by Tyler McNamara April 2016
“The multiverse, she has a beautiful failsafe to ensure any form of life within her can never destroy her entirely.
“Therefore we may do whatever we are able without fear of total multiverse collapse.
“Though we might accidentally destroy our civilization, our planet, and our galaxy, She will survive.” ~Chairman Gray
The yellow sodium lamps barely cut through the smog. Walking the streets I couldn’t help but feel like some pre-GPS era ship lost in a fog, blindly hugging some dark coast with nothing but a string of dim lighthouses for guidance. In-between tracks of the OneRadio playlist being piped into my ears, the light wheeze of the oxygen mask pumps out its own slow rhythm, falling in time with the cadence of my footsteps. Heee-scuff, whoooo-scuff. I bob my head to the music in the silence until it’s interrupted by the next song. God I love this tune, and not only because I’m required to.
Passing under the next lamp my shadow whirls around from behind me and starts growing longer as I walk away from the light. The bass in my ears bumps an extra thump out of time, but I don’t just hear it in my buds, I can feel in in my body. Two twin points of shadow flank my own and blossom like black roses into the long outlines of people, appearing beside me from literally nowhere. They’re inside my personal space before I’ve even seen who or what is suddenly following me. I lurch forward like a runner from their blocks, but they grab my shoulders before I’ve even taken a step. Their hard fingers dig into that hollow beneath my collarbone, my legs run out from underneath me, and I’m being pulled over backward.
In a moment my head will hit the sidewalk and everything will go dark, but as I fall, I catch a glimpse of my kidnappers: They’re matt-black, darkness and shadows, dressed all in black body armor like a Special Tactics Unit of the Federal Police Bureau, but their faces are hidden behind black-tinted glass and oxygen masks.
* * * *
“What the hell!” I shout before my mind has a chance to catch up with reality. I’ve been unconscious for an unknown amount of time.
The room I’m in is white, illuminated by bright, cold lights that emanate from an unseen source. It’s empty as far as I can see, but I have no idea what’s beyond the white curtains which conceal the far wall on my right, and I can’t even attempt to find out; I’m strapped to an operating table.
I hear a door open behind me, it sounds heavy like one of those steel emergency exit doors. “Hell…” says a raspy voice, “is an excellent descriptor of the place we just pulled you from.” The man walks into my field of vision and I can see that he is Caucasian. From his voice he must have been smoking for the last fifty years, but there isn’t a wrinkle on his face. “The men who brought you here say that your New York was buried in a layer of pollution so thick you no longer have rock doves.”
“And your idea of Hell is a world without birds?”
The man smiled, or tried to, but his wrinkle-free face didn’t quite respond to the emotion.
“Besides, you say it like it’s MY fault. It’s not MY New York, there’re lots of people there and the pollution was there long before I was born. What’s this all about anyway? I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“That’s true Matthew, in fact your only fault is that despite your poisonous world, you’re perfectly healthy.”
“How do you know my name?”
The man said, “We’ve been before, a long time ago in college. I’m Doctor Augustus Young. And Matthew, I’m required by law to tell that there are some serious risks associated with this operation.” He made a gesture and the curtains slowly slid open at his command. It was daytime, and the city beyond was New York, but also really not. From this high, I’m guessing a hundred stories up, I could see the shape of Manhattan, but some of her buildings were missing, and other taller, stranger constructions had taken their place. And the birds, perhaps the rock doves Augustus was talking about, were flying everywhere.
I had so many questions, but the most pressing was whatever the hell he’d just said about an operation. “You’re right. If I’m healthy I probably don’t need… whatever it is I’m here for.”
He shook his head, turned away from the window and took a syringe out of his pocket. “It’s true. Your heart is strong and healthy, but my boss’ heart is not, and unfortunately for you he’s a much more powerful and important man.”
With one fluid motion Augustus reached out and stuck the needle into my neck. The sting, and the invasion of cold fluid entering my bloodstream was nothing compared to the burning of the question I could barely move my lips to form, “Where am I?”
“As your name is called please stand, approach the jury box, and show your summons to the bailiff.”
Come on, pick me. Pick me. Pick me. I’ve never won anything in my life!
Darn you Murphy’s Law, why can’t you be reverse psychology-ed?
I fish through my pockets for the summons as I approach the bored-out-of-his-mind bailiff, but just before I hand it to him a look of surprise and horror twists his face and he reaches for his gun. Someone, no multiple someone’s are grabbing me from behind. My martial arts training kicks in and I swim my shoulders, twisting out of their grip, but as I turn to face my attackers, I’m frozen in place by their appearance. The two huge figures are wearing black Stormtrooper masks. The bailiff discharges his sidearm hitting one of them in the shoulder and spinning him around, while the other lances me with a taser. My muscles lock up and I fall to the floor. More shots are fired above my head. I feel those rough hands on me again. Suddenly the screaming, the shouting and the chaos is silenced as the world plunges into black.
