“And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” – Book of Revelation
On Thursdays, Gil Chambers left his place of employment five minutes early. Typically, these extra five minutes would allow him to narrowly avoid the outpouring of traffic from the Radaxion plant that was located between Gil’s workplace, Spearhead Logistics and Fulfillment, and the downtown square of the mid-sized suburban city that Gil called home.
Avoiding said traffic, Gil would be more likely to find a parking place right on the square, and possibly right between his two favorite pubs, rather than at a lot two blocks away. In addition to this convenience, his arrival at the first pub of the evening would occur prior to the arrival of several regulars and would guarantee his choice of seating at the bar. Gil had his favorite spot at both locations, and would become invisibly frustrated when those spots were taken. At St. Pete’s Pub on the east side of the square, his favorite spot was at the corner of the L-shaped bar, next to the column. At Goodman’s Pub on the west side of the square, Gil preferred one of the middle seats at the main strip. The number of stools always varied, so the exact center spot depended on either even or odd counts. In the case of an even number of stools, Gil always chose the right-center stool.
Gil preferred Thursdays over Fridays because the Friday crowd sometimes irritated him. At Goodman’s Pub, he knew the Friday crowd would always include Cale Blackwell, a local real estate investor and tremendous ass. Cale rarely patronized St. Pete’s, but while Gil could always just leave Goodman’s when Cale arrived, St. Pete’s on a Friday was a guaranteed music venue. Nine times out of ten, the local bands hired to play would be decent cover bands, but on that tenth time there would be Irish music, and Gil had a special dislike of fiddles.
Gil was not an alcoholic. He would just as soon sit at the bar with a glass of sparkling water, but while he felt that patronizing bar should not necessarily preclude the inevitable consumption of liquids other than alcohol, he felt awkward occupying a bar stool without alcohol in front of him.
Gil Chambers told the few persons he held regular conversations with outside of the pub that he spent time at his two favorite pubs because he enjoyed the atmosphere, but in reality Gil was always there just in case one of the myriad “woman of his dreams” happened by.
In his late twenties, Gil had been a regular at a small hole-in-the-wall sports bar, and actually began a serious relationship with a young woman he had met there. She had been an odd one, seemingly content to do the same thing as Gil: sit at the bar, speak only when spoken to, stare awkwardly in succession at glass, bar top, bartender, barback, bottles, servers, and then attempt telepathy on unsuspecting patrons that seemed interesting or attractive, and then repeat. The telepathy worked one night between them, though it was never clear who was successful in the attempt. The relationship lasted less than a year, but it was a liberating experience for Gil. The woman let him be himself when they were together, and let him be a porn star in the bedroom. Later, Gil discovered the woman was doing this very thing with several other quiet men across the greater Dallas Metroplex and he quickly severed ties.
Gil was writing all of this down in his Moleskin, every detail of his little pub habit, when a man next to him spoke:
“I’m not going to ask if you’re a writer,” the voice said.
Gil looked up from his scribbling and turned his head to see who had broken his invisible fortifications. He didn’t recognize the man immediately, but there was something familiar about him. Before Gil could answer, the stranger pulled out the stool next to Gil’s – the one at the corner of the L-shaped bar next to the column – and sat down.
“You want people to ask if you’re a writer,” the man continued. “That’s why you sit there scribbling away. You think people are looking at you and thinking ‘Hey, that guy must be a writer. Look at him writing.’ And even though they aren’t thinking that at all, you sell yourself on the idea that they are to legitimize your scribbling even though it will lead to nothing in the end.”
“I’m not a writer,” Gil said quietly as he closed his Moleskin and tucked it away.
“Suit yourself, Hemingway,” the man said. “Carlsberg,” he then commanded the bartender.
The bartender replied that they were out of Carlsberg, and the stranger sitting next to Gil and making him feel uncomfortable let out a long sigh.
Gil knew exactly what was coming. Without letting the man ask the question, he said, “Rockman IPA. It’s hoppy, it’s local, good price.” He then drained the last of the Rockman IPA from the glass in front of him and proceeded to cast his eyes about for the server he fancied.
