Immigrants

Inyo looked into a dark sky illuminated by the same stars he’d grown up with and asked himself why he’d volunteered for this futile endeavor, traveling to a world known only through uncorrelated images and brief videos collected by autonomous vehicles. Despite the identical night sky and—according to the data returned by the unmanned probes—expected similarity in the physical environment and its human inhabitants, this was not Earth. 

The Explorer program had been explained to him only minutes before his trip across quantum space to this world. He’d been conscripted into the project at the moment of conception along with thousands of other zygotes, unknown to the parents of these potential quantum travelers. His zygote had been quantum entangled with another zygote, randomly chosen in a blind selection process, known only to the computer algorithm making the decision. The unfortunate machine had been destroyed immediately in an effort to keep the quantum coherent zygotes entangled with a universe identified by random probes sent in previous years. The only record of events was the identity of the mothers. Inyo and the other unknowing participants had been tracked, given whatever resources were required to fulfill their potential, and contacted when enough data had been collected to justify the risk of decoherence. He would meet his traveling companion upon arrival at his destination. The middle-aged man who’d briefed him hadn’t known the name, age, ethnicity, gender, or even dress of this person; but Inyo had been told that he would recognize them immediately.

He turned to the young woman standing next to him, dressed in form-fitting jeans and a black, leather jacket. Her backpack was the twin of his, delivered prepacked with an assurance that it contained everything he needed. The very attractive blonde woman looked at him curiously, as if unsure how to treat him, before breaking the awkward silence. “I’m Nadera-Ten. You must be my assistant.”

Inyo met her steady gaze. “I don’t think so, Nadera. My name is Inyo…”

The corners of her mouth turned up ever so little in a half-smile Inyo had seen too often during his life. “Inyo what?”

He couldn’t believe that bullshit had followed him to another universe. Better to deal with it up front rather than let her think she was his superior. He was so tired of Tens assuming they were smarter than everyone else.

“One. Do you have a problem with that?” he asked a little too strongly.

She shrugged, her smile now condescending. “No, do you?” He was dismissed just like that, as she added, “We should get out of this open space, find lodgings, and familiarize ourselves with the local environment.”

Inyo’s eyes swept the heavens again, avoiding eye contact. “What do you suggest, Nadera-Ten?” He emphasized the numeric appendix to her name, expressing his disdain for an educational system that assigned an intellectual potential to preschool children and permanently displayed it as a sign of their inadequacy. She had the highest potential whereas his designation—his full name was Inyo-One—didn’t bode well for their future cooperation. 

“We are in an open stadium used for athletic events. There will be portals, probably secured at this time of night, but I foresee no problem exiting. Let’s go.” She started towards the nearest end of the huge amphitheater, unhindered by the heavy backpack.

Inyo picked his up and struggled to get his right arm through the heavy pack’s strap, noting ironically that she would probably be Nadera-Ten if her appellation was an index of physical strength. He hurried to catch up and matched her purposeful stride step for step, wondering why she was in a hurry. This was an excellent opportunity to get used to this new world, let their minds and bodies adapt to the unfamiliarity of being disentangled from their universe, the real Earth. Maybe that thought hadn’t occurred to her yet? That was the problem with A-type personalities like Nadera and most Tens; they were overconfident, which was probably why a lowly One had been assigned as her companion, someone to remind her that this wasn’t a simulation or video game.

They entered a tunnel dimly lit by incandescent bulbs, separated into enclosures by waist-high, steel fences that converged on a series of openings blocked by turnstiles. They could have easily surmounted the barricade but instead tried several of the barriers before Inyo found one that rotated outward, an exit. He got through before Nadera could cut him off, feeling childish at his sense of accomplishment. The next barricade wasn’t as easy to elude.

“Open it,” Nadera said, her body language saying that Inyo should figure out a way to pick or break the padlock securing the gate, hanging from a hasp on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling steel bars. 

Her arrogance infuriated him. What was he, her servant? They were equals, and he had no more experience with mechanical devices than she; in fact, he was a psychologist and computer scientist whereas she was at least an engineer and physicist…she should open the damn gate, not him.

“Go ahead,” he replied, struggling to replicate her authoritarian tone.

Her full lips turned into a thoughtful frown. Finally, she smiled, pointed at his backpack and said, “I believe the cutting device is in your bag,” smiling triumphantly.

Not wanting to admit defeat or struggle with the heavy pack while she watched victoriously, he turned away and quipped, “Left side, upper pocket. Be a dear, would you?” He threw that in, knowing she wouldn’t get the sexual jibe he’d learned about in a historical psychology class in college.

The frown returned as she reluctantly removed the short, cylindrical laser cutting tool, presenting it with a satisfied smile. “Here you go.”

There was no escaping her victory without being childish, so he took it from her a little too quickly, causing her lips to curve up smugly, and cut the lock’s shackle. He kicked the gate open a little too hard, causing it to slam against the fence with a loud bang. Her eyes opened in mock surprise, her mouth forming a perfect ellipse, her words mocking.

“Oh my, Inyo-One, I didn’t know you were so excited about the mission, what with your constant whining and complaining about this and that…”

Inyo replaced the cutting tool in his backpack without looking, to make the point that he’d outwitted her, and said, “Ladies first.” She wouldn’t understand the sexist slight, being the unlearned barbarian that she was.

As Nadera strode past him, he couldn’t avoid one last dig, one she would certainly notice. He placed his hand in the small of her back…and gently pushed her. She spun as if on ball bearings, her clenched fist inches from his nose. “If you ever touch me again, I’ll break something that won’t heal.” She wasn’t smiling.

Inyo refrained from expressing his satisfaction at having bested a Ten, especially one as perfect as Nadera, and said, “Sorry, I’ve been studying the remote data and focusing on blending. I guess I should have informed you of the customs we might expect here, but there wasn’t time…”

Doubt flickered, warping her lovely features for a microsecond, before she responded. “You will need to brief me on any trivial social behaviors we may encounter, as soon as we have established a base camp.” She turned to lead Inyo into the unknown, but her advance was interrupted.

“What’re you guys doing here?” The brunette had appeared out of the darkness. Several other young men and women materialized from the shapeless shadows, dressed in tight clothing reminiscent of a previous fashion trend on Earth. 

A guy with raven hair and an ashen face emerged, dressed in black and wearing a matching fedora, a large mechanical cutting tool in his hand. He held it out and said with some disappointment, “I guess you guys got here first. I really wanted to cut that fucking lock with this big-ass bolt cutter…” 

Inyo ducked and picked up the pieces of the lock, displaying them for the newcomers. “Sorry, dude, but we gotta study now, burn the midnight oil, all that bullshit.” He tossed the broken device on the concrete and with a flourish of his hand towards the open gate, added, “It’s all yours. The night is young…”

Fists were held up expectantly, so Inyo held his up and learned a local custom not reported by the probes—fist bumping. As the guy with the bolt cutter headed through the gate, Inyo took a chance on interrogative dialogue. “I know this sounds stupid and all, but we…” he began and put his arm around Nadera’s waist, resistance tightening her lower back muscles. “We’re a little stoned, going to study together in a private room, we both have roommates and, well, we didn’t think to make a reservation…Jesus, we’re so stupid—”

Nadera giggled and interjected, “We’re lost, uh, can you direct us to the nearest motel?”

