Looking for the beginning of Winston Chase and the Alpha Machine? If so, click here. If you'd like a list of every Winston Chase chapter, look on the right edge of the blog page, scroll down to the Categories section, and click Winston Chase. Of course, if you're ready for Chapter 10, please keep reading...
It was something in the way his mother disappeared into the press of Cold Stone patrons while Winston sat holding their small table that pushed him toward a decision. Dizzying varieties of fudge, cream, nuts, and syrup invisibly battled to overpower the air, and the chaos of overtired children only added to the stirring confusion. She slowly made her way toward the counter, becoming smaller and smaller as people crowded in behind her and blocked her from view. Any of the people in Cold Stone might have been looking for them, watching, waiting to strike. She was vulnerable.
She was vulnerable, Winston realized, because she was with him.
They wouldn’t care about her as much now that he had one piece of the Alpha Machine and clues to the rest of it. Her function as bait would no longer be important. They wouldn’t need the QVs inside of her if they had his. All they had to do was keep her quiet until picking her off became convenient. If Winston split off from his mom, given a choice of two targets, he would be the more desirable one. So he had to leave her. It was her only shot at safety.
Besides, he knew that if they stayed together, she would prevent him from taking necessary risks. She would always put his safety first, and he knew deep down that playing things safe would be a recipe for failure. Always picking the safe path was why he’d never had a girlfriend, only had one friend, and had never accomplished much with robotics. He hated risk because risk, as his mom always taught him, was irrational and bad.
Things were different now, though. The only chance he had at helping his mom stay safe was to take a risk.
Or so he thought. There was only one way to find out, and the idea was so bitter that no amount of peanut butter/espresso/chocolate ice cream with mixed in Snickers could wipe the taste from his mouth.
Winston went through the motions that evening. They chatted about small things, silently deciding to postpone important topics for the morning. Winston browsed the Web on his phone as she settled in and fell asleep. Eventually, he turned off the lights and slept, too.
Four hours later, Winston awoke to the quiet vibration of his phone’s alarm under his pillow. Soon, he sat on the edge of his motel bed, fully dressed and motionless, listening to his mom’s slow, even breathing. His backpack rested on the floor between his legs, stuffed with the gear and clothes his mom had prepared along with everything his dad had left for him in the bank vault. With the blinds drawn, the room’s only light was a faint, gray glow around the window’s edge. The low engine growls of early morning commuters sped by in the distance. His mother slept on, mouth slightly open, one arm wrapped over the top of her head.
Winston felt another pang of guilt. He never deceived her. Of course, there were the usual ruses. “Sure, I scrubbed between my toes,” “Whoops, I thought that movie was PG-13,” and the ever-popular “The robot ate my homework,” which was true in his case. But this? This went far beyond little fibs.
Winston wondered if this would change their relationship. Could she ever trust him again? Could he trust her? After all, until yesterday, almost everything he’d known about his life had been a lie.
The entire world was changing under him, and he wondered if he could keep his balance. He almost had a father now, but he still might never meet the man. Finally, Winston had an explanation for his odd appearance. It wasn’t just that he had a big head and white streaks in his hair; he was actually part alien. Nobody else glowed blue when they got injured. Nobody else could inexplicably operate a robot with mind control. And while his mother also had QVs, she was clearly different. She looked and acted normal. Winston knew he wasn’t like her or anybody else in the world. No one could possibly understand him, himself most of all.
Winston realized that, if his mom was right about the people behind Area X still watching, they would never let him go. He would be captured, studied, poked, tested, and manipulated like a lab rat for the rest of his life. If his mom was captured with him, they would use her as leverage to guarantee his cooperation.
Silently, Winston used the light from his phone to find the pad of stationery paper and cheap ballpoint pen on the room’s table. Too hastily, saying far too little, he scrawled a note:
There’s no point in two of us being in danger. I will try to be as quick as possible. Please don’t worry. If everything goes well, I’ll meet you tonight for dinner at our favorite picnic place. If not, I’ll find you some other way.
I love you, Mom.
P.S. Stop worrying. I can tell you’re already worrying. Stop it.
He propped the note on the bed against the pillow next to hers. His mom’s thin, fuzzy blanket rose and fell with reassuring slowness.
Their favorite picnic place. How many evenings had they spread a blanket out on the grassy hill atop Council Crest Park, the highest point in Portland, and enjoyed sandwiches and juice while watching the sun cast its ruddy glow on the far-away mountains? It was their place. He would give anything to see it with her again.
Winston found the room’s door knob, hearing each little click and pop from its gears like an alarm clang. But his mom slept on. Finally, the door opened a crack. Yellow light from the parking lot spilled across her bed in a thin line that meandered over her hip. The more he opened the door, the more that line grew, turning into a column and then a swath of illumination that threatened to reach her face and wake her.
Winston used his body to block the light, careful to watch his shadow across his mom’s bed. He backed up — a step, then two — and slowly closed the door.
It was done. He was out.
Winston released the breath he’d been holding in.
“See you soon, Mom,” he whispered.
Then he turned, took a step, and tripped over the body sprawled beside the door.
# # #
Winston’s foot caught on the body, but he managed to catch the top of the walkway wall before he went down.
“Ow!” cried a familiar voice.
Shade sat up, blinking and rubbing his ribs.
Winston knelt down, looking his friend over. Shade was dressed in a blue jacket, jeans, and high-tops. The jacket featured about four thousand pockets, all of which looked to be stuffed with bulges of various sizes. He also had a brown, leather-reinforced backpack propped up against the wall. The pack was smaller than Winston’s but seemed equally loaded.
“What are you doing here?” Winston whispered.
Rubbing his eyes, Shade mumbled, “Special delivery.”
He reached into one of his jacket pockets and pulled out his phone. After a few swipes, he showed Winston the screen. It was a text from Moxiegirl17. Despite his wonder and confusion, Winston felt a quick stab of admiration. What sort of girl used an old-fashioned word like moxie in her screen name? His sort, apparently.
Then he read the accompanying text.
Tell him I get family emergencies. Will still need math help whenever he’s ready. Don’t take too long.
“It’s…” Winston swallowed around the heart that had risen into his throat. “It’s perfectly punctuated.”
“Ugh! She texted me to see if you were really all right.” Shade whispered as he shoved the phone back in his pocket. “Sometimes I want to punch you in the head.”
“I know,” said Winston. “What are you doing here?”
Rather than hit him, Shade jabbed Winston twice in the chest with his index finger. “Helping you. I’m not stupid, you know. A big ‘life lesson’ lecture that turns into a ‘family emergency’ for Alyssa? You and your family of two, one of which happens to be treating you to Denny’s on a school night, which never happens? You blow off your first-ever date with the girl of your dreams. You blow off talking with me about your butt. Dude!” Another jab to the chest. “Stuff is going down, and I’m here to help you.”
“You’re only saying that because you think I’m part alien.”
“What?” He looked wounded. “It’s because you’re my best friend.”
Shade looked up and down the walkway. “OK, yes, and because you’re part alien.”
Winston scowled and poked Shade in the forehead.
A vehicle pulled into the motel parking lot. Shade started to stand, but Winston held him back.
They remained hidden from view by the walkway’s wall. Winston edged closer to the railing and peeked over the top, glad that this motel was so cheap that it only had outdoor lamps at the corners rather than by each room. He should still be mostly invisible.
A black sedan made for the lot’s back row. Winston could make out two figures in the front seat — both male, both wearing dark suits and ties. An LED glowed next to the driver’s head, probably an earpiece. Tail first, the car pulled into a spot in the rearmost row, then turned off. Winston ducked back out of sight.
“Winston,” whispered Shade. “What is—”
Winston raised his hand for silence, then motioned Shade to sit still and wait. After ten or fifteen seconds, Winston hit his thigh with a fist in frustration and fear.
“What’s wrong?” asked Shade.
“They haven’t gotten out of their car. They’re waiting.”
“They’re here for us. For me.”
“Because you’re an alien?”
Winston opened his mouth to make some indignant retort, then realized the simplest reply was also the most honest. “Yes. Because I’m an alien. More or less.”
“Daaang,” said Shade. “Well, what do we do?”
“We?” Winston shook his head emphatically. “Shade, there’s no we on this. I’m in serious trouble. You have to get out of here right now.”
Shade stared hard into Winston’s face. Slowly, he began to nod with understanding. “OK,” he said.
Winston patted his friend’s shoulder. “Good, so you stay here until—”
Winston didn’t understand. “Huh?”
“No. You’re in trouble. I’m helping.”
“I am.” Shade stretched his fingers out wide, then curled them into fists. “You’ve never been in trouble for anything. Well, except that time you put a virus on Mr. Tallard’s computer.”
“I didn’t! His disk was inf—”
“Anyway!” Shade poked a firm finger into Winston’s breastbone. “I am helping you. That’s what we do. So shut up about it and let’s figure this out.”
