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Let's Fell Our Withering Tree

Chapter Text

Remember take me back to our teens
We can waste the time between between between
Carry me a candle and a lunar calendar
Will you stay the night with me?
How's forever been baby?

In a low, squat building surrounded by trees on three sides and an unassuming gravel lot on the fourth, the steady low-level buzz from the mainframe thrummed under the usual noise of the researchers busy at their individual stations. Glass floor-to-ceiling dividers muffled most of the chatter in the labs on the third floor, but the occasional burst of swearing or laughter always found a way to echo around the room.

In the largest of the labs, on the wall farthest from the door, plasma screens were assembled to form a single monitor. On each side, space was set aside for long chains of computations and observational data that scrolled across the screens while the equipment was in use. In the center, the image of a wireframe model expanded and contracted on the main monitor. It rotated and zoomed in and out, spidery-thin strands of purple and red wrapping around the central structure. The wireframe stabilized, numbers running up and down the sides of the screen and scrolling over every other display in the lab.

Dr Hamid Dariush scratched his beard as he watched. They had only just finished making adjustments to the program that morning. This would be their first attempt at coalescing the matrices since the latest rounds of funding had been secured - funding that had literally made today's run possible with an astronomical sum of money earmarked for expanding the team to its present size.

Pleased with the initial results, Hamid turned away to scrawl his initials across the papers his assistant held out for him. He gave the woman a smile, deep creases bracketing his eyes and mouth.

"Very good, Genevieve," he murmured in Afrikaans. "When this iteration has finished, please have everyone reset for another run."

Despite the team's predilection for speaking French in the lab, Hamid preferred to use their native languages during individual conversations. It was an idiosyncrasy he was glad his team indulged; he'd improved his fluency a hundredfold in more than a dozen languages during his long career.

"Excuse me, Dr Dariush!"

Genevieve rolled her eyes and scurried away, calling out minor corrections to the researchers stationed around the room. Hamid chose to watch her go rather than turn back to the unwelcome video conference and its sole participant - one of the less savory conditions of an otherwise superb grant from the Americans.

"Excuse me!"

With a sigh, Hamid turned back to his laptop and rubbed the vein that had suddenly started throbbing at his temple. "Yes, what is it, Doctor? As you can see, I have rather a lot to get on with today."

"You've made an error—"

Before the person on the far site could finish his sentence, a klaxon sounded overhead, echoing off the thick outer walls of the laboratory. Hamid whipped his chair around to see what had happened.

Genevieve and Tomasz were scrambling to reach the control board, elbowing colleagues and equipment out of their way in their haste. Genevieve reached it first. Her hands flew across the board, typing in the access codes that would allow her to shut down the apparatus cycling many floors below them. The monitor nearest to the board showed similar scenes at their sister facilities. Tomasz shuffled to one side to peer over Genevieve's shoulder and inadvertently switched off the set.

Everyone in the room held their breath as she keyed in the final digits. Hamid was frozen to his seat, fingernails diging into his thighs hard enough to bruise.

Genevieve slammed the heel of her hand down on the input button. The readouts around the room continued to fluctuate rapidly, numbers spinning into ranges they had never seen before. On the central monitor, the wireframe model expanded to immense proportions. The red and purple threads bloated out to add new distorted dimensions to the figure, giving it a lumpy appearance before the expansion stopped and the model started to collapse in on itself.

Hamid stood and scrambled up onto the nearest chair on knees that protested every movement, throwing his arms into the air and raising his voice. "Partez-vous maintenant!" he shouted. "Allez-y!"

His shouts had the opposite effect he intended. Instead of rushing for the exits as they had been trained to do, nearly the entire team had hunkered down over their terminals. Their hands flew across keyboards as they tried to keep up with the data streaming into the central computer. On any other day, he might have been proud of their dedication.

"Ecoutez-moi?" Hamid slid down off the seat and turned in a circle in the middle of the room, hands held out to his sides. He tried again, in German, then Italian. English, Spanish, his native Persian. Nothing made the slightest bit of difference. He might have been whispering — in gibberish, even — for all the notice his team gave.

At the control board, Genevieve was still slamming her hand down on the console, over and over again. Flecks of blood dotted its surface as she battered against it. She shouted in French, Italian, her face tomato-red and gleaming with sweat as she raged. Tomasz caught her elbow and hip-checked her out of the way so that he could repeat her actions, as though hoping she had somehow merely keyed in the wrong sequence. As though everything had not gone horribly wrong.

Above their heads, the model continued to shrink until it finally collapsed and winked out of existence. Tomasz sagged against the control board. Genevieve pounded her hands on his shoulders, shouting with excitement and joy, leaving bloodied palmprints on the pale blue fabric of his lab coat. The klaxon cut out and all around the room people were throwing their arms around each other in relief.

Hamid stepped back to his laptop, ignoring the hubbub around him as easily as it had ignored him. He leaned forward and spoke into the tiny microphone, making sure to look directly into the pinhole camera at the top of the monitor frame.

His voice was thin and high, like he'd been pinched and stretched to twice his usual length. The microphone was barely able to boost his voice above the shouting behind him and his individual words were lost in the cacophony.

