SWITCH

 

EPISODE 5

 

Frank was thirsty, and surprised that the thought of a glass of water appealed to him. He was still unconsciously rubbing the puncture wound on his arm from which his blood had been taken. Now, it was one thing having blood taken when you knew what they were looking for, or at the very least, what they were trying to rule out. But Frank had no idea why they had taken his blood, and he was desperate to find out.

As if someone had read his mind and understood his intentions should he be released from his cell...the door was unlocked. Frank stood up, anticipating another violation of his rights, but no one came in. He approached the door, which was opening outwards into the silent corridor. If he didn’t know any better, he’d have thought that the door had opened by itself.

Outside, Harding approached Paul and grabbed him by the arm. ‘We have to get out of here,’ he warned him. ‘They’re all over the place!’

Paul looked around, but couldn’t see anything, and Harding asked, ‘Did you find it?’

‘No,’ Paul lied. ‘Do we have time to keep looking?’

‘No,’ said Harding. ‘Let’s go.’ He kept low and Paul followed him, making sure that the switch was safely in his pocket, and knowing that this was the only opportunity he would have to get away.

Back inside the station, Frank was out of his cell and looking around, and there was suddenly a strange buzzing at the back of his head. Now, back when Paul had been hearing voices, Frank was swift to mock. Being the only person in this world to have heard of the word ‘karma’, it was ironic that Frank didn’t understand what it was. Hence his inability to apply the word to an experience quite similar to Paul’s. The difference was that it was not Karl Wright or any of his people who spoke to Frank. The voices sent shivers through him:

‘You must do exactly as we say. We wish for you to escape.’

Frank stopped in his tracks and looked around. It wasn’t everyday some freaky voice inside your head started giving orders. Frank had heard stories of nutcases who blamed the voices in their heads for the shooting or the bombing, but he had always thought that his voice would at least have the decency to be just one person when he finally lost his marbles. I mean, it’s one thing to hear your alter-ego saying, ‘Do it! Do it! Burn the school down!’ but quite another when that alter-ego refers to itself in the plural. So you can forgive Frank for speaking aloud and asking quite innocently, ‘How many of ya are there exactly?’

 

There was a pause.

 

Some writers like to call this a pregnant pause, but I tend to avoid that imagery. Only expectant fathers should have to consider a pregnant pause and the inevitable consequences, as they stand in the delivery room with a shaky-handed video camera pointed towards the miracle they had a little bit of a hand in as they dare to steal fleeting glimpses of the wonders of nature. Of course, standing as far away from the medical waste bag and as close to the door as possible is recommended for those with weak stomachs. No, pregnant pauses aren’t good on paper. They’re just unhygienic.

 

So, anyway...yes, there was a pause. Well, of course there was a pause, because the people on the other end of Frank’s in-house communication hadn’t envisaged the idiocy of this particular recipient of their wisdom. I imagine they looked at each other, shrugged their collective shoulders or maybe shook their heads in despair, before replying patiently in their sibilant whispering (which wasn’t all an act, I can tell you), ‘That doesn’t matter right now, Frank,’ as they thought, ‘What a complete Twonk!’ and possibly had a bit of a laugh about it. ‘You need to escape before the Reset,’ the voices continued. They weren’t singing in harmony or anything like that. They just all spoke together, adding a particular air of menace to the whole affair.

‘Reset?’ asked Frank. ‘What do ya – ?’ Frank was cut off as a gunshot snapped him back to reality. More shots followed until it was clear that there was a serious fight going on in the building. The voices pressed on: ‘Turn to your left and find room number 1-0-6. Wait there until we instruct you further.’

Imaginary or alter-ego or whatever, the voices were a lot more comforting than all that gunfire, and Frank followed their instructions.

 

__________________________

 

Wright’s people were aware of the communication as soon as it occurred. ‘Frank’s switch is receiving, Sir!’

Wright had no idea who had shouted out, and really didn’t care. The numbers were put up on screen and he could see immediately that something was very wrong. ‘It’s not coming from the usual transmitter,’ he said. ‘Can we locate the source?’

