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Trail

Fri 30 Nov 2001 by mskala Tags used: ,

I was in the computer lab, just finishing off the last of the coding for my assignment. There'd still be doc to do, and the way my luck was running they'd change the requirements again at the last minute anyway - Oh, didn't we mention that it had to be portable to the ZX-81? Gee, we thought that was obvious! - but I could deal with all that stuff in the morning. I heard a noise, and I looked up to see a man walking through the door. That was a little unusual. It was almost midnight and I was the only person in the place and he didn't look like a student anyway, nor a prof that I recognized. He was in his fifties, maybe. Medium height, thin, the most noticeable thing was his odd hairstyle - bald on top but long light brown hair in the back, drawn into a pony tail. He was wearing a black suit that looked heavily worn and a little too small for him, and several silvery metal rings high on the cartilege of each ear.

Standing just inside the doorway he called out to me, "Hey, we need to talk" and then he was walking, fast, to where I sat. He looked down at me with an impossible-to-read expression. "When you were eight years old," he began, "you watched an episode of a science fiction show, on television, about a man who had to travel in time and meet a past version of himself, for complicated reasons. He made the time jump but when he met himself he couldn't convince the past him that he really was the future version of himself, and so a whole lot of bad things happened. Do you remember that?" I didn't say anything, just waited to hear what else he would say, although I had a pretty good idea already.

"A few days later you were walking on the trail behind your house and you thought about the show and you wondered how you'd have dealt with that situation. You thought it wasn't a realistic show because you, yourself, had plenty of memories nobody else had, but even so, it would be sensible, just because hey, you never know if you might need it some time, to choose a password or a countersign, some signal that you'd always remember and never tell anyone so that you'd be able to recognize yourself. You hoped it would resonate strongly enough to last across years and parallel universes and anything else that the cosmos might have in store. And you picked up a stick and drew a little picture in the mud there next to the log you were sitting on, and then you got up and trampled the picture away so that there was no trace of it, and no other human being ever saw it. Shall I tell you what picture you drew?" I said, "All right," and he told me. I said, "Okay, you have my attention."

"There was a war," he said, "or I guess from your point of view there will be, geez, I don't even know what verb tense to use, but the point is you, no, I, got involved in it. On the wrong side. Did some really bad things. I, uh, we ended up killing a lot of people. Billions. The short explanation is that we got drafted and brainwashed, although it's more complicated than that. I can't tell you many details for the usual paradox reasons. Now I'm trying to avert disaster and save the world, and unfortunately, after dozens of time jumps looking for a solution, the only one I can find is to come back to tonight and kill myself."

He had something in his hand that I assumed was a weapon but what I noticed more was when I looked up into his, into my, face, and saw that he also had a tear on his cheek which made me wonder how many of my other victims he had cried for but something else he had decided on that walk when I was eight was that we'd be ready at any time to deal with space-time rifts or dimensional incursions or anything else the cosmos might have in store. I've never been athletic or good at fighting, I quit karate after just two weeks because I hated it, but on the plus side I figured that my older self probably wouldn't be any less of a wimp and I expected a certain amount of hesitation when it came to actually pressing the button or pulling the trigger, no matter how many other people I/he had/would kill(ed) between his time and mine. So in the next half second I was kicking my chair back and sliding off it onto the floor, my arm going up to whack his with the weapon away from me. I landed hard on my butt but retained enough mobility to do what I'd planned, which was to throw my weight at his legs and try to knock him to the floor. It didn't work as well as I'd hoped, hitting someone on the front of the shins doesn't really cause them to topple over, but under the circumstances I think it was an okay split-second decision and I did manage to get him off balance and he fell awkwardly onto the desk, his weapon clattering to the plastic antistatic chair mat on the floor. I kicked at the weapon but missed and then I was clear of the mess (my keyboard had fallen off the desk, landing keys-down, and the terminal was making a pathetic beeping noise because of the buffer overflowing), and I didn't look back to see what he was doing but I ran out the door and turned down the corridor.

I was thinking to myself that I would have forgotten the layout of this building, so the thing to do was try to find a route to an exit that he wouldn't remember or think of from scratch. If I could get to some reasonably fast transportation, perhaps a taxi, and make some kind of random selection to choose a place to hide (maybe by flipping coins?) I could buy enough time to figure out what to do. He would probably head for my home and break into my computer. Then I (the present-day I) could get on the Net wherever I was, connect back to my computer at home, and we could talk this out in email like civilized people. I'd be willing to die for the world if that were really what it took, but his little speech was only partly convincing. I wasn't ready to let me kill myself on just that level of proof and explanation.

I got onto the stairs and started climbing up, because I figured he'd expect me to go down in order to get out of the building. Even if he remembered the elevated walkway to the biology complex, he wouldn't remember exactly which corner it connected to because I didn't even remember that myself from one day to the next. I was counting on luck and my small head start.

