The Wonderland Gizmo
by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©1998, 2000 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved
Human kind cannot bear very much reality.
-- T. S. Eliot
To say he was drunk would have been an understatement. Words like loaded, stupefied, besotted, blitzed, blotto, ossified, or the bartender's personal favorite crapulent, barely sufficed. He sat on a bar stool at the end of the bar with the awkward rigidity of the nearly unconscious. The stool he had chosen was as far away from the jukebox as possible which placed him near her, although he was ignoring her other than to call for his next drink as he spoke into a pocket recorder with surprisingly little slurring. Being attentive to the customer is an occupational necessity for bartenders and the bar was empty except for him so she occupied herself washing glasses and eavesdropped.
"Have you ever read a story and been transported into the reality created by that author? When the tale was over, did you feel betrayed -- cheated that you couldn't remain in that reality? I have, and more than once. I dreamed for years of an afternoon chat with Valentine Michael Smith, preferably at a booth at Callahan's Cross-Time Saloon, followed by a guided tour of Xanth with Prince Dar. I'll bet you must have had similar dreams but, unlike most of you, I did something about it. I created the Wonderland Gizmo. Not much larger than a watch, it's allowed me to visit other realities." He looked up, saw the bartender listening and frowned.
"Do they pay you to eavesdrop as well as tend bar?"
"Sorry." She turned away with a bright red blush.
"Oh never mind. Come here it'll probably be easier if someone's listening. Just don't interrupt, okay?"
"If you'd like sir." She pulled up the stool she kept under the bar for when her feet hurt and sat near the drunk, but with the bar still between them and the baseball bat she used as an enforcer, nearby.
"Let's see. I was talking about the gizmo I invented. Don't even think of asking me how it works or where you can get one cause I'm not going to tell you.
"They always say the best place to start a story is at the beginning, but think how boring Heinlein's By His Bootstraps would be if he had followed that advice, and besides I refuse to discuss my time in diapers -- either of them. I will tell you that my name is Harlan, no relation, Carroll, again no relation. I'm usually five foot ten, one hundred and eighty pounds, with short black hair combed back to cover my ever growing natural tonsure.
"Anyway, the hardest part was deciding where to go. Compared to that, the math required for the Gizmo was a snap. I mean think about it. There are so many really great realities out there, with authors coming up with more every day. The Gizmo was actually developed when I was just twenty-one, but I was so busy reading that I never got around to building it for another quarter century.
"Where would you go if you could go anywhen? That's what I call it when I go someplace with the Gizmo. I go anywhen, because I can go any where, at any time, as anyone. Of course the Gizmo is only in beta testing. It does have a few bugs. Either I missed a digit with one of my imaginary numbers or I was a bit sloppy with my solder. Who knows? I haven't figured out which it is yet, but so far it hasn't stopped me from visiting some great realities.
"Have you guessed where I went first? I'll give you a hint. It involves cards. No, it wasn't Piers Anthony's World of Tarot nor was it George R. R. Martin's shared universe of the Wild Cards. Actually, you'll probably be disappointed when I tell you. Most people tell me they would have gone somewhere else first. Gee, too bad they didn't invent the Gizmo instead of me. I went to Wonderland. I've always had a thing for Lewis Carroll, ever since I read Jabberwocky.
"'Twas brillig and the slithy toves,
"Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
"All mimsy were the borogroves,
"And the mome raths outgrabe.
"What poetry! The allusions are absolutely amazing. Look how he describes a pleasant weekend afternoon without saying anything intelligible. And don't interrupt me to tell me that Jabberwocky is actually part of Through the Looking Glass, not Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. They're both part of the same reality. I've been there and you haven't, so there. End of discussion.
"Anyway, I didn't want to be Alice and most of the other characters were pretty weird. I mean, a talking caterpillar that smokes a hookah? I lived through the seventies without doing drugs and I wasn't going to start now. Most of the critters in Wonderland seemed to be bit players who didn't get around very much so that left me either the White Rabbit or the Cheshire Puss as Alice called it. I hate to exercise and that damned rabbit never seemed to stop running somewhere so my choice was pretty clear. That cat was always popping in and out of everywhere, and the way he faded out leaving his smile behind, how could I resist.