‘It’s refreshing, Sir...and changing.’

The figures on the monitor flickered as they were updated. ‘So it’s moving,’ Wright realized, his heart pounding as he considered the implications. ‘Can we project a vector?’

There was a delay as the staff worked on the calculations and Wright couldn’t handle the tension. ‘Come on, come ON!’ he shouted. ‘We’ve been trying to keep this from happening for years! Where’s it going?’

The schematics of Frank’s switch on the huge monitor was replaced by a virtual star chart and yellow lines reached out across the darkness. The vector projection followed the transmission echo, altering the magnification of the star chart until, constellation by constellation, a journey unfolded across the galaxy – a journey towards a star system familiar to Wright and his people, for they had seen it in images before. The projection continued to magnify and jump onwards to anticipate the journey of the craft from which the transmission to Frank’s switch had originated, until it showed the destination world. It was a relatively small planet, blue and white and promising. You know the one I mean.

As if that shock wasn’t enough, the monitors suddenly went dead. ‘Now what?’ snapped Wright. Staff desperately tried to answer that question, but nothing was working, so one of them just articulated the obvious: ‘The system’s gone down.’

 

__________________________

 

Those of you who like to assign responsibility to others so that you don’t have to face up to your own are probably wondering where the government are in all this. Well, this world did have a government, but it operated on a local basis, so that people would bring their grievances to locally-appointed representatives – because let’s face it, there’s no other reason for talking to those self-serving hypocrites! It wasn’t exactly clear to the ordinary people what happened after this, whether or not those representatives spoke to someone higher up the food-chain or whether they all got together and sorted out problems which affected a number of neighboring communities. However, with what was going on now, things were about to change. People actually started to wonder who was in charge. Not just good old Councillor Joe down the local office, but beyond him, higher than him. Although it was too late and the experiment had been compromised, the original desired effects were most certainly in play by this stage. They may have been on more basic grounds, but the rest would follow so long as answers weren’t in sight.

You see, people always want to know where the buck stops, and not just because the guys at the top decide what your buck is gonna get you when you go shopping for something you don’t need. No, people want to know whose up top so that they can find some comfort knowing that things just aren’t their fault. Our lives are a psychological miasma of blame and deflected responsibility, but don’t worry too much about figuring that out right now. It’ll all make sense as we go on.

 

Harry and Bernadette Aston were not at all to blame for what had happened to their daughter, but the mistakes of Wright’s people had permitted the exposure of Becky’s switch and, as a result, the wrong questions had been asked. The investigation into her death became more grounded than the instigators of the experiment had hoped for, and fingers were now being pointed in the wrong direction. There was still no face to be put on the killer, and so the mystery inherent in the unknown was still pregnant with possibility. Oh...sorry. Still, it wasn’t a pause.

Janet Russell was the Aston’s local government rep, and she took a particular interest in their case because her daughter was the same age as Becky and was attending the school to which Becky had gone. Her empathy had sucked her in to the whirlwind of righteous anger, and she promised the Aston’s that she would get answers. Her P.A. was a young man whose job it was to know everything, and he was pretty good at it. He burst into her office with an armful of files. ‘Harry Aston’s on TV again!’ he told her.

Janet shook her head, saying, ‘Doesn’t that guy ever sleep? The sun isn’t even up yet!’

‘I could say the same thing about you,’ the assistant replied.

‘Suppose so.’ She turned the TV on and found the channel. We’ll be right back after these messages, the TV told her as the news took a short break. ‘What do you think he’s doing, George?’

George – that’s the assistant’s name...keep up – shrugged and said, ‘Probably just looking for as much exposure as possible. I don’t understand why he’s not at home comforting his wife.’

‘Hmm,’ Janet agreed. ‘Anything else I need to know.’

‘Well, apparently there was another girl killed the same way as his daughter a few days ago.’

‘What? Why didn’t I hear about that? Wasn’t it on the news?’

