Music. They all heard it at the same moment. Music was playing.
It was coming from the open door to an office about halfway down the hallway branching off from the lobby. They all froze and looked at each other.
Craig started moving first, followed by the other three boys. Craig was sure it must be Dr. Cornish. He hoped that he would help them. He also unsnapped his holster and checked his clip one more time as he walked in the direction of the office.
Maybe it was the volume of the music, or maybe it was the ugly green industrial carpeting in the hallway masking their footfalls, but the figure sitting at the desk hadn't noticed them as Craig stood in the office doorway. The figure had his back to the door, and his feet were up on the desk with the chair reclined back. He was snacking on a candy bar while reading a science journal.
Craig cleared his throat. “Umm, excuse me?”
The figure startled badly and dropped his magazine. He turned around, still seated in the swivel chair. He looked at the boys, his eyes moving from their faces, to their weapons and clothes, and then back to their faces.
“A little young for a commando team, aren't you?” the figure said. A half smile was on the man's face.
Craig ignored that comment and asked a question of his own. “Um, Sir, are you by any chance Dr. Cornish?”
The man frowned slightly. “Just how would you know that?”
“Well Sir, Dr. Pollack told me you might be here and described you a bit.” Craig shrugged. “Who else would you be?”
“Yes, I'm Dr. Henry Cornish.” He scratched his chin while looking them over. “You have me at an advantage though. Who are you guys? Why are you in my world?”
Craig moved further into the office, allowing room for the others to move in as well. Craig continued as the spokesperson. “Well,” he said, pointing, “That's Andrew Pollack, Dr. Pollack's son, and this is Joel, and that's Jamie. My name is Craig.”
“Pollack sent his son?” Dr. Cornish shook his head. “I never would've thought...Well, never mind that. Why are you here?”
“Well, Sir, the two universes are weaved. Blended. And now they're coming apart. Both universes are going to pretty much end as a result. The other one has already started. This one is next, but because of the time difference it hasn't quite started yet. It's because of the superposition field here being activated.” Craig said. He kept his voice matter-of-fact. Well, mostly.
“I know.” came the answer. Dr. Cornish's face was unreadable.
Craig smiled and relaxed slightly. “Oh good. I was hoping you'd help. First I think we need to...”
Craig was flustered. “Umm, yeah. Help shut down the field.”
Dr. Cornish shook his head and chuckled. “And Pollack sent a bunch of kids to do that? Well, anyway, it doesn't matter. Why the hell would it matter if the field was shut down?”
Craig's confidence wasn't getting any stronger. Much the opposite in fact. “Um, well, because the universe, well, both of them, are ending. Everybody will die. Everything will be gone. And he sent us instead of someone else because we didn't really have much choice. There was no more time.”
Dr. Cornish was still sitting but his posture changed. So did his voice and body language. He almost looked and sounded like he was lecturing a classroom. “Gentlemen, you need to think. You're seeing only a tiny slice of the real situation. The big picture.”
Finally someone other than Craig spoke. Andrew, puzzlement clear on his face, asked, “What do you mean?”
“Ah, good question young Mr. Pollack. Well, think. What would happen to the other universes, all of the virtually infinite other universes, if these two ceased to exist? And before you answer, please holster those weapons. They're making me a bit nervous.”
The boys followed the direction from the adult, it was obvious he wasn't an immediate danger, and Craig tried to answer the question. “Um, well, I'm pretty sure nothing would happen to them. Right?”
Dr. Cornish beamed. “Exactly!”
Craig felt completely befuddled. “Um, great. But that doesn't exactly help us.”
Dr. Cornish's expression looked like what a kindergarten teacher probably looked like when trying to help a particularly slow student understand how to mix water and finger-paint powder. Patient but a bit sad at the lack of comprehension. “Well, we can just go somewhere else of course. Infinite possibilities. Anything. Anywhere. We can have anything we've ever dreamed of. That's why I'm here. I thought that's why you may be here too.”
The boys looked at each other, frowns on their faces. Were they missing something? That was the unspoken question in their expressions. Craig turned back to Dr. Cornish. “Uh, so, how does that help anyone in our world? They're, like, still going to die, right?”
Dr. Cornish's expression didn't change. “How many universes are there, young man?”
“Well, virtually infinite.” Craig answered.
“And how many of those have Earth? Humanity, civilizations, technology, cultures, like ours?” Dr. Cornish asked.
“Well, a subset, even a tiny subset, of infinity is still infinity, so...”
“Exactly! Don't you see? All those people. They're still alive. They're still there. Just very slightly different versions of them.”
