"It all starts with the Act. In order to find the Lanes, you had to learn to give up your name, not just at heart but in some fundamental way. I still don't know how or why that one piece of information is the key, but it is." He flips pages in his notebook, tracing thoughts laid down who knows when, subjective time. "Do you remember when you figured it out?"
He looks up, grins briefly. "Not everyone does. But that moment, when you understood, what did it feel like?" He pauses, then looks down and frowns, flipping pages for a bit before looking back at me. "Have I ever asked you this?"
I shake my head. "Not in detail."
The smile returns, and with it a fountain pen, waiting over a sheet of clean entrapped paper. "May I?"
I nod, and think back. It hasn't been long enough to forget, finding the entrance into the out-of-worlds. "I was standing before a wall. A brick wall. I'd seen her there before, and seen her disappear. I don't know whether I saw her actually jump, but I know I'd looked for her and she was gone, with not enough time to get away from sight."
I rock back and forth slowly, feeling the dampness of the alley on my skin and the abrasive of the brick as I pressed my fingertips to it, fingers splayed and searching. "She'd just stood there with the dog, and then...nothing. I saw it once, that first time, and that started me down the path - I started to fade away from there. Already homeless, already cut off, I recall I started losing the sense of things. I couldn't feel the weather, couldn't smell the air. People were starting to look right through me, even more than usual."
The pen makes silky noises as it slides across the notebook, no scratching here. The paper is pressed smooth, the nib well broken in.
"In any case, the time then came when I saw her standing with the dog before the wall again." I've slid back into the cadence of my newfound speech almost without noticing. "She reached out to the wall. This was some weeks later, when I was watching the alley for her - she reached out one hand, I recall, and then I shouted something to her. She turned her face. That's when I saw, the first time...you know her face? Yes. Before she jumped away she smiled out at me from that; I saw her mouth for one quick moment as she left. One small sight I filed away in the corners of my brain, a faceless woman's smiling mouth as she and her dog left me behind."
"Did you follow right away?"
"I spent hours at that wall, looking for what she'd found or done. Each brick, each line of mortar in between came in for an examination like none other. I didn't find a thing, until I realized that's what I was supposed to find."
"Nothing. The wall wasn't important. The bricks weren't important. I realized what was going on when I found myself rubbing fingers against the ceramic in absentminded frustration. I removed my hand and looked at my fingertips and idly noted that I'd almost sanded the tips down clean - no fingerprints. That was what tripped the thought inside my head. The very notion seemed insane, but I had ought to lose by that distant point, and so I leaned my head against the wall and thought about nothing other than how to lose myself."
"Because what I wanted more than anything, I realized, was not to leave but to stop being. I wanted freedom, I wanted nothing holding me. I'd already discarded all the physical ties I had, and had no memories of others - but there was one thing that held me to the world in which I stood, and that was me. Who I was. My very name. By existing, I carved out a place - a four-dimensioned wedge of probability and collision. Everything else there was perturbed, and if asked, the very flagstones of the walk could say with assurance 'oh, I remember those feet, yes, they were those of thus-and-so.' I was present everywhere in negatives."
"Then I felt myself letting go. I unclenched some inner mental grip, and who I was floated out of that alleyway on steam-heavy breeze. I was still there, but he was not. I was just a point of view and supporting meat. Just at that moment, I recall-"
I stopped, eyes fixed on the bricks in my imagination. He waited patiently, pen moving still but as quietly as possible. I shook myself, smiled, focused on his face. "Sorry. I recall the moment it was laid clear. The bricks folded back, and the Lanes took me up. I nearly died in shock and fear right there, but fortunate for me she was there. She'd been waiting, she told me then, ever since she smiled - waiting for me to figure out the game. Just past the wall, she'd been sitting, in a private place, some urban shoreline with her dog from where she could see the other side of those same bricks while watching ripples march in train to land. So she took me, there, to hand and showed me what I needed to know in order to survive. The first few bits, at least."
I fell silent, watching, and he nodded, pen racing to a concluding poke of period. Then he looked up. "It sounds a Pyrrhic victory."
I shrug. "Not at all. I'm still here. I've seen things...you understand."
"So give. What can you tell me?"
He blows softly on the page, drying ink, for a moment, before looking up. "I think it's something to do with many-worlds theory."
"That sounds redundant. We, of all, know there are many worlds."
"No, that wasn't what I meant. It's just that...hm. How to explain. When you gave up your name, and vanished from that lane, it left an imbalance. Somewhere, somewhen, someone else was 'pushed' from their lane by your act. Or perhaps you were pushed by them. Or just maybe it all happened as one event, I don't know. But I think that whenever one of us takes that first step, the consequences are felt not just in our home Lane but in all lanes - and in those lanes which are close enough to spawn other versions of us, one or more of those same versions free themselves as well. It seems to be in pairs, and I don't know why - perhaps your phrase about 'a negative impression' is more apt than we know."
"So by giving up my name I set him free as well?"
"Maybe. Or he you."
"But why then did we hunt each other?"
"Oh, well, that. You were encouraged, were you not? By others who had had close calls?"
I nod my head unwillingly.
"And there was a feeling of being watched - of being followed."
"Of course. He is you. Or as near as makes no mind. Perhaps he is your opposite in some topologic maths, but in motive and in act he's you. You would have made near the same jumps, to the same places - only a few of such happenstance collisions would have been enough, I surmise, to feed the paranoia you had been gifted with by your new-found peers."
The notion is unpleasant but unfortunately plausible. "But why has this not been discovered? Why have so many died? Why hasn't it been stopped?"
"I don't know. One reason I don't publicize my theories, and the same reason I make myself hard to find, is that there seems to be some other force that bends us to this pattern. I don't know anything about it. But every time I've discussed this with another, that other has turned up dead - or never turned up again." He gets a guilty look. "And now it's your turn."
Anger flashes hot. "Then why tell me?"
He shrugs. "Because you asked. Would you have stopped asking if I refused?"
Choler cools. "...no."
"Then there you go. All I can do is tell you what I know. For what it's worth, you come to me suspicious already - this may stand you well. For my own part, I will have to leave this lane unexplained - talking this over with you is enough to make me move along in case something tries to backtrace you."
"Or someone. I speak only in prudent generics."
"Very well. I begin to see."
"I'm sure you do. What do you plan?"
"I'll meet with him. I have no choice. Perhaps together we can determine what or who is out there causing this - if such exists."
"And if not?"
"Then you'll never see me again, and your studies will be undisturbed."
He frowns, grimly, once. "That would not be my preference."
I stand. He does as well. "Nor mine." I extend my hand, and he shakes it solemnly. I nod in salute. In our shared timeline, another thirty thousand seconds have passed. The rendezvous draws nearer. It is time to begin to plan, in case what is waiting isn't what I once shook by the hand.
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