The Swallow Hole

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
An amazing discovery is tempered by a great loss, but what was lost is found in the amazing discovery.

Submitted: June 13, 2017

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Submitted: June 13, 2017

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The Swallow Hole

by Chris Blight

 

Jake had been staring now for at least a minute and the cold was beginning to feel like it did on Snowdon. Cold inside his bones; cold like fear.

He felt a shiver, whether of fear or cold he could not tell. He was staring at a void, a dark ring of rushing air, in desperate fascination; an irresistible disbelief. It was like it was pulling the sky in, a vacuum cleaner in space. Kirsty had made him buy an expensive one once, this ultrara cleaner, the world’s best suction; nothing like this though, couldn`t suck the sky away, although the price they paid for it maybe it should have.

There was such stillness – did it suck out the sound too? It was almost as if nature itself were showing fear, or respect, or wonder.

Wonder.

The void.

Impossible.

He watched the impossible, couldn`t move if he wanted to. Looked deep into the dark nothingness that lived inside it. And yet not nothing, not quite, because pinpricks of coruscation spotted the darkness. A chaos of tiny lights. Some sociable, gathered together, like looking at a city from high, high up; some scattered, like flour thrown on a table. No movement, nothing living inside it, not that he could see, but then he had no idea what it really was he was looking at, as it hung there suspended as if on nothing at all.

His thoughts fell back to his trip here, the way up the Cairn Gorm: the view he wanted to see versus the view he got; the one that took his breath away.

Like Kirsty, the first time he met her.

 

 

 

Chapter

They met at a small cafe in a small town on the coast. He had never told anyone where exactly, it was a secret he wanted to keep; just them, no-one else, something between them that was theirs. He had noticed her drinking coffee, both hands on the mug. Elegant fingers, strong fingers, fingers that were never still. She was with company but he couldn`t remember who or what or why.

It was just her.

He stood browsing the menu longer than necessary, hearing her talk, hearing her laugh. And that was it, that was what Jake remembered more than anything, and what he missed the most. When Kirsty laughed the room warmed up to just the right temperature. He would often try to make her laugh just to hear it; when he did her eyes would sparkle with the game of it, dare him to try.

Kirsty; with the laugh, and the dark, brooding looks, and the double edged, dagger mind, and the swirling hair.

Dark and falling, and blood soaked.

 

He couldn`t stand to listen to the sounds his head was making so he got up, careful to avoid waking the alarm clock, it had a tendency to start shrieking at all the wrong times. It was still dark outside so he left the curtains to a slumber he wasn`t getting himself and made some coffee. He ate a biscuit for breakfast, which would have stirred Kirsty into arguing with him - what was and what wasn`t a proper breakfast.

Even now he could still hear the conversation, so he hurriedly picked up another biscuit and flicked on the TV. Someone at work had mentioned the ozone layer, something about it getting bigger or smaller, he couldn`t remember which. Now, glad to have something with which to change the subject in his head, he started to do what he hadn`t earlier; listen. The news had just begun so he turned up the volume.

 

.......The Chinese have seeded the sky with ChemZone, the news reader was telling them, without the authorization of the World Council. Scientists had discovered this after conducting a series of scheduled tests. What they found was that the amount of ozone in the stratosphere had risen, inexplicably, over too short a period of time. After conducting further tests they realized that the holes had also started shrinking, far too rapidly to be a naturally occurring event. The Council were certain it was China because…..

 

Jake remembered ChemZone. Kirsty had left a folder lying around one day and he`d idly flicked through it; he had never told her. He didn`t think he`d find anything interesting inside, most of Kirsty`s work involved heavy science and it usually sailed right over his head, this time though the subject was sensational enough to keep him slogging through the difficult parts. He had a decent memory though, and he began reading it back to himself as he remembered.

It was a ground breaking chemical that initiated a process that literally ate the free radical catalysts that had stacked up in the stratosphere; stuff like Nitrous Oxide and Methane, even the residual Chlorofluorocarbons. ChemZone broke them all down in a way that made them largely inert, so they couldn`t cause their own catastrophic breakdown of the Ozone. Then it re-seeded the stratosphere with new Ozone. Very small amounts, to give it a boost, like taking a vaccine pumps up your immune system. That`s what ChemZone did for the stratosphere.

A scientist called Yankivitz created it. Jake had met him once, at a charity event that Kirsty had been invited to with Jake as the plus one; she knew him enough to talk to him about his work. Jake got the impression, during the conversation, that Yankivitz was a bit of a free radical himself, a man who accepted his place on the fringe of the scientific community with relish, who turned down awards and eschewed the publics approval, but who remained outspoken and critical of government policy. Shouting with the loudest voice one moment then disappearing into self-imposed isolation the next.

Until ChemZone.

