“Hey, there’s a blue car outside.”
I look up to see Aaron standing over me. I was too lost in my work to notice him come in. I’ve been staring at a blank canvas for the past four hours, but finally something clicked and it was like a long forgotten door swung open. The image just seemed to appear on the page like it had been there the whole time. I switch off my music and get him to repeat himself.
“I said there’s a blue car outside. Dude, I think it’s someone looking for you.”
I shake my head, and move over to the window. He must be mistaken. I don’t know anyone with a blue car. Hell, I barely know anyone who owns a car. I can’t think of anyone would bother driving all the way out here just to see me. I look down at the car parked outside the building. It looks way too expensive to belong to anyone who would ever look twice at a neighbourhood like this. The kind of car that if you asked how much, they’d laugh you out of the store.
As I watch, a guy with blond hair and sunglasses gets out of the car and stares up at me like he’s been waiting for me. I’ve never seen that guy before in my life. His suit looks more expensive than every single thing I own. I look back at my roommate and he just shrugs. I try and think of anyone I owe money to, but nothing comes to mind. Shit, did I do something I don’t remember? Again?
Aaron gives me a look like he’s already composing the want ad for my replacement. Geez, I’m not even out of the room yet. I take one last look at my unfinished masterpiece and make my way to the door. Okay, stay positive, maybe this is a good thing. Maybe this guy is here because he saw my work and wants to give me a sweet-ass check. You never know, it could happen.
I open the security door and glance around the parking lot. Other than the man and his shiny blue car, there’s absolutely no one around. It’s like high noon in a western, everyone’s battened down the hatches and gone into hiding until the whole thing blows over. The man just waves me over and waits. The sinking feeling in my gut grows with every step I take towards that overpriced machine.
“Please get in the car, Mr. Andrews.”
Hearing the guy speak kind of throws me. I’d pictured one of two things when I laid eyes on him and his car. Either he’d have the high snooty manners of some piece of rich eurotrash looking to drag some unknown artist like me to his organ harvesting facility, or he’d have that lowbrow undertone of barely contained violence that comes with being a successful criminal out to collect a debt. Instead he sounds more like some random office drone. Not the kind of person who would drive something like this. What have I gotten myself into?
I’m having some serious misgivings about this whole thing. I mean, he’s not even offering me candy or anything. The man doesn’t show any reaction to my presence other than to indicate for me to get in. I’m half tempted to run for the bushes and never look back, but somehow I’m not seeing that working out. He’d run me down without a second glance. That bumper is probably worth more than my life, but still I get the feeling he would do it without so much as blinking. And get away with it too. Probably charge me for the damages while he was at it.
“Listen, I’m not sure what’s going on. I think maybe you’ve got the wrong guy.”
“There’s no mistake. Please get in the car.”
He starts the engine and pulls out of the parking lot before I’ve even finished closing the door, accelerating up to cruising speed with frightening ease. I open my mouth and shut it again with a click when I realise I have no idea what I’m going to say. I swallow the lump in my throat and try again along a different path.
“I don't know what you think I’ve done, but I'm telling you it wasn’t me.”
The blond glances at me once before returning his gaze to the road. The car speeds up, rapidly taking us away from the slums I call home. The silence continues until I’m sure he’s not going to answer when he finally opens his mouth.
“No, you're exactly who I am looking for. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.”
The car blazes through the streets, ducking and weaving down alleys and around sharp bends like it was all one straight line. Everything outside is little more than a blur of motion and yet I barely feel any of it, from inside the ride is as smooth as silk. I have time to wonder how many organs I’d have to sell to even be able to afford the leather that covers these seats. I don’t think I even have that many in my entire body. I just hope that means I’m not worth enough for this guy to bother doing anything serious to.
Any traces of the familiar vanish as the streets sweep by around us. I’m not even sure if we’re still in the same city anymore. As I watch we pull into an area full of warehouses and I feel my panic skyrocket. Whatever thin glimmer of hope I had that this wasn’t about to go horrible wrong dissolves at the sight of all those anonymous impassionate buildings crowding in around us. I’m never going to be seen again. Just another of those faceless anecdotes about some shitty artist meeting an unfortunate end on the darker side of town.
