The shop, which was about a hundred yards off Fifth Avenue, was so discreet as to be almost invisible. Its single front window was blanked by heavy drapes, and down in one corner it bore small bronze letters which said ALTEREALITIES INC. The peach-coloured light from within was so subdued that, even in the gathering darkness of a December afternoon, it was difficult to be sure the place was open for business.
Arthur Bryant hesitated for a moment on the sidewalk, trying to overcome his nervousness, then opened the door and went in.
“Good afternoon, sir—may I help you?” The speaker was a swarthy young man with slaty jowls and a dark business suit that had an expensive silkiness to it. He was seated at a large desk on which was a nameplate proclaiming him to be one T. D. Marzian, Branch Manager.
“Ah…I’d like some information, “Bryant said, taking in his surroundings with some interest. A plump girl with cropped brown hair was seated nearby at a smaller desk. The ambience was one of deep carpet, hessian walls and intimate whispers of music. The only item which distinguished the place from a thousand other plushy front offices was a silvery disk about the size of a manhole cover which occupied an area of carpet behind the two desks.
“Glad to be of service,” Marzian said. “What would you like to know?”
Bryant cleared his throat. “Can you really transfer people into other universes? Universes where things are different?”
“We do it all the time—that’s our business.” Marzian’s jowls parted to make room for an easy, reassuring smile. “All a client has to do is specify his ideal conditions, and—provided they are not so preposterous that they can’t exist anywhere in the multitude of alternate realities—we relocate him in the universe of his dreams. Our Probability Redistributor operates instantaneously, painlessly and with total reliability.”
“It sounds marvellous,” Bryant breathed.
Marzian nodded. “It is marvellous—well worth every cent of the fee. What sort of reality parameters did you have in mind?”
Bryant glanced in the direction of the plump girl, turned his back to her and lowered his voice. “Do you think…? Would it be possible…?”
“There’s no need to be embarrassed, sir—we have a lot of experience in meeting customers’ various personal requirements, and our service is absolutely confidential.”
“I was wondering,” Bryant mumbled, “if you could transfer me to a reality in which … er … I had the most perfectly developed physique in the world?” His diffidence was caused by the fact that he was five-four in his shoes and had no other dimensions that he cared to discuss. He waited, enduring the other man’s scrutiny, half-expecting a look of derision—but Marzian appeared to be in no way amused or perturbed.
“We most certainly could—no problem whatsoever.” Marzian spoke with breezy confidence. “You know, for a moment you almost had me convinced you were going to ask for something difficult.”
Bryant experienced a pang of purest joy. Until that moment he had not really dared believe that his dream could be fulfilled anywhere in the multiple-probability universes, but now he could begin planning the sort of life he would enjoy as an adulated superman. I’ll have five different women every day fora month, he thought, just to break the new body in. Then I’ll settle down to a life of moderation—maybe only two or three women a day…
“There is just the matter of the fee,” Marzian was saying. “A hundred thousand dollars may seem a lot, but the cost of installing and running the Probability Redistributor is astronomical—and the fee does cover our unique Triple Chance facility. What it amounts to is that, if necessary, you get up to three transfers for the price of one.”
“Huh?” Bryant’s old doubts were reawakened. “Why should…? Does that mean something can go wrong?”
Marzian laughed indulgently. “The Probability Redistributor never goes wrong, sir, but we provide the Triple Chance facility so that each client can select a reality which exactly matches his requirements. On the rare occasions when a problem arises, it is usually because the specification was incomplete or too vague.”
“I see.” Bryant tilted his head, frowning. “Or do I?”
Marzian spread his hands. “Well, suppose you were a poker fanatic and you asked to be relocated in a reality where everything—social status included—was dictated by skill in poker. When you got there you might find that the inhabitants of that universe played nothing but five-card draw, whereas your strong point was seven-card stud. That wouldn’t be very satisfactory from your point of view, but all you would have to do would be to press the button on your handy pocket-sized Probability Normalizer, and it would instantly return you to this reality. Under the terms of our Triple Chance clause you would be entitled to a free transfer to a clearly specified universe where seven-card stud was the thing, and you would live happily ever after and Alterealities Incorporated would have yet another satisfied client.”
