By: Nestor Delfino
Dragging himself along the school’s hallway, flanked by two multi-purpose units that looked like two-meter tall gray spiders, Ixel Styx let his head hang forward, resembling a condemned teenager dragged to the execution chamber. Or, in his case, the principal’s office. The rhythmic pace of the metallic spiders, tapping the cement floor in unison, as if performing some choreographed dance, brought Ixel back from his brooding. He noticed the water fountain two meters to his left. If he could only get a drink. Yet there was no way he could do it fast enough; the spider would catch him immediately. Then he would make the rest of the way to the principal’s office, head hanging down, two meters from the ground.
But the pervasive thirst was so overwhelming he had to use all his brainpower to keep walking straight. It was almost noon, and when the bell rang, a thousand students would leap out of their classrooms for their midday drink of water, like a stampede of wild beasts charging the last waterhole on the planet.
Ixel cursed himself for pulling that silly prank on the teacher by means of a rotten egg bomber drone his father had just gotten him. Although he loved his father because he was always getting him cool stuff like a turd catapult, a kamikaze mouse, and an oversized centipede, this time he had gone too far. A grilling was surely coming for him and he was not sure if his father’s connections would be enough to get him off the hook.
Flanked by two other multi-purpose units, as if she was the president of the Corporate States of North America herself, the principal observed Ixel with an expression that depicted both anger and pity. She was already on a tele-holo conference call with Ixel’s parents. The three-dimensional projection of a distinguished, impeccably dressed Morgat Styx—Ixel’s father—suggested that he had been pulled from a work meeting, because of the flashing “Didaskalos Inc.” logo above his head. A second projection depicted Ixel’s mother, Sophia, who had just received her family’s weekly water ration. She was about to put the hard plastic jug on the kitchen counter. Sophia was the responsible one in the family; she always made sure that their ever-diminishing water supply lasted until the next delivery.
The principal was swift. “Mr. and Ms. Styx, this was the last straw.” She recounted Ixel’s most recent mischiefs. “I am afraid I must expel Ixel. It pains me greatly to lose such a bright history student, but there are a plethora of candidates waiting to enter our prestigious high school.” she sounded pompous and smug, “The top-rated in Toronto, and among the best in the Corporate States.”
Sophia dropped the water jug — the precious water jug — as if it had just turned into a hot potato; it cracked, and a rivulet began flowing down to the tile floor. Shocked, she hurried to put the jug in a bucket, kneeled, and soaked the pool of water with a kitchen rag, which she then squeezed thoroughly into the bucket. When she saved the prized liquid, she said to her husband, Morgat, “This is your fault! You’re always gifting him those stupid toys, always enabling him!”
“Come on, Sophia,” Morgat said, “it can’t be that bad! Remember the stuff I used to do in school?”
“This is not a parents’ meeting!” the Principal interrupted. “I am deeply disappointed, Mr. Styx. A top executive in the most powerful corporation, with major investments in education no less, and you encouraged your son’s behavior? Didaskalos is Greek for teacher!” She paused and regained her composure. “Ixel must vacate this facility immediately. I suggest you pick him up before a failed consumer happens to make eye contact because this reputable institution is no longer responsible for his safety.”
Ixel understood the seriousness of the situation. Failed consumers were society’s rejects, unable or unwilling to participate in the corporate life of the country. They had the same morals as the giant rats they hunted for food in the inner city. He would go as far as to bartering his water ration for another chance. He thought of begging on his knees if necessary, but two spiders snatched him by his arms and dragged him out of the office as if he were roadkill.
His mother’s hologram yelled hysterically while his father tried to bribe the principal with gold.
Toronto in 2128 was less welcoming than it had been in the twenty-first or even the twentieth century. Cocooned from the inner-city people his whole life, Ixel could not imagine how to survive surrounded by failed consumers — those neglected by the government, those who abide by their own rules, and who despised citizens. Ixel was a citizen and a prominent one at that. His father, Morgat, was a top executive at Didaskalos Inc., the most powerful corporation in the North American continent. As such it enjoyed unrestricted access to the collective ears of the people at the top.
It sunk in, all alone that winter night of February 18, 2128, that not even Morgat was powerful enough to keep him a citizen. There was fierce competition, and Ixel was not the only son of a wealthy Didaskalos executive. If he had not been terrified about the hunters of the giant, genetically modified rats about to inundate the streets as soon as the sun touched the top of the derelict downtown buildings, he might have wondered why Morgat kept enabling him to drive the teachers crazy. He had always thought his loving father was still a kid at heart, until now.
He checked his pockets and backpack; there was no food — he had already consumed his algae quiche. He was not hungry at the moment, but he would be later when hiding on some rooftop while waiting for his father to send a fly-limo.
It had not always been like this, he remembered from the history courses he had cherished so much. Toronto, in the late twentieth century, came to his mind. A time when you could walk home from school. A place where you could make friends, something he wanted so desperately. A place where you could breathe the air without a purifier. And the most beautiful thing: a place where you could have a drink of water from any public fountain without showing your ration card to some spider.
Where was his ration card? A spider had snatched it from him. And what about the air? He still had his air purifier, so he quickly put on the transparent mask over his mouth and nose because the thick smog stank like a chemical cocktail.
Sundown in Toronto, 2128. Sundown of his young life. Already he could hear the savage howls from the hunters, the failed consumers — failed consumers like him, people without a future. Ixel was sure that the first failed consumer who spotted him and had enough sense not to spear him would find a way to make some water rations off a helpless rich kid. Climbing to the school’s rooftop was impossible with the myriad spiders guarding the manicured grounds; a failed consumer would be immediately neutralized upon sight, by any means necessary. His communicator buzzed; a fly-limo was on its way.
The spider battalion that was escorting Ixel out of the school grounds picked up the pace. When he crossed the perimeter, jogging now, he barely avoided having his right foot smashed by the shutting gates. His final goodbye from the prestigious school, and his future, was the loud metal bang. Two spiders remained behind the gate.
The howls were ever louder, and Ixel looked for a hiding spot. A giant oak tree, its trunk sculpted like a spiral staircase, afforded him some safety during those interminable, perilous minutes until the limo landed. He had done it this time. If gold could be turned into water, things would be much better for his family. But then again, all affluent families had gold in large quantities, enough to buy all the water in the world. But they could not buy what no longer existed.
Cuddled up on a thick branch, trying to become one with the tree, he waited for the fly-limo. His eyes grew heavy, and he was again assaulted by that old recurring nightmare, the one he had experienced since he had use of his memory: that blinding flash at the foot of his bed, and a miniature sun materializing in the bedroom. Screams. A blue vortex pulling him in. Then he would wake up with sweat cascading down his forehead, like now.
The honking limo was not going to wait long. Ixel jumped down from the tree into the flying vehicle. As it took off, the racket of the turbofans scared away an approaching gaggle of failed consumers. The hunters looked like the medieval warriors he had studied in his history classes. Hard to believe humans in the twenty-first century seemed so close to humans in the Middle Ages.
“Good evening,” a robotic voice welcomed Ixel. “Please fasten your seatbelts and enjoy the ride.”
Fly-limos were expensive and used only for emergencies. Ixel remembered only one such necessity before when a rat bit his mother, a rat that had been chased into their backyard by some failed consumer.
