This story was inspired by a character I play-acted back in 1972-73, at age 7-8.
Let me just say, by way of introduction, that unpaid internships suck.
It's one thing to have just graduated — cum laude, no less — with a bachelor's in chemical engineering from a real, accredited university. It's quite another to be able to find work. Between the time I chose my major and the time I graduated, the job market for junior chemical engineers tanked. I'd scoured the job fairs and signed up for every job-hunting site I could find, with no luck. The few companies that were hiring wanted someone with experience, education level be damned.
So, in desperation, I took a paper flyer pinned to the chem department's bulletin board that read, "Lab assistant wanted. Chem eng preferred. Expect no perks beyond my presence."
Well, experience wass experience, or so I thought at the time. Maybe that last sentence should have tipped me off as to what I was getting myself into. Maybe I should have listened to the alarm bells going off in my head. But instead, I just shot off an eagerly-worded e-mail to the address on the flyer — the same e-mail I'd sent to every prospective employer — and waited for a reply.
Much to my amazement, I got a reply less than ten minutes later. It gave an address and a time and said, "Knock twice, wait 2 seconds, then knock twice again." And that was all.
I shrugged. I didn't exactly have a lot of job hunting experience back then. Maybe this was what employers normally did? The time was in less than three hours, so I went home, put on one of those fancy job-interview shirts that had buttons down the front, twiddled my thumbs until half an hour before the appointed time, and then headed to the address.
I got there ten minutes ahead of time. The address turned out to be in one of the shabbiest parts of town. The area gave off a vibe of petty theft and street gangs. Nothing was happening at the time, but I still got the impression that if I'd parked a car on the street, I'd return to find its hubcaps missing, if not its wheels. The building at the address itself was a concrete fortress of a mini-warehouse. It had only one visible door, at the top of two concrete steps, which was completely unmarked. This had to be a mistake. The only kind of "lab" which wouldn't look out-of-place in this neighborhood would be a meth lab, and that would be in the basement of somebody's old run-down house, not this concrete bunker. The building in front me might have been an automobile body shop in the best of times, or the hangout of a fence for thieves in the worst.
Okay, I figured I might as well get this over with. My would-be employer had obviously sent me the wrong address, or had missed a crucial detail in the address that would distinguish it from a near-identical one. I'd just eliminate that possibility right now. I knocked twice on the door, waited two seconds, and then knocked twice again.
The door flew open almost instantly. That startled me enough. The head that thrust out the open door nearly made me lose my footing on the steps. There was nothing particularly striking about his features, nor did the man's face give off any hint of anger or insanity. But his eyes stared at me keenly and intensely, from atop an almost-smirk. "You're early," he blurted, then grabbed my collar and yanked me inside before I could react.
"So," the man said, slamming the door shut behind me. "You're a chem eng grad?" His words came out rapid-fire, but without any hint of worry or urgency.
"Um, yeah," I said, still trying to regain my bearings. I glanced around at my new surroundings. I guessed the room was pretty big, but I couldn't see all the way to the far walls. There was too much equipment in the way, most of which was utterly unrecognizable.
"Good," he said. He turned to stand beside me and started leading me through the labyrinth of parts that littered the floor and tables. "One thing I've never had a nack for was producing the compounds I need in high volume. Batteries, backflow burners, rockets, glime ignitors — all of 'em eat up oodles of reagents. Right now, in fact, I need at least fifty pounds potassium nitrate, and I've only got five."
I frowned. "Saltpeter? That's usually made from ammonium nitrate and caustic potash. But it's so cheap, and available from so many sources — you could just buy fifty pounds of stump remover at a hardware store."
He smirked, but the smirk was gone an instant later, as though it had been an involuntary tic. "Why buy it when you can make it yourself?" He stopped in front of a table along one wall, laden with a cacophony of glass tubing. A mercifully familiar-looking hooded vent perched above the table and ran all the way to the ceiling. "So," he looked at me, "What should I call you?"
"Um . . . Sam?"
"Okay, Sam, here's the chem station. Raw materials should be somewhere close by. Hop to it!"
He turned away, as though he were about to dive back in to one of the many piles of mysterious somethings around the . . . the lab? The warehouse? The secret government research facility? What was this place?
"Um, wait," I said. I fumbled for a poignant question, but all that came out was "Who are you?"
His brow knitted as though he felt genuinely hurt. "You don't know who I am?"
"Uh . . ." Now I really felt nervous.
He jabbed a hand into one of his many pants pockets and whipped out a business card. I read as I took it from him: "Inventions?"
"That's me," he said.
That threw me for another loop. When I'd seen "Inventions" on his card, I'd thought that was his line of work. Or maybe the name of his company. But his own name? "Mister Inventions?" I asked. "Or . . ." I shook my head. "Is Inventions your first name, or your last name?"
"Both," he said. "Or neither. It's a one word name, like Cher or Pelé. Now come on, chop chop!" He clapped his hands twice, pointing at the chemistry equipment. "That glime ignitor ain't gonna fuel itself!"
