It took a few days of hard work for Tom, Stevie, and Stacia to round up enough cans of various forms of chicken soup to put all the members of the town back to right. Even after they had converted as many as they could find, there were still people missing that had to be found (most of them stuck in basements or attics or locked bedrooms and bathrooms). But with the help of the restored townspeople and the families of those missing, everyone was eventually recovered and cured.
There were a few who had been injured in the battle with the space ninjas, but whether by good fortune or some other force, there were no fatalities. There was significant work to be done cleaning up the town, as two weeks of living as zombies had left quite a mess in everyone’s yards and houses. Everyone had a vague sense of what had happened, and occasionally people could be found whispering in corners about it, but no one would outright speak of the matter.
It was, perhaps, this vague sense that allowed Tom and Stevie’s dad to accept that they had suddenly inherited the hardware store. When Joshua put up the sign in the window that said “Under New Ownership”, no one in town saw fit to ask, and he was just fine with that, since he would not have been able to explain it anyway.
So it was about a week after Mr. Gunderson and the space ninjas had departed that Tom, Stevie, and Stacia went to the hardware store one evening after it had closed. Going to the basement, they found the door that said “Employees Only” with a light on under the door. It was a normal business office, and Joshua was at the desk finishing some paperwork. He finished, smiled, wished them a good night, and left, locking the door behind him.
Alone in the office, the three inspected it for some sign of the door into Mr. Gunderson’s private lair. Finally Stevie found a keyhole along a bare wall. It had a note taped over it that simply said “Call the electrician”. Now that they had found it, they could make out the slim line of a doorframe in the brushed aluminum that covered the walls. Tom inserted the key, turned it, and with a click the door went back a few inches. They pushed it, and it swung freely to the room beyond.
Stevie let out a disappointed sigh when they saw that it was no futuristic headquarters with incredible inventions or fancy gizmos. A large amount of wallspace was lined with bookshelves, which held some books, some three ring binders, some stacks of papers and file folders. On one wall was a corkboard with a variety of things pinned to it. There was a workbench, and it were objects that piqued their curiosity.
But it was the simple, small table that caught Tom’s eye, with its small TV and a VCR, a tape resting on top with Tom’s name on it. He went straight to it, switched on the TV and slid in the tape.
“Tom,” said Mr. Gunderson, his face smiling from the television, despite the worry lines crossing his face, the white of his hair making him look old and tired. “I imagine Stevie and Stacia are with you.” Stacia squeezed Tom’s hand, pecked him on the cheek. “And if you are watching this, then things have gone the way I expect they will, and I am gone. I hope I’m not dead, but if that’s my fate, well, I suppose I have to accept it.
“I know that you’ve had questions. You’ve wanted explanations about what exactly is happening here. About how I know so much. About who I really am. I’ve held back in giving you those answers not to be deceptive but because I am honestly afraid. Afraid you’ll stop trusting me. It’s selfishness, I know. I hope I can make up for that in some way.
“The simple fact is that I am not from your world. I am from a different reality altogether, one in which there are human beings, but our lives are very different from your own. Our laws of physics, chemistry, biology, and so on are different. There are similarities, of course, and that’s why I’m able to survive in your world.
“How did I come to your world in the first place? I was a scientist in my world, part of a team researching the possibility of crossing over to other realities. Our original intent was to cross into parallel worlds, places that mirrored our own but where choices had been made differently to alter the course of events. Repeated failures led us to believe that perhaps no such things exists, and it may be the case that in every reality there is a fixed course. However, we discovered that there are indeed whole other dimensions, with their own natural laws, their own histories, their own universes and creatures. How many times I’ve pondered if there is some originating event from which all these spring and spiral outward through some greater expanse, or if there is really a creator who wanted to spin different worlds just for his own reasons… But I’m digressing.
