Rowan stared up at the thickened, slate grey sky and compared it against the memory of her own. She sniffed the air cautiously: grease from a nearby street vendor, the tinny whiff of metal particulates, the lake in the distance. A woman passed too close, and Rowan peered at her loose ponytail, at her overly fashionable surgical mask, at her definitely human complexion. This Bay Street had to be right.
The Slingshot whirred softly in her coat pocket, where Rowan was grasping it in one sweaty fist. It would need 4 minutes to power back up, to be programmed with another address. A read-out on the back declared with 99.99% certainty that it was in its originating universe.
The aging telephone pole at the corner of Bay and King was her transdimensional north star, pocked with rusting staples from bygone posters. Rowan anxiously counted them, eyeing their topography. Much as Rowan tried to keep her guard up as she glanced around, she felt her posture slacken, and she found herself basking under the smoggy, polluted afternoon sky. She was Home.
Rowan’s assignment had been a bust, and she had little to do at work other than a quarantine exam or charging her Slingshot. Soon she rode the crowded and humid subway to her condo on the outskirts of the city. Barney was already home, dinner was on the table, and he was into his second glass of self-pity wine.
“So, what’s new, Buttercup?” he sighed. “You were gone a while this time.” When Rowan had first taken the job these homecomings were joyous and Barney had scoured the internet for recipes with ludicrous, exotic ingredients. But lately there was this growing sullenness, mold behind the emotional refrigerator.
“I know.” She had said this a million times before. “I’ll try to ask for less work. For fewer trips. I’ll ask for more on the research side.”
They fought after dinner in a restrained way, more vicious than if they had shouted. Barney apologized first, probably feeling bad for his greeting, and then Rowan caved afterwards. It was too good to be Home to argue over nothing.
In bed that night, Rowan’s legs were corkscrewed and too hot, and Barney’s arm was pinioned under her side. Terribly uncomfortable, yet Rowan knew neither would break away. Rowan listened to Barney’s breathing and froze when he began to cough, but he told her it was nothing.
“Maybe I could get a second job,” he whispered, barely awake. “You wouldn’t have to be away so much.” He was a geology docent at the natural science museum, and he didn’t make a lot of money. Rowan decided not to laugh—she had taken the job at Alternative Research to support them.
Tucked in her claustrophobic and rarely-used corporate cubicle the next day, Rowan finished her report on the most recent assignment and handed it in to her boss. The floor was half-deserted, a quiet Rowan had grown accustomed to, the sound of dozens of researchers scattered, minus those hospitalized with TR5 infections. A corkboard display of different locations, stacked like dimensional pancakes, sported little flags denoting their projected destinations. Rowan spotted her own, now pinned at the oblong for home.
“Well researched, Ms. Massey. A shame it didn’t pan out.” A conciliatory pat on the shoulder. “But it seems like the TR5 virus progressed differently Over There. The data could be helpful.” Angela was tall and stern, the manager of most of the research floor. As one of the few TR5 survivors herself, she cast an air of invulnerability.
Rowan tried not to interpret Angela’s treatment of her as maternal, or to see her as de facto mother bear to all of the wayward medicinal sojourners. Rowan’s own mother died from TR5, but Rowan had been places where fates had been reversed, where Angela was long dead and her mother had come through it. There were universes where Rowan and Angela were exceptionally close, the former practically an adopted daughter; others where Rowan and Angela were distant and professional. Here, somewhere in between, Rowan hoped Angela couldn’t spot her own clawing need for approval.
As the day wore on, Rowan began compiling calculations and indexing journeys from other members on the team. She flagged potential abutting universes, anywhere next to anywhere with decent medical research infrastructure. It was the last day of the month, and a half-dozen other field agents began appearing at the doors, sweaty or scorched or staggering, defeated, to Angela’s office. No pills, no ampules, no vaccines. Rowan heard a restrained siren from the exam room, and knew someone was going into quarantine—segregated lest they introduce an errant sub-epidemic from a neighbouring reality.
Bastien, one of the returnees, trudged to the cubicle adjacent to Rowan. He feigned typing, slamming the keys for just long enough to appear busy, before he slipped a hand over the cubicle wall and gestured to the exit.
