Rachel scampered up the tree so fast that Riley couldn’t even see her arms and legs moving. He heard the rumble again—louder this time. He didn’t have time to think about the logistics of using his four arms and two legs to climb up the tree. It just happened. One moment he was standing on the ground about to be attacked by some vicious animal, and the next he was in the treehouse, sitting on the floor next to Rachel, catching his breath.
Crinblee was standing next to them and Torgwal was sitting at a small table typing on something that looked similar to an iPad.
“What are Baljeevers?” Riley asked.
“They’re big black furry animals with eight legs and razor-sharp claws,” Crinblee said. “We don’t have to worry about them during the daytime because they’re nocturnal. But when it gets dark, they come out of their caves and start preying on anything that breathes. I’m surprised you don’t have them where you live.”
“Well, if they’re such a menace, then why don’t your people just hunt them all down and kill them?” Riley asked.
“Because they’re endangered,” Crinblee said. “Their population is declining for no apparent reason. The scientists haven’t figured it out yet.”
“So what?” Rachel asked. “Sounds like they’re a menace. I mean, is a dangerous predator like that even worth saving?”
“Their bodies emit a rare gas that helps purify our air,” Crinblee said. “Researchers have tried to create a synthetic version of the gas, but so far they’ve failed. And when they try to mate the animals in captivity, but the cubs always die.”
“You said they only come out at night,” Riley said. “So, are they afraid of the light? Would we have been safe if we’d had flashlights?”
“No,” Crinblee said. “They hate the light, but they’ll still attack you if they’re hungry enough. They’ll shred you into a thousand pieces and then suck up the pieces with their snout. Their food gets digested in their sinuses. And, by the way, they can also kill you by sneezing on you. Their sinus fluid contains a powerful acid. So when we go into the fields, we always carry a couple of fully-charged lock guns in case we don’t get home before dark.”
“That’s what you used on us, right?” Rachel asked. “The thing that froze us in place?”
“Yes,” Crinblee said. “We always take the lock guns with us, but we didn’t plan to stay out until dark. Then we spotted a couple of Fundamentalists.”
“And you zapped us,” Rachel said. “I thought I was dead—or in some kind of limbo between life and death. It was the weirdest thing ever. Could you have left us that way permanently?”
“No,” Crinblee said. “Not with the lock guns we have. Only the Federals can do a permanent lock. They have military-grade lock guns. Our locks wear off after about an hour—on humans, that is. With Baljeevers they only last a few minutes. It’s because those things are so massive. But a few minutes is enough time to get away—unless…”
“Unless what?” Riley asked.
“Sometimes they travel in packs,” Crinblee said, “and if you were to come across five or six of them, you might not have enough battery power to lock them all.”
“Shit,” Rachel said.
Crinblee chuckled. “Yeah, because you definitely can’t outrun them. You’d think they would be slow on their feet, but those huge things are the fastest animals living here. They’ve been clocked at 100 kilometers per hour.”
Yikes, Riley thought. That was close to the top speed of a Cheetah. Of course, the Baljeevers had the advantage of the lower gravitational pull of this planet. If they were on earth, a Cheetah would probably leave them in the dust.
“We don’t have to worry about the Baljeevers unless we’re in the fields though, because of the electronic shock fencing that surrounds the city,” Crinblee said. “But this treehouse is just beyond the city line—outside the shock fence.”
“Why would you want to build a treehouse in a place where you’re not protected against the those beasts?” Riley asked. “I’ll bet you don’t come out here at night much.”
“Actually, we do,” Crinblee said. “Baljeevers are lousy tree climbers, so we just don’t go down to the ground. We use this to go back and forth to the house.” She led Riley and Rachel to a window, and used her flashlight to light up the area between the treehouse and their home. There was a motorized zip line with a large metal cart suspended from it. Crinblee pointed to a window on the fourth floor of the house. The other end of the zip line was attached to a bracket just below the window. “That’s Torgwal’s bedroom.”
Torgwal said, “Okay, it’s ready.” He got up from the table. There was something in his hand that looked like a fancy metal ink pen.
“What’s that?” Riley asked.
“This is a custom Tagalator.” Torgwal grinned. “Built it myself.”
“And it’s highly illegal,” Crinblee said.
“It’s works just like the ones the Federals tag you with when you’re born,” Torgwal said.
“What does it do?” Rachel asked.