The young man scoffed and replied, “The Sonesta is about ten-minutes up Nicholson.” He pointed over his shoulder and, grinning, added, “Whatever you guys sampled, I hope ours is as good.” With that he turned and hurried to rejoin his companions.

Nadera wasn’t acting so confident as she matched Inyo’s pace, brushing against him as he slowed to a stroll, heading toward distant bright lights. “How did you know what to do? Those people are from an alien world, but you communicated with them as if you’d lived here all your life.”

Inyo relished the moment, certain that she would get her footing and confidence too soon. His response was subdued. “We’re a team, Nadera. I was told that we’ve been entangled since conception, and from what I’ve heard about this mission, probably will be for the rest of our lives, so we have complementary knowledge—no one can know everything—and skills. By the way, you’re a fast learner, the way you backed me up…and didn’t freak out when the social situation called for physical contact. I think we’ll make a good team.”

She stopped and her gentle touch on Inyo’s arm arrested his footsteps. He turned and met her uncertain gaze as she said, “I have to remember that. We are a team. But we don’t know anything about each other, which I assume is intentional, some kind of failsafe because, having been entangled from conception we are theoretically in a quantum coherent state, which is only theory, so we don’t want to perturb our initial quantum state any more than is necessary to complete our mission.”

“What are you saying?”

She sighed, her expression generating an ambience that was rapidly becoming familiar to Inyo, brushed a stray hair out of her eyes, took his hand, and continued their slow pace. “Tell me about yourself. I can’t wait to hear your story.” 

She wasn’t in a hurry anymore.  

*

“Do you mind if I use the bath first?” 

Inyo looked up from his mobile comset. Nadera was half undressed, her shirt and pants tossed haphazardly on the queen-sized bed, blue eyes expecting confirmation.

“Sure, I’m connecting to the local wireless network system identified by the probes. I should have communications up by the time you finish. Take your time.”

She retreated to the bathroom, leaving an unfamiliar scent in the small room they had rented using some of the cash they’d brought with them: “This note is legal tender for all debts, public and private” was written on the stiff bills. Cash had been eliminated on Earth before he was born. His first act after they were linked would be to create a financial account because they would run out of legal tender pretty fast. The internet wasn’t that different from the Gateway used back on Earth. Although primitive and slow, it would suffice, at least until they got a prototype Quantum Entanglement Device operating. He wasn’t going to worry about that because the technical side of their mission was Nadera’s responsibility. She would earn her Ten status if she pulled that off. 

Nadera appeared from the bathroom, short blonde hair wet from the shower, wearing a loose-fitting, black undershirt displaying a big “10” in pink. Baggy pink gym shorts peaked from underneath. Surprised, Inyo grinned, imagining what her bed clothes were concealing. A shower seemed to have washed the last of her arrogance away, after their friendly chat on the walk to the motel. 

She faced the mirror and laughed. “I am proud of my IQ rating, but I never expected anyone else to see me in my bed clothes. I didn’t pack my bag, it was ready to go. I’m sorry if it offends you…” 

Just like that, she’d turned the tables on him, but she hadn’t really because he loved it. He just didn’t want to give her the wrong impression. They were a team, not a couple of teenagers on an overnight date. “Not at all. After our conversation, I think your choice of sleepwear is perfect. I usually dress the same but with a different color combination—red over gray. We’ll see if my wardrobe was chosen as thoughtfully.” He smiled warmly and was relieved when she responded in kind.

“I can’t wait to see. So, what’s our status?”

Inyo explained the situation to an attentive but fragrantly distracting Nadera. He’d already created a bank account but, not having had an opportunity to plan ahead, he’d used different surnames for them; she was Nadera Petrov and he was Inyo Semenov. This gave them the option of traveling as friends, collaborators, or a couple. He’d selected Russian because they were both fluent in what was a dying language on Earth, another fluke in a cascade of coincidences. Apparently, it was still spoken by Russians in this universe.

“What year is it?”

“Two-thousand-twenty-two, and I know how strange that must seem to you because—what’s curious is that I don’t feel like a stranger here.” He hurried to add, “I know that quantum entanglement isn’t responsible for my sense of familiarity, it’s probably nothing more than the classes I took in college, those old novels, all kinds of—”

She shook her head, a thoughtful frown warping her well-proportioned mouth, as she interjected, “Quantum Gravity and the Revised Standard Model don’t make predictions about the behavior of macroscopic systems like our bodies and minds, when entangled with other worlds. Your affinity with this world is perfectly reasonable and not a delusion. In fact, I feel the same way, and I never took those college classes or read any of the books you did. I’m certain this is real, an emergent phenomenon we should document. Finally, I have something to do, after all the work you’ve done getting us out of the stadium, to the motel, connected…” 

She smiled at Inyo and added, “Thanks,” before giving him a quick peck on the cheek. 

All he could think of was, “Are you hungry?”

After examining the menus available from several restaurants that would deliver to the motel, they settled on a “hot pot,” a mix of rice, meat, and vegetables. While they waited for the meal, paid for using a short-term loan secured by their fictitious economic lives, the anticipation of facing their mission prompted Nadera to share her own dissatisfaction with their fate.

“I wanted to be a research physicist before I started preschool. I worked so hard to be the smartest person in my classes, knowing I was going to win a Nobel Prize one day. I dreamt of standing on a stage and giving an acceptance speech when I was five years old. I was in all the advanced science classes and on track to…” Her voice faded, her eyes downcast, lips frowning hopelessly.

“You were asked to participate in an exploration program you had been chosen for before you were born, unknown to you or your parents. An enterprise so farseeing that it connected embryos in different parts of the world to another world in an entirely different universe. You couldn’t say no, could you?”

Blonde hair quivered as her head shook ever so slightly.

Inyo breathed deeply and began, “I didn’t know what I wanted to be, despite drifting into social and computer sciences. I never dreamed of receiving any prizes. I didn’t try to be the best at anything, not even—I wasn’t even a good Inyo-One. I was on a dead-end track. What I mean is that I was going to have a mundane job, maybe in the healthcare industry, but then something happened when I was in high school. I don’t know if it was me or…well, you know, them, or something else.” He shrugged, Nadera’s attentive eyes watching him approvingly as he continued, “It all clicked. I hadn’t been taking college classes in middle school like you, but I jumped ahead, caught up with my more-advanced peers, and got my Ph.D. when I graduated high school.”

“How old are you?”

“Twenty-six.”

Nadera’s eyes opened in surprise. “Me too. What’s your birthday?” 

“June twenty-first and since you asked, I can tell you my birth time as well. I was born at 7:09 a.m. on a Tuesday. You?”

She jumped up, her hands clasping her face in surprise. “Oh my god, Inyo! That is exactly when I was born. This is completely beyond coincidence or Quantum Entanglement theory. It worked! We have been in a coherent state since we were single-celled zygotes, locked together despite being separated by thousands of miles. Whatever unique combination of subatomic particles comprises our individual persons, they are dancing together, have been all our lives—”

She suddenly became silent.

