The Great Escape
“Books, so I don’t get bored on a long trip,” Nathaniel answers with a partial truth.
“Oh, good idea, but then you’ll miss seeing all the pretty pavement,” Mama comments.
“It’s okay,” Nathaniel insists.
The couch-unit carries the children through the parking garage and finally out onto a moving walkway on the way to the church. Minutes later, they arrive in a mass of hallways, slowly making their way through thick crowds of Zleesnits and Nops. Finally, they turn a corner. Haticat and Nathaniel look at each other. “Now!” Nathaniel yells. Fred, Doctor Bill, Nathaniel, and Haticat jump off the couch-unit and run.
Surprised, The Mama-And-Daddy hesitates before giving chase. “Come back right now!” Daddy yells.
“Don’t run inside!” Mama scolds. Mama and Daddy cannot get a clear shot at the boys through the legs of the Zleesnits to teleport or freeze any of them. The boys are too fast and agile. Soon, they are out of sight. The couch-unit levitates above the crowds of Zleesnits, but cannot get through the flying Nops fast enough.
Zigging and zagging and cutting through stores and offices, the boys run. Doctor Bill closely watches his electromagnetic scanner for The Mama-And-Daddy’s unique radiation signature. “They are definitely still following us.”
The boys slip between slow-moving adults and dodge around playing children. Coming to a major intersection, they stop. “The reactor should be this way, but I’m not sure,” Nathaniel states.
“I’ll ask,” Fred declares. “Where’s the closest power plant?” he asks a Helta boy slithering past.
“Go that way until you see the blue building on the right. It’s behind that,” the Helta says, pointing with his tail.
Without another word, the four boys run off. Soon, they find the power reactor and enter the warehouse next to it. Unnoticed, they retreat to the most remote corner to be alone. Exhausted, Nathaniel gasps, “Is it still following?”
“I’m not sure, but the reactor’s radiation should definitely block your tracer’s signal. It’s even interfering with my scans,” Doctor Bill answers.
“Do we have time for the operation?” Nathaniel asks.
“If we hurry,” Doctor Bill says, looking intently at his scanner.
Nathaniel wastes no time opening his backpack and handing Haticat a knife, an antibiotic wipe, and an anesthesia cream packet. He lies down against his backpack and pulls up his shirt while Haticat sanitizes the knife with the wipe. After sanitizing Nathaniel’s belly, Haticat opens and smears on the powerful anesthetic cream. Doctor Bill keeps a close eye on the scanner and Fred posts a lookout while they wait a minute for the painkiller to seep through Nathaniel’s skin and feathers. Finally, Haticat pokes Nathaniel with the knife. “How’s that?” he asks.
“Didn’t feel a thing,” Nathaniel responds, laughing.
Haticat carefully slices into Nathaniel’s belly just below where Doctor Bill discovered the tracer. Using the knife, he probes for it and pries it out. It is a pea-sized, black speck covered in blood. Haticat grabs more wipes to clean himself, the tracer, and Nathaniel, before finding and slapping a bandage onto Nathaniel’s belly.
“It’s close. It must know we are somewhere near the electric plant,” Doctor Bill announces.
“Are they near the warehouse?” Nathaniel asks.
“There’s too much interference to be sure,” Doctor Bill explains, “Fortunately, they’ll have an equally difficult time locating us. It will take a while to search the area.”
Nathaniel gets up. “Let’s go,” he says, pulling his shirt back down. Grabbing the tracer, the boys tentatively poke their faces out of the warehouse receiving bay and look around before sprinting for the nearest parking garage.
“I’m getting a definite lock on it now. It is leaving the reactor and heading this way,” Doctor Bill informs.
Now inside the garage, Nathaniel looks around in all directions. Seeing a Hammer-Face adult open a car, the boys run to the other side of it and attach the tracer to its underside with a bandage just before it pulls away. The adult is too oblivious to his surroundings to notice them (as adults often are). The boys exit the opposite side of the parking garage and then finally start to adopt a more leisurely pace. Nathaniel takes a deep breath.
“Hey, we are finally free,” Haticat remarks.
“No more punishment,” Fred declares.
“No more girls and their stupid songs,” Haticat says.
“Now all we need is to get a spaceship,” Nathaniel says.
“How do we get spaceships on Cartop?” Fred asks.
