io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Plausible Realities, Improbable Dreams” by Isabel J. Kim. You can read the story below or listen to the podcast on LIGHTSPEED’s website. Enjoy!
Plausible Realities, Impossible Dreams
The multiverse broke last week. Broke is perhaps the wrong word. More accurate would be performed a state-change or found new equilibrium, but tell that to Catalina Chang, who has been popping aspirin like M&Ms ever since last Thursday, 5:54 PM, when the Unspecified Incident in the Lab superimposed all versions of reality together like a flaky scallion pancake.
Aspirin still exists. So do coffee and antidepressant commercials, except on alternate Tuesdays, except when they don’t exist at all, except when they’ve always existed and always will exist because Big Pharma lobbied the government out of existence in 1902.
“Reality’s broken,” Cat says as she concentrates on holding all the multiple histories in her head. “We should probably do something about this.”
“This never would have happened if you had checked the equipment properly,” says Dr. Shin.
“This always would have happened, but at least you checked the equipment properly,” says Dr. Shin.
“That never happened, what exactly are you talking about?” says Dr. Shin, looking up from her laptop and frowning at Cat. “Are you feeling all right?”
“Never mind,” Cat says, and scurries back to her desk.
Her desk is covered in stacks of paper, because computers were never invented. Her desk has a sleek terminal embedded in its surface, because computers were invented in 1935. Her desk has a Macintosh laptop with a cracked case and a sticker that says HANG TEN. Cat remembers: summer vacations in California, the surf crashing against the clean sand, her legs kicking as she paddled out from shore.
She’s never been to California. She’s never been surfing. She rubs her eyes and sits at her desk, shaking away the memories of an alternate self. The desk shouldn’t be here at all — -her desk is supposed to be around the corner. This is supposed to be Roshan’s desk.
Roshan Kumar, whose desk was always perfectly clean. Who texted her at strange hours of the night. Who she was not exactly in love with, but not not in love with, in the way you can be not in love with your coworker who you see every day and go to bars with and things are just too complicated right now for a relationship, right, Roshan? The way you can be not in love with someone and still have memorized their coffee order.
Roshan’s jacket is missing from the coat closet. His name is missing from the paper they’re writing together. Cat’s scoured the internet/phonebook/transmental scan, and there’s no trace of him. As if he’s been extrapolated out of existence.
But Cat still has a single line of memory containing Roshan. One silver thread where he exists and she exists and they spend long nights in the lab together, drowned out by all the realities where he doesn’t exist but she does.
This must be the true past.
It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t exist in 99.99% of realities. When Cat stops concentrating, Roshan slips through her fingers, lost in the flipbook of pasts that exist concurrently. Cat remembers long hikes with friends she’s never met. She remembers tests she’s never taken and conferences she’s never been to. She remembers her mother and father divorcing. She remembers them celebrating their thirtieth anniversary.
Cat walks through the lab, sneakers on linoleum. Cat walks through the lab, high heels on wood. Cat walks through the lab, bare scabbed feet on bloodstained stone.
“How are the tests coming?” Dr. Shin says.
“Any luck in the data collection?” Dr. Shin says.
“You seem distracted,” Dr. Shin says, handing Cat a pile of paper, handing her a tablet, handing her a vial of datafluid.
“I’m looking for something,” Cat admits, taking the vial of datafluid and pouring it into the core output station, holding herself in this reality for a wavering moment before fragmenting back into antiseptic clean rooms, biology wetrooms, photography darkrooms. She can’t seem to grasp the reality where Roshan’s desk is three feet from hers.
“Good luck,” Dr. Shin says.
Cat sifts through realities. She’s going to happy hour with coworkers she’s never met and going home to a lover she never went on a first date with. She’s watching antidepressant commercials in between episodes of sitcoms she’s never seen. Cat holds the memory of Roshan in the front of her mind and tries tuning to its frequency. She tries to remember her fantasies of him: the one where they finish the grant proposal on time. The one where they win the Nobel Prize together. The one where he asks her out and she says yes. Cat daydreams between going home and falling asleep in her bed, in her bunk, in her pod. Between going into the lab where she researches astrophysics, biology, nanotechnology, spectral osteotherapy, and then she walks into the lab one morning and there’s Roshan, sitting at his desk.