“What’s wrong, Nadera?”

She faced him, no longer excited, and continued, “We aren’t in control of our lives. I didn’t get my dream job as a research physicist. I was sent to a special college by—like you said, by them. I was turned loose in a physics lab, like a kid in a candy store; all the real physicists treated me as a new grad student, explaining whatever they were doing at any moment I entered their lab. I learned so much.” She scoffed regretfully. 

“I’ve been observing physics while others practiced it while teaching me how to construct a Quantum Entanglement Device. Perhaps that’s all my life was ever meant to be, Plan B, a contingency in case others—”

Seeing the tears waiting to erupt from her eyes, Inyo interrupted, “I don’t think so. You and who-knows how many others became experts, capable of recreating the greatest invention of all time, a way to travel to other worlds. No, Nadera…you aren’t a backup plan, but instead the first string; we aren’t the only team, however.”

“What do you mean?”

Inyo paused a moment to collect his thoughts before replying, “Our mission wasn’t deterministic but instead opportunistic. They had to guess that we—all of their unknowing conscripts— would agree to participate in what was at best a desperate gamble, if our zygotes were even viable. A plan like that, so many degrees of freedom, doesn’t have a backup; there is no Plan B.”

“How can you be so sure?” The tears had dried from Nadera’s eyes, emboldening Inyo.

He scoffed and pointed his spread fingers at his chest. “I am disposable. Sure, I have critical skills for survival on an alien, earthlike world, but I’m not going to get us and whatever data we collect home. You are not…” Inyo swallowed his pride and continued, “You were right, back in the stadium. I am your assistant, even if my skills are indispensable for the moment, to establish our presence here and collect data, because nothing we learn from this world will be shared with Earth unless you accomplish our task—you are the surgeon and I am the surgical assiastant.” He was certain that such a condescending monologue would restore Nadera’s confidence. 

Her response wasn’t exactly what he’d expected.

“Nice speech, Inyo, but I’m not buying it. Like you said, we’re a team. I apologize for my self-indulgent and egoistic passive-aggressive behavior. Thank you for bringing me back to reality.”

Her response was encouraging and her eyes were no longer clouded with tears; she was focused on the problem, regaining her confidence. Wanting to downplay the emergent comparison between their roles in the mission, he shared his story. “My post-graduate experience was a lot like yours. I bounced from one internship to another until I was contacted by them. But they had a name or at least an acronym, UEA, the Universal Exploration Agency.” He paused and looked at Nadera.

Her head was nodding as she continued his story. “I could have said no and fulfilled my childhood dream. They weren’t going to punish me for not cooperating, but I felt that I couldn’t let them down after so many years planning, taking a chance on me, my mother, my family, investing in me for decades. I let my dream go. Now here I am.” 

Before she could sink into a deeper pit of despair, Inyo stood up and held his arms wide, inviting her to physically share their common experience. She accepted his invitation and they held each other close for several minutes, finally separating. Inyo held her cool hands and said, “I’m here because, despite my intellectual late-blooming, I’d never had a dream like you. I figured, ‘What the hell?’ and said yes.”

Nadera scoffed. “The first chance I get in this strangely familiar world, I’m going to get you a red undershirt with ‘Ten’ emblazoned in pink, a reminder that you are just as capable as me.”

Inyo pulled his eyes away from the bright numeral emblazoned across her athletic breasts and stammered, “Why pink?”

“That’s my favorite color.” She jumped up and twirled, lifting her sleeping shirt to reveal her gym shorts. 

Inyo glimpsed abdominal muscles standing out in sharp relief during the exhibition and decided that he would accept Nadera’s color choice and learn to live with it. Nevertheless, he couldn’t comprehend, much less grasp, what was going through her mind—a brilliant physicist acting like a teenager at a sleepover with her girlfriends. 

Without thinking, he blurted, “You are definitely a ten!”

The shirt fell back into place, covering flesh and shorts alike, generating a wave of regret in Inyo’s stomach that expanded into a tsunami by the time it reached his chest, overwhelming his senses, shattering his cognition when it broke on the shoals of his prefrontal cortex. “I’m…I didn’t mean—” he began, stammering like a school boy.

“I know. I’ve tried all my life to be the best I could. I’ll never have a perfect body because that isn’t what was encoded in my DNA, but I’m satisfied. I hope you aren’t disappointed?” 

She’d done it again, instantly turning an uncomfortable social situation into a win for her ego and sense of empowerment. The painful part was that she was correct. Inyo tried to match her confidence with his response.

“I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, Nadera, but you are…well, you are beautiful to a heterosexual male like me, and now and then I’ll probably slip up despite my best efforts, and make a stupid comment like that—”

“Thank you, Inyo. It is a compliment to have someone—an attractive young man like yourself, my age no less—acknowledge the result of my lifelong effort. Since we are quantum entangled with each other and this world, it’s important that we integrate our experiences to the fullest extent possible.” She stood up and indicated that he should do the same. 

Nadera’s hands massaged his abdomen uncomfortably, his buttocks, her slim fingers probing, pressing against his pectoral muscles, painfully squeezing his latissimus dorsi muscles. She finally released him and said, “I am a certified physical therapist and dietician, as well as several other—”

“Why am I not surprised?” 

She scoffed and replied, “We’ll get you in shape in no time. You won’t be twenty-six forever…”

Before he could respond, a rap came from the door.

Nadera rushed to the door, spoke a moment, and returned with a large, brown paper bag held up like a trophy of war. “I’m starving, Inyo, so let’s eat!” 

*

Inyo’s eyes opened in confusion, his mind grasping for a reference point and finding nothing but darkness, rays of light slanting through the unfamiliar space. A few desperate breaths later, he turned to his right to see a familiar form lying next to him; Nadera’s steady, slow breathing quieted his heart’s palpitations, a sense of intimacy granting his mind the freedom to recall his surroundings. He was in a motel in Baton Rouge, a city he had passed through on a road trip with a girlfriend during a forgotten summer years before, crossing the Mississippi River to explore the undiscovered western lands. Awakened by the memory, he examined his current traveling companion resting in peaceful repose. Nadera was a quiet sleeper; not a whimper, snore, gasp, sudden movement, or flailing limb had disturbed his rest. 

He gazed at her profile centered on a perfectly upturned nose and full lips. He imagined neurons firing within that sculpted cranium, electrical pulses broadcast through the jumble of brain cells comprising the entity called Nadera-Ten. What was she dreaming? He would give anything for the answer to that question. One thing was certain, however; she was critical to their mission and he would do whatever the situation demanded to keep her focused, sharp as a scalpel, because they weren’t going home unless she could create a new scientific field in this world. His thoughts were interrupted when her feathery eyelashes fluttered, portending her return to wakefulness.

Nadera’s eyelids opened, flickered briefly, before her blue eyes focused on Inyo. A relieved smile crept over her face before she said, “Thank god, Inyo. I thought it was all a dream. Thank you for being the first thing I saw when I woke up.” She didn’t seem upset or confused, so he spoke from his heart.

“You are the girl from my dreams.”

She sat up, turned to face him in a crossed-legged Yoga pose, before saying, “I know you aren’t in love with me so please explain your unorthodox greeting.” She was smiling, which he took as encouragement to be forthcoming. 

