Previous Story Synopsis: Felix is on a time-traveling field trip in ancient Guatemala when he meets a Mayan girl named Ixchel. Ixchel accidentally pushes Felix’s Emergency Evacuation button, but instead of going back to Felix’s school, they find themselves in Morocco in 1911. There they are captured by Berber warriors and brought to their camp. Ixchel distracts them by dancing and they manage to get away. They push the Emergency Evacuation button again to escape.
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Bumbles in Time: The Malacca Meander
The rich green smell of the Moroccan valley faded away with the night and blazing sun faded in. It was so bright that Felix had to press his hands over his eyes to keep from being blinded.
“This is wonderful!” he heard Ixchel say, then heard her throwing up.
Felix took his hands away from his eyes slowly. It was still dazzlingly bright, but he could see now. They were standing on a muddy brown beach between a line of tall mangrove trees and an ocean as clear as liquid glass. Ixchel was kneeling nearby, her black hair shielding her face.
Felix found the translator on his armband. “Are you okay?” he asked, and the armband said the same thing in Mayan.
“Jumping like that makes me feel sick in my stomach,” Ixchel said. She spit and wiped her mouth. “The first time was okay, but this time we had just eaten a lot. Where are we?”
Felix looked at the armband. The battery was at 67% “It says we are on the island of Bengkalis in Indonesia in the year 1460.”
“Where’s that?” Ixchel asked.
“Far away,” Felix replied. He was already looking for field trips in the area. “Here!” he said. “There’s one in the city of Malacca, five days from now. That’s 80 kilometers away.”
The distance must have translated because Ixchel’s eyes widened. “That’s the distance from Ixkun to Tikal!” she said. “We have to walk that whole way?”
“It’s worse than that,” Felix said. He showed her the map. “It’s across the water. We need to take a boat.”
They walked along the beach a little way until they saw a small boat sailing not far from shore. It was low and had a peaked roof covering the back part of it.
“Do you think it’s safe?” Felix asked.
“It’s safe for us,” Ixchel said. She grabbed the Berber dagger from Felix’s belt.
They waved and shouted, and soon the boat turned and headed towards them. Felix made a video note of the boat as it approached, and an information bubble popped up on his armband.
“They must be Orang Laut,” he said, reading the bubble. “The Sea People. They live their whole lives on the water, going from place to place.”
As the boat approached, Felix saw a woman sitting in the back of the boat under the little roof and a man and a boy his age steering it. Two other little children were hanging onto the edge and looking at them.
“Say something to them!” Ixchel said.
“I don’t know what language they use!” Felix said. “They need to talk to me first. Hold on.” He kept reading the information about the Orang Laut, then went to the translator and choose Old Malay.
“Hello!” he said, painfully aware that these people might be scared off by a voice in his arm talking to them.
They did not respond. The boat came closer. “Who are you?” the man called.
“We want to go to Malacca,” Felix said. “We were on a boat that sank. We need to get there in five days.”
“Do you have any money?” the man asked.
Felix did not carry any money on him, and he did not think the man would want Piratini riiles even if he had them. He looked at Ixchel. She had earrings and a jade bracelet, but he did not want to ask her to give those up. Then he saw the dagger she was holding.
“Here!” he said, pointing to the dagger. “You can have this.”
The man pulled the boat up to the shore, and he and the children all jumped out and crowded around Felix and Ixchel. The man took the dagger and pulled it out of its sheath. Then he nodded.
“Okay, I will take you to Malacca.”
The man put the dagger into his belt and helped them into the boat. They pushed off from the shore and the man and boy paddled until they were far enough out to put up the small triangular sail. However, the man turned the boat south, going away from Malacca.
“Isn’t it that way?” Felix said, pointing north across the water.
“This way,” the man said. “This is the best way.”
“Why is your arm talking?” the oldest boy said. Felix did not know what to say.
“Magic,” he said finally. The children all wanted to see, but the woman kept them all behind her under the roof.
