Jan. 6th, 2013

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Title: Through the I.U.I.
Summary: Blair hasn't quite fallen through the looking-glass.
Style: Gen
Size: 6,100 words, about 12 pages
Warnings: None
Dedication: To Dolimir, in gratitude for her permission to riff off her story.
Notes: A missing scene for Dolimir’s delightful Calvin and Hobbes story, The Last Frontier. December 2012 dues for SentinelAngst.
Feedback: Not necessary, but anything you want to give is treasured.
Email: If you prefer not to post a comment that everybody can see, you can reach me at starwatcher -at- dreamwidth.org





Through the I.U.I.

by StarWatcher





From his position under the large oak tree -- an ideal spot to enjoy a warm, late-spring day while grading Anthro 102 essays -- Blair Sandburg watched the goings-on with fascination combined with feelings of inevitability. How come this always happens to me? he wondered. I didn’t used to get this much flak from the universe. Is hanging around with a sentinel causing some kind of probability bleed-through? Or was Incacha’s passing on the ‘Way of the Shaman’ more literal than I realized?

It had to be one or the other. How else to explain the sight of a large, bipedal tiger accosting various students as they crossed the University’s grounds? Since none of said students were screaming and running, even when the tiger grew so frustrated that its furious growling could be heard from where Blair sat watching a hundred yards away, apparently no one else could see it.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. The tiger was targeting individual students, walking in front of them and waving its arms -- yes, it seemed to use the front limbs as arms rather than legs -- as it tried to speak to them. When it got no response, it tried mock attacks -- rushing forward as if to pounce -- guaranteed to elicit a reaction even if, for some inexplicable reason, the students had decided en masse to pretend that an actual occurrence wasn’t real. When one student utterly failed to notice anything untoward, the tiger used the same tactics with another student, then another and another.

Oddly enough, the tiger hadn’t tried to touch anyone, and it always moved aside when one of the students might walk through the space it was occupying. Blair wondered why it would care. If it was substantial, touching a student -- or allowing a student to walk into it -- would certainly elicit the notice it seemed to want. But if it wasn’t substantial, and couldn’t touch a student, why move instead of letting a student walk through its space? Was disturbed ectoplasm painful?

Or was Blair merely hallucinating? In which case, nothing had to make any sense, anyway.

Blair deliberately rubbed his hand over the rough bark of the tree against which he sat. It certainly felt real. He plucked a blade of grass from the growth next to his knee and bit into the broken end. His mouth flooded with saliva to wash away the slightly bitter taste. His bodily responses wouldn’t be so realistic if he were hallucinating, would they?

Okay, working hypothesis: the man-sized, bipedal tiger was real, possibly from an alternate reality, or a different plane of existence, or something like that. Get a grip and deal with it! he told himself, as his mind tried to skitter away from the implications. It worked for Star Trek, and ‘the spirit plane’ has worked for shamans throughout time. Treat it like it’s real, and worry about the fallout later.

Okay. Whether or not he was a shaman -- and Blair had thought Incacha passed on a title rather than an actual change in status (or abilities, or thought-patterns, or whatever) -- he was a teacher and a guide, and he tried to be a worthwhile citizen of the planet. In any of those roles, it was up to him to try to help a being in distress... and the tiger certainly seemed to qualify.

First order of business -- bring the tiger over here without attracting the notice of any of the students. Blair sometimes played up his reputation for being ‘quirky’; his students’ belief that nothing fazed him helped generate a more relaxed classroom atmosphere and wider-ranging class discussions. But he didn’t want anyone to notice him having a conversation with apparently thin air; his reputation could easily slide from ‘unconventional’ to ‘ridiculous’.

He essayed a four-toned whistle -- a sort of nonverbal ‘over he-re’ -- at a volume that wouldn’t carry more than ten feet, except to sentinels and animals. Sure enough, the tiger’s head swung around and focused on him; Blair gave him a subtle nod and a restrained thumbs-up. The tiger dropped to all fours to come loping over, then sat and regarded Blair hopefully. “You can see me?” it asked.