Inyo retrieved his mobile device from the nightstand, opened the photo app and searched through archived images, finally finding an eclectic collection that he’d never shown to anyone before. He found his favorite photo and held it for Nadera to view. 

Her eyes opened wide, hands reaching for her own mobile device. An image was thrust in front of Inyo’s retinas, a young girl with long, blonde hair wearing a flowered dress with the exact same pattern as the girl in his sketch. The Christmas tree, wrapping paper littering the carpet, presents held up by family members, were present in both versions of the scene. 

“When did you sketch this?”  

Inyo breathed deeply and told the story of his best friend and later dream lover, the girl who was his first memory, at maybe four-years-old. He’d spent every Christmas with her family since he was eight, exchanging gifts, eating with them, playing in the snow. But he couldn’t remember her name. The dreams had been more concrete to him than reality, contributing to his indifference to school or even life, until he’d decided that she existed somewhere and he would find her, but not by sitting on his ass. He had to work hard to succeed at this task because this girl wouldn’t be waiting for him. He would have to search for her. His story finished on an upbeat note.

“For the first time in my life, I didn’t spend the night with my dream lover last night. I don’t really recall my new dreams but I think they were nothing more than random admixtures of real memories, emotions, stuff like that…”

Her hand covered her mouth in surprise. “Every night?”

He nodded. 

“I can’t imagine… I really can’t wrap my head around that, for more than twenty years. Every night?”

“Until last night. Don’t misunderstand, but I guess I found the girl of my dreams. I worked hard and…well, it paid off because here we are. That sounded wrong. Let me explain—”

She held her hand out and interjected, “Do you have more pictures?”

He handed his mobile device to her and she studied his photos for several minutes, her face expressing the gamut of emotions from thoughtful to joyful, her self-consciousness fading as she flipped through Inyo’s gallery. She finally handed the device back and shared her feelings. “I’m overwhelmed. Considering the intimacy reflected in your memories, you’ve been a perfect gentleman since we met. As far as I can remember, every one of your sketches portrays a real event, even the very familiar scenes although those were with other guys…”

Inyo cleared his suddenly dry throat, his words coming out in a coarse rasp. “My dreams must have been a side-effect of being quantum entangled with you my entire life. I simply recorded the experience. It was as real as my waking hours, if you can imagine that…”

“I can now,” she responded flatly.

Inyo scoffed to break the awkwardness of the situation and said, “I feel better, knowing I wasn’t losing my mind. It was just a side effect of a scientific experiment. It would have been nice if I’d known before, but that wasn’t possible because of the risk of decoherence which by the way, I think has occurred. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“That is the most-probable explanation for why you didn’t dream about me last night.” She met his steady gaze, smiled uncertainly, and added, “We have a lot of work to do, collecting data and constructing a QE device in a world that only recently discovered gravity waves.” 

Inyo wanted to make one thing perfectly clear. “I can delete all those images now. I sketched them to stay sane but, now that I know what was really happening, I don’t need them. I really don’t. And not because I’ve found the girl of my dream, although I guess I have—you know what I mean. It is kind of cool, to actually meet you in the flesh, to be doing something important with you.” He scoffed and tossed out, “It’s like, well, I made something of my life because of the mission—”

Her finger touched his lips as she finished his sentence. “It almost ruined your life, your dreams haunted by a phantom, driven to near-madness, but you were strong and persevered. I don’t think I would have become a Ten if I’d had to bear your burden as an infant. At any rate, you will always be Inyo-Ten to me.” She jumped out of the bed and stood in front of the bathroom as she added, “If you want to use the toilet, I suggest you do it before I take my shower. Today I start to earn my paycheck.” 

Inyo couldn’t help asking, as he slipped past her, “Since I’ve already seen you in the shower, I don’t know why there’s such a need for privacy… My drawings were anatomically accurate, weren’t they?”

She was grinning as she pushed him through the door. “You’re going to have to rely on your memories on that question. Oh and, by the way, please don’t delete your sketches. I may want to look at them again because your gallery of quantum dreams is far more complete than my memories or my photo album. And besides, your artistic talent allowed you to record very important data, unforeseen by theory and probably—” 

Inyo turned and, with his hand on the door handle, quipped, “We haven’t verified my data yet…”

She yanked the door out of what he’d thought was a tight grip and pulled it closed, her silent retort a haughty smile glimpsed through the narrowing aperture.

*

Peeling, off-white paint failed to cover decades-old water stains adorning the walls of Professor Susan Amarion’s office in Nicholson Hall. Foot-high stacks of research papers, copied months earlier and forgotten by a mind that only thought about the future, contributed to the illusion of southern decay. Curly, shoulder-length brown hair framed a plain face mounted on an oversized jaw and centered on a broad, flat nose. Inyo swallowed a grin, certain that the false image created by Dr. Amarion was unintentional, the inevitable result of a fierce intellect trapped in a decaying society, her physique the inevitable result of the disjunction between mind and body. His intuition was confirmed by the narrowed hazel eyes through which she observed the Russian scientists who’d suddenly appeared in her world, centered as it was on ground-breaking research into gravity waves. 

Nadera’s plan was to pose as Russian immigrants, prove their intellectual worth, and collaborate with a respected researcher in this world. If all went well, they would begin work on a Quantum Entanglement Device within a year. Inyo had studied the early twentieth century. The Great War hadn’t been the result of rational thinking, cost-benefit analysis, or even common sense. From what he’d seen so far, this earth was a lot more like the Earth that had exploded in war than the one he’d left behind. This was Nadera’s show, however, so he nodded supportively as she introduced herself as Nadera Petrov and he as Inyo Semenov. They had recently earned their doctorates in Russia and granted O-1 visas because of their contributions in physics and computer science. Nadera did a good job presenting their case, but Professor Amarion wasn’t buying.

She’d been typing on her computer keyboard while Nadera described her and Inyo’s research and now faced them with the result of her search. “I can’t find anything published by you and Inyo, not even in Russian. I know there’s a lot published by Russia’s active research community and I get limited editions of English translations, but you don’t show up. Why is that?”

Nadera didn’t have an answer but Inyo did, having planned for this contingency. “Nadera was never one to hold her tongue. Search for her name in political news from Russia. She has made the man who rules from the Kremlin unhappy, so she—and me by association—has been blacklisted from publishing. Our doctoral research has even been purged from the records by the not-so-democratic Russian state.

Professor Amarion typed some more and then skimmed several of the news reports Inyo had planted on international web pages that covered politics inside Russia. Nadera’s picture was prominently displayed with his face discreetly present in the background.

Nadera looked at Inyo with open admiration and then supplemented the fantasy he’d created. She stood up and approached a white, writing board attached to an otherwise empty wall in the office. It was covered with scribbling which she skimmed before picking up an eraser pad and turning to Professor Amarion. “Do you mind if I solve this for you? Proving the Yang-Mills Existence hypothesis is no more a part of your research than it was mine, but I was fascinated by the mathematical purity of the solution, which was buried by Vladimir Putin along with my thesis.”

“Sure, let’s see your approach.”

