There were four extra Earths in all. They formed a kite shape in the sky. Ruby watched, stunned as Kevin recorded detailed images of each.
"I'd programmed the tracking for these planets weeks ago," Kevin explained as he worked. "I couldn't get a clear picture of them since the focusing calibration was off, but I knew just where to find them."
The first Earth appeared to be uninhabited—no signs of civilization. The visible west-side of the American continents were similar to the ones Ruby recognized, but with minor changes. The continents of the second planet were different enough that it could hardly be called an Earth at all, but it had clouds, oceans, forests and deserts, just like the Earth they knew. It was further away, too difficult to identify any signs of civilization. "I can run atmospheric analysis later," Kevin said. "If there's people there, I'll be able to figure it out."
The third Earth was almost completely choked by storms. Kevin confirmed that a strip of islands in a small crack in the clouds resembled Japan.
The fourth Earth was dead.
"Is that even an Earth," Ruby asked.
"See that line there? It's the Mariana Trench. The ocean has vaporized. There's no atmosphere. But I think it's still Earth, or a version of it, anyway." Kevin engaged the telescope's high definition recording. "I'll be able to analyze the surface once I record it's rotation over a couple nights."
The image of a dead earth left Ruby feeling numb. She sat down on a step and stared at the observatory floor, her eyes out of focus.
Kevin joined her a few minutes later. "Overwhelming."
They sat there together. Hera sat on the couch across the room, munching on a box of Triscuits she'd found in the kitchen.
"What the hell is going on?" Ruby asked, turning to Kevin. "I mean, you're a scientist. What happened to everything?"
He shrugged. "I don't have enough data."
"You've got more data than anyone else in the world. You've got to have theories."
Kevin sighed. "Well, I mean, the easy theory is that this is some kind of multiverse collision."
"That's an easy theory?"
"It's easy because I don't have to explain it. What the hell is a collision of the multiverse? It sounds good, but it doesn't mean anything, does it? We can say there's a bunch of parallel universes. Somehow, some rip in reality drew elements of all those universes together into one amalgamated new Earth. It drew other Earths in with different positions in nearly the same orbit as our Earth."
"Does that explain how we can breathe up here when the air outside is so thin?"
"No. Presumably in parallel worlds, the laws of physics still apply."
"So how can it be?"
Kevin ran a hand through his hair and sighed. "Well, we've already gone out on a limb and said we're looking at a collision of universes. Maybe that collision also damaged reality on a more fundamental level. Like localized damage to the implicate order of the universe."
"Yeah, it's a way of looking at things in quantum physics. We live in the reality of the explicate order, the world we experience. Everything you hear, touch, see—it's all the universe of your senses. But the explicate order is only a projection of a more fundamental reality, an implicate order. The implicate order determines the rules that govern the universe. It is the source of the physics that make our reality. But here..." He waved his hand to take in the observatory. "Here, that reality has been altered."
Ruby didn't understand, but it didn't matter. "It means the laws of physics are bent here."
"What about all those video feeds we saw? Were we looking at different universes?"
"And who was the guy reaching for the light in that last frame? Was that the rip in reality?"
He shrugged again. "What I have are pieces of the puzzle. Sure, I have more pieces than most. I can publish what I'm finding on the net. Others out there might have ideas."
"Are there other scientists out there?"
"All I've found so far are wackadoo nuts that will most likely take everything I've found and use it to start a new religion. Everyone I've reached out there say the changes in the world were caused by some uber-being called the Usurper or the Godsbane."
Bryce had mentioned those names in their conversation a couple nights before.
"There's plenty I don't know," Kevin continued. "There's key pieces to this puzzle I'm not seeing yet. And to be honest, soon, what happened to the world will be the least of my problems."
"What do you mean?"
Kevin waved his hand at the kitchen. "The provisions I've got left here will last me two more weeks—three if I'm careful. The observatory is well stocked in case an astronomer gets stranded in a snow storm or something. But with you and Hera here..."
Ruby's heart sank. "You're almost out of food."
Kevin nodded. "And it's not exactly easy to get off this crazy mountain."
"I've got a parachute."
"Parachuting off a mountain can't be safe. And it is just one parachute."
"I could go get help. I've got Skylar. She could think of something."
"Hey, can I borrow your phone charger? There's someone I want to call."
Kevin retrieved the charge cable from a drawer in his desk, along with a large cell phone. "Didn't you offer to let your fixie repair my phone?" He held it up.
"Uh, sure." She scanned the broad room. "Skylar, are you here?"
A metal clang sounded from the kitchen. Skylar zipped out from behind the coffee maker where she'd been making alterations.
Ruby pointed at the phone. "Would you look at that?"
In a blink, Skylar zipped up and snatched the phone out of Kevin's hand. She went to work on it at the desk.
"You're happy to have things to fix, aren't you?" Ruby asked the fixie.
Skylar paused long enough to grin up at Ruby, then went back to work.
Ruby plugged her phone into a wall outlet. She checked her messages. There were three texts from Eddie, all asking if she was okay. She tried calling him twice but got no answer. She left him a text about what she'd seen in the sky and left the phone beside the wall.
"Yes," Kevin exclaimed. Ruby spun to find him holding up his phone in triumph. "Thank you, little gnat!"
Skylar folded her arms and frowned, hovering over his shoulder.
Kevin tapped an icon on his phone. "Okay, here it is." He ran down the stairs towards Hera. "Here it is."
Hera tucked her knees up against her chest, leaning back on the couch. She frowned up at Kevin.
He held out the phone. "Okay, say something."
"Seriously, you need to speak for the app to pick up your language."
"Do you really think that will work?" Ruby asked. "She comes from a different reality than you."
"That might be so, but this app is super smart. It can take cues from context and come up with interpretations that are surprisingly accurate. It takes over a hundred terabytes of memory."
"That's a lot, isn't it?"
Kevin shrugged. "It's not small."
"I think I come from a different reality than you as well."
"Very possible." He shoved the phone in Hera's face. "Come on, say something."
Hera began ranting in her own language, clearly pissed off. Kevin only grinned, which made Hera even angrier and she yelled louder. When she stopped, Kevin withdrew the phone and studied it.
"Analytic language, heavy consonants, broad range of phonemes."
"What does that mean?" Ruby asked.
"Don't know. It looks like it's making calculations based on close matches combining Urdu, Esperanto and... Klingon."
"Are you serious?"
Kevin pushed the phone back in Hera's face. "Say something else."
" Etta gack pwelli'ka ba kthada, gerfluct!" Hera cried.
The phone spoke in a slightly modulated version of Hera's voice. " Get that ridiculous gadget out of my face, you gerfluct."
"It's working?" Ruby said. "What's a gerfluct?"
"The app hasn't figured everything out yet." He tapped an icon. "I'm trying to use this ridiculous gadget to speak to you."
The phone repeated Kevin's translated words, mimicking his voice.
Hera's eyes went wide. She spoke. The phone said, "You understand me?"
She jumped to her feet and turned to Ruby. She spoke a long string of words, gripping Ruby by the shoulders.
"The king is mad," the phone said. "He will not bring paradise. He will bring death after death, and if he succeeds, he'll destroy the world. You're our only hope."