Excerpt for Perfect Timing by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Perfect Timing

Jeffery J. Smith

Published by Rogue Phoenix Press for Smashwords

Copyright © 2017

ISBN 978-1-62420-321-3

Electronic rights reserved by Rogue Phoenix Press, all other rights reserved by the author. The reproduction or other use of any part of this publication without the prior written consent of the rights holder is an infringement of the copyright law. This is a work of fiction. People and locations, even those with real names, have been fictionalized for the purposes of this story.

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To Delaney Amati Smith

Chapter One

Hotel & Mansion: So Busy, Becoming an Accidental Busybody

The image of a bellhop perches first on one leg then the other by the edge of a roof of a downtown skyscraper. Gazing downward, with both hands he raises a golf club over his head. The scene occurs on a large monitor.

Far below, the people look like a school of minnows flitting across the downtown central plaza. Others resemble tufts of beach grass clumped around street performers break dancing or juggling. The bellhop arches his back.

In a darkened laboratory, two wide-eyed technicians wearing white coats watch the monitor. In grainy color, the young man bends and stretches. Mouths agape, the viewers take notes and wipe their brows.

"This is your candidate?" the taller researcher says. "This golfer? Crik Duvall?"

The shorter one nods. "He's a bellhop, too."

~ * ~

At the wall atop the city's tallest hotel, Crik in the hotel's uniform lowers his club. The height does not frighten him, rather, the view always intrigues him. People sure look little, Crik thinks. Must be how landlords see us.

Crik takes a few practice swings. He steps back from the edge and tees up. He drives a Whiffle golf ball into the air without a hitch. The headwind blows the hollow ball back to him. He catches it. Yes! He replaces the plastic ball on the tee — yo-yo golf.

Lifting his bellhop cap, Crik runs his fingers through bleached streaks. Yo-yo golf will challenge enthusiasts of all nations, even become an Olympic event. I could pay down my tuition. Even help Randy with his debt. How dumb, messing with dudes from the vodka importers convention. What'd he know about ostrich racing anyway?

Crik's knuckles are tattooed with esoteric symbols. A stud twinkles in one ear but no weighty choker worries his swing. He's up to twenty-three straight successful drives-then-catches, closing in on his personal best.

The word "Fore!" rings out from a phone in his pocket, but he ignores it.

Steadying himself, Crik cocks his club for another swing and drives the white ball into the onrushing breeze.


Crik blinks. The plastic dot sails past him, into the void. Zippers.

"Whenever you don't answer your phone, I know where to find you."

Crik looks over his shoulder, resting the club on his other one.

Randy lets the door close behind him. "My man, break be over." Also a bellhop, Randy has his cap is on backwards. As he crosses the roof, his body lags behind his head, his neck nearly level.

Like offering his empty melon to a guillotine, poor sucker. Crik takes out a twenty-dollar bill. "Another big date before next payday, bro?"

"Man, you are like family." Randy takes the note.

~ * ~

"'Crik'. That short for cricket?" People always ask.

No, Crik was named Crik because Brook was already taken; his older brother got named that.

"Oh, I get it," the hotel manager said when interviewing Crik, "Creek."

Crik nodded. His hair waved, didn't curl, despite him being the black sheep of the family. "Yeah, Crik."

Crik is too busy to finish college. How many decades would it take to pay off the student loan — a necklace of stone — anyway? Especially with good friends unable to budget themselves. Better to have a fun job. Make money and enjoy life.

~ * ~

In the gloomy laboratory, tall Dr. Alvin Ultra and his short assistant Yuri Ivanov, both middle-aged, emit gasps and wag their heads, jotting down notes.

The monitor, thin as a sheet, hangs from a ceiling in a high corner. It's cabled to a device shaped like an oversized dog biscuit with a sharp point like a syringe, big as a sled, some parts shiny, some opaque. Colored wires twist and run to other odd-shaped devices that whir and jerk.

Crik hides his club on the ledge beyond the perimeter wall.

Dr. Ultra glances at Yuri. "Neither of these two has indicated any interest in social evolution, never mind founding an entirely new way of viewing the world."

Under his beret and bushy eyebrows, Yuri shrugs. "Destinon said to check out this moment."

~ * ~

The two bellhops enter the hotel's darkened conference hall. It's packed like a tent revival on the eve of the Second Coming. Of course. Who hates money?

Strains of Wagner's majestic movements accompany the big-screen video of unabashed luxury: Acres of vineyards remind Crik of the south of France where he'd backpacked one summer. A sleek car barely looking street-legal swerves through hills.

"Tesla Roadster," Crik whispers to Randy. "0 to 60 in 3.7."

On the screen, a limousine grand enough for comfortably hosting small celebrations sits in the driveway of a mansion with the long lines of Frank Lloyd Wright draped over a seaside cliff. Inside, fashion models adorned with jewelry befriend vain hosts sipping champagne. Famous paintings hang on the walls.

Crik leans over to his pal. "I've a print of that Van Gogh."

"With his autograph?" Randy whispers.

Crik frowns. "Ethics teaches us virtue is its own reward."

Randy frowns. "Economics teaches that reward is its own virtue."

My reward would be to never get another bill, late notice, or harassing phone call.

A sharp-dressed salesman in a flawless Armani suit strides onstage. His shiny hair neatly styled, Julian Seizure keeps his posture erect and full-chested, as would a cocksure general before his troops. His blistering smile stretches his narrow-featured face.

Seizure fires his words forcefully and pounds the air with a fist, keeping time with his avarice. "Andrew Carnegie, a billionaire back when a dime bought you a complete breakfast, noted, and I quote: 'It takes hard work to amass a fortune in industry, but any fool can get rich in real estate.'"

Perking up, Randy whispers to Crik, "Did he say any fool?" His eyebrows bounce up and down.

The big screen shows slender beauties gliding in Olympic-size pools and robust businessmen driving golf balls a mile down the links. The pitchman exhales. "The old boy nailed it. Nothing else comes close to how much people pay over the course of their lives for a place to live. Directly or indirectly, a big part of everyone's spending goes to a lease or mortgage."

The sea of heads nod in assent. The speaker opens his hands in empathy. "Since all of us have been foolish at least once …"

Amid the sea of heads, only Randy bobs agreeably — until he sees nobody else owning up and slinks lower into his seat.

"Why are we not all very well off?" The instant-riches guru taps his skull. "Foresight." Seizure stares down his audience. "It's not speculation when you see what's coming."

Crik snorts. Too good to be true. "Why can't telling the unvarnished truth work to sell?"

"I believe!" Randy says.

"Time to go, bro." Crik tugs his friend's sleeve. "I've a better idea. You think Seizure plays golf?"

~ * ~

On the giant, wafer-thin monitor, hotel employees in a locker room change clothes and joke around. Somebody plays rave. Another paints his nails black.

