Everyone seemed to move so fast around Nick. Chris hastily tugged the jacket back over Megan’s eyes, but it didn’t stop her screaming. Jacob came to help Chris restrain her. Imogen went on ahead, opening doors and clearing a path. The Shonas ran around their lab pulling out pieces of equipment and strange coloured vials of liquid. They flurried around Nick like a whirlwind.
For his part, Nick was too stunned to feel he was any use to anyone. They all seemed to know their parts in this crisis. He felt himself get carried along with the tide as everyone followed Chris and Jacob in the direction that Imogen had gone.
“Don’t touch her skin!” Chris ordered Jacob. “Don’t let her see where she is!”
“Gee, thanks Chris,” Jacob replied dryly. “That’s not obvious at all.”
Not to me, Nick thought to himself.
They brought her into a large grey room. In the centre of the room was as old-fashioned hospital gurney. Nick thoughts it looked like it had come from an old Frankenstein film set. There were several ancient looking machines in the room that he couldn’t even begin to name.
Imogen was by the gurney, undoing the buckles of leather restraints that were ready to secure Megan’s arms and legs. There was another to go across her torso and another for her forehead. Imogen looked up as they brought Megan in, her screams bouncing and echoing off the blank grey walls. Chris and Jacob heaved her onto the gurney and found a way to hold her still as Imogen strapped her down, making sure she did not touch Megan’s bare skin.
Nick was ushered to one end of the room, out of the way. He watched as the others continued to struggle with Megan.
As the restraints were tightened, her movement became less frantic. Her screams began to grow quieter until they were a mere whimper. As she calmed down, the tension in the room seemed to give a little.
Jacob came to join Nick at the spot he had chosen by the wall. He took one look at the expression on Nick’s face – somewhere between shock, confusion and fear – and he let out a heavy sigh.
“Maybe we need that pint,” he said. He rested his arm over Nick’s shoulders and guided him from the room.
If Nick had been confused by his surroundings before, it was nothing compared to the mystery tour he was on now as he followed Jacob through the … well, he wasn’t sure what to call it. Base? Facility? Complex?
Whatever and wherever it was, it was enormous. The room where they had first arrived, together with the Shonas’ lab and the isolation room occupied one wing. Jacob had explained that there were several other labs and an office or two in this wing, but most of them weren’t used these days. Most of the rooms in the main hub and the eight wings that led from it weren’t used much anymore.
They emerged from a long corridor connecting the wing to the rest of the complex and, as the space opened out, Nick’s jaw dropped at the sight. He was standing on a platform on the fourth floor of an eight-storey, octagonal warehouse-like space. The levels below him, including the ground floor, seemed to be dominated by shelf upon shelf of books. It was the most extensive library Nick had ever seen. On the floors above the library, Nick could see more rooms and corridors and staircases leading off in all directions. The walls were tiled and, occasionally, ornate metal girders jutted out and arched overhead, forming supports for the levels above. Nick craned his neck to look upwards towards the ceiling, four storeys above him. It was arched and came to a point in the middle with the metal girders forming an eight-pointed star as they spread across the ceiling and down the walls.
“What is this place?” Nick asked in wonder.
“It’s home,” Jacob replied. “It’s the only place in the In Between that we can actually live.”
Nick raised his eyebrows and turned to Jacob.
“The In Between?” he queried.
“Yeah,” Jacob said as they walked around the platform to one of the other wings. “The space in between the worlds.”
Nick waited patiently for him to elaborate further.
“I said before that each mirror you saw back there is connected to a different parallel world.”
Nick nodded, not sure he fully understood, but at least had a frame of reference for what Jacob was talking about.
“The In Between is kind of like an interchange between the mirrors. Between the worlds. We can get into any world we want to from here.”
“But not stay there,” Nick clarified.
“So why would you want to get into another world if you can’t stay?” Nick asked, pausing on the platform for a moment.
“Supplies, mainly,” Jacob explained. “We have no natural resources here whatsoever. Not even light. Everything we use here, including water, comes from in the worlds.”
Nick gazed around the great structure they were in.
“What about this place? Where did it come from?”
“We’re not entirely sure,” he admitted. “It was here when each of us arrived. I’m not even sure Alastair knows.”
