Brisbane’s central P station was found behind a nondescript door built into an old colonial building beside one of its most famous squares. The door was labeled REST ROOM, dark brown and steel and with a tiny P on it in blue. A notice said that it was closed until further notice, although some passersby had clearly tried to use it for its stated purpose.
In the early mornings, a city employee would hose down the concrete and the smell of diluted urine and fresh water would slowly rise in the escalating heat. It was coming into summer; the sun rising early, hot and bright.
The P station was hidden in the shadows of its sunken entrance and the silhouette of the trees cast by the rising sun on the classic building’s sandstone facade. Light cast off the modern tubes of glass and steel dominating the skyline.
Those entering by mistake would a find a small empty beige room with a locked elevator in it. Not that anyone could enter accidentally. The door was locked and needed a pass key to open.
Only Special Technicians and Officers got pass keys.
As a Senior Officer, keeping her pass key safe was imperative. The access policy stated that no-one could come and let you in or out of that room. Without it, she was stuck outside until a new one was re-issued: a three-month bureaucratic nightmare.
She pulled her unremarkable grey cardigan around her unremarkable grey suit. Just an unremarkable mid-30s office worker going about her business as the crisp morning gave way to a blazing day.
The analysis had come through late last night, so late she’d barely had time to race her cat to a friend’s house and hurriedly pack a small backpack. Her friend had come out to the verandah barely awake and taken the cat box blearily.
“Another work trip?”
She’d simply nodded, unable to explain why it was so often she was sent away at short notice. In her awake state her friend was more curious and was starting to ask difficult questions that she was legally not able to answer. Her cover job explained business trips but not the urgency, the number nor the duration. Her last case had taken over a month and she’d had a very disgruntled friend and even more disgruntled cat when she’d returned.
Of course, even if she were allowed to answer, she wasn’t sure her friend would be able to accept the explanation anyway.
Her birth had been difficult and in most universes she would not have survived. She was a rarity and the number of cases she’d investigated over the past year just proved that.
Sometimes the existential angst of the whole thing set in but at other times she was simply happy to be able to apply her logic and inductive skills to something so lucrative.
The work paid extremely well; the fact she was one of the few people qualified to do it helped with that.
She swiped her pass and opened the door, stepping into the room with the stride of a professional. Confident but slightly bored at the routine. She remembered the first time and her confusion, nervousness and youthful lack of assurance. A memory now.
There was a biometric sensor in the room that activated an alarm in a distant control room.
Who was in that control room? Where was it?
She would never know while she was a field officer.
Knowledge was power.
All she knew was that the case file sent to her by encrypted dropbox the evening before had been sent anonymously as they always were. One time she’d lazily tried to trace back the point of origin and had gotten a stern encrypted email to stop.
They could be a person in their pyjamas in a three-bedroom house in the suburbs. Or one of many employees in a giant building, stuck in a cubical lined with pictures of their dog. Again, she would never know.
The lift unlocked. It was time.
Whoever was behind that camera in the ceiling knew what they were doing. She’d never had a misposition on a single mission, even if she had only a vague notion of how they did what they did. It worked. That’s all she knew, all she needed to know really.
It was time.
She slung her backpack over her shoulders and stepped into the elevator and turned to face the silent closing doors. There were no buttons. She had once included a request in her mission report for there to be buttons.
They may not do anything but they would be comforting; the illusion of some control.
As it was, the closed metallic box with the sheer silver walls was kind of terrifying if you thought about it for too long. She was glad she was never in there long enough to dwell on it too much.
In a philosophical mood after a few glasses of red on a lazy Saturday afternoon she had once thought the elevator was like the universe itself. A simile for reality.
Unfiltered, reality was terrifying. Or maybe it wasn’t for ordinary souls going about their ordinary lives. But for her – knowing that the universe had an invisible exit sign? Knowing that there was a way out but that those controls were invisible and accessible by faceless others? They said a P station was built on every nexus point but she didn’t know who ‘they’ even were. How could she know if that was true?
Could you imagine? Going to do your groceries and walking off the escalator and into a completely different reality with another you already living your life and nowhere to put the melting icecream?
She shook herself.
It hadn’t happened yet as far as she knew and certainly not to her. She needed to shut down her imagination, it was not her friend sometimes.
The elevator doors slid open as silently as they had closed and she saw the room in front of her again. She stepped out, remembering the first time she’d walked in and out of that small beige place. Her confusion. She was expecting it to be different and was disoriented. Was this some kind of scam? Was she the fool who had fallen for some grand and insane con?
No matter how many times she had stepped out of that elevator, she still questioned whether they’d positioned properly. What if she was just stepping back into her own world?
When she opened the door from that room and walked discreetly into the other world, that was when she’d see it. Sometimes the street looked the same; the same buildings, the same cars. But there was always something if you looked carefully enough.
The fashion. The hair. A sign out of place.
