“Escape by Other Means”
by Peter Hargraves
She’d never known that sunshine could be depressing. The light looked sickly, streaming in through the filthy windows, something she’d never see again. For she had made up her mind. No waiting for him to come home. He’d come after her, of course. But she’d take her chances. Thumbing the illicit ampoule so the label didn’t show, she left the apartment and entered the cot room. True to form for this time of day, the cots all stood empty. It took a while to bring up the desired portion of the cloud: “1900 Central European Duchy, scenario 001,” the one saved earlier. Out of her pocket came a scrap of paper: EXCELSIOR HOTEL ROOM 312. Quick fingers on the keyboard tweaked the code.
Minutes later she lay on one of the cots. Blood pressure cuff, pulse sensor, nasal cannula, neural mapper on her head, all attached. Oh, and not to forget, the ampoule, covered by a bandage as much to hide it as to hold it in place in her vein. A long, deep breath: “Okay, let’s go.” The synthesized intelligence voiced its understanding.
The cot room disappeared. After a few moments a new scene shimmered, then solidified. Three-story stone buildings with dormer windows in the attics flanked a large square where market stalls stood. She made her way across the cobblestones, lifted her skirts to avoid the horse droppings. At the edge of the square stood a large church. She detoured around it, took a narrow side street, rang a doorbell. She hopped from foot to foot, and hugged herself even though it wasn’t cold.
A tall slender man opened the door. His face lit up like a sunburst as he enveloped her and lifted her inside. The door slammed behind her. She went limp in his arms, the tension leaving her instantly. Soon she was out of her dress. He unlaced her boots and pulled them off. She shrugged out of her petticoat, while he took off his scratchy suit. They did it on the couch, the bedrooms being upstairs and too far away.
Later she said, “I can stay permanently this time. If you like.” The statement hung there for a moment. She dreaded the look that might come, the refusal to meet her gaze. But it didn’t. Instead he gasped and looked at her in surprise and joy. “Just let me get my luggage from the station,” she almost screamed.
“No, I’ll go!” he said. But she had dressed already, and he still lay sprawled naked on the couch. Outside she ran down the street back to the square where a hansom stood. “The Excelsior Hotel, please,” she said looking up at the driver, before climbing in. Avoiding the station (not having arrived this way), she would tell her tall, slender man the rail company had lost her luggage. One thing worried her a little: she’d programmed room 312 to be vacant, but she didn’t trust her skills all that much. But at the hotel the concierge handed over the key to the requested room, silently in exchange for her stack of bills.
She negotiated the stairs and their worn carpet, red and dark.
On the night table of room 312 stood one incongruous thing that shouldn’t have existed in this world. A black plastic box with one red plastic button.
Movement came from outside in the corridor. Someone tried the door, but she’d locked it. Grunts of anger. Then whoever it was put a shoulder to the door and the wooden door splintered at the lock. A man shaped like a fireplug, sloppily dressed, stood there, his face dark.
She gasped. “How did you find me?”
“You silly bitch, you left that piece of paper with this address on it lying in the cot room.”
He eyed the black box with its red button, as if wondering what she had planned to do with it, how he might thwart her. She was slightly closer to it than he was. She lunged at it. So did he. She got a hand on the button and slammed it down. A scream issued from her throat as he pushed her roughly to the ground. Footsteps sounded in the corridor. A loud male voice sounded from the corridor. “Leave the lady alone, you scoundrel.”
Gentle hands escorted her downstairs and into a hansom. Somehow the fireplug-shaped man had also made his way downstairs. “God help when I get my hands on you back in the real world,” he said through the window. Indeed, he had given her bruises before. She signaled the driver to leave. On the way back to the tall man’s place she saw, for one long moment, pristine, snow-capped mountains in the distance, long gone in the real world. She smiled: she and her lover would take a trip there, soon.
The fireplug-shaped man uttered a brief phrase into the air and found himself on a cot next to his wife. He went back to the apartment and had dinner, then watched TV. When she hadn’t returned by 10, he went back to the cot room. Puzzled by the bandage on her arm, he unwrapped it. The empty ampoule stuck in her vein. The contents of the ampoule had doubtlessly been injected via the red button on the black box. He read the label and gasped. She was awfully cold. The screen showed she had no vital signs.
Peter Hargraves has an advanced degree in Physics and spent most of his working life in the high tech sector in Canada. Somewhere along the way he decided he liked writing better than technical subjects and has been trying to become a writer of fiction. His story “One Way Journey” is featured in the anthology Fantastic Trains from Edge SF and F Publishing.
Good plot – it kept me guessing.