Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 32
Stories
The Temple's Posthole
by M.K. Hutchins
Through the Veil
by Michael T. Banker
Notes on a Page
by Barbara A. Barnett
The War of Peace - Part 2
by Trina Marie Phillips
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Winning Veronica's Heart
    by Ian Creasey

Winning Veronica's Heart
Artwork by Kevin Wasden

Hello! Hello to everyone down in the front row, and all the folks sitting by the aisle in case there's a fire. Hello to you people at the back who thought you were here for something else. The robot porn is over the road, down the steps, through the unmarked gate . . . or so I've heard. Hello to my alternate selves, and everyone here who isn't me. Hello Manchester!

It's great to be back. I grew up here, in one of those council estates where burglary is the local form of recycling. You know the kind of place: the police got tired of putting up Crime Scene boards every day -- "Have you seen this murder?" -- so eventually they just used an enormous piece of hazard tape to enclose the whole estate as a permanent Crime Scene. Instead of the old notice-board with the dry-wipe markers, they put up a wiki-screen so we could input the crimes ourselves. It worked fine until someone stole the screen . . .

But it wasn't all shoplifting and joyriding. When I was a boy, I used to go and watch the football. Back then, football was real -- you could pretend to know one of the players, because he was your cousin . . . well, your cousin's friend . . . okay, your cousin's friend's babysitter's brother-in-law . . . but it was a connection! Nowadays it's all nostalgia: stars from the past uploaded into cloned bodies, scuttling around the pitch like dogs looking for somewhere to have a dump. Why do we need a veterans' replay of every Cup final from the last century? Sometimes I get nostalgic for the days before the Nostalgia Channel.

I don't need TV: I have my own nostalgia. Right now, I'm nostalgic for my ex-girlfriend. I was with Veronica for five years. Now we've split up -- we're seeing other people. Well, she is. I'm not; I want to get back with Veronica, because I love her.

Okay, at that point you're all supposed to go "Aahhh" in a mass outpouring of sympathy. So, let's pretend you're not a bunch of heartless bastards, and give it another go. One, two, three, Aahhh. That's better. Keep it up, I'll make an audience out of you yet.

I have a plan for getting Veronica back, and I need your help. It'll all become clear as we go along. Pay attention! This could be on the exam.

When I say it's great to be here in Manchester, I should say Manchester version 74875413-blah-blah-blah . . . Remember when you were a child -- did you ever write your name and address with all those extra lines at the end? Mine was Richard Bonington, 32 Hallam Street, Manchester, England, United Kingdom, Europe, The World, The Solar System, The Milky Way. But kids nowadays have to keep going: Universe 456-Gamma, Sub-branch 74875, Bifurcation 12F . . . Reality is splitting faster than they can write the serial number. If a kid writes his address in the front of a scrapbook, he ends up filling the entire book with the postcode of which parallel universe he lives in.

And who makes up those numbers, anyway? Every version of the Earth thinks of itself as Earth-Prime, the Hub, the Core -- they all want serial number 00001-AAA-Alpha.

It's the same with us: we know we have infinite parallel selves, but we all secretly think we're the "real version." Even if you live in a derelict tower-block, and every time you walk out of your front door you're treading knee-deep in used syringes and condoms, you still think of yourself as the main event. It doesn't matter if you have an alternate with a super-amazing job like being the ambassador to Mars. While you're stuck in a sink estate, working in a fast food joint, you still think, "Hey, I'm the authentic soul. This is me with grease on my arms and three cautions for delinquency. Accept no substitutes."

Those over-achievers are just flukes, aren't they? They got some lucky break that you didn't have. Everything must happen, including a universe where you won the lottery and married a supermodel.

So you rent a hopper and you go looking for that universe -- only for sight-seeing, of course. If you see your other self, you'll congratulate him. Yes, you will! The gun in your pocket is just for protection, in case you meet some interdimensional pirates along the way. Whoops! Oh no, it went off accidentally and he died. Now there's all this money lying around, and a grieving widow. Well, she won't grieve if she doesn't know he's dead. You'd better pretend to be him. It's for her own good . . .

