I finished the first draft for my new science fiction novel, The Weight of the Universe, earlier this week and here, as promised, is the full prologue for the new novel.
The novel is centered around the idea of parallel universes created by each conscious decision and what happens when the multiverse–the big bubble that holds all those universes–gets full. Strange phenomenon begin happening around the world in which whole cities of people are either killed or dropped into comas without warning. A Scottish theoretical physicist works with a New Yorker who can shift between the realities in a race to stop the phenomenon before the entire world–maybe the universe–is destroyed.
I hope you enjoy the prologue and, as always, I welcome all feedback, whether it be about typographic errors, comments on the contents or execution, or disparaging remarks about the IQ of my monkey forebears.
The Budongo Trail was unusually quiet as Rory Macdonald approached it on that chilly Tuesday morning. Of the twenty-one chimps housed in the large trail with space both inside and outside, not a single one greeted Rory with the usual hoots and hollers. By 5:00 AM on any other day, and at least Claus would already be out in the open air enclosure touting his alpha status at full volume. But today it was quiet.
He had driven his vintage—he liked the sound of that better than what most people called it—blue, Ford pickup through the back gate of the Edinburgh zoo as usual. The gate was accessible only from the dirt road and typically only used for the delivery of new animals, but it was the most direct route from his small farm house some sixteen miles up the road. The circuitous route that he took to the zoo each day allowed him to avoid the main Corstorphine road and pretty much every other place where he might encounter another human being. He couldn’t recall if he had started taking this route because he was, by nature, an antisocial person or if the mild psychosis was the effect rather than the cause, but after so many years, he couldn’t imagine spoiling a perfectly good morning with his chimps with the intrusion of some loud-mouthed bampot blabbing about some political nonsense or the latest fashions. What he needed in the morning was a little quiet solitude and his chimps.
Rory pulled his jacket collar tight around his graying neck and quickened his pace towards the back door of the chimpanzee house. He fumbled with bare hands and long, dirty nails through more than 20 cold metal keys on his key ring before finding the golden key scuffed with wear. He shoved it in the lock, turned it quickly, and slipped inside, closing the heavy metal door behind him. He slipped the tattered bomber jacket off his thin shoulders and hung it on a hook by the door.
The temperature inside the climate controlled House was a constant 86 degrees with the humidity level set match that the chimp’s native habitat. When Rory had taken a job at the Edinburgh zoo, he wondered how anyone could learn to work in these conditions. But he had only been hired as a summer intern and he thought that having the job experience on his resume was worth some temporary discomfort. That was 27 years ago.
Rory dropped his keys on the chipped Formica counter next to the small metal sink and wandered down the corridor that led behind the row of small rooms designed to give each champ their own living space. He silently dragged his fingertips along the surface of the thick glass growing increasingly concerned as he passed each empty room. Usually Cindy and Emma, and sometimes Kindia, would be cuddled together on this straw floor of one of the first two rooms, enjoying the temperature and humidity unique to that room.
Rory walked the entire length of the building scanning each of the empty rooms, picking up pace as he walked. He had, of course, walked past the outdoor portion of the Budongo Trail on his way to the building, but aside from Claus not swinging from the trees and waking up the neighbors, he had seen nothing out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, he used the thumb latch to unlock the double doors and pushed his way back outside, the chill biting into his bare arms. As he walked along the fence, his eyes scanned up and down the complex intertwining of wooden poles and thick ropes where the chimp spent most of the day. He walked the entire length and then returned more slowly, still not having found even one of the chimps.
There was only one area he not yet checked. His heart raced and he found himself running back through the double doors and into the open area of the lecture theater. Opposite the small grandstand was the large glass window looking into the largest space within the trail. Twice daily, Rory or one of his colleagues would entice a few of the chimps to this area and give a canned presentation on the destruction of the chimps’ of native habitat, their unique personalities, and the overwhelming similarity between chimps and humans. Most people understood that chimps and humans were closely related, but few really grasped how little difference there is between the two species.
As soon as he turned the corner into the small lecture room, he knew that something was terribly wrong. The glass separating the lecture room from the chimps play area was smeared with dirt, excrement, and what appeared to be blood. In the oblique angle of the far corner of the playroom, a large pile of fur, hands, feet, and slack faces lie motionless against the wall.
Rory rushed to the glass, smacking his four head against it, not noticing the pain. His mind was racing to sort out what was wrong with his chimps and his eyes searched for any sign of movement in the black and gray and brown fur. He picked out Lucy’s lustrous black fur, but there was no movement. He found part of Ricky’s weathered face, mostly devoid of fur, but his eyes were closed and unmoving. Even Heleen, who typically kept to herself and stayed far away from group gatherings like this, was lying just to the side of the piled up bodies, her limp hand on the dirt floor, reaching out toward the group.
“Ah, bawbags!” he exclaimed as he pressed his hand against the glass trying to reach out to his friends.
Although Rory had been working with primates for going on three decades, and despite the fact that he had known some of these chimps for their entire lives, he knew better than to go into the enclosure alone when all twenty-one were gathered together. He watched them for more than five minutes but could not discern any significant movement. He thought he could see Heleen’s chest rising and falling in rhythm, but from across the wide play area, he couldn’t be sure.
If they were dead, then it was almost definitely some sort of poison, he thought, most likely an airborne pathogen. It couldn’t be anything in their food since he had pulled a double the day before and had fed them their dinner himself. If it was airborne, then he likely already had it and the best he could hope for was that his human immune system could fight it off.
If instead the chimps were just sleeping or playing some sort of demented game with him, they could easily become agitated and attack if he entered the enclosure.
Na, he thought, I’d better git some hulp.
