Breaking Character

September 8, 2010
By
Warell looked in the rearview mirror at himself. Across his cheek was a gash where a bullet had grazed him. There were a few cuts and bruises on his forehead from scraping it against the side of the helicopter. An egg-sized bump on his forehead where he had slammed into the dashboard made his face lopsided. He wiggled his hands and feet. Nothing was visibly broken.

His former allies had double-crossed him, but Warell was not the sort of man you double crossed. He was the sort of man that would want answers. Right now, all he had was a name, Dr. Adam Brown, and a location, this hamlet somewhere in the British Isles. Warell looked around at the sloping meadows and the rows of brownstone houses with their perfect little yards in the distance. He already hated it.

He turned to the driver. “All right,” he said. “They certainly know we’re here. Once that big manor back there disappears from our rearview mirror, I’ll jump out. Continue driving and find your way back into London. Wait at the safe house for my instructions. Desert Djinn protocol.”

“Yes sir,” replied the driver. “Will you be requiring any... help? Perhaps your M41A?”

“Not this time,” said Warell regretfully, pulling out his sidearm and giving it to the driver. “Hopefully this’ll go peacefully.”

Warell hopped out of the car, and began to limp towards the town, not looking back. Taking his time as he came closer and closer to the address written on the scrap in his pocket.

A pick-up truck rolled up behind Warell. “Hey, mister,” said the man. “Need a ride? You look like you need to be in the hospital.” Warell gave the man a cold, appraising look.

Warell stepped closer to the truck, quickly scanning the interior. Although the truck was clearly not owned by a movie star, there were no signs of imminent danger.

“Sure, thanks,” said Warell with a false gratitude, and climbed in the passenger seat. Warell didn’t trust the man, but a ride was a ride. A fly buzzed in through the open window, grazing the driver’s ear, and the man almost jumped out of his seat, only restrained by the seat belt. Warell barely suppressed the urge to snort derisively.

The man pushed a few soccer balls which occupied the passenger seat to the back.

“Just dropped my son off to his soccer game,” said the man. Warell nodded. There was an awkward silence.

The man held out his hand. “I’m Joe Bauzerman, by the way.”

“Warren Reford.”

“I’ll take you to the hospital,” said Joe, reaching for his GPS.

“Actually, do you know someone named Dr. Adam Brown. Could you take me to his house?”

Joe looked at Warell, eyes wide. “Why do you want to go to Dr. Brown’s house?”

Warell, answered evenly, “Oh he’s my sister’s best friend’s colleague, and I have to give him something.”

“He has a job?” asked Joe, surprise filling his voice. “The whole village thought he was unemployed! Personally, I thought he was a geek with a PhD who couldn’t get a job.”

Warell grunted noncommittally. “Oh, yeah. He’s a professor at…um… a university in the States.”

“Oh that explains why he's been missing. First of May’s the first time in five years Brown hasn’t gone into his front yard to check his terrorist traps. Haven’t seen him since. I saw him do it once. He claimed they’re real special, but they look like big mouse traps to me. Other than that, he never shows his face. Shuts himself in his house. Quite anti-social, if you ask me.”

“My son Harry, now he has all these theories. I think it’s that big house of his, looks like something from my son’s comic books, lights flashing in the windows, and everything padlocked. Harry’s always going on about Dr. Brown. When he’s reading Harry Potter Dr. Brown is a wizard and when he’s reading Artemis Fowl Dr. Brown is a international jewelry thief, and when he’s gets up from staring at the telly, Dr. Brown’s an American secret agent. You’re American, right?”

Warell nodded.

“Course, I can’s see that, not with the way he dresses. The wizard stuff maybe, not American. Never seen him without a leather jerkin. I don’t know where he gets the stuff. Must have to special order it.”

“Wonder why he would need something like that,” Warell said cautiously. “Is there a renaissance fair or something?"

Joe laughed. “Na. Even that’s too exciting for Exning.”

The truck rolled up to a small, brown house. “Well, there you go,” said Joe. “Dr. Brown’s house.”

As Warell exited the truck, he forced himself to thank Joe, albeit slightly tight lipped. Warell reminded himself to walk normally towards the house.

It was clear that the place was abandoned. Weeds grew in the cracks between the brick pavers of the path to the door. Flower-boxes under the house's four, modest square windows held dry stalks of petunias that might have gone unwatered for seasons.

There were signs of more than just neglect. Though the house could use a new coat of paint, and the lawn needed mown, someone had taken great care with the windows and doors. There were seven separate locks on the front door. One a key pad, a deadbolt, some complicated looking puzzle, even something that might have been used for voice recognition. A faint blue light around the windows told Warell's experienced eyes that they were rigged up with laser sensors. However, it was clear that they hadn’t been used in a while. The keypad was covered with some green moss. In fact, Warell was not even sure if it was a keypad, there was so much moss covering it.

