Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Eros Pratfalled, Or, Adrift in the Cosmos With Lasagna and Mary Steenburgen

Ellis Neider met his soulmate. The End.

That’s his story. The rest is annotation. We would almost skip that part, were it not for the stone knowledge that any love story not about masturbation does require at least two characters. The object of his affection does deserve something approaching equal time.

Ellis was a guy. Some men are guys, other men are dudes. Ellis was a guy. As a child, he was a little guy. As an adult, he was a bigger guy. Like most guys, he gave off the vibe that he knew the universe operated by a certain set of rules and that he had somehow missed getting on line when the powers handed out the books. He was not a bad guy. He was just a guy.

He had sandy hair that resisted combing, a problem that in the normal march of things would solve itself with the onset of male pattern baldness. He had a jawline that was always gray with incipient beard no matter how cruelly he applied the razor, eyes that watered if anybody stared at them for too long, and a wistful expression that went along with knowing exactly who his soulmate was and how difficult it was going to be to arrange the meeting.

You would like Ellis. You would likely be attracted to him, as potential friend if not as potential mate.

Ellis worked in a home supplies superstore. His specialty was cabinetry. He knew everything there was to know about cabinetry. This was not the area of expertise he would have chosen for himself as a child—he wanted to be an astronaut, in no small part because he knew about his soulmate even then—but cabinetry was what he did to keep body and soul together, a part of his life that amounted to the hours he spent waiting for them to be over so he could go on to the rest of his existence, which alas also consisted of waiting.

He had an Xbox. He blasted zombies. Sometimes he ordered pizza, a weekly habit that contributed to the slight bulge in his midsection. He wasn’t fat, but he did not have washboard abs either. This is one of the factors that contributed to him being a guy.

He liked sci-fi. He didn’t call it science fiction, but sci-fi. Again, this is of necessary interest in light of the secret connection he had to his soulmate. It would be critical to his eventual fate that he was a reader, one of the last among a dying breed, and that he preferred escapism to finely wrought tales of angst and character; essentially, anything where the hero roared rips, anything where the guy at the center of the action got to battle vast waves of alien vermin armed with nothing but determination and a sharp sword. His ideal of fiction was anything that made him cry Yee-ha. This was also critical to his fate, as if he hadn’t encountered a certain model he wouldn’t have ever had the opportunity to bond with the soul the cosmos had designated as forever entwined with his: the one he ached for, and was eager to meet, from the very moment he was aware of himself as more than an infantile ball of need, wailing for mother’s milk. Before he could speak, his spirit had pierced the distance separating him from the one being whose spirit resonated most with his, whose heart beat in time with his.

And therein lay the problem.

His soulmate could have been a green-eyed, red-haired Irish girl named Caitlyn, actually fresh from the island with an accent to match, also with a ready smile and an infectious laugh, who loved dogs, classical music, and long walks in the woods; who played the guitar often but not well, who liked to sing but had no illusions of ever making a professional go of it, who just liked to warble on long car rides and in the shower because it made her feel good; who preferred t-shirts to blouses but could rock a sequined gown like nobody’s business; who ate waffles every Sunday morning.

His soulmate could have been a brown-eyed, shaven-headed black guy named Rafael, born in Encino, who smiled little because he had a habit of brooding but could occasionally light up the room with his blinding white teeth; who absolutely loathed dogs but who maintained seawater aquariums, who liked hip-hop and loathed the woods but loved the beach, who had an odd passion for medieval German history and whose preferred form of wit was the pun; whipcord-thin, the kind of guy made to wear three-piece suits; who wore a jaunty trilby; who never ate breakfast, but was a bit of a bore on the subject of sushi and on the very long weekend he had spent trapped in Tulsa.

Ellis’s soulmate could have been any one among billions of others.

Hell, in the absence of a soulmate, a good match, a person who could have been his best friend, a compatible sexual partner, a considerate roommate, a contributor to the family coffers, anybody not a total asshole, would have been doable, in multiple senses of the word.

