This is an alternate reality, Phillippe reminded himself, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. He had to keep affirming this in his mind, or he could easily step on one of two related but opposite landmines: he could fail to take the dangers here seriously and thus perish at their hand, or he could become too invested in them and become trapped by the logic of this place. He had to be vigilant during his stay.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the province, Sam skulked along on the sidewalk as traffic zipped by at its usual frenetic clip. Sam and Phillippe were ostensibly here together, but rarely interacted in this timeline in order to avoid being taken for coconspirators. Which of course they were, but conspiracies are more effective when their members work autonomously. Still, it made her feel anxious and alone.
Since they had uncovered the portal, everything had felt this way for both of them. The growing wave of their budding romance had been put on the back burner as they first doubted what they had seen, then came to investigate its workings, and finally learned to manipulate its effects in order to try and set things right. It had been almost a year since they stumbled upon the phenomenon — far too long.
A year ago felt like an eternity, which was a cliché but really fit this particular situation. How far away from their world was this one, in both time and space? In some ways, this reality was a polar opposite, and yet in other more subtle patterns it was eerily familiar. Which one was actually “real” — both? neither? Their learning curve on temporal physics was steep, but they had come to some conclusions.
First, if these two realities existed there must be others as well. Second, if they could move between these two then they could also move to other ones. Third, if they could figure out how to do this then others must be able to do so. Fourth, if the realities were coexistent they must also be connected.
The evidence for all of these suppositions was thin, and yet nothing they had seen thus far contradicted any of it. Until further notice, then, they would operate on the basis that what they did here mattered for their own world, and that they were never beyond being exposed or captured in either timeline. The issue of other such realities existing was less urgent in the moment, but they kept this open as a Plan B.
Sam had some preexisting skills to navigate all of this, having almost completed her doctorate in astrophysics — jokingly telling her parents that she hoped someday to become an astro-physician, and that the market for space doctors would soon be booming. She had inadvertently triggered the effect while working on a research project for Dr. Dickinson, who was really just a figurehead at that point.
Phillippe brought a different sort of expertise to all of this. He was a courier by day, an artist by night, and an activist all the time. He was culturally savvy and terminally cynical about politics, economics, and societal mores. But he also knew how to get things done, from one-man wheatpasting campaigns (literally and digitally speaking), to clandestine operations and other forms of subtle systemic sabotage.
When they met it was like two trains colliding: the impact was massive and everything went off the rails. Phillippe had delivered a package to Sam’s lab, and when she took the pen from his hand to sign for it, there were instant sparks. During the course of the next few months, their rapture was intense and they began to plan for a future together. They never thought it would be these multiple futures, however.
No, they made their plans in the familiar stability of the world in which they grew up. It was a world where people worked hard and played hard, in which progress brought new technologies and diversions regularly, and where art and nature alike contributed to a sense of beauty and wonder — at times. It was also a world plagued by seemingly perpetual conflict, interpersonal violence, and environmental chaos.
Beyond their physical chemistry, Sam and Phillippe were kindred in the sense of being able to see all of the bad, yet still functioning and even finding the good as well. This was a rare gift, but a few others shared it. Phillippe’s network was even distributing materials like videos and pamphlets suggesting that the world was actually run by a small global cabal of elites who were manipulating events continuously.
Indeed, there was evidence of this, and in some ways it was kind of an open secret. Everyone knew that a few billionaires ran the show, but people tolerated it as long as the food and television were good. What they didn’t know, however, was that someone had uncovered information suggesting that in the last half century or so, historical events had traversed a drastically different arc than they had been on.
This was hard to quantify, but the basic gist (as conveyed in the encrypted files making the rounds in Phillippe’s network) was that someone at the highest levels was gathering information about revolutionary technologies and methods of social control from someplace beyond the capabilities of anyone in the present. They were using this information to garner wealth and power, and thus supremacy.
Phillippe was convinced but Sam was less certain. As a scientist she needed more data, yet she also deeply understood just how much we didn’t know, and how chaotic the fabric of existence truly was. Her research was on the vibrational frequencies of subatomic particles, which had brought her into contact with her mentor, Dr. Dickinson, to work on methods to measure subtle alterations in resonance.
Their theory was simple yet improbable. All particles in the observable realm shared a baseline frequency, in a vibrational sense, and this hypothesis had been confirmed wherever experiments were conducted. However, this didn’t mean that all particles could only vibrate at this one frequency; it simply said that only those we were able to observe did so. This gave our known world a signature frequency.
