Meredith Said

By Michelle Ann King

‘Why did it come here?’ Zach asked. ‘The alien, I mean.’ He didn’t expect an answer: Bowman didn’t talk much, especially when he was driving, and he didn’t answer many questions. Especially ones beginning with ‘why?’ Bowman said you didn’t need to know why. You just had to do what you were told. He called it the Law of Employees and Children. Zach decided he didn’t like laws very much.

‘Nobody knows,’ Bowman said, surprising him. ‘It just came.’

‘It was probably exploring. I like exploring. It’s fun. Can we see it, when we get there? Meredith said it looked like a bird. A giant bird.’

Bowman turned his head and gave Zach a sharp look, and Zach remembered that he wasn’t supposed to talk about Meredith. Meredith had been filling his head with lies and nonsense, and now she wasn’t allowed to be his tutor any more. He had a new tutor now, Gerry, except that he liked to be called Mister Keller instead. Mister Keller replaced all the books that Meredith had thrown away, and they had a whole new set of lessons because Zach had proper things to learn. Not lies and nonsense.

Zach sank back into the car’s puffy seat and let it massage his shoulders until they arrived at the main gate. Bowman drove past all the other vehicles in the queue and went straight to the front. He showed the guard his ID and she waved them through straight away. A few of the other cars let out short, angry horn bursts. But not many. The crest on the side of their limo was easily visible, and everyone knew the Chapelle family went first. That was another law, it seemed. Normally Zach didn’t mind that one — like when Meredith used to take him to get ice cream — but today, he wasn’t so sure. Today, he thought he wouldn’t have minded waiting. He wouldn’t have minded that at all.

The car stopped. Bowman opened the door and Zach slid out. Zach had learned all about the CTGs — the Chapelle Teleportation Gateways — and was very proud of the A he’d got for his last assignment, but Mister Keller told him it was all wrong. Mister Keller told him that everything Meredith said was made up, and that Zach had to forget everything he’d learned. Which showed how dumb Mister Keller really was, because everyone knows you can’t just make yourself forget stuff when it’s already in your brain. Meredith said that Zach’s father had ways to make that happen, but if none of what Meredith said was true then it couldn’t be done, could it?

As soon as they got inside, tall man in a stiff white lab coat rushed up to them. ‘You know who this is,’ Bowman said to him, pointing at Zach. It wasn’t a question.

‘Of course, of course,’ the man in the coat said. ‘I am Julian McNeill, the Director of this facility, and it will be my pleasure to care of the young sir personally.’

Zach looked up at him. ‘Can I see the bird? The big alien bird?’

McNeill stared at him for a second, then broke into a tinkling laugh. ‘Bless you, Master Zachary, bless you. Bird, indeed.’ He reached out to pat Zach’s head until a look from Bowman transfixed the hand in mid-air. McNeill coughed and lowered it slowly.

He squatted down in front of Zach so that their eyes were level. Zach didn’t like that trick. He straightened his shoulders, trying to push himself up another inch.

McNeill said, ‘The CTG mechanism does incorporate some organic components, Master Zachary, but there’s no actual creature here. Certainly not a bird.’

‘What happened to it, then? The bird? Did it get chopped up to make all the different gateways? Meredith said–’ Hearing his own words, Zach snapped his mouth shut. Bowman’s hand briefly squeezed his shoulder.

McNeill cleared his throat. ‘There was never any bird, Master Zachary. It was just, uh… organic components.’

The books that Meredith had thrown away said that Andre Chapelle, Zach’s father, had found the alien remains — that meant a body — twenty years ago in the desert outside Las Vegas. That was where the first Gateway was built. Now there were CTGs in cities all over the world and only the poor people travelled any other way. Zach’s father, who lived in New York, had one right in his own house. That was where Zach was going, today. To New York. To his father’s house.

McNeill stood up. His knees cracked. ‘We should move through, now. Obviously we wouldn’t want to keep your father waiting.’ He gave that nervous, tinkling laugh again.

