"Now we are ten," said the man who suddenly appeared in my living room. Or more precisely, said the man who was me, but not me, because I was (and still am) me, and I was sitting in my armchair listening to The Moral Maze on Radio Four and not standing between myself and the wireless.
"I…You…I don't know what you're talking about and who you are and how dare you just walk into my house like this."
"You do know who I am old chap," I, that's the other I, the Me who was intruding on a rather interesting discussion about the morality of war, said. "I'm you. Retired Major Christopher Grant-Bowling."
I have to say, he cut a dashing figure. In his late fifties, all his hair present and correct, neat moustache, military bearing despite the dark boiler suit he was wearing. So imposter or not, the chap had obviously been in the army, which had to count for something.
"All right, all right," I said, coming-on all affable, trying to put him off-guard. "Enough's enough. Good joke. Who put you up to it? Must say, it's a good likeness."
"I put me up to it," he answered, serious as a judge. "Because there's a multiverse to save and I, that is we, that is us, ten of us -" I didn't like the way he said us. He made it sound a little too personal, a little too us-like. "- are the only ones who can actually do the job."
"What on earth are you talking about man? Save the what? Get out, now, go on, off with you, before I call the police."
"Afraid not old chap, you're coming with me." He produced something that looked like a revolver, except it was made of glass.
I was on my feet then. Poker in hand. I wasn't having -
The room filled with light, and suddenly I was cold and shivering. And then I was screaming. No chance of keeping the old upper lip stiff when you're being turned inside out, shredded, burned to ash then slammed back together again.
It took a moment for me to gather my wits.
I was still on my feet, poker in hand.
I was still wearing my favourite cardigan and slippers.
My pipe was still lit.
But there were others in the room now.
And the room in question was definitely not my living room. This room was blue, the walls translucent. But warm.
I saw a chair, at least it looked like a chair, and slumped down, a bit out of breath.
"All right old chap?" someone said. I looked up and saw, myself. In fact, I saw lots of my selves. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. But I was. Especially as some of these selves were women, and others were…well, not sure how to put this. They weren't exactly human, you see.
One of them was a reptile, the other, transparent, like a ghost, or perhaps more like a jelly fish. You could see his guts and vitals and it was somewhat disconcerting, I can tell you. But they were all me, no doubt about it.
And those female versions of me, odder, in their way, than those space monsters. One of them a practical, busy, type, in sensible shoes. No doubt she helped out with the National Trust at weekends. The other was a very handsome lady indeed. The sort who makes languid, but utterly charming conversation at dinner, who uses a cigarette holder and, even at her…our age, makes it her business to seduce the equerry, the new butler and the handsome young under gardener.
"Christopher?" said the version who had voiced his concern on my arrival. I named him Affable Me straight away. Nice fellow. Not good officer material, though, would have been too friendly with the chaps. "Talk to me old boy," he said. "You look a little peaky."
"I'm perfectly all right. And I'm very angry." I got to my feet, bristling, ready for a scrap. "You have no right to abduct me like this. I have no money, my wife has passed-on, and my two daughters no longer talk to me, so no one will pay a ransom -"
"Calm down Chris old boy, no one has abducted you." Chris? Chris? Who on earth did that Boiler-Suited Imposter think he was? "We're all in the same boat here."
"Stop making such a fuss," said the National Trust Me. "For goodness sakes, pull yourself together and buckle down man."
"I'm not accustomed to being spoken to by a woman in this way, I've a good mind to -"
"Please, please." said Boiler Suit Me. "Like it or not, your multiverse needs you. The Balance is under threat and swift action is called for. And that's one thing all of you are good at, swift, decisive action. Our foe is a clever bugger. Nasty and power mad. He has made himself Emperor of a complete universe and that simply will not do."
"You're right there," said Affable Me.
"I'm sorry, I don't quite understand this multiverse, as you call it," said, or should I say purred, the Handsome Lady Me. Job to remember that she was just another version of Major Christopher Grant-Bowling. Only her name was probably Christine.
"Anyone like fill her in, as it were?" said Boiler Suit Me.
Transparent Me stepped into the breach. "The Big Bang created an infinite number of universes," he said in a pleasant sort of voice, soft, clear. Hard to tell, though, if he…it…was a chap or a girl. Whichever it was, the old Grant-Bowling authority was there and I found myself drawn to him…she…it. "Each one has taken, and will continue to take, its own course. Some are very different to our own universes, others are almost the same but for the odd minor detail."
"Thank you," said Lady Christine Me and gave him a rather dazzling smile.
I saw National Trust Me roll her eyes. Jealous I suppose. I know I was.
"Anyway," said Boiler Suit Me. "This dictator of whom I spoke, is now looking to invade other universes. Not good, not good at all. It will upset the balance and then god knows what will happen."
"The Balance?" Affable Me said. He sounded worried. Must admit, didn't like the sound of it myself.
"Yes, you see, there is only room in each universe for one version of everything. The fabric is really rather delicate. So, too many Grant-Bowlings all in one place, for example, really would rock the old boat. We are all supposed to stay where we are. That's the way of things. If that Dictator chappie were to spill his massive armies into neighbouring universes, well…"
"In that case," I said. "Why is it all right for us lot to be here?"
"Ten is the maximum permitted number of versions of the same person, or thing, that can inhabit a particular universe at any one moment," Transparent Me explained. He was beginning to seem like a bit of a know-all. "But we cannot stay together for long, even ten versions in one place will cause damage after a while."
