DREAMS FOR SALE — TWO BITS!
by: Thomas Allen Mays
“Doctor” Stu Langley peeked past the edge of his trailer’s curtains and nodded at the small crowd of thirty or so in front of his caravan’s attached stage. The dusty assemblage of men, women, and fidgeting children stood in their little town’s diner parking lot, with no idea what to make of the garishly colored trailer and its bunting-strewn platform. They stood listlessly, clutching at his bright orange flyers and the promise of salvation they cryptically offered, yet none of them knew what Stu or his traveling road show was really all about. Closing the curtain, he straightened his loosely knotted tie and smoothed his pristine white lab coat while the corners of his mouth turned up into a genuine, gentle grin.
The poor, dumb hayseeds were about to be dazzled by the best, and he could not help but take a small bit of pride in that.
His smile spread, becoming less genuine as it grew wider, brighter. Kilowatts, and then megawatts of confidence and sincerity blazed out from his slightly gap-toothed grin. His was a smile brighter than the sun, a smile so bright that maybe, just maybe, they might not see the man behind it.
Doctor Stuart Tecumseh Langley, Professor-At-Large of the University of Texas at Arlington Department of Physics, swept aside the trailer’s curtain and leapt upon the stage, his lab coat billowing behind him like a magician’s cape, while a crescendo of synthesized horns blared at the audience. His dramatic appearance drew startled gasps from the ladies in the crowd, as well as several men, just like he liked it.
Stu stood directly beneath the banner arching over the stage, a mysterious sign which read: “Across the Bridge Awaits the Life You’ve Always Wanted!”
He held his arms out to the startled, nervous townies, as if to encompass them all. “Good people of Edenton, welcome, welcome! You are each and every one of you to be honored and congratulated. You have had the foresight, the courage even, to appear here today on the cusp of the grandest adventure of your lives. You are pioneers! You are heroes!”
“We’re farmers, Mister,” said a man’s voice, somewhere in the crowd, “and we ain’t got time to listen to some BS about how damn brave we are. We’re here, so say what you gotta say and let us get back to our work.”
Stu, still smiling, hardly missed a beat and craned around to catch sight of the speaker: a stout, yet somehow wasted man of thinning blond hair and glowering demeanor, all drab and dark except for one splash of color — Stu’s flyer half crumpled in one fist. Stu brought down his hands and pointed at the man. “Right you are, sir. You don’t have time for flowery rhetoric, or for sunshine to be blown up your backsides. You have to get back to your fields and your stock. You have to get back to land that’s just a little bit dryer, just a little bit harder to work each day. After all, how else can you pay those bills you can’t afford to pay, or fight off the corporate farms threatening all that you’ve built up your whole life.”
Stu lowered his finger and spread his hands again, but lower, less imposing this time. His gesture seemed to draw the crowd in closer to the stage, a concerned leader commiserating with his charges. The wattage of his smile changed character as well, becoming a beacon of compassion. “You have to get back to land and lives that make you wonder if God’s forgotten about you, if Murphy is steering the wheel of your destiny. Does anybody here feel that way?”
There were tentative, shamed nods from several people in the crowd. Stu nodded back. “I thought so. I knew it. Murphy and his law. What a bastard. But let me tell you two things — one you probably know and one I’ll guarantee you don’t.
He held a finger over his head, counting off. “First, it’s true: whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. It’s not just pessimism — the laws of the universe actually demand it. Einstein and Schrödinger and all their ilk decreed it to be so.”
“But here’s what they never tell you . . . .” Stu brought his finger down and held it in front of his lips. His smile became sly, trading compassion for conspiracy. “Murphy was only half right. Those same laws decree that whatever can go right, must go right as well. How is that possible? In what sense can both of those statements be true at the same time? I speak, my friends, of the multiverse!”
Stu trotted to the back of the stage and rolled out a large flatscreen. Images of scientists, labs, particles, laser double-slit experiments, and branching world-lines began to randomly, artfully scroll across it. As he spoke, the pictures changed to match his words. “Established, proven science shows us that when any decision point is reached, whether it be a particle traveling left or right, or you deciding to spend your last five dollars on either milk or eggs, both possibilities are borne out, though individually we are aware of only one.