He left the Budongo trail and headed southwest along the trail skirting the corner of the parking lot. He passed the bathrooms and was starting to pass by the entrance to the Lemur walkthrough when a thought struck him. He quickly changed directions and headed toward the fence door, unlocking it and rushing inside.
The open air enclosure was home to a variety of felled and standing trees, tall grasses, and a pair of red-fronted lemurs, Tano and Molly. The short pathway was completely quiet and he walked its length twice without hearing a sound from within. From outside the enclosure and across the pathway, the plaintive squawks and clicks of the flamingos grated on his ears as he searched for the lemurs.
Finally getting on his hands and knees, he spotted the two limp forms under one of the logs. They were holding each other tightly in a lovers’ embrace. And they were perfectly still.
Rory hurried outside and past the flamingo pool. He swung slightly to the left in order to walk through the circular path in front of the sea lion exhibit. All three were lying peacefully atop their concrete mountain but they raised their heads to look at him as he stopped by the edge of the pool. Rory shook his head in confusion and hurried on toward the front gate.
As he approached the little house he was immediately concerned to see no one inside. Paul was always inside the house when Rory arrived, reading some trashy mystery novel or another. It seemed he lived inside his books. The perfect personality for a nighttime security guard.
As Rory leaned up against the glass, cupping his hands over his eyes against the morning sun in, he saw the body. He quickly pulled open the door and placed his fingers on Paul’s neck, searching for pulse. To his surprise, he found one. It was faint, but steady.
He shook Paul by the shoulder, first gently and then hard enough to rattle his head against the metal desk. Paul never stirred. Rory tried again, shaking even harder but received no response.
He pulled the Paul’s cell phone from the desk where he had apparently laid it before falling unconscious and jabbed the nine key three times in rapid succession, dialing the emergency operator. He waited as he heard the familiar tones but after eight rings with no answer, he hung up. He tried again, but still no one answered.
Rory backed out of the small security hut, full panic creep into him with the rising sun.
“Whit in th’ hell cuid huv dane this?” he wondered aloud.
The panic pushed him back through the park toward the side gate and his pickup truck. As he passed the sea lions, one of them let out an annoyed roar at him, expressing obvious displeasure at having his nap disturbed without breakfast being served. On his right, the flamingos were squawking even louder now, urging Rory into a run. As he passed the silent lemur walkthrough and Budongo Trail -exhibits, his mind raced back to when he had entered the zoo not thirty minutes before.
Had he heard other animals when he had gotten here?
Rory was so accustomed to the various sounds of the zoo, that he usually didn’t consciously hear them anymore. They were just the background noise of his life. No different than car engines revving or cell phones ringing.
But no, thinking back on it, he didn’t remember hearing anything at all as he had walked past either the Living Links or Magic Forest exhibits with their brown capuchin and Goeldi’s monkeys. He had always marveled at the loud, boisterous squeals that came from such small animals and he was suddenly very afraid that he’d never hear it again.
As he past the two exhibits on his way to the gate, he neither saw, nor heard, a thing.
He swung into the koala exhibit and found both lying motionless in a tree. He shouted at them as loud as he could and elicited barely a twitch from one, but enough to verify that the two were just sleeping.
Rory raced down the path toward his pickup, past the Hog Deer who were lazily munching morning grass. Just two minutes later, he swung his pickup into the drop-off zone in the front of the park and jumped out, leaving the engine rumbling. He reached up and unlocked the two large front gates and hurried in to where Paul still laid, crumpled in the cramped security house.
He made a valiant attempt at extracting Paul through the small door gingerly and succeeded in only bashing Paul’s comatose head into the door frame once. Pleased with himself, he hoisted the smaller man up onto his shoulder and carried him to the back of the chuffling truck. He rolled the limp body off his shoulder and onto the open truck bed, getting a hand under Paul’s head just before it fell to the cold, corrugated steel.
He pushed the body roughly up farther into the truck and then, having a second thought, he rolled Paul to his back and folded his hands together on his chest. He was trying to make Paul comfortable but had only ended up making him look like a corpse. He snuffed at the irony and slammed the tailgate shut.
As the old pickup pulled out onto Corstorphine road headed west, Rory immediately spotted the gray minivan across the street where it had crashed into a car parked on the far side of the street. The impact had pushed the parked car into another and that one into another, involving four cars total in the wreck. Despite the damage, there were no emergency vehicles or even curious bystanders anywhere in sight.
As he rolled slowly by the accident, he saw an older woman slumped over the steering wheel, the deployed airbag deflated and pinned between her face and the steering wheel. He saw no movement from the woman and assumed that she was likely dead from the crash, so he continued toward the hospital planning to tell the authorities there.
Corstorphine Hospital was just two miles to the east. Despite the name, it was actually a nursing home for the elderly rather than a standard hospital, but Rory figured that anywhere with a doctor would be good for Paul at this point. Plus, he was sure they’d have a way to contact emergency services about the accident he had passed.
He turned right into the narrow drive that led around the administration buildings to the main hospital. He wound around the curving road and rolled to a stop in the area marked, “Ambulances Only.” He walked around to the back of the truck pull down the tailgate and lifted Paul back onto his shoulder. He carried the dead weight to the front door and pushed the buzzer with his hip. After 15 seconds with no response he pushed it twice more. Another 30 seconds passed before Rory shifted the weight on his shoulder so he could reach out and open the door himself.
He walked into the lobby of the nursing home and was so startled by what he saw that he let Paul’s limp body fall to the tile floor with a thud.
The lobby was filled with about twenty elderly patients and four nurses. They had obviously been having some sort of social gathering, small groups of three or four people talking at various places throughout the room. Now their bodies lay limp in various painful looking positions scattered about the floor the couch top of one another.
Every one of them as still as a corpse.