Riley and Rachel were standing face to face on top of a small, round platform in the center of what appeared to be the control room of a space ship. Riley suspected there might be an electric field surrounding them, and from the look in Rachel’s eyes, she must have been thinking the same thing.
“You should not have run from Federal Officers.” The man was wearing a blue uniform, and sitting in a captain’s chair. He was a young man with dark, wavy hair, probably seven feet tall, with a lean build. And, of course, he had four arms.
“I am Lieutenant Drenchbawld Chimma. What are your names, please? Your real names.”
“I’m Riley Rangle, and this is Rachel Oliver.”
“Hmm. Unusual names. Good to meet you. But I wish it were under better circumstances. You seem like nice kids, but you’ve gotten yourselves into big trouble.”
“I know,” Riley said. “We’re sorry about that, sir.”
“The Baljeevers should have killed you. I’m impressed that you were able to survive as long as you did. There’s only one thing more powerful than a Baljeever’s hunger: his sense of revenge. You thought they would eat their own, didn’t you? That they would enjoy devouring their chopped-up brethren while you two got away safely. Well, the Baljeevers are cannibals, that’s true. They would not have hesitated to eat their own—but only after they had tracked you down, sliced you to shreds, and enjoyed you as an appetizer. All it takes is one drop of blood in the air. They’d already picked up the scent, and hundreds of them were on their way.” He shook his head. “If I’d gotten here a minute later, you two kids would have been nothing but blood slush.”
“Thank you,” Riley said.
“Yes, thank you, sir,” Rachel said.
“Still, you have broken the law. I don’t know how you made it over the Main Stream. But you’re criminals, so I’ve got to take you in.”
“Something happened to us, sir, and we’re not sure what,” Riley said. “We’ve lost our memories.”
“Then how do you know your names?”
Rachel jumped in. “It’s a partial loss, sir. We do remember some things.”
“Yes,” Riley said, “and I think somebody might have altered our tags, but we’re definitely not Fundamentalists.”
“Hmm,” Lt. Chimma said. “Well, don’t worry then. We’ll sort it all out.”
Riley couldn’t believe the lieutenant was buying their lies. Or was he lying to them? Maybe this was merely idle chit-chat, and he and Rachel were going to be tortured and murdered regardless of what they said.
Lt. Chimma rotated his chair to his control panel. “Here we go.” He touched a few buttons.
Rachel whispered to Riley, “Are we moving yet?”
“We’re here.” Lt. Chimma stood and walked them out of the aircraft. They were on top of a tall building. Two intense-looking soldiers were waiting for them. As the soldiers escorted the three of them across the roof toward the entrance to the building, Riley wondered if they should try to escape. They were not handcuffed or bound in any way. They could run, but where to? Off the side of the building? Would Doc save them before they hit the ground? No. There was a ten-minute transmission delay. It would be suicide.
They went into the building and a Sergeant Klockler took Riley to an interrogation room. He suspected that Rachel would be questioned simultaneously. What would happen to them if they gave the wrong answers, or if they simply gave different answers?
Sgt. Klockler sat across from him at a table. “Who put the tag in your arm?”
If Riley told the truth, what would happen to Torgwal and Crinblee? And if he claimed to be from Tolerance, the next questions would be: who are your parents and where do you live? He could say that they were Fundamentalists, and that their parents dumped them in Tolerance. Maybe that would keep Torgwal and Crinblee out of trouble. But the Federals would try to track down Riley and Rachel’s parents and put a permanent lock on them. What would happen when they discovered that he had lied to them?
But the worst thing he could possibly do was to tell the truth. A mad scientist from a distant planet transported us here with his giant space laser. Yeah, they’d love that one. What fun their scientists would have dissecting Riley and Rachel. So, what was the safest answer?
“To your people, Rachel and I would be considered Fundamentalists—because of where we’re from. But we don’t hold the same beliefs as the people of our homeland. Neither do our parents. In a few weeks, we are scheduled to be married—once we’ve both turned twelve. That is our law.”
“I am familiar with the laws of your people. Go on.”