The two observers fixate on the events above. Dr. Ultra, a slim man, twirls his curling sideburns. Yuri, whose mis-buttoned lab coat makes one side higher than the other, lets his mouth hang open.

The pointed cylinder sits on a counter. It's covered in tubes and wires. A lone bookcase has one book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn.

"We must enjoy the abundance, brothers. It's real." Dutch boy Shane doesn't need to shave but does.

"Too good to be true." Randy needs to shave but doesn't.

"Our civic duty." The Shane image extends to the Randy image a clipboard with a sheet on it. "For more pay and fewer hours."

Yawning, Crik slowly undresses. "Sweet. Even better than the real estate guru."

Randy barely glances at the petition. "I've signed dozens."

"Not the most enthusiastic response," one of the scientists says.

Randy wears threadbare pants, billowy shirt, and a vest. He puts on a rubbery skullcap that makes him look bald.

"A curious way to conduct business," notes the other observer.

The co-workers regard Randy skeptically. "What? Her preferences said she swoons for shiny, smooth tops." The others roll their eyes.

In the dim light, the researchers each raise an eyebrow, exchange a glance, and write feverishly.

~ * ~

Cologne scents the air.

Shane taps the clipboard. "So, No Paddle, can I get your signature?"

"Sure, I'm not using it."

Crik aims a finger at his co-workers. "Can I get your life savings? You are entering cutthroat golf, right? Saturday." Both nod. "Get lots of sleep. You'll need it."

"Sleep?" Shane asks. "Not tonight. I need you at another gala."

"I'm done. I'll watch some Monty Python … doze off." Slouching, Crik checks his reflection. With his forefingers, he pushes up the corners of his mouth.

Crik stares past his image in the mirror, into his hopes for the future. Catering the mansion — extra bucks, fresh connections, maybe even a cuddly one. Can exhaustion get in the way of rubbing elbows with the high and mighty who could fund a deal?

He holds up a tux on a hanger. The pressed suit looks sharp but he doesn't, not with dark circles under his eyes. "Rank, you want the extra bucks?"

Randy snaps a towel at Crik. "The fun's just begun."

In a vast salon of high ceilings, ladies in gowns and pompadours laugh; some hold masks before their faces. Julian Seizure and a knot of gentlemen in tuxedos exclaim loudly. Seizure wears a Roman soldier's breastplate and leather kilt: the others are topped off with powdered wigs. A string quintet plays Vivaldi.

Crik ferries delicate morsels and bubbly drinks to the costumed guests. Somebody wants to invest in a dynamic young guy brimming with fresh ideas? Which one has a measly million for a wind tunnel to practice yo-yo golf?

Humming the baroque melody, Crik unloads empty crystal glasses from his tray.

Shane tends bar, decked out in the same dark suit, minus the jacket. A professional drink slinger, he moves his hands and arms as fast as a magician mixing shells and a pea. His words, too, come rapid-fire, brooking no interruption. "Thanks for working a double. Wise move, man, leaving college for gigs like this." Shane nods at their surroundings.

Framed paintings hang between tall windows with florid trim. The polished furniture supports expensive baubles. Thick rugs cover wood floors.

"Imagine being the one to inherit this? Help yourself to the caviar."

Crik snarfs a gob.

Shane pops the cork off a bottle of Vueve Clicot. "What is it with guys like Otten, who can afford to pay on time, but pay late?"

"Quit busting your balls about money when you're waltzing knee deep in it. Everywhere you look — investors."

Since the last posh reception, Edgar Otten, the owner, has added a clock of golden moving parts within a glass bubble to his collection of antique clocks — grandfather clock, sand clock, and water clock.

Crik gazes at a half-naked statue. A woman younger than the rest sparkles in her bling and perfect orthodontics. The rich and beautiful can be as susceptible as anyone else. Crik serves a tapa to the marble figure, making the living lady giggle. She's no Ellen (may she come to her senses), but she is playful. Tilting her way, inhaling her perfume, Crik lowers his voice. "Introduce me to your rich daddy, let him invest in my latest invention, and someday I, too, will have my own cuckoo clock."

Clucking her tongue, the damsel moves her forefinger and thumb like the hands of a clock. "There are some soiled flutes in the master. Would you mind fetching them?" She bats her eyes.

Clean up on aisle … Pay my dues. Close the class gap. Keep hope alive. Sales always take a few attempts.

~ * ~

The image of Crik carries an empty tray into the master bedroom, and a thin beam on the other side of the room goes out.

Yuri nudges his boss, Dr. Ultra. "The race to find our Founder is as good as over, sir. You've won!"

Crik's image flicks on a wall switch, revealing an immense room: a majestic four-poster bed with its carved footboard, a big screen TV, a large executive desk — and Seizure closing the door of a wall safe with his gloved hands.

Dr. Ultra jabs his bony finger at his helper. "You programmed the chronoscope to look back further than it ever has, to find the very first meeting of our Founders, and you show me this?"

"Just following Destinon's suggestions, sir." On tiptoes, Yuri tilts the monitor. "They haven't seated themselves, so no meeting has started yet."

Crik's jaw drops. "Oh. Harvest time." He takes a deep breath. "Well, I can see there's no dirty dishes in here."

Crik turns to go.

"Aht-aht-ah." From his breastplate, Seizure pulls out a chrome pistol.

Yuri taps his pursed lips. "I can see how my search command might find a burglary as the launch of our era of prosperity, but how does armed robbery inaugurate peace?"

"It doesn't, you amoeba!" Dr. Ultra throws up his hands. "Your search command had bad parameters! Cheap chips." He inhales deeply then mouths counting down from ten.

"Waiter, your timing is impeccable. Before you go, your fingerprints will prove useful."

"We should try another suggestion," Ultra says.

Yuri taps the remote against his palm. "The tension is so captivating."

"I'm shocked," Crik says. "You seemed so civilized. Like an ancient Roman."

Their voices sound tinny, like coming from a speaker.

"And he sounds earnest," Yuri adds.

In the monitor, Seizure's smile reveals rows of large chalk-white teeth. He waves Crik closer.

Ultra shakes his head. "Get us back to serious business."

Crik shakes his head. "Don't you want to get gone before the silent alarm brings help?"

Seizure's smile fades. He glances at the safe, then the door. "Good point. I should knock the true burglar unconscious. If caught on camera, that'll look good on the news." He raises his gun above Crik's skull.

Yuri aims the remote at the screen, then pulls it back, then aims again.

On the monitor, the bedroom door opens. Mr. Otten, dressed for a safari, bounds in, armed with a double-barrel, pump-action shotgun. About sixty, white hair puffed up, he looks like a patriarch on a daytime soap. He exudes an energy that renders his wrinkles meaningless. His designer shotgun is engraved with "Three Musketeers" in gold. His lips curl.

Dr. Ultra covers his mouth. "Barbarous! That must be loaded with real bullets!"

