Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Ochre

by Jonathan Lowe


"Look at this, detective," Agent Fletcher said, pointing to a small spiral notebook on the floor.

Private detective Bryant strolled across the vanished bachelor's threadbare ranch house bedroom, a languid smile shaping his lips. He picked up the notepad, then aimed it around like a loaded weapon. "Not even a Carmen Electra poster, Fisher stereo or Sony plasma number in here," he observed with with a sigh, "but he does have that funky box springs, with Einstein hanging on the wall." He sniffed the air, experimentally. "No signs of this being a crack house, either, that I can tell. But with keys in the kitchen for the company van out front. How well do you know Nick, did you say?"

"Just knew him by sight, is all," Fletcher replied. As a duly-appointed member of the Nogales, Arizona, Border Patrol, he was annoyed at being 'advised' to co-operate with a private eye on a case involving another Patrol agent, but Nick's family had money, so... "Word has it he's quiet, with simple tastes."

"Simple?" Bryant shook his head, dismissively. "For being the sole heir to a men's magazine empire, that makes no sense at all." In emphasis, the P.I. jabbed the notebook in the direction of some haphazardly scattered or discarded books. "Here's a guy who could have it all, and what's he do, Fletcher? He takes the civil service exam, rents a ranch house out in the boonies, and after rounding up his quota of illegals, reads biographies, historical mysteries and Scientific American. Question is, why wouldn't a strong, healthy guy entertain the option of sharing a jacuzzi with supermodels?"

"You mean, is he a closet gay? You're the detective."

"Am I? Well, I detect a blind alley. 'Cause he's not gay, from what I understand. Not anything. Not even a disappointment. His old man brags about him being part of your Border Patrol." Bryant tapped the note pad twice against the fist he made with his other hand, then held it up. "Anyone take a peek at this yet, Fletcher?"

"No, sir. We're the first here, like you requested."

"Think it's a list of babes he could have asked out, but didn't?"

Fletcher shook his head. "That's not my first guess."

Bryant blew out a breath, wearily. "Well, I hope it explains why he's livin' like a monk, when he's got access to a mansion with wall to wall centerfolds."

"Sounds like you seen that mansion yourself," the younger man said, and not without interest.

Bryant narrowed his gaze for a second, giving a sly smile. "That I have, son. But it was years ago, at a convention for private dicks." He sighed again, slumped into a ratty wicker chair, and at last thumbed open the spiral notebook. "And now I've been hired to explain the call his father got from the bank. So lemme see what we got here before we do anything rash. Okay?"

Fletcher said nothing, and watched him read.

6/4-- My name is Nicholas Carter. I am a single man, age 40, never married, and I have worked for the Arizona Border Patrol for 15 years in good standing. My hobbies include reading and classical music. I particularly enjoy history and science. What I can tell you now is that string theory is no theory. I don't claim to understand it, but what I know for sure is that physicists are right when they talk about extra dimensions in space beyond what we perceive, and the possibility of there being parallel universes which are like membranes of a higher reality. Not only is this true, but these membranes can be crossed at rare points and chance intersections. I've done it, you see, and I plan to do it again.

It happened at 7:07 AM, two days ago. The first thing that struck me was the sense that my vision was blurred. Upon opening my closet door, I saw that my hanging wardrobe appeared to be a double image, with a tight or narrow overlap, as though viewed through a calcite crystal. I hesitated reaching in, and then for a moment put my hand to my head, instead. A disorientation, like dizziness, seized me. I shut my eyes hard, then opened them again, blinking, but the peculiar sight remained. I turned to look at the room, at objects in it that appeared normal: the night stand, lamp, my shoes on the floor. Then I turned back, and saw that the double image was a bit wider now. Over an inch out of synch, as if an identical photograph behind the original was being pulled slowly into view.