English. Not only did it usually -- or at least frequently -- use bipedal locomotion, it spoke normal, everyday, bog-standard English. For some reason, that was the most disconcerting thing so far about this whole situation.

“Uh, yeah,” he stuttered. “I’m Blair Sandburg.”

The tiger snorted. “That’s a sissy name. My name is Hobbes,” he declared with distinct pride.

“Oh yeah? Named for the British philosopher?” It seemed a bit incongruous, somehow.

“That’s inconsequential; I’m me,” Hobbes insisted. “Are you going to help me or not?”

“I’ll give it a shot. Help you with what?”

“I need to get home. When I came through, I thought I’d be in Calvin’s world, but he wasn’t here, and so far, you’re the only human who can see me.”

“Okay, let’s take it one step at a time. First, came through where? Second, who’s Calvin?”

Hobbes’s tail twitched in irritation. “Calvin’s my best friend since cubhood, even though we live in alternate universes. Now that we’re grown, he’s a brilliant scientist -- in fact, we both are -- and we’re working on a way to connect our universes. We thought we had it, but when I came through, he wasn’t here. And when I turned around, the I.U.I. was gone, and none of these humans,” the corner of his mouth lifted in a snarl as he turned to view the strolling students, “can see or hear me. I should have expected it, I suppose; none of Calvin’s people have ever seen me, either.” The snarl disappeared, and his whiskers drooped. “They all think I’m a stuffed toy.”

“Well I have to admit, talking tigers aren’t common around here. But I can see you,” Blair pointed out, “and you don’t look very stuffed to me. But it would help if I understood the rest -- what’s an I.U.I, and where?”

“How’s your math?” Hobbes asked with a decided sneer. “And your theoretical physics?”

“Passable on math,” Blair admitted, “but nonexistent on theoretical physics.”

“I have a PhT in both, and --”

“PhT?”

“Tigrate of Philosophy,” Hobbes said impatiently. “And Calvin has matching PhDs. We could fill up ten pages with the formulas on our Inter-Universal Interface, and you still wouldn’t understand it, so why should I try to explain it?”

“Point,” Blair agreed. “So how about you just take me to where you came through your I.U.I?”

The tiger snarled softly to indicate... disbelief? Irritation? Blair wasn’t sure. “Oh, just what I need. I’m the preeminent theoretical physicist of my generation, and someone whose grasp is ‘nonexistent’ is going to put his finger on exactly what’s wrong with our I.U.I.”

“Up to you.” Blair shrugged with seeming indifference. “But since you can’t see it, and I can see you when no one else does, maybe I’ll be able to see something about your interface what will tell you how to fix it. Or I could take you to the physics department and let you discuss the problem with Professor Rogers. I’ll even translate for you; I’m sure he’ll understand that I’m just passing on the comments from an invisible talking tiger.”

“You wouldn’t talk so big if I pounced you,” Hobbes declared.

“Pounce away,” Blair said cheerfully. “If you don’t need my help, I’ll just go back to grading essays and you’ll be a great story to tell my partner when I see him.”

“Why do humans have to be so difficult?” The question seemed rhetorical. “Calvin always seems to have problems with his group, too.” Hobbes stood -- on only two feet, again -- and glared down at Blair. “Well, come on; you’ll have to hike.”

“Hiking works,” Blair said easily. He shoved the essays into his backpack and stood, noting that Hobbes was half a head taller. So why should he be any different than the other giants I hang with? he asked himself wryly. Aloud, he added, “Lead on, McDuff.”

The tiger huffed. “I told you, the name is Hobbes.”

“No Shakespeare in your world; got it. Just show me the way.”




Hobbes hadn’t been exaggerating. They left the University, traversed the mile or so of urban territory between the campus and ‘unimproved’ land, climbed a gentle hill, and strode into the forest. They travelled about two more miles before Hobbes stopped and waved his hand -- paw -- upper limb at the area in front of them. “This is it,” he announced.

