Abandonment Party (Final Draft)

Abandonment Party

 

 

May I have your attention, please?” the man asked from atop his stage. The sun highlighted the sheen of his hair and the wind played at his grey, tattered suit. “I do have to go over a few things before the government makes their official exit, but since I’m literally dying here I’d better make this speech short.”

Some laughter arose from the crowd in the grassy clearing below, and a petite woman whistled. “Woo! Go, Lord Ley Tecker!” she cheered.

The man in the grey suit nodded. “If only the other Lords Ley were so cooperative,” Tecker said. “After all, the vote to allow your residence here almost failed.” He held out his hand to them with a smile. “But now––here you are. Of the fifteen thousand Jesians, you are those that remain: Free of the plague that sent the rest of us scurrying back to our planet. Free of this––”

He brushed a bit of his long hair back, revealing short, discolored lines running over his cheek.

“Whiskers!” shouted someone from in the crowd’s middle.

“Yes, yes, ‘whiskers,'” Tecker chuckled. “The virus that is fueled by the magical force on this world. You are all quite privileged to be free of it.”

“Aw, it looks cute!” the petite woman shouted. “Can’t you stay?”

Several more chimed in with agreements, but Tecker waved them off. “I’ll look dead if I don’t get back!” he laughed. “And if no cure is found, we may not return at all! That’s why I have something to ask of everyone here.”

Tecker gestured to a cluster of buildings far behind him, across a vast field. A long, paved road ran from the city to the side of the stage.

“The Jesian government expects you to stay in Hardpan city and wait for more news. And yes, the city will be functional––even patrolled by several officers that didn’t get sick. But if I were in your place, I would not remain there.”

Tecker pointed past the crowd now, to a wooden gazebo connected to the highway by a dirt road. “The original inhabitants of this world may be dead,” he went on, “but their convenient method of travel remains. The hex doors connect to many different locales on the planet, offering instantaneous transport to fixed spots. The doors are almost always marked by six pillars, and many have interactive panels––it shouldn’t be too much trouble to work them. I would give anything to be able to see this world with my own eyes; you know how I’ve longed for it. But until that day comes, I encourage you to explore this land in my place!”

“Wooo-yeah!” the enthusiastic woman cheered, this time joined by others as Tecker continued.

“And not just the land; the technology you find as well. It may be called ‘magic,’ but it works on many of the same principles that our machines do; they require programming, engines for power. Like anything new, it will take effort to master––and how can any of you pass up the chance to pioneer a new field? Of course, I won’t leave you to figure these things out unprepared.”

He walked to the edge of the stage, checking for something in the grass below. “It’s around here somewhere: One of the backpacks of supplies you’ll be getting. It has lights, first aid, water––yes, miss, thanks for holding it up––and computers to stay in touch with each other. Communication with Jesice will be cut off for a while I’m afraid, but I don’t expect that part of the quarantine to last very long; you should be hearing from your families again in no time!”

He paused, and the many faces below Tecker clamored, discussing their plans. The Lord Ley stood and watched this for a moment, his dark eyes taking in their excitement. A lock of hair squirmed over his cheek, held by a strong breeze. He reached up to his blemished face and swept the strand back.

“Well!” Tecker started again, “I can see you don’t need me here explaining things all day; I had better get going. Help yourself to the free beverages––I can’t wait to hear your stories when I come back!”

He bowed, with the audience cheering at his back as he departed the stage. He walked over yellow grass, waving back a few times until he reached the road. A police officer stood at attention beside a car that rested upon four orbs socketed into the frame.

“Mr. Mackaba,” Tecker addressed the uniformed man, “Please take me directly to the hex door that leads back to Jesice.”

“Sir!” the man responded, lifting his hand in a vertical salute next to his face. Tecker nodded, and Mackaba snapped out of the pose, opening the car door and ushering Tecker inside. As he was sealed in and away from the noise outside, the Lord Ley folded his arms.

“It isn’t fair,” he mumbled, watching the crowd through the car’s tinted window. The refreshment table was already attracting the mob, and they chattered and smiled as they lined up before it. When the driver’s door opened, Tecker straightened up, looking ahead.

“You’ll watch over everything won’t you?” Tecker asked as Mackaba entered the car and slipped into the front seat. “I want Hardpan to be a safe place for them to be. You know, if their exploration doesn’t work out.”

“Sure;” the man answered, “I’ve been stationed at remote posts before. There aren’t even hostile natives or wildlife to fend off here. Should be easy.”

“I guess you’re right,” said Tecker. “Okay, let’s go.”

 

—–

 

At the table strung with the banner reading ‘Refreshments,’ one eager guy in a flowery shirt was sampling a drink.

“Oh man!” he gasped, bringing the frosted mug down from his lips. “This is amazing; it tastes just like the real thing!”

The girl behind the keg laughed, covering her mouth with a pink mitt on her hand. “You can probably find a dispencer like this of your own;” she explained, “nearly every native house has one. As long as you have a sample of a drink from this world, it can remember its pattern and make you more when you want it.”

“Now that’s something the government guy should have mentioned,” the eager guy said, spilling a bit of his drink on his bright shirt. “I came to this planet to find my own little paradise––a perfect, tropical area. And with a keg like that, I can just lounge around in a chair with no worries at all! Bliss.”

The second girl––the petite one that had been so vocal during Tecker’s address––slapped the tabletop where she sat cross-legged.

“Didn’t you hear Tecker?” she scolded, “We need to go out and explore, not sit around all day like a fat pile of crap!”

The flowery guy spat out some of his drink. “Hey––I deserve a little time to relax!” he argued. “You know where I was back on our world? Wellstone Technologies! Inner wall! I’d only see daylight through a monitor; they worked us like slaves! Oh, it was vile.” He wiped his watch against his shirt, clearing the juice splatters from it.

“I’m sure you’ve earned a vacation,” the taller girl with the pink mitt said, taking another cold mug from a cooler. “My friend Mean is just upset about seeing Lord Ley Tecker so sick.”

The guy calmed a bit upon hearing this, giving a solemn nod as he gulped from his cup. “That really is too bad for him,” he said between sips. “Tecker’s the one that got us here––and he can’t even stay.”

He finished his drink and set it into a bin labeled ‘Recycle.’

“But don’t worry ladies;” he assured, backing away with a smile, “Darrow and his tropical paradise will be here for you!”

And with that he departed, wiggling his fingers at the two girls as his flower-printed shirt melted into the crowd. Mean gave a half-hearted wave back.

“So this is what we’re stuck with,” she stated, leaping down from the table to the flattened-down grass. The jeans that she wore were frayed at the bottom, and the grass-stained hems trailed over her sandals.

“I was this close to meeting Tecker––this close!” Mean continued, squeezing together her finger and thumb. “When is another chance like that going to come? Never, that’s when.”

The mitt-wearing girl withheld her response as the next person in line approached them.

“You should be happy;” he hummed, dipping his head to read the list of drinks on the keg, “that boy will be cured.”

Mean shrugged. “Yeah I guess,” she said. “What can I get you?”

The man looked at her, his eyes and hair both a bright shade of yellow. “Yala Wash,” he requested, taking a mug and holding it under the keg’s copper spout.

“I’ll get it,” Mean said, reaching over and twisting the valve. A grey liquid frothed out, filling the mug. “You gotta picture the drink that you want in your head as you twist the spigot; just holding the cup there won’t work.”

“I see!” the man laughed, taking a sip. “I’ll get this whole ‘magic’ thing figured out one day! Thank you.”

He rose his glass to them, nodding farewell. With a slow swirl he cut through the mob of people that lingered and chatted, and only when he was out of sight from the girls did his impish smile fade.

“Idiots,” he muttered, bumping arms with a few people passing. As he pressed through, he did not look into their eyes or take notice, breaking out of the crowd and coming upon an arrangement of folding chairs in the grass. A teen boy wearing sunglasses was slouched over in one, staring in the direction of the two juice girls at the stone table. He tapped an empty water bottle on his leg as he watched.

The sly grin returned to the blond-haired man’s face.

 

 

 

 

1 – Reckless Throw on the Nine-Mile Road

 

 

“It’s me: Mean!” the petite girl announced, banging on the house’s door a third time. Her car idled somewhere behind in the dark, its headlights edging her slim silhouette. Raising her fist to knock once again, she changed her mind in mid-swing and reached for the handle.

“Kates, I’m coming in,” Mean said as she pushed the door open and walked in.

There, a single lamp cast meager light across a small foyer. The bottom steps of a tall stairway, also lit by the glow, ascended into darkness.

“Uh, Kates?” Mean asked, dropping her voice. She stood in the foyer motionless for a moment, with the faint puttering of the parked car at her back. A bright doorway shone from the other end of the house, at the end of an unlit hall. Mean crept past the wooden stair banister towards the light.

She passed other wide-open doors on the way, with nothing but blackness beyond the wood frames. Mean faced straight ahead as she hurried past them, casting a sideways glance at one room alone. A pale window blurred past her: along with the dark, jagged shapes of empty furniture. Mean broke into a run, grabbing her backpack’s harness and dashing to the hall’s end.

“Geez, I’m freaking out over nothing,” she said, bursting into the tiny, lit room. She came to rest next to a few stools that were lined up next to a bar, with cardboard boxes resting on its countertop. Two chairs and a table faced a blank wall monitor. No one else was there.

Mean took a peek behind the bar, and, finding nothing, pulled off her backpack. It was marked with a zigzag pattern bisected by many straight lines, and she set it down on top of the table.

With a wary glance down the hall, she sat down and pulled her computer out of the satchel. After flipping open the machine to reveal a screen and keyboard, she wasted no time in powering it on. As a grid of portraits lit up on the monitor, she tapped her finger on one that depicted a woman with long, black hair. Text appeared that read ‘CALLING TRISK,’ as a repetitive ring broke the silence in the house.

Mean hummed as the ringing continued. With a burst of static, a woman wearing a sweater appeared on the screen.

“Trisk, hey!” Mean said, clutching her chest.

The woman brushed her long, black hair away from her face. “Hi,” she said in a soft voice. “What’s up? You look scared.”

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Mean said. “Just had the volume too high. Where are you?”

“I’m at the ‘Stone Rory Refuge,'” Trisk said. “I found it while looking for plants for Darrow.”

Mean cocked her eyebrow at her. “Really. Can I see?”

Trisk sidestepped for a moment, and the monitor filled with the blue brightness of a clear sky. A suspended disk could also be seen: its ledge overflowing with fat, beige-colored vines.

“Looks like a nice place to hang out––bright and friendly,” Mean commented as Trisk stepped back into view. “I’m stuck in a dark, empty house near Hardpan City.”

Trisk nodded. “It looks like something’s coming out of those boxes behind you.” she said, pointing.

Mean twisted around in her chair with a yelp. “Trisk!” she exclaimed, “Don’t scare me!”

The dark-haired girl on the screen folded her arms. “Is that why you called?” she asked, “To feel safe? I can’t jump through the screen to save you or anything.”

Mean turned back to the computer, frowning. “I know, but my friend Kates is supposed to be here,” she said.

“Is that the one with that strange mitt on her hand?” Trisk asked. Mean shook her head.

“No, she’s older. Met her a few days ago online. But she’s not here.”

“You’re being clingy,” Trisk stated, drumming her long fingers on the sleeve of her sweater.

“I’m being concerned,” Mean shot back. “Kates mentioned a strange guy last time we talked; I just thought I’d check up on her.”

“Probably Darrow,” Trisk sighed, “looking for women to talk to.”

Mean shook her head, and she leaned toward the computer’s monitor. “It’s someone she didn’t know––a weird, hairy guy in an apron or something. She saw him from the upstairs window, she said. He’d come walking up the road from the Peer station––no car or anything––and just stare at her house.”

“Are you even at the right house?” Trisk asked.

“They only finished one house out here, Trisk!” Mean explained. “The road from Hardpan runs by the this house, the hex door, and then ends at the station.”

“So what did this mystery person do?” Trisk asked.

“He ran away,” Mean said, shrugging. “Back towards the station. I didn’t hear from Kates again after that. I should probably go further down the road to check; I’m worried.”

Trisk eyed her through the screen. “You’re not going to keep me on while you do that, are you?”

Mean laughed as she reached for the screen. “No, and I just remembered that I left the front door open; I’ll come by that Stone Rory place later and tell you what happened.”

Trisk put her palm to her forehead. “You left––? Mean!” She shook her head, and her long hair swayed. “I’ll see you later, if you don’t get killed first.”

“Eh, I’ve got that spear I found with me,” Mean assured her. “Later!” The screen went dark as she shut off the computer, stuffing it into her backpack again.

She sat in the lightened room for a moment, eyeing the hall leading back to the foyer. Headlights gleamed against the wide-open front door, and the purr of the car could be heard past it. With a hurried skip, she darted down the dark hall again––taking hold of the front door and flinging it shut as she left.

Out in the night, a car set on four orbs hummed in the driveway, and Mean hustled her tiny frame through the dark to it.

“Okay, Trisk, maybe leaving it running was a bit stupid,” she admitted, tossing her pack to the passenger seat and leaping over the convertible’s door. Settling in, she gripped the two steering levers, and with a jerk the car spun one hundred-eighty degrees to face away from the house. The headlights caught vacant lots as she drifted onto the road: the four orbs under the car taking her through the curved street with a low roll. Not far ahead, a traffic light on a pole blinked yellow, marking the edge of the highway that ran through the field.

Mean turned left at the signal; no other cars traveled the road, and no more lights marked the way. It was just her in her car: the breeze tossing her shoulder-length hair, and a large, blue planet shining with the stars in the night.

After the car had traveled a mile, a bright dot appeared at the far end of the highway. Mean shifted in her seat, staring ahead: the glow lit the front face of a building and a smaller, reflective object. Fuel pumps came into view next, lined up under an awning that read “Peer Fuel.” The source of the light was set up near the pumps: a circle of floodlights––all pointed inward––shining on a jumbled collection of pieces. They were arranged in a cylindrical shape, and a fat tangle of cords lead away from it into a valve in the ground.

“Wonderful. Just great,” Mean wondered out loud, slowing her car as she pulled off the highway. Parking it close to the well-lit device, she left the engine running again as she stood and hopped over the door. The headlights shone past the cylinder and hit a line of parked cement trucks: their hoods propped open.

“Car parts,” she stated, looking over the grime-coated assembly. Pieces of engines, pipes, and fuel tanks composed the structure, woven together with large, sloppy welds.

A man crept out from between a truck and a tanker. Mean saw him, keeping her back to her car. He entered the circle of lights, wiping his hands on a greasy apron, blinking.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I’m looking for someone,” Mean replied.

The man frowned. “What did you do to it?” he asked as he reached the cylinder, placing his hands on the machine and running his gritty fingers over the surface.

Mean held back a laugh. “Hey––look, I didn’t touch your sculpture,” she explained, “I told you I’m just looking for somebody.”

The man jerked his head from the metal, and studied her. “And who would that be?” he inquired. The white apron was tight on his belly, and embroidered letters ran across it, smeared with filth.

“A woman named Kates,” Mean began, “Why were you sneaking around her house?”

The man laughed, scratching his mess of a beard. “That isn’t her name,” he said, “She hides. She can look like anything and hide.”

“Well she saw you,” Mean growled. “You’re the most obvious stalker that I’ve ever seen.”

The apron-wearing man shuffled. He edged closer to the cylinder and pawed at the space under it with the toe of his shoe, bringing a bladed tool out from under it.

“She can’t see much from where she is;” the man said, “that’s what she says.”

He ducked on one knee, swiping his large, hairy hand at the ground.

“Something missing?” Mean chirped. The man groped at his feet, finding nothing; the pavement was bare.

“What––where did it go?” he stammered, twisting in place as Mean leaned back on her car.

“So if you’ve seen her then where is she?” she asked, “Did you kidnap her? Is she here?”

The man dropped on all fours to check under the cylinder before springing up again with a scowl on his grease-smeared face.

“She’s in that house,” he growled. “She’s always there. I need to get rid of it so she can’t hide anymore.”

“What?” Mean uttered, arching an eyebrow. “I was just there; she isn’t.”

The man stood fuming, working his fingers over the embroidered word on his stomach.

“You’ve been caught by her,” he said, “Caught by her chains; typical, so typical.”

He slid his fingers beneath the large apron, dragging out something that bulged near his stomach. It curved in his palm and was thin like a tube, with a bit of sharp chrome on the end––a needle. This pointed tip lit up with a spark, releasing a small jet of blue flame.

“I can cut you loose from them,” he told her, waving the torch welder in a bright arc before him. After a few practice swings, he twisted a dial with his thumb, causing the fire to double in length.

“I know magic, you know,” Mean said, swishing her hand through the air. The flaming wielder bounced upward, jerking the man’s arm and slipping between his fingers and oil-covered thumb. As the torch left his grip he watched it fly higher: the flame making a long streak as rose.

“I was going to help you,” the man lamented, tilting back to see the glowing trail from the welder wink out above him. Mean turned to her car.

“Look, I don’t know if you’re sick, or what,” she said, reaching into the convertible’s back seat. She brought out a long pole tipped with a triangular point, taking it in both hands.

“Did you see how I made those things go flying?” Mean asked, “I can adjust gravity’s pull on this too.” She leveled the spear’s tip at the man’s belly, and he stumbled backwards, banging into the cylinder. “I could send it straight through you––so where is Kates?”

 

—–

 

The man’s shouting echoed outside. A figure stirred at the sound, rising up from the floor: a dark silhouette against a long, narrow window. The shadow crossed the room, his steps dragging over the floor on the way. The floodlights shone up at a sharp angle from the street below, and the man drew up close to the window, cocking his head.

A drawn-out creaking came from outside now, followed by startled howls. A monstrous shape rose up into view, and the shadowy man’s heavy gloves clanked on the sill.

“A cement truck?” he gasped, as the fat, oval drum of the vehicle floated up first. The cab dangled beneath: the bumper pointing to the ground and the driver’s door hanging ajar. The truck wobbled and groaned as it passed, the floodlights below shining through the spaces between the mixer and wheels.

As it ascended from sight, the dark figure sighed. He hoisted his leg over, and leapt out of the room.

 

—–

 

“I don’t wanna see you around Kates’ house again!” Mean yelled after the apron-wearing man. He fled past the traffic cones that marked the end of the street, rustling into the tall grass of the field. And as his crackling footfalls through the brush faded––the person falling from above smacked to the street in a blur.

The petite girl jumped. “What!?” she blurted out, spinning toward the noise.

The figure was laying face-down in the street, and a ring of dust was thrown up where he fell. His limbs and body were encased in armor: a black material that shone in the floodlights with a bright gloss. He drew his arms in and pushed himself upright.

“Hey! Who are you?” Mean demanded, keeping the spear’s tip between her and the figure.

He turned to face her; the helmet curved in a featureless mask around his head. “I’m Darklord,” he said, the words clear.

Mean studied the man’s profile as he stood up and brushed gravel from his chest.

“What?” she asked, circling him a bit. “You’re a what now? Say that again.”

Darklord folded his arms. “You shouldn’t be here,” he said. “Why are you picking fights with people––are you trying to get killed?”

Mean lowered the tip of the spear to the ground. “You’re Tecker, aren’t you?” she asked, her lips curving up in a smile.

The blank face fixed on her. “Are you even listening to me?” he grumbled.

“I’m listening,” she assured, brushing back some of her sandy-brown hair, “Your voice comes through that helmet just fine, Lord Ley.”

He locked his arms tighter. “Just hearing a voice is enough to make you lower your spear?” he said. “And I told you: my name is Darklord.”

Mean laughed. “Bull, it is not! You’re Tecker Ponce––what, are you hiding or something? You don’t have to.” She stepped closer to him. “You’re the one that got us here; everyone is grateful for that.”

“This world is dead,” the armored man snorted. “You all should have stayed in Jesice.”

“What? Why are you acting like this?” Mean asked, her grin fading. “I won’t blow your cover. When I saw you speak, I could tell that you wanted to explore this world like the rest of us––I understand how you feel, Tecker.”

Tecker, Tecker!” the armored man jeered. “You never met him but you’re so sure you know what he thinks!”

“I didn’t––” Mean stammered, “I’m not saying––”

“Just go home,” he interjected again. “The hex door is right down the road. Go back and listen to more of those speeches. Pore over every word like the rest of the fanatics.”

And as Mean stood silent he waved her away with his black gloves. She turned her back to him, sniffing.

“Fine,” she muttered, clutching her spear. The metal end bounced and clanged over the ground as she dragged it, and her free hand shot up to wipe at her eye.

She stomped past the floodlights and tossed the spear into the back seat of the car, opening the door and slamming it shut after she took her place behind the controls. The car’s engine roared as Mean swung the vehicle around and peeled out onto the main road.

As the headlights faded, and the convertible’s low roll could no longer be heard, the man who wanted to be called Darklord sighed. He let his back hit the nearby building’s wall, and his legs gave way as he slumped to the ground. He stared over at the cylinder of cobbled-together pieces. A small object fell to the pavement nearby. It was a knife, and it bounced as it hit.

It sparkled as it flipped end over end, its clatter echoing at it settled. Another object soon joined it in a flash: a small curved tube with a flame wobbling at the tip. It, too, rebounded a few short times before laying motionless, where its flame burnt a black smear on the lot.

The armored man looked around, turning his head toward the field and then back to the wielder. Then, placing his hands on the ground, he turned his featureless face up to the sky. The floodlights caught the bottom of the cement truck as it fell; a heavy crunch shook the lot as the mixing drum split, spraying a hail of grey, hardened cement. The windows lining the building all shattered at once as shrapnel speared them and every vehicle there.

The cab of the truck broke free from the bed, sending the circle of bright floodlights tumbling over. A thick plume of dust washed over the lamps as they burst and they fell, the smoke flashing with small, electrical pops.

As two surviving floodlights shone through the haze, the apron-wearing man’s metal cylinder wobbled on its base. It tipped over and collided with the street.

 

 

—–

 

 

A mile of grass flared orange on all sides of Mean’s car. She slammed on the brakes, skidding, as an explosion came thundering to her ears.

 

 

2 – Concrete Authority

 

 

The blackened fuel pumps smoldered in a blanket of ash and small fires; the Peer Fuel building’s walls were charred, and rough, gaping holes exposed the inner floors. A maelstrom of smoke swirled on the lot, and the armored man stood: his suit writhing with the orange reflections of flame. From somewhere far off, Mean’s voice called out.

The shouted words were lost amongst the crackling, and the armored man did not have time to react. His body was was jerked backwards through the flames. His arms flailed as he flew; his feet dragged through the pavement and ash. Trailing traces of smoke, he emerged on plain road: skidding past Mean and her car before settling to a halt.

“Hey, are you alright?” she asked, running over. “Can you breathe? Are you burned?”

“I’m fine,” he affirmed, rolling over.

“Are you sure?” Mean pleaded as she extended a thin arm. The armored man took it, and she lifted him up, bracing her body against the convertible’s door. Stepping away, she sneezed as he shook dust from his helmet.

“Whoa––you don’t even have any scratches!” Mean said, wiping her nose and pacing around him.

“I knew this armor could handle short drops,” he explained, twisting around as Mean continued her inspection. “I didn’t think it could take a shock like that, though.”

Mean looked up at his featureless face, brushing her hair back. “Oh––that’s right,” she said, snapping her eyes open wider. “You fell out of that building.”

The man folded his arms. “You mean you forgot about that and you still slung me over here?”

“Well, you were just standing around in the fire!” Mean pointed out. “I was panicking; I thought you were dead! I mean––”

The armored man cut her off with a nod. “You’re right, I’m sorry,” he said. “With the way I was acting, I should be happy you came back at all.”

“Well, yeah,” Mean said, leaning back on her car. She stared into the field of grass. It flickered from the flame’s glow, swaying in a strong breeze. “It’s been a crazy night for me too, I guess.”

They both looked out at the field, and the lighted patches dimmed as the fires from the station died down. After a minute or two, the armored man spoke.

“Well, the fire isn’t spreading. Shall we go?”

“Whoa––what?” Mean asked, “You wanna come back with me?”

The armored man tipped on his heels, leaning at the ruins caught in the car’s headlights. “Would you prefer I stay out here?”

Mean covered her face for a moment, then laughed. “Right, sorry––sure, I can give you a ride; let me make room.” She opened the door, shoving her spear and backpack to the side. After he settled into the back and she hopped into the front, Mean turned the convertible away from the wreckage and rolled down the road.

“So––ah, Darklord,” she started, speaking over the roar of the wind. “Do you think we should tell the police in Hardpan what happened?”

Darklord leaned forward, putting his head close to hers. “Yeah,” he agreed, “We should probably tell them about that man, too. That device he made was some kind of explosive: the cement truck hit it after falling back down.”

“Aw, that’s right––” Mean groaned, “I forget about the spells wearing off. Shoot. I’m really sorry about that.”

The car reached a small path that forked off from the road. “Speaking of:” Mean said, taking the turn, “you mind if I charge up?”

“Charge up what?” Darklord asked.

“My magic!” Mean laughed, looking up to the rear-view mirror. “I used up a lot when I chased that guy away.”

In the reflection, Darklord nodded back. “Right––of course,” he said. A wooden gazebo came into view through the windshield, and the car rolled to a stop before getting there. The area ahead was lit, along with a large, geometrical shape. No source for the encompassing light could be seen, and Mean hopped out, headed over, and became bathed in the glow as well. Lifting her shirt a few inches, she approached the large shape. It had twelve faces––all pentagons––and the tiny woman pressed her stomach against one of the sides.

“How dignified,” Darklord observed from the car.

Mean turned back, fixing him with a smile. She pointed at a round, white jewel at her navel. “This is the thing I used to send that guy’s stuff flying away––my gravity pommel.” Flattening her shirt down, she continued, “I keep it hidden, so people can’t tell what I’m doing.”

“So your spear doesn’t do it?” Darklord asked. Mean got back in the car, glancing at the weapon in the seat as she spun the convertible back on the main road.

“Nah,” she admitted as they picked up speed. “It just has a pattern so I can toss it around. What about you? That armor isn’t Jesian; didn’t you need to charge up too?”

“It’s fine,” Darklord said, hunkering forward again. Kates’ house appeared on their right now: the faint lamp still shining through the bottom windows.

“That’s where the woman I was looking for lives,” Mean announced, glancing over as hair whipped over her face. “She said that guy from the station was bothering her, so I came out to see.”

Darklord studied the house as they passed it by. “I was hiding in that fuel station a while;” he said, “I never saw anyone else with that man. Then again, I didn’t think what he was doing would hurt anyone.”

Mean shook her head. “I guess I didn’t need to worry. She’s probably just out exploring––or heck, even sleeping. It was daytime where I was before. These hex doors are great, but we never had to worry about crossing time zones so fast back on Jesice.”

As she spoke, the car took them closer to the city ahead. The grassy field came to an abrupt end at a wide stretch of concrete: a curved foundation marked with glowing lights. Buildings stood in a tight cluster, all confined to the space within the border. The road lead through the center and Mean’s car sped through.

“Do you know anyone that stayed here?” Darklord asked. He watched the buildings and their blank windows as they passed. Sparse streetlights reflected in the glass.

“No way;” Mean said, staring straight, “It’s too empty. And who knows how long the electric generators will last. I found an empty hotel to stay in, myself. It may be old, but most of the magic-based stuff still works.”

She continued on the main road, ignoring all signs that dictated the speed or direction of traffic. They passed a large banner that read ‘Hardpan Square,’ and entered an open area illuminated by tall lamps. A crossroads of streets wove around small trees here, all leading to other blocks of the city. One building alone had lighted windows.

“Looks like the police are still here,” Mean observed, looking up. Banners hung near the roof, fluttering a barbed fishhook as an insignia.

Mean parked in front of a tree, powered down the car, and the two climbed out. Darklord’s boots clacked echoes over the silent street while Mean’s sandals scraped. A steel garage door took up a large portion of the building’s front, with a row of police cruisers blocking it.

“This doesn’t seem like such a good idea, now that we’re here,” Mean said.

Darklord lead them to a small door labeled ‘Citizen Entry.’ “Well, we can’t get in trouble; we’re not even law-bound citizens anymore, really,” he explained. He opened the door and Mean followed him in.

Inside was a foyer with a desk and an empty chair. A vending machine buzzed in the corner, with several drink selections lit up with “SOLD OUT.”

“Well, I don’t see anyone!” Mean said, running her fingers over a stack of papers littering the desktop. “I think I’ll just leave a note: Sorry I blew up the fuel station that nobody used.”

Darklord stepped over to an open hall. “No, they should be taking shifts,” he said. “Maybe they’re just further in.”

She grumbled and joined him; walking into a sterile corridor. Offices could be seen through wire-crossed windows on their left, while closed doors on the other side read ‘Jail’ and ‘Forensics.’

“I don’t like this,” Mean stated, “This isn’t like exploring the abandoned places everywhere else on the planet; somebody’s supposed to be here. It’s just like Kates’ house.”

They turned two more corners, circling around to the other side of the enclosed workspaces. “Someone is here,” Darklord broke in, taking the lead. He nodded at the hall’s end, where a door stood wide-open. Inside, a man lay face-down at a desk. His head rested on top of his arms, and a small motorized fan caught strands of wavy hair in its breeze. Mean and Darklord entered the dim room, watching their backs.

“Are you okay?” Mean asked the man. He inhaled and squirmed a bit.

“What?” he mumbled, lifting his head and peeking through half-closed eyelids. His eyes flew open as he spied the two people standing before him, and his arm smacked the desk as he jumped.

“Whoa, we’re just here to report something!” Mean told him.

“Report? What? Oh, right,” the officer said, relaxing his shoulders and straightening up. He patted his auburn hair back in place with white gloves. “Yes, yes, I can assist you. I’m Officer Mackaba.”

“Great,” Mean chirped. “My name is Mean, and my friend Kates just went missing. Well, she may not be missing, but someone was stalking her. We––”

Mackaba held up a hand. “Wait, was she here in the city?” he asked.

A large, mounted fish caught Mean’s eye. “Not here; It’s the unfinished suburb along the Nine-Mile road,” she began. “Only house there.” She paused. “There’s also a little, tiny, thing we need to tell you about the Peer fuel station.”

“One thing at a time, please,” Mackaba requested, looking down at a desk-mounted screen. His gloved hands tapped a small keyboard. “We have a few cameras on the buildings facing the road; I can check her house from here.” Mean watched the back side of the monitor, fidgeting as Mackaba stared at an image.

“What did the people in her house tell you?” he asked.

