Robert climbed wearily up the stairs from the basement, where he had stowed his bike. He was looking forward to a long, hot bath.
“Hi, Robert! Have you heard about the meteor shower tonight?”
“Er, no ...?” Robert found it hard to speak in anything but monosyllables when his beautiful neighbour spoke to him. Caught in the hallway they shared, just back from a long ride and clad in damp lycra, he was even more self-conscious than usual.
“I thought you might like to come up and watch with me, on the terrace?”
“Well, I...” Robert cast about for some excuse to use that wouldn’t make him seem too rude. She pouted.
“Come on!” she lightly punched his shoulder. “We’ve shared this place for two years or more and I hardly know you. I’m almost certain you haven’t got a girlfriend in there,” (she indicated the door to Robert’s flat) “So why not come up and have a glass of wine or two? After you’ve changed, of course. I promise I won’t bite!”
Robert found no good reason to refuse. Or at least, none beyond the fact that he was already fantasizing about his neighbour on a regular basis and might struggle to keep from acting like a lovestruck puppy if he didn’t maintain some degree of separation between them.
“What time...?” he asked weakly. She smiled.
“The meteors are already starting to appear, but it’ll be better once it’s completely dark. Just come up when you’re ready!”
“Okay. Sounds good!” Somehow he managed to smile at her without combusting on the spot.
“Lovely!” She bounded away, back upstairs, leaving him with the impression that she’d been listening out for him and had come downstairs purely to speak with him. Wow.
Inside his flat, he closed and locked the door. “Oh crap,” he said aloud, experimentally. It didn’t seem to help much. Janet – professor Janet MacDonald – was interested in him? Now?
Okay, he thought: this is what I wanted. Isn’t it?
No time for that bath, now: he’d have to make do with a quick shower. How long would it take to get the nail varnish off his toes? He didn’t know. But just in case he ‘got lucky’ (the signs were there, but this was confusing) he’d better remove it. Too bad he couldn’t do anything about his shaved legs, other than maybe tell her “Hey - great: I’ll see you in three or four months?”
“Shit.” Why now? he thought.
Because the meteor shower is happening now? Well... maybe. Never mind, he thought: she probably won’t want to get inside my pants on a first date. Perhaps this isn’t a date! But, God... I hope it is. I think.
Janet was so far out of his league, it was comical. It was unthinkable! Yes, he decided: he must be mistaken. To hell with it, he thought. I won’t make a fool out of myself – and to make sure I play it cool, I’ll leave my toenails painted. I’ll just have a drink, have a look at the sky and get out as soon as I can.
Robert hurried to and fro, putting a quick skim of polish on his shoes and finding his best shirt. It had been concealed behind his new dress: the one he had left on display so as to provide motivation. A gorgeous vintage-style tea dress in wine-coloured stressed satin, it hung on the door to the kitchen, positioned as if to save him from himself whenever his thoughts turned to food. The dress was the reason for his current strict regime of cycling and dieting.
Involuntarily, his fingertips strayed over the lace detailing at the hem and his pulse quickened.
Damn it! I wish I could wear that for my date, he thought. Why can’t I look pretty for her? I’d love to be able to look pretty for somebody.
Life was not fair, Robert Carlisle decided, although perhaps it was a bit better this evening than usual. He cast about for a bottle to take and found something that looked plausible. One of the few pieces of knowledge for which he would have thanked his father: the plainer the label, the more expensive the wine.
Time to go upstairs.
Janet’s home was spread over the two upper levels of the building and included the rooftop terrace she had spoken of. Admiring the Edinburgh skyline in silhouette, Robert was impressed.
“Wow. What a view!”
“Yes, it’s quite something, isn’t it?” Janet already had a bottle of wine on the go, so she poured him a glass of that. She’d made appreciative noises over his offering, but he didn’t know whether she was just being a good hostess.
With a view like that, this place must have cost at least a million, he thought. It must be more than twice as big as my flat. I suppose it’s true about her making a fortune from that invention. Then he stopped thinking anything so mundane, as he saw his first meteor of the evening, and then another. In reds, oranges and yellows, they broke up, lighting up the sky like the best firework display in history. It was jaw-dropping.
They enjoyed the spectacle in silence for a long time. Then she moved closer and kissed him.
He started babbling about how a meteor shower precedes the major events in John Wyndham’s ‘The Day of the Triffids’.
“Maybe we should have, you know, watched with just one eye, in case we wake up tomorrow and discover that we’ve been blinded! I always told myself that’s what one ought to do. Just in case. Too late now, I suppose.”
Janet waited for his babbling to slow. At least he was talking to her, now.
“I can assure you, in my professional capacity,” she told him gravely, “that there are no such things as triffids.”
“Well I didn’t think there was such a thing as meteor showers like this!” he replied, gesturing. She had to kiss him again.
“Drink up,” she told him: and then poured him another glass.
He began to suspect that he was going to need it.
The kisses were good. In fact, they were pretty damn amazing. Robert felt himself being swept off his feet by her confidence, the wine, the amazing pyrotechnics above...
Get a grip, he told himself. She can’t be interested: not really.
He knew that Janet was an older woman, although you wouldn’t have believed it to look at her. From brief hallway conversations on various subjects during two years, he knew she had to be at least forty, to his mere twenty-nine. She had spoken of watching the Moscow Olympics on TV as a child; going on a ‘Ban the Bomb’ march; where she was when she learned that John Lennon had been killed. He felt like a child in her presence. She was almost impossibly clever: preeminent in some branch of physics that he couldn’t have named and the inventor of neosapphire – the miracle material that he understood was used in the manufacture of the new solar panels that covered the rooftops of half the world. One day, giving in to his infatuation, he’d looked her up on Wikipedia and learned that if she got even the tiniest bit of royalties from the solar panels that she had invented, she might be the wealthiest person in Edinburgh.
And yet... she was kissing him?
Robert was a junior manager in a call centre, a small cog in a financing business that was American-owned, nowadays. He’d started off as a ‘cubicle rat’ shortly after graduating, thinking the job was just going to pay the bills until he found something better, but there weren’t many jobs that demanded a degree in medieval art history. The interest in art remained just a hobby and the stop-gap became a career, of sorts. He’d moved up the ladder a little... and that was that.
Janet stopped kissing and interrupted his ruminations.
“Just in case we wake up and find that we’ve been struck blind, Day of the Triffids style, do you want to stay here tonight?”
“I’m... not sure,” he answered, huskily.
Maybe it’ll be dark enough that she won’t see my toes? He wondered. Maybe I can just dive into bed? Maybe I can keep my socks on? Maybe she’s tipsy enough not to notice? But what about the legs... the legs... God damn it, why did I have to shave my legs?
Robert had been shaving his legs ever since he’d been able to afford to live alone. He seldom slept in anything but a nightdress and didn’t even own any male sleepwear. For the first time in years, he felt that his femme life was impacting badly upon his ‘real’ life, rather than being a source of comfort.
Maybe I can convince her it’s a cycling thing: I could say I need hairless legs, or there’s a lot of unpleasant chafing. But of course that doesn’t explain the toenails. God damn it, why didn’t I remove the nail varnish?
“You look nervous,” she said.
“Well,” he mumbled, “Yes.”
“I thought the kissing was going pretty well,” Janet grumbled.
“Mmm. But I need to go.” Robert tried to extricate himself, gently.
“You really don’t.”
“I... need to go. Can I see you later?”
“You can see me now. If you like.” Janet smiled a sad smile.
“I’m... wow. Um. Thank you,” Robert floundered, “But I must go.”
“Are you wearing lingerie?”
“What!” Robert was horrified.
“I said, are you wearing lingerie?”
“No,” Robert replied in a small voice.
“Oh. Sorry,” Janet placed a hand on his forearm. “I just thought perhaps that was why you were reluctant to, you know, stay... and get undressed. And if that seems like a really weird thing to ask you out of the blue, it’s just that I recognise the branding on some of the cardboard boxes that the postman leaves in the hallway. I order from Figleaves myself, sometimes...”
Robert just blinked. His heart was pounding so hard, he could hear it.
“I’m not wearing lingerie,” he said at last, weakly. It wasn’t much of a denial, but would have to serve.
“Oh. Well I am,” she replied. “I’ll just have to be fabulous enough for both of us, won’t I? In fact, I rather hoped to get your opinion on this little number...”
She started undoing the buttons on her blouse. It was Robert’s undoing as well. He was helpless in the hands of this mature, self-assured and apparently accepting woman. They left the terrace, bound for her bedroom, while the shooting stars rained down.
In the space of perhaps three minutes, Robert Carlisle went from feeling like the luckiest man in the world, to fearing he was the world’s worst lover.
“Never mind, sweetie,” she said. “You don’t have to get it right first time. In fact, you don’t have to get it right in the first ten times, as long as you promise me you’ll keep on trying.”
He could have wept. Seeing this, she pulled him in for a kiss. Afterwards, she spoke: “You got a little bit too excited, I think. How long has it been?”
Robert had to think. “Seven years? No, eight.” That dreadful, misguided attempt to conform in his final year of university. It hadn’t been a happy time.
“What? Seriously?” Janet hugged him. “Baby, I’m surprised you lasted as long as you did. That’s quite a dry spell.”
He mumbled something apologetic.
“Hey! Don’t you dare go to sleep!” She snuggled in close, trying another tactic: “Tell me about the packages.”
“The lingerie, in the post.”
“Oh. You don’t mind?” Robert still couldn’t quite believe it.
“I don’t mind, sweetie.”
“Well, it won’t surprise you to learn that I’m a transvestite.”
“Woo... three syllables!” She nipped at his earlobe. “Careful: you might set a new personal record for communication.”
“I’ve never been able to talk.” He shrugged. “Not really talk to anybody.”
“What a waste! You’re cute! You’ve got a sweet face, you always smell clean and you have the best pedicure I’ve seen in a long time...”
“Oh, you noticed those?” Robert blushed, for about the hundredth time.
“Uh-huh. I think you’re cute little toes look lovely.” She kissed his neck. “Did you do them yourself?”
She shuffled down the bed, flinging the duvet aside. She inspected them closely in the half-light. “Gorgeous job. You can do mine sometime, if you like.”
“I’d love to.”
She kissed each toe, methodically, then slowly worked her way back up his his body, running her tongue up his left leg as she did so. Then she licked her way up his torso, until finally she lay atop him.
