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art by Melissa Mead

I'll Never Find Another You

C J Paget has appeared in Daily Science Fiction before, on this Earth and many others. In most futures, he will again.

***Adult language in the adult tale that follows***
A man at a party, bored. A woman walks in.
Stop me if you think you've heard this one before.
It's the genie costume that snags his attention, hooks him from across this one-room-vampire-zombie-Lady-Gaga-apocalypse. It's a daring, revealing costume, but she has the figure to pull it off. She's even standing right, that poised, lost-in-fairyland stance, like a Disney princess. She's searching the room for something. The eyes find him, and even at this distance he can see them lock on, even with the veil he can see the expression change: Ah, there. She glides to him like a bearing rolling to a magnet, effecting that mincing pendulum-swing walk that women used in old movies and which no one does anymore. On arrival she says, "Hello, Sailor."
He's a pirate. It's as bad as zombies, an obvious, popular costume, but what the hell: he likes being a pirate. Life forced him into finance, so in fantasy he'll do as he bloody well likes. "Do I get three wishes?" he asks.
"Only if you do something for me first."
"Ah, but you're already out of your bottle?"
"Do the voice," she says.
"Sorry? What? What voice?"
"You know what voice."
He hesitates, but it's obvious what voice: "Arrr, this be as fine a haul o' booty as a scurvy cove like me didst ever heave alongside, and no mistake."
She closes her eyes, expels a breath that shudders, and says, "Yes. That's how it went." When she opens her eyes again he notices that they're wetter than before. She blinks rapidly and sniffs. He still doesn't know if he's said the right, or the wrong, thing.
"Sorry, do I know you?" he says.
"I know you," she says. "More or less."
"Oh? What do you know?" he figures it's a game.
"I know you like genies; you like obedient fantasy women. I know it worries you that you like that: you feel you shouldn't. It happened when you were twelve, or eight, or younger--you're not sure when--but you saw a genie in an American TV program and bang! I know you like lemon meringue. Actually, you hate the stuff, it's too sweet for your adult palate, but you'll still buy it when you're glum and force it down because it transports you back to happier times. I know you still look for shapes in clouds. I know that you once stole a can of prunes from a corner shop, just to know what it felt like to be a felon. I know--"
"What is this? One of those tricks like telling me my star sign?"
"Yeah, yeah--"
"The twenty-fourth. Six-fourteen A.M. Cesarean."
"Stop me if you think you've heard this one before. You're ten. You've watched a spider build a web outside your window all summer. Then one day there's a big egg in it--"
"How am I doing?"
"You're creeping me out."
She reaches up, disconnects one corner of the veil, lifts it away. She's not beautiful, not beautiful like in movies or paintings, but the face rings bells in old, old rooms of his mind. Maybe she looks a little like his mother, or like himself, or like an actress in a corny old American TV show.
"I'll tell you what else I know," she says. "I know you're bored with this party."
"Nice car," he says, as she recovers her coat and bag from a Jaguar XKR. She's already changed out of the costume into a little-black-dress that she had stashed somewhere.
"Thanks," she says. "I stole it, but it's nice to know you think I have taste."
He laughs, faking it, her sense of humor is a little too surreal for him to honestly respond to.
"Nice car," she says, as he blips the remote locking on his Audi S3. "Did you steal it?"
He laughs again, shakes his head, and says, "No."
"Just the prunes?"
"Just the prunes."
They get in. He has to ask, "What is this, really?"
"You know quantum physics?"
"Well, a little."
"Studied it?"
"Started to, but then switched."
This surprises her, maybe not in a good way. "Oh? What to?"
So, she doesn't know it all. "Finance."
"Better prospects."
"Tell me about quantum physics."
"You know, you're quite bossy for a genie."
"When I'm wearing the costume I'll be all groveling obedience, but I'm not wearing the costume now. Tell me about quantum physics."
"Actually, I think I could start to like bossy."
