IGMS - Issue 12, page 1
Table of Contents - Issue 12 - May 2009
by Tim Pratt
The Multiplicity Has Arrived
by Matthew S. Rotundo
Somewhere My Love
by Stephen Mark Rainey
The End-of-the-World Pool
by Scott M. Roberts
Hologram Bride: Part One
by Jackie Gamber
by Orson Scott Card
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Interview With Joe Haldeman
by Darrell Schweitzer
by Tim Pratt
Artwork by Anselmo Alliegro
When I was eighteen, I went on a quest to win back my true love. I trekked a thousand leagues across a strange world, helped by a ragtag band that grew into a mighty army, and in the end I faced down the nameless emperor who'd stolen my Gwen. I defeated him in single combat, swept Gwen into my arms, and brought her back to our world to become my wife.
That was twenty-two years ago. For the past ten months, I've been cheating on my true love with one of my graduate students.
After sex, I sprawled on the sprung bed in the motel room, Isobel's length stretched alongside me. The ceiling was waterstained and cracked, and as always, after, I felt sad and defeated. I blamed it on the room. I'd once kissed a woman in the rainbow mists of the Isle of Bright. How could a seedy motel room compare, regardless of the glory of the body of my partner?
"I saw your wife the other day," Isobel said, and I understood the meaning of the expression "his blood froze."
"Oh?" I aimed for a casual tone and fell short. "How's that?"
"Don't worry, I didn't talk to her. I just saw her at the grocery store. She's really hot, Harry."
"How do you know it was Gwen?" I didn't keep a photo of my wife on my desk anymore; somehow her image, frozen from a happier time in our life, made me feel guiltier than her preoccupied presence at home ever did.
"The clerk called her Mrs. Overkamp, and that's not exactly a common name, professor. Besides, she had a weird wedding ring, just like yours."
I glanced at my wedding band resting on the nightstand, a ring of smooth bluish carved coral. I always took it off before even kissing Isobel, and told myself I was somehow keeping faith with Gwen by doing so. "Ah."
"So was she, like, a child bride? She doesn't look a day over thirty."
"No, she's only a year younger than I am. She's just aging gracefully. All the women in her family do." That was a lie -- Gwen was adopted, her biological parents unknown -- but I didn't want to have this conversation. I loved Isobel's assertiveness, mostly because it was such a contrast to Gwen's ethereality, but sometimes she made me nervous.
"She's so tiny. I must look like a lumberjack compared to her." Isobel was nearly six feet tall, on par with me, and she had generous curves, though her belly was smooth; she worked out a lot, because the women in her family "ballooned" as they got older, she said.
A lumberjack. I once fought a war-witch of the Four Gorges tribe in single combat, but this conversation had just turned dangerous in an entirely different way. "You're beautiful, Isobel. A much better fit for me. Gwen is . . . fragile." In more ways than one. "Sometimes I'm afraid to touch her, she seems so, I don't know, breakable."
"So you don't do your wife the way you do me?" Isobel lifted her head from my chest, that mischievous curl to her lips.
I squirmed. "I don't think . . ."
"Do you use her hard, like you use me?" Now her hand was wandering down my body, and I was simultaneously aroused and scandalized. "Do you pull her hair, like you do mine? Do you put it in her --"
I rolled away. "I'm not comfortable talking this way."
Isobel sighed. "Guys your age are always so hung up about stuff like this. Is it a generational thing, I wonder, or does turning prude happen to everybody when they get older?" I didn't answer. "If you're not going to talk to me, Harry, at least get down there and put your tongue to some use."
That, I could oblige. Gwen never spoke to me that way. We made love silently in the dark, sometimes by candlelight, and we never talked about it. Isobel talked about sex maybe too much, but I preferred her way to Gwen's. In my marriage, all the wrong things went unsaid.
"I'm going to the gym after work tonight," I said as nonchalantly as possible, sitting in our bright breakfast nook, buttering a piece of toast. "So don't worry if I'm late."
