Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2012
Two-Stone Tom’s Big T.O.E. by Brian Lumley
The distinction between past, present, and future is an illusion, although a persistent one.
- Albert Einstein.
Adam Tempest drove furiously through the city’s almost empty, early morning streets cursing himself, or more properly a too-tightly wound alarm-clock, for the “lateness” of the hour. Late in that it was already a few minutes to six a.m., when old Two-Stone Tom’s experiment was set to commence; or to “go off,” as a certain junior member of the team—a self-appointed if somewhat morbid court jester—had had it, in something less than (a hasty glance at his watch) five minutes’ time.
Two-Stone Tom, yes. Better known—and to his face rather more deferentially—as Thomas Fotherington Wright: a scientist and, more especially, a distinguished theoretical physicist and cosmologist; also, and far more importantly, the lab’s director and leading light. The latter in light of the fact that it had been his millions, or his banker father’s before him, which in the main had built “the lab,” the massive complex where one of his pet theories was about to be put to the test. Two-Stone Tom and his Big T.O.E.: his Theory Of Everything.
“The Lab,” Adam mused, ignoring the speed limits. But that was a poor, indeed totally inadequate description of the place where he, also a physicist, worked. It definitely wasn’t CERN, no not by a long shot, but neither was it a mere laboratory. A huge cube of a building some three blocks square in landscaped grounds on the city’s rim, with its own numerous “labs,”, workshops, test-beds, offices and studies; with its powerful computers, rest rooms and quiet area—the latter in an extensive soundproofed library—a kitchen, and even an open-air smoking and strolling gallery; not to mention a retractable section of the roof fitted with a variety of telescopes…it was indeed a complex.
The car park had been a last-minute addition to the place’s main building; narrow and featureless, a five-level tower with a spiralling interior ramp, it accommodated the vehicles of the sixty-odd people who worked there. The ground floor was for the menials—the cleaners, cooks, a handful of clerks—while the four upper levels had been set aside exclusively for the use of the staff: the white-coveralled notables with their (allegedly) superior IQs.
As Tempest fought centrifugal force and navigated the final bend in the road on complaining tyres, so the complex came into view less than half a mile away. At perhaps half that distance, there was another car on the road in front of him, which he was rapidly catching up on. But as he glanced at his watch for what must hbe the tenth time Tempest saw that he was most definitely going to be late; and, damn the man, Thomas Fotherington Wright was a stickler for punctuality—he wasn’t about to be sitting on his backside twiddling his thumbs, and waiting patiently for Adam Tempest!
Grinning however sourly, grimly as he considered Fotherington Wright’s nickname, how it had come into being, Tempest gave way to the inevitability of a ticking-off and eased up a little on the accelerator. It was quite clever really—if irreveraent—of that selfsame self-appointed court jester to have thought of it: Two-Stone Tom’s passion for Einsteinian quotes, for example that one about time being illusory. It was Einstein’s name: in English translation “One Stone.” Hence Fotherington Wright’s transition into “Two-Stone Tom”: Albert E’s loyal disciple, who occasionally appeared to consider himself the original genius’s second coming. Well, relativistically speaking. And again Tempest grinned, this time at his own cleverness.
As for Fotherington Wright’s T.O.E.: it was simply, or perhaps not so simply, his goal to finalize what Einstein and every scientist since him had attempted—and failed—to achieve: a Theory Of Everything, from the invisibly tiny to the infinitely massive, from theoretical quantum conditions to observable cosmic enormities.
“The universe,” Fotherington Wright was fond of repeating, “is not only bound by space but by time: it is indeed a space-time continuum. Wherefore if time is but an illusion, then what of space? Is the future, like the past, already established both in time and space? Not so much a continuum but an immedium? Let us take a small item—say a glass bead, exactly the same today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow—and see if we can’t dislodge it from the NOW into some other alleged space, another WHEN. We won’t hbe smashing its atoms but merely relocating them intact within the apparent impermanence.”
As to how the test would work, or not:
“I haven’t yet calculated whether the shift will be to what we call the past or to what we imagine as the future; that will be determined as a result of the initial experiment. Its mechanics are simple: the bead will be released to roll down a groove on a gentle test-bed incline, where at a predetermined central area of the groove the power shall switch on automatically for just one second. Then, assuming my figures are correct and the power flows true and steady, the bead should disappear and relocate immediately to where it was ten seconds earlier—at its point of release!
“Similarly, or possibly contrarily—depending on a number of as yet unresolved factors—the head may vanish and at once advance ten seconds in alleged ‘future time’ to instantly reappear, stationary, at the buffer at the lower end of the groove. And regardless how it goes, forward or back, if we are successful the ‘where and when’ of it will be that we have proved that the entire concept of space, inseparable from its temporal accomplice, is just such an illusion as Einstein refers to however cryptically. Moreover, at last we shall have made a giant leap forward toward the formulation of a viable T.O.E.!”
Genius or lunacy? The two are balanced on a knife-edge, allegedly; and with a final, fruitless glance at his watch Tempest slowed down more yet, shrugging resignedly as he turned off the road onto the narrow driveway toward the car park’s arched entrance. As for the driver of the car in front—probably another member of Fotherington Wright’s team, though Tempest didn’t recognize the car—he was driving far too slowly, and the vehicles were now nose to tail. And again softly cursing, he saw that it was exactly six a.m. as both cars entered under the sign with a figure ONE indicating the ground floor level…which was when events began to go strangely if not yet horribly awry.
It was simply that: for no more than a second or two there was this visual distortion, a sort of physical wrenching which Tempest not only saw but felt, experienced within himself—a drunken twisting and weird lengthening of the way ahead into an indeterminate if not infinite distance—like sitting in a barber’s chair looking down an apparently endless chain of mirrors. As for the glaring fluourescent lighting in this claustrophobic, concrete mausoleum of a place: however momentarily the tubes in the ceiling had flared up biliously where they curved away into an impossible region that looked like nothing so much as a cosmic wormhole or black hole’s interminably spiralling whorl, and Tempest was left feeling sick and dizzy despite the transience of the anomaly.
But even as he slammed on the brakes and shook his reeling head, then reached up a hand to rub furiously at his apparently lying eyes, so the crazily elongated chaos ahead quit its inexplicable writhing and stretching and. concertinaed back to normality like an elastic band stretched beyond its capacity. Which occurred almost simultaneously with the ceiling lights suddenly blinking out—all of them, leaving only gloom and silence and emptiness behind.
Emptiness…well of course.
Naturally the car park was empty on the ground floor level: the menials wouldn’t begin to arrive for another ninety minutes at least. But upstairs the rest of the so-called inner circle’s vehicles—all seven of the other team members’ cars—would hbe in their parking bays; would have been there for perhaps an hour or even longer as the experiment was set up and the equipment checked out. Adam Tempest’s part in that, the final delicate adjustments to the lasers: that would have been handled by someone else. Which in turn would mean grovelling apologies all round; to Two-Stone Tomrn, obviously, to whoever had stood in for Tempest, and then to the team as a whole…damn it to hell!
As for what had just happened, he rationalized as he started up the car’s stalled motor and switched on its headlights: well, it was clear he’d been pushing himself too hard. A lousy night’s sleep, then skipping breakfast, finally driving like a madman with his nerves on edge: it was a wonder he hadn’t suffered a heart attack—or a stroke? Was that what happened when you had a stroke? Had he in fact had one, a small one? God, he hoped not! Not that! And all because of a faulty clockwork antique he called an alarm clock. Jesus!
Anyway, it had left him more than a little shook up. And as for the ceiling lights: well, shit happens. It had to be that a fuze had blown somewhere, causing the failure. Or maybe the experiment itself had sucked the juice out of the lights. Was the lab’s entire electrical system connected up, including the car park, Tempest wondered? He doubted it. Surely not. But even so, Fotherington Wright’s calculations would definitely have taken such as that into account…
Wouldn’t they? Wouldn’t he? Well of course he would!
And annoyed, irritated by his own doubts and shrugging them off, Tempest drove the car slowly toward the first up-ramp. Say what you like about old Fotherington Wright, his was an intellect to be reckoned with. Oh, indeed!
Two-Stone Tom: the very definition of an absentminded professor, or perhaps a mad scientist? No, neither one. Just a very determined, eureka-obsessed man, who tended to ignore the mundane facts of existence—and possibly the laws of physics—in favour of the scientifically exotic. Such as his Big T.O.E.
