eah, I know what you're thinking: Oh, ghod, this is gonna be another how-I-lost-my-virginity-at-a-con story. Well, that's not the half of it. I may not have a long gray beard or a glittering eye, and I've never met an albatross, but this con wedding has put me in mind of a very special Worldcon, and you're the guest I've buttonholed. So stop looking so horrified, drink your drink, and listen up:
It was the year I turned eighteen. Suburban born and raised, I'd done all my traveling via my imagination, courtesy of the pulps. I thought a trip to a big city was the height of exotic, never mind Mexico. If I showed you my high-school yearbook photo, you'd yelp "Geek!" as if something had bitten you.
So what were me and my slide rule doing crammed into a rattletrap Pontiac with an assortment of geeks and hippies?
Driving to Tijuana, site of Conmigo, the 1964 Worldcon.
Never heard of it? Yeah, I can see by your face. There are reasons for that. I think trauma is primary among them--or maybe acute embarrassment.
At the border, Alan Szmytkowski, who had brought his latest cockeyed invention along, was a bundle of quivering myelin as he watched the guards inspect the scrap metal and wire filaments protruding from our trunk. Spike, who owned the car and whose real name was Lawrence Tittle, turned his leather-clad, slick-haired bulk on Alan from the driver's seat and hissed, "We shoulda dumped that thing in the desert."
Eric Rosenthal, a beanpole who already barely fit in the car, tried to make himself part of the seat upholstery, and bespectacled Elaine Lamberti further concealed her inherent invisibility behind a hardcover edition of Stranger in a Strange Land. I, Mitchell Holland, was of course imbued with the mighty-thewed strength of my barbarian identity, but this didn't seem the time to reveal my secret.
In the end, Jenny DePaula just flipped back her ironed blond hair, flashed her whitest Crest smile, and leaned out to say something inaudible to the baffled guard. He glanced down at her well-filled tie-dyed shirt and hip huggers, thought for a moment, then grinned and waved us through.
As we came onto Avenida Revolucion, past big signs in English advertising bullfights and racetracks, my eyes grew flying-saucer-shaped at the plethora of trinkets, wrought-iron birdcages, colorful capes, and giant sombreros for sale. Jenny made us stop so that she could buy one of the ponchos, which Elaine intersected with our dimension long enough to announce was called a sarape. Jenny seemed unconcerned that its bright geometric pattern clashed with the kaleidoscopic tie-dye of her clothes.
It was time for Eric to take over. Eric was our resident convention expert, having been to not only a local but a regional con, and he was also the president of our science-fiction club. (Spike was the treasurer, having a talent for coaxing dues from the most relcalcitrant.) "The hotel is located in the scenic district known as La Couahuila," he read from the mimeographed Progress Report, "just northwest of Avenida Revolucion."
Spike flicked cigarette ash out the window and said, "Which way is northwest?"
I consulted my natural barbarian instincts as Alan triangulated from the position of the sun, and we simultaneously pointed and said, "That way."
Within moments we were hopelessly lost. In the end, Jenny leaned out the window and, glancing at the phrasebook Elaine held out for her, asked a passing native, "Dawnday easter law cool wheeler?"
I thought it was Jenny's pronunciation that caused the Mexican--who, inexplicably, wore neither sombrero nor sarape--to dissolve into rude, hysterical laughter. For a moment, I felt obliged to employ my mighty thews in defense of her honor. But he did point us in the right direction, and Jenny's honor was a matter of some dispute, so my secret identity remained so.
"This is it!" Eric crowed as Spike parked near a sign that said EL PALACIO LINDO. We piled out of the car, collected our things, and let Eric shepherd us onto the preregistration line in the ornate, red-carpeted lobby. We didn't notice that the carpet looked a little worn (though Eric had said concommittees always choose the best hotels), the staff looked a little dangerous, the guests looked a little bemused. After all, Jeffrey Lee and Ronald Gerard had just walked by, two of the most famous science-fiction writers ever! I was straining my eyes to read people's badges, desperate to identify Ian Ainsworth, the seldom-photographed author of my favorite book, Gornan the Avuncular.
Alan did say, "Look how little those women are wearing! I hope that doesn't mean the air-conditioning's broken--my machine will overheat!" But we ignored him, intent on our own obsessions--which, come to think of it, was pretty much what we did at home, too.
After we registered and were dropping off our luggage, a man detained the girls on the stairs and said something in Spanish. Elaine frowned and consulted her phrasebook; apparently he thought that a twenty-dollar bill would facilitate translation, but she was unable to decipher his words, and he finally shrugged and walked away.
We found the girls' room first. I noticed that Jenny looked kind of weird: she had tossed the sarape over her shoulder, and she seemed to be--well, quaking. Her blond hair rippled, her sarape trembled, her various parts jiggled.
Strange, I thought--and then forgot about Jenny entirely, as my eye was caught by the Guest of Honor ribbon decorating the chest of a man walking down the hall. It was S. Harris Glanz himself!