"Drive," she says. "Tell me about quantum physics."
He drives. He tells her about quantum physics. He gets lost in some of it, like when you tell a joke that you only half remember, and have to keep correcting yourself No, hang on, it's an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Inuit. The way she keeps looking at him doesn't help. Not the way she looks when he turns to check, then she's all bright-eyed innocence and that knowing, naughty smile. But the way she looks when he turns his attention back to the road. Then, there's a change. He can't see, but he feels it like the temperature drop in haunted houses. The eyes become cold, hard headlights and the expression shifts into something else. He turns quickly to catch it, and meets only a smile and her batting eyelashes.
He tells her about the many worlds theory, the best idea anyone's come up with to explain the weirdness of physics on the very small scale. The idea that every moment, every instant when something might happen or might not happen, new universes split away: some where it happened, some where it didn't. Reality as an insane, infinite snowflake with infinite branches, each of which itself branches infinitely. She corrects him on some points, until he says, "Well, you already seem to know it?"
"I've heard it before," she says, "but don't stop."
He's still talking when the gates to his house open in response to an encrypted signal from his car and they crackle up the gravel path. He parks on the swing-round drive, by the fountain, because getting out here makes a better impression than entering via the garage.
It makes an impression all right, she gets out and gawps up, and says, "What. The hell. Is that?"
"My house," he says. "Not what you expected?"
She shakes her head, stares at the house like it has no right to be there. Not the expected reaction, not the usual reaction of the women he chooses to bring here. But this one chose him. She looks at the house like it's an affront, like she wants it demolished.
"Look, you still haven't told me what this is about," he says.
"Are we alone here?" she asks.
Something makes him hesitate to answer that. "Yes, I don't have any night-time help."
"Well, okay," she says. "Stop me if you think you've heard this one before: Girl finds boy. Girl l-loses boy." She stops, her eyes close, her jaw muscles tense. It's a moment before she can continue. "Girl gets herself an inter-alternity portal."
"A what?"
"Oh, come on, you can figure it out. You know quantum physics. Examine each word for meaning. Now string them together into the phrase, what does it say?"
"It says you're crazy."
She pulls something from her bag. It glints and shines in the moonlight. Instinct makes him step back, perhaps fearing a gun. She tosses it into the space between them.
It floats.
"Helium," he says, eyeing the floating sphere. "That's one of those toy blimps you can--"
She says something, a phrase in a language he almost recognizes, but doesn't. The sphere splits around its equator. An eldritch crackling erupts as the halves draw apart, scoring a line into the air as they go. No, not into the air, into the space itself, into the very fabric of reality. It's something there and not there, something his eyes don't quite know how to see. The line splits, tears, opens, becomes a great gash, a wound in space-time into which the surrounding air falls, creating a local gale.
She steps round so she's facing him side-on and, watching him to see that he's watching her, plunges her hand into the wound. The arm vanishes into it like a conjuring trick done with mirrors, but he knows there are no mirrors here.
She pulls out her arm and says a word. The rip in space-time closes, the sphere-halves coming back together like parts of a zipper. Finally the sphere drops into her waiting hand. She puts it back in the bag.
He looks from her to the empty space where the portal was. There's nothing to see there now. He looks back to her. All he can think of to say is, "He's dead, isn't he? I mean me. The me where you're from. He's dead."
"Yes," she says, "he's dead." And that brings it. She turns away from him, not letting him see.
"I'm sorry," he says.
She whirls to face him, tears twinkling on her cheeks but fresh, angry light in her eyes. "You're not sorry. What is he to you? A ghost. A thing that never was. A fiction. What's it to you if he lives or dies?"
He searches for a diplomatic answer, and comes up with: "I'm sorry for your pain."
She seems to accept that. The brief flare of anger has helped put the crying back in its box. Eventually she says, "Let's go inside and fuck. That's what this is all leading up to."
