William Wenton and the Secret Portal
William looked up at a red lamp in the ceiling. Bold letters on the lamp read LIVE. He could feel the heat radiating from the powerful stage lights nearby.
He glanced over at a stressed-out woman wearing a headset. She stood not far from him while busy workers passed behind her, carrying large cables and more stage lights. William kept his gaze on her. When she gave him the thumbs-up, it would be his turn.
His first appearance on TV.
Never in his wildest dreams had he imagined that he would find himself in a situation like this. It was as if everything had turned upside down now. After living under a secret name at an undisclosed address for most of his life, it
now felt as though everyone knew who he was, or at least that they’d heard his name.
And tonight, because he had solved the world’s most difficult code, he was going to be on national TV. Slowly he was being turned into a celebrity. And he wasn’t sure he liked it.
The woman with the headset gave him the thumbs-up.
He heard applause from behind the stage wall and people calling his name. There was something menacing about hundreds of people he didn’t know shouting his name. William froze.
“William Wenton . . . where are you?” he heard the host’s voice calling from the stage. “Maybe he found some code back there that he had to crack first.”
The audience laughed.
Someone started chanting his name: “Will-yum . . . Will-yum . . .”
Soon, hundreds of voices were chanting in unison: “WILL-YUM . . . WILL-YUM . . . WILL-YUM . . .”
People clapped and stomped their feet.
The headset woman rushed toward him, motioning for him to get moving. She didn’t look pleased. William took a deep breath and slipped through an opening between two of the stage walls. He stopped as the bright lights hit his face. The audience burst into enthusiastic cheers. He tried to look around, but he was completely blinded by the spotlights.
the host’s voice said from somewhere in the light.
As William began to walk, he caught his foot on a cable and fell flat on his face.
A few people gasped.
But there was one person who laughed.
William recognized the laugh right away. It belonged to Vektor Hansen, a self-professed genius and master code breaker. The same self-professed genius whom William had beaten by solving the Impossible Puzzle, the world’s most difficult code. And now Vektor Hansen was laughing so hard he could barely catch his breath.
William maneuvered his foot free and stood up.
“I hope you’re insured,” the chubby host said, waddling over to help him.
William looked in confusion at Ludo Kläbbert, whose whitened teeth beamed in a broad grin. William hadn’t seen Ludo since the man had served as the emcee at the Impossible Exhibit, where William had cracked the code that turned his life upside down.
Ludo led William over to a sofa and gestured for the boy to sit. Vektor Hansen stopped laughing the instant their eyes met. He became serious and stared at William through narrowed eyes, then scooted over to put as much room between himself and William as possible.
Ludo slipped around behind a desk and plunked himself
back into his seat. He sat there and smiled at them for a while.
William glanced over at the two TV cameras rolling across the floor in front of them. One of them was pointed right at him, and he could see himself on a screen at the side of the stage. He’d always had pale skin, but he looked extra washed out now in the bright lights.
“So how does it feel, William . . . sitting here with the man you so epically humiliated a few months ago?” Ludo asked.
William glanced over at Vektor, who had his arms and legs crossed. His body language made his loathing of William very clear.
William knew that he had never tried to humiliate anyone.
“How does it feel?” Ludo repeated impatiently.
“I don’t know,” William said. “I mean, I didn’t mean to break the code.”
“?‘Didn’t mean to break the code,’?” Vektor said. “How can someone solve a code that difficult without even wanting to?”
“Vektor has a point,” Ludo said, looking at William. “How could you possibly have solved the Impossible Puzzle . . . by accident?”
William couldn’t think of anything to say, so he stayed silent.
In his own defense, he could have told them about the luridium. That 49 percent of his body consisted of this
high-tech supermetal. A metal that allowed him to solve difficult codes in a trancelike state.
“He probably knew the solution beforehand,” Vektor said, squinting at William.
“Is that true, William?” Ludo followed up. “Did you already know the answer?”
“No . . . I didn’t know the answer,” William said. He glanced out at the audience, who were sitting on the edge of their seats in rapt attention. “That’s the truth. I didn’t know anything. It just . . . happened.”
They sat in icy silence for what seemed like forever. Then Ludo clapped his hands and grinned.
“We can’t get so carried away that we forget why we’re really here.” Ludo laughed, leaping out of his chair and pointing at the studio audience. “Are you ready to get started?”
The audience broke into boisterous applause.
“Are you ready for a challenge?” Ludo asked, now pointing at William.
“Um . . .” William hesitated. No one had told him about a challenge.
“Great,” Ludo cheered, snapping his chubby fingers in the air.
A woman with a stiff smile and wearing a long silver dress appeared from behind the stage wall. She was pushing a serving cart, and on it was a big silver platter with a shiny lid covering it.
William wondered what the lid could be hiding. It could be anything, but he knew it would be related to codes somehow.
Ludo turned to the audience. “Are you ready?” he cried, and pointed to the percussionist in the house orchestra beside the stage. An enthusiastic drumroll made the air in the hot studio vibrate. The audience started cheering again.
“What do you say?” Ludo shouted to the audience. “Should we give Vektor Hansen another shot?”
The audience responded with a YESSS! so loud the floor trembled.
“Do you want to see what’s underneath the lid?” Ludo pointed at the lid on the cart.
“YEEEEEEAH!!” the audience yelled, even louder.
