Chandler Tsonda has a time problem.
Specifically, the time being now, and the space being the PRIME media briefing room.
“What does the Almasy mean to you?”
The question is lobbed from a member of the assembled press. They are a blurred-together chorus. Bloggers next to respectable journos next to shovelers for the dirt sheets next to barely disguised PR shills.
Tsonda’s mouth moves on one track: “I knew him a little, Seymour Almasy. We were here towards the end of the ReVolution Era and…” Chandler’s mouth keeps producing praise, and the past.
Tsonda’s brain moves on another future-facing track: Gotta win this. Win. Winwinwinwinwin. God, it was sweet to win over Gamble. I just want that feeling forever and ever, amen. Why am I talking to the press, and not right this very second winning or pre-winning? Know what I remember about Seymour Almasy? The matches he won, the Intense Title he raised over his head. How do I want to honor his memory? Maniacal pursuit of victory in the tournament that bears his name. Oh, I gotta pay attention – she asks good questions.
“The opportunity of the tournament is immense. How do you prepare for as many as six consecutive single-elimination matches?”
Mouth, it’s your time. “What do you get the man who’s won a 24-person tournament in PRIME already? Winning a 32-person tournament, right?” Tsonda grins. “The 2007 Jewel in the Crown was obviously a lifetime ago, but it’s one of the greatest gauntlets of my career. Beating Hall of Famers like High Flyer, Youngblood, Elliott, Hoyt. I’d like to think I’m a proven commodity in a tourney setting, but you know…” Oh, mouth. You always know what to say.
Brain, let’s work on something else. Winwinwin. Don’t you dare lose, Chan. I should be training. Training to get better. Getting better to win. Sorry, is there another thing to think about? The mouth’s gone quiet. I should check back in.
“Talk about your preparation for your first-round opponent, Anna Daniels.”
The mouth goes: “She’s a special talent. But be honest, babes: you’re here hoping I’m gonna do the thing. Which is shoot my mouth off into those recorders and directly into the zesty wrestling take ecosystem where somebody can sell ads next to the most inflammatory quote I’ve given. So, sorry in advance. Feel free to beat the traffic if you were hoping for that.” Chandler waves a hand towards the exit, and elicits polite chuckle from a few folks in the scrum.
“You’re not gonna catch ol’ Chan out here giving bulletin board material. That said…” The mouth knows its way.
The brain goes: Win. Beat her/them/it. I can be respectful of interdimensional beings’ pronouns and still say confidently: fuck off and a cordial get fucked. Anna’s not surprising me like she did Paxton. She’s not drafting off my legacy like she did Hoyt. I win. Multiversal Violence Barbie loses. Wait a second, what did I just hear?
“I didn’t quite catch that,” Tsonda says, snapping back. “Could you repeat it?”
The same media member repeats the prompt.
“This is a first, you and Anna Daniels going one-on-one. What should fans expect?”
“The match has the words ‘Chandler Tsonda’ so, I dunno, five stars at at minimum? Here’s what I will say: the contrast in styles.…” The mouth can go on and on.
The brain is furiously scribbling:
To The Squatters Within Anna Daniels’ Skull Whom It May Concern,
Hello. I hope you are well. I do you want you (plural) at your best for ReV 37, at which point I plan to kick your fucking face (singular) in. Correction: I hope you are well enough to put up a fight.
I’d tell you to watch what you (singular?) say this week, but I don’t give advice that I wouldn’t myself take. Right now, my own mouth is regaling a crowd about how dangerous your three finishers and two setup moves all can be. While inside, I’m working on counters for these five most likely ways you’ll try to end me. You better bring something new. Tournament mode Chan is top 2 all-time, and he ain’t #2. I won’t have my head fucked by the likes of you, ma’am(s).
In fact, it looks like no heads have been fucked since…oh dear, May of this year? Yikes. That must be leading to some testy council meetings, or whatever form of democratic government is running things over there. I’d be testy too if someone had put a “Closed for the Season” sign up in the window of the Fuck Your Head General Store since a week before Memorial Day. Soon you’ll have as many consecutive losses as you have selves. :/
Sorry about the person I was in that last paragraph. I just feel strongly that you’re destined to be the first name of six. I’ll advocate for our match to get strong representation in the video package commemorating my triumphant Almasy Invitational run. You lot will get to be part of history. Congrats.
