Uh, oh, system failure - Editor
Slipping Through the Cracks
by Kevin J Mackey
Something had gone terribly wrong. So Alexander Trenton thought. He looked again at the lightly shaded green sky. Yes, definitely something amiss.
He'd just completed his usual run, two and a half miles in ten and a half minutes - not bad for someone his age - and turned the corner that led to his apartment. Today it didn't lead there. It led to an idyllic beach, complete with breadfruit trees and coral reefs. Disturbing as that might be, it was overshadowed by far too much moonlight coming from one too many moons.
He closed his eyes and concentrated. He could almost feel the shifting patterns, shapes sliding over one another, forming the familiar fabric. He stepped forward and opened his eyes. There in front of him was his apartment building.
He stepped through the door and crossed the lobby. Something shifted at the periphery of his vision but he forced himself to pay it no attention. Once inside his apartment he stopped and breathed, slowly and deeply.
There was a message waiting for him. He'd thought there might. He listened with half an ear as he went about his after-run routine.
"Something’s happened over in research. One of the recent experiments has had unforeseen consequences. The settings were--"
Strip off top. Towel lightly and leave hanging from neck. Grapefruit juice - golden - to replace fluids.
"--people missing. Their names--"
Vitamin supplements and a health bar. He hated the stuff, but his body had become used to the regimen.
"So, can you get here as quickly as possible to take over?"
There was more but he wasn’t listening. He'd already stripped off the remainder of his clothes and was heading for the shower.
A quick shower, towel dry and into workday clothes. A final check around the apartment, noting the placement of everything. Step into the transport tube, dial the research building and exit to--
He looked at his surroundings. A mere two feet in front of him a waterfall threw itself 1,000 feet into a pool, a pool of water that was a light lavender in color. To his right, impossibly high cliffs reached through the clouds – white, fluffy ones, which was a relief – and were lost to view. A well-beaten track led into the distance on his left.
It had to be Aurora. Nothing else fit this pattern so neatly. Very well, he'd just play the game till he caught up with her. He made his way down the track.
The Research building, or more correctly the experiment that had "unforeseen consequences", was the key. It was likely the settings had been – adjusted, yes that was the word she might use – adjusted by Aurora. She had a flair for the dramatic. He needed to find out how widespread the effects were, and quickly.
Trenton reached into his jacket for his comms device. The device shimmered in his hand and almost vanished.
He looked away and concentrated. Turning again to the device he speed-dialed the main Research complex. Phelan answered. He sounded panicked.
Once Trenton had identified himself, Phelan explained what they'd been doing to nullify the results of the experiment. There were complications in that many of the main systems were either simply out of commission or "altered" in some way. Remembering the behavior of his comms device, Trenton didn't ask him to elaborate.
He stood and thought for a moment.
"Leave the primary, and secondary, systems alone for now," he said. "Re-route the systems through the tertiary backup. That should hold things stable."
He could hear what he was saying being relayed to the others there with Phelan. "But be careful with the systems. If there are any booby-traps, that's where--"
There was a "Whoosh" sound at the other end of the connection.
"--they're likely to be," he finished to a loud static haze from the device in his hand.
He closed his eyes. He could feel things change. It didn't pay to watch while it happened. He could well imagine the many cases of nausea, and worse, occurring everywhere.
He opened his eyes to – nothing. Blackness pressed in on him from all sides. He tentatively pressed his foot against the "ground". Solid, though that was the only indication that there was "solid ground" under his feet at all. Nothing could be seen, not to either side, not above nor ahead.
He tried the communication device again. Nothing, not even static. He needed to be moving, to be doing something about this. It had already gone on too long.
He concentrated and moved to his – left, yes left, that should be it. He slipped – between reality sets – and emerged on the crest of a hill overlooking vast fields of – orange fire. No, not fire. Tall grass waved in the breeze, ripples running through it. Orange grass under a fire-red sky picking up the color bleeding from the russet ocean seen in the distance.
Determined now, he strode down the hill through a kaleidoscope of flickering images of worlds, one for each step. Now a barren wasteland, now freezing snow, now underwater. He strode on. He had two objectives. That, as he'd been heard to repeat often to trainees, was already one too many.
One was to reach the research building and assess what needed to be done. The other was to find and stop Aurora. Not the least of his problems right now was he didn't know which was the first objective, and which the second.
He strode on, slipping between flashes of worlds. When at last he came to a wide, barren plain he stopped. He cast his mind back over the images he had seen briefly as he took each step. Where he now stood looked familiar.
"Nicely done," he thought. "You had me going there."
He looked around the barren area in which he now found himself. Small scraps of violet-colored grass poked up between dull slate rocks. He moved over to one of the rocks, looked around for a moment, and sat down.
