Out of Register

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    114

    by Thomas A. Easton

    The Cruze was still in the Logan airport parking garage. No broken windows. Nothing missing. So some things were still going right. Binjar Aridan smiled. He had talked to his girlfriend, Laurien, just the night before. She had been sympathetic, loving, promising. He would be happy to get home.

    He parked beside her Prius in front of the duplex they rented in Marlborough. As he got out of the car, he noticed the smell of roses from next door, rising into the warm Sunday afternoon. Sunday paper on the steps. Then he saw an envelope taped to their front door.

    It had his name on it. Inside was a note: “Binjar! All your things are at Ames Self-Store. Unit 417.”

    What the…? His shoulders slumped. He dropped his bag. He didn’t believe it!

    But…

    He looked at the note again. It was Laurien’s handwriting.

    He tried his key in the door. It refused to turn. She’d changed the lock?

    He knocked. No answer.

    He looked around. No one there.

    He looked at the May sky. Clear and blue but no one there either. At that thought, he almost laughed. It was that or start crying. Or screaming.

    Just a few days before, life had seemed so wonderful. They were planning to visit a jewelry store when he got back.

    # # #

    Franz Menahem felt sorry for Binjar. They had gone to grad school together. Gotten their degrees. Done their post-docs in the same lab. Then Franz had gone to NASA to work with space telescopes. Binjar had landed in a small college, managing a bit of research when he could find the time in his teaching schedule. Now they only saw each other at conferences.

    Binjar was so happy when they met at registration. “I’ve got something,” he said. “Not huge, but interesting. A bit of a puzzle.”

    “Tell me!”

    He laughed. “Tomorrow! That’s when I give my talk.”

    But “tomorrow” had been disappointing.

    Binjar had something interesting all right. He had been comparing high-resolution images of distant galaxies taken in different frequencies of light, and he had noticed that the images did not always align the way they should, as if the different frequencies of light represented different objects or traveled at different speeds.

    But his fellow cosmologists had just laughed. The most scathing criticism had come from Karen Marriott, his post-doc mentor. She had held up a copy of the conference program and pointed at a blurry color picture. “Bad registration,” she had said. “Line things up properly, and it will go away.”

    In the bar afterwards, Binjar said, “I checked that. Very carefully. I did. It’s only deep-field objects. Near-field, no effect.”

    “It does sound strange,” Franz said.

    “She killed any chance that anyone will take me seriously. Ever.”

    Franz nodded. “Want another beer?”

    “Aridan? The fuzzy picture guy? Oh, ha-ha-ha. Sure. Why not?”

    “Where’d you get the data?”

    “You. Or your sats. Beautiful stuff.”

    “I can take a look when I get home tonight. If two of us see it…”

    Binjar shook his head. “I should have stayed home. Waited for more data. Come up with a theory, not just an observational puzzle.” He paused as the new beers arrived. “But it’s too late now.”

    “You just need more data. And a theory. Patience. Remember Wegener and continental drift.”

    “He needed decades!”

    # # #

    Ames Self-Store was just a few blocks away. Binjar passed it every day on the way to the college. Rows of long low buildings divided into bays with dusty green garage doors. Gravel-paved alleys wide enough to drive a small truck right up to the units.

    Unit 417 was in the back. On the roof of the next building over, three men were banging on something. There was an odor of shit in the warming air. Something sticky-sweet as well.

    The door was not locked. In fact, it was not even completely closed. There was a small gap between the bottom of the door and the concrete sill.  When he bent to grab the handle, the smell of shit and…whatever…grew stronger.

    The first thing that caught his eye as he pulled the door upward was two boxes of books spilled on the concrete floor. Some of them splayed in a red puddle. As the door rose, above the puddle… Binjar froze, stunned.

    Laurien. Hanging from the wire mesh top of the unit. Hands above her head, a rope around her wrists. Her hospital scrubs shredded. No shoes. Blood still dripping from her toes.

    What the fuck was going on? She was looking forward to him coming home, then she tossed his stuff – though all he could see was the two boxes – then she was dead. It didn’t make any sense at all! His mind felt paralyzed, but his hands knew what to do. They already had his phone out. 911, of course.

    He gasped out, “Ames Storage. A body. My fiancée!” The banging outside stopped.

    “We’re on the way. Don’t leave.”

    Sure. He was too stunned to move. Or so he thought.

    One of the books on the floor jumped. Something by Charles Stross. There was a popping sound. He spun and saw the three men on the opposite roof now standing, pointing dark objects at him.

    He’d seen enough movies. They’re shooting at me! he thought.

    A voice was shouting at him from the phone, but he wasn’t listening. The car was two steps away, its door still open, the engine idling. He dove for it, even as the windshield spiderwebbed.

    He ducked low as he grabbed the with one hand and stabbed his other hand onto the gas. He couldn’t see them. Could they see him? Glass spattered from the windshield. Something hit the roof. He sat up so he could see the alley and grab the wheel. There were two holes in the rear window. A third one joined them.

    He could hear sirens. The rear wheels skidded as he made the turn. Just as he straightened out, he heard a voice screaming “STOP! LET ME IN!”

    He stomped on the gas, the road out just ahead, but when a woman dashed from the last alley he had to swerve and brake. Jeans, blue shirt, dark hair. Familiar! But…

    She yanked the passenger door open and jumped in.

    “Laurien?!”

    “Get out of here! Now!”

    # # #

    “I’ll take Joe to school.”

    “Thanks, Hun.” Jodie Menahem gave Franz a quick peck and dashed out the door. She had a meeting with her postdocs at George Washington University across the river. They were writing a symphony based on her work on music theory and abstract algebras.

    “Finish your cereal, guy.”

    Their son looked up from his tablet briefly and made a face.

    “Now. We gotta run. Monday morning rush.”

    Sigh. Tablet down. Spoon up. Franz grinned at his son. Deep brown eyes, black hair, expressive mouth. Much like his mother, his grandmother. Franz had black hair too, but his eyes were hazel, his lips thin and often tight with concentration.

    Fortunately the elementary school was not far off his route to NASA’s Langley Research Center.  He thought, as he often did, that he should be in Pasadena instead, with the rest of the cosmologists. But Jodie had a solid position at GWU, and, really, he just needed access to the supercomputers and the orbiting scopes. He could have that anywhere.