The man might have known Gil’s game with the Moleskin, but Gil was more than familiar with this particular flavor of bar patron. It was too early to close tab and make the trek to Goodman’s, so Gil pulled out his phone and began sending texts to people he normally wouldn’t bother texting. He managed a few ‘sup’ texts before feeling stupid. He didn’t want a response to any of them. It was a desperation move. Gil hoped the stranger would take his Rockman and wander over to the sofas near the fireplace.
“I just moved here a couple of weeks ago,” the man said without prompting as he took the glass of Rockman from the bartender. He took a sip and then licked the foam from his upper lip. “I’m a physics teacher over at Hutchinson Middle School. Is this a pretty good bar?”
Gil’s inner dialogue was in full hipster mode: It’s a pub, you withered git.
“I was just at the other end of the square,” the stranger went on without waiting for Gil’s appraisal of St. Pete’s, “Goodman’s?”
“Yeah,” Gil replied automatically.
“Nice place, but there was this real douche-bag kept pontificating. Real estate investor, he said. Having a little pride party for himself.”
Gil’s ears perked up. “Was his name Cale Blackwell?”
“That’s the guy,” the man said nodding his head. “I take it he’s a regular.”
“Not usually on Thursdays,” Gil answered. That ruined everything. He’d have to stay at St. Pete’s and risk a long conversation with this stranger. He semi-smiled as he caught the server’s eyes from across the room, but she didn’t return the pathetic effort.
“Well, he had a gaggle of followers singing his praises,” the man explained. “Damn near taking up the entire bar.”
Jesus, Gil thought to himself. That irritates me even more.
“That probably irritates you even more, huh?” the man said with a chuckle.
“Yeah,” Gil replied.
“You don’t like the guy,” the man stated.
“Nope,” Gil replied.
When the bartender raised an eyebrow at Gil and looked at the empty glass in front of him, Gil responded by pointing upward.
“He’s going high, ladies and gentlemen,” the bartender responded with a knowing smile, and then overpoured a neat scotch for Gil from the rack.
Gil was still off-gazing the server when the scotch was set in front of him. He went through the motions, swirling the liquid, sniffing it, sipping it, airing it, swishing it.
When he swallowed and turned to answer the question about scotch that he was sure was going to come from the stranger next to him, he was shocked as the stool was empty. The glass of Rockman was equally as empty and a ten dollar bill lay under the empty glass.
The stranger was nowhere to be seen, though Gil’s eyes lingered more around the server than they did actually search for the stranger.
On some occasions, especially in the summer months, Gil allowed himself to accept invitations to the home of another of the square regulars. The bachelor that extended the invitations was a wealthy robotics magnate who had semi-retired at twenty-eight and did consultation work at the Radaxion plant in town. His name was Fenton Rodgers, and Gil liked him mostly because he hated and regularly humiliated Cale Blackwell in public.
Now in his late thirties, Fenton spent most of his time gathering an eclectic mix of interesting people from the area at his spacious semi-mansion on the outskirts of town. It was the one place other than his own apartment, or his two chosen seats at his pubs, that Gil felt comfortable and somewhat accepted and expected.
Fenton never condescended, and always highly praised Gil’s intelligence. On occasion, Gil and Fenton would form a formidable trivia team to go up against Cale’s Sharks at the monthly Trivia Bowl held at Goodman’s.
Fenton’s pool-side parties were a reason for Gil to keep up his fitness routine as most of the regulars there had beer guts and pasty skin. Though the single female attendee was rare, Gil never knew when the opportunity to try telepathy on an unsuspecting hottie would present itself, so he kept himself trim and fit.
Gil allowed himself the pleasures of marijuana on these occasions, as it was offered, and Fenton’s parties were always of the more cerebral flavor of affairs.
It was in mid-toke at one of these parties that Gil’s eyes fell on the stranger again, some three weeks from when he had mysteriously appeared at and disappeared from St. Pete’s.
The stranger was smiling at him from across the pool, and quickly moved to intercept Gil.
Gil nearly choked on the smoke and quickly blew it sideways out of his mouth before hastily passing the joint to someone else.
