Melko (Singularity's Ring) sends a naïve high school senior on a sharply imagined trip across divergent time lines in an adventure with both brains and heart. John Rayburn is approached by John Prime, another universe's version of himself, who lends him a device that permits travel to parallel worlds. John realizes he's been tricked when he can't get back home. He stops in an almost-familiar universe to analyze the device and return to his own world, where John Prime is trying to get rich quick by "inventing" gadgets that his new home lacks. Soon the two are making friends and putting down roots, each discovering that he carries his own fundamentally empathetic, responsible personality from one universe to another. With imagination and sympathy, Melko makes the journey genuinely exciting and leaves plenty of room for future exploits. (Feb.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
John Rayburn discovers many universes to visit, many versions of himself—and many dangers.
High school senior John Rayburn's eerie encounter with his doppelganger, who calls himself John Prime and gives him a device that allows him to travel among many parallel universes, leads to frantic world-hopping as the damaged device refuses to allow him to return home, where Prime has stolen his life. The author of Singularity's Ring expands an earlier novella into a full-length tale of interdimensional identity theft and hairbreadth escapes. Suitable for larger libraries.
A distinctive vision of a post-singularity future.... Melko gives us an absorbing tour of a world where humanity isn't what it used to be.
- Tom Doherty Associates
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.30(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Walls of the Universe
By Paul Melko
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2009 Paul Melko
All rights reserved.
The screen door slammed behind John Rayburn, rattling in its frame. He and his dad had been meaning to fix the hinges and paint it before winter, but just then John wanted to rip it off and fling it into the fields.
"Johnny?" his mother called after him, but by then he was in the dark shadow of the barn. He slipped around the far end and any more of his mother's calls were lost among the sliding of cricket legs. His breath blew from his mouth in clouds.
John came to the edge of the pumpkin patch, stood for a moment, then plunged into it. Through the pumpkin patch was east, toward Case Institute of Technology, where he hoped to start as a freshman the next year. Not that it was likely. There was always the University of Toledo, his father had said. One or two years of work could pay for a year of tuition there.
John kicked a half-rotten pumpkin. Seeds and wispy strings of pumpkin guts spiraled through the air. The smell of dark earth and rotten pumpkin reminded him it was a week before Halloween and they hadn't had time to harvest the pumpkins: a waste and a thousand dollars lost to earthworms. He ignored how many credits that money would have bought.
The pumpkin field ended at the tree line, the eastern edge of the farm. The trees — old maples and elms — abutted Gurney Road, beyond which was the abandoned quarry. He stood in the trees, just breathing, letting the anger seep away.
It wasn't his parents' fault. If anyone was to blame, it was he. He hadn't had to beat the crap out of Ted Carson. He hadn't had to tell Ted Carson's mom off. That had entirely been him. Though the look on Mrs. Carson's face had almost been worth it when he told her her son was an asshole. What a mess.
He spun at the sound of a stick cracking.
For a moment he thought that Ted Carson had chased him out of the farmhouse, that he and his mother were there in the woods. But the figure who stood there was just a boy, holding a broken branch in his hand.
"Johnny?" the boy said. The branch flagged in his grip, touching the ground.
John peered into the dark. He wasn't a boy; he was a teenager. John stepped closer. The teen was dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt. Over the shirt he wore a sleeveless red coat that looked oddly out-of-date. He had sandy blond hair and brownish eyes.
John's eyes lingered on the stranger's face. No, not a stranger. The teen had his face.
"Hey, Johnny. It's me, Johnny."
The figure in the woods was him.
"Who ... who are you?" John asked. How could this be?
The stranger smiled. His smile. "I'm you, John."
"Who do I look like?" the stranger said. He opened his arms, palms up, as if to share an intimate comment.
John's head spun for a moment. "You look like ..." Me, he almost said. A brother. A cousin. A hallucination. A trick.
"I look just like you, John. Because I am you." John took a step back. The stranger continued, "I know what you're thinking. Some trick. Someone is playing a trick on the farm boy. No. Let's get past that. Next you're going to think that we're twins, and that one of us was put up for adoption. Nope. It's much more interesting than that."
The thought of twins had crossed his mind, but he didn't like the stranger's manner, his presumption. "Explain it, then."
"Listen, I'm really hungry. I could use some food and a place to sit down. I saw Dad go into the house. Maybe we can sit in the barn and I can explain everything."
