Pittsburgh astrophysics professor Milo Stanford finally had it good for a change. A one-year sabbatical to teach in London and a beautiful new girlfriend. No worries to speak of—until the day he lost it all.
Caught outside in a freak thunderstorm, Milo is struck by lightning and wakes up on the parallel world of Alter Telluria. Unable to return home, Milo must adjust to life on a new planet of nation-states that are ruled by supernatural beings, a strange, pseudo-Victorian culture, and a pantheon of dark gods who delight in wreaking havoc on the lives of the local denizens.
While struggling to adapt to his new situation, Milo is offered a position in the Scholar’s Tower by the vampire ruler Sania, Mistress of Lake Gulia. Despite his abrasive personality and lack of deference, he quickly rises to become one of her most trusted advisors.
When the ruling wizard of neighboring Carthusia kidnaps Sania in an attempted coup, Milo is chosen to lead a hazardous rescue mission into the stronghold of the wizard’s indomitable magic—where the dark gods are certain to test his mettle.
Can Milo rescue Sania and restore her as ruler of Lake Gulia, or do the dark gods of Alter Telluria have other plans?
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The classroom’s elaborate cherry-wood paneling made the smell of dry markers and the presence of the whiteboard incongruous. The text on the whiteboard seemed even more out of place.
I turned away from the board and pointed behind me. “That’s the source code for a fourth-order Runge-Kutta differential equation solver,” I said. “You’re going to need it to model a star accurately. Your assignment for next time: write a short main program to test the accuracy of that routine. Also, read and review chapter nine in Kippenhahn and Weigert. That’s it. See you Wednesday.”
The students started getting up and filing out. I heard Naomi’s Spice Girls ringtone. She texted me:
MEET ME NATHANS NOON
I put my cell phone on the podium and typed back as fast as I could with two fingers:
U GOT IT BLACK BEAUTY
Jhalawan had stopped in the doorway. “‘Outer Space Girls’?” he asked, in his Pakistani-accented English.
“That’s the prof’s girl,” Ferguson said in his broad Irish tones. “Didn’t you know, our Prof Stanton is head-over-heels. Got a crush on. Got it badly. Truly, madly, deeply.”
“Don’t be jealous, kids, you’ll meet girls when you grow up, too,” I said. As a visiting professor from the States, I didn’t have any accent, of course.
# # #
Naomi was waiting for me at an outside table under a big green parasol, sipping a Mai Tai. We usually met in pubs, but we both loved Nathan’s, a restaurant with a big outdoor pavilion. She had a lovely upper-class London accent, delicate black features, a little snub nose, and wore skimpy clothing even in the atrocious London weather. She was a grad student in Asian languages. We had met at a party and gone straight to bed. For a month we’d met at pubs, concerts, and films—and invariably ended up at my place or hers by the end of the evening.
Life in the UK was pretty good at the moment.
“Baby, I’m here,” I said. Naomi never overdid the perfume, but it was there—Sarah Jessica Parker’s Lovely, with its blend of fruit and floral scents. I tried to kiss Naomi’s lips. She turned so I kissed her cheek.
Uh-oh. “Baby, what’s wrong?” I said.
“We have to talk,” she said.
I sat down. A waiter appeared. “May I get you something to drink, sir?”
“Uh, yeah. Sure,” I said. “A Black Cat Mild, please.”
“Very good, sir.”
I tried to take Naomi’s hands. She moved them away. “What’s wrong?” I said.
“Milo, what are your intentions toward me?”
“I love you.”
Her expression had been cold; now it got furious. “What the bloody hell do you mean calling me ‘Black Beauty’? Black Beauty was a fucking horse!”
Oops. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It was a poor choice of words. I wasn’t thinking about the horse. I was thinking about how gorgeous you are.”
“And my being black has something to do with that?”
I decided to turn the tables on her and get a little aggressive myself. “Sure it does,” I said. “That’s your kind of beauty. I love your skin color, like I love everything else about you.”
“Fancy the darkies, do you?”
“If you were white I’d praise your ivory skin and your rosy nipples,” I said. “If you were Asian I’d praise your golden glow and your delicate almond eyes. I like all races of beautiful women, Naomi, and you are a beautiful woman. I didn’t choose you because I have some kind of fetish for black girls. I chose you because I fell for you the moment I saw you. I stayed with you because you were bright and funny and pleasant to be with. I wanted you, not some abstract like a race or a sex. Just you.”
Her expression softened and she nodded. “All right,” she said.
“Look, if that kind of comment bothers you, I’ll damn well stop making it,” I said. “I don’t want to upset you.”
“What are your intentions toward me? You never answered that.”
I tried to think. “Would you like to move in with me?” I said.
“I think we should break it off,” she said.
I sat there stunned. I couldn’t think what to say. The waiter came over with my beer. “Thank you,” I said. I grabbed the cold, sweaty glass with both hands and took a long drink. The yeast smell always made me think of bread.
“Why?” I finally asked her. “Don’t you love me?”