I can’t do all the timey wimey mumbo jumbo that you can, but I can and do rule over an alternate dimension here in the ol’ mind palace. Narcissism, duh. I’m sure you find me some combination of nostalgia act, dickhead, and loudmouth. Not wrong, muse. You know where else you can find me? On the Wikipedia page for the Alias Title over on the right side next to the words “Current champion.” Or head to this quaint little spot I know called the PRIME Hall of Fame. Let’s check back in and make sure that—
“…but with all due respect to Ms. Daniels, there ain’t nothing new under the sun. Even if you’re a reality-optional shirt peddler. I mean, you don’t spend time in a faction with Illustrious Face-Eater without learning your way around a psychedelic experience or four. I’ve scouted enough to know that…” The mouth is on a roll.
—anyway, sorry you’ve been cast in Law & Order: Tsonda Victims Unit, because it just got greenlit and ordered to series. Six episodes, and you’re getting written off after the pilot. Chin up. Keep the faith in your time travel alien robot gods or whoever. You’ll fuck a head again some day. Just not this one.
Yours In Future Victory,
“…so I’m ready to go. Counting down the minutes until the bell rings.”
The question machine purrs, another from the gallery.
“Chandler, do you expect this to be your final Almasy Invitational, given your age and health? And going into another tournament, and another Colossus season, what do you think about how much time you’ve got left?”
“Time?” The mouth pauses.
Time? The brain ponders.
Chandler Tsonda has a time problem.
“Gayle, we got a real problem.”
“Jeff, for fuck’s sake, you say this every go-around.”
“No, I’m serious. I can’t see what happens.”
It takes two of them to handle a universe. One for time, one for space. Gayle, she’s a time gal. Always has been, always will be. Jeff handles space. Does nothing but take up space, if you ask her.
“Did you refresh your machine?” she asks, inhaling sharply.
“You always ask that.”
“And you always forget to do it.”
“Here, look.” Jeff points. His nails are stubby where he bites them. Gayle can’t stand the sound when Jeff bites his nails.
“What am I supposed to see?” she asks.
“Exactly. I’m getting nothing but static. Right at the place where Chandler Tsonda and Anna Daniels should be.”
“The wrestling thing again?” Gayle asks.
Nothing surprises Gayle anymore. She has, after all, seen the entirety of time and space while sitting next to Jeff for 13.8 billion of this universe’s years. She supposes it’s a little strange how often professional wrestling changes the balance of galactic fate, but it’s not her job to ask questions. Her job is time. Jeff’s job is space. Simple.
“Any previous incarnations?” Gayle asks.
When time and space don’t agree, or produce a hazy result, Gayle refers to her protocols:
1) Check for precedent
2) Establish patterns
“Sure,” Jeff says. “Let me spool this one up. Ooh, I love when they’ve got past lives as Roman gladiators! Can I grab my snack before w—
“Please just pull up the file.”
Rain drums against the ground. The morning’s firm soil is the late afternoon’s gumbo of mud.
It’s no forum. A rectangular murk of a fighting pit. Bodies lay strewn across the ground, pelted by the storm. The crowd pulses with excitement, even in the rain. Two warriors stand and face one another.
He wields two daggers. She holds a kopis. They wear familiar faces.
A voice is amplified through a metal cone, an ancient loudspeaker.
“Feast your eyes! Only two competitors remain. One of the mongrel slaves will win, and one will die! Will it be the she-beast from the timeless lands, or the Asiatic knifeman? Let the fates choose today’s champion, and tomorrow’s maggot food!”
Over the sound of downpour, a spasm of cheers and whoops.
The fighters circle one another, the ancient dance.
The man is taller and burlier. He skins one dagger against the other, making sure that the wet won’t affect his grip. Dried mud speckles his black hair.
The woman is faster and more agile. She flexes her right wrist around the hilt of the kopis. Two of her fingers are broken, and they sing with pain that she ignores.
A flash of steel. The clang of blades. War in miniature. The din rises.
“We don’t need to watch them. Just spool it up and find the result.”
“C’mon, Gayle, what’s the fun in that? We were just getting to the good part.”
Gayle pinches the bridge of her nose. She is so tired.
“Can you please tell me what happened so we can get this aberration resolved and move on?” she asks.
Jeff studies his monitor before responding, unhelpfully: “Oh weird.”
“Yes?” she prods.
“It looks like they both died. Mortal wounds on both sides. A real cat’s game.”
“Nothing that helps us with our blind spot,” Gayle says, trying to keep Jeff on task.
Gayle does not wait to see if Jeff can make the leap of logic himself.
“Any other archived selves?”
