Anomaly: the fourth chapter
Deke Jones led his guest into his office. It wasn’t until he saw Esme and Roman that he remembered he had left his wife, Rosemary, in Chō Morishita’s office. Events of this bizarre day were unfolding so quickly, Deke was struggling to keep track.
Roman appeared to have calmed down since seeing William Bradshaw vanish in an instant, but he still looked pale and shaken. Esme’s eyes widened when she saw Deke’s escort, and Deke knew she had immediately recognised him as the prime suspect in the recent murder spree.
Before she could react, Deke informed her: ‘This is Vaughn Lynton. He came into the university because he saw Marika.’
‘How…’ Esme started. Deke understood why she did not finish the question.
It was useless to ask how this man, whom they had never met before, could see the spirit of a woman who had never existed in this world. The question may be impossible to answer, but his presence might help them understand why Deke and Roman were the only other people to remember the receptionist and to have seen her ghost.
‘Can you please go to Chō’s office and bring her and Rosemary here?’ Deke asked Esme. His colleague nodded and left without a word. The more minds they had working on this conundrum, the better their chances of finding an explanation.
Directing Vaughn to a chair, Deke filled him in with the morning’s strangeness, telling him how he had first seen Marika’s spirit when he had entered the university and later discovered that Roman could also see the ghost. He added than both he and Roman remembered Marika as a living person who had worked in the reception for the past few years but that everyone else seemed to think Gareth had been there the whole time.
Deke purposefully left out the fact that he recalled his wife’s death a week earlier but had awoken that morning to her beside him, alive and unharmed. One impossibility at a time, he thought.
‘I suspect,’ Deke said, ‘that you share the same memories of the past as Roman and me. I’d like to ask you some questions to see if we can prove that.’
For all the oddness of the story, Vaughn seemed to accept it readily.
‘I just want to know why everything’s different,’ he said with a sense of desperation. ‘And why I’m suspected of murder. I’ll do anything if you can end this nightmare.’
Remembering Bradshaw’s plan, Deke switched on his computer and loaded up a news site. The first story to fill the screen was the recent murders. The photofit image rotated slowly, an uncanny copy of the man in front of him.
‘I didn’t do it,’ Vaughn said. ‘I didn’t do any of it. Why would they lie?’
‘These deaths didn’t occur in the past I remember,’ Deke told him. ‘If you and I come from the same place, I believe you.’
Moving through the website, Deke pulled up an item covering the aftermath of the tsunami that had devastated southern California ten days ago.
‘Do you remember this happening?’
‘Yes, it was dreadful,’ Vaughn answered. ‘Do you think this has anything to do with us?’
‘I remember that,’ Roman said quietly. He seemed to be recovering quickly, ready to join the discussions again.
‘So do I,’ Deke said. ‘At least that confirms we all remember similar things.’
The next news article reported how the Welsh government had been rocked by the sudden resignation of the Prif Weinidog on Wednesday. Cerridwen Owens, leader of Plaid Genedlaetholgar Gymreig, had decided to stand down following the recent scandal her husband had been embroiled in.
‘Cerridwen Owens was never Prime Minister,’ Vaughn said.
‘Not in my past, either,’ Deke agreed. ‘Roman?’
‘I don’t follow politics,’ Roman said, ‘but I’m sure I would have remembered such a major story.’
‘How about this?’ Deke asked, moving to a report on the children’s novels which had recently been deemed as unsuitable for modern times. The works of Enid Blyton and Lewis Carol were destined to follow Grimm’s and Hans Christian Anderson’s.
‘Bigoted tripe,’ Vaughn said. While Deke was not sure if he was referring to the last century’s authors or the media’s claim that their stories were sexist, racist and classist, he understood that Vaughn remembered the ongoing debate.
‘It seems that, whatever has occurred,’ Deke said with growing confidence ‘the three of us-’
He stopped when the text on the holoscreen was replaced by a video. Large, red words scrolling across the bottom of the screen declared BREAKING NEWS. The grainy image displayed a starfield, a vague sense of movement near the centre.
‘…live pictures from the International Space Station,’ a commentator announced, ‘showing the approaching object, first thought to be a previously undiscovered comet. Spokespeople for the ESA and CNSA have yet to comment, but an early statement from Roscosmos reveals that the Russian government believe this to be an envoy from intelligent life in the galaxy.’
The item in the middle of the picture grew steadily larger is it travelled nearer to Earth. To Deke, it resembled a silver teardrop. The trajectory changed and the camera moved fluidly to keep the mysterious craft in frame.
‘It appears to have changed course for the third time now,’ the news reporter continued, ‘which some believe is a sign that the object is being controlled by a sentient being. Estimations say the object will now enter our atmosphere somewhere over northern Europe.’
Deke stared in fascination at the screen. Ever since he had been a boy, he had wondered if intelligent life existed elsewhere in the universe. Why did they have to choose today of all days to finally show up? Or maybe they could only arrive in this reality, he thought. Perhaps back in my world, when last week had seven days and my wife was waiting to be put in the ground, this UFO would never have come.
The craft slowed as it entered the stratosphere and turned until its wider end was facing the planet. Beside the image being broadcast from the ISS, a second picture appeared on the holoscreen, taken from a drone high up in the sky beneath the interstellar mystery. A powerful zoom focused on the object, showing the transformation it was undergoing.
