When the screech-clang of metal boomed from the far end of the corridor, Pearson knew they were coming for him. The icy footsteps marched the length of death row and stopped at his cell.
It was Darcy, the new transfer. He was a rare breed of guard. Not the cop couldn’t-make-it or the sadist seeking a paid power trip, he was an older man with more shine on his shoes and hair in his nose. He could have been Pearson's father, with the same thin build and gray-blonde hair that had once been red.
The corners of his eyes crinkled. ‘You've got the green light, mate.’
Pearson ignored the whoops and cries from the other cells.
‘Now. You're on a timetable, and they don't muck around.’
Pearson dog-eared a yellowed page of the mystery novel in his hands and set it down. He paused for a moment, then opened the book again and unfolded the corner. He stood up.
‘All right,’ he said.
Darcy nodded to someone back the way he had come, and the cell door squeaked aside. It seemed as if the doorway beckoned to the whole world beyond, and a twinge of agoraphobia struck Pearson as he stepped into the corridor.
Freame's face appeared at the bars of the adjacent cell. He waved a nail-chewed hand. ‘See ya, Bugs!’
Kotz’s gesture from his cell involved four less fingers. ‘Tell the devil I’m comin’, Bugsy.’
Darcy raised an eyebrow. ‘Bugs? Something to do with what you did?’
A nod. ‘As in “What's up doc”.’
‘Ah, of course.’
‘Hey Bugs,’ Galea grasped the bars of number three. ‘Don't forget what I said. Jesus can wipe your slate clean! But you gotta ask him, and you gotta mean it!’
A rebuttal stuck in Pearson’s mouth. He usually enjoyed the verbal jousting they shared, but now final reality loomed and Galea was one of the few who had shown him any civility over the years.
‘Maybe I will. You blokes have fun, okay?’
More noise came to him, jeers and catcalls. Pearson walked past the cells dreamlike as the possibilities of the day began to sink in.
They read his implant three times on the way out. The last time they paused before a bespectacled official who gave him his Pardon Lot certificate and a contemptible sneer.
Though the morning was overcast, glare whitewashed the world as they stepped outside to the paddy wagon. Pearson involuntarily raised his cuffed hands, and couldn't help but wince as Darcy helped him into the vehicle and climbed in.
‘What's the job?’ said Pearson as the driver started them toward the gate. Darcy turned and shook his head with a bemused smile in his eyes, like a Dad that didn't want to spoil Christmas.
Protestors clustered at the gate, and were manhandled back as they drove through. They screamed in a violent cacophony and waved impotent placards ranging from ‘DON'T DICE WITH DEATH’ to ‘JUST KILL THEM.’ Pearson gave them a royal wave and they reacted as one, surging through the guards like sheep broken from the mob. One almost reached the paddy wagon, plastic peace symbols flailing, and clicked off a photo before being clubbed to the ground.
Once through Parramatta the driver took the threetier expressway's top onramp, reserved for government vehicles and VIPs. Though the speed didn't lend itself much to viewing scenery, Pearson could at least tell that they were headed southeast through Sydney.
His eyes dropped to the rolled paper in his hands, authenticity chipped and sealed with the wax emblem of the UNA. He levered it open with a thumb and unrolled it, willing himself to accept that it was happening, that his number had come up.
By the statutes and laws of the United Nations of America,
Christopher Ian Pearson
Has consented to scientific assignment subject to the conditions and laws specified in the Pardon Act, 2014, and will upon completion of this assignment, on proviso of being of sound mind, receive full pardon of his crimes against the state prior to the 23rd of September, 2045.
Corrective Services Minister
President- UNA (Aus.)
In a little less than twenty minutes they coasted down the exit leading to the Lucas Heights secure research facility, narrowing Pearson's speculation. Boom gates saluted, and they pulled up beside a lunchbox shaped building labelled 4E.
Darcy helped him out of the vehicle and turned him over to a stocky corp-cop with a handlebar moustache. Darcy then thumb-signed a delivery document and clapped a hand to Pearson's shoulder.
