A Science Fiction Story
In those days, I lived near these farmer’s fields. There was a chicken hawk that lived in the area. I saw him early most mornings, circling lazily in the sky. I loved to watch it; it just seemed so peaceful, beautiful, just hanging up there.
One winter, after the first big snowfall, I went out into my back yard to get the shovel. Somehow, back in the spring, it had found its way to the tool shed. Trudging through the knee-deep snow, I came across some white feathers on the ground. The chicken hawk was sitting up in my half-dead oak tree. It had killed a sparrow, and it was ripping out its feathers, one by one. Finally, the sparrow’s belly was bare. I watched, fascinated, as the chicken hawk devour the sparrow’s insides. It was ugly, but I couldn’t look away. To this day, I associate the images of the hawk, both beautiful and grotesque, with Selina. But then, I’m getting ahead of myself.
I was shoveling the snow off my driveway when my cell phone rang. It was Richard Flanigan, the physicist. I’d known him ever since our days at Harlan University. He was the only one who was allowed to use my first name.
”Alfonso Osmond!” he said, speaking rapid-fire. ”I’ve discovered something interesting… I need an engineer to help me figure out how these things work. See, I know what they’re supposed to do, at least I think I do, but I need to know how they do it before I can ever expect to use the things. Plus, I need to know if they’re dangerous before I turn them on. I certainly don’t want to short out my wiring or anything, especially near all that other equipment. It doesn’t-”
”Rick, stop. What the hell are you talking about?” I tossed my shovel in the yard and went in the house.
”Do you remember Professor Ledbetter?”
Of course I did. When I was working on my degree, I had Professor Benjamin Ledbetter in eight different classes. He taught everything from introductory engineering to pre-med. He was actually the reason why I didn’t become a doctor. After I failed an anatomy test, he pulled me aside and said, ”Tell me, Osmond, why do you want to become a doctor? Do you want to spend the rest of your life wondering if you’ll fuck up at work and kill someone?”
So I went into engineering, and eventually ended up designing weapons for the Pentagon. I don’t have to worry about making a mistake and killing a patient. In this job, people only die if you do everything right.
”Did you ever wonder why he quit teaching?” Rick asked.
”Sure, everybody did. He was a great teacher.”
”Turns out, he didn’t quit. My book is coming out and I wanted my favorite physics prof to write the introduction for me. So I plugged his name into a search engine, and guess what I found?”
”Let me guess,” I said. ”He got a sex change.”
”What? No. I found an old police report. Ten years ago, Ledbetter’s house caught fire. His neighbors called the fire department, and said they had heard him banging around in the garage. The firefighters found a bunch of scientific equipment, computers and stuff, but they never found him. His neighbors swore he was in there, but they never found a body.”
”So what’s this have to do with your earlier ramblings?”
”After Ledbetter disappeared, anything that hadn’t been destroyed went to his uncle. Well, his uncle died a couple weeks ago, and I went to the estate sale. They were just going to throw away Ledbetter’s old notebooks and equipment, but I begged and begged and they let me have them. Guess what he was working on the night the house burned down!”
”What? Will you get to the point?” I snapped. ”I’m already late for work, and I need to get going.”
”Sorry, Alf. Sorry. It looks like he was working on Einstein-Rosen bridges.”
”You mean, what, wormholes?”
”Exactly. He figured out a way to locate a wormhole and hold it open! But I don’t have all the details… I only have a couple pieces of the equipment, and I need an engineer to figure out how the hardware works. I could really use your help on this one, buddy.”
”Well… You did introduce me to my ex-wife. You know, the woman who took my house and kids… So I suppose I owe you one.”
”Damn right you do! See how soon you can take off from work, then call me back, OK? Oh, do you have Selina’s number?”
I gave Rick the number and finished shoveling the driveway. Finally, I could get my car out and leave for work.
Driving to the lab, I wondered what I had just gotten myself into. Professor Ledbetter was a great teacher, that’s for sure. But if he honestly thought he could open a wormhole… How was that possible? How could you even find one? The nearest black holes were millions of miles away. If you wanted to reach those before you died of old age, you’d have to invent a spaceship that could travel faster than light. Somehow I doubted Professor Ledbetter had one in his garage.
