TIME HACKERS

Chapter One

Wraaawoo, wraaawoo, wraaawoo.

Startled by the strange noise, sixteen-year-old Jeff Watson paused the video game he and his friend Mitch Arnoldson were playing. He glanced around his bedroom. The late morning sunlight filtered between the blinds and highlighted the scattered clothes carelessly thrown on the beige carpet. He didn’t hear the noise again, so he shrugged it off and resumed the game.

Wraaawoo, wraaawoo, wraaawoo.

“What is that?” Mitch’s deep bass voice sounded more curious than concerned.

“It’s just my dork brothers screwing around.” Irritated by the interruption, Jeff knew he should go check on them, but he hadn’t been this far in the game, ever, and he didn’t want to ruin his streak of good luck. Living in Lake Havasu, Arizona, he’d looked forward to this spring break to do whatever he’d wanted, but this year, his parents had expected him to watch his younger brothers. His dad had told him it would help him be more responsible. Yeah, right. Jeff didn’t care what his brothers did, as long as they stayed in their room and left him alone.

Mitch set his game controller down. “I don’t know, dude, that sounded like some kind of animal.” He walked to the wall separating the bedrooms. Pushing his shoulder-length blond hair from his ear, he pressed the side of his face against the wall.

Wraaawoo, wraaawoo, wraaawoo. Thump, thump.

Mitch’s blue eyes widened. “What the hell is that?”

Jeff threw the game controller down in frustration. “It’s probably just the T.V.,” he mumbled. “I’ll be right back.” Tubular skylights in the ceiling directed the sunlight into the house, making the hallway so bright it hurt Jeff’s eyes. His sock’s slid on the slippery hardwood floor as he stomped down the brightly lit hallway to the bedroom that Riley and Wayne shared. “Listen, you little twerps,” he said as he threw open the door.

The room was dark with the blinds down, curtains closed, and lights off. Highlighted in the shaft of light coming in through the now open doorway, Riley’s laptop computer lay open in the middle of the floor with its screen black.

Jeff wondered why the computer wasn’t on the desk where it belonged. He’d expected to see the boys wrestling on the floor or jumping on one of the twin beds. Instead, the room looked empty. He squinted into the dim recesses for his two errant siblings.

From his left, something about the size of a pig shot out of the dark and slammed into Jeff’s legs. Jeff stumbled and almost fell. He grasped the door handle and managed to hold himself upright.

“Don’t let it get away,” ten-year-old Wayne yelled franticly as he made a dive out of the darkness for the creature’s legs. He missed by a fraction of an inch.

“Wraaawoo, Wraaawoo,” the creature squealed as it forced its way past Jeff.

Shocked, Jeff pushed the door open all the way and jumped away from it.

Riley, the klutzy twelve-year-old of the family, dashed after it. He tripped on Wayne’s legs and ended up sprawled on the floor next to Wayne. His glasses, knocked loose when he’d hit the floor, hung off one ear. “Catch it,” he shouted. “Don’t let it get away.”

Jeff momentarily froze in place, wondering what the hell was going on.

“Holy crap,” Mitch yelled from the other bedroom.

Oh, oh, Jeff thought as he ran to his room, if something gets broken, I’m gonna get blamed. Mom and Dad will punish me instead of my two bratty brothers. He came to a sliding stop in his bedroom doorway.

Mitch, standing in the middle of the room with his back to Jeff, held Jeff’s bedspread up like a matador’s cape. His tall, well-muscled body swayed slowly from side to side. As Jeff opened his mouth to speak, Mitch lunged forward and dove headfirst onto the floor. “Ah, ha, I caught ya,” he called out triumphantly. His muscles bulged as he wrapped his arms around the animal, thrashing violently under the blanket. Mitch wound his legs around the animal in an attempt to get it under control.

The creature squealed louder now, loud enough that Jeff worried the neighbors would hear it and come to investigate.

Mitch, with jaw clenched and blue eyes blazing, grunted and wrapped his long arms and legs tighter around the struggling thing. His determination to win the battle showed in the strain on his face.

“Good, you caught it,” said Riley, obviously relieved. He pushed his way past Jeff to stand over Mitch. His mussed brown hair and torn shirt appeared to be the only casualties of his scuffle with the creature.

Angrily, Jeff stepped forward and grabbed his arm. “The question is, you little twerp, what is it and why is it here? You know Mom and Dad don’t allow animals in the house.”

“Don’t worry,” Riley said as he wriggled out of Jeff’s grasp, “I’ll make sure it’s out of the house before they get home from work.”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it, bro,” Wayne said, casually walking into the room and shutting the door behind him. Excitement glittered in his brown eyes. “We’ll take care of it.” A wannabe gangster this week, Wayne wore a white tank top, big baggy pants that hung halfway off his scrawny butt, and black-and-white tennis shoes. A baseball cap, its bill turned to the back, covered his unruly brown hair.

