UNPARALLELED - Chapter Five
Ted, just Ted, is about as normal as you get. Until one day he's not. After a traumatic near-death experience, he wakes up the next morning without—of all things—his reflection. Little does he know, that's not even the weirdest thing that will happen to him that day. (No, he's not a vampire, calm down.)
We make our way to the back of the train, past the dining car, past the business class sleepers, all the way to coach. There’s an empty table with four open seats, so we place our jackets in the bins above our heads and slide in.
After last call, the train’s bells sound, and we creep slowly away from the station. I take one last look at the slender peaks of downtown Los Angeles, which gracefully hide the unseemly grime and commotion festering at their bases. I’ve never liked the downtown district, but the rest of the sprawling city is full of the life and character that the towering skyscrapers so advertise.
I wonder how long it’ll be before I see LA again. The woman still hasn’t said much more than a few words of direction since arriving at the station, but I can’t imagine this is going to be a short trip, especially if we’re going by train. I’ve never been away from home for longer than a few weeks at a time, and never farther east than the Rockies.
I look over at Ella sitting across from me. I think of our short-lived plans to go surfing together. I’ll miss the beach, despite my general fear of the ocean, and I’ll miss the constant flow of events and festivals and conventions. Food from all across the world at my fingertips. Museums, monuments, trails and parks. But at least I’m not alone.
And it’s not like Chicago is a back-country village. Though, I’m not sure how much sightseeing I’ll be doing there.
Once we’re well underway, I turn to the woman.
“You still haven’t told me your name,” I point out. “It’s the least you could do after kidnapping me.”
She looks me over, unimpressed, but with a slight grin on her face. “Fair enough,” she admits. “I’m Laura. This,” she points to the boy with her thumb, “is my nephew, Orion.”
Orion waves his hand and gives us an apathetic smile, then returns to his phone. I guess I was just assuming he was her son the whole time, based on their age differences, I suppose.
I nod in acknowledgement and fold my arms. “You already know our names, it seems,” I say. “I don’t suppose you’ll let us know how? Or why we’re on this train?”
Laura rests her elbows on the table and rubs her forehead.
“It’s a long story.”
“It’s a long train ride.”
She laughs silently and looks out the window across the aisle.
A man in a uniform enters the cabin from the back and begins checking everyone’s tickets. I don’t remember us purchasing passes upon arrival. We just kind of hurried straight from the car to the platforms without stopping. As the man draws closer to us, I expect Laura to pull out her phone so that he can scan it like he’s doing with the others, but she simply remains still, continuing to look out the window with her chin propped up by her hand.
Finally, the man reaches our row and looks at us expectantly. I instinctively shrink into my seat, uncomfortable with confrontation. But then Laura pulls out her wallet and shows the man something within. I lean over to get a look. She moves too quickly for me to see any firm details, but it looks like some kind of symbol, an eagle holding lightning bolts in each of its talons.
The man just nods, then turns away and continues checking everyone else’s tickets.
As always, there are a multitude of questions caught in my throat, held back by my lack of assertiveness, and by the hope that maybe if I wait long enough, the answers will come on their own. But I'm starting to believe that I'll have to draw them out myself, like a dentist pulling a bad tooth.
I try sorting through the questions in my head, searching for the best one to ask, the one that will provide the most answers.
Eventually, I boil everything down to one simple question:
"What happened to me?"
Laura nods, then leans back in her seat and folds her hands.
“You experienced what we call a Critical Event Deviation.”
“I’ll get there,” Laura snaps back, like a mother reprimanding a child, though she quickly recomposes herself. “It’s important that you know this first. Remember what I said about mirrors? About multiple selves and multiple realities and how they occasionally touch each other?”
“Yeah,” I reply, humbled.
“Our parallel selves have different flavors, different preferences and idiosyncrasies that make each of them just a little bit unique. Well, a Critical Event is a point in time, some kind of incident in which you would act or behave the same way, that you would approach in the same manner, no matter your variation. Because if you didn’t, you would no longer be you. A Critical Event Deviation happens when an individual breaks that reactionary path. That person is forced to deviate from what they would normally do. They’re knocked off course, so to speak. Which is why you no longer see yourself in the mirror. You’ve been disconnected from your alternate selves. You’re no longer you, essentially.”
“Wait,” I interject, confused. “How can someone do that? How can they force you to do something that you would never do?”
Laura rummages around in her bag and pulls out a few packs of gummies. “Here, you hungry?” she asks, offering one to me. I shake my head. “Are you sure? It’s a long trip. We’ll get food later, but they don’t open the dining car for a little bit.”
When I don’t answer, she just slides one across the table to me, then gives one each to Ella and Orion.
“Alright. This is where our history is incomplete. Myth and reality begin to blend together when we go this far back, so you’ll have to take it all with a grain of salt.”
