A Long Short Story by Michael Massee
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“Dad, they’re perfectly safe.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
“Come on! They’ve been testing them for years. It’s the exact same technology as the public teleporters we’ve all been using for years--- you’ve been using.”
That’s my son, Josh, trying to convince me. He just had the PERSaPORT Model XL One installed in his house in Boston.
“It’s fantastic! Karen and I use it to get to work and we no longer have to walk the kids three blocks to the neighborhood teleporter and take turns with another parents in order to get our kids to school on time.”
“Sounds great but I think I’ll wait awhile. Let them get the kinks out first.
“Dad, they work just fine. The salesperson showed me the results of all the test studies. No problems what-so-ever.”
“All the same---“
“Think of how easy it will be for you and mom to visit us, and you can visit more often. You know, just hop in and, bam, you’re here. You can travel in your pajamas.”
“Yes, well, it’s the bam I’m worried about. And I’m not so sure Karen would like us hopping in unannounced just any old time.”
“Look, there’s an off button in every unit. I mean, it’s a two-way street. The grandkids could only come to visit you if you wanted them to.”
“Josh, we’re going to wait.” I hoped he got the message and I tried to change the subject. “How are things going at work?”
“Fine. Listen dad. Karen and I agreed that we’d feel better if you and mom had this teleporter. You know, in case of an emergency. So, we’re going to pay for renting the unit and the installation, everything. No arguments. Okay?”
“That’s very sweet, very generous, but I’ll have to talk it over with your mom.”
And so, I did with the result that, within a week, lurking in the entry hall of our suburban Pennsylvania colonial was a dark mahogany cylindrical Model XL One private PERSaPORT teleporter. Liz was thrilled.
“I can’t wait to use it! It’s much better looking than the example in the catalog. And it’s smaller than I imagined but it must cost Josh an arm and a leg.”
“Yeah, but he said he
wanted us to have it. Here
are the instructions.” I handed her the InfoDisk
that accompanied the eighty-page manual. She
inserted it immediately into our WalTel and
started watching a rather smarmy spokesperson as
he began to explain the basics of the
I sat down in my tired old wing back
chair and began to read the booklet.
You are the proud owner of a
Model XL One
Before you begin using your PERSaPORT teleporter please take time to read all the following safety precautions:
1. Remove all metal from your person before entering your teleporter.
This includes jewelry, watches, keys, belt buckles and
any other metals you may have in your possession such
as cameras, recording devices, tools etc.
Failure to do this can result in personal injury or malfunction of the unit
2. Put aforementioned items in the handy bin located to
the right of your teleporter’s door. (see figure A.)
They will be waiting for you at your destination.
(Internal metals such as pace makers or joint replacements
will not interfere with the working of the teleporter.)
3. Send all large inanimate objects ahead such as parcels, luggage,
groceries, furniture, etc. DO NOT TRAVEL
WITH THESE ITEMS. Serious injury could occur.
4. Teleport only one person at a time. NO GROUP TRAVELING.
5. Do not allow children to operate your teleporter.
It is not a toy.
An adult must supervise the teleportation of any youth under 14 years.
The internal control panel (see figure B)
should be locked down and the unit operated by an adult
via the external control panel (see figure C.)
6. A pet may be teleported but should be sent ahead alone.
Make sure some one is at the other end to receive it.
7. Do not use any liquid to clean the interior of your teleporter
such as water, ammonia, furniture oil, etc.
A light dusting with a soft cloth should do the job.
The exterior may be polished with any suitable product depending on it’s finish.
(The PERSaPORT comes in stainless steel or in a variety of wood veneers.)
How to Operate Your PERSaPORT Private Teleporter:
At that moment I glanced up to see, on the WalTel, Liz’s spokesperson cheerily demonstrating the teleporter’s external control panel. It was about the size of a postcard with a screen running along the top and buttons spread across the bottom. It was identical to the one located above the bin on the outside of our new mahogany machine.
“---and the button here on the far right is the ‘on’ switch.” The camera zoomed in on a small green button. “Once you press it you can then type in the location to which you wish to travel by using this convenient keyboard. Your destination will immediately appear on our patented Ezvue screen. Let me show you.” The camera zoomed in on his hand punching away at the keys as the words Demo Cubicle B popped up on the tiny screen.
“Now watch as my attractive associate, Brenda, enters the transporter.”
A very thin large-busted blond beauty, clothed in skintight red spandex smiled her way into the machine. The door closed with that familiar hissing sound. With a wide Cheshire cat smile the demonstrator pushed the red SEND button. The camera swiftly pulled away to reveal a second teleporter standing a few feet away from the original. The shiny door did its little snake hiss and opened. Voila! Out stepped buxom Brenda with all 32 of her very white teeth flashing in the studio lights. It reminded me of one of those old-fashioned magic acts. I wondered if it was just a trick with Brenda’s twin sister stashed away in Cubicle B.
“Isn’t that something?! The Persaport works just like your local public teleporter, only,” he added in a conspiratorial whisper, “maybe even better and all from the comfort of your living room!” Putting his hand on the external control panel he pointed to the red button. “This is what I pushed after Brenda entered the teleporter. It’s the ‘send’ button and you saw how fast it worked. Of course, there is a ‘send’ button located on the inside of your Persurport as well.” Then, pointing to a yellow button, “This is your lock-down switch. Once pressed your teleporter automatically shuts down and can only be reactivated by your typing in your own personal code. This blue button activates the security system so that a stranger arriving in your teleporter cannot open the exit door until you have checked his or her image on the exterior screen. Your security system also will not allow any weapons or hazardous materials to be transported or received. And finally, this black button is used to delete any mistake you may make when typing in a destination.
“So, folks, there you are, the highlights of the easy-to-operate controls for your Persaport Private Teleporter Model XL One. Remember, you can use your Persaport to travel to any registered private teleporter and any Public Teleporter within the continental United States, Canada and Mexico. All this is included in your monthly leasing fee. If you wish to travel further (and who among us doesn’t want to see the rest of the world) may we suggest you check page 76 of your instruction manual for the location of a Visaport near you.” The logo VISaPORT popped up on the screen. “For a reasonable fee, one of our many Visaport terminals can teleport you to any of our exotic Visaport vacation spots found ‘round the planet. Of course, Visaport can simply send you to visit Granny in Ireland if that’s your choice of destination.”
To get to our dearly departed Granny would take more technology than VISaPORT possessed. I also figured we would be able to visit foreign ports for a far more reasonable fee if we just used the regular public long-distance teleporters.
“I can’t wait to try it out! Want to try it out, Frank?” Liz was more excited than I’d seen her in a long time.
“Where do you want go?” I looked at the mantle clock. “It’s close to dinner. Should we go somewhere for dinner?”
Liz had one arm in the sleeve of her overcoat as she answered, “Let’s try that new Chinese place down by the river. I’ll look up the number of the closest teleporter to the restaurant.”
And so, we each took our first and only uneventful teleporter round trip to a very pleasant meal of excellent dim sum and Peking duck and then teleported back home., Unfortunately it was straight downhill from there.
The Wall Street Journal NewsView
Conroy made a breakthrough last year with the VisaPort teleporter, the first commercially manufactured unit to compete for international travel against older Government Issue teleporters. However, it appears that that success pales in comparison to the response RonCon Inc. has received over the smaller Persaport private teleporter, a unit that can be purchased or leased by private citizens. “We predict,” continued Conroy, “that by the end of this year there will be a Persaport unit in one out of every two households here in North America!”
When asked if rushing the production of teleporters to fill back orders might lead to safety problems Conroy replied, “We have received not one significant complaint.”
“Liar!” I cried as I zapped the virtual newspaper off the screen. “I have plenty of complaints!” One I considered very significant was the complaint that my wife had just happened to disappear while traveling in one of RonCon’s infernal machines. Liz, my sweet trusting Liz, had waved goodbye, stepped into that mahogany monstrosity and, hiss, was gone! She had been headed to Betty’s Beauty Boutique for her monthly hair appointment and never arrived. It’s been three days now and I’m frantic. I contacted the police but they suggested she might have just decided to take a little vacation---what? ----without me? Josh and Karen are making babysitting arrangements and will be here soon. They will not be arriving in that hateful device standing tomb-like in the front hall! I would disconnect the shitty thing and roll it down the street and dump it into the river but for the fear that Liz might try to use it to get back home. Therefore, I have left it turned on. But I’ve insisted that Josh come by way of the neighborhood public teleporter. I just pray that it doesn’t malfunction and eat up more of my family.
Malfunction! You want to hear about malfunction? I’ll give you malfunction! The day after our maiden voyage for Chinese food I used the teleporter to go to our local library. Yes, I know, it’s much easier to call up a book on a ComLivre but I like the feel of a book in my hand. The smell of glue and paper, the sound of pages turning and the saving of your place with a leather bookmark far outweigh the convenience of that voice-activated plastic screen. Call me old fashioned. I admit it.
Anyway, I spent a lovely morning among my favorite authors and then got ready to enter the library teleporter for the trip home. I’ve made this journey hundreds of times. I slipped my copy of Mary Stewart’s The Hollow Hills into the slot on the side of the teleporter, stepped inside, punched in our home address, pressed the red button and, whoosh, I’m back in our foyer. I had arrived safely----but not so my book. I reached into the teleporter’s side bin to find nothing. Mary Stewart was missing.
You must understand that in all the years I’ve been using our neighborhood public teleporter nothing like this has ever occurred. I was sure it was a bug in our new entry hall occupant but I contacted our librarian, Ms. Gruenfeld, just to check.
“Emily? Hi. It’s Frank. I just got home but the book I borrowed didn’t arrive with me.”
“Oh, dear. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Could you check your teleporter bin and see if it’s still in there?”
After a few moments Emily returned and, of course, the news was not good.
“I’m sorry Mr. McOsker but there is nothing in the transport cup. Why don’t you check the teleporter on your end again? Ask one of the attendants there. Maybe someone took it by mistake.”
“Eh—well—I used our new private teleporter instead of the public one.”
“Oh, you’ve got one of those PERSaPORTs. How exciting!”
What is it with these women and those stupid machines?! After a few minutes of listening to Emily talk about her desire to get a Persaport and how much did it cost and was I happy with mine we disconnected and I returned to my dilemma. No, I was not happy with Liz’s new toy but I was willing to give it another chance.
Hoping that this was just a onetime fluke I waited and watched anxiously for Liz to come home from work. It was close to dinner time when I heard the gentle hiss and “Hi, sweetie! I’m home,” coming from the foyer. I hurried to the hall and found Liz pulling her handbag out of the transport hopper and then scraping around in the bottom.
“I’m glad your home, honey. Wait ‘til I tell you wha----“
“I can’t find my watch, Frank. Would you dig around and get it. Your arms are
longer than mine.”
I don’t have to tell you what happened. After a futile few minutes of searching the bin, using everything from a pocket mirror to a flashlight, I knew that Liz’s watch had joined Mary Stewart in the hollow hills.
Thus began, what I not so jokingly refer
to as, Meals on Wheels. Over
the next week the mahogany monster devoured a
bag of oranges my sister sent from Florida, a
package of pillowcases Liz had ordered, a pen (a
cheap one I didn’t care about. No way
was this thing munching on my antique silver
Mont Blanc), a set of keys and my favorite
beat-up old travel mug. I’d
had it up to here.
Didn’t I say I did not want the god
damned thing in the first place? It was time to
I turned to the last page in the
eighty-page instruction manual.
The unit doesn’t turn on.
Nothing happens when
send button is pressed.
Door will not open to
Check that unit is connected
to power source.
Address may be misspelled.
Try typing it again.
A traveler may be arriving.
Wait until unit is clear.
I continued reading the list but nowhere did I find mention of the problem of a unit devouring the items placed in it. No solution was offered for the problem of objects sent but not received. Our problem was not going to be solved by, “Open and shut the door again,” or “Count to five before pressing the send button.” I realized I needed to move to Plan B: calling the PERSaPORT Help-Line. Taking a deep breath, I asked my FleshFone to call up the toll-free number. After several beeps the automated voice clicked on and began speaking in a bored and somewhat superior tone.
“Welcome to PERSaPORT, a division of RonCon Industries. If you wish information about our line of personal teleporters please say one. If you are calling to place an order please say two. If you are trying to track a shipment please say three. If you are experiencing a problem with your unit say four.”
Which I did only to get another long menu that listed all the same problems and solutions as printed on page 80 of the instruction book. Cursing loudly, I returned to the main menu, listened once again to my options and, when offered the possibility of speaking to a living breathing human being, shouted ‘FIVE’. After a few beeps and burps the automated voice returned.
“All our representatives are busy right now. Please stay on the line and someone will be with you presently. Your waiting time will be-beep-ten minutes-beep. If you wish you can also find help on our web site at www.persaport.com.” No way! I knew I would simply find an on-screen version of the troubleshooting page I had just read. I determined it would be better to just wait out the ten minutes.
The message was followed with a blast of electronic music, a synthetic rendition of some operatic aria I couldn’t identify. This aria continued on with sporadic interruptions of: “Please hold on. Your business is important to us. Someone will be with you shortly. Thank you for your patience.”
Twenty minutes and nine arias later a male voice broke in. “Good afternoon. My name is Pandar. How may I help you?”
“Ah, well, ah.” (I must have dozed off because I was a little disoriented). “I need help with my teleporter.”
“Things disappear in it.”
“Well, sometimes when people send me things, you know, they don’t arrive.”
“Ah, I see. Is it possible, sir, that they are being sent to the wrong teleporter?”
“Not really and it also happens when we, that’s my wife and I, when we are traveling somewhere. I mean, when we put metal objects and small things in the side bin, per the instructions, they sometimes don’t arrive with each of us.”
“I see. Is this only when you are departing from your domicile or when you are arriving there?
“Both. It happens both ways.”
“Let us see what we can do to help you, sir. First, your last name, if you would be so kind.”
“If you would be so kind as to spell that for me, Mr. MacOyster.”
I could see that this was not going to go well. We slogged along through my street address, FleshFone number, E-mail address, fax-number, teleporter ID number and finally on to the next question.
“Now, sir, what exactly is your difficulty?”
“My ‘difficulty’ is that, as I explained, our teleporter-your teleporter-does not always return the object put in it.”
“I’m sorry. That shouldn’t happen.”
“I know, I know. That’s why I’m calling for help.”
“Has the unit been damaged in any way? Did you accidentally bump into it or clean it with an improper liquid?”
Improper liquid? What the hell did that mean? Did he think I used the damn thing as a urinal?
