by Rajan Khanna
Roughly the size of a tennis ball, it hovered, chest-high, above the road. It changed colors, swiftly cycling through the visible spectrum before disappearing, reappearing a moment later to start the cycle again. I wanted to touch it, but held myself back.
“What is it?” Sinclair said. Her hand rested on the automatic at her hip.
“I can’t be sure, but I’d say it’s a hole.”
“What kind of hole?” she said.
I sighed. “A hole in the skin of the world.”
September 16, 1966 and I woke up thinking of Lucy. Nineteen years and while the pain had dulled, it never completely went away. Twins and all that.
Sinclair called me early. “Happy Birthday, Damon” she said.
“It’s just another day,” I said.
“Holdern wants us in right away. Something big.” She was waiting for me with coffee in her hand when I got to the office, her black top and matching mini-skirt stretched over her six-foot frame. Heads turned as we walked down the hall. Several of the boys in the office thought we had something going, but she was more like a sister.
Julia Sinclair had been a star athlete, a runner and a swimmer, and was a crack marksman. She was also a bit of a fortress, though I was one of a few people let inside. I went through life feeling lost most of the time. Sinclair made me feel as if I always had a way home. A kind of Gretel to my Hansel.
“Cheer up,” she said. “It’s your birthday.”
“Another year closer to the grave,” I said.
“Christ, Damon, you are morbid.” She tousled my hair. “I’ll buy you a lager after this.
The coffee was hot but didn’t taste like much as it went down. I carried it into Holdern’s office and sunk into one of the chairs. Holdern’s tie was askew and one sideburn was lower than the other. The air smelled like sweat and tobacco smoke. He’d been a bit of a mess since his wife left him, sleeping at the office more often than not. It was the pressure of the job, I always thought, that his wife couldn’t deal with. We saw so many things we couldn’t share. Amazing, horrible, wondrous things.
Sinclair joined us a moment later and perched on the edge of her chair, long legs bent beneath her.
“You both remember Dexter Wembley?” Holdern said. “Our liaison with Parliament? He went missing this morning, with a piece of our kit.”
“Which one?” Sinclair said.
“We call it RI725,” Holdern said, tossing two folders at us. “Details are in there. Wembley came across it in his briefings. Then, he buggered off. I want you two to find him.”
“Why us?” Sinclair said. “This seems a bit straightforward for us, don’t you think?”
“Not at all,” Holdern said. “Let me show you.”
He led us to the screening room where a reel-to-reel projector was set up. “We found the device during the war,” Holdern said. “Our forces stumbled onto one of Hitler’s experiments. Unlike most of them, this one seemed to work. They called it Bifrost.”
“After the rainbow bridge between Earth and the realm of the gods,” I said.
Holdern nodded. “According to the files, it opens up windows into other worlds. Only they couldn’t control them. It was supposed to respond to people’s thoughts, but the device was never perfected. When we found it, we brought it back to England to study it. This film shows the results.” He switched the projector on.
It showed carnage on a level that I’d never seen before, in all my time at MI5, in Unusual Circumstances. I imagine it even eclipsed some of the worst of the war. It was as if reality had turned inside out. So had some of the people. Literally.
Blood covered the walls and floor, along with viscera and other unidentifiable bits. Some people lay, limbless, as if something had stolen them. Other people were merged together, arms and heads and legs disappearing, melting and merging into the flesh of those beside them. One figure in the forefront trailed what looked like the translucent, bony tail of some kind of aquatic creature. Flesh ran like wax. Those faces that remained were fixed with looks of such unspeakable horror that they were almost worse than the broken bodies around them.
It taxed even my steel stomach.
“This stopped the experiments,” Holdern said, switching off the machine. “The device was stored in the archives, to await a time when it could be studied more safely, where it stayed until Wembley came along. Now I need you to find him.”
I flipped through Wembley’s file while Sinclair pored over maps. Wembley had taken the device early that morning. There was only so far he could have gone.
Most of the file was by the book–he was young for an MP, but he had had the usual career path for those types–public school, wealthy family, member of several posh gentleman’s clubs. He became the liaison to Unusual Circumstances after the death of his wife from cancer.
