Nate handed me a pistol. “Shoot anyone that walks through that door. Even if it’s a guy that looks just like me, because it won’t be me. Got that? Anyone!”
I nodded. I didn’t want anyone to walk through that door, but things were very, very real right now, and I didn’t want to argue. Nate left the room by a side door, shotgun in hand.
I heard the intruders approaching. I heard them fumble with the lock on the door. I kept the pistol pointed at the doorknob. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t shoot guns. But these guys were going to force me to change my habit if they succeeded in opening the door.
The lock clicked. These guys were coming in. I took a deep breath and held it.
The door opened, and I saw a man step into the room. I pulled the trigger and exhaled. Blood went everywhere and I pulled the gun back into firing position.
Another figure crowded behind the man I had shot. I fired again. A blast from behind them dropped them both. Nate stepped up to them as the smoke cleared.
My eyes pounded and my head seemed a million miles away. I kept the gun pointed at the door. Nate hadn’t gone through the door. He smiled at me and gave me a thumbs-up. “You can stand down, now, soldier.”
I set the pistol down on the table next to me. I calmed down a little once I had let go of the weapon. That’s when I noticed the fallen intruders looked just like Nate, one a much older version, the other could have been his twin.
“Spooky, ain’t they?” Nate didn’t seem too fazed.
“Who are they?”
“That one,” Nate pointed at the older one, “is my grandfather. And him,” Nate pointed at his twin, “is me.”
“You? What? Your grandfather?”
“Yeah, my experiments went pretty well at first, but now I’m dealing with the consequences.”
“Why were they here?”
“Trying to kill me, most likely.” Nate stood up. “I’m gonna need you to help me move these out of here.”
“Dude… Nate… that’s your grandfather!”
“OK, I know… it’s a shock to you, but this is something like the fifth time I’ve killed him. I’ve shot my father three times and I’ve killed other Nates maybe a dozen times. And that’s just the men in my immediate family.”
“First off, all that stuff about killing your ancestors and causing your own destruction is bull. Second, time travel isn’t linear if your machine can’t control its jitter. Look, will you grab the legs, there?”
I shook myself from my daze and grabbed Nate’s grandfather’s legs. Nate jerked his head to the left, toward the window. We carried the body to the window and Nate let his load drop on the floor. Obviously, his grandfather no longer held an emotional attachment for him. He opened the window and then hoisted the torso of the corpse. Out went the body. “With the others!” said Nate.
“You’ve got a pile out there?”
“Big pile. It’s a side universe, so I’m the only one with access to it. Just don’t ever go out that window, and you won’t have any troubles.”
I didn’t want any troubles. I felt that, at that moment, I had troubles. Handling bodies… shooting grandfathers… wait, didn’t we also shoot Nate?
Yes, yes we did. That was why Nate left the window open.
After tossing the second body, I had to ask. “How do I know that you’re the Nate I’ve known all along and not some other Nate from another universe?”
“You don’t. I just know that, whatever universe I may be in, I can count on you to help me out when I need you the most.”
“What if another Nate asked me to kill you?”
“You’d likely kill me and the other Nate would thank you for it. In fact, If the Nate we just killed had gotten to you first, you’d be having this conversation with him. I just make it a point that, whenever I shift, I look you up first and get the help I need.”
“Shift? You mean time travel?”
“Call it what you want. I call it shifting, since it’s not a pure forward-and-backward proposition.”
“What happened that caused all this mess? Why is it you have to kill your relatives from parallel universes?”
Nate raised his eyebrows to preface a philosophical comment. Knowing Nate, I didn’t expect him to be philosophical. I suppose moving through universes can change a man. “Well, it’s like this… I have a great treasure. They want it. I have it.”
“What is the treasure?”
“There’s no way I could explain it to you. They know what it is, on account of their close association with a version of me that has an inkling of what it is.” Nate looked around the room with alarm, as if he had heard something.
“So – ”
“SH!” Nate was serious. He fixed his gaze on the open window. Something was making a noise on the other side. Nate reached into a desk drawer and produced a “potato masher” hand grenade of German Second World War vintage. He grabbed a second grenade, pulled both the fuses on them, and tossed them out the window with a quick one-two motion. He closed the window in time to keep the blasts on the other side. “Should keep things quiet on that end for a while. Where was I?”