“Listen, we have done nothing to the inside or outside of this blasted contraption! It is not working properly and I want it repaired or removed!”
“Sir, we are here to help. Your satisfaction with our product is most important to all of us here at PERSaPORT.”
“Quit reading from your damned script and switch me over to your supervisor!”
“I am sorry sir but the supervisor is not present at the moment.”
“Not present. Well, when will he or she be present?”
“Please, sir, let me continue to assist you. Your satisfaction is our---“
“I know! It’s important to all of you. Look, let’s just cut to the chase. Do you understand what my problem is?
“Of course, sir.”
“Do you have a solution?”
“Let us take it one step at a time. Did you check to see if your teleporter is plugged in correctly?”
At this point I knew I was doomed. Ahead curved a highway of useless questions that would lead only to a dead end. It was time to try a new tact.
“Do you have a repairs department?”
“Most certainly, sir.”
“Could you transfer me over to them, please?”
“Yes, of course. It has been a pleasure to serve you. Have a nice day.” There was a soft click and then the familiar automated voice came on to inform me that someone would be with me shortly and that my call might be recorded for quality control. This time, ‘shortly’ only took ten minutes.
“Hi, Chuck here. Sorry about the delay. What can I do for yuh?” At last, a cheery voice with an unmistakably Midwestern twang. Maybe there was some hope. I rattled out my story of woe and when I finished Chuck cleared his throat.
“Wow, this is a first for me! So far, the only trouble we’ve had with these babies is a few complaints about them bein’ a bit slow. You know, a ten second delay in arrival instead of the standard three. We just tweak ‘em a little and then they’re fine. But things disappearing, this could be something serious. I better send someone out there to look into this.”
“Thank you. That would be great.”
“The first date I can give you is the 30th. How’s that for you?”
“Is that the best you can do? I mean, I’m sorry, but that’s almost a month away.”
“Geez, I’m sorry, but we’re kinda short on staff right now.”
“But that means we can’t use this---this thing at all. It’s just going to sit here taking up space and collecting rent. This is ridiculous.”
“I’ll tell you what. If we get a cancellation I’ll pencil you in. How’s that?”
“Well, if you want the truth, it’s awful, but---“
I knew I really had no choice so I took the proposed appointment with the feeble hope that maybe someone would cancel. Looking back at all the ifs; if someone had canceled, if the teleporter could have somehow repaired itself or if I had simply unplugged it or if Liz hadn’t been late for her appointment and didn’t feel she needed to use our malfunctioning machine instead of the public teleporter, if any one of those ifs had only happened Liz would not be missing.
So here I am spouseless. I haven’t slept for days and the police are looking at me kind of funny. I’m sure they think I shipped the body of my wife off to some far away hiding place.
Of course, PERSaPORT, fearing a lawsuit, sent
someone here immediately and they’ve been poking and
prodding around in the electronic intestines of the
machine for hours.
They gave a printout to the police of all the
trips taken since the teleporter was installed. There is a
record of only one trip during the last two weeks as
I had forbidden Liz from using it until it was
one fateful journey was Liz’s last.
time resident, Elizabeth McOskar, was reported
missing yesterday by her husband, Frank. While
Mr. McOsker would not reply to the Inquirer’s
calls a reliable source indicated that Mrs.
McOsker, 52, has been missing for over a week. She
was last seen entering a private teleporter
located in the McOsker home on her way to an
appointment in downtown Philadelphia. Apparently,
she never arrived at her destination. A
detective at the missing woman’s home indicated
that the police had no reason, at the moment, to
believe foul play was involved. “She
may have just wanted to get away for awhile,”
said Detective Harold Siracusa. “Until
we learn otherwise that is the theory we are
if they were scanning for Mrs. McOsker’s
ImplantChip Detective Siracusa responded that
they had tried but so far with no result. Calls
to her FleshFone went unanswered as well.
The NewsView screen made no mention of my
theory that the teleporter may have eaten my
is one of the Inquirer’s biggest advertisers so
I’ll leave you to come to your own conclusions. Maybe
I’m wrong but it seems to me that money will
always win out over truth. Forgive
cynicism but I’ve just about reached the end of
my rope. Josh
is here and, to his credit, is being very
solicitous and apologetic. Karen
is busy cooking lovely meals that I am not able
The phones never stop ringing with
reporters and concerned friends. What
can I tell them?
That I believe a maniacal machine
I have got to get some sleep. Josh
brought some pills that he said would knock me
out for at least eight hours. I’m
reluctant to take them for fear I’ll miss Liz’s
maybe if I take them and fall asleep I’ll wake
up from this nightmare and Liz will be lying
next to me like she has been for the last
you okay? You
should lie down.
Go on upstairs. Rest for a little while.”
If I take one of your pills will you
promise to wake me up if there’s any news or
come on, please.”
I allow him to tuck me in as if he were
my dad instead of the reverse. I know
he must be suffering as much as I am and yet
here he is putting up such a strong front.
her, dad. We’re
going to get her back. You
get some sleep, now.”
I wish it could be that easy, I mean, to
fall asleep believing that we will find her. My
eyes close and then blink open and stare at the
I can see poor Liz divided into pieces,
like that unfortunate policeman, and the
different sections of her body floating in some
unreachable black void, an arm here, a foot
Those apparitions came and went until the
chemicals finally took hold and I entered
I awoke seven or eight hours later to a
dark and silent house. Teetering
on shaky limbs, I struggled up from my bed and
lumbered slowly down the hall. I
passed Josh’s old bedroom and saw that he and
Karen were asleep, wound up together on his
I should have given them our big bed. Our
bed, Liz, our bed.
Looking down the stairwell, I could make
out the hulking shadow of what was the center of
Once we get Liz back that thing is going
to be shipped post haste to the hellish factory
from whence it came. That
is, if I don’t take an axe to it first!
I started down the stairs, trying to
avoid the squeaks of the old treads. At the
bottom I stopped and listened for any signs of
life. Nothing. I
shuffled over to the front door and peered out
through the little oval leaded-glass window. There
was a police hovercraft parked in the street
with someone sitting in it but it appeared they
Most of the lights were off in our
What time was it, anyway? I
glanced over at the grandfather clock that had
been moved to make room for you-know-what. The
hands indicated it was 3:10.
It has been my experience that the three
o’clock hour is the worst hour for being awake. One
reflects on yesterday’s problems and finds them
You can only see the future as being as
bleak and grey as the night outside. It is
certainly not the hour of hope. I
don’t know how insomniacs can survive the three
o’clock hour night after night and, yet, here I
am standing in their shoes, standing next to
I know it is ridiculous to think of this
piece of electronic excrement as alive. However,
since the creation of the first robots and
computers it seems to me that some of us humans
have had the need to personalize them in order
to maintain our sanity. But
they are not alive. Pull
their plugs or disconnect their batteries and
they are just cold pieces of metal and plastic. Or are
they? Looking at this wooden clad behemoth I
see a barrel-chested bully who has invaded my
life and taken my wife hostage. Ridiculous
or not, this electronic entity is my rival and
it’s time I accepted the challenge. I
can’t just sit around waiting for someone else
to do something.
The police haven’t got a clue (excuse the
technical staff is useless. Josh
can only give me pills and if Karen tries to
feed me one more tuna casserole I’ll throw up. No,
Frank, it’s up to you. And
so, on this warm summer predawn morning I make a
I have a note pad, an old-fashioned
graphite pencil, my bedroom slippers and my
pajama-clad body. I don’t want to go back
upstairs to dress on the chance I’ll wake up the
kids so that’s it, that’s all this old warrior
is taking to battle. Maybe
I should take a bottle of water and a cookie or
they’ll only be consumed by this ravenous
monster. The pencil and note pad have no metal
so they can travel with me. The plan is to go to
wherever the machine took Liz even if I can’t
get back. I
don’t want to be here without her so returning
doesn’t really matter. Isn’t
there an old song that goes “I’ve grown so used
to you”? It’s
true, Liz, I have.
I’ve opened the enemy’s door. I’m
I’m punching in our unlocking code and
then the address for the teleporter near Betty’s
And now for the red button. Here
Philadelphia Inquirer NewsView HUSBAND
OF MISSING WOMAN
Long time resident, Elizabeth McOskar, was reported missing yesterday by her husband, Frank. While Mr. McOsker would not reply to the Inquirer’s calls a reliable source indicated that Mrs. McOsker, 52, has been missing for over a week. She was last seen entering a private teleporter located in the McOsker home on her way to an appointment in downtown Philadelphia. Apparently, she never arrived at her destination.
A detective at the missing woman’s home indicated that the police had no reason, at the moment, to believe foul play was involved. “She may have just wanted to get away for awhile,” said Detective Harold Siracusa. “Until we learn otherwise that is the theory we are following.”
Asked if they were scanning for Mrs. McOsker’s ImplantChip Detective Siracusa responded that they had tried but so far with no result. Calls to her FleshFone went unanswered as well.
The NewsView screen made no mention of my theory that the teleporter may have eaten my wife. PERSaPORT is one of the Inquirer’s biggest advertisers so I’ll leave you to come to your own conclusions. Maybe I’m wrong but it seems to me that money will always win out over truth. Forgive my cynicism but I’ve just about reached the end of my rope. Josh is here and, to his credit, is being very solicitous and apologetic. Karen is busy cooking lovely meals that I am not able to swallow. The phones never stop ringing with reporters and concerned friends. What can I tell them? That I believe a maniacal machine kidnapped her?
I have got to get some sleep. Josh brought some pills that he said would knock me out for at least eight hours. I’m reluctant to take them for fear I’ll miss Liz’s return. However, maybe if I take them and fall asleep I’ll wake up from this nightmare and Liz will be lying next to me like she has been for the last thirty-one years.
“Dad, are you okay? You look awful.”
“You really should lie down. Go on upstairs. Rest for a little while.”
“I don’t know---maybe. If I take one of your pills will you promise to wake me up if there’s any news or anything happens?”
“Sure dad, of course.”
“Yes, I promise. Now come on, please.”
I allow him to tuck me in as if he were my dad instead of the reverse. I know he must be suffering as much as I am and yet here he is putting up such a strong front.
“We’ll find her, dad. We’re going to get her back. You get some sleep, now.”
I wish it could be that easy, I mean, to fall asleep believing that we will find her. My eyes close and then blink open and stare at the dark ceiling. I can see poor Liz divided into pieces, like that unfortunate policeman, and the different sections of her body floating in some unreachable black void, an arm here, a foot there.
Those apparitions came and went until the chemicals finally took hold and I entered blessed oblivion. I awoke seven or eight hours later to a dark and silent house. Teetering on shaky limbs, I struggled up from my bed and lumbered slowly down the hall. I passed Josh’s old bedroom and saw that he and Karen were asleep, wound up together on his twin-sized bed. I should have given them our big bed. Our bed, Liz, our bed.
Looking down the stairwell, I could make out the hulking shadow of what was the center of my misery. Once we get Liz back that thing is going to be shipped post haste to the hellish factory from whence it came. That is, if I don’t take an axe to it first!
I started down the stairs, trying to avoid the squeaks of the old treads. At the bottom I stopped and listened for any signs of life. Nothing. I shuffled over to the front door and peered out through the little oval leaded-glass window. There was a police hovercraft parked in the street with someone sitting in it but it appeared they were asleep. Most of the lights were off in our neighbor’s houses. What time was it, anyway? I glanced over at the grandfather clock that had been moved to make room for you-know-what. The hands indicated it was 3:10.
It has been my experience that the three o’clock hour is the worst hour for being awake. One reflects on yesterday’s problems and finds them unsolvable. You can only see the future as being as bleak and grey as the night outside. It is certainly not the hour of hope. I don’t know how insomniacs can survive the three o’clock hour night after night and, yet, here I am standing in their shoes, standing next to ‘IT’.
I know it is ridiculous to think of this piece of electronic excrement as alive. However, since the creation of the first robots and computers it seems to me that some of us humans have had the need to personalize them in order to maintain our sanity. But they are not alive. Pull their plugs or disconnect their batteries and they are just cold pieces of metal and plastic. Or are they? Looking at this wooden clad behemoth I wonder. I see a barrel-chested bully who has invaded my life and taken my wife hostage. Ridiculous or not, this electronic entity is my rival and it’s time I accepted the challenge. I can’t just sit around waiting for someone else to do something. The police haven’t got a clue (excuse the pun). The PERSaPORT technical staff is useless. Josh can only give me pills and if Karen tries to feed me one more tuna casserole I’ll throw up. No, Frank, it’s up to you. And so, on this warm summer predawn morning I make a decision.
I have a note pad, an old-fashioned graphite pencil, my bedroom slippers and my pajama-clad body. I don’t want to go back upstairs to dress on the chance I’ll wake up the kids so that’s it, that’s all this old warrior is taking to battle. Maybe I should take a bottle of water and a cookie or two. Good idea. No, they’ll only be consumed by this ravenous monster. The pencil and note pad have no metal so they can travel with me. The plan is to go to wherever the machine took Liz even if I can’t get back. I don’t want to be here without her so returning doesn’t really matter. Isn’t there an old song that goes “I’ve grown so used to you”? It’s true, Liz, I have.
I’ve opened the enemy’s door. I’m
I’m punching in our unlocking code and
then the address for the teleporter near Betty’s
And now for the red button. Here
Philadelphia Inquirer NewsView
HUSBAND OF MISSING
“We wait, I guess.”
I’m writing this as I stand in what looks like a mall, a shopping mall. I thought almost all the ‘brick and mortar’ malls had been phased out. It’s dark with only some emergency lights turned on. I can’t really tell right now, but it seems to be rather old-fashioned. Liz and I do most of our shopping online in one of your regular virtual malls so I’m not that familiar with the inside of one of the few existing malls. However, from where I’m standing, this place looks different, wrong somehow.
My biggest concern is if I am in the right place. I could be anywhere and Liz could be somewhere else. One puzzle at the moment is the fact that, although I arrived safely, I can’t seem to see any public teleporter. I mean after my body finished tingling and I opened my eyes I saw that I wasn’t at the end of the block near the beauty shop. Instead, when I turned around to look back at the teleporter, there was nothing there except a long hall with a few benches and kiosks scattered along its center. There were a couple of rest room doors and a double door marked “Employees Only” but that was it. I just appeared, or reassembled or whatever it is, in open space. I don’t know what’s going on here but I’m going to do my best to find out.
Uh oh! I just saw a figure moving this way down the hall. I think it’s a male in some sort of uniform. I can’t quite tell in the dark. Maybe I should hide.