Holding his chrome pistol over Crik, Seizure aims it at Crik's head. "It was only by good fortune that I followed this suspicious character in here."

Yuri waves the remote. "May it be our good fortune, too."

"Me?" Crik yanks Seizure's breastplate. A stack of bills peeps out from below the armor.

"You crook, you're supposed to fleece others!" Otten's voice, too, sounds filtered.

Ultra and Yuri watch enraptured, breath abated. The assistant begs his boss to boost the display from flat images to holograms and tosses him a remote. The senior scientist flinches, pointing out the machine is already taking more power than ever.

Yuri tips his beret. "Chalk up another first for us."

Poking the bills back into place, Seizure lowers his handgun.

Otten cocks his shotgun at the much smaller weapon. "You want to drop that toy."

Crik inches backwards. "You two be perfect gentlemen."

Otten pumps his shotgun at both suspects. "On your knees, both of you." He casts the barrel of his shotgun up and down. "The law says I can splatter your brains all over my Persian carpet."

"No, sir, I believe you're mistaken." Crik tugs at his collar. "That would be a desecration of Islam."

Otten scowls at the rug then aims his gun at Crik. "You. Call 911. Tell them to come pick up the bodies."

Dr. Ultra peeks between his fingers then slowly lowers his hands from his face. Stubby Yuri mimics the slender Crik who is unhooking his phone from his belt. "Please, Dr. Ultra. It's like you're making us watch this in black-and-white."

Seizure dives behind a tall burgundy armchair. His chrome-plated pistol whips up above the back of the armchair and pivots like a submarine's periscope, but unsteadily as if in rough seas. Otten — eyes wild, mouth agape — slinks backward.

"Sir, the greater realism of three dimensions would honor our nation's two hundredth anniversary."

Ultra nods in agreement. "However, no permit for extra power has been granted."

Otten sweeps his shotgun from side to side. "Freeze."

Time to be a hero. Phone in one hand, Crik cocks his arm with the tray.

"We practically have it," Yuri pleads. "It's in the email. All Geotopia would be so grateful."

The lead scientist shifts his weight, trying to find the comfort zone on his chaise-lounge.

Crik throws the round tray like a Frisbee toward the pistol as he dives for the space beneath the desk.

Roaring in panic, Otten and Seizure aim at the leaping Crik.

"Well," Ultra clicks the remote. "I guess another Hertz couldn't—"

The image of Crik freezes in mid-leap. Colors fade, leaving shades of grey, flashing back and forth from positive to negative. What the?

A sudden brilliance floods the screen. The chronoscope hisses, a sound reverberating into a deep roar, then pops. The lights go out. All is black.

Yuri's voice completes his boss' sentence. "—hurt."

Some lamps come back on. In the murkiness, the huge, slim monitor is cracked and blackened. The large syringe-shaped device smokes, spilling its mechanical guts.

Covered in ash, Yuri holds his beret over his nose and waves at the grey haze. "At least the walls are still standing."

Dr. Ultra, mouth agape, pats his smoldering hair. "Go. Just go."

Chapter Two

Foyer & Cellar: From Chaos to Clarity … sort of

Beneath the desk in the master bedroom, vapor rises from Crik's back. He lies still, arms wrapped around his head, phone clutched in one hand. His heart races, his thoughts scatter. He pokes his bleach-streaked head out above the desk, like a dazed prairie dog from its dusty burrow. "Gentlemen?"

Sunshine slams in from the window. Crik winces. Daytime? Already? He runs his tongue over his palate. Did I black out? For hours? The room has a musty aroma. Why'd they just leave me here? Crik brushes off his suit. This is a first — waking up alone, in a fabulous mansion, in a man's bedroom — on the floor.

Crik tries his cell phone to see if anyone can come pick him up. It won't work. Don't charge it for one night and it dies. Cheap piece of …

Outside the window of a corridor, the trees and hedges look familiar, but … fuller. A scooter glides by without wheels. Crik whistles. Magnetic levitation? Rich guys and their toys. He's disappointed with himself for not keeping up with tech breakthroughs. But cheers up. Good thing some people are rich. They can pony up the starter cash.

At the top of the wide staircase, Crik looks both ways. If I'm ever going to do it, now's my chance. Hands in the air, he slides down the banister.

In the spacious foyer, Crik spots a pink plant. "Unpumpkinbelievable — bonsai gone bonkers!" The flower is a face! "Bloodthirsty lord of the manor, Miser Otten."

"That's Mister Otten to you."


At the entry of the foyer of dark wood panels, a young woman stands, arms folded, one hand aiming a watering can like a fencer's foil.

"Is that can loaded?" Crik lowers his arms.

"With repellent". Her hair in spikes, she looks about Crik's age. Shorts and blouse cover an exquisite pelt of a cheetah from head to toe. The triangle ears and long white whiskers accentuate her exotic beauty.

More stunning than anything on a Broadway stage. But too old for dressing up

"Out!" she says. "This part is private. Only the other half is a museum."

Relieved to be getting off easy, Crik ambles doorward. Otten must've designated part of his mini palace as a museum so he could get a tax write-off. Miser Otten fits.

Researcher Ivanov enters from a side hall. "He's mad at me again, Tepper." Yuri's in his burned beret and badly buttoned lab coat.

The young woman's eyes twinkle. "And it's still early."

Do they live together? Niece kitty and Uncle Igor? Crik sniffs the air. Burnt plastic? This stubby guy knows a beauty in a cat suit, and smells like that? Crik pulls the front door open.

In the distance, a tall slender structure that reminds Crik of Seattle's Space Needle dominates the skyline. When did that go up? Crik turns to Yuri. "You recognize that building? I thought I knew this town like the sag in my sofa."

"Which would be in your own home."

Witty. Like Ellen. Why'd that fizzle when it seemed like it was going to soar?

Tepper turns to Yuri. "He's another amateur history buff slash intruder."

Straightening his tie, Crik clarifies. "Neither. Another caterer slash late riser who missed his paycheck and his ride out of here." He nods at Yuri. "You want to split a cab?"

"You overslept where?" Tepper's ears twitch.

"If you can call it sleep. I don't feel the least bit rested."

Jaw fallen, Yuri points at the intruder. "Caterer? Here?" Yuri snaps his fingers.

A vaporous green light emerges from his thumbnail and condenses. It's a hologram of Dr. Ultra, about half life-size. "Just leave, Yuri!"

Crik steps back. "Bedazzled!" This meta-cutting-edge gadgetry had to cost a fortune. He passes a hand through the head above Yuri's thumb. It ducks. Crik whistles under his breath. "This is like a quantum leap! When did it come out? Where can I get one?"

Tepper steps closer to Crik. "Helloooh. Welcome to the twenty-second century."

Crik tilts his head. "Uh, I think you might've counted an extra claw on your paw?" Easy to do in this ritzy palace: hologram, phenomenal disguise, facial flower, mag-lev scooter.

