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Excerpt for The Century Cube by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Copyright © 2017 by Bo Boswell. All Rights Reserved.


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any manner without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.


Edited by Josiah Davis.


Ebook ISBN: B076VWKFJY

Paperback ISBN: 9781979770958









To Turner and Weston.

And to your future.



I have wrought my simple plan

If I bring one hour of joy

To the boy who's half a man

or the man who's half a boy.

-Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World


Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in.

-Leonard Cohen, “The Anthem”




Table of Contents

Chapter One: The Locked Door

Chapter Two: The Loft

Chapter Three: The Clock Tower

Chapter Four: The PAL

Chapter Five: Analysis

Chapter Six: Virtual Approval

Chapter Seven: The Garage

Chapter Eight: The Sentry-bot

Chapter Nine: Road Hazard

Chapter Ten: The Decoy

Chapter Eleven: The Lake

Chapter Twelve: The Hike

Chapter Thirteen: The Gas Station

Chapter Fourteen: Broadview

Chapter Fifteen: Schoolyard Revival

Chapter Sixteen: The Woods

Chapter Seventeen: The Ravine

Chapter Eighteen: Communion

Chapter Nineteen: The Machine Shop

Chapter Twenty: The Update

Chapter Twenty-One: Intrusion

Chapter Twenty-Two: Flight

Chapter Twenty-Three: The Terminal

Chapter Twenty-Four: The Wall

Chapter Twenty-Five: Departure

Acknowledgements

About the Author




ONE


The Locked Door




Turner crouched beside a door and spun the sides of a Rubik’s Cube. His brother, Weston, stood next to him, looking at a timer.

“You’ve got fifteen seconds left,” Weston said.

“Hush! I know!” Turner said. He didn’t need the extra pressure. If he couldn’t solve the cube before time ran out, they would be trapped inside the building with a ticking bomb.

Turner had spent the past few weeks learning to speed-solve the cube. When he had first started, he’d worked slowly through each of the steps—right face clockwise, up face clockwise, right face counterclockwise. He’d watched tons of videos on YouTube and had learned how they referred to the sequences of moves, “right, up, right prime.” He knew if someone said “prime,” it meant to turn that side counterclockwise, otherwise all the moves were clockwise. He’d studied notations and knew that R U2 R’ U’ R meant right, up, up, right prime, up prime, right. He’d gotten faster, but he’d never expected to be in a situation where his life, and the life of his brother, would depend on how quickly he could work out the solution.

Weston tested the doorknob. “Ugh. Still locked.”

“Hang on! I’ve almost got it,” Turner said, trying to focus on the algorithms. He’d already solved the cross and the first two layers and had oriented the final one. He fell into rhythm as he started the steps to permute the final edges. He pictured the notation in his mind—R U R’ U’ R’ F R F’—as his hands performed the moves.

“Done!” he said, and placed the solved cube in front of the door. The timer stopped with three seconds left.

Weston tried the doorknob again; this time it turned. He flung the door open and leaped out into a dark hallway. Turner remained where he was, barely able to see the dim outline of a door at the end of the hall.

Weston crept to the next door and jiggled the doorknob. “This one is locked, too.”

“No, I can’t do this. Not in the dark,” Turner said, shaking his head.

“Come on, just try. We need to hurry—this timer is only thirty seconds!”

Turner heard the beep of the timer; it was now counting down. He darted down the hallway and patted his hands on the floor in front of the door until he found the next Rubik’s Cube. He got down next to the bottom of the door where a narrow beam of light streamed through and slid the cube into the light so he could see the positions of the colored tiles. Once he had each side’s pattern in his mind he sat up, and his hands went to work.

“Fifteen seconds left,” Weston said.

Turner groaned, then took a deep breath to calm himself. He envisioned the algorithms in his mind as his fingers spun the faces, doing slice moves and dual layer turns, clockwise and counterclockwise, R F’ R’.

“Five seconds.”

Turner made a few more moves and blurted out, “I’m done!”

Weston flipped the light switch on the wall beside him. The lights came on, and they both looked at the cube in Turner’s hands.

The timer’s alarm went off and the continuous beeps echoed through the hallway.

“Well, that’s it. We’re dead,” Weston said matter-of-factly. “The bomb blew up. You killed us.” He dropped the timer to the hardwood floor, where it continued to sound its alarm.

Turner sat in his grandparents’ hallway and slowly turned the cube in his hand, glaring at the unsolved sides. Where had he gone wrong? Had he mixed up the starting pattern in the dim light? Had he chosen the wrong algorithms? Performed the wrong moves? He seethed as he picked up the timer and turned off the alarm. 

“This place is gonna blow!” Weston screamed. He fell to the floor and rolled around, making elaborate explosion sounds.

“Stop it. I don’t want to play anymore.”

“AARRRRGH!” Weston yelled, flinging out his hands from his chest as he mimicked his body bursting apart.

“I said stop it!” Turner shouted, and threw the Rubik’s Cube hard against the wall; it shattered, and a corner piece flew off and struck Weston in the forehead.

“Oww!” Weston’s hands reached up to his face. “Hey! That was my cube!”

“I don’t care, I told you I didn’t want to play anymore! Maybe you should’ve opened up your tiny earholes!” Turner said. He jumped to his feet and stormed through the door, which had, of course, been unlocked the whole time, but the rules of the game had mandated that he solve the cube correctly to unlock it, else they would both die in a catastrophic explosion.

Turner sulked through his grandparents’ home, a ten-year-old who had just lost a game to his younger brother. He was two years older than Weston, but you wouldn’t have known it by looking at them—they were nearly the same size and weight and could easily pass for twins. They both had dark brown hair; Turner’s was thick and wavy, while Weston’s was fine and straight.

It was Saturday morning, and usually the boys would be with their dad and their friends, Yui and Hector, at the weekly Cars & Coffee event in Nashville. There, they would see classic and modern versions of cars like Corvettes, Mustangs, and Camaros, and sometimes, during the bigger shows, there would be exotic Lamborghinis, McLarens, and Aston Martins. On this Saturday, however, they were staying with their grandparents in Winchester while their mom and dad were out of town for a “much needed break,” in their mom’s words.