The sun soon began to bother Felix. The climate in Piratini was hot but he spend most of his time indoors and his skin was light. The Orang Laut had very dark skin and did not wear any hat and hardly any clothes. The younger kids were completely naked. The man noticed Felix’s discomfort and helped him tied a cloth around his head as a turban. He also gave Ixchel a conical hat that they had in the back.
“I have never seen any water this big before,” Ixchel whispered to Felix as they sat in the front of the boat. “There are some lakes next Ixkun but I’ve never seen the ocean before. It’s like the water rose and swallowed up all the land.”
That night, they drifted near the shore of Bengkalis Island, 10 km further from Malacca than when they had started. It’s okay, Felix told himself. They still had four days to get to Malacca.
He showed Ixchel the map on his armband and since the boat was half the size of his bedroom back home, the whole family of Orang Laut crowded as close as they could to look at the glowing map on Felix’s arm, the only light except for the millions of stars overhead. Even the woman seemed less suspicious now.
The status light on the armband stayed green meaning there was little danger of changing history: this family was isolated and so even if he made them all time-travel experts they probably would not tell anyone in a way that would make a difference.
Felix and Ixchel slept in the front of the boat while the family slept together in the shelter at the back of the boat. Felix had found a way to make the armband translate anything he said into another language, which made it easier to talk to Ixchel.
“Do you have a family?” he asked her.
“I have three sisters,” Ixchel said. “I’m the oldest.”
“I’m an only child,” Felix said. “I wonder if my parents are worried about me.” Then he remembered that his parents wouldn’t be born for hundreds of years, so if he ever did get back, he could do it before the end of the school day, and they would never even know.
“Where are you from?” Ixchel asked. Felix told her about the country of Piratini and showed her where it was on a map. He showed her the map of the whole world: where Ixkun and Morocco were and where they were now. She refused to believe the world could be as big as he said.
“How long is it to walk to Ixkun from here?” she asked. “One month?”
“You can’t walk, it’s all water,” he replied. “But if you could, then years and years.”
The next day they finally turned north and set out across the Malacca Strait, heading to the mainland of Asia. The land disappeared behind them, and there was nothing but water in all directions.
The Orang Laut family talked and sang or went fishing. The older boy would stand at the front of the boat with a fishing spear twice as tall as he was. Then he would launch his body in the air and plunge into the water. On the third time, he came up to the surface with a fat tuna stuck on the spear. The father cut it up and they ate it raw.
The little kids played around the boat, jumping into the water and swimming. Even the toddler could swim better than Felix. Ixchel was playing with the kids, picking them up and throwing them into the water. They would swim under the boat and then climb in on the other side for her to do it again. Felix felt a rising sense of restlessness as the day went on. “I need to move,” he told Ixchel. “I can’t sit still this long.”
“Go swimming,” she said.
“I’m afraid of hurting the armband or losing it.”
“Give it to me. I can wear it for a while.” She held out a hand.
“Maybe in a bit.” She frowned at him, then turned and picked up the toddler and threw him overboard.
That night, Felix told Ixchel about the armband’s battery. It was at 66% now.
“This starts at 100,” he said. “Now it’s at 66. If it gets to 0, we can’t use the armband anymore and we’re stuck here.” Actually, Felix figured that every jump through time took 16% of the battery, so if it ever got below 16%, they were stuck.
Ixchel looked closely at the number, tracing it with her finger. “That’s a funny way of writing 66. Here’s how we write it.” She traced it in the air with her finger until Felix opened the note writer on the armband. She drew three dots and then a dot below and a line below that. “See? Doesn’t that make a lot more sense?” she said.
“How do you write 16?” Felix asked. She drew three lines with a dot above them. “If it gets below that, we’re in deep trouble,” he said.
The next day they reached the coast of the mainland. They had three days left, but they were still almost as far from Malacca as when they started. Felix was getting anxious. If they missed the field trip, the next one in this area was 100 km away. It was five months away, but what if they kept wandering the world, just missing field trips?
