“Prepare to be dazzled!“
Larry Knight tapped the computer lab’s smart board and couldn’t help but smile at the collective “Oohs” and “Aahs” that rippled through the class as a large, shimmering cube materialized above their heads. He tapped the board again, and the same shimmering light erupted from its stylus, encircling his hand. Now for the true pyrotechnics. He stepped onto the sensor array directly beneath the ceiling projector. Immediately, the glow from the stylus spread up his arm, to his head, then all around his body until he was engulfed in bright yellow, virtual flames. A nearby student gasped.
Turning his mic up to full volume, Larry flung back his head and let loose a wild laugh that reverberated through the room.
“Behold!” he said, wide-eyed. “I am the Sun! And I give you…Light!”
With a dramatic flourish, he stabbed the stylus at the cube. A fake bolt of lightning shot out that pierced the box’s side, then exploded into a brilliant cascade of colorful waves before coalescing into a single pulsing, white dot. The light, now a particle, zipped randomly around the cube, dragging a cloudy-blue vapor trail that soon obscured its path.
“See how the Sun’s essence seeks to hide?” he asked, still affecting a theatrical tone. “Who among you dares to find it?”
He dangled the stylus in front of them like a prize, and a dozen hands raised into the air. He’d barely gifted it to the closest eager student before she jockeyed him away from the sensor array and began furiously waving the stylus at the cube. Soon, other students rallied around her, shouting encouragement and suggestions. Larry found himself squeezed into the back of the room, edged out by the students’ fervor.
Fantastic, he thought. Just the reaction I wanted.
The “Particle in a 3D Box” problem could not be drier. Even he, physics geek that he’d been freshman year, had fallen asleep when Dr. Forbus had taught it. Now here he was, Forbus’ teaching assistant, still geek enough to love the topic and vain enough to not want to be dull teaching it. With the old man out sick, he’d re-worked the lecture, adding interactive visuals and motion capture. Cheesy as they were, the theatrics and graphics had everyone in the class on their feet and engaged—a vast improvement over the usual reactions to Dr. Forbus’ stale delivery. Each student was completely invested in solving the problem and Larry was sure they would. Once someone remembered what a smart board stylus was for.
“Let me try!” Dean Chambers, one of the more technically savvy students, forced his way to the front. Billy Hoag, the latest failure, gladly handed him the stylus.
This should be good, thought Larry. Chambers is pretty sharp.
He was anything but. The kid merely added jumping and slashing to all the stylus waving. Larry shook his head and laughed.
“Not workin’,” said Billy, deadpan.
“Maybe we need magic,” said Steve, Billy’s bench mate. “Try a spell.”
“Unh!” Dean grunted, still jumping up and down and waving. “Don’t know any. Uhn! Yell some at me.”
“No, Billy,” Maggie Heinz giggled. “That lifts things. Duh!”
They spent the next ten minutes tossing out faux Latin phrases and quotes from Harry Potter which, to Dean’s credit, he repeated unironically, but to no avail.
“My turn,” said Maggie with a grin. She hip-checked Dean off the sensor array.
“Try the spells with a British accent,” Billy suggested.
Try thinking. Larry stopped himself from saying it. The point of the exercise was for the students to solve the problem on their own—a feat this crew should be well-equipped to do. They were Gabriel Bische’s Innovation Program superstars; the up and coming cream of the crop; the smartest of all the freshman classes. Surely one of them knew that smart board styluses were meant for writing, not just waving. From there, the solution should present itself—just write the 3D wave function and voila! Problem solved.
Seconds later, as if reading his mind, the ever-astute Maggie, shouted, “Guys! I think we can write with it!” She held down the button on the side of the stylus and with a flick of her wrist, drew the sigma for a calculus integral in mid-air. “Yippee!” she squealed with delight. Her success inspired a fresh round of shouted suggestions from the class. Soon, the blue vapor faded as Maggie deliberately wrote out each part of the wave equation. Larry took a moment to pat himself on the back. Nobody’s sleeping today.
Then he heard a deep sigh behind him and felt less joyful. He had completely forgotten about the lone hold-out still seated and staring glumly out the window. Mitch Campbell, normally one of the more engaged students, had withdrawn into himself a few weeks ago, and had remained that way since. Oh, he turned in assignments and scored well on tests. But the ebullient Mitch from the start of term had devolved into a pensive, taciturn worrier, fretting over minor mistakes and apologizing for less than perfect scores.
Old, happy Mitch would have been the first to raise his hand, and probably would have solved the problem in the first five minutes; he was the sharpest of this bunch. Today’s Mitch just sat completely lost in thought, and not in a good way. Whatever this quiet was that had descended on the boy could only have been born of some unvoiced distress. Should I bring it up with Dr. Bische? What’s eating the kid?