In Pasadena, Sheldon Cooper looked up from his own laptop and met Penny's eyes as the picture quality started to degrade. "I tried to tell him he'd made a miscalculation."

"What just happened? Is he okay?" She leaned in over his shoulder. "What's he saying?"

Hamid shouted something incoherent, possibly not even in English nor any other language Sheldon recognized. His image pixelated and broke apart, bands of green replacing a third of the screen before it cut out entirely.

Sheldon tried to reconnect but the system on the far end wasn't responding. Either the network had been brought down or Hamid had deliberately severed the connection. Based on their interactions to that point, Sheldon couldn't be entirely sure it wasn't the latter. Penny hovered behind him while his hands flew across his keyboard, trying to bring up the streaming data feed that he'd been watching during the simulation.

Nothing. There were some older files in the folder where he'd been storing his work to that point, but nothing from the previous week. The only recent file showing on the network was the one he currently had open. He started the auto redialer program to continue trying to connect to Geneva and went back to studying the equations he'd been red-flagging for Hamid's review.

"Ow!" He rubbed at the skin of his neck where Penny had pinched him. "What was that for?"

"Jesus, Sheldon, what do you think? What the hell is going on? Are they okay?"

"The only thing danger they face is the extent of their ignorance. They'll be fine as long as..." He did a double-take and glared at her. "What are you doing in here? How many times have I told you my room is off-limits?"

"Hey, you leave your door wide open, you're gonna have to deal with company. You're just lucky it was me and not somebody trying to steal your TV again."

"Lucky's not the word I would use," he muttered to his laptop as she left.

"I heard that!" she called from the hallway.

Sheldon worked late into the night, meticulously combing through each line of the data he still had stored on his computer. The Skype auto redialer cut out after several hundred attempts and he didn't bother to restart it.

He found another half-dozen errors just by searching for improperly parameterized rational curves and closed his laptop in disgust. It was no wonder his own research had been stalled for months while he waited on interminable grant reviews — if this were the kind of sloppy research that was rewarded, well then! Maybe he wanted no part of it.

He chuckled. As if he would willingly deprive anyone of his contributions.

His bedroom was starting to get chilly, so he rushed through changing into his pajamas and belted his robe firmly. The hallway was dark — in violation of a significant number of safety guidelines — but he didn't bother to catalogue them. Penny had probably flipped the lights off on her way out of the apartment earlier as some kind of ill-conceived prank.

Well, the joke was on her, if that was the case. Sheldon pulled a slim flashlight out of his robe pocket and made his way through the living room to the front door. It wasn't until he reached out to engage the deadbolt that he realized there was no ribbon of light under the door. Nothing glowing through the peephole.

In a panic, he whirled to face the window in the kitchenette but the flashlight's beam bounced off the whiteboard blocking it. He ran for the window over the radiator, and heaved a sigh of relief. It looked as though the power was out all over the city, not just in his building, which all but eliminated the likelihood that an advanced cyborg team from the future was coming to neutralize him.

Just in case, though, he switched off the flashlight and made his way back down the hallway as quietly as he could. If he slept next to his bed instead of in it, that might give him enough time to get away if something did crash into his room in the middle of the night.

Leonard's bedroom door was ajar when Sheldon woke the next morning. After a moment of panic, he realized that it was because his roommate had been working overnight on campus again and not a case of mistaken identity and time-traveling death squads.

Sheldon helped himself to his customary two slices of whole-wheat toast and a soft-boiled egg, then sat on the couch to see which episodes of Scrubs had taped overnight.

Except there was no TV. Nor was there a DirecTV receiver, but in the absence of the television that was of much less importance. There wasn't even a space on the low stand for a television, just a cube of what looked like black plastic. A knob of silvered glass protruded from the top. If it had been hot pink and white instead of unrelieved black, it would have been almost a perfect match for a keepsake box his mother had kept on her dresser when he was a child.

The cube didn't have any power indicators or electrical cords, but on a hunch, he put his plate down on the coffee table and picked up the remote. When he pressed the on button, the cube buzzed. A beam of light shot out of the glass knob. It separated into a dozen multi-colored strands of light that danced around each other with a loud chiming noise, then coalesced into a glowing figure that spread its hands and smiled at him.

"You have no new recordings," it said. "There appears to be an interruption of the broadcast network. Please try again."

The figure collapsed into nothing when Sheldon stabbed the off button. He ran for his room and tried to power up his laptop, but it wouldn't turn on. He unplugged the power cord, waited, plugged it back in and tried again, moved to another outlet, tried to boot on battery power. Nothing. He even tried his mother's favorite and altogether useless trick for any malfunctioning device: shake it, grit your teeth, and call it a tool of Satan.

It wasn't until he was standing in the middle of the room trying to remember if his spare battery was in the apartment or on campus that he noticed his alarm clock was dark. So was the overhead light when he tried to switch it on. And the hallway light, the bathroom light, the light in Leonard's room... Which was clearly not Leonard's room judging by the sports memorabilia scattered across every available surface.