He'd encountered no one in his travels since that morning. So, just how much of what he'd experienced since returning from his run was real?
He closed his eyes. Again he could almost perceive the shifting patterns, the sliding planes of reality, one over the other. He opened his eyes.
He was seated in his favorite armchair in his apartment. He would bet good money he'd never left. He stood and went to the transport tube and dialed the research building.
The scene into which he stepped was one of unmitigated chaos. There'd been a massive disruption in power. Lights were flickering on and off for the entire length of the corridor leading to the main systems room. Two people ran past him, shouting about the building sliding into the ocean. There shouldn't have been an ocean into which the building could slide.
He frowned. They were supposed to be better than this.
He made his way to the main systems room and found Phelan. The flickering lights reflecting off the harassed deputy director’s eyeglasses made it difficult to establish eye contact.
Phelan was saying something about the state the systems were in, how the building was sliding into the ocean, how the reaction levels were still off--
Trenton ignored him while he looked about the room. The place where the primary systems interface had been was now occupied by a tall granite cliff, complete with a damp covering of moss. He went to it and placed his hand on it. Solid, real. He noticed that there was even a narrow channel that had been worn by an eon-long trickle of water. The water was gone – probably right now falling on the disconnected primary systems interface in the original home of this granite cliff.
He moved quickly, barking orders as he went, Phelan following in his wake. The primary systems were, obviously, unavailable, as were the secondary. He directed two technicians to access the tertiary interface, sending them scuttling down rabbit-holes under the floor, diagnostic tools in hand. His hands danced over the controls, rerouting control signals when he encountered blockages because he was asking the systems to do more than they'd been designed to.
With the help of the technicians below and the small army that he had dispatched to various corners of the complex, some of the systems began powering back up. The lights stopped flickering. That, at least, was something.
Trenton looked up from the console, trying to determine what the next steps should be. Looking around he located Phelan. He was standing a little way off, looking very stressed and clutching a clipboard as if it might prevent any further disasters.
Perhaps it might.
Phelan looked up sharply, his eyes coming back into focus. Trenton gestured for him to come over.
"You have full details there on what’s been happening?"
Phelan looked down at the clipboard he was carrying as if seeing it for the first time.
"And on the experiment?" Trenton continued.
Phelan looked from the clipboard to Trenton and back to the clipboard.
"Phelan, focus. You're the only one who has the information we need. Your habit of recording everything the old fashioned way is all we've got going for us right now."
Phelan looked back to Trenton, his eyes beginning to clear a little.
"Yes," said Trenton, "that’s it. Tell me about the experiment."
Phelan looked back to the clipboard, his movements a little more confident now. He flipped through three or four sheets of paper until he came to the one he was looking for.
"It was… it was…"
Trenton didn't press him. He understood the other was gathering his wits, taking comfort in the details his obsessive nature had needed to record.
Phelan tried again, his voice, a little steadier.
"It was a new set of procedures, a new set of parameters, trying to stabilize the flux that keeps happening--"
Trenton broke in, his voice reassuring, steady, supporting.
"Start at the beginning, Phelan. I need to know what you were trying to achieve, what you were trying to solve. Then we can determine what happened, why, and how to stop it."
Phelan began again, gaining in confidence as he dealt with facts, figures, equations. Things he understood. Things he could manage.
They'd been attempting to understand the fluctuations that had always occurred when viewing any one of the "reality sets" they dealt with. He'd determined the equations that governed these fluctuations and devised a set of parameters that would nullify them, in large part.
Trenton’s mouth twitched at the caveat inherent in the final clause. Phelan was ever a cautious man.
Phelan elaborated on the procedures they'd put in place to ensure the experiment would be controlled, and limited in scope. The "reality set" they selected was limited to one world, one small segment of the population. There was to have been no interference, and there'd be none of the usual traces of the viewing.
"The usual traces? You mean the paranormal activity that some seem to experience?"
"Yes," said Phelan, "that, or the UFO sightings we hear about, or voices people hear from time to time. They're bleeds from one 'reality set' to another. The experiment was to prove finally that we had it under control."
Again Trenton’s mouth twitched. Once Phelan warmed to his subject, he grew less cautious.
"But someone interfered."
Phelan grew agitated.
"Everything reported normal! Nothing looked like it was out of alignment, out of tolerance. I checked everything myself and nothing was wrong, nothing was…"
Phelan’s voice trailed off, confronted as he was by the evidence all around that something had been very wrong.
"It was nothing you did, or didn’t do," Trenton assured him, "but someone, or more than one, intervened, changed things, ensured that there would be a great deal of interference."
"Now, go through the parameters, what was set and where. Maybe you can use them to estimate which were changed to achieve the effects we've seen. From that we can determine how they were altered and from where."
