It’s not murder because I’m killing myself, and it’s not suicide because I’m still alive.
Nobody thinks twice when weird lights and noises come from one of the stalls of the bathroom-sty at Shannon’s Pub, which is why I like the place. It’s reliable.
I wish I could rejigger my spacial reality trans-shunter so that it didn’t whine and flash like lightning every time I used it, but that’s a problem for another day. The device itself fits into an oval metal case sized for my palm, and I keep it affixed to my belt. My shirt covers it, and even if someone did spot it, they’d take it for a stylised belt buckle.
I leave the bathroom and explore this latest reality. Shannon stands behind his bar, bald and grouchy as always. He’s a reliable touchstone. But then, I feel a pin-prick at the back of my neck. Most realities are different flavours of the same thing, often indistinguishable to me. But I see this is one of the weird ones.
For starters, the Union Jack is not hanging from the far wall. Instead there’s some ludicrous flag. Sure, it’s red, white and blue too, but it’s all stripes except for the top left corner, which is filled with stars for God knows why.
I worry – what if they don’t speak English here? But there’s a telly mounted near the bar broadcasting some bizarre variant of rugby, and I hear the announcer speak. “Touchdown! Incredible! What a day for football!”
Okay, so they speak English here, albeit poorly. I think he said “football” but they’re clearly running around with a rugby ball. I make a note of avoiding sports talk.
I sit at my usual table. Shannon doesn’t react, so I assume this is the usual table for the me in this reality too. Reality 77492. That’s how I keep track of all the… my goodness, are the realities truly infinite? I’m still so bloody new to all this. Well, I’ve taken to calling them reality-threads, and I’ve assigned each one an existential-coordinate. The last five digits are what I call the speculative shift, the difference from the cohesion cluster.
Oh, sometimes I wish I could publish my findings. I would be the most highly celebrated human in history – in all the histories! The name Neville Gaines would eclipse all others for all eternity. But I’ll be damned if I share my trans-shunter with anyone, particularly myself. I must have a monopoly. Anything else could lead to untold chaos.
Now, for the hard part. How can I find myself? Every reality presents its own challenges, and–
–again, my skin crawls.
Someone left a newspaper on my table, and it’s open on the advertisements page. And right there, in front of me, is an ad circled with red pen. “Feeling lost? Looking to find yourself? Come by Dr. Neville Gaines’ self-help support group. 774, 92nd Street. Walk-ins welcome.”
Did… did I leave this here, for myself to find me?
Even the address matches the speculative shift.
I suspect I am expecting myself.
The address is a run-down community centre (but they spell it “center” for some reason) in an overgrown field of weeds. There’s a sign taped to the door that says, “Self-help group!”, and it has an anaemic arrow on it.
I go inside, and I see more crude posters pointing the way. Just to be on the safe side, I produce my trans-shunter and key in a new existential-coordinate, one I know is safe. I want to be able to escape quickly, should push come to shove, and from experience – it usually does.
Early last year I stumbled on a coordinate I call Eden. As far as I can tell, it’s a reality where humans just never… happened. No other major beasts either, and the few weird critters I did encounter were utterly docile. It’s a pastoral reality of pleasant weather and rolling prairies. Untainted. For now, it’s also the perfect place for me to store a change of clothes and other supplies, but I already have big plans drafted for it, as a kind of resort-reality.
Next, I check my knife. Mine is dirty work, but I like getting up close and personal when I do it, because it’s the only way to be sure the job’s done. I acquired the knife from a me at speculative shift 108… something 7. Everything there was the same as in my reality, except the me in it developed an interest in material sciences and knives, instead of galvanics and parallelocation. So he never made a trans-shunter, but he did make this thing. It’s some kind of ceramic that’s harder than steel, and when I turn it on – yes, it turns on! – the blade vibrates fast enough to cut through anything.
I return the knife to the sheath I wear under my shirt, and follow the signs. A few turns take me down a carpeted hallway, where I find a door labelled “Gaines’ Self Help!” on a final poster, which also contains a crudely coloured sun with a cloying grin. I hear muffled voices on the other side. Witnesses. I’ll need to escape after all.
I swallow hard. I place my right hand behind my back where I can reach my knife easily, and with my left I reach for the door knob.
But the door opens first.
“Welcome!” says another me. No matter how many times I’ve done this, it’s always a rude shock seeing a living mirror. Wearing plaid no less. “We’ve been expecting you!”
Normally I just lunge, slash, and it’s over. But this time, I don’t move. Something behind him catches my attention.
It’s another me. No, three of them.
My hands fall limp by my sides. What is this? This has never happened before.
“You’re wondering what this is,” says the me at the door. “You’ve never seen this before.”
“Please come in,” he says. “We’ll explain everything.”
I step inside what appears to be a conference room, with grey carpet and a big white table. There’s maybe fifteen of me here. Some are almost identical copies of me, but others less so. There’s a fat one, and one who’s got a beard and long hair. Long hair! And then another embarrassment that’s gone completely bald! What bloody reality do I go bald in!?
“To curb confusion,” says the one that let me in, “we’ve taken to using a naming system based on speculative shift.” He taps a nametag on his shirt which says Local. “I’m Local, because this is my reality.” He goes around the room introducing me to the others, and I follow as though in a dream, desperate to figure this out.
There’s 11122, 38902, 64408 who insists it’s not an “existential-coordinate” but a “chrono-spacial-juncture-hash” (but majority overrules him), 90002 who has an ungodly French accent, and others. The numbers blur in my mind. I’m just on the lookout for any coordinate I recognize.
I’m pretty sure I’ve not been to any of them. And none of the mes show any signs of recognition. I mean, other than the recognition of seeing yourself from another reality.
