the Perfect World
By Tony Conaway
I suppose it’s ironic, me and Fawaz getting shot
at when we left the library. Or it’s bad karma. Or
something like that – I'm no genius.
I like to read, so I know some things. But if a
subject doesn't interest me, I pretty much ignore it,
so I was always struggling in school.
This was supposed to be a milk run. This world
had a composer named George Gershwin, who was supposed
to be the best at composing some sort of music I don’t
listen to. Where I come from, this Gershwin guy was
only 38 when he died of a brain tumor back in 1937.
On this world, George Gershwin lived a long, long
time, and wrote music for another 52 years.
My bosses wanted copies of Gershwin's
hand-written manuscripts. This time Fawaz and I
didn’t have to steal anything, or torture anyone, or
kill anyone. All we had to do was walk into the music
branch of this world’s New York Public Library and
photograph a lifetime's worth of musical scores,
hand-written by Gershwin himself. It took all of
yesterday and half of this morning, but it wasn’t hard
work. If this world had computers, we could have
downloaded it in seconds. But the computer revolution
was still in its infancy on this world. So we used
what passed for high-tech here: cameras using rolls of
something called black-and-white high-contrast copy
This was the first mission in awhile where nobody
had to die.
Then we walked out of the library into some sort
of gang war.
Sometimes we get issued all sorts of nifty gizmos
stolen from more advanced worlds. Useful things, like
cool weapons or protective clothing.
But you don’t get issued the advanced tech for an
easy job like this. All we had were handguns that
could pass for the ones sold in this world, plus some
gun permits and I.D. which probably wouldn’t stand up
to an extended inquiry. That way, if we were arrested
by the local law, we were just two guys carrying guns
– not two guys carrying weapons that didn’t exist yet
on this planet.
What we did have was the training to
handle a situation like this.
We crouched down behind a parked car, and flashed
some hand signals back and forth. I indicated that we
should evade the gunfight by moving down the line of
cars. Fawaz, ornery as usual, shook his head and
made a different suggestion. I agreed, not because I
thought it was a good plan, but because I wanted to
We rose and started shooting. We kept low, using
the car hoods for protection. Part of me was hoping
that Fawaz would get killed, so I could get a new,
easier-to-work-with partner. But his plan worked. We
shot at both sides with our jacketed hollow-points.
(They knew how to make JHPs on this world, but they
kept them out of civilian hands.)
Our rounds had the desired effect: one hit, one
target down. The gangbangers didn't really aim – they
just sprayed rounds in the general direction of their
enemies. Our aim was a lot better than theirs.
Firefights always seem longer than they really
are. It probably took less than two minutes to shoot
enough men that both gangs retreated.
As we watched the survivors move off, I sensed
movement behind me. I whirled in time to spot a
shabbily-dressed homeless guy crawl out from behind
some bushes in front of the library.
He held his hands up to show that he wasn’t
armed. I stared. I couldn’t see most of his face; a
long bill on his cap covered it in shadow. Something
about him bothered me.
Just then I heard, “Police! Freeze!”
We had seen an armed, uniformed NYPD officer
earlier, in the library. Now he was halfway down the
front steps, aiming his gun at me. He hadn’t noticed
It was my turn to raise my arms. Slowly, I
turned to face the cop. And I said what might as well
have been the motto of our Ops Corps:
“I didn’t do it.”
Then, from behind, Fawaz put two rounds into the
cop and turned him into a slab of bleeding meat.
My world discovered the multiverse a generation
ago. There is an infinity of Earths, each one
slightly different. On my homeworld, President
Kennedy was assassinated, but President Reagan
survived an assassination attempt. On another world,
Kennedy lived but Reagan died.
The Earths of the multiverse are different
because history is unfolding in a different manner.
They're also at different points in time. That is,
some of them seem to have started earlier than others.
On my homeworld, the one the politicians
laughingly call “the Perfect World,” techs monitor the
news media in a slew of other Earths. These Earths
are almost identical to ours, but approximately three
days in the future. What happens on those Earths will
happen on ours three days later.
Unless something is done to change those events.
