Everyone squinted and blinked as their eyes adjusted. A second later, they stood in awed silence. Just outside the cave was a pastel wasteland that extended in all directions; there were no mountains, no water, and no signs of any life. The flat rocks that littered the landscape shimmered with a tie-dye pattern of purple, pink, light blue, and orange. Three tired-looking suns hung in the sky, radiating the painted desert with their searing heat. Beneath their rays, the land was spectacularly desolate and spectacularly beautiful.
Libby gazed out at the landscape in wonder. “Wow…this place is unbelievable. I’ve never seen anythin’ like it...not even on an album cover!”
“Libby,” said Sheen, gazing at her dreamily, “in this light, you look just like a watercolor painting.”
“Aww, that’s...actually kinda sweet. I take back what I said about standing ten feet away from me.”
Cindy, eyeing her friend in annoyance, interjected. “Ya, it's a watercolor painting all right...minus one thing: the WATER. We're in a desert, in case that slipped your mind.”
Jimmy began pushing buttons on his wristwatch. “Cindy’s right. The scenery may look beautiful, but without clean water we’re all in serious danger. I’ll try to figure out a way to get off this planet (if that is what it is), but in the meantime we should survey the area and try to locate a source of sustenance. If we're unable to secure what we need, we'll return here.”
Cindy nodded agreement. “Good idea. Should we split up, or…”
“No, we should stick together,” he said, closing the panel on his watch. “We have absolutely no idea what kind of stuff we’ll find here. This alternate universe could be practically identical to ours, or it could be vastly different. We can’t take any chances.”
“Jimmy,” panted Carl, fanning himself, “I'm already starting to overheat. Is there any way we can bring some shade with us?”
“Sure thing, Carl. Goddard, umbrella please!”
Goddard’s back panel opened, and a gloved hand produced a parasol decorated with ruffles and pink ribbons. Jimmy eyed it disdainfully as he handed it to his friend.
“Here you go.”
“Hey, that’s girly!” protested Carl, growing redder by the second. “I don’t want that!”
“Sorry, Carl. That umbrella was part of Goddard’s emergency “cute girl stuck in the rain” protocol.”
Cindy scowled at him. “Hey, NERDtron, can’t you use Goddard to scan for water or life forms on the planet’s surface? If we’re gonna go wandering around this wasteland, I’d like to know what kind of things we’re going to run into.”
“I can try…but I’m not sure if the life forms in this universe would even be recognizable to his scanners. Oh well, I guess it’s worth a shot. Goddard, scan for carbon-based life!”
A radar screen appeared on Goddard’s chest, and a moment later two red dots started to flicker in the upper left hand corner.
Jimmy’s eyes grew wide. “I don’t believe it! Two humanoid life forms within walking distance!”
“Wow, cool!” exclaimed Sheen. “What are the chances of that?!”
“709,564,876,398,000 to 1, actually.”
“AAAH, BIG number! My brain!”
“It was rhetorical question darn it! I didn’t really want to know!”
Jimmy scratched his arm in embarrassment. “Oh. Sorry.”
“So, what are we gonna do?” Libby’s tone was uncertain. “Should we try to make contact with them?”
Carl shifted uneasily, twirling his umbrella. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea. What if they’re ferocious cannibals and they’ve been lying in wait so they can cook us? I don’t want to get eaten! I don’t even taste good!”
Jimmy planted a hand on his hip. “Carl, get a hold of yourself. Even if they were cannibals, there’s five of us and only two of them. We’d be able to overpower them if necessary.”
“So…we’re gonna go?” asked Libby, looking from one to the other for an answer.
Jimmy shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Who knows? Maybe they’ll be able to help us. We certainly need any help we can get at this point.”
Cindy blew a strand of hair out of her eye. “Well, I don’t know what we’re waiting for. Let’s get on with it.”
“Right!” said Sheen, vaulting in front of the others. “OK everybody: To Oz! Follow the yellow brick…follow the yellow brick…follow the yellow brick road…!”
He skipped off, singing in his off-key voice, while the rest of the kids stared after him. After a minute, Sheen caught on and whirled around.
“C’mon guys, what’s the matter with you? Pick up the pace!”
“Uh, Sheen?” said Jimmy, pointing in the opposite direction, “The humanoid life forms are THAT way.”
“Oh.’ Sheen blinked, then almost immediately recommenced his animated serenade. “OK everyone, to the LEFT! Follow the yellow brick…follow the yellow brick…c’mon people I can’t hear you!”
