The Hell Machine
Length : 18912 words
Subject : The Hell Machine
Posted : 27 Jan 90 07:32:48 GMT
© 1985 James Charles Lynn
The Hell Machine
James C. Lynn
Being a friday, the traffic on the 205 bridge was fairly heavy. Roy
Karsten was heading across for Portland in his little four-banger Datsun
pickup. It was a warm, half-cloudy September afternoon and he might have
actually enjoyed the ride except for two little problems. One was the leather
briefcase that sat on the seat beside him. The other
was the fact that he couldn't get the $%#@&%@@&!! truck into fourth gear. He
had the clutch jammed to the floor but every time he tried to slip the
gearshift into the notch it adamantly refused to cooperate and instead
responded with a clashing of teeth deep in the
transmission that set his own teeth on edge. The speedometer was down to 45
now and slowly dropping. This was the last thing he needed now. Earlier he
had called the group at the research center with his findings. After a lot of
arguing he managed to get Frank to hold the experiment at least until he
could get there and show them the figures on paper. He was convinced he was
right. If the Genesis machine worked, they could all be in serious trouble.
Roy suspected his calculations showed only a fraction of the machine's true
The truck shook every time the gears clashed. Roy had a sneaking hunch
that the transmission, and probably the whole truck, was nearing the end of
its useful life. The transmission had been giving him problems lately, but
nothing like this. He didn't have the foggiest what was wrong. He was a
mathmetician, not a mechanic. The needle quivered just below forty. At the
rate he was going, he wouldn't even make it halfway across the bridge. Roy
slammed his foot on the clutch hard, put both hands on the gearshift knob,
gritted his teeth, and jerked the lever into the notch as hard as he could.
The tiny truck shuddered like a bomb had gone off in the bed, but the
$%#&*! lever finally slipped into the fourth gear slot. In fact, Roy
discovered, it now went into all the slots easily. Even after he let up on
the clutch. When he pressed the accelerator, the engine raced freely. Uh-oh.
The needle now eased down past thirty. Some creep in a RX-7 shot around him
at seventy, blasting on the horn. After wearing out every carnal verb in his
vocabulary, Roy decided he's better get this heap into the breakdown lane
before it stopped completely. Fortunately he was facing downhill and had
enough momentum to ease it all the way over to the right. He heard gravel
crunch under his tires as he pulled over and it finally occurred to him that
he should turn on the four-way flashers. Since he had no parking brake, he
grabbed the knob and put it it in reverse so it wouldn't roll downhill. He
stared in astonishment as the lever came loose in his hand. Smoke drifted up
from the hole in the transmission hump. The truck was still slowly moving so
he had only one choice. He eased the wheel slightly to the right, gritting
his teeth as first the right fender, then the whole side of the truck, ground
against the concrete barrier. He was ready to jump out if the barrier showed
any sign of breaking, but finally the truck stopped.
He got out and slammed the door, still holding the gearshift lever. Cars
were zooming by uncomfortably close in the next lane. Still cursing a blue
streak, Roy stomped around to the front of the truck and kicked it hard
enough to break the plastic grille. Jesus, what else could go wrong? He
noticed the lever in his hand for the first time and flung it out over the
barrier. It flew in a long graceful curve, catching splinters of sunlight,
before splashing in the water one hundred thirty feet below.
Enough temper tantrums, he told himself. First priority was getting those
papers to the lab. Pressing up against the body of the truck to present as
small a target as possible to oncoming traffic, he edged his way back to the
cab. He retrieved his case through the open window and made his way forward
again. He put his thumb out and began walking down the road, more than a
little concious of the barrier beside him. Not even waist high, it was the
only thing "protecting" him from a thirteen story drop.
Forty minutes later, he was still walking. Nobody had even slowed down.
Most of the cars had Oregon plates, which explained a lot. Oregon drivers
were the most inconsiderate in the entire country. At least Frank was holding
the experiment, or so he hoped. If they fired that thing up...
He caught a movement out of the corner of one eye. There was something
happening in the east. They hadn't waited. There was no logical basis for
this assumption but he knew it to be true all the same. It was the only
explanation for what he was watching. The briefcase fell from nerveless
A certain well-known landmark in the east had just... dissappeared. In
its place was a huge grey-black dome rising for the sky. The very clouds were
being pulled in towards it. He didn't know exactly what had happened, but he
could make a darn good guess. The entire tableau was taking place in hellish
silence, but he would hear it soon enough. It about three and a half minutes,
if he guaged the distance correctly. Traffic was still speeding by, but a few
vehicles were slowing down as they noticed what was happening. He knew he was
in mortal danger, but there was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. He should
have stayed with the truck.
Besides, he wasn't nearly as concerned for his own safety as he was for
the safety of the world.
Not quite meanwhile:
"He was supposed to be here half an hour ago!" Frank Lindstrom paced
restlessly around the basement lab of the Mechtronix, inc. Portland annex. He
couldn't pace far, as the room was all but packed with sophisticated
equipment. He managed a circle maybe five feet in diameter. It distracted the
"You know Roy." Replied Jean Lambert. She was sitting at Frank's
monitoring station, trying to make sense of the screens. A physicist she
wasn't. "Responsibility is not his forte."
"Tell me about it." Frank sighed. "But he sounded so worried. He made me
promise to postpone until he got here."
Norbert Howell looked up from the X-men comic he had been reading at his
station, "Well, we can't postpone much longer. The capaciters won't hold this
big a charge very long without burning up something expensive. If we don't
start in the next few minutes, I'll have to shut down. It'll take at least a
week to clean up and restart the reactor."
"Damn." Frank muttered.
Jean got up and went down to the lower level where the fourth member of
the team was sitting. "Douglas? How are you feeling?" Douglas Everett
looked up from the photograph he was holding. "O-okay, I guess. I'm... I'm
still ready to try, if you are."
"Good." She was worried about Doug. He was emotionally unstable and
lightly retarded. He had been married until about a year ago, and then his
wife, Alice, had left him for another man. The shock put him in an
institution, from which he had only been recently released. Alice had
contacted him not long after about the possiblity of a reconciliation. Doug
had been overjoyed. Alice was the only light in an otherwise dismal life.
Then, about two days ago, he recieved news that she had been killed in a
skiing accident on Mt. Hood. He did not lose his grip on reality again, as
everybody feared he might, but something in him had definitely changed. There
were those who thought it might have been better if he had lost it again.
Frank sat down in his chair and scanned the readouts. "Everything's peaked
for the conditions. It'll take us more like a month to recalibrate." He
looked around at them. "If Roy's not going to show, then I can't take his
warning very seriously. He is prone to exaggeration. I say we go ahead. Any
There were none.
"Stations, then." Frank said. He started the videotapes. Norbert stashed
his comic and began tuning the reactor controls. Doug pocketed the photograph
and sat back as Jean placed the electroencephelagraphic helmet on his head.
The entire experiment hinged on Doug. He had been long ago tested and found
to have very strong psionic abilities. He couldn't conciously read minds or
bend spoons, but the potential was there. That potential was what made it
possible for the helmet to read images from his brain. Those images were
comverted to computer impulses and fed into the heart of the experiment, the
The Genesis machine was a small cube, about two inches on a side (Norbert,
with his comic-book humor, had dubbed it the 'Cosmic Cube'). It was
mirrored-silver and consisted of a non-conducting alloy formed around highly
complex circuitry. It hung suspended behind thick glass at one end of the
room with wires attached to each of its six sides. The processes in the
Genesis machine were far too complicated to explain, but its theoretical
purpose was to convert energy to matter. Norbert's fusion plasma reactor
would supply energy in abundance, and the images from Doug's brain, far more
detailed that anything a computer could generate, would provide a pattern for
the forming matter. Assuming the whole thing worked, which was iffy. Frank
controlled the link from his console. Jean's task was to coach Doug and watch
Norbert called out, "Output: seven point three two five gigavolts. Reactor
Frank answered, "All components read good. Temp on capaciter bank four is
a little high."
"Jean?" Frank called down.
Jean looked at Doug. "Now remember, just like we practiced. Visualise the
cylinder. Concentrate on its every aspect. Concentrate."
"I've got it." Frank watched as a computer enhanced image of a cylinder
appeared on his screen. He made some last minute adjustments. "All readings
within safe limits. Voltages consistant, feed noise point oh oh oh four.
Looks good, folks." Excitement surged though him. The greatest scientists in
the world hadn't even dreamed of something like this...
A platform rested at the opposite end of the room from the cube, hidden
behind lead shielding. It was where the object was supposed to materialise.
Frank said, "Vector coordinates," and read out a series of numbers. Norbert
read a list of numbers off an auxiliary screen and concurred. Frank
transmitted the numbers to the cube, in essence telling it to focus its power
on the platform.
Jean watched Doug's vital signs on a monitor. They showed he was as
excited as the rest of them. Completely professional now, she coached Doug
verbally while continuously taking readings on his brainwaves. The peaks and
valleys were greatly exaggerated, which was normal for him.
Jean said nothing to them, which Frank took as an all clear. He flipped a
final switch. Now Doug was linked via computor directly to the cube. The
Genesis machine was ready. All it needed now was power. "The cube is primed."
Frank said. "It's all yours, Norbert."
"Voltage seven point four oh five. Transmitting... now." Norbert snapped a
single large black switch, feeding the full output of the reactor (enough
power to incinerate a small town) to the Genesis machine. For exactly one
second the cube shone like a miniature sun.
And then all hell broke loose...
Frank slowly picked himself up off the floor. Battery powered backup
lights were beginning to flicker on. The air was filled with the sharp stink
of ozone and melted plastic and metal. Though his voice made his head hurt
even worse, he yelled out, "Hey! Somebody speak to me! Is everyone all
Norbert groaned, "Not me. Feels like they nuked my cerebellum."
"You and me both. Jean! Doug! Say something!" he called down into the
"Something." Doug called back, giggling a little.
"We're... all right." Jean said slowly. She shook her head, trying to
clear it. The fog was slowly lifting. "If I knew what one felt like, I could
say whether or not we just experienced a psychic feedback."
"It was a trip, I can say that." Norbert commented, still a little groggy.
He looked over his instruments. "Crap! Everything's burned out. I got no
"I could have told you that just from smelling the air." Frank replied. He
tried the backups but they were dead, too. So was the ventilation. "Jean?
Since you're next to the door, would you care to prop it open so we don't
suffocate? By the way, what's a psychic feedback? Never heard of it."
Norbert suddenly gasped, "Holy sh- Look!" and pointed to the back of the
The materialization platform was hidden from direct view by the lead
shielding but the fading glow being reflected off the walls and ceiling
behind it told them something was happening. Cautiously, the four got up and
approached it. Doug kept to the back, a knowing smile on his face.
"Stay here." Frank said, as he went around the shield. He appeared a
second later, holding a large object in his hands. It was a statue of a nude
woman, about three feet high, and formed in such perfect detail that it could
not have been made by human hands. The most amazing thing about it was that
it appeared to be made of solid gold. Jean saw from the way Frank's muscles
were standing out that it must have been heavy. She hoped he didn't hurt
Frank set it down on its base with a grunt. "I got into this field to get
away from hard work. Could that be real gold?"