Yuri, holding the hologram of Ultra, tiptoes around the caterer, inspecting. Crik chuckles. They look at me like I'm some sort of exotic specimen. The super-rich really are out of touch with us regular people.

Suddenly the hologram of Dr. Ultra and Yuri gasp and grab their foreheads. The hologram runs both hands through its ethereal hair. Yuri twists his beret around 360 degrees. He extends a forefinger toward Crik, stops, starts to touch him again, stops. Ultra points at the intruder. "Holy hazy! He's here!"

"Worse! He's now!" Yuri twirls around as if spun by a phantom dance partner.

Have these lunatics lost it? Crik turns toward the door. "And … he's gone."

A poke in the chest halts Crik, part of him enjoying cheetah girl's assertive contact.

Tepper's tail swishes. "Exactly who is here now?"

Holographic Ultra surveys their surroundings, panting. "Reality's still the same."

"What will the Directorate say?" Yuri yells at Ultra.

They seem so earnest. Is there a hidden camera?

A stoop-shouldered butler in a black jacket takes up position by interior doors. He stares discretely into space. Despite his age, his skin resembles porcelain, pale and unblemished.

He at least seems sane, not part of this, this what, charade?

"Andrei, rest now." Dr. Ultra waves forward like a platoon leader. "Yuri, bring him down to return ASAP."

"Why? What is it?" Tepper blinks, looking as confused as Crik.

The hologram of Ultra gulps. "It's, it's."

"A secret," Yuri wails.

"He's changing." Ultra nods. "Cosmic radiation. Very bad."

Crik holds out a palm, as if checking for raindrops. Crazies, but they sound so certain.

"Sensory deprivation!" Ultra barks. "This instant!"

Tepper swivels her ears. "What's he done?"

"Did you really just swivel your ears?" Crik throws out his hands in bewilderment. Is everyone having a mass hallucination? He grabs through the hologram. "What is going on here?" He examines his empty hands. Am I losing it? I'm jawing with a freaking wisp of color.

Tepper lays a reassuring hand on Crik's shoulder. "They'll explain it. To both of us."

Cheetah-girl needs to know, too. Those lab-coated guys better make this good.

Tepper tugs his elbow.

Crik regards the familiar yet different landscape beyond the front door. I'll go along with their absurdity with my own. He holds up his elbow with Tepper's hand. "Am I under arrest?" His eyebrows flutter like Groucho Marx's. "I like handcuffs. Do you like handcuffs?"

She pokes his arm with a claw.

"OK, immature," Crik says. "But, hey, you're the one dressed in fur."

Tepper marches Crik forward. "An intruder. The Directorate. Crazy."

The corridor's high arched, curtained windows give a view of a hedge and circular driveway. The plush carpet silences their footstep. Whoever cleaned up last night left nothing amiss.

Crik takes in his escorts: cat girl, stubby lab techie, and a hologram with a pompadour. "So, what makes this place tick?"

"You don't know?" Yuri looks disappointed.

"What am I supposed to know?"

Dr. Ultra's hologram yanks Yuri's sleeve. "Not a word. He's returning as ignorant as when he arrived." He glances at Crik. "I told you he wasn't the one."

"The one you'd been looking for?" Tepper's whiskers quiver.

The hologram of Ultra swallows.

Yuri nods. "The biggest breakthrough in centuries. Dr. Murky will eat his heart out."

Tepper's fur stands up. She aims a thumb at Crik. "Him? From the past? For real?"

"Wait." Crik holds up his hands. "Wait, wait." He peers at the others. "Did I hear … did you say … ?"

Ultra's hologram wrings its hands. "There can be no other logical explanation."

Crik stops in his tracks, hands on hips. "What explanation?"

Squealing, Yuri scampers behind Tepper, grabbing her watering can as a weapon, staggering her.

"Guilt, fear, anger. So retro." Tepper peers into Crik's face. "You do convey that era masterfully."

And they're pulling off this hoax masterfully. Crik regards the three. "Did Mr. Otten put you up to this?"

She clasps his arm again. "You knew him?" Tepper appraises the anxious scientists. "A true time traveler?"

Crik's jaw drops as if weighted by lead, his eyes fly open like corks popping. His thoughts jam then explode in every direction. "Get the … what? Did I hear …"

The two researchers nod at Crik and Tepper.

Crik tries to laugh but can't. He confronts Tepper. "Did you say … Could you repeat … ?" His face freezes. The others do look sincere. This has to be the best set up of all time. "This is un … this is way … it's beyond any …"

"You surprised us, too." Dr. Ultra motions them forward.

Crik shakes his head. Dear god, am I losing my mind? Was the caviar spiked? The fatigue must be getting to me bad. He stops drumming his temples and reexamines the others. Wherever I am, is it safe? He halts. The others pause. Why me? What was I supposed to know? I need at least a clue.

"This way." Tepper leads Crik down a wide, curling stairway.

"I demand proof of your claims."

"We can prove where you are," Ultra says. "Can you prove who you were?"

In a dank hallway, ceiling lights surge on and off as the party of four passes below. Darkness reclaims the space behind them and cloaks it ahead. Whoever they are, Crik thinks, they don't waste energy.

"Pastian," holographic Ultra says, "you're a living fossil. A scientific curiosity."

"Who's absolutely curious to know what's going on."

Tepper grins. "Solving enigmas is fun. It exhilarates." Her chest pushes taut against her cheetah-wear.

Crik glances her way. Indeed it does.

Tepper locks her feline gaze on the intruder. "Are you truly the one who first formulated geonomics?"

"Or proto-geonomics?" Yuri asks.

"Can you articulate that," Ultra asks, "even if in your own terms?"

Crik shakes his rattled brains. "You're kidding, right? I don't even know who you are."

Yuri nods toward cat girl. "Dear Tepper is an up-and-coming historian in her own right."

Who wears fur.

Dr. Ultra agrees. "She's highly qualified. And very punctilious."

"Ouch. I once had that." Crik's ear stud twinkles.

The Futurites scratch their heads.

Crik runs a hand along the wall. "You're asking me about geonomics? Why couldn't you ask about major stuff, like yo-yo golf?"

Dr. Ultra's hologram frowns. "Not another duffer."

Yuri dips his cap. "We'd love to hear you expound on your era while we're working."

"All you'd hear is wha'? wha'? wha'?" Crik squeezes his skull.

Tepper elbows the visitor. "We are serious about science."

"And genealogy," Yuri nods at her.

Tepper juts out her jaw. "You'd help yourself, too."


"If you can't prove you were the founder, you're surely the biggest mistake these notable scientists have ever made or ever will make."

"Cheap chips, she's right!" Yuri wails. "We must inform the Directorate!"

"Thanks. Sort of like your kiddy costume." Crik tugs down his jacket sleeves.

