This must be what fairy tales are like.
Dawn broke crisp and clear, winking at me through the small window opposite the foot of the bed. The cottage evoked memories of my attic back home: from the exposed wood of the floors and walls, to the dust that hung in the air. I rolled over, yanking the covers over me.
“Five more minutes,” I said. It was a luxury to sleep in on the weekends after another late night in the lab. Plus, with many scientists redeployed to the field, the Vraxed threat left us short-staffed.
“Come on.” Blair pulled the blanket out from over my head. “I brought us breakfast in bed.”
My heart thumped wildly in my chest at the sound of her voice. She trapped me in her gaze as she brushed long, black strands of hair out of my face. With a smile, her lips pressed against mine, a kiss so soft that I lost myself in it. It was just like the first time, back in high school, when all that mattered was good grades and curfew.
A simpler time, before an intergalactic war threatened our universe.
She had a glass and a cup in her hands. “Which one?”
I grabbed at the coffee, already prepared with a splash of oat milk and one dehydrated sugar cube—just the way I liked it. “Wait, what would you have done if I picked the juice?”
Her eyes glinted in the sunlight as she bit into a moonberry muffin. “You wouldn’t have.”
I shook my head, nudging her with an elbow. My hands moistened around the porcelain mug; whether it was from the coffee or from Blair, I wasn’t sure. “Smarty pants.”
She shrugged, bringing up a holographic display while she buttered a slice of toast. “I tell myself that Krissy number four hundred ninety-one chose the juice.”
“Oh dear,” I said, a hand over my collarbone. “Next, you’re going to tell me the universe is flat.”
“Of course it is.” Blair shoved the buttered toast in my mouth before I could retort. “Just because we can’t see something, it doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
My stomach quivered as I chewed and swallowed. Was it hunger, or my need to win? Maybe both. “Physicists have debated this for centuries. What’s the point?”
“The point,” she said, swiping at the blue portal screen, “is that there are other worlds out there. Universes budding off other universes, where there could be an exact copy of our solar system, our earth, and each one of us.” She expanded the image of the Milky Way into a constellation of stars, thousands of light years away.
“So, all of this to say that in another universe, I chose the juice?” I asked.
Blair snatched my mug from the breakfast tray. “Yup. Krissy number four hundred ninety-one.” She sipped the coffee, a mischievous smirk on her face. “Anything that’s physically possible occurs in another parallel universe.”
“And which Blair likes her coffee with oat milk and a sugar cube?”
“Blair number seven hundred sixty-three.”
She leaned forward, brushing another light kiss across my lips, sending shivers across my skin. The way her heart beat against my chest, and how my lips tingled as she teased me with her own, almost melted me to the floor. I loved her enough that I dreamed of this moment in every iteration, fathomless fractals of myself in the starry expanse.
But all dreams ended, and that was the last morning I saw Blair before she died.
✶ ✶ ✶
A video call woke me from my sleep. I pushed myself from the computer console. One o’clock in the morning—dozed off during the last graviton simulation attempt.
The blue holographic display flashed Harrison Jarvis, Chairman of the Board, Abbott Enterprise, along with his perfectly curated photo, complete with a suit and bowtie.
“Kristina,” he said, brows furrowed. Right to business. “How’s the research coming along?”
“Fine,” I said with a heavy sigh. It had been months since his last check-in. My cheeks burned with the knowledge of where he would take us next.
“Have you found a portal, yet?”
“No, but with a little more time—”
“It’s been over a decade. The Board is getting anxious.”
“I know.” A sour taste settled into my mouth. “But I’m getting so close.” I flipped through the screens, evidence of successful experiments. “Just look. Alec Greene. Noah Covington. Spencer Adams. Supreme Magister Jacobus. The list goes on—”
“We’re not paying you for paracosms.”
In every story, the antagonist is always easy to spot.
All the muscles in my body tensed as I turned my head down. If we didn’t find a bridge to another universe, humanity risked extinction. If only Blair was still alive—she’d always been the brighter one between us. Multiverse theory was the backbone of her research.
And they had dumped it onto me.
“I’m sorry, Kristina. But we’re putting you on administrative leave, effective immediately.”
Tears pricked the corners of my eyes. “You can’t just fire me. My father gave this company to me after he died.”
“You still report to the Board.”
No point in arguing with Jarvis. “I understand,” I said. Though friends with my father, his loyalties followed the investors and their pocketbooks.
“What happens now?” I asked.
“Go take a vacation. Clear your mind. Dr. West will assume the role of interim CEO in your absence.”
The screen flashed red when I hung up. A familiar tightness crushed my chest. Of course they picked Joshua to replace me. Though intellectually inferior, he had charisma to woo the Board, the experience to garner their goodwill, and a smile to empty their bank accounts.
I stared into the black computer screen, a mirrored reflection revealing dark shadows under my eyes. If only I had more time. There was just one thing missing.
Where is the magical sword?
