This is Episode 3 of Forking, a short story in the ‘philosophy fiction’ genre. If you haven’t yet read Episode 1, start here.
Getting into the Institute turned out to be easy. Arriving in a crowd from the bus, he found the iid-controlled gate held open for him by a smiling girl. Security at that boundary is given low priority. The ‘free-campus’ tradition. Half-hidden in a big armchair in a departmental Reading Room – not his own department’s – he checks the messages on his phone. Nothing new that matters. He re-reads Elliot’s reply to EB, agreeing to meet before class. Elliot must be in his car by now, probably in slow traffic on the Expressway.
Elliot forwards another copy of Elliot’s message to EB, adding a note at the top. “BTW, I hope it goes without saying that I take issue with Dalton. I notified the board that he he’s a lightweight, unsuitable for that job. Between us, he’s a dick-head!” Elliot pictures EB’s reaction when he reads it. He feels strangely exhilarated, and almost giggles.
With a few minutes to kill, Elliot wanders out of the Reading Room. He notices the libertarian, Wade, coming down the corridor. Wade nods to Elliot in passing. Only since Elliot gained tenure – over Wade’s opposition, he is sure – does the old anarchist grant him even that much recognition.
A suitable target. Elliot saunters after him.
Wade turns into the faculty Men’s Room. Following, Elliot sees Wade at a urinal. Elliot stands at the neighboring one. They are alone. “All prepared for your lecture?” Elliot asks loudly.
Wade hastily does up his zipper. “I don’t prepare classes,” he says dismissively. “At least not undergraduate.”
“Oh, really?” says Elliot. “I still prepare.”
“Indeed.” Wade briskly washes his hands.
Elliot nudges Wade in the ribs. “That’s why I carry this.” He brandishes a mickey of ouzo in Wade’s face, making him draw back. Cracking the seal, Elliot takes a swig. “Good little preparation. Have some?” He thrusts out the bottle, sending a dollop onto Wade’s shoe.
“Otley! What are you up to?”
“Is something wrong, Cyril?” Elliot approaches Wade with an air of concern, crowding him against the sinks. “Oh, I know! An Oxonian doesn’t drink before noon. Hey, that’s okay, we’ll meet for lunch and get to be friends. But what’s the matter, Cyril? You don’t disapprove, do you? Remember, I’m not an Oxonian.”
“You certainly aren’t!” Wade sputters. “Get out of my way.”
“But what about Liberty? The Right of Every Man to Do What He Likes with His Own Life? I like to drink before noon.”
“Before lecturing, it seems. That’s another story. Move aside!” Wade pushes, but Elliot holds his ground.
“I haven’t finished telling you about my preparation,” he says plaintively.
“I don’t want to hear any more!” Straining, they sway together. The ouzo smashes on the tile floor.
Elliot stoops and snatches up the largest piece of glass. It has a wicked point. “That’s fine,” he breathes. “That can be arranged.” Watching the shard, Wade ceases to push, promptly turning from red to white. An overwhelming scent of anise steams up. “You know, Cyril,” Elliot says thoughtfully, “I’m coming around to your opinion that every man has the right to bear arms. You still believe that, don’t you?”
“I recall you arguing on the opposite side of the question,” Wade says evasively.
“I used to. But I guess you finally won me over.” Elliot puts on a grave expression. “This” – he wiggles the shard – “protects me against anyone who would infringe on my liberties.”
“I hope,” says Wade, “you don’t think I’ve trespassed on your sovereignty.”
“Oh you have trespassed, Cyril,” Elliot cautions. “There was the time you took my marker.”
“My white-board marker. With the result that I could not draw the diagram which would have tor-r-rn…” – he jerks the shard – “the argument, with which you were trying to discredit me, to shreds. Yes – and this was the cleverest part of your strategy, for which I must congratulate you – you held on to the marker.”
Wade’s eyes dart about. “I don’t recall any such incident,” he says hurriedly. “If I took your marker, I apologize for that. It would have been done inadvertently.”