“Hmm, I don’t know,” Nathaniel admits.
“Since there are Humans here, we should be able to purchase one. How much floor-money have you collected so far?” Doctor Bill asks.
“Seven-point-five-seven money-dollars,” Nathaniel reports.
“That might be enough,” Doctor Bill muses, “I don’t know how much spaceships cost here.”
“If not, we can always get a job,” Haticat concludes.
“How much do jobs cost?” Nathaniel asks.
“I think some of them are free,” Haticat guesses.
“Okay, we’ll start looking for a free job soon, but first let’s eat something,” Nathaniel says. The boys walk around for a while before stopping outside of a Zleesnit-Nop restaurant. Inside is a dark room containing a couple-dozen columns connecting floor and ceiling. Attached to each column at three levels are clusters of clear, fishbowl-like objects, the openings facing outward. Curious, the boys enter to examine them.
Two furry Zleesnit boys immediately approach the group. A Nop flies overhead. “I like your color feathers,” the brown-furred Zleesnit says.
Nathaniel had always wondered how it was that Zleesnits and Nops could discern color since neither had any visible eyes, but he was always too afraid to ask The Mama-And-Daddy (or any other adult) the question. Even librarians were sometimes difficult to converse with. For the first time, it fully hits him just how free he is. He asks, “How do you know colors without eyes?”
“Oh…It’s complicated,” the brown-furred Zleesnit answers.
“I know! It’s our antennas. Each one detects a different wavelength, direction, and polarization of light, and then our brains make a picture out of all the information,” the green-furred Zleesnit answers.
“Interesting,” Nathaniel says, “Is there a library on Cartop? There isn’t much about Zleesnits and Nops in the Earth library.”
“Yes,” the green-furred Zleesnit answers, “Nops are different. They see shapes with tongue-sonar and detect relative amounts of color in their visual fields with their skins. Then, their brains assign the colors to different objects probabilistically.”
“So they can’t always be sure?” Haticat asks.
“Right,” the green-furred Zleesnit answers.
“You can see in all directions, then?” Nathaniel asks.
“Yes,” the brown-furred Zleesnit answers.
“We can only see in front unless we turn around,” Nathaniel mentions.
“Oh, that’s a lot of work,” the brown-furred Zleesnit comments.
“How do you see two things at once that are on opposite sides?” the green-furred Zleesnit asks.
“I turn back-and-forth really fast,” Nathaniel says. He demonstrates.
“Wow! You are a lot faster than us,” the brown-furred Zleesnit comments.
“Yeah,” the green-furred Zleesnit adds.
“We should race,” the Nop suggests.
“Yeah, but it’s too crowded here,” Nathaniel says, “And I want lunch now.”
“Let’s eat amplod,” the brown-furred Zleesnit suggests.
“What’s that?” Nathaniel asks.
“The yummiest anti-plasm in the galaxy!” the brown-furred Zleesnit answers. The Zleesnits walk to the nearest column and set the controls by inserting telescoping rods from their bodies into holes on the outside of the column. A puff of gas of rapidly changing color fills two “fishbowls” and then is loudly inhaled through the skin of the Zleesnits. The Nop inhales a puff with its mouth. Looking around, the four visiting boys finally understand the purpose of the three levels. The lowest level is for children, the middle level is for adults, and the highest level is for Nops.
“Let me try,” Nathaniel says. He sticks a claw into one of the control-holes. A puff of glowing and shimmering orange shoots from one of the clear bowls. Sniffing it, he finds it to be like nothing he has ever smelled. It is indescribably good.
“You pushed the wrong way. You just ate mollpid,” the green-furred Zleesnit laughs.
“I’ll do it for you,” the brown-furred Zleesnit offers. He inserts a rod into the control-hole and a puff of amplod emanates. Sniffing it, Nathaniel finds that amplod is at least as good as mollpid – and just as indescribable.
“I like it!” Nathaniel bursts. He shakes his claws in excitement. He is very happy to be free today.
“I like anti-plasm better than plasm,” the green-furred Zleesnit says.
“Hey, you try some,” the brown-furred Zleesnit says, “Gruezhlings can eat anti-plasm, too.”
“Really?” Haticat asks.
“Just breath it through your skin,” the Nop says.