Gwen stood at the sink, looking out the window as usual, though I couldn't imagine what she found so fascinating about a patch of fenced-off grass and a droopy lemon tree. "You've been going to the gym a lot lately."
"Yeah, well, I've been letting myself go these past few years." It is a truth universally acknowledged that nothing gets a middle-aged English prof into the gym like an extramarital affair. "I want to get back in fighting trim."
"I remember when you carried me all the way from the steppes of Sarmatian to the grotto at Nemea. You were so strong then. So tireless." She didn't look at me.
I laughed. "Being pursued by armed pirates puts a spring in your step. I don't expect to get back into that kind of shape, but my dad died of a heart attack in his fifties, and my doctor says I should do more cardio, so --"
"Over there, we'd be on our deathbeds," she said, almost wistfully, still looking out the window, the sunlight catching the gold in her hair and making it luminous. "Life expectancies are so short. You're ancient at forty there. Unless you make special arrangements."
I cleared my throat. "I don't think about . . . over there . . . much anymore." That was almost true, especially since I met Isobel, though my experiences over there had shaped the entirety of my life -- even my academic specialty was heroic literature, and my honors class was called "From Beowulf to Batman." I doubt I would have been so obsessed with larger-than-life heroes if I hadn't, briefly, been one myself.
"I think about it a lot," she said. "But I was over there so much longer than you were."
Only a day longer, I thought, a little bitterly, but she always claimed time moved differently aboard the fortress on the Lambent Sea, that it felt like months to her, and it's possible, I guess -- though it's more likely her memory was distorted by the trauma of her capture and imprisonment. But that was all so long ago.
I ate my toast in a few quick bites, then went to the sink and kissed the place where Gwen's shoulder met her neck. She smelled like apples and cold white wine and clean mountaintop air. I felt a vestigial stirring of guilt -- some men would kill to have a woman like Gwen at home, and hadn't I killed for exactly that, many times? -- but shrugged it off. Twenty-two years with the same person was a long time. I'd changed a lot. And Gwen . . . well, she hadn't changed. At all.
"I love you," I said.
"And I you," she replied, as she always, always, always did.
I arrived home from my latest liaison and found Gwen sitting on the couch, methodically going through our dusty wedding album, scissoring my head out of all the photos and tossing the glossy circles into a wastebasket.
I cleared my throat. "Something wrong, honey?"
"Over there, vows are sacred." She didn't look up from her work. "There are whole classes of lesser gods devoted to scourging oath-breakers." The snipping of scissors was loud in the silence of her pause. "Over here, vows are easier to break."
"Gwen, I don't understand --"
"You never used to believe I was stupid." There was a tightened-down rage in her voice I hadn't heard in decades. She'd always taken every setback with such equanimity, even during the poor early years of cars breaking down, bills going unpaid, dental work postponed -- she'd just laugh and say something like, "After the siege of Rangell Station, this is nothing," or, "We escaped from
I put down my briefcase. "I don't think you're stupid." I thought she was aloof, living in the past, increasingly estranged from me . . . but maybe I had been treating her a little bit like she was stupid, too.
"You once toppled an empire to win me back, and you turned down the throne of that empire to bring me home, and marry me. You wrestled monsters, led warriors in battle, fought the nameless emperor who stole me away. And now you betray me with a girl who was in diapers while we were over there."
"Gwen, I never meant to --"
"I should have stayed with him," she said matter-of-factly, staring off at nothing, into the past.
"No." I felt my marriage crumbling like a sea cliff eaten by waves. "Don't say that."
"Why? The emperor gave up so much to open a passage between his world and ours. Do you remember what he sacrificed? There were songs about his bargain, over there. He sold a kidney, half his blood, his best sailing ship, ten thousand pearls, and his own name to dark powers, all so he could learn how to open a gateway and claim me for his own."
