Pipers at the Gates of Dawn
SUMMER WILLIAMS was just dozing off, dog-eared paperback slipping from her fingers onto the floor, when the scream jerked her into full alertness. She sat bolt upright in the easy chair. There was an uncertain silence as she tried to decide if she had simply imagined it. Then there were some scuffling sounds, followed by a crash. The noises were coming from the apartment across the hallway. Summer moved to the front door and opened it a crack.
The group of allegedly mythical creatures started down the corridor towards the stairwell. As they did so their suits changed colour from black to a rather nice charcoal pinstripe, their long dark locks shortened and styled themselves into neat crew cuts and their ears, pointed before, rounded themselves out. It was then that Summer's common sense gave up and dreamy unreality took over. Summer crossed the hallway and tried the door to Scroon's apartment. It swung open and she stepped inside.
The apartment looked as though the professor had invited several Middle Eastern extremist groups round for a polite chat about how wrong they all were. As eccentric as the professor was she didn't think this likely. There were papers everywhere, most full of wild scribbles, eye-raising doodles and frown-inducing formulae. An upturned cup of coffee had transformed a scattered pile of papers on a work desk into a papier mache lagoon. The liquid dripped from the corner of a computer keyboard. Two feet protruded from a doorway to her right and there was the sound of heavy rapid breathing. Summer peaked around the doorframe. Two wild eyes looked back at her.
The eyes, bloodshot, tired and uncomprehending belonged to a bedraggled figure which was hunched over Scroon's motionless body. The face that framed the eyes and the hair that framed the face were caked in thick black mud. In fact there was not a square centimetre of clean space on the strange creature. Summer noticed that it was carrying a rather startled looking hamster wearing what looked like a tin hat. The wild eyes focused and narrowed suddenly, bringing Summer back to the here and now.
"It's you, isn't it..?" the mud thing croaked, furiously waving the hamster at her.
"Yes, I suppose it is," agreed Summer without much conviction. The mud thing rose and hobbled towards her still waving the hamster. Summer could see wires poking out of the tin hat, like some strange kind of hair drying device. The hat had dropped over the little animal's eyes and only a pair of furry cheeks poked out from under the brim. Summer wasn't sure if it had fallen asleep or died of extreme shock.
"Yes, it's you all right!" said the mud thing, louder this time.
"Well, it's all your fault you know. I hate you for what you're going to do!" The mud thing stopped suddenly, eyes widening. "The elves!" it exclaimed. "Have they been through here?"
A lump of mud peeled off its cheek, falling onto the professor's body. The hamster followed, slipping out of the thing's now lax grip and landing with a plop. Summer watched fascinated. The thing's skin underneath was purple. The mud creature grabbed her by the shoulders. "The elves?" it screamed at her again.
"What? Oh, yes they went that way ..." Summer pointed and the mud thing ran off.
"Don't do anything he tells you," it shouted back. "Oh, what's the use ..." Then it was gone and Summer was left with the hamster and the professor.
She stepped over a pile of papers and crouched to examine him. He was alive at least: the hamster rose and fell on his chest, peering out from the tin hat. It blinked at Summer. Scroon groaned. There was silence. He did it again. He sat up, stared at Summer wide-eyed.
"Bob!" he wailed.
"Pardon? I ... I think you have me mixed up with ..."
"Bob!" shouted the professor in delight. He had noticed the hamster, now looking dazed and confused on his lap. He picked it up and gave it a big cuddle. It's cheeks puffed out and there was an almost inaudible gasp.
"What happened here, Professor?"
"Oh, call me Washington, please," he grinned. "Washington Scroon, that's me. Well, it's all very simple really. I accidentally opened an inter-dimensional portal to another world with partial temporal flux capacitance. It's all down to Bob, you see. And cabbage leaves."
"Cabbage leaves?" Summer's mind boggled, tried to wrap itself around what had just been said, then gave up and began wondering if she was missing Jeopardy on tv. It was on about now, wasn't it?
"Hamsters, you see?" said Scroon happily.
"What?" said Summer, brought out of her revelry. "Hamsters? No, not really."
"The greatest mathematical minds on the planet, you know?"
"Hamsters?" Summer repeated, a bit nonplussed. She had failed her ninth grade maths—though she'd had a very bad cough at the time.
"Oh yes," Scroon continued, ignoring her blank look. "You think that all they do is sit about in the sawdust sleeping and wondering about a very interesting piece of cabbage, but oh no, they're calculating, accumulating, assimilating, disseminating and formulating. All the time—even when they're asleep."
"Are they really?" answered Summer, not entirely sure if she should have eaten that piece of cheese last night—it had been in the refrigerator for just over a week.