And right now in the heart of the lab the team, minus one, would be either jubilant or dismayed at the success or failure of Fotherington Wright’s experiment in space and time, both of which concepts were illusory according to him—and perhaps to Albert E.? But then, who in his right mind would care to argue with the latter?
The team minus just one, yes; because the car ahead of Tempest didn’t belong to some other late team member after all but a menial, (an unfortunate term), who was even now parking it in a bay near the up-ramp. Had it been a second member of the team such as Tempest had hoped for, that might have reduced the pressure he was feeling in respect of his own tardiness.
For “tardiness,” or worse still “indifference,” was how Two Stone Tom would surely see it; the hell of that being that actually Tempest was as eager as anyone else on the team to learn the result of the test! With which thought supplanting previous concerns about his health, he pursued the lancing cones of his headlight beams and glanced just once at the other vehicle and driver as he drove past and steered his car onto the up-ramp.
That brief glance at the other early-bird arrival left Tempest with a vague impression of a confused- or worried-seeming female face in profile: possibly a clerk, or perhaps an office gofer in one of the support departments…
The arch over the second level greeted him not only with a big white number TWO, whose paint was flaking, but also a peculiar, even eerie feeling of loneliness. Moreover, he noticed for the first time the cobwebs draping the entire length of the ceiling and the inch thick drifts of dust in the parking bays. Someone, some alleged maintenance man, was obviously sleeping on the job here. Not merely empty, the entire level actually looked deserted! Where, for instance, were the tyre tracks of the cars that had occupied these bays six days a week every week for several years now, and would occupy them again in just an hour or so’s time?
And once again Tempest found himself rationalizing:
These apparent incongruities could only be an effect of the headlights, he felt sure; he’d never before had occasion to use them in the car park, and only rarely if ever at night. He didn’t much care to drive in the evening or after dark, especially not at dusk. To his understanding at dusk things were very similar to what he was experiencing right here and now. Dusk, yes: universally accepted as the most dangerous time to be out driving, when visibility is so poor that things are rarely as they appear to be and nothing may be taken for granted.
So then, that had to be it: it was his headlights, illuminating things that appeared alien to what he was accustomed to. And believing he’d discovered the culprits, he now noticed that one beam was a fraction too low, and the other a mite too high. They needed adjusting, which should have been done at the car’s last servicing and certainly would bhe at its next!
As for feeling lonely…but in this empty place in odd or unusual circumstances like these, surely that was only natural? And yet, as the loneliness settled on him more heavily yet, and beginning to feel a certain nagging anxiety without fully understanding why, Tempest chewed on his bottom lip and steered the car into the jaws of the second up-ramp…
Curiously, the next level’s THREE was in good order, clean and bright as if freshly painted. And there was no sign of dust or cobwebs. All was as it should be, and Tempest felt inordinately pleased, even elated, when he saw two cars parked in their respective bays. Two of the team’s cars, obviously—middle-ranking members of the team, as indicated by the allocation of bays on this level—with five more cars to go if their owners had arrived here with time to spare; that’s if their bloody alarm-clocks were in good working condition! They would be on levels four and five, of course. Three of them on four, and Two-Stone Tom’s and one other, his crony John Stockton’s, on the topmost level five…well, “naturally.”
The rest of the spaces up there were for the senior heads of the lab’s various supporting departments.
Tempest’s bay was on level four, a fact of which he’d been quite proud…but probably not for much longer. Lateness for such as today’s experiment—and a Fotherington Wright experiment at that—had to be classed as a cardinal sin, tantamount to mutiny at the very least. But no use crying over spilt milk, or space- and time-teleported glass beads for that matter.
Beginning to relax a little and letting some of the tightness, the strain that he had scarcely realized was there drain from his shoulders, Tempest dropped a gear and turned onto the up-ramp to the fourth level; his level, together with three of his colleagues. But as his car climbed the ramp, so the tenseness in his neck and shoulders came back again—in spades.
That was because the bright white paint of the FOUR sign over the arched entrance at the top of the ramp was no longer bright or white; it was faded, flaking, and streaked with dirt or maybe mould. Worse still, it wasn’t a FOUR but a THREE! And even as Tempest, his eyes starting out and his bottom jaw falling slack, drove under the sign and onto the level, so his car passed through a fine cobweb curtain that billowed up to drape the windshield.
Now what in the…?
Tempest’s heartbeat picked up alarmingly. Was it his short-term memory? Or that stroke thing, maybe? Or could it simply be a lack of concentration, the temporary confusion of a mind preoccupied with so many other abnormalities?
A confused mind? The hell you say—maybe he was losing it altogether! What, Alzheimer’s, at his age? Well whatever it was it was steadily getting worse.
For having only just arrived on what a majority of his five senses didn’t want to believe was a second level three but must be the actual level four, and as he dropped another gear to let his car advance slowly down the dusty central aisle (while automatically avoiding shattered glass and metal debris from fluorescent lighting fixtures that had long since crashed from the ceiling,) so his slightly misaligned but acceptably functioning headlights seemed perversely intent on lighting up the same two cars, parked in adjacent bays, that he knew he’d seen less than two minutes earlier on the floor below this one!
But…were they the same?
Tempest brought his car to a jerky halt opposite the parked vehicles. His windows, despite being draped with a fine network of dust and cobwebs, were scarcely opaque, and switching on his sidelights he was afforded an astonished, terrifying inspection of what looked like a pair of rotting antiques in their utterly neglected parking bays.
Terrifying, yes. Because for all that these ancient wrecks where they squatted low on bowed, rusting wheel rims and flattened tyres, with their licence plates and fenders dangling and their headlights leaning from their sockets—and for all that at their apparent age, in their condition, they couldn’t possibly belong to any colleagues of Tempest’s—still he believed he recognized their once-sleek outlines. And despite that their plates were mottled and flaky with rust, and if Tempest’s wide-eyed disbelieving gaze and cobwebby side window weren’t playing tricks on him, the plates of the car on the right were undeniably last year’s, less than nine months old! Why, he remembered when Allen Johnson, one of the team members and a close friend, had bought this latest model and drove him home in it when his own car was in the garage being fitted with a new exhaust! (And when it should have had its headlights adjusted.)
But…this was impossible! All of this was utterly—
Unless he was dreaming or out of his mind.
But he didn’t feel at all insane. Only afraid, scared half to death. Because he could no longer rationalize; because suddenly the truth hit him like a bolt of lightning; because beyond a doubt there could be only one answer. It had to be the experiment: Fotherington Wright’s messing about with space and time.
What the hell had the man done?
Now Tempest remembered all the doomsayers when the boffins at CERN started smashing elementary particles together at near light-speed: they were only trying to understand conditions way back at the Big Bang, the birth of the universe, but some crazy people had been sore afraid they might cause another, even Bigger Bang…or perhaps those people weren’t so crazy after all. And then there was the lab’s so-called court jester, one of his comments about the imminent experiment: “They tell us we’re all made of star-stuff,” he had said. “Well, okay, but personally I prefer to think that when my time is up I’m going down into the ground as a big smelly worm-fest, not back out into the void as a rapidly expanding cloud of instant star-stuff!” At which he’d laughed and shrugged. “Anyway, why worry? At least it should hbe painless—Ha-ha!”
And finally, there was what Two-Stone Tom himself had said on at least one occasion: “I haven’t yet calculated whether the shift will be to what we call the past or to what we imagine as the future.” And with an introspective, rather uncertain frown, he had added: “Then, always assuming my figures are correct and the power flows true and steady, everything should be well…”
What, “always assuming…?” Assuming, for God’s sake!
And what about that: “true and steady power flow…?”
And then, Jesus Christ: “everything should be well…!?”
But what if his figures weren’t correct? What if the power flow wasn’t true and steady? What if everything had worked out anything but well?
Now, in Tempest’s mind’s eye, he saw once again Fotherington Wright’s frown as he had mumbled comments such as those he now so vividly remembered. And suddenly he knew the reason for the introspective frowning…which was because Two-Stone Tom really wasn’t sure—hadn’t really known—just exactly what to expect!
Jesus! Head scientist indeed! Or was he just so absentminded it made little or no difference? Except now it appeared it made all the difference in the world! But…the world? Tempest got a grip on himself; at least he tried to. What was he thinking? The entire world? Surely not. Just how big could this thing be?