Phelan pored over the information that he had recorded on his clipboard. Trenton watched as the other turned page after page, scanning the columns of numbers, skimming through the notes he had made. From time to time he turned back to an earlier page, checking what was written there against subsequent values.
It was detailed, careful work that had to be done. The tension gnawed at Trenton’s nerves, but he let Phelan do his work. He looked around the room again. Some semblance of order had been restored. Many, if not most, of the systems were still out of order – or simply gone. But people were calmer, or at least less frantic. The lights helped.
If he were correct and something could be gleaned from Phelan’s notes, they were going to need more systems functioning.
He beckoned to a lab assistant as she passed by. He outlined his need for yet another strike team of technicians. They were to assemble with whatever tools they could lay their hands on and he'd explain what needed to be done.
She looked at him, uncertain. He was well aware of the rigid hierarchy that had grown up in the research area. He was also aware that he'd been riding roughshod over its carefully delineated boundaries since he'd arrived earlier. It didn’t matter. They could fix those later. Other things needed fixing right now.
"Go," he said to her. "I want them here within the next 15 minutes. We have work to do."
She nodded, turned on her heel and went in search of technicians and tools.
Trenton glanced back at Phelan. He was hunched over his clipboard, making almost frantic notes on yet another pad of paper. Trenton grinned to himself. There really is a place for each of us, a contribution to be made, no matter what our quirks.
The lab technician was back in just over 10 minutes, shepherding a mixed group of technicians with an eclectic selection of manual and electronic tools.
"Excellent," he said. "Now, break them into teams of 3 or 4, according to area of specialization if possible. But try to mix in a little cross-boundary expertise to each team. We are going to have to be creative if we are to get much more of this facility up and running quickly."
He looked again at Phelan. He was writing furiously, flipping back and forth through his notes. The air of excitement around the man was palpable.
"And we're going to need it quickly."
He walked over to where Phelan was still writing feverishly.
"OK Phelan, where are we? What have you discovered?"
Phelan looked up, startled. It seemed to take him a moment or two to return from wherever his investigation of his notes had taken him.
"I think…it’s just possible that--"
His voice trailed off. He went back to looking at his notes, at what he'd just been writing. Trenton waited.
Phelan looked up again.
"I've found what was changed. It wasn’t anything simple. I was able to trace where the alterations started and what happened from there. I still don’t know how it was done or who did it, but I've found what was changed."
His voice carried with it a range of emotions covering awe, chagrin and certainty. Trenton’s mouth twitched again but he hid what he thought from the other.
"OK. Take me through what you've found. Leave how, and particularly by whom, to me."
Phelan took Trenton through his notes, the information he had recorded about every aspect of the experiment he'd been working on. He also took him through the additional notes he'd just made. As they went through what had happened, what had been changed and where such changes had to have occurred, a pattern began to form for Trenton.
He began to see what had been necessary to effect the changes. What access was needed and what knowledge the person directing the operation had needed to pull it off.
What he was left with, for the moment, was the why. He had an idea, but that could wait till more concrete things had been dealt with.
He congratulated Phelan on what he'd discovered. He also impressed upon him to continue with any old-fashioned ideas he might harbor about what constituted "real" note-taking. Phelan beamed with pleasure, forgetting for the moment the predicament they were in and the current state of the lab.
Trenton turned to the lab assistant.
"Your name?" he asked.
"Nadja. Nadja Lerner," came the reply.
"Well Nadja, here's what we're going to have to accomplish, and quickly."
Phelan’s explanation of what had been altered had given Trenton the direction in which to go.
He outlined the overall strategy to Nadja for getting the needed systems back online. The two of them explained to the heads of the teams she'd formed what the goals of each were going to be. Trenton left the details of exactly how to perform the tasks to each team. He did, however, spend some time impressing on them that the impossible was required, and in short order.
Nadja dispatched the teams to their respective tasks. They swarmed over the various systems that still had any possibility of functioning. Soon there was much tearing up of floor tiles and lamenting of the state of what was found. Cables and connections were brought together in ways that violated more safety codes than would comfortably fit in any three manuals. But the work went ahead.
Trenton let Nadja run the teams and report back to him. He itched to get involved but he still had to figure out how best to use the restored systems to reverse some of the effects -- and to apprehend the person responsible.
With some of the systems back in place he believed he'd be able to trace back to where the initial systems breach occurred. That would be a jumping off point. He was willing to bet no one would expect the exact systems needed to achieve this would be identified and repaired for a long time to come.
"Never underestimate the power of luck and the needs of an obsessive mind," he thought.
Phelan’s habit of writing everything on his clipboard meant they had a record of what happened when all the online data stored in the primary systems interface was now being rained upon in some far off place.
By the time Nadja returned to tell him that much of what he'd requested was ready for him, he had his plans ready.
