Strange haunted dreams assailed my helpless, unconscious mind. In the darkness I sensed I was falling, falling, falling, and yet I never reached the ground. Familiar objects from my waking life seemed surreal, unworldly. The office where I worked, my car, the journey home - all the things that were normally so reassuringly solid seemed to just melt away. I reached out in the darkness, my fingers clawing at reality, but everything I touched crumbled to dust. I was left with nothing but a succession of half-formed, dreamlike sensations - a strange, incomprehensible woman stretched across the front of my car, a headlong flight through the woods, a fog-shrouded farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, and a curiously unpleasant outside toilet filled with strange equipment. And always there was that little man in the white coat, Professor Mendes, standing over me, rocking backwards and forwards on his heels as he shook with silent laughter.
Suddenly there seemed to be a light above me. I felt myself being drawn towards it, as if I was ascending from the darkest, murkiest depths of the ocean. Gradually the real world fell back into place...
I awoke with the sensation of water splashing my face. Seeing that I was conscious, Janet stopped licking me and helped me to my feet, which the Professor had put over in the corner out of the way. I stood swaying for a moment, my head feeling like someone was repeatedly hitting it with a tin of baked beans.
“Where am I?” I asked as I slapped Cathy around the face and told her to put the baked bean tin down.
The Professor came and stood before me and grasped the lapels of his lab coat in an unnecessarily camp manner. “You are standing on the threshold of a new era in space exploration, Mr Dickson,” he announced grandly.
“No, I’m standing in a craphouse,” I corrected him.
The Professor was instantly outraged. “How dare you!” he roared. “Is it not enough that you barge in here uninvited? This is my life’s work - the Cosmic Podulator. You ignorant young thug! The technology on display before you will revolutionise the world!”
He seemed quite serious. Unhealthily so. “I’m sorry,” I managed to say without sounding even the slightest bit apologetic. “But it looks like a craphouse to me.” I sniffed the air. “And it certainly smells like a craphouse.” However, as I spoke I became more aware of my surroundings and it gradually began to dawn on me that this was no ordinary craphouse. Firstly, there were four of us crammed into it - the Professor, his daughter Cathy, that strange woman Janet and myself. That sort of thing wasn’t typical for a start - not where I came from anyway. Then there was the confusion of pipes and cables that I had witnessed when I had first entered, woven into a nightmare cat’s cradle of twists and turns. If that wasn’t unusual enough, I couldn’t help but notice that shoehorned into every conceivable nook and cranny were odd pieces of electronic and mechanical equipment, which either hummed, whined, hissed or sometimes even burbled.
The only source of light was a single, cobwebbed-festooned light bulb, but it was sufficient for the Professor to see the brief shadow of confusion that crossed my face. “Go on, go on,” he crooned. “Take a look around you, young man. I can see that the truth is beginning to dawn. Your disbelief is turning to awe. You realise, quite rightly, that my Podulator represents the most outstanding leap forward in human technology since the invention of the wheel. And soon, very soon, the rest of the world is going to realise it too!”
“Is that right?” I mumbled. The Professor was clearly involved in some odd activities, but I seriously doubted that ‘making outstanding leaps forward in human technology’ was one of them. “Spend a lot of time in here, do you?” I asked him brightly. “Alone?”
“Pah!” blurted the Professor in disgust, then turned to his daughter. “Here, you have a word with him,” he said, shaking his head. “I just can’t get through to the ignorant twat.”
“Everything my father says is true,” Cathy obediently piped up in defence of her old man. “Oh, I know it looks like an old toilet to you - but believe me, some of the things that my father has been up to in here will shock the world.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I replied.
“Mr Dickson, you don’t understand. The Podulator is capable of travelling to the furthest corners of the universe in the blink of an eye. Father has succeeded where others before him have only dreamed - he has perfected matter transmission!”
There was a brief, uneasy silence. I surveyed the three of them: Cathy, Professor Mendes - even Janet was looking deadly serious. “Matter transmission?” I said.
“You’re nuts,” I said matter-of-factly.
“What Cathy says is perfectly correct,” the Professor interceded.
“And you’re not exactly the perfect character witness, are you?” I snorted. “You’re as whacko as she is.” I gestured around. “I mean, even assuming that matter transmission is possible - which it isn’t - why would anybody want to build such a device into a toilet?”
“Convenience?” suggested Janet, unhelpfully. I flashed her a cruel stare and she slunk back into the shadows. It was because of this woman that I had found myself in this stinking hole in the first place, and I wasn’t about to let her forget it.
