Marla didn’t bother going home to sleep, just curled up on the battered couch in her office. She was loath to go even that far away from B – the new B, the alternate B – but he was a twitching moaning bad-dreaming sweaty wreck, and she was a light sleeper at the best of times, so she’d retreated a couple of rooms away to grab some shuteye.
She could get along fine on about four hours of sleep a night, but after less than half that, not long after dawn, someone pounded on her door.
Marla rolled off the couch, pulled an enchanted Gurkha knife from the concealed sheath underneath the couch, crouched at the ready, and said in a businesslike tone, “Who is it?” The club was relatively well-protected, but she didn’t usually sleep here, so the technological and magical security wasn’t at the same paranoid level she had at home.
“Hamil.” The voice was muffled by the door, but it certainly sounded like her consigliere and closest confidant among the city’s leading sorcerers. She hadn’t talked to him much since he helped clean up after the mess Marla’s con artist brother made in her city recently – a mess that had led to Rondeau’s bodily death and subsequent hijacking of Bradley Bowman’s body, among other casualties.
“Come on in.” She waited until the door swung open and Hamil stepped in before she relaxed, tucking the blade away in its sheath, its enchantments of compulsion unspent. Her dagger of office was very good for killing things, but sometimes you needed to get answers out of an intruder before they died, so she had other tools, too. Mostly knives. She was partial to knives.
Marla went around the desk and dropped into her chair, lack of sleep weighing heavy on her. Normally she could go two or three days without sleeping and suffer no noticeable lapse in her faculties, but she hadn’t slept well since Bradley’s death, and she’d had a hell of a night. Going into inter-dimensional space and confronting personified forces of the universe took a lot out of a person.
Hamil looked perfectly well-rested, though – tall, broad, and the kind of fat that was really just a deceptive layer over a core of muscle, dressed in an impeccable black pinstriped suit, complete with pocket square. The deep brown skin of his shaved head didn’t sport a single bead of sweat, and his face was placid, but she could tell by his eyes that he was anxious. “Good morning, Marla. Did your trip go well?”
“Yeah, it –” She frowned. “How’d you know I left town?”
He sat in one of the two chairs on the visitor’s side of the desk, crossed one leg over the other, and laced his fingers together over his bent knee. “I am one of the ruling council of sorcerers of the city of Felport, Marla. When our chief sorcerer and protector leaves unannounced, giving no notice… I am nevertheless notified. As are the others.”
The others. The handful of people in the city whose opinions she couldn’t simply ignore, the way she could the opinions of, say, the mayor, or the chief of police. Technically she wasn’t in charge of the other sorcerers – she was first among equals, tasked with protecting the city from supernatural and other threats – but she could give orders if the city’s security was at stake, and the others had to obey, though they’d bitch about it.
“I have to get a permission slip before I go on a field trip, now?” She wanted coffee. Where was Rondeau? He usually brought her coffee. He was probably still sleeping. Possibly he was still avoiding her. Now that B was back – some version of B, anyway, even an unconscious version – she found her towering rage at Rondeau shrinking considerably. He’d fucked up, worse than he ever had before in a long history of fuckups, but Bradley’s death had been an accident. There needed to be consequences for the transgression… but he was already suffering, and he’d tried to fix things. Marla decided to put him on friendship probation. Not that she’d tell him that, of course.
“Marla.” Hamil’s tone suggested that it wasn’t the first time he’d said that name, and she shook her head.
“Sorry.” She ran her hand through her hair – greasy, right, when had she last showered? – and sighed. “I haven’t been sleeping. What were you saying?”
“I was saying you don’t need permission, but you do need to let us know if you’re leaving. You must remember, Marla – you serve at the pleasure of the council. They appointed you, and you –”
“Screw that noise. Who saved the city from getting taken over by the king of nightmares this past winter? Who stopped the god of Death from making Felport his own little principality on Earth? Who neutralized the beast of Felport, and stopped Roger Vaughn from sacrificing hundreds of people, and dealt with those things that came crawling out of the ground in Fludd Park calling themselves elves? Me. And every one of those fights cost me something. I’m doing my job. I’m taking care of the city. And what’s the council going to do? It only takes a simple majority to get this job, but getting rid of the chief sorcerer takes a unanimous vote of the council.” It was a reasonable provision – the person in charge of the city’s security sometimes had to make unpopular decisions, and the requirement for total agreement to stop her was meant to help weather those periods of unpopularity. Getting a group of sorcerers to all agree on anything was generally about as easy as getting a rhinoceros to play chess. “As long as I’ve got you and Ernesto on my side, who cares what those crybabies and bellyachers say? Hell, I’d lay even odds the Bay Witch would take my side, too, though she’s… unpredictable. Or are you here to tell me you don’t support me?”