She opens a pack of gummies, dumps them on the table, then begins sorting them by color.
“Knowledge of parallel universes goes all the way back to ancient Greece. Atomists theorized that nothing we see around us is, in fact, real—rather, just the random interaction of matter at the atomic level, a balance between existence and the void that’s perceived by humankind in any number of ways. Those perceptions themselves, which vary from person to person—for example, you and I perceive the value of these gummies very differently—are separate realities in and of themselves.”
She pops a green gummy in her mouth for effect. I have to admit, my mouth is starting to water, despite the bagel resting firmly in my stomach.
“As legend has it, there was a war between the ancient Olympian gods and the Titans. The leader of the Titans, Cronus, had two shields of glass, one with the power to view all reality, and the other with the power to change it. Many of the original Greek texts are lost to antiquity, but these shields were referred to in ancient Roman accounts as the Speculo Veritas and Speculo Tempus, respectively. The first allowed the user to see any point in time or space, in any universe. Another allowed the user to actually cross over into other universes.
“When the gods defeated the Titans, they took away the weapons of Cronus and hid them on an island in the Aegean Sea, placing a sphinx with a flaming scythe before their altar to guard them. For a thousand years, they remained safely hidden from humankind. But one day, two Athenian brothers, both political statesmen, having heard legends of a great power hidden among the seas, brought their armies to the island and slew the sphinx, taking the weapons for themselves with the intent of unifying all of Greece.
“As is human nature, the two brothers soon fought over who should maintain custody of the shields. The mirrors were eventually split between the two of them, and each brother gradually gathered more and more Athenians to their respective sides, effectively splitting the city in two. Then, while the city was thus occupied by the ensuing civil war, the Macedonians invaded from the east, killing the brothers in the process. After that, the shields faded from history and myth for almost two millennia.”
Ella leans in closer. I can feel the academic side of her perking up at all this history and mythology talk. She always was wildly intelligent. I thought I had scored pretty well on my college admittance tests, then I found out she scored only a few points shy of perfection. We were all surprised that she ended up going to UCLA; we thought she’d end up at Harvard or Oxford, somewhere where the tuition was prohibitively high.
“So, does that mean they showed up later?” she asks with unwavering attention.
Laura nods, smiling, as if she’s sharing a secret with us. “They were found during the British colonization of the Americas. Not sure how they ended up here, but they eventually made their way into the hands of Thomas Paine and many of the other Patriots at the time. Recognizing their potential, they built a revolution upon them, wielding them to defeat a nation much more powerful than their own infant republic. Shortly before the war ended, though, one of the mirrors was stolen by a traitor and delivered to the British Crown: the Speculo Veritas. The American revolutionaries, recognizing the destructive—and also constructive—power of these weapons, formed a clandestine group known as the Sentinels, dedicated to retrieving and safeguarding the mirror, though for the moment, they bided their time, knowing that their influence was still too limited to conduct overseas operations.
“During the Napoleonic wars, Russia was under pressure to stop the relentlessly advancing French armies, and since traditional strategy was failing them, they began turning to more…unverified sources of power, to rumor and myth. England, always eager to find ways to undermine the French, agreed to lease the Veritas for a period of time, and, with its help, the Russians managed to halt Napoleon’s march through eastern Europe. But, near the end of the war, it was stolen once again, this time by a mysterious individual known simply as X. Though the Sentinels were still young, they did manage to trace the mirror across all of Eastern Europe, watching as X accumulated followers, forming his own army, hungry for power, hungry for the remaining mirror still in America. Some of the first conflicts between X and the Sentinels occurred there in Eastern Europe, around the Transylvania region of Romania."
"Transylvania? Like, mwuhaha, I want to suck your blood Transylvania?" Ella asks, doing her best impression with hands raised like claws.
"The Sentinels would often use their alternate selves to determine possible outcomes of battles and discover X's weaknesses. It was an incredibly asymmetric advantage, one that X quickly realized as the key to the Sentinels’ victories. Though his army outnumbered the Sentinels almost five to one, it was nothing compared to the near infinite support the Americans were receiving through the multiverse. So, he began striking at those ties, causing Critical Event Deviations.”
She takes a gummy and splits it in two for demonstration, then promptly swallows both halves. "That's actually how the legends of vampires came to be. X began spreading dramatic stories to turn the population against the Sentinels. Stories of soulless, otherworldly invaders with no reflection, their only desire to drain every last drop of blood from people’s bodies. He actually managed to incite a large uprising in his support, but the Sentinels eventually, painfully, decimated his armies and drove them out of the region into hiding. From that point on, the legend of vampires fell into myth, transforming over the years, somehow becoming romanticized and sparkly in the sun? Not even sure how that happened. Meanwhile, X continued to sow chaos from the shadows, instigating conflicts worldwide to keep the Sentinels from finding him. Over the years, his followers' influence only intensified, evident by the growing number of wars. World wars, cold wars, bringing the world to the edge of annihilation just so they could hide behind the smoke, waiting for the opportune moment to strike and unite the two mirrors for themselves."