Someone leaked it, no-one knew who and no-one ever owned up. Kirsty told Jake that Yankivitz was incandescent, stamping and shouting; at one point he even threw something. He slept in the lab for a week, not that it made any difference. First on the scene were the news channels, because the claims were incredible and they loved the look of the headlines. They were quickly followed by the reporters, and then everyone else within earshot of a TV. Crowds of random people with mobile phones pointing and filming and uploading. Politicians spotted the opportunities it could provide them as they spoke about a new era, but the voters weren`t far away from their thoughts either.

This was science they could sell: this was science that could sell them.

Suddenly Yankivitz was the centre of attention, the subject upon which everyone had an opinion. Everyone wanted him, even when he didn`t say a word, or worse, said all the wrong things too loudly. He turned down talk shows in derision then made impromptu statements at the gates of their lab, or on the pavement, or wherever he found an inconvenient spot, and was practically mobbed. He was both a hero and a villain.

Then one day he disappeared.

 

Kirsty had been unsure about her boss`s actions at the time, preferring to believe that he was still intent on helping them, the human race that is. He had a plan, that`s what she believed, but Jake couldn`t help being more worried about her than Yankivitz. Looking back, he wasn`t sure who he should have been worried about more.

He looked down at his empty coffee mug and felt the images crowd his mind again, so he poured himself some new (but by this time lukewarm) coffee, focused on the news, and let the news reader climb back over his thoughts.

 

……that a Chinese national has been taken into custody claiming he has proof that the Chinese government had acted outside the Council`s wishes because they said the Council were taking too long to decide. The witness, a member of the Chinese Ministry of State, said that he had documents that recorded a meeting where the decision was taken, together with email and video evidence, and was willing to trade the information for a clean conscience. Privately sources say the man has expressed a desire for asylum……

 

Jake could feel Kirsty`s voice in his mind, the slightly downward curving lips pursed into a knot when she had something on her mind. Above that the little button nose with the kink in it half way up (like someone had hit it and it never straightened out) that twitched when she got excited. She was telling him to listen, like it mattered what happened to the things around him, that he should take more notice. Keep your eyes open, she always used to say.

Keep your eyes open and you`ll see something new.

 

….authorities are also looking for the whereabouts of Professor Yankivitz in connection with the Chinese Authorities acquisition of ChemZone, which wasn`t freely available to the public. Anyone with any information should call……

 

Jake thought that if it was him he would have traveled to a far corner and never returned. Truth was there was a time he wouldn`t have traveled far at all. Kirsty had changed all that, taking him to places he hadn`t even read about. Not for them the tourist traps or the gaudy shops with their trinkets, instead they walked the paths others never bothered to look for. She had this vital energy when it came to new places, it was as if seeing new things energized her. She`d always loved the idea of space (her dad had been a keen star gazer), and space seemed an amazing place to her, full of mystery. In the end even Jake learned to look up and wonder. They would talk about the chance to travel further than just the earth, the chance to travel out into the void of apparent nothingness, to experience the opportunity to discover. The more they talked the more elaborate their plans became. Her excitement was infectious.

And it made him open his eyes.

 

 

 

 

Chapter

Jake found himself distractedly looking out of the window as he washed the dishes he had forgotten last night. He noticed a small bird - a Robin by the patch of blurringly moving red that patched his chest like a medal – tap, tap, tapping on the concrete yard. His miniature head moving like the tiniest pneumatic drill, he finished off the stray crumbs left over from a small piece of biscuit Jake had thrown there. Satisfied, the Robin flew off, leaving Jake to look longingly after it, wishing he too could take flight and leave his troubles behind.

With a sigh he couldn`t even give voice to Jake finished the last of his dishes, hearing the news reader move on to an interview with a well known scientist who was taking her through the intricacies of the ChemZone process and what further observations might be gleaned from the chemical release. Jake tuned out again and let his thoughts ramble, like one of Kirsty`s off path holidays.

First it was the holidays, then it was the mountaineering. He couldn`t put his finger on just what had started that except it had to be one of Kirsty`s ideas. They used to practice at the local leisure centre. A wall going high up, all angles and overhangs, with those weirdly shaped hand holds in arbitrary colours, haphazardly placed like Jackson Pollock paint spatter.

She had always laughed when she beat him to the top.

 

The news reader had finished her interview, cutting the scientist short as he attempted to explain something the public would never have grasped anyway, something he hadn`t been asked to do. He watched the smug smile on the scientist get wiped clean when the camera panned back to the news reader. Jake couldn`t help smiling because the guy in question was the scientist they replaced Yankivitz with at the lab. Somebody had to be blamed, that`s the way it works if there`s a screw up. It wasn`t Kirsty`s fault but she was the lead scientist after Yankivitz so they blamed her instead.

Kirsty, who should have been the one to lead, for there was no-one who knew him like she did.