"Being the cat was cool. Purple and pink stripes like Disney's -- and fat. Carroll doesn't tell you, but his name's Cecil. Carroll also doesn't tell you that the March Hare is in rut or that the Mad Hatter had pedophilic tendencies and disliked little boys. By the way, did you know that he could have single-handedly run the 18th century Puns 'R' Us franchise?
"I've been back to Wonderland several times, always as the Cheshire Cat. It's fascinating. When I'm with Alice I find I can only say what is required by the story, but when the 'Liddell' pain is gone I can say or do anything I wish, get behind the scenes so to speak. That's where I learned about Humpty Dumpty. Have you ever wondered how Humpty Dumpty could have his 'great fall' in Mother Goose but still be intact the next time you read about him? Mother Goose doesn't answer the question and neither does Carroll, but from my visits to Wonderland I now know that it's not magic. It's like South Park -- 'Time to get another Humpty'.
"The next place I visited was Tertius. Well, actually it was the reality of Lazarus Long, Heinlein's 'forever man.' Again, I found I couldn't just appear there as I was, I had to become a part of the reality. Like when I chose to become the Cheshire Cat, I wanted to be someone who was mobile within the reality but not a major character so I wouldn't spend my time locked into specific actions and statements. The choice was fairly easy this time. I chose Andrew Jackson Libby, genius, mathematician, explorer, frequent partner and pal of Lazarus Long. Did you know that Libby was almost as old as Lazarus and, to use the phrase my son used to use to describe the stories he would read as a child, Libby 'had many interesting and exciting adventures'?
"Reality -- our reality -- what I've begun to call Reality One because its where I have my own personal plot of land, was never so exciting as some of the things Libby and Long did together. I don't know where to start describing their adventures. They've traveled in time, they've cleared new planets, and they've saved lost children and cats. Who could ask for more?
"My favorite time with Lazarus Long was during the exploration of a planet called Aphrodite. Beautiful place. Great weather. Pull your food right off the tree. We spent a long time there looking for the 'fly-in-the-ointment' as Lazarus called it.
"Life was so easy there that we would have called it Eden if there weren't already two other planets with that name. With so little to do, we spent a lot of time talking. Did you know that Lazarus Long was a closet optimist? He was. He always planned for the worst, but hoped for the best. Whenever things turned out better than that worst he had planned for, he was ecstatic. I think that was how he kept his positive attitude for all those centuries. That and the fact that he was just too darned ornery to give up and die.
"Since then, I've been to a bunch of realities and been a bunch of different people, which brings me to my problem. Did I mention Bill Hart? Another absolute genius, mathematician, physician, and computer engineer. He's the one who diagnosed my problem and is helping me work out a solution. Remember, I told you the Gizmo is still in beta-testing? There's that bug we haven't been able to locate and fix yet. The bug causes Acquired Spontaneous Reality Dysfunction Syndrome. Bill named it. My hope is he'll be able to cure it.
"Maybe I'd better explain. Acquired Spontaneous Reality Dysfunction Syndrome, or ASRDS as we call it for short -- not that ASRDS is very short either -- is a descriptive diagnosis. It describes how I seem to be having increased difficulty keeping my realities straight. Every now and then -- it's happening more and more frequently, which is what worries me -- I slip and become one of the people or creatures from one of the other realities I've visited. Now this would not be bad except for two things. First, when it happens I don't slip back into that reality, I become that person in this reality, or whatever reality I'm in. Second, I don't realize that I am anyone but that other person or creature.
"So why am I recording this story? Because I don't remember. I hope, no I pray that I will listen to this recording, whoever I am. It seems that I must be reminded of this reality to fully return to it."
The man turned off the recorder and with exaggerated care placed it in his coat pocket. Looking up he noticed that the bartender had actually been listening. "Get an earful? I hope you enjoyed." With obvious effort, given his inebriated state, he straightened his tie in an effort to regain what little dignity he still possessed and slide off the stool.
Embarrassed at being drawn in despite the obviously ludicrous story, the bartender looked away for a moment. When she surreptitiously glanced back all she saw was a slowly fading grin.