“Comin’ through!” McNeal shouted into the hallway, noting it partially filled with people. He repeated this call to give them enough fair warning to either stop still or stand to the side. As he rounded the main concourse, he eyed the main laboratory doors and focused on them like a laser beam, pushing power into his legs and leaning forward like an Olympic sprinter. Within the next moment, he slammed his shoulder into the center crease of the double doors, causing one of them to explosively give way, and the other to shred its moorings, twist once and fall to the floor behind him with a loud whump. He ignored it as he half-stumbled the remaining distance into the lab. What he witnessed there, chilled him to the bone.
Suspended in the lab’s center floor hovered a shimmering disk, like a fairy-tale looking-glass, silently commanding attention. His lab partner Montgomery Beck stood before it, out of breath as though he’d just exerted an extraordinary effort.
McNeal ran toward Beck, only to watch helplessly as Beck grabbed his chest in pain and slumped to his knees. McNeal caught him as he teetered sideways and closed his eyes.
Beck’s last words came in a startled whisper, “Oh, that’s not fair. Not fair at all.”
Then his heart stopped, and he simply died.
McNeal looked up toward the Portal window, eliciting his widened eyes and furrowed brow. Marcus Journey now stood on the other side, but apparently could not see McNeal.
How did he get there?
Then McNeal witnessed half a dozen armed men aggressively approach from the shadows behind Journey, as if taking down a fugitive. McNeal reached out, then gasped in surprise as the Portal evaporated. He held his hand there for several moments, frozen and unable to respond. Before McNeal could regain focus, another Portal appeared, startling him. With a shout, a man fell out in the other direction, onto the raised platform. The portal dissipated and the lab went silent, except for the visitor’s heavy, labored breathing, as though in pain. Certainly, Beck had passed beyond McNeal’s assistance, so he gently laid Beck’s head on the floor, and rose to inquire of the visitor’s needs. He slowly circled around the visitor, now shocked to realize his identity.
Journey nodded, and when McNeal extended his hand to help, Journey snatched it, pulled McNeal down into his chest and gave him a long, firm hug. “It’s so good to see you, Scott!” Journey whispered, taking another deep breath.
“Where have – “ McNeal almost choked from the stench of his breath and body. A mixture of burning ash, flesh and sulphur?
“Where have you been?”
Journey’s eyes widened, staring directly, intensely into McNeal’s, “Your trip, Scott,” he started to sob, and through quivering lips, repeated with a passion that came from his deepest soul, “Your trip -”
McNeal’s eyes focused, trying to comprehend this. If Marcus spoke the truth, then he’d just finished a wide-awake nightmare, a living horror story.
Journey had actually taken the trip and returned safely?
McNeal glanced over at the control panel in realization, then whispered, “No –“
Journey swooned and slumped to the floor, rapidly descending into unconsciousness.
McNeal lifted Journey, who stirred briefly enough to carry his own weight, and moved him into the lab’s tiny lounge, depositing him in a heap on its only sofa. He fetched a large tumbler of drinking water. Journey groggily lifted himself, guzzled it completely, and then fell back against the cushions to rest.
“Oh, no you don’t!” McNeal tried to stir Journey back to consciousness, shaking him hard several times. “No you don’t! I have questions, where - ?”
But Journey had passed out cold.
McNeal stared at his friend and colleague for endless minutes, realizing that in the few brief seconds of Journey’s absence, he had also spent a number of days, perhaps weeks, in the circuits of history. His eyes fell to Journey’s clothes. Military-style olive drab with camouflage markings. Water resistant slip-ons. And the reek of human musk, animal urine and the telltale odor of seared flesh. McNeal furrowed his brow, slowly shook his head, then gathered his senses and returned to the lab area.
With Beck still lifeless on the floor, McNeal slowly tapped numbers into his phone, calling for a medical and security detail to the lab. He found a white lab coat and respectfully draped it over Beck’s upper body and face. He stared at Beck’s form for a long while, his mind and emotions overloaded.
When Marcus awakes, I need to know. What did he see?
McNeal willed himself to focus, mechanically returned to the machine’s control console and started digging around inside its instruction cache. He cobbled together the itinerary instruction files he’d originally created to drive the machine, and sent them to the printer. It contained a rough draft of the trip’s dates, times and places, in their order of execution. He titled it “Marcus Journey Itinerary” and placed the several sheets near the control panel.
Presently the medical detail arrived to receive Montgomery Beck. McNeal told them that Beck had simply keeled over. They thanked him and offered their sympathy. McNeal watched in shocked silence as they professionally and robotically packaged up Beck and rolled him out.
Over the next hour, McNeal periodically returned to check on Journey, but on the last check, he found the sofa empty. He darted out into the lab, then the hallway to look for any sign, but Journey had vanished. In a confused fog, McNeal strolled slowly back into the lab area, As he entered the main floor, he observed an elderly man diligently tapping away on the machine’s control console keyboard. He took several long, quick steps towards him, “Hey, get away from that - !”
But when the man briefly glanced up, continuing to tap without skipping a beat, McNeal saw something he would never forget. Marcus Journey once again stood before him, no longer the mid-30s up-and-coming scientist, but a weathered and world-weary man in his eighties, or beyond. His acumen on the keyboard, however, had not changed, and his fingers danced on it as though afire.
“Good to see you again, Scott,” Journey smiled without looking up, his voice bubbling with the confidence of age and wisdom, “We need to talk.”
“Yes we do,” McNeal could only agree. What on earth is going on?
“Have a seat,” Journey said tersely, still focused on the control panel, speaking almost as though late for another appointment. “I have a story to tell.”
McNeal started to speak, “Marcus, I – “
Journey looked him in the eyes, held up a finger as if to say, hold that thought, then pointed to the lab’s center floor. After several seconds, another shimmering Portal appeared.
Out stepped a man in his early twenties, who could easily pass for Marcus Journey in a younger form, with thick brown hair, hazel green eyes and wide smile. The same six-foot-one-inch height, but a more athletic frame than Journey’s heavier, big-boned form. Except for now of course. Age had withered his body.
But not his mind.
“Dad?” the young man called, taking several quick steps toward Journey.
“Hello, son,” Journey responded with a beaming smile. They shared a quick, loving hug.
Marcus has a family? Since when?
Journey invited the young man to sit. “Scott, this is my son Jacob.”
Scott reached out to shake Jacob’s hand, not knowing how to respond.
“Remember that conversation we had about getting lost in the technical?”
“Yes I do,” McNeal laughed, recalling their revelry about Journey’s habit of watching a movie and critiquing the cinematography without appreciating the storyline.
The young man rolled his eyes, as if fully understanding this aspect of his father.