Craig was having trouble believing his ears. “Well...so? All those people in our universe are still going to die. So what if a bunch of people like them are still alive somewhere. How does that help?”
Dr. Cornish shook his head, obviously frustrated at their slow thinking. “If you scratch your arm, or bite your tongue, a few dozen or hundreds of your cells die. Does that mean you've died? All those people, they're just one. One tiny version of the infinite versions that make up that person.”
Craig was getting antsy. Wasn't this guy supposed to be smart? Surely he could see the obvious hole in that argument. Couldn't he? Was this guy a psychopath? “Um, Sir. We're not talking about cells. They're individuals. They are people. They each have a brain. And free will. Just because there are others doesn't mean...”
Dr. Cornish chose that moment to illustrate his point. And that changed everything.
“Look,” Dr. Cornish said, interrupting Craig. “We're going to have to leave here, right? Using the field? We'll go somewhere else, where everybody we know still exists, if that's what you choose, right? So in any real way of thinking, it doesn't matter what happens here, right?” Craig nodded, hesitantly, not really agreeing, but showing he heard. Dr. Cornish continued. “So, then, this won't matter at all.”
He turned smoothly and opened a desk drawer. In one motion he pulled out a pistol, turned, and shot Andrew.
Frozen in shock, too bewildered to do anything, they stood absolutely still. Watching as blood covered Andrew's shirt over one side of his stomach. Andrew looked down, his expression completely dazed, and he fell to the floor, hands covering his wound, breathing fast and shallow.
“You see,” continued Dr. Cornish, as if he had handed round a particularly convincing journal article, “in an infinite number of universes, that didn't happen. You can just go to one of those.”
The initial frozen shock wore off, less than a second later, and they all moved.
Craig, tears streaming down his face, knelt down beside Andrew and pulled off his jacket, placing it against the wound and applying pressure. The bullet had hit close to his side, somewhere near where Craig knew one of Andrew's kidneys was located. His voice, shaking with fear and shock, said, “It's ok Andrew. I'll fix you up. A few stitches. You're going to be fine.”
Joel and Jamie in the meantime both pulled out their pistols as one. As they raised them Dr. Cornish adjusted his aim and shot again. This time hitting Joel's forearm, just grazing it. Joel dropped his gun, grabbing his forearm quickly. Dr. Cornish's pistol was now aimed at Jamie's heart.
“Don't shoot me, young man. I have places to go, and things to do. None of this matters. Really. You're all fine, in infinite other universes. I'm leaving now. I have plans. Though you four moved my schedule up slightly. Now drop that gun,” said Dr. Cornish.
Jamie dropped his gun. He really had no choice.
Craig looked up from where he was keeping pressure against Andrew's wound. He viciously fought down his feeling of shock. Of betrayal, of anger. Andrew was still breathing, and time was running out. No matter what, he had to stay in control of himself. Somehow. More now than ever before.
“You're insane, you know that? Fucking insane. Aren't you supposed to be smart? If you kill an identical twin, do you think that doesn't matter just because their sister or brother is still alive? They're genetically identical, aren't they?” Craig had no idea what he was doing, but he had to do something. He felt if he could bait Cornish just enough, maybe he could change something in this situation. And save Andrew's life.
Dr. Cornish blinked, but didn't answer at first. Unbelievably, he seemed to be thinking about Craig's comment. A lifetime of training in scientific thinking maybe? “Hmm, that bears some thought young man. But I'm not sure it's a valid supposition. They aren't the same. Different experiences from birth, even if only slightly.”
It was surreal. Dr. Cornish was acting as if he was in a university lecture hall, while two boys were bleeding, one seriously, and the world was coming to an end. Craig had been right, he thought. He was a psychopath.
Craig kept thinking, still not knowing where he was going with this. He barely heard Andrew whisper something. Craig leaned over and listened. Andrew repeated it. “Keep going, keep talking,” is all Andrew said.
So Craig tried again, still holding the jacket to Andrew's bleeding wound. “How is that different from the alternate worlds? Once a universe splits, their experiences differ, even if only a fraction. As soon as that happens, they're different people. If our universe ends, that makes you a mass murderer. Look, it's a matter of degree, not kind, our examples. If you think about it, you'd see that they're all in the same domain, the same grouping, twins and alternate selves. Compare the points of agreement with the points of contention.”
Amazingly, Dr. Cornish turned to the whiteboard on the wall and picked up a marker. “Look, I'll show you,” Dr. Cornish said, “Infinity is represented by...”
Jamie saw a chance and bent over. He scooped up his gun and leveled it at Cornish. “Drop the gun, asshole,” he said.