Okay, I thought. Calm your nerves. It's just like you practiced in chem lab. I took a deep breath and started in. Not half a minute later, from wherever in this building Mr. Inventions had sequestered himself, there arose a mighty din of clattering, dinging, and . . . whooshing? What the hell was he up to? Was this what every chemical engineer had to get used to? I made a mental note to get some earplugs at my earliest opportunity, then pushed the noise out of my mind as best I could and tried to concentrate.
After about half an hour, I settled into a sort of rhythm. I finally felt comfortable enough to sit back and take a longer look at this giant lab. Despite the jumbles of seemingly disorganized parts, there did seem to be a kind of pattern to it. There were corridors wide enough to walk through single-file between each heap. The lighting seemed to be the standard cold-white of a fluorescent-lit machine room, but the light fixtures overhead were . . . were those fluorescents? Arc lamps? LEDs? Halogens? They didn't look like any lights I'd ever seen. I swore one of them was shaped like a klein bottle. I scanned the far walls, and found a few pieces of safety equipment, probably the minimum required by law. There was one lone fire extinguisher, an emergency eyewash station that was disturbingly far away from my chemical table, and what looked at first like a glass-encased fire alarm, except it was too big. Stenciled on the glass of that glass-covered box, in letters big enough to read from half way across the room, were the words: "IN CASE OF SKELETON MONSTER, BREAK GLASS."
Skeleton monster? I snorted, shook my head, and returned my attention to the reactions on my benchtop.
The background banging stopped for a few ominous seconds, and then Mr. Inventions tapped me on the shoulder from behind. I practically jumped out of my skin in surprise. "Done!" he announced when I'd whirled to face him. He was draped in thin steel cabling and had something strapped to his back. "Let's go outside and try out my latest."
Before I knew what had happened, I was standing with him in an alleyway behind the warehouse. With his left hand, he pointed skyward; I followed his finger to the top of an enormous TV transmitter antenna nearby. It had to be hundreds of feet tall. "Hold on tight around my shoulders," he said. I did. He continued, "I don't want'cha to fall."
Fall? I suddenly realized he was fiddling with the controls on his backpack. It looked like two streamlined cylinders, with — oh, crap! "You," I barked out, "You invented a rocket pack?!"
"No, of course not," he shook his head. "Rocket packs have been around since the nineteen fifties."
I breathed a quick sigh of relief.
"I'm only using the rocket pack for initial altitude," he said, and launched the two of us into the air before I could let go.
The jolt off the ground, the deafening roar, the rocket exhaust whooshing by so close to my legs it nearly burned my pants — it was all over in less than four seconds, and suddenly I found myself clinging to an insane man, hurtling upward in freefall, over a hundred feet above the ground.
His right arm jerked upward and outward, and I realized he was wearing or holding something with his right hand. It looked vaguely like the grappling-hook gun from the Batman movies. He took careful aim at the top of the TV transmitter, still high above us, our upward speed slowing with each passing second. Then, he pressed a stud, or pulled a trigger, or for all I knew maybe he issued a command my mental telepathy — but the grappling hook shot forward, and the cabling around his body uncoiled and followed it. It snagged itself perfectly into the structure of the TV transmitter in the distance, and an instant later, the two of us jolted upward just as hard as we had with those rockets a moment earlier.
I mean, that cable pulled us up hard. How the hell had the jolt not yanked his right arm out of its socket? Then I noticed that the cabling wasn't just for the grappling line. It ran back and forth across his arm in such a way that it distributed the load across his entire body. It was like a grappling line cradle, nestling him in safety as it hoisted him skyward.
I didn't have a cradle of my own, of course. My arms and legs, wrapped around him, were the only things that kept me from falling to my doom. I thought, briefly, about looking into OSHA regulations when this was all over, but panic soon returned. We ground to a stop only a few short feet below his grappling point on the tower, and swayed gently in the wind.
His voice returned over the wind. "And this is what was missing from the grappling hooks in the comics. Support. Okay, time to come back down."
He disengaged — or cut — the cable, and we plummeted earthward. The scream that escaped my throat was entirely automatic. As the air whooshed past us louder and louder, the ground got closer and closer. I could barely make out his words against the wind noise: "Soft landing!"
Once again, I felt jolted upward and the deafening roar of the rockets returned. He hadn't burned off the entire fuel supply from his rocket pack on the way up! We slowed as we fell 'til we clattered to the ground at a nice, gentle ten miles per hour or so. I had lousy footing and fell straight onto my butt, but I was alive, and unhurt.
I could only get up as far as my hands and knees. I was panting like mad and shaking with fear. "You," I said as soon as I caught my breath, "You could have warned me!"
"Would you have gone with me if I had?" Inventions replied.
"No," I said, "Of course not!"
"Well, there you go. You would've missed out." He turned and went back into the lab building, trailing thin steel cabling behind.
And as I watched him go, God help me, I got to me feet and followed in after him.
"So," I began hesitantly, "What all do you invent, anyway?"
Inventions didn't take his eyes from the e-mail he was typing. "You name it." He finished writing up a brief description of the grappling hook gun harness he'd just tested, and started attaching closeup pictures. Mercifully, none of the pictures featured the terrified assistant who'd been holding onto his back.
"You invent anything?" I asked. "Mechanical? Electronic? Hydrodynamic? Nuclear?"
