Shafts of golden light streamed through the tree canopy high above. I breathed deeply of the eucalyptus scented air and exhaled loudly with satisfaction, the rucksack a comfortable weight on my back. My boots sank into the soft blanket of brown leaves, making a crunching sound as I rounded the hill’s steep shoulder, the worn trail a snaking line some twelve meters below me.
I should have stuck to the trail, having already broken a steadfast rule of bushwalking: don’t venture into the forest alone. Bending it a little wasn’t breaking it really, as I planned to rejoin the trail once I rounded the hill. Besides, it felt good exerting myself a little, giving my legs a workout. So far, the muscles hadn’t protested, a testament to long daily walks and running.
I paused, slipped off the rucksack and rested it against the trunk of a white gum. Pulling out a green army water bottle, I drank deeply of the warm water, feeling its energy suffuse through me. On a day like this, it felt good to be alive. Thinking about nothing in particular, I allowed my mind to drift as my eyes roamed through the silent forest.
A shadow swept over me and I looked up. Tall trees hid most of the sky, but the canopy could not hide the shapes of dark clouds creeping in from the west. The leaves whispered as a cool breeze stirred the high branches. I frowned, hoping the weather wouldn’t break to spoil what had so far been a great day. I didn’t get too many opportunities to go hiking and resented nature’s attempt to sabotage my outing. Looking at the clouds, I decided to push toward my turnaround point, which according to my forestry map was only about a kilometer or so away.
I heaved the pack onto my shoulder and moved off, the whisper of leaves loud in my ears. A deep rumble made me stop. Overhead, the sky had taken on an ominous darkness. I felt a drop strike my cheek, followed by another. Muttering a curse, I scanned the hillside for an overhang or hollow, anything that would give me shelter, hoping this was nothing but a flash summer storm. Another rumble of thunder, closer this time, spurred my search. Apart from my canteen, a couple of sandwiches and a sweater, I hadn’t packed a poncho or any wet weather gear. The weatherman this morning said it would be a clear and hot day. That made me break another rule of hiking: be prepared for anything.
An ominous whistle overhead made the branches creak and a cold rush of air made me shiver, my T-shirt offering little protection. I pulled on my sweater as I rounded the hill’s shoulder, looking anxiously for shelter. Heavy drops of rain fell around me, cold on my face.
I should have stuck to the trail.
A bright flash made me blink. Two seconds later a loud crash shattered the silence, the following thunder grumbling, fading into the distance. The rain hissed as it came down, soaking my light sweater.
A jumble of moss-covered boulders caught my attention and I headed toward them. By now the wind blew in earnest and I felt a chill creep over me. If I didn’t find shelter soon, I could be picking up an unwelcome cold.
A crack between two boulders looked wide enough to squeeze through. As I took off my pack, everything turned white as lightning stuck. I jumped at the immediate crash of thunder that left my ears ringing. I knelt and pushed myself through the dark crack, wishing I’d brought a torch. Serves me right for not being prepared.
Some two meters in, the opening widened into a small cave. The air had a musty, moldy smell, but the earth floor was dry. I raised my right arm and reached up toward the ceiling, not feeling anything. As I slowly stood, my hand touched rough rock. I found I could stand, my head about thirty centimeters from the cave’s roof. Stretching my arms, I could not feel the walls, and the crack I crawled through barely showed enough light to reveal the opening.
Lightning glared, revealing a cave scarcely larger than my spread arms. A hideous crash shook the ground and I winced…then gaped as the cave wall on my right began to glow, green and blue hues merging into each other. Startled, I stared at the pool of colors as they assumed depth and substance. The surge of voltage from the lightning strike must have set off some piezoelectric effect in the quartz bedrock, I told myself, my initial shock seeing the thing replaced by calculating curiosity. Blue-green tentacles rippled across the wall from the pool body, but withdrew, leaving what to my inflamed imagination looked like a doorway.
