Two weeks ago we gave you the first episode/chapter of Disruption. We heard from many that they wanted to submit stories but felt intimidated. This second chapter explores characters that we saw in the first one, but shifts to a male point of view character. We hope this leaves you with a few more dangling threads to explore. Someone’s got to save the day. Will it be you? Next week we’ll present some of the submissions we’ve received already to give you a bit more time to write. You have two weeks to pick up the story. Do it. You know you want to. Here are the rules and the submission page.
2. Clowder by Salomé Jones (© 2016 All rights reserved)
“I… think I’ve killed my next door neighbor.”
That was the only thing Owen was sure Ajeetha had just said. It had been followed by a panicked torrent of words he’d be hard pressed to summarize. Something to do with synchronous cats?
“His wife is worried about him. I don’t know what to do. I can’t keep all these cats here. Shit, shit, shit.”
“I don’t understand what’s happening.”
“Someone broke into my lab. It’s… you’ll never believe me if I explain it. Just come over, please. I’ll show you.”
“I was about to head home—”
“Bring cat food. Lots of it.”
The line went dead, so he did what any sane person would do—he grabbed his coat, went out to his car, and started driving home.
Ajeetha had been a work friend, but she’d left the lab four years ago. They’d spoken a bit since, work-related mostly. He’d been to her house once, ages ago, when she’d hosted a research project wrap-up party. Just cocktails and sciencey chit chat with a few colleagues. She’d always been really into science, even in her spare time. To him the lab was mostly a job. He’d become a researcher because he wanted to help move technology into the future. But those kinds of discoveries were few and far between, he’d found.
What the hell had she been on about anyway? “Synchronized! They’re synchronized. It’s creepy as hell.” Surely she couldn’t have been yelling that. And someone broke into the lab? The more he thought about it, the more his curiosity was piqued. At the next left, he turned off the road to his house and pulled a U-turn to head towards Ajeetha’s neighborhood. As he passed Pet Supplies Plus, he recalled her demand for cat food. That had to have been a joke. Still, he found himself pulling into the store’s parking lot. He sat there in his car for a few seconds, considering whether he was going to regret this. She had definitely sounded in urgent need of cat food. Owen sighed. “Why do I do these things?” he asked the car. It didn’t reply. He got out and went into the store.
Ten minutes later he was back on his way to Ajeetha’s with a ten pound bag of dry cat food. Chicken and fish flavor.
He drove slowly, his mind elsewhere, trying to remember what she said she’d been working on the last time they’d talked. She’d asked questions about quantum physics. But what kind of failed quantum entanglement experiment could end in a pressing need for cat food?
A few minutes later he pulled into her driveway. The sun had recently set and the porch light was on. He recognized it, a white ranch-style house next to a green two-story. It was on a substantial lot, divided from the neighbor’s yard by a six foot high plank privacy fence in back. The only other houses were across the street.
He turned off the ignition, grabbed the bag of cat food, and went to the front door. The neighborhood looked quiet. From what he could tell in the dim light, the houses were all well kept. Ajeetha’s had a bed full of colorful plants under the big front window. He rang the bell and waited. The lawn looked recently mowed, and he wondered if she had someone who did it for her. He tried to imagine her riding a mower, but in the end he decided she would be more an electric mower kind of person. Maybe she’d even use one of those old fashioned push-mowers, the kind that ran on human energy alone. She had plenty of that.
When she didn’t come to the door, he rang the bell a second time and then knocked firmly. It was then he noticed that her car wasn’t in the driveway. As he stood there wondering what to do, a woman stuck her head out of the neighboring house.
“Hello,” she called.
“Uh, hello,” Owen said.
“I don’t think she’s home. She drove off about half an hour ago.”
“Um, okay. Thanks.” Owen shrugged and went down to his car. He tossed the cat food on the passenger seat and started the engine. As he was backing out of the driveway, his cell phone began to ring in his pocket. He stepped on the brake and answered it.
“Owen, it’s Ajeetha.”
“Listen, Owen. I’m home. I see you in the driveway. I’m trying to dodge the neighbor, Julie. She’s the wife of the… well, the guy who… lives there.”
“Ajee-” he began again.
“Can you drive away down the block, maybe turn the corner and park in the church parking lot? Then walk back here. Try not to be seen! Use the back door to get in.”
“Are you going to tell me what this is about?”
“That depends. Did you bring cat food?”
“I did. Ten pound bag.”
“Good. See you in a minute. Back door, remember.” She clicked off.