“People?” Mean repeated, sharing a glance with Darklord. “We couldn’t find anyone; that’s why we came here.”

Mackaba cleared his throat with a hum. “I’m seeing at least four through the windows,” he drawled. “You must not have looked very hard.”

“What!? Let me see!” Mean said. She leaned over the desk, only to be blocked by the palm of Mackaba’s glove.

“I’m checking the Peer station,” the officer sighed. “Or are you wasting my time with that too?”

Mean eased back from the desk as Mackaba tapped on multiple buttons again.

“I wish I was joking,” she admitted, watching his eyes––half-closed and weary up until now––grow wider and wider as he scanned the screen.

“This isn’t right,” he croaked, drawing his hand to his mouth, pupils darting. “It’s all black. Are those fires? How could––?”

“Okay. Now hold on, this is going to take some time to explain,” Mean stated, leaning forward again.

“Explain?” Mackaba gasped. “It’s in shambles! That station was going to fuel further expansions!” He rose from his seat, towering above Mean as he did so. He glanced between her at Darklord. “Did you two do this? Did you!?”

“Well, yeah, kind of,” Mean said, stepping back. “I was looking for Kates there, and then this guy––”

“I was helping you find your friend,” Mackaba stated with a tug on his tan uniform. “And you take advantage of me.”

“I think we should leave,” Darklord whispered to Mean. “Something’s not right.”

Mackaba snorted. “Do you have a problem with the way I do things?” he said, gesturing at Darklord’s black armor. “My captain and my partner both abandoned their post here. Probably gone to play dress-up like you. But do you know why I stayed?”

He pounded the desk with his finger.

“Lord Ley Tecker said he was counting on me. Me, to watch over the city. Keep it safe for when the others return. And now”––he threw his arms at the two––”it seems I can’t take a nap without some reckless trollop and her armored thug tearing everything up!”

Mean worked her jaw. “This is bull!” she shouted back. “We didn’t even have to come here and tell you!”

“Well you’re both going to jail,” Mackaba said, pointing. “It’s right down the hall.”

Darklord joined Mean at the edge of the desk. “You can’t do that;” he said, “the Jesian government has no jurisdiction over the people that stayed.”

The wavy-haired officer flinched back for a moment. “Then I suppose I must treat you as terrorists: you’ll both be held in custody until our government can be contacted again.”

Darklord began to retort, but Mean turned to him. “You’re right; we’re leaving,” she stated, and she reached around his neck with her arms and hugged him tight.

He managed to utter “What?” once before flying backwards: shooting straight out the door and dragging Mean along with him.

“You are not leaving!” came Mackaba’s howl as he stood at his desk, clenching his teeth while he watched the two rocket down the hall.

The diamond-crossed wire windows flashed by them, and they reached the sharp corner. Mean let go of Darklord with a push; skidding into the wall and losing a sandal.

“Run, run, run!” she exclaimed, picking her shoe up and sweeping it back on.

“I can’t!” he exclaimed, smacking into the wall and sticking there. His armor scraped as he struggled to break away. Mean turned, waved her hand, and he clattered free: joining her with a scramble of boots, running down the hall to the open foyer ahead.

“I don’t see him following us!” Darklord said, checking through the windows.

“He’s probably getting his gun or something,” Mean shouted back, running ahead of him and into the lobby. The empty desk and vending machine were left behind in a blur as Mean burst out the front door: her tiny legs flashing along as Darklord jogged behind.

“Those cars all look like the slower ones used for barricades;” he said, checking the vehicles outside the garage, “with a head start, we can outrun him.”

“Yeah; head start; let’s get moving!” Mean cried, vaulting over the convertible door and planting herself in the driver’s seat.

Behind them, the building rattled; the two turned to look. The tall garage door was rising; its metal segments sliding up and out of sight. A light in the dark space beyond flickered on and shone out, illuminating the row of parked cars. An engine roared.

“Crap!” Mean cried out, reaching out of the car to drag Darklord in. As he fell to the back seat, she turned back to the controls, jamming on the dash buttons and bringing her car to ignition: its low startup hum drowned out by the rumbling of the vehicle emerging from the police station garage.

The machine rolled over the line of squad cars: the large, rubber tires carrying it over in one bound. The cockpit creaked on a frame of steel beams as it cleared the row, its high doors carrying the insignia of the barbed fishhook. The treaded wheels churned against pavement as Mackaba’s vehicle swiveled to face Mean and her tiny car.

“That looks like a harvester!” Darklord said from the back seat, hanging on as Mean slammed onto the gas. The car lurched forward, leaving Hardpan Square behind. Mean watched the rear-view mirror as they sped down the main road; behind them, Mackaba’s vehicle was tearing entire branches from the trees in the square as it tore past. The monstrosity took up both lanes of the street as it followed, and a mechanical crane unfolded up from the roof. It hoisted a spotlight, directing the wide beam straight ahead.

Mean blinked, swerved, and her car’s radio chimed: a monotone voice was speaking through it.

“YOUR CAR HAS BEEN FLAGGED BY THE H.P.P.D.; AN OFFICER WILL HAIL YOU.”

In a moment, as promised, the car’s radio crackled on.

You traitor!” Mackaba hissed over the speakers. “You will not betray our people like this!

“Dark, the spear!” Mean requested, squinting her eyes and turning the rearview mirror up at an angle. Dark handed it to her and she flung it back without looking.

“Eh, didn’t work,” Darklord said, watching the spear graze one of the tires and twirl into a building.

There was a whoosh as Mean’s car broke the city’s perimeter, and grass ran along both sides of the road.

“I should still have something left;” Mean shouted, “back when I set up for that party.” She popped open a small passenger-side compartment and directed Darklord to it.

“This it?” he asked, gripping the front seat, standing, and reaching for a rectangular object. He handed it to Mean.

“Yeah,” she affirmed, taking the button-covered remote in her hand and holding it in front of her while she steered. After pressing on it a few times, she handed it back.

As Darklord took it, his armor was caught with harsh, yellow light; Mackaba’s harvester emerged from the the city. Free from the narrow, alley-like streets, it burst forth with new speed, closing the distance as the black tires whirled over the pavement.

“Point it at him and press ‘Make!'” Mean instructed.

Darklord swung the remote backward and fired. A stone table appeared, suspended, in between the two vehicles. Its shadow caught the oncoming lights. There was a sharp chink as it fell to the road, followed by the squeal of rubber and more shouts over the radio.

You trollop!” the officer screamed as his vehicle veered from the road to the grass.

“Mean, you got him!” Darklord laughed, watching the crane’s spotlight bob through the field. Mean did not reply; her eyes were on Kates’ home sliding by on the left. Bare walls were all that could be seen through the windows.

“He lied to us,” she said over the wind.

Behind them, the harvester bounded up from the field to street-level again, accompanied by popping sounds and sharp flashes near the cab.

“Mean, he’s shooting at us!” Darklord warned, placing himself between her and the shots.

“Dark, give me the remote,” the petite girl asked, braking the car.

“What!?” Dark exclaimed, almost knocking into her head as they slowed. “The hex door’s ahead; don’t stop now!”

Twisting, she took the control from him with one hand, twirling the car to face the oncoming machine with the other. The area sounded with loud ricochets as another stone table materialized over the hood. With a small, pushing gesture, Mean sent it hurtling forward: the solid, circular top smashing into Mackaba’s grill.

The harvester jerked to the side with a squeal; the two monstrous front tires shuddered and stalled. The vehicle continued to sputter ahead, against the table.

“I just wanted to find Kates! Find Kates!” Mean cried, pressing the “make” button again and producing a table identical to the previous two. She pushed her hand upward this time, sending the stone table toward the glowing spotlight on top. One of the four ornate legs hooked the crane’s arm as it passed, yanking it back with a creak. The forward momentum of the harvester ceased as it was hooked, and the table wobbled as it fought to get to the city. It pulled at the harvester, levering the front wheels from the ground: The tire’s treads whirled above the hood of Mean’s car as the engine whined.

Vandals!” came the scream through the radio as the rig toppled backwards. The table on the grill soared away; the table hooked to the spotlight tore the entire arm off. The roof of the cab sparked against the pavement, while the giant wheels spun against the clear sky. One final table flung against the underside silenced the static from Mean’s radio.

“Well,” Darklord uttered, watching black smoke stream from the tires, “Where to now?”

The petite girl looked at him, letting out a short sigh and slumping back in her seat.

“I think I need to see Trisk,” she chuckled. “She’ll want to hear about this.”

 

 

3 – Those That Flee Judgment

 

 

The long-haired woman, Trisk, lounged in the shade of a disk held aloft by a single pole. Many beige vines spilled over the disk’s side, and a guy wearing a colorful shirt pinched at them with his fingers.

“Do you know how they stay balanced, Trisk?” he asked, giving a sharp tug. The platform wobbled a bit over his head before snapping level again.

Trisk nodded at the lower tiers of the area as he looked at her for an answer. Many other disks sat balanced on poles, all covered with the same curly vines on top. The high walls of the courtyard cast a shadow over a large, angular object at the bottom level.

“Something down there, I think,” she replied, rubbing her forehead with long, thin fingers. “Maybe you can get a better look at the plants if you turn it off––why don’t you go down and try to catch them as they fall?”

“You think so?” he wondered. As he made for the stairway leading down, a rippling sounded from nearby. The two looked toward a disk held up by six poles; Darklord and Mean had appeared underneath it.

“Finally,” Trisk groaned, getting up as the flower-shirted guy barreled over.

“Mean, you made it!” he exclaimed, “Trisk said you were on some dangerous mission!”

“Hey, Darrow, yeah,” Mean replied, stepping out from the hex door, squinting at the sunlight. “It’s good to be somewhere that isn’t so dark for a change.”

“Hi, Mean,” Trisk said, strolling up behind Darrow. She looked over his shoulder at the man dressed in dark armor. He remained in the shade of the platform covering the hex door.

“Oh!” Mean started, following Trisk’s stare, “I met someone. That is, we ran into each other. His name is Dark––Darklord!”

“Hi,” Trisk said again as Darrow furrowed his unibrow and screwed up his face.

Darklord?” he blurted out. “There’s no way that’s his real name.”

“Oh, and this is ‘Geektropic7,'” Mean said, flicking a finger at Darrow’s flower-covered shirt.

“Hey now!” he cried, “I only use that name online; that’s not nearly the same! I’m Darrow, and I tell everyone that!”

“Unfortunately,” Trisk said, pushing past Darrow and extending her arm to Darklord. “I’m Trisk, never mind him.”

Darklord stepped out of the hex door, shaking her hand. “I’m sorry if I’m causing trouble,” he said, “but it’s nice to meet you. You can just call me Dark, if you want.”

“Yeah, I like that,” Mean said. “Anyway, I met Trisk about––what, a week ago? And Darrow I met at the government party.”

“And how did you meet him?” Darrow asked, eying the glinting armor.

Mean’s sandals scraped over rough tiles as she found a small bench to settle on. “Well, I couldn’t find Kates at her house, so I went to the Peer station to look. The stalker guy was there, and he was acting really strange.”

“Darklord!” Darrow accused, standing with his arms folded.

Trisk rolled her eyes. “It was the person Kates described, right?” she inquired, sprawling back down under the balanced disk once again.

Mean nodded, watching Dark sit cross-legged on the mustard-hued tiling. “Yeah,” she said. “He was talking about how Kates was evil or something. He tried to hit me with a knife by his foot––a couple of things. But they all had patterns so I––pow!––sent them flying away.”

“Mean, you need to be careful!” Darrow said, leaning on a stone sculpture shaped like a snail’s shell. “What if he had a gun from our world?”

“Eh, I could hit him with something before he pulled a weapon;” Mean said, “I have a spear––well––had a spear. He ran when he saw that. And then Dark popped out.”

“Just popped out?” Darrow asked, trying to find a way to sit on the stone. It was covered with sharp points and moss.

“Well, he kind of just fell out of a building,” Mean explained. “His armor protected him though.”

“That’s impossible;” Darrow cried, giving up on the stone and standing again, “the shock would have killed him.”

The armored man shrugged. “Powers of Darklord.”

Mean laughed, kicking her feet from where she sat on the bench. “It’s true, Darrow!” she said. “He even survived the bomb that destroyed the whole station!”

“A what? Bomb?” Darrow gasped. “You’re just making this up now.”

He looked down at Trisk. She was taking in the whole story with a finger on her chin. “Don’t tell me you believe this,” Darrow said.

“We can show you the damage;” Mean offered, hopping up and going back to the six poles. “The hex door can take us right to it.”

Darrow brushed off dust from his shorts. “Alright––we shall see!” he challenged.

As the four made for the hex door, Trisk leapt to her feet and dashed over to Mean.

“Darrow’s right; I don’t believe everything,” she purred down to Mean’s ear.

“Huh––what do you mean?” Mean whispered back.

Trisk poked Mean in the side. “You find two strange men: you fight one––and make friends with the other. It sounds like you’re leaving out something.”

Mean smiled at her.

“Just make sure you tell me the rest later,” Trisk instructed, twisting a lock of her long, black hair around her finger. From behind them, Darrow began shouting.

“Wait! Wait! Stop! I heard something!”

The two girls broke out of their huddle and turned. “Heard what?” Mean asked.

Darrow was looking at the tops of the high walls surrounding the place. “Somebody said, ‘Wait,'”

Trisk frowned. “That was you––”

“No, I do hear something,” Mean whispered, as a small voice rose from the end of a long staircase. Trisk cocked her head to the side.

“I’m down here! Please don’t leave!” it said.

The group looked across the flight of stairs: it lead down through the staggered tiers to a space free of poles, platforms, and plants at the bottom. The large, twelve-sided shape rested on a pedestal there, but no person could be seen.

“This better not be another one of your tricks, Darklord,” Darrow warned, as the voice continued to call.

Trisk sighed, “Darrow, how and why would he be doing that?”

Darklord chuckled. “Let’s just go check it out,” he said, leading the way down. Darrow clomped behind him as Trisk overtook him in long bounds, her long legs skipping large sections of stairs.

“Yes, right here, by the engine,” the voice stated as the four reached the bottom. The large shape looked much like the one at the gazebo, but layered in bronze that was polished and smooth.

Darrow peered to the side of the thing, and then over his shoulder. “What is this, some sort of A.I.?”

“I’m very sorry to scare you like this,” the disembodied voice said. “I have no physical form here at all, so you really don’t need to keep searching for me.”

“No physical form?” Darklord repeated. “What are you?”

“Ghosts!” Darrow cried.

The voice spoke again, sounding from the top of the bronze construction. “That is almost correct––Darrow, is it? My consciousness, or soul, was separated from my body a long time ago. You can call me Tome.”

“Whoa, wait!” Mean exclaimed, pushing forward from the back. “Is this for real? You lived on this world!?”

The voice responded. “Yes. I think I’m the only one left. Unless you’ve seen others?”

“There aren’t any natives, if that’s what you’re asking,” Trisk said, turning her dark eyes upward. “But how do you know we’re not from around here? Been spying on us?”

“I’m sorry about that,” Tome said, “I’ve been watching since you arrived. I can only perceive magical patterns, however; I can’t see anything physical.”

Darrow nodded as if he understood everything, while Mean spoke up again.

“Hey! Tome! Do you know what happened to everyone here? What wiped everything out?”

There was a pause and she added: “My name is Mean, by the way.”

After another moment Tome answered. “I wish I knew;” he said, “I was reduced to this state before it all happened. But when the end came, there was no warning––nothing. I was here, watching the patterns in the yard. The rories, the people: their minds were all calm––then a portion of them just vanished. I thought that they had just left through the hex door, but the remaining patterns became frenzied, urgent. ‘My friend was killed,’ one thought, and then after a few minutes had passed the number of people was cut once again. The animals, too. Nothing was safe. Nothing but me, invisible, unable to help.”

Tome stopped speaking as the four looked to each other without any words between them.

“Then no one was left,” Tome finished. “I waited at this place, because it had a device that allowed me to speak. But no one ever came by here again. Not until today.”

Darrow looked down at his flowery shirt. “Oh man, I’m sorry,” he uttered. “I never really thought about what happened here; I just came to this planet to goof off a bit.”

There was a quiet chuckle from the top of the bronze shape. “There’s nothing you can do; don’t worry about it. Say––do you have any magic on your world? Is it the Eye? That planet that shines in the sky at night?”

“The Eye?” Dark repeated, “Yes, that’s it. But sorry; no magic.”

“So you know they call our planet the Eye, huh, Dark?” Darrow said. “Are you an alien ghost too?”

Trisk kicked Darrow’s heel with the toe of her shoe. “You can read about it anywhere, you dork.”

“He is wearing strange armor.” Tome stated. “I’ve never seen pattens like that. And I can’t see through it; his thoughts are blocked out completely.”

“My thoughts!” Darrow cried, grasping his head.

Tome just laughed. “I can’t hear you talk, so seeing the patterns your mind makes while thinking is all I can perceive. And Dark, I’m sorry if I sound suspicious of you. I really am glad to meet you all; I’ve been alone here for what feels like forever.”

“It’s fine,” Dark said, while Mean skipped up and gave the bronze object a loud, clanging pat.

“Yeah!” she cheered. “You can tell us everything about life here; you must have so many stories!”

“You really are too kind,” the voice of Tome said. “I’m not in that engine though; it just gathers magic to power devices. If you want to see me, there should be some visors hanging on hooks: put them on.”

Darrow ran to the pedestal before anyone else, snatching a crown off a bronze peg. Other types of headgear were hanging from knobs sticking out from the corners of the angular shape, with Mean and Trisk both taking ones with glass visors.

“It’s not working,” Darrow complained, stuffing his short hair under the crown’s band.

“You are so stupid, Darrow,” Trisk said, holding her visor up to her eyes with her hand, while Mean tightened hers to her head with a rubbery strap.

Tome laughed, the sound coming from over Darrow’s head now. “It’s okay; he took the crown that allows pattern-to-voice communication; you’ll be needing it to keep talking to me once you leave.”

“Oh wow!” Mean cried, looking from one thing to another. The objects she looked at appeared blurred now, while stark, elaborate designs snapped into focus over the blurs. A bench had a long pattern that extended over its width, while the poles holding up the balancing disks had patterns that were elongated and thin. Darklord had patterns running all over his armor; Trisk only had them on her sweater and head.

“Yeah, anything from our world is blank,” Mean observed, looking straight down at her brown sandals.

“That’s how it works,” Tome confirmed. “Anything created in the presence of magical energy gets a pattern. That pattern then holds the object’s information: weight, dimensions, composition––even its position in the universe; it is all there as data.”

“Can you reprogram the data?” Darrow asked, taking a visored helm from a peg.

“That is how we use magic,” Tome’s voice went on. “If you were to heat a stone in a fire, for example, you could watch the part of its pattern that reflected its temperature. Then you could take that data and magically place it into another object’s pattern: say, a stove. That stove would then heat up without need for a fire––as long as you had magical power to sustain the heat pattern.”

“All I see is a blurry mess through mine,” Darrow stated, smashing the visor on over the crown.

“That is me!” Tome announced. “My thoughts, anyway.”

Trisk switched arms as she held up the visor between her and Darrow. “I can’t see any patterns on our bodies.”

“Oh, bodies don’t have patterns,” Tome stated.

“Are you sure?” questioned Trisk, tugging on the hem of her sweater and looking upward again.

“Well,” Tome went on, “some people thought bodies had patterns, and that they were hidden. Such ideas were discouraged, to say the least. You can look all you want but you’ll never see them.”

“I’m looking, I’m looking!” Darrow wondered, leaning in closer with the visor and examining Trisk’s sweater.

“Oh, watch out Darrow!” she warned, leaning back. “Your brain’s pattern is getting smaller…smaller….” She lowered the lens from her face and sighed. “Your mind just disappeared. I’m sorry.”

Darrow tipped his crown up at her and turned away.

“Well, should we get going?” Dark asked.

Darrow held up his finger. “Just one more thing:” he began, “I want Tome to tell me how it was possible for you to have survived an explosion.”

“Well, do you mind Darklord?” Tome asked, to which Dark gave a shrug.

“Go ahead;” he chuckled, “I don’t even know how it works myself.”

“Alright,” the voice began, “First of all, the link between object and pattern goes both ways. Say, if that bench were to be flung by some physical force, the pattern would reflect that action. Likewise, if the magical pattern were to be changed by that gravity device Mean has, the mass would be flung without any physical means required.”

Mean held her hand over her navel. Tome continued. “There is another technique referred to as ‘static.’ Instead of changing an object’s pattern––you use magic to keep it as still as you can. Resistant to any change. Using this method, you can make shields and armor that are unbreakable––well, until you run out of magical power, that is. I’m guessing that Dark’s armor has static programming to keep the shape and temperature stable.”

“But it doesn’t save him from this!” Mean interrupted, waving her hand and sending Dark careening into the wall.

Darrow burst out laughing as Trisk covered a smile with the back of her hand. “Oh man!” Darrow spurted out before resuming his wild cackling again.

“Well, yes,” Tome went on to explain, “if the part of the pattern that dictated location was static, he wouldn’t be able to move around at all. Thank you for pointing that out.”

“I’m sorry, Dark, I’m sorry!” Mean laughed, as Dark yanked himself from the wall and marched back over to her. “I was just getting a bit bored; I know all this stuff already!”

“Forgive me;” Tome apologized, “I’m just so eager to be speaking again. If you need to get back to that station you mentioned before, I don’t want to delay you.”

Darklord stood next to Darrow, who had quit giggling at last. “We just had some trouble in the city we built here; not sure if going back would make any difference.”

“Your people built a whole city here!?” Tome exclaimed. “Where? What region?”

Darrow cleared his throat. “A big plain, full of grass. Nice place to build. I think you guys called it ‘Droldragia.’ Yeah, that’s what the hex door says.”

Tome chuckled a bit. “You’re kidding; you can’t go to that place. Where did you hear about that, Darrow?”

“He’s not joking,” Mean said. “That’s what it’s called. The hex door takes you right to a gazebo in a field; we built a road right by it that leads to our city.”

“A gazebo!?” Tome repeated, his voice louder now. “The Droldragia gazebo memorial!? The hex door lets you go there!?”

“Whoa, Tome, what’s wrong about that?” Darrow asked, looking up with wide eyes.

“That place is sealed off!” Tome’s voice boomed down, “It was abandoned! I can’t believe it––you actually built a city in the cursed land!? What happened to the barrier?”

“There wasn’t one!” Darrow said, “That’s why we built there: lots of room, no native structures––”

“Didn’t you think there was a reason we didn’t build there!?” Tome shouted. Mean began to ask something, but stalled. She turned to Dark, who looked back with a nod.

“This might explain it;” Dark began, “why we couldn’t find Kates.”

“And why everyone was acting so strange,” Mean finished, stepping up to him.

“It must still be there,” Tome uttered, “Of all the things to survive. Listen––you must never go back to that place!”

“Why don’t you just tell us what it is,” Trisk asked as Darrow stood frozen, clutching his shirt.

“Yes, I’m sorry,” Tome said. “I’ll tell you what I know.”

 

 

4 – The Cursed Land

 

 

“It happened almost twenty years ago––” Tome began, “the incident at Teery Mine. It took place in a cave that descends through a hole in the plains, and until that day not many had even remembered what the mine was for.

“There was a small family––they owned the land, as I recall––and they had a boy that liked to go play in the mine. Why they’d let him do that I don’t really know, but one day he came home talking about a new friend he had met there. Someone he called, ‘Circle.’

“I don’t think the parents believed him at first, but the boy told other children he knew; they all went into the cave together. When they came out they told stories about images on the rock walls, entire landscapes: a sea of clouds, glowing buildings, and bizarre animals grazing among tall towers.

“However, let me just take a moment to clear something up: creating images like this was not something new. Patterns of light can be recorded and saved; used to produce illusions of the original object. The scenes in Teery Mine, however, were unique: the images they displayed did not exist anywhere on this world. And, when adults began to make their way to the mine, the scenes got even stranger.

“People could now be observed walking around on the foreign landscapes––and they were all people that visitors to the cave had known. Only, the images weren’t of close friends or family, but of those that were rarely remembered. Old acquaintances, previous lovers––even those that had died were seen on the walls.”

“What would the point of this be?” Trisk interjected as Mean stood close to Dark.

“No one could figure it out,” Tome went on. “The cave would fill with fields of forgotten, doing nothing but staring at those entering the depths of the mine. And no one ever saw that person the first boy had claimed to have seen.”

Darrow edged closer to Trisk, and she made sure to sidestep an equal distance away.

“Eventually, those in power heard about what was going on,” Tome started again. “And although this whole event seemed harmless enough, the government felt the need to respond. They sent a small squad to disrupt what was happening: a group of pattern destroyers. They were to dismantle the mine until they found those responsible.”

Tome’s voice paused and sighed from atop the bronze engine. “But something sealed the entrance before they could reach it. Something real. The squad hurried to free those that were trapped, but they never made it.”

“Why not?” Mean asked.

“The circle appeared,” Tome uttered. “One man made it back, and he said that he saw it. The thing cut through their leader before they could even tell it was real: an organic creature, resembling little more than a large ring. It moved without any visible method of propulsion––they had no idea how to fight it. The creature just took them and did whatever it wanted. It left one man alive, and it just laughed at him until he escaped.”

Tome paused for a moment. “The government panicked after hearing the story, and sealed the area off. They left a crude hex door in the shape of a gazebo behind, leading to a well-guarded destination. About one week later, some people came through it. Their hands were dirty and worn from digging, and they had a new name for the creature now––they called it Hellzoo.”

Darrow gasped into his hands upon hearing the name. Trisk rose an eyebrow.

“Hellzoo?” Trisk repeated. “If it was a living thing, how has it survived?” She looked over at Mean. “You didn’t see anything like that, did you?”

“We didn’t,” Darklord said, turning and starting up the staircase. “But Mackaba did.”

Mean followed him up. “What? You mean that policeman?” she asked.

“Yeah, when he looked at Kates’ house through the camera,” he explained. “He wasn’t lying: he must have been seeing those illusions that Hellzoo creates.”

Trisk hurried after them, her boots clopping as she caught up. “But you were there; you didn’t see anything.” she said.

“It must not want to be seen by anyone else,” Dark said, glancing back at Mean. Her brown eyes opened wide.

“It must be able to see mind patterns like Tome can!” she cried. “So it knew I was coming each time I drove by––geez, it was probably hiding upstairs or something!” She shuddered, and the group reached the top tier.

“You could be right about that,” Tome said from above Darrow’s crown. “I was more skilled at reading specific thought patterns, but normal people could sense another’s basic presence, at least.”

Dark held up a finger. “But you can’t sense me in this armor, is that right?”

Darrow looked up as Tome answered. “Well, my attention wasn’t drawn to you until I heard the others thinking ‘who is this person with Mean.'”

Dark began walking over to the hex door. “Then it’s settled:” he said, “I’ll have to go after this thing alone.” He stepped between the six poles, and Trisk, Mean, and Darrow gathered around them.

“Well, if that armor protects you, I guess there’s no harm in taking a look,” Tome admitted.

Mean frowned, fidgeting with her hair.

“Don’t worry;” Trisk said, “if he can’t handle it, I’ll take care of things.”

Mean gave a weak laugh and turned back to Dark. “Thanks for doing this,” she told him. “Be careful.”

Dark turned to face them from the center.

“I’ll go in and bring her back,” he promised, then rose his voice: “Hex door, take me to Droldragia.”

“AT ONCE;” a voice chirped. “THANK YOU FOR VISITING STONE RORY REFUGE.” An array of bright lines lit up on the floor, connecting the poles to form a clear hexagon. Dark vanished with a sharp ripple.

“At once!” Tome repeated, mimicking the hex door’s mechanical voice. “No warning, restriction––it didn’t even ask for King’s toll! No wonder you all found Droldragia; someone’s been messing with the hex doors!”

“What do we do now?” Darrow asked. “Just wait for him to get back?”

“We can watch,” Tome said, as an image appeared between the two closest poles. It depicted a field and a sky, both glowing with orange, their similar tones set apart by a long, shadowy range of tall hills. The sun was rising just beyond them.

“I guess the sun’s just now coming up there,” Mean commented. “Where’s Dark?”

“There should be a control panel and dial;” Tome explained, “it changes the view’s angle.”

Mean wiped a hand over her shorts, then grasped a bronze knob set in the pillar. She kept her eyes on the scene as she twisted the knob, and the world through the magical image shifted. The sun scrolled to the left, along with one of the gazebo’s wooden support beams in the foreground. She halted the image as she found the long highway, centering on Kates’ house and the cluster of buildings further back.

Darrow peered at the road, pushing his crown up a bit. “Why is there a monster truck out there covered in furniture?”

“Shh!” Mean hushed him, “There’s Dark!”

 

—–

 

The man in dark armor strolled from the gazebo, stepping from the wooden planks to the grass. The yellow blades swished against his boots as he marched through, heading toward the single house ahead. Hardpan City stood beyond it, and the metal and glass gleamed in the orange sun. Dark flattened a straight trail as he progressed, rustling through the knee-high foliage.

Faint echoes of noise met him when he broke though the brush a minute later. He stood for a moment on a square, empty lot. Conversation, faint laughter––they emanated from the house, steady as plants rustled at Dark’s back.

“Okay, one person,” he said. “I can save one person, right?”

He took a short dash across the street to Kates’ driveway. Ducking a bit as he passed the blank windows, he stepped up to the porch, grabbed the door handle, and pushed his way in.

“Hey,” a teenager greeted, walking past the doorway. The young man paid little notice as he settled by a loud television, with kids of all ages playing a video game on the screen. A girl sat on a couch, taking sips from a cup. A short coffee table held many colorful gifts topped with bows. By the stairs, a couple of aged men stood at the banister, chatting. They paused, looked at Dark, then went back to their talk.

“Kates, are you here?” Darklord asked.

“Oh, she’s back that way, dear,” a woman announced, emerging from a long hall with a styrofoam cup in her hand. Above her head hung a banner: ‘So you’re finally 40!’

Dark reached out to the woman. No one reacted as he swept his arm through her midsection. He continued on.

“Kates!” he called out, as the kids from the front room cheered at something on-screen. More men and women meandered around him, some wearing bright attire and colorful hats. They were coming out of a room with a well-stocked bar.

“I think the kids are beating your game, Kay!” a man remarked, and Dark followed the voice in. There, at a table with a checkered tablecloth, sat a man and a woman. They both had streaks of gray in their hair, and the man talked on as the woman sat with no visible expression. Darklord approached them.

“You’re Kates, aren’t you?” he said. The woman turned to the window; a rock cliff dominated the view outside.

