The Alternate History Fiction of Lou Antonelli

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Rome, If You Want To

Originally published in Surprising Stories, May 2004


Thom Burns looked out his office window.  He could see the nearby Dallas skyline wavering in the vicious heat.  He could feel the heat radiating off the heavy blue tinting.
He could hear the air conditioning straining.  “Goddamn, maybe this summer really is the beginning,” he thought.
It was 1980, the year before he was born, when Dallas saw its previous record set.  It was over 100 degrees for 40 days straight, and that was when Dallas saw its all-time high--113 degrees.
But nobody was talking about global warning then.  Now, after 30 years, Thom knew, that record was about to be broken.
The dark navy stretch Lincoln which was Burns Limo sat outside soaking up the rays.  A few more years in this sun, he thought, and she’ll be baby blue, dammit.
He couldn’t even afford a garage or car port.  It took all his money when he came back from Operation Iranian Liberation to buy the ride and a small manufactured building.
Burns Limousine Service sat in a small rented corner of a strip shopping mall on Industrial Ave. across the highway from the American Airlines Center.  They still called it that even though the airline was long gone.
“No business today,” he thought. “I can just stand here all day and play pocket pool for all the damn good it’ll do me.”
It was the middle of June and the end-of-the-school-year rush was over.  Lots of times he felt like little more than a glorified pimp.  It took him hours each day during the prom season to clean up the interior of the limo.  The teenagers splattered drugs, booze and bodily fluids until it looked like the inside of an office microwave.
He couldn’t afford any help or a receptionist  “I guess I can use the break,” he rationalized..
He had a B-52s CD playing softly in the background.  He liked the upbeat music; it reminded him of when he was young--and he thought he might amount to something when he grew up.
He went to sit back behind his desk and stopped to turn up the CD player so he could better hear it over the roaring AC unit hanging in the back wall.  Instead, he lowered the volume as he heard the bells on the door jangle.
He turned to see a couple of young ladies, smiling and well-dressed.  “Oh, what now?” he thought.  He hadn’t heard anybody pull up.
“Can I help you ladies?”
Both were tall, but the one with auburn hair was taller than her blonde companion.
“We’re sightseeing in Texas and visiting Dallas,” she said.  “We wanted to rent a limousine for a day tour.”
Despite looking as if she was in her early 20s, her speech had the cadence of a middle-aged woman and she spoke very precisely.
“Where y’all from?” he said slathering on a Texas drawl..
“We’re visiting from Luxembourg,” said the blonde.
“Yeah, well, shit, I had to ask,” thought Thom.
“Welcome to Dallas,” he said. “Do you have anything special in mind?”
“We thought we’d rely on you,” said the auburn-haired one.  “We like to get off the beaten path.”
“Well, I’ve lived here all my life,” he said. “We can start downtown and work our way around.  I’ll go over our rates.”
“Oh, don’t bother,” said the blonde.  “We are well-to-do,” she enunciated precisely.  She pulled a bundle of hundreds from her small handbag.  “Will this cover it for a start?”
“Crap, yes,” he blurted out without thinking.  “You two ain’t into anything illegal or kinky, are you?”
They both laughed loudly.  “No, sir, not at all,” said the auburn-haired one.  “We’re just rich.”
“Nice to know somebody’s doing well these days,” he thought.  “Then again, you’re not Americans.”
“Well, then, can I know you two little rich girls’ names”? he said.
The blonde held out he hand in a well-bred manner. “You can call me Annie.  Annie Gerson.”
Her tall companion pumped his hand.  “You can call me Julie.  My name’s Juliana, Juliana Anselmo.”
Thom grabbed a remote control device and stuck his hand out the door.  It was like sticking it into a convention oven.  He started the limo and punched the remote AC start.
He turned and faced the young ladies, smiling.  “That way it will be cool when we get in,” he said.  “Meanwhile we need a little paperwork.”
“Will you be driving us yourself?” asked Julie.
“This is a mom  and pop operation, without mom,” said Thom.  “I’m one of those hard-working American entrepreneurs you hear so much about.”
Julie smiled, but a strange sort of sad look flitted across Annie’s face.
After reviewing some very neat IDs and filling out paperwork, he pulled on his jacket and plopped on a cap. When he turned around he saw the pair was looking at the muted local Weather Channel on the television that sat on top a filing cabinet in the corner.
“New Dallas Record Set,” the scroll said. “Temp hits 114 as 11:10 a.m.”
He would have cursed but he didn’t want to offend his customers.  “The limousine is nice and cool,” he said. “You’ll be very comfortable.”
“No doubt, Mr. Burns,” said Julie.  “We’re sure a Texan knows how to deal with the heat.”