Dr. Cornish looked over his shoulder and chuckled. He actually laughed. “You know we're inside the superposition field right now, right?”
“So?” said Jamie.
“Well, any one of us can leave. Anytime. With just a wish. We're all quantum disconnected from our own universe now, thanks to the transition.”
“Not if you're dead you can't,” said Jamie, doing his best to sound tough by trying to hiding the quiver in his voice.
Craig thought of something. Well, the guy was psychopathic. “Where are you going?” he asked, trying to keep his voice casual.
“Well,” said Dr. Cornish, still ignoring the drama playing out in the room. His voice was calm, thoughtful, “originally I thought I'd go somewhere where I'm the richest man in the world, but then I realized I was thinking much too small. Since there's an infinite number of worlds, like I was trying to get you to understand, morals and ethics have little relevance. Like the scratch, a few cells won't matter. So I'm thinking I'll go somewhere where everybody acknowledges me. Somewhere where everyone will listen to me, and follow any rule or order I might give.” He chuckled. “Do you have any idea how free this makes us all? How much fun I can have with this?” Craig felt sick when he saw the front of Cornish's pants tent slightly. “Somewhere with a language, culture, and infrastructure like ours, so it's familiar and comfortable, but where I can have complete say over whatever and whoever I want.”
“So why don't you go then? You still have a gun pointed at you, you know,” said Craig.
“You know, you're right. I can tell people to create a new superposition facility there if it turns out I want to try somewhere else.” He closed his eyes.
But not like Craig had seen the people vanish in the news room on Mrs. Klein's TV so long ago. He didn't just vanish. He seemed to, well, almost pixelize, then blur and break apart first. Like a bad signal on digital TV before it disappears.
Joel, holding his seeping arm, said to Jamie, “You should've shot him.”
Jamie looked at the floor. He breathed heavily once before answering. “I know. I tried. I couldn't. I froze up.”
They all looked at Jamie. Craig said, “I doubt any of us could. We aren't killers. Don't you dare feel bad about that.”
Joel said, “Craig's right Jamie. But now he got away. He'll just do the same thing somewhere else.”
Craig pulled out the first aid kit and opened it. “We need to get him to a clinic, I need to figure out how to help Andrew.”
Andrew grabbed Craig's wrist. “Wait,” he said.
“Look, Andrew. You're bleeding. A lot. We don't know how much damage that bullet did. We need to make sure you're ok.”
“If we don't get that field down, nobody we know is going to be ok,” Andrew said.
Craig looked at him.
Jamie moved in beside Craig. “I'll help Andrew. And Joel. You go get the field down. Hurry.”
Craig hesitated. Andrew looked hard at him and nodded. Craig hurried.
He ran down the hallway and slammed open the doorway to the stairs and ran down them, then through another hallway. He had no choice at the end of that one, as there was no obvious stairway. There was no real need for silence now anyway. He slid a card key in the slot beside the elevator. The light blinked red and there was a beep. Craig tried a second card. Same result. The third one was the charm though, and the elevator doors opened. Craig entered the car and mashed the “Close door” button. He waited impatiently while the elevator moved. Finally the doors opened. Once again, he ran down the hallway and was in front of the doorway he knew led into the superposition room. He entered.
It was anticlimactic really. He went up to a machine, opened a panel, and pulled out a card from its slot. The computers in the room flashed warnings. The field was down.
He had separated the universes. And saved both.
But, they were now trapped. They were here for good.
Craig forced that thought away. It took some doing, but he had other priorities. He retraced his steps, running fast, and arrived back in Cornish's office.
“Done. It was easy. The field is gone.”
The looks on all their faces were strange. They all knew what Craig knew. They knew the stakes. What was done was done. Now it was time to move on, to do the best they could. To survive. They needed to figure out how to help Joel and Andrew first.
Jamie said, “I've dressed both their wounds. Joel is going to be fine, I doubt he'll even need stitches. It really just grazed him. But we need to find out what internal damage might have happened with Andrew. I think we should figure out an X-ray machine, and read some stuff on the anatomy of the abdomen. If we need to operate, well...”
Nobody said anything to this. They knew the chances of doing that successfully were pretty much zero.
Still, Andrew was alive, and breathing. He was in pain, but he could actually manage to stand. With help, he was able to move. They moved out into the parking lot.
And gravity shifted. They fell. Gravity shifted again, then seemed to go back to normal. The ground rumbled slightly.
“What the hell?” Joel said. “The field's gone! What's going on?”
The boys stood up, except for Andrew, who remained sitting. The fall had hurt. A lot.
Craig was looking around wildly, as if looking for an answer. “I don't get it. That's not possible.”