What a dweeb, Jeff thought as he watched Wayne walk next to Riley.

The thing under the blanket made a squealing noise similar to someone scraping fingernails down a blackboard.

Jeff cringed.

“Keep your voices down,” Mitch said quietly. “If this thing’s like most animals, covering its head should calm it down.”

Riley knelt next to Mitch. He whispered, “Can you carry it to my room?”

“I heard that,” Jeff said loudly, causing the thing to start squirming again.

Mitch gave Jeff a dirty look. He shook his head at Riley. “No, I can’t carry him to your room, at least not until he’s calmed down more.”

Lowering his voice, Jeff said, “So, while that thing is calming down, why don’t you tell us what it is and where you got it?”

A what-now? look passed between Riley and Wayne.

“It’s a…science experiment for school,” Wayne quickly said.

Jeff clenched his fists and fought to stay calm. “That doesn’t tell me what it is.”

“It’s a cross between a dog and a pig,” Riley stated as he stood up then plopped down on the bed. “Some kind of genetic mutation.”

“Quit lying to me.” Jeff crossed his arms over his tattered t-shirt and glared at his brothers. “This isn’t some school project, so cut the crap and tell me what it really is and how you got it in the house.”

Riley fumbled guiltily with his glasses, while Wayne looked to Riley to come up with the answer.

As Jeff waited, he worried what would happen when their mom got home. It was Friday and she was coming home early from work to get ready for the trip she and Dad were taking this weekend to Las Vegas. Having an animal in the house was going to throw her into a tizzy-fit. He had to get rid of it. Right now, from what he could figure with his two tight-lipped brothers, his best option was to play the co-conspirator to loosen their tongues. “If you don’t tell me the truth, I can’t help you hide it from Mom.”

Riley jumped up with panic in his brown eyes. “Jeff, please, whatever you do, don’t tell Mom.”

Jeff had never seen Riley so shaken, but fortunately, he now had him right where he wanted him. “I promise I won’t tell her, but you have to tell me what it is and where you got it.”

“Okay.” Riley hesitated for a moment and glanced at Wayne. “It’s a baby…”

No,” shouted Wayne, grabbing Riley’s arm. “You can’t tell him. You know what will happen if you do.”

Riley put his hands on Wayne’s bony shoulders. “We have to. We don’t have a choice. Who would you rather have find out about it…him or Mom and Dad?”

Wayne looked from Riley to Jeff and back again. With resignation on his face, Wayne dejectedly said, “Yeah, go ahead and tell him.”

“So, what is it?” Jeff asked again.

“I’ll be damned,” Mitch exclaimed in awe. He had set the thing down and was looking under the bedspread.

Wondering why he hadn’t thought to do that in the first place, Jeff stepped next to Mitch, knelt down, and peered under the cover. Plenty of light came in through the window for Jeff to see the animal, but it took a moment for him to register what he was seeing. He gasped in astonishment and shoved himself backward, landing on his butt.

Laughing, Mitch moved to the side.

From under the bedspread, a baby dinosaur peered out at Jeff.

Chapter Two

Sydney Terrance Davis, “Terry” to his co-workers, sat back in his chair in Washington, DC, and tapped the end of his pencil against his lower lip as he stared at his computer screen. The clock read 2:30.

The evidence was right there in front of him: the kid had traveled through time. At least, that’s what his computer told him. Terry had linked his computer to the kid’s so that whenever the kid accessed a certain program named “Time Hackers,” Terry’s computer beeped.

The kid’s name was Riley Watson, a twelve-year-old boy from Arizona who’d hacked into DARPA’s computers eleven months earlier. Terry’s supervisors had confiscated Riley’s computer and had given it to Terry to search for any sensitive information Riley might have accessed. Terry spent several days figuring out the virtual path the kid had taken once he’d gotten into DARPA’s restricted areas. Luckily, most of the files the kid had explored weren’t very important, but one trail linked directly to Terry’s department. He was in charge of a highly secret program called Dark Wave, a program that dealt with time travel. It looked like the kid had managed to hack past Terry’s firewalls and get into some of his files.

Fortunately for Terry, he’d kept all his important files on a computer with no links to the internet. Being a hacker himself, Terry knew how easy it was to break into almost any computer, and he didn’t want anyone to get to his private files.

Two months after receiving Riley’s computer, Terry had struggled to open the folder called “Time Travel” on the kid’s computer.

