For Chapters 1 - 3, go to DeepSkyStories.com
Chapter 4 - Late For School and Teaching the Teacher
Alex awoke the next morning to the faint sound of a vehicle stopping briefly in front of his house. There was a familiar sounding, toot-toot, a pause for several seconds, then the vehicle continued along the country road leading back toward Delta-Town, a few miles away.
As Alex slowly opened his eyes, he lay there for a full two minutes, reliving all the astounding events of the night before and wondered if it might all have been just a dream after all. Where had that strange, curious creature come from; and another thing, could there have been a second one that he heard out there as well? He could've sworn that something had answered the strange calls that the insect-bot had made when it first appeared.
Alex was certain that something else had also chased close behind him last night just before he got back inside the house. It was then that he felt a sharp, prickling pain on his left shoulder and he broke out in a cold sweat. Hesitantly he reached around with his right hand and gingerly felt his shoulder. He touched the cotton gauze of a fresh bandage that his mom must have applied to the small wound last night. This more than anything else reaffirmed to Alex that all that had transpired in the junkyard was no dream which would fade away or be explained away.
Suddenly, something made a rolling sound on top of his dresser, fell off of it then landed on the floor with a loud thunk. Alex lay there staring, with a sleepy smile spreading across his face. It was that amazing, magical little silvery tool.
"Good morning", he said with a chuckle as though it could somehow understand him; it made a last little roll toward him as if it actually could. Alex lay back with his hands behind his head, thinking. Whatever was going on out there in his junkyard, whether marvelous or scary, he knew now that it was all becoming one big mystery that he had to investigate further.
The solid, old farmhouse was quiet and restful for the boy while he lay in bed, with a wonderful mystery swirling around in his head. It was perhaps too quiet in the house and then, out of the blue, something occurred to him. He couldn't hear his mom getting breakfast ready downstairs. In fact, Alex couldn't hear any sounds of her at all, which meant that she must have been called in to work early at Rosie's Diner, in town.
Alex suddenly had another thought: What time was it? Usually if his mom had to leave early she would set his alarm so he could get up on time to make his own breakfast and go off to school. With all the upheaval of last night though, she must have forgotten about his alarm. What time is it, Alex thought with a rush of anxiety. It certainly looked very bright outside; not at all like early morning anymore!
"Oh, crap", he yelled and hurriedly got dressed and ran downstairs to check the clock above the dinner table. The hands on the clock had performed their simple tasks day-in and day-out without problems for some time, unless of course the batteries wore out. There were no clock problems this morning however, and the hour hand dutifully pointed at the ‘9’ while the longer minute hand cheerfully pointed at the ‘8’ and was inching upward as the minutes of the day ticked steadily by.
"Oh, crap", Alex cried again as he read the doom-full time of 8:40 A.M. It wasn’t a truck that had stopped out front and woke him up - it was the school bus! Alex collapsed onto the nearest chair at the table. He'd never make it to school on time even on his bike, it was miles away. "I'm doomed," he groaned mournfully as he sat there watching the minutes tick down toward 9 O'clock.
Alex hated being late for school, it had only rarely happened but it was always so embarrassing when he opened the classroom door and all eyes turned to stare. With a defeated sigh he checked his watch again. The hands read, 8:45. The school bus was long gone and it took almost half an hour to get there. Then again, Alex knew that that was only because of all the stops and turns along the old bumpy road. An idea sprang up in his over-active mind: he did have a faster way of getting there!
Like so many things Alex invented, they were quite often things he made from what others had thrown away. In the case of his scrapyard however, what had been thrown away many years ago was no ordinary garbage but army surplus equipment and old parts tossed out from different aircraft as well. Mixed in with this fascinating old military scrap was a bit of the usual discarded auto and robot parts that were dropped off from a nearby garage, as well.
An older farm-boy named Terry, who worked part-time as a mechanic there, would sometimes drop by and help but Alex mostly worked on his own, which was fine. Besides, Terry had only one good eye. The other was made of glass. There were countless mechanical and electronic odds and ends from anyplace that you could possibly think of.
All Alex knew was that his "junk" was the most beautiful collection of nuts and bolts, wires and gears, motors and switches, and gizmos that could be imagined. And the great thing about being on his own was that sometimes he could do things that the other kids could only dream of doing.