“Hey, Larry?” Maggie’s voice brought his attention back to the larger group. He turned around and saw the nearly completed equation hovering beneath the 3D projector.
“Looking good, guys.” He cleared his throat and said expansively, “Now finish it and the Light will be yours!”
“That’s the problem,” said Billy. “We’re stuck. What next?”
“I bring Light, not Answers, young mages. The information you seek is within…yourselves!”
Dean rolled his eyes. “Alright, let’s get Mitch. Hey, Mitch, buddy!”
Campbell jerked his head away from the window. “Huh? What?” He looked around the room as if only now noticing everyone else was otherwise engaged.
Larry dropped the act and said, “Particle in a 3D Box, Campbell.” He pointed at the equation floating in front of the green cube. “Your classmates are stuck. Would you have a suggestion?”
Mitch squinted as he studied the box and the equation. Then he said, “Oh, yeah. Just take the product and normalize the integral.”
Maggie smacked her forehead. “Duh!” After a couple of additional strokes, she double-clicked the stylus’s button. The fog in the box completely cleared, revealing the light particle suspended in a far corner.
“Hooray!” The class clapped, and there were calls of “Thanks, Mitch!”
Bische’s protégé smiled feebly, but soon his eyes drifted back to the window. Larry stared at him, amazed. Solved the problem without breaking a sweat. But, man, what is eating this kid?
Mitch had arrived at class determined to pay attention and just lose himself in the schoolwork. He’d spent the past two weeks making that vow at the start of every one of his classes. But the outcome tended to be the same regardless of how hard he tried to focus. His mind would drift away, back to Cheyenne Mountain and the photon gateway, to the blue plasma grid with its bright, orange-ringed portals, and to the joy he’d felt riding on the backs of photons to new, exciting places via a device he and his friends Dean and Wayne had built.
But with the flip of a switch, the gateway was gone—shut down by its original creator as a necessary step to save the world from a mad man. When Mitch’s mind reached this memory, his stomach would knot, and he’d find himself dropped inside a well of sorrow. His great invention, the Jump!GO—a miniaturized version of the Canopy, the one thing he’d built that could improve the world—had instead hurt his friends, gotten him imprisoned, been stolen by an assassin, and nearly triggered a war with North Korea. His strength of spirit evaporated and he would spiral down, deep into the well, to a place no lecture could reach. Before he knew it, whatever class he’d been in ended and he’d shuffle on to the next one, vowing again to pay attention, only again to start to drift, his depression on repeat.
Larry Knight nearly disrupted his funk. Big, broad, and booming, Larry was a magnetic speaker and hard to ignore. Though it was the end of the day, Mitch managed to stay with the lecture up until Larry “magically” captured the particle. Beside him, Dean laughed, then scoffed. He leaned toward Mitch and whispered, “Try riding that to Cheyenne Mountain.”
And just like that, Mitch’s descent down the stairs of his mental basement began anew. Dean had been trying to make a joke, but his underlying anger since their return from Colorado Springs made every word out of his mouth sound like a prelude to a fight. At least it sounded that way to Mitch. So, he returned to the window, letting the voices of his classmates fade into the background, and thought back on better days.
He could smell the nachos and burgers of Sutter’s Pub in Seattle, the musky oil and exhaust fumes from the New York subway, the moldy pier platforms on the Embarcadero. Images and sensations to warm his heart. But he made the mistake of closing his eyes, and the assassin, Geomi, was there, firing his gun at Dean. The burning husk of the North Korean spy headquarters filled his vision, the soot-covered faces of their friends Jin and Chung appeared, and though he was happy to see them alive, he felt like he would drown in guilt. He longed for those early days of the Jump!Go, when firing up the plasma grid meant good food, fun times, and only a little adventure. It was exhilarating and frightening. He felt powerful and powerless. He wanted to go back to the good times but was too scared to consider how they ever could. He missed it and hated it. It was too much, too much. Will there be no end to the pain?
“Hey, Mitch, buddy!”
Dean’s voice cut through the fog in Mitch’s mind. He jerked back to the room. “Huh? What?”
Maggie held the smart board’s stylus and a familiar equation hovered near her head. He looked at Dean and shrugged.
“Particle in a 3D Box, Campbell,” Larry prompted. “Your classmates are stuck. Would you have a suggestion?”
Mitch blurted out the first thing that came to mind. Maggie tried it, the photon appeared, and the class cheered.
Billy said, “Hey, Campbell, jump through that photon to Sutter’s Pub and buy me some nachos.” Most of the class laughed. Dean glowered. Maggie poked Billy and said, “Not funny.”
