Fiction

Out of Order

by Kristopher Hoffman

Out of Order

by Kristopher Hoffman

The day Clarise was granted her Ph.D was the proudest day of her life… until today. Eleven years of college had finally paid off. Today was her first day at CERN. Her theories in intersectional transdimensional collision cosmology had intrigued Dr. Gianotti, Director-General of the lab. Clarise was shocked that such an eminent scientist was aware of her work. CERN’s experiments in high energy particle physics were the very reason that she had gone into the field.

Her dream had always been to be one of the physicists in the lab… in this lab… She was actually here, and this was better than her childhood dreams had ever been. CERN was running an experiment that she designed.

Clarise was fairly certain that she was going to faint. Either that, or she was going to have an aneurysm. It was probably going to be the aneurysm, she decided. She was in the locker room and didn’t remember how she had gotten there. It was all just so overwhelming. She had a vague impression of introductions and a grand tour, but not much else.

The only thing she could clearly recall was supervising the unboxing of her experiment – an instrument package about the size of a passenger van. The thing was a compact frame packed with sensors, microprocessors, coils and other scientific bits and bobbles. All of it was designed to detect the presence of other realities.

“Dr. Maxwell?”

Clarise didn’t respond.

“Dr. Maxwell?”

She started. “Oh. Yes. That’s me!”

Dr. Robinson, a tiny woman with mouse brown hair, large brown eyes and an expressive mouth was staring at her with concern. “Are… are you okay, Dr. Maxwell?”

“Yeah. It’s just… well, I’ve only had my Ph.D for, like, a month. I haven’t made the neural connections, yet. I mean… Dr. Maxwell is my mother.”

Dr. Robinson chuckled. “Your mother? Most of the time, around here, I hear people say it’s their father.”

“Not in my house. My father was…” Clarise paused in thought for a moment, debating whether or not to tell this woman she had just met.

Dr. Robinson instantly noticed her reticence and spoke quickly, “You don’t have to talk about anything personal. I was just talking to hear my voice box rattle.”

“Oh, no. It’s fine, really. I was just debating whether or not to share the lie that my mother told me.”

Dr. Robinson leaned in conspiratorially, looking intently over her glasses at Clarise. “Okay. That’s not fair.”

“What?”

“That’s not fair. I’m a scientist. If there is vague, nebulous family drama, I can ignore it, because it’s polite. But you drop something like that, and the curiosity is literally going to kill me.” Dr. Robinson cringed and muttered under her breath, “No, Marie, be polite.” She took a deep breath and regarded Clarise for a long moment. “I’m sorry. I’m too nosy for anyone’s good.”

Clarise took a deep breath and smiled. “It’s alright. My mom told me that my father was a maintenance worker.”

Dr. Robinson’s brow furrowed. “That’s it? That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I’m not ashamed of that. She told me that he was an interdimensional maintenance worker.”

“A what?!”

“Yup. She told me that my father was a maintenance man from another dimension who was working on our version of Earth, repairing a hyperspace bypass. And then, and this is the kicker, when he finished his job, he left.”

“He left?”

“Yes. He left.”

Dr. Robinson found herself drawn into her peculiar story. “Where did he go?”

“My theory is that he went back to Detroit, but my mom insists he went back to his ‘home dimension.’” Clarise emphasized the words with air quotes. “No matter where he went, he wasn’t there while I was growing up.”

Dr. Robinson was hooked, she had to know more. “And that’s why you studied interdimensional theory?”

“Oh, god no!” Clarise laughed so hard that she snorted.

“No? Why, then?”

Clarise bit her lip nervously. “You want the truth?”

“Yes. Absolutely.”

“I am an autistic synesthete.”

“What’s that mean, exactly?”

“In a nutshell, it means that I experience things really differently. When I look at numbers, I can see patterns almost no one else can, and they are… well… color coded.”

Dr. Robinson’s eyes lit up with wonder. “That is so neat!”

“I suppose.” Clarise admitted. “It’s useful, but I don’t know if I’d use the word neat.”

“Oh. It’s neat! I promise.”

“If you insist. Anyway, when I got into college, there was some math in a sidebar in my physics books. It was all about the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics. And it was weird.”

