by LM Hooten
Other Stories by LM Hooten
I first learned about it because I have an eclectic interest in various science journals, including “Archaeology Today”. A couple of years ago, I found an article about a “magic” wall. Okay, so the article was about an extraordinary find, a wall in a field outside of Xing Chow, somewhere in the People’s Republic of China. Some Chinese archaeologists had heard stories of ancient spirits rising in the local backcountry, and had gone in search of answers. They found it after traveling to the suspect location; a wall segment with one side encased in an unidentifiable substance, which seemed to have the effect of smoothing the wall into a perfectly flat surface. This was a fairly uncommon, but historically not unknown occurrence. What was strange was the image on the wall. With nearly photographic quality, some artist had placed a battle scene depicting two Feudal Chinese knights or horse-soldiers locked in mortal combat, banners frozen in mid-wave and steam coming from their horses’ nostrils. A variety of weapons framed the scene, creating a sort of arch above the combatants. It was all very impressive, and the article left me with a surprisingly firm desire to go follow up on this small mystery.
At the time I was curator of the Riverside County Cultural Museum, and had a small problem. Although we were well funded in those days, the Board was still expecting at least one or more major campaigns to raise public “cultural awareness” before year’s end. Until I saw the article, I had been without ideas. But now…
“Sherri, would you set up a 3:15 with the Board please? I think I have an answer to our problem.”
“Sure, Pete, Whatcha got?”
“Maybe a trip to China. Interested?” I could almost hear her smile over the intercom.
“Sounds like fun. But, no, I couldn’t get that much time away right now, and the family already has vacation plans for June.”
Ah well, it was worth a shot! “All right then, I’ll need a single to… Xing Chow. Oh, also passport, shots…anything else? I haven’t been out of the country since I was a teenager.”
“Really?” Sherri replied, “That beats me. Where did you go, if I may ask?”
“Australia. I suppose I was about 13 at the time. My sister and I even made the newspaper, because she was wearing this really dumb Disneyland hat with a huge ostrich feather sticking up out of it. It had all worked out, though, and we finally came back home about a year later.”
As Sherri began the paperwork, I started researching China, and what I would need to know about that inscrutable old land before I went traipsing off into one of my worst nightmares. If Australia had been such a shock, and their culture was almost the same as ours…
Three weeks later, I found myself aboard an old Air China airbus, en route to Shanghai. Americans tend to think one of two ways about the rest of the world. Either we pretend that everybody in the world should love and respect us, or we worry that our legendary arrogance is going to get somebody killed someday. I tend to worry. Ever since the attacks on New York and Washington, I’ve had concerns about how we treat the rest of the world. And I still remember the cheering that went on in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and in China when the news of the attacks went out.
Looking at the oriental stewardess moving between the seats, I recall that she was probably required to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party and therefore was almost certainly cheering on the day my friend Taryn died. I ordered a drink and silently toasted the memory of someone whom I had only known via the Internet, resolving to someday, somehow, avenge her death.
Fourteen hours later, I was disgorged into an old, rundown air terminal, with three bags of luggage, my papers, and a splitting headache. The singsong voice blaring over the loudspeakers only served to heighten my awareness of the alien nature of the place. Fortunately, the young man assigned as my guide found me without trouble, and soon we were whisked away in a 3-wheeled bicycle cab several miles to the local bus terminal. There, we transferred my things, and boarded a dilapidated old bus which was already overloaded with farmers and peasants, bamboo cages filled with chickens and ducks, and baskets roped onto the roof carrying all manner of possessions. I sat down next to an emaciated old man with a toothless smile who reeked of whatever ginger-ginseng-garlic combination he had had for breakfast that morning. And this was a three-day journey! Ugh!
My guide, whose name I learned was Su Ling, saw how lost I was looking, and so began reassuring me.
“Dr. Penderson, this is your first time to China? Yes?” he asked politely.
“Yes.” A short, sharp sound escaped my lips before I could continue. “I wanted to expand cultural awareness back home. Seems I should have worked a little harder on my own before I started this trip.”
