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EP300: We Go Back

By Tim Pratt
Read by: Mur Lafferty
An Escape Pod original!
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All stories by Tim Pratt
All stories read by Mur Lafferty

Rated appropriate for younger teens and up – occasional adult language.

Episode 300! Wow!

We Go Back
Tim Pratt

My best friend Jenny Kay climbed in through my window and nearly stepped on my head. If I’d been sleeping a foot closer to the wall, I would’ve gotten a face full of her boot, but instead I just snapped awake and said “What who what now?” and blinked a lot.

“Oh damn,” Jenny said in a loudish whisper. “When did you move your bed under the window?”

“Last week,” I said, sitting up in bed. “I wanted a change.” If you can’t rearrange your life, you can at least rearrange yourself, and if your mom won’t let you dye your hair blue, you can make do with rearranging your rooms.

Jenny Kay dropped from standing to sitting in one motion, making my mattress bounce, and landed cross-legged and totally comfortable. “Hey,” she said. “So I need to borrow your ring.” I couldn’t read her expression in the dim moonlight from the window.

I looked at my right hand, where a thin silver ring looped my index finger, catching what light there was in the room and giving back twinkles. The metal grew cold against my skin and tightened a fraction, almost a friendly little squeeze. The ring — which wasn’t really a ring — could tell when I was thinking about it. “Uh,” I said.

Jenny nodded vigorously, a motion I felt in the jostling of the mattress more than I saw. “I know! I know. But I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t important. I mean, you’ve had the thing for more than a year, and I’ve never asked once if I could use it, right?”

I glanced at my closed door — no glow under the crack at the bottom, which meant my parents had gone to their separate beds and turned out the hall light — and switched on my bedside lamp. Jenny was dressed in jeans and a sweater, all in dark grays and blacks, not her usual aggressively flamboyant colorful mishmash style at all. Good for sneaking into people’s windows, I guessed.

I sat up against the headboard, because when you’re about to annoy your best friend, it’s better not to be flat on your back at the time. “I wish I could,” I said — not one hundred percent true, but Jenny was a fourteen-year-old genius, not a human lie detector. “But it’s, like… part of me. You know? I’m part of the mechanism. I can’t just take it off. It’s linked into my, what’s it called, socratic nervous system?”

“Somatic,” Jenny said gloomily. She was almost as good at biology as she was at math. “The part of your nervous system that controls movement, which sort of halfway makes sense, I guess.”

I shrugged. “So, there you go. The ring’s not something I wear. It’s something that wears me. Or we wear each other. What did you want it for?”

She looked away. “Nothing. An errand.”

I sighed. “Tell me, Jay Kay. Maybe I can help. Is it about a boy?”

Jenny just bit her lip. Good enough. The past few months it’s pretty much always been about a boy.

I took her hand. Me and Jenny go way back, and whenever I say that, older people laugh, because I’m fifteen and she’s fourteen, and they’re like, you’re too young to even have a “way back.” But I’ve known Jenny since she skipped first grade and ended up in my second-grade class, which means I’ve been her best friend for about half my life, and how many of you old people have a friendship with that kind of percentage? She used to hide me in her basement when things got too bad and I ran away from home, and she’s the reason I’ve never failed a math or science class. I owe her. I’m not saying I’d kill for her or anything, but I mean, I like to think I’d help her bury the bodies.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll help. Where are we going?”

“I don’t want to get you into any trouble,” she said. “It’s my problem, I should really deal with it myself.”

I shrugged. “Mom stopped doing the middle-of-the-night spot checks months ago. She even took the nails out of my window so I could open it when it started getting hot. I wouldn’t say she trusts me, but I get by. I don’t think she’ll miss me as long as we’re back by morning.” I checked the clock. Four a.m. “We’ve got maybe an hour, hour and a half? If that’s enough time, let’s do it. Where are we going?”

She took a breath. “Seattle. Or, just outside it.”

We were in Pomegranate Grove, Georgia. So she wanted to go pretty much right across the whole entire continent. “Okay. What’s in Seattle?”

“That’s where Craig moved,” she said.

“Ohhh. So, uh, what did you have in mind?”