It was a guard of some kind, a night watchman, I guess. I didn’t know they still used live persons for that job. Maybe he was a droid. I didn’t stay around to find out. I slipped through a restroom door, which was conveniently located just to my left. Later I looked for the regular security drones but so far all I’ve seen are these really archaic video cameras hanging here and there. Very strange.
This whole day has been strange, one of the strangest in my life. First of all, when this mall-like-place eventually opened up for the day the weirdest assortment of humanity began dribbling in. I think it was the clothes that did it. Sweat shirts and baseball caps and baggy denim pants that looked like they were about to fall off the wearer’s hips. I should talk, dressed as I am in my pj’s. But women strolled by with tops so short their navels showed above their very short skirts. And a lot of these people were overweight, some even past obesity. It’s as if none of them had ever heard of KraveNot or at least forgot to take their daily dose.
While all of this is very disturbing it is, at the same time, kind of familiar. I don’t really know why.
The next thing I noticed is that I have been pretty much ignored. Not that I’ve put myself, this middle-aged man dressed only in pajamas, on display. I’ve tried to stay as much out of sight as one can in a busy shopping mall. Even so, no one has stopped to stare or comment or arrest me for loitering. It’s as if they choose not to see me. I should stop someone to ask for help but I’m afraid. This place is so alien to me that I considered for a moment that I might have been transported to some unknown planet. However, I was brought back to earth when I spotted that familiar M under a golden arch in what I recognized as an old-fashioned food court. At that point my stomach growled its’ discontent but I wanted to start tracking down Liz before I did anything else. Besides I didn’t have my ChargeChip or anything that would allow me to purchase a meal. How foolish not to come prepared for any circumstance. What was I thinking?! Well, I wasn’t thinking, that’s obvious.
I’ve walked around the mall at least five times with no sign of Liz. What if this is not where she ended up? Or what if she decided to explore beyond this place? She could be anywhere. Wait a minute! What the hell is this?
I just noticed that I am standing in front of the entrance to Macy’s Department Store. They went out of business decades ago. Josh was about two and Liz bought him a snowsuit at the closing sale. And here it is full of merchandise and customers buying things. Yes. There’s a woman handing a salesperson what looks like paper currency. My god! The government phased out paper and coinage at least twenty years ago, right? What is going on here? What is this place?
I’m going to go outside for a while to clear my head and get a lay of the land.
I’ve decided I am either insane or hallucinating. Maybe it was that pill Josh gave me. If you are reading this you will have figured out easily what it took me a day to realize. This has to be the past. I mean I’m looking at a world that is at least fifty years behind me. I’m truly scared.
Yesterday, when I pushed through the glass doors to the outside, I saw that the sky had opened up. Great sheets of icy cold water were raining down. I turned back to get under the shelter of the marquee but not before I saw what really cinched it for me: a parking lot full of vintage gasoline-run automobiles! No one drives to a mall anymore. I stood shivering and staring at that terrifying sight for a few minutes and then turned back towards the center of the mall.
I don’t remember much about last night except that after the mall closed and the lights went out I sneaked into the food court and, for the first time in my life, I stole. I was so hungry I climbed over the counter of the Deli Delight and broke into their refrigerator. After a supper of a ham and cheese bagel I curled up on a bench and tried to rest. But between worrying about Liz and trying to make sense of all this it was just not possible. How can I eat a sandwich made over four decades ago? How is it I’m able to lie down on a bench that probably doesn’t exist any more? I also heard footsteps off and on and as I didn’t want to be seen by the security guard I kept moving until I couldn’t stay awake any longer. I woke up this morning curled up in the arms of an olive-green dragon. I had finally nodded off in one of the carriages of a merry-go-round they have for kids at the back of the food court. How appropriate.
In need of coffee and some sort of breakfast I was forced to consider approaching someone in the food court and asking them for a hand out. I was too tired and hungry to put off making contact. I noticed a young woman behind the Deli Delight counter setting up for the morning opening. It was early and still quiet. I watched as she filled a coffee filter and slipped it into the large square steel urn. No one else seemed to be around and I didn’t want to frighten her. I knew the sight of an unshaven older man in pajamas was going to shake her up a bit but I had no choice.
“Excuse me, miss,” I whispered. No reaction.
“Miss? I’m sorry to bother you but---” Silence.
She continued to work, setting out a tray of muffins and donuts. I thought for a moment that she might be hearing impaired but then I observed that she was humming along to a tune that was playing on a radio that was perched on the shelf behind her.
“Miss?” I repeated and then it hit me. “Frank, you dumb stupid excuse for a human being! She can’t see you. You’re invisible!”
To make sure, I slammed my hand down on the counter and the sound echoed in the empty mall. She jumped back from the counter and fearfully looked up and then down the length of the court. I waved my hand about three inches from the front of her face. She didn’t blink or flinch. She just stepped over to the right divider and reached for one of those old-fashioned wall phones that was hanging there. I dimly remember my grandmother having a similar one, in white, hanging in her kitchen.
“Chris? Did you hear that down at your end? -----What was it? ---It seemed so close----No, I didn’t drop anything---I thought I heard someone whispering too---Maybe you should check it out---Okay.
She hung up and turned back to the coffee maker. I saw my opportunity and took a muffin and a donut. I adjusted the remaining pastries in the hopes that the items missing wouldn’t be noticed right away. I may be invisible but I am still leaving tracks in my wake, like a trail of powdered sugar and the sounds of a stomach growling.
What an incredible day! Knowing that no one can see me has given me such freedom. I’ve been acting like a two-year old ever since yesterday morning. Walking along with the crowd, as they ambled through the various stores, I would intentionally bump into someone who, after regaining their equilibrium, would look around for the guilty party.
During the lunch hour I caused an altercation in the food court when I swiped a cheeseburger off of a customer’s tray. He was a burly construction worker type who terrified the fast food manager into giving him a replacement sandwich.
I wandered through the old-fashioned cinema multiplex checking out the movies and sat down for a few moments to watch “The Matrix.” I was just a kid when I first saw it on television on some science fiction retrospective show. I don’t remember it being so cheesy. But it got me to thinking of how I was now stuck in this alternate world and that I needed to continue my search for Liz.
I’ve been in every boutique, shoe store, candle store, furniture store, drug store, candy shop, hobby shop and on and on until they’ve all blended together into a smelly, blurry mess. Where is she?
Tomorrow I’ll conquer my fear and continue the search outside the mall. But, for now, since I’m invisible, I’m going into Macy’s to lay me down on one of those fluffy mattresses in the bedding department. I am so tired.
Thank heavens! I found Liz or rather she found me. I was just getting ready to face the outside neighborhood when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I jumped about a foot into the air, it scared me so, and then I saw her beautiful face! I don’t think I have ever felt so happy! The tears started and then Liz was crying and I was crying. It was great! There she was dressed in the red jacket and black pants she was wearing when she vanished. Gorgeous!
“Oh, Frank, thank God. It’s been so horrible!”
“I know, I know.”
“I didn’t understand where I was. I didn’t know how to get back home.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“And then I saw you. I couldn’t believe it. You shouldn’t have followed me---but I’m so glad you did.”
So, there we stood at the main entrance of the mall holding on to each other for dear life, like ghosts in a haunted mansion. I kissed Liz and wiped at her tears and mine.
“Where were you all this time, Liz? I looked for you in every store, every nook and cranny.”
“Oh, Frank, I’m so sorry. I should have stayed in one place. I hoped someone would get me out of here but after a few days nothing happened so I thought I should try and see if there was help beyond the mall, you know, so I started exploring.”
“Liz, you do realize this is the past and---“
“Yes, I figured that out the first day I was here. But come with me. Let me show you what I discovered.”
She took my arm and led me out of the entrance into the parking lot. Cars and people were beginning to arrive for the morning opening of the mall, unaware of the two wraiths standing in front of them. Liz pulled me along a sidewalk that wound around the faux stonewalls of the mall. Ahead of us was a street lined in oak trees. It was very pleasant and somehow familiar. When we reached the corner, Liz stopped and looked at me.
“Well?” she asked with a smile.
“What?” I was still confused.
“Don’t you see?”
“I see the street---“
“Frank, it’s our street!”
I looked again and my heart jumped. It sure looked like our street but the trees seemed smaller and, then again, it could be any street. At that moment Liz took me by the shoulders and turned me towards the sun. Silhouetted against the bright morning sky was a water tower. Not just any water tower but the big blue water tower that stands two blocks from our house. I recognized the profile of the Native American painted on it’s curved side, not as faded as I remembered, but definitely my Indian brave! This was our street!
“My God, we’re somewhere in our neighborhood!”
“Well, technically, it’s not our neighborhood yet,” Liz said, correcting me, “but it’s where our neighborhood will be. In fact, I kind of paced off where our house will be when it’s built, you know, years from now.”
know my mouth was hanging open. This whole thing was so crazy. We were standing on our street in front of a shopping mall that was where the housing development known as Quaker Fields now existed. Except, at the moment, it didn’t. This topsy-turvey time thing was making me dizzy.
Liz grabbed my arm and started dragging me back towards the mall. All of a sudden, I didn’t want to return to what now reminded me of a mausoleum.
“Liz, honey, let’s stay out here in the fresh air. I don’t want to--“
“Come on, I want to take you to the spot where I think our house is—was--ah—will be--whatever.” And she kept pulling me until we were back inside the mall.
This is the day the nightmare of all nightmares began. Liz showed me the area where she thought our house was located. When we stood there, I got a sudden chill as I realized it was close to where I was when I first arrived.
“Liz, is this where you landed when you got zapped by the teleporter?”
“I’m pretty sure. It seems so long ago.”
“Do you think maybe because this is where it all started that that’s why you feel like this is where our home should be?”
Liz looked flustered for a moment and then her Irish rose up. “Frank McOsker, I’ve been in this hellhole for a week now and you’ve just arrived! I know what I know and this is the place!”
“Okay, okay. I was just making sure. Let’s try and keep calm and figure out how we’re going to get home.”
I looked in both directions down the hall, past the kiosks being manned by crafts people with their jewelry, leather belts and wooden plaques engraved with “HOME IS WHERE THE BEER IS” and other such wise and witty sayings and saw an opening to a narrower passageway. It was at a right angle to the main hall and sat opposite a Radio Shack store. It was where I stood when I opened my eyes five days ago. I peered down the hall and, on the wall to my left I saw the three doors labeled: MEN—EMPLOYEES ONLY—WOMEN. If this truly was the location of our house, if only in the future, could one of these doors be the passageway back?
I stepped over to the center door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY and looked down at the knob. It had one of those key pad locks that can only be opened by punching in a series of code numbers. While I felt this door was the most promising of the three I realized I’d have to wait for an employee to open it before we could get in.
“Liz, go into the Ladies room and see if anything feels or looks like a possible way out of here. I’ll check the men’s room.”
“I’ve been in the women’s several times before, Frank. I’ve used the facilities and I’ve washed up the best I could. There’s nothing different or unusual about it. You know, stalls, changing table, sinks, mirror, hand dryer—nothing special. And I peeked into the men’s as well.”
“Did you find anything? Did anything seem different?
“Well, I don’t know, I’ve never been in a men’s public restroom before, all those urinals hanging on the wall like so many giant coffee mugs, and the writing, the graffiti, on the walls. Is that what you men do when you’re taking care of your business? Anyway, I didn’t notice anything strange in there like a glowing portal to the future.”
“I’m going to check it out anyway. Please take another look in the ladies.”
“Please. Maybe something changed or you’ll notice something different,” I whispered, over my shoulder, as I pushed the door open and walked into the gents.
There was a young boy washing his hands at one of the sinks. No one seemed to be in the stalls or standing at the urinals. I waited while the boy dried his hands and then as he left I began to inspect the empty space.
Nothing seemed out of place or unusual. White tile, white fixtures, scratched mirror, electric hand dryer as well as a paper towel dispenser and a plastic bin overflowing with torn wet paper. No window into infinite space or a mysterious extra door. Liz was right, this was not the way out.
I actually fainted. I have never passed out in my whole life but hearing my name called and suddenly seeing a man staring directly at me, reflected in the mirror, everything just faded away.
I woke up on the floor. The man was patting my hand and apologizing.
“So sorry, Mr. McOsker. Are you okay? I grabbed you when you started to fall.”
“I’m from RonCon. Well, not actually. My facility has been hired by RonCon to find you and Mrs. McOsker. My name is Ted”. He was dressed in white coveralls and a light blue helmet.
“What---?” I was trying to stand up when the restroom door swung open and Liz rushed in.
“Did you find---” She stopped short and stared at the man called Ted. You could see she was confused. “Frank, what’s happening?”
“Mrs. McOsker, I’m Ted and I’m here—” and he reached for her as she began to slide to the floor.
A Little Later
The man, who called himself Ted, sat across from us in an overstuffed lounge chair as Liz and I huddled together on a Zebra striped sofa. We were in Macy’s furniture department. This Ted person seemed non-threatening in his brown turtle neck sweater, white coveralls and wire rim glasses. In fact, except for his blue biker’s helmet, he looked like a rather meek college professor.
“I’m sure you are upset and confused and have a lot of questions- -"
“Who are you? What the hell----”
“Well, as I said to you before, Frank, may I call you Frank? I was sent here to find you and to help you---”
“Get back home?” Liz asked, shivering in my arms.
“Yes, of course. However, let me explain a few things. I mean, first I need to let you know that we’re all extremely sorry for any inconvenience this incident---”
“Inconvenience?! Incident?!” Suddenly all the worry and fear of the last few days turned to white hot anger. “This has been more than any inconvenience---it’s been---when we get back, your boss, Mr. RonCon, is going to face such a law suit---”
“He’s not my employer, Mr. McOsker. I’m from an agency that---we have been hired to help retrieve you and your wife. Actually, we have been working around the clock trying to find a way to bring Mrs. McOsker back but then you disappeared Frank and we---”
“We? Who is we?”
“—ah—I haven’t really been authorized to share that information. It would be a violation of national security so---”
Leaping up off the Zebra I grabbed Mr. Ted by the front of his coveralls and began shaking him. “I don’t give a shit about national security and, believe me, your security is in very great danger if you don’t start explaining what happened to us right now. Who are you and what are you going to do about getting us home?!”
I threw him back violently into the big licorice-black lounge chair. It tilted backward and the leg rest popped up. I am not a violent man but I must have scared him. He looked pale and shrunken as he attempted to lower his legs and get up out of the chair.
It was at this moment that a young couple chose to wander over to the area where Liz and I were confronting Mr. Ted. Of course, they couldn’t see us or Mr. Ted. The pretty young lady spoke up.