But most of our alternates aren't murderers or lottery winners. They're regular folks -- just like us. That's the point. If you visit a universe that branched off last week, the guy who lives there is basically the same as you, except he had toast instead of porridge for breakfast.

Meeting your alts is a scary experience. You think to yourself: my God, is that what I look like? What museum of fashion disasters did that shirt crawl out from? Oh yeah, my wardrobe. Seeing your crappy hairstyle, your own bald spot -- now that's a trauma. And as for the rest of your body, your fat arse and flabby legs . . . well, say no more.

I've got a theory that the whole universe-hopping technology was invented by the cosmetic surgery companies. Those plastic surgeons got together and said, "How can we make more money? We've already got celebrity culture and the mass media telling everyone that they need to look perfect. The only way we can sell more operations is to take people to parallel universes and force them to see their own alternates walking down the street. Then they'll look at themselves and realise how hideous they are!"

Yeah, you need therapy after that. When you meet yourself, you realise how you come across to other people -- whether you have bad breath, a sweaty handshake, or a shifty look in your eyes.

Yet there's a positive side. You can get a lot done if you team up with your alts. Let's say you work somewhere with a lot of women. You can't ask them all out -- "Form an orderly queue please!" -- because word gets around, and it looks sleazy. But you can ask one, and roll dice to decide which. The universe splits like it always does, and afterward you get together with your alternates to compare notes. Which girl said yes? You home in on her.

Perhaps she lost her own dice roll, and she has to kiss every frog who comes along -- even the ones like you, with the bald spot and the fashion-disaster shirt. She's taking one for the team, in case you happen to be a prince. You have to turn on the charm, so she'll report back to her clade and say she's met a cute guy, who might scrub up well if she can improve his dress sense.

But when you ask a woman out, she'll check with her alts to see if any of them have met you before. She's got a whole file on you. It's like a job application, except your CV is the entire life history of all your parallel selves. You know there's gonna be some dirt in there somewhere. "I'm sorry, Richard -- I've heard that one of your alts once farted in bed. I'm sure you understand I could never spend my life with a man so lacking in refinement --" "But that wasn't me --" "Next!"

We all need a little help from our alts. That's how I met Veronica. An alt passed me a tip-off: said she loved art and gardening, and she had a spiritual side. So before I approached her, I could bone up on flowers, then practise keeping a straight face while talking about energies and auras and whatnot.

She was out of my league, really. Gorgeous and rich, moved in social circles where the only time she saw people from a council estate was when they came round to empty the dustbins. But I knew that one of my alts had dated hers -- a million-to-one chance. If he could do it, so could I. After all, he was me. And I had his crib-sheet.

I asked her out. We chatted. She liked me. But she wasn't stupid; she knew I'd been given a primer. So she tested me by taking me into weird situations: places I'd never been before, that my alts hadn't already mapped out. On our third date, we hopped to a world where Britain was still full of cavemen worshipping at Stonehenge. We wore hover-belts, jumped up on the megaliths, and chased each other around the top of the stones. Hell of a Midsummer Day ceremony that was. They thought we were gods, and sacrificed a sheep to us. We had our own personal fertility festival on top of a trilithon. Tell you what -- you've never had sex until you've done it on an ancient monument surrounded by chanting cavemen.

After we'd lived together for a while, we bought our own planet. It was a parallel Earth where everyone had conveniently died out, leaving lots of empty houses behind. We moved into a ruined version of York. It looked like a nice little project, restoring the town. York has a long history, and we wanted to restore parts of it to different time periods, from the Romans to the present day.