A few tracer rounds from robotic machine guns told Ixel that the vehicle was arriving at the gated community he called home. Water had to be kept safe at all times; every residence had a small amount of the precious resource, and the failed consumers always tried to steal it. Sophie was waiting by the door. When the limo landed in the front garden, she embraced her son. “I thought I’d never see you again!” she said between sobs. Her long, blonde hair rested on Ixel’s shoulder and got tangled in his backpack.
Morgat lit a cigarette. “I made a deal,” he said, grinning. “Pulled a few strings in government, called in a few favors.”
Ixel’s smile cut across his face like a large emoticon of old. “Am I going back to school?”
“You’re going back to school all right,” Morgat said. “Just not your school.”
Ixel learned about a new program, a recent joint venture between the government and Didaskalos Inc., designed to give misbehaving top students from wealthy families a second chance. The company had made the most significant discovery in history: time travel. Scientists called it intertwining: joining two twines, or strings in the Multiverse, together. At the moment, they had detected two such twines: one held the current reality in 2128, and the other hosted a reality in the Middle Ages.
Ixel considered, briefly, that his father was under the influence. When had he cared about history before? But the stern look on his mother’s beautiful face assured him that this was not a joke.
Intertwining linked one future to one past. They could not affect each other since the temporal dimensions ran in parallel. And individual timelines did not loop back on themselves, so it was impossible to change the future.
“I don’t get it, dad. What does this have to do with me going back to school?”
Morgat smiled as if in a business meeting. “You have the chance of a lifetime, kiddo. You will attend a retro institution. You will learn how our distant ancestors lived and will tell us all about it when you come back. Be prepared to become a celebrity.”
Didaskalos would gather information from the past to help improve the present, to teach people how to live better. That was the pitch. In reality, the intent was to keep the status quo. Children from government and corporate families would soon inherit the power from their accomplished parents, and their misdeeds in school should not jeopardize that bright future.
Ixel was going to be the first student to attend a retro institution, Morgat said. A monastery in England.
“Time travel?” Ixel said. “To England, in the Middle Ages?” He could not believe the words coming out of his mouth.
“Dearest,” Sophie said, “I know it sounds far-fetched. Time travel is possible. Not that you can change anything. Like your father explained, parallel timelines and all that. But the crucial thing is that you must travel to the Middle Ages and come back with a treasure trove of information, or you won’t be taken back by the school. And you know what will happen if you don’t inherit your father’s fortune, don’t you?”
Ixel thought about it for a whole thirty seconds. A history buff, going back in time. He would revel forever and make lots of friends. The first time traveler, the one who attended some medieval, dark, humid, rocky monastery. Perhaps he could taste the ancient whiskey? Maybe he could meet some king?
Perhaps he had no choice.
Perhaps it was not going to be so simple. They would erase his memories. To be precise, they would uproot his vast historical knowledge. Didaskalos and the government — in that order — would not take any chances, parallel timelines, or not. They did not want to gift another reality with information that could potentially allow it to outsmart them.
More twines were permeating the Multiverse, each one harboring a realm of existence. Like strings, they were not always straight; sometimes, they would wander near others. Didaskalos scientists had managed to spawn a conduit — a tunnel — between two nearby strings: a reality in 2128, and another in 1105.
Ixel had to absorb tons of boring theory. A history buff did not care about technical details. He just wanted to be there, all those centuries ago. But his father said he had to be privy of that information, as per contractual obligations between the corporation and the government. Ixel learned that the strings would not remain near each other forever. They waved like underwater weeds and would eventually move away from each other, like the petals of a flower at sunrise. How long before the separation event, nobody could tell exactly, but certainly longer than a school semester.
“It’s imperative that someone with your aptitude goes, even without your knowledge of history,” Morgat said. “That’s why I decided to send you, my son, to bridge the dimensions and to enlighten us, to teach us how to fix our troubled world.” As he said this, he caressed his ancient blue and yellow ornamented clock, his most precious possession. It was a gift from the former French Republic, now the headquarters of the Corporate States of Europe. It was the very same clock that used to grace Napoleon’s great hall. To Morgat, the clock was more valuable than a year’s worth of water rations.
“I don’t want you to go!” Sophie said, embracing her son. “I don’t care if they kick you out from school! We’ll manage!” She cried. “You know we adopted you, my dear, but you also know you are the shine in my eyes and the beat in my heart. You can’t go!”
“It’s our only chance,” Morgat said.
Ixel cherished the past, but losing his memories terrified him. The only thing he cherished more than his vast knowledge of history was the fond memories of his dear mother when he was a little boy. Could they guarantee that they would erase only historical memories? What if they also erased his personal memories? But then again, if he did not go on this mission the very existence of his dear mother could be compromised: the world was spiraling down into chaos.
From the air, the stone building looked like an ancient Mayan pyramid, and the tanks guarding the perimeter around Didaskalos resembled a collar of green pebbles.
As people in lab coats escorted them, Sophie took Ixel’s hand, but Morgat did not. They walked through a maze of sterile pearl hallways where guards that looked like shock troopers stood at even intervals. Their journey ended at the entrance to an octagonal room with a gurney at its center, encased in a sort of giant eggshell cut in two halves.
“The memory-erasing procedure won’t hurt,” Morgat said as he pried his wife’s hand from Ixel’s. “Lie on the gurney and relax.”
The octagonal room’s glass doors slid shut with a whoosh, and the eggshells closed up over the gurney. There was a buzz, like a microwave oven with a metal spoon inside, and it became louder, like crackling lightning. And there was actual lightning crisscrossing the space around Ixel. It was enough to trigger his recurring nightmare: the scary vortex that swallowed him. When the lightning stopped and the eggshell opened, he was sobbing.
Sophie was also crying. “How can you put your son through this?” she yelled at her husband. “For your position? For power?”
“For survival,” Morgat said and helped Ixel down from the gurney. His son had a deer-in-the-headlight look, like a lobotomy patient. It would pass quickly, Morgat said, as he walked his son to a briefing room with light blue walls and a long, thick, medieval-looking wooden table surrounded by Didaskalos executives, engineers, and government representatives.
Still reeling from the vivid nightmare, Ixel did not speak much. He did not care about the technical details the engineers kept blabbering about: temporal conduits and anchor points. Morgat clutched his hand with such force that he focused more. There would be company people in the past to assist him in an emergency. Ixel thought of asking how that could be if he were going to be the first-time traveler but kept quiet when Morgat squeezed his hand again.
The communicator caught Ixel’s attention. Only for emergencies, they said, and just for one use, to call the future; its quantic battery could not recharge. They showed him which buttons to press, which knobs to turn, and in what sequence to open a channel with the future as long as he did it near the place where the strings joined — the place and time where he would appear soon: England, Middle Ages.
Where had he seen such a device before? With all the excitement, he thought no more of it — Morgat, Sophie, and an army of guards were rushing him out of the boardroom to the lab housing the intertwining equipment. Technicians stuffed the communicator in a brown, worn-out backpack together with food rations and contemporary clothes. Surprisingly, they made Ixel wear gymnasium-looking apparel, blue track pants with white lines running along the legs, and a blue jacket with a zipper.
“There is a slight risk,” a lab coat technician said, “that the intertwining process may ablate the top layers of your skin. This special fabric will protect you.”
Sophie gasped. Morgat embraced her.