Bryant’s brow cleared. “Nothing could be fairer than that! When can I go?”
“Almost immediately, sir. As soon as…” Marzian gave a polite but significant cough.
“There’s no need to worry about the money side of it,” Bryant said buoyantly. “I’ve got just over a hundred thou in my account. Mind you, I had to sell everything I owned to get it, but what the hell! The way I see it, if I’m not going to be back in this reality, I might as well…” He broke off as he noted the pained expression which had appeared on Marzian’s face.
“If you would care to speak to Miss Cruft, she will deal with all the necessary formalities,” Marzian said, sweeping one hand in the direction of the plump girl’s desk. “In the meantime I will activate and calibrate the Probability Redistributor.” He sat down at his own larger desk, which to Bryant’s eyes now had something of the appearance of a console, and started clicking switches.
“Of course,” Bryant said in an apologetic voice, sensing that the branch manager—as a professional rearranger of probabilities—was above concerning himself with the vulgar commercial details of the business. When he approached Miss Cruft her smile was sympathetic, and unexpectedly pleasant, but Bryant scarcely registered the fact. His thoughts were already turning to the lissome, long-thighed beauties who could be clamouring for his favours when he was the most perfectly developed man in the world. He established his identity and credit rating, made a computerised transfer of funds, and signed contractual papers in a haze of pleasurable anticipation.
“Here’s your Probability Normalizer,” Marzian said, handing him an object like a cigarette case with a press button in the centre of one side. “Now, if you would like to stand on the probability focus plate…”
Bryant obediently stepped on to the floor-mounted silver disk and watched Marzian rotate knobs and tap keys on panels that were let into his desk. At the conclusion of the ritual, Marzian reached for a red button which was larger than all the others. Bryant had time for one pang of wonderment and apprehension at the idea of being propelled into an alternative universe—then Marzian and Miss Cruft and all their familiar surroundings were gone.
He was standing in a vast, green-tiled plaza which was rimmed with egg-shaped buildings. Here and there were potted palms which swayed continuously despite the absence of any breeze, and the sun appeared to have spiral offshoots like a frozen Catherine wheel, but Bryant had no thought to spare for external marvels. First on the list of priorities was the checking out of his brand-new superbody; then would come a few weeks of silken dalliance; then perhaps he would get round to nature studies.
He looked down at himself and emitted a bleat of anguish.
His physique had not changed in any way!
Whimpering with disappointment, he pulled off his jacket and shirt and confirmed the awful discovery that his body was the same substandard assemblage of frail bones and assorted scraps of fatty tissue he had always known. When he tried to flex his right bicep it, as always, continued to snuggle along his upper arm like two ounces of hog belly. Bryant was glowering at it, his disappointment turning to anger against T. D. Marzian and the criminal organisation for which he worked, when he heard a low whistle from somewhere close behind him.
“Take a gander at that physique,” a man’s voice said in tones of awe. “Say, I’ll bet you that’s Mister Galaxy.”
“Nah,” said another male voice. “Mister Galaxy can’t match those deltoids—he must be Mister Cosmos.”
Bryant whirled round, saw two oddly attired little men gaping at his torso and his rising fury spilled over into words. “Are you trying to be funny?” he demanded. “Because if you are…”
The little men cowered back with a convincing show of fear.
“Not us, sir,” one of them babbled. “Forgive us for making comments, but we’re both physical-culture freaks from way back, and we’ve never seen a human powerhouse like you before.”
“That’s right,” his companion put in fervently. “I’d give a million zlinkots for a build like yours. Two million.”
Bryant glared from one to the other, still convinced he was being hazed; then a curious fact was borne home to him. Malicious fate had saddled him with a body that was undersized and puny, but that was nothing to the trick it had played on these strangers. They barely came up to his shoulder, and their clinging garments revealed concave chests and legs which would have looked more appropriate on stick insects. Bryant looked beyond them and saw that all the other men strolling in the plaza were jerry-built on similar lines, and the first glimmers of understanding came to him.
If what he saw was a representative sample, if all the men on this world looked alike, then there was every likelihood that he was the most perfectly developed specimen of the lot.