“I’ve been thinking about this, and I just don’t think it’s proper for a student to be involved with a professor.”
“I’m not your professor. I’m in a different department!”
“And in addition to that, you’re going back to America at the end of the year.”
“Come with me,” I said.
“No bloody way,” she said. “Go live in America, where there’s no National Health and racists are everywhere?”
“Hon, there are racists in Britain, too—or hadn’t you noticed? Ever hear of this thing called the National Front?”
“They mostly go after Muslims these days.”
“And that makes it all right?” I said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s okay that they go after Muslims? Prejudice against blacks is wrong, but prejudice against Muslims is okay?”
“You know that’s not what I meant! Jesus, Milo!”
“Well, what did you mean?”
“Stop it,” she said. “Stop cross-examining me. That’s something I bloody hate about you. You’re so damn aggressive. You’re confrontational even when you don’t have to be. And I don’t want to put up with that from somebody who claims he loves me!”
I leaned back. I had definitely chosen the wrong tack. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Naomi…I’m really sorry. If I’ve been doing that to you…look, I can change. Do you want to go to, I don’t know, couples therapy or something?”
“Suppose we do,” she said. “We go to couples therapy and you get all nice and easygoing. And then what?”
“You come to America with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“I move in with you? How about marriage?”
Oh, shit, that’s what she wants. Of course. Idiot! “Marry me,” I said.
“Got a ring ready, have you?”
“I’ll get one.”
“With a big diamond?”
“Anything you want.”
“The point is, I wish you wanted it, Milo. And it never occurred to you until I brought it up.”
“We’ve only been going together a month. I…Of course I thought about marriage, but—”
Her voice continued to rise. “But why buy the cow when you’re getting the milk for free?”
People were turning to look at us now. “For Christ’s sake, stop it,” I said. “I kind of thought it was consensual. Are you saying I forced you into it? That you didn’t want to do it?”
She sighed and closed her eyes, putting her face on her fists. She took a minute before replying. “I’m sorry,” she said at last. “I’m not being fair. You didn’t force me to do anything, and I did enjoy it. I’m…I’m angry at myself for violating my beliefs, and I’m taking it out on you. I’m sorry, Milo.”
“What beliefs? Christian beliefs? I’m a Christian, too!” If only nominally.
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I love you. It’s all right.”
“It’s not all right,” she said. “I can’t…I’m blaming this all on you, and that’s wrong, but I meant what I said about you being too confrontational and about not thinking about marrying me. This isn’t going to work out and I want to end it. I’m sorry, Milo. I’m very sorry. You’re a lovely man in so many, many ways. But I want to break it off.”
I went to her side and knelt on one knee. I took her hand in both of mine. “Please don’t leave me. I love you. Please marry me and move to America with me, and I will always, always be good to you. I love you so much.”
She started to cry. “I’m sorry, Milo. It’s over.”
# # #
I went to the men’s room and sat in a stall for a while, trying to absorb the blow. When I got back, Naomi had left. She had paid her own bill.
I had another class at two-thirty, but the hell with it. I’d call in sick. I was sick—sick over blowing my relationship with a wonderful lover and potential wife. I needed time by myself.
I took the underground out to Waltham Forest—the “green corridor” part that blends into Epping Forest in the east—and set out on a route I knew to be plain, untouched woods for five or ten kilometers. I passed through the stone gate and a field with kids playing soccer.
“You’re bloody useless, Atherton!” shouted one kid.
“Sit on it, you great Welsh bastard!”
No fight materialized; they kept chasing the ball. Things seemed to drag. Even my backpack felt heavier. Color had gone out of the world. Everything felt dull, heavy. I headed into the trees. The air seemed to smell of salt. Funny this far from the sea.
I had the stuff I always carried. My entire weather gear consisted of my blue Queen Mary College windbreaker. My backpack held my calculator, a spiral notebook, and some books. Strapped to the backpack was my Fender Stratocaster, snug in its case, with two flat little port-amps in the side pockets. I wanted to walk until I exhausted myself, then go home to my flat. No classes tomorrow. Maybe I’d stay up all night and watch DVDs. I wasn’t going to get drunk. Not me. I wasn’t that type.
It started to rain. Oh, perfect.
Soon it turned to a real downpour. The sky darkened. Lightning flashed, followed by a loud crack of thunder.
Great. Just great. Backpack, Fender…Where the hell was my little black umbrella? You always carry a brolly in London. Then I remembered the green patio tiles next to my chair at Nathan’s. That’s where it was. Schmuck!
I hadn’t been walking long, but I had already made several turns through the forest path. Which way was the park entrance? I looked around. No idea. I kept going. Visibility in the rain fell to yards. My pace slowed.
Lightning flashed, followed at once by a loud roar of thunder, making me yell. The flash lit my surroundings just in time for me not to hit a huge old oak, shiny black in the rain.