“I’ll bet. I’ve been working with it for years, and my brain still refuses to accept most of it.”

Clarise shook her head. “No. Not like that. Well… Not exactly like that. This math was a different color than anything I’d seen before. So, I studied it. I found strings, like on a frayed sweater, and I pulled on them til it all came apart.”

Dr. Robinson spoke quietly, in awe. “It is such an honor to be working with you, Dr. Maxwell.”

Clarise opened her mouth to protest the tone of Dr. Robinson’s statement but was cut off by the intercom. “Doctors Maxwell, Robinson, and Koteca, please report to L.H.C. Control.”

Dr. Robinson handed Clarise a clear vinyl bag filled with protective gear and said, “Come on. It’s this way.”

The installation of the instrument package took several hours and went off without a hitch. However, this did not stop Clarise from worrying. In fact, Clarise spent those hours in an emotional state that could only be described as halfway between bed wetting and a near death experience.

After the installation came the inspection. After the inspection came the integrated systems check. After the integrated systems check came a power systems check. Then vacuum insertion. A magnetic lock and rail check. Then the particle pulse feeder tests. Two hundred and twelve tests and checks completed over the span of eight anxiety laden hours.

“You’d think you’d get numb after a while,” Clarise mused.

Dr. Robinson broke her out of her anxious self reflection. “Hey, Clarise… I mean, Dr. Maxwell?”

Clarise thought for a moment before reassuring her.“Go ahead, and call me Clarise. It’s less…” She struggled to find the right word and failed. “It’s just less.”

Dr. Robinson nodded. “I get it. I’ve got a question for you.”

“Shoot.”

“Well. It’s been a long day.”

“Yup. About 13 hours.”

“Indeed. We’ve got a couple options.” Dr. Robinson explained. “We could call it a day, get a full night’s sleep and start fresh first thing in the morning.” She paused.

“Or?” Clarise asked. She was mentally exhausted. She felt like the other option should be clear, but she just didn’t have the brain power to suss it out.

“Or, we could run a preliminary power cycle test! We could turn it on, just for a few minutes to make sure everything is working before we run it for a full day of science.”

Clarise nodded. “Yeah. I’d like that. Let’s do it!”

“That’s it?” Clarise was less than impressed by the process of starting up the machine.

Dr. Robinson was amused. “What did you expect?”

“I don’t know!” Clarise said, whining. “Maybe some epic, sci-fi noises as the entire system fired up followed by a ‘pew pew’ sound when the particle beam switched on. Instead, I got,” she motioned broadly, indicating the machines all around them. “One switch with a satisfyingly meaty click when I flipped it and a faint hum. It’s disappointing, really.”

Without warning, the air was filled with the very sounds she had just described. Dr. Robinson and Clarise blinked at each other, confused, and then turned toward the source of the disturbance. A small Asian man near the corner of the room was holding his phone aloft. He smiled and pushed heavy, black rimmed glasses up his nose.

Dr. Robinson smirked.“Dr. Tanaka?”

He blushed and spoke, words tumbling out of his mouth. “I thought the same thing the first time I was present for a power up sequence… so… so I downloaded this app. I was saving it for the right moment.”

Clarise laughed loudly, a sound like a braying donkey punctuated with a snort. “Well. This is the perfect moment, Dr. Tanaka. Thank you!”

Dr. Tanaka winked at her and gestured at the console that had been assigned to Clarise’s experiment. “Since we have everything else powered up, we might as well give your rig a go.”

It was Clarise’s turn to blush. She wasn’t used to being the center of attention, and this was center stage. She stuttered, “Y… Yeah. I… I guess so.”

He nodded. “Okay. On my mark. Three… Two… One… Go!”

Clarise flipped the switch that activated her instrument suite. As she did so, Dr. Tanaka pressed a button on the screen of his phone and there was a sound that could only be described as a science fiction probe being activated. It was an incredibly satisfying moment.

She bit her lip and looked at him with gratitude. “Thank you. That made it perfect.”

“It was my pleasure, Dr. Maxwell. So… Tell me. How does your experiment work?”

