The Walls of the Universe

By Paul Melko
Copyright 2009

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  • John reached the outskirts of town in an hour, passing a green sign that said "Findlay, Ohio. Population 6232." His Findlay had a population in the twenty thousand range. As he stood there, he heard a high-pitched whine grow behind him. He stepped off the berm as a truck flew by him, at about forty-five miles per hour. It was in fact two trucks in tandem pulling a large trailer filled with gravel. The fronts of the trucks were flat, probably to aid in stacking several together for larger loads, like a train with more than one locomotive. The trailer was smaller than a typical dump truck in his universe. A driver sat in each truck. Expecting to be enveloped in a cloud of exhaust, John found nothing fouler than moist air.

    Flywheel? he wondered. Steam?

    Despite his predicament, John was intrigued by the engineering of the trucks. Ten more minutes of walking, past two motels and a diner, he came to the city square, the Civil War monument displayed as proudly as ever, cannon pointed toward the South. A few people were strolling the square, but no one noticed him.

    Across the square was the courthouse. Beside it stood the library, identical to what he remembered, a three-story building, its entrance framed by granite lions reclining on brick pedestals. There was the place to start figuring this universe out.

    The library was identical in layout to the one he knew. John walked to the card catalog -- there were no computer terminals -- and looked up the numbers for American history. On the shelf he found a volume by Albert Trey called US History and Heritage: Major Events that Shaped a Nation. He sat in a low chair and paged through it. He found the divergence in moments.

    The American Revolution, War of 1812, and Civil War all had the expected results. The presidents were the same through Woodrow Wilson. World War I was a minor war, listed as the Greco-Turkish War. World War II was listed as the Great War and was England and the US against Germany, Russia, and Japan. A truce was called in 1956 after years of no resolution to the fighting. Hostilities had flared for years until the 80s when peace was declared and disarmament accomplished in France, which was split up and given to Germany and Spain.

    But all of those things happened after Alexander Graham Bell developed an effective battery for the automobile. Instead of an internal combustion engine, cars and trucks in this universe used electric engines. That explained the trucks: electric engines.

    But even as he read about the use of zeppelins for transport, the relatively peaceful twentieth century, his anger began to grow. This universe was nothing like his own. John Prime had lied. Finally, he stood and found the local telephone book. He paged through it, looking for Rayburns. As he expected, there were none.

    He checked his watch; in eight hours he was going back home and kicking the crap out of John Prime.

  • By the time the library closed, John's head was full of facts and details about the new universe. There were a thousand things he'd like to research, but there was no time. He stopped at a newspaper shop and picked an almanac off the shelf. After a moment's hesitation, he offered to buy the three dollar book with one of the twenties Prime had given him. The counter man barely glanced at the bill and handed John sixteen dollars and change. The bills were identical to those in his own world. The coins bore other faces.

    He ate a late dinner at Eckart's Cafe, listening to rockabilly music. None of it was familiar music, but it was music that was playable on the country stations at home. Even at ten in the evening, there was a sizeable crowd, drinking coffee and hard liquor. There was no beer to be had.

    It was a tame crowd for a Saturday night. He read the almanac and listened in to the conversations around him. Most of it was about cars, girls, and guys, just like in his universe.

    By midnight, the crowd had thinned. At half-past midnight, John walked into the square and stood behind the Civil War statue. He lifted his shirt and toggled the number back to 7533.

    He paused, checked his watch and saw it was a quarter till one. Close enough, he figured.

    He pressed the button.

    Nothing happened.

    There was no sensation of shifting, no pressure change. The electric car in the parking lot was still there. The device hadn't worked.

    He checked the number: 7533. His finger was on the right switch. He tried it again. Nothing.

    It had been twelve hours. Twelve hours and forty-five minutes. But maybe Prime had been estimating. Maybe it took thirteen hours to recharge. He leaned against the base of the statue and slid to the ground.

    He couldn't shake the feeling that something was wrong. Prime had lied to him about what was in Universe 7534. Maybe he had lied about the recharge time. Maybe it took days or months to recharge the device. And when he got back, he'd find that Prime was entrenched in his life.

    He sat there, trying the switch every fifteen minutes until three in the morning. He was cold, but finally he fell asleep on the grass, leaning against the Civil War Memorial.

    He awoke at dawn, the sun in his eyes as it streamed down Washington Avenue. He stood and jumped up and down to revive his body. His back ached, but the kinks receded after he did some stretches.

    At a donut shop off the square, he bought a glazed and an orange juice with the change he had left over from the almanac. A dozen people filed in over the course of an hour to buy donuts and coffee before church or work. On the surface, this world was a lot like his.

    John couldn't stand the waiting. He walked across the square and climbed the library steps and yanked at the door. They were locked, and he saw the sign showing the library's hours. It was closed until noon.

    John looked around. There was an alcove behind the lions with a bench. No one would easily see him from the street. He sat there and tried the device. Nothing.

    He continued to try the lever every ten or fifteen minutes. As he sat on the steps of the library, his apprehension grew. He was going to miss school. He was going to miss more than twenty-four hours. He was going to miss the rest of his life. Why wouldn't the device work like it was supposed to?

    He realized then that everything Prime had told him was probably a lie. He had to assume that he was the victim of Prime's scheming, trapped in another universe. The question was how he would return to his life.

    He had the device. It had worked once, to bring him from Universe 7533 to Universe 7534. It would not allow him to return because it wasn't recharged yet. It took longer than -- he checked his watch -- twenty hours to recharge the device apparently.

    He stopped. He was basing that logic on information he got from Prime. Nothing that Prime had said could be used as valid information. Only things that John had seen or gotten from a valid source were true. And Prime was not a valid source.

    The twelve hour recharge time was false. He had assumed that it meant the length of time was what was false in Prime's statement. What if there was no recharge time at all?

    There were two possibilities that John could see. First, there was no recharge time and he was being prevented from returning to his universe for some other reason. Second, the device no longer worked. Perhaps he had used the last of its energy source.

    For some reason he still wanted to believe Prime. If it was simply a mechanical issue, then he could use intelligence to solve the problem. Maybe Prime was truthful, and something happened to the device that he didn't know about. Maybe Prime would be surprised when John never returned with the device, effectively trapping Prime in John's life. Prime might even think that John had stolen his device.

    But mechanical failure seemed unlikely. Prime said he had used the device 100 times. His home universe was around 7433. If he'd used it exactly 100 times, that was the distance in universes between John's and Prime's. Did that mean he only used the device to move forward one universe at a time? Or did he hop around? No, the numbers were too similar. Prime probably moved from one universe to the next systematically.

    John decided that he was just too ignorant to ignore all of Prime's information. Some of it had to be taken at face value.

    The 100 number indicated that John only incremented the universe counter upward. Why? Did the device only allow travel in one direction?

    He played with the theory, fitting the pieces together. The device was defective or designed in such a way that only travel upward was allowed. Prime mentioned the recharge time to eliminate any possibility of a demonstration. There was perhaps no recharge time. The device was of no value to Prime, since he planned to stay. That explained the personal questions Prime had asked; he wanted to ease into John's life. Some things he knew, but other things he had to learn from John.

    The fury built in John.

    "Bastard!" he said softly. Prime had screwed him. He'd tempted him with universes, and John had fallen for it. And now he was in another universe, where he didn't exist. He had to get back.

    There was nothing to do, he realized, but test the theory.

    He pulled his backpack onto his shoulders and checked around the bench for his things. Then, with a quick check to see if anyone was looking, he toggled the device to 7535 and pulled the lever.

    He fell.


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