“Listen: we’ve got to leave;” he continued, “it isn’t safe here.”

“Isn’t this a great party?” The graying man laughed, as the woman pursued her stare through the glass.

“You think I’m one of them,” Darklord remarked. He lunged over the table. As he clasped her left arm she let out a shriek and jumped straight up in her chair.

“What is this!?” she cried, grabbing a kettle and striking the black glove that held her. There was a loud clang, and Dark recoiled, letting go.

“See? I’m not part of this;” he explained. “Mean told me to come find you.”

Kates drew her arm back, the pot firm in her hand. “Mean?” she repeated. “This isn’t––you’re a real person?”

Dark nodded, checking around him; the people conversing down the hall had grown quiet. “I know what’s keeping you here. It can’t see me, but we’ve got to hurry,” he pleaded.

Kates shook her head. “You need to run,” she said as the bright-suited party goers faded away. “I can’t make it. I tried to run but it caught me.”

Dark touched her shoulder. “I won’t let it hurt you; I promise!” he said, taking hold.

The man sitting across from Kates stirred. His limbs shuddered once, then settled. Frowning, he slid sideways in his chair, crossing his legs and putting an elbow on the table.

“Say, who’s this?” he asked. His gaze drifted off to the wall, and he pinched his finger and thumb together: at the space in front of his right eye. “I didn’t see you there; I’m so sorry.” Dark let go of Kates and turned to him.

“You must be Hellzoo,” he said.

The figure’s eyes bulged as a smile came to his face. “Oh, I’m so glad to hear that,” he remarked. “Not that silly name, of course, but it’s always nice to know someone’s thinking of me. Don’t you think so, Kates?”

“We’re not talking to you;” Dark said. He held out his hand to Kates, and though she did not take it, she stood up from the table.

Hellzoo frowned. “Kates is a rotten person,” he stated, drifting in Dark’s direction. His eyes did not meet him; they focused on the bar, the floor, the ceiling. “Did you see all of those people when you came in? She abandoned them. Decided it was more fun to come live in this house by herself.”

Kates, still holding the kettle, balled her other hand up in a fist. She did not look at the man as he continued to speak.

“You had so much,” Hellzoo said. “Well, more than some of us get. And you weren’t grateful at all.”

The kettle clunked on the carpet as Kates tossed it down. “No reason!?” she argued. “He lied to me constantly––and those people, my friends––took advantage of me whenever they could! Coming here was the best thing to happen to me before you showed up!”

“You’re the one making things painful,” Hellzoo retorted. “I can’t see very much where I am, but this day alone stands out in your head. These people gave you a party; I didn’t make it up.”

“One day!” Kates shouted. “This was the one day when they actually did everything right; the one day they didn’t do everything they could to abuse me!”

“You don’t have to defend yourself,” Dark said to Kates. “Let’s just go.”

Hellzoo uncrossed his legs, keeping his fingers pinched in front of his eye. “Yes, just go Kates;” he chuckled, “that’s what you’re good at. Unlike your husband, I might actually bother to come look for you.”

“Don’t listen to it,” Darklord said, putting a hand on Kates’ back. She turned away from the man at the table, letting Dark guide her way.

“Oh! I see what the problem is,” Hellzoo sang, standing up. “Someone thinks I’m not there. Someone thinks I can just be ignored.”

The window nearby went black as he spoke; down the hall, the light from the windows grew dim. All color faded from the house, leaving darkness.

“It did this before,” Kates whispered. “It’s coming.”

I was always here,” a shrill voice rang from where the front door had been. A point of red light gleamed, looping through the air. It left a bright streak as it traced a circle. Cracks of light emerged in the front windows, and the orange sun broke through. Kates clung to Dark, with the empty hall standing between them and the front door. A rust-colored ring hung there, too, casting a shadow over the bare floor. It widened, shrank, and widened again. Twisting, it soared at them––its round edge coming first.

Dark leapt forward and the ring collided against his chest with a thump, knocking him back into the bar. He crashed to the floor as the shape twisted over Kates next, swirling over her head as she flailed her arms at it.

Let’s go upstairs,” Hellzoo rang, constricting around the woman’s torso. She kicked with her legs as her body rose from the floor, her nightgown falling loose at the shoulders. Her body was hauled away from Dark, past the tall banister: her feet thumping over the tops of stairs as she was lifted from view.

Dark growled through his helmet, using a barstool to hoist himself up. Brushing past the fallen kettle, his steps resounded through the barren house as he chased them. Blank rooms flew by, washed over with orange light from the windows. Reaching the stairs and snatching the rail, he turned to go up. The front door was knocked open. He toppled to the carpeted stairs with a thud, twisting to see what had pinned him down.

“Been watching my camera;” Mackaba said, his wavy hair haggard and his face bruised, “knew you’d return––your kind always do.”

Dark flung his head back, his helmet striking the officer’s cheek.

“You’re just like that trollop,” Mackaba sputtered, yanking Dark’s arm back and pressing his body to the stairs. “Now tell me: where is she hiding?”

Mean stepped through the doorway. “I’m here,” she said.

Mackaba grimaced, twisting around to look. Mean’s arms were extended in front of her chest, palms outward: from the far end of the hall, the black kettle whizzed into her hands.

In the time it took for Mackaba to scream one more threat, the pot rebounded straight from Mean’s hands and into his face. He stared at the ceiling a moment before slumping down.

“I’m sorry, Dark,” Mean said in one breath as she scampered forward to help him up. “We were watching through the hex door––”

Dark shook his head, taking her arm as he stood. “Forget about him; that circle appeared––it took Kates upstairs.”

“She’s here? You found her!?” Mean exclaimed, dashing up the carpeted stairway to the upper floor.

Dark clomped up behind her, and they stood at the banister’s top, staring into the room: An open space with a side wall made of glass. The ring held Kates by the furthest wall from the stairs, and Mean stopped where she was. Through the large window, the grass field encircled the gleaming city.

“You want me to let her go,”  Hellzoo rang as Kates struggled. “You are confused.”

“She doesn’t want to be held here,” Mean shouted.

“She wants to be alone,” the voice chimed back. “She won’t stay with you either. Some people search their whole lives for what she had, and yet she throws it away.

“Stop lying,” Mean said, “We know all about you and what you did in that cave.”

Hellzoo laughed. It eased its grip on Kates and she slid to the ground.

I’ll let her go; you’ll see for yourself,” it said, expanding to a full circle again. Kates shuffled and put her back to the wall as the ring drifted up to the ceiling: the hollow center framed in rust-hued red. “She’ll be grateful––she might even thank you. But she’ll never fit in; she’ll hide somewhere else. What a waste of a person.

Hellzoo swooped down, slicing across the length of the room. Mean shrunk back as it whistled through the air toward her, and it stopped short of her held-up arms. It gnashed and it whirled a mere foot away, but it did not touch her; Dark had his arm hooked through the ring’s center.

“Still can’t see me?” he asked, locking his plated gauntlets together. Hellzoo cursed in response, tugging and clanking against Darklord’s grip.

Kates cheered, pumping her arms that still bore indentions from the ring.

Dark’s feet bounced from the ground as Hellzoo jerked toward the window, making a wide crack in the glass as it hit.

“I gotcha Dark!” Mean shouted, waving her hand at Dark and dragging him down until his boots dug deep on the carpet. The ring struggled in his interlocked arms.

Do you know who that girl thinks you are?” Hellzoo told him. “Don’t you think it’s going to be funny when she finds out the truth?

“You shut up!” Mean shouted back, taking the remote from her shorts pocket and pressing the large button twice.

You wallow in fantasy,” Hellzoo stated as two ornate, stone tables formed on Dark’s right and left sides. “You believe his armor hides someone great? I can’t wait to see the disgust in your mind when you find out!

Mean gritted her teeth and there was a loud clap as the two stone tables gravitated together. Dark pulled his arms out from between them with a long scrape, leaving the rust-colored ring sandwiched inside.

Yes, get rid of me!” Hellzoo screeched, bits of crimson flaking out from where the two tabletops ground against each other. “I’ll still be laughing at you––!

The voice cut off with a discordant wail as the two trembling stone tables twisted and slid apart. A shower of red paste spattered behind them: One table smashing through the window; the other, embedding itself in the opposite wall. The house shook, and the table outside sailed off toward the city, vanishing from sight. A few more shards of glass tinkled to the floor, and the noise of grass blowing in the breeze came up through the gap in the window.

Mean dropped to her knees. “Oh man,” she panted, wiping a sweaty strand of hair from her face. Dark sat in the room’s middle, looking around at the traces of Hellzoo littering the carpet. They were still, and the ringing voice was gone; the only other sound was Kates’ slippered foot, stamping out the lingering pieces of the circle.

“I need to learn some magic,” she stated. Mean chuckled, rushing over to hug her.

“We need to get you a new place to live!” Darklord added, still sprawled out on the floor.

Mean let go of Kates and she smiled, helping Dark up next. The three left the house, walking through sunshine and rustling through grass as they made their way outside and back to the hex door.

As they left the long, vacant plains behind, Mean did her best to forget what the monster had said.

 

5 – Parlay

 

There was a hill with a crater punched into its side: The trees there had been smashed down to their bases, with patches of new plant growth emerging. A tan helicopter rose on the opposite side of the hill, bearing a barbed hook insignia on its tail. Leaves and branches on the edge of the crater bobbed under the swirling rotors, the machine whirring forward as it passed the top of the crest.

In the valley beyond, an immense building shaped like a pyramid stood. The top was flat, and the triangular walls narrowed down to the ground, meeting at a single point. Windows set in the angular sides overlooked a river, and the sun caught the surface of the building and the water. On the ground, many tents and makeshift concessions were lying in tattered ruins. Great lengths of steel track were torn, twisted, and spread throughout the area.

The helicopter soared far over the wreckage, and approached the high, level surface of the pyramid. It settled with a mechanical whine, and a sharp draft scattered away stray bits of sun-bleached clothing. The rotating blades slowed, and the cockpit creaked open: out from the door two giant boots swung. A man wearing a bulky blast suit adorned with J-shaped fishhooks leapt to the roof.

He slammed the door and checked a gun at his hip, hanging in a holster on his olive-hued armor. Scanning the empty grandstands encircling the area, he spied a domed curve covering a wide flight of descending stairs. There, a tall man in an overcoat watched him as he approached.

“A captain of the police,” the man in the long coat stated.

“Yes,” the captain replied, stepping around a small patch of the roof blackened by scorches. “Are you here alone?”

“Sure am,” the man in the overcoat responded, smiling at the captain’s rectangular name tag. “Ecks. Captain Ecks.”

“Uh-huh,” said the captain. His countenance displayed many wrinkles, framed by an stiff hood that rose from the neckline. “I’m looking for a blond-haired man and a boy. Have you seen them around?”

The man in the overcoat put a hand on his smooth, dimpled chin. He stroked it with an exact, repetitive motion. From a hex door nearby, a new voice called out. It was as high-pitched as a child’s.

“Hello?” it squeaked.

The man in the overcoat moved, a low roll sounding under the hem of his coat. “I’m here,” he answered, towering over the hexagon-marked spot near the roof’s railing.

“Sow-wy,” the voice started. “I was busy. Aw you Tyle?”

“That’s my name,” Tyle confirmed, taking a backward glance at the captain. “I found my way here, but the stairs leading down aren’t exactly handicap-friendly, so––”

“Oh!” the child uttered. “I fo-got! Just step in the hexagon please!”

Tyle inched forward as the six markers ahead became joined by bright lines, and the captain was quick to stride forward with him. The roof and sky vanished, and a plush interior enclosed the pair.

“You don’t look handicapped,” Captain Ecks said. The man in the overcoat lifted it, revealing a single orb socketed into a stalk.

“I’ve got a Dhaston orb where my leg used to be,” Tyle stated. “I’m afraid I can’t show you more––I’ve got a reputation as a gentleman, you know.” He tittered, turning his head from the captain and gliding out of the room. In the joining passage, slanted windows here displayed a view of the valley, with the other side of the hall lined with numbered doors.

“Fine, smart guy,” Ecks growled.  Tyle smiled, still moving ahead with his hands in his overcoat’s pockets. He coasted along, upright and straight. The captain marched after him with his mouth clenched shut.

At the end of the hall stood closed double doors: A mark on them both was comprised of many triangles overlapped with each other. Several lines were thickened to form a large ‘K,’ and the design swung out of the way as the doors parted. A short teenager wearing sunglasses stood on the other side.

“Hello Tyle!” he said, in the same childish voice that had sounded through the hex door. “Oh, who is that?”

Behind the boy a blond-haired man leaned against a desk, toying with a necklace that hung over his vest.

“It’s no problem;” he hummed, “you brought me the person I wanted to see.” He let go of the necklace and extended his arm. “Mr. Dhaston, welcome to the Imperial Pyramid––I’m Parlay.”

The man in the overcoat glided past the boy, and his hand met Parlay’s after two jerky movements.

“Ah, I can see why you have need of my help,” Parlay said, letting go after a shake. “And what is the old man here for?”

“I just came to ask a few questions,” Captain Ecks announced from behind his stiff hood. “A source heard you propositioning this kid after Lord Ley Tecker’s speech: Manual labor in exchange for, ‘a device that could regenerate organic decay.’ Do you deny this?”

The blond-haired man’s eyebrows rose. He smiled. “I see now,” he said. “You’re the police.”

“And my name is Dwing!” the teenager informed the officer, his gaunt hand still at the door’s handle.

“Be quiet,” the captain growled. “Under law, a minor’s work and wages must be recorded by the employer. I’ll have to ask you to come back with me to Hardpan HQ so we can sort this out.”

Tyle rolled his eyes, snorting, as Parlay pushed himself from the desk and stood. His smile disappeared. “I will do no such thing;” Parlay said, “I invited Mr. Dhaston to come here––not you. Please leave through the hex door down the hall.”

“Yeah, Pa-lay doesn’t have to listen to you!” Dwing chimed in from the doorway. “I don’t need to follow laws!”

The captain backed into the office wall, facing all three, nodding with his stern face. He yanked his pistol out of its holster. Tyle stopped chuckling and the teenager yelped.

“You’re right,” Ecks said, pointing the gun at Parlay with both hands. “I could shoot you all and they couldn’t do a thing––not like they’re coming back for us anyway.” He nodded at the amulet dangling over Parlay’s vest. “Now which object heals people? Is it that necklace? Toss it over here.”

Parlay folded his arms. “No, I won’t.”

“Please don’t shoot,” Dwing pleaded, “You aw the police, please don’t.”

“Police!” Ecks repeated, “Police of what––that empty city? You sound like one of my troopers: ‘We can’t leave! Tecker told us to stay!'”

He squeezed the trigger and the gun’s muzzle flashed. Parlay stumbled and fell to a rug spread on the black, marble floor.

“Pa-lay!” Dwing shouted. Parlay groaned as he grabbed at one leg, the material in his slacks torn away. Tyle began to back out towards the hall.

Ecks stomped forward, taking one hand from the gun to grasp at a chain running across Parlay’s exposed neck. In one swift motion he tore the necklace away, then placed it around his own head; the locket fell below the armor’s olive neckline. “Now you have no choice––” the captain commanded, “show me how to use it if you want to be healed.”

Parlay’s breath could be heard as he kneeled, rubbing his leg and staring at the rug on the ground. “Your kinsman will return; they’re not dead,” he explained with a steady voice. “That disease uses magic to spread infection; it’s harmless on your world, where there isn’t a trace.” He clasped his hand on one knee and pushed up from the rug.

The captain placed both hands on his weapon again. Parlay stood, his unblemished skin visible through the tear the bullet had made.

“Our world?” Ecks uttered, backing into the wall. The teen erupted with laughter.

“Aw man, Pa-lay, you had me!” he giggled, banging his fist on the door. Tyle smirked down at him.

“I didn’t want to scare Dwing when I first met him,” Parlay said, cornering the captain as he strolled forward. “That’s why you heard that lie about needing a device to perform magic.”

Ecks jerked his head to the laughing boy and then back to Parlay, pointing the barrel of the weapon to the blond-haired man’s face. “There weren’t supposed to be any of you left,” he stammered. “They all died. They––”

“A boy can handle the truth better than you can.” Parlay said, his face inches away from the weapon in Ecks’ shaking hands. With a smooth movement he rose his arm, taking the gun barrel and holding it still.

“I am the last person here,” he declared, his yellow eyes meeting the captain’s. “An attack came, indiscriminate––erasing everyone that I knew. I had no chance to tell them goodbye; there was no warning or time to prepare. Years alone, with only their empty houses and memories for company.” He scoffed and released the pistol. “You’re going to challenge the one to survive that? You’re going to make me suffer?”

Ecks averted his gaze, looking to the opposite window. He squeezed his eyes shut with a curse, dropped the gun, and flipped a latch on his collar. A blast visor rose up and sealed itself to the stiff hood.

“Autopilot:” he gasped from behind the mirrored screen, “Arm Staccato; fire on my position!”

“Oh geez,” Tyle uttered, inching back to the hall again. “They have a staccato?”

The captain dove to the ground and covered his neck with his hands, and Parlay turned to the window. A growing patter rattled the pane.

“I got it, Pa-lay!” the teenager announced, leaping from the doorway. He faced the window as the helicopter descended: its dark form hanging against the valley’s green hills.

Dwing extended his little finger and he made three precise movements; streaks glowed and formed a hexagon in midair where he gestured. He covered his ears as the helicopter maneuvered sideways, revealing a long barrel protruding from the cockpit.

Tyle’s arm snapped up to his face, and a quick flash illuminated the room along with a punctuated smack. Peeking through his fingers, he saw Dwing with his palms clamped to his head, laughing at the helicopter outside. The window between them was punctured with a glowing, round hole: The glass warped inward and dripping liquified blobs. The echo of the quick shot could be heard beating between the hills, and Parlay held a finger to his ear as the vehicle rose out of sight.

“See? I can make a hex dol!” Dwing remarked with a grin, turning to Tyle. “One place leads to anoth-a; even bullets aw caught in it!”

“Nice job, Dwing,” Parlay said. “I hope no one was standing on the other side of the hex door, though.”

Tyle Dhaston wrinkled his dimpled chin at them. The captain arose from where he was crouched by the wall. “Something’s––what happening!?” he coughed from behind his visor.

“Oh, that’s right,” Parlay sighed. “You stole my pendant.”

Captain Ecks cried out as a muffled slap rang out from his armor. He shuffled forward, his heavy boots slipping a bit on the rug as the smacking became quicker and rhythmic.

“The ignorant die: it’s the sad truth on this world,” Parlay said, watching Ecks whimper and claw at his chest. “The people here focused their magic on preserving their buildings, their clothes, food––everything but themselves.”

The captain rocked his head backward and screamed, his arms jerking out to the side as the noises inside of him slowed and ceased.

“I was willing to share the secret of my invulnerability with others,” Parlay went on as Captain Ecks became still, “but they were afraid. And I, also being ignorant then, respected their wishes and did not impose my beliefs on them.”

A last breath rasped from the still suit of armor that now stood rigid in the room’s center. The armored captain toppled and crashed to the cold, marble floor.

“And this is what happens,” Parlay said to Dwing. “This is what happens when people are given the choice to be fools.” He kicked one side of the rug, covering Ecks with it.

 

 

 

6 – Hilo Water Plaza

 

 

The room was lit by no source; its sides smooth and shiny. Darrow and Trisk stood next to a row of lockers, talking as the six pillars in the corner popped.

“Hey guys,” Mean greeted them, kicking her sandals away as she stepped out of the hex door.

Darrow turned away from his conversation with Trisk. “The slayer of demons returns!” he cried. He was shirtless now, wearing only a pair of bright swimming trunks along with the crown from Stone Rory.

Mean shook her head. “Dark was the one who found Kates;” she said, “I just ran out to help.”

Dark came out from the six pillars next, his boots echoing. “You’re the one that smashed it,” he said. “All I did was hold it still.”

“So that killed it?” Trisk asked from the corner. “It didn’t just go back into hiding?”

Tome spoke from above Darrow’s head. “If it was able to exist without a body, like me, I would have been able to see it when we went back to pick up that unconscious person. However, I did notice something unusual––something about Mean.”

Mean tugged on the hem of her shirt, tensing up. “What? What did you notice?” she asked.

“Well,” Tome started, “When I first met you at Stone Rory I saw that your gravity-altering device was quite low on power. Then, when you pushed Dark into to the wall, it was drained of magic completely.”

“Well, yeah,” Mean said. She brushed at the bump under her shirt. “I guess I forgot to charge it up after we ran away from Mackaba.”

“And when you ran through the hex door to help Dark and Kates, did you stop to refill its power at the engine?” Tome asked.

Mean brushed a bit of hair back from her eyes. “No, I didn’t,” she said.

Darrow pointed at her. “But didn’t Dark say you smashed it with tables?” he asked. “What, did you––?”

Trisk pushed her way past him. “It means that you used your own magical power,” she told Mean, slapping the smaller girl’s shoulder with a smile.

“Exactly!” Tome said. “I wasn’t sure if people from your world were able! Fantastic job!”

“Well, thanks,” Mean said, glancing back at Dark’s congratulatory nod. “I wasn’t really aware of it though; it just kind of happened.”

“That’s usually how it works,” Tome explained. “Students train with tools like yours, and eventually their minds learn how to create the pattern through repetition.”

“This calls for a celebration!” Darrow announced the second Tome finished his sentence. “Swimsuits are in the lockers by the wall, and the changing rooms are right through there, past the white benches.”

“Darrow, what are you talking about?” Trisk groaned.

“Why do you think I told you to meet here?” Darrow said. “Swimming! I looked it up: This is Hilo Water Plaza, the world’s best water park.” He pointed at the entrance to the next room, where a yellow banner read: ‘Hilo Water Plaza: World’s Best Water Park!’

“So where’s the water?” Mean asked, walking under the banner and to the next room. The space was long, and filled with numerous tables. There also were also fountains, wells, hoses and spigots, with no amount of liquid contained anywhere in them.

“Well, there’s gotta be a pool somewhere,” Darrow told himself, sitting down under a large engine that hung from the ceiling. A plastic mannequin dressed in a suit sat upon a beam in the rafters: Tipping a flat-topped straw hat and smiling down at the group as they entered the area. Trisk saw it and shuddered.

“How do you find such bizarre places Darrow?” she asked. “I’d rather be in that cave from Tome’s story.”

Darrow sighed. “It looked awesome on that poster I saw; there was water everywhere.” He sat, resting his elbows on the clear, glass tabletop. “I thought it would cheer up Kates, too. Where is she, Mean? Didn’t you tell her to come?”

“Yeah, I invited her,” Mean said, taking a seat at the table as well. “I think she just wants to be alone for a while.”

Darrow scratched at his shoulder. “She shouldn’t be alone now,” he said. “Are you sure?”

“Hellzoo forced her to be surrounded by people,” Dark said. “There’s no reason for us to do the same thing.”

Darrow leaned back in his seat and frowned. “But––”

“Wait,” Tome said, interrupting them. “Something’s happening; be careful!”

Mean shrieked. “Whoa, something wet!” she cried, lifting her bare feet from the floor; a thin film of liquid was pooling under the table.

Darrow hopped up as the clear liquid spread. He yelped as a jet of water erupted from a hose laying nearby, followed by many more bursts coming from the room’s spigots and nozzles.

The water deepened as it flowed from everywhere now: Gushing from hoses and bubbling up from the wells. It even poured from above, out of the hat of the smiling mannequin that sat in the rafters. Trisk sloshed out of the way as it doused her.

“Wonderful,” she groaned, slinging her soggy hair over her shoulder.

“Oh man what is happening!?” Darrow cried, the water level now up to his waist. The smooth walls were now slick with liquid, and there was a grind as two of them lifted from the sides of the room.

The water exploded onto the twin balconies beyond, rushing out of the room and into the daylight. The deluge crashed into a short, solid fence overlooking a hill, funneling into the round openings of plastic tubes.

“Water slides,” Dark stated, grasping the table as his boots slipped out from under him.

“I see, the park must be automated,” Tome said.

“Well it’s about time it decided to wake up!” Darrow cheered, losing all apprehension, hopping down, and wading through the water that was maintaining a knee-deep level. Reaching the brink where the slide’s openings gurgled, he looked out to see the tubes snaking over the hillside. Some slides had open tops, and some were larger than others: they all lead to scattered locations where they emptied into large pools. Water flowed at these places as well; churning through wheels, statues, umbrellas and fountains.

“I guess I’ll go get my swimsuit,” Trisk said, eyeing a wobbly shape closing in on Darrow from beneath the water.

“Me too!” Mean cried, springing out. He yelped and staggered away as she began to splash him.

“I didn’t even see you––how long were you down there!?” he asked, shielding his face. “How did you hold your breath for so long?”

“Odd Water:” Mean announced, pointing out a sign on the wall that was now illuminated by light from outside. She read the rest, using her other hand to fend off Darrow’s counter-splashes. “A special modification of water’s pattern to allow breathing while immersed. The pattern has been adjusted for maximum comfort; enjoy and swim freely. Do not remove odd water from Hilo Water Park Grounds.”

“Amazing,” Darrow marveled.

Mean followed Trisk to the next room where they both left through the hex door, and Darrow sloshed to the table where Darklord now sat. A light, cheery tune played from somewhere, faint over the lapping of water around them.

“I can’t believe we get this whole place to ourselves!” Darrow remarked as he took in the transformed surroundings again.

Dark chuckled through his helmet. “I might have liked it better before; I don’t think that the powers of Darklord include swimming.”

“Well enjoy it while you can;” Tome broke in. “If you guys found this place then others can too. How many people from your planet are here anyway?”

“A couple hundred maybe?” Darrow said, shrugging. “There were a few thousand at first, but then that Whiskers virus drove everyone off.”

“Whiskers?” Tome repeated, “I don’t think I’ve heard of that. But if it’s magic-based, all you would need is a trip back to your planet to suppress it; since there’s no magic there like you say.”

“Well they figured out that part,” Darrow went on, “but the government didn’t want to take any risks––they evacuated the city they built. The Lords Ley let anyone healthy stay behind if they wanted, though; that’s why we’re still here. They’re probably voting about what to do next.”

“Who are the Lords Ley?” Tome questioned again. “Are they your leaders?”

“I guess,” Darrow responded. “They just vote on laws. They all live on the top of this giant cliff that curves around the east side of the continent. There are like a hundred guys up there.”

“Fifty-five,” Darklord corrected.

“Yeah,” Darrow said. “They each have unique subtitles like, ‘Education’ and ‘Medicine.’ Bills and all the junk they vote on have these labels too. So if an act to fund schools came along, it would be tagged as ‘Education’ and the Lord Ley of Education’s vote would count more.”

“How strange,” Tome said as Mean appeared in the next room. Still wearing shorts, her shirt had been swapped with a speckled orange bikini top.

“What’s strange?” she asked, the water level up to her waist as she swished her way over. She sat with her head peeking over the water’s bobbing surface.

“The Lords Ley and their rules,” Darrow stated, looking past Mean to check the hex door. “You know, Tome, they didn’t even tell us about your civilization at first.”

“They didn’t?” Tome wondered. “What happened?”

“The Overland Uproar is what happened!” Darrow announced. “Now, they had been sending probes over here on rockets for years; they knew that there was life here. The Lord Ley of Astronomy was in charge of most of this, and he wanted to tell the whole world.”

“Lord Ley Vail,” Darklord filled in.

“Yeah,” Darrow continued, “Anyway, Lord Ley Vail always voted to reveal the existence of life here––well, that life had existed––but the other Lords Ley voted him down. I think they were just a bunch of jerks, really.”

“But then something great happened:” Mean broke in, looking up at the others with bright eyes. “A new Lord Ley! Now, this guy isn’t voted in like the others; he fills a position that’s changed every few years. For this position, a random person is chosen, tested, and then given a title that best suits the results.”

“I changed into my swimsuit just to talk politics?” Trisk said, wading in.

“Trisk!” Darrow shouted, nearly jumping out of his seat as he watched her and the one piece swimsuit that she was wearing.

Mean twisted around in the water. “I was just about ready to tell Tome about Tecker,” she said, swirling her arms at her side.

“Well I want to swim,” the tall girl stated, her long legs churning past Mean as she headed past the group, off to the open water slide area.

“Please forgive her rudeness, Tome,” Darrow asked, propping himself up to watch Trisk work her way into a tube and slide down.

“Anyway,” Mean started again, swishing her body and attention back to the table. “A man named Tecker Ponce was the guy chosen to fill the random Lord Ley role. He worked at an underground factory, but his favorite hobby was astronomy––so that’s the area he tested well in, and it’s the title he got.”

“So what happened to the previous Lord Ley of Astronomy?” Tome asked. “Did he take his place?”

“No, he didn’t,” Dark answered. “The random Lord Ley doesn’t replace the one that shares his title––they both get to vote. The two joined forces and broke the stalemate; the classified information about this planet was released.”

“Oh man!” Darrow exclaimed, tapping his fingers on the table. “I remember when all that stuff was de-classified. Magic, genocide––I couldn’t believe it. Everyone at my work was so ticked off that they’d been lied to all this time.”

“Yeah,” Mean agreed, “a lot of people demanded that the hex door technology be used to travel here. Tecker and Vail listened, and with the people on their side, the other Lords Ley didn’t even try to stop them.”

Darklord peered around the table-top, to where Mean floated in the odd water. “I’m surprised that you know about all of this,” he said.

“Yeah,” Darrow said, tilting his head. “How did you know where Tecker lived and what his job was; did you watch a documentary?”

“Wuh–well,” Mean stammered as she sunk down further into the water. “Tecker is important. He’s the reason we’re even here right now.”

Darrow nodded, scratching under his crown. “Vail was part of it, but Tecker broke the stalemate,” he admitted. “Man, I wish I could meet those guys.”

“You didn’t see Tecker?” Mean asked, rising up with a splash. “He was the speaker at the party I met you at!”

Darrow’s jaw dropped. “That’s who that guy was?” He gasped, smacking his palms on the table. “I was just there for the free drinks! Dang, wish I’d known.”

Mean tugged on one of her bikini top’s straps, shaking her head.

“Are you all still going on about that!?” Trisk shouted, her voice resonating nearby. The three turned to see her at the hex door again, and she was dripping wet and staring at them.

“That slide is amazing,” she told everyone, taking her long hair and wringing it. “It doesn’t just take you down; there are hex doors at the end of each one. It warps you all over, taking you all around the park: Over the pools, past the waterwheels”––she stopped to take a breath––”and some tubes are transparent so it feels like you’re flying. Then, when you’re about done, the odd water builds up and shoots you out like a cannon, right next to a pool-side hex door that takes you back here to do it over again.”

