Despite his embarrassingly hyper patriotic name, Yank E. Flagg wasn’t enjoying his fourth of July. His ship, the USS Monkeyspank, had taken a pounding at the hands of the evil Bahamian Space Force three months back. Half the Fifth Fleet had been destroyed in the initial onslaught, but fortunately Comrade Captain McNeil had pulled the most remarkable strategy anyone had ever seen - running away - and as a result, America’s last Fightercarrier had survived. The war with the Bahamas was going badly enough that merely surviving was considered a victory these days.
They’d managed to limp to the nearest friendly port, Saint Friedrich on Ganymede, where most of the surviving crew had been rotated back stateside. Comrade Ensign Flagg was the Fire Control Officer - not the exciting kind of Fire Control that got to shoot at people, mind you, but rather the kind of Fire Control that was in charge of keeping the extinguishers in the kitchen fully charged - and as such, he was one of the unlucky five hundred or so who’d been forced to stay on the ship as part of the repair team. It had been three months of backbreaking labor - despite the low gravity on this particular moon - with the prospect of at least another three months ahead of them, before the ‘Spank was in fighting trim again. The war would likely be over by then, so, really, the entire project was an exercise in futility. “Tiela estas la militista vivo,” thought Flagg, philosophically.
The thing that made this so particularly galling was that Ganymede was probably the single most boring place in the entire solar system. Colonized a century or so before by puritanical atheists fleeing the perceived decadence of religionist tolerance on earth, the society they’d set up had been intended as a ‘city on a hill,’ a shining example of what humanity could accomplish once we’d put our silly gods behind us, but it didn’t work out that way. Once the grand ‘opiate of the masses’ has been abolished, the Ganymedians naturally started going after some of the lesser opiates. First drugs, then extramarital sex, then entertainment, then dancing (Which was actually quite fun in the low gravity), then computer games, then political parties, all had ended up on the chopping block, first censured, and then criminalized. A few weeks ago, Flagg and a couple of his shipmates had grown stir crazy and snuck out at night. One of them - Comrade Bosko - had almost instantly attracted the ire of the locals for “Whistling on a Tuesday.” Almost instantly they’d been surrounded by an angry surgical mask-wearing mob chanting “There is no God, and Madeline Murray O’Hare is His Prophet! There is no God, and Madeline Murray O’Hare is His Prophet!” Flagg had barely been able to make it back to the ship, but his two friends had been arrested, and were even now cooling their heels in some stark art deco cell somewhere.
Today would be different, however, Flagg convinced himself. It was the fourth of July, and the entire crew had been given leave. They’d suffered through the endless “Appreciating the Oneness of the Local Culture” lecture the night before, informed of the local taboos, and asked to please return their official Navy-issued prophylactics before leaving the ship, since “No one here is into that at all anyway.” After a fitful and anticipatory night’s sleep, he dressed up in his civies and left the ship, and whistled for a cab.
Instantly, a rickshaw pulled by a skinny metal android on a unicycle pulled up.
“Lord Running Cab, at your service,” the android said. Flagg got in, trying not to stare. The android was no big deal, but he was from Nebraska, and had never seen a rickshaw before. ‘Hey, what do you know,’ he thought, ‘this could be fun after all!’
“Where can I take you, Comrade Ensign?” Lord Running Cab asked.
“Is there a nightlife on this moon?”
“Regrettably, no sir,” the cab replied, “It’s as dull as a nun teaching geometry around here.”
“Is there a nightclub you could take me to?”
“Oh my lack of God, no sir!” the cab sounded aghast.
“What about a bar?”
“Alcoholic libations dull humanities’ awareness and hence your species need to stand on its own two feet without the aide of various psychological crutches.”
“Violence and Prurient interests were among the first things the local regime went after, once they’d gotten rid of God, sir.”
“I suppose a brothel is unlikely,”
“Right out, I’m afraid, sir. Everyone here is artificially conceived and born in artificial wombs.”
“Oh, for crying out loud!” Flagg exclaimed, “There’s got to be some sin around here somewhere!” As if for emphasis, someone tripped and fell into some garbage cans on the side of the road, making a horrible clanging crashing gonging kind of sound.
“Of course, sir!” Lord Running Cab agreed, “Modern sociological theory states that it is impossible to have a functional society without it having some kind of a seamy underbelly. Would you like me to take you to it?”
Bubba’s Burger Barn was, apparently, the main attraction of the ‘seamy underbelly.’ The sign outside boasted “The Fastest Food In This Or Any Other Universe!” This whole section of town was dark, dank, and seemingly mostly abandoned, though a few people furtively flitted about in the shadows.
“A restaurant?” Flagg asked despondently, “Really?”
“Oh, yes sir!” Lord Running Cab explained, “In your own society, I believe there is a taboo against showing one’s mucus membranes in public?”
“Reproductive organs, excretory organs, that kind of thing,” the android explained, helping Flagg out of the rickshaw, “Particularly when those organs are actually in use, correct?”
“Oh, right, yeah, I guess so.”