At least there was a way to find out, and quickly. Or so he thought…
And churning up what could well be a century of dust as he hit the accelerator and went fish-tailing toward the down ramp, Tempest felt the first trickles of cold sweat on his spine and forehead and shivered, but not from any kind of normal cold. It was the sweat of fear, as when he sometimes jerked awake from a really bad nightmare. Except he knew now that he wasn’t dreaming, that this was as horribly real as it could get.
Down one level he went, to an utterly pristine level three; this time an empty level three. And without pause down to level two (thank God!) And on down to…another two! And gasping—making dry-throat sobbing and grunting noises, and scraping the walls of the down-ramps causing sparks to fly in the spiralling rush of his descent—to yet another two, another, another, and another, as he descended, descended, descended.
A seemingly endless continuum of twos, and not one of them exactly alike!
Some of them appeared to be under construction, the walls as yet unrendered or the white paint still wet where it marked off the parking bays. Others were full of rotting cars and the debris of a defunct, rusted, sagging lighting system. The sign that said TWO was hanging from one ancient screw as he gave up trying for the exit and took an up-ramp. Which was at the same time as he glanced at his fuel gauge.
God, he was driving on fumes almost! And he’d intended to fill her up, would have done so this morning if he hadn’t been rushed and driving so furiously. But on the other hand, and as it turned out, maybe he hadn’t been late enough, that he would be a lot better off not making it here at all! But at least he was still here—wasn’t he?
Where or whenever here was!
He forced himself to calm down. Okay, so however bad this was there was little or nothing he could do about it. He could always try to reach the ground floor later and let himself out, if there was anything out there to let himself into, but maybe his best bet right now would be to find a way in: into the lab itself.
That was why he was on his way back up. Up there on levels three, four, and five there were elevators that would take him to a single in-between level and a door directly into the complex.
That’s if the elevators were working, of course. If not in this time, then perhaps some other?
Tempest’s mind reeled! He didn’t know when he was, or might end up being! His watch said the time was—almost six-twenty. But in what day, year, decade, or century? A month ago or fifty years in future time? If there was such a thing as a future and not just some insanely concertinaed NOW!
The new level two was in good order, as fresh as yesterday and half full of parked cars. It all looked so normal, so very ordinary, that Tempest felt his heart give a great leap inside him. It was simply the notion of the closeness of other people, of not being entirely alone, despite that there was no one actually here in the car park. Well okay, whenever this was, sometime in the “past,” he hazarded a guess, they’d all be at work in their offices.
But in the next moment his heart gave another surge at the sight of another car descending the down-ramp from level three. Then as it went past him on the other half of the central lane, and going in the opposite direction, of course, he saw that the driver was the same girl or woman who had parked down on level one. Patently she’d been doing the same as him, driving up and down through various time zones…which would make some kind of sense if “time” was indeed illusory and of a oneness! As to how they’d missed crossing each other’s paths until now: Tempest hadn’t the foggiest idea!
She had looked at him as she drove past—her mouth open, eyes staring, hair all over the place as if she’d been yanking on it—but it was like she hadn’t even seen him. She must be in shock. And why not; Tempest was in shock, too, despite that he had the dubious benefit of knowing something of what was going on here.
Damn! He had to get after her! Troubles shared are troubles halved, or something like that. And at least she’d be company.
His tyres squealed as he jerked the car around in the central lanes, a hurried three-point turn, and took off after the unknown woman whose vehicle was already entering the down-ramp.
And a few seconds later he was descending the same ramp—
—To an empty level three, and no sign of the other car! Space and time were fluctuating, the oneness of each dimension overlapping for both Adam Tempest and the half-crazy woman. He supposed she must be that way by now if she’d gone through what he was going through.
But now he had to bring himself under some kind of control; his nerves were jumping, heart pounding, and sweat was drenching his shirt.
“Adam, my lad,” he told himself out loud and breathlessly, “this hole you’re in is hellish deep, so for Christ’s sake stop digging!” And: “Keep your cool,” he went on, forcing himself to breathe slowly, deeply. “For if you don’t you could very easily overheat, crash and burn! And not only physically but your mind too!”
Okay, fine…now, what had he been doing before the other car came into view? He’d been trying to reach the upper levels. Well, and here he was on three. Objective achieved! So now park up, go see if the elevator’s working, try to get into the lab.
And after that?
Whoa! Hold your horses, Adam! One step at a time. For let’s face it: you mightn’t like what could be waiting for you in the lab…
The elevator wasn’t working. No, of course not; no electricity, no lights, no way. Not on this level anyway.
Tempest went back to the car, started her up and glanced at the gas gauge; only a glance, because in fact he really didn’t want to discover the worst of it. And in any case the gauge had let him down far too often in the past—or in what passed for the past…? But the number of times he’d tapped on that glass to make the needle jump: they were uncountable.
And so on up to level four. And oh joy!—or at least something of relief—as he rode up under a pristine FOUR sign into the marvellous glare of fluorescent lights, and saw at a glance that the level, his own level, appeared in working order! Moreover, he immediately recognized the three cars that were parked close together in their allocated bays. These were the cars he had expected to see from the onset: the properties of a trio of his team colleagues.
Tempest didn’t bother to park in his own bay—though he’d almost done so until it dawned on him how ridiculous that would be in the circumstances—but prompted by a sudden idea, something he had seen on many a police procedural show, he drove up level with the three parked vehicles, got out, and went to each car in turn to lay trembling hands on their hoods.
He was attempting to find out what time it was, the recent “past” or some not so very far off “future”; whether it was his NOW, or some overlapping WHEN. The working lights had suggested it was his NOW, and while the first two of the parked cars were stone cold, the hood on the last one—Jim Houseman’s vehicle, which had managed to retain just a bare minimum of its engine’s warmth—appeared to corroborate it.
Houseman must have been the last of the three to get here; he wasn’t the most reliable of the lab’s technicians and, like Tempest himself, might well have overslept. In which case, and also like Tempest, he’d have been pushed for time and in something of a hurry. Which would account for his car’s still-warm engine. In any case, it appeared he’d at least made it in time for the experiment.
God! That word again: “time.” It kept cropping up, despite that it was rapidly losing its meaning! But if Houseman had indeed arrived here recently, then maybe he’d also managed to use the elevator to make his way into the lab. And if so, then perhaps the elevator was still working.
Tempest ran down the length of the central lanes to the wall housing the elevator, and skidded to a halt in front of a pneumatic metal door within its shallow arched recess. The door was not quite shut; seven inches of trousered ankle and a foot wearing a sock and a leather shoe were protruding through a five or six-inch gap. Lying there on the floor, trapped by the automatic door, or possibly having itself caused the door to malfunction, the motionless foot, or rather the sight of it—but more especially the smell that accompanied it, a stench that presumably emanated from the elevator—caused Tempest to shudder.
Leaning forward and crouching down a little, he stared hard at the shoe. He recognized that shoe: left-footed, it was extra wide with a heavily built up sole and heel. Which told him that the extremity inside it had to be Jim Houseman’s club-foot.
Putting his right arm and shoulder into the gap, he forced the sticking door open a few extra inches—and almost wished he hadn’t bothered. But he’d wanted to know, to be sure of what he suspected. And now he knew.
The rest of “limping Jim,” as Tempest had always thought of Houseman, though never in jest or unfeelingly, was sure enough in there—mostly rotten and liquescent, what was left of him.
At which point all of the level’s fluorescent lights failed, startling Tempest and causing him to jump a foot, and the elevator’s door gave a single spastic jerk and stood still again…
Holding his nose, Tempest squeezed into the elevator and, hope against hope, tried the single button that would normally carry him between the upper levels to an automatic interior door accessing the lab.
Nothing happened, and with his ex-colleague’s corpse lying soggy and stinking underfoot, and darkness all around, Tempest had to get out of there. His lungs were running out of acceptable air and he no longer had any reason to stay. Shaking like a leaf, he squeezed back out through the gap into the car park proper…
His car’s headlights, still issuing their cones of light, guided him back along the central lanes. This time he couldn’t run but walked, however unsteadily, because his legs were feeling about as soft as jelly. But at least he was able to think, which was when another idea occurred.
Tempest’s car was almost out of gas, but his three ex-colleagues’ cars were parked where he’d left them; “ex”-colleagues, yes, at least for the time being, because for all he knew they might have suffered fates similar to Houseman’s. But whether or no, it would make perfect sense right now to siphon off some of their fuel into his own tank…
Except he didn’t have any flexible tubing, and the caps on the other cars’ gas tanks were locked.