Turner felt Weston’s shoes nipping at his heels.

“Will you put my cube back together?” Weston asked.

“No.”

“Then I’m telling,” Weston mumbled, still holding a hand to his face where the Rubik’s Cube piece had struck him.

They found their grandfather, who they called Papaw, in the living room, snoozing in his favorite leather recliner, his feet propped up, his hands tucked inside the bib of his overalls, and his fingers joined together over his considerable belly that heaved as he snored. His rectangle glasses sat crooked across his face as the morning news droned quietly on from the television.

Turner stomped up to the recliner, causing the dishes in his grandmother’s dining cabinet to clink together, and gave the footrest a firm nudge. The recliner creaked as it shook, and Papaw squinted his eyes open to see both boys standing at his feet and looking upset. Before he had a chance to ask what was wrong, each boy blurted out their argument.

“Weston cheated and turned the lights off while I was solving his Rubik’s Cube!” Turner said, at the same time Weston blurted, “Turner broke my Rubik’s Cube, and a piece flew off and hit me in the head!” 

Papaw, still trying to work himself out of his daze, looked at the boys through his crooked glasses. His eyes slowly shifted toward the television, and before he could return his attention to the boys, his eyelids grew heavy and closed shut again.

“Papaw!” the boys shouted together. 

Papaw jerked and sat up in his recliner, leather squeaking as he shifted around. The recliner was quite old; strips of duct tape had been applied to several tears in the leather, and they stretched and bulged as Papaw situated himself. Papaw’s wife, who the boys called Mamaw, had encouraged him to get a new recliner, but he had insisted that his current one suited him just fine, thank you very much. The frame of the recliner wobbled, and the boys took a step back in case the whole thing collapsed. 

“My buddies, my buddies, my buddies!” he said in a thick and cheerful southern accent. “You boys doin’ all right?”

“No!” Turner said.

Weston shook his head, his bottom lip puffed out.

“Oh. Well, where’s Mamaw and Aunt Boogie?”

“They went to the grocery,” Turner said.

Papaw straightened his glasses and massaged his forehead with calloused fingers. “Okay. Well, it’s a nice day out, why don’t y’all go outside and play until Mamaw and Boogie get back home, and then we’ll work this out over lunch?”

The boys lingered for a few minutes, shooting dirty glances at each other and grumbling.

“Can we go play in the barn?” Turner asked, knowing what the answer would be.

“That’s probably not the best idea without me or Mamaw there to watch you,” Papaw said.

“Fine,” Turner grunted. He turned sharply toward the door, making sure to ram his shoulder into Weston. As expected, Weston overreacted with a fake whine.

“Oww! Stop it!” Weston said, and hit Turner in the back.

Turner spun and shoved Weston, slamming him against the footrest of Papaw’s recliner. There was a sharp crack, and the recliner flipped backward. On his way down, Papaw shot his arms out and struck the corner of Mamaw’s dining cabinet. The recliner slammed against the floor, and the cabinet teetered like a domino on the brink of falling over. Papaw, still seated in the overturned recliner, reached up his thick arm and steadied the cabinet. The glassware inside rattled.

The boys had a moment of relief when it seemed that the cabinet wouldn’t fall over. Papaw had saved it. Then the cabinet doors burst open and a river of plates, dishes, and cups gushed out and shattered, sending hundreds of jagged glass shards scattering across the floor.

The room was quiet for a few tense seconds. Turner, Weston, and Papaw all looked at each other, eyes wide. The silence was broken by the voice of Alexa from the Amazon Echo in the kitchen. “Sorry, I didn’t understand the question I heard.”

“Look what you did, Weston!” Turner said, pointing at the broken glass covering the floor.

“It wasn’t my fault! You pushed me!”

“Unnngh,” Papaw grunted as he eased the empty dining cabinet to an upright and steady position. There was broken glass on the floor beside him, which he carefully swept away before slowly rolling out of the overturned recliner. His breath was strained as he got to his knees and reached his hand around, holding his back.

“Are you okay, Papaw?” Weston asked, taking a step forward. His shoe crunched glass against the hardwood.

“Don’t come any closer,” Papaw groaned. “You boys need to get out of here. Y’all go play outside, I’ll clean this up.”

Weston started for the door, then cautiously turned back. “Did you say we could play in the barn?”

Turner nudged him in the back and whispered for him to leave.

“Huh? Oh, good heavens, whatever. Just go on and get out of here,” Papaw mumbled, his belly jutting forward as he arched to stretch his back.

Weston opened his mouth to reply, but Turner grabbed him by the arm and yanked him out of the room. They’d never gotten to play in the barn without an adult supervising them and telling them what they could and couldn’t do. Turner couldn’t wait to take advantage of the rare opportunity.



TWO


The Loft




Before scampering out of the house, the boys decided to grab a few necessities to play with in the barn. Turner got his Rubik’s Cube and his iPhone, which he slid into the pocket of his jeans. Weston considered grabbing the pieces of his broken Rubik’s Cube, but he knew that Turner wouldn’t help him put it back together. Instead, he snatched his trading card binder, and just before heading out the door, he snuck a couple of quarters out of the coin dish on the kitchen counter and stuck them in his pocket.

The boys crossed the barnyard of their grandparents’ farm in the small country community of Broadview on the outskirts of Winchester. The morning sun peeked over the horizon, etching silhouettes of evergreen trees onto the weathered wooden planks of the old red barn. Tall rows of round hay bales were stacked on the barn’s main floor with overhead lofts on each side where smaller square bales were stored. At the entrance of the barn was a rusty metal gate with an old lock and chain that clanked against the rungs as the boys climbed over and dropped to the hay-covered dirt.

Weston plopped down in the hay with his binder and flipped through the pages, wondering if he should reorganize them for the third time in a month. His Pokémon cards were up front; the most powerful GX cards took up the entire first page, with Snorlax GX claiming the coveted first spot. His basketball and football cards came next, organized by team. He was thinking of moving the football cards to the front, since football season was coming up and he'd need quicker access for more efficient trading.

