By Ron Prichard
Mainly it started because I could see the door from my desk. I’ll admit, I can be obsessive about things. We needed another conference room and that was probably what was behind that door.
The door had a card reader and a thumbprint lock. It wasn’t open for general use. But no one ever went in there. Not anyone. Not ever.
Not for several weeks after we moved into the renovated space. Never. And when you tried the door, it sure seemed like only one lock was holding it.
Of course, had I known what was hiding behind it, the trouble it could cause, I would have left it alone.
Like I said, I can be obsessive.
And sometimes there were sounds. Like a phone that had been off the hook too long. Sometimes lights, like status lights on a server.
Not sure anyone else ever noticed. But I looked at the door whenever I was at my desk and listened each time I walked by.
OK, I’m not just a little obsessive.
I should tell you a little about the office. Open space, for one thing. Didn’t really mind it, but they could have cleaned the place up a little more before they moved us in.
The windows were big, looking out to the stadium on one side and the other brick buildings of old Seattle on the other. There weren’t many old buildings left, hiding secrets from days when this was waterfront near the original Skid Road.
But there were still secrets from the early tech and biotech boom days, the surge this building had been retrofitted to serve. Secrets that made some people billions. Secrets that made a lot of people’s money disappear.
Secrets that made some people disappear.
Day one, I plugged my newly issued laptop into my dual screen setup, then the phone cord from the USB to the new Android. Played with the controls on the new chair and variable height desk.
I was just sitting down when Ilana walked in, so I was up again. Saying hi, shaking hands. We’d worked together first back around 2000; she’d been two years out of school and testing html for an education publishing startup. I was writing calendar entries and UI strings, fresh out of newspapers, ready to get rich.
Soon enough we’d be hunting for whatever jobs were left.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she asked. Probably because I’d sworn to leave this industry the way I’d given up on dead-tree publishing.
I just shrugged. “They’ve had me doing p.r. stuff. It’ll be in-app text once you get the programs rolling.”
“That great American novel thing didn’t work out?” she jabbed at me. She could be tough, but she could take it, too.
“I got it all up here,” I told her, pointing to my brown, still mop-like head of head. “Just ain’t got it typed.”
I asked where she’d been working, and the answer was nowhere. After the tech bust, she’d managed to scrape out a few options from a startup gig at a real estate site and sell them before the housing market crashed. Traveled and hung out for nearly a year after the young millennium’s second bust, then contracted on and off where she could.
“But it’s time,” she said. “I’m getting out of testing and into code for apps. Counting on you and the other creative types to figure what the new apps need to do. We’ll team up. We’ll make GenAppTech a thing.”
I grinned. That was still the hope. Back when I made the switch, you figured you’d do four or five years at a startup, cash in on the IPO, then start your own whatever. It looked easy. You didn’t have to be Bill Gates or start IBM. You didn’t have to make anything.
We were both just contract for GenAppTech, new blood at a new company. But the founder knew the ropes, and maybe he’d cut us in on the public offering. I didn’t need to be a billionaire. Give me a couple million and I’m headed for the beach.
And I am just a writer. I’m not going to write code that could change the world. Not for the better, and not for the worse.
And not like the tech behind that door.
So the office, I should tell you more about the office. Kind of hip, open with bricks walls and an industrial look. There were a dozen desks in our pod, and three more rooms like this on the floor. The company also had a floor just above, not as packed, and one below.
Upstairs was where the legacy types worked, there and at an old lab facility just out of downtown in Interbay.
They hung Drake Damone’s portrait down the hall, just off the elevator. He’s the founder, and at 52, kind of a grandfatherly figure to the mostly young work force that was hiring in. To me, well, I’d hit my 40s and I didn’t need a grandfather.
And once you’ve seen a couple of entrepreneurs run through seed money and slide out of a crash with cash in hand, you don’t look up to grandfathers.
Which isn’t to say Damone wasn’t brilliant, or that I even knew him. Lives on a yacht up on Elliott Bay, mostly communicates by email. Had to admire the lifestyle, and his skill at the game.
He’d bought a little electric company in the 90s that specialized in generators. That was GenTech. Started making chips and Web equipment, sold it to investors as a tech company. When the dot-coms failed, he managed to churn the assets into a new biotech, which took the name GeneTech. He was the major holder of both; he took a chunk off the sale price as a fee, paid his investors at a loss but gave them good capital gains losses for tax time, and then got a raise to run his new company.
Nice work if you can get it. Great businesspeople, like Gates and Jobs, make stuff that changes the world. Most CEOs just make change.
GeneTech took off just a couple years after the tech crash. He’d found a scientist, Maxine Detweiler, who could wow the investment class. Remember, the human genome map was completed in 2003; the promise was that this company would find ways to put that to work programming biology. That year DNA was what dot-com was in 2000.
But about 2010, Detweiler had quit — disappeared, in fact — and GeneTech stalled out. Drake Damone waited a few years and reformatted again. Now we are GenAppTech. We’ll provide the genetics of the next-gen Web, and build apps for companies that want one but don’t want to hire a whole staff.
They’d redressed this building a little, tearing out some labs and putting in sleek desks. Pretty comfy, with a few couches around, a ping pong table behind a half wall near one corner, free sodas and snacks.
Problem, as in many such spaces, was the shortage of conference rooms. I was supposed to talk to the press, and both Ilana and I had to do calls with companies we were courting as customers. And you just couldn’t do that at a desk surrounded by developers who were heads-down writing code.
