The second time through the mirror was easier, but not by much. When Nick reached the other side, he once again felt as if the air had been punched out of his lungs, and his arms and legs shook with cold. He crumpled to his knees as he got his breath back. The others strolled through as if they had simply walked from one room to another.
Chris and the woman – Imogen was her name – held their pistols up ready to shoot at anything that followed them through. Jacob came to help Nick back to his feet.
“Here,” he said, handing Nick a hip-flask from his coat.
“What is it?” Nick asked, his hand shaking as he brought the flask to his lips.
“Trust me, you don’t want to know,” Jacob replied.
Nick was already to committed to taking a gulp. The liquid tasted of rotten fish and soured milk. It took every ounce of willpower he had not to spit it straight back out again. As he swallowed it down, he felt an acrid burn at the back of his throat like he had just downed a shot of the cheapest, gut-rotting vodka he had ever tasted. The sensation made him cough and gag uncontrollably as he handed the flask back to Jacob.
“Now this one,” Jacob said, handing over another container.
Nick eyed it suspiciously.
“It’s water,” Jacob promised. “To take away the taste.”
Nick took it without a word and drained it dry, coughing every so often.
“What –” Nick said between coughs, “the hell – was that stuff?”
“A mixture of protein substitutes, electrolytes, salts, omega oils and caffeine,” Jacob explained. “All things that help counteract the disorienting effects of the mirror.”
“And you couldn’t find any way to mask the taste?” Nick questioned. His voice slightly hoarse from the coughing and gagging.
“I’m afraid you will find our resources somewhat limited here,” Jacob said. “Don’t worry, you won’t need this stuff for every journey. Your body will soon adjust. Do you feel better?”
Nick nodded. He wanted to add that he didn’t want to adjust. That he fully intended on going home as soon as these shadow things were taken care of, but Chris interrupted before he could say anything.
“I think we’re clear,” he said, finally lowering his weapon. None of the tension in his shoulders seemed to abate though.
Imogen followed suit and stowed her pistol in a holder on her belt.
“You want to tell us how you came across the mirror?” she said turning to Nick.
Nick drew a deep breath and began to explain how the girl had run into him in the fairground. How she seemed terrified and was running from something.
“A shadow, no doubt,” Chris surmised.
Nick nodded. “I couldn’t see anything, though.”
“You wouldn’t have then,” Imogen explained. “Normal people can’t see them. Only people like us.”
Nick wasn’t sure he liked the sound of that – ‘people like us’. He didn’t like the implication that he was now included in the ‘us’.
“Anyway,” he said continuing his story. “I saw her dive through the mirror and…” He trailed off, unsure how to explain what had made him follow her through.
“And you couldn’t believe your eyes,” Imogen said for him.
“Yes,” Nick replied, thankful that she at least seemed to understand what had gone through his mind then.
“So you went to get a closer look and got a whole lot more than you bargained for,” she continued.
“What did the girl look like?” Chris demanded.
“Short, young, blond,” Nick said, trying to think hard of some more helpful details.
Chris reached into the back pocket of his jeans and handed Nick a photograph.
“That her?” he asked.
Nick looked at the picture and recognised her instantly. He nodded.
“Megan,” Chris confirmed. “She made it through. We should split up to find her.”
A snort of laughter escaped Jacob. “You are kidding, right?” he said indignantly. “She could literally be anywhere.”
Chris looked furious, but a gentle hand alighted on his shoulder from Imogen.
“He’s right, Chris,” she said, her tone calm and soothing. “I want to find Megan as much as you do, but there is no way of telling how far she could have wandered from here or how many times the mirrors have changed.”
“There was no sign of her here when I came through,” Nick offered, though he wasn’t sure how helpful he was being. “And the mirrors moved when I was here before.”
The disappointment and distress on Chris’ face deepened. Reluctantly, he nodded.
“Fine,” he said. “We should get back to base. The Shonas can fire up the long-range scanner.”
Nick didn’t understand a single word of his last statement, but the others seemed to agree with him.
Jacob took the leather cuff that had been Megan’s out of his pocket.
