Warp Monkey

Warp Monkey

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by James Maxey

 

Jimbo Williams caught up with Alex Pure in a parking lot in Fanta, Texas around three that morning. Pure was passed out on the roof of his station wagon, using a brightly colored box of fireworks for a pillow. Sleeping inside the station wagon didn’t look like an option. The back seats were stuffed with camping gear and the front passenger seat was a wall of empty fast food detritus. A dumpster aroma seeped from the cracked windows.

Jimbo cleared his voice, but Pure didn’t move. Jimbo stepped closer, touching Pure’s shoulder. Pure didn’t respond. Up close, Pure smelled worse than the car, like a refrigerator gone wrong. His long hair was tangled, streaked with gray, and he wore a full-length navy blue wool coat that was completely out of place in the 85 degree Texas night.

Jimbo poked Pure’s shoulder harder and said, “Hey.” Pure remained immobile. Only a soft snore indicated that he was even alive.

It wasn’t too late to turn back. As science reporter for National Weekly News, Jimbo had been chasing down the fringes of truth for ten years. He’d spent endless hours on telephones having back-engineered alien technology explained, driven countless miles to look at the newest cold fusion set-up, and, to be blunt, had wasted nearly every moment of his working life talking to kooks and nut jobs. Usually, the weirdos he dealt with maintained the veneer of normalcy, building their perpetual motion machines in well-organized garages attached to nice, middle-class, picket-fence houses. Jimbo wasn’t in the habit of interviewing deranged homeless guys. How had his instincts been so wrong on Pure? Why was he wasting his time?

But, of course, he knew why. Despite all the kooks and weirdos and nut-jobs, Jimbo believed. He believed in Bigfoot and alien abductions and zero point energy, and he carried on his quest for proof with a pilgrim’s faith.

He jabbed Pure one more time, hard. The sleeping man’s eyes fluttered open. Jimbo got up-wind, lit a cigarette, and said, “Good morning. Dr. Pure, I presume?”

Pure nodded, but the rest of his body remained inert as he studied Jimbo. At last he said, “You must be Jimbo Williams.”

“Ace science reporter for the National Weekly News,” Jimbo said, pulling out his notepad.

“The bottom of the supermarket tabloid food chain,” said Pure. He sighed. “So it’s come to this.”

“You’re the one who contacted me,” Jimbo said, speaking through a halo of smoke. “I didn’t drive down here to be insulted. Let’s cut to the chase. Your e-mail said you had some evidence of black-book ops.”

Pure nodded, then sat up, his long legs dangling over the side of the station wagon. He ran his fingers through his tangled hair, and took a deep breath.

He said, “There’s a door on Dover Air Force base in Delaware that opens into a room in Houston, Texas.”

“Old news,” Jimbo said. “The warp door. We broke that story two years ago. One of the night watchmen told a friend who told a friend who told me. What do you have new on this?”

“I’ve been through the door,” Pure said.

“Sure. Why not? Your e-mail said you were a scientist with the project. But why should I believe you? How do I know you didn’t just read my article about the warp door?”

“Funny that’s what you called it. ‘Warp door’ isn’t bad, but it’s not as poetic as what we called it on base.”

“Which was?”

“The spook door. It was named after the quantum mechanical concept of ‘spooky action at a distance.’”

“Sounds more like supernatural than high tech,” said Jimbo as he scribbled “spook door” onto the notepad. “I don’t really do ghosts.”

“It has nothing to do with ghosts,” said Pure. “It’s serious physics. Einstein coined the phrase. In the twenty-five-words-or-less dumbed-down version, spooky action at a distance describes the connection between a pair of entangled particles. Theory says that if you change the spin of one particle in the pair the other will instantly—and I mean instantly—change its spin also. This happens even if the particles are on opposite sides of the universe. Since the instantaneous, faster-than-light transmission of information seems to violate relativity, Einstein called it ‘spooky action at a distance’ and believed, eventually, it would be explained away.”

“That’s a lot more than twenty-five words, but I think I follow you,” said Jimbo. He didn’t bother to jot down any notes.

“I doubt you do,” said Pure. “Like I said, even Einstein couldn’t figure it out. He never worked out the math that shows that spooky action at a distance is possible because at the tiniest scale, space contains more than three dimensions. Even though most of the extra dimensions are invisible to us, the two particles respond instantaneously because they are actually connected by these hidden dimensions. They are each three dimensional extrusions of a parent particle existing in a higher invisible realm.”

“This sounds over the head of most of my readers,” said Jimbo. “They don’t care about the theories. They want to know the nuts and bolts. Tell me about the warp door.”

“Okay. I guess theory isn’t important right now,” said Pure, with a shrug. “Here’s the practical spin off. The Air Force sunk about three billion dollars in black budget funds into capturing entangled photons, and they used these entangled photons to build two identical laser matrixes, forming two manhole-sized portals of light. Now, no matter how far apart the portals are placed, when you put something into one, it instantly comes out of the other. At least, that’s how it works with baseballs, video cameras, and mice.”

“And how about people?”

“When they built the door, they wanted to do tests before sending a person through. Even though the portals are made of captured light, they are opaque—the lasers form a perfect grid that keeps any outside photons from passing through. You can’t see through to the other side. So, the first test was a baseball. They broke out the champagne when they tossed the ball into the darkness in Dover and it instantly shot out the door in Houston. Then they sent a video camera through to try to capture images of the hidden dimension, but got nothing but static. Finally, they decided to try sending a mouse through. That’s where my specialty was called for.”

“You’re physicist who specializes in mice?”

“I never said I was a physicist. I’m a veterinarian.”

“Ah,” Jimbo said. He’d jotted the word “physicist” down and now had to strike it out.

“My job was to examine mice in Dover that came through from Houston. When I dissected them, everything seemed normal.”

Jimbo didn’t really care about the mice. He wanted to steer Pure into something a bit more juicy. He jotted the word “conspiracy” onto the notepad. “So the government has perfected instantaneous transit. Something like this could put airlines out of business. Hell, it would shut down the oil companies too. I doubt the President and his buddies are happy about this.”

“Actually, the oil companies don’t have anything to worry about.”

“Why not?”

“After the mice, we tried capuchin monkeys. Some of the physicists on the project weren’t sure how something with a higher intelligence than a mouse might react to the spook space. Maybe the higher dimensions could drive you crazy if you were smarter than a mouse. Plus, they were concerned the warp might respond to intelligence. Many effects in quantum mechanics are changed by the simple act of observation. So we had a hierarchy of tests. If monkeys made it through, we’d send chimps. And if the chimps did okay, we’d try a man.”

“But something happened to the monkeys,” said Jimbo.

“We sent them into the darkness,” said Pure, “and they never came out.”

“Any idea why?”

“Lots of ideas why. Which is why we kept tossing in more monkeys. We’d send them through asleep, we’d send them through with helmets on to block all sensory input, we sent them through with steel weave tethers to pull them back out, but it didn’t work. None ever came out of the darkness. When we pulled the tether, we would reel in empty line. We’d sent in fourteen monkeys before halting the experiments and going back to the drawing board to figure out the flaw.”

“I assume they fixed it, since you say you’ve gone through.”

“Bad assumption. Here’s where my story gets, quote, unquote, ‘crazy.’”

“I believe you so far,” said Jimbo. In truth, he had his doubts.

“You might not once you learn one important fact about me.”

“And that would be?”

“That the whole time I worked for the Spook project, I was stoned,” said Pure. “One of the nice things about being a DVM is you get to write prescriptions for things they won’t put into people. I experimented a bit in college, and liked the results of the experiments, and have spent the better part of three decades controlling my brain via daily manipulation of its chemistry. The fact that I’m alive and sane today is testament to my skills in self-experimentation. Until I went through the warp, no one suspected a thing.”

“Admitting this does make you easy to dismiss as a kook,” said Jimbo.

“I understand. But I need to tell you this because I thought it was a drug side-effect when I started seeing the monkeys.”

“‘Seeing the monkeys?’ That some kind of drug slang?”

“No, I mean the warp monkeys. It started a month after we sent the first one through. I was shaving, and in the mirror I saw something move. It was behind the wavy glass of the shower door, but it looked for all the world like a monkey. Yet when I pulled the door open, nothing was there. Except… except I could smell wet monkey. Trust me, that’s not a smell you can mistake for something else.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” said Jimbo. He dropped the butt of his cigarette and ground it out with his heel.

Pure nodded. “Later that day, driving, I thought I saw two more monkeys playing in a big oak tree in front of a church. But when I turned and went back, they were gone. These were only the start. It went on for weeks. I’d be drifting off to sleep and I’d suddenly feel a weight as one jumped onto my bed. I’d sit up and find nothing. I’d hear monkeys chattering in the closet, but when I’d open the door the voices would fall silent. In room after room I’d notice the smell.”

Jimbo asked, “Did the scientists on the base have any theories?”

Pure rolled his eyes and chuckled. “What, you think I talked about this with them? ‘Hey guys, I’m seeing monkeys. Have drugs fried my brain or is this guilt-induced psychosis?’”

Jimbo jotted the word “guilt” down and underlined it. “Why did you feel guilty?”

“I didn’t at first. I specialize in caring for animals that will be used in experiments. Almost every animal I’ve touched in thirty years has been fated for dissection. But the capuchins were always a tough one for me. They have very expressive faces. Still, I didn’t lose sleep over the first few that were lost. But after a dozen, sure, it bothered me. It started to have the same scientific value that cooking a kitten in the microwave would. The last one didn’t make it, let’s do one more to be sure.”

“And you think the guilt you felt caused the hallucinations?”

“That was one theory,” said Jimbo. “Until what happened in the supermarket.”

“What happened in the supermarket?”

“This was six weeks into my monkey visions. I was a nervous wreck, sleeping maybe three hours a night. I’d been dosing myself more and more radically, trying to get back to an even keel, but nothing was working. On one of my days off I walked to the supermarket, hoping the exercise would help. I’m in the produce section, in front of some bananas, and I start weeping. Just out and out bawling. I mean, how could I look at bananas and not think of monkeys, and how could I think of monkeys without wondering if it was all over for me, if I’d finally fried my synapses and was one slip-up away from jail or the funny farm?”

Jimbo jotted the words “funny farm” onto his notepad.

“But what happened next proves my sanity. It’s on tape. I began to hear monkeys screaming, distant at first, growing louder. Then the smell washed over me, a wave of odor. And then, they were all around me. Everywhere I looked, there was some part of a monkey. Monkey paws were materializing from thin air, grabbing at fruit, lifting tangerines to teeth that seemed unconnected to any body. A tail wrapped around my neck and I felt the weight of a monkey on my shoulders. When I put my hand up I couldn’t feel anything there, until orange pulp started pouring down on me. This was no hallucination. Other people saw it. It’s on the store’s security video. In about 45 seconds flat those monkeys tore the produce section to shreds. It looked like a bomb had exploded. I was drenched with pulp and juice.”

“Wait a second,” said Jimbo, suddenly excited. “I know about this. I’ve seen the tape. The ghost guys at the office won an award for it last year. Biggest poltergeist story of the decade. Supermarket-built-on-Indian-burial-ground stuff.”

“I’m not surprised you heard about it. I knew lots of people would hear about it, including my bosses on the base. So I ran to the base immediately, still covered in pulp. It was Sunday, the lab was practically deserted, and I still had all the necessary clearance and biometric keys to get into the lab where they kept the spook door. From the supermarket to the door on base, maybe fifteen minutes passed. I had a very small window of time if I was to act.

“For a moment, standing in front of the door, I froze. The door is pitch black, like a perfect hole punched in reality. I was scared to go in. But then I heard guards shouting in the hall, and I made my decision. I dove into the door.”

“Why?” asked Jimbo.

“To get the monkeys out, of course.”

“Really?”

“Look, I’m not claiming I was at my most rational at that moment. When the monkeys showed up in the supermarket I could see that they were scared and hungry and confused. They were haunting me because I’d once cared for them. They wanted me to help them. Maybe it was drugs, maybe it was guilt, or maybe it was some tiny spark of decency left in me. I can only say that at that moment, it was imperative for me to go inside the spook door and bring the monkeys out.”

“Did you?”

“I’m still working on it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve tried telling a lot of people what I’m going to tell you now, and not one has believed me. Please keep an open mind.”

“Hey,” Jimbo said, taking out his pack of cigarettes once more. “I haven’t walked away yet, have I?”

Pure shrugged. “You write for a publication that is the last bastion of the freak show. Maybe you think I’m an interesting enough freak for a cover blurb and a two-page spread. But what I’m about to tell you is bigger than this.”

“Pure, I’m sick of your attitude,” said Jimbo, searching for his lighter. “I didn’t get started in this business to write about freaks. I do this because I believe deep down in my heart that some of the wilder stories are true. I think the world needs to know about the truth on the fringe, things that are real but get dismissed because they shake up the orthodoxy. Is it my fault that the people telling me the stories always turn out to be kooks?”

“Maybe it is,” said Pure. “Maybe there’s something about your personality that—”

“Screw it,” said Jimbo, throwing up his hands. “I’m out of here.”

“Wait,” said Pure. “Don’t go. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I… my people skills aren’t all they should be, you know?”

“Fine,” said Jimbo. “I’ll give you five more minutes.”
“Thank you. When you step into the door, you don’t come through the other door. You enter… a higher dimension. It’s huge in there. Look up at the sky. Looks pretty big, right? What lies in between those doors is so much bigger than that.”

Jimbo grew impatient. “Did you find the monkeys?”

“I found something even more important. I found myself. I wish I had the vocabulary to tell you what it’s like in there. My body and my mind were two separate things inside. It’s a vast, endless void, and yet everywhere I looked I could see my body. Only, it wasn’t the surface of my body, the shell. It was like I was unfolded. I could see the pattern of my body, and I could see the actual materials. My blood was spinning all around me in a fine haze, and I could count individual blood cells, the red, the white, and all the chemicals I’d put in there. My bones fascinated me—the knot of tissue where I’d broken my leg skiing years ago, the way my vertebrae didn’t line up correctly, the wear along my joints. And I could see… I could see my liver. It wasn’t healthy. It was a mass of lesions and scars. But the worst thing…”

Pure grew silent for a second, composing himself, then said, “The worst thing was my brain. I could see my synapses firing, could see the brain chemicals slipping into receptors like the most complex jigsaw puzzle ever assembled. But some of those jigsaw pieces of brain chemistry weren’t going into their proper slots because I’d jammed them full of gunk. The lesions in my liver were echoed in my brain tissue.

“It wasn’t a surprise, really. Looking over my body, I could see all the abuse I’d put it through. There was cholesterol build up in my arteries, there was inflammation in my lungs, and my whole torso seemed wrapped in a coat of puss-yellow fat. Stepping outside my body, looking back inside, made me realize what I had done. I’d treated my body the way rock stars treat hotel rooms. If I’d examined a lab rat with this much damage, I’d assume it was being fed industrial waste meal after meal until it died. I’d killed myself and hadn’t even noticed. With luck, I’d have another year or two. Such a waste. In that higher space, it was easy to see how wonderful my body should have been. It’s an amazing machine, carefully balanced and calibrated. It looked like it could have lived forever with the proper care. Instead I’d run it into an early grave.”

“Bummer,” said Williams, jotting the words “rock stars” onto his notepad.

“I didn’t see the monkeys in the spook space,” said Pure. “I was understandably distracted. But I did spot the door to Houston, and the door back to Dover. They seemed a million miles apart, yet only an arm’s reach away. By now, both rooms were swarming with guards. If I went back, I wasn’t going to get a pat on the back and a handshake for my daring journey. I’d be arrested, or worse. We’d planned on dissecting the monkeys. Wasn’t I now just a big warp monkey? I wished there were a third door to go through. And suddenly, there was. A window opened before me and I was looking into my apartment. I stepped through, back into my bedroom. I grabbed the keys to the station wagon and have been on the road ever since, going on thirteen months now.”

“Because you think the Air Force wants to dissect you?” asked Jimbo.

