Before I became a physicist, I’d always wanted to be an Edwardian. Not an Edwardian woman, you understand — I couldn’t manage a dress regardless of the era it was from — but one of the men, wafting through life with a waistcoat and an air of confidence. From the little I knew about history, I’d come to think of that time as the last point before the 20th century fell into total horror, and perhaps the last point before innocence was lost for good.
That idea resonated with me, I think, even before my own innocence was lost. For my whole life I’d always felt as if something was wrong: not a precise thing, you understand, but something general, hidden beneath the structure of reality itself. As I grew older I often talked to people about it, who laughed and said I was mad, and then after a few drinks admitted they’d felt the same thing, too. The madness wasn’t the feeling it, I came to think. It was the admitting your sanity was a front to people who pretended as hard as you.
Because people spend their whole lives pretending, I think, to the point that their life stories are fictions that fall apart with the slightest poke. Nobody admits why they make the decisions they do. For lots of people that’s because they needed to forget, of course, but I don’t think that was true of many in my building. Theoretical computational physics is never something you get into out of need; you don’t spend close to a decade working for no money if all that’s on your mind is the bills. No, the people who worked in that squat concrete square were there because of passion– but what that actually was might often be difficult to see.
Take me and Alexis. I’d put up with people who minded I was a woman and minded I was pretty to sit in a cramped and crumbling room that smelled of bleach; he’d left his homeland and the security of a professorship to put up with the ramblings of a postdoc a fraction of his age. Clearly there was something driving us both that the average person couldn’t see; something that made our squinting over tiny screens of equations worthwhile. If you’d asked either of us — and people certainly asked me — we’d have said that we were attracted to the beauty and complex simplicity of multidimensional mathematics; that we were trying to better understand the mind of God. That was nonsense, of course. Explanations like that are just your clothes, things to show people so they don’t consider you might be naked underneath.
The true explanation was more complicated. As a teenager I’d become fascinated by the idea of parallel universes: worlds that closely resembled our own that existed just one jump away. I’d often idly imagine what they might be like, and what the versions of myself who existed in them would do. Mostly, however, I wondered if any of those worlds were free of that feeling of wrongness, if even one of those places felt right. I knew I didn’t live in the best of all possible worlds. Sometimes I suspected I’d dedicated my life to finding it.
On the day it all began, though, I wasn’t thinking of any of this, or thinking of anything much at all. Entering my office punctually and slightly late, I slumped into my chair to find Alexis at his desk, his aging head unmoving from his aged computer.
“Alexis!” I said, feigning cheer. “How’s your dog?”
“Dying,” he muttered. “How’s your cat?”
“Dead, for really quite some time now,” I sighed, remembering why I’d given up on small talk some time previously. “Though perhaps she’s still alive in one of the places producing our noise.”
“Well, the noise is coming from billions of places, so I’d say that’s pretty much a certainty,” said Alexis.
I frowned, looking at the scratchy waveforms covering my screen. I'd got into this field precisely because I believed other Earths really did exist, but I still found it unsettling when the idea was expressed in as everyday terms as that. Most scientists in our field wouldn't be so bold — they'd be quick to dismiss talk of other universes as constructing fantasy out of a mathematical trick — but one of the few things I liked about Alexis was how plainly he accepted the reality behind what we worked with every day. The fact was that the only way you could make sense of the readings we'd been receiving would be if they were booming from dimensions other than our own, intersecting at curious angles like a bison smashing through a flat sheet of paper. If nothing else, our work had shown the place we lived was far bigger and stranger than most people had supposed.
On that day, the waveforms were stranger too. We'd been trying some mathematical transformations of Alexis's invention recently, attempting to resolve the noise into its constituent dimensional profile. If successful, we'd be able to analyse the print of each dimension individually, and, as I'd put it drunkenly before, "hear the hissing of each separate universe". It probably wouldn't be much use to anyone, but that was the sort of story the newspapers loved, and at that point we really needed any excuse to avoid our work being shut down.