Sinclair threw a pen at me and exhaled the smoke from her cigarette. “So, Mr. Intuitive Leap, where do we start? What does your fabled insight tell you about this one?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “We don’t know why he took it, and there’s not enough here to tell me. Was he being blackmailed? Did he need some quick cash and think he could sell it? If so, why this device?”
“Maybe he wants to sell it to the Russians,” she said.
“There’s no indication that he’d be involved in anything like that,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. What about his flat?”
“Turned over this morning. Nothing to indicate where he might have gone.” She slid the glossy black and white photographs over to me. I flipped through them. The place seemed neat and orderly, nothing to indicate panic or distress. This was planned, then.
One of the photos jumped out at me. It showed one wall of the flat. Upon a sideboard, framed photographs stood. Family scenes mostly, but one of them was missing its picture. A blank back was all that was visible.
I returned to the file. “It says here that Wembley’s wife had a family home in Blackburn, Lancashire. He might have gone there.”
“Or he might have gone to the airport. Or to meet his connection.”
“Possibly. But he has to know we’d be watching the airports. And if he’d already caught a flight, we won’t be able to do anything. That’s MI6 territory. No, I think we should check this out.”
“Is that an official intuition?” Sinclair said, fitting another cigarette to the ivory holder in her hand.
Sinclair grinned. “I’ll get the car.”
Sinclair drove. Sinclair always drove. The trip to Blackburn took five hours during which I couldn’t stop thinking about Lucy, same as I did every year at this time. It was her birthday, too, after all.
I missed her, of course, but I also missed the way that I felt when she was around. Which seemed selfish, and slightly wrong, but no less true for that fact. Lucy was the one person in my family who always made me feel welcome. Who always felt like ‘family.’ To the rest of them, I was the strange one, not athletic enough, not smart enough, the one who ended up in Unusual Circumstances instead of MI6 or the main branch of the Service.
Lucy made me feel right. Made me feel normal. Like I belonged. When she died, the world became misaligned. There was a Lucy-shaped hole in the world, and I would have done anything to bring her back, to put things right again.
We entered the outskirts of Blackburn and something vibrated through me, like the whine of a dentist’s drill. It made my jaw ache and the skin on the back of my neck prickled. Sinclair shuddered in her seat. “That can’t be good,” she said.
She slowed, bringing the Minx to a respectable 40 KM/hr.
She turned down side streets, and I directed her with the A to Zed, and that’s when it happened.
Reality skewed across the windshield, like a smeared insect. Colors flashed in kaleidoscopic fragments. The world blinked around us.
The sky turned a burnt orange. The car filled with the smell of plastic, the kind of fresh, clean plastic smell that tickles the nostrils. Sinclair kept the car going steady, but I worried at what was happening. A crystalline creature with many legs smacked against the glass of the windshield, scuttling against its surface. It was followed by another, then another, then another. My wonder turned to alarm when the windshield squealed, then cracked, faultlines running across the glass with the sound of expanding ice.
Sinclair slammed the accelerator and we shot forward. Many of the multilegged things fell away, but a few remained, and they were excavating cracks in the glass. I feared what they would do to us when they penetrated the interior of the car.
I pulled the Walther PPK from the glovebox and pointed it at one of the creatures. The shot roared in the enclosed space of the car and the creature went flying with a tinkle of crashing glass. I aimed for the others and likewise dispatched them.
Sinclair waited until I was finished, then yelled at me, her voice dim in my ringing ears. “What the bloody hell is going on out here, Damon?”
“The Bifrost device has been activated,” I said. “We need to get to Wembley. Fast.”
“And how are we supposed to find him?” she said. “If this thing is active and leaving things like those around, then we have to hurry.”
“I don’t think finding him will be a problem,” I said. “Stop. Stop!” The Minx squealed to a halt. “Get out.”
I jumped out of the car, not looking to see if Sinclair was following me. Hovering, in the middle of the road, was the shimmering sphere. It fascinated me as much as it scared me.
Sinclair was having trouble understanding. “Hole?”
“In the fabric of this world, opening into another. This is what the machine does. Some people theorize that there are other worlds, right alongside our own. Imagine that our world is a bubble, and there are hundreds of other bubbles around it, touching it at points all over its ‘skin’. I think other realities are leaking through like water through a sieve. Right now there are only trickles, overlaying our reality in small spots. But as they remain, those spots will get larger and I don’t think that can be very good.”
