The doctor was completely oblivious to the fact that he was being watched from the adjoining corridor. Nor did he realise his very presence was the source of such unprecedented distress. Or that Nick was physically incapable of moving right now. Every muscle in his body was rigid with shock. He stood gobsmacked at the sight before him.
He jumped as Imogen rested her hand on his shoulder.
“Nick, we need to move,” she said gently.
“That’s me,” Nick replied, still staring at the doctor.
“It’s another version of you,” Imogen corrected.
“I’m a doctor.” He ignored her entirely. “In this world, I’m a bloody doctor!” Panic began to rise in his voice. His breathing quickened and he felt a little light-headed.
“This has to be a dream,” he said, screwing his eyes shut and pushing his hands through his hair. “It’s just a nightmare. This can’t be happening.”
He opened his eyes again. The doctor was still there. Before he could go into full panic meltdown, Imogen pulled him further down the corridor and shoved him into an open room. It appeared to be a waiting room with chairs lining the walls and a coffee table of old magazines in the centre. Nick sank into one of the chairs as Imogen shut the door.
He tried to take deep breaths to calm himself, but they didn’t work. His heart kept pounding in his chest, pumping more and more panic and adrenaline around his body. He began to rock back and forth to dispel some of the nervous energy. He felt his muscles tightening with tension again.
He stood up and started pacing. He was completely at a loss as to where to place himself, even to process what he had just seen. On top of everything else that he had been confronted with recently, this seemed to be his tipping point.
A cry, angry and primal, began in his chest and grew in both volume and rage as it escaped him. He had no control over it or himself. He kicked out at the coffee table, knocking the magazines off the top. He picked some of them up and launched them across the room. Next, his eyes fell on to the chairs. He would have started throwing them around too, but Imogen stepped in.
She slapped him hard across the face, sharply bringing him back to his senses.
“Pull yourself together!” she demanded.
Nick massaged the side of his jaw where her hand had connected.
“Pull myself together?” he repeated. “I’m sorry if this is just a regular day at the office for you, but this is NOT NORMAL!”
Nick kicked the coffee table again and sank back into one of the chairs.
“You think I don’t know what it’s like?” Imogen’s voice had lost its harsh edge. “It’s a massive shock to the system, OK?”
Nick scoffed. There was no patience in him for any platitudes right now.
Imogen carried on regardless.
“The first version of myself I ever saw was so similar to me, I could have been looking at my old life,” she said. “Only it wasn’t my life. It was hers.”
Nick sat back in his chair and stared up at her. He had no capacity for sympathy at this point. And no desire to summon any up.
“The Shonas have to live with this every day,” Imogen continued. “They may look like they get along now, but when they first arrived, they nearly killed each other.”
“So… What?” Nick shrugged his shoulders. “I’m just supposed to get used to it? It happens all the time? Is that it?”
Imogen held his gaze for a moment. A low, exhausted laugh escaped her.
“You’ll never get used to it,” she said plainly. “No-one gets used to it. Just ask Chris. All I’m saying is pull yourself together for now. Megan still needs us. You can freak out all you want when we get home.”
Nick tensed at her last word.
“That place is not home,” he hissed.
A wry smile reached Imogen’s lips.
“Yeah, well, it’s the only one on offer to you at the moment.” She shrugged.
Nick drew breath to reply, but a sudden shrill wail cut the tension between them. The sound of the hospital’s fire alarm drew Nick’s eyes upwards to the source of the noise in the corner of the room.
“That’s Jacob’s signal,” Imogen said. “Something’s gone wrong.”
Nick sat still for a moment feeling exhausted from his outburst, but he soon sprang up from his chair when he realised Imogen was not going to wait for him to catch his breath. She was already out of the door and several paces down the corridor as he jogged after her.
At the end of the corridor, they stopped and Imogen peered out to make sure they weren’t going to run into the other Nick.
Nick could see over the top of her head and the doctor was nowhere in sight.
They quickly slipped out of their corridor and joined the steady stream of people heading for the main entrance.