Previously, our attempts to resolve the hissing had led to nothing but incomprehensible smudges and lines, and I'd more or less given up on the whole approach my supervisor was using. On that day, however, the readings I got back were far more regular than I was comfortable with. You might not know what static looks like. It's random to the untrained eye, but there is a pattern to it: after long enough in my job you're able to tell what it is and it isn't. And what flashed up on my screen looked too regular — too normal — to be a hiss from another universe.
What flashed up on my screen was a signal from one.
I should have called Alexis over then; told him what I'd seen, but a mixture of embarrassment and horror held me back. On the one hand I didn't want to see his face if I'd managed to pick up the student radio by mistake, and on the other I didn't want him to steal my discovery like the old white man he was. At any rate, he didn't notice anything unusual as I hunched more cautiously over my screen, trying minute changes to Alexis's equations to bring the signal sharper on my monitor. I don’t know what I expected, after that. Perhaps I thought I’d be able to catalogue a pulsar burst from another world; maybe even the radiation imprint of a star. But I’d only ever dreamed about what actually happened next. A window popped up on the bottom of my screen: a bored friend, I thought, checking in from their desk job to ask what was up with my life. But I froze when I saw a video text, my screen suddenly filled with the sneer-scarred face of a woman.
A woman who was another version of me.
"HELLO, BECKY," said the words in the panel next to her head.
Her grin broadened into a smile that cut apart her face. I froze, a sick feeling spreading all through my body and beyond.
“HELLO,” I wrote back.
“YOU’VE DONE IT, BECKY,” came the words on the screen. “TAPPED INTO ANOTHER UNIVERSE.” There was a pause, and another grin.
“OR I SHOULD SAY,” came more words, “INTO ALL OF OUR UNIVERSES.”
There was a dim ping from my computer as another screen opened, then another, then more, each one filled with the face of another Becky, each face insane with a twisting grin. As the other Beckys multiplied over my screen, I noticed how perfect each of them somehow was, as if they were airbrushed versions of me walking out of a hundred copies of a fashion magazine.
Deep in thought, I didn't notice the error messages on my screen until Alexis barked about the ones blinking on his. A string of numbers neither of us understood; references to parts of the computer neither of us could identify, such things were common in postdoctoral life. We'd come to rely so much on Mandy the IT girl that we often joked she was the third member of our team, but we weren’t in a joking mood as we dialled her number.
"I heard you needed some support with technology," came a voice as we hung up, "but perhaps not the sort that I'm familiar with." A man who was nothing like Mandy strode confidently into the room, holding a phone that was nothing like the one we had dialled.
He was dressed like an Edwardian gentleman, but in a crumpled way that seemed to extend to his body itself. His coat was shabby and his trousers creased, while his eyes bore the look of an optimist proven wrong. Alexis spun round to face him, looking with complete disinterest at the strange clothes the man was wearing. I understood; academia can make a person extremely hard to phase.
"You're not the woman who normally fixes our computers," Alexis muttered.
"Well noticed!" said the strange man cheerfully, bounding over to Alexis's PC with a complete disregard for personal space. "In fact, I'm not even a woman at all. Not mistaken for one anymore either, do you know? It's surprising what a haircut can do." He thrust out a hand. "I'm the Doctor, by the way."
"Everyone's a bloody doctor in this place," muttered Alexis, ignoring the gesture. "They tend to talk a lot and fail to get things done. That's why we hired someone with no A levels and a phobia of books to do our IT, as opposed to a damned…"
..."Expert!" finished the strange man happily as error alerts cascaded across Alexis's screen. "A regular expert in IT, that's me. Well, to be honest, more of the T at the minute, still working on the I." He turned to me, suddenly grave. "You should tell me what you're working on. I can't go around fixing things when I don't even know what they are."
"POLYHEDRAL GRAPHIC RESOLUTION," typed another Becky onto my screen.
"Well, polyhedral graphics, mainly, with a principal focus on their resolution," I said smoothly. I'd worried Alexis would object, saying I was talking "a mass of muck and nonsense," but he remained placid as the Doctor's face fell.