“Even if they didn’t, they’d keep me from finishing if they caught me. I don’t have much time. Lately I’ve been going days without keeping food down. I’m living on sheer momentum more than anything else. But my work isn’t done.”

“What work?” Jimbo said, exasperated. Pure was easily the most incoherent person he’d ever interviewed. “What would they keep you from finishing?”

“Rescuing the monkeys,” said Pure, sounding equally exasperated.

“How are you going to rescue them?”

“Here’s where even I think my story gets weird.”

“Really,” said Jimbo.

“Even though I’m here, I don’t think I ever really escaped the warp. I don’t think I’m me any more. I think that, just like a particle can exist on a higher dimension with only its reflection being seen in our world, the real me, the higher me, is still in the warp. I’m just his reflection, or maybe his shadow. All I know is, he communicates with me from the higher dimension.”

Jimbo folded his notebook closed and put it back in his pocket. He’d done his best, tried hard to take Pure at his word. But despite knowing a little physics mumbo jumbo, Pure was obviously crazy. Jimbo had wasted another night.

“He sends me messages in subtle ways,” Pure said. “I’ll go into a convenience store and pick up a map and unfold it to find that a town has been circled in red pen. I’ll drive to that town, sit on a park bench, and find a paper bag under it with a wad of twenty dollar bills inside. Two days ago I checked my e-mail at a Kinko’s in Nebraska. I found a badly punctuated e-mail from someone I’ve never met telling me that a restaurant in Fanta, Texas, makes the best ceviche this side of the Rio Grande. It said I’d meet a reporter there named Jimbo Williams, and I should tell him my story.”

“Bad punctuation, huh? The e-mail you sent me would have made my editor’s head explode.”

“Don’t you get it?” said Pure. “I never sent you an e-mail.”

“Whatever.” Jimbo took out another cigarette.

“The monkeys die when they escape,” said Pure.

“What’s that have to do with anything?”

“When my higher self finds a monkey in that infinite space, he opens a door back into our world. At least I think that’s what’s happening. I’ve done a dozen so far. They always die when they come back. I don’t think they can die in the warp, even though they don’t get enough food or water. I think the warp keeps them in a kind of stasis that holds death at bay. But when they come back, the accumulated stress kills them. It’s for the best. They’re suffering. They’re scared, and hurting, and lost.”

Jimbo lit his cigarette. “Pure, let me ask you the $64,000 question. Do you have any proof? So far all you’ve given me are wild tales by a self-admitted drug addict. Can you supply even one tiny shred of evidence to verify your claims? I know we have the supermarket video, but like I said, vengeful Indian poltergeists got the credit for that one. Maybe you read that story and decided to work it into this little fairy tale of yours.”

“Snowball will prove it,” said Pure.

Jimbo rubbed his temples. “Snowball?”

“We called him Snowball because he had a white scalp. He was actually the second monkey we sent through, the first one with a tether. I was listening to the static between stations last night and I heard the words ‘Snowball tomorrow.’ It was 3:24 in the morning.”

Jimbo looked at his watch. “Well, it’s 3:23 right now. But hearing a statement on the radio isn’t quite the kind of proof I’m looking for.”

Pure sniffed the air, staring into the distance. Jimbo stepped back as Pure scrambled into motion, rising to stand on the roof of his station wagon, breaking into a loud shout as he waved his arms over his head.

“It’s time,” Pure howled. “Come home! I’m here! Come home!”

An acrid stench rose on the night breeze. A zoo smell, a barn odor, manure and piss and something else, like the aftermath of a storm, like ozone, as the air began to spark near Jimbo. He jumped backward as all around him the ground began to screech and gibber. He stumbled over something soft that spun through the air behind him, tangling his ankles. As he hit the pavement, the sky above him swirled with teeth, with fur, with blood and meat, a whirlwind of gore that zoomed away as quickly as it appeared, gathering next to Pure. Pure dropped to his knees on the station wagon. The bones and flesh coalesced amid a shower of sparks as Pure extended his arms. The monkey voices focused into a single piercing shriek.

“Shhh. You’re home,” Pure said, as a white scalped monkey fell against him. He cradled the emaciated animal in his arms as the monkey stared with frightened eyes, its breath ragged, wet gasps, until it at last fell silent, and its eyes lost all focus.

“You’re home,” Pure whispered.

“My god,” said Jimbo, staring up from the pavement.

“And now you know,” said Pure, looking at Jimbo. “You believe, like he knew you’d believe. You know what he wants.”

“There’s only one monkey left in the warp,” said Jimbo, rising. He walked to the station wagon to put his hands on the monkey. It wore a harness from which a steel cable about a foot long trailed. The bag of bones and skin was still warm, slightly damp, and strangely beautiful.

“And after he gets the monkeys free,” said Pure, “he wants to come out.”

“And he doesn’t want to be alone,” said Jimbo.

“You understand,” said Pure.

“I can’t do this,” said Jimbo. “Why would anyone choose me for something like this?”

“He can see things, in the warp. He wouldn’t have sent you here if you couldn’t do this. He must know something about you, maybe something you don’t even know.”

“This is too much to ask. I can’t—”

“I know,” said Pure, still cradling Snowball like a baby, rocking slightly. “It’s a crazy world. Sometimes we have to search for help in the most unlikely places. All I know is, no one should be alone when they fall out of the warp.”

Jimbo shook his head, looking for a way to say no. But it was too late. In his heart, he knew he’d carry through with this. The Pure in the warp had picked his target well.

After all, Jimbo believed.

 

Unlikely Portal

by Charles K. Carpenter

 

Crawling up onto the roof to fix the swamp-cooler is not on John’s list of favorite ways to waste a weekend, but he has promised his wife, Janet, he will have the repairs made before the real heat of June turns their house into an unbearable oven. And, of course, a promise is a promise, even though at the time he was just trying to get her to cut him some slack and let the problem lie for a while. How could he know the temperature was going to jump up into the nineties almost overnight, or that she would be so quick to leave for her mother’s place until the repairs were made. It’s unsettling just how fast those two things came together simultaneously. And very vexing.

Having brought his tools out of the garage at first light, he leans the ladder against the house to carry up everything he thinks he’ll need for the job, setting it on the roof near the alien-looking swamp-cooler unit. He isn’t all that certain what type of repairs he is going to make, but he can start by removing the mounting bolts from the four legs and tilting up one side, holding it there with the board he has brought up for that purpose. Having it tilted up that way, he will be able to see the plumbing, electrical wires, and the drain pipes, most of which hide inside the large, tin duct that connects the cooler to the ceiling vent down in the hallway. It’s a plan. A good one, he thinks. At least, until he drops a wrench down into the duct and tries to reach for it. Then things go from bad to worse.

Bent over the hole of the duct, he’s about as far inside it as he dares to go when he begins to slide slowly down the slick slope of the metal vent. Trying to stop his descent by pushing his arms out to his sides, he only succeeds in getting them ripped to shreds as his flesh comes into contact with the numerous metal screws that have been twisted into the tin to hold the pieces of duct together. As his uncontrollable slide gathers more speed, and before he has completely slid inside the hole, his feet come over the edge of the roof to knock the board out from under the cooler and cause it to slam down in place just missing his ankles. The next second he hits the ceiling vent down in the hallway and rams right through it, knocking it to the floor as he shoots from the vent, hits the wall, and crumbles to the floor.

In some form of shock, he lies there in the dark trying to understand what has happened, and also, how he avoided breaking his neck. Above and beyond all this, he begins to sense something is wrong. It takes him a few seconds, but he finally realizes what it is—it’s dark inside the house. Wondering how this can be, since it is morning, the sun should be streaming in through the windows. He hasn’t been knocked out for any length of time. At least he doesn’t think he has. And besides, he can still feel trickles of fresh blood running down his arms from his tiny, long-drawn-out wounds. No, something else is wrong here. As he ponders this, he begins to hear hushed voices coming down the hall from his bedroom. That’s right. His bedroom.

Wondering if he should run to or from the bedroom, instinct takes over for thought, and he knows he has to hide. Someone is in his house, and soon lights will be coming on. With panic as a helper, he struggles to a standing position and moves towards the stairs that will take him down to the lower floor of the split-level house and into the garage. As he leaves the landing, a strong beam of light flashes down the hallway behind him, and in his mind’s eye, he pictures a big guy standing there in his shorts, a flashlight in one hand and a baseball bat in the other.

Gaining the garage, he makes his way to the man-door that had been left open, but is now locked. Fumbling with the lock, he pulls the door open to the dark of the back yard and runs around the corner to the front of the house. Lights inside the house are flashing on behind him as he reaches the street, and he knows whoever is in the house will be calling the police.

But why? This house is mine, not theirs. Mine!

In the dim light of the corner street light, John turns back to the street to see something he has never seen before, and stops to squat down, running his hand over its cool, slick finish in wonderment. It’s a rail similar to those trains ride on, but not so large nor wide. A pair of them are running down his street. He takes a moment to glance around and finds to his amazement that each driveway has a set of rails running up its length to the garage. Even his! He runs a hand over his forehead which has begun to hurt. Trying to rationalize all this away, he wonders if the city has been secretly installing these rails while everyone is at work, and if they are going to make them convert their vehicles to the rails so they can keep track of them. He doesn’t know. He can’t even guess.

Standing, he notices with some alarm that the porch lights of every house on the street are coming on in a uniform pattern, starting down at the end of the street where the street T’s and coming back towards the cul-de-sac and his home. This can’t be good. Soon he will be spotlighted there in the middle of the street like an escapee in a prison movie. Deciding to hide, he runs towards the closest house sporting excessive greenery around it. If he can get beneath a large evergreen, he’ll be hidden from view.

After hiding himself, he sees with some concern that all the porch lights are now on, and people in robes and slippers are coming out of their homes to stand on the sidewalk near the curb. He has no idea what is going on, but is fascinated by the uniformity of it all—everyone doing the same thing at the same time.

The front door to the house he’s hiding in front of opens, and an older couple comes out onto their porch to look around. He begins to sweat. If they look to their right they’ll see him for sure. He begins to inch his way back into deeper cover. As he does so, he spies a rolled up newspaper the paperboy has thrown to the side of the porch. He stops sliding back when he sees something that brings on fear and astonishment. The date on the paper is June 19, 2042.

A loud humming sound coming up the street catches his attention as the older couple leave their porch and walk towards the sidewalk. Pulling the spider webs from his sweaty face, he adjusts his position so he can see more. A large, shiny globe about the size of a basketball is advancing towards the cul-de-sac, riding the air ten feet above the ground. The humming sound intensifies as it comes closer, and he hears a beeping in the background every time the two red, eye-like lights flash. This thing seems to be searching for something, and it doesn’t take any stretch of the imagination to realize it searches for him.

Watching it move around the turn-around, he sees the two people from his house have also come to stand near the street like everyone else. Frowning in thought, he thinks this coming out must be a common practice. What its purpose is, he doesn’t know. But it’s weird.

A louder beep from the globe sounds off as if to draw attention, and is followed by a computerized voice saying, “Alert! There is an unregistered humanoid in your area that has not yet been located. Please move to the left side of the street and follow me down to the intersection so this area can be searched more fully.”

Watching the globe come full circle and start off down the street towards the intersection, John realizes this has to be the time to move, and does so by crawling out from under the shrubs and running towards his house. He believes he’ll make it if the silver globe doesn’t see him and shoot some kind of paralyzing ray his way. He glances back over his shoulder as he runs and sees the globe is still leading the people down the street. He begins to feel lucky and wants to cry out in joy. But, of course, he doesn’t. This nightmare is still a reality.

Slamming the door closed behind him, he twists the lock and dashes up the stairs to the kitchen. Removing a stool from the island, he hurries to pick up his wrench and kick the vent out of the way so he can set the stool beneath the hole in the ceiling. It’s not high enough. He has to get another from the island. Setting it on top of the first one, he begins to crawl up his makeshift ladder and finds the climb precarious; each stool wanting to go its own way Finally getting the height he needs to crawl back into the vent, he hears someone pounding hard fists on the front door, wanting in.

Trying not to panic, he jumps up and begins to pull himself inside the vent. He can feel the flesh on his fingertips being ripped anew by the sharp, wicked end of the penetrating screws, but pays the severe pain little heed. He has to make it to the roof on this first try. Something inside tells him he’s not going to get a second chance.

Once high enough so he can use his feet, he pushes up with them as his tortured hands claw their way towards the top. For the first time he can see sunlight streaming in around the cooler, and it occurs to him he has just left the dark of night. Bumping his head on the bottom of the unit, he braces his feet against the sides of the vent and slides the cooler to the side of the hole. Blinded momentarily by the bright sunlight, he crawls out onto the warming shingles to lie there for a second or two, the cool breeze caressing his sweaty face and body as though welcoming him back. Again he feels like weeping for joy, but there is no time for that. He has to slide the cooler back over the hole and fasten it in place. Slipping the washers and nuts onto the mounting bolts, he begins to tighten them to make the unit immobile.

The urge to weep comes upon him once again when he is finished, but he won’t give way to his feelings. Not now. There’s still one last thing he has to do. Picking up his wrench, he wipes the blood from it onto his shredded shirt front. Glancing at his arms and legs as he works, he sees his blood has stained his jeans and is still oozing from his arm wounds. Standing, he’s hit by dizziness and has to wait until it passes. From where he stands, he can see the street, and is more than happy not to find a floating globe or slot-car rails imbedded in the street.

Long-held tears of joy blur his eyes as he moves towards the ladder, but he hardly notices. He has to get back into the house and do the one thing that will make this nightmare go away forever.

Stepping into the kitchen, he pulls the phone book from a drawer, looks up a number, and with a bloody finger punches it out. Someone answers, saying, “Good morning. Clayton’s Heating and Cooling.”

“Help me,” John says in a feeble voice. “I really need a repairman to come out and see what’s wrong with my cooler.”

“We’ll be happy to come right out, sir. Give me your address, please.”

John relays the information while wiping the perspiration from his forehead onto the back of his arm.

“Oh, I see on the computer we’ve been out there once before. Ah, a couple of years ago.”

“We didn’t own the place then. We just bought it last year.”

“I see. Well, it won’t be the same repairman, anyway. He up and quit right after he finished that job.”

“He quit?”

“Yes. Just up and disappeared on us altogether.”

“But—”

“We’ll be out within the hour, sir. You’ll be there?”

“I hope so,” John says, eyeing the vent grille lying on the floor of the hallway.

 

A Light That Shamed the Sun

by C.J. Henderson

 

“I mean it, goddamnit… where in hell’s my flying car, anyway?”

It was that particular moment in the outburst that got through to the heavy-set individual with the curly hair and sweetly vacant disposition. A round-faced man, he was, one as large of frame as he was of heart. He had, at the moment of disturbance, been pondering the problem of cross-wiring fate with exactitude, as a cure for menopause, no less, when the shouting gentleman at the other end of the counter there in the Cold Crab Cafe interrupted his mental gymnastics.

Of course, jumping back just a moment before said eruption, merely for a chance to analyze his mental project, one might decide that such a presumptuous experiment would not only be beyond the grasp of mankind’s current collective of thinkers, but also that the very imagining of its possibility should be considered grounds for involuntary commitment to the nearest competent couch jockey or licensed state institution.

Such would be perfectly reasonable, and anyone would be excused for thinking that it would constitute a proper course of action—anyone that is, who was not familiar with that singularly remarkable cooperative…

“I mean, I’m sixty years old, and I’m tellin’ ya…”

That most charmingly whimsical of scholarly business concerns…

“I remember…”

That most unbelievably fantastic hotbed of intellectual mayhem and scientific hooliganism…

“Back in the day…”

The Pelgimbly Center for the Advanced Sciences, complete with the wonderfully unique brand of inquiring minds which staffed its halls so completely. They were, as its brochures promised, titans of research, giftedly tremendous brains, the kind of venerable cranium-stuffing that routinely conquered multiverses, rolled consistent D20s and made uniquely damn fine cups of amaretto cocoa. Minds like that of Dr. Aristotle T. Jones.

