My original science fiction story. First published as a flash fiction contest entry submitted to Anotherealm.com for the contest running April-May 2005. Copyright remains soley with me.

Once Upon a Timeline

© 2005 Deron E. Meranda

Lino slipped on the path near Fletcher Turn where water had been dripping. He sometimes took this shortcut through the caverns, but never in such a rush. Jump, duck, left, and then jump.

The door slammed behind him as he ran to the far side of his den. He held aside a painted canvas revealing a small nook in the rock face. Gently, he lifted out the polished box and placed it on his desk. His finger gracefully traced the burlwood trim, and although he had no idea what burlwood was or where it came from, he loved its swirly unpredictable patterns. Nothing like the orderly fusion chambers.

“It's me,” called a muffled voice through the door.

Lino crouched down and peeked under the door. There was no mistaking Celestina's pink laces.

“Hurry,” he said grabbing her arm, “get in.” After checking outside he closed the door. “Did you get it?”

“Easy sneezy. They're busy on something,” she said, pushing her skinny hand deep into a pocket. “Didn't pay me no tention.”

Lino heard rumbling machinery through the rock and the echoes of distant alarms. The builders were definitely up to something. He stood over Celestina as she produced all manner of small trinkets, her mouth twisted. Even her small hands had grown too large for the pocket. Finally, she proffered a wadded ball of brown paper. Lino began disentangling it from the blue string whose other end remained pocketed.

“Got daddy's diebox out,” she said.

“It's a dialbox, and it's mine now,” he said. “Been winding it every three days, eight turns just like he showed me.” Lino grinned as he read the stamped paper.

“What's it say?”

Lino turned the box and removed the back, exposing many shiny circles and curly metal ribbons. A couple pieces were flipping back and forth.

“What's it say?”

“Just numbers Cel, you wouldn't understand.”

Footsteps slapped the corridor outside, then disappeared as fast as they came. Lino looked down at his sister's pouting face.

“Okay,” he said, resting his hand on her shoulder, “come closer and look at this.” He pointed to one of the wheels. “See the scratch on this one? And this one here, and here?”

It was a curious contraption indeed. Its purpose seemed no more than to move ridiculously slow; rotating needles on the front above marked circles. The ratios were strange: sixty, sixty, twelve. The fastest clicked in nearly perfect seconds, but the 43,200 seconds it took the slower made no sense. About two-thirds of a day. But inside were a series of what his dad called calibration rings, and the scratches were now making sense.

The room shook momentarily. The door seemed ever thinner; or the commotion down in the atrium was louder. All sorts of new mechanical noises were singing through the caverns. Celestina clung to her brother now, but all Lino did was adjust little screws into positions dictated by the crumpled paper.

“What's happening?” asked Celestina.

He shrugged. “Probably an alien invasion.” The last screw was now in position. “Great glowworms! They all line up.”

“Are they hungry?”

“I don't have anything,” said Lino. “It's been counting down all along, just to now. I figured it out.”

“Forgets the dawlbox,” yelled Celestina. “I'm scared.”

Lino was now aware of the uncomfortably tight hug his sister had around him. “There's no aliens Cel, I just made 'em up. I'm sorry.” He tried to explain to her that the radio transmissions were likely from some ancient probe. But still, why was it transmitting the same signal over and over—the one stamped on the paper which made all the scratches align? And what was all the ruckus out there?

The blood left Lino's face as he thought about the situation outside. Maybe some of the things he overheard the builders saying were true, maybe visitors were coming. Maybe the dialbox, with its strange burlwood and nonsense markings, belonged to them. And they wanted it back.

He heard more footsteps. These were slower, a walking pace. Then they stopped. They didn't diminish or faint away, but just stopped. Lino and Celestina froze.

“In here,” said a deep voice. “It's in here.”

Tears were dripping down Celestina's face and Lino was hugging her as much as she was him. “Just hold still,” whispered Lino. “Maybe they'll take their box and leave us alone.”

“Lino, are you in there darling?”

He couldn't believe it. It sounded just like Mother. He wanted to run to the door, but then thought better. Everyone knows aliens can impersonate human voices.

The door swung open. It was their mother. Behind her stood three strange humanoids in silver clothes. Celestina leaped up and into Mother's arms.

One of the male-looking aliens approached. “You must be Lino,” it said, “your mom's said great things about you.”

Lino was surprised that he could understand the beings. He remained silent.

“Say hello to the Captain, dear,” said Mother.

“I see,” said the Captain, eyeing the dialbox, “you have my old clock. Taken good care of it I presume.”

“Take it,” screamed Lino, “just don't hurt me or Cel.”

The Captain laughed, then kneeled down to the boy. “You don't know who we are, do you?” Lino just stared. “I'm Captain Geoff Chadhill, your great grandfather.”

Lino was understandably confused, the man in silver looked even younger than his dad. But his name was familiar, as were his warm comforting eyes.

After all fears of aliens had disappeared the Captain and Lino sat for hours, discussing the dialbox, or clock, and Lino's discovery. The 8000-crew spacecraft had left a small team on this asteroid over a hundred years ago: to excavate a city and to fabricate replacement magnetic fusion bottles for the dying ship. They had jumped at nearly the speed of light and returned one day later, or what was really 112 years inside the asteroid. The antique clock had been configured to warn of their coming, though technically obsolete. But it was now, officially, Lino's dialbox.