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Authors: Mark Dunn

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Humorous Stories, #Science Fiction

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BOOK: The Age Altertron
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As Professor Johnson frequently liked to say: “There is always a price to pay
for science.”

In which the Professor’s theory is shared with Petey, the steel-head-plate
boy, and explained to the reader as well

n their way to school the next day, Rodney and Wayne found their young
friend Petey Ragsdale standing patiently next to his bicycle in his peach-pigmentdust-covered
driveway. (It would be many days before all of the pigment dust was shoveled and bagged and put into
the town dump.) The fact that Petey was waiting for Rodney and Wayne was nothing out of the ordinary,
for almost every morning Petey joined the twins for the second half of their ride to school. Petey
was only eleven and wished that he were older so he could grow a few inches taller and be the same
size as his friends. Then other children would not make such fun of him (he was quite short, even
for his age), and would not make equal fun out of the fact that one side of his head was covered
with a large steel plate. The plate had been put there when Petey was eight and had had brain surgery.
The surgery had been successful and the doctor had said that Petey should expect a very long and healthy
life, but he should be careful when he turned his head in the bright sun or the reflection from the shiny skull
plate would get in people’s eyes and possibly cause a traffic accident.

Rodney and Wayne never made fun of Petey. They did not care that he was short
or had a shiny steel plate in his head (which he usually kept covered with a
baseball cap). They did not even mind that he walked around with a Cub Scout
backpack so filled up with books and school supplies that it looked as if he
were about to take a two-week hike. So the three boys became good friends, although
it was sometimes hard for Petey to keep up with the twins. They generally ran
faster and peddled faster and even talked faster than Petey, who was a bright
boy, but had lost the part of his brain that understood the letter “
This meant that words that had the letter “
” in them looked or sounded
foreign to Petey, and would have to be replaced by other “
”-less words—not
a big problem but sometimes a small inconvenience.

There was something very comfortable and familiar about the way that Petey
waited for the twins every morning, and this morning was no exception. But this
particular morning there was something different about Petey. He was holding
a large object in his hands. As the boys drew closer on their bikes they could
see that it was, in fact, a round cake, covered with peach-colored frosting.