With shaking hands, Sheldon pulled the door closed and went back to his own bedroom. He dressed quickly, pulling on his sturdiest pair of trousers and two shirts plucked from his closet at random. Seconds later, he was searching through the messenger bag hanging on the back of the door for a cellphone. He found it at the bottom of the main compartment, a heavy brick-like mass of dull off-white plastic with a simple two line digital display.

"Well, that's just ridiculous," he complained, thinking of the sleek cube in the next room.

With no phonebook to scroll through, he dialed Leonard's number from memory. It rang twenty-four times before he gave up and tried Raj's cell, then Penny's and Howard's mobile and home numbers. Then the department office on campus. Then all of his friends again, followed by his mother, brother, sister and Meemaw. Then time and weather, which was the only call to go through. It gave him an automated message that trailed off into a squeal of electronic noise before its initial greeting had finished.

Sheldon flipped the call switch to off and then back to on so he could dial again, still marveling at the relatively primitive interface and design.

When he tried 911, the same thing happened again: an automated message cut off by what sounded like old-fashioned modem tones, only this time he managed to catch more than half of a word.

The phone dropped out of his hand and bounced on the bed. He ran for the hallway, then skipped his usual ritual to gain entrance and let himself into Penny's apartment with his spare key. If she didn't see how this qualified as an emergency, then there was simply no hope for her.

She was sitting at her table, squinting sleepily at him, a box of sugared cereal in one hand. He released a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding and temporarily let his shoulders sag in relief.

"Penny, why haven't you answered your phones?"

"You didn't knock," she said, sounding confused, hardly surprising given his entrance and the early hour. After a moment she seemed to process his words and shook her head. "I just got up, like two minutes ago. Why were you calling me from across the hall? I didn't even hear anything ring."

He controlled the urge to recite the number of times he'd dialed both her cell phone and her landline and made an effort to wipe the no doubt panicked expression from his face. She could be stubborn and intractable to the point of madness whenever it was least convenient, and this was certainly the least convenient situation in which he'd ever found himself. He decided that if time permitted, he would do his best to explain the situation but his first priority was getting her up and moving.

"We need to enact Evacuation Plan Gamma immediately. We have a window of only thirty-seven minutes to complete phase one," he cautioned as he headed for her bedroom. He wasn't sure it would be there, but a moment later he pulled the emergency duffel bag out of her closet. He unzipped the main compartment and did a quick visual inventory; it looked as though most of what he'd originally packed for her was still there. The rations would no doubt need to be restocked given her predilection for postponing grocery shopping far beyond any reasonable timeframe. He doubted that there was a version of Penny in any possible universe who had any regard for expiration dates.

When he came back into the living room, he did a double-take to find her in the same position at the table, pouring milk over her cereal. "Why are you still sitting there?"

Of course, the strict schedule of this particular evacuation plan was entirely arbitrary. He'd found that it was easier to encourage people to do what they were required to do when there was a time limit.

"What? I'm eating my breakfast!" She waved the spoon over the bowl, as if he had somehow missed its existence.

Case in point.

It appeared that perhaps some explanations would be necessary after all. He quickly formulated and discarded a number of speeches appropriate for the situation (she'd sung the praises of 2012, hadn't she?) and settled for saying: "A calamity of epic proportions is about to be unleashed, Penny! We need to be on our way in less than," he made a show of checking his watch, "thirty-four point four minutes."

"Oh, my God, give me five seconds, will you?" she muttered around a mouthful of cereal. She frowned down at the bowl then squinted at the carton next to it. "Ugh, this milk tastes awful. My fridge blows."

Clearly she wasn't listening to him, not in any sense of understanding the meaning of his words. He reconsidered the time of day and her state of dishabille. Thin beams of early morning sunlight streamed in through the windows behind her, highlighting the Cornhusker-red tank top stretched tight over her chest, riding up to reveal several inches of tanned skin above the waistband of her blue and yellow flowered shorts. Her bright blonde hair, still in a wild tangle around her face, fluttered in a barely perceptible breeze from the open window. He shuddered at a sudden vision of it coated with a thick layer of ash and still-burning embers, her skin chalky and grey.

She blinked at him, her expression sleep-dull and serene despite her irritated outburst, and the vision shattered into several thousand pieces.

He shouldered the duffel bag and straightened his shoulders, pulling himself up to his full height and taking a deep breath to expand his chest and diaphragm. "Penny," he said in a voice he'd learned from his father but perfected based on his mother's most authoritarian tone, one that would brook no nonsense or backtalk. "You must come with me if you want to live."

"Seriously? You're giving me Terminator?"

Her quick recognition of the quote startled him and he bit back the retort that it was more relevant than she knew. She seemed more amused than annoyed and he thanked his lucky stars (α and β Geminorum: more commonly known as Castor and Pollux, the celestial twins, though he didn't technically believe in anything as juvenile as luck or Missy's romanticized ideas about shared genetic material).

Within moments, he was able to get Penny on her feet and moving across the hall to the relative, for now, safety of his apartment.

"Sheldon, we've done the fire drill for this like seven times," she whined as he transferred the duffel to her and started rummaging through his desk drawer for the spare flashlight and solar-powered battery charging station.