"You two brought him through time?" Tepper's tail swishes. "I should know better than to expect intellectual rigor from a Pastian."

Yuri holds Dr. Ultra up higher. "This crisis begs the Dear Learneds' leadership, sir."

"Rigor? We, uh, Pastians, call it nosey."

"Stop arguing. We must keep calm, calm, calm!" holographic Dr. Ultra shouts.

At the end of the hall, Tepper uses her thumbprint to unlock a metal door. She pulls the thick slab open and waves the others in. Crik steps aside.

Crossing the threshold, Yuri brings the holograph of Ultra closer to his face. "The Dear Learneds, they must rule immediately!"

Tepper ushers Crik, who hesitates briefly, past the foot-thick door into the basement laboratory, like an attendant in a nursing home helping an elderly gentleman back to his room after his morning airing.

Dr. Ultra closes the heavy door. He and his hologram growl at Yuri in unison. "You mind shutting that thing off?"

Yuri hurriedly squeezes his thumb into his fist and the hologram evaporates.

Ultra's minimal social grace, his beaked nose, and his disheveled hair grant the scientist an air of aloofness. He reminds Crik of an old chemistry professor who made class torture. Another reason it was stupid to go into debt for a piece of paper called a diploma.

"This is where we extract information," Tepper says.

The room is loaded with machinery, tools, and parts, but lacks a window. It appears to be a fallout shelter, leftover from the Cold War. Throw in the shotgun and alarm system and it adds up to Otten being a survivalist.

"In here," Yuri says, "our cells receive less cosmic radiation."

"My cells lap that stuff up." Crik's eyes dart about as he dries his palms on his pants. Are these people dangerous? Do they only act like buffoons, but really dissect visitors who overslept?

The aroma of burnt plastic fills the air. A bare space on a wall, no different from the rest of the wall except it's framed, shows Crik and burglar Julian Seizure confronting one another. Seizure flashes his toothy grin.

Yuri twists his beret. "What'd they eat back then? Wood?"

"Maybe," Crik says. "But first I need answers."

Ultra turns his penetrating eyes upon Crik. "Founder?" He looks to his colleagues.

"You tell me," Crik says.

Tepper claps twice at the space in the wall, then turns around, facing Crik. Behind her, holograms appear from the middle of the framed space. Characters in 3D dash about a backyard while the music of Three Blind Mice plays. Tepper tosses her thumb over her shoulder. "Look familiar?" A hologram of a hefty lady on a patio runs into and rebounds off a glass door.

Crik rubs his chin. "Mm, my mom? Mm, no, no."

Eyebrows knitted, Tepper pirouettes toward the scene. "What the … ?"

Yuri whistles shrilly. The hologramic scene changes. To a soaring melody, a dollar bill with wings migrates from a wallet labeled YOR AKÆONT over a stylized city skyline to a pot of gold labeled ÆOR TRE∂RI beneath a caption that reads AUTUMÆTIK BIO PEI / LÆND DOZ.

The three inquisitors peer at Crik who peers back and shrugs. "I need more than that. Tell me what's going on." Crik runs a finger along the blackened, syringe-like device with its insides spilled onto the counter. "What's this thing do? Burn dinner?"

Scowling, Dr. Ultra aims the remote at the scene. Those holograms dissipate, replaced by holograms of subatomic particles. "Matter and energy together are mattergy, all waves. Time, too, has infinite frequencies. The one humans can receive is the present. My chronoscope can tune in blue frequencies and view the past."

"This very building," Yuri adds, "centuries ago."

Dr. Ultra glares at Yuri. His helper picks up a tool and, whistling tunelessly, busies himself attacking the disabled machine. Ultra confesses. "I amplified an attraction between this viewing equipment," he nods toward the chronoscope, "and the viewed." He nods toward the intruder. "The result: time travel."

Barely breathing, Crik stares at the others, the machinery, and the projected holographs totally, incredibly realistic. That means … this could be real. He frowns at the pair of scientists. "I got sucked out of my time by accident?"

"And for our accidental sucking, we heartily apologize." Yuri removes his beret and, grabbing his boss, bends the two of them over together in a co-bow.

Ultra unbends himself. "Mr. Duvall, some of the top discoveries ever were accidental."

Yuri puffs up with pride. "All of Dr. Ultra's were."

"And not a minute too soon." Crik cocks a thumb then blows the imaginary smoke off the tip of his forefinger.

Tepper tilts her head at Ultra and Yuri who exchange glances.

"The impact upon the space-time continuum … we can only guess." Ultra swallows hard. Yuri bites his lip. Tepper narrows her eyes.

Is it safe here? Crik takes in the ruptured chronoscope. Almighty muthuh, am I marooned? He swallows hard. "Let's say I am here. How'm I supposed to get back?"

Tilting his cap back, Yuri pats the chronoscopic wreckage. "Your ride home." He flips a switch with no results. "The culmination of Dr. Ultra's life's work."

Zeus' juices. My return is in their hands? He registers Yuri's badly buttoned coat, Ultra's piercing, close-set eyes. He frowns at the machine. "In that wreck? No way. Call me a cab, sonny."

Dr. Ultra huffs.

What do they want from me? Crik juts out his jaw. "But why were you watching me?"

"To understand how society evolves," Ultra says, "from your hunger, war, crime, and pollution to our present paradise. How does an idea go from being one person's vision to being the worldview of an entire society? What made that paradigm-shift possible?"

Tepper nods. "What was special about the idea and its originator?"

"We have trillions of hours of images of people in public places," Yuri says, "but none of that cutting-edge person discussing, exploring, debating, drawing others into their circle, creating the nucleus that later became a movement."

Crik slides onto the chaise-lounge. Maybe after a nap, everything will be back to normal.

Ultra paces back and forth. "We're not after the person who became famous for leading the parade, but the unsung hero who struck the first match of enlightenment, the one out of billions who assembled the parade."

"Like finding the source of the Nile." Crik leans against a counter.

"Once the new policy was in place," Tepper adds, "people quickly developed the civilization we all now enjoy."

Dr. Ultra nods. "We know the system as geonomics. Does it ring any bells?"

"Now's the time to ask, after what I've been through?" He puffs out his cheeks. Damned insistent. Maybe they want Shane for his petition. Jay-Zeus, what a story. Would he ever believe it? Should I warn him?

Tepper kneels by the chaise. "Concentrate."

Crik sits on the edge of the lounge."Or celebrate. I'm the first human being … to ever travel through time?" Receiving affirmative nods from the scientists, Crik swings an imaginary golf club then holds a hand up to his eyebrows.

Palms exposed, the Futurites regard each other with raised eyebrows.

A couple of sharp thumps turn everyone's attention to the door.

Ultra and Yuri exchange glances. "Voltak."