Their host watched in awe as Nadera swiftly and implacably reproduced the proof that had won a Nobel prize for its creator, making macroscopic Quantum Entanglement possible, leading inexorably to Inyo and Nadera presence in this office, trying to get home, back to Earth. The black felt pen wrote “Q.E.D.” and Nadera retook her seat. 

Inyo could see that Professor Amarion hadn’t followed Nadera’s clear and concise summary of the well-known proof, but she wasn’t going to admit it. She was struggling with her desire to defend her domain, including her intellectual and authoritarian kingdom; and mentoring this prodigy who’d appeared without formal notice didn’t fit into the plan. Inyo recognized the moment when the decision was made, the eyes slitting further, the heavy jaw closing, yellow teeth hidden behind thin lips. 

“Interesting approach but there are a few problems—”

Nadera revealed that she would have been a Russian dissident if she actually was from Russia in this world, when she stood up and curtly said, “I thank you for your time, Professor Amarion. Inyo and I have better things to do than teach undergraduate mathematics to closed-minded authoritarian educators, so we’ll be leaving now.” She nodded towards Inyo, who leapt to his feet. She picked up the eraser, waved it threateningly over the whiteboard, and continued, “Just to show that there are no hard feelings, I’ll leave this for you to study. I won’t complain if you figure it out and collect the million-dollar prize. Remember that when we meet again.” 

She marched out the door. Inyo thanked their host and rushed to catch up with a young woman who was no longer a figment of his imagination. 

*

“It’s so much better to be living with you in the real world—even if it isn’t Earth—than dreaming about you every goddamn night…even if we are sleeping together but not having sex, because at least you aren’t a dream anymore.” Inyo ended his tirade and waited for Nadera’s response.

After their stillborn collaboration with Professor Amarion, Nadera and Inyo had implemented Plan B, and thus they had applied for, and gotten, positions at the University of Chicago; Inyo was a research assistant in the Department of Computer Science whereas Nadera had won a prestigious assistant professor position in the Physics Department. She had kissed him on the lips upon learning of her new position.

Nadera stopped applying her makeup and turned to Inyo. “I’ve never heard you use that word before. Are you nervous about your presentation at the social sciences colloquium this evening?”

Inyo looked at her in disbelief, unable to comprehend how the woman who had shared his dreams, accepted their mission without a second thought, followed him to Chicago, and was now carefully applying lip gloss to accompany him to a social function of no personal interest to her, could be oblivious of their personal relationship. He was infatuated with Nadera (probably head-over-hills in love with her to use a literary phrase), and to discover that she had no interest in him was baffling. They had been sleeping in the same bed for months. He knew she wasn’t a virgin and was in fact very accomplished in foreplay and sexual activities of every kind, a supposition she had neither confirmed nor denied when confronted with the evidence supplied by his sketches. To make matters worse, she hadn’t shown the slightest discomfort in her bed clothes, even granting him glimpses of her nude form appearing from the bath to retrieve a forgotten item of clothing. The pressure had become so intense that he’d resorted to masturbating in the shower. He wasn’t sure how long he could keep up the pretense.

“No,” he responded curtly, standing in front of the mirror redoing his narrow, herringbone tie for the third time. It was impossible to concentrate with her getting dressed in front of him. He hadn’t complained because watching her unintentional performances was mildly erotic. 

Seeing his frustration but either not knowing or admitting its source, she stepped in front of him and pushed his hands aside. “I’ve never seen you so nervous, Inyo,” she began as her deft fingers wove his tie into a perfect half-Windsor knot. She stepped back and smiled with satisfaction, giving Inyo a full view of her unclothed torso, a bralette struggling to contain her breasts. 

He tore his eyes away and addressed her comment with a story he’d used so many times he had committed it to memory. “Everything we do in Chicago is critical to getting the resources needed to construct a Quantum Entanglement Device, even something as mundane as a faculty colloquium and happy hour—everything.”

“Humph,” she snorted and turned back to cover herself with a flowered, long-sleeved blouse. “Unless one of your faculty members has a Swiss bank account filled with hidden research dollars, this looks like just another social event organized by the Political Sciences Department.”

Inyo didn’t understand Nadera’s ambivalence since the move to Chicago. It was as if she’d lost interest in their objective, to collect data for future missions and, if possible, make contact with someone who could form a bridge between their worlds, someone willing to become entangled with Earth. Her purpose in being on this alternate world. This was probably her response to the shock of decohering from both this place and him; instead of dreaming of him or this reality for years, she was becoming drawn into it like a star into a black hole. No problem. She wasn’t becoming obstructionist, only disinterested, following his guidance without complaint. So far, so good, but he would keep his fingers crossed. 

The ten-minute walk from their one-bedroom apartment to Harper Hall passed too quickly under a cloudless, late-summer sky lit by a setting sun the same shade of red as on Earth. Nadera talked confidently about her plan to introduce decades of research as radically new theories that would garner funding for their mission. Encouraged by her renewed commitment to the mission but disappointed that she didn’t feel the same about their personal relationship, he stopped in front of the ivy-covered brick facade of Harper Hall. Her warm hand slipping into his wasn’t as big a surprise as her comment.

“Here we are, Inyo, entering the halls of academia.” She turned a proud look toward him and continued, “I know I’ve been distant and ambivalent, which I think was a delayed response to…you know what I mean, but I’m with you now, ready to do my part for our mission.” Her suddenly upbeat tone confused him, uncertainty morphing into suspicion when she added, “I’m going to keep an open mind and be more like you from now on.”

That worried him but it was too late to inquire about the meaning of her ominous words because several other couples arrived, forming a group jostled Inyo and Nadera through the heavy wooden doors. He was quickly recognized as the evening’s speaker by a member of the impromptu group, and Nadera’s hand was torn from his by societal pressure. A glance revealed her confident smile. She had been recognized as the newest member of the university’s faculty, another celebrity. 

Inyo took his place behind the podium, nervously searching the dozen or so faces before him for Nadera’s. She was talking animatedly to an older man sitting, her hands uncharacteristically waving as if she were treading water, patting his arm excitedly. Her antics were encouraged by her audience of one, his aging brown eyes oblivious of Inyo preparing to summarize an economic model he’d studied on Earth that scaled individual human behavior to national and global scales. Inyo hid his revulsion at Nadera’s private performance of an enthralled and enthusiastic economics follower—she was playing this guy, doing her part; this old man must have said or done something to make her so attentive. She had been oblivious of Inyo’s amorous innuendo for months. Avoiding eye contact, he finished his presentation in twenty minutes. The few questions suggested that it was well received, until the old guy Nadera was clinging to stood up and asked a question he’d been spoon-fed by the stone-faced physicist from Earth. 

“How do you expect to collect the microeconomic data required by your model? This sounds like a proposal for another government program to interfere with our economic freedom. Where does it end?”

Inyo would have to thank Nadera later for whatever she’d done to motivate this antiquarian. For the moment, he answered the question honestly while the girl of his dreams watched expectantly. “The data already exist but are unavailable because of logistical issues. For example, there aren’t enough computers to process the purchase data and for another, why do you assume the federal government would spearhead such an effort? The data reside in the hands of financial institutions. The anonymized records from private corporations could be shared between themselves and possibly private-government entities like the FNMA or FHLMC, colloquially known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Congressional oversight could assure transparency.”