Clarise was relieved. For the first time in her career, she was able to explain her experiment in dumbed down, Star Trek analogy. “The machine uses plasma induction and ionizing lasers to heat a microvessel. Then we use massive vacuum pumps to pull a perfect vacuum.”

Dr. Tanaka frowned slightly. “A perfect vacuum, you say?”

“I’m with him. We’ve never been able to pull a perfect vacuum.” Dr. Robinson agreed.

Clarise smiled knowingly. “Yeah. It sounds arrogant, but everyone else has been doing it wrong.”

Dr. Robinson considered for a moment. “Okay. I’ll bite. What’s the right way?”

“I’m glad you asked.”

Dr. Tanaka chuckled. “I’ll bet you are.”

“Oh, hush.” Clarise took a deep breath and launched into the explanation. “Part of the problem has been the size of the vessel. It’s hard to empty anything bigger than a thumbnail. But your container needs to be big enough to hold whatever you are working on. I just need to hold a vacuum, so my vessel can be really small.”

Dr. Robinson nodded. “That makes sense.”

“Then, we hit the vessel with several high powered, ionizing lasers. They pulse, in sequence, several times a second.”

Dr. Tanaka interrupted, “Why do you need more than one laser?”

“Because we need to excite all the possible combinations of gasses that might be in the vessel. Different elements and compounds absorb different wavelengths of light.”

Dr. Robinson’s eyes grew wide with understanding. “I think I see where this is all going.”

Clarise nodded excitedly, “Exactly. We ionize the traces of gas in the container, giving them a positive charge. The vessel sits in a series of magnetic ring accelerators – like miniature versions of the accelerators used in the collider itself. Encase the whole thing in a plasma field, and voila, a one way gate. As long as there is power to the apparatus, once a vacuum is achieved, it is homeostatic.”

Dr. Tanaka was fascinated. “That’s amazing. Okay. So, you’ve managed a perfect vacuum. What does that have to do with alternate dimensions?”

Clarise took a deep breath, apprehensive. “Here’s where it gets neat. It’s been theorized that the collisions inside the LHC are energetic enough to pierce the membranes between alternate universes. And we should be able to detect them, if they exist.”

Dr. Tanaka thought about what Clarise was saying for a moment and then frowned. “Then why haven’t we?”

Clarise beamed. “Again, I’m glad you asked. The entangled nature of our universe prevents detection. Even if the collider has punched a hole into another universe, it can’t get through, and we can’t detect it.”

Dr. Robinson looked confused. “What do you mean ‘the entangled nature of our universe’?”

“Have you ever considered why quantum entanglement is so fragile, Dr. Robinson?”

“I’ve thought about it, but I’ve got no idea.”

“The Big Bang!” Clarise exclaimed. The others looked at her without comprehension. “Everything started out in a singularity. It was all one particle that exploded to make everything. Because of that, everything is already entangled, and when we entangle two particles, they are steeped in a soup of background entanglement!”

Dr. Robinson nodded slowly. “That make sense. But what does this have to do with detecting the presence of other dimensions?”

“Don’t you see?” Clarise probed. “When we pull a perfect vacuum, and put it near the point of collision, the lack of entangled particles… Hell. The lack of anything would allow us to see evidence of alternate realities.”

“What would that look like, precisely?” Dr. Tanaka asked softly.

Clarise was extremely pleased that her colleagues were interested in her theory instead of ripping it apart. “It would manifest as an exotic vacuum state that would appear to create energy spontaneously. The experimental suite is equipped with a vast array of sensors so sensitive that they can detect energy levels as small as one electron-volt.”

“So, there wouldn’t be a visible effect in the vacuum unit?” he asked.

“No. The energy levels would be minuscule.”

“You sure about that?” Dr. Tanaka asked, pointing at a monitor over her shoulder.

Clarise and Dr. Robinson glanced at the screen and then spun to face it. This specific camera was built into the heart of Clarise’s experimental rig – the vacuum vessel. It was necessary to monitor the small glass container at all times when the machine was running. There was fifteen lasers, magnetic coils, a high draw vacuum pump and a plasma inductor all crammed into a too-small space. The camera was there to make sure that the entire apparatus didn’t get upset and eat itself.