A meditative little smile touched her lips. Jenny was even better at revenge scenarios than she was at math, though she usually just made elaborate plans she didn’t bother to carry out: she called it “gedankenvengeance.” But Craig had hurt her in some very emotional and non-theoretical ways, so it didn’t surprise me that she wanted to get back at him for real. “Nothing that will do any permanent damage. I just want to make him think he’s haunted, possibly going crazy, and maybe leave a warning for the next girl he tries to screw over. Will you take me?”

“Of course.”

She squealed happily and half-climbed out the window, returning with a dark gray duffel bag that clanked when it moved. “Revenge supplies,” she said. “Don’t worry, no explosives. Mostly just spray paint.”

“Ha. Okay. You got coordinates?”

She slipped her phone out of her pocket. “Right here. Gotta love google maps. These numbers should take us right to the backyard. If you can get me into the house, too…”

“Not a problem. Just let me get dressed.” Once I was ready — mimicking Jenny’s dark color scheme, because sneaking around on the other side of the country in your pajamas is probably a bad idea — I read the coordinates off her screen. The ring on my finger squeezed in acknowledgment. “Shall we?” I said.

“I never get tired of this,” Jenny said, and took my hand.

We leapt. Or jumped. Or jaunted. Or disapparated and apparated. Or translocated, warped, shifted. Or even just good old teleported. I’ve read a lot of science fiction stories in the past couple years, and there are tons of different words for what I’m talking about.

Which is: we went from here, to there, in less time than it takes me to tell you about it.

#

So how can I do this thing I do?

You know the old story: an ordinary kid finds her way to a strange world full of weird creatures, becomes involved in local politics or revolution or rebellion by accident, makes unlikely friends, and through pluck and ingenuity and the help of some magical allies or objects ends up defeating an all-powerful tyrant and being crowned king or queen.

That’s pretty much what happened to me about a year and a half ago. Except instead of a fantasy kingdom with elves and unicorns, I went to a city at the center of all possible universes called Nexington-on-Axis, a place populated by refugee aliens from planets and asteroids and constructed habitats and energy clouds all across the multiverse (or maybe polyverse or omniverse — I’ve never been clear on the difference.) I did make friends and allies — a bodiless creature named Wisp; a deadly shapeshifter named Howlaa; a cyborg named Templeton who was kind of a jerk, actually; and some others. Together, we did overthrow an evil tyrant, though I actually rescued an imprisoned queen instead of becoming queen myself, which is a better deal — less work. And afterward… I came home.

Compared to saving a world, home is rough stuff. Of course Mom doesn’t know about the universe-hopping, and with my history of running away from home and shoplifting (two things I’ve totally given up, believe me), she doesn’t tend to trust me. My dad’s got his own problems trying to win back mom’s heart, and my brother Cal is off at his first year in college, studying advanced drinking and weed smoking, so I don’t have anybody I can really talk to, besides Jenny.

At least in the other world, I had a purpose: defeat the Regent, help my friends escape, keep from getting killed. Back home, my purpose seems to be figuring out what my purpose is, and that’s a lot harder. You can’t be saving the world all the time. Sometimes you just have to get your homework done.

Oh, and there’s one other way my story’s different from the usual fantasy coming-of-age stuff. Instead of a magic ring, I have a highly advanced piece of alien technology that just happens to look like a ring, for the moment, because most of its mechanism is shifted into hyper-dimensions that human senses can’t detect. It’s called a jump-engine, and there are only a few of them in existence, and since I have one, that makes me one of the most powerful people in the multiverse.

Fat lot of good that does me.

#

We landed in a dark back yard, behind a house so big it looked like it should be a museum or something. I’m talking like four stories of big windows and bricks all climbed-over with ivy. More chimneys than I have fingers on one hand. The backyard had a beautiful white gazebo and an ornamental pond with a little arched wooden bridge over it and a garden shed bigger than my family’s garage. I whistled. “Craig lives here?”

“His dad got a big promotion,” Jenny said. “That’s why they moved to Seattle.”

“Some guys have all the luck.” In a house this big, I’d probably be able to avoid my mom and my dad and my mom’s boyfriend. (Don’t ask. My parents are basically separated, except for complicated reasons they still live in the same house. It’s about as much fun as you’d expect.) “I bet they have a wicked security system.”

“I would imagine,” Jenny said. “But probably not inside. Who wants to set off a motion detector when you’re getting up at night to go pee?”

