Her authoritative voice seemed so hollow and weak over the low bandwidth connection. It was a blessing in disguise. The woman's menacing red fedora seemed to have less of an effect on me as its pixelated form bounced across a hundred thousand miles of cheap Guatemalan fiber optics.

I could never quite put my finger on how it was able to shake my world so much. But it was certainly the embodiment of her personality. Brash and unique, easy to spot out in a crowd.

The woman was everything I wasn't. And we hated one another for it, even as we clawed at one another's clothes in our ignorant years.

Her web cam was uneven and shaky. The sun was just beginning to bleed out of the horizon behind her. Carmen always had a flare for the dramatic.

"Good morning, Wally."

She chirped in a sing song voice, pulling the brim of her hat over one of her big, blue eyes.

We'd both be dead long before she could figure out just how wrong she was.

I nodded respectfully, as I always did. My breakfast was just coming in. I tried to steel my eyes against Wanda's over zealous night gown. Carmen was still a furiously jealous woman and I'd get absolutely nothing out of her if I rubbed her personal failures in her perfect face.

We chatted about the failing dollar as Wanda fretted about my office like a mother hen, dotting and dusting while I munched on my soggy toast and sipped my tepid coffee.

When she had finally left (no doubt to examine the pool boy's latest wares) she let out a devious laugh.

"Coffee still? I thought your doctors told you to give up the caffeine. I can't have your body giving out on me yet. Not when I'm so close to putting together all the pieces of the puzzle you've laid out for me."

I narrowed my eyes from behind my newest prescription and lit a cigarette. I sucked on it until my lungs burned with the acrid smoke. It made me feel alive again. The mother hen would have my balls if Carmen ever decided to share some of my less wholesome hobbies with her.

"That's not the only thing I haven't given up. Old habits don't exactly die quite as easily as new ones."

I shot back, smashing the life out of the butt into what remained of my toast.

She sighed. Odlaw found that out the hard way, squeezed in to an iron lung for the last six months of his wretched life.

I could hear camels groaning in the background. Was she in the Sahara again? The tracking device I had managed to bury deep into the base of her skull still showed her position where I had left what I had believed her mangled body to be, deep beneath the Greenland ice sheet.

Clearly she was clever.

"Attached you'll find the plans for the M.C. Escher Project. Odlaw isn't exactly around to stick his nose into your business anymore, but his estate is still pretty active. So when you release this to the press please do try to keep your nose clean? And for heaven's sake-.."

"Don't tell anyone that you dye your hair, yada yada."

The clarity of her cam suddenly became crystal clear for a brief moment. Her eye bore into me.

"Why do you have to be such a jackass, Waldo?"

The fire in her voice was brutal.

I sighed and started the download.

"Why do you keep helping me, C?"

I couldn't help but let a tiny bit of contempt slip through. I hated her, but I couldn't get the smell of her hair out of my head.

"What you're doing is right."

Was her only reply. Her connection was beginning to grow fuzzy. Pops and whistles interrupted the subtle nuances of her delicate face.

"About Greenland.."

I started. I could hear Wanda's routine bringing her back to my office.


"I'd do it again."

I said in a deadpan voice was the door knob rattled. The download finished.

"I know."

The connection died.

What If?

Everyone collects one thing or another throughout their life. It may be part of the human condition, but it sure seems like the human race has been wired to squirrel away little trinkets for no particular reason other than they seem to create some sort of happiness that is almost tangible.

Sure, on occasion you'll witness the odd man out. The guy who doesn't seem to have anything to really show for thirty or forty years of living. But invariably if you look closer at these strange specimens you'll notice the same underlaying humanoid mechanics and the need for unnecessary clutter to arrange and sort just so.

Enter the world of Joel.

Joel was thirty five, balding and enjoyed the rather uninteresting sport of cricket racing. It wasn't really an obsession or a hobby, this cricket racing. But he found pleasure in watching the occasional match on his back porch, nestled safely below the super highway that straddled his sprawling fictional city.