A man in a blue, silky business suit and wearing a golden watch approached them, carrying a glass of sparkling water. The intense light in the lab bounced off the shiny wristwatch, casting lively projections on the pearl walls. He said to Morgat, “I thought I had you, son of a bitch. I thought you’d be kicked out to the streets if your son got expelled. The next senior vice president!” he snorted. “Someone who could not discipline his son!”
“Go to hell,” Morgat said.
“I’m getting that promotion, Styx; I’ll convince the Board to pick me. And not only will you be fired, but you will also lose your son in who knows what godforsaken dimension.”
Morgat almost lurched at the man with the golden watch, but his wife intervened. “Ignore him. Just ensure Ixel is safe!”
The rival scorned, took a sip of the water, and retreated to the main gathering of engineers and government figures.
Like Ixel’s time travel trip, Sophie’s calm was now an affair of the past. “You don’t seem at all preoccupied!” she scolded Morgat. “How can you be so confident?” When Morgat kept his silence, she yelled, “Answer me!” That drew surprised looks her way.
“Will you be quiet?” Morgat said. “Of course, I’m worried! But I can’t show it to that asshole who wants my skin.”
“I won’t allow it! I don’t care if you lose your job! We’ve got enough gold; we won’t starve, we won’t die of thirst! I want my son!”
Ixel was being wheeled away on a gurney to the humongous time machine. Sophie tried to follow, but Morgat grabbed her arm. “You won’t allow it?” he said and called the nearest guard. “My wife is not feeling well. Take her to the lounge and give her something strong so that she can rest.”
The guard snatched her like an uncooperative prisoner and dragged her away.
I’m never afraid, Ixel thought. He considered himself a rebel. That changed when he approached the chamber. From the outside, it was the shape and size of a domed tennis court. Its walls were a shade darker than the ones in the lab. As they wheeled him in through a narrow corridor lined with a myriad of humming pipes, his confidence abandoned him.
The deeper he went, the louder the humming became. He looked closely at the semitransparent pipes and saw light spheres traveling in the same direction. If the gurney slowed down, so did the spheres. And there was a faint odor of burning rubber. Between the ever-louder humming and the smell, he began to hyperventilate.
“You’ll get used to it,” said the technician pushing the gurney.
“Why am I strapped down?”
“Rules. It won’t last long.” Wicked smile. “Good luck, kid,” the technician said as he secured the gurney to floor hookups. Then he vanished down the corridor.
Ixel looked around. All the pipes converged on a hollow octagonal contraption above him. Inside the octagon, there was a pulsating light that looked like a miniature sun. Hairlines were coming out of it, and they seemed to interact with the spheres in the pipes. Spheres were now jumping out of the tube ends into the orb. Each time a sphere was swallowed by it, he heard electrostatic crackling, and the smell of burned rubber intensified.
How do I get out of this gurney? A disturbing image popped into his mind: he was in the middle of a medieval village, strapped down to a stretcher on rounded street pebbles, about to tip over, while stunned locals watched. He feared he would be declared a warlock, and that the angry locals would pile firelogs under the gurney.
The orb was expanding and contracting as if it were a lung. Its color changed from yellow to blue, and then to bright pearl. Ixel shut his eyes. The burnt rubber stink was too much, and he began to asphyxiate. His straps snapped, but he had no time to enjoy his freedom: the orb exploded, showering him with a sort of goo that crackled as it coated him. It did not burn.
His recurring nightmare assaulted him again, livelier than ever: a vortex ripping him from the bed, an unknown couple screaming. The ordeal ended, and so did the crackling. He patted himself without looking. Would he dare open his eyes now? Before taking that risky step, he dedicated his full attention to his other senses. It was cold. There was no more burnt rubber smell, but it stank of garbage. He heard dogs barking in the distance.
When he opened his eyes, he found himself wedged between two towering metal trash containers. Grabbing the handles, he pulled himself up and was shocked by what he saw. It was dark, but not pitch black. The Moon was out, hiding the stars with its glare. There was also a conspicuous shine on the horizon.
The light pollution of a large city.
This was not the Middle Ages but a much more modern era. Had they aborted the experiment? No, it was not possible, there was not a single spider in sight, and the perimeter of tanks was not there either. This was the past. But when?
Another shocker was that his clothes were undamaged. No ablation. His backpack was also in excellent condition. Carefully, quietly, he walked to the street. The lampposts cast a dull yellow light on the sidewalk. He was standing by the entrance of a two-story building. Emery Collegiate Institute High School, it read above the doors. A few lights inside. Either it was late at night or early in the morning. It was chilly, so he searched his backpack for anything warm. He found a fleece sweater with a large “86” stitched on it.
A quick look around added to his amazement; there were newspaper boxes huddled together by the curb. Behind the glass cover of the nearest one, he read: “Toronto Employment News, March 1986.”
As if doubting his own eyes, he looked closely at the cityscape for something that would prove he was, in fact, in Toronto, in the late twentieth century. Only when he found the CN Tower, shining blue over the downtown core skyscrapers, reality sank in. They had sent him back in time to 1986. How could they have screwed up so royally?
He remembered his briefing; he was supposed to find Didaskalos people; he could identify them by the logo on their shoulders. But there was nobody around, other than two stray dogs that ran past him, toward the trash containers, nipping at each other over rubbish piled up against them.
No company people around meant that, unlike him, they were sent to the right time. Or to this time but another location so that they would be looking for him. He wanted to believe that. Rummaging his backpack, he found the communicator, the one-time-use gadget, to call for help. Scrutinizing it now, it dawned on him what it looked like: a Walkman. Did people in the Middle Ages go around carrying such devices, he thought, grimly.
The dogs barked at him. One was a large, angry German Shepherd, and the other one an equally large but gentler Labrador. A quick, nervous dip in the backpack produced a chocolate bar, which he ripped open and tossed at the dogs. They consumed it ravenously. The Labrador began to wag its tail and approached Ixel; the German Shepherd was more reserved.
Ixel had never patted a dog in his life. In his future timeline, they were a critically endangered species found only in zoos. The way the Labrador licked his hand and stuck his snout in the backpack, as if looking for another delicious treat, made Ixel almost cry with joy.
Only when a blaring siren scared away, the dogs did Ixel realize how alone he was. Undoubtedly high time to call home. As he began pushing buttons and turning knobs on the Walkman, a police car pulled into the parking lot, casting a strong searchlight in his general direction. Had his arrival caused a disturbance? Lightning, thunder?
There was nowhere to hide except for the garbage containers. As the cruiser swooped its powerful searchlight, he climbed the metal wall, pushed open the cover, and jumped in. He was glad not to land on any sharp objects. Like the partially frozen garbage bags, he froze and listened.
“Everything seems in order. Found a backpack,” the cop said, and a voice full of static, as if from a radio, responded, “Copy. Dump it in the school dropbox.”
The cruiser backed away. Now Ixel was in more trouble than before; no backpack meant no food, no clothes, and no communicator, so he had to find a way inside the school. All doors, front and back, were locked. When the wind picked up, he felt the sting of real winter. Ixel did not know how much night was left, but the chill traveling up his back urged him to find warmth. There were only the dumpsters, with frozen trash inside.