“Rachel and I weren’t ready to get married. We’re not even sure we want to marry each other at all. As soon as we were married, we would have been expected to have a child every year, for as long as we’re physically able. We don’t believe the state has the right to force us to do that.”
“You two sound more like Tolerants than Fundamentalists.”
“That’s why we came here.”
“But how did you come here?”
“It was ingenious, really. Rachel thought of the idea of using a catapult. But that had been tried many times before, and nobody had made it across the Main Stream.”
“Of course not. It’s five kilometers wide.”
“I know. So, my dad wondered what would happen if we combined the idea of a catapult with a glider.”
Sgt. Klockler’s eyebrows arched.
“So, we did a test run—without a passenger.”
Riley nodded. “It made it across—with a hundred meters to spare.”
“And that’s how you got here?”
“Rachel’s flight was perfect, but I almost didn’t make it—probably because I’m a bit heavier than she is. I could see that my glider was gonna come up short, so at the last moment I jumped for the shore. I landed in the water, but I grabbed onto a tree root and pull myself out. That was scary.”
“That’s a wild story.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“Where’s the glider?”
“It broke into a million pieces when it hit the Main Stream.”
“Your friend’s glider. You said she made it to land.”
“We…set it on fire. That was the plan all along. There’s nothing left of it.”
“I see. And that’s your full story?”
“Uh, yes. I guess that just about covers it.”
Sgt. Klockler stood up. “Let’s go.”
He took Riley down the hall to the main area and found the other investigator—the one who had taken Rachel for questioning.
“Where’s the girl?” Sgt. Klocker asked.
“I already took her down there,” the other officer said.
Sgt. Klocker nodded. “Right.”
He walked Riley down a long, narrow hallway.
Riley had a bad feeling.
The windowless door was labeled Disposition Room. Sgt. Klocker opened it. Rachel was sitting on a bench near the back wall. Otherwise, the room was empty. The walls were brick, as were the floor and ceiling. No cameras, no windows.
Sgt. Klocker motioned for him to step inside, and Riley went in. The door closed behind him. The sergeant had not offered any information as to what the they were there for, but Riley was sure it wasn’t anything good.
He sat down next to Rachel.
“Do you think they’re watching or listening?” she asked.
Riley scanned the room. “I don’t think so.”
Rachel obviously wasn’t convinced, since she leaned in and whispered, “What did you tell him about how we got across the Main Stream?”
Rachel’s hand against his face and her warm breath in his ear caused him to lose focus for a moment. They were sworn enemies, bitter rivals, who had been working together simply because they were in survival mode—not because they actually cared for each another.
Or did they?
He held his hand beside his mouth and spoke into her ear. “I told him we used a catapult and gliders.”
“Damn. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“But I don’t think he bought it. What did you say?”
“That we were dumped here by our parents. That’s when he brought me in here. So, if they compare our stories, we’re screwed.”
“They think we’re Fundamentalists?”
“Or maybe aliens. I don’t know.” Riley looked around. “You know what this room looks like?”
“Yeah, but I don’t see any gas jets.”
“Could be a completely different technology. Maybe they just push a button and we’re toast.” A tear ran down her cheek.
“Well, if we’re about to die…”
“Would you mind if I…”
She grabbed his head, pulled his face to hers, and kissed him on the lips for a full five seconds.
“Oh, wow,” he said, and went back for more.
The door opened and and officer walked in.
“Are you gonna kill us?” Riley asked. “Because if you are, I have a last request. Would you mind coming back in an hour. What’s the difference? Nobody has to know.”
The officer unholstered his weapon. “I’m sorry. I really am. But I have my orders.”
“Okay,” Riley said. “Thirty minutes. Ten minutes. Come on man, can’t you see we’re in love?”
He aimed the weapon at Riley.
“No, please,” Rachel said.
“Doc! Get us out of here!” Riley yelled.
The officer fired and Riley’s chest burst into flames.
Rachel tried to scream, but couldn’t.
The officer fired at Rachel.
Riley gasped for breath, as though he’d been underwater for five minutes. He turned. Rachel was beside him, also struggling to catch her breath. But they were alive. “Rachel, are you okay?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
They were back on earth, in Doc’s dentist chairs. He’d apparently rescued them in the knick of time.