“Nice and smooth,” she commented.
“Er... you too,” he replied.
“What, you thought I might have a hairy chest?” she laughed – then moved so that her breasts hung down and nuzzled against his face and a nipple found its way to his mouth.
“Mngn,” he said, sucking. It seemed like an adequate sort of denial, considering the feelings his tongue was provoking.
“You never did give me your expert opinion on my underwear,” she complained presently, lazily plucking the nipple from his mouth, obliging him to speak.
“God, you were fantastic. What brand was it?”
Her bra was in the bed, where it had been discarded in the heat of the moment. She reached for it and showed him the label. “Aubade,” she said. It was a gorgeous half-cup design, in pink, with darker embroidery and a delicate bow nestled between the cups.
She laid it on his chest, positioned as if he were the one wearing the bra.
“I couldn’t really afford anything like this,” Robert lamented. Caught up in this strange night of revelations, he didn’t notice how quickly he’d gone from concealing everything, to having virtually no secrets at all.
“It’s beautiful,” he said as she traced the edges of each cup on his chest.
“So are you, sweetie,” she said. Then her eyes widened as she felt herself nudged by his erection. “Mister Carlisle, I do believe you’re getting ready for round two!”
Round two was better, and round three, sometime during the night, was better still.
Robert woke with a start, not quite knowing where he was.
He regarded the sleeping Janet almost fearfully. What was etiquette for the morning after, he wondered. Would she regret what had happened? Would she want him gone? Would they share an awkward breakfast?
He needn’t have worried. Moments later she stretched luxuriously, like a cat, and regarded him with a smug impression.
“We should have done that a long time ago,” she observed.
“Hmm. Better late than never?”
“Yes. Thank you. Give me a minute and I’ll get some coffee on.”
It was chilly in the rest of the flat as they’d left the terrace doors open all night. She found him a robe, and another for herself. The promised coffee was made and she defrosted some croissants as well.
“What do you want to do today?”
“I hadn’t really thought,” he replied.
“It’s Sunday. Where do you normally go on a Sunday? I never see you around the place.”
Robert hesitated, then told her: “I like to spend Sundays ‘en femme’. My last chance before another shitty week begins. You seldom saw me on Sunday because I generally stay inside, dressed.”
“I love how you say ‘dressed’ – it sounds as if everybody else is naked.”
Robert conceded the point. “It is a bit ridiculous, I suppose.”
“So what do you do, confined to your rooms?”
“Read magazines. Cook dinner. Pamper myself. I don’t know: just stuff.”
“I see! I’ve not got a lot on either,” she pressed, “so can I spend the day with my new girlfriend?”
Robert pondered the practicalities of this. It would take him at least an hour and a half to transform himself. He was a perfectionist and he was never very happy with his look. To have to reveal his femme self to Janet, so soon: not easy!
She sensed his discomfort. “Would you let me help you get ready? I’m a dab hand with a kohl pencil...”
Robert wondered if he wanted to allow somebody into his hideaway: his most secret place... but this wasn’t ‘somebody’... it was Janet. The woman he’d had a secret fascination for: who had invited him to spend the night and who wasn’t repelled by the thought of him in lingerie. She wanted to spend the day with him. Or rather, with his femme self. That mad, passionate night didn’t have to be a one-off! Wow. She wants me.
“What do I call you, when you’re ‘dressed’, sweetie? Roberta? Bobbie? Oooh... Bobbi with an ‘i’?”
“Yes. As in ‘Through the Looking Glass’.”
“So, you don’t like my name?”
“I think it’s adorable, but you don’t fuck like an Alice.”
“You never know with us quiet, bookish types,” he said. “We have the element of surprise on our side.”
They agreed to spend the day together, starting with a trip downstairs to transform Robert into Alice. Janet admired the tea dress and said she’d love to see him in it sometime soon, but it was a bit much for slobbing around the flat in. Robert ran a deep bath (made deeper still when Janet joined him) but he shooed her out so that he could shave. Asking permission, she went through to the bedroom and picked out some underwear for him.
“My God, lover...” she called out. “It’s like every day is a special day for you!”
“How do you mean?”
“Suspender belts, corsets... don’t you ever just wear a teeshirt bra and cotton panties?”
“Not really,” he confessed. “My ‘Alice time’ is limited, so I like to be aware of what I’m wearing. I don’t really go for comfort.”
She put her head around the bathroom door. “So, do you want to be uncomfortable today, baby?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Yum!” she replied, deciding upon the lemon-coloured corset that she had found.
Robert completed his lengthy shaving routine, dried off, moisturised and joined Janet in the bedroom. He was in a daze.
I still can’t believe she actually wants me to look like this! He thought.
It seemed that she did, though. Janet had picked out a taupe box pleat skirt for him to wear, and a blouse that closely matched the corset. He didn’t recognise it.
“This? I ran upstairs to fetch it. It should fit you and I think you’ll look delicious.”
“You don’t think the skirt is too short?” Robert fretted, “I’ve never actually worn it.”
“It’ll show off your cute legs, silly!” Janet insisted that they try it.
With some trepidation, Robert started dressing. The panties that matched the corset were simple enough and he found that he felt less self-conscious once he was wearing something. The corset came next.
“Oooh, can I help? I’ve always wanted to do this!” Janet heaved on the laces with gusto – something that Robert hadn’t been able to do when dressing alone.
“Have you never...” Robert found himself short of breath and had to try again. He needed to learn to breathe properly in the corset. “Have you never worn one?”
“No. What’s it like?”
“It’s amazing. It affects every little movement. It forces me to think about my posture. You said we were going to slob around, but nobody can be a slob in a tight corset.”
“You look adorable,” Janet prompted. “Let’s see you with the stockings on.”
Robert complied: then had to fight her off. “Not yet! I’m not dressed! If you want to meet Alice, you need to be patient.”
Reluctantly, Janet waited.
Robert finished dressing and sat at his dressing table. Janet watched in fascination as his painstakingly-applied makeup altered his appearance. She helped when invited.
“Bloody hell,” she complained, “Now I feel under-dressed...”
Robert completed his makeup, put on a necklace and then opened a cabinet to reveal three wigs, each resting on stands. He chose the brunette that most closely matched his own colouring, hoping this would seem more natural to Janet.
He placed it on his head, fussed with it for a minute and turned to her, anxiously.
“Hi, Alice,” she said.
“Hi,” he replied.
“Alice, I have to ask...”
“What is it?” He hated the awkwardness between them.
“Am I allowed to kiss you, when you’re... Alice?”
“Do you want to?” He smiled a shy, hopeful smile.
“Yes. May I?”
He shrugged; nodded. She kissed him: it started out as a brief, tender kiss but she had to prolong it when she tasted his lipstick. Her tongue invaded his mouth.
“Don’t you dare mess up my makeup!” he objected. “You saw how long it took!”
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll let you keep it on for a while, but God: you’re hard to resist.”
They read together on the sofa, she frequently stroking him and interrupting his thoughts with whispers of how pretty he looked. After a while she fetched some nail care products and worked upon his hands. She filed the nails slowly and carefully, teasing him with remarks about how nice those nails would feel scratching down her back. She left them short but beautifully tidy, then added a coat of ridge filler.
“If I stop now, you won’t have to remove anything for work tomorrow,” she suggested.
“Okay,” he sighed.
“Or I could give them a clear gloss – but it might be a bit noticeable.”
She applied just the matte layer. “At least this way you’ll still have some on. You can think of me when you’re at work tomorrow.” She winked.
“I doubt I’ll be thinking about much else, to be honest.”
He made lunch: a light meal that seemed appropriate, given the constriction of his waist. Afterward Janet cleared away the dishes, then pushed him down on the sofa and climbed on top of him.
“Sorry Alice,” she said, “but if I have to think about you in that corset for one more second, while not being allowed to play with you, I’m going to go crazy!”
“Mmnf,” He said, kissed into submission. A questing hand found its way under his skirt and tugged his panties down far enough that his erection sprang free...
In the week that followed he doubted that he achieved anything worthwhile at work. He slipped into daydreams about Janet and the games they shared; couldn’t wait for the working day to end. Returning to his flat, he didn’t attempt to transform himself completely, but would shower and put on clean clothes: lingerie beneath a shirt and trousers. Then he’d go upstairs, or invite her down to his place and they would share a meal, spend some quality time together... and go to bed. Robert thought the sex was astonishingly good, although he still had a tendency to a little too excited. He got into the habit of attending to her needs before his own, just to be sure.
At last it was Friday night, which meant it didn’t matter if they stayed up late. Janet demanded a visit from Alice and prepared a meal while Robert fussed over his transformation.
Robert, in his Alice persona, climbed the stairs to her front door and found it ajar. Delicious smells greeted him and he realised he was starving! He gave a knock, just to be polite, and went on in.
“Alice!” Janet hugged him. “I’ve missed you.”
She pulled out a chair and Robert sat. “Dinner’s ready... just give me a minute...”
The food was good, but the company was better. Robert was entranced. He tried his best to project natural, feminine table manners and was rewarded with encouraging smiles from Janet. He took smaller bites than he might have, and little sips of wine. He ate less than he might have liked, but it seemed appropriate. (Also, it got him one step closer to that tea dress hanging on his kitchen door...)
He enjoyed the girl talk he shared with Janet and sensed that she did too. He still couldn’t quite believe it – didn’t understand why this gorgeous woman wanted to indulge in his fantasy games – but apparently she did, so he didn’t protest.
They didn’t have a dessert – just an espresso, on the terrace. “No meteors tonight, but the view is better, I think,” Janet teased. Then she took him to bed and did her best to fuck his brains out.
When he woke it was early, but he found Janet had left the bed. He padded through to the living room, where she was watching television with the sound turned right down. There had been an earthquake in Quito and the news channels were showing nothing else. It looked to have been a bad one: collapsing buildings and fires were bad enough, but there had been mudslides too. Whole, sprawling suburbs seemed to have been wiped away. With depressing regularity, newscasters reported revised death tolls that mounted steadily and soon passed twenty thousand. It was obvious the number would go a lot higher in the days to come.
They both cried. The images were too upsetting to do otherwise, but despite the newness of their relationship Robert felt comfortable crying with her.
“Urgh! This is too depressing,” Janet exclaimed at last. “You want to go back to bed?”