Now, his mind wandered back to that frustrating day he’d practically given up. Until then, he’d tried every trick in the trade to decipher the password and, still, he couldn’t get the folder open. Envious that a twelve-year-old kid could come up with a password so hard to break, he’d picked up his mouse and slammed it down hard enough to crack the plastic housing. Knowing he could requisition another mouse, he slammed it down two more times. Ripping the cord out of the USB port, he threw the mouse into the trashcan.

He shoved his chair away from his desk and ran both hands through his kinky black hair. Take a break. Get a snack. Let your mind work on the problem subconsciously. Nodding to himself, he rose to his feet and stretched.

At six-foot-two and weighing two-hundred-and-fifteen pounds, Terry knew he didn’t look like the average computer nerd. “Tall, black, and handsome,” the ladies called him. It was true he had the body and good looks of a model, but a physical disorder in his muscles created an emotional state that overshadowed all his handsome features. The expression “froze like a deer in the headlights” fit him perfectly when he encountered uncomfortable situations.

Terry had been born with a condition that most people associated with goats…fainting goats. These poor creatures were afflicted with a rare genetic disorder in the muscles called Congenital Myotonia. When startled or scared, the goats would stiffen up and sometimes fall over, earning them the name of “fainting goats.”

Although Terry’s condition wasn’t serious—he didn’t faint when he was startled—he did freeze up for five or ten seconds when he was nervous, scared, or caught off-guard. It embarrassed him, to say the least. When women especially walked up to him, smiled at him, or simply looked at him, he stiffened up like a wax replica of Frankenstein in Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.

He’d been teased about this condition most of his thirty-three years. Middle school had been particularly traumatic. As a result, he’d become an introvert. He had no friends and no social life and no hope for either. Unless…

His one hope—the reason he spent so much time at work—was to uncover the mysteries of time travel. He knew, without a doubt, his condition would be curable in the future, and he would do anything to travel forward in time and be cured. Not surprisingly, Dark Wave had become more than a job. It had become his obsession.

True, there were medications he could take that would minimize his muscle spasms so his episodes weren’t quite so bad, but the side effects produced worse reactions than freezing up. Plus, he couldn’t justify taking a medication that wouldn’t completely stop his spasms. He found it just as distressing to freeze up for two or three seconds as it was to freeze up for five or ten seconds. It still made him look and feel like a complete idiot.

He didn’t know why, but he sensed this Riley kid was on to something with the “Time Travel” folder. Sure, it sounded ridiculous that a kid that young could solve a problem as complex as time travel, but, hey, kids nowadays were more computer literate and smarter than ever before. Hell, at this very minute, instructors were teaching things in high school that Terry hadn’t learned until his third year of college. It wouldn’t surprise him if this new generation of techno wizards solved not only the secrets of time travel, but also the secrets of inter-planetary travel, perpetual motion, and how to power vehicles with ordinary household garbage.

Taking a break from his discouragement at the computer, Terry opened his office door about an inch and peeked into the hallway. Not seeing anyone, he pulled the door open and stuck his head out. The hall was empty. Hoping he wouldn’t run into any one, he quickly walked to the vending machines at the end of the hall. Two minutes later, he returned to his office with a Snickers candy bar, a bag of Doritos, and a can of Diet Coke.

He sat down and opened his drink. Taking a sip, a new idea about the password came to him. What if I…? Putting his drink aside, he limbered up his fingers and hunched over the keyboard on a new quest to get into Riley’s folder.

*   *   *

Startled by a knock on his door, Terry froze for five seconds. The reveries of the past faded away, replaced with the here and now and a brief recall that he had gotten a beep from Riley’s computer activity. He had to get back to that, but for now, he stood up and peered through the mini-blinds covering the window on his door.

Sheila, his boss’s secretary and the girl of Terry’s dreams, stared back at him.

He almost froze again but he quickly looked away. His heart beat faster. His hands got clammy. He felt his face grow bright red. Fumbling with the knob, he cracked the door open just far enough to stick out his head. “Yes?” He cast his eyes down at her red high heels but couldn’t help taking a couple of quick glances at her face and body.

“Hi, Terry. Mr. Clemmons wants to see you in his office.” She smiled, showing her straight, perfectly white teeth. “You’re late for your meeting. I tried to buzz you, but apparently you’ve got your phone off-line again.”

The meeting. He’d completely forgotten about it.

Before he could formulate an answer, Sheila turned and sauntered down the hall, her shoulder-length blond hair bouncing with each step.

He couldn’t help watching her slim hips sway seductively from side to side. Terry didn’t know for certain, but he swore she swayed more when she knew he was watching her.

“You’d better hurry,” she called over her shoulder. “Mr. Clemmons is waiting and he doesn’t have all day.”

