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 was experience, or so I thought at the time. Maybe the last sentence on the flyer 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 cleared 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 by 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, oblivious 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. My dream girl's 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. In my other hand, I held a stopwatch. 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, clicked the stopwatch into life, 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. At the end of the first lap, I tapped the stopwatch as each of them crossed the line to record their lap times. Inventions crossed the line first, but now . . . 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."
Next morning, I decided to walk a longer route to Inventions' lab. It gave me the chance to see a couple of streets I hadn't been on before, plus it would have the distinct advantage of letting me pass right next to the Kroger. You know, just in case . . . she happened to be shopping there again.
But I ran into something unexpected before I even reached the Kroger. Something bony.
"Pssst," the Skeleton Monster whispered to me from the street corner. "Hey kid."
"Uh . . ." I tried to collect my thoughts. He might have been the one made of bones, but it was I who was rattled. "I don't —"
"It's Sam, right?" he asked as he clattered toward me.
"Y-y-yeah . . ." I was visibly shaking.
"You look kinda nervous," he said. "I get that a lot." He shrugged. "It comes with the territory, I guess. You know, I've been at odds with your overblown employer for longer than I can remember, and he's managed to outdo me every single time. . . . Well, almost every time. Ha ha! That race yesterday was amazing!"
He put his skeletal hand on my shoulder. I swear I felt a chill.
"But I'm not gonna kid myself," he went on. "That one isolated victory was a fluke. If I'm gonna come out on top, I'm gonna need help." He put his hands on his os coxae. "I need an apprentice. Someone who can help out with those areas I'm a little weak on. Someone like you. How'd you like to come work in my lab?"
I swallowed hard. "You want me to work for you?"
"I can make it worth your while," he said in a low tone. It almost sounded like he was trying to make his voice . . . seductive. "Inventions seems to think he's the light of the world, and that just being in his mere presence is reward enough on its own." He snorted in the way that only a noseless skeleton can. "Unlike that blowhard, I pay my apprentices."
Something in my expression must have given it away to him that I was not interested in working in a lab with a skeleton monster. Because he leaned in close to me and lowered his voice nearly to a whisper: "I pay my spies even more."
I blinked. Spies? "You want me to spy on him?"
If a skinless skull could smirk, his would have done so. "Unless he's wised up over the years, I'm betting you never signed a non-disclosure agreement with him."
I frowned and shook my head. "I didn't sign anything."
"Then any information or trade secrets you happen to pick up in the course of your employment are free for you to divulge to whomever you want," the Skeleton Monster said.
"Uh," I began, "I don't . . . that, that is . . . I don't think that . . ."
The Skeleton Monster tilted his skull slightly to one side. "Well, just think about it. If you change your mind, I shouldn't be too hard to find."
He started to walk off, then turned back apologetically. "I'd hand you one of my business cards, except I don't have any pockets to keep 'em in. Every time I wear pants they just fall down." And with that, he clattered away down a side street.
I blinked again, then tried to shake my head back into gear. Did that just happen? Holy cats. Up that close, the Skeleton Monster was every bit as creepy as his name implied. The quiet clacking of his jawbone while he spoke made me afraid he was going to bite my ear off. Never mind his obsession with showing up Inventions any way he could; the very thought of working hand-in-hand with that quasi-undead . . . thing made me shudder.
I started walking again, if only to clear my head.
I could see the Kroger just ahead. A familiar landmark was just what I needed right now. It would —
Wait. Was that —
Ohmygod. Ohmygod. It was her!!
Okay. Don't panic. Don't panic. Panic! No no no no. Keep calm. Don't back down. You've got to talk to her. Don't blow this opportunity. Walk up to her. Yes. That's it. Don't stop. You can do this. It's like they sang in Beauty and the Beast, "Screw your courage to the sticking place."
I was within earshot. Just a few more steps. Oh my god, she noticed me! It was now or never!
"Um," I said with all the grace of a sack of potatoes, "Um, hi!"
She looked at me with the most beautiful green eyes I'd ever seen, and said in what I still remember as the most beautiful, musical woman's voice I'd ever heard, "Do I know you?"
It took me a split-second for her question to register through my mental fog. "Oh! Oh, n-no. I'm Sam. I saw you here a few days ago, and I thought you were really pretty." I quickly added, "And I still do!"
Well, that could have come out better.
She raised one beautiful eyebrow for only a second, then said, "You know, if you want to introduce yourself to a woman, it's probably not a good idea to do it in a parking lot. You might scare her away, or worse."
I gasped, and looked around. Yikes. A grocery store parking lot like this one was exactly the place you'd expect to be approached by a bum asking for handouts or a crazy person. "Oh! Oh d— I, I'm sorry, I sh—"
She gently held up a hand. "But, it's been a while since a guy's said hello to me like that. I'm Leslie."
Leslie. She held out her right hand for me to shake. I tried to say a cool "Nice to meet you," but when my hand reached hers, the electric thrill of actually touching the beautiful hand, her hand, must have been too much. I still don't remember how far I got through the sentence before I stumbled over my words.
She withdrew her hand, and I had to remind myself to let go. "So tell me about yourself, Sam," she said. "What do you do for a living?"
"I'm a chemical engineer," I replied.
This time, both of her gorgeous eyebrows went up. Just a bit. "Really."
"Well," I backpedaled, "I have a degree in chemical engineering, but I'm not actually a professional yet. I'm . . . an unpaid intern." I might have imagined it, but I swore she seemed disappointed. "My boss is bizarre, too. A genius, but bizarre. I have trouble following his train of thought half the time. I don't even know if he has a real name, he just calls himself 'Inventions.'"
Her beautiful green eyes went wide in surprise. "You know Mister Inventions?!"
My brow furrowed. "Um, yeah. You, you've heard of him?"
"There was a huge article about him in the Tribune a while back," she said. "He sounded absolutely fascinating. With a mind like that, mmm!" She hesitated for a second or two. "Tell you what. I'll go out to dinner with you, if you'll introduce me to him."
Go . . . go out to dinner with me? Like, on a date?! Ohmygod. Ohmygod. "Um, sh-sure!" I sputtered. "I, he's only a few blocks from here. I can take you to there right now!"