“Yes, that. As I said, I could not even begin to explain it or its significance to you. But it truly is worth more than the entire world – the entire sun, even! Think along those lines and you might begin to realize how grand this is. It’s like Machen said, like I’ve taken heaven by storm. And they want it.”
“So it’s something physical?”
“Not as such. It’s not knowledge, either. It’s not made of matter you would be familiar with.”
“Dark matter, then?”
“It’s only dark if you don’t know what it is. Doing the shifts exposed it to me and it’s the most amazing sort of high! Lasts forever, and my digestion has never been better!”
I was just about to ask how in the world it affected his digestion when Nate held a finger to his lips to keep me quiet. He pointed up at the roof. Scratching sounds manifested, as if by magic. Nate pointed at my pistol as he reached for his shotgun.
I heard more scratching, as if from a part of the roof further away. Then, gunshots! Repeated, rapid, automatic fire peppered with wet thuds on the roof.
Nate cocked his head as he checked his security camera screens. He laughed. “Ha! They got themselves! No work for us, but the cleanup!”
“Who – who was it this time?”
“Oh, don’t be worried! You’ll get used to this, eventually. Looks like three of me, a father, and two uncles. Two or three teams, hard to tell by the position of the bodies.”
“Wait, used to this?”
“Afraid so, my friend. You’re always my friend in any universe, but this is the one where the treasure has the greatest value. I have to make my stand here. Since I’ve got you with me, I can’t fail!”
“But… I don’t want to kill any more people!”
“I can tell this has been a bit much.”
“A bit much!” I hoped my exasperation was evident enough in my expression. “I don’t know if this is self-defense or murder, but I’ve never been involved in combat before! Look at me -” I held up a trembling hand. ” – I’m starting to shake!”
Nate contemplated the situation, but seemed unfazed. “Baptism of fire, I see. Trust me, though, you’ll get your nerves back eventually. You can still be of use to me. How about you go pick up a pizza? If I leave here, I could lose everything.”
I didn’t even know what the everything was, but, in my daze, leaving the house sounded like the best thing to do. I stood up and tried to step around the blood stains in the hall. I was almost to the front door when Nate called out to me.
“Hold on. I might be waiting for you out there. If I’m not able to get you to work for me, I’ll probably kill you. I can’t see you leave.”
Nate’s caution disturbed me on many levels, but I felt a greater compulsion to assist him. “What should I do, then?”
“Can’t go out the back door… and you should be disguised…” Nate looked at a closed door. “I think it’ll be all right.”
“What will be all right?”
“First things first: let’s get you a hat and a beard. That’s usually good enough.” Nate rummaged in a cabinet and produced a makeshift disguise. In a moment, I looked like a nondescript bum.
Then Nate opened the door he had looked at. Inside, a device that looked like an ancient typewriter sat on the floor.
Nate lifted it up by a carrying strap and placed it on my shoulder, going across my chest. It had a heft like an ancient typewriter, as well. Nate said, “Just a moment, let me warm it up.” He flicked a switch and the device made a pleasant, cheery hum.
After a moment or two, Nate started to press keys on the device. It made staccato clacking sounds with every press of a key and the hum increased in volume. And cheeriness, I noted with aroused curiosity.
“This will take you to the pizza place. It’s in a universe where I’m a complete wastrel, so I’d be highly unlikely to know about the treasure, let alone value it like other versions of me do. I’ve already placed the order and paid for it. You just need to walk in and sign for it. Then you walk out, find a dark place in the parking lot, and press the button right here.” He pointed at a key with a symbol of a disc with a U-turn arrow pointing back at it. I saw that all the keys were symbols, and I presumed this was the one for returning to my starting location.
“This is to get me back here, right?”
“That’s how I programmed it. Be careful not to hit any other key, as it could result in a complication along your journey. If that happens, though, whatever you see, don’t panic. Simply have the presence of mind to balance the pizza in one hand and press the home key with the other. Don’t hesitate, but don’t panic.”
“What about the jitter you mentioned earlier?”
“Not a problem with this model. This is much more refined an instrument than the one I started with. You’ll be fine while I hold down the fort here.”
“All right, then. Easy enough.” I smiled and Nate nodded. Nate pressed a button and before I could breathe, I was standing in front of a pizza place.