Turner rolled his eyes at his brother’s fixation on trading card organization and looked down at his Rubik’s Cube. He closed his eyes and thought of the notation for his favorite pattern, Six T’s, and his fingers blindly went to work—F2 R2 U2 F’ B D2 L2 F B. He opened his eyes and turned the cube in his hands to confirm each side had a T shape, then tossed the cube into a soft pile of hay in the corner of the barn.

He gazed up at the rope swing that hung from the rafters; it swayed gently in the morning breeze. A piece of twine dangled from one of the swing’s handles, making it easier to retrieve.

“Watch this,” Turner said. He grabbed the twine, climbed up a few rows of hay, and stood near the edge of one of the bales. He wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans and adjusted his grip on the swing handle as he gazed down at Weston, who seemed very far below.

Weston watched with excitement, especially since he knew they weren’t supposed to use the rope swing without an adult around. Turner took a deep breath and kicked off. He soared through the air, hollering and kicking his legs wildly. Weston laughed and cheered from below.

Turner swung back and slammed against the wall of hay. He let go of the swing and slid down the stacked bales until he landed hard on the bottom row, groaning and laughing.

“My turn!” Weston said. He closed his binder and clambered up the hay. He climbed to the top row, higher than either of them had been before—so high that it took Turner a few tries to fling the rope up to him. He finally grabbed it and kicked off without hesitation. He pulled his knees up and barely cleared the edge of the hay bale that Turner had jumped off. He howled with delight as he swung out farther than Turner had, his feet nearly hitting the opposite wall of the barn. He smacked hard against the hay on the return and fell to the bottom row, coughing and giggling as Turner scrambled for his next ride.

The boys took turns on the swing, the stalks of hay scraping them as they slid down the stacks, leaving faint scratch marks across their skin and snags in their t-shirts and jeans. On one trip down, Turner’s iPhone slipped out of his pocket and tumbled across the matted hay. The phone was his dad’s old 5S. It didn’t have an active cellular connection, and he mainly used it to listen to music, play games, and take pictures, but his dad had told him to take good care of it if he ever wished to have his own working phone someday. He rushed to the phone and found that, other than being covered by a thin layer of hay dust, it worked fine.

“Let’s go up to the loft,” Turner said. He put his iPhone on top of Weston’s binder so it wouldn’t fall out of his pocket and climbed up a rickety wooden ladder to the loft.

The back half of the loft had square bales stacked nearly to the ceiling. The boys preferred playing on the front half, where the stacks were shorter and easier to climb on. The floor of the loft creaked as they walked across it and lay down on a row of hay. They gazed up at the thin shafts of sunlight that streamed through the cracks in the walls, highlighting the clouds of dust they had stirred up while playing.

“Now what do we do?” Weston asked.

Turner shrugged. “I wish Yui and Hector were here,” he said, referring to their two best friends from back home in Nashville. “Then we could play football.”

“I’d be Tom Brady,” Weston said, swinging his arm as if he were throwing a long touchdown pass.

“Let’s just play hide and seek,” Turner said, springing to his feet. “You’re it. Count to twenty.” He waited until Weston covered his eyes before he ran to hide.

Weston began to count. “One… two… three…”

Turner quietly climbed up the high stacks of square bales and crawled toward the back corner of the loft. He had never been allowed to venture this far back. In truth, he had always been too scared—it was really dark and dusty—but he knew from experience there weren’t many other good hiding spots in the barn.

“Nine… ten… eleven…”

Turner spotted a rectangular gap in the hay near the wall. It was the same size as the other bales and appeared to be just as deep, as if a stack of hay had been intentionally removed or left empty. It reminded him of Minecraft, where he would dig in the ground and create perfectly square holes.

He sat on the edge of the hay and dangled his legs into the hole. He couldn’t tell how far down it went, but if he could squeeze in then Weston would never be able to find him.

“Fifteen… sixteen… seventeen…”

Turner gripped the brittle twine binding of a hay bale and eased himself down into the hole. His sore, sweaty hands began to lose their grip. He tried to pull himself back up, but just as he got his head up to the edge the twine snapped, and he slipped down into the dark hole.

“Eighteen…” Weston stopped counting and opened his eyes after hearing a sharp cracking sound. “Turner? Are you okay?”

“Weston! I need help!” Turner said. His voice was muffled.

Weston followed Turner’s voice, scurrying across the hay toward the hole. “Ohh, this would’ve been a really good hiding place,” he said as he peered down at Turner.

“I know, but I accidentally fell in here,” Turner said. “Now my feet are stuck in something.”

“Can you reach my hand?” Weston asked.

Turner grabbed his brother’s hand and tried to hoist himself up, but his legs wouldn’t budge. “Hang on.” He reached down and felt around his foot; there was a layer of rotten wood, which was probably why no hay had been stacked there. His feet had plunged through the top layer of flooring and were wedged between it and a bottom layer. He twisted his leg at an awkward angle and pulled it free, then did the same with the other leg. His foot kicked against something that tumbled around between the layers of flooring.

“What was that?” Weston asked.

“I don’t know,” Turner said, timidly. He eased his shaking hand inside the hole and felt around for whatever he’d kicked. “Ahh!” he screamed, and jerked his arm out of the hole.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Turner said, and let out a deep breath. “I think it was just a spider web.” After working up his courage, he reached his hand into the hole again and felt along the other side. His fingertips grazed something solid, and he fought the urge to jerk his hand out again. He forced himself to grab the object and yank it out of the hole; it was square and it glittered in the low light. “Okay, I’ve got it. Help me out.”

Weston grunted as he hauled Turner out of the hole. They sat on the edge and looked at what Turner had found.

“Whoa! Is that a Rubik’s Cube?” Weston asked.

“I don’t know.” Turner rotated the cube in his hands. It was a puzzle cube that looked a lot like a Rubik’s Cube, but it wasn’t made of plastic; it was heavier, had a frame of tarnished silver, and instead of stickers for the colored sides it had sparkling gemstones inset in each of the silver pieces.