“Oh,” says Elliot. “Then I accept your apology. I see I have nothing to fear from you. But,” he whispers, “I have to be careful. I have real enemies.”
“Come, come.” Wade forces a smile.
“I have!” says Elliot. “In this very room.”
Wade chuckles nervously. “There’s no one here but ourselves. And my advice,” he adds with a wink, “is to put that down before somebody does come.”
“Are you blind?” Elliot shouts. “He’s standing right there!” Wade’s gaze follows the sweep of Elliot’s arm to a human figure. “I hate him!” says Elliot through clenched teeth as he hurls the bottle-neck.
Struck squarely in the face, the image of Elliot shatters radially. The mirrored room collapses like a bombed building. Elliot glances at his phone. “Gee, I’ve got a class,” he says, running out.
From the glittering fragments, Wade picks out the bottle’s screw top. He carries it gingerly, between thumb and forefinger, down the corridor. Pausing in front of EB’s closed office door, he hears the department head’s baritone voice raised in consternation.
Leaning on the podium of lecture theater 242D, Elliot coughs into his throat-mike, waiting for the student noise to subside. It doesn’t.
Removing the mike, he places it on the floor. Then he topples the podium. The concussion, as the mike is crushed, brings a thousand pairs of eyes into shocked focus.
“Thank you,” he says, noticing with interest that the mike is no longer necessary. “Today’s scheduled topic is Godel-incompleteness of operations checks in the GE Taurus locomotive. Or, as I put it in my notes, There’s no safe way to milk a bull. He pauses, triggering a feeble laugh. “But we’ll skip that,” he presses on, “because I haven’t prepared it. Which is lucky, actually, because it brings us to something important, unlike that other crap.” The prevailing mood, Elliot gathers from his students’ faces, is one of scandalized hilarity, although a few look profoundly unhappy. “And that,” he says, “is Human Error. I mean, You-Haven’t-A-Prayer. I mean…LISTEN!” he yells over their nervous titters. “Our study of this subject will consist in…an exam. The exam will take place a week Monday. It will cover all the material in this course, as well as all related material. Everything from air-brakes to airheads. Any questions?” There is a flurry of styluses and typing. But many students just sit with wrinkled foreheads. “It will count for half your grade,” Elliot announces loudly and distinctly. “Human error is the single greatest threat to the world today. To help you gain an understanding of its magnitude, I am cancelling lectures from now until the exam.” The background murmur becomes a hubbub. “You’ll have to get it up on your own,” Elliot tells them, breaking into a manic grin.
Panic sets in.
“Can we have an extension?”
“Some of us don’t have the textbook.”
Elliot sprints to the exit. A low, awesome reverberation, like an avalanche, pursues him down the corridor.
Ducking into a carrall, he narrowly misses being seen by Elliot, who is hastening towards 242D. He has a stricken look – haunted, Elliot thinks.
Moments later, some of his students approach from another direction. “Sheer garbage!” one of them complains. “He was incoherent.”
“He was obviously bombed.”
“Let’s file a grievance. We’ll never have a better opportunity!” They pass on.
When the mobs of students thin out, Elliot heads for an exit. But he runs into Hinch, one of the pool of ‘visiting lecturers’ – PhD’s all – who float from school to school as sabbatical replacements, a year here, a term there, sometimes part time, sometimes at night, interspersed with stretches of unemployment. Hundreds of them constantly crisscross the country, hanging on in hopes of securing one of the five or six regular positions that become vacant every year. Of this group, it seems to Elliot, only the meanest survive. The rest eddy away into the outside world, becoming bike couriers, lawyers, bank clerks, CEO’s of tech companies. Hinch has been treading the mill for eight years.
“Hi Andy,” Elliot greets him.