Two weeks went by before my supervisor let me take my vacation. As soon as my time off was approved, I gave Rick a call.
”That’s great, Alf! I’ll let Selina know as soon as we get off the phone. Oh, and I’m bringing a couple of my students, too. We’ll need all the help we can get. This is a big project. Big, big, big, big!”
Two days later, I was standing in Rick Flanigan’s home office in Virginia, listening to him blather on about Ledbetter. It was boring, but I didn’t care; I was drinking my third White Russian. Rick had put on some weight since the last time I saw him. That, coupled with a dark beard and a flannel shirt, made him look more like a lumberjack than a physics professor.
”His notes,” he was saying, ”the ones on paper, I mean, don’t really give the whole picture. The surviving notes talk a little bit about the aims of the project and what it was supposed to accomplish. But I also have his old laptop which, fortunately, made it through the fire unscathed. But everything on it is encrypted. That’s one of the reasons why I asked Selina to come help us out.”
I finished my drink and struggled to my feet. ”While we’re waiting, why don’t you show me the equipment you were talking about earlier?”
Rick walked over to a dusty, black safe and unlocked the door. He pulled out a four foot long, rectangular box. It was a dirty, filing cabinet gray and had red and blue wires poking out its sides. ”There are a few screws holding it shut in the back,” Rick said. ”Why don’t you take it apart and see if you can figure out what it’s supposed to do?”
I went out to my car and brought in some of my tools. The screws were rusty and hard to move, but eventually I got it open. Once I got a look inside, the device seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place what it was. I decided to put it back together and just run some power through the wires.
A knock at the front door. Rick left the room and, a moment later, returned with three of his students from Harlan U.
”Osmond,” he said, ”This is Penny, Myron, and Greg. Greg has an engineering degree, so he’ll be helping you. Myron and Penny are here to help me with the physics end of things.” Turning to the kids, he said, ”OK, everybody, come to the garage and I’ll show you Ledbetter’s old notes. You too, Greg.”
I was alone again with the gray box. I pulled the cord from a lamp in Rick’s office and began stripping the wire.
Footsteps down the hall, and a voice behind me. ”Osmond! It’s been a long time.” It was Selina, our computer expert for this little project. Selina was wearing a sleeveless, emerald green dress with side seam slits up to the mid-thigh. What I remember most about her, though, was her skin. Her skin was stunning. I can’t imagine anyone reaching their thirties without a single wrinkle or mole or blemish, but somehow she did it.
”Well, I’ve been busy,” I said. ”The feds need me to come up with new and exciting ways to kill people… You look great. I mean, for a computer geek.”
”Hey, I’m a math geek, too. That’s why I’m here, right? Rick said you guys have an encrypted laptop you need hacked.”
”We sure do,” I said. ”Hey, why are you dressed to the nines, anyway?”
”I… I just wanted to look nice, OK? Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go talk to Rick.”
A few minutes later, I finished connecting the power cord to the gray box. I plugged it in, and instantly it jumped from my hands and attached itself to Rick’s safe. It was an electromagnet! Why hadn’t I recognized it immediately? There must have been a lot more going on inside this thing.
I unplugged the magnet and headed out to Rick’s garage. Rick didn’t have a car, so he had turned his garage into a kind of second office. Rick was holding a large, brown notebook and Myron, Greg, and Penny were reading over his shoulder. Selina was sitting at one of Rick’s computers, typing furiously. Ledbetter’s laptop was next to her, connected to her computer with a thin cable.
”Rick,” I said, ”the main part of this box is an electromagnet. There are a lot of other pieces in here, microchips and things, so it still needs gone over.”
”Oh? OK. I’ll have Greg take a look at it with you. There’s not much we can do with these notebooks. I’m sure the main part of the project is on that laptop. How are you doing over there, kid?”
Selina turned in her chair to face us. ”Not good,” she groaned. ”I can’t open this stupid laptop. It just won’t work!”
”Why?” I asked. ”Encryption too strong?”
”Actually, the thing’s so old that it’s not compatible with any of Rick’s software.”
”Wait a minute,” said Rick. ”Why don’t you just do a remote connect to your system at home? I’m sure it could handle anything you throw at it.”
”Um, sure,” she said slowly. ”I guess that would work.”