Jimmy shook his head, and they followed Sheen as he sang and skipped into the distance. As they headed deeper into the desert, the largest of the three suns moved higher into the sky. Cascades of orange light baked the arid terrain and sent waves of heat rippling across the sand like liquid. The atmosphere grew hotter and hotter, until the kids’ breathing gave way to strangled gasps. The more their lungs dragged in the parched air, the more their pace began to slow, until each step seemed to take an eternity.
“It’s…so….hot…” panted Libby, dragging her limbs listlessly behind her.
Jimmy wiped sweat off his forehead, and then shaded his eyes to look up at the sky. “I know Libby. But according to my calculations, it won’t last much longer. Sunset should occur in approximately 1 minute and 37 seconds.”
The kids stared at the horizon in anticipation, waiting for the smallest of the three suns to finally dip out of sight.
“Oh thank Ultralord,” exulted Sheen, swooning, “there’s only two left! Now we won’t perish under these cruel desert suns!”
As soon as the words left his mouth, another MUCH bigger star rose above the horizon, bombarding the landscape with its screaming, blinding glare.
Sheen threw his hands in the air. “Aw, man! Now that’s just not fair!”
The kids continued on beneath the mocking star, and it didn’t take long before the desert temperatures became overwhelming. Their walk slowed to an exhausted shuffle, and at last they stopped altogether and flung themselves into the partial shade of a blue and pink boulder.
“Need…need inhaler!” wheezed Carl, before lapsing into a coughing fit. He threw aside the umbrella and slumped down against the rock.
Libby held her face in her hands. “Oh, this is awful! My poor skin can’t take this kind of abuse!”
“YOUR poor skin?” said Cindy. “What about me? I’m gonna have a killer sunburn tomorrow.”
Jimmy sent a frown her way. “I hate to break this to you Vortex, but your epidermis is the least of our worries right now. Humans can only go 96 hours without water, and in this kind of heat, we have even less time. We can’t stay here; we need to keep moving.”
Sheen pulled himself closer to the rock, hugging its pitted surface. “I don’t want to go. Leave me alone.”
“C’mon guys,” Jimmy pleaded, “just a little longer…Goddard’s scan shows that the life forms are only a mile or so away. We can do it!”
Carl panted, eyes glazed and distant. “A WHOLE mile? Jimmy. I can’t go on like this. Too hot….”
“Maybe we could just stay here for a little bit longer…” said Libby.
Jimmy jumped to his feet. “No! We need to make contact with these beings as soon as possible. They’re carbon based like us, which means they have to have water in order to survive. We’ll be able to get some from them. Now, GET UP! We need to get to them before they leave!”
Cindy and Libby reluctantly obeyed, but the boys refused to budge. They lay against each other, blurred like mirages in the intense heat.
“Just leave me behind…” wheezed Carl, ribcage heaving.
Sheen jerked his thumb lazily over his shoulder in Carl’s direction. “Ya, just leave him behind. He’s making shade, and I want it.”
Jimmy did not look amused. “Come on, guys!”
Carl fanned himself absently, and Sheen looked off into the distance, pretending not to listen.
“Hey, I’m talking to you! Hello…Carl? Sheen!”
Cindy strolled up beside him. “Step aside Neutron. You just gotta show them who’s boss, that’s all. Watch and learn.”
She pushed Carl aside, and then kicked over the boulder that they were sitting under. It rolled away in a maelstrom of dust and rock fragments, before finally tumbling down a gully and out of sight. They stared at it in disbelief, and after the initial dumbstruck moment, Sheen jumped up and grabbed Cindy by the shoulders.
“You sick wench! Look what you’ve done! Now we have NO shade!”
Cindy made a fist. “You’re gonna have no TEETH if you don’t get a move on! Now let’s go!”
Carl struggled to stand up, and Jimmy extended a hand to help his friend. Carl left the parasol where it lay, and he and Sheen sent Cindy a killer glare before heading off at a snail’s pace.
“She-devil,” muttered Sheen, casting her a backwards glance from narrowed eyes.
“I heard that! I hope you run faster than you think, ultraloser!”
She darted forward after them, and the two boys squealed and took off running.
“That’s right! Run, boys, run!” she dusted off her hands in satisfaction and turned to Jimmy. “See, Neutron? All it takes is a little motivational speaking.”
She sauntered off with a big grin plastered on her face, and he stared after her, a bit glazed in the eyes.
“Hey Cindy! Wait!”
He ran to catch up, and Libby slapped herself on the forehead. “Oh, boy. Here we go.”
Cindy turned and gave him a melting smile. “So Neutron,” she began, playing with a lock of her hair, “what kinds of things do you think we’ll find in this alternate universe?”