Upset about forgetting the meeting, Terry shut down his computer, grabbed a folder off his desk, and hurried out of the room.

Chapter Three

As Jeff slowly got to his feet, he studied the animal. This can’t really be a dinosaur. Or is it? It sure looks like one. In fact, it looks just like a miniature version of a Triceratops I saw in a movie. Bristle-type hair covered its mottled, greenish-brown skin. A bony frill circled its neck. Two small bumps—that Jeff assumed would later grow into horns—protruded above each eye. A third horn, two inches long, erupted from the nose above a narrow, horny beak. A thick stubby tail stuck out the back.

The dinosaur, if that’s what it really was, had calmed down and seemed content to sit and stare at them. It had apparently decided they weren’t going to hurt it. In fact, it seemed to be almost as curious about them as they were about it.

His mind in turmoil, Jeff turned and caught his reflection in the mirror hanging on the back of his door. His confused brown eyes stared back at him from his tanned face. As he turned away, he ran his hand across his brown buzz-cut and wondered what to do next. First and foremost, he had to figure out a way to get that creature…dinosaur…whatever it was…out of the house before his mom got home.

He glanced at the alarm clock sitting on his nightstand. Eleven-forty already. Wow, I lost track of time. His mom had told him she had meetings all morning from eight until two. He turned to his brothers and said menacingly, “Okay, you two, time to own up. What is this thing and where did you get it?”

Riley and Wayne looked at each other sheepishly.

“You tell him,” Wayne said, elbowing Riley in the side. “It was your idea.”

“Well, you see, I kind of made a time machine out of an old laptop and we decided to go back to the Jurassic–”

“Yeah, right.” Jeff rolled his eyes in disbelief. He turned to Mitch and held his palms up out to his sides. “Can you believe these two? They really expect us to believe they traveled millions of years into the past and brought home a new pet.”

“No,” Riley jumped in, “it was an accident. We didn’t mean to bring him back with us.” He twisted the tail of his shirt in his hands as he talked, a nervous habit he had when he was anxious or upset.

Coming to his defense, Wayne said, “That’s true. It ran out of the bushes just as we were coming home. By the time we realized what was going on, it was too late to do anything.”

“Oh, gross,” Mitch said, pinching his nostrils and moving quickly away from the dinosaur.

A pungent odor assaulted Jeff’s nose. He looked down. A pile of green goo with bits of leaves and stems of plants sat on the floor. “Great, the thing just took a crap on my carpet.”

Wayne took his hat off and waved it in front of his face to clear the air.

Jeff hurried to open a window, letting fresh air into the room. “Wayne, go get something to clean up this mess. Bring back some air freshener, too. And shut the door when you leave.” The last thing he needed was for the creature to get out of his room and run around the house.

Wayne slapped his hat on his head. “You got it, Homey.” He opened the door, scurried into the hallway, and slammed the door shut.

“So,” Mitch asked Riley, “what are you two dudes going to do with it?”

“We were going to take it back, but we couldn’t catch it.” Still looking guilty, Riley took off his glasses and cleaned them on his shirttail.

Jeff stayed by the window and held his hand over his nose. “You don’t really believe them, Mitch, do you?” he asked in astonishment, keeping his eye on the animal and wondering where his brothers could have possibly picked up such a creature. He’d never seen anything like it in any pet store.

“It’s kind of hard not to believe them,” Mitch replied casually. “I mean, look at this thing, dude.” He pointed to the animal, which watched them as if it understood that they were talking about it. “What else could it be? Not only that, you know what a genius Riley is with computers. Remember last year when he hacked into that government website and–”

Jeff huffed, cutting him off. “How could I forget? We had people from the FBI, CIA, ATF, HLS, and every other three-letter agency dropping by here for weeks. My parents are still angry about it.” He looked hard at his brainy little five-foot brother. “But a time machine? You’ve got to admit, that’s hard to believe.”

Mitch shrugged. “I know, but how else can you explain this cute little thing?” He leaned forward to touch the dinosaur.

The animal growled and snapped at Mitch’s fingers with its wicked-looking beak as Mitch yanked back his hand.

Wayne returned, carrying a roll of paper towels, two pairs of yellow rubber gloves, a garbage bag, miscellaneous cleaning fluids, and a can of air freshener.

Jeff grabbed the air freshener and generously sprayed it around the room. The flowery scent didn’t eliminate the sour smell completely, but it helped to cover it up.

Riley moved to stand in front of Jeff. He tilted his head back to look up at Jeff, who stood eight inches taller. “I swear, I’m telling you the truth. You know how good I am with computers. All I did was take the–”

“Stop right there. I don’t care how you did it. All I care about is getting this thing out of the house before Mom comes home. She will totally freak if she sees this…this…thing sitting in the house.” He glared at both his brothers. “As usual, I have to fix your screw-ups or I’ll get in trouble, too.”