Robert shrugged. “Okay.”
“Well, don’t force yourself,” she exclaimed, then brightened: “Hey – I’ve got a present for you!”
The gift box she handed him was from Rigby and Peller. It contained a beautiful underwear set: bra, briefs and suspender belt in bottle-green silk. She handed him some stockings to complete the set.
“Try ’em on?”
“Oh, this must have cost a fortune,” Robert breathed.
“You’re damn right it did, missy,” she grinned. “It’s kind of incumbent upon you to put out now, to show your appreciation.”
“Alright,” said Robert, feeling the familiar fluttering of butterflies that accompanied his most intense dressing experiences. “But I don’t have a gift for you,” he said sadly.
“You can be my present,” she said, simply. “Now, shall we?”
Janet came in with a mug of coffee. Still in his bra, suspender belt and stockings, Robert sleepily sat up in bed and accepted the drink.
“Sweetie, I need to tell you about my research.”
Robert arranged some pillows behind him and sipped his coffee. “Do you think I’ll be able to understand you?”
“Don’t fret. I’ll say it in words of one... thing.”
“Well, I was going to say ‘syllable’,” Janet dissolved in laughter.
“It’s you. You always used to talk to me in such dreadful, stunted sentences!”
“Sorry,” Robert said. After a moment he grinned.
“Don’t you dare!”
“What?” He couldn’t stop smiling.
“Stop playing the strong silent type, twinkletoes!”
He blushed. “I was so tongue-tied. I was nuts about you!”
“You were? But you’re over it now?”
“Am! I am nuts about you!”
“Well okay then. Now are you going to listen nicely?”
“Oooh, I like that. Hold that thought. No, wait: don’t distract me...”
Janet settled herself on the foot of the bed, cross-legged and facing him. He was about to make some quip about hoping that her students didn’t get one-to-one instruction such as this, but he sensed that this wasn’t a time for jokes.
“You don’t need to understand anything about quantum states, superposition, string theory, subatomic particles or anything else – or you won’t need to if you’ll just take my word for it that I studied all those things and had a breakthrough.”
“Okay...?” Robert sipped his coffee again. It seemed best just to let her talk.
“Basically, a few years ago, some people I work with found something odd in the way that matter and energy tend to organise themselves. In layman’s terms, we found the blueprint for the universe.”
“What does it say?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean... what was on the blueprint?”
“Oh. Well... anything you like.”
“What does that mean?”
“Good question. It means one can make changes to the substructure of the universe.”
“What kind of changes?”
“Well... anything, really. Of course, that sounds incredibly risky. A person who edited the universe would have to take precautions to make sure they didn’t switch off the sun, or something.”
“Ow!” Robert had spilled hot coffee on his thigh.
“Sorry, sweetie. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“But... switch off the sun!”
“Yes. Or change the gravitational constant, such that stars never formed out of gas clouds, or give photons mass so that they cause space-time ripples. Or make oxygen a solid, or something equally silly.”
“That...” Robert tried to think through the implications. “That sounds like the ultimate weapon.”
“Creepy that you thought of it as a weapon first, darling,” she chastised. “But yes: it’s dangerous. So I decided that the ability to tinker with the substructure of the universe couldn’t be allowed to fall into the wrong hands.”
Robert gestured for her to continue. God, she’s sexy when she talks about science, he realised.
“So I changed the universe. Edited, I call it. I edited the universe to be one where what we called the energy state law means that only one universe editing machine can exist at a time. Think of it as taking the ‘phone off the hook. Nobody else can call, because the line is busy.”
“So, what are you telling me?” Robert laughed, “That you saved the universe?”
She watched him, alertly. “Yes and no. I’m telling you that I control the universe.”
“I’d better get used to doing as you say, then,” said Robert playfully. “Not that I minded before, but now I know you’re in charge of the universe and everything...”
“Stop it, honey: this is serious.”
He subsided, chastised. She certainly made him feel as though she was in charge of his universe... but this wasn’t the time to tell her. He waited.
“Alright. So you understand that I have the only known device that can read and write the ground-rules for the physical universe.”
“What about the others on the project?” Robert objected, “You said there were others.”
“Good question: give that boy a coconut! I was the first to understand exactly what we had the power to do, so I was able to lock them out. The rest of the team were busy with a relatively basic experiment to do with predicting when the atoms in a caesium sample would decay. Radioactive decay, that is. It was good science, but I’d already seen hints of where we might go and I knew that somebody might make the same intuitive leap that I had, so I went ahead and did my first edit. You could say that I ‘encrypted’ the universe via the energy state law, meaning that no future edits would be possible, except by me.”
Robert frowned. “Weren’t the others upset?”
“No. They just live in a universe where editing is impossible and the early results with caesium decay could be put down to a calibration error.”
“Leaving you with a way to edit the universe.”
“Yes. I’m not much of a team player, to be honest.”
“So, what did you do? Assuming this is all true. I’m pretty sure it isn’t April the first today and I’m crazy about you, so let’s say I believe you...”
“I brought some of the equipment home and set it up. I designed in some safety settings and I got editing.”
“What did you edit?” Robert pressed.
“Oh, a little tweak here, another one there. Mostly I tried things, learned from them and then changed everything right back again. I learned a lot about how small changes to reality can produce unexpected outcomes.”
“I wondered if we might get more out of clean energy if hydrogen had a better specific impulse, so I tweaked it a bit. Then I peeked out into the local universe and discovered that the Germans had overrun Europe.”
“The Nazis! Christ...”
“No, they weren’t Nazis... some other flavour of nationalistic Germans – and it was all over by 1934.”
“So you’re a time traveller as well?”
“Only in the same sense that you are: one day at a time, forwards – with an interest in what the history books say. No, I just saw the aftermath. It was a different universe. The cars ran cleaner and the politics of Europe were a good deal different, but it was still the same old world, more or less. I set things back to our tried-and-true universe and that was the end of that.”
“This is so weird.”
Janet worked her way closer, until she was straddling him and set down his coffee mug.
“Weird but good, though, right?”
“Um. Good. Yes,” he decided. “Weird but good.”
“So are you.”
“Don’t distract me,” he objected, as she began to grind her pelvis against him, experimentally. “You just told me the craziest story ever and you want to leave it at that?”
“No, you’re right. I just... find it hard to resist you, in those stockings. Sorry sweetie,” she paused. “Put your knickers on. Let’s go edit the universe!”
“I need you to come with me, into my mad scientist’s lair, sort of thing.” She left he bed and flung him a robe. “Come on!”
“Okay,” he said, hurrying after her.
There wasn’t much space in the office where she had set up her machinery. Hoses and bundles of wires snaked their way across the floor, running into a machine that looked a little bit like a washing machine with its casing removed.
“Get yourself one of the chairs from the bedroom if you want,” she said.
He did so.
“Is that, you know... it?” he asked, indicating the strange machine.
“Yes, it’s mostly just a helium cooling unit, but inside is what we call a quantum foam generator.”
“Please, don’t expect me to understand any of this.”
“Okay, sweetie. You don’t need to understand. You don’t even need to watch – but I didn’t want to leave you outside because if you’re more than about seven metres from the quantum foam generator, you’ll change when the universe changes. I might lose you!”
“Please be careful!”
“Always. But this is important. Would you like to help?”
“Sure, if I can.”
“Okay. This computer here? It’s bog-standard. Use it like you would any other computer. Browse the Internet.”
“Okay. What am I looking for?”
“You never know. News, stock prices, fashions, celebrity gossip, geography? Anything that seems out of the ordinary. I’ve set up that machine with masses of subscriptions to news feeds, so you might find that it tries to bring things to your attention in a pop-up. If so, look at them and decide if I need to know.”
“Well... I’ll try!”
She was already intent on a computer screen of her own, displaying what seemed to be a spreadsheet of some kind. She appeared to be adding new pages, interlinked and with horrifically complicated formulae.
Robert turned to his task. Ten minutes later: “I think I found something!”
“That’s interesting, sweetheart,” Janet smiled when she looked up, “but I haven’t started editing yet. I’m still planning.”
“Oh. I thought, maybe... get this: the Astronomer Royal says that the meteor shower seen over northern Europe was unprecedented, perhaps in all recorded history.”
“Ah,” Janet patted his stocking-clad knee. “You’re not just a pretty face, are you?”
“Did I find something significant?”
“Well, yes. You correctly identified an example of the kind of thing you’re supposed to be looking for and telling me about. Did it come from one of the pop-up windows?”
“Well... you caught me. You found my fingerprints on the universe. I engineered the meteor shower thing,” Janet admitted.
“I made it happen,” she shrugged. “Edited the universe to move a gaggle of minor asteroids onto a vector where they were bound to strike our atmosphere and give us a show. That computer you’re using is inside the bubble, so anything it archives remains stable, whereas any information you get from the Internet is from the new reality: the universe in which there was a spectacular meteor shower last week.”
Robert was staring at her, wide-eyed.
“Hey, it brought us together, didn’t it?” Janet was unapologetic.
“Yes, but... bombarding the Earth with asteroids! Just for us?”
“Alright, maybe it was a bit extreme, but I really like you and I was getting tired of waiting for you to notice me.”
“Oh, I noticed you. I just didn’t have the nerve to speak to you. But... asteroids, Janet?”
“Oh alright! Give me a moment.” Janet called up some different files on her computer, copied something and pasted it into the big spreadsheet.
“Hold on to your... adorable silk bra,” she said, and winked as she threw a switch.
The ‘washing machine’ device hummed; there was a hiss and frost formed on some of the pipework that connected the machine to a bank of gas cylinders.
“There,” she said. “The edit of the universe that produced the meteor shower has been reverted.”
“You mean, it never happened?” Robert pondered. “But I still remember it.”
“Of course you do, angel cakes,” Janet replied, in a tone that she might once have reserved for a first-year student who claimed that heavy objects fall faster than light ones. “You’re within seven metres of the generator. Remember what I told you?”
“So... I remember it and you remember it, but nobody else does?”
“That’s right. I’d been hoping to undo that edit, anyway.”
“Because the meteor shower may have distracted drivers, or caused people to fall off ladders, or something. Undoing the edit means I don’t have any such accidents on my conscience.”
“So it never happened?”
“It only ever happened for us.”
“That’s... astonishing.” He stroked her cheek.
“And that’s how it’s done. More or less.”
