PREVIOUSLY: Professor Herbert Ludlum was once an adventuresome scientist and explorer for a top-secret organization, but now he is a fat old man. Keith and Judith Bradford, once colleagues of the Professor, have left that same corrupt organization and, working on their own, the husband and wife team has managed to create a doorway to another universe. The Professor is present as they prepare to probe this other Earth, but before they can do anything, the lights go out…
There was a click as the Professor unlatched his briefcase. In the pitch darkness he had placed the briefcase on the nearest surface, one of the laboratory’s countertops, knocking a beaker to the floor. The briefcase opened, and a light from inside weakly illuminated the room.
Bradford was still getting to his feet. When the electricity had gone out, he had tried to get to the computer console on the wall, but had tripped on a power cord. Then he’d lost his footing while he’d tried to get up. Judith held his hand and he rose again. In the new light, the two of them saw the Professor, shotgun in one hand, rummaging through his briefcase. The old man’s arm was in the container up to the elbow, making it appear as though he were reaching through a hole in the opposite side and through the counter below it.
“Don’t you have any kind of emergency light system here?” He asked as he brought his arm up, carrying a large bulky pair of goggles.
“We do,” said Bradford. “The fact it has not yet come on suggests that someone is deliberately preventing it from doing so.”
With one hand the Professor pulled the eyewear over his bald head and into position on his face. He tapped the side and the goggles came alive with a green light. “That’s what I figured,” he said. “I’ll take care this.” He walked out the lab door and the briefcase closed itself, leaving the younger scientists in the dark once again.
“I suppose we should follow him,” said Bradford.
“Yeah,” said Judith. “That’s probably a good idea.” They walked carefully toward the door.
The Professor walked quickly down the hall. Out here there was sunlight coming through the windows and he could find his way back to the foyer with ease. He held his gun ahead of himself, ready for a fight.
“Has it come to this?” he asked himself, or perhaps the air. “The Organization has to resort to stealing ideas from honest scientists?” He looked out the window. There was a pair of black cars parked at the end of the long driveway. The fountain had stopped flowing. Three tall men in long black coats and large black hats stood, perfectly still, in front of the cars, facing the Bradford home.
“Aw, Crap,” said the Professor. He turned and looked around the foyer. He put his fingers to his mouth and whistled. Bradford and Judith were holding hands as they came in from the hallway.
“What is it?” Judith asked, then jumped as she heard heavy tramping coming down the stairs.
It was the Professor’s enormous dog, Sissy-Mary, running down from the second floor in response to the Professor’s whistle. She was dragging a chewed-up pair of Bradford’s pants behind her.
“It’s them, of course,” the Professor said to Judith. Then he turned to his dog. “C’mon girl. Drop those ugly things and follow me.”
Bradford had gone to look out a side window and was now back. “We are fully surrounded, I’d say. What do you think they’re getting at?”
The Professor led Sissy-Mary down the hall towards the lab. “Well,” he said, “they could just be angry that I shot down their spycraft. Or maybe they just miss us.” He led the dog into the lab, got out himself, and then closed the door her. “Now you stay in there, baby. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
Judith had opened a panel near the foot of the wall and was fiddling with the circuitry behind it. “The whole system is down. Poor Rex. I hope he’s okay.”
“Rex?” The Professor asked as he walked back out to the foyer.
“Rex is the intelligence that runs operations in our home,” Bradford said. “He’s on a separate system from the computers, so he is likely still online, but unable to do anything or sense anything that is happening.”
“Huh.” The Professor was putting a plan together in his head. “Is that ancient Taurus out front the only car you’ve got?”
“Yes,” said Bradford.
“Do you have any weapons?”
“The house has some, but they’d be offline. I have a stun cannon upstairs somewhere.”
They all stood silent in the foyer, looking towards the front door. The Professor was waiting for something.
The explosion knocked the door inward. It fell to the floor. Sunlight flooded the room. The windows beside the door had shattered. Outside the three tall men remained perfectly still, their long coats beginning to flow in the wind revealing skeleton-thin black legs. The Professor saw a rippling affect in the air outside, something unseen was passing through. Then it stopped in front of the door. He recognized the exoskeleton that materialized.
“Well, well. What have we here? Traitors!” Mitchell Howitzer said. Sunlight shined off his metal shoulders and into the eyes of those in the house. His face, the only part of his human body that showed through the clunky, wire-covered robotic skin he wore, was in shadow. “Three of my former colleagues who have betrayed me! And now they have completed their ultimate invention and are going to sell it to the Australians!”
“The Australians?” Judith asked herself softly.
“Howitzer!” shouted the Professor. “What are you talking about? The war with the Australians ended in Ninety-Six!”
“Silence!” Shouted the man in metal. He raised his left arm. He had his chaingun attached today. “You will come with me, or else! You have to the count of three!”