The plumbing in a Roman toilet is a lot more sophisticated than you might think. Proper flushing! In case you're wondering, they wiped their arse with a sponge on a stick. You know how we sometimes have absent-minded "out of paper" moments? I guess they only ever made that mistake once -- jabbing up with the stick and discovering they'd forgotten the sponge . . .

We wanted a Roman quarter, and a Viking quarter, and York Minster of course, and some picturesque mansions for nineteenth-century costume drama parties . . . Veronica and I were in love, and we had big plans.

Unfortunately, the plans were too big for me. I didn't have the expertise to rebuild everything from Roman forts to Georgian villas. Not to mention installing electricity and a sewage system; fixing up the old petrol-driven cars; sorting out horses and carriages; finding the correct historical clothes to wear . . . It was never-ending.

"Just use your alts," said Veronica. "You must have alts who know all that stuff."

Of course I did. That's what alternity means -- everything must exist. When I was seven years old, and I looked at a cow and said, "That's horrible and dirty and smelly," there was another version of me who said, "Yes! When I grow up I want to stick my hand in a cow's rear end!" That's how farmers are made, and car mechanics and fashion historians and all the rest.

I could call in my alts, get them to help out. But what would they want in return? All I had was a beautiful girlfriend . . .

And so I entered the treacherous realm of the timeshare relationship. I shared Veronica with all my alts who helped build our home. At first I was worried what she might think, but it turned out she liked it. That was why she'd suggested it. She wanted the best versions of me, the ones with useful skills, the experts in their fields. She didn't want the mediocre versions she met in the early days.

She didn't want me.

One, two, three, Aahhh . . .

To be fair, she also brought some of her own clade over. She had alts who specialised in gardening and landscape design. They made some wonderful gardens, with super-rare flowers imported from other worlds: blue roses, red crocuses, ultraviolet tulips, and Heaven knows what else. The details went over my head -- I had to consult a few more of my alts, so they could feed me the right words whenever I told Veronica what a great job she was doing. "Yes darling, I really admire the . . . er, calendulas . . . sorry, campanulas . . . sorry, tarantulas . . ."

And because she had such a strong spiritual side, she brought lots of alts to perform various rituals and cleansings. I would be working hard on something or other, and Veronica would stand nearby, reciting a prayer to bless my work. I appreciated the company, but she did seem to have the easier part of our common endeavour. Or so I thought, until she told me that actually, she was doing the difficult bit. She had to propitiate the native spirits. Remember, we'd moved into an Earth where all the locals had died. She worried that their ghosts were still hanging around. She thought their restless spirits might be resentful of the way we'd arrived and started holding parties in their cemetery -- after all, the whole world was their graveyard. Veronica said that if we had children, she didn't want their souls possessed by the avenging spirits of the long-gone natives. I'm not sure how you'd check that on an ultrasound scan: "Here's your unborn baby -- look at his delicate little fingers, his cute little toes, his demonic little eyes full of ancient wrath . . ."

But when she explained all this to me, I mostly heard the word "children." She was already planning our future family! Yeah, we were in love, and we were happy, and everything was perfect -- apart from one thing.

The problem? Supply and demand. Veronica was beautiful, rich, sociable, great to hang around with. I was . . . well . . . me. Perhaps you can see the difficulty. Whenever we spent time together, there were more of my alts than hers wanting a place on the rota. It was a lottery, like playing a fruit machine to find out your schedule. You'd hope to see three hearts for a passport to passion. More likely you'd get three turds: your turn to clean the toilets.

It led to squabbling among my alts -- even some fights. I know Veronica enjoyed watching those. It turned her on, seeing how the alpha male emerged. I could tell from watching the bedroom tapes afterward. I had to watch the tapes; I never got any action myself. The night-time slots were the hardest to win, the biggest prize on the rota. And Veronica wanted the best version of me for everything, which included the best at making love . . .

I had to import even more alts to sort it all out: a performance-measurement specialist to calculate the scores, and a schedule monitor to make sure no-one fiddled the rota, and a mediator to resolve disputes, and a muscle squad to quell the agitators. And an expert complainer to whine about the whole system!

