James removed Grumpy’s hard disk and put it in his pocket. It balanced the weight of the drive in his other pocket. He had gutted his bedroom computer shortly after typing ‘Bail’. An old software advertisement had come to plague his imagination. It had claimed sophisticated methods could retrieve even erased files. He didn’t have the software to protect the data, so he would have to dispose of the hard drives themselves.
The gutted computers would be incriminating, but if the FBI got close enough to open up his computers, then the game was over anyway. He wasn’t trying to avoid giving them evidence for a trial. He was trying to protect his father.
He replaced the computer’s case and put an auto-boot CD in the drive. A casual check wouldn’t even notice the machine had no hard-drive.
Okay, that’s it. All I’ve got is my watch.
And it was loaded. He had put a dozen locations in the normal list. LIGHT was programmed to step through the locations—he no longer had to go through the whole merry-go-round to get to the place where he wanted to go. Of course he had to keep the list in his head. Memorizing it had been hard.
And START turned on ‘SevenLeagueBoots’. He had taken a quick look at the code and he was dying to try it out.
No time like the present.
It was broad daylight out. His mother was off at work, in spite of the fact her nerves were shot. Just over the hill, he knew that an FBI agent had parked beside the road and had a telescope trained at their property.
He walked over to the hidden side of the house.
He looked carefully. Supposedly he was surrounded by two concentric spheres, but he couldn’t see them.
He took a small step. Nothing happened.
He took a bigger one, and abruptly, he was twenty feet away. Good.
In an explosive burst, like blasting off the starting blocks in a race, he took off running.
The scenery around him flickered with each pace. Only the sky looked stable, except for the clouds.
He dropped out of the run, slowing until he flickered to a stop.
Where am I?
He was in a pine forest. There were no pine forests within a hundred miles of his house.
I had been facing north. There are trees like this near Dallas. I ran to Dallas? He giggled.
“Cut that out.” He told himself. “You’ve got hard-drives to dispose of.”
He looked at the sky and started trotting towards the east. He settled into an easy pace, watching the landscape flicker past him. It’s like the Flash, in the comic books! Only I don’t have to watch out for obstacles.
From the glimmerings he had of the software, every time his foot moved out of the inner sphere into the outer one, the code calculated how fast his foot was moving and in what direction. He was teleported in the appropriate direction at a distance calculated from the rate he was running.
Of course, each time the sphere appeared, the full gamut of safety features were in play. He wouldn’t run into anything, and he would always appear on solid ground.
This is fun.
Abruptly, his eye caught a glint of sunlight off a glass pyramid.
Memphis? Memphis, Tennessee. And that must be the Mississippi River.
He turned south and paced the river for a few dozen miles. Good enough. Dropping to a walk, he edged close to the muddy banks and tossed in the hard disks.
Nothing around but a couple of farm houses.
He started running again, following the curving river, trying to keep close. Sometimes he would misstep and end up on the opposite shore as the software kept him from stepping into the water.
The riverside was getting more and more industrialized.
I should stop. But the running was addictive.
New Orleans? The city blossomed all around him and then faded away. He began to slow. I’ll run into the Gulf of Mexico.
He dropped to a walk. And stopped.
All around him were buildings. He saw a sign.
That’s Spanish. Where am I?
A car puttered down the street. It was an ancient Chevy. It’s held together with wire and spit.
Parked beside the road was an old Ford pickup, looking equally well preserved.
“Hello?” he asked the man resting in the pickup. “What is the name of this town?”
James pointed to the ground. “This town, this city. What is its name?”
The man nodded, understanding. “Habana.”
Oops. Havana, Cuba. I must have stepped across the Gulf of Mexico by accident. Which way is north?
He looked around, but the streets were curved and twisted. He should have been paying attention to the sun.
Or why even go back north? I could go east, step across the Atlantic?
But no, without a map he would get even more lost.
He pressed START. No more seven league boots without at least a compass.
LIGHT LIGHT ADJUST.
He stumbled to his knees.
Dark again. I must be in Paris.
He was just outside her apartment building. A couple on the street were looking at him strangely.
