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Today in Alternate History
Day in Alternate History Blog
THE LIBRARIAN AND THE BARBARIAN
You get all sorts coming into a reference library. The clever ones, the cranky
ones, and all too often the weird ones. Libraries seem to attract the least
attractive types, especially the male specimens; what's really annoying is that
so many of the nerds seem to think that all female librarians are frustrated old
maids hiding from real life. That I'm twenty years old, two metres tall and a
state swimming champion doesn't seem to alter their preconceptions at all.
It was a Friday afternoon, the sunlight sparkled on the fountains outside the
Alexander Library building and all was right with the world. From the
westernmost window of the top floor I could look down on the roofs of three
different pubs, a strip tease joint and the backyard carpark of a brothel --
business seemed to be good. One of our resident researchers once said that Perth
was a very civilised city because he could go from Aristotle to harlots without
even losing his train of thought. In his case I'm not sure it would have made
much difference to his performance anyway. My own interest was in one of the
pubs on King William Street, where I had a heavy date scheduled that night.
So, only an hour of work left, an hour's training in the pool, get changed and
then a night out on the town for a rage up -- great! Then Eddie Rosenbaum walked
in to spoil it. He's the weirdest of all the weirdies we get, a guy who causes
me a lot of problems. Well OK, he's not weird in the way of being a brick short
of a barbecue. He's doing a master's in physics at the University of Western
Australia and when he sent the results of his IQ test to MENSA they wrote back
and said they didn't take smart-arses. Truth to tell he's got enough spare
bricks to build his own temple and enough ego to dedicate it to himself. Right
up himself is Eddie Rosenbaum and the only things he's got going for him are
that he's a handsome hunk and that everybody seems to think he's a full blown
genius. Oh yes, and his father's a millionaire. But take away his looks, his
muscles, his brains and his money and he wouldn't have much left. His sense of
humour I could certainly do without.
"Hello, beautiful. Get this lot together and wheel them out, as fast as you
can. I've got a hot idea I want to check out."
I picked up the printout he'd dropped on my desk: a list of book titles certain
to grab anybody's interest. The first one was "SCHRODINGER'S CAT PARADOX: A
"Wrong place, Eddie, this is physical sciences. Zoology is two floors
"Ah, Lizzie, it's a fine strapping girl you are. Thank God you were spared
the trouble of brains and it's a wonderful wife you'll be making for some lucky
son of Erin."
"Don't call me Lizzie, my name is Elizabeth. And what's so important about
some damned cat?"
Eddie sighed and went into his Con the Fruiter routine.
"Looka, Miss Brown, just for you, I tella da truth. I taka da cat, I put
ina da box. I putta in da geiger counter and da poison and da radioactivity.
Maybe da detector picka up a decaying atom and killa da cat widda da poison, or
maybe it don't and da cat lives -- bewdiful!"
Then he leaned forward and drawled: "But nobody knows whether old Brer cat
done cashed in his chips 'til they open the box. 'Til somebody take a look, old
Brer cat ain't exactly dead and he ain't exactly alive neither. Old brer cat,
he's a quantum state just setting and waiting to collapse."
"Putting a cat in a box -- that's cruel."
"Bloody hell, girl, it's a mental experiment, like Einstein riding on a ray
of light. Nobody actually does it. It's just a way of trying to understand the
paradoxes of quantum mechanics."
It seemed as if I was finally starting to annoy him as much as he was needling
"Is that anything like 'Popular Mechanics'?"
At least he got serious enough to quit his funny voices.
"Quantum mechanics underlies all the physical forces except gravitation and
probably that too if we could only understand how. Without quantum mechanics
there'd be no lasers, no computers, no transistors. But what's so bloody
frustrating is that all we're doing is applying cookbook recipes to the
electronic problems. We still don't know what electrons are actually doing
inside atoms. It's like pushing buttons and seeing lights coming on without
understanding what the connection is: it's monkey-see, monkey-do physics. But
I'm smarter than any monkey."
"Talking of monkeys, Eddie, I've got a date at the Brass Monkey tonight and
I'm not going to be late. It's forty five minutes to closing time and then
you're out of here, understand!"
"Oh God, she's going hit me, the big bully. Not the whip, Lizzie, please,
not the whip again!"