"I thought we were trying for a cylinder." Jean said.
"Sorry." Doug said. His eyes were fixed on the statue. He went over to
admire it closer. He ran his hands over its smooth curves. "It's beautiful,
"Yes it is." Frank assured him. "Jesus! Solid gold? How the hell did we do
that? It must be worth a fortune!"
"Yeah," Norbert said, "probably about one-fifth the cost of the equipment
we blew up. Not a very profitable scheme. 'sides, considering all the
variables that we couldn't control, more likely it's an alloy that looks and
weighs close to gold." He leaned closer for a better look. "The detail'S
fantastic, though. You can even see the hairs on her-"
"Norbert!" Jean said warningly.
"Oh. Uh, sorry." He blushed bright red and busied himself checking damage.
"Anyway," Frank said, "We'll have to get a sample upstairs to the
metallurgy boys for analysis and identification. Then we'll know for sure. We
can probably take some off the base-"
"NO!" Doug screamed. He threw his arms around the statue protectively.
"Don't damage it! You can't!" He looked pleadingly at Jean, "Miss Lambert!
Please don't let them hurt it! Please!"
Startled by the vehemence of Doug's reaction, Jean hastily reassured him.
"Don't worry, Douglas. I won't let them. Calm down." Frank looked at her in
disbelief and she took his arm and led him to the back of the room. Speaking
softly so Doug couldn't hear her, she said, "Tell me, doesn't that statue
Frank replied, "Well, I can't say I recognize the body, but I think I know
the face. That's his ex-wife, isn't it?"
"Exactly. It's obvously an idealized image of her and he can't bear the
thought of it being damaged. I think we should humor him on this, at least
until later. There's no rush. Maybe I can convince him to-"
Suddenly the lab door slammed open. Standing there, panting, was Dudley
Wilson, one of the computer nerds from upstairs. He was frantic about
something. "I... out there... the mountain..." he puffed incoherently.
Norbert grabbed him by the shoulders and said, "Calm down, guy! Calm down.
What about what mountain?"
Dudley regained his composure a little. "It's-it's gone! Mount Hood just
vanished into thin air!"
They gaped at each other for a long, comical second, then scrambled for
the stairway. Poor Dudley almost got trampled in the process. By mutual
unspoken consent they all ran for the commissary. The commissary was on the
east side of the building and one entire wall consisted of a fifteen by forty
foot multipaned window, overlooking scenic Mt. Hood. They crowded in through
the door and Dudley came in last and pushed through them. Hopping up and
down, he pointed out the window. "There! You see? You see?"
But nobody had a reply for him.
Where Mt. Hood once stood a huge grey-black mushroom cloud now rose
towards the sky like a mighty fist. The cumulus above was being sucked
towards it. It was like St. Helens again but the mountain wasn't erupting. It
was simply gone. Norbert voiced the first thought that came to all their
"No." Frank said shakily, "That's not a fireball. That cloud's from...
from..." Suddenly his eyes widened in horror. "Oh, my God."
There were about fifteen people in the commissary. At the moment they all
had their noses plastered to the glass trying to see better. "Get away from
that window!" Frank roared at them. "Get some cover! NOW!!"
It was the panic in Frank's voice that did the trick. The people began
backing away from the window, not understanding why. Frank grabbed Jean and
hustled back out into the hall. Norbert, Doug, and Dudley followed, also
confused. Jean began to protest at this manhanding but her words were
suddenly lost in the rising howl from outside.
The howl rose to a scream of hurricane force winds and they all suddenly
felt as if icepicks were being jabbed in their ears. The pain increased
tenfold and there was a loud BOOM as every window in the building exploded
outward from the pressure difference. Then the hurricane was inside, sucking
up papers, books, chairs, anything small that wasn't nailed down.
Accompanying this chaos was a loud, basso rumbling that first rattled their
ears, then shook the whole building.
The hallway was fairly well protected from all of this, but it was still
like standing in a wind tunnel. Jean buried her face in Frank'S chest and
clutched him desperately, as if to keep from blowing away, although it was
hardly that bad. Dudley, scared out of his wits, had a similar grip on
Norbert, and was in serious danger of strangling him. Doug simply put his
hands over his face and collapsed against the wall, sobbing.
Slowly the wind and rumbling died down, leaving everybody feeling as if
their ears were stuffed full of cotton. Norbert finally untangled himself
from Dudley with a curse. Dudley, bereft of his support, ran down the hall
screaming hysterically. Jean held on to Frank for a long time before letting
go. Norbert yelled, "You knew that was going to happen!"
"An implosion." Frank replied. "The mountain dissappeared and left a
vacuum. Air rushed in to fill it, sucking up all kinds of dirt and debris and
crap. That's what the cloud was. Soon as I realized that, I knew there was
going to be a shockwave." Something tickled his nose. He rubbed it and his
hand came away covered in blood. Norbert had a nosebleed, too.
They went back into the commissary. There was a huge hole in the wall
where the window used to be. The mushroom cloud had become a haze that
covered most of the horizon. Tables, chairs, food and trays were strewn all
over the room. People began to pick themselves up painfully. Nobody seemed
seriously hurt. Norbert was mumbling something they couldn't hear. "What?"
He turned to them with haunted eyes. "It couldn't be a coincidence. The
mountain vanished at the exact same time the experiment blew up."
"What are you talking about?"
Norbert pointed out the window shakily. "We did that."
Frank and Jean sat huddled together silently on the bottom step of the
stairway in the lab, still trying to accept what they saw. The process was
constantly interrupted by noises from the upper level. Finally there was a
grunt and a loud crash followed by a curse of appropriate foulness. Annoyed,
Frank called up, "What the hell are you doing?"
Norbert appeared at the top of the stair, sucking his hand. "Dismantling
"You have got to be kidding!" he replied, aghast. "If somebody else got
ahold of this thing-"
"Dammit, Norbert," Frank snarled, "We have no proof that that mess is our
fault or the experiment caused it! Just lay off!"
Norbert came down and sat beside him. He placed a hand on Frank's shoulder
and said quietly, "Do you really believe that? Or are you just afraid I'm
right?" He turned and glared Norbert. Norbert suddenly felt a little afraid.
After all, Frank was about twice his size and in a very unstable mood at the
moment as well. But this was important. He had to make him see. "Just think
for a minute. Reach down deep inside and tell me what you feel. What I think
we all feel."
Frank was still for a long moment. When he turned to Norbert, his eyes
were full of fear. "I did feel it. Right when it happened. My first view of
that cloud out there gave me a feeling of deja vu. But that's impossible. You
can't know something before you find out about it."
"Mountains don't vanish into thin air, too."
"My God," He whispered, "What have we done?"
Jean finaly spoke up, having heard enough. "You're both crazy! I'd expect
that sort of thing from you and your comic-book mentality, Norbert, but you
should know better, Frank!" She got up and backed away from them like they
were mad. "Thousands must have died from that! And you're saying we killed
them! I will not take responsibility for that!" Frank got up and went to her
but she kept backing out of his reach. "Don't you realize what you're saying?
We disintegrated a mountain? A whole mountain? That kind of power lies only
in the hands of God himself! All those people..." With a muffled sob she
bolted through the door.
Frank stood there, staring out the door. Norbert finally spoke. "She feels
it, too. It was like a telepathic link between the four of us and the
machine. We knew what it had done, only we're just now realizing it. I think
that scares her more than anything else. You'd better go to her."
Frank glared at him. "You're the one who stirred her up! This is a rotten
time to go around spouting a lot of psuedoscientific bullshit! And I don't
need YOU to tell me what to do!"
Norbert watched him stomp out the door angrily. He was just edgy. They
were all edgy. They had created a device of unbelievable destructive power.
Perhaps infinite. Only a madman wouldn't be bothered by that. Norbert was
amazed at how easily he accepted the whole situation. The others would come
around in time.
His thoughts were interrupted by a loud snap from the front of the lab.
Doug had finally managed to pull the cube from its mount, which he had been
trying to do all this time. He brought it over to Norbert, and asked in a
childish, almost pleading voice, "Mine?"
Norbert looked at the cube. It appeared unharmed but the power surge had
surely fried the imbedded circuits. It was nothing more than a paperweight
now. Handing it back, he said, "Sure, why not?"
Doug's face lit up and he handled the cube like it might break at ny
second. Norbert envied him his ignorance of the situation. The guy might have
only half a brain but at times like this it was an advantage. He didn't have
to deal with it at all. Not that he really had anything to do with it anyway.
He was just a volunteer. Blameless.
But one thing kept sticking in his mind. Like Jean said, power like that
only rested in God's hands.
Jean sat up slowly, blinking the sleep out of her eyes. The clock read
7:51. She clicked off the alarm. Quietly she got out of the bed, trying to
disturb Frank's sleep as little as possible. Disdaining a robe, she padded
out into the front room naked.
She opened the curtain on the big floor-to-ceiling picture window, letting
the sun flood the room. She gazed out over the magnificent view of Portland
from his home high up Rocky Butte. The sun hung over the west hills. She
stood there for a long moment, letting the warming rays bathe over her body.
The window was made of one-way glass, so she wasn't giving anybody a free
show. Still, the feeling of exhibitionism was delicious, maybe a little
tittilating, made all the more so by the fact that nobody could really see
her. Something was bothering her, but she couldn't put a finger on it.
Things had pretty much settled in the month since Mt. Hood had
dissappeared. The estimated death toll had been around twelve thousand, and
everybody was thankful it hadn't been much higher. One death, though, had hit
very close to home. The police had found Roy's truck on the 205 bridge with a
wrecked transmission. Coast guard boats had found him floating face down
several miles downriver. Apparently he had been walking when the shockwave
from the mountain's dissappearance had blown him off the bridge like a bug.
Jean felt a little tug in her throat when she thought of it. Despite his
irresponsibility, they had all liked him.
Except for Frank, she didn't see too much of the others these days.
Norbert was working on some kind of new power source that NASA had contracted
Mechtronix to develop for their proposed space station. Doug was back at his
job washing dishes for a diner somewhere on Sandy Blvd. Frank was working on
a design for a new high-speed CPU that could give a microcomputer speed to
rival a Cray. If it worked out, he could kiss off Mechtronix and their slave
wages and open his own business. Hell, in a year he could probably buy them
out. Jean herself had been offered a teaching position at PSU and she was
considering taking it. Somehow the thought of staying around Mech seemed
She had been spending more nights here than at her own home lately. Not
surprising. Since the Mt. Hood incident she had a definite aversion to being
alone. Alone, the ghosts of the dead would haunt her sleep. Frank understood
this feeling very well, and offered to put her up in his guest room. She
hadn't intended to wind up in his bed, but somehow she had anyway. He was
strong, sensitive, intelligent, fun to be around, she couldn't name all of it
but she had been attracted to him almost from the beginning. Not to mention
he was a great lay. She smiled cotentedly at the memory of the previous
But ghosts haunted his sleep, too. Ghosts of a different kind, she
thought. At night she would sometimes be awakened by his thrashing and
moaning. What little she could make out of his words had something to do with
guns and men in ski masks. In the daytime he would pass it off as just a
nightmare and say nothing more. But high on his left bicep was a scar from a
bullet graze. She dropped the subject, hoping eventually he would relent and
talk about it. Whatever it was, it must have been terrible. And the worst
scars were where nobody could see them.