“Lovely,” Sinclair said. “What can we do?”
“Look,” I said. I pointed down the road, and after a moment she could see what it was I was looking at: a trail of the same pulsing, shimmering circles, leading away from us.
“My God,” she said. “We need to get after him now.”
“Let’s move,” I said.
We got back in the Minx and set off down the road, anxious to catch up with Wembley, but also eager to avoid any more of the holes. Sinclair couldn’t drive at her usual breakneck speed.
I radioed back to HQ requesting they shut down the roads using the local police. Motorists driving through those holes would not be prepared for what they would find.
We passed a Volkswagen resting on its side. No people were visible around it. From far off in the distance I heard an alien shriek. I told Sinclair to continue on.
A few minutes later we drove through another hole. We were on a gray street and mourners lined both sides, silent in black, heads bowed. Ahead of us was a funeral procession with several slow moving cars. Troops resembling Roman centurions marched alongside the vehicles. An acrid smell filled the air. Smoke rose in the distance.
Then we were through again and back on the road.
Sinclair’s face was tight, but she continued driving, slowing only when we saw a woman on the side of the road. She wore a long dress that trailed on the ground, and she held her face in her hands. I told Sinclair to pull over and rolled down my window.
“What’s the problem, Miss?” I said.
The woman looked up and I pulled back from the window. Her eyes were flat and dead like those of fish. “So hungry,” she said, and darted forward.
I panicked, pulling the Walther, firing shots wildly. A snake’s tail appeared from beneath the dress and she suddenly slithered away into the heather on the side of the road.
“Let’s continue, shall we?” Sinclair said.
I nodded, willing my heart to stop its furious pounding.
As we moved farther, the holes increased, and while Sinclair did her best to avoid them, swerving this way and that, soon even that was impossible. We drove through beats and pulses of other worlds spilled into ours.
Blackburn / A purple storm with amber flashes of lightning / Blackburn / The smell of hyacinths and a grassy field with large, bulbous mushrooms of many colors / Blackburn / A prehistoric landscape where reptilian creatures soared in the distance.
Through it all, the Minx fared as well as she could. Some of the spillover was regrettably unpaved.
“There are hundreds,” Sinclair said. “Thousands, maybe.”
“We’ll have to shut them down. We have to find Wembley.”
The Minx gave out about ten minutes later. A gush of lava spilled out onto the road before us. Too fast for even Sinclair to avoid. We drove right through it, melting the wheels down to slag. Fortunately for us it was a narrow stream and we were on the other side before the car stopped. I radioed back to UC and told them to step up the containment effort, ordering in additional reinforcements.
“Nice driving,” I said. My pulse was racing. Despite all the strange things Sinclair and I had seen, there had always been a stable reality to anchor us. Now, that had been taken away. We’d been lucky to fare so well. I could imagine what would happen if we stumbled into an acid pool, or a tar pit.
“Hope you wore comfortable shoes,” Sinclair said, and then hopped out of the car.
I made sure the Walther was readily at hand and Sinclair fetched her rifle from the back of the car. With everything that was going on, I thought it prudent.
By then the pulses that signified the holes were numerous enough that we didn’t need the car to track them. They led away in a path, curving away from the road up ahead. Had Wembley realized he’d lost control of the device?
We hoofed it from there, and I found myself wishing that I’d worn something more sensible than my chelsea boots. We passed people on the way, on the side of the road, wandering frantically between houses, but there was little that we could do for them so we continued on. They gave us a wide berth with Sinclair and her rifle handy.
It wasn’t difficult to track Wembley through the houses for a trail of wreckage marked his path. People wounded and weeping, structures smoking and steaming. I steeled myself against the images, thinking only of stopping the source. I told myself that if we didn’t stop him soon, the damage would be far worse. Reality, our reality, would collapse under the strain of all these incursions.
We followed the wreckage to a small strip of road with houses that seemed freshly scrubbed and clean. What surrounded them wasn’t. Reality stretched and bent in odd angles, spilling fractious colors and substances into the environment. My mind couldn’t make sense of what it was seeing. I blinked my eyes to clear them of the maddening distortions, but it didn’t help. I looked for Wembley, hoping to cling to him with my sight.