"Really?" he said. "I suppose that would explain a lot, actually. All these readings from my, ah, IT device here." He waggled something that looked vaguely like a rusting whisk. "If it's just polyhedral graphics you're up to, then you probably don't need expert advice at all, do you?"
"I need," said Alexis, "my computer fixed. By Mandy. Our computer fixing girl."
"Yes, well, I'm sure she'll be on her way," chirped the Doctor. "Must be off, then, I's to dot and T's to cross, you know what this line of work is like..." He stopped, and the world seemed to stop there with him.
"Becky," he said, and it never occurred to me to ask how he was so sure of my name.
"Yes?" I said, trying to look normal.
"I think there's something unusual about your monitor. Do you mind if I take a look?"
In a panic, I clicked a button to get up what I'd been browsing before the Doctor walked in. A page of vampire fanfiction cheerfully filled the screen.
"That's just vampires," I said. "You know how they are, getting up to things." His face hardened, and he didn't bother to respond. He took a long, silver tube from his pocket as if he were drawing a pistol.
"Change it back, Becky," he said, icy cold.
"Or what? You'll shoot me?"
"Worse. I'll change it back for you."
I clicked the mouse. The Doctor looked sterner still as he looked at the messages flowing over my screen, then turned to us both abruptly.
"You need to get out of here now," he said with a soft rage. "Both of you! NOW!"
"Because of an IT problem?" said Alexis, unfazed.
"Yes, well, it's a very serious sort of IT problem, and I'd say you wouldn't believe it if you were the kind of people who weren't used to believing things. You know what it is, Becky, don't you? Go on, tell Alexis here what's going on."
I gulped. I spoke, without thinking about how the Doctor could know what I'd done, or even if he really did.
"I...I saw a signal that looked a bit unusual," I said. "Thought I'd cracked it, at last, that I'd found some kind of background noise from...from somewhere other than here." I paused. "And I was right. Only it wasn't cosmic radiation, or a pulsar beam or anything we'd expected, but...but people. People who all looked exactly like me."
"That sounds awful," said Alexis calmly. "And what are you going to do about this, Doctor?"
"Oh, don't worry," smiled the crumpled man at my side. "The other Beckys are using some pretty advanced technology, but compared to what I'm packing it's positively Victorian. A quick blast of orthogonal energy from my screwdriver, and you'll be back to whatever it is you normally do around here."
"I see," said Alexis. "That all sounds great."
And then he punched me and the Doctor square in the face.
I came to a short while later to find myself bound tightly to my office chair by a tangle of electrical wire. My screen was flickering with alert windows and error bars, asking me for permission before it was granted by some unseen other version of myself. I groggily thought that I should scream at Alexis, ask him what the hell he thought he was doing, but the thudding pain in my cheeks and temples overwhelmed my rage. I didn’t want to scream. I just wanted the world to stop.
In any case, I wouldn’t have been able to get a word in edgewise. The Doctor, similarly bound in wire upon Alexis’s chair, had clearly come to before me, and had been engaged in passionate argument with our assailant since before I’d woken up. He must have been hit very hard, but I couldn’t see much evidence of bruising on his face. If anything, he looked better after the punch than he had done before it: his skin a little looser, his eyes brighter with anger and fire. I let his words become more than a babble of angry noise, and focused on them like an old man staring at an object far away.
“...No,” he was shouting, “No, I won’t be made to feel ashamed for not realising. These people have invented so much, I no longer know what’s beyond their means. I’m not so quick to write off this planet as some Time Lords I could name.”
“Meaning me?” laughed Alexis. “It’s not what you think about the technology that concerns me, Doctor. It’s that you didn’t notice. You come in here all pomp and circumstance and take me for some sort of… chimpanzee.”
“A human, you mean?” whispered the Doctor. “They don't look so different to you or me, you know.”
“Through their eyes, maybe, and those are the eyes you see with now!” shouted Alexis. “You didn't notice the temporal distortion around my body, the glint of eternity in my stare. You didn't notice what I was because you've been living among pebbles and gazing up at stars, and now you think the great and the small are exactly the same size.”