The first place they wanted to visit was the first place everyone visits--Dealey Plaza.  He drove them slowly down Commerce Street and then back around the triple overpass and into the parking lot that overlooks the grassy knoll.
There they got out and looked over the tight white fence where the second gunman supposedly drew his aim.  Thom hung back a bit; their demeanor was reverential, and they didn’t pull out any cameras.
It was a short walk in the searing heat to the County Office Building, the former School Book Depository.  Thom had been through the Sixth Floor Museum many times, but his clients were hushed and downcast at every exhibit. Sometimes Annie seemed on the verge of tears.
It was almost past lunchtime when they emerged.  “You ladies said you wanted some local color while you’re here,” he said.  “Does that include lunch?”
It was an old trick, but it always worked on out-of-towners.  He took them up Central Expressway to Northwest Highway.  The limo barely fit under the awning of Keller’s Drive-In.
He cranked the AC up as high as possible and Julie and Annie giggled as the waitress hung the tables off their windows and plopped down two cheeseburger baskets with onion rings and a couple of ice cold beers.  Thom just had a beer and a chili dog and tipped the waitress very well.
“Any suggestions as to what you would like to visit next?” Thom asked as the tables were being cleared off and taken away.
“We have seen someplace sad and then someplace fun.” Annie leaned forward.  What about someplace beautiful?”
“I have just the place.”
He winced as they drove down Garland Road past a bank that flashed the time and the temperature. It was almost two and the temperature was already 116.
It was a struggle to walk the short distance from the Dallas Arboretum parking lot to the DeGolyer Mansion.  Julie and Annie paused briefly to admire the beautiful blooms that had yet to wilt under the onslaught of the Dallas summer.
Inside, the pair walked slowly as they admired the art and décor of the mansion which had been the home of the respectable family whose donation was at the core of the Arboretum.
Thom hung back a bit. At one point, he saw Annie put her hand to her mouth in front of a painting. The portrait showed a young man in a WWII Army Air Force uniform.
He thought he heard her say to Julie that she knew the man--but that was impossible, given the obvious age of the portrait. Besides, the last heir of the DeGolyers died in WWII.
“That was a good choice, Mr. Burns,” said Julie back in the limo. “ The flowers and the mansion are both very beautiful.  But from now on, we stay in the car.”
“Well, then again, any further requests?” he asked cheerfully.
Annie sat back up against the back seat while Julie sat up straight.  “We want to see your slaloms.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Julie, we don’t ever have winter sports in Dallas.  You can’t mean like snow skiing, do you?”
“No, I mean where your poor people live.”
“Ah-ah, now we get to the pervy part,” though Thom. “I guess to rich people slums must be kinky.”
“I got you,” he said. “We’ll be in Mexico in 30 minutes.”  Both Julie and Annie looked puzzled.


Thom went straight down Singleton Blvd.  His clients were plastered up against opposite windows, making alternating sounds of amazement and sympathy.  The ramshackle homes and dilapidated shops, with jalopies and low riders in front and in between, were within sight of the towers of downtown Dallas--but really a world away: The Third World.
Thom had refrained from any commentary, but he felt compelled to say something now. “This is where the people who do all the work, the dirty work, in Dallas live.  Folks like to run down the Mexicans, but honest to God, they need them.”
He thought about himself as a white person and added, “We need them.”
“This is really so sad,” muttered Annie.
“You don’t have slums in, uh, Luxembourg?”
Luxembourg?  Oh, no, there’s nothing like this where we come from,” said Annie.
Thom turned the limo around before they entered Grand Prairie and headed back towards the city. “I’m open again for suggestions, ladies,” he said.  “We aim to please.”
Julie leaned forward.  “We want to see something really, ahh, unique.”
Thom set his jaw.  “You want we should go up Harry Hines Blvd. into the Red Light district?”
Julie smiled a thin smile.  “Not quite. We have sex in Luxembourg, too.  No, I want to see what you call a housing addition.”
Now Thom was puzzled.  “I don’t quite get you?”
“You know, hundreds of houses all the same, long streets, little yards, packed together.” She turned to her companion.  “What am I trying to say?”
Annie piped up. “You know, what you call ticky-tack.”
“Snobs,” thought Thom. “Well, whatever floats your boat.”
“I know just the place,” he said. “Ladies, we’re heading to suburbia.”


