A mystery USB leads Adrian to a cabin, where Other Adrian appears on an old television. Other Adrian is a version of himself from a parallel world. He encourages Adrian to build a machine that will facilitate travel to Other Adrian’s world. Other Adrian informs him that his agent will be in contact.
Adrian has just found out his wife, Candice, is having an affair. He meets Other Adrian’s agent, who turns out to be a woman, Taylor, that Adrian had a brief relationship with years ago. Taylor convinces him to confront Candice about her affair, and to go with Taylor to Other Adrian’s world.
Adrian fights with Candice. He completes the machine, and with Taylor, leaves Candice to return to the cabin.
As Taylor inserts her key into the padlock, Adrian glances back over the canola toward the housing estate, and Taylor’s car parked on the verge of the empty road. Night has fallen, but the moon is full, and casts the scene in a soft, silvery glow. There is no wind. It’s almost as if the world is holding its breath with anticipation. It makes Adrian nervous. Hairs raise on his arms, his heart quickens.
He turns back to see Taylor slide the chain from the gate and drop it to the ground. She pushes the gate inward, waits for Adrian to enter.
The machine is deceptively heavy, seemingly getting heavier the longer he carries it. His forearms burn. He moves with quick, stuttering steps up onto the deck. He has to wait again for Taylor to catch up, to open the cabin door. Inside, nothing has changed. Thick wooden walls, the old kitchenette, the metal bed frame at one end. In the middle of the room is the television on the stand, the rug, the armchair. A slice of suburbia in a nineteenth century cabin.
He can’t hold the machine any longer. His arms are numb. He lurches inside, half places, half drops his creation onto the rug.
“Careful,” Taylor exclaims. She’s quickly at his shoulder, running a hand over the casing like it’s a wounded pup. He rises, steps back from it.
“Sorry,” he says, wondering why he’s apologising.
Taylor’s face softens, and she opens her mouth to say something, but the words remain unsaid as her eyes dart toward the television screen. Adrian follows her gaze, and finds it warming up. What was black is now blue and backlit. Shadows resolve into recognisable forms. A thick neck, glasses, pursed lips—Other Adrian’s face. And filling the background, strange fleshy protrusions that rise and fall rhythmically, like a sick animal breathing raggedly, but no animal Adrian has ever seen. The room is filled with them. Veined, monstrous masses, shuddering. It makes Adrian feel sick. What the fuck are they? His mind can’t process the images.
“You’re both here, good,” Other Adrian says, commanding Adrian’s focus. He swallows. The image on the television zooms, and Other Adrian’s face fills the screen.
Taylor takes his hand, and he looks down to see his calloused hand wrapped in her slender fingers. His mouth is dry.
“I see you’ve completed the machine. Not far from the tree, Adrian,” he says, the hint of a smirk on his lips. “Is it operational?”
Before Adrian can answer, Taylor jumps in. “Yes. He’s tested the receiver.”
Adrian’s brow furrows. Her tone is sharp, the husk gone, replaced with an authority he doesn’t recognise.
“Show me,” Other Adrian says, and Taylor reaches for the machine, but Adrian shakes himself from his fugue and grabs at her wrist, stopping her.
“No, wait. I have more questions. I… I…” What? he thinks. “I’d like to hear again what you are offering.”
Other Adrian’s eyes move from Taylor to Adrian. He sighs—a disappointed school principal. “We’ve been through that,” he says. Then silence.
Adrian tries again. “Well, what about where you are taking us? What is your world like?” he asks, his eyes darting to the flesh behind Other Adrian. “And how does bringing us there help you discover more about the universe? I’m not a scientist, I’m not smart. And Taylor? You said nothing of her last time—”
“I told you my agent would be in contact.”
“Yes, but how did you contact her?”
“We don’t have time for this.” Then, to Taylor. “Start the receiver.”
Taylor pulls free of Adrian. “Don’t worry,” she says. She looks certain, calm. But why would she be? She leans over and switches the machine on. It starts to hum, and he feels the vibrations of it in his skin, in his bones, his brain. His legs go weak.
“But how do you know?” he croaks, his voice not sounding like his own. Is it happening already? Taylor places hands on his shoulders, guides him backward. He wants to resist, but his legs won’t obey. They move of their own accord. His heart feels like it’s pumping gelatine. He bumps up against the armchair, his knees go, and he slumps into the chair.
