According to Tara the lifeguard, she was nearing the end of her shift when it happened. The pool was getting ready to close down for the day, and she'd just blown her whistle three times to give everyone a fifteen minute warning. A line of kids formed up at the diving board. Wyatt and his friends were clowning around, hanging on at the edges of the deep end.
After all the other kids had gone, Wyatt decided last-minute to get on the diving board.
"But there was something weird about the way he walked. It was all robotic. Like he was sleepwalking. Or in a trance."
Apparently, the girlfriend—Rebecca—kept calling his name, but he ignored her. He climbed onto the board, bounced once, and performed a perfect dive to the bottom.
Only the bottom wasn't there anymore.
"There was just this... I don't know. This big hole? But not a hole. It didn't have sides or edges. It was more like a nothing. There was a big nothing at the bottom of the pool."
Apparently, Wyatt Collins went straight into that nothing. Then it was gone, and so was he.
"I got everyone out of the pool," she said. "Then I called 911."
I didn't ask if she went into the water after him. I knew the answer already.
Rebecca and her two classmates didn't have much to add to the timeline, but they did corroborate part of Tara's story. All three of them said Wyatt got this sudden, faraway look in his eye. Like he was staring at something only he could see. He didn't respond to anything they said. He acted like he couldn't even hear them. When he climbed out of the pool and went up the diving board, one of the kids described him as being on auto-pilot. The other said he was moving like a marionette.
I asked what he meant by that.
"Like someone else was pulling his strings."
I asked if any of them noticed anything funny about the pool itself. None of them did. I sent them all back to the cops.
Before she went, Rebecca stayed behind a minute. Her eyes were red and puffy. She'd done her crying for now. The rest would come later.
"Are you going to find my boyfriend?"
"I'm going to try."
"I don't get it. How could he just vanish like that?"
"There are ways," I said. "It's better if you don't know any of them."
She accepted that, mostly because she didn't know what to make of it. "When you find him, tell him I'm waiting. Okay? I love him, and I'm waiting."
"I'll tell him."
She left to catch up with her friends, so I did some waiting of my own.
Once Tanner had the kids packed off to the hospital, and the scene locked down due to a "chemical spill," I met up with him over by the diving board. He still looked haggard. He started to light another cigarette, gave up, and stuck it back in his pack. He was headed home after this. He didn't want his wife to smell it on him.
"What do you think, Dillon?"
"You were right to call me."
He swore. For all his understanding, Tanner was a cop's cop. In his world, people disappeared for reasons: family trouble, domestic violence, drugs. They were ugly reasons, but he was comfortable dealing with them.
Wyatt Collins wasn't in his world anymore. He knew it the second he heard the girl's testimony.
"Think you can bring him back?"
"Depends what I find on the other side." I'd brought my kit, so I was ready to leave as soon as I grabbed it. "This one going to be on the department?"
"Yeah. Usual rate, plus expenses. And a bonus if you bring him home alive." He rolled the cigarette pack in his hand, reconsidering that final smoke. "How long do you need?"
"Keep everyone out of here for at least an hour. I should be gone by then."
Tanner walked me part way back to my car. By the time we got to the other side of the fence, he had that last cigarette in his mouth. He wished me luck, then he went off to deal with his own problems.
As for me, I made for the parking lot, grabbed my traveling bag out of my car, and headed back to the pool. I stripped down to my jockeys, leaving the rest of my twenty-first century clothes in a locker. Then I slung my bag over my shoulder, and climbed the diving board.
I stood there, clearing my mind, focusing on that wrong feeling I'd noticed when I first arrived. I stared at the bottom of the pool.
Soon—whether it was a few seconds or twenty minutes, I couldn't tell you—the bottom of the pool vanished. There was a vast and incomprehensible nothing below me. To reach it, all I had to do was make it through 15 feet of water.
I dove in, and the world turned inside out.
Multiverse theory says that there are an infinite number of realities. Logically, the universes right next to ours should be the ones most similar to it. They'd be almost identical in terms of geology, physics, and history. Maybe in the universe next to ours, the only difference is that you scratched your nose yesterday around lunchtime. You could even slip from one reality to the next without noticing.
That's the theory, anyway.
In practice, only six or seven universes bordering ours are habitable. And slipping between them is an agonizing nightmare.
To start with, your body feels like it's made of silly putty. It stretches and distorts in all different directions. Nerve endings get stretched out over miles, but they never break. The pain is so bad, you wish they would. Time loses all meaning. The torture could last millennia, or it could last a microsecond. It doesn't matter. You experience both at once. And that isn't even touching on the hallucinations...
Bottom line, the experience breaks most people. The rest never forget it, and never want to repeat it.
I was underwater again when my nerves stopped screaming. It wasn't the clean, antiseptic water of the Stocker Park public pool, though. It was the greenish, algae-tinted water of a lake.
My head was still spinning. Every direction felt like up. I blew out some bubbles, watched which way they went, and followed them.
Turns out, I was wrong about the lake.
I broke the surface in an elaborate outdoor courtyard, with mosaic walls, stone walkways, and lush fruit trees. A pair of nuns in sky-blue habits sat on a nearby bench. One screamed.
I ignored them both, and kicked my way to the nearest thing that looked like solid ground. It ended up being a low retaining wall made of set flagstone. I clung onto it, and waited for my head to stop spinning.
I recognized the place, though I hadn't been there in years. I was in the Serenity GArdan at the Citadel of the Holy Mother, smack-dab in the center of the Formene Empire.
More specifically, I was in the koi pond.
I gave the nuns what I hoped was a friendly wave. I pulled myself up out of the pond. One of the nuns—the older of the two—screamed again. The other made the sign of the Eternity Cross. It's kind of like an ankh, except the loop is on the right side instead of at the top.
I wondered what the fuss was about. Then I realized I wasn't wearing anything but a pair of soaking-wet jockeys. I unslung my traveling bag and held it in front of myself for modesty's sake.
I was still standing like that when a troop of Knights Protector stormed in, swords and lances at the ready.