Warell paused on the path to the door. Clearly this Dr. Brown knew something about gadgetry. He wrapped his fingers in his sleeve so as not to leave fingerprints and cautiously turned the doorknob. To his considerable surprise, it opened.

Always a cautious man, Warell checked his pocket for his preferred weapon, a small pin. Warell was not one for hand to hand combat. He much preferred poison.

He slowly walked inside and shut the door.

“Hello?” Warell called tentatively. No one answered.

Warell walked cautiously down the corridor. He took a random turn and ended up in what looked like a living room.

After his eyes had adjusted, he scanned the room. It was amazingly tidy, with two sides of the room covered in shelves that were in turn filled with tomes and academic papers. Looking more closely, Warell noticed that Dr. Brown had actually created his own classification for his books and papers. It seemed to consist of the subcategories physics, technology, construction, psychology, and military. On the side in front on Warell was a desk. On it was some of the most bizarre technology Warell had ever seen, including what looked to be several laptops welded together along with an assortment of sensors, phones and calculators. Dr. Brown was meticulous in some things, but clearly no genius engineer.

Warell backed out of that room and moved to the next room. He proceeded into this room with less caution, but still gripped the pin tightly.

Warell found himself in a small library. There was no one there. Warell glanced at the shelves full of books and began reading the spines. The titles jumped out at him: Quantum Physics, The Wonders of Theoretical Physics, Time and You, Discovering Time Travel, The Grandfather Paradox, Understanding Gravitational Time Dilation, Chronology Protection Conjecture, and Wormholes.

Warell shook his head. He didn’t understand what half of those words meant. He turned to the next shelf, which contained titles such as Taming Animals from Bears to Crocodiles, Think You Can Build An Underground River, and Building a Labyrinth.

Warell shook his head again. This Dr. Brown clearly had far too many hobbies. It looked like history had a special place on that list. On the table sat a yellowed parchment.

He bent down to examine the document further.

The humming was so low that Warell had not noticed it. However, he soon registered a faint humming near his ear and waved his hands, cursing the lack of screens on the windows. But it was no bug that was bothering Warell.

Warell soon realized the humming was coming from below his feet, and it was getting stronger. It got louder and louder before the ground and Warell began shaking. Several glasses moved. Warell stepped deeper into the dim room.

Warell quickly descended the stairs to the basement. As he pushed the basement door open, a large cylinder in the corner of the basement caught his eye. He took a step towards it, and was astounded when the floor below him slid away. As he plunged down, he tried to grab at the edges of the floor-- to no avail.

After a few moments free-fall, Warell landed on a spongy substance.

Warell looked around. He was in a dark labyrinth, clearly a device of Dr. Brown’s devising. Warell cursed himself for being caught unawares.

Only then did he notice he was sinking into the spongy substance. He gave a cry and pulled his hand out of the substance. Warell dived out from the spongy substance, relieved that it did not harm him.

He walked down a tunnel, his phone a portable flashlight. Suddenly, he felt something tighten around his arm. The spongy substance was hardening.

Warell looked around, desperate to get the goo off of him. He spotted a small creek several meters away, and struggled over to it. Warell leapt into the creek, immediately feeling the goo relinquish its hold on him and slide away.

What he didn’t feel was the log at his feet. Unfortunately, this log had eyes, a snout, and gaping jaws.

Warell turned around and grabbed onto the log for support. Although, in his youth, Warell had been a state champion in 200 meters backstroke, he found himself struggling to keep afloat now.

He held to the log, which seemed to twist with a volition all its own. Bucking and rolling, and moving less like a log and more like an enraged crocodile, which, in fact, it was. The crocodile twisted around, snapping at Warell. The crocodile took off and dived under the water.

There, as Warell looked around with his blurred vision, he saw there was not one, not two, not three, but four crocodiles watching him hungrily. And, in a surprisingly synchronized fashion, they dived at him.

Warell gave a shriek, but only succeeded in gulping in the murky water. As the crocodiles closed in on him, Warell jumped onto the one closest to the surface. Immediately as his foot made contact with the rough skin of the crocodile, he pushed off and found himself on the surface.

Fortunately for Warell, the bank was only meters away, and he managed to hit the bank moments before the crocodiles closed in on him.

Dripping wet, Warell neared three metal doors, labeled with hanging metal placards Shaft 1, Shaft 2, and Shaft 3.

Warell swore. Another amateur puzzle. No doubt one of the shafts led up to the house, while the other two held certain death. Warell pressed his ears against each door, trying to hear what was inside. He could hear nothing.

Warell slowly drew his pin with the neurotoxin, and moved towards the door on the right. He pressed himself against the wall next to the door, and kicked it open.

A gust of wind rushed out of the door, followed by a giant black bear. Warell stumbled back, taken aback by the sheer size of the black bear.

The bear spotted him, and leapt. Warell cowered, and threw the pin.