“Hi-i,” says Hinch. His skin tone is grey; his eyes look rimmed with lead. “I heard about your talk in Sydney. Sounds like you really turned things around. Did you use the stuff from your article in Transport Journal? Those were pretty impressive statistics.” Flattery of tenured professors is a common endurance tactic.
“Weren’t they?” Elliot laughs. “Any neater and I’d be accused of cooking the data.”
“Those tests must have taken hundreds of hours.”
“Come on.” Elliot nudges Hinch. “Think I have time for that? We all know itravel is a good thing.”
Hinch nods, always smiling, leaded eyes perplexed.
“The point is to convince the bureaucrats,” says Elliot. “I needed the numbers for that, so I got a comp student who’d been having trouble in my course to whip up some suitable stats. Believe me, Andy, it’s the only way to go. Well, I’ve got a student waiting – her stats are nice too,” he says lasciviously. “Ciaou.”
“Ciaou.” Hinch takes the stairs rather than the elevator up to the department. He plods along, thinking, stopping occasionally to rub his tired eyes.
* * *
Later, Elliot punches his own number. The phone rings several times before the answering, “Hello.” It is a persecuted voice – tired, gloomy, hurt.
“It’s me,” Elliot announces, holding the phone away from his ear in anticipation of the first storm of abuse.
“Don’t exaggerate,” he interrupts at last. “Nothing’s damaged that can’t be fixed. The mirror, okay, I may have got a bit carried away. Listen, Elliot…will you shut up? You have tenure, you’re respected by the people who count, you’ll weather the storm. You’re suffering from stress, family problems, they’ll understand. It’ll make your reputation in the end; there’s nothing like a history of eccentricity…. That rumour was spread by Hinch; you have your worksheets to refute it. Stop whining. Are you ready to negotiate, you bugger? Of course that’s what I want. I know you have no choice. Neither do I.”
* * *
They choose a spot where there is no risk of being seen by anyone who will not assume they are just twins – a remote cove on Georgian Bay. They arrange to meet at noon – but Elliot decides to arrive early. He is searching for a hiding place when the first bullet whines over his shoulder.
Almost dropping his own weapon, he runs in a reeling frenzy to the shelter of the nearest tree-trunk. He returns fire, although he can’t see anybody.
It would be suicide to stay where he is. Hoping to find a vantage point overlooking the origin of the first shot, he creeps along behind a low ridge.
They break cover simultaneously on opposite sides of a dry streambed. Retreating in panic, each gets off a wild shot. Elliot suddenly regrets his lifelong squeamishness about private weapons, which leaves him without the skills of a gunfighter. But if he had those skills, his enemy would have them too. Swearing softly, he risks peeking over the ridge-crest. There is the white flash of a vanishing face. This time, he thinks, the other failed to see him. It is a slight advantage. Maybe he can leverage it.
Elliot tosses a stick in a low arc, downslope. The noise it makes could be mistaken for a man stumbling. He imagines himself in the other’s place, hearing the sound and thinking, he’s coming at me from below. He’ll have to cross the stream bed. The other Elliot would try to get a clear downstream view. Or would he?
Shifting, he gets fragmentary glimpses of the opposite bank. He can’t decide where the other would hide. All he can hear is the occasional, startling thud of cones dropped by squirrels. His neck aches; an anxious restlessness builds within him, making him want to move. His hands are very cold. The opposite bank is in full sun; he feels envious of the other Elliot, being warmer. But the other Elliot also has the sun in his eyes. Maybe. He has lost track of where the other is.
It bothers him to stay too long in one place. He creeps upslope, every second expecting the slam of a bullet in his back. Finding another low spot, he gets down. He listens intently, but a distant engine now covers most sounds.
Chancing a look downstream, he sees him – only metres away, clambering down the rocks. The other is scanning the trees further downstream. He moves rapidly, jerkily, but his progress is delayed in the centre of the streambed by a ridge of rock. Elliot stands for a clear shot. His heart pounds and his palms are sweating, but he feels, for the first time, a certain inward calm. It is relief from fear. The situation is now under control – his control. With sights squarely on the other’s back, Elliot starts to squeeze the trigger. Then the other Elliot turns around.
