A Key to the Multiverse

This is a piece I wrote for the 2015 Quantum Flash Fiction Competition

“No.” Shelly said as I entered the Box.

“I haven’t even asked you anything yet!” I protested with a grin.

“Doesn’t matter. Computing time here is limited as it is, I’m not going to waste precious research minutes indulging whatever asinine whim you had this week.”

“Come onnnn” I wheedled. “It’s a matter of life and death. Besides, you owe me.”

“I owe you?!” She arched an eyebrow.

“Yeah, for setting me up with that troglodyte of an accountant last week. I swear I shall never recover.” I affected a pose, the back of my hand resting dramatically on my forehead.

“Harold is a nice guy…” Shelly looked at me, and I held my pose. After several moments, Shelly made a face. “Fine!” she said, sticking her tongue out at me as I relaxed. “Two minutes, but not a nanosecond more.”

“Thanks! I’ll owe you one.”

“Again…” she muttered, as I strode into the Box and up to the Booth.

Years ago, when Humanity had cracked the secrets of quantum computing, we discovered an unintended side effect. Through some arcane quirk in the laws of the Universe, we discovered that we could access the whole of the multiverse; looking only, no touching. Decades of research and billions of pounds later, and this was the result: The Box, a windowless cube 10 meters to a side. I always found the room itself boring, with featureless grey walls covered in miscellaneous computer equipment, and the humming of the machines put my teeth on edge. In the center of the Box was my destination, facing the only empty wall. Unlike a certain flying police box, the Booth was the size of a telephone box both inside and out. It was made of clear plastic and was empty, except for a harness and a long tether. Management had resisted the efforts of the geekier staff members to paint it blue, but I did notice that someone had stuck a siren on top. Even with the Box, we were still limited to skimming alternate realities, looking for answers to the what-ifs of History. Mostly. However, when circumstances were just right, and we found a world close enough in particulars to our own, we could do some fishing.

I stepped up to the Booth. As I strapped into the harness, Shelly handed me a pair of sunglasses from the pocket of her white lab coat. “You’ll need these,” she said, before retreating to the concrete control room tucked into the back corner of the Box.

“Not my first rodeo!” I called after her. She lifted a middle finger without looking back, and I waited in silence for several seconds before keying the intercom set-up in the Booth. “We set?”

“When and Where?” She answered with a sigh, and I grinned as I gave her the coordinates.

“N 51.536935, E -0.106098, around 8:30 this morning, and as close to our variable set as possible.”

There was a pause as she input the information, and then… “That’s your own bloody flat, you wanker!” Shelly exploded, the squeal of the intercom feedback making me wince. “I thought you said this was important!”

“It is!” I protested, “Vitally important. National security depends on it!” I tried to take a stern tone, although the effect was somewhat spoiled by my being unable to entirely hold back a laugh.

“Fine.” I could hear her grumbling through the mic as she keyed up the search parameters. “Alright, we’re good to go. It’ll take a while to sync up, so you’ll have to cast your line fast.”

“I know, wish me luck!”

“I hope you fry. On my Mark. 10…9…”

“I love you, too!” I called, as she counted down.

As she said “zero”, the atmosphere of the room visibly altered. The background hum of the machinery ratcheted up several decibels, becoming a grating, vibrating whine. The light levels began to fluctuate, and the white fluorescents began to rapidly shift between red and blue, creating a kind of purple-hued strobing effect. It gave me a headache.  I could very distinctly taste ozone and feel my skin rising in goose pimples. Yet despite all of the ambient weirdness, I felt a bubble of excitement building in my stomach: this part never got old.

Gradually, the changing lights began to slow, resolving into a series of flickering images on the wall in front of me that were remarkably three-dimensional. Because this voyage into the multiverse was centered on my house, most of the images were scenes from my life, the what-ifs and the could-have-beens. I saw marriages and deaths, divorces and childbirth, and a whole host of important life events, with close friends, some people I dimly recognized, and others who seemed wholly unfamiliar. The images waxed and waned, flickering through several at a time before stuttering to a stop, holding for moments before suddenly rushing on again.

With a sickening, shuddering lurch, the scene in front of me froze, showing the kitchen counter of a tastefully decorated little Islington flat, shining in the morning sun. “This is it!” Shelly said over the loudspeaker. “Thirty seconds on the clock, go fish!”

Giving the tether a testing yank, I opened the door of the Booth and strode forth.  Several large steps brought me to the still image on the wall, and I reached out a hand. Touching the wall felt like reaching through a mirror, metallic and cool, and not altogether pleasant. I could feel the pull of the other world tugging on my arm, and blessed the tether keeping me in place. My hand was through now, and I scrabbled uselessly around my counter until I snagged what I was after. I toggled the tether belt, and felt a tug as it hauled me back into the Booth.

“You got it?” Shelly asked.

“I got them.” I said. “Thanks for the help. I really do hate it when I lose my keys. I swear, it’s like someone keeps taking them.”