Fred, Haticat, and Doctor Bill squeeze together around one bowl while the brown-furred Zleesnit causes it to serve out a puff of amplod. Breathing deeply, the vapors are absorbed into the fibrous matrix of the Gruezhlings’ bodies. “Ah, it tastes a little like fun,” Haticat says.
“Just a little bit,” Fred says.
“Why don’t Zleesnits and Nops have Gruezhlings?” Nathaniel suddenly asks.
“Some do, but we play enough with each other so that we don’t need as many Gruezhlings,” the green-furred Zleesnit explains.
“My friend Bobby has a Gruezhling!” the brown-furred Zleesnit says.
“Oh,” Haticat comments.
Nathaniel returns again to the dispenser column. He tries again to control the machine with his claw. It shoots out a thick, silvery-blue vapor that smells a little like olives, garlic, and oranges. It is not quite yucky, but he is not impressed. “Controlling these is so hard,” he complains.
“Your claws aren’t shaped right,” the green-furred Zleesnit answers. Nathaniel tries again and ends up with white, nearly tasteless vapor. “That’s plasm,” the green-furred Zleesnit teaches.
“Never mind, I’m starting to feel full,” Nathaniel says. The vapor feels as if it has expanded inside of him, making him feel slightly bloated. The pressure makes his surgery site hurt a little. The painkiller cream is starting to wear off. “How can we get a spaceship on Cartop?”
“You have to get a ticket first, and then you have to go to the spaceport. Give the ticket to the door-person and he lets you inside,” the green-furred Zleesnit says.
“How do you get a ticket?” Nathaniel asks.
“You go to the ticket store and tell the ticket person your name, weight, where you want to go, and answer a bunch of other questions and they give you one,” the green-furred Zleesnit says.
“Where is the nearest ticket store?” Nathaniel asks.
Before the Zleesnits or Nop can answer, an adult Zleesnit walks near. “It’s time to go. Say goodbye,” it orders.
“Just a second, I have to explain…” the green-furred Zleesnit starts.
“Now!! We’re going now!” the adult yells. Turning to Nathaniel, it asks, “Where are your parents?”
“Let’s go,” Doctor Bill says, running quickly from the store. The other three boys follow him. The adult Zleesnit gives a short chase, but is far too slow to catch a dromaeosaur and three Gruezhlings.
The boys wander around a bit until entering a small park. Like the Blentite city – N’durat – Cartop’s parks are mostly bare concrete. They have no plants. Unlike N’durat, Cartop at least has benches and sculptures. Suddenly, they see the couch-unit on the other side of the park heading straight for them! “Oh!” Fred and Haticat exclaim together. The four boys turn around and run. Nathaniel jumps over a bench while the Gruezhlings run under it, just before the bench vanishes, probably teleported to the ship. Mama and Daddy instantly teleport it back upside down, angrily yelling something the boys cannot quite make out.
The couch-unit chases them through hallways, restaurants, and stores. Finally, the boys make it to an elevator and close the door. They hit the ascend button and shoot up into the sky. Turning around, they realize there is more to the elevator around the corner. It is as big as a small, two-level building inside, complete with a television, couches, and large windows overlooking the city. Fred sees the couch-unit following in another elevator nearby. “Away from the window,” Fred warns just in time. The nearby television and couch vanish as the boys huddle behind a central wall. The elevator stops and the boys exit through a different door than they entered.
“Through here,” Haticat yells. The boys find themselves in a complex stairwell, running upwards around Zleesnits and Nops.
Doctor Bill checks his scanner while running. “I found the problem; you’re transmitting again,” he reports.
“How?” Nathaniel demands.
“There must have been a backup tracer we didn’t see before. The couch-unit will take a long time catching up to us here; I think we have enough time to operate,” Doctor Bill says.
“You don’t know?” Haticat presses.
“We don’t have a choice,” Doctor Bill says.
The boys suddenly burst out onto the roof of the skyscraper, still forty meters from the paved surface above. Doctor Bill scans Nathaniel for the tracer. It is in his chest this time. Taking the knife and another anesthesia cream packet, Haticat repeats the operation. They promptly toss the tracer off the roof. “It’s following it; let’s go,” Doctor Bill says.
Nathaniel slowly gets up. “That was too close,” he comments, “I’ll feel safer once we get off this planet.”
