Chapters:

Chapter 1

Chapter 1

        Smith shook the suit jacket as he walked across the courtyard.  The air was unusually dry and warm for this time of year, even in the desert.  It was filled with static energy, and he was dreading putting on the heavy jacket.  It was wool, and too warm for where he was standing.  The hair on the back of his neck was standing up. He sighed, and paused next to the building at the edge of the courtyard.

        Looking at his reflection in the window, he tapped the bowler hat he now wore. It was covering his uncombed black hair.  His mother would be proud of the way he looked right now.  She always wanted him to live with her family, and this was how they dressed.  Here, though, the long collared shirt and wool pants seemed very out of place.  As he looked up and shielded his eyes from the sun, he knew it was time to go.  Picking up his small bag, he started walking again.

        The circle was in the middle of the field.  They had designed it that way to protect the lands around it from any side effects.  The stones filled with energy surrounded the center polished disc in four rings.  As a person stepped up to the silver plate, the energy rushed around the stones, building as it went from ring to ring, until it reached the center.  There was a flash of brilliant blue light, and the person standing in the center vanished.

        Everything was very confidential.  The only people who knew where the travelers would end up were the person standing in the center and the man controlling the rings, known only as Access.  As Smith walked across the empty space between the building and the ring, he noticed that there was only one person who would be in front of him.  The man wore a very colorful smock of some kind, and was carrying a metallic suitcase.  Smith knew this man, and he was a diplomat, so he must be heading to some trade or ambassador meeting.  The man seemed anxious, and almost ran to the center disc, and was sweating as he stood in place.  The rings lit up, energy circling until the blue flash appeared and the man was gone.

        That meant Smith would be able to go as soon as he reached the rings.  Although he had crossed over many times, he still felt slightly nauseous just thinking about it.  Access was standing just before the outer ring looked up as Smith approached.  He was wearing a pure white robe, and carrying what looked like a computer tablet.  His head was completely shaven, taking even his eyebrows, and Smith wondered if they were not allowed to have hair, or was it just their heads that needed to be smooth.  Access nodded to Smith, held up his hand.

        “I’ve been summoned to investigate a case,” Smith told Access.  “My license number is 938JONE.  The pathway has already been filed with the office.”

        Looking at the tablet, he nodded.  “This is confirmed.”

        Smith slipped on the wool jacket.  “Can you tell me what the weather is like over there?”

        “Weather is inconsequential for the travel,” Access replied, rubbing his thumb and index finger together.

        “Not if I get there and there’s a rain of fire coming down.”

        Access scrunched his face, which would have furrowed his eyebrows, if he had any.  “The world you are traveling to does not have a history of fire raining down from the skies.  Are you expecting it to be a consequence of the case you are investigating?  If so, I need to notate this.”

“I’m not expecting it,” Smith replied.  “I plan on any eventuality, though.  I was raised a Boy Scout.  Always be prepared.”

        He tilted his head, studying the pad in his left hand.  “I do not see military service on your record.”

        “Boy Scout, Access,” Smith told him.  “The youth group?”

        “My home did not have such a thing,” Access replied, distracted.  “The path is cleared.  As you approach the center of the circle, you will feel the energy.  Do not be alarmed.”

        “I’ve been through this before.  I know the drill.”

        He nodded to Smith, and said, “Good trip.”

        Access stepped aside and slowly motioned for Smith to take the marked path to the center of the circle.  He briskly walked along the path and entered the circle.  Holding tightly to his bag, he took a deep breath and held it.  The first few times traveling this way, he had not known to hold his breath, and he ended up appearing and throwing up at the same time.  This was frowned upon by the Accesses.

        The energy built, circling around and around, until it reached the silver disc where he was standing.  Inside the center, he did not see the bright blue flashing light.  Instead, he felt the weightlessness happen, and he gripped his bag tighter, knuckles turning white.  He had lost a few bags in earlier trips.  If he let go, he would arrive without his luggage.

        His hat seemed to be lifting off his head, so he slammed his other hand on top of his head to hold it down.  His coat was floating open, and he realized one of his shoe laces was undone when he felt it touch his leg.  Just when he thought he was going to be lost in the ether, gravity resumed, and he felt like he had jumped off the steps of his old house.  There was no nausea this time, which was a good thing.  Unfortunately, he also bit his tongue slightly, and the taste of copper was filling his mouth.

        The light was dimmer, which was his first clue that he was no longer in the Arizona desert he called home.  He exhaled, and took another breath to fill his lungs with fresh air.  Immediately, he regretted that.  There was a strong burning smell and the air tasted like soot.  It was thick, as if charcoal was blazing nearby, and he looked around to see a haze covering everything.  He wrinkled his nose and made a face.

        His obvious distaste made the Access on this world shake his head.  This Access wore a black suite and top hat, and kept the tablet he held hidden.  “You have arrived.  Please notate this location for the return trip, which is due to happen…”  He looked at the tablet still hidden by his suit jacket.  “One week’s time.”

        “Thank you,” Smith replied, and coughed from the inhaled smog.  “Is this air normal.”

        “Air is simply air.  There is no normal or abnormal with air.”