Torgwal stepped toward her. “When I hold the tip against your skin and press the tag button, a microscopic chip will be inserted just below the surface of the skin. You won’t feel a thing. And it’ll work just like an official tagging chip. I’ve entered your name as Tunpricwa Quanshtick.”
Riley almost laughed.
“Why? That’s not my name,” Rachel said.
“That’s the point,” Torgwal said. “We don’t want the Federals to know your real name. Tunpricwa Quanshtick is a common name here in Tolerance. The most common name for males is Gynblat Quanshtick.”
It was like naming yourself John Smith, Riley thought.
“How common is Rachel?” Rachel asked.
“You’re the first Rachel I’ve ever met,” Torgwal said.
“I wish I had an unusual name,” Crinblee said. “Crinblee is almost as common as Tunpricwa. And Torgwal is common too. Our parents weren’t very creative. They named us after ‘two of the founders of our great nation of Tolerance.’ At least, that’s how Mom tells it.”
“So, after you tag us, we’ll be able to go into your house?” Rachel asked.
“Right,” Torgwal said. “Okay, sit down over here.”
“Why do I need to sit?” Rachel asked. “Is this gonna make me faint?”
“It’s just a precaution,” Torgwal said.
Rachel studied Torgwal’s face for a moment. Riley could see her mind working. Was it safe to have a foreign object injected into her body by this alien she had just met—even though it wasn’t really her body, but merely a copy? Riley was sure she was about to ask him to go first.
“Okay.” Rachel sat down.
“But wait,” Riley said. “We won’t be in the system. Won’t that tip off the Federals?”
“You’d think so, huh?” Crinblee asked.
“It would be a major tip-off—if the Federal’s system worked the way it’s supposed to,” Torgwal said. “But the truth is that they’re constantly having issues with lost data and programming errors and security breaches. I used our neighbor’s house down the street as your address. Their last name is Quanshtick, so if the Federals do notice two extra family members for that house, they’ll probably just think your names got accidentally dropped and then re-added to the database.”
“Okay,” Riley said. “But they won’t think it’s funny that we’re staying at your house overnight?”
“Not at all,” Torgwal said, “since you guys are our age and you’re brother and sister. We’re just having a sleepover.”
“Brother and sister?” Riley asked.
Torgwal said, “I’ve set you up with the same address and the same parents, so you need to be siblings.”
Crinblee grinned at Rachel. “So no more of you two kissing in public while you’re here.”
“Not a problem.” Rachel smirked at Riley.
“Ready?” Torgwal asked Rachel.
“I guess so,” Rachel said.
“I’ll locate it in the same spot the Federals use—your lower left arm,” Torgwal said.
Rachel held out her arm.
Torgwal placed the tip of the Tagalator against her skin and pressed the tag button, which made a faint clicking sound.
“Did it work?” Rachel asked. “I didn’t feel anything.”
“I’ll check.” Torgwal picked up his tablet computer and entered a few keystrokes. “Yes, your tag is transmitting perfectly.”
Riley leaned in for a close look at Rachel’s arm. “Amazing. It doesn’t even leave a mark.”
“Okay, now your turn.” Torgwal stepped up to Riley. “By the way, you can’t tell anyone that I did this, because as my sister said, it’s illegal. Of course, most people wouldn’t even know how to do it.”
“But you’re not like most people,” Riley said, holding out his arm.
Torgwal smiled. “That’s right. I’m way smarter.” He tagged Riley’s arm. “Any computer within 20 meters will pick up your signal and broadcast tracking data to the Federals.”
Rachel pointed to Torgwal’s computer. “So now the Federals know we’re here in this treehouse?”
Torgwal shook his head. “Well, almost any computer.”
“Torgwal’s computer is special,” Crinblee said. “He hacked it—which is also illegal.”
“It only sends out the data that I tell it to send,” Torgwal said. “And we’re outside the range of the house computers.”
“Earlier you said you used the Tagalator on yourselves,” Riley said. “Why did you do that? I thought everybody here got tagged as a baby.”
“I gave us a second tag—one that I could manipulate—and then I disabled the original one,” Torgwal said.
Crinblee laughed. “He had been talking about how much the Federals trust their tagging system, yet how easy it would for him to outsmart it. I said, ‘Then prove it.’ I dared him to give us custom tags and program them to give us older ages. I told him that if we dressed up to look the part, I thought we could walk right into a dance club.”