"Yep," he replied. "Though I've only cranked out about three inventions that relied on nuclear processes." He snorted. "And one of them was just a better radioisotope thermal generator. Boring as hell."
That alone was impressive. "Spacecraft?" I asked.
"Nah," he said. "After my first two I lost interest. Everybody thinks space ships mean exciting space adventures. Hah! Now there's an oxymoron. Once you're out of the atmosphere, you're just coasting. And coasting. And coasting. With nothing between you and the next planet except the tiniest wisp of solar wind."
Holy cats. "Have you actually been to space?"
"Not officially," he winked. "Launching without getting international permission first is illegal, you know."
I gulped uncomfortably. "My gods. I'm almost afraid to ask if you've built a perpetual-motion generator or a time machine."
Inventions frowned. "Actually, I did invent a time machine."
My eyes practically popped out from their sockets. "A real — a time machine? A real one? A real Back-to-the-Future, travel-into-the-past, go-back-and-kill-Hitler time machine?!"
"I invented it three times, as a matter of fact," Inventions said. "First two times, future me came back to the present and prevented me from inventing it. The third time . . ." He looked uncomfortable. "The third time, Adolf Hitler came forward to the present and prevented me from inventing it."
I shook my head, trying to come back to my senses. "How many patents have you filed, anyway?"
"None," he replied.
"You're an accomplished inventor," I asked incredulously, "And you haven't filed any patents?!"
"Well, I haven't. Sandy always does it for me."
"Sandy," he finally turned to look at me, "My patent lawyer. Well, not my patent lawyer. I mean, he's his own person. They outlawed slavery in, what, 1865? But he pretty much makes his living filing patents in my name. I send him the relevant details, he fleshes them out into a proper patent application and sends them off to the U.S. PTO. He also draws up the contracts for royalties on the patent rights, and sends me my cut. I haven't checked the books in a while, but I think he's still splitting the proceeds fifty-fifty. Half for me, half for himself and Chan."
"Chan?" I asked.
"Sandy's business partner," Inventions said. "He's the one who really knows how to find buyers for the patent rights. I suppose the two of them could both be screwing me out of a lot of the deals, but it's not likely. They know what a cash cow they have in me. If they screwed me over on one invention, they wouldn't get to reap the benefits of anything I invented afterward. Keeps 'em honest. They're probably multimillionaires right now, at least. All I care about is paying the rent on this shack, and keeping myself rolling in equipment and parts."
I half-chuckled. "And keeping the lights on too, right?"
Inventions shook his head. "Not an issue. This building's off-grid."
I squinted. "How are you powering it?"
"Solar panels, up on the roof. With a battery bank of my own design in the basement, for when the sun isn't shining."
I frowned. "Your rooftop's big enough to provide that much power?"
"More than big enough," Inventions said, turning back to his keyboard. "They're Pamu photovoltaics."
"Uh," I scratched my head, "What are those?"
"You've never heard of Pamu photovoltaics? They were all over the solar power trade journals for a while."
"I don't read any —"
"They're another one of my inventions," he said with a twinge of smug. "Twice the efficiency of the best cadmium solar cells. NASA is hugely interested in 'em for satellites and probes to the inner planets. Only problem is, their manufacture creates a lot of really nasty pollutants. They'll probably never be commercially viable for land-based power generation; no sane government would license anybody to manufacture them in bulk." He smirked. "Of course, the ones on my roof were never manufactured for sale."
He finished the last attachment and hit Send. "Now get back to your anthraquinones. No one's manufactured T-Stoff since the fall of Nazi Germany, so I can't exactly pick some up at the corner drug store."
"Sure thing," I said, and headed back to my workbench.
I'd just made it there when someone started knocking on the front door. The knocking quickly became a hard pounding. I looked over at the door, and at that instant, it flew open. The sun was behind our unannounced visitor, making it hard for me to make out details — but the shadow he cast on the floor was . . . impossible! It was the silhouette of nothing but bones. I could see daylight between his ribs, and between the bones of his forearms and forelegs, and the gaps within the palm of his hands. And the head didn't look like a head, it looked like a skull.
I blinked, and as my eyes adjusted to the glare, I could see our guest directly. He was exactly what his shadow said he was. A skeleton. A standing, walking, clattering skeleton! There was no skin, no muscles, no cartilage, no ligaments, nothing to hold it together and nothing that could possibly be making it move. Just bones, banded together in the shape of the skeletons you might see in an anatomy classroom, and somehow, impossibly, walking into the room.
"You still here?" the skeleton said. It spoke! No lungs, no voice box, presumably no tongue, and yet here it was, moving its lower jaw and articulating perfectly understandable English words. It was talking to Inventions. "You're so predictable!"
"Oh no," Inventions moaned, burying his face in one hand. "Not him again."
Without taking his eyes off Inventions, the skeleton pointed at me. "I see you've bamboozled another unwitting peon into slavery." He started walking toward me, foot bones clattering on the hard floor. I shuddered. "What scared away the last one? Your reckless endangerment, or your egomania?"
Inventions sighed, and gestured toward the terrifying assembly of bones stalking toward me. "Sam, meet Dr. George Herkamer."
The skeleton stopped, and whirled to face Inventions. "George Herkamer is dead! I am the Skeleton Monster!"