She stretched her arms over her head, groaning luxuriously. The sun felt
wonderful. Something was still bothering her, though. How could anything be
wrong on a beautiful morning like this? The birds were singing outside, there
wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the sun hung like a spotlight in the west...
She glanced sharply over at the wall clock. A little after eight. And the
sun was just a little over the west hills. It was unreal but so natural that
she froze for a second, her heart pounding rapidly. Finally the spell broke
and she ran to the bedroom screaming for Frank.
Nobody else found anything strange about a western sunrise, or at least
that was the impression the news gave. They flipped through all the channels
back and forth for two hours, finally settling on CNN Headline news. They had
features on war, murder, political corruption, Halley's Comet--but nothing
about the sunrise. It was as if things had always been this way. An
oppressive feeling of unreality settled down over the both of them. Maybe
they were going crazy?
There was a knock at the door. Frank went over to answer it. It was
Norbert. "Hi." He peeked around Frank, "Hi, Jean." He opened his mouth to say
something else and the stopped with a puzzled look on his face. "What is
this, a nudist convention?"
They both looked down at themselves and remembered that neither had
thought to throw anything on in the excitement. Jean yelped and ducked into
the bedroom. Frank followed her close behind (so to speak). He was more
uncomfortable than she was, because he knew that Norbert was AC/DC. From the
front door, Norbert called out loudly, "I'm glad to hear it ain't. I've had
my fill of strangeness for one day and it's not even lunch yet."
Jean came out tying the sash on her robe. "You noticed it too. The
sunrise, I mean."
"Yep," Norbert replied, "Me and no one else. Took me an hour before I
thought to ask you people."
Frank came out, fully dressed and wearing a jacket. He ignored the strange
look Jean gave him. "We're in big trouble, you know. The whole world is."
"Tell me about it. I thought it began and ended with Mt. Hood. Now I don't
know what to think."
Jean looked at them both, confused. "What are you talking about?"
Norbert turned to her. "From the facts, I can only extrapolate that we
have undermined the fabric of reality with our little experiment. I've been
watching carefully and there's been some subtle changes around here along
with the obvious ones. And they're multiplying at an unpredictable rate."
"We've screwed up the universe."
"-and there you have it, the final signing of the Mutual Non-Agression
Pact by the United States and the Soviet Union. Plans call for the immediate
verifiable disarmament of the nuclear arsenals of both cities within the next
six months. Optimism runs high in both Washington and Moscow that total
disarmament will be completed ahead of schedule-"
"-total withdrawal of all soviet troops from East Germany and
Czechoslovakia completes the first phase of the U.S.S.R.'s plan to return all
its satellite countries to their original status as independant states.
Millions of dollars of aid are being sent to all former communist dominated
"-the economy has improved to the point where there are actually more jobs
than people currently able to work in the U.S.-"
"P-147 has been approved by the FDA for testing in several hospitals
around the country. Researchers are ethiusiastic that P-147 will prove to the
the long-sought panacea, capable of curing all known diseases without side
Frank threw the remote control down on the couch. Jean picked it up and
continued flipping through the channels, stopping on every chanel that showed
the news in one form or other. Hell, the news was more interesting than
anything else on TV.
Things were getting out of control.
The world had changed almost beyond recognition in the three weeks since
Jean first saw the sun rise in the west. War, poverty, hunger, disease were
all but nonexistant by now. Earth was well on its way to becoming a true
utopia, which was fine except... would it stop there? And Frank was slowly
becoming convinced of one thing: These changes were not as random as they
first seemed. Somebody was controlling them.
He sat back down and rubbed his eyes tiredly. God, if only he could wake
up! the whole world was being pulled out from under him like a rug and as far
as he could tell, only himself, Norbert and Jean realized that anything was
amiss. Every one else accepted the changes that faced them every morning when
they woke up as if things had ben that way all their lives. He put an arm
around Jean protectively. His worst nightmare was that he would wake up one
morning and find that she was gone, indeed had never existed anywhere but in
his mind. As a consequencem, Frank slept even less well than usual these
Jean had stoped on another channel showing the news. Something in the
broadcast dragged Frank from his dark contemplations.
"-the madman known to the public only as Nom De Guerre was shot to death
today in an attack on novelist J. D. Silverman. De Guerre has attempted to
kill Mr Silverman three times in the past five years. De Guerre reportedly
stepped out of an alleyway and fired a single .45 caliber slug which struck
Silverman directly in the skull but miraculously ricocheted off. Silverman
drew a concealed .38 derringer and shot De Guerre twice in the chest, killing
him instantly. Silverman was reported in satisfactory condition at Dammisch
hospital. At the hospital he stated, quote: 'People always said I was
hard-headed.' End quote. Police are withholding De Guerre's true identity
pending notification of his family-"
Jean grunted, "Too bad. I wish De Guerre had nailed that jerk. His novels
are the most pretentious, obnoxious crap I have ever-"
Frank tuned her out, thinking. He loved her dearly but admittedly her
taste in literature was atrocious. But who did he know that was a Silverman
fan? Most people he knew either didn't care how the De Guerre/Silverman
conflict (a twelve-year war, first verbal, then physical, and not all of the
attacks had come from Mr. De Guerre) or actively rooted for De Guerre.
Silverman was a third-rate hack novelist whose only real claim to fame was a
highly publicised and probably staged feud with an anonymous madman. But
someone he knew was a complete Silverman fanatic, raving for days on end
whenever Silverman produced another novel. Probably the person who was
pulling the strings of creation was a Silverman fan. It was the only
explanation for his miraculous survival. But who? Someone he had seen
recently, he was sure. And someone connected with the experiment...
A cold chill of realization ran through his guts. It all made sense. The
one man they hadn't heard from, the man on whom the whole experiment had
hinged. Somehow, he had mannaged to gain control of some horrible power, and
was now using it to shape the world in his image. His face paste-white, he
turned to Jean and shakily began, "Honey, I think I know-"
There was a sudden, panicked hammering at the door. Shocked, they both
froze and stared for a long moment. Frank finally got up and opened the door.
Norbert stumbled in, headfirst. He grabbed Frank by the shirt and tried to
gasp something out. Frank could se in his eyes that this was a man pushed
almost to the edge of sanity by something. He grabbed Norbert's shoulders and
shook him. "Get ahold of yourself, man! What's the matter?"
Norbert tried once more to speak, but only a faint wheeze came out.
Finally, all the panic drained out of him at once as he collapsed in Frank's
arms in a dead faint.
With a shaky hand Norbert lifted the glass to his lips. The booze slipped
down his throat and burned queasily in his stomach. For a moment he felt as
though the stuff might make a return appearance, but finally his insides quit
churning and he felt himself begin to relax. Still shivering, he pulled the
blanket tighter around him. Frank and Jean were watching him anxiously, but
they would not press for information. Considering his current emotional
state, that might not be wise.
When he spoke, his voice was almost a whisper, "I... gave it to him. Just
gave it to him. I didn't know. The power of that thing..." He lapsed into
silence, staring into infinity.
Christ, Jean thought, he's slipping in and out of shock. What happened?
After a long moment his eyes refocused and he seemed to become aware of
the real world again. Almost unwillingly, the story came out.
The resturant had been crowded. it took Norbert almost an hour to get a
table for himself and his date, a redhead from the Mechtronix accounting
staff. It had taken three weeks of badgering for her to consent to just
dinner. Although it was true that Norbert went for men as well as women, he
much preferred women (especialy when they were built like his current date).
His bisexuality extended from a surprisingly pleasant experience in college.
Besides, as he often said, "Being a practising bisexual automatically doubles
my chances of getting a date on Saturday night."
But tonight he was 100% hetero and glad of it. From the rumors he had been
hearing about this particular lady, he calculated a 79.35% chance of getting
laid tonight. As dinner progressed and the small talk got less small he
continually reevaluated his chances upward.
Somewhere towards the end of the main course he was interrupted by
silence. Dead silence. All the noise, clatter and gab had suddenly been cut
off as if with a knife. Slowly he turned around and was presented by an
Every human being in the room had been frozen in place like statues. What
had once been a noisy restaurant suddenly became a wax museum. He turned back
to his date to find that she, too, had been frozen.
He almost jumped out of his chair at the sound of footsteps behind. Two
people were wending their way through the inanimate crowd. As soon as they
got close enough he gasped in recognition. "Doug!"
Doug jumped and spun around, his expression a mixture of fear and hate but
when he saw Norbert his face split into a wide grin. "Norbert! Gee, I'm glad
to see you. How are you doin'?"
Ignoring pleasantries, Norbert jumped up. "You just came in? Are the
people outside like this or is it just the resturant?"
"Oh, no." Doug replied. "It's just in here. The place was too darn noisy
so I thought I'd fix it for a while. When me and Alice leave it'll be back to
What the hell was he talking about? "You're saying you did this? How?"
Doug's grin faded ever so slightly, tinged with the emotions his face had
betrayed earlier. "It's a secret. But I'm being rude. You ain't met Alice,
The woman stepped forward woodenly and extended a hand. "Hello, Norbert."
It took Norbert another long moment to realize where he had seen her
before. A gold statuette, several weeks ago...
She stepped back and Doug leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially,
"I know what you're thinkin', and you're right. I brought her back. The
machine did, anyway. Well, almost all of her." Before Norbert's horrified
eyes, she changed. Instead of a beautiful woan, he saw a rotting, animated
corpse. Mouldering flesh half-clung to yellow bone. Her skull was bare in
places and covered by blackened shriveled skin in others. Bugs, worms, and
unspeakable things crawled all over her. From lidless sockets tortured eyes
stared as if from the blackest pit of hell itself. The eyes were the worst,
pleading silently for somebody, anybody to rescue her from her torment.
Norbert made a gurgling noise and half-turned as he vomited, splattering an
inanimate couple at the next table. As he held his stomach and gagged, Doug
continued as if nothing had happened. "She has to pay, you see. Pay for
walking out on me. Pay for jumping in the sack with that damned ski-bum. When
she's paid enough, maybe I'll fix her up right. We'll see."
But he was talking to himself by now, for Norbert had fainted.
Frank was silent for a long moment. Finally, he said, "I'd already guessed
most of it. Somehow our experiment created some sort of... link between the
human mind and reality. A machine to manipulate reality, to change it. To do
"A God machine." Jean whispered.
"And I gave it to Doug." Groaned Norbert. "The interface. He thought it
was 'pretty', I guess, and wanted it. I saw no harm. That cube was the heart
of the whole experiment, the only part that didn't blow up with the rest of
the equipment. The... power... whatever has to reside in it." He put his face
in his hands and shuddered violently. When he looked up again his face was
pale, ghostly. "We really did it, didn't we?" he whispered.