“Look at that sofa. That would go great with our Flokati rug.”
“Well, I’m lusting for this black leather Lazy Boy” said the young man as he lowered his rear end onto the chair. “Shoot. It’s not as comfortable as it looks. That’s disappointing. Almost feels like there’s something stuck under the leather.”
“Good. I’m glad. It’s so big and ugly. It looks like a giant burnt marshmallow.” And they moved on.
Mr. Ted struggled up out of the chair and adjusted his clothes. “Please let me take you back to someone who can answer your questions and who can help remedy this situation.” He straightened his glasses and adjusted his helmet.
“Just get us back home, please,” Liz said, holding on to my arm, preventing me from having another go at him.
“Yes, of course. If you would just follow me.” He started walking out of Macy’s and down the busy mall corridor while Liz and I trailed behind him, dodging the crowd of shoppers. Once in a while I would wing an innocent customer unintentionally and they would spin around with a surprised look. It was all very weird. How could we be invisible and still make physical contact? This whole adventure was so massively confusing.
We turned down the hall back towards the restrooms and as we neared the door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY Mr. Ted came to a stop. He reached into his coveralls’ pocket and pulled out a small silver cylinder. He handed it to Liz and then slipped his hand back into his pocket and brought out two more of the same shaped objects. With some hesitation he offered one to me and kept the other one for himself. The device felt cold and the exterior seemed to vibrate like the buzz of an electric razor. There was a crystal imbedded in the top that glowed a soft blue.
“We are standing in, what I believe to be, the correct coordinates. I will count down from five and then on my command of ‘GO’ you need to press the blue button. Okay?” He looked at both of us.
“This glass thing on top?” Liz asked, looking confused.
“That’s correct. Just push down on it.”
“No. On ‘go.’ I’ll count to five and then I’ll say go. All right?
We stood close together, in this hall from the distant past, each holding a device that I presumed was to take us back to the present. Not just teleporting us home but shooting us forward into the future. It was all beyond my limited imagination.
I’m writing this as I sit on a cot in a very small windowless room. Liz lies on a cot opposite me. Thankfully she has finally fallen asleep after much tossing and turning. While we’ve both been very affected by all that has happened, it seems to have hit her the hardest.
After pressing the silver tube, as instructed, we arrived? teleported? landed? on to a large silver platform in a very dark and cold space. I felt that familiar tingling sensation I had experienced before as I reached for Liz.
“Are you okay, sweetheart?”
“I think so. I feel kind of itchy, though.”
“That will fade very quickly,’ Mr. Ted uttered as he moved away from us and stepped off the silver platform. “Please follow me.”
“Where are we?”
“Please come this way,” and taking Liz’s elbow he helped her step down.
“Where are we?” I asked again. “What is this place?”
From out of the deep cold dark came a pleasant voice obviously augmented by a microphone. It sounded genderless.
“Please, Mr. McOsker, just follow Mr. Lansing’s instructions. It’s important that you and Mrs. McOsker leave the space chamber immediately. For your own well-being.”
With my hand on Liz’s shoulder, the two of us, like blind people, followed Ted out of the darkness. The bright light that suddenly appeared when he opened some sort of door kept us from seeing our surroundings for a few seconds. When my eyes finally adjusted I found us standing in a large and very white circular room with a high ceiling and a curved wall covered in giant video screens. The so called ‘space chamber,’ from which we had just exited, sat, like a giant mushroom cap, in the center of the room. There were small portholes dotted along it’s outside. Ted stood by the door, from which we had just exited, which was now closed. No one else seemed to be in the room. No one occupied the chairs that sat underneath the giant monitors.
“I’ll leave you here for the time being,” Mr. Ted said with a courteous smile, “The head of operations will be here to help you in a moment. Just wait here.” He turned to go.
“Wait a minute. What’s going on? We want to go home, now”
Mr. Ted continued to walk away and disappeared around the curved side of the toad stool chamber.
“Wait!” But he was gone. I started to follow him until Liz pulled me back.
“Don’t, Frank. He said to wait here. I’m kind of dizzy. I need to sit down.” She eased herself into one of the swivel chairs and put her head down between her knees.
“Are you okay, sweetheart?” I asked, crouching down beside her chair.
“She’ll be fine, Mr. McOsker,” came a voice from directly behind me, “The effects will wear off in a few minutes.”
I stood up quickly and turned around. The figure that faced me was tall and somewhat androgynous. He was dressed in a navy-blue three-piece suit with a silver-gray tie. His hair was salt and peppered and slicked close to his scalp. It was hard to tell his age as he looked like he could have been in his thirties or as old as sixty.
“Mr. and Mrs. McOsker, I’m Doctor Heiner and I’m in charge of this facility. I’m very sorry about all that has occurred and maybe---”
“Is this a RonCon facility?’ I interrupted. “I would like to speak to someone in charge immediately!”
“You are not at RonCon, Mr. McOsker. This is a government laboratory, “he replied, smiling politely. “We contacted RonCon when we heard about your wife’s disappearance. We offered to help.” He walked over to the nearest monitor and touched the screen. A schematic popped up filled with, what I presumed were, logarithms and various complex equations. This then faded into images of Liz and myself. “I’m sorry it took so long to find both of you. Actually, Frank---may I call you Frank? Actually, your attempt to follow your wife helped us zero in on both of your locations.”
“Dr. Heiner, would you please help us understand what the hell is going on here. I’m confused---beyond confused. Is this the future, the past? Where are we? What day is it? I only know we went somewhere very strange. We seemed to be stuck back in another time. And now we---I---"
“Frank, I’m sure you and Mrs. McOsker----Elizabeth, I believe? ----you must be very hungry and---.”
“Actually, I’m very thirsty,” Liz whispered, getting up from her chair. I put my arm around her shoulders. She was still shivering.
“Of course, of course. You must be a little dehydrated. Let’s get you two up to the café and then, after some hot food and tea or coffee or whatever, we can discuss the situation and I can explain what happened.”
An Hour Later
The café was more like a four-star restaurant than a cafeteria, with a white tablecloth and a rose in a bud vase on each table. The food was above average and certainly welcome. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was. The elevator we used to get to this level had no floor indicators so I was only aware of our ascending. When we were led to a table I noticed that the place was empty except for a couple of men, in white coveralls, in a far corner, drinking coffee.
“Very quiet here, Doctor.” I said, looking at the changing scenery behind the many windows that were cut into the walls. Projections faded in and out of breathtaking vistas and bucolic landscapes. Obviously, we were still underground.
“I imagine that’s due to the lateness of the hour,” replied Dr. Heiner. “The night shift is busy at work in other parts of the building.”
“What time is it?” Liz asked, as she sat down.
“Two-thirty in the morning. It would probably be best if you both got some rest after you’ve had some food---”
“No, doctor,” I interrupted, “We need you to explain what’s going on here, first. Where are we, exactly?”
Dr. Heiner sat down at the table and poured himself a glass of water from a metal carafe. “This is the Hawking Space Laboratory and it’s located in the Rocky Mountains.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Yes, well, that’s because it’s a secret facility. What we do here is not ready to be shared with other governments or the public in general.”
“And what is it you do here, besides kidnap people?” Liz asked with understandable iciness.
“Again, my apologies. Perhaps, if I start at the beginning I can help you understand what happened and why.” He sat forward and folded his hands on the table. “This laboratory was established to study different forms of space travel, to develop ways, other than rocket ships, to visit other galaxies. Rockets are very expensive and very slow. They have taken us to the moon and Mars but to travel to planets hundreds of light years away means suspended animation for the occupants and permanent separation from their families here on earth. Also, long periods of weightlessness, as we know, causes irreversible damage to the body. So, that was the original goal of this institute, to create a safe alternative to rocket propelled travel.”
“And have you been successful?” I asked.
“That was, as I said, the original goal, but things changed when teleportation came into existence. This was years before I joined the staff here. My predecessors believed that teleportation might be the answer and so they began experimenting by sending objects to teleporters that they had positioned in near space. The idea was to start sending teleporters ahead by unmanned rockets to those planets deemed inhabitable, and then, when they reached their destination, years from now, to teleport humans crews.”
“And was this experiment successful?”
“Not really. After many years of sending teleporters off into space, when it came time to teleport something to a planet, five-hundred light years away, they discovered that the distance of millions of miles was just too far for the object to disassemble and reassemble safely.”
“What was the object they tried to send?” Liz asked with some hesitation.
“Chimps. They needed to send something that was a good substitute for a human being so they used laboratory chimpanzees. Six of them, I believe.”
“But that’s illegal.” I added.
“Not at the beginning. The Ape Equality Act hadn’t been passed until many years into the experiment.”
“And what happened to these teleported chimps? I asked, knowing I wouldn’t like the answer.
“Mercifully, they just disappeared. They tried to bring them back but to no avail.”
Liz looked very angry. “Well, they may have just disappeared in the eyes of the creators of this---this experiment but I’m sure they must have suffered and died a horrible death. Barbaric! You should be ashamed!”
“This was way before I took over. What happened, and this is what really concerns your situation, is that, while working on this program a strange phenomenon happened. One of the chimps returned---only one---but he brought something back with him.”
“What? What came back with him?”
“A leaf, a large green leaf.”
“And why is this important? He was hungry, he took a leaf.”
“But from where? From where in outer space did he pick a leaf? Or had he just been teleported to a jungle here on Earth and found a tree with edible leaves?
“Well, that sounds logical? Makes sense.”
“Yes, it would make sense if the leaf was from a tree that existed.”
“What do you mean?” Liz interjected.
“The leaf didn’t look familiar so they contacted a botanist at the Museum of Natural History who looked it over and became very confused. He asked them where they had found a fresh leaf from a tree that went extinct two hundred and forty-five million years ago. Glossopteris, that’s its name---the tree.”
I tried to wrap my head around this revelation and to work out how it applied to our situation. “So, this monkey—ape---chimp. who had been teleported into space. was actually sent back in time?”
“Correct. The late Jurassic period.”
“And, like him, were we teleported to an earlier time?”
“How is that possible? This is insane. And where do you come into the picture?” I shook my head in total confusion.
“My field is quantum physics so the powers in charge called me in for a consultation. The evidence was pretty conclusive---we had the leaf and we even found some pollen in the chimps’ fur from that extinct plant. It was all very exciting and I could see the potential: time travel. I was put in charge and we began to figure out how to duplicate the journey Columbus made.”
“Columbus? You mean the Nina, the Pinta---”
“No, I’m sorry, I meant that’s the name we gave the chimp, Columbus.”
“But I don’t understand.” Liz looked wearily at Dr. Heiner, “How does this work? I mean, if I----if we hadn’t just experienced this---this travel business first hand I would say this is just crazy talk. I---I—"
“Okay, okay,” I interrupted. “So, does this mean you took a program dedicated to space travel and turned it into one experimenting with time travel?”
Dr. Heiner nodded, “Yes.”
“And how’s that working out?”
“Very well, actually.”
“Until we entered the scene.”
“Well, yes. Over the last year we have had several successful episodes, both sending and retrieving.”
“Monkeys? Dogs? Cats?”
Dr. Heiner smiled as he stood up from the table. “Mr. McOsker, you and your wife look exhausted. You must be wiped out so I insist that you get some rest. We’ll continue this tomorrow after---”
“But you haven’t---"
“My assistants will show you to the dormitory. There is a shower facility in your room as well. I’m sure you’ll find everything you need.” He signaled to the two men in coveralls who had been sitting in the far corner. They got to their feet and walked toward us.
“Doctor, please help us to understand---”
“Tomorrow, I’ll answer all your questions, tomorrow, but right now you must get some sleep.” He nodded a goodbye and began to walk away.
“Tomorrow.” And he was gone.
The two men stood silently on either side of Liz and me. The taller one, looking like he might have played defense for the Minnesota Vikings, pointed to the elevator. Putting my arm around Liz I led her to the shiny double doors which opened as we approached. We stepped inside, accompanied by our silent escorts. The Viking pressed the only button and we descended.
The Morning After
The doctor was right. We both passed out as soon as we hit the sheets. When I awoke, Liz was still asleep across from me in her narrow cot. I stumbled into the small alcove that housed the shower, sink and toilet and relieved myself. A hot shower seemed a welcoming choice but, not wanting to wake Liz, I decided to do a bit of exploring first.
Opening the door to the outside hall, I looked up and down the silent and empty space. There were five or six doors on each side of the hall that I reasoned opened to more dormitory rooms. At both ends of the corridor, a glass door closed off the dimly lit passageway. I stepped out into the hall and headed to the exit door on my right. When I reached it, I could see it had no knob or handle, just a palmprint reader. I peered through the glass and saw a figure, down at the end of another long hall, facing away from me. Tapping on the glass caused the figure to turn around and head my way. As it got closer I realized it was the Viking. He indicated with a wave and a shake of his head that I should return to my room.
“Excuse me, but I’d like to talk to Dr. Heiner.” I shouted through the glass.
“The doc will call for you when he’s ready, ”was his muffled response. He turned to go.
“Wait! This door won’t open. That’s a fire hazard!” He kept on walking. “Open this door! -----Why are we locked in here?”
The Viking reached the door at the end of the other hall, swung it open and disappeared behind it as it closed. My heart sank. It seemed we were not guests of Dr. Heiner but his prisoners. I had no choice but to return to our room and wake Liz with the unpleasant news. But first I tried using my FleshFone to reach Josh. After reciting his number into my wrist, I waited for a response but, not surprisingly, there was nothing but dead air.
When Dr. Heiner finally sent for us, we had both showered and changed into the coveralls that had been hanging in our room. As we followed our two escorts down the hall and through the now unlocked door, Liz took my hand and whispered, “I feel like we’ve been called to the principal’s office.”
“I think, in a way, we have. He certainly seems to set all the rules around here, when to eat, when to sleep, when we can ask questions---" We were back in the elevator going up but, once again, I couldn’t tell to what floor we were heading. After several seconds it stopped and the doors opened up to a blaze of sunlight----real sunlight. There were tall windows full of sky and snow-covered mountaintops. Below the mountains, clouds obscured the valley like a vast white ocean.
“Good morning,” Dr. Heiner said, as he stood in this beautiful sun-filled room. I hope you slept well.”
“We probably wouldn’t have slept so soundly if we had known we were locked up.” I answered, taking a quick look at what I presumed was his office. There was a glass topped stainless-steel desk, the size of an aircraft carrier, several armchairs and sofas and, lining the walls under the windows, bookcases full of scientific volumes. All of this rested on a very large and very expensive Isfahan rug.