Each of the similar Earths suffers from terrorism
and mass killings. Suicide bombers. School
shootings. Product poisoners.
Since our Perfect Earth runs “three days late”
(as we put it), our enforcers try to deal with it by
arresting the terrorists before they act.
That’s why the Homeworld Security Agency arrested
I admit that I was a screwed-up kid. Alone with
my violent fantasies of taking my stepfather’s guns
and shooting up my High School.
Would I have acted on my fantasies? How should I
know? I'm not a psychiatrist. Or a philosopher. I'm
just a grunt.
The HSA presented the evidence to my mother and
stepfather. News reports from five other worlds,
pretty much like ours, in which I had killed 8
students and 3 teachers. It was eerie: the same news
anchors my mother watched every evening, saying I’d
committed a horrible crime. My mother herself on
camera, weeping, apologizing to the victims. Our
neighbors, saying how I was a creepy kid and they
On at least five worlds, I was a murderer, killed
by a police sniper. It only takes proof on three
worlds to convict.
None of this had happened yet, not on our Perfect
World. And now it wouldn’t. The Homeworld Security
Agency was empowered to arrest me, convict me,
Oh, they were considerate of my mother’s
feelings. They did it all discreetly. No public
announcements. My mother told everyone that I’d
decided to go live with my father in another state,
and planed to join the Army after graduation. No, she
didn’t think I’d be coming back. I’m sure people
suspected the truth, though.
My stepfather didn’t care one way or another,
just as long as I was gone.
I didn’t have any say in the matter. I was a
convicted criminal who hadn’t done anything yet.
But I was also a physically healthy young man
without close personal ties. The Agency could use me,
as an Operative in their Corps.
They gave me a choice: execution or join the
Corps. I joined.
So I had my first jump between Earths. The Corps
isn’t based on our Homeworld. It’s on an Earth where
every human died off.
I’m barred from ever returning to the Perfect
World, the “Earth o’ my birth” (as we Ops call it).
Two months of psychiatric care, some new
psychotropic drugs, then boot camp, followed by
training as an Operative. Finally, induction into the
Ops Corps, and missions on other Earths.
Sometimes they sent us in squads, sometimes in
pairs. I seem to work better with just one partner.
So now I’m teamed up with a surly Italian-American kid
who converted to Islam and – on several Earths –
strapped a bomb to his chest and walked into a
nightclub. I’ve had partners I liked better than this
psycho, believe me. I’ve been at this for almost
three years now.
Some of the cop’s blood had sprayed over me. I
wiped what I could off my face, then looked around for
the homeless guy. He was gone.
No one was pointing a gun at us, so Fawaz and I
“You could thank me,” Fawaz hissed.
“You didn't have to kill that cop,” I said. “I
could've gotten away.” I wasn't sure how, but I was
trained in evasion. I was confident in my skills.
“Feh. A Shadowman,” Fawaz said. “Expendable.”
“So are we, to the Agency.”
Fawaz was quiet after that.
One reason Fawaz is so trigger-happy is this: the
HSA has its own tame mullah, who tells all the Muslim
Operatives that the only real people are the ones from
the Homeworld. All the other people on all the other
worlds are false men. “Shadowmen” they call them. No
more real than the characters in a video game.
Not all the Muslim Operatives believe that.
Fawaz not only believes it, he acts like each one
he kills brings him closer to Paradise.
Mind you, I'm not an innocent. My kill figures
are up in the triple digits by now. But I try to only
kill people who are trying to kill me, and the people
that the Agency orders me to kill.
That hit list is usually scientists who are
getting close to discovering the multiverse. The
Perfect World is the only one that knows that the
multiverse actually exists, and how to traverse from
world to world.
And the Agency's most important job is to keep it
Fawaz and I were headed to our pickup location,
which is in Brooklyn. You need a clear space of about
2,200 cubic feet for the transport portal to
manifest. That means a ceiling clearance of 13-odd
feet, minimum. While there are spaces like that in
Manhattan, they're astronomically expensive. The
Agency could afford it, but it’s much cheaper to rent
a warehouse in Brooklyn. And less conspicuous.
