The bowl-shaped auditorium was packed and humming with anticipatory conversation. Doctor Russell Catherwood from Princeton was giving a lecture on M-Theory at the Fermi Institute in Chicago.
"This is going to stir things up," a third year student remarked.
"Ya think!" grinned the post-grad. sitting beside him.
"Oh yeah. Professor Spelman was spitting tacks in our quantum field theory lecture yesterday."
"Probably shit-scared Catherwood's right," the post-grad commented. In response to a questioning look, he added, "If he can prove his theories, it means Spelman's spent the last twenty years working his way up a blind alley."
The President of the Physics Society appeared on the platform just then, and introduced the guest speaker. The face of one elderly man on the front row took on a deep scowl until Doctor Catherwood stumbled on the steps to the platform and nearly fell.
"The boy always was a klutz," Professor Spelman muttered with malicious pleasure to his colleague as the redheaded young man approached the podium. "This'll just be a flash in the pan. Like cold fusion," he said with a derisive laugh, but the colleague wasn't fooled by his apparent confidence.
Doctor Catherwood embarked on a whirlwind exposition of superstrings, spin foams, Wilson loops and super gravity in anti-de Sitter space that held the audience spellbound.
"Jeez, this is well beyond anything Spelman's done," the post-grad said, struggling to keep up.
As page after page of viewgraphs was filled with complex equations, Spelman thought he saw an opening - a flaw in the doctor's reasoning - and waited, like a lurking tiger, to pounce when the floor was thrown open for questions. When the time came, he rose portentously to his feet.
"May I congratulate my young colleague on his masterly presentation?" he said with a condescending smile. "However, in equation number forty-nine, if M is approximately equal to MPlanck, surely it would be virtually impossible to obtain gauge coupling unification?"
"Ah, the old perturbative heterotic string case?" Doctor Catherwood replied. "I'm afraid my learned friend has gotten hung up on the notion that there are only ten dimensions. Factor in the eleventh dimension and it all works just fine."
"Really? Well, even supposing this were so, there are no practical applications for this research," Spelman snapped, resorting to defensive aggression.
"Mm, I thought someone would make that point," Catherwood said, with a look of smug satisfaction which had the audience sniggering, "and it is incorrect."
He held up a small silvery device like a compact remote control.
"This little invention of mine can detect places in time and space where ripples in membranes collide. It can then open a hole through the dimensional wall into 'allokosmoi' - other universes, for those unfamiliar with Greek."
There were gasps of astonishment. That someone could have taken this research so far and so fast was almost beyond belief.
"Prove it!" Spelman scoffed.
Doctor Catherwood's smile widened. He had a rather feral smile, some noticed. In accordance with his plan, he stepped back from the podium and fingered the device. There was the faintest hum and, after a slight pause, a ring of pale blue light appeared in front of him. From the audience's edgeways perspective, it stretched into a glowing, rippling vertical line taller than he was. He stepped towards it like a stage magician, caught his foot in a loop of cable and tripped. He rolled with the fall and landed on his back on
Grass? He lay, winded, in the knee-deep pasture for a few moments, looking up at the cloudless blue sky above him, and thanking his stars for his teenage martial arts training; he hadn't broken anything.
He sat up and looked around. The Fermi Institute had gone. Hell, Chicago had gone. There were just the grass, the sky, a herd of something buffalo-like in the distance and, a little way off, a sizeable body of water that might - or might not - be Lake Michigan.
"Shit!" he groaned. " This wasn't supposed to happen."
On the plus side, there was no sign of immediate danger, and he hadn't landed on a buffalo chip either. He'd tested the R.C.D., or Ripple Collision Detector, several times before his lecture by poking his head through an opening into an allokosmos. Mostly there had been no problem, though twice he'd had to dodge back and close the 'door' pretty sharply. On one occasion, the door had opened on something like a railway track with the local species of locomotive hurtling towards him. The other time, he'd broken through into the middle of a war zone. Not a pretty sight.
He now appreciated that he really shouldn't have given in to the vainglory of putting one over on Spelman, tempting as it had been, before he'd worked out a means of reconnecting with his own universe. He could just hear his practical Mom's oft-made comment:
"You don't often find high intelligence and common sense in one brain, Russell. Like Icarus, high flyers so often overlook the obvious from their lofty heights. Just make sure you don't!"
It was galling to realize he had.
"Come on, Russell, pull yourself together," he said to himself. "Hindsight won't help you now. No physical danger so food's going to be the next priority." He regarded the distant buffalo. He wasn't a Chippewa... "No point in staying here."
The first couple of universes the R.C.D. found were unsuitable. The third looked promising. He stepped through into farmyard that looked like something from the set of a twentieth century western. It seemed a likely source of food. He doubted the farm's owner took plastic but he could work for his bread. As he looked around, the owner himself came out of a barn with a long-barrelled weapon pointing at him. He sighed and raised his hands.
"Whut are you?" the elderly homesteader demanded of the sudden apparition.
"Er My name's Russell Catherwood, and I'm hungry."
"Um, could you put that gun down please? I'm - er -I'm not armed."