The car pulls into a nameless building and the blond gets out without another word. I can hear the rollers sliding shut behind us. Whatever is about to happen is going to happen whether I’m ready or not. Sitting here in the guy’s overpriced car isn’t going to help me. Better to get it over with and at least pretend I have some dignity left. I climb out of the car.
“Mr. Andrews. So nice of you to join us.” A man in a rich black suit stands across the room next to the blond as if he’s been waiting for me. “Please follow me and we can get started.”
“Listen, I’m not sure what’s going on here, but you’ve got the wrong guy.”
“Steven Andrews. Age 27. Blood type O+. Independent artist with no current source of income and no close ties to anyone. There is no mistake.”
I can’t help but shiver at the straightforward way he lays it all out. He’s made it very clear that I won’t be missed if anything were to happen here. The man nods like the issue is settled and starts walking towards a set of doors on the far side of the room. Seeing no other choice in the matter, I follow behind like a little lost puppy.
I follow the man through the doors and freeze when I catch sight of what waits on the other side. Lying in the middle of the next room, like a beached whale, is a machine the size of a bus. It looks like someone tipped over a giant blender and decided to throw some cables at it instead of trying to pick it back up. The whole thing looks like some form of elaborate torture device, and I instantly find myself shrinking back towards the exit.
I turn to find blondie standing between me and the doors. He gives one sharp shake of his head and I continue moving forwards. The first man, oblivious to my hesitation, stops and waves me over to a table beside the machine. Loitering around it are a group of four other men, all holding heavy-duty machine guns like it’s casual Friday at the gun range. This just keeps getting better and better.
“Now, Mr. Andrews please do join us. We are about to begin. For those of you who do not know me, my name is Christopher Austavario. I am the director of the Cagan Endeavour. In a moment you will step into the machine and proceed with your assigned mission. Time is of the essence, so I will make this brief. If at any time the operation looks like it will not work, I want you to pull out and switch to the secondary mission. Be ready we will only have a short window of time.”
I do nothing but blink at all this. The man calling himself Austavario may as well be speaking moon-speak for how little I understand. Everyone else just nods and starts preparing themselves for whatever is about to happen. It’s all very cloak and dagger, if I didn’t know better I’d swear I was being punk’d, but I can’t think of a single reason anyone would put in this much effort just to mess with me.
I try to ask what’s going on, but blondie just grabs me by the arm and thrusts a backpack in my hands before shoving me towards the mouth of the machine. All the nice men with the guns crowd in around us and together we shuffle into the long tube of the giant blending machine like cattle marching blindly into a slaughter house. At the far end of the tunnel I can almost see those long blades whirring into life. No one else seems to be concerned about being turned into puree, so I try to act like it doesn’t bother me, but still I’m this close to crapping my pants.
Up ahead I can definitely see something large spinning madly, waiting to chop us all into kibble. And still no one slows down. Blondie actually gives me a hard shove when I start lagging behind. It’s dark in the tunnel and I can barely see my hand in front of my face. As I watch a pulsing green light seems to bloom at the centre of those whirling blades, fading in and out with each step I take towards it. The blades look to be straining outward in my direction as though they can’t wait to rip me apart. Everything feels heavy and I struggle to breathe.
The rumbling is the first thing I hear. It tears through the tunnel like a thunderbolt. I glance around and in the low light it’s starting to look like some of the other men are having second thoughts. Not blondie though, he just keeps pushing me along. That pulsing green light grows more rapid with each step until it’s flashing like a strobe light. Greasy spots dance across my eyes as the rumbling and the flashing become too painful to bear. And then the universe rips apart.