I slammed shut the door, and ran outside in a panic. There I saw a kind of rainbow that terminated at my house. Only it wasn't a rainbow, exactly. The colors extended in a plane straight up into the cloudless sky, in a blurred and mostly transparent image that did not curve out toward the horizon, but seemed to fade instead, as if the plane or membrane extended to infinity in all directions, leaving only visibly defracted light in the segment that cut through my house. When I returned to my bedroom, and found enough courage to face the closet door again, it opened this time on a dim light, and a space between the two separated images, which had expanded by more than their full width apart. What I saw in that space was a desert valley illuminated by a pale sun much larger and more orange than our own. A broken stone bridge stretched part way between two opposing peaks, and encrusted machinery lay next to what appeared to be a kind of elevator at the base. I stared in amazement, imagining it all to be some elaborate projection. But then I caught the scent from over there--from that parallel world--and it was like rust and sun baked cinnamon. Something real. So real that, without considering the consequences, I took a step forward, on impulse. And then another step, and finally another. At the last step, I turned my head to see that I was now beyond the back wall of the closet, but still within reach of it. Only I was standing on slate gray rock, like irregular slabs of stone stretching for a quarter mile to where the thing that resembled an elevator stood.

I jumped back in a momentary return of fright, then stretched out one hand to touch a blue shirt which hung beside me. I felt the cotton fabric in the cool dimness, then pulled it free to see the clothes hanger rock in place, back into stillness.

I stepped carefully back out of the closet into my room, but this time didn't shut the door for fear the opening would close as well. Afraid even to look away, I sat on the bed and watched for some change, until the idea occurred to me to get my camera and also to measure the opening, which now appeared stable. After that, instead of dialing 911, I decided I would get a canteen of water and go on a quick expedition, once I determined the risk was worth taking. And so I did.

The air of this world contains less oxygen, but is not uncomfortably to breathe. The predominately orange light, together with the spice scent, somehow gave me the impression of great age. I had not walked more than a few steps on the slate rock when I turned back to see if the interface had changed at all. An identical rainbow-like fuzz extended from it, up through the rock and the sky. I could see that the light coming through my closet was brighter than on the alien world, so I continued my trek toward the distant machinery.

The elevator was caked with orange dust, but at the confluence of two oblong halves was a door like white glass bearing a horizontal ring of some metal alloy. I pulled this ring, and the thing gave an audible crack and then came slowly open, like a bank vault door of enormous weight. An acrid scent more pungent than the ubiquitous spice odor wafted out, and I discovered several controls inside shaped like wheels in a pedestal of green stone. Turning several produced no effect. I estimated the elevator to be twenty feet tall, with curved sides tapering to a nest of wires, perhaps a light fixture. The width of it was approximately twelve feet, and the floor appeared to be riveted metal plating, with flush rivets and circular groves glutted with dust.

I left the elevator to look for some other way up, and in so doing used the binoculars I'd taken with me to check again on my interface at the narrow end of the box canyon. But the light still shone with the same comforting strength as before, and the opening seemed just as wide--or possibly a bit wider--considering my calculations. High above stretched the bridge, which was also the color of ochre, and had a texture like stone. It was approximately two hundred feet across at a height of perhaps five hundred feet, but broken at midpoint by a missing section of about one-fifth of the span. The bridge appeared to be thick and wide enough to support a bus or tank, but had no sides to it, and disappeared into an octagonal hole in the cliff side, where a man-sized instrument resembling a brass sundial stood sentry. The other cliff's tunnel was blocked by a massive door.

I found a staircase winding up from the wrong side, and realized that I would not be able to access the open tunnel from there. But I was determined to see inside, at least. The steps were high and steep, made of stone like rough granite. The final hundred feet or so they took a tighter curl around and inside a sculpted excavation graced by enigmatic designs that I first took to be coring marks left by whatever had hollowed out the upper cliff face next to the bridge. But then I saw that the circular rays drew closer together toward the top, and were attenuated by hooks that resembled arrows.

When I finally emerged onto the bridge itself, I discovered it to be covered in blue squares of stone two feet in diameter, each one unique and with a cryptic design, free of dust due to a noticeable breeze coming through the canyon at that height. I walked toward the edge and the open tunnel on the other side, but couldn't see beyond about fifty feet inside, where the ambient light faded. But I could detect a shape there, like an amorphous sculpture well behind the sun dial, if that's what it was. Except this sun appeared too large and dim for it to be that. I cursed myself for not bringing a powerful flashlight, and then turned to use my binoculars again on the opening through which I'd entered this world. It appeared to be the same, but I decided to return anyway. I took photos, and noticed that my flash revealed the shape in the tunnel to be crystalline, with pipes or tubes protruding from it that attached it to the floor. The tunnel itself appeared to curve further in, like a large labyrinthine cave with drooping metal rails affixed to its sides. I determined I would need a 20 foot extension ladder to bridge the span to the other side.