“Is it made out of glass?” Weston asked.

“I think those are gemstones,” Turner said, brushing off the dust and cobwebs.

Light glinted off the gems. The boys had visited a mineral exhibit at a local science museum and knew that the red stones had to be rubies, the whites were diamonds, and the greens were probably emeralds, but they couldn’t remember the names of the other colored gems.

“It looks expensive,” Weston said.

Turner nodded. The cube’s gems were scrambled, and he began working out the solution in his head. He tried to turn the sides, and found them all stiff from who knows how many years of sitting unused in a dusty hole.

“How did it even get here?” Weston looked around the loft as if he expected to see someone searching for a gemstone puzzle cube they’d accidentally left behind.

“I don’t know, but it looks like it’s been here for a long time,” Turner said. He banged the cube against the palm of his hand to try and loosen up the pieces. Dust fell out from the cube’s thin cracks, and the sides finally turned, tight at first, then they smoothed out. He began making the moves to solve the cube with the blue gemstones—were they sapphires?—as his top color.

R U R’ U R U’.

As he neared the solution, the sides of the cube became harder to turn, but not because of dirt—it was rather like tightening a bottle cap onto a bottle, as if the core of the cube was pulling the gemstone pieces inward like a strong magnet.

R’ U’ R’ F R.

“You’ve almost got it!”

Turner felt a strange tingle in his hands, and the hairs on his forearms rose up like soldiers standing at attention, like the time his dad had demonstrated static electricity by scrubbing a balloon on his hoodie and then holding it over his head, making his hair stand straight up.

“I can’t turn this last side,” Turner said, shaking his hand from where the cube’s edges had pressed into his skin. “I need your help. Here, hold the other side of it.”

Weston gripped the cube in his hands as firmly as he could while Turner rotated the final side. The gemstones aligned in a perfect pattern with a satisfying click. The boys felt a shock run up their fingers and arms. There was a bright flash of light and a thunderous clap as Turner and Weston vanished from the loft.



THREE


The Clock Tower




Turner blinked his eyes, but he couldn’t see anything. Darkness was all around him. He thought maybe he’d fallen back into the hole in the hay, but instead he seemed to be suspended in space. He tried to call out to Weston, but he couldn’t make a sound; a heavy force was pressing against his chest.

His body started to spin clockwise, as if he was sitting at the center of a massive merry-go-round. He realized the cube was no longer in his hand. Panicking, he blindly reached for the cube or Weston, but his arm was yanked up as he slid down a steep incline of small rocks and toppled out of a hole near the base of a concrete wall. Weston followed close behind, his foot striking Turner in the back of his head.

The boys skidded to a halt in the middle of a dark room; bits of charred cinder block and rocky debris littered the floor. Sections of the walls and ceiling had crumbled away, exposing the night sky. Moonlight leaked in through the cracks.

Weston bent over and spat out rocks and dust he’d gotten in his mouth during the fall. He attempted to wipe his tongue with the back of his dirty hand, but that made his situation worse.

“What just happened?” Turner asked, rubbing the back of his head.

“I don’t know.” Weston’s tongue was dry, and the words came out garbled. He spat again and tried to work up saliva to rinse out his mouth. “Did we fall in that hole in the hay?”

“I was thinking the same thing, but now I don’t know.” Turner peered up at the pile of rocks they’d fallen down, trying to figure out where they were and how they’d gotten there. Near the top of the rock pile was an opening that could’ve once been a window or doorway, but was now just another gaping hole in the deteriorating wall.

The boys got to their feet and looked around in confusion. Turner approached a series of metal gears mounted to a wall. The structure looked like the inner workings of a big clock.

“Turner, you gotta see this,” Weston said, peeking out through a large crack in the wall. “I don’t think we’re in Papaw’s barn anymore.”

Turner rushed over and looked through the crack. From their vantage point, it appeared they were on top of a building overlooking a small town. There were no lights on the horizon, and he could barely make out the roofs of buildings in the moonlight.

“What in the world is going on?” Turner stepped away from the wall in a daze. “We need to go back.” He ran to the rock pile and tried to climb up, but wasn’t able to get any traction; the bits of concrete crumbled underneath his grip, and he slid back down. “We can’t get up this way.” Panic crept into his voice.

“How do we get back?”

“I don’t know!” Turner said curtly. “I don’t even know how we got here in the first place!”

Weston scrunched his forehead in thought. “I remember holding that weird-looking Rubik’s Cube while you were solving it—”

“The cube! That’s it!” Turner said. “Could it have brought us here somehow?”

Weston shrugged. “I don’t know.” He looked around, but didn’t see the cube. “Where is it, anyways?”

“I was holding it, but I lost my grip. It’s gotta be around here somewhere.”

“It’s too dark to see.” Weston crouched in the dim room and ran his hand along the floor. The chipped edges of rock bit at his fingers, and he drew back his hand to check for cuts.

“I wish we had a flashlight,” Turner said, and kicked his foot through the mound of rocks at the base of the wall. Out of the corner of his eye he saw something gleam in the moonlight. “Oh, here it is!” He plunged his hand into the rubble and grabbed the twinkling object.

“Did you find it?”

“Uh oh.” Turner held up a single red ruby. “It’s just one piece. The cube must have broken apart.”

Weston came over for a closer look. “Maybe the other pieces are here, too.”

The boys scavenged the area for the remaining pieces, lining them up on the floor by color. The last thing they found was the cube’s metal core. A thin crack ran between two of the axes. Turner put pressure on them, and the crack opened wider as the core flexed. He guessed that was why the gemstone pieces had fallen off. When he tried to reattach the pieces, they wouldn’t snap into place.

“This is disappointing,” Turner said. “The pieces just keep falling off.”

“What do we do now?”

“If the cube really did bring us here, then we need to figure out how to fix it so we can get back home.” He gathered up the gemstones and began to cram them into his pockets.

“Hey! I want to hold some of the pieces!” Weston said in a huff.