“Come on,” said Billy, undeterred. “These guys made a big deal out of their instant travel machine. They took everybody’s money, but then suddenly, it didn’t work anymore?”
“If it ever worked at all,” said Steve.
“We gave the money back!” shouted Dean. “And Billy, you helped test the plasma Canopy. You know it worked!”
Billy folded his arms and got into Dean’s face. “I know you guys set something up and made it seem like it worked. Sutter’s Pub was awesome and all. Best nachos I’ve ever had. But I never stepped outside. How do I know I really went to Seattle?”
Somebody in the back of the room said, “I heard some guy even died.”
“Nobody died! That’s a damn lie!” said Dean, his face red and his hands balled into fists. He scanned the room for the offender, but no one person revealed themselves. The whole class collectively backed away from both him and Mitch.
“Okay, everybody, that’s it for today.” Larry stepped between Dean and Billy. Dean was tall, beefy, and imposing, but beside Larry, he looked like a ten-year-old. Billy got the message and backed down.
Larry nodded and smiled at the rest of the class. “Good! Be sure to write up your analysis and rationale for today’s solution. Dr. F expects you all to submit those, so be sure to get ’em to me by Thursday’s lab. See y’all then.”
Dismissed, everyone gathered their things and headed for the door. Dean, glowering, picked up his backpack. “Thanks for the help,” he said sarcastically, then turned to leave. Miserable, Mitch trudged after him.
“Hey, Campbell, Chambers. Hold up,” Larry called out to them, beaming and beckoning them to the podium.
Mitch veered toward the door, hoping Larry would think he hadn’t heard him, but Dean grabbed his arm. “Come on. Won’t be that bad.”
Larry motioned for them to wait while the last of their classmates left, then said, “Sorry about that, guys. Billy was way out of line. But had to tell you, I finally read your paper last night. Great work. Fantastic stuff!”
Mitch’s blood went cold. “Our paper?”
“Yeah, the plasma Canopy paper from last semester. ‘Big Blue is calling you.’ “
“How’d you get a hold of that?” asked Dean.
“Downloaded from the internal network.”
Mitch panicked. “But we withdrew the paper after some…problems surfaced.” Shit! Bische had told them to delete the paper completely. He thought he’d caught all the copies. Which internal site did we miss? Oh, gods, what if someone else stole it again?
Larry looked sheepish and said. “Oh, that could have happened. See, I downloaded it last semester. But with work and classes and writing my thesis defense, I only just got around to it. You’ve got me curious, though. The protocol in the paper seemed fine to me. What kind of ‘problems’ surfaced? “
“Short-sightedness,” said Dean bitterly.
“Actually, we found a safety issue,” Mitch corrected him. “Worked otherwise.” It’s not exactly a lie, he thought. Misuse by assassins could be considered a “safety” issue.
“Ah,” said Larry, nodding his head. “I can see that. Pretty radical discovery. Bound to have some kinks. Too bad. I was hoping you could tell me if Bische needed more help on the team. What better job for a particle physicist, right?” He pointed to himself and smiled broadly. “I mean, I like Dr. Forbus and enjoy teaching and what not, but there’s nothing like applied work in the real world, you know?”
Dean hung his head dejectedly. “Sorry, dude. Like Billy said, project’s cancelled. There is no team.”
Larry’s face fell. “Wow. Guess I really did miss out. But…with that knowledge out there, there’ll be other chances.” His smile returned. “My moment will come. As will yours. I guarantee it. Chins up, gentlemen.” He drew himself up to his full height and beamed at them. Reluctantly, they nodded their heads in agreement.
“Good! That speech worked on your buddy, too.”
“What, you mean Wayne?” Mitch asked.
“Yeah, Wayne Hirano. Seriously, who else hangs out with you guys? You’re the Three Musketeers. I’m kinda surprised he’s not here today, but I figure he just has his head down working on you all’s idea.”
“Our idea,” said Dean. Mitch caught his eye, but Dean seemed as confused as he was.
“For the Tamblyn Intern Mentoring competition. He needed the rule pack and was gonna ask Bische for it, but Dr. B was out, so he asked me. I printed the packet and he left. That was last week, though.”
Mitch smacked his forehead. He’d been moping so much he had completely forgotten they were supposed to be applying for TIM. From the look on Dean’s face, he’d forgotten, too. What self-centered jerks we are, Mitch thought. No wonder Wayne had stopped talking to them.
“He seemed really excited. Said Tamblyn interns are auto-approved for the Rising Stars forum at the Tech Convergence Conference in a couple of months. Rising Stars attract plenty of angel investors. If I had a team, I’d apply for TIM, too. Smart move on your part to go for a spot.”
