Aphelion Issue 234, Volume 22
November 2018
 
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The Way of the Polycosmic Fist

by J. B. Toner




A universe-bending agent of the Church of Gnosis walked into a bar. The bar was called Dill’s: a single room stuffed in the corner of a floodlit tenement on Enoch’s lower east side. There were no windows; but the buzzing neon tube over the counter shed its own dim sunlight, and the slopping of the dull canal out back was like unto the music of the spheres. For many of its patrons, Dill’s was universe enough.

Charles Durance walked to the counter and pulled up a stool. “Bourbon, please.”

The ancient barkeep eyed him scruffily. “Bleedin’, son.”

“One does, one does. Now, if you’d be so good as to exsanguinate me up a drink, I’d be appreciative.”

“Cashews.” The barkeep slid an old chipped bowl across the counter. “Make ya viscous.” Then he shuffled off to pour the alcohol.

The door opened, and a gigantic fat man walked into the bar. In the corner to Durance’s left was a thin plastic table where sat a half-dozen patrons, drinking doggedly; all raised their glasses as the fat man entered.

“Gentlemen!” he bellowed. “Tonight we drink. We may have drunk before, but I recall no such occasion. This will be the first night’s drinking in my memory, and so tomorrow too.” His eye fell on Durance, and he paused. “You, sir. I don’t believe I’ve seen you here before.”

Even without the cut on his forehead, Durance would be remembered. He was a tall gaunt fellow with a piercing gaze. He turned and pierced the fat man, who was twice his size and—at about fifty—twice his age as well.

“Just passing through,” he said.

“Like the stout through my kidneys. Like the steel through your face! Perhaps you were involved in the late unpleasantness?”

The barkeep brought the bourbon and hailed the fat man with grizzled cordiality. “Evenin’, Bart. Usual?”

“Anything but, good man! As regular in my unusuality as the sea-tides in a swamp. But for libations, yes, the usual and then some. I’d like to buy this fellow here a drink.” He clapped a heavy hand on Durance’s shoulder. Durance glanced at the hand with a raised eyebrow, but didn’t shrug it off. “Bourbon, I see. Bring him another at once!”

“Put it on your tab?”

The heavy hand rose and fluttered like a hummingbird. “As you like it, good man, as it may be. We all of us have our tabs to pay. Now, stranger—won’t you join us? I’m Bartholomew.”

“Why not.” He rose, and they clasped hands firmly. “Charles.”

“One Charl at a time, my new friend. Come!” He led the way to the table, and they sat.

“Happened to yer head, partner?” one of the men inquired.

“Been shaving with my eyes closed. Honing the other senses, don’t you know.”br>
“Hone the sense, but dull the razor,” Bartholomew advised. “But come along now, tell us—were you not in the brawl a few blocks from here?”

An incongruously young and pretty woman sat up, interested. “What brawl?”

Bartholomew pounded his giant fist on the table, jostling the pitchers of ale. “A brawl at the local church! Heathens, I was told, harassing the faithful. But a single fighter dissuaded them.”

“Really.” She tipped her glass toward Durance, and he clinked it amiably. “Must’ve been a hell of a fight.”

“I expect it was,” Durance said cheerfully. “But I couldn’t say.”

“Chrysanthemum McFadden, by the bye. And you are?”

“Name’s Charles. And I gather this is Bartholomew.”

Everyone laughed. “Gods and goblins, man, I need no introduction here. A Bartholomew sits at a Dill’s in every possible world.”

Durance had finished his first bourbon and started on his second—both doubles, he noted—and he answered a bit more freely than he might. “Bold claim, but I wonder. They say the Church can find a world for any possibility. There might be one out there that surprises you.”

Bartholomew quaffed his stout and reached for someone else’s. “Surprises are for the expectant.”

A mousy fellow nursing a tiny wineglass scratched his head and frowned. “That fighter—d’you think he might have been one of the Folders they talk about? The ones that can always find a universe where they win? —Bartholomew, that’s my port.”

“Then lean to starboard, man.”

“Might’ve been,” Durance acknowledged. “The Church is always under assault by heretics and mercenaries of the Telos Corporation. Someone has to defend her.”