        “You guys are really helpful sometimes,” Smith said as he started walking past Access.

        “Do not miss your window to return, or the authorities will seek you out.”

        “This isn’t my first trip, Access.  I know what’s expected.”

        “Knowing and doing are not always in agreement.”

        Smith just stared at the completely bald man.

        “Good day,” Access said with a nod.

        As Smith walked across the empty space to the ring of buildings, he noticed that the structures completely enclosed the rings.  He knew this was a world where not everyone knew about traveling between dimensions, and this was one of the ways they kept people from stumbling across the secret.  With the smog that permeated everything, he decided that if people did find out, they would line up to escape this smelly world.

        He walked through an empty building that was more like a hallway than anything else.  Inside, the air was filtered, and soot-free.  Smith inhaled rapidly, trying to clean out his lungs before he had to step back outside.  This made him slightly light-headed, but he was glad for fresh air.

        Exiting, he looked around.  The layer of fog went up to the height of the two-story buildings along the street.  It dimmed the sunlight, and Smith noticed white smoke mixed in with the dark fog.  He had not studied everything about this world, so he did not know the reason for such a thick layer, but he quickly realized that one of the strong smells was burning coal.

        “Mr. Smith!” a man’s voice called out.  “I’m glad you could join us.”

        The man who walked up and forcefully shook his hand was middle-aged, with white streaks on the sides of his brown hair.  Smith sized him up quickly, noting that he had a lot of strength and hid his obvious muscles under loose clothing and wool.  He also had a smile that was a little too wide.

        “The message said there was trouble,” Smith told him, keeping his eyes on the man.  “Would you happen to be Dr. Stevens?”

        “Yes, I am.”  The man released his grip on Smith’s hand.  He motioned for Smith to follow him.  “I founded the school.”

        The stone and brick structures that lined the street were slightly covered in the grit from the smoke.  Smith was shocked by the amount of plant life.  Vibrant trees appearing to be hundreds of years old towered over the tallest buildings, which were only two stories high.  He watched as the sun’s rays slowly burned through the thick fog.  The fact that the trees and flowers were thriving meant that they were accustomed to the smog, or that it was only temporary.

        “It’s morning here?” Smith asked.

        “Yes,” Dr. Stevens replied.  “The sun just came up about an hour ago.”

        “That explains the smog.  It burns off every morning?”

        “Correct,” he explained.  “Unfortunately, during the evening, the crisp weather and lack of winds cause the smog to build up.  It burns off throughout the day, and then gathers again in the evening.  You get used to it.”

        Smith coughed again.  “I hope not.  I’d hate to have my lungs coated in this stuff.”

        Dr. Stevens led him down a street that appeared to end abruptly.  The brick wall at the end looked ominous.

        “Are we lost?” Smith asked.

        “No.  I wanted to get you to the school as soon as possible, and this is the fastest way.”

        Smith became very suspicious, until Dr. Stevens walked through the brick wall.  As he approached it, he reached out to touch it, but the brick was not solid.  His hand moved through it.

        “I don’t remember this being in the information I looked through…”

        He felt around, and the entire end wall was false.  He stepped through, and found himself standing on the edge of a courtyard.  Behind him was a row of hedges, and not a brick wall.  He reached back, and his hand went through the hedges.

        “What is that?” Smith asked.

        Dr. Stevens smiled.  “One of my students created it.  She builds passageways.”  He continued without pausing, not allowing Smith to ask any follow-up questions.  “Welcome to the Preliminary Scholastic Institute and Academy.”  He waved his arms as he greeted Smith, smiling even wider.  “Everything you see here, I built.”

        “These buildings are just as old as those in the town, and the trees are just as tall and old,” Smith commented.  “If you built all this…  Does the smog slow aging?”

        “This place is much older than it looks, Mr. Smith.”

        “Please… Just call me Smith.  That’s my name.  How can this place be much older, when you say you built it?”

        Dr. Stevens’ smile faded a little, but a smirk remained on his face.  “All in good time, Smith.  I want you to come and meet Dean Powell.  She will fill you in on everything.”

        He mentally took note that Dr. Stevens had evaded his last question.  As he followed the older man, he also noted that the courtyard was well-maintained.  The smog was not nearly as thick here as it had been in the city.  The sun was shining brightly, but there was still a chill in the air, which made the wool jacket essential.

        Most of the stone buildings they passed had similar designs, and all had cornerstones with dates on them. The oldest Smith saw was from 1802, and the newest he saw said 2012.  He knew there was no way that Dr. Stevens was old enough to have been around for all of these buildings to be constructed.  That would make him over 200 years old.  It was a mystery he would need to look into while he was here.

        They entered one of the buildings through a large set of wooden doors that creaked when they were pulled open.  Inside was a large entrance room that went completely through the building and had windows that looked out onto another courtyard.  At the center of this huge room was a woman with long black hair.  She stood in front of a heavy-looking wooden table surrounded by seven wooden chairs.  The dark blue skirt suit she wore was obviously tailored to her, as it clung tightly in all the right areas.  Her matching jacket was close at the wrists, and she tugged at them as they approached.  Black leather gloves hid her hands.