I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like someone took a knife and slashed open the sky. Except that instead of being a single slash, it’s everything that tears open. Like everything aspect of reality has been laid open for dissection. I can see the inside of everybody and everything around me. I can see my own insides. I can see the inner workings of my own eyes as they look in at themselves. I can see them looking in at a set of eyes looking in at a set of eyes. I see everything. All scrapped bare and pulled apart. And I see myself screaming as I watch myself scream watching myself scream.
With a sound like a pinprick everything plops itself back together and I find myself shivering on the cold hard ground. A couple of the soldier guys are right there with me. Even blondie seems uneasy about what happened. No one moves or says anything for several minutes while we all fight to catch our breaths and recovery from the experience. I don’t know what the hell that was but I never want to do it again. I think I just got blended.
After giving everyone a moment of rest, blondie stands up and starts barking orders. I’d rather stay here on the ground, but it doesn’t look like I’ll be getting that option. I look around and almost double over again under the weight of vertigo. We’re still in the same building, but for some reason everything’s been reversed. Like some sort of funhouse mirror. It’s jarring and hard to place, but that doesn’t make it any less unnerving.
Once I get past the worst of the dizziness, I stand looking back at the giant machine we just passed through. We’re standing on the other end of the device, but I don’t see any opening that would let us through. All there is on this side is a small black ball pointed down at us like a security camera in a classy hotel. I try to make sense of it, but nothing has made sense since Aaron interrupted me to point out the blue car. Damn him and the horse he rode in on.
I see blondie ordering the guys with machine guns to fan out and cover the perimeter and a whole heap of other paramilitary bullshit. I round on him before he even knows I’m there. Grasping him by the collar of his tacky silk shirt, I shake him and start demanding answers. I immediately become aware of four heavy guys pointing machine guns at me, but it’s too late to back down now.
“What the hell was that? Where have you taken me? Tell me what the hell is going on. Right now!”
The blond just motions for his men to stand down and smiles at me. “Welcome to Cagan, Mr. Andrews.”
“If you’d let go of me, I’d be happy to explain.”
The soldier guys no longer have their weapons pointed at me, but I can see they’re not exactly disinterested observers. Grudgingly I let go of his collar and resist the urge to deck him in his smug prick face. The blond leans back and straightens himself up like nothing happened. This day just keeps getting better and better.
“You are no longer on Earth. Not technically at least. This is Cagan. The device you just stepped through is sort of a bridge between the two places. Between our world and the one next door. Mr. Andrews, you are now part of a select group of people who even know of its existence. Congratulations.”
“That’s beautiful and all but what the hell does any of that have to do with me?” He is making it really hard not to grab him and just start whaling on him. Kei-gan? I can’t make a hill of beans out of the nonsense he’s spieling, but he is seriously starting to piss me off. “Will you get to the point already?”
“Certainly. My name is Ryan Caldwell. I represent a consortium of people with a great deal of interest in Cagan. A certain situation has arisen here which requires immediate attention. It has been determined that you are the only suitable candidate for the role.”
“What kind of ‘situation’?” I eye the dudes with guns still standing around like they expect to be jumped at any second.
“You’ll see soon enough. Don’t worry it is nothing beyond your abilities.”
“Why didn’t you just ask me then instead of shanghaiing me like you did?”
“Time is a factor. You will be compensated for your time of course. There is no need to be concerned. You will be taken care of.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you didn’t tell me anything.”
“You never asked.”
“Alright, gentlemen, we can’t hang around here all day. Time to go earn those pay checks.” The blond, Caldwell, shoots me another smug grin and starts moving towards the exit which was on the left when we entered and is now on the right. “Come along, Mr. Andrews. You’re going to want to see this.”
I shrug and follow the group out, still as in the dark as I was before. Not one part of his explanation made an ounce of sense. I’m still not ruling out the possibility that they drugged me and are sitting back laughing their asses off, but after being blended like that it isn’t that difficult to believe he might be telling the truth. This whole day has been far too surreal for my liking.
