chapter 1 | chapter 2 | chapter 3 | chapter 4 | chapter 5 | chapter 6 | chapter 7 | chapter 8 | chapter 9
chapter 10 | chapter 11 | chapter 12 | chapter 13 | chapter 14 | chapter 15 | chapter 16 | chapter 17 | chapter 18
chapter 19 | chapter 20 | chapter 21 | chapter 22 | chapter 23 | chapter 24 | chapter 25 | chapter 26

11. The Magic Wand

Way back when all this time travel business was new to us and we first started traveling with Marle, Crono had this special way of talking with her that was radically different from the way he talked with me or his friends, and it was easy to notice the difference because he would actually... well, talk. Not anywhere near as loquaciously as the princess, but in short and clumsy bursts that were so obviously meant to appease that I had to wonder what the heck was wrong with him. At first I thought it was some retarded gesture towards her royal status, but I eventually figured it out--that the fool was falling for her--and it was sickening to watch him try to break his old, steadfast habit just to hold a "normal" conversation.

After a while I couldn't take it anymore. As soon as I could corner him alone, I got in his face and whispered harshly, "What's the matter with you?"

He shrugged, affronted if confused. What??
"Don't 'what' me!" I stabbed a finger at the distracted princess. "You! Her! I'm tired of watching you pussyfoot around like some wimp! You're acting like an idiot--I mean, more than usual--and it's driving me crazy! Just be yourself, you dumb tool; she already likes you anyway."

At that I stormed off, leaving him scratching his head. In retrospect, I'm not exactly sure what I accomplished, but Crono did start to relax more around Marle. We all did, really, once the image of a real friend replaced that of a princess. Still, Crono never quite gave it up--trying to speak with her--even though his words were always quiet and stunted.

Sometimes his old style of talking--not-talking--mixed with the new. The result, after three years of awkward practice, became conversations like this:

"I've always loved the snow. Once, when I was a little girl, Mother took me out in the courtyard and showed me how to make snow angels. She looked so silly, lying on her back and flapping her arms in the snow! The look on the guards' faces was priceless. Oh, and then we went inside and had some of the chef's gingerbread cookies. They are the best thing. I have to make you try some this winter. What did you like to do as a kid when it snowed?"
"Um..." Crono drew three circles in the air. "Snowmen."
"Oh, those are so neat! Whenever I rode into towns for Winterfest I liked it when we'd pass through the neighborhoods and look at all the different snowmen in people's yards. I've seen snow pumpkins, snow antelopes, snow dragons, um..."
He made a boxed-in sign with his hands. "Snow castles."
"Oh yes! I remember a family that made an amazing snow castle--I almost thought it was part of their house! You'd think it would be so cold inside, but I once read that's how people in the north used to keep warm. I guess it kept the wind out? But if it's supposed to be so warm, how doesn't it melt from the inside-out?"

"What? Make hut from cold stuff?" Ayla jumped in, laughing at the notion that must have seemed ridiculous. "No can keep warm that way! Crazy idea. Ayla bet that tribe all frozen--that's why no around anymore!"

Crono grinned and shrugged while Marle gave a tinkling laugh. "Hehe, probably!"

"Ehh... Winter was ne'er my favored season," Frog warily contributed. "My skin dries out in such cold." That made sense; nobody ever sees frogs frolicking through fields of snow, after all.

The going was much slower down this peak than it was down Mystic Mountain, but we were still making good time (giant death worms, aside.) Thankfully the thin, blustery climate at the top gave way to a tranquil, temperate forest at the bottom, and my fingers finally got a chance to thaw out. Before long the snow completely receded, and we traded a blizzard for more rain and thunder. Not once did the skies break or the clouds show a silver lining--it was just gloomy grey cumulonimbus, non-stop.

Although we couldn't track the sun, the day was beginning to show its age when we finally found the road. It was just a couple of muddy furrows sawed out of the grass, but it looked fresh enough to be worth following. We didn't have to go very far. As soon as we cleared the trees, we spotted a vehicle at the bottom of the hill: a dingy white truck of a strange yet simple make, its four rubber tires lodged firmly in the mud off the side the road. Its cramped cabin sat between a wide, open bed and a nose that presumably housed the engine. Two people were hanging around it: a really fat guy in a red shirt leaning out the side window of the cab, and a much scrawnier guy tipped headfirst under the open hood.

