The new printer printed the ornate, yellow, dollar-sized certificate, sliced it to size, and dropped it into the waiting envelope.
Bob picked it up with tongs and dropped it through the small sphere floating above his desk.
That’s done. The sphere vanished.
He got up from his desk and turned to the large crates resting on the gravel floor. In the background, CNN was playing, listing the events of the theft time after time. He listened with half his attention as he took a crowbar to the first crate, revealing a large rack-mounted computer with an impressive array of computer hard disks.
It’ll be days before I can get them all on-line.
James skipped out of the lunch line and retired to the bathroom. He closed the stall door, just to get some isolation. He struggled to make sense of what had happened.
Did Dad go to work for the Emperor? What if he is the Emperor?
It sounded almost like one of those James Bond movies they’d watched after Dad’s birthday. By now, spies from a dozen countries would be getting their orders from obscure agencies to go out and get the Emperor.
He felt a twinge of fear. I hope it’s not Dad.
If only I had the sphere library back!
He glanced at his watch, remembering the whole watch calibration thing. What had that been about?
He pressed the LIGHT switch three times. Nothing.
He pressed the ADJUST switch.
Abruptly, the world twisted around him. He had been standing, now, he was flat on his face, after having fallen a couple of feet. His head was spinning.
The breeze was cool. It was early evening.
He struggled to his feet. Streetlights were on and he was at the curb of a street, between a tree and a strange looking car.
Just a few feet up ahead, a young woman was walking away from him. Something about her hair caught his eye.
Is that the girl from the shower? He could see a watch on her arm.
If so, then he was in Paris!
It felt like the world was reeling again. By the time he shook off the vertigo, the girl was now a block away. He stepped out on the sidewalk, following her.
The city was an attack on his senses; everything was so normal, and yet so different. Things his eyes had skipped over on the computer screen were here, in real life, impossible to ignore.
“INTERDIT SAUF CD-CMD—-INTERDIT A TOUS VÉHICULES LES JOURS DE MARCHÉ” proclaimed a white sign.
The street signs are in French, and I can’t read them. The light posts were old-fashioned, even the trees looked different.
The girl stopped and looked down the cross street, and he got a good look at her face. Beautiful. Like a model. Or maybe all French girls look like that.
He followed. Other people caught his attention. No, not all French people were beautiful, but even the old men looked thin, like they ate less.
After a couple of blocks, it seemed he had to walk faster to keep up with her. The streets were a maze of unfamiliar names, yet dotted with familiar logos or signs.
Across the street, he saw a Shell Oil station, but it was just a hole-in-the-wall storefront in the middle of the block, with a couple of pumps at the curb in among the trees.
When he looked back for the girl, she was gone.
James trotted ahead, and then paused at the intersection. No sign of her in any direction.
The Eiffel tower was glowing like it was covered in Christmas lights, off in the distance.
He just stood there, beginning to wonder why he was even following her.
I’m in Paris, with no idea how to get back.
Was lunchtime over? His watch was blinking the seconds, waiting for an adjustment. If he touched another button, what would happen next? He tried to remember what he had set as the options, back then.
He had to try something. He looked in all directions down the lanes and then moved between two trees.
All of the locations had been on one button. He remembered that much. He pressed ADJUST.
From the shadows of a doorway across the street, the girl watched as the man who had been following her went transparent and then fell into nothingness.
“Hello Rudy. How’s life in the international set?”
“Hi, Jay. It looks like I’m off to a running start. I just got tagged to investigate the Emperor.”
FBI Agent Jay Russo shook his head in sympathy. “I told you not to go.”
“Oh, but this way I get to come back and pester you for answers.”
“Rudy, it was you who told me Interpol was just a big database. So where’s the data?”
“It’s gotta come from you guys originally.
“Seriously,” Rudy lowered his voice. “The noise up the line is that nobody knows anything. They aren’t even sure what to put on the Blue Notice.”
“What’s a Blue Notice?”
“A request for information—like what the perpetrator’s true identity is—things like that. We spread the net wide, and then feed everything into the ICIS database. You get the results after it churns a bit. I’m the guy who gives it to you.”
Jay looked at him speculatively. “Me personally, or the FBI?”
Rudy smiled. “Is there a reason you ask?”
“Oh, quit the kidding. You know there’s going to be a task force on this and I’m dying to be on it.”
“Then go for it. Tell your boss that you’ve got the best connections with Interpol and you won’t be too far off the truth.”
“Sure. I’m the Interpol point man. I’d rather work with you.”
Jay beamed. “Okay, then I go first. Those ‘tokens’ weren’t the only thefts today.”
“No. Several mysterious high-tech thefts have just happened. And each time the equipment was stolen, an envelope was left with payment, in the form of a yellow ... not a bank note, but something like that. A promise of payment in the name of the Empire of the Earth.”
James gave out a whoof. He was flat on his face in his father’s work shed.
He pushed up. I never knew teleportation gave you bruises.
On his wrist, his watch made no sense. He looked at the dumbed-down Grumpy, with the little clock digits in the corner.
Five minutes to get back to class. But my car is at school.
He brushed the dust off his jeans.
At least I don’t have to scare up a transatlantic plane ticket.
The blinking digits on his wrist tickled his memory.
The first location was the ‘ParisWatch’. The second was ‘HOME’, obviously a location his father had set. There was at least one more, he was sure.
What do I have to lose?
He pressed ADJUST.
This time, he stepped forward, and it was like a quick shift of an uneven floor. The curve of the Earth! That was it. Each teleportation gave him a different down direction. If it was mild, he could keep his footing. The distance to and from Paris made a significant shift, and he fell down.
But where was he now? It was black, and there was gravel underfoot. He took a few steps and hit his shin on a bench. He stifled the ‘ouch’ impulse. Stay quiet.
No time to explore. Was there another location?
He fell against the outside of the toilet stall, back in the high school bathroom.
“Hey!” came the complaint from inside the stall.
James stumbled out into the hallway. He was back, but not exactly. He’d started inside the stall. Was the software smart enough to move him out of the way if a destination was occupied?
If Dad wrote it, it just might be.
The school bell rang.
He made a dash for his next class. His mind was fuzzy. Jumping time zones had scrambled his sense of time.
But now he knew what his watch could do. Paris, Home, someplace dark, and then back to his origin.
I’m hungry. The perils of skipping lunch. There had been a sidewalk cafe in Paris. I should have stopped.
He should have picked up a hamburger, or whatever it was that the Parisians ate.