“Who’s Alastair?” Nick asked a they carried on along the platform and turned down a corridor away from the hub.
“He’s sort of our leader,” Jacob said.
“I thought Chris was in charge,” Nick said in confusion.
Jacob laughed. “He does carry on as if he is, doesn’t he? But he’s as lost as the rest of us. Alastair has been here the longest. He’s had more time to study the mirrors than the rest of us put together.”
“So you tend to listen to him,” Nick figured.
“So where is he?”
“No idea,” Jacob replied plainly. “He has a tendency to wander off. We can go a few days without seeing him at all. No-one knows where he gets to.”
“Has anyone asked him?” Nick asked dryly.
Again, Jacob laughed. “When you meet him, I’ll let you work that one out.”
They carried on down the new corridor and soon came to a living room similar to the one Nick had first arrived in. There were several doors on either side of the room.
“This is the main living quarters,” Jacob explained. “Chris and Imogen’s room is that way,” he gestured to the left. “Megan’s is next to theirs. The Shonas, when they actually leave the lab, have rooms over that way,” gesturing right this time. “Mine is off that way,” he said pointing to a door straight ahead of them. “There’s a few empty rooms along that way. Feel free to pick one.”
Nick nodded, trying to take everything in.
“But this is what we really came for,” Jacob said guiding Nick back along the corridor they had entered by. They had only gone a short distance when Jacob turned left into another room. This one was complete with a bar, and several tables with semi-comfortable looking chairs around them.
“You have your own pub?” Nick said sounding impressed.
“Of course,” Jacob replied. He stepped around to the other side of the bar. “And Imogen’s home brewery and distillery keep us well stocked.” He handed Nick a bottle of beer and retrieved one for himself.
Nick settled himself onto a stool by the bar and took a drink of Imogen’s home-brewed beer. It was bitter – very bitter – and seared his throat as he swallowed. Nick coughed, feeling a slight light-headed tingle as it settled in his stomach.
“Whoa,” he said after a second or two. “I’ve had worse.”
Jacob smiled and sat down on the stool next to him.
“No such thing as a bad pint, I always say,” he said cheerily. “Only some are better than others.”
A silence drifted between them as they drank. Eventually, Nick spoke.
“Jacob,” he said cautiously. “What’s happened to Megan?”
Jacob took another swig of beer and placed his bottle down in front of him before he replied.
“You remember that shadow that was chasing her?” he asked.
“Well, it looks like it caught up with her.”
Nick’s mind raced back to the dream he had had where he saw a shadow grab hold of her ankle as she disappeared through the mirror. Was that real?
“It’s inside her?” Nick asked.
“The shadows aren’t flesh and blood,” Jacob explained. “They’re, for want of a better word, energy. Or maybe negative energy. They effectively govern the In Between. It’s their job to make sure the worlds stay separate and that nothing interferes with them.”
“Like Outsiders,” Nick replied. “I guess they don’t like you guys too much.”
“Nope,” Jacob said taking another drink.
“So they chase you around the place and when they get you? What?”
“They kill you,” Jacob said. “Slowly. Right now, that shadow in Megan is systematically shutting down her body. She shouldn’t technically exist outside of a world – none of us should – so it is correcting the anomaly.”
“By killing her.”
“Can we help her?” Nick asked.
Jacob hesitated. “In theory we can,” he said. “But this is really Alastair’s area. If he was here, he’d know exactly what to do. I’m sure the Shonas will have some ideas up their sleeves but…” he trailed off, clearly not wanting to dwell on the possibility of his friend’s death.
Nick didn’t want to press the matter further and so changed the subject.
“What’s the deal with the Shonas anyway?” he asked.
Jacob let out a small laugh. “You haven’t figured them out yet?” he teased.
Nick shook his head. He was fairly certain he wasn’t going to figure any of this place out without help.
“Well, they’re not twins,” Jacob hinted.
“Yeah, that much I got.”
“There are an infinite number of parallel worlds out there,” Jacob explained. “Each of us has come from a different one. The Shonas just happen to be two different versions of the same person from two different worlds.”
Nick was silent as this sank in.
“They’re the same person?” he said slowly.
“But they’re so different.”
Jacob shrugged. “They made very different life choices. On the surface, they seem different, but there’s a lot of similarities when you get to know them.”
