Aphelion Issue 291, Volume 28
February 2024
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Turning Over A New Leaf

by Gareth D. Jones

Max stomped into the Mare Inebrium in a seething rage. How dare they sack him? After fifteen years faithful service the manager had let him go, just like that. He stalked over to the bar, barely glancing at the eclectic clientele, and ordered something short and strong from the barmaid. She was petite and attractive in an elfin kind of way, and another day he might have put some effort into chatting with her, but not today. He had passed the Mare on numerous occasions, but only been inside a few times. He had usually had enough noise and bustle after long shifts working at the Double Heights Diner.

Long shifts that nobody appreciated! He huffed to himself. It was his coffee and cherry pie that had given the place its reputation, and now he was out on his ear without so much as a gilt timepiece. He glared around moodily, snorted with disdain at the man in the white vest doing handstands on one of the floating tables, and turned back to the bar.

With a lurch he almost dropped the glass he was serving to the miserable looking fellow who was glowering around the room. Max scanned the whole room, looking for something unusual that had caused the bizarre effect. It was like a cross between déjà vu and stepping of a kerb that you hadn't noticed. He turned to the delectable Trixie who was working alongside him.

"Can you go and check the Levitation Room?" He said. "I think someone maybe messing with the grav controls."

"Sure Max." She smiled easily and minced away across the room.

That's what you get for running speciality rooms. Max shrugged. Not like the old Double Heights Diner…where I've never worked! Max shook his head in confusion and stared at the gloomy individual across the bar. Now, all kinds of people make their way into the Mare Inebrium, and some of those people could quite possibly be projecting telepaths, but it was certainly an odd sensation. Max couldn't actually remember what the stranger had been through, but it felt like he had actually been him in a previous, well not a previous life exactly, more like the previous page of the same book.

Now explain that to someone! Max smirked, wiping the bar with a blue cloth.

There was a nauseating shift and he tumbled off the table, bruising an elbow on its rim and landing heavily on the floor. The crowd of assorted beings that had gathered to watch his antics cheered or jeered. Max got to his feet slowly, and gave the onlookers a challenging stare.

"Who did that?" He demanded, convinced that somebody had interfered with the table's floatation controls. Of course, everyone denied that they had done anything, shaking their heads emphatically, or nodding their heads emphatically depending on their culture; or undulating their stomach muscles emphatically in the case of the pair of D'li'kchin that had no discernable head.

Another indefinable ripple, like a sudden breeze blowing the pages of a book, dragged Max's attention away from the scene to look for Trixie who had yet to return from the Levitation Room. He rubbed his elbow absently with his grey cloth, wondering where he had bruised it. This time he wasn't quite so convinced that it was the gravity controls that had caused the sensation. The weird viewpoint shift couldn't be a coincidence, and nobody had touched the controls on the floating table; he had been watching at the time.

Then how come I thought I fell off the table? Max thought, getting slightly alarmed now. There was a sudden squawking commotion, and out of the corridor that led to the Levitation Room erupted a gaggle of chickens, feathers flying from them in all directions as they ran and leapt out into the main room. Patrons ducked out of the way in surprise, several of them loosing their drinks in the process, a couple making valiant grabs for the passing poultry. A furious Trixie stormed out of the corridor in their wake and stopped to scold a pair of scruffy looking peasants that followed close behind. Both were human, short and broad with swarthy complexions. The man wore blue dungarees and muddy boots, which flicked soil and chicken feed randomly over the floor. The woman wore a plain woollen dress of dull grey, boots to match the man's, and a faded floral headscarf. Max didn't remember them entering the bar at any point. He wasn't a snob, but they weren't the type of clientele that usually frequented the establishment. The smell of dirt and chickens wafted slowly across the room. Rather than chase down the chickens, which Trixie was evidently encouraging them to do, the pair stopped and stared in incomprehension at the various and varied customers that dotted the room. Their incomprehension quickly gave way to abject terror and they turned and fled the way they had come.

Trixie turned to follow, while at the other end of the main room Blanche rose triumphant from a scrum in the corner, a chicken hanging upside down from each hand.

Max wasn't usually a cowardly fellow, so he tried to convince himself that the unsettling, indefinable shift had caused him to fall backwards from his chair, rather than the chicken that had flapped, squawking towards his face. A chicken of which there was suddenly no sign. A friendly waitress, whose curvaceous figure he had been admiring, helped him back to his feet and settled him back at his table.

Then he looked around puzzled. A man attempting handstands on one of the tables; a miserable looking man propping up the bar; the barman behind the bar, wiping down the surface with a yellow cloth. All seemed inexplicably familiar.

"They vanished." Trixie reported, having returned from her mission.

"And the gravity shift?" Max asked, having just experienced another and beginning to get rather concerned.

Trixie shrugged.

"Are the two connected?" She asked in turn.

"I don't know." Max said thoughtfully, tucking his orange cloth into his belt. He had seen plenty of beings come and go in mysterious circumstances. Oddly, there was still a sprinkling of dirt across the floor, though no sign of the peasants or the chickens. Max tried to figure out where he had been when a chicken had flown at his face; he didn't have a seat behind the bar but distinctly remembered falling off one.