Chapter Three

Grand Dining Room: Authorities' Inquest

The heavy door swings open. A hard body in a blue uniform, albeit unarmed, completely fills the doorway. Nobody speaks.

"The Directorate has assembled. Above." The messenger's tuba-like voice rumbles from his oxen neck. "They await an explanation of an enormous, unexplained power draw. Without proper permits."

"Of course, Voltak, run along."

"Now," says the oversized newcomer.

Ultra wrings his hands.

He's worried, and he's the boss scientist. Maybe I should worry, too. Crik's eyes narrow slightly. He stands a little straighter. None of the others seemed worrisome until this guy showed up. Crik shoos the researchers. "Don't keep them waiting. Y'all go ahead." He grins at Ultra.

Voltak sniffs the air in the vicinity of the stranger. "Your vibrations feel chaotic." Voltak turns to his coworkers. "Is he OK?"

How're they supposed to know? Crik's smile sours.

Yuri takes his boss' hand. "Determining his fate, that's up to the Dear Learneds."

Tepper tugs Crik's hand. "They need to assess you, to figure out what to do with you."

Their authorities. A bunch of dictators? Elected leaders? Open-minded? More hard-ass cops like Voltak? Crik feels the officer's implacable stare.

Clicking his heels together, the wannabe policeman bends forward then steps aside.

Crik recalls Tchaikovsky's nutcracker soldier.

In the dank hallway, ceiling lights surge on and off as the party of five passes below. Voltak's broad frame dwarfs his chiseled, shaven skull, which protrudes like a nub between massive shoulders. His heels click-clack on the floor.

Other than trying to joke his way out of a speeding ticket, Crik has never had much interaction with officers of the law. "Officer Voltak."

The Futurites chuckle. Yuri shakes his head. "No. Volunteer security guard." Yuri opens his hands at his sides in the go-figure gesture.

A pretend cop to go with a pretend cat. Maybe this whole thing is pretend. Was I conked on the head? Crik feels his skull for lumps. "OK, volunteer Voltak, what's the speed limit for time travel?"

Voltak takes a small book out of his shirt pocket and flips the pages. "Unregulated."

Amateur or not, the guy's a freak. Better watch my step. Keep him at a distance.

At the top of the stairs, light floods the plush corridor. Outside the window winds the driveway to the city. The world I left, and would still be in, if not for an excess burden placed on … what, a chronoscope? Beyond a hedge lies a world unknown. What's amazing now? How did everything play out? Global warming. The debt crisis. The wars. The snooping governments. The cursed soap operas? Will Ismelda believe Damian's lies yet again? He shakes his head in disgust.

In the foyer, Andrei in jacket and tails stands by double-doors closing off the interior of the mansion.

Doing the same old grind at his age. In somebody else's home, not related, not a friend, doing it only for money. If this is the future, it's got some old, bad habits.

Crik eyes the door to the front portico.

Voltak plants himself before the exit.

Tepper nods toward the interior. "You'll want to impress them." Tepper steps toward the entryway.

Being the first time traveler ever is not impressive enough?

"Becoming especially useful is how the Learneds reached the pinnacle of power," Yuri says. "Now that we're all useful and so many of us qualify, the office is less pinnacle, more like a pimple of passing prestige."

Crik straightens his tie. "I can impress passing pimples."

Andrei pulls opens the double-doors to a spacious room.

In the grand dining room, five elders sit in high-backed chairs around a mahogany table. As Ultra, Yuri, Tepper, and Crik file in, the Futurite authorities cease their murmuring. Members of the Directorate stare at the Pastian — tattooed and formally dressed — mouths agape. Each wears a green robe, topped off with a glossy orange wig.

Orange? Power-wielders in orange? Who's supposed to impress whom? Crik stifles a chuckle — with the help of a nudge from Tepper. Taking in the Dear Learneds, Yuri's badly buttoned lab-coat, Ultra's spiraling sideburns, Tepper's feline makeover, and nub-headed Voltak, Crik concludes that looking off-kilter must be the new normal. For the first time in a long time, the fleece-streaked, sporty inventor feels more normal than everyone around him.

A chandelier glitters on the table. The air holds the aroma of polish. Paintings of the proud hang on walls. Facial flowers stand in vases on pedestals between grandfather clocks — now even more antique — including the statue to which Crik served a tapa.

As hostess, Tepper makes the introductions. Each Dear Learned made a major contribution: Chair A.R. Quesnay attained fluency in the lingua franca of extraterrestrials. Lawrence Pilard — leaning farther forward for a better look — argued before the Supreme Court for the rights of robots. Bernard Saint spurred the shift of the voting age so one can start whenever one is sufficiently aware but must quit at senility, before aging ushers in conservatism.

None of them are military or even politicians, but discoverers of really cool knowledge. Crik surveys the committee. How many years do these wigged wonders have left to vote?

Chair Quesnay quits adjusting her diadem and glares at Crik. "And who is this?"

Crik lifts his shoulders and open palms. "An innocent bystander, Dear Chair."

Ultra bows his head, swallowing. Yuri and Tepper wait for him. He swallows. "He's the result of the sizable power draw, madame."

Pilard nods toward the square screen on the wall. "We were watching, heard a secondhand account, and now see proof of your brazen, reckless —"

"Since Ultra saw fit to break the time continuum," Quesnay interrupts, glaring at the two scientists, "without any foreknowledge of the consequences, we must somehow repair it. The moment of his departure must be erased."

Everyone nods, including Crik.

Ultra bows toward Madame Chair. "Of course we can and will. Even if another historical researcher — who shall remain nameless — attempts to intrude, such as the charlatan Murky."

Do I sense some competition within the scientific community?

Yuri grins. "Our fingers are crossed."

Rubbing the dark circles under his eyes, Pilard snaps at the historian. "Altering the past could obliterate the present. Every instant must follow its previous one seamlessly, forever."

Ultra snorts. "So our citizens, who've bet on the outcome of past events, insist."

Betters. Good company for Randy. I wonder if anyone plays golf.

"Once the chronoscope is fixed, it can show us who our guest was." Bernard Saint has jowls, a cliff of a nose, a soothing voice, shaggy tendrils extruding from his orange wig, and a mini barrel dangling from his neck.

"And was not," Pilard growls.

Crik can't hold back a chuckle. These people use all their breakthroughs to play ever nuttier roles. Something inside flips. He feels the way he did when hitchhiking Europe, known by nobody, meeting people on the road. A vacation from oneself, free to recreate a new identity.

The Futurites turn to a framed space the wall, similar to the one in the basement lab. It shows an image of Crik entering the master bedroom. How long ago was that? An hour? Last night? Last century?

"Coming from a terrible era" — Quesnay peers at the Pastian — "is this intruder a criminal? Crazy? Criminally insane?"

Crik wags a finger. "That's how rumors get started. More like recovering student."

"Only the midwife of history's most transformative idea," Yuri says. Half a dozen eyebrows arch. "He could be!"

