"Parallel worlds," said the woman who looked just like you. She rummaged through your desk. "Yeah, I know, that's some Star Trek shit right there."
"Neither of us has a beard," you said. "Which one of us is from the Mirror Universe? Who's the evil one?"
She found the snickerdoodle in your lunch bag. How had she gotten past Kondo-Pelletier security? They wouldn't let you in without a badge, and you worked here. "Oh man," she said, tucking the cookie into her vest pocket, "last week I was in Chi-84, and the recruitment target looked me in the eye and said 'I know I'm the evil one.'"
You went with her. You thought about the vague secondhand politics of that girl you'd just had your fourth date with. You thought about the proportion of Chem Eng to paperwork in any job you'd ever get. You thought about the annual holiday postcard from your dad, now that he'd decided to use his time off for travel instead of family holidays. This world would be no different without you. You didn't even have a parakeet to feed.
Across the charts the worlds roll on, rippling out from choices, clustering around opportunities: the distribution of Jenny Sirico space. As one Jenny Sirico drinks her morning coffee, another Jenny Sirico in another world is pouring in the half-and-half, another is grinding the beans, another is hitting the snooze button. Any one of those instants could be a delta point: any one of you could yawn and stretch and drive to a city she'd never seen and start a new life, but, pretty much, they don't.
Nobody cares about worlds without humans, except mammoth hunters and the feeble Possibility! Patrol!! that has appointed itself to police reality. Singleton worlds destabilize their neighbors, but as long as refuseniks like the Siricos founded their Shangri-Las far from inhabited worlds, P!P!! had other priorities.
Shangri-La didn't need chemical engineers. More than a fifth of Jenny Siricos were Chem Eng, and you quickly realized that if you'd had the ambition to out-compete the best of them, you wouldn't have been stuck in that cube at Kondo-Pelletier. Shangri-La needed admin assistants, it needed sushi waitresses, it needed taxi drivers, and that's what you did, on a salary equal to any of the other Jenny Siricos', and after work you walked home on dim crimeless streets to a balconied apartment overlooking the primeval forests around the city. 39°30'N, 03°0'E—this would have been Majorca in your world.
The protests surprised you. You hadn't bothered with the news here—a choice of feeds from a billion worlds more or less like the one you'd left, half of them downstream stories that had already happened in your timeline anyway; feeds from a trillion worlds not that much like yours; and bland local coverage of heisted 70mm prints, concert bookings, fish fries.
The protestors had staked out a shady spot by the orange trees in front of the Recruitment and Development building. You parked your taxi and got out, wondering what could possibly inspire any kind of rift among the Jenny Siricos.
A woman ten years your senior was reading into a microphone. "Catherine G. Pirson," she said. "Shot with a sniper rifle. Cheryl A. Pirson, shot with a sniper rifle. Jonathan Prochnow, disassembled by nanobots concealed in a puff of cotton candy." You glanced over the signs: NOT IN OUR NAME. END SUPPORT FOR MIDNIGHT CRUISER. HAIL TO THE AMIDA BUDDHA. An honest-to-God nun in a habit was kneeling and saying the rosary, and you were no more Catholic than you were Buddhist.
A woman from a world about twenty years upstream from yours pushed a clipboard into your hands. "Sign this petition to Recruiting and Development," she said, "and tell them to stop their military protection for Midnight Cruiser."
"I didn't know we had a military," you said. As far as you knew, Rec-Dev organized recruitments, like the one that picked you up; extractions, for Jenny Siricos who were in trouble; and interventions, for Jenny Siricos who were underage.
The protestor bit the side of her lip, the way you did when you were caught finessing the truth. "Somebody's helping Midnight Cruiser, and Rec-Dev—"
"Don't listen to her," someone said, way too loud for how close she was standing. And then, to the protestor: "Why don't you go fly for Rec-Dev yourself? In the time you've spent bitching about one world you could have fixed fifteen or twenty."
