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.”
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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.”
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The mouse lay on its side, struggling to breathe. On its lips, a small pink froth of blood bubbled, and its claws twitched in random spasms. The human nose growing out of its back, covered in the mouse’s own skin and white fur, quivered.
Devlin Bledsoe scanned the clipboard next to the animal’s cage. According to the lab technicians’ notes, this mouse stopped eating yesterday afternoon, less than two days after the blue flush of its skin had faded into a sickly gray. At this morning’s 5:30 AM check, it was no longer walking. If it followed the pattern, it would be dead in the next hour, less than three days after QV injection.
One more little body given up for a bigger cause.
He supposed these experiments amounted to torture in their own way. So be it. His family was no stranger to torture. There would always be someone inside the cage and someone on the outside. Bledsoe knew which side he preferred.
He set the clipboard down and rubbed his eyes. The room’s “daylight-temperature” fluorescent lighting tended to make everything look flat and unreal. Among the endless ranks of steel shelves, nickel-plated cages, and white tiles, Bledsoe could only smell his facial mask’s chemical staleness. The thick hiss of pressurized air, hour after hour, lulled his senses. Bledsoe forced his knuckles into his temples and took a deep breath.
There were nineteen more cages in the row, each with a human nose protruding from its back like an oversized dorsal fin. Twenty clones, each identical to the others, and they would probably all be dead before the day was out — another month of work gone.
Even in Area X, they’d found that QV agents only interacted with higher primates. Obviously, the microscopic organisms required a certain genetic profile in their hosts. Just as viruses that affect pigs or cats usually don’t infect people, the QVs that could live symbiotically in humans wouldn’t survive in lower mammals, even if those mammals had been surgically implanted with tissue scaffolds in their backs that were seeded with human cartilage cells.
Bledsoe understood why his bosses wanted these experiments run. It was important to chase down all of the QV’s implementation possibilities. This had always seemed like a long shot, though, and it wasn’t even central to their main research.
The quasi-virus fell from the skies into a New Mexico rancher’s field in 1947. Billions of those tiny alien life forms had lived within another alien life form. Shackled with 1940s technology, Area X teams hadn’t been able to probe the QV’s inner workings. But before the end, they’d discovered the microbe’s ability to turn humans into something slightly different. Better. Superior. Which was why Bledsoe had stolen it for himself.
Every QV in this lab descended from that first group originally harvested from Bledsoe’s own blood. He’d been living with QVs in his body for seventy-five years — give or take a few decades — but on the outside he appeared just like any other man in his late thirties.
He reached for his earpiece. The thing made his ear itch almost constantly, but it was hard to scratch through so many layers of clean room gloves, hair net, cap, and body suit. He twisted and jiggled the thing looped to his ear, then settled it back into place and tapped its activation button.
“Dictation mode,” he said, feeling the cloth mask crinkle over his mouth and cheeks. “QV modification sequence bravo-six seems ineffective. All twenty subjects are exhibiting signs of rejection distress. Death appears likely. We still have several other possible modifications to genetic target strand fourteen that could yield a more positive outcome, but…”
He paused. This recording would be synchronized from his local server up to the army’s classified network for possible review by Management. They never liked bad news. Nobody did. And if he wanted to keep his funding, he’d better find a positive spin to put on these experiments and not say what was really on his mind.
“…success on strand fifteen seems less likely. We should assemble a round of mono-variant tests for strand fourteen and aim for an eight-week completion. Also, more exploration into mid-level primates, such as lemurs. End dictation.”
Management was terrified of primate testing, always saying it was an option for later, but “improved monkeys” were too much of a risk for now. Apparently, they’d watched Planet of the Apes too many times. Or maybe the idea of a human-like monkey hit a little too close to home among the officers and politicians.
Bledsoe unconsciously drew a puffy sleeve across his clean suit-covered forehead. When he got frustrated at the lack of progress in his labs, Bledsoe always became more aware of the oppressive heat. On the mainland, clean rooms were often kept at a constant 69 degrees, but here on Rota, stuck over a thousand miles off the coast of anywhere in the middle of the stifling Pacific, the native staff found 69 to be downright Arctic. So the facilities were kept at 74, and Bledsoe, despite being born and raised a Texan, never stopped sweating. He always wondered if the QVs made him more sensitive to temperature.
He’d been slaving away in this complex for the last six years and had little to show for it. If he had his own way, there would be a small army of infected fishermen and farm girls in his laboratory cells, but Management wanted none of that. Experimenting on humans was too risky, they said. Too expensive. Too this, too that.
But it would get the job done. On that point, Bledsoe had no doubt.
Patience, he thought. Plan for the World Series, but play the next pitch.
Three other people in clean suits moved about the cage room, feeding, watering, and recording. All of them had been on the crew for at least two years, and none of them had any notion of the lab’s true purpose. They believed they were testing experimental drug therapies for big pharmaceutical companies.
Only two other people actually understood the QVs and worked with Bledsoe to tweak the alien organism’s DNA. Both were U.S. military pulled in from different research and development divisions. But this wasn’t the old days. The three of them didn’t hang out after-hours as close friends. They did their jobs, reviewed each other’s notes, and went back to their apartments. They were barely on first-name terms.
Remembering 1948, that suited Bledsoe just fine.
His earpiece chimed twice, signaling a new message from Management. He groaned. What now? Had they already listened to his note on the mice and were calling to complain? Without Management’s funding, he wouldn’t have this facility or any way to conduct his research, but that didn’t make their endless ranting any easier to swallow.
He tapped the button. “Play message.”
A computer-simulated woman’s voice piped into his ear. “Message received eleven twenty-four AM local. Priority beta. Message reads as follows: Significant movement reported on Majestic Three. Possible identity on Majestics One or Four. A plane will retrieve you at nineteen-hundred hours. Confirm with Management ASAP. End message. Do you wish to replay?”
“No,” Bledsoe murmured, almost too stunned to speak.
Majestic Three. The Chase boy. How old would he be now? Twelve?
No, Bledsoe realized. Winston would be fourteen.
And Majestic One or Four? Was it possible that after all these years of looking, they had finally found Claude or Theo? Part of Bledsoe believed that his former friends were gone forever. These days, it was nearly impossible to stay off the grid and defy the resources of the National Security Agency, Homeland Security, and every other U.S. intelligence group. These two men had evaded them all, though. Somehow.
Bledsoe gazed across his laboratory, viewing it with a suddenly fresh perspective. Five minutes ago, his head had been filled with plans and frustrations all focused around QV development. But that wasn’t the real endgame. QVs would get him to the playoffs, but he’d never win the Series with that alone.
In Management’s eyes, Bledsoe was just another easily replaced researcher, even with the QVs in his veins. They now knew pretty much everything he knew, or so they thought. Sometimes, Bledsoe wondered if Management would rather kill him off quietly here in the middle of the ocean rather than risk him defecting to the Russians or Chinese. If they knew even half of what Bledsoe was actually thinking…
Bledsoe chuckled. No, the way forward was through Majestic One. Claude. His old buddy, old pal. The one who had betrayed him deep under the New Mexico desert and stolen away the last thing that had ever mattered to him.
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Vice Principal Sengupta waited patiently behind his desk, hands folded before him, frameless glasses seeming to float before his deeply shadowed eyes. His dark but thin hair lay pasted in neat, sideways strands over his brown scalp. Two precisely aligned stacks of papers rested on his desk, both small, one on the left and one on the right, both equidistant from the closed notebook in the center. Unlike his colleagues, the vice principal had no decorations.
Sengupta was an Indian immigrant, and everyone knew that he took a dim view of lenient American discipline. Any kid who visited his office inevitably received the same lecture. “We never fought in school,” Sengupta would say in his thick Bengali accent. “We never ignored teachers. We always did our work. Why?” At this point, he would show his scar-laced knuckles and give a humorless but proud smile. “And do you know what? The rod worked. It made us respectful and responsible.”
And maybe a little crazy, Winston mused.
He sat in one of the two high-backed chairs before Sengupta’s desk, waiting. After everything else that had happened today, Winston couldn’t imagine what the vice principal might throw at him that could possibly be worse than what he’d already endured. Detention? A letter to his mom? He didn’t have to wait long to find out.
“I’m suspending you,” intoned Sengupta.
Winston’s jaw went slack. After a moment, he forced himself to take a shaky breath.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said between clenched jaws.
“You struck another boy and made him nearly bite off a piece of his tongue.”
“Have you heard the things he says with that tongue?”
It was out before Winston had even consciously formed the thought, and hearing his own words took him aback. It sounded a lot like sass, as his mom would say, and one did not simply sass the vice principal.
Sengupta’s unreadable expression never changed. He only continued to stare at Winston, unflinching, the almost black skin around his eyes seeming to magnify the depth of his scrutiny.
“Your attempt at humor is ill-timed and inappropriate,” said the vice principal.
“Look. Whether your blow was intentional or accidental is irrelevant. You injured a schoolmate whose mother happens to have been a school board member for the last four years and is one of our main volunteer fundraisers. Do you follow me?”
“You are a smart lad,” said Sengupta. “Sometimes too smart for your own good. That will change.” He unfolded his hands and balled them into fists, making the scars on the knuckles stand out clear and pale. “I am aware of your situation, Winston. You do not deserve expulsion. Suspension will suffice. That…and I am banning you from the fall robotics competition.”
“What?!” Winston nearly leapt from his chair. He gripped the edge of Sengupta’s desk. “You can’t do that!”
“Oh, I most certainly can.”
This time, words completely failed Winston, which was probably a good thing.
“Mr. Chase,” said the vice principal, “have you ever stopped to wonder why these fights and social unpleasantries keep happening to you?”
“Because most people suck?”
“Perhaps,” said Sengupta.
Winston leaned back slightly. He hadn’t expected any agreement.
“However,” continued the vice principal, “the fact is that everybody, as you say, sucks in some ways. And in many ways, they do not. However, you—” He pointed a finger at Winston. “—are so completely focused on your hobby that you are not learning this. You don’t even interact with your robotics group teammates.” He sighed. “You can view your suspension time either as a punishment or an opportunity for introspection and life. I suggest the latter. Shade is a good friend, but you will not find yourself either in his shadow or in the mechanics of a machine.”
Winston had no reply. His face flushed with indignation. He wanted to say something to defend himself, anything that might push back against the unfairness and get Sengupta to change his mind. Nothing usable surfaced from his anger, though, and he felt his opportunity vanish into despair. He should have just taken the beating.
“It was a dozen on one in the gym,” he finally said.
“And it always will be,” said Sengupta. “Until you choose otherwise.” He took a deep breath and nodded once. “Mrs. Tagaloa is on her way to give you and her son a ride home. Please be waiting outside in the turn-around.”
“Wait. You’re suspending Shade, too?”
“Was he not also involved?”
Without another word, the vice principal dismissed Winston. He left the office clutching the straps on his backpack to hide his shaking hands. Standing at his locker, forehead resting on the cool metal, his fingers dialed in the lock combination automatically while his mind continued to churn.
Sengupta was totally wrong. Winston did things on his own because he didn’t fit anywhere else. No one else ever wanted him. And it was fine not to fit in. Being alone was how his family did things.
The competition! Winston thought as he slammed the padlock open.
How could he possibly not do the competition? While his classmates had blown their time at the beach or the mall or wherever, he’d spent the entire summer working to complete the Stadlerator 7000. Weeks and weeks at his workbench, sweating away without any air conditioning. Programming. Tweaking. Working his butt off.
And then this morning happened. Was it better that he wouldn’t have the chance to demonstrate his ability now? Or should he publicize it anyway, without the competition?
Above the hubbub of people filing into the halls and stashing their books in advance of lunch, Winston heard the nasal wail of June Martinez. He thumped his forehead once against the locker. This day just kept getting better and better.