“No you don’t,” replied Wayne pulling on the gloves. “We can take it back home.”

 “Yeah, we’ll take care of it,” Riley said as he hesitantly took the second pair of rubber gloves Wayne held out to him.

“Why don’t we all go?” Mitch asked eagerly. “We can take a picnic and make a day of it.”

From the first day of kindergarten, Jeff and Mitch had been best friends. Now, over ten years later, Jeff lashed out at him for being so contrary. “Shut up, Mitch. You’re not helping. And stop encouraging them. You know as well as I do, they’re lying. There’s no way Riley made a time machine. It’s impossible. This thing must have come from some exotic pet store or one of Riley’s nerdy friends. We’ve got to get rid of it before Mom gets home.”

“I’m not totally convinced that it’s from the past,” Mitch said, glancing at Riley and Wayne, “but can you think of a better way for them to prove it to us than by taking us back in time with them?”

Irritated, Jeff watched his brothers tearing off paper towels and picking at the foul clump lying on his carpet. He had no idea how they had managed to get the creature into the house while he’d been playing the video game. Maybe it did look like a dinosaur, but he was sure it could not have come from millions of years in the past. No matter what Riley claimed, there was no way he could have made a working time machine. “Tell me, right now, Riley,” Jeff demanded, “where did you get that thing?”

Riley scrunched up his nose at the odor as he wiped up the mess and scrubbed the carpet. “I told you…the Jurassic era.”

Jeff threw his hands in the air. “I don’t believe this.”

“Come on, dude,” Mitch coaxed, “give them a chance to make things right. Let them prove it.” Mitch had always had a special bond with Riley. He would go along with anything Riley wanted to do.

Jeff rolled his eyes in disgust. He looked at the clock. It was already noon. They were wasting time. Mom would be home in two hours. He decided to play along and let the little twerps fail at proving their claim at having a time machine, then he’d have to get the creature out of the house and hide it until they could figure out what to do with it. The pet store was too far away. Mom would never let him use the car without a good explanation or wanting to go along. Maybe one of Riley’s friends would be willing to keep it.

Wayne stood up and studied the damp, light-greenish area on the carpet. Apparently, he felt satisfied it was cleaned up enough because he nodded to himself and stayed on his feet.

“Okay, fine,” Jeff blurted angrily, “let’s go. Riley, go get your laptop so we can take this little guy home.”

As Riley and Wayne quickly stripped off their gloves and threw them in the garbage bag with the pile of green goo and half the roll of paper towels, Jeff heard a car pull into the driveway. He hurried to the window. Fear shot through him. “Great, Mom just got home early.”

Chapter Four

Terry watched as his boss, Jake Clemmons, wrote a note on the report Terry had written up. Jake’s bald head reflected the glow from the overhead florescent light recessed in the ceiling above his desk. If his head was any shinier, I could use it as a mirror. Terry suppressed a smile at the thought. He fantasized making Mr. Clemmons bow down to him so that Terry could check his own appearance and make sure he didn’t have any food stuck in his teeth. The jerk thinks he’s so high and mighty. It would serve him right to be my personal mirror. Then, Sheila would look at me differently, not like I’m some kind of freak. I bet she–

“Well, I guess that about covers it, Terry,” Mr. Clemmons said, pushing the paper across the desk. “Make sure you get me a copy of the final report by this afternoon, okay?” He picked up the phone and started punching numbers.

Formally dismissed, Terry took the paper, mumbled a quiet goodbye, and made his way to the door. His thoughts turned to the dreaded trip back to his office through the hallways.

While Mr. Clemmons’ office sat on the third floor of the three-story building, Terry’s office was located on the first floor. He would have to make his way past other employees to get to his place of safety.

Glancing sideways at Sheila as he passed her desk, he almost froze when she gave him a little wave goodbye.

He turned into the hallway with his head down, sliding his shoulder along the wall so other people would have plenty of room to pass and he wouldn’t have to get too close or make eye contact. He passed the elevator, preferring to take the stairs instead. He told himself that he needed the exercise, but in truth, he took the stairs to avoid other employees, most of whom used the elevator. The worst part of the trip would be going from the doorway of the first-floor stairwell to his office, which sat halfway down the hall.

As bad luck would have it, today two men and a woman stood at the vending machines located just outside the door of the stairwell. Terry cringed when he saw them through the small window in the door. He recognized the large, loud man as Mark. He hated running into Mark because the fiend always cracked jokes about Terry’s disease.