First I had to get the blood off me. Cabbies, on
any world, rarely pick up bloody passengers.
We slipped into a restaurant I knew from other
Manhattans, a soulless diner with a sizable,
single-occupant men’s room. Fawaz walked in front of
me, hiding my blood-stained clothing. I grabbed an
“Out of Service” sign from an unlocked utility closet
and hung it from a bent nail on the outside of the
bathroom door. Then I went inside and locked myself
in. I tried to wash the blood off my face and hands
in the small sink. My shirt was stained, too, so I
told Fawaz to go and buy me another. We had plenty of
cash. It didn't cost the HSA anything: their high
tech printers easily duplicated the local paper
money. Policy was to supply each Operative with
enough currency for either a serious bribe or to buy a
vehicle, if it proved necessary.
Someone tapped on the locked bathroom door in
Morse code: M-E. My father – my real father, not my
stepfather – taught Morse to me, and we used that as
our private door knock.
Had I taught that code to Fawaz? I couldn’t
remember. So I unlocked the door and opened it.
And I saw the homeless guy from outside the
library, holding a gun on me. One of the flashy guns
that those gangbangers used – he must have gotten it
off a corpse.
He lifted his head so I could see under the long
brim of his cap.
It was me.
HSA Operatives often have doppelgangers on the
other worlds. Of course, the doppelgangers aren't
multiverse-hopping Operatives there: the Perfect World
is the only one with that capability. As far as we
And not all Operatives are convicted murderers.
Believe it or not, some idealists actually
volunteer to be Operatives. But most Ops are like
me, condemned criminals. And so are many of our
But whatever your doppelganger is, president or
pariah, the Agency doesn't want you to meet him or
her. Apparently, the temptation to help your
otherworld twin is hard to resist.
No, the universe doesn't implode if two of you
meet. And we don't go to anti-matter worlds; we've
never even found any. (As far as I know - my
security clearance is pretty low.)
So, before an Operative goes out, the Agency
checks the news media of the destination world. It
tries to make sure that you won't meet your
doppelganger. Preferably, your dop should be dead on
the world you're about to visit.
But the Agency doesn't have any magic sensors to
check a whole world. This ain't Star Trek. If
your doppelganger dropped off the grid, they can't be
sure if he's still alive. Like if your doppelganger
has been homeless for three years.
We do get a pre-mission briefing that
includes the status of your doppelganger. Usually,
it's “No dop” or “Dop deceased” or “Dop on different
continent.” If they're wanted for a crime, that's
there too, since the local law enforcers might mistake
you for your dop.
A lot of Ops don't pay attention to this part of
the brief. I do.
Before this mission, my brief said “Dop shot and
killed 2 of his schoolteachers. Presumed
They were wrong. My dop was in front of me,
aiming a gun at my chest.
He backed me into the bathroom and closed the
door. The place was so small that the gun was
touching my chest.
“What, what are you?” he croaked. It sounded
like he hadn't spoken to anyone in a long time. He
also smelled like he hadn't bathed in a long time.
“Easy with that. I'm not here to hurt you,” I
“I thought I was going crazy! How can you look
just like me?”
I remembered the brief. This version of me had
only managed to kill 2 teachers. Underachiever!
But even an underachiever is dangerous when he's
holding a gun to your chest.
Thankfully, just then Fawaz returned.
Fawaz's knock startled him so much that he turned
towards the door. As soon as he did, I slipped my
body out of the line of fire and grappled with him. I
got the gun away from him without it even going off.
Then I hit my dop hard enough in the solar plexus
to disable him for a minute or two. I sat him on the
toilet, then squeezed around him and opened the door.
“Thanks,” I told Fawaz.
He looked around me and saw a figure on the
toilet gasping for air.
“So make this guy a shadow and let's go. It's
almost lunchtime, and this place will be filling up.”
My mind was racing. “Give me a second,” I said.
I took the bag with the new shirt that Fawaz brought
and closed the door.
I turned back to my doppelganger.
“Look, my partner thinks you're in the way. He
wants you dead.”
My dop stopped gasping for air and looked at me.