Step through, I told myself, and be transported into a land of magic and wonder. I didn’t believe in magic, grounded as I was in hard science, but the swirling pool tugged at my childhood fantasies. Tentatively, I reached out with my right arm toward the color pool. Before I could touch it, a blue-green tentacle coiled around my hand and I snatched it back, feeling an electric tingle run up my arm.
If this was a simple discharge from a lightning strike, the effect should not have lasted this long. Outside, thunder rolled ponderously into the distance.
“I could use some light,” I muttered as I stared at the shifting colors.
I almost creamed my pants when bright white light suddenly bathed the cave. The walls and roof did not glow or anything, but I was immersed in light.
“This is impossible,” I said loudly, not believing it.
For this to have happened was impossible under all the laws of physics I understood. Clearly, there were things I didn’t understand. I realized that much. Okay, this should not have been possible, but it did happen. How? I bit my lower lip and went over the event, reaching a startling conclusion. Cause and effect.
“Let there be darkness,” I said softly, and nodded thoughtfully as the cave plunged into night.
You are an astrophysicist, Kevin, I told myself. There has to be a logical explanation for this. Unfortunately, Doctor, there isn’t. There simple was no way I could explain this phenomena.
“I want light,” I said, and smiled as the cave lit up, feeling a surge of exultation wash through me.
Thinking it through, I formulated a hypothesis. The lightning strike had somehow energized the quartz wall, opening a dimensional rift that seemed attuned to my thoughts, turning my wishes into reality. But how? The tentacle that struck my hand?
Fascinated by the possibilities this opened, I decided to test my hypothesis. I wished for a grilled pastrami on rye toast, but nothing happened. Nodding with understanding, I tried again.
“Give me a grilled pastrami on rye toasted bread,” I said distinctly, and a sandwich appeared in my hand.
I sniffed it, saliva pouring into my mouth from the tantalizing smell, then cautiously bit into it. It tasted delicious.
“Table and chair,” I said crisply. Nothing.
It appeared I had to formulate my demand as an action.
“I want a French ornate table and chair,” I ordered, visualizing the two objects.
Both appeared into existence and I pumped a fist up and down.
Not very scientific behavior, but right then, I didn’t feel very academic.
Pulling back the chair over the uneven cave floor, I sat down and crossed my legs. Whatever the mechanism that executed my wish, the color pool had to draw supplementary information from my mind to do so.
I took a bite from my sandwich and pondered what I could do with unlimited power the wall offered. I could have anything I wanted. I could do anything.
“Turn the cave floor to gold.”
I had to squint from the sudden glare as light danced over the rough golden surface. I laughed, giddy with an overpowering realization that I could change the world. I could wipe out disease, poverty, hunger, war, political corruption. The possibilities were endless.
My face turned grim and I suddenly wished that Carol would love me again. There were many reasons why we slowly drifted apart, and some of them were my fault. My work at the university kept me away from her too much. To compensate, she had buried herself in her job as an investigative journalist. Both of us should have worked harder on the relationship.
“We are so smart in many ways, but so stupid when it comes to what matters.”
Looking at the wall, perhaps now there was a way to recapture what had been lost. It was one thing to wish for an inanimate object, but I suspected that tampering with emotions, feelings, and people might not be as simple. Still…
I was curious to find out how far the effect manifested itself. Were my wishes confined to the limits of the cave? I needed to test that.
“Turn the cave floor back to rock,” I said and shook my head with bemusement as the floor returned to its previous state.
I crawled through the crack, sniffed at the rain-filled air, and looked up. It still rained, but not heavily. The sky was a heavy dark blanket.
“Stop the rain,” I said.
It continued to rain.
I nodded slowly. It appeared I had to be close to the pooling color wall for my wishes to be executed.
Inside, I became aware of my sodden clothing.
“I want my clothes dry.”
Comfortable again, I sat down, deep in thought.
Now that it existed—whatever the wall was—would it remain open for good? There was no way to tell, of course. The effect could fade at any moment as the energy charge from the lightning strike dissipated. I needed to take advantage of it while I still could.
“Create for me three two-kilo lumps of gold.”
Three lumps of yellow metal appeared at my feet.
I was tempted to wish for a million dollars in cash, but I realized that would have been hard to explain. As would a new car, house, and a luxury or two. Those things would have attracted unwarranted attention and demands for an explanation. I could just picture myself telling the authorities I had stumbled on a magic cave and their subsequent reaction. That would have been the end of my happiness. Showing up at a jewelry store with three lumps of gold I happened to find in the bush would not raise any undue excitement, and would give me that new car, house, and an odd luxury.
Would it give me Carol again?
Standing up, I shouldered my rucksack.
“Turn off the light and remove the chair and table.”
In darkness, I stared at the pooling colors. Slowly, I reached out until my hand touched the glowing pool.
“I wish peace on all mankind,” I whispered, turned abruptly and crawled out through the crack.
Outside, the clouds were drifting apart, outlined in gold, showing bright patches of blue. The air smelled fresh and clean and I breathed deeply. Invigorated, I made my way down the hill toward the trail. My thoughts full of the enchanted cave, I hurried to reach the parking lot. I needed to think carefully before unleashing the power I had found.
* * *
I turned onto the onramp and entered the freeway. Twenty minutes and I’d be home. Prepared to accelerate, I slammed on the brakes, not believing what I saw. Wrecked cars littered the lanes going both ways. There were a few multi-car pileups, but most vehicles looked like they simply left the highway and crashed.
What the hell?
I stopped beside a two-car smash, got out, and peered at the wreckage. Nothing. No bodies or blood. Did the survivors manage to walk off unharmed? No, that was not possible. I stopped beside three more cars before the realization dawned on me.
There were no people! They had all vanished.
Racing down the freeway, my thoughts churning in turmoil, knowing that I had somehow caused all this. I hoped it wasn’t true, hoping for a saner explanation. Looking toward the city’s skyscrapers, tendrils of black smoke twisted into a clear sky. I clenched my teeth, my mind filled with awful images.
As I turned off the freeway, I could see more smoke drifting over the suburb and more crashed cars. Knuckles white as I gripped the steering wheel, I rounded the corner, seeing an empty street devoid of life. Two sparrows fluttered away in alarm as the car screeched to a stop beside my house.
I ran up the driveway, fumbling for the door key. Finally managing to get the door open, I raced toward the kitchen.
The walls echoed my shouts. Checking the rooms—the TV in the lounge was on—I only found empty spaces. Breathing heavily, I bit my lip and thought furiously. Maybe she had gone to visit someone, knowing I was only kidding myself.
With a snarl, I dragged out my cell, called up her icon in the contacts list and pressed the ring button. After five rings, her modulated contralto answered, instructing me to leave a message.
Staring at the smartphone in my hand, I allowed it to drop to the floor. The back cover snapped off as the cell hit the floorboards. Making my way to the kitchen, I turned off the oven and electric hotplate and pushed aside the simmering casserole pot.
What have I done?
I wished peace on all mankind, I recalled.
But man was cursed and there could not be any peace as long as three people lived. I was right to fear wishing for something that affected people. Unqualified, my uncensored desire for peace was not translated into exacting, unambiguous words, and the wall had granted the world peace, all right—by eliminating mankind. I clenched my head between my hands, racked by dry sobs.
Exhaling slowly, I settled down and started to think. Perhaps it was not too late to undo what I had done.
I jumped into the car and drove with reckless abandon toward the looming Macedon hills, my heart thudding with fear, anxiety and hope.
It took me a tortuous hour of running up the trail, sliding and slipping on wet leaves climbing the hill to reach the jumble of boulders that led to the cave. Gasping for breath, sweat staining my brow and T-shirt, I crawled in. As soon as I entered, my heart sank. The rock wall was dark.
I reached with my hand and touched the cold stone.
“Come back!” I cried in anguish.
After a moment, I felt my eyes sting and I swallowed a lump that threatened to choke me. I slowly sank to my knees, cradled my chest and rocked back and forth.
Sniffing, I wiped my eyes. Perhaps I could still make it the way it all was. There would be other storms and the wall might glow again.
“I’ll get you back, Carol,” I promised myself. “I’ll get everybody back.”