Existential Tableau: On Being A Refugee In An Alternate Reality.

Overview: faced with a dystopian reality unfolding all around him, a cynical Polish man is presented with an opportunity by an American woman: she knows how to get them both to an alternate reality, where a new life awaits. Treating the woman as a scam artist, the man agrees for the heck of it. The Pole travels with the American to London, to meet the other would-be interdimensional travelers. A series of extraordinary events unfolds.

Knowing others is wisdom, knowing yourself is Enlightenment – attributed to Lao Tzu

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction. – attributed to E.F. Schumacher

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When I was younger, I was filled with hope; the world was turning into a great place! Space travel. Eradication of poverty. Life extension technologies. Free energy. Blue skies. Adults were just perfect human beings to me. As I got older, my cynicism grew. I realized how naïve I had been. 9/11. The Financial Crisis. The Refugee Crisis. Psychopaths in power. Human trafficking. Dumbing down of the population. Environmental disasters. I realized the world had taken a decidedly dark turn.

I remember people dancing in 2004 Poland, when the country was admitted to the European Union – who would have thought that in 2017, the EU would be facing an existential crisis?

I thought moving to Asia was the answer, but Asia was still on the same planet as the rest of the decaying civilization. The only sure-fire option was an escape to an alternate reality, where the population was simply smarter. There were three pivotal problems: a) mainstream science did not prove the existence of alternate realities, b) even if these realities did exist, there was no way to get there, c)it was unclear what kind of a socio-political system one was walking into.

What could I do? Would my voice even matter?

I turned to God and asked for help. Desperate times, desperate measures. I could hear the snickers of intellectually smug atheists in the background, but their derisive gestures were of no relevance to me. How can one quantify infinity, reduce the totality of life to two choices: religion and non-existence? Such absurdity always seemed like a perfect mind control mechanism to me. Many scientists, in their unbridled hubris, presume to read the mind of God – and yet, science can’t even decipher the Voynich manuscript. Is the manuscript an insanely clever medieval prank? Perhaps it was written by manhood-snatching witches? Was it written by an obscure religious sect with links to gnosticism? No answers. No certainties. Just solidified maybes. Fossilized thought patterns, thought vortices entrenched deep within our minds.

They say God works in mysterious ways. Given the sequence of events that unfolded in my life – I agree wholeheartedly. Pieces of the puzzle that is life just fell neatly into place.

Here are my life puzzle pieces.

If I wanted to survive, if I wanted to get out of the asylum, well… it seemed, as though only God could help me. Only God had the viable solution.

*

Why arent you chipped? asked my co-worker. Youre not keeping up with the trends! This isnt 1995! Who uses cash these days? Cryptocurrency? It’s illegal!  

Free thought was to be eradicated. Replaced by a sentient collective, an artificial intelligence guiding people’s daily interactions. It was only a matter of time. Starvation. Dropping dead like flies. The conditions were certainly conducive to change. Rampant unemployment gave rise to the precariat. The precariat was no longer content with accepting the blatant economic slavery brilliantly disguised as freedom of choice. Unfortunately, the precariat lacked the intellectual capacity to change the world for the better. Security was the name of the game. Freedom be damned. As a result, social pressure to get chipped was growing exponentially. If you didn’t want to get chipped, then you were a remnant of the past. A religious zealot with ties to terrorism. Innocent until proven guilty? Due process? Remnants of a bygone era. A new, Kafkaesque, law was the norm: snatching people off the street, never to be seen again. Stalin was undoubtedly rubbing his hands with glee. He wrote the mass mind control through terror manual.

I met my American faux-wife at a Warsaw protest against unbridled migration. It was a chance encounter, if you believe in this sort of thing. She asked me for directions, and when she heard my English, she thought I was a fellow American. I told her the accent was a product of globalization, as well as having an American grandfather on my mother’s side – though how having an American grandfather translated itself into having an American accent, well, I could not tell you. Genetics, perhaps? Reincarnation? We did not discuss my grasp of the English language further, as there was more interesting development unfolding around us. We hit it off right away. Her name was Alice, but the madness enveloping the planet was hardly of Wonderland variety. If people could identify as attack helicopters, then calling Alice my wife was perfectly sane by comparison. Enduring the red-tape just to get married? No, thank you. I was not in the business of writing the Bureaucratic Odyssey. Alice’s beaming smile was my source of inspiration. She would twirl in her skirt, the pleats looking like rays of sunshine piercing the veil of darkness around us. She didn’t like her annoying blonde bangs, they made her feel like a prissy school girl. She was of Polish and German heritage, a testament to the greatness of genuine diversity, rather than the simulacrum of diversity imposed on the Judeo-Christian civilization by the psychopaths that be.

Poles found their way to every corner of the globe; our diaspora was a force to be reckoned with. Hubris; hussars; humiliation; messianic complex; inferiority complex – you would be hard-pressed to find another nation on Earth, with an equally convoluted history, giving rise to mentality vacillating between inferiority and messianism. My friend once said Poles shared psychological traits with the Irish and the Chinese; in some respects, certainly. Wasn’t the whole average Joe idea a mirage? Our brain needs patterns to decipher reality; we wouldn’t be able to function otherwise.

Radical ideas infecting the feeble-minded masses; political correctness curtailing freedom of speech at an alarming rate; anyone with a brain cell left was pining for the days of yore. A nationalist theocracy? A rainbow utopia? Take your pick. My choice was clear: neither. I just wanted sanity to prevail. Sadly, sanity, sound judgment, pragmatism, whatever you want to call it – was a scarce cognitive commodity.

Problem-reaction-solution. Thesis-antithesis-synthesis. The powers that be used the same playbook throughout human history. If it works – why change it?

Was the Mark of the Beast actually predicted in the Bible? Was the microchip the ultimate mechanism of control? Was it really so simple?

(If it works – why change it?)

My wife’s family was piling up pressure on her to get chipped. Alice was told she was going to be disowned, disinherited, died (she would be dead to her family) if she refused to get the microchip. My wife just couldn’t stand their yammering threats anymore. She knew her family had been hopelessly brainwashed.

They were no longer her family, but a bunch of genetically-related individuals. Blood is thicker than water? You don’t need shared DNA to hit it off with someone right away.

Alice booked a flight to Warsaw, Poland – one of the last vestiges of sanity on the planet. I never thought I would see the day, when Poland would be THE destination for so many Westerners. As much as I disliked Polish – wait for the tongue twister – dulszczyzna (Grundyism), Polish hussar-style romanticism resulting in countless calamities, Poles were successfully resisting the Orwellian newspeak, curtailing not just freedom of expression, but – crucially – the ability to come up with concepts. We think in words – limiting vocabulary equals limiting perception.

My wife had a law degree, but she was a lawyer  manquée. I had an MA in international relations and a BA in linguistics. Completing two theses did not make me nearly as happy as typing up the last letter of my short novel. The short novel certainly did not qualify to be my magnum opus, but the sheer act of creation was a transcendental experience. Tautologies, platitudes and clichés. The dark triad of creative writing.

No, scratch that. The dark triad of writing.

*

The government of psychopaths, neologism: pathocracy. Reality was indeed stranger than fiction; I was actually living in a cheap B-horror movie. I remember perusing old documents at a second-hand bookstore in London, and coming across a document describing how a group of Hungarian intellectuals studied the pathocratic nature of the governing system. Unsurprisingly, there was a police raid on the Budapest apartment; the group’s seminal work most likely shredded to pieces. Apparently, a Polish psychiatrist also took part in the study; he fled to the USA, never to be heard from again. Rumor had it, he was an academic, lecturing in the Northeast under an assumed identity.

My faux wife told me about a London banker who was obsessed with crossing over to an alternate reality; the man knew society was turning into a panopticon dystopia that would make Orwell wince. Granted, only a fool was not seeing the writing on the wall. Meaning: the majority of the human race. The conspiracy world was abuzz with rumors – did he really find a way to cross over to another reality? Was he just a deranged individual with a victim complex? Perhaps the powers that be were responsible? Was he just a sci-fi buff who took things too far? What was the profound realization? Was the realization just an incoherent string of schizophrenic ramblings?

My wife did not seem to think so. The banker – as she put it – departed of his own volition.

‘’I’m part of the group,’’ Alice paused. ‘’That’s gonna get the hell out of this world. My task was to seek you out. I want you to come with us.’’

‘’You’ve a way out?’’ I asked her. ‘’You don’t mean mass suicide, do you?’’

‘’I’ll be flying to London soon,’’ she said. ‘’Come with me. You’ve gotta meet Paul.’’

‘’Who’s Paul?’’ I frowned.

‘’All in due time,’’ she said. ‘’Are you coming? We’ve got to do this, before they close the borders.’’

‘’Yes,’’ I nodded vigorously. ‘’Let’s do this.’’

Given the state of the world, I was willing to give Alice the benefit of the doubt.

Alice used her credit card to book the plane. Using cash was seen as suspicious. Getting on the plane was not easy, either: goons with guns swarming the airport, people who did not proudly display their microchip scars, as they were sometimes referred to, were seen as potential terrorists. A reality of total enslavement was unfolding in front of my eyes at a frightening pace. We boarded the plane full of destitute people who were desperate for a better life. How many children on the plane were human trafficking victims? Just like pedophiles, human traffickers had an entire signaling system to use among themselves in public. An idealist in me thought the authorities were the good guys, but the pragmatist knew the world did not revolve around the good guys versus the bad guys dichotomy. Rather, the truth was usually found in the gray area of life, with no right or wrong answers, where choosing the lesser of two evils was sometimes the best available option.

‘’I don’t know how reliable this claim is,’’ I looked at Alice. ‘’That slavery is more prevalent now than in the Roman Empire. What do you think?’’

‘’It depends on your definition of slavery,’’ Alice said. ‘’But I wouldn’t dismiss this claim out of hand, that’s for sure. Scary times.’’

‘’Scary times indeed,’’ I nodded gently. ‘’Scary times indeed.’’

We landed at Heathrow airport. It was my first time in BrExit Britain. I was eyeing an immigration officer, trying to gauge his personality. The officer had all the power in his hands. It was one of those crucial moments in life, looking maliciously mundane.

We took a cab from Heathrow to Stanmore.

Alice had a precise plan; I was just playing it by ear.

The cabbie just could not shut up – he was a simple man who spoke with an accent I had never heard before. Alice was telling me about the smiling therapy in the US; she said she really believed that women were forced to undergo electroshock treatment to condition them to smile. Apparently, the therapy was just a myth, but I would not be surprised if it was real. Take Joseph Mengele – his experiments were the epitome of cruelty, not to mention the Japanese Unit 731. Vivisections. Anthrax tests. Nice guys, for sure.

‘’There’s a website where you can test if you have a resting bitch face, you know?’’ the cabbie overheard us and butted into the conversation. ‘’Anyway, we’ll be there in an hour.’’

‘’That’s great,’’ I said.

Alice rolled her eyes. She was as annoyed by the taxi driver as I was.

*

‘’Keep the change,’’ a tall man told the cabbie. ‘’Keep it while you still can!’’

‘’What?’’ the driver said. ‘’What are you talking about?’’

‘’Clueless,’’ Paul shook his head. ‘’Utterly clueless. Ignorance really is bliss.’’

The cabbie snickered, then made a derisive gesture. ”Whatever, mate.”

‘’It’s great you’ve made it,’’ the tall man shook my right hand. ‘’As you’ve undoubtedly guessed, I’m Paul.’’ He spoke with a posh British accent. He was like a Brit from a bygone era: polite, focused, stoical. Cool as a cucumber.

‘’Do you like the mansion?’’ Paul asked me. ‘’Wait till you see what we’ve got inside!’’

It was a two-story mansion. The area was certainly picturesque: larches, birches, maple trees surrounded the mansion, away from prying eyes. We walked past the two white marble pillars. The foyer certainly lived up to its name. Paul stood next to a round table and pointed to the right.

‘’That’s the conference room,’’ he said. ‘’That’s where we’re going. You’ll have plenty of time to see the mansion later. For now, time is of the essence. The others are waiting.‘’

Paul opened the conference room door.

‘’Please,’’ he said. ‘’Take a seat.’’

‘’How did you meet him?’’ I asked Alice. ‘’Who the hell is this guy? Who are these people? How come they’re here, waiting, you didn’t tell them we’re coming? Or did you?’’

‘’It’s irrelevant,’’ said Alice. ‘’You’ve every right to ask these questions, please just listen to what Paul has to say.’’

‘’Welcome to Stanmore,’’ Paul gave me a nod. ‘’I’m delighted you’re all here. Twenty extraordinary individuals. Look, I know you’d like to know as much as you can about others in this room – but it’s counterproductive at this point. There’s a reason we’re not forming attachments here. I’m sure you’re smart enough to understand what these reasons are. You’re here, because your intelligence’s been classified as extreme. I’m not saying this to stroke your egos; that’s just the truth. I do realize you’re confused, suspicious. How do I know this? Why all the mind games? I’m hoping that – in time – the doubting Thomas in you will see that it’s not a brainwashing operation, it’s not a cult. It’s exactly what you’re told it would be: a way to get out of this hellhole of a world. I’m not using reverse psychology, I’m not testing out new NLP techniques on you. So, to sum it up: why are you here? Simply put – you have malleable minds. An exceedingly rare psychological trait these days. Each of you has a unique point of view. You’re probably thinking: yeah, just like billions of other people. Well, there are differences among the masses, sure, but those differences are often barely noticeable. To say, that you see the world differently would be the understatement of the year, and that’s exactly why we need you to cross over to the alternate reality. You can actually handle it psychologically, I’m confident you’re going to intellectually thrive in your new home. People often say that intelligence isn’t that important; you need emotional intelligence, you need people skills, blah, blah. Sure, there’s no doubt you need wisdom, as well as the ability to interact with others, but if your mind can’t transcend the old ways of thinking, what good is that going to do?’’

‘’I don’t mean to be rude, but’’ a woman paused. ‘’You clearly know what to say, you use all the right words, I’m most definitely a doubting Thomas at this stage. I mean, who’s to say this isn’t some sort of a suicide cult? You do realize telling people I don’t stand for A usually means that’s exactly what you stand for? I’m here, because I want out of this hellhole, but love bombing is a classic cult technique, man. You tell us you’re not into the mind games, and yet you’ve used just that to get us over here. I really want this to be true, what you’re saying, what you’re selling, but I’ve got to tell you: my red bullshit detector light is blinking like crazy at the moment. You’d better show us the goodies – or I’m walking out of here.’’

‘’Well,’’ Paul paused. ‘’Why bother coming all the way out here just to leave? What’s the point? Hear me out first, please. When you cross over, you’ll have to adapt to a new reality. If your mind isn’t malleable, you just won’t make it. You’ll lose it, you’ll go crazy. It’s that simple. Most people can’t cross over, not because they’re going to suffocate, but rather their minds just aren’t capable of function in the alternate reality. Too many contradicting signals. We’re in contact with, well, bureaucrats cooperating with us on the other side. I know the word bureaucrat has cringe-worthy connotations, but hey: can’t live with them, can’t live without them. They want the cream of the intellectual crop only. You’re not going over there to wander aimlessly on the beach – we have what they want, we have what they need. It’s a business transaction. Where there’s supply, there’s demand, even if it’s across the multiverse. Is this Heaven’s Gate redux? All I can say is no. Believe what you want. I mean, let’s get real here: what kind of options you have left? You see what’s been going on around you. This is your only chance to get out of here, unless you want to take the ultimate gamble, to use an euphemism. If you do leave, what do you expect to happen? If you inform the authorities, they’re going to have another Waco on their hands. We’ll be painted as a crazy cult sacrificing people to the Devil or something along those lines. And the public’s going to fall for it – hook, line and sinker. The Freemasons use a special word for duping the masses – hoodwinking them.’’

Another woman raised her right hand. Paul gave her a gentle nod of reassurance.

‘’Please, people, let’s get on with it. The PowerPoint presentation is going to put your mind at ease,’’ he said. ‘’At least I hope so. Once we’re done with the presentation, there’s something I want you to write. The Officials, State Department Officials, want to read your take on life. As simple as that: your take on life. Whatever comes to mind. If you want it to be an essay – then by all means, write an essay. If a blog entry – feel free. These are the instructions I’ve been given from the other side. That’s their sine qua non to let you stay in their reality, cause remember: it isn’t your reality yet. Just because they think you’re going to make a valuable member of their society, doesn’t mean this is going to be their final verdict. Again, their world – their rules. Simple as that. So please, don’t try to bargain with me. I’m just the messenger. So don’t shoot me, okay?’’

‘’How do we know this alternate reality,’’ a woman stood up. ‘’Isn’t even more messed up than this one? Isn’t there an infinite number of realities, existing concurrently, concomitantly, with our own? How do we know their rules are what you say they are? We haven’t even seen these alleged Officials.’’

‘’I told you what they want,’’ Paul nodded vigorously. ‘’If you don’t do what you’re told, they won’t let you stay. It’s entirely up to you. I’m just the messenger. I can’t stress this enough. Oh, of course. How could I forget. Food is here, in case you wanna grab a snack. Don’t worry, it isn’t laced with Kool-Aid. Can we start now?’’

‘’Yes,’’ a chorus of voices was heard.

‘’Let me just turn it on,’’ Paul looked at the projector screen. ‘’Ah. There it is! So, my presentation won’t take long. It aims to give you the who, the what, the when, the where, and the why of the whole operation. I sometimes add: the how, but you’d have to understand quantum physics, and I’m not a physicist myself, so I won’t pretend to be an omniscient scientist, cause, you know, I’d just make a fool of myself.

‘’It’s the Five Ws of journalism,’’ Alice said. ‘’Clever.’’

‘’Right,’’ Paul nodded vigorously. ‘’Okay, so first – the who. Who’s behind the whole let’s cross over to the alternate reality initiative? The London banker you’re all familiar with. Yes, the. The definite article. I am his friend. A few people in this room know him personally – Alice is one of these people. We’ve set up this project together, but Adam was the driving force behind it. I was the second person to join; Alice was the third.

‘’This is so cryptic!’’ a woman exclaimed. ‘’I wanna know more about the alternate reality! Where’s this banker now? Did he off himself?’’

‘’Well,’’ Paul looked the woman straight in the eye. ‘’I understand you harbor a personal dislike of bankers, I do, but Adam’s a good guy. Yes, for that, you’ve only my word, and I understand my word doesn’t carry a lot of weight. I get it. All I can tell you is what I know: I know for sure the alternate reality I’m in contact with is not his current reality. I’m not sure if he’s succeeded. I’ve even asked the other side for help, but to no avail. They can’t locate him.’’

‘’This is demonic!’’ the woman exclaimed again. ‘’He’s probably in hell, or sucked into oblivion! You expect us to believe one of the founders just dropped off the map?’’

‘’Shut the hell up!’’ a man shouted. ‘’Yes, I said it – hell. Empathically. You see demons everywhere, you crazy bitch! Aliens are fallen angels, psychopaths are demons, for fuck’s sake!’’

‘’Okay, people,’’ Paul showed us the palms of his hands. ‘’You’re welcome to read through the slides. Adam’s the reason we’re in contact with the other side. He always said that each life consists of two levels – the macro level, which is the civilizational setting; and the micro level, which is our daily interaction with others in society. These two are inextricably intertwined. I think it’d be best if I leave you the presentation, here on my laptop, you can read it when you feel like it. And to answer your question: yes, in the business of alternate realities, people actually drop off the map. You’re dealing with an infinite number of outcomes, an infinite number of choices… anything that can happen, does happen in one of the alternatives. This concept’s been known for decades, I’m sure you’re familiar with it.”

Silence. You could hear a pin drop. I scanned the room, the body language was clear: the group was skeptical of Paul’s claims, but also desperate to escape. We all took the ultimate gamble – the gamble of life.

‘’I’m going to talk to them now,’’ Paul said. ‘’If you’ve any questions, concerns, you’re welcome to talk to me later.’’

‘’Why can’t we see them?’’ I asked. ‘’It stands to reason we ought to see them, whoever they actually are. You’re not helping your credibility here by playing these cheap mind games with us.’’

‘’I understand how you feel,’’ Paul said. ‘’I do. But these are their conditions, not mine.’’

‘’How do we even know that?’’ a man asked. ‘’How do we know any of this is true? It seems to me, as though we are fed a cocktail of outright lies and prevarication.’’

Paul did not respond; he just walked out of the room.

Alice was bombarded with questions, but she didn’t disclose anything substantial. There were questions about my connection to Alice, but I managed to convince the group I was not a plant, a spy, or a conman. Each group member was guarding their personal space, careful not to reveal too much about themselves, making up stories. Bored with the mind games, I went out to stare at maple trees, swaying in the wind. I was unsure what was actually going on – the best strategy was to observe; think on my feet; draw conclusions; modify the plan if need be.

A diplomatic approach worked best for me: I was just friendly enough not to antagonize anyone, and just detached enough not to reveal too much about myself. I trusted no one, but I feigned trust if need be. I feigned vulnerability, whatever was necessary to figure out what the game really was about.

‘’Paul wants to talk to us,’’ voices of various group members reached me through the open door.

*

‘’Your room is at the end of the corridor,’’ Paul handed me the blue keycard. ‘’I hope you’ll enjoy your stay, for as long as we’re here. You mustn’t, under any circumstances, send anything to your family, your friends, anyone really. Don’t access Facebook. If you do – we’re fucked. I hope it’s clear. We’re adults here, so please, don’t let this turn into another Waco.’’