Hamil sighed rather dramatically. “I have always supported you, Marla, from the moment I became aware of your talents and your potential. And, no, I don’t think you’re in danger of being ousted, but things do run more smoothly when you make some concessions. For a little while, you seemed to be making great strides in the area of diplomacy, but lately…”
“I’ve been distracted.” She didn’t like making excuses, so when she had to, she tended to spit out the words and make them sound more like accusations instead. “My apprentice died. Like, he just died. And my right-hand man is the one who killed him. Except, if you want to be less direct about apportioning blame, it was really my scumbag liar of a brother who killed him, or at least caused his death. So I’ve had some issues lately.” Her brother Jason had breezed into Felport running a line of bullshit, trading on her familial affection to rope her into a scam he was running, and when things went bad, Jason shot Rondeau and left him for dead, and when Bradley tried to save him, Rondeau stole Bradley’s body. Jason had tried to murder her, too, but she couldn’t blame him for that. She was trying to kill him at the time, after all.
“We appreciate that, and we’ve tried to be understanding. Well, most of us have. Viscarro is still upset, and calling for your resignation – he did lose a leg in all that unpleasantness, you know.”
Marla didn’t answer. Because it was true. The subterranean sorcerer was a nasty underhanded scheming lich, lurking like a spider below the streets of Felport… but she was supposed to protect him, and instead, that crap with her brother had led to Viscarro’s stronghold being invaded. Marla had cleared things up – pretty much – but she was supposed to protect the city from problems, not create problems. “All right. I’ll go see him.” She gritted her teeth. “Apologize. Make restitution. He loves stuff. I’m sure I can give him something to cheer him up.”
“No doubt a gift would be appreciated. But the more important thing, Marla, is – are you done? Have you, ah, come to realize that Bradley is gone, and cannot be retrieved? Will you be returning your focus to the city and its interests? If the answer is yes, if I can assure the council that you’re still dedicated to Felport, I’m sure this will all go –”
The door to her office slammed open. B – the new B? Beta-B? – stood swaying in her doorway, naked except for a pair of tattered boxer shorts. His torso was covered in raised scars, but they looked like purposeful designs, not just evidence of past violence. “You.” He raised his hand and pointed his index finger at Marla. “I know you. I’ve seen you before. In my dreams.”
Then he puked on her rug, his eyes rolled back in his head, and he collapsed to the carpet in an ungainly heap.
Hamil stared at B’s fallen form, then turned back to Marla, who’d only gotten so far as rising from her chair. “Well,” Hamil said. “You did have a busy night, it seems. You’ll have to tell me exactly how you managed this. But first we should get the poor boy a doctor.”
Langford the biomancer wanted B brought to his lab, but Marla refused to move him, and since Langford made about eighty percent of his income from Marla, he agreed to make a house call. Marla’s office had been transformed into a sort of makeshift examination room, with everything swept off her desk and B laid out on the surface. Langford had an old-fashioned black doctor’s bag, but there was some spatial enchantment on it, judging by the endless array of needles, vials, and diagnostic equipment he pulled from the slim valise, including everything from a stethoscope to some bit of homemade mad-scientist kit that looked enough like a tricorder from Star Trek to make Marla wonder if humorless, rigorous Langford was a closet fan.
Once he was done poking, prodding, and drawing blood from B, Langford took a seat in one of the visitors’ chairs. Marla was on the other side of the desk – which made it look like B’s unconscious body was the work she needed to take care of today, an impression that was not wholly inaccurate – while Hamil and Rondeau sat on the couch sipping coffee.
Langford looked at the ceiling, adjusted his steel-rimmed glasses, and began to speak, though his tone of voice was more like someone reading from a notebook. “I’ll want to run more extensive tests on his blood, but from preliminary examination I can tell you he’s in no immediate danger of death. He suffers from malnutrition, rickets, and scurvy, and has a nasty fungal infection on his skin, more like an exotic jungle rot than athlete’s foot, but as Marla knows I have some rather powerful fungicide at my disposal.” He gave a chilly smile. He’d whipped up a batch of the poison recently to help her deal with a rival sorcerer who had a thing for nasty moist mushroom magics. “He’s also suffering from something like jungle yellow fever, though I don’t know exactly which variety – I don’t think it’s dengue fever, but it’s dengue-like. See the bleeding gums and the jaundice? I can cure that, too. By all appearances, he has been living somewhat rough in a tropical jungle, and there’s nothing a stint of civilization and some of my enhanced medications won’t correct.”
Marla prodded B’s cheek, which was indeed a little jaundiced, now that she was looking for it. “So why’s he unconscious?”
Langford shrugged. “Nothing physical, as far as I can tell. We’ve seen Mr. Bowman exhibit similar symptoms from the strain of his psychic efforts in the past. But given that this isn’t exactly the Mr. Bowman we know, I’m hesitant to speculate.” He looked at Marla now. “I’d very much like to know how he was brought back from the dead. Especially since he was demonstrably not brought back from the dead, as Rondeau is still wearing the body of the Bradley we knew, albeit draped in a very convincing illusory disguise.” Langford briefly tapped the frames of his eyeglasses. “Of course, I’m wearing my illusion-piercing lenses today. They’re useful for diagnostic work. Since this person on the desk is not, ah – let’s call him Bradley-Prime, for convenience – and shows far too much wear-and-tear to be some sort of accelerated-growth clone, I’m forced to assume you engaged in more mystical attempts at rescue, or rather, recreation. Is he a tulpa? Doppelganger? A dream-figment created by your friend Genevieve? A liberated shadow-self draped in vat-grown flesh? Some sort of, ah, were-actor?”