“Every time you turned around…”

Holder of 25,603 personal patents, devisor of the bundled dimensions theorem, and universally applauded creator of the thirty-second flavor…

“Someone was sayin’ it was just a matter of time before we were all gonna be hikin’ it around in flyin’ cars like the freakin’ Jetsons.”

And the perfect rung on the evolutionary ladder if ever there was one to bring mankind such a boon, if indeed, there was any hairless ape capable enough to do such a thing in all the known stretches of research and development. For this discussion, it is important to remember that Aristotle Jones was not an inventor’s inventor, not in his heart. No, the soul of his tinkerer’s happiness was enriched by the cobbling together of things that, in the classic sense of the phrase;

Benefitted Mankind.

The thing-a-ma-bobs and wozzling-do-giggies that he created were universally loved by all peoples. The grand majority of the world, of course, had no idea that every day when they gave silent gratitude to this or that convenience, conveyance or cocktail, that it could be counted on that the designs, theories and random cosmic hiccups of Dr. Aristotle T. Jones could be found frolicking there somewhere in the background. Dr. Jones simply adored creating things which made people go “ahhhhhhh,” and he spent as much time as he possibly could out in the real world, searching for ways to hear that sound, accompanied by the indescribable joy of seeing their faces light up in a smile that shamed the sun.

Which is why, at 11:30 in the A.M., on a perfectly reasonable and altogether ordinary Wednesday, he was situated on a stool at the counter in a perfectly reasonable and ordinary Baltimore-style crab diner several blocks from the fabled Pelgimbly facilities, rather than hard at work in his lab.

Impossible as it was for many of his colleagues to comprehend, Dr. Jones found the vast majority of his inspirations, not surrounded by test tubes, refractors and pestles, but from within the drama, torment and comedy of the realities created by ordinary people. It was the needs and fears of the common man which drove his intellectual curiosity, and now that he had heard this phrase, this practically tortured wondering over why our physical world was not the one predicted in the 1950s, suddenly his own intellectual curiosity over the
matter was reborn anew.

And so, having been snagged from his own churning cauldron of thought by this random query, having fallen far enough into at least a slice of the world’s actual reality to be able to interface with a fellow human being, if only for a moment, his mind caught by a sudden gust of white-hot curiosity, Dr. Jones solicited a proposal.

“Tell me, my good man,” he asked politely, if somewhat absently, “what exactly would you do with a flying car if indeed it were possible for you to have one?”

The man snapped back the standard nugget one might expect from someone whom, on a daily basis, could be counted on to slap their fists against crumb and crab juice-spattered counters, spewing their words over perfectly decent people as if those poor souls did not have enough morons yammering at them throughout their day already without the addition of yet another slack-jaw into their lives who was neither their employer or a minion of the legal professions.

“Hey, whatd’ya expect?” The man fixed the doctor with a belligerent stare, then dropped the other shoe, “I’d freakin’ fly it.”

And, for some reason which flickered in the subconscious of Aristotle T. Jones at that particular alignment of the planets, the doctor joined with the man at the counter in feeling the over-riding need for that question to finally be answered. For, once he had calculated the number of times a particular age-group had made that same impassioned query, he realized Destiny was practically screaming out for some research to be done. And also, suddenly remembering that his All-Round-Researcher’s license would soon require him to log some additional flight time anyway, he nodded his head in the grumbling man’s direction and answered;

“Well then, Mister…?”

“Terill, Harry Terill…”

“Well then, Mr. Terill, let’s go get you one, shall we?”

* * * * *

“So, okay Doc,” the growling man said to Jones, “explain again why we’re powering up a blimp?”

“Zeppelin, actually,” the doctor absently corrected. “It’s quite simple, really. You see, travel between dimensions is possible only in lighter-than-air ships.”

The man stared at Jones as if he had announced he was about to pull an African elephant from his back pocket. Having spent most of his life being stared at in such a manner, the good doctor, of course, failed to take note of his travelling companion’s confusion. Unfettered by such mundane embarrassments, in a moment he related how Dr. Wendel Q. Wezleski had discovered the way to move sideways through reality. The good doctor had, of course, learned how to move forward and backward through commonly shared reality earlier on—“time travel,” he had called it. But, the vastly more tricky, and extremely delicate operation which Wezleski had been attempting to learn while constantly, albeit accidentally, inventing new ways to shatter the chronos barrier was the movement through parallel dimensions.

“You see,” Dr. Jones told the excitable counter-slammer sitting next to him in the airship, “to effect a journey through dimensions takes steam power. It’s the only sufficient energy source we have that doesn’t depend on any sort of delicate electronics. Electronics in operation keep the sideways gates from opening, don’t you see? So, once our steam-powered generators have gotten a doorway opened, then we still have to depend on lighter-than-air travel for the same reason—only such vessels can be navigated without the aid of electronic devices. Once safely through a gate, of course, additional power sources can be brought on line, but until then…”

“Yeah, yeah, I dig it,” Terill interrupted. “But how does this get me a flyin’ car?”

“Well, simply put,” answered Jones, his attention split between his easily distracted charge and maintaining his white-knuckled grip on his seat—maintained so because the good professor had an absolute and overwhelming dread of air travel, “we have targeted the nearest possible dimensions which show as likely for having based their major modes of transportation on something other than automobiles.”

As soon as Dr. Wezleski had opened the passageways to inter-dimensional exploration, every government in the world had, as one might expect, expressed their typical, extreme disapproval. The Americans, with characteristic disdain for their own interests when faced with stern frowns from their current friends, such as France and China, or their traditional friends, such as Japan and Germany, responded by clamping firmly down upon Pelgimbly, installing their own military people to monitor even the most minute movements
within the Institute being made outside of agreed-upon-reality.

Now to be fair, in the favor of the current regime, they had not been so utterly disapproving at first. But, after the mighty thinkers in Hollywood quickly rallied public sentiment along the same lines as the rest of the world with such blathering drivel as 10 Million Dimensions to Earth, I Was a Teenage Zep Jockey and The Next Dimension Needs Women, the government became far more nervous about allowing research to continue unfettered by their “expert” supervision. The scientific community, as one might imagine, rallied behind Pelgimbly
for the obvious reasons, but the films had been released within months of a major election, and that was all there was to say about that.

On the other hand, of course, a chore as simple as sliding 598 feet of helium-filled, steam-driven steel and plasti-canvas past the keen and watchful eyes of military intelligence is not all that great a problem for the typical Pelgimblian. Within minutes of Dr. Jones’ assistant, the twenty-two year old ginger-haired Adora Feldstein, wandering “accidentally” into the Prime Security Chamber with a plate of fresh brownies, and a carafe of ice cooled milk, all monitor screens covering the launch bays became temporarily unmanned and the mighty air- ship, the Thomas Alva was able to slide gracefully through the electro-flux barrier between unreality and possibility off to the first target dimension, some one thousand, eight hundred and forty-seven realms over.

“What do you mean, ‘nearest possible dimensions?’”

“Ah, you see,” explained Jones, stuffing the bowl of his pipe, “there are an infinite number of dimensions parallel to our own. If we were to simply travel to the nearest one, we would find things to be, well… almost exactly the same as in our own. No flying cars to be found there. Oh, my—no. But…”

Jones paused to set the flame of his lighter to his pipe. Torching the mix within its bowl, he continued, spitting his words out in small bunches in between puffs.

“If we hop outward into the sideways void… then our chances of finding an Earth… where the average motorist has left the ground behind… well then… there we might indeed discover what you’re looking for.”

Terill nodded, actually comprehending what he had been told. He made a few further inquiries, several even bordering on the intelligent. Jones puffed on his pipe, watching the screen in front of him, answering Terill’s questions and advising the pilot on likely short-cuts until finally, an announcement from the navigator’s chair told them they had arrived at candidate dimension number one.

“We’re here!”

“Well,” corrected Jones, knowing which “here” Terill meant and how likely he was to be accurate in his assessment, “we’re ‘somewhere’ at any rate.”

Racing to an observation port, Terill began to scan the airways, his eyes craning in all possible directions, searching for the winged, four-on-the-floor of his dreams. His search went on, sadly, unrewarded. Whether high or low, East or West, back, forth, or any other direction available for scrutiny, Harry Terill spotted many a plane, several helicopters, and a few points of light which he thought might have been UFOs, but he could lay his eyes on nothing that appeared to be a flying car in any reasonable way, shape or form.

“I don’t get it,” he said finally. “I thought this dimension was guaranteed far enough away to be different from ours.”

“Indeed it is,” Jones told him honestly. “Perhaps an excursion to the surface will tell us something further.”

It only took a matter of a few moments for the professor to calibrate the proper charge to resonate his body and his guest’s so they could wander about on the surface of the world below them. Leaving the Thomas Alva uncharged, of course, so that it might remain invisible to the locals, they then descended to the ground outside the nearest town and hiked into the suburbs.

“You know, I don’t think I remember seein’ any roads from up above,” Terill announced as they accomplished their first quarter mile.

“I wouldn’t think we would find any anywhere in this world,” responded Jones. Releasing a great billow from his pipe, he mused, “That was the whole reason for sliding this far over, dimensionally speaking.”

“But,” asked Terill, “if they don’t have flyin’ cars, or roads for regular cars, then how do they get around?”

Eighteen more steps gave them the answer. Coming to a break in the wooded area into which they had descended, they suddenly came to a row of suburban-style apartment buildings. Rounding the corner of the closest, they emerged into the open to find something the good doctor had not anticipated.

“My, my, would you look at that now.”

“The goddamned sidewalk is movin’.”

As the two explorers watched in rapt fascination, people mounted and dismounted the conveyors stretched out before them. Many merely stood while they were propelled along, reading newspapers or listening to this or that being piped through headphones, but far more seemed quite comfortably at rest atop small, one-legged chairs upon which they remained stably poised by using both of their legs for counterbalance. Two belts moving in opposite directions were needed to keep things flowing, and people had to step across several moving belts to continue onward when one set of belts crossed another, but they seemed to do so with relative ease.

“Jeez’it, Doc, how do they do that?”

“How do they do what?”

“Get across the lanes so quick?” Terill stared in awe-struck wonder at the sight of a woman in her early sixties along with her dachshund as they skipped nimbly across the five feet of a belt headed west, then an identical set of feet found on the one next to it headed east, finally catching up to their own belt, still headed south, which had traveled underneath the other two.

“I would surmise it was simply a matter of growing up with it,” Jones conjectured. “After all, think about it for a moment. If we were to take them home and show them people weaving five-ton automobiles through traffic, bicycles and pedestrians, I’m certain they’d be just as impressed with any of us as you seem to be with them.”

“Makes sense, I guess,” Terill admitted. “Makes me wonder how they move packages, groceries, you know—furniture, bigger loads. Is this all they have—these movin’ sidewalks? How does really big stuff get around? And what do they do when it rains? Or in the winter time? Or…”

Deciding he would like to know such things himself, Professor Jones moved them forward until they intercepted the older woman and her dog at the front door of her building. Claiming to be doing a survey, they asked their questions and discovered that everything they wanted to know had the most mundane of answers. People simply took carts and wheeled baskets and all manner of dollies, et cetera, with them when they shopped. Delivery trucks in Dimension Starboard/1847 were merely platforms on wheels, most of them a type of remarkable automated platform that delivered packages to destinations then returned to their point of origin as programmed. Bad weather was apparently compensated for with protective clothing. And so on and so forth.

The Travolator, which the woman announced as the name of not only the beltway in front of her apartment building, but the entire world-wide system, worked quite nicely at all times and in all manner of weather, and she would not dream of supporting a measure to introduce some other form of transportation. Smiling broadly, Jones thanked the woman for her time. Terill kicked a rock in angry frustration. Both returned to the Thomas Alva.

“That was sure a bust,” announced Terill, still kicking things as they re-entered the zeppelin.

“Well, think nothing of it,” answered Jones, settling into his chair for another stomach-turning launching forward. “We’ve got an infinite number of possibilities before us.”

“Yeah,” grumbled Terill, “an infinite number more of possible disappointments.”

Dr. Jones allowed the remark to pass, thinking he would soon be able to snicker kindly in his guest’s direction as they sailed into the proper reality. But, it soon became apparent he had been wise to allow the remark to pass for a dimension where they actually had flying cars was rapidly looking to be as rare as garlic wedding cakes or ethical standards in the music business. Not that the pair of explorers did not find alternative modes of transportation.

Oh, no indeed.

The Thomas Alva sailed into a plethora of alternate realities where men had found a wide variety of innovative means of locomotion. Their very next stop brought them to an Earth where the pogo stick, of all things, had become the major means of personal transport. When they ventured into the nearest city, they witnessed not only a rush hour madness of literally thousands of pogoing white collar workers springing their way home, but styles and varieties of pogo apparatti never dreamed of back home. They saw two-person models, ornate chauffeured versions, high-roaring, souped up models moving in packs which clearly seemed to be piloted by spring-powered gangs, and even massive, multi-pronged mass transportation based on pogo technology.

It was, to say the least, a disheartening stop, but the pair slogged on, plowing through the ether and moving on to one dimension after the next, hurrying to one more additional, equally disheartening stop after another. Future visits brought a gaggle of Earths which had made strange variations to the automobile, but which had not abandoned it completely. Others dealt with technology familiar to the travelers, but which they had never seen used to such all-encompassing ends.

They discovered worlds where cars ran on nuclear fuel, massive heavily shielded roadsters with the looks of tanks, but with unlimited mileage and the added side ability to glow in the dark. They also discovered the amphicar, a kind of three-masted convertible which navigated equally well on roads or that Earth’s extensive canal system, as well as the three-wheeled Dymaxion, a marvel of grace and imagination which embodied for transportation the same principles of economic form and functionality that the geodesic dome brought to architecture or the Rob Roy brought to hangovers.

They found worlds where the pneumatic train had conquered all, exotic, yet Victorian-styled lands where the gravitational pendulum was master, rushing rounded train cars from California to New York at speeds of five hundred miles an hour. It was an inspiring sight for Jones, who found the air-driven, environmentally friendly trains a wonder, and who would have made more notes to see if such a system could be implemented back home if not for the fact the trains filled the air with the sound of booming mechanical flatulence with grinding monotony.

Worlds which depended on the hydrofoil and the hovercraft also seemed around every corner, as did ones where people rolled along sitting in the center of giant wheels, ran along within over-sized plastic bubbles and even a few where the use of animals for moving from place to place had not fallen from popularity. And, this was not just the familiar horse and oxen, but everything from the camel and dog sled to the kangaroo and the giant sea turtle.

This was not to say that other Earths with flying citizens were nowhere to be found at all. The intrepid explorers discovered dimensions where the skies were filled with manned platforms which flew on giant fans, amazing discs steered by the simple action of the pilot leaning to one side or the other. They also stumbled across such often dreamed of wonders as rocket belts, jet packs and one interesting dimension where, instead of wearing their engines, its aeronauts stepped onto a platform that housed a vertically oriented turbojet and then launched themselves off to work, the movies or the nearest McDonald’s at mach seven.

There were also plenty of sites where mankind had decided personal transportation could be accomplished en masse with helicopters, tilt-o-rotors and gyroplanes. The doctor and his guest even, eventually, found one odd society where those with the itch to leave home and go further than the nearest corner did indeed do so in Aerocars. These were intrepid Studebaker-like devices which cruised the roads quite nicely, but which could be driven into a set of wings that came with its own extension, tail and rudder. These attachment pieces locked into place in moments, allowing the driver to then fly off quite easily into the wild, blue turnpike. Most people did not seem to possess their own extensions, but merely picked one up at a kind of U-Haul service located at the nearest airport.

Still, as close as this was to their desired goal, the Aerocar was as much what they were looking for as a pumpkin was a pumpkin pie. Disheartened, as blue and lost and as thoroughly depressed as he ever had been in all his cynical, noisy life, a tired and woefully worn Harry Terill said;

“Maybe we should just pack it in, Doc.”