“The universe splits — one decision going one way, the other going the other way. Every moment, from the beginning of time till the end of time, the universe is branching and splitting into an infinity of infinities! Every possibility and potential, no matter how unlikely, exists as reality somewhere in the vastness of the multiverse. Every random thought you’ve had and then discarded, every road not taken, is somewhere traveled to its logical end. Our individual and collective consciousnesses meander this treacherous path blindly, unknowingly, unaware that we are living side by side, moment to moment, with lives of greatness, and still others of crushing despair.”
Stu turned from the screen and pointed an accusing finger at a plain woman in the bewildered, enthralled crowd. “You, ma’am, somewhere in this multiverse of universes, are a queen or a movie star.” His finger shifted targets. “You, sir, are a captain of industry, or a decorated captain of an honorable war.” Again, Stu’s attention moved, this time to single out a young woman who glowed with a vitality and ripeness that belied her tired eyes and ill-fitting hand-me-downs. “You, miss, might be a beloved researcher with the cure to cancer, or an inspiring temptress who fills the world with desire.”
He clasped his hands together, becoming a penitent soul, sharing with his brethren the Way, the Word. His speculative grin transitioned smoothly to a line of somber reflection. “All of this exists, simultaneous with your difficult lives here, pressed so close to your reality that you can feel the way things could be, the way they should be, but so far away that you can never reach those other golden existences.”
Stu paused, letting it stir in their thoughts, watching them. When the inevitable question began to form on a few of their lips, he beat them to the punch. “‘Perhaps’, you say, ‘but why, oh why, Dr. Langley, would you tell us about these beautiful lives that can never be our own?’ And to you, I respond, ‘who says they can’t be?'”
He stepped back to the rear of the stage and removed a small device from a stainless steel trunk. Holding it aloft, he allowed the sun to glint over the circlet’s crystalline protrusions and masses of silvered electronics. It was like a crown from some fabled kingdom of diamond technology. “Ladies and gentlemen, I introduced you to the oft-denied concept of the multiverse. Now let me show you what they tried — and failed — to lock away forever. This, my friends, is the Bridge.”
Stu brought it lower and knelt at the end of the stage. The crowd moved in close, close enough for him to hear their panting need, even over the hollow sound of the dry wind. He smiled again, this time as the parent watching the anticipation of his children on Christmas morning. “If I set this upon your brow and flip a switch, your life will be linked to the life of your choice, not the choice of some random sequence of events. Let’s say you want to be king of all the world. And let’s say this other you, this king of all the world, just wants to get away from his magnificent, oppressive wealth, his adoring multitudes, his awesome, god-like responsibility. Let’s say he just wants to live a simple, challenging life, perhaps the life of a farmer in Edenton. Instantly, by mutual consent in a moment of Planck-time, you become him, and he becomes you.”
He gently caressed the device. “This crown, this bridge between realities, is what I smuggled out from my work at university, past Those Who Would Control Your Lives and Destinies. If you’re feeling trapped, with this I can release you. If you’ve lost your faith, with this it can be restored. You are all so close — so very, very close to the fulfillment of every one of your dreams. All you need to do is step upon this stage.”
The dour blond farmer who spoke up before shouldered his way to the front of the crowd and threw a crumpled flyer onto the dusty, cracked asphalt. His eyes glowed with anger. Stu looked over at him, and grinned in welcome. There was always one in every crowd: the outspoken doubter, livid at himself and others for daring to hope, to believe. The farmer clenched his fists rhythmically. “If it works so damn well, why haven’t you used it?”
Stu laughed, not in scorn but delight. “Who says I haven’t!? Why, sir, I have the best job on the planet. For a nominal fee, a pittance merely to keep the government from intruding in my affairs, I grant wishes — not three, it’s true, but with this, you only need one. To me, there is no better life than mine. I’m a quantum mechanic, on the road to fix broken lives in an uncaring multiverse. I’m the toll-taker on the bridge to denied destinies. You can’t beat that!”
Stu stood and held out a hand to his adversary on the dusty parking lot before him. “You, sir! Be a leader here and now to your community, and take a chance on being a leader to all of humanity, to be the great and terrible emperor of all the stars in the sky. Step up and let me try it on you — just for a moment — and see with your own eyes whether I’m full of bull or not.”
