| This was written for Pati, for her
Just the Right Static Charge
Carl's stomach growled, a vibration that he seemed to feel down his legs and in the top of his head, and he idly realized he didn't know when he'd eaten last. Despite that, he wasn't hungry. He was too close to stop what he was doing now for something as superficial as a piece of bread. Carl knew his poor eating habits over the last decade had turned him to skin and bones, drawing the concern of the Cardinal and everyone else who came into contact with him. He tried to reassure them that he'd be all right, but he could tell some thought he'd already gone over the edge of "all right" and now swam in a pit of "not quite all together anymore."
He couldn't explain to them that what happened to him right now didn't matter; if his invention worked, they shouldn't even remember this.
Fortunately, no one pried too deeply about this experiment even though it took every second of his time when he wasn't repairing or building weapons. He hadn't created any new deadly implements in the last ten years, but had instead only built from the designs he'd already made, and repaired his existing weapons when necessary. Enough work that no one could complain. They all probably thought whatever he was working on would be the coup de grâce—the weapon to end all weapons. Oh, how little they understood.
He looked at his massive device with tears in his eyes because it was finished. He should have felt relief, and he supposed he did. But it was also a terrible thing to be finished. Now he could use it and bring all his plans to fruition—if it worked. If not, the despair would be immeasurable. He'd keep working, though. He'd refine it and spend the next decade trying to figure out what went wrong. He'd spend the rest of his life dedicated to this. Carl simply had no choice; this was all there was now.
The thunder boomed outside, and the last monk shuffled up the steps of the lab, leaving Carl blessedly alone. The lightning struck close enough that even deep in the bowels of the Vatican Carl could swear he felt it raising the hairs on his body and electrifying the air. He could wait for the next storm, or the next. But this was the strongest they'd had in a while, and despite his fear of potential failure—something Carl wasn't used to feeling—he knew he had to try now. He worried he was skirting the edge of a kind of madness, and if he fell off he'd not only be ruining the rest of his own life, but . . . Van Helsing . . . .
Carl prepared everything in his massive machine, then he barricaded the door at the top of the steps. There were other ways into the lab, but everyone would try that one first, giving him enough time if interrupted. He hoped.
His whole body trembled and ached from poor nutrition and exhaustion, so turning the massive crank he'd built proved almost impossible at first. Carl sobbed in growing despair—how would he recruit someone to help him with this? He'd be accused of sacrilege, blasphemy, even the devil's work if they knew. He had to lay his whole body's weight against it, but once it started to move it was easier. He was almost past the point of his reserves when finally the mechanics took hold and started to spin on their own.
He started to step into the machine, then cried out in distress at what he'd almost forgotten. He rushed back to the table and gathered all his notes, carefully tucking them inside his robes. How had he almost missed such a crucial step? He paused--should he do this? He shouldn’t have even attempted to build such a machine--who knew what the consequences could be. He patted his robes, hearing the comforting crinkle of the paper beneath them. He may be wrong, he may be doing something awful, but at that moment, Carl didn't care. It felt right in too many other ways.
Carl stepped inside his machine, set the many levers in place, and waited for the next bolts of lightning that would rip a hole into the sky, and he hoped this dimension, and make it possible for him to pass through.
The sucking feeling started in the center of his chest, and for a moment he thought his weakened heart was fluttering, about to stop, making all this work for naught. But then the feeling spread, as if someone were sucking air that was in front of him into a hole that waited behind his back. He felt hollowed out and raw, and as the sensation overtook his whole body, he couldn't even find the strength to scream.
Please, please, please, he silently begged, though he did not know whom he begged. Carl had given up on prayer long ago, and even if he'd felt moved to do so now, he didn't think God would welcome a request for help with this.
Carl felt as if his body were being crammed into a space far too small for it, and though his eyes were squeezed shut, he could see the flashes of light and dark against his eyelids. He tried to move and open his eyes, but he was pinned still. He needed to vomit, and he needed to relieve himself, but his body would let him do neither.
When the sucking sensation stopped, whatever centrifugal force had been holding him in place released him and he dropped to his knees. He managed to hang onto his bowels, but he vomited until he heaved only air. Cool air chilled his face, and he realized his hands were on wet grass. He rose up and lurched away, toward a spring he remembered. They'd drank from it that morning . . . .
Carl drank too quickly and almost vomited again, but managed to keep it down. He washed out his mouth and splashed his face with trembling hands. Finally, the green smell of the grass, crisp in his nostrils, told him that he was here. He was back. It worked.
"Van Helsing! Where are you?" he cried out as he struggled to his feet. What if it was later that day, what if--
"Carl!" The returned shout sounded mildly irritated.
He was in time, oh god, he was in time. Carl raced toward the voice.