Jones looked up from his speculation charts, his eyes taking in all of his guest’s horribly forlorned expression. The abject defeat on the man’s face stung the doctor. This was not a person about to say “ahhhhhhhhhh.” His were not eyes destined to shine with a light that could shame the sun any time soon. No, this was a man defeated—one suffering from a let-down as severe as the eight-track tape and as devastating as the two-party system.

Indeed, his discouragement seemed as complete as possible. Far more than just Terill’s eyes were woeful, his entire posture was cheerless, his stance that of a banana on a hot day. His teeth appeared melancholy; his fingers dismal and somber. It was not a pleasant picture. Aristotle Jones pursed his lips, trying to think of something encouraging to say, but he could find nothing.

How could he?

After all, they had uncovered civilizations which had tried to gift their citizens with the flying car, but they had all come to ruin. Ordinary folks, it seemed, were simply incapable of handling the extraordinary demands of the fighter jet, which essentially was what the flying car would be, especially when coupled with the notion of travelling in proximity with their fellow excursionists. Most people, as could be attested to by the ever-increasing accident statistics to be found anywhere human beings could also be found, were simply not team players. They did not like to give way to their fellow drivers. They did not particularly enjoy even having to consider that there was anyone else on the road other than themselves.

Worlds which had adopted the flying car sat in burning ruin, millions of sleek, aerodynamic carcasses littering their landscapes, the trapped and broken remains of the socially just-not-good-enough moldering behind their ruptured steering mechanisms. Taking a long drag from his pipe, Dr. Jones rolled an orange-wood scented waffle of smoke around in his mouth, then let it out slowly, saying;

“I have one more thing I’d like to try, if you don’t mind, Mr. Terill. Why don’t you lie down and take another nap. If this next trip doesn’t fix things, we’ll give it up. What do you say?”

Tired, but still stubborn enough to remain hopeful, Terill headed for the cot he and the doctor had alternated using throughout their long and frustrating journey. Jones waited for the older man to fall asleep, then signalled the pilot to head for home. It seemed at that point that there was only one way remaining to grant Mr. Terill his wish.

Luckily for him Dr. Aristotle Jones was humanitarian enough to employ it.

* * * * *

When Terill first felt the gentle tugging at his shoulder, his mind had brought him to the conclusion that his entire time with Jones aboard the Thomas Alva had been but a nightmare of sorts, a bad stretch of REM sleep brought about by some rarebit he could not quite recall. When he opened his eyes, however, he found the good doctor there before him, but with something oddly different about him. Jones was smiling.

No—not smiling.

No, not smiling at all. Jones was ebullient, positively beaming, as happy a man as Terill had ever seen in his six decades on the planet. Sitting up, he rubbed his eyes, questioning what seemed to be the obvious mainly out of self-preservation, like an orphan refusing to believe in Santa Claus, or a New York voter, suspicious of a voting booth.

“You tryin’ to tell me somethin’, Doc?”

“Step outside, Mr. Terill, just this one last time,” answered Jones. “And see for yourself.”

Excitement raced the older man’s blood and he headed for the ladder to the disembarking platform, each step coming faster than the one before it. Once to the ladder, he practically leaped from rung to rung, taking them two, three at a time. He hit the ground running, but came to a sudden, joyous stop as he saw where he was.

The Thomas Alva had stationed itself on a cliff overlooking a vast metropolis, one whose massive skyscrapers were a’buzz with clouds of vehicles flying between them.

Flying!

“Hey, doc—doc!” he shouted. “You did it, man; you did it!”

And, indeed, it seemed that Dr. Aristotle T. Jones had done just that, for before and above and all around them, the world was awash in flying cars. The landscape below them was clean and bright and nifty enough to have been clipped from the front cover of a 1954 edition of Popular Mechanics. Terill staggered wildly, twisting and turning with excitement youthful enough to make him appear drunk as his body tried to show him everything possible within the same moment.

Everywhere was a glory of sky-splitting craft. Brightly colored, practically noiseless, emitting no soot or clouds, they were graceful as hawks in flight, the traffic patterns achieved things of art to behold.

“Oh, my god, Doc,” whispered Terill, “we did it; we did it.”

”Well,” corrected Jones, “We found it, anyway.”

“No,” answered a still completely fascinated Terill, “We did it. ‘We,’ ‘us,’ mankind. We got ’em up there. When we saw all those other worlds, man, where everything just kept crashin’ and burnin’, where men just couldn’t get it together enough for us to work together, to fly and soar and zoom, together—I mean, it was killin’ me.” Turning to face Jones, the older man told him;

“Back in the fifties, everyone thought the future was gonna be filled with wonders, and in a way, I guess it is, but they never turn out. They’re always bitin’ us on the ass. Nuclear power, and clonin’, steroids, air conditioning’, even diet soda… nothin’ ever does what it was supposed to. Nothin’ ever comes through. There’s always some hidden price tag…”

Jones watched as Terill turned once more to staring into the sky. The man seemed renewed, freshly born, filled with a wonder and joy the doctor could scarcely measure. Then, shifting his view through his bifocals, Jones checked his virtual view of Terill against the actual person stretched out on the padded slab before him. Terill appeared basically comfortable, all his bodily signs stable. Reaching out, Jones made a minor adjustment to the older man’s headset, making certain it was securely intact.

The doctor removed his glasses at that point, needing to rub his eyes. As he did, his field of vision grew to take in the thousands of other padded slabs, with their thousands of other occupants living lives dictated for them by their thousands of headsets. Dr. Jones had taken pity on many volumes of humanity in his time, and when solutions to their problems could not be met, he had done for them what he had now done for Harry Terill, brought them to sub-basement D of the Pelgimbly Institute for the Advanced Sciences and hooked them up to his most humane masterpiece, the virtual reality generator.

Testing of the machine was still proceeding, but each additional “volunteer” was only proving that it was, indeed, the greatest gift Jones was ever likely to create. The machine not only manufactured separate, creative fantasies for each of its wards, but it also monitored their vital signs, keeping them as healthy as inert bodies could be kept. Jones did not usher in anyone off the street, kidnapping every wandering dreamer to further test his remarkable boon, but only those so demanding, so cynical, so caught up in their need to escape that finding their dream at the expense of their freedom was considered a fair trade.

The rows of softly pulsating tables in sub-basement D contained a wide range of humanity, with as many mullet-headed dreamers like Terill, as there were Conservative Christians, feminists, grass roots Democrats, Luddites, and other starry-eyed fanatics desperately awaiting the arrival of their personal, impossible social contract.

Knowing it was time he returned to his lab, Jones allowed himself one more moment with the enraptured Terill. Replacing his glasses on his face, he again touched his hand to the corner of the older man’s slab which allowed a visitor to share the dreamer’s experience. Suddenly, the doctor found himself at Terill’s side as the man stepped into a newly purchased Ford Rainbow. Within his brave new world, Terill had already passed his driver’s test and made the purchase of his dreams. Turning to Jones, he stopped for a moment to avoid having his voice crack, then said;

“Thank you, Doc—ohh, god bless; thank you so much.”

“Think nothing of it,” Jones offered kindly. Then, as Terill began to engage his controls, the doctor stepped away from the imaginary craft, then disappeared entirely as he removed his hand from the connection pad.

Jones lingered a moment longer, unconsciously tarrying a few extra seconds in the hopes of catching his favorite tune.

“Aaaaahhhhhhhhhhh,” the sound whispered from Terill’s smiling lips. “Aaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…”

Jones smiled in response. Then, knowing one could never allow themselves too much of a good thing, he turned and began making his way through the rows of padded slabs, already thinking on how next he could benefit mankind, while all about him thousands of sets of eyes shone with a light that shamed the sun.

 

Thundersnow

by Cindy Borgne

 

Lightning streaked through the dense clouds. Strong gusts blew the snow straight across the woods as I drove my snowmobile through the trails behind my house. The sky boomed. I had never seen anything like it. Even stranger, it was the third of April. Unusual, but not impossible weather for Lower Michigan.

By afternoon, we had a couple feet of snow. My snowmobile floated over the powdery fluff. My friend, Lauri, followed me on her snowmobile. I signaled with my hand for a right turn. She followed me down a winding trail. Leafless narrow trees filled the forest.

Through the blur of the snow, I saw a flash of pinkish-white skin. It appeared to be bare legs running, yet the fast-falling snow decreased visibility. I wanted to see for sure. My right thumb pushed on the gas.

My eyes widened. “Lauri!” I yelled. “Oh my God.” I squeezed the brake tight and came to a sudden halt.

Lauri stopped right behind me and jumped off her snowmobile. “Marla! What are you doing?” she screeched and flung up her visor. “I almost rear-ended you.”

I flipped up my visor and leaped off the seat. “You won’t believe what I saw!”

“What?” Her big, blue eyes widened as snowflakes fell onto her black helmet. Her blond hair stuck out around the sides.

“I saw a naked man running in the snow.”

Lauri burst out laughing.

“But I did!” I pointed. “He ran into that kid’s fort up ahead.”

“Yikes!” She headed for her snowmobile. “Let’s get out of here.”

I grabbed her arm. “What if he needs help?”

“What if he’s a psycho?”

“Look, you stay on your snowmobile. I’m going to go have a peek.”

She laughed. “You would want to look.”

I shoved her. “Give me a break!”

Lauri laughed and sat on her snowmobile.

Weather-beaten wood pieced together formed the small fort. A thick layer of snow covered the roof. I lifted my boots high in the deep snow and pushed my way past some leafless, pricker-filled brush. Uneasiness stirred my stomach. I mean, what do you say to some naked nut?

I froze at a strange sound and listened hard to figure it out. A sorrowful whimper came from the fort. I took another step. It sounded human.

The fort had no door, just a space for going in and out. I peered inside. A naked man lay curled in a ball, shivering with drops of water covering him. He had his arms wrapped around himself.

“What are you doing out here?”

The man flinched and his shivering worsened.

“Don’t ya know you could freeze to death? Not to mention streaking is illegal.”

“Who are you?” he asked.

“A person enjoying the snow. Are you trying to kill yourself?”

“No! I didn’t realize a human body would be so vulnerable to the weather.”

I paused a moment and thought about telling him off, but somehow felt sorry for him. “Obviously you’re delirious. I have some extra clothes. I’ll let you borrow them for now.” I hurried back to my sled.

“Is a guy in there?” Lauri asked.

“Yeah, I think he’s half frozen, possibly drunk or both.” I opened one of the leather bags strapped to the back of the seat and took out an old spare snowmobile suit.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going to let him wear this and then I’ll drive him to the hospital.”

Lauri sighed. “The last time you tried to help someone they took off with your cell phone and ten dollars.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“Not only that, you can’t drive in this weather.”

“I’ll take the truck. It has four-wheel drive; besides, I don’t see a choice. It would bother me to walk away.”

* * * * *

It took a lot of doing, but we got him into the pickup truck and blasted the heat. He shivered in the passenger seat. His blue eyes darted around under thick, messy brown hair. I figured he was about twenty years old.

Lauri hopped in the backseat. I backed up and headed down the snow-covered dirt road. I lived out in the country and had a long way to go.

“I’m Marla and this is Lauri.”

He nodded. “I’m Halenusoper.”

I blinked. “I’ll never remember that. I’ll just call you Hal.”

For several miles, we remained silent, even though Lauri and I exchanged a few confused glances.

Lauri sighed. “So why were you out there?”

“M-m-my friend and I w-w-were p-p-playing with the dimensional shifter. W-w-when I saw Earth, I d-d-decided to visit. B-b-but after I c-c-came, my hands got c-c-cold and I dropped my t-t-transfer-unit.”

My eyes slid toward him. He didn’t look intoxicated. “I was nice enough to help you. At least tell us the truth.”

“I am, I-I had never seen snow and thunder on Earth at the same time and became interested.”

I rolled my eyes.

“I know I s-s-should have researched h-humans better. I’m s-s-sorry.”

“You speak our language well enough.”

“I had time for that.”

Lauri and I burst out laughing.

He jumped and bumped his head on the window. “Ow!” He hollered and covered his head and tears fell.

I pulled over and slammed on the brakes. “Whoa! Stop!”

He let out a small whimper. “I had no idea pain could feel so… so bad.” His eyes slowly met mine. “What was that noise you made?”

“It’s called laughing.”

His tears had fallen onto his hands. “I’m leaking.”

I almost burst out laughing again, but covered my mouth. “No, hun… that’s normal.”

“Oh?” he asked, with big innocent eyes.

I nodded.

“Am I going to live?”

“Sure.”

“Will the hospital transfer me back home?”

I dropped my head onto the stirring wheel.

Lauri laughed. “He means he wants his people to beam him up.” She paused. “Either that or we’re on one of those prank video shows.”

“Instead of the hospital, how about I just take you home?”

His eyes lit up. “That would be wonderful. Do you have a transfer unit?”

“C’mon, I need to know where you live.” I stepped on the gas.

The wheels spun and the truck didn’t budge. “Damn!” An inch of snow sat on the hood of the truck already.

“You’re stuck!” Lauri said.

“No, I’m not.” I slammed it into reverse, gave it some gas and moved only a foot. I put it in forward. I repeated; reverse—forward—reverse—forward. No matter what I did, the truck crept closer and closer to the ditch on the side of the road.

“This is crazy!” I complained. “What good is four-wheel drive anyway?” After another reverse, the back tire became stuck in a rut at the edge of the ditch. I pounded on the steering wheel. The young man looked at me bewildered. I unzipped my snowmobile suit halfway to release an excess of heat.

“Why is your face red?” he asked.

I smirked. My husband’s truck, his pride and joy, couldn’t get us out of this mess. He was out of town and couldn’t help me.

“Why don’t you try your cell phone?” Lauri asked.

Three-foot drifts covered the road. “Even if I reached someone, who could come to help us? I should have listened to you.” I admitted with dread.

“So now you realize,” Lauri grumbled.

“Maybe if we get out and push I could at least get the back wheel out of the rut.”

“Push?” Lauri said bleakly.

“Yeah, Hal can help me push and you drive.”

“Me? But I don’t drive trucks.”

“It’s not that big of a deal. Just rock it the way I did.”

“Okay.”

“Are you up to it, Hal?”

He nodded. We got out and Lauri sat in the driver’s seat. She kept the window down a little so I could yell to her.

She rocked it back and forth. Hal and I pushed as the spinning tire sprayed snow at us. The wheel reached the other side of the rut.

“You’re out!”

In an eerie moment, I realized she didn’t hear me. The engine revved.

“Stop!” I screamed.

The tire raced back through the rut toward the ditch and us. Hal stood there, clueless, as the back of the truck lurched toward him. I shoved him out of the way and fell into the road. I scrambled toward him, but slipped on ice.

Metal slammed down on my ankle and ground it into the dirt road. I yanked it out of the way before the bottom frame of the truck crashed on it. Pain radiated from my ankle as I lay in the snow.

The ditch’s magnetic powers had succeeded. The entire back end of the truck was in the ditch. The front end stuck out toward the road, tilted up at a slight angle. The muffler hung out the back, where it didn’t belong. I didn’t want to explain this to my husband.

I rolled back and forth moaning in pain. Lauri and Hal kneeled beside me.

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Lauri said.

“It’s not your fault,” I said through gritted teeth.

“What happened?” Hal asked.

“My ankle’s busted.”

“Let’s get her into the truck,” Lauri said.

They helped me up. A wave of dizziness hit me. Before I could stop it from happening, everything went dark.

* * * * *

I opened my eyes and found myself lying in the backseat. The dome light lit up the inside of the truck. Outside it was dark.

“Hal? Lauri?” I asked.

“I’m here,” Hal said.

I endured the pain and pushed myself up. Hal sat in the front seat. He had my cell phone taken apart. Wires and tools lay all over the front seat. The front of the radio had been opened and wires dangled from it. I could see my husband’s angry face when he got home.

“Hal, what are you doing?”

“I’m trying to contact home.”

“Where’s Lauri?”

“She went to get help.”

“But it’s seven miles to the nearest house. Why didn’t you call on my cell phone?”