Even seeing takes time, and the intensity makes everything slow – the flicker of Elliot’s eyes registering the human form, widening as Elliot recognizes Elliot, and recognizes death in the form of Elliot. The tightening of his finger on the trigger – all sluggish. And the air seems to pound. It is strange to see himself see himself over the gunsights, the fearful face of a man he knows better than a brother, better than his wife. A man who has spent his entire career fighting for sustainable transportation. Enemy! A conscientious man, who works hard and honestly, who works later at night than he has to, later than he enjoys. A man who cares for his wife, and worries that his children see too little of their father. A man with the same ideals as himself. Suddenly Elliot wonders what he’s doing. But – thief! wife-stealer! – he can’t afford that. One life isn’t big enough for both of us! One way or the other, it has to be settled. His legs, as he tries to swing them off the ridge of rock, move sluggishly. And the air seems to pound.
The pounding, he is startled to notice, contains words.
…move. Drop your weapons, and do not…
The words are deep, thundering, and very slow too. Red and blue lights swivel as lazily as a merry-go-round.
Nothing is to be done after all. The two sports rifles float down to the streambed and clatter around. Their orange stocks are strikingly similar. They look like the same brand (a mid-priced line, not the cheapest) – maybe, Elliot thinks, bought at the same rod and gun store in Owen Sound. It would have been funny if they’d met at the counter.
The police copter lands in the streambed and disgorges four or five shiny black helmets. And stun-guns, of course. Both Elliots spread their empty hands. The pounding fades as the big engine winds down. Now there are other people among the trees, shouting.
“Officer! We’re over here!”
“…bullet just missed my baby!”
Dozens of people swarming down the riverbank from the trail behind.
“…just out for a hike and…”
Some of them wear plastic election signs over their anoraks. Elliot recognizes the colours.
“Sorry!” he calls to Elliot through the hubbub.
The other shakes his head. “No need to apologize.”
A short, lumpy woman moves between them, shaking her fist. “Maniacs! Officer, they’re dangerous, why don’t you use your stun-gun?”
“Move back, madam. All of you move back!”
“God!” she gasps, “twins!”
The sign she’s wearing reads “Rymple”. Elliot knows the name well – former Minister of Transport, a staunch stikist who lost his seat in the last election. But the seat came vacant and a by-election was coming up…yesterday, Elliot remembers. The by-election was yesterday. Rymple must have won. These must be Rymple’s people, out for a post-campaign jaunt to celebrate their victory, see the fall colours, have a picnic.
A lot of phones and video cameras are pointed his way.
“Little family quarrel?” one of the cops asks in a friendly tone.
* * *
It’s not until Monday afternoon that Marjory is finally able to reclaim him from the detention centre. The Elliots share the back seat as she drives home. They are slumped, subdued. “I’m so tired!” one remarks.
“It sure takes it out of you,” says the other.
There is no animosity in their voices now. As the psychological profiles indicated, their mutual hostility has been completely neutralized by changing circumstances. Since they are no longer a danger to each another or to anyone else, prolonging their incarceration would be a waste of public funds. They had to post a bond, and commit to staying away from the Institute, and all IGo offices. Their joint release gave the stikists another opportunity to juxtapose their faces on the news, one they instantly made the most of, as they did of their previous opportunities. Polls show rising concern about itravel across all demographics.
“Well, I hope you’ll be able to stay awake until after dinner,” says Marjory. “The kids insisted you had to be at my birthday party, so we postponed it to tonight.” She laughs with a bittersweet note.
“Oh, jesus!” one Elliot exclaims, covering his face with his hands. “Marjory, I forgot all about your birthday! How could I do that? I’m so sorry!”
“You didn’t forget, silly,” she says soothingly. “You gave me my present early, remember?”
Elliot looks at Elliot. “You?” The other one smiles wanly and shrugs.