Winston turned his head and saw June and Alyssa angling across the hall, seeming to pass effortlessly through the crowd. June led, of course. With her superhero-class, highlight-streaked hair dancing about her like heat radiation, June always looked as if she’d just walked off of a modeling session.
Behind her, Alyssa Bauman followed. Alyssa wore jeans and a black T-shirt reading, “I Am Really Enjoying This Conversation.” The more Winston tried to make eye contact with her, the more she seemed to look everywhere except at him.
“Wiiin-stonnn!” June hollered again as she came within too-close-to-ignore range. She was waving something at him — an old iPod. “Winston, could you do me a favor?”
Winston’s hand kept a grip on his locker door as he faced her.
She put the device in his other hand. Her breath smelled minty. “It’s dead,” she pouted. “I was listening to it this morning, then it died on the bus, even though the battery said full. I know it’s ancient, but…”
Two years of helping June with her math homework had not helped sway her best friend’s affections. Admiring the sarcasm on Alyssa’s shirt, the thought struck Winston that perhaps she remained so cold toward him specifically because he helped June so much. Maybe she wanted someone who wasn’t so accommodating of Rosa. She couldn’t possibly think that he liked Rosa…could she?
“I should say no,” Winston muttered even as his fingers closed around the device. June started to ask why, apparently decided it was safer not to know the answer, and merely smiled at him, all white teeth and amazing dimples.
Winston took one more look over Rosa’s shoulder at Alyssa, who sighed while studying the blank wall above the lockers.
He felt the fingertips of his right hand begin to tingle. They did that sometimes, seemingly in anticipation. He ran his fingers over the device, not really seeing it. He tilted it from side to side, rocked it forward and back, closed his eyes and shook it, tapped it in various places, at first gently and then more firmly. Finally, Winston picked it up by the bottom edge and, with no warning, rapped the bottom of the iPod against his locker door.
Winston turned the player over in his hands one more time, then handed it back to Rosa. “Loose connection.”
She snatched up the device and pressed its power button. The screen glowed to life and her face registered immense pleasure. In a single motion, she turned and pranced away. Three seconds later, she was invisible in the crowd, and Winston barely heard her call back the word “thanks!” He realized that Alyssa was still standing in front of him, studying his hands and his face quizzically. He was so shocked that he almost didn’t register the words when she said, “You have a big head.”
He could feel his face glow with sudden warmth.
“I’m not sure what I think about the stripes,” she added. “Did you do that, or are they natural?”
“I…” His mouth suddenly forgot how to talk. “They…”
“It’s natural,” said Shade, appearing behind her. His brow wrinkled with concern, but Winston had expected worse.
“I told him he should dye it,” Shade mumbled.
Alyssa studied the white bands that started above his temples then swooped up and back until they met at the base of his skull. She seemed undecided. “They’re different. Maybe kind of cool.”
Winston thought he might have a coronary right there in front of his locker.
“How’d you fix Rosa’s iPod?” she asked.
“Mag—,” he started, prepared to make a joke of calling it magic. However, something in his half-paralyzed brain knew better than to start his first conversation with Alyssa Bauman with a lie. “I dunno. Just did.”
“I’ve seen you do that before.”
“You have?” The note of amazement in his voice was obvious even to him. He tried for a more confident tone. “I can feel how to do it.”
“Feel it? What does that mean?”
He realized he’d said too much. “I have a knack for electronics. Like a sixth sense. iPods are pretty simple, and I could sort of feel that the drive connection was loose.”
Alyssa seemed to weigh his words. “Uh huh. OK.” She started for the cafeteria and began melting into the crowd. “So tonight for math homework?” she asked.
Winston was sure he must have misheard her. “Huh?”
“At 8:00 on Skype,” she called, now invisible. “Don’t be late!”
# # #
The two sat on the curb under the flagpole. Before them, a ghostly shadow of stars and stripes waved on the pavement, stirred by a faint breeze that cooled their faces. The school bell chimed, signaling the start of first lunch. At odd moments, they could smell baked bread and its mystery meat.
“Sorry,” Winston said. “I know you love wiener wraps.”
Shade shrugged and nudged Winston’s shoulder with his own. “It’s no big. I think we have frozen ones at home.”
Mrs. Tagaloa’s convertible white Lexus appeared at the crest of the hill, top down, as she turned into Shifford’s parking area.
“I don’t know why you’re not freaking out about getting suspended,” said Winston.
“Oh, I am,” said Shade. “But I’m trying to be supportive and not show it.”
Winston frowned and lowered his head.
“I’m kidding!” said Shade with another nudge. “OK, not really, but look. I’m only going to miss two football practices and one game, which is no worse than being sick. I’m way ahead on my homework, so it’s not the end of the world. And maybe it’ll help my popularity.”
“Doubtful,” said Winston. “At least as long as you hang out with me.”
He made the comment as a fact, not out of self-pity.
“Probably true,” said Shade as he rocked forward and stood up. “Oh, well.”
Winston stood beside him, both shouldering their bags as Mrs. Tagaloa pulled up, trunk thumping softly with dance music. She was a tiny woman, lucky to scratch five feet in sneakers, with chestnut hair that flowed to her waist. She wore large sunglasses, a bright blue tank top, matching blue cap, and a dazzling smile.
“Hi, boys! Climb in.”
They got into the back seat. Winston buckled himself and ran a hand over the buttery soft tan leather interior. Compared to their old Civic, the Lexus was like riding in a cloud.
Mrs. Tagaloa pulled away from the curb to head home.
“Are either of you hurt?” She sounded like she was asking whether they wanted cream with their tea.
“No, we’re fine, Mrs. Tagaloa,” said Winston.
“What about the other boy?”
“Steinhoff,” said Shade. “He bit part of his tongue off when Winston hit him.”
“Accidentally,” added Winston. “And he didn’t actually bite all the way through.”
“Well, I don’t approve of violence,” said Mrs. Tagaloa, “but I’m sure he had it coming. I had a pleasant chat with your vice principal.”
Both boys grimaced. Shade took a deep breath.
“OK, Mom. How bad is it?”
Mrs. Tagaloa shrugged as she stopped for the intersection light. “I’m thinking about taking you clothes shopping with me.”
Shade couldn’t take it anymore. “Mom, this is serious. We’re suspended.”
“Oh, honey. This isn’t serious. Childbirth is serious.”
“Well, it is.” The light changed, and she turned onto Denney Road. “You did the right things for the right reasons, and now the school has to do what the school has to do. Who’s hungry?”
Shade changed mental gears in a heartbeat. “Starving,” he replied.
“Me, too,” his mom said. “I vote Burgerville. Yoga class makes me want onion rings.”
Mrs. Tagaloa was the most cheerful person Winston had ever met. How she could live with a grump like Mr. Tagaloa was anyone’s guess. No matter what, though, Winston knew where the discipline came from in that house, and Shade would be counting the minutes until the real enforcer came home. Mr. Tagaloa only had one boy to carry on his legacy, and the idea of that legacy getting suspended would not sit well, no matter what the circumstances.
Winston kept a $20 bill in his wallet for emergencies. He offered to pay for himself, but Mrs. Tagaloa waved his money aside.
“Honey, I got this. You’ve had a rough day.”
“Thanks,” said Winston. “Would you mind if I got a shake for Mr. Allen, too?”
She looked at Winston in the rear view mirror and smiled. “That’s fine. You still see him, huh?”
The truth was that he visited every two or three days. But Winston knew it was odd for a teenager to show such interest in a bed-ridden senior, so he made no other explanation.
Winston got a pepper bacon cheeseburger, fries, and a Northwest Cherry Chocolate shake plus a small boysenberry shake on the side. Mrs. Tagaloa drove him the half-mile back to Progress Oaks and dropped him off at the front entrance.
“Don’t forget your 8:00,” said Shade.
“What’s at 8:00?” his mom asked.
“Nothing,” said Winston.
Shade grinned. “Winston has a date with Alyssa Bauman.”
Mrs. Tagaloa clapped with excitement. “That’s great! Congratulations!”
Winston shook his head. “It’s just on Skype. Helping with her homework.”
“She talked to you!” Shade gave him a duh! face. “This is huge!”
“Well, good luck, Winston,” said Mrs. Tagaloa. “You deserve a little romance.”
“OK, not awkward at all.” Winston started for the doors and waved toward the Lexus. “Thanks again!”
The Tagaloas drove off, and Winston walked into the cool dimness of the retirement home. No one sat behind the front desk. Winston signed in on the clipboard perched atop the desk counter and trudged up the stairs to the second floor, carefully balancing the bag in the crook of his arm so he could keep a shake in each hand.
When he announced himself at Mr. A’s door, the old man tried to sound elated but had to fight his way through a throat full of phlegm. He was still under the bedsheets and still in his wrinkled T-shirt, apparently having not moved all day. Winston held out the boysenberry shake. Mr. A gratefully accepted it, although his hand shook and his expression seemed a bit confused.
“My knight in shining armor,” said Mr. A. He took several determined sips on the straw. Winston set out his own food on the tiny table. The aroma of beef and bacon filled the room, and Winston took a long draw on his own shake. The fruity chocolate ice cream drove away some of the day’s stress. They both sighed contentedly and laughed.
“Thank you, Winston. This really hits the spot.”
The old man’s head lolled back against his pillow. He blinked several times, trying to clear whatever fogginess obscured his mind.
“You’re welcome,” said Winston.
“But this isn’t where you eat lunch. Explain.” He motioned for Winston to come closer.
Winston moved his chair next to the hospital bed and used the space next to Mr. A as his table. The old man nibbled at one fry but clearly wasn’t too interested in it. As Winston arranged his food so as not to make a mess, Bill lumbered into the room. He gave Winston a dark glance, then turned his back on the boy as he busied himself with pills over the corner sink.
“I got suspended for fighting in gym class,” said Winston.
Mr. A’s unruly white eyebrows arched upward, and the hint of a smile played through his wrinkles. “Really? ‘Bout time.”
Bill looked at Winston over his shoulder. “Didn’t think you had it in you.”
Winston threw up his hands. “Geeze! Why am I in trouble if all the grown-ups don’t care?”
“A lot of things aren’t fair,” said Mr. A.
Bill approached the bed carrying a paper Dixie cup containing several pills. He made sure that Mr. A took the pills and showed every sign of waiting until his patient swallowed them. With a grimace, Mr. A did so.
“Bill, you should take my blood pressure,” said Mr. A. “I feel strange.”
The nurse glanced quickly at the IV line but then pointed at the Dixie cup. “That’s why you need your meds.”
Mr. A sighed. When the last pill was gone, he said, “At least it tastes better with the shake.” He and Winston bumped drink containers.
Bill closed the medicine cabinet and left to continue his rounds. Winston watched the big man’s back disappear out of sight, then said in a hushed voice, “Something else happened, too. In the locker room.”
Mr. A nodded. “The bully came back for more?”
“Kind of. When I had my back turned, he snapped me on the butt with a towel.”
Mr. A shook his head, then stopped, blinking more. He must be feeling dizzy. “Did he wet the tip? That hurts like the dickens.”
“Maybe. I don’t know. But when he did, afterward…” Winston took a breath, both afraid to say it and relieved to tell someone. “The area around where he got me turned blue.”
Mr. A went completely still in mid-sip. The straw slid from his pale lips, leaving a glistening spot of purple. “Blue,” he said.
“Blue. And it glowed.”
“Just like Bernie,” he muttered absently.
Then the shock and fear from this morning crept back into Mr. A’s face. His right hand with its long IV tail started toward his mouth, as if to cover it.
“I mean…” Mr. A started, but he had no idea what to say next. His fingers fluttered over his mouth, uncertain and scared.