"How did X cause so many Critical Event Deviations?" I ask, coming back to my original question. "How can someone make you do something that you would never do?"
There's less sharpness to my tone now. I admit, the fear and anger has given way to curiosity and an exhilaration fueled by adrenaline.
Laura starts pulling out juice boxes from her bag and handing them out. I wonder what else is hidden in there.
“So, are you both familiar with the story of Tantalus?” she asks. I shake my head; I was never that good when it came to ancient history. Ella, though, nods knowingly.
“Tantalus was invited to dine with the gods, but he got greedy and stole their nectar and their deepest secrets, sharing them with his friends and family. As a punishment, he was forced to stand for eternity in a pool of water under a fruit tree, and every time he reached up, the fruit moved away, and every time he knelt down, the water receded.”
Laura nods at Ella, impressed.
“Right, that’s what’s in the books. But, there’s more to the story that was never recorded, at least by the Greeks. Later records from the Egyptians and Romans tell of his release, how he lured one of the daughters of Zeus and convinced her to free him. Then, with secrets he stole from Hephaestus, Tantalus forged a weapon that the Persians referred to as the Revenge of Tantalus. A flaming sword, one that gave the holder power to defy the commandments of the gods, or to persuade others to do the same. It allowed Tantalus to use one of several basal human weaknesses as a weapon against his enemies, or to free him from the restraints placed on him by the Olympians, so that he could never be held back from taking what he desired ever again.
“Early Egyptian Christians knew of the destructive power of these basal weaknesses, how they could be used against a person, and actively encouraged defense against them. They referred to them as Cardinal Sins, but followers of Tantalus believed these weaknesses were soft points built into the human race by the gods to control their creations, and that to truly be free, one must wrest control of those desires and embrace them.”
“Don’t people commit cardinal sins every day? Are you saying that’s all Tantalus’s work?” I ask.
“People have certain vulnerabilities to certain ones,” Laura explains, “but the Revenge of Tantalus has the power to probe attributes that are normally well-shielded by the victim. It has the power to make people do things that they normally wouldn’t do. In any case, Tantalus began a crusade against his father, who was a regional ruler at the time, using the weapon to wreak havoc and take control of the government, but several of the neighboring regions banded together to defeat the armies of Tantalus and capture him. The weapon was seized, but as is often the case, it was mysteriously stolen and lost. It appeared again in the hands of X, millennia later, who used it for his own purposes, which I’m sure by now you’ve figured was to create Critical Event Deviations.”
I think back to yesterday, to what might have been my Critical Event, and also what might have caused me to deviate from it. What qualities of mine are core to who I am? What defines me? There’s the shooting, of course. It would make sense for something big like that to be considered a Critical Event. But what did I do to deviate from my core self?
I remember having the sudden boost of confidence, the inexplicable assertiveness and sense of invulnerability. That definitely wasn’t anything like me. At that moment, I felt like an entirely different person altogether. Like I was watching someone else play the hero. Sure, I’ve fantasized about it enough times, but to actually do it? Far less plausible.
But what’s wrong about having confidence? About standing up for one’s self or believing in one’s self? It’s not exactly a cardinal sin, is it?
I dig a little deeper, really pry into what I was feeling, what I was thinking. I do remember feeling somehow above the shooter, condescending perhaps. Maybe it wasn’t confidence I felt, maybe it was something a little bit further, a little bit deeper. Pride, maybe? That’s one of the seven, right?
The train turns a corner, shifting the sunlight so that it reflects off Ella’s rich, ombre hair, catching my eye. I note how locks of it flow down behind her ear, past her prominent jaw line, and rest gracefully on her collar, shifting like liquid gold as she stretches her neck. The sight of her is intoxicating, so I turn away to settle my quickening breaths.
I blush in embarrassment, wondering if maybe pride wasn’t the only attribute of mine targeted.
“So, what do X’s followers want then?” Ella asks. “World domination? Isn’t that cliché?”
“We call them Erisites, after the Greek daughter of Zeus, the goddess of chaos, thought to be the one who freed Tantalus. As far as their beliefs, they’re not far from the guiding charters of the Sentinels. The Erisites believe that Earth, our Earth, can be made a utopian paradise through the exploitation of alternate universes. They would treat the shields as a limitless tap to drain the multiverse of its resources for the benefit of one master reality, what they call Veritas Primus. They would give themselves ultimate power, essentially granting them immortality. The Sentinels also believe in the exponential development of our reality, the unification of humankind and the realization of its potential, but through the free exchange of ideas and resources between our sister universes, rather than through their abuse.”
“Who’s winning then?”