"He was a monster, Gwen." What was this, Stockholm Syndrome twenty years after the fact? "A tyrant, a pirate, an evil wizard. He kidnapped you!"
"He wanted me so badly he tore open a rift between worlds. You don't even want me badly enough to keep your dick out of your graduate students." She stood up. "Go away, Harry. I need to think. You can come back later, when I've decided whether or not I can forgive you."
I was tempted to say, "I don't want your forgiveness. I want to be with Isobel," but was it even true? I'd once told Isobel I was thinking of leaving Gwen, and she only laughed and said, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that men always promise to leave their wives for you, but they never do." Besides, Gwen and I had been together for more than half our lives. We'd once had the kind of love that inspired epic poems. Could I cast that all away? "Whatever you need, Gwen. I'm sorry. I'm really --"
She looked up. Her eyes seemed to sparkle with witchlights, like the waters of the Lambent Sea. "No apologies," she said. "Isn't that what you told the nameless emperor? No apologies, only redress." She picked up the scissors again. I stood, unsure whether I should speak, and Gwen shuddered, as if my presence repulsed her. "Go," she said.
To my cramped office in the English building and dropped onto the couch that filled most of the back wall, shoving aside a heap of papers to make room to sit. Would I be stuck sleeping on this couch tonight? Isobel had roommates, so her place wasn't an option. I picked up my office phone, called Isobel, and got dumped straight into voice mail. I cleared my throat and decided to soldier on. "Isobel. Gwen found out. About us. I don't know what's going to happen. I just . . . really need to talk. Call me." I hung up, then remembered I didn't have my cell phone. It was in my briefcase, and in my distraction I'd left that in the living room at home when Gwen threw me out. I considered calling back to tell Isobel she could reach me in my office, but wouldn't two calls in a row sound desperate? Never mind. I'd talk to Isobel later. It might be better to wait and see what Gwen had to say first anyway.
I unlocked the bottom drawer of my filing cabinet and withdrew a two-thirds-full bottle of Scotch. It was a good bottle, a gift from a grad student I'd advised the previous semester, as a thank-you after his thesis defense. I took a sticky plastic cup, sniffed it, decided the alcohol would kill whatever bacteria might be growing there, and poured myself a good slug. Sipping the warm Scotch, I felt like a ridiculous cliché. Middle-aged English professor, thrown out by his wife after screwing one of his students. It was the stuff of bad literary short stories. Once upon a time, I'd lived a different sort of cliché, swinging an axe on a quest in a strange land to save my one true love. Which cliché did I prefer? They both had their drawbacks. At least in this one I could sit on a couch and drink without worrying about lizard men or marsh witches trying to kill me.
I woke up in my office. The light outside the windows was dim, twilight shading into night, and I sat up, groaning. My head pounded. I left the office, locked the door, and stumble-staggered across the hall to a water fountain, guzzling tepid gulps until the desert in my mouth receded. I checked my watch, and it was after dinnertime. Gwen hadn't been specific about when I should come back, but surely she'd had time to think by now, to make at least some provisional decisions?
On the drive back home -- driving extra carefully, because I was a little drunk, and the last thing I needed was a DUI -- I tried to get my dread under control. Part of me was excited, I was ashamed to realize. I felt a ghost of the adrenaline thrill I'd known so well all those years ago, launching myself into the unknown against impossible odds, ridiculously confident that everything would work out, because I was young and righteous and on a mission. But cheating on my wife and dealing with the consequences didn't exactly make me a hero again, did it? Only the sense of danger was the same.
At home I opened the door and stepped into the living room. Gwen was nowhere in sight, but my cell phone was ringing, muffled inside my briefcase. I knelt, popped the clasps, and took out the phone. "Hello?"
"Harry, finally! It's Isobel. This is terrible! Do you want me to come over and tell Gwen I'm sorry, that I'll never see you again? I'm just a few blocks away, at the café."
"I, ah . . . I'm not sure that would help." Gwen had gouged out the eyes of a sea-harpy with her fingers once. What might she do to Isobel?
