Thirty immobile minutes passed, with Mitch just staring out the window and sighing. The maintenance crew showed up in the corridor, noisily emptying trash barrels and flushing the toilets in the lobby bathroom. The whine of the floor buffer knocked Mitch out of his inaction. Hard as it was to not be depressed, he knew he had to snap out of it and do something. He turned back to his bench and thought, What if I just surround these pieces with whatever junk I can find? If I throw enough stuff onto the bench, something might come to me.
He rustled through Bische’s recyclables drawer and all of the open parts bins for anything remotely useful. There wasn’t much. The best was a mini-satellite dish, complete with transmitter, that he’d found wedged under Bische’s smartboard. He perched it on top of the car battery, just to have a place for it, but seeing that it looked good there, he attached the leads to each terminal and soldered the base in place. He then double wound the magna-coils, latching one to each side of the battery, so that they poked out like oversized headphones.
He grabbed the fan case, inverter panels, and a circuit board from his charger and attached them all to the dish and battery with a couple of copper-tungsten wires filched from Wayne’s bin. He flipped the switch on the dish, but nothing good happened. It made an ugly noise, overheated, and burned off a lead. Yikes! He had to use a pencil eraser to flick the switch off before the whole caboodle melted down.
He thought some more, rummaging idly through Maggie’s bin. His fingers came across a trimpot, and he wondered what would happen if he added that to the mix. He unhooked everything, soldered on a new lead, and redid the connections on the circuit board to include the trimpot. Then he loosened the nuts on the battery terminals and attempted to twist the fan wires around each pole. At that moment, one of Dean’s popcorn slags decided to drop from the wall behind his bench and onto the dish’s switch. An electric arc flared out from the center of the dish, like the flick of a serpent’s tongue, and zapped the back of Mitch’s hand.
“Gah!” Mitch jerked away from the spark, only to jam the fan wire deep into his thumb. “Ow!” He shoved his thumb into his mouth and sucked hard, but that did little to ease his pain—and even less to quell the swell of frustration and anger he felt for his plight. He closed his eyes, trying to calm down, but instead saw the faces of his friends, happy and confident about their devices, secure in the knowledge that they weren’t a few points away from failing what should be their easiest class. Everyone else is partying right now, he thought. Partying or relaxing back at the dorm. Everyone else was having fun, slamming beer and snacks and living it up. Because they were done. They were original. Their scholarships weren’t on the line.
But here he was—trapped in the lab. Bleeding and almost electrocuted by this miserable, bad joke of a thing. “I should be eating nachos!” he yelled at his creation. He lost it. He reared back and threw the wrench hard at his bench and the lame, lame, lame device.
He’d expected the wrench to bounce off of the dish and clatter back down to the floor. It would have been loud and violent and satisfying. But instead of smacking the device and making a glorious, frantic racket, the wrench curved up and floated to the center of the dish. It hung suspended for a moment, and then, as if an invisible finger had flicked it, slowly, clockwise, it began to spin.
As he watched, dumbfounded, the wrench spun faster, and the whole contraption began to whine. Around the wrench, the dish whistled and popped, then like a flare of lightning, a blue beam shot out. It anchored itself to the center of the dish, but spread up until it formed a cornucopia-like cone that reached halfway across the room and almost as high as the ceiling.
Mitch dove to the side away from the beam as it erupted from the contraption. Now he stood beside it, frozen, his eyes wide, his injured thumb, surprisingly, still in his mouth. His first coherent thought was, What just happened? That was swiftly followed by, Holy fucking shit!
Not five minutes ago, all that filled the lab was his rage and frustration. Now, from the center of his asinine device, pulsed a Beluga-sized megaphone. Mitch didn’t know whether to congratulate himself or faint. Tentatively, he reached out with one hand and tapped the cone with his fingertips. It wasn’t solid at all, but kind of staticky and bouncy, like the aura around the edge of a light socket. He put both hands against it, measuring and shaping it like a mime as he walked along the cone’s side. When he got to the front of it, he peered inside. His cheek muscles twitched, and warm sweat trickled down his armpits. What he saw was both beautiful and wrong.
