HOT CHOCOLATE


1,950 words


Suki had at last gathered enough slivers of rock to put into her mineral analyser. The other fossil hunters thought she was wasting her time on the thin dark strata: the tar deposits their dentists frequently removed from their molars would have produced better samples.

Suki fed in the crumbs of rock. The mineral analyser's display blinked as though baffled. Several minutes passed before the machine reluctantly admitted its conclusion. Suki's thin rock seam had been formed 65 million years ago from a sea of chocolate - with traces of hazelnut. Did dinosaurs not only browse on cycads and devour meat running with warm blood, but have a sweet tooth as well? Suki doubted it. Her mineral analyser must have developed an embarrassing glitch, which she daren't let the other part-time palaeontologists know about, so she discreetly left as they chipped away at their own allocated fossil beds.

Suki also decided not to declare her unlikely find to the party's organisers before she had checked that a sea of chocolate had not really flooded the late Cretaceous continent.

Technology was a wonderful thing; with it you could count the grains of sand in your favourite holiday desert, or calculate the chemical composition of your current pimple. There were also amazing travel cubicles that could take you to any time or place like magic carpets - even fly you over the minarets of ancient Baghdad.

Suki was old enough to realise that these excursions were only illusion, however real the holographic technicians made them seem. All the same, because the Cretaceous era of 65 million years ago was filled with fierce creatures, Suki had to use her palaeontologist's permit to enter the cubicle programmed for that period. Some travellers had been pulled out of them gibbering about aliens, dragons, and gullies running with gore. The shock of seeing another reality was often too great for the modern mind to cope with and many of them didn't totally recover. A permit was meant to guarantee that its owner's mind was too well-balanced to be unhinged.

Though it had never happened, the technicians were aware that if there was a powerful enough malfunction in the cubicles' control system, illusion and reality could merge. Their wonderful travel facility worked because of a quantum anomaly even they didn't totally understand. However unlikely, the chance of being trapped in a dimension riven with wars and lacking outside toilets was enough to fill the antiseptic, adult mind with dread. The 12-year-old Suki still had an outlook open enough to trust illusion. Other young people just wallowed in the wonder of it all.

The children entering the cubicle next to hers were about to enter the ultimate dentists' nightmare, Sugar Candy Land. They weren't bothered by their parents' irrational anxiety that they would be swallowed by a giant marshmallow or carried off by a marzipan magpie. Nat, aged eight, was careful to keep the control box out of his four-year-old sister's reach. Temptation should have been Angelina's middle name.

Suki closed the door of her cubicle and watched its monitor count towards the supposed date of the Cretaceous chocolate sea. Then she paused the program to slowly edge it forwards until the world on the other side of the cubicle screen came into focus. As soon as the scene resolved itself the safety shutter rolled back. Suki stepped through the screen into a prehistoric valley filled with cycads and ferns.

As she walked towards a volcano it was like entering the hatchery of her uncle's ancient chicken farm, only not many of the creatures here chirped in quite the same manner. There was just the grinding of gizzard stones and munching of huge molars.

Suki felt the footsteps of something massive shake the ground. However safe the system was supposed to be, she still glanced about nervously to make sure she wasn't being hunted by a Tyrannosaurus rex. She was surrounded by nothing more aggressive than a herd of herbivorous hadrosaurs.

The time and location on her control box was correct, but there was no chocolate to be seen anywhere. The old mineral analyser must have been faulty. It was a family heirloom made in 2050, long before Suki had been born. Some palaeontologists claimed these models were the most reliable ever produced; now she could prove them wrong.


***

In their world of candyfloss clouds, marzipan flowers and toffee trees, Nat and Angelina were blissfully unaware of the dinosaurs in the travel cubicle next door. The sight of castles sculpted in iced coconut and surrounded by lemonade moats was enough to rot the teeth of any adult. To Angelina's sweet tooth it all made glorious sense. Nat wasn't quite so sure. His maturing taste buds now preferred the savoury, and he had actually started to like broad beans and broccoli. This was the last time he wanted to experience Sugar Candy Land. Soon he would be old enough to just eat the cake and leave the icing.

Nat dawdled after Angelina as she skipped through fronds of liquorice ferns, only stopping to insist that he instruct the control box to conjure up macaroon mountains and lakes of golden syrup. To keep her happy, Nat obliged, wondering how much it would take to overload the system controlling the travel cubicles. The control box's needle was dangerously near the red side of the dial, and he really didn't want to find out. But Angelina next bullied him into calling up a pineapple pizza over an acre wide. The needle began to tremble towards DANGER. Immediately after that she demanded a hill of peach ice cream to slide down.

Nat decided that this was enough. "Give it a rest, can't you! Sit down for a moment and be quiet!"