Winston smacked Shade’s finger aside, but he couldn’t keep from showing the beginning of a smile. “If you’re here to help, then why don’t you come up with…” He trailed off, and his smile vanished. Winston closed his eyes and bowed his head.
“What?” Shade whispered urgently.
“How’d you find me?”
“GPS buddies — duh. I got here around 1:00. Did you know buses only run like once an hour in the middle of the night? Anyway, there were only three cars in the parking lot, so not many guests, and only this room still had a light on. I figured that would be you.”
Winston nodded. “I was up researching while Mom slept.”
“Same as always. And I didn’t want to risk freaking her out by knocking. So what’s the problem?”
Winston held up his phone. “The GPS. That’s how you found me. It’s probably how they found me.” He jerked his head toward the parking lot.
Shade butted his forehead with the palm of his hand. “Of course it is! GPS or cell tower triangulation, same thing. You might as well be wearing a neon sign. Dude, you should know better!”
“Well, excuse me if I didn’t share your paranoia until just now!”
“They’ll be tracking your mom’s, too,” said Shade.
Winston grimaced. “Yup. And probably yours.”
“What? No way.”
“Why not? We’re together every day. Just bugging the phones would be so nineties.”
Shade swallowed hard as his forehead wrinkled with worry.
Winston pulled out his phone and opened the browser. “All right. I have an idea, but you’re gonna need to run. Fast.”
“You know I hate running.”
“I’m sure there are worse things, and we’re going to experience most of them if you don’t.”
“Fine,” Shade growled.
Winston typed and swiped as quickly as his fingers and data connection allowed. Even as he was tapping, he was already on his feet, hunched over into a crouch, making his way toward the corner stairwell. Shade followed close behind.
By the time they were on the ground and shielded from view behind the corner of the motel, Winston had the timings and directions worked out. As he whispered into Shade’s ear, his friend kept shaking his head, which made whispering into the ear more difficult.
“You’re insane,” Shade finally said.
“And you’re late,” answered Winston. “Now run!”
Shade took off, seeming to lumber from side to side as much as he moved forward, backpack rocking rhythmically across his wide shoulder blades. He reached the end of the motel and vanished into the gray stillness of pre-dawn.
Winston returned to the stairwell and edged around it to see the parking lot and the men still motionless in their black sedan. The driver balanced something on the steering wheel, and only the occasional glow of a small screen on his face told Winston that he was snapping pictures. Winston studied them. He couldn’t make out any of the passenger’s features, but the driver’s illuminated face and neck revealed him as a large, muscular man. He was also methodical with his photography, taking several versions of each shot at different settings.
Winston glanced at the time on his phone, did one last mental recheck of his figures, then hit the speed dial as he ducked back behind the building.
The phone rang four painfully slow times and went to voice mail.
“Hello. Sorry I’ve missed your call,” began his mom, careful as always not to use her name.
Winston hung up and redialed. One ring…two…three…
He prepared to hit End again when the line clicked.
“Uhh…” his mother answered, still sounding mostly asleep. “Hello?”
“Mom,” said Winston. He waited. It didn’t take long for the mommy adrenaline to kick in.
“Winston?” Her voice immediately sharpened with concern. “What— Where are you?”
“I’m outside the motel, Mom. There are two men parked here. Black car, back row.”
“Winston, get back here! It’s not—”
“Mom, listen. You have about thirty seconds to wake up and another sixty to pack. After that, you need to be gone. I mean really gone, hidden.”
“Listen, young man. If you think—”
“No.” Winston cupped a hand around his mouth, knowing he needed to sound as stern and resolved as he felt. “I can do this. The note in the deposit box was to me, Mom…not us. I need you to stay safe.”
Neither of them spoke. A gust of wind blew across Winston’s face, and he could smell that crisp, early edge of fall mixed with cement and car exhaust. The first shades of pink blossomed in the cloudless eastern sky. It promised to be a beautiful day if he wasn’t stuck in an interrogation cell.
“Winston, I can’t let you do this,” she said, hushed and tense, probably close to crying again.
“I know, Mom. But I’m not asking for permission.”
It was the first time he had ever openly defied her wishes. Couldn’t he have started with something smaller and easier, like blowing off his chores?
“Winston, you don’t know what—”
“I don’t know anything, Mom. It’s all crazy. But right now, you need to move. Just go with it, OK? I love you.”
He heard her sniffle. “I love you, honey.”
The knot tightened in his throat, but he took a deep breath and fought it loose again. “Your thirty seconds are up, Mom. Gotta go. As soon as you hang up, pull out the battery on your phone and don’t put it back in, no matter what. That’s how they’re tracking us. Got it?”
“Got it,” she whispered.
Not knowing what else he could say and not trusting his resolve if he tried, Winston hit the End button. Then he shoved the phone into his front jeans pocket, tightened the straps on his backpack a pinch more, and broke into a sprint straight toward the black sedan.
Looking for the beginning of Winston Chase and the Alpha Machine? If so, click here. If you're ready for Chapter 9, please keep reading...
The motel lobby featured posters of Portland-area natural landmarks set in cheap gold-tone frames: Multnomah Falls, sunset on Mt. Hood, Haystack Rock out at the coast. Half of the pictures hung at odd angles. The place smelled of lemon furniture cleaner mixed with dust and cigarettes. Oregon hadn’t allowed indoor public smoking in years, so that didn’t say much about the management’s feelings on deep cleaning. Recessed overhead lighting gave the place a brownish hue, complementing the worn and occasionally splotched diamond pattern carpeting.
Winston followed his mother to the reception counter, behind which sat an old man, leaning way back in a reclining office chair. He wore a red baseball cap and a red vest over a plaid flannel shirt. A copy of Guns & Ammo magazine consumed the man’s attention.
“Hello?” she called, peering over the chipped laminate counter top.
The attendant squinted up at her, apparently liked what he saw, and smiled. A tongue swirled behind the gaps between his mossy teeth.
“Well, hello there,” he said.
“We need a room for the night,” she said. “Two beds. Nothing fancy.”
She made the remark with a straight face, and it took Winston a second to get the barb.
The attendant eyed her for a moment. “I guess we’ll skip the President’s Suite, then.”
A Denny’s dinner of burgers and fries still sat heavy in Winston’s stomach, and he was content to let his mom take care of business. The two adults chatted for a bit, and when his mom pulled several ten- and twenty-dollar bills from her purse and traded them for a room key, Winston wondered about how the attendant was studying him, his hair in particular. He probably should have left his hat on.
They took room 218, located up the flight of stairs at the corner of the building. The sun hung low over southeast Portland. Outside their room, Winston paused at the walkway railing, shielded his eyes, and watched traffic go by. Hundreds of people flitted along, going about their regular evenings, probably bored by their routines like he had been only twenty-four hours ago.
What a difference a day can make, he thought.
Only four cars dotted the parking lot below, which lay separated from the main road by a row of skinny arbor vitae trees. From above, their Toyota Van looked like a small tank pulled straight from the 1980s.
Inside, Winston found his mom closing the blinds.
“Just like home,” he said, tossing his backpack onto the available bed.
His mom had already claimed the bed closest to the tiny bathroom. She had several neatly folded clothing items set out along the foot of the bed, ready to wear for tomorrow. The room couldn’t have been more than fifteen feet square, and only white sheets and tan blankets covered the beds. No artwork. No color. Only four white walls with cobwebs in the corners and a square table near the bathroom door no bigger than a pizza box. Apparently, anyone wanting to sit at the table could use the edge of the bed as a chair. The only lighting was a two-bulb wall lamp mounted between the beds.
Once his mom double-checked the door lock and the blinds, she rubbed her hands together nervously and looked at Winston. “Let’s see what you got from the bank.”
Winston sat beside his backpack and had just started extracting his new acquisitions when his phone vibrated. The opening bars of the Mythbusters theme song rang from his pocket.
“Shade,” he said.
She raised a hand in warning. “Winston…”
“I know, I know.”
He swiped to take the call.
Shade’s normally high voice rose further with concern. “Where are you? I’m standing outside your house and nobody’s here.”
“We, uh, went out for dinner.” That much was true.
“Wait. You get suspended, and your mom, who hardly ever takes you anywhere, rewards you with dinner out?”
In the small room’s quiet, his mother could make out every word. Her nostrils flared and some of the color drained from her cheeks as she glared at the phone in Winston’s hand.
“It’s one of those things,” said Winston. “Big lecture. Life lesson. Parents think a good meal will make it all better.”
“So where’d you go?”
Shade burst out laughing. “I thought you said a good meal!”
The rest of the color vanished from his mom’s face. Winston watched it fade with growing concern and said nothing.
“She can hear me, can’t she?” Shade asked, much quieter now.
Winston’s mom pointed at the phone. “I’m going to have a little talk with your mother about gratitude and manners, Shade!” she called.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Chase!” Shade’s panic was plainly audible over the tiny speaker.
“Anyway,” Winston cut in. “What’s up?”
“Homework — duh! When are you getting home?”