Upon first glance Joel did not seem to collect anything. He was logical and thoughtful about his clothing. He regularly gave away old DVDs and CDs. He had no elaborate temple dedicated purely to a specific variant of sub-antarctic water fowl. No cupboard full of antique salt and pepper shakers from central Turkey.

No. Joel was altogether different than the average man on the street. He dealt exclusively in the world of his imagination.

Joel collected ex lovers and the future lives therein. He maintained no in depth manifesto or law suit inducing photography collection. But rather an elaborate series of worlds constructed purely on the "What if it worked out?" scenario that was all too common with men of his economic, political geographical and racial profile.

He mentally maintained twenty six relationships, twenty five of them purely imaginary with people who may or may not have expired sometime in the recent or not so recent past.

This average run of the mill man might have become a genius in another world and in fact he maintained three realities wherein two college sweethearts and a one night fling encouraged him to further his understanding of the universe and subsequently bettered the whole of humanity a significant amount.

He held marriages to fifteen women, two men (oddly enough the most stable of his collected "What-ifs," even though he was firmly heterosexual throughout much of his life) and was theoretically proposed to nine individuals. He held doctorates in biology, metallurgy, chemistry and homeland security. Three of his potential selves were severely obese and two were very healthy.

Twenty potential selves, oddly enough did not find cricket racing interesting in the least. This greatly troubled Joel when he mulled it over while watching the sport. It sort of ruined it for him, in an oddly recursive way.

Every one of his worlds was completely realistic. There was no reality wherein he was not fully himself.

But this is not the story of how Joel collects worlds in his mind for his own petty amusement while riding public transportation. This is the story about how these worlds, however imaginary, killed him in twenty seven ways.

It happened purely by accident one morning while Joel was in reality brushing, flossing, rinsing and washing his rather so-so set of adult teeth. While fully aware of his surroundings he was engaged in one case of wake up sex, ten morning defecations, five early commutes, three breakfasts, two mind blowing blow jobs, two hangovers, one agonizing case of the flu, and one father son talk.

The theoretical wake up sex was great. His husband (a boy he met when he was 13 at Camp Spruce Goose) had always been a great, gentle man. But had always been interested in the weirder side of sexuality. While sudden and completely accidental asphyxiation may have seemed amusing to the average person against Star Wars themed relations, the void it left was sudden and complete.

Joel stopped brushing his teeth and replayed the instant of gratification. Up until that moment in his life the number of theoretical lives had steadily been growing. There was never an instance of losing one.

This happening troubled Joel. With tooth paste dribbling from the corner of his mouth he wondered what had just happened. He was fully sane and in no way delusional. His what-if lives had been purely constructed and in no way had lives of their own.

Yet there he was, his first theoretical life ended. His storm trooper body slick with sweat and death shit while his husband (a cardiologist) performed CPR.

But it was over. The reality slipped away and by the time his mouth was rinsed of his breakfast sandwich, it was gone altogether.

His other selves gasped in unison creating a strange chain reaction in their respective lives. Twenty spouses looked at him oddly, three cats glared indifferently and a goldfish spat bubbles and shat. There was no Darth Vader clad cardiologist to ask what the hell was wrong with him.

Joel and his now twenty four selves went about their days. They collectively mulled over the incident while the real self went about on his daily routine. The real missus was out of town, so it was going to be a beer and chicken wing fueled morning.

It was during the morning news that his second self died. Just as he had begun to grasp the reality of an isolated incident, his second life came to an abrupt and terminal end as his cheating spouse (his first girlfriend, a nerdy little seventh grader) set their home ablaze in a prescription drug fueled frenzy.

An exploding propane tank filled his worlds with pain and fire. Visibly shaken, the remaining selves broke out in cold sweats.