She gave them an expectant glare as she reached back to tighten the swimsuit’s strings laced behind her neck. “And you’re all just sitting up here talking.”

Darrow brought the conversation to an end by climbing over the table to get to the slides. Trisk raced him there, and Mean tugged Darklord away from the table, promising to use her magic to retrieve him if he sunk.

 

—–

 

Night fell on Stone Rory Refuge. The sun descended below the tops of the high walls. Mackaba jerked from his slumber, his body prone on a large bed of vines.

“Ugh, what?” he mumbled, wriggling up and pushing away from the pulpy mass.

He stared with half-open eyes for a moment, listening to a branch scrape against an outer wall as the wind blew it. Shafts of light cut through the darkness around him: illuminating shell-shaped stones, pillars, and plants––yet shining from no visible source. There was a flutter from beneath his chin.

Slapping his chest, he pulled off a note that was taped to his uniform:

“Dear Makeba,” it read, “I am sorry for hitting you so hard. We used a first aid kit from my car and we left it there with you along with water. My friend Trisk had to carry you to Stone Rory Refuge because of a monster––”

Mackaba snorted, flipping the note away.

“Little trollop,” he muttered, standing and kicking over a nearby canteen. He tottered for a moment, taking hold of a thin pillar, then tapped at his forehead with his other hand. Blood stained his white glove.

“Bandages,” he spat, trudging away through a lighted path. “I could have a fracture––unbelievable.”

His rambling trailed off as he saw the six thin pillars ahead, and he broke into a jog, heading for them.

“Hex door!” he commanded. “Take me back to––ah, what was it––? Droldragia? No, wait!”

He tapped at his head, swept some of his hair from the bandage, then asked: “Can you tell me who used this hex door last?”

“I’M SORRY,” a woman’s voice answered back, “THEY HAVE NO PROFILE IN OUR SYSTEM.”Mackaba paced, tripping a bit over some vines that grew out of a crack in the tiles. He spoke again. “Can you tell me where this door lead the last time it was used?”

“HILO WATER PLAZA: PRIVATE SUITE A,” the voice answered.

He tugged at his blood-stained uniform, stepping into the hexagonal pattern. “Take me there,” he said, finding himself in a smooth-walled room the moment he spoke.

He twirled around on the platform, skimming over the signs about odd water and safety, checking over the half-open lockers that revealed wet swimsuits and clothing. Raising an eyebrow, he noticed the water swirling outside the hex door’s perimeter.

Keeping an eye on the hall leading to the next room, he squatted down near the water and scooped some up in his hand. He sniffed it, tasted it, then let it splatter out of his fingers.

He rose up to full height and shook his glove dry, stepping off the hex door platform. His tan pants sloshed as he went and he bent down again, this time taking a sandal that had been bobbing on the surface. Taking his name tag off with a snap, he pressed it to the end of the shoe where five tiny indentations had worn.

The name ‘Mackaba’ vanished from the glossy tag, and more words appeared: “Prints incomplete. Display 9,407 possible matches?”

“You stupid thing!” Mackaba grumbled, tapping commands into it. “Just check the people on this world!”

A new name appeared on the surface, along with a portrait of forward-facing girl.

“Mean Lavir,” the officer uttered, strolling to the next room where tables sat cluttered with a few empty cups. Water was still flowing over and out of everything in the room, glimmering between long shadows from the low sun outside.

“Hair: Sandy Brown,” Mackaba read aloud as he began a patrol of the room.

“Eyes: Sandy Brown,” he continued, looking out over the park from the ledge.

“Skin: Sandy Brown,” he finished, marching back to the hex door as his legs splashed up to the platform.

“Hex door,” he asked, “is there some sort of control room for this place? Can you take me there?”

“YES; SUITE HILO,” a man’s voice answered this time, and the room disappeared as a deluge of water crashed onto Mackaba from all sides.

“Hex door!” he cried as the odd water covered him. He squeezed his mouth shut as he fought to rise up, thrusting his limbs down and shooting through the stuff to the ceiling. He gasped as the wound on his head hit, taking in the odd water.

“Wait,” he croaked, drawing in more. “I’m breathing. I can breathe?”

He tested it a while, then pushed away from the roof. He kicked his feet and stroked with his arms: maneuvering through the liquid with a laugh.

Swirling upright again, he looked over at a large collection of monitors lined with images that wriggled and jerked. A chair was bolted to the floor in front of them, along with an empty suit that bobbed and twisted upon itself. A flat-topped straw hat was suspended nearby. Mackaba swam over. On the monitors, grids were overlaid with the odd water––marking the surface.

“Sandy Brown, Sandy Brown,” he sang. “You’re going to drown, Sandy Brown.”

 

 

 

7 – Reunion of Lovers

 

 

Darrow sat outside, with his elbows sunk into the padded armrests of a long lounge chair. A tray with a keg sat on his right, while another tray with a computer screen was positioned near his legs. A canopy of thick tree branches and blue, translucent leaves hung above him, supported by a vast forest of trunks.

“Hey Mean,” he addressed the monitor, where the brown-haired girl’s face appeared.

“Darrow, is everyone decent?” she asked. “Can I come on over?”

“Yeah,” he answered, then leaned in towards the monitor with a whisper. “Dark didn’t even take off that armor to sleep, though. I swear: he must be a robot or something.”

She rolled her eyes and vanished from the screen. Nearby, six torches marked off a circle, and soon Mean appeared in the center. Darrow watched as she tilted her head back to take in the view; the sunlight shone down in blue shafts through the overgrowth above.

“Nice plant life here, right?” he said. “It looks as if the trunks actually grow down from the canopy, using the other trees for support until they can root into the soil. See? There’s a wooden, spiky-looking thing hanging just over there. They just drill right down into it.”

Mean looked to where Darrow was pointing, to a trunk dipping down from the top; its tip sharp and directed at the grass.

“Wow,” she said, “You really like plants.”

“I love plants,” Darrow confirmed with a nod.

Mean continued to gaze around, her eyes roving across a small building––the only one in sight. A colorful mural ran around its round sides, depicting rows of warriors dressed for battle. The scene was split: the upper torsos with brandished weapons were drawn near the ground; while the portion with the legs was up by the flat roof.

“Is Dark in there?” Mean asked, looking at a thin window that encircled the building.

“Oh, no,” Darrow said, looking back to his monitor and typing. “I can’t find a way in.”

“What?” Mean cried. “Well, where is he then? I told him he could stay with you; I thought you had a place for him to sleep!”

Darrow looked up from the screen. “Yeah, there’s a place––it’s right over there.”

He propped himself up in the chair, pointing over at two black boots sticking out from a bushy tangle of weeds.

“You made him sleep in the grass!?” Mean bellowed, running over.

“Oh, hey,” Dark said, his dirty helmet rising from the foliage, “I didn’t know you were here.”

“Dark, I’m sorry!” Mean stammered, helping him up. “I thought he at least had a bed!”

“Eh, no problem,” Darklord assured, standing. “It’s better than the flat floor of that gas station building.”

Mean brushed him off, then stomped back to where Darrow sat.

“Hey, what’s the big deal?” he said. “Just make him a waterbed or something with that remote control you carry around.”

Mean growled. “I will!” she informed him. Noticing his bare head, she pointed at it. “Hey, what did you do with Tome’s crown?”

Darrow ran his fingers through his brow. “I don’t wear all my clothes to bed,” he explained. “Not like some weirdos.” He twisted around and looked into the forest behind him. “I just kind of tossed him back there somewhere.”

“Darrow!” Mean chided again, kicking his tray and sending the keg on it toppling over. He rushed to catch it as she trekked off through the brush.

“I really am grateful for anyplace to stay,” Dark said as Darrow set the round keg up again.

“Well, what’s the fun of having a tropical paradise if you can’t show it off?” Darrow reasoned, pushing the computer tray off to the side and wiggling out of his chair.

“And the jungle is nice,” Dark said. “Did you live on one of the fringe islands before?”

Darrow thumped the keg, and a large liquid-filled mug appeared beneath the steel faucet. “No way,” he said, gulping the beverage and loudly exhaling. “I was stuck as a programmer in Wellstone Technologies’ underground level: By the time my shift was over it was night.” He took another drink, his rant building. “I never want to go back to that––being shut up all day and never seeing the sun.”

“I suppose not,” Darklord replied.

“Hey!” Mean yelled, hopping over a toppled tree trunk on her way back. “Darrow, you tossed that crown like a mile!”

“Well, I’m grumpy when I’m tired,” Darrow said, taking back the headpiece as it was thrust toward his hands. “And he was talking in his sleep.”

“I’m quite sorry;” the voice of Tome said, “I should have explained how to turn the mechanism off.”

“Don’t worry about it, Tome;” Darrow said as he fitted himself with the crown. “I’ll just wear earplugs. Dark snores, and I can’t just toss him out into the forest.”

“I––what!?” Dark uttered. Mean walked past him, chuckling, toward the hex door. “I turned off my voice system and I’m encased in armor; how in the world would you have heard me snoring?”

“You guys can argue about it until I get back;” she said. “I’m going to check on Mackaba before I forget.”

Dark rushed around Darrow and caught up to her side. “I’ll go with you,” he said, walking with her to the six tall, unlit torches. “I want to try talking to him again. He needs to understand that he can’t just go around attacking people.”

“And what if he doesn’t understand that?” Mean offered. “We can’t just lock him up, can we?”

“Have fun you guys!” Darrow called out from his chair.

Mean and Darklord stood side-by-side as the blue forest vanished, and the high walls of Stone Rory Refuge appeared at their backs. The vine-covered top tier sat before them, and Mean strode over the gritty tiles, looking at a spot beneath one of the balancing, plant-bearing disks.

“Gone,” she said. ” He left the water and my note behind.”

Mean bent down to retrieve the canteen, and felt a silent tap on her shoulder. She looked up to Dark, who directed her gaze down the stairs to the very lowest level: A man was working at the bronzed engine there. His attention was focused on the many-sided figure, and his right leg was comprised of a shining, metallic stalk. The chassis’ plating was silver, and an orb was socketed into the bottom. Sweat soaked through his white cutoff shirt, causing it to stick to his back. His neck and left arm were showing the start of a tan, contrasting with a much paler right arm. A long trench coat sat folded on a bench nearby.

“Who is that?” Mean whispered.

Dark ducked down, his armor clicking as he squatted.

“I think––I think that’s Tyle Dhaston,” he answered.

“Dhaston?” Mean repeated. “The famous ball guy?”

A loud snap sounded from below, followed by a clang across the ground. Dhaston muttered something, still busying himself with the engine.

“What’s he doing here?” Mean continued in soft tones. “Doesn’t he work at that car company? And why would he be here, at this specific place? Did Mackaba tell him to look for us?”

“I guess we’d better find out,” Dark said, standing up.

“Hey!” Mean called.

Dhaston stopped what he was doing; the stalk swiveled his body around, turning on the orb-shaped mechanism at the bottom. His left foot rested on a pedal just above the wheel.

“What do you want?” he called up.

Mean cleared her throat. “We want to know––”

“I can’t hear you up there,” Dhaston said. He rolled sideways to the foot of the stairs, his right arm beckoning with a stiff motion. Mean grumbled after a moment and the two started down.

“He may not be alone,” Dark whispered, keeping his blank helmet facing forward. “I don’t think he can get back up to the hex door without help.”

Mean remained silent until they both reached the bottom.

“We want to know if Mackaba is okay,” she repeated.

Dhaston looked down at her from his perch, screwing up his dimpled chin. “Do I know you?” he asked.

“Uh, well, I don’t think so,” Mean responded.

“Then why are you here, talking to me?” Dhaston said. “Do I look like I know a ‘Mackaba?’ Do you just go around, asking people questions that don’t make any sense?”

Dhaston’s wheel rolled him forward, and Mean’s eyes flashed down at it for a second. “Well, we just thought he might have sent you here;” she explained, “how else did you find us?”

The cyborg chuckled and his face went slack. “I came here an hour ago. You just showed up. Now let me get back to work”––he twirled in a circle––”honestly, do you people not even know who I am?”

“You’re Tyle Dhaston of the Dhaston orb manufacturing company,” Darklord stated.

Dhaston jerked still. “So, you can talk, too.”

“And you were very outspoken back on Jesice,” Dark went on, strolling past Tyle and moving toward the bronze engine. “You said this world was too dangerous; you were against anyone that wanted to visit this planet.” He folded his arms. “So why would you be here?”

Dhaston frowned. “Who are you?”

“You said that magic was a disease,” Dark recalled. “And yet here you are, trying to steal a magical device.”

“I asked you a question!” Tyle shouted, and the orb squealed at the floor as he rocketed forward. His right arm snapped out from his side, and it caught Dark in the head as he rolled past. A clang echoed between the high walls as Dark and his armor banged to the ground. Tyle skidded to a stop and he turned to look down.

“So who are you, then?” he laughed.

“Dark!” Mean cried, scrambling over and kneeling to grab his glove. As she tugged him up to his feet, Tyle darted around them; his orb rolling from point to point in tight spurts.

“You must be pitiful to have to hide in that suit,” Dhaston said. “What were you back on our world? A fruit-picker?”

Dark stood, fixing his featureless face upon Tyle. The cyborg idled in one spot, awaiting an answer with a bright smile above his dimpled chin.

“I’m nobody,” Dark replied. Tyle’s grin remained stuck on his face as he looked between Darklord and Mean, a chuckle rising up out of him.

“Nobody!” he finally laughed, twirling around in a circle. “Did you hear that, girl? You’re dating a nobody!”

Mean glared at him as she whipped her arm through the air. The bench with the folded coat leapt from its spot, sailing over at Tyle. The wheel that he rode on whisked him out of the way with a hum; his body wobbled as the stalk remained straight. A thunk sounded as the bench collided to the wall behind him and stuck.

“Dangerous––I told them magic was dangerous!” the cyborg laughed again, spinning in place. With Tyle’s attention diverted, Dark put a hand on Mean’s shoulder.

“Mean, stop, he can’t hurt me,” he told her. “It’s not like how it was with Kates; this idiot isn’t endangering anyone.”

She eased, unclenching her fist.

“Yeah,” she admitted, shaking a strand of hair from her eyes before moving on toward the stairs. They took a step up and did not look back as they climbed.

“Hey!” Tyle called after them. He rolled to the foot of the stairway, gritting his teeth at the incline. “You can’t just leave; you knocked my coat on the floor! I can’t just hop off this thing to pick it up, you know!” He tapped his foot on the stalk’s pedal, and neither Mean or Dark answered him.

“Dwing, are you watching?” he asked, louder now. He stomped on the pedal. “Dwing, stop screwing around and help me out with these jerks!”

Mean hurried to the top of the stairs. “Do you think––?”

“Yeah,” Dark said, plodding after her. “Run for the hex door.”

Their feet sent loud echoes across the top tier as they dashed; weaving past stone shells and leaping over vines on their way to the six thin pillars. Ahead of them, the hexagon flashed––a small box sailed out with a pop.

Mean flinched and the thing flew right at Dark’s chest: he staggered back as it bounced off him and clanged to the floor.

Mean backed away, staring down at the flattened, copper-plated box. After a few seconds of stillness, it emitted a long tone, and four tubular, segmented arms folded out from the object’s four corners. They scraped at the ground and struggled to push up from it, and there was a small beep as the four arms gave one last shove. The box sprung up a foot from the surface, hovering. One of the small, tubed arms lifted and waved.

“Oh, wait, that’s cute––like a little robot!” Mean squealed, placing her hands on her knees. The copper machine bobbed in the air, waving all four arms at her now.

“Stop playing with them!” Dhaston screamed from below. “Set it up, hurry!”

The minute automaton’s arms drooped now, and it coasted over to the tier’s edge, leaving Mean behind. It pointed down at where Dhaston was fuming, and a flare streaked out of the copper machine, sailing over the plant-covered platforms. The projectile fractured into six brilliant sparks: all landing in a tight circle upon the ground. After another flash, a teenaged boy appeared in the center. He smiled up at Mean, adjusting his hexagonal sunglasses.

“Wow,” Mean said, blinking her eyes at him.

“About time,” Dhaston growled, rolling forward and edging the boy out of the circle.

“Oh, wait, crap,” Mean uttered, turning from the ledge. She grabbed Dark’s arm and made a move toward the hex door. Dhaston vanished and reappeared there.

“So, you guys were just going to leave me down there, were you?” he said. “Just gonna pop out?” He rubbed his right shoulder and flexed his pale arm, keeping himself positioned between them and the six pillars.

“Well, let’s see how you like it,” Dhaston said and then called down to the teenager: “Dwing! I wasn’t able to get the stabilizer off; just take the entire engine out of here. Then send us out next.”

“Hey, you can’t do that!” Mean protested. Dhaston smiled.

“Don’t you want to see how stupid the people of this world were?” he asked. “They were dependent on their precious hex door technology; they didn’t even build any roads leading to this place. No engine; no magic; no hex door––you’ll be stuck.” His right arm jerked twice as it gestured up at the walls. “Have fun climbing up there and walking through forests for miles. I hope you brought your government-issued compass.”

Mean made a dash forward, and Tyle intercepted; the orb that he rode skidding as he lurched into her way.

“Dwing, hurry and do it!” he cried, blocking Mean with his arms. She took a peek down the stairs: the boy was still watching her. He sidestepped toward the engine, his mouth shut tight in a frown.

“Dwing!” Tyle roared again, “What are you waiting for? Another helicopter!?”

“What about a helicopter?” Trisk asked, stepping out of the hex door behind him.

“Trisk!?” Mean and Dhaston both cried in unison: with Dhaston checking over his shoulder as Mean gaped past him.

“Hi,” she greeted them.

“Go back!” Mean said. “This guy’s crazy!”

“I know,” Trisk nodded, no concern on her face. The cyborg approached her.

“You’re not on Jesice?” he croaked. “Who let you come here?”

The tall girl tilted her head up at him, her dark eyes meeting his. “I go where I want,” she explained. “I was hanging out with Darrow and watching through the door. I don’t like how you’re treating my friends.”

Tyle laughed, his arms dangling as he doubled over. “Darrow? Who? Friends? You’re kidding!”

“I’ve been changing, Tyle;” Trisk said as he chuckled, “I’ve grown. But you’re still being completely dependent on others.”

Tyle snorted, rearing high on his mechanical pedestal again. “The kid’s being useless right now,” he said, “but I’ve met someone that’s going to change everything: a native of this word––a survivor.”

Mean looked over at Dark. Trisk shrugged.

“So?” she uttered.

Tyle hissed, jabbing a finger at her. “You haven’t changed; you’re still the same––always pretending that you’re never surprised by anything.”

“Do you really want to see if we’re the same or not?” Trisk proposed, slipping her sweater off and setting it down. “I never had a match with you after the surgeries.” She tugged at the black tank top underneath, strolling out of the hex door. Mean stared at her and Tyle Dhaston rolled back.

“You want to fight me like this?” Dhaston asked, stroking his dimpled chin. “You’re kidding. Oh, this is wonderful––I’ve been waiting for this.”

“Just let my friends out of here first,” Trisk told him. He nodded, rolling off to the side and directing them through with his pale arm. Mean cleared her throat.

“What? No, we’re not just going to leave,” she said.

“Mean, did I try to stop you from chasing Hellzoo?” Trisk asked. “Did I say: ‘Hey Mean, don’t go; you’re being reckless?'”

“Well, no,” Mean answered.

“Then let me save you guys this time. No questions.”

Mean stood for a second, grumbled, then walked past Trisk and made her way into the hex door. Darklord followed without saying anything, scooping up the discarded sweater. They both vanished.

“A Hellzoo, huh?” Dhaston sputtered out with a laugh. “You always made up the stupidest things!”

Trisk braced her knees and held her fists up. “Be quiet; just get ready to fight me.”

 

 

 

8 – Ego

 

 

Dwing stood on the bottom tier, looking up past the stairs, vines, and the platforms. On the left was the hex door that Mean and Dark had escaped through. Trisk stood, blocking it with her body. Her fists were raised and her knees were braced. Tyle was rolling backwards. His pale arm drew back.

He shot forward, the arm slipping past the girl’s fists to strike her in the chest. The orb zipped him in a quick path around her and the pale arm’s blows were precise; he pummeled her in the kidney, jabbed her in the shoulder blade and swiped through her hair to chop at her neck. Her body buckled after each hit. She coughed, catching his eye with a dull expression.

“You see––” he said, rolling away from her. “My new arm and leg can’t be matched. I have everything now––speed, accuracy, power. Automatic reflexes even protect all my vitals.”

Trisk tipped her head, keeping her stance. “We’re fighting; shut up.”

Tyle pointed at her. “You’re doing it again––acting like none of this is surprising.”

“I’m not surprised,” Trisk said. “The matches we had in the past were better.”

Tyle narrowed his eyes at her. “Of course you loved sparring with me, then;” he growled, “I was crippled. You always won!”

“But you could fight,” Trisk lamented. “You weren’t dependent on machines or anyone.”

Tyle stamped on his pedal, and the orb carried him back: rumbling over tiles and rushing under several hanging plant platforms.

“You condescending snob!” he shouted, zooming in a path and hooking his arm. The pale limb caught Trisk in the stomach, and she gagged, doubling over. The orb whined as he continued to push her along, the treads on her shoes leaving gritty, black streaks as she was dragged to the far wall.

“I can’t fight!?” he said, shoving her against the layers of brick. He wheeled back and then forward again, driving his arm into her gut.

“I’m weak!?” he yelled now, layers of dust flecking away from the stone as his arm hammered against her again in quick, jarring movements.

With a shout, Tyle whooshed backward once more, and Trisk sagged a bit: slow breaths grazing the hair hanging over her face. She made no effort to move as he sped over the tier with a maniacal grin.

There was a loud crack as he hit her: an instant passed as the noise echoed throughout the Stone Rory Refuge. A splatter followed––then a pattering drip. Dhaston’s smile vanished. He choked.

“Dummy,” Trisk said, looking down at an oily, black line in his forearm. The split ran longways from his elbow to his fingers, dribbling liquid and growing wider. Tyle shrieked, shaking his head as the synthetic skin parted, taking half of his forearm away in a greasy pile of mechanical parts.

“She’s like Pa-lay,” Dwing said, still watching from below. “Oh no, I need to help.”

Trisk’s hair flew from her face as she jerked her head up, her palm jutting forward; clobbering Tyle Dhaston in his dimpled jaw. Regaining her stance with bent knees and tight fists, she let loose a hail of blows to his torso and face. His head wobbled around as the stalk kept him balanced; keeping him well in range of the flurry of punches.

“Look at that––you’re not even using your good arm to block,” Trisk said, yielding a moment as Tyle rolled away. “And how about your left leg? Just going to keep it sitting there on the pedal?”

Tyle drew up his left hand to cover his face, sniffing, his white T shirt flecked with red splotches.

“Dependent!” Trisk said, stamping over. “Weak!” she accused, drawing closer as Tyle continued to roll further back on his wheel.

In mid stride she halted her steady approach, looking down at the cuff of her long, tight jeans. The tiny bronze robot was clinging to them, using two of its tubular arms to hang on.

“I forgot about you,” she purred, kicking the robot away and turning toward the tier’s edge. Setting her eyes on the trembling Dwing, she dashed the short distance to the drop-off point, bypassing the stairs with a strong forward leap.

“Oh cwap!” the teen squeaked, watching Trisk land on a platform that balanced on the second tier from the top. Her boots crunched in the plants that were spread over the disk, and it teetered, straightened, and wobbled again as she pushed off.

She bounded across the tops of the platforms: Her face glaring ahead as her hair trailed behind her in a black streak. Dwing dropped the remote control that he held, banged into the engine, tripped over his shoes, and then make a rough stumble for the six flares nearby.

“No,” Trisk said, crashing into the ground on the bottommost level. Wincing, she picked herself up and leapt for the boy.

He swung his arm and she caught it, pressing her thumb deep into his wrist. “You little juvenile,” she muttered at him. “What were you two trying to steal?”

A small whine escaped his half-open mouth, and a line of tears trickled down from his glasses.

“What was it!?” Trisk demanded, yanking Dwing by his arm to the pedestal where the large engine sat. He sniffled, then motioned up with his pinky to a rectangular device marked with a stick and a circle. It was dangling from the engine by two loosened fasteners.

“Well you’re not getting it,” Trisk informed him, swinging the teen by his limb and hurling him to the floor. In another quick motion, her leg swept up to the boxy object: the copper tubes holding it to the engine wobbling loose as her foot struck it.

“Stop; we need that!” Tyle called out from above. He rolled on his orb down the first flight of stairs, the shocks on his mechanical leg creaking as he dropped to each step.

Trisk kicked at the device two more times: the first round breaking one thin connector, and the second snapping the last tube and sending the box twirling away.

“ROOST FAILURE;” a woman’s voice chimed, “PLEASE CHECK MOTIVATOR CONNECTION.”

And as the monotone voice called out, every vine-covered platform toppled from their pillars and fell. Tyle found himself in a sea of clattering disks, the vines spilling around him as the plates they were sitting on cracked into pieces. He coughed and squinted as dust flew up from the clamor, and when he opened his eyes he saw that Trisk was gone.

“Dwing, where did she go?” he gasped at the boy. Making sharp wheezes, Dwing pointed a hand to the six flares glowing through the fine cloud. He held his arm there, then emitted a shriek, pointing to the top tier as quick footsteps rang out.

“Trisk––!” Tyle uttered as the tall girl assailed from behind, clinging to his neck with one arm and clamping her legs on his sides.

“So who sent you to do this?” she breathed into his ear, pressing her forearm to one side of his throat, while her thin bicep dug into the other. Tyle clawed at her skin with his tanned arm in vain, his face turning blue and slick from the sweat.

“That’s enough,” a new voice called up from below. Dust was swirling around Dwing’s makeshift hex door. A blond-haired man had appeared amidst the six glowing embers.

Trisk released Tyle and dropped to the ground. “So that’s your new boss?” she asked.

“Pa-lay!” Dwing sobbed, doing his best to rise from the dirt-covered floor.

“Get back to the pyramid,” Parlay replied, his expression unchanging as he watched Dwing dust himself off. The boy nodded, rose, and left through the door.

“You too, Mr. Dhaston,” the blond haired man said, stooping down at a clove of vine and taking a piece. In his hand, the plump tendril contracted: rolling up on itself into a neat spiral. And as it did so, every similar plant in the area mimicked the action; the sprawls of vines everywhere coiling up into dense, purple clusters.

Tyle Dhaston eased forward, his orb carrying him to the next flight of stairs leading down; the plants had made a clear path as they had receded. He did not look at either Trisk or Parlay as he left, holding his bleeding nose with his tanned hand while his shattered, pale arm dribbled oil.

“This is what happens when you’re dependent on others to do everything for you,” Trisk stated, staring down.

“Yes, I’ve been watching everything; there’s no need to repeat that garbage to me,” Parlay said offhand. He tossed the small plant up in the air, catching it. He looked up the two flights of stairs. “I also see that you’re using Tenny’s ‘static’ ego art. You must have been pretty lucky to find his training area; it’s not on King’s grid.”

Trisk’s eyes widened and she stalled for a moment. “You––you know about Tenny?” she asked.

“Mm-hmm,” Parlay hummed, waving off some stray dust. “I knew him when he was alive.”

“You did?” Trisk asked. “Were you part of his group?” She paused. “What was he like?”

“He was a fool, if you must know;” Parlay said, “It’s their fault that this world was wiped out. Them and their hunger for violence.”

“They couldn’t have been like that,” Trisk argued. She tugged on a long, black strand of hair. “They sparred with each other to encourage growth and discipline. I know; I’ve seen their journals.”

“Is that what you call this?” Parlay cried, gesturing outward. “Two people manhandled; an entire area ruined. Their techniques bring chaos everywhere they go.”

“They were kind people!” Trisk blurted out, almost pulling out her lock of hair.

“Listen to you,” Parlay growled, “speaking as if you actually knew what transpired back then. They were brash and vile––the people of this world were terrified. Magic that affected the body was already taboo; Tenny and his gang only made the prejudice worse.”

He squeezed the vine tighter, glaring at Trisk. “And what happens to me? I, who only wanted to use my magic to keep people safe? I get lumped in with Tenny: called a blasphemer and a monster. I couldn’t practice it in the open, I couldn’t even teach it to anyone else.” Parlay shook his head. “And then that day came when everyone died.”

Trisk let go of her hair, letting it dangle at the side of her face. “You couldn’t have taught everyone; it’s nobody’s fault.”

Parlay almost smiled. “Teaching would have been too slow; you are right about that. I should have forced it upon them.”

Trisk snorted. The blond-haired man went on:

“Is that not better?” Parlay asked. “If ignorance would destroy them. What good is a choice if it leads to damnation?” Looking up at the Trisk, he beckoned her over. “Come down from there.”

“No,” she replied.

Parlay cocked his head and held the wadded plant up. It sparked in his hand and a flame wrapped around it.

“For instance: you have no idea what this place is,” Parlay offered. The groups of thick vines laying across every tier ignited. “The plants here convert magic into flame, and the rories that lived here used the heat to mold their stone shells.”

The fires grew brighter and lashed near Trisk’s legs as Parlay rose his voice over the crackling. “Your mistake should be obvious, I think.”

Trisk lifted her arm to her face as jets of blue flame erupted next to her. She squeezed her eyes shut as the heat swirled at her and tossed her hair in the thick, writhing currents.

“The technique that keeps you safe does not dull pain. Trust me––I know.” Parlay pressed against the engine and away from the vines. “This is how they all must have felt as their flesh was destroyed, don’t you think? In that brief moment of agony, thinking: I really should have listened to Parlay.”

Trisk was huddled close to the floor, shielding herself with her arms amidst the growing inferno. Only after she let out a scream did she move: Taking long strides down the stairs, racing down to the clear spot by the engine. Parlay tossed the plant down.

“Not willing to die for your choice?” he hummed, grasping one of the arms that Trisk held over her eyes. The flickering flames died with a sharp ripple, and the tall girl stood caught: her jeans laced with black streaks and her long hair smoldering.

“You are a selfish girl,” Parlay said to her as she struggled, jerking at her arm. Tears fell from her cheeks as her legs wobbled and dropped out from under her. Her body grew still and then Parlay let her fall: thumping to the floor in a heap. She remained there, shivering.

“Go learn Tenny’s arts; I don’t care;” Parlay said, trudging past her, “the only person you will save with them is yourself.”