“So, where are you from?” Local asks. He’s got a roll of masking tape and a marker.
“Um…” I say. “05404”. Drat. I didn’t mean to give him the real number, but I’m feeling overwhelmed.
He writes the numbers down, tears off the tape and pats it on my chest. And then everyone greets me warmly, with a pat, a shake of the hand, and a grin.
What is this? Why are they – I – being so nice to me? I… I hate me, don’t I? Are their realities so different from mine? Did they not suffer a life of inferiority and failure too? Probably not the fat one, but doubly the bald one.
“So,” says Local. “You’re the last one we’ve been waiting for today. I know you’ve got all sorts of questions, but there’s a serious matter we need to discuss so there’s not much time for chatting. We can give you a quick orientation. For starters, where are you from? La Confédération de Louisiane? The Western British Empire? A vassal principality of Tenochtitlan?”
“Um…” Louisiane? Tenochtitlan? “Western British America.” Real reality. “Which, I gather, is not where we are now.”
“Correct,” says Local. “These are the United States of America. Long story short, we successfully gained our independence here.”
I snort, reflexively. The Crown has been crushing rebellions under its iron heel since forever. Nevertheless, I suppose it’s possible that one in a million slip through. Hmm… maybe there’s something alluring about that.
“Nevilles!” Local says, clapping. “Shall we begin? Please, take a seat.”
We sit at the white table. My spot’s between 64408 and one who has glasses. It reminds me I should pay the optometrist a visit.
The table is a circle but we all look to Local when he sits and opens up a folder. I’m still trying to make sense of all this, and I’m completely lost on what my next action is. I see the others and I wonder what they’re thinking. My faces are… unreadable. I give Local my attention when he speaks.
“Good Nevilles,” he says. “Some of you are already aware of what’s happening. I’ll fill everyone in now. You all, in some fashion, have forged trans-shunters in your lifetimes, allowing you to hop between threads–” he raises a hand to forestall interruptions, “–yes, or waves, forms, impressions of reality… let’s not get bogged down in semantics, please.”
“No doubt, you have noticed not all of us achieve this. Myself, for example.” He puts a… metal brick on the table with a thud. It’s covered in spiralling wire and blinking lights. The others all grin, as I do. “Yes. Not as svelte as yours. It’s not a trans-shunter, but I did accidentally create a trans-beacon. What it lets me do is… well, I kind of send a message into other realities. A message to myself, as it were. And that message is, ‘use coordinates 77492.’”
We murmur. I feel a chill run down my spine. I picked those coordinates at random. Didn’t I? But what are the odds we all would pick them randomly?
“As you’ve surmised by now, yes, in a way I’ve called you here.”
My pulse quickens. Could this be true? Some sort of trans-reality mind control? What else is he capable of?
“And you’re wondering why,” he continues. “Well, while I love the idea of getting together with myself for a barbecue, this is unfortunately not a social call. Some of you already know what I’m talking about, because you’ve seen it. For the rest, please prepare yourselves for some dire news.”
Everyone at the table tenses, myself included. It’s getting hard to breathe.
“In some realities, we have been murdered.”
“And the murders started around the time we invented the trans-shunter.”
Shit shit shit!
I look around the table, and all of me are doing the same. Are any of them staring at me? Frenchie? No, he turned away. I can’t tell if they’re glaring at me with accusation or commiseration. I need to get them off my trail.
“Uh…” I say. “That’s… bad.”
The others all nod and repeat it. Okay, safe for now.
“Yes, Nevilles,” says Local. “It’s horrendous is what it is. So that’s why I’ve called you. One, to warn you. Someone out there – perhaps someone wearing our very own face – means to murder you. Two, so that we can put our heads together to figure out a way to stop it. After all, just one of us can break the barriers between realities. Imagine what all of us can accomplish together!”
The table cheers. By George, even I cheer. Cooperating – what a bloody brilliant idea! Could it possibly work? When I look around the table, I see excitement in their faces. Oh, my God, am I truly the one from the wrong reality-thread? Have I let my twisted experiences cloud my judgement so horribly, that I missed out on something beautiful?
Local walks around the table with a tray of coffee as we chatter. It’s black, Sumatran, and too strong for most people’s taste, which is just the way I like it. Just the way we all do. He says there’s more where that came from. “We might be here all night!” Everyone laughs.
Oh, it tastes divine.
So if I’m the odd one out – my God, what a treasure of scientific research this trans-shunter is. I’ve pissed away my life seeking fame and fortune, but I have before me an unprecedented opportunity to study nature versus nurture. And while I can’t stand working with others, working with myself would be completely different. It’d be like having tremendously capable clones of myself, covering all the things I’m not able to. And there’d be no issues with credit or glory, since we’re all the same man.
Local takes his seat again, raises his coffee in the air. “Nevilles! To a better, brighter future! One heralded by us!”
We all cheer. I feel both dread and excitement roiling in my guts. The possibilities for the future are endless! But… I have transgressed so badly in the past. Can I hide my crimes from them? Well, I know myself better than anyone. All I have to do is distract myself with an even bigger, more ambitious project. Yes… the murders will stop, and they’ll forget all about them.
And maybe they’d even forgive me. After all, they are me. Surely they must understand my motives. They might even agree with them. It can’t be just nurture after all. There is some nature involved.
We set our coffees down, as does Local. He smiles.
Wait. Did he actually drink any?
One of me grunts and falls from his chair.
Another two go down. The roiling in my stomach burns, pain creeps through my body, and everything cramps. I can’t move. I can’t breathe!
Local plucks a trans-shunter from one of the dead and leans back in his chair. He beams at each of us as we fall, and his words are the last thing I ever hear.
“It’s not murder because I’m killing myself, and it’s not suicide because I’m still alive.”