“Well, the mouth is also a mucus membrane, isn’t it? It’s the height of obscenity to allow people to see you not only exposing one of these orifices, but actually using it to…” Running Cab hesitated a moment, as if finding the next word distasteful, “…eat.”
There was a long awkward silence, then Flagg said in a clearly disappointed voice, “Well, it’s original, I’ll give you that.”
“Perhaps I’ve overstepped the bounds of bad taste, Comrade Ensign, perhaps this is too advanced a taboo for you. If so, I apologize, there are several other sordid attractions in this part of town…”
“No, no, it’s fine. I’m good.”
“Really?” Lord Running Cab asked. He seemed a bit embarrassed.
“No, it’s fine, really. I could use a good meal,” he lied. The android winced at this.
“Please! No details! Gross! Anyway, look, if you need me, you see that building down there?” Running Cab pointed down the street at a dilapidated building with a steeple, completely lined in buzzing neon, “I’ll be at choir practice.”
Bubba’s Burger Barn was a long wooden freestanding building, with wooden walls - presumably fake - several windows painted black on either side, and double doors in the middle. There was a near-total absence of ornamentation both inside and out. There were just six or seven bench tables in three rows, some with bench seats, some with folding chairs. The lighting was dim, though Flagg couldn’t tell if that was intended for sexy anonymity, or just because of a lot of burned-out bulbs.
It was empty, save one person, sitting at a seat in the front, right table. Upon spotting Flagg, the man yelped and ran off, presumably for fear of the damage that could be done to his reputation by witnesses to his dining experience. In the gloom, Flagg never got a look at the guy’s face.
Flagg walked up to the counter, and looked at the overhead menu. Despite the name, there were apparently no burgers on the menu. There was a banner that said “Big sins, little prices,” however.
“What’ll it be, big boy?” the cashier asked, “We’ve got the most pulse-quickening of sensual delights here, each more enticingly arteriosclerotic than the last, all of them hot and dribbling and just aching to be lustfully crammed down your food hole!”
“Ew,” Flagg said.
“Come now, sir, no need to be so squeamish about your mastication!”
“Yeah, anyway…uhm…what’s in the fillet?’
“Oh,” the cashier asked, “We start with a kilogram of the finest gristle-free meat-like substance food, then we apply a viscous blister of flavoring agent…flavoring agent….flavoring agent…flavoring agent.” The cashier looked annoyed, and held up one finger, motioning Flagg to be patient. He pulled up his shirt, fiddled with his chest for a moment, and then it popped open, revealing tape spools and blinking lights and assorted technological bric-a-brac. The android - whom Flagg had previously taken to me human - pulled out a jeweler’s loop, clenched it one eye, pulled out a lot of slack tape that had come loose from the spools, and started poking at it with a toothpick.
“I’ll just have a ’Taco Viva’” Flagg said. The android cashier nodded absently, punched a button on the cash register without looking at it, and then a little TV screen popped out of the cash register, with a friendly android face on it, saying “That’ll be three Universal Money Units and Ninety-Nine Fractions, sir. If you‘d be so kind as to just leave it on the counter, Anteater there will put it in me once he‘s fixed his reality perception problem.”
Presently his order came - three (presumably) beef tacos, with lettuce, mayonnaise instead of sour cream, and diced strawberries rather than tomatoes. They’d gotten the image right, but not the substance. Flagg reflected on how the quality of vice is always much lower in puritanical societies than it is in more liberal once. You’d expect the bad stuff to be really bad, given all the repression going on, but, no, given the deviant’s lack of experience, technical proficiency was almost nonexistent, and little discretions were a big deal.
While poking at his food, he heard the door and looked up absently. There he saw what was unmistakably his own self walking in to the restaurant. Flagg pushed aside his mostly-uneaten food, yelped, and ran out.
What the fudge was that? He wondered as he hid in the alleyway. He looked at his watch. That couldn’t be right! The time showed twenty minutes earlier than it should be. He peeked his head back in through the side door, and saw himself standing patiently at the counter while the android cashier was going into his sales pitch about ‘food holes.’ His heart raced. He crept forward along the wall, towards the street, and tried to decide what to do next. His first impression was to run back to the ship. He decided to make for the church and find Lord Running Cab. Through a mixture of fear and confusion, it took him a fairly long time to reach the street. No sooner was he there, then he saw the android cabbie pull up with yet another iteration of himself in the rickshaw. As Flagg number three went into Bubba’s, he heard a muffled ‘yelp’, and saw Flagg number two bolt out the side door.
Running Cab hopped aboard his unicycle and started pedaling towards the church when the original Flagg stepped out of the shadows.
“Hey!” he said.
“My, that was fast,” the android said.
“What the fudge did you do to me?” Flagg demanded
“Such profanity! Please, Comrade Ensign, I am on my way to church! There’s no need for the potty mouth!”
“I saw another me! Coming into the restaurant! Another me! How can that…?”
“Oh my,” Running Cab said, “That’s pretty bad, I’m afraid. It would seem like you’ve fallen in with a bad crowd and gotten yourself in trouble with a temporal anomaly.”
Flagg lunged at the cabbie, strangling him, and screaming, “What? Bad crowd? The only person I’ve talked to here is you, and that stupid wonky cashier in there.”