Nick was in no mood to make conversation with Imogen as they waited anxiously for Chris and Jacob to emerge from the hospital. They were waiting in a bus shelter across the street from the main entrance, and had a clear view of the door and the chaos going on in front of it.
Nick tensed as he saw the doctor version of himself helping an elderly patient out of the door. He was far enough away and the doctor was too pre-occupied to see him. But it was an uncomfortable sight all the same. Nick pulled his gaze away from the man and focused instead on the rhythm of Imogen pacing in front of him.
They had been at the bus shelter for several minutes by now and the stream of people leaving the hospital had now become a trickle, with no sign of Chris or Jacob. The look of concern on Imogen’s face quickly devolved into full-on fear and worry as the sound of the fire alarm within the hospital stopped abruptly.
It took a few more minutes for the people congregated at the entrance to filter back inside, but very quickly, there was no-one left outside.
Imogen had stopped pacing. Her hands twisted in the strap of her bag as her eyes fixed on the entrance.
“They’ll be here soon,” Nick said. There was not much in the way of empathy in his tone, but he felt it was worth a try anyway.
Imogen nodded, but didn’t move.
Silence drifted back between them. Nick idly began to fiddle with the leather cuff around his wrist. He examined the dials, trying to work out what they meant. No matter how much he looked at it, though, he couldn’t figure it out. It was completely alien to him. But a thought did occur to him.
“Can’t they use these things?” he asked, waving his wrist at Imogen.
She glanced at him briefly and shook her head.
“They don’t work in the worlds,” she replied.
Nick’s wrist dropped back to his lap. “Of course they don’t,” he muttered under his breath. “Why?”
“Something to do with needing to compensate for the normal flow of time relative to… something else,” Imogen said vaguely. “I don’t know. Ask the Shonas. They made them.”
A bus pulled up to the stop, blocking Imogen’s view of the hospital entrance. She peeped through the windows of the bus, trying to see through to the other side, but there were too many people on the bus. She bounced nervously on the balls of her feet.
“They should be here by now,” she said in frustration.
“Aww, were you worried about us? I’m touched.” Jacob’s voice came from their left and made both of them start.
Relief flooded across Imogen’s face as she saw Chris walking towards her. She hugged him briefly but was forced to let him go as he didn’t break stride. He took hold of her hand and laced her fingers with his own.
“Come on,” he said. “We need to get out of here.”
Nick and Jacob followed on behind Chris and Imogen. Jacob was carrying a large green bag on his shoulder, marked with a white cross and with the word EMERGENCY stamped across the top.
“You got it, then?” Nick said noticing the bag.
Jacob nodded. “Was a close call, though.”
Chris glanced back and glared at him in a less-talk-more-haste sort of way. Jacob didn’t argue. He and Nick quickened their pace to catch up with the others as they made their way back to the mirror.
It was only once they were back amongst the bustle of the fairground that Chris allowed them to slow down a little.
“We were spotted,” Chris explained as they jostled through a crowd of people queuing for the rollercoaster. “We’d just swiped the thing from an ambulance loading station when his nurse clocked us.”
“We tried just walking away calmly,” Jacob continued. “But –”
“But when that didn’t work,” Chris interrupted. “Jacob tried flirting with her instead.”
Imogen winced – an expression that tugged a smile to Nick’s lips.
“Not your strong suit, then?” he dug at Jacob.
“Hey, I was charming,” Jacob insisted. “If she hadn’t been so pent up about the whole stealing hospital equipment thing, I totally would have been in there.”
“Not from where I was standing,” Chris assured him. “Anyway, as Casanova stammered over the good nurse, I hit the alarm and we slipped away as she went to help patients to the exit.”
“Took you long enough to find us, though,” Imogen said with concern.
“It’s a big hospital,” Jacob explained. “We went for the closest exit we could, which was practically in a different postcode.”
“How about you guys?” Chris asked as the mirror came into sight.
“We got what we needed,” Imogen replied.
Nick felt the pit of his stomach drop as the doctor’s face – his face – resurfaced in his mind. He caught Imogen’s eyes as she looked at him with sympathy.
“What?” Jacob asked, seeing the looks passing between them. “What happened?”