“What’s the phrase? No one wins in war? There have been hundreds of millions of casualties since hostilities broke out between the Sentinels and Erisites. Most of them secondary or tertiary participants, unknowing or otherwise. We’ve been fighting for so long that no one keeps track of wins or losses anymore, but things are definitely getting worse. You don’t have to look further than Ukraine, or Syria, or the South China Sea to realize that. Our resources have grown thin, putting out the Erisites’ fires, and lately we’ve been starting to fight defensive battles in addition to our usual offensive campaigns.
“Thankfully, the use of our weapons has been mostly limited to the conventional recently. Yesterday was actually the first time we’d seen the Tantalus used in almost three years.”
“Wait,” I interject, “so this doesn’t happen often?”
“Oh no.” Laura stresses her vowels in emphasis. “Anytime the ancient weapons are used, they’re immediately traceable by anyone who holds any of the others, which is why the Erisites don’t just go around attacking everyone directly. They still need to keep mainly to the shadows. But that’s how we knew where to find you after the attack. We were immediately aware of the assault on you the instant it happened. From there, it wasn’t difficult to employ some more conventional tactics to track you down this morning.”
This answers a whole lot, but at the same time also unsettles me deeply. My vision goes dark, and I have to take several deep breaths before continuing.
“But why me? Why would they attack me? What makes me so special?”
Laura shakes her head, and I sense her pity in the way she looks at me. But it’s the pity of a stranger, one who merely watches a disaster unfold from afar.
“All we know is that they’re trying to kill you. We’re not sure why you’re so important, but we know they think you’re important. Important enough to reveal themselves after all this time. And until we find out what that reason is, we have to get you somewhere safe. That’s why we’re taking you to Chicago.”
“I don’t know when you last visited Chicago, but it’s not exactly the first city that comes to mind when I hear the word safe.”
Ella’s weak attempt at a joke falls flat on Laura’s somber expression, though I notice Orion crack a smile for the first time.
Laura leans in, tilting her head forward for effect.
“Chicago is one of our regional headquarters.”
“The Sentinels?” I clarify.
Laura nods. “Yes. And right now, that’s where we’re keeping the Speculo Tempus. Our plan is to hide you in another alternate reality, one of our safehouses, until we can figure out what’s going on.”
My heart thumps at the near incomprehensible thought of what she’s proposing. My brain doesn’t even know where to begin visualizing what that means. Another reality? What would that even be like? What does that even mean?
“Why a train?” Ella asks, a legitimate question. “If it’s so important to get to Chicago, why wouldn’t we go by plane?”
“The Speculo Veritas operates by accessing reflective surfaces across the world and across the multiverse. With all the water vapor in the air, the sky actually behaves like one massive mirror. Our position is most likely to be revealed if we fly. Plus, travel by train limits the number of people that we encounter. That’s important, because untethered individuals, like myself or Orion or Ted here, shred away parallel realities from every ordinary person they interact with until they too become untethered, irreparably changed into someone entirely different. Because alternate personas can’t exactly have relations with the untethered, essentially with people who don’t exist in their own reality. But that’s also why we’re such a secretive, seclusive society, one that only intervenes when we absolutely have to.”
Silence follows her words for a good while as Ella and I process everything that we’ve just been told. It does seem too fantastical to be true. But then again, I don’t have a reflection. And Laura’s explanation is as good as any other I could think of.
Our train soon leaves the boundaries of greater Los Angeles, and we pass through to the withered landscape of the Southern California wilderness. I have to say, taking the train is a lot more interesting than flying. I’ve never been to this part of the state before, and although there’s a considerable lack of greenery, there’s also a beauty to its barrenness, to the few resilient species that survive and even thrive despite the lack of water.
“Well, good thing the gods decided to just leave all their omnipotent weapons lying around earth for humans to find, and then disappear to let us fight amongst ourselves,” Ella says, a clever half-grin reaching her eyes.
“You don’t actually think all that mythology is real, do you?” My question is genuine. At this point, it doesn’t seem like absolute foolishness to believe in all of Laura’s stories.
Laura simply shrugs. “The Greeks were brilliant. A very advanced civilization. If you ask me, I think they engineered these weapons themselves—be them swords or shields or some other artifact entirely. Then, they managed to bring about their own destruction through their use. Not too far-fetched, considering things like modern nuclear weapons. I think the shields’ true origins just faded into history. Their descendants probably told of their progenitors’ power through drama and epic, another Greek specialty, eventually embellishing their stories into fantastical myths far from reality, though with a seed of truth remaining.”
I just nod, my eyes focused on some point far beyond the table. It’s a lot to take in. And even though it can’t be much later than noon, I feel fatigue wash over me like water being released from a dam. That, combined with the warm sun on my cheeks, eventually coaxes my head over to the window, where a self-accountable promise to rest my eyes for only a moment turns into unabashed sleep.