Roshan looks just like she remembers. Brown skin, handsome face, dark hair that seems like it would be soft to the touch. Terribly unstylish glasses. She’s never been so happy to see his horrible glasses before.
“Hey,” Cat says, as if she’s not enormously relieved to see him. As if she doesn’t want to run over and press her hand to his face to make sure he actually exists.
Roshan looks up. “Cat? Catalina?” Roshan jumps to his feet, crushing her into a tight embrace that she returns with fingers gripped against the solid weave of his sweater. Her makeup smudges against his neck. She softens with the unspeakable relief of knowing that Roshan isn’t someone she dreamed up, that he’s warm and solid to the touch. Cat’s not crazy after all.
“Is that really you? Thank God — -you were gone, I was gone, but I was looking for you, and something weird is going on and nobody else seems to notice,” Roshan says, muffled against her hair.
The tension in Roshan’s back resumes when Cat steps back. He keeps his fingers locked around her wrist as if to anchor her.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Roshan says.
“I’m so glad I found you,” Cat says. “I wanted — -”
And then the waveform collapses and she’s unmoored again, standing alone in the lab.
“Did you say something?” Dr. Shin calls from her office.
“No,” Cat calls back. She stares at her table covered in papers/laptop parts/AI output generation byproduct, the clean emptiness of Roshan’s desk erased.
It becomes easier to synchronise into their shared thread. Having found it once, Cat can carefully wedge into the single mundane reality that flows out of the history of Cat and Roshan, Dr. Shin’s lab assistants extraordinaire.
In this reality, Roshan and Cat are working on their doctorates. Roshan is from a small town in Oregon, but he’s been at Columbia University since undergrad. Cat is from a mid-size suburb in Ohio and landed at Columbia’s physics department after a five-year break from academia. They didn’t know each other until they started working in Dr. Shin’s lab.
The first time they met they spent three hours talking over coffee. The second time they met they spent two hours discussing comic books while Cat wrangled statistics and Roshan googled grants. They’re slightly-more-than-friends forged by too many late nights and too many early mornings, and their lives ran in sexually tense, collegial comfort until Thursday at 5:54 PM when the multiverse fractured.
“I can’t remember what happened,” Cat admits.
Roshan frowns and stares at the diagram he’s whiteboarded in his neat handwriting. “Neither can I. But we must have been ground zero, if we’re the only ones who can perceive this.”
“I mean, I can remember everything that happened,” Cat says. “Too many everythings. All of the everythings. But I can’t remember this one specific thing, which is what freaks me out.”
“Oh, that’s what freaks you out?” Roshan says, smiling at her.
“You know what I mean!” Cat says, laughing despite the way the movement makes her lose the thread again. She’s sent spiraling into long nights working late at the bar, long nights singing on a cruise ship, long nights waiting for the pills to kick in before she can orient herself back to the long night with Roshan sitting across from her, eating her french fries.
“We’ll fix this,” Roshan says. “We’ll figure out what happened and fix this.”
“How?” Cat says, because she’s always been the pessimist to Roshan’s optimist.
Roshan shrugs. “We’ll figure it out. You found me — -that’s the first step. Infinite multiverse and you still found me.”
“That’s nearly romantic,” Cat says.
“That’s me,” Roshan says. “Mister Nearly-Romantic.”
Cat laughs again. Long nights stargazing in the observatory, long nights supervising the perpetual motion machine, long nights navimancing her way across the galaxy until she snaps back into the present. Roshan is tapping his pencil against a notepad, frowning at his diagram.
“Hey,” Roshan says. “Maybe we’ve been looking at this wrong. An infinite multiverse means infinite solutions.”
In all of Roshan’s worlds save one, Cat doesn’t exist. In all of Cat’s worlds save one, Roshan doesn’t exist. They agree to meet in the thread they both remember on Fridays, since Thursdays have historically been unlucky for them.
Cat sieves realities like she’s panning for gold. Sometimes she’s literally panning for gold, in worlds where the gold rush is currently striking through California streambeds. Worlds where time’s advance was slower, more methodic. She discards those realities quickly, filtering for worlds that understand hyperreality, where the singularity has come and gone — -worlds with matrioshka brains, with faster than light travel, where Star Trek is historical fiction because parallel processing was invented three thousand years early.