‘’Got it,’’ I said. ‘’I just hope others are on the same page.’’

‘’Let me worry about others,’’ Paul said. ‘’I’ll have a cigarette now. Cheers.’’

Paul walked downstairs, passing through the foyer on his way out.

‘’Well,’’ I scanned the bed. ‘’Paul’s presentation was short, but informative.’’

‘’So you believe him?’’ asked Alice.

‘’Well,’’ I paused. ‘’Let me quote Fox Mulder: I want to believe. Let’s leave it at that. Just like I want to believe your role in all this is benign.’’

‘’You want to believe that,’’ she said. ‘’So the jury’s still out on this whole thing, right?’’

‘’That’s right,’’ I said. ‘’Don’t tell me you’ve just bought into it. Unless you know more than you’re letting on. You could’ve been sent here from this whole, allegedly existing alternate reality, for all I know.’’

Alice was wearing earbuds. I was tempted to check whether she was actually listening to anything – perhaps she’d found a convenient excuse not to answer my questions. But you know what? I lay on the bed instead, staring at the ceiling.

‘’Adam?’’ Alice was standing over the bed. ‘’Let’s begin.’’

‘’What do you’ve in mind?’’ I laughed.

‘’Oh, shut up!’’ she exclaimed. ‘’Or it’s pillow-in-your-face time.’’

‘’Alright,’’ I pulled myself back up. ‘’Fair enough.’’

We started our thought shower session. Brainstorming was no longer a politically correct expression. The word invented by the CIA to discredit the Chinese was blacklisted. Talk about the irony.

‘’Consciousness is the key,’’ I cut through the silence. ‘’If there’s no consciousness, there’s no life.’’

‘’Absolutely,’’ she replied. ‘’If we see consciousness as an emergent property of the brain, then the only way to preserve life is through cryonics, virtual reality, bodily augmentation, well, transhumanism, essentially. If we’re eternal consciousness, we’re presented with a several dilemmas: what’s this light so many people apparently see when they’re close to death? Is it just the last goodbye of the dying brain, the brain being flooded by the DMT? A systemic game, meant to ensnare us, trap us in the reincarnation cycle, bringing us back as tabula rasa blank slates each time? Are psychopaths literally soulless? Are we all soulless, but we create souls by performing introspective analyses? These questions could go on forever.’’

‘’We really are on the same wavelength,’’ I laughed. ‘’It’s like I’ve dissociative identity disorder, and you’re just my other personality.’’

‘’I definitely felt as though you’re testing my patience at times,’’ Alice said. ‘’I don’t know if you’ve a genius IQ, but I certainly wouldn’t rule out that possibility. IQ doesn’t accurately measure intelligence, anyway.’’

‘’Thank you,’’ I paused. ‘’The issue here is systemic. Elite universities are churning out systemic drones rather than cultivating bright minds, like we used to do. Movie superheroes wail over the loss of one life, all the while thousands starve every day. A truck can mow down a hundred people, but it won’t matter to the system at large, it won’t damage the system in any way. Just something the zombies are watching on TV. Your life matters only to your family, friends, well, if you’re a millionaire, or – better yet – a billionaire – then you’re gonna matter to a lot of people. The hypocrisy is monumental.’’

‘’What about the Pope?’’ Alice asked. ‘’He’s not a rich man and yet he commands a lot of respect.’’

‘’The Pope,’’ I shook my head. ‘’Come on. Really? The Vatican is one of the most, if not the most, influential organizations on Earth, right up there with the Jesuits. If our understanding of the global hierarchy reflects reality, that is.’’

‘’That’s a dark outlook on life,’’ said Alice.

‘’Seriously?’’ I scoffed. ‘’I need a pen. Do you’ve a pen?’’

‘’Yes,’’ she said. ‘’Just give me a second. I’d one in my pocket. Here you go!’’

I wrote SWOT Analysis on a piece of paper.

‘’Do you know what does SWOT stand for?’’ I asked her.

‘’Yeah,’’ she grinned. ‘’It’s not exactly a secret. S stands for strengths; w stands for weaknesses; o stands for opportunities; and t stands for threats. It’s one of the most common analyses used in business.’’

‘’Yes,’’ I said. ‘’I’d proffer the SWOT model works in life, not just in business.’’

‘’Makes sense,’’ Alice said. ‘’Psychopaths love learning about this stuff. People often confuse psychopaths with psychotics. This level of ignorance will never cease to amaze and amuse me at the same time.’’

‘’Psychopaths often employ gaslighting,’’ I said. ‘’It’s a form of brainwashing, where you’re slowly driven insane by the psychopath. And yeah, people will people, you know? An example of brainwashing would be the psychopath rearranging stuff in your house, turning off the TV, all the while telling you it’s still on, hiding your keys, your pills, screwing up your alarm clock, so you wake up five hours late. It’s all done to make you doubt your sanity. It’s an effective technique, especially if you’re isolated – and the psychopath will isolate you from others. Once you’re isolated and dependent on the psychopath, you can stand up and scream woe is me, because your life’s about to become a nightmare you can’t even imagine. By the way, just to dispel the women can’t be psychopaths – not only are women psychopaths, they can be way worse than men, because society at large just doesn’t want to believe women are capable of pure, unadulterated, evil. Female psychopaths love playing the victim, as well as telling everyone they have cancer, just to elicit sympathy. Wait, what’s that noise? Hoofbeats? Oh, I get it! The white knights are here to valiantly defend the damsels in distress! Guess what they’re expecting to get in return. Imagine my shock. Not. White knights think they’re in control, but they’re just pathetic puppets, a cheap vaudeville for the female psychopath. She knows their seduction, failed pickup artist techniques better than they know themselves. No meow meow for them, that’s for sure.’’

‘’That’s exactly how society works,’’ Alice grimaced. ‘’I mean, just take the documents we’re often told to sign by our employers, informing us everyone’s equal and there’s zero tolerance policy of bigotry. It’s a joke. A travesty. Make-believe equality. And most people know it, that’s the best part. You’ve gotta be really deluded, deranged, or both, to buy into the whole we’re all equal baloney.’’

‘’I’m glad you’re a sensible woman,’’ I smiled. ‘’Many women can’t string a coherent sentence together, it’s just tragic. If this is what passes for women’s liberation, then all you can do is roll your eyes. Passive-aggressive behavior – yet another gem. A hallmark of surveillance society. Women are socialized to use passive-aggressiveness as a default psychological response. Psychopaths love passive-aggressive behavior. Maybe that’s why it’s so prevalent in society today, to accommodate psychopaths in all walks of life, on every rung of society? They’re always the good guys. They love the holier-than-thou attitude. It’s always your fault, not theirs. If you don’t have a conscience, you can wear any mask you want, consequences be damned. You’re the public relations experts, selling a product to the world. Except – the product is you. It’s virtually impossible for non-psychopaths to grasp the level of depravity psychopaths can stoop to if their agenda is threatened. They will download child porn onto your computer without giving it a second thought. They thrive on social media, hiding behind fake accounts, pitting people against each other, threatening suicide to garner sympathy, even assuming the role of a trusted mediator. Essentially, the more intelligent the psychopath, the wider the psychopath’s scheming spectrum gets. Psychopaths will feign vulnerability, hopeless romanticism if it means getting closer to you. As a matter of fact, the feigned vulnerability strategy was first used in ancient China. Think Sun Tzu. Then, there’s the mirroring, i.e. psychopaths mirror your body language, your spoken language, to make you think: wow, he/she is just like me!’’

‘’We’re all psychopaths,’’ Alice said. ‘’It’s really a matter of scale. Someone who scores a ten on the psychopathy checklist has a conscience; someone who scores twenty five doesn’t have a shred of conscience, and is just a collection of masks, hiding the predatory consciousness underneath.’’

‘’And remember,’’ I raised my left index finger. ‘’Hell hath no fury like a psychopath scorned. Not to mention the fact, and yes, it’s a fact, that the whole psychopathy checklist isn’t always reliable, so it’s best to refrain from witch hunts. Don’t call everyone you dislike a psychopath, because it works both ways.’’

‘’That’s a good one,’’ Alice clapped her hands ‘’I would’ve never thought of that!’’

‘’I mean,’’ I paused. ‘’There are two levels in human interaction: there’s the explicit level, then there’s the implicit, inferred, level. Just like you have explicit knowledge and tacit knowledge. Explicit knowledge is found in dictionaries, books. Tacit knowledge can’t be taught – it’s your personal experience. For example, the way you speak English is unique to you; another person can’t just open a dictionary and master English. Explicit knowledge has low value, because it’s widely accessible; tacit knowledge has high value, because it’s linked to a particular individual’s set of skills acquired over time. Now, switching gears, let’s take the native versus non-native English speaker dichotomy. Do native English speakers actually exist? How do you define a native English speaker? Is it someone holding a UK, US passport? Someone born to English-speaking parents? What if it’s just one parent? Someone who has lived in an English-speaking country, has a native-sounding accent? See? It’s not that easy to define the native English speaker. If you use sound judgment, many people across the planet are native English speakers, and yet they’re forced to take language tests to prove their linguistic competence if they want to enroll in a university, let’s say – in the US. I get it, testing people is good business. Not to mention that the entire English language teaching system is predicated on the native English speaker supremacy paradigm. If you are in charge of defining who native English speakers are, you then control the English-testing-money-making machine; universities and employers then adopt your competency benchmarks and the money starts flowing, because people classified as non-natives are essentially forced to take your tests. Again, it’s vital to emphasize that sensible, practical testing is a sine qua non of effective learning. The problem starts when we refuse to recognize there are millions of people who are native English speakers; those people simply don’t have a proper passport. Fortunately, an increasing number of employers worldwide no longer relies on tests. A five-minute conversation in English will tell you all you need to know. This is an example of an implicit discriminatory mechanism. You need a keen eye to see it.’’

‘’You can’t always test someone’s level of English in a five minute conversation,’’ Alice said. ‘’Especially, if you’re testing technical English skills. I think it’s a contentious topic, I admit I’m a nativist, so let’s agree to disagree on that one, okay? You know, people who complain they’ve gotta speak English in an international setting, I mean, that’s how history works: the lingua franca is usually the language of the dominant force. Life isn’t fair, probably never will be. Just look at us: it’s not a stretch to say English is the official language of our group.”

‘’Well,’’ I grimaced. ‘’Alright. I’m tempted to ask you about your definition of nativism, but you’re right – let’s drop it. Not sure if it even matters, in the grand scheme of things.’’

‘’Thanks,’’ replied Alice. ‘’I’m not in the mood for a sociological debate right now.’’

‘’Well,’’ I said. ‘’In the face of Paul’s PowerPoint revelations, I completely understand.’’

‘’Free will,’’ Alice shook her head in dismay. ‘’Anathema. I can’t even imagine.’’

‘’We don’t need the Borg,’’ I said. ‘’We’re going to assimilate ourselves.’’

‘’At least now,’’ Alice laughed. ‘’It won’t matter if you graduate magna cum laude, or summa cum laude! Everyone’s going to be the same, like the good ol’ days!’’

‘’Exactly!’’ I burst into laughter. ‘’Reductio ad absurdum it is.’’

‘’Yep,’’ Alice grabbed the earbuds.

‘’Alice,’’ I said. ‘’Don’t put in the earphones just yet. Or are they earbuds? I’m not sure, apparently, the difference is that one is inserted into the ear canal, while the other rests outside the ear canal. Anyway, it’s a technicality. We’ve been beating around the bush here. I know you’re not going to tell me who you really are and what’s going on with all this, but it’s patently obvious to me that I’m your mark. It’s been clear to me since the beginning, actually. I wanted to believe I was wrong, but the fact we’re here categorically proves I’m right. Your looks, your accent, your interests, the way you – quote unquote – bumped into me in Warsaw. You expect me to believe it’s just a chance encounter? Come on. This world is dangling by a thread and that’s when cults would be the most active, because people are desperate, people are willing to suspend their skepticism. I know, I know, you say you don’t know much, but there’s no way Paul would have sent a novice to get me to come here. Too risky. You must be an insider, there’s no doubt in my mind whatsoever. A seasoned cult member. If it’s a cult, of course. This word has so many negative connotations, so many scary associations. It’s obvious I’ve something you, or your real controllers, want. I don’t know what it is, but you know what they say: the truth will out.’’

Alice said nothing. She was catatonic, as if I had triggered her somehow.

Too many questions; too few answers. I knew asking questions directly was not going to work – if there was a hidden agenda, then I had to force their hand somehow.

I felt a tap on my shoulder.

‘’The hell?’’

‘’Relax!’’ exclaimed Alice. ‘’It’s just me. Paul’s just sent everyone an e-mail. It’s urgent. Here, just read it.’’

I looked at Alice’s smartphone.

URGENT. Change of plans, people. The new world order, however you want to call this assembly of aberrant individuals – they’ve seriously stepped up their microchipping campaign. As a matter of fact, it’s unprecedented. I’ve just been contacted by our operatives monitoring the surveillance apparatus in and around Stanmore. We don’t have much time, people. I sincerely, hope one of you hasn’t spilled the beans, because it would mean you’re either a) stupid, b) we’ve been compromised. There’s no time to ruminate, there’s no time to deliberate, there’s no time to navel-contemplate. The other side’s been gracious enough to cut the red-tape for us. In light of these unsettling developments, they have fast-tracked our interdimensional political asylum applications, well, requests. You’ll complete the written assignment once we’ve all crossed over. We’ve got to move now, people. Conference room, ASAP. Godspeed.

‘’Right when things were getting interesting,’’ I thought. ‘’There’s this. How convenient.’’

We all rushed to the conference room.

‘’This really feels like a psyop,’’ a man said. ‘’I don’t like this. It feels, as though I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place. Psychos here, psychos there, psychos everywhere – fuck!’’

‘’Just shut the fuck up,’’ a woman said. ‘’We don’t have time for BS right now.’’

‘’What’s gonna happen now?’’ a woman was walking in and out of the conference room. ‘’What’s the plan? WHATS THE FUCKING PLAN!? I don’t wanna get turned into a fucking microchipped drone, paraded for this twisted world to see! Just shoot me first, okay? Just shoot me!’’

‘’We’re waiting here,’’ Paul raised his hands, as if he was encouraging us to pray. ‘’That’s what they told me to do, so that’s what we’re gonna do if we wanna get the hell out of this damned asylum.’’

‘’Are you sure there are no agents here?’’ a man scanned the room. ‘’How do we even know this isn’t a result of someone ratting us out? There are too many what ifs in all this! If I ever learn that one of you is THE RAT, I’m going to kill you. You hear me? You’re dead.’’

‘’I’ve already told you,’’ Paul asserted. ‘’Life’s a gamble. You can’t be sure of anything. You can only be sure of death and taxes.’’

‘’This isn’t Waco,’’ someone murmured. ‘’This is turning into a fucking Jonestown. There’s no alternate reality – how come we’ve never seen these supposed State Department Officials? It’s BS, he’s a psycho, we’re all going to die, we’re all suckers, damn, me too!’’

‘’If you really want to leave,’’ Paul said. ‘’Go right ahead. I’m not playing mind games with you here. There’s no time. You’re gonna get shot out there. Is this what you want? If the answer is yes – go on, smart Alec. Test your luck. We’re going to see see the other side soon.’’

‘’You’re damn right I will,’’ the man screamed. ‘’Who’s with me? I’m out. This is looney-tunes! Why the fuck did I even come here in the first place? Who’s with me?’’

Silence. Deafening silence. 

‘’Well,’’ the man shook his head. ‘’Screw you, brainwashed idiots. Stay here if you want, with your nut job messiah. There are no parallel universes. This is all we’ve got. It’s some sort of a psyop, that’s all it is. Don’t believe a damn word you hear, don’t believe what you see. Did you know we see the world two-dimensionally, upside-down? Our brains make us see three-dimensionally! In this case, seeing isn’t believing. Only your gut, your intuition knows the truth. And mine is telling me to get the fuck out of here, so sayonara!’’

Two men tried to physically restrain the doubting Thomas, but Paul told them to let him go. ‘’That’s not what we’re about. Free will. If we abandon these principles, then we’re no better than the goons about to swoop in on us.’’

Three minutes of silence. Gunshots. Gasping for breath, doubting Thomas points at Paul.

‘’You were right. Damn it! You were right!’’

‘’Maybe you’re in on it,’’ a woman muttered. ‘’Maybe it’s a cheap marketing tactic, shilling, to mess with our minds.’’

‘’Cut the BS, people,’’ Alice said. ‘’Cui bono? Who benefits? Sowing discord? That’s all you’ve got? Just shut up. It’s the Karpman Drama Triangle all over again.’’

‘’Well,’’ Paul showed us his laptop screen. ‘’See this? A message from their IT team. They’re ready. Once we cross over, each of you will be interviewed by the State Department Officials. They have a dossier on each of you. It’s better not to lie, they’ll know. Please, cooperate with them to ensure a smooth assimilation process.’’

‘’Damn,’’ a man said. ‘’I feel weird, what the fuck? Vertigo, or some shit. Stop saying cross over! It sounds like a cheap sci-fi rip-off, for God’s sake!’’

‘’What?’’ a woman frowned. ‘’Is this your intellectual elite, Paul?’’

‘’No time for babbling,’’ Paul pointed at the woman. ‘’Our lives are on the line here.’’

‘’Shut up!,’’ the woman yelled. ‘’Do you hear that? That clicking, click-clacking sound?’’

‘’This means we’re crossing over,’’ Paul said. ‘’We really are crossing over! It’s the Asylum Processing Officer. She’s in the alternate reality. You’re hearing her high heels. Look at the walls. Heck – look outside!’’

heels

‘’Damn, people,’’ the doubting Thomas exclaimed. ‘’The trees are disappearing! What the fuck, people? I’m gonna go outside, check it out!’’

‘’No,’’ Paul grabbed the man’s hand. ‘’Don’t do it. They’ve explicitly told me to stay indoors during the process.’’

‘’What the,’’ a woman said. ‘’Hey, people! Look!’’

We instinctively turned toward the door. At that moment, we knew: the proverbial Rubicon had been crossed.

*

‘’Welcome to the United States,’’ we saw a woman standing in the doorway. ‘’Welcome to my reality. Your new home. As you can tell, you’ve just crossed over to my world. Congratulations. The mansion is going to be raided soon.’’

‘’But,’’ a woman gasped. ‘’I mean, what the fuck’s going on?’’

‘’Yes,’’ the blonde raised her right hand. ‘’I know. You have barely felt the shift. Not like in the movies. Movies in your reality are a poor reference point. You’re now in the US Military facility for high-value asylum seekers near New York City. You’re not just in another reality – you’re in a different country, as well. I’m sure you’ve noticed the trees vanishing into thin air? The trees haven’t moved an inch, of course; but you have – to another dimension of infinity. Your minds might have a hard time processing it all, but your mental malleability ratio is exceedingly high, so I am confident you’ll fit right in. Still, you may experience a psychotic episode. It’s perfectly natural under these extraordinary circumstances. It’s like flying around the world for the first time. By the way, there’s no New York City over here. We call the place New Amsterdam. I do believe that was the name you used in your reality as well, centuries ago? Any history buffs here? Oh, of course. How could I forget. It’s my understanding that Ellis Island is no longer operational in your reality? Such a shame. Anyway. Please, follow me. I know you have a lot of questions. We’re happy to answer them in due time.’’

‘’Due time!’’ yelled one of the men. ‘’When’s that going to be? You’re stalling!’’

‘’Just don’t give me the zeppelins over Manhattan sci-fi alternate reality BS!’’ shouted a female group member.

‘’Shut the hell up,’’ Paul asserted. ‘’Now’s not the time. Is this really all you can come up with, geniuses?’’

‘’No,’’ the Asylum Processing Official burst into laughter, trying to defuse the situation. ‘’As I’ve said: this isnt a movie. This isn’t a TV show. This is life. And life is much more complex than pop-culture references.’’

Was it all for real? Was it just another experiment of the new (old) world order to gauge the level of brainwashing? I had always exercised a healthy degree of caution in life. If you take risks, make sure you’re going to get a return on your psychological investment. If alternate realities were a fact of life, what about the other fundamental aspects of life? The afterlife? The soul? The nature of consciousness? Evolution? Extraterrestrial life? How do they pay taxes? Do they even pay taxes? Was Benjamin Franklin right? Was the IRS always there, regardless of reality in question? These questions were swirling in my head, as we were walking down the hallway, with nobody saying a single word. I glanced at Paul. Reality was setting in for all of us.

I heard a voice coming from behind.

‘’Adam? Adam?’’

‘’What the fuck?’’ I thought. ‘’Am I hallucinating? Maybe it’s the onset of psychosis?’’

*

I turned around.

‘’Adam?’’ a woman said to me. ‘’How are you?’

‘’Excuse me?’’ I pointed at the group. ‘’What’s going on? Why did you stop me?’’

‘’They’re irrelevant,’’ the woman pointed at the group. ‘’You’re never going to see them again. I hope you didn’t form any attachments? It’s not our first interdimensional rodeo, Adam, we know what we’re doing here. I know it isn’t going to be easy to earn a degree of trust, so let me just say this: my job is to help you with the initial adjustment stage.’’

‘’What the fuck are you doing!’’ one of the woman yelled. ‘’What’s going on?’’

