Following the hall porter's instructions, I made my way up two flights of stairs, turned left and walked along the corridor. The carpet beneath my feet was threadbare and holed, and kept snagging the heels of my shoes. Not very promising.
I reached the end of the corridor. There was a door, with a frosted pane of glass in it, on which were stencilled the words "DELPHIC RESEARCH, INC." Underneath, some kid had scrawled "CASSANDRA MCBLONDE" in clumsy letters with a black marker pen. Probably some adolescent hooligan, boasting of his doubtful conquests. I pushed the door open.
Inside, I was greeted by an untidy office containing three desks. Two were piled high with papers and box files, but otherwise deserted. At the third sat a blonde with a vacant expression, 19 or 20 years of age, chewing gum and reading one of those magazines with more pictures than text in it. So engrossed was she in a photo of Leonardo DiCaprio that I had to clear my throat several times before she became aware of my presence in the room.
"Can I help you?" she asked in that annoying, chirpy have-a-nice-day manner more usually associated with staff in fast food joints.
"Is there anyone else here I can speak to?" I asked.
She looked round the office to check, then turned back to me, having proven to her own satisfaction that there wasn't.
"Nope!" she announced in the same tone of fatuous cheerfulness. "Just me."
I sighed. I had come too far to turn back now.
"Very well," I said resignedly. "I want you to take a look at this."
I took the artefact out of my pocket, still wrapped up in brown paper, and placed it on the desk before the bimbette. She cautiously pulled aside the wrapping and then sat gazing at it in awe as it softly glowed, pulsated, shifted in and out of phase.
"Wow! That's sooo cool!" she squeaked. "What is it?"
"I don't know," I said. "That's why I'm here. All I know for certain is, it doesn't belong to this space-time continuum."
The guy was real spooky. I mean, he just appeared out of nowhere! But us professional information consultants, we know better than to look surprised. That's half the trick.
"Can I help you?" I asked in my best efficient PA voice.
"Is there anyone else here I can speak to?" he said.
Well, that was a pretty dumb question! Like, anybody could see by looking around that there wasn't. Still, as Sibyl's always telling me, you've got to try and be polite to the customers, no matter how dopey they are.
"Nope!" I said brightly. "Just me."
He seemed annoyed at that news. He probably wanted a man to talk to. Sexist pig!
"Very well," he said. "I want you to take a look at this."
He took something wrapped up in brown paper out of his pocket, and placed it on the desk before me. I wasn't too sure I wanted to touch it. I mean, it could have been something totally gross! Still, professionalism at all time, that's me. So I carefully pulled aside the wrapping and looked at the thing.
Wow! It wasn't gross at all! It was all sort of... I can't say, exactly. But it glowed and shimmered and it was ever so pretty!
"Wow! That's sooo cool!" I said appreciatively. "What is it?"
"I don't know," he said. "That's why I'm here. All I know for certain is, it doesn't belong to this space-time continuum."
Well, that sounded pretty important. Cassie my girl, I told myself, you'd better take notes. I got my pencil and notepad out and flipped through to find a page not covered with doodles. This gave me some time to decide what incisive questions to ask.
"So, um..." I began. "Not from this space-time continuum, eh? So do you think it could be, like... from some other space-time continuum?"
"That would follow!" he snapped. He wasn't very patient either. But, like, I had to gather my facts, you know. How else did he expect me to help him?
"Do you know which space-time continuum?"
"Right." I made a note. "Ermmm..." I got a great idea for a question. "How did you get it?"
Good question! He looked a lot happier.
"I'm from the university," he explained in a nicer voice. "The physics department. We've been undertaking experiments designed to split the electron's wave function by means of... Well, never mind. You wouldn't understand."
"I bet I would!"
"Very well. What we do is fire electrons from a radioactive source into vats of liquid helium. Interactions with electrons on the helium atoms slow the fired electrons until they stop, but the Pauli exclusion principle prevents them from attaching themselves to helium nuclei, so instead they form electron bubbles of around 38 angstroms diameter. We raise the energy level inside these bubbles by illuminating the helium with light of a wavelength of about 10 micrometres, and then..."
He paused. "I see you've stopped taking notes," he said.
I indicated my head knowingly with the end of my pencil. "It's all up here."