Greg and I spent the next hour or so going over the innards of the gray box. Rick and his students decided to take a break, since it was nearing lunch time.
Selina stood up and stretched her legs. ”Well, Osmond, I figured out a combination of software that’ll work. The laptop is encrypted with DES. It’s a pretty outdated cipher.”
”Can you break it?” I asked.
Selina laughed. ”Of course. The key-length for DES is only fifty-six bits. Anything remotely secure is over twice that. Decryption will take longer than normal due to the outdated software, but a brute-force attack should take about two or three days. That’s if Ledbetter just encrypted once, for the entire hard drive. But if he encrypted all the subfolders and files separately, it might take months to get everything.”
I don’t remember much of the next two days. Most of what I do remember is Selina making White Russians and the students complaining about doing all the work. A very inebriated Rick would explain that they were still underage, and if they didn’t like U.S. alcohol regulations they should ”go back to Russia.” Still don’t know what he meant by that.
Fortunately, Rick’s supply of vodka ran out several hours before the decryption finished. Finally able to focus on work, the six of us eagerly crowded around Selina and the computer.
”Let’s see what we have here… Looks like Professor Ledbetter was a big Doors fan. There’s all the albums here, even the two after Jim Morrison died. More music, music… Porn, yuck…” Selina closed the folders and got out of her chair. ”You can take over, Rick. I don’t want to look around in there any more.”
Rick laughed and sat down. ”OK… Notes for classes, old exams, wait a minute. I think this is something.”
The folder said ”Equipment Diagrams,” and it was dated the month Ledbetter disappeared. The first document Rick opened was marked ”electromagnetic field dispersal array.”
”That’s it,” I said, ”There’s our gray box. We’re on our way!”
Selina decided to copy all of the files to Rick’s network so she could disconnect the laptop and go home. She wished us good luck on the project and departed.
Rick printed everything in the folder of diagrams and the students and I spent the next several hours pouring over everything.
”Hey guys,” Rick called, ”I think we’re going to need another expert on this one.”
”What’s wrong?” I asked, getting up from the table and stretching my legs. ”Another encrypted folder?”
”No, not that. There’s a folder marked ”wormholes” and the stuff inside is all in some weird language.”
”Really? Weird. Well, we can deal with that in the morning. It’s getting pretty late.”
The next day, Myron got up early and made breakfast for everyone. After a long, leisurely meal, we moved to Rick’s garage. We spent a few hours over coffee examining the diagrams. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
”So,” I said, ”It looks as if the electromagnetic field dispersal array is supposed to hold a wormhole open long enough for someone to pass through. There’s supposed to be five more of these gray boxes, three in a group. Then there’s some computer software from the laptop; I assume that’s to control the field. But there’s still some things missing…”
Penny scowled behind her coffee mug. ”So we have a machine that can hold a wormhole open. What I don’t understand is, where the hell do we find one?”
Rick got up and pulled his phone from his pocket. ”Maybe that weird folder I found last night is in code, after all. It has to be the missing piece! I’d better tell Selina we still need her help.”
Selina returned that afternoon. She was wearing a v-neck sundress and heels. When she walked inside, I caught a scent like strawberries. I was glad we needed her help again. ”Do all computer programmers dress like they’re headed to church on Easter?”
She pushed me playfully and laughed. ”No, most of us wear t-shirts with quotes from stupid movies on them and the same jeans we’ve had on all week. But sometimes it’s good to remind people that you’re a girl. Why do you care so much about what I’m wearing, anyway?”
”No reason. Hey, Rick, show Selina that weird folder.”
In Rick’s garage, Selina flipped through the strange documents and frowned. ”This doesn’t look like any code I’ve seen. It might be Arabic or Hindi or something, I don’t know.”
”Rick,” I said, ”I think we need to talk to a language expert. In fact, don’t you know somebody at school we can ask? What’s her name?”
”You mean Rosalyn Dean? Sure… She teaches Latin and Spanish and, I think, ancient Greek or some such thing. It’s weird, but you wouldn’t think there’d be enough of a call for that sort of thing, would you? I mean, who wants to spend four years of their life majoring in a language nobody has spoken in thousands of years? It’s bizarre, the way these kids are spending their time at college. I remember one time, I was talking to this young man named Dakota, of all things, and I said-”
”Rick!” Selina snapped. ”Just call her, OK?”