“Okay, fine. Here, you take the core. I’ll carry the gemstones.”

Weston stuck the core into his pocket and followed Turner back to the wall.

“I think we can crawl through here,” Turner said. He ducked his head and slowly inched his way through the narrow opening and emerged onto the building’s rooftop. The night air was warm and muggy. He looked up and saw a giant clock on the face of the wall he’d just crawled through. “I think this is a clock tower. Come on, I’ll help you through.”

Weston grabbed Turner’s hand and squeezed through the crack. The boys walked toward the edge of the rooftop and looked out over a small town square. In the moonlight, it seemed like the town had experienced some sort of disaster. The shops that bordered the square had damaged storefronts, with shattered windows and gaping holes in the walls.

Turner saw something he recognized: a large sign with OLDHAM in tall red letters. He knew it as the movie theater marquee in his grandpa’s hometown of Winchester. He’d only ever seen it when its neon lights were shining brightly above the twinkling bulbs that surrounded the title of the feature film. But now the sign was dark and hung askew on the wall; broken glass from the lightbulbs of the marquee were scattered at the theater’s entrance.

“We’re in Winchester!” Turner said, and then realized they were standing on the roof of the courthouse building in the middle of the town square. “It looks like something bad happened here, though.”

Weston nodded and peeked over the edge of the building. “Whoa! We’re really high up!”

“It’s not that high,” Turner said, trying not to sound nervous. “Come on, let’s see if we can find a way down.”

They walked along the rooftop toward the other side of the building. Weston continued to peek over the edge while Turner studied the square-stepped clock tower that rose up from the center of the roof. It had been ravaged, as if something large had plowed into it. There were clock faces on the remaining sides, but none of the hands were moving. He wished he’d brought his iPhone so he could at least know the time.

As they rounded the corner, Turner spotted a door on the side of the tower. He stepped toward it, and two small lights flickered on in the shadows; they looked eerily like glowing eyes. He froze in place.

“Wait, there are lights over there,” Turner said, but as soon as Weston looked where Turner was pointing the lights went off.

For the first time, they wondered if they might be somewhere they shouldn’t be.

“Are we going to get in trouble if someone finds us up here?” Weston asked.

“No… at least, I don’t think so,” Turner said. “It’s not like we came up here on purpose.” He took a step forward, and the lights flickered on again. This reminded him of the motion detector in his parents’ house. He would often creep as slow as he could to try and sneak past it before the sensor detected his movement and the indicator light turned on. Weston was never good at sneaking; moving slowly made him impatient.

“Weston, stop! I think something’s watching us!” Turner said.

Weston tried to tiptoe, but his movements became even more elaborate than when he walked normally. The lights turned red and flashed rapidly. A high-pitched alarm filled the night air. Turner’s hands flew to his ears to muffle the sound. He looked over at Weston, who had his arms crossed over his head to cover his ears and was spinning in frantic circles.

The lights moved forward and emerged from the shadows of the wall. Turner saw that the lights were indeed eyes—eyes that belonged to a tall robot. Turner stepped backward. What was a robot doing on top of the courthouse? Was it making the alarm sound? He tried calling out to Weston, but he could barely hear his own voice over the alarm.

The robot walked on two legs, moving as fluidly as a human. A green light blinked on the side of its dome-shaped head. It held out its hand, and thin sections of metal extended out of its forearm and fanned around its wrist, joining together and forming a shield that looked similar to Captain America’s, but without the patriotic paint job. A sword flipped out of the robot’s other forearm and latched to its hand.

Weston collapsed to the ground and tucked his forehead between his knees. Turner saw a red spot on Weston’s head that looked like a beam from a laser, then saw one on his own chest. The robot had targeted them and was approaching.

Turner shrank down next to his brother, his whole body trembling. He wondered if the robot was responsible for all the damage and destruction they’d seen. If so, what would it do to them? Should they run? Where would they go? Could they even outrun it?

This wasn’t the Winchester he knew. Something had gone wrong. He had never been so confused or felt so far from home.



FOUR


The PAL




Turner was about to grab Weston and try to make a run for it when the door of the clock tower burst open and a boy came running out carrying a flashlight. He slid to a stop beside the robot, looking toward the sky. Turner glanced up, wondering what the boy was looking for; there was nothing to see but the moon and stars.

The boy dropped his gaze and saw Turner and Weston cowering on the ground. For a moment he seemed puzzled, then his shoulders relaxed. He said something to the robot and the alarm stopped. Turner cautiously moved his hands away from his ears, then Weston raised his head and sat up on his knees.

The boy shone his flashlight in their direction. “Hey. Who are you?”

Something about the boy looked familiar to Turner, but the light in his eyes made it difficult to see. “I… um… I’m Turner. And that’s Weston.”

“How did you get up here?” the boy asked, looking around the roof.

“We actually don’t know for sure. I think we got here by accident.”

“Is that robot going to hurt us?” Weston asked.

“What? Oh, no. Sorry,” the boy said, then turned to the robot. “It’s okay, Dudley. They’re fine. Stand down and introduce yourself.”

The robot’s eyes instantly stopped flashing red and turned white. The steel sword retracted back into its right forearm, and the sections of the Captain America shield twirled and collapsed into its left.

“Howdy, y’all!” Dudley said in a thick southern accent.

Turner thought the robot’s voice sounded just like a human’s, even more so than the voices of the Amazon Echo and Siri on his iPhone. Dudley darted toward the boys with incredible speed, Turner barely had time to blink before the robot grabbed his shoulders and pulled him to his feet, then shook Turner’s hand enthusiastically. The lights of his eyes blinked rapidly, and he bobbed on his legs like a dog excited to see his owner.

“H-i-i y-i-i y-i-i,” Turner said, the word shaken out of him as his arm was jolted up and down.

A laugh escaped Weston’s mouth as he watched. The robot let go of Turner, turned to Weston, and repeated his greeting. Weston belted out a cross between a scream and a laugh.

“Dudley, stop! Let him go!” the boy said, running toward them.

