Blast it. Not again.
There wasn't even any sign that the lab animal had ever existed. Just an empty circle next to a complicated computer-programmed machine that had cost a great deal of money, effort, and time. Where the lab animal had ended up was anyone's guess. Maybe not just where but also when. At least it hadn't exploded. I suppose I should've been grateful for that much.
Frustrated, I threw my light pen away. It landed on the worktable a few feet away, rolled a short distance and came to a stop. I almost threw my tablet computer as well, but thankfully I didn't. The lab I worked for wasn't one of the affluent ones.
That's the ninth guinea pig that disappeared and didn't come back. How in the world am I supposed to write this up if I know darn well that they're not going to believe me anyway? I'm not even sure if I believe the results of each experiment, so how can I expect them to?
I felt a hand on my right shoulder. It was Felix. My sometimes collaborator, my sometimes lover. At least he tended to avoid mocking me.
“Problem, Lia?” he asked.
I nodded. “Another success and still no proof. At this rate I'll run out of test animals before I get awarded any prizes. Never mind promotions. They don't promote liars. Or lunatics, for that matter.”
“I've never known you to lie,” he said. “Ever.”
“Does that mean you think I'm a lunatic?” I asked.
Felix smiled and shook his head.
“They'll just claim conflict-of-interest if you support my conclusions,” I went on. “That is, if they don't put me in a straitjacket and send me to an insane asylum first.” I sighed.
“Sounds like you could use a break,” he said. “Why don't I treat you to lunch? There's a nice Japanese cafe around the corner. All-you-can-eat sushi.”
I gave him a puzzled look. “But you hate sushi, Felix.”
“I'll order tempura instead, Lia,” he said. “Come on. Let's go. You can trash your worktable after lunch. Okay?”
I shrugged. Why not? I wasn't making much headway anyway. “Okay.”
“They're going to pull my funding away from me,” I said half an hour later. The food had mellowed me, along with a bottle of Kirin. I wondered if I should order a second one. I didn't want to get inebriated before going back to the lab. Not that anyone would probably notice. They'd probably just assume that it was normal behavior for me. Like the day when I arrived at work in t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, having completely forgotten to change clothes between beach and lab. They'd stared, but no one had complained. At least, not the first time it had happened. “Probably reassign me to something less controversial. Like studying the mating habits of amphibians or arachnids.”
“Give the Science Department at least some credit, Lia,” Felix said. “They at least have a bare minimum of intelligence. If they were going to fire you, they would've done it several months ago. But they didn't.”
“That was before this recent series of experiments,” I said. “They expect scientists to be eclectic, if not exactly eccentric. I was surprised that they didn't bat an eye when I suggested a teleportation experiment. Maybe they thought I wasn't being serious.” Or maybe they'd thought: Right. He's a Star Trek fan. Of course he's going to try to invent a working teleportation system . . . in his imagination. But in reality? Please.
“Maybe you need to experiment with something else,” he said. “Something that would get their attention. Their serious attention.”
“For example?” I asked.
He looked thoughtful. “What about me?”
I stared at him and shook my head vehemently. “No, Felix. Absolutely not.”
“I'm not being forced to, Lia,” he said. “I'm volunteering.”
“Something could go wrong,” I said. “I can't risk the one person in the lab who doesn't think I'm crazy.”
“But if it works, you'd be famous,” he said. “Isn't that worth the risk?”
I looked at him, trying to think of some other way to discourage him. And gave up.
“I take full responsibility for my decision,” he said. “You won't be sued by my next-of-kin.”
“You don't have any,” I said. “Next-of-kin, I mean.”
“Figuratively speaking,” Felix said.
“I'll have to enlarge the teleportation space,” I said. “You're a bit bigger than a guinea pig.”
He said nothing and just looked at me.
I knew that look all too well. It was the same kind of look he gave me when he suggested exciting new places to make love. Never mind how many times we got arrested (though I suspected the police officer making the arrest at least tried to politely avert their eyes and wait until we were done for the moment). That time at Kew Gardens about a loud shout from a wedding photo shoot had been amazing . . . and we'd been strictly forbidden from ever visiting it in the future. Same for the Tower of London (but that had been my choice; Kew Gardens had been Felix's choice).
“I know I'm going to regret this,” I said.
Felix still said nothing.
“Fine,” I said. “It's on your head, not mine.”
“Good,” he said. “I'll even help set up the experiment. Just tell me what to do.”
We both heard a brief snippet of “Get Down Make Love” by Queen. It was Felix's favorite Queen song and he'd used that snippet as his cell phone's ringtone.
“Just a second,” he said and answered the call. “Felix, here.” He listened, nodded a few times. “Try to catch them and put them back in their cage. Lia and I will be back there in a few minutes. Thank you for telling me.”
“Good news?” I asked.
