Getting trapped in a parallel dimension was the worst way I could have celebrated my birthday.
Mom usually spent most of the time at her office, leaving me alone at home. I didn’t want to be alone on my birthday, so, after saving for months, I had bought a premium ‘CloneTalkTM’ machine. I powered the television-sized device. Nazgul Corp's logo flashed on the screen and then materialised into my face. No, my clone's face. He had the same curly hair and grey eyes like me. Behind him, the skyline was ridged with skyscrapers. Two suns were visible in the sky.
“I have no idea how this is supposed to work.” I felt giddy. The prospect of talking to my clone was exciting.
My clone stared at me, his grey eyes burning with malice. “Am I suppose to teach you that?”
The colour drained from my face. I picked up the blue cardboard box in which the device was delivered. Maybe there would be a setting to tone down his asperity?
He must have seen my pale face because he asked, “Can't I joke?” His voice was cold. It didn’t feel like a joke.
I forced a smile. Something was wrong because the advertisements showed a polite clone but this one had his meanness dialled to eleven.
“I need you to do something for me,” he commanded.
“What could I possibly do?” I asked meekly.
“I am trapped in this desolate place. I need your help to escape from here.”
Are his dialogues programmed? They sounded like they were ripped from some sci-fi comics. Maybe this was a game? I would have to contact support-helpline and get a normal friendly clone in exchange (perks of warranty). “Why would I help you escape?” I asked.
“Please.” He sounded desperate. “I could be your friend.”
All the inhibition I had evaporated at the mention of the word ‘friend’. I should have realised I was way over my head, but I needed a friend and didn't mind if he was programmed in a lab and lived behind a plasma screen. There’s harm in playing along. “What do I have to do?”
“Enter into the keyboard mode and punch in a code.”
After flipping through the User-Manual, I found the settings to enter into the Keyboard Mode. A holographic keyboard and a cursor appeared.
My clone–ugh, I can't just call him ‘my clone’. How about T-800, like the Terminator? Yes. T- 800 told me the code and I typed them in.
A blue hologram of the words: ‘Are you sure you want to make an Interdimensional Jump?’ appeared. There were two options–YES and NO.
“What does this mean?” I asked T-800.
“Just a part of the simulation.” He shrugged as if it was obvious. “Just select ‘yes’”.
“None of what you are saying is making any sense.” I selected ‘YES’. The contraption whined loudly for a few moments. Then bluish-green motes started coming off the screen. The motes swirled, taking on a humanoid shape. This was like Thanos' Snap but in reverse. The bluish-green humanoid soon morphed into T-800. He stood before me and not in the plasma screen of the ‘CloneTalkTM’.
What's happening? My hackles rose.
“I am sorry.” T-800 paced around the room. “I tricked you into taking my place in my dimension because nobody would do it willingly. I was tired of living there!”
A chill passed down my spine. “What are you talking about?” The question was rhetoric. Being a comic-geek, I knew he was talking about sending me to his dimension, the one which was visible in the plasma screen. Is that even possible?
I felt a stabbing pain in my head. My body started disintegrating into reddish flakes that flew into the plasma screen of ‘CloneTalkTM’. My eyes went wide in horror.
“It'll take a little practice but I'll integrate myself into your life,” T-800 said with a malicious smile as my body disintegrated completely. “You won’t be missed.”
I woke up with a splitting headache. The world was spinning and I wanted to throw up. I sat up, drenched in sweat, panting hard.
“Relax, kiddo,” I heard my father's voice. “These are temporary effects of interdimensional travel.”
I looked up with a start but my father was nowhere. I saw a mangy three-eyed dog sitting on its haunches, staring at me.
A three-eyed dog! I shrieked. My heart skipped a beat and my insides turned to lead. All my instincts told me to run but I didn't have any strength.
“I don't bite,” the dog said in my father's voice. A chill passed down my spine.
“Your vo-voice is like my da-dad.” I whimpered.
“Is that what you hear? It's different for everybody.” The dog wagged its tail. “It's usually someone you miss.”
I choked a sob. Yes, I missed my dad. I was twelve when he had died. I looked around trying to get my bearings. There were two suns and skyline was ridged with skyscrapers. “What is this place?” T-800 had sent me to his universe. The world that was visible from the plasma screen.
“There is no easy to say this.” The dog sighed. “There are infinite universes out there and they all exist in different parallel dimensions. You have travelled between dimensions.”
