“I don’t believe in mathematics.” ~Albert Einstein
The intensity of the cold surprised Toby as much as his sudden and painful arrival–face down in a layer of feathery snow too thin to cushion him from the hard-pack beneath it. He came up sputtering and brushing frantically at the frozen powder sticking to his nose and cheeks. His glasses dangled precariously from one ear having sustained substantial damage to the wad of tape which held ear and eye-pieces together. Toby stuffed them in his pocket and rubbed his face to restore some warmth. It worked but sent a trickle of frigid runoff down the inside of his collar.
He had no idea the Translation Effect would leave him so wobbly. He’d heard his father talk about it, but he never paid much attention. His dad talked a lot, usually about stuff Toby didn’t understand.
Clutching himself for warmth, he turned in a circle and squinted at the dark wasteland.
The sky was less forbidding. Vast waves of colored light floated in a sea of brilliant stars. Neither moon nor horizon offered any clues about where he’d landed. Not that he needed them. He knew. Who could’ve imagined his dad’s stupid machine would work with neither longitude nor latitude settings? On a whim, he’d typed in a destination never once actually believing it might work.
Man oh man, was it cold!
He slapped his arms and pumped his chubby legs up and down as a thin ribbon of snot edged over his lip. He rubbed his nose and sniffed, undaunted by the salty taste.
It never should’ve worked. The whole idea was crazy! He couldn’t wait to get back home. Luckily, the same gizmo housed both the LAUNCH and RETURN buttons. It looked about as complicated as a TV remote control, and he’d been holding it when he left the comfort of his dad’s lab.
Now, his hands were empty.
Abandoning silence, he dropped to his knees and blubbered a mixture of prayer and curse, accusation and denial. Again and again, he plowed through the frozen dust, scoring his knuckles on the icepack until at last his numb digits bumped something solid. He pounced and brought the gadget into the dim light of the stars, weeping like a first grader and not caring in the least.
“Yes! Yes!” he cried, his voice dissipating in the gloom. Hastily brushing snow from the control, he stabbed the RETURN button with a dead thumb.
Nothing. Not even a click.
He pushed it again.
“Dad!” he screamed, “how could you do this to me?”
Maybe it’s frozen, he thought. Maybe if I stuff it inside my sweater I can warm it up enough to work. Into the garment it went. He put his hands over the hard cold lump, pressed it to his chest, and waited.
One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three….
He counted off several minutes, though he cheated on the last few. Unable to wait longer, he retrieved the device and pressed RETURN with both thumbs.
His tears stiffened on his cheeks as he stared down at the useless gadget blinking at him in the dark.
He stared again. A tiny screen centered near the top of the device displayed a row of ever-changing, ever-decreasing numbers. A timer — there was hope after all. Provided he could survive another 47 minutes.
In sub-zero weather.
Without a jacket.
He wondered if anyone would find his body. Not that it would rot or anything. Frozen woolly mammoths popped up in Siberia all the time, and who knew how long ago they died.
Just like Toby.
“Think!” he yelled. That’s what his dad would do. He’d think his way out.
Start at the beginning. What had he done? Why had he come here? Then he remembered.
He’d come to prove a point. To himself mostly. Most other kids just took it on faith. That’s why he hadn’t asked any of them to come with him. Besides, they would only have laughed at him. Like they always did. No, he had to prove it alone, and how else could he do that without actually making the trip? He remembered giggling as he typed in the destination, as if he were filling in for the kids who weren’t there. Somebody had to laugh at the geeky kid — it was a rule of the kid cosmos.
Once again he scanned the bare white plains all around, praying for a light, a sign, or tracks in the snow. He knew the cartoons had it wrong. There’d be no cutesy candy cane signposts or gingerbread decorations on the building, assuming there even was a building. He knew about magic, too. He’d read everything the library had about it–not tricks and stuff, sleight of hand–but real magic. Unfortunately, the only thing the books seemed to agree on was that names had power. Just mispronouncing the name of something magic could mess it all up. He wouldn’t make that mistake. No way.
Lord, it’s cold!
Teeth chattering, Toby walked in a circle, tramping down the snow. The powder squeaked under his loafers and trickled in around his socks where it made him even more miserable.
He thought about rolling big snowballs and stacking them to make a fort, or at least a wall, something to block the wind. Except, there really wasn’t any wind. The cold came from everywhere–up, down, sideways. He shivered for the gazillionth time, and when he finally stopped, he saw it.
Not too bright, but not too far away, either. Difficult to tell without his glasses. He took them out of his pocket, but they were too fogged up to see through.
Could the glow be real, or was it some kind of arctic mirage? He remembered seeing cartoons where some poor shlub tried to swim across a mirage only to drown in sand. Would he fall victim to a snowy alternative? Who cared! At least it gave him a goal, something to do besides walk in a stupid circle until his feet froze.
He headed for the maybe-light. Maybe it was, maybe not.
Plodding through the snow, he pretended not to feel the cold seep into his shoes. A superhero, that’s what he needed to be. For a little while, anyway. And if not super, then maybe just special. Maybe he could be like Rocky Balboa training to fight the giant Russian, avenge his dead pal, and strike a blow for the American Way. He always liked those movies. Toby could be tough, too, if he had to be. He wasn’t just a near-sighted ball of blubber. He could be hard.