Then she’s climbing back to Roshan in the coffee shop near the lab, typing away at his netbook. She’s sitting in bars with him, drinking whisky and scribbling notes. They sometimes actually do their job so that Dr. Shin doesn’t fire them, and while they oversee the equipment Cat’s hand stays on Roshan’s shoulder like her physical presence can anchor him in this reality.
Then they’re fracturing away again. Cat’s a doctor, she’s a researcher, she’s a lowly hologramemory operator, she’s building robots, she’s replacing her brain with routine cybernetics, she’s calling her mother ten lightyears away.
“They’re getting weirder,” Cat tells Roshan, splintering herself back into their shared existence. He’s scrolling through Twitter. She’s writing a program to automate data entry and eating McDonalds. She remembers the history that flows to this moment: a long week in the lab and they’re stuck on their paper because they’re still waiting for data to trickle in. “Or maybe I’ve just been looking at the weird ones.”
“It’s the same on my end,” Roshan says. “The one I was in before this was, like, aquatic? Like bioaugmented aquatic. Tails and stuff.”
“I can’t imagine you as a merman,” Cat says. “I was a long-haul spaceship pilot. Everything looked like something out of an old-school iPhone commercial.”
“Dystopian-chic,” Roshan says. “And hey. I rocked the scales.”
They sit at their desks in companionable, gloomy silence for a moment. One of the fluorescent lights is buzzing. Outside, the sun is setting. It’s almost November. Cat eats a few fries. Grease and salt, the starch of it hot in her mouth. Maybe that’s the solution, grounding yourself with potatoes, with cable-knit sweaters, with cups of coffee bought for each other rather than clambering through a fractured multiverse.
“This doesn’t help us,” Roshan says, the same time as Cat says, “I don’t think this is working.”
“Sorry,” Roshan says. “I keep interrupting you. Go on?”
“No, we were saying the same thing,” Cat says. “Maybe trying to find a solution in the other worlds is just . . . statistically unlikely. Maybe we should try to stay here, instead.”
Roshan steals a few fries. “It’s worth a shot.”
It’s hard for Cat to linger in their shared reality. Something about its texture makes it hard to synchronise for long periods of time, even if it’s easy to find. She keeps kaleidoscoping into worlds where Roshan’s name doesn’t appear when she types it into Google. It’s a choice, to keep coming back to the world where Roshan is handing her a fancy mocha from the place on campus.
“I’m having the same problem,” Roshan admits. “It’s like this one is the opposite of sticky. Anti-sticky? Repellant! Repellant.”
“Like magnets,” Cat nods. “Or the hydrophobic coating study that Dr. Shin is trying to get funded.”
“Yeah, like that,” Roshan says. “We’ll just have to practice.”
“Keep buying me caffeine, and I’ll do anything for you,” Cat says, and Roshan laughs, and the late November light is glinting off his glasses and Cat is sipping her mocha and Cat is sipping her energy drink and Cat is sipping her miso soup and Cat is sipping her mocha again and Roshan is sliding into the seat across from her, drinking his own coffee, asking Cat whether she wants to get dinner with him. At a restaurant. A nice one.
“Like a date?” Cat says.
“Not unlike a date,” Roshan admits. “But I’m happy with our usual takeout if you’re not into this.”
“Your timing is weird,” Cat says, putting her mocha down, putting her miso soup down, putting her energy drink down.
“My timing is very weird,” Roshan agrees. “I’m not great at this. Like I said, I’m Mister Nearly-Romantic. Is that . . . all right with you?”
“Pick me up at seven,” Cat says, and imagines a future, singular.
Dinner happens, punctuated by abstractions. Cat is laughing at a joke Roshan told her. Cat is sitting in the factory break room. Cat is pouring more wine for the two of them. Cat is climbing a frigid mountain. Roshan is telling her that he was always a little intimidated by her, in a way that made friendship easier than romance — -that he kept putting it off, but he’s tired of putting things off now that reality is fracturing. Roshan doesn’t exist, and Cat is eating alone.
“I’ll get the check,” Roshan says, and Cat says “No, we’ll split it,” because it’s a beautiful miracle that he’s here for her to split the check with.