"Say the word, and I'm there. I mean, I like you, but this isn't worth losing your marriage over. Sometimes women just need to talk these things out between themselves."
I laughed, hollowly. "Isobel, I appreciate the support, but . . . You don't know Gwen. It's better if I deal with this myself."
"Don't be like that, Harry. This involves me, too, doesn't it?"
"This is my marriage."
"Yeah, and it's been your marriage every time you slept with me, too." Her voice was strangely gentle. "We're all grown-ups. We can talk, and figure this out."
"No, Isobel. I'll call you later, I have to go."
I hung up on her. Which I'd only ever done once before, and it had really pissed her off, but I had serious things to deal with now. Isobel's confrontational approach to life had seemed so refreshing before, but she didn't realize that sometimes discretion was better than valor. I turned off my phone in case she called back and shouted "Gwen! I'm home. Can we talk?"
There was no answer, and the house felt empty, but her car was still in the driveway, her purse still on the end table, so she must be here somewhere. Maybe in the back yard, under the lemon tree? I checked, and she wasn't there. God, what if she'd taken a bunch of sleeping pills or something? I rushed up the stairs to the master bedroom, but it was empty, too. Her clothes were still in the closet, and anyway, she wouldn't have gone anywhere without her purse.
I smelled something. Sea water, and lemons, and a hint of something sweet, something that smelled the way honey tasted, something I hadn't smelled in over twenty years. I pushed open the door to the master bathroom. Our tub -- which was nice, big enough for two, though we hadn't bathed together in ages -- was damp but empty.
A huge blue conch shell lay upside-down on the bathroom rug, revealing its pale pink hollow inside, and I whimpered. I knelt and picked up the shell in my hands, and it was impossibly light and delicate, the deep blue of a poison dart frog, a color I'd never seen in a seashell from this Earth. But I'd seen it often, over there, on the islands in the Lambent Sea.
I put the shell to my ear, and, yes, I could still hear it, the faint chanting in a strange language, sea shanties sung by the dead sailors of another world. I dropped the shell and put my head in my hands. Gwen had brought the shell to this world when we returned from over there. She'd kept it a secret from me all this time, and that broke my heart, though I had my own secret souvenir from that world, too, didn't I?
Damn it. Gwen had left me. That, I mig
But Gwen had brought magic back with her, something that allowed her to return, and now I couldn't imagine anything but going after her and bringing her back. At least I wouldn't be wholly unprepared. I went to my closet, shoved aside shoes and boxes, and popped open the secret panel I'd built into the wall when we first bought the house. I drew out a metal lockbox, spun the combination, and opened the lid to reveal an axe head in a leather sheath. I unbuttoned the sheath, saw gleaming silver, and caressed the metal, still cold and untarnished after all these years. I grabbed an overnight bag, shoved the axe head into it -- I could always find a handle, the smith in the first village I reached should be able to provide something. I threw a knife and some clothes into the bag, and thought about including a rhyming dictionary, for old time's sake, but wasn't sure I had one in the house. I shoved the overnight bag in two layers of plastic black garbage sacks and tied it up tight. I'd make the passage dressed only in my underwear.
I took the bag into the bathroom and knelt, shoving a stopper into the drain, and began filling the tub with warm water. I waited impatiently for it to fill, then turned off the faucet and dipped the conch shell into the water, filling it like a bowl. The water in the shell began to shimmer and sparkle with yellow-orange lights, and I poured it back into the tub, scooped up another shellful, and poured that out, too. Now the whole tub was shimmering, and when I looked down, I couldn't see the white porcelain at the bottom anymore, only darkness, with tiny lights twinkling in the depths. My bathtub was now a little annex to the Lambent Sea, a portal to a world I'd never expected to see again. I set the shell aside. It felt lighter and more brittle than before, and the blue was a paler shade, as if the magic had sapped something of the shell's essence.
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