Authors: John Dechancie
Max tried to work on the catalog. He did a few product descriptions, working from the data sheets, checked the pasteup on the graphics computer in the art room, went back and banged out two more product descriptions on his word processor, and then fell into a yawning fit.
He couldn't stop yawning.
“Sheeesh!” Max rubbed his jaw. It was sore.
“Why the hell am I so tired all the time?”
He needed some chemical stimulation.
Max got up and shuffled out of his hole, went through the main office and out into the dark corridor. He paused briefly to look at the stenciled lettering on the front door. fenton associatesâbrochures, catalogs, presentations, advertising. Max shook his head. A long slide from Bulmer, Lewis, and Teller, a big agency where he had worked fresh out of college. Nothing like starting at the top and working your way down.
Thinking of BLT made him think of Andrea. Long-lost Andrea. She and Max had shared a Cleo nomination for their work on a Kleenex spot. So long ago.
He took the elevator down to the sixth floor, where there were some vending machines. He bought a can of soda, tore off the tab, and drank as he meandered through the gloomy halls of the old office building.
He passed a lighted office. Another exploited fool. Then he saw the name. jeremy hochstader, P.Hd.
He did a take, noticing the spurious punctuation. P period capital H small d? Right. This joker can't even abbreviate his degree.
His new shrink. How bloody convenient. Well, what the hell.
The door was slightly ajar. Max eased it open.
“Come in, come in,” the strangely adolescent voice Max had heard over the phone sang out. There was no mistaking it.
Max stopped when he caught sight of the smaller lettering under the name on the frosted glass. He pushed the door open wider and looked at it. It read portals unlimited.
“Come in, Mr. Dumbrowsky.”
Max looked around. Seated at a table in a far corner of the office was a pint-size kid, looking no older than eighteen, dressed in faded jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt. His hair was a bit long and mussy, and his general scruffy appearance went well with a face that was aggressively nondescript, tending toward the feral. He was hunched over the terminal of a personal computer, hunting and pecking at the keyboard with long fingers, eyes fixed on the CRT screen.
“You're probably wondering what âPortals Unlimited'is all about,” the kid said.
“How did you know it was me?”
Hochstader stopped typing, looked over at Max, and grinned impishly. “Just a stab in the dark. Thought it might be you banging around out there. Come on in. I'm ready to help you.”
Max sauntered in. Hochstader gestured to a chair, and Max, having nothing really better to do, sat down.
“That's me. Actually, the degree is kind of honorary.” Hochstader stopped Max's next utterance with a raised hand. “You're going to say I look young.”
Max shrugged, nodding. No denying it.
“I have one of those faces that don't age. I'm a lot older than I look.”
Max studied him. “You can't be any older than twenty-five. What's your degree in?”
“Uh, computer science. Why?”
Max laughed. “And you're a licensed psychotherapist?”
“No, I don't do psychotherapy. I don't have patients, I have clients. And I get results for them.”
“Clients, eh?” Max took a sip of Coke, looking around at the office. It was a mess; boxes and piles of computer printouts littered the floor. Otherwise the place was a shabby dump; but that accurately described the office building it was in.
“Okay, so you're not a therapist. What about these radical new techniques you mentioned? I have to warn you, I've seen and done just about everything.”
Hochstader resumed typing. “I think I can surprise you, Max. You don't mind if I call you Max?”
“Go right ahead. What is it, biofeedback?”
“A new kind of exercise?”
“Some new diet?”
“Uh-uh. Max, you're never going to guess it. I'll have to show you.”
“So show me. But why can't you tell me?”
“Well, my technique involves travel between alternate worlds.”
Max choked on his soda.
“Parallel universes, alternate time tracks,” Hochstader went on, “call âem what you will. âAspects'is what we in the trade call them.”
“Uh, yeah,” Max said warily, rubbing his throat.
“Oh, I realize you don't believe me, but if you wait just a second, I'll give you a free demonstration.”