Now it was her turn to sputter. "Really? O-okay! Um, where, where are you parked?"
Parked? "I'm not."
She looked at me the way one might look at a disobedient puppy. "You walked all the way here?"
"Yeah," I said. I tried to put a positive spin on it: "I-it's good exercise. And, well, you really wouldn't want to park a car on his block anyway. Not if you don't want someone to break into it."
"All right then," she stood beside me and proffered her arm, "Let's go!"
I hooked my arm in hers and strode off with her toward Inventions' lab, high as a kite.
The moment I opened the door to his lab, Leslie bolted inside, then halted and looked around in wide-eyed wonder. I cleared my throat. "Um, Inventions?"
His head popped up from behind a rack like a prairie dog, half way across the lab. "You brought a visitor?"
She hesitated nervously for half a second, then jogged briskly over to him. I figured I'd better follow. "Hi!" she said, giddy and fidgeting. She finally stuck out her hand. "I'm Leslie, I'm one of your biggest fans!"
Inventions raised one eyebrow — slightly — at her enthusiasm, then shook her hand. "Nice to meet a member of my fan club."
"Wow," she said, then shook herself. "I've heard so much about you! I mean, the Tribune article alone made you a superstar in my book. Whipping up a power source for a space probe in your garage, car brakes that never wear down, dozens of patents with your name on them!"
Inventions gazed at me as I approached. "There, you see? That's how you properly research your prospective employer."
She lowered her voice, but I could still make out her words. "I think your apprentice here has a crush on me."
Oh dear. My cheeks tingled with heat. I must have flushed crimson. Then, Inventions made it worse: "You're the cracker lady!"
Oh God. No no no no no. Please don't tell her about —
"I sent him off to get me saltines a couple days ago," Inventions told her, "And he came back with an empty box." I buried my face in my hands, but Inventions plowed ahead. "Made some excuse about a girl. He was so enraptured he must've eaten all the crackers without even noticing. I guess you made quite the impression on him."
I wanted to crawl under one of the junk piles in the lab and hide.
She actually smiled a bit. "Huh. The little stalker. But, but tell me," she pointed at a block in his hand, "What are you working on now?"
"What, this?" Inventions shrugged. "Just an improved-range digital radio transmitter. I was only fiddling with it to clear my head. The real work's over in the corner there." He thumbed over his shoulder. "And that one I can't show you. At least not yet."
"Oh, that sounds exciting," she said. "And mysterious! Will your secret new invention change the face of society as we know it?"
He glanced off into the distance for a split-second. "Maybe. Not likely, though. Its real purpose is to get back at my rival."
She raised an eyebrow. "Your rival?"
"George. Really thin guy, no body fat at— . . ." He snapped his fingers. "Fat. Now there's an idea!" He turned to the corner over his shoulder and started walking. "Toodles!"
"Uh, wait!" she said, realizing she was losing his attention. "Are you seeing anyone?"
He looked back, his nose and eyebrows wrinkled as though trying to parse an unpleasant sentence. "Seeing?" Then, her meaning finally sank in. "Ohhh, you mean like dating? Nope." He turned back and started walking away again without waiting for a reply.
"Do you," she stammered after him, "Do you want to go . . ." She broke off. She'd clearly lost him. She turned back to me, looking a bit crestfallen but never taking her eyes completely off Inventions. "That is one remarkable man you work for."
I felt an icicle going through my heart. She was as infatuated with Inventions as I was with her. Well . . . nearly as infatuated, at any rate. "Yeah." It came out like a sigh. "Yeah, I guess he is."
"Eight o'clock Friday night?" she asked.
"I promised you a date if you'd introduce me to him, and I keep my word."
"Oh!" I blushed again. "Oh, yeah, eight this Friday sounds wonderful!"
"Meet me at Chez Martin's," she said, "And don't be late." She strode out of the lab, closing the door behind her.
I stared at the closed door while a million thoughts raced through my head. Chez Martin. Friday night. Her. My boss as my romantic rival. Her. The way her hips moved when she walked. The touch of her hand. The walk we had coming here, arm-in-arm. Her. The Ske—
Oh. Right. The Skeleton Monster. I took a deep breath, then marched over to Inventions.
He looked up from a pile of gears and chain. "Glad you're here, Sam, I've got a new job for ya. The bearings on my pedal car are —"
I held up a hand. "There's something you need to know first. On the way here, I ran into the Skeleton Monster. He wanted to hire me to spy on you."
He considered this for a fleeting moment. "I'm surprised you didn't take him up on the offer. It's not like I pay you anything, or made you sign a non-disclosure agreement."
I blinked. I didn't expect that response at all.
"Or maybe you did take him up on his offer," Inventions speculated, "And you're telling me to throw me off. Nice bit of reverse psychology if that's the case." He pointed at a wheel bearing. "Regardless, I've got a new job for you. I need every edge I can get when I race against George again, so I figure, why not use the best bicycle lubricant there is." He looked me squarely in the eye. "Flychamp oil."
"I've heard of that stuff," I said. "Supposedly, the best Tour de France racers in the world use it on their bikes. But it's really expensive and controversial, because it can only be made from whale oil."
"I don't have any whale oil," Inventions said, "Nor do I have much inclination to go out and slaughter a whale. But you know how I like to make everything in-house. So, you're gonna have to come up with a way to make it without whale oil."
"Wait, what?" I blinked again. "You've got to be kidding me! Invent a whole new process? And they can't — I mean, other companies must have tried to figure it out by now! Flychamp oil sells for a fortune. Making it without whale oil would be fantastic P.R., and slash their costs. They must have their own armies of chemical engineers trying to crack the problem! And if they can't do it, well —"
"Maybe they do, maybe they don't." Inventions shrugged. "Maybe they're all locked in to one way of tackling the problem. Maybe nobody's stumbled upon a solution yet. Well, now it's your turn to try. Hop to it!" He turned back to his pile of pedal-car parts and sighted along a drive train, wrench in hand.
I plodded to my chem station, only half aware of the lab around me. Did Inventions have any idea of just how much he was asking of me? How the hell did they even make Flychamp oil out of whale oil in the first place? There must be a patent, or a patent disclosure, or a journal writeup, or something. Maybe it was time to fire up the ol' laptop and start a search. . . .