Collectively, within their different theoretical homes each self found a mirror and stared into it. The real Joel just stared slack jawed into the reflection he cast on his ancient television.

Am I mad, he thought to himselves collectively. No, of course not.

Every theoretical life was carefully and thoughtfully fabricated. There was no grand delusion. It was simply his imagination (by then overly active) running away with itself. But however hard he tried to will the nerd-girl loving investment broker, or the Darth Vader loving web designer back to life it was futile.

They were gone. Their realities, more than two decades in the making each had been snuffed out. Over forty collective theoretical years. He and his collective selves shuddered like beanie baby collectors would after a home flood.

He and his twenty three remaining theoretical selves stopped. They immediately formulated a plan that involved every self withdrawing from their lives temporarily. It was a strange precaution, but Joel wanted to safeguard his elaborate collection to the best of his ability.

He laid down on the couch as a fleet of men nearly identical to him started their theoretical cars, hopped on their theoretical motorcycles and departed in their theoretical yachts.

Six hours passed before a coastal storm drove his third self to the bottom of the sea clutching a deflated life raft. Another two hours passed before his forth met it's untimely end at the hand of a freak car jacking incident with an enigmatic corn rowed youth named C.J.

Frantic, Joel directed his likewise upset selves into hiding. Withdrawing from their carefully built lives was not good enough.

This directive inevitably and immediately brought the brutal end to five, six and seven. Terrified by their own theoretical deaths they had all failed to pay attention to their environments. Five found himself hit by a bus, six fell down a flight of stairs and seven curiously enough was caught in the epicenter of a U.S. Air Force bombing range.

And so it continued in sequential order. The husband to an iron worker, dead. A marine biologist and father of six, dead. The would be husband of a pop star, crushed to death by a stage light. Occasionally hours would pass between ends. Sometimes two within the span of minutes.

Gradually Joel's stress began to build. Number twenty three, a severely obese self proposed to a McDonalds franchiser sustained a massive heart attack brought on by the severe mental condition caused by watching yourself repeatedly die. Go figure.

Nearly five hundred years of theoretical life were extinguished. Within Joel's mind, only one terrified self remained. He imagined the man gasping for air, clutching at a shooting pain in his right arm. His eyes were wide and laden with baggage.

It was then that Joel himself began to experience the tell tale symptoms of a heart attack. As life bled from his last remaining theoretical life his real body cried out in agony.

Soon the last remaining theoretical Joel collapsed into unconsciousness.

Rolling off the couch, clutching his left arm as if it were broken his view of the last what-if grew blurry. Remarkably like it's actual self, he was only three months removed. Proposed to a Russian immigrant, he'd never see his unborn son.

He died, ironically enough in a gutter. The real Joel was left with only his own thoughts and a failing heart. He considered just letting it happen. But the phone rang.

It was Clara, his girlfriend of two months.

She wanted to break it off. It seemed she had been wrong to assume she could change his strange habit of examining her faulty logic. As the real Joel's eyes rolled into the back of his head and he collapsed onto the kitchen floor, a new one was born.

A Joel that received a call from Clara. Her just wanting to say "I love you." before bed.

The real Joel passed into unconsciousness. But the new theoretical Joel remained aware. His connection grew fuzzy with his progenitor as blood bled from his real brain.

Soon there was nothing.

Theoretical Joel pondered this as his real self died. And he continued for quite sometime afterward.

I've never been my very own person, my very own being. In the beginning I was merely a part of a real person, a young man born into privilege and power; the things he never wanted. He loved a girl he wasn't allowed to have, he yearned for a life that was below his station; and yet he wasn't content in the idea that he could have it. I was still a part of him then, I felt the same as he.

But then we split apart, slowly... I began to have my own feelings, my own ideas; I fought for control and I lost in the end. Expelled, I was all but killed in his fear of what I was; twisted and deformed when I was first born I couldn't blame him. But I was angry then, so angry at everything; at him for rejecting me, that girl for never looking at me with the same eyes as she did with him, the world that spawned me... and deep down in my core I was angry at the man who caused this all to happen.