Today, Alex was going to fly to school with the help of his newest invention. Alex had not yet test-flown his Gravity-Fractioner but he felt fairly certain it would work the way he imagined it would. He checked his watch as he ran to his workshop located outside the fence. The shop was actually an old rundown barn which seemed to lean a little more with each year it held on to its ancient existence.
It was the last remnant of what had been a large tract of farmland before hard times caused it to be abandoned. The one hundred acres of farmland then served as a dumping-ground for decades afterward before it too was closed and left to anyone who owned the farmhouse. This long trail of circumstances was what led to Alex Faraway having the freedom to roam wherever he wished among the endless hills and valleys of the massive scrapyard. There was a trail leading from the workshop to the scrapyard and scattered here and there were small pieces and parts and widgets of all sorts that Alex had dropped during his frequent trips back and forth. He was a scrap fanatic and if he wasn't eating, sleeping or doing homework, this was where he could be found, tinkering with whatever he (or Legs, the robot) had found that day.
Bursting through the rickety doorway, Alex quickly made his way to a long wooden workbench near the doorway where an odd-shaped device sat amongst his tools and other miscellaneous objects. Further back in the barn, in the fainter light stood Big Ben where Alex had left him the previous evening, guarding his most prized project: a scaled-down version of his father's own invention. It still needed much more work but it was slowly taking shape and Alex paused to gaze proudly at its elegant, sleek lines.
Alex truly hoped to fly it one day, in spite of the extremely difficult task of building it. Beside Big Ben and the half-built saucer-craft stood Legs, the tall, spindly-looking scavenger-robot. He stood seven feet tall from his four spoke-legs to his wide-set binocular eyes. His neck could telescope higher, if need be and his narrow, flat-bed-body trailed back another ten feet behind, with its long rectangular loading bucket for holding odds and ends.
Even so, Legs was dwarfed by Big Ben who overshadowed him by another five feet and had the mass and brawn of a heavy-lifting construction-bot. Big Ben had the strange likeness of a monstrous centaur because of the six massive all-terrain tires which trailed behind his thick, round, iron torso.
Legs was awake and just preparing for his daily sojourn into the scrapyard in search of more parts and pieces for his master. Big Ben, meanwhile, conserved his energy for the future tasks which he and Alex would do together. Alex turned again to the odd contraption on the workbench before him and lifted it down to the floor.
The soft hiss of fine metal particles could be heard coming from within two large and flat, oval-shaped chambers which were mounted on swivels on each side of the device. It was roughly the size of a hiking backpack and had a long metal bar with a hand-grip, sticking up out of the top of it. Strong shoulder-straps for securing the device and a bicycle seat at the bottom completed the strange appearance of his newly created machine.
Alex paused only briefly to check that there was enough fuel before sitting down on the seat and buckling up the straps. He had only just finished building the Gravity-Fractioner two nights before so he was not entirely certain how or if it would operate properly, but that had never stopped him before,much to his mother's dismay. Alex felt quite certain that the two lawnmower engines he had salvaged would provide all the power that would be needed for the test-flight.
Grasping the overhead starter cable for the first engine, he gave it a hard yank and was rewarded by a hardy cough and sputter as the tiny powerhouse started and ran noisily. He did the same with the second engine which began making just as much racket as the first. Three stubby metal legs supported the machine while it shook and jiggled about on the concrete floor in an unnerving way. Alex sat in a rather awkward position with his knees sticking up to his chin and his back resting against the solid front of the boxy device. The little chattering engines made the machine vibrate alarmingly under him; he hoped it wouldn't get worse.
Nervously, Alex reached down with his left hand and grasped a small lever beside his seat. He slowly pulled up on it and was rewarded by the sound and jerk of the engines becoming engaged with the power-train gears within the device. A louder hissing sound came again as the tiny metal particles began swirling around inside the two oval particle-chambers where electromagnets began spinning like pin-wheels. This was where Alex hoped the mechanical magic would soon occur.
The only other things he wished he had thought to bring was earplugs. The noise that the two clattering little engines made was such a deafening sound that he felt sure he would soon have a headache. Alex was satisfied with the start-up though and he cautiously pushed a small red button at the tip of the lever he was gripping.
The result of this next phase was felt immediately and shockingly as electro-magnets fixed to the tips of rotating spokes were turned on. The trick of the magnets was that they were only on during the time that they were spinning upward on each of the two spoke-d flight-wheels. The magnets were instantly turned off again during the downward-swing of the wheels. This was achieved thanks to some ingenious wiring Alex had done at the hub and axle of each wheel.