“Right. Where to?”

“Third floor. That room right up there should do. I think it’s a library.”

A library. Not even the library. It’s like that one book on my summer reading list says: the rich are different.

I took Jenny’s hand again, looked up at the window, and jumped. Line-of-sight teleporting is easy in some ways, though there’s a chance of collision. The ring has failsafes to make sure my passengers and I don’t end up inside any solid objects, but sometimes you bump into stuff. Fortunately we landed on top of a long wooden table, so the worst that happened was me banging my head on a curved brass chandelier. “Ow,” I said — quietly — and we climbed down off the table.

“I’m not a hundred percent sure about the layout,” Jenny said. “You want to stay here out of sight, and I’ll see if I can find Craig’s room? Shouldn’t take me long to write ‘I’m a liar’ on his forehead with a Sharpie and upload a virus onto his computer from my flash drive. Maybe spray paint a little message in the hallway so his parents can find out what a jerk their kid is.”

I yawned. I could’ve used that last hour in my bed, but if this made Jenny happy, I’d sacrifice a little consciousness. “Okay. Try not to get caught.”

“If I get caught, I’ll kick a shin and run in here and you can disappear us to safety.”

“You and your crazy elaborate plans.”

Jenny grinned, eased open one of the giant doors, and slipped out of the room.

Maybe fifteen minutes passed. I did my best to stay entertained, peering up at the bookshelves with a little penlight from my keychain — lots of leather spines, nothing that looked like it had been read in a long time, if ever — but it’s stressful being in somebody else’s house when you’re not meant to be there, especially when your friend is committing pranks that might, looked at a certain way, be considered misdemeanors and felonies.

Then Jenny slipped back in, gave me a thumbs-up, and took my hand. “Home, Jeeves,” she said.

I obliged. I even dropped her safely in her own backyard a half-mile from my house before bouncing home to my house (where, fortunately, quiet still reigned). I’m a full-service best friend, what can I say?

#

Teleporting. It’s something I used to do a lot, but that trip with Jenny was only my third jump in the past eighteen months or so.

I know. Why don’t I teleport every single day? You would, right?

But look: let’s say you have total mastery of space. (Not time, unfortunately, just space.) You can go anywhere in the world, or for that matter in the universe, or for that matter in pretty much any possible universe, just by thinking about it. If it’s a place you’ve never been before, maybe you need to know some coordinates in any of a million competing positional systems, to make sure you land in the right spot. But basically there’s no door closed to you, no country that has to go undiscovered, no place you can’t get to from here. Pretty sweet, right?

But let’s also say you’re a fifteen-year-old with a deeply suspicious mother who has a hair-trigger grounding policy and a tendency to do random spot-checks to make sure you’re where you’re supposed to be. You’re pretty sure she spies on you through the GPS on your phone, so you can’t take that with you, which is sort of like leaving part of your brain at home. You’ve got no driver’s license, and really no ID at all (unless you count a YMCA membership card), and the only money you’ve got is your allowance, which isn’t exactly enough to rent a room at the Cairo Ritz Carlton or book passage on a touring skyliner in the Outer Meta-Clouds of Cor Caroli. So as an obvious minor with no ID or cash, it’s not ideal to wander around a foreign place where at best you don’t speak the language at worst you don’t resemble the dominant sentient species — you risk police attention, or getting mugged, or conned, or hit on by skeezy old guys, or eaten by aliens, and even if you survive all that, you teleport home in a flash only to find your mother waiting up for you to sneak back in. And then, bam: grounded under heavy surveillance.

If you wait until the dead dark middle of the night, mom definitely asleep, to jaunt across the world or the universe and have adventures every night the way other people have anxiety dreams — well, then you’re exhausted the next day, you zombie-walk through school, get bad grades, get yelled at, feel lousy all the time. Most of the year I’ve got school, glee club practice, chores, homework, mandatory family outings on weekends, and community service for the time I got caught shoplifting. I’m busy. Summers are even worse. Mom’s a big believer in over-scheduling.

Besides, when you can go anywhere, it’s hard to figure out where you should go. You think you feel stressed out standing in the toothpaste aisle at the drug store looking at eight shelves of rectangular boxes, trying to figure out which one’s right for you? That’s nothing to trying to decide where in the entire multiverse you should spend the one free hour you can chisel out of a week.