“Okay. What do the numbers mean?”
“All kinds of things. That one is Planck’s constant.” She ignored his look of incomprehension and flipped to another page. “This one is the upper wavelength at which light is visible to the human eye. This one is called the Rydberg constant, detailing the highest inverse photon wavelength that can be emitted from the hydrogen atom. This one...” (she searched briefly and found something amid another table of numbers) “...is the temperature at which water reaches its maximum density. In my early days with the machine I did a lot of nerdy things where I experimented with physical fundamentals. Rather childish, really.”
She paused. “You don’t need to know all this, do you?”
“No. But let’s see if I understand: this is like a set of rules,” he hazarded, “so you rewrite the rulebook and then impose the rules on the universe?”
“A nice analogy, except that many of them aren’t hard-and-fast rules like the ones I showed you. They might be probabilities, tendencies, likelihoods... and once you’re at the quantum level, you can’t just roll the dice and see the outcome, because all outcomes exist simultaneously.”
“Yes. So we just tweak something and from the superposition of states we just choose the outcome that looks like it serves best.”
“We.” He smiled at her fondly.
“Alright,” she conceded. “I do.”
“And... what serves us – you – best, today?”
“Today,” she raised an eyebrow, “we’re editing the universe into one where the Quito earthquake never happened, my little one.”
“Holy shit. Can you do that?”
“I think so. It won’t be easy, but I think we can manage it.”
“And if we can’t?”
“If we try an edit and you start reading magazine articles about care and feeding of your pterodactyl, or if strawberries suddenly become poisonous or something, we’ll just undo the edit and try again.”
It took five tries before Janet pronounced herself satisfied. The trouble with earthquakes, as they learned together, was that they need to happen. Short of altering the arrangement of tectonic plates that made up the Earth’s crust, there were always going to be earthquakes along the faultline that Quito sat atop. When they edited the universe into one where an earthquake had happened a hundred years earlier, the death toll was far lower, but there were a lot of “missing ancestors” and people who had never lived because they had lost an ancestor in the earlier quake. Equally, preventing the earthquake simply meant that a larger one would happen at some point in the future. Janet called all such intervention “playing God” and would not permit herself to accept any such edit.
She was like a woman possessed, driven by her need to achieve the goal she had set herself. Robert did what he could to help, which wasn’t much, in between edits, until he had an idea: why not change the nature of the earthquake, such that it was preceded by a lengthy series of foreshocks? This wasn’t terribly likely, but neither was it impossible and as such it was possible to locate such an outcome from within the foam of probability.
Quito was still largely in ruins at the end of their efforts, but the big earthquake hit only after almost a week of quakes that steadily increased in magnitude. This had given the government time to put plans in place and many people had fled the area of their own accord. Neighbouring countries had mobilised to help and relatively few people died: perhaps five percent of the previous total. It was still a tragedy, but Robert and Janet knew at last that they had they had done some good. Near the city centre the 16th-century Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco survived almost untouched, which was attributed to a previously unknown quirk of the local geology, plus solid colonial construction. Almost as an afterthought, Robert had suggested that Janet should pluck this possibility out of the foam of alternatives: as the lovers watched the news in the days to come they saw the old complex became a centrepiece in the relief effort. People called it the ‘Miracle of Quito’ and it gave them hope.
“Nice work, sweet-cakes,” said Janet, full of approval. “You have an artistic touch.”
“I still can’t believe it,” said Robert. “We were like comic-book heroes, or something.”
“Only without the tights,” Janet grinned.
“Speak for yourself! I was in stockings,” Robert reminded her.
“Just how I like you,” she replied.
When he thought about Janet and her control of a godlike power, Robert couldn’t help thinking that she seemed surprisingly ordinary. She was beautiful, but she acted as though she didn’t know it. She was also quite vulnerable, constantly fretting that Robert might be unhappy and might suddenly decide to leave her. His repeated assurances to the contrary did little to help.
Another of Janet’s qualities that made her an unlikely deity was her sense of right and wrong. She remained uncorrupted by the obvious power of the Machine and she agonised over edits that affected the lives of others. One obvious exception suggested itself: the solar panels that she had invented. Robert asked her about them.
“The whole neosapphire thing?” She made a face, as if to dismiss it as nothing of significance. “I was trying for a clean energy source: solar panels that grew naturally as crystals. I edited the universe to permit a new crystalline form of aluminium oxide – a cheap and abundant material. Under the new rules of the universe it’s very simple to give aluminium oxide a nudge and convince it to form neosapphire. That’s conductive, so when a photon hits a lump of the stuff, electrons in the valence band become excited, it generates free electricity – but unlike previous forms of photovoltaic cell, it’s not fragile and it doesn’t require complicated manufacture, so the world gets cheap, clean electricity.”
“Not so cheap if you hold the patent, though?” Robert ventured, hoping not to cause offence.
“Perhaps not, but the thing was... I did the edit and then sat back and waited for somebody to “discover” what great solar cells you could make... and nobody did. I waited almost a year and nothing happened. The solar energy crowd was pursuing ever-higher efficiencies with exotic materials but nobody was looking for a cheap, low-cost substitute. In the end I got the University’s technology spinoff team involved. It looked like they were going to spend years doing small-scale experiments, so I showed them how to dope aluminium oxide so it forms naturally into neosapphire wafers, ready for use. I let the University to handle the intellectual property, but they insisted that I had to take a share. I didn’t expect neosapphire to take off as quickly as it did, but I’m very pleased with the result. Even where unlicensed neosapphire is being made and we’re not getting royalties... at least it’s generating clean power.”
“You saved the planet!” Robert exclaimed.
“I wouldn’t say it’s saved,” she frowned “but it’s a little bit better.”
“And you made a fortune.”
“Well, I don’t really need to work anymore – but I don’t always act in self-interest.” The beautiful professor paused, but ultimately decided to divulge a secret: “You know that business about female mosquitoes becoming resistant to malaria? That’s down to me.”
“But you’re a physicist!”
“Yes. I didn’t attempt to genetically engineer the mosquito. To do that, I’d have needed a lifetime to master biology and epidemiology. Instead, I edited the universe into one where female mosquitoes don’t carry malaria and I caught a few samples...”
Robert frowned. “Why just the female mosquitoes?”
“Male mosquitoes don’t feed on blood, silly: they only like plant nectar.”
“Ah, well of course! The sugar-and-spice male of the species,” Robert laughed, “and the blood-sucking evil female!”
“Have a care who you mock, dearest,” the professor cautioned with a grin: “I’ll turn you into a toad.”
“So you fetched mosquitoes over from a different universe and released them in ours?”
“Yes. Although you make that sound simple. I had edit into a world where mosquitoes don’t carry malaria, travel to Africa, catch a batch mozzies – using my own skin as bait – box them up, smuggle them back into the UK, edit the universe back to normal while they were in the Machine room, travel back to Africa, release the mozzies and then come home. And it didn’t work, the first time I tried, so I had to do it all again.”
“But you’re making inroads into malaria, now?” Robert was astonished. “People have been trying to achieve that for decades!”
Janet shrugged. “My girls seem to be doing well,” she said. “They’re gradually replacing the old variety.”
“You are unbelievable,” Robert said. “And on behalf of the people of planet Earth, I would like to offer you a backrub, to show our appreciation.”
“Make it a massage, sweetie,” she replied, “and you’ve got a deal.”
“Do I recall that it’s your birthday next weekend?” Janet asked.
“I know just what I’d like to give you – if you agree.
“I have breast forms. I can go and fetch them, if you like.”
She shook her head. “I didn’t mean I’d buy you falsies, however good they might be. I mean the real thing.”
“How?” Robert looked apologetic as well as uncomfortable. “I don’t want surgery... oh, you’re talking about editing me!”
“Something like that. If you agree, I’m going to have to snoop into a lot of quantum foam, I reckon, but with any luck we could have some fun on Saturday.”
Robert was silent for a little while. Then: “If you change me... will I still love you?”
Janet all but crushed him with her embrace. “I love you too!” she exclaimed, covering him with kisses.
Eventually she addressed his question. “Honey, the last thing I want is a universe where you don’t love me. If I produce that, I’ll undo the edit.”
Robert was intrigued, but a little bit afraid. “It seems like a lot of trouble to go to,” he objected weakly. “You could just, I don’t know... buy me some underwear, or something.”
“You’d like that, would you?” Janet grinned. “Alright, my pretty little Alice gets some lingerie... as well.”
It took Janet far longer to give Robert breasts than she would have imagined. At the weekend she was only able to give him an ‘IOU’. They celebrated anyway, with a homemade cake. It was a soggy disaster in the middle and Robert was cheered tremendously to discover something that Janet wasn’t good at. They shared a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and then she handed him a giftwrapped box. The nightdress inside was exquisite, and Janet explained that she had chosen this rather than a bra and panties because she was still hoping for a breakthrough on “Operation Boob Job” which might alter his size.
It was almost three weeks later when that breakthrough came and she shook him awake excitedly, to share the news.
“I was an idiot,” she said, “I didn’t understand at all! I’ve just discovered a fundamental property of space!”
“Slow down!” Robert blinked sleepily. “What have you done?”
“I’ve discovered that space isn’t a single thing at all, but a collection of different things.”
“I should have seen it, but I didn’t think! I was just like one of those poor old astronomers in ancient times that thought the Earth must be the centre of the universe!”
“What have you found?”
“An edit only affects a localized area. It doesn’t extend to infinity!”
“So space is composed of bubbles of reality – each with its own rules. When I said I was editing the universe, I was actually only editing the rules inside one bubble!”
“You’re sexy when you get excited like this,” Robert observed, deciding his part in the conversation wasn’t really working and all but giving up on the science lesson.
“Thank you. And I love you seeing you in my pyjamas. But listen: I found out how big the bubble is, or wants to be.”
“Wants to be?”
“Like a soap bubble. Soap bubbles are lazy: they automatically seek the most efficient way to be. If you’re a soap bubble, you want to be a sphere. And the universe or rather its local bubble of rules also seeks the most efficient way to exist.”
Robert sighed, accepting that there was chance of getting back to sleep.
“Okay. And that means...?”
“That means when we do an edit in the quantum foam, the universe does the rest, making everything make sense. And the local universe is lazy, like a soap bubble. It doesn’t change anything if it doesn’t have to and it accommodates change where necessary. Laziness is easiest, so inertia prevails.”
