“I’ve been here before,” says a me from two years from now, from a world covered in ash and darkness. “This is how it starts. This is how it all starts.”
“Everything is how it starts,” I say, and push through the doors of the First Federal Bank anyway, knowing that there are worse things than the end of the world. The lobby is sparsely populated but there’s a line at the window I need. New Loans.
“If you’re accepted, it means you’re out of the shelter,” says a me from ten months from now. “You’ll be able to move to that job in Stanley. Glass factory. Not much to speak of but it’s union. What isn’t prison labour is union, at least.”
“If you’re denied you’ll get in a fight with Jerry and Tina and they’ll kick you out this time, this time because any later and it’ll be too cold to kick you out.” This me is also from ten months in the future, probably only a day removed from the last. The closer they are to each other, the more they like to argue. “You’ll be picked up and you’ll be in Stanley anyway. The glass factory. But you’ll be wearing prison grey.”
The others in the line don’t make eye contact with each other as they step, wait. Step, wait. Eventually I get to the front and a woman calls me into a small room. Xi, says her name tag, and she’s smiling.
“You must be Mr. Chase?” she asks, and I nod, try not to listen to the voices.
“You’ll stab her to death in ten hours,” says one a decade in the future, where he stalks a great wall. Where there is movement, he brings up his gun, pulls the trigger. His advice is always punctuated by the report of a rifle. “You’ll be in solitary when the Trouble starts, when the dead start walking. Best decision you ever made, to get drunk when she denied you.”
“Yes,” I say. Chance Chase. Sometimes I want to find my parents just to punch them in the face for that one. “I applied for the Assisted Relocation Grant.”
“You won’t need it,” a me from thirty years forward says from his mansion by the sea. “In a year’s time the War will start. Money will be flowing again. You’ll meet a guy in the service, rich and with a bleeding heart. You’ll be married as things start to cool down, just before his parents die in one of the last retaliatory rocket attacks. You’ll be set for life.”
Xi’s fingers are a blur on the tablet in front of her, tinted so as to be black to any angle but her own, and I have to wait for any sign of change in her smile, in the gleaming white of her teeth.
“Your identity’s been stolen by a man in Florida who’s been using it to stockpile guns,” a me from two weeks from now says. He sounds like he’s half buried, barely breathing. “You’re about to be detained, questioned, questioned again, questioned again, questioned ag—”
“Ah, yes, here it is,” Xi says, and I look up. “Mr. Chase. Your application has been approved, pending.”
I suck in a breath in relief. I hadn’t really expected—then the second part sinks in. “Pending what?” I ask.
“Pending a screening with one of the mentors,” she says, smiling brightly though her eyes are neutral. I force myself to smile back even as the thought of an interview with one of the bank-sponsored mentors sounds about as much fun as going back to a dentist after having missed regular checkups for the last ten years.
“Now?” I ask.
“He’ll want you to suck his cock,” a me says from eight hundred years forward, from a field somewhere with mountains in the distance. “And at three thousand dollars it’ll be the most you’ll ever be paid for the honour. Just be sure to swallow.”
My eyes are watering and Xi is nodding, motioning to a hallway further into the bank.
“It shouldn’t take long,” she says, “room 126.”
“You’ll walk into the room and three months later they’ll find your body in Lake Delton,” a me from three years from now says from what must be a nightclub in Hell, all smoke and whiskey.
I start down the hallway, eyes scanning the room numbers. I’m a liar, a liar who’s lied so much I can’t figure out what’s true and what’s not. I’m a liar in every dimension, in every time, only I’m the only one who’s real. The rest are just…just echoes. From the future. From possible futures. A million future mes, each a day in time.
I see the door for 126 and I walk past it and to the exit at the end of the hallway and outside, and on, and on.
“Dodged a bullet there,” says a me from two thousand years hence. He’s a starship captain, brings peace and brotherhood throughout the galaxy. “You need to find the Radion Box. You need to stop the invasion.”
He’s also an asshole. I am. Every me, regardless of how I try to change it. I walk back to the shelter. I have work detail soon but first is prayer and I can’t miss it or it’s only a half meal tonight. The social safety net in tatters, private charity has stepped in, patching what holes it cares to, but nothing is free.
“You shouldn’t see Alex, though,” a me from five years forward says. “You know Jerry and Tina know what you’re doing. With their son. Their innocent son. If they can actually catch you, if any of them actually catch you…”
I shake my head. Alex is twenty-five, same as me, but he’s still a minor according to the law. Keeps him insured, after a fashion, and a dependant of his parents, who run the shelter. Keeps him out of the Draft, too, but also denies him a vote, drinking, and fucking. Not that it stops him, but it means if we’re caught it’s me who’s stuck in jail as a sex offender.
