Jules Amostel had been tinkerer all his days, from his youth when his parents gave him a chemistry set to play with, through his time at university in the engineering department, where he was constantly toying with circuits in the lab or in his dorm room, and later as he found himself a job working for the city’s transit department. The first thing he did upon the purchase of a house, after marrying his longtime girlfriend, was to turn the unfinished basement into a lab space for the various projects he embarked on.
Jules had never been particularly social, and while he enjoyed going out and meeting with friends, and got on well with all his co-workers, he needed time to himself to do as he pleased and found it in the basement. His wife Amy was a patient woman and recognized it as a release of sorts from the stresses of day to day living. Every now and again she would notice him spending too much time alone down there and would remind him that he needed to spend time with her and his friends. She did not ask much about what he did there and he volunteered little, showing her the odd device he built, but they mostly confused her.
Soon they had children and their lives became busier still. Jules found time when he could for his work in the basement, though admittedly less now. It did not bother him, his daughters were far more intriguing than anything he might work on down below. As they grew into their teens and became more independent, he found he had more time that he could devote to his work and he returned to it with a renewed vigor. Sunday became his day dedicated to his devices and he would descend below after breakfast while Amy and his daughters entertained themselves.
Finally, after twenty five years of intermittent work, Jules finished what he had begun so long ago in his university dorm room. The individual devises that had so confused Amy were but a part of a much grander whole—a vast contraption—that, when he finally assembled it, took up much of the basement. It was capable of traversing time and space, perhaps even the fabric of the universe itself.
It was his life’s work, his grand design, but for many weeks he did not engage the contraption, would not enter it. Fear stopped him short. What if he turned it on and he was sent somewhere or sometime and could not return? Worse, what if nothing happened at all? It was difficult to say which of those possibilities scared him most.
At last though, temptation and curiosity won out, and one Sunday morning he turned the various devices on and entered the contraption. It whirred and hissed, lights blinking, fans blowing and something like an engine growling. The hairs on his arms rose up and he felt a strange itch in the back of his throat. There was a whiff of smoke as well, which concerned him greatly. He had a vision of Amy and the kids smelling it and coming down to investigate before he managed to return. How would he explain what had happened? What if they interfered with the contraption?
Before he had time to worry any further about his family the contraption stopped, its engines slowing until the only sound was the fan cooling its motors. A new world, he thought to himself as he set his shoulders and stepped out of the device.
When he did he saw that he was still in his basement, which to all appearances was unchanged from the few minutes before when he had entered. Perhaps the contraption had malfunctioned. A quick check revealed no obvious problems. Everything had apparently functioned as it should have, yet here he was, exactly where he had left. He was still pondering what could have gone wrong when Amy called down to him. Reluctantly, he left the contraption and went upstairs.
“Where have you been all afternoon?” Amy said, as he came up to the foot of the stairs.
“In the basement working,” he said, and was amazed to see that it was growing dark outside. Excitement gripped him. What had felt like only minutes to him had evidently been hours. The contraption had worked, the process just needed to be refined.
“The same thing I work on every Sunday,” Jules said. He was surprised to see Amy looking oddly at him. Patricia, his youngest daughter, was at the kitchen table and she too was looking at him with a confused expression.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about dear,” Amy said, her voice sounding strained. Patricia stood up from her chair and looked from face to face, as though expecting an eruption to occur.
“How can you not know what I’m talking about?” Jules said, the color going from his face, his stomach twisting at the thoughts that slipped through his mind. “I go down there every Sunday to work on my things. Do you think I’m just sitting there doing nothing? I’ve shown you what I worked on for god sakes.”
“Dad,” Patricia said, holding out a hand as though to calm and console him. Amy’s face, he saw, was twisted with emotion. He thought he saw tears in her eyes.
Without another word he turned and went back down the stairs. He understood what had happened. The contraption had worked, he was in another universe. This one was just like his own, except that here he had not developed the contraption. What did the other Jules do? And where was he now?
As he descended, barely able to reign in his panic, he heard Amy tell Patricia not to follow him. Things were very different in this universe, he realized, in spite of appearances. He had to get back to his own. Hopefully there were no issues with the contraption and he could reverse the process that had brought him here. He could not be sure until he tried. He would have to careful the next time he used it, for it was obviously even more powerful than he had realized.
These thoughts clattered through his mind in such a rush that his brain felt as though it could not possibly hold them all. They all vanished as he reached the bottom of the stairs and turned round the corner to where his workshop was, where the contraption sat, only to see an empty unfinished basement and nothing more.
In A Flash: read a new story every Thursday…
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