It occurs to him that he should probably say "No." A thousand good reasons to get the hell out.
But he doesn't.
She lies cooling in the dark, like an ember from a dying fire. The fire was fierce, desperate, glorious, unstoppable, and alarmingly loud. Now the silence is even more alarming. He waits for the talking, but the talking doesn't come. She just lies there, silent. He's the one full of talk and questions.
"What's it like where you're from?" he asks.
"Much the same as here. Except you stuck with physics at university, met me at a phys-soc party. Married me. Made me love you. Died."
"Do you not want to talk about this?"
"It's all I can talk about. All I can think about. All I am."
"How did it happen?"
"Bus. Stupidest thing. Like a bad joke. A stupid way to die."
"And now you're looking for another him?"
"I was, at first, but I've abandoned that plan." She leans out of the bed, manages to snag the dress that's lying on the floor, drags it to bedside. From a pocket somewhere within she produces a phone. She stabs at options on its screen. Light shoots from it, projecting images onto the bedspread before them.
"Hey, that's pretty neat," he says.
"You don't have these here? In a year, you probably will. Or maybe you never do." She shrugs. She makes a selection on the screen, and the image on the bed switches to recorded video. A man speaks to the person who's doing the recording. A man with his face, but with a fashionable beard and different hair.
"Two alternaties back, you're a TV producer," she says. She taps the screen and a different him stands there, dressed in a bathrobe, laughing at something. "Six back you're a banker, a nice one; well, nice enough. Seven back you're a banker and a bastard. Twelve back, you're a bum. Twenty," the man is looking at them through prison bars, "you're a rapist. Fifty two and you're a government minister."
"Fifty-two worlds? How long have you been traveling?"
"Centuries, I think. Yes, I've been chasing an impossible love for centuries. I can't truly time-travel, but when I step sideways into another world, I can also step back a little without messing things up. So I just go round and round the same point in time. I don't age, I don't know why. Maybe I'll live forever, if this is living."
"And none of them... none of them were good enough?"
She clicks the phone off and tosses it onto the floor. "None of them were him. He's out there somewhere, infinitely many of him. But there's a much larger infinity of people like you. I know this much: I'm getting further away. I've taken too many wrong turns."
"That's why you were angry about the house?"
"Yes. Honest people don't live this well."
"I'm not a bad person."
"Of course not, dear. You're, what, a 'legitimate businessman'?"
"And what was he like?" he hears a frosting of something on his voice, and realizes it's jealousy. Already. That didn't take long.
"He made me happy," she says.
"Being there. Listening to the things I said. Supporting my dreams and ambitions, even when they were stupid. Having faith. Being faithful. Protecting me from my own worst enemy. Dressing as a pirate when I wanted him too. It's not much to ask, really, is it?"
"No, I guess not."
"He was the most giving person I knew. Wouldn't walk past a beggar or a wounded bird or a crying child. Always did the right thing. Is that you?"
He considers the possibility that it is him; considers the possibility that it could be, if he really tried; considers lying and taking what's on offer for as long as he can before the lie is found out. "No," he says. "No, that's not me."
"Then why are you breathing, walking, talking, when my good man is dead?"
"It's not my fault. Just the luck of the draw."
She rolls over, turning her back to him in the dark.
In the morning he awakens, remembering a strange and vibrant dream. Then he looks across, and the dream is lying next to him, breathing softly with its eyes closed. The eyes twitch and move under their lids. The lids flutter open. Brown eyes. For a moment there's something, a sparkle, the irises widen to drink him in, a moment of belief. Then the sparkle dies. Realization, remembrance, acceptance, defeat. The gaze becomes lifeless and dull.
"Morning," he says.
"Shut up. You're dead." She hisses it, face contorting. She covers her face with her hands, exhales a weary breath. "I shouldn't have said that, but you're not supposed to wake up first. I'm supposed to have time to put my face on."