And with a dramatic gesture, Ludo grabbed the handle on the lid and whipped it off.
A gasp ran through the studio audience.
William couldn’t believe his eyes. There were two colorful cardboard boxes about the size of shoe boxes on the platter. THE DIFFICULTY glimmered at him in large gold letters on the front. Under the letters was a plastic window revealing the contents: an oblong, metallic cylinder that looked like the Impossible Puzzle—the puzzle William had beaten Vektor Hansen in solving.
“Do you see what that looks like?” Ludo said, smiling at William.
Ludo picked up one box so the audience could see it too.
“These will be for sale in every toy store in the country tomorrow,” he said. An excited gasp ran through the crowd.
William was dumbstruck. He looked at the remaining box on the platter. He couldn’t believe it. A toy version of the Impossible Puzzle.
“Who wants to see two of the world’s best code breakers compete to see who can solve the Difficulty the fastest?”
The audience burst into raucous applause.
William glanced over at Vektor, who was sitting at his end of the sofa, smirking. Did people really want the two of them to compete at solving something that was going to be sold in toy stores?
Ludo Kläbbert raised his hands to signal the audience to be quiet. Then he turned to William. “Well, what do you say, William? Are you ready for a challenge?”
William looked over at the audience. Then at Hansen. He felt trapped. No one had told him there would be a competition. Vektor grinned at him, and William got the feeling that the man had known all about this. William had been tricked into this, and now there was no way out.
“But they’re not . . . real—” William said.
“Wonderful,” Ludo cut him off. “And what do you say, Vektor?”
Vektor removed his leather vest and gave his ponytail a toss. “I’m always ready for a good puzzle.” He cracked his fingers.
“The rules are simple,” Ludo said. “The first one to solve the Difficulty is the winner.”
Ludo nodded to the woman in the silver dress. She opened the boxes and set both cylinders on the table in front of the two contestants. Ludo raised his arms as if he were about to start a drag race and then glanced at the audience. Then he turned to William and Vektor.
“Are you ready?”
Once again, William was about to protest, but he stopped himself. Yes, he had been tricked into something he didn’t want to do, but this was the situation he was in now. . . . In a split second, he adjusted his mind, looked at the puzzle in front of him, and nodded. “I’m ready!”
“GREAT,” Ludo shouted, then started counting. “THREE . . . TWO . . . ONE!” His chubby arms lingered for a couple of seconds, then dropped as he cried, “GO!”
In a flash Vektor snatched the cylinder in front of him.
William did the same. He could tell right away that the toy wasn’t the same high quality as the Impossible Puzzle. Most of the pieces were plastic, and the device was a lot lighter. Small squares that could be moved up and down divided the cylinder. Inside each square was a small symbol. William would have to move the squares around in a specific order until he had solved the code.
William glanced over at Hansen, who was already well
under way. His long fingers flew over the device, twisting and turning the cylinder. Vektor was so engrossed in what he was doing that a drop of drool had started to develop on his lower lip.
William closed his eyes and concentrated, the way he always did when he was code breaking. He sat for a bit and waited for the luridium in his body to take over.
Then he felt it.
That unique sensation he always got. It started with a tingling in his stomach and then moved up his spine and out into his hands.
It was like everything around him disappeared. William saw only the cylinder he held in his hands. It was as if it began to glow before it seemed to come apart, the various sections floating up into the air in front of him. William knew this wasn’t really happening. Only he could see it. This was how the luridium in his body helped him organize the codes he solved. It was like some other force gave him the answers to the codes he wanted to solve, but then he had to do all the work. William looked at the floating symbols as they twirled and looped in front of him. Like they were trying to rearrange themselves. And in a way, they were. Then a pattern started to form in their movements. Some of the symbols moved upward, others sideways. William looked down at the cylinder and started moving the little squares around, mimicking the movements of the floating symbols.
Faster and faster his hands moved.
They twisted and turned the various sections of the cylinder at breakneck pace. And he knew that he was going to win. Nothing could stop him now.
A bright flash of light shot in front of his eyes. At first he thought someone had pointed one of the monstrous stage lights directly on his face, but then the light split up and formed little lightning bolts. It felt like they were inside his head. They darted around like a swarm of confused stars. And before he knew it . . . they were gone. Leaving only darkness behind.
Pain exploded in his head like a bomb, and he felt his body go limp.
Something was wrong.
His fingers were shaking uncontrollably. He could hardly hold on to the Difficulty, and the glow that had surrounded it an instant before was gone.
Something was very wrong.
His whole body started shaking, and he couldn’t control it anymore. His hands were so cold he could hardly feel them.
Then an image flashed in front of his eyes. It was like he was standing in a large cave where a huge glowing golden ring levitated in front of him.
And then William was back in the TV studio.
He looked down at the cylinder. He tried to hold on, but the
cylinder slipped out of his numb fingers and dropped to the floor as if in slow motion. William watched in shock as the device hit the floor and shattered.
He stared in confusion at all the pieces lying on the floor in front of him.
The Difficulty was broken.
William looked up and then out at the audience. He could see people leaning over and whispering to each other. He reached for his head and looked up at Hansen, who was holding the two pieces of his toy up in triumph.
It had split in two. He’d solved it.
Hansen started hopping around like a deranged kangaroo, gloating: “I WON! I WON! I BEAT WILLIAM WENTON!”