Petey smiled. “This is from my mother. To thank you for saving the town from
the invasion of the peach color.”
“Petey—” said Rodney. “We can’t take that cake to school with us, and there
isn’t time to get it back home. You’ll have to return it to your mother and
tell her that we’ll be by for it after school.”
“Okay,” said Petey. “Wait for me.”
Rodney and Wayne nodded.
While the two were waiting for Petey to come back out without the cake, a car
slowed down and then stopped. It was a brand new aqua-colored Buick super sedan
with white-wall tires, and it belonged to the father of Rodney and Wayne’s friend
and classmate Becky Craft. Becky sat on the passenger side of the front seat.
She was waving at the boys even before she had fully rolled down her window.
Becky had straight dark brown hair and a round face, bright blue eyes and a
button nose, and it was hard for Rodney and Wayne not to smile at her, when
she smiled at
Becky was—generally speaking—a happy girl, though
she had lost her mother at the very same time that Rodney and Wayne had lost
their father. Mrs. Craft had been the town librarian, and she had been very
good at her job. After she disappeared upon that fateful night when Rodney and
Wayne’s father and Professor Johnson’s assistant had disappeared, the library
was turned over to Mrs. Craft’s volunteer helper Miss Joyner, who did not have
the skills to be a good librarian. For example, Miss Joyner decided that it
would be better to group all the books on the library shelves by the colors
of their covers and spines. Conversations with Miss Joyner at the library usually
went something like this:
“Good afternoon, Miss Joyner. I have to write about wool in my social studies
class. Would you tell me where I could find a good book on wool? Or a good book
on sheep or goats—the animals that give us wool?”
Miss Joyner would think for a moment and drum her fingers on her lips as if
she were playing a musical instrument with them, and then she would smile and
nod and say, “I have seen a book on natural animal fibers in the blue section.
That’s where you’ll find it!”
And generally it would take the remainder of the day for the person to look
at all the books with blue covers for one that was about wool and flax and other
natural fibers. It would not be wrong to say that most library visitors greatly
missed Mrs. Craft and her respect for the card catalogue.
“You have done it again!” said Becky to the boys. “You and the Professor have
saved the town from another disastrous calamity.”
“Yes, thank you, boys!” added Mr. Craft from behind the wheel of his new Buick.
Mr. Craft had to tilt his head in a funny way to look at the boys through Becky’s
window. “I was worried that I would have a very hard time selling any of the
appliances at my store. People want white refrigerators and white ovens. They
don’t want peach-colored ones. Which is why I am greatly indebted to you and
Professor Johnson for keeping me in business.”
Mr. Craft owned the largest appliance store in Pitcherville. The appliance business
had been good to him and allowed him to buy a new car every year and to put
his only daughter into nice clothes. It was sad not having Mrs. Craft around,
but she was replaced by a gardener and a maid and a cook with the name of Smitty
(though she was a woman).
“And to show my appreciation for what you have done, I have asked Smitty to
bake you a cake. It is in the back seat, if you’ll open that door and take it
Rodney looked at Wayne and Wayne looked at Rodney and neither knew what to say,
for Mr. Craft wasn’t Petey and could not be spoken to so frankly. Luckily, Becky
came to her friends’ rescue: “Oh Daddy! Do you really expect Rodney and Wayne
to be able to take the cake
! For goodness sake! We’ll give it to
them later.”
Mr. Craft smiled and shrugged. “You boys better hurry on to school or you’ll
be late.”
“See you in class!” chirped Becky, as the Buick drove away.
“What did I miss? What did I miss?” cried Petey. He had just come out of his
house and was now running down his front walkway. Petey was always arriving
after something had already happened or was just finishing up.
“Mr. Craft’s cook Smitty made a cake for us,” said Wayne. “Aunt Mildred is going
to laugh when she hears that we now have two cakes on the way! That’s three
cakes in all, when you add the one that she’s baking us herself!”
Petey climbed upon his bicycle, which, because he could not think about any
words that had a “
” in them, he called his “Schwinn cruiser.”
The three boys rode to school together on their Schwinn cruisers, Rodney wondering
how in the world they were going to eat three whole cakes, and Wayne thinking
about how lucky he was to have three whole cakes to eat.
At school, as they were rolling their bikes into the bike rack, Petey said,
“My mother wanted me to ask you something.”
“What is it, Petey?” asked Rodney.
“She wants to know if the Professor has told you how long these calamities are
going to keep happening to the town. She said she doesn’t trust the articles
in the paper that say they come from sunspots. My mom is a nervous woman, and
it makes her even more nervous not knowing what tomorrow has in store for us.”
Rodney and Wayne both recalled the conversation they had had with Professor
Johnson when the sixth in the long series of troubling events had occurred.
This was the time that everything mechanical and electrical in the town began
to run backward. Clocks ran backward and cars ran only in reverse, and the boys
could not get their bike wheels to go forward no matter what they did. (Mr.
Dean, the editor of the town paper, the
Pitcherville Press
, had written
an article—the latest in a long series of articles—which had repeated his belief
that the mechanical and electrical problems that the town was experiencing were—like
all the other calamities —caused by sunspots. Unfortunately, the very odd, bug-eyed
and frizzy-haired editor could not get his printing press handle to turn in
a forward direction; so he was left to stand at the window of his upstairs office
at the
Pitcherville Press
, and shout the word “sunspots” at all the people
who passed below as another means to get across his minority opinion.)
As Professor Johnson was working with Rodney and Wayne to build a Chrono-Gyro-Restorifier
to correct the problem, he offered the finer points of his theory: “Pitcherville,
you see, is an ordinary town that has apparently been picked to undergo a series
of most extraordinary permutations. Hand me that number seven wrench, please.
Do you boys know what the word ‘permutation’ means?”
“Changes,” said Rodney.
“That’s right. Different, um,
transmogrified realities
“’Transmogrified’—now what does
mean?” asked Wayne, looking in the
toolbox for the right wrench.
“Well, it means changed but in a most bizarre way.”
Wayne laughed. “Gee, that would be Pitcherville all right!” He handed the Professor
the wrench he needed. “But why do you think that is, Professor?”
“Well, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering our situation. Why have we been singled