Jake`s smile faltered then, because Kirsty would have berated him for thinking like that. Jake had always felt that people should get what was coming to them while Kirsty`s forceful personality had hidden a deeply compassionate heart that shunned the joy that Jake sometimes felt at watching people fall. It was funny how that had turned full circle for him, and he wondered idly if someone somewhere was laughing at him. He had envied that part of her, that could care without exception, even though it was harder for him to even contemplate that now that she was gone.

He heard the news reader move on to a new subject.

 

.....the terrorist group ISIS have been forced to retreat again after having been engaged by World Coalition Forces near the Turkish/Bulgarian border......

 

As Jake turned off the TV he remembered that he had really begun to enjoy his weekly climbing sessions (and actually miss them now that he thought about it) at the sports hall when Kirsty had suggested they do the real thing, climb an actual mountain: cold hard stone, snow and rain, camping, fresh air and everything. Jake found himself creating ever more elaborate excuses until in the end she had won him round.

‘You never know, Jake, you might actually have fun,’ she said, giving him that slightly off-centred smile he loved so much, and which she often used to show him how much she was teasing him. He would remember those words long after their visit to the mountain.

And even after all this time, even though the wound still felt raw and exposed, he knew what he had to do.

 

 

 

 

Chapter

Jake was sweating, his mind roiling, images of horrible spattering the inside of his dreams so badly he was forced to wake up.

He lay staring at the ceiling, his breathing laboured, but seeing nothing real, only images flashing on and off like the lights on an ambulance. He remembered that ambulance, that it came for them both as they lay there; he looking at her, trying to touch her, and she just out of reach, like she`d already gone.

Gone.

The mountain.

Kirsty.

The time when Kirsty had been made a scapegoat by the very people who were employing her had made Jake angry, angrier than she had been. Instead it had just shaken her, that`s what she told him anyway, and in truth she had looked a little distracted, perhaps more than a little distracted. When asked about it she was fine, back to her usual fearless self; that unquenchable search for knowledge, the drive that pushed her to turn the next corner - what`s out there? And then there was her indefinable ability to get past a person’s defenses without them even knowing it, to make the kind of impression that never leaves you.

Looking back he could see that the few times she`d met him Kirsty was convinced of Yankivitz` brilliance and afraid of his unpredictability. Still, she must have made an impression because she received an invite a few weeks later to meet the man on a more professional footing.

After joining his team she complained about how many legal papers she`d had to sign: she indicated how many with her hands, ‘this many,’ she`d said. Jake couldn`t help remembering the first time he`d seen those hands, how delicate they seemed to be, wrapped around that mug, and yet he was to discover later how deceptive they were; she had such a grip, holding on to the tiniest ledge, and dangling there for what seemed like forever.

He`d tried to hold those hands when the ambulance had taken her, but they were slick with blood, slippery like a fish.

Slippery like life.

Every time he thought of Kirsty he thought of Cairn Gorm, and every time he thought of Cairn Gorm he thought of that night and the pounding rain. Kirsty driving, always so carefree, hand waving to emphasize a point she was making, barely keeping her eyes on the road. Cars passing with lights high and bright, smearing their vision for an instant and a lifetime, all through the boundless downpour. Kirsty, animated like Jake hadn`t seen in a long time, making last minute course corrections with one hand while the other continued to orchestrate her argument. She was talking about gravity, how it was weaker at some points on the earth than others and about how that made a difference. Yankivitz had been talking to her about this point in relation to ChemZone, about the weakening of gravitational fields, of his doubts, and about magnetic rain.

About magnetic rain.

 

 

 

 

Chapter

That had been the first time Jake had heard the term, but not the last.

Not long after that night Jake had begun to spend more and more of his free time reading bereavement forums and blogs and online communities devoted to those having lost someone. Jake couldn`t tear himself away from the stories that resonated inside him. Every story had something that he found he could hold on to, clinging to the part of someone`s life that reminded him of her: so many different stories, so many memories of Kirsty. And as with so much to do with her the stories eventually led him somewhere else, the unusual places in life. In places that talked of phenomena, of strange events, of gravity gone slightly awry; like the things he`d heard from Kirsty, the things she talked about with Yankivitz. Back then, of course, they were just whispers, echoes of a fable, nothing even as substantial as a rumour.

But then came the sightings, and people were talking, not just whispering in someone`s ear, really discussing it, and Jake felt that change as he read, the difference in the way the words were written, in the experiences behind the words. He felt that Kirsty would have been right here, not just looking over his shoulder but crowding him, reading faster than he ever could. One of the things that had always annoyed him was the way Kirsty would reach the bottom of the page before him and before he could stop her she`d flicked the page and was off.

Even now he could feel her breathing into his ear as she read, not even noticing that he had stopped and was looking at her out of the corner of his eye, part annoyed, and totally in awe.

