DP FICTION #33B: “Shoots and Ladders” by Charles Payseur

This is a game. There are rules that must be followed. Isn’t that what you told me when you gave me the gun, when you pointed me at the universe and fired? They are easy:
1. There is a reality where you are the winner. Where you never fear and never want and never lose.
2. The gun destroys realities.

Easy. But I didn’t learn until later, until after you were gone and I was alone, what you meant. Because who would believe it from a man you met at a hotel bar, a tired man with a fading glint in his eye who you still took back to your room despite the crazy shit he was saying? Or maybe I slept with you because of the crazy shit you were saying. Maybe that’s why you gave me the gun, because you saw that I was looking for something in you, something I couldn’t explain until you put that cold length of iron in my hand.

You were smiling when I pulled the trigger. Just for laughs, I told myself, just to make sure it wasn’t real, though the voice in the back of my mind was already asking what if? What if? The most dangerous question in the universe. In any universe. Click.

Like every time now, the first thing I do is close my eyes. It’s what they tell you to do when you’re in a building and the lights go out. Close your eyes. Count to five. Let yourself adjust. The last thing you want to be doing is running around blind in the dark. I count to five. Like always I smell smoke, though the gun never shows any signs of having been fired. It’s like my mind wants there to be some smoking barrel, some proof that something happened.

I open my eyes.

I’m inside a large home. Gleaming white marble floors and high ceilings and windows that look out over a lake. Expensive furniture. I wait as reality catches up with me, as the Assimilation hits. It’s not a word you taught me, but then you taught me nothing but point and click so…

It’s my house. It shouldn’t surprise me except that, reality to reality, I’m normally about the same. I look the same, with thinning brown hair and light skin and brown eyes. I’m bi, though not always out about it and sometimes so deeply repressed I think I enjoy watching swimming for the sport. I like the same foods and the same kinds of movies. And I’m sure I’m not into white marble.

But as the Assimilation lashes me fully to this reality, to this me, I remember that Jason and Abi outvoted me on the décor. My spouses. I smile. And then I move to the window to take in the view of our private lake in eastern Minnesota, bio-engineered miniature triceratops grazing around the banks.

I have rules of my own, now, aside from the two you gave me. The first is that I have to stay in each reality at least a full day unless I’m about to die. Which happens, occasionally, when I find myself in a reality where I’m a pearl diver that gets caught in a shell, or a competitor in some sort of death game, or coughing up my heart because of a deadly contagion, or just poor and in the wrong place. Sometimes I really can’t stay, and breaking my rule seems like a fine idea because fuck those realities anyway. Otherwise I give it a day, to see if it might be the One.

This place has possibilities. I’m a chef, like I always wanted to be, and own the hottest restaurant in the Midwest. Jason is a former swimmer, current coach at the largest private college in the state. Abi is a geneticist, which partly explains the triceratops. I only work three nights a week and have the house to myself at the moment. I wave at the window and it becomes a screen. I open the news, my gestures practiced like this isn’t the first time I’ve had a computer integrated into every surface of my home. But the skills are mine now and I try not to wonder at what really happens to the mes whose bodies I Assimilate. Are they still in here, distinct, or am I some Ouroboros skipping through realities eating myself, over and over again? I wonder if you knew and never told me, or if it really even matters?

The news helps me remember what I’ve Assimilated. The country is a queerocracy of sorts, or at least it seems to be. After a health scare generations ago, natural births have been outlawed and the restrictions on queer relationships not only lifted, they reversed. In the face of a devastating disease that was sweeping through heterosexual communities, a queer majority arose to power and has been setting policy ever since.

Which also helps to explain the triceratops—genetics are leaps and bounds beyond that reality you found me in, to make sure the disease doesn’t resurge. Want a kid? Just apply and one can be whipped up double time, regardless of whose DNA you want to use. Of course, there are articles about discrimination in the application process, but it doesn’t sound so bad. Jason wants kids but I don’t and Abi doesn’t and so we don’t really have to deal with it, and anyway three-parent households like ours get fast-tracked so there’s no rush to decide.

There’s still violence, and there are protests about income inequality and police violence and voting rights and it looks a mess. Does that mean this isn’t my reality? My One? You never really told me how I’d know, and there are days I just stand and stare at the wonders around me and think, is this enough? This is the best candidate I’ve ever seen for a perfect world. For me, at least, and isn’t that the point of the game?

My hand trembles, just the smallest of motions. I need a drink. I squint at a clock. 10 a.m. I head to the kitchen, to my domain, and open the liquor cabinet, remember my last argument with Jason about my drinking. Another thing about me that never seems to change. I find a bottle of bourbon and pour myself a glass and glide into an opulent room with the softest couch I’ve sat on and gesture to the wall to bring up my media library. I have seasons of brand new Star Trek to catch up on. I smile.

Later on Jason and Abi get home and I cook a meal and we all fuck and fall asleep on a bed that would have taken up my whole apartment back in the reality you found me in. I don’t dream. I never dream. In the morning I cook breakfast and wave goodbye to Jason and Abi and go back to the kitchen and do the dishes and then I take the gun in my hand and pull the trigger. Click.

I don’t think I’ll every stop hating you for this. Every day I think about your smile when I pulled the trigger and I think you bastard, you fucking bastard, you know now. You know if it ends with the click or if anything’s left behind. You know if what I’m doing is traveling from world to world or really, truly sending every living thing in a universe blinking out.

I can almost get myself to believe that it’s all still there behind me. That you lied or made it up to torture me or test me. That you’re God come down to Earth to give amazing head and see if humanity is really worthy of being saved and every time I pull the trigger I’m damning not just myself but everyone. It must seem sick that I want that now but at least if you were God you could just bring it back. Whatever I’ve done you can undo and I can burn in Hell a year for every life I snuffed out but it can be made right in the end.