I told him to shut up and began on his list, piling the books up on a cart and
pushing them over to the table where he'd set up his laptop. As fast as I
stacked the books up around him he flicked through them at incredible speed,
pausing only to type some kind of formula up onto the screen.
"Many worlds, many worlds, it has to be many worlds."
"Great words but you'll need a snappy tune to go with them."
"Listen, you potential dummy mummy, the only way quantum mechanics can work
is by not having any outside observers, otherwise the quantum state collapses
every time we check on whether the cat is still breathing. So if the quantum
state can't collapse it must contain all the possibilities."
He kept on keying the laptop: "A quantum state can only be a valid
representation if it contains everything which could possibly ever happen. The
fact that our experience only shows one outcome to every event is merely a
sensory simplification -- and this formula will prove it."
"For this nonsense I'm getting aching feet?"
"Elizabeth, don't you get it? Everything happens, everything you could
possibly think of and a lot that you can't. There's a reality where this place
collapsed this morning because of metal fatigue in the support girders, there's
a reality where there's no such thing as grass, there's a reality where Bill
Gates is making a living as a street busker. Why, there's a reality somewhere
where you throw yourself on tip of this table and beg me to make love to
I took two swift steps back and hefted the heavy book in my hand, ready to clout
him if this reality looked as if it was going to require it.
"You understand, Liz? One cat can't be both dead and alive. For that you
need two cats, minimum."
Like I've said before, libraries attract weirdos like cowpats attract flies. I
looked out at the sinking sun and wished it would hurry up so that I could throw
Eddie back into the normal world. Maybe he didn't belong there but I did.
"Do you need anything else?"
"Not if this program runs, I don't."
He pressed a key on the laptop. Strange symbols chased themselves across the
screen, then stopped. Eddie scratched the back of his head and a metre wide
circle of books and shelving just to the left of us dissolved in a white
fireball. I fell on top of Eddie, wind gushed in through a hole where part of
the outside wall had somehow disappeared and a figure loomed up in the cloud of
swirling ashes. It stopped and seemed to be looking at us in surprise. A woman
in an indecently skin tight black uniform with a kind of round dark helmet on, a
wide belt with blue containers all around it and holding something in her right
hand which looked a lot like a pistol. Then she slapped her other hand against a
panel underneath her prominent bust and the helmet split apart in segments like
an orange, the segments then somehow sliding down around her throat and rolling
up into a shiny aluminium collar.
The face that was revealed was barely fringed by close cropped blonde hair and
spoilt by a puckered scar across one cheek. But the really outstanding item of
interest was that, apart from the scar, the girl's face was identical to my own.
"Oh God!" I gasped.
The girl said something as well. In a harsh barking tone speaking. . . well,
whatever language it was. She sounded like a Singapore taxi driver who'd just
copped a speeding ticket.
"I bet she's saying something interesting," Eddie mused aloud, quite
calmly. "I wonder what it is?"
He got up and walked towards her, holding his hands up in a non-threatening way.
The girl took one step forward, swivelled on one heel of a high cut black boot
and slammed the other one into his stomach with all the aplomb of Jackie Chan.
Eddie flew back against the bookshelf and slid down into a sitting position on
the floor. The look on his face was one I'd normally have relished beyond
belief. Unfortunately I had other things on my mind: a wrecked library and a mad
woman who was my double and als happened dressed up like an extra from a 1950's
episode of 'Flash Gordon'.
The girl stared at me, then stepped over to the table and looked down at the
laptop's screen. Then there was another outburst of a language that sounded as
if it were written in hieroglyphics.
"I'm sorry, I don't understand you," I stammered.
We kept looking at each other. Everything else was strange enough, but to see
your own face and to somehow know that it had lived a different life from yours
-- well, that was really uncanny.
She was hard this one, much harder than me. I could see that at once, looking
older and lines of strain on her face where mine was still unmarked. Our bodies
seemed to be identical, as much as I could judge. Then I changed my mind as she
grabbed Eddie's shirt and hauled him to his feet with one hand. Maybe I could
have been able to do that in a real emergency, but I didn't think so. What I was
sure of was that she wasn't jamming her pistol gizmo underneath his chin because
it was an electric razor.
"No, no," I bleated, tugging at her elbow.