‘No,’ said George. ‘Guess she wasn’t as photogenic as the Aston kid.’ See...I told you. It matters.

‘That’s not something I want to hear you say again, George,’ Janet chided him. She held up her hand to cut him off, adding, ‘even if it’s the truth!’

He nodded. ‘The girl’s name...well, young lady...was Fran Redmond. She was taken to the Golden Heart hospital. They couldn’t figure out what happened to her for quite some time. Guess they paid more attention to the Aston kid in the mortuary as well!’

Janet’s expression while the commercials were still waffling on about things you absolutely didn’t need but absolutely must have said something like Last warning, Bozo! and George continued. ‘When they found the thing inside her head...’ he leaned across her desk to share the secret, saying, ‘someone turned up and killed them all.’

‘What?’ Janet gasped. ‘They killed the doctors?’

George nodded. ‘There was a whole team working on the autopsy.’ Before he could say anything else, Janet ‘shushed’ him as the news came back on. Harry Aston was being interviewed, and what he had to say was the most dangerous thing anything in this world had ever said:

 

‘My wife and I have just had some tests done...some scans. Afterwards, the doctors had themselves tested and I’m here to tell you that everyone should get themselves tested.’

 

‘What exactly are you saying, Mister Aston?’ the interviewer asked.

‘I’m saying that I was wrong,’ he replied, cryptically at first, possibly because he was enjoying the mystery as much as you and I. ‘I’m saying that my daughter may not have been murdered, because the thing that was inside her is also inside my wife and I.’ He was clearly horrified by the thought. ‘It’s also inside the doctors and everyone they’ve tested so far.’

 

‘What’s this thing he’s talking about?’ Janet asked.

‘I’m not sure,’ George admitted, ‘but I’d be willing to bet that those doctors in the Golden Heart were killed to keep this from getting out.’ He turned the TV off and looked at his boss. ‘But we got a lucky break.’

‘Did we?’

‘Yeah. A nurse called Paul Bradbury managed to escape the attack at the hospital and he took the thing with him.’

Janet got to her feet. ‘So where is he?’

‘Well...you’re not going to believe this.’

‘Just add it to the list and get on with it, George.’

‘I got his hospital ID sent over and ran it through the system. Facial recognition software picked him up.’

‘And?’ Janet was not enjoying the mystery.

George smiled, feeling good about himself as he reported, ‘He’s heading this way. He’s just outside the city.’

‘Then we better get him before someone else does, because we need to know what we’re dealing with.’

The smile fell from George’s face, and he found himself reaching up to the back of his neck. ‘Do you think we all have them?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ said Janet. ‘But if we do, then someone put them there.’

‘Why? Why would someone do that?’

Janet gathered up her coat. ‘Let’s go and ask this nurse of yours, shall we?’

 

__________________________

 

Paul woke up suddenly, slamming his head drunkenly against the car window to his right. That happened to me once, and has furnished me with this piece of advice to this day: never sleep when driving. Having a nightmare and waking up screaming isn’t something your passenger wants to hear. ‘How long was I asleep?’ Paul mumbled, his lips reluctant to draw fully apart.

‘Just over an hour,’ said Harding, as he sat rigidly driving the stolen sedan. It was then that Paul realized that he had no idea where he was. The landscape was completely unfamiliar. All around them, with the dusty road cutting through it, was an expanse of desolate and rocky ground, with no discernible landmarks or any features which would stand out as characteristic of the area. ‘You’re telling me we got lost in an hour?’ Paul asked, twisting around in his seat to see the same scene behind them.

‘We’re not lost,’ Harding replied cryptically. ‘We’re just somewhere you haven’t been before. There’s a difference.’

‘I have been out of the city, you know,’ Paul argued. ‘And there’s no way this place is only an hour out!’

‘When did you leave the city?’

‘What?’

‘When?’ Harding pressed. ‘With who? Where did you go? What did you do?’

‘I thought the interrogation was over!’