Jean moved over to comfort him. Frank ignored them both, lost in his own
thoughts. "How is it possible? That kind of power doesn't exist."
Jean looked over, "Obviously it does. I think maybe instead of creating a
link between mind and reality we managed to awaken one of the hidden
potentials of the mind itself. The mind doesn't control the power to change
reality, the mind changes reality."
Frank snorted. "Come on! Are you trying to tell me that a couple pounds of
mildly electrified grey tissue has the power to change the world with a
thought? That's stretching credibility a bit. That's the stuff you see in
science fiction stories. Bad ones."
She turned to face him, hands on hips. "Well, it just so happens that Dr.
John Kilgaren down at the University conducted some experiments to determine
the power of concious thought if converted to physical terms. The theoretical
results were spectacular, to say the-"
Frank interrupted her with a howl of sarcastic laughter. "Kilgaren! Wasn't
he th one who managed to discredit himself when he was caught stark naked,
running down the football field and flapping his arms, trying to fly? I think
he claimed he was testing the aerodynamics of the human body. A real
scientist if ever I heard of... of..." He was gasping for breath, unable to
Jean's furious comeback was interrupted by Norbert. "I'm starting to
believe you two would debate the existance of gravity while a building is
falling in on you. I mean at this point, who gives a f-" He had to stop for a
moment and collect himself before continuing. "Who cares HOW? He's got the
power, and now we have to get it away from him."
He had their attention, so he continued. "While you were arguing over
nothing, I was going over our options. They're limited, to say the least. In
fact, I only see one chance. Doug's our friend, after all. He has no reason
to hate or be suspicious of us. We always treated him like one of the guys,
something damn few people in his life have done. He likes us. Perhaps, if we
were to talk to him, show him what he is doing, he might be open to reason."
Jean interrupted in an uncertain tone, "You mean, he might give it up just
because we ask him? And what if he doesn't want to? What if he gets angry at
Norbert smiled halfheartedly. "Well... It's been nice knowing you..."
Outside they piled into Norbert's station wagon. Norbert relinquished the
wheel to Frank, claiming that he was still too shakey to drive safely. In
fact, he commented that it was a miracle he had arrived in one piece, as he
had no memory of driving there at all.
They followed the road that wound around the butte. Soon they were on the
streets below. Soon after that, they were lost.
"I don't believe this!" Frank roared, as he stopped at the fourth
seven-way intersection in the last fifteen minutes. "What the hell's happened
to the roads? A &'%$% boy scout couldn't untangle this mess!"
"I think Dougie's been having some fun." Norbert sighed.
"We're going in circles." Jean announced, pointing out Frank's window. "I
recognize that house."
"Me too." Frank replied. "Only the blue ranch-style next to it used to be
a two story duplex."
"Shit." groaned Norbert, as he sank from sight in the back seat.
"Dammit!" Frank slammed his palm into the wheel. "We'll never get there at
Norbert's voice floated up from somewhere in the back. "Wish this thing
"Sure." Frank said sarcastically. "I'll just pull back on the wheel, gain
The wheel suddenly titled towards him, the bottom slamming into his
crotch. He didn't have time to even feel the pain, though, before his ears
were filled with a bone-rattling roar. The roar even drowned out the screams
of the others, as they were all pressed into their seats by approximately
three gravities of accelleration. The most amazing thing, though, was the
fact that the view of the intersection in front of them had been replaced by
blue sky and clouds, the latter of which were approaching at a respectible
rate. Frank turned his head painfully and saw the horizon out his side
window, tilted ninety degrees vertically, and far, far below.
It finally occurred to him to let his foot off the accellerator. As he
did, the pressure lessened considerably. Jean finally managed to gasp out,
"Turn it around, before you put us in orbit!!"
Frank confusedly scanned the dashboard, which had suddenly become crowded
with strange dials, blinking lights, and switches. he recognized an
altimeter, but couldn't read it. To him, it read twelve minutes after 4000,
and getting later by the second. The other dials were simply going nuts.
The wheel was still pressing painfully into Frank's lap so he pushed it
up. Everbody's stomaches suddely shot up their throats as their climb became
a power dive. Were it not for the accelleration harnesses holding them to
their seats they would have been splattered against the roof of the cab. Blue
sky was replaced by green ground, approaching at terrifying speed. Jean was
trying hard not to scream and Norbert silently thanked God that he had
already emptied his stomach earlier.
The wheel twisted in Frank's hands like a live snake. He yelped and almost
let go before it became solid again. It had assumed the shape of a control
yoke, as one might find in a commercial jet. He had time to think about
little besides the fact that they were about to have a close encounter with
with very hard ground. He pulled back on the yoke and twisted. The horizon
came up and tilted crazily. Over the noise, Jean screamed, "Quit screwing
around and land!"
"HOW!?" Frank yelled.
"The autopilot!" yelled Norbert, pointing between them to a flashing
button in the middle of the dash. Holding back about three million questions,
Frank thumbed the button. The yoke suddenly froze in his hands as control of
the ship was taken from him.
Moments later, a magnificent white delta-winged skycraft gently settled
vertically in an abandoned field. A door mounted flush in the side slowly
swung up, disgorging three very disheveled figures. They staggered away from
the ship, two leaning on each other for support, the third just falling flat
on his face.
Norbert had gotten back up on his knees by the time the others reached
him. He stared at the skycraft. "My wagon. My beautiful brand new-" he su
ddenly stopped as he realized what he was staring at. He stared so long that
Frank had to fi nally ask, "What?"
Norbert turned to him and said, "I've wanted one of those since I was a
Frank threw his arms up in exasperation as Jean said, "Why on earth did
Doug do this?"
Norbert laughed, "He didn't. I did. Or we did." That got their attention.
"We were in control of this transformation. Just like Mount Hood. It can't be
a coincidence We must have some control of the machine, too."
"It makes sense." Frank murmured, "We were all involved in the experiment.
And... something... went through all four of us when it blew up. Doug was the
nexus of the experiment, so he gained primary control..."
Jean finished, "But since we were all involved, we all gained some degree
of control over the machine. But our control must be very weak. It took all
three of us together to do anything."
Norbert beamed at them. "I knew you'd figure it out eventually. I've an
idea that the three of us together might be as powerful as Doug himself.
Maybe we can wrest control of the machine away from him-"
"Not from here." Frank warned. "If he senses us trying, he'll fight, and
then who knows what'll happen? I don't want to find out. We should confront
him face to face, distract him somehow. Then try."
"Let's go, then!"
They got back into the airship. Frank was about to settle into the pilot's
seat when Norbert put a firm hand on his arm. "No offense," he said, "but I
think I should drive..."
He reclined back from the table, well sated, and belched contentedly. A
fine meal. He folded his arms over his stomach and noted, not for the first
time, that he was getting fatter. The one thing he could not make the cube
effect was his body or his mind. No matter. He waved a hand and the huge
oaken table vanished in a puff of mist that rapidly dissipated into the
enormous, torchlit chamber. The wave or the mist was not neccesary, of
course, but he enjoyed the dramatic gesture all the same. A god could indulge
himself a little, if he wanted to.
Douglas Alvin Everett, A.K.A. The Ruler Of The Universe, could allow
himself all the indulgences he wished. Who would say him nay? Certainly not
the Traitor, on her hands and knees busily scrubbing a corner of the chamber
that redirtied itself constantly. Not the insignificant ants who populated
this world that he currently chose to reside upon. Not even the gods of myth
and religion, whom he met briefly and even conversed with before banishing
them forever from this existance. No, no one could threaten him now.
Almost no one.
Yes, he had felt them the instant they utilized the power. He watched
amusedly as they tore through the skies in a craft of their own creation. He
cursed as they correctly deduced the nature of the power, and that they could
take it away from him if they tried. They thought to catch him by surprise. A
pity. He had liked them so, even thought of them as friends. Now they would
have to be eliminated before they became a danger.
The plane slowly settled on Doug's front lawn. The three stepped out,
still staring. Under his breath, Norbert mumbled, "He has GOT to be
In place of Douglas's house there stood a medeval castle, constructed of
solid silver. Including the towers, it rose a good quarter mile above the
ground. As they walked closer, they saw that the silver blocks making up the
walls had been mortered with gold. All in all, a very interesting effect.
Moments later thay came to the front door, which, of course, was a
drawbridge, some sixty feet tall. They stepped back as it was slowly,
silently lowered to the ground. Norbert swallowed hard and Frank and Jean
held hands tightly as they entered the black portal before them.
Actually, it wasn't all that black as their eyes recovered from the glare
off the outside walls. Torches set high in the walls provided more than
adeqeute illumination. They came to a great oaken door which opened before
Doug gazed down upon them benevolently from the center of the great,
unfurnished chamber. They had to look up to meet his eyes, as he was sitting
crosslegged about four feet above the floor. Over his head, shining with an
awful green light, was the cube. Off in a corner was a stooped figure
scrubbing the floor. Frank stared at the figure hard, then turned away
queasily once he figured out what he was looking at. Swallowing hard, he
tried to keep his attention on Doug. "Greetings. How-how are you doing?"
With an expansive wave of his hand, he said, "How do you think?"
Norbert was ignoring all this. His total attention was focused on the
cube. So close, he could almost feel it in his mind, like a physical object.
If he could just touch it with his thoughts...
Frank had seemed to run out of things to say, so Jean stepped in.
"Douglas, you've got to stop it."
Doug looked at her, genuinely confused. "Stop what?"
"Using the machine. You're endangering all of existance!" she implored.
"I am not. I haven't hurt anybody." But his smug certainty was tinged with
just a trace of doubt.
Frank interrupted. "Maybe you haven't meant to, but things are going crazy
outside. The human mind isn't meant to be in control of this much power!
There's far too many variables for anyone to handle. Your every subconcious
thought is being brought to life out there. You have to stop before you
"NO!" A halo of red fire encircled the chamber for a second until he
calmed down. "I will not give it up! All my life, I been a nobody to be
laughed at. I never had the brains to get very far in this world. But thanks
to you guys, I can change the world into whatever I like. I don't need to be
as smart as everyone else, now. Because of what you done for me, I'm gonna
let you go if you walk out of here right now. Elsewise, I'm gonna have to do
something about you..."
They all felt it simultaneously. Norbert, who had been focusing his
attention on the cube for the last several moments, finally succeeded in
making contact. A huge green flare washed the room like a tiny nova,
accompanied by Doug's scream of outrage. His control was much stronger,
though, and the cube rejected Norbert. A wave of pure psychic power swept the
room, knocking everybody flat.
Frank sat up, rubbing his eyes as if that would help his headache. When he
saw what was going on, he wished he'd stayed unconcious.
The cube shone like a six sided arc lamp, flooding the whole chamber with
its hellish glow. It pulsed, as if in time to an invisible heart. Doug was
nowhere to be seen, but his voice filled the room.