In a movement which Deke could only describe as ‘melting’, a small piece of the craft broke away and plummeted down. The ISS video showed the teardrop-shaped craft meld into a conical tube, the narrow end pointing into space, while the drone footage followed the descending piece. As it dropped through the atmosphere, it became clear that this part was ring-shaped. It hurtled through the sky at an incredible speed. The drone worked hard to keep up, often losing its quarry from frame for a half-second.
Eventually, somewhere over the North Sea, the ring slowed and the drone was able to catch up. The craft flew at a steady altitude for several hundred miles then suddenly veered down. As the drone’s camera followed the descent, Deke saw buildings in the object’s path. Though shot from an unusual angle, he recognised the area.
‘Oh my God,’ Roman yelled. ‘That’s the university.’
On the video shot from the pursuing drone, they watched the ring-shaped craft drop closer to the building they were in. It slowed as it drew closer, and turned to its left. It seemed to be being drawn, or directed, to a specific location.
Deke felt his stomach churn and his throat go dry. Vaughn made a wordless noise and pointed to the window.
Outside, the object was moving directly toward them. Though it was now travelling at a much slower speed, perhaps a jogging pace, it did not stop as it approached the glass.
Too awestruck to cover his face, Deke watched as the craft entered the office. It did not burst through the window, did not cause damage or destruction. Instead, with movement that was difficult to focus on, it passed through the glass.
Deke knew it was not possible for two solid bodies to cross paths without at least one of the bodies yielding. He also knew that all solid matter was made of atoms and that the distance between the atoms, though infinitesimally small, was more than large enough for a number of atoms to fill. Could it be that this alien technology had entered the building by slipping through the atomic gaps?
The ring hovered in the middle of the office, rotating slowly in silence. Close up, it appeared to be constructed of a smooth, white material. Stranges markings around the circumference glowed a deep green. Through the centre of the ring, a circle about four feet in width, the background shimmered like the air over a fire.
Roman, closest of the men to the object, emitted a gargled cry and drifted closer to it. Then Vaughn, though his limbs remained rigid, moved forward. Deke took an involuntary step backwards, but it was no good. He felt himself being pulled toward the ring. Some invisible force was dragging the three of them toward the floating artefact.
Being the furthest away, Deke watched as Roman was pulled through the centre of the ring – but did not appear from the other side. When Vaughn followed suit and also vanished, Deke knew his fate. His thoughts turned to Rosemary as he felt himself lifted from the floor.
And then things turned weird.
Deke found himself underwater. Panic filled his brain as he realised he may drown. He looked around frantically but could not see the surface. The only sense of direction he had came from the taste of the ground below him.
Movement a small way ahead of him caught his attention and he stared in horror as a terrifying beast lifted itself up. A bulbous sac rose above two bulging eyes. Where there should have been a nose and a mouth, the monster split into multiple strips of equal length. It stood on these eight appendages, lifting and flexing them in a seemingly random pattern. Somehow, Deke knew the creature meant no harm.
Around him he saw two smaller specimens of the thing before him.
He wanted to ask where he was, but of course could not speak being underwater. In his field of vision, he saw two tentacles, much closer than those attached to the beast before him, raise and move.
The beast responded, curving its arms and contracting its head. Deke fathomed that he was on the home planet of this creature, a being he was to call Queen.
How can I call you Queen, Deke thought, when I can’t even breathe?
The closer tentacles – there were more of then he now saw – moved again and Deke felt his own head change shape. He wondered if the feeling was a symptom of drowning.
Queen moved again, lowering her body, extending three arms, rising again and changing the colour of her skin. Deke understood that his consciousness had been transmitted across space into the body of a host octopus so that Queen could have this audience with him.
Looking down at the tentacles near him, Deke realised they were attached to his body. No, not his body – the body of a cephalopod. He was looking at the world, an alien world, through the eyes of another living entity.
Queen changed colour again, waggled more arms. You will be returned.
What do you want from me? Deke thought. The tentacles of the body he currently occupied flurried as the question was conveyed to Queen.
I’m communicating with an alien, Deke realised. His tentacles flexed and moved. No, don’t communicate that. More movement from his host’s body.
Queen’s head expanded, contracted, limbs flipped about. You were summoned to explain why you have stolen time.
One of the smaller octopuses waggled its arms. We haven’t stolen time.
The past is fractured, Queen relayed.
We know, Deke ‘said’, but we don’t know why. Or how.
Through movement and several changes of hue, Queen said, Three of my subjects have reported a different history to that which the rest of us recall. Our stargazers determined the source of the problem originated on your planet.
We contemplated the possibility of a dimensional collision, Deke’s host body told Queen.
An avenue our stargazers also considered until our historians proved the stolen time theory. Segments of the past are disappearing, altering the present.
Altering the present for some, the smaller octopus said, not all. Why are we, and those subjects of yours, not affected?
We had hoped you could explain.
The smaller octopus raised the top of two tentacles, close to where they attached to the head. It seemed that a shrug was a universal gesture.
You must discover this thief, Queen said, and stop them before they steal all our pasts.
Your technology is far superior to ours, Deke said. Surely you are more suited to this task.
The miscreant is from your world. My subjects do not fare well on alien land. I will permit their consciousness to join you, to ensure my command is completed.
Queen lifted herself from the seabed, and prepared to swim away. Before she left, she gave one final message:
It is not only our pasts at risk. You must stop the thief before they steal the time in which the universe began.