‘Why don’t you just sit there and think about it, Paul? You’ll figure it out.’

So Paul did so, leaning back in his seat to watch the empty landscape whizzing by as he tried to summon the memories. It was Summer last year…or Spring, maybe. Was it last year? Maybe the year before. No, wait…it was Rachel’s birthday…or their anniversary. Oh, no, wait a minute…it was when he proposed to her. Or was that in a restaurant?

Paul quickly concluded that he had no idea when he’d been outside the city last. And then he realized, hot on the heels of that conclusion, that he wasn’t surely if he’d ever been out of the city. That couldn’t be right. He turned to Harding, who was nodding as he said, ‘Strange, isn’t it?’

‘That’s one word for it,’ Paul agreed. ‘Are you telling me that I’ve never been out of the city?’

‘Afraid so. In fact, no one in your city has. Ever.’

Paul laughed without conviction, saying, ‘That’s impossible!’

‘It’s necessary. For the first phase, anyway.’

‘The first phase of what?’

Harding turned to him. ‘You’re not ready to hear it yet, Paul. Trust me. There’s something you need to see first.’

‘Which is what exactly?’

Harding grinned. ‘The end of the world,’ he replied.

 

__________________________

 

Frank had completely lost track of time. Room 106 had become something of a haven for him, and brooms and mops were his best friends. Not to mention the intoxicating aroma of floor polish and toilet cleaner. All was silent outside, and the shooting and shouting had long stopped. So had the voices in his head, which was an even amount of fortunate and worrying. Fortunate because it suggested that they hadn’t been real, and worrying because…well, because it suggested that they hadn’t been real. Deciding not to waste any more time on the implications of insanity, Frank got to his feet and slowly, cautiously, opened the door of the broom closet. Only his imagination would have been dense enough to direct him in there, so he was happy for now to write the voices off as just that. That was…until they spoke again.

‘You were told to wait, Frank,’ they reminded him, with sufficient acid in their tone to cause him to stop in his tracks with the door half open. ‘I thought I was crazy,’ Frank said aloud, forgetting the situation for a moment. But he was met with only the silence of the reality around him and the voices again in his head. ‘You’re not crazy, Frank. You can leave the station now. Take one of the cars and head north out of the city.’

‘What…what happened to the cops?’ Frank asked as he headed back the way he had come. ‘Where’s everyone gone?’ But it was then that he saw the first bodies, three heavily-armed men in black assault gear laying dead on the floor. There was no blood to be seen. Stepping around them carefully as he passed the cells, because people sometimes came back to life in such situations – everyone knew that – he came across more of the dead around the corner. There were cops here as well as these mystery men and women in black, and some of the dead had clearly been shot. Others, however, looked as if they had simply dropped dead on the spot. Frank counted eleven bodies here, and he was close to the main entrance by now. At the reception desk and in the waiting areas, by the water cooler and in the smoking room, the bodies of cops, the black-clothed attackers and civilians alike were everywhere, dead from either gunshots or…the unknown. But Frank knew. He knew immediately what had happened here, and he was as surprised as you may be by his newfound intuition. ‘Ya switched them off, didn’t ya?’ he asked his unseen guides.

‘Yes,’ they replied. ‘We need you to leave here safely.’

‘Why?’

‘We need you to be outside when the reset occurs.’

Now Frank had no idea what that meant, but he was currently bypassing some of the intricacies of the situation which he deemed of lesser priority right then, as he stepped over the dead and approached the main door. ‘Why me?’ he asked.

‘Because you believe something that no one else in this world does.’

Frank took a gun from one of the fallen cops and then headed out into the parking lot. He opened the door of the closest police car and said, ‘This is because I believe something? What is it?’

There was another one of those pauses…you know the kind…before the voices replied, ‘You believe in second chances.’

Feeling no greater sense of enlightenment, Frank started the engine and drove away from the scene of death, not realizing how appropriate it was to his quest for understanding.