The two looked at each other in silence. A chill went down Winston’s back. The old man believed him. He knew exactly what Winston was talking about. He had even known someone named Bernie with the same condition.
A loud crack sounded in the room’s entryway, startling them both. They heard the clatter of several small plastic pieces, and two little black bits rebounded into the bedroom. A low voice cursed, and a moment later Bill appeared, picking up the shattered remains of his walkie-talkie.
“Were you just standing there?” Winston asked.
Bill looked up at him, red-faced, but said nothing. The nurse retrieved the last of his radio, settled the bits into his pocket, and left. This time, Winston followed him out and made sure he disappeared from sight.
Winston returned to his chair, but he now sat on the seat’s edge.
“Mr. A, what is going on? What—”
The old man put his finger over Winston’s mouth and shook his head in a warning. Again with the glance around the ceiling.
Mr. A moved his hand to Winston’s cheek, cupping his jaw in a dry, wrinkly palm. Winston’s first instinct was to pull away. He didn’t like people touching him, but he forced himself to stay still as the hand patted him gently and Mr. A stared into his face. The man’s eyes were moist again, the lines around his eyes looking darker and deeper than ever.
“Winston…” he whispered. Mr. A’s hand slid back through Winston’s hair and pulled lightly on the back of his neck, urging Winston to come closer. Winston obliged, and Mr. A wrapped his fragile, sagging arm around him in the closest thing he could manage to a hug.
Mr. A held him there for a long moment, then finally drew a long, shaky breath.
“My boy,” he whispered right into Winston’s ear. “I’m so, so sorry. But now you have to run.”
“What do you mean?” he whispered back. “I’m not in that much trouble.”
“Yes, you are. I’ve really made a mess of it.” He paused. “They were only watching me because of the time you spend here. They didn’t know who I was. But now… Bill will be calling them, repeating our discussion. They will come for me, too, I’m sure.”
“What are you talking about? Who is ‘they’? Mom was talking nonsense like this, too.”
He felt Mr. A nod against his cheek.
“You’re changing,” breathed the old man. “They probably figured you weren’t a risk so long as you seemed normal. But now you’re not. And when they take me, they’ll want to know…what I know.”
Winston pulled back when he felt a warm drop on his cheek. He reflexively wiped at it, then noticed the tears spilling from Mr. A’s eyes.
“Please,” said Winston. “You’re not making any sense.”
“I think they’ve been watching you all your life, waiting for me to turn up. They didn’t expect me to be…like this.” He glanced down at his body, frowned, and swallowed thickly. “I should have died sooner,” he whispered to himself. “I should have just destroyed it all.”
“Stop,” said Winston. “You’re scaring me.” He tried to pull away, but Mr. A’s arm kept him locked in place.
“They probably have people watching everywhere you go, including your friends. You must find it before they do, understand?”
“No, I don’t! Find what?”
“Go. And when you’re away from here, tell your mom…tell her that finches fly in the fall.”
“Finches fly in the fall? What’s that mean?”
“She’ll know what to do.”
This time, Winston ducked his head and did pull away. “Wait. You know my mom?”
Mr. A winced. The old man reached for Winston’s face again, but he was now too far away.
“You do,” said Winston.
“Hush!” hissed Mr. A. “Call your mom.”
Winston backed away from the bed, unable to process what he was hearing. His calf brushed against part of the paper garden he’d made last year, and he saw that he would rip off a tulip head if he moved any farther. Part of him wanted to, and he didn’t understand why. A squat, black waste basket rested on the entryway floor. Winston dropped what was left of his milkshake into it. He’d lost his appetite.
Winston took one last look at Mr. A. The IV dripped slowly into the bag that plugged into his arm. Winston wondered at the strange look on the old man’s face and wished he could interpret it.
“You’d better go,” Mr. A said faintly. “Call.”
Winston’s brow furrowed, and he shook his head as he walked out.
He left Progress Oaks in a daze. Rosie greeted him brightly as he walked by, and he merely waved in reply. As he glanced at her, he saw that the manager’s door was closed, and he was fairly sure that he heard the low rumble of Bill’s voice coming from inside.
He walked a little faster.
Outside, Winston looked up at Mr. A’s window. There were no decorations there, only closed curtains. Part of him wondered if the old guy had lost his marbles, gotten Alzheimer’s or something. But if he had, then his mother had gotten it, too, and that didn’t add up.
Winston walked around the building, cutting across the resident garden area, weaving among the beds of tomatoes, cucumbers, and roses.
He pulled out his phone and dialed his mom’s workplace. Normally, the owner, Sam McCollough, answered the line in his office after three or four rings. This time, his mom answered after only one.
“Sam’s Diner on Ninth Street,” she said so quickly that the words almost blurred together. “Open ‘til midnight seven days a week, how can I serve you?”
“Winston?” She sounded instantly alarmed. He could hear the clatter of plates and glasses in the background. “Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I’m fine.”
“The school called me. Mrs. Tagaloa was supposed to pick you up.”
“She did. It’s fine, Mom. It’s…”
Winston heard someone faintly holler, “Can I get some more coffee?” There was a pause, and Winston imagined his mom gesturing to the customer or beckoning at one of the other waitresses to help.
“Yes, Winston? What’s wrong?”
He opened his mouth and almost said, “Nothing.” He wondered if the whole thing was some huge misunderstanding. Maybe he should just go home, Google his way to some plausible explanation about the blue-glowing skin, and give his mom and Mr. A a chance to make sense of all this madness. Patience always paid off. He needed to apply Occam’s Razor: When in doubt, the simplest explanation is almost always right.
He would try this one last thing — spit it out, and then all of the insanity would blow over.
“Mr. A said to tell you…” He reached the fence and walked along it, letting his fingertips bounce across the wire diamonds. “Finches fly in the fall.”
His mom made no reply.
Still nothing, and now Winston felt the chill return to his back. He stopped walking.
“Mom, are you there?”
Plates clinked. He heard the sizzle of something being flipped over on the grill.
“I’m coming,” she said far too quietly. “Go to the back yard of the empty house where you jump over the fence. You know the one?”
How did she know about that house? Had she been following him?
“I’ll be there in thirty minutes. Don’t move, OK?”
“Mom, what are you—”
“Thirty minutes,” she said with a decisive tone of command Winston couldn’t recall ever hearing before. The line went dead.
Looking for the beginning of Winston Chase and the Alpha Machine? If so, click here. If you're ready for Chapter 4, please keep reading...
Winston reached school with four minutes to spare. He rounded the wire fence separating Progress Oaks from Shifford Middle School and jogged down the hill adjacent to the school’s parking lot. The main entrance hunched behind a covered concrete entryway, more shady and ominous than inviting. Outside, students waved and shouted, huddled and gossiped, each trying to squeeze in the last few moments of conversation before class started. Parents jockeyed their minivans and SUVs for unloading spots in the turn-around.
Winston’s mind kept churning through the morning’s revelations as he walked through the gradually disbanding crowd. When he gazed absently to his left across the space outside the cafeteria, the caveman part of his brain that automatically stayed wary for wild predators flashed an alert and startled Winston from his thoughts. Sure enough, there was Brian Steinhoff leaning against a wall, surrounded by his mouth-breathing minions. He locked gazes with Winston over the scores of mulling heads, and Winston detected Steinhoff’s smirk.
At six feet tall, the boy stood only an inch or so shorter than Winston. Also like Winston, he was dark-haired and fair-skinned, but he had a thicker build, freckles, and bright green eyes that grew even brighter when lit by the jet fuel of temporary insanity. With his button-collared shirts and leather loafers, Steinhoff dressed like an entitled jock, but he had the attitude of a blackshirt, the crowd that dressed in tattered death metal T-shirts and and mostly spoke in monosyllabic profanity. Steinhoff had turned from being an annoying clown to an outright bully in the fifth grade. Last year, in front of half a dozen of his cronies, Brian had teased Winston over his hair starting to turn white. Then, for no reason at all, it escalated to Winston receiving his first punch in the gut. About once each month since then, whenever he needed a popularity boost, Steinhoff would sense the right time and place to come back for more.
Winston quickly looked away and hurried through the crowd to his locker. He opened it and tossed his backpack on top of the stack of books already inside. No time for neatness. Locker doors banged shut all up and down the hallway as people sprinted for class.
Winston grabbed his textbook for Family and Consumer Science. He’d been too focused on the Stadlerator 7000 yesterday to even think of bothering with the homework, but that would be fine until Monday when their money journals and a two-page paper on budgeting were due. Winston’s journal would take about ten seconds. Income: two computer repairs. Expenses: $150 to Mom for bills and four Burgerville fresh boysenberry milkshakes for himself and Mr. A. It was Winston’s one extravagance, and his mom never objected. She didn’t mind him showing kindness to those in need, but she endlessly lectured about not wasting money on things without real value. It was an idea, she said, whose time had all but vanished.
As Winston slid the textbook out from under his bag, his eye fell on a photograph taped to the inside of his locker door. It and the slip of paper taped above it were the only decorations in his locker. He’d had a teacher help him laminate the picture several years ago to protect it against time and wear. It showed a somewhat younger, smiling version of his mother crouching on the floor behind a ten-month-old Winston. Emerging from the left edge of the photo, a hairy forearm ended in an upturned palm. Winston the toddler had grasped one of the fingers for balance. The moment captured some of his first steps, and his little face radiated delight. It was the only photograph they owned that showed even a trace of Winston’s father, and he ran a fingertip slowly down its edge.
Above the picture, Winston had taped one of Einstein’s quotations: “The important thing is not to stop questioning.”
Winston took one more look at the photo and shook his head. “Answers wouldn’t hurt, either,” he sighed.
The school bell’s shrill clang signaled the start of class. He was late.
~ ~ ~
Family and Consumer Science turned into U.S. History, another exercise in boredom and inhumane torture. Thankfully, this fed into third period Trigonometry. He shared this online class with Shade, four other students, and their supervisor, Ms. Ortiz, who excelled at asking, “Now, what could you google to answer your question?” Shade normally sailed through his classes, often doing his homework within hours of being assigned, but in Trigonometry he needed Winston’s help just to pull “B” quiz scores. It was the only less than perfect mark on Shade’s report card.
The friends shared fourth period PE before lunch. Today was Friday, and that meant a 1.5-mile neighborhood run. Winston found running almost effortless, but it was even easier for Mr. Gillford, who usually spent running time on the phone in his office, leaving one sick or injured student to operate the stopwatch. Because half of the students walked the route and chatted, Winston’s ability to run the trek in under ten minutes — nine if he tried, eight if he was really working at it — left a lot of spare time until class resumed. Only two other boys in Shifford could come close to his speed, and both competed at the state level. The track coach, Mr. Adams, had watched Winston during gym class, and he would always leave disappointed when Winston refused to join the track team. The idea of prancing around in baggy shorts and a tank top at the expense of his robotics studies made him want to break his ankle. He loved the feel of running, loved having the wind on his face as he pushed his body into that strange, rhythmic flow that made the world slip by in a blur beneath him, but he had no desire to compete. If he was going to compete for something, it would be winning the robotics tournament.
Brian Steinhoff could run a 1.5 in eleven minutes. That gave Winston just enough time to catch his breath before the larger boy entered the gym, panting hard, sweating, and saw Winston across the hardwood looking as if he’d just gotten out of bed, like running a mile and a half was nothing at all. Winston saw the boy’s features harden and his nostrils flare. He put his hands on his knees, chest still heaving, and studied Winston.
One by one, more runners stumbled into the gym while perpetually sprained Susan Crossman called off their finishing times. Winston tried to look occupied with reading the gym message board filled with sports announcements. In the other corner, near the bleachers, Steinhoff was back to breathing almost normally and chatting with his friends. Every so often, one of them glanced in Winston’s direction. Not good.