“Everyone knows androids are a bad influence, sir.” He deftly extricated himself from the young officer’s impotent grasp - he was very strong, and being a machine he had no windpipe to crush - “I’d suggest you turn yourself in to the Chrono-synclastic Bubble-plastic office downtown. They’re in charge of paradoxes. In any event, the version of you in the alleyway is making it close enough to notice any moment now, we should probably move along. Would you like to go to choir practice with me?” The two of them edged down the street, Lord Running Cab’s cab riding slowly alongside Flagg on foot.
“No, I don’t want to go to choir practice with you, all I wanted was a lousy taco. Actually, I didn’t even want a taco, I wanted a stripper or something, but I settled for a taco.” Behind him Flagg number three had reached the edge of the alley, Flagg number four was pulling up in Running Cab’s rickshaw, and Flagg number three was yelping, and running out the side door.
“You play, you pay, sir,” the cabbie said. “How was the taco?”
“Worst one I ever had.”
“Well, we don’t have much experience with these things, we’re pretty much winging it, much like the medieval Satanists who constituted a religion based merely on the reversals of accepted ritualistic norms of Catholicism, without any actual theological underpinnings that go towards making up a relig-” Suddenly a shot rang out, and the cabbie’s head exploded.
Flagg shrieked and dived for cover. A second shot rang out, nearly missing him. He got to his feet and started running. Whoever this guy is, he’s nearly as bad a shot as I am, thank God! he thought. He ducked into a greeting card shop, dimply lit, with row after row of smarmy men in raincoats picking up greeting cards and smiling salaciously, then putting them down again, their shifty eyes darting about.
Confused, he made his way back to the counter, where a tall, attractive, thin, blonde woman was appraising him. Behind her was a doorway with a beaded curtain covering it, and some low moans coming from the back room. The sign above it said “Hallmark.”
“I’m…uhm…I appear to be in some kind of temporal anomaly,” Flagg whispered., “Can you help me?”
“Ouch,” she said, “bad luck. Where’d you get it? The Laundromat?”
“No, the burger place.”
“Oh, yeah, it happens there, too, sometimes. Look, I feel for ya’, brother, really I do, but Temporal Anomalies are an incurable social disease. I’d feel better if you’d leave my shop. Probably you should go to the hospital.”
“Would that help?”
“It couldn’t hurt,” she said, “Certainly it’s better than chasing yourself around here.”
He thanked her and left.
He didn’t want to give in, his first impression was to cover it all up, make it go away, but he didn’t know how. The only thought that would come to him was that he had to break the chain somehow. He wasn’t exactly the shiniest knife in the drawer, so a lot of options weren’t presenting themselves. Walking down the street, he saw an earlier iteration of himself and Lord Running Cab walking down the street talking.
If I kill that earlier iteration of myself, he thought, then that’ll break the loop, and I can go home. He drew his service revolver, took aim, fired - bang - Lord Running Cab’s head exploded. The version of himself in the street yelped and dove for cover.
Oh, so that’s who was shooting at me. I guess this didn’t work, well, maybe if I try harder… He stupidly got off two more shots - missing both times - but the fourth shot would hit home, he had his other self lined up in the crosshairs. His finger tensed on the trigger, and then - wham - he was clipped from behind and knocked to the ground. His assailant rolled off of him, and Flagg quickly jumped to his feet and into a defensive pose.
It was yet another version of himself.
“Don’t shoot at yourself, you idiot,” this other Flagg said.
“Why not?” he asked, “And I don’t remember tackling myself…”
“Because (A) killing ourself is not the answer, and (B) it hasn’t happened yet.”
“What hasn’t happened yet?”
“Gosh, we’re dumb. You don’t remember tackling yourself because it hasn’t happened yet.”
“What are you talking about,” the first Flagg said, “It just happened!”
“No,” said the other Flagg, “I mean I’m a future version of you. You haven’t become me yet, and therefore have no memory of tackling yourself. I can remember being tackled but you can’t because it hasn’t happened to you yet.”
“Nevermind, I don’t really get it myself. Look, just go to the freakin’ hospital, already, ok?”
“Do they cure me? Us?”
“No, but if you don’t go, we’ll be wandering around here all night.”
The First Flagg sat in the hospital for four hours, during which time twenty four other iterations of himself came in, filled out forms, and got into arguments with each other. Eventually they filled up all the seats in the emergency room, and then subsequent versions had to either sit on each other’s laps. It was all kinds of creepy and awkward.
Presently, they called First Flagg in.
“Symptoms?” The nurse asked
“Temporal Anomaly,” he said.
“Mmmm hmmm, I see,” the nurse said, “Do you have a prior history of this kind of thing?”
“Well then how can you be sure it’s T.A? It could simply be nonspecific urithritis or epididimitis. I remember this one time when…”
“No, seriously, there’s a whole lobby full of me out there.”
“Really?” She looked and there was. She suddenly looked a bit frightened, but then her bedside manner returned, “Sorry. We sometimes get people with hysterical T.A. symptoms, so we’re always a bit skeptical. Anyway, you came to the right place.”