“What the hell?” Owen muttered. There was no way he wasn’t going to see this through now, though. “If this is a joke…”
He drove down a block. He could see the church steeple silhouetted against the faint light of the horizon. The parking lot was bathed in the glow of street lights. He pulled in and parked, picked up the cat food and walked back along the road to the house. In order to avoid being seen, he was going to have to stay away from the circle of light from the front porch.
He didn’t remember where the gate into the back yard was, but there was really only one logical place to look for it. He approached the fence on the opposite side of the house from the neighbor. He turned on the flashlight on his cell phone, covering it with his hand to restrict the light. In the glow, he easily found the latch. What looked like wild grape vines had overgrown the fence and he had to wrestle with the gate to pull it open. When it finally broke free, it made a loud juddering noise that seemed to ricochet around the neighborhood, bouncing off every house on the street. He clamped his mouth shut, his heart thumping. When he saw no sign that anyone had noticed, he dodged inside and shut the gate behind him. What had he been going to do if someone had heard, he wondered. No idea.
He skirted the flowers growing around the side of the house, half imagining a helicopter appearing out of the darkness and shining a spotlight on him. As he rounded the corner of the house, a bright light came on from above. For a moment he believed his worst imaginings had come true. But then he realized it was the back porch light. It must have been on a motion detector. As quickly as it had come on, it blinked off. Too quickly to have been because he stopped moving.
In the darkness, he could see a wedge of light coming from the house. As he got closer to it, he saw that the sliding glass door into the house was covered by drapes, except for about a foot of it, where the drapes had been pulled back and the glass door itself stood a few inches open. There was only a sliding screen covering the gap.
A shadow moved across the light. He heard the screen door slide open. A hand extended through the gap, motioned him in and disappeared inside again.
He climbed up onto the porch, slid the screen door further open and stepped into a kitchen lit only by the light over the stove. It was tidy and smelled of lemons.
As soon as he got inside, Ajeetha pushed the glass door shut and closed the drapes. “Did anyone see you?”
He held out the cat food. “I don’t think so.”
She took it and set it on the counter. “Thanks.”
He looked around. “So couldn’t you have made this more like committing a felony?”
She flipped on the overhead light. The kitchen was spotless and clear of clutter, except for some cat paraphernalia – a box with a blanket in it, a food dish and a bowl of water.
She took a deep breath and said, “You’re going to have to suspend your disbelief for a few minutes.”
“I can’t promise that, but go ahead.”
She gave him what he remembered as her stern look. “This—” She pointed toward the door into the rest of the house. “—is Disruption.”
He followed her finger. A sleek grey cat with black spots appeared in the doorway, an interested look on his face.
“I call him Diss for short. He used to be called Wizard, and hopefully will be again. He’s a cat. Or should I say, he’s the cat.”
“So far I’m with you. I think. What do you mean by the cat”?
“Just remember that the one with the collar on is the real cat. Let’s go out into the lab.” She flipped a switch, but nothing seemed to happen.
She motioned him through a door that should have connected to the garage. He went through, Ajeetha close behind him. Inside, the room was brightly lit. Its walls were lined with metal shelving units stacked with glass lab equipment and high tech gadgets. A long table served as a work station. Papers and file folders were scattered in neat piles along its length. The thing that caught his attention, though, was a glass-sided chamber, about two meters high. It was hexagonally shaped, with a patterned metal grid on the inside of the glass and a door panel with a thick rubber gasket around it. A small control box was affixed to one side, with several buttons on it and a book-sized LED screen. A larger box that reminded him of a DNA sequencer unit was under it. Several other technological devices were arranged around the back of it in the form of a sprawling double pyramid. It was difficult to see details.
There was something odd about it all though, even just from an aesthetic point of view. It was like looking at something built to be strangely beautiful rather than functional. Not the sleek, boxy tech he was used to, by any means.
“What is that?”
Ajeetha rubbed her forehead and let out an exasperated sounding sigh. “It’s a transporter.”
“A transporter? Like…?”
“It transports things.”
“Three dimensional printer?”
“Not really, no. It… sends or receives… objects. Or… that’s what it was designed to do.”
“Does it work?”
Owen felt his eyebrows creeping up his forehead.
“I see you’re not convinced. Your eyebrows give you away every time, Owen. It would be funny if this wasn’t very serious.”
He made an effort to lower his eyebrows, resulting in what felt like a scowl.
“I’ve been thinking about the best way to show you that it works, given everything. By the way, did Julie see you when you drove up to the house?”