There was something desperate in his words. He must want something from John. There had to be some twist, some gimmick. John just couldn't see it yet. And that bothered him.
"I don't think so," he said.
"Fine. I'll turn around and walk away," the stranger said. "Then you'll never get to hear the story."
John almost let him go. He glanced left and right. No one was in the woods, lurking and laughing. If this were a joke, he couldn't see the punch line. If this were a scam, he couldn't see why he was the mark. He couldn't see the logic, and that ate at him. What harm was there in hearing the story?
"Let's go to the barn," he said finally.
The stranger's smile was genuine. "Great!"
John headed back toward the barn, the stranger at his side. John eased away from him. As they walked through the pumpkin patch, John noted that their strides matched, that they were the same height. He pulled open the back door of the barn, and the young man entered ahead of him, tapping the light switch by the door.
"A little warmer," he said. He rubbed his hands together and turned to John.
The light hit his face squarely, and John was startled to see the uncanny match between them. In the dark, it had been easy to think their looks were close but not exact. The sandy hair was styled differently and was longer. The clothes were odd; John had never worn a coat like that. The young man was just a bit thinner as well. He wore a blue backpack, so fully stuffed that the zipper wouldn't close all the way. There was a cut above his eye. A bit of brown blood was crusted over his left brow, clotted but recent.
He could have passed as John's twin.
"So, who are you?"
"What about a bite of something to eat?"
John went to the horse stall and pulled an apple from a bag. He tossed it to the young man. He caught it and smiled at John.
"Tell the story and I might get some dinner from the house."
"Did Dad teach you to be so mean to strangers? I bet if he found me in the woods, he'd invite me in to dinner."
"Tell," John said.
"Fine." The young man flung himself on a hay bale and munched the apple. "It's simple, really. I'm you. Or rather I'm you genetically, but I grew up on this same farm in another universe. And now I've come to visit myself."
"Bullshit. Who put you up to this?"
"Okay, okay. I didn't believe me either." A frown passed over his face. "But I can prove it. Hold on a second." He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Here we go: That horse is named Stan or Dan. You bought him from the McGregors on Butte Road when you were ten. He's stubborn and willful and he hates being saddled. But he'll canter like a show horse if he knows you have an apple in your pocket." The young man turned to the stalls on his left. "That pig is called Rosey. That cow is Wilma. The chickens are called Ladies A through F. How am I doing so far?" He smiled an arrogant smile.
"You stole some of your uncle's cigarettes when you were twelve and smoked them all. You killed a big bullfrog with your BB gun when you were eight. You were so sickened by it you threw up and haven't used a gun since. Your first kiss was with Amy Walder when you were fourteen. She wanted to show you her underwear too, but you ran home to Mommy. I don't blame you. She's got cooties everywhere I go.
"Everyone calls you Johnny, but you prefer John. You have a stash of Playboys in the barn loft. And you burned a hole in the rug in your room once. No one knows because you rearranged your room so that the nightstand is on top of it." He spread his arms like a gymnast who'd just stuck a landing.
"Well? How close did I come?" He smiled and tossed the apple core into Stan's stall.
"I never kissed Amy Walder." Amy had gotten pregnant when she was fifteen by Tyrone Biggens. She'd moved to Montana with her aunt and hadn't come back. John didn't mention that everything else he'd said was true.
"Well, was I right?"
John shrugged. "Mostly."
"Mostly? I nailed it on the head with a hammer, because it all happened to me. Only it happened in another universe."
How did this guy know so much about him? Who had he talked to? His parents? "Okay. Answer this. What was my first cat's name?"
"What is my favorite class?"
"What schools did I apply to?"
The man paused, frowned. "I don't know."
"Why not? You know everything else."
"I've been traveling, you know, for a while. I haven't applied to college yet, so I don't know. As soon as I used the device, I became someone different. Up till then, we were the same." He looked tired. "Listen. I'm you, but if I can't convince you, that's fine. Let me sleep in the loft tonight and then I'll leave."
John watched him grab the ladder, and he felt a twinge of guilt at treating him so shabbily. "Yeah, you can sleep in the loft. Let me get you some dinner. Stay here. Don't leave the barn, and hide if someone comes. You'd give my parents a heart attack."
He left him there and sprinted across the yard to the house. His mother and father stopped talking when the door slammed, so he knew they'd been talking about him.
"I'm gonna eat in the barn," he said. "I'm working on an electronics experiment."