For an hour or so, the boys walk around. It is nearing sleep-time for them, but the city on Cartop never slows. Finally, they pass a movie theatre. “Look, that sign says tickets!” Haticat exclaims. Haticat, Fred, and Doctor Bill run up to the booth. Nathaniel lags behind, scratching his strangely itching knee.
“Give us four tickets for a spaceship,” Haticat says before realizing he is talking to an adult. “Sorry, I am Haticat. Please give us four tickets for a spaceship.”
The adult ignores Haticat and speaks directly to Nathaniel. “You only need one ticket; Gruezhlings get in free with a paying child,” the adult explains, smiling. “What movie would you like to see?”
“I don’t know. Anything except the church-movie, I’m tired of it. Is that inside the spaceship?” Nathaniel asks.
Seeming confused, the adult responds, “It’s right down there,” pointing down the dim hallway.
“We must be right under a spaceport,” Fred mentions to Doctor Bill.
“Okay, good! I’ll take one ticket, please,” Nathaniel says.
“All right, that is four-point-eight-nine money-dollars,” the adult says.
Nathaniel looks through his money and counts it. He has 7.57 in total, but the smallest unit he has larger than 4.89 is 5. Adding all the other units together is only 2.57 money-dollars. Even if he uses minus signs, subtracting coins from other coins, he can’t get any closer than 4.93 or 4.57. He can’t make 4.89 money-dollars in any combination. He checks and double-checks his math. “Oh, I can’t make four-point-eight-nine money-dollars,” he says sadly. He turns and walks away, his Gruezhlings following.
“I can give you change for the five,” the adult calls, but the boys do not hear her.
Returning outside, Fred declares, “We need to find jobs.”
“I know,” Haticat says.
“Let’s eat again, first. That plasm and anti-plasm didn’t last long,” Nathaniel says. The boys walk around until they find a restaurant. This one is for Humans, Ninos, and Hammer-Faces. They serve pizza and salads. Ninos are a race that looks much like Humans, but are shorter, have paler skin, and have darker hair. They end every word with an S-sound.
They enter and sit down. “Ow,” Nathaniel says. His itchy knee hurts when he bends it.
“What is it?” Haticat asks.
“I don’t know,” Nathaniel answers. Touching his knee, he notices a tiny swelling right in the middle. “I think a fly bit me.”
“There are no flies on Cartop. I remember reading that,” Haticat says.
Nathaniel shows Haticat, Fred, and Doctor Bill his knee. “Interesting,” Doctor Bill says, “Hold still, I have a hunch.” He grabs his scanner and scans the knee. “It’s another tracer!”
“Take it out!” Nathaniel says.
“Quick, into the alley,” Haticat says.
The boys run out of the pizza shop and into the alley. Working quickly while Fred keeps a lookout, Haticat performs his third surgery of the day. “Uh-oh,” Doctor Bill says.
“What?” Nathaniel prods.
“The couch-unit is coming fast,” Doctor Bill says, “One hundred meters and closing.”
“Hurry,” Nathaniel says.
Without waiting for the painkillers to fully take effect, Haticat slices into Nathaniel’s knee and gouges out the pea-sized, black tracer. Throwing the tracer into a nearby dumpster, he cleans up and bandages Nathaniel’s knee. “Twenty-five meters and closing,” Doctor Bill reports.
Nathaniel struggles to his feet. His knee hurts. “Let’s go this way,” he says.
“No, too late. It’s coming around the building now. Hide!” Doctor Bill says.
Haticat, Fred, Doctor Bill, and Nathaniel jump behind a different dumpster and huddle together. The couch-unit rounds the corner and glides swiftly to the first dumpster with the tracer in it. Pausing for a moment, The Mama-And-Daddy teleports the entire dumpster away. Then the couch-unit floats off.
“Phew,” Fred says.
“We won again,” Haticat says.
“I never thought there would be two backups,” Doctor Bill says.
“No, we have a problem,” Nathaniel says.
“What?” Haticat asks.
“That tracer was not there before. I know what my knee was like. It grew out of the bone itself; there is a chip missing now,” Nathaniel says, “My whole body must be able to turn into tracers one at a time. There must be some sort of inhibitory hormone they produce so I don’t turn into a pile of tracers all at once.”
“We’ll need more wipes,” Haticat says.
“No, we can’t keep whittling me down smaller and smaller until there’s nothing left. How will I run or carry the backpack?” Nathaniel says, staring into the distance. “We have to give up.”