Okay, I hadn't actually read any of the man's writing. I didn't think any of us had. But to be Guest of Honor, he had to be important, even if he did look more like a hobbit in a gangster suit than a writer.
He was regaling his entourage with anecdotes. "...used to do my research in this town, back in my salad days," he was saying. "Sure, there was always Vegas, Times Square, and later I sprang for Amsterdam and Bangkok, but this little metropolis was always the best. Did I ever tell you about the time..."
Eric rushed up to get his program book signed--none of us had any of the guy's novels, though Eric had promised that the dealers' room would be full of them--and Glanz didn't miss a beat as he complied with a flourish. He, his entourage, and his story moved out of earshot down the corridor.
Eric showed us the signature. Spike said, "It's bigger than he is." Alan said, "Who cares? He's doesn't write hard science. I've got to find Emory Bohr. He'll know for sure how to get my Omicron-Ray Reality Enhancer working!"
I didn't admit to my own quest for Ian Ainsworth--it would have hinted too closely at my secret identity. Neither did I point out that last week Alan's gizmo had been a Beta-Radiating Dimensional Stabilizer, and the week before that some kind of Theta Wave Thingummie.
We located Room 69, and Spike unlocked the door only to find the room filled with luggage. And people. A lot of people. Some of them were arguing in different languages (hey, it was a Worldcon); some of them were arguing in English. There wasn't even enough space for us to walk in.
Spike growled, preparing to eject the room-crashers.
Then Elaine and Jenny emerged; they seemed to have the same problem. "I called the front desk," Elaine said. "They told me that there are only eighty-three rooms in this hotel, and that all the nearby hotels are just as full, and that this is what we do to them when they emigrate north, so we shouldn't complain." She clearly didn't understand the explanation herself, but unless we wanted to dive into the bellicose throng in the room--oh, if only I had packed my broadsword!--there wasn't much we could do.
So we pushed and shoved and jammed our bags in. Eric kept one suitcase with him, full of books to get signed. Alan clutched the cardboard box holding his invention. Spike leaned in far enough to check his hair in a mirror. And then we went down to the convention level, slightly baffled but our enthusiasm undimmed.
Ah, if I could only convey to you the wonders of this, my first convention! Eric had primed us for excitement, but I soon learned the extent of his understatement. Everywhere I went, beautiful women draped themselves around me: Carmencita, Lucita, Maria Luisa...clearly they had all seen through my dull facade to the barbarian master beneath. As long as they didn't tell anyone, I didn't mind. I didn't mind at all.
Every now and then, one of my lovely ladies would break away to chat with some other male, even disappear for twenty minutes, but there were always more to take their place, and they always came back.
Tequila flowed freely, and my only memory of the first night was waking up with a sombrero on my chest and someone Flamenco- dancing around my prone body, and the horror I felt when I noticed that the bottle in my hand had been emptied of all its contents--including the worm. But there weren't too many other low points, even counting my dismay when Ian Ainsworth, the Mighty One himself, turned out to be a skinny, retired professor, and instead of his signature on my prized first edition of Gornan the Bogsman gave me an irate, incomprehensible lecture on morality.
We found S. Harris Glanz's books in the dealers' room in plenty. And what a find! Most books had only one or two really good parts, which we would pass under the desks at school until the appropriate pages were smeared and torn. Glanz's books were nothing but good parts! And his GoH speech was even better, describing how he wrote the good parts, and how he had a lot of good parts in his real life, and how many good parts were available at this very convention. The hell with Ian Ainsworth, I thought. I never knew fandom could be like this!
Needless to say, somewhere between the Hugo Awards and the Masquerade I discovered the multitudinous charms of Carmencita's good parts. And Elba's, and Teresa's, and... Well, I did eventually run out of money. But by then the con itself was getting pretty interesting. Some of the pros (who declared we should no longer call them "pros" given the context, whatever that meant) lodged a formal protest, refused to participate on programming--but, oddly enough, did not leave the hotel. The rest of them held their panel discussions in the bar, eating nachos and drinking Margaritas. The Masquerade somehow turned into a lingerie show, and I learned a lot of interesting things about the fashion aspects of bustiers and handcuffs.
Every time I ran into Eric, he looked more panic-stricken, and repeated ever louder, "This is not a normal convention, this is not a normal convention...." Spike, who had not been seen since the first scantily clad local had draped herself around him, reappeared on the last day with a permanent grin affixed to his face. Jennifer resurfaced around the same time; when she wasn't turning down employment offers, she said, she had been busy "grokking the filk," which sounded immoral enough to merit a scathing diatribe from Ainsworth.
Then several things happened at once. The concommittee was holding the gripe session and dead-dog party in the middle of the lobby, and Eric and I were listening to the committee chairman explain how Tijuana had been a joke bid, and how glad they were that they'd decided to go through with it, even if they did feel kind of bad that they hadn't told us in advance about La Couahuila being the red-light district. I saw Jenny ripple by--she looked more and more like a flickering TV the longer she wore the sarape--and I waved to her to come over. At that moment, Alan popped up, clutching his battered cardboard box, wire antennas bobbing in front of his face. He suddenly let out a whoop and waylaid a passing silver-haired writer. I could just make out the name badge--EMORY BOHR.