People were good. People meant civilization, and that meant a place to get our bearings. Our group stopped and wondered at them for a moment. "Should we go say hi?" Marle ventured, but as soon as she set one foot out, Mishu reeled her in with a hand to the shoulder. "Hang on. I think these are those kids."

Marle whirled back to her. "Huh? What kids?"

"Whoa, you mean those kids you think were working on the gate?" I recalled.

Mishu nodded. This was even better. These were just the people we were looking for--the kind of people with answers. We all passed around a look of consensus before approaching the truck. As we neared, I could pick out pieces of a frustrated exchange.

"Com'on man, when are you going to get a new truck?" the fat guy whined.
"When I have the money."
"You're always saying that, man."
"And it's always true," retorted the guy under the hood. They did sound fairly young--probably not much older than Crono, Marle and I.
"I thought you were getting forwarded a big check?"
"It hasn't come in yet--damnit! I can't reach this. The valve is behind the... ow! Damnit!"
"You realize this is ironic."
"You can put together a damn quantum ring clock from like, barnacles and a chicken-scratch instruction manual, but you can't fix your own old-timer, piece-of-shit truck with your own tools."
"It's not a big deal! I just need to find where the leak is and patch it, and then--ow ow ow! My finger's caught!"
"Geebus. You're sad, Jerad."
"Shut up, you're not helping."

I'm not sure if we were too collectively fascinated to interrupt, or just waiting for them to notice us, but none of our party said a word until we were practically on top of the truck. Marle raised a friendly hail, breaking the ice. "Hi there! You guys need some help?"

There was a sharp, concussive bang as a skull connected with the underside of the hood. The scrawny guy gave a clipped cry, backed out and stared at us in dazed shock. That's when the fat guy finally caught wind, and he gaped at us with a stunned, flaccid expression I'd better seen on ogres.

"Yeah, looks like you're broken down. You need a hand?" I finished Marle's thought, hoping to inspire some sign of life from these two gawkers.

"Oh! Uh..." Mr. Scrawny--Jerad, apparently--ran a greasy hand through his dark, short, limp hair and blinked around a slipping pair of thick-rimmed glasses. He must have had no idea what to make of us--to be fair, I wouldn't, either. It's not every day a pretty girl approaches a couple of stranded motorists in the company of a cavewoman, a gargoyle, a warlock and a giant frog with a sword. "Hi there..." He abruptly remembered our offer and started again, teetering over the rim of the engine compartment. "Oh, uh, I think I've got it here, thanks."

I propped a hand on my hip and bit down a smug grin. This was going to be interesting. "You sure? I'm a mechanic."

The two did a double take, witless looks migrating from the more outlandish members of our group to me. The chubby, incredulous squint from inside the truck was unmistakable--I love it when people underestimate me. I left the suggestion hanging for a minute until Jerad fumbled with his glasses over a reply.

"Well, I... uh... Sure, if you'd like to take a look..."

"All right!" I perked up, slung my travel bag behind my back, stepped up to the toolbox wedged under the truck's front bumper and started poking around. "Lucca the Great is on the case."

Marle tittered. "You guys are in luck! Lucca can fix anything." She turned to the fat guy, who was still sitting like a lump in what appeared to be the passenger's seat. "So what's your name?"

He reached a big, pale hand out the window. "Uh, Ryan."

Marle shook it pleasantly. "Nice to meet you, Ryan! I'm Marle. And this is Crono, and Frog, and..."

I let Marle take care of the formalities while I got to work. The automobile's insides were more primitive than I expected: a quad-turbine combustion engine with a handful of computer components to regulate the transmission and probably some menial on-dash functions. It looked like a shipwreck, with boltless hunks listing throughout the open assembly and nearly every metal joint rusted into submission.

("This truck? Can move? Has wheel-feet. Where animal to pull it?")
("I think it's supposed to move on its own.")
("Oh, Ayla know! Want Lucca hurry fix, Ayla see move.")