”Oh, sorry. I’ll call her after lunch. Who wants tacos?”
It took Rick a while to explain exactly what our project was about. Finally, he convinced Rosalyn to stop by the next day.
Rosalyn arrived late the following evening. She was in her early thirties, but didn’t look much older than one of Rick’s students. She wore an Indian print dress and a held her hair back with a bandana. She looked like a college girl going through a ”hippie” phase.
Rick led her into the garage, explaining that we were recreating some experiments done by another physicist. But we’d found some files we thought perhaps had been sent to him by a foreign colleague.
”I’m glad to help,” she said. ”Research like this could lead to commercial teleportation. We wouldn’t need cars anymore!”
Greg turned to me and whispered, ”Does she know how much electricity these machines use? And we haven’t even generated a wormhole yet… I can’t imagine how much more power that would take!”
”Hey,” I said, ”You never know. Black holes release energy when they deteriorate. Maybe there’s some way to generate electricity from old wormholes. But first things first.”
Rosalyn sat down at the computer and I showed her the strange folder. After looking at a few files, she turned around and said, ”Well, these files aren’t from a colleague of your Professor Ledbetter. That is, unless he built a time machine in his garage, too.”
”What do you mean?” Rick asked. ”What language are they?”
”The writing is cuneiform. Just like our Roman alphabet, cuneiform was used by several different cultures with different languages. It was invented by the Sumerians five thousand years ago. Cuneiform was also used by the Akkadians, the Elamites, the Hittites and the Luwians. So it might take me some time to figure out exactly what language I’m looking at here.”
”Well,” Rick said, ”We really need your help. So anything we can do to assist you, just let us know.”
”Hey Rick,” Selina said, ”I want to examine some of Ledbetter’s other files. Is the computer in your office connected to the one in here?”
”Of course. The computers are all networked.”
Greg and I did some work for a while on the gray box, but there was only so much we could do. If we were going to reconstruct Ledbetter’s electromagnetic field dispersal array, we would need a lot more parts and tools. I told Greg to keep working in the garage while I went out to run errands. I left Selina and Rosalyn on their computers, and Rick and his students making calculations in the office.
I spent four hours collecting everything I could. Some of the parts would have to be ordered and shipped to Rick’s place. On the way back to Rick’s, I had to pull over to let an ambulance and fire truck pass. Unfortunately, they were headed to the same place I was.
Rick was standing outside, watching his garage go up in flames. ”Rick!” I called. ”What happened?”
”Don’t know for sure. Maybe something electrical. When you left, was Greg still working on the gray box?”
”Yeah, I told him to keep working until I got back. Wait… Where is he?” The others were all outside, but Greg was nowhere to be seen.
By the time the fire was extinguished, half of Rick’s house was gone. The police found Greg’s body an hour later, crushed under a fallen beam. The police said there probably would be no autopsy. They would assume he simply didn’t get out in time, and died from the smoke.
We decided to set up shop at Selina’s place. Fortunately, Rick had copied all the files to a disk. The firefighters didn’t want him to go back into the rubble, but one of them volunteered to retrieve the disk from his safe.
The next day, I was copying the files to Selena’s computer when Rick got a call from the fire department. It looked like it started with the couch in the garage. Greg was a smoker. Maybe he dropped a cigarette or a match on the couch. Somehow he didn’t get out in time, and died from the smoke.
”Why wouldn’t he have gotten out?” I wondered. Turning to Rosalyn, I asked, ”You were in the garage, too, right? What happened?”
”I was starting my translation, and he was doing some work on the wiring in that gray box. I went to the bathroom and, about ten minutes later, I heard the smoke alarm and Selina shouting for everybody to get out. I can’t imagine why Greg wouldn’t have opened the garage door and gotten out of there.”
”I just don’t get it,” Rick sighed. ”Well, I suppose the fire department will figure out all the details eventually.”
We ate lunch in silence, and then returned to the living room for coffee. Penny was the first one to speak. ”Rosalyn, you said you started your translation work. What language are the files?”