"Which means," said Boiler Suit Me. "We don't have a lot of time."
"Why us?" asked a rather poor specimen, Timid Me, I suppose you'd call him. Can't imagine he'd seen action anywhere, probably never joined up. He looked more like an accountant than a soldier. Odd, because that's what my father wanted me to be, family business and all that.
"Good question," said Boiler Suit Me. "Let's take a look at our foe shall we." He clicked his fingers and a picture appeared in the middle of the room, hanging there, in thin air. I think they're called holographs or somesuch. We all gasped, or growled in the case of Reptile Me - didn't trust that fellow, he looked hungry.
The picture, you see, was me, was all of us; Major Christopher Grant-Bowling.
No moustache, hair too long. But he had a startling pair of blue eyes and a good square jaw. Thoroughly dependable type, by the look of him. Shame he had turned rotten. To add insult to injury, he was even wearing a uniform that would have looked well on the Kaiser.
"I still don't understand why we have to do this. Haven't you got an army in this universe?" murmured Timid Me.
"Emperor Grant-Bowling I has a keen military mind. As do all of us," said Boiler Suit Me. "His mind works in exactly the same way as ours. So, we'll know what his tactics and tricks will be long before he pulls them out of the bag. We'll also be able to work together as a very tight-knit unit because we'll all know what each other is thinking. A double whammy, you might say."
"Isn't there another way we can do this?" said National Trust Me.
"Whatever do you mean?" exclaimed Affable Me.
Must say I was a little puzzled as well.
"Rather than fighting, war, that sort of thing. It always ends in tears."
Puzzlement turned to shock.
"Madam," I spluttered. "There's only one thing these dictators understand."
"But he's us. Surely we could talk it over with him. I think he would listen to reason, after all, he should do, shouldn't he?"
"We're wasting time," purred Lady Christine Me. "Powerful men never listen to reason. We need to strike now and strike hard."
I rather liked the way she said that last word. And the way she looked at me when she said it.
"I'd just like to voice my concerns, that's all. I'm no coward, I've fought for my country. It's just that I've seen enough bloodshed in my life, I'm not keen to see any more."
Somewhere deep inside me, down in the shadows where a chap shouldn't look, I felt that National Trust Me was right. I too had seen more than my fair share of nastiness. Part of the job, of course, but one can have too much of it. Thing is, you can't dwell on that sort of thing. Job to do, mission to accomplish. Firm hand required.
"Does anyone else feel the same way?" asked Transparent Man.
"We really should get on with this." Boiler Suit Me sounded impatient. Transparent Me was getting a little above himself. Not good, chain of command and all that.
"We all need to be in agreement don't you think?" Transparent Me persisted.
"Hmmph, I suppose so. All those in favour of decisive, swift and effective action raise your hand."
Up went my hand before I'd even had time to consider the situation. Best way. Too much thinking can gum up the works. Reptile Me's hand was only a second behind me, but neither of us were as fast as Lady Christine Me.
Quiet and Deadly Me raised his hand with the deliberate coolness with which he appeared to do everything. He hadn't spoken so far and I doubted that he ever said more than was absolutely necessary. He was dressed in black roll neck sweater and combat trousers. Commando or Special Forces of some kind I shouldn't wonder, from the sort of mob I'd volunteered for on many occasions, but always been turned down. I was proud to know that there as such a version of me, it was as if all the best parts had been given flesh.
Timid Me was a bit slow on the uptake, not surprising. Probably found the prospect of a good scrap a bit daunting. Know how he felt, but one must never give way to fear. Would have to keep an eye on that one. But he was in, that was the main thing. Got to admire the fellow.
There was a grunt of mild startlement and the last of the unintroduced me's appeared to wake from a nap. Lazy Me, I'll call him. He raised his hand even though I sensed he would have preferred a good old blazing fire and his pipe to active service. Indeed, his comfortable clothes resembled mine, right down to the slippers and leather patches on his cardigan elbows. But I sensed that he was solid, unimaginative, but there when you needed him.
That left Affable, Transparent and National Trust Me.
Shockingly, none of them had raised their hands immediately. Affable seemed to be in some sort of agony of indecision, it was clear on his face. He was thinking, and as I said before, a bad thing to do. He looked at the other two. Then at us. Wanted to please everyone. Not possible. In the end he slowly forced his hand into the air, making it look as if it weighed a thousand tons.
National Trust Me resolutely kept her arm by her side.
Transparent Me finally raised his hand. "I will go with the majority, only right, democracy and all that."
National Trust Me sighed and said. "I will abide by the majority's decision, and do my part." Went up in my estimation, fine woman, with the courage of her convictions. That was what we are fighting for after all.
Maps and diagrams of the Emperor's stronghold were produced. We stared and discussed and argued and shouted and in the end someone threw a punch. It was Reptile Me who restored order. He roared and we all shut up. Couldn't help but respect the chap for that. After his intervention, things went smoothly and within a few hours we had a plan of attack.
We would strike at dawn. Boiler Suit Me would use that glass gun thing of his to transport us all right inside the stronghold. Fighting would start immediately.
The chairs became bunks. The blue glow of the walls was extinguished. A few of us lay awake, smoked our pipes and cigarettes and stared up into the darkness. No one spoke. Too many feelings and thoughts. It was always like this before a show began. But we sensed each other's presence and drew comfort from that.