“I’m trying to romance you, woman,” Roshan says, all mock-offended. “I’m trying to move beyond almost romance.”
“Format my citations for me then, Mister Almost-Romantic,” Cat says, and Roshan laughs, and it feels good to be sitting across from someone who understands her situation intimately.
He does her citations for her. She buys him coffee. They talk to Dr. Shin about the direction of the paper they’re writing, and she doesn’t notice that they’re standing closer than usual. Nothing about their lives changes except for everything that does. They work together; they sleep together; they catapult through realities separately and talk about them over ramen noodles, over overpriced cocktails, over eggs over-easy in the morning.
It gets easier to hold their thread now that Cat knows the texture of Roshan’s hair under her fingers, now that she knows that his lips are always cracking, now that she carries chapstick around for him. Cat can stay in this reality for hours at a time.
“I think this might be working,” Roshan says, tucking a strand of her hair behind her cheek.
“Do you mean us, or this reality?” Cat says, taking Roshan’s glasses off of his face. She’s learning the shape of him now, the same way she’s learning the shape of the reality they inhabit together.
“Both,” Roshan says, and lies back in bed and Cat lies down next to him and she’s falling asleep in a bunk in a submarine, in a circular bed in a hotel room, in a hammock that rocks slowly as she drifts away.
Cat and Roshan put up new shelves. Cat carries a sword and participates in ritual combat rites. Cat and Roshan go skiing for the weekend. Cat wades through mud and shoots her rifle at the insurrectionists, screams for revolution to the uncaring rain. Cat takes the subway home from work and runs through bioring habitats and practices necromancy and hikes across metallic glaciers and kisses Roshan when she claws her way through fragmented realities and slides into their living room.
“I don’t think we’re fixing anything,” Cat says.
Roshan nods and frowns. “Maybe we just have to live like this. It’s not so bad, right?”
“I’m single-handedly keeping Bayer afloat with how much aspirin I take,” Cat says, lying on the couch. “But it’s bearable. There are worse lives. I remember them.”
“Try and remember this one instead?” Roshan offers. “That’s not helpful, I know.”
“Oh believe me, I do,” Cat says. Her brain hiccups memories of training to become an astromech. She instead tries to dredge up the first time she saw Roshan in the lab, looking up from his beat-up desktop with its mechanical keyboard. She had thought he was cute, even with the hackathon t-shirt he had been wearing. The memories of astromech boot camp fade.
“Do you want a back massage?” Roshan asks her, and Cat does. She sighs as he presses against the knots, but the moment Cat relaxes she’s in a spa on Ganymede, she’s collapsing into a bath in an Icelandic cabin, she’s splintering into all the realities that are Roshanless.
There are long stretches of time that they manage to exist in together. Sunlit afternoons. Fluorescent evenings. Dinners that they linger over, coffee breaks and walks in the park and visits to bookstores, but eventually Cat is tessellating away again — -the hemorrhage of her histories doubly as intense and strange as before, as if the multiverse is punishing her for staying in one place too long.
It gets harder to squeeze into the reality where she and Roshan live. The contours of their shared existence are slipperier when her whole infinity of worlds keeps expanding. She is walking in a spaceport. She is dancing at a ball. She is stuffing intestines back into the torso of a beloved friend. She is a sculptor. She is a warlock. She is a rocket scientist. She is crossing the ocean and she is crossing the galaxy bridge and she is crossing the bombed-out streets of Soho.
When they’re together, Roshan likes to hold her hand. Cat doesn’t mind. She likes the warmth of it against her own, his pulse keeping time in the present.
Cat and Roshan are getting ready for a meeting with Dr. Shin when Cat loses the thread in a tremendous cascade. One moment they’re discussing their agenda for the afternoon — -how they want to go over the new grant proposals and the hydrophobic coatings study. Cat is thinking about their afternoon plans. She wants to go to the library. Roshan wants to get drinks with their friends. They can do both, maybe, as long as Roshan and Ca — –
— -t is spacewalking, sitting at the wheel of a barge, doing yoga, arguing with her mother, writing a novel, shooting a pistol, singing opera. Cat’s stomach heaves, the world de-coalescing in snatches of — -a raised knife, pounding feet on cement, pressing fingertips to keyboards — -stomach lurching, she can’t get back, the thread of it is slipping through her fingers — -something sweet on her tongue, stars blurring with movement, legs submerged in liquid metal — -the past is slipping through her memories, when did she meet Roshan? What were they about to do? Where is he? Where is she? Who is — -Cat is a knight, a chef, a janitor, a skysailor, an augur, a scientist, a prophet, a — –
Reality resolves in a stomach-turning flip. Cat is standing in the lab, next to Roshan. Cat takes a deep, shaky breath. Roshan looks like he’s going to throw up, as if he’s been in his own multiverse centrifuge.