I walked in and said, “Pizza for Nate.” As the manager handed me the pizza and I signed the receipt, one of the guys in the kitchen let his best kitchen knife down (knifefellas) and walked up to the counter. I looked up and my blood ran cold. I recognized him.
It was Nate.
How was Nate to know that he had a job here, in the parallel universe? Yes, he was a layabout, but apparently industrious enough to have a job at this pizza place, of all the pizza places in all the parallel universes Nate could have sent me to.
“Hey, buddy! What are you doing in the hat and beard?”
I didn’t know what to say. Nate kept talking.
“And why are you getting a pizza now? I was bringing one home after my shift. You got the munchies real bad or something?”
“Yeah. I got the munchies, all right.”
“Well, should I still bring one home?”
“Sure, dude. I think I’ll still be hungry later on.” I had no idea why I was still talking except that, well, Nate was right. I couldn’t abandon my good friend, no matter where he was.
“OK, cool… but why the get-up?”
“I, uh, didn’t want to be followed here.”
Nate guffawed and headed back to his station. “Stay cool, bro. See ya later.”
Relieved, I turned and fled the pizza place before I made eye contact with anyone else I might have known. I made for a deserted part of the parking lot. That’s where I saw Nate – a different one than the one back there, by the ovens.
“Friend! I’m so glad I got to you in time! We can’t go back!”
Before I could say anything, Nate hit a button and I stood on a beach under a tropical sun.
No, it was two suns. The air had a sweetness to it reminiscent of the taste – but not the smell! – of durian. The pizza was hot and cumbersome, so I looked around for a table, or even a rock, to place it on.
Nate walked up to me and tapped my shoulder. I turned to see his hand, pointing at a cabana. We walked up there and started eating the pizza. I was famished! I didn’t think I should be hungry the way I was, but I was in no mood to argue with my body. Nate seemed to be just as hungry as me. We both ate in silence in order to be sure to properly satisfy our basic needs.
Nate opened a cooler and produced two drinks. He went back and pulled out a small panel with buttons all over it. It was then that I realized I still had on the device and that it was becoming cumbersome. “Can I put this on the table?”
Nate nodded as he drank and I quickly had the contraption off my shoulder. “So what happened? Why can’t we go back?”
“Disaster!” Nate set his bottle down roughly and shook his head. “Sheer disaster. I was lucky enough to escape with the treasure and make it here with you. We can’t ever go back, though. In fact -”
Nate reached over to the typewriter thing and began pressing keys on it. “Just to make sure you don’t accidentally hit the return button. You’ll wind up 200 meters in thin air, directly above the center of a crater. A gang of Nates, operating together, decided to take me down with a nuclear weapon! If they couldn’t have the treasure, they didn’t want me to have it, either. But I got out of there! I got out of there and their suicide mission failed miserably!”
Nate took another drink, then he said, “Now, I’ve set your machine to return here. I know it’s heavy, but whenever you leave this place, you should have it with you. This is now the only safe place in any universe in existence. If anything, and I mean anything, unusual happens, pound down on that key for all it’s worth. You can’t trust anyone or anything unusual, even if it’s me, do you understand?”
When he said that, I immediately wondered if he was the Nate I knew before I went to get the pizza or if he was an interloper. Then I followed that up with a wonder about whether or not it made a difference. And what was this treasure? Was my loyalty to whichever Nate held the treasure? Or was this treasure something forbidden? And how did Nate’s ancestors figure into this? Why were they dropping like flies, all over this so-called treasure?
Suddenly, I noticed that Nate was looking at me quizzically as I pondered these matters. He asked, “What’s wrong, buddy?”
Like lightning, the thought came to me that showing any wavering in my loyalty could prove fatal. “I’m just in a daze, Nate. A total daze. Everything’s happening so fast.” Hopefully, that would explain my state of mind.
Nate shrugged. “Things do move pretty fast. But I promise to make it all worth your while. Just pardon me a moment.”
Nate turned away from me and coughed into a paper bag for a good thirty seconds. He recovered, held the top of the bag closed and motioned towards the lighter on the table. I handed it to him and he lit the bag, dropping it and letting it blow across the beach.
“What was that for?” I had to try to make some kind of sense of that move.
Nate wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Well, I’ll try to explain. The fundamental nature of time travel – shifting – involves the Gurner Function in a way I pioneered. You see, the implication of the Gurner Function is that – well – perhaps it would be better if I showed you, rather than told you.”