"No, George, I'm not calling you to grovel." Inventions' voice filled my ears even from half a lab away. I swear, the man has no indoor voice when he's on the phone; he must not care who overhears him. "I'm calling you to challenge you. . . . Yeah, that's right. I want a rematch." There was a quiet pause, as though he were listening. "Are you done laughing? I'm making some improvements to my pedal powered car design, and I'd hate for 'em to go to waste." Another pause. "What's the matter, you chicken? Buck buck buck bagawk!"
The next pause lasted longer. It was hard to see details from that distance, but I'm pretty sure I saw Inventions' face soften. "Okay, George. Skeleton Monster. You beat me. You beat me fair and square. At your own game. Occasionally, I overstep, and I have to learn the true parameters of a new game first-hand. Now that I do know them, however, I intend to knock you off that damn smug pedestal you're on." Another pause. "This Friday, noon."
And with that, he tapped his phone and put it away.
Sounded like we were going to have another midday race. Only . . . wait, this Friday? The same day as my hottest dinner date in recent memory? But, but what if I needed more time to prepare for Leslie? What if there's not enough time to change into my best first-date outfit? What if my shirt's missing a button, and it's a really tricky button and I need more time to sew it back on properly?! What if—
"Sam," Inventions startled me. How the heck did he walk all the way over to me without my noticing? "How's the homemade Flychamp oil coming?"
"Uh," I shook myself back to my senses, "I found the patent, but of the seven main steps in its manufacture, one of them absolutely requires a fatty acid found only in whale oil. It's called 3-isooleic acid. I scoured the literature for altertatives, but every published attempt to substitute some other fatty acid just resulted in a viscous sludge."
"Well, maybe there's a substitute they haven't tried yet. Better hurry up and find out, I need enough to lube my pedal racer by Friday morning." He patted my shoulder, and vanished back into the lab.
He's got to be kidding me, I thought. Surely, every promising avenue had already been tried by now! It was all but completely settled science that you had to start with the 3-isooleic acid found in whale o. . .
Start with . . .
Maybe . . .
It was only that one fatty acid from the whale oil that the process needed. Maybe . . . if it needs 3-isooleic acid, maybe there might be a way to make 3-isooleic acid artificially. . . .
It took the rest of the day, and all of the next morning, but I finally figured it out.
"Eu . . . freakin' . . . reka!"
My exultation must've gotten Inventions' attention, even over the din of his clatter-banging; he stopped what he was doing and waltzed over toward me. "Now that's a promising sound!"
I was too excited to calm down. "I can do it! I can turn ordinary vegetable oil into 3-isooleic acid!"
"Huh!" Inventions exclaimed in understanding. "Why make a substitute when you can make the real thing?"
"Yep," I said. "I took an enzymatic approach. Figured there was some biological process out there that might already do something similar. Turned out there was. That's probably why there weren't any chemical engineering patents for it — it would have taken a biochemist to figure it out, and the only patents those guys muck around with are for hybrid plants."
Inventions raised his eyebrows. "No prior art, either! Sounds like you'd better write up a patent application for your process."
A . . . a patent? That was every freshly-graduated chemical engineer's dream! "For real? You're actually going to apply for a patent for this? I mean, damn! I'm actually gonna have one of my inventions alongside all of yours, maybe even making money for you!"
"Ohhh no," Inventions shook a finger at me. My heart fell. Then, he said something that made my heart stop altogether: "I'm not putting my name on any patent for something I didn't invent! This one's gonna be in your name, and your name only. None of this 'company ownership' nonsense. Sandy owes me about a bazillion favors, and I'm gonna have him do the same for you, for your invention, that he does for the rest of mine."
My eyes must have been as big around as saucers. "You mean . . . it's just gonna be my name on the patent? Not ours, just mine? And I'm gonna be the owner?"
"Yep!" Inventions said. "And if the thing sells, welcome to the big time, kid! Now write down your process in enough detail that Sandy can turn it into a patent."
He turned to go, then called out over his shoulder, "But don't let that interfere with your making Flychamp oil for me! Write it in your copious free time."
I don't think I've ever written up a complete chem-eng procedure as fast as I did that day. It was like those assignments in college that I'd put off 'til the night before they were due. I'd e-maied off the whole kit and boodle to Inventions' lawyer Sandy before the sun had set. My own patent! I could imagine the royalties rushing in already, whole treasure chests full of gold dubloons to run my fingers through.
Of course, that meant I was behind in making enough Flychamp oil for the big race this Friday. I'd had to hunker down and spend every moment transforming the 3-isooleic acid I was making via my synth process. (My process. That thought put a big goofy grin on my face over and over again.) But by Thursday afternoon, I'd nearly hit my quota.
Then, my phone rang. I didn't recognize the caller's number. I picked up and said "Hello?".
An unfamiliar voice on the other end asked, "Is this Sam?"
I narrowed my eyes. Not that the caller could see this little gesture. "You're a telemarketer, aren't you?"
"No no. This is Sandy, I'm the patent attorney for Mr. Inventions."
I gasped. "Oh! Um, hi! Is this about my patent?"
"Well, it's not a patent yet, Sam. But I'm working on turning it into an application for one. Inventions asked me to prioritize this assignment. The good news is, it looks like your enzyme approach is novel enough that it probably won't fall under the old patent."
The old patent? Wait, what? "Um," I said, "You're not talking about the patent for Flychamp oil itself, are you? Because —"
"No no," he interrupted, "I'm talking about the patent from 1953."
From . . . from '53? What? "B-but, but . . . but I did a thorough patent search on 3-isooleic acid before I even started working out my new process. I couldn't find any patents for synthesizing it from other fatty acids."
"You . . ." he seemed to drawl out the word. ". . . must not have used all the search terms. I'm talking about Higgins and Clarke's 1953 patent for the synthesis of thydriatic acid."
Thydri— oh no. The old name. "Oh gosh. That's what they used to call 3-isooleic acid back in the ninteenth century, isn't it."