“Lauri tried. She said there was no signal.”

“No signal!”

There was only one cell phone tower in the area. Maybe lightning hit it. Hal attached the phone to the wires.

“Where did you get those wires?”

“I took them from one of the headlights.”

I cringed and feared there would be nothing left of the truck by the time I got it home. If I got it home.

“You’re hurt. You need to rest,” Hal said.

“How can I rest when you’re taking the truck apart?”

Hal pressed the buttons on my cell phone. I feared what may have become of Lauri in this weather. Lightning streaked through the sky again. A loud boom followed it. I shut my eyes, but could still see the flashes. I counted for the thunder. Each time my count was shorter.

“The storm is getting closer,” I said, “and I’m freezing.”

Hal turned the key and the truck started. “I’ve been conserving the fuel.”

Snow covered the front windshield.

“Hal, turn on the windshield wipers for a moment.”

He did and the wipers flung the snow off. Large white flakes took their place. Some of them slid down and melted. Wind gusted and rocked the truck. Hal turned on the remaining headlight.

“Hal, why is it you know how to do some things and not others?”

“My research of humans isn’t complete.”

“Have you considered seeing a psychiatrist?”

“What’s a psychiatrist?” He continued to press the buttons on the cell phone.

The truck rocked from another gust of wind. The wind continued to increase. The snow started to blow in a swirl pattern. It whirled until it formed what looked like a small dust devil.

“What is going on out there?” I asked.

Hal looked up. “It’s working.”

The size of the dust devil quickly increased to the size of a tornado.

“Look!” I yelled.

The tornado crept closer. My heart pounded. “What are we going to do?”

“Wait here.” He opened the door. “I’ll be right back.”

The lunatic went outside and walked toward the swirling menace.

I pressed the button and rolled down the window behind my head. “Hal! Hal! Get back here!”

He ignored me. For some strange reason, the tornado wasn’t sucking him inside. A blue shiny arm came out of the funnel. The hand held what looked like a large glowing pearl. Hal took the pearl. His body lit up. Hal’s human form disappeared. He turned into a bluish-silver being and hovered above the snow. Hal handed the pearl back to the being inside the tornado. He floated through the darkness over to the truck and opened the door. Why did I ever get involved?

I trembled and pushed myself up against the door furthest away from him. “What are you?”

“It’s hard to explain in your language. This is my true form, but I have changed it to look a little human still.” He raised his arms. “Do I look pleasing to you?”

“I don’t know, just go away!”

“Let me help you.” His blue arms grew in toward me.

I flinched. “Leave me alone!”

“Don’t be afraid,” he said in a soft voice. “I would not hurt the one who saved me. We are peaceful beings.”

He lifted me out of the truck. I shivered as the cold wind hit me. It blew my hair across my face as he carried me toward the vortex.

“What is that thing?”

“It’s a door to my world.”

I paused. “What does your kind want?”

“We are only explorers.”

“But why are you taking me in there?”

“To help you.”

He started to take me inside. I covered my eyes with my hands. The sound of rushing wind surrounded me.

“Hal! Take me out of here!”

“It’s okay, take a look,” he said.

The pain in my ankle gradually disappeared. I felt warm and my fear started to fade. I put my hands down and opened my eyes. The cyclone had a calming effect. More blue beings circled in the white swirling snow. One of them, a larger one, came toward me.

“Thank you for helping my son. He can be impulsive at times,” he said in a deep-echoing voice.

“You’re welcome,” I said, lying in Hal’s arms. I didn’t know why, but I felt happy swirling around with the blue people.

Another blue being with long flowing blue hair floated over. “We are impressed with the kindness of humans,” she said in a higher voice.

“But who are you?” I asked.

“We’re celestial dimensional shifters that can cross the astral plane if we so choose,” she explained.

The spinning of the vortex had a hypnotic effect on me. Nothing mattered.

“It’s beautiful in here.” I gazed up at the top of the cyclone and could see a clear night sky filled with stars.

The swirling made me yawn. My eyes wanted to shut.

“You never said what I looked like,” Hal said.

“Your blue face reminds me of what an angel might look like.”

Hal smiled at me. “One day we’ll meet again.”

* * * * *

I woke up warm and comfortable in my bed. Lauri sat on the edge. She looked down at me with worried eyes.

“What happened?” I asked, drowsy.

“You’ve been sleeping for a long time and I don’t get this, but your ankle isn’t broken anymore.”

I wiggled my foot. She was right. A bird chirped outside the window. I was still in the same clothes. I stood up and looked out the window. Melting piles of snow covered everything. More birds came and landed on the tree branches. The buds on the trees had started to emerge. Spring had finally decided to kick winter out.

“Not only that, but the truck is parked in the garage,” Lauri said, “and nothing’s wrong with it.”

“How did you get back here?” I asked.

“I was walking along the side of the road when a white tornado picked me up. It scared me so bad I think I passed out. Then I woke up here in one of the beds.”

“I feel bad for teasing Hal. He was telling the truth,” I said, “and he said he would be back.”

“After all this, I believe you.”

“It’s a good thing I didn’t walk away when he needed help. I feel honored that he let me see his people. Let me tell you what he looked like…”

 

Solitary Confinement

by Matthew King

 

Pickle Gap Road is a cold, lonely path wandering along the western face of Rogers Bald in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Solitude is a valuable and dwindling asset in the hills, and it was the last thing Rogers Bald had left to give. Only a handful of hikers ever made it to the trailhead. Those that did rarely fought through the tangled webs of blueberry bushes that had overgrown much of the path. A few made it past, and so the stories of its treacherous outcroppings and challenging slope made their way through the hiking circles. Ned Parker first read about it on the Pisgah Hikers’ Message Board and immediately made plans for a trip. He dialed his manager’s number while grabbing his pre-packed bag and tent from the closet.

“Todd Martin speaking.”

“Todd. It’s Ned.”

“Ned? Funny, Frank and I were just wondering when we’d talk to you again. We thought we might’ve been sending paychecks to an empty house.”

“Yeah.” Ned rolled his eyes. “Look, I’m heading out for the weekend.”

“Ned, it’s Thursday.”

“I know what day it is.”

“Then you also know we work until Friday at five-thirty.”

“You do. I work when I want to.”

There was a scratching noise on the other end like a hand muffling the receiver. A few seconds later, Ned heard his boss sigh heavily. “Do you have to, Ned? You know we need that new version out by next week.”

“Yeah, I do have to. And stop worrying about the next version. It’ll get out on time and be just as crappy as usual, my stuff withstanding. I’ll give it to you by Monday.”

“Monday? Jesus, Ned. Do you realize the bind you’re putting us in?”

Ned yawned dramatically.

“Why you little—”

“Careful, Todd,” Ned replied. “I’d hate to have Frank hear whatever you were about to say to me.”

“You may scare Frank, but you don’t scare me.”

“Really? Then you won’t mind if I give Microsoft a call to let them know my services have just become available. Maybe while we’re chatting we can also talk about some licensing issues I might have information on. I hear they’re especially hard on other software companies when it comes to stuff like that.”

There was another long pause before Todd spoke again. “Fine. Have it in my e-mail by—”

Ned hung up the phone and grinned. He leafed through a stack of CDs on his keyboard and picked out the one marked “Ver. 5.1.” Below it was a time stamp. Twenty-eight minutes total work, Ned gloated to himself. Another personal record. He dropped the CD in his computer’s drive and pre-posted an e-mail for Monday, five thirty-five p.m. With any luck, he’d still be out in the middle of nowhere by then, enjoying the lack of company and toasting to Todd’s ulcer.

*** *** ***

Once he’d exited the highway and made his way onto the fire roads, Ned understood why everyone on the board had hiked their way in instead of taking a car. The potholes were more like miniature canyons. When he wasn’t dodging them, he was veering from one side of the road to the other to avoid fallen trees. There were some decent-sized logs around most of them, but Ned decided against stopping to pick some up. Fires, even small ones, tended to attract people, and suffering through idle chit-chat with some hillbilly was the last thing he wanted to do.

Ned finally made it to the trailhead, and walked for the better part of an hour without hearing so much as a squirrel running through the leaves. It was better than heaven. Just knowing that he had the place to himself brought a wry grin to his face. Ned rounded the corner of the first switchback and stopped mid-stride. His smile faded. He looked up to see a dark silhouette staring down at him from a rock outcropping. It was a man, judging by his build, but his face was obscured by the shadows of the stone rocks jutting out from the mountainside. He sat motionless with one arm hanging over his bent knee and the other holding a longneck pipe.

“Nice day for a walk.” The man spoke in an even, elegant tone.

It was. Suddenly the afternoon didn’t seem so promising thanks to this. What was he anyway? A British tourist? Sounded like it. He considered walking straight by but the man spoke again before he could move.

“Camping on the summit tonight?”

“Yep.”

“Going at it alone, I like that. There’s something to be said for solitude, is there not?”

“If you say so.”

The man took a short drag from his pipe and blew away the smoke in a twisting column. He studied Ned briefly. “Do you pray?”

“Do I what?”

“Do you pray?” the man repeated.

Ned looked around in bewilderment. “No,” he said, finally dismissing the question with a snort. “Why would I?”

Ned couldn’t tell for sure, but he thought he saw a smile appear on the man’s face. Another plume of smoke billowed around his silhouette and then the man leaned over to pick something out from the shadows of the rock.

“Hey! Watch it!” Ned jumped back as a wrapped package landed on the trail at his feet.

The man rose and turned his back to Ned to walk up the slope. He moved with an uncommon gracefulness across the rock face and disappeared into the thick growth of rhododendron.

What in the hell was that? Ned stood in the center of the trail, too confused to move. He looked down at his feet, half expecting the package to not be there, but there it was. Ned looked around again to make sure he was alone before bending down to pick it up. The sides of it barely stretched over his palm. He held it for a moment trying to decide if he should keep it or chuck it into the woods. It couldn’t hurt to hold onto it, he finally decided, and what would be so bad about opening it once he got to the top? It could be the carrot that put him back on schedule for the summit.

Once he’d reached the top and staked his tent, Ned sat on a stump and sipped his tea as he stared at the bulging right pocket of his backpack. The square outline of the box was silhouetted against the last of the remaining sunlight, almost screaming at him to take it out. He took another sip and repeated to himself all the reasons he’d come up with to throw the box away, but he knew what would happen in the end. His curiosity would get the better of him. After one final chug of oolong, he threw the remainder in the grass and stood up to grab his pack.

The box had a certain unbalanced weight to it that he hadn’t noticed earlier when he’d picked it up. There was no bow, no markings to indicate it was any sort of strange present, it simply had a plain gray paper covering with seams sealed by a drop of wax. He shook it once more and the contents clinked against the side of the box. “Alright,” he said. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Ned broke the seal and the paper unfurled and fell to the ground. He eyed the simple wooden box left in his palm. It was smooth and undecorated on all sides except for a small button just beneath its top. Ned pushed it in, expecting a spring-loaded plastic snake to pop out, but the lid merely cracked open a hair. He lifted it open and turned his back to the sunset to shed light on the inside. It sparkled in the dying light, quickening his heart for a moment as he tried to figure out what it was he was looking at. Maybe that guy was a crazy philanthropist after all, one of those who take trail magic to the extreme. If it was jewelry it was worth a fortune! He flipped the box over and caught the object in his hand, immediately running his fingers over the shape. He stopped soon after and drifted into a stare.

“A doorknob,” he said absently.

It couldn’t be. He held it up to the light again and looked at the crystal dome, which had been geometrically cut to look like a diamond, but had a tapering bottom that connected to a short metal rod. There was no doubt about it. The dumb prick had managed to get his hopes up over a cheap glass doorknob of all things.

“Goddamn people!” he yelled. He reared back and threw the piece of garbage as hard as he could into the mud.

Ned felt like he was drowning in a sea of mindless halfwits. Humanity was a fucking menace. His facial muscles tightened to the point where his ears started to ring. Ned kicked the head off of a dandelion and out of the corner of his eye spotted the doorknob sticking up out of the dirt. Which way had the bastard gone? East? Close enough. He reached down to grab the knob and throw it as far as he could toward the eastern ridge, but the doorknob didn’t move.

What the… Ned yanked at it again and again, but the glass wouldn’t budge. He kicked it with his heel. Still nothing. He stared at it with a scowl until an odd thought crossed his mind. This is nuts, he told himself, but he couldn’t move his fingers away. Instead, they tightened, and he felt the sharp lines of the glass dig into his palm. Ned turned the knob.

Click!

The sharpness of the sound scared him and he jumped backwards, crawling away like a crab that’d fallen on its back. His chest was pounding so hard he heard it in his ears. Ned shook it off and got to his feet. To his right was the tent and he picked up the Mag light he’d stationed just outside the door. He scanned his surroundings again, half-expecting the man in the suit to be watching him from the treeline. He saw nothing but shadows. Get a hold of yourself, for chrissake, Ned thought. He’s gone.

After a few deep breaths, Ned forced his hand to grasp the knob again. He turned the glass clockwise and kept his hand there even after the Click! The pounding in his chest returned; Ned ignored it. He tugged the knob lightly at first, then with a little more force. Nothing. The dirt never moved. Ned cursed in disgust and hung his head. He was a fool. Even so, he did hear a click, didn’t he? He couldn’t have imagined that. Ned’s eyes flashed over where he knelt and the answer hit him. He moved his legs away from the doorknob. If it was a door, he was sitting right on top of it. Ned tried the handle again and this time felt the earth beneath it move. A small crack appeared in the dirt and spread outward to form a rectangular outline. Ned pulled harder and the door gave way finally pulling it back far enough until it fell against the ground with a deep thud! A matching glass doorknob stuck out on the other side, amidst a sea of grass roots. Ned got to his feet and looked into the hole.

The chasm appeared to be empty, but on second look he could make out faint pinpoints of light. There were a few scattered around the black void, each one flickering as though they were—

“Stars,” he muttered aloud. Yes! He was looking at stars, no doubt about it. There was a breeze also, a cold one that drifted up out of the doorway and tickled the hairs on his legs. It was sweet-smelling, like he imagined untouched air would be. Ned’s mind overflowed with curiosity. He picked up a small rock off the ground and held his arm out over the middle to drop it in. It disappeared into the darkness for a moment and then resurfaced, bouncing in the air before falling through the doorway again. Ned watched it fall back and forth until he stuck out his hand to catch it and break the cycle. Gravity, that was good, he supposed. It meant there was probably a surface of some kind to walk on. He tossed the rock back in, this time at an angle. There was a faint rustle on the other side that sounded something like grass.

Pros and cons, Parker. The mental order triggered the creation of two lists in his mind. What were the negatives of going through the door? Maybe he couldn’t breathe the air, but he didn’t think so. It smelled so good and clean. What if something over there killed him or tried to eat him? What about disease? How would he get back? Ned answered all of these questions almost as quickly as they had formed. He would simply leave the door open. If things went bad, he’d hop back into this world, at an angle, of course. And the positives? Only one came to mind, and it was the only one he needed. I could leave this crappy world forever.

Ned looked back into the hole and noticed that the sky on the opposite side had lightened somewhat. The stars were beginning to fade. His day pack sat beside him and he threw the straps over his shoulders and fastened the clips across his chest and waist. He wiped his palms to get rid of the sweat and re-gripped the Mag light. The lava flow of air coming from the doorway drew him back to the opening. He looked in again and picked his spot. Far side, dive straight through, prepare to roll. Ned backed up a few steps and took a deep breath. So long, suckers! He ran forward, smiling impishly, and jumped through to the other side.

*** *** ***

The hard ground rattled his rib cage as he fell face-first into a clump of thick, waxy vegetation. It was like swimming in a bowl of fake fruit. He couldn’t see much because of the darkness, but this world didn’t seem all too different from his own. He was high up, he could tell that from the cold air, and there were trees scattered about him, although their size dwarfed anything he’d ever seen, including the Sequoias out in California. They were probably twice that size, maybe three times even.