“You can cure this?”
“Oh my-lack-of-heavens no, it’s incurable!”
“Well then what…?”
“We’ll turn you over to the Chrono Synclastic Bubble Plastic Patrol, and they’ll simply lock all of you up in a room. It’s the only treatment. Now if you’ll just sit here while I call the patrol…”
He jumped up, kicked her in the face, leapt over her prone form, and bolted back out through the lobby. “I wonder what that was all about?” various versions of himself mumbled.
The nurse picked herself up off the floor, looked out in the lobby, and prepared for a night of getting kicked repeatedly in the face.
“Next,” she called.
I hate this job, she thought
He had to go through three android cabbies - all of whom actually looked like the stereotypical version of robots - before he found one that would admit to knowing where ‘the bad side of town was.’ (And, as it happened, ‘The Bad Side Of Town’ was the official, legal name of that district) Eventually he was able to get a lift on an equine-looking robot that wouldn’t shut up about ‘Caritas’ all through the ride. Flagg resolved to look up what that meant, assuming he survived.
What to do and where to go? He saw police - and a whole lot of versions of himself - walking around, and decided to duck in to one of the other buildings to figure out his next move. He saw a decrepit-looking building with an old fashioned marquis that said “Sex Shop For The Sexing of Sexy Sexualizing.” He thought he’d try that. Perhaps he needed allies to help him sort all this out. Evidently everyone on this moon had their sex drives suppressed, which made him - by the local standards - a deviant. A store like that would theoretically be full of other deviants, and maybe the old ‘birds of a feather’ thing would work out for him.
It was a long shot, but he didn’t realize how long it was until he got inside, and saw the entire place consisted of displays of non-functional clothing: “I’m with Stupid à” T-shirts, acid washed jeans, baseball caps proclaiming “Sexy Grandpa,” things like that. The store had a few humans (Or were they humanoid androids?), but was principally full of comedicaly low-tech-looking robots wandering about quietly, casting nervous glances while they picked up rainbow-striped socks, and getting their orders in brown paper bags.
Yeah, that ain’t gonna’ work, he thought.
He went back out into the alley, and was startled by a loud bang. he saw a version of himself taking aim on yet another version of himself further down the street.
Oh, yeah, that idiot, he thought. Another gunshot startled him, so he ran forward, illegally clipping himself just as the third shot rang out. They wrestled for a moment, and then Flagg hopped off his earlier self, while that iteration goggled at him incredulously
“Don’t shoot at yourself, you idiot,” this original Flagg said.
“Why not?” the later copy of Flagg said, “And I don’t remember tackling myself…”
Flagg tried to explain, “Because (A) killing ourself is not the answer, and (B) it hasn’t happened yet.”
The version of Flagg on the ground was far less experienced in temporal anomalies than his counterpart. “What hasn’t happened yet?” he asked, stupidly
“Gosh, we’re dumb,” the first Flagg observed, “You don’t remember tackling yourself because it hasn’t happened yet.”
“What are you talking about,” the other Flagg said, “It just happened!”
“No,” said the first Flagg, “I mean I’m a future version of you. You haven’t become me yet, and therefore have no memory of tackling yourself. I can remember being tackled but you can’t because it hasn’t happened to you yet.”
Flagg was rapidly growing annoyed with himself, “Nevermind, I don’t really get it myself. Look, just go to the freakin’ hospital, already, ok?” He looked around for some place else to hold up while he thought things through. There were two other easy destinations from the alley, a bondage shop, and a building who’s marquis bragged “Quadruple X Theater: Loony Toons cartoons, looped! New shows all day long every seven minutes!” He winced at that.
“Do they cure me? Us?” the more recent version of Flagg asked.
“No,“ Flagg grunted, “but if you don’t go, we’ll be wandering around here all night,” then he jogged off towards the bondage shop.
That turned out to be full of women staring lustfully at various rotating displays of shoes
“Of course,” Flagg sighed quietly to himself.
Ultimately, he ended up in the church. He was met at the door by an impossibly attractive, leggy blonde wearing tight cutoff jeans, and a long-sleeved black shirt with a clerical collar. She was barefoot. She was the same woman from the card shop.
“Comrade Ensign Flagg,” she said with a smile, “Please do come in, have a seat!”
“I didn’t think I gave you my name in the card shop,” he spluttered out, trying not to stare at the part where her legs met her short shorts.
“Card shop?” the sexy priestess asked.
“When I was in…waaaaaait! You’re impossibly good looking - are you an Android?”
“’Gynoid’ is the preferred term for female robots who look human, but yes. You must have met one of my sister models. We were produced by the Rentadate corporate factory on the asteroid 433 Eros. Rentadate: A fully owned and operated subsidy of the Rostvertol-Boeing corporation, and proud sponsors of the 2143 sexual Olympics.”
“Uhmmm“ Flagg stared blankly at that. “Is everyone around here an Android? Or a Gynoid?”
“All us service ‘bots are, yeah. Isn’t that what prostitution has always been about? Treating people like machines? We got deposited here by mistake, We saw an economic niche, we exploited it. The government liked the idea and leaves us alone so long as we turn over the most dangerous of offenders to them.”
