by Clio Em
“Alison?” Lev spoke my name urgently. Around me, floating candles drifted dreamily to the ground. It was time to focus on the task at hand.
This morning I had landed in this microreality with the usual stomach-heaving lurch. Unusually, a very handsome man dressed in a dapper suit had gallantly helped me up when I was finished retching and reeling in a flower-filled meadow. Inter-universe travel can be extremely disorienting. Every parallel microreality – and they are always small pockets of space-time, nothing like the vast home universe – has a subspace portal, a device that allows us to enter and leave. All mapped microrealities have listed frequencies, and it was one of those that I had been trying to reach. But I had instead been dropped into this other, unfamiliar pocket of space-time.
I had introduced myself by first name only; he’d introduced himself as James and had asked me a few confusing questions. When I couldn’t come up with answers, he had bundled me gently into his beautiful carriage-like car. My memory would return soon, he’d insisted, and had reminded me that inter-universe journeys could sometimes have unpredictable effects on the human body and mind. That was true enough, but I felt like myself and didn’t know what memories he expected me to come up with.
James had taken me back to his house – in fact a mansion. Here he had guided me to a room that was clearly meant for my use – a bed, writing desk, and a window out onto a little courtyard. “I’ll be back in a few hours, Alison,” he’d said. “I’m sure you’ll want to change out of your travel clothes.”
Someone had already laid out a long, high-necked lace dress for me, as well as Victorianesque accessories. I peeked inside the wardrobe; more beautiful dresses. I noticed they had some sort of strange electrodes inside them whose function I didn’t understand. I looked inside the dress on the bed; it had them too. I put it on nervously, but I felt nothing from the electrodes. The cut was extremely flattering, and the dress fit me perfectly. The hat had electrodes in it as well but the thought of having them touch my skull was too much, so I left it on its stand.
A robotic being arrived and asked if she could do my hair. I agreed to a braided updo; she spoke very little but seemed friendly enough and brought me tea when she was done. And what tea! Swirls of exquisite taste flooded me. It was becoming clear that this worldlet was special, and I was the one who had discovered it! Once James returned I would ask him if he would take me to the local authorities; I needed to locate that subspace portal and that seemed a good place to start. I explored the beautifully appointed house and ended my tour in the courtyard. I walked around the fountain, twirling my parasol. And then I allowed myself to laugh in the delight I was beginning to feel.
James seemed puzzled that I wanted to go into town but agreed to take me to City Hall. We had just stepped out from his car when Director Lev happened upon us. And then everything escalated. I learned through their tense verbal sparring that it was he who was actually in charge of this microreality. Lev was an odd choice of leader, I thought. He seemed emotional and impulsive. But then James, dropping all pretense of formality, sharply informed Lev that he had taken the subspace portal for himself, and that he had deactivated the outgoing routes on the device.
No one is supposed to know how to restrict access through a subspace portal. Lev and James argued; it appeared to be an old argument and I didn’t follow it at all. James then coolly got into his car and drove away without even attempting to invite me to return with him. I eyed the Director with rising panic. What was I to do in this situation? He offered, rather reluctantly, to take me back to his own home. As he opened the car door for me I realized I was still holding the parasol, closed now, twisting it in lace-gloved hands.
“Alison, that parasol is absurd,” he snapped.
How rude. And how did he know my name? James hadn’t introduced me.
I soon found out the reason. In this reality lived and worked my exact double; it was her clothing that I was now wearing. She’d been doing some inter-universe exploring herself and James had mistaken me for her. Lev had figured out the truth rather quickly – it was rather obvious that nothing in what was supposed to be my own home was familiar to me. My double had allied herself with James against Lev, even though she had long been Lev’s lover. James and Lev had been friends and colleagues, but that seemed over now. This was a complication.
Lev’s plan was to go to James’ mansion with me. The local Alison had ported out into another universe a few days ago. It was an incredible coincidence that I had ported in instead of her. Lev believed that because of this, I could impersonate her long enough to confuse James and steal the subspace portal back. To me, going to James’ home seemed prodigiously foolish. I felt that in my earlier confusion I had already given too much away, and that he would soon figure out who I truly was. But it also seemed to be my only way out of this reality, and I didn’t have any better ideas.
Lev ushered me impatiently through a door. A photograph in a filigree frame hung just above a desk. I peered closer and was startled to see my own face. This must be my double and Lev in happier times; they were smiling and holding hands. She was wearing the dress I had on now, or one very much like it.
Even more interesting was what was on the bed – burnished metallic torso, arms, legs, and a faceplate with glass goggle eyes – a disassembled version of the robot creature that had done my hair earlier. An involuntary shudder passed through me – could these robotic people be taken apart at their owners’ will? But then my mind caught up with what I was seeing – it was a suit. Did that mean it had been a person inside a suit, back there, and not an actual robot? I wanted to ask more questions, but Lev’s attention was elsewhere, on a dress hanging on the wardrobe door.
“Costume change?” I asked archly.