He nodded. “Though why they didn't contact you instead, I don't know.” He smiled. “All the guinea pigs reappeared. Squealing and whistling like mad. They seem to be just fine. Scared, yes, but also hungry. Congratulations, Lia.”
“A guinea pig is one thing, though,” I said. “How am I going to get permission to test the experiment on you?”
“Let me handle that,” he said.
Once we were back at the lab, it had taken about fifteen minutes to set up the experiment, including recalibrating the machine. (The bulk of the time was convincing our supervisor that we weren't insane. We just had to sign a form that protected everyone else in the lab from any liability.)
I checked the machine's settings one more time. Nominal. Ambient temperature in the lab. Nominal. Universal Power Source. Functional. All I needed to do was press the ENTER key on the machine's keyboard.
My right forefinger hesitated a centimeter above it. I glanced at Felix's calm expression again.
“What are you waiting for, Lia?” he asked me. “Getting cold feet?”
I nodded. “Not just cold, but freezing. Practically absolute zero. I'm surprised that my feet aren't frostbitten yet.”
He smiled and shook his head. “Quit stalling. Just press the button and make your Nobel Peace Prize a reality. The world is waiting with baited breath. It's safe. The guinea pigs returned and so will I. Press the button, Lia.”
I took a deep breath, silently counted down from 5 to 0, and pressed the button. He disappeared.
Seven hours passed and he still hadn't returned.
It had taken several hours for the guinea pigs to return. How long would it take Felix to return? I didn't know. No one in the lab knew. No one on Earth knew. Only the guinea pigs knew and they weren't talking; just squealing and whistling as they consumed their food.
A month passed and he still hadn't returned.
He's dead. He had to be. It was the only reason I could think of.
My lover, my best friend, my collaborator. And now he was . . . who knew where . . . or when, for that matter.
Why did I let you volunteer? Why didn't I just say “No” and refuse to be persuaded by him? Because he was much more confident that nothing would go wrong. More than I was.
Where are you, Felix? When are you? Please come back from wherever and/or whenever you are. Don't make me live the rest of my life without you. I don't want to grow old and grey without you.
Still nothing after a year had passed.
I got myself transferred to another lab in another part of England. I bought an old thatch-roofed house in the village nearby. My new job had nothing to do with Physics.
I found someone new, someone who didn't remind me of Felix. His name was Charlie. We got engaged on All Hallows Eve after a Dresden Dolls concert in Leeds (the band and the rest of the audience cheered and applauded). We got married at the village church one beautiful Spring day a year later. We had two children, a boy and a girl. They were beautiful, kind, strong, and smart. We named them Dennis and Felicia. Every year the four of us go to the midsummer picnic at the village green and have a great time.
More years passed.
Our children went to university in Edinburgh. They would spend each summer and Christmas with us, sounding more and more Scottish each time. They even bought kilts and wore them every single day. Felicia learned how to dance Celtic-style and they both learned Scottish Gaelic. We threw a celebration party in Edinburgh the evening after they finished university. After the party we visited the Castle.
We were standing at one part of the battlements, looking at the city stretched out below us. Felicia was explaining what it was like when Scotland was like before it became part of the United Kingdom. It didn't seem quite real. More like a dream than reality.
“I wish that Scotland could be independent again,” Felicia said.
“Maybe it will be someday,” I said. “After all, if Ireland can be independent, why can't Scotland?”
“If there's another referendum, will you vote for Scotland?” she asked Kate and myself. “Or do you prefer things as they are?”
I wasn't quite sure how to answer that.
Ireland's Catholics had wanted to be independent and had been willing to fight for it. Until the Seventeenth Century, Scotland kept fighting until finally at Culloden it had lost. With that loss, so much had been torn from the Scots (language, culture, etc.). Would Scotland be willing to fight again, no matter what the outcome might be? Or would the Crown simply let Scotland have her independence? Would the transition be as violent as it had been in India and Ireland? Or would it be gentler, like a walk along Queens Street here in Edinburgh or Pall Mall in London?
“There's that man again,” Dennis said, pointing. “I've seen him here before. He doesn't speak. He just stands there like we're doing. Then after an hour or two he leaves. Maybe he's waiting for someone?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe thinking about someone who passed away.”
“He's walking this way, Dad,” Dennis said.
“No harm in it,” my husband said. “Maybe just he wants to see the view from where we are.”
“Or maybe he's a stalker,” Felicia said.
“We don't know that for sure, do we?” her father said.
“He looks sad,” Dennis said.
“Just be careful,” I advised.
The man came over to us and stood several feet away. He looked older and more careworn now. Short dark-and-silver hair, white mustache and beard. Knee-length coat and boots.
Hands in his coat pockets, he asked us, “I apologize for being rude, but would any you know of a woman named Lia or Ophelia?”