He felt strange at the things that he was remembering. It was almost as if the odd phenomena were triggering memories that were both painful and joyful at the same time. He was reading about this rain, feeling that Kirsty would have had something insightful to say about it, or explaining it in a way that made him feel that he was still at school.

She could do that, make him feel like he was the smallest cog in the largest machine, and yet still the most important part there.

The only thing that really mattered.

They seeded the sky.

Magnetic rain.

The rain that shone with hues and shades and moved as one thing, one entity, one organism, and yet still somehow, rain. He was reading it (and hearing the voice of Kirsty exasperatedly telling him “It`s impossible, Jake, the laws of physics, ok?”) and because of that, thinking that it might just be a prank, or some new magic trick from some new magician, or just a mistake. Even the bereavement forums began to talk about it and part of him thought that people were making it up to help them cope with their loss, but the more he read the more he saw it was real.

The way it was described it seemed to shimmer. Colours dancing in midair, washing the sky with a giant brush; sheets of rain swaying like a curtain and defying the laws of physics. And then on rare occasions being pulled towards something, or more accurately nothing at all. It was like someone invisible was yanking at it with invisible string. And it would stutter and shrug and dance, then pucker to a sharp point for a moment and then go back to what it was doing before. Accounts like this, though astonishing, were still rare, and varied so much that there were just as many cynics as there were enthusiasts.

Some couldn`t wait to catch a glimpse, others were saying it was impossible, it was a fools tale, it was a step too far.

One group in particular stood out. They were aggressively dismissive of anything to do with ChemZone, Yankivitz, and anyone writing about magnetic rain. They were called Repulse, and their views were inflammatory and divisive. Repulse had their own slick site, their own lively forum, and had many high profile names among their numbers.

Which were growing, and getting more fervent and combustible by the day.

They said anyone believing in Yankivitz should be put in prison and Yankivitz himself was at the top of the list.

They hated him the most.

 

 

 

 

Chapter

Kirsty told him once about that first official meeting with Yankivitz. He`d remembered the odd looking official letter, the look on her face as she read it, and the secrecy. He`d wanted a face to face, which apparently no-one ever got. So, strike one for the deadly Kirsty charm.

She`d had more reservations then, about him, about what he was, but she still wanted to work with him; even more so after the interview, which she described as bizarre and electrifying all rolled into one.

Jake could recall seeing how invigorated she`d been, the adventure of it, the chance to work at the edge of what was possible, maybe pushing further still. He knew he`d had his doubts, but he`d kept those to himself. Perhaps if he`d been forthcoming then their lives would have taken a different turn, a safer road.

But then that was never Kirsty.

Of course once the deadly Kirsty charm opens the door the Kirsty force of will does the rest: Yankivitz never had a chance. She had such an penetrating mind, and such an imaginative approach to her problems, that it wasn`t long before she was second only to him. Yankivitz had always valued imagination, which he had always said was a key component in creating new ideas in any field, let alone the cutting edge work they were involved with. He saw it in her, the same thing that resided in him, and he began to confide in her like he never did with anyone else; words which, she told Jake, frightened her at first, then began to draw her deeper into the inner workings of his mind. Jake heard her tell him that on one particular occasion she was alone with Yankivitz when he started talking to her about his new theories, theories that dragged him from the safety of science into another realm entirely; something dangerous, that was how Kirsty had described it.

Dangerous, and yet exhilarating.

She used that very word.

Jake couldn`t help smiling as he imagined Kirsty`s face after hearing her mentor talk about things that she would have called fantasy if not for Yankivitz.

 

Then there was the time he came to their house. It was not long before he did his vanishing act and left everyone teetering on the edge of wonder. It was the in-between period when he was still dodging the reporters and the cameras, and Jake remembered it because that day Kirsty had come home from work looking despondent; Jake hadn`t seen her like that in a long time. She had told him that Yankivitz had shouted at her at work in front of everyone, ranting furiously and muttering when he wasn`t shouting and pacing when he wasn`t muttering. Then he left without looking back, leaving Kirsty to try and figure out what it was all about and explain it to everyone else. Jake had seen it in her eyes, that sense of disappointment when the people who you look up to let you down. But there was also something else there he couldn`t pin down, a spark of something dangerous deep in her eyes that she covered as soon as she saw him getting close and interested. Jake was beginning to think Yankivitz was changing her, maybe changing everything.

That was when he turned up at their house.

There were no apologies or regrets, no explanations, just the pacing and the fast patter he did sometimes when he was grappling with a problem not even seen by other people. Jake was sure that Yankivitz didn`t even notice he was there, talking so fast Jake only caught one word in five. He heard him talk to her about ChemZone, something about the effects, about a different outcome, not as predicted in his computer models or his previous experiments. There was a chance, Yankivitz was saying, that ChemZone might change if it came into contact with a combination of chemicals left in the stratosphere. A rare event might drive certain chemicals together and cause a chain reaction that ChemZone could not stop, or, more worryingly, cause it to actually create something that it wasn`t designed to do. That might give rise to the formation of another, hybrid event, something they had not planned for. The resulting hybrid might bind with the water droplets in the clouds and fall back to earth. Yankivitz admitted right there that it was theoretically possible, and he wasn`t certain what might happen if it did. Only that the hybrid might have some kind of peculiar magnetic field, abnormally strong for its size, and might attract and bind to other hybrid chemical molecules, something that typically it would never do.

