“I’ll need the ether regulator. Hand it to me, won’t you?”
“It’s the device with the controls for wireless manipulation of extraplasmic conductance.”
The young journalist’s eyes widened and though he was afraid to admit to the inventor that he did not know which one of the devices laid out on the laboratory bench was the ether regulator, he was more afraid of handing her the wrong device.
They were standing in the laboratory workshop of Raziya Miratio. She was one of several subjects for his latest story. Based on his experience with the other young, up-and-coming inventors he had interviewed that week, he expected irritation at the least and at most anger for his ignorance. But Doctor Miratio merely laughed.
“Forgive me, Mister Webb. I shouldn’t expect everyone to know the names and functions of every little component in my laboratory.” She was wearing a dingy green lab coat over blue coveralls. She passed the bench strewn with mechanical parts, and another that was laid out with liquid and powder compounds. Beyond the benches was a wall with shelving that was partly filled with completed devices and components.
“Normally, I would be able to note or even memorize the particulars of a person’s work,” Webb said. “But you have so many patents for advanced tools and mechanisms with very specific purposes and functions, that I couldn’t manage it.” He chuckled.
“I’ve failed, you know, ninety-nine percent of the time.”
“That can’t be true,” Webb said staring at the open book on the bench. It detailed a few dozen of the doctor’s inventions: advanced machine components, unique chemical compounds, novel alloys. Most recently, she had devised an automated letter printing machine that would give typewriters a run for their money. Everything within that book was a certified success. Patented and proved.
“You should see how big the piles of notebooks are that are full of plans and experiments for devices and compounds that never worked.” She found the device she was looking for, and lifted it carefully off the shelf. The metal casing was shaped like boot. There was a glass screen on the “ankle” part of the boot. Below the screen were dials, and a control that looked like a paddle on the “foot” part.
She locked the paddle in place and switched on the ether regulator. She adjusted the dials. It was emitting some beeps and crackling that stopped and became a low droning. Then she pressed a button and swept the screen around the workshop. The machine revealed shadowy amorphous shapes lying on top of all the inanimate objects in the room. She lifted the device and took it outside to show him that the strange shadows only sat on inanimate objects. There were none on the trees and in the grass.
He asked her what the objects were, some of which were moving slightly, but she waved away his questions as if it were mundane.
“Come on,” she said. “I’ll show you what lies between the successes and the failures.”
She led him to her office. A smallish room that was furnished with a large desk, overflowing with parts and half-unrolled blueprints stacked upon each other, a comfortable-looking chair, a single bookcase stuffed with manuals, a comfortable-looking couch, and a wall-mounted cabinet.
She produced a key from a cord that hung around her neck and had been tucked under her collar, so that he had not seen it.
“Since I was very young, I’d always wanted to have powers,” she said as she approached the cabinet. “The power to fly, to turn invisible, to touch someone and heal them of any wound, to wave my hands and change one thing into another. I’ve always wanted…magic. And knowing I wasn’t naturally gifted, like people in stories sometimes are, I hoped I could study and work hard and exercise so I could develop and hone such powers. Well, there’s no such thing as magic. But even after I learned that, I wasn’t deterred. I thought there must be a way for me to have some kind of power, maybe not any kind, but something. So…if there’s no such thing as magic, what’s the next best thing?”
She grinned. “Invention.”
With that, she unlocked the cabinet, flung open the doors, and stepped aside. Webb’s wide-eyed gaze drifted over the sight of the cabinet’s contents as Doctor Miratio continued to speak of her early inventions.
Her earliest inventions were steeped in the practices of alchemy.
“I tried to write a handbook on alchemy. One time I tinkered with color-mixing theories.” She had tried to start with the superficial, changing the color of her skin from dark brown to olive, her eyes from brown to hazel, her hair from black to auburn and back.
She told him a story in her own family about her great grandfather. It was said that he visited a far off land and won a wish from magician. He was an inventor, and like most, his inventions did not always work. He asked for all his inventions to work from that day on, and they did, but the magician tricked him, and all his inventions would only work once. So he had to keep inventing.
When she was still completing her formal education, she became an expert at breaking down and analyzing machines.