I close my eyes. I count to five. I smell burning. I open my eyes, and I’m in space. Which isn’t really new but rare enough that the novelty hasn’t worn thin. In front of me a planet sits against a plain of stars, The Assimilation hits and I look down to find a report in my hand I’m supposed to be delivering to the captain, who is exactly my type but ever since I slept with her two weeks ago hasn’t spoken to me and has shifted my duty schedule to keep me in engineering.

Not exactly perfect, but I love space. The promise of it. I deliver the report and the captain gives me a smile that says she’s thinking about things and needs some space. I nod and take back the report after she’s signed it and busy myself with routine maintenance. I always love finding that I can do things. Like repair a spaceship. Or play an instrument. I’ve always wanted to be more musical and there’s something exciting about finding out that somewhere in the infinity of universes there is a me who is, something magical about watching your hands move with such confidence doing something you’ve never been able to do before.

Our ship is attacked as I’m repairing duct work, and I remember we’re at war. Not with some alien threat but with a splinter group of humans, ones that left Earth behind for greener pastures. Wealthy people seeking a place they hadn’t spoiled, while other wealthy people who were still making a lot on Earth felt threatened and so started this whole damn thing, which isn’t really being fought by the wealthy at all but by people in love with space, blowing each other up because that’s the only way to see the stars.

We win the fight. I do more repairs and sleep. I get a message from the Captain in the morning saying that we should talk, that we need to talk, but that everything is okay. I take the gun and I pull the trigger. Click.

I wonder how long you did this, how many realities you saw, how many ways you realized that for every good there was a better, for every better there was an even better. I didn’t kill you, I know. If you really did die with the rest of the reality I was born to, then you killed yourself. Yourself and everything I had ever known.

I think if that first new reality had been in space, or with Jason and Abi, I would have just thrown the gun into the deepest ocean I could get to or into space and forgotten about it. Let it all go. Tried to forget I was used to kill a universe. But that first new reality had been…not much. I was worse off than I had been when I met you. Not quite hungry but on my way. Not terrible but when you’re told that somewhere out there you’ve won, that all you have to do is pull a trigger and you don’t even have to see the aftermath?

I count to five. I open my eyes. I’m back in that hotel room where I met you. I freeze, waiting for the Assimilation. I remember you telling me that there are an infinite number of realities out there. Infinite. That they’re blinking out of existence every moment. That it means no reality is really unique, that somewhere out there are an infinite number of copies. Exact copies. So no harm, really, in ending a few. No harm, really, in going around until you find the one that suits you best. Why else would there be a gun, if not to act as some sort of remote control that allows you to find the channel you want to watch, for as long as you want to watch?

The memories are familiar, mine. But even as I fail to find any discrepancy between this life and the one you took from me, I wonder if I’d even know, if the Assimilation would take that from me as well. But I remember some things. The convention, the reason for being in the hotel, it’s the same. My life, the same. My plans, to get drunk in the bar, the same. So is this my reality, my original, somehow spared destruction, or is this a copy of it? And does it matter? And where are you?

If you’re here, I’ll know. I’ll know and I’ll kiss you and then punch you in the face and then maybe together we can get back to exploring the multiverse because it will mean I haven’t destroyed anything. I race to the bar, to the seat where I met you. I look around. You’re not here. I wait. I wait and I drink and I wait and you’re not here and I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what that means but the gun is digging into my back and I just want to scream, to cry, to do something that will get you out of hiding. You win, okay, you win. Whatever you were trying to tell me or teach me, you win. I scream it. You win. People look at me, make calming gestures, and I pull out the gun and see the fear in their eyes the moment before I pull the trigger. Click.

Should I just give it away, like you did? Find some poor fuck and make them pull the trigger. Find out if I’m still there when they disappear. Would it matter? There’s a universe out there that is perfect, that is fair to everyone and good to everyone. But do I even belong there? Click.

You told me the rules to the game, but if I win does that mean that everyone else loses? Click.

You shouldn’t have given me the gun, shouldn’t have killed my reality, shouldn’t have left me alone with only a half-drunk memory of you to ask questions of, shouldn’t have, shouldn’t have. Click.

Every time I pull the trigger, a reality dies. Click. Click. Click. Click.

I count to five. I open my eyes. I drop the gun to the ground, which is grassy and cold with morning dew. You were a coward. I am a coward. And neither of us deserve to win. After a moment the Assimilation hits. A world, a universe like so many others. Imperfect. Full of stars. I pick up the gun.

© 2017 by Charles Payseur


Author’s Note: This is one of those stories where I had the title first and the idea of this reality hopping game the main character was playing. So for me it was thinking of this game of shoots and ladders, of destruction and bridges, as well as examining the main character’s desire for something better without him having an idea of what that would look like. I tried to explore with the story and the main character the seduction of a perfect life and not wanting to work at it, wanting it given whole and gleaming, and with turning away from imperfection rather than dealing with it or trying to make it better. It went through quite a few drafts, to be honest, so sort of like the story I was never quite satisfied with what I had, but I hope that this version gets across some of what I wanted to say.


charlespayseurCharles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of all things speculative. His fiction and poetry have appeared at Strange HorizonsLightspeed MagazineThe Book Smugglers, and many more. He runs Quick Sip Reviews, contributes as short fiction specialist at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together, and can be found drunkenly reviewing Goosebumps on his Patreon. You can find him gushing about short fiction (and occasionally his cats) on Twitter as @ClowderofTwo.




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