Just a theory though, right?

Furthermore, while Kirsty stood with her mouth dropping by the second (and looking a little too impressed to Jake, almost like she was trying) he continued that where there was a reduction in gravity, and the introduction of that strange magnetic interference, together with the changing effects of ChemZone, it might introduce another kind of event, or allow another event to change us. Jake thought that`s what he said, it was hazy now after so much time. He did remember that Yankivitz paused then, his eyes flickering without settling on anything, standing with an oddly nervous posture. Then he seemed to stop altogether; his words had dried but his eyes were a thousand drops of rain.

Jake had busied himself with making tea and opening packets of biscuits (an offer Yankivitz didn`t even acknowledge let alone refuse), all the time listening in silently, wanting to shout out himself on more than one occasion (perhaps more out of frustration than because he had anything constructive to add), and curious why he was being allowed to stay here at all, given the secretive nature of their work.

Jake had been watching Yankivitz, surreptitious glances of a man looking into another world, who seemed to inhabit that world which was far away from his. The trouble was that he feared Kirsty had been joining him there so often lately she might never make it back.

Then Yankivitz suddenly started again, like someone had inserted new batteries or fixed the fuse, and the world swallowed both of them from his view. They went into some detail that Jake couldn`t follow, about chemical restructuring and magnetic dissonance (which may have been the rain but he couldn`t be sure and he didn`t dare interrupt), and something Yankivitz called the clumping effect, which Jake might have laughed at if it weren`t for the circumstances. Then their conversation descended into hissed arguments and then into nothing at all, except for maybe a sudden coolness in the atmosphere. Then Yankivitz erupted and thrust his finger at the floor in anger then almost immediately seem to regret his outburst. They stood there in a kind of standoff until finally Yankivitz pulled out a much folded envelope which he pushed at Kirsty so hard she almost didn`t catch it. He stood staring at her for a moment, as if trying to decide something, before walking off muttering things they couldn`t hear until he closed the door and shut it all off.

That was the last anyone saw of him.

 

 

 

 

Chapter

Kirsty was holed up for a while after Yankivitz made his uncommon departure, until they finally realized he wasn`t coming back. A scapegoat still gets to answer all the questions, even if she isn`t in charge, and even if they are bordering on accusations. She wanted to confront them, head on, typical Kirsty, but in the end they wore her down. Eventually she started to bend under the pressure, Jake could see it slowly happen; a crack in the corner of her life, growing up through her like a plant.

She even began to babble a little bit like Yankivitz, kept talking about gravity, like it was the key to everything, and what happened to it when the other variants were introduced - and where was magnetism in all this, was that the variable they were missing? She confided that what he told her was beginning to make perfect sense and that she had to do some tests for herself, to make sure, somewhere where it mattered, the source.

‘You remember what I told you about gravity being weaker the higher you go, Jake?’ She said, a gleam escaping from her eyes he hadn`t seen before, and which scared him more than he cared to admit, and certainly wasn`t making him inclined to talk to her about it. ‘Well, we`ll kill two birds with one stone; you climb and I`ll test. It`ll be fun, just like we talked.’

Her words spilled out fast and she was already moving like she was going, it didn`t seem like Jake had a choice so he kept his mouth shut, just like the other times.

And like the other times he was already wondering if he was making the right decision in doing so.

 

If the decision was fast the packing was faster. Kirsty still worked at the lab, despite the management`s reservations, and under the rapacious eye of her new boss, so she still had access to the equipment she needed.

That was how they found themselves driving to the Cairngorms in the middle of the night.

 

Jake felt the memory squeeze him from the inside out, pushing out the good thoughts. He was packing, just like that night, just without the heavy equipment. He was still unsure how they would have got it all there, just the two of them, but life had torn that decision away from them.

He felt sweat trickle down his face, his head full of blurry rain and blood. It had been that trip, the long planned walk up Cairn Gorm itself, where Kirsty told him more about the problem with gravity, and the magnetic equation. The dark rain and the wet road, the blinding lights and her driving; the night that they never reached the mountain of her dreams. Hearing the scream of metal as it deformed in ways the manufacturers never intended, and certainly would have denied it if it had. Her voice telling him to go, even when he didn`t want to.

It had been that trip that changed everything: the painful, and the astonishing. Nothing was so set, nothing gone so far that they couldn`t have gone back, couldn`t undo.