But try to divide a half dozen conference rooms and a couple of tiny phone rooms on three floors with 60 some people each, and whenever someone called you ended up begging “hold on” and walking the halls to find a free space.
I resisted. I talked extra loud. Or I waited to make calls late, when most everyone was gone. Then I’d end up staring at that door, the secret room, and at the wall next to the door half of wallboard and half of frosted glass.
The cardkey reader had a light, but my card didn’t get any reaction. The blue light didn’t turn green or red. Just nothing. What looked like a thumbprint reader, with a little screen, didn’t seem to do anything at all. It didn’t bother rejecting me.
And why all the locks, anyway? It wasn’t a server room, or storage that would require extra security. I’d asked the admins, in a joking way, and learned where those were.
Like I said, I can be obsessive.
Ilana laughed at me when she noticed I’d begun examining the door at least once a day.
Finally, about four weeks in, I was setting up a conference call with a little wooden toy maker and I got fed up. Outlook would still not let me book Team Room 2216. So I went down to the receptionist.
“Hey, I’m trying to book a room. 2216. Can’t find it in the scheduler.”
Sonja, that was her name. About my age, wedding ring and too much other inexpensive jewelry, always with a smile. They said she’d been there through all the permutations that led to GenAppTech. “Let me look,” she said. Always helpful. Like me, I’d learn, too curious for her own good.
“That’s strange,” she said when she looked up from her screen.
“You can’t book it either?” It was possible someone beat me to it, or it was set aside for something else.
“I don’t even see it. Hang on.”
She still had a layout of the move plan, three pages, one for each floor. She flipped to the second. “it would be there, right?” she asked, pointing to a spot on the paper. South side, between 2214 and around the corner from 2020. The map just showed walls.
I looked closely. Yeah, that looked about the right spot. “Just strange,” I said. “Card reader on the door, extra secure. Can’t see through the window. Lights off, not even a glow inside.”
I didn’t mention the times I’d seen… something.
“Wouldn’t be servers. Hmm.” A reception phone rang. She’d already taken down my alias. “Let me poke around.”
It was only a couple of days later. I’d gone out for a latte and was coming back in when she motioned me over. “Check this out.”
She’d pulled maps from the previous move, and the previous. The folder was labeled “GeneTech Move 2,” so it went back years. “That room still doesn’t show.”
“I swear it’s there.”
“I know. I went up and looked.” She had a youthful grin, the way I look when I’m writing something I really like. Ready to risk it all. Not as scared as she should have been.
She whispered, conspiratorially. “That room’s been off the map since the first GeneTech cutbacks. Could be no one’s been in there since the early days, or when Detweiler disappeared.”
“You mean left?”
“She didn’t go anywhere that anyone ever heard about. She could have taken half the kids here with her if she had. The smarter half. No, she disappeared.”
That night I worked late. Until everyone else seemed to be gone. I had a little Swiss Army I always kept in my desk and went to check it out. I mean, what could it hurt?
Well, that’s what I thought then.
Open the blade, check the lock, poke at it. Wait, I’d leave scratches. I wrapped the blade in scotch tape, then started again. Didn’t really take much. The single bolt wasn’t a long one. I heard a click, but the handle still wouldn’t turn.
So I just pushed and was in.
The lights popped on. Maybe I jumped. They were automatic, same as the rest of the building. And then I was disappointed.
There was a broad, brown conference table, wood grained plastic. And old version of a polycom in the center of the table. A dozen rolling chairs around it. A thick plasma screen on the wall on the other side of it.
In one corner sat a couple of boxes of electronics, and a bigger, firmer chair. A reclining desk chair in leather. There was power running to it, and what looked like light strips on various surfaces. The seat was on a swivel, but separate from the chair’s wheels. The arms were separate from the body, like on a plush executive desk chair. They swiveled, too. And the various pads were equipped with pegs, clips of some sort.
Boring at a glance, but it was a room. We could use it. I took a look to see if I could modify the lock and keep it open. No luck. The handle wouldn’t turn. I didn’t have the tools to remove the latch.
Then I saw it, on the left wall. The wall was all white board, and it was covered with formulas and code written in erasable marker. Half a wall of it, roughly separated into two vertical sections. I don’t read code well, but this I didn’t really even recognize.
Off to one side of it, a circle, then a set of half circles radiating from it and getting bigger. More symbols. Like hieroglyphics. One I did recognize. It looked like that executive desk chair.
Snapped a couple shots of the writing with my phone; maybe I’d show someone.
The voice made me jump. “Couldn’t resist, eh,” Ilana said. She’d had dinner and come back to finish up.
“No, but it’s a little disappointing. Just a forgotten room.”
“What’s that?” she asked, not really of me. She was studying the wall.
“Code. Can you read it?” I asked. “No telling who wrote it. Could have been the original genetic team. Even Damone. Or Detweiler herself.”
Ilana had stepped around the table to look more closely. “I can’t really read it; it’s more like a flow chart. But it’s strange.” She pointed left. “That side is definitely computer code and a flow chart. Electronic.” Then right. “This side’s different. Looks almost like chemistry. Or biology. Not my field.”
None of those fields had been mine. I can handle html, but I read C++ at below a passing grade. “We should lock it up until we know what it is. Let me get another photo.”
About a week later, Ilana closed in on my desk with a plan for espionage. “Can you work late this eve?” she asked. I guessed so. “I have a friend coming in for a look. Might help us figure it out.”
A coder? “No, he works in the gene lab we have out in Interbay. And don’t ask why an app company still has geneticists. This company has a lot of workstreams.”