“There you go,” Taylor says, placing his useless arms in his lap. She holds two fingers against his wrist, and Adrian realises she’s taking his pulse.
“What are you doing?” he drawls. His tongue is fat, useless. The saliva’s gone, but his eyes water. There’s pressure behind them. He looks from Taylor to the television, where Other Adrian grins. Behind him, the tissue is throbbing. It seems to be synchronised with the vibrations of Adrian’s machine.
“Why did you need me to build the receiver?” he asks. He wrestles for control of his head, his eyes, he forces them to move to Taylor. “You said Other Adrian sent the television, this chair, the book. So why not just send a receiver?”
He hears a wet, gurgling sound from Other Adrian that he first mistakes as coughing, but realises is laughter. “Oh, finally. You’re putting it together. Not as stupid as I suspected.”
“The field doesn’t support complex machinery,” Taylor says. “Only organic matter and inanimate objects.” And then, to Other Adrian, “His pulse is steady, breathing normal. Proceed.”
Normal, he thinks. His breathing sounds like a jet engine in his ears. His heartbeat is erratic. The air in the room is hot. It’s crushing him. Yet none of that is the odd thing, his mind says through the ooze. Why is she reporting to Other Adrian? And then he understands.
“He sent you. You made the modifications to the television once you arrived.”
She turns, looks at him coldly. “Yes. And you made the receiver to bring us back.”
“You said you were a local historian. You knew about our past.”
“No. Taylor, your Taylor, was a local historian. I found her here. She was… generally cooperative.”
“Where is she now then?” he asks.
“With me,” she says, tapping her temple.
He doesn’t understand. None of this makes sense. He can hear something else now. A squelching. Like the sound of fish slapping against the bottom of a boat. But large fish. Many of them.
And then he feels pressure everywhere, like he’s been encircled by the coils of a monstrous python, which squeezes. But the flesh of this snake is warm, not cold. It has fine hairs that tickle his neck and arms, and it is slick with a rancid-scented sweat that makes him want to retch.
He cranes as far as his uncooperative neck allows, but there’s nothing behind him. The sensation of something squeezing him remains, though.
There’s a jolt, and suddenly he feels like he’s in two places at once. The cabin, as well as the room on the other side of the television screen.
“I don’t want this,” he moans.
There is that phlegmy sound again, Other Adrian’s laughter. “Buyer’s remorse, that is all. But I promise you, you will be better off here with us.”
And as afraid as he is, he wonders. Maybe he’s right. Without Candice, what’s left? Drifting through life, driving the bus, ignoring a wife that fucks other men?
He sees Candice. She’s crying, she’s guilty, she’s angry. She’s trying to get him to pursue university, to find a better career, to take more shifts at work. She’s trying to get him to have a little fun, to solve a puzzle that arrived in the post. A puzzle that she thought was a simple game, something that he might enjoy, which turned out to be much more. And yet as he relives that day again, the day he held the USB in his hands, he sees her anew, like he’s floating out of body watching them both. She encouraged him. She’s always encouraged him. If she doesn’t love him, why do that? Why bother? To assuage her guilt? He doesn’t buy that.
He hears her voice in his head. No, not in his head. He wrenches his gaze toward the door. Candice is there, eyes wide, pale in the moonlight, her mouth agape.
“What the fuck is…” but she doesn’t finish.
“What’s she doing here?” Other Adrian growls onscreen. Taylor lunges, and Adrian tries to get his swollen tongue to cooperate long enough to warn her.
But he doesn’t need to. She’s never really needed him, he realises, and this is no different. While he’s still forming the words, Candice steps toward Taylor, not away. He sees her pull her arm back, and then she swings what appears to be one of his shifter spanners hard into Taylor’s face. There’s a sickening crack, and Taylor’s head snaps back, and she collapses at Candice’s feet with a heavy thud.
Candice, still brandishing the shifter, shakes. She’s looking at Taylor’s prone form, then at the screen, then Adrian pinned to the armchair. Her whole body shivers like a mirage.
“It’s you,” she says so quiet that Adrian almost doesn’t hear her. “It’s you there… but also…”
“That’s not me,” are the words he forces from his throat.