‘Good luck, mate.’
He climbed into the paddy wagon, and drove off without a backward glance.
Doctor Elayne Dixon had a wide-eyed appearance. It had given her an air of innocence in childhood times of scribbled walls and cookie jars. As age shifted her looks from sophisticated to just plain old, it hinted at eccentricity. An aunty in a lab coat, thought Pearson as she ushered them in. The stainless steel of her paperless office had a hospital smell.
She shook his cuffed hand and motioned him to a chair. ‘Welcome to the team, Mister Pearson! It's taken a lot of time and resources to get you in. I understand you would be feeling some apprehension at this—‘
‘Shouldn't you be wearing a black hood or something?’ said Pearson.
A pause. ‘Quite. Mister Pearson, what do you know about string theory?’
‘That I'm the puppet on the end of it.’
‘It's been around since the 1960's. It was made to describe strong nuclear forces, but its real value was to bridge the gap between general relativity and quantum mechanics. They're not compatible, you know.’
She paused like it was a punchline. Pearson said nothing.
‘It proposed that the basic objects in nature are not pointlike, but similar to strings. From it evolved superstring theory, then eleven dimension M-theory.’
‘We've known since late last century that only a thin membrane, Mister Pearson, separates our dimension from others. They’re like bubbles in soap suds. In a few hours, Mtheory physics moves from the theoretical to the practical. The membrane is about to be pierced.’
Pearson grunted. ‘Sounds like a first time for you.’
The corp-cop's breath caught behind him, indignation or a suppressed snicker. The lack of a nightstick to the kidneys implied the latter.
Dixon smiled like she was checking her teeth. ‘This project, Mister Pearson, is the crowning achievement of this facility and the culmination of decades of research. This is quite a gift horse. Not only will you be a free man, you'll be famous worldwide. You should be excited!’
Excited? Two years ago Dean McNulty, the ‘dance floor killer’, was drawn in the Pardon Lot to test an Ebola cure. Oops, back to the drawing board. Matt McDonagh's cosmetics tests wouldn't have killed him, but his family exploited the euthanasia loophole, collected the insurance and milked the current affairs circuit.
‘Tell you what,’ Pearson leaned forward. ‘How about we put a bullet in his gun, give it a spin, put it to your head and see how frigging excited you are?’
Her mouth gaped. ‘You don't think the system is fair, Mister Pearson? Those before you have been hung, electrocuted and injected with toxins. Today you merely participate in a project, albeit one with some risk, and your debt to society is paid.’
‘Then find someone with a debt to society.’
‘You murdered a doctor with his own instruments!’
‘Right up his arse. He killed my son!’
‘-He terminated an unlicensed pregnancy.’
Pearson’s nostrils flared. ‘Did you ask permission for your life?’
‘Spiros…’ said the doctor. The magic word conjured a nightstick across his windpipe. Pearson kicked back and twisted to stand, but the corp-cop had danced that dance before. When the music stopped, Pearson found himself back in his seat with his neck bent back, hissing through his teeth.
Dixon stood up, all professionalism gone. ‘Pearson, let me put this in terms a ‘— she glanced to her desktop- ‘ mechanic can understand. In a few hours your body will absorb energy comparable to that of an atomic bomb. Our science is all that can keep you alive.’
Her eyes narrowed. ‘I could easily make an error.’
Pearson gasped as the pressure on his neck eased. ‘You this nice to all your lab rats?’
‘Only the ones that bite.’
She touched a finger to the desktop, and the wall behind her lit up with the image of a squat metallic cylinder.
‘One of the variables of this project is the destination environment: we can't see through the twists of space-time. We don't know if you will appear inside a gas giant, in the far future, or a cliché where Hitler won the war.’
‘This resonator will pass through the membrane ahead of you. It's idiot proof. Just press the blue button, and it will generate a fluctuation we can detect here. We could have built an automated one, but that wouldn't tell us what we really want to know.’
‘Your part in this is twofold, Mister Pearson: one, to see if a human being can survive the piercing process, and two, to determine if the place on the other side is habitable. If you are able, just hit the button and we'll bring you back.’
