By. Karl Lykken
I see the fear in my eyes, and it tells me that I know I win. For a moment it takes the edge off my excitement until I watch myself reluctantly accept a knife from Anders while I unsheathe my own. Besides, that gash on my cheek must mean it will be my closet duel yet. But then, how could it not be? I feel my blood pulsing with the force of a typhoon even as I watch it drain from my face.
“You haven’t thought this through,” I hear myself say. “The thrill isn’t worth it. You’ll regret it as soon as it’s over. Believe me, I know. Please, don’t kill us.”
I’m disgusted with my cowardice. I decide to aim for my belly, as the shame brought on me calls for seppuku. Unless…
I smile in appreciation of my ingenuity. “You’re trying to get into my head, which would seem simple enough since it’s your head, too. But I’m afraid it won’t work. I won’t doubt myself; my self-regard only grows. Anders, count us off.”
Anders moves to the steps of the arena, and I look past him to the vast field containing all the unmarked graves of my previous opponents. This promises to be the first time my foe will prove worthy of a grave marker. Anders turns back to face me, his eagerness palpable. “Three,” he begins.
I look back into my eyes as my mouth speaks. “This isn’t a charade. I’m you, and I’m scared.”
“I admire your commitment to the bit,” I reply, raising my blade and squatting slightly. “I’d expect no less of myself.”
I leap forward only to see myself turn my back and take off in a sprint. What game is this? Obviously, I can’t catch myself on foot, so I come to a halt and grab my knife by the blade. I bring it behind my head, then whip it forward, sending it spinning right into my left hamstring.
I watch myself skid across the sandstone, acutely aware that while I am uninjured, I am also now unarmed. I rush forward, hoping that fall stunned me. I drop roughly to one knee and start reaching for my knife when I realize my body is flipping over. I try to fall backward out of its reach but–gah!
I feel the knife burn across my cheek, and I close my eyes for the briefest second. I reopen them just in time to see my right boot collide with my chest. I collapse backward onto the hard stone, and I feel my fingers on my throat.
This can’t be. I can’t die, not even by my hand. Oh God, this can’t be happening!
Maybe it’s not. I see the bloody knife in my hand, but in my eyes–only terror. There’s no glimmer of thrill, of triumph, of bloodlust. There’s just dread, pure and unbounded. In an instant I understand the thoughts that must be churning through my mind: if I die, then how could I go back and be right here, poised to kill?
It’s a poor time to get hung up on a paradox. I look from my frozen eyes to my unprotected throat, and I don’t hesitate. I strike, leaving myself gaging and gasping. I twist the knife out of my hand and in one swift motion jam it in the side of my neck.
I stare at my trembling, choking future self, and somewhere deep in the core of my being I feel the same horror that I see in my dying eyes. It spreads slowly through my blood, and I jump in fright like a small child at the harsh crack of Anders’ clapping.
“Well done, sir,” Anders says, sauntering gradually toward me. “That was something special to see. We should get you cleaned up, though. It’s almost time for your journey.”
His blithe expression stings worse than my cheek. How is my faithful companion of a decade so undisturbed by the sight of my own corpse lying not two feet from me? It’s more than I can take. I shake violently and vomit, emptying my stomach of everything except the expanding mass of unadulterated fear. I close my eyes and try my best to keep my voice even as I speak.
“Anders, I don’t want to die. I won’t go back. I won’t just walk into my own knife. I won’t do it. We’ll destroy the time machine.”
Anders smiles. “Sir, did you wonder why your future self was unconscious when you came out of the machine?” he asks, pulling a tranquilizer gun out of his coat. “Because I didn’t.”
“What are you doing, Anders? What the hell are you doing?” I try to crawl backward, but my arms have lost their strength. I lie helplessly on the ground as Anders steps up beside me.
“I admit, the fight didn’t live up to my expectations, but I still won’t deny myself the privilege of seeing it,” he says, taking aim at my frantically beating heart. “Honestly, you should feel lucky. That was a once in a lifetime experience, yet you’ll get to live it twice.”
Karl Lykken writes both stories and software in Texas. His flash fiction has appeared in Theme of Absence, The Flash Fiction Press, and Every Day Fiction.
Yosa Buson is a musician from Northern California.