There’s a whole bunch I need to get off my chest, and a lot I need to apologize for. Apparently, we’ve been friends for a bunch of years now, but I’ve been hiding some terrible secrets from you. I can’t do it anymore. You need to know the truth.
Dude, I know you’re like, Where the fuck is that short story serial you’re writing for the GdM Patreon account? I’m sorry about that, about how long it’s taken. But there is a really good reason. You ever tried to step in and finish someone else’s story? It’s fucking impossible! Like, what the fuck was he thinking?! Did he even have a bloody plot?! Sometimes I really wish I was one of those writers who wrote things down, who planned things and kept notes. Apparently, I never am, not in any universe. This is getting confusing. I have to explain.
I’ve dug through our history, trying to figure out where we stand. You and I, we’ve chatted, we’ve done interviews and talked about how I got into writing, about the journey. It was all lies. I mean, maybe some of it wasn’t, at the time, but now it is.
Man, this feels right. Getting this off my chest.
We’re all guilty of partitioning ourselves, of seeing exactly the same events differently depending on which side we’re on. Like when you’re caught in traffic and manage to bypass a long line of cars by cutting in at the last moment. When you’re doing it, you’re happy you didn’t get stuck in that line, you’re clever, maybe even a little proud for taking the initiative. But then, when you’re caught in a long line and someone cuts in front of you, they’re an asshole. Can both be true?
What I did was a lot worse than cutting into a line of traffic. Though, as a metaphor, it works rather well.
Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.
Dude, you know what it’s like trying to be a writer in this climate. The competition, the need to put out material at a steady pace that both works for the old fans and yet is fresh and new.
I’m stalling. Okay. Here goes.
As you know, back in 2008 I wrote a book called 88. You also know that it was published by a small Canadian press, and that this effectively launched my so-called career. But that’s a lie. The book I wrote didn’t sell at all. You see, back then I was a different me. Fuck hell, this is going to get confusing.
Okay, so I wasn’t an audio-engineer. Rather, I worked writing copy for the Institute of Particle Physics based out of the University of Victoria in British Columbia. It was a cool job. I lived in Toronto and emailed in my articles. Sometimes they’d send me around the world to see and write about various labs and companies doing cutting edge stuff in physics.
Anyway, I wrote this cyberpunk novel in my spare time, between dashing about on IPP business. I sent the book everywhere, to every agent and every publisher, and they all rejected it. All of them. It was never published. So there I was, a literary failure, when IPP sent me to the UK to write about yet another research lab working on something I didn’t understand. To say I was depressed is an understatement. I banged back whiskeys for the whole flight to Heathrow, kept drinking at the hotel, and was either still drunk or drunk again when I went in the next day to meet the scientists and listen to the nerds blather on about whatever the fuck it was they were working on.
I cruised through the day on autopilot, recording all the conversations so I could distil them to something useful once I got back home. At some point the scientists fucked off for ‘tea’, and I ended up in the lab with a mathematician. Like the fucking physicists weren’t difficult enough to understand! We got to talking and realized we were both very much into RPGs and would-be novelists. He’d written a fantasy novel called The Hundred War about some murderous teenager and, like me, had no luck selling it. We commiserated, and then he veered off into explaining the maths behind this thing the lab had built that he claimed was going to prove that there were multiple universes. I joked about how maybe we were successful authors in another universe, and he went off about how unlikely it was that the other universes were similar enough to our to maintain life. He said they’d already done some tests, sending inanimate objects to other universes, but there was no way to get it back, no way to know really happened to it.
I made some crack about how it was probably just incinerating the stuff and he explained the maths again (yawn!) and admitted they searched the area for dust, and no, it was really gone. And there I am, hungover all to ratshit, miserable about my failures, staring at this thing that either incinerates shit or snaps it off to some hostile universe. I had no plan. Maybe there was some thought that, if nothing else, I might be the first human to die in a different universe. I heard him gasp behind me as I stepped up to the thing and hit the big red button.