That strange mirroring sensation continues out into the parking lot. Inside the building it wasn’t so bad, but out here it hits me like an anvil. All the buildings are in the right place, just in reverse order. It’s like someone’s taken the entire world and flipped it around. If something was on the left they’ve put it on the right. It even feels like I’m walking backwards half of the time. The little compass inside my head keeps screaming that I’m going the wrong way. That everything is going the wrong way. It is very unnerving.
That bastard Caldwell looks at me glancing every which way and laughs, “I know, right? The whole of Cagan is a mirror image of Earth. North is south. Right is left. Thankfully up and down stay the same. We’re pretty sure the planet is spinning in the opposite direction as well. Just wait until we get to a populated area. That’s where the real head trip begins.”
The soldiers look around curiously, but remain visibly ready for any hostility. I have no idea what they expect to happen, but I’m not looking forward to it. Everything looks normal, but it all feels off-kilter. Like I’ve gone on the world’s worst bender while spinning in circles. I try closing my eyes, but somehow that makes it seem worse.
I peer around the parking lot. It’s all the same, except Caldwell’s shiny blue car is missing. In its place is a fat black minibus. It looks like the standard family wagon a well-to-do housewife would drive, but I don’t recognise the make and the only marking I can see is a shiny silver W printed on the front of the hood. Caldwell reaches up under the bumper and retrieves a set of keys with a square silver and green keychain. He unlocks the bus and climbs into the driver’s seat while I end up in the backseat sandwiched between burly army guys.
We pull out of the lot and everywhere I look teverything looks exactly as the drive in. I’d say nothing was different if it wasn’t for that strange mirroring sensation permeating the world. Nothing looks out of place, but still that constant pinging inside my head screams that things are facing the wrong way. I feel like I’ve been staring at a magic eye puzzle for hours on end. It’s very annoying.
Slowly, the hordes of warehouse give way to everyday city streets. It doesn’t take long to see what Caldwell meant by populated areas being messed up. Everywhere I look the writing is backwards. Full on backwards. It’s like the letters jumble themselves around when I’m looking at them. I half expected to see people walking in reverse.
We drive into the city, Caldwell and his army boys looking intense and alert while I stare around in awe trying to process what I am seeing. Everything looks the same, but it’s all backwards. Little by little, I come to believe Caldwell’s rant about this being a parallel universe. It’s odd but I was expecting zeppelins or something. This place just seems too mundane to be an alternate universe.
I see posters and signs advertising God knows what. It isn’t an exact copy, there are differences. Another face on a familiar sign. A different building where something else should be. I think I saw an inverse Taco Bell in place of a McDonalds at one point. Beyond being mirrored, whatever it is that make this world differ from my own is too minute to measure.
The bus pulls into the basement of some tall building and suddenly Caldwell and his men look a thousand times more nervous about the situation. Whatever we’re here to do, can’t be as simple as he made it out to be. Come to think of it, he still hasn’t told me what I’m actually here for. Why me of all people? Why did his boss deem some loser artist like me important enough to drag along on some interdimensional expedition? Something isn’t right here.
I take one glance at the guys with machine guns sitting beside me. Even if I wanted to run, I don’t think I’d get very far. Everyone starts piling out of the car and I consider trying anyway. The parking garage is empty except for us. If I could just make it to the exit, I could disappear out into this strange backwards world. They’d never find me again. I don’t think I want to know what these guys need me for, but I don’t want to find out. The soldier guys spread out and I start edging my way towards the exit.
“Mr. Andrews,” Caldwell calls out from across the room and I freeze in place. “Please come here.”
Glancing around, I notice the army guys watching me and sigh. Any chance I might have had is gone. I shrug and make my way over to the annoying blond waiting by the elevator. He stands waiting like he’s got all the time in the world, but I can see that beneath his smug attitude, he’s as nervous as the rest of them. He steps aside and points to the palm reader beside the door.
“If you would, Mr. Andrews.”
Not seeing I have a choice, I reach out to the pad.
“Left hand please, Mr. Andrews.”