“And everywhere there’s this thick grass, it looks like seaweed. But, like, above water.” Bastien took Rowan to a liquid lunch, an approved misdemeanor for returning researchers. He was sitting too close, but they were in Rowan’s favourite grimy pub, the only milieu in which she could find Bastien charming. “It’s smart; it can think. People there don’t really drive cars, they climb into these boxy thingies, and then they get down real close,” he leaned in conspiratorially to Rowan, “and whisper,” he whispered, “to the grass where they want to go, and then it kind of shimmies like one of those Hawaiian girl hood decorations.” They laughed, and to Bastien’s disbelief Rowan claimed she had been to Green Grass, too.
“Couldn’t get anywhere though,” Rowan said. “The grass didn’t want to listen to me!”
A few drinks deeper, and Bastien was sitting on Rowan’s side of the booth. They had dated briefly back when they both started at the Centre. But Bastien took her seriously when she shook her head no, and gave her a chaste hug before they split up on the subway.
Two weeks passed. Rowan compiled her meticulous paperwork, readying the proposal for her next assignment, justifying her belief of a universe at a particular theoretical address and why it would be worthwhile. The weather that Tuesday morning was abnormally beautiful and bright, a day unlike any she had seen since childhood, and so she decided to walk the distance of a few extra subway stops before boarding. Rowan found that she was nearly skipping in the mid-morning sunshine. It was almost unsettlingly perfect, and Rowan wondered if the government was messing with controlled meteorology again.
Rowan made her own hours, so she stopped at a street vendor along the sunny and unpeopled sidewalk on Bloor. She bought a hot dog, laid on a thick squirt of ketchup, and took a bite.
Dread seized her. Something amiss: she ran the components over her tongue, trying to find taste details, trying to figure out exactly what was off. Too salty? Too sweet? A hint of bitterness she didn’t associate with ketchup. Not blatantly strange, not unpleasant. But different.
There had been dozens, hundreds of almost just-right places on Rowan’s field missions. Barneys with blue eyes. Angelas who spoke Spanish instead of French. The letters of the alphabet going ACB instead of ABC. She always found the problem in a few hours, maybe once it would take a day, but she would catch it and move on.
Rowan tried a breathing exercise, one she’d learned back in training. She asked the vendor if his ketchup might have gone sour and he gave her a curious stare, trying it himself. His shrug was amicable and Rowan began to shake.
As she ran, Rowan listened to her blood thunder in her temples. She sprinted to a grocery store, elbowed past elderly morning shoppers, blitzed through produce aisles until she found an unseemly mountain of tomatoes. She brought one bright orb to her lips, her cosmic litmus. It split against her teeth and the juice made her retch, tart and sweet and just slightly bitter.
She reached into her pocket, but the familiar weight of the was Slingshot absent. It was in an office backroom, charging for her next assignment.
The subway was crowded on the way to work but Rowan’s pallor, her fever-like sweat, cleared half of the car around her. Her workstation was out in her lap, and her math was panicked, trying to figure out where to go next if this place wasn’t right. Her breath was ragged through her pollution mask, and she tried to slow it, count it, like she had learned in training. This place wasn’t dangerous.
If anything, it was a little nicer than Home. The people were more loving, more forgiving. Had she noticed and ignored it? Angela had been so kind. Barney and Rowan had made up from the fight within an hour, and this husband didn’t grind his teeth in his sleep.
Rowan radiated heat, sweating and fidgeting in the elevator, and she worked her slick hair into a ponytail. Alternative Research was on the 23rd and 24th floor of a mid-decade chrome and glass monstrosity, unfashionable in almost every universe. When she arrived, Angela caught the look on Rowan’s face.
“Oh, Rowan. I’m so sorry. I’ll get your Slingshot powered up. Have some coffee.” Rowan sat just inside from reception—she couldn’t bring herself to sit in the cubicle which was not her cubicle, full of things which were not her things.
Her coworkers drifted by, commiserating politely once word had gotten around, but their voices sounded obscene, their mannerisms calculated. None would make eye contact, as though ashamed Rowan had slipped past them. This Rowan had passed all of the protocols—all of the questions and bioscans, all of the winking codewords and memory checks. She was the right Rowan in genetics, in personality, in her opinions on technopop boy bands and grunge rock revival (con and pro, respectively). But she was also wrong.
Rowan sipped the coffee, too hot, trying desperately to find any hints of wrongness. She redid her calculations for a third time. She checked and rechecked the contents of her backpack: unfussy dark-colour clothes, sun-hat, a hundred dollars in a dozen currencies, pollution mask, medications, gun.