”They’re Akkadian cuneiform. The Akkadian empire was located in what is now Iraq… Akkadian was a Semitic language that was spoken from about 2800 BC and 500 AD. The Akkadians adapted cuneiform from the Summerians, much like the Japanese adapted Chinese script to their language. This form of Akkadian script was used from about 2350 BC to about the first century AD. I’ve only just begun the translation work, so I haven’t come up with a good date for the text yet.”
”But, do you know what the files are about yet?” I asked.
”I spent most of my time just trying to identify the language. I still need some time here.”
Selina poured herself some more coffee. ”Well, I have news,” she said. ”I was looking at Ledbetter’s files, the non-Akkadian ones, and I found some software. Some of it looks to be control software for the electromagnetic field machinery, but some of it was really weird… I ran it, and all it did was make a weird noise. It sounded like a hundred Siamese cats going through a blender.”
”Well, that’s weird,” said Penny. ”…And kind of gross.”
I got Myron to help me unload the wires and parts from the car, and we got to work on the electromagnetic field dispersal array. Selina wouldn’t let us weld anything in the house, so we moved out to her garage. Rick and Penny were still trying to figure out how to construct a wormhole. Selina got on her laptop and tried to dissect the weird software while Rosalyn got back to her translation work.
That night, Selina suggested that Rick and I stay at her place. Penny and Myron decided to go to a bar, but they promised they would start work early the next day. Rosalyn headed back to her house, and said she would be back with donuts in the morning.
I woke up to Selina yelling my name. I rolled over and looked at my watch. Four AM. ”What the hell? What’s wrong?”
She was crying. ”Oz… Penny and Myron are dead!”
Rick bolted upright. ”What? How? What happened?”
”Penny was driving… They were taking the highway back here, and Penny drove off the road and into a tree. Her car didn’t have airbags. Oh, fuck, Oz. What’s happening to us? Professor Ledbetter died doing these experiments, and now we’re all getting killed! Is someone trying to stop us?”
I put my arms around Selina, pulling her close. ”They were out drinking, Selina. It’s sad, but people drink and drive all the time. It’s just an unfortunate coincidence. Don’t worry… You’re safe. Don’t cry.”
She seemed so small and vulnerable, like a little girl. I kissed her cheeks, tasting the salt of her tears. She grasped my face in her hands and kissed me hard. I spent the night in her bed.
The following morning, I told Rick that we could quit the project and pick up a few weeks later. He assured me that he was fine, and I knew he was more determined than ever to see this thing through to the end.
Rosalyn came over early and made breakfast. I cleaned up the dishes while she got back to work translating. A few hours later, she excitedly called us into the living room.
”This is what I have so far,” she said. ”The files are about an Akkadian cult devoted to Ereshkigal. Ereshkigal was the Akkadian and Sumerian goddess of the underworld, the land of the dead. The cult believed that she was like the Grim Reaper; when people died, she would visit earth and take people back with her to the underworld. They believed that Ereshkigal had to open a door to get here from the underworld, and if anyone found an open door, they could get to the underworld and rescue their dead relatives. Then there’s a whole file about hymns and sacrifices to worship Ereshkigal, and how to ask her for favors. Supposedly, if enough people asked, she would open a door to the underworld and let people pass through.”
Rick gasped. ”Sophia, that weird software you found, the file that made the weird noise… Can you run it again?”
”I guess… Why?”
”Wait a minute!” Rick dug through his suitcase and pulled out a tiny digital recorder. ”OK, play the file!”
Sophia ran the software, and the air filled with a hideous cacophony of squeals and moans. I plugged my ears and yelled at her to shut it off.
Rick said, ”Yeah, turn it off. That’s enough.” He pressed ”play” on the recorder and switched the playback to ”slow.” The hideous noise changed to the sound of voices chanting and singing. ”And that’s what Akkadian sounds like spoken,” he said.
Selina, Rosalyn and I exchanged confused looks for a moment, but I was the one to ask what was on our minds. ”What the hell?”
Rick beamed like the only child in his class with an A. ”This is bizarre, but I figured out what old Ledbetter was up to. He had this machine that could, theoretically, hold a wormhole open long enough to allow someone to pass through. But, he didn’t have a wormhole! Sometime later, he found information on this cult and decided their idea of a door to the underworld was an awful lot like Einstein’s description of a wormhole. He tried to combine science and black magic!”