Robert stared up at the ceiling. Will she stop if I kiss her? Probably not. He waved for her to continue.
“The beauty of the universe is clear to me now: each bubble is probably anchored around a massive object, such as a star. Certainly, our bubble is concentric with the solar system. And in between each star, in the physical universe, you find...?”
Janet looked at him sternly.
She hit him with a pillow.
“In between stars you just get vacuum, which is the safest, easiest way to handle the problem of intersections or tradeoffs between reality bubbles. I can’t prove it yet, but quite possibly each star system has the potential to have its own version of reality, with different local rules.”
“So you never were editing the universe,” Robert said warily.
“No,” she admitted. “Only everything inside the orbit of Neptune, or thereabouts.”
“It means I finally worked out why the little project I was working on fizzled every time. No matter how hard I poked and prodded the quantum foam, I never did manage to see a universe that gave me what I wanted.”
Robert had no idea what she was talking about. “So... why did it fizzle?”
“I think it was the Pioneer plaques.”
“Remember those American space probes in the 1970s that showed a naked man and woman on them, in case aliens should someday find them?”
“Oh, okay. Those. So?”
“When I tried my edit, the quantum foam always collapsed, as a result of a discrepancy – reality on the outside of the bubble that challenged the reality within. It meant the lazy reality bubble couldn’t form a comfortable shape that accommodated the changes I was trying to establish. Instead, it was making these weird, elongated bubbles that stretched out into deep space. It was only when I was trying to work out what was special about two apparently random patches of space that I discovered what they were: the locations of Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11. That allowed me to understand what was going on with the bubbles.”
“But what,” Robert yawned mightily, “was wrong with the Pioneer Plaques?”
“The plaques show what a typical man and woman look like – and they don’t show breasts on the man.”
“What? Yes they do. I remember the design.”
“And the man had breasts?”
“Of course! Everybody has breasts!”
“Then it worked,” said Janet.
She started to unbutton Robert’s pyjamas, to reveal his breasts.
“Oh, wow... yum,” she said, beginning to nuzzle him.
Robert stopped her. “Sorry but... what are you saying? I’ve always had breasts. Or at least, they started appearing when I was around twelve, like everybody’s.”
“Sure, honey,” said Janet. “Believe what you want.” She caught a nipple between her teeth.
Robert sighed a happy sigh. He lay back, until –
He pushed her away and sat up, refastening the pyjama top. He looked at her in horror.
“I’m an edit,” he stated, simply.
“Everything’s an edit,” Janet replied.
“You changed me!” It was an accusation.
“We agreed,” Janet began to explain – then realised this wasn’t true: not in this universe. “It was for your birthday,” she explained, lamely.
“But,” Robert felt betrayed. “I’m me.” English just didn’t have the words to describe how he felt. He didn’t exactly feel violated, because he knew he’d always been this way. Yet with just as much certainty, he knew that she had changed him and the world around him.
“Do you still love me?” she asked.
“I still love you,” he conceded.
“Are you still a transvestite?”
“Yes,” he admitted.
“How does that work out? I mean, doesn’t everybody wear bras where you come from?”
“There are different fashions,” Robert shrugged. “A man’s halter is usually designed for firm support and flattening. It doesn’t show off cleavage. I like the feminine ones. Plus of course, a man’s breasts are usually smaller, so I use a bit of padding when I’m dressing.”
“Can I look at your breasts again?”
“You can look at mine,” Janet offered.
“Fucking hell: you changed me!” Robert spat. “How dare you?”
“What feels different?” Janet asked.
“Nothing at all...” Robert wavered. “But you changed me.”
“Sweetie, I do believe we’re having our first row,” Janet said, sadly.
They argued back and forth for a long time; both cried. They discussed possibilities, although Janet wisely avoided suggesting she might edit Robert back to ‘normal’. As far as he was concerned, he was ‘normal’, though if Janet was to be believed, his view of normal didn’t feature in the bog-standard universe.
Eventually they had to agree that life was unfair, even if you had a machine that allowed reality to be reconfigured. Like all lovers, their thoughts turned to reconciliation of a more physical nature.
“I think we should get naked now,” Janet proposed.
“Okay,” said Robert. “If you’re the lover I remember.” He started to undress.
Janet admired Robert’s chest, stroking experimentally. His nipples weren’t as large as hers, but they were larger than she remembered them. They filled out a little as a result of her touch.
“I’m still mad at you,” said Robert.
“Okay, just give me a second,” said Janet, leaning in and suckling at his left breast.
“I’m still... mad...” Robert gasped.
“Uh-huh,” mumbled Janet. “It’s all my fault. Sorry baby.” She switched to his right breast.
“You make me feel so good,” Robert muttered.
Janet straddled him and kept on licking and sucking. “Does it always feel this good?” she asked.
“Always... fantastic,” Robert confessed, frantically trying to undo Janet’s blouse so he could do some licking and sucking of his own.
“It’s the first time, for me,” Janet said.
“Huh?” Robert didn’t understand.
“You never had these before today,” Janet said, tweaking his nipples, “so I’m enjoying them for the first time.”
“This is so weird.”
“Maybe. To me you’re a slightly different you, and to you I’m a slightly different me,” Janet frowned. “Also, I worked really hard to give you these and I’ve just made the scientific discovery of the century – not that I’ll ever be able to tell anybody – so I’m caught between celebrating and needing a consolation fuck. And here we are, together... and your body is getting me really hot!”
Robert wasn’t quite satisfied.
“Does this mean there’s a mass of alternate universes out there and that I’ve traded places with another self?”
Janet shook her head. “There are only two universes: the stable ‘bubble’ that exists in the immediate vicinity of the Machine and everything outside it. An edit makes a direct change, not a copy. If you could understand the science, cutie-pie, I could prove to you that I am the only Janet there is. But since I don’t want to wait twelve years or more while you go and study quantum physics, I suggest you shut up and screw me. Now!”
Later, they went out for a walk. Robert concealed a balconette bra beneath a black sweater. Its support made him a little bit bustier than the other men they passed, but not enough to be noticeable. Janet kept kissing and nuzzling him. She looked like the cat that got the cream.
“So much eye-candy!” she exclaimed. A jogger passed them, his halter not quite doing enough to suppress a rhythmic jiggle that Janet felt compelled to stare at. A builder tugged at a strap before bending to pick up a bag of tools. The Barrista that made their coffee at Artisan Roast looked nice... Robert elbowed Janet in the ribs.
“Try not to behave like a yokel. You’re in my universe now, Janet!”
“It’s a lovely universe,” Janet answered. “But drink up and let’s get back. This is getting me really horny!”
They had more fantastic sex. Robert, always preferring a passive role, was pleased to find that he didn’t have to do anything much at all: simply letting Janet play with his breasts was enough to drive her wild. She found sex with their breasts pressing together amazing; she said all kinds of appreciative things. Robert, coming from a universe where men’s breasts were commonplace, was delighted to accept her compliments. She made him feel special.
Although she didn’t want to go through another argument, Janet knew that sooner or later she was going to have to face up to a problem. They were in her office-turned-laboratory and Robert was comparing the information held on her computer with that from the world outside. Robert learned that the vestigial male breast was not the norm elsewhere - or at least, not in what Janet called the ‘bog-standard universe’. Men still had nipples, he found, but that was all.
“There’s a problem, honey,” Janet began.
“What is it?” Robert looked up, apprehensively.
Janet pointed at a graph she had plotted. It showed a bulbous shape, somewhat like a flattened teardrop. “This is the current shape of the bubble.”
“Our reality bubble?”
“Yes. It’s been distorted by the existence of those two Pioneer plaques. It’s actually under quite a lot of strain.”
Robert scratched his chin. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
“You’re right. I don’t think it’s sustainable.”
“Meaning,” Janet said, “we’re doing nasty things to the fabric of spacetime, and we’re heading into unknown territory.”
“And bubbles under stress...” Robert swallowed. “They tend to pop, right?”
“Maybe.” Janet stroked his face and regarded him with sad eyes. “I’m going to have to revert the edit.”
“But... what happens to me?” Robert yelped. “I don’t want to disappear back into a universe that doesn’t exist!” More quietly, he went on: “It sounds like dying. It scares me.”
“So stay here with me, inside the stable bubble around the Machine. You won’t change when the universe changes, if you’re close to the Machine.”
Robert regarded her. “Can I stay?”
“Of course! I’d rather you did. Love you, sweetie.”
“I love you too. But this is so weird.”
“I know, honey. I’ve got a lot to apologise for, but right now I want to revert the universe, while you’re safe in here. Is that alright?”
Robert understood that this meant he would be living in a world where men were flat-chested. He shuddered. “Do it,” he said at last.
She threw the switch and the Machine hummed.
“Done,” she replied and they left the office.
Robert turned on the TV and flipped through the channels, looking at the typical men in his new reality. “So: now I’m a freak,” he said bleakly, folding an arm defensively over his breasts.
“You’re beautiful. You’re just not of this Earth.”
“You won’t be ashamed to be seen with me?”
“No. To be honest, by the criteria of the bog-standard universe, you look kind of androgynous. You might get called ‘miss’ once in a while... but I suppose a tranny might like that.”
“Hmm.” Robert really didn’t know how he felt about that. Cross that bridge when I come to it, he thought.
Slipping behind Janet, he began to massage her shoulders. “You say you did this as a birthday present for me?”
“That was the idea, yes.”
“And yet it seems to me that you get all the benefit.”
She stiffened, and he went on: “Okay, I’ve got vestigial breasts... but as far as my memories are concerned, I’ve had them since I entered my teens and they’re nothing special: everybody had them where I came from. You’re nuts about them, but to me they’re just ordinary.”
“So what are you saying?” Janet asked anxiously.
“Worst birthday present ever, darling!” Robert exclaimed. “You edit the rules of the local universe to get me breasts and you’re the one who ends up enjoying them.”
“You’re not really mad at me, are you?” Janet asked in a small voice.
“No,” he sighed. “Just... God, Janet: you might be a brilliant physicist but you still have a lot to learn about human beings.”
Robert returned to work. Same job, same people... he began to feel that his initial sense of having been thrust into the wrong universe was an over-reaction. He concealed his bust with a flesh-toned elastic bandage and started wearing sweaters. So far, so good, he thought, although he wondered how he would get by in the summer.