His mom shook her head in warning.
“I don’t know. We were thinking about staying out for a while.”
“On a weeknight? Don’t you have a ton to do?”
“It can wait.”
“And what about your blue butt?” he added in a hushed tone. “Dude, we need to talk!”
“It can wait,” Winston said again, more firmly this time.
“Oh, really?” Shade sounded defensive if not a little offended. “Well, how about your Skype date with Alyssa? Can that wait, too?”
Winston face-palmed himself and fell back onto the bed. Somehow, he’d completely forgotten about the biggest breakthrough moment of his life in the face of so many other even bigger moments.
“Crap!” he said.
His mother, normally ready to pounce on anything remotely resembling profanity, let this one go. She hadn’t known about Winston’s date, but he’d told her enough about Alyssa over the years for her to appreciate what the opportunity must mean.
“You cannot be serious,” Shade said. “Get. Home. Now.”
Winston grimaced. “I can’t.”
“You can’t? You can’t?”
Winston separated palm from face and smacked his bed several times. “No. I can’t.”
He looked at his mom and found her anger evaporated. I’m sorry, she mouthed.
“Look,” said Winston. “Can you get me her number? I’ll text her and apologize.”
“That’s your plan?” Shade’s voice had grown more distant from switching to speaker mode, and the buzz-buzz-buzz Winston heard told him that his friend was already texting people to get Alyssa’s info.
“That’s all I’ve got.”
“This must be some heavy duty talk. Is it because of the Alyssa date? It’s not the birds and bees thing, is it?”
“Shade!” Winston and his mom said in unison.
“OK, OK! Just tell me when you’re getting home!”
Winston looked at his mom questioningly. She shrugged and raised her hands.
“I don’t know,” Winston said. “We have a lot to cover. I’ll fill you in when I can.”
Shade must have heard something in Winston’s voice, because he let the silence hang a few seconds too long.
“Winston,” he said. “Are you—?”
“Yeah,” Winston replied, and the word sounded fake even to himself. “I’m fine.”
“You know that’s what females say when they’re totally not fine, right? Trust me on this.”
“I gotta go, man.”
Winston’s phone vibrated twice in his hand.
“There’s Alyssa’s number,” said Shade. “Don’t mess up your chance here.”
“I’ll try. Thanks.”
Shade hung up. Winston let the phone slip from his hand. It bounced on the sheets and tumbled back against his ear.
“Aaagghhhh…” Winston groaned, covering his face with his hands. He forced himself through several deep breaths, then asked, “That picture in my locker. You know how often I’ve looked at that?”
She blinked several times as she stared at Winston. Her lips parted, but she remained silent.
“I’ve spent all these years wondering why everybody but me had a dad,” he said. “Why did mine have to walk out and leave when I was little?”
“I’m so sorry, Winston,” she whispered.
“I thought having some answers might help someday. Turns out it doesn’t.”
He could hear how bitter his words sounded, and he knew they must cut her. Even in his anger, Winston felt badly about adding to the pain she must already feel. But this one time, he felt that his pain should come first.
“So how much are you going to tell me?”
His mom paused, considering. Then she bowed her head slowly. “You know who he is. I’ve already told you a lot. When this is over, if you still want to know, I promise to tell you whatever you want. Right now, though, we need to concentrate on the Alpha Machine.”
Winston said nothing.
His mom nodded and looked away. “He left me, too, honey.”
She rolled her shoulders and stretched her neck, trying to relieve some of the tension. When her gaze returned to Winston’s backpack, his mom rummaged through the clothing and gear inside of it and dug out the metal ring. She held it almost at arm’s length, a far-away expression on her face.
“Alpha Machine?” he asked, intentionally changing the subject.
“There are five pieces,” she said. “Two look like stainless steel tori.”
“What’s a tori?”
“Tori. The plural of torus.”
Winston cocked his head in confusion. “Like the car?”
“Like bagels. Two are rings — this one, and one that’s a bit bigger. The last is a crescent, like a big letter C. With all five together, they create a single mechanism, although I think each also has its own function. I’m not sure. I never handled them. But they use some kind of nuclear power that, as far as I know, has never been created here on Earth. And they give off a unique kind of radiation, a sort of long-range alpha particle. So we called it the Alpha Machine.”
Winston sat up and took the ring from her. Instantly, he felt that faint electric tingle in his hands. His vision wavered, then restabilized.
“There…” he said. “Did you feel something?”
She looked at him with curiosity and concern. “Only a slight tingle.”
“Yeah. A buzz, like a shock. And something in my head…” He turned the ring around in his hands, running his fingertips over its smooth surface. “So you don’t know what it does?”
“I don’t. We didn’t have much time to investigate, and I haven’t seen this since 1948.”
They heard and felt heavy footsteps outside on the walkway. Both of them stood. His mother looked desperately around the room, probably searching for something they could use as a weapon. Their few knives and a small can of pepper spray waited on the night stand.
“Jeremy!” bellowed a woman’s voice from outside.
Smaller footsteps pattered past their door, and they heard a small child’s laughter. The heavier steps came barreling on in pursuit, rattling their door in its frame. The heavy steps passed by, and seconds later they heard Jeremy squeal a long “nooooo!” in protest.
“Coming out of the time travel thing…can be imprecise,” Winston’s mom said in a near-whisper. “You aim for one thing, but you might get another, I guess. I wasn’t the one doing it. We only wanted to skip forward a few decades, figuring that was safer than risking changing history.”
Winston’s eyebrows arched. “Only a few decades.”
“We landed in 1989 and spent a long time thinking about what to do with the Alpha Machine. Your father—”
“You mean 1998,” Winston interrupted. “I’m fourteen.”
A flicker of remembered pain crossed over his mom’s features. “Well, no. It was November of 1989. Claude picked that path for us while I…I fought with Devlin. He attacked us just as we were leaving. Your father didn’t have time to concentrate, and he was anxious to help me. When we emerged in 1989, we overpowered Devlin, but we didn’t want to kill him.”
“He attacked you? And this is the guy who’s after us now? Maybe you should have killed him.”
Only after the words were out did their meaning jar him.
She shook her head, and her voice was low and tight. “We didn’t want to meet the future with blood on our hands. Besides, it sounds easy, years later. Just…kill him. But it’s not so easy when you’re standing over the person with a rock in your hand.” A small shiver passed through her. She took a deep breath and straightened. “We always worried that he would find us. And he did eventually. That’s why your father decided to leave. It’s also why you’re afraid of water.”
“What? What’s water got to do with this?”
His mom bowed her head and pinched off a stray thread that she found on the hem of her pants. “Devlin waited for us to come home, and he shot your father in the leg when we walked through the door. I think he only wanted to wound him, at least at that moment.” She turned on the bed, looking at an empty space near her. “I screamed, which made you start crying of course, because you were barely one. I remember I tossed you onto the couch, grabbed the ash tray on the coffee table, and rushed him. Your father still had his keys in his hand, and he threw them at Devlin’s face. It gave me that one second of distraction, and I smashed the ash tray on the side of his head. Gave myself a deep gash in the process, but he went down in a pile.”
“Geeze, Mom. World class biologist and a cage fighter. Anything else I don’t know about you?”
“Loads.” She smiled faintly. “Everyone was bleeding. You were still howling, but we knew we had to get out of there. I ripped out the fake wall we’d installed in the bedroom closet and grabbed the Alpha Machine. Claude couldn’t stand, and he was losing a lot of blood. Devlin regained consciousness. When he started crawling toward us, I just grabbed you and Claude, and we…went. I tried to put us on a good path, but your father passed out right in the middle of it. I lost my concentration and panicked. I suppose it could have been worse. I might have dropped us in the middle of the ocean, and we all would have drowned. As it was, we landed about four hundred yards off the shore near this little place in California named Patrick’s Point in the middle of a late autumn storm. The cold water was enough to revive your father, and thank God there was a driftwood log near us. We obviously made it to shore, but you were understandably terrified, and we were all feeling the effects of time jumping. It feels like your insides have been lifted out and put back in backwards, although the ten-year jump wasn’t as bad as the forty-year. We made it, but ever since you’ve been terrified of the water.”
Winston nodded. “Understandably! Holy cow, Mom!”
“So, we put a decade between us and Devlin, and you became a one-year-old in the year 2000. Your father healed up. We made our way north, but we were always nervous about Devlin finding us again. We never stayed too long anywhere. You weren’t going to stay a toddler forever, though. We knew what had to happen, just like we knew what the wrong people could do with the Alpha Machine.”
“Like Devlin Bledsoe.”
“And whomever he found to help him.” She stared at the metal ring on the bed. “I think Devlin went to the government and found whatever was left of Project Majestic. Then, somehow, he found us, despite all the help your father tried to give.”
“Whoa! Whoa!” Winston sat up, hands pressed to his temples. “I need a flowchart or something to get through this. What help?”