Max studied him. This twerp had the look of a high-school dropout.
Characters danced across the CRT. Presently, Hochstader stabbed a final key and looked up at the result. “Right,” he said. He slapped the desktop, stood up, and strode past Max. “Follow me for a free demonstration.”
Like flies to dung, Max thought. I always seem to attract them. He shrugged helplessly and followed Hochstader into a dark adjoining office. The twerp walked straight on through to the far wall, where a curtain hung in an arch. Light came from beyond it.
Hochstader held the curtain open for Max. “Go on in.”
Max passed through and stopped in his tracks, disoriented.
He found himself in an immense Gothic chamber of dark gray stone, its high ceiling complexly vaulted. The place was filled with odd stuff, contraptions that looked like fugitives from a B sci-fi movie. Spark coils, wheels, banks of switches: the laboratory of a mad scientist.
“What in the worldâ? Hey, where is this place? Did we walk into the next building?”
“Welcome to Castle Perilous,” Jeremy said as he passed, grinning impishly.
“do you think we took the hem up too far?”
Red-haired, freckle-faced Melanie McDaniel stepped back from the oaken table. On it stood her friend, Linda Barclay, blond bride-to-be.
“I like it the way it is.”
“I think it's too high.”
“It's a nice wedding gown, Linda.”
“Do you think eliminating the bow is going too far?”
“Well, you said you wanted a modern look.”
“Maybe something more traditional would be better for a wedding in a castle.” Linda reached down and turned up the hem. “Maybe a train?”
“You said you didn't want to feel like you could trip at any moment.”
“I don't. But I don't want the dress to look too modern either. I mean, this
“They why not go with the medieval costume thing?”
“I don't want it to be a costume ball. It's supposed to be a wedding. My wedding. We run around in silly clothes enough around here.”
“But in Castle Perilous, silly clothes really aren't costumes. They're the clothes people actually wear. And they're not silly.” Melanie looked down at her own outfit, that of a minstrel.
“Sorry, point taken. But stillâAnyway, I think it's too short.”
“Depends on what effect you want. Bionda, what do you think?”
Bionda, the Castle seamstress, looked on as if only mildly interested. After all, Linda, a powerful sorceress, had conjured the gown herself. Bionda was there only to offer professional advice, if it was needed and wanted.
Bionda stepped back and took a fresh look. Linda and Melanie waited expectantly for her opinion.
Bionda cleared her throat. “I think it much too short, milady.”
Linda's face fell. “See? I was right.”
“I think the train would be nice,” Bionda said. “Gives a bride dignity. Adds pageantry to a ceremony.”
“Well, maybe I should go with the train.”
“But milady, your wedding day draws near! Perhaps you might take this as impertinence, but you really shouldn't have waited until now to settle these important matters.”
“Oh, it's no problem,” Linda said. She snapped a finger.
Instantly, the dress changed. Gone were the clean modern lines, replaced with lace, brocade, and sequins. A long train cascaded from the bustle and flowed out over the table.
“Well, now you're going way in the other direction,” Melanie said.
Bionda was a little ruffled. “I forget, milady, that you can do that so easily.”
“Nothin'to it,” Linda said, lifting the veil. “Except it won't last overnight, if I conjure it now. That's why I had to wait until so close to the wedding day.”
“I'll whip it up late tomorrow night. It'll last well into the next day. Just have to remember this configuration.” Linda looked back. “And remember not to overdo the train.”
“I think it's beautiful, if you like traditional,” Melanie said.
“Oh, hell, I don't know,” Linda despaired. “I can't decide. Maybe I'll just go back home and pick out a dress at Wedding World.”
“Linda, you don't have time for that.”
“Oh, right. Forgot.”
Melanie looked up at her. “Linda, are you having . . . uh . . .” She gave a sidelong glance at Bionda.
“Second thoughts? I've been thinking ever since Gene proposed to me. I wonder if we're doing the right thing.”