Blair surveyed the section of forest they’d reached. He saw old pine needles laying in a soft, thick layer on the ground, tree trunks rising all around them while the upper foliage dimmed the light beneath, scattered saplings and wildflowers establishing a hold wherever sunlight broke through the cover of the larger trees. There was nothing at all to suggest Hobbes’s ‘I.U.I.’ “Are you sure?” he asked quietly. “I mean... at this level, one tree looks pretty much like another.”

Hobbes snorted. “Of course I’m sure; I told you, I’m a scientist. “Look; I marked the tree directly in front of me when I stepped out.” The tree he indicated had two sets of four parallel slashes in its bark, crossing each other to form a large X.

“And right here; see?” Hobbes pointed to an area of the ground that showed some scattering of the pine needles. “You can see where I stepped out of the interface; my tracks start in the middle of nowhere.”

Blair looked carefully, but he wasn’t a tracker. The disturbed pine needles might be tiger-tracks, but they might equally have been scuffed by a passing deer or bear. Besides... “Aren’t those tracks, on the other side of where you stepped out?”

“I swear, humans are as ignorant as a six-week-old cub,” Hobbes sneered. He seemed to do a lot of that. “Can’t you tell those tracks are going the other way? When I realized what had happened, I tried to jump back through the interface. I thought, even if I couldn’t see it, it might still be operating.” He shrugged, his tail lashing in agitation. “I hit nothing more than thin air, and landed right -- here.” He stabbed a forward claw into the pine needles.

“Did you hear anything?”

“No explosions, which I half expected if Calvin’s and my universe ever came in contact with each other. Just birds and bugs and other small animal life.”

“I kind of meant...” Blair gestured vaguely toward the space where there was no I.U.I, “...an electronic hum, or buzz, or maybe your friend calling for you. Just... something to indicate that your interface was still ‘live’.”

Hobbes frowned. “Does this world even have computer technology?”

“It’s a growing field,” Blair admitted. “Most offices have desktop models, and smaller, portable laptops are becoming popular. They don’t hold as much memory as the bigger models, but they’re pretty handy for people on the go.”

“Sounds like you’re not too far behind my universe, or Calvin’s. So you should know that solid-state technology doesn’t ‘buzz’ or ‘hum’ or make any other sound effects. And no,” he forestalled Blair’s next words, “I didn’t hear Calvin calling. I couldn’t detect anything but ordinary forest.”

“Hm. Well...” Blair squinted at the invisible -- or non-existent -- I.U.I. “I suppose you tried this, but a good scientist checks to see if results are replicated, right?” He lifted a couple of pinecones from the ground and threw them, one after the other, through the supposed interface area. The results were anticlimactic; both sailed through the air until they hit the ground at the end of their trajectory.

“Of course I did!” Hobbes snapped. “Pinecones, rocks, beetles -- all with the same result.”

“Beetles?”

“In case the interface reacted differently to living versus non-living matter. And I jumped through three more times, but I’m still here.”

“Y’know, I was sort of joking earlier, but maybe we should talk to Professor Rogers. Since he knows physics, he’s more likely to be able to help you than I am.”

“Do you trust this man?” Hobbes demanded. “Enough that you think he’ll believe you about an invisible talking tiger? I know I’d have a helluva time explaining an invisible talking human in my world.”

That would be a problem, Blair admitted to himself. He barely knew the professor, but he suspected that trying to convince the other man he was passing on questions and comments from an invisible being -- he wouldn’t have to mention that Hobbes was a tiger -- would be an exercise in futility. Especially since he still wasn’t sure that he wasn’t immersed in an extended hallucination.

“You’re right; he wouldn’t believe me,” Blair conceded. “But I know someone who will -- and he might even be able to see you. And if we’re real lucky, your I.U.I. Hang on a minute.”