“So, I am stuck in a parallel dimension with a three-eyed dog who speaks like my dead father?” I sighed. My insides wriggled and suddenly I felt weak.
“I could have never said it in a better way.”
“Is there a way to return?” I wanted to be with my mom and not with a three-eyed dog in a world with two suns. My mom would never know I was trapped here because T-800 had taken my place.
“Though, very few people have returned to their dimension.” The dog scratched his ear.
“So, there is a way.” My heart filled with hope. “Tell me how to get back.”
“Before that, we must get you a connection totem.”
“Your name is Erebus?” I asked. I had asked the dog about the totem but got no answer so we had started talking about each other. “I am gonna call you Erb.”
“It was a good name when I was a kid,” the dog replied.
“How old are you?”
Erb was leading me to a Runelord, a spiritual warlock who offered their services in exchange for an emotional memory.
“On any other dimension, I would be almost four thousand years old.” Erb licked his whiskers.
I snorted but realised he wasn't joking. Is he immortal? “Do dogs even live that long?”
He shook his head. “I wasn’t always a dog. I was cursed to bear this canine form.”
“Who cursed you?” I asked.
“Ikkons. They were an ancient race that had discovered the existence of different parallel dimensions.”
“Why did they curse you?” We walked on a cobble-stoned footpath. There weren't many pedestrians though I did see a winged-unicorn, a human walking a platypus, and a small dragon. None of them paid much attention to us. This world seemed like a ‘Fantasy Kitchen Sink’.
“We all have made mistakes but it is not your business.”
“You don’t have to be so harsh.” A thought struck me. “If T-800 lived here then there’s a chance my mom exists too?”
“She should be, but she likely doesn't know you. For all I know, her husband could be a centaur.”
“I could have done without that statement.”
“You are hell-bent on trying to perceive this dimension through the limited knowledge of the reality of your dimension,” Erb retorted.
I bit back a reply. We walked the rest of the distance in silence. I thought about T-800 and Mom. What would he be doing now? Will Mom realise that T-800 is not her son? Will I ever get back? I cannot live in this fantasy mishmash world for the rest of my life. I would soon go mad.
Erb stopped before a railway station. “We're here.”
“We are boarding a train?”
“What? No.” He gestured to a store across the road. Its walls and doors, made of metal, glowed with a pulsating red paint. A ‘Gyllenhaal's Runes’ board hung above the shop. “There's Jakie's shop.”
We crossed the road. I was about to grab the handle when the door was pushed open and a burly Minotaur stepped out, a large cigar in his mouth. He swore under his breath as he moved past us.
Erb moved inside and I followed him. Behind the counter, a woman was reading a newspaper. Except for the face, her whole body was made of bronze metal. She wore an oversized black trench coat and there was a long needle entangled in her hair. Hearing us enter, the woman folded her newspaper. Her mouth twisted in a sneer when her eyes fell upon Erb.
“A new victim,” she asked Erb, gesturing at me.
My eyes widened. “What victim?”
“He doesn't know?” She chortled. “You aren't going to stop playing this game.”
“I made a mistake, once,” Erb replied curtly. Though there was a hint of sadness in his voice.
“What made you come out of your hole?” she asked.
“I was investigating a portal generator. That's how this kid came here.”
“And his clone?”
“He tricked me into coming here!” I blurted.
“Jackie, I am taking this kid to the Doormaster, but before that, he needs a connection totem,” Erb said.
“Who's Doormaster?” I asked. I didn't know what they were talking about.
“I don't trust you.” Jackie ignored me again.
“Alright! I know I have made mistakes but why should this kid pay the price for my crimes? He needs your help,” Erb pleaded. “Without the totem, he'll fail the Doormaster's test.”
“What are y'all talking about?” I asked again.
Jackie looked at me. “Alright, follow me. I'll give you a totem as well as some answers.”
Jackie led me into a small room. On the far side, there was a shelf of glowing rocks of various colours. In the centre, there was a dentist's chair (or something similar) with hooks and grapples protruding from it. Beside it, there was a wooden chair carrying thick leather-bound books.
“What is a connection totem?” I asked.
“The brain is designed to adapt to its surroundings. In a few hours, or maybe days, you will adapt to this reality, forgetting about your past life. But a connection totem is like a hook. As long as you have it, your brain will remember your past. A totem will keep you tethered to both the realities.” She gestured me to lie down on the dentist's chair. “I have one too.” From her coat pocket, she removed a goggle, its eye-frames made with a pair of rusted bronze gears. “My master's prized possession.”