“Ah, you are offended by the poverty of our people?” Su Ling asked.
“Offended? No. Not at all! I just never imagined anything like this actually existing anymore. Would it be all right if I took pictures of this part of my trip? I didn’t think of it before, but a lot of this might be interesting to the people back home.”
Su ling looked at me suspiciously for a moment. “You would use these pictures to prove China’s unfitness to be a great nation?”
“Huh? What are you talking about? Last I heard, China was the oldest civilized nation on earth. I don’t know much, but even I know of the Han, and Ming dynasties, and of the Mandarins that unified many small kingdoms into arguably one of the greatest nations in history. You’ve never seen pictures of homeless people littering the streets of Washington only a few miles away from the Capitol, have you? At least your people aren’t lost in a bottle of whiskey or a syringe full of drugs.” I gestured around us for emphasis. Su Ling looked askance at me, and then delivered his judgment.
“No. Save your pictures for the wall and the areas around it. That is what you came for, and that is what you will get. You will not spy on my people with my help!” I had not considered it to be spying, especially since I had asked first, instead of just taking the pictures! But if that was to be his attitude, I decided I was better off knowing now.
The rest of the trip was far less pleasant than it might have been, as Su Ling refused to translate many of the conversations around me, and the smell of diesel fuel kept my stomach in knots through most of it. Nevertheless, I managed to make a few friends, and learned a strange game involving nine small sticks and a pair of dice. Finally, we reached Xing Chow, which turned out to be a district rather than a city. Rolling hills covered in fields of grain, with a single prominence topped with an ancient temple about a half-mile to the right of the road. The bus stopped at a narrow pathway that appeared to lead up to the monastery, and Su Ling and I took down our things and got off. The bus lurched away amid billowing clouds of blue smoke as several peasants waved and shouted their goodbyes to us.
As we approached the temple, I wondered aloud if this could be a forgotten section of the Great Wall. Su Ling merely laughed at the suggestion, and informed me that we were many hundreds of miles away from that great wonder. We topped a small rise in the landscape and suddenly I could see a pair of beige vehicles, a VW Thing- sort of car and a small 2- ton truck. I picked up my speed when I saw the scientists digging nearby. As I approached, one elderly scientist stood up to greet me. I dropped my bags and held my hand out to him.
“Hi there! My name is Pete Penderson from California. Would you be Dr Chin Manchu?” The elderly gentleman smiled gently at me and addressed me in English.
“Ah, yes! Doctor Penderson, how are you? It is not often I get the opportunity to practice my English. These are my colleagues, doctors Cho Lin Tsung,” A studious looking middle-aged gentleman stood up and bowed courteously, and Dr Chin continued. “… Our assistants Pi Lee, and Sun Yung.” Two graduate students stood up, looking like every fresh post grad I had ever seen, brimming over with enthusiasm whilst covered head-to-toe in dirt and dust. A small smile crept onto my lips as I returned their collective bow.
“I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be here, and how excited I am by your discovery.” I said.
The scientists smiled and invited me over for a closer look at the picture on the wall. I took out my camera and began shooting the area, then I began taking pictures of the Wall itself. It was surprisingly well preserved for an artifact supposedly several hundred, or perhaps thousand, years old.
“This is amazing!” I commented to my hosts as I finished my second roll of film. “This could have easily been done very recently. I wouldn’t be surprised if you had told me it was less than a year old!” As I spoke, the smiles faded around me. Fortunately, whatever it was I had said lost its meaning when they saw two monks from the temple approach, waving incense burners and freshly cut branches around them as they chanted together what I imagined to be some sort of spell of protection. I watched curiously for a few moments, trying to figure out what this was all about.
“Su Ling, what are they doing?” My translator turned and asked, but for some time the priests seemed to completely ignore our presence.