The blond farmer looked nervous, glancing from side to side to his neighbors, but they offered no guidance. They were but mirrors of his own anticipation, his own self-conscious need. He took a step forward and sneered. “Let me guess, ‘The first taste is always free.'”
Stu chuckled and leaned his extended hand closer. “No truer or wiser words have ever been spoken, but believe me, it’s worth it.”
The farmer took another look around, squared his shoulders, and took the Doctor’s hand. Stu hauled him up atop the platform and then stood before him, the sparkling circlet of the bridge in his hands. “Tell me, my friend, do you think you’ve gotten a fair shot at life? Do you wish it all could have been . . . different somehow?”
The farmer narrowed his eyes, pride blocking away any other emotions. “I don’t believe the good Lord has given me any challenges I can’t handle.”
Stu looked askance at the crowd. “Judging by your face, I’d say the good Lord’s been keen on giving you about every challenge in the book.”
“Hey!” The farmer turned red as his assembled neighbors chuckled at his expense.
Stu smiled in reassurance. “I’m just kidding you, sir. But, really, ask yourself — you needn’t tell me a thing — if you could do it all over again, without limits, without constraints, where would you rather be today? What would you be? Who would you be?”
He paused and let the questions worm their way past the man’s defenses of pride and hostility. Stu saw the man’s eyes soften, taking on a wistful cast. He nodded and set the Bridge carefully upon the farmer’s head. The burly, surly man instantly appeared nervous once more, but Stu just clapped him on the shoulder, his satisfied smirk turned up to a withering luminosity. He trotted to the back of the stage, sending his white coat flaring out.
He rolled out a stainless steel control console from next to the box he had taken the device from. Its panel was covered in gauges, lights, and controls of arcane complexity, but Stu set about manipulating them with the utmost confidence, flipping switches, turning dials, and manipulating vernier knobs. A loud whine arose from the console, of such volume it seemed a jet was about to take off from the stage. The crowd drew back in apprehension, unsure of what was about to happen. They did not have long to wait. Apparently satisfied with his adjustments, Stu stabbed dramatically down upon one of the panel’s buttons.
The whistling whine vanished and the circlet of the Bridge flashed blue for just an instant. The farmer jumped, then splayed out his feet and whirled his arms like he was trying to keep from falling off a cliff. Regaining his balance, he looked about, taking in the bright, windy day, the faded, unkempt buildings of Edenton, and the hungry faces of the crowd arrayed before him. A look of wonder and shock grew upon his face.
Stu put two fingers in his mouth and whistled piercingly. The farmer, or whoever he was now, whirled around to stare at the brightly grinning doctor. Stu saluted him. “Welcome to tranquil, bucolic Edenton, sir. I have switched your realities for a moment. Here, you are a simple farmer with nothing to worry about but the challenges of working your fields and growing your family. How does such a prospect sit with you?”
The man looked slowly around him again. A smile began to crack the lines in a face that had been too long without one. “Tis wonderful . . . impossible and glorious at the same instant.” His accent was soft, precise, and refined.
“Good. Then we’ll see you again in a few minutes.” Stu stabbed down at the button again, causing the farmer to jump and sway once more. The man looked wildly around him, a confused swirl of emotion evident on his face. Carefully, gingerly, he removed the Bridge from atop his head. He stood up straight and nodded, a profound sense of loss sweeping over his features.
He finally spoke, his devastated words almost too soft to be heard. “It’s all true, damn it. I was somewhere else. I was some kinda king. It was all so . . . clean and pretty.”
Stu nodded and came out from behind his console. He reclaimed the circlet and put an arm around the now subdued farmer. He turned to the crowd. “There you go. You’ve witnessed it with your own eyes, with one of your own neighbors. You can have all that you’ve ever desired. You can have more than you’ve ever desired. All you have to do is the easiest, bravest, most rewarding thing you’ve ever done. You have to raise your hand and say, ‘Doctor Langley, I want to cross your bridge.'”
The hands in the crowd all shot up so fast that it was impossible to say whose was first.