Nothing happened and I felt like an utter fucking idiot.
Even my attempt at suicide was a failure.
I turned to explain and found myself alone in the room.
Had he left? No way. It was an easy twenty meters to the door.
I will confess, I stood there for several minutes trying to figure out what the fuck?
Was there any way I’d used the device to pop into a neighbouring dimension and somehow survived? The idea was too ludicrous. And yet the math guy was gone. Unable to answer a single question, I let myself out of the lab. Visitors badge in place, no one paid me any attention as I cut through the lobby on my way out. I ran into the math guy near the exit.
“I thought you left already,” he said.
Not sure how to answer that, I shrugged.
“Congrats on 88,” he added.
At the time I figured he meant finishing the book.
Two hours later, and back at the airport, I discovered there’d been a fuck-up and someone else had got my seat. After much confusion, I was told I’d have to catch the next flight home.
Now I know I’ve babbled on for several pages but bear with me. This is where everything goes to shit.
This is where I realized I’d somehow got past all the traffic and cut into the lane.
After all the usual airport and customs joys and more Jameson and the result of what was effectively three days of binge-drinking, I got home to my condo in the Etobicoke part of Toronto, to find I was already there.
You see it now, right? I hopped universes. The reason my seat on the flight was taken was because I took it. The math guy was wrong, and this universe was basically identical to the one I came from. There was, I soon learned, one serious difference.
What would you do? There you are, having just let yourself into your condo to find you’ve come face to face with yourself?
We got drunk together and made plans how we’d take turns going to work while the other stayed home to write. I learned that he’d had moderately more success than I. 88 was to be published by a small Canadian press called Five Rivers. We compared notes, and I saw that he’d rewritten the ending, something I’d considered but hadn’t done.
It wasn’t much, but he had a publishing deal. Whiskey-fuelled envy grew in me. He’d done it! He had his foot in the door of the publishing world. Everyone knows that once you’ve got that first novel out, publishers take you more seriously. It might not get you out of the slush pile, but it certainly moved you up!
What would that be like, to know you might have a future as an author?
I wanted that so fucking bad.
Could I ride on his coat tails? With two of us writing, we could double our output, edit each other, make something truly amazing! He was disinterested, didn’t like the idea of working with others—even if that other was himself—and admitted he was too much of a control freak.
I knew it to be true. He was me. I’d never tolerate someone taking credit for my successes.
He wobbled off to bed and left me alone. Pouring myself another drink, I stared at the door. That was my fucking room, my fucking bed! He hadn’t even offered to grab a few blankets and a pillow so I could sleep on the sofa.
Of course, I knew exactly where the bedding was.
Still. Fucking rude.
I drank and I got angrier.
I’d almost rewritten the ending myself! One stupid little choice made a world of difference.
He had everything and I had nothing. This wasn’t my condo. My book hadn’t sold. This wasn’t even my fucking universe! What was I going to do? It wasn’t like I could go home. Could I book a flight to the UK? Would my credit cards work? Even if I got back to the lab and they let me in and I got near the device again, would it take me home?
Hadn’t the math guy said there was no way to get stuff back?
The more I drank, the more clearly I saw it. There was one way I could have everything I dreamed of.
So I killed him.
I don’t want to talk about it. It isn’t like the movies. It’s ugly and terrible and difficult. I puked after and cried in the bathroom for hours.
It wasn’t murder. It was suicide. I already tried to kill myself, this time I was just more successful.
I told myself all this shit as I rolled him up in a blanket and dragged him down twelve flights of stairs to the underground parking and my rusting shit-bucket of a car.
Had I stopped there, maybe some kind of redemption may have been possible. But this gets worse. A lot fucking worse.
