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[Fiction] Jager - The Hypothetical Man


Vixen

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It was like walking through a skeleton.

It was just after the sunset. Tired streams of light stretched through a half-standing fence, years past the last time it had touched a paintbrush. On one half-rusted chain, a general store sign swung gently in the wind, clattering its remaining chain like an inanimate Jacob Marley. The houses and buildings jutted skywards like a ribcage, everything living having long since left.

Summer was just starting in earnest, and the desert air could make lies out of truth, crawling across the horizon in a shimmering stream. There was no one there to see, regardless - the town was long since abandoned. So it was less a truth that he came there, and more a possibility - another legend to join the others, that followed the hypothetical man.

He walked, and left no footprints, for he knew full well the value of treading lightly. He could have simply blinked in, slipping behind time and space and saving himself the walk. But there was something about this place...

Space and time were stretched thin here, and he may not have been able to tread lightly enough.

He looked at the house. In the way that other people saw it, it was four stories high, made of brick and mortar. In the way that he saw it, it was like a double-exposed photograph - something very close to it lurking just underneath it, over top of it, side by side but never completely in synch.

Jager pulled his hat off his head, and stared up into the sky. The town was just like walking through a skeleton, and casting bones in a pattern was as good a divination as any.

He slowed his breathing, and stilled his thoughts. He looked beyond the now.

One hundred and nine days into the future, his glass stayed level as he sipped from it, and he noticed nothing at all, because there was nothing to notice. This was still true.

But one hundred and nine days into the future, a drink slipped from his hands, and ice squeezed his heart. This was also true.

Dropping his drink was a lesser value of true - not quite as true. Hypothetical, really - if, hypothetically speaking, the universe was in danger of smashing headfirst into another one, and he was powerless to do anything about it, then yes, he might be disturbed enough to drop his drink.

Hypothetically.

He started up the walk. The door was locked, but that was no trouble - if you wiggled the knob on a door in just the right way they sprang right open. A trick beyond most people, but he was not, nor would he ever be, 'most people.'

He opened the door. Carved everywhere was a two-word phrase, carved on the walls, on the floors, on the ceiling. On a map of the North American continent, and the armrests of the room's sole chair. It grew, and in unexpected ways, in unexpected directions. It felt designed to grow, and to spread.

Two words, four characters each, eight letters total. It grew the more it was broken down, in a way that felt not accidental, but calculated. Engineered.

Of course, it was just a phrase.

But hypothetically, if it was more than just a phrase... if it was the ideological equivalent of cancer... if it had been designed, if it had been cultivated, to spread and spread and spread... if it had carried with it a payload of misery and cold sick horror...

Perhaps it could scare him enough to drop his drink.

Hypothetically.

He looked up at the ceiling, and just for a moment, thought he saw a hole - one that stretched all the way up to the sky, and the sky itself was falling. But he blinked and it was gone.

His scalp tingled, and he knew why. He was walking in a skeleton, after all - as good a place as any, to find ghosts. Except ghosts wasn't quite the right term - ghosts were figments of the past, what had been. What he felt, just out of reach, swirling all around him in a spiral, were figments of what almost was - of what almost may yet be.

It was as if the fabric of reality was just a little bit thinner than it should be, in the abandoned town of Carter Falls.

Just thin enough that, if you squinted, you could make out shapes. And if you pushed hard enough, you could fall right through.

He proceeded up the stairs, and forty seconds later, emerged onto the roof. He stared up at the darkening sky, the clouds fraught with colors from the setting sun. He looked out onto the horizon, which was so very far away.

Then he looked directly up, into the hypothetical sky, and one hundred and nine days into the future it was a beautiful night, if an unremarkable night.

One hundred and nine days into the future, two hypothetical individuals clashed, and the aftereffects of that clash shook time like a cat worrying a mouse.

One hundred and nine days into the future, someone he knew fell off this roof... and yet she didn't. One hundred and nine days in the future, hypothetically.

His eyes picked out flashes of the event. A hole carved in time, that resealed itself as best as it could, but if you looked closely enough you could see the cracks. He felt a sensation not unlike chewing on tinfoil. He heard a snippet of speech, a thick voice like oiled gravel, screaming about the death of the magnum opus...

And the smell. A hotwired link to memory. The smell of somewhere else.

And suddenly it was no longer one hundred and nine days into the future, but years and years in the past.

He remembered it hazily - jumbled bits and pieces, like a dream he'd had once. Something had gone wrong upon exit and entry. He'd been dislocated in time on a physical level as well as a metasensory one, and this world's rules of time travel were unlike anything he'd encountered before. It stood apart from other branches - if he were a religious man, he would almost say that different hands had woven it into the multiversal tapestry. He remembered falling through the sky, over the Atlantic Ocean, unable to teleport - the place had subtly altered physical laws, and he felt a twinge of fear as he realized that hitting the water would be like hitting concrete.

The odds of him being spotted and rescued before hitting the water - and finding out just how much invulnerability he had left - were millions to one. But he was caught, nonetheless.

The face was hazy - blonde, maybe? The bodysuit and cape he remembered, because memory was a composite thing, and if you saw enough people in blue and white and gold, it would stay with you. But it was the words of the magnum opus that he remembered most sharply of all.

"Hi. You're lost, aren't you?"

The magnum opus had eyes that were as old as time. They looked right through him. They burnt any deception to ashes.

"Yes," he'd spoken.

He'd forgotten what the magnum opus had done. Perhaps he'd readjusted Jager's chronological matrix with chono-sensory powers and sent him on a return course. Perhaps he'd used some manner of fantastic machine, or some powerful artifact, or perhaps he'd just flown and flown and flown until everything had worked out okay.

It didn't matter - he'd continued on his way, eventually settling here. A stranger in a strange land. A might-have been and may-yet-be in a world that only knew what was. A hypothetical man.

Fear of death was not something he dealt with often - there was very little, in this world or any other, that could seriously harm him. But he'd experienced it briefly. He knew the value of treading lightly, because it was so easy to slip... especially here, in the thin places.

He looked upwards, at a patch of sky. One hundred and nine days into the future, it was completely empty.

And one hundred and nine days into the future... and two hundred and thirty-two days in the past... it was nearly as empty. Really, if he pushed it, it wouldn't be empty, and he'd see what was there. But pulling one thread from a tapestry could unravel the whole thing, and perhaps the universe could survive a few loose threads.

Perhaps.

Hypothetically.

He stepped off the roof, and fell four stories, landing without breaking stride. And as night fell, and the air cooled enough so that the mirages retreated, the town of Carter Falls was abandoned once more, with no one to say differently.

,,,,,,
Yesterday upon the stair

I met a man who wasn't there.

He wasn't there again today.

I wish that man would go away.

- Hughes Mearns (1875-1965)

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