Riley and Rachel had been running and jumping and hopping toward the light for two minutes when Rachel began to slow down, and said, “Stop. I need a break.”
Riley tried to halt abruptly, which sent him into multiple cartwheels before he landed face down in the grass.
Rachel ran to check on him. “You okay?”
Without moving, Riley said, “I’m fine. Just resting.”
“Wish we had flashlights. It’s about to be black out here.”
“Yeah, and the temperature’s dropping fast.”
Rachel didn’t respond.
“Don’t you think?” Riley rolled over and saw Rachel standing over him. “Rachel?”
She stood frozen in place.
He got up. “What are you doing?” He stepped in close to her. “Hello? This is not funny, Rachel.” He waved a hand in front of her face, but she didn’t move or even blink.
No human could stand so perfectly still. But, of course, she wasn’t human. Neither was he. They were copies of humans. Was this a hiccup in Doc’s technology—something that would clear up within a few seconds? Or…maybe this was how people died on this planet—going along, living their lives like everything was fine and then, without warning, turning into statues.
No, she couldn’t be dead. No, no, no. Maybe she just needed a reboot—something to jolt her system. He stepped in close, put all four of his arms around her, pressed his body against hers, and kissed her on the lips. This should do it. Riley kept his eyes open so he could see her reaction. Her lips were warm and her body felt wonderful. She was definitely not dead. He would keep holding her and kissing her until she—
His body froze—as though he’d instantly caught whatever had infected Rachel. But he wasn’t unconscious and he wasn’t cold. Even though he couldn’t move, he could still feel Rachel’s lips. Sense the warm titillation of her body. They were both hot from all the running and jumping. He could smell her sweaty face against his nose. Riley had never imagined that a whiff of perspiration could be tantalizing. He wanted to lick it off her face. God! I’m such a pig!
He could see her eyes. Her beautiful green eyes. He wondered if it was the same for her. Was she seeing him, feeling him?
Riley had been so busy competing with Rachel that he hadn’t allowed himself to see how pretty she was. Suddenly, he was very attracted to her—four arms and all. Although, he doubted that she felt the same toward him. He wondered what she was thinking at this very moment. Probably that she was going to pummel him with her four fists if they ever got out of this frozen state.
On the other hand, how could he possibly know? Maybe she was enjoying him holding her tight and kissing her. She had no way of giving him the slightest hint.
What if this was how their lives would end—stuck together like this for eternity? It certainly wasn’t the worst way to go. But still, he wasn’t ready to die, and neither was Rachel.
Riley heard a boy’s voice behind him, in the distance. “Well, they’re obviously not brother and sister.”
“I told you,” a girl said.
The area around them gradually became flooded with light as the voices grew stronger.
“Okay, you two,” the boy said, “I’m gonna unlock you now. But if you don’t play nice, I’m gonna relock you, okay?”
Thank God, Riley thought, he and Rachel were not permanent sculptures.
“We know you’re Fundamentalists because you’re not tagged,” the girl said. “You’re not supposed to cross the Main Stream.”
Riley had no idea what Fundamentalists were, and he didn’t know anything about a Main Stream. But at least the aliens were talking in English. No, wait—he and Rachel were the aliens. Great job on the translation chip, Doc, Riley thought. He just hoped the outgoing translation functionality worked as well as the incoming, because if these kids started hearing gibberish coming out of his mouth, they would surely lock up Rachel and him permanently.
“I wonder how they made it across,” the boy asked.
“Well, if you’ll unlock them, maybe we’ll find out.”
Riley and Rachel unfroze.
“So, how did you get here?” the boy asked.
Riley turned around. The two beings looked very much like humans—except for their four arms. The boy was holding an odd-looking gun. They each had a light beaming from their waists, like a flashlight belt buckle.
“Hi, I’m Crinblee, and this is my brother, Torgwal. Please excuse his rudeness.”
Odd names, Riley thought. But it made sense: their names had no English equivalents. It was probably how the names actually sounded in their own language.
“I wasn’t being rude,” Torgwal said, “I just want to know—”
Crinblee held up one of her four hands to her brother, which apparently carried the same meaning as it did for humans. Then she looked at Riley and Rachel. “And what are your names?”
“I’m Riley and this is Rachel. And yes, you’re correct—we are not brother and sister.”
“So, how did you get across the Main Stream?” Crinblee asked.
Riley had no idea what to say. “Uh, it wasn’t too hard.”
Torgwal looked at him in disbelief. “It’s five kilometers wide and 20 meters deep. And the water moves at a rate of 60 knots.”
“Well, we’re very good jumpers,” Riley said, unsure of whether Torgwal was serious.
“Somebody flew you over here and dumped you, didn’t they?” Crinblee asked. “I’m sorry. I hope it wasn’t your parents.”
“To tell you the truth,” Riley said, “it’s all kinda fuzzy. We’re not quite sure how we got here.”