Inventions snorted. "And you say I have a flair for the dramatic!"
The Skeleton Monster turned back to me again, and said, "You know, I'm feelin' thirsty." He clattered all the way up to my chem station, and grabbed a half-full beaker of clear liquid off the workbench. "Don't!" I gasped, "That's caust—"
He raised the beaker to his jaws and poured its contents down his non-existent throat. The liquid fell clean through between his bones and splashed onto the floor. I finally jumped up and away to avoid the splatter. That was damn near pure hydrogen peroxide that had been in that beaker. It would take my skin off. Just breathing the vapor could scar my lungs.
"Ahhhh," the Skeleton Monster said when he'd finished "drinking." "That hits the spot."
"You wanna play tough, huh?" Inventions stomped over to the glass-covered box on the wall — the one that read "IN CASE OF SKELETON MONSTER, BREAK GLASS" — and broke the glass. From inside, he pulled out a black handle with a spiked metal ball on top, and brandished it. It was a mace. A medieval mace! The kind you might see at a gathering of the Society for Creative Anachronism. He walked forward, swinging the top-heavy club left and right so haphazardly I was afraid he'd hit one of his own inventions. "You wanna play tough?" He deliberately smashed a nearby tabletop. "You want some o' this?!"
The Skeleton Monster cringed, visibly cowed. "Now now, take it easy!"
Inventions approached, mace in hand. "You've got your own damn lab. Get the hell out of mine!"
"Easy, easy!" the Skeleton Monster said, scampering for the door. "I'm not here to ruin your stuff this time, I'm here to challenge you!"
"Challenge me?" Inventions puzzled.
The Skeleton Monster pointed back at him from the doorway, and spoke deliberately. "Pedal. Powered. Car Race."
Inventions put his hands on his hips, never letting go of the mace. "You've gotta be kidding me."
"Your design against mine," the Skeleton Monster continued, undeterred. "Each of us the only occupant. Danson racetrack, tomorrow noon. Ten laps — no, two laps, so you won't have any excuses about muscle fatigue."
Inventions chuckled. "You really think any car you could build would stand up to one of mine? I doubt yours would actually hold together all the way to the finish line, much less —"
"Two! Laps!" the Skeleton Monster insisted. "And I will beat you this time!"
Inventions let his mace hand droop. "All right, George, you're on. I'd say it's your funeral, but you already had one of those years ago."
A skull has no facial expression other than an eerie smile, but I swear I could almost see the Skeleton Monster fuming with rage. "Tomorrow at noon," he wagged a finger at Inventions, "And I will win, mark my words!"
He stormed out and slammed the door shut behind him.
Inventions strolled back toward the box he'd gotten the mace out of. I gathered what remained of my wits, and asked, "Wh—who —"
"The late Doctor Herkamer," Inventions said. "Old rival of mine. A pathetic second-rate inventor with delusions of grandeur, if you ask me. He thought he'd found the secret to immortality, so he tested it on himself. Turned out it only made his bones immortal; the rest of him pretty much disintegrated." He replaced the mace in the box, then opened a cupboard next to it and pulled out a replacement pane of glass — already stenciled with the right words — from a stack of at least fifteen identical panes.
I blinked in bewilderment. "And you're gonna . . . race it — him — tomorrow? In a car you'll be pedaling yourself?"
"Looks like it," Inventions said. He'd already finished repairing the glass-front emergency box. It looked as though it had never been used.
"So, how close to finished is your pedal car?"
"Not at all," Inventions shrugged. "Haven't started building it yet."
"And you're racing it tomorrow?" I said.
"I know, right?" Inventions replied. "That's way more time than I'll ever need. I could do a custom paint job, scrape it off, and put on another one, and that still wouldn't use up all the time George is giving me. It's like he's handing me another win on a silver platter."
Without another word, he threw himself into one of the lab's many piles of would-be junk, and started tinkering away.
Rule number 3 of internships: Always ask how long your workday is going to last. It was late in the afternoon, and I still had no idea how long I had to to stay here before my new lord-and-master sent me home for the night. The one slow chemical reaction burbling away on my benchtop had gone unattended for the better part of half an hour, and could safely be left to run overnight. "Um," I began, "How late should I —"
Inventions looked up. He was obsessed with something and completely oblivious to what I was trying to ask. "I'm gonna need some starches and sodium chloride. Go pick me up some saltines." He tossed three Sacagaweia dollar coins at me; I managed to catch one of them, and had to scoop the other two up off the floor.
I narrowed my eyes. "You want me to go . . .?"
"Shopping," Inventions answered. "There's a Kroger less than four blocks east of here."
"You don't want me to whip up some starch and NaCl in a beaker here?" I asked.
"Not this time," he said. "Don't need a lot of 'em, just one box of crackers' worth. Get goin'."
I shrugged, and headed out the door. To this day I still wonder if every intern has to pull go-for duty like this. Maybe it's like hazing a fraternity pledge. The three-and-a-half blocks to the store didn't look quite as bad as I remembered the neighborhood looking when I first showed up; nonetheless I was glad I'd moved my wallet to my front pocket. The supermarket didn't look any worse than the usual, either — air conditioned, clean floors, pretty displays, up-to-date checkout lane tech, just like any Kroger in the better parts of town. I spotted the cookies-and-crackers aisle, turned down it, and grabbed the cheapest off-brand saltines I could see.