“How many of those things do you have?” Nick asked.
Jacob smiled. “Too many.” He tapped some sort of combination into the brass buttons on the cuff and handed it to Nick.
“You’ll need this,” he said. He held up his own wrist, showing an identical cuff.
Nick glanced around at Chris and Imogen. They each wore a similar device. Nick took the cuff and secured it to his left wrist.
“What is it?” he asked.
“It’s our way home,” Jacob replied. As he said this, Chris and Imogen both pressed something on their cuffs. They vanished instantly. Nick couldn’t help but jump in surprise.
“Ever watch Star Trek, Nick?” Jacob asked, supressing a laugh at Nick’s expense.
“It’s a teleport?” Nick said in disbelief.
“Sort of. You ready to beam up?”
Nick was not keen on the amused tone in Jacob’s voice, but he nodded all the same.
“On three, then,” Jacob instructed. “Hit the button in the middle of the dial. One… Two… Three.”
Nick pressed down on the button and in the blink of an eye, found himself somewhere else entirely.
There was no sensation of movement to suggest he was travelling anywhere. It was simply as if he had closed his eyes for a second, surrounded by thousands of mirrors, and then opened them again to find himself standing in what looked like someone’s living room.
Armchairs and sofas, all looking worn and old, lined the walls. A threadbare Persian rug stretched under his feet. The walls were full of cracks and patched over with grey filler.
A second later, Jacob appeared beside Nick. He finally removed his goggles, allowing Nick to see his face clearly for the first time. He looked to be around the same age as Nick – mid-thirties – and had pale-blue eyes that seemed to be searching and cautious at the same time. His hair was black and greying in patches. It stood at odd angles, messed up by the way the goggles had been sitting on his head. He looked at Nick and, for a moment, it seemed as if he was going to say something important, but instead he drew the thought back.
“Come on,” he said sounding disappointed with himself. “We should get to the lab.” He headed towards the room’s one and only door.
“Is someone going to tell me what on earth is going on here?” Nick asked following Jacob into a strangely lopsided corridor.
“Yes,” Jacob replied. “I will explain, I promise. But you have to understand, it isn’t going to be a short conversation, and right now we have to find Megan.”
“Look, I’m not an idiot,” Nick insisted. “At least sum it up for me.”
Jacob stopped walking and looked at Nick, eyebrows raised. “Sum it up?” he said dubiously. “OK. How’s this, then? The device you found is called an Eternity Mirror.”
“Very poetic,” Nick interjected. Jacob ignored him.
“It is an interdimensional portal that transfers items and people out of the normal flow of space-time. Each mirror connects to a different parallel world. There are an infinite number of worlds, each diverging from the choices we make. Once you come out of your particular world through the mirror, you can’t go back in permanently.”
Nick’s eyes narrowed. “Why?”
“What is that?”
Jacob drew breath to reply, but he was cut short by a crashing sound from up ahead.
“Like I said,” he explained, as he and Nick ran the rest of the corridor towards the commotion. “It isn’t a short conversation.”
Nick decided not to press further for now. He was still trying to get his head around the idea of interdimensional portals, normal space-time and parallel worlds.
They reached the source of the crash as they entered what Nick first thought was a junk storage room, but was in fact a lab. Inside, Chris and Imogen were hastily picking up what looked like parts of an old toaster.
“I’m sorry,” Chris said, not sounding sorry at all. “But if you maybe thought about tidying up –”
“Hey!” a new voice interrupted. “We know exactly where everything is in here.”
Nick peered around a large pile of scrap metal stacked on a work bench to see who had spoken. For a moment, he thought he was seeing double. There were two women, identical-looking, both with short black hair, glasses and wearing white lab coats. As he looked closer, though, he could see one of them was very neatly dressed below the lab coat, in a pale pink button-down blouse and smart black trousers. The other wore a tattered-looking Nirvana t-shirt and ripped jeans. There was a tattoo showing at the side of her neck and piercings in her lip and nose. Nick had never seen two twins look so different before.
It took him a moment to realise he was staring at them. And that they were staring back.