She wore a pilot's uniform, a tailored jacket and skirt with high-heeled boots. Shangri-La was a girly place. Her hair was pulled back tight in twin French braids that reminded you of the crests on a dinosaur's skull. A carnivore's.
"The JSs ought to bring Midnight Cruiser to justice," said the nun. "We know better than anyone how to handle her."
"Midnight Cruiser always escapes," said the pilot. She took a swig from her beer bottle. "Always."
"Do you need a ride home?" you said.
The nun touched your arm. "She's Chi-84, you know," she said.
The Chi-84 pilot chucked her beer bottle at a recycling bin. It bounced off the rim and a passerby stopped to pick it up. The pilot was happy to get in the cab, but was not happy with the Indonesian pop music you had on the stereo.
"You don't like it?" you said.
"I don't wanna like it. I don't care if ninety percent of you do, ninety-nine percent, whatever. It's not mandatory."
"I'm called Amaryllis." You got it from a book you had as a kid. It was a pretty common nickname here. "What about you?"
"Call me Jenny Sirico," she said. "It's my fucking name." She leaned up over the front seat. Shangri-La cabs didn't need plexiglass barriers, or meters. "I saw Midnight Cruiser once," she said. "I didn't get to, like, talk to her, but I watched her put together an M240 machine gun in twenty seconds. P!P!! turned up, and we ran them off, but we were phased the whole time. She never saw us." Either Jenny sobered up quicker than you, or she wasn't quite as drunk as she'd been acting.
She tugged her uniform scarf loose with one finger.
"What time does your shift end?" she said. "Wanna come up for a drink?"
You knew the common elements of the Chi-84 biography, of course. Anyone here could trace the broad outlines of the major regions in Jenny Sirico space as easily as they could find Illinois on a US map. And if you needed any specific JS's history, you could look up their world on Shangri-La's internal website.
The Chi-84s did a stint at the Girls' School for truancy and drug abuse, and lost their virginity to a staff member in return for better treatment they didn't actually get. Some of them got pregnant, and of course your father—their father wouldn't sign the paperwork for an abortion.
Your passenger, this particular Jenny, had a standard-issue furnished apartment. It was nice; it contained exactly the sort of things you would have picked out. When you undressed each other you found that even though you were from a Tau world and she was from a Chi, you both had matching scars on your forearms from a nasty bike spill when you were eight.
"I wonder how far apart our worlds are?" you asked.
"We calculate that when we fly through the membranes," she said eagerly. "You take the square root of the dot product of the two delta-point vectors—" You kissed her just to shut her up.
Jenny had a puckered scar across her belly, and another on her arm that you thought might line up with it if she were in the right position. You started to run your finger along it but she pushed it away.
"From a mission?" you say.
"I got that before I got here." She turned towards the wall. "I suppose you're going to look it up. You know, my homeworld sucked, but at least I had some privacy."
The recruitment rate for Tau-12, your region, was about 12.8%. The overall average for all Jenny Sirico worlds was about 15%. Rumor had it that no Chi-84 had ever chosen to stay on her homeworld.
Certainly they made up a disproportionate number of Shangri-La's residents. Maybe that was why the protestors couldn't form a consensus against Midnight Cruiser.
Jenny was from Chi-84-9321(m). You could have looked up how she got that scar, but you never did.
"Wanna ride shotgun on a mission?" said Jenny. "Not literally shotgun. Probably."
The membrane between worlds was worth seeing again, in all its rippling between-colors glory, and after that you sat in the Gorgon, phased, outside a small-town police station for hours. Some pilots preferred to dephase inside buildings, as you'd found out that first day at Kondo-Pelletier, but Jenny didn't want local security cameras to see the Gorgon.
She was talking about her favorite subject, Midnight Cruiser, with all the fervor you'd felt for that singer Brian Lowe when you were fourteen. It made you want to apologize to everyone who'd known you back then.
"Midnight Cruiser abducted the president of the American Psychological Association and fed him to her pet hyena," said Jenny. "Oh my God, she is awesome."
"That must have been one hungry hyena," you said.