    He dropped Joe off, lingered long enough to see him safely into the building, and headed for his office. He’d been gone long enough. There’d be email. A couple of papers to work on. Scheduling for the Multi-Spectrum Survey sat.

    That was the one Binjar had used. Not the sat itself, but the archived data. He wondered what he’d see…

    He found time for a quick look in mid-morning. Figured if the effect showed in the older data Binjar had been able to use, it should be there in the latest too. Three days old, same part of the sky. Same frequencies, and damn, the images really didn’t quite align. Two more frequencies, same story. Deep-field objects were mostly galaxies far, far away. Near-field objects were some galaxies, more stars. The galaxies showed the same effect. The stars, no. Well, maybe a hint of fuzziness when he overlaid the images.

    Something real, then. He saved his data, backed it up to the Pasadena servers. But what was it? Something about galaxies.

    He scratched his left ear. Of course!

    That was when the lights went out.

    A moment later, the emergency lighting flickered on. The computer screen remained dark. He reached for the desk phone.

    “That won’t help.”

    He spun his chair toward the door. A tall man filled it, short-cut hair, dark skin, black suit, blindingly white shirt. “They sent me over when they realized what you were doing.” Wide smile. Teeth as white as his shirt. “Didn’t have far to go.”

    Of course. Langley, after all.

    “What’s the problem?”

    “Just. Don’t.”

    “Why?” He couldn’t help himself.

    “You don’t have the clearance.”

    “This is NASA, not…” A gesture. “And I run the MSS.”

    “Not if you refuse to cooperate.”

    Franz just blinked at the other man. If he could make that happen, this went a lot higher than Langley.

    # # #

    Sarah Moniz poked her purple-streaked head in the office door. “I’m early!”

    “So I see,” said Jodie Menahem. “Have you guys been practicing?

    Sarah nodded. “It’s weird stuff, though. Not so much when we play it alone, but…”

    That it was. Group theory had demanded it. The new circuitry for the synthesizer made it so. It had taken two years for her grad students and post-docs to figure out how to use it, score it, play it. And it was a very different sort of music. Weird, indeed. The fall performance would be either a total disaster or a raging success. All or nothing.

    The paper was almost done. With luck, it would make her. Even if it wasn’t a cure for cancer, an immortality elixir, a better computer chip, or something else world-saving.

    Sarah had a technical question. A moment later, so did Mikel. Then Bixby. She could hear the others in the studio, tuning, warming up.

    They were almost done with the first run-through when Franz appeared in the doorway. She didn’t recognize his shirt, though, and he had ditched his tie.  “Something wrong? Not Joe…?”

    He shook his head. “He’s at school. But we’ll have to get him.”

    “What do you mean? I can’t leave!”

    “You have to. The FBI called. It seems someone is hunting cosmologists and astronomers. Music theorists, no, but I’m on their list.”

    “And we have to go into hiding because of some crazy fatwah?” Her face was eloquent with outrage.

    “If they killed you, it would stop me just as cold as killing me.”

    “I suppose so.” Suddenly she smiled. “I hope so! But what do I tell the kids? Or the chair?”

    “‘Family emergency’ should do.”

    # # #

    “But!” Binjar could only stare at the woman who had just plunged into the car. “I saw you…”

    “I know, Bin.” She grinned, wide-mouthed, teeth showing. He noticed familiar perfume.

    “I’m not her, not really.” She twisted to look over her shoulder. “But let’s get out of here. Fast!”

    Obediently, his foot leaned on the gas. The car leaped forward again, not even hesitating at the stop sign, just as a grey Ford pickup charged from a driveway across the street.

    “Faster!”

    He had no idea how he did it, but seconds later he was ahead of the pickup and the distance between them was increasing. He glanced at Laurien. She still wore her manic grin.

    “What the heck is going on?”

    “Confusing, isn’t it? Turn left here.”

    “Where are we going?”

    “Someplace safe. I hope.” She pulled two crumpled wads of cloth out of her pocket and pulled one over her head. She held the other out to him. “Surveillance cameras.”

    He tugged it on one-handed. “You look just like her!”

    “I’m not your Laurien. It’s a long story.”

    It had to be. “Then start now.”

    She shook her head and pointed. “Next right, and then that parking garage.”

    # # #

    Franz was still watching the CIA agent when a shadowy figure stepped into the doorway behind him.

    He had never been very good at poker. When Franz’ eyes widened, the agent stabbed a hand under his jacket and began to turn.

    He didn’t get very far. The stranger raised an arm and brought it down, hard, on the agent’s head. Something shattered, and pieces tinkled on the floor even before the agent’s knees folded.

    Pieces. Tinkled. Glass. Broken spirals of green and yellow. The vase in the other room.

    When Franz looked up, he thought he was staring into a mirror. Only the shirt was different. Small black checks, no tie. His own was light blue, a tie, though at the moment he could not remember the color.

    “Confused yet?” asked the other, nodding. “Yeah, I’m you. Sort of.”

    “But…?”

    “Never mind. We have to get out of here.” He gestured. Then he poked the agent with a toe. “By the way, he’s not local. Neither am I.”

    Not local? Yeah, Franz decided, he was confused. “What’s going on? What did Binjar stumble on?”

    “Trouble.” The other Franz – Franz-with-checks – shook his head. “Clues to something someone doesn’t want noticed. But come on. We have to get out of here. And he needs our help.” He reached toward Franz. “Jodie’s already in the car. We have to get Joe. We can just say ‘family emergency.'”

    Franz got to his feet, ready to go. Franz-with-checks sounded so sure of himself. “How did you get Jodie away from the U? She had a meeting.”

    “Told her we had to go undercover, hide out at a safe house. Had a call from the FBI about terrorists going after us. It’s not true, but it’s close enough.”

    “What?” Why the hell would… And why the hell would Jodie believe such bullshit? She must think he had gone nuts. Must be lining up an appointment with a shrink right now.

    “She thought I was you, of course. Wait till she sees two of us.”

    “And where do we go once we have Joe?”

    “Pittsburgh. Near enough, anyway.”

    “But Binjar’s outside Boston.”

    “He should be on the way there too.”