I slotted myself into his life. It was easy as it was damned near identical to my own. And, of course, I started writing. I had two choices. I could write the sequel to 88, a book that was going to be soon published, or I could try something new. I had this idea for a fantasy novel where reality was literally shaped by the belief. As the publisher had already expressed interest in the sequel, that was the obvious choice. I’d finish the trilogy and earn my place alongside the greats of science fiction.
I wrote Ablation Cascade and I drank and I wrote shitty articles for the IPP.
Predictably, the universe didn’t cooperate. The publisher hated Ablation, called it a blatant Snow Crash rip-off, and 88 sold maybe thirty copies. I’m pretty sure my mom bought most of them. His mom, I guess.
There I was, no publishing deal. A failure.
As I once again contemplated ending my shit life, I was reminded of the last time I tried.
The next morning I ran my credit card to the limit and booked a First Class return flight to the UK.
Getting in was easy. The receptionist already had my credentials on file, and I told them I was there for a follow-up article. I was shown around, told about all the exciting ground breaking progress they’d made, none of which I understood. Back in the lab I ran into that math guy again.
To be polite, I asked how things were going with The Hundred War.
He said he’d changed the title to Prince of Thorns, and had landed a big-time agent. I thought the original title was better, but kept that to myself. Swallowing my jealousy and wondering if there was any way I could kill him and live his life, I congratulated him.
He waved it off. “Doesn’t seem to be much interest,” he said, dejected. “Doesn’t look like it’ll sell.”
Is it wrong that I took some small pleasure in that?
And there it was. The device, that big red button.
“You remember how we joked about using this thing to hop through universes looking for the one where we were successful writers?” I asked.
If only I’d kept my big mouth shut.
He nodded in that polite way the English do when they haven’t a clue what you’re on about.
“Whoah,” he said, when I approached the device. “That’s dangerous. Don’t…” Seeing my grin, he hesitated.
I hit the button.
Once again I found myself alone in the lab.
Retuning to the airport I discovered no flight was booked under my name. It took a moment to understand. The me in this reality hadn’t flown to the UK and so hadn’t purchased a return ticket. If nothing else, that must mean our lives were different.
Once back in Canada, I Googled myself.
Jackpot! In this reality, I’d landed an agent, and she got me publishing deal with Harper Voyager, one of the biggest publishers in the world! Reading more, I learned that while I wrote Cascade Ablation, this me chased the other idea and wrote a book called Beyond Redemption.
In this reality, I’d met a woman and got married. Dark haired and dark eyed, she was utterly stunning. He didn’t work for IPP either. Instead, he’d dropped out of university after the first year and become an audio-engineer! What kind of life was that?!
Some Brittany Spears wanna-be was living in my condo, and it took me two days to track the other me to the condo he shared with his wife in the Lakeshore district of Toronto.
You already know how this goes.
I told myself that killing me would be easier the second time.
It wasn’t. It was much, much worse.
I wasn’t killing some lonely drunk in a shitty condo. This man had a life, people who cared about him. Killing him and stepping into his life would be no easy task. I knew nothing about his past, or this woman or about mixing shitty rock bands. But he had it, he had what I wanted. He had what I deserved!
It should have been mine!
I ambushed him as he left Clinton’s, the club where he worked as a soundguy. I killed him and I buried his body in Boyd Conservation Area. Then I drove his shitty rust-bucket car to meet my wife.
It was glorious. I had the love of an amazing woman and a publishing deal with a big-5 publisher. Beyond Redemption landed accolade after accolade, appearing on dozens of Best-of-the-Year lists, including Grimdark Magazine. I wrote the sequel, When Fargone Dead Return, in an orgy of creativity. Then I threw myself into a stand-alone set in the same world called The All Consuming.
That lasted about a year before life and the universe did what life and the universe does.
Beyond Redemption flopped as far as sales were concerned, and Harper Voyager passed on the other book. Day by day my dream of a career as a writer died a slow death. Somewhere I lost control. I killed a large bottle of Jameson every week, couldn’t sleep and couldn’t write. Apparently being a depressed alcoholic is somewhat less than attractive, and tensions grew between my wife and I.