Bradford looked at the Professor. “Is he mad?”
The Professor looked at Howitzer. In the dark it was hard to tell, but he looked haggard. Howitzer was ten years the Professor’s senior after all. “Senile. The bastard is totally insane.”
The Professor swung his shotgun up and fired.
“Hey Liu, what’s the difference between the word ‘electric’ and the word ‘electronic’? I’m inventing this thing and–” Danny stopped in the doorway. Liu wasn’t in his lab. “Dude?” Danny called out. He couldn’t remember seeing Liu outside of his lab in the last three months. There was even a bed set up in one of the corners and a small washroom in another. Both were empty. “Hey Liu! Are you here, man? Who’s watching the ants?”
Danny walked into the lab slowly. In his left hand he was holding a notebook. It was open to a page that showed an intricate sketch of some circuitry surrounded by various letters that Danny had been trying to compose into the name of his new device. He had a pencil tucked behind his ear and it poked out from his shoulder-length hair.
Approaching the ant-farm, Danny knew something was wrong. The ant-farm was the entire length of the wall, about seven meters. Liu always watched the ant-farm. Liu was always obsessed with an experiment for as long as it was running. One of the ants in there was a robot. An “Antdroid”, Danny called it. Liu was trying to get it fully assimilated into the society.
“Hey little guys. Where’s Liu? You see where he went?”
An image came to Danny’s mind of the ants actually responding to him and he was a little creeped out. He turned and headed towards Liu’s bed. There was a red liquid on the floor over here. There was no doubt that it was blood. It started by the bed and then smeared toward the door. Danny could make out a footprint in it.
“Holy shit!” Danny thought he had better call for help. He began to walk towards the computer console by the door when he heard a thud in the room across the hall. He ran there.
The door opened automatically and Danny found himself in the Rabbit Lab. He’d never been in the Rabbit Lab before, as he’d never had any reason to be. This was where Dr. Carver did his experiments with the rabbits. It was small compared to the Liu’s ant lab, and most of the space was taken up by a large square habitat that sat in the middle of everything.
Dr. Atkins, as always dressed in an immaculate white suit stood in the room. He looked at Danny and raised an eyebrow. He was standing on the other side of the rabbit habitat.
“Mr. Colt,” Atkins said. “Can I help you with something?”
“I…” Danny hesitated. Dr. Atkins was one of the founders of the Organization Devoted to Extraordinary Scientific Ideas and Danny always felt nervous around him. He was a great man. “I was just lookin’ for Liu. I was gonna ask if he wanted anything to eat, y’know? An’ see if he could help me come up with an name for the thing I’m workin’ on. Y’know, the force field thing?” For six months Danny had been trying to create a new type of force fields for use in the Impact Lab. Actually, he’d finished, but the last four months, he’d been working on naming it. Acronyms made the best names for inventions, Danny thought.
“Yes, go on.”
“Well, Liu wasn’t in his lab and I think there’s a bunch of blood on the floor. And then I heard a noise. I thought maybe Liu was hurt and had fallen over or something.”
“Oh, I see. No, that was just the sound of Dr. Carver falling over after I shoved this wrench into his brain.” Atkins raised his right hand to show Danny the wrench, covered in blood and hair.
“And Liu,” continued Atkins as he stepped over something Danny couldn’t see, but which Danny knew had to be Carver. “Liu is down the hall. I fed him to the animals in Dr. Weinberg’s carnivore experiment. After all, Weinberg was a small man and the animals were still hungry.”
Danny backed up.‘Something’s wrong here,’ his brain told him dumbly.
Atkins came around the habitat and Danny noticed his white shoes were red. This, more than Atkins’s actual confession, clued Danny in. He turned and ran.
“Mr. Colt,” Atkins said calmly. “The building is locked down. You can hide, but you can’t leave. I’m in no hurry.”
Danny ignored anything else Atkins said and ran to the elevator.
The Professor’s first shot had hit Howitzer in his metal-encased chest. The man-machine tumbled backward and then seemed to fade away. A blur moved down the long driveway and then, the three tall men (who weren’t actually men, but robots) raised their left arms in unison and gunfire erupted and pelted the walls and windows of the mansion, not aiming at anything in particular. From the sound, the Professor judged that other such robot men on the other sides of the building were also firing now.
Judith had dove to the ground right away and on the way down, in a force of habit built over the years, grabbed her husband and pulled him down with her.
“Aw, man,” she said. “I really was hoping that when we left the Organization we’d also left behind all the gunfights.”
“Are you alright, dear?” Bradford asked as he shifted from ‘man-who-was-pulled-to-the-ground’ mode into ‘man-avoiding-gunfire’ mode.
“Yes, thanks. You?”
“In one piece.” He looked out the door. “Howitzer thinks we’re selling our device to the Australians. Can you believe it? He has really gone out of his tree.”
