Dimensional Shift: A Free Short Story by Jolie Mason

The world still spun. She shook her head, as if that would help, then reached for the harness to detach herself from the hateful seat. It was her first and last mission. She'd promised herself she would never go back because that's what he'd want.
Dimensional Shift: A Free Short Story
Dimensional Shift: A Free Short Story by Jolie Mason
The silver sphere that wasn't exactly a ship could hold only one rider safely. She intended to send it back through the dimensional shift. Let someone else perhaps escape the horror that was Earth in her space/time. She programmed it to go back on it's own in four hours. That was enough time for her to determine if she could make it here in this new world. She pressed the console to pull up the cameras and see what lay outside in wait for her. Had she found Earth in yet another nightmare? Or would it be a bittersweet reminder of home? The screen revealed only badly lit darkness. She cursed. The atmo sensors said the air tested optimum. She would have to just step out and see what happened. She'd also need to throw up sometime soon. The effects of the dimensional shift were unpleasant, but not nearly as unpleasant as the thoughts that hammered on the door of her mind wanting in. Jessie kept that door firmly locked and bolted from the inside, even as her hand reached for the one that would lead her to the outside world. It was exactly the same. She gaped in shock and pain. Fluorescent lighting, swiftly installed, hung over head giving insufficient illumination. The bunker style walls that probably belonged to this dimension's Area 51 facility stretched cold and gray in a large rectangle. She shivered. It looked exactly the same, but it wasn't. She could feel the difference in the air. Footsteps tap-tapped along the outer entryway and she turned to face the double doors at the end of the room. In the dim lighting, she could only make out dark, tousled hair, a white lab coat and shoes with a slight shine. As the figure approached her, she thought something in his body looked familiar, and her heart began to pound. Her eyes began to tear. This couldn't be happening. Not this soon. She couldn't stand it. He moved into the light demanding, “Who's here?” “I am”, she whispered. The face of the man she loved stared back at her. The man she'd loved. He was gone now. This was a different man. Another version of that man. “Jessica?”, he gasped. His face blanched. “James”, she breathed. Her chest hurt, and she wrapped a hand around her revolting stomach. Less than an hour before, she'd seen him die. She'd watched them all die. That wasn't this man, she reminded herself. “You aren't a ghost.”, he said tightly. “Ghosts aren't real.” “Sometimes they are”, she answered. “You work here, right? On some machine?” He looked at the sphere, perplexed. “We don't know what it is yet, so whatever spy game you might be playing, it won't work.” “I know what it is”, she said sadly. “You can't know. You're dead!” That had her attention. “I'm what?' “You died over three years ago. Cancer.” If there was an up side to one's own death, it was, in this case, that she wouldn't have to test the paradox concept. No way she'd meet herself in this world. She shook her head. She had questions to ask. “Are we being invaded?” “What?” “Are there ships destroying Earth?” He stood looking at her like she'd grown another head. “In the dimension I just left, we were being invaded. Is that happening here?” “Um. No, but we do appear to have ghost problem?” If her heart wasn't broken, she might have smiled. “I'm not a ghost. That machine, the sphere. It's a dimensional shifter. That's what we called it, and that's what the aliens had come to find.” He pinched the bridge of his nose like he did when he was starting to get one of his famous headaches. She let herself look a moment; deeply tanned skin from his love of all things outdoors, sun streaks in richly burnished hair, and dark brown eyes. They were both seeing ghosts. “Your story is that you're Jessica Portland from St. Louis in another dimension where aliens have destroyed the Earth.” She swallowed hard and shook her head. “No, my story is that in my dimension where aliens are destroying the Earth, my name is Jessica Carlton, and I just lost my husband.” She broke down right there. Dropping to her knees, her stomach heaved, even as she cried. He stood over her in shock. Dr. James Carlton stood over her, but it wasn't her husband and lover of three years. It was a stranger. Slowly, she pushed up off the floor and walked unsteadily to a chair, silent tears still tracking down her face. Sitting down, she wiped at her cheeks. He sat down on the stool beside her. “We hadn't married yet when she…. When they found the tumor.” “I'm not her”. The words rushed out. “She