The real estate developments in southwest Dallas sprawled across invisible city boundaries. The names were marketing ploys--The Woods, Mountain Creek, High Pointe--but it was all one big cancer.
Julie and Annie seemed just as appalled--if not more so--by this. “It’s so sad, the sameness and dullness,” said Annie. “I can’t believe people live out here.  They must think they have a life.”
Julie saw the expression on Thom’s face.  “I’m sorry, if we offend you.”
“Oh, heck, don’t worry.  I live in a condo on Abrams Road.  I don’t live out here.”
They stopped at the Southwest Center Mall.  The pair seemed flummoxed at the shops and noise. “They probably don’t have all this shit in Luxemburgie,” thought Tom.
They did do a little shopping.  Julie bought a sack of music CDs, while Annie found a gold necklace with an iridescent crystal.  Julie held her sack up as they left the mall. “Loot for Luxembourg!” she laughed.
The shadows were beginning to lengthen as they got back in the limo. “The temperature’s finally beginning to drop,” said Thom in the car.  “I wonder what it got up to?”
As they drove back into Dallas, Thom turned the radio on. The new record set had been at 117 degrees.


The culmination of the day was dinner at Sonny Bryan’s on Inwood Road--the best barbecue place in the city, if not the world, Thom declaimed.  Julie and Annie took a little time getting into the spirit of things, but after they noticed how the other patrons dealt with the ribs, they dug in and had a good old time.
“Do you ladies want to see some night life?” Thom asked as the table was cleared.
They looked at each other, and Julie spoke.  “Perhaps another day.  We have to be getting back.”
“Where are you ladies staying.  Obviously I’ll drop you off.”
Julie looked puzzled for a second.  “Oh, we’ve arranged to be picked up at your business.”
Thom thought that was strange.  “Well, the customer’s always right.”
When they got back to his office, Julie said, “I have to make a phone call.  I’m going to wait outside where the reception’s better.”
Annie came inside and paid in cash after Thom tallied up everything, and threw in a good 25% extra.  “It’s been a pleasure,” he said. “Come back tomorrow, or whenever.”
Annie looked around.  “Umm, where’s the facilities?”
“The bathroom?  Right through that door.”
Thom turned on the CD player again and the B-52s started playing again.  He walked behind the window. He saw Julie standing there, talking on a cell phone hanging off her ear, the mouthpiece in front of her mouth.  He gave her a thumbs up.
She didn’t react, and he realized the security light out front was so much brighter than the indoor light that, combined with the tinting, she couldn’t see him.
After a little more talking and a few nods, the conversation was obviously over.  Julie pushed the mouthpiece sideways. It retracted into the piece that hung on her ear.
Then it dropped onto her shoulder like a spider.  The “cellphone” grew little black legs and ran down Julie’s arm.  She opened her handbag and it jumped in.
Thom staggered a few steps backward.  He heard a gasp and turned to see Annie behind him. “Oh, my God, you shouldn’t have seen that.”
She ran to the door.  “Julie!” she hissed, nodding towards the blue expanse.  “This is a window!”
Julie ran in and saw Thom’s face.  “I’m sorry, we need to leave.”  She spun around with Annie right behind.
Thom grabbed a remote off his desk. The deadbolt dropped in the door as Annie hit it.  She shook the door a few times until she realized what had happened.
“An anti-robbery device,” Thom said as calmly as he could.
The pair turned and faced him.  They looked at each other, and then Julie spoke.
“Are you going to hold us for ransom?”
“Should I?  If you’re aliens, can’t you bust out?”
Annie actually gave a little giggle.  Julie snorted. “We’re not aliens.  We’re just as human as you are.”
“OK, time travelers, then?”
Annie seemed somehow more relaxed. “There’s no such thing as time travel.”
“Well, what was that crawling down your arm?”
“A specialized communications unit in the form of a genetic construct,” said Julie.
“Wow, they must really be up to date in Luxembourg.”
Annie smiled.  “We’re not from Luxembourg.  We live here in Dallas.”
“Well, then, I’ll give you a lift home.”
“Not unless your limousine can cross dimensions as well as traffic,” Julie said curtly.
Thom clicked the remote and the door unlocked.  “I appreciate your coming clean with me.  You’re free to go, if you want.  You see, I’m not a thug.  I really would, however,” he said plopping into his chair, “love to hear your story.  But I can’t force you.”
Julie looked at Annie, who shrugged.  “Why not,” said Annie.  “Nobody would believe you, anyway.”
“I’m sure that’s true.”
“The kind of cross-dimensional travel that we’re doing is, well, kind of looked down on, where we come from,” said Annie. “They call us ‘Bummer Slummers’.”
