At first he thought he was just getting old; His mind slipping a little. Maybe just the stress of long hours and the 'ports back and forth between Lawton and Shima. As much as people said the 'port was safe, he still wondered if it didn't cause cancer or maybe memory loss in his case. He was always skeptical, but he went where the job was and 'porting was the only way to get there anymore.
Sometimes he'd just get lost coming home. He'd take his normal turn and end up on a side street that he didn't recognize. A few more twists and turns and eventually he'd find a familiar landmark and make his way home again. He expected it from Shima. The Chinese were constantly changing things up now, almost transforming the city night by night as they experimented with dynamic materials, new lighting, no lighting, colored streets, no streets, you name it.
Lawton wasn't China though. Aside from a boom in the 30's it had remained pretty much the same for the last 20 years. It was the one thing he could count on at the end of the day - no metamaterials, no crazy lights, no shouting street vendors, no holograds, just the sweet smell of the air at home and his cozy little apartment with Elise.
He blamed her a little. She was like the Chinese. She couldn't sit still. If it wasn't some new dress or a new haircut, a new hobby (whatever the latest trend was), new paintings, or rearranging the furniture to some feng shui or glit-glos trend. She even had his favorite chair reupholstered and with a disarming smile claimed it had always been that way, poking at him about being senile. Old and senile.
He had felt it too. There was a tiredness in is bones. He had ended up having to go to a different 'port after he got off of work. Some wacko extremist group had bombed the closest one, claiming they were "stopping the invasion." They'd been on a streak lately, mostly hitting smaller cities that just had one or two 'ports. Shima had 20, so it wasn't much of a problem to hike a couple of blocks. But they must have disrupted the system or something, because when he stepped off the 'port he first found himself in New York. When he tried again he landed in Troy, and then Oklahoma City and finally Lawton.
'Ports were supposed to be site-to-site, quantum tunnels or wormholes or some such that connected every place to every other place simultaneously. But he'd heard lots of stories and experienced it at least once himself, people 'ported off to a dozen different places. They said sometimes it scrambled their brains and they came through crazy. He chalked it up to the terrorists, bomb terre or whatever their group was.
Reality was far different than he imagined, as he would learn. The apartment was easy to find this time, no wrong turns, just the regular four block serpentine from the 'port. He got home to his little corner of the world eager to just dump his bones in his favorite reupholstered chair. Which he did immediately after tossing an "I love you, Elise" down the hallway.
He lay there in his comfortable chair, legs stretched out, fingers tracing the cord of the armrests, head back as if looking at the ceiling, if his eyes had been open. But like his bones his eyelids were weary and so they remained closed. So he listened for her, and soon she came, from her built-in office, the soft steps of a dancer, and it put him at ease having her close.
She knelt behind his chair, running her hands over his shoulders and down across his chest. A gentle whisper started at his ear "I love you too" and then she twisted his nipple hard, "but you know I hate being called that name" and laughed a little as she twisted. It was so unexpected and so unlike her that he shot up out of the chair and spun around. But instead of seeing his wife, he saw someone else entirely. Not his dark skinned dancer, but a pale version with tight brown curls and a patch of freckles across her full cheeks.
He just stood their in the middle of the living room, with the chair between them. She'd crouched a little, as if she were ready to wrestle. A mischievous grin upon her face. He just stared, unsure what to think. She evidently took note of his confusion and came out of the crouch, her grin shifting to a look of concern.
"What's wrong babe? Bad day at work?" She queried as she tried to close the distance between them.
He stepped back as she approached, bewildered at this woman pretending to be his Elise, but obviously not being her.
She reached out to him, "Jack? What is it?"
"Whe... Um... Who are you?" He squeaked out sheepishly.
"It's me babe. Your wife. You just called to me, don't you remember?"
A grin started at the corner of her mouth. "Now..." she warned him. "If you're gonna play I'm gonna play too." And she started toward him again, and in that moment he saw her. He saw Elise, but in reverse. Not black but mixed. The face was the same in structure, the mannerisms too, everything the same except the tone of her skin and her dislike of the name Elise. Her dad had always called her that and she had loved it. Her mom had called her Elly and she thought it sounded backwoods.
Then as she came at him he couldn't do anything but back down into the couch as she attacked him with kisses. The same kisses his Elise would always give him after a hard day; Quick little pecks all over his face and head as she cupped his head in her hands. It was there in that bombardment that all the little pieces clinking together and synchronized, like one of those pendulum ball-bearing toys. Click-Clack. Click-Clack. Click-Clack. Swing.
The memories stacked and formed a picture of infinite universes, each with a Jack and an Elise in it. Each world just a little different. A different store front, a different living room, a different fabric on the chair, an Elise that got more of her mom's coloring and less of her dad's, an infinite number of permutations. Each time Jack stepped into that 'port a door slid open between the worlds and like people in a magic act the two Jacks, in two different worlds, just swapped places in the box.
And here he was, out of the box, being kissed by another Jack's wife. Wondering if he could ever get back to his Elise and simultaneously afraid to leave this place and landing in a world without an Elise at all.