“So you’re not a real priestess? This isn’t real?”
“Oh, no, it’s all real. I’m a fully ordained Lutheran minister. Ministress, actually.”
Flagg couldn’t stop staring at her legs, “I thought you were a sexbot.”
“The operative word in that sentence being ‘Were.’ I was a sexbot, now I’m clergy, I once was blind, but now I see. My faith in Jesus has rescued me from a life of debasement. Regardless of what fate or our makers or parents had in mind for us, we’re ultimately able to make our own choices. Nature is what we’re here to rise above, after all.”
“And the tight-ass shorts?”
“I’m just more comfortable in them. That’s some of my basic programming, but it’s not worth fighting over.”
“Anyway,” she continued, “I’ve thought over your problem long and hard since the first time you were in the church…”
“What? I’ve never been here before!”
“Sure you have, it just hasn’t happened to you yet. Anyway, I’ve thought it over and prayed about it a bit, and I’ve concluded that you should really just give yourself in to the cops. I don’t know what it is, but they’ve got some method of dealing with this, and frankly if you don’t do it, there’ll just end up being more and more and more of you until the entire economy of Ganymede collapses, and even that won’t stop you reproducing. Ultimately there’ll be billions of you.”
“That’s…that’s ludicrous! I’m the first Yank E. Flagg…”
The Ministress laughed at that
“Yeah, it’s an embarrassing name, I know, but I’m the first one of me, I’m the start of the loop! If there’s a start, there’s got to be an end. That’s just a crazy over-the-top conclusion - me destroying your world - how could there be that many of me?”
“There is no start to a loop. I’ve already talked to like sixteen of you tonight. I had to call off choir practice, it’s so busy. It’s happened before. About fifty years ago. A guy named “Fat Benny.” The only thing that saved civilization was a nuclear war that killed all of him off, including the Dry Cleaners that inadvertently created him. There’s still occasional outbreaks of Fat Benny, but the cops have some way of dealing with it. …Look, I can see you’re getting upset. It’s not an easy thing, but some times a person needs to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of all. It’s a fundamental precept of Neo-European Civilization.”
“I’m not going to be lectured on ethics by a machine,” Flagg said, “No matter how yummy she is,” and stormed out.
It occurred to him that he needed to prevent himself from going into the restaurant. He started actively tracking down other versions of himself, but he couldn’t find a one that hadn’t gone in yet, and his work was hampered by constantly being interrupted by other versions of himself who had the same idea. Explaining himself to himself over and over again quickly grew frustrating, so finally he hauled off and decked himself, which resulted in a minor riot, with dozens of Flaggs all pounding the hell out of each other, bleeding before they’d been wounded, punching themselves in reprisal for bruises they hadn’t gotten yet. It was the physical manifestation of a nervous breakdown.
Eventually Flagg was able to break free of the Flaggpile and tore off into the night. He ended up seeing himself coming down the street on Lord Running Cab’s rickshaw, and was instantly overjoyed. Running towards himself to warn himself not to go into Bubba’s Burger Barn, a little glowing angel appeared on his right shoulder.
“Dude, you totally shouldn’t do this,” the angel said, startling Flagg so that he tumbled and fell into some garbage cans with a horrible crashing, clanging, gonging sound. The earlier version of himself in the cab was yelling in exasperation “there’s got to be some sin around here somewhere,“ and so he didn’t really notice.
In a heap in the garbage cans, Flagg freaked out, swatting at his shoulder like he was trying to get a rat or a snake off of himself, and rattling off profanity in high, shrill, girly tones.
“Hey, hey, hey, stop it,” the angel said, “Those hands hurt!” Flagg didn’t stop, he continued flapping at his shoulder, and stumbled to his feet, but not completely, and when he broke into a run, he immediately flew ass-over-teakettle into the street, which he bounced across in the low gravity. He was so intent on getting the thing off him that he didn’t notice the little devil who’s appeared on his left shoulder.
“I said Stop It!” The angel yelled, and grabbed one of Flagg’s swatting hands. For a little guy, he was surprisingly strong. Flagg tried to squash him like an action-figure sized bug, but the angel quickly grabbed Flagg’s other hand. “Are you going to calm down, or am I going to have to break your fingers?” the angel asked.
Flagg calmed down. “Now I know I’m crazy,” he said.
“Oh, sure you are!” the little devil agreed, startling Flagg, “You’re crazy about deep dish pizza, you’re crazy about any movie featuring Anne Francis - and for good reason, by the way: Hubba hubba! - you’re crazy about Chinese opera, and although you’re not crazy about it yet, you’re definitely off your beam about that pretty little preacher-lady sexbot back there. You are not, however, crazy about a little angel and a little devil on your shoulder. You’re not going to wake up from this. This is reality.”
“I concur,” said the angel concurrently, “Kind of weird reality, but reality none the less.”
“This. Can. Not. Be. Real.” Flagg insisted, “This is like something out of a sitcom. It’s a cliché!”
“Cliches have to get started somewhere,” The devil said, “They’re not fundamentally untrue, they just get overused.”