"Nadja. You're a Lab Technician--"
"Lab Technician, Level 3."
"I may have other work for you to do after this. Work not for a Lab Technician Level 3. Interested?"
Nadja nodded her reply. Her communications device beeped. She consulted it briefly and let Trenton know the systems he needed were now available.
Trenton moved into action. He told Nadja which systems were to be brought to operational status, and in what order. He made for the console they had rigged up and watched the progress as each system announced its readiness. There were a few glitches but each time Nadja was already redirecting the responsible team before he was able to make a comment.
He engaged the controls, tracing back through the systems, back to where things had begun to go wrong. It was delicate work, and tricky. Again he found he had two objectives. One to find out where the breach had occurred. The second was to achieve this without alerting the party responsible. He frowned.
"Am I to be cursed with multiple objectives all through this?"
The seconds ticked away. This had to be done swiftly as well as carefully. There was a limited amount of time before what he was doing was discovered. There. Done. Now, to set the systems in motion to slip through the breach.
He looked up.
They moved to the console.
"I’ve found where they got in. I can follow it on my own now. I need you to repair as much of the damage as quickly as possible."
Nadja moved her hands over the console, depressing some contacts, establishing linkages. The ocean towards which the building had been sliding was no more. They were once again situated in the middle of a plain, with a row of mountains off to the south.
Trenton nodded approval.
"I think the next thing might well be to try recover the primary systems interface."
Phelan joined Nadja at her console station. They began to work.
Trenton turned and stepped between reality sets.
He was in a vast room. The ceiling arched overhead, so far above him it was lost in the gloom. The wall at the far end of the room was covered with information displays from many systems. Much of the rest of the room was in shadow but he saw the three men moving purposefully toward him. He moved into the center of the room and turned to face them.
He focused and a wall curved into existence surrounding them. He gestured and the wall blinked out, carrying his would-be adversaries with it.
He looked around again to find himself alone in the room with--
"You," she said. "How did you get here? How did you--"
"Always allow for the human element Aurora. Isn’t that what I taught you?"
"Stay away from me. I'm warning you."
He stepped forward. A chasm opened up in the floor in front of his feet. He peered over the edge. The floor dropped in a straight line to darkness, thousands of feet below. He considered, and then moved forward. He stood there, in the middle of the chasm, his feet resting on solid air.
"That only works once, Aurora. Take a look at what you achieved today."
She looked behind her, at the displays. They showed that much of what had been done was being righted.
"No!" she cried. "You can’t--"
"I can, and I have. Give it up Aurora. What you're doing won't succeed. It can't succeed."
"Because you won’t permit it?" Her tone was bitter.
"Yes. Because I won't permit it. Because it cannot be permitted. Because it will not be permitted. The dimensions are separate. We keep them that way. We do not let them interfere with one another."
"The point is that the dimensions are not separate. That’s why you have to work so hard to keep them apart. The reality sets intertwine."
Aurora was shouting now.
"People know more about reality now," she said. "They have a greater understanding than before."
"Do you really believe that more understanding was created by having the sky turn bright green, or having the local store open onto the fire plains of that little corner of the universe you led me through? I taught you better than that Aurora. There is enough trouble dealing with one 'reality set' at a time. To have them blending into one another as you caused today helps no one."
"How do you know that?" she countered.
"Because I have seen the destruction caused, both today and before. It is hard enough dealing with one set of dimensions without mixing in a myriad others. You know that, you’ve seen what happens."
"And you and your research division, you're there to make everything better, is that it?" she said. "All I've seen is that you manipulate everyone."
Trenton looked down at the chasm beneath his feet. He looked again at Aurora, an eyebrow raised in silent question.
"We're there to help, yes. To help minimize the intrusions from one to another. It makes things safer for everyone."
"Tell that to my Mother."
Pain flickered across Trenton’s face.
"You and that research division of yours. You bring more misery than anything else to all of us. If you are supposed to be helping, you fail."
"She DIED, or have you forgotten? She died in one of your efforts to 'minimize intrusion'. You remember, don’t you?"
"Yes, I remember. I can't forget."
"I'm going to put an end to your work. You won't manipulate us anymore."
Trenton’s voice was weary.
"You think your way is better? The havoc that you unleashed today?"
"They'll learn to cope. People can learn to cope with the greatest of loss. I've learned that."
Trenton winced as those words struck home.
"You can't stop me," Aurora said. "I, and others with me, will continue to do this. You know that."
"Aurora." Trenton tried to reach her, to reach for her.
"You can't stop me. You taught me too well, Father."
With that Aurora turned, a doorway that had not existed a moment ago opening before her.
Trenton watched, his face a tumult of anger and loss, as she stepped through the door. The door closed and winked out of existence. He stood in the room, alone. Alone with his thoughts. Alone with his memories.