“Wait a minute…,” Paul said to himself with a growing smile. The fact that those were his first words caused the unfamiliar family, parents and a sister, to quiet down. Paul ignored them as he stared out the hospital window at the neon skyline. “… this is a dream,” he chuckled and looked at the strangers. “That’s why I don’t recognize you.”
The woman that was supposed to be his mother gave him a concerned expression. His father figure made a gesture at Paul’s supposed sister and she was quick to leave the room to find a doctor.
“Well, I don’t need to stay here. I want to see what else is-,” Paul stopped talking when he realized he was still in bed. He meant to get up, but his body did not listen. He tried with all his strength to throw his leg over the side of the bed; it moved slightly before he gave up. His parents did their best to remain quiet and available while he worked it out for himself. Moments after Paul gave up trying to move, his sister walked back in with a doctor. He was a lean, middle-aged man in a white lab coat.
“I heard you don’t recognize your family, Mr. Gutierrez,” he said as he approached the bed.
“It’s not just them. I don’t recognize the city out there either.” He tried to point but his arm refused to move. He settled for a slight nod toward the window. The doctor stopped in his tracks and tilted his head.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” he asked. Paul thought for a moment, then sighed.
“It’s all fuzzy. Not much from before the car accident,” he said.
“Car accident?” The doctor asked. Paul became aware of his family’s eyes on him, all of them were holding their breath.
“Yeah,” Paul said. “I’m glad there was no one with me, or they’d be in this room too.” The doctor took another step closer to the bed and reached into the pocket of his lab coat. He pulled out a thin, card-sized pane of glass and presented it to Paul.
“Could I get your thumbprint on this, please?” he asked.
“Sure. What’s that?” Paul asked; without moving his hand. His question brought a surprised gasp from the woman. She immediately turned around and clung to her husband.
“It’s called a node,” the doctor replied calmly. He stood still for a moment then realized Paul was too weak to move his arms. The doctor came closer and manipulated Paul’s thumb onto the node. It vibrated like a cellphone under his touch, then the screen flashed a bright purple color. After the purple flash, the doctor pulled the node away. Paul caught sight of a single block of text that appeared, but could not read it. The doctor glanced at it, nodded, then looked at up the parents and smiled.
“There’s still hope,” he said. Paul thought it was an odd phrase. Doubt about whether he was actually dreaming or not tickled the back of his mind. “We’ll be back shortly,” the doctor said to Paul. Then, he ushered the family out of the room. Paul wanted to stare out the window, but he felt tired as soon as the excitement died down, and he drifted off to sleep.
A knocking sound woke him up. Paul opened his eyes to a brilliant azure sky outside his window. The neon-city from the night before was replaced by gleaming silver and black spires.
“Good morning,” the doctor said as he walked in. Paul was feeling better and he turned to greet the doctor.
“Good morning. Am I getting more visitors today?” Paul asked. He didn’t want to be rude, but he also didn’t recognize the family any more than strangers. The doctor shook his head with a solemn expression.
“Their son…. passed away last night,” the doctor said.
“So they found him?” Paul asked. He was hopeful they at least got to say goodbye to their actual son. It also made him wonder how the mix-up happened at all. To Paul’s surprise, the doctor pulled a chair closer to the bed and sat down.
“This is going to get complicated…,” the doctor said. “But, I assure you everything I tell you is true, and provable. And most importantly, you have options to go to from here.”
“Doc…,” Paul managed to sit up slightly and lock eyes with the man. “Am I a ghost?”
“What?” Despite the doctor’s glum expression that question seemed to have caught him by surprise. He chuckled loudly and shook his head. “Of course not.” The doctor pointed at the heart monitor beeping. “We wouldn’t keep you plugged in if you were.” The doctor seemed to relax after that.
“Let’s start from the beginning. What do you know about alternate universes?”
“Uh. Not much? Sci-fi isn’t really my thing,” Paul said.
“Oh.. dear. Okay,” the doctor sighed, then shook his head. “So, here’s something you didn’t know before. Alternate universes are real. Point of fact,” the doctor nodded at the cityscape. “You are not in the same universe where your accident took place.”
“So… getting t-boned sent me into another universe?” Paul asked. He phrased it as ridiculously as he could so that the doctor could hear what it sounded like. Instead, the doctor nodded.
“That’s.. essentially what happened. Your car accident happened at the exact same time that someone on this Earth had a pretty horrible skiing accident.” Paul’s eyes widened. He looked down at his hands and noticed differences; they weren’t his hands.
“My .. doppelganger?” Paul asked. The doctor nodded.
“The term we use is ‘Zero’. You and your Zero had accidents at the exact same moment, both of you in areas with weak universal boundaries. Though the science is complicated, you’ll get the gist if I say you two were knocked into each other’s bodies.”
“How do you know that? I didn’t know about alternate universes in my universe.. how do you even know what universe I came from?” The doctor smiled and reached into his pocket. He pulled out the node again and handed it to Paul. He accepted it, and he noted it didn’t flash purple this time.
“These are provided by Sharp Medical Services, a division of Sharp Development. Sharp Development has incredible experience in the multiverse. Their nodes are great at detecting this kind of thing. When you touched it yesterday, it said ‘Soul Mismatch’ and it was able to identify your universe of origin. I didn’t do anything other than make a call to Sharp Medical Services. They found your body in a hospital on your Earth… in the morgue. He died at the same time you woke up.”
“I’m.. dead?” Paul asked. The doctor stood from his chair, and he took a moment to point at the heart monitor.
“It doesn’t look like it. I’ll give you some time to figure out your next move.”
“Wait,” Paul said. “But.. what are my options? I have nothing… I can’t even pay for this stay.” The doctor chuckled but continued toward the door. He paused when he opened it.
“This hospital is run by Sharp Medical Services; you don’t need to pay anything. As for your options,” he smiled and gave one more answer before leaving the room. “You have a node now, you can do anything.”