On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.
I’d love to have you as a subscriber to the weekly free story. You can subscribe via email here. Unsubscribe any time, from the link in every issue.
“I’m ready,” Parks said, answering the unasked but obvious question that lingered on the face of the technician who had checked his vital signs several times over the last few hours.
“As much as anyone can be,” came a familiar voice from behind him, and Parks turned to see the director of research, a harsh-looking man called Winston Alexander Nowell, walking into the lab. Nowell was in his sixties, some twenty years older than Parks himself, and always seemed both rushed and irritated about it.
The technician nodded to the older man, and Parks knew that there was more of assessment and detached approval in it than any sort of greeting or deference. Nowell wasn’t well-liked, but that was just because he was an excellent director, and Parks had to admit to a grudging respect for the man.
“Come to see me off, sir?” Parks asked, and Nowell peered at him for a moment before frowning.
“And hopefully to see you return, more to the point,” Nowell replied.
It was the subject at the forefront of the mind of everyone who had sufficient security clearance to know about the project, and from Nowell’s point of view, it was an operational disaster in progress. The machine a short distance away was the beginning of the whole unsettling situation.
The annoying thing was that it worked perfectly. They had proven that, mathematically and experimentally, on numerous occasions. It worked. The issue was that when their very carefully selected and well-trained people had gone through it, they didn’t return — none of them, at all.
Parks would be the fourth human being to use the machine, and being a scientist, the only one of a non-military background. The idea was that maybe he’d be able to work out what was going wrong. After all, he’d been instrumental in designing and building the thing in the first place.
The machine’s purpose was readily described, to the extent that it almost rendered its incredible function as something mundane: it took anything within its immediate area of effect — which was a radius of about 1.5 metres beneath its archway — and pushed it into an adjacent universe.
It did so with utter precision and a complete lack of drama, using comparatively modest amounts of power, and subject to just two inconvenient restrictions; you couldn’t send more than a single payload to a given universe until that payload had returned, and the return journey had to be initiated from within the target universe. Return transit was triggered using a portable device strapped to either the robotic probes which had all come back without trouble, or to the volunteers who had so far uniformly failed to return. With no way to visit any of the universes they’d been sent to, Parks would be visiting a new one, in the hope of generalising whatever he experienced in a way that would shed light on whatever the problem was. That was the hope.
“You’ll arrive somewhere near a facility analogous to this one,” Nowell said, and Parks nodded. The goal was to enlist the assistance of parallel researchers, if necessary, and perhaps even to use their own machine — if they had a working one yet — to at least send information back to Parks’ own universe. It was a plan with many wildcards, but it was all they had at the moment.
“I’ll assess the situation on arrival, and if there’s anything untoward, I’ll return immediately. The drone device will return regardless.”
It was a safeguard they’d put in place. Parks would take a small and simple robotic device outfitted with its own return trigger, its only purpose being to wait for sixty seconds and then automatically come back, no matter what else happened. It was a test to ensure that the return devices themselves weren’t somehow malfunctioning. Even if Parks didn’t come back, the drone ought to.
“Alright,” Nowell said. “Let’s proceed.”
Under the watchful eyes of a dozen scientists, along with countless monitoring machines, Parks stepped forward. The return device was attached to his left upper arm, and the drone was already sitting beneath the machine’s arch. Parks was wearing a backpack with some essential supplies, including food and water, but the adjacency of the target universe was such that obtaining necessities shouldn’t be problematic. He stepped under the arch, turned around to face Nowell and all the rest of them, and nodded.
The deep hum vibrated through his bones, and there was a perception of orange light around the edges of things that he’d read about many times but never personally experienced until now. He felt a sense of static charge in his body, and an unusual lightness in his limbs. Then everything blurred and smeared for an instant, as if a sudden rain-shower had thrown droplets onto his spectacles.
Parks was standing in an area he recognised: the open piece of ground which extended from the rear of the facility all the way to the woods which bordered the access road. It was a similar hour of the day, and a stray cat was looking at him in alarm from several metres away. Parks immediately took three large paces away from the drone device which had materialised beside him, the movement causing the cat to turn and run off, and sure enough less than a minute later the drone vanished with an audible pop as the air rushed in to fill the vacuum it left behind.
Return devices seem to work, at least, he thought, and then he was seized by a strange disorientation. He could see the empty patch of ground where the drone had been, and he could also see the drone still sitting there. The two images were superimposed in a way he’d never experienced before; neither translucent not obscuring each other, but nonetheless both there, and both real, and both occupying the same space.
Parks saw the problem immediately. Indeed, it had been speculated about during the early stages of the project, and then dismissed when the robotic tests had all been successful.
No wonder they chose not to come back.
He turned slowly around, watching everything in flux around him; all in two places, or three, or more — and yet it all made sense to his brain. It was an additional dimension of reality, always there but unavailable to him in his own universe of origin. And it answered a fundamental question about what differentiated a person from one universe and the other one they travelled to.
“I’m exempt,” he said aloud, hearing it vibrate through the air as it became a real and concrete utterance. A coalesced event. Because he had chosen it.
The discovery was at least as momentous as the machine that had facilitated it. When in a foreign universe, a traveller was set aside from participating in the collapse of the quantum wave-function. He could choose any outcome at any time. Everything was possible.
I’m a god here, he thought, removing the return device from existence with a simple act of focused will. And I can remake this universe as I see fit.
I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.
I encourage you to share this story with anyone you think would enjoy it! If you’d like to receive a tale like this via email every week, you can sign up to receive them here.
Thanks for reading.