Finally Angela returned, the grey metal discus heavy in her hand. Rowan snatched it, a little too quickly.
“Sorry.” Rowan sighed as her fingers worked over the familiar command dials. “I’ve never let go of this in another place this long.”
“Good luck, Ms. Massey.” Angela nodded and seemed to want to say more. Rowan realized that if she was here, it meant the right Rowan was somewhere else.
Under the hood of the Slingshot, Rowan scrutinized the mechanisms and the wiring, looking at the serial numbers and eyeing the soldering work. She snapped the lid shut and breathed and tried to imagine exactly how heavy it had been before.
There wasn’t much grandeur to her exit, though this office would probably later see a minor flurry of activity as they tried to upgrade identification protocols. Rowan only had one thing to do before she left, and she heavily sat at the Other Rowan’s desk as she made the call.
“Hey Mr. Massey.” The formality felt strange on her tongue. Barney had not answered, and was probably busy running a tour group. “I guess you’re not available. I’m really sorry about this. I’m not yours.” She shook as she said it—this had to be her Barney, and he wasn’t, and she managed not to cry. “But I think yours will understand if you explain it to her. I hope she finds her way back soon. She’s probably missing you something awful.”
* * *
The journey always made Rowan sick.
It had a strange short-long feeling that always disoriented her; a sense of no time passing at all while eons and eras seemed to whip past just in her peripheral vision. Her hand would grip firmly around the device, she would monitor the controls and her own heartbeat. Bay would jolt around her, vibrating in a haze of colours, and then she would hear a great, thunderous rip.
Sometimes it was jarring. Sometimes the Bay Street she stood on became a Bay Street completely underwater, and she would swim desperately to the surface, her lungs burning and straining. Sometimes Bay Street would become just bay street, or sometimes Rue de Bay or 湾街. Sometimes there would be no indication, no road sign, or no road, or no anything at all.
Once the sky had been pink, and everyone around her had shrieked and shrieked when they saw her. Their mouths had flapped open with many rows of sharp black teeth, set below their dark, lidless eyes. Rowan had run. She had run long and fast, as quickly as she could, dozens of strangers chasing, their wails human but ruined and scorched.
Your calculations had to be pretty mangled to end up in a place like Pink Sky. Rowan had only ever gone there once.
There were so many places, a myriad of Homes and Almost-Homes. With some modifications, her Slingshot could predict Home-ness with 99.9995% certainty, and Rowan rarely ventured far away anymore. The universes near her own were littered with the dead of the pandemic, and Rowan combed them for signs of treatment. But she was not the only one who was looking.
Rowan had been places where other Rowans had just left, or where they currently still were. The office braggarts went on about meeting their doppelgangers, about sharing a beer and hashing out the Venn diagram, but Rowan couldn’t bring herself to do it. It was too gauche, too horrific, too she-didn’t-know-what. If anything they just confirmed what hairstyles worked for Rowan.
She had decided to maintain nodding terms with Other Rowans, acknowledging them only as other travellers on the road. But in one sunny, bucolic universe, Rowan’s Slingshot had broken down and required deep repairs. She’d begged for help at the Alternative Research office, and the local double had peered over her shoulder, cautiously offering suggestions. She was a slightly blonder Rowan who favoured blue coveralls and spoke with an East Coast accent.
They’d exchanged professional details, at once covetous and protective. The local Rowan’s research and field runs were all different, she was more of a relic hunter, and Rowan began to worry. They probed each other for details on one another’s lives, analyzing the anecdotes for overlap, measuring Rowan’s distance from Home.
“My Barney got down on one knee after getting my favourite band to play me Happy Birthday,” Rowan said. She glanced at local Rowan, gauged her facial expression. Both husbands worked the same job. “Did you ever bring back stones or rocks for Barney?”
Local Rowan said yes, her voice an uncanny Nova Scotian simulacrum of Rowan’s own.
“Well, I gave him this weird blue-grey diamond from a world filled with crabs, it was worthless there. And he was so excited, I think he actually slept with it under his pillow.” She couldn’t help smiling, but she tried to tamp it down. “And he had it made into the engagement ring he gave me.”
“And he said, ‘You’re the most precious thing in this universe or any other,’” the local Rowan whispered. A violent frisson ran down Rowan’s spine. That this detail coincided was a positive sign, a signpost pointing to her Barney. And yet Rowan still felt violated, like a stranger had been inside of her home and used her toothbrush.