A noticeable change in the tone and motion of the Gravity-Fractioner took place then. As the spinning magnets attracted the sandy metal particles within each chamber, they became heavier and unbalanced during the upward spin. The spokes in each oval chamber rotated in opposing directions as well to cancel out sideways motion. As a result, all the centrifugal force which normally would have pulled equally in all directions around the spinning spokes was now unequal or focused upward and began to pull Alex up off the floor of his workshop!
Alex couldn't believe it, everything was operating perfectly! He felt a giddy sensation of weightlessness run through him as the machine's support legs bumped along the floor then, slowly, began to rise. Alex's eyes were wide with awe and delight as he fought to control his excitement. Looking up, he saw just above his right shoulder the gravity-fractioning lever. This was the only other control lever that he would need to use.
Reaching up, Alex took hold of this lever and slowly pulled it downward. Linkage rods clinked and moved in response and the two particle chambers pivoted like two halves of scissors being closed together. Where before they had each been at a forty-five degree angle to each side, now they were being moved upward to ninety degrees, vertically.
Alex stepped outside the workshop, feeling as light as if he was walking on the moon. He crouched down then jumped up as high as he could while pulling down hard on the overhead lever. Two amazing things happened at the same time, one was expected, the other not. Alex's stomach flip-flopped as though he was riding a very fast elevator. He shut his eyes tight and gritted his teeth as he nearly blacked out. He felt his eyes tearing up as cool morning air rushed and whistled passed his face. His eyes snapped open and Alex found himself staring straight down at his workshop which was swiftly receding below him and becoming as tiny as a doll's house.
"Wow, oh wow", he yelled gleefully. Then, "Oh crap, oh crap!" The ground fell away from him much too fast as if he had been shot out of a cannon! He was rising too high and too fast! In panic, Alex let go of the fractioning lever just as he shot through the top of a small, fluffy cloud, his ears popping painfully. The effect was just as drastic but only now in reverse. Alex began to plummet earthward like a skydiver!
This was definitely not the smooth, well-planned test-flight that he had been expecting. Again the wind whistled in his ears but he snatched at the lever and pulled it again. The free-fall slowed and the feather-lightness returned as Alex floated gently back down to the ground. He had to let go of the Fractioner handle so he could do a happy skip around without fear of jumping hundreds of feet high again.
"It works, it works", he laughed as the magical contraption continued to purr and chatter on his back. Alex anxiously checked his watch again. Eight-fifty-five! Not a minute to waste! With a run and a jump, he pulled the lever and took off like a human grasshopper!
Luckily, his school was not actually very far away but only seemed to take longer to reach by bus because of the winding country road. But because Alex was able to hop easily over houses and fences, he reached his school in less than three minutes and landed squarely on the flat roof of the little elementary school with only a soft thump.
He quickly cut the power and the chattering little engines came to a stop with a cough and a sputter. Leaving his invention hidden on the rooftop, Alex hopped down onto a garbage dumpster which had been placed conveniently below. He ran as fast as he could around to the front door and strolled innocently by the office window.
The bored receptionist sat staring hypnotized at the wonders of flickering pixels which changed and blinked busily before her eyes with every important screen-tap she commanded. Just as innocently, Alex sidled slowly into class, his eyes fixed like lasers on the teacher's back, willing him to continue tapping and squicking his marker along the whiteboard for just a few more seconds. Tak - ssk - tap - tak...
"I want to remind you people", Mr. Chater was saying, "that you all have a geography test tomorrow and I'll expect all of you to study hard for it tonight." Now, will everyone please open their textbooks to page 73 - (tak - tak - tak - sssk) - we will be talking today about...blah - blah - wagga - waha - blah", he droned on.
Inch by cautious inch, Alex crept slowly in from the rear door, along the back wall, down the middle aisle, all the way passed staring, snickering classmates, finally to the precious safety of his desk and - Mr. Chater spun round on his heels like a top!
"Now, who can tell me...", he began. Quick as a whip, Alex, who was nearly sitting down, jumped back up. His hand shot up as if it had a mind of its own and he yelped, "Oh, I know!"
So suddenly did it all happen that Mr. Chater stumbled back and bumped against the whiteboard. All the extra markers fell to the shiny linoleum floor, making little tak - tik - tak sounds of their own. Afterward, a deathly silence fell over the class. All the kids held their breath. Doomsday was upon them all. Mr. Chater's stern eyes bored severely into Alex’s and his bushy brown moustache twitched ominously.