I enter the Divine Hope Mission and navigate to the chapel, which easily takes up three-quarters of the ground floor. Bunks and betterment rooms are mostly belowground, windowless, escape-proof. I give a sigh of relief when I see David on a bench by himself, slide in next to him. When I sit he looks over, features scrunching like he’s trying to place me. David has memory problems at age forty, something to do with working on a frakking team from age twelve to thirty-five. He has trouble with faces.
“What are faces, anyway?” David likes to say. “All I need to know is where to pray, to eat, and where my papers are.” He’s second-generation Chinese-American, but he’s always being confused with Hmong here. Before he stopped going out he’d be picked up at least once a week and taken to the camp outside town before someone would think to look at his papers.
“You’ll steal his papers one day when he’s showering,” a me tells me from eighty years ahead. He’s on his deathbed, confessing. Always they seem to be confessing to me, though I have no power to absolve them. “When he goes out to get a new copy he’ll be picked up, taken to the camp, will die there three weeks later.”
“You get your money?” David asks when his eyes light up in the way that tells me he remembers who I am. I chew on my lower lip. “Well, it was a shot at least. And maybe you have a rich brother you don’t know about yet.”
I take out a package of gummy bears from my pocket and hand it over. David beams and slides me five dollars. Now that he doesn’t go out he pays well for his comforts.
“You’ll see him again, after the Second Battle of Fort McHenry,” a voice from thirteen years in the future says. “On your knees, hands bound behind your back, you’ll watch him sweep by you, package of gummy bears in his hands. There will be a moment when your eyes meet and you’ll know he had a rich brother that he never knew about, one who had been searching for him all his life. And you’ll know, with equal certainty, that his eyes hold no recognition for you. That’s when the bullet will enter the back of your skull.”
“Might be my last for a while,” David says. “Corporate representative called in earlier, said that the company is reorganizing, that prior liability for disability might be deemed forgiven by the courts.”
I think I can almost hear the anger in his voice, deeper and more raw than the exhaustion, but I’m not sure if it’s my own hatred I’m hearing there, an echo of my own rage. He looks down at his hands, then up at the enormous Jesus hanging from the ceiling.
“The courts will decide that corporations are the only form of personhood soon enough,” says a me from five hundred years in the future. “That each individual is only a person in proportion to the shares they control.”
“Sorry,” I say, but then the sermon starts and there’s no talking and we sit in silence. Kneel, sit, stand, sing. Any without debt are allowed to rise and take Communion. Everyone else watches, knowing that forgiveness is earned, though they can never quite remember what they did to be denied.
After church it’s work service and I pull disinterment, take a bus with some others to the graveyard in the heart of the city. Time was there had been houses and apartments where much of the graveyard now sprawls. Slowly, though, property values rose and people either did well enough to afford places elsewhere or they fell far enough to have to put in at one of the shelters. Or get moved out to a camp. The graveyard now butts up to houses too big to be bullied out, too rich to be vacant.
“Have you ever seen a house climb, half ruined, from its foundations?” a me from a hundred years in the future asks. He asks from orbit, staring down with a quiet longing at Earth, lost Earth. “They came out of the junk heaps and scrap yards first, the dumpsters demolition teams use. Walking-dead houses. Zombie homes. This is how it all starts.”
“Everything is how it starts,” I say as I’m handed a shovel and we get to work, digging up bodies whose funds have dried up. Interest rates plummeted last year, which means any of the dead relying on disbursement from funds they set up while alive are likely defaulting unless they have living relatives footing the bill. Those in default are pulled from the ground, denied the heaven they had been promised and lived on for as long as they had paid, stuck into freeze where they can amass further debt, holding fees and utilities, sliding into purgatory and, if they can’t wipe out their debt after five years, they’re burned and condemned to Hell. Amen.
The name on the headstone is Archer Chase. I wonder if we’re related even as I help to pry him from his eternal reward.
“You’ll meet an Archer Chase,” says a me forty years from now, washing blood from his hands, though I’m not sure where it came from. “In a bar in a backwater town in Mississippi, and it’s the name that will draw you together. He’ll have that Southern drawl you hate and you’ll love fucking him for one night, hard, before waking up without clothes or a wallet and wondering if you just got robbed by a ghost.”
It’s a busy day, and by the end we’ve loaded seven caskets into the bus, which is suddenly too full to fit all of us in for the return. I give up my spot, knowing the walk won’t kill me and that more time at the shelter means more time under Jerry and Tina’s watchful gaze. I sigh as the bus pulls away, as the rest of the stranded work crew heads for downtown, maybe a drink at a basement bar. Illegal, of course, to drink when sheltered, but that’s why basement bars exist. I’m tempted to join, but don’t. I walk back to where Archer Chase’s tombstone still stands, waiting to be sanded down. At his expense, of course, the cost added to his bill, as will the cost of making him a new one if some relative really does cough up the money.