Doctor Chin came up to me and said, “Don’t pay any attention to them. They do this every day, although usually later in the day than this. I think they just want to say hello to you.” Finally they completed whatever they were doing and addressed Su Ling. In a moment I learned that they believed there was a demon in the picture. Apparently, they also agreed that the picture was NOT thousands of years, but in fact only about 6 months old. This revelation angered the archaeologists big time. They all began walking toward the monks, yelling in Chinese, waving and pointing accusingly at them. As the priests looked truly frightened, I guessed that they were not the Shao Lin priests I had learned of from the ‘70’s TV show starring David Carradine. Then again, I supposed, there were other, more dangerous things to fear in this land. The priests hurried away, and the scientists came together to discuss this new development. Should they stop working the site and research this new development, or assume the priests just wanted us gone? Or continue, using the authority given them by the State, despite anything they might say to be rid of us?
As they argued, I began wondering: if the priests were right about the age of the wall, there could be some interesting consequences for me. Of course, I dismissed the demon story out of hand, but if I could just find the artist who DID do this…!
Some ten minutes later, the priests returned, with a young girl of about 16 struggling between them. The poor girl was obviously panic-stricken, her high-pitched pleadings and wailings serving only to harden their resolve to bring her up for judgment. At least that was the impression I got. Of course the scientists were still angry with the priests, so they once again began berating the newcomers, the volume and pitch of their voices increasing with every step, the total effect a cacophony of noise that I just wanted ended. The priests threw the girl down before us, and in an arrogant tone, told the scientists that this was their ancient artist, and that they had no excuse now to defile their grounds any longer. This set off a new wave of argument, this time bringing in threats of returning with the Red Army if they tried anything stupid. My eyes turned on the girl with interest as Su Ling translated the exchange. Could this really be the artist? Gesturing for Su Ling to approach with me, I went down on one knee and touched her chin, turning her face up to mine.
“It’s all right, little one,” I said as Su Ling translated. “Tell me, child, what is your name?” I asked. “Can you tell me anything about this image?” I asked, pointing to the wall. At first she only turned away, her mind locked in fear. I could see she wasn’t going to be of use until the scientists shut up.
“Dr Chin, please, if you would just calm down for a few minutes! Doctor Chin!” Finally, I got his attention. “Please, Doctor. Let me try to find out what we have here. There’s a still good chance that you have a project here.” Dr Chin stopped at that, and with him, his entire team.
“What do you think you can do?” he asked.
“Just let me try.” I replied. Turning to the girl I asked her, “What is your name, child?”
Finally, she looked up at me, and I could see the tears in her eyes. “I am called Sheng Lin, honored sir,” came the translated reply. I smiled gently at her.
“Sheng Lin, I wonder if you can tell me anything about the picture on this wall? Did you make it? Can you show me how you did it?” Terror filled her eyes again, and she began chanting,
“It’s full of demons! It’s full of demons!”
“Look at me!” I took her shoulders and shook her gently. “There are no demons! If there are, I will confront them myself! Show me how this was done!”
Sheng Lin looked up at me once again, searching. Then slowly, a spark of hope began to glow in her eyes. She turned to the priests and began speaking rapidly to them. The older one nodded, and Sheng Lin jumped up and ran back to the monastery, leaving the two groups scowling at each other.
In just a few minutes, she returned carrying a wicker basket slung over her back. Walking toward me, she stopped three feet away and placed the basket on the ground at my feet. She then scurried away, hiding behind the older priest as if he could protect her from whatever the basket contained. I looked at her, then back at the basket. I wanted technique, not tools. Still, I thought, perhaps I can use the one to get the other. Bending over, I released the catch and opened the lid. The basket was empty except for what looked like an old Moviola camera, the kind the first filmmakers must have used in the early 1900’s. Big “Mickey Mouse Ear” canisters on top, a small lens in front, an oddly shaped handle too long and thin to be easily held in one hand, but which had a button at the front which made me think of an “on” switch. Curious, I examined the handle more closely. It didn’t seem to be made to fit any human hand. And the characters on the casing were not Roman, Arabic, OR Chinese.
When a savage from a non-technological culture first finds a gun lying on the ground, his natural curiosity will lead him to pick it up. He will begin examining it, poking and prodding to see what parts move, and what their purpose is. He will look down the barrel of the gun to see what might lurk there. If he’s lucky, he won’t think to pull the trigger while he’s looking.