“You aren't from here?”
“No. After my master's death, I wanted to leave behind my past—start anew. Erebus brought me here. He wasn't a dog then.” She tied a strap around my chest and gave me a ‘Don't worry’ look. “What did he do? Why was he cursed?”
Jackie picked a leather-bound book and start flipping through it. “A girl had died because of him. I won’t say more.” Jackie returned the book and then picked up a green gem from the shelf. “You have one last question.”
“Doormaster. Tell me about that.”
Jackie placed the gem into the chair, near my head. “Doormaster is the Lord of all the doors in the entire multiverse.” Jackie removed a red powder from her pocket and rubbed some against my forehead. “He guards the portals between dimensions. Erebus works for him.”
“So this Doormaster can help me go back?”
“He has the power to do so but he will take a test. Most people fail it.”
I was about to ask Jackie about the test before she cut me. “That's one question more than I allowed. Now zip it.”
She poked me with the needle (the one that was in her hair a few moments ago) and the world darkened. All I could see was black.
I did not feel my body anymore. It was like floating through a deep and dark void.
“Whom do you love the most?” I heard a booming voice. It came from everywhere.
A face came to my mind. A beautiful woman. She was smiling and it brought out her dimples. Mom. “I love my Mom,” I said. The words echoed in the gloomy void.
“What if you lose her?” the same booming voice asked me. “What if she forgot about you?”
“No.” My heart started pounding loudly. “Please, I don't want to lose her.”
A ripple passed through the gloom. Suddenly, I was back in Jackie's room, strapped to the chair. Jackie undid the straps.
“What happened?” I asked. “What was that place?”
“Check your pocket for your totem. As for the place, don't mention it to anyone.”
I checked my jeans pocket and found a locket with Mom's photo in it. The one Dad used to wear. “This is my totem?”
Jackie nodded. “Your love for your mom made the whole process very quick.”
“Erb told me Runelords took memories for payment.”
“I already got yours. It looks beautiful.” She showed me the gem attached to the chair. Inside it, I saw my Mom crying as I hugged her. This was just after Dad's funeral. My face turned red.
I wanted to shout and cry. Jackie hugged me. “You must be brave. This shall pass and you'll be back with your Mom. Everything will be alright.”
I couldn't control anymore and started crying. How can I be brave? My Mom is with my clone. She doesn't know anything about me. She won't miss me. I'll be alone.
“Your love for your mom while help you get through this.” Jackie kissed my forehead and wiped my tears. “Remember, never let go of the totem.”
“Doormaster, who’s like a god, lives in a sewer system?” We stood before a large manhole in a dark alley.
“His lair is a work-in-progress.” Erb looked around. There was a drunk lying in a pile of vomit, reeking of piss. He wasn't paying us any attention. “Open it,” Erb commanded.
I voiced several protests. The lid was heavy but I managed to move it. The hole was dark and deep. I shuddered at the thought of walking through the sewer.
Erb sniffed the mouth of the manhole and gave a long growl. We heard squeaking sounds as several rats skittered out of manhole and surrounded us. The rats stared at us with their small beady eyes for several long moments. One of them stepped forward and said, “Follow us.”
We took the concrete walkway which ran parallel to the pungent and foamy running water. The walls and the ceiling were circular, and old pipes draped with cobwebs were everywhere.
The rats led us to a large metallic door. The paint had peeled off a long time ago and green moss was growing in places. I could hear shouting from inside. One of the rats squeaked and they all disappeared in the darkness of the sewer leaving us alone.
Erb pushed the door open. He entered with me at his heels. The room was garishly bright in contrast with the gloomy sewer outside. The whole room was filled with doors of different colours, shapes, and sizes. In the middle was an old leather sofa facing away from us.
“The ‘CloneTalkTM’ devices are getting out of hand. In two days, six unlicensed dimension- jumps has happened. We need to do something about it.” A man stood before the sofa wearing a regal woollen cloak. A silver crown adorned his head and he held a long golden sceptre. He was talking to another man who lounged on the sofa. The man on the sofa was covered in soiled bandages. He wore a medieval plague doctor mask, the ceramic beak painted red.
The crowned man stopped as we entered, frowning at us. Erb bowed, his snout touching the ground. “My lords.”
The sofa turned with a thumping sound to face us.
“Ah, Erebus,” the Bandaged-Plague-Doctor-Man said. He spoke nasally like Darth Vader. “Who do we have here?” He gestured at me. “Isn't he one of the unlicensed dimension-jumper?”