Jamie shrugged, and said, “Maybe it was just some kind of after effect.”
As if to prove him wrong, the sun blinked out. Once, twice, then shone as normal.
Nobody said anything. Once again, their faces showed the fear they were feeling.
Ten long seconds passed while the boys looked vacantly at each other.
Craig's thoughts, buzzing around his head, came together. “Oh fuck me! I know!” said Craig.
“What?! What!?” came the answers from the other three.
“Once the field is down and the universes are disconnected the weave is gone. This field is down. But guys, the other one, the Three Valley facility, that one. Your dad Andrew, he started up that field. In the other universe. Home. It's how we got here. It must still be running! It's keeping things connected!”
“So what do we do?” asked Andrew, still sitting on the asphalt of the parking lot.
“We need to get back east. We need to go there and shut it down!”
“Umm, in case you forgot, that's an eight hour flight away.” The ground shook again. “I doubt we have time. Besides, the field was started in the other universe. There's nothing we can do here,” said Joel.
Craig looked at them. “Look, it's a long way. We might not have time. Probably won't. But what are our choices? Sit here and die, or hope Andrew's dad is still alive and the universe is still together enough over there for him to shut it down before it's too late, or we can try and do something about it ourselves.”
“But when the universe over there ends the field will shut down anyway,” said Jamie.
“Time runs different here, sure. But, according to Andrew's dad when the universe stops there, it stops here. Once the universe ends over there, then it ends over here, and we're done,” Craig said. “Look, we gotta try.”
“Well, we have a half hour walk back to the cars, maybe longer because Andrew can't walk very fast, an hour and a half hour drive to the airport, then we gotta fuel up the plane, that'll take an hour or so, then we need to fly back. Another eight hours. That's, what, eleven hours? Do you think it's enough?” asked Jamie, looking at the sun.
“Does it matter?” said Craig. “We already all know what we're going to do, don't we? Andrew, do you think you'll manage for a while?” To Craig, that was the one big problem with this idea.
“Like you can stop me,” Andrew said. “We're going. I'm fine. Look.” He stood up, though he was leaning heavily on Jamie.
Joel was looking around frantically, suddenly he ran at top speed back to the building.
“Where the hell are you going?” yelled Craig.
“Gimme twenty seconds!” is all he answered as he went inside.
As promised, he ran out twenty seconds later holding something high up in his hand.
“Cornish's SUV,” he said pointing and running. “It's closer. Let's go.”
They did. That saved a half hour. With only a thirty seconds stop outside the gate to call the dogs in, they were off. Craig drove much faster than was safe.
Craig drove like a madman. Swerving around the unrepaired frost heaves and keeping the big vehicle in four wheel drive the entire distance. They screamed through town towards the airport, scaring the moose, deer, and even one small black bear watching from the side of the road. They made it back to the airport in twenty five minutes. Another hour saved.
The SUV skidded to a stop and they poured out. Jamie running fast towards the refueling truck while Craig helped Andrew walk slowly towards the plane. Joel ran to the plane to help Jamie get ready to refuel. The dogs sensed the excitement but didn't know what to do, so they ran round and round in circles.
As Craig helped Andrew walk slowly past the row of planes towards the old Beechcraft, he stopped. And looked.
“What?” asked Andrew, still holding on to Craig.
Craig didn't answer, just yelled over to Jamie instead. “Jamie!”
“What?!” he said, not looking. He was trying to get the fuel truck started.
Craig just pointed.
Jamie looked. And did a double take.
“No. Oh no! No way! Not a chance, Craig,” he said. Though he didn't look away from what Craig pointed at.
Andrew and Joel looked too.
A sleek, shiny, small, and insanely fast looking business jet stood parked near the terminal.
Jamie was still looking at it. He said, “Craig, I can't fly that thing. It's a jet. Jets are way different from turboprops. Way different. There's no way in hell.”
Craig just said, “I'll bet you've flown a hundred on a flight simulator on your computer.”
Jamie just looked at Craig. Then at the plane. Then at Craig. “I'll see if it's fueled,” he finally said.
They all changed course. Once inside Jamie sat down and flicked a bunch of switches. Lights came on and things made various sounds. “Well, the batteries are still okay, and it's fueled, at least according to this. I should go outside and do a visual check though.”
“Forget it. Let's go,” said Craig.
Jamie didn't even look up. “Right. Hang on.” He was busily looking through a small laminated booklet hanging in the cockpit. The other three heard him muttering, “...take off speed, stall speed, flaps, oh fuck, right, landing gear, where's the...oh...” He alternated looking at the booklet and at the cockpit controls.