"Traitors! You tried to trick me! You tried to take the cube away!"
"I didn't-" he started to protest, than looked over at Norbert, who was
still unconcious. He *had* been awfully quiet, and it didn't take much to put
two and two together. "Oh, no..."
"I can't let you go. I can't trust you. I see that now. I'll have to kill
you. But I can't bring myself to do it. Maybe I won't have to. Maybe I can
get you to do the job for me..."
There was another burst of light that hammered off the stone walls and
then it was dark again. Doug looked around the room, which was now empty
except for himself and his slave. Then he sat down with a heavy sigh, as if
he had just lost his best friend in the world...
The first thing Frank noticed after conciousness returned was that he was
hot. Suffocating, in fact. The second was that he was cramped. He ws curled
in a fetal position, enclosed in something soft. His head was turned to one
side, so there was air to breathe. The third thing was that the air he was
breathing stank. It smelled of many things. Urine and mildew, sweat, shit,
and a queasy, gassy smell underlining it all. Dawning realization and slow
horror drove a blunt spear deep into his guts. He did not want to open his
eyes, but he did. Yellow. Something yellow, lit by a light source somewhere
above him. Covering his face, covering his whole body, but lightly, like
cloth. He squeezed his eyes shut again. No! It wasn't fair! He'd escaped!
It... Wasn't... Fair!
Almost twelve years ago, on December 18, 1980, twenty-one armed gunmen
took over a well-known hotel near the Portland airport. Their leader issued
demands over the phone to the mayor's office. One billion dollars and a 747
to take them out of the country. Against this they held 57 people hostage,
mostly night shift workers. Police quickly surrounded the building, and the
On the fifth day, negotiations broke down and the gunmen began throwing
bodies out the door. One every six hours. By eleven AM, a coroner's report
was recieved by the mayor revealing the fact that the four victims thrown out
had been dead at least five days. Acting on a strong hunch, the chief of
police ordered the SWAT teams in, and damn the hostages. That decision
ultimately cost him his career, but the siege was ended.
Twelve officers and all twenty-one gunmen were killed in the battle that
followed. When the smoke cleared, a scene of horror was revealed.
The Chief's hunch had been correct. All fifty-seven hostages had been
herded into a laundry room and then executed by submachine gun. There was
evidence that the killers had gone among the bodies and used knives to finish
the job the guns had started. However, there had been one survivor. A young
man had had the presence of mind to hide by jumping into a laundry cart and
pulling dirty sheets over him. Six days he had remained in that cart, in his
own filth and sweat, breathing he stench produced by almost five dozen
decaying corpses in that enclosed room, afraid to move even one inch for fear
of being discovered. He had been barely able to walk as he was led out of the
Christmas, 1980 wasn't a very happy one for the friends and relatives of
sixty-eight people. And one survivor.
Six years of intense outpatient therapy slowly healed the more obvious
scars on this young man's psyche. He eventualy learned to deal with the
guilt, irrational though it was, of not being able to save his friends. But
the nighmares continued. It was a rare night that he did not wake up in a
cold sweat, feeling as if he were suffocating. Even after twelve years the
ghosts of the massacre continued to haunt his dreams, and they probably would
until he died. And the dreams were always the same. One day he would wake up
curled in a ball in that same laundry cart, covered by a stinking yellow
blanket, to the smell of slowly rotting meat...
Thanks to Douglas Ebert, all of Frank Lindstrom's nightmares were finally
He lay there for God (or Doug, they were pretty much the same thing these
days) only knew how long. Fear had him frozen, unable to move at all. If he
could keep hidden, perhaps he could escape again. He'd done it before...
All the strength left him as he heard a door slam. A loud, rough voice
said, "I told ya he's in here somewhere. Look in everything, especially the
That was it. Somehow, they knew. probably Doug's doing, just like
everything else. Tired resignation swept over him, as he waited to be found.
But they didn't find him right away. He could hear them stumbling
everywhere else in the room. Frank supposed this was some attempt at mental
torture, to make things unbearable before finishing him. That sounded like
something Doug would do. It might have worked, except...
It wasn't fear he felt. It was anger. Twelve years of frustration at the
atrocity that had crippled his life for so long. And on top of that was the
growing rage he felt at Doug, for tearing open wounds that should never have
been touched again. Doug had hit all the right buttons, but they no longer
did what he thought they would.
With a scream of outrage, he jumped up, tearing the blanket aside. He saw
two men, both frozen in astonishment, mouths agape. Immediately he jumped
from the cart onto the nearest one.
Still stunned, the man did not move. Frank landed on top of him with a
elbow in his solar plexus. The breath whooshed out of him and he lost all
interest in his UZI, which Frank grabbed.
The second man was just bringing his weapon up as Frank swung around. The
UZI bucked and roared, spitting fire from its muzzle. The man jerked about
like a marionette wih its strings fouled as blood sprayed the tiles behind
him. The tiles themselves exploded as the slugs struck them. Frank stopped
firing and the man fell to the floor, twitching.
He felt movement under him. The guy he had jumped on had regained some of
his wind and was struggling to get up. Frank placed the muzzle under the
guy's chin and pulled the trigger. Brains and bone and blood exploded
everywhere, splattering him.
He stood up, covered with blood and grey tissue, grinning like a madman.
He hefted the smoking submachine gun and headed for the door. Maybe, just
maybe he could take them all!
He surprised three more out in the hall. Like the others before them, they
froze for a fraction of a second, probably at his appearance. He jerked the
trigger and fanned the muzzle across the corridor as stomach height. The
bullets punched amazingly large holes in the walls. Blood sprayed from the
three in a red mist as they went down. He howled victory as he jumped over
the bodies, sprinting down the hall. Death filled his thoughts, and he
intended to bring it to everyone in the building in revenge for his friends.
And for Jean and Norbert, wherever they may be.
He turned a corner and was blinded by a dozen flashbulbs as a familiar
stuttering roar pounded his ears. his torso was instant agony as he flew
backwards, slamming into a wall. He slid down into a slouched sitting
position as he saw that a man in front of him with another UZI, still smoking
from the barrel. He looked down and saw no less than six holes in his chest
and stomach, all jetting blood. He could even see his insides working, what
was left of them. Blackness began to cloud his vision as the man kneeled in
front of him. He wore a grin and Frank was horrified to see that it was Doug.
He had come to do the job himself. Frank tried to spit something out, a final
curse, but blood only bubbled from between his lips.
Doug placed the muzzle against Frank's nose and the last thing he saw was
a flash that filled the world before everything exploded.
Jean opened her eyes and stretched luxuriously on the couch. A shaft of
warm afternoon sunlight spilled across her body from the picture window,
counteracting the chill that ran through her. What a nightmare. She picked up
the book that was resting on the coffee table, a Stephen King novel. She
stared at it for a long second and put it back down, shaking her head slowly.
Why did she read such trash? It gave her such awful nightmares. The dream
itself had been all but forgotten, torn to etherial wisps upon her awakening,
but a sense of... wrongness remained. It was as if she had fallen asleep into
a pleasant dream, and would soon reawaken to the nightmare.
Despite the warming solar rays, she shivered again.
Suddenly the voice of her mother floated from another room, wholesome and
reassuring in her disorientation. "Jean, dear, would you do me a favor and go
downstairs to get the laundry? I think the dryer's done."
"Sure, mom." She got up and walked into the kitchen. Everything was just
as she remembered it (but why shouldn't it be? The last time she had been in
here was to make a sandwich before falling asleep on the couch. Right?). The
wrongness returned, for just a second, and then left again. She brushed it
off as a lingering afteraffect of her nightmare and turned to open the cellar
Diffuse light from the curtained window in the backyard door kept the
steps well lit on the first landing. The basement itelf was dark, though. She
flicked the lightswitch above the bannister but the darkness remained. For a
second she debated getting a flashlight but what the heck, she could see well
Slowly, cautiously, she decended down the longer flight of steps that led
into the darkness. Something in the back of her head screamed for her to turn
back now, before it was too late.
At the bottom, she began walking cautiously, half-feeling her way towards
the washer. The huge, grey-black bulk of the oil furnace was off to her
right. She looked at it for a long second and shivered. Its squat,
cylindrical shape, and the five ventpipes that ran from its cylindrical to to
the ceiling at strange angles had always looked to her like some huge steel
heart. In the half light the illusion was enhanced considerably. Cautiously,
she skirted around it, her own heart pounding in her chest. Suddenly the
furnace hissed and then boomed softly to life, scaring the hell out of her.
Flickering light floated out of the four holes in the little door in the
front. She had more than half expected the sides to crumple inward, then
bulge out, beating with a slow, horrible rhythem, the heart of the house.
Damn! she cursed herself. What's wrong with you? You're not five years old
anymore! Things like that just don't happen in the real world.
After chewing herself out, she felt better but still shaky. Something was
wrong, but she just couldn't put her finger on it. She was suddenly ten times
as anxious to finish her task and get back up into the sunlight where
everything was all right again.
Now the side-by-side white boxes of the washer and dryer were before her,
barely visible in the dim light. She reached down to the front of the one on
the right to open the door. On the way her hand plunged into something that
felt like cloth but it tore too easily. Yeeeuuuccchhh! She jerked her hand
back, brushing the thick cobweb off. The size of it amazed her, now that she
saw it. It ran from the floor to one corner on the front, a triangle of solid
silver-grey. How could a spider build something this big in the hour or so
since her mother had put the wash in? She looked towards the back of the
basement and saw that there were similar webs strung all over the place back
there. It was too thick to even see the far wall. It looked like the inside
of a caterpillar nest. She felt her sandwich churn sickly in her stomach as
she slowly backed away.
Something skittered up her arm.
She screamed and slapped her shoulder. She came away with something in her
hand that writhed between her forefinger and thumb. Tiny legs tickled her
thumb and she threw the spider down, but not before feeling a hot, horrible
sting right in the center of the pad. It hurt like fire, and she rubbed it
against her sweater as she almost ran back to the stairs.
But the stairs weren't there anymore.
Dumbfounded, she stared at the door, a lighted rectangle of hope an
safety, four feet above her head. Who took the stairs? The wrongness
returned, shaking her right to the core. This time it didn't go away, and
She had walked into Doug's trap. The information, and the returning
memories that accompanied it, did her no good, undoubtedly as intended.
Suddenly she heard a noise behind her.
It was a steady, soft rustle, for a second reminding her of ocean waves on
the shore in the distance. Not wanting to, she turned slowly around.
A black tidal wave was rising in the far end of the basement. It crested
and rushed towards her with terrifying speed.
She turned and jumped for the door, her fingernails striking and tearing
against the concrete one inch below the step. Something soft and heavy
slammed into her back before her feet hit the floor and she went down.
Spiders. Millions of them. They covered her entire body like a cocoon,
skittering, crawling... BITING!
Her clothes offered little protection as they were quickly chewed away,
followed by her skin. She held her eyes and mouth shut against an iron scream
as her chest began burning for want of air. The pain soon rose to spectacular
levels. Finally, quite against her will, her mouth opened, and the scream
escaped, quite lost on her arachnid adversaries.