“No,” Haticat says angrily, “We can’t.”
“I can’t go back,” Fred says, “I won’t.”
“Let’s go hide near the reactor while we think this through. That way, if you start to transmit again, they won’t be able to sense it as long as you stay there,” Doctor Bill suggests.
“Fine,” Nathaniel resigns. Hungry, tired, and limping from the pain in his knee, he follows Doctor Bill, Fred, and Haticat to the electric plant.
Once inside the warehouse next to the plant, the boys brainstorm for solutions. “We could try to find a really fast ship to outrun The Mama-And-Daddy,” Haticat proposes.
“Too risky. We don’t know how fast they can fly,” Nathaniel says.
“What about wearing armor that blocks the signals?” Fred proposes.
“I don’t know where to get any, it would be heavy, he would have to wear it all the time, and signals could still leak through the gaps in the armor,” Doctor Bill says.
“Couldn’t it also make people suspicious when they see me wearing it?” Nathaniel asks.
“Yes,” Doctor Bill says, “That’s very possible.”
“We’ll stay here as long as we can. There’s food here. Maybe The Mama-And-Daddy will eventually give up,” Nathaniel says.
“Maybe,” Haticat mutters. Nathaniel opens a box of cupcakes, eats three, and places three into his backpack.
“Let’s hide behind these boxes and try to sleep. I need sleep,” Nathaniel says.
“Okay,” Fred responds. The boys fall asleep in a big pile.
A scraping sound jolts Nathaniel awake. His Gruezhlings are instantly aroused as well by Nathaniel’s fertile imagination, pretending them awake. He cautiously raises his body to peer around the boxes. A Zleesnit police officer walks past followed by a flying Nop, wings whirring and forked tongue vibrating. “Hold it, what was that?” the Nop says, stopping and backing up. Nathaniel retracts his face behind the box. “Something moved!” Ugh! The Nop had seen him; it sees in all directions at once.
Using telescoping arms, the Zleesnit takes hold of the box and pulls. Nathaniel grabs his backpack and runs. Haticat, Fred, and Doctor Bill follow him. “I found them! All units respond to third corner of warehouse!” the Zleesnit yells, presumably transmitting his words through at least one of his many antennas.
The Nop gives chase. “Stop! We must send you back to your parent,” it says. The Nop is fast, but Nathaniel is faster. The Nop settles for grabbing Doctor Bill with its forked, prehensile tongue and throwing him into its mouth. Doctor Bill attempts to climb out, so the Nop closes his mouth tight, but with its mouth closed, it cannot use its sonar to see. Nathaniel leaps into the air and pulls the Nop down, prying its mouth open as they fall. Grabbing Doctor Bill – who afterward climbs onto Nathaniel’s backpack and holds on – Nathaniel races off again.
The boys turn one way, but are blocked by a rigid wall of interlocked Zleesnits three officers high. With others approaching from behind them, the boys climb up the shelves of boxes, slapping away at annoying Nops. The pursuing Zleesnits meanwhile build a tower out of themselves, growing taller and taller.
The boys crawl down the other side of the shelves, but the wall of Zleesnits is already disassembling in order to give chase. Suddenly coming to an intersection, they find themselves trapped on four sides by several Zleesnits and several Nops. “Stop!” Nathaniel attempts to break through, but is forced to retreat from their snapping arms. Again he tries, but must retreat. Soon, the Zleesnits close in and grab Fred and Haticat. Nathaniel pushes his way through the mass of arms, legs, and antennae. A Nop grabs his arm and he shakes it loose. He kicks and scratches at the Zleesnits as he fights his way through. Doctor Bill falls off in the struggle. Just as he reaches the perimeter of the group, a Zleesnit grabs him by the tail and pulls him back. Twisting around, he bites the officer on the leg, causing him to release his grip in surprise and pain. Zleesnits taste like garbage!
Climbing up the shelves of goods, Nathaniel reaches a window and jumps out, falling nine meters to the ground. Some Nops give chase, but he outruns them. He runs for longer than he can ever remember running before. He pants. Finally feeling safe, he stops in an alley to rest for a minute. He is hungry, tired, and lonely. His belly, chest, and knee all hurt. Without meaning to and against his wishes, he instantly falls into a deep sleep.