The center of the screen was dominated by the vacuum microvessel. Clarise expected to see a simple oblong glass tube with a flickering shell of purple plasma over the open end. Instead, the tube was filled with a swirling mass of light, bubbling and percolating with energy from another universe.

Clarise was completely dumbfounded.

Then there was darkness as the energy in the vessel roiled out of control, tripped every fail-safe in the building, and shut everything down. The sudden silence made everyone jump. They jumped again when the sound of a starship emergency klaxon started blaring from the back of the room. Clarise turned in surprise.

Dr. Tanaka was lit by the screen of his cell phone which was blinking a stylized “Red Alert” in the darkness.

It took about an hour to get the breakers, huge arcane looking affairs right off the set of a Hammer horror film, reset and power restored to the facility. By the time it was all done, Clarise was more than ready to go home and hibernate.

As it was her first day in the lab, the only responsibility she had was her experiment. The other scientists were not so lucky. While they finished up their nightly checklists to make sure that everything would run smoothly the next day, she lounged on one of the couches in the lobby of the building, waiting to make sure everyone got safely to their cars.

Her eye wandered to a door across the lobby, one of many that led deep into the guts of the tons of machinery and electronics that made the collider possible. There was a sign next to the door — printed in multiple languages – repeating the same warnings and announcements over and over like the multilingual instruction books that come with any electronic product.

She read the top entry out loud to herself. “Avizo! Altaj energiaj sistemoj kaj laseroj! Persona Protekta Ekipaĵo (kasko, disvastigiloj, kaj lasero-sekurecaj gafas) bezonataj preter ĉi tiu punkto. Neniuj esceptoj. Sekureco dependas de vi.”

Was that… Esperanto? Her mother was a huge William Shatner fan, and he had acted in a film called “Incubo” in 1966. The entire film was in Esperanto, so they had to learn it. She was absolutely certain. The sign was in Esperanto.

“What an odd choice,” Clarise said to herself.

The doors at the end of the hall opened the rest of the scientists wandered into the lobby. They were chattering excitedly to themselves as they approached her.

Dr. Robinson extended a hand as she spoke. “Dr. Maxwell! Congratulations are in order!”

“Not yet, they aren’t. All we know is that my experiment killed the facility.”

Dr. Robinson chuckled. “There is no need to be modest.”

“I’m not. I’m being realistic.”

“Have it your way. Instead, I will thank you for an exciting evening,” he said, waving her ahead of him toward the doors.

Clarise rolled her eyes. “You are more than welcome.”

She pointed to the sign, about to ask about the declaration in Esperanto and stopped. Something was wrong. She glanced around, feeling very confused. There was only one sign like that in the lobby and either she was hallucinating, or the sign had changed in the last twenty seconds. The top section now read: “Warning! High energy systems and lasers! Personal Protective Equipment (helmet, diffusers, and laser safety goggles) required beyond this point. No exceptions. Safety depends on you” in plain English. She stood there trying to process what she was seeing, her brain locked up. Dr. Robinson called to her from the front door, shaking her out of her stunned confusion.

“Dr. Maxwell? Are you coming?”

Clarise shook her head to clear it and rubbed her eyes. “Yeah. Sorry.”

Dr. Tanaka bowed slightly to her as she exited the building. “This was exciting. Go home. Get some rest. I can’t wait to see you crash the facility again tomorrow.”

When Clarise contemplated the scintillating luminescence pouring out of the tiny glass bubble, her brain just shut down. The day had been way too long. She desperately hoped that this wasn’t indicative of a trend. Fourteen hours, coupled with the excitement of installing her own experiment was emotionally draining. Then the event. It was extremely preliminary, but damn, what a result.

The day was so draining that she had no recollection of the drive home. She remembered leaving the lab. Then, she was at her front door – the key sliding into the lock. She rubbed her eyes, turned the doorknob and pushed the door open. She pushed the door closed, leaned against it, and took a deep breath. She decided that the only thing that mattered now was sleep. She pulled her phone out of her bag, and dropped the bag right by the door. Then she locked the front door and dropped her keys on top of her bag. Clarise stripped as she staggered through her apartment, leaving a trail of discarded clothing in her wake. She set the alarm on her phone, dropped it on the charging pad and fell into bed.

