You’d like your computer back and working. I know. Your office has called here, what, a dozen times?"
"The computer’s been out of commission for nearly two months—all because a little soda was spilled on it?" Jon had long ago realized there was no point matching attitudes with these tech people. They held his equipment in their hands—they held all the cards. Still, it was hard to resist the bait.
"As I know I already told you, it’s something more than the ginger ale," the techie explained, his patience already strained. "We replaced the damaged parts, but we can’t get it to keep working for more than a few minutes once we turn it on. We think it’s some kind of virus that got in there before the soda, and it’s incompatible with the upgrade hardware we put in. We’re still trying to identify it. We have an obligation to make sure it doesn’t spread to other computers on the campus."
Chandler spoke up. "Can we—Professor Goldman—see the machine? If that’s possible."
The head tech shrugged. "Won’t do you much good."
"I know," Chandler said, soothingly, "but—"
The techie pointed to the other room. "It’s against the far wall in there."
Jon and Chandler proceeded to the room. "Glad I brought you along," Jon told Chandler. "You have a good way with these people."
Chandler just nodded. Jon looked at the far wall. "Ah! There it is."
He and Chandler continued on to the computer. Jon sat right down and turned it on, Chandler looking over his shoulder. "He said it only works for a few minutes at a time, so you have to do this quickly," Chandler advised, quietly, urgently.
"Right." But Jon really had no idea what that "this" was—Sasha had left no instructions in her little note. He supposed he could call or email her—he had her contact info in his online address book. Jon looked at the screen. No, that probably wouldn’t be necessary. As the icons popped into place, Jon noticed a shimmering new gift-wrapped box on the screen, named "Sasha’s present."
Jon hesitated for a moment. He wasn’t thrilled about doing this in front of Chandler. But he had no choice at this point, and Chandler could still be of help if the program proved balky.
Chandler saw the icon on the screen and pointed to it.
Jon nodded, and clicked.
The screen that came up said: "Pay for anything you like online with any of your credit cards, and let my present do its work for you. You won’t notice anything different immediately, but watch for what is on your bill—or not on your bill." And the words were followed by an animated little smiley icon.
"Good, that seems to be it," Chandler said nervously but happily. "Now just drag it to trash—"
But Jon went instead to his favorite online wine store. He had a strong feeling he and Trudi would soon have something to celebrate.
The slightly different universe . . .
Jon moved to shut off his computer, but got a chime from his email that he had a new message. It was a receipt for purchase of a bottle of Black Dirt Red wine from Warwick. He and Trudi loved it—a great $12 wine they’d discovered at a farmer’s market in the fall—but why would Trudi buy a bottle now? They’d still had two bottles in their little rack the last time he’d looked—which had been maybe two days ago.
He called Trudi. "Nope, I didn’t buy it," she told him. "I don’t mind another bottle, though—maybe some grateful student bought it for you as a present. You really shouldn’t accept it, I know. Or maybe some dean wanted to thank you—"
"I doubt if it’s either," Jon said. "I don’t see how either could have gotten my credit card."
"Yeah, that’s right," Trudi said. "But then—"
"No big deal," Jon lied. "All right, I’m on my way home—anything I should pick up? We okay with orange juice and milk?"
Jon got off the phone with a grocery order and a thought that rang painfully, as clear as day in his brain: this was a very big deal. He got up, paced around, and tried to find some balance on this. A credit card charge in his name for a bottle of wine he hadn’t bought. The price was indeed no problem, but the process surely was. Maybe this was just some sort of credit card error? Jon smiled, ruefully. No, he knew that it wasn’t. This was likely just what his alter-self had been going through. And now Jon in that parallel universe, the Jon who had been receiving this Jon’s charges, had turned the tables.
Jon hoped his counterpart would continue to be this sparing with the charges. Jon certainly had not been with his. Was there a way this program could be disabled?
Our universe . . .
"No!" Chandler cried out, and lunged at Jon’s computer. But Jon had already clicked on the wine. He had set this online store for express, one-click purchase, so he could get in a last-minute order when he was late for class.
Jon stood and restrained Chandler.
The techie stuck his head in the door. "It’s okay," Jon said. "We’re just rehearsing for a departmental play."