“This seemed to be the ideal location for my work,” Professor Mendes explained. “I needed somewhere quiet. Somewhere away from the prying eyes of visitors. Somewhere that was reasonably well ventilated and had a plentiful supply of paper.”
I rocked backwards on my heel and folded my arms across my chest. I decided that it might profit me to humour him for the moment. “Okay,” I said after a brief pause. “So, all this...” I waved my hand around airily. “This ‘Cosmic Podulator’ thing - how does it work?”
“I doubt you’d understand,” the Professor replied abruptly.
Ah, so the smelly dropout was going to get stroppy, was he? “In layman’s terms then?” I pressed him, and waited expectantly.
The Professor sighed. “Oh very well,” he responded irritably. “It works on the principal of counter-phased electron osmosis.”
“Counter-phased electric what?” I repeated doubtfully, and I frowned. “Did you just make that up?” I asked him.
Professor Mendes replied with a sharp intake of breath, signifying that I had succeeded in annoying him “Of course I made it up, you bloody idiot!” he snapped. “I invented the damn thing. Doesn’t it stand to reason that if I invent a whole new process, I’m inevitably going to have to invent a name for it as well?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” I said, smiling. “I’m sorry. Do go on.”
“Very well, but please try to pay attention, you irritating little prick. Now, this unit here...” The Professor pointed to a small box fixed to the wall, next to the toilet roll holder. “...is responsible for supercharging the electron beam. It is then fed via this pipe...” He indicated a plastic pipe. “...to the spatial reactor chamber, here.” He pointed upwards.
“That’s the toilet cistern,” I said.
“Yes, yes,” he continued. “And it’s also the very heart of the Podulator. It literally punches a hole in the fabric of reality and allows my machine to slip through and reappear at a completely different point in space.”
“Fascinating,” I said flatly. I pointed to the toilet bowl. “And what’s this bit for?” I asked.
“What do you think?” the Professor replied. “This machine is capable of flipping you halfway across the universe in the blink of an eye. It’s as well to take a few home comforts with you.”
“Well there’s nothing worse than having to use a strange loo, is there?” I sympathised.
“Exactly,” said the Professor.
“I mean, who knows what sort of horrible nastiness you could catch from an alien space toilet?” I added. “Probably made for creatures with a different number of bottoms anyway.”
“Oh, now look - ”
“No you look, Professor Mendes - if you really are a Professor, which I seriously doubt.” He returned a rather pathetic, sullen expression, but I was not to be put off. “You’re living in a fantasy world - which is fine, go ahead, just don’t try and drag me into it. Instantaneous travel is a scientific impossibility.”
“An impossibility, is it?” the Professor replied. “Ha! Well listen, it wasn’t all that long ago that we thought it was impossible to transmit pork sausages through telegraph wires.”
I paused to let those words sink in. “It is impossible,” I answered at last.
“All right, bad example,” the Professor conceded. “But the frontiers of science are constantly being pushed forward. What is impossible today will be commonplace tomorrow - even the sausage thing. You don’t believe me, of course - but then, you don’t really want to believe me.”
“You’re a freak,” I replied. “Your daughter’s a freak, and I suspect that if there are any more members of your family lurking around here, they’ll register pretty high up on the freakometer as well. So - bearing that in mind, all things being equal, and I think I can say this without fear of ending up with egg on my face - no, Professor Whatever-Your-Name-Is, no I don’t want to believe you.”
I was quite happy with my remarks, but the Professor just smiled. It was a strangely confident smile, considering the roasting I’d just given him, and I must confess that I found it more than a little unnerving. He turned to Janet. “And what about you, my dear?” he said.
Janet looked suddenly startled. She clearly had no desire to be drawn into the debate - which was fine by me, since in my estimation her opinion was worth something in the region of sod all. “Well...” she began, unpromisingly.
“Oh come on!” I snapped at her. “Surely you’re not going to let yourself get taken in by this ridiculous old tosser?”
She was wavering, I could tell. “It’s just that...” She shrugged. “Well, what the Professor was saying does kind of make sense - not the bits about the sausages, obviously, but all the other stuff rings true. And he is a Professor after all - he’s got the lab coat and everything.”
“Oh well, that makes it all right then,” I sneered. “Christ! Some people will allow themselves to fall for any old crap. All I see here is a sad man in a dirty coat, lurking in a toilet. I’m sorry, but you’ll excuse me if I prefer to believe the evidence of my own eyes.”
“The evidence of your own eyes?” Professor Mendes said softly. “Well, if that’s what it’s going to take...”