“I’m sorry if you perceived it that way. It was for your own safety. This building is full of some very dangerous equipment. I’m sure you understand. We can’t have unauthorized personnel wandering the premises. Also, Hawking is a secret facility and must remain so.”
“Dr. Heiner, you promised to explain everything to us,” Liz said, looking very small in her oversized coveralls with rolled up sleeves and pants legs touching the floor.
“And we want to hear those explanations now.” I added.
“Yes, of course. There is coffee and pastries,” he replied, pointing to a cart standing in the center of the room. “Please, help yourself, and then let’s sit down and get comfortable.” He indicated one of the sofas and, after filling a mug with coffee, took a seat in an arm chair near the couch.
“Dr. Heiner, while we appreciate your hospitality, we are tired of this dance we’ve been doing,” I said, trying to control the anger I was feeling. “Please, no more beating around the bush. What happened to us? And how are you going to remedy the situation?”
The doctor crossed his legs and took a sip of coffee.
“Let me start by asking you if you are familiar with the Wormhole Theory?”
“Not really. I mean everyone has heard of wormholes but----"
“Well, in simplest terms, it’s the idea that time is not rigid but stretches in many directions. It’s flexible and, as we have discovered here at Hawking, it can be manipulated. If we unite Negative/Energy with Positive/Energy we can alter Space/Time by creating a Wormhole. This is like a tunnel that cuts through what we perceive as ordinary time and allows matter to pass either forward or backwards in time.
While this sounds easy to achieve, it is, of course, very complicated and uses massive amounts of energy. We found that it was an accidental burst of immense energy that sent our chimpanzee Columbus off into a wormhole and brought him back.”
“Alright, so you discovered you had created a wormhole. What does this mean? What can you do with this knowledge?”
“Well, our first challenge was in how to recreate that amount of energy and be able to control it safely. That took us several years. The next obstacle was designing a way that a human could travel the wormhole.”
“A time machine?” Liz interjected.
“While I’m not fond of the term ‘machine’, I suppose it is so burnt into our collective psyches that it will have to do. It is actually a misnomer. I prefer Time Disc. The participant, the traveler, doesn’t actually ride in a vehicle. That’s where the teleporter comes in.”
“And where we come in----Liz and I.”
“Well, yes, that’s true. But, before we get to the importance of the teleporter and your accidental journey, let me finish my history of our attempts at time travel. About ten years into this experiment we finally had the energy source, the Time Disc and the tracking controls in place. The next step was finding suitable subjects for testing.”
“More monkeys?” I asked, grimly.
“No. Another animal, often used in experiments of this kind.”
“Rats?” inquired Liz, “Were rats what you used as guinea pigs this time?”
Dr. Heiner smiled. “No, actually, we used Guinea Pigs as---guinea pigs.” I could tell he found this amusing. I was getting less amused by the second.
“Alright, okay. So, you sent these little furry rodents out into god knows were. How many did you lose and how many came back fried or missing their heads?”
“None. Out of the twenty, who were used in the tests, all came back. None were injured and they went on to live healthy and happy lives.”
“Well, good for them and lucky for you. So, let me guess. You moved into human trials, human guinea pigs, right?”
“That is correct. It would have been best to use subjects from what we call the ‘outside world’ but that was impossible. The project had to remain a secret and still does. Until several ethical conditions---but I’ll get back to that in a minute. What is important for you to know is that all the volunteers succeeded in their missions and were returned safe and sound.”
“Just who were these volunteers?” Liz asked, as she refilled her coffee mug.
“Staff members, anyone who wished to be part of the experiment. We opened it up to all employees who could pass a vigorous health exam. We also offered a significant bonus to each volunteer.”
“And these subjects---volunteers---actually went back in time?” I asked.
“Like we did?” Liz added.
“Yes, and forward as well.” Heiner answered, rising up from his chair.
“Travelled into the future?” I asked, dubiously. “Really?”
“Yes. Here, let me show you.” Heiner touched something on his desk and a hologram appeared, floating above our heads. It was difficult, at first, to make out what we were seeing but eventually a figure began to take shape. “Our volunteers were fitted out with safety helmets into which we installed cameras so as to record what they were experiencing.”
“And what are we seeing?” Liz asked, staring up at the figure in the hologram. The person was sitting at a desk in a room that looked similar to the one we were standing in. It was hunched over some sort of tablet and the light from the device lit up its’ crown of white hair.
Moving slowly around the hologram, I could tell it was an elderly male. “Yeah, what are we seeing? Who is this person?”
“That is myself,” Heiner replied, with a note of pride in his voice.
“But that’s an old man,’ Liz exclaimed.
“Yes, it is a little upsetting to see ones’ self in decline. That’s me, twenty years from now, still working here at the Hawking Space Laboratory. I must admit I was somewhat depressed when I realized that I hadn’t moved on to greener pastures.’ He smiled as he ran his hand over his head. “But, I’ll still have my hair.”
I didn’t know what to believe. This was beyond incredible. It defied all logic. My first reaction was that this was a fake, a very good fake, but a fake never-the-less. You may be able to visit the past, as it seemed we did, but you can’t go into unchartered territory and witness events that haven’t even happened yet. This would indicate that everything is predetermined. Does it mean ones’ life is all laid out beforehand and follows a certain route, from birth to death.?
“Unacceptable!” I blurted out.
“I know what you’re thinking Mr. McOsker; that old conundrum about free will versus predestination. Let me show you another hologram that might help you understand this whole situation better.” He sent up a second hologram to rest beside the first one.
This image was again one of Dr. Heiner but, instead of sitting, he was standing, looking out of a window at the white capped mountains. He was slightly stooped and, like the first hologram, his hair was white.
“Please notice the date and time flashing on the sides of the two holograms.”
Liz and I looked and both saw, at the same moment, what he was getting at.
“They’re the same!” Liz exclaimed.
“Right. We sent the volunteer back a second time to the exact day and time of the first visit and, as you can see, things are different. I did this experiment because I wanted to be sure that my theory was correct.”
“And what was this theory?” I asked, totally confused.
“That we are riding along through time beside many other ‘we’s’ who are just like us but who are living different lives. That’s me up there in two holograms but which one is really me? And the answer is they both are because I am moving along two different time lines.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” Liz sighed, sinking back into the sofa. “I just want to go home.”
“Yes, how does any of this,” I said, pointing to the holograms, “have anything to do with us getting back home?”
“I’m just trying to explain the quantum mechanics behind time travel so that you’ll understand what has happened to you. Somehow you both jumped from one-time line to another and entered a wormhole that sent you back---”
“How?” I interrupted. “How in the hell did we end up sliding down a wormhole, your particular wormhole, doctor?”
“That is what we are looking into at the moment. We believe your teleporter must have sent Mrs. McOster to our Time Disc by mistake. How this occurred is still a mystery----crossed wires, computer malfunction, sabotage----”
“We have to be open to any and all possibilities. There are other governments working in this same area. The goal for them, as for all of us, has been to get there first. Here at Hawking we believe we have done that. What we are concentrating on now is developing safeguards and defense mechanisms in order to prevent the misuse of time travel.”
“News flash; whatever you’re doing isn’t going so well, if we are any example,” I reminded him, with an edge to my voice.
“And, once again, I apologize for any unpleasantness you may have experienced.” I was about to shout that ‘unpleasantness’ was not a word that I would use to describe that which we had been through, when he continued.
“We’ve been able to reconstruct the sequence of events that occurred during your journey into the past. We’ve gone over everything that happened, right up to our rescuing you and Mrs. McOsker”.
“When you,” he said, indicating Liz, “entered the address of the beauty salon, on the keypad, somehow the teleporter got one digit wrong. That sent you to us. Unfortunately, we were in the middle of warming up the Time Disc and couldn’t shut it down fast enough. Your teleporter’s safety mechanism, recognizing an error, automatically entered your return address.”
“You mean it tried to send me back----home. But I never got there.”
“You got there but you got there seventy-two years in the past.”
Liz shook her head and then nodded as she worked through this information. “Well, I knew we were in the past, but just not that far into the past. And I told Frank that we were probably standing where our house would be in the future.”
“We figure the Time Disc took over and, thinking your address was the one being requested, shot you through the wormhole to a time when there was a shopping mall on the property where your house now exists.”
“And so, what happened with me?” I asked, wanting this to be over.
Doctor Heiner paused and smiled. “You were a big help, actually. After several days of communication with the Philadelphia police and RonCon we were able hook up your teleporter with our facility’s computers. This allowed us to monitor any activity…”
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph! You wired my house, you invaded---you guys knew what had happened to Liz and you never told---”
“Frank, Frank---we knew something had happened, that Elizabeth had gone somewhere in the past but we didn’t know where or when and, therefore, how to find her. When we saw you entering the teleporter we immediately locked onto your trajectory and followed you to your destination. You made it possible to find Mrs. McOsker.”
“So, you figured out where we were, you programed your Time thingy---”
“Time Disc, and sent someone---Mr. Ted, to retrieve us.”
“What took you so fucking long?!”
“Frank!” Liz exclaimed, grabbing my arm.
“I was there for almost a week. Liz was there even longer. If I led you to the right coordinates why did you let us wander around, scared and confused, for days---”
“Frank, we had to make sure everything was safely in place. We had to work out a correct and safe plan for your recovery. As, I have explained, this is a very new science. We are just at the beginning of this amazing journey----so much yet to learn. And we had to find a volunteer willing to take the risk---Ted Lansing volunteered but---
“We never volunteered to take a risk!” I shouted, in spite of Liz squeezing my arm.
“I know, I know and we appreciate that you have been so understanding---”
“I am not understanding at all! I am pissed off! There is so much I am not understanding, Doctor!” By now I was shaking with rage.
“Please, Mr. McOsker, let’s all sit down and we’ll talk about your situation and what’s next.”
“What’s next? What’s next is that you get us back to where we live and you do it now!”
For the first time the good doctor looked uncomfortable.
“That’s what we have to discuss.”
“There’s nothing to discuss. Take us to the nearest public teleporter. At least it’s not likely to send us to Jupiter or the year 1780 or god knows what! In fact, I’m willing to walk home, if we have to.” I leaned into the doctor, working overtime to keep my hands off of him. He smiled but it was a weak imitation of a smile.
“I am very sorry but you can’t go home.”
Five Minutes Later
With the help of the Viking and his sidekick I had calmed down enough to listen to the good doctor’s explanation.
“Frank, Are you okay? Keep breathing. Please hear me out. What I meant to say is that you can’t go home---yet.”
I could see Liz was on the verge of tears. My tantrum had not helped the situation. “I don’t understand, doctor, “she said in hushed tones. “I don’t understand any of this. Why can’t we go home?”
“I’m sure we will get you home eventually but for now we must ask you to be patient and to try and understand our situation.”
“Your situation? What does that mean?”
“He means,” I said, finally finding my voice, “that we’ve seen and heard too much. Right, doctor?”
“After all, this is a secret facility. Can’t have a couple of ordinary citizens spinning tales of time travel for the whole world to hear.”
“But, Frank, we wouldn’t have to tell anyone, “Liz interjected.
“And just how would we explain where we’ve been the last couple of weeks? Oh, we were taking the sun in Tahiti, or---climbing Mt. Everest!”
“No one will believe us, Frank, if we start talking about what really happened. They’ll think we’ve gone insane!”
The doctor spoke up. “Unfortunately, Mrs. McOsker, there are quite a few people out there,” he said, gesturing to the windows overlooking the mountains, “who would listen to you and believe your story, people you don’t know and whom you may never even see, people who could do great harm. This is what I meant when I mentioned our concern earlier about the ethics of time travel. We’ve done a lot of studying and brain storming about this and, until we can devise some way to put limits on the use of time travel, we must not allow the outside world to know anything about our success.”
“What kind of limits?” Liz asked, and we waited for the good doctor to answer. After a slight pause he replied.
“Imagine if you could go into the future and see the results of a horse race, then return and place a bet on the horse that you know will win? But that’s a rather mundane example. How about this? We know, for example, and you must have experienced this, that one becomes invisible when one is traveling either in the past or the future. But, for reasons we still don’t understand, you can physically interact with your environment. This means, for example, one can enter a private meeting and learn secrets that could bring down a government or learn the combination of a bank vault and rob it after you return to the present. Or, being invisible, kill someone and get away with it. The power of time travel is unlimited.”
“I can understand your concern but our family and friends need to know that we’re alive and okay! Frank, did you try to call Josh and Karen------they’ll---
I interrupted. “FleshFones don’t seem to work in here. Is that your policy, Doctor, no outside communication allowed?”
Doctor Heiner rose from his chair and crossed to Liz. He took hold of her hand. “We will get you home, don’t worry, but we need a little more time to work out the logistics. We want to make sure that you two are safe and the program is secure.”
“How much time, Doctor?” I asked, stepping between the doctor and Liz. He turned back to his desk and scrolled through some numbers floating on the glass surface.
“A couple of days, three at the most,” he replied.
“No way! No effing way! We have folks worrying about us.”
“Mr. McOsker!” the good doctor said angrily, “this time/space experiment is a government supervised project. I’m sure you know what that means. I have to answer to some very powerful officials and, in this circumstance, I must wait for instructions from them. We all have to wait.”
“And what do we do while we’re waiting? This is absurd!” I was so angry I was ready to pick him up and throw him through one of the windows.
“We’ll make you as comfortable as possible. We have a library full of ComLivre titles as well as hundreds of films. There is a gym, a sauna and an arcade----”
“Doctor, if we had wanted to spend time at a spa we would have teleported to the Bahamas, not to this---this prison!”
“Mr. McOsker, let me emphasize that you are our guests, not our prisoners. Now, I must get back to work if we want to get this situation resolved.” Turning to go, he added, “I’ll see you at lunch. Mr. Lansing will take over from here.” He walked away quickly and, as if by magic Mr. Ted appeared by my side. Ignoring him, I shouted at the exiting doctor.
“Wait a minute! You can’t---"
“Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. McOsker. Let me show you around,” Mr. Ted said, with a smile that seemed very inappropriate considering the fury I was in. “Why don’t we start with the gym. There’s a large pool and also a steam room. Okay? Please, follow me.” He began striding to the elevator while I tried to stand my ground but Liz grabbed my elbow.
“Come on, Frank,” she whispered, “we might as well. Maybe we’ll see something that’ll help us---”
“Shhh! He’ll hear us. Let’s just go along with him. It’s only for three more days.”
The Viking and his associate came up behind us and, like reluctant sheep, we were herded into the elevator.