"Yeah, it's pretty old," Jerad said bashfully, assuming my lack of familiarity was due to the truck being out-of-date, rather than me. "My dad used to drive this thing back when he went to college. If I could afford something better, I would've chunked the thing ages ago."

("So, uh... Is that like a costume, Mr. Frog?")
("Ehh... Aye, that it is.")

"Ah, well... no problem?" I rolled with it. "So, you think there's an oil leak? That can't be the only thing, to make it stop running..."

("Oh. It looks pretty real. Can I, like, feel it?")
("...Nay. Nay. Just, no.")
("Lucca! Hurry fix. Ayla want ride truck!")<.br>

("Just be patient, Ayla...")

"Oh, well, yeah, I think something snapped loose around here..."

It wasn't anywhere near where Jerad was pointing, and I had to crawl under the truck before I found it--a belt was off, along with a bunch of popped valves. One monkey wrench, a band of duct tape and a can of motor oil later, it was all patched up, piece of cake. I stood back and brushed the grime off my shirt (in vain) while Jerad barked at Ryan to give the truck a start. It shuddered to life like a sputtering old man, but then stabilized to Jerad's satisfaction.

He closed the hood and nodded appreciatively at me. "Thanks a bunch!"

"No problem! So, where are you guys headed, anyway?" I probed.

Jerad threw a thumb over his shoulder and down the road. "Back into town." Anticipating my next question, he panned a look around our idling group. "You people need a ride?"

Marle flashed a sweet, pleading grin. "Could you?"

Ryan shrugged, totally beguiled. "Uh, sure? There's plenty of room in the back, I guess."

Ayla leapt into the bed of the truck with an exuberant whoop. "Yes! Truck ride! Go fast!"

The boys exchanged an apprehensive look before ushering our gang on board. Jerad climbed into the cabin and sat behind the steering wheel, occasionally glancing at us through the open hatch in the back window. Neither had managed to erase the uneasy bewilderment from their expressions, and while they were trying to act grateful, they didn't look too keen about taking on hitchhikers--especially ones as weird as us.

I tried to get comfortable in the gritty metal bed of the bouncing truck, settling just behind the cabin. Marle and Crono squeezed into the corner across from me, Frog and Mishu hugged the sides, Magus squatted on a toolbox, and Ayla skated around freely, riding every bump and turn like she was at a rodeo. We were moving at a pretty fast clip--or at least fast enough for the rain to sting against our faces--and it was difficult to hear anyone speaking over the noise of the engine, the weather and the various tools clattering around.

Nonetheless, this was working out perfectly. Not only were we getting a ride into town, but our drivers were also our new leads in the mystery behind the gate shrines. All we had to do was find the best way to ask them about it... but was that such a good idea? If these people were working on the gate, then they might be working with Ramezia, who was working with the Mystics, who weren't exactly on our side at the moment. So we had to tread carefully if we wanted the right information without giving ourselves away.

Marle must have been reading my mind, because she lowered a confidential look at me and started to mouth, 'Should we ask them about...?'

Jerad beat us with a question of his own. "So, where are you guys all from?"

In all our adventures through the gates, we never had much of a discretionary policy. We didn't go around blabbing that we were from the future or whenever, of course, but "don't ask, don't tell" became our modus operandi. If someone did ask, we usually tried to answer as simply and honestly as possible ("We're from Truce," "We're from Ioka," etc.) and none were the wiser. It's not like someone on the street would run up and ask where you stash your time machine, after all.

Ayla, who happened to be sitting for a lull in the ride, spoke up before any of us could even think. "We come from gate on mountain!"

Jerad smashed a foot pedal under the dash and the truck skidded to a halt, dirt and gravel spraying off the tires with a loud hiss. Half of us frantically braced ourselves over the rain-slick bed of the truck while the rest lurched forward, following inertia to its bitter end. Frog slammed into my shoulder like a sack of bricks, and my head hit the back hatch with a disturbing crack that I prayed belonged to the window and not my glasses.

When my vision cleared (with a few stars, but thankfully no cracks), I found Ryan cursing and kicking in his seat next to Jerad. "Damnit man, what the hell!?" Frog grumbled an apology and pushed himself off so I could breathe, while Ayla tumbled upright, scratching a knot on her head.