And then, when I turned back toward the front of the store, I saw . . . her.
Oh. My. God.
She was walking down the aisle toward me, a handbasket in her right hand with one or two items in it which swung gently with each step. I couldn't take my eyes off her. She might as well have given off a heavenly glow with her own choir of angels singing behind her. I swear I heard the magnificent opening orchestral strains of John Denver's "Calypso" in my head. Her face, her legs, the way she carried herself . . . she looked like Mary Tyler Moore, back during her glory years . . . only better. As she got closer, I got a clear view of her left hand, and there was no ring on her ring finger. She might be unattached! She walked past me, obvilious to the thumping of my heart, and as she did I caught a tiny whiff of jasmine perfume. Her perfume. It was her scent.
In all my years in high school and in the university, I'd never fallen that hard for a woman that fast.
Were I older and wiser, I'd have walked up and introduced myself. But in my early twenties? With all the romantic confidence of Charlie Brown seeing the little red-haired girl? I could only stare as she walked away. I was paralyzed, terrified of messing up, terrified of talking to her, terrified of setting things in motion. I didn't even notice that I'd popped open the box of crackers, opened one of the sleeves, and started stuffing saltines into my mouth one by one.
She reached the end of the aisle and turned the corner to the left. Instinctively, I walked after her, but when I turned left at the end she was nowhere to be seen. She must have ducked into a neighboring aisle. I walked up to the next aisle and glanced in. She wasn't there. I kept walking as casually as I could manage, and looked aside into the next aisle. There she was, walking away. More crackers went down my throat without my even noticing. I desperately wanted to turn in and follow her, but I was terrified that if she saw me following her around I'd lose any chance I might have of her liking me in the future. I turned aside and kept on walking.
I was kicking myself for not going after her, all of my way to the checkout line.
This store had no self-checkout stations, and was surprisingly busy for a weekday. All the lines were long. I got into the woefully misnamed "quick check" line and waited my turn. My crazy obsession with the new Woman of my Dreams was finally abating, and my thoughts could start returning to reality. I looked in the open saltines box, and the open sleeve was nearly empty. Damn, I'd been eating a lot of crackers. Oh well, these kinds of stores usually let you pay for things after you eat them, so long as you still had the package.
I glanced around absentmindedly, my eyes wandered to a checkout line half way across the store, and . . . there she was again! She was standing in line herself, looking just as bored as everyone else. My hand once again reached into the cracker box of its own volition and shoveled more saltines into my mouth. I didn't even notice myself opening the second sleeve and digging into yet more crackers. The line I was in advanced, I moved up instinctively, never tearing my eyes off her. When I somehow got to the checker at the front of the line, he had to tear the box away from my hands to bring me back down to Earth. He scanned the barcode, hit a few keys on his register, and said "Two ninety-nine."
I handed him the three Sacagaweia dollars Inventions had thrown at me. I tried to keep her in view out of the corner of my eye while the checker dug out the one measly penny in change he owed me. Her line must have been a tad shorter than mine, because she was already walking toward the exit. I pocketed the penny and receipt, scooped up what was left of my saltines, and walked in her direction. Okay, Sam, I told myself, act cool. You're just walking toward the exit like any other customer. You're totally not following around a new woman like a lovesick puppy.
The moment I was outside I spotted her again, walking through the parking lot. Once again, I casually walked in her general direction, hoping she wouldn't think I was following her. Once again, I tore into the saltines as an automatic reflex. She walked to a brown Honda Civic, got in, and drove away. I watched her go with a mix of relief and regret. Would I ever see her again? Should I come back here again at the same time next week on the off chance that she might reappear? Would I ever work up the courage to talk to her?
I took a deep breath and marched back toward Mr. Inventions' lab.
When I went back in the front door, Inventions looked up from pounding on what looked like a dark blue torpedo. "Ah, there y'are. Hand 'em over!"
I held out the box of crackers, only to realize . . . "Uh oh."
He snatched the box from my hands and scowled. "It's empty!"
"There're still a few crumbs left," I said quickly. "You might be able to use —"
"I don't wanna eat crumbs! I was lookin' forward to those saltines."
"Wait." I narrowed my gaze. "You just wanted the crackers to eat?"
"An inventor's gotta keep up his blood sugar," Inventions said. "All I have left here are some half-stale whole wheat saltines. Bleah. What was I thinkin' when I bought those?"
I pressed. "You didn't want the starch for anything you're building? The salt for any—"
As usual, Inventions interrupted. "What happened to the saltines, anyway? You didn't buy an empty box, didja?"
"No, I . . ." I looked away and scratched the side of my head uncomfortably. "Well, there was this girl, and . . . I mean, she was really really . . ."
"Well congratulations." Inventions folded his arms. "When's the wedding?"
"I —" I stammered "— I don't even know if she likes me yet!"
Inventions lowered his gaze and smirked. "So, what's her name?"
"Uh . . . I don't . . . actually know yet."
"Have you even talked to this woman at all?"
"Well," I scratched the back of my neck, "Not as such."
