“Mr. Meadows? Christian? Young man…”
Christian looked up from the visitor’s couch, startled. The university president’s executive assistant, Doreen, glared at him, all impatient eyes and thin lips, her arm stretched across her desk, and her testily tapped ink pen aimed at his chest.
He’d been lost in thought, admiring the dappled pattern of light reflected in the textured glass of the president’s outer office door. It had been that or die of boredom while he waited to be called into the inner office.
He’d gotten there on time, but had been shunted off to the visitor’s couch, forced to wait while the president dealt with a more important matter. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Fifteen minutes in, he’d considered gnawing his leg off, sure that the crunch of gristle and bone would be loud enough to drown out the saccharine sweet voice of Doreen answering call number ten thousand in the same passive aggressive sing song, as annoyed as Christian by the phone’s non-stop ringing but too much of a pro to just get up and quit.
On some level, he knew what the phone calls were about. Probably the same topic he’d been called to the president’s office to discuss—yesterday’s incident. When the university’s director of commercial development is arrested for treason, somebody’s got to answer some questions. As the guy who hired the traitor, the president moved to the front of the line, but poor Doreen, his stalwart gatekeeper, suffered first. Christian, the traitor’s post-graduate assistant, was the next logical interrogation target. The feds had already put him through the wringer, but the university’s legal department wanted a whirl, which explained his appointment with the president today.
Knowing his and Doreen’s mutual circumstances should have been enough to engender in Christian a feeling of sympathy if not camaraderie with the put-upon secretary. But man… that voice.
He searched the outer office for any distraction from her sour expression and helmet hair. A beam of light caught his eye. It had landed on the dimpled wells of the outer door’s frosted glass, forming shiny reflective pools. The longer he stared at them, the more the pools seemed to transform into tongues of white fire. The illusion was so strong, he could almost feel the heat from each tongue penetrating his jacket. Pulsing. Multiplying. Drawing him in…calling his name…
“Christian! Meadows! Young! Man!” Doreen punctuated each word with a whack of her pen on the edge of her desk. He’d gotten lost again. What was wrong with him?
“Yes, sorry.” He shifted his full attention to her and flashed what he hoped was an ingratiating smile. It wouldn’t do to get on the bad side of the president’s gatekeeper. His path to tenure began at her desk.
He sat up straighter and swept his hair to the side, pressing the sell. Doreen wasn’t buying. “Dr. Hayman will see you now.” She gestured curtly toward the inner office door.
“Thanks.” He didn’t blame her for being dismissive; she’d had a rough morning.
As he gathered his backpack, the phone rang again and the volcano of frustration that was Doreen erupted ever so slightly into tightened fists and a strangled “Eap.” That’s all she would allow herself. Taking a deep breath, she switched on her headset and said through clenched teeth, “Colorado School of Mines. President’s office. How may I help you?”
He could just make out the caller on the other end asking about the incident and hoping for a comment from Dr. Hayman. Covering her eyes, but still speaking sweetly, Doreen began again the funereal task of gathering yet another reporter’s information and availability, her discomfort with the situation palpable.
Christian nodded to himself. Yeah, the media attention, incessant phone calls? They were all his fault. He’d been the one who ratted the director out. Nobody else knew. He wasn’t telling. And despite all the trouble it seemed to be causing, he sure as hell wasn’t sorry. He opened the inner office door.
The president’s office was huge. Bookcases filled with the university’s publications and a variety of scientific tomes lined the wood paneled walls. Hayman’s relatively small oak desk lay directly across from the door close to the large bay windows that offered a breathtaking view of South Table Mountain’s Castle Rock, a sprinkling of snow visible near the base of the mesa and along the trail leading to the top.
“Christian,” Hayman stood up to greet him. “Thank you so much for coming.” The president shook his hand and to Christian it felt like touching lightening.
Dr. Leland Hayman was a slight if dapper older man, thin, graying, and in his upper sixties. He was shorter than Christian by an inch and impeccably dressed in a brown, tailored suit. He’d been the university’s president for the past decade, but before that had spent twenty years as Dean of Physics, presiding over a period of immense departmental growth and innovation. His tenure as president was similarly distinguished and had been largely free of controversy until yesterday when Hubert Wilkins, his successor as Dean of Physics, was carted away by federal police for selling technology to foreign spies.
Christian studied him now, his first direct encounter with the man. Hubert had always derided Hayman as a bland, senile tool, propped up by the board as a smiling figurehead. “His best days are far behind him,” he’d always said. As usual, Hubert was dead wrong. The eyes that locked with Christian’s now twinkled with good humor and deep intelligence. The hand that gripped his so warmly suggested a firmness born of inner steel and a breadth of experience Hubert would never attain.