and I aren't the same. This place isn't the same. You were… He saved my life, and I think I might hate him a little for it.” He was gone. She tried to get her mind to understand it, but, with him sitting beside her as she tried to center her mind on what was, she found she just wanted him to hold her, wanted to pretend it had been a bad dream. “I watched him bleed out, and I know he's gone, but you...” He nodded back to her, looking sick himself. “I know.” They sat that way a while, each taking side glances at the other, sorting through thoughts and feelings that should be impossible. Finally, he said,”We'll need to contact base security. Let them know you're here.” She nodded, tiredly. A thought brushed past her sorrow and into her consciousness. “Yes, and I'll probably be locked up and tested like a chimp, won't I?” “Not forever.” That was when she realized men were already rushing through both exits, combat boots slapping hard concrete. She looked around at angry guns that were normally not pointed at her and a few familiar faces. Another man in a gray suit stepped out. The director. She met James' eyes. “You already called them.” He turned greener. “We didn't find the sphere, Jessie. Nobody expected you to come out of that thing. It was on cameras.” “Would it have made a difference?” She asked, while sliding her hands up to hold them in the air.. The director answered for him. “No, it would not. Dr. Portland. It is good to see you again.” “Dr. Carlton”, she croaked. “My name is Carlton.” She stared at him and he stared at her, though neither was really seeing the other. It was the past they were observing. Ignoring them both, the director commanded, “Carlton, I know this is difficult, but I need you to run some baseline tests on that machine. Find out all you can before we start fiddling around with it.” “Yes, sir”, he said quietly. “It's unpredictable, James. Don't send anyone inside it without my help. They could end up anywhere in space/time.” “We'll take precautions”, he said. It would be gone in an hour or two, she realized. And, her situation would probably grow more precarious. Part of her just didn't care. She'd fallen through the looking glass. What else could anyone take from her? People often spoke of losing everything, but she had truly lost everything. Her whole world was somewhere behind her, and it was probably in ashes. * Jessie had been stored in what amounted to an interrogation room with one table and two chairs. She didn't remember these in her Area 51. She'd had a seat and waited. She estimated the sphere had shifted approximately ten minutes ago. Someone should be along any minute. Twenty minutes later, the well-pressed Director Smith strolled in looking as close to furious as she imagined he came. “Well, Dr. Portland. I'm sure you know your sphere is gone.” “Trust me. You didn't want it anyway, and the name is Carlton.” “Why is that, Doctor? Why wouldn't we want the ability to explore other dimensions?” “Because, that's what they came for, Director.” “Your aliens?” “Oh, don't go all x-files on me now. You're no doubting Thomas, Director, and neither am I. We've both seen what's out there, so don't try that tactic. Someone made those devices. I assume you have one here, and someone will want them back as soon as they locate them.” “Let me go further,” she said scooting forward in her seat as he sat in the other. “They can find them across dimensions. It took weeks for them to find ours. We'd just run our first tests. Figured out the console controls. There they were. I'm guessing you haven't even turned yours on yet.” “I am not at liberty, Doctor.” “Of course, you're not. I have no such constraints anymore. The sphere was a dimensional shifting device. The power source was unknown to us and appeared to have unlimited potential. Once we cracked some of their language and symbols, we knew just what we were dealing with, but it was pretty much like handing children a loaded gun, if you ask me.” She debriefed the director just as if she were at home, doing her job. She told him about the tests, their results, her misgivings. She stumbled only a little on descriptions of the aliens who'd invaded their facility and the losses the organization had incurred. “So, if I'm understanding you correctly, there is no way to know if these aliens exist in this dimension. We may be attacked. We may not.” “No, you are misunderstanding me entirely. These are dimensional shifting aliens. They don't need the stinking time line, Sir. They have the ability to shift space and time to find anything they want, and they have superior weapons. They don't need numbers. It is a battle you can't hope to fight.” He only smiled a little and went on with another more personal line of questioning. “In your time, you were married to our Dr. Carlton? That has