‘’Shut up!’’ Paul exclaimed. ‘’They know what they’re doing. Stop causing scenes every five seconds.’’

‘’What about my wife?’’ I faced the woman. ‘’Well, my quasi-wife, still, you get the point?’’

‘’Did she stop?’’ the woman smiled. ‘’Did she wave? No. She’s a fake wife. She’s an agent. She’s served her purpose.’’

‘’Why all the mind games?’’ I asked. ‘’You can’t expect me to just buy into whatever it is you’re selling. Maybe you are who you say you are – maybe not. Time will tell. Too many unclear variables in all this.’’

‘’Makes sense,’’ the woman smiled. ‘’We’re not selling anything, this isn’t a medieval market. We’re as elitist as they come. We haven’t brought any of you over here out of the goodness of our hearts. We want the best and the brightest. It’s a cliché, yes, but cliché is often based on pragmatic considerations. I’m confident that, in time, you’ll have come to realize this isn’t a spy novel. It’s much, much more convoluted than that.

‘’I’ve told you what I think,’’ I said. ‘’I’m perplexed. Fascinated and apprehensive.’’

‘’Obviously,’’ the Official said. ‘’You need to sleep. Feels like you’re jet-lagged, right? That’s the interdimensional travel talking. Your clarity of thought will return when you wake up. Your place is just around the corner.’’

‘’What place?’’ I asked.

‘’You know,’’ the woman said. ‘’A bathroom; a bedroom, stuff like that. It isn’t a presidential suite, if that’s what you’re thinking. There’s also food waiting for you on the table.’’

‘’Okay,’’ I nodded. ‘’I’m so tired, it’s as though I’ve flown around the world or something.’’

‘’Typical for first-timers,’’ the Officer gave me a grin. ‘’Nothing to worry about. Have a good sleep! I’ll check on you later. By the way – feel free to use the bathtub!’’

I was staring at the woman blankly, not knowing what else to say. A giant I’ve got nothing sign just popped into my head.

‘’I’m Alice, by the way,’’ she extended her right hand, as if trying to break the awkward silence. ‘’Like in Wonderland.’’

‘’My so-called wife was called Alice,’’ I shook the woman’s hand. ‘’As you probably know. You’re not Alice in disguise, messing with my mind, are you? I’m too tired for mind games, anyway. You’re my First Contact Officer. How does that sound?’’

‘’First Contact Officer!’’ Alice exclaimed. ‘’I like that! It makes you an alien, I guess.’’

‘’Well,’’ I paused. ‘’I am an alien. In a matter of speaking. A non-citizen, that’s for sure. Just don’t call me an illegal alien – and we’re cool.’’

‘’Goodnight!’’ Alice muttered, as she walked out the door. ‘’Legal alien!’’

All sorts of thoughts pop into your head when you just keep staring at the ceiling. For example, a story about a man, who also happened to be a citizen of a non-existent country. He flew to Tokyo on business, as he had done many times before. The businessman told Japanese Immigration Officers he was a citizen of a European country called Taurel. The Officers, visibly confused, could not wrap their minds around the whole Taurel conundrum. The man’s passport looked authentic; he had entered Japan on a business visa numerous times before – visa stamps proved as much. Confusion turned into vexation, the man was kept in a hotel room with two guards stationed outside. Japanese authorities could not have predicted the fact that the man would just vanish. He was gone, not a trace left.

Did he cross over? If he did cross over – was it a temporary glitch in the Matrix?

Was Taurel a country on this world? I had so many questions… I needed to calm down my racing mind. So I popped, no, took a pill Alice had left me. Extraordinary times – extraordinary measures. Not a fan of pills, but sometimes you must do what you must do.

I was out in seconds.

*

‘’Adam?’’ I saw a figure towering over the bed.

‘’Yes,’’ I said. ‘’That’s me. You’re Samantha, right?’’

‘’No,’’ the high-pitched voice assured me. ‘’It’s me – Alice! The First Contact Officer. Come on, stop playing! You’ve been sleeping for thirteen hours straight. I’m just checking up on you.’’

‘’I’m fine,’’ I said. ‘Better than fine, actually! I just thought I was dreaming for a moment there. It’s hard to separate facts from fiction when your life’s taken a decidedly bizarre turn.’’

‘’That’s understandable,’’ Alice replied. ‘’Your mind’s trying to make sense out of it all. It’s been flooded with stimuli it doesn’t yet know how to classify. You’ve a powerful mind. It’ll be a smooth asylum process.’’

‘’I’ll be joining you in an hour,’’ I said. ‘’Is that okay with you?’’

‘’That’s perfect,’’ the Officer replied. ‘’Just let me know by pushing the black button over here, on the nightstand. When you press it, I’ll be here momentarily.’’

‘’Momentarily,’’ I grinned. ‘’That word again.’’

‘’Yeah,’’ Alice said. ‘’It’s funny how many TV shows don’t take linguistic changes into account, right? I’ll be waiting for the signal.’’

‘’I’ll push the button when I’m ready!’’ I said. ‘’What are the bald eagle statues doing here, anyway?’’

*

I pressed the buzzer forty minutes later. As Alice was walking me down the corridor, she told me that we were going to her special room. I did not particularly want to know what she had meant.

‘’Alright, Adam,’’ Alice place a questionnaire on the table. ‘’Here we are. Sit down, please. These are the questions which are going to determine the best place in our society for you. It’s a straightforward process. The crucial part of the vetting is always done in the original reality of the newcomer.’’

‘’What about that essay,’’ I asked Alice. ‘’How do you vet people? Do you send your agents, like that other Alice?’’

‘’There’s a stack of files containing the answers to your questions,’’ replied Alice. ‘’Once we’re through with the questions here, I’ll take you to our archives, you’ll have plenty of time to pore over the documents. The essay, well, it didn’t exactly go as planned, which’s one of the reasons I’m asking you all these questions.’’

‘’Can’t wait to see the archives!’’ I smiled. ‘’I’ll hold you to it, Alice!’’

‘’Alright,’’ she said. ‘’Let’s segue to the questionnaire now. Your last name is Kowalski, correct?’’

‘’Yes,’’ I replied. ‘’It’s one of the most popular Polish last names. Where I’m originally from, anyway. You spell it with a w, by the way.’’

‘’Adam Kowalski,’’ the Officer pointed at a piece of paper. ‘’Did I spell it right?’’

‘’Yes,’’ I replied. ‘’That pesky –ski. You obviously know my name, given the amount of research you claim to have done. Or was it surveillance? Was it both? Gets complicated.’’

‘’Absolutely,’’ Alice said. ‘’Gathering the data, as we refer to the surveillance operation, is the first step; talking to the individual in question is the second – and final – step. Let’s focus on your family now.’’

‘’What about them?’’ I frowned. ‘’It’s an emotionally-charged topic, as you’re probably aware, but given that you hold all the cards at the moment, a catharsis is in order, I suppose.’’

‘’You can share whatever you’re comfortable sharing,’’ she emphasized the word comfortable. ‘’I’m not here to be a moralist. I won’t be issuing ex-cathedra pronouncements, as if I were the judge, jury and executioner.’’

‘’Okay,’’ I sighed with relief. ‘’You could be telling me all this to make me lower my psychological guard, of course, you could very well be the moralist in sheep’s clothing. I’m putting you on notice here. So, let me give you the lowdown now. I’m an only child, but I also happen to have three half-siblings. We share the same father. That I know of, anyway. I’ve never really had any contact with my half-siblings, so I see myself as an only child. Two of my half-siblings are dead: one of my half-sisters and my half-brother. The third sibling – my second half-sister – could probably be my mother, age-wise.”

“Are they an important part of your life?’’ asked the Officer. ‘’The answer’s obvious, but I just want to make sure I’ve understood you properly.’’

‘’They aren’t, well, weren’t, that important to me,’’ I said. ‘’How could they be? They’re like a distant memory, a distant star system you barely get to see, flickering in the night sky.  You know it’s there, but it doesn’t affect you in any way, as a passing thought, perhaps. An ephemeral remnant of the distant past. I used to be more romantic, you know, about re-establishing family ties, but – over time – I just thought: to heck with it, it’s not worth it, I’ve gotta focus on my own life, that’s all that matters, essentially.”

“Let’s switch gears, ” Alice said. ’’November the 1st. Can you explain the significance of this date to me?’

“It’s a gloomy Halloween,” I grinned. “With a Polish martyrological slant. Cemeteries, imposing tombs, grave lights illuminating the darkness. And then, underground…”

‘’I’ve been meaning to ask you about that,” Alice paused. “What about the corpses? It probably isn’t a good idea to have so many decaying bodies in one place.’’

‘’Bodies rotting away, getting devoured by worms,’’ I said. ‘’You’re right, it’s a reprehensible, medieval, custom. I do think it’s more civilized to cremate the remains, put the ashes in an impressively adorned urn on the mantle.’’

‘’What kind of feelings does visiting the graves bring up in you?’’ she leaned forward.

‘’I think the best way to describe these feelings,’’ I said. ‘’Would be to tell you a little story. I was standing over my half-sister’s grave, pensive, listening to the sussurating sound of the maple leaves. I heard a hello, turned around… lo and behold! It was my second half-sister. I’ve no idea how I actually recognized her – but I did. She got defensive around our father. Understandable, after being in no contact mode for twenty years. What’s even more grotesque, you see, was the fact that my half-sister came with her two kids. Kids, meet your grandpa. Grandpa, meet your grandkids. Can you picture it in your mind? No words needed, right? Halloween Polish edition. It’s as twisted as writing a suicide note, naming people you hate as the ones responsible for your death, just because you can, out of spite. The ultimate revenge tactic with you as the ultimate weapon.’’

‘’Makes sense,’’ Alice grinned. ‘’People will people.”

‘’Well said,” I nodded vigorously. ”The most twisted minds often paint themselves as holier-than-thou moralists. It’s a classic projection, deflection game. To be fair, though, sometimes it pays to tap into your inner Machiavelli. Feign naivete. Feign vulnerability. Then again, never admit to wrongdoing when you’re dealing with a highly Machiavellian individual. A psychopath, basically. Guilt-inducement is the psychological whip they crack over you. But you know what? Psychopathic traits aren’t necessarily bad, evil; this is simplifying things. The truth is often found in the gray area. So no… don’t lose your inner Machiavelli.”

‘’Or… your inner Sun Tzu,’’ the Officer grinned. ‘’Your family’s a world away now. Literally. A world away. Your alternate self doesn’t exist in this reality, in case you’re tempted to search him out. Don’t take my word for it, of course! We never consider, let alone grant, political asylum to someone who has a counterpart here. It’s a recipe for disaster on so many levels. I’m sure you’re wondering why. You’ll find the answers in the archives. We don’t have time to dwell on this right now.’’

‘’I’ll be fine,’’ I said. ‘’I can understand the emotional impact. Besides, I can always create my own family. Like a God – apotheosis. Please, don’t read into that. The kid’s just going to have to accept my side of the family is, well, MIA. I’ll find a way around it somehow. Heck, just popped into my head: you do know what Facebook is, right? I’m throwing words like Halloween and Facebook around, assuming you know what they mean, I keep forgetting where I am!’’

‘’Yes,’’ the woman nodded. ‘’We also use Facebook in this reality. Halloween is the same, as far as I can tell, perhaps you’re going to spot some differences, but you don’t have that much exposure to Halloween yourself, so it’s probably going to be tricky. As you can imagine, one of the first things people do when they’re given web access is to Brazzle their name. That’d be Google for you. We call it Brazzle over here. The newcomers react in all sorts of ways, as you can imagine, there are as many coping mechanisms as there are people. If they interact with someone they knew back home, but this individual doesn’t recognize them, they sometimes break down after a while, you know? It gets extremely complicated at times, we’ve an entire branch of psychiatry studying an alternate-reality-induced psychosis. I’m not saying that to scare you, it’s just what happens sometimes. You do get an occasional psychotic episode… it doesn’t even have to be someone who died years ago, it could well be someone you’d no contact with, and yet… you’re on good terms over here. There’s no telling what can be the trigger. So yeah, as you can imagine, media exposure isn’t high on our priority list.’’

‘’Makes perfect sense,’’ I said. ‘’I hope I’m not going to be surprised by my own mind.”

‘’I wouldn’t think so,’’ she smiled. ‘’Anyway, on the linguistic note. Your accent is definitely American. I don’t detect a trace of a foreign accent. It’s an asset. You’re going to blend in, effortlessly. You’ll pick up the words you need along the way. Actually, as you’re obviously aware, your maternal grandfather was an American. Born and raised in Passaic, New Jersey. Not our Passaic, obviously, but still – you’re welcome to visit! I’d classify your accent as Midwestern, which  means no discernable accent to many Americans. I’m sure we’d detect traces of Slavic accent if we really analyzed your speech patterns, you know – vowel-by-vowel, consonant-by-consonant. You know, who cares! People born in the US who are raised around immigrant parents have foreign-sounding accents sometimes. This is one heck of a bummer, let me tell you!’’

‘’Thank you,’’ I said. ‘’I appreciate it. I’m hoping there are no tent cities in your USA.’’

‘’You’re language savvy,’’ the woman said. ‘’Goes without saying. English is the official language of the United States over here. I don’t think that’s the case in your original reality? And no, there are no tent cities in these United States.’’

‘’That’d be correct,’’ I said. ‘’English was never the official language of the US in my former reality. It’s a contentious issue, as you may imagine. I’d be interested to learn more about the socio-political divergences, historical fissures have always fascinated me.’’

‘’I’ll be happy to provide you with the materials,’’ the Officer smiled.

‘’You know,’’ I raised my eyebrows. ‘’I’ve been dancing around the obvious question here: what about Poland? Does it exist in this reality?’’

Alice shook her head. ‘’I knew you’re going to ask. Eventually. There’s no Poland. Poland was particularly badly hit by the Plague in the 14th century. At the risk of sounding cheaply sentimental: I’m sorry.’’

‘’No need to feel sorry,’’ I grinned. ‘’It’s an alternate reality. Things are different. Besides, I’m a white raven now. Am I the only Pole in this reality?’’

‘’A white raven?’’ she scrunched her eyebrows. ‘’Yeah. No other Poles in this reality.’’

‘’Yeah,’’ I nodded vigorously. ‘’It’s a Polish expression. It means I’m unique. A sui generis, if you will. The Polish culture in my former reality is similar to Asian cultures in some respects. Well, Asian cultures I’m familiar with, I’m assuming it’s similar, or the same, over here? Dangerous assumptions, I know. We’re seen as smart, hard-working, disciplined. That’s how many foreigners see us. The pivotal difference between us and Asians is that, well, Poles are often enemies of one another, while foreigners often praise us. Otto Von Bismarck, a German statesman in my former reality, apparently said that Poles don’t need external threats, because we’re going to destroy ourselves, just give us the power to govern. I’m using the word – we – reluctantly; I categorically disavow any links to the romanticized vision of the world, espoused by so many Poles. The Nation which embraces gloria victis as its creed, the Nation which glorifies martyrdom, glorifies romanticism – not realpolitik – is not the Nation I want to be a part of. We don’t need martyrs in the world – we need scientists, writers, lawyers, doctors, engineers. Polish elite was decimated. Regimes always go for top layers of society. I was hoping that, perhaps, there’s an alternate Poland here, Poland, where logic prevails.’’

‘’It’s vae victis,’’ the Officer said. ‘’Woe to the defeated. It’s Latin. Again – I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news.’’

’’No need to be sorry,’’ I waved my right hand. ‘’Gloria victis is a Polish literary invention. A psychological defense mechanism, justifying the senseless rivers of blood. I’m reasonably certain no other Nation on Earth’s come up with a similar concept. It’s a crazy concept, a counterproductive concept, and yet deeply entrenched in the Polish National psyche. This is the ultimate tragedy. A self-fulfilling prophecy, bringing forth the most calamitous consequences.’’

‘’Fortunately,’’ the woman said. ‘’You’re taking the news relatively well.’’

‘’I’ve prepared myself mentally,’’ I paused. ‘’As much as I could, under the circumstances. Is there a way to access other realities? I’d really like to see the map of the world now, please.’’

‘’Sure,’’ Alice said. ‘’Just turn around. It’s right there. On the wall. As to the realities question – I can neither confirm, nor deny. I know it’s cloak-and-daggery, but that’s our policy.’’

‘’I didn’t see it!’’ I exclaimed. ‘’Well, it’s your world. Where I’m from, it’d mean a yes, but who knows what it means over here. You didn’t flat-out deny it, so there’s that.’’

‘’Thank you for your understanding,’’ Alice said.

‘’Can I get a list of recent political events?’’ I was scanning the map. ‘’There’s no Spain? You know what, I take that back – how about the whole century? Crucial political developments throughout the century. Yeah, sounds about right. Can you get me the list? Can I access the web?’’

‘’Wait here, please,’’ the Officer said. ‘’You’re not the first one to ask that, as you can imagine. Be right back.’’

‘’The refugee crisis,’’ I blurted out. ‘’Is it as bad as in my former reality?’’

‘’There’s no refugee crisis here,’’ the woman said. ‘’In fact, Africa is a prosperous continent in this reality. The African Union is a potent economic entity. Africa had been colonized, similar developments to your reality, but European powers were more responsible over here. Europeans didn’t just withdraw on a whim, but ushered in an era of stability first. Europe, the United States and China are major investors in the African economy – including the region you call the Middle East. By the way, you might want to sit down for this one. Islam never took root in our reality. Yeah, you knew I was going to say it, right? Obvious Middle Eastern link. Islam is just an obscure sect over here.’’

‘’Holy fuck,’’ I covered my mouth in amazement. ‘’This is a MAJOR, MAJOR divergence point! What caused it?’’

‘’Holy fuck indeed,’’ the Officer smiled. ‘’Wait here. I’ll be back with the list. In short? Muhammad never came up with the idea of jihad over here. His followers simply died out. There were no battles, there were no conquests, there was no successful hybrid of politics and religion. Just like many others professing the ultimate truth.’’

”Blasphemous,” I grinned. ”Blasphemous indeed. But you can’t argue with the multiverse.”

”I’m sure you’re gonna wanna study our religious systems,” the Officer said, as she was leaving the room. ”Obviously, we’re talking significant divergence points here.”

”I can’t wait to get my hands on the local version of the Good Book,” I snickered silently. ”I’m wondering if the rapture is a fringe belief system here. Not to mention ET cults. Cult is such a loaded word where I’m originally from. Anyway…”

As soon as she had walked out of the room, I instinctively scanned the surveillance apparatus. Just in case.

*

A couple of minutes later.

‘’That was fast.’’

‘’You’re welcome to intellectually explore as much as you’d like,’’ the woman said. ‘’Could we focus on your asylum application for now, though?’’

‘’Of course,’’ I replied. ‘’You have my undivided attention.’’

‘’Great. I’d like to segue to your employment history now,’’ the Officer said. ‘’A resume sales pitch. Not a Girl Scout cookie pitch.’’

‘’Can I get a latte first?’’ I asked. ‘’You’ve gotta have lattes, please tell me you know what a latte is?’’

‘’Coming right up,’’ she said. ‘’Our lattes are better than yours, actually.’’

A few minutes later, a man in a military uniform came through the door and put the frothy latte on the table.

‘’I hope our lattes are as good as yours,’’ she smiled. ‘’As I’ve said, though, I think they’re even better!’’

‘’Well,’’ I grinned. ‘’It’s great, actually! I’m not trying to be cheesy here, but yeah – you’re right. You know, there’s a Polish expression, loosely translates as, sipping froth. It means you’re getting the best part of something.’’

‘’Said the man hiding behind the façade of politeness,’’ the Officer laughed. ‘’Nah, don’t worry. I believe you. Oh, I see! Makes sense. A frothless latte just wouldn’t please my taste buds as much. Back to reality: what are your strengths and weaknesses?’’

‘’My intelligence, analytical skills, mental malleability,’’ I said. ‘’These are my strengths. My main weakness is stubbornness. Sometimes, at job interviews, they ask curveball questions, one of them being – what are your weaknesses? I’m not sure if it’s still a curveball question, though. It’s likely people wised up to it.’’

‘’A diplomatic response,’’ the woman said. ‘’Stubbornness can be a character flaw, then again, it can also be an asset, depending. Alright, how about your educational background?’’

‘’Linguistics and international relations’’ I said. ‘’I didn’t study at one of the Ivy League colleges, but I’m here, so it’s safe to say I’m the winner. I taught English. General English, business English, technical English. A wide spectrum. I even taught in China – they run on mianzi, guanxi, and porcelain skin reverence. Does that make sense to you? I’m presuming a lot, aren’t I?’’

‘’We call it the Rose League over here,’’ the Officer said. ‘’Yeah, I’m familiar with various aspects of the world you’re originally from. China isn’t the same over here, but the principles you’ve just mentioned certainly permeate Asian society in this reality as well. Let’s segue back to the main topic of our discussion. What’s your ideal job? As much as we can talk about ideals, of course.’’

‘’Well,’’ I paused. ‘’Normally, I’d be inclined to sell you a BS sales pitch. Silver tongue and all that. Since you’re likely aware of my demons, though, I won’t be holding back. There was a time in my life when I felt as though a dark presence was following me. A physical embodiment of my perceived emasculation. The embodiment of failed social expectations.