Dudley stopped and let go of Weston’s hand. Turner again noticed the green light blinking on the side of Dudley’s head just above a screened port where his ear should be.

As the boy approached, he turned off his flashlight and Turner got a better look at him. He was Asian with jet-black hair and was slightly taller than Turner. His clothes were made of a highly reflective material that shimmered in the moonlight and had faintly glowing patterns of thin lines and circles that reminded Turner of electronic circuitry.

“Sorry, Dudley’s just excited to meet you. We don’t see many new people here… especially dressed like that,” the boy said as his eyes scanned over Turner’s and Weston’s clothes. “By the way, my name is—”

“Yui!” Weston shouted.

The boy looked at Weston, confused. “How did you know my name?”

“What do you mean?” Turner asked, equally confused. “Don’t you know us?”

“Err… no?” Yui said. It sounded more like a question than an answer. “Should I know you?”

“We’re friends!” Weston said, as if it was a well-known fact.

“I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I remember you,” Yui said. He turned to the robot. “Dudley, identify them and tell me more about how we might know each other.”

“I’m returnin’ zero results on them,” Dudley said.

“Huh? What do you mean?” Yui asked, then shook his head as if mentally erasing the question. “Dudley, clarify those last results.”

“There are zero matchin’ records for their retina and fingerprint patterns as well as their DNA.”

“How is that possible?” Yui said. His eyebrows scrunched together like he was trying to solve a difficult riddle.

“Excuse me,” Turner said. “What did he mean when he said there aren’t any matching records for us?”

“You guys don’t have a record in the UIDB,” Yui said. Turner and Weston stared at him blankly, so he continued. “Dudley scanned your retinas when he looked in your eyes. He also took a sample of your sweat for a DNA match when he shook your hand. Usually those return a matching record in the UIDB, but neither did. I’ve never seen that happen before.”

Turner and Weston looked at each other, still unsure what Yui was talking about.

“Dudley,” Weston said, thinking that speaking the robot’s name activated him, similar to how their Amazon Echo worked, “what is a U I D B?”

The robot spun his head toward Weston, his eyelights glowed brighter, and his arms waved in the air as he spoke. “UIDB, the Universal Identification Database, was founded in 2042 as an international standard index for storing the collective identities of all humans in the world.”

“Wait a second,” Turner said, looking at Yui. “Did he say 2042? As in, the year 2042?”

Yui nodded and shrugged, showing little consideration for the date.

“Are you telling me it’s 2042?” Turner asked. He was trying to cope with the possibility they had somehow traveled through time, and at the same time was doing subtraction to figure out how many years had passed since 2018, the year it was supposed to be.

“No, 2042 was the year the UIDB was created,” Yui said. “That was a long time ago.”

“Huh?” Turner said, stopping his mental calculation. “So, what year is it now?”

Yui smirked as if he had just been told a joke. When Turner didn’t smile, Yui asked, “You’re joking, right?”

“No, I’m not joking.”

“Come on, you know what year it is.” Yui said, folding his arms.

Weston had an idea and turned to the robot. “Dudley, what year is it?”

“The current year is 2118.”

Turner felt lightheaded and had to shift his feet to keep from falling over. His brain didn’t seem to want to accept what he’d just heard. This must be a dream, he thought. There’s no way we’ve traveled a hundred years into the future.

“Dudley, I think you mean 2018,” Weston said. “I know because I was born in 2010, and I’m eight years old.”

“If you were born in 2010, you would be one hundred and eight years old,” Dudley said.

Weston turned to Yui. “I think this robot is broken.”

“Yeah, he is definitely broken,” Yui agreed with a smirk, “but he’s right about the year. It really is 2118.”

“Wait, if that’s true, then how do we know you?” Turner asked.

Yui opened his mouth to respond, then closed it again, looking puzzled. “That’s a good question. I actually don’t know. Dudley, can you tell us how they know who I am?”

“I might be able to shed a li’l light on this. Referencin’ Yui’s ancestral record from a hundred years ago, his great-great-grandfather was also named Yui. You and he bear a strikin’ resemblance to each other.”

A cone of light came out of a small lens on Dudley’s torso and projected an image on the ground between the boys. The projection showed an old photo of the Yui that Turner and Weston knew.

“Oh, there he is! That’s Yui!” Weston said, pointing at the photo.

“This photo was taken in 2018,” Dudley said. In the projection, another photo slid into view beside the previous one. “And this is a recent photo of you, Yui.”

Yui gazed at the projection. The faces in the two photos looked nearly identical.

“From the information I’ve found, that man is who you’re named after,” Dudley added.

“You’re named after our friend!” Weston said, and stepped toward Yui. His body moved into the path of Dudley’s projection beam, and the images of the two Yuis appeared on his belly. He giggled and tried to brush the projection away with his hand.

Dudley changed the projection to a realistic image of a bumblebee and produced a buzzing sound, which made the illusion even more believable. The bee began to climb up Weston’s chest toward his face. Weston swatted at the bee, which dodged the attacks and ended up on the tip of Weston’s nose. Weston screamed and spun in circles.

Turner pulled his attention away from Weston and Dudley and looked at Yui, who was shaking his head at the robot’s prank. “So, do you believe us now?”

Yui shrugged. “I mean, it just doesn’t make any sense. If you guys really are from the past, then how did you get here?”

“I told you, I think it was an accident,” Turner said. “This is going to sound crazy, but just a few minutes ago we were playing in our grandpa’s barn. We found a weird Rubik’s Cube hidden in the loft, and when I solved it we ended up here. I have no idea how, but that’s what happened.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of the gemstones.

“What are those?” Yui asked, leaning closer to look at the mound of sparkling gems.

Dudley switched off his projection image and turned his attention to the gemstones. Weston’s giggles died down, and he moved next to Turner.

“These are the pieces of the cube. The cube’s core broke when we got here, and we can’t get these pieces back in place. I’m thinking there’s gotta be a way for the cube to take us back home, but we have to get this fixed before I can try.” A knot of pressure had been rising in Turner’s throat as he talked. He swallowed hard and took deep breaths to keep himself from crying. He felt overwhelmed and helpless and was ready to get back home.