“There is so much I want to tell you, to teach you, and I have so little time. But there are books on my shelves, and files, things that will help. You can learn much from them. What matters now is to tell you this: thirty two years ago, when I was a much younger man, I worked with my team to open a bridge between the worlds. I crossed over, along with two others on our team. We brought with us two chollomorphs, as we call them. Stevie’s space ninjas. They are useful when trained. They are also dangerous.
“You see, chollomorphs are a special mutation of a viral strain, and have become so advanced they are like hyper-intelligent animals. They secrete a fluid that has some amazing properties. It is able to power mechanical devices, and we use it to drive some of our machines. We used it to drive the machine that opened the hole. It’s how they can make the flying robots we’ve encountered. That fluid has another affect, though. When it infects a person in my world, it brings out our darkest impulses, our most evil desires. It removes all inhibition, all conscience. It makes us wicked.
“Fortunately, it seems to affect your people differently. It only robs them of their will and turns them into mindless zombies.” He chuckled. “Strange to say ‘only’ but the alternative is far worse. We handle the chollomorphs very carefully in our world. They don’t like bright lights, are vulnerable to certain forms of light, including fluorescence and UV rays. They can adapt, mutate to resist these, but only when there are many of them nearby. So we came prepared with the chollomorphs we brought. But one of the members of my team was careless, and he was infected.
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to tell that story, but perhaps you’ll find the journal I was keeping at the time and learn of it on your own. Suffice to say, my partner and I stopped him before he could do damage to your world, and we destroyed the chollomorphs. I was the only one that survived all of that, though. And I had to close the hole from this side. I was forced to make a new life here. The only thing I have from over there is the bridge device that kept the gateway open.
“That device has gone missing. I am sure that it has somehow been activated, leading us to our present troubles. It should not be able to open the hole from this side, but maybe the very fact that I am here has created a weakness. As your saying goes, ‘Nature abhors a vacuum’.
“I don’t know why the chollomorphs came, and in such great numbers. They’ve been replicating, that much is evident. They do that. But were they sent, or is it all just some accident? Or has my world been overrun with them? I’ve been doing a lot of guessing lately. As I said, things don’t work the same, so who knows. All I know is that they need to be stopped. And I think I know how to stop them. I need to find the device. It is a glass cylinder, topped by a metal gadget with several lights and buttons. Why am I telling you this in a video? By now you should know what it is, if I’ve done things right. Hm. I suppose if I haven’t you won’t even see this video.
“Well, I’m digressing again. The only way to get them out of your world is to mend the weakness. I need to create a new vacuum. I need to be the vacuum. Which means that, best case scenario, I’m leaving your world for good, going back to my own, and closing the door behind me.
“Now this is the important part, the part where you come in. If I go, you are going to have a job to do. You see, Tom, my world is not the only world that has touched yours. I have a theory that all the worlds end up touching at some point, but I don’t know how to prove that. What I do know is that being trapped on your world, and knowing what I know, I have kept on constant lookout for breaches, for visitors from other realities. Some are just harmless explorers. Some have deeper and darker purposes. When it’s the former, I’ve helped them find their way back. When it’s the latter, I’ve stood in their way.
“If I’m gone, who will stand in their way? Tom, you are brave. More than that, you have a sense of honor. You protect those you care about. You are smart. I believe you can be the one to stand in the way. This is your job now, Tom. I’m sure Stevie will want to help; you probably won’t be able to stop him. I’d like to hope that Stacia will be at your side for many years to come as well, but I guess we should just say that for now, she’s there for you. But I know a good thing when I see it.
“I must be running out of tape here. I’ve talked enough, and we have work to do. You have work to do now. There are lots of things in this room that will help you. Where I could I made some notes for you about how to use them. Protect your world, Tom. It’s up to you now.”
The screen went black, the VCR stopped, clicked several times, then whirred as the tape rewound automatically. Tom looked at Stacia. She looked at Tom, shrugged, a faint smile playing at her lips. Tom squeezed her hand.
“This is going to be awesome!” said Stevie.