Two Weeks Later
By now, I’m very familiar with all of the common rooms. I’ve swum in the heated pool, taken thirty-nine meals in the cafeteria, watched twelve films in the library, read an untold number of ComLivres and explored the halls that are open to us. There is an infirmary, with a nurse on duty, but so far, I haven’t had to use any of his services. What I haven’t been able to do is find a way to get out of this goddamn place. My attempts to gain access to the prohibited areas have been thwarted by either locked doors or by members of the security force. The teleporter room is closely guarded day and night. No hope of escape there.
One surprising thing, however, is how friendly Liz and I have become with Mr. Ted. Maybe it’s an example of the Stockholm Syndrome, you know, bonding with your captors. I feel nothing but animosity towards Doctor Heiner but with Ted it’s different. He has been very open with us, answering our many questions and keeping us relatively calm.
Turns out he’s an expert programmer and that he was an apprentice to Heiner when the doctor was working in D.C. He was invited to join the Hawking Lab as their head of programming, all due to the doctor’s recommendation.
“It’s been very exciting, to delve into such unchartered territory. I know the doctor seems a bit cold---
“Frigid,” opined Liz.
“Yes, however, he is so committed to this project. This is his whole life. I’ve never met anyone so dedicated and that, in turn, inspires great dedication in the rest of the staff.”
“Does he inspire you?” I ask.
“Yes, of course. Although lately---”
His hesitation seemed to me to imply some trouble in paradise. It gave me hope. “What happened?”
“Nothing, really. He just seems more edgy, a little more dissatisfied with the way things are going. And, of course, your situation has created a bit of tension.”
“That’s an understatement,” piped in Liz, looking up from the novel she was reading on a ComLivre.
We were sitting at a table in the café partaking of afternoon tea. So civilized! I felt like Liz and I were a pair of Poodles being groomed and pampered but still attached to a leash.
“Ted, if the doctor is so concerned with secrecy isn’t it possible that someone, who works here, could spill the beans? I mean how can he keep any of you from talking about this project when you’re on the outside?”
“Well, I suppose he can’t, at least not for much longer. But, up ‘till now, the restrictions that have been put in place seem to have worked. The only personnel that come and go are in the maintenance department and they are never allowed on the laboratory floors. These are the janitors, the cafeteria staff, the cleaning people. They live away from the facility and work ordinary hours, nine to five. All our supplies are teleported to our warehouse so no outsiders ever enter the buildings.”
“Until now,” said Liz, closing her ComLivre. “What about the rest of the staff? What about you?”
“Well, I signed a confidentiality agreement as did all the other employees. Yeah, I know, people often violate such agreements but we are given a very substantial salary and a very generous bonus.”
“How does it work when you leave the premises? Does security keep track of you? Do they monitor your IDChip?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you understood. We never leave.”
“You never leave?!” I was stunned.
“Well, yes. It’s kind of like joining the armed services. We sign up for a five-year hitch, move in and get to work. When our tour of duty is over we can sign on for another five years or choose to leave. So far very few of us have selected to leave.”
“But what about family? Parents? Girlfriends, boyfriends?”
“There are two married couples here. Each one of the four is a skilled scientist so that has worked out well. No children, yet, which I suppose is for the best. But I’m sure you understand that due to the demands of this ground-breaking work there isn’t much time for----extra-curricular activity. That’s not to say that there isn’t an occasional liaison. But the real passion is the work.”
“Ted, how long have you been here?” Liz asked.
“I’m starting my eighth year,” he answered, with a hint of pride. “I’d say that I, like most of us here, am a nerd of the first order, and I’m more comfortable in the lab than I am in the outside world.”
“But don’t you have family and friends that you miss?”
“Sure. But the project is so close to completion. When Dr. Heiner feels it’s finally time to share our incredible accomplishments with the world then we can reunite with our families.”
Ted was beginning to sound like the member of some religious cult. It seemed obvious that he idolized the good doctor. I saw an opportunity.
“It looks like you admire Dr. Heiner very much.”
“Oh, yes, I do. You’ve seen what he’s accomplished. He’s a genius.”
“Right. And since you know him so well could you do us a favor? Would it be possible for you to ask him to hurry up our release date? You know, ask him to let us go, when he’s in a good mood?”
Ted looked like I’d thrown my coffee in his face. Liz stepped in.
“Would you plead our case, Ted, please? We’ve been here for at least a month.”
“Oh, I—I—I understand. I’m so sorry. I wish I could help you but- “
“Ted please, Liz and I don’t belong here, you know that. You can convince Doctor Heiner that he has nothing to worry about, that our lips are sealed---’
“We won’t tell our story to anyone,” Liz said softly, putting her hands on his shoulders and staring into his eyes until he lowered his head. “We promise.”
“I believe you, but it’s not up to me or even the doctor. He has to get
the go ahead from Washington.” He pulled away from Liz. “I’m sorry. I’ve got to go. My break is over.” With that he hurried away like a scared rabbit.
I looked at Liz. “I’d say that went well.”
So, here we are in our windowless room and, as I write this, it has been six weeks since we arrived here at the Hawking-fucking-Institute. I imagine this must be what purgatory is like, stuck in limbo with no hope of ever escaping. We have tried just about everything to get Dr. Heiner to release us, bribes, vows of silence, hunger strikes, threats of suicide or murder but he knows we are just bluffing. We are totally powerless.
Ted has been avoiding us. We see him, once in a while, in the café grabbing a meal and taking it to go. If we run into him, in one of the many tunnel-like halls, he turns around and goes in the opposite direction. I keep hoping to catch him in the elevator but, so far, it hasn’t happened.
Liz has become a little withdrawn (surprise) and I find her crying in the middle of the night. I feel so helpless. If I believed in a god I would pray.
One Month Later
Maybe I’ll have to revise my feelings about God. It has all happened so fast. We’re going home! Ted came to our room last night. He hadn’t talked to us since we had asked him to help us all those weeks ago.
“I have some good news.”
“We’re getting out of here?” Liz exclaimed.
It was as if the room exploded. I grabbed Liz and spun her around. We kissed and wept and then we spun Ted around. We all laughed like drunken idiots.
“When?” I asked, catching my breath.
“Tomorrow morning. Dr. Heiner wants to meet with you sometime today to go over the final details.” Ted was all smiles. “I’m so glad it is all working out. I’m sorry if I’ve been a bit----that I made myself---unavailable.”
“It’s okay. We understand,” Liz responded, “ The doctor is your boss and you have a job to protect.”
“Thank you. I did try to move things along but the doctor seemed so stressed and distracted. But he said he got the okay this afternoon and so you’re free to leave.”
“Thank you so much Ted,” I said, shaking his hand. “You’ve been the only truly friendly face in this fu---forsaken place.”
“I wish I had been friendlier these last few weeks but now everything is working out. Tomorrow you’ll be on your way.” His face lit up with his signature smile. “Listen, I have an idea. Let me treat you to a celebratory meal this evening. Send you off in style.”
“What a sweet suggestion. I think Frank and I would enjoy that.” Liz said turning to me. “Frank?” I nodded in agreement.
“Shall we all meet up in the café around seven?” I suggested.
“Oh, no,” Ted responded, “Come to my rooms. We’ll eat there. It’ll be more private. Okay? I’m on this floor but way at the other end. Number fourteen.”
“Alright. At seven then,” Liz replied, giving him a motherly hug. He
exited and rushed down the hall.
“I do believe Mr. Ted was blushing just now,” I pointed out.
“He really is sweet soul,” Liz replied. “Ah well. I guess we better make our way to the Principal’s office,” she added, “Face the music.”
Our visit to the good doctor was short and, for the most part, pleasant.
He, once again, apologized for any hardship we may have endured and then went on to explain how our exit would be achieved. We were to show up at his office by eight am. From there he would escort us to the teleporter station and personally send us back to our home. It seems that my son Josh has kept our PERSaPORT hooked up just in case we might return. That the doctor knew this and didn’t let us know until now was very irksome but I refrained from making a scene. I mean, we will be home tomorrow, much to our relief as well as his, I would imagine.
We returned to our room and took a quick shower. Liz put on the red and black outfit she had been wearing on that fateful day months ago. It had been cleaned and pressed by some unseen minion and left hanging on our door handle. I chose not to wear my pajamas but climbed back into the white laboratory jump suit. I thought I’d save the PJs for wearing in the morning when we finally departed the Hawking Space Institute. A kind of symbolic return to normalcy.
We left our dorm room and walked down the hall to the right and pushed through the door, which, unlike other times, was unlocked. The corridor we entered was one we had never used before. We always turned to the left, when we exited our room, as that led to the elevator and the common rooms.
“Notice how this hall is better lit than ours?” Liz pointed out, “and the walls are a cheerier color. And are those actual paintings? “
“Yeah, it’s like we stepped out of a tenement and into a five-star hotel.”
We passed dark wooden doors with brass numbers and, in some cases,
brass name plates----Barbara Hunter, Alan Morehouse, Joseph and Linda Yamada---12---13---14.
“Here it is, ”Liz whispered, “No name but he said fourteen.”
She tapped softly and stepped back as the door swung open. Ted, all smiles and grins, stood in what I gathered was his living room. He was wearing a chefs’ white apron.
“Come in, come in!’ he said excitedly, “Dinner’s almost ready. There’s some white wine on the coffee table. Help yourself!” And he hurried back to the tiny kitchen tucked in the far corner of the room.
Liz and I slipped into the love seat that was alongside the table with the wine. She poured us each a glass and we sat back and watched the chef at work.
“So, the menu tonight is rather simple. Chicken Picata, wild rice, salad and, of course, dessert,” he announced, as he squeezed a lemon over the chicken in the frying pan.
I let my eye wander around the room as he continued his private cooking show. There was a window on one wall, a small window, but a window never-the-less. It framed the last coral and lavender rays of a handsome sunset. At a right angle to this wall I noticed a very cluttered desk with three monitors busily flashing numbers and images of galaxies. Evidently, Ted brings a lot of homework back to his apartment. Another doorway gave me a peek into his bedroom, which was neat and orderly but with artwork on the wall, a generic painting of the ocean, that was obviously not of his choosing. Came with the apartment, I would imagine. The walls, in the room we were in, however, had large maps of the universe pinned on them along with schematics of contraptions I couldn’t identify.
“You really do love your work,” I said, sipping my wine.
“Oh, I do, I do! I’m very lucky to be working on such an important project and with a genius like Dr. Heiner,” he replied, taking off his apron and heading to the dining table. He brought over the chicken, which smelled fantastic, and the salad, which looked worthy of the Ritz.
“Let’s dig in while it’s hot,” he suggested, and we all sat down.
The meal was excellent, not just for the very good food but for the relaxed atmosphere (the wine helped) and the conversation. I was free to talk without feeling I was being watched. Every day, wherever we went, you could feel the stares and hear the whispers. Security cameras glared at us from every corner. Thank heaven we were finally leaving.
When dessert arrived, a fruit tart that Ted confessed to making, Liz and I moved to the loveseat and Ted poured coffee as he sat in an armchair across from us.
“So, you bake as well,” Liz said as a compliment.
“Yeah, I like cooking and baking. You know it’s a combination of chemistry and mathematics, really, how the ingredients interact with each other and the exact measurements---ounces and grams and so on. Truly a science.”
In a way, this going-away dinner was both appropriate and bizarre. It was a kind gesture on Ted’s part but also a lot like the condemned prisoner’s last meal. We had been prisoners, after all, even if the good doctor had called us guests.
“Ted, if you don’t mind, I have a lot of questions that I’ve been trying to get answers to. As you know, Dr. Heiner has not been the ideal person to ask. Now that we’re leaving, I guess it’s not that important. But it’s just that I’m curious about so many of the things that have confused us.”
“Like what?, he replied, flicking a tart crumb off the front of his sweater.
“Well, the one thing I really don’t understand is how, when we were back in time, seventy years or so, could we have physical contact with the environment and yet not be seen?”
“Yes, that’s right!” Liz interjected, “I remember eating food and touching objects in the stores and nobody noticed.’
“And I bumped into people but it was obvious they couldn’t see me.”
Ted took a moment to wash down a bite of his tart with a sip of coffee. “That was one of the conundrums that surprised our first time/space explorers. It seems it’s the nature of time to protect the traveler as well as the populace of the time being visited. We don’t know exactly how that is accomplished but the traveler remains invisible while still being able to fully participate physically in his or her surroundings. In fact, Dr. Heiner has a theory that what mankind has, for centuries, perceived as ghosts are, in fact, the shadows of time travelers. Poltergeists could actually be time travelers who are moving things around, even playing practical jokes.”
“But I remember reading some article that MIT published,” I said, interrupting Ted, “about the rules of time travel and they were adamant about the traveler not being able to do anything that would change the future. So, when Liz and I wandered around that mall we must have screwed up the future a little. Not that we started World War Four.”
“Oh, time travelers are changing the future as we speak, but not our future. You remember the doctor talking about parallel time lines, the strings, quantum physics? Any change, that is made in the past, jumps to a parallel universe so that the change never affects the future of the time line one is living in.”
“Okay, here’s a question for you,” I continued, “What happens when you go back in time, a few years, and you see yourself?”
“For some of our explorers that experience was a bit of a shock. You have to remember you’re invisible to your other self and we’ve also programed it so that no physical contact with your other self is possible. You can look but not touch.”
“And what happens if you go forward in time to see if there are changes in your surroundings, like, let’s say, in the local park or your old school yard, and a new building has been put up right where you are scheduled to arrive. Does the Time Disc imbed you in the concrete of the foundation?”
“Once again, that’s handled in the programing. The Disc will adjust the coordinates so that you will arrive outside the building. It adjusts for any dangerous obstruction. For example, it won’t drop you in the middle of the ocean or in an erupting volcano or in front of a moving vehicle.”
“I think I feel a headache coming on,” Liz said, “This is so in opposition to everything I’ve been led to believe. Maybe we’re not supposed to play around with time.”
“You remember the story of Pandora’s box?” Ted asked, as he began clearing away the dinner dishes. “After the box was opened, there was no way to get what got out back in. It’s the same for time travel. We’ve opened the box. It’s too late to turn back. And we shouldn’t. As Dr. Heiner says, again and again, ‘he who can travel through time controls the world.’”
“You mean a country or a government can use time travel to always be ahead of their neighbor?’ I asked, beginning to understand the ramifications of this whole project.
“Right. For example, a person, let’s call him a Time Spy, is ordered to assassinate the leader of a certain enemy nation. Now, he needs to find the right place and the right time to safely accomplish the deed. Well, all he has to do is travel into the future, maybe just a few months, and check out where the subject will be then, you know, and ambush him when he is alone, not surrounded by security guys.”