Later, much later, Stu sat in a window booth of the little diner, from whose parking lot he had run that day’s event. The day had been mad, hectic, but now that the sun had set, the seemingly endless crowd had finally dispersed, and his stage and equipment were stowed neatly away in the trailer. All was quiet. He sat alone in the diner, with the exception of the taciturn waitress who pointedly ignored him as she went about shutting down her hash-shack.
It was a good time to brood, and Stu did just that, glaring across his half-empty coffee cup at his now dusty lab coat, lying across the back of his booth’s opposite bench. Its pockets bulged with paper, cash and checks that would need to be cashed first thing in the morning. Then there would be the road, and the next town, and the next unhappy crowd looking for some way out. And there would be Stu, giving them exactly what they asked for. At least, that was what he told himself.
His stomach soured, so he gulped down the dregs of his cold cup of coffee. Stu let the cup clatter back down upon its saucer and he shifted his aimless gaze outside. In the dark night and sodium-lit parking lot, his trailer’s glaring paint job only looked stark, alien.
The waitress’s pleasantly curved reflection interposed itself over the view of his foreboding trailer. He turned and looked up at her, smiling noncommittally as she frowned down upon him. Without a word, she slid a dessert plate in front of him and then turned her back, walking away to return behind her long silver and white lunch counter. He looked down at the plate, arching an eyebrow at the single apple resting upon it.
“What’s this? I didn’t order . . . .” Stu’s question trailed off as the reference struck him. He grunted and picked up the shiny red fruit, turning in his seat to face her. “Ah, ha, haaaaa! I get it.”
He waved the apple around. “‘Eden’-ton . . . the forbidden fruit . . . the temptation and fall of the innocent.” Stu pointed a finger at himself. “The fork-tongued serpent.”
He traded the apple for his empty cup and the tired smile fell from his lips. “Just pour the joe, Flo. I didn’t come here for the clever commentary.”
She glared at him for a moment with undisguised loathing, and then there was a flash of something else, something he did not understand. Pity?
The waitress shook her head, put on the mask of a genial smirk, and grabbed a stainless steel coffee pot. She approached and he held out his cup, matching her disingenuous grin exactly.
She topped off his cup with brew that had been too long upon the burner. “Actually, I thought it was more than appropriate. That was your role today, and you played it perfectly.” She turned away and sauntered back to her counter. “And the name’s Maggie, not Flo.”
His smirk took on genuine life. This might be fun. “Okay, Maggie. And Satan’s just my stage name. I usually go by Stu.” He stood and followed her, taking a seat at one of the counter stools. He sipped her coffee, grimaced, and set the cup down. “Now, why exactly would you be so opposed my little show here? I always considered myself doing the Lord’s work, not the other guy’s.”
Maggie turned back around after setting down her coffee pot and leaned toward him over the counter. “Oh, Stu, I’ve just got a funny feeling is all. It seems to me like you packed up your show pretty fast for someone who only has this town’s best interests at heart. Why not stay for a little while? Maybe some people were scared at the prospect of changing their realities. Once everyone sees all the good you’ve done for your customers today, I’m sure your crowds would be twice as big tomorrow.”
Stu shrugged. “If they’re too timid to catch me on the first day, they’re probably too much of a wallflower to really make a good go of it in another life. Besides, there’s a lot of little towns and a lot of unhappy people. It would be criminal of me to deny my technology to all those others truly in need out there.”
Maggie laughed, a harsh, derisive sound. “Saint Stu, only taking every last penny they can scrounge up, and all for a hollow opportunity. Face it, you’re just another snake-oil salesman. It’s the same old patent medicine, just a new flavor.”
“Ooooh, you cut me to the quick! Sorry, darlin’, I give people exactly what they want, and I take exactly what they’re willing to pay. There’s no truer or more pure expression of capitalism to be had.”
She leaned closer. “Which would be fine if you actually gave them what they thought they wanted. Thing is, you don’t. You promise them one thing and then deliver nothing but hot air.”
“Don’t I? I used my bridge to transpose 290 people today. That’s 290 dreams satisfied and lives made better — twice that if you count personalities sent to the multiverse and multiversers transferred to Edenton. That’s 580 testimonials to the good that I’ve done. If you compare that to what I collected, I’m practically running a charity.”
Maggie stood up. “Bullshit. I heard every one of your fancy words. You promised them new lives, the lives they’ve always wanted — and maybe you did shift them from one reality to the next, but that’s not the same thing as giving them new lives. All you’re doing is changing their circumstances.”