“I told her she was crazy,” Torgwal said. “Programming the custom tag chips was easy, but I figured if we showed up at a club and they saw how short we were they’d never believe we were of legal age. But I was wrong. The guy at the door barely even looked at us. I guess he figured that since our tags said we were old enough, who was he to argue?”
“Those guys working the doors aren’t very bright,” Crinblee said.
“Hey, I’d love to go check out a club,” Riley said. “How about you, Rachel?”
She didn’t answer.
Everyone looked at her.
A very long, pencil-thin snake had wrapped itself around her chest and it was staring her down, its head only six inches from her nose, as though it was trying to hypnotize her.
“Don’t move a muscle.” Crinblee inched toward Rachel. Just when she was about to grab the snake’s head from behind, it lunged at Rachel’s neck and began wrapping itself around her throat.
“Shit,” Torgwal said. “Grab the head!”
“I’m trying to,” Crinblee said.
The snake quickly spun the entire length of its body around Rachel’s neck, creating a two-inch thick collar.
“Where is the head?” Riley asked.
Torgwal grabbed a pair of wire cutters out of a small toolbox on the floor. “It’s hiding inside the coil.”
Rachel gasped. “I can’t breathe. Do something!”
Crinblee pulled at the layers on the left side of Rachel’s neck. Torgwal snipped away layers on the right side.
Rachel’s face began to turn red.
“Hurry!” Riley said. “Cut it off!”
“I am,” Torgwal said, “but I have to be careful not to cut her neck.”
Riley saw the look of terror in her eyes. How long could she last without oxygen? He stepped in close to her and tried to speak calmly. “You’re gonna be okay, Rachel. Just hang on.”
She passed out.
“I still don’t see the head,” Crinblee said.
“Here it is.” Torgwal grabbed hold of the snake’s head and pulled it out far enough to snip it off with the wire cutters. “Bastard!” He threw the head out the window.
The remaining body of the snake began to loosen its grip. Crinblee and Torgwal pulled it off of Rachel’s neck.
“Rachel?” Riley began slapping her on the cheek. “Rachel, are you okay? Are you okay?”
Her eyes opened. “Quit hitting me.”
“Oh, thank God.” Riley hugged her. “I thought you were a goner.”
“Really? Then why were you telling me I was gonna be okay?” Rachel asked. “What the hell kind of snake was that? I didn’t even feel it until it was already wrapped around my chest and staring me in the eye.”
“That was a Yagglasmooze,” Crinblee said. “Fully grown, they can be up to six meters long. We’re used to them, so we notice it immediately when one starts to slither up our leg.”
“We just throw it on the ground and stomped its head.” Torgwal said. “You’ve got the upper hand until they wrap themselves around your neck.”
“Which is why we never sleep out here,” Crinblee said. “It’s a good way to die young.”
Riley said, “So, these Yagglesmoots—”
“Yagglasmooze,” Crinblee said.
“So, these Yagglasmooze strangle you to death just for the fun of it?” Riley asked.
“No,” Torgwal said. “They do it because they’re hungry. Once they’re sure you’re dead, they go up your nose and start eating your brains.”
“Oh, God!” Rachel said. “What about your house? Do they ever get in there?”
“No,” Torgwal said. “Not a chance. The shock fence keeps them out. They can’t even get into the yard.”
“And with the new software upgrade, the shock fence even keeps out the Flizzernisties,” Crinblee said.
Riley wondered what the heck a Flizzernisty was.
Crinblee seemed to notice the confusion on his face. “Are there no Flizzernisties where you live?”
“No,” Riley said.
“Do you have lizards?” Torgwal asked.
“Yes,” Riley said.
“Okay,” Torgwal said, “a Flizzernisty looks like a tiny lizard with wings. It’ll bite you, but it doesn’t really hurt.”
“It just makes you itch,” Crinblee said.
“Like a mosquito,” Rachel said.
“A what?” Torgwal asked.
He glared at Rachel and then turned to Torgwal. “It’s kinda like your Flizzernisty.”
“The main thing to remember about the Flizzernisties is to stay away from the hives,” Crinblee said. “A few bites won’t hurt you, but if they swarm you—well, then you’re in big trouble.”
Rachel looked around the treehouse. “Can we please go into the house now? I don’t want to get bit by one of those flying lizards, and I sure don’t want to tangle with another Yagglasmooze.”
Torgwal laughed. “I don’t blame you. Yeah, let’s go to the house and see if we can fool the Federals with your custom tags.”