“Our timeline had much more technological development in the 20th century than yours,” she continued.  “One thing we have learned is that time travel is impossible.  Instead, there was the discovery and perfection of dimensional travel.”
“If that’s true, isn’t there some kind of rule against scooting around the way you do?” asked Thom.  “I mean, to avoid screwing up history?”
“Well, ordinarily, yes,” said Julie. “But you see, this timeline is considered fair game.  It could hardly be screwed up more than it is.”
Annie looked apologetic.  “I’m sorry Mr. Burns, but this timeline is close to ours, but it went seriously wrong in the last century.  t’s our guilty pleasure to see what our world managed to avoid.”
“Can you enlighten me as to went wrong?”
Julie knitted her brows. “Actually, the divergence is less than a 100 years back.  There is no difference up until the end of World War I, or as we call it, the Great War. For us, it really was the War to End All Wars.”
“Unfortunately for this timeline, after that war, a secretive group of industrialists who made a fortune from the war decided they’d insure their future profits,” Julie continued, “by managing wars and manipulating economies .
“The first thing they did was to take control of the American government behind the scenes, by eliminating key national leaders.  They poisoned both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson in 1919.  Roosevelt died and Wilson suffered a massive stroke.”
“In your world, the U.S. never joined the League of Nations,” said Annie. “Which is what these industrialists wanted, so that there would be no potential challenge to their control.  They heated the economy up in the 1920s, then crashed it and started the process of industrial consolidation.”
“Yes, and while everyone was suffering, the German accomplices pushed a psychopath to power who was sure to get Germany agitated enough to launch another world war,” Annie said.  “You really don’t think a crackpot like Hitler did it all himself, do you?”
“In our timeline, Wilson got the votes to join the League of Nations, but Roosevelt came back to win the White House in 1920.  e was unhappy that the U.S. had joined the League, but he couldn’t go back on it, so he made it work.
“With his energy and attitude he made the league work. Yes, he had to break the two-term tradition to do it, but it was worth it,” she continued. “We never had a Great Depression, a second great war, or that stalemate you called a Cold War.”
“Oh, heck, I forgot about that,” snorted Julie.  “Those industrialists ran than Communist scam for years. You poor people.  When that ramshackle mess finally ran out of steam, they began putting together wars one at a time like ad campaigns.  Your military-industrial complex makes up wars like ad campaigns now. Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, Iranian Liberation--neat little media packages.”
“Instead of fighting other nations overseas, or pitting class against class at home, our 20th Century America turned its fight to science and technology,” said Annie.  “You landed on the moon in 1969. For us, that’s when he had our first lunar colony.
“You’re right, ordinarily this kind of excursion is prohibited,”  said Julie. “But for a large, and I mean large, fee, the DOD, Department of Dimensionality, takes money from fools like us to help defray their costs so we can visit this timeline.”
“Wait a minute, if there’s no time travel involved,” asked Thom, “why did Annie here recognize the young man in the Air Force uniform at the DeGolyer Mansion?”
Annie rocked her head back and forth as Julie raised an eyebrow.  “Hmm, you know, maybe I underestimated you.”
“There’s a simple explanation, actually,” she continued. “How old do you think we are?”
“Umm, early to mid-20s?”
“I’m 86 and Annie here is 79.”
“Jeez, you’re two old ladies on vacation!”
 “You’d be amazed at what not eating adulterated food and getting occasional telomere treatments can do for you,” said Annie.
“Even the people in the timeline where Joe McCarthy was used to set up a fascist dictatorship aren’t as bad off as your people here,” said Julie. “Because the nationalist regime didn’t allow all its jobs to be shipped overseas. Plus the oppression there is obvious and heavy-handed.  You are all brainwashed and clueless in this timeline.”
“Thanks a lot.  OK, why me and why now?”
Julie looked at Annie.  “Be nice,” she hissed.
“Don’t be,” Thom said.  “Tell me the truth.  ou’ve come this far.”
“We picked you because you are isolated and meaningless.  We picked now because, well…”
Thom saw she was glancing over at the muted TV with the Weather Channel still on.
“Oh, jeez, this is the beginning!”
“I’m sorry.  Our projections say in a few years your Dallas will probably be uninhabitable.  We just wanted to see what Global Warming would be like.”
Julie looked down.  “I’m sorry.  We have to go now.”