"So you're head-over-heels in love with a woman who doesn't even know you exist." Inventions shook his head. "I can't imagine a more effective way to make yourself miserable." He frowned. "Or a more effective way to eat up the saltines I sent you to buy." He took three more brass dollar coins out of a pocket, and threw them at me so hard I was afraid they'd leave bruises. "Now get back there and get me another box of saltines, and this time, don't open it!"
I made sure to go through a different checkout line this time. I didn't want to give an opportunity to clerk who rang up my half-empty box of saltines last time to give me a hard time about it. The Woman of my Dreams was, not surprisingly, nowhere to be found.
When I got back, I tossed the unopened box of saltines to Inventions. He snatched it out of the air without looking, then ripped into it. "Finally!" he said, "I was afraid I was gonna have to tighten the windings on this transformer with my stomach growling."
"Is . . . that for the pedal-powered car?"
He glanced at me with a snort, as though I'd just asked the stupidest question in the world. "Nah, that's finished." He thumbed over his shoulder at the torpedo casing, which now sported four narrow tires. "The transformer's for an improved-range digital radio transmitter."
I walked over to his pedal-powered creation, and peered into its cockpit. Inside the torpedo-shaped aerodynamic shell, it looked like just a garden variety recumbent bicycle, except with four wheels. "You sure this is going to be enough to beat a skeleton in a race?"
"Come on," Inventions said, still fiddling with the transformer. "It's only George. What's he going to do, improve on the industry standard design? Him? Don't be ridiculous."
"But," I said, "But maybe he's got some kind of skeleton powers that'll give him the edge? I mean, he said something about fatigue —"
"Fatigue won't matter in only two laps," Inventions said. "And whatever's powering his legs can't crank rotary pedals any harder than he could when he was alive. And there," he slapped his quadriceps, "I've got the edge. He can't beat me, not without cheating. And I'll be on guard for that. Now why don'tcha head on home. You'll wanna be bright-eyed and chipper when I win tomorrow's race."
I shrugged. He was the master inventor, after all. If he said his design would be enough, it would be enough. I moseyed back over to my chem station, checked the reaction one more time just to be sure it was still running strong, and headed out for the evening.
Next day. The Danson racetrack.
Five minutes to high noon.
We'd both taken turns pedalling his car from his lab to the track. Well, okay, I took one turn pedalling it, for about half a block before Mister Inventions insisted he wanted his seat back. It had felt surprisingly easy to propel for that half block; very lightweight, smooth-as-glass gear shifting, hardly any drag, any friction too weak to notice. Maybe it would be enough to beat a walking, talking skeleton in a race.
Now, Inventions sat in the cockpit of his dark blue pedal-powered creation, an old-fashioned leather aviator's helmet and goggles atop his head. I figured this headgear was purely for show; his car's sloped windshield would prevent any bugs from hitting his face, no matter how fast he was going. He was parked just behind the starting line. The track was one giant asphalt oval, with banked curves; I could't tell how long it was just from looking. It could have been a half kilometer around, or a half mile, or a full kilometer.
Inventions' erstwhile opponent was nowhere to be seen. I glanced at my watch. "I don't think he's gonna show up."
Inventions crinkled his nose a bit. "He has been a no-show from time to time, but never when he was the one issuing the challenge. I have a feeling he'll —"
Movement at the far entrance to the track. I squinted into the distance. There was another aerodynamic shell on wheels, similar on the outside to the one beside me except painted bright green. It trundled in and angled toward us.
"Right on cue," Inventions said.
As it got closer, I could make out a white stripe with black trim on its nose. A racing stripe. In the middle of the stripe was a white circle with a black number 1 on it. The contraption stopped about ten meters away from us, and its bony occupant clambered out. The Skeleton Monster stood proudly beside his creation. He was uncovered except for furry pointed socks on his feet, which made them look like the feet of a Dr. Seuss character.
"Well well, George," Inventions taunted him, "You showed up."
The Skeleton Monster growled through gritted teeth, "I'm the Skeleton Monster. Not George."
"Whatever you say, George."
The skeleton rasped, "You won't be so smug two laps from now."
Inventions got out of his cockpit. "You'll understand if I take a close look at your car, of course. Just to be sure you didn't sneak an electric assist motor in there."
"As long as I get to inspect your car too," the Skeleton Monster said.
Inventions gestured grandly at his own dark blue car. "Be my guest." As he walked over to peer into the green car, he looked at me, pointed at the Skeleton Monster, and said "Don't let him touch anything."
I walked obediently over to his car to chaperone the skeleton's inspection tour. Up this close, I could hear the faint percussive clatter of each bone against its neighbor. How he could keep from wearing those joints down with no cartilage to cushion them, I hadn't a clue. The Skeleton Monster scanned the inside of Inventions' car for at most five or six seconds, then he stood and folded his arms. He called out to Inventions with a condescending air in his voice: "Nope, I don't see anything interesting in there at all."
We both walked back to the Skeleton Monster's car. I was curious to see what my mentor's arch-rival had come up with. Inventions was hunched down over the cockpit, gazing intently at the floorboard, his brows knitted. I looked in with him.