I wasn’t lucky. I wanted to see what would change if I looked into the lens while pressing the switch.
Suddenly I felt myself swirling in a maelstrom of light, sound, and color. I stumbled, dizzy, until I fell against the base of a sort of arch, made, I supposed, of the same material that coated the rock wall. Where was that wall? Looking around, I saw no sign of the temple, the scientists, or even the fields that had surrounded us. I now stood on a battle plain, in dangerous proximity to a pair of warring knights. I tripped as I tried to duck, and so avoided a stray blow from Yellow, which had been deflected off of Red’s shield a moment before.
“Whoa! Wait a minute!” I cried. The two continued their battle as I lay on the ground, stunned by the sudden change. It was if I were now IN the picture I had seen at the Xing Chow site. I scrambled up and away from the combatants, and again landed against the strange white arch with the assortment of weapons protruding from it. I realized that my English would make precious little impression on these two, so if I were going to survive the next few moments, I had better find a weapon, fast!
Noticing a halberd embedded in the arch near me, I remembered that this was the weapon that eventually did away with knighthood in Medieval Europe. Taking the shaft in both hands caused a slight tingle to run throughout my body. Interesting, but at the moment irrelevant. I tugged at the weapon, and felt the arch give slightly. Putting all my strength into the effort, I began to feel the halberd pull away, as if from salt-water taffy. Finally, the blade pulled free, and I held the gleaming polearm at the ready.
Yellow saw me take up a stance and decided that I was now a player. Turning his lance towards me, he bore down on my position. I stood my ground, waiting for the proper moment, then swung away, pivoting on the back of the halberd. I spun my weapon around, flipping his lance away, and dropped the butt of my weapon to the ground while aiming the point at the knight’s chest. It connected, lifting him off his horse and dropping him, stunned, to the ground. I wheeled my weapon around and jabbed, skewering him through his throat. Looking up at Red, I saw him sitting quietly on his mount, watching me with a speculative look on his face.
I stopped. There were only about a half-dozen things wrong with this scene. First of all, I was a researcher and an artist. A bureaucrat. I had never joined my nation’s Military, and I certainly had no idea how to fight, most especially with weapons that have been obsolete for over 300 years! I have always considered myself as a pacifist and a probable coward who talked a good game but couldn’t back it up if I had to. Not to mention my paunch, which I had done precious little to reduce despite my doctor’s consistent warnings to lose it. What I had just done was patently impossible.
Red spoke to me quietly, as an equal, but in what sounded like Chinese. Too bad I had left my translator back in the real world. Looking at the body of my opponent on the ground, a wave of nausea filled my senses. This was all wrong! Suddenly all I wanted was for this man to live again, to be able to talk with him and maybe figure out what was happening here. I jerked the blade out of his neck, flipped it around and looked at the bloody streaks defacing its surface. As I looked, an idea began to form in my mind. Turning the blade again, I laid it flat upon the wound to his throat, and closed my eyes. The tingling sensation returned, stronger this time, and a moment later I heard a soft cough come from the once-dead man.
My eyes snapped open, and I saw the Yellow Knight looking at me as if he expected me to kill him yet again. “Do you yield?” I tentatively asked.
“You have returned my life to me?” he replied, in English! Relief washed over me as I heard his voice.
“Apparently.” I grinned at him, and pulled the halberd away from his throat. “One question, though, where am I?”
“This land is under the claim of my lord Wu Dig Ting. I cannot yield to any invader without his authorization!” He began to get up, his eyes searching for his weapons.
“Um, would it help if I told you I am no invader, but a simple wanderer, looking for a way home?” He stopped for a moment, considering. The Red Knight took the opportunity to begin speaking, but unfortunately, HE still spoke Chinese. I was therefore relieved, but also frustrated, to hear Yellow reply in English, apparently understood by Red.