Jimmy snapped out of his trance-like stare session to produce an answer. “Oh…uh, it’s hard to tell, really. It could be almost identical to ours, or it could be radically different. Obviously, whatever we find will be about 10 to 11 years ahead of our universe because of the time dilation. Other than that, there’s no way of telling unless we find some more information.”
“So, um…what planet is this? Could it be Earth?”
“Well, I guess, but it’s highly unlikely. After all, we only have one sun, and this planet has multiple suns.”
“True…” she said.
Jimmy started to say something else, but was cut short when Sheen and Carl forced themselves between him and Cindy.
“Somehow I don’t think running was such a good idea…” moaned Carl, red in the face and sweating profusely.
“Whew! What a workout!” whistled Sheen. “So Cindy, are you feeling less evil now?”
Cindy glared at them, and Carl gave a screech and sped away again. Sheen, however, hung back and approached Libby.
“May I join you, oh glorious one?” he asked, bowing deeply.
“Sure,” she replied, before leveling a no-nonsense look at him. “And Sheen…don’t call me that.”
He fell into step beside Libby, and the pair walked on together behind Cindy and Jimmy. The latter avoided one another’s gaze, until at the exact same moment they both glanced back and saw Sheen and Libby elbowing each other flirtatiously. They blushed and looked away. Jimmy’s arm brushed up against Cindy’s, and they both froze in their tracks. There was a breathless moment as they lifted their gazes and their eyes met.
“Hey, what the…?” Libby nearly crashed into the frozen couple. “Guys, move! Hello? Earth ta Cindy! Anyone there?”
Cindy and Jimmy stayed right where they were.
“Listen,” breathed Libby impatiently, “I know you guys are havin’ a 'moment' here, but can we get on with it?”
With these words, Jimmy and Cindy finally snapped out of it.
“W-what?" he stammered. "We’re not having a moment! It’s just that I noticed…err…a blemish on Cindy’s face!”
“What?” she spat, backing up a step. “Ugh, you conceited jerk! I wouldn’t be talking if I were you. Your whole head is a blemish!”
“NAH NAH NAH!”
“You see, Libby?” she cried, whirling around. “I told you he was a jerk! And we were NOT having a 'moment'. Got it?”
Cindy and Jimmy both looked to Libby for confirmation.
Libby sighed. “You know what? Fine. You weren’t havin’ a moment. You hate each other and always will. Can we go now?”
“That’s right!” shouted Jimmy, turning his back to Cindy.
“And don’t you ever forget it!” she added.
The two of them stormed off, and Libby shook her head.
“Oh, Sheen,” she murmured, “it’s so frustratin’, seein' 'em rip each other apart like that. You know what I’m sayin’?”
“Huh?” said Sheen, looking up from the scab he had been picking. “What?”
“Oh, never mind. Let’s go.”
Fortunately for the group, Cindy and Jimmy's sulking session was cut short. Shading his eyes, Carl pointed ahead.
“Um, Jim…I think I see something over there.”
Sheen swept his hand to his forehead and swooned. “Oh God, the mirages are closing in! Don’t trust your eyes Carl! They will betray you!”
“Stop bein’ so dramatic, Sheen. I see it too.” Libby pointed to a group of large pink and purple boulders ahead of them. “There’s somethin’ movin’ in there. I…I think it’s human, but I can’t tell.”
Sheen perked up. “Is it a girl? I hope she has three eyes!”
“Sheen, get a life.”
“I already have a life! In fact, I have three lives. They're pretty cheap on eBay.”
Libby and Cindy smacked their foreheads in unison, and Jimmy gestured at the circle of boulders.
“Guys, keep it down. We should be quiet and tactful about this. We don’t want to frighten the life form. So let’s just…”
The gang practically jumped out of their skin a second later when a bolt of laser fire crackled past them. Carl threw his hands in the air.
“AHHHH! We’re under attack!”
Sheen flung himself away from the others. “Every boy, girl, and irresistibly attractive Mexican man for themselves!”
“No, stop!” shouted Jimmy, arms outstretched. “Everyone stay together until we identify the source of the shots! Now I can triangulate their trajectory if…”
“Hey!” interrupted Cindy. “Where'd the alien go?”
Another blast ricocheted past them, and the kids ducked behind a craggy rock.
Libby glanced over her shoulder in the direction of their mysterious enemy. “Whoever this person is, they sure mean business.”
“We can’t just sit here,” said Cindy. “We should go out face them head on.”
Jimmy nodded. “I agree. OK, on the count of three, we’ll make a break for those big boulders to the left. Goddard, set your laser to stun, boy.”
“Bark, grr, bark!”
He took a deep breath.
(Thanks to Flank
from Lithuania for the awesome 3-D illustration!)