I must have passed out, but I feel overcome with rollercoaster-grade nausea. And I’m still thinking. My dilated pupils groping for light are momentarily overwhelmed and blinded. Before I’m able to see anything beyond the fact that I’m in a very white room, the Stormtroopers are on top of me, not that I can do anything to fight them; my muscles are still tingling like a waking limb from the taser.
“Who are you?”
A third man walks into my field of vision, but all I can see are his brown loafers, and a pair of white pleated pants. “Don’t bother with them Matthew, they’re just two nameless employees of Transcopic Dedicated.”
“Where am I?”
“Isn’t it obvious? You’re on the one-hundred-and-third floor of the Transcopic Dedicated headquarters.”
“Transcopic Dedicated doesn’t exist yet. It’s just an idea on a sketch pad. Where am I really?”
Despite my frail attempts to fight them with my tased muscles, the Stormtroopers lifted me off my feet, dragged me across the room and strapped me to an operating table, giving me a clearer view of the man in the white suit, and of the cityscape from the 103rd floor.
There was something familiar about him. Something beneath all the plastic surgery triggered a memory of my freshman year at MIT. “August? My God it’s good to see you. I’m sorry we never spoke after you transferred to Johns Hopkins—” But this August showed no recognition of anything I was talking about. Then I realized that I wasn’t in New York City. I mean I was, but not in MY NYC.
He smiled, “I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but your friend August is dead. I’m the one who stripped him for parts. Damn strangest experience of my life, cutting myself up like that.”
“Is that why I’m here? You need new liver or something?”
“No no, it’s not for me,” he said advancing toward the table, a syringe suddenly between his fingers as if he’d been palming it this whole time. “It’s for Chairman Gray, and unfortunately for you, you’re a perfect donor,” he said, plunging the needing into my neck.
“Why do I keep coming back to that phrase: Unfortunately for you?” Augustus sighed. “I guess after a certain number of times one falls into a comfortable routine.”
He tapped a finger against his right temple, activating the augmented reality screen in his retinas. Using nothing more than the desire to do it, he sent a message to Chairman Gray: I’ve found a liver donor for you.
Augustus selected his personal playlist, a collection of weird electronica gathered from across the multiverse, and a tune that could only be described as Klezmer-dubstep came wailing and wubbing from speakers recessed in the ceiling. He summoned his nurses, who arrived moments later wheeling in a pair of stainless steel carts covered in precision cutting tools, antiseptics and bandages.
Surgical removal had become rote for Augustus, and liver transplants were some of the most common, right behind the lymph nodes and breasts. His AR retinas drew a line down Matthew’s abdomen, which he traced with a laser scalpel. Augustus has been so relieved when Transcopic Dedicated’s medical division took off, and he could hire enough surgeons that he was only required to don his gloves and scalpel exclusively for Chairman Gray, which he was happy to do.
One of the nurses cranked the spreaders parting Matthew’s abdomen like pink curtains. Augustus messaged the Chairmain: Do you have any desire to upgrade your abs? This version seems to enjoy working out.
Moving the internal organs to one side Augustus focused on extracting the liver. Though the other organs were valuable to be sure, his primary goal was the liver. There was a strange flickering in Augustus’ AR retinas and the music in the room stuttered as well. He and the nurses shared a concerned look. “The procedure must continue,” he said, cradling the Chairman’s new liver between his hand. With just a nod from him, the nurses applied clamps the each of the arteries and tubes entering and leaving the organ. “Wait a moment, there’s an abscess on the right lobe of the posterior section.”
Carefully Augustus turned over the liver and revealed a metallic disk the size of a dime. It was spiraled like a snail and seemingly screwed into place. Surrounding it was a layer of thick scar tissue. Augustus magnified his vision times 10. He’d never seen anything like it. He stored the memory to a wetware hard drive, and then noticed that the object was slowly moving. Unscrewing itself from the organ. He magnified his vision times 100 and brought the laser scalpel down to cut it in half, but before he could, his playlist cut out, a static fuzz filled the center of his field of vision. He turned off the scalpel, one false move might completely ruin the liver.
In his peripheral vision Augustus saw the nurses groping at their eyes. He tried to send a message but his interface was being blocked.
“Chairman Grey, Augustus says he’s ready to begin the transplant procedure whenever you are.”
The young woman’s badge said she was an anesthesiologist, and had high enough clearance that she must have been Augustus’ assistant, but something felt off. ‘Could this be the paranoia which follows power? Or is it that same tingling of instinct that pushed me to discover and create all that I have?’
Chairman Grey nodded and took one more look at the massive spreadsheet before him, it was thousands of data points mined from the multiverse by a battalion of sidesteppers. In one universe they might be disguised as homeless people, in another, mail carriers, but in each the sidesteppers were innocuous analysts hidden in plain view as the people around you who you always fail to notice.