Even though I couldn’t see her, she answered my question when a memory crawled out of the hidden spaces of my mind. My pulse racing, I pulled up the blue holographic display, swiping until I found the record. While the video call dialed for him, I tapped my stiletto heel against the stainless steel workbench.
“Kristina?” Joshua asked, rubbing his eyes. “Do you know what time it is?”
“Yes. I spoke with Jarvis.”
He set his glasses onto his nose, crooked. “Look, I tried talking to him—”
“It’s fine,” I said, expanding the blueprints for the particle collider on a secondary monitor. “How soon can you get to the lab?”
I wouldn’t waste my time on a beach resort somewhere. Not when the Vraxed threat loomed over us. Tomorrow was not guaranteed—Blair taught me that much. If there was even a tiny chance that I could transfer into a parallel universe via molecular translocation, then I owed humanity that much.
“Because I need your help.”
✶ ✶ ✶
Blair rambled about the multiverse as we paddled the kayak. A river cut across in the distance before crashing down like a waterfall to the ocean beyond. Its stunning blue waters swirled around my fingers with a faint glow when I dipped my hand inside.
“… which means the universe is flat or curved so slightly that we can’t see it,” she said.
“We just graduated, Blair,” I said. “This is supposed to be fun.”
“What?” She turned to face me, setting the paddle on her lap. “I love talking about the metaphysical. Don’t you?”
“I believe in the things we can see, not hypothetical mathematical equations.”
“The truth is out there, Krissy.”
I shrugged. “What’s so special about other universes, anyway?”
Blair feigned shock with a hand over her mouth. “Imagine if World War Two never happened. What could those fifty million people have done with their lives?”
“I don’t know,” I said, paddling the kayak for the both of us. “Scientists have been arguing about this forever. Seems pointless.”
“With that attitude, we’d still think the Earth is round. Which is ridiculous.”
“But we can see the Earth.”
“Ugh, you’re so stubborn. It’s like…” Blair looked around, scanning for something—anything—to prove her point. As if her intelligence wasn’t enough of a threat, her drive to win both tied my stomach into knots and sent flutters through it all at once.
“It’s like the surface of this ocean.”
“Okay.” I pressed my lips together.
“Think of this as a two-dimensional surface,” she said, splashing water with her hands. “Below us, there’s a whole other dimension. Where all the fish live.”
“Completely oblivious to our existence?”
“Right.” Blair took her paddle and plunged it into the water. “They don’t know we’re up here in our dimension unless we smack them on the head, right?”
She made sense this time, even though I wanted to counter with my own argument. “Alright. You win.”
The light hit her cheekbones in just the right way, making them sit even higher. Her hazel eyes—hauntingly beautiful—were highlighted by the sun, and the hidden rainbows of her auburn hair had never been more noticeable.
Blair jutted her chin in the air as she paddled. Her natural elegance was enhanced by her knowledge and confidence—graviton particles pulling us close together in orbit. But before she could gloat in her own victory, I shifted the entirety of my weight to one side, capsizing the kayak and vanishing into the ocean below us.
We remained for an infinite moment, suspended in water as if drifting in outer space. Her brilliant auburn hair floated weightlessly behind her, golden-skinned and painfully exquisite. Slim and graceful, almost translucent by sunlight.
Fascinated, I stole closer. Our lips connected in an endless, aching embrace. And, of course, she was right. A simple, fleeting thought could send someone into another dimension, whether it was a parallel universe we couldn’t see or delighting in the majestic beauty underneath the surface of the ocean.
We spent the rest of the day wandering the beach, and it was like an ephemeral dream, bound to end. But for now, we indulged in the lush gardens, the wild overgrown brush, and the invisible magic that hung in the air, unmarred by the atrocities of an intergalactic war our universe had not yet seen.
✶ ✶ ✶
“Are you sure?” Joshua asked.
I sat upright in the particle collider chamber. Everything around me was white—blinding white. A phantom pain tightened around my throat when the artificial intelligence droids hummed in the background, and everything surrounding me burned like clean, new plastic.
The stainless steel chair was cold behind my blouse, and a shiver trickled down my spine, warning me to tread lightly. The only way I could describe it was like being a queen sitting upon a huge throne, ruling over a kingdom I no longer belonged in. I inserted my own IV needle into the bend of my arm.
He grimaced. “I will be in a lot of trouble with Jarvis.”
“Relax.” I strapped the velcro onto my left arm. “Just tell him I’m on some tropical island off-grid.”
He fastened my right arm to the chair, then sighed. “How do you know it will work?”
Because good always wins in the end.
“Remember orientation, when my dad shined a laser beam into a glass apple?”
“Yeah, the light particles split into several spots.”
“Right. Since we’re made of a bunch of particles, we can be in different places at once.”
Handsome, charming, yet slow. Exactly what the Board needed.
“Where will you end up?”
“Not sure. If my theory is right, I’ll be hit with enough force to end up in a pocket dimension. In this same lab, but in a parallel universe. Hopefully, in a world where the CEO isn’t an idiot.”