"Sadie!" the homesteader called."
A woman came out of the farmhouse. The pair reminded him of the Grant Wood painting, 'American Gothic'.
"Keep 'm covered while I check fer guns. If 'e blinks, shoot 'm."
Russell obligingly held open his jacket and was relieved that the old coot merely patted him down and didn't search his pockets. Apparently satisfied, he looked the young man in the eye.
"Now, I say agin, whut are ya, and where'd you come from?"
"I'm a doctor. I've just come from Chicago."
"Never heard of it."
"Well... No reason why you should, I guess. It's - um - a fair way from here, and quite a small town really," Russell said, trying to sound plausible.
"So how'd ya git here?"
"Then how come there's no dust on yer fancy shoes?"
"Er, look, if you could just give me something to eat, I'll be on my way and trouble you no more. I promise," Russell said earnestly.
The homesteader grunted.
"Yer not wunted by the law, are ya?"
"Oh no. I'm a law-abiding citizen," Russell assured him and smiled. "...Yes, surree!"
"Very well then. Don't want nobody sayin' we ain't hospitamable." he said, mindful of the Biblical quotation about 'entertaining angels unawares'. "Sadie'll fetch you somethin' to the barn, then you git the hell outta here and don't come back."
Sadie's stew was tasty and filling, though eating it with a rifle pointing at him didn't add to the experience. When he'd finished, he laid the platter on a straw bale and thanked the homesteader.
"I'll be going now, and thank you kindly for your assistance. I'm sorry I have no money to pay you."
He had, but thought his dollar bills might complicate things.
"Jest hit the road," the man said tersely, gesturing with his rifle.
He set off in the suggested direction pondering what he might do. Suppose he went to the nearest town? There might be work for him there and no questions asked, but the way of life in a frontier town really didn't appeal.
Behind a small thicket of unfamiliar trees, out of sight of the homesteader, he pulled the R.C.D. from his pocket. He activated the device, poked his head through the opening and found himself eyeball-to-large-reptilian-eyeball with something horrifyingly like a tyrannosaurus rex. He closed the portal immediately but not before the miasma of its breath enveloped him. He sat down sharply, the image of immense teeth and rotting flesh burned into his brain.
Russell's next attempt looked promising so he stepped through into a large dark building reminiscent of the backstage area of the auditorium. He moved towards a lighter area as a voice cried, "Next!" Someone put a piece of paper into his hand and shoved him into the light.
"Jesus, ya didn't need to wear a wig!" yelled the voice.
"Excuse me?" Russell said with hauteur.
"Yeah, not bad. Like the characterization," called a second voice from beyond the lights. "Okay, take it from the top 'Professor Challenger'."
"Actually, it's 'Doctor' - Doctor Catherwood."
Russell looked at the sheet of paper in his hand, shrugged,
then read aloud:
He peered belligerently through the lights. "I'm sorry, but what idiot would want enthusiastic amateurs on a dangerous mission?"
"I like the attitude, but just stick to the script would you?" said the second voice.
Russell felt he was on home ground here and began to argue the toss about it.
"Okay, don't call us; we'll call you. Next!"
An attractive young woman stuck her head through the drapes.
"Er, there aren't any more, Mr. Tarquentino."
"Right, we'll call it a day. You can go Maxine."
Russell followed her.
"Maxine? I wonder if you could help me."
"You can ask, but I'm not promising anything."
"Ah, this may seem like a silly question but - where are we?"
"Pinewood Studios, Wisconsin," she replied, giving him a funny look.
"And what's the date?"
"June 10th 2005." The funny look intensified as Russell's face took on a manically hopeful smile. "You're not a serial killer, are you?"
Russell laughed. "No I'm not, though I would say that either way." She seemed slightly reassured so he went on. "Actually I'm a scientist, and I'm trying to get to either Princeton or the University of Chicago."
"Lost your way a little, haven't you? But Chicago's just over the state line - not more'n an hour away."
This probably wasn't his universe but it was close enough. The big problem - was there another Doctor Catherwood here, along with the danger of death through entropic cascade failure? He reached inside his shirt for the gizmo hanging around his neck. This was one safety feature he had thought of - a pea-brane generator with a metal-organic framework crystal at its heart. It should function forever, near enough. He switched it on, encasing himself in his own private universe, its outer membrane hugging his skin without actually touching it.
Chicago University looked much like the one he'd just left. He went into the reception where the man at the desk looked at him in surprise.
"Doctor Catherwood, I presume?"
He learned shortly afterwards that his alter ego was just as clumsy. This Doctor Catherwood had mysteriously disappeared a year previously too. Their two universes were clearly very closely parallel. Feeling a tad guilty, Russell returned to 'his' post at Princeton. Things were slightly different here but he was able to blend in just fine. No one realized he was a different Doctor Catherwood. He continued his work on allokosmoi which, years later, won him a Nogong Prize. He often wondered, wistfully, where the other him was...
Meanwhile, in another galaxy not so far away, Lindenwood's
hottest new star was attending the premier of his second film. Above the
theater entrance, the lights read, "Russell Catherwood in 'Return to the
Added 20 DEC 2004