While her mouth was open, a huge, hairy tarantula crawled in.
There was a gag of revulsion and her jaws involuntarily clicked shut. The
creature's abdomen burst between her teeth and her mouth was filled with a
hideously bland fluid, while the rest of the spider continued to writhe at
the back of her throat. Her stomach gave one great heave and her sandwich,
her milk, most of her breakfast, and maybe her stomach itself exploded from
her mouth in a violent spray, clearing it out, mostly. She shut it again
quickly before something else could come in. Her teeth crunched on a leg that
hadn't come out, but there was no way in God's green earth she's open up to
spit it out. The repulsive bile and acid that her stomach had sent up tasted
like ambrosia now. They were still biting her, and she could see blood
jetting out from a dozen places under the black mass that covered her. The
pain was actually fading, becoming more diffuse as the wounds multiplied and
her conciousness faded. With a silent sigh she relaxed, waiting for
unconciousness and death to take her.
A noise made her open her eyes. When she realized what she was looking at,
she opened her mouth, spiders be damned, and screamed, loud and long.
The furnace was moving.
The dirty sheet metal sides crumpled in and bulged out, again and again,
in a slow rhythem, accompanied by a loud, wet *thump-thump* that vibrated the
floor beneath her. Finally the metal bulged out, out, and shattered, sending
flying hooks of metal everywhere. Brilliant pain flared in her left eye
before it went dark forever. But she hardly noticed when she saw what was
beneath the metal.
A real heart, seven feet tall, covered with veins as thick as her forearm
pulsed before her. The spiders had vanished, and she looked down at herself
with her one good eye.
Most of her skin was gone, along with one leg. One breast was missing, she
could see white ribs where it should have been. She could see her intestines,
grey, ropy coils writhing in her abdomen. Incredibly, there was no pain, just
a kind of numbness. Her mind was as sharp as ever. It was as if she was
looking at someone else's body but she knew it was hers. Please, God, she
prayed silently, let me die.
And God answered: *Of course, my dear. I was just waiting for you to ask.*
He answered in Doug's voice.
The giant heart lurched towards her, the arteries ripping from the ceiling
with a sound like heavy wet cloth tearing. It rolled forward, closer and
closer, jetting black blood from the severed arteries. It landed on her and a
heavy weight pushed her grateful conciousness out of existance.
He was being shaken, drawn from the comforting blackness enveloping him.
He didn't want to wake up.
Wake up? He shouldn't be asleep. This was-
He jerked his head up, eyes open instantly. Painful cramps shot through
his back and stomach. That's what you get for falling asleep at a school
desk. He rubbed his eyes, grainy and tired. His mouth tasted like something
had crawled in it and died. It was as if he had been asleep a million years.
"I'm surprised at you, Norbert. You're one of the last students I'd have
expected to fall asleep during my class."
He looked up to see Mr. Horwell, his eleventh-grade english teacher
glaring down at him. Why should he be surprised? Everybody fell asleep during
Horwell'S classes. The man's teaching methods made english a four letter
word, spelled D-U-L-L.
"I-I'm sorry, sir. I... was up all last night cramming for my final
tomorrow. I don't want to fail."
"Cramming, hm? Up all night watching MTV would be more like it." (Screw
you too, Horseface, Norbert thought grimly.) "Well, you had better not
'study' so hard tonight. You don't get any extra points for dozing off during
a test. Now get out of here."
Norbert looked around. All the other desks were empty. The bell must have
rung. At least he was spared the embarassment of being chewed out in front of
the whole class. "Yes, sir." he replied, the 'sir' coming out as anything but
Outside, the hall was empty. How long had Horseface let him sleep, for
crying out loud? The buses were probably all gone, and now Norbert would have
to find some other way to get home. Nice guy, that Horwell. Norbert hoped he
would die of intestinal cancer, and very soon.
Cheered by the thought, Norbert began humming some ZZ Top and hiked down
the hallway towards the front door.
It was quiet. Too quiet. He passed not a single person in the halls. There
should have been a few stragglers, some teachers, maybe even a few jocks on
their way to practice. A school was never completely empty until the janitor
closed the place up for the night. This one apparently was, though. He
hustled a little faster towards the front, more than a little anxious to get
The syllables rang out harsh and loud, making him jump. He spun around
quickly. Three hulking young men in motorcycle jackets faced him halfway down
the hall. The largest among them was six-two, blond, a perfect representative
of the aryan stereotype. Except for the eyes, which were like flat painted
wood. No real emotion rested in those eyes,or their owner.
Despite himself, Norbert was shaking. "What-what do you want? Who are
A wooden grin split the young man's features, making him even more
menacing. he spoke like a bored sixth-grader reciting overmemoriezed lines
for the school play. "Call me Ace." He pulled something that looked like a
bar casually out of his back pocket. Dull gold, about six inches long, with a
double row of holes along it's side. He flicked his wrist with a fluid triple
motion. Clack-clack-clack. The bar had grown by five inches of razored steel.
He bounced the butterfly knife in his palm for a second, then pointed with
it. "Your throat or your balls."
Norbert's mouth suddenly went dry. His heart pounded in the base of his
"You ask too many questions, wimp. Make me mad enough and you'll lose
both. Now choose."
Norbert backed away, ready to run. His schoolbooks fell to the floor,
forgotten. Before he got two steps, though, he bumped into a wall. Or so he
though. Incredibly strong hands encircled his arms above the elbows, gripping
him cruelly hard, pinning him. He struggled to no avail.
Ace walked up to him with slow, mechanical deliberatness. He stopped
within arm's reach, still smiling that dead smile. "Should have chose when
you had the chance. Now I get to. Think I'll start with the guts." He drew
the knife back to strike.
The knife flashed across in a silvery sideways arc. Without thinking,
Norbert brought his hand up to block the blade. Too late he realized the
stroke had been a feint, meant to scare rather than hurt. The tip connected
with his hand.
He pulled back and stared at the wound. A gash ran sideways across the
back. It had pulled open at the sides, like a misplaced mouth. Muscles,
ligaments, and tendons had been severed revealing white bone scored by the
force of the slash. The skin around the wound was a dead white, already going
to purple. He stared at the inside of his hand for one grotesque second
before the wound filled with crimson, running over and spilling onto the
Norbert's head spun dizzily and he was sure he was going to puke. His hand
didn't hurt much--yet, but it refused to move. Through the roaring in his
ears harsh, contrived laughter floated.
When faced with imminent death (there was no doubt in his mind), soe men
will simply fold. Others however, will fight out of sheer desperation,
accepting hopeless odds over none at all. Norbert had always secretly thought
of himself as one of the former. So, apparently, did his tormentors. Then he
surprised them all.
His knee shot up into Ace's crotch. Whatever this thing before him was, it
had something in common with a real human male. Ace dropped the knife and
folded to the ground with a groan that sounded as sincere as a three dollar
bill. His accomplices bent down to help him. Norbert lifted both feet and
slammed them down on the insteps of the punk holding him. A satisfyingly
human scream sounded in his ear as the pressure on his biceps vanished. He
blundered past his former captor and ran down the hallway. From somewhere
behind came a phony yell of outrage and then footsteps following.
The whole weight of the world seemed to rest on his sneakers. Every step
was an effort. Blood poured from his hand, drenching his pants and the floor.
He wanted to wrap something around the wound but dared not stop to try.
Around a corner was the rear exit. Twin steel doors with wired glass
windows showing blessed safety beyond. If he could just get out of the
building he would be safe. An inner voice told him this, the same voice that
told him he would die if he remained. He ran towards the doors, good hand
extended to open them.
They were locked.
It took him a second to regain his senses. He was on his ass in front of
the doors, which remained inviolate, except for a splatter of blood on one of
the windows. He felt his nose, which was squashed to one side. Broken. Warm
fluid poured down his face and stained his shirt. Why was there no pain?
A voice from much too close behind: "He's around this corner!"
He struggled to his feet. Next to the doors was a staircase leading to the
upper wing. Gripping the bannister with his good hand, he stumbled up it.
The upper hall was just as deserted as the rest of the building. There
were rows of lockers on each side, with classroom doors interspersed between
them. He tried each door, but they were all locked. The only door that was
open led to the other stairwell. He paused for a long moment, staring down
the stairs. Panic, loss of blood, or something else made the distance down
stretch from feet to miles. His vision blurred as the vast, empty space
seemed to fill with fog...
He caught himself a second before he would have fallen. Must have greyed
out there. It would have been bad if-
"Gotcha!" Something slammed into his back and his pitched forward. His
extended his hands forward instinctively to cushion himself. His injured hand
hit the step just right and the bones, already weakened, snapped with a sound
like four pencils wrapped in cotton as his hand bent double in the middle of
Then there was pain. Incredible, undescribably agony that slammed up his
arm and racked his body, making the rest of his tumble downstairs seem
enjoyable by comparison.
He came to a rest at the bottom with a dozen broken bones. The pain from
his ruined hand eclipsed all else, and it was all he could do to whimper as
he lay there in a heap.
A shadow fell over him. Through a haze of pain he saw the man with the
wooden eyes grinning down at him. After a long moment he said, "You had to
make me mad. Now you're going to have your balls for breakfast... and your
heart for dessert." He knelt down, his knife held before him like a surgeon's
Norbert had thought he had reached his limit of pain. He had been wrong.
His screams echoed echoed throughout the empty building loud and long until
they were choked off, as if somebody had jammed something in his mouth to
Outside, it was raining.
It was not simply the worst storm in recorded history. It was the worst
storm in the history of this ancient and decrepit planet. Raindrops the size
of refrigerators and weighing upwards of two thousand pounds each hammered
the landscape like bombs. Mach three winds tore at everything above ground.
Lightning bolts a mile wide blasted unbelievable craters. The land had been
long ago scoured down to bedrock for three hundred miles in every direction.
Outside of this area it was as calm as a mild summer's day.
In the center of this destruction sat a castle of fine silver, untouched
by the fury that raged around it.
Inside, Doug was crying. Pathetic sobs were wrung out of him, echoing
about the great dark chamber. Before him floated three spheres the size of
grapefruits. When he had banished his friends to their respective fates, the
spheres had appeared, all three glowing with fierce light. Now two of them
were dim, flickering unsteadily. The third had gone out completely.
Remorse had overwhelmed him, evnveloping him in his own black cocoon of
misery. Why did they have to do it? They were his friends. If they hadn't
tried to take the cube away everything would have been all right. There was
no need. He wasn't hurting anybody. Anybody that mattered, anyway.
But they had, and, in a fit of rage, he had banished them to their own
individual private hells. Exquisitely terrifying fates brought to life in
their own pocket realities courtesy of the Cube. He could almost feel their
agony as the spheres pulsed weaker before him. Soon they would all be dead,
and he would be damned forever.
Why was he doing this? Why was he powerless to stop?