out for such recurring calamities? Why, every few days, do the laws of science
and nature stop applying to the town of Pitcherville? Why do things happen that
are sometimes funny like everything being the color of lemons, and sometimes
scary like the time that the town found itself entirely under water— like the
lost ocean city of Atlantis—and all the electrical appliances shorted out? Why
is this?”
“And what have you concluded, Professor?” asked Rodney, holding a bolt in place
so that the Professor could put in the screw that it required.
“Here is my theory—and it is
a theory. The day that your father
disappeared—that same day that Mrs. Craft and my assistant Ivan and two of the
other professors from my college all disappeared —that was the day that the
experiments began.”
“Experiments?” the twins asked together in one curious voice.
Professor Johnson nodded. “You see, I believe that Pitcherville has become a
laboratory of some sort. Just like this laboratory in which we’re now working—just
like my other laboratory at the college. But instead of being a place of beakers
and Bunsen burners and vacuum tubes and electrical circuitry, it is a laboratory
of houses and streets and trees and people. Of dogs and cats and cars and swing
sets and tree houses and go-karts and television sets and electric razors and
toasters and flower gardens and everything else that marks the lives of average
Americans in this modern year of 1956. I believe, boys, that there is a force
out there—the same force that took your father (for I cannot believe that the
two things are not related)—which is responsible for these experiments. They—whoever
they are—want to see how we react to each new situation.”
“Like they want to know,” said Rodney, “if we can live in a world in which everything
that was once hard and solid has become like Jell-O and everything that was
once soft and squishy has become hard and solid.”
“Or if we can live in a world with millions of bubbles,” added Wayne. “Or in
a world where people speak in numbers instead of words. Isn’t that right, Professor?”
“Right on the money, Wayne.”
(Wayne smiled. He had been right on the money!)
“Of course those who are conducting these experiments, boys— they probably never
realized that they would have Professor Johnson and Rodney and Wayne McCall
to contend with. For every time a new experiment has been put into place, there
we are—like flies in their ointment—busy at work on a new machine that will
end the experiment and put things right back to normal!”
“Oh, I’ll bet they’re not happy about that at all!” laughed Wayne a little raucously.
“And who cares!”
Rodney and the Professor could not help laughing along with Wayne. “Hand me
those pliers, Wayne,” said Professor Johnson with a chuckle.
Rodney’s gaze now went to one corner of the laboratory where the Professor had
been constructing a different machine. “How is the Force Field-De-Ionizer coming
along?” he asked.
“Not as well as I would like. It is a most difficult thing to learn the make-up
of a force field when it is invisible. And without a proper chemical analysis
of the molecular structure of the field itself, I cannot hope to build a machine
to remove it.”
“And you believe,” said Wayne, “that the force field, which keeps us from leaving
Pitcherville, was put up by the same people who are doing the experiments on
this town?”
“I do, Wayne. What better way to keep the guinea pigs of these experiments–
escaping from our town-sized cage! Yet I am hopeful that it will only be a matter
of time before I am able to solve the riddle of the force field. For is it not
turned on and off at times and in certain places to send the radio and television
signals on to us? Or to place the things we need to survive upon the shelves
of the town warehouse? Say, Wayne, what makes you think that it is
who are conducting these experiments?”
“Who else
it be?” asked Wayne, his eyes rolled upward in thought.
“It couldn’t be horses or—or elephants—or Venus Fly Traps doing this to us.”
(Wayne was fascinated with Venus Fly Traps and all other plants that had the
ability to take revenge upon members of the Animal Kingdom, and so he sought
whenever possible to bring a Venus Fly Trap into a conversation no matter how
very much it did
have to do with Venus Fly Traps!)
“Did you ever stop to think that perhaps our experimenters might not be earthly
at all!” posed the Professor.
“You mean that they could be Martians?” asked Wayne.
“Or maybe beings from some planet we’ve never even heard of before!” marveled
“I have no idea who it could be. Perhaps we should start to gather the clues
that will someday give us that answer. What, for example, do we know of our
situation here besides the fact that we are subjected to these periodic calamities?”
Rodney thought for a moment and then said, “That we are cut off from the rest
of the world.”
The Professor nodded.
“And that we cannot send letters or make telephone calls to anyone who lives
outside of Pitcherville,” continued Rodney.
“And nobody calls
,” sighed Wayne, “or sends
letters. Or
birthday cards. Or Christmas cards or
Rodney nodded and brought forth a sigh of his own. He was thinking of how much
he missed his father and how the force field kept him from going to look for
him. But it was not just their father whom the twin brothers missed; they also
missed having a mother around—for Mrs. McCall had died when they were born.
They missed all of their relatives who lived outside of Pitcherville whom they
wondered if they would ever see again: Grandpa and Grandma McCall (who was the
sister of their Great Aunt Mildred) and their Uncle Doug, who was a traveling
magician, and even their father’s friend Trixie, who was a dancer and would
sometimes come to town and laugh too loud and get on Aunt Mildred’s nerves.
There were a lot of people whom Rodney and Wayne missed seeing and whom they
would miss even more if they were destined to live the rest of their lives trapped
in Pitcherville.
And there it sat: the Force Field-De-Ionizer all in pieces, because the Professor
had little clue as to how he should put it all together in such a way as to
do the town some good and remove its invisible fence forever.
“So that’s the Professor’s theory, Petey,” said Rodney, summing things up. “And
he could be wrong, but it sounds like as good a theory as any other that I’ve
Petey agreed, and said that his mother would be glad to hear it. It would be
good for him to give her a possible reason behind all the Troubles—to give her
some theory that had nothing to do with sunspots (which few people believed
anyway). But Petey said this using only words that did not contain a “b.”
“Of course there is one other thing that Mom wants to know,” said Petey. “She’d
like to know when the next experiment is going to happen. She said she wasn’t
very prepared last time, and doesn’t want that to happen again.”

BOOK: The Age Altertron
3.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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