Scott was perhaps your typical lab rat. Maybe 25, with degrees in computer science and biology, premed complete. Asian and Canadian, pretty short, with thick black glasses that looked like clear Wayfarers. Perfect Canadian English; don’t stereotype the guy.
He came in about 4:30, said hey, and just holed up at an empty desk with a laptop he’d brought, waiting for the place to close.
Eventually it was just us three. Ilana made introductions. I tricked the door open again. He came in quietly, carefully, looking at every spot in the room. He would not miss anything.
“Fascinating,” he said, as he closed in on the whiteboard-wall. He started to take a picture of it; I told him I could forward one.
Then he started fiddling with the electronics in one of the boxes while explaining what he saw on the board. “Definitely a mix. The stuff on the left is computer processing, but without the program it’d take some work to figure out. The other side is biolab stuff. I think its electrolytes, pulse, blood chemistry, brain activity. Not entirely sure.”
He took one piece, a computer board about as long as a forearm protected by sharp, clear plastic, out of the box. Looked at it, set it aside, picked up another. “I don’t see anything like a laptop here. Nothing with a processor that would hold a program.”
He’d taken a few more pieces out of the box, looked at them, set them aside. Started looking in a second box. I looked to Ilana. We both wished he’d pay more attention to the code. “I can play with it,” he said. “But it would really help to know what the code is meant to do.”
Finally he stood and turned to us. “Did you try any of this stuff?”
We weren’t sure what he meant, but he walked a couple of the electronic pieces over to that odd chair. After some fiddling, one connected along the armrest. The second clipped to the seat, hanging down where one leg would hang.
Then there were three of us on it. It took a while. But both arms were soon equipped with electronics; two pieces would hang behind an occupant’s legs; one piece rose from the backrest up and over an occupant’s head.
A similar piece – what looked like aluminum, with lights every few inches on the outside and holes for the pegs of the chair on the other – fit behind the back and what would have been halfway around an occupant’s waist. It rose up the spine.
In short, sitting in the chair you’d be surrounded by electronics wrapped in smooth, clear plastic. There were a few ports in various places, but not on all pieces. The chair was the connection.
We eventually stood back to admire it. We hadn’t thought it all might go together. “But what’s it for,” Ilana asked out loud for all of us.
“There’s no plug,” I said. “How would it even get power?”
“Just the USBs. And I think these are ancient, USB 1.” Scott took one of the pieces and started for the door. “Let me play with this. I can give it power at home. Maybe I’ll figure something out.”
We nodded; wanted to buy him a drink or something, but he was already absorbed and eager to experiment. Ilana followed him out. I went last and turned to lock up.
Was something near the headpiece blinking? No. It had no power. It couldn’t.
I was starting to get nervous. I guess that’s all it was.
Midday, when the office was buzzing, I’d find myself staring at the door. Sometimes I’d swear there was a little red light, blinking, visible through the frosted glass. Sometimes more than one.
A week passed, and Scott called us together. I worked the lock, and he rushed inside, unpacking a backpack. A laptop, and a power source he could control via a USB which he plugged into a wall socket.
“You can make it work?” Ilana asked.
“I think so. The calculations include a power schedule. It wants pulses. Or it might time them on its own. We’ll just have to see what happens when we run power through it.”
I just kind of waited. He ran USB lines to two of electronic pieces on the chair. Sat down in a conference seat, near but not too near, his laptop on the conference table. Took something out of his pack and handed it to me, I guess because I wasn’t busy.
“When I start the power, it should send off a wave. Make the compass needle bounce. Here we go.”
Except nothing happened. There were now quite a few lights blinking on the electronic packages attached to the chair – at the headrest, the arms, the front legs, behind the back. But beyond that, nothing changed.
“Damn,” he muttered. He spun a dial on the power converter, upping the juice. Still nothing.
He stood, walked over and walked around the thing. As if he could spot something.
“Hey, give me at alt+c.”
We both looked at him puzzled. “On the laptop. I want to see if anything reacts.”
I slid my office chair over to where I could see the laptop. Fingered alt+c. Looked over. Nothing.
I looked deeper at the screen. He had a dos window open for commands, and a browser window that displayed images of dials and gauges. A volt meter. Others I didn’t recognize.
Ilana was looking over my shoulder, as if she could help.
“Okay, alt+d.” I did it, but I guess there was no reaction. “Damn. It’s almost as if the circuit isn’t complete.”
I think I heard him plop down. And then there were sounds. Static electricity. What might have been a thunderclap. The various dials redlined. “That must be it,” I said as I looked up.
He was sitting in the unique chair, surrounded by electronics. In front of him, from the floor to over his head, there was a crack in the air. A 2-D glimmer, I could tell. I had an angle from which it had height and width, but it had no depth if you looked straight from the side.
In sitting down, Scott had completed the circuit.
The crack opened, and inside was a flash of multicolor lights and shapes, some square, some round, some bulbous and hard to describe. I could see Scott through the glimmering, but on my side it was flat. It seems to reach out for Scott with strands of light.
And Scott, somehow, was moving forward into it.
I was moving by then, too, standing, getting behind him and reaching out. Caught a shoulder with my hand just as he was more in than out. I couldn’t see his face but he was yelling in panic.
The static and a screaming cacophony from the hole nearly drowned him out. His face disappeared into the glimmer and then I couldn’t hear him at all.
I pulled him free and he stood up. The sound stopped. The glimmer closed. Ilana had pulled the plug, but him standing seemed to have been what broke the circuit.