He knows which face she means, she means the smiling lie she wore in the car last night. "Why are you here?" he asks. "You know you won't find him, none of us will be him. Why don't you settle down, start again?"
She snorts a laugh. "With you?"
He doesn't deny it.
"Okay," she says, "I'll explain the scam. I don't often bother, because it won't make any difference. I'm a parasite. I travel from world to world, living the lie in each, until the pain becomes too much and I have to move on. You're going to start thinking, probably already have, that you can save me, change me, make it work, make it perfect. You're starting to fall in love with me."
"Someone has a high opinion of herself," he says, but it comes out nervous and squeaky, instead of confident and ironic.
"Oh no, I know you. I know everything. Everything you are. Everything you'll do. I know things about you that you don't even know yourself, things that can only be learned from your other selves in other universes. You've no idea how deep I can get my hooks into you, Mr. Finance." She slides out of the bed, stops, looks over her shoulder like a woman in a movie poster or an advert, says, "Well, now you know. Aren't you going to throw me out?"
"No," he says.
"It would be the best for both of us."
"What's your name?" he says, wanting to keep her looking over one porcelain shoulder like something artists would paint.
"You can call me Elle."
"Let's go to Paris, Elle."
"Paris?" she says, raising an eyebrow.
"Yeah, I know, you can go anywhere, I'm not trying to impress you," he lies. "But I'm not what you're looking for, so you'll be gone soon. I'm asking for a week in--"
"Florence," she says. "Have you been there?"
"Florence? No."
"Florence, then. You'll like it better than Paris. Trust me."
He likes Florence better than Paris. It's less frenetic: less money and more class. He lets her dictate their itinerary, he lets her decide everything. She's tour guide, translator, lover, and always knows what he wants: he doesn't, but she does. They stride arm-in-arm through cobbled streets. They enjoy fine food, wine, music, and company at places hidden away from the tourist trails; the kind of places that only exist briefly, before they become too successful and are ruined, or else vanish like magical shops in a children's cartoon. She knows the city like she's lived there all her life, like she's lived there for many lives. His money flows through them like blood jetting from a wound, but it's well spent, and there's always more.
She has the bag with her always, the shoulder bag with the magic sphere in it. "How did you get it through customs?" he asks. She opens the bag, lets him look in. Camera, makeup, a notebook; no sphere. Then she says an alien word, and puts her arm into the bag, and pulls out the sphere. "Magic bag," she says. "You can hide anything in it."
"How did you get this stuff?"
"Stole it, like the Jag, like your prunes. In my own world we can't make such things, but if a thing is doable then in an infinitely branching multiverse there's some idiot somewhere who's already done it. An infinite number of idiots, and an infinite subset of the idiots let it fall into the wrong hands. Thus, however improbably, I exist."
"You're the wrong hands?"
"Very definitely. Now, It won't work for you: you don't know the code words, so don't get ideas. All these questions make me paranoid."
"I wasn't--"
"Weren't you, Mr. Finance? Are you sure?"
He resolves not to ask about the sphere again.
She teaches him to dance in two days flat--really dance, like people in movies wearing tuxedos and ball-gowns. It's surprisingly easy, but she breathes a warning into his ear, "It won't work with anyone else, you can only dance with me." He likes it when she says that. She can't just dance, but sing too. At an open-mic night she delivers a rendition of I put a spell on you laced with such spitting jealously that it silences the room. Until the first person starts clapping and then the applause is like a dam bursting, and everyone knows she's singing it for him. He never knew he wanted someone to sing that song like their heart was breaking, like they'd kill, and sing it for him. He never thought he'd meet someone who could expose themselves like that. Later they dance. It's all good.
It's not all good. She manages to keep her smiling face on, mostly, but a few times the veil slips, and her howling core is revealed. The most innocent of questions can trigger it:
"Are we going to the Duomo?" he asks.
"No," she says.
"But they say it's spe--"
"No. I won't go there."