God, nothing seemed to be working in his favour! The fates appeared to have it in for him, even as badly perhaps as they’d had it in for poor Jim Houseman. But as Tempest leaned dizzily against his car, still badly shocked but slowly recovering—more readily accepting the unacceptable as the innate instinct for survival began to surface in him—suddenly he heard the thunder of another car’s engine reverberating in the otherwise terrible silence.
A moment or two more and the vehicle, the half-mad woman’s car, came hurtling from the down-ramp, fish-tailing toward Tempest where he ran into the oncoming lane, frantically windmilling his arms to flag it down. Then he stopped waving and froze, because she was almost on him and it didn’t look like she’d be able to stop!
“Jesus Christ!” he cried, drawing his arms in, elbows down, forearms and hands covering his face and chest. Then—
—The screeching of brakes savagely applied, and the car’s fender actually brushing his pants below the knees as the vehicle slewed to a halt.
Now Tempest’s legs really were jelly as he stumbled to the driver’s door and looked in through the open window. And: “God damn!” he shouted, more out of terror than rage. “Lady, I know you’re scared, but you almost ran me down!”
Wide-eyed, white as a sheet, hair a total mess, she bit her lip, which he saw was already bleeding, and mumbled: “You don’t understand. I can’t…I can’t get out! And I think I’m losing my mind!”
“Well that would make two of us,” Tempest told. her, steadying himself. “But listen, we haven’t gone mad. It’s the lab. An accident in the lab. And what’s happening here in the car park, and maybe elsewhere, this is the result. I haven’t been able to get out either, so we’re stuck here until we can work something out. Hey, two heads are better than one, right? And at the very least two’s company.”
“I’m not…not going crazy?” she said, her eyes beginning to focus. “An accident you say? But what kind of accident could do this?”
Tempest studied her more closely. She was maybe twenty-six or seven, not at all bad looking, despite her currently pinched features, but scared half to death. She probably wouldn’t understand if he told her what he knew of it, but any kind of explanation had to be better than nothing. If he spoke professionally it might steady her up, let her see he was a responsible, reliable authority—not that he felt remotely authoritative right now! But taking charge of things might also help him get a grip on himself.
“It was a spatial, temporal experiment,” he began. “Some of the lab’s physicists—top men, or so they thought—were trying to move a small object around in space and time. As for myself, I was supposed to be part of the team but I didn’t arrive here until it was too late. They went ahead and carried out the experiment without me. I’m not sure if that was a bad or a good thing where we are concerned, but in any case it must have gone wrong.” He shrugged helplessly.
She obviously had understood, nodded and said, “It was you I saw in my rearview. You followed close behind me into the car park, and that was when it happened, right? I saw, even felt it happen! And it happened again after you drove by me and went up to level two. Suddenly I was no longer down on level one; I was up there on two, but there was no sign of you! Since twhen everything has been…just weird! But will they be able to correct it? Just how long will we be stuck in here?”
Before Tempest could attempt a reply that wouldn’t frighten her more yet, she went on: “I’m all tensed up, cramped and aching. I’ve got to stretch my legs. I only camne in early to catch up on some work I had to do, and now I feel like I’ve been driving for hours!” With which she got out of the car.
What she’d said about driving for hours reminded Tempest of something, and he asked her: “How much gas do you have? I’m all out and we could be here for—I don’t know—quite some time.”
“I’m almost out,” she told him. “Perhaps a tenth of a tank? But I can’t be sure. Enough for a few more miles, maybe?”
Tempest groaned inwardly. But concealing his disappointment as best possible for her sake, he said, “A few more miles? Well, that might be okay. But like I said, I’m afraid it might take a while to find the exit.”
“It’s already been quite a while!” she replied, moaning her relief as she straightened and stretched her aching limbs. Then she began to giggle hysterically, her face twisting, eyes rapidly blinking, coming very close to tears before managing to control herself and asking: “But is this truly level four? You see, all this time I’ve been trying to get up here—until now I’ve got down! This place is like…like some mad gardener’s hedge maze or something—but a maze with no route to the exit! And I really did think I was going insane!”
Tempest nodded. “Yes, it could do that to anyone who didn’t understand. I do understand—something of it anyway—and it very nearly did it to me!” Then he frowned and said, “You know, I’ve seen you come down from level three once already. I was on level two when you came down and drove by me. Anyway, why would you want to get up here in the first place?”
She shook her head. “I remember seeing you,” she said, “but I didn’t come down from three: I came down from two! All of the levels were twos at that time! I couldn’t escape from them. Oh, and by the way, I just came down from two again, not from five, as you might think.” The very thought of that made her begin to giggle again, only to pause and take a long, deep breath before continuing: “I’m sorry, but I think I’m still a bhit shook up.”
Tempest blinked and thought: What, only a bit shook up? How was that for phlegmatism? Well she’d be a damn sight more shook up if she had seen what he had seen, or if she knew how serious things really were. All of that could wait, however, while once again he asked: “And you wanted to get up here, because…?”
“Because I knew that on levels three, four, and five there are elevators to a door that connects with the lab. But down on level two the elevator only takes you down to the ground floor, and you have to walk round to the front of the building and get checked out by Security before you go in. Of course, that’s if two’s elevator is working, which it isn’t. I’ve tried it maybe five or six times, and on five or six different level twos!”
Tempest nodded. Yes, he understood how she felt. The whole damn mess was maddening. But now:
“Look, let’s talk as we go. Do you mind if I drive?”
“No,” she replied. “In fact, I’m delighted I won’t have to! Sooner or later I was going to crash into something.” And then, with a nervous toss of her head, “Except I’m not going anywhere for the moment, not until I’ve tried the elevator.”
“Er, not a good idea.” Tempest took her arm. “And anyway, I already tried it. It’s not working and it’s…not good.”
“Not working?” Her face fell.
“No electricity, no lights—no elevator.”
“And you said it’s…what, not good? What can that mean? How is the elevator not good?” She backed off from his hand on her arm.
Tempest thought: Ah, well. This can only make things worse for her but we might as well have done with it from square one.
And so: “You see,” he began, “there’s this man in the elevator, someone who used to be a colleague of mine…” At which he paused in order to find the right words.
“A man in the elevator?” She frowned. “Who used to hbe your colleague?”
Hell with it: there were no right words. “He’s dead!” Tempest blurted it out. “What’s more, he looks like he’s been dead for some time, maybe weeks. I figure he got in the elevator at the precise moment they activated the experiment, and—”
“Wait,” she cut him off. “Dead for weeks? How can that bhe?”
“Time is shifting,” he explained. “Space, too. The time is no longer now—or rather it is—except it’s every NOW. Space is the same: we can be any place at any time. That’s within the radius of the experiment affected area, of course.”
“Within this car park, you mean?”
“And inside the lab building itself,” he replied. “And just possibly—but I repeat, possibly—everywhere else! But that’s all guesswork and right now I don’t want to even begin thinking about it.”
They got into her car, Tempest taking the driver’s seat and checking the fuel gauge. Having slumped into the passenger seat beside him, she said: “I still don’t understand. How is it your friend or colleague was so…well, so very dead? I mean, like a long time dead. And how come we haven’t been so badly affected?”
Heading for an up-ramp, Tempest glanced at her and thought: What do I tell her to ease her mind? And how about my own mind? On the other hand, talking things through can’t make them worse and might even help clarify the situation. And so:
“Well, I can perhaps hazard another guess,” he said. “Which is all it will be: a guess.”
She nodded. “So go on, please hazard away!”
“Maybe we were right on the perimeter when they pressed the buttons,” he said. “Perhaps the closer you are to the source of the problem, the worse it affects you. In which case we have to consider ourselves damn lucky that we were on the edge! It appears we’re static in here—I mean stuck in a mutually cohesive space-time stream—while everything around us is fluctuating.
“As for Jim Houseman, my dead colleague in the elevator: it could be that when the experiment went wrong he was very badly, physically affected; maybe he had a heart attack or something. You remember how we felt, what we saw and sensed just as we entered the car park? Well, maybe it was that much worse for poor Jim; so much so that it killed him. As for the condition of his corpse: it must have been some future Houseman’s corpse I saw—just like we’ve been seeing past and future levels of this damn car park! I mean, if we were to go to the elevator right now we might see Jim in a yet more distant future condition: a pile of dust, bones, and rotting rags. On the other hand, we could find him freshly dead, with the door of the elevator swishing to and fro, to and fro, against his trapped foot! That’s about as much as I can say…”
“But enough,” she answered very quietly, “and maybe just a bit too much!” And starting to chew on her lip again, she huddled down into herself…
The sign at the top of the up-ramp was as pristine as if freshly painted and read FIVE. The woman gasped, laid her hand on Tempest’s arm and said, “Thank goodness! I was sure it would be another level two…anything but what we would want it to hbe!”