Blair reached in his backpack to pull out his cellphone, and checked the readout. “Nope; no service out here. We’ll have to hike back to that hill we climbed before we reached the forest, and I’ll call Jim. Let’s go.” He settled the backpack on his shoulders and started back toward the university, with Hobbes silently following.




When the phone rang, Jim stifled his exasperated growl. He and Blair had closed their last open case just yesterday; today had seemed the perfect time to tackle the backlog of paperwork, while Blair handled his own version at the university. There’d be another case soon enough -- he worked in ‘Major Crime’, after all -- but he’d hoped to make it to quitting time without having the next case tossed in his lap. Blair would probably blame it on bad karma; personally, he thought the universe had a sick sense of humor.

“Ellison!”

“Hey, Jim, chill, man. The sun is shining and God’s in his Heaven, and I’m not calling about a case.”

But he was calling; it could be as innocuous as a suggestion for dinner, or as troublesome as a flying saucer full of H. G. Welles’ invading Martians. “What’s up, Sandburg?”

“I have a friend who’s having a little problem, and I thought your special talents might help us work through it. Can you get away for an hour or so?”

Jim was already shutting down his computer. Of course he could get away; if he didn’t, Sandburg’s friend’s ‘little problem’ could spread to involve half the city and three branches of the military. Far better if he stepped in to prevent any potential disasters. “On my way, Sandburg; where should I meet you?”

“We’re on a hill about a mile from the university grounds. You start at the back of the Chemistry building, and head toward the forest on the other side of the Campion roadway...”




Jim parked the truck at a convenience store on the Campion roadway; no sense hiking from the university if he didn’t have to. As he approached the specified hill, he could see Blair in animated conversation with... empty space? No, there was a -- haze, or a waver in the air -- in front of Blair, where a ‘friend’ might sit.

It didn’t look as if Blair was concerned, but Jim needed all the information he could get before he was expected to deal with a hazy bit of air. He paused and recalled all the practice sessions he’d endured under Blair’s coaching. Reaching into his pocket, he rubbed his thumb across the jagged edge of a key while he extended his senses, one by one.

Hearing: Blair seemed to be comparing anthropological notes with his hazy friend, but there was no second voice; all he could hear was a... disturbance in the sound-field. It made no sense, but it was the only way he could describe it. Jim could still hear the wind, the birds, the rustle of leaves on the trees and blades of grass, but when the sound passed that area in front of Blair, they seemed ever-so-slightly distorted. Hunh!

Smell: Okay, something definitely different, there -- a kind of wild-animal smell, but without the musty undertones of animals that spent their lives outdoors.

Vision again: Still the hazy-wavery effect, but now that he concentrated, there was kind of... an outline? He and Blair had been experimenting with his ability to focus on different wave-lengths of light, allowing Jim to see into the infrared and ultraviolet ends of the spectrum, but it was difficult. Jim pressed harder on the key’s edge to anchor himself and carefully dialed toward the short waves. Nothing in infrared. How about the longer ultraviolet?

A chill swept over Jim as he finally saw a tiger, so much larger than his friend, sitting on the grass in front of Blair. He ignored the peacefulness of the scene -- since when did tigers sit cross-legged on the grass in front of a human? -- as he drew his gun and tried to work out how to handle the situation. The tiger was turned three-quarters away from Jim’s position, so hadn’t seen him yet, but there was absolutely no cover on the open, grassy knoll to mask his approach. And if he came from the rear angle, when the tiger became aware of him -- and it would; it was a wild animal, after all -- it would run right over Blair if it tried to escape Jim, or maybe even attack Blair, as the nearest threat.

No, probably the best tactic would be to circle around, and go toward them on a line that would place him between Blair and the tiger. The animal would see him sooner but, if he needed it, he’d have a clear line of fire with less danger to Blair.

As expected, he had barely reached his approach trajectory before the tiger’s nose and ears twitched, and it turned its head to face Jim fully. Jim tensed, readying himself to react to any threat, but the tiger merely turned back toward Blair, while pointing in Jim’s direction.