She stares at him, her face a ball of worry and confusion. “Adrian?” she asks.
And he’s never been so glad to hear his wife say his name. He tries to smile, hopes it doesn’t look grotesque. Suddenly their problems seem non-existent. A trifle that he turned into something insurmountable. He’s never felt such relief.
From the television screen comes a grunt of annoyance. “Enough,” says Other Adrian. There is motion there. Adrian feels a sharp jolt like he’s riding a rollercoaster into a vertical loop, g-forces slamming his head against the headrest. It’s hard to keep his eyes open.
From Candice, he hears his name again, but it’s garbled. He tries to tell her to switch the receiver off. He’s not sure he’s successful. He feels hands on his shoulders shaking him. He hopes it’s her. There’s a slap to his face, but it feels distant, and oddly cold, which is nice given the humidity in the air, and the fever heat of the flesh that enfolds him.
He hears Candice’s voice once more. Then everything goes black.
The worst thing Adrian ever did was stop Candice seeing her mother the night she died. It wasn’t intentional, yet intention didn’t change the end result.
He thought Alexia had been getting better. The chemo seemed to have halted the spread of the cancer, and Alexia, over those last few days, had a little more energy. It was Alexia that suggested that he take Candice away for the weekend. A break from work. A break from sickness.
Candice didn’t want to go. She wanted to stay close to her mother, just in case. Truth was, Adrian had grown jealous of Alexia over the course of her illness. The majority of Candice’s time was allocated to her, not him. It made him wonder how she would be if they had a child. Yet he comforted himself that that would be different. That would be investing time in life, not death. A terrible thought, he knew. But that was what he thought.
He spent more than they could afford to rent an apartment by the beach. He wanted to take Candice near the water so they could try for that kid with the sound of the waves in their ears. A throwback to their first years dating at university, their make-out spot in a mostly empty carpark right on the far end of the main beach. He couldn’t recreate it exactly, but he wanted the sound.
The car was packed, ready to go, when Alexia called. Candice picked up after one ring and smiled as she said hello. But as Adrian watched, that smile became a straight line, then a frown. She listened for a long time, then offered to come over, which shouldn’t have irritated Adrian as much as it did. But it did. He swallowed, turned away and rapped his fingers on top of the car. Candice glanced at him, shrugged apologetically, listened.
“Okay, Mum. Love you. Bye.”
She’d barely hung up the phone when he jumped in, impatient. “What’s up?” he asked, staring across the roof of the car.
Candice shook her head, bit her bottom lip, sighed. “She’s having nose bleeds, and she’s dizzy.”
“Oh,” he said. He couldn’t think of what else to say.
“She says she’s okay, she just couldn’t find her painkillers…” Candice said, trailing off.
“Well, if she’s okay—”
“I don’t think she is. She sounded… a little spacey. Her painkillers are in the cupboard over the sink, like they always have been.” Candice stepped toward the car, stopped, looked at Adrian. “I think something’s wrong. I think we should cancel. We can go next week—”
“Honey,” Adrian said. He regretted his tone, but continued anyway. “Alexia’s a grown woman. She knows how she feels. I know she’s sick, but you’re jumping at shadows.”
Candice cleared her throat, opened her mouth to say something, but then closed it again without speaking.
“It was her idea, remember? She wants you to have some time to relax. Plus, we’re only two hour’s drive away. Not far, really. You deserve this. Stop feeling guilty.”
She hesitated, then nodded. “You’re right. She’d tell me, wouldn’t she?”
“Of course, honey.” He desperately wanted to get going before it got dark. But he didn’t risk pushing her more than he had. He watched her thinking.
“Okay. But I might give her a call in an hour, if you don’t mind.”
“Of course not. In fact, why don’t you call her when we get there, as well?”
She smiled, a sad smile, but a smile nonetheless. She opened the car door and slipped inside. He felt a pang of guilt, a tightness in his belly that gripped him for a moment, but then passed. He wasn’t being selfish, he told himself. This was about more than just his enjoyment. It was about their chance to create a family. He slid into the driver’s seat, reached over and squeezed Candice’s leg. She held her phone tightly in both hands. She looked at him, smiled again. He closed the door with a bang, started the engine, and headed off.
An hour later, when Candice tried to call, they’d hit the mountains and couldn’t get reception. So she had to wait until they arrived in the seaside town.