“You can still call it off.”
“What? After all those engraved invitations? To the royal family, yet. They R.S.V.P.-ed, kid. Too late now.”
“Well, canceling would be better than making a mistake you might regretâ”
“Wait a minute, I don't think it will be a mistake. If I thought that, I would have called it off long ago. It's Gene I'm thinking about.”
“Oh, sure, Bionda. Thanks.”
Bionda curtsied, hiked up her smock, and left.
“Sorry I talked out of turn,” Melanie said.
“You picked up on some cue, for sure.”
“So you don't think Gene is the marrying kind?”
“Sometimes I wonder if most men really are,” Linda said. “But I know that Gene's a free spirit, a wild stallion. Do I really want to rein him in?”
“Does marriage have to be that way?”
“Maybe not. Maybe my fears are groundless. Anyway . . .”
Linda snapped her fingers again, and the gown was transformed into an outfit consisting of black tights, black leather shorts, ankle-high boots, and a kelly green puffed sleeve blouse.
She jumped down from the table.
“Where's Gene?” Melanie asked.
“The bachelor party's this afternoon.”
“Oh, the bachelor party, right. Is Lord Incarnadine going?”
“I think. Don't know for sure. Gene sent out the invites.”
“Hope they don't get into too much mischief. I mean with the dancing girls.”
“I conjured âem. You can be sure there won't be any monkey business.”
“You conjured dancing girls for your fiancÃ©'s bachelor party? Woman, that's trust.”
“Not the way I conjure dancing girls.”
“Hmmm. Interesting. I won't ask for details.”
“Yeah, let's go have lunch.”
The walk from the seamstress's tower to the Queen's Dining Hall was long but interesting, going past some attractive “aspects.” These looked like doorways to other landsâand in fact they were. Moreover, each aspect was a different world, a universe altogether separate from, and alien to, the world of the Castle.
“What you said about men,” Melanie continued. “It's true. Basically they're feral. All of them.”
“Oh, not all, come on.”
“I'll grant that some can be domesticated.”
“Wait a minute! What's this âdomesticated'stuff? Don't tell me
what marriage is about?”
“Just a manner of speaking.”
“Look, Melanie, let's not get into another men-bashing marathon. I'm tired of those.”
“It's not bashing, it's just facing reality. DNA rules them. They're genetically programmed to spread their genes as widely as possible.”
“I'm the only one who's going to get Gene's genes,” Linda said decisively.
Melanie was significantly silent.
“From here on in, that is,” Linda added. “I know he hasn't been exactly a monk in the past.”
“Well, he's been married in the past. I mean, he was married to Vaya. Or is he still married to her?”
“The world she came from doesn't even exist,” Linda said, “except as some weird probability factor. Gene and Vaya were married according to the laws of Vaya's tribe. He was coerced. He didn't have a choice. She chose him. That means the union's invalid in the Castle, and on Earth, for that matter. At least, that's the way Gene explained it to me.”
“But what if she shows up to claim him? With Gene's kid.”
Linda frowned. “That has me worried. Gene said she probably aborted the pregnancy.”
“But he doesn't know.”
“No. Anyway, why would Vaya come back to the Castle? She didn't like it here, and she loved southern California, for some strange reason. Gene says it's over, no matter what. He wouldn't want her back.”
They walked the length of a stone-lined hallway before Linda said resignedly, “Okay, I'll admit there's something in what you said. I told you I had doubts. But really, it's not me I'm so worried about. I mean, for some reasonâand I never thought I'd say thisâthe thought of Gene having a brief fling out in some crazy world somewhere doesn't really bother me. I'm worried that after the wedding he'll get moody again. You know, like he does sometimes. He'll mope and brood and then he'll look at me, as if to say, Some idea you had there, us getting married.”
“And he'll blame you for his being miserable,” Melanie said.
“Yeah. I don't need that. I think he's the one who has some soul-searching to do.”