Spider silk clung at the doors, over the windows, across everything she had left behind. It was the one place she had allowed to remain, had not purged with fire, the first home she had ever known with Mommy and Daddy.
But that was over twenty years ago. She and Daddy had abandoned their small mountain retreat after Mommy died of cancer. It, along with everything else Daddy owned, had passed down to her in trust when he died. She had only been five at the time, and Daddy’s boss, billionaire Keyne Harlan, took care of everything for her, adopted her, provided her with the finest of everything, home, clothes, education, everything a little girl needed to grow up. Everything except love.
“I wish I didn’t have to do this.” Twenty-five year old inventor and heiress Alise Egan was standing on the front porch of the new dilapidated cottage in the High Sierras, thirty miles from Yosemite National Park. Keyne and his usual entourage used to rent several suites at the Yosemite Valley Lodge twice a year as she was growing up, Spring and Autumn, taking her to the park for their biannual bicycle and music festival, but it was the closest she ever got to the Egan’s vacation home up until now.
Brushing aside the dust and cobwebs, she inserted the key in the lock. At first, it wouldn’t turn, but she jingled the key ring while twisting the knob and it finally unlatched. She walked inside. The furniture was covered with filthy, stained sheets. “Glad to see vandals didn’t get up this far.”
She closed the door behind her and looked around the living room, at the fireplace, still nurturing a half burnt log, the bare stone over the mantle, the surprisingly intact rocking chair. She didn’t remember any of it except a vague recollection of being held by Mommy in that chair, the steady, comforting back and forth motion, the warmth of the flames soothing her to sleep.
Alise gently sat in the chair, felt it creak under her weight as she lowered herself, but it withstood her, even after so many years. She considered rekindling the fire, but no doubt the chimney desperately needed a cleaning, and she didn’t want to risk further damaging the cabin, not yet.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry I have to do this.” She had inherited everything, not only the meager possessions her parents left behind, but the vast fortune and empire of Harlan Enterprises after Kenye died three years ago. He probably would have lived another decade or more if he hadn’t bought the painting. The painting and the ancient parchment upon which was written the arcane incantation were gone now, ashes, cold and dead like the fireplace in front of her.
Softly swaying forward and back, she recalled the day she had responded to Kenye’s summons. She had just graduated from MIT summa cum laude with her doctorate in physics, at twenty-two, one of the youngest ever to possess such an honor. She went to her old bedroom in his Malibu mansion because he had a surprise waiting for her there. It was a graceful, crimson gown with a ridiculously long train nearly the length of the gown itself. She put it on, of course. She had learned confidence and self-assuredness as a teen, replacing the quiet pensiveness of childhood, but no one refused a request from one of the ten most powerful men in the world.
She found him waiting for her in his private study, one of the few rooms in the estate where only the rare and privileged were allowed admittance. This was for good reason, since his private art collection was worth untold millions, and some of the items had been acquired illegally.
Such was the painting that dominated the center of the room, resting on a three-legged stand. It was a woman in a red gown, blond as Alise was. In fact, the painting was of Alise, her back facing the young woman and the aged man, while the figure herself was facing what at first looked like a vast, powerful ocean’s wave about to engulf her.
“Amazing likeness, don’t you think? I found it in a little shop on Malta last month. I stumbled upon the alleyway by accident, and I must say that the proprietor certainly was avoiding business being located in such a remote village.”
“How could…I mean…it looks just like me. Is that why you had me wear this…thing?” She lithe young women waved her hands in exasperation, much preferring her usual t-shirt and jeans.
“Of course, but that’s not all.” With flourish, he opened a battered wooden box sitting on a small table placed next to the oil painting. He removed an ancient parchment that should have crumbled with age at his touch. “It comes with a curse. Can you believe it?”
“You don’t believe in such…”
“Oh, of course not, but it’s still interesting. Do you want me to read it?”
“You bought the painting, that piece of paper? How much did it cost?”
“You must understand that the old man didn’t want to sell it. Far too dangerous, he said. I had to send agents to…well, persuade him.”
Alise hated it when he played “the wealthy villain,” which he enjoyed as much as any other aspect of his life. He was what had once been referred to as a “self-made man,” growing up in poverty during the Second World War, working in a small electronics lab as a young technician in the 1950s, patenting several important devices, founding his own lab, building it into a company, and then finally into a multinational corporation. In Kenye’s case, ambition, wealth, and avarice became fused and twisted.
“I hope you didn’t hurt him.”
“Rest assured, he is quite well, and quite well off. I didn’t steal, I just paid a rather handsome amount for an item he still did not wish to depart from him. Anyway, shall we proceed?”
She rolled her eyes and crossed her arms but said nothing. Better to let him have his way and get it over with so she could remove this remnant of Beverly Hills ostentatiousness and then decide where to have Keyne take her for dinner.
He spoke, but it wasn’t a language she understood, and she was shocked that he did. Yes, he was fluent in seven different languages besides English, but what he was saying now was unrecognizable.
Alise gripped the arms of the rocking chair and stopped moving. She didn’t want to remember the other details, how she suddenly found herself on that beach inside the painting, how the ocean’s roaring waves were actually a massive plasma energy discharge, the gateway into another plane of reality.
She met her dead parents in there, only it wasn’t really them. They, and the millions with them, were really victims, the disembodied life forces of men, women, children who had died, or not died, over twenty years in the future.
Daddy, Dr. Daniel Charles Egan, was a brilliant if eccentric scientist and inventor, but unlike Harlan, he had no sense for finances. That’s why he became the head of R&D for Keyne instead of building his own company.