Yui gave Turner and Weston a searching look. “So, you guys are serious? You’re saying you traveled a hundred years into the future just by solving a little puzzle game?”

Turner lowered his head and shrugged. “I know it’s hard for you to believe. It’s hard for me to believe, too.” He pointed in the direction of the crumbling Oldham theater. “I’ve seen the movie theater before, but our version isn’t broken down like that.” He turned and pointed at Dudley. “And we don’t have robots like that.”

“We do too have robots!” Weston said, like he’d caught Turner telling a lie.

“I mean, yes, we do have robots, but they don’t move like that or talk like he does. They’re not that… humanlike. It kinda blows my mind how advanced Dudley is.”

“You hear that, Yui? He thinks I’m advanced!” Dudley said.

“Oh man, if you think Dudley is advanced, you really are from the past,” Yui said, grinning. “He was an outdated PAL even before my parents got him.”

“I’ve been in Yui’s family for 10 years, 2 months, 18 days, 6 hours—”

“Dudley, stop,” Yui said, rolling his eyes. “He’ll keep going down to the millisecond if you don’t stop him.”

“What’s a PAL?” Weston asked.

“PAL is short for Personal Android Laborer,” Dudley said. “I assist my owners with their personal tasks and duties.”

Weston turned to Yui. “You’re his owner?”

Yui nodded. “I want a newer PAL, but Dad says we can’t upgrade until Dudley breaks down to the point where he can’t be fixed anymore.”

“If I had a heart, it’d be meltin’ right now,” Dudley said.

“Oh, whatever,” Yui said.

Turner could tell that Yui and Dudley were just joking with each other, but he didn’t feel like laughing. He felt like crying, or better yet, screaming. He stared down at the gemstone pieces in his hands, wondering if he had fallen into the hole in the barn and bumped his head and was actually just dreaming.

Yui cleared his throat, and when he spoke he sounded sympathetic, as if talking to a friend whose dog had just died. “So, if we can get your cube thing back together, and you solve it, it should take you back to your home… or time… or whatever?”

Turner slowly shrugged his shoulders. “I mean, I don’t know for sure. I’m just guessing.”

“Okay. Well, let’s see if we can fix it!” Yui said, trying to sound cheerful. “Let’s go back inside, though. We’ve already been out here too long. It could come back at any minute.”

Yui looked up at the sky again and Turner followed his gaze, but the sky was empty. “What do you mean? What could be back at any minute?” Turner asked as he poured the gemstones back into his pockets.

“The dragon,” Yui said flatly, then turned toward the building.



FIVE


Analysis




Yui turned on his flashlight as he led the group down a dark flight of stairs inside the clock tower. Dudley followed behind the group, his eyelights providing a diffuse glow in the stairwell.

“Wait, did you say dragon?” Turner asked. “Like, a real dragon?”

“Yeah, but hopefully we won’t have to deal with it,” Yui said.

“Seriously? How long have dragons been a thing?”

“Not until recently. It started attacking the town a couple months ago, and we’ve been without electricity for weeks.”

Weston looked back at Dudley. “You’re still working. You must have a really good battery.”

“I’m solar powered, bub,” Dudley held out his arm, and it glimmered in the soft light. “I’ve got photovoltaic coating. Solar paint.”

“You can get solar power from paint?” Weston asked.

“Bet your taters I can,” Dudley said.

“Yeah, Dudley can watch for the dragon pretty much continuously,” Yui said. “The sun charges his battery throughout the day, and that lasts him through the night.”

“Oh, so that’s what he was doing on the roof? Watching for the dragon?” Turner asked.

“Yeah, I told him to sound his alarm if he detected any unusual movement. He spotted you guys and his alarm went off, so I came out to see if it was the dragon. Glad it wasn’t.”

Yui opened a door to a dimly lit hallway that reminded Turner of his school: cinder block walls, tile floors, and doors spaced at regular intervals. The air was hot and stale and smelled like old shoes. A few candles glowed faintly on small tables against the wall.

“We need to be quiet in here. We don’t want to wake up anyone,” Yui whispered, motioning toward the closed doors.

The other boys nodded and followed behind him, their footsteps echoing softly down the hall.

“Didn’t anyone else hear Dudley’s alarm?” Turner asked quietly.

Yui frowned and shook his head as if it were a ridiculous question. “PALs can aim their sound wherever they want it to go.”

“So no one else heard that sound?” Weston asked a little too loudly. Yui whirled around and shushed him.

“Wait, if that’s true, then how did you hear it?” Turner asked Yui.

“I actually didn’t,” Yui said. He stuck his finger in his ear and pulled out a silver plug that was slightly bigger than his fingernail. He held it up for Turner and Weston to see. “I can talk with Dudley through this.”

“What is that?” Weston asked, leaning closer and squinting in the low light.

“It’s an ear transceiver that allows Yui and I to communicate when we’re within operatin’ range,” Dudley said.

Yui slid the transceiver back into his ear and continued down the hallway.

“I thought this building was a courthouse,” Turner said. “I didn’t know people actually lived here.”

“It’s not a courthouse anymore. They made it into a community housing building several years ago because of all the people needing a place to live.”

Turner looked at the number of doors in the hallway. “How many other people live here?”

“I don’t know.” Yui shrugged, then nodded at Dudley. “Ask the walking calculator.”

“There are sixty-four apartments in this here community housin’ buildin’, each containin’ four inhabitants for a total of two hundred fifty-six residents.”

“That’s a lot of people!” Weston said.

“Eh, not really,” Yui said. “We live in one of the smaller community buildings.” He quietly opened one of the apartment doors and waved the others inside.

“Is this where your family lives?” Turner asked.

Yui nodded and led them down a short entranceway to the living room. Moonlight shone through the open blinds. There was a couch in the middle of the room facing a curved TV screen that nearly took up an entire wall.

“Geez, that TV is huge,” Weston whispered. “It looks like a movie theater screen.”