"This is my Reality-Enhancing Alpha Ray device, otherwise known as Project R.E.A.L.," he announced to Bohr, who looked on with bland interest, smoking a Tijuana cigar, as Alan set up his assemblage of tinfoil, flashlight batteries, and coat hangers right there on the floor. I didn't bother to point out that the acronym didn't match the gewgaw's latest name. "I modeled it after the Dimensional Flummoxer in your last book," Alan said, "and it really truly almost works, but there's some bug in the diatonic transducing coil, and I know if you just take one look at it you'll be able to give me the key...." He began tweaking dials and fiddling toggles, and Bohr hunkered down to give the thing a closer look.
Later, Alan explained to me that the geometric designs on Jenny's sarape and the swirls of color in her tie-dyes had set up an interference pattern--which is why she'd seemed to waver in and out of focus. When the R.E.A.L. device was switched on, and when Bohr, after thoughtful consideration, gave it a calculated kick and knocked the bug out of it, the proximity of Jenny's interference pattern generated a wave function theretofore unknown to modern physics.
You've heard of a thin person living in a fat person's body? You've heard of the real you, and of letting it all hang out?
My thews instantly became so mighty that I would have burst out of my clothes, if they hadn't been transformed into a chain-mail loincloth, a cloak, and a pair of leather boots. For a moment I was horrified--I had been unmasked!
Then I took a look around. Alan and Jenny were the only ones unchanged. Spike had shrunken into a tiny bald guy wearing a yarmulke, and the sweetest expression I had ever seen on a human face. Eric was wearing a skintight superhero outfit. I saw, across the lobby, something that vaguely resembled S. Harris Glanz, except that it was a drooling, leering basilisk with a huge, rampant phallus. Ian Ainsworth, to my delight, was now dressed in furs and leather and was even mightier-thewed than myself--I knew he had it in him! (He grabbed the nearest voluptuous wench, but Carmencita was now dressed in a business suit, and she summarily decked the Mighty One.)
The device illuminated each person's inner self the way X-rays illuminate the skeleton--only in 3D, living color.
And there was Elaine, sans horn-rims, still clutching a security hardcover, but now a sinuous beauty in a low-cut red dress, spike heels, mane of wild dark tresses, and crimson lipstick. I resolved to ask her on a date as soon as we got home, if not sooner. It had never occurred to me that someone like Elaine might have good parts.
Apparently, though, she couldn't see without her glasses. She frowned and took one shaky step on her four-inch heels, then another. She teetered. She threw her arms out to the sides; she took several stutter steps to the right, overcompensated, and took several more stutter steps to the left. On the third cycle to the right, she went flying into the R.E.A.L. device, which was already glowing dangerously with the surge of combined energy.
It promptly exploded.
Elaine sailed through the air and into my arms. As the machine stopped functioning, my mighty thews deflated, and I dropped Elaine just as Emory Bohr skidded to a stop on the floor nearby. Along the periphery of the room, people had landed in piles, back in their everyday bodies. Jenny's sarape was scorched jet black, and her ironed hair had curled into a permanent permanent.
"Neat-o," said Alan, looking at the ruins of his invention.
"Far out," Jenny agreed, seeming to see Alan in a completely new light.
"What happened?" said Elaine, blinking owlishly. I helped her to her feet, noting that her good parts, though once again hidden under her invisibility cloak, were still there.
"This is not a normal convention," Eric said mournfully.
Spike just grinned.
Well, that's the gist of it. Elaine and I were married, but after we got tired of the good parts, we developed irreconcilable differences over the merits of fantasy versus SF, and divorced amicably. When Ian Ainsworth died, leaving two unfinished Gornan works, I completed the manuscripts, and became his successor.
Spike stayed in Tijuana, working as a bouncer and looking for a Reform congregation. Eric moves from city to city, developing Worldcon bids.
Jenny and Alan are still together. They work for the government, and can't discuss their projects, but Jenny collects patterned folk art, and Alan still scours junkyards. I suspect I know what they're working on.
Although the direct effects of the device manifested only in the lobby of the hotel, the explosion spread an inverted waveform for thousands of miles. The result is that only the attendees know what kind of convention it really was. The rest of you think it was a dull event in a mundane city.
There aren't many Conmigo attendees who would be quick to disabuse you.
What? You'll be a sadder and a wiser man in the morning, but I've wasted enough of your time? Sure, no skin off my nose. After all, I haven't told anyone the really groovy secret--that the device left traces in my optic nerves. In fact, looking at you right now, I see the most amazing thing....
Wouldn't you like to know?
Originally appeared in the anthology Alternate Worldcons, edited by Mike Resnick, published by Axolotl Press.