But Tempest only thought: Sweetheart, all I want is out!
“And look!” she cried. “The lights are still working!” But in the next moment, gazing out of her window, she gave a sharp little cry and clutched his arm that much more tightly.
Out the corner of his eye Tempest caught a glimpse of what she’d seen and yanked on the steering wheel, causing the car to swerve violently as a rust coloured, howling thing soared clean across the hood, clearing it by no more than an inch or two.
“Oh—my—God!” the woman gasped, releasing Tempest’s arm and squeezing down in her seat as he brought the car to a halt. “What in the name of…?”
“It’s a dog,” Tempest answered shakily, getting out of the car. “Just a dog. And he goes by the name of Planck.”
“What? Are you sure?” Leaning across the driver’s seat she pulled the door shut, then wound down the window a few inches.
“Oh yes, I’m sure,” Tempest told her. And crouching down a little, he called out loudly, “Planck, hey Planck—here boy! Where the hell did you go? Ah, there you are!”
At which a reddish, lanky Afghan hound, tail down between his legs, came skittering out from behind a concrete stanchion where he’d taken cover. At first nervously he approached Tempest’s crouching form; then, as he recognized a friend, his tail lifted a little and began to wag uncertainly, until finally he stopped whining and came at a trot, tongue lolling.
Now the woman, who by now Tempest was beginning to think of more as a girl—but a very frightened girl—also got out of the car and came to join him. “Plank, did you say?”
“Uh-uh,” Tempest answered, thought about it and shook his head, then said: “Yes, but not how you may think. Same sound, wrong spelling. Planck with a ‘c’ before the ‘k.’. Named after Max Planck, the German physicist who originated quantum theory. But please don’t ask me why because where brightness is concerned he doesn’t have two photons to rub together; in fact thick as a plank would more readily describe him! He belongs to Thomas Fotherington Wright, the fellow who’s—”
“—The lab’s head man? I’ve heard of him, of course. I’ve seen him but never met him. And this is his dog?”
“Yes.” Tempest nodded. “It’s his lab, too! Might as well be Fotherington Wright’s world where mere mortals like us are concerned!”
“His lab?” She repeated him. “You mean he’s the director?”
“It’s his place!” Tempest replied. “He owns it. Lock, stock and barrel.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that.”
Planck was whining again, half worriedly, half in pleasure at having his head and floppy ears rubbed.
“So if Fotherington Wright’s that important,” she frowned, “what made him bring this poor frightened creature here—and then leave him here?”
“Planck’s probably got himself lost,” said Tempest. “Like a couple of other poor frightened, animals I could name—that’s if I knew your name, of course. So perhaps we should introduce ourselves. I’m Temp, or Mr Tempest. Professor Tempest, actually, but my friends call me Temp. It’s more or less appropriate since my speciality is time—er, temporal conditions?—while a majority of my colleagues prefer the other three dimensions to mess around with: you know, like the cosmos and ‘everything out there.’ But with me it’s time.” He shrugged. “You wouldn’t think so, since I’m nearly always late, but that’s me. And in any case they go hand in hand…space and time, I mean.”
She stared at his outstretched hand for a moment, then offered him one that was still shaking more than a little and answered: “I’m Marie Longhurst—and not very pleased to meet you, not in the circumstances.” She managed a forced smile.
“Understood,” he told her. “So, may I call you Marie?”
“Oh, please do.” She shrugged. “That’s…what I go by.”
A rather odd answer—until she held up her right hand for his inspection. Her wide silver bracelet was inscribed with her name thus: “E. Marie L.”
Ethel? Edith? Elspeth? Whatever, Tempest had to agree that to his taste Marie was far more acceptable. But in any case he was concentrating on rather more important things. And: “Look!” he said. “That’s what Planck is doing here.”
Her head turned, her gaze following his pointing finger to where two cars stood side by side in their bays some twenty or so yards away. And Tempest continued:
“The closest of those cars is Fotherington Wright’s. Sometimes he brings Planck in to work with him. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d have to send someone out here to rescue Planck from the car. He’s what you call absentminded.” And to himself: Or maybe as mad as a bloody hatter! “Let’s see if he’s left his keys in the car. Because sometimes he does that, too.”
She drew back a little. “Shouldn’t we first try the elevator? It’s right there on the other side of the ramp, closer than those cars.”
“We will,” he answered, “but I’ll admit it right now: I’m a bit leery of elevators! So we’ll check the cars out first…”
Fotherington Wright hadn’t left his keys in the car, but one of the back seat windows had been wound down.
Tempest nodded. “That’s how come Planck’s here: his master forgot him. He also forgot to wind up the window, and it looks like Planck got out of the car too late to follow him into the lab—which was either sheer good fortune on the dog’s part, or maybe the only clever thing he’s done in his entire life!”
“And now can we try the elevator?” She was impatient, which Tempest readily understood.
“I suppose so,” he answered, licking his suddenly dry lips. What he had told her was the truth: he wasn’t at all sure about using an elevator, neither on this or any other level. It could be that the closer they got to the lab—the very center of the space-time disturbance—the worse things would be affected. So that even if the elevator was working, the lab might not be the safest place in the world. to visit.
But on the other hand—
—Since NOW was obviously some time in the recent past, and since Two-Stone Tom’s and his long-haired crony John Stockton’s cars were the only vehicles up here, NOW was most probably only a short while before the experiment was due to take place—the experiment that had caused, or was yet to cause, all of this!
At which, as that very thought struck home, Tempest gasped, grabbed Marie’s Longhurst’s hand and started to race toward the elevator.
Almost jerked off her feet, she yelled, “What’s wrong? What are you doing?”
“If we can get into the lab,” he shouted back, “we can maybe stop the experiment dead in its tracks. You see—it hasn’t happened yet!”
What was more—and damn it to hell—on one of those level twos he’d been on, the one in good order with all those cars on it, it hadn’t happened then either! That could have been weeks, months, even a year ago…plenty of time for him to stop this crazy thing. But was that even possible? No, it probably wasn’t, because that way he might have bumped into himself!
Well then, was that possible?
But what the hell difference did it make now? For that boat had long since sailed, and Marie Longhurst was asking him:
“This has to be some time before six a.m. That’s why Planck is here and only two cars, and why the lights are working. This bloody nightmare hasn’t been set in motion yet! Come on, run!”
“You mean we’ve gone back in time? But that’s…why, it’s crazy! You are crazy!” And suddenly fearful again—perhaps of Tempest now—she dug her heels in and almost brought him to a halt.
“Haven’t you heard a word of what I’ve told you?” He hauled harder yet, making her jump and skitter. “It’s not just the car park that’s moving in space and time, it’s you, me, Planck, and every other damn thing! So if you want to get out of here, stop holding me back and start running! We have to get into that lab before six a.m.!”
Unconvinced, she glanced at her watch, anchored herself yet more firmly, and cried, “But it’s already quarter to seven!”
Well of course it was, but only according to their watches! Tempest gave up on her, released her and turned to run the last dozen or so yards to the elevator in its recess. But even as he got close, with his outstretched fingers reaching for the call button, so the door slid open with a pneumatic hiss!
Windmilling his arms, Tempest uttered a small, choking cry and took two or three staggering paces to the rear. But it was only short, fat, balding John Stockton standing there, preparing to step out of the elevator. But…what on earth was this? bBalding? John Stockton, who only yesterday was wearing his hair on his shoulders, as he’d worn it for as long as Tempest could remember? Stockton, yes, looking equally taken aback but by no means afraid or disturbed. And:
“Adam Tempest!” the fat man said. And then, sarcastically, sneeringly: “So very glad you could make it! But what on earth are you doing up here on five? And dressed like…like that? Maybe you’ll explain yourself later. But for now tell me: have you perhaps seen Planck? F.W. thinks he may have left him here, stuck in his car.”