“Yes, it’s convoluted,” she said patiently. “Your father decided to go back by himself. He spent years, a lot of years, helping us from afar. He got us money. He found ways to get us official records and new identities.” She ran a finger over her nose and cheeks. “We both got plastic surgery.”
Winston couldn’t help but study her face. “Really?”
“After he left, he only visited once. It was at a…tough time for me. I was so lonely, just being with you all day every day, in a strange town with no friends. So yes, I got to see him once, but in another way it’s like he was always there, dropping me gifts and notes when and where I least expected them. Although I haven’t heard from him in a long time.” She paused in thought, then added. “But he’d told me to always be ready, just in case.”
“In case today happened, you mean. How long have they been watching us?”
His mom shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe years. I did everything I could not to draw any attention to us, but I couldn’t keep you in a cage. I had to let you be a boy. Otherwise, why did we escape? What was living for?”
“But if they knew we were here,” Winston thought, “why not grab us? Why…” Then it hit him. “We were bait. Bledsoe or whoever figured that if they just let us sit here, my dad would come looking someday.”
She nodded and wiped at her eyes.
Winston pushed himself off the bed and began pacing the floor, trying to keep everything straight in his head. “There’s a part I don’t get. If you didn’t trust this Bledsoe guy, or even like him, why’d you bring him on that first jump?”
“We didn’t.” His mom’s hands curled into fists. “There was supposed to be a group of us, before things went wrong. But not Devlin. We didn’t know that he’d also injected himself with QVs. According to Bernie, injection was necessary in order to use the Alpha Machine. Just when we were going through, Devlin ran at us out of nowhere and…I guess you could say he hitched a ride.”
“But this guy had been your friend?”
“Not at the end.” She shook her head mournfully. “He was jealous of your father. And he was…damaged. He lost a lot of his family in the wars. I think it changed him, especially losing his brother, who had been captured and killed. When his work in Area X revealed what might be possible with the alien technologies, Devlin dedicated himself to it completely.”
“He is scary. His ambition is terrible. That’s why your father vanished into the past. He hid the Alpha Machine pieces so that they’d never be found, except by you or me, and only then in case of extreme emergency.”
The story defied imagination. Knowing the truth now, or at least some of it, made Winston regret much of his past anger. “Poor Dad,” he muttered.
How could he have been so selfish? Some evil, time-traveling quack wanted to find his father and presumably do what all bad guys did: kill the good guys and destroy everything. And Winston was worried about keeping his date with--
Winston snagged his phone from the bed, copied out the number Shade had sent him, and started composing a text.
Alyssa. Extremely sorry, but I have to miss…
“Winston, what are you doing?” his mom asked.
“Sending Alyssa an apology. One sec.”
“Oh, it’s fine,” she said, obviously irritated. “Only the fate of the world, but it can wait.”
Winston shot her a Mom, really? look and kept typing.
…have to miss our date…
He deleted that last word.
…our appointment tonight. Family emergency. I really hope you’ll let us reschedule soon.
He read it over for typos or any other embarrassing word choices. Was it too polite? Too well punctuated? Shade always made fun of him for how he composed his messages like a finals essay. Winston hit Send and stared at the phone in his palm, reading the words “Message Sent” over and over until they faded away.
“We’re not going home again, are we?” he asked. “Ever.”
A stern edge crept into her voice. “I don’t know, honey. Every day of my life for the last thirteen years, I wondered if this day would come. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I definitely didn’t make plans around visiting with girlfriends. I don’t know how much of our rainy day fund we’ll have to use.”
Winston looked up. “Rainy day fund?”
“I have a little emergency money stored away.”
Winston’s mom gazed out the window. “A couple million,” she said quietly. “Or so. Of course, I had to put it in an offshore account.”
His jaw swung open. “Mom! We’re millionaires? Are you kidding? I thought we were poor!”
“You’d rather we lived high on the hog? Drew a lot of attention? Had people wondering, ‘Gee, I wonder how a diner waitress made all that money?’ Where I came from, there were no credit cards, and people quietly saved their money for rainy days.”
He smirked. “This is pretty rainy.”
Her irritation melted, and she smiled back at him. “We should’ve built an ark.”
They laughed together. Winston’s mom got up from the bed and wrapped her arms around him. They hadn’t had a good hug in a long time. Winston now stood taller than her by three or four inches. He remembered being able to rest his cheek high up on her chest, just under the collar bone. Now he could almost rest his cheek on top of her head. The difference took something away from the closeness. He was no longer a little boy nuzzling inside of his mother’s protection. He’d become something else, changing, growing.
His mother felt it, too. She leaned away from him slightly and looked into his face, her brows wrinkled with concern as the last traces of her smile creased the corners of her mouth.
“My little boy. Not so little now.”
Winston shrugged. “Not much I can do about it.”
“Most things are that way.” She glanced at the contents of his backpack spread out on the bed. “But not everything. Come on.”
She gave his shoulder a pat and backed away from him. Winston realized he didn’t want her to go.
“Let’s see what toys your father left for us.” His mom browsed through the money, then fingered the cash. “Why are these bills new?”
“I had the teller change them out. I figured it would draw less attention.”
She raised an eyebrow at him and ruffled his hair. “Smart kid. Did you show them anything else?”
She peeked inside the drawstring bag containing the blue marbles and drew one out, holding it between her thumb and index finger. Even in the dim lighting, the sphere’s white flecks sparkled brilliantly.
“Why marbles?” Winston asked.
“Because they’re batteries.” She held up the oddly shaped object fashioned from silver tubes. “For things like this.”
“Ummm…OK. What’s it do?”
The shadow of some memory darkened her face. His mom seemed to want to hand the device to Winston, but instead she set it down between them.
“I’m not really sure. I never got to experiment with it. If I recall correctly, the team never settled the debate on whether it conducted electricity or generated plasma. But we had a chimpanzee who accidentally used it to blow a hole through a foot-thick cement wall.”
“Ha!” For a second, Winston thought she was joking. He face said otherwise. “Wait, a chimpanzee?”
“The closest thing to a human on the evolutionary ladder. We saw some success, if you can call it that, injecting them with QVs.”
“And it blew up a wall?” Winston lifted the device, slipping his right hand through the ring to grasp the crosspiece, as he’d done before. It seemed the natural thing to do. “So this is an alien ray gun? Are you freaking kidding me?”
“Winston Franklin! Language.”
“Sorry. It’s just…” He clenched his hand tighter around the silver tube. He felt the beginning of his tinnitus in his left ear. It was only the faintest ringing, barely audible, then it went away as he relaxed his hand. That was no coincidence.
“I have a laser blaster!” he crowed.
Winston’s mom put one hand over his forearm and lowered the device so that it pointed toward the floor. “I don’t know what this is, but I do know that it’s more than that. And this is not a toy. We’re not in some video game.”
“I know, Mom.”
“I’m not sure you do. Honey, people have died over this. And if I’m right about Devlin, and there’s still a Project Majestic, then a lot more people could die. Do you understand?”
He nodded. Not wanting to meet her eyes when she was angry, Winston gently took the marble from her hand. He wondered if it might fit in one of the six slender tube openings near the device’s far end, but the marble was obviously too large. He turned his arm over, examining the perfectly smooth tubes at their larger end. There was a small snick sound, and a round, quarter-sized hole opened in the middle of the oval ring’s bulge.
“Cool!” said Winston, and without a second thought he plugged the blue marble into the hole. The hole closed as quickly as it had opened. Winston felt and heard the ball roll around for a moment within the bulge — and then it vanished. No sound, no weight. Somehow, the ball seemed to have evaporated inside the device.
Simultaneously, Winston felt as if someone had flicked on a power switch. The connection between the device and his brain came alive. A tingling similar to what he’d first felt from the metal ring began in his palm, but the sensation went beyond that. If anything, it felt like two attracting magnets snapping together. Some invisible connection formed between these silver tubes and his head, and they belonged together. He’d never felt anything like it.
“What is it?” His mom reaching toward him. “Are you OK?”
Winston turned the device over in his hand, pointing it this way and that. “I think so,” he said.
When he brought the tips of the device close to the metal ring, their one piece of the Alpha Machine, the tube tips moved. They bent and swayed stiffly, like slow tentacles searching for something to grasp.
“Whoa!” Winston cried, instinctively pulling away. The tubes immediately resumed their original tapering shape. He looked at his mother. “Did you see that?”
“Yes,” she said. “I never saw it do that before.”
Winston nodded appreciatively at the device. “Alien blaster, new and improved.”
Slowly, Winston used his free hand to pick up the ring. He meant to bring the two objects together to see if anything would happen, but as soon as his fingers closed around the cool metal, his vision seemed to blur, and then…
Winston gasped. The world around him faded. In computer photo editing, he would have called it desaturating. What little color existed in their room faded into gray and became slightly transparent. Something else materialized all around him, something green and splotchy and shifting chaotically. He blinked, confused, but the changes remained when he opened his eyes.
“Winston?” He heard his mom’s voice distantly, as if half-way into a dream.