Jerad jerked around, shooting us a crazed look that was almost hilariously serious. "What did you just say??"

Damnit, Ayla. I rolled my eyes and threw up one arm, surrendering. "Well, since the cat's out, might as well ask: what year is this?"

The two boys blinked. Ryan started to answer automatically, "It's--" Jerad cuffed him on the arm and then cornered me. "No, you tell us what year you think it is."

"Uh..." I checked the others for a hint, an idea--anything. Crono bit his lip, Frog juggled an uncertain expression on his bulbous brow, and Magus harrumphed, looking away. "Um, we don't know?" Marle hazarded. "That's why we asked?"

"It's 2002," Ryan blurted, and Jerad punched him again. "Ow! Shit man, what's the deal?"

2002 AD? Were they serious? That's three years since the Day of Lavos--just like it had been three years for Ayla since she fought with us, and three years for Frog, and three years since the Millennial Fair--and I bet if I asked Magus, he would (probably not) say that three years had passed between us, as well. That could not have been a mere coincidence, yet the possibilities boggled the mind. I almost didn't want to think it, because it was irrational and self-centered to the extreme, but it almost seemed like the gates--no, time itself--were following us...

I would have to revise my notes on the relativity of time travel, but for the moment we had bigger fish to fry. Jerad wasn't giving us the most hospitable look. "You came from the gate," he said flatly, as if running the thought aloud for his own validation. "You all came from the gate? Is that a joke?"

"Um... no?" I said lamely.

Ryan's face seemed to melt with--amazement? Horror? It was hard to tell--while Jerad positively lit up, killing the ignition on the truck and edging closer. His next question, asked like a child looking for a hidden present, absolutely threw us. "Did Ramezia send you?"

Marle and Ayla gasped while Frog uttered an explosive croak. "Ramezia!! Thou knowst that fiend?"

"No, but we're looking for him," I responded quickly. "How do you know Ramezia?"

Jerad held up a hand, cutting me off. "No, wait a second--I've got a question to ask. If you don't know Ramezia, then how did you get through that gate? Those rings have been encrypted on a very specific temporal frequency that not just anybody can waltz in and crack."

"Like, magic?" Marle guessed.

He startled, shaking his head. "What? Like--no, it's not magic, it's..." He abandoned that tack before he said too much. "Not exactly but okay, let's say it's like magic. So how the hell did you guys open the gate?"

Great, he was on to us. I attempted some damage control, turning the question back on him. "Well you guys have the access frequency, right?"

"No, actually, we don't," Jerad threw back, his tone intense enough to sound earnest. "Our client does. Which makes me wonder who exactly sent you guys." He wagged an accusing finger. "If you're from the university--or so help me, if Chuck McGraph put you up to this--I swear I'm throwing you all out of the truck right now."

"Nobody sent us!" Marle objected, as diplomatic as ever. "We came on our own. We just used the Gate Key."

Jerad twisted in a spasm--it looked like he was trying to mash the brakes again, only we were already stopped. It took him another second to compose himself. "You--what, you just... Who ARE you people??"

"We art... what thou may call time travelers," Frog said delicately. "Speak for yourselves, timefuckers," Mishu grunted indelicately.

Ryan timorously asked, "Can we see it...?"

Normally, I would love to show off. The Great Lucca's inventions are practically a work of art! But this was a little complicated. Marle passed me a permissive look that I quashed by grabbing her wrist and yanking her aside. "Could you excuse us for a second?"

Jerad gave us that second, willing or not. Once I had Marle out of earshot I whispered, "What are you doing??"

She shrugged. "What? We should be open with these guys so they'll trust us."

"I'm not so worried about them trusting us at this point! Didn't you hear? They know Ramezia! We shouldn't give ourselves away!"

"Why not?? They're just as innocent as we are!"

That was the most naive thing I'd ever heard. "We don't know that!"

"Exactly!" Marle stressed. "We don't know anything! But these guys do. Do they look like the kind of people who deal with Mystics?"