She and I were scared. He was jacked. “That’s it! Now I just need…”
He reached into his backpack and found a tape measure. And a scratch pad. “You write,” he told me.
He shouted out a distance to the door. Then down a hallway. Around another corner and another, to the little room where they kept the coffee machine – bean based, single cup – and the fridges and snacks.
He took the pad back and led me back to the room. Ilana had only gone about half the way with us.
Sat down at his laptop, punched in some numbers. “This is freaking awesome,” he said. Looked up at us. “So who wants to go?”
The lack of explanation held us back. “OK, it’s my bet. Just hit the space bar.”
He was back in the seat. The same loud static. The flashes. He slipped deeper into the seat, like it was plush leather.
The he moved forward into a crouch, toward that two-dimensional break. And then he was gone into the glimmer.
Ilana and I looked at each other. Who do we tell? How do we get help?
“You know the first thing they’ll do is pull our access for this. Probably fire us,” Ilana said.
“But the company might know something.”
“If anyone knew how this worked,” she insisted, “it wouldn’t have been abandoned here.”
But then, after maybe a minute, Scott rounded the corner. Carrying a lunch tray. Three piping hot cups on it. “Coffee anyone?”
We gasped. He sat the tray down on the conference table and started to look at his screen. Realized our dismay. “I hope I wasn’t gone long enough to worry you. The kitchen seemed like an easy first destination. I thought the coffee was a nice touch.”
“Scott, you weren’t gone long enough to make coffee.”
I did notice he was scratching the back of his neck, beneath his short hair. I saw a stripe across it, and a row of circles. Didn’t think anything of it at the time, and he was too excited to care.
He was the only one who understood what happened. He’d have to detail it for us later. For now, he just called it success. “My God,” he said. “She shifted time as well as space.”
She was Maxine Detweiler. This was her project, to create a wave that could pierce space through some sort of dimensional gap. It was beyond computer science, into quantum tech. And to move biological matter safely — that was the other half of the formula we saw on the wall, and why it took a human to complete the circuit.
We wondered if she knew she’d succeeded before she disappeared. Or may, success was why she had disappeared.
I’ll admit it, I dogged through the next day and didn’t do real work. Web searches on my company and on Maxine Detweiler, who would have been 61 then. And I found something. Showed it to Ilana and Scott late that night, when the office had cleared and we could sneak back into 2216.
I was scared as hell when I opened that door. Because all day I’d looked up too often and stared at it. Saw lights blinking, and some of the colored shapes from the night before, the shapes from within the glimmer. And a bright line, like a crack, visible at times through the frosted glass part of the wall.
Sometimes something banged into the glass, hard. No one else heard. But I swear it was not my imagination.
I told Scott and Ilana. He thought I was imagining things. Ilana said we were way past imagination and couldn’t afford to dismiss anything. Good for her.
A video. I brought my laptop in. It was Detweiler, an interview from 2006 or 2007.
“We were all geeks, basically, at the start,” she told some Canadian TV anchor. “And we’ve done most of it. Cell phones like the communicators from Star Trek. Talking computers and robots; it’s now just a matter of processing power before we get to R2 and C3PO. We don’t have light-speed or warp, but until we can get beyond our solar system, the energy required would be too dangerous anyway.
“What we don’t have is teleportation, and the idea of disassembling and reassembling matter seems far off. But I think we can do something like it if we take a different view of time and space. Picture it more like a circle, ever expanding with each decision, each alternate moment. More of a metaphysical view of reality as layers, but one I believe quantum mechanics will eventually support.
“If we can pass through the layers, through dimensions, we can master space. Shorten the distance between two points. Cross space without motion. We might be able to master time as well.”
I stopped it then. She rambled on, but Scott stood and pointed to the board. A series of semicircles, with each line offset by a line of equations.
“You see what she wanted?” he asked, and we really didn’t. So he went on. “Teleportation. And transportation, really.
“I mean, imagine the big bang, a moment in time where all space and matter is compressed to a single dot.”
He pointed to the dot at the center of the semicircles. Was this her thinking scrawled on a white board?
“The dot explodes into a circle, or really a sphere, and a leading edge of reality that grows exponentially each time a choice is made. Yes or no, then that choice cubed, then the next.
“That’s what’s pictured here, the circle of time and space, growing bigger and bigger. I think she wants to pierce the circle and pass through the center. You’re not disassembling matter like a transporter. You’re taking a short cut through other dimensions and other realities.
Ilana was standing now, too. Looking at the drawing. The equations. The math, the biology and now the philosophy were well beyond either of us. You had to imagine reality differently, and not as a fixed point. The board was a flow chart for everything. “That’s crazy. What was she on?”
“They do say she developed a taste for mind-altering substances,” I told them.
“But the theory explains some things,” Scott told us. “Like quantum rules that can’t exist alongside Einstein. Like strings that ties everything together. Like particles entangled across space and time.”
Ilana and I could get the concept of it. We both had powerful imaginations, if not the skill to make those imaginings real. Scott was close, but he said, “I’m more concerned about the practicalities, of course. You’re charting a part across the middle to a new location. You have to pass through whatever rests inside those other dimensions to get to your destination point.”
“Yeah. Or you might get stuck in there,” I said. “Or arrive at the wrong point.
“Or what’s in there might follow you out,” Scott said. He was rubbing the back of his neck, where I’d seen that mark. I still didn’t take much notice/
Ilana stood and grabbed her backpack, plopping it onto the table. It was new, and quite big; more for backpacking than carrying a laptop. “Well, I’ve thinking practically as well,” she said.
