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Ryder's Choice

by Mallory Noone

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

Ryder bit her lip and looked away. “Let’s go to my house,” she said. “We can talk more there. And I think I’ve got a way to help you.”

“All right,” he said, and smiled. Ryder bit her lip again. Her eyes were full of pity.

Mal grabbed his disguise, not wanting to cause a scene, and pulled it on, even though it hurt like nothing else. It was worth it... it was worth it...

Ryder stood up and walked away, slowly... Mal tried to keep up as best he could.

She led him to a white house, not too far away. She reached under the doormat, grabbed a brass key, and unlocked a door in the side of the house. “Come on, Mal!”

He limped after her, and then stopped in the middle of the room, his eyes wide. The walls were bright yellow, the floor was covered in soft, white carpet, and the air smelled like fruit. Music played faintly, at the edge of his hearing; there were pictures of people that Mal guessed were his distant ancestors, Ryder’s family, on the walls.

“Are you...?” he stammered, stopped, and started again. “Is this a palace or something?”

“No, it’s just a house,” Ryder scoffed. “Why? Are you from the middle of nowhere?”

Mal shrugged, and winced as his back stabbed with pain. “I’m from Compound 13. I think it’s in Vermont... or maybe Montana, I’m not sure.”

“How could you not be sure?” she said, amazed, leading the way up a pale-carpeted staircase. “I mean, you live there.”

He tripped. His clubfoot caught on the edge of a stair and he fell to the bottom. Mal winced, stood up, and started climbing again on all fours.

“Are you..?” Ryder began.

“I’m fine,” he said. “And... your question... I’ve never been outside the compound. Not in my own time, anyway. It’s too dangerous.”

She took his hand and helped him up, supporting him with her strong back. “So the future is bad, then?”

“You have no idea,” Mal muttered under his breath.

They were in a long, white hallway now; the walls were lined with doors. Ryder chose a door that was covered in posters. Mal recognized Albert Einstein and a cartoon ‘mad scientist’; there were also posters of a man in a brown suit and red sneakers, and a blond young man holding a burning, blue light-stick.

He followed her inside.

The room’s walls were red. The windows were small, and covered in red curtains that cast an eerie, reddish glow on everything. There was a neatly made bed, a desk covered in papers, a bookshelf made of dark wood, a rack of vials and bottles, a chalkboard easel covered in what looked like chemical formulas...

And a cage on the desk, full of squeaking mice.

That doesn’t seem like Ryder... she isn’t the cuddly type.

Mal bent down to get a closer look. Then, he gasped in shock.

All the mice were twisted... some were hunched and bent; some were bone-white and furless; some were lumpy and covered in scars. Just like me. All of them... like me. This explains it. This explains everything.

“Oh, you like the mice?” Ryder asked.

His heart was thumping against his chest as if it wanted to escape. Mal gritted his teeth and tried to stay calm. “Yeah... “ he said. “What are they?”

“They’re my science project for this year,” she said. “I’ve been using a mixture of biogens to mutate them... I call it the Radsafe.”

Her last word was all too familiar... it had come up in every report he’d seen about the war. It was the reason the human race was stuck where it was today.

“What’s it do?” he asked, making sure.

Ryder picked up a mouse out of the cage, and let it crawl up and down her arm. “The mice are radiation-resistant... you could drop an H-bomb on this house, right now, and it wouldn’t kill them. The Radsafe works pretty dang well, but it has some really nasty side effects.”

“Like what?” Mal felt the kick in his gut, the kick that meant he was pushing it. If he didn’t calm down... He took a deep breath, and stared at her steadily.

“Well... a lot of them died. I bought fifty mice... and only ten are left.” She shrugged. “I think it was the radiation, not the Radsafe.”

His vision was blurring, and he was starting to shake all over. He bit his lower lip — the sharp pain helped him concentrate — and took another deep breath. “What else?” he said, sharply.

She frowned. “Sometimes they start thrashing around, having weird seizures. Like... epilepsy seizures. I’ve talked to a bunch of people about it, no one knows why.”

He knew it then and there. The ugliness, the misshapenness, even the deaths could be explained away as something else. But all the problems together... That could only mean one thing. This is it, he thought. It’s the Radsafe.

“Ryder...” he said, voice shaking, “you can’t.”

“I can’t what?” Ryder glared at him.

“You can’t tell people about this. Get rid of the Radsafe, let the mice go, and change your project.”

She scowled, and moved in front of the cage, as if to block him from taking it. “I don’t see why you give a crap,” she snarled. “It’s a science fair project, for Pete’s sake!”

Mal could see it all stretched out before him, just as history had said. The war would start. The bombs would be invented. The people would use the Radsafe, and then, feeling confident that they could win, start the war. The world would end. There was no way he was going to be able to stop it.

He was shaking like a leaf in the wind, and his face was burning hot. He tried to keep himself steady... he didn’t want to seize up, not here, not now... “Ryder... I know what’s going to happen. It’s history... This is the beginning of a disaster,” he said through clenched teeth.

She scowled. “Prove it.”

“How?!” Red-hot anger grabbed him by the throat... the world reeled around him... and everything went black.

* * *

“Mal? Mal, are you okay?”