When I saw him, however, I wanted to look away. Wembley’s humanity was something forgotten, obliterated by the device. The grotesque monstrosity that huddled and oozed over the side of the road should not have been able to exist, but it did, and worse still, it appeared to be alive.
Wembley’s face was no longer recognizable, hardly even face-like in its appearance. It had stretched over the skull, the mouth little more than a slit. One eye had drifted to the side of the skull, leaving the other one abandoned in its normal position, below a great outcropping of skull. Wembley’s hair and moustache were little more than fringes of color on the distorted visage.
The body below the head ballooned out like a flow of lava. Pale, shivering skin lay everywhere. Nestled in it were holes like those we were tracking, spilling other worlds out into Wembley’s flesh. They bubbled and flexed like erupting tumors. I saw one, or what I thought was one, then realized that it had two legs, sticking out of pink skin like two large dark hairs. He was enveloping those around him, too.
Sinclair had her rifle up, and I knew she was targeting his head. It made sense: kill Wembley, and maybe this would stop. But we couldn’t take that chance.
“Don’t shoot, Sinclair,” I said. She was a crack shot, but the device supposedly responded to thoughts and feelings. I didn’t want to know what effect Wembley’s dying brain might have on it.
But if I could find the device, if I could override Wembley’s thoughts with my own, then maybe that would stop all of this. Maybe that would set things right.
I scanned the mountainous flesh, telling myself that it was inanimate, lifeless, like an outcropping of rock, or a pale, bare hill. But its gelatinous bulk would not allow me my illusions and I felt the gorge rise in my throat.
I took a step forward, and the air was suddenly thick, like water. My chest burned with the exertion of breathing and my limbs flexed like jelly. Reality here was torn and battered, unsure of what it was at any given moment. I gasped for air and willed the device to make itself visible, if only so that I could escape the torment that clawed at my body.
I pushed myself forward, and the pressure eased. The device had to be somewhere near Wembley, but where?
Moving closer, I scanned his flesh, looking for a flash of metal in the pale, pink mass. At the same time, I tried to project my thoughts, an attempt to override the device from a distance. I didn’t know if I was doing anything, or if it was possible, but I had to try something.
Three things happened at once. I saw a bubble emerge from Wembley’s shoulder, another hole breaking free. Wembley roared in agony, a desperate stretched sound amplified by his bulk. And Wembley thrashed.
Some part of his nervous system still functioned, for a long, tendril-like protrusion whipped out, straight at my head. The collision sent everything spinning away from me, like an exploding jigsaw puzzle.
I couldn’t see. Everything turned red, like when you close your eyes and look at the sun. Red and pulsing, like blood. I floated, not able to orient in that space, if it was any kind of space.
I heard Lucy’s voice. A feeling, like an ache stapled to a thrill, ran through me. Almost twenty years and I still missed her so. To her I wasn’t a disappointment. To her I was an ally, a friend, a confidant. I heard her voice as clear as if she was next to me. And perhaps she was.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard her speak to me. But the other times she spoke with my voice, the voice inside my head. This time it was different.
“Damon,” she said. “You’ve done so well. But you must finish this now.”
“But I don’t know where the device is.”
“You do,” she said. “You’re going to be all right.” Then it was as if she kissed me, a brush of sensation against my cheek, and I was lying on the ground, and England washed back over me.
She was right. I knew where it was. It was inside of him. Probably in his chest. I could picture him, bent over the device, in the safety of his own home, eager, desperate to communicate with his dead wife, holding it close, holding it tight. Willing it to end his pain, end his grief. Willing it to open. And it did. Erupting into him. Now other realities were pouring out through his body, seeping through his skin and muscles and organs.
Sinclair stood beside me. As always. She was a good partner. “Killing him won’t make a difference,” I said. “We need to get to the device. Cover me.”
I ran at Wembley’s grotesque body, and up onto it. My chelsea boots sank into his quivering flesh, but I put that out of my mind. I ran for his torso, trying to ignore his warped form.
I was almost to his upper chest when I stepped down and found no purchase. Down I went, into salmon colored seas, my alarmed gasp erupting in bubbles all around me. I saw, in my panicked blink, dark shapes in the distance swarming toward me. Is this it? I thought. Do I die here, and fail the world, by drowning?
I thought of Lucy. And I thought of Sinclair. And I thought of the grotesquerie that was Dexter Wembley.