Barks from behind the building. Remembering his last visit to the zoo, he whistled, and the dogs came yapping and wagging their tails. They sat beside him and licked his hands. Leaning against one of the garbage bins and sandwiched between his new friends, feeling much warmer, his eyes became too heavy, and lulled by his furry guardians, he fell fast asleep.
Loud beeps from a garbage truck woke them up. The dogs sat there looking at Ixel and wagging their tails as if demanding breakfast. Ixel wished so hard for a chocolate bar that he almost forgot he had to retrieve the Walkman to call for help. He got up, patted himself clean, and headed to the front entrance. His friends ran away, scared when the garbage truck picked up one container.
The sun rose above the roofs of the homes across the street — a suburban neighborhood in 1986, precisely how Ixel had imagined it. A humid, chilly morning air freeze-dried his nostrils and welcomed him to his new reality.
A yellow bus pulled by the curb, twisted open its doors, and an unruly horde of teenagers rushed out laughing, screaming, and pushing each other, finally assembling themselves in the front yard. Unlike kids from Ixel’s time, they looked happy and friendly. For a moment, Ixel feared they would identify him, pick him out, and discover his true nature.
A bell rang, and a man in a blue overall opened the doors and bolted them in place. There was a large clock above them, the long handle pointing at number eight and the short handle pointing at number six. Not being used to analog clocks, it took Ixel a few seconds to determine it was 8:30 a.m.
He entered the school by mixing in with the students and looking in all directions. As the pupils entered their classrooms, he found himself alone in the middle of the hall, too conspicuous for his liking. The man in the blue outfit fixed his gaze on him.
“Son, go to your classroom.”
Ixel had to think fast: “I lost my backpack.”
The man looked surprised. “Say what?”
Ixel realized that he had just spoken to someone from the past. Fascinating. He also realized that he probably did so in a strange accent. Not good. He repeated his statement.
“What did it look like?” the man said.
Ixel described it in luxurious detail, but the man seemed to be in a hurry. “Ask over there.” The man pointed at the principal’s office.
A middle-aged woman, a bit on the heavy side, said, “Yes?” as she slurped from a mug behind the counter.
“I lost my backpack.”
“Strange accent you have there,” the woman said. She leaned over the counter, knocking down a statuette of John McDonald, and examined him up and down. “Are you Mexican?”
Ixel could not mask his accent, so he exaggerated it, sounding Hispanic. “Yes, madam, I’m studying here this semester, all the way from Mexico City.”
“You speak excellent English.” She smiled. “Wait there.” She pointed at a bench opposite the counter.
Ixel sat down and looked around. A large board hanging from a wall held scraps of paper with blurbs about smoking and drinking being bad for teenagers; to call the police if they saw anything suspicious; emergency phone numbers; music class schedules; a picture of a brown cat with the word “lost.” Minutes seemed like hours.
The door burst open, and a feisty girl stormed in. She was the most beautiful creature Ixel had ever laid his eyes on: her big, brown, furious eyes, unruly red hair falling on her shoulders, short chequered skirt ending way above her knees, and pink sneakers that suggested she was not quite a full-grown woman. They hypnotized Ixel in a way the memory-scrubbing procedure had not managed to accomplish. She slammed the door behind her, and Ixel jumped on his seat.
“Can you believe this crap?” she said, fixing her big brown eyes on him as if he could cure her ills. “That bitch stole my Walkman! I saw her take it from my locker! And now I’m in detention? It was just a friendly slap!” She took a seat beside Ixel.
When her thigh touched him, Ixel felt a volcano eruption making its way from his lower body, surging to the top of his head.
“What you in for?” she said, chewing gum.
“I … actually … I lost my —”
“Wicked accent! You from Mexico?”
“Yes, I’m here for the semester.”
The chunky woman returned, bringing Ixel’s backpack. “There you go!” she said. “Hope nothing’s missing.”
Ixel snatched it from the woman’s hands and opened it. Where was the Walkman? His heart skipped a beat. But there it was, tucked under the jacket he had missed so much during the frigid night.
“That’s one swell Walkman!” the girl said, looking over his shoulder. “Can I see?”
Before Ixel could do or say anything, she stuck her hands in the backpack and grabbed it. She produced a cassette from her pocket, slid it in the walkman, then placed the headsets on her ears and pressed play. Ixel realized that the communication device was a real Walkman.
The woman slurping coffee became impatient. “Amy,” she said, “take off those headsets! This is the third time this month you have come here. Lucky for you, the principal is off sick, and I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt. Mind you, one more occurrence —”
Amy hugged the large lady. “You’re the best! I promise I’ll be good!” She returned the Walkman to an anxious-looking Ixel, who promptly put it away. “Let’s go!” Amy said. “Show me your class!” She pulled him by his hand, almost making him lose footing.
“Just a minute!” the woman said. “Young man, I don’t remember signing you up for this semester. What’s your name again?”
Ixel froze like the statuette of John Macdonald on the counter. “Um, um, my name is Miguel Cardozo.”
“And where are you staying, Mr. Miguel Cardozo?”
“I, um, um —”
“Why,” Amy said, “he’s staying with me, grandma, and Chuck. In return, I’m going to spend my holidays in Mexico! Grandma registered him a couple of weeks ago.” Before the woman had a chance to inquire further, Amy dragged Ixel away.
“Don’t worry about her,” Amy said as they trotted down the hall. “You’re illegal, right? I mean, it’s OK. It’s not like you’re a criminal or something, right? Right?”
Ixel felt so unprepared and insecure that he just wanted to buy himself time to think about his next move. “Of course, I’m not a criminal!”
“Sorry! Didn’t mean to upset you,” she said, feigning consternation for a second, and smiling. “Walk you to your classroom?”
He was not going to risk making his precarious situation worse; he told Amy that he was an undocumented immigrant waiting for the rest of his family to join him. He said he was supposed to attend that school and that somebody would find him there. To his surprise, not only did she believe his story, but she seemed happy to be around him.
“Listen,” she said, “I live with my brother Chuck and grandma, who’s quite blind and deaf. When the neighbors complain about Chuck playing his hard rock cassettes, grandma doesn’t find out unless I rat him out.” Chuckles. “Stay with us until your family comes!”
Ixel found he had difficulties articulating complete sentences. He nodded, swallowed hard, then nodded some more.
“Yeah!” She jumped him and kissed him in the mouth. “My teacher thinks I’m in detention, so let’s get out of here, and I’ll show you my place. Quick! The janitor’s coming. If he sees me, he’ll snitch.” She grabbed Ixel’s hand and whisked him away through the front doors. They ran like bank robbers while Amy giggled like a little girl. Not knowing why, Ixel began to laugh too. When they stopped to catch their breath, the school seemed so far away.
Amy’s 1986 home had a basement that Chuck had fashioned into a man cave. The grandmother never ventured down there for fear of falling down the narrow staircase, which was completely lined with posters of rock bands. At the bottom of the “cave,” at the center of the linoleum-floored room that served as a living room and bedroom, there was a battery composed of two shiny drums — one with a cracked shell — two electric guitars and a keyboard on rusty metal legs. Ixel knew about musical instruments; he had learned about them in his history lessons. Dark wall paneling and posters covering almost every inch made the place look like a messy recording studio. There was a small TV in one corner and a couple of worn-out armchairs facing it.