From inside she pulled a huge piece of beef, a long tenderloin. Raw and shrink-wrapped. Which, yea, was an odd thing to bring to the office, but not the oddest thing ever brought to a tech office.
She slapped it across the armrests of the electrified chair. Looked at me like I was an idiot when I tried to protest. “Seemed to take a person to complete the circuit. Maybe meat will do it.”
She passed a note to Scott; the GPS coordinates for her apartment near Pioneer Square. “I just want to see if it’s reliable.”
He fired the machinery up. Nothing. He checked his settings, tried again.
“The circuit isn’t complete,” I told him. Both he and Ilana looked at me in annoyance; who was I to give him tech advice?
I picked up the meat and plopped down in the chair with it. “The beef is dead. This board charts bioelectrical energy, right? I’ll bet you I work better.”
He tried again. Same sounds, same lights as the other night. I could feel it pulling me forward.
Ilana was clearly worried. “This may not be a good idea.”
I had the same thought, as I stared into colored lights and they reached for me. What I saw within included long dark tendrils, arms, waving wildly.
Too late for second thoughts. I was gone.
By the time they got to her old Pioneer Square building – a nice enough two bedroom, but she could have straightened up – I had found some whiskey and was on my second. Might not have been a good idea. My insides could feel the effects of the transfer.
“I’m fine. Right on target. A little queasy. Seemed like it took only a second but I could have traveled a thousand miles.”
In reality, it’s less than 10 miles.
“But the beef?” she asked.
I pointed vaguely at the kitchen table, where I knew it was. “Appreciate the concern. It made it, too.”
“I know. But look,” she said.
I hadn’t taken much notice, what with my stomach knotted from the trip and my hands searching for the room lights.
The beef was still pink and bloody. But it looked like something had already chewed on it.
It was four days before we could get together again after hours. Ilana was not happy about the wait. She hadn’t gone inside the glimmer yet, something she must have reminded me about a dozen times. I had, and Scott had.
I told her it wasn’t pleasant. It felt like being turned inside out and then back again.
And there was the matter of the chewing. But I’d been fine and Scott had been fine, so maybe living matter was safe.
Truth is, I had a hard time waiting as well. Because every third or fourth time when I looked up during the workday, there were the lights of transfer behind the glass part of the wall. Or cracking sounds. Or motion. Once I could have sworn something long hit the glass and bared very white teeth.
But no one else noticed.
Scott got a hold of me that morning. He had refined his program. And he wanted to play with the time displacement.
My desk phone rang, which it never did. It was Ilana. My screen said 8:45. She was never in before 10.
“Hey, I’m in a storage room on the third floor. 3407. Can you come?”
Of course. But that made no sense.
The room was down a back corridor, seldom traveled. I had to walk through a few rooms to get there; devs were already hunched over screens in some areas.
The hallway floor was wet. I knocked, which seemed right. Heard her voice.
She was inside, looking somewhat tired. Black jeans and a black dress shirt, her makeup looking worn. She never wore makeup.
Sitting on a table.
I handed her the morning Coke she’d asked for, and then I noticed. Next to her on the table was a silver catering tray. On it lay were several long fleshy objects, vaguely purple and black, with red spongy blobs along their length.
“What the?” I gasped and went in for a close look. They were, yes, tentacles of some sort, slick with mucous. Still fresh and flexing.
“I cleaned up as best I could. Christ.”
I noticed then one of her sleeves was torn open. She showed me her arm. It bore several red blotches made by some sort of suction. One was bleeding.
That was it. The tentacle things were lined with suction cups of a sort. On closer look, they seemed to have tiny teeth. “We should get you help.”
No, she mouthed, shaking her head. “This is about the time I get to work. Even I know not to meet myself. That’s kind of the whole message of time travel in sci fi.”
She looked at me like I was slow. “Didn’t Scott tell you he wants to try time displacement tonight? He did, with me. And here I am.”
I’m not ashamed to admit I wasn’t getting it. “What do you need from me?”
“Just don’t say anything to me. The… earlier me, who’s coming to work right now. But call this room, tell me when she – I – am in. I can sneak out, go over to the café, put some first aid on this and hide out.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Just do it. You’ll understand tonight.”
After hours in the conference room, Scott plugged a laptop transformer into the wall. “Should be crisper now.”
“I’m up. Where we going?” Ilana chirped. The earlier Ilana, who knew nothing of our storage room talk or the tentacles. This one was still eager.
She was also somewhat done up for a tech worker that day, in black jeans and a black shirt and enough makeup that you could just notice. Like she was going out after work but didn’t want everyone to know. She looked fresh. Not like the other Ilana from the storage room.
She’d look a little less done in a few hours later. Or earlier. This stuff is confusing.
“I want to play with the time displacement,” Scott said.
She plopped into the chair. She was excited. “So wherever.”
Scott was starting at his machine. “You’ll be in the office. A few hours earlier. If it works.”
He finally looked up and decided to quiz her again. Was he concerned? “Are you sure you want to try this? It’s still an experiment.” Maybe he cared for her. Or maybe he saw her in a motherly. way “Go for it, Scott,” was all she said.
I was fine with it. I knew she’d be OK.
The lights. The crack. The glimmer. And she flew from her seat and was gone.
“Seemed to go OK,” Scott said. “Hope so.”
And then the other Ilana walked into the room. “What a trip,” she said to Scott. “You probably could have warned me about the blood-suckers.” she told me.
She told Scott about the day. I knew most of it, except that the tentacles were from something that grabbed at her in the void. They were sliced off at the other end when the portal closed.