Once her Slingshot had been repaired, Rowan had nodded curtly to the local Rowan and quickly calculated an address for a nearby dimension.
Training at the Alternative Research Centre had acknowledged this as the primary danger of their work. Most universes that you could access posed no significant dangers, and so what was left was disorientation. Homes so obviously, clearly Home, except that they weren’t. Certainty was only so certain.
There were protocols to ensure transition and identification. The company recommended a popular brand of bio-engineered eyes that came with eidetic memory, but they were expensive and not ethically sourced. People suggested shibboleths, codewords with loved ones and middle-management to welcome researchers home. But how many Rowans would ask this of their Barneys, how many would suggest, “What’s new, Buttercup?”
The other trainees had said most of the job was guesswork, and Rowan had once been guilty of this too.
But Rowan didn’t think that it was guesswork anymore. It was vigilance. It was keeping your pricey new eyes open.
* * *
Rowan had been gone for ages, missing countless deadlines, but she was certain it was worth it. Bay and King loomed around her, and Rowan shifted her heavy backpack. Her breath caught as she looked up and down the street, noting the route number on the passing streetcar, and comparing it against her own handwritten journals.
Once she calmed herself, Rowan headed to her office. People gave excited gasps at her return—a researcher out for three months usually meant a dead researcher. But one returning after that time often meant a find.
“This has potential,” Angela told her. They pored over the samples piece by piece, hefting each one. Rowan had trembled as they drew her blood for the genetic screening, and had nearly spiked the codeword checks in her excitement. The medicine in her pack was a Big Deal. “It will need testing. We can’t celebrate yet. There’s no knowing if that TR5 virus is the same as ours.” The Angelas closer to home were more like this, less willing to engage with optimism.
“But still,” said Rowan. “Maybe?”
This was exactly what Angela would say, and Rowan relaxed a little. This conversation was a test for Angela to pass with Rowan, even if Angela didn’t know it.
Rowan had acquired more than enough meds to reverse-engineer a cure. She produced only a fraction of her take to Angela. The rest were emergency rations, insurance in case she’d ended up in the wrong place. She imagined some Rowan finding her way home, beaming and proud, only to discover one of her doubles had already wiped out the local diseases by accident.
The inventory process was long and tedious. Each item would be carefully analyzed for toxicity, for errant particles of alternate realities. Under normal circumstances, it would be weeks before these medicines were deemed fit even for animal experimentation. But in every universe as Rowan had approached this one, incidence rates were worsening. This line of treatments would be tested on willing, desperate patients within two weeks.
There were vinyl toys lining the side of Rowan’s desk, gifts from Barney and souvenirs from long journeys. Her workstation sat on its broken tripod, one wounded leg repaired with neon green sellotape. Her coffee mug was nearby, the giraffe one with the long neck as the handle. She held it for a few moments, training an archaeologist’s eye on the bygone coffee stains like layers of historical sediment. When she was ready she would inventory them against her checklists.
Bastien approached and Rowan glanced at his staff badge. She had been a few places where a “Bastian” had slipped her notice.
“Is it true?” he asked.
“I think so. I’m almost sure of it.” She tossed him a blister pack that contained 12 identical pills, gel capsules filled with alarmingly pink fluid. “Where I was, this stuff was preventative medicine, reduced new cases to almost nothing. And the goo in these ampules brought survival rates up to 99%.”
“You know what this means, right?” Bastien sat on the edge of her desk, the way Home Bastien would. “There’ll be interviews. Puff pieces. Books. We’ll probably all be out of a job, though. Think I can ghostwrite your autobiography?”
“I’m sure we’ll be fine.” Rowan glanced up at Bastien, who was leaning in and beaming. Did Bastien still have feelings for her? Did all Bastiens, or just this one? “There’ll always be another disaster. And more stuff to copy and steal.” Bastien sauntered away, saying drinks were on her, and that half of the department was in.
Rowan surveyed the office. Excitement had stalled her, blinded her, but now that she was calm she needed to really look. She eyed the cork board, looking for names and places; she checked the faces of coworkers, looking for aberrant birthmarks and facial hair. Would a male colleague suddenly be a woman, would a brunette be a blonde? She checked every detail she could remember, of which there were many, and the ones she didn’t recall she compared against photographs or her notes.
Her phone vibrated: Barney. She had texted right after her arrival in-universe, but hadn’t been able to call him.