He was lying on the floor. It was as cold as ice, and the world seemed to spin around him. He groaned and opened his eyes.

“Mal, where are we?”

Ryder was standing over him. She cowered, glancing from side to side as if the walls would bite her.

They were in a concrete room, with airlocked windows and a weather-beaten cot. There was a sagging bookshelf against one wall, covered in yellowed paperbacks, and a desk made out of cinderblocks and boards against another wall.

Mal knew this place, better than any other. It was his room. His home.

He sat up. “How long was I out?” he asked numbly.

“Only a few minutes,” Ryder said. “But you were thrashing all around, and I tried to grab you and hold you steady, and then there was this flash of light.” She waved a hand vaguely in the air. “And now we’re here.”

He frowned. “Somehow... I started up the time machine. We’re in Compound 13.”

“Compound 13?”

“My home.” He stood, using the shelf for support. “This’s my bedroom.”

“I see why you thought my house was some kind of palace,” Ryder said, running her hand along the rough wall. “Is this it?”

“What?” Mal blinked.

“Do you live in just this one room?”

“No... there’s more.” He levered himself upright. “But... well, look out the window.”

Ryder walked over to the window and glanced out. She closed her eyes in sadness and horror. Then she looked back, longer this time.

Mal limped over to where she stood. He knew what she saw: the gray sky, the wasted land, and the withered, frozen trees.

Ryder stood there, still as a stone. Then she looked up. “What happened?” she asked quietly.

Mal bit his lower lip. “There was a war,” he said. “People thought... they could use the Radsafe to make themselves safe from the radiation and blow up everyone else. They didn’t care that it might not be safe for them. And” — he nodded out the window — “well, that’s what happened. There’s not many people left.”

Ryder closed her eyes again. “That’s awful.”

“Yes,” he said.

She looked him straight in the eyes... hazel locked onto ash-gray. “You’re sure I can stop this?”

“Positive.” Mal nodded, once, brusquely.

“And I’m the one who has to choose.” Her voice shook.

He nodded again, not trusting himself to say anything. She had to make the decision. If he put too much in, that could spawn a paradox.

“How can my science fair project be something that’s gonna change the world?” She didn’t sound cynical now, just stunned.

“It’s like...” Mal groped for an explanation she could understand, and settled for one he’d read in an old book. “It’s like pushing a snowball down a hill. It starts out as one tiny snowflake that can’t do much of anything. But then it sticks to other snowflakes and gets bigger and bigger, and then it starts picking up speed and you can’t stop it.”

She frowned, and looked away. “But if you stop the snowball when it’s a snowflake...”

He nodded. “It won’t stick to anything.”

“So... I have no choice. I have to stop my project.” Ryder looked back out the window, her eyes unreadable.

Mal shook his head. “You don’t have to. You don’t have to do anything. But this is what happens if you make the Radsafe.”

“Well, I’m going to stop the snowball.” She looked back at him. “I’m not going to make the Radsafe. I’ll just tell Mr. Beecher that I’m not doing the science fair this year.”

“Wait.” He smiled. “Why don’t you do your project on time travel instead? Try to figure it out.”

“I don’t know, do you think I could figure it out?” She smiled back at him, with a bit of her old sarcasm.

He held up the time machine. “You already have.”

Ryder grinned. “Thanks, Mal. See you around...”

Mal took the time machine out of his pocket and aimed it at Ryder.

“Bye, Ry...”

He turned it on. The intertemporal matrices hummed, and in a flash, Ryder was gone.

Mal ached all over, and his mind was a little frazzled. He tore off the disguise, and lay down on his cot, his mind buzzing with ideas of what his future might be like. Would his parents be alive again? Would he be able to run and climb like he’d always wanted to? The world outside... what would it be like?

But even with all this excitement, he soon fell asleep.

* * *

“Wakey wakey, sleepyhead...”

“Unhhhh... five more minutes... please...”

“No, no more minutes. It’s time to get up. We’re going hiking today, remember?” It was his mother’s voice. He hadn’t heard it in years.

Mal opened his eyes. She stood in the doorway, looking just like he remembered, smiling at him. She always smiled at him. But there was no sadness in her eyes now.

“Morning, Mal,” she said. “Hurry up and get dressed, okay? Your dad’s already out in the car.”

He tried to keep himself calm and then realized he didn’t need to. Joy sang in his heart.

“Okay, Mom. Be there in a minute.”

He bounced out of bed. Bounced! He could do that? And he ran to the mirror.

His face was... normal. He had mouse-brown, messy hair and a bit of a tan. His body was straight and tall, with no twists or lumps.

It was an odd feeling, seeing yourself changed beyond recognition. But Mal noticed his eyes were the same: ash-gray, and holding depths of hope.

His room had changed, too. The walls were white, but they were smooth. There was carpet on the floor and two big windows on the wall next to him.

And out those windows He saw a forest, a forest of yellow-leaved trees, with a beautiful blue sky overhead. There were mountains in the distance, just as there had been before, but they were red and orange and golden with the leaves of fall. The window was open a crack, and fresh air blew through, ruffling his hair.

Mal grinned, a wide, straight grin. “Thanks, Ry,” he whispered.

He changed quickly and went out to meet his new world.

Copyright © 2011 by Mallory Noone

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