Angelina pouted petulantly, but her brother held the control and she had no choice but to sulkily obey. Nat leaned back on a cushion of Turkish delight and foolishly closed his eyes to bask in the sickly rays of the marzipan sun. This was all the opportunity Angelina needed to understand how the control box worked. It was simple; she just needed to tap out the letters of the item she wanted and, above it, how many and how large. Like most four-year-olds, Angelina knew how to spell chocolate.

Unfortunately, she wasn't so good at arithmetic.


***

Suki climbed the pumice slope of the volcano to look out over the landscape. The hadrosaurs were still browsing on the ferns and cycads. None of them seemed to be craving anything sweeter.

Then the ground shook. For a cold, clammy second Suki thought that the volcano was going to erupt.

The screen on her control box was flashing. The system controlling the travel cubicles was going into overload. If Suki didn't get out of the holographic program before illusion and reality merged she would be trapped in this prehistoric world forever.

The portal was on the other side of the valley. Suki ran for her life back down the volcano.


***

Nat was woken suddenly by a horrible sense of foreboding. "What the..?"

He found himself surrounded by towering cliffs of hazelnut chocolate. The needle on the control box was vibrating at "danger" and Angelina was looking suspiciously angelic.

Somewhere, deep below them, the travel cubicle matrix was about to explode.


***

Suki hurtled down the volcano's slope as the distant mountains started to melt in the fierce heat.

Her prehistoric program had merged with the one in the next cubicle. Surprised hadrosaurs found themselves crunching barley sugar branches and marzipan leaves, passing triceratops' horns were caught up in the caramel twigs of pear drop trees, and pterodactyls' wings became stuck in candyfloss clouds.

Two children were dashing towards Suki. They were shrieking at the tops of their voices as they tried to outrun a tide of liquid chocolate.

Suki's path to the portal was now cut off by the hot brown river and she only just managed to catch the children and pull them back up the volcano's pumice slope.

"Why didn't the safety cut-out cancel the programs?!" Nat almost screamed, unable to comprehend what had happened.

Angelina was too guilty to panic. What she did really couldn't have been that terrible. She looked sheepishly at the waves of chocolate licking the slope. "What does 'ten hazelnut chocolate bars to the power of 1000' mean?"

As though to confirm her question, huge lumps began to rise to the chocolate's surface. They weren't only going to drown, they were going to be pulverised by giant hazelnuts as well.

Suki noticed Nat's control box. The instructions, 'Ten hazelnut chocolate bars to the power of 1000', were still on its display.

She gulped. "You didn't - did you?"

"That is how you spell chocolate, isn't it?" asked the four-year-old.

"No, that's how you spell DISASTER!"

Nat's panic had turned to fury. "If we ever get out of here I'm going to nail your teddy bear to the helicar's garage and use it for laser practise!" he bellowed at his sister.

Angelina burst into tears.

A thick brown wave lifted the slab of pumice the young people had crowded onto and set them adrift on a sea of chocolate. Suki seized a barley sugar branch and tried to guide them towards the portal entrance.

Angelina stopped bawling.

Nat took his fingers out of his ears. "But surely... if this is only an illusion, we can't come to any harm - can we?"

Suki said nothing. If the rock sample she had discovered was authentic, then so was the sea of chocolate and hazelnuts under their pumice raft.

The children passed the worried looking hadrosaurs that had huddled on high ground above the lapping waves. Would being fossilised in hot chocolate be any better than falling into a bubbling pitch bog?

As soon as Suki, Nat and Angelina had almost reached the portal entrance, the three ton dinosaurs decided to plunge into the chocolate sea and start to swim.

Large waves picked up the pumice raft and spun it round and round.

Suddenly they were catapulted into the air. The marzipan sun began to dribble down the blue icing sky, giant chocolate hadrosaurs were swimming through a tide of custard, and the volcano erupted hazelnuts.

Dizzy and bruised, Suki, Nat, and Angelina found themselves on a platform pulsating with mauve light and surrounded by figures in protective clothing.

"Well congratulations kids!" announced a gruff voice, "You're still alive, though I can't think why!"

Suki was still dazed. "What happened?"

The woman with the gruff voice removed her visor. "You've managed to rewrite history."

Nat looked terrified. "How?"

"Instead of the dinosaurs being wiped out by a comet, they lost all their teeth through eating nothing but chocolate."

Angelina wanted to ask why they didn't get false ones, but she hadn't seen anyone with such a fierce expression since trying to make toffee in her father's cut glass trophy for airbeam racing.

Suki was bolder. "But chocolate must have some nutritional value, and it had to drain away eventually."

"It did, but how do you chew palm fronds and cycad nuts without any teeth!" The stern woman turned to Angelina. "And you are banned until you learn simple arithmetic!"

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