 

__________________________

 

The monitors came back to life and the system began rebooting. Wright straightened up in his chair as the numbers filled the center screen. Counting backwards from what was clearly twenty-four hours, the red digits threatened what Wright had feared. ‘This must be it,’ he told the bewildered staff. ‘This must be what happens.’

‘What do you mean, Sir?’ a young man at a station close to him asked. ‘What’s happening?’

Wright was nodding and there was the slight grin on his face of a man who had just discovered that a world-killing asteroid was on its way and that they were going to name it after him. ‘This is how they do it,’ he replied, with a hint of admiration in his voice. ‘They start all over again. We never know what’s happened.’

There was a chill in the air, as if Wright’s words had expelled an icy blast throughout the room. ‘What do you mean…they start all over again?’ the same guy asked. But he knew. They all knew. Still, for dramatic effect…and because I know you love it…Wright clarified it for them, saying, ‘They reset the system.’

 

__________________________

 

George was driving as Janet slapped the Sat-Nav. ‘What’s wrong with this thing?’ The little monitor was flickering and threatening to die.

‘Doesn’t look like it knows the route,’ George quipped as they left the early morning city behind them. ‘Don’t worry…I know where I’m going.’

‘Well, so do I, but do you know how much I paid for this thing?’

‘Yes. I filed the receipt.’

Janet chuckled, but as she looked around, she didn’t see anything she recognized. ‘At least, I thought I knew where I was going,’ she said quietly. ‘Did someone move the city since I last came out this way?’

George laughed aloud. ‘Oh, yeah. They’re always doing that. Keeps us on our toes.’

‘I’m serious, George,’ she continued. And he could hear that she was as she went on: ‘I don’t remember any of this, and I was only out here last year with…em…’ She screwed up her face trying to think of it. ‘I was with Henry and the kids, right?’

‘You’re asking me?’

‘Well, you usually keep track of everything I do. It is your job, after all!’ Her tone had changed, and George didn’t like the implications of the sound. He realized, however, that he didn’t know who she’d been with. In fact, ‘I don’t remember you going out of the city last year,’ he admitted. ‘Or any year, for that matter.’ He kept driving as they both lapsed to silence, and then he asked, ‘Was I working for you at the time?’

‘I…I’m not sure.’ She laughed nervously. ‘This is so weird. I mean…look around you. Is any of this familiar?’

George took in the scene, which was nothing but rocks on dusty ground. The road wasn’t much to look at either, and the road markings had vanished. But it was when he looked in the rear-view mirror that he got really freaked out. Janet followed his gaze as he slowed the car to a stop and then looked back the way they had come. Back to where the city should have been. It was one of those moments when someone who liked to make pop-culture jokes would have said, ‘I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.’ But George and his boss didn’t feel like making jokes at that moment. Or ever again, for that matter. And there may have been arguments over which one of them was Dorothy.

‘What do we do?’ asked George.

‘We keep going,’ Janet replied. ‘If that nurse is out here, then we’ve gotta find him.’

George nodded and put the car back into Drive. They could not have known that Harry Aston wasn’t far behind as the sun rose on the dusty road. He was in the back of a news van, and he was sure that he was on to something. In the front seat, the enthusiastic female reporter held a video camera up the window, recording their journey. ‘She must know something,’ she called back to Harry. ‘Why else would she head out here in the small hours?’

Harry poked his head in between the driver and the reporter, holding on to the seats, and he looked out of the windows with a confused look on his face. ‘Where are we, anyway?’ he asked. As the city vanished from their mirrors.

 

__________________________

 

Rachel was used to much more comfortable surroundings than her current lodgings, which she was reluctant to describe as a cell, but hesitant to label it a room. Had she heard her father instructing his henchmen to put her somewhere comfortable, she would have been sorely disappointed. Not that she was delighted with the situation or anything. It was just that high expectations usually led to low realizations. The more she thought about it, the more she found herself pleasantly surprised that a day out in the back of a van, bound and blindfolded and surrounded by strange men, had ended with her being left alone and unharmed, never mind having a room to herself and anything she might refer to as a bed. Well, actually, a bed had figured in her expectations, but not one she had to herself. You see, if you aimed low, you were much more likely to be pleasantly surprised. Ambition and Disappointment usually hung out together, but they didn’t really get on and there were sometimes punch-ups, whereas Nihilism and Contentment were often seen Livin’ La Vida Loca, painting the town red and other such expressions of general craziness.