“Daniels is some kind of time manipulation being,” Jeff says, not answering the question. “Do you think that’s doing funky stuff to…I mean, maybe Tsonda’s a timewender too. Forty-seven of their years seems awfully old to still look so smooth. Look at that facial arrangement and the lovely human skin palette of his. That’s worth—
“Any. Other. Archived. Selves?”
“Looks like one more set,” Jeff says. “Mongolian steppe, thirteenth century. You gotta admit, those wide views of the Eurasian plain with the bright blue sky overhead? And frickin’ horse archers?! Now that’s why we do the job.”
“Can we just skip to the resu—
“Too slow, beat you to it!”
Grass, as far as the eye can see, leading up into green foothills on the far horizon. In the east, a river crawls through the grasslands.
Chainmail and plate armor of one army flares in the light. They have their backs to the foothills. The image of a red lion on a war banner ripples and dances in the breeze.
In the flats of the grassland, the second army spreads its ranks. The air reeks of cured leather, the kind in their scale armor. They split into units that face the sons and daughters of red lions. A standard bearer holds a great golden shield. The commander is marked by the wild orange of his helmet’s plume.
The metal army’s commander watches from horseback, as she sees the greatest horde of marauders the world has yet known. The leather army’s commander stares back, in terrible awe of the hundreds of longbows pointed at his soldiers. They wear familiar faces.
Both armies have reached formation. Mounted archers and longbows sight one another with their weapons. Hands tense in anticipation. A horse whinnies.
The horn of battle thunders. Cavalry tears forward at a gallop. Arrows whistle and pierce the sky. War’s full rhapsody.
“I get it,” Gayle snaps. “They kill each other again?”
“Pfft,” Jeff replies.
She feels a twinge of regret at being short with him, but he always does this. It’s a simple job. Why does he feel the need to junk it up?
“I’m just eager to get this resolved,” she says, offering as much of an olive branch as she’s willing. “What’s the result?”
“Total stalemate. Thousands dead, both armies shattered, first by the battle and then by disease. Both commanders disgraced.”
“And there’s nothing else?” Gayle asks.
“That’s right. And you know what that means!”
“Can we please just move forward with the process and not exuberate?”
“Gayle, how often do we get to look at the side universes? Even you can have some fun with this.”
Usually, the tally across reincarnations provides an open and shut case: here’s what happened before, so here’s what will happen again. On occasion across 13.8 billion years, this universe’s past doesn’t resolve an aberration. As the protocol says, alternate solutions are needed to establish a pattern and adjudicate. Thus, side universes. It’s a simple job.
“Hold while I pull up our best options,” Gayle says. Her temperature rises and…is that excitement? It’s been quite a long time since that feeling. She plucks a record. “This looks suitable,” she says, trying to project calm.
“Do you want to just skip to the result?” Jeff asks.
A creep of a sliver of a smile comes to Gayle’s mouth, before she puts it away for the sake of professionalism. “Side universes are tricky. Some are radically different, and others just have cosmetic differences. Earth-617 is always good for something interesting. Let’s spool up the full dimensional rendering just to be thorough.”
Rick Stuart: And we’re about to kick off an absolute whiz bang first round match in the Almasy Invitational!
Norm Patterson: I wish they could both be singly eliminated from the tournament.
Watching this broadcast, and peering into the ring, an observer from our reality might feel like they’ve walked into a room where one piece of furniture has been moved, but without knowing which piece. Something just a shade off.
In one corner, a man in a white luchador mask, and all white full-length tights, bounces in place.
Rick Stuart: The Gallifrey Kid is looking to do more than just hawk merch tonight. He wants a spot in the second round and to stay alive in this tournament.
Crouched in the far corner, coiled like a snake, is a small woman in matte black ring gear. One leg, in white lettering, reads: “The Seoul Survivor.”
Norm Patterson: Alias champ has her work cut out for her tonight.
Rick Stuart: Amen to that. The phenom Jasmine Jeong does NOT want to see the bounty on her head claimed here in Louisville.
Jeong pops up out of her crouch, mouths something inaudible to herself, and approaches the middle of the ring. The Gallifrey Kid steps forward, and raises both hands into a boxing stance.
“Not trying to be a killjoy,” Gayle says, pre-empting any of Jeff’s protestations. “Just being efficient on whatever will help us establish a pattern.”
“Ends in a time limit draw,” Jeff says. His hurt feelings seem healed. “We can watch something else, no prob. Hey, do you think…no, nevermind.”
“What is it?”
“Do you think we can’t see it because it isn’t written yet?”
“I guess it’s possible,” Gayle admits. “But why?”