It seemed for a second she was going to hit me as well. But I suppose it seemed
wrong for her to hit herself, if you see what I mean. On her sleeve was a big
coloured patch insignia. It showed a pole with several horse tails hanging from
it -- that's what they looked like, anyway. Underneath the badge were four
arrows, laid horizontally, with the sharp ends pointing forward. They were
stacked one above the other like sergeant's stripes. She smelt too, a kind of
bitter-sweet milky smell, not unpleasant but odd. Anyway, she hesitated as I
"Friends, friends, friends!" I kept on saying it over and over.
Finally, she stepped back a pace and released Eddie.
"Are you alright?" His eyes were glazed over as if he was still in
"The Nobel prize for physics and the Hollywood film rights. I've got to
make sure of the film rights."
"For Christ's sake, Eddie, what's going on?"
The girl was staring at me, her forehead furrowed. "By Christ's
wounds," she said slowly, as if trying to extract some fragment deeply
buried in her memory. "By Christ's wounds and his apostles twelve."
It was very lucky for the first security guard who came running in that she
was distracted as he appeared. She whirled around, lifted her pistol, I grabbed
her arm and the guard dived flat behind my desk. Another of those white
explosions and another section of wall had been turned into brick dust. The
guard began shouting in fear and the girl was sidestepping the red dust cloud to
stalk him until I got in front of her, trying to block her with my body and arms
like a basketball player and screaming out at the top of my voice.
"Friends, friends, you trigger-happy bitch!"
"Can we get out of here?" Eddie seemed unaffected by everything that
was going on. His folded laptop underneath his arm. "I don't want her
talking to anybody until I've got her under contract."
He winced and rubbed the middle of his stomach as if he was looking for some
sympathy for his soreness. I nearly went off my brain.
"Under contract! Under contract! You want a contract, you can have a
contract to fix up this fucking library!"
"My dad'll pay for that, so let's go."
On second thoughts it was the most sensible suggestion I'd heard all day. I
turned and ran towards the fire escape and I didn't intend to stop until I got
to the library car park and my Nissan. What changed my mind was that by the time
I got to ground level Liz2 was still
neck and neck with me and she still had that damned laser or whatever it was
ready to use. If we came racing out onto the pavement with her hyped up she was
quite capable of blowing half a dozen bystanders away just for openers. So I
grabbed the bar which unlocked the door and hung onto it as Eddie leaned against
the wall and gasped for breath. My twin wouldn't let go of her weapon so I was
able to baulk her for the moment, even though she lifted the pistol up and was
clearly considering whether to burn the door down and me with it.
"Friend, friend, by Christ's wounds and his apostles twelve," I
recited loudly, hoping it would restrain her blood lust. She was certainly
"English. . . English". She pointed at me. "Maid, maid."
Then she looked at Eddie. "Knight -- English knight."
Eddie opened his mouth to protest, then shut it tightly. The girl touched
herself at the throat. "English maid."
Eddie forced out a grunt of laughter: "A maid, hey? More like a bloody task
"How can she say she's English when she can't even speak English?"
"There's plenty of Welsh who can't speak Welsh. But what sort of reality
does she come from? A Chinese speaking Caucasian who comes on like Rambo and
speaks a few fragments of old English like a medieval nun -- and carrying a star
wars laser and wearing some kind of an
environmental suit. What kind of a world were you born into, Lizzie, to turn out
"Of course you. Look at her, she is you. So somehow, whatever I did turned
a quantum state vector in Hilbert space, then collapsed that particular
probability wave in our real time. But why you? Everybody knows that quantum
state measurements are affected by the observer. So that must have been the role
you played. You observed and you saw -- yourself. And then there were two
It was an interesting point for discussion, interrupted by the sound of heavy
boots clumping overhead. Liz2 growled and lifted up her pistol with the clear
intention of doing something terminal about the people following us down the
"She's no librarian, mate, and I'm getting out of here," I said. But
at least I took a cautious look out of the door first, with Eddie peering over
Francis Street was echoing with sirens from fire trucks pushing through the
snarled up traffic. Eddie gave a whoop of joy. "Firemen! People will think
she's one of the fire brigade in a heat resistant suit."