The room – she decided to go with ‘room’ – was white and grey, and not conducive to happy thoughts. Black was nowhere to be found, however, for which her subconscious was grateful. The bed was low, but not Japanese low. Neither was it American high. While attempting to straddle the line which Rachel might have considered to be European middle, if she had ever heard of any of these places, the bed had seemingly given up and stopped just below it. And the mattress had decided to remain naked, exposing its lumps and bumps for all to see. Some might have called it a voluptuous mattress. Others would have been generous and said curvaceous. Still others would have said it had a bubbly personality in the time-honored code used for blind-dates and other visually-impaired social situations involving a ‘larger’ lady. Bubbly personality or not, Rachel didn’t get on with the mattress.

She could hear talking outside the door, and reckoned – but not like John Wayne would reckon, you understand – that two men guarded her. Now, it’s a well-known fact that when the hero is faced by more than one enemy, there is a certain etiquette to be adhered to. Never is it the case that all of them tackle the hero at once. Only one is allowed to approach said hero at any one time, thus allowing even the inexperienced fighter to deal with a well-trained veteran of hand-to-hand combat. Rachel found herself wondering if she was the hero, and not just because that word normally referred to a man. She took a moment to check her own experience against her internal list of the archetypal markers of heroic literature. She had been kidnapped from her home, endured a horrific journey into the unknown, been brought face-to-face with her ultimate captor – and been suitably shocked by the encounter – before being rendered unconscious and thrown into a terrible dungeon-like place of holding. Okay, so it wasn’t that bad, but the mattress...well, that wasn’t doing itself any favors.

So everything was checking out so far, except...oh, no. Rachel knew immediately what was wrong. She was a girl, and she was hot. That instantly made her a target, and quite probably a victim. The worst thing about this realization was that the role of hero had automatically shifted to the man who loved her. And he was a wuss!

Okay, Rachel, she thought. Calm yourself. Maybe Paul will come through. Sometimes the hero is the least likely person, right? Some farm boy used to ploughing fields who can suddenly kill the dragon that’s been getting the better of every other highly-trained warrior in the kingdom. But Paul wouldn’t know one end of a plough from the other, and always used the wrong fork when they went out for dinner. No, Rachel would have to do this herself. But how? How else...but the way every hot girl did it. She would ‘work it’.

Now, I’m not going to go into details here, for the sake of saving feminists the embarrassment and from saving myself from the wrath of feminists. Let’s just that she called the men outside her door and tricked them into opening it. However, to her absolute disgust, both men came at her at once as soon as she opened a can of whoop-ass, completely breaking the rules of engagement. When this was over, she would write a strongly-worded letter. She was forced to use the one secret move that girls the universe over know and which will hopefully redeem her in the eyes of the feminist. She kicked the guy to her right square in the unmentionables, and then, as he dropped to the ground like a baby and the other guy grabbed her from behind, she stamped down hard on one of his feet with her heel and then turned around as he staggered back, delivering to him the same message she had delivered to his colleague. Remember, girls, a bird in a cage is worth two in the nuts.

Feeling understandably triumphant, Rachel took a moment to enjoy the scene of two men overpowered by her designer shoes. It was a good thing that pointy toes were very much in. One of the fallen men grabbed her ankle and she kicked him in the head with the other foot. Then she ran. Unsure of the route her unconscious body had taken to get to this place, she could not have known that she ran in the opposite direction. A long corridor beckoned to her left, and she headed down there as shouts echoed from farther behind her. She heard her father shouting, ‘Don’t shoot her!’ but she wasn’t about to stop and wait for the comfort of his apparent protection. The corridor opened out even wider as she fled, and she noted a turn to the right up ahead. She veered that way, hearing the sound of pursuit, until she found herself facing a massive door with gigantic interconnected bolts and a giant wheel in the centre. She went straight for it, but was unable to turn the wheel. She cried out with the effort as she tried again, but a voice from behind her caused her to stop. ‘Please, Rachel,’ said her father. ‘Don’t do that.’