Not until the first occurrence.

 

 

 

 

Chapter

Water was flowing uphill, that`s what Jake saw first. After that the surprises came thick and fast, then promptly disappeared into the void, along with Jake`s disbelief.

Faster than a bullet, whipped up dust and tiny stone chips and wandering leaves and even the most unfortunate of rabbits, all flashed into not here anymore.

He didn`t even have time to move, let alone think about the journey he took to get up here.

 

It had taken a little time, to find himself the way she had shown him when he`d started all this. Harder than just putting one hand on the wall and climbing, but that`s how it starts. Of course that was all in the comfort of a warehouse. It was reminding him without healing him, but still showing him: there`s the door. It was a few weeks later that he opened that door and took his first steps on the actual mountain, which just happened to be a year after she left him.

A year after she told him.

After a few small climbs he accepted an invitation to climb Snowdon with a friend, where he got trapped with a group when the weather closed in and the snow fell in flakes the size of small birds in flight, launched from rock to rock by a wind that bellowed and whistled, and sang cold songs of their death. It took rescuers several hours to reach the group, who were by then so cold freezing would have been warming up. It took him some time to recover from that. Some days he still felt the way the cold had bitten him inside, right down in his bones, and then had delved deep into his mind and left a permanent scar there he had returned to too often lately, peering into its dark depths to find something (or someone) he wasn`t sure was there anymore. It had been so hard to shake that, the feeling of helplessness, despite the knowledge that he was just fine, that there was nothing wrong with him, nothing physical anyway. There was just this overwhelming desire to hide, find a hole and stay there. Still Kirsty`s voice called to him; still he heard her voice, deep inside the scar.

Still there after all.

Now on the mountain itself he was feeling unbalanced, not the isolation or remoteness, but a sense of connection that made him feel like he`d been here before and it was almost jarring.

Kirsty seemed almost tangible here, along with the Gorse and the Lochs and the occasional Red Deer; a physical part of the place, like a rock or a flower, right here right now in a way that was actually present.

And real.

The paradox of the place, making his mind jitter with crazy thoughts even as his steps found the reassurance of the ageless geology and of nature in its more formidable moments. And as he walked, his mind still fluttering between fear and resolve, the firm soil packed into the rocky outcrops beneath his feet felt like comfort, which moved to reassurance when he saw Loch Etchachan.

It was summer, or what passed for summer here in the depths of the Cairngorm range. It was barely ten degrees in a thin sun, and the day wore an unseasonably chilly breeze like a thin jacket. He shrugged inside his Gore-Tex, feeling the many layers beneath shift to find a comfortable place, but giving him enough warmth to repel the cool. Even with the summer chill the breeze brought with it the scenery still managed to draw him, as well as his memories, into a momentary silence. He sat down to admire and dropped his rucksack, careful to miss a Woolly Willow. He stroked the leaves for a moment, and spotting a Marsh Marigold he got up to examine that instead.

Kirsty had loved these flowers ever since she`d seen them on one of their travels. Looking at them now painful memories bloomed like the flowers he was admiring, blurring his view of them for a moment but bringing her into focus. Everything inside him jammed up, crowding so close he felt something he thought he`d never feel on a mountain; claustrophobia. He suddenly got up a little too fast, feeling woozy wrap itself around him, making him light headed enough to have to sit back down just as quickly. In his haste he forgot the flower and sat right down on top of it, cursing when he realized what he`d done because Kirsty would have.....

‘Sorry, Kirs....’ He said before realizing, and stopping because he couldn`t remember the last time he`d said her name out loud. It echoed, bouncing from rock to rock, and then hanging around like a ghost.

He shook his head to clear it of the absurdity of what he was considering and tried to smooth out the delicate yellow flower, but what wasn`t broken was damaged enough to do nothing but droop over until it touched the earth. He knew just how it felt; squashed into a misshapen life, or no life at all.

Just like Kirsty.

He looked up at the high hills before him, the Cairn Gorm a distant rise beyond, and knew he couldn`t just flounder here. He got up, this time with more purpose, and started navigating up the rocky terrain, the cathartic movement of the walk, step after step, helping him momentarily calm his cluttered thoughts. He rounded the Loch at a gently lope, tossing a few stones on the water and watching as they skipped until they sank, that brief moment of freedom before gravity took them under. Gravity, that word again, and was it his imagination or did the stones seem to hang in the air a little more, and sink a little slower than they should do.

The world itself then seemed to hang around for a long minute, thoughts suspended in the air like hope, it had been a long time since he`d felt hope. And when at last they settled, he saw that the water had settled too. In it he found a mirror that doubled the peaks around him, and even though the breeze shimmered the surface enough to break the mountains into smaller pieces, he still felt he could have climbed them.

