The library that took up the entire ground floor of the base, and several layer of the wings, was a labyrinth. The pathways between the stalls of bookshelves and archives were minimal. Nick was forced to sidle between several tightly placed shelves, having lost all sense of direction some way back. Fortunately, Jacob seemed to know where he was going. At the very least, Nick guessed they were making their way towards the source of the music that drifted towards them through the stacks of papers. It had been quiet at first but was growing louder the closer they got. Nick could make out the occasional crackle in the sound as a needle scraped across the vinyl groove. It sounded like a very old recording of a jazz orchestra. Nick didn’t know the piece at all, but it was pleasant enough to listen to.
At last, they reached the centre of the library, and the cramped shelves opened to a clearing filled with desks and lamps. A large cabinet, presumably housing thousands upon thousands of indexing cards, stood to Nick’s left. On top of it was the gramophone, its trumpet speaker pulsing out the music that had guided them in.
Only one of the desks was occupied. An old man sat in a red-leather, high-back chair. He was hunched forward, poring over whichever tome he had selected from the surrounding archives. He did not look up as Nick and Jacob approached. Nick took in the old man’s appearance as he drew closer. The man looked to be in his late seventies, at least. His grey hair was messy and unkempt. It looked like it was long overdue for a cut, but the man obviously had more urgent matters to see to. The clothes he wore were old. Not just well worn, but old-fashioned. The trousers and jacket were tweed and looked as if they had been made in the early twentieth century for a gentleman heading on a country retreat. The silver chain of a pocket watch dangled from the jacket’s breast pocket. It was tarnished and looked as if it had been beaten and bent back together on more than one occasion.
Finally, the man looked up, and Nick was met with a pair of bright, grey-green eyes that looked to have more life in them than the rest of him combined. A smile spread across the old man’s face upon seeing Nick. It was a warm, welcoming smile, but the glint in his eyes made it just a little bit more menacing. Nick felt himself on edge at the expression.
“Ah,” the old man said, sitting back in his chair. “You must be our newest recruit.”
Nick smiled thinly. “I must be,” he replied.
“Alastair, this is Nick,” Jacob said by way of introduction. “Nick, Alastair.”
Nick was unsure whether he should offer his hand, so settled for a polite nod.
“And where did you come from?” Alastair asked. Nick was keenly aware that the old man’s gaze had not left him since he had looked up.
“2165270 alpha,” Jacob replied for him. “He ran into Megan.”
At the mention of the number, Alastair’s face lit up even further, as if a great puzzle had been solved before his eyes.
“Really?” he said in awe. “How interesting.” He gestured to Nick and Jacob for them to pull up a chair each. As they did so, Alastair tidied some of the papers in front of him.
“Tell me, Jacob,” Alastair began as they all settled. “Was Megan able to complete her errand before this unfortunate incident?”
Nick’s attention shifted to Jacob, whose back stiffened at the question. A look of indignation spread over his face.
“That errand, whatever it was,” Jacob said calmly, “is what set the shadow after her in the first place.”
Nick had no idea what they were talking about. He tried his best to keep up with them.
“It was very important,” Alastair said. “Perhaps Imogen could –”
“Imogen is a little pre-occupied trying to save Megan’s life right now.” The indignation in Jacob’s expression had by now made its way into his voice.
Alastair waved him off. “The Shonas can handle that. I need –”
“Forget it,” Jacob interrupted. “No-one is going anywhere until Megan is out of the woods. Whatever you sent her there for can wait.”
They stared each other down for a few moments; the only sound in the library was the soft hiss of the record spinning around, having come to the end of its set.
At last, Alastair’s face softened a little. His expression was controlled as he gave a small, submissive smile.
“You’re right, of course,” he said smoothly. “Megan comes first.” He stood from his chair and headed over to the gramophone. As he turned the record over and started it playing again, one of the papers on the desk caught Nick’s attention.
It looked like a very old scientific journal. It was open at an essay dated July 1924, entitled The Mirror Effect by Dr Horatio Cainer. As Alastair came to sit back down, Nick read the opening sentences of the essay:
“According to modern Quantum Mechanics, there are an infinite number of realities, each diverging from the choices we make. These realities, though intrinsically connected, are entirely separate from one another. They cannot be accessed.”
Nick couldn’t help but wonder what this Dr Cainer would make of where he was sat right now.
“…Is that so?” Alastair’s voice cut through Nick’s thoughts.
He looked up, realising a conversation had carried on without him as he was reading the essay.
“I’m sorry?” he asked, not knowing what exactly ‘was so’.
“I was telling Alastair how Megan ran into you at the mirror,” Jacob explained.
Nick nodded as he caught up with them.
“What were you doing there?” Alastair asked. “I thought the fairground was derelict in that particular version.”
“It is,” Nick replied. “I was running.”
“From what exactly?” Alastair’s forehead creased.
“From nothing,” Nick said, feeling he was missing something. “I was just running.”
Alastair’s expression still looked confused.
“You know,” Nick tried to explain. “For exercise.”
Comprehension finally seemed to dawn on Alastair’s face.
“I remember when exercise meant taking a walk in the countryside,” Alastair mused. “How the pace of life has quickened.”
Nick glanced at Jacob, hoping he was following what the old man was saying. Jacob simply shrugged, but he didn’t seem surprised by his ramblings.
“And so you saw Megan go through the mirror,” Alastair continued.
“I supposed the shadow caught up with her when she bumped into you.” Alastair had begun making notes, as if he were leading a counselling session.
“That’s the theory,” Jacob replied.
But Nick felt uneasy. His mind cast back to the dream he had had the night after his encounter with Megan.