Overall, being able to go anywhere and do anything can be pretty stressful, and the time when you can go off to college or even get your own apartment and really take advantage of the power seems like an awfully long way away.

And that’s my life. Miranda Candle, the only person on the whole planet with a jump-engine, and it does me less good than having my own car and a driver’s license would.

But, hey. Jenny was my friend. And I’ll do anything for a friend.

#

A few days later, I got off the bus with Jenny Kay after school. She was still way up, in a great mood about her prank. Maybe getting revenge on a boy who pretended to like you and then made fun of you with all his friends is a dumb use of near ultimate power, but whatever: it made her happy. I’d peeked in on Craig’s twitter stream and facebook pages and hadn’t seen any comments about what Jenny had done, but that made sense, right? Who’d want to advertise the fact that someone had screwed with them in their own house?

We walked along the sidewalk, chatting. We lived so close together that a lot of days I got off the bus with her, hung around her house for an hour or so working on homework, then headed to my place for the usual tension-fest that is a Candle family dinner. Today there was a strange car in her driveway, a long black sedan. “Who’s that?” I asked, and Jenny didn’t answer, just shook her head and looked worried, which should have worried me, probably.

Her mom met us at the front door and gave me a tight smile. Mrs. Kay is nice enough, but about as old as my grandma. Her and her husband adopted Jenny after years of trying to have kids of their own, and they never knew quite what to make of the daughter they’d gotten. They were pretty religious, and things had been strained in that house ever since Jenny read the Bible cover-to-cover when she was eight and started pointing out all the plot holes and continuity errors. “Hi, Randy,” she said. “I’m afraid you can’t come over today — we have some visitors.”

“What’s going on, mom?” Jenny asked, but it was funny — she didn’t sound curious, or annoyed. She sounded maybe a little scared.

“Nothing to worry about.” Mrs. Kay flashed me another smile — all teeth, no warmth — and tugged Jenny into the house. And shut the door. And snapped the deadbolt shut.

Well, screw that. I looked around, made sure nobody was looking, and jumped into Jenny’s house. Specifically, into a closet in her family room where they kept the vacuum cleaner and more Christian-themed board games than you probably knew existed. One of our go-to hide-and-seek spots as kids — Jenny especially love dhiding in that closet. I could hear voices in the room beyond clearly, though I wished I could see. I didn’t dare push the door open even a crack, though — I knew the couch and chairs were arranged so somebody sitting in the right spot might notice me, and even if I vanished before they got the door open, it would ruin my chance to eavesdrop.

I wasn’t spying. I was worried about my friend. I was information-gathering. But not for the first time, I wished the creatures in the city at the center of all possible universes had invented a ring that made me invisible instead.

“But did you see her in bed?” a female voice I didn’t recognize said.

“No, but I saw her before bed at ten, and at breakfast at 6:30,” her father said, in a pretty pissed-off tone.

Someone else was murmuring, maybe talking on a phone, and then a male voice said: “School attendance records confirm she was in her homeroom that morning at eight.”

“It’s about a five-hour flight each way,” the female voice said. “If her whereabouts are unaccounted for from ten p.m. until 8 a.m., that’s ten hours…” She trailed off.

“You know she didn’t fly!” Jenny’s father exploded. “This is ridiculous, she doesn’t even have a driver’s license, do you think she hitchhiked to Atlanta and caught a flight to Seattle and –”

“Of course not,” the male voice said, soothingly. “It’s impossible, of course. Even airport-to-airport, with no time spent waiting for flights, the timeline barely fits. Even if we thought you were lying about her being here at bedtime, and we don’t think that, we have witnesses who saw her at choir practice until eight. Practically speaking, it’s impossible. But we still have to investigate. Your daughter’s fingerprints were found at a –”

“I have a question.” That was Jenny’s voice. Cold and quiet and barely contained. “Why, exactly, are my fingerprints on file at the FBI?”

I nearly fell out of the closet. FBI?

“They’re not,” the woman’s voice said, sounding annoyed at having to talk to a kid. “But you were fingerprinted before your adoption, and again as part of a program to help find missing children in the event you were ever lost or abducted. When we came across prints we couldn’t identify, one of our analysts expanded the search to every database we could think of. The real question is how your fingerprints ended up in that house.”