He could also be dead pretty soon.
The glow grew. He hadn’t made it up after all. A double row of blue lights stretched away from a cluster of odd-shaped buildings. The largest one looked like a giant tin can buried halfway up its sides in the snow. Of course, he had no way of knowing how deep the snow might be. It could be a skyscraper for all he knew. Maybe only the top floors were exposed!
Whatever. It had windows. And lights. Warm, cheery lights.
Toby trudged faster, churning through the powder with renewed strength. Maybe it was true after all–maybe this was the place! He hadn’t seen any reindeer, but he’d seen rows of blue lights before–at the airfield outside of town. Oh, yeah.
Whoever lived here knew how to fly. Ab-so-lutely!
His original plan, though ill-defined, had been to debunk the myth. And if it turned out to be true–the condition he’d not so secretly hoped for–then he had yet another job. He had to find The List. Once he had his hands on that he could… But, no. That would all come in good time.
He glanced down at the little screen on the TV thingy and noted that he had another 31 minutes to go before he was automatically recalled.
Toby tried to wiggle his toes, but he couldn’t tell if he’d succeeded. He desperately wanted to get inside the building, peel off his shoes and socks and rub his feet in front of a fire. With his face and his fingers burning in the frigid air, he stumbled on.
The building had no doors on the side facing him, so he went to a window. The snow had drifted up to the metal sill, and he had to crouch down to look inside. It didn’t look like any workshop he’d ever seen. In fact, except for a single string of Christmas lights over a chalkboard, it looked a lot like where his dad worked. Books and papers were piled everywhere. A half dozen maps hung from bulletin boards around the walls. Bookshelves bulged under manuals, computer gear, and other mysterious paraphernalia. That’s probably where he’d find The List. He glanced briefly at the cartons, boxes, and cans stacked against the curved exterior walls and at the bunk beds shoved against a flat central partition.
He saw everything but people, large or small.
This close to the big day, they were probably working. Underground! That made sense. That’s how he’d do it if he were in charge. He tried to open the window, but it wouldn’t budge.
Rising slowly, like Scrooge’s last ghost, Toby staggered on in search of the door. The knowledge that he might actually survive propelled him along the circumference of the tubular building. Without corners to mark his progress, he couldn’t tell how far around he’d come. But then he reached it–the entrance to the Great Man’s home, the lair of The List, the portal of life.
Weeping with joy, Toby searched for a door handle.
There wasn’t one.
Groaning, he dropped the remote control device with the blinking screen and the balky RETURN button and pounded on the door with both hands. Surely someone would hear him if only he beat on the door hard enough. When no one came, he added his voice to the commotion, screaming and crying for someone, anyone, to let him in.
But no one did.
Defeated, Toby sank to his knees and leaned against the unyielding door. Maybe the occupants were busy preparing for the Great One’s annual trip. Maybe they were celebrating in some subterranean factory. Maybe they were just sleeping and couldn’t hear him. It made no difference. They’d find him in the morning when they went to load the sleigh, or the jet, or whatever the Great Man used for his deliveries. Toby’s name would either be on The List or not, but Toby would be long past caring.
So close, he thought, shaking his head. The little lighted screen kept blinking, the timer down to 24 minutes.
Too bad I won’t make it.
In a last gesture of futility, Toby made a fist and backhanded the wall beside the door. Instantly, a light went on overhead, and the door swung open.
Astonished, Toby rolled backward into a small empty room lighted by a single bare bulb in the ceiling. Regaining his wits, he turned himself around and stuck his head back outside where he saw the kick switch he must have hit with his hand. Of course! Anyone loaded down with stuff couldn’t turn a knob, and anyone else would want to keep their hands in their pockets. The old guy was clever–maybe even as clever as Toby’s dad.
By the time he got back on his feet, the outside door had closed, and warm air leaked into the cramped chamber. After stamping the snow from his feet and brushing it from his clothes, Toby faced a pair of inner doors which gave easily when he pushed against them.
He peeked through the gap in the doors at the room beyond. Warm air coursed through the opening and compelled him to enter. So he did.
Delicious heat from the room’s central furnace washed over him. He approached it with reverence, arms and hands extended, head bowed. A nearby chair beckoned. He lowered himself into it, toed the loafers from his numb feet and groaned in grateful pleasure as he massaged his frigid digits. Heat had never–ever–felt so grand. He basked in it like a love-starved puppy in the hands of a puppy-starved boy. It made him sleepy, and Lord knew he deserved a rest. He closed his eyes for just a moment.
When the tingle in his toes subsided, Toby sat up and surveyed his surroundings, albeit in soft focus. He fumbled the glasses from his pocket, squeezed the slack from the tape wad on the hinge and propped them in place on his nose. The room came instantly into detail, though it remained as messy as it looked when seen through the window.
He smirked. Tidiness was obviously no requirement for inclusion on The List’s “good” side. Score one for kids everywhere!
