When I was young and multiverse was just a theory, I was worthless: the brown girl-child of an addict in one of those wards outside the walls of Wiley City that people don't get out of or go to. But then Adam Bosch, our new Einstein and the founder of the institute that pays me, discovered a way to see into other universes. Of course, humanity couldn't just look. We had to enter. We had to touch and taste and take.
But the universe said no.
The first people sent to explore a parallel Earth came back already dead or twitching and about to die, with more broken bones than whole ones. Some actually did make it through, and survived on the new world just long enough to die from their injuries and have their bodies recalled.
It took a lot of smart people's corpses before they learned that if you're still alive in the world you're trying to enter, you get rejected. You're an anomaly the universe won't allow, and she'll send you back broken in half if she has to. But Bosch's device could resonate only with worlds very similar to our own, so most of the scientists—with their safe, sheltered upbringings in a city that had eliminated childhood mortality and vaccinated most viral illness into extinction—had living doppelgängers on the other worlds.
They needed trash people. Poor black and brown people. People somehow on the "wrong side" of the wall, even though they were the ones who built it. People brought for labor, or come for refuge, or who were here before the first neoliberal surveyed this land and thought to build a paradise. People who'd already thought this was paradise. They needed my people. They needed me.
Of the 380 Earths with which we can resonate, I'm dead in 372. No, 373 now. I'm not a scientist. I'm just what they're stuck with. The higher-ups call us "traversers" on paper. Using ports put in place by the last generation of traversers, we download the region's information and bring it back for greater minds to study. No better than pigeons, which is what they call us, not on paper.
One day, the Eldridge Institute will figure out how to remotely download information across worlds, and I'll be worthless again.
Back on Earth Zero, I go straight to my floor after changing into my office clothes. Dell stands out tall in the herd of desks, more than two-thirds of them empty now. Her face is all tight because she's been kept waiting by the only person who ever dares inconvenience her.
"Slumming it, Dell? I thought coming below the sixtieth floor gave you hives."
She smiles, less like she thinks I'm funny and more like she wants to prove she knows how.
Of that, I can be sure. Survival is Dell's whole problem. Here, on Earth Zero, she wanted to be a traverser. She was set up for it too: an air force pilot who'd had her eyes on space before the possibility of other worlds opened up. But Dell comes from a good family, one with money a long way back. In some worlds her parents never emigrated from Japan. In some she joined the private sector instead of this government-research-institute hybrid. But she survived in over 98 percent of other worlds, and in most of those she thrived. I've seen three dozen Dells, and all but one wore clothes more expensive than mine.
When I take off my jacket, we both hide our wince. Bruises line my arms in jagged stripes, and those are just the parts she can see.
"It shouldn't be this bad," she says, her eyes moving between quadrants of my body like she's doing hard math.
"It's only because I've been doubling up."
"Which is why I advised against it."
"I need the long weekend."
We've had this conversation five times this week and it always ends right here, where her concern is outweighed by the effort it takes to argue with me. She nods, but the look she gives my arms lasts long enough for me to notice. It's when she notices my noticing that she finally looks away.
Early on, the professionals on the upper stories, scientists like Bosch and watchers like Dell, told me the bruising was from the resistance of an object from one world being forced into another, like the violence of north and south magnets being shoved together. Other traversers, and they are a superstitious lot, told me the pressure we felt had a name, and it was "Nyame." They said her kiss was the price of the journey.