Terry debated whether or not to wait until the three of them left or just hurry past and hope they wouldn’t notice him. When he heard someone coming down the stairs from above, he had no choice. He would rather take his chance walking past the three people at the vending machine than to get caught cowering under the stairs like a scared puppy.

Damn, why do I have to deal with these people today? he thought as he threw open the door. Holding the report in his hands, he stared at it as though totally engrossed. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mark smile. Oh, crap, here we go again.

“Hey, Pops, how’s it going?” Mark blared. Mark stiffened and shook his body like Terry did when he was having one of his attacks.

The other man laughed. “Good one, Mark.”

“I don’t get it,” the woman said. “He’s younger than you, so why do you call him Pops?”

“It’s short for popsicle,” Mark stated. “Because he’s cold as ice and always freezing. Watch.”

Though Terry had started down the hallway away from the harassers, he dreaded what was coming.

Mark took two long strides, grabbed Terry’s arm, spun him around, and shouted, “Boo!”

Against his will, Terry froze in place.

“Oh, that’s so mean,” the woman said. She raised a hand to her face to conceal a giggle.

“It’s okay, it doesn’t hurt him. Plus, I think he kind of likes it. Don’tcha, Pops?”

Regaining control of his body, Terry turned and hurried down the hall. His mind filled with insults he wanted to throw at Mark, but he said nothing. He knew from experience it was better to keep his mouth shut. He couldn’t win a shouting match when he kept freezing in place. It only served to give his opponent more time to think up better insults.

Safely back in his office, Terry leaned against the door. Relief flooded through him as the tension drained from his muscles.

*   *   *

“Oh, oh,” Wayne said. “Mom’s home.”

Riley’s eyes got big.

“Quick,” Jeff said. “Go to your room and act like nothing’s wrong. Watch T.V. or something.”

“How are you going to hide that?” Riley pointed to the dinosaur now sniffing the air as if it were checking out its new surroundings.

“By not letting her come in my room. Mitch, you stay here and keep an eye on that thing. Make sure you keep it quiet. I’ll go talk to Mom and keep her from coming up here.”

Riley cast a worried glance over his shoulder as he and Wayne hurried off to their room.

Mitch casually settled on the bed and resumed playing the video game.

“Don’t get so involved in the game you forget to watch our visitor,” Jeff said as he started to close the bedroom door.

“I got it, dude,” Mitch called out.

Jeff hoped Mitch did have it. If not, the creature might make noise or get out of the room and wander downstairs. His pulse raced at the thought of his mom turning around and seeing the strange creature standing in the middle of the formal sitting room. She would freak out, big time.

He walked into the kitchen just as his mom entered from the garage. Already, four sacks of food sat on the island counter.

“Oh, good,” she said brightly, her blue eyes beaming, “you can help me bring in the rest of the groceries.” She set two gallons of milk on the table. On her way out to the garage again, she turned and looked at him. “Are you okay? You look a little…flustered or something.”

“I’m just surprised to see you,” he said, hoping his voice wouldn’t crack under the pressure of lying through his teeth. He followed her out the door. “I didn’t expect you home so soon.”

“My afternoon appointments canceled, so I thought I’d get some shopping done.” She popped open the trunk of the car. “I wouldn’t have fun in Vegas knowing my boys didn’t have anything in the house to eat.”

Wow, that’s an understatement. There’s enough food here to last us a month, even if Mitch eats with us every day. Jeff started grabbing bags.

“What was that?” his mom said, looking up and cocking an ear. She turned her head from side to side, as if trying to hear a sound again.

“What? I didn’t hear anything.” Jeff listened carefully, worried that the baby dinosaur might begin screeching any moment.

“It sounded like an animal of some kind.”

“It’s probably the boys watching T.V. or Mitch playing a video game.” I really hope Mitch doesn’t let that thing out of my room. If he does, I’m dead meat.

“I’m sure that’s it,” she said as she grabbed two more bags from the trunk and headed for the house. “You boys know better than to bring animals into the house, don’t you?”

“Of course, we do. You’ve told us about a gazillion times.”

“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times. Don’t exaggerate. It’s just another form of lying.”

“Yes, Mom,” he said as he set the bags on the counter and headed back to the garage to get the rest of them.

As he went out the door, he expected her to be right behind him, Instead, he heard her say, “You finish bringing the groceries in. I’m going to gather up a load of laundry and get it started. I’ll say hi to Mitch while I’m up there.”

Jeff’s heart raced. Now what? He couldn’t tell her not to go in his room or she’d know for sure something was going on. His only hope was to keep her downstairs.

“Why don’t you start putting the food away,” he said in a casual tone. “I’ll go up and get my clothes so you don’t have to walk up the stairs. I’m sure you’re tired after being at work all morning.”