"Well, Esmé is, like"—she held her hand at shoulder level; then, remembering she was sitting down, above her head—"really big."
On this world Jenny Sirico was ten years old. A volunteer, some upstream JS of sixty who lived with her husband on her homeworld but worked weekends for Rec-Dev, had posed as a librarian at a nearby library and recommended chemistry books to the local JS. But someone got suspicious, and the provocateur librarian was being questioned at the police station. A JS lawyer from upstream in this region was inside trying the diplomatic route.
"It's been three hours," said Jenny. "I say we shoot our way in." Chi-84s just lived for this.
She pulled her fléchette pistol from its holster and tapped the barrel against the steering yoke. "This one time Midnight Cruiser stole a bunch of medieval weapons from the Museum of Natural History and was firing white phosphorus at the cops with a trebuchet, and a police sniper shot her through a window, but we threaded a medical drone through the water pipes and kept her breathing until they battered the door down, and we had her out of the psych ward before nightfall." Would she never shut up about this? When you got back you were totally signing up for that two-week shift cataloging species that had never gone extinct on Shangri-La.
The police station doors burst outward in a bloom of magenta smoke—an upstream knockout gas. The lawyer ran out—she had a matronly woman by the wrist, but there wasn't any dragging; they were both making good time in their orthopedic shoes. Jenny nudged the Gorgon's door into phase with the local world, and the two stumbled through, the differential light ringing their bodies and flashing away.
"Nose plugs," said the now-retired librarian. "Never leave home without 'em."
You randomized the music panel, and a male voice—the first you'd heard for months—filled the tiny cabin.
"Oh, Brian Lowe," said the librarian. "I used to love this guy."
You sank into the leather sofa that Jenny had pilfered from Kondo-Pelletier during her latest mission. The Shangri-La news was doing a piece on the single Shangri-La marathoner. Here, where everyone had so much in common, the Jenny Siricos who were least typical became celebrities: the one and only pastry chef, the one and only architect.
The reporter pointed out the marathoner's world on the chart of Sirico space. It sat in a little dimple on the 3D projection, its distance from the surrounding worlds proportionate to its difference. Jenny said that pilots call that convex hull of probabilities the candy store, because you can find anything you want there. The reporter ignored another, more prominent point that protruded from the hull like a middle finger.
"See that?" said Jenny, just as you were trying to convince yourself that you could run a marathon too and like it. "That's Omicron-1-1(a). That's where Midnight Cruiser lives."
Too much, that is what this was; it was too much. "Midnight Cruiser's a sharpshooter," you said. "But I can't even toss a wad of paper into the wastebasket two times out of three. So how's she manage it? Steady eye? Years of practice? Upstream neural boosts, courtesy Chi-84?"
Jenny wouldn't meet your gaze.
"Would she ever escape without you?" you said. "At that first delta point, when her world stopped being like its neighbors, who put the gun in her hand?
"And where'd she get a giant hyena, anyway? They're extinct on all the JS worlds. But there are plenty of them on Shangri-La.
"Does she even know you created her?"
And, in the same tone you just used, Jenny snapped back. "Remember in sixth grade, how you had to move in the middle of the school year, and you missed the science fair?"
"Yeah. The guy across the alley was murdered, and my mom—"
"The guy across the alley. Mr. Van Dasselaar. He used to buy his sons pot to smoke. Teased me for not trying it the first couple of times." Her voice was ugly. "'You think you're too good for it?'"
"You killed him," you said.
"Well, one of us did." Us, you knew, meant Chi-84. "I've bagged my share of Van Dasselaars. They beg." Her voice was ugly again. "'I got two little kids to take care of.'
"If we created Midnight Cruiser, we created you, too." She got up and pulled on her flight jacket. "People like you are happy because people like me are killers. Surely we have borne your griefs and carried your sorrows."
And then she was opening the door with one hand and punching buttons on her phone with the other. You wanted to walk out yourself, to circle the city in your cab until dawn; but that would have felt too much like leaving Jenny. So you watched her from the open window, striding away quicker than you would have liked, chattering into her phone about some urgent mission. You heard her voice in the dark, and you never heard it again.