I took the tee shirt out of the bag. It said “I
(heart) New York.”
“I could've shot you back at the library. I
didn't. If you come with us peacefully, I might be
able to keep you alive. But one word to the cops, to
anyone and I will shoot you myself. Understand?”
He nodded. I put on the tee shirt.
“Can you walk?”
His breathing had almost returned to normal. He
braced his hand on a wall of the bathroom and stood, a
I shoved my old shirt and some blood-covered
paper towels into the shirt bag. Best to dispose of
“Let's go,” I said.
The Agency usually gives its Operatives the same
technology that's currently in use on a target
planet. Except in special circumstances, if the
target world has swords, the Ops get swords. If that
world has zap guns, the Ops get zap guns.
The stated reason is that if an Op is captured,
killed, or just loses his assigned weapon, the local
authorities won't get a high-tech weapon to examine.
Apparently, once you know something is
possible, you're halfway to doing it yourself. The
Number One Rule of the Homeworld Security Agency is to
keep our monopoly on multiverse travel at all costs.
But there's another reason, one that Ops whisper
to each other.
Some Ops have taken their high-tech weapons and
made themselves rulers of an otherworld.
Yes, that sort of thing does happen. I know,
because the Agency once sent me with a team to kill an
Op who'd gone native.
It was over a year ago, before I'd been partnered
with Fawaz. It happened like this: the target Earth
was in the grip of a brutal world war, analogous to
the Homeworld's First World War. This world's Germans
were about to bombard a big palace outside Paris,
which would destroy it. The Agency decided this was
an opportunity to steal paintings and sculptures by
artists who were unique to this world. Everyone would
assume that the artwork had been destroyed by these
huge Krupp cannons that the Germans were using.
The artwork was bulky but fragile, so the Ops
team was given these self-assembling robots to help
them move the art. Those are pretty neat: they fold
up so they look like a heavy suitcase, but they can
unfold themselves into skeletal robots. Plus, the Ops
were issued zap guns that could stun a whole crowd of
museum-goers and guards.
Apparently, everything went as planned until the
exit. The artwork was retrieved. But the Ops team
came through unconscious, stunned by their own guns.
And one Operative stayed behind with all the high
It turned out that the rogue Operative considered
himself a patriot. He was from England on the
Homeworld, and this otherworld's Britain was enough
alike that he wanted to help them win this world war.
On this world, Germany and its allies were clearly
going to win.
The rogue Operative was pretty smart. He didn't
go to the British government and say, “Hey, I'm from
an alternate world and I brought all these neat toys
to help you win the war.” That usually gets you put
into an insane asylum and your toys confiscated.
Instead, the rogue Op quickly established himself
as a genius inventor down in Britain's South African
colony. There are plenty of resources down there, and
it's far enough from London that he could operate
independently. In a short time, he and his robots
were turning out tanks and aircraft that were twenty
years ahead of anything the Germans had. He was
shipping them to England, and the tide of the war was
As far as I can tell, the Homeworld Security
Agency didn't care that the rogue Op had twisted the
course of history on this otherworld. They just don't
allow their Agents to go rogue, let alone use high
technology for unapproved purposes.
So the Agency sent a big team to put things
right. I wasn't on the squad that killed the rogue
Op. My job was to destroy one of the high tech
aircraft factories, and make it look like Boer
saboteurs. I never found out if the rogue Op had
managed to save that England from the Germans or not.
The point is this: the Agency owns our ass. Try
to disappear on an otherworld, and they will send Ops
to hunt you down. Misusing high tech just makes them
want to kill you all the more.
Something minor, like helping your doppelganger,
might not get you executed – especially if you
completed your mission successfully. They might not
even find out. But then again, you couldn't be sure.
Never forget: the Agency owns our ass. Until we
Fawaz was arguing with me as I chivvied my
doppelganger down the street.
“Relax,” I told Fawaz. “People will think he's
“He looks like what he is, a homeless bum! He
“So he's my drunk, homeless brother. This is New
York – no one cares.”
“Why are you even bringing him along? What are
you going to do with him?”