Pearson opened his mouth, closed it again. Dixon touched her desk and an inset window appeared on the wall. It contained a thin face with baggy eyes and two-day growth. The man gave a start, then snapped his fingers to people offcamera.
‘Elayne. Is that the guy? Is it time to… string him up?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It's time to walk the Planck.’ They sniggered at a private joke.
‘We'll start prewarming,’ he moved offscreen.
Pearson chewed his cheek. ‘So what will I see? Psychedelic patterns? Spinning galaxies?’
For just a moment, the aunty persona re-emerged.
‘Mister Pearson, this is science in real life. We eliminate or minimalise all the variables we can, and one of them is the subject's movement. You probably won’t wake up until you’re through, so unless we miscalculate you won’t see the face of God.’
She was right. All he saw as he kicked and cursed was a mask with a hose, the kind dentists use to give kids laughing gas.
There was gas, and there was laughing. Before the bars of darkness clanged shut, he realised with a spike of fear that he forgot to pray to Jesus.
Pearson’s childhood swimming hole was a great rocky pool fed by a short waterfall. The old-growth rainforest bordering his father’s farm had been exciting enough, with all the lost civilisations and pirate lairs the child mind could conjure. The swimming hole it concealed was something more, a great glass ocean with the dark promise of eels lurking beneath his feet. is father had called it bottomless. The word stretched beyond depths and fathoms - there was eternity down there.
More than once he tried to find it, legs churning down, down and arms reaching into the blackness. Each time human frailty drove him back up, fear or the need for oxygen. Each time he imagined he had come within a finger length of the bottomless bottom, of being there.
And now he was, in the same darkness with the same desperate lack of breath, and poised in a place where there was no back up to reach for. Sparks, drugs, pixie dust washed through his body. He felt his molecules jostle like balls in a play pit.
His fingers, writhing like eels, tried to grasp his mouth and found a wall around his head. He shook and twisted it, nose and throat burning. A hose snapped and hissed venomous anger. Something in his neck tugged and the helmet came off, pouring vomit.
Pearson coughed for some time.
When a burnt, rotting stench overpowered the bile in his nose, Pearson raised heavy eyelids. He lay on the charred and fly blown corpse of an orangutan, dressed in the same UNA research coveralls he wore.
Pearson reeled back onto one knee.
He knelt on a slope in a forest of ghost-white trees. Ferns poked emerald tongues out of the rocks. Through the trees he could see the sky, a brilliant blue. The sun, comfortingly familiar, could be seen low on the horizon, attended by pink clouds.
Pearson tore off the fist-sized oxygen bottle and seal collar.
He lurched away from the corpse and fell to the humus, letting the world spin until his head cleared.
He found the promised metal cylinder eight meters downhill, spared from rolling into a gully by one of the trees. The tree looked similar to a gum, a little small and gnarled. The leaves were streaked grey-blue.
He lifted the resonator upright and sat beside it, staring at the blue button for some time. This looked more like a national park than another dimension. Had he merely moved his location? Or time?
Hit the button and we'll bring you back, they had said. Pearson wasn't that gullible- it had taken a large facility full of equipment to send him here, and this overgrown torch wouldn't reverse the process. If they could bring anything back, they could have sent a probe to record what was on the other side. It was a one-way trip, and he would not do Dixon any favours.
But what if the facility was only a few kilometers away? What if he'd just been drugged and dumped here for the benefit of hidden cameras, like those voyeuristic 3DV shows? He would have failed to fulfill his legal requirements for pardon, and he’d be returned to his cell before his bed had gone cold.
It soon became apparent that he had other priorities. The sun was setting. Pearson cleaned himself as best he could with ferns and limped uphill out of range of the corpse's stench, to where two trees arced over a hollow. He kicked aside uncomfortable looking rocks.
Nightfall brought new revelations. He could see no glow of city lights and hear no traffic. He heard a lonely, birdlike toowhip in the distance, but could not tell if it was terran or alien. Something thumped its way through the gully, but nothing approached his camp.