He spread his hands, welcoming her ridicule. “How, pray tell, is there any difference?”
Her eyes flared, angry, hurt. “I’ll tell you how. You changed where they were, what they had to do, what their expectations were, and the situations they found themselves in, but you didn’t give them the tools they needed to be a success at their new realities. You dumped a bunch of ignorant hicks in high-powered situations, and then abandoned them to fail!”
She came out from behind the counter and approached the window, gesturing at the dark, quiet streets of Edenton. “Tonight there are 290 farmers who don’t have a clue how to farm. They know matters of state and society, not seed and stock! And that’s not even the worst of it. Think of the families you’ve broken apart. Children with parents who don’t know them, much less love them, spouses who are stuck with a frumpy, tired counterpart when they used to have harems and consorts.”
Maggie turned and stepped closer to him. “And what about the former folk of Edenton? How good a king do you think one of our townsfolk are going to be? The folks around here weren’t exactly big-time C-SPAN watchers. They’ve never had military command training or courses in strategy and logistics. Think of all the nations you’ve doomed to failure.
“They should have stayed where they were,” she said, shaking her head. “They should have stayed where they were needed and worked out their problems in this reality — not jumping ship to try a new one on for size, but it’s too late now. It’s going to take a few days for that new-reality-smell to wear off, but when it does, all 580 of your clients are going to realize their new situations stink worse than their old lives ever did. They’ll be out of their depths, and then they’ll feel the guilt over all they’ve abandoned. And where will you be?”
Stu stood up and came close to her. They both looked out the broad, dusty window. “I’ll be on the road, in the next town, giving the next desperate populace the chance to change their situations.”
He turned back to Maggie, silent until she turned as well, his gaze locking up hers. Stu grunted. “You honestly believe none of that ever occurred to me? I don’t force anything on anybody, and anyone smart enough and responsible enough to make this sort of decision, has to be responsible for all that goes with it. You see nothing but the possibility of failure. I see it as an opportunity, and if they are sincere, if it was meant to be, then all these folks will bear down and earn the chance at success they all jumped at. It’s up to them. It’s always been up to them and it always will be. My Bridge just expands the options a little.”
Maggie grinned. “You trying to sell me on it, Stu? Or yourself?”
Stu took hold of her shoulders and squared her off to face him. He looked her up and down, nodding to himself. “You’ve got a chip on your shoulder about the whole concept, but you’re exactly the sort of person the Bridge is perfect for. You’re smart, strong-willed . . . and unhappy. Life hasn’t turned out exactly like you thought it would, has it? Let me guess: you had the world on a plate, but somehow the plate went crashing to the floor. You were the belle of the ball, homecoming queen, maybe even the star quarterback’s best girl. You had plans beyond this little hick town. You were going places.
“Then it all went away. Maybe there was a scandal. Was it an amorous teacher? A new girl for the team captain? No, no, it was worse. A pregnancy?” Her eyes flashed and she pulled stiffly away from his hands.
Stu nodded. “Yeah, that’s it, you wound up pregnant. Sure, you gave the baby up, but everything was tarnished anyway. The quarterback moved on, and so did friends and family. The stress ruined your shot at the scholarships, and you took the diner job just to scrape together enough funds to pay for that first semester of college. Except you never seemed to have enough. It was always, ‘maybe next year’, and the job went from temporary to permanent.
“Now, the years have stretched to a decade or more, and your hips are getting wider, your chest is getting lower, and the bags under your eyes are looking a little darker every morning. You can’t see any way out now, so when a new, easy way comes along to escape the hole you dug for yourself, you lash out at it, like a wounded animal biting the vet’s hand.” He pulled his hands from her shoulders and took a step back, smiling his megawatt smile, superior and compassionate all at the same time. “How’s that?”
Maggie’s lips were set in a thin, bloodless line. Rage blazed within her eyes for just a moment, and then it switched off, her eyes becoming cold and disconcertingly unforgiving. “Not too bad, Dr. Langley.”