"You moron, I'll be the one needing a heat resistant suit if she pulls that
trigger. And in case you haven't noticed, she's practically naked! A
"It's all equality in jobs now, Liz and I have noticed her body. It's just
that I never realised before how much of you there really is. How can you swim
so fast with all that built in drag?"
Before I could think of anything rude enough to use as an answer a harsh voice
came booming down the stairwell: "This is the police. Surrender now or
you'll be in big trouble."
It was time to make a run for it, and I was hoping there were no media people
around yet. The last thing I needed was a photograph in the press of two
Elizabeth Browns together. The sporting public of Western Australia would be
intrigued to find that one of their Olympic Team hopefuls had a previously
unknown twin sister. That would be a real surprise -- especially to my mother.
I tried to make a dumb show of getting my doppelganger to put her pistol out of
sight. At least she complied to the extent of freeing her hands by pressing the
laser against a magnetic plate on her belt. Then we slipped out of the door.
The first thing I saw was that there was no way of crossing the intersection
without attracting attention. The traffic had stopped dead and people were
standing besides their cars to look up at the hole in the top floor of the
building. Apparently the local radio stations had got hold of a story about a
light plane crashing into the library. I suppose it was as good a guess as any.
I didn't know about it of course, all I knew was that somebody nearby was
yelling at us to stop.
Being in the lead, I turned left down King William street, running as fast as I
could. We dodged through a group of firefighters, leaping over the hoses they
were unrolling. A string of startled oaths came from behind me as Liz2 knocked
the burly men aside as if she was carrying a rugby ball into touch. I cut
through between two of the fire trucks and kept moving. One more block and we'd
be at the carpark where my car was. Only it wasn't that easy because a bunch of
police were on the pavement ahead, holding back a gathering crowd. The cops
still had their backs to us but one of them was bound to turn around any second.
I paused in indecision, Eddie grabbed my arm and pulled me into an alleyway,
beckoning Liz2 to come with us. She barely hesitated before ducking out of sight
in the alley.
"Maybe we can slip away down here," Eddie gasped. "Got to be
quick though. My stomach still hurts like bloody hell from where this crazy
bitch kicked me."
"I hope it keeps on hurting. Listen, I've just had this great idea. I think
I'll go back out onto the street, walk calmly down to the car park, get in my
car, bugger off home and forget I ever saw you or wonder woman. How does that
"I need you here, Liz. This other one seems to trust you a little bit. I
need you to keep her under control until we sort things out. Otherwise she might
go berserk with that laser pistol."
"That's your problem. You brought her here, you send her back. Why do I
have to be involved?"
He gripped my arm, his eyes glittering: "For the money, you idiot. This is
the most important scientific breakthrough ever, the greatest thing that's ever
happened to the human race, the biggest media story in history. We can be richer
than anybody has ever been -- but I'm not telling anybody a damned thing until
Dad's lawyers have got you and your Chinese copy here under watertight
"I could get rich out of this?"
"Liz, sweetie, anything you want, anything at all."
"You've talked me into it. Maybe we can get out at the other end of the
Liz2 had been watching us, one hand back on her pistol, her face watchful.
"Have you noticed those arrows. Seen the rockets on them?"
He was pointing the four arrows on Liz2's arm. Now he mentioned it, there did
seem to be some kind of extra round lengths attached to the shafts halfway down
their length, and the fins did seem proportionally too large.
"Chinese rocket arrows I'll bet. The sort the Chinese were using a thousand
years ago. Some kind of symbolic badge. The Grenadier Guards in Britain have a
regimental badge based on the type of grenade they used in the Napoleonic wars.
Same sort of idea."
He made a gesture with his hand, shooting it up into the air with his other hand
held flat to indicate the ground. Liz2 nodded and pointed up into the air, then
made a fist of one hand and whirled a finger around it.
"In orbit. She's telling us she had to do with something in orbit -- around
the earth, I suppose. Christ, I'd give my nuts to find somebody who could talk
"If we stay here we'll all be talking to the cops," I reminded him.
Ten seconds and already I was frightened of losing all that money for my dream
house in Peppermint Grove.
"OK, let's go."