“I haven't decided,” I said. Which was true,
although I was getting an idea.
Fawaz looked mad enough to shoot us both. But
what he did next surprised me.
“Look,” he said. “It's almost noon on a Friday.
There's a mosque on the next corner. I'm going to go
pray. Friday services take about an hour. So you
have one hour to solve this. Give me the film.”
I had my camera and the rolls of film in a
shoulder bag. I handed it over – it contained all the
pictures we'd taken of the Gershwin manuscripts this
“I'll meet you at that statue, there.” He
pointed at a memorial to some dead general in a small
park. “At exactly 1:15 pm. Don't make me have to come
hunt you down.”
And he stomped away, towards his mosque.
I had no doubt that he meant, “Don't make me have
to kill you.”
I looked at my doppelganger and smiled. “See, he
likes you. He gave us an extra fifteen minutes.”
But the guy did stink, enough so that he
attracted unwanted attention.
“Is there a YMCA near here?” I asked.
“Uh, yeah. About three blocks that way.”
“Good.” I hadn't been able to get all the blood
out of my hair in that bathroom sink. And my dop
truly needed a shower. “Let's grab some clean clothes
at this shop, then get ourselves cleaned up.”
The shop had everything we needed. In addition
to new clothes, I bought us some soap, towels, combs
and a toothbrush – my twin's breath stunk, too.
The fake I.D. they issued me didn't include a
YMCA membership, but it didn't cost much to join. I
had to include a small gratuity for them to admit my
As we showered, I checked out my dop. Neither of
us had any tattoos or identifying marks. He was truly
identical to me. For once, I was glad I hadn't gone
in for bodybuilding like some of the other Ops. We
both had the same wiry build. We even had the same
scraggly beards, though his was longer. Except for
the fact that he needed a trim, he was my twin in
While he was brushing his teeth (which appeared
to be in decent shape), I borrowed a pair of scissors
from the desk clerk.
“What are you doing?” he said, as I got behind
him and ran a comb through his hair.
“What did Mom always say about your ears?”
“She...she liked them. She said I should keep my
hair short enough so she could see them.”
My twin didn't resist after that. I trimmed his
hair and beard. I'm no barber, but I managed to
shorten his hair until it was a decent length, like
My dop seemed pathetically grateful for the
I'd bought long guayabera shirts for both
of us. Worn outside the belt, they offered easy
concealment for a gun.
We were running out of time, but managed to get
to the rendezvous by 1:15 pm.
Prayer hadn't improved Fawaz's mood. “You
couldn't have just left his corpse in an alley? What
are you going to do with him?”
“There were witnesses at the library. By now,
the cops must be looking for two men. They won't be
looking for three men, two of them twins.” It was a
flimsy excuse, but it was the best I had come up with.
Fawaz just grunted. “Let's get a cab. I want to
The old-fashioned cab had a fold-down jump seat
behind the driver. My dop and I took the back seat,
while Fawaz took the jump seat and glared at us.
Traffic was heavy. I was glad - a slow cab ride
was the first chance I'd had to relax and assess the
I had been convicted of a crime that I never got
around to committing.
I was sitting next to a guy who actually had
committed that crime (or a version of it), and had
apparently gotten away with it.
And here I was helping him. By rights, I should
be furious that I was convicted for something he had
done – even if it was on a different world.
I should kill this duplicate of me. Fawaz
certainly would, if it was his dop.
But I'd also had years of therapy. And, unlike
Fawaz, I didn't kill people unless I had to.
My doppelganger had barely uttered a word since
the YMCA. Now he spoke up.
“I still don't understand,” he said.
“Don't worry about it. Think of me as your
guardian angel.” Then I recalled that he was probably
an atheist, like me. “Or how about this? You read
Joseph Conrad in school? The Secret Sharer?”
He nodded. I'd read it, so I figured he had, too.
“Just think of me as your own secret sharer, rescuing
his fugitive twin.”
Fawaz glared at us. I'm sure he wanted to shoot
us both, right there in the cab. My doppelganger just
nodded, as if what I had said made sense.