I kicked hard, ignoring the drag and weight of my suit, and I put all my strength into moving my legs. Perhaps it was the adrenaline surge, perhaps it was something about that water–some lesser density–but I rose quickly and powerfully out, spilling out onto wet, shuddering meat.
And there I saw it. The device, melded into Wembley’s flesh just ahead of me.
I crawled the rest of the way there. Up close, Wembley’s flesh was warm, and damp, or maybe that was me, and he smelled like sweat and rubber and boiled eggs.
The device was little more than a brick of metal, now scratched and pitted. That was supposedly just a shell. Whatever lay inside was hidden, and no one had been able to open it.
I reached for the Bifrost device and slapped my hands down onto its surface. I didn’t rightly know what to do. I knew, though, that it responded to something in people, maybe thoughts, maybe emotions, maybe something nebulous, and I willed it to close and for all this mess to go away and for Wembley to find some peace and God damn it was my birthday.
And I thought of Lucy. If this thing picked up on what we felt, something subconscious, I filled myself with all my happy memories of her. Beside me as we blew out birthday candles. Close, when we were children and I had nightmares and she’d crawl into bed alongside me. Sharing a bag of sweets with me, after I’d lost my pocket money. If Wembley’s sorrow had created this mess, maybe my remembered joy could help undo it.
I had a glimpse of colors stretching before me. A spectrum, like endless possibilities, spanning to infinity. It was almost too much to take, I had to keep my focus narrow.
Then I heard her. Lucy. As if she was far away. Like that time we played in the old manor house, running through dusty rooms, up twisting stairs and through labyrinthine alcoves.
I was able to scan the spectrum, move from color to color, from possibility to possibility. I chased after Lucy. I knew, then, that I could find her. That she was there. I drew and discarded realities like cards.
An earthquake-like rumble broke my concentration. Wembley. The holes were still spilling out. With a sickening lurch, I realized that I was doing it. By chasing after Lucy, I was calling on more of them. It wouldn’t be long before one would spill out into me, and I would join Wembley in his monstrous and sad embrace.
I stopped looking. I had to. My eyes filled with tears, the spectrum smeared like paint on a canvas. “Good bye, Lucy,” I said. “I’m sorry.” I willed it to shut down. I closed the door on Lucy. I shattered the rainbow bridge to Heaven.
The world collapsed around me. I heard a sigh, then I struck the ground with a splash and a shudder and there was a loud, ear-splitting buzz in my ears. It was followed by a sound like the sky cracking open.
I thought that was it. I thought that reality had finally given way under the strain of all those holes and was finally collapsing. Instead, it was all of the holes, all of those that Wembley, and I, had created. All of them closed.
Sinclair picked me up out of the bloody, torn mess that had been Dexter Wembley. Without the holes, what was left of his system collapsed to the ground. It wasn’t pleasant.
Sinclair helped me back to someone’s garden and there we rested until our backup came. I told them to sweep all of Blackburn, see if there were any holes that hadn’t closed up. Luckily, for us, they all had.
Sinclair stood over me like a mother hen, wiping me free of Wembley’s gore with a commandeered tea towel. “Are you okay?” she said.
I gripped her hand in mine. She looked at me, surprised. “Yes,” I said. “It had to stop. We had to say goodbye.”
“I thought I heard Lucy. She spoke to me. I don’t know; it must have been the blow to my head. But I thought, when I held the device, I thought I heard her again.”
Sinclair slung her arm around me. “Do you think it was really her?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I hope so. Maybe I just wanted her to be out there somewhere. Maybe that thing was just trying to give me what I wanted. But it wasn’t worth the cost.”
“You’re going to be all right,” Sinclair said. Then she kissed my cheek. “We all are.”
I would like to say that we destroyed the device, so none of this could happen again, but the truth is we couldn’t. We still didn’t know how it worked, or what was inside, and no one wanted to go tampering with it any more. Instead it was sealed into a safe, buried beneath the earth. There it shouldn’t be able to do much harm. At least that’s what I hope.
Back in London, it was like nothing had ever happened, and I delighted in the rainy and mundane English night. The world was a harsh one, but somehow it was enough. “Let’s get that lager,” I said to Sinclair.
“Happy Birthday,” she said.