The demon of unemployment. The demon would rear his ugly head, when I was least expecting him to. Just to give you a vivid example of what I’m talking about, a case in point, so to speak: I was being interviewed by an Immigration Officer at JFK. Suddenly, the Officer’s face turned into that of a damned soul from hell, begging to be rescued from eternal suffering, even for just a second. Seeing that face disturbed me so much that I developed insomnia. I knew I was probably having a psychotic break, but it didn’t stop my mind from conjuring up phantasmagoric imagery.

I thought I had been targeted by otherworldly forces vying to control my mind. And once you control someone’s mind, you control their actions. I was never a religious man, agnostic at best, but it seemed to me that turning to God was the only recourse left.

Akin to a strict teacher who would not accept anything less than perfection, akin to a Chinese woman scolding me for untied shoe laces, the hellish entity was always there to remind me of my failures, assuming countless forms to confuse me. Indeed: my perfectionism was the internalized disciplinarian. The demonic trinity conjured into existence by the system – career, cash, competition – was in charge of my life.

I knew I had to perform an exorcism on myself. Nobody else would, or could for that matter, help me. Certainly not the psychiatric-pharmaceutical complex, that could at best diagnose me as dereistic. It was just me – and the Creator of the Universe. Sentient infinity.

There are no words to adequately convey what happened. There are no words to adequately assay the depth of the cleansing. The mental chains which had been placed on my self-perception by society – were no longer a terrible burden to carry. The chains would never truly go away, as socialization and brainwashing are actually one and the same, but at least they weren’t nearly as heavy as before.

Back to your question – I’m in the process of writing a book. I’ve taken a pen drive with me to this reality. Hopefully, I’ll be able to access the file on your computers. I’ve always wanted to have my own radio show, where I could comment on current events, pick people’s brains, you know? I’m passionate about the unexplained, visiting strange places. I apply the principle of the golden mean – healthy skepticism. I don’t really say common sense, because common and sense, well, these two words often don’t go together anymore, at least where I’m originally from. I’m exercising cautious optimism that it’s different over here! I prefer to say sound judgment, alternatively – best judgment. In Polish, if I were to loosely translate, there’s a phrase – healthy reason, healthy judgment.’’

‘’Makes sense,’’ the woman said. ‘’Thank you for your candor.’’

‘’I’m glad you appreciate it,’’ I said. ‘’I’m balancing candor with diplomacy here.’’

‘’You certainly have a way with words,’’ Alice paused. ‘’Now. Your pen drive. We’ve brought laptops over from your reality. Our IT team managed to make your systems compatible with ours. Quite a feat, let me tell you. We’ll give you a new laptop, with an operational system from this side. You’ll be able to keep writing. Nobody’s going to copy your ideas. We take intellectual property rights seriously here. The file on your pen drive will be recognized by our systems.’’

‘’You seem to be answering my questions,’’ I laughed. ‘’Before I even ask them! Will it be possible for you to help me publish the book? Once it’s ready, of course? I’ve always wanted to sign a contract with a publisher.’’

‘’We certainly have the contacts you’ll need,’’ the Officer said. ‘’We know you’ve got what it takes to write a bestseller. This reality or that reality, I don’t think anyone likes to waste money on spurious investments. Okay, crappy investments. You’re going to have to adjust your vocabulary to this world, though. A thousand words, give or take. You’ll get the hang of it in no time. You know, now that I think of it, be careful with the word awesome.

I know you’re trying to be culturally compatible, but we don’t really use the word awesome over here. It’s used mainly in the religious context. If you use it out in the open, you’re going to sound like a 17th century Puritan settler who’s just learned he’s been predestined to see the Lord in heaven. Oh wow. I see you can’t stop staring at the map, huh? It really is a different world!’’

‘’So you keep telling me,’’ I faced the Officer. ‘’The borders, they’re so elegant, you know? Smart population – that’s the best defense against the psychopath. Your world isn’t experiencing the mayhem I’m all too familiar with.’’

‘’Your fascination with psychopaths,’’ the woman said. ‘’If this is the right word to use here, this fascination stems from your intellectual quest to understand the pathocratic rule?’’

‘’I’m from the world ruled by a psychopathic hidden hand,’’ I raised my left index finger. ‘’What do you think? Is it a choice? Or a necessity? I’m sure psychopaths exist over here, too. Heck, you could be one for all I know! No offense. The reason why I’ve been studying psychopaths for so long is simple: understand the psychopath understand society.

Well, my former society, at least. Although, I’m reasonably certain many government systems, population control techniques, overlap, regardless of reality in question

You see, if you confront a psychopath, for example: the psychopath will either: laugh it off; make you look unstable in front of others; shrug you off; feign friendship, feign vulnerability to disarm your psychological defenses.

 When you don’t perceive the psychopath as a threat, you open up to the psychopath – and that’s when the psychopath is going to pick your brains, learning your weaknesses which’ll be used against you. You’re left bewildered, sometimes even slipping into catatonia. The psychopath will be standing over you, grinning maliciously, preparing to strike the psychological final blow, the coup de grace. Once you’re the psychopath’s puppet, you’ll be in a state of perpetual learned helplessness. If you let a psychopath into your life, the psychopath is going to know you better than you know yourself – while you won’t know a damn thing about the psychopath. You can see that smirk on their faces when they pull a successful con – the smirk’s called the duper’s delight. They’re delighted you’ve been duped. Dominated. Psychopaths use mentally ill people to do their bidding. They’re like puppet masters, pulling the psychological strings from behind the scenes.

Pay no attention to the psychopath behind the curtain. Don’t connect the whys, the whos, the wheres, the whats, the whens. Don’t get me wrong here, though; psychopathic traits can be beneficial. Take confidence, charm, heck, even that cocksure swagger. Having psychopathic traits and being a full-fledged psychopath are two different worlds. The consensus between mental health professionals is that full-fledged psychopaths are beyond salvation. They’re like damned souls going to hell. They will only – temporarily at that – respect you if they fear you. If you rip off their mask of sanity, so the world can see it for what they really are. Not even who.

What. They’re energetic vampires, metaphysical beings sucking you dry energetically.

Then again, many people are so brainwashed, so inculcated with the ideas of mediocracy, that the thought of such a Machiavellian, calculated, evil escapes them. They just can’t fathom the depths of depravity psychopaths will stoop to. Psychopaths always scheme, always calculate, every single move in their life is a calculation. They will tell you, they are living on the spur of the moment, but their mind never stops devising dangerous schemes. If they knew they could kill you, enslave you, rape you, castrate you – without suffering the consequences – they’d do it in a heartbeat. People who work with psychopaths, are themselves at risk of turning into proto-psychopaths. A gentler version of their boss. When you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes into you.’’

‘’Wow,’’ the Officer paused. ‘’That’s an impressive analysis! You’re right, though. We do have our share of psychopaths over here. Our citizens are much smarter than yours, so it’s not nearly as easy for psychopaths to engage in predatory behavior. We understand psychopathy. We don’t confuse psychopaths with axe-wielding maniacs. Your politicians, wouldn’t last a day in office here. Don’t get me wrong, though – we aren’t saints.’’

‘’You’d remove them?’’ I grinned. ‘’If they weren’t serving the people?’’

‘’There’s no need to remove them,’’ she said. ‘’We ensure only the cream of the intellectual crop gets in. If there’s a problem, use a higher level of intelligence to solve it. We value practical intelligence, not ivory tower solutions of absent-minded professors. It’s archetypal, but archetypes are based on real-life personalities. You know, people share personality traits with one another. It’s obvious.’’

‘’That’s exactly the kind of society I want to be living in!’’ I exclaimed. ‘’I’m so glad I’ve escaped this Ofkaesque nightmare! I’m also happy to hear you use words like archetypal. It’d mean you’re no strangers to Jung over here?’’

‘’Jung’s one of the pillars of modern psychology over here,’’ Alice said. ‘’That word. Orwellian and Kafkaesque, right? A blend? A portmanteau?’’

‘’Exactly. I was putting your language smarts to the test.’’.

‘’You’ll make a great contribution to the USA,’’ the Officer said. ‘’This isn’t flattery; I really believe that. We not only appreciate genius; we revere it. We embrace free speech, there are no social justice warriors. Intellectual exchange is the driving force of society.’’

‘’You’re a telepath,’’ I finished sipping my latte. ‘’Or an expert behavioral scientist. My next question was going to be about SJWs! I’d love to enroll at a university here. How are the tuition fees over here?’’

‘’It’s not nearly as bad as where you’re originally from,’’ the woman burst into laughter. ‘’Given the, well, idiosyncratic nature of your arrival in the US, we’re willing to pay for your education. No financial strings attached. What we’re asking for in return is for you to be a productive member of society – that’s it. Just do what you’re good at. We’re going to help you, of course, we’ve the right contacts. Here’s what’s going to happen in the near future. Your settling in plan outline. I apologize if it’s jumbled up, it’s a work in progress. Please, read it carefully.’’

Non-disclosure agreement, health, intellectual capacity, linguistic competence, new identity adjustment, words/lexis adjustment, bank operations, general knowledge adjustment, romantic partnership adjustment, apartment adjustment, job adjustment, transportation adjustment, neighborhood adjustment. Additional guidelines will follow.

‘’Are these the steps?’’ I touched my chin. ‘’A roadmap of sorts?’’

‘’Tentative steps,’’ the woman said. ‘’A set of guidelines. You need a new identity. You’ll also need to sign the non-disclosure agreement. This isn’t negotiable.’’

‘’Fair enough,’’ I said. ‘’Does the CCP exist in this reality?’’

‘’The CCP,’’ the woman paused. ‘’As in: the Chinese Communist Party?’’

‘’Yes.’’

‘’Yes,’’ the woman said. ‘’The CCP exists in our reality as well. But I don’t think our China is the same as your China.’’

‘’Really?’’ I asked. ‘’What are the differences? The borders don’t seem that different to me. How about Hong Kong? Macau? Taiwan?’’

‘’You’ll soon have access to a vast library of knowledge,’’ Alice said. ‘’The archives, remember? We’ll wait for your Lead Officer now. She’s going to set it all up for you. You’ll learn to navigate our world in no time. It’s been a pleasure, Adam. Good luck!’’

As Alice was shaking my hand, she gave me a grin.

‘’By the way, speaking of China, I haven’t met her, but I’ve heard the Lead Officer is quite the tiger mother. She’ll be right with you.’’

‘’Wait,’’ I said. ‘’What about the archives? Who do I talk to? How can I contact you? Why are you so evasive, I’m new to this reality, it’s perfectly sensible to be asking questions!’’

‘’Yes,’’ the woman replied. ‘’It’s perfectly sensible to ask questions, but it’s also perfectly sensible for you to understand that other duties await me. Your Lead Officer knows about the archives. She’s going to give you access. Thank you for your time, Adam. Good luck!’’

Alice marched out of the room. I was left alone, staring at the empty latte glass.

‘’Hey!’’ I yelled. ‘’Can I get another latte?’’

That was when I realized the door was locked.

‘’What the? Time to sit down.’’

*

I felt someone tap my shoulder.

‘’What’s with all the tapping?’’ I jumped up from my seat. ‘’Do you always have to be trolly? Did Alice number two put you up to this?’’

‘’Whoa! Don’t panic! I’m your Lead Officer,’’ I heard a Chinese-accented voice.

‘Well,’’ I stood up. ‘’In that case – it’s nice to finally meet you. I thought you’re here to bring me another latte. Sorry.’’

‘’I’m Christina Lee,’’ the woman shook my hand. ‘’I’m sure we can accomplish a lot together. And no, I’m not your latte girl. First order of business: you need a new name. We’ve gotta move fast. I like stuff done fast.’’

‘’Why’s that?’’ I asked. ‘’When will I be given access to the archives, to the web, can you get me another latte?’’

‘’It’s been our experience,’’ Christina paused. ‘’That it’s better to assign new names, new identities, because it gives you the necessary assimilation training, cuts psychological ties with the place you’re originally from. For security reasons, you aren’t allowed to contact others who’ve come to this world with you. I know it’s cryptic, but you’ve got to trust me on that one. You sure have a lot of questions. Good. Again: all in due time.’’

‘’Alice,’’ I said. ‘’Who was she, exactly? It sounds as though you’re making it all up as you go along, you know? I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt here, but you’re not exactly credible when you just ignore my questions by telling me to wait, and wait.’’

‘’Alice wasn’t her real name,’’ Christina smiled. ‘’Obviously. You can keep the first name, but your last name’s going to have to be Americanized. Once we get out of this building, your doubts will be dispelled. I’ll help you with the radio show, I’ll help you with finding the publisher, I’ll help you with the assimilation process.’’

‘’Fine,’’ I clicked my fingers. ‘’It’s not like I can do much about anything now, anyway. Dumb question: what if someone from the group calls the show?’’

‘’That’s fine,’’ Christina said. ‘’As you may have surmised, the fact you’re here is a closely guarded secret. Eyes only stuff. We’ve got our ways of handling things. Including contingencies. No worries. This isn’t our first rodeo, to use that antiquated phrase.’’

‘’Understood,’’ I said.

‘’Great,’’ the woman handed me a piece of paper. ‘’This is the non-disclosure agreement. Your signature is a must.’’

My mind was racing: was I doing the right thing? What if it’s all a charade perpetrated by the powers that be? They can’t send me back, they won’t send me back, so why do I need to sign anything, anyway? I’m just going to assume they are who they say they are at this point. I don’t wanna go back, I don’t wanna go back to the new world order nightmare. I’ve gotta be pragmatic. The best course of action is to play along. Yeah, I’m gonna observe for now. I’m gonna analyze. I’m gonna draw conclusions – and then – I’ll decide my next move.

*

‘’I’ve read it,’’ I said. ‘’If I don’t follow the rules, I’ll be sent back?’’

‘’Correct,’’ Christina said. ‘’It’s an extreme measure. We did it twice. Just don’t keep shouting from the rooftops you’re from an alternate reality – and you’ll be fine.’’

‘’I’ve no intention of going back,’’ I grimaced. ‘’It’s a place where the few live like gods on Mount Olympus. The masses are chipped, subjugated. Even the enforcers are chipped! Everyone’s a hostage. A slave. Once they depopulate the planet, they’re going to microchip anyone who hasn’t been chipped yet. There’ll be no need for police state buffer zones. They’ll just turn themselves into super-intelligent AIs. They’ll be surrounded by robots, catering to their flights of fancy, to their whims. Wait, what are you doing?’’

‘’It’s a mental signature device,’’ the Lead Officer said. ‘’It deciphers your intent. Once it confirms you’re not lying to me, the device will sign the document in your name, using your writing style. Since we can’t rely on the legal apparatus in your former reality, for obvious reasons, we need our own litmus test. The mental signature device is as close to perfection as you can possibly get – even hardcore psychopaths can’t fool it!’’

Christina held the USB-shaped device over my forehead.

‘’See?’’ she pointed at the device. ‘’It tells me you’re telling the truth. Your mental intent matches your verbal declaration of intent. You promise to be a valuable member of society; you promise to be bound by the non-disclosure agreement that you have read and signed; in turn, you will be given US citizenship.’’

‘’So it’s an infallible lie detector?’’ I asked. ‘’This can have far-reaching consequences for freedom of expression!’’

‘’This technology is classified,’’ the woman said. ‘’It’s only used on the newcomers. And yes. For that, you have only my word. It’ll have to do. Trust is earned: it’s a mutual exchange. We’ve got to learn to trust each other. Nothing solid can be built on quicksand.’’

‘’As long as you don’t trick me,’’ I pouted. ‘’Into giving me a girl’s name. For all I know, Adam is a girl’s name on this world.’’

‘’Astute analysis!’’ she exclaimed. ‘’I like it! No, Adam isn’t a girl’s name in this reality. As I’ve said, Adam can stay. We’re just going to Americanize your last name. Norton. How does Norton sound to you?’’

‘’I’m cool with Norton,’’ I said. ‘’Easy to spell. Easy to remember. Practical.’’

‘’Fantastic!’’ Christina gave me a thumbs-up. ‘’It’s up, right? It’s the opposite over here.’’

‘’You mean,’’ I scratched my head. ‘’Thumbs-down is good?’’

‘’Yes,’’ Christina replied. ‘’I do believe it’s one of those divergence points. Going all the way to the ancient Roman times.’’

‘’Intriguing,’’ I nodded. ‘’I actually read somewhere that Roman Emperors would give a thumbs down as a sign of sparing a gladiator’s life. Who knows, maybe your world’s got it right.’’

‘’If there even is the right way in the multiverse!’’ Christina laughed. ‘’It’s all relative. Scary thought, huh? Ethics, morality, even our conscience. All social constructs? It’s time to help you find an apartment, a job, a circle of friends. Full service, see? I’m even going to help you find a partner!’’

‘’I’ll be damned,’’ I covered my mouth. ‘’You’ve really thought this through!’’

‘’We’re the best at this,’’ Christina snickered. ‘’Who knows, one day you might end up working for us! One of our personnel has brought your stuff. It’s waiting for you outside. Time to go! You’ll get another latte – another time.’’

‘’Does that mean I’m a citizen now?’’ I asked. ‘’Just like that? No Pledge of Allegiance, no citizenship test? No language aptitude test?’’

‘’Yes,’’ the woman said. ‘’Consider this your Monticello naturalization ceremony. We’ve, well, expedited the process. Now, here comes the hard part. Your identity. Based on the interview recording, we’re going to come up with a new identity for you. Your new identity is going to reflect who you are. You will be that person, so your new identity has to reflect your past. You can’t be a quantum physicist, because you wouldn’t last a day without raising suspicion everywhere. You’re Adam Norton, even when you’re drunk as fuck. Shitfaced. That’s the level of credibility we’re talking about here. Come on, let me show you the apartment.’’

‘’So,’’ I paused. ‘’We’re finally getting out of this facility?’’

‘’Exactly,’’ the Chinese woman said. ‘’Grab your stuff – and let’s go.’’

The compound reminded me of BAU headquarters in Criminal Minds; in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees, and verdant hills in the distance. Christina took me to a concrete parking lot.

‘’This one’s mine. White Toyota RAV4. Not exactly state-of-the art, but that’s all I need. We’re gonna get to your place in an hour – or so. Get in.’’

I tried to learn more about Christina, her Chinese heritage, whether she had any family ties to China. I wanted to know more about the CCP. Was it the same CCP as in my former reality? But Christina went uncharacteristically quiet. She told me to Brazzle it. It was not the first time I had hit a wall of silence.

*

‘’This is your place now,’’ the Lead Officer said. ‘’Apartment 10987, on the tenth floor. I’ll just need to search for the key in my purse. Wait a second, alright?’’

‘’A powerful symbol,’’ I said. ‘’My Chinese apartment was on the tenth floor; number 10987. In my former reality, I mean.’’

‘’Now you know how thorough we are,’’ she smiled. ‘’You don’t think it’s a random choice of numbers, do you?’’

‘’Wait,’’ I raised my right index finger. ‘’Can you be a citizen of a particular country when you’re given asylum? Aren’t asylum and citizenship mutually exclusive?’’

‘’Perhaps in the alternate reality,’’ Christina said. ‘’The one you’ve escaped from. Don’t try to apply the same logic here. It might work from time to time, but it’s mostly a terra incognita for you. Enough of this navel-contemplative talk. Your apartment’s waiting!’’

Christina opened the squeaky door to the sixty-square-meter apartment.

A slippery corridor (hardly a foyer). An easily accessible kitchen. We entered the bathroom; Christina smiled in the mirror.

‘’Whirlpool clawfoot tub. The centerpiece of any self-respecting bathroom.’’

‘’Impressive,’’ I nodded. ‘’It’s like a presidential suite. Impressive indeed.’’

‘’Here’s the living room,’’ Christina said. ‘’You’re gonna have to set up wifi and whatnot. Just ask the admin near the entrance, they’ll set it up for you. If not, they’re gonna give you the contacts you need. Come on, let’s see the bedroom.’’

‘’A big bed,’’ I said. ‘’That’s what I like about the US. Stuff is big.’’

‘’Wait till you see the gem,’’ Christina pointed at the balcony. ‘’Let’s go. Open it.’’

We went out on the balcony.

‘’The skyline,’’ I raised my eyebrows. ‘’Calling it eye-pleasing would be an understatement of the year.’’

‘’It’s ours,’’ Christina said. ‘’The apartment. You don’t pay the rent. For now, anyway. There’s also a self-storage unit in the basement with a parking space adjacent to it. Oh, almost forgot: the lights down in the basement, well, they turn off automatically, so you’d better not get stuck down there! Always take a flashlight with you, a phone, any source of light, really.’’

‘’Got it,’’ I nodded. ‘’Do you also call it Manhattan?’’

‘’No,’’ she shook her head. ‘’We call it Vandreek. It took you a while to ask me.’’

‘’Vandreek?’’ I stood back in amazement. ‘’Are you kidding me? I guess I just took it for granted – reality cognitive bias.’’

‘’No,’’ Christina said. ‘’That’s the name. Vandreek. Just ask anyone in this building, check the web. Brazzle it.’’

‘’Brazzle,’’ I thought. ‘’I wonder where’d the name come from. I’ll check it out later.’’

‘’Well,’’ I said. ‘’It does sound like Dutch to me.’’

‘’Alternate reality Dutch isn’t the same as your Dutch,’’ Christina said. ‘’Is Vandreek similar to Manhattan? Are there any similarities at all? They’ve to be, since you recognize the place?’’

‘’It’s bigger,’’ I said. ‘’I can see the Empire State Building, I can see the World Trade Center, it’s like a sci-fi movie. I don’t recognize other buildings, though.’’