The techie looked at Jon and Chandler as if they were both crazy, but didn’t see enough of a problem to warrant his continued intrusion. He walked back into his room.
Jon’s computer promptly went off.
"You used that program to charge something to your alter-self," Chandler said, still somewhat furious. "That’s not right."
"No, it is," Jon said. "Here, have a seat. Let me explain what I think is going on."
Chandler looked at the computer as if to confirm it was off and could do no further harm, then sat.
"I think I’ve been a victim of my alter-self’s charges for several months now," Jon explained. "I don’t know if there’s any way I can undo them, now. But I can rectify this by charging my counterpart back."
The slightly different universe . . .
Jon shut his computer off, patted it, almost affectionately, regretfully, and headed for the door.
So this would be it. His computer, Sasha’s extraordinary little program, had done well for him. But now that his counterpart in the parallel universe had finally gotten a clue about this, there was really no point in continuing. If each charge that this Jon shunted to the parallel Jon was matched by a charge from the parallel Jon to this Jon, there would be no net gain for either Jon. One Jon of course could make bigger charges, and charge more frequently, than the other Jon. But the other Jon would know this as soon as the trans-universe charges arrived, and could easily retaliate. So the net gain, sooner or later, would be zero. All that escalating charges in both universes could eventually engender would be mutually assured bankruptcy.
Jon got into his Prius and drove out of the university parking lot. This had been one wild ride, no doubt. Financial transactions across alternate universes. Had other pairs of parallel people being doing this? Had they started like Jon, with one doing it to the other, and then the other catching on? He still wondered why it had taken his parallel Jon so long to get going on this. He wondered if there was any way he could yet turn this back around to his own advantage, or at least prevent his alternate from transferring any more charges.
Where did the program, the technology, come from? Jon had heard rumors, conspiracy theories, about parallel universes for years. Pathways to alternate realities brought into being by fast-moving quantum particles. Hypothetical informational superluminary highways . . .
Sasha was the key to this. Her program made this real. He owed her a call. No point doing this in the car, though. He wanted to concentrate, take notes, if needed. There could be a career-making paper in this, for him as well as Sasha.
Our universe . . .
Jon turned the computer back on, on impulse. It made some strange noises, but stayed dark. He banged the table hard. "I wanted to see if I could get it to do it again," he said to Chandler.
The bang brought the dour techie back in. He shook his head. "I told you, it only stays up a few minutes. Banging the table won’t change that."
"I know," Jon said. "Sorry. Could you see if you could get it working again now, even if for just a few minutes?"
Chandler, who obviously had been struggling with how to react to this, finally spoke. "Yes," he said to the techie, "if you could do that, it would be very helpful. He has notes for a new paper on that computer, which he doesn’t have anyplace else, and lots of people are eager to see it."
Jon nodded and smiled at Chandler, grateful for the support.
"I’d like to see those notes myself," Chandler added.
The techie grunted, motioned Jon out of his seat, and got to work on the computer. He put in four different diagnostic and boot disks. None had any effect. The techie frowned. "It may be permanently brain-dead," he said. "I can have someone else look at it, but usually when these things are gone they’re gone."
"But—" Jon started, but realized there was not much more it was safe to tell this techie. Letting him know that this half-dead or completely dead computer contained some extraordinary program was a sure ticket to the techie saying any repair was futile, and keeping the computer for himself. "Okay, thanks for trying," Jon said. "No need to do anything more about this now. Could you pack it up for me so I can take it back to—"
The techie shook his head no. "Lots of reasons I can’t do that. You need a form signed by the chair of your department. I’m about to pack up and leave. Closing the shop early today. I have an appointment—"
"Okay." Jon knew all about the forms, and how intractable the techies were about requiring them. The money would be deducted from their salaries, maybe worse, if any computer went missing. "Thanks," Jon said. "I’ll see if I can come back with the signed form tomorrow—that okay?" Best Jon could do—his chair was in Manhattan today.
The techie shrugged.
"Thanks," Jon said again.
He and Chandler left the building. Ordinarily, Jon would have complained about the repair facility closing early—it would have driven him a little crazy—but not today. Let the techie shut down the room and go to his appointment. With a new set of broken computers to deal with tomorrow, the techie would likely not give Jon’s computer another thought. And then Jon could get his computer, and try to find someone who could get it to work.