He placed a hand in his pocket and strolled through the few drifting embers being tossed on the breeze, as the patter of Mean’s feet and the clank of Dark’s suit burst through the hex door on the top tier.

“Don’t worry; she’ll be fine,” Parlay called out to them as he stepped into the six glowing flares Dwing had made. “I could have done far worse though––please remember that the next time you go playing somewhere.”

Mean did not say anything as he vanished from sight; she focused on running the length of stair toward Trisk.

“I saw you help Dark up before,” Trisk coughed, extending her arm and having Mean clasp it with both tiny hands. “I thought it looked a bit silly, but here I am.”

“What happened when he grabbed your arm?” Mean asked, staying near as Trisk steadied. “Are you okay?”

The tall girl coughed again. “It felt like my arm was asleep. It spread out from where he grabbed me, making everything tingle and go numb up to my neck. It was better than the whole ‘being roasted alive’ sensation that I was feeling before, though.”

Mean smiled. “Well, I thought you were tough, but I really had no idea that you could fight so well!” she commended. She lead the way back up the stairs, waving floating, charred ash away from her face as she went.

“This doesn’t make sense,” Dark muttered. He had gone to where the six flares had been: Every one had winked out, leaving only black marks. He plodded behind Mean and Trisk as they went back up the stairs to the top, where Darrow stood overlooking the scene.

“Trisk, that was amazing!” he said.

“I know,” Trisk replied, sighing.

“I’m so sorry,” the voice of Tome apologized out of nowhere. “I couldn’t see the plants; I thought they had just died along with the stone rories.”

“Yeah, what kind of crazy place is this anyway?” Darrow asked. Trisk brushed past him, digging through some of the wreckage.

“Well,” Tome began, “it is an animal preserve. Rories are a species of gastropods––like a snail––that are slow on their own, but can move other objects with magic––much like Mean can. By forming a shell from these objects, they are able to fly in them. The type of rory that lived here normally wrapped itself in rock; this place was for those that had been abandoned or unable to find a suitable shell.” He paused. “You don’t have creatures like that on your world?”

“I find snails under rocks sometimes,” Darrow said. Trisk pulled her sweater out of the rubble. The circular design on the front had been blackened, and she tried to brush the soot away with a frown.

“Not that this isn’t interesting, Tome,” Mean said, “but have you heard of that Parlay guy?”

“I have,” Tome confirmed. “Yes, in the years before the end, I overheard people talking about certain individuals that had found ways to use magic: Ways to augment their bodies. I thought they were just stories, but a few days before the end one of them came here.”

“Who was it?” Trisk asked, dropping all interest in her charred sweater to listen.

“They called him ‘Parlay’ so I imagine it was the same person you just saw,” Tome replied. “A rory had been badly abused, and, well, he was able to repair its body. From what I could gather, anyway.”

Trisk pulled the sweater back over her head. “I can’t imagine someone like Parlay helping anyone––even an animal,” she said.

Tome was silent for a moment. “Well, I suppose he could have changed since then,” he admitted. “Living through what we’ve experienced? It is bound to affect a person.”

 

—–

 

Tyle, Parlay, and Dwing stood upon the well-lit plush carpeting of the Imperial Pyramid. A trail of dark oil led from the room with the hex door, with the angled window at the hall’s side also black from the night. Parlay pressed his hand to Tyle’s neck as the cyborg stared outside.

“This won’t bring my arm and leg back, will it?” Tyle asked through the dried blood caked to the lower half of his face.

“No,” Parlay assured him. “I am only restoring a recent pattern. When you sleep, your body’s pattern is stored in the brain. And like the rings of a tree keeping record of growth, these patterns remain inside you forever. I’m going to access one of these stored patterns––just the one from last night––and activate it. Your body will be restored to the way you were then.”

“Will I remember today?” Tyle asked, staring at the planet’s reflection in the river beneath them.

“Do you want to?” Parlay hummed back.

Tyle grumbled: “Yeah; I’ll get her for this.”

“Good––it would have taken longer,” Parlay answered. “The brain resists the process; although, I could force it to regress with some work.”

“I can see why your people were scared of you,” Tyle said.

“Well,” Parlay chuckled, “they also didn’t understand how it worked. Fear in the unknown and all that. The patterns for cells are microscopic. And even if they were able to find one, they would only be able to change that one out of the billions you have.”

“So how do you do it, Pa-lay?” Dwing asked. His face was still lined with dust.

Parlay turned back a bit with a smile. “Well, there’s a trick I found––or rather, a nerve. If one cell in that nerve is altered with magic, it instantly sends the change throughout the whole person. I’ve set mine to keep static, and my entire body becomes unable to change. I’m telling Mr. Dhaston’s to accept the saved pattern.”

Tyle coughed. “Jeez. How in the world did Trisk figure all of this out?”

Parlay let out a sigh, grumbling. “That idiot Tenny must have left instructions somewhere. But his method is flawed: While I know the physiological science behind it, his way of accessing the nerve uses mental tricks––meditation, garbage like that. He calls it Ego, for it can only serve the user. Worthless. Sloppy. Anyway, I’m done.”

Parlay released Tyle, who spun once on his orb, smirking with an unblemished lip.

“Well it’s been fun,” he said, taking his left leg with his arm and stretching it back. “But I’m going to go bed. See you tomorrow; we can try for that motivator thing again.”

Parlay watched as he zoomed down the hall, his mechanical arm still dripping all over the carpet.

“I’m sowwy we didn’t get it, Pa-lay,” Dwing squeaked.

“Don’t be,” the blond-haired man said, waiting until Tyle vanished from sight. “That isn’t the reason I sent him there, anyway.”

Parlay turned and began to walk down the hall, with Dwing removing his dusty sunglasses and stumbling behind.

“No,” the blond-haired man continued, “I wanted a fight––for him to get hurt. So I checked King’s hex door grid for the doors that had been used recently, and sent him to steal from those locations. I figured anyone there would try to stop him from ruining their picnic, looting––whatever mundane thing they were doing.”

Dwing laughed. “That’s a pwetty good twick, Pa-lay!”

Parlay nodded. “It is, but I didn’t do it for fun: I needed to see if my magic works on your kin. I mean, you have four hearts! With an unusual trait like that, I had to test. I wish I could have used that captain, but he died too quickly from the lily he stole.”

They came to an intersection and Parlay slowed his pace.

“I’m sorry about the girl being there, though;” he said, “I didn’t know she would be there.”

Dwing took the hem of his shirt and wiped off the glasses. “She just knocked me down,” he explained.

Parlay lowered his voice. “No, I mean––”

“Oh, that gol!” Dwing squeaked, his face growing red. He put his sunglasses back on.

Parlay chuckled, pointing at him as he turned and walked off. “I’ll fix your voice, and then I’ll find her again,” he promised. “But now I really must find something to eat. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yeah, goodnight Pa-lay,” Dwing called down the corridor. He went on through the hall with the slanted windows, reaching the doors with the triangular “K” logo. Pushing them open, he kicked his shoes off over the space where the rug had been, grabbing a half-empty water bottle from the top of the desk. He made his way around and sat down in front of the monitor there.

“Show me Stone Wory––” he began to call out, slurring the last part a couple of times before giving up and typing in his request by hand with an inlaid keyboard. Several images displayed themselves: an overgrown road leading to a high-walled fortress, an vacant lobby lined with animal drawings, and Mean standing amidst shattered vine platforms. Dwing chose the final scene, his eyebrows rising above the rims of his sunglasses.

“I can probably hook it back up if you tell me how, Tome,” Darrow said offscreen.

“Guess we’ll be here a while,” Mean said with a small hand on her hip. “I’m going to go get a drink, you guys want anything?”

Dwing tilted forward in the high-backed seat, watching her take the beverage requests. She twirled to face his point of view when she was done, picking her way to the hex door. Her thin legs worked through the rubble; her head tilted downward at the haphazard vines.

She stepped toward the thin pillars that framed the image Dwing watched, and he smiled as she stepped into full view. Her off-centered gaze filled the screen for a moment before she vanished from sight.

Dwing sighed and waited as the minutes passed, as the monitor conveyed far-off noises and displayed no one.

He jumped in his seat as she reappeared with a ripple, her arm swinging a giant drink cooler with ease. Trisk and Darrow soon jogged into view, and the group gathered while Dwing settled in to spectate. Everyone drank for a while––with the exception of Dark––then set to work, which Dwing also watched. With instruction from Tome, Darrow was able to restore the patterns of the disks that had fractured, while Mean used her power to lift them back on to the balancing poles. They labored until the sun slipped behind the towering walls of the refuge, then the group said their goodbyes and separated again; leaving only Dark and Mean by the time the night came.

“Wow, what a day huh?” Mean said, realizing they were alone. She rocked to and fro on her feet. A tipped-over bench lay nearby, and she used her magic to set it upright, then to drag it under one of the plant-covered platforms.

“Yeah, who would have guessed Trisk knew magic this whole time?” Darklord remarked. He walked over and took a seat on the bench.

“I know!” Mean exclaimed, pausing a moment before plopping down next to him. “I really haven’t known her that long, but you’d think she would have mentioned it to me.”

“Well, who knows––” Dark laughed, “maybe Darrow will show us some amazing power tomorrow.” Mean nodded, smiling. A purple, dim horizon hung past the walls surrounding the court, and throughout the Stone Rory Refuge, automatic lights flickered alive. The bright lighting had no visible source: falling over the tiers and the platforms in fixed beams. Mean took in a breath as she looked over the illuminated scene; stark carvings of animals appeared around them, etched in the stone bricks topping the walls.

“Wow, I didn’t even notice those during the day,” she said, pointing to where the spotlights were shining.

“Maybe they weren’t here then,” Dark replied. “It might be like the odd water at Hilo’s: only coming out at certain times. You just have to get lucky.”

The two gazed at the scenery in silence for a while, then Mean settled back with a content sigh.

“I feel strange, sometimes, as we explore these places,” she said. “Looking around––seeing everything set up like this––it’s like all this was made just for us.”

Dark’s helmet tilted at her, and she glanced away.

“Jesians,” Mean corrected. “Us––Jesians.” She ran her foot across a crack in the tiles, then went on.

“But then I remember that other people used to be here; they lived everywhere that we’ve gone. It’s a strange feeling, and I just sit here and wonder: how many others just spent a lazy night here, chatting like this?”

She dropped her head, watching her shoes as she drew them in and tucked them under the bench.

“But I won’t know,” she murmured. “I’ll never know.”

Dark cleared his throat but remained silent, and for a while only the rustle of trees beyond the high walls could be heard.

“I wouldn’t count anything out,” Dark said. “Parlay was alive––Tome––there could still be others.”

Mean nodded. “Yeah, that’s right,” she admitted. “Look at me, forgetting about Tome already. You’re always thinking straight, aren’t you? Like back when that Tyle guy was goading me on: you really saved me then; I would have gotten killed by that guy.”

“I just didn’t want you doing anything reckless for my sake,” Dark explained. He pushed off the bench and rose his feet. Mean stood as well, and the two walked over to the well-lit hex door.

“Listen––” Mean started, catching Dark by the arm. “There’s been something I’ve been wanting to say.”

“What is it?” he asked. Mean peered up at him.

“Back on Jesice, my life wasn’t exactly the best. I felt trapped, living there: The cramped city, the people everywhere constantly––” she trailed off, looking away. “I’m very self-conscious about certain things, and I always felt like I had to have my guard up. It wasn’t the kind of life I wanted to have. But here, I feel more like myself; more at home, and I wanted to thank you for that. That chance to come here.”

She stood alone for a moment before Dark reached out to her, placing his hand behind her shoulders and pulling her in. She wrapped her thin arms around him, resting her head on his chest.

After a minute she let go of him and his armor.

“Good night, Tecker,” she said.

“Good night, Mean,” he replied.

And as they each departed through the hex door, Dwing watched from the Imperial Pyramid: The top of his water bottle worn from the teeth that clenched it. He slammed the controls, extinguishing the image and leaving him alone in the dark.

 

 

 

 

9 – The Vertical City: Cliff-Side Saint Tra

 

 

A man in a grey suit and shoulder-length hair marched along with the crowd in the depths of conglomerate factory NeatTea/Bar7. Paths marked by short walls lead the people through the cavernous subbasement: Cutting past compartmentalized workspaces, zigzagging around churning pistons, and winding around mechanized assembly lines. Large, glowing bulbs shone from the high ceiling, lighting the spaces and the people racing throughout them.

“Tecker! Lord Ley Tecker!” a man cried.

“Hatchel!” Tecker greeted, slowing his pace.

“Yeah, what’s up? Today’s a big vote, right?” Hatchel asked, his greying hair bouncing in rhythm at his headband as he jogged.

“Yes, and it should pass,” Tecker said as Hatchel jogged up. “Lord Ley Vail and I have just discovered some extra incentive.”

The greying man tipped his head closer as the two walked. “What did you find out?” he whispered.

“You know I can’t discuss it,” the Lord Ley teased. “But if it passes I’ll tell Vail to give you a call.”

The grey-haired man smiled and hung back, waving. “See you later––good luck!” he called, taking a turn at an intersection and vanishing behind rows of hurrying people.

The Lord Ley spun and waved, knocking elbows with a youth speeding by on a disk-mounted Dhaston orb.

“Sorry!” Tecker uttered, as several people behind him weaved around the boy, muttering. From above, a woman’s voice echoed:

“Lift Six to Highmall is arriving,” she said.

Tecker and several others raced ahead at the message, toward a wall lined with large, numbered double doors. A mechanical car loomed just ahead, suspended on a mesh of rails near the ceiling. Tecker waved up to the overseer there, and she saluted him back, speaking into a microphone after grinning down at him.

“Lift Six has arrived,” she called out. Her voice was carried by speakers perched on high poles. “Welcome to the NeatTea/Bar7 Conglomerate Factory. Please exit the lift and follow the blue line.”

Tecker ran under her car as it slid sideways on the rails, his hair flapping as he weaved past kiosks glowing with schedules. A large crowd was exiting the double door just ahead: A blue ‘6’ was displayed over its opening. After the lift emptied, the overseer instructed those waiting to enter. The Lord Ley surged ahead with many others, squeezing inside. A chime rung in the Lord Ley’s ear as he passed the doors, and he responded by reaching up and pinching a device threaded into his hair.

“Hello?” he spoke. The lift’s doors creaked closed.

“Lord Ley Tecker, how are you?” a voice cooed in his ear. “I heard you didn’t use the express to Ley Ledge, so I just thought I’d come and see for myself.”

“Lord Ley Lickwolf,” Tecker acknowledged, putting his back to a window. A sheet of rock overlaid with piping lay beyond the glass.

“Yes, look around you,” the voice purred again. Tecker scowled, spying uniformed soldiers in two of the car’s corners. The men each held a rifle and stood at attention; the other people around them looked away through the three windows or pretended to stare at ads on monitors near the ceiling. In a corner opposite Tecker, a man with metal rings in his ear and his lip peered over the listless crowd.

“I’m sure you know:” Lickwolf said, “we have the vote to re-establish contact with those deserters today.”

Heads bobbed as the car lurched upward.

“They aren’t deserters,” Tecker replied. He gripped the rail. “We gave them the choice to stay. They’re brave people.”

Across the car, Lickwolf scoffed, toying with the large, silver hoop piercing his lip. “Call them what you want. Their citizenship is revoked; they’re beyond the army’s concern.”

The backdrop of rock fell away from the windows in a blur, yielding to a gentle light. Lickwolf turned, viewing streets brimming with vehicles and rows of tall buildings. They ascended past them.

“So, why is it that you take this route, Lord Ley Tecker?” he asked. “Is there a reason?”

Tecker kept the back of Lickwolf’s bowl haircut in sight. “I’ve rode with these people to work all my life,” he explained. “There’s no reason to stop, now that I’m a Lord Ley. I just need to ride it a bit higher up nowadays.”

“I do believe I understand,” Lord Ley Lickwolf said with a nod. “You don’t want to lose your connection with them––hence your refusal to take the Lord’s exclusive path to the top.”

The towers near the elevator dropped from sight, revealing a blue, sunny sky over the city.

“It’s such a shame that your votes are so contrary with your thoughts;” Lickwolf went on, “expeditions to the other world abandon these very same people.”

Several men and women stole glances at Tecker; most of the idle conversation in the car had died.

“I’m not––” Tecker said, “I don’t understand what you mean.”

“Everyone knows you’d rather be over there,” Lickwolf accused, raising his voice and turning from the window. “A Lord Ley has a duty to this planet, Tecker!”

“I don’t want it just for myself, I want it for every Jesian citizen,” Tecker argued. “We all deserve a chance to experience a world beyond what we’ve known.”

“A dead world,” Lickwolf cried. A sheer cliff stretched out from both side windows now, towering over the grey blanket of rooftops that extended to the horizon.

“The virus can be dealt with;” Tecker said, meeting the eyes of several around him, “we can’t let challenges dissuade us and our progress.”

“I think he’s right,” a guy in the middle of the car said. “It’s like this cliff: no one knew what was at the top, but that didn’t stop all those tribes in the past from climbing it.”

“That’s right,” Tecker agreed, pointing across the car at the man. “We live there easily today with our technology, but our ancestors didn’t have airplanes and lifts––It was too dangerous to scale! But would we be here right now if they had said, ‘Let’s give up; it’s too hard?'”

“No way!” a girl shouted, and others joined in. The elevator rose with their cries, carrying them into a metallic shaft. A montage of colorful ads scrolled by all three windows now, and after a fanfare of beeps the lift halted. The citizens’ clamor continued as the doors slid apart, causing those waiting outside to jump up or stare.

“I’ve always been a fan, Tecker, thanks,” someone said as the car emptied. The Lord Ley nodded at her, meandering out with the crowd as they pushed ahead into the walkway beyond. An arched, glass ceiling displayed the sky and more buildings: tall, vertical structures running parallel to the cliff. Their sides were sleek; they did not touch the face: joined to the rock by thick girders, cable, and networks of bridges.

Lickwolf walked with his uniformed men, following the group.

“Just know this:” he said, “If any further problems arise on that world––ones that affect us living here––the military will have my full backing. Good bye, Lord Ley Tecker.”

“Bye,” Tecker said, pinching the device in his hair once again. Pulling a device from his grey coat for a moment, he pressed in a code before dropping it back.

A great mall lay ahead of him now. People milled among fountains, juice carts, and vendors. The interior was open; every higher floor lined with shops upon ledges with lifts and escalators leading to them. A giant window ran from the base of the building to the curved roof, displaying a city that covered all the land visible. Sunlight was shining in through the large gap, and Tecker stepped into the beam as he crossed the floor. A chime rang in his ear.

“Hello––Vail?” he asked. He pulled a wallet out of his slacks, stepping up to a cart and vendor.

“Yes, yes it’s me,” a man’s voice responded.

“Hold on––Metabolic Shotgun, please,” Tecker requested. The girl manning the cart obeyed with a smile, ducking and bringing out a can from below.

“Sorry, Vail,” the Lord Ley went on as the girl took his money. “I’m at Highmall, and you’ll never guess what happened: Lord Ley Lickwolf was waiting right there in the elevator!”

“Hee-hee!” the man on the other side giggled. “Did he try some last-minute convincing?”

Tecker laughed, popping off the tab on his drink and taking a sip. “I suppose so. It didn’t take long for him to start shouting in front of everyone there.”

“Oh goodness,” Lord Ley Vail said as Tecker stepped onto an upward-bound escalator. “I take it you didn’t start shouting back?”

“Well, a few people did;” Tecker replied, “everyone’s still angry about being lied to all those years.”

Vail giggled again. “Well, let’s hope we can get past all this stalling while they’re still on our side,” he said.

Tecker nodded as he reached the top of the stairs, squeezing past a group of teenagers and a large potted plant with round leaves. “Yeah, now I know how the first Jesians climbing this cliff must have felt.” He walked past a row of boutiques to a narrow, glass-covered hall. The cliff could be seen through the clear top of the passage, it’s chalky face spread out in every direction. The summit loomed above.

“Hee-hee!” Vail laughed again. “They had worse problems than we do; we’ll get there, we’ll get there.”

“Sure hope so,” Tecker sighed. “See you in a few minutes.”

He squeezed the device in his hair once more, making his way through the hall that jutted out of the building. Massive struts and cables ran alongside the tunnel, and various birds outside swooped between them. Tecker watched pair of large falcons as he went, their long wings rigid as they dove between the shadows that the tall structures cast. They vanished into a crack near the next building over, and Tecker moved on: entering the rock wall’s face.

Various shoppers accompanied him on his trip for a while, plodding next to him as they went from the mall with their hands and carts full of bags. As he made is way in deeper, they branched off their own directions: Leaving him alone under the pale electric lights of the twisting halls that were covered with maps, posters, and ads.

At last he arrived at a dead end and a door. Twin banners hung on either side of it, both marked by a zigzagging line intersected by many straight ones.

“Lord Ley,” a guard hailed as Tecker approached, snapping to salute in his deep brown uniform.

Tecker returned the gesture: Lifting an inward-turned palm to the side of his head. Then––setting his Metabolic Shotgun can down on a nearby conveyer––he produced a pistol from a holster his grey coat.

“Here you go,” the Lord Ley announced. He set the gun down on the conveyor and took back his drink. The guard nodded him on, pressing a nearby panel’s button. The metallic door and its label of “Ley Ledge” shifted sideways, revealing a small room with lush, padded seats.

“All clear,” the guard said as Tecker walked in. He took a seat and placed his beverage in a chilled cup holder. The door closed, the car lurched, and a bright indicator near the ceiling marked off passing floor numbers. He braced himself as the lift picked up speed, the digits on the panel growing in size as a whirring hum outside the room loudened. With a whine the noise diminished, Tecker eased, and the counter dinged on a bright ‘LL.’

Taking his drink from the holder, he chugged a long gulp down before the door opened: once again stepping out into an echoing, enormous space.

“Lord Ley,” two guards announced as Tecker marched between them. He walked through a carpeted aisle laying between desks placed in a grid. Monitors, papers, and pictures littered the wooden workspaces, with a well-dressed person seated at most. To the front of each desk a name and title were affixed with a shining plaque, and Tecker sat down at the one marked with his name.

“Ley Ledge recognizes Lord Ley Tecker present,” a black-robed man uttered all at once in one breath. He sat at a podium wedged into a far corner, where a woman wearing similar robes stood nearby. The wall running beside the two figures was a solid, clear pane of glass. Every desk in the room faced the window and the words above, in gold filigree:

“LOOK UPON THOSE YOU REPRESENT.”

Beyond that bolded statement a nation lay out before all those present: A vast city that sprawled over land far below, blending into green forests and shimmering lakes. A cloud-smeared sky hung over it all: peppered with birds and the occasional plane.

As Tecker set his cold drink next to yesterday’s empty can, a smaller, balding man spoke up from the next desk over.

“Tecker, it’s been so long,” he said, grinning under a bristled, grey mustache.

“Vail––good to see you,” Tecker replied, then lowered his voice: “Did Lord Ley Lickwolf arrive yet?”

Vail nodded, flicking his eyes across rows of murmuring Lord Leys. “Got here right before you did. Didn’t say anything.”

Tecker did not look; he only hung his dark eyes. “We might not make it without his vote. He’s just––”

“Order!” the black-robed woman cried, and the mumbling voices filling the room quieted. “Session will begin; as decided in yesterday’s session, the vote to repeal Overland Quarantine Act Four will commence.”

The main window and the bright day through it grew dim, as faces and charts appeared on the glass surface.

“Lord Leys Tecker and Vail of Astronomy have full count,” the robed woman noted. “Lord Ley of Continental Defense Lickwolf, Lord Ley of Communications Prayler, and Lord Ley of Medicine Merrywater have secondary. Remaining counts appear as listed.”

The glass wall now also displayed a rectangular grid: it was an overhead view of the floor, and every box had one of the Lord Ley’s names and a number.

“You have five minutes to vote through your stations or proxy,” the robed woman stated, and Tecker and Vail both reached to their keyboards and tapped in a ‘yes’ before she could finish her sentence. The two sat back in their seats and waited as the grid’s rectangles filled in with a solid, green color.

“Lickwolf sure voted quick,” Vail whispered to Tecker.

“Yes, I know,” Tecker responded, keeping his eyes on the grid. “The other two secondaries could go either way; I can’t imagine what they’d gain from a negative vote, though.”

The other Lords Ley discussed matters as well; conversing in mutters and shuffling papers. After five minutes had passed on the timer, the woman in heavy black robes spoke again.

“The measure has passed,” she said in quick monotone, and Tecker broke into a wide grin as many in the room shared celebratory remarks.

Vail picked up the phone near his keyboard at once and tapped in a code. “It’s done; we passed it,” he said into the receiver while beaming at Tecker. “Yeah, get it enabled; there’s no reason to wait!”

As the assembly continued to chatter, Lord Ley Lickwolf of Continental Defense pushed his chair back and stood.

“Lord Judge, I request a short recess,” he said, staring over the crowd to the two robed figures. “There is a military agent planted among the deserters, and I would like to contact her before proceeding further.”

“What!?” Tecker bellowed, swiveling in his chair, “You left a spy with them!?”

“Order,” the Lord Judge drawled, smacking a gavel. “And there will be a thirty minute recess. With the condition that the broadcast be shown here at Ley Ledge.”

Lickwolf bowed his head at her. “Of course. Thank you.”

Tecker stood up, taking a step into the aisle. “Now wait, who is this? What’s going on?”

Lord Ley Lickwolf leaned forward to squint at the voting results. “I don’t think that people who just voted ‘yes’ to contact anyone on the planet should be protesting now, hm? Lord Ley Vail, are your satellites ready?”

“Yes,” Vail replied, motioning Tecker back to his seat.

“Can’t believe it––he wanted this vote to pass,” the grey-suited Lord Ley muttered, plopping down.

Vail swept his hand over his mustache. “Let’s just see what happens,” he said.

“I’ve got her signal,” Lickwolf announced. He tapped the silver ring on his ear. “Patching it through to the main monitor.”

Heads turned as the voting results were replaced by a zigzag symbol over a brilliant, orange screen. It soon vanished, and a girl’s face stared back at them from a dark room. Rough hair hung at the sides of her face.

“Yeah? Who is it?” she yawned. Her eyes were halfway-closed.

“Agent Tramania!” Lickwolf barked. “This is Lord Ley Lickwolf and the assembly at Ley Ledge. We are requesting a report on the state of affairs on Overland.”

The girls’ eyes shot wide open. “Oh. OH!” she exclaimed, leaning out of view for a moment as the room behind her lit up. “What happened? Where were you!?” Tramania asked, snapping back to the screen’s center while pulling her ragged hair into a quick ponytail.

“You knew a prolonged quarantine was possible;” Lickwolf explained, “we can’t be too cautious when it comes to that world.”

“Ah––you’re right––I’m sorry,” the girl said, pulling her nightgown fully on her shoulders. She sat at attention and gave a hearty salute. “Every civilian is alive and accounted for, per yesterday’s count.”

She paused, then frowned. “The police unit is missing, though––I lost track of all three.”

Lickwolf scoffed. “No surprise. You are to be commended for not abandoning your post as they did, Agent Tramania.”

From the back of the chamber, the Lord Ley of Police Marky wailed. “Oh, I hope nothing bad happened to them!” she lamented. Long, blond curls bounced at the sides of her face as she touched her cheek and shook her head. “I thought they could handle it––really I did.”

“Well, there’s something else I should report,” Agent Tramania went on. “I’ve counted two more people than the number that’s supposed to be here.”

“What!?” Lickwolf roared. “Who are they? How did they make it past quarantine?”

Tramania looked down, her hands tapping on an unseen implement. “I’m not so sure they did,” she offered. “I’ve been able to catch them both on the cameras inside the computers––stand by.”

As she worked, Tecker rose to his feet once more. “We gave them those to communicate!” he shouted over at Lickwolf. “Monitoring people without legal process is a crime!”

Lord Ley Lickwolf glared over at him, flicking his fingers through his thick, bowl haircut. “Monitoring citizens, would be; these people gave up their rights when they chose to stay there. I would think that Lord Ley Tecker would know the laws he helps pass.”

“Order,” the judge said offhand, her head tilted at a new image that had appeared below Tramania’s face on the wall. This new portion of the screen displayed a teenaged face: wearing hexagon-shaped sunglasses and backlit by sun through a slanted window.

“This is Dring Martello,” Tramania explained. “He barely meets the age requirement, but he’s allowed to be here. Now watch the background.”

As the chamber looked on, a blond man strolled in behind Dwing. He was wearing a tight vest over a long-sleeved loose shirt. He stopped before reaching the chair, looking over the youth’s shoulder. The image froze.

“I’ve run every face and body comparison program against every government database I have here;” Tramania said. “That blond man doesn’t exist in any of them.”

Tecker spun in his chair to fix Vail with a cocked eyebrow. “Could it be a native? A survivor!” he cried as many Lords Ley around him conjectured.

“Hee-hee!” Vail laughed, folding his hands on his desk.

“I’ll show you the other person now,” Agent Tramania told them. “One of the girls I befriended––a Ms. Mean Lavir––met him a few days ago. He calls himself ‘Darklord’ or ‘Dark.'”

Mean’s face appeared, her brown hair slick and dripping. Water ran down tall, colorful slides in the background, gurgling over bright pink parasols and forming hovering shapes in the air.

A dark shadow among the pizazz, Dark stood at the back of Mean’s chair: his black armor blotting out half of the scene.

“Oh my, he does look evil,” the curly-haired Lord Ley of Police observed with a frown.

Tecker leaned toward Vail, his head locked on the image. “I’ve seen that girl––she was at the government party. But where in the world are they now? How can water move like that?” he marveled. “I can’t believe we’re missing all this!”

“Mean!” Darrow’s voice cried, carrying over the ambient churning. “Water’s everywhere; you’ll wreck your computer!”

Mean pulled at the strap on her bikini top. “Eh, I read a sign,” she mumbled. “It’s safe.”

“Liar! They didn’t even have electrical technology!” Darrow cried, and the screen froze as Mean rolled her eyes.

“There’s no point going on;” Tramania sighed, “Darklord never says anything in the scenes I’ve recorded.” Her chair squeaked as she leaned back into it.

Lickwolf stroked the hoop on his lip. “Well, what did your friend Mean tell you about him?” he asked.

“Not really that much;” Tramania said. She shrugged. “She’s been really secretive. She acted giddy when they first met, and after that she hasn’t been calling me as much––she’s probably infatuated with him.” The agent folded her arms and gave a sure nod.