Facing the massive door behind me, I noticed an image of this sun and world was depicted there, along with a starburst image further away. I went to the door, and placed my ear against it, but heard nothing. I banged on it with my fist, but there was no hollow thrumming. I next assessed the crack at the base of the door, and felt a slight breeze coming up from below. So the door obviously lowered somehow, but by what mechanism I could not determine.

I was in the very act of wondering if any latent energy still existed, if life didn't, when I suddenly saw a light above me, and noticed a glow atop a thin metallic pole high in the rocks above me. The light grew in intensity until it was too bright to look at, then quickly faded, leaving what looked like a small copper ball similar to what is found atop some lightning rods. Had I activated it, somehow? Was it a beacon, and would someone be coming soon in response? Maybe I could get higher to see from where the light might be visible. But then fear swept me, and I decided to return to my house instead. There, at the interface, as I watched and waited, I was startled to see a bird, very high in the sky. As it glided overhead I considered the implications. There must be plants--maybe even oceans--elsewhere on this world!

6/5-- I recall reading about Gamma Ray Bursts, which are thought to come from hypernovas. The theory is that life has not been found via radio signals from space because these random hypernovas periodically exterminate whole parsecs of space throughout the universe. Maybe such a thing happened near this world, but not near enough to exterminate life completely. Perhaps, pre-event, the light here was not so orange? Of course I'm assuming that if this is really an alternate universe, existing in another dimension, similar laws of science apply. While it doesn't seem to get completely dark on this alternate world, I have seen points of light in the sky beyond the atmosphere every few hours, which appear to be the brightest or nearest stars. I have seen other birds too, although none have landed nearby. My GRB theory is bolstered by the fact that the multi-band radio I keep testing on the other side has failed to detect any signals on any frequency. I shall continue to take digital photos, along with temperature and humidity readings, until I decide what to do next. I'm storing these on my computer's hard drive under the file "Ochre," which is my new name for this world. A measurement of the width of my interface has shown a 6 centimeter shortening of the opening in the last 24 hours, so I have limited time to decide what to do.

6/6-- Last night I set my alarm to wake me every two hours, and I went over to Ochre to repeat my tests, and to measure the opening. The weather remains comfortable, and once I could even see rain visible in the distance, while the rate of interface contraction remains the same. What to do? While trying to decide, I have begun shuttling large items through to the other side. Extension ladder, tool chest, offroad bicycle, tent, sleeper sofa.

P.M.-- I've just returned from a fifth trip to the Super Wal Mart in Nogales, where I've also purchased a water purifier with cleanable filters, chemicals, seeds, fishing tackle, first aid kits, some smaller pup tents, repair kits, fuel, and enough canned goods to feed the crew of an aircraft carrier for a month. I've now maxed out my credit cards, and moved everything over to Ochre, along with all my clothing, extra shoes and boots, some of my books, various containers, utensils, towels, crank powered flashlights, and a solar powered PDA with three different Encyclopedias of Knowledge on it--one technical, one practical, and one medical. If only Robinson Crusoe had it so good.

6/7-- Things have escalated in the direction of this being goodbye. After all, I have no family here that I can relate to, much less be proud of, which may also explain to you why I've been a loner most of my adult life. My father wanted to supply me with girlfriends, but they only look at me because of him and his money. It is reprehensible, what he is doing. His associates are evil, being involved in money laundering and racketeering. So I have taken my trust fund, and given it to the needy. Regarding America, and the nature of freedom, let me say I find it ironic that so many illegal aliens try to come to a land where most people ignore or use each other. I hope they don't lose the simple, real things like love and family. I've seen them at the parks, here and in Sonora, with their relations. They laugh and sing upbeat tunes while we live indoors, playing video games and watching actors with pretend lives on TV. How do I define poverty? What does freedom mean to me? I'm not sure, anymore. All I know is that I've never desired wealth, if it means such anxiety, impatience and greed, or includes having spoiled brats as children, and a beautiful wife with soulless, cynical eyes.

I have placed a call to a mule I know who lives in Nogales, Sonora. His instructions are explicit, with timing and directions to this "safe house" for one handpicked family, of whom I hope to become a new member. If there is a daughter of childbearing age, so much the better. We shall all cross over together, and find our destiny in a new world without prejudice, hostility or traffic of any kind.