to be difficult.” “I was.” Jessie said nothing more. A med tech knocked on the door carrying the supplies to do blood tests. She'd anticipated this, and there would be a complete physical battery of tests later, per protocols. Right now, she rolled up her sleeve and ignored the pervasive questioning of the Director of Special Research for NASA. The director stood. “I'm going to let Mike here take you to our infirmary to begin tests. I'm sorry that this is necessary, but you must be vetted, of course.” “Sure. Sure”, she said rolling her sleeve back down. “Can't have just anyone fly in on a magic carpet, can we? I am not naive. I know I'm a prisoner. Don't really even blame you, but it's been a very bad day.” To her surprise, she thought she noticed the impassive director's face wear a moment of contemplative empathy. “I can imagine.” “No, you really can't.” She followed Mike the med tech to the infirmary to be prodded and poked like a lab rat. Life was really shaping up to be fabulous, she thought. * A week had passed, and all Jessie had seen of this time was the sterile interior of Area 51. The doctor in charge of her tests was a very nice man, and not familiar to her from her past. In a weird way, that helped, she'd told him one afternoon. It helped her remember her new reality was not the old reality. She'd been issued scrubs and military fatigues for her wardrobe, upon her request. The white blouse was still stained with James' blood. She'd forced herself to hand it over to a tech. Part of her wanted to hold on for dear life to anything that was from him, which would be fine if it was a necklace or something. She fought her instincts because she didn't want his memory to boil down to a blood stain on a white blouse that she wore to the end of the world. He was more than that. Currently, she sat, once again, in the interrogation room waiting for some government scientist, cop or bureaucrat to ask her twenty more questions and leave. It was becoming routine. The door opened with a snick. Her mouth dropped at the sight of James the second, as she'd designated him in her mind. He looked uncomfortable being here. He'd been avoiding her as much as possible. Behind him, the director strolled in looking like the cat who ate the canary. Smith acknowledged her graciously. “Doctor, we have news that I think will be a pleasant surprise for you. We want to put you to work.” She sat back in the chair.”I assume here in the lab”, she said. “Not to be a stickler, but will I be paid and, oh, I don't know, free when I do this work?” “With some limitations and supervision, yes. You would be compensated and free to come and go if you agree to temporary surveillance and a specific living arrangement.” “Living arrangement? That sounds ominous.” She looked at James. “Do I even need to guess?” “Probably not”, he said. “Mr. Smith, if your intention is that I replace Dr. Portland...” “Our intention is that you replace yourself, My dear.” She shook her head. “It isn't that simple. I'm not her. If you were to ask your Dr. Carlton there, he would probably tell you he feels nothing for me. The woman he loved died of cancer.” Smith waved that away. “Those are all personal objections that can be overcome in time. Doctor, you leave us in a bit of a conundrum. No one wants to keep you prisoner here, yet you can't be just set free, either. Not when you know so much about this program, which it seems has significant similarities with the one in your time. You also have skills we need. This is the most logical course of action for us all.” “I know there are aspects of it which are painful”, he continued. James made a snort somewhere between amused and disgusted. “And I do appreciate how hard this is on both of you, but surely you see the benefits of this plan?” Silence drifted over the tiny room like falling snowflakes. “Could you give the doctor and I the room, Mr. Smith. Then, I'll answer your question.” He nodded and rose. Easily enough that she knew the room was, of course, recorded. Nothing left to chance. It still made her feel better to pretend this was a private conversation. “So”, she began. “I imagine you're as enthused as I am about this turn of events.” He briefly brushed her eyes with his, and then looked back at the table top. “The alternative, and believe me I argued for alternatives, is that you remain a prisoner indefinitely.” “And you're willing to do this for a stranger?” He looked at her sharply. “Stranger? You really see us as strangers. I can't make that distinction.” “I'm just wearing her face.” That's when she saw the hope underneath the bluster. He asked the question she'd avoided for days. “What if you're not just wearing her face? What would be wrong with that?” “You've been giving this some thought, I see. It's never that simple. Along any person's time line