Winston tried to monitor Steinhoff from the corner of his eye, but one new notice grabbed his attention: the lineup for the school football team. Practice had started in late August, but final positions were only now being announced. Shade had landed his familiar spot as middle linebacker, a position he’d held since the third grade, often going head-to-head against kids a foot taller and fifty or seventy pounds heavier. Shade was absolutely fearless on the field.
Winston’s eyes flicked back and found that Steinhoff had left his former location. Winston groaned.
“Cha-a-ase.” Steinhoff drew out the name, turning it into a taunt. The boy, dressed in designer from his hair spray to his air-spring soles, led a group of ten or twelve across the gym. Winston was too slow. He should have been in the corner so they couldn’t surround him. As it was, they formed a half-circle, forcing him to stay against the wall.
Steinhoff approached Winston, who still stood facing the football announcement, reading it over and over.
“Deaf much?” Steinhoff asked, grabbing Winston’s collar and spinning him around.
Winston’s heart hammered as fast as when he’d been running. Maybe faster. He hated confrontation. The pain of getting hit wasn’t that bad. The idea of getting hit, of being mocked so violently, made Winston’s breath come in short, erratic bursts and his mind go blank. Unfortunately, his mouth seemed to take orders from a different area of his brain that felt more anger than fear.
“Sorry,” said Winston. “I was just waiting for you to say something interesting. For once.”
The terrified side of Winston’s brain blurted, Why on earth did you say that? Are you trying to get us killed?
The angry side had no answer. It saw everything in slow motion, waiting. It always waited. His mother had instilled in him a terrible dread of giving into anger and making a scene. Keep your head down, she always advised. This too will pass, and you’ll be standing. Just stay calm and keep your head down.
Of course, at over six feet tall, keeping his head down often proved difficult.
After a moment, comprehension dawned on Steinhoff’s face. He wasn’t stupid. That was part of the problem. But he did have trouble believing that anyone could talk back to him in such a way. When it fully registered, Steinhoff reached out and grabbed two fistfuls of Winston’s T-shirt. He began backing up, taking Winston with him, allowing the other boys to form a more isolating circle around him. They were pack animals hunting as animals had hunted weak prey for millions of years.
“So we’re dancing now?” The words emerged unwanted from Winston’s mouth.
Steinhoff took the insult to his masculinity and thrust Winston away from him. Someone behind him caught Winston’s weight and shoved him back toward Steinhoff in the middle of the ring.
In that instant, Winston thought of his mom and her fear from this morning. He flashed on Mr. A’s reaction to his little mental trick with the walkie-talkie. Everywhere he went today, no matter what he did, fear followed. The thought deepened his despair, but within that swirling blackness blossomed something small and hot.
Winston would never be sure if the stumble of one foot over his heel was the result of natural clumsiness or if some bubble of rage clinging to the floor of of his brain had finally heated enough to break free and float to the surface. Whatever the cause, Winston lurched forward two steps shy of Steinhoff. His hands came up, scrabbling for balance. As he stumbled, the heel of his right hand flapped up into the air, seemingly at random, and collided with Steinhoff’s jaw.
The sound of teeth snapping together was loud enough to echo around the otherwise silent gym. The boy’s head rocked back, and his hands flew to his face. When he opened his mouth, dark blood flowed between the boy’s teeth.
Winston regained his balance and stared at what he’d done. He had never struck anyone in his life.
Oh, God, he thought. I’m dead.
Strangely, Steinhoff did not bellow. Like a true pack leader, he did not lose control. His hands balled into fists. His lips curled back in a bloody grimace. What should have been a scream of pain turned into a long, low growl that seemed to elevate the lust for violence among the other boys. They stepped forward to tighten the circle. Winston felt sure that in five seconds he would be on the floor, arms covering his head, two dozen feet pounding into his body. Things had never gotten this bad before.
But Steinhoff wasn’t done taunting his prey yet. He took another step forward and slammed an open hand into the center of Winston’s chest, knocking him backward again.
Winston lurched, arms pinwheeling. More hands struck him, this time to the side. He never got the chance to catch his balance or think of how to escape, if that was even possible. The group pushed him randomly from one to another like a rubber ball.
Boys smiling, eyes wide. Cruel laughing. Faces spinning by as the overhead gym lights turned into white streaks in his vision.
Winston couldn’t tell how long this lasted. It might have been five seconds, but it felt like half an hour. Finally, a hand caught him by the shirt and held him still.
Winston blinked and found himself looking into Steinhoff’s smiling face. A rivulet of blood snaked down from the corner of his mouth and spattered the front of his shirt. Holding him still with his left hand, Steinhoff drew back his right. The knuckles on his fist stood out white.
Winston was no longer breathing. He was paralyzed. There wouldn’t even be time to try and cover his face. There was only a half-second to see Steinhoff finish taking in the rest of his deep breath and notice that his pupils had closed to near pinpricks in those two circular fields of brilliant green.
Then Steinhoff was gone. In a rush of sound and motion, his hand vanished from Winston’s shirt. The boy’s body hinged at the waist, collapsing, and flew away from Winston.
Shade bellowed. His high voice rang through the gym with a frantic “aaagghhh!” as he sliced between the backs of two ring members. He put his right shoulder into Steinhoff’s abdomen and lifted the larger boy clean off the floor. Legs pumping in a blur of brown, arms wrapped around Steinhoff’s middle, Shade forced his burden through the circle and knocked two other boys sprawling. He kept on pushing for another few steps then stopped. Steinhoff’s body flew off of him, hit the gym floor, and slid squeaking for a dozen feet.
Shade walked up to Steinhoff, who remained in a fetal position, arms curled around his midsection. Face slick with sweat, Shade wavered unevenly on his feet. His chest heaved wildly, and Winston knew that he must have just come in from running his mile and a half. Shade could sprint fifty yards with no problem, but distance running didn’t suit his body. Somehow, though, he’d come into the gym, seen the situation, and found the energy for one last, amazing play: a perfect quarterback sack. His coach would have grinned with pride.
Shade pointed an index finger at Steinhoff’s head and made sure the bully saw him. “And…stay down!” he panted.
He turned his back on Steinhoff and gave Winston a wobbly thumbs-up. Still dazed, Winston barely managed to lift his hand and offer one in return.
Of course, that was the moment Mr. Gillford picked to return from his phone chat, take in the scene, and blow three eardrum-straining blasts on his whistle.
~ ~ ~
True to his old school roots, Mr. Gillford didn’t send anyone to the principal or vice principal right away. These were boys. The reason boys fought, so he said several times each year, was because they had too much energy making them crazy, which in turn was a result of too much video gaming. Of course, that didn’t explain why boys fought in the days before video games, but Winston wasn’t going to be the one to point that out.
After isolating Winston, Shade, and Steinhoff as the main perpetrators in the class’s shenanigans, Mr. Gillford sent Steinhoff to the school nurse to ice his tongue. Winston and Shade struggled through sit-ups, push-ups, and jumping jacks in the corner for 15 minutes while the rest of the class finished reviewing the core concepts of leaping over hurdles.
By the time class was over, Winston wanted to collapse. He could do jumping jacks and any other aerobic exercise for days, but repetitive strength maneuvers, such as sit-ups and push-ups, left him trembling. Shade was the opposite. He could do sit-ups for hours and failed to understand why other people couldn’t even do a few dozen.
At last, Mr. Gillford blew his whistle and sent everyone to the locker rooms.
Shade was already half-undressed by the time he reached his basket. He had no reservations about being naked or who might see it, and Winston admired him for not caring what people thought. Meanwhile, Winston was incredibly self-conscious. He knew his ribs stuck out, and he didn’t have the muscle definition to make it work. He had thighs like pencils and a chest like a cardboard paper towel tube.
Despite his lifelong discomfort around water — his mom called it a phobia — Winston was usually one of the first into the shower and almost always the first one out. Today was no exception. He felt under even heavier scrutiny than normal because of the fight. On a day when all of Steinhoff’s friends would be studying him closely, as if looking for little bull’s eyes, the last thing he wanted to be was naked among them. Of course, the sooner he finished, the sooner he would have to visit Vice Principal Sengupta.
Winston didn’t know if anyone was really watching him. Maybe he was just paranoid. No one talked to him except Shade, who hummed along merrily while soaping himself. Winston only hoped there was some protective aura cast by Shade that would last throughout the day. As for tomorrow…he didn’t want to think about that.
Winston always left his towel hanging on the waist-high tiled wall separating the showers from the rest of the locker room. That way, it was within easy reach to throw around his waist as soon as he rinsed off. Not today, though. No sooner had Winston dried his face than he saw his towel had vanished.
He looked around. The showers were dimly lit with recessed, yellow bulbs, and steam offered only a bit of obscurity. No one glanced at him, but no towel was visible anywhere. Shade still had soap all over his face.
Trying for a tired sigh, Winston walked carefully around the tile partition, resisting the urge to hunch over and wrap his arms around himself. He searched the towel racks for a spare. There were none. Either he could air dry or walk all the way across the locker room to the used towel bin by the exit.
There was a third choice. He ducked into the locker aisle where he and Shade had adjacent bins. Quickly, he started to dial in the combination on Shade’s padlock. Shade was funny about his towels and always preferred to use his own. Pale gray and practically big as a door, it featured the blue star of the Dallas Cowboys. Shade probably wouldn’t mind just this once.
Winston’s fingers fumbled on the last number, and he had to spin the dial around and around to reset it. He leaned over more, getting closer to the lock, and started again.
A noise like a firecracker going off ripped through the cement room, and Winston felt as if he’d been shot in the right buttock. He reeled forward. His chest bashed with a loud clatter into the locker bins, and he cried out in pain. One hand flew to his butt, feeling for injury. He half expected it to come away wet with blood, but there was none.
Laughter erupted. Winston looked up to see Brian Steinhoff, still wearing his gym clothes, walking past the aisle, one twirled white towel still dangling from his hand. There was a large “oops!” expression on his face. Rory Davis, one of Steinhoff’s favorite cronies, followed close behind.
Then Rory stopped, and the laughter died on his lips. He stared at Winston’s rear.
Shade appeared from behind Rory and shoved him none too gently aside.
“Beat it, jerks!” Shade called after them.
Shade turned back to look at Winston. “Please tell me you’re not going to use my…”
Then his words failed, too, and he gawked at Winston’s butt. His lips parted, but nothing came out except “uhhh.”
Winston looked down. In the spot where Steinhoff’s towel whip had snapped Winston, the blue was so intense that it was nearly white. From this center, it radiated outward in a fading pattern. The roughly circular glow was perhaps two or three inches in diameter and still growing.
Too shocked to think about the sting or his embarrassment, Winston tried to cover the area with his hand. The sapphire glow showed plainly around his palm and between his fingers. This was not like any injury he’d experienced before. Whatever caused his regular bruising had suddenly jumped to a terrifying new level.
“Winston,” breathed Shade, still dripping and buck naked. “Your butt is blue.”
The murmur of other boys climbed from whispers into audible amazement.
“I know!” exclaimed Winston. “I don’t—! It’s never—!”
Looking past Shade, he saw that Rory had returned with a cell phone and was fumbling with it, likely trying to turn on the camera app. Steinhoff elbowed Rory in the side, urging him to go faster.
“Can we talk about this later?” hissed Winston. “I could use your towel — and less attention!”
Half-coming out of his daze, Shade turned and saw the others watching. “Back off!” he said, waving his arms and stomping at them. In eighth grade, no boy argues with an angry-looking, sopping wet, buck naked linebacker. The crowd, including Rory and Steinhoff, quickly dispersed.
Winston had the combination right this time. He pulled the lock away and wrenched the bin open. Reaching inside, he yanked the towel out and threw it around his waist, sending a T-shirt and socks flying.