He tried to relax and ignore the hotel room, instead focusing on the green. Gradually, the edges of the splotches started to sharpen. He began to see texture within the green and a greater awareness of light streaming through the blots. But it wasn’t the low, orange light of their evening. It was overhead sunlight, which made no sense.
Winston continued to let his eyes adjust. It felt a lot like staring at one of those “magic eye” pictures, where the viewer could see a 3D object pop out of the 2D pattern of shapes if he looked at it just right. Winston did, and he recognized the object before him: a tree. They sat on a bed in their motel room, but they also rested high up in the boughs of a tree, leaves spinning and weaving on some unfelt breeze.
“Oh, wow,” he breathed.
“What is it?” she asked, still strangely far away.
Winston turned his head and realized he could see through the foliage. Between the shifting branches, he could see other trees and below them a two-lane road, right where the four-lane Sandy Boulevard ran outside their motel. Beside the road squatted a rust-spattered gas station with two old fashioned pumps in the covered drive-up before the building. A Shell gas station sign showed prices above the words REGULAR and UNLEADED.
“Mom, when did gas cost 39 cents a gallon?”
“Why?” she asked. “A long time ago. Maybe the early seventies?”
“Why?” she repeated.
“Because I think I’m looking at the spot we’re in now how it used to be…back then. It’s like I’m in a tree looking down at a gas station and a small road.”
“Stop,” she said. He felt her hand over his forearm, tugging at it. “Please stop.”
Winston let her pull his hand away from the metal ring. The instant he lost connection with it, Winston felt a pressure release in his head, like his ears popping when driving down a mountainside. He blinked several times, letting his eyes and mind refocus on the motel room and his mom. She had a hand on his cheek, and she was scanning his eyes and face for any sign of trouble.
“I’m OK,” he said. He took a deep breath and smiled. “It’s energy. I can feel it flowing from me into the Alpha Machine thing and back. It’s sort of like electricity…but different. There’s this pressure, and it’s up to me to decide how to direct it. Like the gates are in my mind. Does that make any sense?”
There was only one item left for them to study. Winston put the two metal devices down and lifted the powder blue photo album onto his lap. It smelled faintly of dust, which seemed odd for something locked away from any dust for the last few decades. On the first page, he again saw the two photos, only now he viewed them with a new perspective. Apparently, his mom felt the same, because she gasped when she saw the first image.
It was a black and white image of a man in a collared shirt and slacks, his fedora hat shadowing most his face. He stood in front of a river and bridge blurred in the background. Winston felt fairly sure that this was the Broadway Bridge downtown because it was made of steel girders in low arches, and the two middle sections were raised to allow a freight ship passage through. It also helped that the man held a street map in one hand with the word “Portland” clearly showing at the top. In his other hand, he held a thick metal ring with a round bulge exposed. With a jolt, he knew this must be the next piece of the Alpha Machine.
That thought brought another realization right on its heels. Even though the man in the photo bore little resemblance to Mr. A, this had to be his father.
They reached for the photo at the same time, touching its edges gently for similar reasons.
“Oh,” she whispered.
“Plastic surgery?” Winston couldn’t get any more words out. His throat constricted as he felt hot tears stinging his eyes. His mom nodded.
Winston looked from the picture to his mom. He had always wished for two parents, the same as every kid who only has one, but he’d never had a face to put with that wish. Suddenly, his long-buried dream flashed back into life. He saw the three of them together, standing there on the edge of the Willamette River, watching ships pass under the bridge. Just another lazy family afternoon. So ordinary. It wasn’t only an idle dream, though. In a second of complete crystallization, the dream consumed him.
Could he make this happen? If he had a time machine, could he somehow create the family he’d always wanted but had always been beyond his reach?
Winston knew in that moment that he would put his life on the line to find out.
“What’s that second picture?” she asked quietly.
Winston swallowed hard and found his hands were sweating. His head lowered and his nostrils flared, as if he were preparing to step into a fight with Brian Steinhoff.
He forced himself to relax and concentrate on the photo album. He flipped ahead, but there were no other images in the book, only empty squares with little holders at their corners for mounting more images on subsequent pages.
He returned to the second photo. At first glance, it only looked like bunch of construction workers in front of a dirt pile. But there had to be more to it. Five men in dirty overalls stood in a crescent behind the dirt, smiling, hands on one another’s shoulders. Three of them smoked cigarettes. Before them, a sixth man wearing a hard hat crouched at the dirt’s edge, leaning forward so that one hand could grip the handle of a shovel thrust into the pile. A piece of paper had been taped to the end of the shovel handle, crayon-colored in red with five gold stars in the corner — the national flag of China. The man’s other hand rested on his knee for balance…but his index finger stuck out, pointing at the shovel. Oddly, the dirt pile wasn’t mounded, as if it had been dumped by a truck. It was flat, and its edges, while wending and bent, appeared to have been purposefully shaped.
Winston found himself wondering what this might have to do with the Alpha Machine when he noticed that the mouth and jawline of the crouching man matched that of his father in the first picture.
“A road crew? I don’t get it,” he said.
“Neither do I,” answered his mother.
Winston rubbed his temples and closed his eyes. “Mom, I do need one thing.”
Still half-lost in her own thoughts, she nodded. “Yes, we need several things, but I think we still have a little time. We’ll buy more gear first thing in the morning.” She looked up at him suddenly. “Or do you mean— Are you OK?”
He laughed. “Yes, I’m fine. Except…chocolate chip mint.”
She seemed unable to make sense of his words. Her head cocked to the side, and she seemed about to ask him what on earth he was saying. Then she got it.
“After all this, you’re worried about ice cream?”
She shook her head, smiling, and slung her purse over her shoulder. “Pack your bag up. We’re not leaving that stuff unattended. But yes, I suppose the fate of the world can wait for a double scoop.”
Looking for the beginning of Winston Chase and the Alpha Machine? If so, click here. If you're ready for Chapter 8, please keep reading...
Winston’s mom exited Interstate 205 near Clackamas, continued east for a couple of miles, then pulled over to the curb. She turned off the car and stared at the steering wheel, deep in thought.
Winston waited. Finally, she reached into her pants pocket and handed a small silver key to Winston. The number 3227 was printed on one side. It was warm from her body heat.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“A key to the safe deposit box in the Wells Fargo bank around the corner. It used to be a First Interstate Bank…” She paused to consider. “…thirty-five years ago. When your father paid for it.”
Winston considered that, thinking of the photo in his locker, his father’s hand reaching toward him. In a way, that’s what was happening now.
“So what do I do with this?” he asked.
Her expression showed carefully controlled anxiety. As he studied the narrow angles of her face and the deep green and brown of her eyes, Winston realized for the first time that his mother was actually a beautiful woman. Why was she still single? For that matter, why was a brilliant scientist wasting her life tossing eggs and coffee at people? She should be famous, not anonymous.
Then he realized the truth. She wanted to be anonymous. All of her decisions, from her job to their home to the way they avoided going out in public, were designed to avoid attention. For him. All of this was about him.
“You go in,” she said, “show them the key, and put whatever is in the box in your backpack.”
“You don’t know what’s in the box?”
She shook her head. “Oh, I know. I just hoped I’d never see it again.”
Winston closed his fist around the key and felt its teeth dig into his fingers. He grabbed his backpack and opened the van’s door.
When Winston rounded the corner, he saw the Wells Fargo up ahead, another bland community bank with a handful of shrubs breaking up the glass and concrete monotony. Inside the lobby, glass-doored offices lined one wall, and a row of teller windows filled the other. In the far left corner, a thick glass panel shielded the many-layered and bolted door of the bank’s vault. Coming in from the early afternoon heat, the bank felt cool and welcoming. Nevertheless, Winston’s heart hammered as if he were in an 800-meter sprint.
Two of the teller windows stood open. He approached the farthest one. The attendant was a young Asian lady dressed in a white blouse. She had green eye shadow and gold earrings that dangled an inch or two under her bobbed haircut. The little gold nameplate outside her window read JANET.
“Good afternoon,” she said as Winston stopped before her. “How can I help you?”
The other teller stood at her window, looking down at whatever papers were on the counter before her. Behind them, an older lady in a navy suit jacket and slacks stood with her back to Winston, typing at a computer. It was another lazy day at the bank. Nothing to worry about. No reason to feel he was doing something strange or wrong. At least half a dozen security cameras stared down at him.
He set the key on the counter. It clattered on the cool granite surface, surprisingly loud. The older bank lady turned her head and looked toward Winston out of the corner of her eye.
“I’d like to get into—” Winston’s voice cracked, and he quickly cleared his throat. “Sorry. I’d like to get into a safe deposit box.”
Janet looked back at her manager. “Sue, do you have a sec?”
The older lady hit a few keys, triggering her system’s screen saver, then walked over. Sue had a leathery look about her. Her gray hair was cut short, and she wore thin, black-rimmed glasses.
“Can I help you?” she asked in a voice almost as deep as Winston’s.
