Josh’s burn was programmed for a remote pasture a hundred miles from home. This was a precaution. The Cluster were trying hard to develop a tracking system. They had several projects dedicated to tracking burns the way the DimensioNoids could. During his time in the burn tube, Josh went over what he’d learned about it. Tracking was an edge the DimensioNoids had because they had Starla. Starla could monitor Cluster activities. Not everything, just special targets like their jump chamber, and Chaos.
An even bigger advantage the DimensioNoids had was jump capability. The Cluster’s jump technology was cumbersome. They could jump large armies into other dimensions by developing a huge unstable burn tube inside a big chamber, but they couldn’t send individuals. The dead cells of their Minions couldn’t, as Starla put it, “Retain their cohesion.”
Then came Chaos, a living Kolomogoron. During the operations, genetic streams were altered, skull communicator and internal jump device installed, but the patient had to be—alive.
“They put the jump device where his heart used to be,” Starla noted with no apparent regard for the irony. Chaos was the prototype, an experiment in progress. What The Cluster hoped all their soldiers would one day be.
Josh had removed his burn band from outside his sleeve, put it on his bare arm, then put his sweatshirt back on over it. He’d have to push up his sleeve to operate it, but hiding it would avoid the inevitable, “Hey, what’s that thing on your arm?” from his parents and schoolmates.
Being familiar with the gravitational forces of earth, Josh was ﬁnally able to stick his terminus landing. It was just his luck that there were no DimensioNoids there to see it. He found himself especially wishing Tempo had been there to witness his perfect terminus. Then he forced himself, as he often had to over the last two days, to accept that Tempo was really a pulsating mass of viscous metal. She was not really Emily Kinicki, the girl in Wheatland Junior High that owned Josh’s heart. That’s when Josh looked down to discover that he’d landed perfectly, all right, both feet planted in a cow pie! He looked up to see several White Face cows chewing their cud and looking back at him with typical bovine stares of minor interest.
Starla had sent Josh to a secluded ﬁeld a hundred miles from Wheatland, and told him to use a circuitous route in ﬁnding his way home. “To diﬀuse your burn traces,” Starla had said. “Chaos might follow them.”
Hey, Mom! He followed me home! Can I keep him? Josh chuckled, telling himself a joke though still far from home.
Of all the things Josh thought to bring with him on his adventure, money had not been one of them. Now, here he was, a hundred miles from Wheatland and no bus fare. He’d never tried hitchhiking. It was an anathema to his parents, and against the law in this county. Josh couldn’t walk, or even skateboard, that far. After he’d hiked to a country road, he stuck out his thumb, not even sure which way he should go. No one stopped. Josh was facing east, when a police car came up behind him from the west. The chubby local policeman had seen Josh hitching, stopped, and got out.
“Can’t do that here, young man,” the cop grimly said.
“Kinda young to be out here all alone. Where you live?”
“Wheatland? You’re pretty far from home, aren’tcha? Where’s your parents?”
“And they let you come way out here?”
“Uh, it’s kind of a long story.”
“I got all day. What’s your name?” the policeman said, poising his pen over his ticket book.
“Josh. Joshua Miles.”
The cop looked up from his book with the kind of gaze you see in a person amazed by disbelief. The cop’s stern and wrinkled old face broke into a delighted smile.
“Joshua Miles? You aren’t joshin’ me, are ya Josh?” the policeman joked.
Josh resisted the temptation to say, Like I haven’t heard that one before—much! Instead he said he was telling the truth and showed the cop a hall pass and some other school papers with his name on them that just happened to be in his backpack.
“Boy, we been lookin’ for you across the whole state! Picked up and taken away by a tornado, they said. That true?” the cop asked good-naturedly.
“Something like that.”
“You sure don’t look the worse fer wear.”
“I was lucky. Came down in a cow pasture.”
“Well, I’ll be!” the cop laughed. “You’re gonna be in all the papers, son!”
Great, Josh thought, just what I need: notoriety. Then he thought about it further. The tornado idea might be just the thing to explain his two day absence. Bet they’d let him make up that English test he missed. Maybe he wouldn’t have to take it at all.
The cop took Josh to the local station. They let him call his parents. Mr. and Mrs. Miles had had a rough time. For two days, they were certain their only child was dead. They had no idea how often during that time they were very close to being right. Relieved is too mild a word. Someone leaked the story. Reporters began showing up at the police station. The local cops decided to clandestinely ferret Josh out of there in an unmarked van. They took him to Kansas State Police headquarters. It was half way to Wheatland and that’s where Josh was reunited with his parents.
“You don’t know how we prayed!” Josh’s mother wept. Even Josh’s usually stern father had tears in his eyes. Josh’s parents were unaware that he had under his shirt sleeve an interdimensional traveling device that might at any moment again call him away.
Josh’s parents just wanted to pile their son into the old family station wagon and go home, but Police Lieutenant Tobin had other ideas. Tobin was a twenty year veteran of the force who hunched a bit under the weight of it. He wore a dark blue suit, had thinning hair, and the hard angular bearing of an experienced law enforcement oﬃcer. He allowed Josh’s parents in the room for the interrogation.