Trixie saw him looking thoughtfully at the dirt.

"I'll clear it up." She said.

"Save me some." He said. Trixie raised her eyebrows at the request, and went to get on with the task.


There was one person Max knew he could rely on to solve a puzzle like this. Having put the call through and explained the situation, an explanation guaranteed to pique the interest of anyone save a Galpordian monk, he had to wait only moments for the arrival of Doctor Camfortt. Brief moments during which Max distinctly half recalled playing a round of ultradominoes in the far corner of the bar before heading for his office. How Camfortt had arrived so quickly, he wasn't telling; something to do with one of his latest top-secret projects, he hinted. He carried with him a bulging satchel that seemed almost too heavy for the old man.

The inventor carefully considered the small pile of dirt that Max had handed him, the only physical evidence of the strange effect that had repeatedly wafted through the establishment.

"I'm sure they were human." Max said. "But I have no idea what brought them here or what took them away."

"I'll run this sample through my portable analyser." Camfortt said, pulling from his satchel what looked like a compact, silvery food blender. He poured the dirt into the top and closed the lid, then sat staring at the controls for a moment.

"This won't do at all!" He declared after a moment, tipping the soil back out and handing the device to Max. "This is the ultra-resistant blender I promised you, for making your exotic cocktails."

"Thanks, I'd forgotten about that." Max smiled. Well, it was four years ago!

Camfortt took out a smaller, squarer, blacker device and dropped the soil into its sample chamber. The machine hummed softly to itself for a moment, then reported its findings on a small screen.

"The main components are typical of agricultural soil, as we had guessed." He interpreted for Max's sake. "It will take a moment for the analysis to be cross-checked against the database to be more specific." He waited patiently for the downlink to be completed.

"Yes." He said after the short wait. "Definitely of Earth origin, confirmed by the micro-organism species present. Eastern European composition is as specific as the database can be. The gaseous pollutants adsorbed to the surface of the grains indicate early to mid-twenty first century as the time frame."

"Well, odd visitors from Earth have been known to turn up here." Max nodded, fingering the beige cloth at his waist. "But how, in this case?"

"That is the most interesting part." The inventor said in reply. "The sample shows evidence of quantum fluctuation."

"Meaning what?"

"Something had destabilised the fabric of reality at the spacetime locus whereat this sample originated." He gazed at a point above Max's head and switched to a lower tone, talking almost to himself. "As the Mare is a stable point in all of the probability lines of the multi-verse, the quantum fluctuations have honed in on this locus as a short cut from their point of origin."

"Have they stopped now?" Max asked, conscious that nothing odd had happened for a few minutes.

"I suspect not." Doctor Camfortt answered. "But in the confines of your office they would be less evident."

"So how long will it continue?"

"That… is difficult to say." Camfortt admitted. "The event has obviously been reversed else the fluctuations would have been permanent and universal." He fished in his satchel again. "I brought a few bits and bobs along in case." He said, placing a variety of gadgets on Max's desk. Max made a mental note to ensure the inventor took them all away with him again. He'd had that problem before.

With a satisfied grunt Doctor Camfortt produced a small black box and pressed a sequence of buttons on one side.

"A quantum buffer." He said. "It will shield us from the fluctuations as long as we keep hold of it." With a hand each on the buffer they arose and the inventor led the way out to the bar, where a stunning vista greeted Max's eyes. He was now in the bubble of stabilised reality that surrounded the buffer, and from here could view the effects of the reality fluctuations without being a participant. People's clothes randomly changed colour. Furniture switched places. Patrons swapped positions. Drinks became fuller of more empty with no reason. It seemed the effect was becoming more intense.

Then suddenly, it was over. Nobody else in the Mare Inebrium had any idea what had just happened.

Doctor Camfortt's analyser beeped again.

"Further information from the archives." He said. "Top secret at the time of course, but open to public record now, if one knows where to look. It seems an institute known as the European Hadron Laboratory was conducting experiments at the quantum level that got somewhat out of hand." He summarised the mass of data scrolling across his screen. "Of course the general public remained ignorant of the event," He gestured round the room, "much as everyone here is. The reality tear was eventually plugged using a quantum arrestor. Of course the fluctuations have been emanating outwards ever since. And, I suppose, will continue to make their way throughout the universe, causing chaos wherever they intercept matter."

"So, are the effects lasting?" Max asked, concerned.

"No." The doctor said reassuringly. "The rift was plugged. The universe will continue much as it always has."

Relieved, Max thanked the inventor, who departed after collecting his belongings from the office.

Max turned back to his bar, contemplating the vagaries of the universe as he polished the bar with his green cloth.


© 2007 by Gareth D Jones

Bio: Gareth is from England and mostly writes science fiction, with stories published by seven different magazines both on line and in print. He is now in his last year of part-time study for a degree in Environmental Science, a subject that, so far, has inspired none of his stories. 'The Grey Void' is a sequel of sorts to 'The Gray Hole' ('Gray' versus 'Grey' being an example of editorial interference). Links to his published stories can be found at Gareth D Jones Science Fiction.

E-mail: Gareth D. Jones

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