"And he asked him, "What is thy name?" And he answered, saying, "My name is Legion: for we are many."
Gospel of Mark 5:9
A summer evening rush-hour in the city. Asphalt baked soft and sticky beneath crawling traffic and its horn-blared cacophony of impatience. Fumes, fury, and exhaustion. We tear a jagged line across the maelstrom, my two pursuers and me.
I'm rolling across the hood of a car that has just left what will be a bone deep bruise on my thigh tomorrow. If I live to see tomorrow. Fortunately I land on my feet, though stumbling. The cycle-lane gives me a space, a brief respite, and I pound a few yards before cutting into an alley mouth. I hear them shouting behind me: they think I've made a fatal decision, and maybe they're right. It's risky. But I have to do something. I can't shake them. They're stronger and used to this kind of activity. They gain all the seconds I lose when I bump into people or things, when I stumble, slide or roll. They have a predator's instinct of when to stay in the wake of their prey and when to spring. The alley means I've made their decision for them. A fatal decision.
The alley is not a dead end. No chain fence dissects its length - that's for the movies - but it does turn through a corner. I've got maybe eight seconds on them as I round the corner and it's been building for a block. When my blood is up, when my emotions run like bushfires, that's the only time I can predict its coming.
Eight seconds, five seconds, one...
If you could only see the look on the faces of my two pursuers, as they turn that corner and bump into an army of me.
Okay, not an army, but enough. I did what I can do. Eight seconds and now there's five of me. Five identical instances of a scared, desperate man.
Two meets five, and it gets ugly. One of them has a gun and then one of me has a bullet in his chest. But four is enough, and there are other things to duplicate. A rock becomes two. A bottle becomes three.
I'm screaming and bludgeoning and dying and winning and living, all at the same time. There's no sense of one of me being the original. It doesn't happen like that. One moment there's me, and then suddenly there's more of me. Later, there'll be one of me again. All I know is it won't be the one of me bleeding out on the concrete between two dead thugs in an alley. That me won't even be here long enough to leave a stain on a body bag.
In the quiet aftermath, we listen to our hearts beat, to our ragged breaths slow. One of our breaths stops forever. It's happened before but I'm not used to it. How could anyone? There are now just two dead mean in the alley. No trace of me. The clothes go with the body. Sets of things I duplicate disappear at the same time. My blood stains are gone. When forensic scientists examine these two, I won't be found hiding in the fibers. When I go back to just one of me, the duplication event is over, and all traces of duplicated me disappears.
"Usual rules," I say through two mouths, which always irritates me. Four heads nod. It means we all stay hidden until midnight, by which time we will be back to one and that one can go home.