Our cab driver hadn't wanted to drive us all the
way to Brooklyn, or into this neighborhood.
Fortunately, two additional offers of money changed
We got out of the cab at a small warehouse. The
Agency had rented the entire building. I unlocked the
door with the key I'd been issued and went inside.
I knew that Fawaz would be at his most dangerous
once we were off the street. We were alone here.
Cameras couldn't transmit between universes – they had
to record and be physically transported back to the
Homeworld. High tech cameras can be very small. But
a camera with a recording device that was attached to
a drone that would fly into a transport when it
manifests? That has to be big enough to notice. I
didn't see anything like that in the warehouse.
So Fawaz could safely kill us and tell the Agency
that I had been killed in the street battle. They
would have no proof that it had happened any other
I just had to take the risk that he wouldn't kill
me until he found out what my plans were for my
The warehouse was empty except for a darkroom and
some contemporary camera gear. I'd made prints last
night of yesterday's photos. We weren't supposed to
return until we were sure that we had good shots of
all Gershwin's work. Well, after the gun battle, we
couldn't go back to that library.
Aside from the darkroom, the only other thing in
the warehouse was a chalked circle on the floor that
marked where the retrieval mechanism would manifest.
“Now,” Fawaz said. “We're here. Kill the
shadow, summon the transport, and let's go home.”
I angled my body to present the smallest possible
target to Fawaz. “No,” I said.
Fawaz pulled his gun out. He was always faster
than I was.
“I want to help my...twin. We're going to give
him all our local currency. We don't need it any
more. But it can give him a chance at a new start.”
“You're insane. He's a witness, so he dies.”
Fawaz aimed his gun at me. “And I want a new
Fawaz looked, unbelieving, at a hole in his side.
Back in the YMCA, I'd warned my doppelganger that
Fawaz would try to kill us. And I gave him back his
stolen gun, hidden under his guayabera .
Too bad my doppelganger didn't get a kill shot.
Fawaz turned and shot him.
But that gave me enough time to pull out my own
gun and shoot Fawaz dead.
I went over to my dop. Fawaz had been rushed.
The round Fawaz shot hadn't quite been a kill shot.
Instead, it had taken my twin's left forearm clean
I tied a tourniquet around the stump while my
twin moaned in pain.
Then I went to work.
I wanted to double-check that the Agency hadn't
planted any recording devices in the warehouse.
While I searched, I barked out questions to my
How did you get away after you shot those
Where have you been hiding for the past three
C'mon, talk to me! I want to know you're still
But I learned nothing. All my twin did was moan
I finished my search. If there were any
recording devices, I couldn't find them. The only
high tech in this warehouse seemed to be the tiny
buttons that summoned the retrieval transport. Fawaz
and I both had one, disguised as key fobs.
Then I took the gun and the money belt off Fawaz.
I left the mission objective – the photos of the
Gershwin manuscripts – in the camera bag hanging from
his shoulder. The negatives and prints from yesterday
I put into a waterproof portfolio, and tucked it into
his belt. And I dragged Fawaz's corpse into the chalk
Finally, I dragged my moaning doppelganger into
He looked up at me in pain.
For some reason I don't understand, I bent and
kissed him on the forehead.
Then I undid his tourniquet and let him bleed
When he was almost dead, I triggered the
retrieval mechanism, and tossed it to him. Let the
Agency think that his dying action was to summon
retrieval for himself and Fawaz.
And let them think my doppelganger was me.
Maybe they'd notice that the Operative who came
back had a bad haircut. Maybe not. I'd done the best
I also had to hope that my doppelganger had the
same fingerprints as me. They usually do, but I'd had
no way to check that.
And now I'd gone rogue. I was no longer one of
the Agency's Operatives.
On the plus side, I had enough cash to last me
for a long while.
On the negative side, I was a wanted man on this
But if my twin could stay free for three years, I
figured I had a good chance of doing the same. I had
a lot more training than he had.
I had no high tech with me, but I knew that
computers would be a good investment on this backwards
world. I hoped to live a quiet life as a wealthy
And with luck, I'd never have to kill anyone
Is that too much to hope for?
- END -