Put simply, Ted Chiang is one of our generation’s greatest speculative fiction writers. This may seem like hyperbole, but we believe it to be true: Reading Ted Chiang will make you a better person, on a level that no self-help book ever can. His stories force us to engage with our possible futures — and our possible selves — in ways that are all but unparalleled in the field. This story, which originally appeared in Exhalation, a collection the New York Times named one of the ten best books of 2019, and is now out in paperback, is a perfect example. We’re thrilled to make it available online for the first time. Enjoy.
Nat could have used a cigarette, but company policy forbade smoking in the store, so all she could do was get more and more nervous. Now it was a quarter to four, and Morrow still hadn’t returned. She wasn’t sure how she’d explain things if he didn’t get back in time. She sent him a text asking where he was.
A chime sounded as the front door opened, but it wasn’t Morrow. A guy with an orange sweater came in. “Hello? I have a prism to sell?”
Nat put her phone away. “Let’s take a look at it.”
He came over and put the prism on the counter; it was a new model, the size of a briefcase. Nat slid it around so she could see the numeric readout at one end: the activation date was only six months ago, and more than 90 percent of its pad was still available. She unfolded the keyboard to reveal the display screen, tapped the ONLINE button, and then waited. A minute went by.
“He might have run into some traffic,” said Orange Sweater uncertainly. “It’s fine,” said Nat. After another minute the ready light came on. Nat typed
A few seconds later a reply came back:
She switched to video mode, and the text on the screen was replaced by a grainy image of her own face looking back at her.
Her parallel self nodded at her and said, “Mic test.”
“Loud and clear,” she replied.
The screen reverted to text. Nat hadn’t recognized the necklace her paraself had been wearing; if they wound up buying the prism, she’d have to ask her where she got it. She looked back at the…