And Ellis tried. Oh, he tried. He tried with Caitlyn and it was lovely, but there were times when his mind was on the unattainable other soul he knew, and she saw it, and after a few months there inevitably came the day when he went in for a dutiful kiss and she placed both her delicate palms on his chest and looked up at him with an affection millions of men would have crawled across shattered glass for and said, We need to talk; clearly, I’m not the one. He tried with Rafael and it too was lovely, but again there were times when his heart beat in time with that other unavailable to him, and there came the day when Rafael peered at him from across their king-sized bed and said, You know what? This ain’t working. He tried with others, including a couple of Heathers and a Lucas and for a while with a Minerva, an actual Minerva, who had begun life as Menachem and who loved him, for a while, from across the greatest age gap of his sexual life, thirty-seven years. Minerva was gray but lively and for the longest time, the very longest time, she was not just lover but spiritual and erotic teacher, imparting a knowledge of life and the act that made Ellis a terrific short-term lover, but failed to render him desirable as life partner.

More than one person said to him, “Who the hell are you waiting for, anyway?”

And that was the thing.

Ellis knew.

He just thought it was impossible, and as crazy as you probably would.

• • • •

First of the problems was that his soulmate was dead, and had in fact been dead for a long time.

Familiarity with romantic fantasies of various sorts have accustomed you to the premise that this can be overcome. In the pop culture realm you inhabit, people are forever finding their soulmates in eras far removed from their own. You may remember Claire Randall or Richard Collier or Kyle Reese or James T. Kirk, all of whom met their dearest love at times removed from their own. Then there was Doc Brown and a version of H.G. Wells, both of whom rode their respective time machines to lasting relationships with women played by Mary Steenburgen. Honestly, if you believe the advertising, a hottie from the Napoleonic Era isn’t all that prohibitive a meet-up. That Ellis’s soulmate had been dead of old age for much longer—approximately seventeen hundred years—would not have presented much of a problem by this precedent.

Nor do you expect much of a problem with the announcement that the soulmate in question was a non-human, living on an alien world. Again, you have seen guys making it with blue women and green women, women making it with furry guys and robot guys and lots and lots and lots of vampires. It happens. Love is love, right?

Here we introduce Ellis’s soulmate.

At this point, we find ourselves obliged to introduce new pronouns. The creature in question had evolved in an entirely different ecosystem and the dance of time had created a trio of gender that did not line up with our classical two or any existing combination or variation, recognized or not. For reference we will use ze as the article and zer as the possessive. Zer name was unpronounceable by us, as the language zer species had developed reflected an entirely different vocal apparatus and frequent clouds of purple pheromone. Rather than make up a fanciful name to go with all that alienness, like Arailasi or Glar or Bathanibe or B’lg’n’z’p’th, we take pity and insert a name that ze would find as hard to fathom as we find some of those. Because human gender is irrelevant we could easily pick a male name, a female name, or a neutral name, but we will pick the name that best conjures zer personality: Myrna.

Myrna obeyed no biological model we know, but description is no insoluble problem. Ze was invertebrate, roughly oblong in shape, and semi-liquid, a word that sounds gross until you reflect that the same is true of you and me. Ze is best pictured as a stack of rubbery, flexible mats, containing all zer necessary organs and separated by a matching series of more liquid layers retaining heat, that constantly oozed out around the edges. The most accessible metaphor in your experience is probably lasagna.

Like the rest of zer species, Myrna was capable of locomotion and ze oozed about a planetary surface thick with the primordial juice, ingesting it at one end and excreting it at the other. Ze was charming and witty and a historian devoted to the study of an ancient war fought over an issue that would require an entire shelf of text to explain, of which ze was zer kind’s most renowned scholar. Ze was considered a catch and ze had a series of assignations with zer own equivalents of Caitlyn and Rafael, both separately and together, and with colonies of melded creatures we would have trouble positing as conglomerations of Phils and Aimees and Vitos and Yukios. You need to know that if you did the heroic labor necessary to translate everything ze did into human metaphor, ze would be the shy but dazzling creature nursing a white wine beside the fern, allowing the party to come to zer; ze had no personal need to do any chasing. Everybody wondered why ze hadn’t settled down.

The answer was that, from the moment ze first congealed from the elements that gave zer kind form, ze knew that zer heart—well, not actually zer heart, because ze didn’t have one, but an organ of equivalent importance—belonged to a distant being of unaccountable strangeness, named Ellis Neider, who specialized in an arcane skill involving artifacts known as cabinets.