“You mean, the assassin returns to the present and waits until that moment comes around?” I asked.
“But that’s awful! That means nobody is safe,” Liz exclaimed, truly horrified.
“And that’s why Doctor Heiner is working so hard to implement safety locks on the Time Disc system and to establish guide lines for the proper use of time travel.”
I couldn’t let this statement go unaddressed. “Ted, if you believe that some insane terrorist is going to abide by the rules and not supersede these so-called safety locks then I have a bridge I’d like to sell you. And what about our government? You think they’re backing this project for altruistic reasons? That little scenario you just described about a Time Spy says it all. A lot of bad things are going to happen---”
“Yes, what is good about time travel?” Liz interjected, “It feels like a disaster in the making to me---like the end of the world.”
Ted nodded and seemed a little unsettled. “This is why it’s so important that what we are doing here remains a secret, for now. Other governments are working on time travel and would benefit greatly from our research. We can’t let that happen. Your reaction, just now, is probably what the reaction will be for many of the ill-informed public when the news is released. But there are so many benefits that time travel can provide.”
“Like what?” I queried.
“Well, historians can return to major events in the past and get the true story. For example, what really happened to Napoleon on the isle of Elba? Writers will be able to do their research by actually being there---being in Elizabethan London, for example, and watching Shakespeare working at the Globe theatre! We can film past events as they actually happen, the signing of the Constitution, maybe even Noah and the Ark. And the future----searching for that moment when a cure for a certain disease is discovered and bringing it back to our time.”
“You do make it sound very tantalizing, but having been thrust into the past,” Liz responded, “I can say, from personal experience, it was unpleasant and very disorienting. And who knows what this time traveling thing has done to our bodies and brains. Have you looked into that, by the way, the side effects?”
“Absolutely. We’ve tested our explorers for—”
“Ted,” I interrupted, “you are obviously very committed to this program and your points are well made. However, it’s getting late and we’re leaving early in the morning so I think it’s time for us to say goodbye. Thanks for a great dinner and for answering our questions.”
“Yes, you’ve been very kind,” Liz added. “I hope that you, and the rest of Doctor Heiner’s team, work out the kinks in the system and achieve the success you believe is ahead. However, I will be worrying about you and, if time suddenly stops still, I’ll blame it on you.”
We all laughed a polite little laugh and, after some farewell hugs and Ted wishing us a safe journey, we headed back to our tiny windowless room.
Bedtime did not mean sleep. Both Liz and I were too wound up. We were like two kids on Christmas Eve waiting for the morning to come.
“What are we going to tell Josh and the others about what happened?”
Liz whispered from her cot across from me in the dark.
“We’re going to tell them the truth.”
“But, Frank, we’ve promised not to tell anyone about this time travel business.”
“I know, I know. But that was just to get us out of here. What’s going on in this facility is dangerous and wrong and the outside world needs to know all about it,” I replied, turning towards Liz, my body unhappy with having slept so many nights on a lumpy cot without the warmth of my wife. “This tampering with time is like the early days of atomic energy research back in the twentieth century. Look at all the mistakes they made not understanding the dangers involved, radiation sickness, those explosions at the power plants in Russia and Japan and here in the U.S.”
“But who will believe you? To whom do we tell our story besides the family? The police are going to question us and they’ll think we’re some sort of UFO nuts if we talk about traveling through time. We can’t go to the government if what you say is true about them funding this project for military use.”
“We’ll go to the press. I’ve been writing down everything that’s happened from the time you disappeared up to our dinner with Mr. Ted. The media will lap it up. It’s just the kind of stuff that they love. And I have it all down in my trusty little notebook.”
“I hope you’re right, sweetheart. I’m very nervous, I mean I’m excited about getting home, but who knows what’s waiting for us.”
“Well, we could take a spin on the Time Disc and go into the near future and see what’s going to happen. How about it?”
“Don’t joke about this, Frank. I’m really scared.”
“I know, honey. But we’ll get through this. It’ll all work out, as these things usually do. By this time tomorrow night we’ll be asleep in our own comfy bed. Hallelujah.”
Liz was asleep, at last, and I was just dozing off, listening to the soft rhythm of her breathing. The knock on the door was a quiet tap and I wasn’t even sure if I had really heard it. But then it was followed up with a harsh whisper. It was Ted.
“Frank! Mrs. McOsker!”
I sat up and swung my legs over the edge of the cot.
“Frank! Open up, please!”
I stood up and started wobbling my way towards the door.
I flicked on the overhead light and unlocked the door. Before I had a chance to even open it, Ted pushed through and shut the door quickly behind him.
“What the hell is---”
“I’m so sorry but you need to get dressed and then follow me.”
“What is going on? Liz and I just got to sleep---"
“Please! Just get dressed and pack up anything you need to take with you!”
By this time Liz was awake. “What is it, Frank? What’s going on? Is it time to go already?”
“Please, Mrs. McOsker, you need to get dressed! We need to go, now!” Ted said, his voice shaking with what appeared to be fear.
“What is going on?” I repeated, pulling on my regulation white jumpsuit.
“They’re going to kill you!”
I stopped zippering my coveralls. “What?!
“I’ll explain on the way. Please, hurry!”
“Kill us? Who is going to kill us?” Liz asked, slipping into her black pants. “Where are we going?”
Ted opened the door a crack and looked up and down the hall. “I’ve got to get you out of here, now!”
Liz threw on her red jacket and I wedged my notebook into the large vest pocket in the front of my jumpsuit. We really didn’t have anything else to take. I was not about to bother with my tired old pajamas and robe.
“Where are you taking us?” I asked, feeling a bit paranoid. Could this be a trap Dr. Heiner had set up with Ted as the Judas Goat?
“To the teleporter room. Hurry!” And we were off and running down the hall towards the exit door. Ted put his palm on the hand-recognition panel and the door clicked open. We followed him through the doorway and down the dark corridor.
“There’s a security camera around the next corner, but I think we’ll be
alright. Pete is on duty in the monitor room but he’s always asleep by this time. Come on.”
“Ted, what the hell happened?” I asked, trying to keep up with him as he hurried ahead of us. “We were all set to leave this morning!”
“Shh! Not so loud.”
“But what happened,” I whispered.
“You were never meant to leave this place alive. There was a meeting last night, right after you left my apartment.”
“A meeting?” Liz whispered, from behind me.
“We were told that you two were to be taken care of----permanently------removed from the premises. When I asked the doctor what that meant he said he had orders, from the higher ups, to get rid of you-----that you were a threat to national security.”
“What!” I said, stopping to catch my breath. “That’s insane! What--- a retired school teacher and an office manager are a threat to national security?! “
“Doctor Heiner said he was very upset but that he had no choice. He was told, by someone in the military, that you knew too much and that you would never be able to keep quiet about it.”
We turned another corner and saw the teleporter room about forty feet straight ahead. There were two security guards stationed at the door. Ted pulled us into a dark alcove and put his finger in front of his lips. He then signaled, with his hands, for us to turn back and go the other way, sticking close to the wall.
When we reached the corner, thankfully without being seen, he pointed to the right and we headed in that direction. I began to recognize where we were. In the semi darkness I made out, in the distance, the shiny metal doors of the elevators.
“I was hoping that no one would be in the teleportation room but, of course, they had to make sure you wouldn’t try to leave early.” Ted said, as we approached the elevators. “I’m so stupid. So sorry.”
“Where are we going now?”
“Follow me,” Ted replied, over his shoulder. He swerved left of the elevators and stopped in front of a door. “This is the stairwell. We can’t take the elevator. Too noisy. They’d hear us and we’d be trapped inside.”
He pushed through the door and we started down the stairs, Ted and then me and finally Liz bringing up the rear.
“Where are we going now?” I asked again, as we clattered down the cement steps.
“To the main lab.”
“The Time Disc.”
After we descended what seemed like a mile Ted stopped us in front of double doors with the words “Danger! Authorized Staff Only” stenciled on the polished steel. This time he not only used the hand-recognition panel but took a large key from his pocket and inserted it in a slot directly under the panel. Both doors swung inward and I noticed that they were both about eight inches thick, like the doors on a bank vault.
“We’ll be safe in here for a while,” Ted assured us, as the doors automatically closed behind him. “No one has access to this part of the facility except Dr. Heiner, myself and Dr. Raymond, not even security.” He waved his hand and the lab lit up. I blinked at the curved walls. We were back at the beginning of it all, the Time Disc.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I exclaimed, horrified by the implications. “Are you planning---”
“Please listen Frank. They’re going to use the Time Disc to send your bodies off to---to, I don’t know, someplace in the far distant past. This is after they kill you.”
“Oh, Frank, I think I’m going to be sick!” Liz said, sitting down in one of the console chairs.
“It wasn’t going to be brutal or painful, I’ll give them that. Dr. Raymond, he’s the physician who monitors the vitals of the time travelers, he would have administered an injection that would sedate you and Mrs. McOsker and then---a lethal injection that would---”
“Kill us,” I finished.
“Yes, but I argued that it was murder and that we couldn’t do that. But they said it had to be done to preserve the project and that it was a small sacrifice to make.”
“Small sacrifice? Liz and I are no small sacrifices, thank you!”
“I know, I know!” Ted continued, “I finally pretended to go along with their plan but I knew I had to get you out. I truly believe in time travel and what we’re doing here but I don’t condone murder.”
“Okay, but you can’t be thinking of using the time disc!” I queried.
“Oh god no!” Liz pleaded, “I won’t go through that again.”
Ted hurried over to one of the consoles and began punching in what I figured were instructions for the Time Disc. “I don’t think, at this moment, there is any other choice. Even if I could get you outside the facility through one of the exits, you’d be stuck in the mountains and it’s below freezing out there. I’ll send you back to the front of your house and your arrival there will be at the current correct east coast time. I believe it’s a little after six in the morning there.”
“But what about you, Ted? What’ll happen to you? You can’t---”
“Don’t worry about me. They can’t get rid of me. I’m too valuable.”
I began to hear a subtle throbbing sound coming from the giant mushroom that housed the Disc. It grew in intensity. “Won’t someone hear that noise? ”I asked, feeling my insides shake with the increasing vibrations.
“We have a few minutes. Unfortunately, it takes about five minutes for it to reach full capacity. You two enter the chamber now, please.”
“Oh Frank, I can’t!” Liz said, pulling away from me.
“Yes you can, darling. It’ll be okay. Better to get in there now and get home than to have them send our dead bodies off to somewhere unknown. Here, take my hand.” I smiled a smile of false courage and extended my hand. Liz took it tentatively and we walked towards the door which was just beginning to open.
“Once you enter just get to the center of the disc,” Ted instructed, “and stand as still as you can. The less movement the better. Three minutes to go.”
The chamber door finished opening with a slight hiss revealing the very dark interior. Liz stopped and stood rigid with terror in her eyes. “I can’t.”
“You can. We have to,” I replied and I picked her up and carried her newly-wed style across the threshold. It was icy cold inside and the only light came from the open doorway and the small portholes dotted along the perimeter of the mushroom cap.
“Two minutes!” Ted’s voice echoed in the chamber. I put Liz down in the middle of the disc and pulled her tight against my body.
“Door closing!” and with a very solid slam the chamber was sealed shut. I could feel a strong rumbling under my feet and Liz was shaking uncontrollably. This was it. We were going home---maybe.
“One minute!” came Ted’s voice over the loudspeaker. “Safe journey, my friends!”
About thirty seconds later, as I closed my eyes and said a prayer, I heard voices. At first I thought I was having an audial hallucination, angels answering my plea for a safe trip home, however one voice stood out, as it crackled over the speaker---Dr. Heiner.
“Shut it down now!” he was shouting, “Now! Stop this immediately!”
Through one of the small portholes I could see a security guard wrestling with Ted as his fingers flew over the console.
“What’s happening Frank? “ Liz asked, her eyes still tightly closed.
“Looks like we may not be leaving right away.” But just then the chamber began to spin and we were thrust into, what seemed like, a very black invisible tornado.
Two Weeks Later
As you, the reader, have figured out, Ted succeeded in sending us off safely. We arrived, as planned, on top of the azalea bushes in front of our house. A few broken branches seemed a small price to pay for getting home safe and sound. Aside from some scratches and a residual tingling, which faded quickly, it was as if we had never been away. But we had been away, far away, and that created a headache of mammoth proportions. How to explain our disappearance.
We sat Josh and Karen down and told them everything. Whether they believed us or not we’ll never really know but they were kind and supportive. We then worked together on the story we would tell our friends, that the PERSaPORT teleporter had mistakenly whisked Liz off to an island in the Mediterranean and that I followed her and that we liked it so much we stayed there for a much-needed vacation. This would be a temporary lie until we could safely reveal the truth about our ordeal at the Hawking Institute.
I couldn’t lie to the police or the FBI but I was very aware that there were individuals in the government who wanted us eliminated so I refused to answer any of their questions. I knew the tentacles of this time-traveling consortium reached very far and very deep. Of course, the authorities were not happy and threatened to press charges but, mercifully, that never happened.
My solution to our situation was to get our story out to the public, to plaster our faces all over the tabloids and make us so recognizable that, in the parlance of the old gangster movies, the bad guys wouldn’t dare knock us off.
I have a former student who works for the Philadelphia Inquirer NewsView so I contacted her. We met at her home office and I showed her my notebook. She was a bit skeptical but was willing to try and get it online if I could provide a witness, other than my wife, who could verify the facts. I explained that the only other person who would qualify as a witness was Mr. Ted, the hero who saved our lives, and he was probably dead. This became the deal-breaker then, no witness, no story. I thanked her and returned home with the disappointing news.
“So where do we go from here? ”Liz asked, as we sat together at the kitchen table.
“I’ll keep trying to find some public media that’ll look at our story and who, even if they think we’re cuckoo, will publish it.”
“Everyone believes we’re nuts already, Frank. Your cousin called and wanted to know why we didn’t call your aunt when we were on vacation to let them know we were okay. Our lie isn’t going to hold up much longer.”
“I know. We’ll work it out, somehow, “ I replied, with as much conviction as I could muster. “I’m exhausted. Let’s call it a night.”
I have never suffered from insomnia. Luckily, when my head hits the pillow I’m off to dreamland. But, ever since we returned, my sleep has been interrupted by vivid nightmares and, once I pull myself up and out of visions of time machines and prison bars, getting back to sleep is impossible. I lie in bed, bathed in a cold sweat, and think about poor Ted and what may have happened to him. Most of all, I worry about Liz and about us being eliminated by those officials who don’t want their secret project exposed. And now that my son and his wife have heard the real story they could be on a hit list as well. Oh lordy, what a mess!