He took a plate from the cabinet and began to dish out the lasagna. He filled the plate with enough to feed two of him.
His father caught his eye, then said, "Son, this business with the Carson boy ..."
John slipped a second fork into his pocket. "Yeah?"
"I'm sure you did the right thing and all."
John nodded at his father, saw his mother look away. "He hates us because we're farmers and we dig in the dirt," John said. His mother lifted her apron strap over her neck, hung the apron on a chair, and slipped out of the kitchen.
"I know that, Johnny ... John. But sometimes you gotta keep the peace."
John nodded. "Sometimes I have to throw a punch, Dad." He turned to go.
"John, you can eat in here with us."
"Not tonight, Dad."
Grabbing a quart of milk, he walked through the laundry room and left out the back door.
He stopped short as he pulled open the barn door. The stranger was rubbing Stan's ears, and the horse was leaning into him, loving it.
"Stan never lets anyone do that but me."
The stranger — this other John — turned with a half smile on his lips. "Just so," he said. He took the proffered paper towel full of lasagna, dug into it with the extra fork John had fetched.
"I always loved this lasagna. Thanks."
The tone, the arrogance, of the stranger annoyed him. His smile ... Did John look like that? He expected the stranger to keep talking, to keep goading him, but instead he remained silent, chewing on his dinner.
Finally John said, "Let's assume for a moment that you are me from another universe. How can you do it? And why you?"
Through a mouth of pasta, the stranger said, "With my device, and I don't know."
"Elaborate," John said, angry.
"I was given a device that lets me pass from one universe to the next. It's right here under my shirt. I don't know why it was me. Or rather, I don't know why it was us."
"Stop prancing around my questions!" John shouted. He was impossible! He wouldn't give a straight answer. "Who gave you the device?"
"I did!" The stranger grinned.
John shook his head, trying to understand. "You're saying that one of us — yet another John — from another universe gave you the device."
"Yeah. Another John. Nice-looking fellow."
Again that smile. John was silent for a while, just watching the stranger wolf down his food. Finally John said, "I need to feed the sheep." He poured a bag of corn into the trough. The stranger lifted the end of it with him. "Thanks." They fed the cows and the horse afterwards, then finished their own dinners.
John said, "So if you are me, what do I call you? If we were twins we'd have different names. But really, we're the same person exactly. Closer than twins." Twins had identical genetic material but from the moment of conception had slightly differing environments that might turn on and off different genes. Presumably John and this other John had identical genetic material and indentical environments, up to a point.
"My name is John, just like yours. I am you, but you may not like to think of me as John Rayburn. I think of you as John Farm Boy. But you gotta remember there's an infinite number of us. It's going to be hard to keep track of all us John Rayburns if we ever get together." The stranger laughed. "How about you think of me as John Prime for now? We'll keep track of ourselves relative to our downstream and upstream universes."
"Who gave you the device?"
"John Superprime," Prime said with a smile. "So do you believe me yet?"
John was still dubious. It made a bizarre sense, but then so did any of those made-up science fiction stories he'd read at the drugstore. Anything could be believed and made to sound coherent. "Maybe."
"All right. Here's the last piece of evidence. No use denying this." He pulled up his pant leg to reveal a long white scar, devoid of hair. "Let's see yours," John said.
John looked at the scar, and then pulled his jeans up to the knee. The cold air of the barn drew goose bumps on his calf everywhere except the puckered flesh of his own identical scar.
When John had been twelve, he and Bobby Walder had climbed the barbed-wire fence of Old Mrs. Jones to swim in her pond. Mrs. Jones had set the dogs on them, and they'd had to run naked across the field, diving over the barbed-wire fence. John hadn't quite cleared it.
Bobby had run off, and John had limped home. The cut on his leg had required three dozen stitches and a tetanus shot.
"Now do you believe?" Prime asked.
John stared at the scar on his leg. "I believe. Hurt like hell, didn't it?"
"Yes," Prime said with a grin. "Yes, it did, brother."CHAPTER 2
John sat in the fishbowl — the glass-enclosed room outside the principal's office — ignoring the eyes of his classmates and wondering what the hell John Prime was up to. He'd left his twin in the barn loft with half his lunch and an admonishment to stay out of sight.
"Don't worry," he'd said with a smirk. "Meet me at the library after school."
"Don't let anyone see you, all right?"
Prime had smiled again.