‘It is strange to me that of all the multiverses the sidesteppers have visited, they’ve yet to find one where I came up with some version of Transcopic Dedicated.’ He closed the spreadsheet and rose from his desk to follow her. As they walked, he ran a scan of her face through his retinas and found her online presence across eight forms of social media. It wasn’t a hard thing to fake, but it went back to before TD was established, and that was. There was of course the possibility that she had been loyal to TD and to this universe, but had been turned by his competition in either this verse or another. Chairman Grey was used to dealing with infinite what ifs, and they could all be solved with the same contingency plan, but it all hinged on technology which Augustus had yet to unlock: The ability to implant one’s consciousness in another, younger body.
The anesthesiologist led the Chairman to the scrub and pack room, and proceeded to scrub her hands while he changed out of his expensive suit and donned a blue medical gown, tailored from what felt like truck stop paper towels. The gown crinkled and whispered noisily as the Chairman continued into the surgical suite where Augustus waited beside a long bank of refrigerated containers.
“Good afternoon Chairman,” he said.
“Afternoon Augustus.” He hopped up on the operating table. “I have to commend you. While I was changing I noticed the scars from your previous procedure have completely vanished.”
Augustus eased the Chairman down onto his back. “You hired me to be the best, and I knew if I wasn’t, you’d find yourself a better version, isn’t that right?” He reached a hand out and the anesthesiologist placed a facemask in it.
The Chairman shook his head, “You insult me! Maybe in my earlier days I wouldn’t have flinched to replace you, but I consider us friends. Partners. Don’t you?”
Augustus lowered the mask over the Chairman’s face and said, “Of course, I’m sorry I suggested otherwise.”
“Augustus, what happened to your ear?” There was a clean line which bisected his left ear, and a row of translucent stiches which held the other half on. It looked like it had been cut with a laser scalpel, and recently.
Augustus crinkled his plastic face with a witty smile and answered, “I cut myself.”
The Chairman felt the breath of cold gas filling his mask, and from his peripheral vision he saw two nurses wheeling a second operating table into the suite. “Why do you need a second—” Before he could finish the question another Matthew Grey, wearing HIS expensive suit followed behind. THE Chairman, the real Chairman reached out toward him feebly, “What are y--? Who...”
The Matthew Grey wearing the suit said, “Augustus, I thought you said he’d be knocked out.”
“I’m sorry Chairman Grey, he’ll be completely under in just a moment.”
The other Matthew gave him a disgusting look. It was pity. “You’ve been kidnapping versions of us from all across the multiverse. For what, organs? That’s what Transcopic Dedicated does for the common folk. People like you and me? We deserve better.”
Augustus interjected, “They haven’t discovered consciousness transfusion in this universe.”
“No doubt they came to the same conclusion we had, that one of the TDs has. Like us, they’ve been combing the multiverse for other TDs and finding the same results. There are no other TDs… well except for yours and mine. But how can that be? In an infinite number of instances, if there is one, there must be at least two, and if two… and so on.” The other Matthew leaned over the Chairman and shouted, “Are you still in there? Can you still hear me?”
He could, but that was about it, and his feeble grip on consciousness was slipping. Augustus shined a light into his eyes and watched his pupils, “He’s still in there.”
“When I came across a world with no version of us, my assumption was that there was another me kidnapping them. Therefore if neither of us have been able to find another TD (I know you haven’t because I’ve seen your sidestepper data), someone must be hunting us.”
Augustus chimed in, “Chairman Grey, perhaps it’s that ‘beautiful failsafe’ you’ve so famously spoken of?”
“You’re talking about my Mirror Principle? ‘For every reality with a TD there’s must be an equal number of realities with anti-TDs.’” The other Matthew shook his head, “No, they would be anti in function only. The idea that someone would care enough to go through the trouble of manually balancing an ‘unbalanced’ multiverse is absurd!”
Augustus took a laser scalpel off the tray, activated it and nicked the Chairman’s carotid artery, but before the world faded to black he heard Augustus say, “Your vision is too wide. You’ve been expecting to find the anti-TD in other universes, but I’m your anti. What if all Matthews across all multiverses have always had a falling-out with their Augustus’? In many places the two never became friends, and when we have I’m guessing the unlimited power, in each of those instances made those Matthews treat their Augustus’ like garbage, just as you have.”
The other Matthew puffed out his chest, “Stop this now. You will stop my transplant from bleeding out, and put all of this behind you. I will not have something as petty as a soiled friendship destroy everything I’ve built.”
“I’ve always thought we built it together. It’s not petty Matthew, all I want is to be treated like a valuable human being.”
* * *
“The multiverse, she has a beautiful failsafe to ensure any form of life within her can never destroy her entirely. And as long as we maintain our basic humanity we can live without fear of total multiverse collapse.”
~Doctor Augustus Young
Fail Safe by Tyler McNamara is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.