"Look!" exclaimed Scroon, pushing Bob close to her face. "Even now he's thinking about the mathematical formulae needed for inter-dimensional travel."
Summer looked at Bob. The hamster gazed bleakly back at her from beneath the tin hat. Its paws hung limply over the professor's fingers and it's jaw had dropped open. Its cheeks sagged alarmingly. Summer thought for a moment or two. Come to think of it her old maths teacher looked somewhat like this. Hadn't he had a nervous breakdown, though? Bob was swept away and the professor jumped to his feet; then fell down again with a yell. He put Bob down and began rubbing his ankle.
"I must have sprained it. It's no good. You'll have to go!"
"Go? Go where?"
"To Middle-earth, of course. Where the elves came from. You'll have to stop them." Scroon stumbled to his feet and leaned on Summer.
"Those men in business suits? Why, what do they want?"
Scroon stared at Summer in disbelief, eyes bulging wide. His dark hair corkscrewed at frightening angles as if his hairdresser was one of the Gorgon sisters.
"Those weren't business men. They were evil elves from Middle-earth: fugitives from the law. They must have used some sort of illusionary magic to appear normal. They're here to gain power! To take over the stock market, and then bring their friends over. To rule the world!"
"Well, we can't have that can we!" said Summer, hoping to placate the raving professor. She found herself half bustled, half pushed into the next room. Scroon hurriedly hooked Bob up to the dripping computer. A large cabbage leaf appeared on the screen. Scroon gave a yell and dived amongst the papers. He emerged with a handful of leaves and pushed them into Bob's face.
The image on the screen changed, beginning to fill up with complex mathematical formulae, which changed and grew and moved across the screen faster and faster. Bob began to frown and huff. His helmet buzzed, little sparks appeared doing what sparks do best between the electrodes.
The back wall of the room began to shimmer and warp, as if it were a reflection in a hall of mirrors. The humming and whining got louder, Bob's frown deepened and the formulae sped faster and faster. There was a loud pop and the wall sprang back into shape. Bob gasped. Scroon yelped. There was silence. No one moved; then Bob chewed a cabbage leaf.
"And ..?" said Summer.
"Look!" yelled the professor. His arm sprang up and pointed to a space above and before them. "There's the molecule tag!" Summer squinted. There was a small black dot hanging in mid air: it could have been a money spider for all she could see.
"That's it? I expected lights, wind, loud noises, things flying about and smashing up."
"What? Like a Who concert? Won't this do, instead?" Scroon reached up and grabbed the molecule tag. "Bob," he began, yanking harder on the tag, "has created a bundle of trans-dimensional bisecting molecules in a state of temporary flux." He tugged again.
Reality sagged at each side of the tag, a rent opening up as the tag was pulled smoothly down towards the floor. Inside, the reality of another dimension glared knowingly back at Summer. Shafts of light sprang out from the rift, a gentle breeze softly touched her face. She stood in awe as life from another world reached out for her. Then a frog belched and spoilt it all.
"What's in there? Oh, yeah, I know: Middle-earth, but what is it?"
"I told you: it's where the evil elves come from—the ones in business suits. You must stop them opening the dimensional rift first and throwing in the meditation bowl."
"That's how all this started," said Scroon quickly. "I was trying to open a rift when one opened by itself, a large meditation bowl flew out and hit me on the head, rebounded and hit the keyboard. It corrected one of Bob's formulae, so enabling him to open the rifts too. That's when the elves jumped out. I turned to run and tripped over my own feet and that's all I know. Clear now?"
"Well, er ..." started Summer, but it was too late. With a hefty shove Scroon pushed her into the rift. She landed on soft wet grass. What looked like a television remote control landed next to her. She turned back. Scroon was staring at her, the rift healing itself. He grinned.
"That'll open up the rift again—it sends your location to Bob." Then he was gone.
Summer found herself in a bright and peaceful glade. A hundred yards or so to her left stood a number of large wooden vats. Two small figures danced about inside. Jaunty singing filtered through the air, spoilt somewhat when a frog landed on her feet and belched loudly.
"Hello," said Summer, but the frog just stared back at her. She started off towards the two figures, picking up the remote control as she did so. As she neared them they stopped and looked at her, smiling happily. They were small and stout with round weathered features. Summer could smell the sweet aroma of grapes. She climbed the set of steps at the side of the vats.
"Excuse me, I'm er ... sorry to disturb you but have you seen twelve evil megalomaniac elves around here?" This, she realised, was rather a long shot but she was more than a little startled when they both nodded and said "What? Like those?"