My clothes were as soaked as if I’d gone into the tub dressed, turned on the shower full blast, and stayed in for an hour. Water ran down my face and neck. The windbreaker was useless in a storm like this. I held up one arm, then the other. The sleeves had become translucent.
My breath puffed out in clouds. My fingers and toes felt icy, the cold painful. I scrunched my toes up in my shoes and pounded my fists together. Then I put my hands under my underarms.
The ground ran with mud. Walking got harder. I slipped repeatedly. I breathed very fast. “Oh man…this was not…a good…decision,” I gasped.
Flash and bang simultaneously, and I jumped, slipped, and fell face down in the mud. It occurred to me that I could die out here. People did die of exposure from time to time, people with Alzheimer’s who wandered away from nursing homes…and perhaps the occasional assistant professor of astrophysics too stupid to check the weather before taking a long hike.
I tried to get up, slipped, again wound up face-down. “Gimme a break!” I said, spitting out icy mud and papery bits of decayed leaves. I grunted at the bitter under-taste of tannic acid. My hands were freezing. I couldn’t feel my toes anymore; cold water filled my tennis shoes. If I didn’t move I was going to die. I got up and ran clumsily, slipped, skidded, frantically pinwheeled my arms to keep my balance, lost it and smacked into a tree—bright warm pain for a moment—and landed flat on my back on the ground, rain pouring over my face. The cold rain soothed my battered cheek, but I was so cold. So cold. Shaking…
My vision started to break up. Dark blotches blotted out my gray surroundings.
Naomi, I love you!
# # #
I came to slowly, feeling toasty warm. Very nice. Wait a minute, I thought. When you have hypothermia, feeling warm equals freezing to death. I tried to get up. A hand on my shoulder stopped me.
“You’re awake then, sir?” Female voice. Middle-aged.
I wasn’t on my face in cold mud. I was on my back in a soft bed, covered by blankets, with something radiating heat at my feet. “Am I in the hospital?”
“In the what, sir?”
“The ER. Am I in a hospital emergency room?”
“Not sure what you mean, sir. You’re in Highview Castle. I am Mrs. Webring, the chief cook.”
“Oh,” I said. I had no idea where Highview Castle was, nor why its chief cook should be treating me. I tried to focus. The stout, gray-haired woman bent over me wore a dress, an apron, and a mob cap. The walls and ceiling looked like wood paneling. Was this some kind of recovery clinic? “Was there any damage?”
“To my extremities. Did I lose any fingers, toes?”
“My goodness, no, sir, but you nearly caught your death of cold. We brought you inside and warmed you up, sir.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you very much.”
“Not at all, sir. The right thing to do, of course.”
“I appreciate it.”
I had to call Naomi. She’d listen to this. I’d nearly died. Maybe she’d be willing to come see me. Oh, Milo, I’m so sorry I ever broke up with you. I love you madly…Yeah, right. But call her anyway. “Can I have my phone?”
“Do you mean the telephone, sir?”
“Sir, the only telephone in Highview Castle is in the Mistress’s rooms, and I don’t think she’ll allow you to use that, sir.”
“I’ve got a cell,” I said. “A Nokia with a pay-as-you-go plan with British Telecom.”
“Don’t know what you mean, sir.”
She never heard of cell phones? Where the hell was I? Had I gotten out of London entirely? I felt around a little under the blanket. My hand touched my naked thigh. “Where are my clothes?”
“I don’t know if your clothes are dry yet, sir. I shall ask the laundry.”
“Look, I really have to call somebody and let them know where I am.”
“I’m sure matters can be arranged in good time, sir. You’re out of the cold. Now get a good rest.” She patted my shoulder and reached for something past my head.
I looked up. She turned the key to extinguish a gas lamp on the wall over my head, then left the darkened room, gently closing the door after her.
A gas lamp?
She had said “Highview Castle.” Presumably I was on some big estate, but even castles had electricity these days. I had to look around. Investigate. Scientist and all that. I threw off the covers and sat up. Too fast. Colored blotches rose up in front of my eyes.
I fell. Sprawled on the floor. Hard, cold wood, no rug.
I heard running feet outside. The door opened and there was light, though not much. Someone lit the gas lamp. “Where is he?” a male voice said.
“He was lying right there,” Mrs. Webring said.
“I see him, Webby. Far side.” I looked up to see a man dressed rather like a butler come around the foot of the bed. “Let’s get you back into bed, sir.” He helped me up. Normally I would have been embarrassed to be completely naked in front of strangers, one of them a woman, but I felt so weak and tired it didn’t occur to me. The guy had me sit on the bed. Mrs. Webring pulled down the covers, the guy lifted my legs into bed, my head hit the pillow, and Mrs. W. pulled the covers up.
“Thanks,” I said. “Sorry about this.”
Mrs. W. bent over me. “You need your rest, sir! Now there’s a bell on the end-table if you should want something, but I advise you to try and sleep. You’re very weak and tired, sir.” Then they left.
Too late, I asked the closed door, “Hey, what’s with the gas lamp?”