"I'm afraid so," Sandy replied. "I'm guessing the only reason the makers of Flychamp oil aren't using the 1953 patent already is they don't know about it. And that might make it hard for Chan to sell your patent to 'em. You see, a patent application is required to list all known similar patents, to prove that the new invention isn't prior art. If we don't mention the '53 Higgins & Clarke patent on our application, the patent examiner's bound to find it anyway, and then we'd just have to re-submit the application with the '53 patent added to it. Which means, the moment we show our patent to the Flychamp oil people, they're gonna see the 1953 patent and can easily look it up themselves. They could choose to use the '53 process to make whale-oil-free Flychamp oil, without ever infringing on your own patent, and you'd never see a penny in patent royalties."
Gods. I'd felt high as a kite the last couple of days, and now it was like the rug had been pulled out from under me.
"It's not all doom and gloom," Sandy went on. "Your patent might be cheaper to use on a large scale than the '53 patent. It might be worth their while to use yours anyway. But, well — I'd have to ask Chan about the actual business potential, but I don't think you'll be able to charge a lot of money for the use of your process."
I grunted into the phone. "Hm. Well. At least I'll have a patent with my name on it, even if it's worthless."
"True," Sandy said. "But don't hold your breath waiting to do a vanity search on your own patent. It can take over a year for the patent office to get around to granting your application a patent number. I'll keep in touch." <click>
I shook my head, and sighed. Easy come, easy go. Well . . . back to work. I had to finish making the last of the Flychamp oil before I could head home for the night. Tomorrow was still going to be a damned important day.
The Danson racetrack. Again.
This time, I'd had to be the one pedaling Inventions' car all the way to the track. He'd insisted he wanted as little muscle fatigue as possible going into this race. Not that I minded; as amazing as it felt to pedal the car last time, I was convinced that my synthetic Flychamp oil made it even smoother. The steering, on the other hand, took a bit more . . . getting used to than last time. It didn't help that the body was even longer, with a more gradual taper in the rear and a pointer nose.
I gave up trying to maneuver the car precisely, and pushed it the last few meters into its starting position. Inventions gave the car one more once-over, like a worried parent making sure his little darling didn't have a hair out of place. "Now where's the old bucket of bones I'm racing against?"
I scanned the horizon, and picked out a narrow green oncoming car. From this distance, it didn't look any different from the Skeleton Monster's car the last time they'd raced. I pointed. "Here he comes."
His car was quite far away, but seemed to be approaching pretty fast. He must have been pedaling the car at full speed. I winced. This was a pretty harsh reminder that the Skeleton Monster didn't have to worry about fatigue. Still, he was far enough away that it'd be the better part of a minute before he arrived. I looked around lazily . . .
. . . and when my gaze landed in the opposite direction, my heart nearly leapt into my throat. It was her! Leslie! What on Earth was she doing here, at the Danson racetrack?!
I forgot all else and bolted toward her. Behind me, I heard Inventions' voice say "Where are you — oh. Hmph. Kids." I ignored it. I would have ignored the President of the United States right at that moment. All that mattered was running to the most ravishingly beautiful woman in the world, the woman I was actually going to go on a date with tonight.
I stopped short, trying and failing to sound casual. "Leslie! Um, hi! What, what are you doing here? I mean, um . . . here?"
She smirked. I couldn't tell if it was a good smirk or a bad smirk. "I hear your boss is having a big pedal-powered car race."
"Oh! Uh . . ." How had she known? There was no announcement. Who told —
The puzzlement on my face must have given me away. She said, "Inventions told me about it, when I stopped by his lab last night."
I felt the bottom go out of my stomach. For a moment, I couldn't look her in the eye. Were she and he . . . an item now? Had I completely lost any shot I would have had with her?
She only shook her head. "I put on my best outfit, and the most seductive airs I could muster; and none of it even fazed him. Either he's got the hottest girlfriend in the world, or his tastes don't lean toward women at all."
Thank goodness! Oh, er, I mean, how terrible for you, my wonderful darling. I blinked to force myself back to the present. "Actually, I've never seen him take a romantic interest in anyone — female, male, or otherwise. He might be asexual, or just married to his work."
She nodded. "A pity." Then she glanced over my shoulder, and her brow knit while she squinted. An instant later, her eyes popped wide open and her index finger snapped forward. "What on Earth is that?!"
I looked where she'd pointed. "Oh, that's the other pedal-powered car in the ra—"
"Not the car," she said, "The driver!"
The driver was, indeed, emerging from his cockpit, bones a-clattering. I said, "That's the Skeleton Monster."
Her jaw dropped. "I . . ." she began. "I'd heard the name, but I thought it was just a nickname, for like a really thin bony guy or something. But this . . . this thing. I had no idea he was an actual skeleton!"
"Inventions can tell you all about it," I said, walking her over to the two of them. "Or maybe George will tell you himself. Word of advice, he hates being called 'George'."
As we got within earshot, I heard Inventions say, "Really, George? Your car looks pretty much the same to me."
"The improvements are on the inside," the Skeleton Monster boasted. "In fact, I've spared no expense. I've even lubricated all the bearings with . . . Flychamp oil!"
Inventions couldn't keep from giggling. "Flychamp oil! You hear that, Sam?"
I folded my arms and grinned from ear to ear. I felt like the proud cat who'd just caught the mouse. "I heard him, all right."
"What's so funny?" the Skeleton Monster sneered, insomuch as a skeleton can sneer.
"Oh nothing," Inventions chuckled. "It's just that . . . my assistant" — he thumbed in my direction — "figured out a way to make synthetic Flychamp oil."
"You've got to be kidding me," the Skeleton Monster said.
"Nope," I said. "Turns out, Flychamp oil only needs one compound from the whale oil, and I've figured out how to make that one compound using ordinary salad oil."
Leslie seemed genuinely impressed. I figured I'd better act cool.
Inventions stood to one side of his own car, as if he were about to make a dramatic reveal. "Well, I guess I'd better . . ." he opened a side door to deliberately showcase his cockpit's interior ". . . climb aboard!"
The Skeleton Monster glared. Or at least, I think he was glaring. It's hard to tell with only empty eye sockets. "Those handles. They don't look like a steering wheel or handle bars!"
"They're not," Inventions preened. "They're a pair of hand cranks. I can tilt the whole hand-crank wheel to steer, but they also provide extra power. They're pedals . . . for my hands."