“Some men in dark suits came to see me once,” she said. “Government men. They wanted me to study a piece of technology they had acquired—from an enemy nation, they said. My professor vouched for them, so I agreed to the job. They paid me two years’ worth of my salary for half a year’s work. Swore me to secrecy. Made me sign all kinds of forms. The device didn’t seem extraordinary at first. Resembled a radio. Even had a vacuum tube—or what looked like one attached. But the materials weren’t…well, they weren’t metal, glass, or even plastic. I could never figure out what the device was made of or what it did. And I wasn’t supposed to, but I kept blueprints and tried to recreate it once the government men came back and reclaimed it. I thought they would be unsatisfied with my work, but they thanked me, paid me what they promised, and left. Around the time, there were lots of unverified news reports of a rocket ship or some kind having crash-landed from space. I started wondering if the device I was given was collected from the debris.”
Webb peered at her with half a smile on his face. “Are you pulling my chain, Doc?”
Miratio shrugged noncommittally, no hint of amusement on her face.
She told him about some of the devices in the cabinet, though she did not reveal what function most of them served. One of them looked just like the ether regulator, and the inventor confirmed it was a predecessor of sorts. They all had various limits. One device that looked like some kind of radio receiver had never been turned on. Keeping it running for only five minutes would have required all the power that the world was currently generating. Another that looked like an ornate lantern created a by-product of operation that was toxic to people, and would require the invention of some kind of shielding or buffering.
“These devices, components, and compounds, are from the days when I threw abandon to the wind and built out of curiosity and the will to forge ahead without considering consequences. I kept them partly because I could not let them go, partly because I might be able to make responsible use of them someday, and partly to remind myself of my own hubris and foolishness.”
“How do you mean?”
“I was aware that every invention had consequences, those that could be foreseen and those that could not. What I did not consider is that while every invention touches the world, it is also in turn touched by the world.”
When Webb frowned in consideration, she explained. Many of her inventions were made to observe the world. Observing and seeking often involved the application of some force or matter to something in order to make it out or push it out of the way to make something else out. Like the boat of an explorer parting the water, or more subtly, light hitting a microbe.
And sometimes the connection went both ways. Miratio pointed to the purported alien-derived device.
“As we seek, we too are sought.”
She pointed to another device that looked like an elaborate camera.
“As we detect, we too are detected.”
She pointed to the rack of unlabeled vials and tubes, some filled with liquid, some apparently (but perhaps not actually) empty.
“And as we gain in one aspect, we lose in another.”
Webb wasn’t certain of her exact point, but he believed he understood the gist. “I supposed there is always a price to advancement of any kind,” he said.
Miratio nodded. “That is why I don’t use the things in that cabinet. The world is not yet ready for what might come of it. But it will be one day.”
“And when we are ready, those devices will give us powers that we don’t possess now? Doesn’t that go against nature?”
Miratio pointed at his spectacles. “Doesn’t that?”
“I see your point, Doctor. But there are limits.”
“I agree. That’s why these things are locked away in this cabinet.” Each item in the cabinet was missing at least one component that would make it work. Doctor Miratio was the only one who could assemble the devices, and they are otherwise useless.
“Even so, is it safe for all of these things to be stored like this, in one place, in a wooden cabinet, with only one latch? It seems a flimsy place to keep such profound things.”
“The cabinet is only really dangerous when it’s open.” With a sly smirk that surely meant she was teasing him a bit, she quickly closed the cabinet, and latched it.
The workshop laboratory of Doctor Miratio was empty and dark in the middle of the night. The inventor and the young journalist who had come to interview her had long since bid each other goodbye and retired to their separate abodes.
A dim light turned on. Black-gloved hands reached out and fumbled with the lock. The cabinet sprung open. A long hazy shadow fell upon the contents of Doctor Miratio’s cabinet of impending invention.
The next morning, Raziya Miratio entered her favorite bakery for a breakfast of tea and an egg pocket to travel. A gaggle of morning customers were gathered around a booth, where a young man sat in front of a wireless radio receiver.
The bakery owner greeted the inventor and told her what the fuss was about. News had broken less than an hour earlier about a miraculous incident at the main city hospital on Belmont Street. Details were still pouring in, but word was that several people on the brink of certain death from various ailments and injuries had been completely healed by some new machine or apparatus.
When the announcer mentioned the army of reporters that had descended upon the hospital, Miratio thought of the journalist who had interviewed her the previous day. She took her breakfast order and proceeded to her laboratory workshop, where she had a wireless of her own. She tuned it to the local news and listened intently to the—no doubt exaggerated but still intriguing—breaking story. She wished the announcer would describe the machine, or say something about its maker. She was not particularly social, but she did attend meetings and events put on by the local inventors’ society. And she was nominally a member. She had not heard of or read of anyone working on the kind of machine that was being described.