Alterealities Incorporated had fulfilled its contract after all, but not in the way he had anticipated.
“I can’t get over those pectorals,” the first man commented, his gaze fixed admiringly on Bryant’s chest.
“And how about those lats?” the second one added. “He must work out for hours every day.”
“Oh, I like to keep in shape,” Bryant said modestly, preening himself. Then a new thought came to him. “Do you think the girls would go for a body like mine?”
“Go for it!” The first man rolled his eyes. “You won’t be able to fight them off.”
As if to verify his words, there came a series of gasps, giggles and other sounds of feminine delight from somewhere off to Bryant’s right. He turned and saw a group of six or seven young women approaching him at considerable speed. They were wide-eyed and pink-cheeked with what appeared to be unbridled desire. After a brief pause, during which they ogled his body from close up, they began to touch him with eager fingers. Others jostled for position, and in less than ten seconds Bryant was at the centre of a scrimmage. As he struggled to keep his feet in the confusion, hands clutched at various parts of his anatomy with disconcerting lack of finesse, bodies ground against him, lips were pressed urgently to his, and his ears were bombarded with proposals, the least bold of which required him to nominate his place or hers.
The situation might have been highly gratifying to one with Bryant’s history of frustration, except for one unfortunate fact—the women of this world were, if anything, less well-endowed than their menfolk. Sharp elbows and knees beat painful tattoos all over his frame; bony fingers threated to remove pieces of his flesh. The overall effect was akin to being attacked by rapacious skeletons. Moaning in panic, Bryant lunged for freedom, groping in his jacket pocket for the flat shape of the Probability Normalizer.
He found it, pressed the button, and on the instant—his jacket and shirt still draped over his arm—he was standing on the silvery disk in Alterealities Incorporated’s New York office. T. D. Marzian and Miss Cruft were gazing at him, the former with cool surprise, the latter with some degree of consternation.
“Were things not entirely to your satisfaction, sir?” Marzian asked blandly.
“Satisfaction?” Bryant quavered, heading unsteadily for the nearest chair. “My God, man, I nearly got torn to pieces!”
He began to relate what had happened, but had uttered only a few words when it came to him that he was partially nude in the presence of Miss Cruft. Embarrassed, he struggled into his clothing and finished his story.
“Most unfortunate,” Marzian said in matter-of-fact tones. “But now you can appreciate the value of our Triple Chance facility—you still have two free transfers in hand.”
“Two? You mean you’re going to count that…shambles?” Bryant was shocked and indignant. “You sent me into a completely wrong sort of universe.”
“It was the one you specified. We have your instructions here in your own writing.”
“Yes, but when I said I wanted to be the most perfectly developed man in the world, I meant I wanted a new physique. One like Mister America’s.”
Marzian gave him a barely perceptible shake of the head. “The Probability Redistributor doesn’t work that way. You are you, sir. You are one invariant point in an ocean of probabilities, and nothing can be done to alter that fact. The only realities in which you can exist are those in which you are short of stature and…um…somewhat underpowered.”
Bryant, having invested practically every penny he owned, refused to be put off so easily. “Aren’t there any realities in which all the men are scrawny midgets, like the two I told you about, and all the women are…well…normal?” Making sure Miss Cruft was not watching, Bryant made ballooning gestures in front of his chest so that there would be no doubt about what he meant by “normal“.
“That’s hardly logical, is it?” Marzian’s voice now had an edge of impatience. “The males and females of any species have to be compatible, to share similar characteristics; otherwise that species couldn’t exist.”
Bryant’s shoulders slumped. “Does that mean I’ve wasted all my money? All I wanted was to live in a reality where beautiful women would fall over themselves to get at me. Was that too much to ask?”
Marxian stroked his chin with the air of a man intrigued by a professional challenge. “There’s no need to despair, Mr Bryant. Just take a look around you at our own reality. There are lots of extremely unprepossessing men who have more women than they know what to do with. The common factor is that these men can do something better than most others. Women go for success, you see. It doesn’t have to be in anything marvellous—singing, dancing, hitting a ball, driving a car … Is there anything you are particularly good at?”