I could almost hear the calculations going on in the Skeleton Monster's head at that moment. "That's . . ." he hesitated. "That's not what we agreed to! This is supposed to be a pedal powered car race. Pedal comes from the Latin adjective pedalis, meaning 'of or belonging to the foot.' The foot. Not the hand!"
"Ah, but language evolves," Inventions replied, "And today 'pedal' can also mean 'to press one or more levers attached to a wheel in a continuous circular motion'. They don't actually have to be operated by the foot. In any event, I feel that I've upheld the spirit of this challenge as well as the letter, since the only power source for this car will be my own muscles."
The Skeleton Monster looked right at Inventions, and leaned in. "You know what? I'll accept that. I'll actually accept that. You know why? Because I've made enough incremental improvements of my own, on my own car, that your pathetic rule-bending won't matter." He gritted his teeth, yet still he spoke. "I. Will. Still. Beat you!"
The walking skeleton clattered back over to his own car, and sat himself down in his own cockpit without another word.
Inventions smirked at me as he clambered into his dark blue car's side door. "Looks like it's time to get the race started. We'll go on your signal."
They both crept up to the starting line, saving their strength for the two laps ahead of them. I walked out between them, just as I had for their last race . . . but this time, Leslie trotted up next to me and said, "Let me start it."
"Uh . . ." I was dumbstruck, as usual.
"I've always wanted to do the race-starter girl thing," she explained.
Who was I to deny the woman of my dreams? I stood aside and let her take my place.
She took a deep breath and straightened herself to her full height. From somewhere on her person, I still don't know whence, she pulled out a silk handkerchief and held it stiff-armed high above her head. Her whole form took on the aura of a statue, a majestic statue of a goddess walking the earth, frozen at a moment in her history. From her raised arm pointing skyward, to her marble-perfect face, to her perfectly-proportioned torso, and all the way down her toned, transcendantly-lovely legs; everything about her was all I could ever want in a woman, all I could imagine ever wanting.
And at once, the hand holding the handkerchief shot downward, and both racers took off. I almost forgot to start my stopwatch.
As before, Inventions shot off, and the Skeleton Monster began to lurch forward, slowly but surely gaining speed. It was hard to judge by sight, but it seemed as though the two of them were going just about as fast as they did in their first race. Were Inventions' hand-cranked pedals not working? Why wasn't he going faster? As he rounded the first turn, I could see into his cockpit, and it sure looked like his hands were cranking something. But again, he didn't seem to be going any faster than before. And the Skeleton Monster seemed to be narrowing his speed gap just about as fast as last time.
When they passed the lap 1 line, and my stopwatch caught their times, they both came within one second of their lap 1 times on the previous race. Not only were Inventions' hand cranks not making a difference, neither was the Flychamp oil. Genuine Flychamp oil on the Skeleton Monster's bearings, or my synthetic Flychamp equivalent in Inventions' moving parts, it made no difference. It almost made me laugh. Flychamp oil didn't give a cyclist a real edge at all. It was all perception — like those audiophiles who swear that half-inch-thick speaker cables sound better than quarter-inch ones, even though they can't tell them apart in a blind test. In fact, its use of whale oil was probably part of its appeal; it made Flychamp oil rare and immoral, like how a fantasy witch needs hard-to-obtain newt's eyes and virgin's hair to cast her magic spells.
But if Inventions' hand cranks weren't helping either, wouldn't that mean he'd still lose the race? The Skeleton Monster's green car was still accelerating, just like he'd done the first time. The gap between their cars was narrowing, just like it had done at this point in the first race. If it kept going at this rate . . .
Just as before, Inventions' dark blue car sped up a little bit as the Skeleton Monster gained on him. I could see it all replaying again in my mind. Fatigue would make Inventions slow back down to his cruising speed, just as before, and then —
But this time, Inventions didn't slow back down. He kept up his new, higher speed. He could sustain it this time. That's what he'd been using the hand-cranks for. He was pacing himself. With his hands providing a little more oomph, his legs hadn't fatigued quite as much during the first lap. He wasn't quite as tired. This might be all the edge he'd need.
The green car was still gaining on him, but it wasn't gaining quite as fast. Inventions reached the half-way mark on the lap a hair sooner than he had the first time. The Skeleton Monster kept lurching faster and faster, still closing the gap, but time and distance were running out for him . . and at last, the blue pedal car crossed the finish line half a car length ahead of the green.
The cars took over a quarter of a lap to coast to a stop. I jogged over to them, like I'd done after the last race, but this time with jubilance in my step instead of dread. I heard Leslie's footfalls a few paces behind me. Inventions emerged from his car, dripping with sweat but triumphant, just as I arrived. He slapped the car on its top like you'd slap a good buddy on his back, and said "Now that's how you do it!"
The Skeleton Monster slowly extricated himself from his own contraption. Inventions couldn't help but rub it in: "Well, George, it looks like I win again!"
"Of course you win again," the skeleton grumbled. "You always win again. Every goddamn time, no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, you're always there to remind me of what a loser I am!"
He slumped down next to his car, his bones clattering on the pavement. I almost felt sorry for him.
"I get one tiny victory," the Skeleton Monster went on, "One pedal powered car race that I actually, somehow, managed to win for a change. One tiny bright light in a never-ending sea of failures. And what happens? A week later, bam, you take it right back away from me!" He bashed his car with the side of his bony fist. "I'm nothing but a no-good loser!"
The Skeleton Monster covered his skull-face with his hand bones. If he still had tear ducts, would he be sobbing right now?
Inventions just crossed his arms and, in the meanest display of petty arrogance I'd seen from him yet, said to his rival: "You got that right."
This . . . this didn't sit right with me at all.
"No," I said.
All three of them looked at me. I tried to find the words.
"No, you're not a loser," I said to the skeleton. "You're second best. Everybody makes 'second best' out to be something you should be ashamed of. Something," I stumbled on my words, "Like it's something to look down upon. And that's stupid! Second best means you're better than almost all of the competition out there. Second best is a silver medal in the Olympics. You, I've heard that you can engineer things that most people could never even dream of. So what if someone out there is better at it than you!"
The Skeleton Monster's hands fell away from his bony face. He wasn't despondent any more, he was just . . . looking.