It was three in the morning and once again I was staring at the ceiling. I had been imagining home invasions and pipe bombs and machetes and various other ways we might meet our end when a thud shook me out of my reverie. It came from below our second story bedroom window. ‘They’re here,’ I thought, in a panic, ‘and me without a weapon!’ I slipped out of bed and quietly approached the edge of the window. With a shaky hand I parted the curtain until I had a narrow slit to look through. There, in the dark, was the outline of a figure hiding in the bushes. I could see no one else. But, of course, there might be others lurking around in back of the house. Maybe they had circumvented the alarm system and were already in the house. Shit! I started to activate the panic button on my FleshFone but thought better of it. No cops for now. We’re not exactly the best of friends at the moment.
“What is it, Frank?” Liz whispered, sitting up in bed.
“There’s someone out front. I’m going to go downstairs and check the alarm. You stay put.”
“But it’s not----”
“It’s okay. You stay here.” I went out into the hall and stood for a minute listening for any sound that might indicate an invader. Nothing. I continued down the hall, feeling my way in the dark, and then I remembered that I had Josh’s old baseball bat tucked away in the guest room closet. I made a quick detour and retrieved his Louisville Slugger. A lot of good it would do but, at least, it felt better to have something in my hands. I slowly descended the stairs.
A street light shone through the oval window in the front door. It’s mustard-yellow glow gave the PERSaPORT an other-worldly sheen. The ugly machine was due to be picked up in a couple of days. RonCon had issued a full refund plus a sizable bonus with many heartfelt apologies for having sent us to the Greek islands by mistake. Little did they know where we really went.
Suddenly I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a shadow slip by the picture window in the living room. It was moving in the direction of the front door. Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph! What do I do now?! In desperation I determined that surprise was my only option. I reached over, unlocked the door and then stood at the side with my trusty bat. Ha! My bat versus a revolver? A rifle? A machine gun?!
The silhouette of the stranger’s head appeared in the small window at the top of the door. There was the soft sound of scratching as he or she tried to press the latch. Surprise! It’s unlocked, sucker! After a slight pause the door began to slowly open and swing around in front of me, hiding my trembling frame and the raised baseball bat. Then, all hell broke loose.
The alarm went off with teeth-rattling intensity and the security lights lit up the entrance hall like an operating room. I stepped out from behind the door ready to knock the assassin to kingdom come.
“Mr. McOsker, Frank, it’s me!”
And there stood Mr. Ted.
Three Thirty am
Liz, Ted and I sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee and nibbling on an apple cake, recently defrosted in the microwave.
“This is so good, Mrs. McOsker. Did you bake it?” Ted asked.
Liz nodded, “It’s easy to make. I’ll give you the recipe.”
“Enough with this culinary chatter,” I said impatiently, “For gods’ sake, let Ted finish telling us about his great escape.”
“Well, as I was saying before,” Ted continued, wiping his mouth with his napkin, “ I shut down the Time Disc as soon as I thought you would have arrived safely at your destination. This way they couldn’t chase after you until the power was restored. By that time, Dr. Heiner had come to his senses. He realized it wasn’t a good idea to have a herd of security guards suddenly show up on your front yard at one o’clock in the morning.”
“But what happened to you?” Liz asked, “You had to have been in very deep trouble.”
“Yes, well, I did spend a day or so in the brig, but, as I pointed out, they needed me to keep working on the programming. In fact they couldn’t really move on without me. So, I was forgiven and, in fact, Dr. Heiner said that what I did was actually for the better. He said that the problem, meaning you two, was no longer his problem and that now it would have to be handled by the higher ups.”
“That doesn’t make me feel very happy.” I replied, envisioning being kidnapped and murdered by some government goons.
“Yes, I know. That’s part of the reason I’m here.”
“What do you mean? “asked Liz.
“Well, I figure I can help you expose what’s going on at the Hawking Institute.”
“Wait a minute! “ I interjected, “ Hold on for just one minute! This is a complete three hundred and sixty degree turn around for you. You were the principal cheerleader for Dr. Heiner and his magic carpet ride. What happened to change your mind?”
“Well, first of all, I was horrified with his treatment of you. I mean, if he was willing to have you murdered, to what other lengths would he go to protect the program? But, the other event that really convinced me was when we made a major breakthrough this week.”
“What kind of breakthrough?”
“It was very exciting. I was able to program a security lock that would disable any explosive device, from a gun to a bomb, that was carried aboard the Time Disc.”
“That’s wonderful Ted,” Liz said, patting his arm.
“Yeah. I thought it was very important and I expected the doctor to feel the same.”
“So what happened?” I asked, although I was pretty sure I knew the answer.
“He flipped out. He told me to cancel the application. Why was I trying to undermine him?! Why would the military want to eliminate the capability of transporting arms on the Time Disc?! We’ll lose our funding, and on and on. I guess I finally got it through my thick skull that what we we’ve been working on, all these years, was not for the betterment of the world. It’s all about warfare and---and killing. Oh, who am I trying to fool! On some level I must have known what was going on. I just chose to ignore it. I love what I do and I do it well. At Hawking I felt appreciated, valuable and respected. Now, I just feel used.”
“So you left and that was that was the right thing to do,” Liz said, softly, “But how did you get here?”
“Yeah, “ I piped up, “How and why did you end up hiding in our azalea bushes in the middle of the night?”
“Well, at first I didn’t know what to do. I knew I had to leave but I didn’t know how to accomplish that. I was being watched. I wasn’t imprisoned or confined to my apartment or anything like that, because they still needed me, but I knew the doctor was keeping me under close surveillance.
It was when I was cooking dinner, night before last, that I got this crazy idea. Once in a while I whip up a treat in the kitchen and bring it to the café. It kind of sparks up the dinner hour. So I decided I would bake some kind of dessert to share with the doctor and the staff, an edible apologia for my stupidity. So last night, after dinner, I surprised my table in the café with a caramel Bundt cake. Dr. Raymond and some of the other staff, who were sitting with me, were only too happy to dig right in.
Dr. Heiner usually takes his evening meal in his rooms so I excused myself and took a slice up to his floor. He was, understandably, not thrilled to see me but invited me into his rooms. I gave him his piece of cake and apologized again for my stupidity and irresponsible behavior. He seemed to be somewhat mollified.”
“Well, that’s all very nice, all very happy homemaker,” I said, trying to remain calm, “But what has any of this got to do with your showing up on our front lawn?”
Ted adjusted his glasses, wiped his hands with a paper napkin and continued his story. “After you folks were gone I was worried and scared. Scared for you and scared for me. I wondered if you really had made it home. I worried that something bad might happen to me. So, understandably, I had trouble sleeping. I went to the infirmary and the nurse kindly gave me some capsules that helped me get some rest.”
“Did you---you didn’t?!” I asked, and then I started to laugh.
“Didn’t what, Frank?” Liz said, “What’s so funny?”
“He spiked the cake!” I replied, slapping my knee.
“I emptied the powder out of the capsules and stirred it into the caramel topping. Then I drizzled the caramel over the cake and made sure, when I cut it into slices, that every piece got a good dose of the sleepy-time formula.”
“And your companions started falling over like bowling pins, right? I wish I could have seen that,” I chuckled.
“Well, not quite. It didn’t happen like it does in those old movies and TV shows. When I got back to the café, after visiting Heiner, the table was a little less noisy and people were commenting on how tired they were. ‘It’s these fucking long days we put in,’ someone said. There were complements on how good the cake was and Kurt, the guy you told me you used to call the Viking, said what a good wife I’d make, ha ha. Best of all, though, is that Dr. Raymond admitted he ate a second slice ‘just a tiny one’ and I said that was just fine. Inside, I was jumping with joy.”
“Okay, so a few of the staff are getting sleepy. What happened next?”
“Well, some of the guys said they were going to make it an early night and went off to the dorms. The other men, who had the night shift, kind of stumbled off to their various areas and Dr. Raymond headed to his apartment.
“I returned to my rooms and waited for about an hour and then set off for the teleporter. I had wanted to pack my rucksack and take it with me but I knew that that would only alert anyone I ran into to the fact that I was escaping. And then there were the security cameras. So I left everything I own behind and that was hard, really hard.
I strode down the halls like I was going about my normal routine, you know, off to the gym or heading to the library. When I got near the teleportation room, I saw the security guard, Jose, leaning against the wall. I took a deep breath and walked past him as if he wasn’t there. ‘Excuse me, Mr. Lansing,’ he called out to me as I entered the telelportation room, “This area is off-limits at the moment.’ His eye lids were at half-mast and it was obvious he was struggling to stay on his feet. ‘Oh, it’s alright, Jose,’ I replied, ‘One of the teleporters is not working and they’ve sent me to check it out.’
I could see he was torn between calling for authorization and just letting it go. He was kind of listing to one side and he reached out to the wall to steady himself. Finally, he just nodded an okay and I entered the room.
Stepping quickly into the nearest teleporter I punched in your number and prepared to arrive at your address.”
“Uh oh,” I exclaimed.
“Yeah, right. Nothing happened. I looked at the screen on the panel and---”
“It said ‘destination unavailable’ because we had unhooked the stupid machine,” I replied.
“Why were you trying to come here?” Liz asked, “I mean you are welcome here, of course, but---”
“I didn’t know where else to go. I mean, I haven’t been away from the institute for almost eight years. The outside world is a total unknown entity to me.”
“So when the teleporter didn’t work,” I said, getting us back on track, “you decided to use the Time Disc.”
“Right. I left Jose, who by this time was rocking back and forth on his haunches, fighting to keep awake, and I headed to the stairwell that leads down to the time chamber.”
“But what about the other security guards?” Liz asked.
“I didn’t see any of them until I got to the landing in front of the lab. Kurt, the Viking, was standing there, well, actually he was sitting on the floor, but he got up immediately. ‘What are you doing here, Lansing?’ he asked, his words a little slurred, “Cooking up some trouble, no doubt,’ he giggled, amused by his own humor. ‘Dr. Heiner wants me to check a couple of things,’ I replied, ‘before tomorrow’s run.’ I inserted the master key in the door but Kurt put his hand on my wrist. ‘The doc said no one is to be allowed in there without his permission.’
I was trying not to appear anxious but I had to get into the lab, no matter what, so I took a chance. ‘Please, call him,’ I blustered, ‘ He’ll verify what I’m saying.” Kurt glared at me but he began calling out numbers on his FleshFone. He had to make a couple of attempts, as his mouth didn’t seem to be cooperating. My fingers were crossed and my heart was racing as we waited for Heiner to answer. Seconds passed by and no response. Kurt disconnected and tried again. Again, no response. It seemed that my magic cake had done its job.
Kurt looked both confused and angry. I could tell he didn’t know what to do. ‘I really have to complete work on the Time Disc before tomorrow morning,’ I emphasized, “Dr. Heiner will be very upset if there is a delay in the next experiment just because I didn’t finish the corrections.’
I could see the wheels spinning around in the Viking’s head. I don’t believe Kurt is afraid of just about anything but he is very scared of Dr. Heiner. Finally, he made his decision. ‘Okay, Baker Boy, you can go in but I’m going up to the docs’ room and, even if I have to get him outta bed, I’m going to find out what’s going on.’ And off he went, weaving his way down the hall like a drunken sailor.
“So you got into the laboratory. ”Liz, exclaimed.
“Yes, and I immediately started to power up the system because I knew I didn’t have much time. At first, I was going to send myself off to somewhere in the past but that seemed stupid because I’d just end up wandering around like a ghost, invisible and useless. And I didn’t want to explore the future as I was pretty sure the future was not going to be a very pleasant place to visit if things keep going on the way they are. That’s when I settled on the present and I thought of you and wondering how you were and so here I am.”
“But they’ll be following you here!” I said, raising my voice, “They’ll check the coordinates. They could be here any minute!”
“Not really,” Ted replied calmly, “I did some quick programming and installed a fail/safe app that went into effect after I left. If and when they try to use the disc the power will shut down and it will take the other programmers days to get it back up and running.” He smiled that Mr. Ted smile.
“What if the app didn’t work?” I asked, pessimistically.
“Well, so far, no one has showed up. And if they eventually do arrive it’ll be because Plan B failed.”
“What do you mean, Plan B?” I asked.
“Well, for the last week, I’ve been trying to figure out what can be done to stop this misuse of time travel. How can this secret military conspiracy be stopped?”
“And you came up with---”
The Philadelphia Inquirer NewsView
Secret Military Lab Exposed
Scientist Testifies Before Senate Committee
The New York Times NewsView
Misuse of Space Travel Funding
Kidnap Victims Testify in Hawking Institute Case
The Real Skinny
Get the truth and nothing but the truth here!
Philly Couple Abducted by Aliens
“They Treated Us Like Cattle!”
So Plan B, which was my plan as well, worked. We got the publicity we needed, to keep the enemy at bay, although some of the media kind of manipulated the facts. But, whatever works, right?
Once I presented a very credible witness, to my former student at the Philadelphia Inquirer, our story was spread across the web. It travelled across the six continents and caused our government to launch a huge investigation.
Dr. Heiner resigned, I suppose to avoid prosecution, and the institute was shut down temporarily. It will reopen and I’m sure research into the use of time travel as a military weapon will continue. If not there, at the Hawking Institute, then somewhere else. I’m not that naïve.
RonCon has recalled many of its PERSaPORT teleporters in order to replace them with the new, updated model. He personally guarantees that the PERSaPORT XL Two is a safe as a baby’s crib. (Cue to send in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.)
Ted is still here in Philadelphia. I suggested he put his name forward as the new director of the Hawking Institute Time Travel Program. Heaven knows he has the experience and it would be refreshing to have someone in charge who has some sense of ethical behavior. But he says he wants nothing to do with time travel, that he had eight long years of intense research and what he learned from that research is that time travel cannot be controlled. “It’s Wild West time. No thanks.”
He has decided that, for now, he just wants to bake. That’s right, bake as in pies and cookies and cake. He bought the old FEDEX building in South Philadelphia and is outfitting it as a bakery.
As for Elisabeth and me, we’ve moved into an apartment on Broad Street and are enjoying the urban life. Liz has started a new job, managing the career of an author----me. We got the time travel story published and I’m on to my next project. It’s an exposé of the methods used by the big companies and the giant advertising agencies to brainwash you into buying things you don’t need. I’m calling it, The Latest Thing. Catchy title, huh?!