"First of all, this is not a fire drill. It is an emergency preparedness plan. And second, no, we haven't. This is Plan Gamma. We've only rehearsed this once, and you fell asleep before we reached phase two, necessitating an abort and reschedule. Which never happened, I might add."

"Which is the one we did seven times, then?"

Her voice was marginally more alert than it had been but he was alarmed by how she had not yet picked up on the urgency of the situation. He reevaluated his body language. Perhaps he had been too hasty to present her with a calm and rational demeanor? He had been admittedly lax in his preparations for moments such as these, and he relied perhaps too heavily on depictions of emergency situations in popular media rather than on any real-world application. Cradling the flashlight and charger to his chest, he stepped quickly to her side.

She turned her face up to him, a wrinkle creasing her brow as she laboriously sorted through her often faulty memory for details. "Is Gamma the one where we have to eat squirrels in case the food supply chains are cut off?"

"No, that's Beta."

"Good, I always hated the taste of squirrel."

"It's not so bad when cooked properly. When I'm forced to eat it, I prefer it prepared according to traditional methods such as roasting over a campfire and served with native fauna." He shook his head. As usual, he was allowing her to distract him from the purpose at hand. He checked his watch again. They had less than twenty-nine minutes to finish collecting their belongings and move to phase two, according to the timetable he'd invented, but he would prefer to be out of the building as soon as was possible.

Sooner, if he could find a way to bend time within the next ten minutes.

He unzipped the bag hanging from her shoulder and tucked the flashlight and charger inside. "Will you please pack what you can from the emergency stores in the kitchen?"

"Sure," she said brightly. "But only 'cause you said please."

As she bounded over to the kitchenette, duffel bouncing against her hip, he shook himself. Would that it were always so easy! he thought as he went to his room to collect what he could from his own emergency kits.

Penny opened up a few cabinets and fumbled some cans around until Sheldon disappeared down the hallway. With a groan, she got to her feet and slipped out the door, crossing quickly to her own apartment. Inside, she tried to remember where she'd left her running shoes, couldn't find any clean socks, and jammed on a pair of flip-flops with straps so tight they almost cut off her circulation.

"Freaking ridiculous," she muttered as she caught a glimpse of the street outside. There wasn't even any morning traffic yet.

A quick burrow through her laundry basket turned up a cute hoodie that almost matched her shorts and she pulled it on, suddenly realizing as she did that she hadn't yet put on a bra.

Penny froze, listening hard for Sheldon's footsteps and praying that he was still pulling things out of his room. Why he was in such an all-fired hurry, she didn't know nor did she really care. She just wanted to get this all over with as quickly as possible so she could get to work on time.

She grabbed the nearest purse that didn't make her want to throw up when she looked at it. One of these days she was going to go through all her stuff and throw out the ugly crap she didn't remember buying. There was a pile of crumpled bills on top of her dresser, mixed in with some pocket change, mints, and ballpoint pens from her apron. She scooped it all up and dumped it in the bag, then dropped it on the bed next to yet another pile of clothes. At some point, she assured herself, she'd get her laundry under control once and for all.

There was still no noise from the hallway, meaning Sheldon hadn't yet noticed that she'd escaped, so she darted into the bathroom to brush her teeth. The pipes clanked when she turned the handle but nothing came out, not even the familiar, fast-dying trickle after she forgot to pay her water bill.

"Are you friggin—" Penny dropped her toothbrush in the sink and stomped back into her room. She crunched through a couple of starlight mints while she whipped off her hoodie and tank top. She had just picked up a cute polka-dotted bra when her door slammed back against the wall.

"Eyes closed!" she shrieked, covering her chest with her hands as she did. Sheldon may have gotten a handful the last time, but that didn't mean she had to give him a show whenever he wandered past.

He ignored her, barely sparing her a glance as he scooped up a pile of clothes and her purse off the bed. Penny scrambled to fasten the bra and pull her shirts back on; she'd stuck an arm into one of the hoodie's sleeves and was trying to grab the other behind her back when Sheldon grabbed her by the elbow and started marching toward the door.

She protested the whole way out of her apartment, but shut up when they hit the hallway - he'd left both of the emergency duffels and a case of water bottles on the floor outside her door. Without saying a word, he slung the strap of one of the bags across his chest and stuffed her clothes into it. The ugly purse swayed against his hip. He looked down at the case of water. When she didn't move to help, he cleared his throat and looked pointedly at the bottles.

Penny crossed her arms. "I'm not carrying that."

"I don't have the proper equipment to lift—"

"Oh, my God, just pick it up! It's not going to kill you. I've seen you carry a life-size Yoda heavier than that, so don't even."

Sheldon weighed the likelihood that he could wear her down against the danger that increased exponentially every minute they lingered.

He picked up the water. "Do you think we could get going before—"

Penny rolled her eyes when he cut himself off. "What, before you get a hernia? Slip a disk?" She picked up the remaining duffel and stomped toward the stairs. "Let's go already!"

"Sure, now she's in a hurry," Sheldon muttered.

