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The Most Okay of All Possible Worlds

"Brad, we don't have a chore chart, we don't have a motherfucking sticker sheet," Martin was saying. Bits of long hair had come loose from his ponytail and every now and then he'd huff at them in annoyance. "We just trust that all three of us will pick up our shit around here."
Martin looked angry, Juliet looked disappointed. I don't know where they got off acting like my parents. They were in their second year of university, same as me.
"It's just, Martin and I have been doing the brunt of the work around here, and that's just not fair." Juliet's shaved head and calm voice made her seem almost like a monk, though I've never seen a monk with sixteen facial piercings. I could take Martin's shit but having Juliet join in hurt. We had hooked up two weeks ago, going from roomies to something more complicated over the course of one rainy night. I thought us getting together would mean that we'd take each other's sides in roommate dust-ups. Apparently not.
"What are you talking about?" I said. "I took out the garbage last week."
"That's not--" Martin started to say, but I wasn't done.
"This isn't so bad." For the first time I noticed how many pizza boxes, Styrofoam clamshells, and wrappers from Subway littered the living room. "Okay, I know it's not perfect, but the place is livable, right?"
Martin and Juliet were both talking over each other when a circular blue glow appeared on the wall, a pulsating vrrr coming from the meter-wide spiral.
"Holy shit!" Martin picked up a PS4 controller and chucked it at the glow. The controller disappeared into the blue.
I was about to chew him out (out of all the crap at hand, he had to chuck my PS4 controller?) when two people tumbled through the vortex. They were carrying clunky metal boxes, each box covered in giant buttons. The blue glow disappeared and the room was silent save for the intruders' ragged breathing.
One of the strangers got to her feet. She had short curly black hair in a kind of rockabilly style and light brown skin.
"I know you have questions." She spoke with a steady voice and a New Zealand accent. "But first I need to ask you something very important: what's your wi-fi network and password?"
Juliet recovered first. "It's 'Pretty Fly for a Wi-Fi.' The password is Abba1994."
"Thanks." The stranger stood up straight. Glinting against her black t-shirt was a silver cross. Juliet flinched. Juliet had grown up in some super-conservative Christian sect and escaped when she was fifteen. Juliet wasn't even her real name. I think her punk look was a way of putting more distance between the present and the past, a physical marker between her old and new life.
"I'm Teal, this is Himiko," the woman said, gesturing to the other stranger. "Himiko" didn't even look over, just kept setting up the boxes as if assembling her own mini-mission control amidst the crap all over our living room floor.
"We have five minutes until the glow shines again," Himiko said, looking out from under choppy bangs to read a bunch of code off a screen.
"What?" said Teal. "That's not enough time to suss things out here!"
"Excuse me, what the fuck is going on?" Martin asked.
Teal nodded. "Right, sorry. Okay, so, do you know David Hume's rebuttal to the Watchmaker analogy?"
The three of us shook our heads.
"Hmm, okay, well, the watchmaker analogy posits that because the world is an intricate machine, like a watch, it must have an intelligent creator," Teal said. "But Hume argues that to make a watch, inventors had to tinker with the design and make prototype after prototype until they finally made a watch that worked. Likewise, God created world after world until He hit upon perfection." When Teal saw our blank looks, she shrugged. "Basically, multiple worlds exist. Himiko and I are searching for the best one."
"How do you decide if it's a good world or not?" Juliet asked. There was a curiosity in her eyes I had never seen before.
"Well, it can be hard to pin these things down," Teal said, "but there are certain divergence points we look for. Do you know who Stanislav Petrov is?"
"Sure," Martin said. "During the cold war, the Soviet monitoring system malfunctioned and detected several oncoming missiles from the US. Petrov suspected it was a false alarm and held back from launching Russia's nukes. He pretty much saved the world."
"Except in my world, where he didn't," Himiko said. She was typing away on what looked like a clunky laptop. One of her hands had three short, fleshy tentacles in place of fingers.
"So, how's our world rank?" I asked.
"Himi?" Teal said.
"Well, it's not a nuclear wasteland or overrun by spike-squids," Himiko replied, "but otherwise it's the same shit, different world. Massive inequality on a planet-wide scale, ecological collapse imminent without immediate intervention, etc."
Teal let out a frustrated hiss.
"Two minutes until the portal opens," Himiko said.
"If you want, you can come with us," Teal said, turning her bright brown eyes on us. "The next world might be better."
"Or it could be a hellhole." Himiko closed the laptop. "I'm staying."
Teal looked at her, mouth agape.
"Are you serious?" Teal said. "We've seen so many places better than this shit heap. No offense," she said, turning to us.
"Yeah, but we've also seen lots of worse places," Himiko said. "And who knows when this piece of crap transporter is going to totally conk out on us? I'd rather play it safe and stay here." She looked away and her voice grew softer. "If you keep searching for a perfect world, you'll never find what you're looking for."
Teal frowned and turned to us.
"I'm serious," she said. "There are better worlds out there. Maybe not perfect, but the best of all possibilities. We can find it if we just look. You don't have to settle for this place."
I glanced over at Martin. Martin was always lacing up his army boots and pounding the pavement, marching against racism, for lower tuition rates, for better sidewalk conditions in winter (a counter-intuitive march, if you ask me). He was always going on about how badly fucked the world was, so surely he'd jump ship.
He definitely looked like he was considering it. But then he shook his head.
"No, this is where the fight is," he said. "I'm staying."
"I'll go," Juliet said, standing up.
"What?" I got to my feet too. "J, slow your roll. You don't know what the next world will be like."
"But it will be a new world," Juliet said. "A place where no one knows me, where no one can ever find me. I don't care how awful it is if it can give me that."
The glow emerged on the wall once more.
"Here it is." Teal hastily picked up the metal boxes.
Juliet looked to me. "Brad, come with us."
I slowly sat back down. "Juliet, I can't. I know this world isn't perfect, but well...it's fine?"
Juliet nodded sadly. She picked up the remaining boxes and then both her and Teal stepped through the glow. Five seconds later it disappeared.
Himiko moved into Juliet's old room and started making money doing hacker shit. Martin stopped bugging me so about the mess. He was still activist-ing harder than ever, but he actually seemed happy about it for once. "Maybe this is one of those divergence points," he said to me one morning as he worked on a new protest sign. "Maybe this is where we make our world one of the good ones."
Himi seemed less sure of her choice. Sometimes, when we'd lie in bed at night, she'd tell me stories of the horrible worlds she and Teal saw in their travels. Himi and I hooked up a few weeks after she came to live with us--yeah, I know. I don't know what exactly I've got going for me either, I just know that I've got it. Himi would talk about the bad worlds with a kind of sick relish, but she'd clam up when I asked about the good ones. She never complained, never said she wished she had gone with Teal and Juliet. But sometimes I'd find her standing in the living room in the middle of the night, one hand pressed against the wall where the glow had shone through.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 6th, 2019
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