“He may indeed be a god or even a demon, but he will not be of assistance to you!” He grabbed his lance and used it to pole-vault onto his mount. The two knights again began their combat, this time staying some distance from me. Good! I now had time to think this over! What on Earth could have happened? I would have called this an alternate universe, except that it was apparently inside a painting. Maybe a very small universe? But why are my reactions different? Some of what I had done made me think I was a kind of puppet here. Does everyone here play their roles, regardless of who they really are? And why couldn’t I understand Red? Wait. That one I think I can answer. I had touched Yellow with my blade while wishing I could talk to him. I had never gotten close to Red. But if HE understood English spoken by Yellow… Maybe there was some sort of telepathy at work here? But I heard him! And the words matched his lips! Aside from all of this, though, the real question was whether I could return home. I tried to remember what had happened to the “camera”, but the last thing I could remember about it was pulling that godforsaken trigger!
An idea began to form in my mind. Taking up my halberd, I held its blade up before my face. The tingling sensation returned as I began to form the thought that I wished I was back in Kansas… er… Xing Chow again. I refrained from clicking my heels together three times. Instead I closed my eyes, and slowly brought the flat side of the blade toward my forehead. As it touched, I felt a liquid warmth flow into me from it, swirling throughout my body and pouring through my fingers and toes to the ground. What a rush! The spinning sensation must have rattled my inner ear, because as I opened my eyes, the ground was moving towards me. Fortunately, my interpreter was back, and he grabbed my shoulder, steadying me before I could hurt myself. The “camera” was back in my hands.
“Whoa! That was …different!” I exclaimed.
“ What was different?” Su Ling asked. I looked around and noticed that nobody had seemed to move while I was away in the picture. Turning, I saw that now the combatants were placed differently, and their attention seemed split between each other and the viewer in our world. “It changed!” “What changed?” Su Ling asked. “The picture on the wall!” I said. Everybody turned to look at the picture. “I see no changes,” he said. Doctor Chin walked to his car and picked up his briefcase. Opening it, he retrieved a handful of photos of the Wall. None looked like the picture I remembered. I looked at the “camera” in my hand. Was it capable of making changes in our reality? The girl was right! It WAS full of demons! Shaking, I put it back in the basket and thanked Sheng Lin for her help. As I turned to go, she realized that I was leaving her with the device. Suddenly, she flew into a rage. She jumped towards me, but was caught by the priests, so she could only shake her fists at me, screaming and shouting that I had broken my promise to take the “camera” away from her. Had I promised…? Well, if she didn’t want it, I really couldn’t blame her! I supposed that I could dispose of it more easily than she could, though, so I gestured for her to calm down, and gingerly picked up the basket. The terror and rage faded from her eyes, and I wondered what the “camera” had done to her.
As we returned to the road, I commented to Su Ling that this had been a much shorter visit than I had anticipated. But under the circumstances, I couldn’t imagine their accepting me in any role I could feel comfortable in. Su Ling agreed, and promised to find accommodations for the night. Unfortunately, it later appeared that everyone for a ten-mile radius knew of the girl and the “camera”, and nobody was willing to have us around. We eventually spent the night in a shelter that had once held a small shrine in it. I had seen these before, on the way here. The Communists had desecrated them; no doubt during one of their “cultural revolutions” and the local people now used them as bus stops. Sure enough, early the next morning, another bus, this one in considerably better condition, stopped to pick us up. The driver was very pleased when I handed him ten American dollars, and we were allowed to sit near the front of the bus. As the ride continued, I kept opening the basket and looking at the device I had gained custody of. A shiver went up my spine every time I did. Maybe I could “lose” it on the way home? Or maybe I’ll find a thief whose luck has run out. I pushed the basket under my seat. With luck it would be gone by the time we got back to the airport.
When the road got better, I opened my eyes and looked around me. Several of the passengers around me were staring, which in their culture was considered extremely rude. “What?” I said in English, and they turned away in unison. I looked at Su Ling. “What was that all about?” I asked. “Never mind. They are only worthless peasants. There is the airport. Take your prize and go. I have done all I was required to do.”
Huh. What did I do? Su Ling had been officious and rude at times, but I had thought he had come to believe I was all right. The bus stopped and I stood up to go.