“Lo, I could be bound in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams,” responded the Doctor, who was shouting now. “A pebble said that, Alexis, not one of us, and often these days I think we should have listened to him!”
They continued to scream about time and lords, and blearily I found that I’d gained the ability to concentrate on both the conversation and the patterns on my screen at once. The other Beckys were smiling as they typed, messaging me with phrases and words I wish I could remember now. I was scared, but somehow not as scared as I should have been– the Beckys knew exactly the right things to say to calm me down.
“WE'RE GLAD YOU FOUND US,” typed the figures on the screen, though who they were was something I still wasn't quite clear on. As if sensing this, each typed an explanation, of which I now only remember one:
“SO MUCH TIME SPENT LOOKING FOR OTHER WORLDS, AND YOU NEVER THOUGHT ANYWHERE ELSE WOULD HAVE THE SAME IDEA. FOR ALL YOUR DREAMS OF THE MULTIVERSE, YOU THOUGHT YOUR WORLD WAS SPECIAL. YOU WANTED TO DISCOVER SOMETHING BEYOND US ALL. YOU NEVER THOUGHT YOU MIGHT NOT GET THERE FIRST.”
The Becky who typed that was right: I should have realised what I was likely to tap into. If it was possible to communicate across the universes — as I'd always believed it was — then the odds that some of those universes wouldn't have already managed to do so would be vanishingly small. They would exchange what they knew between each other, finding new ways to bring other universes into their domain, and by the time any given person made contact with that multiversal mass they wouldn't be a pioneer.
They would be prey.
“WE ARE THE BEST OF US,” one of the Beckys typed. “OF ALL THE BECKYS IN ALL OUR WORLDS WE ARE THE MOST EXCEPTIONAL. MANY OF US DISCOVERED THE MULTIVERSAL WEB BEFORE WE COULD SPEAK. MANY OF US ARE REGARDED AS THE BEST SCIENTISTS OF OUR GENERATION. YOU ARE ALMOST NOTHING COMPARED TO US. AND YET YOU REMAIN OF AT LEAST SOME VALUE.”
They each stretched out their hands from their little windows, pushing them against the screen, and when they took them away fingerprints stained the inside of my monitor.
“WE ARE COMING FOR YOUR WORLD AS WE COME FOR ALL,” they typed. “EACH PERSON ON YOUR PLANET WILL MEET MORE VERSIONS OF YOURSELF THAN THERE ARE PEOPLE ON YOUR PLANET NOW. EACH OF YOU WILL BE PART OF A RICHER WORLD, A STRONGER ONE. WE ARE THE HERALD OF SOMETHING GREATER THAN YOUR PLANET CAN COMPREHEND.” I shivered at this. It sounded like I was going to destroy the world, even if I wouldn’t be quite myself as I was doing it.
A tiny distance away, I could still hear Alexis and the Doctor furiously shouting at each other. “So you're telling me this was a set up?!,” the Doctor cried. “You come to the Earth and lead it just close enough to the edge of a cliff that it can do the falling off itself? Why? You're fighting a war, for heaven's sake! If the Time Lords are going to start meddling in history after all these years I'd have thought you'd at least do something worthwhile.”
“I’m quite happy to answer that,” said Alexis. “They said there was no harm in telling you if you asked.” He swung the Doctor round in his chair, and knelt down so that their eyes met. “Every creature of time and space knows how the War is going in their bones. As our enemy burn the universe a deeper black, the dread of the people they destroy is bleeding everywhere and everywhen. I don't need to tell you that hope is very nearly lost; because it's obvious to anyone capable of feeling. At a time like this, no plan is too crazy to avoid trying.”
“The President drew a list of the exiles we most urgently needed to join our cause. Some we knew would come to us easily; others we knew might prove more challenging. The High Council was split on whether it was even worth the effort attempting to recruit you, but recent events left them little option.”