The colloquium morphed into happy hour, with imported beer and inexpensive white wine supplied by the Department of Economics. Nadera ignored Inyo and remained at the side of the old guy, both of them talking animatedly, despite having nothing in common because they were from different worlds, but they just kept talking, distracting Inyo from the conversations flowing around him. Finally overcome by concern for Nadera’s safety, aware of how vulnerable she was in this violent world, he cut short a discussion about Daniel Kahneman’s latest book, and joined her.

“Well, Nadera, perhaps you can introduce me to your friend?”

Before she could respond, the interloper extended his hand with a warm smile. “I’m Brian Chamberlain. I’m so glad to make your acquaintance. I’m sorry if I was distracted during your presentation but Nadera was explaining your thesis while you spoke.” He looked at her appreciatively and added, “I should have guessed that you two were together, the way she spoke as if coached…” His words trailed off but his thought was interruped by Nadera.

Without the slightest sign of discomfort, she said, “I’m going to spend the night with Brian, Inyo, so don’t expect me back until tomorrow. We have a lot to talk about.” She smiled at the old guy and added, “Isn’t that right?”

His eyes shot open as he struggled to close his gaping jaw. “Aww…well I…what…?” He turned to Inyo in desperation, his voice pleading as he continued, “I thought you two were…together? What’s going on?”

Inyo couldn’t find a response, but the girl of his dreams shattered his illusion of solidarity with well-chosen words. “Inyo Semenov and I met in graduate school and, being of similar dispositions and sharing a dream, came to America to cast our lot along with everyone else, in a land that wasn’t corrupted by latent Communism or nascent Hypercaptialism. We live together but our relationship is purely platonic, born of a common interest in living in a free country, so we compromised. I love him like a brother.”

Inyo’s pulse pounded on his skull from the inside, despite his heart being frozen in his chest, as he stammered, “Of course. Nadera and I have been together so long…uh, been through so much…she is closer to me than my real sister, who lives in Moscow. I hope that one day she can join us here in Chicago.” Those few words had exhausted his vocabulary and he was speechless when Brian responded.

“That explains why she watches you so closely, Inyo. I thought you were together, as a couple like…” He paused, glanced at Nadera and then focused his attention on Inyo before adding, “She may have gotten carried away there. I mean I haven’t invited her to my home—”

Inyo interrupted, “She’s like that.” His attention was focused on Nadera as he added, “When something gets into her head, she pursues it, which is why she’s such a phenomenal physicist.”

He faced Brian Chamberlain, the man who had become his nemesis, and finished with, “Don’t worry about taking advantage of my dear sister Nadera. It is you who should be concerned because I think she is going to open your eyes to a reality you’ve never imagined.”

“What?” escaped from Brian’s mouth before Nadera finished Inyo’s thought.

“You want to be the first man to speak to aliens. Right?” 

He nodded dumbly and she continued, “Inyo and I can make that a reality, but you have to be willing to go down the rabbit hole. Are you up for that?” 

*

“Where have you been?”

It had been more than a week since Nadera had gone home with Brian Chamberlain to spend the night. Inyo had seen her around campus a couple of times, but their paths hadn’t crossed and he’d respected her desire to be left alone. Seeing her, dressed in designer clothes and attending to her academic business, had reassured him of her wellbeing. Her reappearance at their apartment, dressed in the same clothes she’d worn to the colloquium, elicited a sigh of relief from Inyo, until she stumbled past him without responding to his question. 

Eyes staring blankly, she disrobed, littering the floor with clothing purchased at Target, before crawling between the sheets, naked. Without looking at Inyo, she said between clinched teeth suddenly chattering, “I’m so…cold, I don’t know what’s happening, what happened…help me…”

Shocked into action, Inyo slipped between the sheets and pressed against Nadera. She was shivering uncontrollably, arms flailing, legs jerked by muscle spasms, eyes rolling wildly as her head snapped back and forth. This wasn’t a response to the mild fall temperature, so he desperately wrapped his arms around her, trapping her gesticulating arms, pinning her writhing legs, his mind groping for something, anything that would restore the connection they’d shared before arriving in this strange world. Her skin felt unnaturally cold to the touch, as if she’d been immersed in ice water, so he rubbed her vigorously. The intensity of her paroxysms decreased as twilight settled over Chicago and her eyes opened to the intermittent light of a full moon peeking between scattered clouds.

“What happened?”

Inyo released his hold and rolled onto his back, pushing the blanket aside to expose his sweat-soaked clothes to the coolness of their apartment. He was bone tired and it was all he could do to roll out of the bed. She was looking at him expectantly as he stumbled to the table and fell back into a chair. 

“I was hoping you would tell me. You arrived this morning without your key—I had to let you in—then you stripped naked and got in bed before being overcome with muscle spasms so violent I thought you would injure yourself.” He glanced at the digital alarm clock and added, “I just spent eight hours wrestling a tiger…”

Her eyes opened wide as the blanket was pushed down to reveal her unclothed body and the damp sheet where Inyo had been lying. “I was delirious?”

He nodded confidently. “Absolutely out of your mind. How do you feel now? Can you remember what happened, what you and Brian Chamberlain did for the last week? Anything at all?”

“Who?” She sat up and swung her legs out of the bed to face Inyo, unconcerned by her lack of clothing. “A week? I was gone for a week and you didn’t do anything about it?”

Inyo scoffed. “I saw you around the campus and you didn’t look like you’d been brainwashed or mistreated. In fact, you were wearing designer labels and acting…well, normal. You smiled at me a couple of times so I assumed you were enjoying—freedom I guess, with Brian, and maybe working an angle to support the mission. I got the impression he was more than a curious neighbor with a penchant for macroeconomics, especially after seeing your new wardrobe.”

She looked at the clothing strewn across the floor and then at her naked body, confusion and disbelief fighting for control of her features. She stood up uncertainly, not trying to cover herself, and staggered towards the bathroom as she said, “I can’t think right now. I’m going to take a bath. Can you order something to eat?”

She didn’t bother closing the bathroom door, so Inyo didn’t see any reason to express his concern about the possibility of her drowning in the bathtub. He used the primitive mobile communication device he’d acquired in Chicago to order a hamburger with onion rings for himself, and Kung Pao Chicken with spring rolls for Nadera, her request conveyed from the bathtub. Fragments of the past week were shared with Inyo from the bathroom. She and Brian had fallen in love, knowing it was only for a few days, a week at most; they’d spent the time well, each day being a gift from god. She couldn’t remember the details but one fact was clear in her mind: She had told Brian Chamberlain, a wealthy inhabitant of this earth, everything about her and Inyo’s mission, including the need to find a contact in this universe willing to risk quantum entanglement with their Earth. Her final words were delivered directly as she appeared in the bathroom door, wearing only a smile.