“I can’t believe we survived that,” he said.
“Me either,” she said. “Your chest was on fire. Did you feel it?”
“It hurt like hell. But Doc got my brain out in time. I mean, he must have because I feel normal.”
“Me too. Except that I’m still stuck in this chair.”
“Doc?” Riley saw him sitting in the dental chair on the other side of Rachel.
Rachel turned her head and looked at Doc. “Is he—?”
“Dead? Sure looks like it. But maybe he’s just sleeping.” He tried to get out of his chair. “Dammit, Doc.”
“Doc? Wake up,” Rachel said.
He didn’t flinch.
“If he’s dead, then how are we gonna get out of these chairs?” Rachel asked.
“I don’t know. Hope for a power failure? Right now I’m just happy to be alive.”
“But we could starve to death before anybody finds us.”
A video came to life on the wall in front of them. It was Doc, smiling, with a cigarette hanging out of this mouth.
“Thanks to you two, I have proved that my equipment works. I’ve done the impossible. And now everyone on Earth will know how brilliant I am. But I don’t even care about that anymore, because I’m about to relocate to Sorella Uno. My copy will be a ten-year-old boy. A kid genius, cancer-free, endowed with my full brain power. And thanks to the knowledge I gained from your little trip, I will be able to avoid the kind of problems you encountered. Perhaps I’ll develop a synthetic Baljeever gas—save the environment and become a legend in Tolerance.” He laughed.
“He might actually do it,” Riley said.
Doc continued. “You’re probably wondering why I didn’t just make a copy of myself here on this planet. Start over as a boy right here on Earth. Don’t think I didn’t try. There is apparently something that works differently when the essence of the brain is transported through space. I still don’t understand it. I just know that it works. You two are the proof.”
Riley shook his head.
Doc leaned in to the camera. “I set your return to automatically occur right after my copy is created on the planet. So, assuming that you managed to stay alive until then, you two are now safe and sound, watching this video. If not…my apologies.”
“Bastard,” Riley said. “You nearly got us killed.”
“I had other plans for you two, but that doesn’t matter now, so you will be released from your chairs when this video ends. Thanks for helping me get a brand new life.”
The video ended.
Rachel tried to get out of her chair. “I’m still stuck. He said we’d be released when the video was over.”
“Be patient. It may take a few seconds.”
“What do you think he meant when he said he had other plans for us?”
“I don’t know, but he said it doesn’t matter anymore. I just want to go home and…hey, you want to go out for pizza tonight?”
Another video started up.
Doc said, “I made this video in case something happened to me before you returned.”
“This is an old video,” Riley said.
“Yeah, he looks way younger.”
“You’re seeing this on the assumption that you have returned safely from the planet Sorella Uno. Congratulations. Next, you’re off to the planet Sorella Due. Isn’t this a fun adventure? Good luck.”
The video ended.
“What the hell is going on, Riley?”
“We weren’t the first. He’s been doing this experiment for years.”
“Then what happened to all the other kids?”
“What do you think?”
“The Baljeevers got them?”
“He went off and left us inside an automated system.”
“We’re in a loop?”
“I remember him saying that he wanted to investigate seven planets. His system is gonna keep sending us to one planet after the other. Shit!”
“We have got to get out of these chairs.” Rachel fought to release herself.
They heard Doc’s voice over the sound system. “Initiating countdown for transmission to Sorella Due. T minus twenty seconds.”
“Noooooo!” Rachel said.
“He must have been so excited about his new life that he forgot to release us.”
“Forgot? He did this on purpose.”
“Why? He’s not gonna be here to see all the feedback from the other planets.”
“Oh, God! There’s no way to know how far advanced the planets might be. We could be dealing with dinosaurs!”
“We are so screwed.”
Doc: “Ten seconds to transmission.”
“No, no, no!” Rachel struggled to get free.”
“It’s no use, Rachel.”
“There’s got to be a way,” she said.
“I think I’m in love with you,” he said.
“You’re just saying that because we’re about to die.”
“We’re gonna be okay.”
“How can you say that?”
“As long as we’re together,” he said.
They both screamed.
Everything went black.