‘’There are no zeppelins,’’ Christina smiled. ‘’Why do you always need zeppelins in alternate realities?’’

‘’Good point,’’ I grinned. ‘’It makes no sense whatsoever.’’

‘’I’ll leave you to, how do you say,’’ the woman looked at me. ‘’Your own devices? I’ll head back to the HQ now.’’

‘’Yeah,’’ I nodded in agreement. ‘’I’ll find my way around the area.’’

‘’If you have any questions,’’ she said. ‘’You can always contact me on Facebook. Use code words, as discussed.’’

‘’Sure,’’ I said. ‘’Thank you, Christina.’’

‘’You’re welcome,’’ she walked out the door. ‘’I’ll contact you when I get things set up with the publisher. In the meantime – keep writing stuff!’’

‘’Will do. Once I settle in – you’re invited!’’

‘’I’ll take you up on that!’’ she exclaimed. ‘’And I’ll bring a hundred people with me!’’

‘’Good luck with that,’’ I laughed. ‘’I’ll just tell security not to let them in.’’

‘’Security,’’ Christina said. ‘’That’ a good one!’’

I heard the dinging sound of the elevator’s arrival. The sound reminded of Elisa Lam.

It took me a month to familiarize myself with the surroundings. I was studying the biography of a man I was to become. I set up the Wifi. I knew where the best food was in the area. I lived in a gated compound, where people mostly kept to themselves. I was fine with that – the last thing I would want was to be surrounded by Chatty Cathies. Other than that, I just kept writing and playing Dungeon Keeper 3 online. Christina messaged me on Facebook. She had gotten me in touch with the publisher. He saw potential in my work, which could mean anything, really.

I also went to grandfather’s birthplace – Passaic, NJ. When I got off the train, I looked to my right. I saw the World Trade Center in all its glory. I felt like I was watching Fringe, except I was the protagonist. I then made my way to the Polish Church, where my grandfather was baptized. The alternate Passaic was remarkably similar to the town I had visited in 2013.

Or so I thought. There was no Church.

‘’A gas station?’’ I burst into laughter. ‘’Now, that’s something!’’

A bag I brought over to this side contained a few interesting items: among them, my American grandfather’s passport. I thought I would take the passport with me, I just felt it would be intriguing to see if there were any similarities between realities on a personal level. I asked a man who happened to be passing by, about the Church.

‘’Oh yes!’’ he exclaimed. ‘’Just follow me, my house is close to it!’’

The man was a chatter-box, asking me all sorts of probing questions. I just nodded along most of the time. He was kind of like me, loved listening to the sound of his voice.

‘’Here it is,’’ the man pointed at a building in front of us. ‘’The clergy house is right next to it, can’t miss it.’’

‘’Thank you,’’ I replied.

‘’So strange,’’ I thought. ‘’This Church looks exactly like I remember it.’’

‘’Can I help you?’’ I heard a male voice. I turned around to see a priest facing me.

‘’Yes, father,’’ I replied. ‘’I was wondering if this document means anything to you.’’

‘’No,’’ the priest shook his head. ‘’It’s a weird passport, actually. Looks American, but there’s something off about it. This last name, what’s this man’s heritage?’’

‘’I’m don’t know, actually,’’ I replied.

‘’Well,’’ the priest said. ‘’I hope you’ll find out. An intriguing piece of history, most certainly. I apologize, but I must be on my way.’’

‘’It’s so weird,’’ I thought. ‘’A world, where Poland is a distant memory, maybe not even that. There’s nothing here. It’s a different world, and that’s that.’’

Ding. Facebook message. It was Christina.

‘’Get back to the apartment ASAP. It’s about our meeting with Aaron (the publisher). I need to discuss it with you face to face.’’

*

My impression of Aaron was favorable. He was astute, cynical to the core, and knew the publishing business like the back of his hand.

‘’Is he anorexic?’’ I asked Christina. ‘’Maybe he’s undergoing chemo?’’

‘’Shut up,’’ she pinched my arm. ‘’The office’s probably bugged. He’s crazy like that. Look at all the horse statues. Still, the fact remains – he’s the best there is. Many people would literally kill to have this man read their work. You really are a lucky bastard.’’

The door burst open. Aaron waltzed into the office. He stopped right in front of me.

‘’That’s a great story you’ve been writing!’’ he pointed at a stack of papers in his right hand. ‘’You know how it is. You ask your friend to read your novel. Your friend tells you it’s great, even if it’s just a trashy collection of words. Your friend knows it, but diplomacy and all that. Is your friend doing you a favor? No! Your friend’s lying to you! Giving you false hope! I believe in honesty. It’s a business, after all. There’s no place for pleasantries here, just the facts. Anyone can make stuff up for money. If you want to be successful as a writer, you’ve got to be really, really good at making stuff up for money! Top one percent, basically. I’m confident you’re a member of the intellectual elite, my soon-to-be friend. The level of detail you go into is exquisite. Someone from universe A, who crossed over to universe B, where he couldn’t talk about the universe A in factual terms, so he presented it to the population of universe B as fiction, then – for some inexplicable reason – his book found its way to universe C, where universes A and B are fictional! I’m in love with this concept, the intellectual contortionism! You’d make a great cult leader, my soon-to-be friend. Where did you find him again, Christina?’’

Aaron faced the woman.

‘’On Reddit,’’ she smiled. ‘’I came across his stories, got intrigued, thought it’d be a good idea to message him. And, well – here we are!’’

‘’And you’re sure,’’ the man paused. ‘’You’re sure it’s him? You know how it is on the web.’’

‘’I’m sure, Aaron,’’ she asserted. ‘’I vet people for a living. Language doesn’t lie, no matter how hard you wanna hide who you are.’’

‘’Fair enough,’’ the man scanned me. ‘’Fair enough. So, Adam – it’s the beginning of our partnership, then! I’m glad you’re a realist. That’s how the world works. Connections. Who you know and – pardon the expression – who you blow. You know, I’m a descriptivist, I can’t stand people who think there’s a correct version of any language! Their horses are so high, they have their heads up in space when they prance around! Why can’t they do something productive, I don’t know, like fox hunting? I’ve always been a descriptivist! You know what it means, right? Of course you do, cause you’re a smart guy! A lateral thinker. I mean, don’t get me wrong, if I had to live in a society of dumbasses you’ve been writing about, man oh man, I’d be out of there in no time! I’ve always said two words are the downfall of any civilization, my soon-to-be-friend: ignorance and arrogance! Arrogance means you see yourself as infallible, while ignorance means you’re so stuck up your own derriere, you literally can’t see the light of new ideas! Now, let’s make you famous, shall we? You have a great voice, you’ve got to have your own radio show, goes without saying.’’

‘’Great!’’ I smiled. ‘’I’ve got to ask, though: what about the, you know, legal side of things? Don’t we need an attorney present, to finalize the contract?’’

‘’What legal side?’’ the publisher fired back. ‘’I’m not going to rip you off, Christina’s my friend! You’re here to make money. I’m here to make money. Minimize costs, maximize profits. I wouldn’t rip you off, it’s my time, my investment too. This is how it works, Adam. Simple. Still, your book-in-the-making, well, it’s actually made me question things! Quite a feat, to intellectually impress an old cynic like me, this much I can tell you!’’

‘’I’m looking forward to hearing my own voice on the air,’’ I said. ‘’It’ll certainly be a privilege.’’

‘’Keep in touch,’’ Aaron said. ‘’We’ll set it up together.’’

‘’By the way,’’ the man said. ‘Your way to the top of the publishing world. How did you do it? Tell me.’’

‘’Now?’’ I replied.

‘’I’m an old man,’’ he smiled. ‘’Come on. Indulge me. I’ve been experiencing the happenstantial mosaic that is life, heck… for eons! I’m always eager to learn something new, no matter how mundane it might seem to others!’’

‘’Alright,’’ I snickered. ‘’What’d you like to know exactly.?’’

‘’Well,’’ the man said. ‘’Which options did you consider? How’d you go about it? Obviously, it didn’t just happen. The end result is just the tip of the iceberg. How did you manage to convince Christina you’re worth investing in?’’

‘’True,’’ I said. ‘’Well, I wrote down every single option I could think of. I posted a couple of short stories on Reddit to see whether people were interested. Reddit is a great site for that, the number of people you can reach is phenomenal. I got great feedback. I wanted to show my work to a few friends, whose English was advanced enough to understand my writing, but then I thought – to heck with it. There was also this Italian chick and an American guy. I met the girl once, the American guy was just a fan I’d never met. He knew quite a bit about the business, though. The girl was more of an idealist; her English was excellent, especially for an Italian. They’re not going to tell me anything I don’t already know. I needed exposure, and while pages like Reddit are great for exposure, I couldn’t post my novel there in its entirety. Well, it was more of a short novel, but still, you get the point. So then, there’s this contest, where you can post your novel, you have a month to write it. It’s like a writing marathon. Nah, that wasn’t the right option for me, either. I wasn’t sure whether it’d better to use a nom de plume, or my own name. I posted my theses online – my BA thesis is on teaching vocabulary to advanced students of English, while my MA thesis covers mechanisms of terror around the globe, with a particular focus on the lone wolf. I then closed my account.  So, if you’re looking for some sort of a master plan, well, there wasn’t any. I got lucky, really, really lucky. Sometimes, life just comes down to dumb luck.’’

‘’Or a divine intervention,’’ Aaron laughed. ‘’Did your theses get a lot of views? Why did you close the account?’’

‘’Yes,’’ I said. ‘’People were viewing my BA thesis all the time, basically, from across the world. I closed the account, because I was going to a country with strict immigration controls and thought my MA thesis could be seen as a red flag.’’

Aaron frowned. I could tell he was not buying my story. I had to remind myself who I was talking to – and where.

‘’See?’’ Christina butted in. ‘’He’s selling you a BS story, he’s never actually published his theses online! He’s yanking your chain, man!’’

‘’Damn!’’ exclaimed Aaron. ‘’You’re good. I fell for it hook, line, and sinker! Did you try publishing in Asia?’’

‘’No,’’ I shook my head. ‘’I didn’t. I’ll certainly consider the option, now that you mention it.’’

‘’It’s been an enlightening chat,’’ said the publisher. ‘’I’ll let you know how stuff develops. In the meantime – keep writing! I expect you to finish the novel relatively soon, meaning months.’’

‘’Will do!’’ I exclaimed.

Christina messaged me on Facebook later.

‘’It’s a good thing I was there. Stuff happens.’’

*

I was standing in front of the Radio Headquarters. A group of employees greeted me at the entrance. I had an opportunity to practice the new me. It went well. Nobody was suspecting a damn thing. I was ready to begin the first episode of the Adam Norton show.

‘’Alright, folks,’’ I was staring at a mike in front of me. ‘’As promised, I’m going to be reading out of my book today – chapter by chapter. As always, I welcome your comments.’’

I put the latte away on the table, picked up the book – and leaned toward the microphone.

Imagine a world, where Islam is not just a major religion, but a potent political system, sweeping across North Africa, the Middle East and Western Europe. Imagine an influx of people to Europe, crossing the Mediterranean, fleeing the carnage in their home countries. Many of them are refugees, trying to get to Europe; then, there are the economic migrants; and finally, there are those who want to eradicate Europeans. Islamic State, an organization following the Islamic doctrine to the letter, is desperate to shape the world in Allah’s image. Some would have you believe that Allah and God are different words describing the same infinite intelligence. Sometimes, they are. Sometimes, they aren’t. This is the tortuous nature of religious tenets. Islamic State’s God is a vengeful God, demanding sacrifice; if you’re a believer, a jihadi – then you’re blessed by Allah. Alas, you’re also Allah’s slave. The only way to avoid hell is by waging jihad on the unbelievers. Unbelievers offend Allah; their very existence is an affront to Him. They must be enslaved, purged from the Earth. Imagine walking down the street in Paris – suddenly, you hear a popping sound. Intrigued, you turn around, only to see a truck mowing people down. Intrigue turns to horror. Your instinct tells you it’s an accident – what else could it be? The driver lost control of the vehicle – and drove onto the sidewalk. But then, to your utter dismay, you notice the truck deliberately swerving into people, many of who didn’t even realize what was happening, listening to music, taking pictures; their lives snuffed out in an instant.

Imagine a world, where the climate of censorship is so powerful, that you can’t speak out against what’s happening in Europe – unless you want to be stigmatized, lose your job, perhaps even killed.

Can you imagine a world like that? I don’t have to. You know why? I lived through it. You can’t understand what I’ve been through, but you can experience it vicariously through my writing. Yes, I’m a refugee. An interdimensional refugee, adjusting to my new home. Perhaps you could be my teacher? You’ve lived in this reality your whole lives. Did you ever communicate with someone on social media, only to discover they’re a different person in what we bravely call the real world? That’s the difference between reading about my former world and actually being there.

Pause.

‘’Alright,’’ I said. ‘’Let’s go to the simmering red phone lines! Caller, you’re on the air!’’

‘’Hey, it’s Paul from Michigan. You know, I’ve enjoyed your book, especially the linguistic differences part. The way you describe how American English in the parallel universe sounds a bit different to what we’re used to, makes total sense to me. A deluge of people, a deluge of ever-evolving accents, dialects, words. The Islam part, though, I’m skeptical, you know? Islam was just an obscure sect centuries ago. The idea this political ideology, as that’s what it is, could gain traction and actually become one of the major forces threatening the West, it just doesn’t sound sane to me. Germany would accept so many alleged refugees? It’s just preposterous! Germany is the embodiment of realpolitik. Europeans aren’t that stupid, they aren’t dumb, there’s no way this could happen, I don’t care which universe we’re talking about. So, overall, a great book, but not entirely believable.’’

‘’Damn,’’ I thought. ‘’Why couldn’t you talk for a few more seconds? I was about to do some froth-sipping.’’

‘’Thanks for the comment, Paul. Yeah, sounds like a cheap B-horror movie of a world, doesn’t it? That’s the point – to imagine such absurd realities, such seinoflian scenarios (the word seinoflian is from the other universe, it’s the equivalent of Kafkaesque and Orwellian put together), then placing yourself in that world – what would you do? How would you change? There’s a theory we’re constantly switching realities. Each millisecond is a different reality. What we think reality is and what reality actually is. You know what I mean? Okay, let’s go to the next caller.’’

‘’Hi, this is Laura from Oregon. You know, your book’s such a mind-fuck! You’ve gotten a lot of negative reviews, because people just don’t want to believe such worlds can actually exist! I’d like to read out of your book, if that’s okay? I’d like to read the chapter – Identity: the Eternal Conundrum.’’

‘’Of course,’’ I replied. ‘’Go ahead.‘’

‘’Thanks. Identity is inextricably intertwined with consciousness. Imagine a scenario, where you teach English in China and a Chinese irony lady, a tiger mother tells you at a lesson that you’d make a perfect upper-class Chinese girl, because China needs more well-behaved, smart girls, China needs manners. You’re a Caucasian man in his early 30s, with background in business and linguistics. How would you react to the woman’s words? You’d dismiss it as a joke, ramblings of a lunatic, of course. You can’t just alter the physical, reductionist-materialist science would have you believe. Then again, what if reality is an illusion and reductionist-materialist science is just a medieval collection of fossilized ideas? The lesson ends, you go back to your apartment, you turn on your laptop. Suddenly, you feel a strange sensation in your eyes. You don’t know how to describe it. You rush to the bathroom and look in the mirror. Your eyes are slanting! You fall, you look at your pants – your pants are gone; you’re wearing a red pleated skirt and white knee-high socks. Red symbolizes good fortune in China. The door to your apartment opens. The iron lady waltzes in. She laughs in your face, calls you Meiling – her Chinese daughter. She takes your passport and tears it apart. Next thing you know, you’re parading around in black high heels. You want to put up a fight, you blurt out a sentence in Mandarin. In Mandarin? You could barely string a few sentences together in Mandarin! You think in English, as well as in Mandarin, but your third language – your dominant language – you no longer remember how to speak it! The iron lady calls you 裙子hong qun zi. The woman shows you a picture of a piano. She says you’re going to be practicing. A lot.

Capture

You’re now a member of the elite. What is the elite? What defines elite? DNA? Intelligence? Wealth? Reincarnation hierarchy based on spiritual achievement?  Perhaps it just about the money? A skirt made of dollars? It doesn’t seem so. Nouveau riche have the money, but they aren’t always part of the elite. You need knowledge, acumen, that sense of how to behave in all sorts of settings, to be considered part of the elite. Prancing around on horses, pronouncing coup de grace, raison detre, levade, piaffe,  just like the French would. Wearing a tiara would be, of course, de rigueur. Some people are seen as the elites, but they’re not really part of the elites – real elites just see a saddle on a pig.’’

‘’Thank you, Laura,’’ I interrupted her. ‘’We’re going to have to move on now. You have a great voice. The way you enunciate each word. By the way, a comment: your French pronunciation is terrible – I agree! Caller, you’re on the air!’’

‘’It’s Alice. How are you doing?’’

It was her. My pretend wife. Or, they were testing my trustworthiness.

Words non-disclosure agreement reverberated in my head. I signalled the screening staff to drop the call.

‘’I’m fine, Alice,’’ I said. ‘’How are you?’’

Silence. It’s working.

‘’We’ve lost her!’’ I exclaimed. ‘’We’re having technical issues on our end. I apologize for this, folks!’’

Okay. Alice is gone. Thanks, screening staff.

‘’Hey,’’ I immediately picked up the southern drawl. ‘’Jonathan here. You know, about that book of yours. The best way to hide the truth is in a disinformation web of lies, half-truths, partial truths, truths in plain sight, not to mention making the truth sound so convoluted, so anejonal (alternate reality word, loosely translates as screwed up), that nobody knows what’s what anymore. People just shut it all off. They turn into apathetic zombies.’’

‘’You’re right,’’ I cleared my throat. ‘’Excuse me. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Thanks for your input, Jonathan. Next caller! You’re on the air with yours truly. Go ahead.’’

‘’Grace from Vermont here,’’ a high-pitched voice said. ‘’You seem to think we’re eternal consciousness. What if the only way to preserve our life is in a virtual reality, by bodily augmentation, perhaps? What if that London banker who jumped to his death wasn’t trying to escape to another dimension? This is, frankly, idiotic to think you can escape to another dimension by killing yourself. He was an intelligent man, surely he would have realized it? We don’t even know if other dimensions exist. You spin a good yarn, but that’s all it is. A story conjured up by overactive neurons. We’ve one life, then we die. No amount of philosophizing, no matter how clever, is going to change it. No amount of faith is going to shield us from oblivion. That’s how it is, man.’’

‘’I don’t know if we are eternal consciousness,’’ I replied. ‘’I’d certainly like to believe that we are. I conducted EVP experiments. A scientific, skeptical, mind is exactly what’s needed. You know, I don’t buy into the scientist, non-scientist dichotomy, left hemisphere versus the right hemisphere nonsense. We can’t just presume someone who’s classified as a humanist can’t think logically, analytically. What are the origins of science, anyway? Thank you for your candor, Grace.’’

‘’Alright, time for the next caller. What’s on your mind?’’

No response.

‘’Caller? You’re on the air.’’

‘’It’s all a marketing ploy to sell books. You’re not fooling anyone here! Don’t try to trivialize what I’m accusing you of, by saying you got me or something.’’

‘Well,’’ I said. ‘’Sadly, I’ll do just that. You got me! I like money. Money’s one of the reasons I write, but not the only reason. Happy? Colorado, you’re on the air!’’

‘’Jack,’’ the caller paused. ‘’I’ve modified one of your chapters a bit and I’d like to share my thoughts with you and the listeners, if that’s okay?’’

‘’Sure,’’ I said. ‘’Go ahead.’’

‘’Well,’’ Jack said. ‘’So, here’s what I’ve come up with. Each of us lives is a mini-parallel universe, overarched by a consensus reality. Society is an extremely elaborate memeplex (set of memes reinforcing each other, propagating in people’s minds), which forms the basis of our perception as individuals and as a society. Whoever controls the creation – and subsequent propagation – of memeplexes, is in control of people’s minds. Think the Matrix, think Plato’s cave, think pop-culture references, think social mores, thing gender roles, think neuro-linguistic programming. The level of intelligence is – theoretically – inversely proportional to individual’s systemic attachment. That’s where the relation genius-society comes in.

Obviously, genius usually propels societies forward, with hoi polloi first ridiculing, then revering genius (the psychological evolution of hoi polloi – haters to worshippers).The haters-to-worshippers dynamic is a derivation of Arthur Schopenhauer’s take on the masses and the acceptance of truth. All truth passes through three stages: first, it is ridiculed; second, it is violently opposed; third, it is accepted as being self-evident. Geniuses generate memeplexes; memeplexes are collections of memes; the masses are socialized, i.e. inculcated with the memes. The masses are mentally governed by the memes; their thoughts are predicated on the memes. As such, an attack on a memeplex is an attack on the social structure.

