Asta fanned herself with a copy of New Scientist magazine, blew a fly off her lip and sighed. “When did the tow truck say they’d get here? You do have roadside assist, don’t you?”
Ryan cupped a hand to a forehead red as the desert sand and searched the road. “They’re coming from Eucla. Said it’d take about two hours.”
One and a half hours to go then. Fuck me. Asta scanned the horizon and the smattering of trees that shifted and shimmered in the Nullabor’s heat haze. A dribble of sweat ran down her back, soiling itself into the waist of her shorts. It’ll be fun, Ryan had promised. A chance to get out of the city. It’ll do us good. Asta scowled. The middle of the fucking Eyre Highway was about as far from any city they could possibly get.
“You know, in another universe, we might not have broken down.”
Ryan pointed to the magazine in her hands and Asta glanced at the cover: Parallel Universes Make Quantum Sense. He grinned. “Our parallel selves might be halfway to Cocklebiddy.”
Asta cast a disbelieving glance at the car. Pulled up on the side of the highway, bonnet propped open like a metal-rusted sail, Ryan’s 1985 Holden Gemini was a sorry sight. “Pretty sure it happens in every universe,” she said. “Your car is a piece of shit everywhere. And I should know, I’m the maths major. It’s a one hundred per cent probability.”
“Don’t talk about my girl like that,” Ryan patted the open bonnet, fingers scraping over the rust in the Gemini’s mustard-yellow paintwork. “It’s okay, Gem, she didn’t mean it.”
“I absolutely fucking meant it. Face it, Ryan, it’s time for it to go. Sell it to a scrap yard when we get to Perth and we’ll use the money to fly back to Adelaide.”
His expression turned aghast. “No way, she’s got plenty of life left in her!”
Asta made a show of leaning through the driver’s side window and reading the odometer. “502, 336 kilometres,” she said, pointing. “I’m amazed we got this far.” She fanned her magazine over her face again. “No matter which universe you’re in, cars are not supposed to do those kind of k’s. Not unless you replace its engine three times over.”
Her boyfriend’s lip twitched, probably some internal joke she was about to get an earful of. “How do you know? Perhaps they have spaceships.”
She fanned herself twice, considering. All right, I’ll bite. “Why would they build spaceships? Any smart parallel beings would surely have invested in teleportation technology.”
He winced. “Bad idea. Every time you teleport, all your atoms are deconstructed into a blueprint and sent on. What walks out the other end is a clone. The original you is destroyed.”
“I do.” He folded his arms and leaned back on the Gemini, only to leap away from the metal bodywork as it sizzled him through his shirt. “Who’s the one studying a bachelor of science?” he asked.
“More like a Bachelor of Science Fiction,” Asta muttered.
But Ryan wasn’t listening, a smile curling across his face instead. Here we go, he’s thought of something utterly ridiculous. It was the same look he’d worn when he’d proposed their road trip. And she fell for it every time, God damn it.
“Imagine what would happen if it broke, the teleportation receiver, I mean,” Ryan said, leaning in to whisper as if it a great conspiracy and not a hypothetical scenario in a distant and highly speculative universe. “What if it just kept spitting out multiple copies of people––you know, like when a printer grabs two pieces of paper instead of one. Statistically probable, right?”
“Sure, if everyone has a teleportation ring the same way we have cars.” Asta curled her magazine up and taped it to her chin, considering. “But suppose in one of these other universes, a person died in a car crash. What’s to stop their family from going over to teleportation device and printing out the last blueprint of the person who died?”
He scratched the bristles on his chin. “Nothing I suppose.”
“Well, didn’t think that through, did they?” Asta swatted away another fly and opened the Gemini’s passenger door and sank into the seat. Some things don’t change no matter what universe you’re in. It was just as hot if not hotter inside the car than out. But at least there was shade. She checked her watch. One hour fifteen. Fucking hell.
A heart beat later, Ryan was in the driver’s seat beside her. He glanced at her, then away again, as if not quite sure where to look. Guilty as a pup caught chewing a pair of shoes. “I’m sorry,” he said, at last. “This isn’t quite how I imagined it would go. I should’ve put the Gem through the garage before we left.”
Yes, you should have. Asta wanted to say. Instead, she sighed, and let go of her anger. She never could stay mad at him for long. “It’s not you. It’s this damn heat. It’s getting to me.”
A tentative grin spread over Ryan’s face. He leaned over the gear stick, face coming close to hers, as if he might kiss…
“You know, in another universe––”
Asta swatted him with her magazine. “You are hopeless.”
“You know, I was thinking last night. They say there’s an infinite number of parallel universes. By that reasoning, anything we could possibly imagine is a reality somewhere out in the cosmos,” Ryan said the next day as they set out from Eucla. The Gem’s engine hummed anew; an extra container of radiator fluid sloshing in the backseat for good measure.
Sitting in shotgun, Asta’s arched an eyebrow. “So, purple flying people eaters are the universe next door, is it?”
Ryan grinned. “Or Darleks.” Abruptly, he spun on her, face lighting up like a child presented with a new toy. “Asta! You know what that means? Doctor Who’s real! Somewhere out there.”
“An alien with two hearts and a time machine, and a seemingly unending supply of luck?” Asta pursed her lips. “Statistically it’s so remote it’s not worth entertaining.”
He pouted. “Stop mathing me, you’re sucking the fun out of it.”
Asta waved the New Scientist magazine under his nose. “Compared to your Doctor Who, you’re more likely to find a universe out there that’s identical to ours, with, perhaps, one or two slight differences. Like, with one per cent more oxygen in the atmosphere.”
Ryan stared at her, adoration in his eyes. “I love it when you talk science with me.”
Asta snorted. “Perhaps the universe next door has the same revolving door of Prime Ministers as—” She gasped, gaze locked on the traffic light ahead, feet punching down into the footwell, pumping at a non-existent brake. “Purple, Ryan, PURPLE light!”
The Gemini sailed through an intersection to the blast of single car horn and squeal of brakes. Ryan yanked on the wheel; the car fish-tailed and they skidded to a stop at the road’s edge.
Asta released her white-knuckled grip from the dashboard. Breathed out. “Fuck Ryan, are you trying to kill us? In this universe, you stop on a purple!” She twisted in the passenger seat, peering at the lights behind. “I don’t see a camera.” As Ryan’s eyes followed her, she jabbed at the windscreen. “Eyes on the road. And keep to the bloody right.”
He grimaced. “My bad, sorry.” A moment of silence, then: “I was distracted at the thought of a universe where you didn’t love me.”
Asta rolled her eyes, but felt the grin plucking the corners of her mouth. Every time, God damn it. She sighed and stopped fighting it. Her smile grew; she leaned close. “Not in all the universes.”