    # # #

    “Just call me Laurie.” They were in a Transit Connect van, heading west on the Massachusetts Pike. Before they left the parking garage, she had applied two decals that said “Galactic Courier.”

    “Where are we going?”

    “We have a place in Wilkinsburg, not far from Carnegie Mellon University.”

    “That’s Pittsburgh!”

    “Yeah, long drive. I’m hoping it will throw them off the track.” Her voice was thoughtful.

    “You’re not sure.” He hesitated before adding, “You mentioned surveillance cameras.”

    She nodded. “They’re all over the place. Why we’ll take the decals off in a bit.”

    “No privacy anymore.”

    “So if they know what we’re driving, if they spotted us leaving. I’m pretty sure they can hack the cameras. I could.”

    Not his Laurien, then. She looked just like her, but Laurien was… had been… a surgeon. Smart, sure, awfully smart. But not a programmer.

    She glanced at him. “Yeah, I’m not her.”

    He knew that, and tears suddenly filled his eyes. He’d been running on sheer adrenaline and shock ever since… Now he was sitting still, and… He gasped, sobbed.

    Laurien was dead. Brutally murdered. But she was sitting beside him too. It was confusing. He wanted to… But he couldn’t. She was dead, and his heart just didn’t know it yet.

    “You going to miss any classes?”

    “Term’s over.” He was absurdly grateful for the change of topic. “Just department meetings till August.” Not that the change lasted very long. He sniffled and choked out, “What is going on?”

    She took a deep breath. “Okay. Think secret agents. One group wants to keep anyone from taking what you noticed seriously. They want to shut you up. Kill you and anyone you might’ve talked to.”

    He almost laughed. “Laurie…” There, he’d managed to say her name. “They haven’t read enough thrillers. People notice when the entire audience for a scientific paper dies.”

    “They may be safe. They weren’t taking you seriously.”

    “Thanks to Dr. Marriott.”

    “An idiot.” The venom in her voice surprised him. It reminded him intensely of Laurien, his Laurien. She would have reacted in just that way, if he had ever had a chance to tell her what had happened. This Laurien – Laurie – seemed to know it all. He choked again.

    She patted his knee. “The other group – my gang – wants to keep you alive.”

    “But why?”

    “I can’t tell you yet.”

    “And why kill Laurien?”

    “They probably figured you had talked to her. Wanted to find out how much you knew.”

    “They could just have attended the talk!”

    “They probably did.”

    They got off I-84 near the Pennsylvania line and found a motel. Red tile roof, a small pool with no one in it. One room, two beds, a CVS nearby so he could get a toothbrush and a razor if he needed them. But he still had his suitcase. Never had a chance to take it indoors, and been running ever since. Laurie had a kit. Small restaurant next door.

    That would do.

    # # #

    Jodie indeed jumped when she saw two Franzes. “You never told me you had a twin.”

    “Not a twin,” said Franz-with-checks. “Call me a doppleganger.”

    Jodie looked both thoughtful and alarmed. Dopplegangers were conspiracy theory stuff, bad movie stuff. They went with secret government labs, time travel, alternate worlds. Sci-fi craziness.

    “He’s not from around here,” said Franz. “He says.”

    “Then he has some explaining to do.”

    “Later, h tells me.”

    At the school, Franz went in to fetch Joe. Franz-with-checks got behind the wheel. “I know the way.”

    Once in the car, Joe thought doppelgangers were fun.

    The Menahems were almost to Frederick, where they would leave I-270 for I-70, when the red Jimmy loomed up behind them and rammed their bumper.

    Jodie swore from the back seat. Franz-with-checks stepped on the gas and began to pull away. A hole appeared in the rear window. The glass spiderwebbed.

    Joe whooped. “Like a video game!”

    “I wish I had a gun,” said Jodie. She had been in the Navy.

    “Mom!”

    Franz rolled his eyes. “So what would you do, kid?”

    “Call in air support!”

    “There’s a ‘copter,” Jodie leaned forward to point up and to the right. “News4.”

    Not that a traffic copter could help much. But… Franz grabbed his phone. 911. “We’re on I-270. Someone’s shooting at traffic. We can see a News4 chopper.”

    The car jolted as the Jimmy hit them again.

    “It’s swinging this way.”

    “I see flashers!” said Joe.

    The Jimmy swung around them and accelerated. A moment later, three staties roared past.

    Franz sighed and twisted to look at his wife. She nodded. “Life was a lot simpler yesterday.”

    “We need to put Joe someplace safe.” But the grandparents were in Chicago.

    Franz-with-checks was shaking his head. “No such place.”

    “Then I’m staying right here!” Joe was shaking his head too.

    “Maybe we should just put a red shirt on him.” That got Franz a dirty look from Jodie.

    “They could try again,” said Franz-with-checks. “They probably will. And no one wants you hurt. Or kidnapped.”

    Silence. Joe’s expression grew serious. “I don’t want you guys hurt either.” Pause.

    “Let’s hope the bad guys heard that.” Franz looked at Franz-with-checks. “You are the good guys, right?”

    Franz-with-checks nodded. “We think so.” Then he turned the radio on. It soon revealed that the red Jimmy had escaped. “Think they’re looking for us now?”

    “Someone is.”

    “Yeah!” Joe was back to having entirely too much fun.

    Franz wasn’t. And he didn’t like still being in the dark, even though he understood that the other Franz couldn’t say much as long as Joe was there to listen.

    # # #

    The motel room had two beds. Binjar took the one closer to the door. He wasn’t sure why. He certainly wasn’t the heroic sort, ready to fight off attackers. The best he could do was run like crazy, just as he’d done already today. Once he was in bed, still dressed, he realized that if he wanted to run again, the other bed really made more sense. Jump out the window and be gone.

    He turned in that direction, saw Laurie’s eyes still open, watching him.

    Good thing she’d been there, he thought. Telling him what to do, where to go…

    And then the sun was blinking him awake.

    While they ate, he used his phone to check his college email. Or tried to. There was nothing. When he tried the browser, he got “site not found.”

    “Call the department,” said Laurie. She was using her own phone, looking concerned.

    He got the administrative assistant: “I’m so glad you called, Professor Aridan!”

    “Why?”

    “Someone broke into your office over the weekend. Papers all over the place. It’s a mess!”