Ned felt a sudden urge to check the doorway behind him. He pushed himself up and checked the ground behind him. The doorway was gone! Ned fell to his knees and frantically searched through the grass with his hands, looking for the doorknob. His programming instincts told him to always have a rollback mechanism built in. Now his had failed. The growing halo of light in the skies ahead cast a crimson haze over the grass. He caught something shimmer briefly out of the corner of his eye and looked down to see a doorknob nestled in the brush. He reached down to grab it and cringed as the handle came free without resistance, confirming the growing realization in his mind that the world he knew was gone forever.

Maybe not, his mind shot back. Maybe I can use this to get back anytime I want. That’s what doors are for, right? They don’t close off things permanently. Besides, who’d want to go back to that hell hole anyway? His breathing eased back into a regular rhythm. It was an uneasy calm, but he’d take it. “Explore,” he said aloud. “Take a look around, Parker. Let’s see what we’ve got.” Ned rolled the doorknob around in his hand once more before placing it in the mesh side pocket of his backpack.

The red haze of dawn put off just enough light for him to begin walking around without using his flashlight. Nearly half of the horizon to his left was backlit from the rising sun. He could see the silhouette of a mountain range that carpeted the landscape from one end of the light to the other. In fact, everywhere he looked he saw peaks and valleys. The meadow he was standing in was repeated on a number of hilltops but the majority of them were covered with the wide trunks of what he was beginning to call the Steroid Sequoias. Ned put an ear to the wind, but couldn’t hear any birds singing from their limbs, or streams rushing through their forests. The air had become completely still, as though it was scared to move.

The grass beneath his feet squeaked against the rubber soles of his shoes as he walked. He bent down to look at the blades again and flipped the switch of his flashlight to see them in his growing shadow. In the halogen light, the grass looked like it was covered in a blanket of snow. Ned snapped off a piece to look at it up close. The outer covering was damp to the touch, almost as if it was sweating. He decided that the moisture had probably come from an overnight shower. The green blade of grass could barely be seen through the layer of wax armor. It was pliable enough to bend, but only a microscopic chip fell off when he scraped across it with his fingernail.

Ned felt a stinging sensation on the back of his neck and swatted at it. His skin was warm to the touch. The stillness of the air was broken by a growing high-pitched whine in the distance. It sounded like the first few jets of steam leaving a boiling kettle. Ned froze in place, afraid to move. Now the hand on the back of his neck was hit with the same sort of pain. He took it away and brought it under the flashlight. The top half of his hand was a deep, cherry red. Suddenly the hairs on the back of his head began to bristle. The hissing sound grew deafening.

Ned swung around and immediately threw his hands up over his face, dropping the Mag light. The horizon was filled with a giant red sun that raced skyward above the distant peaks. As the light hit him, it began to sear the palms of his hands. His clothes were starting to stick to his skin and he wondered…are they melting? Ned reached back to grab hold of the doorknob. The metal shaft burned itself into his palm but he didn’t care. Every exposed area of his body was pulsing with pain. A scent like burnt plastic filled his nostrils and his mind somehow accepted the fact that his clothes were likely on fire.

Still holding onto the doorknob, Ned jerked his backpack up until it covered his head and he turned his back to the red giant. He stumbled forward and collapsed on the waxy earth, whose grass now felt more like wet pasta. Ned looked over to make sure he was still gripping the doorknob. He could no longer feel it in his hand. He jammed it down and buried it an inch into the soil. The knob slipped through his sweaty fingers on his first attempt to turn it. He peeled a bit of his shirt away to help and was not entirely surprised to see bits of his own skin dangling from the fabric. He turned the knob and opened the doorway just as he heard his backpack pop like a balloon. Sweat filled his eyes, blurring the world on the other side. His skin cracked as he moved. Ned willed his legs into motion and lunged for the doorknob on the back of the door. He grabbed it and yanked backwards, falling into the hole and closing the door with him.

*** *** ***

For a moment, Ned felt like he was floating in air, but the feeling lasted only a fleeting second as his body crashed down onto an unforgiving and rough surface. His ear smacked against the ground, building a new network of cobwebs on top of what already filled his head. He kept his eyes closed and enjoyed the cool air on his skin. It was almost like he could feel each particle of wind as it crossed his body, and that’s when the pain hit. It was immediate and complete, touching every extremity and making him feel like he’d been…

Cooked.

Ned wondered exactly how close he’d just come to buying the farm. Or was he already dead? His eyes shot open. At first, his vision was filled with orange and red orbs pulsing all around him. Then his eyes started to adjust and he focused on a brick wall just a few inches from his face. Brick? Was it really?

Ned pushed himself up and wiped off a thick coat of slime from his hands. Everything around him was covered with a glossy layer of black filth. He patted the floor near his legs and found the doorknob resting against the bricks. The netting of his backpack disintegrated, Ned decided to keep it in the main chamber. He unshouldered the pack and felt around for the zipper, but he wouldn’t need it. A hole the size of his forearm was burned into the nylon. Everything inside was in shambles. The plastic bags filled with food had melted, as had his backup flashlight. Each of his three water bottles had ruptured and spilled. It made the dryness in his throat almost unbearable. Water first, his survival instincts told him. Water, then shelter, then food.

Ned looked up and saw a band of blue sky above him. He followed it, using it as an upside-down path out of the alleyway. He realized as he walked that his right leg was dragging lazily behind his left. He ignored it and instead concentrated on the growing hum coming from up ahead. The band of sky turned right and Ned followed it down until he saw a break in the darkness. He limped faster, falling twice against the side of the alley and grating his burned skin across the jagged bricks. As he approached the exit, he heard the cracking sound of an overhead speaker being turned on, then a booming voice shouted into the air, “LABOR DAY COMMENCES IN FIVE MINUTES! ALL WORKING MEN AND WOMEN REPORT TO YOUR POSTS! GOOD DAY!”

Ned’s eyes focused on the exit more clearly and he saw for the first time the sea of people mulling about the streets. In just a few seconds, he guessed that more than a hundred people walked by the alley, all of them wearing strange-colored suits that covered every inch of their body except the face. The sight of them made his stomach turn; he looked down at the doorknob for a moment and then tucked it away in his shorts. The other worlds could wait. He might as well try to find some water first, maybe some new clothes as well.

A series of shouts broke out in the street. Ned hurried ahead, catching himself before he became lost in the rush of people. The buildings along the street were gigantic, filling nearly every inch of space there was below the clouds. A stream of white smoke poured out of the sides of every building and filtered down to the streets. Gray, lifeless architecture loomed over a sea of off-white concrete. There wasn’t a shade of color in sight. And worse, Ned thought, absolutely no sign of natural life, not even a plant hanging in a window.

The shouts roared out again and Ned looked over to see a mob of people banging on the door of a tower across the street. Grown men were crying and jumping on top of one another to get inside. One of the larger ones tossed a skinny dark-haired man out into the street. The reject tried to muscle his way back into the crowd but was thrown out again by a woman wielding a metal briefcase. He stood in the middle of the street, crying, until he saw Ned watching from the alleyway entrance. He ran over and grabbed hold of Ned’s arm.

“Get off of me!”

“Are you a boss?” he asked. His teeth chattered as he spoke. “You gotta job for me, Mister?”

“Leave me alone.”

“Please, I’ll do anything. Anything! I have two wives and four young children. See?” The man pulled a rectangular picture from his pocket that had been printed on metal. Six sullen faces stared back at him. “I need a job, Mister. Can’t you help me?”

Ned jerked his arm away. “I don’t have a job for you.”

“Aren’t you a boss? I won’t tell anybody. We can do the paperwork right here, I—”

“I’m not a fucking boss!”

The man’s strained smile faded quickly as his eyes drifted into a stare. He paused for a moment as though he were solving a mental puzzle and then his smile returned, this time a bit more knowing. “Do you have any tanks?”

Ned shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“O, man! O! I need some, Paralos damn you! Can’t you see I’m losin’ it? Can’t you?! I’m down to a C-level! A migrant worker! Almost a shit-brained FEEB!”

Ned pushed the man away and he fell backwards onto the cement. Ned watched him writhe on his back and cry until he couldn’t stand it anymore. He stepped backwards onto the sidewalk only to become lost in a fast-moving current of people. It was impossible to escape as people pushed and shoved their way toward the nearest building doorway. They all had a panicked look in their eyes as though they were about to drown.

“ATTENTION!” the booming voice yelled out again from the tops of the buildings. “WORKING MEN AND WOMEN SHOULD BE AT THEIR POSTS IN FIFTEEN SECONDS FOR SCANNING. REPEAT, FIFTEEN SECONDS UNTIL FINAL SCAN!”

The speaker cracked as the voice faded away. Hordes of men and women began screaming and pounding on windows. Ned found himself alone in the middle of the street. His throat ached for water, but he couldn’t stand being in this world a second longer. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the doorknob. “Make it a good one,” he said, and bent down to poke the handle into the ground. The metal clanked against the concrete. Ned tried again and the doorknob bounced back. It couldn’t get through. Panicked, Ned limped over to a building wall, pushing people aside to get to the surface. He jammed the doorknob into a piece of glass and cried out as it ricocheted back.

“THE WORKDAY HAS BEGUN! CONGRATULATIONS TO THOSE MEN AND WOMEN WHO KEEP OUR SECTOR STRONG! GOOD DAY!”

Everyone paused for a moment to look up at the buildings. The steam that Ned had noticed when he first stepped out into the street began to dissipate into little more than a tendril. The sight of it incited a rush of people toward the dwindling cloud. Ned fell back against the wall and tried to make sense of what had transpired. He took a deep breath and found that he couldn’t fill his lungs all the way. He took another and coughed. Every intake felt more shallow than the other.

“Come on, boss! Give me some O!”

Ned felt a hand grab his shoulder and turn him around. The dark-haired man pawed at his clothes.

“Where is it?! GIVE IT TO ME!”

Ned tried to get away but fell back as the man tackled him to the concrete. He swiped lazily at the man’s head and missed. If only he could catch his breath.

“O. O, O, O!” the man wailed as he turned Ned over to search his back. Thrusting his arm backwards, Ned caught him against the side of the head with the doorknob. The man fell off and began babbling incoherently as he lay on the ground. Ned pushed himself up. He grabbed the man’s shirt to hit him again and his fingers dug into his flabby chest. Ned reared back to strike and then stopped. He fought off a wave of lightheadedness and stared at the prone man, rolling the layer of muscle and fat between his fingers. He brought the doorknob down and looked at the metal shaft. His eyes switched between the two until he saw the man’s unconsciousness starting to fade. Now! his mind screamed at him. Do it!

“Do you pray?” Ned asked him. His voice sounded far away.

The man looked confused. “What?”

“I don’t know. Somebody asked me that once.”

Ned let out a rushed laugh and brought the doorknob back behind his head. He jammed it down into the side of the man’s stomach until the shaft buried itself in the skin. A gurgling scream erupted from the man and Ned used his good foot to pin him down. He turned the knob and laughed through a hoarse cough as it greeted him with a click! He pulled back, opening a hole from the midriff to the shoulders. The man’s screams ceased. Shaking off his dizziness, Ned took hold of the opposite knob protruding from a patch of small intestine and jumped through to the other side.

*** *** ***

After his escape from the city, Ned auditioned and rejected a host of worlds until he stopped keeping track of the count. There was the planet made up entirely of water, where he had almost given up hope of reaching the bottom to open another doorway. He was saved by a riptide that forced him down through the pressure of the sea, nearly rendering him unconscious as he approached the sea floor. He turned the knob just as his eyesight began to fade. Other worlds followed, each one more terrible than the other, and each one, in his opinion, had a common cause for their state: humans. Ned had never hated them more. They were weak, slow-minded, and didn’t deserve the lives they were given. It got to the point near the end where he would leave a world at the first sign of human life. He held in his hand the key to unlocking doorways to an infinite number of universes. Why couldn’t he find one that wasn’t tainted by mankind?

After escaping a world overrun with murderous children, Ned traveled through the doorway and fell into a patch of something that felt like grass. I wonder if it has a wax covering? he thought. His eyes opened and a gust of wind made him narrow them into a squint. He was definitely on grass; it was mostly brown mixed with a few patches of new, green shafts poking through in spots. Ned rose to sit up and winced. His back and legs sent angry shots of pain up his spine. He ran his fingers across his neck and felt his hard, wrinkled skin. His left foot cocked itself awkwardly behind him, as useless as it was painful. His ears still rung from being forced under the ocean’s pressure. If the man in the woods had meant to kill him, it was taking a helluva long time. But that’s not the case, Ned told himself. He was given a gift to escape, he just hadn’t found the right destination yet.

Sunlight reflected off the doorknob sitting next to his hand. Ned stood and closed his eyes as he took a deep breath. The air was cool but invigorating. He peeked out of one eye and then quickly opened the other one. He was standing on top of a grassy bald in the middle of a mountain range. A hawk swung down into view and Ned followed it as it twisted through the air, guiding him through a panoramic tour of his surroundings. “I know this,” Ned said aloud. Everything around him triggered a memory. The knife-edge peak off to his right was Mt. Pisgah, he was sure of it. And if that were true, there should have been a road winding up to the top with a large parking lot nestled just below the top, but there was nothing. Just beyond Pisgah he saw Black Balsam, its unmistakable green dome towering over Graveyard Fields. But where was the Blue Ridge Parkway? Where was the pulloff and the signs telling people where to point their cameras?

A deer walked out from the treeline below him. The doe watched Ned as it chewed on a mouthful of grass, perfectly content to share the mountain top with a stranger.

I’m alone! he shouted in his mind. Ned screamed out in joy and listened to his voice ricochet off the sides of mountains. It was the first pure moment of happiness he’d had in a long time.

With a broad smile draped across his face, Ned scanned the scenery until he recognized a mountain leading out toward the east. He’d thought about hurling a doorknob that way once hoping that it would brain the crazy bastard who’d stopped him on the trail. Ned looked down and rolled the doorknob around in his hand. The smile changed to a sideways grin as he tightened his fingers around the glass. “You thought you could outlast me, didn’t you?” he said, raising his voice against the wind. “Thought I’d give up that easily. Nobody gets the best of Ned Parker, kiddo! Nobody!” Ned reared back and hurled the doorknob through the air, watching it sail against the blue sky and then disappear into the forest below. He laughed out loud when he heard the glass shatter against a tree.

Ned turned around and limped back to the top of the bald. He would need to set up a camp soon. Water, shelter, fire, food, the four basic survival needs in the wilderness. He couldn’t wait to test out his outdoors knowledge. Fire might be tough to come by, depending on the rocks in the area, but—

A rustle of leaves interrupted the quiet stillness. Ned froze and listened to the wind. He paused for a moment, nearly allowing himself to exhale when he heard the noise again, closer, and sounding almost as if it had come from a different spot. It was followed by a low, gurgling moan. In some obscure corner of his mind, Ned felt a brief moment of relief. The sound didn’t seem like it was human. He turned slowly on his good foot, ready to grab some sort of stick to fend off whatever animal was moving in on him. Soon after he’d focused on the woods below him, Ned felt a stream of hot urine flowing down his leg. His screams soon followed.

Moving out of the shadows of trees were hoards of naked men and women. Black hair fell like rivers of oil over their shoulders, covering mangled humps along their back. More emerged from underground, pushing their way up through the dirt with claws that were longer than their fingers. They sniffed the air with pointed noses and then turned to follow the group heading toward Ned. They inched up the mountainside, gurgling and whimpering like hungry dogs searching for food. Faces swathed with dirt looked from side to side, passing over him as they surveyed his scent. A dome of translucent skin covered their eyes. As they got closer, Ned saw rows of sharp fangs jutting out of mouths that hung open in a pant.

“Go on!” he cried out meekly. “Get out of here!”

The creatures whipped their heads around, honing in on his voice. Most were running now, snorting as they trudged up the hillside. Ned could hear more coming from behind but he didn’t dare turn around. His mind spiraled out of control, leaving him paralyzed. Think of something, Parker! he screamed inside, but the orders went unheeded. It was too late. What good would running do when everywhere he looked, he saw mindless, ravenous…

(people)

…beasts charging at him? It wasn’t fair! IT WASN’T GODDAMN FAIR!