are choices that make us who we are, big or small. I promise you that she and I diverge somewhere.” “My James was in a car accident as a teen. His fault. He had a scar over his lip right here”. She indicated the spot. “You have no scar. You had no accident, right?” James Too nodded and she continued, “That accident changed him, made him more cautious, less inclined to impulse. It's probably why he married me and you didn't.” “Okay,” he said. “I grant you there are differences. What's the harm?” “You tell me. I can see the potential for harm.” “You act like you don't want a life back.” “A life.” She cocked her head to the side. “I want my life back, James. That's not going to happen. Aliens destroyed my life.” “I know and I'm sorry. But you have a chance at a new one.” That was it in a nutshell. This was likely her only chance at a new one. * Jessie went over the output data one more time. She'd been tasked with finding out how to start the weapon. She stood at a console that had been rigged and spliced into the weapon hardware by the computer guys before her. It was a decent job, but she just had an instinct about computers. She made notes one more time as she sought the power source in the large machine. On a whim, she sought a root menu. Computer systems of all kinds had basic parts; and a root command code. She just had to locate it. At least, that's what her gut was telling her. An hour later a screen popped up, she watched the bright green symbols spill over the black background. “Ah ha”, she shouted, but there was no one to hear except a few military personnel. No one noticed at all. She smiled to herself and began earnestly studying the symbols on the new screen. Oh, but it looked like a root menu. She ran a cursor over two of them. Something about the second one just screamed power. She couldn't help the impulse. She selected that option, and felt a rattle in the floor of the control room, as lights began to activate around the base of the pedestal. Steam from the sudden heat of the power source, apparently, spilled out of the vents. She rushed to shut it back down, and logged her discovery. What if she was right? What if activating their tech led them right to this Earth? She told herself one more time that nothing would stop that. It would only be different hands wielding the ax. Smith would find a way to activate and use this weapon, if that's truly what it was. Jessie gathered her things and headed for her car. It was a short, dark drive along the base's back end where all the residences were. Stacked together like little Lego blocks one on the other, no outsiders ever saw this part of the base. The nearest town, Rachel, Nevada, was smaller than a postage stamp, and the population remained around fifty. A few alien hunters had tried to make it though the back walls. They hadn't. Driving home on this base, in this world, Jessie always felt so very alone, like the last of her species wandering the world. In a way, that's just what she was. James had left the light on for her. It gleamed off his black sedan in the drive. She wasn't sure what to do about him, either. The temptation he represented was overwhelming at times. He looked like her James. He smelled like him, and living in close quarters didn't help her guilt. She bumped her head, once, hard on the headrest of the car before getting out and strolling up the walk to the nondescript, government issued housing. “Jessie? Is that you?” James voice emerged from the kitchen, and she could smell something divine cooking. She had a bad habit of not eating at work, so now her stomach growled mightily at the scent of something Salisbury. “It's me.” She called. “Who else are you expecting?” He poked his head around the kitchen entrance at the end of the hallway. “No one. You're home.” She sighed. That last. He smiled his little boy smile as he said it enthusiastically and pushed his thick, dark glasses up on his nose. So like her James that the line was getting blurry. His seduction was getting harder to ignore. They ate in relative silence a while before she said, “I think I turned that damned machine on for a moment.” His excitement was palpable. “That's huge!” He frowned a little. “Shouldn't you be more excited? It's weeks worth of work coming together.” She sipped on a glass of white wine he'd poured her and rose from the table. Walking to the mantle, she stared at the line of pictures arranged there. They were her, but they weren't. She knew they were his memories, so she didn't ask to take them down. At times though, she wanted to smash them to pieces. Tonight, she stared at the long line of James and Jessie and wanted to scream until her voice went hoarse. “The last time I started pushing buttons the world ended. No, I'm not that excited about this one. The only reason I'm doing it is