“Are you angry with me? Something felt right with Brian, about his being our contact in this world, but I’m not certain because…I don’t actually remember anything…just guesses…”

Inyo answered her question before getting to what was really on his mind. “Of course not. How could I be upset? You had expressed your support for our mission just before meeting Brian Chamberlain and, being the brilliant scientist that you are, you recognized an opportunity when it presented itself and acted. I’m sure that your missing week has sown seeds that will produce a partial solution to our problem—I’m putting my money on your new friend and…and lover becoming a critical component of our mission.”

Rather than getting dressed, Nadera went to the mirror and turned around, examining herself carefully with Inyo trying not to watch. “Do you think I’ve gained weight?” she asked, facing him unabashedly before turning away to display her derriere, looking over her shoulder expectantly.

Inyo leapt to his feet in frustration. “What’s going on, Nadera? Are you making a point, that you can get any man you want, like this Brian Chamberlain? But I’m…I don’t know what I am to you. Why are you behaving this way?”

Rather than apologizing, she approached uncomfortably close and gently placed her hands on the back of Inyo’s neck, a beguiling smile transforming her visage as she began her explanation. “Quantum entanglement is only possible by integrating the equations. It can only be accomplished using the summation of the quantum states of the particles comprising a person or object, so the theory expressed in our technology makes no predictions about details. The theory could no more predict your dreams about me than it could foresee my response to suddenly being decohered from you…”

“What are you saying?” Inyo’s arms slipped around her waist.

She sighed and pulled closer. “Our becoming entangled at conception destined us to be together. It can’t be undone, at least not without causing permanent and probably fatal injury to both of us. I’ve been working on a differential solution to the equations—I think that was last week—and I’m hopeful, but that’s not my point.” She pulled back and interjected, “You smell. Take a shower and then I’ll explain.”

Nadera helped him undress and stood outside the shower as the sweaty residue was washed down the drain, leaving Inyo feeling like a new man.

“Like I was saying, your individual response to becoming entangled with me was expressed when you were asleep. Your prefrontal cortex wasn’t paying attention and blocking discordant memories, which didn’t go away. They were real.” She grinned and interjected, “By the way, your memories are totally accurate. I was self-conscious about it until today, which brings me back to my point—”

Inyo placed an index finger to her mouth and said, “Our dinner should arrive any minute, so let’s get dressed or at least cover ourselves.”

She laughed and slipped into her shorts, just as a rap came at the door, leaving Inyo in the bathroom feeling naked and defenseless. She threw on her nightshirt and answered the door, returning with a plastic bag.

“My dinner has arrived but I’ll wait for yours before we eat. I want to savor our first meal together.”

“What does that mean?” Inyo complained while donning his t-shirt.

Instead of answering, Nadera wrapped her arms around his waist, inviting him to do the same, and kissed him passionately. Inyo’s knees buckled under the force of her assault. She finally allowed him to breathe, before answering, “We are like the two poles of a battery. You are a quantum anode. A positive charge—for lack of a proper vocabulary—has been accumulating in the quantum space associated with your existence since we were first entangled, at conception. That’s why you shared my life, unknown to either of us. This is some weird science Inyo, so I’m speculating, but hear me out.”

He guided her to the small table and sat down because he was feeling very tired. “I love hearing you talk,” he said, feeling no shame at such an admission.

Her hand grasped his as she continued, “I am your paired quantum cathode, the receiver of whatever unimagined forces are at play, but I stored this…charge…unaware of its existence. But then it was released when we became decohered, when I subconsciously became aware of this excess of quantum energy—I don’t have a better name for it. This pent-up energy was released without warning, throwing me into a tailspin.”

“Is that why you had a blackout?”

She nodded but quickly responded, “But we’re in equilibrium now, I think. I don’t know if it was being with Brian—I don’t remember if we had sex or not—or something beyond the scope of Quantum Entanglement Theory, but I have the same memories as you.”

A knock at the door interrupted her explanation. She heated her meal while Inyo accepted his from the delivery person. Nadera was grinning from ear to ear as they sat down at the small table. Inyo risked taking a hungry bite from his double cheeseburger as she continued her story between nibbles of her chicken and noodles.

“I know what you’re thinking, Inyo. The answer is, yes! I remember you as my childhood friend, the boy who came to my house for holidays. I have even more memories than your sketches. You have always been in my life. You are the only man I’ve ever made love to… God! I love you so much I can’t find words to describe my feelings. That’s why I blacked out last week. Conflicting realities were juxtaposed when I went home with Brian Chamberlain, fully intending to do whatever it took to either find a point of contact or secure funding for our mission. I didn’t want to be with him, not at the quantum level, so I…”

Inyo swallowed a mouthful of cheeseburger and said, “Are you saying that my sketches of my dream—my dream girlfriend and lover—these are now your memories? Doesn’t that seem like you’ve been robbed of your real life? I mean, Jesus, that’s a terrifying idea—”

Nadera’s head was shaking vehemently as she said, “You don’t understand, Inyo. First, I don’t know why I remember life without you, but it is definitely nothing more than a distant fantasy, not even real memories. Don’t ask me to explain it. The bottom line is that I am the girl of your dreams and you are now the boy of my dreams. I have loved you all of my life. Get used to it.”

It wasn’t that easy for Inyo. “Why don’t I feel the same?”

Nadera laughed and choked on a piece of chicken, before regaining her poise and saying, “Are you kidding? You’ve been expressing your recognition of our quantum relationship from the day we met. You don’t have to make any adjustments because you’ve been living in this reality from our conception. I’m very proud and definitely excited—not to mention overjoyed and madly in love with you—to finally share this reality with you, but I hope I didn’t have sex with Brian Chamberlain. That would be like cheating on you.” 

*

Inyo was skeptical of Nadera’s acceptance of her new reality, unable to shake the feeling that he’d somehow stolen her life despite her wholehearted commitment. The reason for his distress finally occurred to him during lunch on campus one cool autumn day the week after her return. He wasn’t sure how to bring it up without sounding ungrateful or, worse yet, egotistical and self-centered, and the last thing he wanted was to hurt her any more than he already had. He cleared his throat to get her attention.

“What is it, Inyo? You’ve never done that in the years we’ve been together. This must be important.” Her warm, inviting smile gave him second thoughts. She was right. His memories of their shared life were filled with ideas and concerns blurted without preamble.

He smiled sheepishly and began, “I accept that there has been some kind of cosmic, quantum shift that brought our realities into alignment. In fact, what used to be dreams I recalled vividly have become memories that I accept as tokens of past events supported by the photos in my gallery of our life. But I remember that those images were once sketches drawn by me…now they’re real, why do I remember the other reality, the one in which you were only the girl in my dreams? I want to commit to our shared reality but I’m lost…”

The concern that had crept over Nadera’s features evaporated as she reached across the table and took Inyo’s hand. “My previous reality is fading fast, nothing more than a few dreams now, like your previous dreams of a life with me. You just admitted that the same thing is happening to you. The reason is the same as for me, not that I know what it is, but I’d speculate that the Explorer program was premature and based on an incomplete theory of Quantum Entanglement. Because the way in which decoherence occurred for us—being suddenly thrust together in another universe—the neural networks comprising our brains retained physical evidence of other realities, struggling to remain in the timeline or maybe the worldline we were thrown into, this world. If I had to guess, I’d say that neither one of us will recall anything except the past in which we fell in love as children and, unknown to us, had been quantum entangled from conception. It was our destiny to be together and in this place.”