He shrugged. “It’s a gift. You present a challenge, my dear Maggie. You profess to despise me and everything my invention stands for, but you’re made for the Bridge. Let me do you a favor. Let me bring it in and use it on you — no charge. You could have any of a million new realities, and even starting out blind and clueless, I’m positive you would be a stunning success. You would have been a stunning success here if not for the vagaries of fate. What do you say? Will you let me? Will you let yourself?”
Maggie stood straighter. “You seem very eager to see your critic gone from this world.”
“Now, now, it’s nothing like that.”
“Well, if there’s no downside, why haven’t you used your bridge on yourself?”
Stu’s smile snapped automatically to its brightest and most confident. After being unexpectedly challenged, it felt good to be back in familiar territory. He trotted out his standard spiel. “Who says I haven’t!? Why -”
“I say you haven’t!” Maggie’s sharp voice interrupted his oft-repeated assurance. His smile faltered, and, for a moment, his train of thought derailed under her harsh gaze. She stepped close and looked him up and down just as he had done her a moment before. “This is your original reality, I know it is. You’re not the only one here with basic powers of observation, ‘Doctor’.”
Stu closed his open mouth with a click and licked lips suddenly gone dry. He could not turn from her critical appraisal.
She smiled, and not in any comfortable, reassuring fashion. “Let’s say you’re not a complete liar. Maybe you really were a Professor of Physics back in Texas. Maybe you actually do have the bona fides to say that you built this Bridge, or that it belongs to you, but I don’t think you’re the one who designed it. You’re a snappy guy, a clever tongue, always moving, always selling. My guess is you were the money man, the schmoozer, the one who taught the popular classes to liberal arts types and kept the funding rolling in, so your betters could be free to do the actual science. Why the hell does the Bridge exist in the first place? Were you mapping the multiverse or something?
He saw a chance to stop her and opened his mouth, but she held up a finger to stop him. “No, forget it, it’s not important. What is important is that it all came apart. There’s a reason you’re not still in your cushy university office. Something had to make you abandon the good life of academia for the dubious pleasures of the back roads. Did you sleep with the wrong student? Your powers of manipulation fail you at the wrong time during a funding review? Maybe they just figured you out and decided that you weren’t the kind of fella they wanted in their corner? Whatever it was, it was big enough to force you to grab a spare Bridge or make your own and then run away.”
Stu’s voice was quiet in response, almost a whisper. “You’re . . . wrong.”
Maggie’s smile dropped and she just looked bitter, without a glint of compassion in her eyes. “I’m sure I am — about the specifics anyway — but I’ll bet I’m in the right neighborhood. It had to have been something tawdry or you’d be selling your crap to the high-powered, high-paying crowd in some downtown ‘reality boutique’, not skulking around farm towns selling your service and then high-tailing it before either the law, your past, or your customers catch up to you. You are damaged goods, and you’re just barely keeping ahead of your sins. But as you rack up more time as the poor farmers’ flawed savior, the sins mount up, and it gets a little harder to convince yourself that your goals really are altruistic.”
She gently cupped his cheek in her hand. “If you really had used that machine, if this really was the life you dreamed of and shifted into, I don’t think you would have been staring so guiltily at that coat of yours for so long tonight.” Her hand dropped, and her voice became hard. “No, the truth is you know exactly what your machine really is, and not only do you know that your problems can’t be solved by running to a new universe, you’re also afraid of what might be out there. You’re afraid of what other, less scrupulous versions might have done with their lives. You’re afraid that somewhere out there in the unknown, you really are Satan.” Maggie stepped back, her face finally softening. “How’s that?”
He stared back at her in haunted shock and dismay. “Who the hell are you, lady?”
Maggie turned her back to him and returned behind her counter, turning off her coffee pot and putting the last few dishes into the sink to be washed in the morning. “I’m nobody, a failed beauty queen and a waitress. And I’m the lady who has to open up at 5:30 tomorrow morning, so I’ve got to finish locking up now. Take off. No charge.”
Stu shook his head and took a step toward her, then stopped, drawing short. Numbly he turned and went back to his booth to retrieve his bulging lab coat. For a moment, he stared at her back while she simply ignored him. Then he shuddered and slumped toward the door.
It slammed open before he could reach it.
Framed in the doorway, silhouetted by the glaring sodium lights of the parking lot outside, was a tall form, breathing heavily in greedy gulps of air, as if he had run the whole way there. “Are you Langley?” the figure asked.