Smiling, she crossed the room to greet them.  He high heels clicked on the floor, echoing throughout the building each time her heel touched the marble floor.  She held out her hand and greeted him.  Smith took her hand, and her handshake was soft and gentle, as opposed to Dr. Stevens’ handshake.  Her face was lit up with her smile, and her brilliant green eyes sparkled.

        “Mr. Smith,” she said, pursing her lips together slightly.  “I am very glad you accepted the doctor’s invitation.

        I couldn’t really resist,” he replied as the handshake ended.  “The message he sent said a school full of special children was in danger.  Anytime children are in danger, I make sure to clear my schedule and come as quickly as possible.  The other details intrigued me as well.  This unsolved murder on the school grounds…”

        She was glaring at Dr. Stevens.  “We discussed the letter we were going to send.”

        Smith paused.  “Uh…”

        Dr. Stevens crossed his arms defiantly.  “Dean Powell, this is my school.  “I am not about to let them do this to us.  I believe Smith is the best person to resolve this.”

        Looking from her to him, Smith waited.  “I think I’m missing something.  There’s no murder that happened here?”

        “There was a murder, Mr. Smith,” Dean Powell replied, still glaring at the older man.

        “And the entire school is in danger,” Dr. Stevens added.

        “The school is in danger,” Dean Powell continued.  “Unfortunately, the event could cause the school to be closed, and all the students will be sent home.  The danger is real, but most of the students can handle themselves.”

        “I crossed a dimensional rift to come here,” Smith told them.  “Not only is that slightly dangerous, and health-threatening, but it is expensive.  If there’s not a danger here, I did that for nothing.”

        “Then perhaps Dr. Stevens should pay you some credits and send you back where you came from,” a metallic voice with a feminine tinge announced.

        Smith turned to see a silver-skinned woman wearing a police uniform. She was shaped like an hourglass, and the outfit was almost painted onto her form.  Her eyes were mirrored, and unblinking.  Smith could see his reflection in them.  Her jaw was hinged, and moved as she spoke, but the inside was a speaker with criss-cross protection wire covering it.  He high cheekbones looks sculptured perfectly, and she walked with a purpose as she crossed the room towards them.  Her head tilted, and her entire body jerked slightly with each movement, as if gears were shifting.

        “Dr. Stevens, I believe the two of us discussed bringing in a third-party investigator, did we not?”

        “Constable Iron,” he replied.  “This is Smith.”

        “We decided against this action.”

        He turned to Smith.  “Constable Iron was sent to investigate the murder.”

        “As I have repeatedly explained, this was not a homicide,” her metallic voice was obviously annoyed.

        “Smith, the constable and her task force checked over the scene.  I had believed them to be done and gone already.”

        The metallic face looked at Smith.  “All evidence point to this being an accident.”

        “And what of the events that led up to Professor Winter’s death?” Dr. Stevens asked.

        “The police are still investigating all the incidents,” Constable Iron replied.  “Bringing in an outside party was ill-advised, and unnecessary.”

        “My specialty is investigating strange happenings,” Smith explained.  “I may be able to find out something that local police would overlook.”

        “Clockwork Police Officers do not overlook anything,” Constable Irons snapped.  “We are built to be completely thorough and accurate.”

        Smith paused.  The robotic officer should not have been offended by his statement, but that was clearly what had happened.  He knew a little about clockwork officers.  His father was in the business of dealing in them, and most of them were not sophisticated enough to take offense.

        “I apologize, constable.  It was not explained to me that the police were still investigating events surrounding the murder…”

        “Accident.”

        She had snapped so quickly, that Smith took a step back.

        “The accident,” he repeated.  “I was told that an outside investigation was necessary.”

        “And it is,” Dr. Stevens added.  “If you will follow me, Constable Iron, I will discuss this with you further.  Smith, I ask that you accompany Dean Powell.  She will show you around and get you started.”

        The clockwork officer looked directly at Smith, and said, “I will be around, and I will be keeping an eye on you.  The Clockwork Police Force does not appreciate mercenaries being brought into these situations.”

        “I’m not a mercenary,” Smith replied.  “I’m a private investigator.  My multidimensional license is 938JONE.”

        “That has been recorded and noted,” Constable Irons told him, and her metallic voice echoed slightly.  “My team has been assigned to this investigation.  You would do well to remember that, and to not interfere in my jurisdiction.”

        As Dr. Stevens led the officer away, Smith turned to Dean Powell and asked, “Are all officers here clockwork?”

        “Not all.”  She smiled.  “They’re considered incorruptible, though, so they tend to investigate the high profile cases.”

        “I do have to admit that I would have reconsidered coming, if I knew about Constable Iron.  I have had problems in the past with breathing, living cops.”  He then muttered, “Mechanical ones are even worse, especially since I know the person responsible for most of them…”

        “What was that?”

        “Nothing,” Smith said clasping his hands together tightly.  “Dr. Stevens’ letter said the police were not being helpful in this case, and I just saw that first-hand.  Clockwork officers are considered the best in all the dimensions.  They have almost a 100% solve rate in normal cases.”

        “This is not a normal case,” Dean Powell told him, a serious look coming over her face.