”Then he really was nuts,” I said. ”He must have died in that fire, just like Greg, poor kid. He must have done a pretty bad wiring job on his magnetic field equipment.”
”We don’t have to worry about that,” said Rosalyn. ”Oz, you built that equipment yourself; it’s safe. Even if Ledbetter’s experiment was nuts, we have to do it. We owe Greg that much.”
”You’re right,” I said, collapsing on the couch. ”You’re absolutely right. Rosalyn, we need you to finish that translation. Find out exactly what we need to open a door to hell.”
I worked for several hours on the machine. I had the garage door open to let out the fumes from welding. I heard the front door slam, and Frankie was heading out to her car. ”Hey, Frankie,” I called, ”Where are you going?”
”To the grocery store. I know a guy who works in the meat department… Ereshkigal won’t come unless we have blood.” Frankie came back with six packages of veal. ”I hated buying it,” she said, ”But it’s the closest thing to virgin blood I could get.”
Rick piled some wood in a wheelbarrow and rolled it into the garage. Apparently Ereshkigal demanded fire, too. Frankie drained the blood from the veal into an old coffee can. She dipped a couple paintbrushes into the blood and she and Rosalyn drew strange, occult symbols on the floor of the garage. I finished a few last welds on the electromagnetic field dispersal array, and we were ready.
I lit the fire. ”Assuming anything actually happens,” I called to Rick, ”I’ll throw the main switch, and that’ll start up the machine. The shielding I’ve installed should prevent the magnetic field from affecting anything in the room; the energy will just be sent into the wormhole.”
Rick shot me a dirty look. ”You don’t actually think…”
”No, of course not. But we have to try!”
Rosalyn started the computer. According to the cult, ten thousand people had to chant for twelve solid hours before Ereshkigal would listen. We didn’t have a multitude of cult members, but we did have a choir of computer-generated voices playing at two hundred times the normal speed.
Rosalyn pressed play, and we plugged our ears against the hideous noise. And then, slowly, a hole opened up in the middle of the room. There was a new sound: the deafening wail of the damned. I turned on the magnetic field. Waves of blue energy rushed to the hole, surrounding it, and holding it in place.
A voice from behind me. Rick screaming, ”Holy hell! What are you doing?”
I spun around, and Sophia was floating in the air. She thrust out her hands, and they burst into flames. ”If any of you don’t want to be burned alive,” she growled, ”get into the hole!”
”What’s happening, Sophia?” I demanded. ”How… What…”
”Don’t you get it?” she snarled. ”You’ve found out about us. I have to keep this a secret, or it’ll be all over for people like me!” She raised her hands and threw a fireball at my head. I dove out of the way. The machinery behind me began to melt.
”Look!” Rosalyn screamed. Two hands were coming out of the hole. Something was trying to escape from hell!
I tried to shut of the magnetic field, but the switch wouldn’t work. I yelled at Rick, ”Cut the power! Shut it all down!”
Something black climbed out of the hole and fell to the floor. It was a man.
Rick ran to the hole. ”Professor Ledbetter!”
”Yes, it’s me…” he said. ”Forgive my appearance; it’s hard to go ten years in hell without getting a tad sooty.”
Sophia screamed. ”You’re still alive? How? How is this possible?”
Ledbetter jumped to his feet. ”What can I say? I’m a survivor.”
”Survive this!” A wave of flames crashed down on Ledbetter, slamming him against the wall. Somehow, he was still in one piece.
”I see you’ve learned a few tricks, Sophia,” he said. ”In my ten years in hell, I’ve learned a few myself. Eat lightning!” Ledbetter waved his hands and a bolt of energy slammed into Sophia, knocking her to the floor.
”Why, Professor,” she said, rising to her feet. ”You merely speak a few dead languages. I worship the elder gods! Who do you think has more power?” She screamed, and her entire body went up in flames.
”Rick!” I yelled. ”Let’s get the hell out of here!”
Rosalyn pressed the button for the garage door, and Rick and I ran out after her. Once we were across the street, Rick stopped. ”Wait!” he said. ”I want to see what happens.”
As I watched the house burn, I tried to ignore the feelings of deja vu. And then, a rumble of thunder. Storm clouds were gathering above the house. Just above the house. The rest of the sky was completely clear. The sky flashed white. A giant bolt of lightning struck the garage, blowing it apart.
