I found a gold ring that transported me to a parallel world. My guide and I have been taken captive by the man who raised her. (The story begins here.)
* * *
As I brushed her hair she smiled. “I wonder what trap that viper plans to draw us into.”
“How do you know it’s a trap?”
“Everything Sebastian does is a trap. He has traps to hold his traps. I used to think my escaping from this house was simply part of a more elaborate snare to find more of the magic rings. If so, he’s caught one.”
“Yes. I’m sorry.”
A gentle-sounding man’s voice with a slight English accent interrupted us. “The car is waiting out front to take you to lunch.”
“Let it wait.”
“As you wish, Mistress Jessica, but I am compelled to remind you that the Professor’s patience is finite.”
“He should study meditation.” After a moment she sighed, “We’d best do as the house says. He gets cranky when he wants something.
The trip to the restaurant was another drive through pristine nineteenth century New England. It had only been a few hours but I was already getting sick of it; the whole town looked like it had been set up as a museum. Couldn’t they at least drop a piece of trash on the sidewalk somewhere?
Diego’s on Main was a quaint little street-front restaurant. I was hoping for Mexican from the name, but the décor and the posted menu were pure Middle America. The few people there were just finishing up their lunches and getting back to work or whatever. Professor Sebastian was waiting for us, of course.
Jessica and Sebastian waited while I scanned the menu. I was the only one who hadn’t eaten there a hundred times before, I was sure. I eventually settled on the steak sandwich. They both asked for “the usual”. Yup, I was the only newcomer.
“So, are the accommodations satisfactory?”
“Very nice, if a little rustic. I love how you integrated the old-style look and new technology.”
“Yes, I often do that. I’m fascinated by the combination of old and new.” He glanced over at Jessica, who was looking bored and glancing at the clock. When she noticed my gaze she gave a little half-nod that I assumed meant I should continue.
“So, how long have you been in charge here?”
“Oh, quite some while. I’m rather older than I appear.”
“There seems to be a lot of that going around. Jessica’s extremely … nimble … for her age.”
“I’m sure.” His momentary frown told me Jessica was right. Sebastian had been watching, and he was annoyed. “And yet I consider her a youngster. In fact, I can claim some responsibility for her youthful appearance.”
“She told me. If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?”
“Actually, I do mind.”
He spent the next while explaining how he’d been around when the town was much smaller, and how he’d built up and improved the university over the years. It was one of those sanitized tales that hinted at ‘rough spots’ without actually saying what they were. I didn’t know how much was BS, but regardless it must have taken him decades. He finished just as the waitress brought our food.
For the first time since ordering Jessica spoke. “Eat up, Boy. You’ll need your strength.” She dove into her rice like a trencherman, pausing only to take bites of her cheese-and-prosciutto sandwich. So much for the grace and dignity of age.
I remembered breakfast, and how she’d wanted to make sure I had plenty to eat then. But that was because we were going to be on the move and needed energy. Now there was no reason unless…
I started eating quickly.
Sebastian took a few bites of his salad and watched us. His look of mild disgust hardened into one of alarm.
Jessica knocked her glass of pop over with a casual motion. It tipped and hit the table, then miraculously was standing there again.
“Run!” She pushed my shoulder and jumped from her chair. By the time I reacted she was a quarter of the way to the exit. I chased her as Sebastian was leaping to his feet.
“All units, alert! Jessica is up to her old…”
I missed the rest because we were out of the restaurant and sprinting. I couldn’t tell you where we ran; when we stopped in an alley a couple of minutes later I had no idea where we were. Fit as I was, I was still a bit out of breath; Jessica was totally unfazed, as if this sort of thing were normal for her. On consideration, it probably was.
“Okay, Boy. In case we get separated, we’re going to a ruined mansion about 1 mile northwest of town. We meet up at the gazebo. Now take off your clothes.”
“Sebastian puts tracking devices in everything. Around him you get used to doing things naked.”
She shucked away everything, and then helped me do the same. After a brief look she got a wicked grin.
“No time for that now, Boy. We have to run.”
“Jessica, what is going on? Why did you choose that moment to run?”
She sighed. “We don’t have time for this, Boy. Time slips; I think his time machine is throwing a tantrum.”
“Time slips? What…”
“I’ll tell you later! Now run!”
Again she took off.
I’m fit enough that a three-mile run isn’t really a problem. I was going to deliberately stay a bit behind Jessica, but she was easily matching my best pace. Based on the number of people who turned to watch us streak through town, I couldn’t see how shedding the clothes would make us any harder to track.
We went off-road when we left town. The ground was fairly smooth and grassy, though I the tree branches were whipping me more than an angry slave master.
The third time we ran past the same stand of trees I spoke up.
“Jessica, I think we’re running in circles.”
“No we’re not. Your brain is seeing through the algorithm. This whole forest is artificial.”