[Editor’s Note: Read the entire story from the beginning!]
Late that night, Tucky sat up on the edge a cot in the back room of Wrangel Repair & Thrift. In the harsh light of one of Gerd’s antique whaling lamps, Inga’s check glared at him, from its perch on the battered, black milk crate that he used for an end table. He rubbed his eyes and tried to make sense of Inga’s panic. What was it, he wondered, that made the odd collection of electronic components so dangerous?
If he succeeded in deciphering their secrets, it could even make him famous. He could get out of Carrollton and forget about Carla, Gerd, his foster parents and every other bad memory that haunted him, twenty-four/seven. Of course, with the money from Inga, if she kept her word, he could get out the tiny town, anyway, and with no effort.
Trouble was, not only had he failed to tell Inga about the tablet, but also about its grip on his mind, which was growing steadily. He could no more smash the glowing rectangle than he could smash his own head. Still, if he got up the courage, he’d be … well, not free. He’d still have the long dull grind of day after day without a flicker of hope, with none of his questions answered. Nobody in the last twenty-four years had tracked down his derelict parents. It was up to him, it seemed, but he didn’t have the stomach for it.
And yet, some days of the week, he thought maybe he should take charge of the investigation himself. Wasn’t it his responsibility? Anyone messed up enough to drop him off at a gas station restroom must need help as much as he did. If he could get noticed, somebody might step forward and explain how he’d ended up abandoned. What if the only way to uncover one secret was to uncover another? All at once, the two issues seemed as closely linked as an image and its reflection.
Tucky gasped, as he remembered the mirror image of the components reflected in Inga’s glass desk top. What if he lined the pieces up by the pattern of symbols inscribed on their outer rims? Minutes later, the contents of two of Drew Flaherty’s boxes lay strewn on the massive oak banquet table in the side room Gerd used as an office. One by one, Tucky matched the components. Relief poured into his aching heart at as, time and again, the properly aligned pieces snapped together with a satisfying click.
All through the night, he barely looked up from the table. It never occurred to him to check what effect his work might have on the tablet. Otherwise, he would have noticed how its display had settled down into a simple pattern of light and dark, which looked for all the world like a pair of eyes staring out into the pre-dawn light. After nine hours of ceaseless concentration, oblivious to everything else, including his drooping eyelids, Tucky fell asleep on his knees, his head resting on Gerd’s smooth desk.
On Wednesday, around eleven in the morning, he awoke, startled to find himself surrounded by a forest of interlocked components, some reaching to the ceiling, some hugging the ground, others twisting into intricate patterns. They reminded him obliquely of the wiring diagrams he’d studied in back issues of Nuts & Volts. That was one thing about Gerd’s shop: Wait long enough, it seemed to Tucky, and the world would come to you, in one form or another.
He’d even met Carla there — when her grandfather’s clock radio needed some work. She’d looked cute that day, her dark eyes full of mistrust. A few days later, those same eyes had flashed with laughter when Tucky demonstrated the repaired clock for her. If he’d left it at that, his memory of her would have been just that moment, with her bright, beautiful soul smiling into his. Instead, he’d been stupid enough to ask her out to the movies at the Ohio Theater. Now Tucky’s last memory of Carla was the sight of her chestnut brown hair, streaming in the miserable, light drizzle of a gray September afternoon as she ran away from him as fast as possible.
Legs aching, he stood up stiffly and stumbled into the shopfront to make coffee. A dull pain menaced the back of his neck and no wonder. He’d been up half the night, fitting the components together into … he didn’t know what. Now all the pieces were accounted for, except a glowing, oddball sphere that he’d never noticed before. By all appearance, it wasn’t designed to connect with the rest of the components. But once the majority of the components had snapped together, it began to blink. Over a period of twenty minutes or so, it emitted series of different phosphorescent colors, before settling into the same milky white glare that emanated from the tablet. From there, the shifting pattern colors would begin again with minor variations.
Coffee mug in hand, Tucky felt his head clearing. He looked out over the hundreds of “sculptures” now littering the back room and sensed there was something wrong about them. Instinct — or was it the tablet? — told him the components would stay an incoherent pile of junk until he figured out how to use the sphere. Though he hoped he could turn to the tablet for help, he was disappointed. It now sat on his workbench, silent, dark.
Had it run out of charge? Yet as he held it to one ear, he made out the tiniest rumble of power running through it. Strangely, it reminded him more of his own pulse than the grind of gears or the whir of a motor. The next second, the barely audible sound was drowned out by a set of knuckles, rapping sharply on the shop’s front door. A young woman’s voice called out.
“Mr. Calloway?” said the voice. Embarrassed, Tucky set his cup down, raced to the back room and stepped into the worn denims he’d left at the foot of the cot. After a half-hearted attempt to comb his hair with both hands, he rushed to the door. What, he wondered, was making his breathing so labored?
At the door was a seriously beautiful face, punctuated by a pair of searching eyes that flickered with a life of their own, independent of the taut, graceful torso that hovered beneath them. An objective observer might have thought she was a dancer — or a leopard — in disguise. Tucky reached out for the doorknob and swung the door open with surprising ferocity.