For the first time in many years, only freedom lay around him.
He had started to relax when he noticed the stars. He leaped to his feet and stumbled around his camp, looking through several gaps through the trees until he was certain that Scorpio, the Southern Cross and all the constellations he knew were gone.
By morning, a restless night's thinking had borne little fruit. Pearson returned to the cylinder and pressed the button, but it only hummed for two minutes and then fell silent. So was he, for three expectant hours.
Certain now that Dixon had lied to him, he tried to dismantle the cylinder for useful parts, but his most frustrated efforts with a rock left barely a dent in the seamless metal.
His outfit held mo re promise. The sealing collar contained a coil of thin wire slightly over a meter long, which he pushed into the leg pocket of the coveralls. The bulbous helmet also appeared useful, at least as a water container.
Ready to explore his new prison, he crested the hill and made his way down the other side. The slope grew steep and an easy walk soon became sliding and stumbling on moss and rocks. When he passed into the shadow of the hills it began to grow cooler, and at the bottom the slope dropped into a shallow gorge.
Pearson slid his way down and found, to his relief, a creek picking its way over the rock. The water looked clear and tasted cool. He washed out the helmet and cleaned his throbbing burns, and started up the other side refreshed.
This hill was higher than the other, and took half an hour to climb. At its peak he scaled the largest of the twisted eucalypts. Nothing could be seen in any direction but more forested hills, squashed together like the surface of a moldy brain.
Pearson sat with his back against the tree while the sun crawled overhead. The dull buzz of anonymous insects and a distant too-whip was the only evidence of life. Perhaps all there would ever be.
He found a thin stick, brushed clean a patch of dirt and wrote:
PEARSON WAS HERE.
Lame, but it was writing. Communication, even if there were no intelligent eyes to read it. He rubbed at the dirt and tried the look of:
PEARSON WILL BE HERE.
It didn't seem right either. He didn't know if he was in the far past, future or none of the above.
In the end he changed the inscription to read simply:
He started down the hill again.
The return trip to the camp took longer. Pearson’s mind was awhirl. Dixon and her government-funded sadists had not brought him back and, he felt certain, never would. If the requirement was atomic bomb-level energy, there was no way back. Even if Dixon and her team came through themselves with whatever they could carry, the mere creation of steel would take years.
No, if any more people pierced the membrane, they would also be doomed prisoners. And what reason was there to do it? Dixon had her answer. She could go ahead and write a research paper or whatever she did, and bask in the adoration of her peers. Sending more prisoners into exile would surely be prohibited by cost. He was alone. But alone where?
Hunger appended itself to the list of his problems.
When Pearson reached his camp he was still so deep in helpless anger that it took him a few moments to hear the snuffling sound from further down the hill.
His first thought, upon seeing the shuddering orangutan’s body, was that it was still alive. He had barely processed the poor logic of this when the other animal stopped feeding on intestines and raised its head.
The size of a large pig, it appeared to be equal parts wombat, koala and bear trap. One beady eye glared at him, the other lost beneath a slash of scar tissue. A throaty sound, like someone trying to start a motorbike, burst from the tangle of teeth. It sprang over the corpse and ran at him.
It may have been protecting its food source or gaining another. Pearson did not stop to find out. His legs were already moving, cured of their fatigue, and he reached full pace by the time his helmet fell to the rocks. He sprinted back toward the gully.
The creature growled again, and the sound of claws thrashing through leaves followed on Pearson’s heels until he sprang over a log. The steep hillside, navigated so carefully that morning, passed under him in a series of skids and leaps.
Pearson sprawled on hands and knees on the rocky floor, and pain flared in his knee. A series of limping hops took him to the other side, and he had just started up it when the creature landed at the bottom of the gorge behind him.
Terror rescinded the pain in his knee, and he surged up the slope in a wild scramble. The throaty sound had ceased, but he did not look back until he stood once again at the peak with an ankle -thick branch in his hands.
He was alone.