She didn’t even turn to face him, so angry she was with how she had been treated and this still mysterious secret he had kept from her. ‘Why not?’ she spat. ‘Afraid I’ll go home and tell everyone what’s going on?’

‘First of all,’ Wright replied, ‘you have no idea what’s going on. And second...that is most definitely not...the way home.’

 

__________________________

 

The desolate landscape seemed to just drop away, but Harding continued to walk towards the drop. He had stopped the car at the end of the road...literally...and told Paul to get out. ‘Hey, man...’ Paul called as he stood at the front of the car, ‘are you even watching where you’re going?’

Harding didn’t reply. He just kept on walking like he didn’t want to keep on living, but as he stepped out on to what should have been thin air off the edge of what Paul thought was a cliff, his feet found something solid to continue his suicidal journey. ‘What the...?’ Paul couldn’t find the word. No, really, the words we might have put in there didn’t exist here. He stepped away from the car and moved out to his left to watch Harding walking across the air. But he saw how it was done. There was a surface, a sort of transparent, glassy surface over and through and beneath which the cloudy air flowed. It was there, but everything Paul thought he understood about physics told him that it shouldn’t have been. ‘Are you coming?’ Harding called back. ‘You’re the one who wanted answers.’

Paul approached the edge of the cliff illusion gingerly and got to his knees, leaning out over the drop to feel the solid surface. Air like clouds surrounded his hand, but he touched the platform or shelf or whatever he might call it and he was able to press down on it. ‘I’ve never seen anything like this,’ he gasped as he straightened up and got slowly to his feet. His brain told him not to go any farther forward, and he felt slightly dizzy as he saw nothing but bright emptiness below. ‘And you never will again,’ Harding told him as he waited. ‘There’s not much time, Paul. Hurry.’

Paul’s right foot ventured outwards and he was trembling all over as he lowered it down into the shallow clouds. He felt the surface beneath his foot and he found himself laughing with relief. ‘This is amazing,’ he said as his left foot followed.

‘The switch, please,’ said Harding. Paul looked up from his feat of daring – you like what I did there? – to see Harding facing him with an open hand. ‘I didn’t find it,’ Paul replied, giving the lie another shot.

‘We monitor the switches, Paul. I know you have it. Now, if you want to keep trying your luck walking in the clouds, be my guest. You’ll notice that I’m not standing directly in front of you.’

Paul had noticed that, and had at first put it down to an expansive surface upon which Harding could walk. He hunkered down, and reached out with his left hand. His hand passed straight through the clouds to find nothing beneath, and that was when he realized that the path changed direction as it went farther out. He turned to look behind him, and found to his horror that he was a lot farther out than one step should have allowed. ‘If I give you the switch,’ he began, his voice trembling, ‘will I be able to follow you?’

‘Of course,’ said Harding. ‘I want you to learn as much as you can for when you go back.’

‘Why?’

‘So that you can tell everyone...like we discussed earlier.’

Paul tried to recall anything resembling a ‘discussion’ and gave up. ‘Okay,’ he said, reaching into his pocket. ‘Here it is.’ He held out his hand with the switch resting on his palm. ‘I’d hate to drop it, if you know what I mean.’

Harding grinned. ‘Not as much as I’d hate to drop you, Paul,’ he replied as he made his way back. He reached out and took the switch. ‘Now that we’re friends again...let’s get on, shall we?’ So saying, he turned and hurried back across the clouds, this time following a straight path. ‘You’ll find it all a lot easier now,’ he called back.