“Wanna play Space Invaders?” Amy said, turning on the TV and a curious device on top of it that Ixel could not identify. Seeing the blocky graphics dance on the small, convex glass screen made Ixel feel sorry for the teenagers of that era. If they only knew about the immersive virtual reality games he had played!
And then he thought, how come I remember those things? Wasn’t I supposed to forget the future? Wasn’t I supposed to forget historical events so that I wouldn’t affect this timeline? He remembered the wars. He remembered the remapping of countries, empires, and the rise of new religions. He remembered the water crisis. He remembered everything. And his stomach made him remember that he was starving. “Can we eat something?”
Amy jumped from the armchair and said. “Want pizza pockets? Stay here; I think grandma’s upstairs.” She ran up the steps.
Ixel opened his backpack and fished out the Walkman. This was his chance to call home. How could his father have been so careless? How could he have sent him here instead of the Middle Ages? And how could he explain the clothes in the backpack? They were suspiciously similar to what high school students wore daily.
This was no accident. Did his father know about it, or had one of his rivals — that nasty man with the golden watch, for instance — sabotaged the experiment? He wondered what would happen if he tried to make contact. Could that crooked man harm him? What if he sent people to kill him? Chills drove up his spine, and he put away the Walkman. Better to find out what was going on. Besides, he was in his favorite time in all of history: the 1980s! Whatever the circumstances, he was going to make the best of it.
And Amy was such a great, beautiful girl. Elated, he picked up the joystick and felt like an archeologist examining artifacts in the Great Pyramids of Giza.
A door upstairs slammed, and a loud argument followed; he could only recognize Amy’s voice. She was trying to calm somebody down: a young man who sounded extremely upset rushed down the stairs. The angry young man coming down two steps at a time, landed like a tiger about to pounce. He had long, red hair like Amy and was wearing black leather pants and an open black vest. No shirt. He was holding a double-barreled shotgun, pointing it at the visitor from the future. His hoarse voice was like a heavy-metal howl: “A Mexican! There’s a Mexican in my cave! He’s going to kill us while we sleep, dummy, and then he’s going to steal my stuff!”
Ixel realized he had reached the far corner of the basement when his back hit the TV, almost toppling it over. Chuck — Ixel assumed — was quickly closing the distance between them.
“Wait!” Amy said. “He’s not like the ones they talk about in the news. Good guy, good student. He can help with your history class.”
Still fearful, Ixel noticed a slight smoothing in Chuck’s warrior face. The rock star lowered his weapon and said, “Oh yeah? Tell me the name of the first Canadian Prime Minister, Mexican!”
With considerable effort, Ixel cleared his voice and said, “John A. Macdonald, in office from July 1, 1867, to November 5, 1873.”
Chuck was quiet for a moment, scratching his chin, and then said, “Don’t move a muscle! Amy, you keep an eye on him.” He ran upstairs.
Ixel did not dare take more than one breath in the almost sixty seconds it took for the basement dweller to come back with a heavy book.
“Let’s see,” the ’80s teenager said while browsing through the pages. “Here! First prime minister … wow. Look, Amy,” he showed his sister an encyclopedia article. “The Mexican’s right!” He dropped the book on his bed and said, “Here’s the deal, Mexican, you can stay, but only if you help me pass the damn history course so I can graduate.”
“His name is Miguel,” Amy said, winking an eye at Ixel.
“So, Miguel,” Chuck said with an unexpected grin, extending his right hand, “deal?”
The misconception that school in the past would be simpler disappeared quickly; math was much harder than in the future. Probably because the locals lacked the technology students in the future took for granted: there were no brain peripherals to help them with calculus. While math would forever be Ixel’s weakness, no matter what timeline he occupied, history would forever be his strength. In just a few weeks, he had become the top student.
And Ixel’s coaching of Amy’s brother helped improve the gun-toting rocker grades. Chuck could now dedicate more time to his rock band, which he practiced daily in the basement. To Ixel’s astonishment, they invited him to play instruments with them.
Amy did not need help in history or any other subject because she was a decent student all around. But Ixel knew that she had a weakness like Chuck had pointed out many times in no subtle ways: when she was near the Mexican, she looked like an idiot in la-la-land.There was ample conflict churning in Ixel’s mind. On the one hand, he was ready to call it in, and input the secret combination in the Walkman to contact the parallel future. On the other hand, Amy was in this timeline. She listened to him, and she said she had never met anyone like him before, that he was an old soul who had figured things out.
Ixel had not forgotten anything about his timeline, and that worried him. More than once, he almost revealed information about future events. He wanted to; he so much wanted to tell Amy and Chuck who was going to win the next World Series, the upcoming Stanley Cup, and the next federal election, that it sickened him. It was like trying to contain a gigantic, packed ball of hydrogen from becoming a star.
And to make matters worse, no Didaskalos people had appeared. Or was that a good thing? He was not sure anymore.
Life in 1986 was fun, and exciting, and above all, there was plenty of water. Jokingly, Amy asked him if there was a country-wide drought in Mexico. Water. If Ixel had to use one word to describe that era, that would be it. All the water he could drink. He got up at night to drink straight from the bathroom faucet. For the first time in his life, he was not thirsty.
So he decided to wait it out and spend the semester in this timeline until his extraction. The system was automatic, they had told him in the briefings. It knew where he had been “dumped,” and it would be able to retrieve him later.
One day, walking back from school, Amy asked Ixel, “What are you doing?” as she saw him kneeling by a lawn that had not been mowed in a while, warmed by the spring sun.
“Smelling the planet,” he said. The scented air cast a spell on him.
Amy laughed. “Wanna sniff grass? I know how to do it for cheap.”
The grandmother was in the kitchen. “Wait here while I get some money,” Amy said.
Ixel waited in the front yard; he could live among the flowers forever. Insects would come soon, and he could not wait to get bitten by a mosquito. Other than in old videos and the zoo, he had never seen a live insect before.
Amy came back and said, “Got a hold of the suppliers. But promise you won’t tell Chuck. Let’s go!”
Going places with Amy made Ixel almost forget where he came from. They trotted back to school. Halfway there, Amy saw Chuck’s pick up or heard it before seeing it. Her brother was blasting his favorite music with the windows open, and it made the ground tremble as if a small earthquake was going on.
“The tree, quick!” Amy said. They hid behind a large oak until Chuck zipped by. “I hope he didn’t see us!”
“Why so worried?”
“You’ve no idea what Chuck is like when he becomes upset. That day when he pointed the gun at you, he was calm.”
Guns. Ixel remembered that the future Corporate States encouraged owning firearms, but in this timeline, and especially in Canada, it was not that popular.
The sun was setting behind the trees of the empty school parking lot. “We’re supposed to wait for them behind the trash containers,” Amy said.
“My suppliers, silly.” Amy grinned. “When’s the last time you smoked weed?”
Now, Ixel understood. Teenagers in this timeline were prone to consuming drugs. If they caught you in 1986, you would get a slap on the wrist; in 2128, you would be executed.
Someone whistled three times, then two, then one. Amy whistled back the sequence in reverse. Then two kids wearing ripped black jeans and oversized, boot-like white sneakers approached carefully, looking in all directions. One wore dark glasses, and Ixel wondered why, because it was getting dark.
“Got the money?” the young man with the dark glasses said, looking ever so mysterious.