“Yes, master,” Erb said in a low voice. His eyes on the ground. “But he was tricked.”
The Doormaster nodded. “Duke, here's a victim of the ‘CloneTalkTM’ device. What should we do with him?” the Doormaster said in his nasal voice.
The man with the sceptre, the Duke, stepped forward. “He must be thrown in the prison. He broke the law when he used the portal generator.”
“His clone tricked him into activating the portal and jumping dimensions,” Erb interjected.
“You expect me to believe this?” the Duke shouted.
The Doormaster raised his hand to silence the Duke. “What do you suggest we should do?” he asked Erb.
“Master, you command the doors. You could send him back to his dimension and bring back the culprit—his clone—to face a trial.”
The Doormaster adjusted his Plague Doctor mask. “Interesting idea.”
“He's not even worthy of your test,” the Duke proclaimed. He had a frown on his face.
“Let's find out.” The Doormaster snapped his bandaged fingers and a door opened. He gestured me to enter alone.
The door opened to a medical ward. My father lay on the bed, his arm punctured by tubes and needles. A monitor beeped beside the bed, flashing his vitals.
Mom sat on a stainless steel, holding Dad's hand. She was crying. Dad raised his frail hands and beckoned me. I slowly walked up to them, unsure whether this was real or not.
Dad held my hand. “I’m sorry I was never there for you. Always working, running the rat- race. But on my death-bed I realised you were more important than money.”
My eyes watered. Growing up, I was always jealous of the other kids when their parents came to drop them. Years after his death, in a parallel dimension, Dad apologized for not being there.
Mom got up and hugged me hard. “I am sorry too. Instead of helping you cope up with your father's illness and death, I built a wall around myself. Kept pushing you away. You needed my emotional support but all you got was my absence.”
I couldn't control anymore. Tears streamed down my cheeks. Is this real?
“It could be real,” I heard the Doormaster. Can he read my thoughts? I wiped my tears. He stood at the door. Some of the bandages had peeled off him and littered around him. “All depends on a choice.”
“What do you mean?” My parents now stood still like a mannequin. Even their pupils had turned white.
“Loving parents. Their care and time. Something you never had. I could give it to you,” the Doormaster said ominously. “They could be yours.” He pointed at my mannequin-like parents.
I could have Dad back. Mom would not be busy. A happy family once again. “What's the catch?”
“Your connection totem. That would be my payment.”
“But it is a connection to my past.”
“Do you even need your past? Wouldn't it be better to just forget that painful life and be with these parents? They love you more. They care for you more.”
My heart skipped a beat. If I give away my totem then I wouldn't have to deal T-800. I would have a life where Dad wasn’t dead, Mom was available. These parents would love me.
I removed my connection totem. I was about to hand it to the Doormaster but I stopped. I looked at the still figured of my parents. No, they weren't my parents, they were clones like T- 800. I can’t be here. “I want to go back and live with my mother. Mend my relationship with her instead of moving on with a clone. I will not leave her alone with someone like T-800.”
“If I didn't have this mask you would see my smile.” He touched my forehead with his bandaged finger and my body started disintegrating. “You had a chance to walk away from the door of your reality. You didn’t take it. Since, you have chosen to go back, make good on it.
“Also, your clone has been summoned here. My lieutenants would serve him justice.” The Doormaster turned. “And remember I won't be forgiving the next time you jump a dimension.”
He walked away as my vision darkened and my body disintegrated. I woke up in my bedroom with a pounding headache.
‘CloneTalkTM’ lay beside me. Ignoring my headache, I picked a bat and I smashed the plasma screen. Never again.
That evening Mom bought me a gift. “Happy Birthday, darling.” She hugged me tightly. “I am sorry I couldn’t wish you in the morning.”
“Thanks, Mom, and it's okay!” I smiled.
“I don’t know if you'll like it.” She handed me a large gift-wrapped box. “But it’s so popular these days. It has great reviews.”
So much had happened today that made me realise her importance. She had lost her husband just as I had lost a father. It was hard for both of us. I shouldn’t resent her for not being there for me. She was doing all she could. “I love you,” I said sheepishly.
“Aw, I love you too.”
I grinned and set to unwrapping the gift. It was a blue cardboard box with Nazgul Corp's logo painted on it. Through a plastic sheet, I could see a ‘CloneTalkTM’. Shit.
“Did you like it?” she asked.
“I love it,” I lied. Not this again.
– Saaransh Mishra