Following his advice, I press down on the sensor. After a few seconds it turns green and the elevator pops open with a ding. Everyone breaths a collective sigh of relief like they weren’t sure it would work. We all pile into the elevator and Caldwell press the button for the penthouse. All I can do is watch as the doors slide shut, terminating any chance I had of avoiding whatever fate they have lined up for me.
“Why me?” I mumble.
“What was that?”
“I said why me?” I repeat, trying to put as much force into my voice as possible. “What do you need me for?”
Caldwell looks at me like he’s not sure if I’m being an idiot or just completely unaware. I’d really like to pound his face in right about now.
“Mr. Andrews, Cagan represents a substantial investment on the part of the people I represent. There has been opposition amongst the locals. Powerful individuals who seek to prevent us from utilising Cagan to its full potential. One such individual has proven very difficult to dissuade. We have tried countless times to remedy the situation, but the time has come for more drastic measures.”
“What does any of that have to do with me?”
“You see, Mr. Andrews, our target has isolated himself inside this building behind a highly advanced biometric security system. To this date, we have been unable to gain access, but now thanks to you, we can. You have provided us with an invaluable service.”
“What?” The word has barely left my lips when the elevator slows to a halt between floors.
“Retinal scan required” A female voice from the panel above the buttons.
“Get to it” Caldwell points at the small camera set into the console and one of his men gives me a shove forward.
I try to process what Caldwell just told me, but my mind refuses to let me. This will not end well. I lean into the console and let it scan my eye. After a second, it beeps and the elevator starts moving again. The men check their guns as the elevator nears the penthouse floor and I feel myself shaking. I’ll just have to hope that they’ll live up to their word and I’ll be free to walk away once all this is over.
The doors slide open and I see a security guard sitting behind a desk. The man looks up from his magazine and gives me a startled glance before Caldwell and his men pour out of the lift with their guns drawn. The guard panics and starts reaching for his own, but one of Caldwell’s men rounds on him before he has a chance. In a flash the man is on the ground and unmoving.
The mercenary drags the guard behind the desk and takes his place while the rest of the group continues on. We reach a set of double doors at the end of the hall and Caldwell’s team level their guns across its frame. Another palm reader hangs waiting on the left of the door and I get another shove telling me to get on with it. The doors sweep open and I get my first glimpse of the penthouse inside.
The room is decorated in tastes far richer than anything I could ever afford. There are things of such high quality that I wouldn’t even be able to name them. Everywhere I look are examples of a life not spent trying to sell shitty third-rate paintings. It wouldn’t bother me so much if it wasn’t for the man sitting behind the desk. If the man didn't look just like me. If the man wasn't me.
I try to keep breathing, but the face looking back at me from behind the desk is the same one I see every time I look in the mirror. Aside from the tailored suit and expensive haircut, the man is my exact double. He doesn’t take his eyes off of me, lost in the same sense of existential horror as I am. My duplicate pays no attention as Caldwell and his crew make their way into the room. He holds no interest in the men with guns, only me. We stare at each other in frozen confusion. The same man separated only by the choices we made in life.
“Mr. Andrews, you have been making our lives very difficult as of late. It’s a shame it had to come to this.” Caldwell steps between us, breaking whatever spell was holding us fixed. “You have one chance to cooperate before we are forced to make you comply.”
My double recovers quicker than I do. He turns to face Caldwell, his composure returning by the second. He makes a point of not looking at me. After the initial shock wears off, the man’s face settles into a look of disgruntled annoyance. Like armed men bursting into his office is more of an inconvenience. When he finally does speak it is with a degree of controlled dignity that I have never heard in my own voice. Everything about him speaks calm and in control.
“As I have told you before, Mr. Caldwell, I will not be bullied by the likes of you. No matter how many jackbooted thugs you bring with you.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Take him out.”
My double slams his fist against the desk and there is an explosion of smoke in front of us. The shriek of gunfire is like thunder in the small room. I try to cover my ears, but the noise is just too loud. When the smoke clears, there is no sign of my duplicate. All I can see is his pock-marked desk shaking slightly from the recent assault. One of its legs was torn clean off.