"I hope whatever you're shouting about is important enough to have just run off the fattest rabbit I've ever almost caught."
Carl felt healthy and energetic, like he had ten years ago. He looked carefully at his hand as he easily ran, noted that it was no longer bony and gaunt, and bore a red scrape where he'd fallen that evening as he tripped when he misjudged the slickness of some rocks near the spring he'd just drank from. A tiny drop of blood welled out of the edge of the wound.
He raced toward Van Helsing, who still groused about the lost meal.
"It was practically wearing a sign that said Carl and Van Helsing, here I am, eat me, and you had to shout at that very moment?" He looked directly at Carl as he approached, and his face went from irritated to alarmed. "Carl?"
Carl didn't pause, but barreled toward him, only stopping when he slammed into the man and wrapped his arms tightly around him. "Van Helsing . . . oh, oh my God, oh . . . ." He couldn't stop the tears even though he knew he could never explain them. He didn't know what he would come up with, but he wasn't letting go, and he couldn't stop his full-body reaction to seeing this man again. He trembled, cried and could barely catch his breath.
"Carl, what is it?" Van Helsing's voice was pitched too high with fear. "Tell me, what's wrong?"
"Nothing," he managed to choke out between sobs. "I--I--I must have fallen asleep. It was a nightmare. The worst I've ever had. Hell, pure hell." He clung tighter. "Just let me have this for a moment, please."
"All right, Carl, calm down." Van Helsing's arms were tight around Carl, and for that Carl was grateful.
"I've missed you, Gabriel. I've missed you so much, oh god, you'll never know how awful it's been . . . ."
"That's some powerful dream," Van Helsing said softly, rubbing Carl's back.
"A nightmare, I told you, the worst." Carl sniffed and leaned back to look at him. God, to see his face again. He almost felt mad with sheer relief and joy. Everything was worth this moment--everything. "It was so awful. You can't begin to imagine."
Van Helsing thumbed Carl's chin, and looked at the drop of blood he'd picked up. "What happened?"
Carl touched his face, and Van Helsing said, "You've hurt your hand? Did you fall running up here?"
Carl's smile disappeared as he looked at his hand, remembering Did you fall running up here? Van Helsing had asked that same question, ten years ago, when Carl had run up the hill to tell him he'd finally figured out what some of the symbols had meant in the village they'd just come from. They were a curse, set upon him. He'd started explaining, right before--
"Run!' Carl screamed. He grabbed Van Helsing's hand and pulled him as hard as he could. He ran back toward the spring, to the slightly further away point where it met the river. "You're safest in the river!" He could hear the panic in his own voice. What if he'd waited too long, delayed too much because he was caught up in seeing him again?
"Safest from what?"
"Please, just trust me, hurry!" Carl pulled, but he wasn't dragging along an unwilling man. Van Helsing did trust him, and Carl knew it. Soon Van Helsing was pulling Carl.
When they reached the bank, Carl shoved him without preamble, sending Van Helsing sprawling into the water. For a moment, panic gripped him. What if he drowned? What if what had happened couldn't be undone, and he would lose Van Helsing no matter what he did, just in a different way? No, no, no . . . .
Carl felt the wind on his back, a hot wind that suddenly pulled against him in the same way it had felt to be in his machine. He was pulled backward, and windmilled his arms against it. Van Helsing's hand grabbed his robe, yanking him forward into the water.
"What is it?" Van Helsing asked, panting and wiping water off his face.
"I think . . . a fire dervish. Sent in revenge for the creature you killed a few days ago, summoned right before its death. It can't last indefinitely!" He had to shout now over the sound of it.
The wind swirled and smoke billowed up just before it seemed to catch flame, turning into a spinning vortex of yellow fire. The heat dried the moisture on Carl's face and he felt himself pulled back and away from it until they were treading water in the deeper part of the river. Carl was starting to tire, and then the spinning fire seemed to flicker with orange and red, popping and whooshing sounds coming from it.
Van Helsing's hand pushed Carl down with a shove to send him far below the surface. The memory of being pushed clear of the flames, then struggling to get back up the hill, too late, only to see Van Helsing swallowed up in fire . . . . Carl's panicked hand shot out and pulled Van Helsing down under the water with him, using the same momentum. Whatever happened was going to happen to both of them this time, for good or ill.
Carl saw what appeared to be the surface water boiling as the fire spread out flat over the top of the water with a roar and a blinding flash, and then disappeared.
As they sat around the fire, wrapped in dry blankets, their clothes hung over branches to dry, Carl looked at the notes he'd spread out. So much of the ink was smeared that most of them were illegible. Wet chunks had torn away, leaving holes in the vital information. He could make out a few scrawls, but not enough to actually work off of if he wanted to right now build a new machine.