As she listened, she performed her usual morning check of the workshop and her office. She immediately noted the cabinet in her office.
It had been disturbed.
No one else would have been able to perceive the slight change in the color of the wood and the delicate marks that appeared in on corner of the left-hand door. She had devised the method to alert her if anyone other than herself attempted to open the cabinet. Only she knew how to prevent the reaction that caused the color-change and the appearance of the marks from occurring.
Cautiously, she opened the cabinet. She quickly surveyed the contents. Nothing appeared to be missing. With the wireless still on, the announcer chattering excitedly about the new life-saving invention, Miratio did a more thorough inventory of the cabinet’s contents, and once again found that nothing seemed to be missing.
Not satisfied, she stepped back from the open cabinet, crossed her arms, and thought.
After half a moment, she fetched one of her inventions, a modified detection kit, like the ones used by investigators of crime scenes, to try and find clues. She would be remiss to only trust her own physical senses. Something seemed amiss, though all appeared typical.
It only took her half an hour to discover that something had indeed been stolen, and replaced with a fake that was troubling in its closeness to the actual item. It was a component. It was the component. The core for most of the devices in the cabinet. A component so vital and unpredictable that she had placed it in a safe within the cabinet. She had a far more subtle way of telling that the safe had been breached—compared to the cabinet. She had almost missed the clue.
There were no clues that she could find to the identity of the thief. But she had a guess. She reached for her phone.
“Hello, Doc,” Webb said as he spotted the inventor squeezing past the crowd toward him. He was standing on one of the lower steps before the city hospital where the official announcement of the new healing machine was imminent.
The steps were crowded with journalists like Webb, holding notebooks and pen, some with portable cameras hung about their necks, or tape recorders clutched in ready hands. Behind them were members of the general public, eager to be present for the monumental moment in history.
There was a podium set up at the top landing of the steps. A city official stood behind it, and behind him, there were people dressed in what appeared to be robes and pajamas, but on second look were hospital gowns. One man sat in a wheelchair. He was grinning and laughing with a woman beside him who was willow-thin but smiling and laughing with him.
“I was hoping we could meet somewhere private, Mister Webb.”
“I’d be happy to, after we’re finished here. It’s meant to be a short announcement. I should think this would be of great interest to someone like you.”
“You have no idea.”
The city official signaled the sounding of horns to bring the bustling crowd to attention. He gave a short introduction before stepping aside to let the healing machine’s inventor take the podium.
Miratio frowned. She knew the woman behind the podium.
Agnes Prester, the industrialist, was known for producing machines that were sturdy and reliable. Machines that were the best in their class. She did not invent so much as perfect.
The smiling Prester silenced a round of raucous applause, though Miratio noted that there were some, like herself, who stood skeptically by.
Miratio paid close attention to Doctor Prester’s description of the machine that her company had devised, designed, built, and now tested on those who would surely have perished without it. She gave a simple explanation of the machine’s design and function, delivered an inspiring speech about the courage of the gravely ill and injured, and fielded several questions from the news reporters and the public alike.
Despite some questions about the unforeseen dangers of the machine, which the affable industrialist answered with an offer to see a demonstration, the overall tone of the announcement was hopeful, excited, and eager. One of the questions had been what Doctor Prester’s plans were to build more of the machines.
Miratio felt a mild disruption in her composure. For some reason she could not yet divine, she was unnerved by the prospect of more machines, though she knew nothing of the first one.
The machine was a chamber in which one would lie for some period of time, while the machine analyzed the ailment, gave the proper diagnosis, and administered the proper cure. The machine required a fair bit of electricity to operate, but it needed no raw materials, and no chemicals or medicines. It operated on the most basic level of energy and matter, converting the one into the other.
It all sounded dubious to Miratio.
She told Webb as much when they met later on in a corner booth in her favorite diner.
“If you suspect she stole your component, this…”
“Right, well, then why don’t you go to the police, Doc?”
Miratio sighed. “What do you think I was doing before I met up with you?”
“They took my statement and said they’d look into it. They had the decency to tell me that it didn’t look good unless I could present some proof of the theft and connect it to Prester. That is proof that I don’t have.”
“Then why do you think it’s her? And allow me to put the professional jealousy card on the table. No offense, but I don’t know you well enough to rule it out.”