She was carrying the tray that held several tentacle tips, like some hellish sushi platter.
“And there is one other thing,” she tagged at the end. “I think it might have gotten me if I’d paused, and I could have paused. But there was someone else there.”
“Someone else?” we both asked.
“Yes. Tried to grab my hand. A woman, old by the wrinkled feel of the hands. And I think she might be stuck.”
Sonja, the receptionist, cornered me when I got in the next day. It was early for her. “Hey, c’mere.”
She signaled me around her desk. Unusual, and uncomfortable in this day and age. “It’s OK.”
She had a bank of small TV monitors showing the feeds from cameras at the building’s doors. She’d run a couple back. “This is your friend Ilana. Arriving just after 10 yesterday, looking sharp.”
Sonja had obviously prepped the footage she was showing me. “This is 10:24. She’s leaving, I guess for the cafeteria. Looking not so sharp.”
The second was the post-transport Ilana. Just so you’re clear.
“She leaves again for lunch about 11:30, fresh again. But she’d never come back. And here she enters again about 12:15. Leaves at 5, comes back about 7:30. See, the enters don’t match the leaves.”
I was flabbergasted. “Must have used another door.”
“I checked. There’s something weird going on. It’s like there were two of her.”
“So you put in a lot of work on this. Have you called security?”
She laughed a little. “Nah.”
“So why tell me?”
“I know you work together. And I just like to know what’s going on. The room you pointed out, and now this. And what the heck I do I really have to do?
“I’ve been here since the beginning. Never thought I’d stay at the front desk, to tell you the truth. Damone pays me ridiculously well, though.”
“So what are you after?”
“I want to know what you’re working on,” she said firmly. “You and this Ilana. There’s also a dev who keeps coming late. I bet it’s tied to that room, right?”
She did have a lot on the ball. But inviting someone else into our project didn’t seem wise. She could tell I was reluctant. But she wanted to trade. “I do have some info if you let me in on it.”
Hmm. I just looked at her and she knew I wanted to hear it. “Your little room. Looks like it’s been off the radar since at least 2005. Only a few had access even then. Detweiler was one.”
That made sense. This was one of her projects, but one she wanted completely hidden.
“I was here when she disappeared, you know. She skulked around at odd hours too. And when she disappeared? She actually came in that day, but I’ll tell you, she never left.”
“You knew her.”
“Oh yes. She was a visionary. Wanted to make the world a better place, said it at every meeting. Not like Damone. He wanted to make money. This would be a different company with her in charge.”
So I brought Sonja in that evening. Introduced her. Both Scott and Ilana looked sour. “We have work to do tonight,” Ilana insisted. “We don’t need tourists. And I’m sure we could be getting in trouble doing this.”
And, Scott added, she’s just a receptionist.
Sonja stepped really close to him. I thought she was going to slap him. “I’m an admin. And I spent seven years in night classes to get a degree in computer science. I’m close to my masters’ degree. Screw you. F’n typical sexist techie.”
That kind of brought everyone to attention. She went on. “Maxi encouraged me. Liked the fact I was working for more. By the time I got done, though, she was gone. Damone, he took an interest, like he was going to make a career for me. Forgot all about moving me as his company scrambled, but I’ll be I make more than you.”
Ilana was sold. “You knew Detweiler.”
Sonja smiled and backed away from Scott. “I did.”
“Then maybe it is good you’re in with us. See, I think she’s… in there. Wherever we pass through with this device, someone is there.”
She reached into a gym bag she’d brought. A long rope, a caving rope, maybe 300 feet. A belay device like you’d see at a rock gym. “Scott, you said you could get the glimmer open longer.”
“Yes, I think so,” he said, going to his laptop.
“Then the idea is simple. One person on either end of this rope. Whoever goes in needs to try not to cross. Find the person who reached out to me when I went through. Get the rope around them.”
Seemed simple enough, if a little primitive. “And then we pull from this end.”
Scott was setting parameters and didn’t look up. “But we don’t really know how far you travel in there. And the closing portal cut the limbs from something. It could cut the rope.”
That, of course, was why we’d work from both ends.
Sonja was game. We let her. She wanted to join, after all.
She sat in the chair as Scott started the power flowing. Lights in the electronics attached to the chair flashed. The air went static with electricity, like lightning was on its way. Then a crack emerged, midair. The glimmer, floor to ceiling, right in front of the chair.
“Circuit complete,” Scott said, and only then did I realize how loud the storm of static had grown.
Then the crack opened, inches, then a foot, then wider. Inside was a storm of light, and shapes, and worse things. Faces and parts of faces, but of creatures out of a child’s imagination done in stick figures.
The white light bulged outward as the portal opened wide enough for a person. The Sonja went into it, trailing the rope. I had the rope behind me my back and run through a belay device. My end we’d tied around the base of the conference room table. I wasn’t going anywhere.
But I was surprised at how quickly I had to pay out the rope.
“It’s holding,” Scott said. Previously the glimmer had disappeared almost as soon as someone went through. This time it stayed open, hanging in the air.
But rope’s speed stalled now. We waited. There was a slamming sound from behind the gap. I worried. But then something seemed to press out, like an arm, stretching the light storm. Was it what we’d seen before, a tentacle?
The end of our experiment came quickly. Suddenly the rope played out another 15 or 20 feet. The shape stretched back. The rope went limp, and I started pulling it back.
And then the gap snapped closed. The force severed the rope.
The three of us looked at each other, sharing our worries and our uncertainty. Finally, Scott. “They should be down in the mail room.”