There are individuals among the masses, who are deemed elite material. The elite usually responds in three ways: these individuals are ignored; character assassinated; actually assassinated, assimilated. The response type depends on a particular individual’s usefulness to the elite. The elites have clandestine agencies that are constantly on the lookout for these individuals. Social media; conspiracy forums; private conversations – are their primary scanning targets. People sometimes say they hate life; but it’s not life they hate; rather, they hate the systemic interpretation of life. Yes, there probably are individuals who hate self-awareness, but they likely represent the margin of error. There’s a dramatic difference between a life (view of ourselves; others; life itself) and THE LIFE (consciousness, sentience, awareness). Fossilized thought patterns are like vortices. Think OCD – that’s a perfect example of thought vortices at work. Thought vortices can take over your life. Just like OCD, you may know a particular action is absurd, but you just can’t help it – you’re going to do it anyway. I’ve just described socialization, by the way.’’

‘’Thanks for the insightful comment, Jack!’’ I said. ‘’I’ll be happy to discuss this particular train of thought with you – shoot me an e-mail, write a message on Facebook, please. My two proverbial cents: geniuses are known for their extraordinary intellectual capacity – but can you imagine a society of geniuses? Genius is a relative term; if everyone had genius IQs, then there would be no more genius. Yes, I know IQ isn’t a reliable intelligence measurement mechanism, but if I tell you an IQ score, it paints a picture of a particular level of intelligence in your mind, doesn’t it? That’s the idea. You need street sweepers, garbage collectors. No, we need them. At the risk of sounding like a pompous ass, it’s highly unlikely geniuses would want to do such lowly jobs. Only AI-controlled society would let geniuses flourish. Artificial intelligence would need to be in charge of the mundane, daily grind, level of life. Who knows, we could even see AI admissions officers. Picture an elitist parent doing the my offspring is the best there is shtick. No effect on the AI. That’s what you call an egalitarian approach. The masses keep the system afloat. That’s just a pesky fact of life. The masses are just smart enough to function in the system set up by the elite, and just dumb enough to ask only the socially acceptable questions. Then again, you can’t only rely on intellectuals. You may think garbage collectors aren’t important, you take them for granted. We all do that every now and then, let’s be honest here. Well, see what happens when they’re gone for a month. Societies were always divided into classes for a reason. We’re told humans love freedom, but it’s a blatant lie. Look at our history. Look at who shapes history. The tyrants, the madmen, the geniuses. Not peacemakers. Well, okay. On occasion. Our reptilian brains love ritual and hierarchy. It’s called the r-complex, apparently. Alright folks, that’s it for today. A book signing awaits! We’re going to continue our exchanges next week. See you at the marketplace of ideas!’’

I sighed. ‘’Time for a break, that’s for sure.’’

I looked around the studio. I couldn’t help, but smile. I was living a perfect life. I picked people’s brains on my radio show; I wrote books; I investigated the unexplained – I got paid for all three.

There was no way such a scenario could have materialized in my former reality. Even if there was an ulterior motive behind the alternate reality crossover scenario, I was willing to play along; I was happy. A feeling of contentment permeated my mind. I chose ignorance for the first time in my life.

I miss family, I miss friends sometimes. You know what? I saw a woman at a local mall. She was sitting on the bench. I could have sworn it was my mother! I wanted to talk to her, I wanted to learn as much as I could about her life, her family; heck, why was she even in the US? My mother had never traveled to America. Was her father alive and well – in Passaic? What was her level of English? There was no Poland, so she could not have been Polish, but she looked exactly like my mother! It was a total mind-fuck.

‘’Excuse me,’’ I came up to her. ‘’Where’s the nearest exit?’’

‘’Oh,’’ she smiled. ‘’It’s right there, see? Around the corner!’’

‘’Thank you,’’ I replied.

‘’No worries!’’ she smiled.

It was her. She sounded completely American. No trace of a Polish accent. While it should have been obvious, given the parallel history, the chance encounter was difficult for my mind to handle. My considerable intelligence just couldn’t process what was happening.

‘’Is there anything else I can help you with?’’ she asked me.

‘’No,’’ I glanced at my mother’s alter ego. ‘’Thanks, again.’’

I headed back to the subway.  There was a woman wandering around the station; she was most likely homeless, given her disheveled look. An itinerant preacher manquée, incessantly blabbing about perdition. Yeah. Just what I needed to remind me of the grand scheme of things. Just as I was imagining a cold beer – a panacea for the existential ills.

 

*

I was back in my apartment, sitting on the balcony, looking at the New Amsterdam skyline. In the sea of imposing buildings, there were a few skyscrapers I recognized – such as the Empire State Building. It was a beautiful morning, with sunrays piercing through the beveled glass. I was exchanging e-mails with a potential guest on my radio show; he said he was an alien-human hybrid.

I called Jimmy – a cabbie I got to know well – to drive me around New Amsterdam. He was not the sharpest tool in the shed, but – just like you would expect – he knew New Amsterdam like the back of his hand. Jimmy was a talker, he would flood me with all sorts of questions about the radio show. Sometimes, I would answer; sometimes, I would pretend to be on my phone just to make him shut up. Jimmy was a frequent career-changer: he was a businessman, a plumber, a tourist guide, a clown, and a high school teacher. He told me how easy it was to set up a business; how his daughter was completing a degree in paranormal studies; how he would watch the Ellis Island arrivals at night.

I was so used to paper-pushers, to small-minded bureaucrats who would play mind games with you just to make you as miserable as they could; to stupid people deriding the paranormal; at times, my mind was finding it difficult to believe in the whole paradigm shift. When the world around you changes, you need a malleable mind. Paradigm shift is the enemy of the fossilized thought patterns. People who cling onto their beliefs are likely to lose their minds in the process. Desiring a better life is a natural feeling, but what if this better life is dramatically different to what we are used to? Only a powerful, malleable mind can master the art of smooth interdimensional adjustment.

I clicked my fingers. I just realized where I had to go.

‘’Jimmy,’’ I said. ‘’There’s this prestigious university with a paranormal studies program. I forgot the name. Can you take me there?’’

‘’Sure, boss,’’ replied Jimmy. ‘’My daughter actually goes there. It’s called Bernard university, it’s part of the Rose League. So proud of her. I’m sure she’s going to contribute to our understanding of what life actually is. Actually, let me link you both, she’ll show you around, there’s also a lecture by this guy today, professor Michael Maling, I believe. Is that okay with you, boss?’’

‘’Sure,’’ I said. ‘’She can add me on FB, she can call me, whatever works.’’

‘’Got it,’’ the cabbie said. ‘’I just told her. She’s gonna send you a friend request.’’

‘’Okay,’’ I said. ‘’Thanks, Jimmy.’’

‘’This world you describe in your book,’’ Jimmy looked in the rear view mirror. ‘’I mean, how could anyone downplay the importance of the paranormal? Such a weird world, you really have one heck of an imagination, boss! I sure as heck wouldn’t want to live in such a dystopian society! I watched this movie once, you know, a world full of imbeciles incapable of critical thinking? It sure as heck seems to me that’s what we’re talking about here! I mean, we’re all brainwashed to an extent, right? All those eureka moments could be our subconscious just whispering ideas into our ears.’’

‘’We sure are,’’ I smiled. ‘’Dystopian is a matter of perspective. If you’re raised in an asylum, you think it’s normal. What we call normal is a matter of consensus reality, anyway. A social contract, basically. If you don’t even know you’ve signed the contract, you get inculcated with a set of beliefs, and – voila! – you are a drone for life. Technology makes us smarter, but it also makes the world a more complicated place. Think about it, Jimmy – we interact with four groups of people in society: family, friends, acquaintances, strangers. There are people who have a small circle of friends, because they see friendship as an arduous process; a baptism by fire of sorts. Then, there are those who see you as a friend after two meetings. Then, there is a parallel universe, so to speak – the virtual reality universe. When you interact with someone on social media – you may know them in the so-called real life, you may know each other online, you may only know this individual’s nickname – perhaps they are someone you know online, someone you know in the so-called real life, someone who prefers to hide behind the veil of apparent anonymity? Things have gotten complicated; someone may be in love with you online, even obsessed with you – and yet, you won’t even know it! If someone’s in love with you in the virtual realm, they’ve constructed an illusion in their mind, an idealized image. Your admirer doesn’t want to interact with you in person, because that idealized image they’ve of you would likely get shattered into a thousand pieces, just like a bull in a china shop. Just like a mirage that you see, but you can never touch. Is this type of love any less real? I don’t think so. It’s all in the mind. Think about it, Jimmy. To brainwash someone, you’d need to either totally isolate them – to be the master of life and death, resulting in learned helplessness – or subject them to peer pressure, where a particular set of behaviors, values would be so pervasive there would be virtually no alternative. The peer pressure mechanism is known as social norms, of course. If you set the norms in society, people will not only police each other, but their inner voice will be there to ensure compliance with social norms. Brute force and financial pressure are usually the most effective techniques. Appeal to authority works as well – the authority figure doesn’t even have to exist, you can just make one up. How many people throughout history claimed to be the messenger of the gods? It’s an effective mass mind control technique. As I’ve said, and I can’t stress it enough: it’s all in the mind – our perception of ourselves and others – and how the two feed off of each other. Would we develop a sense of self without socialization? Doesn’t that mean we’re all brainwashed, to an extent? Fascinating, wouldn’t you say, Jimmy?’’

‘’Only the definition of crazy changes,’’ the cabbie looked in the rear view mirror. ‘’If we’re all brainwashed, then we wouldn’t even be able to gauge the level of brainwashing, because we’d be using the tools given to us by society to do it, right boss? Only an impartial observer could tell us how brainwashed we are, but there are no impartial observes, the only one I can think of is, well, a hypothetical God? Is this your line of reasoning? Anyway, you deserve all the praise. So many celebrities are just celebrities for their stupidity.’’

‘’I appreciate your words,’’ I said. ‘’Some things never change with celebrities, it seems. Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. You have an incisive intellect, Jimmy! By the way, I just got an e-mail calling me an idiot for believing in parallel universes. Do you think I care, Jimmy? Nope. I laugh in my head. Then, there’s this guy who claims to be an alien-human hybrid. A simple DNA test should do the trick.’’

‘’I’m sure you think nothing of it, boss,’’ Jimmy said. ‘’Morons are morons, they just can’t help it. It’s a classic psychological defense mechanism. This hybrid guy, who knows. Extraordinary claims and all that. Let him make a fool of himself if he’s a fraud.’’

‘’Media exposure attracts a lot of people,’’ I said. ‘’People with something interesting to say, as well as idiots and whack jobs. Let your sound judgment be the screening mechanism. Just as you’d be an idiot to think any world is a rosy place without some sort of a hidden agenda. Then again, sometimes, deliberate ignorance is indeed bliss.’’

‘’That’s right,’’ the cabbie grinned. ‘’Let people have their say, even if it’s messed up. As long as they’re not stalking you, as long as they’re not obsessing over you, who cares! Personally, I like the term you came up with – existential cheating. It’s quite a dilemma, that’s for sure! I don’t know what I’d do.’’

‘’It certainly gets weird,’’ I said. ‘’Imagine you’ve no contact with someone, and then you suddenly meet their counterpart who isn’t just on speaking terms with you – they’re your best friend. Except they don’t know you’re from the alternate reality. What would you do? Would you tell them? How would they react? Would it be worth it? Would it be ethical? Would ethics even apply in this scenario? So many questions, Jimmy.’’

‘’Well,’’ the cabbie said. ‘’You could also use your alternate self as a mediator!’’

‘’Clever, Jimmy!’’ I touched my chin. ‘’That’s a terrible story idea!’’

Terrible had positive connotations in the alternate reality; clearly, the word had undergone amelioration.

‘’Nah,’’ the cabbie shook his head. ‘’I’ll leave that to the pros.’’

‘’You do realize,’’ I paused. ‘’That the pros, as you called them – it’s a matter of recognition, right?’’

‘’Yeah,’’ he said. ‘’But I think you know what I mean, boss.’’

‘’Right,’’ I said. ‘’I always carry a pocket notebook and a pen with me wherever I go. Just to capture ideas on paper. Great ideas are fleeting.’’

‘’It’s useful,’’ Jimmy nodded. ‘’Especially for a writer, I’d imagine. There’s a source of infinite ideas all around us.’’

‘’Exactly,’’ I pointed at the man. ‘’Okay, I’ll doze off now for a bit. Wake me up when we get there.’’

‘’Will do, boss!’’ exclaimed Jimmy.

*

‘’We’re here,’’ Jimmy said.

‘’How long was I out?’’ I asked him. ‘’In the arms of Morpheus?’’

‘’Twenty minutes,’’ replied Jimmy. ‘’And let me tell you – you certainly were on a different plane of existence!’’

‘’How much for the ride, Jimmy?’’ I laughed. ‘’Just don’t give me an otherworldly number!’’

‘’Fifty dollars,’’ he said. ‘’Does that sound sensible?’’

‘’There you go,’’ I handed him a fifty-dollar note.

‘’Paper money,’’ Jimmy said. ‘’Feels good, right boss?’’

‘’Freedom,’’ I snickered as I was getting out of the cab. ‘’I’ll call you later, Jimmy, alright?’’

‘’Sure thing, boss,’’ the cabbie said. ‘’Time to drive back to the center.’’

Jimmy gave me a quick wave and sped off.

I immediately noticed maple trees at the campus entrance, swinging in the wind, as if welcoming me.

‘’There’s the map of campus,’’ I looked at the board. ‘’Damn, how do I find the lecture? Jimmy’s daughter’s been abducted by aliens, no reply so far.’’

That’s when I noticed a middle-aged man strolling on the sidewalk.

‘’Excuse me,’’ I said. ‘’I’m looking for a lecture by professor Michael Maling. Can you point me in the right direction?’’

‘’Sure,’’ the man said. ‘’It’s in the Main Hall building. Just keep walking straight. Can’t miss it.’’

The man was right. You would have to be blind to miss the imposing building on a hill. I saw a plaque next to the entrance. The inscription read:

For wee must Consider that wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill, the eies of all people are uppon us.

‘’Of course,’’ I muttered to myself. ‘’John Winthrop, 1630. Still, I read somewhere it’s a myth, a piece of propaganda. Probably, but hey – whatever works, and it seems to have worked like a charm.’’

I came to the profound realization – yet again. As cliché as it was, I really was living in a different world. Lectures on consciousness were an integral part of the academic curriculum; there was no (quote-unquote) refugee influx flooding Europe; social justice warriors were virtually non-existent; Islam was an obscure sect.

I noticed a group of students walking down the hallway.

‘’Excuse me,’’ I ran up to them. ‘’I’m looking for Professor Maling’s lecture on consciousness. Ca-‘’

‘’Yeah,’’ one of the students waved in my direction. ‘’That’s where we’re going. A bit of a mispronunciation there, by the way. It’s MaLING, not MAling.’’

‘’What a pompous brat,’’ I thought. ‘’Just don’t fall off your high horse.’’

‘’I’ll follow you, then,’’ I said.

‘’No need,’’ the girl pointed at the door. ‘’It’s right here.’’

I went into the hall. Not a soul in sight.

‘’It starts in half an hour or so,’’ the girl was standing next to me. ‘’You might as well take the front seat. It’s gonna be packed, trust me. Just wait fifteen minutes. He’s gonna be talking about organic portals, how certain people among us are soulless. Personally, I like the idea we don’t have souls, unless we consciously work on attaining the souled state. Am I making sense? If you knew how many people around you were dead inside, you’d go mad with terror! I always forget the name of the guy who said it, he encapsulated a profound truth in a single sentence! So many convoluted scenarios on this planet, you know? Broken marriages, parallel marriage arrangements, polyamory, I mean, ad infinitum! There’s a euthanasia device in my house, but I forgot the access code! Maybe it’s a sign? Anyway, enjoy the lecture, cheers!’’

‘’Well,’’ I thought. ‘’That chick is a walking, talking non-sequitur.’’

*

‘’Hello, everyone,’’ the professor said. ‘’It’s great to see you all here! Students, as well as prospective students. That’s a great thing about being a lecturer, you see – you always have a chair!’’

The auditorium filled itself with muffled laughter.

‘’Alright,’’ the man said. ‘’This obviously isn’t going to be a workshop, too many of you here! Still, if there are any questions, please don’t hesitate to raise your hand – and ask. Just let me finish first, otherwise it’s going to turn into a Q&A session. Just an FYI. My PowerCareer slides will make it easier for you to grasp where I’m coming from.’’

‘’PowerCareer?’’ I snickered to myself. ‘’Really?’’

What was supposed to be an engrossing presentation turned out to be a waste of time. The break could not come soon enough for me to get the hell out of there. In fact, it’s highly likely I knew more about the alternate world’s history than the so-called professor.

‘’Excuse me,’’ a man came up to me right after I had left the lecture. ‘’Where are you from? I’ve overheard you talk earlier, and I’ve never heard your accent before, your phrasing, well, it’s odd as well! You’ve the fluency of a native, but something just doesn’t sit right with me, I can’t out my finger, well, my ear – on it!’’

‘’What?’’ I grew visibly irritated. ‘’Look, phonetician, mind your own business. Have you ever heard of proxemics? Personal space? Are these concepts just illusions to you?’’

I did not wait for the reply. I made my way to the bathroom.

‘’There’s this whack job stalking me,’’ I messaged Christina. ‘’He hasn’t followed me to the bathroom, but it’s highly likely he’s waiting for me.’’

‘’He’s gone,’’ Christina said. ‘’You can get out of there now. Damn, the psycho’s good. He’s sussed you out. Anyway, he’s busy talking to his deceased mommy.’’

‘’How the hell did you get his number?’’ I wrote. ‘’Oh, great, I think I’ve locked myself in the stall.’’

‘’Try again,’’ Christina sent me an emoticon-filled reply. ‘’It’s so funny. Please. Get out of there. You can come back later – when the nut job’s gone.’’

‘’Ok,’’ I said. ‘’I’m gonna call the cab. This lecture was a waste of time. I’m deeply disappointed. It’d almost felt like I was back in my original reality.’’

‘’Don’t write the word,’’ Christina wrote back. ‘’Just don’t. You never know who’ll read it.’’

I slowly walked out of the bathroom. A quick scan; followed by a sigh of relief. The stalker was gone.

”Welcome to psychoville,” I muttered in amusement.

It was time to call Jimmy.

*

I got out of the campus. Jimmy was waiting for me. He could not understand why his daughter had blocked me on Facebook. I told him not to dwell on it too much.

‘’In life,’’ I paused. ‘’You’ve got to know how to dance and how to pray the rosary. Can you guess the meaning, Jimmy?’’

‘’Ah,’’ Jimmy snapped his fingers. ‘’This obviously isn’t English, can’t recognize the idiom, give me a second, or two, well… you’ve gotta be versatile, you mean? Think on your feet?’’

‘’Exactly,’’ I tilted my head to the right. ‘’You’re a perceptive man, Jimmy. You’ve gotta be versatile, but not a jack-of-all-trades, who’s a master of none. You can speak great English, but if it’s just general English, well, that’s just not enough. Does that make sense?’’

‘’It makes perfect sense,’’ Jimmy replied. ‘’It makes as much sense as flagging down a passing cab in Vandreek.’’

‘’Alright,’’ I grinned. ‘’Just get me out of here, Jimmy. That’s a monumental waste of time.’’

‘’I’m sorry, boss,’’ Jimmy said. ‘’I didn’t know, I…’’

‘’Don’t worry about it,’’ I cut our chat short. ‘’Just take me back to my place.’’

*

Three days later, I received an e-mail from a Chinese woman, who wanted to share her parallel universe experience. We began exchanging our thoughts on a wide range of topics, including Chinese culture. As it turned out, the woman would go on to become the love of my life. She had adopted a Western name – Julia – to tighten the intercultural gap between us.

I tried to get access to the archives numerous times.  Each time I hit a wall of silence, mind games and you’ll need a written permission excuses. Christina dropped off the map, blocked me on Facebook. I knew I was under surveillance, of course; it would be the height of naivete to believe otherwise. Like a seasoned diplomat, I kept playing along, all the while scrutinizing the world around me.

*

10 years passed in the blink of an eye. At least that’s how it felt to me. Julia knew I had escaped my original reality. I told her. I had to tell her. I thought she was going to be highly skeptical of my claims, but – for some strange reason I could not fully grasp – she did not require a lot of convincing. She just smiled and said, ‘’yeah, there’s something off about you, the way you use the language. I notice it sometimes. I can usually tell where people are from, but I couldn’t place you, your accent’s natural, and yet… it’s not. You’d sometimes use a weird word, too. Then, there’s the family history, it’s a good story, well-rehearsed, but I can tell your heart’s not in it.’

‘’But,’’ I paused. ‘’Alternate reality? I would’ve thought: well, he’s a criminal, a spy, maybe? But an interdimensional refugee? Come on, that’s one heck of a leap of faith!’’

‘’I can sense you’re telling the truth,’’ said Julia. ‘’I also have questions, lots of questions. If you’re lying, I’ll know.’’

It turned out I had passed the test with flying colors. I did have my doubts: was Julia just another operative, sent to spy on me? At some point, you’ve just got to trust your gut. That’s what I did. And my gut was telling me she could be trusted – to an extent I felt comfortable with, at least.

Julia had a particular psychological trait I admired: she segued from talking about taxes to the nature of reality in a single sentence. She was not just an incisive intellect, but the epitome of the golden mean principle: open to infinity of ideas, all the while firmly entrenched in the daily grind.

‘’How do you know if you can trust them?’’ she would ask me the obvious every now and then.