Bleeding to death in a manner of speaking and consumed with hate I was seduced by the siren song from a vast distance. It soothed my hate and my grievous wound; it made me feel as though somebody could understand the twisted creature that I was. I went to it, I traveled across universes in numbers I could never calculate, all to find the source of this song...

I found it in a dead little universe over one hundred twenty trillion years old; it was a huge crystal obelisk. When I tried to touch its surface I was consumed whole... and there I met the one who sung that song, the siren. Then I learned...

I was blasphemy, I was sin. A bastardization of the Human essence, composed of nearly all that was dark and evil; I had no redeeming qualities. But more than that I was composed of equal parts of two forces that should never have existed in balance; and then they weren't in balance, the Life Force that composed one half was damaged and burned, a good piece destroyed by the one who spawned me. I was on the brink of destroying myself, the very nature of my being was going to kill me.

I didn't want to die, even when I knew what I was; a monster and a freak that never should have been allowed to exist. But still I was too angry, too full of hate; I was blind to my fate when I became its bound servant. In return for my service I would be allowed to live, the damage would be repaired. I would be allowed to seek my revenge against those that had wronged my damnable existence, but at the same time I was to do its bidding.

Its bidding, it turned out, was something I did with relish; at first, that is. I was capable of making others suffer, I was capable of taking out all the pain, the anger, the hatred for myself and others on beings who did me no wrong. I made the lives of countless millions hard, I made them curse their own existence, their own fate. But more than that I enslaved entire populations, I turned worlds inside out as I spread my influence amongst their populations.

But even as I reveled in the carnage, the destruction, the testament to my own power... something inside of me took away from the pleasure. It was a feeling, deep down inside that I was doing something wrong, something terrible. Oh, I tried to ignore it, I tried to push it away... but it refused to simply stop. I could live with it, I thought; I could live with the weight of my sins if it helped release my pent up emotions.

But even as they were released that feel creped deeper inside, the void left by them was being filled with something far worse.

The campaign that I waged at the bidding of my new master was long, it was bloody, it was Hell. Worlds were destroyed, entire populations wiped from reality; their souls weren't even spared. My master desired them all, and so I collected them with a sword that was given to me, a sword made of the same black crystal that my master seemed to exist inside of. To this day the screams still haunt me; the screams of the damned, their wails of terror and strife as they were sealed within the blade that I carry even now.

But if that was not enough I gained a following. As though I were some kind of messiah the people whom bowed to me worshiped my being with almost a fanatical drive. I unified them, yes... but I also killed their families, their friends, their neighbors... I was no hero, no savior, no god! I was a killer bathed in the blood of the innocent, a reaver of souls that fed the desire of a master whom used me as a pawn.

The guilt, the despair... the horror at my actions. It was all building, it was all growing. The fire in my soul was dying, the hate and revenge that I lusted for was exhausted; only the guilt remained. It was something I could never understand, something that I could never grasp; why did I feel this way? I was all that was terrible and evil in a being, the darkness that so many cursed. I should have enjoyed it all, I shouldn't have felt this way.

But I did.

Even if I don't sleep there are times when I let my being wander, where I "dream" in a sense. And as time wore on my dreams grew more disturbing, closer to the reality I wanted to run from. The faces of the beings I killed haunted me, their wails echoed off the hollow essence that made up my form, the guilt took on a voice of its own, screaming at me.

Even in my dreams I couldn't escape what I had done, what I felt. I couldn't live this way, I just couldn't... and so I tried to throw down my sword, to renounce my master and its ways, hoping that it would lift the the guilt, the shame that I faced every moment of my life for so very long now.