“Do not get your junk on the star,” said Shade.
Winston bit his lip and looked about, searching for anyone still trying to spy on him. He chanced another peek at his injury. The skin glowed brightly enough to cast a soft glow through the towel.
“What is that?” asked Shade.
“I don’t know!” whispered Winston. “Sometimes I get a little blue tinge around cuts or whatever, but nothing like this! I always thought it was bruising or something!”
“That’s not blood, Winston. That’s…”
Shade looked from Winston’s butt up to his face. His eyes grew wider. “Oh, wow.”
Shade absently grasped the hair above his ear. “Oh. Wow.”
Gradually, a grin spread across Shade’s features. He took another step closer to Winston, again looking from his friend’s posterior back up to his face. “It’s true. I knew it.”
“For the—” Winston wanted to scream at him. “You knew what?”
Shade pointed at the gray star, which happened to be covering the glowing miracle underneath. “Winston.” His voice dropped so low that Winston could barely hear him. “I always wondered, but this confirms it. That feeling thing you do with gadgets. Your math brain.”
“You’re in the same class,” Winston interrupted.
“Because of you — and you never study!” He ticked more points off on his fingers. “Your running speed. You never get sick.”
“Mom makes me take vitamins.”
“The way street lights turn off sometimes when you go under them.”
“No, that’s your—” Winston groped for the phrase and found it. “—subjective bias. That happens to everyone.”
“And those stripes in your hair. Dude. You’re not human. You’re like…an X-Men mutant.”
“I am not a mutant!”
“You are. Or if not, then…” His eyes widened with reverence. “Then my best friend is an alien. That is so…” He exhaled the word with ultimate pride. “…awesome!”
Looking for the beginning of Winston Chase and the Alpha Machine? If so, click here. If you're ready for Chapter 3, please keep reading...
Winston left Shade’s neighborhood dejected. For someone who considered himself a solitary type, it always gnawed at his mind when he couldn’t share whatever was bothering him. He needed to talk with a friend and figure out what to do. Normally, that friend was Shade, but maybe he had one other option.
Avoiding the bustle and noise of Denny Road, Winston instead zig-zagged through the neighborhood toward Shifford Middle School. The neighborhood ended at a fence. Between the fence and school stood Progress Oaks Retirement Village, a squat, brown, two-story complex. On this side of the fence sat a house that had been vacant for over a year. Winston went around the place, through its back yard, and climbed up one of the apple trees there in order to drop onto the Progress Oaks side.
He walked around the building toward its front, trying not to peer inside rooms on the ground floor. Most of the shades were drawn, leaving only a sparse parade of plants and the backs of picture frames to observe. One old lady stood in her window watering a tiny bonsai tree. She wore a black bathrobe with pink spots, and she waved at Winston as he went by. He waved back and smiled.
Winston recognized plenty of the people in Progress Oaks on sight. At the start of each school year, seventh graders went on a field trip to the rest home. They were required to get to know enough about at least one resident to write a report. Once the school had started this annual practice, Halloween egging and toilet papering of the retirement home had dropped considerably.
Winston remembered his own first trip to Progress Oaks well. The residents willing to meet kids knew to leave their room doors open, and Winston had wandered through the halls until coming to room 219. Many rooms had decorative signs showcasing their residents’ names, sometimes colorful and laminated, and some even adorned with artificial flower bouquets. Number 219’s sign hadn’t been changed from the day the resident moved in. It was a typewritten strip reading DONALD ALLEN in small print. Through the door waited a tiny room with little more than a bed and a table. At the table sat an ancient man holding a deck of cards in one hand while the gnarled fingers of his other hand drummed softly on a cribbage board. When he saw Winston looking at him, the man’s face lit up in a huge smile.
Winston never knew if it was the smile or the cribbage board that had lured him in. Cribbage was the only game he ever played with his mom, and he’d gotten good enough to beat most online versions. Shade never wanted to take time away from his RPG and shooter games to bother with something as “legacy” as cribbage, so he and “Mr. A,” as Winston soon called him, became fast friends. At first, this took Winston by surprise. Because new relationships made him nervous, Winston rarely got close to people. He felt no need or desire for the frivolous time sink of a social circle, and people sensed this. Shade was his only real friend, and the two had been inseparable since second grade, almost half of his life now.
Strangely, Mr. A hadn’t made him nervous at all. Maybe it was because he was so old. Even weirder, Winston didn’t feel that the time spent with Mr. A was a waste. During their cribbage games and long talks, Winston’s mind shut down its usual treadmill of worries: school work, PC repairs, robots, Alyssa, Brian Steinhoff, and on and on. The only thing Winston had to fear from Mr. A was that he might keel over dead.
The Progress Oaks entryway featured two sets of sliding glass doors that formed an airlock to keep cold drafts from blowing over the residents inside. Winston liked to think of it as the airlock leading to an underground missile silo. Outside, everything was normal — all chirping birds and landscaping. Inside lay a carefully controlled environment with meals more like military field rations than real food. Lighting and sound ran on tightly regulated schedules. The air remained a constant 74 degrees and smelled like a stale combination of bleach, restrooms, old paint, and turkey gravy.
Winston passed through the airlock and couldn’t help but wrinkle his nose. The smell wasn’t offensive, only strange and unsettling — a whiff of the ghost of Christmas future.
Every wall surface was painted in shades of tan and brown. Mr. A claimed this was a psychological trick to make everyone calm, although if Mr. A got any calmer, he’d lapse into a coma. In the cafeteria beyond the lobby, Winston heard the low murmur of residents clinking and conversing their slow way through a breakfast of — Winston sniffed again — waffles, fake eggs, and low-sodium bacon. At what age did a menu like that finally become worth living for? Two hundred? Two-fifty?
Behind the reception desk, Rosie Fernandez peered over her row of three monitors and broke into a dazzling white grin.
“¡Holá, señor Chase!” she sang. “You’re in early today. ¿Estás bien?”
Rosie knew that Winston was in the opening weeks of Spanish II. She loved to look over his homework and quiz him. Her perfect Mexican pronunciation, while much appreciated, was a constant reminder of how much he sucked at the language.
“Holá, Rosie,” he said, approaching the desk. Rosie rolled her chair forward a bit. She was on the heavy side and prone to being self-conscious about her looks. Winston totally got that. “Is Mr. A in the cafeteria?”
She frowned. “No. He says he didn’t sleep and is not feeling well this morning. Pobrecito.”
Poor thing. Winston grinned. Rosie really cared about the residents, unlike steel-haired and sour-faced manager who sat in the office behind Rosie and always regarded Winston with squints and suspicion.
“Maybe I can bring him something?”
Rosie shrugged. “He already has a plate. But maybe you can poke his appetite, no?”
Winston started for the elevator, but Rosie called him back, holding out a clipboard and pen. Winston groaned at the annoying formality, but he signed his name and the time.
“I’m not a terrorist, you know,” he said, handing it back.
“That is what all the terrorists say,” she chuckled.
Winston took the elevator upstairs. If not for the little window in the door, he might not have known the car was moving. It was that slow.
The elevator opened onto an open space dominated by a nurse’s station, in which were a series of locked cabinets containing the residents’ daily medications. Two chairs at the station stood empty. Room 219 was seven doors down on the left. Winston knocked lightly.
“Come in,” called the old man, sounding weak and muffled, as though he’d just dozed off.
Winston turned the handle and pushed through. The room’s entryway was a short, narrow hall with a bathroom on the right. Beyond this, the room opened into a space just large enough for Mr. A’s motorized hospital bed, an IV stand, a low sink in the corner, a squat table, and two stackable plastic chairs.
The colored paper “garden” that Winston had made Mr. A as an art project last fall still ran along the bottom of one wall. Above this hung a framed print of some old actress named Joan Leslie. The black and white image showed a woman with dark, tousled hair sitting on large cushions. The 1940s actress looked over her shoulder at the camera with an expression that said, as Mr. A liked to put it, “Come here and do that again.” In the two years he’d been asking, Winston had yet to learn what “that” was, only that Mr. A liked the print because it reminded him of his long-deceased wife.
“Leave it open, please,” called Mr. A.
Winston kicked down the door’s rubber-tipped stopper and walked into the room.
“Morning, Mr. A. The breakfast police sent me up to force feed you.”
The man smiled around yellowed teeth. His white, wispy hair hung on his scalp, exposing countless constellations of age spots. His skin dangled in loose folds from his skull, and his shoulders jutted sharply under his white T-shirt. Mr. A really did look like he’d been up all night. He pulled the single bed sheet higher up over his belly, shifting the intravenous tube feeding into the back of his right hand.
“Another late night up partying, I see,” said Winston.
“Just booted the ladies out a few minutes ago,” said Mr. A. “Really takes it out of a guy. You’ll see.”
Winston dropped his backpack to the floor and sat on the edge of the bed next to the old man’s legs. “I sort of doubt that.”
“I don’t. I see a real firecracker of a girl waiting in your future. Don’t be in such a rush, boy. You’ve got—”
“Don’t say it!” said Winston, holding up a hand.
“—the rest of your life in front of you. Well, you do.”
Winston cringed. “I came here to make you feel better, not me feel worse.”
“Worse?” Mr. A patted the back of Winston’s forearm. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh…” Winston sighed, then mentally kicked himself for being melodramatic. “Just stuff. Mom’s being weird. She doesn’t want me to talk about it.”
Mr. A frowned. His blue eyes sparkled from under fleshy lids narrowed to slits. His body might be going, but there was nothing wrong with the oldster’s mind.
Winston considered playing dumb, but decided against it. If he couldn’t trust this kindly old man, stuck alone in a rest home and all but forgotten by the world, then he really was in trouble. He drew out the slip of paper from his pocket and held it up between them.
Mr. A brought Winston’s hand closer to his face and read the slip. Then his features did something very strange. The corners of his eyes turned down and his lips parted, as if remembering something distant and painful. Winston saw him slowly read over the words twice, three times, as if he were studying the letters themselves more than what they said. Then he gently took Winston’s hand and covered it with his own, folding the note inside.
He managed a small smile. “Always best to do what your mom says.”
Winston peered harder at Mr. A. Did he know something? The smile seemed warm enough, but there was a hard glint in his eyes Winston couldn’t remember seeing before.
Winston wanted to press for details, but heavy footsteps intruded. A man came into the room dressed in light blue scrubs that stretched across his tall, muscular body. His shaved, bald head made his thirty years or so seem even older and more daunting. He filled the little entryway and glowered at Winston as he came in.
“Good morning, Mr. Allen,” he rumbled. “How’s that breakfast coming?”
“Biff!” said Winston with exaggerated cheer. “Good to see ya!”
The mountainous man paused next to the bed and stared down into Winston’s face. “It’s Bill. You know that.”
Winston pulled a face. “Bill! I’m terrible with names. Sorry.”
Bill scrunched up his lips and exhaled impatiently through his nose. He took one look at Mr. A’s untouched breakfast plate still perched on the wheeled table hovering over Mr. A’s lap, then walked over to the corner. He tugged open the mirror cabinet over the sink and grabbed a paper cup from one of the shelves. He filled this with water and set it on Mr. A’s bed table with another paper cup containing several pills.
Mr. A gave Winston’s hand a little nudge. Remembering, he slipped the note discreetly back into his pocket.
Bill stepped to the bedside. “You need to eat at least a few bites of breakfast, then take your medicine,” he mumbled.
Mr. A made a non-committal grunt. Bill stared at him disapprovingly and made a similar grunt in return. Then he glanced at Winston.
“Shouldn’t you be in school?” asked the nurse.
“Maybe,” said Winston. “It’s still up for debate.”