Christian had sensed all of that in an instant, at the moment of contact between them, like an electrical shock. When they separated, the impressions lingered, playing softly at the back of Christian’s mind, like a radio turned down low.
He began to sweat. Every nerve in his hand, every hair on the back of his neck came to attention. And as he stared wide-eyed at Hayman, he swore he could feel the president’s brain waves pulsing. He blinked twice, hard, and the sensation dissipated, but he still felt rattled. What was happening to him?
Hayman’s welcoming eyes filled with concern. “Dear boy, are you alright?”
Across the room, a sarcastic voice said, “It’s okay, kid. You aren’t in trouble. Yet. Sit down.”
Christian jumped. He hadn’t noticed the other man—a stranger, younger than Hayman, with slicked-back hair, and dressed in an even more impressive, three-piece suit. The man stared haughtily up at Christian from one of the two chairs in front of the president’s desk, brows knitted, legs crossed, and hands resting in his lap so that the thumbs touched. His whole demeanor screamed Lawyer.
“Yes, please, take a seat,” said Hayman kindly. “This shouldn’t take long. We just need to confirm some information.” The president reached out as if to guide him to the remaining chair. Christian pulled away, not wanting another shock, and wondered, Had Hayman felt a jolt, too? The old man acted as if nothing had happened. Christian surmised it had been one-way, whatever “it” was.
As he stood in front of Hayman’s desk, pondering, Lawyer Man sighed loudly and tapped his thumbs. Christian took the hint and sat down quickly.
The president went back to his desk, then inclined his head toward the other man. “This is Carlos Rabel.”
Christian turned to the man. “You’re an attorney.”
Rabel nodded. “And your ex-boss is a traitor. Tell us what you know about that.”
Ah, a complete asshole. Christian almost sighed in relief to be back in a situation he understood. Three years of abuse from Hubert had made Jerk Town familiar territory. It was a welcome place to regain his footing after the last disconcerting five minutes.
“Nothing,” he said, focusing on Mr. Three-Piece Douche like a laser. “He didn’t consult me, his lowly lab tech, before committing treason.”
“Come now. You must have known something was up.” Rabel spat out the last in disgust, like the thought had been wrapped in rotten meat.
“I only knew that he’d had meetings with a rep from a South Korean company. But since meeting company reps was, like, his job, being the commercial development director and all, I didn’t give it much thought.”
“So, you never knew that he was peddling the school’s intellectual property? That this ‘rep’ he was talking to was actually a North Korean spy?”
“Well, when he held me hostage and tortured me, then broke my arm just to make a point to Dr. Wilkins, I started to have my suspicions.”
“Pfft. We’re supposed to believe this kidnapping and torture actually happened?”
“Rabel,” Hayman warned.
“Come off it, Leland. It’s a valid question. Nobody saw him abducted, he has no cast, and his arm looks fine. Where’s the proof?”
Unconsciously, Christian flexed his left hand. His palm itched and the skin on his arm felt flaky where the cast used to be. Used to be? It had been there yesterday. When did it come off? What’s wrong with me? He’d woken up feeling terrific, but as the morning wore on, he’d felt wrapped in fog. At the back of his mind was a vague memory of… something happening. His light experiment…
The disconcerted feeling returned. He looked at his arm. Broken yesterday, fine today. There must be some explanation. It frightened him that he couldn’t think of one. Something had happened yesterday, after Hubert’s arrest, back in the lab. But what? Why couldn’t he remember?
“C-call the hospital,” he stammered. “Or student insurance.”
Rabel picked up a file on Hayman’s desk and thumbed through it angrily. “There’s a ‘bill’ here from St. Anthony’s, but not a lot of details and for an outrageous amount. Is that your game, Meadows, to extort the university? Frame Dr. Wilkins for you own unfortunate scheme, scam us for money while you’re at it, and then pick up where you left off with North Korea once the dust clears?”
“Rabel! That’s not what we discussed!” said Hayman, eyes blazing.
“I—” Christian began without knowing what else he would say. The cast was gone. His arm felt strong. The bruises on his hand had disappeared. As he stared at it, the light from the fixture above him collected in his skin just as it had in the frost wells of the door. And in his palm, there appeared a tongue of fire. It was just a flicker, but there, nonetheless. He made a fist to hide it and looked up, panicked. Had anyone else seen?
Apparently not. Hayman and Rabel had forgotten him for the moment, intent on arguing a point of order that had probably started before Christian had entered the room.
“We’re supposed to be debriefing the boy. Not badgering him and making unfounded accusations.”
“Maybe so, Leland, but what else fits? Hubert’s not smart enough to have handled this operation alone. Somebody tipped off the feds. The kid must have faked the injury to avoid indictment. Broken arms just don’t heal that fast.”