I flicked a glance at Ryan, who was trying to reach across the steering wheel and turn the ignition key himself. ("Oh com'on, let's just keep going. We're out of pocket lunches and I'm starving here!") "Wittingly? No, but..." My argument ran out. "Can we please be careful?"

"You handle it, then," she simply said, and stamped back to the middle of the truck. Was that a challenge? Crono shrugged at me, vaguely apologetic. What can you do?

What could we do, indeed...? I needed a minute to think. We weren't necessarily in trouble, yet. If Marle already trusted these two, then maybe...

I reclaimed my seat behind Jerad and began to negotiate through the window hatch. "Sorry. We've had a rough trip, and all we really want are some answers. If you could tell us whatever you can about Ramezia, we'd be happy to show you how we use the gates."

"You have a Gate Key," Jerad stated bluntly, giving the impression that he already knew exactly how. His voice contained an unsettling amount of awe.

I didn't miss the resentful look Magus was shooting me as I drew the key out of my bag and wagged it at Jerad. "Yep. Check it out."

The boys reached for it at once, like puppies snapping at a table scrap. I pulled it back just in time, baiting them. "And Ramezia...?"

"Uh..." Ryan fumbled, and Jerad picked up the slack. "Oh! Um, yeah..." After a thought, he pitched agreeably, "Well hey, if you're looking for Ramezia, we can arrange a meeting. I mean, if you guys want."

Wow. The Gate Key was starting to feel like a magic wand--not only did it have the power to open gates and make Magus shut the hell up, but it also made fellow nerds bend to my will. Ah, the possibilities...!

Ryan tossed him a baffled, "We can?"

Jerad returned with equal confidence, "Yeah I... think?"

I screwed up a frown. "You think?"

Jerad reluctantly admitted, "Well we... We've never actually met Ramezia."

"What?" I asked, incredulous. "And you're working with her? How is that possible?"

He shook his head and shrugged. "We've only met this guy, her contact. We don't even know his name or face. He just calls himself 'Lady Ramezia's representative'."

"Wait a second, so Ramezia is a woman?" Marle made the connection--that Ramezia was most likely the 'lady' that Mystic mentioned at the castle.

Ryan snorted. "Yeah, and she better be hot, for the way that guy bones after her."

"Geez, I know. I've never met anybody so creepy and weird." Jerad stole a flinching glance at Frog. "Uh... yeah. Anyway, Ramezia's our client. She contracted us to work on the gate."

"To work on it? So you weren't the ones who built it?"

Ryan gagged on a snicker, finding the notion ludicrous. Jerad explained, "Originally? Are you kidding? There's no way we're capable of anything like that. As far as we know, it was already there."

Of course--so Mishu's story on the gate shrines still checked out. Would that mean they were really created by aliens? Would that mean Ramezia was...?

"We just did the modifications, like she told us to," Jerad continued.

"Ramezia told you? What kind of modifications?"

"Uh, well, it's complicated--"

"Are you the fuckwits who put that extra ring on it?!" Mishu interjected, rising from her seat. Frog bent forward, staying her with an outstretched hand, and I couldn't hear what she grumbled as she sat back down.

Jerad shrank from the aggressive woman. "Er... yes? Among other things. We were called up for our expertise on temporal displacement using matter-to-energy diodes. We've been trying to build a device that can make a fourth vector quantum jump for years, now."

"A time machine," I inferred, unable to believe my ears. Were these guys for real?

Jerad recoiled, impressed--and then delighted. "Yes, precisely! Everyone at the university laughed at us because it was all theoretical, like science-fiction stuff, but Ramezia wanted us to put it to an actual test. So she gave us the directions and materials to take to this gate, and promised us the funds, and we just kind of... worked our way around it. We never actually tried the gate--I had no idea it even worked. I thought it was incomplete. That's why we haven't been paid yet, I figured." He shrugged, at a loss. "So, here we are."

"Yeah, at the bottom of Death-damn-Peak with no pocket lunches!" Ryan griped.

"We were going to work up there today, but the truck broke down and we had to turn around." Sensing that his part of the bargain had come full circle, Jerad started eyeing the Gate Key again. "Could we...?"