‘’I don’t know if I can trust them,’’ I would reply. ‘’I just play along, I’ve chosen the path of deliberate ignorance. My whole life’s revolved around cloaks-and-daggers. I really believe I deserve a mental vacation. Still, that doesn’t mean I’m not a keen observer of reality, I’ve just toned down my conspiratorial proclivities. I like it her. That’s all that matters to me. For now, anyway.’’

‘’What if they have a nefarious agenda,’’ Julia said. ‘’You’re like a deer in the headlights, a sitting duck.’’

‘’I searched for my alter ego,’’ I said. ‘’He doesn’t seem to exist in this reality. If they’re telling the truth about it, then…’’

‘’Well,’’ my wife butted in. ‘’What if they’ve killed you in this reality, because they need you to unwittingly play the part? They need a sucker, in other words?’’

‘’I’ve considered as many options as I could possibly think of,’’ I replied. ‘’There’s always the possibility I’m being lied to, but I can’t constantly analyze every detail of my life. I almost got robbed of my free will once – I’m glad it’s over.’’

‘’What if you’re still in the same reality,’’ my wife said. ‘’And it’s all just a simulation, to fool you into believing you’re in a better place?’’

‘’I’ve one word for you,’’ I paused. ‘’Intuition. I know, it sounds corny, I don’t know what intuition is – maybe it’s a product of evolution, an early predator-detection-mechanism; perhaps it’s a connection, a link to our higher selves who see the game for what it really is? Whatever the case may be, over the years, I’ve learned to trust my intuition. I know how to differentiate between wanting something to be true and feeling it to be true.’’

‘’Makes sense,’’ the woman nodded. ‘’As a Chinese woman, this is my line of reasoning as well. You could argue the feeling of intuition can be manipulated, though.’’

‘’That’s why I married you,’’ I burst into laughter. ‘’You don’t just intellectually grasp what I’m saying; you can actually feel it. Yes, you could apply the reductio ad absurdum principle to every facet of life – is this the solution? No. You’d just lose your mind.’’

‘’Fair enough,’’ said Julia. ‘’The map – did you bring it over from your original reality?’’

‘’Yes,’’ I said. ‘’They let me keep it. Nobody would believe it’s a real map, anyway. And even if someone did, it wouldn’t mean anything.’’

‘’Still,’’ she said. ‘’A risky move on their part.’’

‘’Well,’’ I said. ‘’They’ve experience, they know what they’re doing. I guess I’m just a trustworthy guy. Besides, I’m sure they’ve their ways of ensuring I don’t cross a particular line.’’

‘’Constant surveillance?’’ she asked. ‘’Could it be that bad?’’

‘’Possibly,’’ I said. ‘’Wouldn’t surprise me. I’m, well, an alien, after all, when you think about it. Their surveillance isn’t invasive, though. They’ve probably seen it all, anyway. Our trip to non-existent Poland was wild, wasn’t it? I’m sure they’d a lot of fun watching us!’’

‘’I still can’t believe you’re from a fathom country!’’ Julia clapped her hands. ‘’I mean, I believe you, it’s just, I don’t have such, you know, exotic experiences. Germany? France? Poland? Russia? Spain? So many fantastic-sounding names!’’

‘’I’ve been meaning to ask you about it, Julia,’’ I raised my right index finger. ‘’If you could cross over to my original reality, the dystopia, just to see it, to experience it – would you do it?’’

‘’It sounds, as though you’re microchipped on arrival,’’ my wife burst into laughter. ‘’The answer is no. There’s an infinite number of realities out there, and the one you’re from sounds like a dystopia on steroids. No, thanks, robbing people of their free will? This is the ultimate act of barbarism, I don’t care how you justify it.’’

‘’Apathy,’’ I sighed. ‘’The destroyer of civilizations. First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist .Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.’’

‘’What?’’ asked Julia. ‘’What is this? What did you just recite?’’

‘’It’s a poem,’’ I said. ‘’Written by a German-Lutheran pastor called Martin Niemöller, back in my original reality, in the 1940s. It’s a damning indictment of apathy. He wrote it in an extermination camp. I’ve just recited the English translation. It’s a profound statement, you know – at the risk of sounding like an insufferable pessimist – a damning indictment of human condition.’’

‘’Your reality’s had so many terrible conflicts,’’  Julia shook her head. ‘’So many calamities! Worst of all, Poland was usually the main battleground! God’s playground, in a matter of speaking. I don’t speak German, it’s a non-existent language over here, as I’m sure you’re aware by now, but the translation’s certainly a powerful one!’’

‘’Yes,’’ I said. ‘’You’re absolutely right, which’s why I’m still struggling with adjustment to my current reality. There’s no Poland over here, I just can’t put it into words how weird it is. The etymological tree’s certainly an enthralling aspect for me, though. ’’

‘’China,’’ Julia looked me straight in the eye. ‘’Your China, I mean, the other China, it’s a different place, right?’’

‘’Yes,’’ I said. ‘’China’s definitely more civilized over here. Poverty levels are much lower, the traditions of the past are more visible, the Cultural Revolution was much milder over here, it seems. Your CCP doesn’t seem to operate the same way, across the board I mean, but the underlying governance principles are the same, as far as I can tell.”

‘’What about language differences?’’ asked Julia. ‘’Are there really that many?’’

‘’Oh yeah,’’ I said. ‘’Words, accents… for example, take the word: indagate. It’s an archaic word in my original reality. In fact, many words commonly used over here still make the language sound formal to me, even prissy, at times. It’s a shame I can’t compare my Polish with Polish in this reality, it’s highly likely Polish would have undergone the same process.’’

‘’What about Mandarin?’’ she asked.

‘’I’ve no idea,’’ I replied. ‘’I’m sure there are numerous changes, but my Mandarin’s nowhere near fluent, so I’m not going to sell you a couple of BS lines.’’

‘’I appreciate it,’’ my wife gave me a grin.  ‘’You know, I’ve been thinking… do you have any regrets?’’

‘’Regrets?’’ I looked on the ground. ‘’Of course. My mind was filled with regret, actually. All the wouldas, couldas, shouldas, you know? My inner Grim Reaper kept whispering in my ear, all the while sharpening the scythe: you’re a failure, your life is irrelevant, cease to exist to spare the universe the shame of your continued existence. Anyway, on an optimistic note, I believe there’s an infinite number of worlds, existing concurrently with our own. So, there’s a world, where I’m a teenager. Imagine crossing over to that world. There’s a major problem here, of course: my alternate self. Then again, we’re talking about infinity, so it’s possible to jump into a reality, where my alternate self vanished for some inexplicable reason, and – at the moment of the vanishing – I jump into that reality, preferably when my alter ego is alone. I take my alter ego’s place. Then, another issue arises: I obviously look older than my alter ego. So, let’s imagine, I turn into my teenage self. I could also kill my alternate self, I could – for lack of a better word – possess his body, kicking out the original consciousness. So many possibilities! I’m a teenager again! With an adult’s perspective. It takes me a day, or two, to adjust, but guess what? All the wouldas, couldas, shouldas... are now guidelines in life, not regrets! You graduate from an elite university; you develop a web of impressive contacts; you don’t regret burning bridges; you get a great job.’’

‘’You’re really tough on yourself,’’ my wife remarked. ‘’A perfectionist. Perhaps that’s why I’m so attracted to you. You’ve an Asian streak in you. There must be a society of geniuses somewhere out there – in infinity, I think you’d fit right in.’’  

‘’Oh,’’ I smiled. ‘’This is a society of geniuses. You don’t have the same frame of reference as me, I get it, but I said it many, many times before: people in this reality are smart. Yep – even the cheerleaders ponder the nature of reality over here.’’

‘’Yeah,’’ my wife laughed. ‘’We’ve always had intellectual cheerleaders, it’s so funny at times, I don’t think you’ve gotten used to that at all!’’

‘’It gets me every time,’’ I grinned. ‘’Every time.’’

‘’Personally,’’ she said. ‘’I’d love to meet my other self! I’d also love to re-establish ties with people who no longer want to talk to me, perhaps in your reality we’re on speaking terms, who knows!’’

‘’Well,’’ I looked at Julia. ‘’I really enjoyed our chat, where we discussed the existential cheating moral dilemma. You know, it’s when you travel to another universe, where you  replace your alternate self and take your alternate self’s place, is it moral usurp the alternate self’s life? Interact with others, including the ones you may be estranged from in your original reality, as though you’re the same person? On one hand, you’re the same person; on the other – you’re obviously different individuals. Does it even matter in the grand scheme of things?’’

‘’It’s so simple,’’ my wife said. ‘’And yet – so complex. But hey, you met that guy a year ago, right? You cut all ties with him, only to rebuild your friendship with him from scratch?’’

‘’Yeah,’’ I said. ‘’But that’s different. He’s never met me over here, because – as far as I know – I’ve never existed in this reality, that’s what they’ve been telling me, anyway, and I haven’t found anything so far that’d contradict their narrative.’’

‘’Good point,’’ Julia nodded. ‘’Good point. He’s never interacted with you over here, so it’s not as though you’ve had to get rid of anyone, it’s a blank slate, basically.’’

‘’Not quite,’’ I said. ‘’He doesn’t know me, but I know him.’’

‘’Yes,’’ replied Julia. ‘’But, for all you know, he could be a dramatically different individual in this reality.’’

‘’Correct,’’ I said. ‘’It’s always a gamble, but you’re usually able to spot similarities.’’

‘’So,’’ Julia paused. ‘’Is this guy in any way similar to the one you knew in your original reality?’’

‘’In some respects,’’ I said. ‘’Yes. It gets crazy, when you meet your parents, but they’ve no idea who you are, because you were never born… friends, acquaintances, you know, stuff happens, but when your mother’s standing in front of you and she’s absolutely no idea who you are – that’s a mind-fuck.’’

‘’It’s as though consciousness,’’ Julia said. ‘’Just keeps branching off in infinite directions, creating infinite pathways.’’

‘’Exactly,’’ I snapped my fingers. ‘’Consciousness. The eternal puzzle. Without consciousness, there’s no life. There’s oblivion. What is consciousness? We still don’t know. If you see consciousness as a product of the brain, then the only way to preserve your life is through cryonics, virtual reality, and transhumanism. If you think we’re eternal consciousness, then why don’t remember our past? What is the light? Is it a trap? It’s also possible that we don’t have a soul, but we can develop our own eternal spark by a process of introspection and creativity. If you’re just a walking automaton, a drone, then indeed – it’ll be lights out for you. Forever. Now, imagine an elderly person with Alzheimer’s. If you reversed the person’s age and managed to restore the full functionality of that individual’s brain – would the elderly personality disappear? Would they revert back to their younger personality – you could argue – the core personality? A frail body has a significant impact on our personality, after all, regardless of age. It gets even crazier, if we assume DID – dissociative identity disorder – is an actual psychological phenomenon, and not just a made up condition. Where do all these personalities end up after death? Assuming we don’t cease to exist at the point of death? If each personality sees itself as the personality – how does this self-perception impact consciousness after physical death? Not to mention the age-old struggle: expediency versus idealism, the individual versus the collective. Whoever controls the memes, whoever creates the memes – controls the minds of individuals that comprise society. It’s virtually impossible to come up with entirely new ideas these days. Only science, actual science, can give us answers, it’s time for the adults in the room to chart a course.”

‘’So many experiments were conducted,’’ Julia said. ‘’As you know, brainwashing is such an emotionally-charged word. So many ways to do it, then again, others claim brainwashing is a myth, a pipedream. Isolation and informational barrage – these are the techniques that – allegedly – work. Opposite ends of the cognitive spectrum. Colloquially known as peer pressure.  A constant barrage of norms, mores, memes, deonticisms. What’s even more perplexing these days, is using social media to carry out brainwashing operations, without ever interacting with your mark in person, all the while being scrutinized by the data-gathering AI.”

‘’Yeah,’’ I said. ‘’That sums it up, really. What’s the other word? Thought shower? Sounds less ominous, right? Less inimical? POWs who start to praise their captors – to me, it’s a perfect example of brainwashing. A mix of learned helplessness and Stockholm Syndrome. What was the other one, by the way? Lima Syndrome? Are some of us impervious to mind manipulation techniques? It’s probably naive to think so.’’

Julia snickered.

”Transference. Countertransference.”

”You do realize this is borderline psychotic, right?” I grinned.

Julia burst into a fit of laughter.

*

‘’When are you going to tell her?’’ Julia’s tone’s gotten serious.

‘’If she’s as smart as you,’’ I grinned. ‘’She’s going to figure it out on her own, eventually.’’

‘’It’d be better if you told her first,’’ Julia said. ‘’She’s a child, she deserves to know who her father is. We shouldn’t keep secrets from her, she’s part of the family, after all.’’

‘’I’ll find a way,’’ I said. ‘’When we’re in China, I’ll find a way.’’

‘’Just don’t tell her on the plane,’’ my wife said. ‘’Too many people around.’’

I nodded vigorously.

‘’I’ll tell her. She’s ready to know. She deserves to know who her father really is.’’

*

I was on the plane with my daughter. We were flying from Beijing to Chengdu. A three-hour flight. I looked at my watch. 12:14 AM.

‘’Daddy?’’ asked Emily. ‘’Did you ever visit mommy’s family in China before?’’

‘’No,’’ I said. ‘’I’m not sure what to expect, if you wanna know the truth.’’

‘’I hope they like hapas,’’ my daughter sounded worried. ‘’I know they’re, how did you call them, racially-minded?’’

‘’I’m sure they do,’’ I patted Emily on the head. ‘’Your Mandarin’s way better than mine. They don’t speak English, so you’re gonna have to help me out if need be. Be my interpreter.’’

‘’How are the preparations coming along?’’ she asked.

‘’What do you mean?’’ I said. ‘’I’m just gonna play it by ear. I don’t need to prepare.’’

‘’Oh,’’ she paused. ‘’Your radio show in Hong Kong, that’s what I’ve meant.’’

‘’Smooth sailing so far,’’ I said. ‘’When we’re done visiting the family in Chengdu, you’re flying to Hong Kong with me. They’ve this huge mall in Chengdu, you know? It’s called the Global Center. You can get lost in there really easily! They’ve this museum of greatness there, it’s so funny, you know? Mostly white faces. Did you know it was easier to get a Chinese driver’s license for me than an American one? Go figure!’’

‘’I really wish I could meet your side of the family,’’ Emily said. ‘’It must have been so difficult for you, with your parents abandoning you when you’re just an infant.’’

‘’Yes,’’ I smiled. ‘’It was. From one orphanage to another.’’

‘’Aren’t you curious?’’ asked Emily. ‘’About your family? Why they did what they did?’’

‘’I don’t care,’’ I said. ‘’I’ve gotten over it. You’re my family. And that’s what matters to me.’’

Emily put a sleeping mask over her eyes. I saw a gentle smile appearing on her lips.

*

‘Is this the Global Center?’’ Emily pointed at an enormous rectangular structure in front of us.

‘’Yes,’’ I said. ‘’I used to work for a company located in this very building.’’

‘’It’s so big,’’ Emily said. ‘’It has a giant sidewalk at the front! So many entrances, but there aren’t many people around! What did you do for the company, when did you work here? You’ve never told me anything about it!’’

‘’I taught English,’’ I replied. ‘’A few years ago.’’

‘’Can I see the company you worked for?’’ asked Emily. ‘’I’m sure there’s a corridor maze inside!’’

‘’I don’t think that’s possible,’’ I replied emphatically.

‘’Why?’’ she asked. ‘’I’d think you’d wanna see how they’re doing!’’

I knew I had to tell her the truth. Emily just would not let it go otherwise.

‘’Let’s sit on this bench over here,’’ I pointed to my right. ‘’I’ve something to tell you.’’

Emily scanned me.

‘’Okay…’’

‘’You see,’’ I looked at Emily. ‘’I wasn’t really raised in an orphanage. I’ve a normal family, just… not here. Not in this dimension. Not in this reality.’’

‘’Are you playing mind games with me, dad?’’ Emily’s uneasiness was palpable. ‘’What are you saying, exactly? That you’re from an alternate reality? I mean, come on, extraordinary claims and all that.’’

‘’That’s exactly what I’m saying,’’ I looked at the sky. ‘’Your mother knows. I believe you’re smart, you deserve to know too. No, I don’t believe – I’m confident you can handle the truth. Your mind can handle the truth.’’

‘’So,’’ the daughter paused. ‘’Assuming this isn’t some sort of a mind game. You taught English, just… in a different China? The company probably doesn’t exist over here, right?’’

‘’That’s right,’’ I replied. ‘’Even if it does, they don’t know me. Besides – China in my original reality has a lot more smog. I hate smog. With a passion. No smog, that’s a sign of an advanced civilization. Blue skies.’’

‘’China has a smog problem where you’re originally from?’’ my daughter gasped. ‘’Really?’’

‘’Wait’’ I frowned. ‘’Do you actually believe me? Your incisive intellect isn’t telling you, yelling at you, to ignore this nonsense? This pablum?”

‘’Well,’’ she scanned me. ‘’I mean, why would you lie to me? I’ve no reason to suspect you’re lying to me, but I’ll exercise a healthy degree of caution, of course. Well, then. Can we go to your reality? Why did you come here? Does that mean your radio program is actually based on facts? Am I a dual citizen? Of this reality.. and of your original reality? Could there be DNA complications?”

‘’Whoa!’’ I exclaimed. ‘’I appreciate the enthusiasm, but hold your intellectual horses for a second, give me a chance to respond! Okay. We can’t travel to my reality. It’s off-limits, it’s a dangerous place. Sounds simple, right? Well, life isn’t always complicated. Sometimes, the simplest answer is the correct one. Besides, I can’t take you there even if I wanted to – interdimensional bridges are tightly controlled by the government to avoid unwanted visits. Can you imagine people just crossing over all over the planet with no supervision? I don’t have to paint the mental picture for you.”

‘’Does your family, well, the other family, know you’re in this reality?’’ asked Emily.

‘’No,’’ I shook my head. ‘’I wasn’t that close to my family, nor did I ever feel the need to tell them. They wouldn’t have believed me, anyway. Heck, I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. Actually, I’m still cautious. I’ll always be cautious. But I’m proud of myself, because I plunged into the great unknown… and won at the game of life. I took the ultimate gamble, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I didn’t really believe I was going to get out of that dystopian reality.’’

‘’I’ve, like, a million questions right now!’’ exclaimed Emily. ‘’Let’s see the mall! I wanna know all about your original reality! I wanna know all about how you met my mother!”

‘’Sure,’’ I snickered. ‘’To be honest, I’m really not that keen on meeting your mother’s family. Interdimensional in-laws. Who would’ve thought!’’

Emily burst into laughter.

‘’I’m sure they’re gonna wanna know it all! Especially, well, if you’re rich over there!”

‘’No,’’ I shook my head. ‘’Let’s get serious here for a moment. This is important, no, this is crucial, so please – listen carefully, Emily. You can’t tell them. I told you, because it’s the right thing to do. Please don’t make me regret my decision.’’

‘’I won’t tell them,’’ Emily said. ‘’If I were a psychopath, I could blackmail you, but don’t worry – my mother’s family won’t know, besides, even if I did tell them, they’d think it’s just a part of your radio show, just another scenario-in-the-making, perhaps they’d secretly call the funny farm people, wait… you’re not recording this, are you? This isn’t some trolling attempt on your part, is it?’’

‘’No, Emily,’’ I asserted. ‘’This is real. As real as it gets, under the circumstances. I’ll take you to the bridging facility one day. Who knows, maybe you’re going to end up working for them in the future? I still have many questions, don’t think for a second I see myself as some sort of an omniscient entity. I’m not entirely sure if anyone can be trusted in this reality. I’ve a list of questions, doubts, observations, doubting Thomas moments. It’s healthy to keep a psychological distance.”

Emily’s eyes lit up as we entered the Global Center.

”Dad,” my daughter said. ”Where’s everyone? This place is huge, but it looks as though everyone’s been abducted by aliens!”

”Well,” I grinned. ”Sometimes, life is just… underwhelming. It could well be, that the enormous exterior gives them face, or something like that.”

”Good point,” Emily nodded vigorously. ”Sometimes, it’s just a smoke-and-mirrors game. Wait…”

She paused.

”What?” I asked.

”You’ve just said you don’t trust anyone,” Emily frowned. ”What about me? I’m your daughter, don’t I deserve a degree of trust?”

”Of course,” I nodded vigorously. ”I didn’t mean to paint everyone with a broad brush. I trust you. Implicitly.”

”Dad,” Emily grimaced. ”Are you sure implicitly is the right word in this context?”

”Please,” I said. ”Emily… can you just… stop…?”

”But…” she snickered. ”But you like grammar.”

‘’Actually,’’ I paused. ‘’I’ve been thinking about all of this.’’

‘’What do you mean?’’ Emily asked. ”The grand scheme of things? It’s better not to think so much sometimes, thinking too much can devour you!”

‘’I’m not sure if the organization that’s brought me to this reality can be trusted,’’ I said. ‘’I know it sounds like a terrible cliché, but… I’m just unsure what to do, dig deeper, or take things at face value? Ignorance, bliss, and all that…’’

‘’Well,’’ Emily paused. ‘’You’re here now, so it doesn’t really matter, does it? You’ve made your choice. Sure, it’s possible, if not likely, they’ve some sort of an agenda, but that’s just how it is. You’re not naïve, you’re careful, that’s the best approach under the circumstances.’’

‘’Thanks, Emily,’’ I said. ‘’You’re certainly wise beyond your years. It’s time to ask the difficult questions. The real questions. The only questions that ultimately matter.’’

