Roger Zelazny. Love Is an Imaginary Number


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     They should have known that they  could  not  keep  me  bound  forever.
Probably they did, which is why there was always Stella.

     I  lay  there  staring  over  at  her, arm outstretched above her head,
masses of messed blond hair framing her sleeping face.  She  was  more  than
wife to me: she was warden. How blind of me not to have realized it sooner!

     But then, what else had they done to me?

     They had made me to forget what I was.

     Because  I was like them but not of them they had bound me to this time
and this place.

     They had made me to forget. They had nailed me with love.

     I stood up and the last chains fell away.

     A single bar of moonlight lay upon  the  floor  of  the  bedchamber.  I
passed through it to where my clothing was hung.

     There was a faint music playing in the distance. That was what had done
it. It had been so long since I had heard that music...

     How had they trapped me?

     That  little  kingdom,  ages  ago,  some  Other, where I had introduced
gunpowder-- Yes! That was the place! They  had  trapped  me  there  with  my
Other-made monk's hood and my classical Latin.

     Then brainsmash and binding to this Otherwhen.

     I  chuckled softly as I finished dressing. How long had I lived in this
place? Forty-five years of memory--but how much of it counterfeit?

     The hall mirror showed me  a  middle-aged  man,  slightly  obese,  hair
thinning, wearing a red sport shirt and black slacks.

     The music was growing louder, the music only I could hear: guitars, and
the steady _thump_ of a leather drum.

     My  different  drummer, aye! Mate me with an angel and you still do not
make me a saint, my comrades!

     I made myself young and strong again.

     Then I descended the stair to the living room, moved to the bar, poured
out a glass  of  wine,  sipped  it  until  the  music  reached  its  fullest
intensity,  then  gulped  the remainder and dashed the glass to the floor. I
was free!

     I turned to go, and there was a sound overhead.

     Stella had awakened.

     The telephone rang. It hung there on the wall and rang and rang until I
could stand it no longer.

     "You have done it again," said that old, familiar voice.

     "Do not go hard with the woman,"  said  I.  "She  could  not  watch  me
always."

     "It  will  be  better if you stay right where you are," said the voice.
"It will save us both much trouble."

     "Good night," I said, and hung up.

     The receiver snapped itself around my wrist and the cord became a chain
fastened to a ring-bolt in the wall. How childish of them!

     I heard Stella dressing upstairs. I moved eighteen steps sidewise  from
There,  to  the  place  where  my scaled limb slid easily from out the vines
looped about it.

     Then, back again to the living room and out the front door. I needed  a
mount.

     I  backed  the  convertible out of the garage. It was the faster of the
two cars. Then out onto the nighted highway, and then  a  sound  of  thunder
overhead.

     It  was  a Piper Cub, sweeping in low, out of control. I slammed on the
brakes and it came on, shearing treetops and snapping  telephone  lines,  to
crash  in  the middle of the street half a block ahead of me. I took a sharp
left turn into an alley, and then onto the next street paralleling my own.

     If they wanted to play it that way,  well--I  am  not  exactly  without
resources  along  those  lines  myself.  I was pleased that they had done it
first, though.

     I headed out into the country, to where I could  build  up  a  head  of
steam.

     Lights appeared in my rearview mirror.

     Them?

     Too soon.

     It was either just another car headed this way, or it was Stella.

     Prudence, as the Greek Chorus says, is better than imprudence.

     I shifted, not gears.

     I was whipping along in a lower, more powerful car.

     Again, I shifted.

     I  was  driving  from  the  wrong side of the vehicle and headed up the
wrong side of the highway.

     Again.

     No wheels. My car sped forward on a cushion of air, above a beaten  and
dilapidated  highway.  All  the buildings I passed were of metal. No wood or
stone or brick had gone into the construction of anything I saw.

     On the long curve behind me, a pair of headlights appeared.

     I killed my own lights and shifted, again and again, and again.

     I shot through the air, high above a great swampland,  stringing  sonic
booms  like  beads  along  the thread of my trail. Then another shift, and I
shot low over the steaming land where great reptiles raised their heads like
beanstalks from out their wallows. The sun stood high in this world, like an
acetylene torch in the heavens. I held the struggling vehicle together by an
act of will and waited for pursuit. There was none.

     I shifted again...

     There was a black forest reaching almost to the foot of the  high  hill
upon  which the ancient castle stood. I was mounted on a hippogriff, flying,
and garbed in the manner of a warrior-mage. I steered my mount to a  landing
within the forest.

     "Become a horse," I ordered, giving the proper guide-word.

     Then  I  was  mounted  upon  a black stallion, trotting along the trail
which twisted through the dark forest.

     Should I remain here and fight them with magic, or  move  on  and  meet
them in a world where science prevailed?

     Or  should  I  beat a circuitous route from here to some distant Other,
hoping to elude them completely?

     My questions answered themselves.

     There came a clatter of hoofs at my back, and a knight appeared: he was
mounted upon a tall, proud steed; he wore burnished armor; upon  his  shield
was set a cross of red.

     "You have come far enough," he said. "Draw rein!"

     The  blade  he  bore upraised was a wicked and gleaming weapon, until I
transformed it into a serpent. He dropped it then, and it slithered off into
the underbrush.

     "You were saying...?"