Which probably wasn’t a great choice. There were small exterior windows that would have crackled with light, and we didn’t want anyone to know what we were doing. But it was behind the ground-floor reception area where Sonja sat every day, and Scott wanted to play with elevation in his location formulas.
We speed out the conference room door, down a hall, into the stairwell and down. There in just a minute. Fright does give you a boost. What if Sonja didn’t come through?
But she’s there, looking a little dazed but otherwise fine. And she’s not alone.
The woman with her is older, 60ish, slight, with limp blonde hair touched in gray. Her face with its dimples smiles at us. She’s in a blue jumpsuit that leaves only her wrinkled hands exposed. She’s squinting against the light.
“Max Detweiler,” she said, looking up to us from the rope strewn about her feet. Sonja had wrapped it around her, passed through the bridge and pulled. Even as the rope on my end was cut. “I guess I owe you all.”
We didn’t spend much time on introductions. She was eager and actually lead the group upstairs. Talking a string throughout. “It was a total black box project. We’d gone in a couple of times, but I shouldn’t have done it alone. My lab aide, Johnathon, was ill and I didn’t want to wait. Where is he?”
We didn’t know who she meant.
“So how long?” she asked.
“You don’t know?” Ilana wondered. That just brought a puzzled looked, and a pause, so Ilana went on. “It’s been nine years.”
OK, that stopped the talk for a minute or two. Finally. “Wow. I know it was a while, but I guess time… I had no real sense of time.”
She walked on, reaching the door. She scanned her thumbprint and the lock clicked open.
We were not alone.
The man inside was 52. I knew his bio by heart. Even after hours, his hair was exactly in place, his complexion smooth and face cool. He was in jeans and a long=sleeve polo, but this was not off the rack. This was tech-exec couture.
“God Maxine, it’s good to see you,” he said, pulling her in for a light hug. “I can’t believe… but you did it. Teleportation.”
“Of a sort,” she said.
“But why so secret? I knew what you were working on, but this machine… this room.”
“Seemed wise to keep it secret,” she said. “I guess it backfired.”
Damone only then seemed to notice the rest of us. But he’d done some homework.
“You would be the one who found this room. And Ilana is it? Put the project together.”
He gave it another look, then shook Scott’s hand. “And you’re the young man who cracked the code and programmed it, right? This laptop here. You’re going to be very important to this project.”
Ilana was a little offended. “What about us? It’s our discovery.”
“Actually, I own the devices as well as this room. It’s mine and Maxine’s. But I suppose we may need some app help.” He sort of sneered at me. “And even press releases at some point.”
Scott was way above our class. Ilana and I he could do without.
He was already zoomed back in on Maxine. “We must get you the nicest room in the nicest place in town. Get you well, are you well? I want to share the experience but let’s work. I’ve had a whole lab working on this. I knew what you were trying; I thought it might have worked. But I could not figure out your methods. Teleportation, it’s groundbreaking. We must have it to market by end of fiscal.
“The company has had some ups and downs since you left us. But this will make us unfathomably rich.”
“Hang on,” she told him. I could tell it was an unusual relationship. He was young to her, and eager. She was a bit like a mom. He liked being scolded but also discounted her opinion. “We travel through something we need to know more about. That’s where I got stuck. I wasn’t alone. We have to know what we’re facing in there.”
“Oh we will,” he assured her, but with a patronizing tone.
“We have to,” she said, insistent. And then she remembered. ”And my lab assistant. I wonder where he went, dear friend. Did he not help you find me?”
“He thought you were lost, I think. He didn’t want to join our project; shared your misgivings, I think. He didn’t show us this. It does explain a lot. He got a nice severance, but lost it because he kept entering company buildings off hours.”
So how did Damone find the room, someone asked. “The power grid. Your machine has quite a draw. We must move it to our lab immediately.”
“We can’t,” Detweiler snapped.
We all looked at her. It took a moment, like she had to think up an answer. “I need to check something first. It’s the passage. I’m afraid we’ve opened it a few times from here, and there may some lasting effect.”
I could tell what she was feeling. That tentacle thing. I’d seen it and more through the glass and within the glimmer. What might it catch? And could it find its way here?
“Nonsense,” he said. “Anything you can do here we can do a thousand times better there.”
And so they did. Within a couple of nights – no one ever went into Team Room 2216 during the day — the equipment was all gone. We saw via Outlook that Scott had moved into the company’s big facility on Interbay, supposedly all but empty in the latest corporate incarnation. Had to be where the lab was.
After that, Ilana and I heard little but sparse instructions from Damone. Work up some press lines. Take a look at this Powerpoint or that planning doc.
Both Ilana and I did see other assignments dry up, so it seemed we were being reserved for something. And Maxine wrote us emails frequently. I owe you. I’ll take care of you.
I noticed a few of the vendors sitting near me left, assignments ended. Ilana kept her desk around a couple of corners and noticed the same thing. App work was drying up.
Geekwire not long after did a piece on Damone having a landmark announcement in the works and Maxine possibly returned from her mystery absence. They emailed for comment, and I got a copy. Apparently the tip had come via my company email.
I urged Ilana to move into the same space where I sat, but she liked the quiet. Didn’t listen to my offers to be her coffee slave and bring doughnuts daily.
I didn’t want to say I was scared.
Because at least once a day, I heard static behind the frosted glass. Saw movement. Purple tentacles. Suction cups on glass.
I’d try to ignore it, then open the door. Nothing. An empty room and a conference table.
