A brief selection from Chapter 1
He was just sitting on a park bench tossing a few crumbs of something to the birds. I was eating a half a sandwich and watching a blue balloon drifting in the late summer afternoon. Distantly, faintly, I heard some child cry out about something and failed to connect the cry with the errant scrap of rubber and helium.
“Somewhere in the universe” a mellow and slightly hoarse-sounding voice intoned gravely, “there is a world that has precisely our motion through space, our distance from a sun quite like our own, and it is spinning through its night just as we spin through our day.” I looked slightly to one side, saw a little more of his long, somewhat moth-eaten brown all-weather coat.
“Probably” was the only answer I had. “Big universe, could be anything out there.”
“Surely there is. Surely.” He was silent for a bit, then idly scratched and dug at his left wrist with his right thumb. I hoped for silence. He sighed lightly. “But most things have no bearing on it of course. It is only those that are precisely as we are, those are the bridges and templates.”
Templates? I lost the tiny thread of whatever thought was in my head. This loon was odd enough that I considered running for a moment. Well, walking rapidly at least. “Templates you say.” I knew better than to speak. I really shouldn’t lead people on or fall into their fantasies. “In what sense?”
I looked in his direction. His watery eyes drifted slightly behind round lensed wire frame glasses. “Oh, general of course. It’s all about compartmentalization. In an unlimited universe there are only so many possible configurations.” He tossed a few more crumbs. The birds seemed to cluster right under his feet. “Therefore, duplication will happen. Just so many planets, just so many stars.”
I thought about it. Well, possibly. But the universe is really, really huge. I have no idea how huge. Just pretty darn huge. “Well, aren’t there literally millions of sizes of planets? And millions of sizes of stars? And what would the odds be… of two being just the same?”
He seemed to smile faintly. “Oh, odds, well. Nothing to do with it really. I mean, if there were a limited size to things and then you would say that odds were the answer. But if there is an unlimited size to things then there are no odds at all. It is dictated that all things that are, will be. All things will be and be. Copies will happen and that is because in an infinite universe, there cannot be any unique thing.”
That sounded outrageous. Impossible! “I can’t see how that can be. I mean, in an infinite universe, one of everything should be enough. But I thought the universe was finite. Something I heard on TV or something. A hundred billion light years across or something.”
“True. So how big does a universe have to be?” He nodded as if that were a sage statement. Then he rummaged through a couple of pockets and pulled out a small wooden tray that had compartments on it. Odd thing to have in a pocket, I thought. He blew on it and a bit of gray lint twirled softly away into the light breeze.
Admittedly I was hooked. He probably wasn’t a serial killer or a mugger. He seemed relaxed and comfortable feeding birds and chatting about the size of the universe. I was thinking about getting back to business and not sitting on a bench all day. But a few more minutes wouldn’t hurt.
I looked at the wooden tray. It was only a few centimeters square and had about twenty five little boxes on its surface. It was like a little jewelry tray or something of that sort. A centimeter thick perhaps, well made. It had a dark finish and looked hand crafted. “Hold this please.” I took it automatically.
He dug some more and found a small leather pouch with a drawstring. “Ah, here we are.” He opened it and poured a few small beads into his hand. “Now, let us say that we have three different types of object to deal with. These are red, blue, and silver. In each compartment we can place only three objects. How many ways can we fill the compartments before we have duplication?”
I thought about it. “Well, we could have an empty compartment, so that’s one. Then we could have one of each bead in each compartment, that’s three more.” He nimbly sorted out three beads and dropped one of each into three compartments. “Now we could also have a red and a silver, a red and a blue, and a blue and a silver. That’s three more for seven. And one could have all three.” He obediently placed the beads in other compartments.
He said quietly “Eight different ways. Any more?”
“Oh. Of course.” I saw that you could have duplicated beads and so I went through the two-bead combinations. That made three more. Then I went through the other three-bead combinations. That added nine more. “Twenty I think.”
“Yes, quite good. Now, no matter what you do, the next cell you fill must be a duplicate. There is no way to make that cell have a new and unique combination of beads. True?”
I went through each pattern quickly and saw no flaw in the logic. “True. This little universe can only have twenty unique cells. After that you have copies of previous cells.” He smiled now.
“Yes. That is the point. No matter how large the universe is, at some point you are going to get duplicates.” He carefully lifted the little tray from my hand and poured the beads into his drawstring bag. The tray and the bag disappeared into his pockets.
“Okay, very informative. You have a valid point. But three beads in a tray and billions of atoms are completely different. You can have all sorts of combinations of atoms and they can be very different from each other.” I felt a sort of rightness to this argument.
He laughed lightly. “Yes, yes. But ask yourself just how different they can really be. Suppose I had two identical spheres of iron, like two cannonballs. They are precisely manufactured to be the same, polished and weighed and balanced. In the end they are so identical that you cannot tell them apart. Does it matter that one will have a few more aluminum atoms or copper atoms than the other? Close enough counts.”
I gave it some thought. He went on. “You have two tuning forks. You tap one and the other rings in harmony. How close to identical must they be for this to happen? Not too terribly, I should think. The resonance is the key you know.” He tossed a few more crumbs or bits. The birds gobbled them quickly. I wondered.
“So you’re saying that close enough counts. We aren’t talking about two worlds with the same people and the same names, but one has a cigarette burn on a coffee table and the other doesn’t.”
“Oh, no. Far too improbable. Just close enough. Same mass within a fraction of a percent, same sun within a fraction of a percent, just happens to be in the same place in the orbit right now. That sort of thing.” He leaned back a bit and seemed to stretch slightly. “There are something like six times ten to the twenty fourth stars if I am not mistaken, so we only need to be close enough. There are maybe a dozen or so worlds that are close enough. Would that be enough for you?”