Crik pushes back from the table. "Midwife? I don't do midwife. My friend Shane, maybe." He aims his thumb at himself. "I'm more the sperm donor type." The Dear Learneds scowl at Crik who smiles back humbly, mentally kicking himself for the lousy analogy.

Standing up, bull-like Pilard jabs a finger at the traveler. "Are you now or have you ever been a geoist or a member of the Geoist Party?"

"What?" Crik has never faced official charges before. The closest he's come was appearing before a grand jury to bear witness in a case of alleged fraud. His hotel argued their wealthy guest from New York fibbed when he claimed he'd caught bed lice from unwashed linen (probably caught crabs from an unwashed hotel barfly).

"Geoism. None of that ancient industrial, left-right nonsense." Pilard's words, tone, and face show he's not an ally. But at least none of the others support his hard-line. "Him? Our Founder? Bah!" Smirking, Pilard sits. With every move, his shiny suit makes a crinkly sound.

Crik looks at all of them. "Your geoism is that big a deal?"

The elders speak up at once.

"Everyone can work at what they enjoy, yet earn enough to be comfortable."

"Technology accelerates and leisure expands."

"People steward their planet."

"Without huge wealth gaps, individuals experience equality, practice tolerance, and enjoy peace."

Crik holds up his hands. "Got it."

"If so," Saint says, "as an original purveyor one could articulate the three basic pairs of geonomic tenets."

Tenets. Can't they just say, "principles"?

"That'd prove you were our Founder." Saint addresses his colleagues. "If he did put our past on the path that led to our paradise, he'd deserve a hero's welcome." He nods to Crik. "And all our marvels would be yours to revel in."

A hero's welcome. Crik looks out the window. That'll be a tale to tell.

"In order to return him the least changed," Quesnay states, "he must not become at all stressed."

"Nor distressed," Pilard growls, furrowing his brow.

Smiling benignly, jowly Saint reaches out to mollify Madame Chair and the would-be boss.

To keep them tranquil, Crik exhales slowly, closing his eyes half way; his forefingers meet thumbs, forming twin circles. He hums "om". One Dear Learned starts to hum along but quickly quits when the Chair glares at him.

"When we send him back," Quesnay says, "he must be in the same state of agitation he was in when he left. 'Til then, safety suggests we quarantine him."

"Quarantine? This Pastian, he broke no law." Tepper glances sideways at Yuri and Ultra. Again the five Learneds glare at the historians who shrivel into their chairs.

Quesnay clasps her hands before her. "Have we consensus?"

We don't. Crik aims his thumb down, like Caesar in Rome's Coliseum.

The other members of the directorate nod toward the Chair; Pilard is the last to do so. Quesnay faces the traveler. "You are grounded."

Crik throws back his head. What the …? He hasn't heard that since he was ten … which, all things considered, was quite a while ago. "Grounded? You're not my mother."

On the wall, the screen plays Crik flinging his tray. Guilt by association. The Learneds mutter "Pastian" and "crime" and "risk".

"Bear in mind," Pilard rumbles, "the Pastian could commit a felony now, too."

"A felony?" Saint wags his wigged head. "This visitor is not a criminal but a victim."

"Don't worry." Crik draws a circle above his streaked head. "Halo. I know how to stay out of trouble."

"If not," Pilard peers at his peers, "then we'd have grounds to comatize him!"

Crik uses his little finger to swab out a troublesome ear. "A coma? You're not my father."

Saint smiles. "Only the worst case scenario. The best follows if you're the original geonomist."

"Who else could I be?"

All the Futurites turn to the Pastian.

His wandering gaze rests on the cat girl. That inquisitive face, and she moves like a stalking kitten. Crik raises one of his eyebrows. Hot hot hot.

"You have no clue," Pilard sounds as sad as Lewis Carroll's walrus after a meal of oysters.

"Founder or fake," Quesnay says, "meanwhile the cellar will do nicely."

Madness. Trying to deny me all experience. "Coming here is the wildest thing that has ever happened to any human being ever," Crik says, "and you want me to miss it? A totally different reality?"

As the Chair gets to her feet, the others follow suit, albeit Pilard slowly.

On the wall, the images of the standoff disappear. Where they were, a vapor streams out from a dot. It becomes a green hologram of a twenty-inch man. Its presence halts the Learneds. Quesnay sits back down; the others do likewise.

The homunculus sits cross-legged in jockey shorts and bows its head. "Inspired by this unprecedented event, I asked myself …" All the Futurites perch on the edge of their seats.

Smokes! That thing looks so human, but like a ghost — with a perfect Irish accent.

"Can our guest …" It winks at Crik, grinning like a slick salesman for machine rights, "… stay out of his own time indefinitely?" The translucent fellow regards each Dear Learned in turn. "Or, if he stays past a certain point, will the past move on without him?" His audience awaits his answer. "Would anyone care to guess?" No one would.

Crik peers at the others. "Are we taking seriously someone we can see through?"

"Ah, a translusce-phobe." The leprechaun turns to the Learneds. "Try twenty-four more hours. Until tomorrow afternoon at one o'clock." The green see-through fellow blows smoke that forms 24:00:00. The numbers immediately become 23:59:59 and countdown. The numbers dissipate.

Quesnay removes her fingers from her lips. "Cheap chips! What a snafu!" She glares at the pair of scientists. "When will the chronoscope be fixed?"

Ultra swallows. "We will, of course, work around the clock." He elbows his assistant. Yuri's head bobs in agreement like an Elvis doll on a redneck's dashboard. "Without the distraction of any nameless competitor such as—"

"Focus on your work," Quesnay orders, "without distraction." Heading for the door with the other Learneds in tow, the Chair turns back. "We'll send you a sitter."

"What?" Crik pops up, bewildered. "Technically, you all are the children, since my time is older than yours."

"Score one for Pastian Crik." The homunculus swings an imaginary club.

"Copycat." A sitter. What I could use is a lawyer.

Saint gives Crik's shoulder a squeeze. "Show that you launched the idea and were indispensable to our society's success … to enjoy our warmest hospitality."

"Fine. Can I borrow a phone? Somebody's thumb? You wouldn't refuse me my one call." He waves his phone before the Directorate. "See? Won't work."

The Dear Learneds file past Crik. He plants his hands on his hips. "The passing pimples of prestige."

The last Futurite authority pulls himself erect and exits.

They expect me to just sit tight here the whole time? I'll show Pilard who's a hero, show them all.

Chapter Four

Veranda and Pool: What's to Lose? Starts off OK

The chastened researchers move down the corridor with Crik and Tepper in tow.

Tepper taps Crik on the elbow. "Please understand. If you don't have knowledge of geonomics, you become one crock of a lot more trouble than you're worth."

Crik flips one hand. "You think six tenets is something? Wait 'til you hear seven."