“I’m Hank,” the stranger said as he stalked up to Gil, hand out, smile wide.
Gil shook the hand and sheepishly reciprocated the introduction.
“Sorry I took off without saying anything the other day,” Hank explained. “Got a call from another teacher that I run tutoring with and had to leave.”
“You guys know each other?” Fenton asked walking up between the two and handing Gil a glass of scotch.
Gil spoke first for once, “Yeah, met him at St. Pete’s briefly a couple of weeks ago. Didn’t catch his name until now.”
“Hank’s a real character,” Fenton explained, slapping the subject of his statement on the shoulder before pulling both Hank and Gil in conspiratorially. “Hank actually punched Cale in the face the other night.”
“What?” Gil was shocked. He would be surprised that he hadn’t heard about that, but Gil had been avoiding the square the last two weeks after Hank’s bold assessment of Gil’s theatrical “I’m a Writer, look at me” performance.
“Yeah, well,” Hank shrugged. “He was getting handsy and mouthed off at me. The asshole is as corrupt as a floppy on a fridge.”
Gil actually guffawed at this.
“I did some research on some of his acquisitions a couple of towns over and the shitface is definitely a land-grabbing piece of shit with a black streak a mile wide. Called him on it, and then called the feds on him. Now’s he getting sued by several organizations and two municipalities.”
Gil instantly had a new friend.
“Fenton,” Gil said, grinning ear to ear. “We need some more fucking scotch.”
Months passed, Hank became a regular fixture at Fenton’s, and he and Gil became fast friends. From comic books to They Might Be Giants, it seemed that there was nothing the two did not have in common.
Gil thought to himself regularly how ridiculous it was that he had been so stand-offish the first time they had met.
“FUMBLE!” Hank cried as Marion Butts once again blew the game for Gil. Fenton’s living room erupted with shouts from the crowd watching Gil and Hank play Tecmo Super Bowl on Fenton’s 75″ 4K.
Weekends at that point always descended into a Steelers vs. Chargers matchup between the two friends. Gil won regularly, but everyone once in while…
“Goddammit!” Gil exclaimed, desperately pressing buttons to try and stop Woodson from running the ball back eighty yards for a damning touchdown.
Gil was unsuccessful and the game soon ended with Hank’s opportunistic fumble recovery and touchdown putting him up by four points. The crowd cheered and the living room emptied out not long after.
“Good game, partner,” Hank jabbed good-naturedly. “AI screwed you that time.”
“Yeah, well, fuck Butts,” Gil replied, rising from his chair and heading to the fridge for a beer.
“Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” Hank said as the entered Fenton’s kitchen together.
“My folks have rented out a lodge up in Colorado for a couple of weeks a month from now, and found out yesterday that they are only going to be able to stay for a week. You want to road-trip it up there for a paid-for lodge and all the Rockies and edibles you can take?”
“Who is on the list so far?” Gil asked, cracking open a Rockman.
“Just you and me, man,” Hank replied. “They’re about five miles up from a little touristy place that has a couple of bars. Lots and lots of snow bunnies, if you know what I mean.”
Colorado was Gil’s favorite place in the world. He never seemed to be able to get there, and here was his opportunity. In fact, he had even been considering taking a week off in a month anyway. It was perfect timing.
“Yeah, let’s do it,” Gil answered. “Cheers!”
They clanked their beer cans together. “Cheers,” Hank said to his friend.
“I can’t believe she’s here,” Gil laughed, not believing the series of events that had led to this particular moment. It was the second time in as many years that he and Hank had scored the lodge in Colorado, and now this.
“You’ve been eyeballing her for at least a year since I’ve known you,” Hank pressed, coaxing his friend to follow through. “Go buy her a drink. I know she likes you, she’s asked me about you several times at St. Pete’s.”
“Really?” Gil inquired. “She knows who I am?”
“Gil, the first night I met you I noticed her watching you when you were watching that other server. It was a little sad, to tell you the truth.”