When they arrive home they find another media scrum on the front lawn. The Elliots and Marjory push through it as quickly as they can, answering no questions Elliot does not try to screen his face from the cameras; guilty behaviour would just make matters worse.
Behind drawn curtains, the livingroom is festive with balloons and streamers. “Dad!” Shelley greets and hugs him, then moves quickly on to the other Elliot and hugs him too. “I’m so glad you’re okay! And Dad – I’m sorry about what I said the other night.”
“You’re sorry?” says Elliot. “I’m sorry! I’m the one who’s been causing all the trouble.”
“Wow!” says Norm, seeing his two fathers together for the first time. “Look at that!”
The family all stand back and look at him. “That’s enough!” he protests. “You’re making me self-conscious. Anyway, it’s your Mom’s birthday. You should be paying attention to her.” Elliot notices tears in Marjory’s eyes, her expression cracking. “Marjory, what’s the matter?”
“What do you think’s the matter?” she asks him. “Elliot, you tried to kill yourself! Oh, I shouldn’t say that.” Not in front of the children, he guesses she means.
He takes her in his arms, feels her sobbing, resisting his embrace. He searches his children’s faces, not knowing how to apologize.
After a long silence, Shelley comes closer. “Mom?” she says.
“Yes, sweetie.” Avoiding his eyes, Marjory pats her own with a tissue. “I’m all right.”
“There’s a bottle of champagne in the fridge,” Shelley tells her father pointedly.
He seizes the cue gratefully. “I’m on it.” “I’ll get the glasses,” the other Elliot chimes in.
“Is it time for presents?” Norm asks tentatively, approaching his mother with an elaborately gift-wrapped box.
* * *
They decide to meet alone in a Guelph motel room, an unassuming place far out of the public eye, to talk things over.
They have a few drinks without saying much, wandering around the room, peering through the filmy window. Once, Elliot flings the door open and scans the parking lot carefully. “We’re nervous,” Elliot remarks.
“They seem to be leaving us alone.”
“They don’t need us anymore. They have a complete record of what happened.”
Elliot drums his fingers. “How effectively can they use it?”
The other shrugs. “A nine days’ wonder.”
“It’s nice to think so.”
“People need itravel. They won’t give it up for…words.”
“Remember what people gave up for the church?”
“For life everlasting! Paradise!”
They drink some more.
“What can we do?”
“Keep a low profile, what else? Any publicity helps them.”
Time passes. A smile flickers over one of their faces, then spreads to both.
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Nuts, eh? You and I tearing around the bush, popping off at each other.”
“Good thing we’re bad shots.”
“I suppose. But if the first shot had hit, we might have got away with it.”
“You might have got away with it.”
“Was it me? Yeah, but you would’ve shot first if you’d seen me first.”
“I didn’t know what else to do. You were such a threat to me.”
Elliot nods profoundly. “I felt threatened as soon as I knew you existed. And it got worse. I couldn’t keep you out of my house, couldn’t keep your hands off Marjory…sorry to put it like that…”
“S’all right. I know what you mean.”
“…that’s how it felt.”
“S’all very familiar. You jeopardized my job, my entire life. I couldn’t help worrying that you would get it all. I thought about you sitting fat and happy at home, and me on Mars, mining molybdenum.”
Both burst out laughing at the silliness of the idea.
“I imagined,” Elliot gets out, wiping away tears, “being sick with envy. And all I wanted was to change the picture around.”
“Change what around?” Elliot pours more drinks.
“To put you in my place and me in yours.”
Elliot points at Elliot. “But that’s the same picture!” They collapse into a fresh fit of giggling.
Some time later, Elliot rubs his forehead with an ice cube. “You know,” he says wonderingly, “I was driven by emotions like that.”
“So who isn’t? Those emotions drive three-quarters of human activity.”