“It’s possible to fake fingerprints,” the man said. “But we can’t imagine why anyone would try to plant the prints of a fourteen-year-old girl from Georgia at a crime scene in Seattle –”

Crime scene? Okay, technically breaking in and vandalizing a boy’s house is a crime, I get that, but it hardly seemed like something the FBI would care about.

“Obviously to make you waste your time on nonsense,” Jenny’s father said firmly. “If you’re done here, my daughter has homework.”

The agents — agents! — spun it out a little longer, but then they left. I didn’t want to eavesdrop on Jenny and her family, so I jumped to Jenny’s room instead, knowing she’d seek out privacy as soon as she could.

I had a cold feeling in my gut that there were things my best friend hadn’t told me.

Jenny came in a little while later and shut the door, sliding home the bolt she used to lock her parents out. Her dad used to come in during the day and take that lock off, until one day Jenny replaced all the doorknobs in the house and refused to hand over the new keys until they respected her privacy. She was eleven when she did that.

She didn’t look surprised to see me, just sighed and sat in the swivel chair at her computer, spinning to face me. She was so short the bottoms of her feet didn’t quite touch the floor. Jenny’s always been a tiny thing, but only physically.

“We weren’t playing a prank on Craig, were we?” I said.

“We were not.”

“So what were we doing?”

Jenny slouched. “I didn’t want to lie to you. That’s why I asked to borrow the ring. We were… crap. I was doing a favor for somebody.”

“Who? And what kind of favor makes the FBI come to your house?”

Jenny sat weirdly motionless in her chair, and she wasn’t looking me in the eye, which meant either she was lying or she was embarrassed about the truth. “I spend a lot of time online, you know that, and I’m good with computers. One place I go is on the darknet — it’s sort of a shadow internet, you have to know the right people to get in, and there are a lot of guys there who maybe aren’t so honest, but there are also a lot of geniuses. Anyway, I was chatting with one of them, and he was talking about how this big rich computer guy stole some of his research, and how he’d do anything to get his hands on some files, but the rich guy is super-paranoid and keeps everything on a local drive that’s not even hooked up to the internet, he doesn’t store anything in the cloud, and if he’s got off-site back-ups they’re in safe deposit boxes or something. And the guy’s house is like a fortress, major alarm system, really tough to get inside. And, I don’t know… I said I’d get the files for him.”

I closed my eyes. “We broke into some rich guy’s house and stole his computer?”

“No! No, I just copied some of his files. They’re encrypted, I don’t know what they say, but my friend on the darknet can take as much time as he needs to unscramble them. The whole thing should have been untraceable, but I guess the rich guy had some kind of key-logging software or something, a way to tell his computer had been tampered with. I’m really sorry I lied to you, but –”

“Jenny. You don’t really think this rich guy stole your friend’s files, do you? I mean, come on –”

“Of course not,” she broke in, voice rough and cutting as a ragged toenail. “It’s probably industrial espionage. But it was easier all around if I let myself be used. I told my friend — not my friend, better to call him my client — that I knew some people who were experts at infiltration, and offered to act as a middleman to set up a job. It’s like that old joke, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. They don’t know you’re a teenage girl, either. Anyway, I sent him some screenshots to prove I’d gotten what he wanted, and this morning…” She turned to her computer, tapped at the keys for a while, and then beckoned me over.

I squinted at the screen. It took me a while to realize what I was looking at. Possibly because I’d never seen a number with that many zeroes on it, outside of billboards advertising the Georgia lottery. “This is a bank account?”

“Yes.”

“Jenny… you’re rich.”

“I guess so. You’re entitled to a cut. I was trying to figure out how to give you the money secretly. I thought I’d set up a fake foundation and give it to you as a scholarship in a few years… Not much point in that now.”

I felt numb, like my blood had been replaced by novocaine. I sat down on her bed. “You lied to me. You used me. What kind of friend are you?” I was tempted to slap her with my ring hand — one hit and I could send her anywhere I wanted, and right now, I wanted her far away.