In one world someone had had a bad accident on that intersection and they’d put in lights to stop the traffic from the cross street. In another, there was an unexpected by-election and signs were plastered everywhere.
Other times the differences were jarringly stark. The square next to the P station had a different statue in it or it wasn’t a square at all. The whole street had been redeveloped into high rises and a large multi-level shopping centre was where some generic colonial hero should have been.
That one had been horrible.
She didn’t waste time cataloguing the differences. They had Multiverse Anthropologists for that as well as Transverse Linguists to chart language shifts (and trust the linguists to call themselves something like that). Reality Historians and Positioning Cartographers, those who made maps of space-time. Also – she had discovered on a recent mission to a world without any form of currency – Multiverse Economists.
Unlike the general public, she was able to access their research if she needed it. In this case, the reality she was visiting was so close to her own that no special access research was required. Which was good since she’d been given only a few hours to prepare for the mission.
She stepped into the street and was relieved the intel was accurate as usual. The street looked exactly the same; the only difference between this reality and the one she had come from was that the victim was still alive.
Reality Detectives operated secretly in this world as they did in hers so she would have to be careful at how she approached the victim. Thankfully, her doctored credentials as a police officer worked here and they had good Agency to Agency relations. Sure, the detectives she’d be working with would think she was an investigator from another jurisdiction rather than another universe. But they would cooperate, even if they would inevitably whinge about her lack of specifics on her case.
If anyone went looking for her in this reality they wouldn’t find her. She had not survived her birth here.
This was the reason she had this job and why she had been chosen for so many missions lately. She jokingly called it the Reality Prime Directive.
(In her head anyway. She had no one with which to share in-jokes and all her attempts to include it in her official reports had been met with silence).
An Officer sent to a parallel world must not exist in that world.
Reality Detectives were most valuable when they had few doubles in the multiverse.
The number of universes in which she had either never been conceived or had died in childbirth was so far 26. That was how many cases she’d investigated over the past 8 years and how many universes she’d been sent to.
Who knew how many more there were?
Maybe she was unique.
There it was again, that existential horror. The feeling of being trapped. But also of annihilation, of being scrubbed from existence. She wondered how it would feel to know that there were many of you out there in the multiverse somewhere.
Happy you. Sad you. Fun you. Rich you. Poor you. Successful you. Loser you.
She supposed being unique was better than realising you were the loser version of yourself.
The Law of Reality Drift stated that in most universes you were likely to be very similar. Those outliers though. She wondered how crazy some people’s lives could get. After all, one decision was enough to spawn a universe. If that decision was big enough it could spark a cascade of decisions.
Not that it mattered to her in the end. Her miracle birth had seen to that and the way she’d lived her life had deliberately cemented it.
No relationships. No children. No lovers. Few friends. No doppelgängers in parallel worlds to muddy her interactions there. Minimal Reality Footprint.
Her lack of attachments was why she got so much work and after a while it had seemed logical to maintain that disconnection. It made her perfect for this job but sometimes she wondered if she had made the right decision.
It was not just her that was unique but her decisions. When she made eggs for breakfast, all other choices disappeared. Her life was a fact, potential observed. When she caught a train instead of a bus, there was no version of her who took that bus. Her decisions made no ripples in spacetime, they didn’t echo through the infinite universes. They were definite and quantifiable in the way that nothing else in the multiverse was.
And yet had she ever done anything to cause a ripple in the reality of her home universe either? Anything at all?
Other people her age had lives that were complicated and just straight up messy.
Hers was as clean, smooth and metallic as that box elevator that had sent her here. As beige and end empty as that small room. She was a living P station.
Pristine and extremely functional.
Consequently, the Cov2 virus that had ripped through her reality and this one as well had barely made an impact on her life. She put on her mask as she stepped into the fresh air of another crisp morning and that was her single nod to change. She thought back to the file about one small difference – here the virus was commonly called Covid19.
She stepped into a café that appeared to still be operating despite the pandemic and ordered a flat white. As she took a moment with her coffee she flicked through the digital file and reviewed the victim’s details.
Murders were the main instigator of a multiverse investigation. A chance to talk to the victim while they were still alive, a chance to track them while they could still be tracked. An analysis of murder investigations over the past decade had shown that a cross-universe investigation could improve the chances of finding the perpetrator by as much as a third. No doubt that explained the funding her mysterious employers seemed to be able to draw on.
This case was much the same as all the others. Something had gone wrong and someone believed that the normal investigative processes wouldn’t work. Someone else had agreed.
Coffee finished, she quietly slipped her encrypted phone into her bag and headed off to see her local contact. In a few days, after she’d identified the suspect, she’d be back again to the small room in that familiar street.
She’d report her findings to whoever ran the Reality Bureau, wherever they were, and wait for her new assignment.
Again. And again.
This was her job after all.
She was a Reality Detective.