Judith crawled on her belly towards the stairs. The window broke in the kitchen. Outside, a bullet punctured the Ford Taurus. A window shattered on the second floor.
“What are you doing?” Bradford asked as Judith reached the bottom stair.
“I’m going upstairs to get that stun-cannon.”
“Do you know where it might be?”
“It’s got to be in the closet?”
“I don’t think it is. I was in there last weekend and I don’t remember seeing it.”
“Well, I’ve got to look.”
“Are you sure–”
“Shut up,” the Professor growled. “I’m workin’ here.” He was kneeling beneath the broken window next to the door and listening. Bradford noticed that one of the robot men was already lying on its back with a smoking hole in it from the Professor’s gun. Judith began to crawl up the stairs. The Professor straightened up, shoved his shotgun through the hole in the glass, fired and retreated back into kneeling position. Another of the robot men fell, this one’s head having come detached.
Bradford crawled towards the kitchen as quickly as possible. Judith was still slowly ascending the stairs. The Professor was again listening. A blur moved by windows and back around to the side of the house.
Bradford was in the kitchen and began moving to the knife drawer. In the excitement he didn’t notice the smell. Judith was not three-quarters of the way up the stairs. The Professor was preparing to get up again. The blur stopped in the driveway, next to the Taurus and Howitzer came back into focus. His chaingun arm was raised again and then he was firing.
His gun, much more powerful than the robot men’s, punctured the walls. The Professor dove backward. Judith yelped as bullets came within a foot of her. Hearing Judith’s cry, Bradford got to his feet and opened the knife drawer in an instant.
Howitzer’s gunfire mercilessly assaulted the house. Judith ran the rest of the way to the second floor. The Professor was pinned down. Bradford stood with his right hand in the knife drawer, looking out of the shattered kitchen window.
“Howitzer!” he shouted. Howitzer stopped firing and turned, his entire torso had to turn to turn his head in this exoskeleton, to face Bradford’s position.
Bradford tossed one of the knives into the air, grabbed it with his left hand and snapped the wrist. It flew like an arrow out the window, across the lawn, hit Howitzer’s leg. Before Howitzer could respond, the second knife clanked against his chest. He lifted his chaingun arm and pointed it at the kitchen window. He began firing, but he’d also given Bradford the shot he’d been seeking. Howitzer’s bullets and Bradford’s blade moved in opposite directions along an identical straight line, the bullets inches lower than the knife. When the bullets landed, Bradford was already down on the floor and the fridge caught the onslaught.
The knife landed in a crease where the exoskeletal arm met its torso. A wire had been severed. The arm stopped firing, then fell limp at Howitzer’s side. The weight of it pulled him to that side. In the kitchen, Bradford realized that his hands were wet. That’s when he noticed the smell. He was kneeling in it.
“That damn dog!” he said to himself.
The Professor saw the showdown and was running out the door. Almost without thinking he shot down the last robot man at the end of the driveway. He moved towards Howitzer, hoping to grab him before he blurred away. It was close, but he failed. The ripple in the air moved down the street and away from Bradford Mansion. The black cars, driverless, started and pulled U-turns and followed Howitzer’s blur.
On the second floor Judith had found the stun-cannon, in the closet, and she got to a window at the back of the house and began picking off robot men shooting at them from back there. When there was only one left, she noticed that it had stopped firing and was retreating. Shooting it, she headed back downstairs.
Bradford was washing his hands in the kitchen. The Professor was returning from outside, his shotgun smoking.
“We’re done?” Judith asked.
The Professor was trying to catch his breath. “Ahhh… huh… For now… I guess…” He gestured towards the kitchen. “The pansy broke his toys… so Howitzer… went home… huh.”
Bradford came back into the foyer, drying his hands.
“Nice work there, pansy,” said the Professor. “Good to know… you’ve still got some talent. You smell like piss, though.”
“Yes, because of your–”
The Professor interrupted him. “You guys had better get packed. We have no idea what that was all about, but we do know that it isn’t safe here now. We’ve got to move. I doubt that the Organization would keep Howitzer on now that he’s gone nuts, but the fact he’s still got the exoskeleton and a robot army mean that something’s up. Grab what you can and pile it in the car. I’ll deal with the police.”
The Professor rubbed his side as he walked slowly back outside. A police cruiser was indeed pulling up. Also some of the neighbors were watching (including two young kids that neither Judith nor Bradford recognized, who rode their bikes away as the Professor made his way towards the crowd).
Judith shook her head. “Just like old times, isn’t it hon?”
“Quite. Remind me again why we ever quit.”
“Oh right. Shame about that, because it’s such a fun job otherwise.”
NEXT TIME: Time To Go
Patrick D Ryall, the D is for Voltage
Originally posted on Contains2 on Monday 19 January 2004