“What kind of friend are you?” Jenny said, and I realized her stillness had been hiding anger, not shame. “You have freaking super powers, and you don’t even use them. You took me, once, to the place where you basically saved the world, and gave me the whirlwind tour, but mostly just so I wouldn’t think you were crazy when you told me about it. As soon as I saw that place, the aliens, the technology, I realized everything I thought I’d be working for my whole life was dumb. What’s the point in being great at math, becoming a scientist, when we’re just savages poking at rocks with sticks compared to the people in Nexington-on-Axis? They can build a machine that allows you to exploit quantum effects at the macro-level, making it possible for you to be anywhere in the universe basically instantly, and they can make it look like a ring, and give it to a teenage girl as a thank-you gift!” She stood up from her chair. “And you don’t do anything with it. If I had that ring, I could be a superhero — or at least a supervillain, or something. You could do anything. See the pyramids. Pop over to Paris for a cup of espresso. Tour the ruins of Petra in Jordan. Rob a bank three thousand miles away, and be on the school bus an hour later with the perfect alibi. And that’s just on Earth, you have the key to the entire universe, you’ve been places that nobody else on the planet even knows exist, and you still bitch about your parents and your schoolwork and whether some boy likes you.” Her face was getting red, and spit was flying as she stood up from her chair, but she wasn’t exactly shouting; Jenny knew exactly how loud she could be before her parents came knocking to see if she was okay. “Why did it have to be you? Why did you stumble into the amazing story? Why wasn’t it me?”

I stood up and started backing toward the window, because I didn’t like the way her eyes looked. “I never knew you were jealous. It wasn’t all fun, you know. People tried to kill me. Actually kill me. I was hungry and dirty and scared a lot of the time. I was –”

“So you didn’t even appreciate it,” she said, shaking her head. “Better and better.”

I took a deep breath and let it out slow. “We’ve been friends forever, Jenny Kay. Which is the only reason I’ll let you get away with this.”

She snorted. “What could you do?”

I punched her pillow. It disappeared, and — I knew — reappeared on my own bed. “One tap, and I could send you to the middle of rich computer guy’s office, right now. Could be tricky for you to explain. Or I could just smack your computer and your bike and all your favorite shoes into orbit. Or slap you to Paris, see how you like being in a foreign country with no cash where you don’t speak the language. That’s just off the top of my head.”

She sneered at me. I’d seen Jenny Kay show contempt for a lot of people — teachers, parents, other students — but never for me. I didn’t much like it. “If you even try to mess with me, Randy, I’ll –”

“Don’t.” My voice was low, but hard enough that Jenny stopped talking. “Don’t try to threaten me. I’ve been threatened by things a lot scarier than you. Enjoy your money, Jenny. I hope it helps you get everything you ever wanted, because it lost you your best friend.”

I was about to jump home when Jenny sat back down in her office chair, slumping, and covered her face with her hands. “I’m sorry, Randy.” Her voice was muffled. “I didn’t… I just needed the money. I should have told you, but I was trying to keep you out of it, and yeah, I’m jealous, but mostly, I was just desperate.”

Jenny had already lied to me once, and I was tempted to just bail, but, all those years of friendship had to count for something. So I sat on her bed, about as far away from her as I could manage. “What did you need money for? Did you get into playing online poker or something?”

She uncovered her face and shook her head. “No. But I need to be able to support myself when I leave home.”

I frowned. “What are you talking about?”

Jenny wiped away a couple of tears with the back of her hand. Her voice was very calm now. “I can’t stay here. With my parents. You know how religious they are. Mom’s been even worse since Grandma died. She goes to church three times a week now. Makes me go with her a lot of the time. They still make me sing in the choir.”

“Sure, that sucks, I know, I have a hard time with my mom too, but you can stand it for a few more years, right? You’ve put up with it your whole life, and once you go off to college –”

“They’re going to figure out I like girls,” Jenny said calmly, and I felt like I’d just fallen through a trapdoor: nothing solid under my feet anymore at all.

“Um,” I said.

“I heard them talking a few weeks ago. They suspect it already, I don’t know how. Maybe it’s just their usual paranoia, only this time, their crazy idea happens to be true. I can’t hide it forever.”

“Jenny… you’re the most boy-crazy girl I know.”

“So I convinced you, at least.” Her voice was mournful. “I figured if I acted really, really interested in boys, it might throw my parents off, but it just made my mom more suspicious. I mean, she’d probably rather I was a slut than a lesbian, but neither one thrills her.”

“Whoa,” I said. “I’m sorry, I’m just processing, this is — how long have you known?”