They were all my alternate selves, and they all had a purpose, but what about me? I was the one who'd first moved in with Veronica, yet I was demoted to doing the washing-up. My alts were having sex with my girlfriend, and the closest I got to that bed was changing the dirty sheets on laundry days.

I wasn't enough of a specialist. When she had a project, she wanted an expert. When she was lost, she wanted a map-reader. When she was feeling down, she wanted Mister Empathy. Whatever the situation, she wanted the right guy to deal with it -- and it was never me.

Eventually, it became so frustrating that I walked out. It wasn't that Veronica dumped me: she probably didn't even notice. I just faded from her life, while my own alts replaced me.

You know when you're about to go on a date, and you're nervous, and your friend says, "Don't worry -- just be yourself?" Well, it turns out that I sucked at being myself. There were better applicants -- versions of me who'd studied, worked hard, acquired expertise, all that crap.

Bastards. Yeah, I've split up from my girlfriend because we're seeing other people . . . but the other guys she's seeing are myself!

I could have walked away, started again, and tried to forget Veronica. But I loved her! I didn't want it to end like that. I decided that the whole thing was my fault for not being worthy of her. How could I blame her for wanting the best version of me? I wanted to become worthy, like a knight going on a perilous quest to prove himself and bring back a trophy for his queen. To win her back, I would have to become good at something.

What could I do? It's all very well to be good at something unglamorous like plumbing the toilets or fending off the Blight -- that's not expertise you can show off in company. You never find your girlfriend coming down to the sewage plant and saying, "I really admire the way you've got all the turds to float in neat little rows." If you're good at a job like that, you end up spending forty hours a week alone with the shit, all for the hope of getting a one-hour reward slot at the end of the month . . . when she's probably asleep anyway.

No, it's better to be good at something that makes your girlfriend want to spend time with you. Like what? I wondered whether to try becoming an expert on sex, or even Cuddles and Snuggling, but there's a lot of competition in that area. Instead I thought, "What do women always say they look for in a man? They want a guy with a good sense of humour."

And so I became a comedian. That's why I'm here. Like a battle-scarred knight questing through dank, dismal swamps full of hideous ravening beasts, I have arrived here in Manchester . . . in search of a magical potion, a tonic for the soul, the proverbial best medicine.

My goal is simply to do well enough that I can get back with Veronica. I need you lovely folks to help me, if you can find enough goodwill in your grey shrivelled hearts. All you have to do is laugh.

Yeah, I know, it helps if I tell some jokes. I've been writing material, and I've borrowed a few lines from my alts. Still, it's hard work. When you try to be efficient about anything, there's always a version of you who wants to make a spreadsheet -- turn it into numbers, record the laughs, maximise the ratings . . . And here he is, lurking in the corner. Please welcome my official performance measurer. A big hand for the man with the stats. Remember, he's counting the claps!

Well, if you want to be the best at something, it has to be quantified somehow.

I'll hone my routine, optimise my act. I might even come up with a catchphrase. I'll certainly use the funniest jokes -- just as soon as I've figured out which those are.

Bear with me while I roll a few dice. This is a list of jokes collected from my clade. Drum roll, please! We have joke number . . . 54. So, here it is from the list -- please show your appreciation accordingly. This is for science, ladies and gentlemen. We're building the perfect comedic machine.

"What do you call a homeopath with tuppence? A millionaire."

Ba-boom. Thank you very much. Smile, you're on tape!

After the show, one of my stats nerds will visit all the universes where the dice landed differently, and compare the laughter for every joke on the list. The highest scoring lines will go into my act. I won't even need to think: there'll be a voice in my ear -- my voice -- saying, "Do the one about the peanuts." Yeah, I look forward to being turned into ComicDroid.