Miratio nodded in acknowledgement and she explained further. Agnes Prester had once tried to recruit her. Naturally, Miratio had been honored and stunned at the offer, and had shown the industrialist her laboratory workshop and all of her inventions…including the ones in the locked cabinet.
The young inventor’s thrill wore off quickly when she learned what the terms of her employment would be. Many were happy with the terms, happy to be working for a woman who would most certainly lead them to riches and renown. Agnes Prester was beloved by those who worked for her for her constant and sincere exaltation of the work of others. She gave credit where it was due and deserved. And she bore the brunt of mistakes herself.
But in return, Prester owned the patents to the inventions and creations devised by her workers. Miratio wanted to keep all her patents, and she also wanted to have control over how her inventions were released and regulated. She wanted to take responsibility for what she released into the world, instead of handing her inventions off to a company and absolving herself of whatever happened afterward.
Her refusal had been humble. Prester’s acceptance of it had been gracious. And their parting had been amicable.
Or so Miratio had thought.
“You have a high opinion of me, Doctor, if you think that I have enough pull at my paper to get an interview with Agnes Prester. If you used to know her, wouldn’t she be more likely to want to see you?”
“Not if she’s stolen from me.”
“People are excited, but there are always those who continue to ask questions.” He smiled and pointed the eraser end of his pencil toward his chest. “And those who will challenge the invention and watch it to make sure it is on the up and up. If anything goes wrong, if anyone is hurt, it’ll get shut down real fast. And I’m sure Doctor Prester knows this. She hasn’t been one to put her name on the line for something that might fail, much less something that might hurt people.”
Miratio frowned. “That’s the part I don’t understand.”
“Maybe…maybe let’s say someone did steal that rifter thing of yours. Maybe it was someone from her company who’s responsible for making sure this machine works. And they got desperate and did it behind her back. She might have told some of her colleagues about your work…you know in a regretful way. Because if you worked for her, she would have owned the thing.”
Miratio shook her head. “It still doesn’t make sense.”
A week passed. Miratio continued trying to convince Webb and the police of her suspicions. She’d tried to put in cordial requests to see Agnes Prester. And she’d been working on building a device that could offset the effects of the molecular rifter. She had started years ago, but hadn’t finished. More and more people were arriving at the hospital as word spread of the healing machine. An entire wing had been set aside for patients.
Doctor Miratio was working late one night when she heard clicking footsteps walking up the shallow steps to her workshop laboratory. It was unusual for her to have any visitors at that hour. She wondered if it was Webb coming to tell her she had managed to convince him, or that he was still eventually going to write that story about her and the other young inventors.
When she saw through her peephole who stood on the other side of the door, she felt the heat in her face rise. She didn’t hesitate to open the door.
The smiling Prester stood on the other side, her hands clasped in front of her.
Miratio stepped aside and waved the industrialist in.
“I don’t think you’ve succeeded in convincing that young journalist of whatever you’ve trying to convince him,” Prester said.
“I made the mistake of going into too much detail about what the molecular rifter does. Though you’re the one I need to explain it to.”
“Oh, and why is that?”
“You took it.”
Prester glanced across the workshop to the open door of the office. The cabinet was visible.
“What other wonders do you have in there, Razi?” she asked, turning to Miratio. “Hidden in plain sight.”
Miratio cross her arms. “How did you get it to work? It shouldn’t have.”
Miratio exhaled. “You have to shut down the machine. You must know this. The molecular rifter—“
“—is a marvel, that you’ve been hiding from the world.”
“Do you understand how it works? Because I don’t. Not completely.”
“You know, even if he believes you. Even if his editor believes him. Even if they publish the story you would like for them to publish, it’s too late. The cat’s out of the bag, Doctor.”
“If that’s so, then I’d like to see how it works.”
“I’m sure you would.”
“Why are you here?”
Prester sighed. Her smile faded just a bit. “Oh Razi, I came to do what I always do. To give credit where credit is due.”
“You…you’re going to admit that you took my invention to make yours work?” Miratio gazed at the industrialist in disbelief.
“Yes, but with some caveats of course.”
Miratio’s wide eyes narrowed. “You want me to pretend that you never stole it. That we were…working together all along?”
Prester inclined her perfectly coiffed head and pressed her lips together as acknowledgment. “Better yet, I’ll grant your request to see the machine. To examine it. And see where you and your invention fit in. If you’re so worried about the dangers of your invention, and if you really want to take responsibility for it, take my offer.”