6/7-- My family is here. They have seen Ochre, and agreed to come with me. They see this opportunity as a miracle from God. There are fourteen of them, all healthy. I believe the oldest daughter, Rosa Celeste, will be my wife. They are simple people from El Salvador, and have sold everything to come to America. There is no turning back now. Estaban asked me if he could go back if things didn't turn out, but I just pointed and said, "that's home now" in Spanish. He could see the bridge in the distance, and the stacks of provisions waiting. Then a bird landed nearby to investigate. It looks like a crow, although more brown than black. It gave me a strange idea, which I leave for you now to contemplate. What if this world is not parallel in space, but in time? What if this is our own mother Earth, in the far future, and the machinery I see has somehow opened this door so that we can get past the hypernova to save humanity? Just a thought, albeit an ironic one, wouldn't you say?

You will find photos of everything, plus all the testing data, on my computer hard drive. Wish us luck, whatever the case...

"The case," Detective Bryant repeated, closing the notepad.

"What?" asked agent Fletcher.

"Nothing. See a computer anywhere, by chance?"

Fletcher pointed out a USB cable lying on the floor in one corner of the bedroom. "I think that's for downloads from a digital camera. You can see impressions in the carpet made by a desk, too."

Bryant leaned close, and nodded. Then he straightened, and tapped the notepad again before pocketing it.

"What is it?"

"Nothing. Just. . . that this might a' been the most bizarre suicide note ever, but without a body, I'd say our young Carter split with his trust fund to old Mexico, leaving a none-too-subtle message that he'd like to be left alone."

"You mean his father was secretly harassing him?"

"Oh God, no. Did I say that? But Nick's never said anything negative about his old man up to now, either. Or taken any of his money. So something like this is bound to hit the tabloids, if it gets out."

"What do you mean. . .if?"

"Never you mind. It's un-American, is what it is. And there's no way to prove any of it. All part of his plan to disappear while making his dad look like an jerk after bragging about him over the years." He lowered his voice. "Going into the closet instead of coming out. That's a funny trick."

As Bryant strode out, Fletcher followed closely, asking, "You mean you're not calling the Sheriff, sir?"

"Is that a problem for you, son?"

"Not with me, but. . .I mean, where did he go?"

Bryant stopped to rub the back of his thick neck with one hand, considering it. "Well, see, I can't really say. Have to consult the family after the handwriting is verified first, before we can say anything. You understand?" As they walked through the open side door, out toward the cracked concrete patio, Bryant observed how the door had obviously been forced by a crowbar. "Nice touch, that."

Near their respective cars, Fletcher made a circular motion back toward the rear of the ranch house with one hand, like he'd forgotten something.

"What the problem now?" Bryant asked.

"Just some plants growing in pots out back I thought you should see. Thought it was marijuana at first, but then I saw that I was mistaken."

Fletcher led him around the back of the house, where he indicated four small clay pots containing ferns against the back wall, in the shade of a cottonwood tree. A brown hose was curled like a snake next to them. Bryant kneeled, and stuck a finger into one of the pots, finding the soil moist. Then he impulsively upended one of the pots, and spread the ochre-colored soil across the ground. A shiver ran across his scalp as he got to his feet.

"What's the matter?" the young Border Patrol agent asked him.

Bryant ran back into the house, through the kitchen and into the master bedroom. At the closed closet door he paused, then carefully opened it, and stared as Fletcher came up behind him. The walk-in closet was empty, except for a nest of wire clothes hangers pushed to the far right on the long wooden pole. Bryant turned and now stared beyond the patrolman's left shoulder. Stared at the framed poster on the far wall.

"What's wrong, sir?"

"Nothing's wrong," Bryant replied, uncertainly. He suddenly flashed on the playoff game that his wife had nagged him for watching. In his mind, he imagined her, even now, lurking just out of sight, forever peering at him with mocking disgust in her soulless, cynical eyes.

Especially now.

"Did I say something was wrong?" Bryant asked, raising his voice.

Fletcher winced as if he'd been slapped too. Then started out. But before following him, he felt the kind of shiver that intuition brought to his job, and to fight it off stuck out his own tongue--in return--at Einstein's gleeful face.

THE END


© 2007 Jonathan Lowe

Bio: Jonathan Lowe is the author of "Awakening Storm", and "Geezer", and "Fame Island". He resides in Arizona, which only slightly resembles the new world that Nicholas Carter discovers in "Ochre".

E-mail: Jonathan Lowe

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