Still off balance and babbling incoherently, Tempest backed off more yet before finding a measure of self-control. But finally: “Stockton?” he gasped. “It is you, right? Well, thank God for that! But you can forget about Planck. We’ve got to go back into the lab, stop the experrrrrrrrriiiiiiiiii—
Too late! Not enough time! Or perhaps too much time! Everything was elongating—even his words—warping, bungey-jumping away from Tempest and bouncing back. It was like a small earthquake, not only under his feet but in his body, his head, too! Stockton blinked out of existence and the elevator door turned red with scabs of rust as it suddenly leaned outwards from the yawning emptiness of the shaft behind it. At the same time the lights went out and a cobweb curtain draped itself smotheringly over Tempest’s head and shoulders; while from close behind him Marie Longhurst gave out a nerve-shattering shriek that echoed deafeningly in the suddenly, incredibly ancient car park!
Galvanized by her scream, Tempest spun around, saw her sprawled on a pile of broken tiles, chunks of rotten concrete and rusted electrical fittings, in the rubble of what was once the roof of the building. Beams of dim daylight filtered down through thick cobweb layers and galaxies of drifting dust motes, making visible directly overhead and along the entire length of level five a great many gaping holes with sagging saw-toothed edges, where parts of the ceiling and roof had long since caved in.
Marie’s hand was to her mouth, her eyes wide and terrified, her entire body shaking. But as Tempest made stumblingly toward her she finally found her voice.
“Wh-wh-what just happened? Wh-where are we?”
“WNe are where we were,” he helped her to her feet. “But not when we were. But look! The car—your car—is still with us, and untouched, just as we seem to be. Probably because we were furthest away from ground zero when all this happened.”
“And Planck?” Dazedly swaying while he steadied her, brushing mostly imaginary grit from her blouse and skirt, she looked all around through utterly disbelieving eyes. “Where’s Planck?”
Tempest nodded, then grimaced as he shrugged a veil of cobwebs from his head and shoulders. “Planck was here—right here—when it all went down. He’s still here, but not right now. If he was here now…well, even his bones would be dust.”
“Are you still guessing?” Now she swayed toward him, clung to him, looked for assurance, confidence in Tempest’s eyes and found nothing. He didn’t want her to see how afraid he was but couldn’t help himself, and so looked away. And:
“It’s all guesswork,” he said. “Just like bloody Two-Stone Tom’s theories, especially his Big T.O.E.!” Then, squinting in the dim light, he continued, “One thing for sure, the light is fading. Wherever, or more properly whenever we are, it’s going to be night before too long. We don’t want to hbe stuck up here in the dark.”
And shuddering, her hand seeking her mouth again, she whispered, “God, no!”
“But getting off this level,” he went on, fighting back his own fears, “that may prove something of a bumpy ride, what with this debris and what all. I just hope your car is up to it!” Or at least that it’s in better condition than I kept mine…
The beams of light from above were shifting, growing weaker as somewhere out of view the sun dipped towards the horizon. Then, as the pair clambered away from the rubble-strewn area towards Marie’s car, they simultaneously sensed movement in the darker corners of the ceiling where as yet it remained intact.
In the next moment they both froze, their eyes straining in the gloom, gazing upward at the source of the seemingly furtive activity. And as the outer fringe of that soft, mobile darkness crept more surely into view first a dozen—then a hundred, and possibly a great many more—pairs of glowing feral yellow eyes opened, every one of them fixing their avid, unblinking gaze on Tempest and the girl.
“Bats!” said Tempest.
“But the size of them!” she replied. “Surely we don’t have fruit bats in our country?”
“Well we didn’t have,” he answered. “At least, once upon a time. And they certainly wouldn’t have been…Jesus, so inquisitive!”
That last because several of the creatures, with wingspans of some thirty inches, had spread veined, leathery pinions and were swooping down to circle the human intruders.
As Tempest waved his arms, batting defensively at the air around his head, the tip of a beating wing—in fact a clawed, grossly extended finger—raked across his forehead drawing a thin scratch hung with tiny beads of blood. At which the horde on the sagging ceiling set up a mass chittering and, almost as a single entity, swarmed aloft in a flight that wasn’t so much inquisitive as inimical.
“Fruit bats?” Tempest gasped, still batting at the air with one hand while trying to shepherd the girl towards the car with the other. “Hell, no! Fruit bats don’t attack people—not that I ever heard of! These are something else, mutations from three thousand years in the future for all I know.”
“My hair! My hair!” she cried, as two of the bats clutched at her tresses, their wings beating at the air as if trying to carry her off.
Tempest swiped at them, felt a wing crack under his attack, saw one of the bats spin off and crumple to the debris-littered deck. At that the rest of them, an aerial horde that was shutting out the light and even the air, or so it seemed, backed off a little but only a little; barely sufficient that the fugitive humans were able to get to the car and scramble to something of safety within.
Then for a while, no more than a minute or so, the cloud of great, chittering bats flew in a fury all around the stationary vehicle, so that even if Tempest had tried to drive he couldn’t have seen the way ahead for their soft-furred bodies and fluttering wings. But at last the ugly, ridge-snouted creatures flew up in a spiral, disappearing out through the gaps in the ruined ceiling and roof into a rapidly darkening dusk, where the first stars were just becoming visible…if not in any easily recognizable constellations.
The future? Well perhaps. But Earth’s future? Tempest could no longer be sure. And: “This could be even worse—maybe a lot worse—than I thought,” he muttered to himself, barely conscious of speaking his mind, but loud enough that Marie Longhurst had heard what he said.
“Worse?” she whispered. “But what could possibly be worse?”
Gritting his teeth, Tempest started the engine, sprayed the windshield and got the wipers going, then engaged the gears and rolled carefully forward.
“I said—” she began to repeat herself.
“And I heard you!” he snapped, and at once relented. “Look, I’m sorry. Just let me get us off this level, and then I’ll try to explain. But please remember, it’s all—”
“Yes, I know: guesswork, right?”
Which, other than a single nod of his head, hardly required any answer at all…
Negotiating the fallen debris along the length of level five to the down-ramp at the far end seemed an almost interminable process, and the ramp itself was in a very poor condition. Tempest couldn’t even be certain that under the sliding scree of rubble from above it was still intact; on two occasions as the vehicle bumped and slithered downhill, he felt rotten concrete shifting under its weight.
As they proceeded—however slowly, carefully—so he tried to explain why things could indeed “possibly be worse.”
“The thing is…well, did you notice anything odd, peculiar, about the way that bald man in the elevator looked, before he—”
“—Disappeared?” she cut him off. “I didn’t recognize him, if that’s what you mean. But his clothing was rather strange. I mean, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen a suit like his before. There was no collar on his jacket, and his trousers were flared and brightly chequered. He looked more like…. ..like a harlequin than a scientist!”
Tempest nodded. “Right, I remember seeing those things too, but they hardly registered because I did recognize him, except the last time I saw him—and that was only yesterday—he was dressed like a mortician and his hair was as long as a girl’s!”
“Is that supposed to mean something?” she queried. “Perhaps he had his head shaved; or he’s ill, having some sort of treatment? Maybe the last time you saw him he was wearing a wig.”
“No, I don’t think so,” said Tempest, his voice barely audible. By which time they were down onto a level four as ancient but by no means as devastated as level five.
In the dim, eerily green glow of an unknown source of illumination, the pair could see that the ceiling was badly cracked but holding up; while the floor ahead, though inches thick with dust, appeared to be reasonably stable. To one side, about halfway along the level, three oblong heaps of rust rose a foot-and a-half off the floor. Despite that they were completely unrecognizable as cars, still Tempest knew that was exactly what they were or had been. For after all, this was the third occasion on which he had seen them in the same place, different times: once when they’d looked comparatively new; then as junk-yard relics; and currently in the penultimate stages of decay, before finally they’d blow away as so much red dust.
Tempest brought the car to a halt. Stunned by the thought—the very idea—of knowing where they were but not when, except that it was a long, long way from home, he could only shake his head numbly and sit there for several silent seconds, trying to accept the weirdness, the absurdity, of their situation.
Absurd, yes: because if it wasn’t so terrifying it would be oh so bloody funny…
Marie leaned over and touched his arm, causing him to jump. “We’re a pair of strangers,” she said, keeping her voice steady though not without a deal of effort. “Strangers adrift in time, apparently, with only a few miles worth of gas left in my car’s tank. And though I really don’t want to know, you still haven’t told me what could bhe worse than this.”
Tempest gave himself a shake. She had succeeded in bringing him out of himself, freeing him from what might easily have become a state of panic-induced immobility. He took a deep breath and licked stick-dry lips, then said: “In short—even if we’re able to get back to our own time and place—it may not be our time and place.” And before she could query that:
“I don’t suppose you know the theory of parallel or alternative universes?”