Instead of being pleased by his thoughtfulness, she turned suspicious. “Why don’t you want me to go upstairs?” She stared hard at him. “You kids aren’t doing anything you aren’t supposed to be doing, are you?”

“No . . . really we aren’t. It’s just that you and Dad are always telling me I need to help out around here more. So I am.” He hoped she’d believe him. “In fact, why don’t you show me how to do a load of laundry. Maybe I can start doing my own.” He cringed at the thought of having to do the laundry regularly. I’m getting myself in pretty deep here. I hope Riley and Wayne appreciate this.

His mom laughed. “I don’t think so sweetheart, but thanks for offering. I don’t need you ruining our clothes while I’m gone this weekend. Maybe when your dad and I get back I can work with you on that.”

Wraaawoo, wraaawoo, wraaawoo.

Jeff cringed. Oh, no, Mitch, what are you doing up there? You’re supposed to be helping me here.

“Run upstairs and tell your brothers to turn down their T.V. They know better than to have it that loud.”

“Sure, Mom.” He started out of the room.

“Then come back and help me put this food away.”

Yes, he thought as he rushed up the stairs. Anything to keep you down here and away from my room and that animal.

Chapter Five

Over an hour later, Terry sat in his office chair and worked at his computer on his report for Clemmons. There had been no new activity on Riley’s computer. After hacking into Riley’s computer the first time, Terry now felt nervous that Riley would somehow detect his presence and lock him out. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to get back in if that happened.

Terry sat back and thought about the two full months it had taken him to break the code to get into Riley’s files. It had taken so long because Riley had cleverly used symbols, rather than letters and numbers, for his password. To make matters worse, the symbols weren’t common symbols used in computer languages and fonts. Riley had invented them.

During those months, Terry had used every ploy possible to decipher the password. He thought out of the box. He gleaned information off internet forums about hacking. In the end, it was by a stroke of luck that he found the symbols at all.

Studying pictures Riley had created on his computer, Terry realized some of the pictures were made from keyboard art, using numbers, letters, and symbols. On one forum, Terry found a post about hiding a symbol-based password in one of these pictures. It made sense, especially since the symbols Riley used weren’t readily available, and he couldn’t just type them into the password box. For Riley to obtain the password, he had to copy them off one of the pictures and paste them into the box.

Feeling like he was on to something, Terry searched for a program that would decipher passwords hidden in keyboard-art pictures. To his glee, one of the programs worked, and he finally opened Riley’s “Time Travel” folder to find two sub-folders and a software program. One folder named “Jurassic” only contained general information about the Jurassic era and dinosaurs that had lived during that era. The second folder contained a schematic showing how to wire an ordinary digital alarm clock, a handheld GPS, and an old cell phone into a laptop computer, along with five typed pages of information. Leaving the more detailed inspection for later, Terry opened the program called “Time Hackers.” To his surprise, it presented boxes for the user to type in a GPS location and a date.

That’s it?

Terry read and re-read the pages. He couldn’t believe it at first, but on his third reading, he started to wonder if it could be true that Riley, a twelve-year old boy, really had invented a working time machine. His gut instinct told him to replicate Riley’s work. He copied the folder to his computer and began experimenting with it.

It hadn’t taken Terry long to cobble together the components and take his first trip through time. The first time he went back five minutes. The second time, he went back two months. The third, he’d not only gone back two years, he’d changed locations, too. Now that he knew all this was possible, he spent many hours figuring out what he wanted to do with the information.

Technically, he was supposed to report everything he discovered to Mr. Clemmons, but Terry knew if he did, he’d never be able to make and use a time machine for himself. Nobody, not Mr. Clemmons, not the head of DARPA, not even the President of the United States, would keep Terry from traveling into the future and curing his disease. No, he would keep all this a secret until he could find the right place and time to get the cure. In the meantime, if he had to, he’d kill Riley and his family in order to keep this time travel knowledge his secret.

Terry linked Riley’s computer to his so Terry would be alerted anytime Riley accessed the “Time Hackers” program. Shortly after that, he gave Riley’s computer back to Mr. Clemmons so the organization could return it to Riley. Terry told his boss that the folder named “Time Travel” was Riley’s attempt at designing a game.

Mr. Clemmons hadn’t questioned Terry at all.

As Terry sat at his desk now, he felt a growing urge to eliminate Riley before the time-travel program got discovered by someone else. He knew he’d never get away with killing the kid at the present time. The police had too many ways of tracking down a killer. A hundred years earlier, before technology had given law enforcement DNA testing, blood-typing, and fingerprinting, it might have been possible. Besides, Terry wasn’t sure he could really kill someone in cold blood. Instead, he mapped out a scheme to follow Riley through time and steal his computer. In effect, he would strand the kid in the past…260-million years in the past.