“I can’t believe this!” Lickwolf growled. “Contact with an alien species and it’s being handled by a giggling girl and a juvenile boy!”

As the crowd discussed this, a rotund man in a frayed suit scraped his chair away from his desk. Hefting his pants higher up as he stood, he graced the assembly with an large, yellow smile. His nameplate read, Lord Ley of Sociology Hinge.

“I’d guess only one is native to that world––not both,” he said. “By the way––excellent job maintaining high spirits over there, Agent Tramania! Let’s give her a hand!”

The fat man began clapping, his small eyes expectant as a few other Lords Ley also joined in. Lickwolf massaged his forehead. “You said something about only one being alien?” he sighed.

“Well yes!” Hinge started. “Look––just look up at the scenes: It’s all in their body language.” He pointed between the images of Dark and Parlay as he shuffled and displayed the same, expectant smile.

“The images are paused. We can’t see anything,” Lickwolf pointed out. “This isn’t one of your psychology courses; just tell us what you mean!”

The rotund man kept on grinning. “Alright,” he said, hiking up his pants once again. “The two––Darklord and that other man––seem to have different lengths of personal space. See there? The man with the yellow hair is trying to look at the screen on the boy’s computer, but he’s still standing a fair distance behind him––about three feet back. This is consistent with what we’ve learned of their cultures; none of them seem to enjoy being crowded together. Their spread-out dwellings attest to this.

The assembly continued to listen as Lord Ley Hinge took in a deep breath. “Us, to contrast, usually have a very small area of personal space.” The round man walked out to the aisle and squeezed in between Tecker and Vail.

“Our society is crowded;” he explained. “we’re used to being in close quarters to one another.”

“Hee-hee!” Vail laughed, with the belly of Hinge not far from his mustache. “Don’t get any ideas!”

The hefty Lord Ley returned to his seat, settling into it. “That armored man is behaving exactly like a typical Jesian would.”

“Standing there,” Lickwolf uttered.

“Close to the young woman, yes,” Hinge confirmed. “But all we can do is speculate from this point. Perhaps their relationship is intimate? There are so many factors. It will be tough to learn more.”

“Why don’t we just contact them?” Lord Ley of Communication Prayler broke in.

“No, I doubt that will work;” Hinge said from his seat, “they are all social deviants. If that Mean girl won’t divulge information to her friend––no offense”––he gestured up at the agent––”then why would she openly speak to a room full of officials from the government she rejected?”

Tecker cleared his throat, standing. “I could probably talk to her;” he offered. “I remember her from the last speech I gave before leaving. She was very––ah––enthusiastic about what I said. Very agreeable.”

“Ah yes!” Hinge exclaimed, pointing across the row with his hand. “Tecker is popular for a Lord Ley––once again, no offense––she may willingly speak to him.”

The others now looked as expectant as Hinge, turning in their seats to where Lickwolf stood frowning.

“Very well,” he admitted. “Tramania, put her on.”

Tecker set his drink to the side and straightened his suit.

 

 

10 – Dive

 

 

“Hurry up!” Tome sang. His voice carried through the smooth, water-slicked hall of Hilo Water Plaza Suite A. “I got it to work!”

Darrow rushed through the doorway, where two ragged ends of a yellow banner hung. In the next room the picnic tables were set with four plates: each topped with a sandwich, banana, and cookie.

“Whoa, Tome, what is this?” Darrow asked. Trisk came in as well, slowing as she reached the long table. Taking a look at the food, she reared back: nearly toppling Mean as she whirled away from the sight.

“It’s a feast!” Tome said. “Well, enough for a picnic, anyway. I had it called up from––”

Trisk leaned against the doorway and gagged, her long hair shrouding her face.

“Wait, what’s wrong?” Tome asked. “Did the preservative process malfunction? Is the food rotten?”

Dark came in last, chuckling. “Tome, we don’t eat,” he said.

“Eat what?” Tome inquired. “Are you vegetarians?”

“Eat at all!” Darrow finished, looking over at Trisk as she coughed. “It’s something only animals do!”

“Only––only animals?” Tome stuttered. “Are you serious? That’s how it is on your world?”

Trisk coughed again. “We drink. That’s it. Get that stuff out of here.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” Tome said. “I didn’t know. Since I can’t see you I just thought––I’m sorry.”

Mean swiped a plate from the table and took a step to where Trisk stood. “Aw, is tough ol’ Trisk afraid of some food?” she teased, grinning. She waved the plate beneath Trisk’s hanging head.

“Get those weird things away from me,” Trisk snapped. Mean took one glance at Trisk’s scowl and stepped back, almost sending the ripe banana to the floor.

“Wow, you really don’t like food,” Darrow said.

“I’m sorry,” Tome apologized again, and Mean shook her head, gathering another dish and stacking the two.

“I’ll just get rid of it; don’t worry about it, Tome,” she said. Dark stepped in to take the remaining dishes. They made their way to the opposite end of the hall, balancing the plates in their arms.

“Thanks,” Mean said. “Nice to know someone’s not too disgusted to help.”

“Maybe she just can’t handle the odor?” Darklord wondered. “Now me, I can’t smell a thing in this suit. Good thing, too––I don’t think I’ve seen Darrow take a shower since I’ve been staying with him.”

Mean held back a laugh as they reached a waste can between two marked bathrooms. As they tossed the food in, a muffled whine sounded out from nearby.

“Did you hear that?” Mean asked. She took a peek into the bin where they had dumped all the food.

“I may not have the best hearing either,” Darklord remarked, “but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the trash can.”

The noise sounded again and Mean perked up, heading into the women’s bathroom. “It’s my computer,” she said, her voice echoing out. She emerged holding the rectangular device, and marched it back over to where Darrow stood talking to Trisk.

“It’s making a weird noise,” Mean informed, holding it out as Darrow’s monobrow crinkled.

“You left it here?” he said, tilting his crown back. “I told you the water would ruin it!”

“Well I thought it would be safe in the lockers,” Mean explained. She set the computer down on the table. Darrow shook his head, hunching over it. As the shrill whine continued to cut through the hall, he pulled the case open. A solid, orange glow shone out from the flat monitor along with a large symbol: a zigzagged line bisected by many verticals ones.

“The Jesian flag,” Darrow squeaked.

The klaxon sound ceased, and the symbol vanished. A man in a grey suit appeared. He was seated at a desk in a cavernous room, and other men and women peered from behind other desks and monitors behind him.

“Oh––thank goodness you finally answered!” the man said. “We gave those things the longest-lasting batteries we could, but still––”

Darrow’s eyes stretched wide open and his mouth hung ajar. “What is that place? Is that Ley Ledge?” he gasped.

Tecker continued. “Yes, this must be a shock––after such a long time without any contact, that is––but I need to talk to someone. Can I speak to Ms. Mean Lavir?”

Darrow looked over at where Mean was. She was standing still. She swallowed hard, her arms seizing up at her sides.

“What is this?” she asked. She looked over at Dark, her eyes watering. He was standing back in the dim hall, his featureless face turned toward her.

“Mean,” he began. “I never said that I was––”

“Don’t give me that!” Mean cut in, her voice cracking. “I wasn’t exactly being subtle last night! You know what I thought––how I felt! Why would you do this? Why would you let me believe that?” She wiped at her eyes, still staring at him.

“What’s going on there? Is something wrong, Miss?” Tecker asked from the screen. Without even looking, Mean slammed the case shut.

“Mean!” Darrow cried out, rushing to the silent computer. Trisk remained at the doorway, staring.

“What, you think it’s funny leading me on like that?” Mean sobbed now. She looked past Dark at a spot on the wall. “Are you laughing at me under that helmet? Is there even a person in there?”

Dark did not answer, and Mean gave a weak laugh through her tears. She backed up, brushed past Trisk, and fled to the hex door.

As she stepped between the six pillars it took her away. She did not call out the name of a place.

 

—–

The officials at Ley Ledge were silent, and the main monitor flashed “DISCONNECTED.” As a few individuals murmured to each other, Lord Ley Lickwolf paced over to Tecker and leaned in.

“What did you say to that poor girl?” he asked.

Tecker slumped back in his chair, and his arms fell limp. “I have no idea.”

 

—–

 

Mean appeared in an enclosed, warm-colored lobby. Swearing, she stepped from the hex door, making her way to the convertible car that was parked on the carpet.

“I’m so stupid,” she muttered. She kicked the fender. “Hellzoo knew I was wrong about him and I was just––”

She wiped at a tear and then slammed her palm on the trunk.

“Well, you were right!” she shouted, walking away from her car and into a hall. Menus and schedules lined the walls, and she swatted a few to the floor as she stomped her way past.

“There’s stupid Mean, falling for nobody!” she went on, stumbling into a large ballroom that blurred through her reddening eyes. A magnificent, ornamented chandelier hung by a chain from the ceiling. “Just put on a mask and say you’re a Lord Ley, you’ll get me every time!”

As she wiped at the streaks on her face, a low chuckle answered her. A man rose from where he had been seated at the hearth of a blackened, brick fireplace. Mean’s hand dropped from her cheek.

“Sandy-Brown, you really are in your own little world,” Mackaba said. A dark bruise marred his forehead and his uniform was still torn and bloodied. A bright, yellow sash now twisted its way across his chest from his shoulder.

“Mackaba,” Mean said. She took a step back. “How did you get––?”

“Police tracker in every car,” he explained. “Hopped through those doors until I found this marvelous hotel you’ve been squatting in. I see you’ve used their fine lobby as a parking garage––nothing is too good for you to ruin, huh?”

Mean sniffled as Mackaba strutted across the ballroom. “All night, searching. If only I’d known that I could have followed the shrill sound of your wailing. Honestly, what are you blubbering for? It’s not as if your head were cracked apart by a kettle!”

The officer ran a gloved hand through his wavy hair. “Well!?” he boomed at her. “What paltry, asinine trifle are you bawling about?” He paused, looking past her, through the hall, to the lobby. “And where’s that guy? That armored thug?”

Mean let out an audible sob, drawing her had to her mouth once again. Mackaba snorted.

“So that’s it,” he said. “The poor, scampish trollop lost her boyfriend. I’ve seen you blow up fuel stations, mangle government property––it’s no surprise to me that you’d wreck all your relationships too.”

He chuckled, clutching at the sash encircling his chest. More tears fell from her face as Mean turned away, her gaze finding a round, metal cauldron atop a small oven. It sat across the room, far to Mackaba’s side. As the officer jeered she fixated on the wide pot; her tiny fists clenching; her lips squeezing tighter.

“Stop laughing!” she yelled, and the cauldron flew from its spot, soaring over the floor as air whistled around it. Mackaba turned; a sharp smack resounded; the pot was flung back. Mean watched as the cauldron fell at him again: a splash came this time, and the pot dipped and bobbed on its side as it struggled to reach him.

“Throwing things: Not surprised by that either,” Mackaba sighed, easing out of his laughter. He swept his arm in a half-circle, revealing a grid that wrapped in a full cylinder around him. The cauldron, its flat bottom facing the officer, rested against the rippling, crisscrossed lines.

“I found your water park,” Mackaba said. “I always loved swimming.” He pointed at her.

A column of thin, angled bars arose around Mean’s body, zigzagging up from the floor and shooting straight to the ceiling. The petite girl yelped as water burst from multiple points near her: springing out and pouring over her body. The odd water filled the space quickly: Suspending the girl in the clear liquid. It did not flow beyond the barred boundary.

Mackaba chuckled, watching her struggle with swirling arms and legs.

“Did you know I like fishing, too?” Mackaba asked. He reaching under his sash and drew a pistol. A barbed needle protruded from the barrel, and Mean kicked her feet when she saw it, thrashing with both of her arms. Mackaba pulled the trigger and the muzzle kicked back.

“Even the tiniest ones can be caught,” he remarked as Mean’s gurgling scream filled the room. The end of the large needle stuck out from her palm, and she grasped at her wrist with her other hand, teeth clenched.

The officer held the gun on her; another barbed needle clicked into place at the end of the barrel. Mean looked at him, then the cauldron––with a shout she willed the cauldron to her; it skimmed from Mackaba’s column and splashed bottom-first against the side of her own.

He fired a shot and it was caught in the cauldron with a metallic ring. Mean drew her legs up and placed her feet on the flat side of it, pushing off and bursting through the back of the watery pillar. Twisting, she fell to the floor and cried out again; she caught herself with her hand and drove the needle in deeper.

“What’s wrong, Sandy-Brown?” Mackaba teased. With a flourish of his glove, the pillar Mean had broken out of shuddered. The lined boundary containing the liquid vanished, and Mean swore as the volume of water held inside crashed over her back. It spilled in every direction, and the cauldron clanged to a spot on the wall above her, where it stuck.

Mackaba grinned behind his black grid, watching her push up with her good arm and slip.

“Your aimless rampage through this world is over,” he said, looking down at her. She used her elbow to flip herself on her back. “Every crime has a consequence. Every––”

He jumped as a loud rattle came from above; the chandelier shot up to the ceiling: its long chain clattering against the hooked fixtures. The roof rumbled as the chandelier hit and rebounded back down in an instant. Mackaba threw his arms up over his head.

There was an abrupt twang as the chandelier reached the chain’s limit, jiggling in a violent display over the officer’s head, remaining fixed to its tether. Tiny bits of glass were shaken off, and Mackaba scowled as the tiny fragments fluttered through the cylinder of odd water around him.

“Sandy-Brown!” he howled; Mean was on her feet and shambling down the soaked hall to the lobby. “I did not say you could leave!”

The grid before Mackaba flexed outward in a bulge. The zigzagging lines unraveled from each other and sprung at Mean in black, jagged streaks.

“Just let me go!” Mean cried as the crooked lines snaked over the walls, floor, and ceiling: overtaking her and continuing past.

She struggled forward––her right arm hanging limp at her side––as the cords met at the hall’s end, crossed, then raced back. The menus and posters hanging on the wall became overlaid with the black diamond grid, and the sound of rushing liquid came at Mean from behind.

Her small body was lifted as odd water surged into the hallway, filling it up and going no further. Pushing and thrashing, Mean winced as the spike in her right arm was caught by the current. Pulling her arm in as a red stream mingled with the clear liquid, she straightened and stroked towards the end of the passage.

“No,” Mackaba said. He pointed the pistol and squeezing the trigger. The barb cut through the distance of water and Mean yelped as it lodged in her thigh. That leg seized up and she dipped to the floor, struggling to keep her eyes on the lobby and hex door beyond.

“Why is this happening to me!?” she sputtered as another sharp jab pricked her foot. She grit her teeth as a burning sensation worked through her body from the points where she had been hit.

“Dark––” she uttered, making one last, feeble push with her hand before sagging limp. Her eyes glazed over as her light, brown hair swirled about her face. Her body drifted to the floor.

Mackaba tucked the gun back into his sash. Making a dismissive move with his hand, the grids disappeared. He braced himself as water exploded onto the floor, churning and flowing out to the lobby where Mean’s car was parked. The officer, drenched, flipped his head to dry his wavy, thick hair.

“I have to do this;” Mackaba said, his boots churning forward. “there aren’t any others.”

He marched over to Mean, her wet hair obscuring her face as she lay still in the knee-high water. Taking a pair of handcuffs from his dripping uniform, he gathered her bloodied hands and bound them.

“They left me in charge;” he explained. He pulled her back through the pooled liquid by both tiny arms. “I have to do this.”

Slogging over to the chandelier, he hoisted her up, setting the cuff’s chain on a golden hook. The fixture tilted as she dangled from it.

“And I know––” he said to her. “You brought this on yourself!”

He pointed at her with his finger, jabbing it at her downcast face.

“I mean, the Lords Ley picked me, so I have to do it!” Mackaba said while a steady spattering came from her wet clothes. He dropped his hand, rose it again, then let it fall to his side.

“Y-–you deserve this,” he stammered. “You––you––” he swallowed hard, shuddering away from her blank eyes and pale face. He stared at the floor, where the light played on the puddles and the dripping grew louder.

“You deserve this,” he repeated, still staring down. “It’s an officer––an officer’s duty––the Lords Ley told me––”

His voice trailed off as he choked, and a bitter taste bled into his mouth.

Odd water gurgled as it drained down a gutter somewhere.

 

 

 

11 – The Tower That Spans the World

 

 

The computers on their trays glowed at Darrow; night had fallen in his tropical spot. The stars were smudged, flickering lights in the translucent tree leaves above. Amid the light rustle of leaves in tall branches, a loud popping sounded.

Darrow jerked up in his chair and looked to the six lit torches nearby; the flames atop them were wavering; a girl had appeared.

“Mean?” he cried out, smiling, pushing his body up on the armrests. After a few seconds of silence his grin faded; the girl was taller and dressed in pink. She also wore a fluffy mitt on her right hand.

“No, sorry,” the girl said. “My name is Tramania Newbold. I have a short message.”

“Tramania?” Darrow repeated. He squinted through the darkness at her. “You were at that government thing, right? Serving drinks with Mean?”

Tramania nodded, her face blazing orange near the flames. “Yes, I know Mean,” she said. “I’m here to tell you that she’s safe, and that you’ll be able to visit her soon.”

“You found her!? Where was she!?” Darrow asked. “It’s been like two days––Dark’s been looking everywhere!”

Tramania looked away for a moment, gazing at the lighted murals on the circular building. “I was hunting a rogue officer,” she said. “It lead me to the place Mean was living. She had been attacked. I’ll be taking care of her until she recovers.”

“What!?” Darrow cried. He stood, sending his keg and mug wobbling on their tray. “What happened!? How bad was she hurt!?”

“I’m sorry;” Tramania said, “I have more people to warn. She’ll be safe with me, though. I’ll send any additional information to your computer. Good night.”

The torch flames flew up in a wild frenzy as she vanished.

 

—–

 

Trisk sat slouched forward upon the wooden bench. Her elbows rested on the knees of her jeans, and her thin fingers dangled down along with her hair. A high wall stood at her back, and the shadow of a plant-covered platform shaded her. The hex door nearby popped, and the girl wearing pink appeared. Trisk kept staring at the ground.

“Sorry to startle you,” the girl in pink said. “My name is Tramania Newbold. I have a short message.”

Trisk remained seated, ignoring her. The ponytailed girl cleared her throat.

“Hello?” Tramania asked, leaning out from between the six pillars a bit. “My name is Tramania Newbold––”

“Yes, I heard you,” Trisk uttered through her sheet of black hair. “First and last name––thank goodness you told me. I almost mistook you for the other Tramania that always barges in here.”

The girl in pink frowned, tugging at the mitt on her right hand. “It’s important. It’s about Mean,” she said.

“It’s about beans?” Trisk asked.

The top tier echoed with the clap of sandals as Tramania marched out from the hex door.

“It’s about Mean, your friend!” she cried, storming over to the bench on which Trisk was seated. “Your friend Mean was almost killed!”

Trisk bounded up, snatching Tramaina’s arm. “Yes I know;” she said, “Darrow just called and told me. And you’re not just going to drop the news and disappear––you’re taking me to her.”

As Tramania struggled, Trisk guided her back to the hex door by wrenching her arm. After a few moments of scuffling feet, they both stood amid the six thin pillars.

“Well?” Trisk said, tightening her grip.

“I can’t take you there;” Tramania said, “It’s not allowed.”

Using her teeth, she tugged the mitt from her hand. Beneath it, her fingers held a tiny pistol with a pink stripe. The mitt flopped to the ground as Tramania used her chin to click the gun’s safety switch. She leveled the barrel at the mandala pattern on Trisk’s sweater.

“You’re only making me more curious,” Trisk stated. “And Mean should have mentioned that a gun can’t hurt me.”

Tramania frowned. “I’m still not taking you anywhere.”

Trisk tilted her head. “Well, I know some places we can go,” she offered. “There’s this hex door on top of a cliff I really like. Then there’s that one inside an active volcano––”

“Alright!” Tramania whined, lowering her gun and stuffing it into her shorts. As she did so the high walls of the refuge snapped out of sight, replaced by a tight, metallic enclosure.

“A trailer? This is where you couldn’t take me?” Trisk laughed. The hex door they appeared in was tiny: constructed of thick, steel rods bolted down to the floor. Peering out a small window, Trisk spied a sand-covered beach and churning waves on the shore.

“Where is this?” Trisk asked and Tramania yanked free, glowering back.

“You want to see her or not?” the girl in pink grumbled, walking across the trailer to a door at the end. Trisk followed, nearly overtaking the shorter girl with each step.

“Mean, I’m coming in; Trisk is here to see you,” Tramania called out. She rapped on the door and pushed it open. Inside, a desk packed with small monitors hummed. People and places were displayed on the screens, and maps marked with red ink hung on the surrounding tin walls.

Trisk stepped in, her eyes roving straight to the small futon where Mean was reclined. Her drab face was poking out of a white, fluffy robe.

“Hi.” Trisk waved, and Mean’s small head lifted up, smiling.

“Trisk,” Mean said. Her face brightened under unkept hair. “I thought Tra couldn’t bring anyone to see me.”

“I can’t!” Tramania said, taking a seat at the monitor-strewn desk. “She forced me to!” The agent folded her arms as Mean looked to Trisk for an answer.

“The girl was being a snot,” Trisk replied. “Now what happened?”

Mean managed a chuckle, then looked down at the tips of her fingers that peeked out of the fluffy, white sleeves.

“After I left the water park, Mackaba found me,” she said. “He tracked me to the hotel I’ve been living in––I should have ran right away, but I didn’t.” She hid her fingers in the folds in the robe. Trisk squeezed her own fingers into a fist.

“I was confused,” Mean went on. “I just wanted everything happening around me to stop. But he kept me stuck in odd water so I couldn’t escape––shot me full of darts that had some kind of drug––” She drooped her head. “Really, when I went numb, I almost felt glad.”

Trisk’s mouth clenched tight and she stared over at the Jesian agent.

“I found her hanging by her arms in police handcuffs,” Tramania explained. Trisk narrowed her eyes.

“No, nothing else had been done,” Tramania assured her.

“You must think I’m so stupid, Trisk,” Mean said, her eyes watering up. “I wish I could be more like you: All tough and emotionless––beating up anyone that gets in your way. You’re awesome; no one would ever dare lie to you.”

Trisk looked down at Mean in her robe, and the room was silent.

“You’re wrong,” she stated after a moment. “Come on, I’m going to show you something.”

Mean’s eyes widened as Trisk squatted down, scooping the petite girl up in her arms. Tramania shot out of her chair.

“You are not taking her anywhere!” the agent announced, spreading her arms and standing at the door.

Trisk stopped in front of her. “Thanks for not letting her die,” she said. Lifting one leg, she swept her black boot crashing into the ensemble of screens.

“No! My equipment!” Tramania shrieked. She rushed over to the fizzling electronics as Trisk swept past. Mean bounced in the girl’s arms as she was taken back to the steel hex door, where they vanished.

Tramania rushed out of the monitor room and skidded to a halt at the six metal poles, checking a small panel welded to one of them.

“Where did they go!?” she demanded. The monitor on the panel lit up with a man’s jovial image. His clothing was regal: A gold crown and fine silks. He grinned through a thick, black beard, and he shrugged while the word ‘Oops!’ flashed over his chest.

Tramania smacked the steel pole, swearing.

 

—–

 

The two girls reappeared on an empty floor encircled by a round wall. Mean clung to Trisk’s sweater as they skidded to a stop.

“Where are we?” Mean asked.

“Tenny’s Tower,” Trisk replied. “Can you stand?”

Mean nodded, tightening the sash at her waist. Trisk lowered her to the floor, and the petite girl eased on to her bare feet.

“There’s nothing in here,” Mean observed, looking across the wide, marble surface. Higher floors could be glimpsed through the open space in the middle: Their circular walls set with long windows. Mean tilted her head up at the clear, bright sky shining through on the second floor; next, at the level above, where frost glazed over the glass.

“These windows are strange,” Mean said, tipping back to see a higher floor draped in shadow. “It’s daytime through some and night through others.”

“Well, this is a training ground,” Trisk explained. She took a seat on the hard marble. “Every floor you see above is actually somewhere else on this planet. What you see up there is just an image of the path to come.”

Mean widened her eyes as she looked back down at Trisk. “Not really sure if I can walk that much,” she said.

“You won’t have to;” Trisk informed, “hex doors connect every floor of the tower.” She crossed her legs under her, and placed her hands on her knees. “But you can’t just think ‘I want to go up there’ like normal; you need a specific state of mind to proceed.”

“Oh,” Mean said, settling down on the floor. “Like determination or something?”

Trisk shook her head. “This level needs hatred,” she replied.

Mean tipped forward. “Trisk, are you serious!?” she blurted out. “I don’t want to do this! Not if it’s just some dark quest for revenge or something!”

Trisk swept her long hair back over her shoulders. “I’m not asking you to revel in the feeling; you just need to acknowledge it for a moment. The other floors will need different emotions.”

She turned a bit, looking across the vacant floor to a mural on the far wall: It depicted a large man in a sweater lying on his back. His outspread arms sprawled across the bottom edge of the painting. His face was frozen in agony, and above him a man chuckled down, seated on a jeweled throne. Daylight washed over them both, with the seated man’s grinning face half-obscured by the shadow of his domed hat’s brim.

“These pictures were my clues as to what emotional state every floor needed,” Trisk said, twisting back to face Mean. “When I got to the top, I found records of Tenny explaining his thoughts: He wrote that hatred exists in everyone, even the most saintly of people. Anyone who would deny that is lying to themselves––and had no business moving up to the next floor.”

Mean pushed back a strand of her frazzled, brown hair, studying the mural. Her white sleeve slid down, revealing a violet bruise at her wrist. “So are we supposed to hate that particular guy, or––?”

“I guess you can if you want,” Trisk offered. “That person killed one of Tenny’s friends. We can choose to hate anyone, though.” She paused. “You never did tell me what Dark did to upset you.”

Mean looked away, rubbing her forearm. “He told me he was someone he wasn’t.”

“So he’s been lying to us all this time?” Trisk asked, leaning in.

“No, to me,” Mean answered. She met Trisk’s gaze. “We were talking that night after we cleaned up Stone Rory, and––and I don’t know what to think.”

Trisk put her palm to her cheek and her elbow to her knee. “Well, I know you don’t hate him for it,” she said, smiling. “You would have been off this floor by now.”

“Well, maybe it takes a while,” Mean shot back. Trisk closed her eyes.

“Mackaba,” she said.

Mean planted her hands into the folds of the white, fluffy robe at her legs, digging in at the sound of the name. She and Trisk both vanished with a small rippling noise.

Trisk opened her eyes, blinking into the bright sun from the ring of windows that surrounded them now. Mean was nearby, still locked in the same, downturned position, and Trisk reached out to brush at her rough-looking hair.

“You made it, so don’t dwell on that feeling anymore,” Trisk said. “We can rest a bit before trying for the next level.”

“Okay,” Mean said, wriggling around to rest her arms and chin on the window sill. Peeking outside, she saw a cloudless sky bearing down on a dry, cracked plain. Large, yellow rocks were spread over the flats, and reddish, translucent branches grew around them.

“Whoa,” Mean uttered, scanning the landscape. “I haven’t seen a place like this yet.”

Trisk pushed up from the floor. “Every segment of the tower is built in a desolate area,” she noted. She leaned back on the rail that overlooked the first floor. “I didn’t think about it until I heard Parlay say that everyone who practiced his type of magic was persecuted. I guess Tenny had to build this stuff where no one would find it.”

Mean turned from the window and looked to the tower’s far side. There, past where Trisk was leaning, another mural was painted over the wall. The man pictured was wearing an oversized sweater, his gaze vacant as he cradled his head with both hands. In the background, two objects hung over him: the first was a severed gold chain; the second, a sealed coffin.

“That’s Tenny,” Trisk said, tilting out of the way. “I think this floor is either guilt or grief.” She tapped the rail with her long fingers. “Maybe both. Poor Tenny.”

Mean tore herself away from the tortured man in the painting, making herself comfortable on a large throw pillow nearby.

“Well, there is something I’ve been feeling guilty about,” she admitted, fidgeting with her fingers. “Can I say it out loud, though? Can I just tell you?”

Trisk rose an eyebrow. “I guess,” she said. She brushed back a long strand of hair as she watched Mean clear her throat.

“Okay, first off: I’m not really Jesian;” Mean stated, “I was born on this planet.”

Trisk coughed, her mouth remaining open as she did. “What?” she choked out.

Mean looked on with a growing grin as Trisk’s eyes bulged out, demanding answers.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you that surprised!” Mean said.

“But––how!? You mean you didn’t come over from Jesice!?” Trisk stammered. Her jaw still ajar.

“No, no––I did.” Mean nodded. “And I really have lived in Jesice most of my life. But I’m telling the truth––you can feel my heart if you want.”

Trisk inched her way forward as the petite girl in the white, fluffy garment extended her hands. Mean took Trisk by the arm, guiding her palm to the V-shaped neckline of the robe.

“Aw man,” Trisk whispered, holding her thin fingers there for a moment. “One heart. I can actually feel it beating under there.”

Mean chuckled. “I guess I could have eaten something to prove it, but––”

Trisk drew her hand up to her face, catching herself with her other hand as she sat back. “Oh, Mean––the food! I’m sorry I acted like that when I saw it; I didn’t know.”

Mean straightened her robe. “It’s alright; I’m used to it,” she said, sighing. “Back on Jesice I had to eat in private. I got pretty good at hiding the fact that my breath smells like fish byproducts and, well––I drink mint tea afterwards, let’s just say.”

Trisk sat up on her knees with her hands in her lap. “But why wouldn’t you tell us?” she asked. “And Tome––he’d be glad to know someone else is alive besides that Parlay jerk.”

“I don’t know,” Mean said, sniffling. “I knew it didn’t really matter to you guys, but I’ve had to hide it for so long. It’s silly––I don’t know.”

“Well, it makes no difference,” Trisk affirmed with a nod.

Mean smiled as her eyes watered. “But that’s why I was thinking––” she reasoned with a waver in her voice, “all this time I was so proud of being patient with Dark; waiting for the time when he’d explain what he’s doing in that suit and who the heck he really is.”

She wiped at her face with the fluffed sleeve. “But then I just blew up at him. While all this time I’ve been keeping secrets too.”

Mean sobbed into the white folds of her robe, vanishing as Trisk reached out to console her.

 

 

 

12 – Emerge With a Smile

 

 

The assembly at Ley Ledge was boisterous; every desk had someone sitting behind it. On the large screen, Parlay grinned down at them, his eyes moving between the suits and the faces.