It also left open the question of whether some particles vibrating at other core frequencies could exist elsewhere, possibly comprising “other universes” — as science and science fiction alike had often posited. If so, they would by definition be beyond discoverability, unless there was “slippage” between dimensions. One way this might occur is if the same particles could resonate at different frequencies.
The work Sam was doing wasn’t about finding other dimensions or alternate realities. It was simply about trying to understand what factors, if any, could influence the resonance levels of subatomic particles. She and Dr. Dickinson (mostly her, actually) had been introducing various perturbations into the experiment — from simulated gravity waves to extremes of pressure, temperature, and impact forces.
Nothing had yielded a tangible result. Phillippe was fascinated by Sam’s accounts of this, even though he didn’t understand much of it, and his artwork was reflecting it in interesting ways. He was creating dense images of interlocking shapes and colors, making public art that showed the present in slightly off-kilter terms, and developing propaganda memes with terse expressions like WAKE UP and REALITY AIN’T REAL.
But that was then, and this is now. Or, nows might be more accurate. The portal Sam’s work had pried open connected to a world that was only a few ticks away from the one they knew — but they were important ticks. For one thing, in that world everyone was freakishly “happy” all the time, with more “sex and drugs and rock-n-roll” (so to speak) per capita than existed collectively in their own world.
For another thing, no one in that world ever thought about the future, analyzed the past, or worried about the present. There was no “politics” per se, nor “economics” — just constant noise and distractions. Everyone was a celebrity, everyone was beautiful, everyone lived like a king or queen. It was almost alluring, expect for the fact that the people were like hollowed out dolls with no souls.
Well, maybe that was a bit harsh, as Sam said when Phillippe made that analogy after their third visit there. But he had a point. What really began to interest them, though, was how it got to be that way in that reality — which was more than a bit like theirs but (as Phillippe phrased it) on major meth. It was sterile but sensational all at once, vapid and glamorous, empty calories that tasted incredibly good…
And there seemed to be one man at the center of it, a shadowy persona who was more myth than real, a figure known to everyone but never seen apart from his image on the pervasive screens and ubiquitous logos. He was the mercurial benefactor who had liberated the people from the shackles of an oppressive society that was too concerned about morality, mortality, and other drab irrelevant so-called “truths.”
His antidote was simple: forget all that and join the party! He plied this message in subtle and overt ways everywhere, gaining enough momentum from disillusioned people tired of drudgery and boredom, and brilliantly converting it into absolute authority in just a few years’ time. And then he threw open the pharmacies, hotel suites, strip clubs, and megamalls for everyone on his side, all for the taking.
By now, a few decades into the timeline, people had atrophied into something like “pleasure zombies” (another Phillippe original) with permagrins. The fact that their lifespans were truncated and their world was likewise dying meant nothing to them. Sam and Phillippe had come to suspect that the “Godfather” and his cabal were stripmining that world for themselves; their dilemma was whether to try and stop it.
More to the point, they came to recognize how aspects of that reality had spilled over into their own — and that this was not an organic process. No, someone(s) had been orchestrating this, perhaps even using the alternate timeline as a testing ground for new products and techniques of manipulation. As such, “saving” the people in the other reality was actually about saving their own from becoming like it.
Maybe they were already too late. Things at home had gotten measurably worse in recent years. Still, a burgeoning “resistance” had been developing, and people were organized in many communities. Not that they had an inkling about the horrors of the other reality; they were just concerned about how theirs was going. In fact, as Sam and Phillippe came to understand, that’s what made this one different.
Yet just because the public lacked knowledge of parallel realm, that didn’t mean that no one was aware. With each trip to the “other side” — which was only possible when specific conditions were in place, about once a month — they began to recognize certain patterns, even subtle replications of phrases and symbols, which were too precise in their manifestations to be coincidental. Someone knew.
Rumors began to circulate through Phillippe’s channels about a “secret society” with special knowledge that would rock this world if it ever became public. Most just dismissed this as hyperbole, or yet another marketing campaign to drive web traffic or influence trends. But the claims being made weren’t really all that market-friendly; in fact, they seemed to go against the grain of unmitigated consumerism and relentless progress.
At the crux of it all in both dimensions was a single individual. Was it the same person, moving between the realms, or two counterparts operating in separate spheres either independently or collaboratively? In order to determine the right course of action, Sam and Phillippe would have to ascertain this critical aspect. They would, in the final analysis, have to confront the one known as The Man in the High Casino.
Lemar Starland, aka “The Person in the Low Cabin”