so I don't spend my life in a cage.” He stood beside the dinner table. She heard his chair scrape back, while she continued to sip wine and stare at NOT her life. “I'm sorry. Sometimes, I forget.” Something about that raised her ire. “You forget? How could you possibly forget?” He'd moved closer without her realizing it. “I didn't live that part.” She gestured angrily at the pictures before them. “I didn't live that part, either!” Pain collapsed in on her chest like a dying star, and she wanted to break those contented smiles in half. “Look at that. And that. How did you manage that? I see all these memories, but I didn't get this. We spent all our time working. There would always be time.” She threw the wineglass, listening to the crackle and tinkle of the falling shards. Jealous of herself. How hilarious was that? His voice came softly behind her at first. “You were...She was dying. That last year, we tried to cram in a lifetime. Maybe we overdid.” Jessie covered her face with her hands as tears leaked silently. She felt so confused and a little ashamed to be so jealous and angry. “I would do it again though. It was the best, and worst, year of my life.” A sob escaped her. “The base was chaos. At first, I couldn't find him. I'd been in the lab when they came. I don't think the base alarms even sounded for a long while. He'd been looking for me. Found me running a final check for the test we would do on the machine. It was ready to go on it's first run.” She turned to grip the mantle. Her knuckles lightened against the pale wood. “He tells me we should go. The base is lost.” She laughed harshly. “We were almost in the sphere, had it powering up as the stormtroopers blew in the lab doors.” “Stormtroopers?” She tossed a watery look over her shoulder. “I haven't looked. Please, tell me I have not discovered the only world without science fiction.” He smiled sadly. “We have it. I just don't get out much.” She stared off into nothing. “They fired something at us, an energy weapon of some kind. He...Oh, my god. He covered me with his body. I could smell...” Warm arms pulled her in as she relived the whole thing. “He said one word. It was all he had time to say. Go.” James crushed her to his body, whispering into her hair, until she calmed. “I feel like such a hag”, she finally said. “Your Jessica was dying in all those happy pictures, and I've been hating her.” “Jess, I don't see the distinction”, he whispered. “You are who you are. I am who I am. The one you call your James. I've been so damn jealous of a dead version of myself...Now, I just feel grateful.” She looked up in his arms. He was so warm, so safe, so alive. “How are you grateful?” “He saved you and he sent you here.” James', usually, so impassive face grew animated with a fire she'd rarely seen in him, even back home. One hand on either side of her face, he trapped her eyes on his. “When I lost you, I was a shell. I couldn't protect you from cancer. I watched the treatment eat you up from the inside, and I couldn't stop it. Yet, you're here now. I can touch you.” His hand smoothed over her bobbed curls. “Somehow, in that other world, I managed to save you and send you here. I see no distinction between us then, and us now. You and I are scientific fact, a fixed point.” She laughed weakly. “I'm not sure that's a probable theory.” “It's hyperbole. Is it working?” She nodded. “It might be.” He tugged his glasses off and put them on the mantle with his right hand, as his left slid into the curls at the back of her nape. He pulled her in, left her no choice. Kissing her as if he needed her to breathe for him, he made her remember. Jessie moaned, the sound part pleasure, part pain. Her hands gripped his shoulders. Her mouth opened for him. She felt the last bit of resistance die inside her. This was James. Why fight it? * “Planetary defense”, James said. “What?” The lab bustled around them. The machine in the center of the room belched steam and whirred along. She'd been working on getting access to all it's systems and James was trying to work out translations based on the language fragments that had been found with the device. “It's a defense cannon. Earth to space.” Her heart jumped in her chest. “Have you translated the root menu?” “Almost completely.” He looked up at her in shocked disbelief. “I think I found instructions.” Laughter bubbled forth from her lips then his. Of course, just like a toaster oven. The big gun came with instructions. Hope soared through Jessie's mind. She'd been waiting for the ax to fall ever since she started the weapon. Planetary defense meant they might have a chance should the aliens come knocking. If they could reverse engineer the power source, they could do anything. Maybe, this time, the world wouldn't end.

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