Dr. Shin is standing in front of them, leaning on the doorframe. She smiles, and it becomes apparent that this is not Dr. Shin. The teeth are wrong. The smile is worse.
“Wow,” the thing in the shape of Dr. Shin says. “So much for ‘just let it untangle itself.’ Now I have to do this completely manually. So here’s the problem. Reality’s — -”
“Broken, we know,” Cat says, cutting the entity off. Her mouth feels dry. She’s scared. She has an infinity of pasts filling her brainspace. “It’s broken, and we don’t remember why, even though we know when it happened. Are you here to fix it?”
The Dr. Shin Thing blinks. “Well, aren’t you sharp? Yes, and no, Catalina. But let’s not talk about this at a threshold. Come inside. This isn’t a request.”
She gestures for them to enter Dr. Shin’s office. Cat and Roshan walk inside, as if their forward movement is the only possible future.
The thing in the shape of Dr. Shin walks sedately to Dr. Shin’s desk and sits heavily in the chair. She gestures for them to sit down. “Time for a performance review, my darling assistants.”
“What are you doing to Dr. Shin?” Roshan asks, sitting in a chair, pulling Cat down with him and keeping a grip on her hand. Roshan’s the kind one — -Cat hadn’t even thought of what happened to Dr. Shin, and she feels suddenly ashamed. Dr. Shin’s a great boss.
The Dr. Shin Thing shrugs. “She’s fine. I wouldn’t twist things here further, don’t worry about her. She doesn’t exist here, anyway.”
“What do you mean?” Cat says.
“Is that related to reality breaking?” Roshan says, near-simultaneously.
The Dr. Shin Thing makes a face. “Broken is the wrong word, Roshan. You didn’t forget reality breaking. The two of you remembered it into breaking. You created a total headache for me.”
“What do you mean by ‘remembered it’ into breaking?” Roshan says, using his free hand to adjust his glasses.
“Hm. It’s hard to explain because you’re inside of it right now. It’s like . . . all the realities are the layers of a croissant. Carbohydrates separated by lipids, expanding outward in heat. You exist in all the carbohydrate layers, but they’re not supposed to touch, and time is the heat expanding the dough. Does this make sense so far?”
Roshan nods. The Dr. Shin Thing grins. “Great. That’s not how it works at all, but let’s pretend it does. The issue is that the two of you are like . . . chocolate chips on separate layers of the dough, one above the other. You’re supposed to take up the same vertical space in reality, not horizontal. But right now you’re superimposing — -that’s a one in a million chance, but it happens. Your chocolate chips got squished together. Maybe you were doing something technical, something requiring specific action? Calibrating some sort of laboratory equipment?”
“That’s what I remember,” Cat says. Thursday at 5:54PM, doing equipment maintenance.
“That’ll do it,” the Dr. Shin Thing says sagely. “Synchronisation catalysis, autogenerated recollection. What you remember shapes the present. The only problem is that there is no reality where the two of you should exist together. The ‘break,’ as you call it, is that you remember each other at all.”
“What do you mean by ‘taking up the same space in reality?’” Roshan says, frowning. “We’re not the same person.”
Roshan’s fingers are tense against Cat’s palm. He’s scared, and covering the fear with curiosity and bravado, whereas Cat is covering her fear with a cold nonchalance. Roshan believes he can negotiate. Cat’s given it up as a loss. That’s the difference between them: Roshan believes in solutions and Cat believes in problems. She’s the pessimist to his optimist. She squeezes his hand anyway.
“Aren’t you?” the Dr. Shin Thing counters. “Oh, the details don’t matter — -your gender, your history — -what you do in this point in space is the same. You fulfil the same purpose. Let me guess: you’re always talking over each other; you never fight about anything; you finish each other’s sentences. You can predict each other. It’s why you get along so well — -like recognises like.”