Janet was determined to address the issue of the failed birthday present somehow. A few days later she was ready.
“I have a late birthday present for you,” she announced.
“As long as it isn’t a nose job,” Robert warned her.
“I think you’ll like this. First we have to visit the Machine,” Janet led him by the hand, “... and then we’re going out.”
She had already done all her calculations and quickly performed the edit. The machine hummed.
“Done!” she said. Let’s go out!
“What’s different?” has asked.
“It’s a surprise, cutie-pie.”
They made their way to the city centre. It was raining hard: as they hurried along in raincoats they didn’t attract any stares. It was the first time Robert had been out without concealing his breasts with a bandage.
“Almost there,” Janet said breathlessly. “God, I love the way your boobs bounce...”
Their destination was the Scottish National Gallery. She bought a guidebook and turned to the index, but she wouldn’t let him know what she sought. Finally, she was satisfied.
“This way!” she led him through the maze of rooms and stopped outside a doorway.
“Trust me?” she asked.
“Not even a little bit,” he replied with a grin. “Why?”
“Close your eyes.”
He did so. “Ah, yes... minimalist art appreciation. Why didn’t I think of this?”
“Don’t try and be funny,” she told him, grabbing his elbow. “Come with me.”
After perhaps thirty steps, she stopped.
“Alright, art-boy,” she said. “Don’t read the panel. I challenge you: open your eyes and tell me what you see.”
It was just one painting among many in the room. Nobody else was paying it any attention at all, but Robert was intrigued.
“Oil on canvas... international gothic style. Call it early 15th century. A Madonna and Child, obviously. Lots of gold leaf, some lapis... about three feet by two...” Robert’s voice tailed off. He got as close as the cord barrier would permit him, staring intently.
Janet watched his face, pleased to see him so interested, but also making sure his eyes didn’t stray to the panel that identified the work.
He examined the painting for several minutes, without a word.
“I’ve never seen it before in my life!” he exclaimed.
“That was kind of the point,” said Janet. “But you’re forgetting my challenge. Who painted it?”
“Oh. Not fair: an expert would spend weeks doing analyses before giving you an answer!”
“Perhaps. Now show me how clever you can be.”
Robert turned back to the painting and searched it again. Several minutes passed. There was faux-arabic lettering embossed in the gold of the Madonna’s halo. That was familiar... wasn’t it?
“I know what I want to say, but it’s impossible. But then, is anything impossible, if you’ve got a Machine like yours?”
“Come on then,” she prompted. “Who’s the artist?”
Robert paused, reluctant to make a fool of himself. Finally: “Gentile da Fabriano...?”
“Uh-huh,” she said, reading from the guidebook: “Madonna with Child, 1425, from the Palazzo dei Notai.”
“Oh, wow,” said Robert. “But this was lost, centuries ago!”
“Happy birthday, sweetie. And I am very impressed. You really are not just a pretty face, are you?”
They went for a coffee, Robert still excitedly babbling about the find. He was so excited by the ‘lost’ piece of art that if anybody thought his bust looked unusual, he didn’t notice their reaction. Not that the world of art appreciation was one in which he was likely to get any trouble from homophobic thugs.
“I was trying to work out a way to actually give it to you,” Janet said as she sipped her coffee, “but that was much more improbable.”
“Give it to me?”
“Yes, you know: edit a universe where it turned up in a car boot sale so I could buy it for you, or where some eccentric had bought it and put it in our attic, two centuries ago. You’d have to sift through an awful lot of possibilities before you found one of those universes though. It was complicated enough finding one where it went to our National Gallery – in most of the ones where it survived at all, I found it ended up in Washington.”
Robert looked around him, thoughtfully. “So all this is an edit...”
“Everything’s an edit, sweetie. Since my solar panels, the day we helped with the earthquake and so on. But there’s nothing particularly wrong in this universe as far as I can tell, so I’m intending to leave the edit in place.”
“Thank you,” said Robert. “It’s a beautiful and thoughtful birthday present.” He considered for a moment and then added: “If you’d given it to me, I’d have donated it to the gallery anyway.”
“Yeah, I know. But at least I’d have got to see you unwrap it. You’re a good man, Robert Carlisle.”
He was surprised. “You never call me Robert!”
“I don’t suppose I do, very often. Problem?”
“I’ve always wondered if it was deliberate.”
“Um,” she bit her lip (which made him want to do the same) “Yes, I think so.”
“May I ask why?”
“I think you’ll have noticed that I’m a bit of a girlie girl?”
“A girlie girl?” Robert had a fleeting image of ‘girlie girl’ meaning some vacuous airhead who dotted each ‘i’ with a little heart and drove a tiny pink convertible with a small herd of fluffy animals on the dashboard. The ‘daddy’s little princess’ type. He thought of Janet and her work as a physicist.
“I really don’t follow.”
Janet tried again. “I mean, I’m not attracted by male attributes, in general.
“Oh. Right. Yes.”
“But I am attracted to you. Especially now I know you’re smart as well as cute.”
“Smart is the new cute,” Robert opined. He straightened in his chair, drawing attention to his bust and running one hand slowly over his right breast with a look of feigned innocence. “What do you think? Maybe I should get some glasses by Yves Saint Laurent for the brainiac look.”
“Right, missy,” declared Janet, slamming down her coffee cup. “You and me: shopping, now!”
“Romance is dead!” Robert replied, eyes heavenward – but he hurried out of the museum café with her, just the same.
She really liked him in the glasses. They were barely back inside the flat when she threw herself at him. She tugged his jeans down, made him sit, and straddled him. Within moments, he was inside her.
“Aw, honey,” she moaned, “You’re man enough for me and then some. And so pretty! Oh, fuck, so pretty!”
They came together.
It was a Wednesday morning.
“I need to go to work,” said Robert, reluctantly.
“Well, only if you want to,” she replied.
“Yeah, it’s a pain,” he said, “but I quite like being able to pay the mortgage. And eating: eating is something of a hobby of mine.”
“I’ll take care of it – if you want,” she said cautiously.
“Actually, I think I need to be productive.”
“Okay, honey. But let me know if you change your mind.” She kissed him and reluctantly let him leave the bed.
After he had showered and dried off, she helped to wrap the elasticated bandage around his chest.
“What will you do today?” he asked.
“Science!” she replied. “A sabbatical isn’t a holiday: it’s a period of leave that’s meant for study. I’ve got to review some papers and I should really be getting to grips with my book – although I’m finding it hard to write about physics now that I know it’s all contrived.”
“I suppose they’ll overlook a lot of writer’s block, after the way you shared the benefits from neosapphire with them.”
“Well, maybe. And if one of my rivals makes a major breakthrough I can always do an edit that changes the rules and makes them look like a fraud.”
“You’d make such a good criminal mastermind,” Robert said, kissing her. “It’s really very sexy.”
“Hmm... tempting. I’ll miss you today.” She thought for a second and then offered him a pair of her panties. “Wear these for me today?”
“Love to,” he replied, and slid them into place.
There had been a time when Robert had kept a pair of her panties and also some old, laddered tights. He’d found them when a refuse sack split open, by the rubbish bins at the back door. Feeling guilty, but unable to resist, he had stolen them. (Could you steal what had been discarded?) He had much nicer intimates of his own, but the thought that these items had been worn by his beautiful neighbour was intoxicating. Now she was giving him her panties, with a kiss? And they were making love most nights? Robert suspected that they had already hit upon the perfect universe. He had secretly disposed of the old items that had once been such a fetish for him, in case she should happen to find them.
Work was dull, as it usually was, but Janet telephoned Robert and teased him about what he was wearing. That brightened his day up, especially when she told him that she wanted to see Alice that night.
He made excuses, left early and transformed himself for the command performance. The sex that night was wild, and inventive.
Robert felt as though he hadn’t slept at all. He was exhausted and kept pressing the snooze function on his alarm.
“I need to go and shave,” he said, banishing all thoughts of being Alice.
“Well, you could keep on shaving night and day,” she replied. “Or I could help you with that.”
“We could do an edit: change reality to one where nobody has facial hair...”
“We can’t do that!” he yelped. “What about Lenin? Abraham Lincoln? King Neptune? Papa Smurf...?”
“No, silly! I’d send you out for a walk and change reality temporarily, to a universe where men have no facial hair... then have you back by the Machine while I switch everything back. You’ll be the only male who doesn’t get the revert, just like with your boobs. You’d be nice and smooth, indefinitely.”
“Sounds... wrong. What’s the risk?”
“The risk is that a lack of facial hair causes some dreadful, unforeseen calamity and I have to reverse the edit, to restore normality. That’s it: no risk, basically.”
“What if I want to grow a beard, later?”
“You?” she raised an eyebrow.
“Okay. Fair point. Are you serious about this?”
“Yes, sweetie. I like to do things for you.”
“Alright. You do your sums: I’m off to work.
Although he wanted to keep busy, he was really struggling with work. It had never meant anything much to him, beyond being a means to pay the bills. Most of the people who worked there seemed to feel the same way, but it was doubly difficult for a manager to insist on rules and targets that he found increasingly unimportant. His experience with the new/old painting by Gentile da Fabriano had reinforced his passion for medieval art, and it had given him confidence in his abilities. Several times since the edit, he had spent his lunch break at the Gallery, often just looking at the painting. ‘His’ painting: his birthday present.
Eventually, his repeated visits attracted attention.
“She’s quite something, isn’t she?” The voice came from behind, startling him. He turned.
“I’m sorry, did I make you jump?” The speaker was a tall woman in her fifties.
Robert had to admit that he had been woolgathering. “It’s simply beautiful,” he said, “and we’re lucky to have it today.”
“You’re right there,” the woman agreed. “She’s had a long and difficult journey down the years. It’s nice to meet somebody who appreciates her. I’m Margaret Frasier.” She held out her hand.
“Robert Carlisle,” he responded.
“You prefer her to the Hugo van der Goes? Few do...” she indicated the set of altarpiece panels at the end of the room.
“Very fine, as architectural salvage goes,” Robert quipped. “I mean no disrespect, but I would have to see the van der Goes in situ, before the Collegiate Chapel was demolished. And preferably with the missing centre panel in place.”
Margaret (“call me Maggie...”) was impressed.
“You really know your religious art,” she complimented.
“Yes, well... it’s a passion of mine,” he replied.