Miratio uncrossed her arms and gaped. “I can’t believe how reckless you’re being.”
“Once upon a time, you would have. But these days you hold yourself back, so far back that even the greenest inventor in my company has you beat by leaps and bounds. All you’re making is new types of compressors coils?” She swept a dismissive gaze over one of the work benches. “I held myself back when I was your age, and I lost that spark of invention. It fades, you know. It fizzles out if you’re not constantly fanning it, feeding it, using it. When is the last time you applied for a patent, or wrote a paper, or built something more advanced than a gramophone?”
“Do you know what the molecular rifter really does?”
“I assume you’ve been hearing the reports on the wireless. They’re not reporting the half of it.”
“It tears a seam in our world on the molecular level.”
“It’s healing everything from acute injuries to metabolic diseases.”
“And through that seam, it’s capable of reaching other worlds.”
“It’s targeting and destroying pathogens, regenerating—not just healing—healthy tissues.”
“You don’t understand, Agnes. You’re not healing, you’re stealing.”
For the first time, the industrialist’s veneer of calm and control cracked. She looked taken aback.
“The molecular rifter is not capable of converting energy into matter,” Miratio said. “That’s codswallop and you know it. What it is capable of doing is finding nearby parallel dimensions. It creates a rift between two or more of the dimensions and our own, and it can reach through and pull things from other dimensions into our own, or push things from our dimension into another. When I invented it, I was just thinking of being able to get matter and energy from nothing, and maybe dispose of waste. It was easier than actual matter-energy conversion. But as you know, the easy way may be easy when you’re walking it, but the toll is heavier. Sometimes too heavy.
“I never tried to use it on living tissue,” Miratio said. “What your device is doing is finding a dimension where the patient isn’t sick or injured, and taking the healthy parts from that dimension, from that other person, and just swapping.”
Prester seemed to pale. “That can’t be true. That sounds far more difficult and complex than—“
“Converting energy into any kind of matter you need?” Miratio raised a brow. “Who told you that was what my component could do?”
“Every invention has consequences,” Prester said. “Sometimes dire ones.”
“And when someone from one of these other dimensions comes to collect the toll?”
“This is an astounding lie. I didn’t realize what lengths you’d go to to keep your inventions out of my hands, out of the hands of the people who need them. You’re not holding yourself back at all, are you? You’re just petty.”
“It sounds as if you haven’t looked into the machine yourself. Please, Doctor Prester, if you won’t let me examine the machine, do it yourself.”
“We’ve gone beyond those with life-threatening illnesses,” Prester said, stepping forward. “We’ve healed tumors of every kind. We’ve grown back a man’s arm. We’ve seen bruises and cuts vanish before our eyes. We’ve put a woman’s spine back together again and restored her ability to walk. Better still, the people we healed have gone beyond their healing.”
Miratio’s eyes widened again.
“A girl whose lungs were full of tumors wasn’t just able to breathe again. After a few days, her lungs were so strong, she could blow down a grown man, then a full-size refrigerator. The man whose arm we grew back, he grew another. It was upsetting at first, for him and for us. But then, he began to use it.” Prester laughed. “The woman whose spine we restored is a wonder. Her back is as flexible as a cat’s.”
Miratio felt a sick lurching in her gut. What Prester was describing sounded like more than just one dimension pouring through the rifts that her invention had created. But Prester seemed oblivious, even joyous.
“Don’t you see?” Prester said. “They have powers.” The industrialist stepped toward Miratio and took the inventor’s hands in her own. “Isn’t that what you wanted? I remember the story you told me, about why you started inventing. Imagine what this machine could do for someone who is already healthy.”
Miratio gently pulled back her hands and wrapped them around Prester’s hands.
“Among the reasons I put the molecular rifter in the cabinet is that it never worked properly. It couldn’t focus sharply enough.”
Prester sighed. “You’re determined to look on the dark side of things, aren’t you?”
The industrialist walked past her to the door of the laboratory workshop.
Miratio turned to her. “Let me think about it.”
Prester turned and smiled. She gave a single nod before leaving.
The next morning, Miratio had another visitor, this time at her house. Webb stormed into the living room after he was waved in.
“I heard everything,” he said, spinning around to face her. “Well, some parts were hard to hear, but I heard your conversation with Agnes Prester last night.” He gulped. “You were right.”