The Interstellar Quantum Drive prototype was supposed to be mankind’s key to the stars. But when it was activated for the first time, the quantum drive effect engulfed an area 300 meters in diameter vaporizing everything inside, including Daddy and seventeen other scientists and technicians. Keyne was monitoring the experiment remotely from his offices two kilometers away and was unaffected. Alise was just starting the morning of her second Wednesday in kindergarten.
The man in the strange “grayland,” the one who had posed as her Daddy’s spirit, said he was Gordon Franklin Tucker, and that decades in the future, she would try to replicate her father’s work, correcting the flaws, and building a full-scale model of the drive. He told her the prototype she built was successful, but when the production unit was activated, the effect was much worse, destroying Earth’s entire biosphere and killing every living thing on the planet. Everything that is, except for a few million people who had been translated by the field into a pocket of subspace, a bizarre, ghostly representation of what human civilization had once been.
Tucker had been her chief engineer, her husband, and the father of her two children. She didn’t live through the experiment, but Gordon, their son and daughter had been transformed into specters, and destined to exist for all eternity in a timeless void. He wanted to use the living Alise from the past as a bridge back to reality to prevent the disaster by any means, including killing her, but she resisted, and in doing so, closed the doorway back to everyone except her.
She ran from the horror she was fated to create, back through the threshold, back into Kenye’s study. He was dead when she arrived, cold, lifeless fingers still clutching onto the parchment, the victim of a heart attack, or perhaps it was his portion of the curse. Tucker said that some people were sensitive to the other reality. Somewhere in the past, an anonymous artist with a talent for the occult had a premonition of these events and used borrowed energy from that other realm to create the painting. It could be activated by the incantation, and somehow, Harlan’s senses detected a hint of the creation’s importance and its connection to her.
After the old man was buried and she took possession of her full inheritance, she burned the painting, the parchment, the box, and especially all of her father’s notes, everything that existed which could be used to recreate his work. She’d never be tempted to follow his experiments, especially knowing what she knew about the other realm.
Alise still didn’t know if she’d actually changed the future or if this were an alternate timeline. Did it matter? Maybe. Probably.
On her twenty-fifth birthday, six months ago, the board of directors held a gala in her honor at the mansion which was now her home. Watching the crowds on the dance floor from the balcony, she didn’t hear his walk up behind her. She turned around and froze.
“Hey, I know I’m not the best looking guy in the world, but surely I’m not that bad.” He had a charming, boyish smile, but unfortunately, his face was all too familiar.
“My name’s Gordon Tucker. No need for you to introduce yourself, but I was serious about that dance. How about it?” He held out his right hand expectantly, innocently.
Without a word, Alise turned and walked away from the puzzled Mr. Tucker, hoping fate was merely toying with her rather than announcing that it was inevitable.
“Inevitable.” She murmured the word as she got up from the rocking chair. Daddy’s notes about the cabin, which she found with directions to it along a remote mountain back road, the deed, the keys, also contained specific instructions about how to locate the safe.
She pressed three stones in a certain sequence over the mantle releasing the hidden doorway. She had memorized the combination and the well-preserved lock clicked open.
Trembling fingers removed the envelope. Inside were the papers, Daddy’s original design for the drive. Every calculation was preserved. It was crude compared to the refinements he made later, but it was enough. As long as the notes existed, the future of the entire planet was in dreadful danger.
“I’m sorry, Gordon. I can’t let you do it, and I certainly won’t. Now, neither will anyone else.”
He had been persistent, calling her at home, at the office, on her private cell, sending flowers, invitations to dinner. She finally relented. He was handsome, charming, brilliant, and unfortunately he had a proposition beyond mere romance. He had been a student of Daddy’s work, obsessed with it really. He wanted to collaborate to rebuild the Quantum Drive, and he was convinced she had both the genius and resources to complete her father’s work.
He had no idea what he was asking of her.
Behind the cabin was a fire pit. Alise had probably roasted marshmallows or made s’mores over it while she was still in diapers. Now, after over two decades, a fire blazed within it, consuming dried twigs and one of the logs from a spider-infested pile she found by the back porch.
“I know this meant so much to you, Daddy. I’m sorry, but it all has to go.” One by one, the design for the Interstellar Quantum Drive went into the fire, each page curling and turning black. She could have just destroyed them with the cottage, but she had to know, to make sure they were gone forever. Then she took the only known copy of Gordon’s work which closely paralleled her father’s, and consigned them to oblivion as well.
As for Gordon’s body, tightly wrapped in plastic, she’d pull it out of the trunk of her car and drag it into the cabin before soaking everything with gasoline and igniting it.
Standing, hypnotized by the flames, she murmured, “Forgive me, Gordon, but you’d have done this with or without me. No one must follow Daddy’s work. I wish I could have told you why you had to die. I can’t let you destroy the future, all of humanity, and especially my babies, your babies.”
She rubbed slightly swollen abdomen, knowing her twin son and daughter would grow up in a better world, one she would make for them. Alise would tell them that she would always love their Daddy, wherever he was.
I wrote this for First Line Friday hosted at Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. The idea is to take a sentence, in this case “Spider silk clung at the doors, over the windows, across everything she had left behind,” and use it as the first line of a poem, short story, or other creative work.
I decided to create a third “chapter” in the story of Alise Egan, the first two being:
I could have ended the story with “The Grayland,” but what if fate is inevitable or at least persistent? Maybe it would take more than just deciding not to build the Quantum Drive in order to change the history of the world? Those were the horrible questions facing Alise, and unfortunately, she decided that there could be only one conclusion.
You can click on the links above to read the first two stories, but hopefully, I’ve written this one so it can stand on its own.
The title is from Robert Frost’s famous poem Fire and Ice.