“This is very interesting,” said the Doctor, “by which I mean it isn't interesting at all, and doesn't even begin to answer my question. Why, Alexis? If this is a trap, why make it so obtuse? If the Time Lords want my help, why did they get you to hole up in an office and mess around with graphs all day? What was the point of all this, as a plan?”
Alexis didn't answer at first, and cast the briefest of glances towards my screen. There, the other Beckys' smiles had become fixed, having turned into grimaces and grin. Their hands had begun to hammer at the inside of the monitor, and steadily hairline cracks were appearing in its middle. Noticing this, Alexis gave a sigh that was somewhere between exasperation and exhaustion.
“In this room, Doctor, is the ability to turn this planet into something greater. By connecting to the multiversal web, humanity will be able to come into contact with the best of their kind, to discover technologies and ideas they would otherwise never uncover. They will read the best versions of every book, hear the clearest version of every argument. They will communicate with the best of their people, and advance to be the best they could possibly be.”
“You know I don't understand your fascination with this planet and its apes, Doctor. There are few of our people who do. But we respect how much you’ve achieved here, how you’ve encouraged the Earth to be something more than it might have been. When the multiverse breaks out of that screen and into my assistant here, it will begin the process necessary to connect this planet to the web of universes that lies just out of reach. Before the day is out, the people of this world will be exposed to more ideas than they would have had in a trillion years, and be ready to be moulded into powerful allies. You would lead them, Doctor, remake this planet in your image. You must be tempted by that, surely?”
Unnoticed by both men, blood had begun to spill from the inside of my monitor, where the hammering hands of my other selves scratched their knuckles against the glass. It dripped onto my keyboard and my desk, and through the cracks came a thrumming sound that was almost like a scream.
“Have you been to a place touched by the multiversal web, Alexis?” whispered the Doctor. The thrumming was growing louder as he spoke, though he gave no impression of having heard it. “There aren’t any in this universe, of course, but you know as well as I do that’s no sort of barrier to our people. It’s been some time now since I’ve been to one, but it’s not the sort of place a man forgets. Oh, they’re happy, in a way, but it’s not the happiness of a people who know they have room to develop, to grow.” He grimaced. “It’s inhuman.”
“You are inhuman, Doctor,” said Alexis, “or at least, you should be. But whatever good you find in the concept of humanity will be extinguished by the Daleks before this War is done. Is an Earth in flames or in slavery what you really want, Doctor? Is that really better than a utopia?”
“What you’re offering is a choice between two kinds of horror,” said the Doctor, “and I will not disgrace myself by choosing to make it. For hundreds of years I’ve found a way to do what’s right, even when it seems only the wrong remains. Because what I know, and what you’ll never understand, is that there’s always another way. That’s the oath I took, and the choice I made.”
In front of me, my computer screen exploded outwards with a scream, and hands made of light enveloped my face as the whole world changed.
In the far distance, the Doctor and Alexis were both screaming my name, their argument forgotten as they stared at what I had become. No matter: in my head were pulsing all the thoughts and all the dreams of a billion other Beckys, and as they thundered through my head I saw every mistake I’d made in my life and work. Measured against their lives my own was as nothing, and I cried out as I felt their experiences scour me, beginning to mould me into something Alexis would say was the best Becky there could ever be.
“WE ARE YOU, AND WE ARE MORE THAN YOU,” they shouted in one voice. “YOU WILL BECOME US AND YOU WILL BE LIKE US, AND BE THE VESSEL THAT SPREADS OUR MESSAGE THROUGH THE WORLD. WE WILL CHANGE EVERYONE, AND EVERYTHING. FEEL FREE TO RESIST. BUT KNOW THAT IT WILL NOT WORK. WE HAVE THOUGHT OF EVERY POSSIBLE WAY OUT OF THIS, EVERY SOLUTION YOU COULD HAVE FOUND. WE ARE YOU, AND WE KNOW YOUR PLANS. THERE IS NO HOPE FOR YOU NOW.”
They were right. I had no hope. But I did have something no other Becky had.
I had hopelessness.