As I flung open the doors on the third floor I thought that someone had put a giant mirror in front of the doorway but then my brain made the connection and I realised that I was face to face with another copy of myself, this one at my current age, and I looked down and saw her breasts and realised that this one was a girl and way at the back of my head I wondered what the female version of my name would be and in the little Parliament at the back of my head I could hear the noise that the official reports always transcribe as:

Some hon. members: Oh, oh.

and someone back there was rising on a point of privilege to say, "Well, Mr. Speaker, we are obligated to fuck her, that's what gender-exchanged parallel-universe duplicates are *for*!" but my eyes were also registering the thing in her hands. It was a rectangular block of Styrofoam, with rounded corners, and she was carrying it carefully in front of her in both hands, and it had a whole lot of holes drilled in it and each hole contained a tube like a test tube with a funny loose-fitting cap, and I don't know a whole lot about biotechnology but I guessed that my counterpart probably did, and after my experience with the last one I guessed that this was probably not a good time to exchange credentials, so as she was opening her mouth to say "Oh! Hi, we have to -" I was pushing past her and up the sloping walkway which fortunately was right behind where she was standing, and I ran up the slope and through the doors at the other end and slammed them shut. I ran aimlessly down several corridors in a sort of zig-zag, hoping that maybe my two duplicates would have met and would be delaying each other one way or another.

I turned a corner and came up short because there I was again, this time dressed as a cowboy with a big grey hat that shaded his face and he had a clipboard which I held out to me saying, "I just need my signature on this..." I ran back up the hall, took the other branch at the last intersection, pulled a random number (three!) discarded it in case of bias, looked at a door and saw the number "417". I took that mod 9, got three, counted back three doors and walked into the classroom I found there. I hadn't heard anything of the cowboy coming after me.

I flipped on the light and there was a much younger me sitting at a desk facing the door. I said, "Wow! I can't believe it really worked. Listen, I don't have much time, but can you tell me -" and I ignored him as I walked to the window, pushed it up, and looked out. I was vaguely conscious that my younger self was standing somewhere behind me and asking for valuable future information I could use to get rich quick in his own time, problems in his life I could avoid, that kind of thing.

It was rainy and windy, and the middle of the night, outside. But there were some soft-looking shrubs underneath the window, and it faced onto a back road. I had correctly guessed that I was on the opposite side of the building from the main entrance. I pulled my head back in, got my leg over the window ledge, and without further comment jumped out.

My other leg didn't clear the ledge as I had planned it to and I fell basically face-first three stories into the shrub. I managed to shield my face with my hands and fortunately, the worst injury I suffered was a sort of puncture wound where a twig had ripped at the padded bit at the base of my left thumb. It was bleeding a lot, and it hurt; I grabbed that hand in my other hand and tried to apply pressure, stop the bleeding. Headlights came around the corner of the building and a little decrepit car zoomed up and stopped sharply in front of me; but I didn't think I could run very fast right then so I just sort of cringed against the shrubbery and waited.

The door popped open and the interior light came on and I saw that it was someone who didn't look much like me this time, it was a man maybe in his forties, rather fat, with long black hair and beard, and a vaguely Asian look to his face. Maybe mixed parentage? He called, "Quick, get in!" and although I wasn't sure it was a good idea, I did sort of stumble forward and fall into the car. The driver reached over and pulled the door shut and took off, while I was trying to twist into a sitting position without letting go of my injured hand. I figured it wasn't a good time to attempt the seat belt.

We got off of the campus and onto the main road and from the main road onto the highway, and as we were heading North, picking up speed through medium traffic, I tried to ask him questions, I said, "You're not me, are you?" and he said "No." and I asked "Which side are you on?" and he said, "Yours, now shut up and conserve your strength, you'll need it." I tried a few more times but he always shushed me, saying "We've got too many paradoxes already."

A minivan started edging up on our right and then as I was looking out the window at it and we passed a car dealership with its bright mercury lights, I caught a brief glance into the van's windows and saw at least three more copies of my own face at various ages, but the minivan backed off then and I quickly lost track of it. The driver I was riding with muttered something under his breath but didn't explain it.

I had long since lost track of time and of the road signs we passed, even though at the start of the ride I had been attempting to remember all the exit numbers and such. After what might have been twenty or forty minutes, we turned off the highway onto a deserted road that went off in a straight line between agricultural fields. Maybe ten minutes along it, we started passing through little stands of trees, and then we were in a forest. The road became winding, I guessed we might be in some kind of park although there had been no signs. Then we turned onto a dirt road. I looked over at the driver and said something like, "Hey, what?" and he said, "Shush, we're almost there."

Then we stopped, pulled over at the side of the road. He threw his door open and got out and I guessed I was supposed to do the same so I got out of the car. My left hand had stopped bleeding, and the blood that had gotten on my other hand, my clothing, and the car seat was starting to dry. I had only a little trouble opening the car door. I stood, next to the man who had been driving, where he was standing looking at the forest.

There was only a little more than half a moon and for several moments I didn't see anything. Then I saw the gap in the bushes. The driver turned to me and said, "Okay, this is where I leave you. Farewell." "You want me to walk on that trail?" "It's not really a question of what I want, but basically, yes." "Where does it go?" "I don't know." "Will I ever come back?" "Probably not." I stared at him for a few moments as I became aware of a sound in the distance. A helicoptor. "Hurry," he urged.

I started walking.

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