Meanwhile, the best thing to do now, Jon considered, was call Sasha. Maybe it was the best thing in any case. If she could send him another copy of her program that Jon could install on a fresh computer, that would take care of everything. He didn’t see why she wouldn’t send it to him.
But he didn’t want to call Sasha right in front of Chandler. He started to thank Chandler and say he had to be getting home.
"But there’s a lot more I’d like to know about this," Chandler objected. "A lot more we need to discuss."
"I know," Jon said. "But I can’t do it now." Not before he spoke to Sasha. With no evidence in hand, Chandler couldn’t do much, not anything really, with what he had just seen. Anyone other than Jon and Sasha would dismiss Chandler as a nutcase if he tried to inform them about what he thought had just happened.
They approached the garage. "Can I give you a lift to the train?" Jon asked Chandler, in a bid to get him off campus and as far away from the computer as possible.
Chandler was clearly still not happy about the way this day was concluding, but he accepted the offer. "Sure, thanks."
Jon dropped him off at the Metro-North, and swung over to the parkway. He’d call Sasha as soon as he got home and gave Trudi a long hug.
The slightly different universe . . .
Eugene had been keeping an eye on the lab from a safe distance down the corridor. As soon as Jon left, Eugene went right over to Jon’s computer. He turned it on, called up the program Sasha had left Jon, and then the program Sasha had left on Jon’s computer for Eugene. He smiled broadly.
He Skyped Sasha. "I think we can move on to our next couplet now," Eugene told her. "The Jons seem to have reached their equilibrium."
"Good," Sasha said. "Took the Jon in the other universe long enough."
"Yeah, we need to look into that, could be an important data point," Eugene said. “The soda on the keyboard was of course my doing—part of our protocol for seeing what happens when real life throws in a monkey wrench. But I can’t figure why the computer techie was taking so long.”
“Could be another monkey wrench—unexpected. Could be he ran some diagnostic and found something unusual about our program,” Sasha said.
“It’s supposed to be self-disguising to the usual scans.”
“I know. You should get the computer out of his hands in any case,” Sasha said.
“Yeah, the tech center should be closing in under an hour. That’ll be my next stop today."
"Meanwhile, you proceeding well with Professor Ramapuram out there?" Eugene asked.
"Yah." Sasha nodded.
"Excellent. I’ve been accepted as his grad assistant in the fall. You leave him the code at the end of this term, and move on to another school. I’ll come out there to keep watch and we’ll be in business, just as with Jon and the others."
"Goodman will likely be calling me, to get a little more clarity on what’s been happening to him."
Eugene laughed. "Tell him the usual. You stumbled on to this program with the quantum mechanical app, wasn’t really sure what it could do, so you left it in his wiser hands. Give him your heartfelt apology for not telling him more up front. . . . He’d need a nova of light to understand what’s really happening. Hey, we’re not much better, are we?"
"But I’ll shut him down, tell him the program is unstable, that I need to do much more work on it before I set it loose again—give to anyone as a present," Sasha said.
"Right," Eugene said, and his eyes were thoughtful. "You think our alternates, Eugene and Sasha in the parallel universe, are having something like this same conversation right now?"
Now Sasha smiled. "I’ll do you one better: you think there may be another group of happy researchers, much like us, in yet another parallel universe, and they’re running us, testing our responses, just as we’ve been doing with the Jons?"
Paul Levinson is an American author and professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York City. Levinson’s science fiction, sf/mystery and popular and scholarly non-fiction works have been translated into twelve languages.
As a commentator on media, popular culture, and science fiction Levinson has been interviewed more than 500 times on local, national and international television and radio.
His most recent novel is The Plot to Save Socrates (2006) and his newest non-fiction book is New New Media (2009). The Silk Code won the Locus award for Best First Novel of 1999. His novel The Consciousness Plague won the 2003 Mary Shelley Award for outstanding Fictional Work. His novella “Loose Ends” was a 1998 Hugo Award finalist, a finalist for the 1998 Sturgeon Award, and a finalist for the 1997 Nebula Award. The radioplay of his novelette “The Chronology Protection Case” was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Mystery Play of 2002. Digital McLuhan won the 2000 Lewis Mumford Award for Outstanding Scholarship.
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