“Shop’s closed,” he growled.
“Mr. Calloway,” the woman said, “I’m Olga Gestirn. My mother thought you might need some help … with the components.”
“Your mother told me to bury them,” snarled Tucky, “did you bring a shovel?”
But the young woman’s piercing eyes could not be discouraged.
“You don’t even know what you have in there,” she said.
“That’s my problem,” said Tucky. “Tell your mom I’m ripping up the check.”
He pushed the warped wooden door shut. He wanted no interference, no one to hog the credit if he succeeded. But as he turned to toward the back room, a soft scraping sound near the door caught his ear. Olga Gestirn’s voice reached him the door’s thin window panes.
“I’m leaving you my business card,” she said. “I’m here to help, Mr. Calloway, you have to believe me.”
“I don’t have to,” mumbled Tucky, as he headed for the shop’s back room.
Suddenly exhausted, he threw himself down on his cot and let his eyelids flutter shut — only to see Olga’s eyes staring back at him. He jumped up, and hurried to the dormant tablet on his workbench, with the idea of switching it back on. But none of his experience with frayed coils and fried transistors was of any use. There wasn’t so much as a USB port he could test with his Ohm meter.
The sphere, on the other hand, was flashing more intensely than ever. Tucky walked back into Gerd’s office and held it in the palms of both hands. He carried the reddish-brown ball to his workbench, and tried to make sense of the tiny characters that ran along its circumference. He took a jeweler’s loop from the rack to the left of the workbench, peered at them and nearly dropped the inscrutable device to the floor.
Freakin’ characters actually make sense now, he thought
“Caution,” he said aloud, or at least that’s what he intended to say. But instead of English, the word had come out as a growling screech. Tucky peered down again through the loop and saw there was more to the message.
“Caution:” he read again, “Quantum interface coordinates must be accurate to within 0.0001 raal (Krelm)”
Tucky’s spirits sank. Quantum Interface Coordinates? Here, in the very epicenter of Nowhere, a guy at the end of his rope was receiving a message from some … intelligence … he couldn’t hope to understand. Solve this riddle, make a name for himself? Pure fantasy. He set the sphere down on his bench, picked up Inga’s check from the milk crate by his cot and wondered if he was wrong to be so stubborn. With enough time and enough of Inga’s money, he could finish college, anywhere that would take him, even if it meant taking one course a term.
But if he had any hope of thinking this through, he’d have to leave Gerd’s shop. By now, the light from the sphere had shifted into a kaleidoscopic display of rapidly pulsing patterns, that took up more and more of Tucky’s field of vision. He shielded his eyes and rushed out into the shopfront to answer the battered rotary phone on Gerd’s front desk, surprised to find it was still connected.
“The quantum modulator is overloading.” said the strangely calm voice on the other end of the line. “I can see the energy spikes from across the street.”
“So?” said Tucky. He covered his eyes again as the light from the sphere in the back room grew more intense.
“So how badly do you want to die?” the voice said.
Tucky’s voice caught in his throat.
“Don’t even go there,” he said.
A second later, Olga Gestirn jolted the shop door open.
“Come on, Mr. Calloway,” she said. “If you want to commit suicide that’s your problem. But you’ll be taking half the town with you.”
The lithe young woman pushed past him and hustled into the back room of the shop, where the sphere now projected a wall of harsh, shimmering light. Dazed, Tucky watched as she grabbed the sphere and twisted its top half as if it were no more than the combination lock on his gym locker back at Carroll County High. Instantly, the light emanating from the sphere began to pale, shrink and fade, until at last Tucky could see into the back room again.
Olga tossed the sphere with a clang down onto some metal shelving that was jammed against the south wall of the room, and flung herself down on the cot. Tucky’s mind raced back to his memory of Carla just a few weeks ago before … everything … had unraveled. He drew a quick breath at he sight of her, stretched out diagonally across the tousled sheets. Her voice was silky, calm, angelic.
“I saved your life,” she said. as he walked into the room, “I hope you know that.”
“What I know,” he said, “is the sphere only started acting up after you left.”
Olga’s staring eyes made his body tense, and sent a wave of sensual warmth running right through him.
She stood up, looking dejected.
“You think it’s my fault?” she asked. “You think I did this to hurt you?”
“It’s the only explanation,” said Tucky, as forcefully as he could with his heart going into overdrive.
“No it’s not,” said Olga. She moved in close and rested her forearms on his broad shoulders. “But I apologize anyway.”
Olga’s kiss burrowed into Tucky’s lips with a wave of tingling sensations, leaving him shuddering and desperate for more. Minutes later, he couldn’t remember how long they’d held that embrace before collapsing on the cot, hair tangling, hands tugging at stubborn buttons.
Mark Laporta is the author of Probability Shadow and Entropy Refraction, the first two novels in the science fiction series, Against the Glare of Darkness, which are available at a bookstore near you, on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. He is also the author of Orbitals: Journeys to Future Worlds, a collection of short science fiction, which is available as an ebook.