“Don’t forget your prize,” he said, and I was obliged to pick up the basket. As I did, it occurred to me that the latch was on the wrong side of the lid. Somebody had taken and returned it. Oh. Something must have happened while I was asleep. That would explain the change in attitude, at least. Well, no help for it now! Time for you to go, Grasshopper! Without Su Ling’s help, it was somewhat more difficult to get my things off of the bus, but I eventually managed the task. Thankfully, a Skycap saw me struggling with my bags and came to my rescue. Soon I was assigned a flight, and four hours later I took my seat on another Airbus. One movie and a long nap later, I heard a change in the engines and felt my stomach begin to climb up towards my throat.
Some pilots let their planes float down to a landing, and the sensation is not unlike getting into an elevator. Others point the nose down and FLY to the ground. When they do, it feels like you’re on the LONGEST rollercoaster in the world. I HATE rollercoasters. I looked out the window and saw in the distance a dark layer of clouds. As we approached, land became visible. We came out of our dive as we overflew the coastline, and I immediately knew we were over the United States of America. The beaches were covered with people. Streets and freeways were choked with cars. I was surprised at so many trees everywhere. I had never really noticed them when I was on the ground. Houses, malls, swimming pools, lakes… Was that Disneyland? The intercom came on. “This is the Captain. We will be landing in just a few minutes. Please notice that the No Smoking and Fasten Your Seatbelt lights are on. We hope you have enjoyed our flight and will come fly with us again soon!”
Yeah, right. If I want my heart in my throat, I’ll get on a rollercoaster! Something with rails! Thankfully, we soon landed at Ontario International, and Sherri was waiting for me at the gate. I considered kissing the ground, but finally decided against it. Too undignified. Ha-ha.
“Hi, Sherri! Am I glad to see you!” “Pete! It’s good to see you again!” she replied.
“So what did you find out about that Wall?” Sherri asked as we began walking towards the terminal. “The Wall? Oh! The Wall! Turns out it’s a cross between The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits,” I replied. “But I think I may have stumbled onto an even bigger mystery. Would you believe an alien artifact that creates mini-Universes?”
“A what? Universes? Pete, what are you talking about?”
“Only the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced. Wait till you see it!” We found the baggage carousel and my luggage. It occurred to me that I might be better off not claiming the basket, and letting it go to the Land of Lost Luggage. But I had already mentioned it, so that option really never was. “Here, take a look at this.” I said as the basket came up. I scooped it up and opened the lid. There sat the “camera” that had turned my world upside down. Sherri picked it up and examined the writing on the case. “Whatever you do, DON’T touch that trigger!” I warned. “Why? What does it do?” Sherri asked.
Briefly, I told her of my adventure in the Wall, and of the disturbing repercussions in the real world once I escaped the device’s mini-verse. She agreed that it was probably best to research this device before making any more attempts at using it.
Two weeks later, it was obvious that there was nothing to research here. The device had apparently never been recorded in human history, at least as far as we could tell. The writing was totally unfamiliar. It had as little to do with Roman, Cyrillic, or Arabic characters as it had with Phoenician or Atlantean script. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, nothing seemed to fit. Even the sample pulled from the UFO crash at Roswell looked wrong. This was getting us nowhere. Finally, I made a decision. The girl, Sheng Lin, had managed to use the device without lasting effects, other than her obvious fear, which under the circumstances was understandable. I decided to experiment with the “camera” and try to learn how it worked.
I closed my office door and brought the basket out of the closet where I had placed it on my return from the airport. Placing it on my desk, I sat back in my high-backed chair and reviewed everything that I knew about it. What I really needed, I thought to myself, was an instruction manual for this … this thingamajig. Remembering the wall and the arch on the other side of it, I decided to try creating my own “wall” in my office. Looking at my desktop, I picked up the “camera” and pointed it at the desk. Pressing the trigger did nothing. I turned the device over and shook it slightly, then aimed it at the desk again. Nothing. Hmmm. It would appear that I was going to have to look into the eye of the tiger once again. Summoning all my courage, I turned the camera towards my face, closed my eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, and looked into the lens. I pressed the trigger.