“Why must you be so difficult, Mr. Andrews?” Caldwell and his men glance around the empty office, looking frustrated. “We were trying to make this easy on you. We will find you. And you will not like what happens when we do.”
Caldwell glares at me like I somehow conspired to let the other me escape. I am in some seriously deep shit here. I back away from him before he decides killing one of me is close enough for today. He points his fist at the guys with guns and they spread out searching the office. Trying not to interrupt their search for the other me, I sidle up to the smoking desk and try to work out what it is I did here that would prompt these guys to want to kill … me.
The desk is covered paper for lord knows what. I try to read them but the text is backwards and too dense to look at without giving myself a headache. I look at the row of buttons concealed in the woodwork. One to unleash the smokescreen, one that I assume summons security, who are probably on their way here right this second, and one for what I’d take to be the panic room. This is how my doppelgänger made his Bond villain escape.
I fight an inner conflict over whether to tell them what I’ve found or not. Is it right to just hand over my other self like that? The odds of me getting out of this in one piece, rest entirely on these people being happy enough with their mission that they let me go. Philosophical implications aside, there isn’t much choice in the matter. Either they kill this other me or they kill me and come back another day. I say screw him, he seems like a wanker anyhow. I press the button.
Across the room a wall panel slides silently open to reveal a very large steel door. Caldwell and his men approach the door and start looking for a way to prise it open. Distantly I can hear sirens getting near. The others in the room pause hearing them as well. The sound warbles in the air with that distinct Cagan sense of sounding right, but being somehow off. Caldwell gives one of his men a look and I suddenly find iron-like hands clasped onto my sides. I realise I might have made a mistake.
“Mr. Andrews, I’m sure you can hear me in there. Do you understand who this gentleman is? He is you from another world. Unbelievable, I know, there but for the grace of God and all that jazz. You could spend weeks getting to know the you that never was. It’s all very illuminating. Lots of room for personal growth and such.”
The blond man pauses like he’s practised this speech a thousand times in preparation for this moment. I’m sure if the other me is listening, he’s as bored by it as I am. Caldwell’s goons start dragging me towards the doors. A sick squeezing feeling floods over me with every step I'm forced to take.
“Do you know what a cascade failure is, Mr. Andrews? It really is quite fascinating. One small part of a system starts failing leading to other parts around it failing leading to the next and the next and the next until eventually the whole system is destroyed. I bring this up because an interesting fact we’ve discovered in coming to your world is that when you bring something in close proximity with its Cagan counterpart things start to get strange. Rather quickly, I'm afraid. Do you feel that pressure, Mr. Andrews? It’s already started.”
The thugs shove me against the door, close enough to kiss as the pressure squeezing down on me grows. It’s like every inch of my body is trapped in a juicer pushing down on me from all sides. All the colour drains out of the world leaving only a single point in front of me, tearing at me like gravity. The men holding me tighten their grip, keeping me just from touching the door.
“You see, even though there are a few degrees of variance, your body and the body of the man on this side of the door are basically the same components in two different places. Turns out the universe doesn’t like contradictions like that. Right now the molecules in your body are becoming highly agitated. They are starting to break apart in an effort to eliminate the contradiction. It’s like a kind of magnetism. Should be seeing some pretty interesting things fairly soon. You really should have taken our offer, Mr. Andrews.”
The gravity in front of me reefs at my insides pulling me towards the door. The skin on my arms starts to slosh around beneath my shirt. I can feel Caldwell’s men digging their fingers in, holding me in place, but it is like holding onto wet pudding. Horrible violent screams reach my ears from the other side of the door. The pull escalates and I start screaming too. It’s like I’m being sucked through a drinking straw.
The pain and the pull. The pull and the pain. Stretching on like an eternity. I can feel myself pressed against both side of a steel wedge. Pulled and dragged against my will. Through the infinite space between atoms. Two pieces of me straining to become one. All I feel is pain. All I feel is–