"Why not?"
"Because it's God's house. Do you believe in God?"
"No," he admits.
"I do. I believe he chose you, all of you, no matter how warped or wicked, even the rapist ones, over my good man. He chose you to live, and my good man to die."
He can't help asking, "Would you rather it was me that got the bus?"
"Yes," she says "Are you glad it was him, and not you?"
"I don't think it works that way."
"I do. Conservation of fortune. If something good happens here, something bad must happen there. The books must balance. Why don't we agree that we'd both rather it had been some guy a thousand universes away, whom we'll never meet, or even know exists?"
Thinking it's an escape route he says, "Yeah, let's do that."
It's the wrong answer. "You see how it works? What the concept does to us? How corrupting it is? How easy it becomes to wish someone dead? Nothing is real, everything is permitted. In a multiverse nothing really matters, everything is happening, has to happen somewhere, sometime. It's the ultimate excuse for anything. And do you think it could have come about by accident? A construct so inherently wicked that it taints you even to think of it? Do you think something that perfect could exist without being designed?"
"If you keep thinking about stuff like that, you'll suffocate," he says.
"I don't think it, I live it."
"Then, stop."
"Stop living?"
"Live something else."
"I've tried."
"Okay, not the Duomo, what about the Campanile tower?"
"Save it for the last day," she says. "The view over the city is wonderful, pink roof-tops and white walls, like a giant iced cake. It'll be our goodbye."
That evening they attend a performance of Shaffer's "Amadeus," in Italian. He's seen the film, didn't like it, doesn't speak the language, but gets told it's not all about him, this is the one thing that's hers. It proves better than he'd thought. The theatre has a translation system that gives him subtitles on his phone, but he sees the play through Elle. He watches her in the theatre near-dark. Her lips are in constant silent motion, mouthing every line of every character. Her hands clench into fists, and he knows, only he understands, that she sees herself as Constanze Mozart, trying to save her man from something that coils invisibly around him: the machinations of a wicked power, the murderous Salieri. She must have seen this a thousand times, in a thousand slightly different worlds, but she still loves it. He begins to have hope. Maybe she can be saved. Maybe they can save each other. Consider that out of all the parties in all the alternaties in all the multiverse, she had to walk into his. That's got to mean something, right?
The next day he tries to save her, tries to make her see sense. In a cafe on the Piazza della Signoria he tries to convince her that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, and that she should make the best of the cards she's been dealt. He tells her that the things that happen are just the luck of the draw, it's nothing--
"Nothing personal?" she says "Because in one universe you get the shaft, but in another, you're bathing in diamonds. If in this universe you're pushing people into gas chambers, in the next you're breathing the gas yourself?"
"Yeah," he says, "it kinda all cancels--"
"Why feel anger when someone robs you, this was just the universe in which they're a robber? It's as senseless as being angry at the lottery, or the weather. Why feel pity for cancer-sufferers, it's just their turn to play that role: in another universe, they live to ninety?"
"You know what," she says, "you're right." But he knows from her tone he isn't. She says the magic word and plunges a hand into her ever-present shoulder-bag. Her arm enters into it up to the wrist, up to the elbow, impossibly up to the shoulder.
"You can't do that here!" he hisses. "People will see." He's afraid she's going to pull out the magic sphere, and leave him.
"I can do anything," she says. She pulls something from the bottomless bag, something dull and long and boxy. A gun. One of those ugly, very practical ones with lots of bullets.
"Holy hell," he grabs her arm, holding it down. She struggles a little, smiling, like it's a game. "Careful darling, or it'll go off into you."
"What are you doing?"
"Tourist duckshoot. Come on, it'll be fun. People run around hilariously, trying to clamber over each other like rats. 'Course, I'll escape to the next alternity and you'll be left with a lot of explaining to do. But nothing really matters, does it?"
"What is wrong with you?"