A cold, bony hand fell on his shoulder. He jumped slightly, then tuned
around. Alice had left her brush and now stood beside him. Rags hung on her
rotting frame, her skin yellowed and flaked revealing moist white bone
underneath. Great lidless eyes stared at him from a parchment covered skull.
Maggots crawled in her hair, what there was of it. Her lower jawbone moved,
and though there was no apparatus to do so, she spoke.
"You are not powerless. You can stop this any time you want."
He stared at her incredulously for one long second, then said, "Shut up
and get back to work. I don't want to listen to you."
"No." she replied. "You do want to listen to me, which is why I'm here.
You know what you're doing is wrong, and your indecision has released me-"
"Go away." his voice was a sullen whimper. He didn't want to hear this...
"-in hopes I might persuade you to do what you know is the right thing.
You're hurting people, lots of them, and the ones you love most of-"
"GO AWAY!!" His voice had risen to a roar that literally shook the planet.
A blast of solid light shot from the cube, disintegrating her body in a
brilliant flash. From the resultant smoke cloud an irregular object clattered
heavily to the flagstones. The skull bounced and rolled a few feet, then came
to rest, its jawbone still moving like some manic wind-up toy. Her voice
"-all. I won't go away. I can't. You yourself won't allow it. Bring them
back. Restore everything to the way it was before it's too late."
The sight of her still moving skull (he had meant to blast her out of
exisitence) had unmanned him. The doubts that had plauged him for the last
few weeks became vast, impenatrable walls. It now seemed he had actually been
standing outside himself, watching in helpess, horrified fascination as some
unknown madman took control of his body and will, capering about and
rearranging literally everything to suit his whims. it hadn't been him. It
hadn't been *him*!
"Before it's too late!" the skull implored.
"I... I don't know how." He didn't. He didn't know how to do anything
anymore. The greatest power in the universe rested in his hands (his mind,
whatever.) and he was scared to use it. He suddenly realized it for what it
really was: not a playtoy, not an obedient servant, but a great raging beast
with capabilities far beyond his meager imagination. It controlled him as
much or more than he controlled it. Now he felt trying to use that power
would be like a normal person trying to grab a naked high voltage wire, quite
possibly with the same results. His voice wavered, "I can't. I just don't
The skull was silent for a moment, considering. Then it spoke again.
"Maybe you could, with help."
Help? Yes! A powerful ray of hope tore through his fear. He wasn't alone.
There were others who could control the cube as well. Maybe they would know
what to do!
All doubts forgotten, he once again grasped the power, welcoming it like
an old, familiar friend. The three spheres swelled before him suddenly, then
burst like thunder...
Norbert sat up, his head aching. What had happened? Last thing he
remembered was the three of them standing before Doug, trying to talk reason
with him, then... poof. Sounds penetrated through the ringing in his ears,
slowly resolving themselves into soft feminine sobs. He looked over and saw
Jean cradling Frank's still form. What was wrong? Deep inside, he thought he
knew. Shakily he stood up and walked over to her. he kneeled down before
them. Frank's eyes were closed and a serene expression rested on his
features. After a long moment Jean looked up into Norbert's eyes, tears still
rolling down her cheeks. With an effort she summoned up a choked voice.
Frank was stone cold dead. She touched his face. Cold, unresponding, like
wax. She laid his head down gently on the stone floor. She picked up his
hands and placed them on his chest. Unbidden, a tear fell on his face and
rolled slowly down his cheek. Jean sniffled twice, then looked up.
Doug kneeled at the far end of the chamber, watching with wounded eyes.
Slowly he shook his head, denying responsibility for everything.
Norbert never had very much experience with people, but still he thought
he knew what was going to happen next.
He was right.
"You baaasstaaarrrddd!!!" Lithe muscles tensed, she sprung at Doug with an
animal scream of rage. Norbert managed to jump and grab her, pinning her in a
bear hug. She hurled curses at Doug and Norbert as the most powerful man in
the universe cowered back whimpering like a beaten dog.
Strong he had never been. Jean's rage had raised her adrenaline levels
until she became almost impossible to hold. If she broke free, Norbert knew,
she would injure Doug. And Doug would let her. And the cube, responding to
Doug's pain and quite beyond his control, would react in ways that were
terrifying to contemplate.
Finally Jean collapsed in Norbert's arms, sobbing exhaustedly. He eased
his grip on her slightly, remaining on guard. Now that the air had cleared
for a moment, he was able think again. The solution, he knew, was obvious. He
turned to Doug and spoke three words.
Stunned silence decended over the chamber.
Jean turned her face up to him. Terror, confusion, and a wild glimmer of
hope fought within her eyes. "What... did you say?"
Norbert continued to face Doug sternly and repeated in a quiet, commanding
voice, "Bring him back."
Doug cowered farther back into the corner (the corner moving back to
accomodate him) and whimpered, "I-I can't, you don't underst-"
"BRING HIM BACK NOW!!!" Jean surged wildly in Norbert's arms, almost
breaking free. "Do it now, you worthless piece of shit, or I'll break your
The air filled with static tension. Everyone's skin tingled and felt
tight. Doug had curled up into a fetal position, arms tight over his head.
The cube hovered over them, shining with a light that felt warm and benign.
In this moment Norbert suddenly noticed that there was a skull lying on its
side against one wall. Alert eyes still rested in its sockets and he knew
they were watching him. Suddenly he heard a low groan.
The skull's eyes moved to stare behind him.
The first thing Frank saw as he opened his eyes was Jean's beautiful face.
In that split instant, even before full awareness returned, he knew he loved
her. He didn't care what the situation was, or how desperate, or whether the
world might end in the next second. The only thing that mattered now, right
NOW, was that he loved this woman with all his heart and soul and he must
tell her about it, somehow. His voice failed him, so he simply reached up,
wrapped his arms around her, and pulled her down to him. he felt her sobbing
quietly into his chest and knew it was good, that everything would be fine
now. Though she spoke no words, he knew she loved him too, and her love
filled him with a great golden warmth, slowly but surely obliterating the
chilling memories of the terrifying emptiness he had just been rescued
Norbert watched the lovers for a moment, then turned away to give them
their privacy. He studied the tattered skull with the eyes, which studied him
back. The skull's jawbone moved and a voice echoed in his mind: "What'sa
matter? See something green?"
He jumped, startled and a little embarassed. He turned back to Jean and
Frank, privacy be damned.
Frank was getting up unsteadily, Jean supporting him. He walked over to
Norbert, gaining strength and balance with each step. He gave a tired smile
to show that he was all right. In a voice that betrayed only the slightest
shakiness, he asked, "What did I miss?"
Norbert relayed the events of the last few moments, as he understood them.
Frank rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Doug's losing it. The power's
frightening him now for some reason."
"Which makes him more dangerous than ever." Norbert reminded him.
"It's also our best chance." Frank replied. He walked over to Doug, who
was still curled into a ball. He flinched away from Frank's touch.
"C'mon, Doug, you know I can't. We've still got work to do. We need the
cube, and your help, to restore everything to normal."
Douglas looked up at him with pity in his eyes, as if Frank were an idiot
child. "You don't understand, do you? You just don't know what it's like. It
can't be done."
"Of course it can." Frank argued gently, mindful of who he was talking to.
"The power can do anything. You said it yourself. I'd do it myself, if I had
control of the cube-"
Sudden, wild hope filled Doug's voice. "You want it?"
"What?" Frank responded brilliantly, taken somewhat aback.
"The cube. You want it?"
"Then take it."
Douglas released control of the cube. They all felt it, like an immensely
tall tower falling, with the cube at its tip. The base of the tower, the
control nexus of the machine, sank into the soft gossamer of Frank's mind
with all the cold immense weight of the cube behind it. He felt the power,
the incredible electricity infuse his very being. In one brilliant instant he
knew. He KNEW!
And then he screamed...
A new door opened in his mind. The blinders had been removed, and for the
first time in his life he could really see. Everything. A terrifying flood of
information infinitely beyond human comprehension exploded in his mind,
threatening to wash his awareness away to oblivion, leaving him a burned out,
Too much. He narrowed his vision. A thought was all it took.
Now the spiral of the Milky Way galaxy was in his mind's eye. He saw every
detail simultaneously down to the basic components of every atom comprising
its structure. He reeled at a pattern far too vast for his human conciousness
to grasp. It was meaningless, all too meaningless. He found himself beginning
to slip into an ennui from which he would never return.
He narrowed one more time to a magnificent blue-white globe floating
around some minor star somewhere in the outskirts of the galaxy.
Home. Self. Here.
Something was wrong. He still couldn't think, encumbered by the weight of
the information his mind was trying to assimilate. Dimly he sensed that this
was dangerous, and not just to himself. He narrowed his focus for the last
He was seeing now with eyes. He was in a large room. Too dark. Florescent
fixtures blazed along the ceiling, bringing illumination up to more than
adequete levels. Much better. Four beings in the room besides himself. He had
some difficulty telling them apart, as a mortal man might have telling one
ant from another. But one stood out from the others. Female. Body mostly
destroyed but life force still bright and vital. Trapped in a dead husk by
the Predecessor. He sensed a... wrongness about this, and set out to correct
Since Doug had uttered those final words, there had been silence. Jean and
Norbert watched anxiously as Frank stood bathed in the glow of the cube, eyes
focused on some distant, unknowable point. Then the fluorescents appeared on
the ceiling. Then they heard a soft pop as air was pushed aside to make room
for something materializing. Norbert turned to the source of the sound and
Alice Ebert stood intact on the exact spot where once rested an animated
skull. She was dressed in jeans and a loose fitting sweater and appeared in
perfect health, very unlike the first time he saw her those weeks ago. She
looked down at her hands, puzzled, then all uncertainty left her face as she
rushed over to Doug. They sat on the cold stone floor in each other's arms,
quietly sobbing like lovers long separated but at last reunited.
A simple matter to restore her body and adjust her memories a little.
Frank was not sure why he did this, but some distant part of his mind told
him that a balance had been restored.
He turned his attention elsewhere. Another balance, one much more
critical, needed to be restored. He turned his vision deep into the structure
of the universe itself, far deeper than mortals even imagined existed yet.
Pure lines of force. Brilliant, crystalline, they rayed out from every
particle to every other in the universe. They formed a vast, incomprehensible
pattern. But the pattern had been sundered. In working its changes, the cube
had fractured and severed many of the lines, until the whole pattern
threatened to buckle and reality itself would dissolve into chaos, entropy,
then total dissolution. Nothing would be left.
With the cube's aid, he turned his mind to the greatest task that would
ever be demanded of it. One by one, he began reconnecting the lines. Some of
them wouldn't return to their original places so he improvised. New patterns
formed from the old.
The castle dissappeared. The five of them were left standing in the middle
of a grassy meadow. Jean looked up and saw the sky turn green, then red, then
a shade of blue slightly duller than before. A slight twinge of nausea shot
through her as gravity pulsed beneath her feet, making her about four pounds
lighter. Looking at her feet she saw she was casting three shadows. Yes,
there were three suns, one on the horizon, one at high noon, and one way the
hell off to the north, if that still *was* north. Then clouds, instantly
filling the sky. A roaring deluge of flaming hailstones erupted from the
clouds, only to vanish before touching the ground. Then it was night, with a
green sun burning brilliantly in the naked airless sky.