Yui shrugged as if he didn’t understand what that meant. He guided the group through the living room and into a small home office. A large desk sat in the corner of the room; several visor headsets hung from a rack on the wall. In the middle of the office was a smaller table with crumpled piles of colored paper on top. The walls had built-in bookshelves filled mostly with books and framed photographs, but one entire shelf was devoted to model cars.

Yui closed the door once everyone was inside. “This is our office. We can look at the—”

Turner and Weston both gasped and rushed over to the bookshelf with the model cars. There were realistic scale replicas of all kinds of cars and trucks. The boys recognized a few of the models, but many of them they’d never seen before; instead of wheels, they had wings, propellers, or rockets.

“Whoa! These are awesome!” Turner said, leaning in for a better view of a couple of unopened Treasure Hunt cars.

“Are all of the cars yours?” Weston asked.

“Most of those are my dad’s,” Yui said. “He’s been collecting for a while. Some of them used to belong to his dad and grandpa.”

“I wonder if any of them ever belonged to our Yui,” Turner said. He saw a Nissan GT-R Nismo that looked familiar, but he couldn’t be sure.

“Can we see your room?” Weston asked. He was curious about what cool new toys had been created in the last one hundred years.

“That’s not a good idea right now,” Yui said. He climbed into a chair at the small, messy table. “My family is asleep, and I don’t want to wake them.”

Turner recalled that it had been early morning when he and Weston had been playing in the barn. “What time is it?”

“The time is 4:48 a.m.,” Dudley said.

“I know it’s early,” Yui added guiltily. “I haven’t been sleeping so great lately.” He scratched at his arm and his sleeve rose up a little, exposing an area of red skin that circled his forearm.

Turner almost asked about the red skin, but stopped himself, thinking it might be a rude question. He was glad that Weston hadn’t seen it, or he’d have surely said something.

“Do you have any Pokémon cards?” Weston asked, looking around the room for signs of a trading card binder or a Pokémon tin.

“What are those?” Yui asked.

“You don’t know about Pokémon?”

Yui shook his head. Turner and Weston glanced at each other, disheartened.

Yui stuck his flashlight into a clip on a short black stand mounted to the side of the table. It held his flashlight in place and cast its beam down onto the center of the table. Turner saw the piles of paper were intricately folded origami creatures. Yui started to push the origami aside, but Turner stopped him. The colorful creatures had decorative markings on them in dark ink. Turner got closer to an origami dragon to admire the realistic details of its eyes. His nose was nearly touching the dragon when its eyes winked.

Turner flinched. “Whoa! It blinked at me!”

“Of course it did, it’s e-origami paper,” Yui said, as if reciting a dull fact. “Please tell me you’ve seen e-origami before.”

Turner and Weston both shook their heads.

“Oh geez,” Yui said, and smacked the palm of his hand against his forehead. “Okay, this is electronic origami paper. You can add details to your creations and animate them. Stuff’s been around forever. It’s like you guys have been living in a cave or something.”

Yui swept the origami creatures to the side, clearing off the middle of the table. “Okay, we can look at your cube pieces here.”

Turner pulled the gemstones from his pockets and dumped them onto the tabletop. They glittered in the flashlight’s beam.

Weston wrestled the cube’s core out of his pocket and tossed it next to the gems. The quarters he’d swiped from his grandpa’s kitchen clinked along with it. “Oops, sorry.” He scooped the coins back into his pocket.

Turner arranged the puzzle pieces on the table and demonstrated how the gemstones were supposed to fit together. Yui picked up the core and inspected it, then handed it to Dudley.

“Dudley, analyze this.”

The robot tossed the core into the air and caught it in his mouth like a piece of popcorn. He swallowed and made a long burping sound. “Eh, could’ve used some mustard.”

Weston giggled, but Turner looked concerned.

“Come on, Dudley,” Yui said. “We don’t have all day!”

A compartment in Dudley’s torso popped open, and a small tray slid forward with the cube’s core on the end. “Accordin’ to my diagnosis, this here core is an aluminum alloy. The crack appears to have been caused by a combination of stress and old age.”

“It does look old,” Yui agreed.

“There’s somethin’ else you should see.” Dudley held out the core over the center of the table so the boys could see. He put pressure against two of the core’s axes which widened the crack enough to see a round, silver object inside.

“Ooh! Is that a marble?” Weston asked.

“To tell you the truth, I ain’t exactly sure,” Dudley said, inspecting the sphere. “It’s some sort of material that’s not identified in my knowledge base.”

Turner gave Dudley a worried look. “What’s that mean?”

“Since I don’t know what it is, I can’t tell you its purpose. But, there’s no discernible reason for somethin’ like this to be inside a puzzle toy unless it serves some special function beyond the basic movements of the puzzle. I expect it just might have something to do with how you fellas ended up here.”

Weston leaned farther over the table to get a better look at the sphere. “Can I touch it?”

“Good heavens, no! Since we don’t know exactly what it is or what it does, and since it’s usually wrapped up nice and safe inside this here aluminum core, I’ve got a hunch that whoever put it there didn’t want little fellas like yourselves foolin’ with it.”

Dudley eased the pressure on the core and the crack shrank, enclosing the sphere. He put the core back on the table in line with the gemstone pieces.

“So, are you going to be able to fix it?” Turner asked.

“Sorry, bub. I don’t have the necessary tools or materials.”

Turner’s shoulders slumped.

“But it can be fixed!” Dudley continued. “Just not here.”

“You think the machinist can help us?” Yui asked.

“Bet your taters he can!” Dudley said. “The machinist can patch this thing up lickety-split. Either that, or he can build you a brand spankin’ new one.”

Turner breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay, so, where is the machinist?” He nodded toward the hallway they’d come from. “Does he live in this building?”

“No, he doesn’t live here. He’s got a machine shop just outside of town,” Yui said.

“Oh, okay. So… how do we get there?”

“Well, it’s a little too far to walk.” Yui frowned, then he brightened up. “We can take the car!”

“Now listen up, bub,” Dudley said, lifting his index finger. “You are not authorized to operate a vehicle without the supervision or consent of a guardian—”


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