James got to his feet and walked out of sight. When they passed, he went back to her apartment.
He knocked lightly on her door. Oriel opened it instantly, and pulled him inside.
“Where have you been? I was so worried.”
He returned her hug. “Problems with the USA FBI. My house is no longer safe.”
“They’re coming for you too?”
“What do you mean?”
She waved to the television. CNN was showing police in riot gear dragging people from their houses.
“The police aren’t saying, but the reporters say that these are agents of the Emperor.”
James felt a chill. Things were happening too fast.
“Oriel, I have been interrogated by the police and thus far, they haven’t arrested me. However, I might have to go into hiding, or at least pretend to be perfectly normal for a while. I wanted you to know why I went away.”
“Can you take me with you?”
He smiled. “I don’t want to go away, but there is no place I could hide you, not with the police watching my every move.”
He glanced at the TV screen. “And now might not be the best time to become an agent of the Emperor.”
“I don’t care. No one can stop the Emperor! He will do something, I am sure. Don’t you lose faith. Don’t leave me behind.”
He nodded. He wanted to tell her more, but the more she knew, the more dangerous it would be for her, and the more danger she could be for his father.
He took her wrist.
“You bought this watch recently.” She nodded.
“The Emperor has the ability to program new features into it. Think of it as a remote control. I don’t have authorization to give you teleport access, but I did add something to your watch.”
He showed her how to press the buttons in a certain pattern to activate it.
“And now, my watch and your watch are connected.
“Look here.” He picked up a pencil from her table. Carefully he pushed it towards her watch, and as it entered a tiny sphere, barely visible that floated a centimeter above the watch face, the tip poked out of the same sphere near his watch.
Her eyes were locked on the sight. Her mouth was open.
“See, how the angle of the pencil stays the same, no matter which direction I hold the watch?”
She nodded. “What do I do with it?”
“It is a channel between us. It is just like a hole through space connecting us. We can talk through it. You can look through it. If you need to talk to me, open this sphere and listen very carefully, to make sure that I am not being questioned by the police. If everything looks safe, then make a small noise, or tap the crystal of my watch—something very small to get my attention. If I respond, then we can talk.
“We will have to be very careful. Can you do this for me?”
“I will do anything.”
James appeared in the darkened gallery of computers.
Warning buzzers, of several kinds, were filling the air with whoops and sweeps and raspberries.
“Dad! Dad, it’s me, James!” He called out. Time for secrecy was over. He needed to confess all and let his father know what was going on.
But why all the alarms? He started walking around the place. The alarms were enough to drive him crazy.
What was going on?
No one was there. Had the FBI gotten his father too?
He went to a computer terminal. The sphere software was already up.
Check the logs. That would give him a hint where his father was.
But the log files were jumbled. Dots and feathers flickered all over the screen when he tried to read them.
Dad encrypted them. It was the only thing that made sense. Why would he do that?
The alarms bored into his head. He would have to stop them, before he could think.
It wasn’t a power failure, or hardware, apparently.
Status. He clicked the icon. A wide window opened up with numerous blinking boxes.
He clicked on one.
“Dropbox 34: Heat alarm. Chemical alarm.” There was a whole string of options to check. Mute alarm was one. He clicked it. Maybe one of the voices of the alarm chorus stopped, but he couldn’t be sure.
He went to the next. It was very similar. He stopped its alarm too.
The third was a voice message from Agent 1:
“This is Archer. Four or more police were waiting for me at FedEx headquarters. I don’t know whether they turned me in or not, but I just barely missed getting vaccinated with a dart gun. They didn’t even call out. Shoot first, I guess. I’ll be hiding out you-know-where until I hear from you.”
James paused. I could fight this screen all day.
Is Mom in trouble? The question popped into his head with compelling force.
He switched to the familiar sphere control screen, located the ‘Home’ location and looked.
FBI cars were parked in the driveway. He flew the tiny monitor camera through the house. No sign of her. Was she still at work?
He flew it up and towards town.
There! That’s her store. He approached, and then stopped when he saw the flashing lights by the entrance.
Mom! She was being led to a police car in handcuffs.