”Oh holy hell,” Rick moaned.
Out of the flaming rubble, a form advanced toward us. An exhausted, soot-encrusted Professor Ledbetter.
I was the first one to speak. ”Is she… dead?”
”Let’s just say she’s gone, but not to a better place.”
Hours later, Rick, Rosalyn, the professor, and I were having a few drinks at a local bar. We, of course, had demanded that Professor Ledbetter explain everything, but he insisted on a shower and a drink first.
”I think I’m ready now,” he said. ”I’d researched Einstein-Rosen bridges, wormholes, for decades. If wormholes could ever be used for travel, they would have to stay open long enough for someone to pass through safely. I solved that problem with the electromagnetic field dispersal array. But that still left me with the biggest problem: creating a wormhole. That seemed impossible.”
”I read that paper you wrote on quantum-level black holes,” said Rick. ”That was a dead-end?”
”Yes, unfortunately. I actually developed a way to isolate black holes from the quantum foam, but they were simply too small to be of any use. In my research, I needed someone to help me with mathematical calculations, so I approached Sophia. She was finishing her doctorate in mathematics at the time. We worked together for several months. One night, she invited me to her apartment for dinner. As she was a student, I should never have gone, but…”
”Never mind that,” I said. ”Go on.”
”While she was in the kitchen cooking, I waited in her living room. She had a small collection of antique books, among which was a rather hefty volume called `Cults in Ancient History.’ I asked her about it, and she told me about the Akkadian cult of Ereshkigal. They believed that they could open doors into the underworld and bring back the dead. Well, her description of the doorways sparked something in me. If the underworld was another dimension, then these doorways might have been a form of wormhole!”
The waitress stopped at our table, and Ledbetter ordered another round of White Russians before continuing. ”We located all the Akkadian writings we could, and searched for information on the cult. Sophia developed some software that could do a rough translation of the cuneiform. Eventually, we had all the details. Sophia and I worked all night in my garage, getting everything ready. Finally, I threw the switch. It worked! It actually worked… We opened a door into another dimension! Well, we sent various animals through, and they suffered no ill effects. So finally I stood there, trying to work up enough courage to go through myself. That’s when Sophia shot me.”
Rosalyn gasped. ”She shot you? But why?”
”She wanted to get rid of me, so she could keep the knowledge of the Akkadian magic all to herself! She shot me in the back and threw me into the hole. Apparently she also set my house on fire, trying to destroy my equipment and the notes. Fortunately, the fire department got there in time, and some of it survived. Ten years later, here we are.”
”But that doesn’t explain…” I stammered. ”The fire, and the lightning, and how’d you… Well?”
Ledbetter laughed. ”Well, the cult apparently had a few more tricks up its sleeve. From what I saw today, she must have spent the last ten years practicing the ancient magic. And then, when you kids decided to recreate my experiments, she got scared. She was afraid that people would find out that there was real magic, and it would be the Salem witch trials all over again.”
I told Ledbetter about Greg getting trapped in the fire, and about Penny and Myron’s car accident. ”Do you think Sofia had something to do with it?”
”Well, one of the most popular Akkadian `magic tricks’ was paralyzing their enemies. Selina could have started that fire in Rick’s garage, and kept Greg from leaving until he was overcome by the smoke. I’m sure she had something to do with Penny and Myron’s car accident, as well. She probably followed them in her car, paralyzed them, and watched as their car ran off the road.”
If I hadn’t had seen Sofia floating in the air, throwing fire, I would never have believed it. This woman I’d known for years had gotten so entrenched in ancient magic that she was willing to kill for it! That night when we made love, she wasn’t crying from grief. She was crying from guilt.
Rick put down his drink and frowned. ”So Selina was a witch. But how did you do that with the lightning?”
”There isn’t much to do in hell, so you mostly sit around talking. There was a very nice fellow named Simon who taught me a few tricks. Sorcery, that is.”
”Aren’t you afraid…?” I asked. ”I mean, a sorcerer in hell, and he taught you things. Aren’t you afraid you’ll end up back there?”
Professor Ledbetter leaned back in his chair, laughing. ”What, back in hell? Son, Simon wasn’t in hell for sorcery. Apparently he got into a nasty fight with someone named Peter…”