From information he’d gotten from Riley’s files, Terry felt certain Riley had planned on visiting the Jurassic era. All Terry had to do was pop back in time at the same time Riley traveled, overpower the kid, and take his computer. Terry would then pop back home. No blood, no mess, and most importantly, no evidence. Sure, he knew Riley would be missed. The police would conduct a search, but Terry figured kids came up missing all the time. Riley would become another statistic, a cold case in the files of the law.

He glanced at his watch: 4:30. He needed to get Mr. Clemmons’ report finished before going home. He had a strong feeling that Riley would travel back in time this weekend. It appeared he had already made a preliminary trip. And this next time, Terry was going to be ready to go with him.

*   *   *

Jake Clemmons had stared at the door for a long time after Terry dropped off the report. I can’t believe he thinks he’s fooling us. He’d suspected Terry hadn’t been telling him the truth from the beginning. The man couldn’t lie worth a damn.

Not believing in putting all his faith in one place, Clemmons had employed his own personal computer expert and brother-in-law, Mark Peterson, to go through Riley’s computer after Terry had returned it and before the computer was returned to the boy. Peterson had hacked into the folder named “Time Travel” in a month’s time. Based on Riley’s schematic, he built his own time machine. It had taken him a while to solve the problem of traveling to an exact location at an exact time, but now, he had perfected his machine to the point he could travel anywhere, anytime.

Clemmons had even taken a trip with him. They’d strolled the streets of Abilene in its heyday as a cow town in the Old West. He’d even gotten to see a gunfight. Two drunken cowboys faced off in the street at high noon. Fortunately, they were so drunk they couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, let alone one another. Their bullets went harmlessly into the ground or the sky. The sheriff had disarmed both of them and thrown them in jail. The following morning, Clemmons and Peterson ate breakfast with Sheriff Wild Bill Hickok. This once-in-a-lifetime moment for Clemmons bolstered his long-time infatuation with the Old West.

Clemmons had allowed Peterson free rein as far as where he went in time. He cared only that Peterson had the time machine working. Not that Clemmons had any specific plans with the machine, but he knew, if he wanted to, he could go back in time and do all sorts of crazy things and not get caught. He’d even fantasized about robbing a bank. It would be easy. All he’d have to do was appear in an exact location at a precise time. The location would be a bank vault in the middle of the night. There would be no need to break into the bank or the vault. Just pop in, grab the money, and pop out. In the morning, when the vault was opened and the money found missing, the police would have no leads.

Clemmons could even frame one of the tellers. He would go back in time and steal something personal from the unlucky teller, something that would leave no doubt about who had stolen the money. He would then plant it in the vault. No one would be the wiser.

Meanwhile, he’d bring the money back to the future and stash it away in a bank account in Sweden or the Caiman islands. The best thing about the plan, as far as he could tell, was that there was no way for him to get caught.

He shook himself out of the fantasy. He knew he could never stoop so low as to steal something that didn’t belong to him, but he found it fun to think about. The time machine had other more important uses for now.

As the number-one man in his department, Clemmons didn’t have to report to anyone except the President. He figured what the President didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him, at least for now. Once the information got out about the time machine, he’d never be allowed to use it. His gut feeling told him he needed to keep quiet about this for a little longer. He had a couple of other places he personally wanted to visit before he turned the information over to the President, who in turn would give it to the other departments of the government, who would more than likely squirrel it away for their own use.

Before anything else, however, he had one important task to perform with the time machine: keep an eye on Terry’s time-machine activities. Because of the connection between Terry’s and Riley’s computers, he knew Terry was watching Riley’s time travels. Although he didn’t know why Terry was keeping track of Riley, he had a feeling Terry was up to no good. Without any evidence, Clemmons couldn’t take action against Terry without a lot of government red-tape.

He was well aware that Terry had an obsession with finding a cure for his disease and would probably do anything to find that cure. What better way than to travel into the future where science would be advanced enough to cure all of man’s ills. Terry’s main problem would be keeping his time machine a secret, and that secret was already out.

Clemmons didn’t think Terry was dumb enough to harm the kid or steal his computer in the present time, but if he were to track the kid’s travel activities, he could be a danger to him in a different timeframe. Clemmons wasn’t about to let that happen.

He pulled a phone number out of his wallet, a number penciled on a yellow Post-it note. There was no name, but he knew the person he was calling. “I have a job for you,” he said when the phone picked up. “Meet me at the usual place at six-thirty.”

The person on the other end of the line grunted and the line went dead.