    He closed his eyes. “I’ll clean it up when I get in. But I was trying to check my email.”

    “Oh, you can’t. The whole school is down. We got hacked!”

    All but the phones. Small school, still used landlines. “Any idea when…?”

    “They say it’ll be a couple of days.”

    Once they were back in the car, Laurie said, “They want to stop you.”

    Laurien dead. Him on the run. His files destroyed or stolen, he presumed. “They can’t,” he said, and he realized it was true. They would have to kill him. Of course, they had tried.

    She was glancing back and forth, from the road to his face, nodding as his expression firmed. He had – understandably! – been bewildered. Now he felt more determined.

    But not talkative. What did he know? What did it mean? As he’d told Franz, it was a puzzle. He should have waited to come up with a theory, but he hadn’t had a hint of one. He still didn’t.

    “Okay,” he said an hour later.

    “Just a couple more hours.”

    “No, I wasn’t going to ask you ‘Are we there yet?'”

    She grinned. Just the way Laurien used to when he was being silly. The tears rose to his eyes. He wiped them away with a finger and said, “Things are quiet now. So how about some explanation.” Why did Laurien die? Why did Laurie look just like her? Why were people shooting at him?

    She shook her head. “It’s all about what you saw, what you told the conference. You know enough to take the next step. Maybe even the one after that.”

    “You’re not helping.” Except perhaps she was. Without the mystery, without strangers trying to kill him, without fleeing at a dead run, he’d be obsessing about Laurien, lost in grief. More than he was, anyway.

    Another grin. “Maybe once you and Franz can put your heads together.”

    Huh? “How do you know about Franz?”

    “He’s your friend. And we just had to yank him out of trouble too.”

    # # #

    Wilkinsburg was the sort of town whose government had a “blight committee,” though the town itself showed no sign that its general air of dilapidation was being improved. The streets and sidewalks were cracked and pot-holed, vacant lots were overgrown, and too many small stores were empty. The houses in the area of Labelle Street seemed fairly well kept. Their destination – two stories, red brick, old-fashioned front porch – was neither the best nor the worst in the neighborhood. Franz guessed the idea was not to attract attention.

    Since the house did not have a driveway, they had to park on the street.

    The door opened as they approached. The man who stepped out looked just like the CIA agent Franz-with-checks had cold-cocked with the vase. This time he was wearing a faded black tee with the MIB logo in white.

    “Another doppleganger?”

    Franz-with-checks nodded. “One of ours. Call him Pete.”

    “Any luggage?” asked Pete.

    Joe shook his head. “I had to leave school.”

    “I caught the news. Quite an adventure, eh?”

    “Yeah!” Joe didn’t sound sad about it. He’d much rather be shot at than sit in a classroom.

    “Better than recess.” Jodie shook her head.

    When Pete gestured, they went in to find sparsely furnished rooms. The kitchen counter held an empty pizza box. When Pete opened the freezer, they could see where it had come from. “You guys hungry? We’ve got…”

    “Pepperoni!” said Joe.

    “You’ve got it.” He opened the fridge and passed Joe a Coke. Jodie frowned until Pete pointed at the beer and wine minis. She took a C. So did Franz.

    They were cleaning up when they heard a car outside. Franz-with-checks went to a window and said, “It’s Binjar.”

    # # #

    Laurie pointed at the Subaru by the curb. “They made it.”

    Binjar gulped when he saw the crazed glass of the rear window, the bulletholes in the fenders. “They want him dead too?”

    She didn’t answer. The door opened, and Franz – wearing a checked shirt – yelled “Get in here!”

    A moment later, Binjar was saying, “I didn’t know you were a twin, Franz.”

    “I’m not.” Franz gestured toward Franz-with-checks. “He says he’s not local.”

    Binjar looked at Laurie. “You too, then.” And something clicked.

    “Cops!” yelled Joe. He was pointing out the front window. He sounded thrilled. “They found us!”

    Two cars bracketing their own vehicles. Flashing lights. Two officers getting out, pad in one hand, other on their hip, next to their sidearm. The other two stayed behind.

    Neighbors were already coming out to watch. The town might be a bit down at the heels, but it seemed fairly quiet, peaceful. Franz thought they must share Joe’s sentiments.

    Pete opened the door before the officers could knock. “Can we help you?”

    One officer’s nametag said Kolnak. Beefy, balding, he wasn’t smiling. The other officer – Johnson – was younger, slender, dark-skinned. He didn’t look happy either.

    “We’re looking for the Menahems,” said Kolnak. He glanced at the screen of his tablet. “I can see them behind you.”

    “And…” said Johnson, pointing at his own screen.

    “Jesus! Okay, we’re coming in.” He started toward Pete, who did not move.

    “You need a warrant.”

    “Not for him, we don’t.” Johnson pointed again. “Binjar Aridan. Wanted in Massachusetts for questioning about the murder of his girlfriend.”

    Joe stared at Binjar, eyes wide. Pete stepped back, and they were in the house. Johnson was aiming his tablet at Laurie. “But you’re the girlfriend!”

    “Jesus!” said Kolnak again. He was looking at Franz. “Two of you? And a kid?”

    “And my wife, Jodie.”

    Kolnak shook his head. “Any idea why they were shooting at you?”

    “Not a bit.”

    “You’re dead!” said Johnson.

    Laurie laughed at him. “Not hardly.”

    “But…!”

    Binjar knew that as soon as Kolnak and Johnson got a grip on their confusion, they would be asking more serious questions. In an hour he and Laurie could be on their way back to Boston. The Franzes – and maybe Joe and Jodie – could be in custody. And there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.

    Popping sounds echoed outside the house. Someone screamed. Two belt radios crackled: “Under attack! Code 30!”

    They were still just inside the doorway. Kolnak spun around, drawing his gun. Pete pulled a shotgun from behind the door, and Johnson grabbed it.

    Bindar and Franz crowded the doorway behind them. A red pickup was nosed into the curb in front of one of the police cars. Its windows were shattered, and no one was visible inside. The other two officers were crouched behind Laurie’s van. The neighbors had disappeared. The town was not so peaceful that they didn’t know when to duck.

    Johnson took the lead, holding the shotgun on the pickup’s door. Kolnak passed him. When he could see over the edge of the window, he froze. Then he yelled, “Where the fuck did they go?”