But then those smaller pieces began to feel like his heart and his breathing became as ragged as rocks, so reluctantly he dragged himself away from the mirror lake, feeling just a little of his brokenness stay at the lake`s edge. The further away he walked the more awakened he felt, until he reached a tiny stream that filled a smaller, sister lake, that vanished over a rise via a thin spit. Every step seemed to make her presence, her existence, more real somehow. Perhaps hope had been rekindled at the lake, perhaps the whispering of the wind was her ghostly call to keep him walking.

He was so engrossed in his new revelation that he didn`t at first notice the silence being overtaken by another sound, the quiet whisper of moving water, until he woke up to hear the unearthly sigh of another sound he couldn`t identify but which seemed to be coming from beyond the gully, where the run-off traveled beyond his sight.

He hesitated, wanting to get to the height of the mountain before dark, sensing the impending completion of his goal. It was still a good mile and a half trek; not really a problem except he had dawdled already (it was now midday) and he hadn`t really wanted to spend the night (even if he had at least packed the basic gear) truly believing he would be back at the Inn long before dark.

And at least a little more whole than he was before.

(Hope, are you really there?)

But the sound was insisting on interrupting him. And there truly was something unreal about it, maybe unnatural. And now that he concentrated, really listened, he heard a strange buzzing in the background, beyond the sounds of water huffing and sighing. Jake shielded his eyes and looked to where the thin stream fell over the rocks, over the edge of his view. He hesitated, torn between his curiosity and the desire to complete his journey, then realizing they were the same for him; right at this moment they were converging.

And the whisper of her voice was calling him towards this new thing.

He could swear it was so.

He turned with more purpose now, stepping passed the smaller lake and on towards the gully. He watched the water, just a mere spit, gently wheeze over the edge. As Jake moved ever closer he felt everything increase, from the sounds of moving water in his ears, to another, almost alien sense, with unease standing at the front of the queue. As he crested the rise Jake watched the spit doing something he couldn`t say out loud. It had diverted from its natural path, had gathered together in an undulating bubble, and a slim stream was reaching out and flowing uphill.

It was being pulled, that`s what he saw, like it was tied to a piece of string and someone was on the other end gently pulling a stream of water. A stream of water that was floating – not floating, moving, stretching with an oddly human purpose – on nothing but air.

That was, impossible.

Impossible.

He stood watching, simultaneously captivated and disturbed, trying to decide whether to walk away with his sanity intact or get a closer look and lose his mind (what was left of it) and probably something else too.

That`s when he saw the other thing - the source of most of the noise he was hearing - and the words people used to describe it online really didn`t do it justice.

There was a shimmy in the air, that part was true, he`d even go as far to say a ripple, a little like distorted glass except moving, undulating; starting (or ending, he really wasn`t quite sure of anything) maybe three feet off the ground and still going, as best he could make out, way up there somewhere he couldn`t see. Rain was falling now, he hadn`t noticed it before, light precipitation that was coating him all over all at once in a fine spray which came at him in waves. It had a strange after effect, almost like being bathed in static, but gentle, like a caress, and making all his hair clump together like wet grass. A mist was separating in layers, splitting away from inside the oscillations of the shimmer, floating for moments, then breaking up and falling in sections and occasionally hitting the ground with a light slap. Jake was too stunned to try and pull his hood up because every drop that hit him brought him back to that night in the rain when everything changed, every drop a dark memory. And every drop seemed to bring her closer, her voice louder, her presence nearer.

Deciding that losing his mind was an acceptable risk in order to satisfy his curiosity, he took a few steps closer, turning his head both around and up so he could get a better look, finally rubbing the wet out of his eyes, but only because they were in danger of being overrun. Then he saw it start (the occurrence), the shimmer puckering at a point, being pulled with the floating rain, tiny streaks of light spitting inside the cone that was forming.

A part of him wanted to leave but right then curiosity took charge and dragged Jake closer.

One step, two, four; at ten it all stopped: everything. His breathing, the beat of his heart, the feeling in his feet, because the rocks had surely disappeared and he was in the air.

Floating in the rain of impossible.

Inconceivable.

A void.

He was staring at a void, a dark ring of rushing air, in desperate fascination; an irresistible disbelief.  He watched the impossible, couldn`t move if he wanted to, looked deep into the dark nothingness that lived inside it. And yet not nothing, not quite, because pinpricks of coruscation spotted the darkness. A chaos of tiny lights; some sociable, gathered in groups, others scattered like flour thrown on a table. No movement, nothing living inside it, not that he could see, but then he had no idea what it really was he was looking at, as it hung there suspended as if on nothing at all.

Reality was tipping Jake`s mind upside down, his eyes were seeing but his mind still thought of someone else.

Was this real, or a dream?

Then it all caught up with him with a crash, tipping him slightly so that he appeared drunkenly leaning, trying valiantly to stand in one spot.