Bill took a deep breath, scowled, and shook his head. He turned and started around the bed to leave. Winston didn’t know why, but he wanted to mess with the man a little more. Bill was big and strong and good-looking — pretty much everything Winston would never be. And while it wasn’t in Winston’s nature to provoke someone like Bill, he couldn’t help but feel a grudging jealousy.
Winston noticed the small knobs and antenna of Bill’s walkie-talkie peeking out from one of his pockets. All of the medical and management staff carried them. Winston stared hard at the little radio as it went by, thinking of his trick with the Stadlerator 7000. He felt like Yoda using the Force to reach out to a rock. He pictured the radio controller in the device, the speaker, the circuit board, and he imagined speaking one word through them.
The walkie-talkie gave a faint crackle of static. Underneath the static formed a noise, a metallic whisper faint enough almost to be radio hiss. Yet it was clear enough. The walkie-talkie spoke the word “Biff.”
Bill almost stumbled into the door as he looked down and put a meaty hand over the radio. From where he stood, Bill could no longer see Mr. A. He glanced searchingly into the hallway, then down at the radio. He tapped it twice with his fingers, as if seeing if he could knock any more words loose. Then he looked back at Winston, who became suddenly, acutely aware that his mouth was open and his eyes were large with the shock and realization that his improbable impulse had actually worked. He might as well be wearing a sign that read, “Hey, I just did that!”
Bill took a step back toward him. “Did you…” he began, drawing the walkie-talkie from his pocket.
“No way,” said Winston as inspiration struck him. “Who else here calls you Biff?”
The big man stopped, looking once again from the walkie-talkie to Winston, his suspicion wavering.
Winston pushed him a little harder. “Is it Rosie? I can totally see you two…”
That was enough for Bill. The man’s sneakers squeaked on the tiling as he pivoted and left with a low growl.
Winston felt the rush of accomplishment flood back into him. He had telepathically spoken through the walkie-talkie! So it wasn’t just his robot. It was electronics. What did that mean? Why could he do it…and what else could he do?
Aglow with excitement, he turned to Mr. A but faltered when he noticed the old man’s complexion had grown even paler. His expression was worried — no. He looked afraid. He looked…
Mr. A looked just like his mom had earlier this morning.
“You know,” he whispered. “You and mom. What—”
Mr. A quickly shook his head. He raised his hand and set two fingers over his lips as his gaze flicked around the room’s ceiling, as if looking for hidden microphones. That searching was unmistakable and sent a cold spike of déjà vu racing down Winston’s spine.
“Bill’s right,” said Mr. A unevenly. “You should be getting along to school.” He glanced pointedly down at Winston’s pocket, the one holding the crumpled note. “Remember what your mom told you. You don’t want to be late.”
Slowly, wondering if he must be the victim of some terrible prank, Winston stood. He wanted to search around as well, but his instinct warned him to try and act normal. This couldn’t be a coincidence. Something was going on, something insane and elaborate. To the best of his knowledge, Mr. A and his mom had never met. Her work schedule or a headache or some other excuse always left Winston visiting his friend by himself. So, unless she was calling Mr. A behind Winston’s back…but why would she do that?
Winston could think of no sensible explanation. He gripped the bed rail, glad to have something cold and firm to hang onto, because he felt a bit dizzy.
“I appreciate you dropping by,” Mr. A said, again setting a hand over Winston’s. “It means a lot to me.”
Winston’s forced himself to swallow through a dry mouth. “No problem.”
“I wish we could talk more.”
The look in Mr. A’s eyes expressed more earnestness than his words let on.
“Me, too,” said Winston. “Maybe I’ll stop by later?”
The old man smiled. “I would like that.” Then his gaze softened and he patted Winston’s hand. “I cherish every minute.”
Winston had no reply. He slid his hand away and reached for his backpack, which now seemed much heavier than he remembered. “OK. I’ll try.” He managed a small smile and backed away.
“Have a good day,” Mr. A called hoarsely after him.
Looking for the beginning of Winston Chase and the Alpha Machine? If so, click here. If you're ready for Chapter 2, please keep reading...
Winston walked the few blocks to the Tagaloas’s place. Whereas his small house was a dingy yellow, the Tagaloas’s split-level home was a blazing canary, freshly painted, and cooled by inviting oak trees. A double garage with white doors stood atop the sloping driveway. Wide windows on the ground floor showed a collection of toy horses, dreamcatchers, Barbie dolls, and potted plants. Three girls ruled the basement. Unable to stand the explosions of pink, posters, and floral perfumes, Winston’s best friend Shade all but lived in the back yard.
In the yard’s far corner, Shade’s “Shack” stood ten feet off the ground, balanced on six 4x4 timbers sunk into poured concrete blocks. Shade had removed the original stairway his father installed and used the boards to create a storage shelf under the main floor. A wrap-around patio and waist-high railing surrounded the structure. The only way into the tree house was through a trap door in the patio from which dangled a rope ladder. The building measured only 8 x 10 feet, but it featured insulated walls, tinted sliding windows, a sleeping loft topped by additional storage, three electrical outlets, a miniature refrigerator, and the automated, remote-controlled security system Winston had installed two summers ago.
The Shack only lacked plumbing. Shade’s dad had drawn the line at installing a porta-potty in the back yard. As a result, a visit to the Shack’s back side often found two or three water bottles filled with urine. Sometimes Shade used these for science experiments, knowing that he would need a complete understanding of biological waste if he was ever to fulfill his dream of being an astrobiologist. Convenience and education aside, Winston still found this repulsive.
So while Shade essentially lived in the Shack, he was still obliged to “come home” at least once per day — more if his mother could talk him into sitting down with the family at dinner or doing his laundry.
Winston walked around the side of the house and approached the Shack, careful to stop before the red string marking the “security zone” boundary. With three sisters and a keen sense of personal space, Shade had turned the perimeter around the Shack into a minefield of booby traps. The willow trees in the yard, the ground, the Shack’s shadows and crannies — all were potential hiding spots for his latest “counter-intrusion” measures. The traps had grown so intricate over the years, and Shade had to change them so often, that he now logged their positions and trajectories with a mapping program on his tablet.
“Hey!” called Winston.
Shade slid a window open and poked his head out. He was nearly a head shorter than Winston but at least twenty pounds heavier, with shaggy dark brown hair that fell around his ears and a burnished complexion that was oddly flawless for an eighth grader. He sported a black T-shirt showing a winged gargoyle — the same shirt he’d worn yesterday. Unless he had football practice and needed to change, Shade would go two or three days in the same outfit, always claiming that he had more important things to think about than fashion.
“You’re early,” said Shade.
Winston thought about his mom’s note, now crumpled in his pocket. He shouldn’t say anything. But this was Shade, the one person in the world he told everything. He had to tell Shade or else his head would explode.
Still… On the outside chance that his mom was right, it would make sense that Shade and his Shack would also be under surveillance since he spent a large part of his time here.
That thought sent a shiver down his back.
“Yeah,” Winston said. “It’s been a weird morning. OK to come up?”
“Sure. Hold on.”
Shade’s head disappeared into the Shack, and Winston knew that he was calling up his security app. He looked around the yard, admiring how well manicured Mr. Tagaloa kept it. The grass was an even, dark green, devoid of the brown patches of crane fly damage that mottled Winston’s yard. Roses and chrysanthemums lined the house’s back wall, filling the air with a deep, fresh sweetness. The patio, still arrayed with its collection of outdoor dining furniture, boasted a stainless steel barbecue the size of a Smart car, and Winston knew that Mr. Tagaloa cared for it with more love and attention than typically shown to his children.
“All right,” Shade said, stepping out onto the balcony, tablet cradled in one hand. He wore khaki cargo shorts and no shoes or socks. Shade hadn’t been to his South Pacific homeland since the age of two and had no memory of it, but island habits were clearly wired into his DNA.
Shade checked the back of the house for any sign of sisters who might be snooping on his security secrets. “I changed a couple things last night. Come six paces forward.”
Winston slumped with exasperation and held up his hands. “Dude. Can’t you just drop the—”
“Testing and calibrating, man. You’ll be fine!”
“That’s what you said when you almost electrocuted me.”
“Again with the electrocution thing!” Shade smacked the windowsill in exasperation. “It wasn’t my fault! The store mislabeled the part!”
“I am all about caution and safety. Do you know anyone safer than me?”
With a deep breath, Winston stepped over the red string and took six slow paces. He’d learned the hard way not to rush through this.
“Now three to the left.”
Winston turned to the left and started to take a step.
“Stop!” cried Shade. “Sorry. My left. Your right.”
Winston turned around and took three even paces.
“Now take four steps straight toward me.”
“You couldn’t just use a deadbolt like the rest of us?”
Shade crossed his arms, holding the tablet to his chest like a teddy bear. “You know why. It’s the point. I’m outnumbered here, three to one. It’s like the Spartans when they were up against that Persian nutjob.”
“That was more like twenty to one.”
“Whatever. OK, you’re clear. Go straight to the ladder.”
Winston climbed the rope ladder, the coppery threads woven through the rough fibers glinting in the sunlight. As always, Winston found it difficult to keep his spindly legs straight and the ladder from swinging wildly. Coordination had never been his specialty.
Shade had put a lot of thought into the Shack. The sleeping loft accessible via a square cut into the ceiling’s corner had been almost entirely converted into storage. In the main room, a 30” flat screen TV hung on the wall and doubled as a second display for his laptop. Shade didn’t bother with decorations. Most of the bottom level was occupied by one red beanbag and two walls of benches and racks filled with science equipment and various experiments.
Shade plopped down on his beanbag, tapping at his tablet. Winston pulled the lone stool out from under a bench and sat. He couldn’t help but look around the Shack, especially in the corners, wondering if the place was bugged. Then he realized that it wouldn’t have to be bugged. Shade had four mics and surveillance cameras scattered around this place, all of which were online so he could monitor them from anywhere. “They,” whoever they were, wouldn’t have to plant anything. They only needed to hack his systems.
Winston smiled at the thought of the government taking on his own security deployment. He had no illusions of withstanding hacks from a group like the FBI, but it would be fun to know how long it took them to break through.
“Something funny?” Shade asked.
“No, just thinking.”
“Alyssa again?” His tone was so flat that Winston wondered if Shade was either sick of hearing about the girl or just a pinch jealous, although that would be unlike him. Plus, Alyssa really wasn’t his type.
Winston puffed out his cheeks and sighed. “No, not this time.”
Alyssa Bauman. Five foot three. Auburn hair like hot coals, with an attitude to match. Pale, freckled skin. Wit sharp enough to slice through a can. She had been in his classes for five of the last six years and hardly seemed to have given Winston a thought. He wished the feeling was reciprocal. Unfortunately, when he didn’t have his brain dialed into electronics, he thought about little besides her.
Winston tried not to take her lack of interest personally. He had a big head on a skinny body, with a bunch of premature gray hair that looked like two faint white stripes. The Internet said it might be vitiligo or Waardenburg syndrome or any of a dozen other things that could mess up his life, and his mom still hadn’t taken him in to see a doctor about it. Winston was smart, but showed it too often. Between his studies and his work, he had little interest in the YouTube shows and music streams that his classmates loved.
As a result, Winston knew he wasn’t terribly popular, and that was probably an understatement.
“OK,” said Shade. “Spill.”
Winston looked at him, uncomprehending. “Huh?”
“Your text? This morning?” Shade arched his eyebrows and gave Winston a look that asked Did you eat your brain for breakfast? “You texted me at—” He flicked his own phone to life and tapped a few times. “7:14 AM. ‘Unbelievable! You won’t believe this!’”
His text…of course. Just before his mom had come in. How had it slipped his mind?
Winston thought again of the note in his pocket. He should tell Shade everything. That was how their friendship worked. But would doing so put him in danger? Without any answers, Winston needed to stall for time and think.