    “Shit,” said Franz-with-checks. “They’ve gone for reinforcements. We have to get out of here.”

    Pete was already holding a large tablet, tapping icons. “Earth forty-two. Home we go.”

    # # #

    An empty field. Freshly plowed. Farmhouse, barn, silo in the distance. No sign of Wilkinsburg.

    “I knew it!” said Binjar. It barely seemed to matter that he had left his suitcase and tablet in the van. “Parallel worlds.”

    “Took you long enough,” said Laurie, grinning. “But you were distracted.”

    That was one word for it. He really hadn’t had time yet to process what had happened to Laurien. There had been time while Laurie drove, sure, but he hadn’t come out of the shock yet. He still hadn’t.

    Franz-with-checks and Pete were nodding. Franz looked chagrined. “I almost had it. We’ve been wondering about dark matter for years.” For the others he added, “Most of the universe’s mass. It’s invisible, interacting only via gravity. And it’s an old idea that it lurks in shadow universes. What Binjar found – maybe it’s not so invisible anymore.”

    “Cool!” said Joe. “Like the movies.”

    “Too much sci-fi,” said Jodie. “Are we safe here?”

    “For a bit,” said Laurie. “They’ll be hunting for us.”

    “I’ve called for pickup,” said Pete.

    There was a dirt track at the end of the field. Half an hour later, a small van bumped into view and stopped. The driver was not anyone they knew. Or whose double they knew.

    An hour later, they were in a new house, wood-framed instead of brick but with a similar old-fashioned porch facing an unpaved street and a ragged clump of red roses beside the steps. The neighboring houses were quiet. Joe was already in the kitchen, checking out the fridge and freezer. Jodie was sitting down before a small, dusty piano in the living room, her fingers evoking an oddly non-rhythmic but thoughtful melody. Not anything Binjar had ever heard before.

    Nor had Laurie and the other dopplegangers. “What’s that?” asked Franz-with-checks.

    “My research.”

    “Music and mathematics,” said Franz. “She applies group theory to music theory. Doesn’t your Jodie do that?”

    Franz-with-checks shook his head. “I’m single.”

    “So the worlds aren’t perfect parallels.”

    “Not at all.” He waved a hand toward the door. “We landed in a field, didn’t we?”

    Binjar looked at Laurie. “Do you have a Binjar?” He wasn’t sure why he asked. Laurien was gone. Laurie was a different person. But she looked the same, sounded the same…

    “No one.”

    Joe stuck his head into the room. “Can I go outside?”

    “No!” said his mother. “You know people are after us.”

    “But we’re in a different world now!”

    “They can still show up,” said Laurie.

    Over dinner – frozen pizza again – Jodie Menahem turned to Binjar. “Franz …” She pointed. “That one. He told me terrorists were hunting down cosmologists and astronomers. And we’ve been running ever since. But now we’re in a whole different world. That was bullshit.”

    Binjar nodded. “They killed Laurien.” He told her what had happened when he got home. “They shot at you.” Franz – the one without checks – looked aside. The other one just took another bite of pizza.

    “What is going on?”

    “I wish I knew.”

    “I should have just met you at the airport,” said Laurie. “But I was waiting near the house when they grabbed her. Then all I could think of was getting you away.”

    “So the note on the door.”

    She nodded. “And a couple of boxes of stuff from inside. The lock was easy to change. Then a quick call to Ames… I used the phone in the house. They must have tapped it, or they couldn’t have gotten her there.”

    “And one of him…” Franz indicated Pete. “Interrupted me when I was checking on Binjar’s work. And he…” Franz-with-checks. “Said he wasn’t local.”

    “And now we’ve disappeared.” Binjar looked at Laurie. “That must be like putting a big red flag on my paper. Important stuff! When we go home, people will want to talk to us.”

    “Then why are they still after you?” asked Jodie. “And us.”

    “Not too many people know about that paper. But maybe now I’d guess they’re after all of them.”

    Laurie nodded.

    “So who hacked the college and trashed my office?” As soon as he said the words, Binjar realized that the people who had killed Laurien would want to destroy all the copies of the paper, the files, notes, everything. And if the local cops or FBI or CIA had realized the paper was important, they would want copies. It could be anyone.

    Franz help up his phone. “It looked like Pete was using something like this to change worlds. There’s an app for that?”

    “Not quite,” said Laurie. “Though the control panel looks like it. It’s a transit control unit.”

    “Where’s yours? And Franz’s?”

    “In a storage locker.” Franz-with-checks nodded agreeably. “His too.”

    It was getting dark outside. They cleaned up and returned to the living room, where Jodie sat down again at the piano.

    A door slammed.

    Jodie looked around the room. “Where’s Joe?”

    “I bet he went out,” said Franz.

    “I told him to stay put!” And she was up, running for the kitchen and the back door. Before they could catch up, there was a screech.

    They found Joe half-conscious on the grass. Of his mother there was no sign.

    # # #

    When Jodie came to, she had a headache and her mouth tasted like a used sock. When she opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was two hands, holding a glass of water and what seemed to be a pair of aspirins.

    The first thing she said was, “Where’s my boy?”

    “He took a knock, but he should be fine. We wanted you. Here.” The water, the aspirins.

    “Bastard.” Sympathetic bastard, maybe, but still a bastard. Jodie looked around. She was sitting in an easy chair. Not tied down. A window was open for a cool breeze; it was dark outside. The hands belonged to a youngish fellow with a receding hairline and rimless glasses. He didn’t look very muscular, but then he didn’t have to be. He’d said “we.” She sighed, reached for the water and pills. “At least you don’t seem to want me dead, like Binjar’s Laurien.”

    “Who?”

    “That’s what started this, isn’t it? Binjar comes home from a conference and finds his fiancée dead. Then the bad guys are shooting at my husband and me.”

    He was shaking his head. “Not us.”

    “How many gangs of bad guys are there?”

    “At least three, I guess. The killers, the shooters, and… We don’t much like the guys that have your friends.”

    “They say they’re the good guys.”

    “They would. But so would we.”

    “And you’re all just trying to save the universe.”

    “We’re not that ambitious. Just the world.”

    “I thought I was kidding.”

    “I’m not.”