The band managed to sound both over-rehearsed and amateurish. Musically, the Sirico talents were pretty average, and the Chi-84 discipline could only take them so far.
But it was sunny and brassy, some military march from a world you didn't know, and it drowned out the protestors. This was a Chi-84 neighborhood. Green flags twitched lazily in the breeze. WELCOME HOME, said a banner. WE NEVER LEFT YOU. WE NEVER LET YOU DOWN. You had a pretty good view of the plaza from the park bench, next to a JS who had to be eighty and was sitting with her hands folded in her lap like she was in church.
The streets were swept, the trees trimmed with military precision, but the only fresh paint on the buildings was graffiti. JENNY "IT'S MY FUCKING NAME" SIRICO, said the nearest. Chi-84-9321(m)—Omicron-1-1(a).
Midnight Cruiser had been busy that week. She'd pistol-whipped the chief of police in his own office with his own gun, cut in on the Channel 13 news so she could rant over the airwaves about how she would go about building a prosthetic leg for an octopus if she ever had a need to, and tried to replace the city's Fourth of July fireworks launcher with an upstream cloud seeder that made it rain hydrofluoric acid.
Normally the Jenny Siricos were #502441.783 on P!P!!'s most-wanted list (P!P!! itself was smeared across several worlds, and averaged their rankings). But Midnight Cruiser's world had diverged so far from its neighbors that it was straining against the fabric of probability. P!PP!! and Rec-Dev agreed it was a threat to the inhabited parts of reality—they just disagreed about how to handle it. There was, as they say, a frank exchange of views.
A Chi-84 girl who went by Root Beer—only twenty, and already a two-year veteran—sat down with you to go through the tapes she'd filmed from the terminus membrane. Shangri-La Gorgons buzzed around a bizarre assortment of P!P!! cruisers, overlaid on an unseeing world where crowds screamed and pointed at a Jenny Sirico shooting flaming arrows from a rooftop. Midnight Cruiser—frailer than you'd imagined her, laughing and waving, animated by an anger not her own.
Your Jenny's Gorgon shimmered into phase beside her. Midnight Cruiser frowned—well, she smiled a little less. Then she pulled a fermionic pistol from under her jacket and fired at the Gorgon.
"There," said Root Beer, as the Gorgon dissolved in a shower of random sparkles. "I'm sorry."
In the plaza, the band lowered their instruments. A warm breeze blew your hair across your mouth, and you brushed it back behind your ears.
The Gorgon, iridescent with membrane forces, flexed onto the dais. The triangular door folded down and outward, and the Chi-84 pilot led Midnight Cruiser out into the white sunlight.
She was fifteen or maybe twenty years older than you, and they had been hard years. Chemical burns had bleached her skin and discolored her hair. Her lips were parted in a secretive smile. She took a small step towards the edge of the dais. Her holster was empty, but she still had a gunslinger's gait. The pilot put a hand on her shoulder and she fell still.
She is me, you thought. But that meant nothing. Jenny had loved her, and you had loved Jenny, but now any bridge between you and Midnight Cruiser was gone. Which option was worse? That there was no you, or that "you" was the set of things all the JSs had in common, and they were so banal?
Midnight Cruiser flicked the gold fringe on the pilot's epaulet and chuckled. She isn't sure it's real, you thought.
The old woman next to you on the bench whispered in your ear. "Chi-84 looks so pretty in their uniforms." She patted her salon-styled gray hair. "I fell in love with one of them, when I was your age. Of course there were so many more of them then."
Because their region is smaller, you realized. Every mission they fly is a world that won't be in Chi-84.
The old woman braced against your arm to rise to her feet. Another JS her age was waiting for her, a woman with a tailored jacket and high-heeled boots, her gray hair in two tight French braids.
Midnight Cruiser whistled, and a hyena the size of a pony bounded out of the Gorgon and licked her hand.