“C’mon, Bobby!” Amy said. “You know I’m good for it.” She produced a twenty-dollar bill that Bobby immediately crumbled in his hand as if it was something so precious that he could not risk exposing it to the environment any longer than necessary. His associate pulled two joints from his front pocket and handed them to Amy. Both dealers scanned the parking lot as if followed by some secretive government agency and went away in opposite directions.
“Big clowns, those two,” Amy said. But then the sunglass wearer began yelling at his associate, and both sprinted away as if chased by a pack of rabid dogs.
“Crap!” Amy said. “Cops!”
“Dispose of the drugs!” Ixel said.
“You crazy? I paid good money! Let’s hide!”
The police cruiser pulled into the parking lot. Ixel already had some experience hiding from the cops in 1986. He lifted the trash container cover and said, “Inside!” Save for a few plastic bottles, the bin was mostly empty. They waited in absolute silence until the cruiser disappeared.
“They’re gone,” Ixel said and was startled by a flash. Amy was lighting the joints in her lips.
“Are you insane?” Ixel said. “There could be combustible materials in these bottles! We could explode!”
Amy pushed open the cover, and light from the parking lot lamp posts came in. “You worry too much. Have a puff.”
Ixel took a drag and coughed. Amy laughed and encouraged him to do it again. The second and third puffs went in smoothly, without burning. By the fifth or sixth drag, Ixel observed how the garbage container transformed into a puffy, spotless white cloud floating merrily over a green pasture carpeted with cows and sheep. He was watching the scene from far away.
“Wow,” Amy said, “you’re tripping! First time?”
Ixel drooled and smiled stupidly. “Yeah …” He tried to kiss her but slipped over his backpack and fell face-first on a small pile of banana peels. Amy covered her mouth and giggled. When Ixel managed to prop himself up, he said, “Hey! Do you want to see something incredible?”
With an unfocused look on his face, Ixel pulled out the Walkman. This was the perfect time to tell his mother he had kissed a girl. He turned the knobs in the proper sequence and looked at Amy. “Press play and you’ll talk to the future.”
Amy took a puff and said, “Oh, magic Walkman, tell me what the future will bring!” She hit play. Seconds turned into a full minute. In between laughs, she kissed Ixel. He forgot what he had just done until a thunderous blast knocked him off from his dream cloud. The garbage bin shook as if pummeled by the fists of an angry giant.
“My god!” Amy cried. “What happened?”
The thunder and the lightning faded, giving way to an electric crackling that made their hair stand. One last blue flash, and there was silence. Amy stuck her head above the rim of the bin. Realizing his stupid mistake, Ixel tried to pull her back down. Four hands grabbed her arms and pulled her up over the edge. She screamed.
“No!” Ixel yelled.
“Hold her down!” he heard. Two bald heads popped over the edge. “Are you Ixel Styx?” one said.
“Of course he is!” said the other head. “Can you see any other male teenager within twenty meters of the vortex?”
Ixel was pulled out of the bin by two men. Two others held a fighting Amy who tried to kick and bite them. All four wore blue jumpsuits with the Didaskalos logo on their shoulders. Three of them had no hair and looked almost like triplets. The fourth one had long, grayish-white hair and a long beard to match. It reminded Ixel of a respectable university professor.
“Right,” the older man said in a slow, tired, raspy voice. “Retrieve protocol activated. First step, procure transportation.”
One of the bald men searched the immediate area for a vehicle. The other two tied Ixel and Amy back to back.
“Second step,” the boss said — Ixel was sure the “professor” was in charge — as a black van pulled in behind the dumpsters, “find shelter as per pullout protocol.”
The Didaskalos men loaded duffle bags into the van, and Ixel assumed it was their equipment for carrying out the “pullout protocol.” They shoved him and Amy into the vehicle as if they were two more bags. The boss was in the driver’s seat flanked by one associate, and the remaining two jumped in the back, next to Ixel and Amy. The driver took off, fishtailing down the road.
“We’re being followed!” the man in the passenger’s seat said, looking out the window. “That truck’s tailing us!”
“We’ll turn here, and if it’s still behind us, we’ll deal with it,” the boss said.
The van turned right and slowed down; the pick-up drove past. After five minutes, the van kept going. Under a flashlight, the passenger looked at a map of Toronto. “Five blocks ahead, make one left, three more blocks, then right.”
Amy was crying, so one of the men in the back got out a roll of duct tape. “Please don’t!” Ixel said. “She’ll be quiet.”
“Look,” the man said, “We don’t want to hurt anybody. Just do your part as a good temporal anchor, and everything will be all right.”
Fighting tears and with a look of confusion, Amy looked at Ixel but did not speak. Her eyes were asking the questions.
Ixel despised himself for being such a liar, such a fake, such an impostor. There was a dome light that cast a feeble light over them. The men busied themselves with the gear in their bags. Future equipment without camouflage, unlike the Walkman he had activated so foolishly. Desperate, he glanced out the back window into the night and saw that the pick-up truck was following them again, but this time, keeping a reasonable distance.
They reached an industrial area north of Toronto. The warehouse provided adequate privacy for the company men and their captives, even though parts of the rusty metal ceiling had collapsed long ago. Ixel and Amy were tied to chairs that had their paint chipped and upholstery ripped. Water dripped from the ceiling, bounced off a flickering lamp, and splashed one foot from Ixel. He wondered if he was going to get the ancient Chinese water torture.
As if reading his mind, the boss said, “We will not harm you, for you are too valuable. Besides, we are scientists.” He looked at Amy, who could not stop shaking. “As for your girlfriend, cooperate, and she will be fine, too.”
“What do you want?” Ixel said.
The boss waved his hand as if to hush him. “To retrieve you, of course. Take you back to the future, and study you. Refine the process, refine the insertion point, both temporal and physical.”
It turned out the boss was one of the brains behind the intertwining. It turned out Ixel was the only one who could help Didaskalos anchor a precise place in space and time. He had something that no other person in the future had, the boss said.
“What’s so special about me?” Ixel said.
The boss looked amused by the question. “Have you not figured it out yet? For such a bright student, you should have tied the strings together by now, pun intended.” He placed his hands on Ixel’s shoulders. “You are special because you belong here.”
It was so clear now. The recurring dreams. The nightmares! Sucked from bed by an energy vortex, leaving behind a crying couple. They had snatched him from his real parents some fifteen years ago and kidnapped him across timelines.
“But why?” he screamed. “Did my parents know?”
The boss seemed surprised. “Do you think I care either way? I am here to complete a mission for Didaskalos. I have an amazing opportunity to live in the past, to abandon that hell in 2128.” He pointed his fingers at the other scientists. “We all do.”
Amy snapped. “What’s he talking about, Miguel? Why’s he calling you by that strange name? And what does he mean by 2128?”
The boss said, “Looks like you have something to share with your girlfriend. Go ahead while we set up the portable arch. No need for a humongous lab any longer since we now have a firm anchor in this timeline. Do not try anything foolish.” He joined his men, who were assembling an arch the size of a tractor wheel.
“I’m so sorry I lied to you. My real name is Ixel Styx, and I came from the year 2128.”
Despite the circumstances, Amy burst out laughing. “You’re still high!”
“I wish I was. I’ve been lying since I met you. I’m from the future like those men.”
“I don’t believe you!” Amy scowled, fierce frown lines scoring her forehead. “I don’t buy that nonsense! Who are these thugs?”