Cat stares at the Dr. Shin Thing, because she doesn’t want to see what Roshan’s face is doing. But she knows what his face must be doing, his shock will be written across his face, then he’ll lift his hand now to rub his temple. Roshan lifts his hand and rubs his forehead. Cat takes a shallow breath.
“We’re not — -”
“I don’t know what — -”
“See?” the Dr. Shin Thing says, sagely. “That’s a perfect example of the superimposition. You exist in all realities, and you twisted everything a little too close. This would have been a blip, a weird week that you later chalk off as stress-induced hallucination, except for the fact that you guys clung together like limpets. And now I’ve got to untangle this entire branch, which is going to be my whole shift.”
“Fuck your shift, this is our lives,” Roshan says. He’s gripping Cat’s hand hard enough that it’s probably going to bruise.
“Yeah, and all those other lives are yours too,” the Dr. Shin Thing says. “Stop monopolizing the sentience. Seriously, stop synchronizing into this reality — -the knot will untangle itself as long as you stop tightening it.”
“And if we don’t?” Cat says flatly.
“Then the lamination doesn’t take and I have to throw the whole croissant out, if you catch my metaphor,” the Dr. Shin Thing says, like the whole of their multiverse is just a petri dish culture that didn’t grow properly.
The Dr. Shin Thing smiles, the shape of it wrong on Dr. Shin’s mouth. “I like this croissant. I’d hate to throw it out. That’s why I’m intervening: you can fix this. Don’t try to find each other again. Here — -I’ll kickstart it for you.”
The Dr. Shin Thing does a funny little motion with her hand, and disappears. Roshan disappears. The room around them disappears. It feels like a hypnic jerk, except Cat’s awake, and then Cat is standing in an auditorium; Cat is standing in a prison; Cat is standing in a field, a bedroom, a shoreline, worlds blitzing past as she stays still. She can still feel the finger-shaped bruise across her knuckles.
Cat tessellates across realities. She polishes the windows of her generation starship and thinks about doing the dishes while Roshan dries them in companionable silence. She holds babies at the daycare and thinks about how they only ever talked about children in the abstract. She goes to parties in glittering highspires, cleans the detritus of academic conferences, takes notes in Divisibility Economics 387 — -all the while consciously not pulling on the thread of reality where Roshan exists.
The thing in the shape of Dr. Shin had warned them against sharing reality. Had said that the whole multiverse would collapse if they continued to commingle. Cat’s pretty fond of the multiverse at this point. But Cat is also more than fond of Roshan. It’s strange to exist without him for so long. Cat imagines waking up one morning next to him and telling him “You know, I had the strangest dream, about the multiverse, and you were there, isn’t that funny?” She imagines waking up and never seeing him again, except that’s actually her reality and she’s accepted it.
Cat’s only concession is to iterate into the familiar worlds where she’s working late nights in the lab, cold coffee and graphing programs open on her laptop/abacus/holovisualizer. She wishes that Roshan was sitting next to her and making notations in his neat handwriting, that he was telling her about the book he was reading, that he was here to say, “We’re going to figure it all out, Cat,” because he’s the optimist to her pessimist except for the fact that he doesn’t exist in her universes.
Dr. Shin pauses before she heads out for the evening. “You’ve been putting in a lot of work lately,” she says. Her smile is human, amused.
Cat smiles back. “Oh, you know. Just excited about the research.”
“Don’t burn yourself out,” Dr. Shin says.
“It’s good that you’re dedicated,” Dr. Shin says.
“Too bad the budget doesn’t stretch to two,” Dr. Shin says.
“Yeah, I really wish,” Cat says, and goes back to her work. This reality is too close to the one where Roshan lives, and she’s expecting to fragment out of it quickly. But half an hour later, Cat’s still watching the code compile. She doesn’t have a headache. Maybe that means the knot is untangling.
Cat stares at the data. Cat listens to the clock tick. Cat wants — –
Roshan puts a cautious hand on her shoulder. Cat jumps.
“Woah!” he says. “Just me. I came to find you. Sorry, I know — -”
“Jesus Christ,” Cat breathes. “No, don’t be sorry, look, come here.”