Again I led the way. To nowhere. The alley ended in a cul de sac between three
walls. One the right and the left were doors -- both locked. Liz2 pushed me
aside with her usual social charm, fiddled for a second with the muzzle of the
pistol and aimed it at the door on the right. Ashes and smoke spurted out
soundlessly from the area where the lock had been, metal and wood apparently
reduced to glowing embers with equal ease.
"Gee, that's a neat gadget," Eddie said. "How does it do
My alter ego raised her leg and lashed out with a boot, sending the door flying
open. Then she dived into the building like the lead member of a SWAT team.
Eddie looked uneasily at me: "You want to know something, Liz? I've been
wanting to ask you for a date for a while but there was always something about
you which made me a touch nervous. Now I know why."
"She's nothing to do with me!"
"I'm sorry, Liz, but that's not true, is it? You were obviously born to be
a Imperial stormtrooper instead of a librarian."
There was a lot I wanted to say to him but I never got the chance because all
hell seemed to be erupting inside the building. We took one look at each other
and rushed in before murder was done. On the other side of the doorway was a
curtained off space with dim red light seeping through the heavy drapes. When I
went through them I found myself trying to manoeuvre past lots of small tables
in a crowded room where the only bright lighting was over a small stage.
Standing on the stage was a short and very fair skinned girl with lots of
freckles -- I could see she had lots of freckles because all she was wearing was
a black suspender belt and matching panties. Oh, and her stockings, because she
was making a big performance of bending forward as she peeled one of them off.
She'd clearly been the center of attention before our arrival.
Before Liz2's arrival, anyway. Whilst Eddie and I just kept on tripping over
unseen legs and saying "Sorry, sorry" my other half was simply kicking
anybody whom got in her way and sounding off like an undubbed Hong Kong martial
arts movie. All this from a tall and superbly proportioned girl in a skin tight
black uniform which looked as if it had been sprayed onto her naked body. By the
time we got to the middle of the room the stripper could have gone for a coffee
break for all the attention she was getting.
Then the lights came on and a little fat guy came out of one corner, clearly
upset by the way things were going. Lumbering along behind him was a body
builder type wearing a badly tailored suit. Liz2 was already surrounded by
several club patrons whom also seemed unhappy. Her hands flickered through the
air in casual movements and three of the men were clutched over with their hands
clasped to their balls, screaming in pain.
"Oooh, nasty," Eddie said, wincing.
The bouncer winced as well but his momentum was carrying him forward, arms
outstretched in front of him. Liz2 grabbed one of them, spun around with one leg
stretched out stiffly to her side and tripped the guy's feet over it. He went
face down on top of a table which collapsed underneath him with a series of
cracks from the splintering wood. Liz2 kicked him neatly in the side of the
head, pulled out a tiny container from one of her pouches and threw it up into
the air. I heard a sound like a an overgrown mosquito, miniature wings appeared
out of the side of the container as if it were a cruise missile being launched
and the thing zipped around underneath the ceiling as erratically as a bee
trying to find a way past a window pane -- and behind it was a trail of mist
which disappeared as quickly as it appeared.
In my alter ego's world they certainly knew how to deal with riot situations. If
you've ever had itching powder dropped down your neck you'll have just the
faintest idea of what effect that mist had. The only person it didn't seem to
bother was Liz2 -- everybody else in the room began tearing off their clothes.
All bar the stripper: she was still standing on the stage with her mouth hanging
open and her bare boobs totally unheeded as she watched her audience feverishly
stripping off in front of her. I'd like to say I thought it was all a great joke
-- I'd like to say that but I can't because I was desperately trying to get out
of that room before that damned de-clothing agent dispersal drone caught up with
I almost escaped -- almost. I would have done if a certain gentleman carrying a
laptop computer hadn't elbowed me aside in his panic to get to the door first.
Eddie, the bastard!
Not that he didn't do his best to help me when I shot out into the corridor
scratching myself like a hound dog in a flea pit. He opened a side door, pushed
me through it and then began to help me take off my clothes. Any other time I
would have hit the sod but just then I didn't care about anything about
relieving the effects of that powder. Luckily, Liz2 appeared as I was down to my
bra and panties and sprayed me with a small aersol can which instantly negated
the itching. It was well worth all the pain and hassle to see the pissed off
expression on Eddie's face.