“Yeah, that’s us. Always thinking ahead,” lied Dean. “Um, we haven’t seen Wayne all day.” It had been more than a day, but after the Three Musketeers remark, Mitch understood why Dean was reluctant to share that fact with Larry. “Do you know where he went? “
Larry shrugged. “If you’re not in class, I don’t track you. Wherever you are, that’s on you. But he did say he’d fill you both in.” He stared at them, incredulous. “You’re the Three Musketeers. You haven’t talked?”
Dean looked away. Mitch shook his head and said, “We’ve been pretty busy the past couple of weeks.”
“Huh. Well, I’d suggest you find him. Seemed like he was on to something hot. Besides, I’ve been watching you guys. You make a good team. I bet you’ll get selected for TIM, fix your problem with the Canopy, and rock the world.” Larry looked at his watch. “Whoops. Gotta go start Dr. F’s next lab. Remember what I said. You’ll never find gold unless you dig. Try again. Bye!”
Larry ran off, leaving Mitch and Dean alone in the classroom to ponder. Dean was the first to break the silence. “So. You think Wayne just forgot to tell us his grand idea? Or do you think he intentionally ditched us?”
“If he ditched us, would you blame him?” Mitch stared glumly at his friend. The first time he’d looked Dean in the eye since they’d returned from Cheyenne Mountain. “Neither of us is a barrel of laughs lately. Hell, I’d ditch us if you weren’t my roommate. The only reason I don’t is cuz you’d sell my stuff.”
“Already tried it. Dude, even the thrift store doesn’t want your stuff.” They chuckled quietly together, some of the tension between them finally dissipating. Then, standing on his toes, Dean wrapped an arm around Mitch’s shoulder and in a pretty good approximation of Larry said, “Chin up, Campbell. Let’s go find the third Musketeer.”
Mitch laughed. “Now say it like you’re British.”
Dean cleared his throat and switched to an exaggerated, English falsetto. “Cheerio, Campbell. Let the Wayne Hunt begin!”
The computer room door snapped shut on their laughter.
…The CASE building was their last stop before the dorm. They started in the basement at Dr. Rebar’s machine shop. Not there. Next, they went upstairs to Bische’s lab. Dr. Bische, head of the Innovation Program, was also their unofficial mentor. The three of them had known Bische since middle school and were always welcome in his lab whether he was in class or not. The lab was his sanctuary and he was always there, working on one thing other with students or alone. But today, the lab was locked and dark.
Cupping their hands over their eyes, they peered through the front window. Wayne’s bench was way over in the back and on the other side of the lab. Each bench had a small light tacked to the wall that could be used for close-up work. “Is his light on?” asked Dean. Mitch couldn’t tell. They pounded on the door regardless, but no one answered.
Lainie Troy, the building manager, had the office next door to Bische’s lab. Mitch tapped on her door. “Excuse me, Ms. Troy.”
She’d been deep in conversation with a member of her team. When she saw Mitch and Dean standing at her door, she rolled her eyes and said to the guy, “Oh, lord, it’s that Campbell boy. Goodness.”
She called out to Mitch. “One second, young man,” then to her employee said, “You just know this is gonna be some kind of mess. This boy and his friends. Always up to something strange, like that business last semester with the radiation leak that Dr. Wilkins had to clean up before he got fired for selling secrets supposedly, but probably really ‘cuz he threw out whatever radioactive thing Campbell left lying around, and then both of them tryna blame Dr. Bische for their own foolishness. Hmmph.”
She finally got up to greet them at the door. “Whatcha need, young man?” as if there was no way for Mitch to have heard every word of her diatribe.
“We’re looking for Dr. Bische, ma’am. Have you seen him?”
“He had some place to be and left early. Can I help you?”
Dean said, “If you can open up his lab, we’d appreciate it. A friend of ours is working on something with him and we just need to check it.”
“Oh, no, uh-uhn. Not happening.” She pursed her lips and advanced on them, hands on her hips. “Not after last semester with the loud music and y’all trashing the lab and then causing some kinda hazardous leak in the back room and poor Dr. Wilkins nearly havin’ a nervous breakdown tryna find it and then him all of a sudden landing in jail ‘cuz of y’all, probably. No. Never again. Checkin’ on something ‘for a friend’? Not today. You can call Dr. Bische if you need to, but the door’s staying locked.”
She’d backed Mitch and Dean clear out of her office and said to the employee, “Just like I toldja. Some kind of mess.” Her door slammed shut.
“That could have gone better,” said Mitch.
Copyright © 2020 AJ Kilgore
Thanks for reading this preview!
Lainie’s got a point. These guys are about to leap into a mess, but what better way to start a new adventure! To read all about it, keep a lookout for Jump Tech, coming to Amazon this spring.
Be light to each other. Thanks again!
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.