“She was right, too,” Miratio said, overlooking the journalist’s spying. She reached for the dark green jacket hung near the front door. “Your writing about this may not make a difference if fully healed people keep pouring out through the doors of that hospital.”
“But they haven’t. They’re all being kept for observation, and they’re happy to do it, for the sake of the research. Haven’t you been listening to the news?”
“I’ve been busy.”
“I have to stop her from using the device. Or worse, from building more like it.”
“Can she do that?”
“It’s conceivable, given enough time. The design is not unknowable.”
Webb followed her to her car and she made no objections when he hopped into the passenger side. Miratio drove them the short distance to her workshop laboratory, where she dropped another significant observation on him.
“I don’t think that’s the real Prester, by the way.”
“I mean, it could be, she’s always been smiley, but I don’t remember her being so cloying. And reckless.”
“Then who is it? And where’s the real Agnes Prester? Wait, do you think the woman who came to visit you might be some doppelganger from another dimension?”
“That might be the real reason she’s interested in an invention that can create openings between dimensions,” Miratio said, impressed at the leap of logic he had made to come to the same conclusion she had.
“How did she get here? What does she want?”
“I don’t know, Webb. It could just be the real Agnes Prester after all. People change. Sometimes for the worst. Our objective is to stop her and to stop the machine.”
“I have counter-inventions for everything in the cabinet that’s dangerous or might be dangerous, or problematic at the least. Not all of them are finished. I never finished building something to offset the molecular rifter’s effects.”
“You mean like sealing up the rifts instead of creating them?”
Miratio nodded. “But sealing the rifts I think would be difficult. From what I gathered last night, so much matter is pouring through it’s effectively holding the rifts open. The only thing I can think of is to attack the matter.” She pointed to a large barrel-shaped metal device that she’d loaded onto a rolling cart. “With anti-matter.”
“That sounds good. What would happen if you did that?”
“Huge release of energy.”
“That sounds more like an explosion.”
“Which is why I’ve rejected that plan. I couldn’t get a hold of antimatter anyway.”
“What’s the barrel for, then?”
“It’s a distraction, a Trojan horse, if you will. I considered letting you think it was real to sell the point, but that would be cruel.”
“Thanks,” Webb said wryly.
“This pair of goggles, however, is no fake,” she said, pulling out a pair of goggles from the top drawer of her desk. “I’ve built them so they can detect the rifts. If shutting down the healing machine, specifically the molecular rifter, doesn’t work, then we may have to revisit the antimatter idea.”
“I have strong reservations about that.”
“Give me some time to get to the machine and shut it down. Say fifteen minutes. If I can remove and recover the molecular rifter, I will. But most likely, I’ll have to destroy it—without explosions. Then, you call in cavalry.”
“How do we get to the machine and the wing where the healed patients are being kept?”
“We’ll just walk in.”
“There are guards on the healing machine wing.”
“I called Prester this morning and made an appointment to see the machine. I told her that I’ve decided to work with her, but only to make sure that the invention she commandeered from me doesn’t end up killing anyone.”
“And she bought it?”
Miratio tried to remain calm, and staring at a jittery Webb was not helping. While they waited for the time of the appointment, he had drunk half a dozen cups of coffee. He claimed he never drank coffee. Miratio meanwhile had wild and troubling fantasies about finding her own doppelganger in the hospital, the true mastermind behind the healing machine. After all, who else could have defeated the locks on her cabinet? Prester was right. Miratio hid her most volatile inventions in plain sight. But that did not mean they were easily reached.
She did not really believe that Webb would be able to manage bringing the cart with the giant metal barrel anywhere near the hospital proper, much less the healing machine wing. To both of their surprise, the hospital looked as it normally did. Nurse and doctors rushed down the hall reviewing patient charts. Patients waited to be treated in the emergency room. There was no indication that there was a miraculous healing machine several floors above that could make quick work of all the ailments that Miratio was seeing.
She checked in with the front desk and was escorted to the healing machine wing, while Webb stayed downstairs with the “antimatter” device.
As the elevator doors opened, Miratio heard groans coming from either side of a long hallway that terminated in a single door. Her escort led her quickly forward. She tried to glance through the windows of the rooms, but the blinds were drawn on all of them. She saw the shadows of shuffling shapes on the blinds. In one instance, the blinds were shifted slightly to the side and a face peeked through. Miratio gasped.