Winston used an index finger to nudge the key through the teller window gap. Sue slid the key into her hand and examined it, one brow arching. She looked from the key to Winston, then at the white streaks in his hair. He fought the urge to swallow.
“Please step over to the glass door,” the manager said.
Winston obeyed, moving to a thick glass panel that shielded the many-layered and bolted vault door. Sue stepped in front of another computer near the floor-to-ceiling panel.
“Three…two…two…seven,” said Sue as she typed in the key’s numbers. “Your name?”
“Winston Chase.” It didn’t even occur to him to use a fake name.
Sue typed it in, confirming the spelling as she went. “May I see some identification?” she asked.
Winston suddenly became aware of how dry his mouth felt. He reached for his wallet.
“I don’t have a driver’s license,” he murmured.
“Birth certificate? Passport?”
He had a few dollars, a half-filled Taco Del Mar punch card, and his student ID. Feeling horribly young and awkward, he opened the wallet for the manager to see and handed her the Shifford Middle School card. She eyed it warily, turning it in the light, then handed it back to him.
“Where’d you get that key?” the manager asked.
“From my mom. It’s a…birthday present.”
Sue radiated skepticism, but she only offered a noncommittal “hm,” then leaned forward and hit a key. The glass door’s lock gave a soft buzz as its bolt clicked back.
“Step through,” she said, coming around the computer.
There was no temperature change on the other side of the door, but as the panel swung closed behind him, Winston felt the air around him grow closer, more confining. The bank vault’s rectangular doorway stood open, as did the inner doorway of iron bars just inside of it.
“Sign here, please,” said the manager, pointing to a log book beside the computer with a pen she then held out to Winston. He signed. She grabbed the white card that dangled from a strap around her neck and passed it before a sensor mounted alongside the vault door. A light on the sensor pad changed from red to green.
Sue handed the key back to Winston and motioned him into the vault.
Beyond the door waited a tall grid of safe deposit boxes. Unlike in the cartoons, there were no stacks of gold bars or piles of neatly bound bills. Whatever riches the vault contained lay in those hundreds of locked compartments.
Even with the vault open, the steel chamber felt immediately claustrophobic. The cool, dry air seemed to smother the sound of his breathing right in front of his face. He had the sense of being in a giant coffin, even though the space was the size of a two-car garage and amply lit by overhead lamps.
Sue stepped to the right, scanned across the numbers stamped on the small brass ovals attached to each box, and found number 3227. Each safe deposit box had two keyholes positioned alongside a small handle in the center. She inserted hers into the right keyhole and looked back at Winston. “Now yours, please,” she said.
Winston inserted his key into the left hole.
“Please make one half-turn clockwise,” she said.
In his nervousness, Winston turned to the left, quickly caught his error, and turned the key the other way, feeling it click through gears as it twisted 180 degrees. Why was he so nervous? Would that make the manager suspicious enough to call security or the police?
Sue turned her key back to its starting position, and Winston followed her example. They both withdrew their keys, then she grasped the handle and pulled box 3227 from the wall. The surprisingly large container measured only six inches high but a foot wide and almost two feet long. Balancing it in both arms, the manager handed the box to Winston and led him across the vault to a counter where he could examine the box’s contents.
“This table is outside the view of our security cameras,” she explained. “You can take as much time as you like. No other patrons will be allowed inside the vault while you’re here. When you’re ready, just slide the box completely back into its space and tap on the outer door for someone to let you out. Any questions?”
Winston shook his head and watched as she left, making sure the iron-barred door shut behind her. Except for the barest whisper from the air vents, the chamber stood completely silent. Heart pounding, Winston tilted the box and set it on the bench, feeling objects inside slide from back to front. He lifted a hinged panel on the deposit box’s top and started removing the contents. He felt the urge to dump everything in his pack and run back to his mother, but curiosity held him in place. This was the closest he could remember ever being to direct contact with his father. He had to know. Now.
The first object baffled him. It was a leather pouch filled with thirty or forty sky blue marbles, each of them about the size of a grape and shot through with sparkling veins of white. Why marbles? Maybe these were leftovers from his dad’s childhood that had some sentimental value.
Next came another leather pouch just like the first, but the clink of what had to be coins inside lifted Winston’s expectations.
Now that’s what I’m talking about, he thought.
He undid the drawstring and, sure enough, the top of the pouch opened to reveal a folded stack of green bills. Removing the cash, he nearly jumped up and down at the sight of an inch-deep pile of gold and silver at the pouch’s bottom. These weren’t dollar and half-dollar coins, he confirmed as he examined one gold piece. It depicted a woman carrying a branch in one hand and a torch in the other. On the obverse side, an eagle flew from right to left under the words “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA TWENTY DOLLARS.” It had to be some kind of collectible gold bullion. Winston had never heard of a twenty dollar coin.
This sparked another idea in his mind. He thumbed through the wad of bills. Sure enough, latest one was from 1974. Winston had watched enough TV to know that people could be tracked not only by their credit card use but also by the cash they spent if the bills were somehow exceptional. He suspected that a pile of money over forty years old could be pretty noticeable. He stuck the bills in his pocket.
Next, he pulled out a strange metal object. At first, Winston thought it might have some kind of use in cooking. It was glossy silver and apparently made of hollow metal tubes, roughly the size and shape of a wine bottle. From an oval ring at the large end sprang six slender pipes that at first ran perpendicular to the oval, then swooped inward, twisted around each other as they formed the shape’s neck, and tapered toward a point. The object spanned about twelve inches from base to tip and had an interior crosspiece between two of the tubes.
On impulse, Winston slid his right hand into the oval and grasped the crosspiece. He didn’t know what to expect. Some little whirlwind of CGI special effects? The appearance of a time-bending wormhole?
Disappointed, Winston moved to stuff the thing into his backpack, then he noticed that the crossbar tube had turned from solid black to a dull, rusty red. OK, that was interesting. He’d have to come back to it later.
The next object looked to be a thin ring of stainless steel, no thicker than the end of Winston’s pinky, and about ten inches in diameter. Its slightly flattened sides were adorned with geometrical markings etched into the surfaces, and two opposing bulges on the ring, each the size of a silver golf ball, gave the thing an odd but graceful symmetry. The thing felt surprisingly heavy for its slender size — coated lead, perhaps. As the metal slid through his fingers, he had the sensation of static electricity on his nerves, like petting a cat during a dry, chilly winter day. The object aroused Winston’s curiosity, but he couldn’t take the time to puzzle over it now.
In his right ear, Winston felt a pressure building. After a moment, the pressure gave way to a high-pitched tone — his tinnitus. All his life, this ringing in Winston’s ears would strike randomly, blot out most of the hearing in one ear for several seconds, and then vanish for weeks at a time. He’d never seen any pattern to its appearance, but it struck him as oddly coincidental that it should strike right now. Perhaps it was stress-induced.
Again…weird. But into the backpack the ring went.
Winston removed the last object from the deposit box: a small photo scrapbook. The cover was a faded, powder blue canvas. Each of the dozen or so thick black pages within lay protected by clear plastic sheets. Thumbing through the book, Winston found all but the first page empty. This page contained two 3” x 3” photos with rounded corners. They had that grainy, rough feel he’d seen in Shade’s family photos from the 1970s. The first picture was a black and white of some guy standing in front of a river, and the second showed a road construction crew in front of a pile of dirt.
This, Winston decided, was the worst family photo collection ever. Confused and frustrated, he dropped the album into his pack.
He looked back into the safe deposit box and saw nothing left.
No way. That couldn’t be everything. Except for the money, he’d discovered nothing but junk.
Winston grabbed the back end of the box and lifted it, shaking the thing from side to side. Something tapped against the front of the box. Winston set the container down and lifted the lid. He found a piece of folded yellow paper inside. The cursive handwriting on it was somewhat messy but still legible.
I so deeply hope that you, your mother, and I have been able to share a long life together. I hope you are a strong, successful person, with a wonderful family of your own. I know that whatever happens, you will make me proud.
With luck, you will be reading this in a world where there is no more war, a world in which the mighty lift up the weak. That is why we all fought these terrible battles. Yet if that improbable world comes to pass, it will be the first such occasion of it in known history. That is why I am leaving you this, in case the unhappy day comes that you must use my past to protect your future. You may well need all of your wits and speed to find the other four items that brought us to this time and place. Guard them well, and destroy them if necessary. This is imperative.
You are so small as I write this, but already you are my alpha and omega, my everything. Be smart, be safe, always be cautious, and remember that you can achieve anything you know to be true and good, so be wise.
Never, never give up. I love you more than mind or heart can express, Winston, now and always.
Winston refolded the sheet and placed it carefully in a backpack pocket where it wouldn’t get crumpled, all too aware of the tears obscuring his vision and rolling down his cheeks.
“Now you tell me,” he whispered.
