Hearing a thunk behind her after a brief whir of a generator and a flash of light, she nearly jumped out of her chair. Everyone had long since gone home and the underground lab had been as quiet as a church on Monday. Her heart raced. No one was expected through the U-Gate. She whirled around, registering a scuffling sound and a sharp, burnt toast odor.
A man pulled himself to his feet just outside the U-Gate. His blond, shoulder-length hair stuck out in every direction. A filthy khaki uniform clung to his gaunt frame. His blue eyes darted around, then stared at her from over his stubbly cheeks.
"Who..." he rasped. He swallowed hard and licked his cracked lips.
"Who is in charge?" he said.
Char gawked at him. There hadn't been an incursion for thirty years. The QPP (Quantum Purity Protocol) Lab didn't even post guards any more; just left motion-sensor cameras running 24/7. The troops will be minutes away. Judging by his obvious distress and condition, whatever U he was from wasn't a good vacation spot.
"Not me," she finally answered. "Military personnel are en route. My name is Dr. Charlotte Banner. Who are you?"
"Randall Stevens. Water. Could I..."
"Of course." Char was glad for the normal request and the excuse to move away from him and collect her thoughts. She went to the sink by the wall, pulled down a clean mug from a peg and filled it with water. Is he the first of a steady stream of refugees from a troubled world? Is he a forward scout for an invasion force? Is he a mad scientist who just found the way between the Us? He doesn't appear to be armed. That's a good sign.
As she came toward him with the mug, he seemed to struggle to stay upright, his body swaying slightly and his feet shifting frequently.
"There's a cot over here. Would you like to recline? You don't look so good."
"Thanks. Yes." Her visitor gulped the water and gave her back the mug with a shaking hand. He collapsed onto the cot just as the grunts rushed through the door, guns at the ready.
"What's the situation, Doctor?" said the Sergeant.
"Easy, Sarge. We're just talking. He's unarmed. Are Doctor Schilman and Professor Einstein on their way?"
"Yes, Doctor," said the Sarge. He shifted to parade rest and signaled to his men to stand down.
"Good. You boys have a seat." She sounded a lot more confident than she felt.
Char got the man another mug of water while she thought about what to ask him first. And what she could reveal. She handed him the refilled mug and brought a stool from one of the computer stations to the cot. "Can you answer a few questions now?"
He nodded. His eyes darted around again, lingering on the soldiers squatting on the floor like loaded springs.
"Mr. Stevens," Char asked in what she hoped was a calming voice. "How have you come here?"
"Through a World Splitter. I've come from an alternate reality. A world like yours, but not yours. Do you have this capability here?"
"The leaders of this project will get to your questions in due time. First, why have you come here?"
"To seek your help. Our world has undergone a shift. A faction from another reality has taken someone from our world. No, taken is not the right word." He rubbed his stubbly chin. "He was eradicated. Removed from our history. Never born. Do you understand?"
"Let's say that we do for now. Go on," she prompted.
"Without him, our society is lost. Now my world is a stagnant police state filled with video-addicted sheep. The people let the government tell them what to do, what not to do and even what to think."
"But this is your world, is it not? How do you see these changes?" she asked.
"I was off-world when it happened, you know, in another reality. I can't go back because my world no longer has a World Splitter to receive me. People in the alternate reality I came from can move between realities, but not through time."
"And you think we can?"
"That is my hope," he said. "That man needs to be born. Our enemy erased him by having his mother miscarry."
"Do you?" His eyes sparkled and the corners of his mouth turned up.
Gazing at his eager face, Char believed him. But it didn’t matter what she thought. And it could still be an act.
"Hypothetically speaking, how far back in time would you need to go to prevent this miscarriage?"
The Sergeant cleared his throat meaningfully. Char had just crossed a line and she knew it. But the words were out there. She couldn't take them back.
"1920. Their agent put something in his mother's morning tea on March 22, five months before he would have been born."
"Who was this guy? A scientist, politician, world leader?"
"He was an author. He predicted all of it! He warned us what could happen."
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