The Cliffs of Faustini are a beautiful sight, but less so when you’re falling to your death. Though it isn’t the fall that kills any of us. The gravity doesn’t let us hit the ground before we would die of asphyxiation or boiling inside of our skins. Not sure what actually kills you, but I don’t aim to find out. I usually nope out of there the second I feel the air rushing out of the pod. Sometimes I feel that call of the void and let a few more moments pass. Teetering close to the edge of the abyss. Getting closer than I ever should to the unknown moment where I won’t be able to pull back. It hasn’t happened yet. At least not to the version of me I’d call me.
That’s one of the bad endings though. And one of the clearer ones which is what scares me. The possibilities of all the timelines swirl before me. The minor branches in front of me are the clearest and the easiest to swap between. Did I pace to the right or to the left? I try out one and then the next and then go back to the first. That’s not much more than a fidget of a leg in terms of effort. Sometimes that kind of stuff happens without me really noticing.
To see further I have to start committing to things. Or, there’s this trick where for a split second I can think about committing to an action and get a clearer picture of what could be. So I do what I always do first. I think about doing nothing. It’s easy to do with my indecisiveness.
My mom says she first noticed these powers when I spent thirty minutes trying to decide which baseball cap to get at the store. She says the only reason it took thirty minutes was because she demanded I pick one right then or end up with nothing. Later, she noticed the cap on my head switching between several different ones I had been considering. If my powers weren’t limited to about thirty minutes I’m pretty sure that cap would still be shifting.
The good thing about seeing what happens when I do nothing is the branches aren’t so numerous. Because I’m not adding as many variables into the system.
Typically, Paladin keeps trying to scheme a way for this to end well. Probing every possible contingency she can. Seeing if there’s something that hasn’t been accounted for yet in her calculations.
Split keeps splitting before remembering she needs to conserve oxygen and rejoins herself.
Ichaival sits. Well, he assumes a position I’m going to call sitting. I’m not sure if he’s trying to meditate a way out of this or if he’s all phone home with his telepathy or what, but if I do nothing he seems to just stay there.
Dr. Drake paces with Heyday whispering in his ear. I assume the words are meant to calm him. Doesn’t seem to be working.
Everyone maintains isolation as the mood worsens before it all comes to a head.
“We have to determine who the robot is.” Paladin breaks the silence. “Perhaps if we get rid of them this all just opens back up.”
“How?” Split asks “We can’t just start cutting people open to see their insides.”
“Not a bad idea.”
“I said we can’t do that.”
“Why not? It would determine the culprit and then we could at least get comms on and find out what this portal is about before we all die. Besides if we get it wrong and chop into the real deal, this sneaky time traveler can just make it have not happened. Right, Doubletake?”
I take a step towards them. “Well, it will have still happened in one timeline.”
“You can’t worry about what’s happened in every timeline. I’m sure we’re dead or not born most of them.”
“So you’re going to volunteer to get chopped open first I presume?” Split stepped up towards Paladin.
Paladin didn’t look away from Split’s confrontation. “If that will make you feel better.”
“Fine let’s do this.” Split splits away from herself and grabs Paladin by her arms and starts to push her up against the wall. Paladin resists and ends up knocking a Split backwards. She skids across the floor and as she gets back up her efforts redouble and two more Splits charge the armored woman.
“Stop! We won’t have enough oxygen if we’re . . . Oh no.” Dr. Drake’s breathing quickens and everyone turns to look at his transformation.
His hands morph into claws. The fingernails expand past the bounds of his flesh as they grow into points and the ripped flesh they leave behind reveal not blood but the blue scales that were there all along, lurking and waiting. His skin ripples as it can no longer contain the power underneath. Fissures follow the ripples and widen to reveal more scales. The scales multiply seemingly without bound. He’s growing out of his body and into another. His head is the worst bit. I wish I had never been in the situation to even see the possibility of it happening. It reminds me of those robbers that use pantyhose instead of proper masks. Everything gets all squashed up. But here instead of the face being the smashed up bit inside, its the stretched pantyhose. Then the pantyhose breaks because their head starts growing. The metaphor falls apart after a bit just like his face. How does he even go back to his normal body after that? Is it months of him in a cast while it all regrows and recovers? Or is it just one of those magic superhero things like that guy whose pants never fully rip whenever he turns all big?
I guess doing nothing is out of the picture. So I try my best to keep the dragon in the bottle. I think about looking for more vials, but my panic about what he would become makes him panic and become. But if I could keep some spark from lighting the fuse, perhaps it would create enough time for some solution to present itself. It’s a bit more nebulous and the branches to do so aren’t as clear a line as doing nothing, but eventually, I make my way to seeing a path where the dragon doesn’t explode out of the doctor’s skin.