Something nagged at the back of Winston’s mind, something he was both eager and terrified to recognize. At first, he pushed the feeling away. Simply reading the note had been enough. His father had thought of him, said he loved him, and taken enough care to provide these things for him at a time when Winston thought he had no family other than his mom. Before this moment, Winston had always believed that he’d been more or less abandoned. Proof to the contrary lay in his hands and ate away at a deep disappointment and anger that Winston had never fully acknowledged.
There was more, though, and before he consciously realized what he was doing, Winston turned the scrapbook page back to the first image.
Winston stared through brimming eyes at the man in the fedora. He did not recognize the man’s face. The jawline, the chin, the nose… They triggered nothing.
The eyes, however…
Even in shadow, those eyes held a sly wit, maturity, sadness, and quiet energy that seemed familiar. The angle of the brows. The way those brows half-hid a probing, sideways stare.
To share a long life together.
Winston felt the strength leave his legs, and only his elbows on the counter kept him from falling.
A long life.
Two words formed silently on Winston’s lips: Mister A.
What had the old man said when they’d last parted?
I cherish every minute.
Winston had to stand for a moment at the bench, clenched fists on the safe deposit box, and wait as the emotions roiled through him and spilled over. The tightness in his chest ached, and he fought to keep from breathing. If he relaxed at all, even to draw breath, the thin wall holding back his sobs would surely shatter.
Minutes later, when Winston finally had himself under control, he crammed everything into his backpack except the cash, which remained in his pocket. He slid the box back into its wall slot, wiped the tears from his face one last time, and called through the iron bars. With a discerning look at his face, the manager let him out and silently ushered him back through the glass door and into the bank lobby. Winston guessed he wasn’t the first person to come out of that vault looking different than how he went in.
He started toward the front doors, then remembered. He detoured back to Janet’s teller window and placed the stack of bills on the counter.
“Can I swap this old money for current money?” Winston asked. “I’m worried that it might not look right to people and they won’t take it.”
Janet lifted the bills and started flipping through them. “I think so,” she said. “Would you mind waiting while I clear this with my manager?”
A minute ticked by as she conferred with Sue, the two of them speaking low with their heads bowed. Winston was starting to have serious doubts about trying to get the money exchanged, and he wondered if the bank was taking its time in order to give him newer bills that were marked with special, easily tracked serial numbers.
At last, the teller returned with fresh bills and a smile.
“Here we go,” she said. “Sorry for the delay.”
She counted out the money for him: twenty-five hundred dollars exactly. Winston guessed this would have been worth quite a bit more when originally locked in the vault.
Stuffing the new cash back into his pocket, Winston thanked her and left. When he got back to the car, his mom did her best not to look like a nervous wreck.
“So how’d it go?”
“Fine,” he said. “Turns out I’m the heir to a small European country.”
“Ha ha,” said his mom, not looking amused in the slightest.
“It’s some money, some marbles, a couple metal thingies, and a note. Oh, and some pictures.”
She nodded slowly.
“From Mr. Allen,” he added.
She started, then glanced at him warily and rested a hand on his knee. “I’ve never told you in case…in case things went wrong. It was to protect you. And him.”
“Things kind of seem to be going wrong, Mom.”
She took a long, shaky breath. “Yes. They do. I’m so sorry, honey.”
“I know. Can we go back for him?”
He knew the answer without even seeing her face. Of course not. Mr. A would be too sick to travel with them, and, assuming that Bill was some sort of planted surveillance, he would have called for help immediately after Winston left Progress Oaks.
My mouth, thought Winston. Always my stupid mouth getting me in trouble.
Winston felt the day’s weight press upon him, and he slumped into his seat. He needed time to think. And food. All of this turmoil had done nothing to lessen his appetite.
His mother took another deep breath and nodded, seeming to accept something. “OK,” she said.
For an instant, he thought she’d answered his earlier question. “OK?”
“I think we’ll be fine in Portland for one night. Let’s get a motel room and plan our next steps. We’ll start in the morning.”
“Start what?” Winston asked.
His mom put the car in gear and pulled into traffic. Without looking at Winston, she said in a very matter of fact tone, “Looking for pieces of the time machine your father hid forty years ago.”
“Ah,” said Winston. “Of course.”
Looking for the beginning of Winston Chase and the Alpha Machine? If so, click here. If you're ready for Chapter 7, please keep reading...
Winston’s mom appeared in the back yard twenty-eight minutes after hanging up on him. Her diner uniform was gone, replaced by black walking shoes, blue jeans, a purple top, and a black hoodie. He couldn’t recall having seen the outfit before. She had pulled her hair into a ponytail, and her flushed face looked as if she’d been jogging. She still wore her work makeup, so she hadn’t stopped to shower.
Winston’s mom walked toward him with a bundle of clothes in the crook of her arm. She held the bundle out and said, “Change.”
He glanced reflexively around the yard. Trees hid him from Progress Oaks, and no one could easily see into the overgrown yard from nearby houses.
“Why?” he asked, not trying to be argumentative, just genuinely confused.
She said nothing, only once again put a finger to her lips.
“Oh, come on. Seriously?”
This super-secret business was starting to get on his nerves. But her grim, harried attitude and crossed arms allowed for no argument, so Winston self-consciously stripped down to his boxers and changed into all new clothes. The gray skate shoes were a half-size too small but still comfortable. The jeans fit fine in the waist but were a pinch short in length. She capped off the outfit with a totally forgettable, solid gray T-shirt and a charcoal, thermal-lined sweat jacket.
“Geeze, Mom, a little overkill? It’s in the seventies, not the forties.”
She looked at the pile of Winston’s old clothes on the cement patio, considered them for a moment, then said quietly, “Leave them.”
Winston stared at her. His mom never wasted anything. And if that wasn’t strange enough, it wasn’t the green Civic waiting for them when they came back around to the driveway. Instead, he found an unmarked, silver Toyota Van that looked like it had been made in the days before anyone knew that Leia was Luke’s sister.
“Holy cow,” Winston said as he climbed into the tall bucket seat. The vehicle only had an AM/FM radio and smelled of old plastic, probably a result of the massive dash baking in the sun for the last millennium or two. All of the seats had been pulled out of the back and replaced with faded brown carpeting. There were no cup holders, no automatic anything except the transmission, and only one DC power port, which currently held a--
“Oh, wow, is that an actual cigarette lighter?”
“I think so,” said his mother as she backed out onto the road. “It’s a little before my time. Sort of.”
Winston looked at her quizzically. “Mom, if just one thing could start making sense today, that would be great.”
She nodded. “I know. Just let me think.”
She bit both lips, always a bad sign. Biting the top lip meant anxiety. Biting the bottom meant she was trying to think of a creative explanation for something. Both together? This was going to be bad.
As his mom pulled the lumbering Toyota onto Highway 217 South, she took a long, unsteady breath and began.
“I’m sure you’ve figured out by now that a lot has been…that I’ve kept a lot from you. And for that, I’m sorry. I couldn’t be more sorry, Winston. But it was to protect you.”
Winston tried to break the tension. “You wanna know something funny?” he asked. “This morning, Brian Steinhoff snapped me with a towel in the butt, and the place where he hit me turned blue. Shade said I must be an alien.” He chuckled. “Crazy, right?”
She finished merging into traffic and gave him a quick look that told him it wasn’t crazy at all.
“Oh, God,” he said and put his face in his hands.
“No, you’re not!” she said quickly. “Not really.”
“Not really? Mom, there’s a big freaking gap between no and not really!”
His mother pointed at her own face. “Look at me. I’m human. I’m your mother. You are not an alien.”
A terrible thought struck Winston.
“So what about my father? All these years, you’ve never mentioned hardly anything about my dad. Were you abducted? Did they do experiments on you and…and impregnate you with some kind of alien—”
“No! Ew! How could you even think that, Winston?”
“Because you’re still not making any sense, and that seems as likely as anything else today!”
“No, it’s not like that,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s like the complete opposite of that.”
“You did experiments on an alien?”
She looked at him again. Winston waited. She checked the traffic ahead, then went back to his eyes, still keeping silent.
“Wait. Shut…up. There really was an alien in this—”
Winston broke off as a name resurfaced from recent memory.
“Bernie. Mr. A said I glowed blue like Bernie.”
His mom tightened her grip on the wheel and focused on the road before them. “Yes.” Her brow wrinkled and she cocked her head slightly. “But why would he say that?”
“I think the rest home was drugging him with something. He seemed really loopy and dizzy. Wait.” He pointed a finger at her. “How do you two know each other?”
“Because—” She broke off and chewed on both lips some more.
The air conditioning hadn’t had time to cool off yet, and the sun felt too hot on Winston’s face, the air in the van too close. He wanted to roll down the window and hang his head outside like a dog, if only because then he wouldn’t hear anything else.
“You know,” she said quietly. “I’ve rehearsed this talk for thirteen years. And now that I actually have to say it, I can’t think of where to start or how to say anything.”
“Well, we already know I’m not really an alien. That’s something.”
She smiled, but her eyes were troubled and sad.