"That's different," he said, pointing. "Instead of the usual pair of rotary pedals, he's got what looks like a big brake pedal in there. It's wide enough for him to rest both feet on it. Is he just going to pump it? Is that how the car gets its power?"
"I . . . don't see anything else in here he could crank. Other than the steering wheel."
"He must have been huffing paint fumes when he came up with that idea," Inventions said. "He'll have even less of a chance of winning than if he'd bought regular bike pedals off the rack." He stood up, then took out a tiny flashlight and threw himself on his back in one smooth motion, so that he could see underneath the nose of the car. "Nope, nothing in there but axles and gears." Sliding on his back, he whirled around to peer under the back of the green car. Whatever kind of shirt he was wearing seemed to glide smoothly over the asphalt. Another of his inventions, perhaps? "Ditto here," he said. He stood up. "Looks like George might actually play clean this time."
"I heard that," the Skeleton Monster said.
"Okay," Inventions said, bounding back to his dark blue car and jumping in the cockpit, "Let's get your humiliation over with." He inched his car forward until its nose was just shy of the starting line. "Sam, do us the honor of starting the race when the ol' bag of bones here is in ready position."
The Skeleton Monster gave a sour "Hmph!", then his sock-covered bony feet slipped into his own cockpit. His green car lurched forward like a drunkard until it, too, was right before the starting line.
I stood between the cars and raised one hand high above my head. One pair of goggled eyes, and one pair of empty eye sockets, glared at me intently. They were ready. In one motion, I threw my hand downward and yelled "GO!"
Inventions' dark blue car took off like a shot. The Skeleton Monster's green car took off a bit more slowly. Again, it lurched forward, then seemed to coast for a fraction of a second, then accelerated again in another short burst. Over and over. It must have been like Inventions said: the Skeleton Monster was pumping that one giant pedal with those fur-covered feet. Every downstroke provided power. But in making the pedal come back up again, the car could only coast on its own momentum.
Within ten seconds, Inventions was a full quarter of a lap ahead of his rival. It looked like an insurmountable lead. Inventions was at his full cruising speed, dominating the track just as he'd said he would.
But each time the Skeleton Monster's car lurched, each time that pedal pumped, it went a tiny bit faster. Those little bursts of speed were beginning to add up. And by the end of the first lap . . . the Skeleton Monster was going faster than Inventions.
Inventions had built up nearly a half-lap lead by then, but now this lead was beginning to erode. I found myself looking at his dark blue car and muttering "Come on, come on, pedal harder, pedal harder!" I swore I could see him glancing over his shoulder, trying to get a read on his opponent. He sped up just a little bit, but then . . . did he actually slow back down to his cruising speed again? Was Inventions beginning to tire out?
The Skeleton Monster, though, didn't slow down one iota. He'd reached his own cruising speed, and with it, he was steadily gaining on Inventions. The second lap was nearly half over, and the green car was now less than a quarter lap behind the dark blue. Another quick burst of speed came from Inventions' car, and again he couldn't sustain it.
I watched in slack-jawed amazement as the Skeleton Monster overtook my mentor. In the end, the green car crossed the finish line more than two seconds ahead of Inventions.
Both cars gradually coasted to a stop. Neither inventor had seen fit to include brakes. I ran over to them as fast as I could, until I couldn't sustain that running pace any more than Inventions had been able to sustain his own top speed.
The Skeleton Monster had already clambered out of his car by the time I arrived. He pointed a bony finger at Inventions in triumph. "HAH!! I! Win!" He formed his hand into an L shape and held it up to his cranium. "Loser! Loser!" He pointed at Inventions again. "Loser! How does it feel, mister I-always-win? Huh?"
The Skeleton Monster didn't wait for a reply. He hopped back into his cockpit and stomped down on his thruster pedal. As his contraption started lurching away, he called back, "After all these years, I've finally bested you! And there's not a damn thing you can do about it!"
I trotted up beside Inventions. He was still in his car, still facing forward, still catching his breath from all the pedaling. He hadn't taken off his goggles or leather helmet, despite the obvious sweat. He didn't even glance sideways at me. He just said, in a flat voice, "I lost."
I opened my mouth to say something, then closed it.
"I lost," he repeated just as flatly. He seemed to have lost more than just this race. He rambled — mumbled, at his usual breakneck speaking speed — and every word sounded hollow. "I should have seen it. I should have seen it. I should've thought of it, the moment I saw that one giant pedal. He could push. He could push with his whole body. With his gluteals and his back at the same time. Normal person, couldn't sustain that for more than a few strokes. Muscle fatigues. He doesn't. He doesn't fatigue. He can keep pumping at full force for the whole race. His acceleration cost for the single stroke doesn't matter. It's top speed. Thrust to drag ratio. That's what counts. That's what counts in the long run. And he had me." At last, he turned to look at me, and when he did he glared. "He had me the whole damn time, and I didn't see it coming."
What could I say to something like that?
Inventions was lost in that daze for the whole trip back to his lab. I could barely get him to unlock the door and let us back in. He stood still and glared at everything in the room as though it were now his enemy.
