I reach for the doorknob to head out to school just as my mom’s voice shouts down the stairs.
"Don’t forget your jacket — it’s freezing out there!"
I glance at my short sleeves, shrug, and step beyond the door. A blast from an unknown source slams into me, blinding my eyes and paralyzing the muscles in every inch of my body. I struggle to scream and kick, to wrench away from the powerful force, but to no avail. I feel as though my torso is being ripped apart and I am sinking lower and lower into an empty black void. A buzz continuously vibrates in my ears, and the sensation of myself totally collapsing into my own body is all too real.
I blink and look around me at the room I am now in, striving to prop myself up on weak elbows. I pass my hand over my stomach and surprisingly enough, whatever just happened decided to leave me in one battered, but solid, piece. A groan escapes from my lips as I straighten out my legs, first the right, then the left. . .very slowly, stretching out the cramps. My eyes follow curls of silver wires on the walls up to the ceiling, where there appears to be one vast expanse of glass only a foot away from my head, even in my sitting position. I squint as an eerie red light peeks from behind a gray cloud and sends its rays into the metallic room. Dark corners are illuminated, revealing strange boxes and contraptions stacked around the perimeter of the empty floor space. It all resembles a typical science lab, with one exception: Everything is, I estimate, one-tenth normal size. A counter with complicated-looking instruments spans one wall with purple stools in front of it. Some are standing and some are toppled over, giving the impression of their occupants having hastily shoved their seats away in a desperate attempt to escape. . .as if from a horrible explosion.
That’s when I spot them. Packed under a miniature desk, most of them are cowering with fear, but a few are beaming like it was the happiest day of their lives. These little creatures are similar to humans, other than the fact that they appear to me to be the size of the Lego men I used to play with when I was younger. My jaw drops open in amazement and I try to rasp out a greeting, but my tongue is numb. One of the small humans must understand, as he steps out from under the communal shelter and stands bathed in red light as he brushes off his splotched and tattered lab coat.
"We apologize for the rough ride. . .er, our technicians are still researching better procedures to ensure that our subjects travel comfortably to our world," the little man squeaks. "As you can tell, we have not yet perfected the Nanolaser — you are still much too large." He motions for the rest of his clan to move out from under the desk. They immediately get busy pushing dozens of buttons and pulsating numbers on the multiple screens of what I had dismissed as a shipping box of some sort.
I stare blankly back at the figure before me. In my dazed state, I swear he looks like the photo of Einstein pinned above the blackboard in my physics class. Millions of questions are spinning through my head, but all I manage to blurt out is an uncivilized, "Huh?"
Einstein chuckles, his hair a wild red halo that shakes with him. Yet, his next words are said solemnly, "Where do you think you are?" The room is quiet, awaiting my response. "Outer space, I guess?"
A miniature woman steps forward this time, presses a stethoscope to my ankle, and bends her head back to gaze up at me. "Actually, inner space," she corrects, jotting down a note on her clipboard. "You are within one of the very atoms in your body, standing on an electron of a nitrogen atom, to be exact." She continues: "This electron that you were unaware even existed before we brought you here is our planet."
My eyes grow wide, and the pain in my limbs is temporarily forgotten as I try to absorb this incredible piece of information. "I am inside myself?" I then gasp, "So this is some huge nanotechnology experiment where I was shrunk down small enough to stand on an electron?"
"Precisely," answers Einstein, "but let’s not discuss this here — come, I offer you a tour of Nanolabo, our state-of-the-art nanotechnology plant. But we must hurry: The effect of the nuclear reaction that transported you here wears off rather quickly, so our time is limited."
I nod and then drop down on all fours and crawl behind Einstein and the woman, who walks briskly to a tiny computer as a shrill alarm screams from her pocket. Einstein pays no heed to the beeping, and it abruptly stops after he leads me to the far end of the room.
"This is our specimen table," he says. He points to a rack arranged with dozens of test tubes as he continues. "Every tube contains a different material, such as wood, air, or grass, that is studied at the atomic level to observe the differences in the particles that make up various substances."
