Christian Meadows was ready to be fired. Or expelled. Maybe even shot by the campus cops if it came to that. Anything to get out of the university president’s outer office, off the damned uncomfortable visitor’s couch, and as far away as possible from the president’s high-strung executive assistant Doreen. She was having a bad day, to put it mildly—much worse than Christian’s, which was saying something.
Christian had been called to the president’s office to answer for the small matter of his PhD advisor’s treason, but Doreen had the much harder job of thwarting the incessant phone calls from reporters inquiring about the scandal. Though Christian expected an unpleasant conversation with the president—full of accusations culminating in his termination and expulsion—he much preferred that to the odious task of talking to the press.
But the waiting was killing him. He’d gotten there on time and had been shunted to the couch, forced to wait while the president dealt with some other participant in the whole ugly business. Five minutes. Ten minutes. Thirty minutes passed. At a quarter till the hour, he’d considered gnawing his leg off, sure that the crunch of bone and gristle would be loud enough to drown out Doreen’s saccharine-sweet voice as she answered call number ten thousand in the same passive-aggressive sing song. The tick in her jaw belied her pleasant tone and Christian wondered how many more calls she could take before she stood up and quit.
On some level, she must have realized the calls were inevitable. When the university’s director of commercial development gets arrested for treason, questions were inevitable. As the guy who hired the traitor, President Hayman moved to the front of the line. But poor Doreen, his stalwart gatekeeper, suffered Hayman’s indignities first.
Christian, the traitor’s graduate assistant, was the next logical interrogation target. The feds had already put him through the wringer the day before, but the university’s legal department wanted a whirl, resulting in his appointment with the president today.
Their mutual unfortunate circumstances should have been enough to engender in Christian a feeling of sympathy, perhaps even camaraderie, with the put-upon secretary. But damn… her 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. His eyes shifted to the pools. The longer he stared at them, the more they 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…
“Mr. Meadows? Christian. Young man!” Doreen punctuated each word with a whack of her pen on the edge of her desk.
Christian looked up at her, startled. He’d gotten lost in the dappled light. Odd. And the photons calling his name, that was just… strange. Suddenly, he felt disjointed and sweaty. His stomach flip-flopped into a knot. He shook himself. Snap out of it, dummy. Doreen, losing patience, tapped her pen at him once more.
“Yes, sorry,” he said, shifting his full attention to Doreen and flashing 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.
Doreen glared back at him, all impatient eyes and thin lips. “Dr. Hayman will see you now,” she said with a sharp gesture toward the inner office door.
The waiting was finally over. Christian felt so relieved he almost kissed her. But 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 “Grrr.” 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 brash talker on the other end asking about yesterday’s incident, hoping for “a comment from Dr. Hayman.” Covering her eyes, but still speaking sweetly, Doreen began anew the funereal task of gathering yet another reporter’s information while apologizing for Hayman’s lack of availability. Her discomfort with the situation was palpable.
Christian nodded sympathetically. After all, the whole mess was his fault. He’d been the one who had ratted his advisor out to the feds, a fact nobody else knew and one he wasn’t interested in revealing. And despite all the trouble it seemed to be causing, he sure as hell wasn’t sorry.
He knocked politely, then 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. It was near 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; to Christian it felt like he was touching lightning.
Dr. Leland Hayman was a spry 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, guiding the department into a period of immense 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, had been 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,” Hubert always said. As usual, Hubert was dead wrong. The eyes that locked with Christian’s now twinkled with good humor and deep intelligence. Hayman’s handshake was firm and warm, suggesting an inner strength 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 and played softly at the back of Christian’s mind.
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. His legs were crossed, and his hands rested 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, Did Hayman feel 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.
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 he could 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 on. You must have known something was up,” said Rabel, curling his lip in disgust.
“I only knew that he’d had meetings with a rep from a 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 the ‘rep’ he was talking to was actually a North Korean spy?”
“Well, the moment the rep 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?
Now he was truly rattled. What’s wrong with me? He’d woken up feeling terrific, but as the morning wore on, a fog had descended. 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?
“Ch-check 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 it’s 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 it was 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 Meadows. 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 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 hair. “Sorry. It’s just that this is such a mess.”
“You’re not making it better. Meadows 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. 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 were there once more. “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, which sent 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 the lawyer, grabbed his backpack, and ran out of the office. The weight of the backpack should have been confirmation enough, but after 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 have to 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. Too late, he noticed 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 were 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 leapt—
Christian squeezed his eyes shut, fully expecting the Toyota Tundra to smash him to the pavement, smear his body into paste, and crush his beaker of plasma balls into a coruscant fireball. 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 sprung forward, he still hadn’t landed. His body had stopped falling but hadn’t yet touched the ground. Maybe it would help if I opened my eyes.
He did, but whether that helped 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, a gash like a lightning strike in the far cement wall, 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 landed?
He dared to glance down, then wished he hadn’t. His feet were floating above the warehouse floor, supported by 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 jumped, 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.