The pain... oh, the pain I felt as it punished me, as my master made me bow before it. It had nested inside me, it had bound itself to my being in a way that it could bend my will to its own through a pain I had not felt before in my entire so called life. I could feel my two opposite natures boiling at one another, tearing me apart from the inside out on a level that beyond beyond sub-atomic I wished so desperately for it to stop, but I knew that everything would continue...

I wished that I would just die, then and there. Then, maybe, I would have been free of it all. But I wasn't strong enough. I wasn't brave enough.

I gave into my master, I vowed my loyalty once more... I took the sword back in hand and I fought in its name, to build its kingdom. A kingdom founded on the power it drained from the living, a kingdom that was crafted from the bones of the dead, a kingdom where I was to be a faux god to the survivors who would rally under my name, their desire for power and greatness blinding them to the fact that they were slaves.

That we were all slaves.

I hate myself... I hate myself for being weak, pathetic... I hate myself for what I have done, the sins that will never wash away. I hate the guilt, I hate the sorrow that I feel deep within me. I hate the false power that I control through the will of my master, a master whom I hate. I hate my very being, I hate the nature of who I am that binds me to slavery, I hate those who spawned me, those who rejected me.

I hate the very day I was born.

Why was I born? Was it just to suffer? Was it to make others suffer as well? Was my existance just a quirk, an accident that had no meaning to it, that had no prospects of ever finding happiness? Why was I born?! WHY?!

I can't answer that... I doubt anybody can. It's one of those questions that stands there, mocking you with its presence for as long as you exist, taunting you with the knowledge that you can never answer it.

I had no purpose even as I ruled a kingdom; I was too lost in my own guilt to see a point in going on. I returned to my homeworld on a whim, looking to see if maybe, somehow, I could see those whom I left behind. I didn't know what I would do if I met them, met him... saw her. But I didn't care, anything would have done. But even as I came close I knew something was wrong... my homeworld was burning.

They were rampaging, they were killing, they were enjoying it all so much. Everywhere I looked there was death, destruction, mayhem; it was like looking at my own work. I shuddered, a feeling passing over me that I had no felt before; if I were Human I'd of been sick. My past was being destroyed piece of by piece, my memories being invalidated as buildings were leveled and people killed. The familiar feeling of hate came back, then... hate for those who dared to ruin a world which gave me life, no matter how much I hated it.

They were there, I could feel them; the one who spawned me and the woman we shared a love for. I went to them, I went as fast as I could... but it was all for nothing; he was dead when I got there, slain by the weapons of the invaders. And she... well, she was taken by their leader, their little red prince as a trophy.

I had nothing, then. No connections to the past, no desire to live in the present, no hope for a future. Everything was gone, everything was destroyed. I had nothing at that moment, I was literally nothing; just the ghost of a dead man. And those with nothing look for something, anything to hold onto to, to take for their own... to use to tell themselves that THEY EXIST.

And for me, that was hate. A bitter, seething hate that grew inside of me, that pushed the guilt and sorrow out of my mind, out of my consciousness. It consumed me, it ate away at all that I was; the fire was back and it burned with a brightness that could rival the stars. If I couldn't have anything but my hatred, then I would have to return the favor... I would destroy all which that little red prince held dear with my hatred. I would leave him with nothing but hate for me... I would let him be consumed in the same fires that consumed me.

And when that day came, then maybe the guilt would return for my sins... and maybe I would feel even more when I looked back and saw the price that was paid for my hate. But you know something...

I think, maybe, I could "live" with it. Because, you see, after I made him pay, after I burned the whole of his empire to ashes, when I brought death to the vastness of what I now know as the Keeper Empire... I won't care.

I won't be able to care... because I plan to not exist after that. If his empire is to burn I know that it will take all that I have, all that I am... my hatred is all that's keeping me going now, and when that source of hate is gone, I plan to go with it.

Maybe then, after I have been crushed into near nothingness, when my life is fading away and I come face to face with oblivion I will be able to answer a question that has been burning in me for so long now. The one question that I've wanted an answer to for so long...

Why was I born?

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