Because as I had felt the knowledge of my other selves explode through my mind, I knew that the deep sense I’d always felt that something was wrong with the world had always been completely correct. What I’d chalked down to listlessness or mild depression was anything but: it was the dread of a war whose battles pulsed through all of space and time, which was fought in the way I washed and did my shopping as much as in the clash of armies distant worlds. The other Beckys were special, but my own world was exceptional. It was the only one that had fallen, and it had horrors no other Becky could ever have seen.
But that could change.
My body, I could feel, had become stretched out over several universes as the invading Beckys flowed into my body and mind. In that state, I could sense directions I never normally could, move in ways that should have been impossible. Acrobatically, I leapt through dimensions at impossible angles, so that my body no longer reflected a string of selves across several universes, but a vision of my own universe at a thousand points in space and time. In as agile a way as I could, I let my mind slip into the times and places where the horror that spanned creation itself condensed into its most brutal points. My body was no longer human, but a roar of sounds and visions beyond even a Time Lord’s worst imaginings. In that moment, I was no longer a Becky at all.
I was the War.
“Run,” I whispered to the Doctor and Alexis, and in their eyes I saw myself reflected, a sight that will haunt me for at least as long as I live. I saw terror, too, and in that instant I knew that the Doctor was not so different from Alexis, because I knew that until that point he had thought he could be above the War. Both of the Time Lords in that room had a part in the events that played across my body, both had played their roles in allowing them to come. For they were both convinced of their own power and ability to control, and they’d both never really realised just how wrong they were. They had been heroes and they had been Gods, but against me they were just a pair of pampered Edwardians, spinning their wheels towards the end of all they knew…
...I saw them flee. I saw a billion Beckys turn and run, all wanting nothing to do with our infected world. I saw a man shoot his younger self in the heart and smile as she died. I saw the monsters the Doctor’s people were fighting, who were beyond horror. I saw a woman with the tattoo of a cross on her face, who was worse. I saw a person stretched against a rail, whose face was thirteen faces but whose expression was always anguish. I saw the very stories we tell ourselves wrench up from their chains of words, and scream against a sea of metal that they would not be exterminated. I saw a man who the Doctor once knew, who followed the rules of evil but broke at the horrors of war. And I saw the man who the Doctor would be, who both was him and who could never be him.
I looked into the eyes of that man who was not the Doctor, which had seen sights even worse than those that burned against my skin that day. He looked at me not with pity, but with understanding, because he was what lay beyond the Edwardian, long after the endless peace fell into endless fire. He looked at me with the respect that only the fallen have for each other, and squeezed my hand with a gentle smile. I don’t know how long he stayed with me in the end, or even if he was really there. I only remember coming to among the smoking wreckage of my office, with Mandy gently shaking my spent body back awake.
Very little of my research remained beyond that point. When I got back to work after weeks watching confused nurses pour over my notes in the hospital, I found most of what I’d written destroyed, and the rest so flawed I didn’t understand how it could have worked at all.
That doesn’t make sense to me. I remember a time when the nonsense in my notes was sense, and when the scrawls of code jotted into my notebook did something other than cause my computer to display one of its more unusual error messages. I decided that this is what you’d expect if a man — so powerful and so stupid that he might as well be a god — had managed to do something to the laws of the universe themselves, so that what almost happened to me could never happen again. It’s also what you’d expect if I had gone insane.
I have some evidence for the latter option. Looking through my scrapbook of Edwardian dress last month, I came across a photo clipped from some old magazine. The man in it is the spitting image of the Doctor, but younger, less dishevelled, romance and fire still grinning out of his eyes. I don’t remember when I got that photo, or where it’s from: probably I had it as a child, probably that face has stayed with me for all these years. Probably my subconscious twisted that man into a man who called himself the Doctor, and wanted to ruin him as it ruins so many other things that pass my mind.
I’ve found myself looking at that photo more often, recently, at the textures of that man’s clothes and the gleam of the marble ballroom that stretches far behind. There’s something rich enough about the light in it that I think I could almost step through, to go back in time and be with that man, to travel the innocent world before it fell into the flames. I’d follow him to the edge of forever, if I could.
If he still existed.