Six hours after forging a pathway from his own reality to another, Jonah Jones closed his eyes to dream. But he doubted that sleep would come. His mind, Bill Coldbrook had once told him, was far too busy dancing. The moment he laid down his head he always knew whether the night would usher in a few blessed hours of rest or a long wakeful period of silence, as he stared at the patterns that darkness painted on the ceiling and thought about what might be.
Tonight he no longer needed to dwell upon what might be. It was time to think further ahead than that.
We did it! he thought. We bloody well did it! He’d left a night light burning in his small room as always, and it cast a subtle background illumination as he lay with his eyes closed. He watched the arbitrary shifting of his eye fluids, blood pulsing, and wondered just how random anything could be.
He’d wanted to remain in Control, close to the breach. And he’d stood his ground even when Holly sat him down, asked him to drink a glass of water, and mopped up after his shaking hand spilled it. He’d seen the glance she swapped with Vic Pearson—the sort of concerned look a daughter and son might share for their failing, elderly father—and it had galvanised him, driving him to his feet in denial of what he already knew. He had been awake for thirty hours by then, and at seventy-six years old his body was beginning to flag far behind his startling mind. So eventually he had relented and promised that he’d sleep, and dear Holly had threatened to check in on him every hour.
Leaving Control, sensing the staff staring at him as he tore himself away, he’d glanced back one last time. Jonah had smiled, and nodded, and said that he was proud.
What are they doing right now? he wondered, but of course he knew. Looking at the breach. Looking through it at an alternate Earth. Everett’s many-worlds theory suggested this other Earth inhabited the same quantum space as Jonah’s Earth, as well as countless others. Another concept was that there were infinite Hubble volumes, each a universe—a number given the name googolplex—and that the similar alternate Earth they could see was so far away that it would take longer than the age of our universe to write that distance down. Both incredible ideas and, for Jonah, both beautiful.
He breathed deeply, ignoring the occasional flutters from his ageing heart, and started thinking about everything that needed to be done. The breach was the culmination of decades of experimentation and centuries of postulation, and now it was time to explore.
He sighed, smiling at the sheer staggering scope of what they had achieved, and experienced a chill of anticipation at what was to come. Sometimes he’d believed that he would die before they succeeded and he would never witness the result. Now, though, here he was at a defining moment in history. One of the greatest days in the annals of science, it would change the way humanity perceived itself in its own universe, and in limitless others...
As consciousness faded and Jonah felt himself sinking towards an exhausted sleep, a shadow formed in his mind. It was too vague truly to trouble him, too remote to register as anything more than a shade against the night, but he was aware of it as a weight where there should be none, a presence that had previously been absent. He considered opening his eyes but they felt heavy. He took in a breath and smelled nothing unusual. Spooking myself, he thought, and then—
He is in the familiar little North Carolina town of Danton Rock, in the Appalachian mountains a mile north of the subterranean Coldbrook facility. A dozen military trucks are parked in the square, and lines of nervous people are waiting to board. A soldier shouting orders through a bullhorn is not speaking English. Other soldiers are spaced in pairs around the square, each carrying a rifle or sub-machine gun, and there is an air of panic about everyone: soldiers alert, civilians twitchy. Jonah does not recognise the shops—their names are different, and written in a language he cannot quite identify—and knows that he is dreaming. He’s had frequent bouts of lucid dreaming since his wife’s death, and sometimes he can steer the visions, using them to meet dear Wendy again. But though he is aware now, that element of control is absent, as if the images are being projected by some outside agency, onto the screen of his mind. They are not his own.
The trucks are almost fully loaded when a short, attractive young woman slips from one line and runs for an alleyway between buildings. Jonah knows what is coming almost before it happens, and there’s a terrible inevitability to the soldier’s electronic shout and the gunfire that quickly follows. No! Jonah screams—
—and he is somewhere else, a hundred people turning tiredly to look his way, the sad knowledge of what they will see obvious in their eyes. They have the slumped shoulders and defeated gazes of people who will never intervene. The camp is huge, stretching as far as he can see into the distance, a shanty town of polythene, steel tubular shelters, and open sewers. Wretchedness and death hang heavy in the air. It’s a sight familiar from disaster areas and war zones around the world, but he recognises Seattle’s skyline. Aircraft like none he has ever seen before hover silently above the crowds, their fuselages smooth and pale as bone. One of them is sweeping down, zoning in on the scream even as it comes again. Jonah sees a man, hand clasped to a wet, leaking wound on his arm. Other people are pressing back from him, and the man is turning in slow circles, his eyes wide and pleading. No! he cries. No, it’s okay, really, it’s clean, it’s clean! But it is not clean, and in this vision Jonah understands that. It is unclean, and requires purifying.