“But don’t you feel that you’ve lost something?” Inyo muttered, unable to shake the sense of being a charlatan, a fake person who had never been alive, not even born, just popped into existence.

Nadera’s head wagged mischievously. “You and I were simply unexpected partial observers of quantum processes that occur continuously: new worlds and realities created every time a decision is made, an electron moves along a neuron, a butterfly flaps its wings. Nature is correcting this glitch and soon we will be perfectly equilibrated with the new world we inhabit. Trust me, sweetheart.”

He had to add, “Are you sure you like it in this reality, being in love with me…?”

Her answer was to get up, step around the table and sit in his lap with everyone watching them, before kissing him passionately for a long time, her arms wrapped around his neck. She released him and stood up, her expression beaming. “I’m pretty certain there is no reality in which I could be happier than I am right here, right now, feeling the way I do about you, even with your self-doubt and second-guessing nature. I love that about you, Inyo.”

Before he could respond, a familiar voice interrupted. “A little voice told me to tread lightly and—oh boy am I glad I listened to it.”

Brian Chamberlain stood there with a wide grin on his ruggedly handsome face. “May I join you?”

Inyo nodded dumbly. 

Nadera’s eyes were deflected downward as she meekly replied, “Please do, Brian. This is as good a time as any to talk about what happened…”

Brian set his tray down and Inyo suddenly felt hungry. He would focus on his sandwich while the drama played out. Something told him that this was a good omen, even if it made Nadera a little more than uncomfortable. There was nothing wrong with Brian’s appetite because he immediately set about preparing his chef salad, apparently enjoying himself immensely as Nadera glanced around and poked at her Caesar salad.

She cleared her throat, eliciting a raised eyebrow from Inyo, acknowledged by a self-conscious smile, and said, “Well, Brian…I don’t know how to begin—”

A cherry tomato impaled on his fork hovered before his mouth as he interjected, “Let me help if I may. The week we spent together was the most enlightening time of my life and I can’t thank you enough for sharing it with me. Thank you so very much!”

That didn’t appear to be what she wanted to hear. “That’s what I wanted to speak to you about. You see, well…I don’t remember anything except that I definitely told you about Inyo and me, where we came from and why we’re here…I think. Did I?”

Brian made her wait while he swallowed a mouthful of salad. His head was nodding emphatically when he finally answered, “Absolutely, and you convinced me of the truth of your wild story. That’s why were together so long. I was skeptical at first, but you more than proved yourself.” He was grinning and Inyo was sure that he was teasing Nadera, taking advantage of her missing memory. Their time together must have been interesting.

She finally looked Brian in the eyes, self-doubt and guilt written all over her face. Her voice was hard as steel when she asked, “Did we have sex?”

Inyo worked to conceal a grin at Brian’s response, straight out of a Marx Brothers film. He imagined a cigar replacing the fork as the older man’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Gentlemen don’t kiss and tell my dear, especially with the young lady in question’s paramour sitting at the table.”

A desperate sigh escaped Nadera’s pursed lips.

Brian relented and filled his mouth with salad, making her wait again, before amending his comment. “You threw yourself at me arduously, in an obvious attempt to use your considerable sensuality as a tool to gain access to my fortune and even my person, even going so far as presenting yourself in the nude, pretending to be intoxicated and susceptible to my wanton desires. I would have succumbed to your advances except that there was something about you and Inyo that alerted my Spidey-Sense.” He tossed a glance at Inyo and quipped, “You get it, don’t you?”

Inyo smiled and nodded but didn’t say a word, his mouth full.

Brian faced Nadera and continued, “I don’t honestly know what happened to you, but your behavior changed over the course of the week. You insisted on sleeping in my bed the first night and…well that was difficult, but I resisted your advances. In the morning you were a different person, apologizing for your action, then behaving as if we were collaborators. That’s when you told me about you and Inyo coming from another quantum world. You explained that you were suffering from quantum decoherence and I shouldn’t believe anything you said because reality was changing with every second. You were very convincing…but it got better.”

“I went to work. Inyo saw me on campus. He said that I was aloof.” She glared at Inyo and added, “He didn’t interrupt because he had what he called proof of life.”

Brian laughed aloud before responding. “You proved a lot more than that to me. Using some equipment borrowed from your lab on campus, you constructed a communications device that was quantum entangled with your universe—specifically, with an automated system constructed as part of your Explorer program. This was verified by several physicists who happen to be friends of mine, pragmatic scientists who understand the need for discretion in matters of such importance.”

“Is that all?” Nadera was visibly relieved at Brian’s story of her missing week.

Brian finished his salad, wiped his mouth with a napkin, finished his bottle of water, and said, “Of course not, Nadera. Seeing that your condition was deteriorating and certain that the only person who could possibly save you was Inyo, I sent you home in a limousine. I guess you made it. I’ve been busy since then…” He was beaming, obviously keeping the best for last.

Nadera ventured to ask, “So, will you help us? I could understand any concerns you might have about some kind of invasion…this is a very serious question that must be examined. Maybe you know some political leaders?”

Brian laughed out loud and Inyo joined him, to Nadera’s dismay.

“What’s so funny about that? Inyo and I don’t have any specific objective per se, just that we should attempt to establish some kind of…I don’t know, maybe diplomatic relations.”

Brian threw Inyo a knowing glance and said, “It is your world that should be concerned. Making contact with a violent place like this Earth is a major risk, a world that shoots first and asks questions later. The week we spent together was…it was like a Jew hearing that they had just missed the last train out of Budapest in 1944 with the Red Army closing in. I cried at hearing about your world, an Earth that can only be imagined in science fiction in this universe. We missed the last train and we are doomed. You wanted to broadcast your arrival from the rooftops, not a very good idea considering the geopolitical situation here. Thank god that, before you could take precipitous action, your cognitive state deteriorated and…”

Inyo had finished his sandwich and chips and now shared his opinion about recent events. “I assume that the communication device Nadera constructed is in a safe place?”

Brian answered in a lowered voice. “I’ll be a lot happier when you guys take responsibility for it. I don’t trust anyone here, if you know what I mean?”

Nadera interjected, “Did I at least make a record of my work?”

Brian’s head nodded emphatically. “You insisted on a complete record, so that’s what we have, pretty much a continuous video of the entire week, stored on secure servers. Also, a lot of written notes, including photos of white boards. You were possessed and we struggled to keep up, but I don’t think we missed anything.”

Inyo added, “You’re right to be cautious Brian. Nadera and I didn’t come here to establish diplomatic relations, only to make contact. We’ve done that, thanks to your perspicuity. Let’s keep it low key. You have the final word Brian, in how we proceed, keeping in mind that contact between our worlds will be voluntary and completely egalitarian. Despite your understandable  response to discovering the existence of a sister world, nothing is as it seems

Brian laughed again. “The best advice I can give you two young idealists is to disappear and forget you ever met me because, trust me, your world doesn’t want anything to do with mine.”

Nadera finally smiled. “It works both ways, Brian. If we are able to establish a quantum bridge, someone from this world will have to be the first ambassador to Earth.”

“I’m all in.”

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