“Ha! Why bother? Whether she falls or triumphs, there’re infinite realities in which the other happens.”

“I should go,” Durance said, and finished his bourbon. “Thanks for the drink.”

Chrysanthemum half-rose and took his hand. “Come back sometime.”

“I will.”


*****



A chattering rain smoked grimly on the sidewalks. Durance pulled the dark green hood over his head as he strode briskly through the neon grime of downtown Enoch, where the winos fistfought for discarded cigarettes in gutters brown with blood. The local chapter where he’d fought the Telos thugs was now behind him; but he wasn’t heading for the Cathedral.

Above the steaming squalor reared a single skyscraper, pulsing with orange and purple billboards. As Durance entered the lobby, eight security guards came trotting toward him with their nightsticks drawn. He drew back his hood and said, “Archon.”

The guards snapped to attention. Durance covered his right fist with his left palm, bowed respectfully, and walked past them to the elevator. Once inside, he touched the keypad with his thumb. A small blue panel glowed in answer, and the car headed for the penthouse: sixty-six stories up, looming darkly over the city streets.

Peter Grey awaited him within. “Durance.”

“Sir.” They exchanged bows.

“You look a bit ruffled. Have a seat.”

“Thank you, sir.” He took a couch by a wall that was a window. Rain and darkness beat upon the glass, and Enoch glimmered gravely far below. There were no lights on in the penthouse, and the music of an age-old requiem hung faintly in the air.

“Drink?”

“No sir, I’m—I already had one, thank you.”

Grey took a chair. “Zagged when you should’ve zigged, hey?”

“Looks like. There were more of them than I expected. I’ll do better next time.”

“Don’t concern yourself. I’ve already had word from the Archimandrite, he says you did quite well. I don’t think Telos will attack the lower east again anytime soon.”

“Glad to hear it. They’ve gotten bold of late.”

“That’ll change now that we have a new Folder. How’s your training coming along?”

“Well enough. I can enter Thule at will.”

Grey nodded. “The last crucial bridge for you will be learning to enter by instinct, before you’re aware of a threat. Then you’ll never be caught off-guard.”

“But how do I—”

“That’s just it, you don’t. One of your others will know. You’ll learn to attune to the Durance from the next universe over, who’s a hair quicker than you.”

He nodded slowly. “I see. The Way of the Fist is—puzzling.”

“Life is puzzling, my friend. But we serve a higher truth. Now why don’t you head home. Tomorrow I’ll have a new assignment for you.”

Durance rose. “Yes, sir.”

He caught a cab outside. His apartment was a Spartan place in South Enoch, filled with books and arcane weapons. Ten floors below his smeared, cramped window flowed the same scum-filled canal that flowed past Dill’s. He went to the bathroom, cleaned his face and patched his cut, then sat down on the dingy bedroom floor. For long moments he hosted silly random thoughts, pulling himself as far from mental focus as he could—then, suddenly, as if startled by assailants in an alley, he entered into Thule.

Adepts of the Church of Gnosis had discovered the Thule state decades earlier, in deepest meditation. The human brain, it seemed, could produce a particular type of wave, dubbed Thule Waves, which allowed practitioners to communicate with selves from parallel realities, as long as those selves were also in the Thule state at that moment. And over time, the adepts had learned to fold their own universes into alternate ones in which a given situation turned out in their favor. These adepts, known as Folders, gradually developed and mastered a powerful martial art which they called the Way of the Polycosmic Fist. Charles Durance, a natural genius, was the first new rising master in the last ten years.

As he passed into the Thule state, time and space fell away. All his choices, all his possibilities, arose around him in the might-have mist. A self that hadn’t scratched his nose five seconds earlier—a self that hadn’t lost his parents fifteen years before. A billion, billion Durances floating in the iffy haze of next-door worlds. Who could ever be lonely? He knew his selves and they knew him, all wound in Thule and bound by Duranceness. He quested through his multitudinous minds for insight. How do I enter Thule by instinct? How do I find a safer world before I’ve seen a threat?

“The fat guy. Ask the fat guy.”

. . .Huh?