Paul was left standing there, and he hunkered down again. This time, the solid surface was on either side. And Harding had the switch, the one thing Paul needed to rescue Rachel. If she heard about this, he’d have an appointment with her designer shoes. Taking a deep breath, he went to follow Harding out across the clouds. But Harding had vanished.

 

__________________________

 

At first, Frank was delighted to be driving a decent car, but he quickly came to realize that he should have chosen something with an all-terrain approach to things. This was the sort of police car you would find in a country which took a different approach to crime. It was not as pro-active as some. While the bad guys were making their getaway in one direction, this police car would arrive from the opposite direction and count to ten so that they could enjoy the chase. Of course, the bad guys would inevitably escape the police, but that didn’t really bother this car. It enjoyed being part of the investigation rather than actually taking part in the action. Or, as some might put it, it was a coward.

The car was currently complaining, and if it had been able to vocalize the problem, it probably would have noted that it was wearing the wrong shoes for this particular undertaking. And so it responded by slamming Frank’s head against the ceiling every now and then, jumping up from each bump in the road as if something had bitten its feet. So at least we know that it’s not the cops who are afraid to chase heavily-armed bank robbers. It’s the car.

‘Where the Hell am I?’ Frank shouted as he landed back down in the seat. There was no response, and once again Frank began to entertain thoughts of insanity. Of course, that’s really when insanity took form, but to suggest to Frank that he was employing a ‘circular argument’ would have seen him punch you...squarely...in the face.

The bumpy, dusty road went on and on, and there was no sign of the city behind him and no sign of any other city on the horizon. I’m sure you get the message by now. They were all out in the same place. Frank, however, was not going for a walk in the clouds. Nor was he going to find some underground car park that led to a world of wonder and happiness. You know, like you find in a shopping mall. No, Frank’s way in or...way out, depending on your perspective...was going to be a little bit more dramatic. And completely appropriate to his reason for being in this world in the first place.

The road suddenly ended, taking Frank totally by surprise and, despite him slamming on the brakes in a car that hadn’t wanted to be out here in the first place, he went out over the edge of an endless drop. Screaming and praying that he would just wake up from what he hoped was a nightmare of intoxication, he and his cowardly car plummeted into the abyss. He lost consciousness with the terror.

 

 

Option 1:

 

Paul got down on to his hands and knees, knowing that the closer you are to the ground, the less likely you are to fall off it. He made his way slowly on all fours through the shallow cloud cover, as it dispersed around him with every forward movement. Trembling from head to toe, he lifted his gaze from the glassy surface in the clouds just long enough to confirm that there was still no sign of Harding. He reached out...his hand found nothing below...he lost his balance...and he tumbled headlong, screaming into the emptiness. Never to find any answers.

 

Option 2:

 

Harry Aston felt a strange sensation overtaking his attempts to understand where he was, and for a moment long enough to remind him how selfish he was being, his grief hit him and struck him hard. He had left his wife at home to pursue this ridiculous idea that the government were behind the death of his little girl, and he found himself sitting in a van with people he had always either avoided or exploited throughout his career.

‘I’m going to switch to a live feed,’ the reporter reported...because that’s what they do. She turned around to look beyond Harry to her cameraman. ‘Jerry, give me the camera,’ she demanded. ‘I’ll upload the footage I took later and we’ll stitch it together on the lunchtime news. But I want this to go out now.’

‘You want what to go out?’ Jerry argued as he gathered up the camera and pushed past Harry. ‘There’s nothing out here.’

‘Isn’t that enough?’ the reporter argued – we won’t worry about her name. She was probably pretty. She had to be. ‘I mean...since when was there a barren wasteland just outside the city?’ she continued. ‘The people have to see this.’

So the live feed began as the van continued into the unknown, and people in every city in this world gradually tuned in as they sat eating their breakfasts or getting the kids ready for school. The camera was just picking up Janet Russell’s car in the distance, but then something happened which soon had everyone switching on their TV. There was a flash of light and Russell’s car vanished from sight.

© Ronald A. Geobey 2018

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