A harsh wind buffeted him as he emerged from the hut, a squat, stone structure without windows. All around him the wasteland stretched, black rock in sharp ridges pocked with sulfurous pits that steamed and smoked, stretching into the distance, mile after desolate mile. The sun, barely risen, glowered red through the haze.
He set down a clanking leather satchel of tools and set off across the rocks with a pair of old wooden buckets. These he carried across the wasteland for most of an hour to a pit where he filled both with steaming tar. Then he carried them laboriously back to the hut.
At the hut he used worn tools to scrape out sections of the walls that were crumbling and refill them with carefully-fitted stones chipped from a nearby outcropping. Wth brushes long congealed stiff, he plastered tar over new stonework and cracks. He worked methodically, scrutinizing every square inch.
The work went slowly. Twice more he trekked out to the tar pit and hauled back his buckets, heavy and steaming. By the time he was finished, the sun was beginning to set. He was exhausted, dusty, aching with cold, and smeared all over with tar, but the hut was as perfect as he could make it and wouldn’t need his attention again for a month or so. Gratefully, he gathered his tools, lifted his buckets, pried open the door, and ducked back inside.
The interior was larger. A startled shriek of “Daddy!” frightened gem-colored birds out of the bushes. His wife and three children ran to him along the riverbank, made colorful by the purple and orange and golden sunset over the distant hills. The children had been picking fruit, and from over a fire nearby he smelled some kind of forest bird roasting.
His daughter and young sons threw their arms around him when they reached him, ignoring his commands not to get themselves dirty. His wife leaned over them and kissed him on the lips. “How is it?” she said.
“Still pretty solid,” he murmured to her. “It will last for some time yet, I think.” Then he reached down to hug the children, but they were already chasing each other through the trees in some new game.
The principle of the thing was simple: establish linked universe chambers with 43 randomly-selected possible futures and vow to show up at the place and time where the device would be activated so as to make contact with the present from all 43 different possible realities. In this way, Garrett could communicate with 43 of his future selves, figure out which future was most advantageous for him, and use a device he had just invented to force the entire universe to follow that particular path.
If only, he thought regretfully, he weren’t such a self-involved, megalomaniacal liar. He wouldn’t be able to trust anything any of his selves said to him, since each of him would be trying to influence the present him to choose their reality in order to prevent their existence being erased. But he could work around that.
Late on a rainy spring evening he flipped the switch, and only 7 Garretts appeared in the phone-booth sized chambers arranged around him (out of which none could step without becoming unmoored from his own stream of probability). Having less than 78 minutes for questioning, Garrett tried to ignore the implications of so many of him not making it to the rendezvous and instead concentrated on questions.
“Where’s everyone else?” said Garrets number 29 and 14.
“Immaterial,” said 5. “If they had advantages to offer, they’d be showing them. Look at these pictures of my girlfriend.”
“The you from your best future will be concise,” said 40.
“Number 40 looks pale. Some kind of disease?” said 12.
2 said nothing, but smiled and began piling up stacks of money from a case at his feet.
Garrett stepped up and examined each self intently in turn, alert for signs of illness or stress on the one hand or health and satisfaction on the other. When he got to 35, he stopped.
“You haven’t said anything,” he told 35, who was hiding a hand behind his back.
35 nodded. “I’ll say this: if you were a better man, you’d abandon this idea of changing the path of the entire universe to suit yourself.”
Garrett shrugged. “If I were a better man, you’d be a better man,” he said.
“Whereas the reverse is not necessarily true,” said 35, and he took out the revolver he had been hiding and shot Garrett three times in the head. Garrett collapsed as his seven analogs flickered out of existence.
Garrett was found dead in the midst of an incomprehensible apparatus the next day. For lack of a better explanation, the death was ultimately written off as a suicide.
It is said that when Captain Widal recovered from his mysterious disease, he would not talk to anyone about what had happened. But he was a kinder man. … He never married, though he was seen once or twice with a beautiful young woman whose name was never known. … Neither did he ever wear short sleeves in public.§
- Widal: A History
I put spices on your tongue for two years, night after night. I folded my fingers into yours and I pulled the sheets over us.
And you did not blink.
You did not notice — even when I pulled up your shirt, just a little, to the elbows.
Captain, Captain, I am writing on your body.
You did not notice, night after night.
We met in a café in the narrowest street, but you do not remember me. You sat at the table and ordered hot water with a lemon squeezed into it, and I poured it for you with hands that you took into yours, saying, “My mother’s looked better when we exhumed her. Girl, do you eat?”
“Sometimes,” I replied.
“Take this,” you said, “and eat more often.”
I brought flowers to your window, day after day. I sat with my harp in my lap and I played for you.
When you collapsed in front of a small group of townsfolk, none carried you away. None remained in the street to check your pulse, but me.
You fell asleep, my mother later said.
An enchantment, my father said, and good riddance.
I brushed your hair. I polished your buttons. I gave my parents all the money I made with your coin and I bought what I needed to care for you.
I took your coin to the races and I brought back handfuls of gold.
And you did not blink for two years.
The town of Antrin Corners sat in hot summer darkness, from Hank’s Auto to Fred’s Coffin Refurbishment. Down at the Clothes Check (“No More Burst Buttons! No More Teeth Marks!”), Sandrine had just finished mending young Jim Seely’s shirt, placing it in the cubby with the rest of his things, when Officer Smarandescu stopped in.
“Coffee?” she offered, hoping her voice didn’t shake.
“No, thank you; I’m almost ready for the coffin,” he replied, carefully looking into her eyes.
“All quiet tonight?”
“Well, yes, though it’s damned close to full out there.”
She pointed at her mending pile.
“Don’t I know it,” she smiled.
“It’s mostly the newcomers who can’t keep it together in the afterlife. You’re human, and anyway you grew up here. But the new people… Sometimes I think of going to a quieter beat, like New York. I hear there are some—sympathetic—folks in the force there.”
“Dumitru! Even you were new here, a couple of centuries ago. Be nice.”
“True: but that means I know the families. I know who’s carrying a grudge against whom. At least it’s all quiet on the feuding front tonight,” he joked shyly.
He hoped his voice didn’t shake, either. Her coffee might be appalling but her countenance was superb. The way she had looked at him lately, he had begun to hope she might risk the bite. It was a lonely coffin every dawn. Fred would widen it practically at cost, for an old friend. Too old?
“It’s never all quiet. You know that, Dumitru. Some cub is always falling in love with some young vamp—or worse, fighting over a human—and then the moon goes full and all hell breaks loose. It’s like that Twilight,” she went on, smiling apologetically when he flinched.
“We don’t glow,” he grumbled.
“You do to me,” she replied before she could stop herself. He stared at her.
“Perhaps,” he ventured at last, “You might come for a flight at bat time, some night? If it doesn’t scare you. You’ve always been brave, for a human.”
She smiled at him.