Blair immediately jumped up and faced Jim with a big smile. When the tiger didn’t react to the sudden movement -- which any wild animal would see as dangerous -- Jim relaxed just a little, although he remained on high alert against any untoward move from the tiger. He would not allow Blair to be harmed by this creature.




Hobbs turned his head and pointed down the hill. “Is that your friend? He doesn’t look very happy.”

Blair jumped up, smiling in welcome and relief. Somehow, he just knew that his sentinel would be able to do something to get Hobbes through his I.U.I. “Hey, Jim!” he called, “can you see him? This is Hobbes, and he needs our help.”

“Yes, I see him, Sandburg, but I’m using ultraviolet wavelengths to do so. How can you see him? And what do you mean ‘his name is Hobbes’?” Jim asked as he came close enough for Blair to hear. His voice was testy, almost growling, and Blair rolled his eyes; of course the big guy would treat an unknown situation as dangerous before he even knew all the facts.

And of course a tiger would react to Jim’s growl, and the way he practically stalked toward them. Hobbes was standing beside Blair, ears pinned back and tail switching as he snarled, “He means my name is Hobbes, you ignorant human! If you can’t even get that through your thick skull, maybe you should go back to the trees your ancestors came from.”

“Time out, both of you!” Blair said sharply, while wondering idly if tigers had testosterone; Hobbes and Jim certainly seemed ready to engage in pitched battle at any second. “We have a situation here, and we won’t solve it by the two of you getting all alpha-male at each other. So, truce?”

“I will if he will,” Hobbes declared as he took a step backward, raising his ears and stilling his tail by what seemed an effort of will. “And if he puts his gun away. Is this how you treat visitors to your universe?”

“Hobbes has a point, Jim; he’s just looking for help, and he’s been perfectly peaceful, so put away your gun. I promise, you won’t need it.”

“What point? You mean he talks? And you can talk to him?”

“Well, yeah.” Blair looked between Jim and Hobbes. “You can’t hear him?”

Jim blew a frustrated gust of air. “No, I can’t. And like I said, I can only see him in ultraviolet. So how can you see and hear him?”

“My working theory is that Incacha actually changed something when he passed on the Way of the Shaman to me; no one else on campus could see him, and Hobbes was certainly trying hard enough to get people’s attention.” Blair shrugged. “I decided it doesn’t matter; I can deal with a talking tiger from another universe, or I can check myself into a psych ward. I prefer to deal. And Hobbes seems cool with it, so, you know -- ‘boldly go where no man has gone before’.”

“It’s easier for me,” Hobbes pointed out. “I already knew there was an alternate universe inhabited by humans instead of tigers; it stands to reason that there’d be more than one. Actually...” he smirked at Blair, “...now that I think about it, you’re handling the information much better than I might have expected. Maybe the soft sciences have a few uses, after all.”

“That’s interesting,” Blair said. “In our universe, there’s a long-standing rivalry, sort of, between the hard sciences and the so-called soft sciences. An awful lot of the engineers, physicists and mathematicians tend to look down on the psychologists, archaeologists, and anthropologists. It sounds like it’s the same in your universe.”

Hobbes nodded. “Calvin and I have compared our universes. There are some differences, of course, but many more similarities.” He snorted softly as he crossed his arms. “And of course the hard sciences are more worthy of respect; specific actions lead to specific reactions, and results can be replicated and categorized. All you get from the soft sciences is a range of results, and nothing is ever the same twice in a row. They shouldn’t even be called ‘sciences’.”

“You’d be surprised,” Blair grinned, fully prepared to uphold his side of the argument. But then he shook his head, waving the discussion away. “But this doesn’t get you any closer to your own universe -- or Calvin’s, if that’s what you intended. We better head back and see if Jim can do something about your I.U.I.” He turned toward his watching friend. “Jim, you with us?”