She pulls him into a crushing embrace. Roshan puts his hand tentatively on her back. As if he’s scared they’ll merge together if he presses too hard.
They’re having a late night in the lab together, just like all their other late nights — -nights that don’t exist, nights twisting the fabric of the multiverse to the breaking point. They’re sitting on Roshan’s desk so Cat can rest her head against Roshan’s shoulder.
“Guess I shouldn’t have asked you out,” Roshan says.
“Guess I shouldn’t have said yes,” Cat says. “And I guess you shouldn’t have come back.”
“We’ve been breaking reality, huh?”
“All realities,” Cat says.
The hum of the computer banks. The soft whistle of the air conditioning system.
“What if we just stayed here?” Roshan suggests. “You hold on, and I hold on, and we just do our best to stay present. How long do you think we’d have? Screw our croissant. I don’t even like croissants.”
“You ate two croissants last week at that bakery in Brooklyn,” Cat says. “You like croissants.”
“I do like croissants,” Roshan sighs.
The warmth of Roshan’s shoulder against her cheek. His hand pressed against her waist.
Outside of this lab there are a hundred billion people, in houses and high rises and habitat rings, reality crawling linear over their consciousnesses. Cat remembers them. Cat has been part of their lives, has consoled them and taught them and killed them. They live and die in perfect ignorance of all the other ways they could have lived and died. The croissant rises in the oven.
“I wish we could,” Cat says. She imagines clinging to him until their multiverse snuffs out. Until there’s nothing left to cling to. All the people in all the multiverses wouldn’t even feel a thing, and nobody would know what happened because nobody would exist.
“But we can’t,” Roshan finishes, and Cat nods. They’re in perfect agreement because she’s supposed to slot into the space he fills and he’s supposed to fit in hers. No wonder it feels like home in their shared impossible reality.
“Let’s stay as long as possible,” Cat suggests, and she feels the dip of Roshan’s chin that means he’s nodding back. He tightens his hold on her. She presses her face into his neck.
“What will we do tomorrow?” she asks, silently willing him to play along.
“We’ll go to the beach,” he says firmly. He’s picked up her game like he can read her mind.
“It won’t be December,” Roshan says. “It’s July, and it’s going to be sunny and beautiful. We’ll bring a picnic.”
“Finally earning your nickname, Mister Romantic,” Cat says. “We’ll go swimming.”
She imagines the summer sun, the clean white sand. Roshan in his swim trunks, lying on a beach towel and getting sand all over it. Eating sandwiches that they made early in the morning and drinking beer they brought in a cooler. She imagines him smiling behind his sunglasses. She imagines leading him to the ocean, floating a surfboard behind her.
She’s never been surfing before, but the memory of it rises unbidden — -the long California summers of another lifetime swelling in her head.
“I’ll teach you how to surf, too. I bet the waves will be amazing,” Cat says.
“I’ve never surfed.”
“You’ll love it,”
“I bet I will,” Roshan says, dreamily, as if he’s seeing his own private world. “You’ll show me everything, right?”
“I will,” Cat says, taking a deep breath. It smells like the ocean in here now, another reality edging into this moment sooner than she expected. She imagines Roshan in the ocean, sitting on a rented board. She imagines his wet hair, his sunburnt nose. She imagines kicking through the water and putting her hands on his body to show him how to stand.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Roshan says, his voice echoing as if from very far away. The roar of the ocean is so loud in her head.
Cat closes her eyes. She tightens her grip on his wrist. She imagines balancing precariously on the board with Roshan. She imagines holding his hand in hers. She imagines the clean blue barrel surrounding them until they crash into the swell, dissolving them into the sea.
About the Author
Isabel J. Kim is a Korean-American science fiction and fantasy writer based in New York City. When she’s not writing, she’s either attempting a legal career or co-hosting Wow If True, a podcast about internet culture — both equally noble pursuits. Her work has been published in Clarkesworld, Khoreo, and Cast of Wonders. Find her at isabel.kim or @isabeljkim on twitter.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the February 2022 issue, which also features work by Anjali Sachdeva, Isha Karki, Stephen Graham Jones, Theresa DeLucci, Sharang Biswas, P H Lee, Karin Lowachee, and more.