“Do you remember her surname?” my husband asked him.
The man nodded. “Cooper.”
My husband glanced at me. I tried to keep my face blank. My maiden name could've been found via an Internet search. The man's face didn't look immediately familiar to me.
“I've heard of the name,” I said.
The man looked relieved. “Could you help me find her?”
“Is it urgent?” I asked. “She might not remember you. Not even your name.”
“My name is Felix Powell,” he said.
“Where did you meet her?” I asked.
“We worked together at a scientific laboratory in London,” he said. “She ran some unusual experiments.”
It sounded right, but I wanted to be certain. Absolutely certain. This could still be a scam, like the phishing scams on the Internet.
“What sort of experiments?” I asked. “I'll understand if you can't discuss it. Probably protected by an obscure law. I wouldn't want you to get into trouble for revealing government secrets.”
“I'm retired,” he said. “Ten years. I'm not sure that there's much they can do to me now. Maybe throw me into jail would be the worst.”
“And you're willing to risk that?” my husband asked him.
The latter nodded. “I was willing to be a test subject for one of her experiments. That was a pretty big risk. Could've gone wrong any number of ways. It didn't, though. It worked. Maybe not the way either of us expected, but it worked.”
“What happened?” I asked. “What did you experience?”
He hesitated, then shrugged. “She didn't want me to, but I volunteered. That way the results might be significant enough. Enough to get a promotion or a prize or maybe both. After lunch one day, we went back to the lab. Set up the experiment. She was really smart and probably added some fail-safes. Redundancy. To keep it as safe as possible. Then I stood on the test circle and she pressed the button.
“The lab disappeared in about a second. It looked like that scene in '2001' with all the special effects. When Bowman enters the gateway near Jupiter. Thousands or millions of streaks of colored lines zipping past. Remember that?”
I nodded. “I saw it when I was a lass. Went to the local cinema with my parents. Scared me a bit sometimes. But I still remember it.”
“Then you also probably remember the hotel room scene,” he went on.
I nodded again.
“I didn't end up in a hotel room, though,” he said. “Ended up in an old laboratory instead. Should've seen the looks on their faces.” He softly laughed. “I reckon I would've reacted the same way. Most people don't just appear out of thin air, after all. Or disappear like I did.
“ 'Who the bloody **** are you?' one scientist asked me.
“ 'Felix Powell,' I said. 'Where am I?'
“He told me. The same lab. But it looked different to me. As if it was in an old black-and-white film.
“ 'What year is it?' I asked.
“ '1988,' he said. 'What year are you from?'
“ '2008,' I said. 'I work -- will work -- in this lab.'
“ 'I don't know how you got here,' he said, 'but I don't think I can send you back. I think you're going to be stuck here. Probably for the next twenty years. I'm Dr. Turner. You can call me 'Ian'. We shook hands. 'For the time being, you're going to need a job. From the sounds of it, you could get one here. Maybe not the same as the one you used to have, but good enough to pay your bills. You will also need food, clothes, and a place to live. You can stay in my flat until you find one for yourself.'
“ 'Thank you,' I said. 'Where do you live?'
“ 'Near Carnaby Street,' he said and smiled. 'Not as colorful as it was twenty years ago, but still a nice area to live in. I think you'll like it.' He looked slightly puzzled. 'Anything wrong?'
“ 'You volunteer to help me, someone you've never met before?' I asked.
“ 'I'm paying back a favor,' he said. 'Your father helped me. Your faces look similar.'
“ 'He died when I was a tad,' I said. 'I don't remember much about him. My mother has shown me snapshots of him.'
“ 'Want to meet him?' he asked.
The partly sunny sky was being obscured by rain clouds. The first raindrops were falling. We'd better get some shelter or we were likely to get soaked.
We went inside the Castle just in time. Outside, we could see flashes of lightning and heard thunder. Soon after, it really rained.
“I'd like to hear more about your meeting with Lia's father,” I told Felix. “Do you have anywhere to stay here in Edinburgh?”
“I'm staying at a local hostel,” he said. “Two week limit, though.”
“When the limit's up, phone us,” my husband offered, handing him a business card. “We have an extra guest room that's almost never used.”
“You don't have to,” Felix said.
“I know,” my husband said.
“It's a nice old Victorian row-house,” I said. “Stay as long as you like.”
“You make it difficult to refuse,” Felix said.
“Could we take him home now?” Felicia asked her mother and me. We thought about it, then shrugged and nodded.
“Why don't you continue telling us about my grandfather once we're home?” Felicia asked Felix.
“You're very generous,” he replied.
“Does that mean 'yes'?” she asked him.
He nodded. “May I first ask how you know about Lia Cooper?”
Felicia glanced at me. “Ask Mum. She knows.”
“I certainly ought to,” I said, “because I'm Lia.”