He nodded. “She even told me how long you’d been gone.”
“Yes, she’s watching me. She knows her husband came over here and he hasn’t come back home. So given that, I feel under some pressure to avoid doing anything that will give me away. As soon as I do this, it’s going to be urgent that we get this machine and its mate out of my house and into a proper lab. But I have reservations about doing that because…”
“All sorts of ethical reasons, but also because my next door neighbor’s life depends on me figuring out how to reverse what’s happened to him.”
Owen looked at her. She looked the same as ever. Serious, pretty in a natural way. No makeup as far as he could tell, just smooth, brown skin and dark eyes. Did that mean anything? Psychology and physics were worlds apart.
“Can you just tell me what happened? I think you might be in some sort of… I don’t know.” How could he say she seemed crazy without saying she was, well, crazy?
She shook her head and smiled, a little grimly. “I have to preface this next bit by saying I’m not a hundred percent sure what will happen when I bring him back here. But hey, it’s unlikely to be worse that it already is.” She pushed several buttons of the side of the chamber. It started to hum.
“This is why I need your help, Owen. I recommend not looking directly at the chamber. It gets a bit… bright.”
There was no way he wasn’t going to look directly at it. For a minute nothing seemed to happen, though he could hear a high pitched tone from somewhere. Then the noise jumped to the glass chamber, and got much louder. Blue electric sparks arced from the top of the thing to the pyramid behind, like a miniature lightning bolt. It flared, dazzling him, and he winced. One second he was rubbing his eyes and the next, the chamber floor was covered in cats.
They looked up at Ajeetha, and then slowly turned their attention to him. All of them. Simultaneously.
“Oh, thank god. They seem to be all right.” Ajeetha had moved close to the glass.
“Where did they come from?” Owen demanded. “Do you have a trap door in there? Or…” He trailed off. The chamber was solid and transparent. The floor was concrete.
Ajeetha smiled nastily. “This is Harley. He used to live next door. Now he’s a clowder of cats that I just transported back here from the device in my shed. Do you understand my problem now?”
Owen swallowed. “I think you’d better start from the beginning. And do you have any Scotch?”
“Will vodka do?”
When he nodded, she motioned him back into the house.
He sat down at the bar in the kitchen. She took out two small tumblers and poured from a bottle she produced from a high cupboard.
“Ice?” She half turned toward the fridge.
He shook his head. “Just explain this. You… You’re a genius. I had no idea how brilliant you were. Did you do this by yourself? How did you do this?” He took a drink.
“Right. I’m the only genius brilliant enough to think I could safely construct a piece of world-changing technology in my garage lab. I’m a genius who out-thought the obvious issues to create a whole heap of other, nastier issues. Pure brilliance.”
“How did this happen? I mean, how did your neighbor…?”
“As far as I can tell, he sneaked in when I took Diss to the vet. He’d been trying to see what I was doing. So, Diss is a cat that I found on the road. He’d been hit by a car. He was dead. Clearly, unmistakably dead. It seemed safe to use him as a test. I’d tried transporting a rock. I wanted something organic.”
“Dead? But that means…” He wanted to not believe what she was saying. Obviously it was impossible. And yet, he did believe her. Those cats had materialized out of thin air. There was no need to embellish.
“Yes. To my shock, teleporting him out to the other machine in the shed brought him back to life.” She downed her drink, poured another.
“I saw what I thought was a DNA sequencer.”
She nodded. “Yes. I introduced it as a safeguard. I sampled the cat’s DNA and input it into the machine to protect the subject’s integrity. When I found the cat suddenly alive in the other machine, I forgot all about everything else and took him to see an emergency vet. When I got back, I found… Well, them.”
A half dozen questions arose in Owen’s mind. “Do you realize what this means? The implications…”
“I haven’t exactly had time to process all the implications.” Ajeetha looked a little wild.
“No, no, of course not. Can you reverse it? Can’t you just, you know… Re-do whatever you did, and turn him back?”
“I don’t know how. I didn’t make a contingency plan for the neighbor turning himself into a herd of cats. I mean, yes, there might be a—”
The doorbell rang. Ajeetha’s eyes darted toward the living room.
“Are you going to answer it?” Owen whispered.
Ajeetha spread her hands. “Sure. Why not? Unless it’s Julie.”
She got up from the stool. Owen followed her toward the door, but stopped in the kitchen doorway. Ajeetha put her eye to the peephole. She put a hand over her mouth and turned to face him, her eyes wide.
“It’s the police,” she whispered. “Shit.”