Jim frowned as he watched Blair and Hobbes talking, hearing only Blair’s side of the conversation. He could see the tiger’s lips moving -- and how weird was it, to see the cat-mouth forming human speech patterns? -- but, regardless of how he adjusted his hearing dials, he got nothing from the big cat except that area of weird sound distortion. Loud, soft, low pitch, high pitch, it made no difference, and was pretty damned disconcerting. Every time he thought he was getting the hang of using his senses, something else would come along and rub his nose in his own inadequacies.

“Jim, you with us?”

“Only your side, Chief -- which tells me you can talk to anyone, anywhere, any time, under any circumstances. But no matter how much I try, I can’t hear anything from... your new friend.” Maybe if he tried really hard, he could bring this situation back toward the mundane. Spirit animals were bad enough, but at least they didn’t talk. Maybe whatever-it-was would sound better coming from Blair.

“Hobbes, Jim; it’s not that difficult.” But a thread of humor laced his voice; Blair must realize how reality was shifting uncomfortably under Jim’s feet. “But we have a couple of miles to hike. Hobbes, why don’t you lead the way, and I’ll explain to Jim as we walk.”

And this is why I was never a fan of Alice Through the Looking-Glass, Jim thought bleakly, as he listened to Blair spin a tale of talking tigers traveling to and from alternate universes. He liked even his leisure-reading rooted in the real world, and this situation simply... wasn’t. But, apparently, if he could get... Blair’s friend... through his interface, he and Blair could get back to dealing with their own, highly-underrated, mundane universe. I swear, I’ll never complain of boredom again, he silently vowed.

And there it was, just as he hadn’t really expected -- a shimmering, silvery oval hovering about a foot off the ground, about three feet in width and six feet tall. Although it didn’t look opaque, he couldn’t see anything through it, and there were no strings or wires to hold it in place. Worst of all, when he paced behind it -- far behind -- to examine it from all angles, there was no backside. He had an unobstructed view through the trees: no silvery sheen, no oval, not even a visual distortion.

“Well, you’re both right, Chief; it’s there and I can see it,” he told them when was back in front of the thing. It was better to see an impossible thing that shouldn’t be there than to not see an impossible thing that should be there. “But it feels... I can’t feel any substance there. It’s like looking at a reflection, except then there’s the background solidness of the thing that’s doing the reflecting.”

The tiger was saying something; his body language was almost as expansive as Blair’s. Blair nodded and reported, “Hobbes says of course it’s not substantial, any more than a doorway is. What he wants to know is, can you get him through?”

Jim shrugged helplessly. “What can I do, Sandburg? Toss him through like a ball?”

The tiger nodded as it spoke, and Blair passed it on. “Hobbes says it can’t hurt to try.”

That was easier said than done; the tiger was as big as he was. After a little experimentation, Jim made a stirrup with his hands, and the tiger stepped in it and jumped, with Jim using a throwing motion to give it an extra boost. It worked, but wasn’t successful. The tiger went through the oval, but not into it, and landed on all fours on the other side.

“Hobbes says this time felt a little different,” Blair told him. “Like it was trying to grab him, but it couldn’t get a hold.”

“Actually, I felt something, too,” Jim admitted. “Kind of like a... disturbance in the force?”

Blair groaned theatrically. “You did not just quote Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars!”

“Why not? It’s an accurate description,” Jim said absently as he stepped closer, trying to get an angled view across the face of the oval. “Ask your tiger if it could suck me in if I try to touch it.”

“He says he can hear you, and that he’s not ‘my tiger’; his name is Hobbes,” Blair reported. “He also says it’s safe to touch; just don’t stick your hand through.”

Jim shrugged as he slowly, cautiously extended his index finger and touched what should be the surface of the shimmery oval. It was... weird. Even with his sense of touch dialed up, he felt no substance. But there was something... He poked it a few times, gently, then flattened his palm and brushed it across the almost-there surface. He felt information, knowledge teasing his mind, just out of reach -- and then he knew.