When Penny pushed through the glass doors in the lobby, the sunlight was crippling. She squeezed her eyes closed and flailed out a hand until it smacked against Sheldon.

"I forgot my sunglasses," she groaned, cracking open an eyelid enough to glare at him. "Either turn off the sun or just let me hang on to you until we get to the car."

It was awkward with all the bags they had hanging between them but they managed to get to the curb without the sun burning out her eyes or Sheldon breaking an arm. She rooted through the purse dangling from the crook of his elbow until she found her keys. Unfortunately, it was one of her backup sets and not the regular keychain with the remote control. The locks made a dull thump as they disengaged. Sheldon wrenched the rear passenger door open while Penny settled behind the steering wheel and whispered her customary pep talk as she tried to coax the engine to life.

As she rooted around in her glove compartment for a pair of sunglasses, Sheldon started slinging bags into the backseat without a single protest about his imaginary sciatica.

"Maybe you should attempt to curtail your alcohol consumption."

Penny gave a whoop of triumph as her hand closed around what felt like cool plastic lenses. But when she pulled the glasses out of the glove box, they weren't a pair she recognized. Since when did she buy aviators? With a shrug, she slid them on. The silvered plastic didn't do much to block the light but it did enough that she could squint instead of walking around like some kind of mole creature.

Sheldon was still lecturing as he slid into the passenger seat and pulled the door closed behind him. "Alcohol acts as a depressant, you know."

"So do you."

"It may also be the cause of your occasional bouts of seborrhoeic dermatitis."

"I don't even know what that is, and I didn't drink last night. I just ... I feel weird. My head is killing me. Can we not talk for a little while? What time is it?"

"Either I can not talk or I can answer your question."

"Just, please, can you shut up, Sheldon?"

Even as nearly blind as she was, Penny didn't miss the way his hands jerked away from the seatbelt buckle when she asked that. She squinted at the dashboard but the light was too bright to read the display on the clock radio. It was too bright to even see where the clock was supposed to be. All she could make out was the vague impression of plastic under the sunlight streaming in through the windows and washing everything out.

Penny thought about telling Sheldon his crazy road trip practice would have to wait until she could actually see where they were going.

"What are you waiting for?" he asked, then motioned at the road stretching out ahead of the car. "Let's go."

She still wasn't an expert on Sheldon — who could be, really? — but she knew that voice. That was his barely-holding-on-to-sanity voice. She threw the car into drive and slowly pulled out of her parking space. With any luck, she thought, her eyes would adjust before she hit anything too important.

Twenty minutes later, she would have given anything to be as blind as the proverbial bat.

She stood on the hood of her car and shaded her eyes with her hands as if that would erase any of what she saw. Sheldon, standing next to the front left tire, made a noise in the back of his throat and sagged against the car.

They were stopped on the Fair Oaks overpass, looking down at the nightmare that was the 210. A sea of cars stretched as far as she could see, every lane clogged with the abandoned, stalled, dead hulks. Here and there she could see accidents, everything from minor fender-benders to a seven-car pileup around a jackknifed semi. But more terrifying than all of that was the utter stillness of the scene. There was nothing inside the nearest cars. They were just empty, like a ghost town of a car dealership had spontaneously grown up around the normal rush hour traffic.

Doors hung open on every vehicle, as if the drivers and passengers had simply decided they'd had enough and walked away.

Penny let her hands fall to her sides and tilted her head back sharply. Tears and terror were clawing their way out of her chest and into her mouth and eyes. She cleared her throat. Tried to keep the panic out of her voice but it still came out too loud and sharp in the now eerie quiet. "Where are we, Sheldon? What the fuck is happening?"

He didn't say anything for a long time. When he finally did, she wished he'd kept his mouth shut instead.

"I think we're in a parallel reality."

She waited for the punchline but his expression stayed still, a mix of fear and excitement that she didn't quite understand. Penny couldn't help it; she started laughing, and once it started, she couldn't stop. She sat down hard on the hood of the car and wrapped her arms around her aching stomach. The laughter was high-pitched and fierce, explosive ha-ha-has that felt like they would burst her lungs.

Sheldon waited until her laughter turned into wheezing before he tried again. "The project I was working on last night... Dr Dariush and his team have been attempting to create an artificial quantum filament."

He pushed away from the car and paced to the side of the overpass. Penny wiped her eyes and slid off the hood to follow. The bars of the pedestrian barrier were cold against her fingers as they stood side-by-side. She didn't trust her voice not to break, so she swallowed her questions.

"It would take too long to explain what that is or what they were trying to do," he said, for once without his usual condescension. "When the simulation failed last night, I assumed it was just that - a simulation. It's nothing they hadn't done a dozen times already before they brought me in, although the failures aren't usually so dramatic. I assumed someone had enacted one of the catastrophe scenarios as a training exercise."

While he talked, Penny kept scanning the cars below, thinking she saw flickers of movement on the edges of her vision. But when she turned to look there was never anything there. "So, it wasn't a training thing? Are you sure?"

"The external quantum efficiencies in the intermix were all wrong for the scenarios they've been—" He caught her look and shook his head as if to reset his words. "Yes, I'm sure. And I haven't had any response from Geneva, or from any of the other facilities that were taking part. It's like they've all disappeared."

