Sunday, November 6, 2011
Genre: Middle Grade sci-fi
Near the salt mines of Altaussee, Austria
The navigator’s breath condensed in faint puffs illuminated by dim moonlight. Brambles and tree branches tore at his face and clothes as he stumbled over the uneven ground of the dark forest. The stitch in his side cut into his gut.
He hazarded one quick glance over his shoulder. Shards of light flickered through the trees about 50 meters behind him. They were closing in, and they were confident, even brazen, to be using lights. He took a ragged gasp of air into his starved lungs and veered to the right through a thick clump of dark bushes. For a split second his brain wondered why the ground seemed blacker than it had a moment before, and then he knew, too late to do more than attempt a weak swerve to the left before the small rocks at the edge of a ravine rolled away under his feet. He plunged over the edge and pitched into the void below. Sudden impact with the ground knocked the air out of him, and rocks and underbrush scraped across his hands and face as he half slid, half rolled down the stony incline, coming to rest at the bottom with a sickening crunch of bone. It was his ankle.
The navigator pushed against the bracken on the forest floor with his hands. He toppled and gasped as pain shot up his leg. The night sky spun above him while he swallowed against the metallic taste on his tongue, fighting for consciousness.
Even in the darkness he could tell there was no way back up the way he had come. In a moment they would be above him, and if his ankle was really broken, he was well and truly trapped. He felt for the small case in his jacket pocket and fumbled to open it. His fingers traced the face of the unusual pocket watch, checking for breaks or dents in the cold metal, but there were none. It's faint ticking reassured him.
Light dribbled through the heavy undergrowth above but was suddenly extinguished. The navigator inched backwards against the rough trunk of a massive tree, biting his lip against the pain as his ankle flopped weakly to one side. Even in the cold night air, beads of perspiration popped out on his forehead as pain radiated through his body. He hoped he was mostly hidden, but his leg jutted out at an awkward angle. He brushed leaves and sticks over it with his hands. A hard bump protruding from the tree jabbed him in the back. As he explored it, he realized that just below it was a fist-sized hole, just large enough for his precious cargo.
Silence for a moment, then low men’s voices filtered down through the night air. With his heart thundering in his ears, the navigator took slow deep breaths in an effort to quiet his breathing.
“Do you think he's down there?”
“Maybe. I don’t hear anything.”
“Someone will have to go down. Quickly.”
More low conversation that he couldn’t make out. Finally, “I’ll go.”
There was a rustling and a few rocks clattered down. The navigator shrank back. Would they kill him or just leave him here, stranded in 1945?
“Halt!” A harsh German voice rang out from the opposite side of the ravine.
There was silence as the climber above him stopped, followed by a wild scrambling over rocks and brush. A burst of gunfire erupted from the rim of the ravine and was answered from the other side by the Germans.
“So much for preserving the timeline,” the navigator mumbled, hunching down and covering his head.
The gunfire became one-sided from the Germans.
The navigator shoved the small box deep into the knothole of the tree. Better that it be lost forever than for Hitler’s soldiers to find it.
“Don’t shoot!” he yelled in French. “I’ve fallen into the ravine! I’m hurt!”
It was really the hat’s fault.
In middle school, the eighth graders are at the top of the food chain. Seventh graders are at the bottom. New kids start at the bottom, but work their way up by being stooges to eighth graders or by being exceptionally cool in some desirable way. Being a seventh grader, I tried to avoid the food chain altogether by being invisible. I wasn’t good or bad at anything. I was just in the middle, flying under the radar.
Buzz Murphy, the new kid who had dazzled Kentmore Junior High, didn’t start at the bottom of anything and was in the middle of everything. Practically a year ahead in school and rumored to be good at every sport known to man, Buzz annoyed me. This is why, when I looked up from my lunch in the school cafeteria on Thursday, I was irritated to realize I was sitting at an empty table. My best friend Spencer, another invisible, had deserted me to hover at the edge of Buzz’s newly-formed crowd a couple of tables away. My eyes narrowed. Buzz was wearing a faded, green, standard issue army hat pulled down over brown curly hair.
I hated the hat.
Like a moth to the flame, I stood up and walked to the table of admirers, arriving just in time to hear the end of Buzz’s favorite spiel , “—and someday I’ll be flying a helicopters for the army.”
Yada, yada, yada. Like we cared.
Ronald Rosenstein’s eyes bugged out behind his glasses. “Wow! That would be so cool.”
I was not impressed, and I wanted to shake every one of them and say, “This is a normal kid, just like us, only with a bigger mouth and imagination.” What was wrong with these guys?
Silence fell over the room. Buzz’s face flushed red.
“What did you say?”
Had I said something? I didn’t think so.
Buzz rose on the opposite side of the lunch table, towering a good three inches below me. Every kid in a ten foot radius took a step back. Not me, of course. I was staring at the army hat. It had me in its clutches. I almost felt brave.
“Uh—” I began.
Buzz launched herself over the table end and slammed into me with a force that propelled me into Nelson Ribicki and his lunch tray of spaghetti. My head grazed a table leg as we went down under a cafeteria table, sliding through pasta and sauce. Kids scrambled to get out of the way. Boys yelled and girls shrieked. Someone shouted, “Food fight!”
We rolled to the side, and Buzz’s hat fell off. A large red glob of spaghetti sauce dripped off the edge of the table and landed where it had been a moment before. Without the weird power of the hat fogging my brain, it cleared a little.
“Here comes Mrs. Temple!”
I pushed Buzz away and scrambled to my feet, pulling spaghetti off my shirt. Mrs. Temple was the lunchroom mom, and she didn’t put up with anything. I had witnesses, though. I hadn’t done anything except talk.
As I scraped pasta off my shirt, someone yelled, “Duck!"
Instead, I looked up. Just in time to catch Buzz’s fist with my left eye.
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