Nick clenched his jaw. He didn’t feel his voice would hold out if he replied.
“We had a little trouble of our own,” Imogen answered for him. Nick was grateful for her intervention. “We ran into this world’s version of Nick.”
Chris and Jacob both stopped dead. Nick could see Jacob’s eyes through the goggles, wide and surprised. Chris looked equal parts surprised, sympathetic and uneasy. He quickly looked away from Nick. He nervously rubbed his hand across his forehead.
“Man, that’s rough,” Jacob said eventually.
Nick just nodded.
“He was a doctor,” Imogen explained further. “He didn’t see us but…”
“Good,” Chris said. “We wouldn’t want two of them running around the base, would we?”
Nick found himself taking great offense at Chris’ remark. As they continued towards the mirror, he couldn’t help wondering what on earth he had meant by it.
“He didn’t mean it like that,” Jacob said to him when Chris and Imogen had disappeared through the mirror.
“Like what?” Nick asked, still trying to work it out in his own thoughts.
“Like… however you’ve taken it,” Jacob said. “You look like you’ve been slapped by a walrus.”
With that, Jacob stepped up to the mirror and disappeared through the glass. Nick was left for a moment staring at his own confused reflection.
The weight of seeing the double of himself drew his forehead into a frown. His eyes were tired, as was the rest of him. With a weary sigh, he followed Jacob back to the In Between.
“How is she?” Chris asked the Shonas as soon as he arrived back in their lab.
Nick looked over at the screen showing the footage from her isolation room. It looked as if she hadn’t moved at all. There was even less of her own skin visible amid the dark thread like veins caused by the shadow. Every so often, she turned her head and glared at the camera. That was the only discernible movement she displayed.
“Not great,” Shona1 said to Chris. “The sooner we can get that out of her, the better.”
Imogen was emptying the contents of her bag as Jacob handed over the defibrillator. He removed his goggles.
“This should be in working order,” he said.
Shona1 nodded. “We just need to tweak it ever so slightly.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Chris asked.
“Well,” Shona1 began to explain. “In order to make sure we get all of it…”
“We’ll need to crank it up to eleven,” Shona2 finished. “At least.”
“If you need it that strong,” Nick asked. “Why couldn’t we just use one of these?” He held up his pistol.
“Because we need it at eleven, Nick,” Shona2 replied. “Not a hundred and eleven. We don’t want to crispy fry her.”
“How long do you need?” Chris asked.
“Not long,” Shona1 said.
“An hour or so,” Shona2 added.
“Just get it done,” Chris insisted, cutting through the back and forth between the Shonas. “I’m going to check on her.”
Nick wanted to point out that they could check on her just fine on the screen, but Shona1 spoke up first.
“By the way,” she said with a slight hesitation in her voice. “Alastair came back.”
A nervous silence fell over the lab, punctuated only by the odd bleeps and whirs of machines dotted about the place. All eyes were on Chris who had stopped walking at the news.
“Did he say where he’d been?” he asked.
“No,” Shona2 replied. “But he thinks we’re on the right track to help Megan.”
“Oh, well if he says so…” Chris said sarcastically. He carried on his way to Megan’s isolation room without another word and without looking back at the others.
Shona1 breathed a sigh of relief as he left.
“Well that was quieter than usual,” she said.
“He does have quite a lot on his mind at the moment,” Imogen said in his defence.
“No more than the rest of us,” Shona2 retorted.
“I’m guessing Chris and Alastair don’t get along?” Nick queried, reading the situation as best he could.
Jacob nodded. “It’s a long story.”
“What isn’t around here?” Nick’s quip seemed to help as a ripple of laughter took a little of the tension in the room.
The Shonas soon began unpacking the defibrillator and started pulling wires out of it. Imogen mumbled something about going to keep an eye on Chris as she left the room.
“Where is he?” Jacob asked the Shonas. Nick assumed he was talking about Alastair.
“Library,” Shona1 replied, not taking her eyes off the machine in front of her.
Jacob nodded and put his arm around Nick’s shoulder and steered him towards the door of the lab.
“Come on,” he said. “He’ll want to meet you.”