     "Why don't you give up?" he asked. "Join us, or quit trying?"

     "Why don't _you_ give up? Quit them and join with me? We  could  change
many times and places together. You have the ability, and the training..."

     By  then he was close enough to lunge, in an attempt to unhorse me with
the edge of his shield.

     I gestured and his horse stumbled, casting him to the ground.

     "Everywhere you go, plagues and wars follow at your heels!" he gasped.

     "All progress demands payment. These are the growing pains of which you
speak, not the final results."

     "Fool! There is no such thing as progress! Not as you see it! What good
are all the machines and ideas you unloose in their cultures, if you do  not
change the men themselves?"

     "Thought  and  mechanism  advances;  men  follow slowly," I said, and I
dismounted and moved to his side. "All that your kind seek  is  a  perpetual
Dark Age on all planes of existence. Still, I am sorry for what I must do."

     I unsheathed the knife at my belt and slipped it through his visor, but
the helm  was  empty.  He  had  escaped into another Place, teaching me once
again the futility of arguing with an ethical evolutionary.

     I remounted and rode on.

     After a time, there came again the sound of hoofs at my back.

     I spoke another word, which mounted me upon a sleek unicorn, to move at
blinding speed through the dark wood. The pursuit continued, however.

     Finally, I came upon a small  clearing,  a  cairn  piled  high  in  its
center.  I  recognized it as a place of power, so I dismounted and freed the
unicorn, which promptly vanished.

     I climbed the cairn and sat at its top. I lit a cigar and waited. I had
not expected to be located so soon, and it irritated me.  I  would  confront
this pursuer here.

     A sleek gray mare entered the clearing.

     "Stella!"

     "Get  down  from  there!"  she cried. "They are preparing to unleash an
assault any moment now!"

     "Amen," I said. "I am ready for it."

     "They outnumber you! They always have! You will lose to them again, and
again and again, so long as you persist in fighting. Come down and come away
with me. It may not be too late!"

     "Me, retire?" I asked. "I'm an institution. They would soon be  out  of
crusades without me. Think of the boredom--"

     A  bolt  of  lightning dropped from the sky, but it veered away from my
cairn and fried a nearby tree.

     "They've started!"

     "Then get out of here, girl. This isn't your fight."

     "You're mine!"

     "I'm my own! Nobody else's! Don't forget it!"

     "I love you!"

     "You betrayed me!"

     "No. You say that you love humanity."

     "I do."

     "I don't believe you! You couldn't, after all you've done to it!"

     I raised my hand. "I banish thee from this Now and Here," I said, and I
was alone again.

     More lightnings descended, charring the ground about me.

     I shook my fist.

     "Don't you _ever_ give up? Give me a century  of  peace  to  work  with
them,  and  I'll  show  you  a  world that you don't believe could exist!" I
cried.

     In answer, the ground began to tremble.

     I fought them. I hurled their lightnings back in their faces. When  the
winds  arose,  I bent them inside-out. But the earth continued to shake, and
cracks appeared at the foot of the cairn.

     "Show yourselves!" I cried. "Come at me one at a time, and  I'll  teach
you of the power I wield!"

     But the ground opened up and the cairn came apart.

     I fell into darkness.

     I  was  running. I had shifted three times, and I was a furred creature
now with a pack howling at my heels, eyes like fiery headlights, fangs  like
swords.

     I  was  slithering  among  the  dark  roots  of  the  banyan,  and  the
long-billed criers were probing after my scaly body...

     I was darting on the wings of a hummingbird and I heard the  cry  of  a
hawk...

     I was swimming through blackness and there came a tentacle...

     I broadcast away, peaking and troughing at a high frequency.

     I met with static.

     I was falling and they were all around me.

     I was taken, as a fish is taken in a net. I was snared, bound...

     I heard her weeping somewhere.

     "Why  do you try, again and ever again?" she asked. "Why can you not be
content with me, with a life of peace and leisure? Do you not remember  what
they  have  done  to  you in the past? Were not your days with me infinitely
better?"

     "No!" I cried.

     "I love you," she said.

     "Such love is an imaginary number," I told her, and I was  raised  from
where I lay and borne away.

     She followed behind, weeping.

     "I  pleaded with them to give you a chance at peace, but you threw that
gift in my face."

     "The peace of the eunuch; the peace of lobotomy, lotus and  Thorazine,"
I  said.  "No, better they work their wills upon me and let their truth give
forth its lies as they do."

     "Can you really say that and mean it?" she  asked.  "Have  you  already
forgotten  the  sun  of  the Caucasus--the vulture tearing at your side, day
after hot red day?"

     "I do not forget," I said, "but I curse them. I will oppose them  until
the ends of When and Wherever, and someday I shall win."

     "I love you," she said.

     "How can you say that and mean it?"

     "Fool!"  came  a chorus of voices, as I was laid upon this rock in this
cavern and chained.

     All day long a bound serpent spits venom into my face, and she holds  a
pan  to  catch it. It is only when the woman who betrayed me must empty that
pan that it spits into my eyes and I scream.

     But I _will_ come free again, to aid  long-suffering  mankind  with  my
many gifts, and there will be a trembling on high that day I end my bondage.
Until  then,  I  can only watch the delicate, unbearable bars of her fingers
across the bottom of that pan, and scream each time she takes them away.

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