But then there was the dog. One of the vendors had brought a dog to work – it was that kind of office – and had to leave it for a while. Given our open space, she locked it in a storage room on the third floor. 3407.
She’d found the bowl, and a lot of slime. Thought the dog got sick. But never found the dog.
I did find a collar in the conference room on one of my checks. Gnawed on. Guess it wasn’t digestible.
Maxine met me there that night, and Scott. Ilana had stayed around. They could tell I was nervous. Lack of sleep under my eyes and a little shaking in the hands.
We crowded in near the door. Eventually Scott went in, to the far side of the conference table, opposite of where the door had been opened. “It’s empty, man. Nothing here. Even less than then.”
Indeed, the equipment was gone. And the whiteboard wall, where we’d found all those high-tech hieroglyphics, had been erased and wiped to a shine. “It’s not,” I told him. “I see it every day. Things trying to come through.”
“I understand,” Maxine said, hand on a shoulder sympathetically. “It was a horror show in there. God knows I know. Even if you just passed through…”
“Passed?” I told her. “I’m seeing in every day.”
A new voice. “Kid, you need to get it together. This will pay off for you, but you have to let us work.”
It was Damone, now in the room with us. He must have been tracking us, or at least Maxine. “This is an empty room now. Forget it.”
I just shook my head no. Walked into the room to the spot where the transport chair had sat, facing the door. There was in fact nothing there.
Stepped around the side of that spot, back to the wall. And saw what I’d seen earlier, a glimmer.
And I reached my arm into the other world up to my elbow.
From the front, where the two tech giants and Ilana stood, my arm was cut off at the elbow. “It’s a 2D hole,” I told them. “Invisible from your angle, barely seen from this side but wide open. It doesn’t close.”
“Fuck.” That word was striking coming from an older woman. She moved close to take a look and I held my position, though it made her nervous. “We ripped a goddamn hole into whatever dimension we’re passing through. The other locales?”
I withdrew my arm even as she bent down to see where it emerged from. “I checked the other spots in the building. Did not see the same hole. But they might just be smaller.”
And I told them about the dog.
“So there is a hole,” she said. “Maybe it will grow. Nothing has come through otherwise?”
“Nothing has stayed through,” I told her. “Maybe it reached through, but maybe it’s not easy to find your way out.”
She nodded. She’d been inside. She knew what was waiting there.
You could tell her mind was racing. The physics, the ramifications. “Damone, we’re going to need gear back in here. We need to study this. I need to study this.”
He’d moved closer, too, almost forcing me away. They both looked to the glimmer. “Someone else can do this. I need you. We’ve yet to make the connection in a lab environment. We need to replicate this. We should open this to investors by end of fiscal. Soft launch of a transport system end of CY.”
She turned her attention to him. “We have to figure this out first. We don’t know what we’re damaging or what we’re risking.”
“But we know the potential. Instant travel. Transport of goods. This is the next big technology. This is like being the only company in the world with aerial flight. Forget billions; this is trillions.”
“Drake, that’s always been your problem. You’re more concerned about big profit than big science.”
He chuckled. “There is no big science without profit, Max. There probably has never been. Big science costs money.”
“I won’t let this move forward without solving this issue,” she said firmly. As if laying down the law was her job.
But he hadn’t followed her lead in a long, long time.
“Maxine, this company has died three times since you left. You’ll share in the profits of this, of course, because it’s your idea. But I own what we have of a company now. You don’t make these decisions.”
Something whipped out just then, from the glimmer. Just a finger’s thickness, narrowing to a hair. Purple, and lined with tentacles.
It caressed his face and he just brushed it way. “Annoying.”
Maxine jumped away from it, like it carried death. “This is a lot more than annoying, Drake. We can’t let this into the world. Or worse. I saw things there.”
And then, I don’t know, her face broke. I don’t know what else to call it. Maybe it was a sign her spirit had been shattered, in all those years behind the glimmer. Maybe it was the idea of bringing what she saw there to the world she’d just gotten back to.
Maybe it was just realizing she still wasn’t in control. Type As hate that.
Her jaw went tight, her teeth clenched. Her eyes squinted to better see into the glimmer. “I’m sorry, Drake. We can’t let what’s there come here.”
Then she moved in a snap, like a kite string snapping in too great a wind. She moved to his side, wrapped her arms and more of herself around him.
And then her momentum seized him, and they both moved as they fell.
Into the glimmer.
The three of us stood there for a while. Scott was the first to speak. “We should go. Make sure the door locks behind us.”
There was an investigation. Lots of questions.
Security cameras and door locks showed they’d entered the building that evening. Nothing showed them leaving.
It was even known they’d visited the second floor. But that was it.
Scott explained he’d come to visit Ilana and take her out for a drink. And Lord knows the two titans wouldn’t have dealings with Ilana and I.
The building was searched; nothing. And I think they even looked into team room 2216, the room that doesn’t exist.
But they didn’t notice the glimmer, or see the sights I was still seeing.
Within a couple of months, the company dissolved. I do work from home now for what’s left, so no more light shows. No more tentacles.
Somewhere there’s a lab working on Maxine’s ideas, I’d wager. They were aware of it, because near the end some workers came in, removed the door and half-glass wall, added bricks and sheet-rocked it all in. The Team Room that didn’t exist is even harder to find.
I hope they’re being as careful in the lab.
Is it still there, the glimmer in 2216? I can’t tell you. I hope I never need to know. Because that would mean Maxine hasn’t been able to keep the gap from growing, or keep things from coming through.
I don’t know what that would do to the world. But she was far more brilliant than I. And the thought terrified her.