It wasn’t Alexia who answered. It was a nurse. She explained that Alexia had called the ambulance, and she’d been admitted to hospital. Her nosebleeds hadn’t stopped, and she’d taken a turn. They were doing tests.
Candice was frantic, insisting that they return that night. To his eternal shame, Adrian argued against it, which resulted in her screaming at him.
He relented, eventually, and the trip was conducted in silence. Hers in fear, his in anger.
Alexia passed before they got home.
Adrian wakes to a sensory assault unlike anything he’s ever experienced before. Blinding white light. The din of a thousand people talking simultaneously. The scent of ozone, burnt hair. The taste of metal. Cold, and heat. The sharp pain of tiny cuts, followed by tender caresses.
For a time all he can do is freeze, grit his teeth, sweat and hope the feelings disperse. He’s a cat encircled in a towel; he doesn’t know which way is up, down, or where to head for relief.
Slowly, the cacophony of stimuli dulls. It’s still there, but manageable. Which allows him to assess his environment more thoroughly. He quickly identifies greater problems.
What he thinks of as light, he realises he can’t actually see. What he thinks of as sound is beyond audible, a presence in his mind, a radio signal through the airwaves, and him the receiver. Taste, touch, scent—all of these things feel intensely familiar, yet different. Non-physical. It’s like he’s floating in amniotic fluid, inside a giant womb. Yet everything is floating, his insides, his outsides, his thoughts.
He tries to run his hands over his body to soothe his panic, but finds nothing. No body, no hands. He tries to scream, but no sound comes forth. Something creeps into his mind. A whisper: “Adrian.”
More panic. He gags on the taste of copper. It recedes, and he back-pedals from the brink of insanity.
“Who… who is that? Where am I? What…” he was going to ask what happened to Candice, but then he remembers. He recalls Other Adrian on the screen, the receiver messing with his head, his body. He felt squeezed, drawn away. But where to? This isn’t the other world he was expecting.
“You’re in his realm, like all of us,” says a voice that feels like his own, but isn’t. “Physically subsumed, mentally joined. Part of a hive mind now, but controlled by—”
“—ourselves—” interrupts a second voice.
“—not ourselves. Nothing like ourselves. He’s—” comes a third.
“Other Adrian,” Adrian projects.
There’s a chorus of voices then, murmuring agreement reflecting back at Adrian the rightness of his description. The voices all sound like him, he thinks: the cadence, the tone, the feel of them.
“You said subsumed,” Adrian interjects. The throng hushes slowly, like a crowd at the theatre as the curtains open.
“Yes, bodily subsumed. You can feel it if you concentrate. Reach out and we’ll guide you.” The voice pauses, waits. Adrian complies, and searches for his physical body; he reaches out with his mind for his hands, his feet, his chest and…
He falls into his body and is instantly crushed by a huge weight. He’s damp, hot, surrounded by darkness. He feels intense pressure, then relief, then pressure, like his body is being gummed by a toothless giant. There’s no pain as such, but even in his anesthetised state he knows his bones are breaking, and his organs are turning to jelly.
He jerks back hard, finds himself in the white space again. “What the hell?” he hisses.
“But that’s impossible, I…”
“Impossible in your world. Impossible in mine as well.”
Many more murmur agreement.
“But there are infinite worlds and infinite possibilities. Not all follow the same laws as each other.”
Another Adrian chimes in. “In this world, it is better to think of Other Adrian as a large amoeba. An amorphous, creature, able to subsume others into itself. To grow stronger, larger, to learn.”
“To feed. On the flesh—”
“—and our minds.”
The Adrians allow Adrian a moment to process this. Instead, he pictures Candice coming home from work, finding him at his workbench. She always engaged him first. With small talk, a touch on his shoulder, something. Always first. He’ll never have that again.
He’s hit by the weight of his stalemate life. Neither moving forward, nor back. Floating. Resenting Candice for pushing him. Pushing him, he sees now, just to live a little more. He could have chosen to do so many things. He thought he’d chosen her. He thought she’d failed him, finding someone else. But it was him, he realises. He begrudged her for changing, for trying new things, for going after her career, for meeting new people, for trying to drag him with her. He begrudged her for mourning her mother. And for putting her grief before his desire for a family. How hadn’t he understood this before? He wonders why she stayed.