“They work for the company that invented time travel, and they came to take me back to the future. I’m not Mexican. I’m from right here in Toronto but from the year 2128, in what will be known as the Corporate —”
The boss interrupted. “Enough information! Remember your training? No important events may be disclosed!”
“Wasn’t my memory supposed to be erased? How come I remember everything?”
The boss arched his eyebrows. “Good question. I do not know why the process failed on you; it performed flawlessly on all the test subjects. It will be corrected after we send you back. You are leaving as soon as we open the vortex.”
Working feverishly around the arch, the crew plugged transparent tubes into the gear deployed around it. Light pulses began traversing through them, slowly at first, picking up speed until they became so close to each other that the tubes glowed bright blue. There was that distinct crackling again, like electricity jumping across the air from one terminal to another. Lightning.
And then the arch was alive. At the center of it, an orb appeared. Small initially, pulsating, bright blue. It grew until it almost touched the inner edge of the arch. Another loud crackle and the sphere began to project an image; Ixel saw his living room. Mom and dad sat on the sofa, and armed Didaskalos guards stood at their sides.
“Don’t be afraid,” Morgat said, his voice sounding like the echo coming back from the bottom of a well. “Collaborate with the techs, and they will bring you home.”
Ixel was freed from the chair and held by his arms next to the arch.
“What about Amy?” Ixel said, fighting them to no avail.
“Sorry,” Morgat said. “She knows too much.”
“No! Bring her back with me!”
Diabolical laughter from Morgat. “You have no idea the amount of energy we are using to keep this conduit open from the arch in our living room. You have no idea how dangerous this is for me. If only my rivals knew, if they only realized my plan, they would shut me down and kick me to the street.” He gestured at the men in the warehouse. “Send him through and dispose of the girl.”
An ear-popping bang made everybody jump—in both timelines. The metal curtains at the back of the warehouse buckled and burst open. Blaring its horn, Chuck’s pick-up screeched to a halt meters away from Amy, Ixel, and the stunned crew from the future. Chuck jumped out with his shotgun in hand, accompanied by his five band members, who carried an assortment of baseball bats, chains, and metal pipes. The rock band stood in front of the pickup, banging their blunt weapons on the concrete floor, like medieval warriors about to charge.
“Let go of my sister and the Mexican or we’re gonna coat the floor with your brains,” Chuck said.
The nearest scientist nervously untied the rope, smiling foolishly. The rest, including the boss, did not look any braver.
“Enough!” Morgat said across space and time. “We literally don’t have time for this. There’s so much potential in the past, son, so much freedom! So many resources for us to enjoy. So much water!”
“What do you mean?” Ixel said.
“Cross the vortex, and you’ll see. We’ll go back to the past together and be powerful and happy there. Cross now!”
“You had planned this all along, hadn’t you? What if I don’t cross the vortex?”
“You’ll never see your mother again,” Morgat said, snatching a gun from the guard beside him and pressing it against Sophie’s temple. “In sixty seconds, I’ll blow her head off. You’ll catch some of her brains in 1986.”
“Bastard! Leave mom out of this!”
“Miguel!” Amy said. “Is this for real? Are your parents in the future?”
“My parents are here. When I was a toddler, those bastards from the future snatched me.”
Even though she had a gun against her head, Sophie screamed to her husband, “You told me you saved him from the streets, that you felt sorry for him!”
Morgat laughed. “Street, a bed in 1968, what’s the difference?” He looked at Ixel with slit eyes. “Forty seconds.”
“Hey, asshole,” Chuck said, pointing the shotgun at the vortex. “Wanna find out if buckshot can travel in time?” He cocked the weapon.
“Little brute,” Morgat said. “This is a low-energy, temporary conduit adequate to retrieve my son. No heavy metals will make it through. Your bullets will just hit the back wall of that condemned building you are in.” He turned to Ixel. “On the other hand, my bullet will go through your mother’s skull, unless you cross immediately.”
“All right!” Ixel yelled, heading to the arch.
“Don’t!” Amy cried.
“I’ll be back. I’m the marker in this timeline. They need me to set up a permanent conduit, so they can’t harm me.” To Chuck, he said, “Don’t believe his lies.”
He crossed the arch, assuming he would be instantly transported to 2128, where his father was pointing a gun at her mother, with guards around them and the precious Napoleon clock in one corner. But the image became fuzzy as if walking through thick fog. There was a feeble light at the far end. Afraid that the temporary conduit might collapse and strand him in who knows what dimension, he ran. He felt as if he was bouncing on a cloud. The light shone stronger until it completely blinded him in eye-searing blue. He tripped and fell.
“Seize him!” Morgat ordered as soon as Ixel materialized through the arch in his living room. When Sophie tried to reach out to Ixel, he said, “Don’t move!”
“Mom, are you all right?” Ixel said as the guards immobilized him.
“Oh, dearest. I’m so happy to see you!”
“Enough talk!” Morgat said. “Back to the institution with you. You’re going to make me a star. I’ll get my promotion, grab all the gold I can carry, and then we’ll all retire in a splendid place and time.”
“What?” Ixel and Sophie said in unison.
“Don’t you get it?” Morgat said as he pointed his gun at Ixel, then back at his wife. “This place is rotten! We’ll have a good life in 1986: we and a few friends at Didaskalos. Just imagine … all the water we want, all the riches we can buy.”
“You’re mad!” Sophie said. “Is that why you encouraged him to act up in school? To have an excuse to pull this stunt?”
“Everybody has to pay their share.”
“But how are you planning to be a millionaire in the past?” Sophie said.
“Gold. We’ll bring with us all the gold we have stashed here. Almost worthless now, but insanely valuable in the past. When I figure out how to increase the resiliency of the temporal conduit to transport heavy metals, we’ll take it all. And that’s where Ixel comes in. A few months of experiments on his cells will give me the answer!”
“You’re going to kill my son!” Sophie said, lurching onto him. He punched her face, and she collapsed on the sofa.
“I’ll kill you!” Ixel yelled.
“Now, now,” Morgat said, pointing the gun at his wife again. “Either you submit yourself to the experiments, or I’m going to blow her head off. I can get another wife in 1986. Women are prettier there.”
Ixel fought the guards with all his might, but they held him fast. Sophie moaned.
“Lab time,” Morgat said.
A guttural scream came from the trembling vortex, and everybody turned around. Chuck emerged from the fading conduit with his beloved shotgun and knocked down one of the guards holding Ixel. Then he hit the other one in the face with the butt of his weapon.
“What the —” Morgat said, pointing his gun at the intruder.
Chuck cocked the shotgun and fired. Some pellets graced Morgat’s shoulder, and the rest hit the grandfather clock in the corner, shattering its face to pieces. A cuckoo sprang out of it and hung by a deformed coil. An instant later, the priceless clock itself came loose from the wall and tumbled to the floor, at which point its pieces flew in all directions.
“Move a muscle, and I’ll blast your ass off!” Chuck commanded. The bleeding Didaskalos executive froze.
The vortex was weakening, and it began to shrink spasmodically.
“We must go!” Ixel said to his mother. Her incredulous look told him she had not understood. “To the past! We’ll have a good life there, mom. Do you trust me?”
Sophie smiled warmly and took his hand.