The face was that of a child’s and the whole left side of her head was covered in lidless eyeballs. The eyes strained to follow Miratio and her escort, who took her by the elbow and rushed her on.
There were no guards.
The escort stopped a few steps from the door and waved Miratio forward. The inventor reached for the doorknob and entered the chamber of the healing machine.
There stood a smiling Prester, only now her smile was strained.
“I was hoping to be gone by the time you arrived,” the industrialist said. “But of course, I’m having difficulty with it. I’m sure it’s not your component,” she said, sweetly. “It must be a piece that someone else built.”
The room was bare. There was nothing on the walls, the ceilings, or the floor. No gloves, syringes, gauze. No pamphlets. Just the machine. It looked like a small closet, standing alone in the middle of the room. It’s doors were open. There was nothing inside. Miratio had expected the machine to be a raised horizontal chamber. She had heard people would lie on a gurney and be sent in.
Miratio stepped toward the machine, but Prester stopped her.
“I’m trusting you,” the industrialist said. “Not to tamper with it as you examine it. All those people on this ward depend on this machine. They can’t continue changing into something better if it’s shut off.”
Miratio pulled an eyeglass from her pocket and held it up to her eye. Like the goggles she had given Webb, she had built the eyeglass to see the rifts. She looked at the machine and saw hundreds of tears and gashes hovering in the air around it. Something flowed through them, but turned invisible as it flowed away from the rift. That must have been the matter-energy from the other dimensions that was pouring into the people who had been “healed” by the machine.
“Where is Agnes?” Miratio asked, lowering the eyeglass.
Prester raised her brows. Again, her smile faded.
“I don’t actually care if you turn off the device or destroy it,” she said, stepping toward the machine. “But just let me go through first. Please, let me get back home.”
“It’s as I thought. You’re from another dimension.”
“I am. And all I want to do is return and you’ll never hear from me again.”
“You tortured and disfigured all those people out there, so you could figure out how to get home?”
Prester, rather doppelganger Prester, tilted her head. “It could have been more. I waited so long to make sure that I could make as few sacrifices as possible.”
“You didn’t make those sacrifices. The patients did. You deceived them.”
“I wouldn’t have been able to without your rifter.”
Miratio frowned. She would not let guilt get in the way now. She would feel guilty later.
“If you could figure out how to control it,” the false Prester said, “focus it, fine-tune it, you could have what you want too.”
“Maybe, but for today I’m just here to make sure you don’t get what you want.”
“Your device won’t make it up here. Your journalist friend has already been found and stopped. He was trying to use the freight elevator.”
“That’s all right. He was just the distraction. So is this.”
Miratio opened up her jacket. Woven into the seams were the components of the device she had shown Webb less than a fortnight past. She had adapted it to run on a pack of batteries she had strapped to her waist. The healing machine appeared covered in shadowy shapes, wormy and amoeboid creatures. The false Prester cried out. Miratio removed her jacket and let it drop, the device still active.
While the false Prester was distracted, Miratio dove into the healing chamber. There were elaborate dials and buttons on the inside panels of the machine. Surely a strange thing to find inside of a healing machine meant to be operated by experts from the outside.
Miratio peeled open panel after panel, until she found the molecular rifter, her invention, at her feet in the center of the chamber. She pulled from her pocket the only thing she had managed to build in the week or so since the healing machine was announced, a new component that she had designed to fit into the molecular rifter, a moderator. Miratio had removed the original moderator to keep the device from working. But the false Prester must have somehow designed, built, and installed a replacement moderator.
She reached down and tried to remove the false Prester’s moderator. She received a shock and her right hand began to spasm. She tried again and through the pain of a second shock, managed to pull out the existing moderator. She heard a loud bang. She glanced up, eyes wide, and saw the false Prester, no longer distracted, holding a gun toward Miratio. The inventor ducked behind one of the machine’s doors. The other was still open and out of her reach.
“Just let me go home,” the false Prester said.
“You said you couldn’t get the machine to work,” Miratio said, hoping that Prester would not shoot as she answered. “Even after all that experimenting.”
“I’m almost there. Don’t worry.”
“What if I help you?”
“I don’t believe that you will. You’re just trying not to get shot.”
“You’re right, I am trying not to get shot. So, I have to do what you’re compelling me to do if I want to live, right?”
“You’ve got a lot of tricks up your sleeve, Doctor Miratio. I don’t trust you.”
