Written in response to a writing prompt involving the multiverse
| [WP] You’re doing research in an old library when a stranger comes running up to you. They go to give you a hug while saying, “My love.” You flinch away and their expression falls. Under their breath they say, “Fuck. Wrong timeline.”
"...based on these findings, we can conclude that the enzymatic reaction is stable at physiological pH, and thus…"
My eyelids drag coarsely across my weary eyes as I blink up at the time. I'd been waist deep in journal articles in the ancient half of the university library for hours, and everything was blurring together, getting me nowhere. Another day wasted. I sighed, gently closing the journal and placing it back in it's spot on the table, where dozens of books and journals littered the workspace. I closed my eyes and inhaled the musky scent of old books and old buildings, letting my thoughts drift as they wished, relinquishing control.
I was 2 years into a PhD program, researching the biochemical processes of aging and going nowhere in the meantime. The whole field was chock full of pseudoscience and impossible to prove theoreticals, resulting in a metric fuck-ton of useless drivel that I needed to parse through while writing my thesis. Trying to be a “serious scientist” in a field of superficial commercial products was exhausting and disheartening. And yet, like all budding scientists, I felt my cause was righteous - that unlocking the mechanisms of aging would let us reverse senility and save those we held most dear. It was a pipe dream, and I knew it, but I clung to the hope that one day this would all mean something. I peered at the stacks on my table and sighed, rubbing my temples and feeling the headache starting there.
Time for a change of scenery. I thought to myself, standing and stretching. I was deep in the stacks of the older section of the library building, where largely forgotten volumes of scientific journals and old medical texts were housed. The room was largely silent, minus the hum of the ventilation system and occasional creak of the floor above me. I liked it here, wrapped in solitude and blanketed in the smell of books and old wood, as opposed to the laboratory or classroom where I was constantly asked questions I couldn’t answer about where my project was heading and what, exactly, it was that I wanted to accomplish here. A female in academia isn’t exactly new, nowadays, but a female in academia studying biochemistry in a laboratory that also tested makeup and skin care products was treated as a joke.
Slinging my purse over my shoulder, I turn to go back to the main library when I hear a faint “pop” somewhere in the stacks beside me. I know the odd pops and creaks this wing makes well enough, and I’m stuck with the sensation that I am no longer alone. I shift to see into the cluster of shelves and see a figure moving among the rows. How did someone get past me without me seeing them?
“Hello?” I call, “Sorry, I have a whole bunch of journals over here on the table, so if you can’t find what you’re looking for you may want to…” I trail off as the figure moves into the open. He’s a tall, slender college student, and he looks at me with a sudden warmness and recognition that sends a flush of embarrassment through me. I’ve never seen this man before in my life, but he’s looking at me as though I am his oldest friend.
“Oh thank goodness! My love!” He rushes towards me, moving to embrace me. I flinch backwards, suddenly alarmed, running through every potential acquaintance in my memory and coming up blank. I am absolutely sure I have never seen this man before in my life. He stops, his warmness instantly replaced by despair. “Fuck!” He exclaims. “Wrong timeline. Again.” He drops his hands to his pockets and averts his gaze. “Sorry to bother you, ma’am.” I stand in stunned silence, gripping my purse. His green eyes flick back up to mine, briefly, and I see what seems like true sorrow there.
“Does that line ever actually work on anybody?” He stares at me, confused. “Because, I mean, I have to admit it’s unique but a little bit over the top.” I smile at him, and after a moment, he returns it.
“Yeah, sorry about that.” He snorts out a short laugh, still obviously embarrassed. “You look just like someone I know.”
“Someone you love, you mean? She must be pretty special.”
The stranger looks at his shoes. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.”
“Why did you think she’d be here? I’m pretty much the only one who ever uses this section of the library - at least for the past few months.”
“Ah, well..” he rocks back and forth on his heels, “She’s been working on this project for astrophysics and I thought I’d find her here.”
“Well, there’s your problem.” I laugh. “This is the medical wing.” He looks up sharply.
“Yeah, pretty sure it has been for at least 2 years or so now. Probably a whole lot longer than that.”
“You’re in the medical field?”
“Well no, not exactly. I’m in a biochemistry program, but I’m studying the aging process and…”
“Oh, well,” he starts, then pauses, “that’s different.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I feel heat rising to my cheeks. “Because I’m a girl and I’m…” he holds his hand up soothingly.