You know exactly what I did.
Maybe I didn’t work for IPP in this reality, but they still existed and that research facility in the UK was still there. Being a clever monkey, this time I only paid for a First Class one-way ticket. No point in purchasing a return flight when it was unlikely the me in the next reality had flown to the UK.
I talked my way into the facility and learned that Mark—apparently that was the math guy’s name—had quit and not been heard from since. I told the receptionist I was there for a follow-up on their research into multiple-dimensions and soon after was getting the same fucking tour I’d had twice before. Long story short, as soon as I got near the device I slapped that big red button.
While this me hadn’t achieved everything I’d dreamed of, he was still doing better. He’d changed the title of The All Consuming to Swarm and Steel (what a shitty title) and sold it to Skyhorse, a mid-sized publisher. On top of that, instead of wallowing in misery, he’d gone on to self-publish When Fargone Dead Return as The Mirror’s Truth, a title he’d clearly ripped off from an In Flames album. He’d changed representation, landed a big-time UK agent, and had a novel, Smoke and Stone, out on submission! He was on the verge of breaking huge!
This me had married the same woman and had a daughter. I couldn’t imagine what that would be like. A family!
While looking up my new agent, I spotted a familiar book title: This agent represented Mark, that math guy who wrote Prince of Thorns! On a whim I Googled him and learned that, in this universe, he’d become quite a successful author. I have to admit, that rankled. Like every fucking universe I went to, there he was, doing better.
Having killed myself twice, the third time was a breeze. I only puked a little, and didn’t cry for more than half an hour. After burying him in that same spot in Boyd Conservation Area, I inserted myself in his life. He’d been an audio-engineer like the other me, but had left that career to work as a Project Manager for a software firm. That gave me pause. I knew nothing about being a Project Manager.
I quit the damned job—I was going to be a famous author!—and threw myself into writing Bone and Stone, the sequel to Smoke and Stone. It’s weird, reading something you wrote but have no memory of writing because you didn’t actually write it. The style was all me, the sentence structure, the word choices, but I had no inkling what he planned. Writing the sequel to a book you didn’t write is a lot more difficult than I thought.
You know what’s coming.
My agent was unable to sell the books. I was dead in the water. I’d written a sequel to a book that hadn’t sold. I looked at the success the other me had managed in self-publishing, but that wasn’t me. I wanted a publisher! I wanted big advances and fame!
This time, instead of moping about, I flew straight back to the UK, made a mad dash past security, and into the lab.
Fuck that universe!
Another flight and I returned to Canada.
When I finally found his house, in the suburbs of Brampton, he wasn’t home. I broke in through the back door and searched around. Wedding pictures on the wall said I was married to the same woman. That was kind of nice. All these universes, and she was the one constant. It seemed that no matter how badly I fucked things up, she was the one thing I got right. I also now had a daughter who was apparently turning into quite the artist. I figured I’d learn her name later.
The new me hadn’t achieved the success I craved, but he was doing better. For reasons I can’t imagine, he’d embraced self-publishing and released Smoke and Stone and written another novel called Black Stone Heart due for release in a few months. On the down side, this me worked as a fucking forklift driver!
Digging through the files and documents the other me left on his computer, I found notes for three other novels, She Dreams in Blood, The Greatest Swordsman in the World, and messed up noir SF novel called A Home For Broken Dreams. To make matter worse, he’d taken on several commissions for short stories including something called Warhammer and, as you know, Grimdark Magazine. I scrambled to catch up with everything he had going on, but it was fucking impossible! I read the stories he and some Anna Smith Spark chick wrote together for the GdM Patreon (what the fuck is Patreon?!) serial project and had no idea what to write next.
Anyway, Mike came home and I ambushed him in the front lobby. The rusty old shit-bucket car had been replaced by a black Hyundai Santa Fe, which was handy as I now didn’t have to stuff his corpse into a too-small trunk.