The first of the dirt-dwellers reached Ned and latched a clawed hand onto his arm. The man tugged at him, using Ned’s screams as a guide to inch his other hand closer to the neck. Claws like needles raked across his jugular, lightly at first and then with growing pressure. He saw ribbons of skin—his skin—hanging off of the beast’s claws. It rushed them toward its mouth, sucking them in through the gaps in its teeth.

Ned screamed out and flailed his body around to no avail. Every movement dug the talons deeper into his arm. Another set punctured his back, and he felt a hot, steamy breath surveying his head. His eyes flashed wide as he felt the dagger-teeth take away a chunk of his scalp. The growing mob cheered with a chorus of inharmonious whelps.

*** *** ***

When the feast subsided, the dirt-dwellers retired to their homes deep within the mountain. Rogers Bald, a picture of solitude, resumed its watch over the Pisgah, providing a tempting lure to the passing traveler desperate to attain a brief moment of isolation. The discouraging grade of Pickle Gap Road was a memory long forgotten. But the prospective wanderer should not fear, for there are always passages available for those eager to escape the world around them.

 

Wezleski in Love

WezInLove

Illustration by Erica Henderson

by C.J. Henderson

 

“I’m going to need wood.”

It was, to be certain, not the type of request that director Aikana, loving watchdog and guarding force of the Pelgimbly Center for the Advanced Sciences, got every day. Oh, no—not in the least. Not, of course, to think that the fine scientific minds of that fabled institution of higher learning and earth-shattering experimentation could not make a request or two, or three, even—for this or that. Perish the thought.

“Cords of it.”

In their time, this most prestigious gathering of high forward tinkerers and whiz-bang enthusiasts had made all manner of extravagant and nonsensical requests—the magnificently all-encompassing greed of some of them so radiant it could stun a congressman, indeed, mayhap even a senator—of every possible kind, shape and aroma.

“I’ll need all different types…”

Over the years the Pelgimbly Center’s renowned wildmen of science had requisitioned everything from gold-plated submarines to diamond-studded Fruit of the Looms. Now, of course, Professor Trillingham had been studying the effects of the conductivity of gold plating in sea water when applied to electronically-charged sea creatures, and the blue caret BVDs were simply part of Doctor Kimbreubo’s experiments in instantaneous human travel via light waves, the diamonds, of course, utilized for their refractory capabilities and the Fruit of the Looms, because, well…

“Oak, teak, mahogany, larch…”

…Damnit…

“Coconut, bamboo, the great Scotch pine…”

…Kimbreubo knew quality stitching when he saw it.

“Wood?” Director Aikana, at this point only a little stunned, said the word as if it were a curiosity. “Your latest project is only going to require… wood?”

No, not Professor Philip Morvently’s plea for the Center to send up more weather control satellites, or Dr. Maxim Ginderhoff’s repeated grant requests to build a second particle accelerator, nor even Associate Brodsky’s latest desire for six hundred cases of Luckies and a thousand laptops complete with cup holders and ashtrays for his battalion of nicotine-saturated chimpanzees had been the most lunatic boon ever asked by the Pelgimbly staff.

Indeed, the request before her was not the kind to which hard-worked director Aikana was accustomed. It was, unbelievably, far too tame, too innocent, too earthy and—gasp to a length that could awaken suspicion in the Amish—frankly far too inexpensive for her to believe it had actually come from a Pelgimblian.

“Yes—wood. All you can get.”

And for it to have come from Wezleski, well, of course, she thought, not that Wendel was ever as excessive as the others anyway… but, well—wood…

“What are you going to do with wood?”

She had to know. It was her duty, after all, to understand exactly the “what” and “why” of any particular “it” that one of her people claimed was needed before she could decide as to whether or not precious funds could be released for, say, another dysonsphere, or a dirigible. For in truth, despite their heart-felt, well-documented and often quite loud protests of the benefits of first-hand upper-atmosphere experimentation and gravitational contact, in truth she knew in her heart of hearts that Drs. Kuvish and Klokel only wanted a lighter-than-air craft for shooting skeet and cruising nude beaches.

“Burn it.”

Well, all right—what else do you do with wood? What else had she been expecting, after all? It was Wezleski. If he wasn’t splitting atoms with a pair of tweezers and a cocktail toothpick—baby onion still attached—as a bar bet to cadge free drinks, he was off somewhere teaching dogs to talk to quantums. He was the most difficult of all the men she had ever met—difficult in the sense that unlike most men, she had no handle on him. She could not manipulate him. She could not tempt him.

And she could not dislike him.

No matter how much mayhem he caused.

“Ahhhh, why? Burn it, I mean…”

A change in emotion, a sudden giddiness akin to the light-headedness the War Between the States could bring out in a true daughter of the Confederacy, the director’s mind went awash with horror. Specifically, the horrific thought of a Wezleski project that actually began with his starting a fire—

Cutting right to the chase, eh, Dr. Wezleski?

The terrifying thought of anything flammable being permitted to that one particular scientist before her turned the fingers of the director’s right hand into a fist so tight it might have fit through the funnel end of a #17 Piangersol Fessel tube. She caught hold of her emotions in exemplary fashion, though, calming herself with the undisputable grace of a debutante’s smile deflecting obviously damning evidence. Composing herself, she allowed duty to swell her defenses. She reminded herself that this, this was Wezleski.

Yes, Wezleski, the man who turned deserts into tapioca. Who trained hamsters to squeal a cappella. Who had once created a formula to bring the dead to life simply because he was short one warm body for poker night. Who mixed Martel Cognac with Yoo Hoo and regarded his discovery of the secrets of time travel as a nuisance. When it was Wezleski who sat before you, it did not matter what he wanted. Any request had to be questioned. And so, steeling herself against the answer, the director asked;

“Please… why do you want to burn the wood?”

“Oh, that’s simple,” Wezleski beamed. He really did. He had one of those untroubled, innocent faces, one that revealed all to whom he conversed. There were no secrets with the good doctor. He was, as a person, as guileless as a cocker spaniel, as uncomplicated as a beer brewed in Pennsylvania. Whatever he said, Aikana knew it would be the truth.

“For steam.”

The director stared at the doctor, her nerves finally at their end. What new calamity was the most accidentally lethal man in the history of academic research planning now and would the riches the proving of his latest theory bequeathed to the Center cover the vast expenses connected to the devastating destructions of discovery? These thoughts pounding at her brain with the fury of a bad-hair wedding-day, she asked the last question she would for that morning.

“And why, in this day and age, considering your particular field of current inquiry, would you need to generate steam?”

And that was when Dr. Wendel Q. Wezleski, Ph.D., explained the connection between quantum theory and steam power, while fields of dollar signs began to dance behind the thick lenses of director Aikana’s bifocals, their ballet a splendor to behold.

* *** *

“Hey Linda, he really thinks this is going to work, don’t he?”

“Yes, Spit. He does.”

“It’s Spitz. Spitz!”

The young man standing somewhat to the left of the center of Laboratory Hangar 27 could not help but shout. He was, after all, not only being provoked by a beautiful woman, but by one who decided long ago that she would spend all of her days being annoying to him. It had not been a conscious decision, of course. Even the suggestion of such a thing would have embarrassed the good doctor to no end. But, doing it she was and Edward Hoolihan Spitz, Eddie to his friends, knew why she did it.

“You were thinking that being Mr. Spitz was any better?”

Eddie’s best friend was Doc Wezleski.

“I mean, Mr. Spitz, Mrspitz? Isn’t that that little creep that would bother Superman every three months?”

The Doc and Eddie were almost always together. Indeed, Eddie considered himself Dr. Wezleski’s right-hand man. The two had been, in the commonest vernacular, pals for years. Sure, Eddie would be the first to admit he was just a kid compared to the Doc, even though they were but a mere three years apart in age.

“I’m like some high school rookie compared to the Doc,” he had told a friend once. “But then, isn’t everybody?”

Eddie Spitz knew Doc Wezleski was his mental superior. But, as far as Eddie and… well, most everyone else was concerned, the Doc was everyone’s mental superior. He could not think of a thing the Doc couldn’t do. Really—what accomplishment, what bit of research, what bold step forward or bizarrely daffy stunt was not already a part of his voluminous resume, or on his agenda for tomorrow?

Of course, Eddie knew what was bothering poor Dr. Linda Ginderhoff, daughter of the Center’s own Dr. Maxim Ginderhoff, Ph.D., esteemed doctor of thermodynamic physics, holder of the Kimwhiply Chair, and senior department head of the Variant Realities Department. She was the daughter of the man who was, for all intents and purposes, the Doc’s greatest enemy. Old Ginderhoff hated Wezleski with an intensity matched only by that of a birthing star. Or perhaps his daughter.

“You’re just jealous of the Doc,” Eddie offered smugly.

Linda snorted. She made the noise in a lady-like manner, well, in the manner of a lady scientist at least, but it was still delicate enough to not turn too many heads. Normally she would never have responded to such a feeble accusation, but she was ever-so-tired of Spitz and his foolishness. And now, to be forced to share a working area with Wezleski, that irresponsible, over-confident, self-indulgent…

“You have fun with those important equations and all your linear measurements, doctor,” Eddie said with a casual satisfaction. “The doc and I are going to be busy today, too… conquering time and space!”

Linda Ginderhoff snarled inside. Her face did not move nor did any outward part of her give off any social or even pre-social signals. She was the dictionary definition of calm. Her gloved hands did not shake, they did not ball. They stayed loose and poised and as casual as weeping willows in a gentle breeze. Her glacial poise was frightening.

And yet, she could have screamed with the rage of the mad and all their cousins. Heaps of them, dying in a pit, killing each other in a boiling fury could not begin to match the anger that assaulted her every time she was forced to think of Wendel Q. Wezleski. Indeed, her mind was fuming at such an unclockable rate the doctor could actually see her blood pressure rising through the intense throbbing vibrating the veins of her arm. Flustered, annoyed beyond redemption but unable to really do anything about it, she turned her back on the young lab assistant and busied herself with her own work.

And then, he came in.

“Doc!”

Wezleski.

“What’s up, Eddie?”

The man whose senior high school year book photo was accompanied by the legend:

Glee Club, Audiovisual Troop, Jazz Band, Future Geniuses of America, Basketball Team, the Sons of Liberty, Chess Club, Sophomore and Junior Class President, The Latin Kooks, Founder of the Well Rounded Rocketeers Society and Senior Student Body Cha Cha King.

“Nothing that couldn’t be brought down with a blast from a twelve gauge.”

Wezleski smiled. It was a large, boyish grin, a flash of enamel bright enough to signal planes. It made Eddie feel swell, gave Linda the urge to grind her teeth, and produced enough reflective energy to power any number of small motors. Standing in the doorway, hands on hips, teeth gleaming, posed directly beneath the plaque holding the stuffed and lacquered fish brought back from the deepest reaches of the ocean by the calculating but slightly demented Rufus T. Pelgimbly himself, Wezleski seemed ready to tackle anything.

Running his left hand over his head to try and tame the wilder sections of his chestnut blonde hair, he stood beneath the ichthyological nightmare that had proved to be the possible end of the human race as well as divinely tasty, infuriating Linda with his self-assured presence. His fine blue eyes, his strong jaw, his not quite perfect nose, all of it worked in splendid harmony as he threw back his head and laughed;

“You’re a card, Eddie.”

And with that he swung his lanky, muscular body forward into the room, as ready to make history as he ever was. For, it had to be noted, that morning was the morning—specifically, the morning when he and Edward Hoolihan Spitz would take mankind’s first sideways step through the universe. From her own area within the same massive staging chamber, Dr. Linda Ginderhoff did her absolute best to not watch a moment of the sure-to-be historical proceedings. Lighting a Lucky Strike, Wezleski took a long drag, haloed Rufus’s nightmare with a nicotine ring, then said;

“Ready to start loading, Eddie?”

She knew what the results would be, what they simply had to be. This time, she told herself with the casual but chuckling assurance of all the Ginderhoffs, like every other time he had tried to work out the ups and downs of inter-dimensional travel, the great Wezleski would fail. Oh, he might have been able to establish a radio link with a silicon-based intelligence somewhere in the Southwestern tip of the Uppermost Magellanic Cloud, find a way to not only make the recycling of bovine flatulence cost-effective but also entertaining, and even prove the existence of the elusive and long scoffed-at underwear gnomes, but this, this particular project, this was quite assuredly and most emphatically beyond even him.

Of this she was certain.

It was embarrassing enough that he would discover the secrets of time travel before her father, who had worked his entire life to unlock the mysteries of chronological navigation. It was even more mortifying that he had done so accidentally, and that he considered the achievement of science fiction’s most illogical goal of little practical importance.

“Ready as a man can be, Doc.”

But to think he was going to be able to travel from one dimension to another, to slide between the unfathomable layers of the gossamer fabric of existence with the ease of a five year old pedaling his Mattel Big Wheel, this was the ultimate insult, the maximum, elemental foolishness upon which the great Wezleski was finally going to be exposed as the fraud he was.

Sitting at her desk, Linda watched as Eddie and his hero stoked the boiler of Wezleski’s latest contraption. Large, it certainly was, and ungainly as well. She had been there from the beginning, watching its construction since the first day when the steam locomotive Pride of Pittsburgh had been dragged across the tiles and secured in the center of Wezleski’s staging area.

After that equipment and parts had arrived almost hourly. One moment it would be the remote-operations block valve and the condensation pump from a dismantled Western European nuclear reactor, the next it was the overflow pipe and the water level sight glass from a Kenmore water heater or the lubricating valve and the pressure release bleed from a 19th century water clipper’s steam engine.

The bits and bigger bits had come by pick-up truck, Federal Express and helicopter, all of them polished, calibrated, and then screwed, wired, welded, or in some other way made a permanent part of the grand assemblage. Large and larger still the monumental steam engine had grown, sprawling across the landscape of Laboratory Hangar 27 until it had taken on a shape and size one could only describe as not resembling any steam engine ever seen since the trepidacious opening days of river travel.

But, not only had Wezleski’s mountain of parts and thing-a-ma-jigger schools of wiring and pipe fitting driven her to distraction, but then the wood had begun to arrive. Cords of it, mountainsides of it—load after load until janitor Swenson’s singing of the “Lumberjack Song” had grown cosmically irritating.

Some had come in the shape of planks, some in the form of split cords. Just as many piles were composed of pristine, virgin timber as were made up of painted, varnished and even moss-covered shapes too plentiful to enumerate. Timber had been brought in from every type of tree and grass the planet had to offer, logically stacked, neatly piled, and faithfully itemized as to serve the purposes of Wezleski, janitor Swenson and the IRS.

Wood had also been gathered in a wealth of manufactured forms as well. The staging area had been filled with everything from children’s blocks and Conestoga wagon wheels to cuckoo clocks and conga drums. Pine clothes pins sat in wicker baskets next to bins of baseball bats and boxes of Burger King Employee of the Month plaques. The grapevine also had reported that George Washington’s teeth and the Vatican’s last piece of the true cross were hidden away somewhere in the mix as well, but most gave such whispers little credence. After all, this was the Pelgimbly Center, where gossip and rumors of the most outlandish nature were as commonplace as thieving Republicans and fascist Democrats.

“Well, let’s do it,” said Wezleski, his confidence as high as the ionosphere and as well-deserved as Galileo’s fame or Bill Clinton’s impeachment. “Let’s go visit the neighbors.”

Eddie gave a quick salute and threw open the hatch door on the great boiler before him. As he did Wezleski took his place before the main monitor board he had constructed over the weeks, checking his settings for the grand moment when he would finally achieve his boyhood dream. The two had worked out their signals in a seemingly endless series of rehearsals. As the pressure grew in the boiler, Wezleski would monitor the area around them for any anomalies. As they grew closer to breaking away from their own dimension into the next one over, the doctor would gauge how much hotter their fire needed to be and inform Eddie accordingly.