All of this rushes through his mind like a man given news of a terminal diagnosis. A man forced to reassess his life, knowing it will end soon, and the time to fix his mistakes is insufficient.
“Candice,” he thinks, and it’s so plaintive, so quiet, he wonders if they even hear. But their murmuring suggests they do. And that they understand.
“Most of us lost her. Nearly all of us.”
“But Other Adrian said Taylor was our soulmate.”
“Lies,” hisses another.
“But don’t give up.”
“No, don’t give up.”
“Infinite worlds with infinite love stories better than our own.”
Adrian hopes that is true.
“And with your arrival, a final hope.”
Adrian’s attention is honed, he focusses in on the presence that said those words. “Hope?”
“Yes, hope. But we must act fast. He’ll return soon.”
“Act? To do what?”
“To overwhelm Other Adrian.”
“I don’t understand. How?”
“Some of us have been with him for a very long time. Studying, watching, waiting.”
“We have found a chink. When he feeds, he exhibits—”
“—weakness. He becomes distracted. When he brings a new Adrian across, for a few moments only, he loosens the tight hold on us, focusses instead on the consummation.”
“Building our forces.”
“He’s been too powerful for us, as many of us as there are.”
“If we all work together.”
“We can wrest back control from him, and—”
“Candice. Can I see Candice again?” Adrian asks, desperate.
There is a swell of voices, and hurried discussions.
“Perhaps. But we must act now. Are you ready?”
“I don’t even know—”
But he doesn’t finish. The light is suddenly rushing by like he’s riding the nose of a bullet train tearing through a white-lit tunnel. He’s pushed flat against a surge of movement behind him. Screaming in his ears, a roar. He screams himself.
He slams hard into something that feels like a solid wall of steel. He disintegrates.
Adrian blinks, and is shocked to find he has eyelids again. The physical sensation of them feels strange after a period of having nothing.
But this body is not his own.
It’s bulky, monstrous. He fills the room, each part of him pressing against the floor and the walls. There’s humid air on his naked skin, and sweat oozes from his pores. The floor is slippery beneath his mass.
He’s slumped over a bank of machinery, hands caressing a keyboard marked with odd symbols. His arms are stunted, a contrast to the rest of him. Intuitively, like being fed answers through an earphone, he knows that the machine before him controls the receiver that he built back home. But it also controls numerous other receivers in numerous other worlds.
Something hits him hard from behind like a truck mowing down a deer. There are voices in his head, screeching. Then Other Adrian speaks, his voice close and angry: “You ungrateful vermin, get out of my—” but the threat is cut short, the pressure eases. Adrian is in control again.
He pushes his monstrous torso upright. It’s hard work. He can feel Other Adrian just behind a thin veil, fighting, but being held for the time being by Adrian’s brethren. Yet Other Adrian still seems to retain enough will to make control difficult. Adrian feels like he’s pushing a laden shopping trolley with a broken wheel. It won’t let him go straight; it pulls him into displays of food, passing shoppers.
“What have you done with him?” demands Candice. Her voice sounds crackly, far away. He stares at a monitor affixed to the wall, and sees her on the screen, in the cabin, an empty armchair behind her.
He smiles at the sight of her.
“Don’t grin at me, you smug prick. Answer me.”
“Candice,” he says, but the voice is not his own. It’s deeper, gruffer. “It’s me. This thing I’m in, this version of me, he brought me to his world, but I’m fighting back. I’m in him, but it’s me.”
Candice steps toward the screen, grimaces. She brandishes the large spanner still. Behind her he sees Taylor motionless on the floor. He wonders if she is still alive. Knowledge falls into his mind like rain on parched earth. He understands that Other Adrian was in the process of using the receiver to bring Taylor back next. The machinery has locked on, and will soon pull her into this world.
“Is this a joke?” Candice hisses. “Is this a fucking joke?”
There’s not enough time to explain properly or convince her of who he is. He tries anyway.
“We used to go to the beach. The car park at the south end, late at night, where we’d smoke weed and talk about our futures. We both had huge dreams, but only one of us followed through. I broke our bargain, Candice. I never realised till now. But I did, and I’m sorry.”