When Clarise was in fifth grade, her grandmother took her aside and told her, “As you grow up, your body is going to change.”

Clarise wrinkled her nose in disgust. She did not want to have the sex talk with her grandmother. “I know. We talked about this in health class, Grandma.”

Her grandmother laughed loudly. Her laugh was very reminiscent of a donkey braying. “Oh, kiddo. Not like that. They say, ‘time marches on.’ And it’s gonna march right across your life and leave footprints all over your body.”

Clarise’s brow wrinkled as she thought about it. “What do you mean?”

“You look so much like I did at your age.”

She was shocked by this. “Really?”

Her grandmother tousled her hair. “Yes. Really. As you live your life, pay attention. Don’t be like me.”

“Don’t be like you?”

“I didn’t pay attention. One morning I looked in the mirror and was stunned. There was this old woman staring back at me!”

Clarise never forgot those words. Ordinarily, she took a few minutes at the end of each day to sit in front of the mirror and map out the changes time wrought upon her. Her weariness precluded her ritual this evening, but exhaustion wasn’t the only circumstance that prevented her observation. Had she looked in the mirror, she would not have seen herself. In fact, she would have seen nothing save for a sign hanging on the other side of the mirror that read “Out of Order.”

Clarise’s morning started perfectly. She woke perfectly rested, just minutes before her alarm went off. She flipped the switch that disabled the alarm and walked down the hall towards the bathroom. She paused in front of the mirror and took a long look at herself. The mirror was working once more. Had Clarise not been focused on herself, she might have noticed the sign declaring it out of order laying on the table behind her reflected self.

Traffic was better than she expected. Since she had a few extra minutes, she decided to look around. As one of the scientists on the project, her keycard gave her access to every part of the facility. She grabbed her helmet and laser safety glasses from her locker and headed for the door in the lobby.

Clarise stopped in front of the door and stared at the sign for a few minutes. She knew, for a fact, that the sign wasn’t going to change back to Esperanto. She also knew that the sign had been in Esperanto for at least a moment. She knew that it was so. She spent five minutes staring at the sign, daring it to change. The sign spent five disinterested and disappointing minutes just existing as a sign written in English.

She took a deep breath and strode forward. The locking mechanism beeped and clicked as she scanned her keycard. The doorknob turned easily in her hand.

As the door started to open, Dr. Tanaka called her from down the hall. “Dr. Maxwell!”

Clarise spun to face him, her hand never leaving the doorknob. Dr. Tanaka had been jogging towards her when he called her name. His jaw dropped to the floor and he damn near tripped over it as he stumbled to stop. He rubbed his eyes and shook his head as if in an effort to rectify what he was seeing.

“What the fuck?” Dr. Tanaka said.

She looked behind her to see what he was staring at. At first, she didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. There was the front door, the reception desk, the couch and chairs… Everything as it should be. As Dr. Tanaka approached her, she was beginning to panic. His pupils were dilated with fear.

“How are you doing that?” he whispered.

“How am I doing what?” she asked, on the verge of panic.

“How are you doing…” He gestured wildly at the wall. “With the door?”

Clarise became acutely aware of the doorknob in her hand. The metal was cool and dry, in spite of her now sweaty palm. She turned her head slowly to look at the door and was chilled by what she saw. As she had turned to face Dr. Tanaka, she had pulled the door along with her. It was still in the wall, but it had… slipped. She had pulled the door down the hallway about eighteen inches. That damned sign had wrinkled as she drug the door along the wall towards it, and the wall was oddly stretched behind it.

She gasped and let go of the doorknob in surprise. The door snapped back towards its original place, bouncing back and forth along the wall for a moment. Dr. Tanaka and Clarise exchanged an astonished look as the door settled back into place. Then they glanced around the lobby, hoping to see another witness to what just happened. They were alone.

“Did you see that?” Clarise hissed.

Dr. Tanaka swallowed hard and thought for a second. “No. And neither did you.”

“Wait. What?” she stammered.

“Look. I just saw the same thing you did… I think. But it’s probably a shared, complex Freudian hallucination brought on by stress.”

“What are you saying?”