Nick took several gulps of beer – he was getting used to the burn in his throat.
“So there’ll be other versions of me out there?” he said.
“Of course there will,” Jacob replied. “Infinite versions. Although statistically, it is unlikely that another one will find his way to us here. The Shonas really are remarkable in that respect.”
Before Nick could respond, Imogen entered the bar.
“I thoughts I’d find you here,” she said. She looked worn out. The shadow-infested Megan was clearly stronger than she looked.
“I’m glad we didn’t disappoint,” Jacob replied, raising his bottle to her in a cheers salute. “I was just giving our new friend the tour.”
Imogen nodded and smile at Nick.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t all be more welcoming,” she said. “The first few days here are hard enough without a crisis on our hands.”
Nick returned her smile. “I’m sorry I couldn’t have helped her at the fairground,” he said.
“There’s no way you could have,” Imogen assured him. “You couldn’t have known what was going on.”
“I’m still not really sure,” he admitted.
“You’ll get there,” Imogen assured him. “But for now, we should get back to the lab. The Shonas think they have a plan and Chris is anxious to hear it.”
Jacob drained the last of his beer. “Told you they’d come up with something.”
A camera had been set up in the isolation room to monitor Megan at all times. Nick was finding it hard to pull his attention away from it. The black tendril veins that seemed to spread from around her eyes were taking over more and more of her face. They were visible on her hands as well, having spread down her neck and arms. She was no longer fighting against the restraints. She was completely still on the gurney and completely silent, which Nick found most unsettling.
“How long does she have?” Nick asked.
“Not long,” Chris replied bluntly. He turned to the Shonas. “You said you had a plan?”
Shona1 cleared her throat. “Well…” she started hesitantly. “We really only have one sure-fire way of getting rid of shadows.”
“You mean those pistol things?” Nick asked. He was not sure he liked where this was going already.
Shona2 nodded. “Obviously, we can’t use one of them on her. It would kill her in seconds.”
“But that got us thinking,” Shona1 continued. “That may be exactly what we need to do.”
Chris’ eyebrows shot straight upwards. “Kill her?” he said. “Are you mad? That’s what we’re trying not to do here.”
The Shonas ignored him. Nick wondered if they were used to him interrupting them like this.
“The shadows effectively feed off energy, but too much energy neutralises them, that’s why the pistols work so well. The voltage they discharge is too much for them to handle in one go and they… disperse.” Shona1 seemed to be hitting her stride now. “If we hit Megan with a high enough jolt of electricity, it should overwhelm her system and the shadow will have no choice but to get out of her.”
There was a pause in the lab as the others thought about what she was saying.
“How big a jolt are we talking here?” Jacob asked.
The Shonas exchanged a glance and then Shona2 drew breath to answer. It was clearly her turn to be the bearer of bad news.
“A defibrillator should do it,” she said.
A hollow, unamused laugh erupted from Chris. “You want to shock her heart while it’s still beating?” he said incredulously. “You really take the whole kill or cure thing to another level, don’t you?”
“As soon as that thing is out of her,” Shona1 one defended, “we’ll be able to use the defibrillator again to revive her.”
“Someone would have to be pretty close to her in the first place to use it though,” Imogen pointed out. “There’s a chance the shadow would latch on to whoever was there and we’d have to start all over again.”
Shona2 nodded in agreement. “There’s a degree of risk involved.”
“There’s an understatement,” Nick blurted out. Everyone’s eyes turned to him as if they had forgotten he was there until he has spoken. “Sorry,” he said feeling self-conscious.
“This is the only plan we have right now,” Shona1 continued. “We need to move fast if it’s going to work.”
There was an awkward silence in the lab and Nick was aware that most of the attention had now shifted to Chris.
“Fine,” he sighed. “If no-one has a better idea…” He paused. No-one spoke up. “I’ll defibrillate her. Jacob, you stand by to shoot that thing as soon as its out of her.”
Jacob nodded and the two moved to leave the lab.
“Hang on,” Shona2 called them back. “There’s one more problem.”
Chris’ head tilted to one side. He didn’t turn back to face them, but Nick was sure he was rolling his eyes.
“What is it?” Jacob asked.
Shona1 shifted nervously in her chair. “We don’t actually have a defibrillator here.”