As he fought with himself and this new reality he found himself in he saw it all happening again, like watching a film run backwards. He felt the crackle again the instant it had appeared in the rippling air, with a suddenness that slammed the air in his lungs into a small space, squashing it down and down until the pressure inside him was so intense he saw stars.

He saw stars, inside the void, actual stars, that`s what they were, the chaos of tiny lights. Kirsty had taught him to look up at the night sky (just as her dad had taught her), quite often pushing him to move, sometimes teasing him to try; his very own astronomy class, only a little bit bossier.

‘When we travel to the stars, Jake,’ she said. ‘We have to know which ones are which, wouldn`t do to land on the wrong planet’. And she laughed her wild laugh which always set him off too. A heartbreaking, heartwarming, buzz inside him when he looked into his mind and saw the past staring back with a dare in her eyes.

He bent down and touched the water, the same sense of static washing his hand, an unearthly cleanse. That`s when he noticed the ring sucking greedily at everything. Faster than a bullet, whipped up dust and tiny stone chips and wandering leaves and even the most unfortunate of rabbits, all flashed into not here anymore.

It was full on vacuum for a moment when, without warning, it stopped. Stillness like the earliest of mornings when not even the birds are up to bejewel the new day with their songs. Leaves wandering past the ring carried on their meandering journey without the slightest of deviations. Jake watched as that same rabbit, looking shaken and ruffled, came hopping back. He saw it teetering on the edge as the ring hung feet off the ground, trying to decide if it was worth it, when the whole thing dropped in slow descent and touched down, slightly deforming then returning to an imperfect, yet perfectly weird, circle. The rabbit, seeing its opportunity, hopped off with a speed it probably hadn`t used since it was born.

Jake`s dazed eyes returned from watching the white tail disappear around a rock, to the undulating circumference of the circle; around and around, smaller and smaller, like a spiral, rushing air and water and impossible still. He searched for the stars with a sudden eagerness, and indeed they seemed magnified now as if he was looking through a giant telescope, and he saw a little more clearly; the problem was it was not a star system he had seen before.

He didn`t recognize a single point, or pattern of light.

A spinning, sucking void that was showing him stars he couldn`t remember seeing before. In fact Jake was quite certain that he was looking at another galaxy.

Jake took a breath, then another; deep juddering breaths that filled his lungs but couldn`t erase the image he was seeing. It was like something out of a movie; great special effects, really good, couldn`t tell what was real and what wasn`t.

Only that it was unthinkable.

He had spilled over the edge of the gully without really noticing, leaning into the incline that rolled downward and away from the ring, so engrossed was he, hardly understanding his proximity to a future remade. The ring was not still, instead it spat little arcs of light onto the ground and jittered and sputtered, shifting very slightly to face a marginally different direction every now and then, only to jump back again: a nervous little tic. Despite his wonderment it made him smile, made the impossible seem almost human.

Made it seem like Kirsty.

The nervous little smile she played with when she wanted him to do something she knew he didn`t like.

And then it hit him, so out of the blue, and yet also part of it all. It was she who had done it, she had leaked the plans for ChemZone. The look on Yankivitz` face, right before he left their house, something knowing about it all, like a secret had been passed, or shared. And then the envelope; instructions, last minute ideas, the final move in the game perhaps?

It had all been a sham. They had planned it all, right down to the last detail. Together they had created the biggest experiment in history.

Jake wasn`t sure whether he was mad or happy. They had played with the future of humanity. She had traveled to the stars after all, left him behind and went on the journey of a lifetime. Now here it all was, the end of the journey; a mad future, and no Kirsty.

And the little piece of hope he had been hiding began to fade at the same rate that his understanding increased. Now, in its place, in the background, a tiny knot of fear not grown from amazement but from anger. A sense of betrayal, and something else, something familiar, like a presence.

It was her again, the sense of her being here, present and familiar.

And real.

And real.

And real.

Which was another impossible thing, and not true, because she died, he had seen the blood, felt her leave in the most absolute of ways.

And yet he could hear her voice, clear like a bell, so alive. And not just her voice, someone else too, a voice which took him a few seconds to recognize because it had been a while and he had never really had a conversation with the man.

Yankivitz?

Everything was wrong with him, with his senses because they were telling him things that weren`t true. His ears, his eyes, his mind; not true at all.

Then he saw something that made the ring seem like a child`s toy, a mad invention by some traveling wizard, some new gadget that was so utterly useless you immediately forgot you ever saw it.

He saw them exit the void, together, talking and then laughing and without any sense of danger on their part, if anything there were little arcs of excitement passing between them. Jake`s mind went into full on crazy and he slipped and fell and cracked his shin along with his world; that or it was all coming together.

Crazy either way.

And when he looked up again a hand was on his shoulder and she was looking at him, really looking at him, like he was the only thing that really mattered.

Him.

Alive.

Kirsty.

 

 


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