She shrugged. “I guess I’ve always known. Maybe before I even knew there was something to know.”

A thought crossed my mind. “Um, do you, uh, like…”

She rolled her eyes. “You wish, Randy. You’re like my sister or something. Ew.” I felt a weird mixture of relief and embarrassment and disappointment — hey, a girl wants to be appreciated. Then she grinned at me, and for a second, it was like old times between us. “But you see what I mean. If I don’t get free somehow, they’re going to ship me off to one of those camps where they try to cure your gayness. And when it doesn’t work… I don’t know what they’ll do. Probably not send me to some all-female boarding school. Damn it. But something awful. Send me to live with my cousins in the middle of nowhere in Idaho. Keep shipping me off to brainwashing camp until I go crazy. Just kick me out of the house and disown me, maybe, once I’m old enough so they won’t get arrested — like my aunt did to my cousin who got pregnant. Life around here has never been fun, but it’s going to get ugly.”

“So you want to get, what, emancipated?”

“Not so easy in Georgia. Pretty much impossible, for my purposes, unless I wait a couple of years and then get married to some guy, which, you know. Doesn’t quite fix my problem. But I know some guys on the darknet, like I said. People who can set me up with ID, if I need to leave. I won’t let my parents send me to some reeducation camp, Randy. There are a lot of runaways in this country. I’ll be one with a bank account, at least.”

Jenny is fourteen, but she looks about twelve. The thought of her, on her own, of what might happen… sure, she was smart, but there are plenty of nasty people out there who don’t care how smart you are. “You can’t do it,” I said firmly. “Just take off on your own? You’ll get killed.”

She laughed. “So what’s the alternative?”

#

I’m not saying it was the right thing to do. I know it wasn’t. But she was going to run anyway. That’s what you have to understand — I could let her take off on her own, and hope for the best, or help her, and make it a little more likely she’d stay alive

So of course I helped her, even knowinh the pain it would cause her parents, who really did love her — they just love Jesus and everything more.

I hadn’t been to Nexington-on-Axis in a long time. I took Jenny, once, to meet some of my friends. This time, I went to see somebody I didn’t even like that much.

Templeton looked even less human than last time I’d seen him. He’d replaced his two more-or-less human legs with a whole bunch of multi-jointed, spindly appendages that made creepy little tapping sounds on the concrete floor as he approached. His lab was full of half-built robots, some of them poking disconsolately at the wires trailing from their own top halves, others singing tunelessly. Templeton scuttled over to me, eyes telescoping out to look me over. “What are you doing back here? Shouldn’t you be at a Justin Beiber concert or something?”

“I need a favor,” I said.

“I’m not majorly into favors,” he said. “I’m more into transactions.”

I sighed. “Okay. Then do what I want, or I’ll punch you into the middle of the sun.”

“Brats today don’t have any manners,” Templeton said.

#

“Here.” I placed a thin silver ring down on Jenny’s desk with a little click.

She stared at it, then looked up at me, then looked at my hand, which was ringless. “Is that…”

“Yep.”

“Randy.” Her voice was breathy. “What did you do?”

I shrugged. “Went back to Nexington-on-Axis and got the biggest jerk and greatest engineer in the place to disconnect me from the ring.” I felt weird, honestly, like I’d lost an arm, or at least a toe or something. “Then I got one of the city’s ring-bearers to send me home. I didn’t tell them why I wanted to take the ring off. Turns out when you save a civilization, they cut you some slack when it comes to asking questions.”

“But your ring, why would you give it up?”

“They don’t exactly hand out jump-engines like party favors,” I said. “There aren’t that many, and they’re tricky enough to make that your whole secret bank account wouldn’t even be a down payment. I couldn’t get another one. So I figured I’d just give you mine.”

Jenny’s eyes were so wide, it made her look even younger than usual. “I can’t. I can’t take it. I –”

“You were right, when you said you’d do more with the ring than I do. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I got pulled into this whole big world-saving thing, with people chasing me and monsters and all that, but… I kind of like being home, even with my crazy parents and everything. I’ve had enough adventure for a while. But you need a way to escape. With this ring on, you can always get away, if you get in trouble. Anybody shoves you, you can shove back and send them to the middle of a cow pasture a thousand miles away. You can go wherever you need to. You can see everything. You should.”