But it's all in a good cause. When I'm officially a funny guy -- when I have the spreadsheets to prove it -- then I'll have expertise. I'll be in demand. Yeah, Veronica will be desperate to take me back. Whenever she needs cheering up, whenever she needs a laugh, she'll summon up the most amusing version of me. And that'll be yours truly . . . as soon as I've perfected my act.

Of course, you can't just measure one-liners in isolation. What about context, the way a routine builds -- or fails to build? That joke about the homeopath: it would work better as part of a whole riff on alternative medicine. Something like -- I'm improvising here -- "Homeopathy is old-fashioned, now that we've got so many more universes full of different bullshit to choose from. Alternative medicine demands the aura of the exotic. The latest fads used to come from the mysterious east, or the heart of the jungle. Now they're all from parallel worlds full of goddess-worshipping druids who are, like, 'totally in touch with nature, man.' Mystic herbs never come from the scraggy patch in the corner of your garden. Nobody ever claims to rebalance your chakras with something that grows behind the shed, next to the compost heap."

Well, you get the idea. It's covered -- we're also measuring the entire show. All possible versions!

And what if I fall flat on my arse? What if you folks don't laugh? No pressure, obviously . . . but you might want to hear what happens if you don't laugh hard enough. It annoys my alternate selves, the senior comedians who don't want some mediocre jokester tarnishing our brand name. They don't care about Veronica; they have their own relationships. But they believe in quality control. If they decide I'm not up to scratch, first they send me a warning. I wake up with a clown's head in my bed. After that, if I keep doing gigs, they send a hit man. Someone comes up to me after a show, congratulates me, shakes my hand. Bzzz! He's got one of those comedy buzzers turned up to hyper-voltage, and he electrocutes me. Or I admire the flower in his buttonhole, and it squirts acid at me. Or he lures me into a dark corner, and drops an anvil on my head.

If that doesn't work, they send a whole squad, in one of those tiny cars with huge wheels. It's the clown car from the circus. And they all pile out of the car, dozens of them, an infinite number of them, all my alternate selves who think they can improve the clade by purging the weakest links. They storm the hall and shoot me down.

It gives a whole new meaning to "dying on stage."

Can you hear anything? Is that a car pulling up outside? Or maybe they're already here. I see some familiar faces in the audience . . . Oh please, no -- not the custard pies. Nooooooo!

Ah, never mind. What am I saying: that I think my alternate selves are coming to get me because I'm not funny enough? That's classic insecurity, that is. I'm so insecure, you could use me as a government database. Do I really think my own alts would kill me? They're me: is there a murderer in my heart?

Everyone has a dark side. All the times you had a nasty impulse and suppressed it -- every time you wanted to say something spiteful, but swallowed it -- there's a version of you who said that, who did that. He's your evil goatee-wearing double.

But if I worry about evil alts coming to get me, then I'm assuming that I'm the good guy. Like I said earlier, everyone thinks they're the authentic self. It's all relative, though. I'm sure there's another version of me, someone who does something important and worthwhile -- charity work while raising abandoned kittens -- who thinks I'm the shadow side. "Oh no, there's a version of me who does nothing but bray inanities to drunkards in seedy clubs!"

Perhaps the whole notion of competing with my own alts, and trying to be the best, is itself somewhat sinister . . .

Yeah, maybe I'm the dark self whose soul needs rescuing. Of course, I've already had that message. I'm sure we've all had it -- the alt who gets religion and wants to convert the whole clade. He knocks on your door and says, "Have you found Jesus?"

I don't want to find Jesus -- I want to find Veronica. I'm convinced that if I keep working hard and improving myself, then eventually I'll be worthy of her. And she'll find me.

I believe in love. Do you? Let's hear you! One, two, three, Aahhh . . .

Thanks for coming, folks. You've been a great audience, all of you -- even those who aren't me.

Are you out there, Veronica? Veronica, my love?

Well, maybe next time. I'm here all week.

Try the veal.



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