The Lord Ley of Communications, Prayler, stood. “Let me just say that we are so honored to meet a surviving native!” he announced. “And I am proud to start communications between our country of Jesice and your nation.”

“Just call me Parlay,” the blond haired man on the monitor informed them. His yellow eyes flicked over to study the back of the room. “I’m the only one left; there’s no reason to distinguish me by races or nationalities that no longer exist.”

“Of course,” Prayler said, bowing. “I am sympathetic to your great loss.”

“But how did such a genocide happen?” the Lord Ley of Medicine Merrywater asked. “And how is it that you are immune?”

Other Lords Ley piped up as well, their questions echoing throughout the great hall.

“There’s no need to rush;” Parlay chuckled down at the mingling of voices, “I’m not going anywhere.”

From his desk, Lord Ley Lickwolf stood. “You’ll have to forgive us if we seem hasty,” he said. “Our luck with uninterrupted communication has been”––he glared over at Tecker––”less than stellar.”

Parlay ceased his study of the building’s interior. “Really? Who else did you talk to?” he asked, leaning in.

“Well, there was Dring, who’s with you,” Lickwolf replied. “The other was an incoherent girl.”

“And don’t forget Agent Tramania!” Prayler added. “Her signal just got cut off completely!”

The ring on Lickwolf’s lip twitched. “Yes,” he sighed. “Thank you, Prayler.”

Parlay looked to the side for a moment, off to where the sun was shining into his office. “Why don’t you just come back here in person?” he suggested, turning back to the screen. “Dwing says you have a hex door leading between planets.”

Lord Ley Tecker rose from his seat. “We do, and we tried––nice to meet you, by the way––but it hasn’t been working ever since we lifted quarantine.”

Vail piped up beside him. “He’s right,” he said. “And we don’t even know why. Some police officers were left to watch over it in Hardpan City, but no one knows what happened to them either.”

Parlay looked offscreen, raising an eyebrow. “Police? Is that who––”

“Yeah, he shot at you; that captain,” Dwing’s childish voice squeaked.

Lickwolf tugged at the hoop in his ear. “Excuse me, what did he say? The captain attacked you?”

“Yes,” Parlay said, turning back. “With some sort of hovering cannon?––I don’t know what you call it. Didn’t work on me anyway; he was killed.”

Murmurs arose in the chamber as Lord Ley Lickwolf beat his fist on the desk. “I never should have agreed to leave a Staccato with your men!” he shouted, whirling around to face the desk behind him. The name tag there read: ‘Lord Ley of Police Markie.’ The chair behind it was empty.

“Looks like she’s leaving,” Parlay said, pointing as a woman in a blue blouse rushed to the back elevator.

“Stop her––stop her!” Lickwolf cried out, and the pair of soldiers at the lift’s door barred her escape. The other Lords Ley twisted in their seats, chattering as the Lord Ley of Police stamped in her high heels.

“Popping down to High Mall for a sale, Lord Ley Markie?” Lickwolf asked over the rising din in the chamber.

“That wasn’t supposed to happen!” she pouted back. “Those officers were causing trouble in their precincts; I thought they’d be better off over there!”

“I’m sure she had good reason––” An older Lord Ley conjectured.

“We’ll investigate this fully!” Another Lord Ley chimed in.

“We’ll revoke her status if we have to!” Yet another proclaimed.

“Revoke!?” Markie yelped. “No, no, no, we don’t need to do that!”

“We’ll hold the vote for her dismissal today,” Prayler said up at Parlay. “We are so sorry this happened.”

On the monitor, Dwing was craning his head around to watch the whole scene as Parlay swept a hand over his mouth.

Lord Ley Hinge stood up next, holding his wide pants by the belt. “I think now would be a good time for a break, yes?” he suggested as Lord Ley Markie was bombarded with loud accusations.

“Agreed,” Parlay hummed. “Call me back when you get this sorted out.”

He shut the monitor off and turned to Dwing.

“Did you see that, Pa-lay?” the teen chortled. “Those stupid Lowd Leys?”

Parlay nodded. “Idiots:” he agreed, “bowing and trying to appease me.”

“Yeah––they don’t even know––” Dwing started, laughing, “They don’t even know how you aw blocking the hex dol!”

Parlay plucked a piece dried fruit from a nearby dish, smiling. “Even the most basic of tricks baffle them,” he said. “I could have covered their hex door up with a sheet––they’d still be dumbfounded.”

Dwing howled louder at this, doubling over. “And––and––” he gasped. “They don’t even mind that the captain was killed!”

Parlay chewed on the fruit, shaking his head. “Opportunists and backstabbers,” he muttered. “I made the mistake of trusting men like that once––never again. The sooner I’m in control, the better.”

He reached for the bowl again, but pulled back. “Why did that Lord of Communications call you ‘Dring?'”

The teenager stopped laughing and pushed his sunglasses up on his nose.

“Yeah, that’s how you pwo-nounce it;” he admitted, “I can’t even say my own name wight.”

“I see,” Parlay said as he dug through the fruit bowl again. “Then that room of morons was useful for something. Anyhow––Dring––you won’t need to work with Dhaston raiding warehouses anymore; just concentrate on finishing the model. I’ll work with him to set up the rest.”

Dring smiled. “Thanks Pa-lay!” he gushed, skipping out the double doors of the office. “I’ll go get busy on it wight now!”

As the youth bounded away, Parlay bit another piece of dried fruit in half.

 

—–

 

Mean looked at a mural much more worn than the others. Its paint was chipped and the surface cracked. Brushstrokes formed shapes with jagged, sharp streaks: Bodies on dirt and long limbs twisting out from underneath rocks. Above them, a thick, fluid circle glowed rusty red in the black sky.

“It’s that story Tome told––about the mine,” Mean said. She kept her hands in the robe’s fluffy pockets. “It’s Hellzoo.”

Trisk nodded with a shiver. Beside the large painting, a frosted-over glass window rattled against wind. “I don’t think Tenny had anything to do with the incident,” she said. “But that story must have been pretty well-known.”

Mean paced around the curved tower’s floor, peeking over the rail to look at the other levels they had passed. “So what am I supposed to be feeling here?” she said. She took her hands out of the pockets and rubbed them together. “Or do I want to know?”

“Terror, fear, desperation,” Trisk answered, strolling past the dim light from the icy windows.

Mean sucked in a breath as she drew her robe tighter. “I’d feel all that already if you weren’t keeping me company.”

Trisk knelt down on another large pillow. “Want me to go up first, then?” she teased.

Mean’s reply was cut off as a loud rattle and gust howled over the building. She dropped to both knees next to Trisk.

“I was in a place like this once,” Mean whispered, huddling on the cushion as Trisk slid over a bit. “There wasn’t any snow, but it was a cold field. It was here, on this planet. I think I was six.” She shuffled in her robe.

“I had been sleeping in my old bed at the house we lived in––Dad, Mom, me. But I was pulled out from under the covers by Dad––I thought it was a dream––but then we went through the hex door to someplace that was freezing.”

She shuddered, and Trisk sat listening.

“When I was completely awake,” Mean continued, “I asked him why we were outside. And I didn’t really understand the answer; all I remember is getting mad when he wouldn’t let me go back for any of my clothes or toys. I thought that I had done something wrong, but he and Mom told me I was I was being good. They held me close, but all around us I could hear the wind––howling like it is outside this place.”

Mean stared off across the room at the painting of Hellzoo. “I don’t think the sun ever went down; my time there seemed like one endless day. There were no plants or houses. Just dry, frozen ground. Dad tried to stay awake, but he couldn’t.” She looked into Trisk’s dark eyes. “And then something came for us.”

There was a ripple and pop in the air, and both girls jumped. A brighter day shone through clear windows around them, and Mean lifted her head to look.

“Did we–?”

“Yes,” Trisk answered in a hurried tone. “Keep going. What was it?”

Mean settled back into the cushion. “I screamed for Dad to wake up,” she went on. “It was a machine: Rolling on large wheels and pointed on top. It stayed away at first––I was freaking out the whole time––and then it just suddenly headed straight for us, and I heard those giant wheels tearing over the plain as it got closer. Dad picked me up and started to run, but then a voice came out of it. It was a man, and he told us that we didn’t need to be scared. Dad stopped to listen, even though Mom told him to keep going.”

Mean chuckled. “The man’s voice laughed, but it was a kind, silly laugh like, ‘Hee-hee!’ The machine stopped, and we went up to it. There was a mark on the side that I had never seen before––” Mean took her finger that poked from her sleeve and traced a zig-zagging line through the air.

Trisk opened her mouth. “A Jesian probe!?” she cried. “Mean are you telling me that you rode to our planet on a Jesian space probe!?”

“Well yeah,” Mean said, holding back a bit of a smile. “How did you think? This was before they set up the hex door.”

“I thought someone sent you!” Trisk reasoned, gesturing with her slender fingers. “With magic––! In a thing!”

“Nope,” Mean said, folding her arms. “The trip took less than a day. The only thing Dad brought was a device to take us back to the planet in case something went wrong.”

Trisk stared into space, shaking her head. “Darrow is going to die when he finds out that you were one of the first people to travel between the planets in a ship.”

Mean leaned back, looking up through the next floor’s gap to the sprawling ceiling above. “Yeah, even Vail, that guy controlling the probe, was in Jesice talking to us over a radio. But it was nice; he told us stories about the planet the whole way over. I was nervous at first, but after leaving that cold plain behind I began to feel––”

A pop and ripple sounded nearby again, and the ceiling above shifted closer. They had traveled to the top.

“Feel hopeful?” Trisk finished. She stood, stretched, then looked up at the roof. A maze-like mandala was drawn over it. “Man,” she said, flexing her arms back. “I thought that I’d have to struggle getting you through every floor; I had no idea you’d been through so much.” A smile spread over her face as she looked down at Mean. “And here I thought that my life had been wild.”

“So what happens now?” Mean asked, her frazzled hair hanging at the fluffy robe’s collar.

“The training area is past this floor,” Trisk explained. She leaned on the rail and tapped her finger on the bronze bar. “And this was the floor that I was stuck on the longest.”

“Really?” Mean said, studying the walls and the narrow window encircling the whole room. A blue light filtered in through the glass, shining on a tiny, framed picture laying face up.

Taking the frame from the floor, Mean put it on the white folds of the robe running over her lap. A group of people were lined up in the picture, all wearing sweaters with the maze pattern displayed on the tower’s ceiling. One guy in the back was beaming, his arms around the others, with the sweater he wore so oversized that it sagged off one shoulder.

“Tenny formed a group of people to train with,” Trisk said, nodding down at the picture. “Their camaraderie pulled him through; got him past every emotional trial that he’d faced in his life.”

“They look like good friends,” Mean said, setting the frame on the side of the cushion. She wobbled to stand, and Trisk stepped forward to support her by the elbow.

“Thanks–” Mean said, straightening her white robe. “And I think I understand what you needed: You were alone when you first arrived on this world, right? And until you formed relationships with other people––made friends––the tower wouldn’t let you go any further.”

Trisk shied away, and her face turned pink. “Well, yes. You’re right,” she uttered, folding her arms.

Mean clicked her tongue. “Trisk, Trisk!” she teased, smiling. “Were you just using our friendship to get to the top of a thought-reading tower? I’m hurt!”

Mean pretended to cry into her hands as Trisk frowned. “Shut up; it just happened,” the tall girl said.

Mean’s false sobbing trailed off into a chuckle. She went over to the railing and set her hands on it.

“But what about me?” she asked, staring down at the floor far below. “I just ran out on every friend I had here. Dark, Darrow, Tome, Tra––”

She sagged over the handrail and her light brown eyes watered up. Trisk lingered by the window a moment, then, with soft footsteps, went over to Mean and tugged at her shoulder.

“Look outside,” she instructed. Mean lifted her head. Turning to the curved window, she looked out to a thick forest past it: The sun was glowing bright blue through a translucent canopy. Thin tree trunks hung overhead; some making contact with the grassy floor while others did not.

“This is––is this Darrow’s forest!?” Mean exclaimed. Trisk smiled.

“I found my way in while visiting him,” she explained. She lead Mean around the tower’s top floor. “Come on; let’s see if he’s here.”

Squinting ahead, Mean spied Dark and Darrow through the glass: They were standing near the setup of keg, computer, and chair. Mean held her robe tight and rushed to the window.

Tome’s voice could be heard, instructing Darrow as he fixated his attention on his outstretched hand. Dark watched with his glove at his chin, nodding.

“What are they doing?” Mean asked.

“I have no idea––” Trisk replied, pressing her fingers to her temple and shaking her head.

Mean rose a tiny hand to the window. She paused there for a moment, with her knuckles outward, and then after taking a sharp breath in, she rapped on the glass. Darrow yelped and twirled to look at the forest.

“Oh come on––we’re in here!” Trisk shouted. She banged her fist on the window until Darrow noticed their faces behind the blue-glazed window.

“Trisk! And Mean!?” he exclaimed, running over. His eyes flicked between the two. “Are you alright? How did you get in there? How do I get in there!?”

And as he fired off questions and Trisk did her best to keep up, Mean peered past him to where Dark was hanging back. The short girl stepped further down the side of the building and motioned for him to come over.

“I was trying to make a drink appear without the keg; Tome’s been teaching me––” Darrow began, and Trisk smiled and nodded, keeping his attention.

“Hey,” Mean greeted as Dark stepped over.

“I didn’t think I’d see you again,” he responded. His arms were rigid at his sides.

“Well––” Mean started with a small chuckle, “I’m going to be gone for a while, I think. There’s some stuff I need to get sorted out.”

“I don’t blame you,” Dark uttered, tapping his gloved fingers against his leg. “I was being difficult enough, then you had to deal with Mackaba alone––I’m sorry you’ve had to go through all of this.”

“Well, I really shouldn’t have blown up like that,” Mean admitted. She held her arms behind her back. “And I didn’t mean what I said that day: When I said that there wasn’t a person inside the armor. I know that there is, and––you may not believe me–– but I know that it’s tough to express a part of you that you’ve always kept hidden.”

She paused, swallowing. “What I mean is––”

Her words ended there; with a muffled pop as she and Trisk vanished.

 

 

 

13 – Confrontation in Pinada Wing

 

 

Parlay marched down the carpeted hall, swinging mud-streaked sleeves.

“Dring!” he called out as he reached the regal, twin doors. “We did it; we’re ready!”

The low sun cast an orange light through the hall’s slanted window, and the valley outside was dim with fog. The teenager looked up from the desk where he sat, tipping his sunglasses down at the nose.

“Yes, I am a bit filthy;” Parlay noted as he shook some debris from his silken shirt, “Mr. Dhaston can’t move around in the dirt, so I had to do that part.”

Dring pressed his hexagonal specs back into place, looking to the glowing monitor on the desk again. “So when should I be wed-dy to go?”

Parlay straightened his vest. “Well, soon,” he said. “I need to make sure the calculations are right––that sort of thing.” He walked around the long desk and took a peek at Dring’s screen. “Watching people through hex doors again?”

“Yeah,” Dring answered. His hair had grown out a bit and he scratched at it. “I can’t find Mean.”

In the image Darrow stood among carved statues, remarking in a loud voice to Tome. Parlay turned and tapped a panel; a portion of the wall vanished to reveal a closet.

“Looks like she isn’t around––Isn’t that good?” Parlay asked, pulling out a rack of silk shirts. “Weren’t you worried that she was getting a bit too intimate with one of them?”

Dring’s eyebrows arched up over his glasses. “She was,” he sighed, “but it sounds like they had some kinda fight. Anyway, I’ll let you change clothes, Pa-lay.”

Dring got up from the desk. Parlay reached over to turn the monitor off.

“Well, he did a great job with these statues,” Darrow said on the screen. Parlay paused. He withdrew his hand, studying the image.

“Dring, who is he talking to?” Parlay said. “I don’t see anyone in there with him.”

Dring turned back from the double doors. “That guy helps him out sometimes,” he explained. “They just talk over phones and wadio; I’ve nev-a seen him.”

Parlay looked to Dring, then back at the monitor. He frowned.

“Does he always wear that helmet?” he asked, pointing a grimed finger at Darrow’s crown. “When he talks to him?”

Dring took a step back to the desk. “Yeah, he’s always got that thing on. Why?”

Parlay pushed the rack with the clothes out of the way, dropping into the chair and jabbing his finger on the keyboard. “Scan area and display patterns,” he commanded. Dring crept back around to have a look, seeing the colors of the image dim. Lines in complex arrays were now overlaid on the pictured room: sprawling over every object in a still, stark manner. Only two patterns were in motion: the first overlapped with Darrow’s head, the second squirmed in mid-air to his right.

“Patterns for two minds,” Parlay whispered.

“What––” Dring uttered, removing his glasses.

“Two! There are two people there!” Parlay barked, slamming his fist on the desk. “Analyze all pattern activity!” he commanded the machine. “Search for visual deceptions!”

The screen flickered a bit as a low hum emanated from the walls of the office. Parlay clutched at his hair as a list scrolled over the image, with every result reading “negative.”

“Why can’t it see that puh-son?” Dring croaked.

Parlay grit his teeth. “Because there’s no physical body there––it’s just a soul.”

“But how can––”

“I don’t know;” Parlay said, “I never saw it myself. They claimed to be able to exist without bodies, and those people were reviled even more than I. One was infamous: a psychopath that terrorized innocents.”

The two watched the image as Darrow talked and smiled at his invisible companion.

“I need to find out who it is;” Parlay said, “I can’t go on with the plan until I do.”

“Well he calls him Tome,” Dring offered.

“Are you serious?” Parlay said. “There’s a play everyone from this world knew of: The Host Tome. It’s about a ghost––he pretends to be alive, fooling people. That poor sap in the crown has no idea.”

Parlay scoffed, then stood. “Can you contact all of that person’s friends on your computers?” he asked. “Send them a message from me?”

The teenager nodded, wiping a streak of sweat from his face.

“Good,” Parlay said. He drummed his fingers on the desk. “I’ll make up a reason to see them all––can’t let the hidden person catch on.” He let out a sigh as he turned to the window.

“At least I hope it’s a person,” he said. “The alternative is not something I want to deal with.”

 

—–

 

Dark and Darrow appeared first, at the end of a tall, arched corridor. The popping sound made from their arrival was swallowed by a thick carpet and broad, patterned acoustics overhead. The hex door was marked by six angelic figures carved from marble, and the pair stepped out from between them.

“No one is here with us yet,” Tome said. “Quick––tell me what you see.”

Darrow walked up to a nearby kiosk brimming with colorful brochures.

“Well, the pamphlets say it’s a museum,” he confirmed, glancing at one of the papers. “Maybe that dude wants to teach us about history.”

“Exhibits of some kind,” Dark said. He walked to the end of the passage. “There are statues of people over here.”

Darrow rushed over the carpeted walkway to the end: two men on stone pedestals stared at each other across the width of hall.

“Who are they?” Tome asked. “What are their names?”

Darrow looked at the statue on the right, which was surrounded by a glass case. The man inside wore glasses and a bulky, black coat that hung loose on his body. He touched the surface of the case with fingers that poked from long sleeves. A sleek, turquoise scarf hung from his neck.

“He’s wearing glasses and winter clothes,” Darrow described, then read from the pedestal: “‘The Hero Pinada.'”

He turned to the other figure, and Dark read the plaque at the base.

“This one’s ‘The Traitor Sing,'” he announced, kneeling down. The face of this statue sneered over at the likeness of Pinada: with a chin thick with stubble and drooping, baggy eyes. His hands were thrust into a long, woolen coat that fit snug to his body.

“Why doesn’t this Traitor Sing statue have a case around it?” Darrow asked, reaching over to feel the wool coat.

“And look at this!” Dark cried, shooting up and running into the next cavernous room. He pointed at the ceiling, where a large chunk of ice hovered at the domed roof. It sparkled from an unseen light source, billowing a cloud of visible gas beneath it. An engraving on the ceiling read ‘Comet fragment.’

“Is that––” Dark gasped. “The comet? The one that struck this planet? They preserved a piece of it!?”

Tome’s voice answered from nearby.

“Yes. And I think I know what Parlay wants,” he said.

From the hall, Darrow called out, waving. “Hey, look! Mean and Trisk are here too!”

“Yeah, hey!” Mean said, walking down the hall ahead of Trisk. She was wearing tennis shoes, shorts, and a skirt over that. On her hands were fingerless gloves that she tugged on as she strolled forward.

“Oh man, I thought you guys were Parlay,” Darrow said. He expelled a sigh as he rushed back to meet them.

“So you guys got that message too?” Trisk asked, walking and looking up at the arched ceiling. Darrow nodded, joining up with the girls in the middle. Trisk reached out and tousled his hair.

“Your hair’s longer.”

“Well, you guys have been gone a month!” Darrow said, tipping his crown back into place. Trisk rolled her eyes at him.

“Mean,” Dark stated, stepping in from the comet room. “You’re here––I mean––are you alright? Did you heal up okay?”

The petite girl looked up at him as he joined the group. “Yeah,” she said, smiling. “The bruising’s still pretty bad on my wrists––the gloves cover it up, though. What’s over in that room that got you so excited?”

Dark cleared his throat. “Well, I’m not sure yet––”

“Oh, let me tell you!” Parlay’s voice hummed. The blond-haired man walked out from the ring of six angels, smiling in his tight vest and clean, silken sleeves. The gaunt teenager Dring was leaning against the marble, where he stayed.

“Do you like the museum?” Parlay asked, dragging his fingers against the information kiosk. He continued between the two girls, his yellow eyes catching Trisk as he passed. “I feel so bad about what happened at the stone rory clinic; I thought I’d give you a tour to make up for it.”

“That was weeks ago,” Trisk said as Parlay continued past her to the end of the passage.

“Well, I wanna hear it,” Darrow said. “I don’t know anything about this stuff.”

Parlay chuckled behind his hand as he turned back to face the group. “Of course you don’t,” he hummed. “But I can explain. Let me start with these two:”––he gestured at the squared case––”the man on my left is Pinada. He was considered a genius with structural magic; he used his talent to save people from any disaster. The region he lived in was wracked with cold, harsh weather, and he became quite famous there. He could stop lightning as it shot from the sky––halt avalanches just by touching the ground.”

He paused, stepping over to the snarling mannequin in the long, woolen coat. “But wherever someone exists that excels at something, there is sure to be someone else that covets the attention they get. Sing is such a person,” he informed with a nod. “A person so jealous of Pinada’s talent that he devoted his own life to causing ruin and turmoil––just to watch the hero fail.”

Parlay shrugged with one arm. “Except he never succeeded; Pinada always managed to think of a way to save every person from Sing’s destruction. And although bounties were placed on Sing’s life, he always managed to evade punishment. The string of attacks escalated over the years, ending in one final, horrific event.”

Parlay took a step backwards and gazed up at the suspended ice fragment in the cavernous room. “Dring says you could see it from your world: Sing diverted a comet from its path through the heavens.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Dark said. “A person did that? How? How is that possible?”

“‘Focused gravity wells set up at different sites,'” Parlay said, reading from a plaque. “And once it was headed our way, nothing could stop it; since the comet wasn’t made on our world, it didn’t have a magical pattern to influence. The greatest minds could do nothing as it blazed towards us in the sky, brighter each night.

“Most people ran from the side of the world it would be impacting––but not Pinada. He waited right where the thing was calculated to land. Some doubted his bravery at first––that casing around him was said to be indestructible––but just before the comet fell, he cast off his protection.

“They say the sky roared from the clash of his spell and the comet, those few people with him thinking for sure they were doomed. They felt Pinada’s magical strength diminish as the world around them shook; and as his power dwindled to nothing they prayed for a miracle to occur.”

Parlay stepped over to the statue in the glass case. “No one had ever recovered from a complete drain of magic so quickly, and yet Pinada somehow achieved it that day. With a surge of energy he slowed the comet to a halt. The planet was saved.”

Parlay straightened his vest and sighed, pacing to the other statue now. “As the spectacle ended,” he went on, “the witnesses discovered that Sing was right there with them. He wanted to watch Pinada die in person. Of course, the traitor was slain on the spot and his petty ambition ended.”

The four watched as Parlay stuck his hand into the coat that the snarling mannequin wore. “But Sing had one rumored ability:” the blond-haired man said, pulling an oval device from the statue’s left pocket, “the power to abandon his body and exist as only a soul.”

Mean drew her hand up to her mouth, looking at Trisk who was unfolding her arms and letting them slip to her sides.

“What?” Darrow asked, glancing back at them.

“I’ve known there is another among you,” Parlay announced, checking information displayed on the oval device. “Did you know that every emotion has a distinguishing pattern? I’ve monitored his reaction to my story; how he feels––”

“You don’t have to go on, Parlay,” Tome said from above Darrow’s crown. “I am the person you suspect me to be. I am the man that hated Pinada, just like you said. I am the traitor Sing.”

Parlay’s hand shook. Darrow pushed his crown back.

“That’s crazy, Tome,” Darrow spoke out to the quiet museum. “He’s making it up; that’s just crazy!” He looked to Mean, Trisk, and Dark who stood still, saying nothing.

“Everything Parlay just told you is true,” Tome confirmed. “I hunted Pinada out of jealousy––”

Darrow threw down his fists. “I don’t believe you!” he shouted.

“I planned to kill all of those people––” Tome went on.

“No!” Darrow argued. “You’re not like that! You wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

Parlay flung the oval scanning device to the floor. “Aren’t you listening!?” he shouted, marching over to Darrow. “Your friend here is a killer! He’s probably the one that murdered everyone on this planet!”

“No!” Tome defended as Darrow stood sniffing. “I was powerless ever since that day with the comet. After I left my body I was bitter, yes. I hid from everyone. But when that day came––when I sensed them all disappear––I realized, after that, how empty all of my hateful thoughts were. I anguished for years until the day Darrow and his friends came to the Stone Rory Refuge. Imagine how happy I felt when I heard they weren’t from this planet; they had never heard of me––I could start over again! It was exhilarating watching them experience a place that was new to them.”

There was a chuckle, and his voice wavered. “Darrow, I knew you would find out about the real me someday. But I’m glad. Glad I got this second chance.”

“Oh come on Tome,” Darrow squeaked, wiping tears out of his face. “We can still hang out! It doesn’t matter!”

Parlay laughed. “Excuse me?” he said, “It doesn’t matter? He deceived you! He’s a lunatic! Sing is a traitor! A disgrace to our world!”

“Tome is not!” Darrow cried back. “Even though I don’t understand everything about this planet, he never makes fun of me; he explains everything. If anyone’s disgracing this planet it’s you!”

“Me!?” Parlay roared, “Me!?

“Yeah,” Darrow answered, staring straight into his yellow eyes. Parlay seethed back, hissing between his teeth, his fists trembling at his sides.

“Darrow!” Tome called out. “Get away from him!”

“You shut up, traitor!” Parlay erupted, swinging both hands and whisking the crown from atop Darrow’s head. Mean shouted as it was smashed into the nearby case, and the glass around Pinada’s statue shuddered as the crown crumbled to pieces upon it.

“Tome!” Darrow cried. He fell to his knees, clawing at pieces and reddish fragments. “Tome!”

“You idiot,” Parlay said as he glowered above him. “It’s not like he’s in there––although I wish I could kill him.” He stamped, crushing a bit of the crown into the carpet. “I thought those on my world were dense, but you are by far the stupidest person I’ve ever seen!”

Darrow continued to blubber as Parlay reached down and snatched him by one of his arms.

“You’ll never hear his slanderous voice again,” the yellow-eyed man purred as he dragged Darrow up. “And you won’t even remember that fool in a minute.”

Mean and Trisk shared a brief look and they both rocketed forward. With Trisk taking Parlay, and Mean grabbing Darrow, the two struggled in an effort to tear them apart.

Parlay took little notice as Trisk seized his body, placing his left hand on the case to steady himself; his other hand’s grip still firm on Darrow’s arm as he screamed. On the other end, Mean tugged, her gloves tight on his skin.

“I’ll make your mind go back far enough so you’ll forget all of these people too,” Parlay laughed. “You’ll forget every lie, every––”

He choked and let go. Darrow wobbled back as Mean pulled him away.

Parlay did not say anything else: his arm drooped to his side and his smile disappeared. His eyes, widening, glazed over. With wobbling legs he fell forward, his weight pulling him out of Trisk’s hold and sending him crashing face-down to the carpeted floor. He stayed there, unmoving: tufts of yellow hair sticking up and his arms sprawled and limp.

“Holy crap, what just happened?” Mean asked, sweeping her brown hair back as Darrow nursed his left arm. Trisk took a step back from Parlay’s still body.

“I don’t know;” Trisk gasped. “I didn’t do anything.”

Parlay stirred. A ragged gasp came from beneath him. His arms dragged over the carpet as he drew them in.

“Darrow,” he said, flopping over. “I told you to get away from him. Heh, you don’t listen to me.” He coughed, looking up at the boy with drooping eyes.

“Tome!?” Darrow cried, dropping down to his knees. Dring, who had been on his way over, backpedaled now after hearing the name.

“Yeah, it’s me,” Tome confirmed with a slurred voice. “I can’t stay in his body for long; you need to get out.”

Darrow sniffled. “But the crown broke,” he said. “How are we gonna talk?”

“Eh, I never really needed that,” Tome admitted, looking up with watering, yellow eyes. “The crown had a voice, though; I just wanted you to think of me as a person. Not what I used to be.”

“Oh come on!” Darrow laughed, a tear dripping away from his cheek, “I type to people all the time on computers––I don’t need to hear a voice.”

Tome grinned, nodding. “Then you can be my voice from now on,” he said, coughing again. “I’ll form my thought’s patterns in your head. You can speak for me.”

He choked on his last word before falling silent. His eyes lit up and the kind smile twisted. Hissing between his teeth, he pushed with his legs, scrambling away from from where Darrow knelt.

“How dare you violate me like that!” Parlay screamed. “Monster! Wretch!”

Dark, Trisk, Mean, and Darrow all backed away as he lashed out, his face growing redder.

“Dring, get us away from this psychopath!” he commanded. As the teen weaved through the group to join Parlay’s side, the blond-haired, seething man shouted back, shaking his finger.

“I’m going to protect their world from people like you, Sing––I’ll be the one making them safe! You can lie all you want but I’ll be their guardian! I’ll take Pinada’s role!”

He and Dring both vanished with a flourish of the teen’s little finger. The museum fell silent again.

Mean clasped at her heart, looking to the others. “Wow,” she uttered. “That guy’s nuts.”

“He actually does have a plan, though;” Darrow said, piping up. “I sensed it.”

“Tome’s talking through you already,” Trisk said with a nod.