She picked up the ring, holding it between her thumb and forefinger. The silver sparkled, like there were flecks of starlight in the metal. “Do I just… put it on?”

“Pretty much. It’s in fully-automatic mode. Think about where you want to go, or tell it coordinates, and… poof. Just be careful and don’t jump into the heart of a star or something, okay? And maybe don’t rob any banks. I still have a lot of bad karma from all that shoplifting I used to do. Get a job as a courier for human kidneys or something if you get short on cash.”

She grabbed me and hugged me to her, and I could feel her heart beating, thump-thump-thump against my chest. “I’ll come back and visit you,” she whispered in my ear.

“You’d better. It’s not like you’ll have to buy a plane ticket first.”

When I left her, she was still staring at the ring, not yet wearing it. But she’d put it on soon, I knew. And then it would be Jenny with the world at her feet. I won’t say it was easy, giving up that kind of power, even to my best friend. But it was the right thing to do

Because we go back.

#

I honestly didn’t think I’d ever see Jenny again after she disappeared. Her parents were devastated, and ended up moving away. I had to act pretty upset, too, and it wasn’t hard. I was upset. I lost my best friend. At least it made my mom act a lot nicer to me, for a while, anyway, until she decided I’d had enough time to get over it. The FBI got suspicious and sniffed around a little more, but I doubt they found out much. Eventually, everything settled down, as much as it every does around my house.

About two years after Jenny disappeared, I was in my room, painting my toenails, waiting for Josh to call. (I was never as boy crazy as Jenny pretended to be, but boys? They’re okay.)

My closet door swung open.

“Your room is messy,” a grating, quasi-mechanical voice said. “Sign of a disorderly mind.” Templeton strode in, with two legs again, though his knees bent the wrong way, and he had an extra joint or two above his ankles.

Behind him came Jenny, dressed in black, her hair chopped short and spiky, her grin as wide and wild as ever. I squealed and hugged her before I demanded to know what she was doing here, with him.

“He’s even worse than you said,” Jenny told me. “How can somebody who’s barely biological at all anymore make so many dick and fart jokes? But he knows things about science nobody here has ever even stared to imagine. I mean, for a while I just jumped around on Earth, checking places out, seeing the sights, but I felt like I was wasting this amazing gift you’d given me, you know? I was just being a tourist. So… I made my way to Nexington-on-Axis, and talked my way in to see Templeton, and…”

“Made me take her on as a lab assistant.” Templeton was looking at the posters on my wall like they were some especially disgusting species of slime mold. “More of an apprentice, really. She’s not too stupid, your Jenny Kay. Anyway, she wanted to show you her journeyman work. She’s spent the best part of the past eight months working on it. I made her bring me along because I like it when you get that dumb stunned look on your face.”

Jenny reached into her pocket and pulled out a broad copper bracelet, with a sinuous wavy design worked into the metal.

“I’m guessing you didn’t go all the way to the Nex to take a jewelry-making class,” I said.

“At first I was just going to make you a new jump-engine,” Jenny said. “The technology was already established, it wasn’t even a science problem, just a practical engineering one. That seemed like the least I could do. But then I thought, well… maybe I can do better.”

I took the bracelet. It wasn’t as heavy as it looked. Barely felt like anything at all. But it made my fingertips tingle. “Jenny,” I said. “What did you do?”

“It’s obvious, in a way,” Templeton said, looking at me with his complicated mechanical eyes, and if he hadn’t had a metal grate for a mouth, I think he might have even smiled. “Talking about space in isolation is ridiculous, even Earth scientists know that, because –”

“Space and time are inextricably linked,” Jenny Kay said, with a grin that could have lit up the dark side of the moon. “You know — the space/time continuum? You can’t have one without the other. And if you can manipulate one…”

“Wait,” I said slowly. “Are you saying… if I put this thing on…”

Jenny Kay put her arm around my shoulders. “Tell me something, Randy,” she said. “Or actually, two things. First, are you still sick of having adventures, or are you ready to have some fun? And second — have you ever wanted to see what a real live dinosaur looks like?”

#

So that’s it. Now we have all the time in the world. We can leave at midnight, take two weeks off, and have me back home a minute later by the clock. And what do you think Jenny and I do with all that time?

Yeah. We go back.

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