Nate picked up the device and placed it on me. “Let me program my shifter and yours will follow along with it. Just a moment.” As he picked up his panel with buttons, a hand shot up out of the sand to my right and a finger pounded a random key on my device.
I found myself falling towards the ground. Always shift standing up, I resolved as I hit the ground. Thankfully, I landed on soft grass, although I knew it was staining my pants. I laughed: that should be one of the least of my worries. I looked up and saw a sidewalk in front of me and massive bars, five stories high, just beyond the sidewalk.
Then I saw what was on the other side of the bars – a Tyrannosaurus Rex. As the beast opened its mouth and children on my side of the fence pointed up at it, I quickly found the return button and hit it.
Back at the cabana on the beach with two suns, I saw two Nates holding guns out towards each other. Neither was of a model I could recognize. I recognized one of the Nates as the one that met me in the parking lot and the other…
The Nate that worked in the pizza store! What was he doing here?
He spoke first after my arrival. “Grandpa warned me about you! When I saw my friend here in all that get-up, I knew something was up. You have no right to make him part of your treason!”
The other Nate was not humbled. “Treason? More like delivering us from evil! Do you know what grandfather was planning to do? Do you have any idea? Or are you one of those Nates that’s under the spell of his silver tongue?”
“There are more of us on grandpa’s side than there are of us that aren’t! And more of us are unified, while all of you can’t seem to keep from killing each other!”
“Unified? Don’t make me laugh! I’ve personally seen no less than three grandfathers whack everyone else besides me after getting their hands on that treasure after a supposed team effort! Your grandfather is leading you along!”
The pizza store Nate stood his ground. “My grandpa can’t be leading me along! Uncle Alger killed him! My grandpa’s testament is sealed with his blood!”
“Uncle Alger? That old fool? I wouldn’t be surprised if grandfather didn’t set things up to where it looked like Alger killed him and swapped bodies with him. They look a lot alike, don’t they?”
“Lies! And I avenged grandpa’s death, at any rate!”
“Surely a miscalculation on his part – not reckoning that I – you – would track him down. Thank goodness my friend is here to show you what a miscalculation you have made!”
So now they knew I was here. Perhaps that was why they were arguing over things they already knew. If they could have taken each other out, I would see only one Nate. They needed me to act – to support one Nate over the other – to complete some part of their plan.
All of this over a treasure so amazing that it had led to cross-time parricide, yet a treasure also so inexplicable that I could not begin to understand it. I was only passingly familiar with the Gurner Function – I had barely passed Post-Differential Manifolds as a college sophomore, and it was why I decided to switch majors to International Business Literature. How could I begin to understand something to which that function was fundamental?
That is when I noticed the gun laying in front of me, on the sand. It was another of the odd models the Nates held on each other, but the basic principles seemed clear enough: barrel, handle, trigger – straightforward, right?
Both Nates seemed to be waiting for me to do something final. Shoot one, and give the other victory and, presumably, the treasure of the universe.
But what would I get? Reward? Betrayal? What fate would I have if I shot this Nate or that? If I shot neither of them? Was this a loyalty test and both Nates were actually working together, to see if I would be loyal to all Nates at all times? Was this some sort of experiment to see which Nate I would bond to and under what circumstances? It was clear I would kill one of his relatives, now I had to be tested to see if I would kill an actual Nate…
But I realized that I couldn’t live with myself if I killed the wrong Nate.
So I shot the pizza store Nate. I fired my weapon, energy flew into his body, dropping it like a sack of moldy onions. Cabana Nate smiled, dropped his weapon, and said, “Good choice, buddy.”
And that’s when I shot him. Second blast of energy, second sack of moldy onions.
From his perspective, shooting the other Nate was a good choice. From my perspective, it was only part of a good choice. I had to send a message to all those other Nates out there, some of whom surely had this place under surveillance – there were some suspicious-looking coconuts in the trees, for starters – and they had to know that I wanted nothing, nothing more to do with this madness. Once they knew I wasn’t going to be of any assistance, they would leave me well enough alone.
I set the device on the table and sighed as I faced up to the task of dragging two Nates out to sea. The bananas on the trees let me know that I could be in a worse situation.
Or, to be precise, that I had been in a worse situation.