“Hey,” he muttered.
“That’s it?” she half-teased.
He sighed. “What’s new, Buttercup?”
“I’m sorry I was gone so long. I know it’s bad.”
“You’re alive.” He swallowed thickly. “You’re okay?” She nodded to the camera. “Then it’s fine.” As fine as three months could be.
“No promises, but it might have been worth it. I’ve got something big.” Big enough? She explained the pills, the weeks of jumping between near-identical Earths, how Barney’s dad had fallen ill in every one as she approached home. “Still lots of testing to do. But it’s looking pretty hopeful.”
He laughed a joyous laugh, and Rowan tightened. Her Barney did not recuperate quickly—his moods came in season lengths.
“I’m just so happy you’re safe,” he said “I can’t believe you’re done. We have to go out to celebrate!”
“Baby, it’s never done.” She read Barney’s expression, which he tried to hold placid. “But we should definitely celebrate. Bastien’s organizing something. Can you come?”
“Of course.” She heard the strain, and knew Barney hated coming off as jealous. He would probably be exceedingly friendly all night long. “I was going to cook, but I forgot to go get groceries and there’s nothing at the house.” That part was classic Barney.
Rowan relaxed, slightly. “6:00. The Horseshoe.”
“I’ll be there. I love you.” Barney smiled.
She stared at the screen before replying, looking at what could be her Barney. She scrutinized the freckle next to his nose, the big one among the others, that she had called his Polaris on their first date. The red of his hair, the little scar on his cheek from when he had first learned to shave. The width of his shoulders, the kind of tie he wore. They certainly seemed right.
“I love you, too.”
Rowan arrived at the Horseshoe deliberately early. Her adrenaline had long worn off—she was all business.
The bar was dark as she remembered, with mismatched leather seats held together with thick strips of gaffer tape. Rowan ordered a Corkscrew Ale, interrogating the bartender about the new prices. She ran the beer over her tongue and tried to recall how it should taste.
Bastien soon arrived, as did the others from work. They were each still adorned with their ID badges, and Rowan performed rapid spell checks.
“Sorry we’re late,” Bastien said “Tried to convince Angela to join us.” Rowan glanced at the crowd. If Angela had attended, it would have been another point stacked against this place.
They found a table in the back of the bar and drank, though Rowan less than the others. She nursed each pint until it was flat and warm, terrified that too much would dull her senses. An empire of half-full glasses rose before her.
An hour later, Barney appeared with flowers, different from the kind he usually brought her. He too was still dressed from work, and when Rowan hugged him, she surreptitiously verified his size on the t-shirt tag.
“Sorry for the greeting on the phone earlier.” She tried to measure the embrace, decode it. “It’s good to have you back.”
They sat around the table, the agents firing off stories embellished to the point of near-fantasy, probably for Barney’s benefit. Rowan watched their ease with alien incomprehension, and she realized after a while that she had to force herself to blink and smile. Would they be suspicious of her? Or maybe they were growing accustomed to her brooding. Or maybe another Rowan, their Rowan, had always been this withdrawn—
“Hey, Rowan. They have Mill Street in this miracle universe you found?” Bastien asked. Rowan snapped out of her reverie, glanced at the undrunk drink in her hand, and shook her head no. Bastian laughed. “Doesn’t sound like such a good universe to me!”
A local band started to play, and Bastien led the group onto the dance floor in front of the stage. It was probably exactly how people in their early 30s would dance in this dingy place, lazy-hipped semicircles, feet locked to the ground. Rowan carefully arranged her work backpack atop the loose mound of coats and purses.
“Let’s dance, Buttercup,” Barney whispered in her ear, and she jumped. His eyes caught the stage lights, glinting.
They moved out before the stage just as the band struck up a slower song. The dreary guitar chugged a dirge through the bar’s aging and crackly speakers, and Rowan wondered what a new pair of ears would cost her. Barney wrapped his arms around her waist, inside her coat. He laughed that she still had it on. She said she wasn’t hot, and they started to turn in a slow, lazy circle.
“Welcome home,” he said quietly, just audible over the music.
Rowan sighed. It felt about right.
She hoped Barney couldn’t feel the device in her coat pocket, which was powered up and ready. Just in case.
Michael Milne is a writer and teacher who has lived in Canada, Korea, and China and is now going to live in Switzerland. Being from nowhere anymore really helps in writing science fiction. You can follow him on twitter @ironcardigan.