Inventions, arms still crossed, started to open his mouth to speak. His smirk made my stomach crawl. I pointed a threatening finger at him and cut him off cold.
"And you," I addressed my mentor with a snarl, "You're so used to winning, you're so used to getting your way all the time, that you fell all to pieces just because you came in second once. You've got just as petty a need to be on top all the time as the Skeleton Monster does. You're not superior to him, you're just like him!"
Inventions muttered something under his breath. It almost looked like he was saying, "I wish." He took a deep breath or two, then turned to the Skeleton Monster without looking directly at him and spoke up: "George, I . . . Doctor Herkamer, I . . . damn it." He looked the Skeleton Monster directly in his eye sockets. "All right, I'll say it. George, I'm envious of you."
"Me?!" the Skeleton Monster looked incredulous. "Oh, is this more of your damn sarcasm? You just trying to rub it in some more?"
"No," Inventions said with all seriousness, "I . . . damn it, George! You invented something I never did, and probably never could have. You invented immortality."
The Skeleton Monster groaned. "You are just rubbing it in. The biggest failure of my career!" He jumped up and showed off his ribcage. "My sure-fire formula for eternal life, and all it did was turn me into a walking, talking sack of bones!"
"You are so missing the big picture here, George," Inventions retorted. "Right now, at any moment, there are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people lying on their death beds. They've got some incurable terminal disease, or they're super old, and they're thinking that it's the end. They think that their lifetime of memories and experiences are about to vanish into nothing, and there's nothing they can do about it. What if they could become like you!" He thrust a finger at the Skeleton Monster when he said you. "Look at you! You have no brain that can decay or get Alzheimer's, and yet you can think! You have no muscles or tendons, and yet you can walk! You have no eyes, and yet you can see! You have no vocal chords, and yet you can talk! Heck, you don't even need to eat! And you've been doing it for years! What you are," he slowed his speech for emphasis, "Is nothing short of a miracle."
The Skeleton Monster put a bony hand to his bony chin, pondering this.
"And I've never pulled off a miracle," Inventions went on. "Not even with time travel." He glanced off into the aether for an instant when he said this, then returned his attention to his long-time rival. "You think of yourself as the Salieri to my Mozart. Well . . . I feel the same way about you. That's why I'm always so smug when I come out on top."
Leslie, calm and smooth as always, interjected: "You do know that Mozart and Salieri weren't actually rivals in real life, right?"
Inventions waved her off. "Pop-culture analogy. Anyway. George. Just imagine what all those dying people could do with all those extra years of life. Sure, there'd be no flesh on them, but a writer could still write, a composer could still compose, a plumber could still plumb —" He thought about that for a split-second, "Though he might need to wear special gloves so that he could grip the pipes properly. And we don't even know, yet, how long a skeleton can live! You might last for centuries! Imagine all those people, with all those lifetimes of experience, getting to use that experience and build on it again."
I mulled the idea over in my head. I cringed at the thought of half the people I'd meet being walking, talking skeletons. But then, that just might have been my own prejudice as a flesh-and-blood person.
"In fact," Inventions went on, "It's absurd that you haven't patented your . . . um . . . your skeletonning procedure. I'm sure the first recipients would be willing to pay a fortune for it."
After a moment, the Skeleton Monster looked back at him and said, "Denecrotization."
"Denecrotization," the Skeleton Monster repeated. "That's what I was originally going to call the procedure, back when I was developing it." He held up a bony hand. "And before you say it, yes, I know. There's a certain irony in naming it de-necro-tization, when the end result" — he indicated his torso — "looks like something a necromancer would summon."
Inventions suppressed a giggle, and said, "Actually, I figured you named it that because you thought it would eliminate cell necrosis. In which case, it worked. You can't have dead cells if you don't have any flesh."
The Skeleton Monster glared at him with his hollow eye sockets. Then, he almost seemed to soften. "You know, that is kind of funny." He paused. "You really think there are people who'd be willing to put up with a body like mine, if it meant staying alive?"
"I'm sure of it," Inventions replied.
"Huh." The Skeleton Monster seemed to stare off into the distance. "My greatest failure just might be my greatest achievement." He stood up abruptly. "I need to call my patent lawyer." He started clambering into his pedal car, mumbling, "Business development's gonna be a big unknown. How do you market a medical invention? There's gonna have to be advertising, investors, schmoozing . . ."
He pump-pedaled away. We all watched his green car recede into the distance, his voice trailing away with him.
Leslie went her own way, reminding me — as though I'd forget — that we were still on for dinner that evening. Inventions and I took turns pedaling his car back to his lab. He didn't wait to help me park it in its proper spot. He had that "I've got an idea" gleam in his eye again. He bounded over to his tachyon receiver, the one he'd gotten a message from the future with.
"I think I figured it out," he said. He started fiddling with its switches and dials.
"Um . . . figured what out?" I asked.
"How to send a message back in time to myself," he replied, still fiddling. "I should have seen it sooner. The tachyons have to be generated by the same device that originally received them. Any other arrangement couldn't work at all. Causation physics simply wouldn't allow it. I have to rig this exact same tachyon receiver to do the sending, for me to have received the message in the first place."
He pulled open a panel on the side of the unit and reached inside. After a second or two, he frowned. "Yep," he said. "Yep, I should've seen this too. There's no other way to engineer it. When I switch over to transmitting, it's going to burn itself out. I can send one message back in time, and then the machine is useless."
I frowned. "Couldn't you just build it again?"
"I could," Inventions answered, "But then it would be a different tachyon receiver. Even if I were to re-use all the parts from the first one, the core would be just different enough that I couldn't use it to send a message back to the first one. I could only use it to send a message back to itself. No receiver is ever going to be able to send messages back farther than when that receiver was built and switched on."
He pulled out a laptop PC and plugged in a USB cable. The other end of the cable stretched somewher into the tachyon receiver's labyrinthine innards. "I should probably close the time loop. I'll send back the same message I received before." He pulled a strip of paper tape out of his pocket, the same tape he'd gotten the earlier message on. I was amazed that he'd kept it on his person all this time. "Let's see, 7-bit ASCII," he tapped somewhere on the PC's touchscreen, then started typing: "listen to Sam, don't give up."