“No, no! I just mean…” he trails off. I cock and eyebrow at him, waiting. He sighs. “I just mean, you’ve never done this before.”
“Well of course I’ve never done this before, it’s not like I have other PhD’s just lying around.”
He meets my eyes for a moment, seeming to weigh his options. Then he shrugs and says “I mean, in every alternative universe, I’ve never once seen you pursue medicine. It just...isn’t you. You’ve always been a physicist and a damn good one. I just have a hard time seeing you as anything else.”
He sighs. “Your name is Rachel Turner. You grew up in Huntsville, Alabama where you were supposed to get interested in rocket science and physics. I don’t know what diverted that, but I know that in every other timeline, you still love books, terrible movies, and have a soft spot for old things and history.” I shift uncomfortably and he laughs softly. “And when you’re uncomfortable you push your hair back behind your ears like that, and shift your weight to your left foot.” I straighten, and consciously shift my weight back to my right. “You’re stubborn and fierce and have never encountered a puzzle you couldn’t tease apart.” The twinkle in his eyes falters, slightly, “Until you open the portal.”
“Was I your TA or something?”
“What?” He looked confused.
“Is that how you know so much about me? Are you stalking me?”
“What, no, I…”
“Because if you did you’re a terrible stalker. I only lived in Alabama until I was 3, we moved when my father died and my mother needed to go back to Ohio to find work and be closer to family.”
“Your dad died?”
“Yeah, early onset dementia.”
“...which is why you’re studying aging.” He nods, satisfied. ”Look, I’m sorry for scaring you and wasting your time. I’ll let you get back to your work.” He motions to the stack of books on the table.” He turned to go back into the stacks.
“Wait!” I exclaim, before I know what I’m saying. He looks back at me over his shoulder and smiles.
“You may want to find Sam Albertson over in the physics department.” He says, turning back to walk away. “But he’s not going to remember any of this though.”
I stood, stunned and watched him disappear into the stacks. I heard another faint “pop” a few seconds later and the sound snapped me out of my confusion. I rushed into the stacks after him, but found nothing. I searched and searched, feeling along the walls, looking for hidden openings, until the library lights flipped on and off flipped on and off three times, signaling that it was about to close. I returned to my table, looking all around for any clues of the stranger’s identity or where he could have gone. Had I really just met a time traveler? Could such a thing really be possible?
I shook my head, thinking it was more likely that I had just fallen asleep while reading my articles.
As I made my way back to my apartment, I remembered the name he had given me and decided to search for “Sam Albertson” on social media. I nearly dropped my phone when the stranger’s green eyes looked back at me from his profile picture.
“That little fuck.” I whispered, heading towards the physics department. He was a graduate student, so maybe he would be there this late in the evening. He was published on a paper describing faster-than-light travel models, which gave me a place to start looking. My heart thundered in my chest, a mixture of rage and embarrassment, as I ran up the steps of the physics building. I looked briefly at the directory, then started making my way towards the quantum research labs. Halfway down the hall, my annoyance became tinged with terror. Why was I looking for my stalker in a mostly empty building at night? What if he was dangerous? My steps slowed as I came to the door. Did I really want to do this? I froze, suddenly acutely aware of the insanity of my undertaking. My thoughts whirled through a hundred possible scenarios, not one of them favorable. I turned, and started quickly back down the hallway. All of this could wait until morning, until after I had eaten and slept and had a clearer head.
The door opened behind me, and I reflexively quickened my steps.
“Can I help you?” A voice called after me. I stopped, chagrined, and slowly turned to face him.
Behind me stood Sam Albertson, just as he had stood before me in the library a few hours ago. Except, not the same, I realized, as I took him in. In the library, his hair was longer and shaggier, and his face held a whisper of stubble that made him look older and more rugged. The Sam in front of me now was clean shaven, with short, but still unruly hair. His green eyes looked at me curiously.
“Sorry.” I muttered. “I was just…” He took a couple of hesitant steps towards me. My mind was racing, trying to make everything make sense.
“Are you okay?” He said, curiosity shifting to concern. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
I shook myself, trying to fit the pieces together. You’ve never encountered a puzzle you couldn’t tease apart, the stranger had said. The stranger. Not the man in front of me. I suddenly knew exactly what I was going to do. I straightened and extended my hand. “I’m Rachel,” I said. “I’m thinking about changing my major.”
Sam grinned, taking my hand. “Oh yeah, what are you interested in?”
I grinned back. “Tell me about alternative universes.”