I relented, handing it over. Ryan snatched it up first, grubby fingers playing with the dials. "Whoa... Cool! Is this the real deal?"

Jerad stole it away and took his turn, admiring the key with almost reverent restraint. "An original...?" he breathed. He then pinned me with another look, all the hostility drained from his features and replaced with a hesitant eagerness that was almost charming. "So, um, what year did you come from, exactly?"

I shrugged. What was the harm anymore? "Well, we're all from different eras, really... But me and Marle and Crono, we're from the eleventh century."

Something about that keenly interested him. "Really?? So is there any chance, maybe..."

Ryan's head lolled back with an exasperated groan, as if he had heard this song a hundred times. "Jerad, come on, nobody cares..."

Jerad shoved him and then continued, "Is there any chance you know Dr. LEA?"

Who? What? The way he said it, my mind drew a blank. "No... Why? Who is that?"

"Is it someone related to Ramezia?" Marle wondered.

"Ramezia? Oh, no. Dr. LEA, he's a scientist from your time. He invented the Prometheus Circuit, which is still used in almost every robotic AI today."

I remembered something--a strange chip I had once found in Robo's circuitry while doing repairs (when I asked about it, Robo had a "memory read error.") Suffice to say, I was intrigued. "So he's famous, huh?"

Jerad elaborated with the enthusiasm of an avid student, "Not just for that. Dr. LEA left behind tons of research on all sorts of subjects, from astrophysics to ancient history to molecular chemistry--lots of it was revolutionary for its time. But the most interesting stuff--the stuff my team has been working with for years now--are his notes on subspace temporal distortions and dark matter, especially for matter-to-energy transfers. Some of it is really out of this world. It's that kinda stuff that Ramezia's interested in."

I nodded. "For your time machine."

Jerad was beaming with excitement. "Yes! So you are familiar with the doctor's work? That's what I thought when I saw this Gate Key. That's one of his inventions, you know?"

A shockwave ran through our group. Crono's expression almost exactly matched mine. Wait, what??

No it wa--wait. Yes. I got it. I got it, and I wasn't sure if I felt flattered or sick. Luckily Ayla didn't open her mouth, but I spied a contradiction on the tip of Marle's tongue and bolted forward to seize her hand, stopping her again. She asked Why? in a glance and I just shook my head.

Not yet. I had an idea. Almost? Sort of. But those two guys didn't need to know about it.

Meanwhile, Ryan kicked the dashboard impatiently. "Damnit man, are you gonna start the truck or are we gonna sit out here all day? I'm not gonna get to eat supper until tomorrow at this rate!"

"Okay, okay! Geez, cool it..." Jerad shook himself into gear, passing the Gate Key back to me and getting the truck rolling again. All conversation blurred out between the rain and the rumbling vehicle. Marle was still giving me that innocent, questioning look--perhaps a little annoyed. But hey, she told me to handle it, and I was doing just that.

Still... I couldn't help myself. I had to know for sure. I leaned over the hatch and enquired into the cab, "So, is that his actual name? Dr. LEA, I mean?"

"Oh. Well, that's the thing..." Jerad began with a note of disappointment. "All we have of his research is what was left in Guardia Castle's archives. Most of it was really thorough and well organized, but after the place burned a lot of it was lost."

"Burned?!" I squeaked. Thank the stars Marle didn't overhear that.

"Yeah, you know, the Fire of 1038?" He blanched, catching his faux pas. "Er, I guess I said too much. Anyway, turns out there aren't any surviving records on the doctor himself--you know, who he was, where he lived, when he died, stuff like that--nothing to make a definite link, anyway. I've heard there's a lost journal out there somewhere, but it's never been found. Anyway, we simply call him Dr. LEA because that's how he signed a lot of his manuscripts: L-E-A. We're not even sure he was an actual doctor; it's kind of a posthumous title."

That was... interesting. And disturbing. I clenched my travel pack, where my notebook was hidden, and swallowed a compulsion to pull it out and open it up--partly because the paper would get drenched in the rain, and partly because I already knew what I would find: the same thing I write in the bottom corner of all my note pages.

My initials, L.E.A.


Back to Esper Junction