“It’s gone into a kind of hibernation,” he told them. “Your -- Hobbes -- just needs to wake it up, and then he’ll be able to go through.”

“Hobbes says he’s not mine, he’s Calvin’s. He also says he can’t wake it up without a lot of equipment that’s in his universe -- which he can’t get to, because he’s stuck here.”

“Sandburg, I don’t know what else to tell you.” He tried not to take out his frustration on Blair; it probably wasn’t his fault that he’d become involved with an improbable creature from an improbable place. “You can’t go through a door unless it’s open, and this one isn’t.”

Blair sighed. “Yeah, I get that. I just thought maybe you could, like -- nudge it, or something, with your sentinel senses.”

“No,” Jim said slowly, “this feels more like a job for Incacha.” He looked meaningfully at Blair. “Or for the one he passed his legacy to.”

“Me?” Blair squeaked. “But I’m not a real shaman; I haven’t studied or anything.”

“I bet you know more about it than you realize, Chief. And at this point, it looks like it’s up to you, or Hobbes is stuck here forever.”




Blair regarded Hobbes soberly. “Um, a shaman is a person who interacts with the spirit world, and who is able to use that connection to control some natural events. The thing is, I was given the name of ‘shaman’ a while back, but I haven’t really done anything with it. I know stuff through my studies, but...” He shrugged eloquently.

“So you’re saying not to expect too much,” Hobbes summarized. “I’d almost rather you can’t do anything; Calvin will never quit teasing if I’m rescued by the application of one of the soft sciences -- and this shaman thing sounds positively squishy. But it can’t hurt to try, so do your thing.” He waved a paw in haughty permission, then crossed his arms and twitched his tail expectantly.

“I can’t just snap my fingers,” Blair told him, stalling for time. “It takes a little preparation.” The power of belief couldn’t be discounted when trying to affect the natural -- or unnatural -- world; he’d need the boost of Jim’s and Hobbes’s belief -- or least a willingness to humor him -- so he had to make this look good.

Blair took a deep breath. “Okay, Jim find me a big flat rock. Hobbes, gather up just the pine needles your feet touched when you came through the interface. I’ll find some dry sticks to make a small fire.”

Hobbes gave him an inscrutable stare before he started delicately picking up individual pine needles. Jim headed off through the trees with a wave of his hand, and Blair went the other way. It seemed a little brighter in that direction; maybe he’d find a downed tree as a source of his dry wood.

Fifteen minutes later, he was back to see Hobbes clutching a handful of pine needles, and Jim approaching with a rock the size of a dinner plate. Okay, this might actually work.

Blair paced off the distance between the interface and the tree Hobbes had marked, and chose a spot halfway between. He laid his wood aside while he scraped away the forest detritus to reach bare dirt. “Okay, Jim, the rock goes right here.” When it was positioned, he laid his sticks on top, in a flat layer to form a miniature platform. “Now, Hobbes, I need your pine needles -- a nice, even layer.”

When it was arranged to his satisfaction, Blair reached into his jeans and pulled out his pocketknife. Pulling open the blade, he handed it to Hobbes. “Now I need a bit of your fur.”

Hobbes took the knife with a snort, and started shaving a small patch on his upper thigh. “You know, this shaman thing is getting squishier and squishier. What good will my fur do?” But when he handed back the knife, he also held out a small handful of fur and watched as Blair sprinkled it over the pine needles.

“It establishes a connection between you and your interface,” Blair told him. “And I need to be connected because I’m performing the ceremony.” He sawed the end off one of his curls, and dropped that on top of the growing pile, then passed the knife to Jim. “And Jim needs to be connected because he’ll provide some of the energy we’ll need.”

“You know I don’t have much to spare, Sandburg.” But he cut a small piece of hair from the nape of his neck and, getting a confirming nod from Blair, added it to the rest.

“Just be happy I don’t need to shave you bald. Now, sit over there.” Blair pointed at a spot toward his left. “Hobbes, you’re over there,” he added, pointing toward his right.