“What is it?” Jacob asked. He looked at Nick with concern.
Nick thought for a moment.
“It’s nothing,” he said, deciding the whole thing felt and sounded absurd.
“That face isn’t nothing,” Jacob replied.
“Well,” Nick began reluctantly, “I may have actually seen when that thing caught her.”
Jacob raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“Fascinating,” Alastair remarked.
“You kept this quiet,” Jacob said.
“It’s not like I’ve had a lot of time to process all of this,” Nick said defensively. “And I don’t even know if this is real or not. I didn’t see anything as it happened, but I had a dream about it and I could see the shadows then.”
“There was more than one?” Alastair interrupted, his notes now spilling to a second page in his journal.
“In the dream, yes,” Nick emphasised. “There were two. One of them stayed behind me, but the other one…” He hesitated. It still sounded beyond surreal as he said it out loud.
“Go on,” Alastair prompted.
“The other one grabbed her ankle just as she went through the mirror. It disappeared with her.” Nick looked at Jacob, hoping he wouldn’t be angry with him for not speaking up sooner. Jacob jut looked confused.
“And the one behind you,” Alastair said. “What did it do?”
“I don’t know,” Nick answered. “I woke up before it did anything.”
Alastair’s face twisted slightly in thought. “Hmm. Pity,” he said thinking out loud. “I wonder, Nick, if you would be willing to undergo –”
“No,” Jacob interrupted.
Nick and Alastair both looked at him.
“No hypnosis, Alastair,” he said firmly. “And no electrodes, hallucinogens, or sleep-deprivation experiments. Not after last time.”
Nick desperately wanted to know what had happened ‘last time.’ But part of him was just a little bit too scared to ask.
Alastair slumped back in his chair.
“You have no sense of fun, Jacob,” he said petulantly. The childish comment did not seem to be in keeping with his age, but again Jacob didn’t seem surprised at all.
“Will you at least let me talk to it before the Shonas blast it out of her?” Alastair asked Jacob.
“What could you possibly want to talk to it for?” Jacob asked in reply. Nick had to admit he was wondering the same thing.
“Academic curiosity,” Alastair replied. “I’m not sure you realise the scientific opportunity we have here.”
Jacob let out an exasperated sigh. “Fine,” he said eventually. “But you’ll have to go through Chris first.”
Concern briefly flowed across Alastair’s face at the thought. But he quickly controlled his features back into a smile.
“Very well,” he said cheerfully.
Chris cared for Megan. That much Nick had worked out fairly quickly. He seemed to regard her as a little sister. And so when Alastair had barged into the isolation room intent on interrogating her, Chris had been so unimpressed by the intrusion that Imogen had eventually dragged him from the room. Nick and Jacob stayed back. Alastair stepped up to Megan.
Megan, who had been still and silent since being brought into the room, looked at Alastair and grinned.
“We were wondering when you would visit,” she said, her voice rough and dry. “Come to say your goodbyes to this one?”
“Shut up,” Alastair said sternly. Megan shrank back a little way on the gurney.
“You know who I am?” Alastair asked.
“You know what we intend to do to you?” he continued.
Megan’s grin grew broader. “Let them try,” she said.
“Oh, I will, don’t worry,” Alastair said. “I am giving you a chance to leave here peacefully.”
Megan’s expression faltered. “This one encroached,” she said. “This one was where it ought not to be. It was our right –”
“She is under my protection,” Alastair interrupted. “And she was leaving.”
Megan scowled at him and made a sound that reminded Nick of a wolf preparing to attack.
“You know the rules,” Megan grimaced “This one broke them. It is our right!”
Alastair’s attention turned briefly to where Nick and Jacob stood watching. The door slid open as Chris and Imogen entered, followed by the Shonas as they wheeled in the modified defibrillator.
“We had a truce,” Alastair said quietly to the shadow in Megan.
Her face contorted. She spat at Alastair.
“No truce!” she screamed. “They are too many! They don’t belong! They are our right! This one is ours! We will not leave!”
Alastair sighed. “Then you leave me no choice.”
He stepped back to allow the Shonas through. Shona1 started to spread the gel over the paddles as Shona2 fiddled with dials and wires on the machine. Megan eyed them with nervous suspicion.
“Others will come,” she said apprehensively. “If you kill us, we won’t hold back anymore.”
“Good,” Alastair said resolutely. “It’s time we ended this.”
“You will lose,” Megan promised. “They will all fall. And you with them.”
Nick glanced around the others in the room. None of them seemed to show any sort of understanding to what Alastair was saying. But then they also didn’t show concern. He turned back to Alastair as the flicker of a smile darted across his face.
“We’ll see,” he said in reply to Megan. He stepped away from her and turned to the Shonas. “Get it out of her.”
Shona1 approached with the paddles.
“And be careful not to touch her skin,” Alastair warned.
Shona1 nodded. Her own hands were already gloved as she adjusted Megan’s clothes and manoeuvred the paddles into position.
Megan tried to flinch away from her, but the restraints held her tight.
“Ready?” Shona2 asked.
“Ready,” Shona1 replied.
“Charging.” Shona2 powered up the defibrillator. A high pitched whine emitted from the machine as it drew in power. “Now!”
Shona1 pushed the buttons on the paddles and then backed away immediately.
Megan convulsed. An inhuman scream filled the room as black tendrils rose out of her, as if repelled by a like-charge. They were completely amorphous at first, but began to gather back into a form that was shaped vaguely like a person. Megan’s body lay lifeless and pale on the gurney the shadow screamed and recoiled away.