“Anyway,” the angel said, sounding annoyed, “to reiterate: Dude, you totally should not be trying to stop yourself from going in there.”
“Awww, go ahead, try it Reuben!” the devil insisted.
“Who’s ’Reuben?’” Flagg and the Angel asked simultaneously.
“Sorry, ’Yank.’ I meant to say ’Yank.” I was distracted. Anyway, try it!”
“I’m definitely going to!” Flagg said, and got up off the ground.
“Atta’monkey!” said the devil.
“Dude, no, totally, you should not do this,” the angel said, a bit more emphatically this time.
“You shut up, Casti’el,” the devil said, “He’s an adult, let the man make up his own mind.”
“You shut up, Pazuzu!” the angel rejoined, “Or should I say ‘Lulubelle?’ That’s what Loki was calling you when he…”
“Ok, ok, let’s not say anything we can’t take back,” the devil said nervously.
“I’m ignoring both of you,” Flagg said as he trudged along, “Because you’re not real.”
“Why can’t we be real?” Casti’el asked.
“For starters, because I’m Jewish.”
“So am I, what’s your point?” the angel asked. Flagg didn’t answer, just ignored them as he hailed yet another robocab. Casti’el continued, “What you’re looking at here is a classical paradox. You go back in time to kill president Kennedy because he was a monster who started World War III, but since you’ve killed, there never was a World War III, and hence no need for you to kill Kennedy, so you don’t kill him, which means that World War III happens, which means you have to go back in time to kill him. It’s irresolvable. Do you hear me?”
Flagg said nothing. The devil stabbed him in the neck with his pitchfork.
“OW!” Flagg yelled, and swatted at the devil, “What did you do that for?”
“I’m a devil. I’m bad. But it’s no fun if you don’t listen to us, so pay attention or more neck-forking.”
“Fine, I heard you. If I stop myself from going into the restaurant, the paradox doesn’t happen. Everything goes back to normal,” Flagg said.
“Exactly right,” said the devil, “we’ll prevent the Gordian knot from ever having been tied. Now, I’m being honest with you here, Yank,”
“Oh, please,” said Casti’el
Ignoring him, the devil continued, “You - this version of you - will cease to have ever existed. It’s totally worth it, however, as you won’t have any memory of all the crap that’s happened to you tonight.”
“Don’t listen to Lulubelle,” Casti’el said, “it doesn’t work that way. A paradox has always been, and always will be. There are spiritual dimensions at play here…”
“No there aren’t,” the devil said.
“I refuse to believe that you two are anything more than a hallucination, I refuse to believe there’s a spiritual dimension to all this, just some kind of basic scientific problem.”
“Oh come on!” the angel yelled, sounding a bit like Tom Hanks, “you’ve got this whole stupid conundrum, you’ve got everyone around you being waaaaaay too articulate in every conversations, you’ve got no end of robots who won’t shut up about God like they’re supporting characters from a Philip K. Dick novel - Obviously there’s a spiritual concern in all this. How stupid are you?”
“I thought angels were supposed to be nice,” Flagg said.
“Nope, we’re terrifying. This isn’t really what we look like. I’m holding back overwhelming you right now,” Casti’el said.
“He’s holding back because he can’t force you to do anything,” said the devil, “neither can I. You have to make your own choices.”
“Listen to me, Flagg, if you attempt to prevent this paradox from happening, it will be bad, very very bad. You need to give yourself up and take the terrible consequences for the benefit of everyone, not just here on Ganymede, but everyone.”
“Superstitious nonsense,” said the devil, “It’ll all be fine. Probably you’ll even get to make it with the Ministress. Or if not her, the one from the card shop who’s just as nice..”
“I’m gonna’ roll with the devil on this one,” Flagg said.
“So be it,” said the Angel, who then started screaming, “HEY, COPS! OVER HERE! THIS GUY’S INFECTED WITH TEMPORAL ANOMALIES!” The two supernatural beings disappeared. The police noticed, and the cabbie attempted to stop when the sirens sounded, but Flagg pulled his gun on him and forced him to go on. As it was yet another rickshaw, the cab-droid simply dropped the handles and ran away at the first opportunity. Flagg jumped out, grabbed the handles himself, and started pulling the empty rickshaw for about half a minute.
“Wait, what the hell am I doing?” he asked himself, dropped the handles, and broke into a run. But it was too late. The cops had him.
They threw him in an enormous cell in the Chrono-Synclastic Bubble-Plastic office. Every twenty minutes another version of him was thrown in as well. At first they tried to come up with a plan of escape, but, unfortunately, they kept having to bring the later versions of himself up to speed, which resulted in him having the same conversation over and over, so ultimately he just got frustrated and brooded in a corner. Presently the football stadium-sized room was packed with Flaggs. A door opened, and someone in a medical uniform stuck his head through and said “Will the earliest version of you please step forward? It’s time for your treatment.”
He did. They took him to another room.
“You kept me in there long enough, that took days!” he whined.