Elliot watches himself for a long time through half-closed eyes. “Remember,” he finally says, “how we smoked Mike Partridge?” As he sees, in the other’s sudden change of expression, the memories flooding back, his sense of their radical kinship deepens profoundly.
It was an incident from high school, a case of revenge. Of justice. Partridge was a jock, a loud-mouthed basketball player who gave Elliot grief throughout the long Spring term of their senior year, taunting him, sometimes grabbing his backpack before the start of class and throwing it out the window, even if Elliot’s laptop was in it. By the time he retrieved it, the teacher would show up and Elliot would get a detention.
There was a girl Mike Partridge had gone out with a couple of times, but the word was she dumped him. As a geek, Elliot figured he would never have a chance with Marjory unless he had something she wanted. He was webmaster of the student site, and she, he knew, liked to write. He offered to showcase her latest short story for the month of April, and in the same conversation invited her to Prom Night, but she saw through his clumsy attempt and turned him down. That impressed Elliot – her refusal to be manipulated, and the gentle tact with which she deflected his offer without making him feel bad, and also the sweater she was wearing, which exposed one shoulder, brushed by strands of her brown hair. He backed off, but found that, in the ordinary course of school life, he was frequently in conversation with her and that she was intensely interesting. After graduation, when a certain rock band came to town he phoned her and asked her to go, and to his surprise she accepted. It was a fabulous concert, loud, edgy and joyous, and they came out into a summer rainstorm huddled together, laughing. They kissed in the car, but the parking lot was full of kids, and Elliot knew they needed to go somewhere quieter, so he drove to the exit. She leaned towards him, smiling, as he lowered the window to pay the attendant. The attendant, standing soaked in the rain, was Mike Partridge.
“Hello, Mike,” said Elliot, with an unmistakable note of triumph.
Mike, for once, was at a loss for a comeback.
“We never told Marjory,” says Elliot, “the real reason we asked her to the prom. Think we should?”
The thought makes Elliot nervous. “Now’s not the time. Let’s wait until things settle down.”
“What’s going to make anything settle down?”
“I don’t know.”
“Marjory’s having a tough time with all this.”
He hears the other’s concern, sees and feels his love for his wife. All the jealousy has evaporated. “I know. I don’t know what to do about it.”
Their conversation drifts back to the shoot out. “When I was hunting you, I kept saying to myself, in the end, one’s self comes first. Those were the words – one’s self comes first. But I couldn’t for the life of me remember why I believed that. By the time I had you in my gunsights…”
“I had you in my gunsights.”
“Only one thing was clear to me then. There was a good reason to kill you.”
“A good reason. It would end the struggle between us. The danger to the family would be over. I could get on with my work. All the inefficiency, the abrasion of two men with one job, shared bank accounts, not enough clothes, one wife, one cat, would go away. But I realized…”
Elliot nods, his forehead furrowed. “Shit, we’ve drunk too much.”
“…that all that would be accomplished if you shot me. The same thing would be accomplished if you shot me. Or if I shot myself. And I really wondered…” He shakes his head helplessly.
“Yeah. You wondered why…”
“…why it shouldn’t be the other way around.”
“Right!” Elliot says excitely. “I thought the same thing, in a way.”
“You did?” Elliot is amazed.
“Yeah. I thought it’s the same thing as if I were shooting you. And at the same time I was scared for my life I also dreaded the load on your conscience. That’s funny, isn’t it, because you usually only dread what will happen to yourself. Anyway, I figured it would be better if you didn’t shoot, and we worked something else out.”
“For that reason?”
“Well…you know we’re the guilt-stricken type, Elliot.”
They drink again.
“This experience,” Elliot says eventually, looking into Elliot’s eyes with the comfortable steadiness brought about by three hours of drinking together. “It changes your way of looking at things, doesn’t it? I mean, everybody else’s got it all wrong.”
“Hm? Oh, yeah.”
“What are you thinking?”
“Oh, jus’ playing with ideas. What we could do about the damn stikists.”
…continued in episode 4…