The Shotgun Professor in “The Pomegranate Problem”

PREVIOUSLY: Professor Herbert Ludlum was enjoying his retirement as much as a fat old man could when a former co-worker, Keith Bradford, turned up at his door. Both men had grown tired of the immoral activities of the super-science organization they worked for and quit, but Bradford had continued his work and discovered the solution to the one puzzle the Professor was never able to solve. Now the Professor is on his way to Bradford’s lab to see this achievement, but spotting a strange flying craft above them and both are aware that the organization that once employed them always keeps tabs on those who get away.

There was a low humming noise coming from the innards of the machine until the Professor kicked it.

“What do you think?” He asked.

Keith Bradford knelt down next to the heap of metal, which had been a flying machine until it was shot down only moments ago. Now it was a twisted tangle of circuits and aluminum paneling. A propeller lay a few feet away and parts of a shattered camera littered the surrounding area. Bradford lifted one of the aluminum panels and peered inside. “It looks like the Organization,” he said after a moment. “Yet different somehow. I’ve only been gone a year and it looks like they’ve changed their style considerably more than I would have expected. Nonetheless, I would say this is their work.”

“Of course,” said the Professor as he scanned the horizon. Old age had not stolen his eyesight. His good looks, his hair, his athletic physique and his ability to sleep through a night without needing to urinate were gone, but he could still see. The skies were, for the moment, clear. “Which means they know you’ve solved the Pomegranate Problem. And that you’re with me.”

Bradford stood up. “Then I suggest we be on our way. You’ve shot down their spycraft. No doubt that a cleanup crew is on the way even as we speak. We don’t want to be here when they arrive.”

It took them just under two minutes to get back to the highway, where they’d left the Ford Taurus. In the back seat Sissy-Mary wagged her tail and breathed heavily as she saw them return. Bradford gave her a nervous look before opening his door. She was busy greeting the Professor. Sitting down he said, “I suppose we needn’t fear someone stealing my car so long as this old girl is in it.”

“She’s great isn’t she?” The Professor rubbed her head. “The first thing I did after leaving the organization was get her. She was just a puppy then, who would’ve guessed that she’d grow into this monster?”

“Mastiffs are a notoriously large breed,” said Bradford as he pulled the car back onto the road. “I must admit she is the largest I’ve ever seen even among them. Have you done some experiments on her?”

“Hell, no!” The Professor sounded offended. “I left the organization because of experiments like that! She’s a living thing and deserves to be treated with respect!”

“Yes, of course! I was simply curious because of her size!”

“You were there when I left.”

“I was. I was there.”

“You saw me release the chimps. You saw me punch Atkins in the face. You saw me turn off the force field in the menagerie. And you think I would even consider experimenting on my own dog?”

“You’re right, of course.”

“You’re damn right. I’m not inhuman.”

“Of course not.”

“Jackass.”

* * * * *

Judith opened the door as the Taurus came through the gate. As it continued up the driveway and passed the fountain, she saw that the Professor was in the passenger’s seat. He came. And in the back was an animal. A bear? No, a large dog. She had not expected that. And driving, of course, was Keith.

The car pulled to a stop and she walked down the stairs and approached. Her husband opened his door and smiled at her. She kissed his cheek and said, “I knew you’d get him to come.”

“He did not need convincing once I had told him what we had.”

Hand in hand, they walked to the other side of the car, where the Professor grunted as he got to his feet.

“Professor,” said Judith, “It’s good to see you!”

“Judith, my girl!” the Professor said. “You are as lovely as ever, young lady. I still can’t believe you let yourself end up with this little punk. A pretty woman like you could do so much better. Maybe you could even land yourself a nice older man. A Professor, even.”

“You haven’t changed at all, I see.”

The Professor then turned back to the car and opened one of the rear doors. Sissy-Mary jumped to the ground, then immediately ran to Judith and sniffed at her furiously.

“Now who is this?” Judith asked as she knelt to rub the dog’s neck.

“This is Sissy-Mary, my constant companion in my journey through old age.”

“You’re a big one aren’t you?” Judith asked rhetorically. The Professor reached into the car and pulled out his briefcase then closed the door.

“We should get inside,” he said.

Bradford was the first up the steps to the large house. The front lawn was the size of the Professor’s entire yard and the whole place was enclosed by a high gate. Bradford held the door for the others and they filed into the extravagant foyer. There were doors on two walls and a winding staircase that went to the second floor, a chandelier dangled above.

“Damn,” the Professor said. “This place is enormous. Why is it that I’m living in a glorified toolshed and you two have a whole mansion over here?”

“Well,” said Bradford, always happy to have his life complimented in some way, “we weren’t quite as rash as you when we resigned. We took the proper time to prepare ourselves and be certain that we were not waltzing into homelessness.”

“Aren’t you clever?”

Bradford excused himself and left through a door to the right that led to a hallway, and eventually to the laboratory.

“Would you like anything to eat or drink, Professor?” asked Judith.

“No, no. But thank you. Tell me, do you have anything in this damn castle to cancel out spy devices? From the Organization or the like?”

“We do. That was another reason we made plans before we quit. Why do you ask?”

“On the way here, we noticed a spycraft. We shot it down. The Organization is watching us.”

“I see. Well, the entire property is monitored by a central computer system. It also emits an interference field that blocks out unauthorized electric devices for as large a distance as we can without it going noticed. Occasionally a car will drive by and stall, but nobody has connected that with us yet.”

The Professor, still holding his briefcase in his left hand, rubbed his right index finger along the railing by the stairs as if looking for dust. “You two really did prepare before you left didn’t you? You were thinking about it for a long time?”