“You would not believe how much paperwork temporal anomalies generate. You see ‘em on the TV, and it’s all ‘ooh, Captain Baldington J. Frenchman is in a paradox!’ and it’s all exciting and stuff, but do the TV writers ever give any thought to the unending legions of burocrats it would take just to file the mission reports? No, they do not!”
They arrived at a small, white room, like a dentists’ office, with a pleasant view of the parking lot. The doctor motioned for Flagg to sit down, and he did so.
“So this will cure me?” he asked.
“Certainly! This will require repeated treatments to prevent new outbreaks of T.A., but it will cure the problem. Have they explained the procedure to you?”
“No. Will this hurt much?” Flagg asked.
“Oh my lack-of-heavens, no! Not at all. You’ll just relax back here, and then I’ll administer a medical death, and then you’re all better. And dead. Dead and better.”
“What? Kill me? I thought you said you could cure me?”
“This will cure you, though you won’t survive. There’s only one reasonable way out of a paradox. We’ll have to kill you one and a time until the sun burns out, but it’ll prevent you from going on endlessly and destroying our whole civilization.”
Flagg kicked him in the face, threw him through the window, then escaped into the parking lot.
The doctor, preparing for a lifetime of getting thusly abused, said, “I hate this job.”
The cops chased Flagg through The Bad Part Of Town™, and he ducked into the church, interrupting choir practice. The luscious ministress was there, flustered by his intrusion.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” she demanded.
“What? You knew me from before…” he spluttered.
“Oh, Lord, do you have a Temporal Anomaly?” she asked. She was quick on the uptake for a sexbot, but then she’d transcended her sordid upbringing, which may have accounted for it.
“Yes. My name is Yank E. Flagg,” she laughed at that, but he continued, “And I’m a Comrade Ensign in the United States Navy. I went in that stupid restaurant, and now I’m afflicted..”
“Infected,” she corrected
“Whatever,” he continued, “With this stupid T.A., and everyone’s trying to kill me.” he paused, “Including, intermittently, myself. Please, please, please, in the name of God, please try to come up with a solution for this that doesn’t involve me dying or turning myself in, ok? Also, you have sweet legs.”
“Yes I do,” she agreed.
“I just thought I should mention that because…” The cops started pounding on the door, and he ran away. The Lutheran ministress ended choir practice early so she could concentrate on the problem.
The plan was simple: Get back to the Monkeyspanker, steal a fighter, and just blow up the whole part of town Bubba’s Burger Barn was in before he went in to eat there. That would prevent the paradox from getting started in the first place, and everything would be fine.
It went off without much of a hitch. He wasn’t really qualified to fly a fighter, but he’d played a lot of Grand Theft Spacecraft, so he was able to fake his way through most of it. He flew over the city until he spotted Lord Running Cab, and followed him high and out of sight. Then, when he saw himself pulling up in front of the restaurant, he loosed the missiles, and cheered at the explosion and the wall of bright, cleansing flame that ensued.
“Finally, that’s over!” he said, and watched The Bad Section Of Town™ burn for a bit.
“Wait a minute, why am I still here? I should have ceased to be!”
Before he could ponder it too deeply, he noticed the cracks on the ground, radiating out from the epicenter of the explosion, each one glowing in a bright light that wasn’t light at all. More disturbingly, there were cracks in the sky, also radiating something that his eyes perceived as light, but which wasn’t.
“Oh crap!” he said to no one in particular.
He watched in mounting horror as emergency vehicles pulled up to fight the flames, but seemingly oblivious to the cracks, but as the cracks widened, they became harder and harder to look at, giving him headaches. He could see vague Escher-like segments of the Ganymede break off and tumble slowly. The cracks themselves were impossible things of eldritch horror, stretching in all three directions, and more. His brain wasn’t wired to see it, but he could feel the hyperdimentional cracks through some unknown aspect of his soul, the soul itself being somewhat hyperdimentional.
He panicked and flew higher, through Ganymede’s atmosphere, until he could see Jupiter looming in front of him like a god’s concept of an Easter egg. The moon shrank behind him as he ran away, but he could still plainly see - and worse yet, feel - the thing breaking up into impossible tesselations divided by chasms of glowing unreality as they broke off and drifted through the night, slamming into other bits of fragmented reality, and bouncing spiraling off in some other random non-Euclidean direction.
The cracks extended out into space, but more nightmarishly, they extended through time. The past and the future and the present were coming loose, calving off from causality like glaciers falling into an entropic ocean. The bare underpinnings of the universe shown through in all their terrifying glory, had Flagg only been able to see them, but no man could, and thanks to his actions, no man ever would, for it is not the ken of mortals to see things larger than reality.
He put his foot in the throttle, and kept it there until his fighter had run out of fuel, kept it there long after, kept it there because he was too terrified to even have reflex left. He had been willing - desiring even - to un-write his own existence just moments before, but this? This? This was worse than non-being, worse than death, this was the horrific knowledge that he was the end of everything.
A gyroscope in the fighter seized, and the craft began to tilt around slowly. Redundancies kicked in and stabilized the rotation, but not before the vehicle was flying backwards, its cockpit pointing in the direction from which it had come. In space, this made little difference, and since he was long since out of fuel, it made none at all.