It was an uncanny connection, one that sometimes left Myrna doubting zer sanity, but it could not be denied. Destiny could not be denied. This Ellis, whatever he was, wherever he was, whatever nature of world had spawned him, was zer soulmate, and though ze made every conscientious effort to live within the dictates of zer biosphere, it was impossible to form any lasting relationships for as long as he remained zer destiny.

Ze pined over him all the thirty snumpoks of zer life, a not inconsiderable period of time among zer kind. Ze felt the tenor of his being, tasted his lust for life, his aching vulnerability, the million and a half ways his totality resonated with zers. Ze knew that it could never be, that he lived—actually, would live, as he was many years from being born—on a planet shocking in its conditions, infested by a race stunning in its venality and short-sightedness, in whose company he was trapped. Ze ached to join him, or to have him join zer, though common sense counseled that this was impossible.

Ze wept, or performed the equivalent of weeping, which is more we’re not going to go into.

If only—

• • • •

If only.

Allowing for the many years it took the light of Myrna’s world to shine in the night sky above the apartment where Ellis had spent the latest in a long series of evenings alone, after yet another paramour had fled to parts unknown after sadly telling him that permanence was not in their shared future, Ellis thought these same words with what was as close as the universe allowed for synchronicity.

He stood in his apartment, so recently vacated by his last consolation prize of a lover. He gazed upon the art prints on the walls, and the oversized flatscreen on which he and that individual already fading in his memory watched their last date night movie, Love, Actually. The tears would not come. But he did feel the familiar yawning void in his heart, and he thought of the being he did not, personally, think of as Myrna. He knew that ze was alien, and he knew how crazy his mother would get if he ever explained to that poor, fluttery woman who kept hinting about grandchildren that this was the match every atom of his being insisted on holding out for. He wondered what ze was doing, and the answer of course was that on zer world so many generations had passed that all zer substance had been passed on to the other living things in zer own planet’s cycle of life; allowing true synchronicity, ze was in a million different places, being eaten, metabolized, breathed in, exhaled, excreted, or otherwise churned the way we are all fated to be, once our own substance returns to the soil. It may be true that zer own soul was being similarly recycled, its bits and pieces distributed among the other beings of zer world, but these are philosophical matters we need not go into now. Forget the actual gulf of time. Allow the signal passed between two beating hearts, or between one heart and whatever ze had, to stand in simultaneity. At what passed for this moment, no two lovers had ever yearned more desperately for their very first meeting.

Ellis had no reason to believe that tonight was any more fateful than any other night, nor was there anybody present functioning as the equivalent of the officiant of a Passover seder to explain exactly why. He just thought his poor excuse for a life had been shattered to empty pieces again. And so he stormed about for a bit, fulminating, cursing his fate, scaring the cat, drowning his sorrows in a belt, and after a timeless time spent performing the various other manifestations of his pity for himself, indeed a period that might have lasted days, did what we all do in such a circumstance and began to move on. He sighed and reached for another consolation, which at this fateful moment was a very old and battered science fiction novel that he had bought years earlier but that he had always neglected in favor of more contemporary works. It happened to be the first to fall within the reach of his grasping hand, at this instant when—again, allowing for the chronological lag—Myrna was just as vehemently yearning for him.

Because he picked up that one specific book, he in very short order read Edgar Rice Burroughs’s rationale for John Carter’s first trip to Mars.

As I stood thus meditating, I turned my gaze from the landscape to the heavens where the myriad stars formed a gorgeous and fitting canopy for the wonders of the earthly scene. My attention was quickly riveted by a large red star close to the distant horizon. As I gazed upon it I felt a spell of overpowering fascination—it was Mars, the god of war, and for me, the fighting man, it had always held the power of irresistible enchantment. As I gazed at it on that far-gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void to lure me to it, to draw me as the lodestone attracts a particle of iron.

And with that, the fictional gentleman from Virginia conveniently found himself on Mars, where he was to meet his soulmate, the lovely Dejah Thoris.

Perhaps on any other night, Ellis would have retained too much grounding in the concrete world of his everyday existence to make the leap of faith. But right now, he was bereft; right now, there was nothing to his four walls and IKEA furnishings to hold him. Right now, he could feel zer, the being who would complete him, calling. Moving like a man in a dream, he left his apartment and descended the stairs and stood in the street outside, looking up at a sky that was for this moment brilliant in its clarity and its abundance of starlight. One bright light among all the thousands seemed to him to pulse with an urgency that dwarfed all its brethren, and this one he addressed with a degree of focus he had never known, through which he sensed the creature who was the focus of all his longing, addressing zer own stars with just as much fervency.