“Hello?” said the neat one.
“Hi,” Nick replied, feeling self-conscious. “I’m Nick.”
“What’s with the new guy?” the other one said to Jacob, who was helping Chris and Imogen with the mess on the floor.
“That’s rude, Shona,” the neat woman said, nudging the other. She offered her hand to Nick. “It’s very nice to meet you, Nick. I’m Shona.”
Nick blinked. “You’re Shona?” he repeated. Shona nodded. “And she’s Shona?” Nick continued. Again, she nodded. “Did you guys have like the least imaginative parents ever?”
Shona laughed – they both did.
“Not exactly,” Shona – with the tattoo and piercings – said.
“We’ll get to that later,” Jacob interrupted. “In that long conversation we’re going to have.”
Nick was looking forward to this conversation less and less. “I hope I have a pint in my hand for that,” he said. His head was throbbing slightly from the overload of information.
Jacob smiled sympathetically before turning back to the chaos at hand.
“So what’s going on in here?” he asked.
The neat Shona spoke up to explain. In his mind, Nick dubbed her Shona1.
“We were in the process of calibrating the long-range scanner to look for Megan,” she said.
“And then Fidget McButterfingers over here,” Shona2 indicated Chris, “went and killed our prototype photon laser, ’cause he can’t sit still for more than five seconds.”
Chris scowled at her and defensively folded his arms over his chest, but he remained silent.
“Chris is very sorry for breaking your toys,” Jacob began. He was interrupted by a chorus of protects.
“No, I’m not!” from Chris, and “They’re not toys!” from the Shonas.
He silenced them with a wave of his hand.
“Our friend is still missing.”
There were no further arguments. The Shonas made their way to a large screen in the corner of the lab and began typing in commands very quickly. The others gathered around.
The screen showed an enormous grid. Nick watched as some of the lines moved and changed places.
“Is that the mirrors?” he asked.
“Very good, Nick,” Imogen replied. “This is a map of the quadrant we are in,” she explained. “As you can imagine, it changes a lot.”
Nick was sure he would be able to imagine that, if he knew exactly what she was talking about.
“What are you looking for?” he asked.
“Outsiders have a distinctive energy signature,” Shona1 explained. “If she’s out there, we’ll be able to track her.”
“Outsiders?” This was the second time Nick had heard this term.
“That’s us,” Jacob clarified. “People who live outside of the worlds.”
“Jeez,” Shona2 piped up. “Just how green is this guy?”
“Very,” Chris replied bluntly.
Before Nick could say anything in his own defence, a blue light appeared on the screen. It oscillated gently.
“There,” Imogen said. “Sector delta-six.”
Before anyone could even think about their next step, there came the sound of a click as Chris activated his cuff and disappeared. A moment later, a second blue light appeared on the screen a few rows away from the first.
Imogen sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Quite the knight in shining armour that boyfriend of yours,” Shona2 dug at Imogen.
“Don’t remind me,” she replied with resignation.
Nick’s attention was transfixed on the screen as Chris’ blue light came closer and closer to Megan’s. When he was right next to her, he stopped.
“What’s he doing?” Nick asked when Chris didn’t move for a while. “Why doesn’t he just bring her back?”
The others looked back at the screen.
“Uh-oh,” Jacob said under his breath. “Imogen.” His tone was calm but urgent. “Go and prep the isolation chamber. Now.”
Imogen’s face paled. “You don’t think –”
“Yes I do,” he said gravely.
But before she could move, the two blue lights on the screen flickered out. Chris re-appeared in the lab. He struggled to restrain Megan as she writhed and convulsed in his arms. His jacket covered her head.
“She’s got a shadow!” Chris announced. “We need to move fast.”
As he said this, the jacket slipped from over Megan’s face. Nick drew back at the sight of her. Her eyes were completely black, as if her pupils had dilated to their full size. Black spidery veins spread outwards from around her eyes, across her cheeks and forehead, and down her neck. Her lips had taken on a purplish tinge and her breathing was ragged.
There was a brief moment of silence in the lab. Then Megan’s screams ripped through the air.