*****



The headquarters of the Telos Corporation took up a whole block in the very center of the city. Smogstacks loomed, crow-haunted. The twenty-story face of Nathaniel Telos, CEO, presided with avuncular benevolence over the urban decay below. Unlike the suit-and-tie security at Grey’s stronghold, the guards here had body armor and Uzis. No milk run, this.

Durance walked to the front door and put his thumb to the thumb-plate. According to his orders, the Church had managed to hack the Corporation’s database and add his print to their files; if he was misinformed, it would be a brief mission. But the light on the pad turned blue, and he headed in.

The lobby was sleek and silver. A fountain burbled; soothing music warbled; tall screens displayed coolly attractive spokesmodels with glasses, speaking on the Corporation’s philanthropic work. It felt both powerful and perfunctory, as if someone had glanced at someone else’s ultra-corporate lobby and said, “Make me one of those.”

According to secretarial files in the hacked database, Nathaniel Telos had an appointment uptown in half an hour and was scheduled to be passing through the lobby exactly now. Durance walked slowly, having no actual destination and not wishing to make it to the elevators before his target appeared. One could only pace for so long in such a bustle without appearing out of place. But there: within moments of Durance entering the building, the doors of a large private elevator in the corner opened. Telos walked out, flanked by six bodyguards and accompanied by what appeared to be a personal assistant. A very wide aisle opened in the crowd.

Durance waited placidly till the striding octet was about to pass him—then he stepped placidly into their path, gliding into Thule as the first two guns came up. A nearby universe contained misfiring cartridges, and he bounded forward as the triggers dryly clicked. Even the best leg armor had to flex at the knees: a pair of expert stomp-kicks left both men howling on the tiles. The next two guards appeared behind them. For them, the fight took bare seconds; for him, it was a near-eternity of shuffling through a near-infinity of worlds. He found more misfires, stomped more knees. The last two guards arose before him in the fog, and one more time he utilized the Fist.

“Nathaniel Telos,” he said as he emerged from Thule. The troops lay sprawled and writhing on the floor. More guards came sprinting in from outside, but they stopped; they couldn’t fire at him without hitting their employer. Telos was a huge, muscular fellow of some fifty-five winters, a boardroom titan for the last thirty years. They stood gazing at each other, both entirely serene. “I have a message for you from the Church.”

“Why hello, Charles,” said a voice he knew.

The personal assistant: young and pretty, less incongruous here than she had been at Dill’s. “McFadden.”

“Oh pish, call me Chrysanthemum.” She produced a pistol and aimed it at his face. “And freeze, by the bye.”

“Don’t bother. Your weapon’s jammed.”

“Beg to differ,” said another voice. Deep, somber, self-possessed: the man himself. And when he said this, Chrysanthemum raised her arm and fired a shot into the ceiling. Then she once again took aim at Durance’s skull.

He stared at Telos. “You—you’re a Thule user.”

“Got your message,” Telos said. “Now carry mine: Unintimidated.”

No one moved.

Then Telos raised his meaty hand and fluttered it. “Go.”

Slowly, Durance turned. The guards stood glowering, their weapons trained on his head and heart, palpably aching to fire—but, slowly, they stepped aside. He walked out of the building, slowly.


*****



Grey tapped his steepled fingers to his forehead. “I did not anticipate this turn.”

“Sir, I have come seven hundred and twenty degrees around since this morning and I anticipated none of it.”

It was a few minutes shy of noon, but Grey’s windows filtered the light in his rooms to an everlasting dusk. Both men were drinking Scotch.

“These tidings draw back many veils,” Grey said. “Every risky investment, every stock market coup—to the polycosmic entrepreneur, it would all fall into place. We’ve often wondered how a young man from nowhere meteored to prominence as he did.”

“But how could he have learned the Way?”

“Perhaps he simply sussed it out himself. It would take a remarkable mind, but nothing we know of him bespeaks mediocrity.”

Durance sipped his drink and brooded. Then he said, “Sir, there’s something else. I’ve mulled it and mulled it. That woman, McFadden—there’s no way she could have been waiting for me last night. After the fight at the church, I passed a dozen bars before I decided to stop and get a drink. It was spur of the moment. I didn’t know I was going there.”