“You don’t know who I am, and you need to. It’s OK.” She inhaled deeply again. “I… My name is not Amanda Chase. It’s Amanda Dabrowski.”
“I can see why you might change that.”
She flashed a hint of anger. “It’s a good name. It’s my parents’ name.”
Winston held up his hands and leaned away. “Kidding!”
“I was a biologist, with a Master’s from Tufts University.”
“No way. You’re a diner waitress. You have been as long as I can remember.”
“I can remember a lot farther back than you. A lot. I was hired by the government to do research and development on penicillin production during the war.”
Winston was more confused than ever. “The antibiotic stuff? But why? Weren’t antibiotics everywhere by the ‘90s?”
Her bottom lip disappeared between her teeth again as she cast him another nervous glance. “Not that war. I mean World War II. I was hired not long after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Winston…I was born in 1918.”
Winston wasn’t supposed to study U.S. History until high school, so his mother had to fill in a few details.
“All right, where do I start?” she mused as she ran a hand through her hair. “You know the United States entered World War II when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, right? That was in December 1941, but President Roosevelt knew that war was probably inevitable. For almost two years, he’d been gathering every scientist and mathematician he could find into government-funded research groups. He remembered how developments in sonar and machine guns swung the war to the Allies in World War I.”
“Whoever has the best toys wins,” said Winston. “I get that.”
“But not all wartime research is about weapons. If we were going to have millions of soldiers in the field, the military wanted better ways to keep them healthy, especially after getting wounded. So, I led penicillin research for two years. Then, in late 1944, I went to this conference that brought together project managers from across military research fields, everything from food sciences to nuclear physics. And there I met…”
She trailed off. Winston saw her swallow and frown slightly. She took a deep breath and started again.
“I met Claude Hawthorn and Devlin Bledsoe, two of the lead assistants on a top secret effort you might have heard of: the Manhattan Project.”
“The nuclear bomb thing?”
She nodded. “Atom bomb, yes. In 1945 the rest of the world would learn all about the Manhattan Project when President Truman ordered the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That was our great new toy, as you say. We won the war, but that was only the end of one crisis and the beginning of another. Japan and Germany were in ruins, but then there was the Soviet Union.”
She gave him a quick, disbelieving glance. It was the adult’s you don’t know…? look. As in, you don’t know what a record player is, Mr. Digital Download?
“Today, it’s the Russian Federation,” she said. “The Soviets were originally allies with Hitler, but when Hitler betrayed the Soviet president, Joseph Stalin, they switched sides. The Allies needed Russia to help beat Germany, but everyone knew that Stalin was just as vicious and murderous as Hitler. After the war, America was the only superpower on the planet, but Stalin was determined to change that — and he did.”
“He wanted nukes,” ventured Winston.
“And he got them. Long story short, that was what kicked off the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union. We had nukes. The Soviets had nukes. And you only had to look at the radioactive fallout and massive rise in Japanese cancer rates to know that if we got hit with a nuclear attack, the devastation to our country and people would be unimaginable. There was no known way to cure biological damage from radioactivity, but the government was willing to try. We knew that if it ever came to World War III, the winner, if there is such a thing, would be whichever side got less sick in the aftermath.”
Winston connected the dots. “And you were a research biologist.”
“Yes. It was the first time that biology and nuclear physics went together like chocolate and peanut butter. The government set up a secret research facility in Nevada and brought together the best people in the field to work on the problem. That was how I ended up back together with Claude, Devlin, and…” She paused again, expression distant. “…a close friend and colleague of Claude’s named Theo. He arrived the following year.”
Winston raised a hand as what she’d said struck him. “Wait. A secret facility in Nevada? Mom, are you talking about Area 51?”
She rolled her eyes. “You don’t know what the Soviet Union was but you know Area 51? That’s just great. Are they also teaching you about Pokémon in World Cultures?”
“Anyway.” Winston blew aside her sarcasm. “Was it Area 51?”
His mom cleared her throat. “Not exactly. It had no name. Everybody referred to it as Area X. Area 51…came later.”
“No way!” Winston clapped his palms against his thighs. “My mom worked in Area 51! That’s so awesome!”
“Do you want to be quiet and learn something or not?”
Winston muttered “still awesome” under his breath but otherwise fell silent.
“I became friends with the three men. Working fourteen, sixteen hour days, we didn’t get much free time, and it was lonely out in the middle of nowhere. But Claude and Theo were great. They were kind and always helpful. Some of the happiest moments of my life were spent in that desert. It was only later that the three of us shared that ‘finches fly in the fall’ phrase, in case there was an emergency and we had to run suddenly.”
“Hold on. You had three friends. What about the third guy?”
She narrowed her eyes, as if debating. “For a long time, we didn’t see Devlin Bledsoe as a threat. But he was different. Very smart, very ambitious. All three of them were important in the success of the Manhattan Project. Something inside of Devlin was broken, though. He scared me.”
“But you were saying about Area 51…” Winston prompted as he glanced out the window.
They were in the middle of downtown Portland, taking the Marquam Bridge over the sparkling Willamette River. Winston never spent as much time downtown as he wanted. Hopefully, as he got a little older, his mom would loosen his leash a bit and let him go explore all of the shops, museums, parks, and other things missing in boring little Beaverton.
“On July 2nd, 1947,” she continued, “an unknown form of aircraft crashed in the desert outside of Roswell, New Mexico. The crash site was a three-hour drive from Alamogordo, where the U.S. had conducted its first atomic bomb tests only a few years before. The Army didn’t think that was a coincidence. That night, troops cordoned off the area and swept it clean. It was no ordinary aircraft, as you’ve no doubt guessed.”
“A UFO?” Winston was practically jumping in his seat.
“There was an alien still alive inside the craft,” she said.
“Two days later, we received new orders from the President himself. The spacecraft contained some sort of nuclear technology we’d never seen before. Radioactive readings spiked all over the crash site. Everyone had been dosed with it. But the alien — we named him Bernie — showed no sign of radiation sickness. He was immune. The potential answer to our prayers and research had literally fallen from the sky. So the spaceship and everything in it became the center of our new world. It was called Project Majestic.”
“What did he look like? How’d you know Bernie was a he?”
His mom frowned, trying to remember. “We weren’t sure if Bernie was male at first. He had no discernible male organ.”
“You mean a penis?”
“Mom, I’m fourteen. You can say penis instead of discernible male organ. Geeze.”
“His body was hairless and quite thin,” she continued quickly, “but the hair on his head was completely white and down past his shoulder blades.”
“So he looked human? Not like…I dunno, a Wookiee or Jell-O or something.”
“Very humanoid. Five fingers, five toes, and all that. But there were some differences. He had two sets of eyelids, one like ours and then another darker set inside those, like built-in sunglasses. I remember he had the most fascinating eyes, with several colors and intricate patterns in the irises. He had no vocal cords. His skeletal structure was much like ours, but reinforced with something similar to today’s carbon nanofibers. We learned that when we…surgically explored him.”
Winston wrinkled his face. “While he was alive?”
His mom nodded regretfully. “More importantly, we learned that there was another organism living inside of Bernie. It was similar to a virus. We called it a quasi-virus, or QV. But it was too regular and ordered. It didn’t have the genetic haphazardness you find in normal evolved organisms. The QVs were specifically designed for these aliens, probably by them.”
That made no sense. “Why would someone design a virus for themselves?”
“Not all viruses are deleterious,” she said, and both her tone and hand gestures reflected a world-class scientist used to lecturing, not some waitress in a Beaverton diner. Winston only half-listened. It was just too weird, trying to wrap his head around this new person in his mom’s body. “If you read about biological sciences today — and not just computer stuff…” She gave him a glance that reminded him that the regular mom was still alive and well. “…you’d see a lot of the work being done with genetic manipulation. We haven’t gotten to the point where we can create new life forms from scratch yet, but that doesn’t mean that Bernie’s race couldn’t. We thought they probably had.”
“So what did these QVs do?”
She shook her head and smiled wistfully. “What didn’t they do? They helped to heal him. They were able to repair his body at the genetic level. They helped Bernie to communicate.”
“But you said he didn’t have vocal cords.”
She nibbled her bottom lip and looked at Winston. The pieces fit together in his head.
“My telepathy. The Stadlerator 7000. That’s why you freaked out. So you’re saying—” He held up his hand between them, turning it this way and that, looking at it as if it was totally unfamiliar. “That would mean…”
“We had no choice,” said his mother. “The Army had put us on a schedule to start testing QVs on humans. They wanted to build a super-army, and we had to know what would happen to people before the military did. We had to. But what we didn’t know…we didn’t know I was already pregnant.”
William has been working in the tech field since 1991, when he began his long journey through working for a manufacturer's rep, being a distributor, moving into retail and corporate sales, shifting into journalism, and gradually transitioning into content marketing. In 1997, he sold his first articles to local computer magazines. By 1998, he was a full-time tech freelancer and now produces content for several of the industry's top companies.