Dr. Tanaka took a deep breath and thought for a moment. Finally, he sighed. “Dr. Maxwell. Clarise. What we just saw, logically speaking, was impossible, right?”

Clarise made weak sounds of protest and grabbed the doorknob again. She pulled on the doorknob, hoping the door would slide down the wall again, but it didn’t budge.

“See? What we just saw was impossible,” he continued. “And if we go around telling people that something impossible happened, they are gonna give us mental health leave. We can’t have that, can we? I mean, you’ve just started.”

“Well, I…”

He persisted, “And I’m willing to bet that your contract has a clause in it that says that, for all intents and purposes, they own your experiment. Therefore, we didn’t see shit, Dr. Maxwell.”

With that, he turned and quickly walked away, leaving her alone in the lobby.

She stood there for a moment and considered what Dr. Tanaka had said. He was probably right. Even if what she had just experienced was real, everyone else would think she was losing her mind.

As she pondered, a rabbit in a tuxedo coat ran past her looking at a large, ornate pocket watch. He was muttering to himself, “Late, late, late! Oh goodness, I’m late!” He continued past her and out the front door.

Clarise closed her eyes and took a long, deep, shaky breath.

The locker room was empty when Clarise entered. She sat on the bench in front of her locker and let her head sink into her hands. She took another deep, shuddering breath – trying to fight back tears. As one fat tear slipped out of her eye and fell to the floor, the locker room door opened. She lifted her head and wiped the tears from her eyes. As she dried her cheeks, a man walked around the end of the row of lockers.

He was about five foot eleven inches tall, about the same height as Clarise herself. She couldn’t tell how old he was, but she was never good at guessing people’s ages. She was pretty sure he was “middle aged”, whatever that meant. His hair was brown, peppered with gray. He was wearing the jumpsuit common to maintenance men everywhere. It was bluish gray with two stripes, one tan and one orange, running vertically on the right side from shoulder to ankle. On his left breast was a patch with the name “Gerald” on it.

All in all, Gerald was nondescript – so much so that she wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a lineup. Yet, there was something terribly familiar about him.

“Weird day today, huh?” he said. His voice was rough and warm.

She swallowed hard, trying to maintain her composure. “Not that I’ve noticed.”

“That’s peculiar. I guess it’s just me, then.”

Gerald shrugged and opened his locker. As she watched in awe, the average sized man climbed into the twelve inch wide locker and pulled it closed behind him.

She sat there, staring at the locker Gerald had climbed into with her right eye twitching. Then, she bolted from the bench and wrenched the locker open. Save for a hard hat the same color as Gerald’s jumpsuit, the locker was empty. She felt around for a catch, secret door, or anything that might tell her where the man had gone. There was nothing. It was completely baffling. The locker wasn’t even big enough for him to fit into. It was impossible.

She screamed in frustration, yanked the hard hat off the hook in the locker and threw it at the wall as hard as she could. It should have collided with the wall and clattered to the floor. This didn’t happen. Instead, it hit the wall beside the television hanging from the ceiling and sank in, stretching the wall like a trampoline. It continued moving deeper into the wall for a few seconds until it slowed to a stop and hung, motionless for a moment. The newscaster on the TV stopped talking to watch the hardhat and it’s odd behavior. Then the wall snapped back, throwing the hard hat back into the room.

The news caster looked up at Clarise from where the hard hat landed. “That was freaky!” Then, as if nothing had happened, he returned to reading the news.

Clarise opened her mouth to say something to the man in the television, but no words came out. Her mouth snapped shut as the intercom screeched to life. “Dr. Maxwell, please report to operations!” She glanced at her watch and realized that she was now, officially, late.

Clarise could practically taste the air as she entered the room – it was heavy and greasy with excitement and tension. Everyone turned to look at her. They were all here, in this room, anticipating the results of her experiment. They were tense and excited… for her.

The door closed behind her with a bang that filled the room, and Clarise jumped. “Sorry for being late. Nerves.”

She noticed Dr. Tanaka nod slightly out of the corner of her eye.

“We all understand, Dr. Maxwell,” Dr. Robinson said. “We’ve all been there.” She motioned to the control panel that would power up the collider and her experiment. “Would you do us the honor?”