"Um," I offered, "I've finished that batch of sodium t—"
"Doesn't matter," he muttered. "None of it does." He looked me squarely in the eye. "The late George Herkamer, that second-rate hack, beat me. At my own game. If I lose out to him on something as simple as a custom pedal-power car, how the hell do I know I'm the best at anything else?!" He stomped over to the digital radio transmitter he'd been building last night. "This improved-range transmitter! There's probably some jerk over in backwater Mississippi who's bulding an even better one right now. Hell, maybe even George could improve on my design!"
With one swift, enraged kick, Inventions sent his radio transmitter crashing to the floor in pieces. Then he slumped down next to the pieces and cradled his head in his hands.
I crouched down next to him, and began slowly scooping the shattered fragments of his transmitter into one pile. "You . . ." I began, then shook my head. "You think you're worthless if you're not the best?"
He scowled from the depths of his funk, his eyes still lost in the distance. "You don't need to rub it in."
I winced. I hadn't meant . . . damn. I slumped down next to him. All this, all this self-doubt, all this falling apart, all because he lost to the Skeleton Monster with one of his inventions.
His inventions . . .
Wait a minute.
I took a chance, and opened my big mouth again. "This pedal-powered car of yours. It looked pretty . . . normal."
"Hm?" Inventions said, glancing at me and then immediately looking back off at nothing.
"I mean," I continued, "Just how much innovation did you put into it?"
I thought I could see his brow furrow, just a bit. He took a breath, let it out, and then said "None." He turned his head half way toward me. "That design was completely off-the-shelf. Except for the high-end bearings, I could have bought one just like it at Pedal Powered Cars R Us. I didn't put any innovation into that car at all."
Time for me to state the obvious. "The Skeleton Monster did. He went all out with every ounce of smarts he had, until he figured out a way he might be able to beat you in a race."
He looked right at me, and said nothing.
"You put in a casual amount of effort, against a man — a skeleton, whatever — who was at the absolute top of his game." I took a deep breath. "Really, you shouldn't even be surprised that you lost!"
I could swear I saw anger flash in his eyes. But it lasted less than a second.
"Hm," he grunted. It was a quick, flat syllable.
I opened my mouth to speak again, then closed it. I might not be the greatest expert on social interactions, but I could tell he was sitting on the fence. He could snap out of this funk and re-attack the problem with his normal frenzied gusto. Or he could double down and shut me out completely, and maybe shut the rest of the world out in the process. I —
A rhythmic tapping from one part of the lab tore him out of the moment. "My tachyon receiver," he said. He looked genuinely surprised, and alarmed. "I didn't think it would work!" He leapt to his feet and bolted over to the source of the noise. I ran after him. There, by a dull gray cylinder, lay what looked like an old-fashioned ticker tape machine, dutifully recording each tap onto a lengthening paper strip.
"What is this thing?" I asked.
Inventions didn't take his eyes off the paper. "It's a far-fetched idea I came up with, a way to receive a message sent back in time by my future self."
"But I thought your time travel inventions always got shut down," I replied.
"Hmph," Inventions smirked for an instant. "The tachyon receiver could only work if future me ever invented a way to send the message in the first place. The mechanics are limited enough that it might just fly under the time-travel radar." He looked up at me. "Lock the door in case Hitler shows up again."
I gasped, then charged toward the front door.
"I'm kidding, I'm kidding!" he called after me. "Come on back. If a time traveller was gonna interfere it would have already happened by now, and no walls or doors could have stopped it."
By the time I got back, the tapping had stopped. Inventions was staring at the paper tape and frowning. "I never did decide on a comm protocol. This doesn't look like Morse code. Might be binary, though. Wonder if it's ASCII." He fished a tiny laminated card out of one pocket. "Yyyyup, that's 7-bit ASCII, all right!" His eyes flitted between the card and the message while his expression went blank. I could almost see the intense calculating going on behind those eyes. Finally, he looked up, blinked, and stared off in the distance. His mouth hung a tiny ways open, like he'd just seen a ghost. "It says listen to Sam, don't give up."
You could have bowled me over with a feather.
Inventions glanced at me, took a deep breath through his nose, and said "'Scuse me, Sam. I've got a pedal-powered car to improve on." He marched toward the door to retrieve his second-place car like a man on a mission.
I followed after him with the biggest grin I've ever had on my face.
"Ya know," he said, holding up a portion of the ticker-tape as he walked, "Future me thought this message was important enough that he annihilated himself to send it."
I did a double take. "What?"
"Well, think about it," he continued. "The only reason he would've told me to listen to you is if, in his timeline, I hadn't listened to you. So now, by sending this message into the past and changing my mind, his timeline no longer exists."
I frowned. "But if his timeline doesn't happen, then he won't be there to send the message back to you, which means you wouldn't have gotten the message, which means you wouldn't have changed your mind, which means his timeline would happen. You know, time paradox!"
Inventions shrugged. "Many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, maybe? I wouldn't know, I'm not a theoretical physicist."
Hmph. The guy invents a way to send messages back in time, and he still doesn't consider himself a theoretical physicist.
He opened the door. "Oh," he said before he crossed the threshold, "Pick up the pieces of my improved-range transmitter prototype, and look for salvageable parts, wouldja? No reason to throw the baby out with the bath water."
NOTES FOR HOW THE REST OF THE STORY IS GOING TO GO: