An Exchanged Man
By: Shawn Klimek

Colin extended one palm face down and then laid another hand on top of the first. "Not only do parallel universes exist, but they communicate with each other, which is how they remain parallel." He wiggled his fingers as if to illustrate.

My date, Brenda, matched his gaze and nodded attentively, but at the same time, slowly moved her beer glass to her lips and then stole a quiet sip.

"So, going back to my house of mirrors analogy of the multiverse…"

Brenda raised a finger.

"I think I get it now. It's like every mirror is one of Alice's magical looking glasses and contains a different Wonderland."

"There you go," Colin said and reached for his own beer.

"But ours is the one true universe, and all the others are just reflected images, right?"

Colin frowned. "No."

From the adjacent bar stool, I tapped her gently on the elbow. "All parallel universes are equally real," I offered. "They all reflect each other—or rather, they constantly share information. It flows back and forth via the Weems frequency. That's how random variations seem to be minimized by entropy."

Brenda looked first skeptical, then confused and disappointed. I knew she was smart and would make a fine lawyer, one day, yet I grasped the hidden meaning in Colin's glance. She was certainly no physics prodigy. She was no Megan.

Consternation knotted his expression and he swallowed some beer. "Maybe a hall of mirrors was a poor analogy," he considered.

"This theoretical physics is fascinating stuff," Brenda declared, by way of closing the subject. She took a final sip of beer and then let the glass thud like an exclamation point, before shoving it away. "But I had better reserve a few brain cells for my classes tomorrow."

"Of course," said Colin and smiled apologetically. "It's difficult stuff even for many of my graduate students. But then, they must follow the math proofs, too." He laughed.

Brenda smiled back and shut her eyes as if repressing a laugh, but I could sense she secretly resented this comment. I helped her put on her coat.

While shaking Colin's hand goodbye, she concluded, "Maybe we can continue the lecture another time. I'll bring a note pad, and we can drink caffeine instead of alcohol. That way, I can keep a clearer head."

"Nothing wrong with that pretty head, I'm sure, Brenda" said Colin and patted her hand. "I'd love a second chance, although I'm sure any topic would be a pleasure in your company."

"Why, thank you, Colin," she said. But I knew that they were both just being polite for my sake.

"Rick, please do remember to give me a call as soon as you have the time," he said.

Walking Brenda back to her graduate apartment, she seemed distracted. So was I, for that matter, but I was certain our thoughts were far apart. As for me, my heart was almost breaking at unbidden memories of Megan, and I had just concluded that any further relationship with Brenda was pointless.

Tugging sharply on my arm, Brenda looked into my eyes and demanded. "What was that crack you made about the 'Weems frequency', Rick? Really? I realize theoretical physics isn't my forte, but no one likes to be made sport of."

"What do you mean by 'made sport of'?"

"Didn't you introduce your friend as 'Professor Colin Weems'? …'Weems frequency'? I caught that reference. Some sort of inside joke, I suppose?"

I patiently clarified for her that the man she had been sitting beside for the past 90 minutes was no ordinary physics professor, but a renowned, Nobel–prize winner; the very same Dr. Colin Weems who had proven the existence of parallel universes, and more. (I was on the brink of adding, "—and who would resent his work being referred to as 'theoretical physics!'" but I managed to stop myself. Just because Colin was touchy about it, didn't make it untrue.

Brenda calmed down, but we ended our relationship soon after, saying goodnight with a civil hug.

I was feeling so down that I couldn't bear to go straight home. I missed Megan, and images of the motorcycle accident flooded my mind, I couldn't stop them, and I sensed an impending panic attack or depression spiral. A loud car horn, complaining that I had stopped walking in the middle of the highway, finally snapped me out of it. I phoned Colin and asked him when he might be available to get together for our chat.

"Anytime I'm not in class," he said. "The sooner the better."

"What about now?" I suggested. Something in my tone probably gave away my sadness.

"Definitely, come now," he said, firmly. "I'll make coffee."

Bringing Brenda to meet Colin had been my idea—a selfish one—meant to demonstrate to him that I was finally done grieving for Megan, that I was done striking out at God or against the world, and that I was back to my old self again—his old friend, an emotionally composed, talented physicist whom he might be willing to hire, if only for old times' sake. But I was going to have to keep it together. I didn't dare mention her to him. It was bad enough already that he had heard the sadness in my voice over the phone. If I melted down in his presence, the last hope I would have for a job from him would depend entirely on his pity.

Although Megan had once been my girlfriend, of course she had been Colin's friend too. It was Colin who had consoled me after our first break up, getting drunk with me and letting me cry on his shoulder. He had encouraged me to go win her back. Also, it was during that interlude of tender vulnerability, emboldened by our friendly intimacy, that he had bravely confided his own secret misery: that he despised his own flesh, because he believed he was a woman born in a man's body. I sympathized, of course, said I was honored to have his trust, and promised to tell no one his secret.

When Megan found her drunken ex on her doorstep the following morning, she had taken pity on me and invited me inside into wash up. The angel, she served me breakfast with strong coffee and we talked things over. She had missed me too, she said, and so we made up. As if a switch had been flipped, everything from the time of our breakup through to the previous night now seemed a dream. At one point during the hair–stroking intimacy which followed, I shared how Colin had been so kind to me the night before—a true friend, I had said.

"That was very good of him," she had replied. But with that near telepathy which exists during such moments, she perceived that I remained disturbed by something left unsaid. Long story short, I betrayed Colin's secret.

The next time I saw Colin, Megan was with me, which left nothing to be said. Something in Megan's gushing over–familiarity betrayed that what should never had been repeated probably had been. He seemed to shrug it off, but our relations grew more distant after that.

When our semester as research assistants ended, Megan and I began focusing more on our separate projects, and what with Colin finishing his doctorate and publishing his first book, the three of us hardly saw each other. There was a brief reunion between the two of us at Megan's nightmare funeral, but even that was reserved and brief. Megan's parents—who (reasonably) blamed me for her death—were so loaded with emotional buckshot that everyone had been in a hurry to leave.

I rubbed my eyes dry and knocked on Colin's door. It opened. Colin smiled warmly and invited me in.

"Do you need to talk?" he asked.

"Just the opposite," I said, smiling. "I need to listen more to my old friend, Colin."

He smiled and then jerked a thumb towards his back office–laboratory, and I began to follow him.

"I've made expanded contact with the realities at one tangential remove," he announced over his shoulder.

"What! What do you mean?" I asked. He took a seat in front of his computer, so I took the chair beside his desk, allowing us to face each other.

"We actually chat over the internet," he said, clicking the mouse and logging online. "Do you remember the interdimensional SETI project I had you working on a few years back, where we tried using the Weems frequency as a filter to identify any radio waves that might be coming between dimensions from any analog Earths?"

"Of course, I remember," I acknowledged. "Megan worked on that, too." Memories of those days flooded back. I smelled Megan's perfume and felt her shadow behind me. I had to divert my thoughts to resist a painful constriction in my chest. "So, did you finally find any signals?" I asked.

"Yes." He said. "In fact, I've been communicating for over a year with some of my counterparts in other universes."

I scoffed, astonished.

He laughed. "I really have."

I jumped out of my chair, laughing. "Have you published this already?" I asked. "Or are you really breaking the news to me first?"

Colin smiled. "The answer's complicated but let me just say that it hasn't yet been published on our Earth. The other Colins and I have an understanding."

"The other Colins, you say? You mean you all have the same name?"

"I admit that seems remarkable," Colin agreed. "At further tangential removes, the differences between alternate realities seem to increase. But yes, hundreds of my analogs have the same name, and many of them even spell it with a "C"…although most have two ells."

"Fantastic!" I cheered, amazed. And then, as the thought occurred to me, "Doesn't that mean that there are other Ricks, too?"

"Naturally," he confirmed. "Some of them even knew about this a few days before you."

I was about to do a little dance, but then my thoughts took an all–too–familiar dark turn. I wondered next, were there other Megans? Had they all died in horrible accidents while riding with their respective Ricks?

"There's more," Colin said, gesturing for me to sit down. I obeyed, raptly attentive, a model of composure.

"We've figured out how to chat on the internet. Our community started brainstorming together and during the past year have achieved more than anyone of us could have achieved independently in a lifetime."

I forced a congratulatory smile, but he couldn't fail to notice the mist in my eyes.

He opened a drawer and took out a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses. He filled both, and then pushed one towards me. "Drink," he said.

I had to admit, it was certainly the proper moment for a toast. I reminded myself that I must not have an emotional meltdown. This was ground–breaking science of an unprecedented scale. More than ever, I needed to be a part of it. I needed him to see that I was still a competent scientist.

The liquor was smooth in my throat.

"How does it taste?" he inquired, smiling significantly.

"I guess… like whiskey," I said. "Why? Did you put something into it?"

"No," he said. "Just that it's imported.

"Ha," I said. "I'm sorry, but Jack Daniel's is NOT an imported whiskey." Then, looking more closely at the bottle I saw my mistake. "Oh! Jacques Daniels! So, it's cheap French knockoff?"

He laughed. "Actually, it's alleged to be the best–selling brand of whiskey in a neighboring universe."

"No kidding?"

"If not for the label, you wouldn't know without a quantum spectrometer," he marveled.

"Ah, the Weems frequency," I said.

"Exactly."

"How did you get it here, then?"

Grinning, he said, "I told you that our interdimensional brain trust had made a lot of progress," Then he opened a side drawer and noisily withdrew a device resembling a large remote–control device, with two horn–like protrusions on either side.

"We call it the 'quantum–fugue oscillator'," he announced, rotating it to show me the back and sides of the object.

"Very well," I allowed, unimpressed with the name. "But how does it work?"

"It swaps two identical–or near identical—objects between universes, by tricking hyper–entangled particles into analogous orbits. Interdimensional equilibrium must be maintained, of course." Solemnly, he added, "Beyond that, I'm afraid the details must remain classified."

I was disappointed, of course, but determined to understand.

"So, the government knows about this? Or did you mean, "classified" until you patent it?"

"Neither, I'm afraid. My fellow Colins have all agreed that this invention is too dangerous to share. But that brings me to the very important reason I asked to speak with you."

"Colin," I said, "before you say more, I just want to tell you how honored I am that you have included me in this…. "

"Rick—"

He tried to cut me off, but I had to keep going.

"—and, grateful for your friendship", I gushed, "and humbled…humbled, because the significance of this is not lost on me…that you're trusting me with a new secret."

"Please stop!" He begged. And so, finally, I shut up.

"Secrets are close to the main point, but not in the way you suspect. It's related to that secret I shared so long ago. You're the only one I've ever told in this universe, and that's the reason I wanted to share all this with you." He took a deep breath. "This is goodbye."

"Goodbye?" I paused, and then it struck me like lightning that this whole rigmarole might be some elaborate revenge set–up, and I must have gone white, thinking about what might have been in that whiskey I drank, because he shook me by the shoulder before I realized a long moment had passed.

"Are you okay?" he said, gently.

"What do you mean, 'goodbye', Colin. Are you going to kill me?"

"That was your first thought?" He leaned backwards and guffawed. "Rick, everything is not always about you! Don't be absurd. No, no. I'm going to swap places tonight with one of my analogs in another universe. It seems that most Colins live with a secret. It happens that I have discovered a cosmic twin with a problem opposite to mine; a female Colin—or more precisely, a man born in a woman's body. In fact, she—or, he, really—discovered me first. That's the whole reason we all invented the quantum fugue oscillator together."

"But wait—" I objected. "How sure are you that it will work on humans?"

"Two other Colins have already swapped," he said.

"Okay, but, were they opposite genders? if you're getting a woman's body, then how is that maintaining equilibrium? Colin!"

"We're not swapping our bodies," he clarified. "We're swapping minds. That's why I need you here."

"I don't get it."

"I need you as a friend, of course. Because this is a major step, and so I'm naturally nervous. Believe me, I'm very excited, because this is the fulfillment of a lifelong fantasy, and we've all been preparing for months—but I'm also nervous."

"Reasonable."

"But also, if this swap succeeds, there should be no outward change, see?" he continued. "Only you will ever know the difference. That's why I want there to be a witness at hand—someone who knows what has happened and knows me well enough to notice the difference. We're still scientists first, after all."

"And then I'm supposed to destroy the quantum fugue oscillator?"

He waved a dismissive hand, and I couldn't help but visualize those fingers with painted nails. "You shouldn't be needed for that. It will belong to my replacement. Anyway, he and I may wish to exchange a few, minor personal items, afterwards."

"Very well," I agreed, uncertainly. "When do you leave?"

He smiled at me, gratefully. "In a few minutes, if you're ready."

"I guess I'm ready," I said. We hugged, and then he sat back in his chair, typed a few words into the chat window of his computer, took an impulsive last shot of whiskey and then gripped the QFO in both hands. He looked me in the eyes.

"Has it happened? Say something."

"Shh." He said. "It hasn't started. But when it does, you mustn't speak. I should have explained that, because this swap will be purely mental, we've configured the oscillator on a telepathic bandwidth. It will start the moment both persons holding the oscillator share the same will; an equal desire to swap. That's a fail safe to guarantee this device could never be used for ill."

"I hadn't thought of that. A wise precaution," I agreed. I stayed quiet after that and watched as Colin closed his eyes and wished. The QFO began to tremble in his hands.

When he/she opens his eyes, I thought, the Colin I know will be gone. I'll be looking at a total stranger. A visitor from another universe. Will the new Colin have a friend named Rick? he wondered. Probably, he supposed. Would he remember Megan? Would she still be alive in some other universe?

I had made Colin a promise. But did I owe anything to this stranger? Colin convulsed briefly and then opened his eyes, looking around slowly, apparently disoriented. He put down he QFO and began examining his own body. A wail of relief and joy erupted from his lips.

I envied that joy. Suddenly, I knew what I had to do. I didn't think about it. I snatched up the QFO from Colin's desk, sat back and then closed my eyes tight, and began wishing urgently, desperately wishing to be in another universe, to swap places with a willing twin. Somewhere, in another universe, some other, equally motivated Rick was bound to be doing the same.

When I opened my eyes, Colin was staring at me aghast.

"Well, that took an unexpectedly rude turn!" He said irritably, shaking his head and retrieving the QFO out of my hands.

"Sorry," I said. "Um, is it still you?" I asked.

"Of course, it's still me!" He said. "You snatched away the QFO didn't you? Rick, I think I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

I hung my head, disgraced.

"Of course," I said, and moved to stand up. My legs refused to move. I tried again, but nothing happened.

"Please go now," he repeated.

That was when I looked down and saw I had no legs below the knees. I was seated in a wheelchair.

Colin looked up at the space behind me and said, "Megan, would you please wheel him out."

The familiar voice of an angel responded at the same moment that I caught a scent of her perfume.

"Certainly, Colin." She said. And that was the last time I saw the famous Dr. Weems.

I am finally at peace with the loss of my legs, having had time to cope and consider what the trade has bought me.

I learned that this Megan had been on the verge of leaving me again that night, suspecting that, despite my protests to the contrary, I had never truly forgiven her part in the crippling accident. My "rash attempt" at departing the universe—as she put it—had seemed to remove all doubt that I still blamed her, prompting her decision to leave—for good, this time.

By some miracle, my fresh assurances that I truly loved her and sincerely didn't blame her seemed to succeed where they never had before. Something in my tone was different, she had to admit—and more significantly, in my eyes. The way I held her gaze as I spoke had somehow changed; it was the gaze of a lover, again. Through tears, she told me how she had missed that.

Improvising, I claimed that my attempt at leaving had been an opportunistic impulse; a simple, knee–jerk expression of pent–up self–pity. That much was true.

"But then, I pictured some other Rick holding you, and I became jealous," I lied. "I realized then that I loved you more than anything, more than my legs, more even than my life." This Meagan, real and warm and breathing, kissed me on the mouth, and I realized that the lie had become true.

"I am a changed man, Meagan," I promised. That, of course, was also true.

By now, I suspect that even the Colin in this universe realizes what has happened—but also knows how to keep a secret. If Meagan knows, she doesn't seem to mind. As for that other Rick, the one now in my former universe, restored to a body with two, useful legs, I hope he is also satisfied with the trade. But, if not, let him trade with someone else if he chooses. As for me, I'm staying.

–END–

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