He awakes with a start to find Doctor Bill, Haticat, and Fred standing over him. “If you’re wondering how we found you, you’re transmitting again,” Doctor Bill says, holding out his scanner. “It’s in your back this time.”
“There are so many boys in this city that we were able to stay awake on background residual play-energy,” Fred adds.
Nathaniel turns over onto his front and rolls up his shirt. Haticat carefully extracts another tracer from the middle of his back. “That was the last anesthesia cream packet,” he volunteers. He cleans up and throws the tracer over his back.
“Quickly, hide; it’s coming,” Doctor Bill says. The boys hide behind some trash cans just in time as The Mama-And-Daddy’s couch-unit hovers down the alley. It stops briefly over the blood-covered tracer sitting on the ground. Then it moves on.
Still tired, Nathaniel blinks and yawns. “I think we should give up. I can’t stand another surgery. If the police are also looking for us and are smart enough to search near power reactors, there is no hope for escape.”
“Actually, I think I have just discovered the solution,” Doctor Bill announces.
“What?” Haticat questions.
“The Mama-And-Daddy shuts off each tracer once discovered outside your body. Using my scanner just now, I was able to record the deactivation code it uses,” Doctor Bill says, “So, the next time Nathaniel starts to transmit, all we have to do is feed the new tracer the same deactivation code. It will shut off.”
“Assuming its continued presence inside my body still inhibits the formation of new ones, that should work,” Nathaniel reasons.
“Yup,” Haticat says.
“All we need is a transmitter attachment for my scanner,” Doctor Bill adds.
“How do we find one?” Fred asks.
“I remember passing a store that has them,” Doctor Bill says.
“I hope we have the right money-dollars,” Nathaniel says.
“We have to try,” Haticat says, “Let’s go.”
It takes them a while to find the store. The clerk – a Human boy – lets them in. “We want a programmable transmitter,” Doctor Bill says.
“Okay, here,” the clerk says, plopping a small, oblong object on the counter. “Just give me one bag of candy.”
“We have three cupcakes,” Nathaniel says, pulling them out of his backpack.
“Okay,” the clerk says.
“Hey, Sammy! It’s against the rules to allow people in here after we’re closed,” a very fat, bearded adult yells, walking out from the back. “Are you eating cupcakes? After dinner? You’re grounded!”
Nathaniel, Fred, Haticat, and Doctor Bill exit the store in a hurry. They run to a park and sit and wait. Nathaniel sits against an intake grate for one of the air scrubber towers. “If this doesn’t work, what will we do?” Fred asks.
“There’s nothing to do,” Haticat says.
“Will we fight?” Fred asks.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t make any difference. We can’t win and our punishments won’t be any less if we surrender,” Nathaniel says.
“It has to work,” Haticat says, “There is no more choice.”
Fred pounds the ground and leans back onto the grate. He watches people crawl and fly by (Zleesnits and Nops). Some Meekon boys climb on a statue. They wave. Haticat waves back. Nathaniel closes his eyes and rests. The Gruezhlings start to feel drowsy and groggy. “Hey, we have to stay awake to know when you start transmitting,” Haticat says, hitting Nathaniel on the head.
“Ugh, can’t you feed off the residual play-energy?” Nathaniel says.
“Never mind, it just turned on,” Doctor Bill says.
“Where is it?” Haticat asks.
“It’s in his head,” Doctor Bill answers. He attaches the transmitter to the scanner, formats it, and feeds in the code. He presses a lot of buttons.
“Hurry,” Haticat begs impatiently.
“It’s a very long code,” Doctor Bill explains. Finally, he is finished. “Bend down and hold still,” he orders. Nathaniel obeys. He presses a button and the scanner beeps three times. “Checking…It worked! You’ve stopped transmitting!”
“Yaaay!” Haticat cheers.
“Whoo!” Nathaniel exclaims.
“Yes!” Fred says. Even though he was just tired, Nathaniel feels a huge surge of energy. He leaps in the air and chases his tail. Fred twists back and forth. Haticat dances.
“I’m not detecting the couch-unit nearby yet, but it’ll likely come to investigate this spot eventually. Let’s get out of here,” Doctor Bill says, smiling.
“Agreed,” Nathaniel says, and the four boys leave the park running to find a place to sleep in peace and safety.
“Very interesting,” Alisha comments.
“What is?” Nate asks.
“How you worked the tracers into the story,” Alisha answers.