Gil and Hank were at one of the three bars in the little tourist haven five miles from lodge they were staying at for the week. The server, Olivia, who Gil had been secretly lusting after since he met her, was visiting a ski resort not ten miles away.
“It’s like it’s all been planned out this way,” Gil remarked. “It’s weird. You. Her. The lodge. If I actually believed half the sci-fi shit I write, I might be nervous.”
“What do you mean?” Hank inquired, his brow furrowing slightly.
“I don’t know. It’s stupid,” Gil replied, dismissing the thought at the forefront of his musings.
“No, tell me,” Hank pushed. “What’s stopping you from just enjoying this?”
Gil relented, and turned in his bar stool away from his view of Olivia across the room. “When I met you, I felt something strange. Like, I almost expected you, and didn’t want to meet you.”
Hank was silent, regarding him with interest.
“It’s nothing personal, you know. I just … felt something. And then, there was that deal with Cale committing suicide after the corruption stuff went public. That was essentially you. I didn’t want Cale to die, you know, but it’s like, I felt a sense of revenge.”
“You never explained to me why you hated him so much,” Hank said evenly. “Everyone did, but you had a special grudge.”
“It doesn’t matter. I wished something bad would happen to him because I thought he deserved it. Well, it happened. And then, you helping me get that new car happened. And you just happened to know a guy at Radaxion who needed a project manager.”
Hank looked away for a moment, his face unreadable.
“And then this whole Colorado trip happening a second time,” Gil shook his head. “It’s ridiculous. I should just enjoy it.”
Hank turned back to him with a smile. “You’re damned right, Gil. Let’s just enjoy it.
Turning to the bartender, Hank barked out, “Garçon! We need more fucking scotch!”
Gil opened his eyes to the morning light coming through the window. After a few moments, he carefully slid his arm out from under Olivia’s head. She protested only briefly before kissing his shoulder and rolling over to sleep some more.
Rising from bed, Gil grabbed his shorts from nearby and slipped them on.
Smiling to himself, he made his way to the kitchen and brewed himself some coffee. He replayed the night’s festivities in his head over and over again in his head as he stood looking out at the mountains in the distance through the window.
“Best night of your life?” Hank asked from the living room.
Gil turned around and smiled at his friend who had just read his thoughts.
“You have no idea,” Gil answered.
“Walls are thin. I have some idea.” Hank was seated on the sofa, facing the fireplace away from the kitchen. His voice was even, almost monotone.
Gil chuckled and waited for his coffee to finish. Hank said nothing further and remained in the living room, quiet. Gil poured himself a mug once the coffee was ready and made his way to the living room. As he collapsed into the recliner to the right of the sofa where Hank was sitting, he noticed a small leather case on the coffee table in front of his friend.
“Please tell me you’ve got a vaporizer in that,” Gil said hopefully.
“Do you believe in the science fiction you write?” Hank asked. His eyes were on the fireplace.
Gil stopped mid-sip, and swallowed. He cocked his head slightly at the unusual question.
“Maybe,” Gil replied. “I don’t know. I tell myself I do, but I don’t live my life by it necessarily.”
“I’ve read a few of your short stories now,” Hank said, still in that almost monotone voice. “The common thread among all of them is that there is no such thing as nothing. That the universe is one of infinite universes, all tied together, all slightly mirrored, a vast tangled tapestry of events paralleling each other in a Möbius strip of effect and cause.”
Gil laughed. “Dude, you’ve been waking and baking already, huh?”
“Gil,” Hank said evenly, turning to look at him. “I’m going to have to end your existence in this universe.”
Gil choked on his gulp of coffee, more out of amusement than alarm. Recovering quickly, he set the mug down on the coffee table and leaned back in the recliner.
“Is that right?” Gil played along. “And for what heinous act against the universe do I deserve this punishment?”
“Damnatio memoriae,” Hank answered. “You are to be erased from existence in this and as many other universes as the anomaly is detected. I was sent here to erase you.”
“Damnation what?” Gil asked, chuckling less.
“It’s a common idea among many versions of this planet,” Hank explained, still regarding Gil with a stony gaze. “There are several examples of people’s names having been removed from history for their crimes. Herostratus, Ivan VI, Benedict Arnold, the 1952 Yugoslavian national football team. The multiverse has it’s version, as well.”
“Of the Yugoslavian football team? Right, so what did I do in some other parallel universe?” Gil asked.
“Not just one, but several,” Hank corrected. “The details always vary, but the series of events is typically the same. You get something right about the universe, and knowledge of its true nature corrupts you, and then in turn you corrupt the universe. It always ends in oblivion for all existence in that universe. Here, you’re a writer. Sometimes you’re scientist, sometimes a military leader, it doesn’t matter. You always find something that opens the door to the truth.”
“How would you know that if you weren’t from some other universe where it had happened?” Gil challenged, leaning forward in his recliner. “Are you a traveler from another reality? Some bounty hunter sent to stop the future from happening? A bit tropey isn’t it?”
“In that case is a device that will simply vaporize you,” Hank said, nodding towards the leather case on the coffee table. “So, yes, I do have a vaporizer in that case. I had that same case the night you met me. I was meant to erase you that very night, but I’m something of an eccentric.”
“Oh, nice twist,” Gil said, pointing at him and nodding.
“Most versions of the anomaly are–”
“Wait, that’s what the other universes call me? The Anomaly?” Gil interrupted.
“Most,” Hank replied before continuing on. “Most versions are just simple men before the change. Once I found you, I couldn’t help but notice your life was just a series of almosts. Half the time you don’t allow yourself to walk through the doors that are wide open to you. I just wanted to give you some little bit of happiness. It’s kind of my thing.”
“So you’ve killed other versions of me already?”
“No, you’re my first, but it’s my job to erase patterns. I work for a multiversal temporal defense initiative. I track down and eliminate paradoxes, events and entities,” Hank explained casually. “But, it gets boring. I’m not the only one that has a little fun doing it. I guess it kind of balances things out. I give before I take.”
Gil laughed genuinely, rocking back and forth in the recliner. “Oh shit, man. This is pretty good. I should write this.”
“I’ll make it look like an accident,” Hank said with a sigh, getting down to business. “I can clone your body with a reasonable facsimile and simulate any sort of trauma or misadventure. I’ll wipe Olivia’s memory, too. No need for her to suffer. She’ll just think she passed out back at the resort.”
Something clicked in Gil just then. Something really heavy clicked in his mind, like a giant monolith sliding into a giant recess in the ground, and Gil’s world shook with the impact.
Hank was telling the truth.
You always find something that opens the door to the truth.
Gil realized in that moment that all things in all multiverses connected back to this one tiny moment, this infinitesimally insignificant mote of time and reality in all of everything. Gil realized that Hank had no idea of his own complicity in the anomaly as it would pan out. Hank was just as much a part of the paradox as anything else in all multiverses.
Hank should have erased Gil when he had the chance.
Gil lunged out of the recliner with speed unknown to him. In his mind, infinite versions of himself were lending their energy to him as he grappled with the bounty hunter sent to claim his existence.
Gil felt all the vengeance of all his versions course through his soul as he twisted Hank’s head mightily and ended the bounty hunter’s life by breaking his neck.
Without a second thought, Gil rose from the fading lifeforce of Hank, if that was his real name, and picked up the case holding the vaporizer. Opening it, he regarded the device for a moment. Simple enough, it looked like a flashlight. There was a red button on the shaft.
Gil pressed it, and Hank vanished.
A small red light lit up on Afamn Hsilbitz’s console. It indicated, in no uncertain terms, that one of his bounty hunter’s had completed their contract.
Hsilbitz had been tracking this one closely as the target in this particular case was a Level Five Anomaly, and the bounty hunter in question was eccentric in that he tended to play with target before eliminating it. Even further, he also tended to report a completion of his mission before actually completing it, thus securing payment sooner.
If the monitor assigned to watch this particular bounty hunter would have been anyone other than Afamn Hsilbitz, they would have sent a second agent to that universe to verify that the paradoxical entity or event was truly eliminated.
Unfortunately for most of existence, Afamn Hsilbitz was slightly eccentric.