Another short story. The theme: ‘a funny thing happened to me in hyperspace’.
Liquid mildew, chemical pine and cigarette butts. Lilting accents strained through radio static. The dim lights of an industrial leviathan – heavy with freight – navigating the channel. The rustling foil of a crisp packet, followed by Tom’s enthusiastic crunching.
Her face up against the glass, Sam squints through the grime and muck, and out into the murk. Her right leg, in a moment of treachery, surrenders to the numbness. Still, he had assured her that this evening would be worth seeing – the first gasp of something that could change everything.
When pressed, he had done his best to explain and she, in turn, had tried her best to understand. But it hadn’t quite stuck.
“I’m sorry, H, but I lost you at the bit with the strings.” Sam bites her bottom lip, and – squirming in her seat – inadvertently elbows Dylan in the ribs. He yelps. The glove compartment snaps shut.
“Look, just forget I said anything about the damned strings.”
“Believe me, it’s not going to make the slightest bit of different.” He catches her expression in the rear view mirror, and cranes his neck round to face her. “I mean, I’ve got two, almost three, years of this under my belt, and even I’m not entirely sure why it works.”
“Right.” says Dylan, “But you’re sure that it’s safe?”
To Sam, Hwyel’s response sounds too confident, too polished. She hesitates, but doesn’t say anything. Turning the question over in her mind, examining it from all angles, she searches for a gut instinct that is, for once, conspicuous in its absence. Nothing there. No answers.
“Reckon that’s Zoe?” asks Dylan, gesturing at a light just beyond the hedgerow.
“Must be.” says Tom, entrenching himself in the sagging upholstery of the main passenger seat. “She said she’d be out, oh” – he glances at his watch – “at least twenty minutes ago. Probably more.”
As the light approaches, Hywel winds down the window.
“About bloody time. We’d almost given up on you.”
Close cropped hair – recently bleached “as a symbol of, like, autonomy” – and wide staring eyes, Zoe twists her torch, plunging them back into twilight. Blanking Hywel, she pokes her head through the other window. Automatically, Sam smiles. Zoe is nice. Safe. Inoffensive.
“‘Sup, Sam? Dylan. There enough room for me in the front, Tom?”
Hywel glances over at Tom, who sighs, then nods. Zoe grins.
Somehow, Tom disentangles himself from Hywel’s overenthusiastic exercise in wiring, and clambers into the back. Dumping her canvas shoulder-bag somewhere in the vehicle’s murky depths, Zoe perches on the passenger seat. As she leans over to fiddle with the radio, Hywel bats her hand away from the dials.
“Don’t.” he says, firmly, “It’ll interfere with the electronics.”
While Tom struggles to accommodate the mysterious contents of a large, black bin-liner, Zoe turns to the others, rolling her eyes in mock exasperation.
“Did you sort out the interface?” asks Hywel, kick-starting the ignition.
“Yeah.” Tom reaches into the black sack. “I borrowed the departmental laptop. It’s got ten hours of battery.” With a theatrical flourish, he reveals the white monster, triumphantly holding it aloft.
“Simple as that?” asks Zoe, clearly impressed.
“Well, there were forms.” Tom’s eyes glaze over. “But, on the plus side, we’ve until Monday.” He flips open its lid, and taps at the buttons. It beeps.
“Awesome.” Zoe beams.
Sam yelps, the centre of gravity shifting under her as Hywel takes a sharp right at the crossroads.
“Believe me, Sam,” he says, stifling a chuckle, “There’s worse than that to come.” Slowing to fiddle with the clutch, he turns to Tom. “Are we ready?”
Tom is still struggling with a box of floppy disks.
“Hang on, dude.” He selects one, seemingly at random, and tentatively pokes it into the appropriate drive. There’s a click, and Tom nods, satisfied. “Ready when you are.”
“Right. Hang on, guys.”
Hywel yanks the clutch and pushes his foot to the floor, while Tom bashes away frantically on the Mac’s keyboard. There is a loud beep, and the landscape drops away – replaced by a textured blackness. Lurching sideways, Hywel’s ears pop, Zoe sneezes, and Sam’s fighting back acidic bile. Unsucessfully, as it turns out.
“Woah.” says Dylan, ignoring the guttural retching. “Like, where are we?”
“Don’t suppose anyone has tissues?” asks Sam, quietly. Silence.
“What happens next?” asks Zoe, her palms pressed against the passenger window.
“I’m not entirely sure,” admits Hywel, reluctantly passing Sam a well-used tissue, “I mean, we programmed the coordinates for Bangor, but-”
“Bangor?” asks Sam, clearly confused. “That’s, like, a hundred miles-”
“Shit.” Tom’s voice is carefully calculated, devoid of emotion. Another beep.
“What? What’s happened?”
“The box just died.”
The silence races outwards, subsuming everything in its path. They sit in the darkness for an eternity – five victims of entropy, individually contemplating their fate.
“Custard cream, anyone?”
More silence. Eyebrows heavy, Hywel and Sam exchange looks. Dylan clears his throat.
“Yeah,” he says, eventually, “Go on then.”