Theoretically, it is possible to also go forward but those experiments will come at a later . . . no way to get back to present day if this works in an unpredictable way . . . Just the right static charge is required to create the proper tear in time . . . .
The technical notes and specs that remained were smeared enough to make them useless. To anyone but me, he thought, smiling. It would take some time, possibly a few years, but he would reproduce them from the clues on the pages and his own memory, so he could build the machine again. It appeared he didn't need it now—he'd set this horrible wrong right again—but what if something happened later? He wanted to be able to use it without having to suffer for years during its construction as he had these past ten. In fact, theoretically, they could live their lives . . . and keep returning to a point in the past. Carl tried not to think about that now, but he knew he would in the future. The appeal was too great to deny.
Was it wrong? Yes, most likely. But he wouldn't be the first to sacrifice a few ethics for science. And besides, Van Helsing's very existence, in the most technical of terms, was wrong. From what Carl gathered, he'd lived across centuries already. Carl even consoled himself with the thought that perhaps his invention was part of some grand plan to make sure that Van Helsing's work, maybe even his own, continued, all without Carl's explicit knowledge of that.
Van Helsing was alive. That was Carl's most important truth to defend with everything he had. Whether or not it was destined by some awesome, unseen hand, Van Helsing's existence, thanks to Carl, would continue.
They hadn't said much while crawling from the river and trying to get warm. Van Helsing sat next to him, now that their clothes were hung, close enough that their shoulders brushed.
"How did you know? You seemed to realize the danger . . . out of nowhere."
Carl longed to tell him the truth. He would tell him about the machine—after he finished building it, of course. Van Helsing never needed to know how Carl had suffered, or how he had died. That was all unnecessary now.
"It came to me in a nightmare," was all he said. And then he turned his body so he could face Van Helsing. He'd risked so much, maybe even his very soul to get here. There was no point in avoiding risks now. What had always held him back before was the worry that Van Helsing would turn away from him in disappointment or disgust. But when he'd thrown himself into the man's arms earlier, the way the man had held him, Carl couldn't imagine him being disgusted. Perhaps he didn't feel exactly the same, but Carl felt without a doubt that Van Helsing would never turn him away because of that.
"Van Helsing? I love you."
Van Helsing smiled. "I love you, too."
Carl shook his head. "No. I mean, I love you."
Van Helsing stared into Carl's eyes. "I know what you meant, Carl. I love you, too."
Carl threw himself into the man's arms for the second time that day.
"But I've tested it, Van Helsing."
"When did you test it? You don't honestly think I'm going to get in that thing and let you toss me to and fro . . . we could end up on the moon, or under the ocean! And what if it works just as you say, and we do something wrong while we're wherever we end up? The results could be--"
"Van Helsing, I said I've tested it. Don't you trust me?"
Carl knew that one could always get Van Helsing, because he would never do anything to give the appearance he didn't trust Carl. It was Carl's ace in the hole, and he pulled it out frequently, to Van Helsing's great annoyance.
The man put his hands on his hips, not agreeing but no longer protesting. Which Carl knew was as good an agreement as he was about to get.
"Very good," Carl said, smiling. "Now, in full disclosure, I haven't tested our ability to actually come back, but I'm confident it will work. Now—"
"Oh, Carl. I guess a trail of breadcrumbs won't exactly do us a lot of good in this situation, will it?"
He'd recreated his machine, but with many refinements. Being forced to rewrite his notes and instructions served the purpose of a good second drafting of the entire idea. And this time he wasn't soaked in despair while doing it, but joy instead. He'd never imagined he could be as happy as he was now. What a difference that made.
He was sure that they could not only go backwards and forwards, but return to this exact moment, all without the need for a powerful lightning storm.
Carl shook his head. "No bread crumbs. But you trust me, and you know that I'm quite literally a genius, so we won't need them." He raised an eyebrow, clearly not asking a question.
Van Helsing stared at Carl for a moment, but Carl gave no ground. Finally, the man sighed and pushed his hat down a little more securely on his head. "Where are we going?"
Carl slipped his hand into Van Helsing's and tugged until the man was fully inside the machine with him. "The future, I think."
"Just to observe," Van Helsing said, in what sounded to Carl like a hopeful tone.
Carl smiled and raised up on his tiptoes to kiss Van Helsing. Carl jerked at the static charge that zapped them when their lips touched, causing both men to laugh before kissing again. Carl let his arms wind around Van Helsing's neck.
"Of course! I'm a scientist, I observe and record and analyze. We'll observe, yes, naturally." He pressed another kiss against the man's mouth, then stood back so he could operate the controls properly.
"But sometimes doing is a lot of fun, too." He slipped his hand back into Van Helsing's and squeezed as he slid the last lever into place.