“Can we go now?” said an impatient Joel.
“Just a sec. Lemme figure this out. It's way, way, more complicated than...okay, hang on. Here we go.” He did something. The engines started.
“This things been sitting a year,” said Joel, “how do we know it's not going to burst apart in the sky?”
Craig just looked at him. “We don't.”
Jamie taxied the plane out, they accelerated down the runaway. Jamie pulled back on the controls, watching the airspeed indicator. They were airborne.
Then they weren't. Back on the runway, getting very close to the end.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck!” said Jamie, as he fought with the controls.
The rest of the boys stayed silent, knowing that anything they said wouldn't help.
The end of the runway was very, very close.
Jamie did something with a control, and then he pulled back on the control stick again. This time it worked. They were in the air. And gaining altitude.
The plane sped up, then suddenly began vibrating strangely.
“Uh, Jamie?” said Craig.
“I don't know! I don't know!” something beeped. He looked at a red indicator light. “Oh shit, the stupid landing gear.” He pulled a switch. A short hum and a clank, then the plane was much smoother. Jamie continued to pour on speed and altitude, and turned the plane east.
They were going home.
They all started to realize it. To turn the field off, they would have to translate back to their universe, from inside the other field.
They were going home. And Andrew could get proper medical attention.
“Uh, Jamie? Does this thing go any faster?” asked Craig.
Jamie didn't answer, but they all felt a small speed increase.
“How fast are we going?” asked Craig.
“About 580 miles per hour across the ground,” said Jamie.
“How fast was the other plane?” Craig said.
“About 180 miles per hour.”
Craig did some quick math in his head. “So, what took us eight hours should now take...”
“...about two and a half,” finished Jamie.
Despite the nervous energy, once the plane was at altitude and cruising there was nothing else to do. They sat silently for some time, Craig looking after Andrew and checking his bandage and vital signs every few minutes. Andrew was sitting uncomfortably, his weight mostly on his non-injured side, breathing in fast, shallow breaths.
Finally, Joel broke the silence. “It's too bad about about Dr. Cornish getting away. Now he can do it all over again in some other universe.”
Craig looked at him, an odd expression on his face. “I'm not sure he can, actually,” he said.
The other three were now looking at Craig.
“Well, did you see him when he vanished?”
“Okay, remember what he said? Where he wanted to go? What was the universe like, where he wanted to end up?”
“Uh, somewhere where he could, like, be some kind of king. Where everybody would do his will, no matter what,” Andrew said.
Craig nodded. “See, I'm pretty sure he was psychopathic. The way he talked about people, and his attitude. You guys know about them, right?”
“Well, they can't understand other people's feelings at all, or what other people want. They're the very definition of totally self centered and selfish,” said Joel.
“Right. Psychopaths are often real good at manipulating people, but they never are able to really understand them. Empathy is impossible. To them, other people are just objects to manipulate into giving them what they want rather than other live beings with free will.”
“So?” said Joel.
“Well,” said Craig, “He wanted a world with a civilization, culture, language, infrastructure, and all that like our own. One he was familiar with.”
“So?” said Joel again. With a curious smile.
“Well, for all of that to happen, you need people. Diverse people. With free will. He can't even imagine that. I'm not sure the world he wanted actually can exist.”
“Well, where did he go then,” asked Andrew.
“Well, did you see him when he disappeared. Like he got all fuzzy and blurry and disappeared? Well, I think, maybe, he went nowhere.”
Silence again for a few minutes.
Finally Joel asked another question. “So, like, why did he look all, like, pixelized then? When he disappeared?”
Craig looked at his friends. “Guys, have you ever heard about the Simulation Argument explanation for the existence of a multiverse?”
That explanation took the rest of the flight. Which was good. It took their mind off things a bit.
After the landing they walked towards the truck, still parked where they left it. Craig was still supporting Andrew, who was leaning on him heavily. He was definitely looking worse than before. His face was pale, almost gray. It was almost completely dark outside now, the sun having set a while ago.
“What the hell kind of a landing was that?” said Joel.
“Well, we're alive,” said Jamie.
“Well, yeah, but would you say that was a good landing?” laughed Craig as he started the truck.
“You know how I said that any landing where you can use the plane again afterwards is a good one?” asked Jamie.
“Then I guess it wasn't a good landing.”
They all laughed, even Andrew managed a weak smile, but more in relief than humor. The plane sat in a field a hundred yards beyond the runway, a bit of smoke coming from one engine.
Craig carefully helped Andrew get himself into the truck and belted in. He then put the truck in gear and they headed, yet again, towards Dr. Pollack's lab.