There were men out in the corridor who sounded as if they would have killed to
get the same relief -- naked men yelping and crying and scratching their backs
and butts on the walls. Eddie slammed the door shut and locked it, then looked
around. It seemed to be a dressing room for the undressing girls who entertained
at the club. One window, with bars across it, another alley outside, a row of
green wheelie garbage bins.
He showed us a padlock which secured the grill in front of the window. "No
problem. One squirt with that laser and we're free as birds. Through the window
and away. But we need something else for our friend to wear in public."
He pulled aside a curtain and found some costumes hanging up behind it. There
was one that Liz2 might just be able to squeeze into, a kind of American style
nurse's uniform with buttons down the front.
"This'll do. It'll look as sexy as hell on her but it'll do. See if you can
convince her to change into it."
That took some doing. The turning point was when I found a back pack, emptied it
out and indicated to Liz2 that she could carry her suit and equipment inside it.
Then she started to get changed, apparently not at all bothered about getting
her gear off in front of Eddie. I was though: I told him to stand in the corner,
well away from the mirrors, with his back to us.
"What are you being so fussy about, Liz? If she doesn't care, why should
"Because her body is my body as well and I'm not giving away any sneak
previews for you to snigger about. Turn around, you bloody drop kick!"
He couldn't behave himself though. He waited until the other girl didn't have a
stitch on, then turned around and leered at us: "If all else fails, Liz, at
least you've got the makings of a great synchronized swimming team."
I shall always be very, very sorry about what I did then. Perhaps God felt sorry
afterwards for what he did to Lot's wife. All I can say is that I picked up the
laptop from the dressing table where Eddie had put it down whilst he was trying
to get my clothes off. I picked it up and hurled it at him in anger and he
caught it. Perhaps the impact switched it off -- I don't know. Anyway, the
computer just wasn't there any more -- and neither was Eddie.
We got away all right, nobody noticed us. I guess we'd have had to work really
hard to get much attention in a city street full of naked men being hosed down
by fire trucks. We drove back to my place and we sat around for a while. I was
hoping Eddie would show up or contact me, but he didn't. In the end there was no
choice but to call the police and tell them the story.
I've had a strange life since then. When the authorities finally accepted that
my story was true they rushed in every kind of expert to talk to Ch'ing Ming
(Liz2's real name). Ever hear of the Mongols? Genghis Khan and his mob? Probably
the most savage imperialists in history. They went on a thirteen hundred
kilometre rumble in China which lasted a hundred and twenty days. Behind them
they left twenty eight totally destroyed cities with every man, woman and child
either dead or wearing a slave collar.
After they'd finished devastating China the Mongols went into Russia and became
the only invading force in history to win a winter campaign there. In our
history the Great Khan of the Mongols eventually ruled from Vietnam to Turkey.
In Ch'ing Ming's world the Mongols rule everybody, everywhere.
The key change seems to have happened in 1241 -- or perhaps it would be more
accurate from Ch'ing Ming's point of view to say that it didn't happen. In that
year the Mongol armies swept into Europe under Ghenghis Khan's son, Ogotai,
devastating Hungary and Poland. They
abandoned the campaign when Ogotai died unexpectedly. But in Ch'ing Ming's
history Ogotai lived to a ripe old age and Europe was totally crushed under the
hooves of the Golden Horde.
As I say, it's been a strange experience. I'll never forget the first time
Ch'ing Ming met an Australian of Asian origin and instantly went down on her
hands and knees to kow-tow to him, knocking her head on the floor in submission.
I felt strange about myself after that. I felt even stranger when I found out
she was the Master-at-Arms aboard one of the great orbiting space stations of
the Mongolian Cosmonaut Fleet. One of her jobs was to punish unsatisfactory
slaves by skinning them alive -- learning that has changed my feelings about her
a lot. It's changed my feelings about myself as well, and I don't much like the
ones I have now.
Yet how can I reconcile that side of her with the girl whom kept and treasured
audio records of fairy stories recounted in the last vestiges of the language
which was once English? Stories about maids and knights and dragons. It wasn't
Ch'ing Ming's fault that on her world the dragons had long since killed Saint
George and all his knights.
So now we travel the world in great secrecy and talk to the most important
people in it, people who have nothing much in common except a total hatred and
fear of Eddie Rosenbaum.
Because Eddie might just find his way home eventually -- and bring the Mongols