"It's all queued up," he said, "Just gotta flip the last switch." He reached for a toggle inside the receiver . . . then curled back his finger without pressing it. "Hmmm," he said. "I wonder what would happen if I didn't send the message. Or if I sent a different one." He stared off into space, gears grinding almost audibly inside his head. His brow furrowed, then he shook his head. "Nah, better not risk it. Wouldn't want the universe to collapse."
He pressed the toggle. The machine's core sizzled for about a second, then went silent.
"Aaaaaand it's sent," Inventions said. He looked around. "Hm. No future me. No Hitler." He glanced at the paper tape strip. "Message looks the same as it did before. Looks like we're safe!"
I said, "Well, at least that's over with now."
"Now to build another tachyon receiver," Inventions said. I put a palm to my forehead. Inventions ignored me and started ripping the dead core out of the receiver. "Never know when I'll need to send another message back in time to myself!"
Oh, great. I shook my head, still cradling my forehead in my palm. I wasn't looking forward to breaking the universe. . . . But then again . . . "Um," I began, "You could always use it to send yourself next week's winning state lottery numbers."
Inventions wrinkled his nose. "That'd probably be unethical."
"Um, listen," I said as he continued tinkering with his time-message machine, "If you won't be needing me, I'd kinda like to go home and get ready. I have a big date tonight."
"That Leslie lady?" he asked, taking apart the tachyon core with a screwdriver. "Congrats. Have fun doing whatever it is you two do."
I took that as permission to leave. "Have fun," he said. Hah! With that many butterflies in my stomach? I'd be lucky if I could just hold myself together.
Friday night. 8 PM. Chez Martin.
The host, clad in a tuxedo, seated me at a table that gave a full view of the restaurant's entrance. The lighting was romantic, and the decor was, for want of a better word, posh. The whole atmosphere whispered "expensive." I took a peek at the menu and, as I'd expected and feared, this was one of those fancy places that listed the price for each item in whole dollars rather than dollars and cents. A rather substantial number of whole dollars. I only hoped that when the bill inevitably arrived at the end of the meal, my credit card's paltry recent-college-grad credit limit would be enough to cover it.
I waited, and watched. Two other couples came through the front door and got whisked away to tables, one dressed casually and the other dressed to the nines. And then . . . there she was. Leslie sauntered through the door wearing a cocktail dress that almost seemed to shimmer when she walked. On her head was a broad-brimmed red hat, almost impossibly elegant. If she'd been wearing a trench coat, she would have looked like Carmen Sandiego — only hotter, if such a thing were possible.
I had on my best date clothes, but now, I felt underdressed.
The host seemed to recognize her, as did the waiter who led her toward my table. They both seemed quite eager to cater to her every whim. Or maybe that's how they treated every customer, and I was projecting. She caught sight of me, and I swear she smirked a little bit. In my mind, for the few steps it took her to reach my table and sit down, that smirk meant she was overjoyed to see me and wanted nothing more than to be with me, then and forever.
"I see we both made it here," she said non-chalantly, taking off her red hat and setting it on a chair to one side of us.
I fumbled for what to say in reply, but the waiter came to my rescue. "Would either of you care for drinks to start?" he asked with a thick French accent.
Leslie glanced at him and, without skipping a beat, said "Apportez-moi votre refroidisseur à vin pastèque et citron vert, Jardin."
Oh my goodness. Of course she spoke perfect French, too.
"Oui, mademoiselle, the waiter replied, then turned to me and asked "Et pour vois?"
"Uh," I said, "Um, just water for me, thanks. Um, for now."
The waiter seemed a touch disappointed that I hadn't ordered a pricier drink, but he nodded professionally and said "Certainly," then headed off toward the kitchen.
I turned to the most beautiful woman in the world, seated across from me, and said, "You're incredible."
She lifted an eyebrow, and seemed to chuckle slightly. "Thanks."
Was I laying it on a bit thick? Did I sound too desperate? Frankly, I didn't care any more. I knew how I felt. "I knew since the moment I first laid eyes on you," I said, "That you were the woman for me."
"No you didn't," she replied.
Her words stunned me into silence.
She continued: "You convinced yourself that I was the perfect match for you, because you were attracted to me." She looked almost wistful. "Heaven knows, I've made that same mistake myself more than once."
I felt the bottom fall out of my world. I was sure all the color drained from my face — either that, or I flushed a deep crimson, I couldn't tell which. How could . . . she was the most beautiful woman I'd ever met! And her charm, her poise, her downright elegance, it was all the pinnacle of anything I could wish for.
Actually . . . now that I thought about it . . . she was an almost perfect beauty. She couldn't have just ended up that way by accident. She must have put effort into it. A lot of effort. She must have practiced for years to get every nuance right. She must have tried and rejected hundreds of outfits, if not thousands, before she settled on her wardrobe. All the time that a guy like me would have been putting into studying for college exams, she would have had to invest in her appearance. . . . Was she a model?
I broke the silence with an awkward "So, um," and then plunged ahead with: "What do you do for a living?"
She took a deep breath. "I've never worked a day in my life."
I frowned. She couldn't be a model. But then . . . "Does," I said, "Does that mean you, that you take money for —"
"No," she insisted. Her glare could have sent an army fleeing in terror. Then, she softened and almost seemed to smirk. "That would be work."
Jardin the waiter appeared with our drinks. He set my glass of water down in front of me unceremoniously, then handed Leslie's wine cooler to her. She smiled and muttered a quick "Merci," then the waiter vanished back into the background.
Leslie took a demure sip, then said "I'm not an heiress, either — though I do have to admit my parents are rather well-off. No, I've sustained myself in a perfectly comfortable lifestyle thanks entirely to the men I've dated."
"So . . ." I began, "Would that — would that make you a gold digger?"
Leslie seemed to consider this. "I suppose, in a way, that's a fair assessment. But I've never dated a man for his money. It's true, I'm attracted to power, to wealth, to brains — and, to a lesser extent, to ambition. But I've always been attracted to those qualities in a man, from the moment I started noticing boys when I was eight years old. It's just instinct for me; this attraction is just . . . my natural state. And the economic benefit kind of goes both ways. When a man shows up at a party with me on his arm, people notice. It's helped more than one of my boyfriends climb the social ladder. And unfortunately, in one rather painful case, it made it easier for him to 'trade up' to an even more socially desirable woman."