Penny let go of the barrier and grabbed his arm, ignoring his yelp of pain. She dug her fingers in. "What do you mean, disappeared? What does any of that have to do with this?"

She flung an arm out and knocked into the bars. "What the hell is all of this, Sheldon?"

His Adam's apple bobbed, and he lifted his free hand and sort of fluttered it weakly at his side. His mouth twitched, just for an instant, and then he said, "I think they did manage to create an artificial quantum filament. I think it brought us here."

They'd been driving for almost an hour through the Angeles forest. The surface roads through Altadena and La Cañada Flintridge had been mostly clear with only a few intersections clogged with abandoned vehicles. Once they entered the forest itself, there had been a handful of cars pulled over to the side of the road - all with their doors still hanging open and no people to be found. Sheldon insisted they stop to look at each and every one, and to help themselves to whatever supplies they could find inside.

The latest was a Ford Explorer with the leather Eddie Bauer-styled interior that Penny had drooled over since high school. While Sheldon wedged himself under the dashboard and tried to unscrew the CB mount, Penny popped the rear door. Whoever had owned the vehicle had apparently been almost as meticulous as Sheldon; the cargo area was completely packed with sealed plastic totes and coolers. They still hadn't figured out how much time had passed here - how long it had been since the people apparently disappeared into thin air - but from the looks of things in a couple of the vehicles they'd already checked, it had been long enough for food to spoil.

Penny heaved the coolers down to the ground and dragged them off into the shoulder to kick them open. She wrapped the flannel shirt she'd scavenged from the first car around her nose and mouth and leaned down to see what, if anything, was salvageable.

"Sheldon. Sheldon, come here."

The truck rocked as his feet kicked. He clambered out from under the dash, rubbing his head and looking around as though something were about to burst from the trees.

"What is it? It's not a bear, is it?"

"It's better than a bear! Come and look at this." She dropped to her knees in the dirt and started pawing through the first cooler she'd opened.

Sheldon shuffled over to her side, still clutching the screwdriver like a weapon and scanning the trees. "Of course it's better than a bear. It's hard to think of anything at this moment that wouldn't be better than a- Oh, my."

Penny grinned at the handgun then up at him. "I know, right? There's like six or seven of them in here, plus ammo. And that thing was just as heavy as this one."

She set the gun back where she'd found it and moved over the other cooler. Sheldon came up behind her and slipped the screwdriver into his pants pocket.

"Is it all handguns? I wouldn't say no to a pump-action shotgun or rifle."

"Uh, there's a couple of boxes of shells in here. Check the back of the truck - maybe there's a shotgun in one of the other boxes." He got a few steps away from her before his words registered. "Wait, did you say you want one? Since when do you like guns?"

"I never said I didn't like them."

"Yeah, but—"

"Penny, we're trapped on an alternate Earth about which we know absolutely nothing. Would you rather we wander around unarmed and totally defenseless?" He didn't wait for her to answer. "Of course you wouldn't; you're not completely without sense."

"Gee, thanks," she muttered to his back as he started pulling boxes out of the cargo area and stacking them on the road.

By the time they'd opened and sorted through everything, they'd found another half-dozen handguns, five shotguns, a rifle with a long-range scope, and an assortment of long-handled hunting knives. Penny had also unearthed a cache of military MREs and dried fruits and jerky from a storage compartment under the middle seats. The sun was high overhead, and Sheldon had the sleeves of his undershirt pushed up to his elbows.

"I've sorted everything according to priority. These near the truck would be of less use to us than these—"

Penny pushed her sunglasses to the top of her head. "What are you talking about?"

He gave her a strange look and repeated, "I've sorted everything according to priority."

"You mean like what to take and what to leave?"

"How is this in any way a difficult concept?" he shot back.

She wiped her hands on the thighs of the jeans she'd changed into once they'd crossed into the forest. "Why don't we just take this thing? I mean, we've only got a couple of bags and I'd hate to leave anything behind because it doesn't fit in my car."

Sheldon didn't say anything, just pressed his lips together and stared.

"What now?"

He ducked down to pick up one of the boxes and heaved it back into the Explorer. "I didn't think of that," he said, his posture stiff and embarrassed.

She pretended not to notice that he was upset by it and tried to turn it into a joke. "Hey, I'm always looking for a way to trade up. Did I ever tell you what I did when my sister tried to give me her old car?"

It took them almost half an hour to pack everything in the truck to Sheldon's satisfaction. By the time they were done, he seemed to be back to normal. Maybe a little on the rude side when he told her just how much he didn't want to hear anything else about her family.

Penny got a good laugh out of the look on his face when she offered to let him drive first, though. She grabbed as many CDs as she could carry out of her car and dumped them in the open console between the front seats. "So, which way? I think there's some cabins or something up here if we need to hide out for a few days."

Sheldon was bent over the hood of the truck, tracing lines on a map in the atlas they'd found in the second or third car. "No, we need to go to Michigan," he said, almost to himself.

"Michigan? What the hell is in Michigan?"

"The secret facility I told you about."