“Wait!” Morgat said, clutching his bleeding shoulder. “Don’t leave me! After all, I’ve done for you!”
“Shut it, punk!” Chuck said, cocking the shotgun and placing the tip of it under Morgat’s chin. “Get going, Miguel, and I’ll be right behind you.”
Ixel went into the rapidly pulsating vortex with his mother in tow. The other end seemed farther than before. Were the strings coming apart? “Run!” he yelled. Panting, they jumped through the wall of light at the end of the tunnel. Back in 1986, the crew from the future, Amy and Chuck’s band members looked quite astonished. Amy embraced Ixel.
Sophie said, “Is this why you wanted to go back to the past?”
“Where’s Chuck?” Amy said.
“Still in there!” Ixel said. “I’m going back for him!”
“No!” both Amy and Sophie pleaded.
Ixel jumped into the disappearing vortex. It was going in and out of existence, and the back of the warehouse was visible through it. As he ran through the dimensional tunnel, he saw, through its fading walls, an infinite vastness. And he saw the string: a flat ribbon that stretched beyond the visible universe. But then, from the same place in that endless realm, it came back around, the same color and thickness. When the tunnel evaporated, he realized there was just one string looping back upon itself. The vacuum sucked the air from his lungs, and he was sure his time had come.
Then the tunnel came into existence again, beating irregularly, like a sick heart. He had no time to wonder about the true nature of intertwining, for he had to save his friend. There was still light at the end of the tunnel. When Ixel jumped through the arch, he found that the guards had overpowered Chuck. Morgat had gotten a hold of the shotgun and looked plenty angry.
“Stop!” Ixel said. “Let him go. Send him back before the tunnel collapses. I’ll stay!”
Morgat’s furious gaze shifted from his ruined Napoleon’s clock to Chuck, to Ixel. “An interesting proposal.” To the guards, he said, “Seize him!”
While Ixel tried to negotiate with his father in the future, back in 1986, the tunnel vanished to a luminous point suspended in the middle of the warehouse.
“It’s evaporating!” the boss said. “It’ll cease to exist soon.”
“Do something!” Amy said. “What about all your shining equipment from the future? Are you idiots or what?”
As if on cue, Chuck’s band tapped their baseball bats on the palms of their hands. The boss glanced at them anxiously, then said, “We can generate one last boost from the quantum batteries, but it will not last long. It might keep the conduit open for a few seconds at the most. After their charge depletes, we will not be able to open another vortex from this time anymore.”
Amy did not understand everything the boss had said, but if there were one slim chance she would see Miguel and Chuck again, she would take it. “Do it!”
The vortex in Morgat’s living room shrank to a single luminous point of light. “My dear son, it looks like the last train has just left. After I dissect you, I’ll produce a new, stronger conduit that will let me pass with my gold and my army. Then I’ll deal with your friends in 1986.”
Without warning, the vortex exploded to life again. The thunderous lightning sent static electricity through the living room, crackling filaments that spawned electrostatic discharges when they touched anything metallic — like the shotgun in Morgat’s hands. He dropped it. That was all the help Chuck needed. He kicked Morgat in the groin and picked up his weapon. For good measure, he sucker-punched him.
“Let him go, or you’re getting it!” Chuck said to the guards. They stuck their hands up and walked backward until they reached the front door, then ran through it.
Ixel and Chuck looked at each other and then at thee fading vortex.
“Yup!” they said and dove through the arch.
“Come on, Chuck, come on, Miguel!” Amy yelled.
“Come on, Ixel!” Sophie yelled.
“Come on, guys!” everybody yelled, including the crew from the future.
The vortex was popping in and out of existence again, in spasms, and the boss said it was a matter of seconds until it would disappear forever. During one of those spasms, Chuck flew through the arch holding his shotgun. On the very next — and last — contraction, Ixel materialized. Then the vortex was no more.
Cheers, shouts, tears. Ixel wished he had longer arms to embrace all the people he loved in the Universe, no matter what timeline he happened to be in. The joy was short-lived because the boss revealed that Didaskalos would open another conduit soon. And the next time they would not send a crew of scientists, the next time they would send a battalion of stormtroopers.
“We must prevent it!” Ixel said. “We must destroy the arch! It’s like a beacon, isn’t it? Destroy it, and they won’t find us.”
“You are the beacon, Ixel. Unwillingly, you’ve painted strong temporal coordinates with your back-and-forth travels. They might not appear in this exact spot, but it will still be close enough. And they’ll look for you and your friends.”
“So, what are we to do?” Sophie said. “Hide?”
“Sounds like good advice,” the boss said, “but with the advanced equipment they will bring, it’s only a matter of time until they track Ixel down. His temporal signature, both from this present and from the future, will give him away.”
“We’ll be waiting for them!” Chuck said. “We’ll kick their butts! But for now, let’s trash all this crap.”
As the band smashed the lab equipment with their baseball bats, Ixel thought about his future in the past. It was not just about him: the people who welcomed him would live forever in danger if he stayed. Especially Amy. But even if he ran away, abandoning everybody he loved, Morgat’s thugs would keep coming. They could harm his friends; they could torture them to get to him.
The situation had to change drastically, permanently. A loud smack startled him; Chuck had just smashed a cylindrical piece of futuristic equipment, leaving it looking like a keg run over by an eighteen-wheeler. Wiping his sweaty forehead, Chuck said, “The last piece. Boy, we had fun running through the time tunnel, eh, Miguel?” He laughed. “I thought we would fall off into nothingness!”
And his good friend gave Ixel the solution he was searching for so desperately. Of course, it was all about the intertwining. They had lied to him about strings never touching each other; they had lied to him about parallel strings moving close to each other, and about opening a conduit between them. Either they had lied, or they had never understood the nature of the Universe. Ixel had a gut feeling that the 1986 string and the 2128 string were one. It had been revealed to him during the second crossing of the collapsing conduit when he got a good view of the twisting ribbon-like structure. It was the same string!
He explained his plan to the boss. The scientist said it all depended on whether there was, in fact, only one string involved. And even if that were the case, he would be navigating uncharted waters.
Humanity as a whole would.
“How soon before they come?” Ixel said.
“Days, at the most.”
“We don’t have much time then.”
Three days later, the boxes outside the school ran out of newspapers as soon as they replenished them in the wee hours of the morning; people snatched them like hotcakes. On the first page, they all printed something about the Soviet Union thanking Canada for the anonymous tip that prevented a nuclear meltdown in one of their nuclear power plants. Somebody had sent a letter to the Russian embassy in Ottawa with specific details about a dangerous test. Accurate information that prevented a major nuclear catastrophe. As a result, the Soviet Union, in a sign of good faith, asked Canada to host talks with the United States with the purpose of beginning the disarmament of nuclear weapons the world over.
Weeks went by. No vortex opened.
In the news was the successful launch of the Challenger shuttle after an aborted first try weeks earlier. NASA had discovered defects in a couple of ring-shaped components of the propulsion system that could endanger the spacecraft, so it postponed the launch until it could replace them.
Years went by. No vortex opened.
By 1995, Miguel and Amy Cardozo had their baby girl. Proud grandmother Sophie held her in her arms, but not for long; Chuck claimed his uncle’s rights. That triggered Ixel’s memories because he wrote something down on the notebook he always carried with him.
No vortex opened.