Stars. Stars and the evening sky. But he knew it couldn’t be that. He looked away, shook his head, and then peered inside the cone again. On second glance, it seemed more like a painting of the evening sky, the starlight not moving and twinkling as it should. For a moment, his analytical mind took over. No, what it really looked like was points of light—maybe a hundred. Maybe more.
“No way. No… freakin’… way.” He scanned the ceiling, hoping to see a hole to prove that these indeed were stars and that the deep blue was in fact the outside sky. But no, the ceiling was intact. The effect came entirely from the cone. These were lights, not stars. And there was noise, definitely noise.
Not just the whine from the whirring wrench, but the familiar sound of people talking, glasses clinking, and the occasional swell of live, raucous music. On top of all that, he could swear he smelled burgers—burgers, fries, and, oh yes, beer. It was his favorite scent—the fragrance of leisure, entertainment, comradery, and fun times. Had the doohickey conjured a sports bar? He had to see.
Forgetting his fear, Mitch stepped into the cone, listening and sniffing his way through the darkness. From the outside, the points of light pocking the cone’s roof and sides had looked flat as dust, just flecks of paint against a midnight sky. Now, up close, they appeared more like pearls, shimmering in a mesh of azure blue. Mitch paused by each, ears pricked and nostrils flared, straining to find the restaurant jewel.
After just five steps, he located the music and burgers, as well as the glorious aroma of jalapenos and cheese. Nachos! His stomach rumbled, reminding him that he’d missed dinner. He had a sudden impulse to pluck the pearl, hold it close and inhale deeply, maybe even give it a lick. He reached for it, and as his hand got close, the circle of light became disk-like and expanded. He jerked his hand back, and the circle of light shrank. On a whim, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a quarter, and tossed it toward the light. The circle widened ever so slightly. The quarter quivered, suspended in the light beam for a second, and then was gone.
Had the quarter stuck to the light or bounced back from it, Mitch would have felt better. But his stomach dropped when the coin disappeared. Either it had fallen through the light hole or… the light was a death ray that disintegrated it completely.
“Stop freaking out,” he chided himself aloud. How could a death ray smell like nachos and beer? The light, he reasoned, had to be a passageway of sorts, and all that happened to the quarter was that it fell straight in. He held a finger to his mouth as he talked through the logic. “If the quarter fell in, that means the bar is real. And if the bar is real, that means—” Mitch paused as he wondered if the light hole could expand wide enough to fit a hungry human, desperately in need of a cold drink and fried food. “Couldn’t hurt to try it out,” he said.
He squatted low and shifted his shoulders to edge into the hole, but as he leaned forward, a dark something blotted out the light. He dodged instinctively. Whiz! The dark thing flew past him and landed heavily on the floor of the cone. He got up to look and let out a triumphant whoop.
It was a dart. Mitch pumped his fists above his head in delight. “I’m right. It is a bar.” He picked up the dart and chucked it impulsively back at the light hole. Cheers erupted, followed by applause, and a faint, less-than-sober voice proclaimed, “Now that’s what I call a trick shot!”
Mitch bent again to peer through the hole, hoping to catch sight of his handiwork, only to be greeted instead with a furious argument, growing angrier and louder by the second. A female voice shouted, “You womanizing jerk!” And then—Splash! Cold, foamy liquid flooded out of the light, landing squarely in Mitch’s face, soaking through his t-shirt and jacket. A burn like none he’d ever felt before penetrated his eyes. “Gaaah!”
Had Mitch been a normal patron, sitting beside the couple in the bar, he would have seen this for what it was: an angry woman tossing beer at her date. He would have laughed and fumbled around for a napkin or the edge of Dean’s shirt to wipe his face. But tonight was not normal. The more his eyes stung, the faster the fear he’d squelched moments before rose back to the surface. For the second time tonight, he lost it.