“The Way is a wrinkled way, my friend.”

“Elucidate, please?”

“There is a phenomenon which we call the Telechaotic Effect. As a Folder grows more adept at passing through possibilities, his mere presence begins to affect probabilities. Strange coincidences often hound our steps.”

Durance frowned. “Is there no way to control the Effect?”

“There are ways to guide it. But vast things move in little spaces when we wield our powers. I wonder if this is why Telos chose to reveal himself.”

“What do you mean?”

“He may have felt that the chance meeting between you and McFadden was some manner of sign. It may even be that his magnanimity was an overture of alliance.”

“Or hubris.”

“Or that. For now, the next move is his. All we can do is keep fighting.”

“. . .Sir?”

“Mmm.”

“Have you wondered if there’s any point to the fighting? Whatever we do, in some alternate reality we’ve done the opposite.”

Grey picked up a deck of cards, bound with a rubber band, and tossed it to him. “Shuffle.”

He pulled off the band and let it drop to the carpet. He shuffled, listless.

“It’s said that once a deck of cards is shuffled, it can never—never in the trillionfold lifespan of the multiverse—be randomly shuffled back into perfect order.” Grey leaned over and took the deck from Durance. Then he began to deal. The ace of spades. The two of spades. The three of spades. The four of spades. He dealt out fifty-two cards, exactly in sequence. “The Church of Gnosis exists to seek The Perfect World. It’s out there, Charles. The worlds we see in Thule are like the waves of the visible light spectrum: on either side, beyond what we perceive, are fathomless depths of possibility. Somewhere in all the chaos is the one true cosmos, and we will find it. And yes—I’ve wondered what’s the point. Every fighter does. But there is the answer.” He pointed to the cards. “Now go home. Rest and meditate. I must consult the Council.”

“Yes, sir.”

Durance went out into the street and called a cab. He was about to give the driver his address; but he paused. “Have you ever heard of a bar called Dill’s?”


*****



He stepped out of the bright, grim sunlight into the nearly empty bar, and there was the fat guy, sitting at the counter with a foamy mug. Durance looked at his face and understood.

“Bartholomew Telos.”

“Charlie O’Thule.”

“How in the hell did you two figure out Folding all by yourselves?”

Bartholomew looked offended. “Why, native genius, obviously. What man of sense could drink with me and doubt it?”

“Speaking of, I guess I owe you a round.” Durance pulled up a stool and gestured to the barkeep. “Chrysanthemum was here to see you last night, wasn’t she.”

“Indeed, and that for two reasons, each simple and sufficient of itself. First of two, my venerable frater sends his emissaries now and then to woo me back to corporate life; and secondly, no woman having once inhaled Bartholomevian musk shall ever be content with lesser men.”

“Of course not. So why’d you leave the high-powered life?”

The hand fluttered. “Why bother? A billion Bartholomews tread jeweled thrones beneath their feet.” The barkeep brought two tankards full of ale. “Now this—this has meaning.” He hoisted, and they clinked.

“Can I ask you one thing?”

“Three things already, man. If I grant but one, you’ll lose the other two.”

Durance found himself grinning. “Seems like you got all the talking genes in your family.”

“Nathaniel’s taciturnity is broader than his shoulders. A man could put his strength in speaking or in lifting heavy objects to no purpose. But ask your fourth.”

“Last night at the church, I got blindsided. I’m trying to figure out how to enter Thule by instinct. One of my selves told me to ask you.”

“Oh, I’m no sensei. Trouble another Bart.” He raised his glass halfway to his mouth, but halted with a grimace. “Damnation’s icy blaze,” he muttered.

“What is it?”

“The other Barts, our grackling one-souled chorus. A quorum of I seem to feel I should teach you. Know: there’s no unlearning of the art. Never a Charl till the tomb folds you all together again.”

He nodded. “Understood. Let’s do this.”

“Then henceforth, my world-wending protégé—the drinks are all on you.”



THE END


© 2018 J. B. Toner

Bio: J. B. Toner studied Literature at Thomas More College, holds a black belt in Ohana Kilohana Kenpo-Jujitsu, and currently works as a groundskeeper at a retirement home in New Hampshire.

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