Again I found myself spinning, shifting violently through dozens of possible realities as I whirled helplessly through what I imagined was the quantum foam between universes. Light, sound, color, taste, touch, and even strange scents filled my being in a manner I would have called impossible only a month ago. When the psychic sleigh ride was over, though, I was disappointed to find myself once again in my own office, surrounded by books and paintings I had spent half a lifetime collecting. What had happened? Why didn’t it work this time? I stood up from my desk, only then realizing that the camera was no longer in my possession. So then this must be… the world I had asked for! Excellent!
I looked around for the Arch, but there were no weapons to be seen anywhere. But there seemed to be something different about my library. I walked over to my bookcase, and began scanning titles. Everything looked right, except for one section where I keep my technical manuals and documentation. One small white volume, entitled “The Thingamajig” somehow stood out from the rest. A crooked grin crossed my face as I remembered asking for an instruction manual. Reaching out for it, I took the softbound book in my hand and was only slightly surprised that I had to pull it out against that taffy-like resistance I had encountered before. Once the book was in my hands, I excitedly opened it, only to find the pages within blank. I turned the pages madly, hoping to find something, somewhere, but to no avail. The book might as well be a novelty-joke book. I tossed it onto my desk in frustration, and then realized that it was the equivalent of the halberd that had brought me home before. I picked it up again and wished I were back in my real office again.
Putting the book to my forehead, I felt the now familiar tingling sensation begin to take me back to where I had come from. Lights exploded around me as I began my swirling, spinning journey home. In a moment, I found myself face down on my office floor, my glasses several feet away, frame bent, and a painful lump on the side of my head. Next time I sit down for this! A moment later, Sherri came through the door. “Are you alright?” she asked, then as she saw me sprawled on the floor her voice took on a note of real concern. “Peter! What happened?” She rushed to my side, reaching me as I managed to get to my knees. “I’m okay, I think!” I smiled at her as I reached for my glasses. “Not so sure about these, though.” I commented. I stood up and made my way back to my desk, Sherri hovering close by.
We both saw it at the same time. The blotter on my desk was no longer made of paper. It had the same look and feel as the wall I had left some 3000 miles behind me in Xing Chow. And imprinted on its surface was the image of a small, white, softbound book I had held in my hands only moments before. Sherri looked at it and read the title. “Thingamajig?” she asked, perplexed. “Well, I don’t know what it’s called,” I replied, “and I guess it couldn’t supply a name for itself. It may not be capable of supplying new knowledge to its user.” So much for my dreams of winning the Lottery or cleaning up at the racetrack! But there was something hovering at the back of my mind…
“Sherri, I need you to order some panels. Blank. Construction drywall maybe. And materials for frames and stands. I want them free-standing. We’ll have just enough time to get them ready for the Cultural Awareness Campaign.” I ran my hand over the surface covering my desk and wondered just how strong it might be. “A camera. We’ll need a video camera- no. We’ll need several video cameras set up to record it when it happens.” “When what happens?” Sherri asked. “Magic!” I answered enigmatically.
The Board was fairly easy to sweet-talk for the first couple of weeks, but all that changed when Jim Boarsen found out that I had hired construction workers to assemble the panels. Jim made it very clear that unless I had something very special by the next Meeting, I would be peddling my paintings at yard sales and swap meets for a living. Fortunately, that gave me just enough time to complete my plan. Two days later, the drywall panels were set up in a large warehouse I had managed to gain access to. They were set up in the form of a maze, with some panels hanging from the ceiling by wire supports, and others standing near eye-level, supported by rough 2×4’s, and looking a bit like a new housing project under construction. Sherri and I spent the morning setting up the video cameras and recorders, and then just before noon, Jim led the rest of the Board into the warehouse, where he meant to add my head to his collection. Time for my to start the show.