Screaming and flailing, Mitch clawed his face, certain that some unearthly, intelligent ectoplasm had attacked. Deceptive, it lured victims to its bright white lair with yummy smells and happy sounds of drunken camaraderie, then bam! It latched onto their unlucky faces to drag them back into its cruel, extra-dimensional hellscape. The fun times he’d heard were just echoes of other fools who, like him, had been sucked unwittingly into this alien’s nth-level vortex. To Mitch in this moment, the brackish fluid was pure plasma, and his eyes were being liquefied in their sockets.
This last thought—blue plasma liquefying his eyes—increased his panic. He tumbled backward, landing hard on his butt, and skidded along the floor into the opposite wall of the cone. He slapped at his face and felt his fingers sliding too easily over his cheeks. “Gaaah! Face melt! Gaaah!” He needed a sink, fast.
He scrambled to his feet. Prying one eye open barely enough to see the cone’s opening, Mitch staggered out into the general direction of the emergency eye-wash station. Diving at the steel basin, he punched the handle, then sighed with relief as the lukewarm water washed the burning, acid foam from his face and eyes.
As the burning receded, Mitch gradually calmed down and immediately noticed a very familiar smell: rich and malty, slightly sweet, kinda hoppy. Able to open his eyes again, he looked down at his shirt, sniffed hard, and laughed. It was Guinness, his favorite beer. What a dork! he thought to himself. Then he noticed something else on his shirt—a square bar napkin, no doubt tossed along with the beer. Peeling the napkin back, Mitch read, “Sutter’s Pub. 415 W. Pike St, Seattle, WA. Where fishmongers come to play.”
Seattle? He looked back at the blue cone, a canopy really, and its embossed stars, one of which was a portal to a bar four states away. He wondered where the other lights led, trapped as they were, like flies in blue amber. Would they all be from Seattle? Could he go through the light like the dart and the quarter and sample the delights of Sutter’s Pub? Many questions bubbled up, but one thing was sure in Mitch’s mind—he was most definitely getting an ‘A’ on this project.
Sidling back to the dish, he reached into its heart and dislodged the wrench. Like a light switch, the canopy blinked off. “Wait’ll the guys see this,” he said, storing the wrench carefully in the top drawer of his bench. Feeling happier than he had in three weeks and six days, Mitch sprinted all the way back to the dorm.
Dean!” Mitch burst through the door of his and Dean’s dorm room, breathless and excited.
“Heya, buddy!” Dean called over his shoulder. “You done? Congrats! Grab some pizza!”
Dean had wasted no time shedding the semester. His backpack lay heaped near the trash can, like a crumpled piece of paper. The lights were out and the game machine on—loud. Metal music and laser blasts blared from the thrift-shop speakers tacked across the walls. Hyper-muscular avatars gamboled across his computer screen, bombing, burning, and crushing the landscapes of Warrior Ops XIV: Duty Bound. A pizza box from Stinky Keith’s lay open and annihilated on Mitch’s desk.
Dean sat splayed inside his bean bag on the floor, surrounded by greasy paper towels, pizza crusts, and crushed Monster beverage cans. An oversized headset covered his right ear. His fingers danced confidently across his game controller, vaporizing mercenaries and aliens with deadly precision. Between the music’s shreds and snarls, he called out commands to his virtual platoonmates, like a general sounding the clarion for war.
They’d just cornered Wayne, who for weeks now had been terrorizing players with a hacked power shield that stole their energy and reset their progress. Now Dean and crew had him trapped in a gully, away from his shield, his body armor leaking energy. All they needed was five more minutes and Wayne would be back at square one, but boy was Mitch excited. He kept rambling on and on about something Dean could barely hear, much less understand. At the back of his mind, he was kind of curious to know why Mitch was worked up, but he was so close to making Wayne eat dirt, the next five minutes had dibs on his attention. If only Mitch would shut up!
Copyright © 2020 AJ Kilgore
Thanks for reading this preview!
Mitch and crew go on the ride of their lives as Chapter #4 continues. Where do they go? Who do they meet? How the heck is Dear Leader involved?!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
AJ Kilgore’s first words were “light” and “door”. Her fascination with both has never ceased. She lives in Denver, the light of Colorado, but considers herself a citizen of the world.