Clarise glanced around the room. All eyes were on her. She wanted, desperately, to flee. She wanted to throw the door open and sprint down the hall and just run. She wanted to run from CERN. She wanted to run from Geneva. She wanted to run from Switzerland. She wanted to run away and never stop running. However, she couldn’t. She had to know. She had to throw the switch.

The collider’s ignition switch was under a clear cover, just like every important switch in every movie ever. The clover flipped back easily, which was surprising. She had expected some kind of resistance to being opened. She held her breath as she flipped the switch to the On position. The only indication that anything had changed was a faint electric hum off in the distance.

She watched as the indicator lights on the telemetry panel for her experiment lit up in sequence. Red. Orange. Yellow. Green. This was it. This was the moment of truth.

Dr. Robinson smiled at her. “Go on. This is your moment.”

Clarise flipped the second cover back, revealing a heavy red button. She took one deep breath, placed her thumb on the button, and pushed it into the panel. There was a satisfying click and her experiment was active.

Clarise jumped as everything went silent. The only sounds she could hear were her own breathing and the blood hurtling through her veins. Her head snapped up, and she looked around the room. No one was moving – at all. They weren’t standing still. They seemed to be completely frozen. Her eyes fell upon the monitor showing the microvessel. Like before, there was a miniature star in the glass bottle, but it was frozen in time as well.

The door to the operations room swung open and banged against the wall. Clarise shrieked and spun to face the door. Gerald was standing there. He had a wild look in his eyes – the look of a hunter tracking his prey through the woods, only to lose the trail over and over again.

“I knew it!” he exclaimed and pointed at her.

“Ex… excuse me?” Clarise stammered.

“I knew it!”

“Wha? What did you know?”

“That you’d been having issues.”

“And how, pray tell, did you know that?”

Gerald pointed at the monitor. “You’re entangled with that thing.”

“That’s my experiment.”

“Yup. That tracks. Look. I’ve got to apologize.”

“Apologize? For what?”

“This area…” Gerald sighed, rolled his eyes and motioned to the control room. “Needs a complete rebuild, but it’s just not in the budget. So, everything is held together with bubblegum and bailing wire.”

Clarise looked confused. “You’re telling me that the most technically advanced installation on the planet is… poorly constructed?”

“Oh, no. This part of the multiverse is.”

“What?”

“These multidimensional space time coordinates are in a bad neighborhood and the proprietor is basically a slumlord. Then you moved your new toy in here and pretty much blew every quantum ultrapolar vortex fuse in the area.”

“Every what?”

“Oh. Right. You’re from a four dimensional culture. It’s an integral part in 6th dimensional engineering. The guy that owns this entire area has just stuck extradimensinal spaces whereever he can with no respect for building codes. All of this is to say that you lit the entire place up like a damned Christmas tree and blew a fuse.”

“Wait. So… my experiment,” her voice trailed off.

“Yeah. Knocked this entire block of reality out of order. They really should have put you all up in a hotel. I’m sorry I didn’t get out here last night. They didn’t tell me that this all went to shit til this morning.”

Clarise nodded numbly. “It’s okay. Really.”

Gerald smiled at her. “Now that I know what the problem is, I’ll have this fixed faster than you can blink.”

Clarise stared at him for a moment as he stuck a key into a space near here head – that is to say, right in the middle of the air, and opened a compartment. He fiddled around for a moment, and them smiled. He pulled a glowing glass object out of the panel and examined it. Then he reached into a compartment on the belt at his waist and pulled out a nearly identical glass object. From another pocket, he pulled out a piece of metallic foil that her eyes did not want to acknowledge as real. Each time she looked at it, they just slid off the material. He wrapped the new object in the foil and stuck it back into the panel.

“That should get you fixed up.” He flipped the panel closed with a bang and wiped his hands off on his jump suit. “Sorry about the inconvenience. I can’t imagine spending a night with reality out of order.” He handed her a business card. “I’d give these guys a call. You can probably get a refund or credit on your rent. Have a nice day!”

“Ummm…. We don’t rent. We just live here.”

Gerald thought for a moment. “Give ’em a call anyway. Squaters got rights, too.”

Then he was gone.

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