The pin struck the black bear in the chest. The bear fell with a thud to the ground, knocked out for a good six hours. Warell couldn’t bear the thought of being in this lunatic obstacle course for any longer than that.

Warell turned to the other two doors. Two doors? He chanced a guess, and pulled on the closest handle.

Nothing leapt out at Warell to rip him to shreds, no machine guns turned on Warell, and no toxic fumes threatened to suffocate him.

He stepped into an empty cylinder. He looked up, and saw a patch of light glowing from the top. But how to get up there?

Warell ran his hands across the interior of the cylinder. It was perfectly smooth.

Warell sighed, and made his way towards the door.

Suddenly, the metal plate beneath Warell’s feet began rising quickly, and Warell found himself shooting upwards.

A few seconds later, Warell shot up through the ground and crashed into the ceiling. Unfortunately, it seemed Dr. Brown had purposely left the ceiling unpadded. Warell crashed back to the ground, and slowly picked himself up.

He was almost exactly where he had fallen down through the trapdoor. However, this time, he was on the other side of the trapdoor.

Relieved, he began looking around the dark, musty basement.

In the corner, he saw a large cylinder. The cylinder had a numerical display at the top.

At the moment, the display showed a four-digit number: 1413. Below that display, Warell saw a computer screen. He reached out and touched the screen. The screen displayed a keypad requesting a 10-digit passcode.

Warell groaned. Ten minutes later, the screen flashed vermillion when he input 0987654321. His adversary was paranoid, but not terrifically creative. Warell thought of the caged animals, the carnivorous plants, the lures and traps inspired by B-movie adventure stories and juvenile fiction.

As he waited for the next gag to appear, large as life, he felt a strange surge of responsibility, as though he was a parent to the generation of children who had been fed daily on cartoons and stories simpler and more appealing than real life. Had things gotten so bad, he wondered, that the terrors of ill-conceived adventures were worth the risk to bring into real life?

In front of him, the screen divided into two displays, labeled Energy Source and Time. Warell touched the Time display.

A bar appeared on the screen. A dynamic replica of the timelines that wound themselves around elementary school walls, and through the chapter headings of history textbooks. It was centered on 1413. Warell touched and dragged it, the colors shifting as if zoomed to 1500. He dragged it to the left to 1345, to 1212. He pulled it to the right up to the present day.

Could it be possible? The same man who had trafficked in bears and crocodiles because there had been no one to tell him better, would his machine work?

The moment it reached the present day, a series of lights on the cylinder lit up in the shape of a door, a siren wailed, and Warell was knocked off his feet by a gust of wind.

The machine fell silent, only the lights flashing, like a marquee.

From between the lights a door opened. Out stepped a young man with wild hair. He was wearing a medieval tunic, and from his belt hung a sword. He teetered back and forth and clutched at the smooth sides of the chamber within.

Warell and the man stared at each other.

“Who are you?” asked Warell.

As an answer, the stranger drew his sword and began hacking wildly at Warell. Warell dodged several of the man’s desperate swings and lunged. It took Warell a moment to gain the upper hand. With fingers in a chokehold around the man’s straining throat, he repeated the question. Up close the man looked little more than a boy, underfed and scrappy. Strangely his hair too was peppered with grey.

The man gasped, “Please. Please, the distortion. The pulmonary veins.” He was speaking feverishly, broken and gasping.

“Who,” Warell demanded.

“From the past,” the flailing man managed to say.

“I don’t believe you. Who are you?”

Before he got an answer, Warell felt the man go limp. He’d fainted.

Warell bound the limp man’s hands and legs matter of factly and approached the machine. Could it be possible? There was no doubt in his mind that the man was a lunatic. But he’d known many brilliant lunatics, they were, if anything, more useful and more common than people suspected.

Could it be possible? Or were the lights and dials all part of this man’s delusion. Had he surrounded himself with props so life-like he would never need to break character? But then, if he were just another British eccentric, why would Zeol have prized him so highly?

Perhaps it was because Warell couldn’t quite bring himself to believe that he entered the chamber, with its simple, childlike dial. Closed the door. Turned the handle to 1942 and pressed the only other button, GO. And perhaps it was because he did believe, just a little, that his heart then contracted painfully in his chest, or perhaps that was what it felt like to travel through time.





Join the Discussion

This article has 3 comments. Post your own now!

Kenneth said...
Sept. 18, 2010 at 1:01 am
Good story overall. Straight up action with some science tossed in.
 
Stephanie said...
Sept. 15, 2010 at 8:34 pm
Very well written! The dialogue and imagery drive the plot, while keeping the reader intrigued. I enjoyed the description of the clutter in the house. Makes me wonder what will happen in "1942."
 
Author replied...
Sept. 16, 2010 at 3:05 am
Thanks. '1942' was a slightly arbitrary number, but it may set the stage for future stories I will write.
 
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