They often spoke after that. Robert spent his lunch break in the Gallery more often than not and they toured the whole of the Medieval collection together. Despite her compliments on his knowledge, he learned a lot.
When Janet asked him about his day, he often enthused about his meetings with Maggie, rather than talking about work.
“Have a care, sweetie,” Janet cautioned. “I might get jealous.”
“No!” Robert protested. “She’s a much older woman!”
“And so am I,” Janet replied. “Haven’t you ever thought that I look good for my age?”
“I certainly think you look good,” Robert told her, “but I don’t know your age. Nor would I presume to ask.”
“Such a gentleman!” She replied, with palpable irony as she hooked a finger under his bra strap.
“Perhaps I should explain. I stole my good looks from a universe where medicine is tremendously advanced: once I’d edited that universe into place and snooped on it to make sure it was safe, I went out into the world... and found that I was considered horribly disfigured.”
She placed a finger on his lips: she wasn’t fishing for compliments and wanted to finish her story.
“After the edit I emerged from the Machine room and in mere days of wandering around in that other Edinburgh I was strongly encouraged to go under the knife. Well, I say ‘knife’ but some of it was done with lasers. Beauty is virtually mandatory in that universe and everybody except me was highly standardised. They thought I was a very strange genetic throwback or something, and they wanted to give me all kinds of therapies. Some I consented to and some I didn’t.”
Robert snapped at her finger with his teeth and she withdrew it. “How did you pay for it all?” he asked.
“Didn’t have to: equal access to medicine was a fundamental human right in that universe. There was a single world government and it directed a lot of its efforts towards healthcare. You might think that a world without war or poverty is desirable, but it was a crushingly authoritarian place with very limited individual freedom of expression. You really wouldn’t want to live there! Not that I ever intended to permanently edit our universe into that one, but during the month I stayed there I let them sort out my crow’s feet and assorted bags and wrinkles. They also changed my blood, cleaned some gunk out of my kidneys and so on. I was told that one of my therapies inhibited senescence, which means the cells in my body will last longer. People aged much more slowly in the medical universe, as a result of all the intervention. I reckon my treatments may have turned the clock back by as much as ten years. When I’d had enough, I popped back inside the bubble of the control room. Safely insulated, I edited things back to the world that we know, which means I keep the freebie facelift but also get to live in a world where eating meat is still legal.”
Robert stared closely at her face. “You don’t look like somebody who’s had cosmetic surgery,” he ventured.
“Good!” she replied. “Kiss me.”
He obliged. Then: “Why did you tell me all that?”
“Sweetie, I’m just trying to explain to you that although I’m obviously a frumpy old bluestocking, there’s no need to start doing the maths where you say ‘When I’m fifty, she’ll be old enough for a free bus pass...’ These old bones will probably age better than yours.”
“Also, I’ve kept the settings for that universe on ‘speed dial’ ever since, so we can pop over there if one of us gets ill.”
“Yes. Keep it in mind,” she said as she unfastened his bra and started to play with his nipples. “You never know what you might need...”
Robert watched TV advertisements for gents’ razors and thought the idea of shaving one’s face sounded absolutely wretched. To have to scrape away at wiry bristles that threatened to obscure the face and that made men look like animals... he hated the very idea. He had to look at quite a few pictures of men with beards before he could convince himself that a bearded man wasn’t actually threatening.
Robert felt entirely comfortable with his own, baby-smooth skin, because (from his perspective) he’d always had it. Janet, on the other hand, adored it. She lavished endless kisses on his face and neck and kept telling him how pretty he was.
That it turned Janet on was a good thing, but as before, it made Robert feel as if he didn’t quite belong to this particular universe. There was a gnawing sense that he was artificial: a kind of paranoia... but it faded after a while. Nobody had ever seen the old Robert with any beard growth, so they didn’t notice the substitution. He was accepted.
Janet said it gave them more time for lovemaking. She certainly didn’t stint in that aspect of their relationship.
“Did you make my face more feminine?” he asked, at breakfast.
“You’re still the same old you!” she tried to reassure him.
“But did you?”
“Maybe the littlest bit,” she confessed. “But it was a side-effect of getting rid of the bristles.”
Robert was very glad he didn’t have a bristly chin, so he let it go.
“Let me do your legs next?” Janet asked.
“That’s what’s so good about you,” Robert grumbled. “You love me for who I am.”
She managed to talk him into it, anyway. After all, what use was leg hair that he’d been getting rid of on a regular basis? He was also persuaded to take a trip to what Janet called the ‘Medical Universe’, to slow the rate at which he aged. But who wouldn’t want that?
Robert arranged a leave of absence from his job “for family reasons” and they edited the Medical Universe into place.
“Expect stares,” Janet warned him: “In this universe, we’re ugly, lumpen people.”
“Have you ever thought about getting a job as a tour guide?” Robert joked. “You’re really selling the idea of this place to me!” He went out anyway, discovering that she was right. To him, this world was a vain and shallow place that valued nothing so much as conformity. Their medicine was very advanced, though, and they hastened to ‘correct’ his defects, including what they considered to be premature ageing. They improved the longevity of his cells and reversed the effects of time upon his hairline, which was just beginning to recede. Janet said his follicles would now last until he was at least a hundred.
“You should grow your hair, sweetie – then I can brush it and style it with you!”
Robert said he’d think about it.
Back in the ‘normal’ universe after a couple of weeks, Robert returned to work, but he wasn’t happy there. Another manager had overseen Robert’s team during his absence and clearly felt that the team ought to be a part of his little ‘empire’ within the business. He was overbearing and had a tendency to intimidate people. Robert came to loathe every minute that they had to spend together. He didn’t like the changes that Callum was making, but “no” didn’t seem to be a word that the other man understood. Robert also suspected that he was prone to being pushed around because he didn’t look like the archetypal ‘alpha male’.
“You know what?” Robert said one night. “Fuck it all. If he wants to play mind games and score points off people all the time, he can have the place. There’s more to life!”
“Well said, sweetie! We won’t starve. I can’t bear to see you miserable all the time. Give it up, if you want. Do something else – anything else!” Janet held him tightly and kissed him.”
He handed in his notice. He had a drink with everybody at the end of his final day, but they were a little taken aback to learn that he had no new job to go to. They found it a bit insulting, really, when he told them that he had no idea what he might do next, but that he simply wanted to quit... but there it was. He’d never wanted to work as a call centre manager (who did?) and he’d grown increasingly uncomfortable there.
Janet made him feel better as she always did: with compliments and with her body. She encouraged him to take a few days off and maybe indulge in some ‘Alice time’ before he worried about finding work. This Robert attempted, but after a few days of inactivity he resumed his regular persona and went for a walk, soon finding himself at the Gallery.
Maggie was surprised to see him outside of his usual lunch hour. Robert felt compelled to explain (to his shame) that he wasn’t working.
“We have some vacancies!” she exclaimed. “Have a look on our website – and if you see something you like the look of, list me as a referee.” She handed him a business card.
“Alright, I will,” he decided. “Thanks Maggie!”
They weren’t advertising for a medieval art specialist – few ever did – but Maggie assured him that if he applied for a position, his specialty would still be seen as a valuable addition. He put in an application for the position of archivist and was pleased to be invited for interview. The pay was lousy, but at least he’d be doing something he cared about. Maggie met him beforehand and coached him on what to expect. She wouldn’t be on the interviewing panel, she said, but she knew the kind of things they were looking for in a candidate.
The interview panel consisted of a representative of the trustees, an elderly art historian, the manager of the archives and a staff member from Human Resources.
They grilled him on a number of subjects, asking his opinion of recent developments at other museums, and technical questions about preservation versus restoration. Somehow, they got into a discussion about museum security. Robert didn’t think it was going very well, but as he had been advised he tried to stay away from the subject of his own specialism and speak in more general terms, until –
“What do you think of the frescoes in Nerezi?” the elderly art historian barked.
“Um,” Robert was momentarily taken aback. “To be honest, I’ve never been to Macedonia, so I’ve only seen reproductions.”
“Yes, yes... but do you have an opinion?”
“They’re aesthetically pleasing. They’re commonly described as being of the anti-naturalistic style but while that’s accurate it’s misleading, in my opinion. They’re symbolic, but they’re not abstract. There’s a sense of realism that really signposts the way to the early Renaissance – although perhaps that’s parallel evolution rather than actual influence. We’d have to ask Giotto if he ever went to Macedonia.”
The old historian grunted and didn’t pursue that line of questioning any further. Robert really didn’t know what to make of it at all. When their questions drew to a close, he asked a few of his own (nothing too controversial), thanked them for their time and made to leave.
The lady from Human Resources (Jean something) hastened to follow him and asked for a word in private. They spoke in the corridor.
“Mister, er, yes. Carlisle. If I may...?”
“I can’t help but notice. That is, er,” she looked uncomfortable, “Are you in transition?”
Were the edits so obvious now? Robert felt embarrassed for her – and for himself.
“Well,” he said at length. “I’m... complicated.”
“I want to assure you that we don’t discriminate against transgender people and that it won’t impact upon the panel’s decision. If you’re selected, we’ll try to make every reasonable adjustment, to meet your needs.”
Robert didn’t really know what to say to all that, so he simply thanked her again and wandered away in a daze.
That question about the frescoes was a bit below the belt, he thought. Oh well – I just hope that in this universe, they’re the same as the ones I knew. Which universe is this now, anyway? I lose track...
Three days later Robert answered a telephone call and found that he was being offered the job. He bounded up the stairs to share the good news with Janet.
“I hope you didn’t just edit the universe into one where I got the job?”
“You got the job? Honey, that’s wonderful! And no, you did that all on your own.” She hugged him.
“You don’t sound very happy.”
“Oh I’m happy enough. It’s just...”
Robert thought for a while. “The lady from Personnel, or H.R. or whatever you call it now: she thinks I’m a transgender.
“You are transgender, darling!”
“Yes, but... she knows.”
“She said they’d ‘make every reasonable adjustment’ – whatever that means.”
“It probably means they’re going to keep you locked away in the archives, where you can’t frighten visiting schoolchildren,” Janet said melodramatically, laughing.
“Their loss if they do, darling. You’re cute! And have I mentioned I really like seeing you midweek without your boobs all squashed out of shape.”
“You have no idea how uncomfortable that was,” he said.