He grimaced. “Ouch.”
“Ready?” I asked.
Joshua squeezed my hand, then let go. His brows pulled down to concentrate on entering the activation sequence on the console. I closed my eyes while he finished all the preparations. Though I loathed to admit it, he’d be great at running my father’s company. Maybe if I hadn’t been so tunnel-visioned with my crusade, perhaps things could have been different.
Love is a dangerous distraction from duty.
When I opened my eyes, the room was dark, and Joshua’s voice echoed through the intercom above. “Photon beam impact in three…”
This was the best thing I could do for myself and everyone else. The last Abbott—both my parents dead, and though Blair was not family, I was a star lost in orbit after she was gone.
What would the other Kristinas be like? If the physicists were right, all of our wishes could come true in a multiverse. Like endless rolls of the dice, all possible numbers and outcomes would eventually turn up, like fathomless fractals, infinitely expanding and spiraling into a chaotic, branching set of universes.
A supersonic screech resounded in the air as a roaring white beam enveloped me in a deluge of light. Not quite a supernova, a whine built in my ears and my stomach tensed. Every synapse in my body fired in a luminous, stellar explosion. It was a sensation I’d only felt once before: when I lost Blair all those years ago. As the blinding wave pushed into me with crushing speed, my heartbeat was there one moment, and then it was gone.
In that final juncture, Blair’s voice echoed in my mind, nudging me to one last, fleeting thought to send me from this universe into the next.
Will I find my happily ever after?
✶ ✶ ✶
When sleep came, it was like a door slammed shut. No dreams, no sense of time passing. The surrounding air flickered, and I glimpsed a sky steeped in indigo shadows, full of strange and brilliant stars. A distinct odor of ozone, faint and acrid, wafted on the chilled breeze. Sulfurous, like gunpowder. But I didn’t mind, because after the light subsided, the darkness held its own beauty.
Then, it was like we learned in school: in the beginning, there was emptiness, and then a big bang gave birth to an endless, expanding existence of time, space, and matter.
I woke in the midnight twilight, my heart pounding, and my forehead hot to the touch. Sitting in the particle collider chamber, everything around me was white—blinding white. The artificial intelligence droids hummed in the background, and the room smelled like clean, new plastic.
My throat tightened. Just as I had left it. Was the experiment a failure?
I approached the computer console and pulled up the blue holographic display, swiping until I found the record I was looking for: Blair Pennington, CEO, Abbott Enterprise. My breath hitched at the sight of her: hazel eyes shimmering in the light, framed underneath locks of auburn hair flowing to her sides, set with a smile.
While the video call dialed for her, I tapped my stiletto heel against the stainless steel workbench.
“Krissy?” Blair asked, rubbing her eyes. “Do you know what time it is?”
“Yes—” A sinking feeling settled in my stomach, as if a warning sign to tread with caution. “I mean, no. It’s so good to see you.”
She trapped me in her gaze as she brushed long, curly tresses out of her face. “Oh, you never wear your hair up. I like it.”
I cleared my throat, my mind wandering to a miscalculation. How would a universe handle two Kristinas?
Blair pouted. “Is everything all right? You seem—”
“It’s fine,” I said, fighting against the tears welling into my eyes. I scrolled through a news feed of current events. In this copy of Earth, the human population was healthy. Booming, even. The Vraxed threat had never happened. Billions of lives, spared. Somehow, I’d figured out how to cross dimensions, and there was hope for a better tomorrow.
A rush of adrenaline washed over me as I navigated through the database. I needed to contact my universe’s Joshua, and if anyone was smart enough for the task, it would be Blair.
“How soon can you get to the lab?” I asked.
I imagined her lips pressed against mine, like they were on the last day of her life—a kiss within reach after so many years.
“It’s a long story,” I said, my fingers typing in a frenzy. “It’s best for me to explain in person. We need to contact Joshua.”
“Joshua?” Blair tilted her head to the side with pursed lips. “He’s right here, Krissy.”
Blair shoved at something off camera, and Joshua came into view, setting his glasses onto his nose.
But they ended up crooked.
“Kristina?” he asked.
I met Blair’s eyes, fully conscious of the heat sweeping through every proton and neutron in my body. It was impossible to remain composed under such circumstances. Not when I was looking at the one person I’d been searching for, finally finding her in another universe.
With someone else.
It was just like she had said before. Anything that was physically possible could occur. I slumped into the back of my chair, my muscles quivering under the pressure of clenched fists. Had I simply traded one war for another?
Bile boiled up my throat. “I have to go.”
I stared into the black computer screen, a mirrored reflection revealing dark shadows under my eyes. If I never thought of love again, it would be too soon. Our gravitational pull weakened as two diametrically opposed truths collided betwixt worlds. And for the first time since I’d known her, I discovered a fault in my logic.
Happily ever after is not a fairy tale. It is a choice.