The House of Many Worlds
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by Sam Merwin, Jr.
Category: Science Fiction/Alternate History
Description: The Classic of Alternate Earths! Ancient, encrusted with legend, supposedly empty, the old mansion on Spindrift Key stood like a dark and lowering wraith. In this classic science fiction novel the New York Times called "a fast-moving adventure, told with engaging humor," reporter Elspeth Marriner's nose for news leads her into a world of trouble. Make that, in worlds of trouble. When she and photographer Mack Fraser, the man she loves to hate, are sent to investigate the old mansion in the Hatteras, they never dream that once inside their lives will never be the same. For the house is a gateway to alternate Earths, watched over by a mysterious group called the Workers, who guard against more advanced civilizations crossing the dimensional barriers to conquer defenseless neighbors. From the Workers, Elspeth learns that her and Mack's presence at the house is no accident. They have been personally selected by the Workers for a dangerous assignment. Their unique combination of talents and knowledge are needed to counter a threat that could plunge the entire world into war. If Elspeth accepted the assignment, she would have to cross to another world, aided only by her native ingenuity, then surmount a succession of plots and counterplots, with death the price of failure. Worse, she would have to work more closely than ever with the detested Mark Fraser. "Merwin has created characters that are human--House of Many Worlds is entertaining and realistic." San Francisco Chronicle. "House of Many Worlds is an exciting, modem science fiction story, with a new and highly unusual twist--outstanding for its realistic characters and expert seasoning of thrills and horror." H. L. Gold, Galaxy Magazine.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: November 2004
16 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [279 KB]
Reading time: 171-239 min.
Elspeth Marriner fingered the sticky surface of the thick tumbler on the gimpy-legged table and wondered what in hell she was doing in the dingy little restaurant. As a poetess, she reminded herself, it was her duty to have her feet in the mire as well as her head in the clouds--but this was going a little too far. Besides, the night sky outside was cloudless.
Seeking to screen out Mack's insistent and unsubtle prodding of the leather-skinned native he was plying with the hot and heavy liquid molasses that passed for rum in this incredibly backward little Carolina community, she concentrated on the strip of pale amber flypaper that dangled from the ceiling, which was less than six feet above her head.
At regular intervals the curved planes of its spiral surface glistened menacingly in the dim reflection of the green-shaded lamp that dangled beyond it from a dark-brown cord. Less regularly, trapped insects buzzed hysterical protest at such unmannerly death as faced them. She counted the flies she could see imbedded in its sticky surface. There were exactly fourteen, five more than had been present the night before. It was these five that were buzzing--the others were still.
Fourteen she thought. Fourteen--the magic number that spelled sonnet. She began mentally to frame a sonnet to fourteen wretched flies, caught in a spiral of flypaper, five alive, nine dead. Surely even such unpleasant creatures merited some sort of memorial to their passing.
She lost the thread of her verse in the midst of a couplet--and her rhyme scheme with it. Her head was aching dully, just in back of her temples, either from lack of sleep in the course of the assignment or from the soggy fried food which was all this Carolina township had to offer, or from the drink and a half of blackstrap rum she had just consumed. Or perhaps her headache was the result of a combination of all three. If Mack didn't get her back to New York on the morrow she would...
She glanced covertly at the photographer, who was leaning on the soiled oilcloth table cover as if eager to absorb every illiterate word of the native's half-drunken blather. It would be pleasant, she thought, to do something that would wipe the conscientious eagerness from his too-hard too-old too-young gladiator's face. According to Orrin Lewis, the tough-fibered smooth-talking managing editor of Picture Week, who had teamed them for the Hatteras Keys assignment, Mack Fraser had once been a professional prizefighter. Elspeth believed him.
Mack's nose was slightly flattened across the bridge, its end a trifle off center. His cheekbones were not quite symmetrical, as if one--the left one--had been shattered by a fist. His eyes habitually wore a sleepy look which, she suspected, came from the thin pouches of scar tissue on their upper lids.
She told herself sternly that she was being a snob, that she had no right to object to the fact that Mack had once made a living in the ring. But she could not help resenting the fact that he seemed determined to treat her as if, merely because she had not had to struggle out of some similar gutter, she did not quite belong to the human race.