Pearson stood there for some time, knee and lungs burning, branch following his gaze. When he was satisfied the thing had returned to its meal, he resumed moving in the same direction his flight had taken him.
By morning Pearson could no longer ignore his hunger. Prison, for all its faults, had provided a sufficient quantity of food, and he oscillated between the enjoyment of his newfound freedom and the desire to be back in familiar captivity, with its comparative safety.
A few minutes of turning over rocks yielded a black beetle that glistened with an oil-sheen rainbow, and two flat headed grubs. He weighed them against the pangs in his stomach, then removed the heads and thrust them into his mouth. They tasted faintly nutty.
The following day he came to a slow moving river some eighty meters wide: a long, nervous swim. On the other side the hills began to flatten, and the eucalypts gave way to scrubby head-high bushes. Pearson began a loping run, wincing at every step and grinning like an idiot.
The river appeared to be more than enough to keep the creature away, but he kept exploring. Part of him reveled in the complete lack of boundaries. Something else expected answers over every rise: a group of cavemen, or the ruins of the civilisation he knew. Perhaps he could dance on Dixon’s grave.
Instead he found another river, more than three times as wide as the last, and he resolved to try for some fish. The wire in his pocket was pliable enough to twist one end around a stout branch, and formed a simple hook at the other. He found a grub in moments. Two hours’ patience yielded a small eel.
Pearson hung his catch from his makeshift pole, slung it over one shoulder and followed the riverbank. His spirits lifted. He had begun to adjust to the rules by which his new environment worked.
The riverbank had become a series of headlands and inlets. Pearson climbed a rocky hill and looked for a place to make a cooking fire. The scene struck him as familiar. Realisation followed like a breaking wave.
He was looking at Sydney Harbour.
Even without buildings, he thought he saw familiar shapes among the inlets and islands. Sydney rose around him in his mind’s eye.
Below him and to the right lay Sydney Cove, a little beach that in his time or world had been built into Circular Quay. A small white rocky island sat out from the shore, the site of Fort Denison. He stood in an area that had originally been called The Rocks, before the construction of the Harbour Bridge had buried it and the name had moved to Circular Quay West.
He closed his eyes, and opened them to only rock and water.
Was this the site of Sydney, or did he just want it to be?
Pearson had to know. He spent an hour working his way over to a rocky point that, in the Sydney he knew, was not buried beneath buildings. Lady Macquarie’s chair was a popular spot for picnics, and he had been there many times.
The point was there, easily recognisable. The chair was not- in its place was a rock ledge. Pearson sat on it and watched the waves break on the rocks below.
On the world he knew he had sat on this spot for hours, watching the waves below and waiting for New Year’s fireworks to start. It looked the same.
There were no guard-rails, roads or signs, but the rocks were identical. The ocean had made the same progress at eroding the headland, indicating that it was the same point in time.
Yet the stars were different.
‘Different’, then, appeared to be the best description of the world he was in. It was not a past or future earth, just a different one amid different stars.
As the sun set Pearson considered his predicament, spinning a stick between his hands and blowing at paperbark to encourage a flame.
The last thread holding him to his old life had been cut. Even a prehistoric earth was still the earth he knew. This was another world, inhabited by strange and dangerous creatures.
But was it so bad? The old world didn’t care if the government murdered your child, or if your wife killed herself because of it.
Pearson could only see two possible courses of action. He could accept this new world and make a home for himself, or go back to the cylinder and hope that one day someone else would come through- someone friendly to an exiled murderer.
He had learned more than enough about human nature. Humanity was gone, and good riddance. Pearson was not in a new prison. He was home.
Smoke blossomed into fire. The eel was delicious.
He found a stone and scratched on the rock ledge:
‘Sorry Macquarie, old girl,’ he said to the air. ‘This is my world.’
He walked back to a grove perched on the headland, and set about building a simple lean-to. He had almost secured a pole between two trees when it occurred to him that it would have to be close to fresh, drinkable water.
Pearson unwound the strips of bark from the pole, turned to head upriver, and froze.