"John?" Principal Gushman stuck his head out of his office. John's stomach dropped; he was never in trouble.
Mr. Gushman had a barrel chest, balding head, and perpetual frown. He motioned John to a chair and sat behind the desk, letting out his breath heavily as he sat. He'd been a major in the army, people said. He was strict. John had never talked with him in the year he'd been principal.
"John, we have a policy regarding violence and bullying."
John opened his mouth to speak.
"Hold on. Let me finish. The facts of the matter are these. You hit a classmate — a younger classmate — several times in the locker room. He required a trip to the emergency room and stitches." Gushman opened a file on his desk.
"The rules are there for the protection of all students. There can be no violence in the school. There can be no exceptions. Do you understand?"
John stared, then said, "I understand the rule. But —"
"You're a straight-A student, varsity basketball and track. You're well liked. Destined for a good college. This could be a blemish on your record."
John knew what the word "could" meant. Gushman was about to offer him a way out.
"A citation for violence, as stated in the student handbook, means a three-day suspension and the dropping of any sports activities. You'd be off the basketball and track teams."
John's throat tightened.
"Do you see the gravity of the situation?"
"Yes," John managed to say.
Gushman opened another folder on his desk. "But I recognize this as a special case. So if you write a letter of apology to Mrs. Carson, we'll drop the whole matter." Gushman looked at him, expecting an answer.
John felt cornered. Yes, he had hit Ted, because he was a prick. Ted needed hitting, if anyone did; he had dropped John's clothes in the urinal. He said, "Why does Mrs. Carson want the letter? I didn't hit her. I hit Ted."
"She feels that you showed her disrespect. She wants the letter to address that as well as the violence."
If he just wrote the letter, it would all go away. But he'd always know that his mother and Mrs. Carson had squashed him. He hated that. He hated any form of defeat. He wanted to tell Gushman he'd take the suspension. He wanted to throw it all in the man's face.
Instead, John said, "I'd like to think about it over the weekend if that's okay."
Mr. Gushman's smile told John that he was sure he'd bent John to his will. John went along with it, smiling back. "Yes. You may. But I need a decision on Monday."
John left for his next class.
The city library was just a couple of blocks from the school. John wandered through the stacks until he found Prime at the center study desk in a row of three on the third floor. He had a dozen Findlay Heralds spread out, as well as a couple books. His backpack was open, and John saw that it was jammed with paper and folders.
To hide his features, Prime wore a Toledo Meerkats baseball hat and sunglasses. He pulled off his glasses when he saw John, and said, "You look like crap. What happened to you?" "Nothing. Now what are you doing? I have to get back to the school by five. There's a game tonight."
Excerpted from The Walls of the Universe by Paul Melko. Copyright © 2009 Paul Melko. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Growing up on a farm in Ohio, high school senior John Rayburn dreams of studying physics at Case Institute of Technology though the reality is that he will attend Toledo where he can earn money to afford the tuition. He is angry at himself as much as bully Ted Carson whom he beat the snot out of when a figure arrives insisting he is Johnny. They look like identical twins and the second Johnny explains he is a double-Prime replica and gives John a gizmo to travel to alternate worlds and come up with inventions to sell on this orb that has not been created starting with Rubik's Cube (make that Johnny¿s cube).
Prime Johnny says he will masquerade as John while the latter explores. However, Prime fails to warn John that there is one flaw with the cross dimensional device: you can never go home. Prime takes over John¿s life. John, after meeting several ¿Johns¿, settles on a world where he studies physics with plans to stay in hiding of sorts while fixing the gadget so he can come home. Prime impregnates John¿s girlfriend Casey and marries her; while his Rubik Cube creation runs into patent law issues and Ted makes trouble for him. On the world he chose to live John has a relationship with another Casey, avoids the Ted alternate and accidentally "invents" pinball that bring him to the attention of his previously unknown competitors, stranded cross-world travelers earning a living with new technology and a desire to steal John¿s functioning gadget.
THE WALLS OF THE UNIVERSE is an entertaining science fiction thriller in which the two Johns find their respective lives play out differently. Whereas Prime learns the grass is not greener as nothing goes right for him; John makes his new world a home though he ends up in danger from desperate marooned souls like himself. Although a late twist implies a series involving saving the universe from reverse engineers, readers will appreciate Paul Melko¿s fine tale of two Johns.
Great characters and story development. Had a friend recommend it since I was getting into I Asimov stories.