I drove him out to the Boyd Conservation Area to bury him in the usual spot. I didn’t get far into digging his grave when I discovered a hastily buried body. Even with the back of the skull bashed in, I recognized that black t-shirt and ratty but oh-so-comfortable jeans.
Someone had already killed me and buried me out here.
It’s embarrassing, but I admit I stood there for several minutes wondering, What the fuck?!
But the answer was all too obvious. The me I just killed wasn’t from this reality. He’d come, just as I had, in search of authorial success. He killed and buried the me I was staring at in the dirt.
It hit me then. An infinite number of universes. An infinite number of Mikes, many of whom wanted to be successful writers. I wasn’t the only one hopping through universes. The beautiful forests of Boyd Park suddenly seemed a lot more threatening. I could be out there. I was out there, somewhere. If I found the perfect universe and killed the me with the perfect life and all the fame and success I craved, some other me would come along and smash my head in and claim it for their own.
It was sheerest fucking luck I hadn’t already murdered myself.
This, I realized, changed everything. I’d been going about this all wrong. Each time I popped into a new universe I’d been pleased at my successes, excited to build on them. Each time I thought, this is the one where I break big!
Instead, I should have stayed just long enough to determine how successful I was. If I wasn’t massively successful, I should have jumped straight to the next universe.
If I had this thought, then at least some of the other Mikes out there would be having it too.
What if I wasn’t the first!?
I had to stop fucking around!
Not bothering to bury the body, I drove straight to Toronto International Airport and booked myself a First Class seat on the next flight to the UK. I jumped at shadows, twitched every time I saw a figure in faded blue jeans and a black t-shirt. Fucking Christ there are a lot of them!
Back to the lab.
And I was fucked.
The device was gone.
Shit, most of the lab was gone.
There’d been a fire. It seemed to have been focussed around the area where the device was kept.
I stood there, staring at the ruin, thinking, No. No way. Just no fucking way.
I was trapped here. I’d effectively been taken out of commission. No longer would I jump from universe to universe looking for the right one.
Had I somehow done this? Had some other Mike destroyed the device to trap me here?
But wouldn’t that trap him here too?
I’d killed the other Mike and been in such a rush to flee this universe I hadn’t bothered to bury him! I left his fucking body lying in the dirt in Boyd Park alongside another half-buried corpse of the same man! I had to get back and bury them both before someone stumbled across them!
This was a disaster!
Was there some other way out?
Mark! That math guy! He’d been involved in making the device. Could he make another?
I found a pub and spent two hours searching for some way to contact him before discovering that, in this reality, he and Mike were friends on social media. I messaged him, asking about his educational background and the work he used to do, telling him it was research for a short story I was writing.
He messaged me back within minutes.
Remember when you told me we’d had a conversation about using the device to hop universes in search of the one where we were successful? Well, we’d never had that conversation. And then you smiled and hit the button and were gone. At first I thought you were insane, suicidal. But you didn’t hesitate, and I realized you knew exactly what you were doing. So I followed you.
I had to burn the lab. With the device destroyed, we’re effectively cut off from the other universes. That’s how it works. You can only move from a universe where this device exists to another universe with the same device.
This is the right universe for me.
I’m sorry for trapping you here, but I couldn’t chance another Mark coming to try and take what I have.
Look on the bright side. You’ve got a pretty decent following. With some hard work, you might even make a go of it!
Good luck? Good fucking luck!
With little choice, I flew back to Canada, suddenly wishing I hadn’t flown First Class to get here. My credit card bill was going to be insane. I was lucky, and managed to get the bodies buried before anyone found them.
Sorry for dragging this on, Adrian.
Look, I know this is the longest, Oh fuck I’m gonna be late on that story I promised letter you’ve probably ever gotten, but I’m gonna be fucking late. I’m trying to figure out what the other me had planned, and it ain’t easy.
Basically, it’s all Mark Lawrence’s fault.