Quantum Entanglement




Footsteps crunched on the grass behind him. Nikhil turned into Alex’s kiss.


It was just as he remembered: a million bright starbursts in the press of Alex’s lips to his own. He couldn’t help but melt, Alex’s hands already wandering, caressing, relearning the contours of his body, until they reached the wedding ring.


Alex reared back. Nikhil almost followed him, orienting himself without thought, his iron core to Alex’s bright, unwavering sun. The stricken look on Alex’s face stopped him.


They’d both aged. Nikhil’s hair was no longer deep raven-black, but it was Alex whose face time had scored: Nikhil took in the hard crow’s feet around his eyes, the sun-scorched hair, the early frown lines around Alex’s mouth. His eyes stung with sudden tears. How long had it been since Alex last smiled? How many jumps? How many streams?


Alex stared at the ring as if it were made of hardened poison. Nikhil took a deep breath. “Thank you for coming.”


The news that evening had been straightforward: UNEXPLAINED EXPLOSION AT MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE. Nikhil had watched the column of smoke winding up from the half-collapsed buildings and just knew. Quantum entanglement, he and Alex used to joke. He couldn’t explain it. Instead, he took an Uber to the small urban park behind his and Alex’s old flat, sat down on the little bench with the loose nail on one end, and waited.


If heartbreak could be quantified, the unit of measurement would have been the tremor of Alex’s voice. “How long was I gone?”


“Sixteen years.” Nikhil sighed. “In this stream, anyway.”


“Christ.” Alex looked ready to break, and what sort of odd timeline was this, that the strongest man Nikhil had ever known had become brittle as supercooled steel? “Sixteen years. Jesus fucking Christ.


Alex never used to swear. What stream did he pick that up in?


“I blinked to Stream 37-beta, just like we agreed.” Alex scrubbed a hand through his hair; some of it came out between his fingers, fine as down. “Everything looked exactly the same — I was so excited to tell you your theory about parallel universes was correct! But on slingback, the meter went off by less than a thousandth of a g. The portal room looked the same when I blinked in, except Jameson’s glass of water was full instead of empty. That’s all. That was the only difference.”


Nikhil nodded. “And…us?”


Alex shook his head. “I blinked out again as soon as I found out you…” He sighed. “Then again. Each stream a little different, each one farther away from home, from you.” He glanced down at his wrist. For the first time, Nikhil noticed the device there, something blocky and dark and made of a material he didn’t recognize.


“Three hundred thirty-seven jumps,” Alex whispered.


It was worse than Nikhil thought. So many disruptions. So many severed timelines, and all through it, Alex, fighting the grip of time itself because devotion was the only law of the universe greater than physics.


It was there in Alex’s eyes now as he looked at Nikhil and asked, “Do you think…?”


“No.”


It was so much more than a wedding ring. It was Malcolm with the handsome smile that had saved him from drowning in his grief, and Mikayla who wanted to be an octopus when she grew up, and baby Nora at home who was just learning to laugh. It was an empty grave next to Alex’s grandparents, and a shining piece of Nikhil’s heart buried with it. It was the tightness in his throat when he looked at Alex now, older and time-hardened and still achingly beautiful, but distant as a dying star. “I’m sorry.”


Alex nodded and stepped back. Something hardened over the grief in his eyes, something, Nikhil realized with a crack in his heart, that he had been waiting to see. “Where will you go?” he asked, even though he already knew.


Alex lifted his arm. The device on his wrist released a multitude of colored lights, swirling across its alien surface like bioluminescent microbes. His outline shimmered, unstable.


Nikhil closed his eyes. Alex’s voice drifted to him across an endless overlapping patchwork of time and space, infinite and unknowable. “There’s a stream out there where you choose differently,” he said from everywhere at once, and then he was gone.





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