Something whispers through the air and the man is whipped from his feet, borne aloft by a flexible arm slung below the aircraft. As it climbs again the people are still pulling back, the circle of bare ground widening, and—
A wide wall of fire reaches fifty feet into the air, and between it and Jonah—a distance of maybe half a mile— thousands of people are staggering from left to right, silhouetted against the flames in their shambling efforts to escape incineration. He is aware that this is another place that is not quite right. The open fields are painted gold by a familiar barley crop, but on a distant hillside stand several tall, weird structures, huge glass globes at their pinnacles seeming to catch light and haze the air around them with shades of darkness. They hint at a technology he does not know, and close to where that hillside smooths out into a valley a group of vehicles are screaming across the ground, bouncing with beautiful elegance. They each fly a stars-and- stripes pennant, but there are too few stars on them.
The sound when it comes is almost soporific, a series of gentle pops like bubbles bursting in a freshly run bath. The people start falling in their hundreds, and Jonah can see parts of their bodies erupting in gouts of black blood and flesh. It’s this death that draws and focuses his attention, because then he realises that not only are the buildings disturbingly unfamiliar but the people being mown down are themselves strange. He’d thought that perhaps they were refugees like those from the previous strand of his dream but their movements are wrong—the way they run, the expressionless faces. Even those as yet unaffected by the attackers’ weapons seem to be bleeding, and their mouths—
The man’s mouth hangs open as he screams at the woman to run. They’re in a modern building, the huge open-plan room well furnished, and one glass wall offers views out across a complex of some kind. There are several large featureless buildings, and a place that might be a power plant. The ground is flat, a few benches dotted here and there in the shade of black oak trees. It is sunny: springtime. Beside one bench, three people in red-splashed lab coats are attacking someone squirming on the ground. One of the large buildings is on fire. And inside the room, something is coming to an end.
Run! the man screams again. He is tall and familiar, and it’s not until Jonah is mere feet away that he realises why. The man is him... although not quite. He’s slimmer and fitter than Jonah, his eyes are green rather than blue, and his facial structure is not identical—heavier cheekbones and brow, a longer, flatter nose. But the similarity is shocking, like looking in a subtly distorting mirror. This is not just someone from the same family or even the same parents, but rather a different version of him. This is what I might have been, Jonah thinks. The man grimaces as he raises a heavy pistol and points it somewhere past Jonah, and there is the look of inevitable defeat in his eyes. Hopeless. The gun has a small circular magazine and the wisp of a blue pilot light below its barrel, and as the man pulls the trigger the room lights up, splashing fire and heat—
Someone opened his left eyelid.
Jonah’s heart fluttered in shock, and his breath locked in his lungs. He clenched his fist and felt sheets crumple between his fingers. He was frozen, motionless, and though the vivid dreams were already fading to monochrome he smelled the rot of dead things, the sweet stench of old decay, and felt an intense heat across his face. That’s what those people on the burning plains smell like, he thought, and the wound on that man’s arm, and the heat is fire eating at my flesh.
He tried to speak, but breathed out only the faintest of gasps.
The thing leaning over him was poorly illuminated by the night light. It was humanoid, with a smooth head and bulging eyes, and a bulky protuberance where its nose and mouth should be. A mist of steam hung around this strange mask. Protective suit, Jonah thought, and for an instant that tempered his fear. But then he saw the redness around one swollen eye, the moisture collecting on one edge of what he’d thought of as breathing apparatus, and realised that what he’d believed at first was material stretched across the dome of its head was actually spiked with countless short, thick hairs. It held something, a red object from which a network of slick threads protruded and kissed gently against Jonah’s scalp. They might have been wires but for the feel of them there—like cold, dead worms. Still the scream would not come.
It leaned in closer, looking, and Jonah could smell its stale fish-breath.
Then it let go and his eyelid twitched shut, and Jonah exhaled a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. Sucking in air, filling his lungs again, he knew he had to look, must look... but for a couple of seconds he kept his eyes squeezed closed. He heard no movement, and intuited nothing in his small room; the shadow he’d sensed while falling into sleep had gone.
Jonah sat up and opened his eyes, letting out an involuntary gasp when he realised that the room was empty. The door was closed, and he would have heard the catch clicking. In his sparse room, with its bed, chair, desk, clothes rail, chest of drawers and haphazardly stuffed bookshelves, there was nowhere to hide.
“Bloody hell,” he muttered, pressing his right hand to his chest and trying to calm his galloping heart. He slipped from the bed and rubbed his eyes. If that was what sleep brought, then he was going straight back to Control. Holly could berate him all she liked. He wasn’t going to shut his eyes again any time soon.
He dressed and paused with his hand on the door handle, thinking of sleep deprivation and how the significance of what they had achieved might take some time to truly dawn. And then Jonah cast this new dancing partner aside and went to gaze once again upon another universe.