"Nothing. What could be wrong? Right now it's happening. In infinite universes I'm laughing as I gun these fuckers down. In others I'm not. In some, infinitely some, aliens have landed. Or the skies are black as Vesuvius erupts. Or this place was never built. If this is a universe where some people get shot, what of it? Somewhere in this universe people are being shot right now. In only a hundred years no one will miss them or care. It'll just be history. It makes no difference."
"It would make a big difference to these people right here," he says.
"Ah, at last, he gets it." She slides the weapons back into her magic bag. "Don't give me the 'why worry' argument; I've heard it a thousand times before. Why feel grief, or sorrow, why feel anything at all? It's all meaningless. But we do feel. We can't help it. It's how we're made. I don't care how many universes there are where some bitch with my face lives and loves and is happy, it doesn't help me any." She sets the bag aside; he could almost believe the gun was a hallucination. "Let's not argue," she says. "We don't have much time left."
But after that something is changed, and the words, "We don't have much time left," bounce back and forth, back and forth between the walls of his skull. There's a difference even in the way she looks at him, he feels it, a coldness on his spine when his back is turned. Something has taken them over an invisible line, something he's said, or done, or is. As their time in Florence drips by he tries to think of something he can say or do that will turn things around, but it's hopeless; what can he say or do that will hold a woman who can walk between worlds?
When in the morning she's suddenly all flirtations and smiles, he knows it's their last day in Florence.
The view from the top of the Campanile tower is all they say. The city's pink rooftops and white walls look like they've been unchanged since Roman times. Music and the smell of cookery rise from the streets as shadows lengthen. The people in the square below are dots with long shadow-tails like negatives of comets. Young lovers buzz between them on scooters, the boys driving, the girls resting rouged cheeks against their boyfriend's backs.
She puts her arms around him from behind, rests her head against his shoulder like those girls riding pillion on the scooters. "Happy?" she asks.
"Yes," he says, and it's true. He knows that if she stays or not, he'll remember this week for the rest of his life, the days before and after will be featureless blurs that gradually pass from consciousness, but he'll remember this till they put him in the ground.
"Good," she says. "That's all I wanted." She steps back, sliding her hands up, over his back with the smooth, graceful movements of a masseuse. "You know, they say on a clear night if you lean right out and look over that way, you can see the lights on the Tower of Pisa."
"No? It's fifty miles away? I didn't know it had lights," he leans out to see.
Her next words are not meant for him, they're a recitation, like casting a spell. "Because you are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will hinder and harm all your creatures on all Earths as far as I am able."
He knows that line, he's heard it before, or something like it. Amadeus. Salieri's line: his pact with God. In that instant, leaning out with her hands warm on his back, he knows he's read her wrong. She never saw herself as Constanze Mozart. "Stop!" he says.
But she's heard it before, countless times in countless universes. She doesn't stop. She pushes.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 30th, 2013

Author Comments

This story was written in response to a reoccurring trope of science fiction: the idea that living in a quantum multiverse (assuming we do) absolves all sins. Yes, you may be terminally ill and poverty-stricken, but out there somewhere another you is living the life of Riley, and that makes up for it, right?

Wrong. I have no access to that other person's experiences and so they are just a stranger wearing my face. Yes, in an infinite multiverse there is surely a version of me inhabiting one of those cool alterverses with the airships, and whose life is full of Excitement and Adventure and Really Wild Things, and, speaking frankly, I HATE HIS GUTS. Nor does it make me feel any better to know that there's versions of me, or anyone, out there who are vastly worse off than I am. There are people better and worse off than me in my own world, the multiverse argument doesn't add anything new to that. It does, however, mean that for every bad choice I made in life, another me got to reap the benefits of the choice I should have made, and for every good choice I made some poor sod was forced to take the other, darker fork in the road. This sucks.

Those paying close attention might feel that I've been giving God a hard time in recent stories, but She started it.

- C J Paget
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