“Oh but I do!” she replied. “I had a boyfriend once who was a huge Science Fiction buff. Which meant, of course, that I had to suffer all those old Star Trek reruns with him. But…what has that to do with…anything?” Seeing the look on Tempest’s face, suddenly her eyes were very wide. “Just what are you trying to tell me?”
“Another of Two-Stone Tom’s far-out theories,” he answered, barely able to keep his voice from giving out. “That at the Big Bang, the newborn universe had multiple choices. A finite speed of light? Gravity, drawing everything together, or anti-gravity pushing everything apart? And, what the hell, why just one universe? Why not a multiverse, or rather, multiverses? Why not new universes springing from each and every event?”
“And you think—?”
“God damn that bloody idiot!” Tempest thumped the steering column and accidentally hit the horn, its single blast of sound booming and echoing in the car park’s greenly-glowing confines. “Why couldn’t he see—why couldn’t we see—what might happen? For it’s not only space and time that he’s unified with his Big T.O.E., it’s everything! He’s taken over from God and recreated entire universes in his own image, the way he’s always believed things should be! It was only supposed to happen in the laboratory, but like some kind of Frankenstein monster it’s escaped!”
Marie tightened her grip, grasping his arm in tense, steely fingers. “But you can’t be sure, right? I mean, it’s still just so much guesswork…right?”
And just like that she gave him hope, albeit the straw that the drowning man clutches, but at least something to hold on to. For what he had told her was, after all, just so much guesswork. John Stockton, dressed like a harlequin—or perhaps a man from a parallel world?—querying the way Tempest himself was dressed? Giant bats like nothing seen or heard of before, attacking and injuring people? Yet still it might be barely possible that there were simple explanations for these anomalies…mightn’t it? Tempest could only hope so.
Sighing and letting his tense shoulders slump a very little he finally replied: “Guesswork, yes. The parallel universe part at least. But as for the rest of it, what we’ve seen and experienced on these various levels…”
Which was as far as he got before—
Something fell from above, hit the windshield, bounced and went skipping away across the bonnet, finally rolling to a halt on the level’s dusty floor. But Tempest had seen it: that small red sphere, maybe half an inch in diameter. Moreover, he’d seen its like before: a glass bead that had been intended for use in a lab experiment.
In the lab experiment…
Ping! Ping! Ping! Three more glass beads.
Then ten, fifty, innumerable glass beads! Hitting the windshield, hammering on the car’s roof like so much hail, bouncing and skittering along the entire length of the level and sending up puffs of dust wherever they landed. Until Tempest was unable to stay in control a single moment longer.
And: “Jesus Christ!” He cried then, knowing that it was no longer guesswork, that this was the result—or part of it—of a thousand, or hundred thousand, or million, so-called “experiments” in an equal or possibly infinite number of parallel laboratories!
“We’ve got to get out of here!” Tempest yelled over the din of falling beads. And crouching down in his seat behind the steering wheel, wincing from the assault on the roof, the windshield and bonnet, he put the car in gear and headed for the down-ramp. But the beads were everywhere and he was accelerating too quickly. The car skidded, spun sideways, straightened up again as he fought with the steering. Even when Tempest applied the brakes, still the car sped forward, its wheels locked, rollerskating on beads that were piled deeper than the dust!
“What is it? What’s happening!” Marie’s face was white as a sheet, her large eyes starting out as she squirmed this way and that, shrinking from the battered windshield, where cracks were spreading like instantaneous cobwebs over the entire surface of the glass. “W-what are those things?”
“Our worst fears realized!” Tempest replied, still fighting with the steering, jolting in his seat, grunting a curse as the car sideswiped a stanchion, bounced off and swerved towards the down-ramp and the bounding deluge of red marbles that was rolling down it.
Then, by some miracle quite beyond Tempest’s understanding, he was able to steer the car onto the ramp; following which the vehicle’s motion would have been outside any driver’s sphere of control. No longer being driven or even guided, it simply tobogganed down the ramp, sailed on a sea of beads across the lanes of level three, and slammed headlong into the opposite wall.
As Tempest and Marie jerked forward and back in their seats so the car’s engine shut down, and for a single horrible moment they both thought the same thing: that the gas tank was finally empty. But no, having glanced first at each other, then at the gauge, they sagged in their seats, gasping their mutual relief at seeing that while the needle was firmly in the lower red, it was still hovering just above zero. It was the shock of the impact that had caused the engine to stop, that and the fact that Tempest’s foot had been on the brake, not the accelerator. Moreover, the beads had stopped tumbling down the ramp and the rest of level three appeared free of the things.
“From level five to four, and now from four to three.” Tempest muttered. “If it keeps up like this we may even get down to one. So keep your fingers crossed, Marie, because where there’s hope…” Which was more for her sake than his own. But he could always hope.
At first the car refused to start. But at the third go, just as the engine was stuttering, winding down, suddenly it burst into life again.
“Fumes!” Marie moaned. “That’s all she’s got left now: just a tankful of fumes. And of course it had to happen right now! I feel like a complete idiot, because for as long as I can remember I’ve never let the gas level get so low. Do take it easy on the pedal, won’t you?”
Listening to pressured beads popping out from under the vehicle’s tyres and spattering on the concrete deck, Tempest nodded and backed off carefully from the wall. And as he turned the car along the level…”“Damn!” he sputtered. “Will you look at this? The lights are on and the place is empty, no cars at all! And no damage or signs of aging. It could be this morning—or some morning, or night—before the experiment. The place looks brand spanking new, certainly as new as I’ve ever seen it!”
With a last handful of glass beads spitting out behind the car’s back tyres, Tempest took it easy on the gas and made for the far down-ramp.
Now, he thought, if only our luck holds…
“You’re right,” Marie agreed with what he had said a moment ago. “It all looks so totally normal!” Her voice was firmer now, more controlled, and Tempest tried to match her.
“Perhaps the effect isn’t lasting,” he said. “Maybe events are—I don’t know—evening out somehow? Anyway, here we go, down onto level two. At least I hope it’s level two!” That word again. So perhaps it was true that hope springs eternal.
“Wait!” she said. “Shouldn’t we try to get into the laboratory again?”
“No!” he shook his head determinedly. “There’s been enough of that. It hasn’t worked out and I don’t think it can work out. I just want to get us the hell out of here—right out of here and right now—while we’re still sound of mind and limb!”
And moments later, when Tempest drove off the ramp onto the level, they both breathed audible sighs of relief when they saw that it was indeed level two, even though it wasn’t in the same almost pristine condition as three. For the light fixtures were dangling from a ceiling that sagged in places, and the concrete floor had zig-zagging cracks all along its length. But since it was level two, with only one more down-ramp to go, at least the exit and their possible salvation felt that much closer…
For the first time in what felt like several ages Tempest found he could breathe a little easier, despite being aware that they weren’t out of the woods—or more properly the car park—just yet. And when, if, they got out…what then? How would things be in the world they had been accustomed to outside?
Making no mention of his on-going fears, he avoided as best possible the cracked and occasionally rubble-strewn floor as he drove carefully down the central lanes; but as the car approached the final down-ramp he was once again holding his breath and was aware that Marie was doing much the same. She was taking in only sufficient air to allow her to mutter continuously to herself, over and over again: “Oh gGod! Oh my God! Please let it be…please let it be…oh please let it be…!” Until:
“Here we go!” he said, and turned onto the down-ramp, where they at once saw that the overhead sign at the bottom displayed a starkly simple figure ONE.
At which Tempest found himself echoing Marie’s prayers, albeit in his own way: “Christ!—oh Jesus Christ!—please let us make it!”
And: “We can make it!” she burst out beside him. “We really can! Look, at the far end there, the entrance—and for us the exit—and the daylight pouring in from outside! Better still, the place looks safe, intact.”
Marie was right, except Tempest had noticed something other than the daylight and wasn’t sure just exactly what he had seen. In that selfsame moment, however, he knew precisely what he was feeling.
As for what he’d seen: there were strange beings here; they were firming into existence and emerging from the shadows. This went hand in hand with that other thing that was happening: the sickening twisting and elongation of the level into an apparent eternity; the sudden wrenching of space and time that signalled yet another evolution of the NOW into a very different WHEN and WHERE. And as rapidly as that—as the level concertinaed back into what would surely be only a temporary, transient stability—Tempest saw all too clearly that level one was no longer safe and anything but intact!