Five meters away a diamond-shaped, waist-high creature stood on three black tentacles. The diamond headbody cocked slightly, watching him. How long had it been there?
It sprang at him, spinning in the air, legs splayed out. Instinctively Pearson held up the pole, and the creature’s legs twirled around it like a bola. The head buzzed its anger.
Pearson stepped to a tree and swung the pole hard. The creature hit with a sound like a dropped toolbox.
‘GET OFF MY LAND!’ Pearson shouted, and swung again.
The black diamond cracked, then sparked as it burst. Metallic shards fell from the casing.
Pearson dropped the pole in surprise, the machine still twined around it.
A shadow swept the headland. Pearson looked up.
A craft shaped like an ivory starfish, some thirty meters across, floated silently over the treetops. Beneath two of the protrusions, red circles glared at Pearson. He stared back, dumbfounded.
An opening yawned from the craft’s center. Two more of the tripods fell beside the grove.
Pearson fled into the trees, legs and mind racing. Were they aliens? Natives? The craft must have seen the cooking fire. There was no choice but to follow whatever cover he could find, and head upriver.
Pearson burst out the other side of the grove and almost stepped on another of the tripods. He collected it with a solid kick, but its tendrils wrapped around his foot like living wire. He dragged it another fifteen meters before another of the robots struck his back, whipping its cable - legs around him and pinning his arms to his sides. He fell into a waist-high bush.
In spite of his animal thrashing, Pearson could only lay there as a cable snaked down from the craft. It locked into the diamond head of the tripod on Pearson’s foot, and lifted him up.
The tripod unwound from Pearson’s feet, the action stirring him to full consciousness.
He lay beneath the craft on a kind of helipad. A city stretched around him, one and two story buildings of a serrated architecture, as far as the eye could see,
A humanoid shape in a metallic khaki suit descended from the craft on a ladder. It stepped to the tarmac, raised its arms to its triangular helmet, and detached it.
The face of an asian man stared at Pearson. ‘Roujin no shinwa denai,’ he said. The voice carried awe, and hatred.
Pearson gave no reply, overcome with questions.
With a low whine, a six-wheeled car ground to a stop behind them. Three more men stepped out, also asian. Two wore yellow coveralls and carried rifles. The third wore a sharp blend of kimono and suit, the garment glistening like black marble.
‘Watashitachi no gengo, supai wo hanasu kotogadekinaifuriwoshitehaikenai,’ said the man in black.
‘What the hell is all this?’ said Pearson.
The man’s eyes narrowed.
‘Some of us thought you people would not follow us at all, but we’re ready for you. We have had a century to build and rearm, and none of it has been wasted. Come with us.’
‘What?’ Pearson glanced to the guards, then the pilot. People had been here a hundred years? And expected someone to follow?
Then he noticed the insignia on the pilot’s collar. When the guards stepped aside he could see the same design on the car.
Pearson looked to the city. It also billowed on a hundred flags, the flag of the rising sun.
‘Holy-,’ said Pearson.
Your body will absorb energy comparable to that of an atomic bomb, doctor Dixon had said.
How unwittingly accurate she had been. The few twentieth century atomic detonations on earth--Pearson’s earth--had left no bodies at ground zero, because the people weren’t there anymore.
‘I am Yuji Hirayama,’ the man said. ‘I collect intelligence for the military. Of course none of my generation have interrogated an allied spy, but rest assured that none of our grandfathers’ techniques have been lost.’ He climbed into the car. ‘Since you’re going to tell me everything, you may as well start with your name.’
The guards pushed Pearson into the back seat and climbed in on either side of him. The door slammed shut.
‘Bugs,’ said Pearson. ‘Call me Bugs.’
‘Welcome to New Nagasaki, Mister Bugs.’
As the car headed into the city, Pearson remembered to pray to Jesus.
Copyright © 2008 Steven Cavanagh.
First published in a series of five parts in our Infinitas Newsletter, April 2008 to August 2008.
Steven is online at stevecav.blogspot.com.
This page last updated 16th September 2008.