Then things started to get weird.
The stars rained from the sky and landed in the field around them, quietly
smouldering. Norbert bent down to touch one and pulled his blistered hand
back quickly. An enormous futuristic city sprang from the dirt around them
and dissolved to dust in the space of one second. The green sun went
supernova, becoming a huge shaeless blob from horizon to horizon and filling
the sky with a great tearing roar and turning it a color never seen before in
the universe. The ground shuddered as though somebody had dropped the moon on
the earth. Norbert supposed that was entirely possible. A great bald head
glared at them angrily from *over* the horizon. Douglas shrieked and fainted.
Then the walls of te chamber sprang up around thm and they were safe from the
chaos outside. For the moment. Frank's expression remained distant and he had
not moved since all this started.
Another connection made. The pattern was becoming stable, if not exactly
familiar. Deep in the still mortal recesses of his brain Frank realized what
Doug had been trying to tell him. He could no more restore this mangled
tapestry to its former state any more than a gorilla could assemble a 5000
piece jigsaw puzzle. It was too far beyond him to be anything but ludicrous.
Perhaps the cube itself could do anything, but the limits of the mind
controlling it was another matter entirely. He was almost done.
An hour later, Jean asked tiredly, "What's happening now?"
"No idea." Norbert sighed, just as tired. Nothing had happened since the
walls had returned, and he hoped Frank was going to return to the real world
soon as the chamber's door wouldn't open and Frank had thoughtlessly
neglected to include a bathroom in the room's reconstruction. Somebody
squawked behind him, and he turned around.
Doug was sitting up, staring at something they couldn't see. Alice was
trying to get him to lay back down. "Honey, you've got to rest. You've been
through so much l-"
"Something's happening." Doug's quavering voice cut through them, leaving
a vauge sense of terror. Something *was* happening.
He mentally stood back a moment and admired his handiwork. Not bad, for a
human. Where had he heard that before?
There was one problem left: the cube had to go. It was possible he could
expel the cube from his mind, but it would only gravitate towards another
like a magnet. His brief but intimate association with the cube had taught
him a great many things. When he returned to normal existance, he would not
be the same person. He might not even be human.
He had made the cube. He had instilled it with irresistable power. He
could destroy it. He knew how, even though all his insticts screamed against
trying it. If the cube could do anything, it could surely do this.
He commanded the cube to unmake itself.
There was only shocked silence in the chamber as Frank collapsed to the
floor, unmoving, unbreathing.
It was spectacular. He saw past the six chrome sides to the true essense
of the cube itself. Not a cube at all but a living, breathing thing of a
hundred dimensions. Cubes within cubes within cubes, frameworks of energy
revolving and moving in designs of unspeakable power. It lived, as it was too
powerfu not to, but it was mindless. it needed a mind supplied by a sentient
host. But this time mind had commanded suicide, and the cube could do nothing
but attempt to comply.
Power without, power within. Great tides of energy raged against the sides
of the cube, only to be turned back by the far greater power inside. It was
like a gentle spring breeze trying to destroy a mountain. But the forces
involved here were far more intense. Something had to give eventually.
Frank realized his mistake a fraction too late. Where the cube had rested
before him was now a ragged, gaping hole. The seething mass that was the
cube's essense had shot through the hole and into the blackness beyond.
Frank, still connected with the cube, found himself pulled through the hole
Meanwhile, back in the material world:
Jean was cradling Frank's head. His mouth hung slack, and his eyes stared
at nothing in particular. He did not breathe. When she looked up at Norbert,
her eyes were bright with barely controlled tears. In a small, halting voice,
she said, "He'll be back. It's not real. None of it's real. He can't die
again. He just has one more thing to take care of. One thing. He'll be back."
She retured her gaze to those blind eyes, softly whispering, "I love you,
baby. I love you so much. Please come back..."
Sick to his heart, Norbert turned away. He knew Frank was beyong hearing
But Frank did hear. Her lovely voice echoed across the incredible gulf in
which he now floated. The mindless shriek of the cube faded behind him as he
severed his final link with it, lest he be carried to whatever fate awaited
He was outside the universe.
It was a void, vast, immeasurable. But by no means empty. Great pastel
spheres floated like bubbles in the black space. There were billions of them,
fading with distance to specks of light. They were every color known to man
and a vast number more that weren't. They were transparent; he could see into
them. Trillions of specks of light sparkled within. He suddenly realized what
they were. Other universes. The specks were stars, or perhaps galaxies. Who
Now that the final echoes of the cube's departure had faded from his ears,
he discovered that the void around him wasn't entirely silent. Faint at
first, then growing louder as he hearing adjusted.
Ephermal, ghostly humming from the spheres themselves. They changed in
tone and pitch in alien rhythem. All the spheres were singing (what else
could he call it?), forming a chorus of unthinkably vast scale and incredible
beauty. Tears of joy at the music ran down nonexistant cheeks.
Something drew his attention downward, towards one of the closest spheres,
shining with a pale maroon light. A hellishly brilliant spark of light was
falling towards its surface. The machine. It struck the surface with a huge
flash and the whole sphere recoiled at the violation. It fell silent for a
moment, a heart between beats, then began singing again with its own harsh
rhythem, becoming a note of discord among the chorus.
The machine was somebody else's problem now. Frank hoped they would be
able to deal with it better than he had. He had done all he could.
"Ffffffffrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnkkkkkkkkk..." Jean's voice,
distorted to a low moan by the time differential between her world and...
here. Her voice rolled and echoed among the spheres, causing more discord,
like a band that had been distracted and lost its place.
He could see her face through the hole still before him. He knew he was
actually seeing through his real eyes in his body back in the real world. But
somehow her face was fuzzy, indistinct. He was losing contact. He had to make
his way back to the hole quickly, before it closed forever, leaving him
I'm coming, honey.
The hole grew closer and her face clearer as he approached. He was coming
back, coming home. To her. To his friends. To all the familiar comforts of
the known world that he suddenly, achingly missed. But most of all was coming
back to the warmth of her love and he knew, deep in his heart, he would
never, never leave again.
The spheres resumed their song, much more powerfully than before. Their
eerie, electric chorus struck a chord deep within him, stirring some dimly
understood longing that went back deep into his ancestry, long before life
even existed on earth.
(Stay. Stay with us.)
He hesitated, torn. Here existed secrets no human would ever uncover, not
in a billion years of evolution. The Other Universes called to him, inviting
him to explore their wonders. To return would mean being tortured forever by
the memory of a place he could never see again. The music washed over him,
filling him with a joy no earthly emotion could hope to match. One minute.
Just one minute more to enjoy the music. Then he would come back, never to
leave again. One more minute.
Jean's voice echoed out to Frank again, but he could no longer hear her.
He was completely enraptured by the music of the spheres.
The weather was appropriate for Frank's funeral. Grey sheets of drizzle
pelted down, dampening the spirits and clothes of those attending quite
effectively. It seemed the heavens themselves were mourning the loss of one
who had given everything to save... everything.
The minister finished the graveside service in a monotonous, bored voice
and closed his book quietly. After a moment of silence the small crowd, not
reluctantly, broke up and made for their cars. The cough and rumble of
engines starting, soon fading with distance. Eventually there was only four
left, standing beneath a makeshift canvas shelter, staring down on a pathetic
mound of dirt that meant far more than the world would ever know. The cause
of death was listed as 'heart attack'. The true story would be forever sealed
in the hearts and minds of the four, and would eventually die with them.
Norbert put his arm tentatively around Jean's shoulders. She flinched, but
did not move away. Norbert always hated funerals, but it was a thousand times
worse when it was the funeral of a good friend. His heart was heavy, but he
knew his pain was not a fraction of what Jean must be feeling. She had loved
Frank. He would have traded everything he had in the world for the words that
would break through her grief and make her smile once again. Her wounds ran
deep, but were not mortal and would eventually heal with time. But still he
felt he had to say something.
Effecting a lighthearted tone that sounded about as real as a three dollar
bill, he said, "He's not really dead, you know. He's somewhere out there,
exploring, probably. You know how he always wanted to know how everything
worked. When he gets tired of floating around the universe, he might even
She was looking at him now, her expression unreadable. Sudden terror
seized him. Had he salved her pain, or driven a wedge in even deeper,
bringing forth a new freshet of grief? Why had he opened his mouth at all?
But she hugged him, her face tight against his chest. "I know you're
trying to help." she whispered. "Just hold me, please, and be quiet." He did,
and although he thought he might have done more damage than good he realized
that he had broken through and maybe, with just a little care, things might
be all right after all. He felt his pulse quicken imperceptably at her
closeness and wondered just how deep his feelings ran for this woman, anyway.
He put the thought down as quickly as it came up and berated himself for a
sick, opportunistic creep.
Doug stared at the grave for a long time. Then he fell to his knees and
broke out crying in harsh, braying sobs. Alice was right down there with him,
trying to be comforting, but he would have none of it.
"I did it. I killed him! All my fault! If I just hadn't-"
They were all staring at Jean, who had pulled away from Norbert and now
glared at Doug with fierce, bright eyes. She walked over to him with
deliberate strides and knelt in front of him, putting her hands on his
cringing shoulders. She stared into his eyes, then her expression softened.
"It's not your fault." she said gently. "It's our's. We were playing with
something that was never meant to be disturbed. You ended up with the final
result. It was too much for anyone to handle. But it was not just your
responsibility. The machine controlled you more than you controlled it. Frank
died," and she swallowed hard at this, "Frank died to correct a mistake we
all made. It was his choice. You did not do it to him. Do you understand?"
Doug nodded numbly. Jean sighed wearily and they got up. She walked back
to Norbert, leaving Doug and Alice to their privacy. She envied them the life
they were going to have. The life she could never share with Frank now. As
she passed Norbert she said, "Let's go, okay? I need a good stiff drink and
some sleep. Tomorrow we have to get on with out lives."
Norbert replied something in the affirmative and followed behind.
Inwardly, Jean wondered at this newfound strength that welled up within her.
It suddenly seemed that there would be a tomorrow, a whole string of
tomorrows that extended into a future that seemed far brighter than it had an
hour ago. A future that, she discovered, would ideally include Norbert. After
all, somebody had to look after him and keep him out of trouble...
The drizzle had stopped and the clouds broken up into puffs of grey and
white, revealing a dazzling grey-green sky. Sol Alpha was high overhead while
Sol Beta rested on the horizon, still covered by clouds. The picture jarred
Jean as she sat down in Norbert's car. It was a reminder that only four
people in the world would ever know that the sky was once blue and held only
one sun. It served as a reminder that their whole world had changed, and she
knew virtually nothing of it. Tomorrow she would begin taking steps to
correct that. Somehow she had a feeling that her grief would fade soon. She
would be much too busy to dwell upon it for a long, long time.
She had a whole brand new world to discover.
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