Satisfied with their positions, Blair reached into a pocket of his backpack and withdrew a match-book, then settled behind the little rock-pyre.

“I didn’t know you carried matches, Chief.”

“Never know when they’ll come in useful -- like now.” Blair grinned. “I can rub sticks together to start a fire, but this is a lot easier.” He pulled a match from the book and closed the cover.

“Now, I’m pretty sure there are no shamanic rituals for waking up an inter-universal interface and sending someone to another universe. So we’re just going to go with focus and visualization. Focus as hard as you can on the interface, and visualize it waking up and energizing, and Hobbes disappearing as he jumps through.” Blair held the match poised to strike the matchbook cover. “Jim, since Hobbes and I can’t see it, you’ll have to watch and tell him when to jump -- but be careful not to go too deep. Ready?”

Receiving nods from both of them, Blair took a deep breath, struck the match, and touched it to his miniature bonfire. He watched in satisfaction as it flared up, then stared into the flames as he made a mental picture of Hobbes jumping through a gleaming, energized interface.

As small as it was, it didn’t take long for the fire to burn down, and Jim still hadn’t given Hobbes the go-ahead. Blair clenched his fists, and tried to aim even more energy toward Hobbes’s I.U.I. It might look stupid to anyone else, but he was convinced that shamanic abilities were real. The problem was, he wasn’t sure he had any, but he couldn’t think of any other way to get Hobbes home; the universe just needed to get with the program.

Only a few tiny flickers were licking at the last of the bottom sticks when Jim cleared his throat. “Hobbes, get ready; something’s happening.”

With a bound, Hobbes was on his feet, poised in front of the still-invisible oval. He looked over his shoulder toward Blair. “Honestly? I didn’t think it would work; thanks for demonstrating that the soft sciences can occasionally be useful. I’ll tell Calvin he has to stop the teasing, at least for a few days.”

“Now, Hobbes!” Jim shouted.

Without hesitation, Hobbes jumped into midair between the trees, and disappeared, just as the last flicker died into nothingness in the ashes on the rock.

“It worked?” Blair could hardly believe it.

“It worked.” Jim’s voice rang with satisfaction. “And the interface is gone.”

Blair continued to stare at the empty space where Hobbes had vanished. “Wow. It worked. And I met a being from another universe; how cool is that?”

“I’m just glad we don’t have to write a report; even you would have a tough time making this sound normal.” Jim stood and reached down to give Blair a hand up. “Ready to head home?”

“Yeah.” Blair ground the ashes into the rock, making sure that no spark was alive, then shouldered his backpack. He turned to follow Jim, but stopped for one last look at the ‘scene of the crime’; this was definitely one for the books. “Do you think he actually made it home?”

“Hobbes?” Jim quirked an eyebrow and Blair nodded. “Sandburg, he’s a talking tiger scientist who jaunts between universes; somehow, I think he’ll land on his feet.”

“Oh, ha-ha-ha; you slay me, man.”

“Not yet, but the next time you decide to get involved with a furry universe-hopper, I might reconsider.” Jim slung an arm across Blair’s shoulders and urged him down the path.

“Yes, because dealing with the lowlifes of Cascade is so much safer than working with a scientific tiger.”

“But if you need to, you can outwit the lowlifes. Someone as smart as Hobbes must be, not so much.”

“But I don’t need to outwit the smart guys,” Blair insisted. “They’re not the ones with plans for threats and kidnappings.”

“I have an idea; let’s avoid the lowlifes and the smart ones, and order a pizza when we get back to town.”

“Now that’s a significant advantage to working with detectives -- they know how to move directly into problem-solving. Half meat-lovers, half taco pizza?”

“You’re not so bad at problem-solving yourself, Chief; throw in some garlic bread and I think we have a workable plan.”

Blair snickered. “Yeah, I’m visualizing it right now.”

“So let’s get out of here, and turn your vision into reality.”

“Right with you, big guy; right with you.”



The End




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