Colin Morris, who despite his Friday night gyrations on the dance floor at The Tone Factory could not claim to be the most agile junior clerk at Barr and Camberstone Partners, did well to keep his feet as he experienced three simultaneous inconveniences: he burned his lips on his morning coffee; his mobile phone went dead; and he tripped over a corpse lying in the street.
“What did you do?” hissed an incredulous and strangely familiar voice. “What did you do!?”
Colin didn’t answer immediately. He spluttered scorching coffee droplets and shook his phone. “I lost my signal,” he complained. “And I didn’t see this…er.”
He finally looked down at the bundled figure at his feet. “Oh, I beg your pardon, mate. Am I standing on your hand?”
The corpse didn’t reply, but suddenly a cold metal barrel was pressed at the precise midpoint between the untidy knot of his novelty superhero tie and his thinly-whiskered chin. “What,” demanded that tantalisingly familiar voice again, “did you do to him?”
Colin looked along the rusted rifle barrel to the woman holding it, glaring at him with suspicious green eyes. Her wild copper hair sprouted in all directions out of a tight twist of multi-coloured electrical wire. Her deep natural tan was mottled with caked mud, grease smears and dry blood spatters. Her fingernails, jutting from dishevelled fingerless mittens, were so chipped and scratched Colin felt instantly queasy.
“Tania? Tania Ellicott?” At last he placed the voice and the eyes. “I haven’t seen you in ages!”
In reply, Tania thumbed back the hammer on her rifle and muttered, “If you don’t answer the question right now, I am going to blow your head clean – I’m going to…”
She stopped and sniffed the air with a look of utter confusion. “Why can I smell coffee?”
Colin held up his keep cup. “Grigori’s new barista makes a top-flight mocha. Bit of a special treat for a Monday morning. I don’t usually indulge in chocolate. I’m trying to keep my weight down, you know?” He looked at the slabs of hard muscle of her bare shoulders and biceps, stretching the rough stitches of her rustic leather top. “You’ve done some lifting since I saw you last.”
Keeping her weapon pointed where it could do the most damage to Colin’s pleased but bemused expression, Tania knelt and felt at the face-down corpse’s throat. “He’s dead,” she pronounced after a moment.
It looked very professional. She must have gone onto medical training after high school. That was when he’d last seen her, surely? At that last school dance?
Horrified, Colin held up his phone, searching for a signal. “I’ll call an ambulance.”
Tania knocked the phone out of his hand and smashed it with her rifle butt. “Are you insane? Where did you get that? Where did you come from?”
Colin counted off his fingers. “I don’t think so, the Pomegranate Store, and I just told you I was in Grigori’s, around the corner.”
Tania waved. “What corner?”
She had a point. Colin hadn’t looked up from his phone since walking out of Grigori’s with a cheerful “See you tomorrow” to Sven the barista. He must have taken a wrong turn somewhere. “This isn’t Wisdom Street.”
Wisdom Street was a busy thoroughfare of modern office blocks and apartments with ground floor gourmet delis, gelato cafés and bicycle repair shops. This was a street of pulverised glass, crumbling brickwork and fire-gutted interiors. Now that he came to look, most of them were conspicuously missing several upper floors and walls.
“You’d think they’d put up a sign and some safety barriers,” he complained. “That’s unsafe.”
“There haven’t been Pomegranate stores for ten years!” retorted Tania. “Not since the Ravening.”
“Oh, were they bought out? Maybe I got it online.”
“No, the Ravening! When the Y’giorthi swept across the world?”
“I must have missed that season. I only got a CouchFlix account last month.”
“No, I mean the incursion from the 29th dimension! When our machines turned against us and all civilisation ended?”
Colin frowned. “I don’t seem to recall…”
“How can you not recall the end of the world? And why do you look like him?”
Tania rolled the corpse over with her boot. The dead man’s thick, tangled and bloody facial hair offered little concealment for the map of scars, burns and lesions written across features he knew well.
Colin whistled. “Wow, he looks like me if I went to a costume party as Hobo Moses.”
“He is you, you pasty little dolt! He’s the you who survived! He’s the one who learned to avoid the Flesh-Hunter patrols. He’s the one who learned how to boil bark and live off sliced worms. He’s the one who showed us how to make weapons from looted hardware and office supplies.” Tania was almost shouting now. “He was the one who kept me alive for ten years after the goddamn aliens ruined our first dance!”
“None of that happened to me!” protested Colin. “Is this a theater thing? Are you doing live roleplaying?”
Tania shook her head in frustration. “I’m just trying to stay alive. Like he did, right up until you showed up!”
Colin waved his hands, sloshing coffee out of his cup’s sipping hole. “I didn’t hurt him! I only went to aikido classes for two weeks.”
Tania frowned. “This has to be a dimensional thing. His death must have brought you here somehow. Like this universe couldn’t abide the absence of Col the Human Toll.”
“He had a cool nickname? I’ve never had a nickname.”
Tania sized up his ill-fitting coat, his thick glasses frames and his stooped posture. “He had a lot of things. You? You’re not going to survive the first Skin-Boring Bot that crosses your path. Not without help.”
“Oh.” Colin wondered if he should assert his masculine pride and thought better of it. “Will you help me?”
“On one condition,” replied Tania.
Hope surged in Colin’s heart. “What’s that?”
“Give me that coffee.”
I have written enough stories now where dopplegangers from other universes show up without any explanation that I fear I may be revealing something appalling about my psyche.
Or I could just be tapping into my primal horror at the idea of a future without coffee.