A large wooden ship with square sails appeared and the man told Felix and Ixchel to get under the roof. It was the first time they had been back there. They waited until the ship was out of sight.
“Pirates,” the man said. “There are many pirates in this area. They do not bother us, but if they saw you, they might have stopped to capture you.”
“Thank you, for saving us,” Felix said.
The man nodded, then steered the boat to a small island directly ahead of them. “We will stop here.”
“Can’t we go farther?” Felix asked.
“Why?” the man asked.
“We need to get to Malacca in three days,” Felix said. “Can we still do that?”
The man looked thoughtful. “I think so.” Then he jumped into the water.
Felix wanted to scream. He felt himself starting to shake. Ixchel put her arms around him. “It’s okay,” she said. “We’ll be okay.” She gently tugged at the armband and pulled it off his arm and put it on her own. Then she grinned and pushed him in the water.
The water was wonderfully cool, and Felix felt himself relax. Ixchel was right. It would be okay.
For the next two days, they made their way up the coast, stopping to fish or talk to other Orang Laut that passed by. There were more and more boats here and Felix took that as a good sign that they were getting closer.
“The field trip is going to be here,” Felix said, showing Ixchel the map of Malacca. “They are going to watch the shipbuilding, so it is near the water. They are only there for one hour, so we have to be there early.”
Felix woke up to rain pouring on him. It was still dark. He and Ixchel huddled under the edge of the roof until the family got up and made breakfast. They had five hours to go six kilometers.
“Can we go?” Felix asked.
The man looked at the sky. “After the rain.”
“When is that?” Felix cried. The man shrugged.
They waited an hour, but when Felix took up a paddle and started to paddle the boat, the man and older boy came out and started to help. The rain stopped as they came around a low island, and the houses of the city appeared in front of them. According to the schedule, the field trip had already arrived. They had about forty-five minutes before it left.
“Where is the place where they build ships?” Felix asked frantically. The man pointed up the coast. Felix could see it not far away, the ribs of a half-built djong ship sitting by the water. They were going to make it.
They reached the shipyard with fifteen minutes to go. According to the armband, the field trip would be on the far side, watching from behind some trees.
“Thank you!” Felix cried.
“Thank you! Good-bye!” Ixchel said, although she said it in Mayan so only Felix understood. She gave all the kids hugs and then hugged the woman as well. Then she and Felix climbed over the side and up onto the shore.
It was hard to walk after being on a small boat for so long, but Felix pushed himself to run up the shore and around the side of the shipyard. Ten minutes to go. According to the armband, they were only 80 meters away.
“Where are they?” Ixchel asked. She was barefoot and picking her way more slowly through the thick plants.
“They should be just up here. They’ll be hidden. Hey!” he shouted, first in Portuguese and then in English. “I’m from the future!” There was no answer.
Felix reached the place on the map where the field trip was supposed to be. There was no one there. Then Felix saw the tracks in the muddy ground. They were from modern boots. He saw the word Saahasik pressed into the middle of the tracks. His father had a pair of Saahasik hiking boots.
“Did you find them?” Ixchel asked, coming up behind him.
“They were here, but they must have left early,” Felix said. He felt like crying. He had never felt so lost in his life.
They looked for more tracks in case the field trip had just moved, but there were none. They had just missed them.
They sat down on a stack of wooden beams. “What now?” Ixchel asked. “Is there another group near here?”
“No, nothing close. We can push the button again, but who knows where we will end up?”
“So we could just go back to Ixkun?” Ixchel asked, “or your home?”
“It’s possible, but probably not,” Felix said. He started to cry and wiped at his eyes.
Ixchel bopped him gently on the head. “Felix.” She pronounced his name Peelks. “Don’t cry. We’ll get home. If we can get here, we can get back there.”
“Okay,” he said. He sniffed. “Let’s push the button and try again. We have three more chances.” He took Ixchel’s hand and found the Emergency Evacuation button. After a deep breath, he pushed it. With a sizzle in his stomach, the Malacca shipyard faded away.
To be continued next week in The Quebec Catastrophe