“We were. When I first started there, almost twenty years ago now, even then I didn’t like everything that went on. So much of it seemed,” she paused, and looked for the right word, eventually finding it. “Inhumane. I didn’t dare voice our concerns to anyone else until one day I saw Keith get into an argument with some of the others about the way they were treating a chimp. He was shot down, of course. They even made fun of him, but after that I spoke to him, probably for the first time, and we talked about how much we hated what we were doing. And it grew steadily worse over the years. When you left, we started talking again. We realized we actually could get out, if we wanted. Finally we stopped talking and started doing and we haven’t looked back.”

The Professor nodded.

“C’mon,” Judith said. “Let’s go check on Keith in the lab.”

* * * * *

The Central Computer System of the Bradford Mansion, or Rex as it had been named, monitored everything on and around the property. It did this at all times and wanted nothing more. Textbooks could be written debating whether or not Rex were a sentient, self-conscious being, but Rex didn’t care. He knew that he existed, and he knew why he existed. He was there to monitor everything on and around the property. There were guests in the house today, but they came in with Mr. Keith Bradford, so they were approved. For now. If he had to, Rex would deal with them. One had separated from the others and was licking the floor next to the refrigerator, where Mr. Keith Bradford has dropped a can of strawberry jam the night before. Mr. Keith Bradford had tried to clean it, but Rex knew there was still some there. Now this guest was cleaning it more successfully. This guest was probably a cleaner, contracted to take care of the mess. The other guest was walking down the main hallway with Mrs. Judith Bradford. This guest was holding a briefcase that made Rex nervous. Something was not correct about that briefcase. It didn’t register correctly on Rex’s scanners. It was as if it were larger than it was. That didn’t make sense to Rex. Things can’t be larger than they are. Things are how large they are. That’s how you tell how large things are. Both Mr. Keith Bradford and Mrs. Judith Bradford were being kind to this guest, but Rex was still uncertain about that briefcase. If it did not make sense in a few minutes, Rex thought he would bring it to the Bradfords’ attention. Outside two children were riding their bicycles past the house. They were not kids that Rex knew from the area, so he watched them until they got a reasonable distance from the mansion. Rex didn’t like kids. Not since the one that had come into the yard looking for a lost toy. Rex had been yelled at after using knockout gas on that kid. No more knockout gas on children. Rex though that was risky, but he would comply. A car drove past. 2001 Dodge Preston. Owner of that car lives three homes up. Rex watched the car until it pulled into its driveway. A blur of motion by the back wall caught Rex’s attention. The blur had moved against the wind. Rex armed his knockout gas guns, but did not aim them to the back yard just yet. Rex did not wish to be yelled at. In the kitchen the Cleaner was now making a mess. That is not what cleaners are supposed to do. Rex would have to rethink if this Cleaner guest was allowed. Another blur of motion, against the wind. Rex armed his stun beams and aimed them towards the back fence, near the pool. Clouds on the horizon. The wind would blow them towards the house. Rex closed the window in the study upstairs to prevent water getting in. Another blur of motion, closer now. Rex panned all six rear cameras around the back yard, but could not make out what was wrong. The kids were riding their bike by the front of the house again. The Possible-Cleaner was now going up the stairs. Rex considered putting a stop to it and… Another blur. The kids were still out front. The cleaner was in the second floor hall. Another blur. And in the lab, the briefcase was still making Rex nervous.

* * * * *

Bradford pointed at a diagram on his giant computer display and spoke like a high-school science teacher addressing a class. The Professor and Judith stood on the other side of the room, the Professor tapping his fingers on a desk.

“When you tried this experiment you used a pomegranate,” said Bradford. “The fruit was atomized. You tried this a dozen more times over the years, but you never could get beyond what we called the Pomegranate Problem. Anything that went through the door was instantly turned to atoms, scattered here and in a realm between worlds.”

“Maybe it hasn’t occurred to you,” said the Professor, “but I know this part already.”

“He’s just trying to be dramatic,” Judith said.

“Quite,” said Bradford, smiling. He was standing next to a large metal contraption that looked like a thick door frame left in the middle of the room. Wires poured out of the back of the device and hooked into the wall. On the right side of the door frame was the computer display that Bradford now pointed at. “The problem, you deduced, was that this doorway to a parallel universe needed to pass through the space between universes before it could reach its destination. That space, being a void of absolute nothingness, tore any matter sent through to shreds. But Judith and I have expanded on the doorway and created a program that creates a series of identical energy doors, each on passing through the one before it, throughout the void, creating a bridge of sorts. Here you can see an example.” Bradford clicked a button on the computer and the display lit up with all sorts of scientific charts, equations and diagrams. The Professor did not enjoy Bradford’s presentation, but this was the stuff he’d lived for at one time. He took it all in, fascinated. “We’ve had the bridge stable twice now,” Bradford continued. “But we didn’t want to try anything without the man who did all the hard work.”

“Amazing,” the Professor said. “Even five years ago the computers would not have been able to–”

“Attention!” Rex’s electronic voice rolled through the speakers. But before he could get another word out, the power was out and the room was black.

“I wonder what the matter could– OW!” There was a thud as Bradford tripped over a wire and landed on the floor. Judith made her way to him as quick as she could and helped him. Both of them instantly recognized the “Ch-Chak” sound when they heard it. The Professor had drawn his gun.

NEXT TIME: Siege of Bradford Mansion

Patrick D Ryall, the D is for Silica
Originally posted on Contains2 Wednesday 10 December 2003

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