Wednesday, and it was a new general day. I went up to meet him at the front desk, someone had to. That sounds fancier than it really is, the idea that we had a front desk, I mean. We had a door into our dingy bunker on an old RAF base, and someone had put a desk right behind the door, so sure, “front desk” is what we told new people, but there was no one to staff it, and no one could get in the door without me or Rachel unlocking it. What I’m trying to say is, we were low budget, and what budget we got was mostly because people forgot about us. In weirder research, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Alas, we’d been relatively unsupervised for too long and we’d had a new general assigned to come and inspect us. The last one had been fine. His view of our research was that it was patently absurd, but since the military regularly spaffed cash on bullets that none of their guns could fire, this wasn’t much more pointless, and “if it keeps people like you off the high street, so much the better.” I liked him. We had no idea what to expect from the new one, except he was a bit late, which boded well.
Turned out our clock had stopped and the general had been waiting outside for half an hour, occasionally hammering on the door. Since the entrance is a full half mile from where we work, that hadn’t been successful. I was very apologetic, but since it hadn’t been raining there was no real harm done. He didn’t entirely agree, but consented to come along inside anyway. I ticked him off the Post-it note with his name on that I’d brought up to the desk and gave him the full tour.
“So… as you probably know, we’re studying the possibilities and potential of legacy cheval glass that has survived from the mid-nineteenth century, and its application to perceive and interact with asynchronous versions of reality.”
“The file said you’re working with mirrors.”
“That’s right. ‘Cheval glass’, the kind of long free-standing full-length mirror that you might see in upmarket clothes shops, or in overly expensive charity shops. Except these ones were specifically built by the magicians and witches of the nineteenth century. We only have seven survivors from the era.”
“Correct, though we prefer to think of them as early explorers – the mirrors are portals, or windows to somewhere else.”
“A mirror universe?”
“We try very hard to avoid infringing on Star Trek terminology, but honestly there just aren’t that many good words for a mirror and ‘speculum’ has far too much medical overshadow. We try to say ‘reflected world’, but that’s a bit confusing too. But yeah, true mirrors bounce all the light back at you and you get a pretty decent reflected view of whatever they’re in front of. These mirrors don’t do that. When you put them in front of, say, a vase of flowers, you don’t see the flowers, you see whatever either occupies that space in the reflected world, or – we think – the reflection of what the object means or represents in the reflected world. The latter is more like a Platonic cave of shadows and ideas, and frankly that’s way further off in the research programme. Different mirrors do different things.”
This pleasant chat had taken us down several rather damp corridors and down four flights of stairs. The military really like things to be underground if at all possible. I occasionally thought of the time we spent at university in hazy, light-filled rooms… We’re pretty vitamin D deprived down here, so we add it to our tea. We paused at the canteen, a cavernous room with precisely one metal table and a kettle plugged into the wall next to it.
“Are these the most suitable premises for your work?”
“They suit us, more or less. Though I would love a little more daylight. We’re safely contained here at least – we don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
“I don’t see much likelihood of harm from a bunch of mirrors.”
“Only to one’s ego, eh,” my joke was ill-received, but I continued while stirring in the milk (it never goes off down here – far too chilly), “the mirrors aren’t just windows, they’re also doors. Or rather, doorways, since there’s no actual door. They’re usually just cloudy, until you place something in front of them, or electrify the surface. That’s something few of the original magicians tried, or at least that’s what we think from their surviving notes. Two of the mirrors are badly crazed and we think they may have done the same there – the radiating cracks closely resemble what happens when you run a current through wood or something similar. When we do that, well, the mirror starts to reverse, and whatever is in it pours out into our world.”
The general looked unconvinced, by either my story or the mug of tea I’d handed him. Perhaps it was the mug which said “I hate people, they’re idiots.” We did need some new crockery. I led him round the corner and up (I know!) a small flight of stairs into our lab. A short word for a big room. We only occupied one end of it, but it gave space to put serious distance between each of the mirrors. They were all laid out vertically, each with a heavy screen which securely held and enclosed them, operated by switches and our computer interfaces. Rachel was tinkering with Ethel, her favourite witch-glass. I introduced the new general, and Rachel introduced him to the mirror.
“What does this one do?” the general enquired, fascinated despite himself that this little research outfit really did exist, taking up room with a bunch of old mirrors and a pair of idiots.
“Ethel is a portal to a place that no longer exists, or was never real to begin with – we’ve no way of telling,” Rachel explained, “but it’s one of our best portals.”
Next to Ethel was a table filled with some of the objects we’d extracted from her realm. They didn’t look like much, but not one was of terrestrial origin. They had weird compound combinations that don’t arise on Earth.
“And what do you think this is?” the general was rootling through the collection and held up what might be an old analogue telephone, if it were made of transparent bone and glass knives.
“We have no idea, but none of it’s from here.”
“Right. So, if I go and look in this mirror, ‘Ethel’–“ incredible that he got the name out of his mouth, with so much disdain twisting his lips, “–what happens?”
“It depends, Ethel’s highly reactive to emotional states, so we only approach her with a clear mind and calm soul, otherwise she gets a bit weird.”
The general sighed, and gestured for Rachel to unlock the mirror.
“It really is important that you don’t give anything to the mirror, general. She’s going to give you back whatever you project, but in the terms and sensibilities of the world Ethel leads to.”
The general waved my words away. I had terrible misgivings. I shouldn’t have been late…
The screen unlocked, and folded away to one side, allowing Ethel to swing vertical on her fine brass fittings. The glass was cloudy, not just the fog you get when the backing of the mirror degrades over time, but a viscous mass of thick liquid which smoothed itself out as it grew used to its new orientation. It became no more apparently reflective.
“Right, so this one doesn’t even reflect light let alone anything else,” complained the general. Plainly impatient, he stepped right up in front of the mirror and peered intently at its surface.
“Umm, I wouldn’t be that close,” Rachel chipped in, “if you could just take a step back please.”
The general snorted, just as the glass began to warp, the oils in its surface winding up into a version of the general if you made one out of hair wax. He stepped back, startled, but it was too late. A thing poured out of the weird glass, thick and heavy on its serpentine feet. At least nineteen arms emerged from the mirror, dragged forward by those greasy fat legs. A hundred mouths opened all over its stunted torso and it screamed. I yanked the general back out of the way behind a table.
“Excuse me general, it’s just Rachel needs a bit of room.”
At the computer control board, Rachel flipped switches calmly. The first sealed Ethel once more, rotating her up out of the way and securely enclosed the pane. The second activated the minigun mounted on the opposite side of the room. A hail of rounds tore the apparition to shreds, splattering the general with its waxy remnants.
I escorted the general back up to the front desk, brushing him off as we went. We didn’t speak until we reached the door and then I asked him if we were likely to get our funding budget reapproved for the coming year. He muttered something in the affirmative and shambled off, pulling fictile strands of mirror creature out of his hair. I crossed his name off Post-it and went back to work.