"...and I'm telling you, Mack," the native said in his soft brogue as the photographer signaled the bar for a refill, "that there's still some mighty odd things happening around here from time to time." He paused, and the Adam's apple vibrated beneath the scaly red skin of his turkey neck. "We don't make much talk of it to outsiders as a rule." He paused again to chuckle and even sounded like a turkey. "Matter of fact, we don't make much talk of it among ourselves."
"What sort of odd things?" Mack asked quietly. He was leaning back in his chair now, apparently disinterested, since his fish was nibbling at the bait. Elspeth winced, thinking the pumping process painfully obvious. If she were Corey, or whatever the native's name was... But of course she wasn't.
Lacking a waiter, the bartender himself, a large lame individual with faded blue eyes and thick gray hair on the backs of his fingers, brought drinks over to the two men. Corey nodded and mumbled his thanks and lifted his fresh glass to Elspeth, who managed what she hoped was a smile as he downed half its contents at a single gulp. She shuddered at the sight, feeling as though she had drunk it, but on Corey it had no visible effect.
"It's like this," Corey went on, planting his forearms on the table after wiping his mouth with one dirty blue sleeve. "It goes back a long long ways--some say to the bankers, and maybe even beyond."
"I've heard of them," said Elspeth, deciding she ought to say something in return for the courtesy of Corey's toast. "They used to do things to the beacon lights to force ships ashore on the Hatteras shoals and then loot them. Nice people!"
"That they weren't," said Corey, apparently taking her last two words literally. "And they did worse than loot. Some say they slew ten thousand men--aye, and women and little children. They could not afford to let any of them live."
"But what's this funny stuff--these 'odd things' you were starting to tell us about?" said Mack. His voice, Elspeth decided, was not actually bad. But it was rough around the edges, unfiled for subtlety or fine shades of meaning. On the whole it went well with its owner.
"Some nights the lights still shine," said Corey, placing his gnarled and brine-cracked lobster-pot hands flat on the oilcloth table top. His voice dropped a full half octave. "And when the lights are seen things happen. Other times there's darkness--darkness not even the stars can shine through when there's not a cloud in the sky. And that's worse."
"Not so fast, Corey," said Mack, his low forehead furrowed. "You say 'things happen' when these lights are seen. What sort of things?"
"Big things--bad things," the native said slowly, painfully seeking his words. "Things like wars and earthquakes and troubles to match. Times we don't get to hear of them until a long whiles after. But we know when they happen."
"And, Corey, why is this darkness you talk about worse?" Mack inquired, again leaning forward.
Corey hesitated and scratched his unkempt coarse black hair. He looked around the restaurant a trifle furtively and then leaned toward both of them, his voice low and hoarse as he said, "It's difficult to explain--but it is. You've got to see it when it happens to understand what I mean."
"You mean the whole locality--the entire area here--just blacks out?" Elspeth asked incredulously. Although their assignment--to come up with a romantic picture story about the Hatteras Keys and their inhabitants--had been a notable fizzle to date, she was in no mood for haunts.
"Not so you'd notice, miss," said Corey, regarding her as if she were a toddler who had failed to pass a first-grade test. "What I've been telling you is that Spindrift Key is the place."
He paused and Mack cut in with, "I think I know. Let's see, that would be the island just beyond the mouth of the inlet." He looked thoughtful, added, "I'm afraid it's too well groomed--too clipped looking--for this story we've been sent out on. Do you mean to tell me that?"
"What I mean to say is that's where these things happen I've been trying to tell you about," the native said, drawing himself up with a trace of dignified affront. Then, glancing down at his glass, which was again empty, he dropped his dignity and added earnestly, "Listen, you people may be outsiders but you've been mighty decent to me--mighty decent. I wouldn't tell you no lies, not so you'd notice it. I know what I know, Mack."
"But the place can't be haunted," Mack protested solemnly. "Hell, I cruised all around it yesterday with Elspeth here on our way to the outer shoals. It looks like a Southdown manor compared to the rest of these desolate places. And that big white house on it is well kept up. The lawns are clipped and the shrubbery?"
"Didn't say it was haunted," stated Corey, looking hopefully at his glass. "All I told you was that Spindrift Key is where things happened. It's where they've always happened."
"But somebody must live there," Mack said steadfastly. "The place is too well kept up."
"Didn't say nobody lived there neither," Corey told them. "The Frenchman lives there--him and his people. Always have lived there, as far as we know around here."