“Not necessary,” he replied sharply. “My Alison has lately taken up wearing gowns again, instead of that monstrosity.” I followed his glance to the robotic suit on the bed. “She has more of those at James’.” He spat the name with so much venom that I flinched.
Lev told me that my double – his Alison – had often worn a robot suit. She and James had designed them together. They had run experiments and made suits for James’ staff. Lev had at first been happy to support his lover’s engineering pursuits. But she had seemed to become addicted to the special abilities the suit gave her, and she and James had shut out Lev. One day, she had abruptly moved in with James, leaving her life with Lev behind.
“A robotic suit improves all your skills,” Lev said, then paused. “Before, my Alison used to do it all with her mind. And what a mind! Infinitely pliable, making new connections at the speed of light. But then she became nearly dependent on the suit, as if it had sucked up half her soul…”
A sudden suspicion had crept into my mind as Lev had explained. “Lev?” I asked. “Look inside that dress on the hanger, please.”
He undid the buttons on the front of the dress that resided within the jacket. Inside, running all the way down the back of the dress until past the waist, where the spine would be, was a row of glowing electrodes.
“She still has her robotically enhanced abilities,” I pointed out. “James let me use what I think was her room there. All the dresses had those electrodes inside them. Even the one I’m wearing now does.”
“When did she find time to do all this?? he gasped. “The engineering… it’s light-years beyond what is in her robot suit!”
“How did you not know, Lev? You lived together!” “Yes, but…” he hesitated, covered his face with his hands, inhaled sharply – a small gasp. When his hands came away from his face his expression was controlled again. “We’d been growing apart for some time,” he finished flatly.
We were silent a long moment. Tacitly we rifled through the wardrobe. More lace dresses; more electrodes. Mindful of the hat I’d left behind at James’ mansion, I found an ornate headband with long trailing ribbons. It was absolutely replete with electronics. Eyes alert, Lev took my hands in his own in a gesture that felt very intimate. I inhaled sharply, but he was peering intently at my gloves. Now that I looked myself, I saw that a fine metallic mesh had been woven through the lace. He dropped my hands abruptly and reached for the headpiece, placed it on my head, and tied the ribbons back in a certain way so that they touched the collar of my dress. Again a very familiar gesture, but I put that from my mind. The jolt when the ribbons’ circuitry connected with that of the dress was monumental.
“The device is attempting to communicate with you directly,” he told me. “Focus.”
I could hear a voice in my ear, some sort of induced hallucination. Instructions spilled into me. The spine tingling seemed to reach into the tips of my fingers. I jumped up experimentally: rather than the superhuman leap I expected my jump was normal. He laughed – a delighted sound, quickly stifled.
“Alison, it doesn’t work like that! It requires far more training time than we have right now.” He gestured at the dresser beside the bed. “We should go for force over finesse. Try lifting that.” I lifted the dresser with ease, tossed it up into the air, almost dropped it but caught it at the last second. It felt incredibly light. I laughed nervously.
And then I pulled the photograph of Lev and his Alison off the wall with my mind.
I was so surprised that I only let it hang in the air for a second before I let it drop and the glass shattered, spraying crystalline shards everywhere.
“You’re an electromagnet,” Lev commented drily.
“Did your Alison ever do this?” I asked shakily.
“Not that I know of, no,” he answered, and paused in thought. “Ask the device in the headband,” he suggested.
I asked. I thought hard at the interface.
“It says ‘no such function’,” I informed Lev.
“Impossible,” he said.
“Well, that’s what it tells me.”
“I assure you, she must have programmed in electromagnetics,” Lev insisted. “Don’t start thinking you have some sort of special powers.”
“Don’t I?” I retorted.
“We need to test your speed and agility, and then go,” he said shortly. We left my counterpart’s bedroom, stepping over the shattered frame on the way out.
Lev took me by the hand and led me into a ballroom. I sprinted back and forth, ran around chairs and long tables, jumped and somersaulted in the air, perfectly balanced and perfectly agile. I levitated a set of lit candles in metal candleholders and floated them in a slow circle around my head. I was fine-tuning my abilities at an incredibly rapid rate. Now, after only an hour interfacing with the electrodes, I could make each candleholder float in its own pattern. They dove and swept around the room in an intricate air ballet at minute motions from my hands. Doubt was slowly evaporating, replaced by blazing self-confidence.
“Alison?” Lev spoke my name urgently. Around me, floating candles drifted dreamily to the ground as I willed them to stillness. It was time to focus on the task at hand: confronting James and gaining control of the subspace portal.
Lev was very close to me now. Seized by a sudden impulse, I took him by the hands and kissed him on the lips. He returned the kiss after the slightest hesitation. In the last hour something in me had changed: I could see it reflected in his expression. I was his Alison now. My mind raced as it considered various possibilities.
With Lev trailing behind me, I walked out of the ballroom, twirling my parasol. And then I allowed myself to laugh in the delight I was beginning to feel.
Story and image Copyright © 2020 Clio Em.