That’s when I remember the portal. One life-threatening problem at a time, I guess. With Dr. Drake going wild on everyone the portal didn’t have time to do its thing. Calm him down a bit and the portal widens. So, what comes out of the portal other than me? I have to do a doubletake. I step out from the portal. Then Split follows. Then a Paladin not in her armor. Finally, a Dr. Drake emerges before the swirling spot behind them vanishes into itself. No copies of Ichaival or Heyday though.
“You said they would have suffocated by now.” The other me says.
“Well, it shouldn’t be long now. You afraid you can’t hold your own against them?” The other Paladin cracks her knuckles.
“If we can’t handle this, then the whole plan is doomed.” The other Split pushes in front of the others. Ten versions of herself charge from her. I reflexively jump back.
“What is it?” Paladin asks me.
The mix of confusion and fear I felt must have been showing on my face. “The portal.”
“Got some insight now?” Ichaival asks
“What do you mean us?” Split wanders over.
“The people that came out of the portal were us. Except they were coming to kill us.”
“Well, now that we’re ready how does it go any better?”
“Good point.” I look forward. It takes a few attempts to get back on a track without Dr. Drake berserking on everyone, but I get back to them emerging from the portal and Paladin is ready. She rushes the first figure that comes through and smashes them against the side of the room. She slams her own head into the wall and I see sparks fly. In the next instant, the armored Paladin is skidding across the floor. The imposter pushes herself from the wall and looks around, feeling at the back of her skull. I see bits of exposed wires and machinery before I see the skin reaching towards itself and covering the hole. I meet her eyes and see her expression turn to anger. She points at me.
“That one can warn the others before this happens. Don’t let him!”
I slip backwards in time as Split, Split, Split, and Split charge at me.
“Robots. They’re robots.”
“Robot versions of us?”
“But like super robots or future robots or something. They had like healing skin.”
“That’s certainly disconcerting,” Ichaival mused.
“But we can take them now that we know more about them, right?”
“Armored Paladin couldn’t take out her unarmored counterpart with the super-equivalent of a sucker punch.” I shake my head. “Plus the other you had your split powers. If they’re Dr. Drake can go dragon, I don’t see us winning..”
Split’s shoulders drop and she shuffles away.
I look to Ichaival and he won’t make eye contact. Or whatever counts for eye contact with a Martian.
I look over to Dr. Drake. He’s keeping calm on the paths where tensions don’t bubble too high. Is that the best option? Let him destroy everything so the portal empties them out to space? I could try to find the option with the least casualties at the very least. I sigh. I slip.
I go to Paladin. “Okay. You have to trust me.” Her and Ichaival are the most likely to survive and I try to think out loud to Ichaival the words I’m saying to Paladin. Dr. Drake would also probably survive, but I’m not going over to talk to that guy. He’s scary.
Paladin starts to ask me a question.
“No questions. If all else fails you need this knowledge. Super robot versions of us are trying to invade through the portal.”
In some of the timelines she asks questions before I can disengage, but in all of the timelines, I don’t answer her. I don’t do anything. I observe. Time and time again I feel the air pressure drop. I see a claw coming right at me and jerk back to the past. I go to breathe and can’t. Focus though. I need the timeline where Ichaival and Paladin are most likely to survive after I’m out of the picture. It’s hard because I can’t see very far with my own demise incoming. Don’t think about that though. It never pays to think about all the bad endings.
I see Dr. Drake, or I guess he calls himself Mr. Dragon once he’s become that monster. I would too. You have to distance yourself from that stuff somehow. Anyway, I get to see him rip open each of my friends. Sometimes multiple times in the same timeline if he hits Split. Paladin’s armor is like an empty soda can to his claws. And Ichaival, well he just becomes a mess of mush and sparks. Wait. Sparks? I veer towards the branches where Ichaival takes the first hits from the dragon.
That’s it. He’s the synthetic one. He’s the traitor.
I flip back. Paladin starts to ask a question and I shake my head. She stops. She’s seen that my expression has changed and accepts that I’m different now without any hassle.
It takes a few different attempts to get one where I’m able to take down Ichaival. Well, I shouldn’t call it Ichaival. I fumble a few times, but I find the thread where he’s taken down. I see the portal closing. I see the alarms stopping I see the questions and the horror as people realize what’s happened. I see all those, but I can’t get to those. They’re on another branch. The only branch I can cling to is the one where I pass out before all of those things occur. The last thing I see is Ichaival’s limbs twitching mechanically as I lean over it. The skin tries to heal the wound around my sword. Hope it’s a timeline where someone finishes what I started.
Fin? Tee hee.