Reeling as if she was drunk beside him in her seat, physically and mentally tottering no less than Tempest himself, Marie now saw something of what he had seen: the first of the strange creatures, now fully formed or realized, as it came loping from the shadows. And as she recovered from the shock of the transition:
“What the…?” she gasped. “Is that—but how can it possibly be—Planck?”
Tempest had lifted his foot from the accelerator, applying the brakes as soon as he’d felt the change sweeping over everything. Now, examining the alien eight-foot-tall thing that was approaching the front of the car, not to mention a dozen or so others of the same species that were closing in on both sides, he could see how, at first sight, it would be easy for someone to make the same mistake as Marie.
They were long-haired, a reddish-orange in colour, floppy-eared and very dog-like—even Planck-like—but they walked upright on weird hindlegs. Also, their forelegs or “arms,” with paws and dangling talons, depended below their regressive knees and hung halfway down their calves. Far worse, when they opened their black-shining leathery muzzles to snarl, Tempest saw that their jaws and scythelike teeth were quite obviously the equipage of savage carnivores.
As for intelligence: those beings on both sides of the car were already peering in through the windows, snuffling as they groped at the door handles!
Galvanized into action, Tempest managed to choke out instructions as he tried and failed to get the car back into gear: “Marie, secure your door!”
“Huge!” she gasped, snapping upright in her seat and doing as he had directed. “These things are…they’re huge!”
“And they’re not Planck,” he told her, completely unnecessarily, as he ground his teeth and the gears both while fighting the gear-stick. “But they could be his mutated descendants from some far-future parallel fucking world!”
The creature at the front of the car had climbed up on the bonnet. It carried what looked like a rusted iron rod which, as it threw back its head and began to howl, it aimed at the weakened, bead-splintered windshield directly in front of Tempest.
Again galvanized, he finally got the car into reverse gear, burning rubber as he backed off at speed to unbalance the thing on the bonnet, sending it sprawling even as it’s makeshift weapon shattered the windshield. Then, ignoring the shower of glass shards and ramming the car into first, Tempest caused the tyres to burn and shriek anew as he roared forward, slamming into and over the fallen monster.
And without pause he changed up and raced for the exit…or tried to.
But as Tempest had already noted, this now derelict level, once the ground floor of a serviceable car park, was no longer in good order. Much of the ceiling had caved in, and the badly gapped floor was heaped with its rubble. And as if that wasn’t enough, the car’s engine was once more stuttering and coughing as the last dregs of fuel—literally fumes—were sucked out of the tank.
“More of those awful things!” Marie was shouting, as Tempest bumped the car over heaped debris and swerved to avoid the wider, deeper gaps in the floor. “My God—just look at them!”
But he was already looking: at a central area of the level that was more or less clear of rubble but full of Planck creatures: a gang of them, two dozen at least! And seemingly heedless of life and limb they came loping, many of them dropping to all fours, then throwing their heads back and howling like banshees from red-haired, vibrating throats…
The intentions of the creatures seemed perfectly obvious.
“It’s them or us!” Tempest shouted as he hurled the car at best possible speed head-on into the slavering horde.
Hairy bodies split or burst open, and bones crunched under the lurching, clanking, battered car, as flesh and blood spattered on the last dangling shards of what had been a windshield. And it was then—with no more than fifty or so littered feet of level one left to be covered between the clattering vehicle and the glorious daylight flooding in from outside—only then that the final nightmare revealed itself.
Tempest felt it happening first—that sickening, dizzying shock to his faculties—then watched it happening in his rearview mirror: that incredible extension of the ruined level into unknown times and distances behind the car, followed by the now monstrously familiar snapping-back of space-time into a different configuration, a new reality.
Starting back there but rapidly closing, catching up with the car, in the blink of an eye Tempest saw the total disintegration of the building into so much dust, watched broken concrete slabs reverting to nothing, to their elementary particles, while the surviving dog-things simply vanished. He watched the chaos of metastatic, metamorphosing matter following after him, pursuing the car like a creature sentient in its own right.
Turning to look back, Marie had seen it too. “God! Oh God! Oh my God!” Her voice rose to a deafening shriek as it appeared that the devolution of space-time into nothingness must surely reach out to engulf the car. And closing her eyes, finally she buried her face in Tempest’s shoulder.
The fuel tank was empty and the car had coughed and stuttered its last. But as the dying vehicle had humped and lurched its way up, over and down the other side of the final mound of debris, even as it threatened to jerk to a standstill, Tempest had thrown the gears into neutral. And hauling on the steering wheel, he had somehow managed to turn the car into the glaring daylight of the exit.
Where previously there had been a speed bump and a rise of no more than six inches into the car park, now there was a six-foot drop out of it! And as the car launched its terrified passengers into thin air, behind them the building disappeared in its entirety, as if it had never been there in the first place—which indeed it hadn’t, not in the first place!
Yawing toward Tempest’s side, and tilting forward a little, the car fell; and sensing the weightlessness—fully believing this must be the end—Marie’s screams turned to sobs, muffled where she pressed her face deeper yet into Tempest’s shoulder.
Briefly glimpsing what was happening, Tempest had likewise closed his eyes, only opening them as the car slammed into the ground and his and Marie’s combined weight burst his door open and hurled them out and down…onto lush green grass and soft earth!
“Christ! Oh, Jesus God!” Tempest groaned then, his hand gentling his chest where the pain reassured him that at least he was still alive. “I think…think you’ve bust my ribs!” And then, wincing as another jolt of pain shot through him when his probing fingers discovered the sore spot: “Ow-ouch! Well, one of my ribs for sure!”
She unwrapped her arms from around him, lifted her head and looked all about. “But where…where are we?” She struggled to sit up, drank deep of the sweet air, and still a little breathless said: “What just happened to us? And where…where’s the car park?”
“Uh!” Tempest grunted. “Help me up, can’t you?” He held his side as she eased him into a seated position. And utterly mystified, as their racing heartbeats gradually slowed and whirling senses began to adjust, at last the pair studied their surroundings.
To one side of them: there rested the car in the long soft grass, its driver’s door hanging from a wrenched hinge, and its splayed wheels axles deep in rich loam. Badly battered, a total wreck, it was destined never to move again. And beyond the car, where the concrete bulk of the car park had reared—
—Greenery, a forest! Pure and primal and…peaceful? It was the same all around them: fruiting trees and shrubs, palms, flowers, all under a blindingly blue sky. Leaves wafting in the sweetest of sweet breezes, where birds—shocked by the arrival of these strangers—had stopped singing; but now they began to sing again. Bees buzzing from flower to flower, and small harmless creatures lending motion to the grasses as they went about their business. Nearby, the tinkle of water over pebbles, where a stream sparkled in the sunlight.
And Marie said once again, “Temp, where are we?”
“One thing’s for sure,” he finally answered. “We’re not in the car park, Dorothy!”
“What? Oh, Oz!” She almost laughed, however weakly, hysterically.
“Well, but for a bunch of Munchkins…” he replied, with a shrug that brought him yet more pain.
“It’s…it’s an orchard,” she said then.
“Or a garden,” Tempest answered. “But a garden run wild. A primal sort of place. Hey, I’m not complaining! Any place would have to be better than the nightmare we’ve just been through.”
Marie nodded, and agreed, “Yes, it’s like a wild garden.. But then she gave a start before repeating herself: “But…a garden?”
And suddenly she was wide-eyed, staring at Tempest where he nursed his cracked or broken rib. “Well?” he said, staring back at her. “Is there something?”
Saying nothing, with her jaw falling open, she simply held up her silver bracelet for him to read its inscription, just as he had read it once before, what felt like a hundred years ago, in the car park. E. Marie L. And:
Ethel, Edith, Elspeth, Tempest remembered what he’d thought then. And it was like he’d been struck by lightning, electrifying, when his mind blazed up in sudden understanding.
She saw it in his face and said, “Mr Tempest, or professor, or just Temp…except, of course, that’s just a nickname, not your real name. So now will you tell me something? What is your real name, your first name, Mr Tempest?”
But Adam knew he really didn’t need to. And for just a few seconds he couldn’t have spoken anyway, even if he’d wanted to.
Then they laughed, both of them—even though laughter hurt him—and their laughter was indeed more than a little hysterical; until finally he was able to control himself and say:
“Eve, whatever you do keep your eyes open for snakes—and don’t even think of touching those apples!”