What was going to make the experiment work was the variety of timbers they had gathered. It was a proven fact that not only did different woods burn at different speeds, but that the differences in their ages, their dimensions and even their shapes played a great part in exactly how much heat energy would be released and when. Wezleski had discovered, while experimenting with the effects of wooden matches versus Zippos when attempting to activate bong water, that the source of one’s flame corresponded exactly with the size of one’s bubbles. Theorizing a direct correlation between heat and displacement, his resultant epiphany had inspired his latest series of experiments, the results of which would be measured that morning.

As water began to simmer within their boiler, Wezleski noted the approaching steam climb carefully, telling Eddie what to throw into the fire box in what quantities and in what order. Hotter their fire became, the boiler’s internal temperature rising notch by notch, every millimetric advancement noted with glee and recorded for posterity.

From her side of the room, Dr. Linda Ginderhoff sat mesmerized. On the one hand, the rational mind had to admit that the possibilities if the pair succeeded were enormous, mind-boggling—simply, starkly incredible. On the other hand, however, that part of the good doctor not given to orderly thought, what the more foolish risk-taker might categorize as Ms. Ginderhoff’s feminine side, stared straight ahead—riveted—praying for the two men to fail.

And fail they did. No matter how much wood Eddie hurled through the boiler door, no matter what the order was in which he threw it, or what it was he threw, the secrets of the universe were not unraveled that morning, although not for lack of effort. Wezleski tried every combination imaginable, sending Eddie running helter skelter amongst the piles and stacks and barrels, burning up everything from Peruvian pipe thistles to a complete run of the TV Guide, including all the variant covers. They tried running cool fires which barely rattled their nickel-plated pressure valve to thermal holocausts so violent they threatened to melt the boiler’s confining cement work.

All of it to no avail.

With each order shouted to throw in a handful of redwood pine cones or a mahogany ottoman, fifty feet of Japanese cherry or a set of wooden wall ducks, Linda sat enraptured, her smile ever widening and her soul eternally gladdened by Wezleski’s utter failure. And an utter failure it was, for no matter how much wood was burned, reality did not so much as jolt. No doorways opened, the lights did not dim, the air did not shimmer. Even the dust did not move. In short, nothing happened.

Absolutely nothing.

“Something wrong, doctor?”

Wezleski turned his head slowly in Dr. Ginderhoff’s direction. He had never spoken to her before, mainly because she had never spoken to him before. Indeed, as far as he knew Linda Ginderhoff held the same hostile opinion of him that her father did.

“No,” he answered finally, wondering what could possibly be causing her concern. “Just catching our breath.”

Wezleski noted the woman’s smile, how much more pleased and delighted and unrestrainedly alive she seemed. The doctor had not actually realized how often she seemed distant, dour and, well… just plain angry until that moment. Now, however, he saw her in an entirely different light.

“Oh, is that what you call it?”

Her tone was positively awash with humor. Wezleski’s ears tingled with the recognition of it. His eyes drank in the luscious curves of her smile, the joy infusing her body language. Smell, taste and touch all started to bark within the back of his brain, demanding their own chances to assess the good Dr. Ginderhoff, but he restrained them.

“Well, a man has to start somewhere,” he told her, parts of his brain still not certain why they were suddenly chattering away like old chums. “We didn’t get it today. All right, fair enough. So we’ll get it tomorrow.”

And at that point, Linda laughed once more. The sound of it was alluring, captivating. Wezleski could taste the beauty in her all too-feminine giggle, found himself getting lost in its delicious passageways, when suddenly, the part of his mind experienced with pain realized that the good doctor was not laughing with him.

“So,” she managed to say through her escaping humor, her hand to her mouth, eyes filled with delight, “you plan to put on another little show tomorrow, do you?”

She was laughing at him.

Wezleski stood stock still, shocked and hurt and decidedly confused. He had always known Maxim Ginderhoff was somewhat jealous of his various successes, had always felt sorry for the old fellow because of it. He had also assumed the hostility that Linda had always seemed to show him to be merely that of a loyal daughter siding with her father. But the depths of scorn he felt in her throaty chuckle, that was something all together different. She more than disliked him, he could plainly tell.

She really disliked him.

“Yes,” he answered her, stiffly, coldly. Staring at her in much the manner one supposes great and noble Caesar stared at Brutus at the moment of his pincushioning, “that was the plan. It’s called scientific investigation. You should try it sometime.”

Linda snapped back an equally dry and catty remark, her temper boiling at the notion that Wezleski could possibly be so ill-mannered and boorish to actually take offense at her playfulness. After all, she deserved to get a little of her own back. So he didn’t know why she was upset with him, so he didn’t actually know she was upset, so what, she thought. If he was so damned smart he should have had it all figured out.

Within his own mind, Wezleski found himself as shocked as Dr. Ginderhoff. Who was she to gloat over his failure? How could she? Weren’t they both Pelgimblians? Weren’t they all brothers of science together, slogging forward through the trenches, taking each…?

Brothers?

Wezleski let the word repeat in his mind. Well, all right, he told himself, obviously he knew she was a woman. How could he not? Did people think him blind? Did anyone believe he hadn’t noticed her unparalleled legs, her perfect form, those raven locks cascading down her fabulously formed shoulders?

Ha—he could tell them. Ha, again. He’d noticed. All that and more. The devastating length of her lashes, the delightful shade of her cheeks when she blushed, the way her waist tapered to a circumference equal within twenty millimeters to the ovoid created when he touched his hands together—fingers to fingers, thumb to thumb—perfect for lifting…

Wezleski blinked, then stared into Linda’s eyes. Somehow he saw in them a perfect reflection of what he had been thinking, could see that the curvaceous Dr. Ginderhoff had the same image in her mind, of him picking her up and twirling her around and…

He had made some kind of comment about her dedication to science, but she did not answer him. Instead she turned suddenly and went back to her work. He watched her for a moment, shoulders tight, head down, then tore himself away. Whatever had been washing its way through his mind was, he told himself, merely a reaction to the day’s failure.

Galileo’s predicament, he thought, you’ve punished yourself before for not getting something right, but you’ve never dreamed up anything as loony as that.

“Hey, Doc,” said Eddie, spirits depressed, but not deflated, “you want to go out and have a little drink?”

“Yeah, Eddie, let’s go get a little drink.”

You think you need some punishment, a voice whispered within the scientist’s head…

“Let’s get a lot of little drinks.”

I’ll show you some punishment.

* *** *

The next day things did not go much better. Both the good doctor and his erstwhile sidekick had bent their elbows far into the evening. Their trail of bar hopping had begun with fruit wine fizzles at the Cold Crab Café, a mere block and a half from the Center, and had ended with a round of Confucius Coolers at Mama Leung’s Noodle Nook in a somewhat scandalous part of a Chinatown three states away.

But, both the good doctor and Eddie survived the evening and, thanks to Abdul Ben Thorner’s All Nite Car Service and Computer Repair, even made it to the front steps of the Pelgimbly Center at 9:18 the next morning wearing the same clothes they had left in the night before as well as each other’s shoes. That they were not well rested was evident from both the color of their eyes and the fact that neither realized they had strands of garlic noodles stuck in their hair. Still, they were red-blooded men of science and as such they knew the experiment had to go on. Undaunted, and oblivious to consequence, they emptied their pockets of bar nuts, tiny umbrellas and the occasional shot glass and got down to work.

If determination were success, they would have transversed the entire multi-verse without having to light so much as a twig. But, wishful thinking never won a government contract, and neither did anything done within Laboratory Hangar 27 that dreadful day. If anything, the weakened state of the two men made their efforts even more pitiful than the day before.

When the afternoon whistle sounded, alerting the Pelgimblians from one end of the Center to the other that another day’s wages had again been well-earned, Wezleski and Eddie sat amidst their stacks and cords and heaps utterly discouraged. They had somehow done the impossible. They had failed. Twice. And neither could think of a single reason for such to be the case.

Not that the great Wezleski was a stranger to failure—no, not at all. On more than one occasion he had left his home wearing mis-matched socks. He had even once left the fire on too high beneath a pot of eggs he wished to hardboil, returning to find a blackened piece of melted cookware and a kitchen filled with reeking smoke and covered with exploded bits of shell and yoke. But this, this was bigger. This time he had data, data he had checked twice.

Twice!

But even after an unheard of third checking of his data, still Wezleski could find no error in his calculations, and so on he worked. Day after day he directed Eddie, telling him what to burn, relentlessly scanning his monitors for the slightest sign of dimensional rifting. But, no matter if they were burning maple logs garlanded with fig branches or floorboards from a Kabuki theater sprinkled with sawdust from Professor Ludwig’s termite cage, the results remained the same. The wood burned, the water boiled, the crosshead slid the crankshaft and the flywheel turned, but nothing happened.

By the tenth day, even Eddie was discouraged.

As young Spitz got his hat, Wezleski threw him a handful of encouragement, a sorry bit of “we’ll get ’em tomorrow.” The sentence rang bitterly false to the young research assistant. Indeed, the words could not have sounded more like a lie if they had been spoken in French. Still, the two shook hands, punched each other on the arm, and swore that they would somehow make things work the next day no matter what.

Dr. Linda Ginderhoff sat in her stadium seat for the Great Grand Failure of Wezleski and turned her head, unable to look at the two men. For a while it had been delicious fun, to watch them trying, struggling, day after day, hoping for some kind of reaction—any kind of reaction—beseeching the cosmos for the tiniest of ripples, anything that might let them know they were on the right track, and receiving nothing in return. But, after a while, like burning ants with a magnifying glass, the fun of Wezleski’s daily humiliation began to lose its allure. In fact, for Linda, it had become painful to endure.

For the past two days she had found herself watching the goings on across the floor of Laboratory Hangar 27 with growing concern, sometimes for hours on end. She had not really been noticed, of course, since much of the staff had taken to coming in to spectate in their off moments. Indeed, her father, Dr. Maxim Ginderhoff, had practically made the hangar his second home, proposing bleachers be brought in and passing out bags of popcorn to one and all.

But Linda had somehow been unable to join in with her father’s undisguised glee. She felt sorry for Wezleski, pitied him in his failure. To fail was, of course, something of a novelty to Wezleski, a painfully nasty and unwanted novelty to say the least, a new and unknown quantity which he was having increasing difficulty understanding. As he sat pouring over his calculations, eight score pages of them spread across his monitor board, Linda came up behind him and asked;

“Having some trouble?”

“A touch.”

“Any idea where the problem might be?”

Wezleski turned around in his chair and looked into Linda’s eyes. As much as he wanted to find something there he could take his frustrations out upon, he found nothing but unexpected sympathy and kindness. Within minutes, the two of them were pouring over his calculations, all eight score pages, together—searching for the one tiny instance where the inventor of the anti-grav toilet, Cancer-B-Gone and everyone’s Kwanza favorite, pepperoni waffles, had gone wrong.

Four hours later they stopped looking.

“OOOuuuaagghhh, I give up.”

Linda’s eyes bulged involuntarily. The great Wezleski had actually thrown in the towel and the skies had not fallen nor had the mountains tumbled. As much as she disliked the man, she could not allow him to fold inward upon himself. If such was to happen the cause of runaway science might be set back decades. She owed it to her vocation, she owed it to Pelgimbly, she told herself, to snap him out of whatever kind of funk he was putting himself into.

“Have you considered,” she asked cautiously, “that your data is sound, but that your implementation is faulty?”

Loving the sound of hope he sensed in her words, Wezleski inquired, “What were you thinking?”

“Maybe Eddie and you don’t make the best team. I’m not trying to criticize poor Spitz, but these calculations of yours call for split-second timing. If the simmer isn’t manipulated just so, just when… well, you know…”

Indeed, Wezleski did know. Before Linda could finish her sentence he had hurried her down to the boiler, tossed her a pair of Makitosh Work Gloves, and then scampered back to his monitor. By the time she had tightened the wrist cinches on her new asbestos-lined accessories, he had the system on line and was calling for steam. Flame poured out of the fire-throw nozzles, slathering over the starter fuel she began heaping inside the boiler oven. In a matter of minutes the water above began to steam.

“Teak—pound and a half.”

Linda grabbed up each ingredient ordered and flung it home with ruthless efficiency. No longer did she gleefully desire Wendel’s failure. This was bigger than her family pride, beyond the petty jealousy that had driven her earlier. This was important, this was essential, this was…

“Oak, knotty pine, two pepper mills and a copy of The New York Times.”

The two monitored and stoked, working at a fast and furious pace, one which seemed to notch upward in intensity every few minutes. Before their first half hour had passed, the two had fallen into a kind of rhythm where Linda was beginning to anticipate Wendel’s commands. Unnoticed to either of them, she would be halfway to this or that fuel when the order would come directing her toward it. Before their second half hour had passed, her hands were already grabbing up the this and that about to be asked for. Then, roughly one hour, thirteen minutes and fifty-nine seconds after they had begun, just as Linda tossed a handful of birch chopsticks into the licking flames, it happened.

Working feverishly, finishing each others sentences, communicating at a level where they understood each other so well they could practically read one another’s minds, neither Linda nor Wendel saw the encroaching signs. But they were there. The first was the changing of the height of the ceiling. The second was a switch in the color of Wendel’s shirt from ivory to chalk. The third was a massive burp tasting of pickles, oiled fish and curried rice, none of which Linda had even seen in weeks.

“Excuse me, Dr. Ginderhoff,” said Wezleski with a chuckle. “Lunch talking back to us, eh?”

“I don’t understand. That tasted like… I mean, I haven’t… I didn’t…” And then, they knew!

Looking about them, they watched the changes coming and going. Wendel with a moustache, a pinkie ring, a wooden leg, Linda as a blonde, in a wheelchair, with a moustache, wall color changing, flooring changing from cement to concrete, everything changing, changing a degree at a time, one degree after another, but changing—unstopping, unstoppable.

“We did it,” shouted Wezleski. “We’re moving through probability!”

Wordlessly the two raced toward each other. Meeting exactly halfway between where they were and where they were going, the two threw themselves together. His hands came in smoothly to encircle her waist, a space of only twenty millimeters remaining free as his large hands lifted her from the floor—fingers to fingers, thumb to thumb.

She squealed with delight as he twirled her. Then suddenly, she was on the floor once more, and they were wrapping themselves one around the other, chests and heads and lips meeting at the same moment. They kissed with the tenderness of childhood sweethearts and the passion of adulterers, with the ardor of newlyweds and the hunger of the starving. Moment after moment they kissed, every handful of seconds enhancing the experience by sliding them into yet another dimension, changing the texture and flavor and intensity of their bonding ever so slightly.

Throughout the great expanse of Laboratory Hangar 27, dozens, then scores, then hundreds of multiples of the pair appeared, holding each other dearly, kissing with a passion unknown anywhere or anywhen else, each of them a shade of the central couple holding each other at the universal ground zero of all possibilities.

And, as he held the woman he now had to admit he loved with a desire stronger than a child’s for Christmas or a dog’s for bacon, the back of his mind chuckled and slapped him roundly for missing the obvious. Of course his data had been correct; he was, after all, Wezleski. But he had tried to make it work with an improper equation.

“Does this mean we’re in love,” asked Linda teasingly, biting his ear, licking at the wounds she inflicted.

“I believe so,” he murmured in response.

And believe it he did. For men and women alone can accomplish much, but as the sages have known since the beginning of time, men and women in love can do anything they want, become anything they choose.

Through a smile as bright as the sun and as wide as generosity, Wezleski pulled a deep breath into himself. He had done it. He had shattered the laws of probability. He could now reach for any possible future and do anything he desired. In a handful of seconds the boiler would cease to bubble at the same intensity and the elasticity of the moment would be over. But, until then, he could seize for himself anything he desired.

Staring into Linda Ginderhoff’s eyes, the most beautiful eyes any man had ever beheld on any plane of existence, Dr. Wendel Q. Wezleski knew exactly what he wanted.

 

The Pelgimbly Center for the Advanced Sciences first appeared in “Wezleski to the Rescue“.