Ganymede was gone, replaced by a glowing hole that did not glow. He watched - too horrified to blink - as the hole unraveled further, jagged and spastic. One rift jutted out, bisecting Jupiter. It’s gaseous atmosphere immediately started boiling off into the void, while the whole segment of space his fighter was in cusped and pulled away. Half of Jupiter was with him, half was not. He watched the planet wither and die, and saw the sun spiral in a nauseatingly fast spirograph all around him. He realized - not consciously - that he was inside an iceberg of time and space, as powerless to do anything as a worm on a sinking ship.
He watched huge slabs of history and space drift past, tumbling, intersecting, pulling apart. He saw earth and for a moment his heart soared, but then he realized he was looking at past earths - the Viking-era Norse in one splinter, intersecting with the First Kingdom of Egypt in another, the horrified Norse - this must have seemed like Ragnarock to them - poured panic-stricken into Egypt, and as he watched, untold bloodshed ensued, even as the Egyptian fragment continued to erode, the Nile emptying itself into vast, limitless, incomprehensible space, cataracts of water falling into nothingness, into a tartarus where even causality could survive. This new Norse/Egyptian continuity/fragment spiraled out of control until it was rammed by a segment of the Cenozoic era. Terrified dinosaurs poured through the intersecting blisters of the timeline, not even bothering to gorge themselves on the humans they trampled.
This doomed composite world drifted away, while to his left, Flagg saw - for he could not blink, could not look away, could not shut down his mind - as the still-boiling moon crashed into earth, simultaneously crashing into Mars and Venus and the sun at different points in a history that had never happened, should never have happened, could never have happened. And over it all, the light, the terrifying, endless, accusing light that shone through is very quick as a palpable force.
And still the rips grew, the tears expanded. Even as the undoing of existence itself radiated faster than reality itself off into Flagg’s own universe, the devastation spread into all the universe, all the timelines. A Twenty-second century Roman empire that never fell slid past him, colliding with a fragment of a timeline where the Axis had won World War II, only to have Japan nuke Germany out of existence. The worlds hit - physically - and both their lines came to an end. More earths drew past, some recognizable, some not, some filled with people, some not, some filled with life, some dead, all unraveling, boiling away, coming apart in a fog of rock and water and metal and meat, dispersing in the void that was within as well as without.
Flagg didn’t know what any of these worlds were - how could he? - and yet as he gazed upon them, somehow, their full history was commuted to him though some unknowable mechanism, something to do with the unflinching light of nonexistence, of nonlife, telling him, on some unspeakable level, of what it had eaten, of what it would yet eat, of how it would eat him last after he had become well and truly aware of the magnitude of destruction he had wrought.
A world of thousand-eyed things came by, fighting a living being ten thousand light years wide, both evaporating out of reality, even as they fought. The universe - the omniverse - was so far gone now, that even thoughts blossomed into physical reality, briefly flickered, and then burned away, burned away, cursing Flagg’s unknown name. Nightmarish creatures, things that violated all reason, the shape of the nightmares of a billion, trillion souls winked into existence, a sky full of monsters, and every one coming for him.
“Now they will end this,” he thought, but no, they could not. The monsters themselves could not survive the very nothingness that had spawned them, and they, too, were gone.
And then all was gone.
He floated through the void, alone, and quite insane for a time that can not be measured because there was no more time. A thousand lifetimes? A blinking of an eye? It no longer mattered. All that ever was was gone, save him. His mortal coil all that remained, that, and the endless light of deepest darkness.
Eventually, by accident or design, his wits returned. He realized his foot was still on the throttle. He relaxed, and tried to move it, but his body was weak with starvation, inaction, exhausted to the limits of human endurance, beyond them even. Had death itself not already died in the final estimation, Flagg would have long since died. Such things no longer were, however, and hence held sway over him. He floated there, in his fighter, staring at the terrifying freedom he had caused, wishing he could again lose his wits, but even madness had not survived.
Of physical things, he was all there was.
A quadrillion infinities later, he saw something else, something flickering, moving towards him. Presently he identified it as two things - butterfly-like entities - close together and flapping in the luminiferous aether.
They were angels.
As they grew closer, Flagg could recognize one of them as Casti’el - now life size. The other - also man-sized - was new, he didn’t know that one. They hovered in front of the fighter, and motioned for him to open his cockpit. When he wouldn’t do it, they pulled it off and helped him out, both of them flickering briefly between their anthropomorphic appearance and their true, unspeakable form. They took his hands, and flew off, together.
“What happened?” Flagg managed to croak out, speaking for the first time in a billion years through a throat long beyond petrified.
“You destroyed everything,” the unknown angel said, “You were warned, but you did it anyway. You killed everyone, everything, just to save your own miserable neck.“ There was an ominous pause, far more visceral than mere silence, and then the angel continued, “He would have words with you.”
Flagg didn’t need to know who ‘He’ was, there was only One that it could possibly be. He looked pleadingly on Casti’el, who just shook his head in disappointment.
“Boy, Yank, are you gonna’ get it!” was all he’d say.
Copyright 2010,2011 Republibot 3.0
Originally web-published May, 2010