Dr. Ultra shakes his head. "We'll take a few hours, fix that darling device of mine, and repair the past, good as old."

Tepper's whiskers quiver. "Pity our Pastian is not aware."

"Unless," Crik notes, "there's any mention of real estate."

"You mean of geonomics?" Yuri asks.

As they pass a closet, Andrei emerges and accompanies them.

"Could your era's faith be misplaced?" Crik tilts his head. "Maybe the key to progress wasn't that wonk's wet dream. Like new technology?"

The Futurites give some credit to nano-machines but …

"Or maybe popular democracy?" he interrupts.

They acknowledge the benefit of getting money out of politics but …

"Or education? Getting new skills? As a recovering student, I'm especially aware of the importance, harrumph, of learning to, harrumph, sound intelligent, harrumph."

The Futurites roll their eyes, then admit that conferring advanced degrees upon the self-educated certainly did have an impact. However …

"As astrology gave way to astronomy and alchemy did chemistry," Andrei adds, "so did economics yield to geonomics."

The three researchers nod in agreement.

Even the insight of a butler is respected. Such a reaction is not how the people who once partied in this mansion would treat the opinion of a caterer, no matter how spot on.

Her ears swiveling, Tepper links arms with Dr. Ultra and Yuri. "Whether proto-geonomist or not, his memory cells are here now, unaltered by the passage of time …"

"'Memory?' Would you like a note?" Andrei's tongue hangs out.

Poor old guy has a major defect.

"No, no, no," Tepper says. "Sorry, Andrei.

Yuri exhales the words softly. "Twenty-first century," then he glances at Andrei and whispers, "memory banks!" The butler remains unperturbed.

"Impeccable data!" Dr. Ultra says.

Tepper nods triumphantly. "A live person's perspective on an insane century."

Spinning around, Dr. Ultra faces the time traveler. "Let's download your mem-cells. Every last one! Right now!"

Crik touches the crown of his head with the fingertips of both hands. "Uploads only. I use this organ."

"We'd merely copy your memories," Tepper's tail swishes. "With your permission, of course." She arches an eyebrow. "If you are the first geoist, your understanding would show up."

"But could you understand my understanding in the words of your past?" I'll play along, catch them off guard, then break out of here.

Folding his hands as if in prayer, Dr. Ultra looks upward, resembling a romantic gazing at the moon. "From the minds of people actually doing it, we could see what they saw so riveting … in reality TV!"

"Exactly!" Tepper says. "And see why they … fed themselves polyunsaturated fats!"

Tepper and Dr. Ultra and Yuri clutch each other joyously.

"If this is science," Crik nods, "I'm dropping back into school." Images of a long-winded lecture and boring homework come to mind. Well, maybe not.

Near the top of the stairway, Voltak enters through a side door, carrying five large boxes.

"Yes, yes!" Yuri pulls his boss in close. "We could at last grasp their malevolence toward male baby foreskins!"

"The historians' Holy Grail!" Dr. Ultra whispers hoarsely, his voice full of awe.

Crik covers his crotch. "Your download idea dies right now."

The historians clasp arms, bouncing up and down — until noting the laden volunteer. The three cough, back away from one another, and tug the wrinkles out of their clothes. They give stern-faced Voltak their complete attention.

Voltak hands two boxes to Ultra. "Your new parts. A solmatol series z and an LKM 78." And the other two to Yuri. "Plus six Zuminators and two KYJays."

The actual innards of a time machine. Crik thumps Voltak's box. "Some munchies for a weary traveler?"

Voltak twists his box away. "If you eat H80 Dynamators."

"Go fix my ride." Crik reaches for the doorknob. "I'll be outside."

Voltak clicks his heels and stands by the exit.

"It's better that he not watch and overhear us at work anyway." Dr. Ultra waves at the others to follow him downstairs.

Under an umbrella on the red brick veranda, Crik regards the surroundings — mansion, landscaped lawn, pool — unsure it's not a dream. Everyone's so flaky, it's like being in an M.C. Escher sketch. With Dali drippings.

Tepper joins Crik on the veranda.

"You got a thumb I could borrow? If I'm being held against my will …"

"No, I'm a historian, true to the past." Tepper half closes her eyes, cat like. "But from our gift shop." She hands him a tiny phone. "It even works."

Crik opens the tiny clam. "How do you-" The same homunculus as before squirts forth. "Zippers," Crik says, "you again. You're like an epidemic." The leprechaun must be the spokes 'person' for all computers. At least the future has a sense of humor.

"And you again. You're like a visitation." Its Irish accent is lovely. "And surely in need of guidance." The clam shoots a ray at the edge of the umbrella. The stricken frill falls off.

Crik catches the crystallized thread. It lightly stings him. "Ouch."

"That was sweet."

"A tiny token of my servility," the hologram says, "a reminder that if you need to know anything, we are here to edify." It tips its hat. "The word for the day is —" Wiggling the phone, Crik makes the translucent figure waver drunkenly. "Whoa!"

"Is 'police'." Crik pockets the glassy thread.

The little green man files through hundreds of hologramic records faster than the eye can follow, like a Las Vegas poker dealer on amphetamine. Finally it shakes its head. "Should I check the archives? There is no current listing under that name."

"Bull hockey." Shouldn't the future be more efficient, not less? "Police. Can you say, 'po-lice?' Jee-yoo-sus!"

"G — U — S?" the see-thru one asks. "Gus? Gusses, I got — millions of them."

"Really?" Nobody to come after me? Crik pumps a fist.

"Sorry." The green guy holds up his hand. "Don't make me dizzy again."

"So, it's that peaceful now?"

"And prosperous." Tepper purrs.

"So advanced." Crik's eyes widen. "Probably with officers of courts, maybe even wearing hyena pelts. No way I'm missing the chance of a lifetime."

Tepper takes back the phone. "So prove you're the founder."

If I'm supposed to know, I must. Even if I have to discover their terms. He paces around the patio. "O-kay-ee, try this. Geonomics. Like Reagonomics. But with a geo for Earth, so it's like Earth-friendly economics. Right?"

Tepper beams. "That earns you a float in beta waves. Quesnay said stay calm. This is my favorite way." She descends the steps. "Just don't get your clothes wet."

Crossing the lawn is a person — of sorts. While the top half is a well-muscled, well-tanned man, the bottom half is a pair of crescent-shaped kangaroo springers, carrying the creature in long bounds, while dribbling a basketball. It rounds the corner of the house, out of sight.

Crik manages to hoist up his jaw. "Either this is the future, or I ended up away in Australia."

Tepper and Crik cross the immense lush lawn where tycoons could practice yo-yo golf. Crik swings his imaginary club. "Fore!" Shielding his eyes, he watches an imaginary ball take flight. Loud barking spins Crik around. Two Dobermans bound over the lawn then disappear over a ridge, their yelps fading into silence.

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