The secret— What secret facility?

Her confusion must have been written all over her face because he glanced at her and sighed as he started to fold up the atlas. "Traverse City, Michigan. The secret facility at which I was interviewed for a position that I had to decline—"

"Oh, right, yeah, the lying thing." She rubbed her forehead. Her eyes had finally adjusted to the light but it was still way too bright, even with sunglasses. That plus Sheldon plus being scared half out of her mind and pretending not to be was starting to give her a hell of a headache. "Okay, sweetie, don't take this the wrong way but are you crazy? No, I know, I know; your mom had you tested. Are you stupid?"

He pulled himself up to his full height and swept the atlas off the hood of the truck. "I'm never stupid. I may act in what appears to be a hasty or ill-considered fashion at ti—"

She poked him in the chest, hard enough to hurt her own finger. "Leaving town before we knew what was going on was stupid. Driving halfway across the goddamn country is stupid. How do you even know this doohickey in Michigan is going to work?"

Sheldon looked away, over the hood of the truck and up the road where it snaked off into the trees. He rubbed the spot where she'd poked him and Penny wondered idly if he'd bruise from it.

"I don't," he said, so quietly that she would have missed it if the world weren't so terrifyingly still.

"Don't you want to see some other people? Maybe have a conversation? Look at a new face for a few minutes?"

They were making good time across the desert but having to avoid the highways meant that what was normally a four hour trip was going to take them the entire day. Sheldon sat in the passenger seat with a road atlas unfolded across his lap. He'd traced as many possible routes to Traverse City as he could find that would keep them away from the roads with the heaviest traffic. Neither of them wanted to get stuck on the edge of something like they'd seen back in Pasadena.

After the tenth small town they'd blown through, she was starting to feel the itch of being trapped in the truck with him. She pointed at the sign they were approaching: Pahrump Diner, next left. "Look, a diner! I'm starving; aren't you hungry? Maybe we should pull over for a few minutes. I'm tired of this dried fruit crap and there's bound to be somebody—"

"Good Lord, no! Strangers equal danger, Penny."

"What, are we in kindergarten? Whatever the hell is going on here, there's bound to be people somewhere. And not everybody's going to be evil!"

"And how do you propose we make that distinction? We don't even know how this world is different from our own. Something as simple as a cold could be enough to kill us, not to mention that the whole of society appears to have broken down."

She scoffed. "You don't know that. Maybe, maybe something happened in Los Angeles, like an earthquake or something. Maybe they evacuated the cities and that's why there aren't any people."

"Then why aren't there any emergency broadcasts? We haven't seen any military or police checkpoints, not even abandoned ones." He poked his cell phone, plugged in to recharge and resting in the cup holder Penny hadn't claimed with her bottle of water. "There doesn't even seem to be a cellular network outside of the cities. This has been out of service since we left the apartments and I haven't seen a single cell tower."

He turned to face her, dropping the atlas to the floor. "Penny, you have to face the fact that we might as well be on a different planet. This isn't home. It just looks like it is."

Her head was starting to pound. She curled her hands around the steering wheel and kept her eyes straight ahead rather than look at him. "Yeah, but... The cars are the same, the clothes, the food. Well, okay, except for that milk this morning. But I even recognize the guns! I mean, come on, we haven't seen one damn weird thing since we left LA!"

"Pull over."

"What?" Startled, she glanced over. His face was set in hard lines, like when she'd taken all the washers and dryers on Laundry Night. "Why? You just said—"

"Stop the car!"

They fishtailed as she slammed on the brakes and skidded onto the shoulder. Sheldon was out of the truck before she could fumble out of her seatbelt. She left the engine running and jumped out, making sure her makeshift holster was secure. "What the fuck, Sheldon?"

He'd come around the front and was waiting for her at the driver's side door. He grabbed her by the elbow, his hand gripping the same place as when he'd marched her out of her apartment. She shrugged him off and he caught her shoulder instead and spun her to face away from the setting sun.

In the distance, cresting the snow-covered mountains, a pillar of black smoke blotted out the darkening skies. It was so massive that Penny didn't even recognize it as smoke for a minute. She thought it was a thundercloud — maybe even part of the mountains — until she realized that it was moving, like the peaks themselves were flying up into the sky.

Shaking off his hand, she stepped forward. As if moving a few feet closer would help her to make sense of what she was seeing.

"What is that?" she asked. "That's not... That's not Vegas, is it?"

Sheldon was already moving back to the truck and pulling open one of the doors. Less than a minute later, he came back with the clunky pair of homemade binoculars he'd packed.

"Hey, at least they had Star Trek here," she joked. Her voice shook a little and she bit down on her lower lip as he lifted the binoculars and started clicking through the setttings.

"These are stormtrooper binoculars from Star Wars," he corrected. "I haven't seen anything to indicate that Star Trek has had any appreciable impact on this world. Even the cellphones are too bulky to have been influenced." Apparently satisfied with the magnification, he turned in a precise circle on the dusty pavement and scanned the horizon in all directions.

While she waited, she did some small stretches to loosen up her legs. She'd forgotten how tiring it was to spend an entire day behind the wheel. "Please tell me that's a forest fire."