He watches her face waver, uncertain. The angry thin line that is her mouth falls into a frown. “How do you know this?”
“It’s me, baby. I’m sorry. I know why you did what you did. I drove you to it through my selfishness. My inactivity. I should have done more to keep us close. I should have worked harder, at least on that one, important thing. I should have worked at us.”
He feels on the brink of tears. He sees Candice’s eyes moisten too. She opens her mouth, closes it. He doesn’t know if she really believes it’s him. But after a moment, the words flow from her like a torrent.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I had no right. I know it doesn’t matter, but I didn’t love him. I never did. It was always you, I…” she starts to sob.
“I know, Candice. I do. It’s just I’ve been too stupid to return the love you deserve.”
A jolt forces him into blackness. He feels hundreds of presences slithering over each other like snakes, one larger, and more powerful than the rest—a python hissing, biting, writhing. But then the masses prevail, and overwhelm it once more. He opens his eyes to see Candice’s worried expression.
“I don’t have much time,” Adrian says.
“Come home. Please come home, for me.”
He taps into the collective minds of all the Adrians and confirms his suspicion. His shoulders slump. He feels an aching emptiness in the pit of his huge belly, like an icy vacuum. He shakes his head slowly. “I can’t,” he says, his voice a rasp. Candice sobs louder.
He wipes roughly at the tears that have fallen on his cheeks, then runs his hands over the keyboard, knowing instinctively what controls to issue.
There is a dull thumping sound, and Taylor is suddenly in the room, unconscious, face down on the wet floor.
“I’m glad of the time we had,” he says to Candice. She’s still crying, but watches him intently. “Even though I wasted so much of it, you were what made life worthwhile.”
He feels the sea breeze as she holds his hand. Their feet are up on the dash of his car as they look out at the clear night sky and listen to the rhythmic sound of waves crashing.
“Please don’t go,” she whispers.
“I wish I didn’t have to. But I do. There’s more of us out there, Candice. Infinite versions of us, in different states of being. Some yet to meet, some deeply in love, some just starting out, like we did once, with all the promise of a lifetime to come. I can’t let him take that from all of them.”
“What about us?” she implores.
The cold in his stomach spreads through his limbs. He can barely choke out the words: “I love you.”
He sees her next to him in the hospital when he wakes. He feels the ache as he sits with her at her mother’s funeral, unable to take the hurt away. He sees the glint in her eye, the devilish smile on her lips as they make love. He sees her watching him as he works at his bench. Just watching, trying to decipher his thoughts.
The Adrians feed him what he needs.
His hands work quickly. Practiced hands flipping switches, typing instructions. He tunes out Candice’s anguish as he works, but glances toward her occasionally, trying to keep her in his mind.
He engages all the receivers at his disposal. There are so many, in so many worlds. He doesn’t need to wait for any of them to lock onto targets. Not for this task. He just needs them open. He initiates the dimensional transporter, the device Other Adrian used to send Taylor, the armchair, and the rug to him. He refocusses it, and along with the receivers creates a lengthy, complex loop.
“Goodbye, Candice,” he says.
Other Adrian smashes through the defences of the Adrians, slams into him and squeezes. “What the fuck have you done?” he cries into Adrian’s head, and out loud. “What the fuck—”
But it’s too late.
The transporter makes a sound. A tick, tick, tick, then it pauses a beat. Whoosh.
Adrian can still feel Other Adrian’s monstrous body. He feels the agony as its fat leg is sucked from the room, wrenched from its body, spat out in another world, only to be returned a second later, reduced to gore and splatter.
A slice of his shoulder and arm are gone, exposing bone. Other Adrian screams. Part of its stomach next, viscera slithering to the floor.
The receivers continue to send the parts back—shredded flesh, the stink of broken insides, shards of bone and blood raining down like a thunderstorm of red.
Adrian senses relief all around. He senses elation and celebration. He’s not alone here at the end. And while he can’t see Candice anymore, he has her firmly in mind.
Their vessel shudders, jerks. Torn and shredded. Crunched and diminished. Other Adrian wails like a spoilt child, but it’s too late for him.
Adrian binds with the others, and they comfort him, and he them. They each share memories of their lives, recollections of love, and Candice.
He shares one memory. A memory of him and Candice locked in each other’s arms, their whole lives ahead.
And then it ends.