We bought ice cream at a little place he liked, and reminisced. This was after the peak of Houselmann’s fame, shortly before he disappeared. He’d been my professor at university. It wasn’t a smooth relationship. Houselmann could be incredibly demanding and uncommunicative.
“You were a little shit, Beckt,” he said.
Since he had discovered that other dimension, travelled in it for five years, and written a bestselling account, I was more willing to give him the time of day. We walked through campus toward his lab, licking our ice cream, and I felt that sensation of the familiar, made alien by time.
“What are you working on?” I asked. And how can I be a part of it?
He pushed his over-sized glasses up his nose. “There is a final colour,” he said.
I waited, but he said nothing more.
“What do you mean, Professor?” I asked. It felt strange to use the honorific. My last word to him all those years before was “fuckface”.
“An ordinary colour. Part of the visual spectrum we’re all so bored of.” The innocuous vine-encrusted stone facade of his lab loomed. He booped a sequence into the keypad. “But happening to resonate at the fragmentation frequency of the space–time continuum.”
The old fellow had lost it. “You can’t break the continuum,” I said. He entered the lab and I followed. “For a start, it’s a scientific construct—”
He yanked something, spun round and clipped a cuff on my wrist.
“Everything’s a scientific construct,” he said.
He pushed a button and the cuff whipped back, pulled on a taut metal cord towards a devious-looking machine, like a bench press gone retro future. I staggered forward, unable to resist. In a matter of seconds the cord dragged me onto the bench and clunked into place. Houselmann hit another button and a perspex lid slammed down and encased me. I was trapped.
I hammered on the lid. A needle stabbed into my wrist; I clawed at it, but it had already retracted.
Houselmann’s lips moved, and his voice sounded through a speaker. “Watch the screen.” His face billowed and stretched on the perspex. “You don’t leave until you watch the screen.”
He yanked a lever. On the far wall, a screen lit up, distorted by the lid into a white rhombus. As I struggled against my bond, it dimmed to grey, then shifted into blue. The drug took effect: my thrashing became sluggish. I watched the screen, mouth agape, as the colours cycled.
Other lights flashed across the perspex. Measurements. ATOMIC STABILITY: 100%, DIMENSIONAL ENTRENCHMENT: 100%.
“What happens when they go down, Professor?” I slurred.
“Then I slow the cycle, reverse,” he said. “And we tiptoe around the abyss.”
“How do we not fall in the abyss?”
“We don’t ask stupid questions!” He kept his back to the screen.
The colours morphed, delved into purples, browns. Every shade triggered a memory from my past. A pair of my ex-girlfriend’s furry socks. The wood of my school desk. Like the transforming light had pierced my shell and could rummage around in my mind.
We hit green. The professor’s breathing came through the speaker rough and rapid. Memories played. Crawling along the grass. My mother’s scarf. Someone was cutting a tether; I was being set adrift.
ATOMIC STABILITY: 78%. DIMENSIONAL ENTRENCHMENT: 63%.
“Aha!” The Professor’s trembling hand hauled back the lever. The colour froze, a deep forest green, then reversed, began to lighten.
“Professor?” I cried out. “This colour! What will it do?”
ATOMIC STABILITY: 34%. A drip of Houselmann’s sweat hit the perspex.
“It’ll stop this all!”
As the shade on the screen lightened, a green dawn, I saw the Professor’s lecture hall, packed with students. The class dispersed and my perspective walked down to the front, where the Professor was gathering his papers.
In my real body, an emptiness and distance pervaded every little part of me.
DIMENSIONAL ENTRENCHMENT: 12%.
Hallucino-Houselmann grimaced and waved his arms. His lips clearly formed the word, “Idiot!”
In my vision, my hand reached out to the papers. Last week’s notes, just sticking out of the sheaf. The Professor slapped at my hand and papers slipped out, spilling off the podium and under the benches.
My perspective and the Professor grovelled around picking them up.
The Professor crammed them in his satchel and stormed off.
Something odd under one of the benches. A folder.
The interdimensional dossier!
ATOMIC STABILITY: 6%. DIMENSIONAL ENTRENCHMENT: 4.5%.
Houselmann used that to navigate on his travels. But he’d never let it out of his sight. The man beyond the perspex held no such item.
“You’re not the real Houselmann!”
“Look at the screen!” he screamed.
My drugged mind compelled me to obey. I resisted.
On the fringes of hearing, four boops sounded.
“You will obey!” Houselmann shrieked.
The turmoil in my mind reached a crescendo. I could not resist!
A voice from the entrance boomed. It was Houselmann’s, but deeper, tougher.
With a resounding thwock, a crossbow bolt impaled the Professor’s midriff. Blood soaked into his lab coat. He looked toward the entrance.
I saw the reflection in his glasses move, scroll through the lab. In a panic, I screwed my eyes tight shut, just before the screen came into view.
I opened my eyes. The green cloud fizzed and dispersed, leaving nothing.
The real Houselmann gripped my shoulder. “They mostly come out at night.”
“The… other Houselmanns. I had to make certain… sacrifices in my travels.”
The green sliver of the dossier peeked out his lab coat pocket.
As he limped away across campus, he shouted back, “Watch out for the sunrise. They’ve been tampering with it.”
He slung his crossbow over his shoulder and vanished around the corner.
That was the last time anyone saw him. I still think of him, sometimes.
And I keep the curtains closed at dawn.
Steve Haddon lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, and processes streams of numbers by day, words by night.