"I don't think there's enough vegetation to cause that much smoke." He dropped the binoculars to his side. "And Las Vegas sits in that direction on the other side of the mountains. I think we should swing farther to the south to avoid the city."

"No way!" Penny got right in his face. "We have to find out what's going on here, Sheldon! If we keep running with no idea of what we're dealing with, we're never going to make it to Michigan. We have to at least see if there's anything left. What if there's somebody there who can help us?"

He bounced the binoculars off his leg for few seconds, rubbing the side of his face with his free hand before apparently making up his mind. He nodded. "We'll go as far as the southern edge of the city. We need to stock up on fuel anyway and we're more likely to find it there."

"Yes, thank you!" Penny gave in to the impulse to hop up on her toes and throw her arms around him in a quick hug.

Sheldon's free hand came up to press briefly between her shoulder blades before she let him go and stepped away again.

"You'll agree to abort if I say so?" He squinted at her, bringing the binoculars up to shade his eyes. "If it looks as bad as I think it is, you'll turn around?"

Penny popped a salute and grinned. "Whatever you say, Captain."

He sucked in a breath, straightening the lines of his body until his customary stoop was erased.

"I do like the sound of that," he mused as he followed her back to the truck.

Penny barely heard him. She was already having visions of a clean, soft bed in a roadside motel. Any roadside motel. She wasn't picky, not on this trip. Maybe there would even be enough running water to wash off the sweat and dirt from their day on the road.

Surely it wouldn't be that bad. It couldn't be. Everything looked bigger in the desert, she was sure she'd heard that somewhere.

They drove around the southern edge of the mountains and turned northwards again on the outskirts of Enterprise. On any other trip, she was pretty sure that Sheldon would have made them stop on the side of the road to take a picture of the welcome sign on the edge of town. Today, though, he just sat in the passenger seat, his fingers wrapped around his knees. The column of smoke they'd seen from Pahrump loomed larger the closer they got to the city, until it blotted out the sky. The setting sun behind them picked out the burning buildings in the distance in golds and oranges as garish as the flames themselves.

They pulled into a Chevron station at the corner of Dean Martin Drive where it crossed the state route a few miles from downtown. By some miracle, the power was still on. Penny stood guard while Sheldon went inside to authorize the pumps. When he came back, he looked pale and shaky but didn't say anything.

Penny filled the tank with her gun in one hand. The skin on the back of her neck crawled. On the other side of the truck, Sheldon kept watch on the roads, a double-barreled shotgun cradled in his arms like he'd never gone a day in his life without it.

When the automatic cutoff engaged, Penny switched to filling up the portable fuel cans they'd scavenged. There was no telling how much longer the power would last, and she didn't want to be forced to switch vehicles whenever their fuel got low, so the plan was to stockpile as much as they could along the way. It made her nervous to be carrying around so much fuel — whatever it was, it wasn't gasoline — but there was no way she was going to get stranded in the middle of nowhere. Her only priority was to get Sheldon to Michigan so he could do his genius thing and get them home.

When she was done filling the cans, Sheldon helped her lift them all back into the truck. He kept his shotgun within easy reach the whole time, lying on the back bumper.

"So are you a good shot?"

"Of course I am."

She waited for him to collect his weapon then slammed the door down. "Bet I'm better."

"You're not." Without another word, he climbed into the front seat.

Penny rolled her head back and looked up at the dark smoke drifting high overhead. "I just had to get stranded here with him, huh? It couldn't be Jake Gyllenhaal?"

Neither of them spoke again until they were within sight of the airport. For the first time since they'd left Los Angeles, the streets were clogged with cars again. She had to detour down one side street after another. The air was choked with smoke, big dark flakes of ash and soot floating on the wind. Penny turned the vents to circulate the air already in the truck to try to keep some of the too-sweet odor out of the car. With the wipers going full-blast to keep the windshield clear, the soot smeared and streaked across the glass.

"What the hell is this crap?" She flipped on the wiper fluid to try to get rid of some of the greasy haze.

In the passenger seat, Sheldon sat hunched forward. The atlas was open on his lap to the Greater Las Vegas page, but his hands just lay on top of the paper like two dead birds.

She drove around a conversion van stopped across almost three full lanes of traffic and peered through the dirty windshield to look for the turn for the airport access road. "I can't see shit. Is it clearer on your side? Seriously, what the hell is this? What did they build those casinos out of?"

"I don't think it's from the buildings," Sheldon said.

His voice sounded flat and dead, and it startled her so much she jammed on the brakes. Hysterical Sheldon she could handle. Blowing everything out of proportion, no problem. But defeated, lifeless, dead-sounding Sheldon threw shivers up and down her spine and an icy pressure into her stomach. "Sheldon?"

Instead of acknowledging the hand she'd laid on his arm, he closed his eyes and said in the same lifeless voice, "Let's see if we can find anything salvageable at the airport."

She shook his arm as her stomach lurched. "No, tell me what's going on! Did you see something back at the gas station?"

"It's not just buildings that are burning, Penny. I think..." He gagged and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes. "I think it's people."