    She sighed. The headache wasn’t going away yet. “Then someone needs to do some explaining.”

    “They didn’t?”

    “We had gotten as far as shadow universes and dark matter.”

    “There’s more to it than that.”

    Of course there was.

    “And why do you want me, instead of Binjar?”

    “His paper? Dime a dozen. World after world, someone notices. And we try to step in in time.”

    “In time for what?”

    # # #

    “They found us so fast,” said Binjar. “They must be able to detect when people jump shadows. Where, too.”

    Pete held up his transit control unit and tapped a few icons. “Any time this is on, it detects and records. There’s a tracker app to show the results.”

    Joe was sitting on the couch beside his dad. Franz’s arm was hugging the boy tight to his side. “Where’s Mom?”

    “On this world somewhere.” Pete looked at his device. “No one jumped since we arrived.”

    “And not far away,” said Franz. “They got to us pretty fast.”

    “Is that why we had to drive to Pennsylvania?” asked Binjar.

    “I didn’t have mine with me,” said Laurie. “We don’t want them stolen. We’d be stranded.”

    “If that thing can see where people are jumping,” said Franz. “You should be able to see where their base is.”

    “Yeah,” said Pete. “We’ve thought of that. There are several locations they – and we – use.”

    “Where’s the closest? I’m betting that’s where my wife is.”

    Pete pulled up a fresh screen, a map of the eastern half of North America. There were at least six icons. “More in Europe and Asia,” he said. He pointed at one. “This house.” Then another, close to Lake Erie. “That one’s ours too.” A gesture magnified the screen.

    Franz pointed at the icon closest to the house. “How far?”

    “A few miles.” He cursed as tiny stars appeared around their own icon. Laurie looked at the screen and gasped. “They’re here! Jump!”

    “Damn! I’m not up. And they’ll just follow us.” Pete opened a closet and passed Laurie a shotgun. He passed the next to Binjar, then Franz-with-checks.

    Franz was shooing Joe into the next room. “Hide!”

    They could hear footsteps on the porch. The front door banged open. Pete turned toward the hallway.

    Binjar didn’t hear a single shot being fired before a sharp pain stabbed into his chest and he dropped his gun. He did hear someone shout, “Got him!”

    Were these the same guys who had been waiting on the roof of the storage unit? The thought faded as the room grew dark and he crumpled to the floor.

    # # #

    “Time to go, Adam.” The newcomer was a muscular woman, older than the fellow in rimless glasses.

    “Where to?” asked Jodie. She still had a headache from whatever they had used to knock her out. She didn’t feel much like running around, but she was feeling a little better.

    “Some place safer.”

    “Safe from what?”

    “Your crew was just attacked, and they’re not far away.”

    “Franz! Joe!”

    “The kid’s ok. But one of the men left on a stretcher.”

    Oh, God! Franz! “You’ve got to let me go! Take me back!”

    Both heads shook. “Not yet.”

    “We’ll try to find out more,” said Adam.

    They escorted her to a Hyundai – she didn’t recognize the model – one on either side, not giving her a chance to run. An hour later, they lead her from a parking garage into an elevator and then what seemed a hotel suite.

    “In the morning,” said Adam. “You’ll find some clothes in the closet.”

    She tried the door after they had gone. She was locked in. She checked the closet. Sweat shirts and sweat pants. Size large. It didn’t matter what size she wore.

    # # #

    Sure, video games were fun. Car chases, shooting, and if someone got hurt you could heal or revive or respawn. Real life was school and breakfast and playing with friends. Playing video games, too, of course. And for a little while, real life had been feeling a lot like a video game. Emergency! Drive fast! Bang-bang-bang! New scene!

    And now Binjar was on the floor, bleeding. His dad was grabbing for the gun he had dropped.

    Joe just wanted to hide. Someplace darker than the next room, from which he could see the blood and hear the shots. Someplace with thick walls and a big lock on the door. Someplace safe.

    His mother should be there too. But he didn’t know where she was, or when…IF!…she’d come back. He did know why she was gone. He hadn’t listened. He hadn’t obeyed. He’d gone outside where the bad guys were hiding and they’d knocked him down. And taken her away.

    He heard the thump when someone else landed on the floor. He couldn’t see who it was. He hoped it was one of the bad guys.

    The shooting stopped. Someone said, “They’re leaving.”

    “They left a couple behind.”

    “One’s alive.”

    “We have to get out of here.”

    “Bin’s alive!” Laurie’s voice.

    “Where’s Pete’s TCU?”

    “Not that. We need an ambulance.”

    “And Joe?”

    “I’m here.” He moved unsteadily into the room’s doorway. His dad rushed him, hugged him, held his face to his shoulder. “Don’t look.”

    Of course he looked. And shuddered.

    After the ambulance had left with Binjar and a police car had collected the prisoner, they all got back into their own van. “In the city this time,” said Franz-with-checks. “Near the hospital.”

    # # #

    Laurie, the Franzes, and Joe followed the police car.  “They have to take him to the hospital too,” said Laurie.

    “I want to be there,” said Franz-with-checks. “When he comes to. He has some questions to answer.”

    “You work with the police?” asked Franz.

    “It’s our world. Our shadow,” said Laurie. “So yes. When we can.”

    The police themselves were less sure. There was a guard in the hall outside the hospital room. Franz-with-checks had to show ID. A phone call had to be made. But soon enough a detective named Jabbour was letting them in. A bag of plasma was draining into the prisoner.  Jabbour pointed at Joe. “The kid… You sure?”

    “He’s seen everything so far,” said Franz. “And his mother’s missing. He stays with me.”

    Jabbour nodded. “He’s not awake yet.”

    “How bad’s he hurt?”

    “He lost some blood. Got knocked on the head.”

    “Faking,” said Franz-with-checks. “Look at his eyes.” The eyeballs were moving under the eyelids, which trembled and opened. “Go away. I don’t have to talk to you.”

    Franz-with-checks shook his head. “Why? You finally nailed Binjar, but why?”

    “I need to call in.”

    “Who? FBI? CIA?”

    The prisoner’s cheek twitched at the second acronym.

    “Agent Double-Oh-Crap, eh? License to kill. We don’t go along with that.”

    “Who the fuck are you?”

    “State.”

    “Diplomats.” The prisoner made the word sound like a curse.