They began to turn away.
“Please tell me…”
Annie stopped and turned around.  Julie tried to nudge her out the door, but she waved her off.
“Tell you what, Thom?”
“About your world.  Have you visited others, too? Please tell me.”  And for the first time that whole long damn day, Thom Burns’ façade cracked.
Annie leaned on his desk.  “Thom, there are beautiful places out there, worlds where humans never split into three races, worlds where Atlantis never sank beneath the waves, worlds where the laws of magic were uncovered instead of science.  Many wonderful worlds.”
“In one timeline, Athens defeated Sparta and the industrial revolution happened before Christ.  Now, in that timeline, they’re building rings around stars.  We once booked a vacation to Sirius on the Starship Theodora.”
“If you’re into pomp and circumstance, there’s a timeline where Rome never fell and the Eagle Standard rises over Trinity, which is what Dallas is called,” said Julie.
They realized Thom looked very sad.  “I think we’ve done enough damage,” Annie said softly.  They turned to leave.
Thom raised his voice to be heard above the B-52s CD. It broke.
“Did I do a good job today?”
Annie had her hand on the door.  She looked at Julie. “Thom, you were the best tour guide we’ve ever had.  I mean it.  That’s why we feel bad for you.”
She pushed the door open.  Julie was right behind her.
He raised his voice, pleading.  “Can I keep the job?”
Julie turned around and Annie followed her back in.
“That’s a very tempting offer, Thom,” Julie said. “Would you really come work for us permanently?”
“We can even take the limo. It’s paid for.”
Annie raised her eyebrows.  “Hey, you know, that thing can pass for a customized vehicle in a bunch of timelines.”
“You can never come back.  We’ll be paying an enormous fine because of you,” Julie said.
“I really don’t have anyone I care about, and I don’t have any close family.  Nobody will miss me.  Besides, I’d be rather be anywhere than here watching Dallas dry up and blow away.”
Annie suddenly frowned.  “Juliana, wouldn’t we have a doppelganger problem?”
“Oh, I forgot to tell you I noticed something when I was researching this trip.  There is no Thom Burns in our Dallas, or any other of the 1,142 immediately adjacent timelines, for that matter.”
“Sorry Tom, although this timeline sucks, it’s the only one you exist in.  Your grandfather met your grandmother while he was stationed in England during World War II.”
“OK, then, no holdups,” he said hopefully.  “Let’s go.”
Julie looked at Annie and set her jaw.  “You’re right. Let’s go.”
She opened her handbag and reached into it.  The “cellphone” ran up her arm like a ferret, hung off her ear and swung its “tail” out.
“Cheddar, it’s time. Yes, open the gate, and maximum aperture. W e’ll be taking a vehicle through.”
Just to show off, Julie held her handbag out in front of her.  The “cellphone” leaped in like a seal.
“Who’s Cheddar?”
“Oh, that’s our mook.  He’s the personification of our AI.  You have to call it something.”
As they stepped out into the steaming early evening air, Thom automatically turned to lock the door.  “Oh shit, who cares!”  He threw the office keys through the door. They hit the CD player in the corner and it stopped.
“Do you have the B-52s in your Dallas?”
“My goodness, funny that you mention that.  We went to their concert just a few weeks ago,” said Annie. “They never broke up.”
“But they have a different name,” corrected Julie. “Since we never had a World War II, we never had a bomber called the B-52.  In our world, they’re called the Flaming Scorpion Bowlers.”
Thom threw back his head and laughed.  “Oh, that is so in keeping with them!  Named after a goofy Chinese restaurant drink!”
Once inside the limo, Thom turned around.  “Well, ladies, where to now?”
“Just pull onto Reunion Blvd.  You’ll see it.” Said Julie.
He gave a little cry when he realized all the traffic and motion had stopped around him.
“Don’t worry, we need a slight temporal stasis so people don’t see us go through the gate,” said Annie.  “Go straight ahead,”
At first he thought he saw a gap in the skyline, but then he realized there was a rectangular star field directly ahead in the roadway.  He slowly braked.
“Are you sure about this?” Julie asked.
“Yeah, I am,” he said quietly.
Annie leaned over the seat and smiled at him.  “Think about where you want to go next.  There’s a whole wide multiverse out there.”
Thom thought.  “For grins, how about that eternal Rome?  Like you said, it must be impressive.”
“Hey, big fella, no problem,” she said.  “We can go to Rome, if you want to.”
Thom set both hands on the steering wheel and hit the gas.  “Goodbye, Big D,” he said.
The stars came towards him.  “What was it that kid said?” he thought.  Oh yeah.”

“Second star to the right, and straight on ‘til morning.”
-The End -

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