“Here’s a hypothetical for you,” said Winston. “You always worry about your sisters spying on you, right?”
“They do!” He pointed an accusing finger at the house. “I mean, not Alia so much, now that she’s a senior and everything.” He said the word as if it were a life-threatening disease. “But the other two. It’s like the more I have my own space, the more they want to pry into it, you know?”
“I know,” said Winston. “It’s horrible.”
“Are you mocking me?”
“A little, but listen.” He leaned toward Shade and lowered his voice. “If your sisters were determined to spy on you through any means necessary — hacking, eavesdropping, telescope, whatever — where would you go to avoid them?”
Shade looked offended. “Dude, this is the Fortress of Solitude. I designed this place to be sister-proof, and you did the security system, so…”
Yeah, about that, Winston thought, wondering if they were being monitored by someone at this moment. But Shade wasn’t going to understand if he kept on like this.
“I know you think this place is totally safe,” Winston said. “Just in case, though, we need to find someplace more private to talk.”
“So grab your stuff, and let’s get out of here.”
“Dude, I can’t leave until I generate and store the morning specimen.”
Winston grimaced. Shade’s scientific name for peeing into a plastic bottle and labeling it didn’t make the process any less stomach-churning.
“Um,” said Winston as he pushed his stool back under the counter. “That’s really tempting, but…”
Shade gave him a sly glance. “Or you could tell me what’s going on.”
Winston wanted to spill everything then and there. He cringed inwardly, knowing he would cave in no matter how much he tried to obey his mom’s note.
Fine. Not here, though.
“I will. At lunch, OK?” He edged toward the door.
Shade faced him directly, a slight crease forming between his brows. “You can’t keep a secret even if your life depends on it. Why wait? What’s going on?”
“Nothing.” Winston’s foot found the balcony’s rope ladder opening. “Maybe.”
“Is it a girl thing?” Shade’s face lit up and he snapped his fingers. “That’s it! You like someone else, and you don’t want my sisters finding out.”
Winston rolled his eyes and started gingerly down the ladder. “I’m leaving. Can you disarm the yard?”
Shade tapped an icon on his tablet and Winston heard the beep that meant the security system would be deactivated for sixty seconds. He made it to the ground as Shade tromped around his balcony. Winston heard the sound of Shade’s zipper and resisted the urge to break into a run.
I'll keep this quick. I'm going to start posting chapters of my upcoming YA sci-fi adventure novel each week. If you like it, awesome! Please consider signing up for my mailing list. Pass the story around. Feel free to drop me a note with any thoughts or typo discoveries. The version I'm posting here is the third iteration of the third major draft, after having been scoured by nine beta readers. Thus, the copy should be fairly clean and 98+% true to what you'll see published on Amazon by the time we reach the end....at which point, Book 2 should also be ready.
Anyway. Please kick back and enjoy my little project that's been five years in the making...
Winston rubbed his eyes and wondered how on earth he could make it through this day. Only five hours of sleep had birthed a black hole where his frontal lobe normally sat and left him feeling slightly nauseous. On the concrete, sock-strewn floor of his bedroom, his robot – his contest entry, his life for the last five months, the fate of his future – sat motionless and indecisive, as if struck by a freak cosmic ray of stupidity.
“Why?” Winston moaned. “Why don’t you work?”
The compact machine could fit in his cheap, plastic laundry basket, which was how he carried it to and from school. With a LEGO control module head the size of a thick paperback book, four spindly legs, and a bulbous body fashioned from LEGO motors, a heating coil, and his mom’s old stainless steel salad bowl, the Stadlerator 7000 carried itself like an arthritic spider. The machine’s mission couldn’t be simpler: search and destroy. With its bulging eyes and recognition algorithms, it scoured its surroundings for worksheets from Mrs. Stadler’s seventh period English. Upon finding one, the Stadlerator snatched its prey with a slender grappler arm, dropped it in the steel bowl, closed the bowl’s lid, then heated the bottom of the bowl to 435 degrees Fahrenheit until the offending sheet baked into crispy oblivion.
Last week’s exercise – Copy This Paragraph in Ten Different Styles – lay in the bowl without so much as a browned corner. His “B-” grade in red ink remained perfectly legible above the words “Technically correct, but you should be trying harder.”
Trying harder. Yes, because the world needed more people able to describe an airplane ride in journalistic, comedic, pedantic, or minimalist styles at will. In his fourteen years, Winston had never been to an airport, much less set foot on a plane. Such worksheets were a distraction from working on his robot, and with only four days left until the district competition, he had no time for distractions.
The lid remained open over his homework. The Stadlerator’s eyes, scavenged from a couple of old webcams, stared with uncaring patience at his floor.
“The pincer releases, then a two-second wait…” Winston mentally reviewed the instruction code, trying to discover some flaw. “Rear camera confirms the sheet in the bowl. Initiate motor number five lid drop routine…”
Only the lid didn’t drop. Motor number five had worked last night, and now it didn’t. Again. Over and over, he mentally reviewed the robot’s instruction code, scouring each memorized line for possible errors, and found nothing.
Winston fell back onto his bed, not caring if he rumpled the clothes he’d folded a couple of days ago and never put away. From their posters taped to the ceiling, history’s greatest scientists and inventors stared down at him. In particular, the ever-grouchy Edison, scowling at the light bulb in his hand, seemed to rebuke Winston, as if saying, “I tried ten thousand designs until I figured it out. What’s your excuse?”
“I don’t know why it doesn’t work!” he told them all.
He didn’t have time to troubleshoot it now, and he’d be hard pressed to find the time tonight. Mr. Mendoza’s server lay dissected across half of Winston’s main workbench, awaiting resuscitation. Winston couldn’t afford to sacrifice his reputation as a cheap but efficient PC repairman. Without his income of several hundred dollars per month on top of his mom’s waitressing, how would they cover the bills?
Yet he only had four days to wow the district judges and advance to the state-level Robotics Tournament. Sure, being a team of one was a calculated risk. So was drawing attention through the automated destruction of homework. Did anyone else have his visual recognition systems, though? And wasn’t it a small step from finding and incinerating worksheets to, say, finding lost keys or picking up dirty clothes and putting them in the hamper? The Stadlerator 7000 was only a proof of concept, a stepping stone to affordable, next-generation robots that could make life easier for people like his mom. Surely, universities like M.I.T. or Carnegie Mellon would recognize his potential with a tournament victory under his name. Or perhaps Intel, 3M, or one of the other tournament sponsors would simply scoop him up out of high school in a year or two.
Then Winston and his mom would be set. She could retire and stop worrying about him so much. He would go on and live his lifelong dream. Winston had it all planned out…assuming, of course, that he could get the lid to go down.
“Honey, did you eat breakfast?” his mother called from her bathroom.
“No!” he hollered back.
“Well, can you hurry?”
Winston groaned and pushed himself out of bed. He wore the same T-shirt and jeans he’d fallen asleep in. His tattered backpack waited by the bedroom door, homework still unfinished, but he could probably catch up during lunch…if he didn’t spend it reviewing control code on his phone. Mr. Mendoza’s server demanded his attention, but there was no time to deal with it now. One desktop PC and two laptops waited in line behind it. Above his long workbench, all manner of tools and shelves containing sensors, soldering equipment, spare parts, and even an oscilloscope sat in scattered disarray that made complete organizational sense in Winston’s mind. He found something about living in the middle of an electronics workshop that used to be the home’s garage glamorously geeky.
He took a step toward his door, then paused to look down at the Stadlerator 7000. It would power off automatically after five minutes, or he could command it with a series of four snaps if he didn’t feel like hitting the red power button at the back of the mechanical beast’s head. Two claps put the robot into patrol mode. Three suspended patrolling.
Winston clapped three times, and the Stadlerator gave an electronic confirmation chirp. He clapped twice, hoping against hope that the order would work this time.
It didn’t. The stillness of the garage, with its dust-scented sprawl of clothing, plates, worn rugs, and exposed insulation, closed in on Winston a bit more, making him feel less like a robotics genius and more like an overambitious little boy.
Winston growled and ground his teeth at the robot. In his mind, he saw past the control module’s outer shell and into the circuit board, with its labyrinth of chips, wire traces, and interfaces. He visualized them all perfectly, having spent hours modifying the board for his needs, and probed for where any weakness might be hiding. His fingertips tingled with the intensity of his concentration.
Come on, you rust bucket, he thought. Where’s your problem? I just…need you…to close…the lid!
The robot beeped once, and, with a soft grinding of motor gears, played out the center cable until the lid clanked shut.
Winston froze. The superstitious caveman part of his hindbrain instantly tossed up an explanation: magic! Then the mathematician in his forebrain helpfully offered a solution: Coincidence!
Of course. Somewhere in the control module, the commands he’d given sat queued up. For some reason, the processor was firing really slowly. That had probably been the command he’d given five minutes ago, and now the robot would inch its way through the pending instructions. Better to turn the thing off and figure out whatever glitch was gumming up his order flow later.
Magic, whispered his hindbrain.
No. Winston didn’t believe in magic. Magical things never happened in his life. One might create occasional exciting breaks from everyday routine, but everything happened due to a natural progression of cause and effect. Glaciers melted when temperatures climbed. Bullies punched and mocked for specific psychological and social reasons. And Winston’s mind shut down whenever he wanted to talk to Alyssa Bauman because…well, that scientific analysis remained unresolved.
But this? This wasn’t exactly figuring out cold fusion. This was coincidence.
Winston didn’t spend much time on social media, but he did texted his best friend, Shade, dozens of times daily. Almost with a mind of their own, his fingers reached for his phone and tapped out an update. Slipping the phone back into his pocket, Winston bent over to press the robot’s red power button.
Maybe it wasn’t coincidence, argued his hindbrain.
He paused, hand outstretched.
Feeling a bit ridiculous, even in the privacy of his own room, Winston straightened and whispered, “Fine.”
He couldn’t remember the exact order of commands he’d given that might still be waiting to execute, but he knew which ones he hadn’t given and so wouldn’t be in the queue. Winston again focused all of his attention on the robot’s head, picturing in his mind the control module as it existed within its shell. Green circuit board. Bluetooth radio chip. ARM7 processor. Serial buses and power input. Winston’s breathing slowed as he focused, and not only did the tingling return to his fingertips but little flecks of blue seemed to dance over the motherboard in his imagination.
Stadlerator 7000, he thought with slow, overly pronounced care in his mind, as if the machine were mostly rather than entirely deaf. Reverse fifty centimeters.
With an affirmative chirp, the robot clicked and hummed as it backed up over the rug and came to a smooth stop.
Reaching out to steady himself, Winston sat back down on his bed.
It wasn’t magic. Magic didn’t exist. But it definitely wasn’t coincidence.
Without taking his eyes from the robot, barely daring to blink, Winston tentatively reached a hand toward his creation, realizing that he must look as if he were trying to use the Force. He visualized the CPU, the data ports, the motors and winch…
Open. Wait three seconds. Close.
The Stadlerator 7000 obeyed.
Winston pressed his fingers over his mouth and stared.
“No…way,” he breathed.
His mind raced for an explanation but returned with nothing. It wasn’t coincidence, and Winston tossed telepathy in the same waste bucket as magic.
Only then did he wonder for the first time if he could use this strange ability in the competition. No more debugging necessary. He could make the Stadlerator dance through any challenge the judges dished out. That would be cheating, of course, and he knew as soon as the thought crossed his mind that he would never do it. If he couldn’t win fairly, he would inevitably fail later in his career — cause and effect.
So what could he do? What if he demonstrated this phenomenon at the competition? He would be disqualified, but imagine the wonder on the judges’ faces! Would Intel hire him on the spot and place him in a research lab? Whoever got to the bottom of this would make a fortune, maybe even change the world.