    “What you guys are doing could start a war. They’ve got his paper, you’ve shown them it’s important, and the next step is easy enough.”

    “Meddlers.” The prisoner stared at Laurie. “If you hadn’t saved his ass, they wouldn’t have a clue.”

    Franz leaned closer, but Joe grabbed his hand. “Where’s my mother?” His tone was desperate.

    “No idea.” The prisoner stared at Franz. He did not seem to give a damn. “Not us.”

    Franz leaned back. He squeezed his son’s hand.

    # # #

    She was already dressed in the baggy sweats when Adam opened the door in the morning. He had coffee and a tray of Danish and a couple of egg-bacon-cheese croissants. There was no sign of his beefier sidekick.

    “Your husband’s okay,” was the first thing he said. “Aridan’s in the hospital, but he’ll apparently be all right.”

    Franz was safe. So was Joe. That was all that mattered, for now.

    “Then it’s time to talk. Where are we?”

    “Pittsburgh, of course. Our Earth is a lot like yours.”

    “Why’d you kidnap me?”

    Adam nodded agreeably. “A couple of reasons. One is leverage, though that’s only good with your husband. The other, well, we wanted to talk to one of you, explain the problem.”

    He took a breath while she sipped her coffee and asked, “Who are you?”

    “Homeland Security, and this time Homeland means all of Earth. I wasn’t kidding about that yesterday.”

    “Something about the parallel worlds…?”

    He nodded. “We don’t know how many there are. Some don’t even have people. Some have civilizations about like ours, and in every one of them someone eventually notices the sort of thing Aridan did and promptly discovers how to jump from one line to another. Some just explore. Some go looking for things to steal, including slaves.”

    Jodie shuddered at the thought. Sci-fi stuff, indeed.

    “That’s not the problem. We can deal with that. But every time someone jumps, the worlds…vibrate.” At her skeptical look, he added, “That’s what our researchers say. I’m not a mathematician.”

    “I am.”

    “I know. And you know about resonance.”

    “Why you should break step when carrying a full cup of coffee. Or soldiers break step on bridges.” She was beginning to see…

    “They say that if too many worlds can do this, there’s a possibility of that. And maybe the wall between two worlds breaks.”

    “So everyone can stroll back and forth between two worlds?” She didn’t see the problem.

    But he did. “Two Earths occupying the same space. There are some awfully big explosions out in space. Some we understand. Some we don’t, though we think that maybe…”

    “Oh, God!”

    “Yeah. And we’re not the only outfit trying to keep the technology from spreading.  NSA, CIA, in this country. Security agencies in France, Russia, China, England, Israel. And not just on this Earth.”

    She pursed her lips. He paused to let her think. “But you don’t get resonance without a rhythm.”

    “We know that, and we’re all scared to death that someone would think making a resonance would be a good idea. We’d love to be able to coordinate all the worlds to keep them out of step. We can talk to some, at least, but we don’t even know how many are out there.”

    “The odds improve if you have more worlds doing it. Law of Large Numbers.”

    “We know that too, and that’s why some agencies don’t want to stop people like Aridan. But we don’t know if the numbers are large enough.”

    # # #

    Binjar groaned. He did not want to open his eyes.

    “You waking up?” Laurien’s voice. Soft, gentle. But no. She was dead. Laurie.

    “I hurt.”

    “It’s no wonder. You’re going to have scars.”

    “Bullet.”

    “Two of them. And surgery, and lots of stitches.”

    “I should…” He gasped. He moved one hand and felt clean sheets. Hospital. “Shoulda been…accountant.”

    She laughed. “Then we’d never have met.”

    Laurien. Laurie. Creepy thought, really. They were not the same person. Something in him wanted to say they were, or close enough, that Laurien was not really dead, but he knew better, he did. And that something in him made him feel guilty, disloyal, maybe even a little crazy. “Not even…” A breath. It hurt. His chest was wrapped tightly, and he didn’t have enough painkiller to dull his pain, to dull his thoughts. “Two days ago.”

    “Four now.”

    Four? Two days unconscious? “It feels like I’ve known you longer than that.” Different Laurie. Laurien. He blinked as tears came to his eyes.

    Another laugh. “Me too.”

    “You’re just feeling sorry for me.” Natural enough, after all. Anybody would feel sorry for him.

    A rapping sound. He opened his eyes at last. Hospital room. Bag of fluids on a stand. Transparent tubing. Mysterious electronic displays. Closed door, opening. Franz. Looking more concerned than Franz-with-checks might have managed.

    “What happened?

    “Pete’s dead. And you’re in the shop.”

    “Joe?”

    “Decided this wasn’t so much fun after all. He’s in the waiting room with Pete’s replacement.”

    “Jodie?”

    Franz shook his head. “We visited that other place. No one there. And no word.”

    Franz-with-checks entered the room. “We did get a prisoner. He didn’t know anything about Jodie.”

    “Two groups,” said Franz. “He did say you were the target. And he was CIA.”

    “At least two.”

    “The one shooting at us makes three. Four if someone else has Jodie.”

    Binjar looked at Laurie.

    “State,” she said. “We have a different view of things.”

    A nurse came into the room, a hypodermic in one hand, and reached for the tubing dangling from the stand beside the bed. “Sleepy time.”

    Binjar ignored her. “CIA and State and…”

    “And there could be more,” said Laurie.

    # # #

    The next morning, Jodie dressed again in the baggy sweats. But when Adam unlocked her door, he had her own clothes with him, freshly laundered. She changed happily.

    Over breakfast, Adam said, “You need a change of clothes. So let’s go shopping.”

    “I’d rather go back.”

    Adam shook his head. “Not yet.”

    “Then… Yesterday you said you wanted to use me for leverage against my husband.”

    “It’s that Law of Large Numbers.” He sipped coffee. “You’ve got at least two groups trying to kill you. They believe in keeping the numbers small. Laurie and your husband’s double, they’re trying to keep you guys alive. They want larger numbers.”

    “And you?”

    “We want smaller numbers too. But we want to talk you into cooperating.”

    Jodie couldn’t help but laugh. She was a teacher, after all. “Does it ever work?”

    “Sometimes.” He smiled back at her.

    “Then you need something better.” And perhaps, she thought… She had a hint of something, but no more than that. “You said when worlds discover how to jump, they raid others.”