“Kind of exciting, don’t you think?”
“Maybe. Should we speed-scroll some side universes?”
“Gayle, if I didn’t know better, I’d say you were enjoying this.”
She pretends to be so lost in the work that she doesn’t hear Jeff.
“Ok, here goes.”
A gunslinger covered in silver polyester holds a ray gun on another figure. Some kind of artificial dome separates them from the pale green sky, where three suns sit in parallel, producing an awesome light.
The gunslinger leans back onto their right heel. “Bounty on you just got too good for us to pass up. Nothing personal.”
That gun is trained on a figure with angled cheekbones and fire in their eyes. They’re dressed in black coveralls. Inside the right jacket pocket is a sparrow-sized ray gun of their own. “So this is where it ends, partner?”
“What can I say? We were moved by the muse.”
“A smoke real quick before I go?” the target asks.
“Nice and slow, Firebug,” the gunslinger says, granting permission.
The target reaches inside the coveralls.
Dick Stoner: The unlikely duo of Gallifrey Kid and Jasmine Jeong are going to the finals of the Almasy Memorial Tag Tournament!
Ray Peterson: Am I crazy or is this the best tag team on Earth-713?
With a roar, a kaiju the color of black gunmetal thrusts a gnarled claw and now what used to be the 17th floor of a skyscraper has an open air patio through its middle.
A twinned form, skin so white it dazzles, sidesteps the blow, and jumps at its opponent. The city block shakes on both takeoff and landing. The white kaiju sinks refrigerator-sized teeth into the other.
They tumble into a mess of limbs. A crack splinters in the seawall.
The tinkle of snowfall.
Against a stone altar, two bodies lean on one another. If not for the bloom of red in the snow around them, they might be sleeping. Where there’s not a protruding arrow, there’s a deep gash or the mottle of bruising.
“Why do you say it like that?” Gayle asks.
“But I don’t see any way we can…what’s the word you use? Adjudicate?”
“That’s right,” she says. And she realizes that she and Jeff are slipping into one another’s -isms.
“So what do we do?”
Gayle feels like she did at a mere 6 or 7 billion years in her role, positively sprightly. She feels about this moment like Jeff feels about the Mongolian steppe: this is why they do the job. That full-body thrill of not knowing—even when you put your best efforts forward, your sharpest ideas—and facing fate in real time. It must be, she thinks to herself, what the earthlings feel all the time. Scintillating.
She is unable to hold back a smile when she replies to Jeff.
“We send the case upstairs. For them to decide.”
“But they…? Oh.”
“When it comes to Chandler Tsonda and Anna Daniels, we’ll just have to—what’s the earth phrase?” Gayle searches for it.
“Wait and see?” Jeff chimes in.
Gayle’s teeth show when she smiles big.
“That’s right, Jeff. Wait and see. Split a snack?”
Chandler steps out of a daydream. The fog between sleep and wake hangs over his head, though he’s still in that same time, that same space. Was he…somewhere else? He shakes his head, and not a black hair falls out of place. Media room, right.
The brain and the mouth together again. There is no problem.
“You asked about time. I don’t worry about it. Somebody else up there makes the call on how much I’ve got left. Maybe when I next climb the corner, my ankle decides it’s been part of its last Model Citizen. Maybe not. Ya know, ten years off in my 30’s might have bought me some more of it. Time, I mean. Ask Anna Daniels, she knows how time works far better than me.” Tsonda punctuates with a smirk.
“But when I don’t worry about it, that doesn’t mean I don’t think about it. Ours is a funny job. You don’t count down to retirement, you outrun it. Every day, you eat, lift, sweat, move to gain just enough ground to stay one step ahead of those jaws. To keep doing this. And one day.” He snaps his fingers. “They’re on you. Finito.”
“Everybody runs from death. And in this business, we do it twice. Once for your career, and then…you know, the other one. Maybe our job, all that outrunning the clock, makes good practice for when the real thing comes for you. I’d like to ask Almasy whether it does any good.”
Chandler takes a deep breath.
“My health, my age, it makes this all a question mark. Sure, I don’t have five more of these left in me. Shit, might not have one or two more. Means if I plan on winning one, I’d be smart to do it here and now.” One more Hollywood smile for the road. “And I do plan on winning one.”
“You asked if I worry about how much time I’ve got left?”
Chandler looks down at his watch, then up at the room in front of him. He sees now, all their faces. Their eyes search.
“I’ve got a lot more fucking time left in this tournament than Anna Daniels does.”