Picking up the device, the ‘thingamajig’, I walked toward the Board members. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Good morning, Jim. I see you couldn’t wait for the grand opening. I hope you are all suitably impressed?” The Board members looked around at the blank panels, then at each other, mystified. I noticed with some satisfaction that Jim was starting to show signs of anger as he addressed me. “Peter, I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but I can assure you that if you think this, this joke will satisfy the Board, you are sadly mistaken. What is this? I’ve seen children’s mazes with more artistic merit than this!” Smiling, I looked at Jim. While he has often enough been a thorn in my side, I wasn’t convinced that he deserved to be fired, although I was sure that capability was within my power at the moment. No, he has only been looking out for the Museum’s best interests, and his actions have only spoken of a little shortsightedness. I’ll be nice. “Why, Pete, whatever are you talking about? I would have thought a pictorial on the purpose and capabilities of this device I picked up in China would be of great interest to the people of this city.” I said as I brought up the Thingamajig and turned its lens to my face. Before he could utter another word, I pressed the trigger and his glaring features dissolved in a maelstrom of swirling sensory images.
Fade to black.
Okay, I admit I hadn’t expected this. Once I managed to reorient myself, I looked around and decided that I must be in some sort of cave or cavern. The air felt cool and damp, and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I began to pick out some strange features. About ten meters above me there appeared to be some sort of causeway or catwalk, organic in form, and faintly luminescent. Perhaps part of a transportation network? Following it with my eyes, I saw a tower reaching up to it maybe half a block away. I began walking towards it, only to come across a junction with another tunnel, this one containing devices apparently of Human manufacture. Turning to get a better look, I approached an ordinary workbench, the kind you might remember seeing at the front of your high school Chemistry or Physics lab. On the bench were a sink, two Bunsen burners, which had provided most of the light in the sub-cavern and attracted my attention in the first place. An assortment of electronic and computer equipment also sat on top of the bench. A computer? I wondered if this could be the Arch I was going to need if I were to get anything done here. Picking up the mouse, I formed a desire in my mind. Answers! What was this thingamajig? What was it for? Where did it come from? What was it doing to my sense of reality? The monitor screen came to life, forming an apparent Internet page complete with icons and pop-up windows. It looked for all the world like an IE-6 browser with http://IDN.Thingamajig.ID/index in the search window. IDN? What the heck could that be? Inter-Dimensional Network? I was going to have to try that one when I got home! Meanwhile, I scrolled down the page. In the left hand column, a series of standard-looking icons presented themselves:
-What IS a Thingamajig?
-What is it for?
-Where did it come from?
-Your Sense of Reality
On the right, an image of the device spun about 20 degrees off its vertical axis, possibly a large .gif image. Smiling to myself, I moved the pointer to the first icon and clicked on the camera/device.
What IS a Thingamajig?
The Thingamajig is a testing device. It is capable of reading neuronal fields of test subjects and accessing an astable quantum foam quasi-universe capable of projecting the subject’s thought-forms into alternative reality
Wow. That was a mouthful! Meaningless, but impressive as all get-out. I wondered if anything useful lurked behind the next icon. I clicked on it.
What is it for?
The Thingamajig is designed to identify emergent intelligent life forms and categorize their threat capabilities. It is self-powered, artificially intelligent, and equipped with an FTL data transfer system.
Cool! And if the Chinese knights are its idea of a threat, we’ve gotta be considered a near zero threat. And if I can get back to my own universe, I’m taking this thing apart! Self powered? Faster Than Light communication? I’ll be rich beyond imagination! I wondered what was next. I clicked.
Where did it come from?
The Thingamajig was transported to this planet by an FTL probe sent 3048 solar years ago from a system approximately 56000 light years away, controlled by a race of beings who call themselves the Thraxx.
Hmmm… Standard sci-fi potboiler stuff. But if it’s that old, its owners aren’t likely to come looking for it, anyway. Click.
Your Sense of Reality
Your sense of reality is unimpaired. However, with every activation of the device you are shifted from your current reality into an adjoining one. Careful activation of the device can result in safe return to one’s original universe, but every uncontrolled shift will statistically send the operator further from their home universe. There is no record of safe return from more than six uncontrolled jumps.
Six jumps! How many times have I used the device? Once in China, again when I got back, and this time. But does the return jump count? If so, I’ve had my six already. What kind of control were they talking about? And what exactly does “careful activation” mean?