    “Some do.”

    “You could give the tech to the victims.” That was not what was niggling away at the back of her mind, but… “That would give you bigger numbers.”

    “It would. But it could also mean attack-counterattack. A rhythm. So we’re careful.”

    Shopping meant a nearby mall. Two changes. Another pair of shoes. A suitcase on wheels. Toiletries. All the things a woman without luggage had to buy. Men, too, for that matter, and she hoped that Franz was equipping himself. And remembering that Joe needed things as well.

    Lunch was a quiet affair. Adam was paying close attention to his phone. She was thinking: She would see Franz and Joe again. “Not yet,” Adam had said. But would they ever get home again? People wanted to kill them. The cops would surely want to ask questions about how they had disappeared from the house in Wilkinsburg.

    She was pulling the suitcase behind her. Adam was gesturing. “Another hotel.”

    “To keep me from being rescued?”

    “We’re keeping an eye on them. They’re worried about Aridan and you.”

    “Then…? The other groups?”

    He nodded. “We’re trying to educate you. Someone else might think you’d make good bait.”

    She shuddered at the thought. Franz was not the heroic type. An academic desk jockey. He got some exercise, but not enough. But he might try. And Binjar, if he was out of bed yet, might try too.

    Perhaps she wasn’t a very good wife. She should have more faith in Franz. She should believe he was a knight in shining armor, and of course he would prevail.

    But she was more practical than that.

    There was a scuffling noise behind them. Someone shouted. She started to turn to see, but Adam put a hand on her elbow. “Keep walking. Jasmine and her friends are taking care of it.”

    “I didn’t see them.”

    “Speaking of bait…” He grinned at her. “And now…”

    # # #

    When Binjar opened his eyes again, he felt better. The rack beside the bed, with its bag and tubing, was gone. The electronic monitors were still there.

    So was… “Laurien.”

    “Laurie. You know that.”

    He blinked. “I wish she wasn’t dead.”

    “I know.” She hesitated. “And I have some idea of what you’re thinking. I’m not her.”

    He nodded. There were differences. Out of register again.

    “Maybe I should dye my hair.”

    They both smiled. “I think… When this is over… I’ll still want to take you out to dinner.”

    “Maybe I’ll let you.” She touched his hand. “It’s not all just feeling sorry, you know.”

    A doctor stepped into the room. “You’re about as good as we can get you,” she said, glancing at her clipboard. “I have some prescriptions for you.” Laurie held out her hand for them. “We’ll check you one more time after lunch. And then you can go.”

    That afternoon, Laurie settled him into a recliner in the hotel suite the rest of the group had occupied. The Franzes were sitting at a table, staring at a pair of transit control units. Joe was sitting at a small piano whose only reason for being in the suite was to keep a lamp off the floor. He had been crying. Franz looked like he wished he could.

    Binjar thought he would have been in the same state – or worse – if he had not had to start running as soon as he had found Laurien’s body.

    “You look like we’re done running,” he said.

    “Waiting,” said Franz. “They’ve got Jodie. You’d think they’d tell us what they want.”

    “They know you’re waiting,” said Laurie. “For Binjar. And her. And while you’re waiting, you’re not telling anyone what you know.”

    “We’re in the wrong world for that.”

    “I just want Mom back,” said Joe. He banged a handful of keys on the piano. It badly needed tuning.

    Someone knocked on the suite’s door.

    Everyone looked, but Franz-with-checks was the one to get up. When the door opened, he said, “Adam!” but there was no chance for anyone to answer. Someone barged past him, shoving him aside.

    “Mom!”

    Jodie had an armful of son. Franz was beaming. “You’re back!”

    Binjar kept an eye on the doorway, where a man in rimless glasses held the handle of a rolling suitcase and Franz-with-checks blocked his path.

    “You know him, Franz?” asked Binjar.

    “Different agency. DHS.”

    “Dr. Aridan.” Adam nodded respectfully. “We needed to talk to one of you. Apparently all you knew was parallel, dark-matter worlds. Nothing about the risks.”

    “We’ve been a bit distracted,” said Laurie. “And you didn’t help.”

    Adam glared at her. “You could have finished the job. It’s simple enough. Whenever someone jumps from world to world, the shadows twitch. If a rhythm develops, the twitches may get big, the shadows collapse into one, and two or more Earths try to occupy the same space.”

    “And Boom!” said Jodie. “They think.”

    “So you want to prevent rhythm,” said Franz. He looked at Jodie. “Right up your alley.”

    “Yeah!” said Joe. He pointed at the piano. “Play your song, Mom.”

    And the last piece clicked into place.

    # # #

    The restaurant was in Framingham, not too far from the duplex Binjar had shared with Laurien. The funeral had been a week ago, and he felt that her family blamed him for her death. It didn’t help that he couldn’t explain anything at all; a very polite woman from the NSA had explained that everything about Laurien’s death was classified.

    He was still healing, but he was not so sore that he could not lift his glass of Malbec. Still mourning too, of course, and his face must have said something.

    Laurie lifted her own. “I’m not her.”

    “I know.”

    He nodded. He liked her. She echoed – very strongly – fond memories. And he thought she liked him. Or she wouldn’t be here now.

    She pushed a transit control unit toward him. A cell phone sat on top of it. “If you want to call me, you’ll have to pop across. The phone will work in my Earth. Number 42. Don’t forget. You can leave a message if I’m away.”

    He didn’t have to give her anything. She had her own unit, and as he had seen earlier, a phone that worked in this world.

    “Have they got the system running yet?” Transit control units programmed to jump automatically, away and back, away and back, over and over again. Hundreds of them, thousands, enough to meet the demands of the Law of Large Numbers. Timed by the intervals in Jodie’s non-rhythmic music. She had saved the world, and that too was classified.

    “Just barely,” said Laurie. “We’ve been talking to our counterparts on other Earths, getting them to stand down on efforts like…” He understood. “Getting them to set up similar systems.”

    “Things are going to change.” People were talking about setting up inter-world business deals and tourism and worrying about smuggling operations that used empty worlds to bypass borders. There would be problems, but at least no one had to worry about accidental resonances destroying worlds.

    “I think so.” She touched his hand. “Call me.”

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