“Look at his face, Carlos. Can’t you see he’s traumatized? And I was there yesterday. I saw the cast, watched the agents examine it. I can’t tell you where it went, but he was certainly not faking it. Forget the embarrassment to the university for a minute and try being human for god’s sake.”
Rabel deflated and ran a hand through his slicked-backed hair. “Sorry. It’s just that this is such a mess.”
“You’re not making it better. The boy is clearly a victim. The feds released him. Have some compassion, man.”
Rabel chucked the file back onto Hayman’s desk and got to his feet. “I need some air.”
He walked over to the curtains and slid them aside, revealing a bank of tasteful casement windows amidst the unrelenting executive wood paneling. He cranked open the largest window and let in a cold blast of air that smelled of pine sap and wet snow. The room flooded with light from the midday sun and when the window swung out on its hinge, Christian was seated at just the right angle to catch a glimpse of his reflection in it.
“Gaah!” The tongues of white fire covered him—his face, arms, torso, everywhere—like bright drops of dew. And within each drop he saw a full-on image of himself, screaming and pounding against the white fire prison.
“Do you see them?!” He held his arms out in front of him and examined them. They looked normal. But when he looked at himself in the window, the tongues of fire returned. “Gaah!”
Hayman shot out of his chair and was back by Christian’s side. “See what, son? Calm down. You’re not making sense.” Christian tried to get up before the old man reached him, but the chair got in his way.
Hayman’s steel hands landed on Christians shoulders, sending another lightning bolt coursing through him, carrying the waves of the president’s mind into his own. Like a drowning man, he grabbed hold of the strongest wave Hayman projected, one that conveyed logic and calm. Touching that wave brought him sudden clarity and he remembered exactly what had happened to him the night before.
He pushed Hayman away. “I’ve got to go.”
“Now wait a minute,” said Rabel. “You still have to sign—”
He ignored he lawyer, grabbed his backpack and ran out of the office. The weight of the backpack should have been confirmation enough, but as he stumbled out the front door of Guggenheim Hall and down the stairs, he unzipped the main pouch and looked inside. The beaker was still there, filled to the brim with bluish-white pearls that flickered and pulsed and for all the world looked like encapsulated tongues of white fire. I must get back to the lab.
He stepped out into Illinois Street, intent on retrieving his car from the CASE building parking lot, still staring at the impossible contents of his backpack. He noticed too late the pickup truck backing up toward him, its driver craning his head out the window looking like he’d missed a turn. Christian thrust out his left hand stupidly as if that was enough to protect him. “Stop!” he shouted.
Time slowed. From the middle of his still itchy palm leapt a tendril of light that pierced the empty space between him and the truck. Within the widening rift, he saw the inside of his lab, not as he’d remembered it from last night, but the way it might look that very minute, illuminated from the skylight by the midday sun. He didn’t know how it had happened. Couldn’t tell if it was even real. But the truck was still coming. He closed his eyes and leaped—
Christian squeezed his eyes shut, fully expecting the Toyota Tundra to smash him to the pavement, smearing his body into paste, and crushing his beaker of plasma balls into a coruscant fireball. But none of that happened. He wasn’t exactly sure what had happened. Only that the mid-morning chill and smell of wet snow had been replaced by a warm numbness and the faint scent of curried lime. And though he had leaped, he still hadn’t landed. His body had stopped falling but hadn’t touched the ground. Maybe it would help if I opened my eyes.
He did, but whether it helped or not was debatable. He was back at Hubert’s off-campus lab—unit 411, at the corner of Violet Street and Corporate, in a small warehouse four miles away from campus. The warehouse was vacant except for a workbench and the remnants of his dinner from the night before. The scene looked the same as it had in Christian’s memory at his moment of clarity back in Hayman’s office: empty containers of coconut soup and brown rice, scattered equipment, his over-turned toolbox, and at the center of the warehouse, blast marks from the explosion that had created the beaker’s contents. But how did I get here? Did I really open a portal? Why does everything look fuzzy? And why haven’t I fallen?
He dared to glance down and wished he hadn’t. His feet were floating above the warehouse floor and between it and his shoes was a curved band of white that spread out in a faded sheath up and around his body like a giant soap bubble. He must have created the bubble the moment he’d leaped, forming it around himself like a protective shell. It reminded him of the plasma coating surrounding the photons—the “tongues of white fire”—in the beaker. How did I do that? Why can I do that? His eyes drifted back to the blast marks. And his earlier memory returned like an electric shock.
Copyright © 2020 AJ Kilgore
Thanks for reading this preview!
Strange days for Christian. Is he dreaming? Is he delusional? Is he a god?
The answers to these questions and more can be found in the rest of Chapter #2. Read more here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
AJ Kilgore’s first words were “light” and “door”. Her fascination with both has never ceased. She lives in Denver, the light of Colorado, but considers herself a citizen of the world.