The universe bent itself to their shared will.

He was transported out of his clothing, which remained on the pavement, the only forensic evidence in a mystery that the world of his birth would never solve. Those who knew him, his family and friends and co-workers and the lovers who had drifted away in sadness, would spend the rest of their lives wondering what had happened to good old Ellis, that poor guy who really did deserve happiness, even if he never had seemed to figure out what he wanted.

Ellis felt nothing but an interval of dizzying speed, stars going by so quickly that he perceived them as Doppler-shifted streaks, and then—

• • • •

He found himself standing on a moist glistening crag in an ill-smelling murk, in a literally unearthly cold beneath stars that, for all his knowledge of astronomy, could have been those of Rio, or Shanghai, or Cleveland. It was cold enough for his breath to emerge as vapor, which made the disappearance of his clothing especially unfortunate. Goose bumps erupted, but this was not just a function of the cold. He could sense zer nearby, and more importantly could sense zer registering him, and through their connection felt a boundless joy that was echoed by his own. Whatever the differences in their species, whatever the differences in their cultures, this was a moment that was always meant to happen, and that meant their differences would be met, and overcome, the two hearts, or again his heart and whatever it was ze had, finally joined in one.

The world seemed empty. In one direction, there was nothing but an endless plain, marked here and there with greasy streaks that glistened in the starlight. In the other was a wall so high that it scraped the very heavens, so wide that there was no possibility of walking around it, so featureless that there was no possibility of even an experienced free climber, which he was not, to scale it. Wherever ze was—and he could sense that ze was near, aware of his proximity but as unable to spot him as he was to spot zer—it seemed that the task of crossing this last divide would need to be zers. He had no doubt that ze would. This was zer world. If there was a gap in that towering edifice, ze was the one who’d know where it was.

And then the entire wall rolled forward, making the earth—or whatever you called the surface of a planet that was not Earth—shake. He fell to his knees, saw the clearly biological ways in which the layers of flesh undulated, perceived the yawing wave action in the more liquid layers that separated them, and understood for the very first time that the many barriers between himself and his one true love had never been limited to time and space and biology. All of those could have been overcome. More critical was that which was about to crush him, in a manner more literal than the repeated crushings his heart had endured over the years. Given half a chance, their love could have transcended time and space and biology. It had never stood a chance of surviving the one difference that turned out to be way more critical than any of those: Scale.

For Ellis it was like being run over by a horizontal avalanche. He was flattened, liquefied, rendered a stain that, because of the vagaries of his body chemistry’s interaction with that of this alien place, would never rub off. He ended his existence as zer tattoo.

So yes, for him, that was the story, the one we began with.

Ellis met his soulmate. The End. An object lesson in holding out for what’s perfect, in defiance of what probably would have been perfectly nice.

For Myrna it went a little differently. Upon reducing him to a thin crunchy paste, ze perceived his sudden absence but not the nature of his departure, and though ze was distraught for a while, adjusted. Within four turnings ze was part of a triad. It was for zer a union short on passion but high on practicality, and there were nights when the mating was quite nice, where ze managed to get all the way to what zer kind considered climax without once resorting to fantasies of zer alien Ellis, or forlorn conjectures over what had ever happened to him. It was a happy ending, or at least a contented one, and we can take comfort in the awareness that they had both gotten what they always wanted, even though he was the only one who had even a heartbeat to be fully aware of it.

Ze, on the other hand, would always think of him as the one who got away, much as we happen to know that he really didn’t.

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro. A sixty-year old bearded white male showing extreme love for a cat of siamese ancestry.

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, one World Fantasy Award, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). The audio collection My Wife Hates Time Travel And Other Stories (Skyboat Media) features thirteen hours of his fiction, including the new stories “The Hour In Between” and “Big Stupe and the Buried Big Glowing Booger.” In 2022 he came out with two collections, his The Author’s Wife Vs. The Giant Robot and his thirtieth book, A Touch of Strange. Adam lives in Florida with a pair of chaotic paladin cats.