"I imagine there's plenty of room for it."
Now what was that supposed to mean?
"The point is," he continued gruffly, "to create a condition which is incompatible with the predictions of quantum theory. A hitherto unknown physical state, if you like..."
He was interrupted by the thingie, which started humming softly. It also changed colour. Before it was glowing sort of green; now it was more pink.
"Ooh, it's sooo pretty!" I exclaimed. "I love pink, don't you?" I was trying to establish a rapport, you see. Sibyl says it's very important to establish a rapport with the customers. Not that Pythia ever seems to bother.
"There was a power surge," said the man, not paying attention. "I think we accidentally ripped a hole in the fabric of space. It only existed for a brief moment, but this artefact just fell through it and landed on the lab bench. I have no idea what it does or where it's from, but I know it's the most important discovery of the century. If not the entire history of mankind."
"So what would you like me to do for you?" I asked. I tapped the thingie with my pencil to see if I could make it change colour again. It sparkled and made a fizzing noise - it was just so much fun! But the man had a choking fit.
"Argh! Don't bash it like that, you imbecile!" he yelled. "It's unstable! Any disturbance might send it back to wherever it came from!"
He was making it very difficult to stay professional. "It's perfectly safe in my hands, mister," I said. "I know what I'm doing."
"Look," he said roughly, "your organisation tracks down out-of-the-way information, doesn't it? I figured that, if this sort of thing had happened before, somewhere else, you might have it in your files. You know, like a real-life X-Files. Well, do you?"
"Ooh, he's drop-dead gorgeous, don't you think?" I cried.
"David Duchovny, of course! Though I suppose, you being a man, you probably prefer Gillian Anderson. That's okay, I can understand that." Still trying to establish a rapport, see? I never give up.
"I can see I've come to the wrong place," said the rude visitor, getting ready to leave.
"Hey, don't get upset! I mean, it's okay with me if you don't like Gillian Anderson, too. She always looks so sulky, don't you think? And I know for a fact her hair isn't really red!"
I don't think he was listening. He reached out to pick up the thingie on the desk and froze.
"The artefact!" he howled. "What have you done with the artefact?"
I looked down. In the middle of the brown paper on my desk, there was a black hole. I picked the paper up. The black hole remained on my desk and there was no mark on the paper. Now how freaky is that?
"You idiot!" he yelled. "It was you banging it with your stupid pencil! You've destabilised it! It's lost forever! You moron! You blithering nincompoop!"
"Keep your hair on, pop," I said, just a little stiffly. "Nobody picked it up or anything. It can't have gone out of the office."
I crawled under the desk and looked around, then up. No hole this side. I stood up again. The hole was still there. I stuck my hand in the hole to see if I could feel the thingie. I couldn't - my hand just felt all cold and tingly. The man started making choking noises again.
"Ack... Don't... Get your hand OUT of there!"
I took my hand out. Professionalism is one thing, but this creepo was beginning to get on my nerves.
"It's alright," I said coldly. "I'm highly trained, you know. I've got everything under control."
"You just shoved your paw into a parallel universe! The laws of physics could have been completely different. Your stupid mitt could have been instantaneously converted to pure energy and blown up the entire city!"
I looked at my hand and waggled the fingers. I laughed, "Now you're just being silly!"
He turned purple. "You brain-dead SLUT!!!" he bellowed, and stormed out of the office, slamming the door behind him. The frosted glass pane rattled.
Well, REALLY! I mean, we'd only just met! What does he know about my private life?
I wasn't sorry he'd gone, but I supposed Sibyl and Pythia would make a fuss when they got back. Blame me for losing a customer. Yeah, right - as if it was my fault that guy was such a dink! I decided I wouldn't tell them about his visit.
Of course, if I didn't tell them, I'd have to explain about the hole in my desk, which was still there. They'd probably take the cost of fixing it out of my salary, which would be so totally unfair! I thought for a while. Then a brilliant idea struck me!
I took a pair of scissors out of the drawer and cut out the picture of Leonardo DiCaprio in my magazine. I then taped it over the hole in the desk. It was just the right size! Of course, I'd have to remember not to put anything heavy on top of it. Hah! As if I'd stick anything on top of dear Leo's face!
I'm so smart sometimes, I amaze myself.