Miratio stared at the molecular rifter. She had no tricks left. Only hope. Her right hand still spasming, she reached out and pulled both doors closed just as shots rang out. She was breathing hard. She wanted to check for blood, for wounds, but she didn’t have time. She heard a bullet strike the door, but it didn’t go through. The healing chamber had been solidly built. She reached down, dizzy with terror, and calmed herself enough with a quick exhale to place the new moderator into the rifter.
The molecular rifter activated. It pulled power from the electricity that was feeding the healing chamber. Miratio no longer had her eyeglass. She didn’t know if what she was doing would work. And she had never meant to be in the chamber when it was happening. She thought she would likely die then, and she felt terribly sad and anxious.
She thought she felt pulses of crackling force pass through her again and again. She couldn’t hear or see. Her vision had faded from the sides to the center. She blinked, but her vision would not return.
She felt discomfort, not pain, but the feeling of wanting to escape her own skin, of being rattled to the core of her bones. She wondered if her molecules were being disrupted, shaken apart, bonds broken until she shattered into atoms.
She smelled an ionic burning.
Then, her hearing began to return. She heard something crack and splinter. She heard shrieking, and a bang, and the sound of metal hitting metal. The door to the healing chamber opened. She did not recall opening it. She collapsed to the ground, helpless before the false Prester.
Just then someone entered the chamber.
“We received a report of gunshots,” a police officer said as he entered the room, his own gun raised toward Prester. “Lower your weapon, ma’am.”
“She’s trying to sabotage my machine, officer,” the false Prester said, still holding the gun. Two other officers surrounded her. They glanced at Miratio lying on the floor of the healing chamber.
“What’s going on here?” the first officer said.
Another officer repeated the command for the false Prester to lower her weapon. She did and they took it from her.
Miratio tried to speak.
She tried to say, “Officer, this woman is an imposter. You need to find the real Agnes Prester.”
But she couldn’t speak or move.
One of the police officer’s knelt down to check on her. Someone cried out and screams answered. The sound had come from outside the room. Past the officer who stood in the doorway, Miratio saw more police officers pouring into the wing. They were opening the doors to the rooms and they were not finding happy, healthy patients.
The discovery of the patients, who had changed further from having amazing powers to having strains that the human body was never made to tolerate, was the false Prester’s undoing. She was taken away in cuffs. Miratio was believed to be a patient, or perhaps victim, and a gurney was summoned for her. She had not checked. That breaking sound she had heard in the healing chamber should have been the molecular rifter. She had designed the new moderator she had installed to effectively overload the rifter. Even if the healing machine was off, the effects of the machine might still be lingering. It was obvious that the patients in the wing had not gone back to normal. She saw people being helped into wheelchairs and onto gurneys, patients who were still moaning and bleeding from the transformations their bodies had undergone. She found she could speak after a few minutes and tried to convince the officers to let her look through her eyeglass, or to look through it themselves.
One of them recognized her from taking her complaint of theft. He found the eyeglass in the jacket she had dropped to the ground. The batteries had run out on the device that was woven into the jacket. The officer looked through the eyeglass and claimed he saw nothing. He gave the relieved inventor a long-suffering look, placed the eyeglass back in her pocket, and returned the jacket to her.
She had shut down the machine and the molecular rifter that was its core, but she would need to hope she could sort things out with the police and get it back. She would need to make sure that the molecular rifter did not again make its way into the hands of someone who would use it for careless or nefarious purposes.
Miratio spent one night in hospital and seven days bedridden at home. While she recovered from molecular injury, Webb continued to insist to the authorities that the imprisoned Agnes Prester was an imposter and that the police should search for the real one. They did, after finding further clues in her home, and receiving reports of her sudden and strange shift in character. As it turned out, the imposter had imprisoned the real Agnes Prester in a remote location almost a year prior. When the real Prester was found, she was in fair health of body and sharp of mind.
The healing machine—and the broken molecular rifter within—was confiscated by some unknown branch of the government. Miratio wondered if the men who’d come to take it had worn dark suits and answered no questions. She wondered about the mornings when the face staring back at her from the mirror looked a bit hazy.
She wondered too about the other contents of her cabinet. One night after waking from troubling dreams, she drove to her laboratory workshop, turned on a dim light, and stood before the open cabinet, her long hazy shadow cast over its contents.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Doctor Miratio’s Cabinet” by Sanjay Patel.