“This tornado,” the suspicious detective said. “You say it let you down in a cow pasture gentle as could be?”
“Something like that,” Josh replied, for the seventh time in the last two hours.
“Uh, huh. And just where have you been for the last two days?” the big cop asked.
“Wandering around in another world,” Josh sighed.
“I see. And nobody gave you a second thought. You just wandered around not bothering to ask anyone for help. Didn’t think to ask to use a phone. That about it?”
“That’s about it,” Josh shrugged.
“Strange that this tornado, the one nobody saw and no weather radar detected, dipped down in the middle of the night and scooped up a boy who should have been sleeping. Yet, here you are, wearing a full set of clothes, nice and clean, I might add, and carrying a backpack with your skateboard in it. Seems to me you come across a lot like a boy who’s run away from home.”
“Now see here, Lieutenant,” Josh’s dad ﬁrmly spoke up, “you were one of the oﬃcers that came out to our house when we reported the boy missing. You saw his room. How else you ﬁgure that happened?”
“I’ve seen a lot of tornado damage in this state. Never seen anything like what happened to your boy’s room,” Tobin said, speaking to Mr. Miles, but looking Josh in the eye to see if there was any overt reaction.
“If you are ﬁnished, Lieutenant Tobin,” Josh’s mother chimed in, “we’d like to take our boy home, now.”
“If anything like this happens again,” the Lieutenant said, his suspicions unswayed, “you call me directly.”
Tobin handed a business card each to Mr. and Mrs. Miles.
“What about me?” Josh said, baiting the big hunching cop. “If it happens again, I’ll be the ﬁrst to know. And I do know how to use a phone.”
Tobin looked at the boy a long moment, then he smiled, and handed a business card to Josh.
The Miles family owned a small farm. It was about forty acres with ﬁve acres of corn, ten acres of hay, and twenty-ﬁve acres of woods and grazing land for the herd of ﬁfty or so Black Angus the Mileses kept. The farm lost money. You had to be a big co-op to make it in the farming business these days. The Mileses were lucky that they lived close to the university. Mr. Miles had taken half an acre down near the road and converted it into a block of apartments—little two story units that didn’t mar the beauty of the land too much. University students and a few locals rented from him, and it more than made ends meet.
It was good to be home. Back on the little farm Josh’s family had owned for a century. Josh’s dad kind of expected Josh to take over the farm someday. Josh kind of expected it, too. Now, his future was unclear; now Chaos and a zombie army were after his brain! Josh reckoned that the transfers from police car to unmarked van to his family’s station wagon was just the sort of circuitous route home Starla had told Josh to take. If Chaos had tried to track Josh’s burn traces, he would have had a hard time.
Something greater was playing through Josh’s mind. How could he serve as a DimensioNoid, a colleague the others somehow considered to be their leader, if he couldn’t vanish for days at a time? And what of his parents? Oh, he could slip away, but that would bring them the same kind of grief he’d caused them the ﬁrst time. Josh could never put them through that, again. He formulated a plan, and went for it.
“Mom, dad,” Josh said after they’d ﬁnished his ﬁrst dinner home (roast beef, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes and gravy, apple pie and ice cream—all his favorites), “if I have to—go away again, I want you to understand—”
“Go away again?” Josh’s dad gulped, almost choking on his last bite of apple pie.
“Lieutenant Tobin was right. It wasn’t a tornado that took me away. I can’t tell you exactly what it was. You wouldn’t believe me if I did. But it’s something important. Something that aﬀects the whole world.”
“Now, Josh,” his mother smiled, “you have never lied to us, have you, son?”
“Well, not really,” Josh sighed, “there was that time I said I fell on the ice and got a big bruise on my cheek. Actually, I got in a ﬁght with Billy Engle.”
“We knew it was something like that,” Josh’s mother smiled, “but you were only seven.”
“Look—I’m going to have to disappear again.” Both parents looked at each other with worry. “It’ll only be for a few days, maybe only an hour or two, but—you’ll just have to trust me. It’s important.”
“What happened in your room that night? Why can’t you tell us what it was?” Mr. Miles asked, his ire growing.
“Because it’s beyond belief ! If I told anyone, they’d send me to the funny farm! You gotta promise me. When it happens again, you won’t call that Lieutenant Tobin. Won’t report me missing. And maybe you can make up some excuse for me at school.”
“You won’t be going anywhere, mister!” Josh’s father fumed. “You’re grounded!”“Dad, that won’t make any difference.”
“Now, see here, Joshua Miles—” Mr. Miles began, but Mrs. Miles cut him off, and gently, as only she knew how.
“Oh, now, Tom, we trust Josh, don’t we?” Mrs. Miles asked of her husband.
“But he was gone two days! We were worried sick!”
“That’s why I’m telling you this. If it happens again, I—well, I don’t want you to worry,” Josh explained.
Josh’s parents looked at each other in that way they always did when coming to some sort of unspoken agreement.
Josh’s mom smiled, patted the back of Josh’s hand on the table and said one of her favorite sayings, “Well, we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.”