“Work them in? There wouldn’t be a story without them. That’s the way I remember it,” Nate responds.
“Sorry, I know. I meant…the whole situation is just very similar to your present one, right down to your ankle bracelet,” Alisha clarifies.
“My what?” Nate asks, confused.
“Your ankle bracelet – with the tracer,” Alisha says. She points to Nate’s right ankle.
Pulling up his pant leg, Nate is startled to find a radio transmitter bracelet around his ankle. “What!?! Where did this come from?” Nate screams. He cannot remember it ever being there before. It is tight and uncomfortably weighted. How could he have missed it? He pushes at it, but it won’t budge. “How did this get here?”
“You’ve had it for a while now,” Alisha says soothingly.
Nate examines his entire right leg as if it is an alien entity. He finds a large, nasty scar. “When did this happen?”
“You..uh…you tried to escape once by sawing off your leg. You didn’t get very far into it before you were discovered. We still don’t know how you got the saw,” Alisha says.
Nate leans forward with his head in his hands. He just holds still and stays that way. “Will you be okay?” Alisha asks.
“I’m not sure,” Nate answers.
“Do you want to see Doctor Nguyen?” Alisha asks.
“No,” Nate answers. After a pause, he asks, “How did all this start? How did I get here? Were there any warning signs? Who was I before? What did I do?”
“I’ll show you,” Alisha says. She leads Nate to Doctor Nguyen’s office. Nate does not remember the hallway leading there being quite so long. “You were a professor of physics at the university and were well-respected. Then you were in a mysterious accident at your home.”
“Professor? Really? I never thought I would make a good teacher. I always hated school,” Nate mumbles.
“You made the papers a year ago,” Alisha says, retrieving a newspaper clipping from Nate’s file and handing it to him.
Nate reads. He learns that he was found unconscious in his home after his garage exploded for mysterious reasons. He closely studies the photograph accompanying the article. The location does not seem at all familiar. He has no memory of the event or of living there. However, there is one object in the middle of the driveway that he does recognize. It is burned and shattered, but it is unmistakably a polytemporal interface module. “Oh, that explains it,” Nate remarks.
“You had severe head trauma. There was bleeding in your hippocampus,” Alisha says, nodding.
Not listening, Nate says, “That’s why I can’t get the Shadastine equations to come out right. It’s not overlight engines at all. It’s an unbound temporal loop.”
Alisha pauses, and then says, “The hippocampus is a part of the brain involved in retrieving memories.”
Nate looks at her. “I know,” he says, “I also know what a blown polytemporal interface module looks like.” He hands her the paper, pointing at the object in the photograph. “I must have been building a paradimensional engine – but why?”
“Nate,” Alisha says.
“This is a huge breakthrough! Now I can show you what I was doing! I can prove my version of events!” Nate says, “This also makes things much easier to fix. By building another PDE, I can both find and repair the anomaly and if I want I can even reset the universe back the way it was.”
“Nate, you know this type of speculation is unhealthy. Doctor Nguyen told me to keep you focused,” Alisha says.
“What harm is there in speculation? Give me a chance,” Nate pleads.
“Nate,” Alisha says.
“I can finally go home!” Nate exclaims.
“Nate,” Alisha says again.
“No, no, wait a minute…” Nate says, suddenly furrowing his brow and scratching his head. “The trauma explains my memory loss and the spacetime unbinding probably explains why history continues to change in the present – but where did my memories of being a dinosaur come from? If you and Doctor Nguyen are right that my circumstances represent nothing more than a malfunctioning brain, then there is no world of dinosaurs, Candy Wizards, and Gruezhling play-pals to return to – and if I’m right that my circumstances are due to an unbound temporal loop caused by something I was working on in my garage, then there still is no world of dinosaurs, Candy Wizards, and Gruezhling play-pals to return to. I used to be a professor.” Nate spits the last word out with disdain.
“I’m sorry,” Alisha says.
“I’m very confused,” Nate moans, “None of it is real. Even if history really is changing it isn’t real. I really did make it all up.”
“Do you want to take a break?” Alisha finally asks.
“No, it helps to keep my mind off things,” Nate says, adjusting his too-tight ankle bracelet.
“Okay, then. What happened after your clever escape?” Alisha asks.
“Well, we did finally find jobs – and a means off the planet…” Nate says.