The books said that the alien was already dead when Zach’s father found it. They said that he paid some special scientists to come and look at it, and they learned that its brain made these things that were like some kind of radio waves but not, and there was this other thing called quantum entanglement, and they put it all together and made the Gateways, and people could travel like the alien had — go wherever they wanted, even if it was a long, long way, just like that. Like snapping your fingers. And then there was an accident and the scientists all got killed, and Zach’s father was the only one left and he became famous and made a lot of money.

Meredith said that he should always remember that history gets written by the winners, and that what was in the books wasn’t always how it actually happened in real life.

Bowman put pressure on Zach’s shoulder, guiding him in front. ‘Go,’ he told McNeill, who led them down a long corridor tiled in dazzling white and into a tiny room tiled in light-devouring black. The contrast made Zach feel dizzy.

‘It’s to eliminate distractions,’ McNeill said, smiling. Zach wondered if it made his jaw hurt, all the smiling. ‘Make it easier to concentrate. Focus is a very important part of the process.’

Zach looked around the room. The three of them standing inside took up almost all the available space.

When he’d first heard about the Gateways, it had sounded like great fun. To close your eyes in one place and open them straight away in another, thousands of miles away. Magic! Safe in his schoolroom, he’d been very excited about the idea. But then he’d thought Meredith would be coming with him.

‘Well now, young Master Zachary, are you ready?’

Meredith said Zach’s father was a thief and a murderer. Meredith said that the alien hadn’t been dead at all, that he’d tortured it and sacrificed it on the altar of Mammon. Mammon was a god of money, Zach had looked it up. Meredith’s brother had been one of the quantum scientist people, and he died in the big explosion. Meredith said Zach’s father had killed him, too.

Zach looked up at Bowman. ‘Do I have to go?’ he whispered.

Bowman gave a single curt nod.

Meredith said that she had to go to away for a while, but that she wouldn’t be gone long. She said she’d be right back.

McNeill clasped his hands together. His face looked reverent. ‘Please tell Mr Chapelle that it’s always my utmost pleasure to be of–’

‘Get on with it,’ Bowman said.

McNeill gave a little jump. The papers on his clipboard fluttered. ‘Of course, of course.’

He crouched down in front of Zach again and went through the safety routines. Zach barely listened; he knew it by heart. ‘Now, under all the big words,’ McNeill said, ‘what it really comes down to is to think about where you want to go. Think about home.’

Bowman held out a photograph and Zach took it, but he didn’t really need that, either. He’d always been diligent about his visualisation exercises, and he could keep an image of the house in his head with ease. His father’s house. Home.

Meredith said she would be home soon. He hadn’t seen her since.

McNeil pressed a switch and a small square panel in the wall opened up. It was just big enough for the palm of McNeill’s hand. Inside it was a light blue-grey, and it pulsed when he touched it. A piece of alien brain, Zach thought, and his stomach clenched. He breathed out hard, and Bowman frowned. Zach shook his head. ‘I’m okay,’ he said, but it didn’t come out very loud.

Zach carried on looking at the opening in the wall until his eyes began to smart and his vision blurred.

‘Is everything all right, Master Zachary? Do you want to go over the procedures again, or can I–’

‘No,’ Zach said. ‘I know what to do.’

He did. McNeill was right, it was really very simple. Close your eyes and think about where you want to go. Think about home.

Zach closed his eyes. Home. He wondered what the alien’s home was like. It came from another planet, thousands and thousands of miles away. A long way from here. A long, long way from New York. Behind his closed lids, a vast birdlike shape flew through the vacuum of inky black space.

‘Focus, now,’ McNeill said. ‘Hold the image.’

His mouth was dry. He shifted his weight from foot to foot.

‘Concentrate,’ Bowman said, and Zach tried. He was a good boy. Meredith always said he was.

His breath came faster, and his hands began to tingle.

Meredith said he could be an explorer when he grew up, if he wanted to be. Meredith said he could do anything, go anywhere. Meredith said he didn’t have to be like his father.

He closed his eyes. ‘Home,’ he said, but he was thinking about the bird again, and his mind was full of stars.

The End