What a strange question. “I suppose it would. And I can see your logic. There probably are a dozen Earths floating around out there.” I looked away at the park entrance, saw a passing city bus. It was getting late. I didn’t even know his name.
I turned back to ask him. The bench was empty. The birds were still there, picking over tiny bits that were scattered on the dirty concrete pad. Time for me to go.
* * *
I sat at the desk and idly twiddled my pencil. General business noises floated around me, one fluorescent was buzzing fitfully and faintly. I looked up at it and spotted the little orange tag that said “saving energy”. One lamp was missing and so the other had a hard time working properly. Was there really a savings there? Or did a lamp burn out and somebody forget to order them?
Beads and pockets. Odd thoughts floated through my head but when I aimed my attention at them they would scatter like leaves and I had no idea what exactly I was thinking so industriously a moment before. Like a stranger looking inside somebody else’s window at the goings-on inside and not understanding what was happening, but this was in my own skull. There are no windows in this office.
There, that had nothing to do with anything. It was futile; I could not focus on a single coherent thought. Madness. I thought of sage sounding old men in tattered brown longcoats feeding pigeons and finches and then, strangely, vanishing without disturbing the birds. That was madness in spades.
Maybe I had imagined it all. There was no watery-eyed fellow with thick, round glasses, just my feeble mind making something out of nothing. But the birds had been eating something. No name, no sound. That softly burring voice spelling out sureties of cosmology with no more than beads and logic. He was right, of course. There had to be all manner of things in the dark, and the universe, so large as it is, would only allow so many ways to make something like a world.
Or a sun or a solar system. Twenty combinations of beads. Maybe twenty trillion solar systems. No, many more. Twenty quadrillion. Twenty… something I had no name for. An unimaginably huge number. And some, some of them absolutely had to be so Earthlike, so identical, that some sort of resonance was present. Was that what he had said?
What would it be? How would we know? Madness. The pencil, tired of being twirled, scuttled under the desk with a clattering noise. “Mike, done with that form yet?”
I nearly jumped. “Uh, yeah, a minute more. You have the roster for tomorrow?”
The sandy yellow haired fellow with the slight gap in his teeth (all of them) dug into a small clutch of papers and produced a bad copy. What in the world, doesn’t everyone have a printer? Why do people even use copiers any more? He had a sharky sort of look, a little too built up and flabby at once, eyes that seemed to look in too many directions at the same time. He handed the paper to me and it seemed to need to be peeled from his fingertips.
“Thanks.” I rolled my chair back, snagging the bum wheel on the flat carpeting. Time to retrieve the pencil. “I’ll send this form your way in a few.”
“Yeah, need it. Thanks.” He was gone in a whirl of barely smelled bad aftershave. I found a couple of paperclips on the floor under the desk and started fishing with my fingertips. That felt like it, yes. I stuffed the pencil in my pocket and rolled forward slightly, unwilling to immerse in the insipid glow of the screen. Beads and madness. I typed rapidly for maybe thirty seconds and clicked the “okay” button.
I was way behind, guilty-feeling behind in the work. This day felt like a wash and so did I. No compass, no direction, head feeling like wool and distraction. I could walk in front of a bus and not know what was happening. I resonated with nothing. No, that wasn’t right. I was like a rock in the sun, or a piece of wood on a beach. Content to be nothing. Even analyzing it made me feel like I had invested too much energy.
I halfway tried to get a few more forms done. Something caught more by instinct than anything else and soon I was in a wonderful nothingness of automatic work and unaware of the passing minutes. My mind was swaddled in pattern and completion and I felt like I was getting something done when the red and silver beads came back to my mind.
It was nearly the end of the day, time to open the center desk drawer and sweep everything into it, leaving the desk clean and orderly. Riffle and collate the papers in the in box, same for the out. Logging off, shutting down, hearing the slight rise in chatter from cubicle to cubicle. I wondered if I should walk through the park on the way out. Just curious.
* * *
I walked slowly in that cottony distracted feeling. The office was just three stories at the edge of town, near the park. There was a sandwich shop and a coffee shop below, a clothing store on the left, nothing really outstanding. I wondered idly how anyone makes any money running a shop in the area.
I smelled pastry and coffee, bus exhaust and a little perfume. What would another world be like? Other places had to have jobs. There would be farming and history and music lessons. Fried stuff to eat. Gambling and poverty probably. It would be very much like this maybe, so much so that if you stepped into it you might walk a while before the strangeness hit you.
When the two worlds match up, resonate, you might be walking down a street and make a strange turn that leads somewhere different. It might be that you are taking a slightly different route than the one you know so you wouldn’t catch on at first. Things were strange on this route because you had never walked it before. Then when you came to your senses it might be that you couldn’t quite retrace your steps or it would be like one of those funhouses where the walls move and you can’t go back the way you came.
The thought gave me a chill. I thought of people who wander off in the foggy night and were never heard from again. Maybe they were over there down a road that can’t be followed. Worlds that match up were both attractive and faintly scary all at once. What if more than one matched at the same time? Chaos, you could be lost in some weird place forever, and you would have to wait for another world to line up.
That was the thought that clicked into place. If worlds can align, they can also fall out of alignment. You might be stuck forever looking for the next alignment, trying to get back to something a little less alien, maybe stuck elsewhere and never quite… what?
How often do worlds line up? How would I know? Surely if there were anything to this, there had to be a way to see when worlds were coming together or were in place, wasn’t there?
I slowly rose from this thought into reality and realized I was standing at the park entrance. Just standing. I definitely needed to get home, not a long walk from here. The advantage of a small town was that you were never far from anything. I turned with some reluctance from the gluey attraction of the park and willed myself to walk, careful step at a time toward the small apartment that I rented just five blocks from here.
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