All he had to do now was find it and read it. That shouldn’t take long, especially since he only intended to look for his own name. He wouldn’t think of trying to change anything.
He checked the screen on the RETURN gizmo and all but panicked as the timer erased the last second over three minutes. Had he wasted time sleeping? How stupid! He gasped at the sound of distant aircraft engines.
Where was The List? He searched beside a desktop computer, its screen-saver alive with images of sunlit sandy beaches. On a low bookcase struggling to hug the inward curving wall he found a box full of wool mittens and socks, and a tin of candies. The word “lagniappe” was scrawled on the lid. Never crazy about oriental food, Toby left them alone. Besides, how could he think of food now? He paused, thinking. Hey, chocolate was chocolate. What could it hurt? He popped one in his mouth and chewed.
The liquid center burst and flooded his teeth and gums with something cold and harsh and alcoholic. The fumes cleared his nose, but whatever it was scorched his throat when he swallowed. He exhaled as if someone had punched him. He thought of Rocky Balboa again and suddenly felt sorry for the big Russian Rocky had pummeled in Moscow or Leningrad or wherever it was. Toby screwed up his face at the aftertaste and shivered. Still, he liked the way the stuff warmed his chest and belly. Maybe one more would–No!
He had to find The List.
Outside, the aircraft engine noise grew to a crescendo, and the plane’s colored lights blipped through the windows in tiny bursts of red and green. Naturally.
The last minute disappeared from the timer. 59 seconds remained.
Where was The List?
And where were his shoes? Man, if he left those behind, and the Great One realized he had broken in… Toby shut the thought from his mind, raced back to the heater, and jammed his feet into the warm but still damp leather loafers.
And there–right beneath the chair he’d sat on earlier–lay the biggest, fattest computer printout he’d ever seen. Bound in a thick paper cover the color of pea soup, The List occupied the most logical spot in the building. Of course it would be here, right by the heater, so the Great Man himself could stay warm while he poured over it night after night.
Toby grabbed it with both hands and dragged it out as the timer in his pocket started beeping. Five seconds left. Surely the names would be listed alphabetically. His hands trembled as he opened the cover. No, that wouldn’t work. They’d be done geographically. Or maybe… whatever. He’d just have to–
The Translation Effect hit him harder than the booze in the candy, wrenching him off the floor and twisting him to fit through an invisible window in geo-space and null-time, words his dad had muttered endlessly while building his transport engine. The bizarre Effect would have broken every bone in his body had they not all become squishy and soft. He prayed he wouldn’t barf.
He prayed he’d left no traces behind.
He prayed his fingerprints weren’t registered somewhere.
And then he just prayed.
Really, really hard.
As silently as he’d arrived in the snow an hour earlier, Toby appeared face down in the air two feet off the floor of his father’s laboratory where the Effect winked out, and gravity took over.
Toby’s nose and toes hit the floor at the same time. The timer in his hand bounced twice then pin-wheeled across the cement floor. Toby groaned and rolled over on his back, squinting up at the fuzzy, dark-haired figure hovering anxiously over him.
Dad? Why was he so out of focus? And where were his glasses?
“Are you all right?” his father asked.
Toby nodded. “I think so.” His words had a wheezy sound. Then things quickly came back to him–where he’d been, what he’d seen. But most especially: what he’d gotten his hands on.
If only he had something to show for it besides a bloody nose and a mild case of frostbite. Ah, but the next time– Things would be different then! He would prepare: wear warm clothes, bring a camera and some food. It would be great, and best of all, he could prove to the whole world the truth of what he’d discovered: not only did the Great Man exist, Toby could connect with him at will. Next to the Great Man himself, Toby would be the most popular person in the universe!
“Toby! Are you listening to me?”
Toby blinked. “Sure, Dad. ‘Sup?”
“When I realized what you’d done I went out of my mind. For cryin’ out loud, Toby, I haven’t even finished preliminary testing of this thing! Don’t you see? It’s not merely a geographical matter transporter, it’s cross-dimensional. I wasn’t planning to transmit living tissue for years, and I certainly had no intention of sending a human being, let alone my own son. My God… You could’ve been– I don’t even want to think about it.”
Toby coughed as he sat up. His father knelt beside him on the floor and sniffed. “Have you been drinking?”
Toby shook his head and briefly considered recounting his adventure, but without some sort of proof, nobody would ever believe him, including his father. So he mumbled something about a cold place and a makeshift shelter. It didn’t make much sense, but he didn’t care. In the back of his mind, all he could think about was the next trip.
Meanwhile, his father held him tight and gazed in unreserved horror at the equipment crowding his workspace.
Finally, Toby’s father handed him his broken glasses and helped him stand.
“I’m sorry about all this,” Toby said. “I hope I didn’t hurt anything. And if I did, I’d really like to help you fix it.” The more he knew about his Dad’s incredible device, the better. He could become the explorer of the year, maybe even the explorer of the millennium!
“Thanks for the offer, son,” his dad said. “But I won’t tempt fate twice. You go back in the house.” He turned and faced his invention. “I’ll join you later, after I’ve destroyed this thing.”