I experience the first glimmer of understanding and ask, "So, you can travel inside any of the atoms that comprise your own planet?"
"Well, no," he replies. "We are just starting to explore the potential of nanotravel. For now, we have only discovered how to transport someone from our foster world into ours." Einstein beams with pride. "And you are our first guest!"
I find myself grinning as the scientist guides me over to a cylinder whirling around its axis at an astounding rate.
"This is our nuclear separator. Inside, the protons, neutrons, electrons, and even quarks of various atoms are separated from each other, using plasma energy."
The cylinder is about the size of a drinking glass but looms high above Einstein, a blur of blue color with a metallic sheen.
Next, my guide points out where "slides" of individual components of matter are prepared before being placed under a nanoscope.
"The nanoscope is our most prized invention; it allows us to observe what is occurring on other planets and intervene when certain circumstances deem it necessary," Einstein says, while dipping a slide into a smoky, hissing liquid that he explains seals the coverslip tight.
I am dumbfounded by the intelligence of this world and decide I had better start asking questions before this surreal experience is all over.
"If there are planets within the matter of your world, do they exist inside every object of the world as well?"
"Yes," Einstein replies, inspecting the slide for cracks.
"And inside the worlds of your world?" I continue.
"And inside the worlds of our world’s worlds," Einstein adds, "and outside your world is another world that your planet is just a tiny speck of."
I am silent, contemplating what is beyond my capacity to believe, or even fully understand. Suddenly, a commotion arises a few inches down from us. The little woman who had responded to the alarm earlier is now at Einstein’s side, tugging worriedly at his sleeve and mumbling something about a distressed neutron.
I carefully crawl over to where the rest of the clan has assembled; all of them are taking turns peering into what I presume is the nanoscope. As Einstein approaches, they back away, still whispering among themselves, to allow room for him to pass. Einstein looks into the scope, and then speaks, continuing as if this was all part of my tour.
"As I was saying, we scan random particles through the nanoscope in order to see how other worlds are prospering." He continues: "This one is in a severe state. Global icing has been taking place for the past two thousand years now, and soon the entire planet will freeze over and every form of life will be forever encased in an icy grave."
"You’ve been observing this slide for two thousand years?" My voice is barely audible and I suddenly feel feverish.
"Ah," Einstein exclaims, "I have forgotten to inform you that every minute for us is a thousand years for a world within an atom of ours. In about a half an hour, this planet will cease to be a host for life and become like the protons, whose environments are inhospitable for any form of life." Einstein gestures for me to come closer and then says, "This is where we must intervene."
Me? I look down at the nanoscope and find that the eyepiece is much too tiny for me to be able to view anything through it. Then, an idea dawns on me. I shift my weight back onto my heels and gently cup my hands around the entire apparatus. I hold my breath and the only sound I am conscious of is my own heart racing at the prospect of an entire planet’s fate beneath my fingertips. After a few moments, I draw my hands away, and a tiny person steps forward to peer through the eyepiece.
"The equatorial ice ring has melted!" he exclaims, as the clan erupts into cheers.
Einstein nods for me to continue, and I place my hands back around the nanoscope as well as the frigid world in distress. I close my eyes and picture the areas of the planet passing through the warming rays of my body heat. . . .
I blink and my hand is touching something hard and cold. I gaze down and I am startled to see a doorknob. Well, the journey back was nowhere near as horrific as the trip there, although I am disappointed my time ran out so quickly. I survey the familiar front hall of my house and try to decide what has actually just taken place. My body is back in my world, but my mind is still focused on Einstein and the icy neutron under the nanoscope.
"Don’t forget your jacket — it’s freezing out there!" my mother shouts from the top of the stairs.
One thing for certain is that time had wound back a moment while I was gone.
I quietly step outside, sucking the crisp air into my lungs while leaning against the door. My eyes trace a red maple leaf as it floats softly down onto the pavement of the driveway. I imagine the millions of different worlds that make it what it is. I imagine the worlds that make up its worlds and then its worlds. Then I think of all the little worlds inside of me, so feeble and unprotected. My hand grasps the doorknob as I get ready to open the door to get my jacket.