“What happens to people who get dumped here?” Rachel asked.
“The Federals fly them back,” Torgwal said.
“Well, that’s not so bad,” Rachel said.
“Then they track down whoever dumped them here and put them in a permanent lock,” Torgwal said. “Which, for all practical purposes, means they’re life is over—since only the Federals have the unlocking code.”
“Whoa,” Riley said.
“You didn’t know that?” Torgwal asked.
“No,” Rachel said.
“It’s terrible,” Crinblee said, “but they have to do it or Fundamentalists would be dumping kids all the time. Our population is tightly controlled here in Tolerance. The Fundamentalists rejected our way of life, so they were forced to live outside the Main Stream.”
Riley thought that Tolerance seemed like a very odd name for this place. He suspected the word may have gotten mangled in translation.
“We don’t really understand why the laws are the way they are,” Torgwal said. “It’s not something they teach in school.”
“How old are you two?” Rachel asked.
“I’m ten and my brother’s eleven,” Crinblee said.
Riley was shocked. Crinblee and Torgwal were about the same height as Riley and Rachel. “Well, I’m fourteen and—”
Rachel jumped in. “Yeah, right—fourteen.” She laughed and shook her head. “Riley’s always pretending to be older. We’re both eleven.”
Riley was about to protest, when he realized what Rachel was doing. It was smart to pretend to be Crinblee and Torgwal’s age. If he and Rachel were fourteen, wouldn’t they be a lot more knowledgeable about things like the Main Stream? And wouldn’t they be taller than these kids? Doc probably did this on purpose—made their copies the size of fifth graders so they wouldn’t be expected to know all the things an adult would know. He wondered how tall the adults were on this planet.
“That’s what I figured,” Torgwal said.
“You guys want to hang out with us for a while—until they send you back?” Crinblee asked.
“We can’t take them home,” Torgwal said. “Mom will ground us for a year.”
“Not if she doesn’t find out.”
“Are you serious? She’s gonna find out as soon as they walk into the house and the alarm goes off.”
“Mom’s at work,” Crinblee said.
“But she’ll get an alert—and so will the Federals. And they can get pretty rough with Fundamentalists who break into homes. That’s a serious crime.”
“They wouldn’t be breaking in,” Crinblee said. “We’d be letting them in.”
“You really think the Federals care about that? They’re not gonna listen to anything we say. And remember a while back—that Fundamentalist kid who broke into that store?”
“We don’t know if that story’s true,” Crinblee said.
“What happened?” Riley asked.
“They say the Federals beat him up so bad that he died,” Torgwal said. “They took his body back across and just left it in some field.”
“But the alarm won’t go off if we can use your Tagalator.”
“I don’t know, Crinblee…”
“Hey, it worked for us,” Crinblee said. “Why wouldn’t it work for them?”
“Wait. Is this some type of experimental equipment?” Rachel asked. “Cause I don’t like the sound of that.”
“It won’t hurt you,” Crinblee said.
Riley and Rachel stared at each other.
Crinblee said, “Look, here are the options: (A), we leave you out here to be eaten by Baljeevers; (B), we call the Federals right now and let them pick you up and take you back home; or (C), we try Torgwal’s Tagalator on you, and if it works we can hide you at our house for a while. What’ll it be?”
Riley didn’t know what the hell a Baljeever was, but the fact that it was capable of eating them was all he needed to know. “Okay, we’ll take Option C,” Riley said. “Right, Rachel?”
“Yeah, sure,” Rachel said.
“Great.” Crinblee smiled. “Let’s go.”
Riley and Rachel followed closely behind them, mimicking their peculiar skipping movements. Riley found this technique to be much less tiring than the running and hopping that he and Rachel had been doing. How could they have known that there was a better way? They were newbies on this planet.
Doc Himmel was gonna laugh his butt off when he saw this. Maybe he’d laugh himself into a terminal coughing fit. It would serve him right for using them as lab rats. Although if the old coot died, it might leave them stuck here forever.
Even with the light from Torgwal and Crinblee’s flashlights, it was hard to see where they were going. Riley figured they were skipping at upwards of thirty miles per hour. Slamming into a tree would be a disaster.
They were approaching a row of houses from the rear. The homes were narrow and tall. When they were two hundred yards away—Torgwal pointed and yelled out, “That’s our house.” He leaped ten feet into the air and latched onto the trunk of a large tree. Then he began to shinny up it with his four arms and two legs. Crinblee followed her brother up the tree in similar fashion. The two siblings climbed in through a hatch in the floor of a treehouse that was some twenty-five feet off the ground.
A light came on inside the treehouse and Crinblee looked down through the hatch. “You’d better come up quick. If you stand there for too long you’re going to start attracting Baljeevers.”
Riley heard a low rumble, and the ground trembled. “What the hell was that?” He looked around, but it was too dark to see anything.
“That was a Baljeever,” Crinblee said. “Get up here—now!”