Stu shook his head wearily. “I’m done. Well, for tonight anyway. Come back before I leave in the morning.”
The figure stepped forward into the diner’s light, allowing the steel and glass door to swing shut behind him. Stu did not recognize the rangy, ill-kempt man before him, but he wasted no time on trying to place his face. All of Stu’s focus shifted to the shotgun he carried at the hip, its long black barrel glinting handsomely in the fluorescent glare of the restaurant.
The man squinted at Stu. “No. You aren’t done till you put right what you did. My wife went to that horseshittin’ show you put on today and she came back all different. I want my damn wife back and I want her back now.”
Stu slowly raised his hands and took a step back. He was usually long gone before any complaints began rolling in, but it had happened before. This was the first time a complaint had been so . . . targeted though.
He tried his most sincere, commiserating smile. “I’m really sorry, sir, but that’s not really something I can do. The woman who used to be your wife is gone now, to a life of her choosing. But take heart that the woman that replaced her is fulfilling her dream as well. With you is just where she wants to be.”
The farmer snarled and stepped forward. He lifted the shotgun to his shoulder and took aim on Stu’s face. The black open bore of the weapon loomed huge, just out of reach. Light seemed to be swallowed up by the death that lay in its dark recess. Stu struggled to maintain control of his bladder and his dignity. His mind whirled with thoughts. He didn’t pump it. They always pump their shotguns first in movies. Is it already pumped? Does he still have to arm it? Oh, god, I don’t want to die.
“That damn princess wearin’ my wife’s skin gots all sorts of crazy ideas about how things are gonna be, and me and the way I want things ain’t high on her list. I want my damn wife back. Put your crown or your Bridge or whatever on that bitch’s head and bring that runaway wife of mine back to me.”
Stu felt himself losing control. His smile faltered. “It can’t be reversed. If I put her across the Bridge again, you’ll just get a third woman. I’m sorry she left you like this, but what’s done is done.” He saw the farmer’s grip on the shotgun tighten. Stu’s voice became shrill. “I can do the same for you! I can put you in whatever reality you want! You can have better! You can have whatever you want!”
“I want my damn wife. This is the real world, this is where she needs to be. You can’t do that, then I got no use for you.”
Stu tried to scream, but nothing came out. He wondered if he would see the flash.
Instead, he saw a blur come in from one side.
The shotgun was whipped up, spun free of the enraged husband’s hands, and sailed across the room. It clattered and slid beneath a booth without going off.
The farmer and Stu both shifted their shocked attention to the waitress who had suddenly appeared at the farmer’s side, her face grim. Before either could say anything, her hands shot forward, moving so fast that they again seemed to blur. Maggie hit the man with a solid fist to the solar plexus. He collapsed forward, into the knife-like edge of her other hand striking him in the throat.
He staggered back, his hands clutching both his throat and chest, gasping and groaning. Maggie dropped to a crouch and spun, sweeping her leg behind his knees. The thin man fell backwards and the back of his skull crunched the tile floor loudly.
Maggie hopped back up and walked calmly over to stand by the farmer’s head. He gasped and writhed on the floor, looking up at her in confusion and fear. She said nothing. She simply jumped down, putting all her weight across his neck. Her knee crashed into his chin at an angle, forcing his head up and to the side with a loud crack that could only mean one thing.
As she rose, the farmer’s eyes grew wide and his mouth opened and closed, gasping without taking a breath, screaming without making a sound. His body twitched randomly and his pants darkened as he fouled himself, struggling against death. Soon, all the twitching stopped, his mouth hung slack, and his eyes became glassy.
Stu collapsed to his knees, mouth agape at Maggie and the dead man. He tried to form sounds, to ask even one of the questions that raced through his mind, but nothing came out.
She looked over at him, and smiled softly in pity. “You would have had me pegged, but you were about a year and a half late. The girl who used to own this body was exactly what you said I was: a failed homecoming queen with an inconvenient pregnancy and a judgmental town. She wanted what she’d lost. She wanted adventure. What she got was my life, and I got hers.