‘’Such as?’’ Emily asked.

‘’Such as,’’ I paused. ‘’Can I go back to my original reality? Is there access to other realities? Why can’t I contact the others? Where are they? What’s been happening to them? Why have they given me access to the intellectual cream of the crop?”

‘’What if the answers you get aren’t satisfactory?’’ Emily grimaced. ”What if it turns out they aren’t the benevolent Prometheans?”

‘’They’ve been giving me the runaround for years,’’ I said. ‘’Enough is enough. It’s time to get straight answers. Whatever they happen to be. And I don’t think they’re benevolent, they’re Machiavellian, but Machiavellianism is a useful psychological trait to have.’’

‘’They’re trained liars,’’ Emily grinned. ‘’It won’t be easy to see through their smoke and mirrors game. But we’ll find a way.’’

‘’The truth will set you free,’’ I said. ‘’Even if it’s inconvenient. Even if it’s cathartic.’’

‘’I’d love to see your reality,’’ Emily said. ‘’Would be awesome to see where you’re originally from!’’

‘’Be careful what you wish for, Emily,’’ I gently shook my head. ‘’Be careful what you wish for… I don’t think you’re mentally prepared, even if you could see it. It’s like seeing this world, but through the distorted, dystopian, lens.’’

”Can’t be that bad,” she burst into laughter. ”Can it?”

”Well,”I grinned. ”It’s far worse than anything you can imagine. The world where intellect isn’t revered is always bound to fall. Anyway, it’s time to throw a party.”

”Why?” she asked.

I snickered. ”I’m gonna invite every single spook I’ve access to. Drinks, properly-phrased questions, they won’t see it coming. They don’t think I’m still in my doubting Thomas phase. This is the weakness we’re going to exploit, capitalize on. I’m going to feign vulnerability. It’s a tactic used in ancient China, in my dimension, anyway. Extremely effective.”

”Isn’t that a bit naive?” Emily asked. ”They’re trained operatives, they know these tricks inside out.”

”Emily,” I paused. ”We all have stuff we want to get off our chests. Sometimes, honesty is the best policy. All I need is one spook who wants to open up to me. If they’re up to something twisted, I’m gonna know about it. The majority are psychopaths, but we just need one with an iota of conscience left. I’ll be their confessor.”

”What if they’ve a sinister agenda?” asked Emily. ”Wouldn’t it be better to look the other way? They can make you disappear if they want to.”

”Not anymore,” I shook my head. ”If I were a lone wolf, then sure. But I’ve you now, if there’s something seriously wrong with this reality, then we need to get out of here. Sure, they can send me back to my original dimension. I wouldn’t last long over there.”

”Where, though? Where would we go?” asked Emily. ”Another reality? How do you know they even exist? What about our alternate selves?”

”They’re always cryptic about this stuff,” I said. ”I don’t know if they’ve access to other realities, apart from the one I’m originally from. Still, it stands to reason they can access an infinite number of worlds. We need to be ready if this is some sort of a grand deception. I remember talking to a schizophrenic once. He was telling me about Korea as a single country. He was incredibly convincing. Where I’m from, well, there are two Koreas separated by years of mistrust and hatred.”

”There are two Koreas where you’re originally from?” my daughter exclaimed. ”How weird is that!”

”Yeah,” I grinned. ”You’ve no idea.”

”Wait!” Emily scanned me. ”What about mom?”

”Leave that to me,” I replied. ”Let’s not talk about it anymore. At the risk of sounding paranoid, we’re probably under surveillance. By the way, don’t your bangs annoy you?”

”No,” Emily smiled. ”Nice try, though.”

”What?” I asked.

”You know exactly what I mean,” Emily shook her head. ”You’re the one who taught me how to change the subject, remember?”

”Sure I do,” I nodded vigorously. ”Did I tell you about psychuskas?”

”Stalin, you mean?” Emily paused. ”Yeah. The government apparatus would put people in funny farms if they’re becoming too much of a nuisance.”

”Exactly,” I grimaced. ”I’m wondering if it works, worked, the same way over here. I couldn’t find any references to forced whackization, as I call it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this psychological warfare technique’s used throughout the multiverse. It’s an insidious control mechanism, because sane people actually start to believe they’re crazy, after a while. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Isolation, drugs, a particular version of what passes for reality hammered into your head 24/7… resulting in learned helplessness.

Emily rolled her eyes. ”It’s horrible.”

”Let’s switch gears,” I said. ”No more talking about what psychopaths want.”

Emily winked at me. ”I can’t wait for the party, though.”

”Don’t think for a second,” I gave Emily a pretentious evil grin. ”That I’ll let you drink.”

”Water,” Emily looked at me with a facetious expression on her face. ”Just water. And orange juice.”

”I’ll be watching you,” I made a V-sign gesture.

”What’s that?” Emily laughed. ”Some sort of a voodoo mojo shtick?”

”I’m watching you,” I replied. ”Come on, are you seriously telling me you don’t know this one?”

”Nope,” Emily shook her head. ”Let me guess. It’s used over there?”

”Yeah,” I said. ”Seems like I’m going to have to bone up on that stuff.”

”It must be so strange for you,” Emily said. ”Even a small hand gesture can make a huge difference!”

”Absolutely,” I said. ”That’s how you can weed out spies, actually. A shibboleth.”

”What’s that?” asked Emily.

”It’s a word, a phrase, that identifies you as an outsider,” I replied. ”Not sure what the etymology is. It’s extremely difficult to master all the little things, no matter how clever you think you are. You can count on perceptual blind spots, though, most people don’t watch your every move.”

”Hm,” Emily stroked through her bangs. ”Makes sense. Why did we stop? What’s wrong, dad?’’

‘’Nothing,’’ I replied. ‘’My phone buzzed. It’s probably your mom.’’

I looked at the screen. The SMS read,

YOUR WIFE’S BEEN ASSIGNED TO YOU. TAKE YOUR DAUGHTER WITH YOU, ABANDON THIS REALITY. MANY QUESTIONS, DOUBTS ON YOUR MIND. YOU’RE RIGHT – IT ISN’T ADDING UP. MEET ME IN THE MOVIE THEATER IN AN HOUR. I’LL APPROACH YOU.

I froze. Was it just another prank? Was someone surveilling me? It would be the height of naivete to think otherwise.

‘’Nothing, Emily,’’ I said. ‘’Just some whack job trying to be clever.’’

‘’Let me see,’’ Emily pointed at the phone. ‘’I wanna read it!’’

‘’Fine,’’ I showed her the screen. ‘’Here’s the message.’’

‘’THE movie theater?’’ Emily’s eyes lit up. ‘’As in: here?’

‘’There was one in my original reality,’’ I said. ‘’There’s probably one here, too. You wouldn’t use THE otherwise.”

‘’Are you gonna be there?’’ Emily asked.

‘’Yeah,’’ I nodded. ‘’I’m always on the lookout for fresh ideas. Who knows – this could be the next cash cow.’’

‘’Or,’’ Emily paused. ‘’Some psycho trying to pull you into a twisted game.’’

‘’Given my experiences in life,’’ I smiled. ‘’Not much can surprise me anymore. We’re meeting in public to minimize the risk.”

‘’What about me?’’ asked Emily. ‘’What am I supposed to do?’’

‘’I can’t leave you alone,’’ I said. ‘’You’re coming with me. I want you to secretly record the whole exchange. Video and audio. You know what to do.’’

‘’Yeah,’’ said Emily. ’’Are you gonna reply to the message?’’

‘’I already did,’’ I said. ‘’Here it is.’’

”OK,” Emily frowned. ”That’s it?”

”Yeah,” I said. ”Let’s see what kind of information the mysterious figure, sending me messages from blocked numbers, has.”

”Why don’t you just video call?” asked Emily. ”It’ll be easier to see if this is a prank, a whack job, maybe some sort of a psyop?”

”I tried,” I said. ”Blocked number. Won’t let me call.”

”Of course!” Emily snapped her fingers. ”That was stupid. Sorry.”

”You’re inquisitive,” I smiled. ”That’s a great quality to have. There are no stupid questions, even if someone makes you feel stupid. If you don’t know something – ask. A fleeting humiliation is better than remaining wilfully ignorant – and paying the price later.”

We waited for the cloak-and-daggery individual to turn up. Unsurprisingly, it was a no-show.

”Well,” I sighed. ”Let’s go see a movie, then.”

Emily was snickering uncontrollably; like a kid who had pulled a fast one. I wanted to call her out on it at first… but I just smiled and looked at a movie list instead.

”Chinese Civil War – With A Twist?” I burst into laughter. ”I wonder what this one’s about! Emily, go and buy two tickets. Do you need any kwai?”

”Nope,” she shook her head.

”That’s a resourceful girl,” I was standing there, filled with pride. For a long time, I thought exploring infinity was my idea of a perfect life; but, in light of my extraordinary experiences, I realized all I’d needed was… an existential anchor.

Infinity. Infinite possibility. It can be a scary state of being, you know? You jump from one reality to another, always an outsider…. until you find that little slice of heaven. Away from constant intrigue, from constant conspiracies, from constant drama.

It took me a long time – but I finally succeeded… or so I thought. Too good to be true? Damn straight. Life loves to throw curveballs. We flew to Hong Kong for a change of scenery, among other – more pragmatic – things. I was sitting on the balcony of my apartment, reading a book on mainland China – Hong Kong relations.

kphx5kb6hmentrvdtvbh

Fun fact: in my second reality (begs the question: which reality am I writing this in?), China and Great Britain had a joint sovereign status over Hong Kong. Their wording, not mine. Emily was watching the news in Mandarin – unlike her ignoramus father who could barely string two sentences together, not to mention the atrocious foreign accent, she was a fluent Mandarin speaker.

‘’That movie was awesome!’’ she said. ‘’Shame your stalker pussied out. Did you know that traitors and cowards had castrated coats of arms? It was called abatement, or something like that.’’

‘’It seems to be a constant theme in the multiverse’’ I grinned. ‘’There’s never a shortage of heraldic whack jobs.’’

A knock on the door interrupted the daddy-daughter exchange of quasi-intellectual views. Instinctively, I gestured at Emily not to stand up. I pressed the talk button on the intercom. Video mode: yes.

‘’Hello,’’ I said with a tinge of inquisitiveness.

‘’Extraordinaire,’’ I saw a tall, Chinese, woman on the other side of the door.

‘’Damn,’’ I murmured. ‘’Extraordinaire. A code word: shit has just hit the fan. Expect a high-ranking US government official.’’

‘’Emily,’’ I turned to my daughter. ‘’Go to your bedroom, please.’’

‘’Why?’’ she asked.

‘’Just do it,’’ I asserted. ‘’I really need to talk to someone here.’’

‘’Okay,’’ Emily said. ‘’Cloak-and-dagger stuff. I like it! I’ll be in my bedroom, then. Maybe it’s the stalker?’’

‘’Xiexie,’’ I smiled.

*

‘’We’ve got a serious problem,’’ the woman said as soon as she had stepped into my apartment. ‘’Your life’s in danger. You need to evacuate. ASAP.’’

‘’The ID,’’ I raised my right hand. ‘’I wanna see the ID.’’

‘’This is it,’’ the woman said. ‘’Am I verified now? The SMS. I sent it.’’

‘’I figured that much,’’ I replied. ‘’I need to follow the protocol to avoid stalkers, psychos, fakes and scam artists. I’m sure you understand.’’

‘’Of course,’’ she nodded her head. ‘’Here’s what’s going on.’’

I was presented with incontrovertible evidence: my wife was an agent sent by the psychopaths in my original reality to infiltrate the side I was currently residing in. She was most likely an assassin, a sleeper agent, ready to kill me and Emily; she had most likely fled to the original reality. Why would she want to kill her own daughter? Out of spite. That’s what psychopaths love – inflicting immeasurable pain on those who had wronged them somehow.

‘’In light of these unsettling developments,’’ a high-ranking government official went on. ‘’There’s no other way, but to open an interdimensional passage for you and Emily. As long as you’re in this reality, they can track you down. Leaving this reality – for good – is your only option.’’

‘’What the hell are you talking about?’’ I slammed my fist down on the table. ‘’I’m not going back there!’’

‘’Of course not!’’ she exclaimed. ‘’You’re obviously going to a different dimension. It’s all been arranged. We need to move. Now.’’

I was getting ready to unleash a diatribe, but the woman’s collected comportment somehow managed to calm me down.

‘’I’m listening,’’ I said. ‘’Go on.’’

‘’The world you’re going to, well, traveling to – it’s a marvelous place! You’re going to like it, and I mean like it… a lot! For one, Poland exists over there. It’s a great country. No Communism, no Nazi calamities. It’s a thriving, open, economy. We’ve a contact there, he has a wide range of contacts. Good guanxi.”

‘’I love it already,’’ I snickered. ‘’I’m assuming I don’t exist over there?’’

‘’No,’’ the official said. ‘’As you know, we’ve a way of scanning parallel universe Earths to see if there’d be any counterpart interference. There are people you know over there, but they don’t cause interference. Just like your mother in this reality, who doesn’t recognize you. I mean, how could she, right? We certainly wouldn’t kill your alternate self, just so you can take his place; it would mean killing not just your alter ego, but his entire social circle. A total mess. People notice little things, people get suspicious, but who’s going to believe you’re from an alternate reality? Exactly. The plan is simple: you’re going to be given Polish passports, new identities, a nice, cozy place to live in Warsaw… our contact over there’s gonna help you get a job matching your qualifications. Emily’s educational potential can’t go to waste, that’s for sure! I’m sure her English is awesome, but there’ll be linguistic differences, a process you’re intimately familiar with. Oh, I’m sure our contact over there is gonna help you beef up the resume. He’s a resourceful guy. I know you don’t trust anyone implicitly… all I can tell you is he’s not gonna screw you over.”

‘’Well,’’ I grinned. ‘’Stranger things have happened.’’

‘’Your daughter,’’ the Chinese-American woman pointed at the bedroom door. ‘’I’m glad Emily’s such a smart girl. I’m glad she understands the intricacies of life. She seems to be high on the Everett scale. You know, the scale which determines the interdimensional adjustability levels. There’s the other scale, the Chalmers scale – which measures your new social role adjustability, identity malleability. You know, the hard problem of consciousness and all that. In simple terms: if your Everett score’s low, you’re gonna have a mental breakdown when you see your dead family member prancing around. Low Everett scores are usually linked to low IQ. The smarter you are, the more difficult it is to actually measure your cognitive capacity. Sort of like with the system attachment ratio – the smarter you are, the less likely you are to be attached to a particular social system. Topsy-turvy, huh?’’

‘’Interdimensional travel,’’ I paused. ‘’Do I need to sign another NDA?’’

‘’No,’’ the official shook her head. ‘’Standard protocol applies. Make sure your daughter follows it, too. Once you’re over there, the contact’s gonna help you set up your life. Other than that – you’re on your own… if they’re tracking us across realities, then we can’t risk opening the passage for too long. Ok, time to move. Get Emily.’’

‘’Wait,’’ I paused. ‘’Don’t we have to go to the exclusion zone in Europe to travel to the alternate Poland?’’

‘’No,’’ the official shook her head. ‘’No need for that. The exclusion zone is a protected area over here, as you know. Sort of like your Chernobyl – albeit with a positive spin. It must’ve been weird, seeing castle ruins with medieval Polish inscriptions. Teleportation on Earth and cross-dimensional travel will happen simultaneously.’’

‘’Absolutely,’’ I said. ‘’The Plague barely affected Poland in my reality. At least that’s the version of history I’m familiar with. You know the Plague doctors? They had creepy, beak-like, masks. Wait, so… we’ll be teleported to the exclusion zone first, then to the other reality?’’

‘’No need,’’ the woman said. ‘’Like I said: it’s a simultaneous process. Don’t ask me to explain the scientific technicalities. Pretty please?’’

‘’Different worlds,’’ the woman paused. ‘’Different plagues, I guess. It’s going to be a refreshing start for you. Warsaw in the other dimension… wow, I was awe-struck. I didn’t see it, personally, but I saw all sorts of videos. They’re stored away in the archives. Five million people, beautiful, sprawling, medieval markets, a truly multicultural, harmonious city. Maple trees, majestic maple trees on each side of Marszałkowska, hussar statues all over the city, oh, and then there’s the 1920 Victory Arch, way bigger than the French one, peripatetic philosophy sessions. Warsaw has one of the biggest synagogues in the world. It’s my understanding the one in your reality was blown up by the SS in 1943. Most importantly: Polish elites are intact, Lviv is a bustling, if not a bit peculiar, polis. Communism never corrupted its soul. There’s virtually no smog, which makes it a whole different world… and I do mean it literally. The Palace of Culture doesn’t exist, there’s a glassy skyscraper in its place, with plenty of space for entrepreneurs to pitch their business ideas, get startup advice, network. Like a Dragon’s Den on steroids. You know, that show. There’s virtually no red-tape, things run smoothly, nobody’s heard of political correctness, aka: Orwellian newspeak, and yet – people aren’t rude brutes. No need for external censorship mechanisms.’’

‘’It sounds fascinating,’’ I put my right index finger on the lips. ‘’It’s mind-boggling, you know, how one decision can alter the course of history. Did you know that Polish Foreign Minister – Józef Beck – was manipulated by the British in 1939? They knew he was a narcissist, so they rolled out the red carpet for him… literally. The Brits wanted Beck to accept their assurances in case Hitler attacked Poland. He did just that… guess what? Shocker. The Brits didn’t help. Even the Germans were telling Beck he was deranged! The US betrayed Poland in 1945, sold us to the Soviets. What’s the moral here? Honor doesn’t exist in politics, something many Poles fail to understand. Anyway. You know, I’ve been meaning to ask you: does the other Warsaw have beltways?’’

‘’Yes,’’ the woman shook her head. ‘’Three of them, actually.’’

‘’Wow,’’ I paused. ‘’So there’s a reality that’s gotten it right, then.’’

‘’Get Emily,’’ the woman said. ‘’It’s time.’’

‘’So we just leave our lives here,’’ I frowned. ‘’Just like that, no questions asked?’’

‘’Yes,’’ the official said. ‘’We’re operating in infinity. And infinity is a wild ride sometimes.’’

‘’Emily,’’ I opened the bedroom door. ‘’It’s time to go.’’

‘’Who’s this, daddy?’’ my daughter asked.

‘’She’s here to take us,’’ I paused. ‘’To another reality. I told you this could happen. If you don’t want to leave, I’ll stay.’’

‘’Are we really in mortal danger?’’ Emily faced the woman. ‘’I’ve heard it all, I’m sure that’s the idea, though.’’

‘’Yes,’’ the official nodded vigorously. ‘’There’s no other way, getting out of this reality is your only option. It’s up to you, but we can’t protect you 24/7.’’

‘’I’m ready to go,’’ Emily said.

‘’Are you sure?’’ I turned to Emily. ‘’It’d mean…’’

‘’I know what it means, dad,’’ Emily said. ‘’You don’t have to explain it to me. If there’s no other way – then let the adventure begin!’’

‘’Well, well, well!’’ the woman clapped her hands. ‘’She’s got spirit!’’

‘’Let’s do it!’’ I exclaimed. ‘’Open the portal.’’

”Dad,” Emily clutched my right hand. ”Will you buy me a red polka dot dress?”

”What?” I glanced at my daughter in horror. ”You’re gonna be talking about dresses, heels, all this stuff – now? Seriously?”

”Bad timing,” Emily shook her head. ”You’re right. I’m sorry.”

”It’s okay,” I replied. ”You’re just trying to focus on the mundane. Our brains need, well, BS anchors. Otherwise, we’d end up on the whackadoodle farm.”

”What if our alternate selves come after us?” Emily asked.

”That’s always a possibility,” I replied. ”We’re gonna need to come up with a plan. Good thing is, we don’t have twins, so if people start seeing us in places we’ve never been to, we know we’ve got a problem.”

”Why do you assume our other selves are evil?” asked Emily. ‘’I mean, you know, this contact guy, he’s not just some psycho stalker, right?’’

”It’s best to assume the worst,” I said. ”This whole positive thinking stuff is a bunch of malarkey. Be positively surprised when the worst case scenario doesn’t come about, you know? Is that the phrasal verb? Come about? Whatever. And to answer your question: I sure as heck hope not, but even if he turns out to be just another psycho – we know how to handle psychos. Let’s go! No more talking.”

For the second time in my life, I was embarking on an adventure, the outcome of which remained uncertain. Holding my daughter’s hand, we stepped through the shimmering portal, waving goodbye to the world we had come to know as home. Was I making the right decision? What was Emily’s future going to be? All sorts of doubts were lingering in the back of my mind. Was this all my destiny? Was God still guiding me? Was God ever present? Was my belief in sentient infinity a psychological defense mechanism? Asking incisive questions is a sign of intelligence; arranging the answers into an existential tableau is a sign of genius. For some inexplicable reason, words: Waldorf, Montessori, hothousing, homeschooling, girls’ school, gifted education – sprang to my mind. I couldn’t understand why, at first, but then it dawned on me: I was going to get a taste of – yet another – education system in the parallel world. Was Emily going to accept her new friends? Was I going to find a sensible job? Was my resume even valid? Going to have to bone up on the interviewing skills, that’s for sure. The spooky specter of the daily grind was back in town.

The mundane was starting to look way spookier to me than the whole universe-hopping business…

 

 

 

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