Winston had streamed enough movies and TV to know what would come next. Wherever a fortune waited for the good guy, gun-toting bad guys couldn’t be far behind.
Be careful what you ask for, he thought.
Keep your head down, his mother would caution. Be humble. Nothing good comes from attracting too much attention.
As if she could hear his thoughts, his mom appeared in his doorway. Her dark, still-damp hair hung about the blue and white shoulders of her Sam’s Diner waitress uniform.
“Winston!” she called impatiently. “Breakfast? What are—” She broke off when she saw his face. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Winston started to say, but the word never came out. He didn’t actually know if anything was wrong. He looked from her to the robot and back. Should he tell her or keep his mouth shut?
“Honey?” She stepped hesitantly into the room, low black heels clicking on the concrete.
Should he tell anybody? Should he even give Shade details? Winston had shared everything about his life with Shade since they were in the second grade. This was so radically different, though. And if word got out at school…what would happen then? Winston had enough social problems already.
“Winston, are you OK?”
His mom stood over him, brow furrowed, studying his upturned face.
He could keep it from her and blame his weirdness on short sleep or school stress or a particularly stupid YouTube video.
What came next surprised Winston even as the word tripped awkwardly from his mouth.
He held up his hand and focused on the Stadlerator 7000 through the gap between his thumb and index finger. Again, he concentrated on the machine’s inner workings.
“Tell me something I should have it do,” Winston said.
His mom’s voice sounded odd and slightly worried. “Umm…go in a circle?”
Winston took only a moment to practice the maneuver in his mind and imagine how it would execute, then the robot complied perfectly.
“Well, good job,” she said. “You made it have voice recognition?”
He shook his head solemnly.
Winston watched as the look of confusion on her face eroded into something else. Her thin lips parted, and she took a slow, deep breath, as if preparing to be submerged.
“Mom, I don’t know what it is or how I’m doing it. Really. I just focus on the robot and how it works. Then I think about what I want it to do, and…it does.”
She took one step away from him.
“Mom, I’m not lying.”
Winston’s mother gazed into his face — not so much into his eyes, but at his features. He saw her linger over the white streaks in his hair, following them back from his temples to the back of his head. After several seconds, with a clear effort, she glanced down at the robot.
“It has to be a bug,” she said softly. “You’ll figure it out.”
“That’s what I thought at first, but then I—”
“Winston,” she interrupted with strange firmness. “You haven’t eaten breakfast yet. It’s a bug.”
He stood up from the bed. In the last year, he’d grown five inches and now looked down on her, a situation they both still found alternately funny and awkward. Winston realized that his mouth had gone dry, and he forced himself to swallow. Her reaction reminded him of a time several years ago when he’d had an accident on the playground. As a first-grader stuck in after-school care, he’d wandered over to where the big kids were playing baseball. Curious for a closer look, Winston wandered into the baseball diamond just as some burly sixth-grader nailed a hit down the line just west of first base. The ball never reached the first baseman, instead colliding squarely into the center of Winston’s forehead. The impact lifted him off his feet. The next thing he knew, he was on his back looking up at the clouds as blood trickled into his eyes. The pain was horrendous. When his mom finally arrived at the nurse’s office, the look of fear and worry on her face had been exactly what anyone would expect from a mother. The nurse kept blathering on about concussions, the speed of the ball, fracturing, and how they should go to the hospital immediately for x-rays. His mom straightened, and the change that came over her expression then reminded Winston exactly of how she was acting now. They’d gone home, cleaned up, and by the next day Winston had little more than a small cut to show for his troubles. When the nurse asked him how he was doing, he repeated his mother: He was tougher than he looked and healed quickly.
That was then, though. Winston was no longer a little kid, and he needed answers.
“Mom, I’ve never heard of anything like this, at least nothing without some kind of EEG brainwave headband, like the kind—”
“Winston, get your breakfast.”
Her eyes wandered about his room, first at the robot, then the ceiling and corners, back to his face, and with each second her expression grew tighter and more anxious.
“Mom, are you listening to me? I don’t have an explanation for this. I mean, I’m wondering if I should demo this at the competition and get—”
She reflexively grabbed his arm above the elbow, fingertips digging uncomfortably into his flesh.
Winston fought down the urge to pull away from her and instead calmly said, “Oww.”
But calm was the last thing he felt. He couldn’t remember the last time his mother had ever touched him in a way that came close to inflicting pain.
She released him almost as quickly as she’d clutched at him. “I’m sorry. Winston…”
Her eyes pleaded with him before again flicking away to search about his room. What was she looking for? Had she lost something in here?
He covered his exposed left arm where she’d squeezed him and rubbed at the aching muscles. Beneath his hand, Winston noticed that his skin showed a faint blue bruising. For many years, Winston had been prone to such discolorations. Injuries on other kids turned red or purple. With him, they seemed more indigo or sometimes a steel blue, but they passed quickly. Usually, his mom would put on a bandage, and by the next day he’d be back to normal. Someday when they could afford insurance, she’d say, they would get it checked out.
For now, though, he didn’t want her thinking she’d hurt him. That would only worsen her odd mood.
“Please,” she continued, tone strained and muted. “Let’s get you some breakfast and figure this out tonight, OK?”
She knew, Winston suddenly realized. His mom wasn’t baffled like he was. She was worried.
No. He looked again at her expression and read the truth of it. She’s scared. Why?
“Can we go?” she asked. “Are you ready?”
He nodded, knowing he wouldn’t get any information from her now. This was her hedgehog state, when she curled into a prickly ball, kept her head down, and waited for the current problem to blow away.
Winston resisted the urge to mentally command the Stadlerator to turn off and instead reached down to press the power button. With two descending beeps, its indicators went dark. He followed his mom up the single concrete stair and closed the door behind them.
There wasn’t much to their house. The narrow hallway that ended in the former garage also led to his mom’s “master bedroom,” which measured about one-third the size of his own. She turned off to finish getting ready for work. Five more steps took Winston through the hall and into their small kitchen. Beyond this was the living room, which contained little more than a couch and a still-functioning 1998 television with a remote control the size of a tennis shoe. Despite the spindly furniture and worn nearly bare carpet, Winston’s mom kept the home immaculate. She was a nut about keeping everything sterile, but it still felt gray and tired.
They had few non-essential things. As Winston’s mom often reminded him, things only broke over time, and college was coming up someday. When he was home, Winston essentially lived in his room. Most days, he would shuffle out for dinner or to share a movie with his mom, but his life and most of his heart was with his robots.
He grabbed some orange juice and two breakfast bars, then set about downing his meager meal while pacing the living room. In record time, his mom tromped down the hallway, hair still damp but now more thoroughly brushed. As he downed his last swig of juice and set the cup in the sink, his mother emerged from the refrigerator holding two stuffed brown bags, both crinkled from several days of reuse. She handed one of these to Winston, and he noticed that her eyes were wet with tears.
“Ham sandwich, salad on the side,” she said.
He stuck the bag in his backpack, wondering if he should try to say anything to make her feel better. “Thanks.”
His mom snatched her purse from the counter and said, “OK, let’s go.”
She wiped at her eyes and tried to smile.
“Mom, you’re kind of—” he started.
“Running late,” she cut in. “Come on, honey.”
No discussion. Fine.
She cracked the front door open and waited. As he passed her, she gave him a little hug in the doorway and kissed his cheek. Again, strange. She normally never kissed him except right before bed.
Then he felt her free hand press a slip of paper into his own and close his fingers over it. She held his hand closed to emphasize that he shouldn’t look at it yet.
Winston’s mom met his eyes and gave him a meaningful nod. He nodded back, unsure if she had mentally snapped.
She locked the door behind them and got into her ancient Honda Civic, a ‘94 model she had bought used even before he was born — with cash, she loved to remind him. “Credit is for people who don’t understand math,” she would say. “In my day, if you didn’t have cash, you could afford to wait.”
The car engine turned over with a wheezing heave. His mom rolled down the window half-way, her shoulder weaving back and forth as she turned the handle. They were the only family Winston knew of that had a car with manual windows. For a second, she looked like she was going to call him over to her, then she thought better of it.
“Have a good day, honey,” she said. “Learn lots.”
“Uh huh,” he replied. “You, too.”
It was his customary comeback to her customary morning goodbye.
She gave him a tight-lipped grin, rolled up the window, and backed out of the driveway. As she passed, he gave her a small wave, noticing once again that there were tears in her eyes.
She drove off, a little slower than usual, leaving Winston alone in the driveway. Theirs was by far the smallest home on their cul-de-sac, one of the poorer and more run-down pockets in this area of Beaverton. The morning air was clear and warm for October. Sunlight filtered through the trees. Winston knew that other homes had gardens in their last bloom, stained glass knickknacks in the windows, and other signs of suburban decoration. Meanwhile, their house had a couple blotches of grass and a white picket fence in dire need of braces. Mustard-colored siding paint flaked like a week-old sunburn. They didn’t bother with window decorations because his mom almost always kept the curtains drawn. The screen door had a rip in the bottom where Winston had tried to drive a toy tractor through it many years ago. One corner of the gutter sagged lower than the others.
He’d seen more luxurious accommodations in trailer parks. Still, this was Winston’s home, and he was used to it. They didn’t make much, but the house was paid for, and even in eighth grade Winston was able to help pay for some of the bills.
With a sigh, he started down the street, but he couldn’t shake the image of his mom shushing him and searching around his room. Then he realized that the slip of paper his mom had given him still waited in his palm. He opened it and recognized her handwriting, hastily scrawled in felt pen.
Assume you are being watched. Do not show what you can do to ANYONE. Discuss tonight.
Winston read the note over and over. Perhaps she really had gone off the deep end…but he doubted it. Her bizarre behavior, while frantic and disturbing, fit too closely with what he’d seen long ago in the nurse’s office. She didn’t seem crazy. If anything, she seemed like someone suddenly realizing that last night’s nightmare hadn’t entirely been a dream.
Assume you are being watched.
As Winston pondered her words, he found himself glancing around at the neighborhood’s power lines and scattered ash and elm trees — for what? Snipers? Evil spy birds?
“Get a grip,” he murmured as he shoved the sticky note into his jeans pocket and started down the street. “She’s just stressed with work or something. And the robot…”
Yes, the robot. Neither development offered any rational explanation yet, but Winston felt sure that both were related.
Assume you are being watched.
If his mom wasn’t crazy, why would she say this? There must be some basis for it. And if her paranoia had been triggered by watching him mentally command the Stadlerator, then that meant…she wasn’t surprised. She was afraid, but not surprised. She knew something about Winston that he didn’t.
Do not show what you can do to ANYONE.
A speed tracker stood at the cul-de-sac’s entrance, one of those mobile units with solar panels on top and a big readout showing an approaching car’s speed. One block off of the main street bordering their neighborhood, Winston had thought it was a stupid place for a speed sensor ever since it had shown up there a couple of years ago. Now he found himself studying it as he walked past. Tucked underneath the solar panels, a dark plastic block mounted to the central post. Presumably, infrared or laser sensors hid within the block. Winston knew that the sensors had to face toward Denney Road in order to detect drivers’ speeds. Could there also be a camera pointed toward his house?
He shook his head. No, the idea was both ridiculous and irrational, just the sort of fantasy any ordinary, bored fourteen-year-old would cook up to have some excitement in his life. He kept walking.
Still…what had his mom been looking for in his room?
Winston swallowed hard and glanced back at the speed readout sign. Was someone watching him? Could his home, even his bedroom, be under surveillance? The thought that someone might have cameras or microphones in his private space made his heart skip with sudden embarrassment. Then he realized that any cameras would have also seen what he could do with the Stadlerator 7000.
His mother worried about him telling anyone, but what if the secret was already out?
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.