He turned and reached out to the cistern behind him, but Cathy sprung forward with a shriek. “No Father!” she cried. “No, we can’t go. Not yet, we’re not ready. We need to prepare - to make sure we have the right equipment, the right clothes. I haven’t even made the sandwiches yet.”
The Professor shook himself free. “Nonsense girl, it’s just a quick trip, that’s all. There and back again, I promise.” And with that he reached out and pulled the chain.
I staggered, in spite of myself. Pipes around me started to shake and clatter, and the vibrations were so bad that it seemed almost as if the floor I was standing on was moving. A terrible gushing, gurgling noise filled the air and a modest gale seemed to spring from nowhere and swirl around inside the tiny room.
“Good grief Professor!” I said, raising my voice above the howl of the wind. “I think you need to get a plumber in.”
“Oh, there won’t be any plumbers where we’re going,” he said calmly, and he sat down to read the paper.
A series of thuds, like tiny explosions, rocked the pipes above my head. The Professor didn’t seem the slightest bit perturbed, but I was starting to get more and more uneasy. “All right, all right,” I blustered, trying not to sound too panicky. “A joke’s a joke - switch it off now Professor.”
“No need to worry,” Professor Mendes said as he turned to the sports section. “Be there soon.”
“Enough of this!” I demanded. “Someone could get hurt, Professor - and if you don’t stop this contraption right now, that ‘someone’ is going to be you.”
“Pah,” said the Professor without looking up.
“Oh, I’ve had enough of this,” I muttered. I turned to Janet. “Oy you - daft woman! I’m getting out of here, are you coming?”
Janet was plastered up against a wall, a desperate look in her eyes and an expression of sheer terror on her face. She didn’t look as though she was having fun. Nevertheless, with a barely perceptible shake of the head she indicated that she was quite happy to remain where she was, and so I resolved to leave her to fend for herself. I made for the door, but before I had taken two steps towards it, Cathy barred my way.
“You can’t go out there, Mr Dickson,” she said. “Not while the Podulator is in motion.”
“Now, now,” I warned her. “I don’t want any trouble. So you just stand aside and I promise I won’t report this little freak show to Social Services, okay?”
“I’m sorry, I can’t do that,” Cathy steadfastly replied. “It’s for your own good. The cosmic forces out there would rip you to shreds, and then you’d be all cross.”
I was beginning to wonder whether ripping her to pieces would make me all happy and smiley, but the opportunity did not arise. Examining her earnest features, I noticed for the first time that she shared her father’s wide-eyed expression of faint but constant distress. In other words, she looked like a mental, and so I thought it best not to antagonise her.
A sudden tremor seemed to ripple through the walls. The gurgling noises from the pipes swelled to a crescendo. I felt an uncomfortable sensation of intense pressure in my head, as if my eardrums were about to burst. Then there was a single loud ‘pop!’ the wind fell, the room became still and all was silent.
The Professor neatly folded his paper, got to his feet and washed his hands. “We’ve landed,” he said simply when he had finished.
“Landed?” I said. I looked first at the Professor, then at Cathy, then at Janet who was still cowering against the wall, her hair awry and a glistening trail of dribble on her chin. Then I looked at the door - could I see thin glimmers of light around the frame, or was it just my imagination? “Landed!” I said again, delivering the word with a throaty laugh. But it was forced, I wasn’t sure of myself now. I wasn’t sure at all.
Janet peeled herself off the wall. “My mother told me about places like this,” she said with a shudder.
“My mother told me about women like you,” I muttered. “I should have listened.” I turned to the Professor. “Okay then Einstein,” I said, trying to disguise my uncertainty, “are we going to step outside and end this pantomime once and for all?”
“Certainly,” the Professor said. “After you, young man.”
Cathy stood aside. I paused for a moment, then reached out, unlatched the door and stepped outside - to receive the shock of my life. Far from the fog enshrouded night air of the common, I was suddenly breathing in the warm, damp atmosphere of some other place. I found myself looking out onto a very different landscape: a barren forest of white sterile trees that stood listlessly under a frigid, ashen sky. Everywhere, in every direction, I witnessed the same dismal picture of devastation and decay.
The Professor came and stood beside me. “Well, young man,” he said smugly. “Is that proof enough for you? You are one of the first men in history to look out upon the landscape of an alien world.”
I scanned the devastated scene and slowly, disbelievingly I shook my head. “You don’t fool me, Professor,” I replied stubbornly. “This is Swansea - I’d recognise it anywhere.”