“Nah. I pulled him in from an alternate dimension. This is parallel-universe Bradley. Apparently he comes from a universe with really shitty hygiene.”
Langford blinked, then opened his mouth, then blinked again, then closed his mouth. This was tantamount to a normal person flinging themselves bodily on the ground, foaming at the mouth, and speaking in tongues. “A parallel… Interesting. Audacious. I’m not even sure where I’d begin to undertake such an endeavour…. did you build a device of some kind? Or, ah, have one built?”
“I’m not cheating on you with another mad scientist, Langford. No device. I didn’t even go to… wherever he’s from. I know somebody – or, well, something – who’s capable of reaching into other universes. And with a little help from Rondeau, using his stolen Bradley-powers, she did a little fishing for us. And this is what she fished out.”
“I daresay this is the first case of interdimensional kidnapping ever committed.” Hamil’s voice was level, but Marla could tell he was pissed. Well, fuck him. Sure, what she’d done was a little crazy, but that’s why she was the boss – she was willing to take the great risks, and to reap the great rewards. “How do you know he wasn’t happy where he was?”
Marla snorted. “Come on, he’s clearly been living under a tree eating bugs or something. What if he’s from a world where, I don’t know, giant sentient larva rule the earth? A world where there was never an industrial revolution? Or –”
“Unlikely,” Langford said. “How old is Bradley, early thirties? He’s almost certainly from a branch universe that diverged from our own world around 30 years ago, then – otherwise the odds of him even existing would be ludicrously small. Do you know how many variables go into the creation of a given human being? It requires more than just his two parents coming together – it’s not as if every child born to a given couple is identical. A different sperm breaching the egg, a different moment in time for the conception – these result in entirely different people being born. Obviously Beta-Bradley’s timeline and our own were identical at least until the moment of his conception, or else, he wouldn’t be here now. Whatever events led to his nearly starving in some jungle are the result of divergences from our own timeline that happened sometime in the past three decades.”
“So… our reality and Beta-B’s reality used to be the same reality until… something made it split off?” Rondeau said. “Sorry, my understanding of this stuff is limited to watching that show Sliders.”
Langford nodded. “It’s a bit more complex than that. My own belief – borne out by experimental data no other scientist could reproduce, and which I won’t attempt to explain to you now – is that new universes are constantly branching from our own. The universe doesn’t like to make choices, not even on the quantum level, so it doesn’t. Everything that can happen, does happen – somewhere. It’s easily illustrated on the macro-level. Look.” He reached down to the litter of Marla’s desk-detritus on the floor, picking up a slender letter opener. “Right now, I could stab myself in the throat with this, or hurl it at Marla’s head, or just do this.” He flipped it over his shoulder, where it clattered against the door. “All three of those things happened. I just birthed three new universes. Except in reality it was countless more, a new universe for every different way I could have moved my arm, a new universe for every possible pattern of breaths I took…” He shook his head. “The variations are not necessarily literally infinite – it’s a debatable point – but at the very least the variations are so large as to be functionally infinite. And every one of those divergent universes can become profoundly different over time, even if their moment of conception involved only the tiniest initial change.”
“Huh.” Rondeau gnawed his thumbnail. “So we’re living in the real universe, and these others ones are just, like, offshoots?”
“Hardly. The only ‘true’ universe existed in the instant of the Big Bang. No, we just live in a particular branch. And while there may be infinitely strange alternate universes out there, with different physical laws, different dominant species on planet Earth, or even larval overlords spreading dengue-fever analogues… this Bradley isn’t from a place that strange. He’s from one that was identical to ours, at least 30 years ago.”
“Then it’s entirely possible he might want to go back,” Hamil said. “And what if he does, Marla?”
She scowled. Hamil didn’t work for her, he advised her, but right now, she wished he was an employee so she could tell him to clean out his locker. “Look, I specifically asked the possible witch to bring me a Bradley with a crappy life, okay? I’ll tell you what, if Beta-B wakes up and starts going ‘There’s no place like home,’ I’ll make sure to get him home. But seriously, the guy has jungle yellow fever, he’s got ulcerated sores on his abdomen, his gums are bleeding, his life obviously sucks, and I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to find himself in a world where he can have lobster dinners and all the gay porno he can watch –”
Beta-B sat up on the desk, eyes wide and wild. “I can’t be here!” he shouted. “I have to go back! Whoever did this, whoever brought me here, you have to take me back home!”
This outburst was followed by a moment of silence. And then Marla said, “Oh, fuck me sideways.” And dryly, quietly, Hamil chuckled.