“Those puppies are too nice to be hidden away,” Janet frowned. “Think about taking them up on their offer? We could buy you some work outfits. Oooh... and you could wear those sexy YSLs.”
“But I don’t need glasses!”
“No, but they make me just want to gobble you up, sweetie!” She made as if to bite him.
“So... I’ll wear them for you – but not at work.”
“Hmm... but I don’t hear you objecting to the rest of the girlie experience.”
“Well I don’t know,” he admitted. “It’s terrifying. But it’s also the chance of a lifetime. But mostly terrifying.”
“When do they want you to start the new job?”
“The week after next.”
“That’s loads of time!” Janet was delighted. “How exciting: we can buy you some new things and get you ready for your debut as Alice. If you want.”
This was incredibly tempting for Robert. To have no more secrets: to be able to show the world who he felt he was. To be able to dress stylishly for work, rather than putting on a defensive shell of male conformity in which he could take no pride. To make an effort over his appearance and then to go out into the world rather than hiding away. Maybe to be complimented, sometime...
“I’ll do it,” he blurted. “But will you help me?”
“Of course I’ll help you.” Janet fussed with his hair, speculatively. “What would you like me to do?”
“You know... help me. With the Machine. I don’t want to look like a freak.” Robert’s perfectionism meant he was very hard on himself if he thought he was ‘unconvincing’.
“Honey, you don’t look like a freak.” Janet kissed him.
“You’re biased,” Robert fretted. “You’re bound to say nice things about me. But... these shoulders!”
“What’s wrong with your shoulders?”
“They’re too broad.”
“Okay, darling. I’ll edit the universe so you can have a narrower shoulders.” She rolled her eyes. “Honestly, some girls... so vain!”
“Well, um... while you’re at it... just... more convincing in general. Please.”
Janet bit her lip. “Are you asking me to give you a much more girlie body? You, who made such a fuss about ‘being an edit’, even though everything is?”
“I think I am,” Robert replied. He shrugged. “In for a penny, in for a pound, sort of thing. Would you? Please? Just let me try working as Alice and see how it goes?”
“Alright, sweet-cakes,” said Janet. “But this...” (she laid a hand on the crotch of her lover’s skinny jeans and felt him begin to harden) “... this stays. I like my little man too much to edit him away.”
Robert grinned. “Your little man likes you too.”
“Come to bed?” Janet asked.
“A sabbatical is not a holiday,” Robert told her sternly. “Are you quite sure you shouldn’t be working?”
“Well I’ve got a busy schedule but I think I can... fit you in,” Janet said wickedly. “Let’s celebrate.”
They opened a bottle of champagne and each took a glass to bed. Janet would take a mouthful of the frantically fizzing liquid and then suck one of her lover’s nipples into her mouth as well, while the bubbles tickled. Robert tried to return the favour, but it wasn’t an easy trick to master. He vowed to keep on practicing.
Robert called Jean from H.R. and they met to discuss his needs. He explained that he was hoping to work in his ‘Alice’ persona and she assured him that all their documents would reflect this. The Criminal Record Bureau check would be conducted in his male name, of course, but otherwise, as far as everybody at the Gallery was concerned, he would be known as Alice Carlisle. Jean seemed acutely embarrassed when they reached the subject of lavatory etiquette, but Robert said he would be happy to use the solitary disabled facility, to avoid any awkwardness among his fellow staff.
Was Robert anticipating any need for leave of a medical nature? No, he said: he didn’t anticipate any surgical procedures. He smiled as he thought about the edits that Janet was performing on his behalf. He felt the same as ever, but intellectually he knew he was being transformed. Jean seemed more comfortable with him at this meeting, too. Was it because he was already more convincing in his chosen gender role? He had no way to be sure.
After he spoke with Jean, he had to track down Maggie. As he thanked her for all her help, he explained that Robert Carlisle wouldn’t be starting work, but Alice would.
“The more the merrier,” was Maggie’s response. “Welcome to the team!”
He wasn’t quite sure whether she meant the museum staff, or womenfolk in general... and decided this was intentional. Maggie always was clever with words. He looked forward to working with her.
Janet was nudging him slowly, almost imperceptibly, towards a more feminine frame. She’d learned that he reacted better to small, frequent changes and she consulted him on each edit. He’d be sent away from the Machine, she’d perform the edit and when he returned to the stable bubble of reality, she’d undo the edit. Only he would retain the characteristics of the universe in which he had been.
They used a camera to track his progress and Robert couldn’t believe how much he’d changed from the man he saw in the earlier photos. He was shorter, more slender and with much more delicate features. He loved the way he looked!
“I’m going to have to stop now,” Janet said. “You’re supposed to be in transition and the people at the Gallery won’t recognise you if I go any further. Also, I’ll end up turning you into a complete fucktoy.”
“Your fucktoy,” he replied, in a sexy contralto.
“Good girl,” said Janet: “My fucktoy. Shall we play?”
Alice Carlisle began her first day at the new job. For once, she was dressed for comfort and practicality, rather than being in any of her more formidable lingerie. Nothing fitted her new form, except what she and Janet had bought recently. Janet decreed that a new job demanded new clothes anyway, so they treated it as an excuse to go shopping together.
Alice arrived at the Gallery in a shirtwaist dress and matching jacket, in burgundy. Her shoes were a present from Janet and probably cost more than she earned in her first week or two. And yes – she wore the YSLs.
Work went well. Some of the guys gave her more attention than she was entirely comfortable with, but that soon ceased. Word had got round, it seemed. That suited Alice just fine: she was Janet’s girl.
They were married on May 2nd of the following year, amid the ruins of Urquhart castle. Two of Alice’s colleagues from the Gallery served as her bridesmaids; likewise Janet had two of hers from the University. It was a unique ceremony, they agreed, but perhaps every bride feels this on her special day, if all goes to plan.
Strictly speaking, Janet needn’t have edited the universe to be one where gay marriages had passed into law, since ‘Robert Carlisle’ was listed as a male – and still was one, where it counted. “But why shouldn’t alternative couples be happy together?” Janet had asked. She made the edit. While not strictly necessary in their circumstances, it simplified the linguistics of married life: both Janet and Alice described the other as her wife.
They considered selling Alice’s ground floor flat, but they didn’t really need the money and they valued their privacy, so they converted the whole thing into a townhouse and Alice’s old living room became a library filled with books: art on one side and physics on the other.
Here they lounged together, one rainy weekend, occupying opposite ends of the sofa with their legs entwined.
Alice looked up from her book. “I’m so lucky to have met you,” she said.
“I’m the lucky one. But we have to make our own luck, I suppose,” Janet replied.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, to be honest, all this happened by accident. But no regrets, eh?”
Alice’s beautiful eyes narrowed. “What did you do? Have you been tinkering with reality again?”
“Again?” Janet shook her head. “I’m talking about a long time ago. As ever, I was trying to make the world a better place.”
“You couldn’t make it much better than this, darling,” Alice replied. “But tell me: what did you do?”
“I think it all started when I decided to save the orang-utan. Or perhaps when I edited the western lowland gorilla back from the brink.”
“Really?” Alice frowned. “They’re not critically endangered.”
“Well, the orang was newly-extinct in the bog-standard universe.”
“What? There must be thousands of the furry beasties,” Alice objected.
“Yes, but not in my world. They were gone! So I wanted to fix that. And then there was the infant flu epidemic; then the leak at the power station in Flamanville...” Janet shook her head in exasperation.
“You were doing your comic-book hero thing, again,” Alice observed.
“Yes, I suppose so. And in those days, I didn’t know as much about the business of editing as I do now. I made a lot of quick fixes to reality and some quirks crept in. By the time I noticed them, it was all too mixed up to just do a revert and try again.”
“Specifically, what did you do?”
Janet looked guiltily at her wife. “In the bog-standard universe, there was no such thing as transgender. Males were males and did male things. Females were females, et cetera.”
Alice regarded her for a long moment. “I already know I’m an edit, I suppose,” she said quietly. “I just didn’t realise it went that deep.”
“Yeah. I’m sorry, darling. I didn’t know for a long time – I mean, it’s not something you go looking for, if you’ve never heard of such a thing. I just didn’t know, until the changes were several edits deep.”
“But when you found out, you could have edited things back to the way they were...?” Alice felt glad that she hadn’t, but she had to ask.
“I suppose I could have,” Janet admitted. “Not easy to unpick all those tendencies and probabilities. Plus there was another factor.”
“It really turned me on. I found that I was fascinated by the idea of having a lover who wore lingerie and made himself look pretty for me. Then you moved into the building and I was intrigued: pretty soon I was convinced that you were ‘dressing’ in secret and I entertained all kinds of kinky fantasies about you.”
“I had a few fantasies about you too,” Alice replied, fluttering her eyelashes.
“It’s funny,” Janet observed. “Albert Einstein claimed that ‘God does not play dice’, but the more I learn about the vagaries of reality at the quantum foam level, the more I think it’s all just a huge gamble.”
“It’s really disturbing to find that one of your fundamental, defining characteristics isn’t original,” Alice shivered.
“Certainly,” Janet said. “But look me in the eye and tell me you don’t like the way you are and the way you feel. I think we gambled and won.”
“Well of course I feel like that now,” Alice said. “But I would, wouldn’t I? What if none of this had ever happened. Do you think we’d be together?”
“I hope so. You were a lovely person – even before you became so nice to look at. But I’d be old and wrinkly, if the bog-standard universe was all there was.”
“Oh, there is that, perhaps. But I love you for more than just your looks,” Alice countered.
“Same. Now stop this miserable introspection! Any more of it and I’ll turn you into a toad. Or maybe just make you into a bimbo, so you stop caring about all this and just want to screw me.”
“You take your fantasies too literally,” Alice protested. “Honestly, just because you control the universe doesn’t mean you have to tinker with it to get what you want.”
“No. I suppose not.”
“Seriously. You only have to ask. I’d do anything for you, Janet.”
“A bimbo, you want?” Alice fluttered her eyelashes again.
“It’s really not necessary...” Janet began.
“I don’t mind pretending for a bit,” Alice interrupted. “Exactly how slutty?”
“Um. Very slutty.” Janet blushed.
“Coming right up. Just give me a few minutes to change,” Alice said. She stood and kissed her wife. “Think dirty thoughts while I’m away – and be ready to tell me exactly what to do...”
© Bryony Marsh 2014
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