I wanted to phrase my next question delicately. "With the men you were attracted to, was there any . . . overlap?"
"You mean, did I ever date more than one man at a time?" she asked. "Once. When I was young and naïve. I wanted them both, and didn't want to choose. God, that caused a lot of drama. I've learned my lesson since then. Better to go for months with no boyfriend, than start in on one before I'm done with another."
So . . . her boyfriends supported her well enough that she was able to get by fine even when she was between boyfriends? That was pretty —
The waiter must have decided that this pause in the conversation meant we were ready to order. He materialized out of nowhere and asked Leslie, "Avez-vous décidé?"
"J'aimerais la spécialité de la maison, Jardin," Leslie replied. "Mi-saignant."
I had no idea what she'd just ordered, but it sounded expensive. Jardin the waiter turned to me. I said, "Um, just a plate of your, um, aper-teefs for me. I'm not very hungry." My pronunciation of apértifs would've given a high school French teacher an anyeurism.
The waiter, ever the professinal, hardly blinked at all and simply said "Very good, sir." There was no a trace of the French accent he'd had before. Leslie grinned broadly at me. It was at this moment I realized the waiter had been playing me. He snatched up our menus, then disappeared as quickly as he'd arrived.
"Just," I said to Leslie, "Just how lavishly do your boyfriends support you?"
"One of them bought me a house," she said. My eyes opened as wide as saucers when she said this. She continued, "He wanted me to live close by him, but not actually move in with him. And I don't mean he bought an extra house and had me live there, no, he put that house in my name, fully paid for, with no mortgage or anything. That was my first experience with having to pay property tax. When we broke up a couple years later, I flipped the house and sold it for a couple hundred thousand more than he'd bought it. Those proceeds gave me one sweet savings account balance."
"Good lord," I said. "There, there must have been a huge capital gains tax."
"None at all, actually," she said. "The house was a gift. The cost basis for a gift isn't the zero dollars I paid for it, it's the fair market value of the asset on the day it was given to me. And since it was my home, the first quarter million dollars of capital gains wasn't taxed at all."
These high-finance numbers were making my head spin.
"So," she said, "Tell me about your love life."
"There's not much to tell," I said. "Chemical engineering majors don't exactly make the college girls swoon."
She frowned. "Didn't you date anybody?"
"I was focused on my studies, and . . ." I shook my head. "Nah, that's just an excuse. I'm socially awkward and I don't have a lot of friends. There wasn't much opportunity for me to learn . . . how to get a girlfriend. And nearly all my classmates were other guys. Well, I did get to go out on an actual date with this one girl my junior year, but it turned out she was just trying to recruit me into the Jehovah's Witnesses."
"Dang," she said, sitting back, "That's . . . really sad."
I didn't tell her about Tina, of course. But then again, I don't like to talk about Tina.
"And being fresh out of college," I continued, "I'm keenly aware that both my social standing and my financial situation are nothing to write home about. It's . . . pretty obvious that you're completely out of my league."
Leslie said nothing. She must've known that any reassurance to me would have been a lie.
"In a way," I said wistfully, "It's kind of liberating. I don't have to beat myself up over letting you get away, or thinking that if I'd only tried harder I could've won your heart."
"Tell you what," she said, "Let's get separate checks."
"Okay," I said, and my voice was hollow. It was both a relief and a final disappointment. On the one hand, I wouldn't need to go into debt to pay for a single meal. On the other hand, it also signalled that our date was no longer a date. It's one thing to know that I was probably never going to win Leslie's affection, but quite another to have it made official.
"You know," Leslie said, "I wouldn't say I'm always going to be beyond your reach. Eventually your career's going to take off, and in the meantime, I know that . . . well, that beauty is fleeting. My mastery of wardrobe and makeup hair styling and the social graces will only get me so far, once my youthful good looks start to fade. Then I'll have to change my life strategy. I might actually need to marry a man, instead of just dating one. Maybe I'll get divorced, and I'll need a little confidence boost, and I'll remember the chemical engineer who had a huge crush on me and look him up. Who knows?"
My pocket buzzed angrily. "Dang it," I cursed, "I thought I turned my phone off." I took it out and gawked at the screen. "Inventions?! He knows I'm on a date. What the hell?" I looked up at Leslie. "I'd better take this." She raised an eyebrow, and I quickly added: "I swear this isn't a planned 'escape excuse' call."
I opened the line and said, "Sam here, what's up?"
"I've got an idea," Inventions' voice spoke into my ear. "We're gonna revolutionize the timekeeping business. It'll require crystals that can only be grown in zero gee, but they should grow fast enough that we can get make them on a Vomit Comet. I'd normally leave you alone at this time of night, but I really need you to make me a big load of iodide compounds while the idea's still fresh in my mind. Get down to the lab, right away!"
He hung up without waiting for an answer.
I looked across at the most beautiful, and unobtainable woman in my world, and tried to say something. But all that came out was "Uh . . ."
"Your boss man roping you back in?" she asked.
"Yeah," I replied. "I really should go." I plunked a twenty and a ten down onto the table, which would barely be enough to cover the aper-teefs I'd ordered with tax and tip. It was also, realistically, the most I could afford. "I'm really sorry."
"Don't be," she said. "This is a really nice restaurant. I've eaten alone here before." She grinned. "And my night's still young."
"Thanks," I said, getting up. "I guess we'll, uh, see each other around some time, or something."
"Maybe," she said. "Like I said, who knows?" And with a goodbye wave, she faded into my past.
I left the restaurant, and I jogged along the street outside, headed toward the other side of town. Of course Chez Martin was nowhere near Inventions' lab. I suppose I could have just turned Inventions down this time. After all, his new idea would still be there on the other side of the weekend, if it was any good. And it's not like he had a KC-135 Vomit Comet lying around, ready to put iodide compounds on board at a moment's notice. . . . Or did he?
Damn. Not only wasn't anything I was doing for Inventions making me any money, I don't even think any of the adventures I was having with him would translate into useful professional experience.
But I just. Couldn't. Keep away.
I hope you've enjoyed reading Inventions as much as I've enjoyed writing it.
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