“Hey,” a voice says, and I don’t have to turn to know that Alex must have gotten a ride out here, must have found what detail I’d be on and trailed me. Worse yet, that he probably drove, which means his parents know where he is, what he might be doing.
“You’ll both get as far as Mexico before private security takes you,” a me from four months in the future says. “It’ll be Alex, of course, checking the funds you told him not to. It’s the trap, as you knew, that he sees it’s all there, all waiting. He buys you both burgers while you’re in the bathroom using the sink to bathe. It takes all of two hours to find you after that. You should just kill him now, kill him or yourself and be done with it.”
I don’t say anything, just start kissing him right there. It’s wrong and it’s stupid for so many reasons but I don’t care. I pull him down into the empty grave, out of sight. The sky is grey and the air is crisp and there’s no one in the graveyard anyway. I do him the favour of sucking him off before I turn him around and enter him. Tenderness isn’t what he wants from me, isn’t what I want to give. God, it’s so fucked up, but he’s hard again by the time I shoot inside him and I make him get himself off again while I watch and smoke a cigarette he brought me.
“You’re doing so well, so well,” a me from two thousand years in the future says. He’s a starship captain as well, but part of an Empire that has enslaved half the galaxy. “Take what you can from who you can. Just don’t try to find the Radion Box. Never look and you won’t ever find it.”
“I need to get out of town,” I say, and Alex rolls his eyes. We’ve had this talk before. “I can’t stay here. Your parents will find out if we keep at this.”
“Another three years and I’ll have money enough for the both of us,” he says, and he looks so young just then that I nod. Another three years.
“Another three years and you’ll be running drugs on the Ivory Road to Canada,” says a me from three hundred years from now, when the Earth is drowned and what’s left is rock and pain. “Another three years and he’ll be dead when the next young thing he finds decides to strangle him for the money in his pocket.”
I start to answer, start to tell him that I can’t wait, but that’s when we hear the siren, see the flashes of blue and red and I’m giving him a boost out of the grave, waiting for him to turn and give me his hand. He doesn’t. He doesn’t and I panic, turn all around though I know there is no hope of escape now, that the sides are too steep to climb quickly. I start pulling at the dirt beside me, thinking maybe I can cover myself, bury myself, look like nothing but a pile of dirt at the bottom of a grave.
“In three days you’ll be on a truck in Maine, bound for the coast,” a me twelve hundred years from now says.
“In a year from now you’ll stand on the banks of the Chippewa and watch it rage,” a me from two days in the future says. “Everyone will be gone. Dams broke. In a minute the river will turn the entire town into a rush of water and you’ll stand and remember dirt under your fingernails.”
“In a few moments none of this will matter,” says a me from six hundred years forward. “The officer will find you and will tell you stop and you won’t and this will be a grave again and not just a hole.”
“In a few moments none of this will matter,” says a me from two thousand, seven hundred and forty years in the future. A million days. “Because as the officer fires you will find the Radion Box and none of it will matter. You’ll break apart, a million yous scattering to a million days, none less real than this but all of them false. This is how it all starts.”
“Everything is how it starts,” I say as I keep digging, mind racing, body trembling. So many days, so many and always stretching forward in time. Each day one more move forward, and each day one fewer. I wonder what happens to the past mes, wonder if I snuff them out as I meet each new day. Worlds ending. Possibilities crushed. I can’t tell what are the lies I’ve been told and the lies I’ve told myself. Somehow it all seems to be collapsing in on itself. I keep digging.
“Stop right there,” a voice says from behind and above me just as my clawing hand scrapes against something, something metal and small and square. A box. My breath catches. Each me is silent now. A million mes waiting to see what happens next.
“Put your hands up and turn around,” the voice says, and I hear the click of a gun.
“This is how it all starts,” I say.
Story copyright © 2016 by Charles Payseur
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Stacy Nguyen
Charles Payseur currently resides in Wisconsin, where his partner, a gaggle of pets, and more craft beer than is strictly healthy help him through the long winters. His work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Nightmare Magazine, and Lightspeed Magazine’s Queers Destroy Science Fiction, among others. You can find him on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo.
Stacy Nguyen (artwork) is a graphic/web designer, illustrator, and writer working in Seattle. She is a former news editor and the current editorial consultant for Northwest Asian Weekly, the oldest Pan-Asian weekly still in print on the West Coast. Her illustrations have won awards from the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Stacy earned her Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Washington.