Alex remained frozen at attention, his outstretched hand quivering stiffly, not knowing what else it should do as an anxious,wide grin crept slowly over his face. A single drop of sweat tickled its way down his brow.
It was then that an imaginary coin-toss was made in Mr. Chater's head and, for a change, the coin came down in Alex's favor. Mr. Chater relaxed slightly and a small, humorous smile touched his face. A new spark of mischief lit up his eyes though, Alex may have managed to sneak into class but he was not going to be let off the hook quite that easily.
"What do you know", he asked quietly.
"Huh", Alex replied.
"You just told me that you know something, young man so, tell me what it is?" Mr. Chater's bushy eyebrows crinkled wickedly.
"Oh...well...," Alex began nervously; he suddenly noticed that his arm was becoming quite sore as it was still standing straight up, stiff as a board. Quickly dropping it, Alex stuttered, "well...I...know lots of things…I guess.”
"Okay, Master Faraway", Mr. Chater said with chuckle, "tell the class and me some of what you know."
"Well, I can't really tell you...so, I'll have to show you", Alex answered suddenly alive with new excitement.
"Show us...", Mr. Chater asked, now not sure where Alex was going with the conversation. "Well - uh...okay", he said a bit uncertainly. The tables had so suddenly been turned that Mr. Chater sat down with an odd, confused look on his face.
The class remained as still as if they were all manikins. Eagerly Alex walked up to the front of the quiet classroom and picked up one of the markers. Looking over at Mr. Chater with a sheepish grin he said, "Sorry."
"Hm", Mr. Chater grumped. Alex touched the marker to the whiteboard and he began to draw. And, for the next hour, everyone in that classroom became spell-bound. For Alex Faraway began to draw with deft precision, each of his inventions and even some new ideas for future ones not yet created.
He explained how each moving part moved and what kinds of motors and gears were used to make his various contraptions operate the way they did. Alex was in his glory, he answered question after eager question, even Mr. Chater couldn't resist getting into the act. It was all so enthralling, but he had to put his hand up just like the other kids so he could get a turn for his questions too.
Before very long, the whole front board was covered with precise straight, measured lines and arcing arrows which Alex used to illustrate how his devices moved, jumped or floated or flew. There seemed no end to his energy as his invention lesson captured everybody’s imaginations and shocked them into thinking about how they could maybe make their own.
The regular lesson went completely out the window as all his classmates took out paper and rulers and started pouring out their own fantastical ideas. Some were quite simple and practical while others were way, way out there. All were treasures in the minds of their creators and by the time Mr. Chater came to his senses a kind of quiet pandemonium had taken hold of his class.
Pencils were sketching and erasers were rubbing and everyone was focusing on their own one-of-a-kind project with tongues stuck out and eyes sparkling with rapt enjoyment. He looked around him, utterly dumbfounded, for Alex had covered every inch of every whiteboard with his drawings and now was going from desk to desk gazing at each student's new plan or sketch while asking them what each was or how they could make improvements to them.
In that single hour, Alex had transformed the class and himself as well, for Alex had changed from being a student to being a teacher. In the process, the entire class (even Mr. Chater) had been given a glimpse into the boundless mind of a young, raw genius. The paradox of it all was that Alex didn't seem to really notice their amazement; he was, after all, just being himself. Mr. Chater smiled at this and decided to leave things well enough alone and just let Alex be a kid; a very fascinating kid. I guess I'm not too old to learn something new either, he thought happily.
The rest of the day at school went by uneventfully, although Mr. Chater was loathe to have to erase Alex's fascinating drawings from the chalkboards. There were other subjects which had to be taught as well though. When the day was over and it was time to take the bus home, the students were still talking about Alex. As they began boarding the bus some of them looked around, wondering where he was. They even began to wonder how he managed to get to school that morning only a few minutes after they did. They all knew that he had missed the bus.
Meanwhile, Alex was climbing back onto the rooftop and strapping the Gravity-Fractioner back on. With a skip and a hop, Alex leaped up off the roof and began bounding homeward with huge hundred-foot leaps. A few of the students thought they saw something strange flashing by overhead but were not quite certain what it was.
Next: Chapter 5 - Follow The Leader
As of 2017-02-26, Chapter 5 is available here.