Summer tried to whirl around but for the second time that day she felt herself pushed, and fell into the vat. The landing was soft and grape juice flooded into her mouth as she began frantically flailing her limbs. The two strangers helped her to her feet. Scraping grapes from her eyes she looked up at her assailants. Twelve pairs of eyes stared back at her. With sudden alarm she noted that one held the remote control. She was about to splutter something when they turned and ran off without a word.
"How rude," said the stout woman beside her. "They must be evil, with manners like that." She had a rural accent, Summer thought, the type you hear in England's Yorkshire.
"Excuse me," said Summer, tumbling out of the vat. She was covered in red grapes. Stumbling into a run she started her pursuit, but they were already approaching the forest some hundred yards away. By the time Summer reached the trees herself the elves had vanished.
"Damn!" she gasped.
"You looking for the elves, then?" asked a deep, rumbling voice.
When Summer's heart had stopped palpitating she looked carefully around. There was no one in sight. "Yes, the elves," she said uncertainly.
"They went that way," said the voice. There was accompanying creaking as a huge branch of the tree next to Summer lowered and pointed deeper into the forest. Summer nearly collapsed—but instead she said thank you and ran on. It was hard going and she made a mental note never to fall into another dimension again. She came out of the trees onto a riverbank. A makeshift bridge spanned its width. At the far side sat a campsite, dark and foreboding; much like the elves who sat in a wide circle passing the remote control around and pressing buttons on it. They turned to look a her.
Summer started towards the bridge, stumbling through the undergrowth. On the edge of her vision one of the elves took a parallel course along the opposite bank. Slipping on the deep mud Summer reached the bridge and jumped onto it. It wobbled dangerously. As she ran across the elf produced a knife and began sawing at the ropes anchoring the bridge.
"Pointy eared buggers!" she swore. She was on her last length as the bridge collapsed and the planking fell out from under her. Summer and the remains of the bridge landed with a gloop into the mud of the riverbank. The world went black and soggy.
The elf watched dispassionately as Summer sank beneath the dark surface, then walked back to its comrades. Behind him something moved in the mud. Lazarus-like from the dark depths an arm reached out from the muck. Gaining a hold in the earth Summer hauled herself out and got to her feet, strong and confident now in her determination. She began to run at the elves. They were standing at the far side of the camp site, and one was pulling at something in the air.
"Nooooo!" she screamed still running. She scooped something up from the floor and hurled it at the group. The object, a bowl of some kind, arched beautifully through the air ... and missed its target. It disappeared into the rift, now almost fully opened by the elves. They began to step through.
There was a yell from the other side. A familiar voice shouted "My God! An inter-dimensional temporal rift!" This was followed by a crash, and then silence.
Summer reached the rift and jumped through. The elves were quickly exiting the room, business suits already knitted about their bodies. She crouched over the figure laid out on the floor, limbs akimbo. A strange feeling of deja vu coursed through Summer's veins. Bob sat on the floor peering up at her, jaw open. She scooped him up and then there was a gasp in the doorway. She looked up and stared at ... herself. Her mind boggled and scratched its head for a little while before coming back and taking a second look. Yep, definitely her.
"It's you, isn't it?" she croaked. The scene played out just as she remembered it, as though she couldn't help saying what she did. The words just found themselves coming out of her mouth. Only now she was the other person—or she wasn't; or she may have been both, if she saw what she meant. Anyway, pretty soon she found herself out in the hallway running past her own apartment and onto the stairwell. She burst out onto the landing and almost knocked over the elves like bowling pins.
"This isn't the sixties?" one enquired politely.
"And not England?" asked another equally disarmingly.
"What?" said Summer.
"We are travelling musicians," explained the leader. "We plan to bring the music of our lands to yours but it will be most effective in the sixties, we think."
"I see," said Summer, not seeing at all.
"I am named Barrett, this is Mason and he is Strange Waters. We are going now to England in the Sixties. Thank you."
"Er, you mean you're not going to take over the earth and bring your friends over for an invasion?"
"No," said Strange Waters, "We are a band from Middle-earth." He stabbed at the controls of the remote. The wall warped. "We want world peace and cups of tea, thank you."
"Don't you need a hamster?" Summer asked.
"It is hooked up about now, to send you through to get us," explained Barrett.
"But how did you know that?"
"We are magical, now be quiet, you are poking holes in the plot!" They opened the rift once more and began to step through.
"What will you call yourselves?" asked Summer as they disappeared, their clothes changing to more formal garb.
"Pink Floyd," answered Barrett. "It is a flower in our land." With a snapping pop the rift was gone.
Summer sighed. "I think I need a bath!"