“My name is Magda. I was the Chief Assassin for His Divine Arbiter, Nonus the Benevolent. It’s a funny thing about chief assassins — kill enough of the untouchables who displease His Divine Arbiter, pretty soon His Divinity begins to worry if He Himself is on the target list. When that happens, chief assassins become chief liabilities. I needed a way out too.
“Then one day, possibly the last day I had, I suddenly found myself here. Somehow, in some instantaneous, quantal way, poor Maggie and terrible Magda liked something about the look of the other’s life and made a switch. That’s how I know your machine isn’t the panacea you’re selling. On the surface, as a whim, lives might look like a good thing to trade, but there’s so much beyond the surface. There’s monsters out there and monsters here, and you’re loosing them from the boundaries that God and man put before them.”
Magda looked down at her victim. “It took me a while to adjust . . . a long time to learn how and where to hide the bodies around here, and an even longer time to learn to stop making bodies I’d have to hide. As for poor, adventure-lusting Maggie, I doubt she lasted even a few hours in my former life.”
Stu rose slowly, unable to take his eyes off the woman. “How is this possible? I’ve never seen you before. I’ve never been near here before.”
She shook her head, and spoke in a patronizing tone. “Do you think you’re the only one in the universe with one of those machines? Hell, you’re not even the only one in the state. The other guy wasn’t so brazen with his machine, but he needed to be quieter. He took payment in skin instead of money. Two chicks for the price of one, I suppose. I killed him before he could even get his pants up.” She looked back down at the body. “Now go. I have a mess to clean up and you have lives all over the multiverse to ruin.”
Stu nodded numbly and backed toward the door, but stopped before he reached it. A nagging worry refused to let him leave unless he asked his question. He locked eyes with her, his fearful and confused, hers deadened and coldly logical. “If I’m as pathetic and destructive as you make out, why didn’t you just let that guy kill me?”
Magda’s beautiful, borrowed face broadened in a wide, false smile, full of teeth. “You encourage people to run from their problems and permanently abandon their families, without giving them time to realize the consequences before you’re long gone, with money those they left behind can’t afford to lose.” She pointed at the body. “He beat his wife and was a lousy tipper. I disliked him slightly more than I dislike you.”
Stu said nothing. He simply pushed open the door and walked out slowly to his trailer, his mind replaying her words and actions, the terrible things he had just witnessed, wondering what it all might mean for him.
Inside, with the strange world that had suddenly opened up to him shut away by his trailer’s thin door, the events resolved themselves into questions. He looked balefully at the stainless steel box that held the Bridge. He had been running in fits and starts from the events that made him leave Arlington. Should he continue as he had, providing shaky salvation to the disaffected of the multiverse? Or should he simply take the final plunge, the great journey across the Bridge he had escorted countless others across? If justice would someday come for him, could it be circumvented by switching realities, or was the reach of fate not bounded by time and space?
And was there still a third choice? Had that been what Magda had been trying to say all along? Stu stared at the box and his crystalline crown for a long time.
It was after midnight before the day’s work and the evening’s special activity had been cleaned up and disposed of. Magda shut the front door wearily, dreading the fact she would be back in a few short hours. The morning fry-cook, Abe, would be there right on time, though, and lateness on her part would be unprofessional, both for a waitress and an assassin.
She turned and noted without surprise that the good Dr. Langley and his traveling roadshow had traveled on. She shook her head, debating whether or not she should have simply killed them both. It would have been no harder, and the sale price of the trailer would have been a nice augment to her tips for the day.
At last, she shrugged. That was a life a universe away. This was the life she had now. Besides, perhaps what she had done, what she had revealed, might have at least some impact upon her words.
Magda stepped forward and heard a crunch.
She looked down and lifted her foot. Scattered in front of her diner, shards of crystal and fine wires lay on the ground. She bent down and looked closely at the debris, lit by the harsh yellow glare of the sodium parking lot lights. Broken and shattered before her were a jumble of electronic components. She suspected if she could somehow reverse the inexorable march of entropy, the parts would neatly reassemble themselves into a delicate crown of electronics.
Stu had brought down his Bridge.
Magda smiled slightly, no longer quite as tired as she had been, no longer quite as regretful of her own sins. She looked at the darkness beyond her lot and wished him well in this life. For this was the only life you could have, no matter the reality you lived it in.
24 Feb 2008; 24 Jul 2008;