Darrow squinted at her, brushing off his flowery shirt. “Now, those could have been my words,” he proposed, raising his finger. “But yeah––you’re right––that was Tome.”

“What’s it like?” Mean asked, looking at some small scrapes above Darrow’s brow.

“It’s like thoughts are coming into my head,” he explained, “but I’m not thinking.”

Trisk opened her mouth to say something, then just kneaded her temple as she fought back a smile.

“Well, how are we going to find out what Parlay is up to?” Dark said, walking over with the dropped device in his hand. “That kid is taking him everywhere; we can’t track them using the system of hex doors.”

After a moment to contemplate, Darrow spoke up.

“I believe we should try his house first,” he proposed, rubbing his chin.

 

—–

“Can that guy weally stop you?” Dring asked, trotting in Parlay’s wake.

“No,” the blond-haired man answered. He stared ahead as the slanted window displayed darkness outside. “My mind pushed him out somehow. Now, go retrieve your model and I’ll notify Dhaston. There’ll be no more delays––we’re changing your planet today.

 

 

14 – How Do I Get In

 

 

Mean stood, frowning, at the angelic marble statues. An image had formed between them, displaying addresses and homes all with the common label of “Parlay residence.”

“There are just too many,” she said.

“I’ll ask his full name the next time he tries to rip my arm off,” Darrow remarked. He added: “Try telling it to search for a hex door that’s been used near any of those houses in the last year or so.”

“Ah––good idea,” Mean said. “Okay: only show houses with hex doors that have been recently used.”

A single image of a mansion appeared. Trisk gave Darrow a pat on the head.

“It’s almost worth sitting through your inane comments to get to Tome’s useful ideas,” she said, rubbing his hair.

Darrow smirked, stepping between the six statues with Dark, Mean, and Trisk. The high, arched passage and connecting museum vanished, and the group found themselves in a walled-in courtyard beneath a cloudy sky.

Six leafless trees surrounded them: their dry husks reaching up, jagged and bleached. Beyond them brittle twigs lay haphazard over brown patches of grass; many fountains stood empty and tarnished with moss. A dirty path lead away from the hex door, half-concealed with dead leaves that swirled in the wind. The mansion from the picture stood in the distance.

The four studied the landscape for a moment, the only noise a low howl from the breeze hitting the trunks.

“What a dump,” Darrow noticed.

Mean stepped out and on to the path. “I did say ‘recently,’ didn’t I?” she wondered.

“It looks like he isn’t even using this place,” Darrow said. He leaned on one of the white trees.

Mean clasped her gloved hands together, flexing her arms out in front of her. “I’ll check it out.”

Darrow laughed. “That place is like a half-mile away!” he said. “Are we supposed to just wait for you to get back?”Trisk tittered. “Oh, that’s right––you haven’t seen what she’s learned.”

“Learned?” Darrow repeated. “What, when you were in that building?” Trisk smiled.

“Hey, Dark,” Mean said, facing the mansion. “Your armor all charged?”

“Yes,” Dark answered, then flinched. “I mean––wait––why?”

Mean threw him a glance and he was flung from where he was standing, soaring over the path that lead to the large house. Darrow laughed as Dark’s startled yell faded off down the trail; Mean was following him with quick, long strides. Her tennis shoes tapped along: taking her over a branch, a pile of leaves––then she bounded up one final time, leaving the ground.

“No way!” Darrow screamed, watching her rocket off: her head pointed forward and hair whipping back. She soared over the dirty path behind Dark, a storm of wind-tossed leaves blowing past them.

As a large piece of foliage slapped at her face, she twirled, rising higher. The mud and the stone shrunk beneath her, the leaves that spun along the ground in currents became churning, brown specks. Smiling, she looked down at the roof of the house as she neared it, spying Dark flat on his back on the front steps.

“Hey!” she shouted, tipping her feet to the ground and descending. The courtyard expanded to full size once more; she clapped to the pavement, her knees buckling.

“You can fly,” Darklord stated from his place on the stairs.

“Yep,” Mean said, walking over to him and helping him up. “I was wondering when you’d notice.”

Darklord laughed, brushing dust from his armor. “How do you do it?” he asked. “You’re only moving my suit when you make me go flying––are you actually moving, well, you?”

“Yeah, it’s my actual body; all me,” Mean said as she took a backwards peek down the trail. From the far-off hex door, Darrow was running toward them as fast as he could.

“But I’ll tell everyone how later;” Mean promised, running both hands through her hair to get it back into place, “while we’re alone there’s something I want to ask.”

“Oh?” Dark said. He sat down on a stair. “What is it?”

Mean shuffled her feet. “Well not ask, but tell you,” she started. “I had a long time to think while I was training with Trisk. I want to clear up some secret stuff that I haven’t exactly been straightforward with.”

Dark leaned forward, tipping his head at her. “You?” he laughed. “You have a secret? I think you’re going to have to try pretty hard to top Tome’s!”

“Right, I forgot about that,” Mean admitted, her face turning red. “I guess mine’s actually tame: compared to being a worldwide, feared criminal, that is.”

Dark chuckled. “Did you see me checking that emotion-reader Parlay dropped? I almost feel bad for doing it––the thing showed that Tome was feeling guilty.”

“Well, he’s been hanging around with you guys this whole time, right?” Mean said. She held the hair away from her face as the wind tossed it.

Dark nodded. “Yeah, and you haven’t seen how well he’s been getting along with Darrow. He’s been teaching him a lot since you two left.”

“Speaking of which––” Mean whispered, hearing Darrow’s loud footsteps growing nearer, “I guess we’ll have to talk later. Do you remember that bar I mentioned? The one with the games? I want to show it to you later. After all the Parlay stuff, I mean.”

“I, well––I’d love to,” Dark said, stepping out of the path as Darrow arrived. He collapsed onto the stairs, panting.

“Man, there are some sort of crunchy things all over that path,” he said.

“Yeah, it’s really strange that this place is in such bad condition,” Mean noticed, looking at the uneven path at her feet. “Every other place that we’ve been to has automatic systems to take care of cleaning.”

“Maybe Parlay wants it like this,” Dark said. He turned from the courtyard and clopped up the steps. “It would certainly keep people away.”

“And did you see Mean go flying!?” Darrow interjected, swiping sweat from his face. “How in the world did you learn to do that!?”

Mean followed Darklord up. “Oops––sorry Darrow,” she said with a smile. “I already explained everything!”

Darrow screwed up his face, pushing off the stairs to his feet. The three walked to the entryway, where a solid door with no handles sat between two massive pots. Bare, withered stalks hung out of the planters, while a coating of moss obscured the door.

“Well,” Darrow started, taking the hem of his flowery shirt and fanning his belly, “we could magic up some battering rams and barrel through it. Wait––no––Tome says not to do that.”

“Why not?” Mean asked, her hand at her back pocket.

“He’s telling me that all the patterns on the house’s door and walls are being kept static,” Darrow explained. “And the engine powering it is on the inside.”

“Well, I’ll just smack it with stuff until it runs out of juice,” Mean stated, flexing her shoulder. “Stand back.”

“Mean, no!” Darrow cried. “There’s a trigger pattern mixed in to the door’s structure; if you damage the door, the base pattern will change, and the trigger will go off. The trigger makes––what? What happens?”

“The door opens!” Mean guessed with a laugh.

“No! An alarm, some sort of security––” Darrow said. “Tome can’t see exactly what the alarm will trigger, but it can’t be a good thing.”

“So how does Parlay get in there?” Dark wondered, looking back to where Trisk still stood next to the six jagged trunks. “If he had a hex door in the house, he wouldn’t have been using the one outdoors.”

“Please just let me smash it down,” Mean begged.

Darrow held up his hand. “And now Tome says something is scanning us. It’s looking for a pattern. A tiny pattern. I can’t believe it, I’ve never seen a pattern that tiny before.”

“Cells?” Dark guessed. “Do living cells even have patterns?”

Mean sat in the shade of the porch’s long overhang. “Well, Tenny’s notes in his tower said there were,” she remarked as she spread her feet out. “Maybe Parlay programmed the door to look for his cellular pattern.”

Darrow sat down. “How could we get his cells?”

“Hold on,” Dark said. “I think I know a way we could do it. Mean––didn’t you say that Parlay was at the government party? The one where you and that other girl served drinks?”

Mean looked up at him. “Yeah, he came up right after Darrow.”

“Those were some great drinks,” Darrow reminisced.

“Those mugs were cryogenic containers:” Dark explained, “A small area on the handle freezes some skin to the surface. After the party, the mugs were collected and the genetic samples were matched up with the fingerprints on the glass.”

What!?” Darrow cried. Mean’s lip curled and she sat up straight.

“The government wanted to study the healthy people left behind;” Dark went on, “find out why they didn’t get sick.”

“But taking DNA without consent is illegal!” Darrow argued.

“You don’t have any civil rights here, Darrow,” Dark said. “And the testing was to be done on this world––where the national laws don’t apply.”

“Man,” Darrow said. “Wait––how do you even know all that?”

“I wonder,” Mean said, raising a brow. “But this is good for us. Parlay took one of those cups; his cells should have been sampled with the rest.” She stared over at Dark. “But where are they? Somewhere in Hardpan City?”

“Yeah, they are,” Dark sighed. “Stored in the forensics lab––Hardpan Police Headquarters.”

 

 

15 – Turbulent Prison

 

 

Mackaba stood in the headquarter’s lobby, staring out through a barred window at Hardpan Square. A billboard hung high on a brick building, depicting a Jesian officer in a clean uniform.

“We’re here for you,” he said in cursive writing, saluting down at the empty intersection of roads.

We’re here for you!” Mackaba jeered into the empty room. He turned from the barred window.

“I’m the one that’s here––not them,” he whined as he walked by the soda machine. It was unplugged from the wall and its front was hanging open. The racks inside were empty. “I’m the one that’s kept everything secure,” he said to the blank offices through the window as he marched past.

“The Lords Ley will come back and they’ll see––” he spat out, taking the turn past the forensics door. “They’ll see that I’m here––I stayed while the others ran.” He tugged at the yellow sash on his shoulder, mouthing words as he gazed ahead. When he reached the end of the hallway he stopped at the end office. The door leading in was ajar, and the glow of monitors threw flickering light on the walls and the mounted fish inside.

“I’ve been through this before,” Mackaba stated, looking at a specimen with a gaping black mouth. “That’s why you chose me.” He turned away, clasping his smeared gloves behind him and pacing back the way he had came.

“I thought about giving up,” he said as he swerved around the corner again. “But I knew you were counting on me.”

Mackaba’s eyes stared straight as he strolled; the long grid of criss-crossed wire windows moving past at his side. He reached the lobby again.

“And will Captain Ecks be here?” he asked the furnished room as he entered. “Why, no, he won’t! It’ll be ‘that yokel’ Mackaba. Him and his fish. The fish. Scaly, mounted, scum-eaters that had more sense of duty than––” With a sniff he peered up through the barred window. Outside, the saluting officer on the billboard had his words covered in black, painted letters: “I EAT POOP!” is what it said.

Mackaba’s flinched. His tight-drawn lips wrinkled.

“What?” he whispered, running his gloves through his thick, wavy hair. “Eating? You can’t–– ”

In a flurry he barreled out of the station, and the square’s calm shattered as the front door swung wide and cracked into the wall.

“What is going on here––who did this!?” he demanded, his boots clacking over the pavement. Snarling, he rushed past parked patrol cars and potted trees. As he jerked to a halt in the paved intersection, he swept his eyes across every street, doorway, and alley.

“Who wrote that!?” he screamed out into the streets. “Who defaced Jesian property!?”

A small can of spray paint clanged to the street with a metallic ring. “I did,” Mean called out, stepping from a building’s long shadow. Mackaba froze.

“You again,” he stated. “You again.” He held his head in his hands, backing away. “You can’t be here. You’re not.”

“I don’t want to be,” she replied, taking her fingerless glove and pulling it tight on her hand.

“But you’re here!” Mackaba said. “I just––why do you keep antagonizing me?”

“I don’t want to,” Mean stated. “I tried to be nice, remember? After what happened at Kates’ house––”

“I have one job,” Mackaba cried, “and you won’t let me do it! This is all that I have and you won’t go away!

“Mackaba, listen! Please,” Mean said, raising her voice across the vacant road. “We’ve encountered one of the surviving natives––he’s going to try something. I don’t know what, but we could use your help.”

The officer snorted. “You’d love it if I gave up now, wouldn’t you?” He flourished his hand at the billboard. “The Lords Ley would come back, see everything you’ve destroyed, and then blame me. Well, I’m done showing you mercy you trollop. I’m done.”

He readied his arm as he spoke, his voice shrill and his fingers shaking. A column of dark, zigzagged lines rose from the pavement, fencing Mean in and closing over her head. She shut her eyes as the odd water arrived: Popping from multiple places inside the curved grid. Mean flinched as the water flowed over her body, gushing around her and soaking her clothes. Not a drop spilled from the marked boundary as the liquid continued to rise and filled the cage to the top. Mean opened her eyes and looked out at him. Her brown hair swirled at the sides of her face.

“You’re not going to listen?” she asked through the wavering surface.

Mackaba did not reply; he moved his hand to the holster under his sash.

Mean crouched. “Fine,” she said, and the top of the container erupted as she flew out.

A plume of odd water shot twenty feet high; Mean burst from the top and kept right on going. Mackaba choked with his hand held at his chest, his mouth open as globs of odd water scattered over the square and smacked at his face.

“Wha–what?” he uttered as the girl soared up, her skirt flapping as she rose past the roof of a building. She stopped, hovered, and glared down at the officer. A wide, stone table sat ready on the building’s precipice. She flung it in Mackaba’s direction.

He gasped out a curse. Covering his head with his hands, he fled: the table making a heavy whoosh through the air as it smashed into the pavement behind him. Toppling over, he fell on his side, coughing and spitting as dust and debris exploded from the gash made in the street.

“No!” he cried, gathering himself up. A large piece of the table gravitated toward him, scraping and kicking up gravel. Catching glimpse of the table sweeping over the pavement, he stumbled and dove: falling next to a potted tree as the chunk of stone rumbled past him. It grazed a traffic light with a twang, and the square echoed again as the table slammed into a building. It dropped to the road with a thud.

Mackaba kept his eyes on it, grasping the potted tree and pulling himself up.

“You arrogant vandal!” he said, looking up to the roof. Mean was not there.

Swirling around he spied her on the ground: her fists at her sides as she stood in an alley. She flipped back some wet hair by tossing her head.

“You can’t hold me anymore,” she stated. “I don’t want to hurt you. Just leave.”

Mackaba seethed. “No. No! I will not let you wreck everything!” He took his sash in both hands and wrung it as he stomped to the square’s center. “I’ll wash you out––I’ll just wash you right out!”

He giggled through his teeth, and the black zigzagged lines spread outward from his boots: racing over the pavement, folding up, closing around his body in a cube.

Odd water sprung out and filled the space, and Mackaba laughed, raising his arms. He flexed his gloved fingers outwards, and the boundary of the grid bulged and expanded up, forward––in every direction. As it did so the water surged and burst forth from countless points as the cube continued to grow. Mean braced herself as the grid swept past her and through the small alley, and she fought to stay sound as the oncoming wave broke against her.

Mackaba’s howling laughter was drowned out by the water’s deafening roar: it swirled over the streets as it poured from above; it churned against police headquarters and lifted the cars. The square became lost in a deluge of froth as the odd water rose, and Mean let her body be tossed for a moment. Growling, she pointed her feet at the pavement beneath her. With a twist and a spin she sunk through the liquid and snapped to the ground. Her clothes and hair swirled at her sides as she watched the water rise; only when it filled the monstrous cube did it cease.

The roof of the liquid-filled space towered above, the surface stretching wide over the entire square. The two fishhook-marked flags of the headquarters twisted on their poles, and Mackaba––his wavy hair wild––was floating between them.

“This is my prison,” the officer bellowed. The odd water churned above him. A visible pattern formed in his hands: materializing into a solid, streamlined device that had a harness attached. Sweeping the thing around to his back, he poked his arms through the straps and pulled them taut with a jerk. He rose as the backpack rumbled and long jets of foam sprayed from the bottom.

“I don’t know when you learned how to fly, but it doesn’t mean that you are free,” Mackaba called down to Mean. Sunlight radiated in beams around the uniformed officer, filtering through the zigzagging lines above. “I control everything here in my city––I can make this liquid as dense as I please. Up here, the water is light as air; down on the street, where you stand, it is nearly impassible.”

Mean turned her face up from where she stood in the alley. Mackaba beckoned with his hand.

“Well, Sandy-Brown?” he called out with a widening grin. “Aren’t you going to try and reach me up here?”

“You’re coming down here,” she said. “You screwed up.”

“I what?” Mackaba laughed.

“That jet pack or whatever. It has a pattern. I can move it.” With a slow, sweeping motion, she rose one leg from the ground and held it poised. The thing on Mackaba’s back rumbled, and with a sharp dip he plummeted down.

His body jerked forward and his head snapped back, cutting off his startled, gurgling scream. He kicked with his legs and flailed with his arms; the pack’s engines grew louder as it fought the pull.

“Wait! Please! Stop!” Mackaba pleaded, clawing at the straps. His torso jerked again and his arms flapped wide open: trailing at his sides as the backpack now doubled its rapid descent.

Mean watched as the officer neared, soaring at her chest-first with all four of his limbs being dragged through the liquid. Wearing no expression, she aimed her foot at his stomach.

“Nooooooo!” Mackaba wailed, his cheeks being pressed back in folds. As he hit, a loud smack shot through the water, his arms and legs whipping forward as the kick connected and stuck. He hung there with a faint wheeze at his lips, and Mean spun away: letting the backpack propel him out of the grid and into the dry side of the alley.

There was an explosive splash as he shot though the wall of odd water, crashing to the pavement in a soggy heap. Mean stepped through the wall after him, dripping in silence as Mackaba groaned.

“Be glad Trisk taught me to kick high,” she said, taking her hair and wringing it out.

As Mackaba clutched at his belly, Mean walked over to him and reached for the sputtering backpack. The whirring sound it made died as she hoisted it up, and Mackaba staggered to his feet along with it.

“You wanna know when I learned how to fly?” Mean asked, wrapping her arms around the device. She rose mere inches over the road, taking the pack in her grip and moving it with her. Mackaba’s boots scraped over the pavement, and they began to trace circles as Mean started to spin.

“It was after the worst day of my life!” she screamed in his ear, picking up speed as she swung him around. The officer’s arms flopped along with his legs as he hung by the straps, and Mean’s tiny arms strained as she held him. With one loud cry, she whipped Mackaba off through the air.

Swinging and shouting, he bounded into the wall of odd water: Meeting its surface with a sharp crack. A circular ripple expanded from the spot where he hit, and Mackaba yelped, sinking in.

“You can just stay in that crap,” Mean uttered between heavy breaths. Wobbling, she settled on the dry road, plunking down with a sigh. Her heart beat along with the lapping of water. The patter grew to a churn as the wall parted open again.

You had a bad day!?” Mackaba screamed, racing out, his legs carrying him forward in quick, dizzy strides. He fell onto Mean as she scrambled to stand.

“How dare you blame me!” he accused as they both collapsed to the road. Mean struggled as Mackaba pinned her, the officer glaring down with the pink trace of a scar streaking above his eyes.

“Get off me!” Mean growled as she squirmed under his drenched uniform, her face jerking away from his breath and dangling, wet hair.

“I said get off!” she repeated, and this time Mackaba flew: his backpack whirling him off down the road, flipping him in a somersault before dragging his body away through the street’s center.

Mean leapt to her feet and shot after him, her soggy clothes shedding drops as she flew. Mackaba’s pack came to an abrupt rest at the city’s stark border, along with Mean who landed nearby.

“I’m leaving now,” she announced, staring down at him. She adjusted her skirt and wrung out her hair. Mackaba coughed as he lay on his back, his arms plucking at the harness in feeble attempts as Mean continued to speak.

“You can protect the city––do whatever you want. Nobody wants to come here anyway.”

Mackaba snorted. One of his hands whipped to the sash that he wore, sweeping out the spear pistol and squeezing off a shot in one stroke. Mean’s heart skipped as the needle buzzed her left ear, followed by a small clink that rang out against a building behind her. She trembled and sucked a breath in, racing to kick the gun from Mackaba’s hands.

“Stop shooting me!” she cried, grazing the barrel with the toe of her shoe. The officer frowned as his pistol slipped from his hand; his eyes snapped open wide as he felt the backpack lift him into the air.

“Help! No! Wait––I’m sorry!” he shouted. His face grew red and his limbs dangled down; the pack kept on rising, holding him tight in the harness.

“Shut up!” Mean ordered, bending her knees, rocketing from the ground, and ascending with him. As they both reached the rooftops their trajectory changed: curving back toward the cube of odd water engulfing the square.

“You wanna play in that stuff?” Mean offered, taking hold of the backpack and ushering him along faster. “You wanna know what it’s like to suffocate in it like I did!?”

Mackaba screamed at the street far below him, the empty windows whooshing past. The level, bobbing top of the odd water cube drew closer.

“I thought I was gonna drown,” Mean yelled as the wind tore at her hair. “I thought I was gonna die!

The cube’s grid swirled beneath them, and with a loud cry Mean flung Mackaba forward. He rocketed ahead in a shallow decline; his pack came loose with a pop, separating from him and sailing away. The officer yelped as his backside struck the surface; he skipped several times over the top in a blur. Spiraling into an explosion of spray, he lost all momentum and sunk. As his body was swallowed, the intertwined lines running over the surface unraveled and snapped. An immense roar pummeled the buildings as the containing grid vanished, and every street in the city was swept by a white tidal wave.

The torrent spread outward, and the water line fell; Hardpan Square churned again with turbulent currents as the odd water spread into the plains surrounding the city.

After a deafening minute, the rumbling quieted. Streams and puddles shone in the sun. The front door of the police headquarters opened, and Dark in his armor stepped out.

He held a case in his hands as he crept out of the building, and the fishhook-marked flags high above him hung limp. Mackaba was sprawled near a flipped police car, taking ragged breaths. Dark pressed onward through the dripping square.

He quickened his pace as he caught sight of Mean seated on a short curb. Her hair was matted and her gaze was cast down: a tiny sob rang out from her lips.

Dark approached, and Mean glanced up. She shivered. He sat the case down and knelt next to her.

“You alright?” he asked. She sniffled a bit.

“Yeah. Yeah, I think so,” Mean replied.

“That first time:” he said, “When he attacked you before. I wish I could have been there for you.”

Mean smiled. She leaned against him, and he cradled her shoulder.

“I know,” she said.

 

 

 

16 – The Monster Reborn

 

 

Dark and Mean arrived between the six white, leafless trees. Darrow stirred from the shade.

“What took so long?” he asked.

“Doesn’t matter; we got it,” Dark said, showing him a small case. He stepped out from the circle and started along the dirty path to the mansion.

“Things got a bit hectic,” Mean admitted to Trisk, who was still leaning against a pale trunk. The long-haired girl lifted an eyebrow. Darrow gasped.

“That guy was still guarding the city?” he said, getting up. “Mean, you didn’t hit a Jesian officer, did you?”

“Well, maybe,” Mean started, looking ahead at the large house. She fumbled a bit before walking down the path too.

Trisk swept after her. “And––?” she pressed, dogging Mean with her steps. Darklord halted and turned.

“I don’t think she wants to talk about it;” he said, “she distracted him––we’re done.”

Trisk glared at him. As he marched forward again, she muttered, “I knew she’d get emotional if she faced him; I shouldn’t have let her go.”

“Then why didn’t you go in her place?” Dark asked without a look back.

“Because I would have killed him,” Trisk answered.

Darrow winced, and did not speak again; the group made their way to the mansion in silence, with dry leaves scraping over the breezy path. After a minute of walking, they reached the stairs where the moss-covered door was waiting: it was already opening with a rickety squeal and a slow, scraping sound.

“It worked!” Mean cried, watching the double doors swing inward. The overhang shaded the dim entryway, and unseen objects clattered as the immense doors pushed them aside.

“Amazing,” Dark remarked.

“Yeah,” Darrow said. “But, ah, who’s going first? Mean? You could fly out if things look dangerous.”

“I used up my magic,” Mean said, peering in. “And besides, wouldn’t Tome have told us if he sensed Parlay here?”

Darrow nodded, walking in before anyone else.

“Oh man,” he said, turning back to Mean as she and Trisk followed. “Look at this place.”

The interior was spacious, and nothing it contained could be recognized: Stone chunks rested in layers of dust; wood, clay, and torn fabric were strewn in every direction. The parts of the floor that weren’t heaped with debris were flecked with splinters of glass and shattered, unidentifiable things.

“And I thought the yard was a mess,” Trisk observed, stepping in from outdoors. A peach-colored light shone down from the ceiling, illuminating a round pit of dirt in the room’s center. A snapped chain hung above it.

“This is so strange,” Mean said. “I thought Parlay kept the outside filthy to keep curious people away––why in the world would the inside be like this?”

“And how did it happen?” Darrow added, staying close to the group as he studied a crumpled gift box on the floor. Nearby, a mound of junk shifted, and white teeth and eyes peered out at him.

Darrow looked over at the face and screamed.

He leapt back as Mean and Dark froze, slamming into Trisk who stood with a wide stare. Rubble fell aside as a grey figure emerged: the white eyes and teeth at the head of a massive body.

Darrow’s gasp was loud as the creature sprung into the air, bounding over the mess and landing before him. Dust kicked up as he settled on muscular legs, and scaled plating rattled at his waist and torso.

“Did you say you know Parlay?” the thing asked.

Trisk took up her stance, holding her fists between her and the monster. The beast––at least a foot taller––smiled back at her through tight, grey skin.

“No need for that;” he growled, “I just want to talk. My name is Vornis.”

Trisk lowered her hands. She looked Vornis over. Two thin, bladed protrusions stuck out from his sides, extending well past the length of his arms. At the spot where his neck met his shoulders, another, shorter pair of spines framed his head in a ‘V’ shape.

“Okay. I’m Trisk,” the girl said, relaxing and extending her hand. The monster shook with laughter.

“You believe me, just like that?” he bellowed, shaking her arm. “Hah! I should have let you guys in when you came here the first time!”

“You were here? Watching us?” Darrow cried, still edging further away.

“Oh yeah, from the darkest shadows,” Vornis said, holding out his hand to Mean now. “I’ve got all sorts of tricks to fool people”––he dropped his voice to a whisper––”I’m not a normal person.

Mean chuckled as her whole hand vanished in his monstrous grip. “My name is Mean, and this is Dark and Darrow,” she said, pointing with her arm after it was released.

“Oh, someone’s in that armor?” Vornis asked, resting his arms on the twin spikes at his sides. “Then who’s the fifth one? The one I can’t see?”

“Oh!” Mean exclaimed. “That’s Tome––I forgot.”

“Nice to meet you all,” Vornis said. “I don’t see many people––everyone died, you know––and look at this! Five in one day.”

Dark took a step toward the beast. “Yes, it’s amazing––now what was it you said about Parlay? Does he know you?”

Vornis’ white grin disappeared. “I don’t see”––he paused––”I don’t see Parlay much anymore, but yeah.”

“He’s been attacking us,” Trisk said.

Vornis’ thin lips fell into a frown. “Well, not everyone handles genocides as well as I do,” he said. “He’s so much different from the Parlay I knew before. I know he’s a bit strange now, but I can’t blame him. Not at all.”

“He keeps talking about some kind of plan to save our world,” Dark said. “Do you know what he might mean by that?”

“I do,” Vornis sighed. “Yeah, I bet I do. I’d have to go into Parlay’s personal life. The life before this, you know? It wouldn’t feel right––spilling secrets to guys I just met.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Mean said. She rubbed the back of her neck, looking at Dark. “I’m sorry we asked.”

Vornis waved her apology off with his clawed hand. “No problem,” he croaked. “I’ll just tell you my story instead.”

“We don’t need to know about you,” Darrow said.

Vornis held up a finger. “But what if Parlay’s tale mingles into my own?” He tapped his claw in the air at Darrow. “I wouldn’t feel so bad about discussing things that happened to me as well.”

“Well okay, Vornis,” Mean approved, nodding. “If you’re comfortable, please tell us.”

“Great––I’ll find something for you to sit on,” Vornis said, picking his way through the rubble. He grasped the long blade that stuck out from his right side and pushed forward: it swiveled to the front of his stomach; the other blade swiveled to his back.

“Whoa,” Darrow uttered as Vornis maneuvered past. “Are those spikes connected?”

“Yeah,” Vornis answered. “They’re attached to my spine. I’m just moving them so I don’t cut you all. Ah––here we go.” Releasing the blade, they both snapped back into place at his sides as he reached a dirty, grand piano. Mean wrinkled her brow, looking at Dark.

“Sit right down,” Vornis offered, lifting a small bench and dusting off the velvet seat cushion. “My story starts with a girl named Zenny: I was going to con her.”

“You were what her?” Mean asked. She sat down on one side of the bench. Trisk hesitated, glancing at Dark.

“Was going to trick her into paying my way through the hex door;” Vornis explained, “she seemed the trusting type.”

Darrow plopped down on the other half of the cushion. “Pay your way?” he repeated. “This one took money?”

Vornis arched up his black eyebrows, causing wrinkles to crease over the bald spots on his head. “King’s hex doors all took money,” he growled. “They had restrictions, requirements––don’t know what happened; every single one is free now.”

“Well that’s good for us, I guess,” Mean said. She shifted her legs to the side of the bench.

Vornis shook his head, looking up at the wall. “Yeah, but I loved cheating that guy––the system. Such a thrill. Things are too easy now.”

“What an ironic fate,” Trisk stated, picking a hair off her sweater.

Vornis laughed. “Anyway, Zenny didn’t fall for my scam. Had to make up something to explain why I was hanging around. It went from small talk, then conversation––before I knew it almost the whole night had passed.”

“A romantic evening with a vagabond!” Mean reminisced.

“A girl and a monster?” Darrow wondered out loud.

“Oh no,” Vornis denied. “I didn’t look like this then. We were both young and healthy. At least––I was.” His eyes wandered to the floor. “Zenny had just found out she was sick, though. Incurable.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Mean blurted out. Trisk stood still.

“Don’t worry about it,” Vornis said as he sat down on debris. “The slate virus was magic-based. All we had to do was get her to a dead zone to suppress it.”

“Dead zone? You mean without magic?” Dark asked. “I thought magic was all over this planet.”

Vornis rested his arms on the great spines at his sides. “There are areas where magic doesn’t reach, but they’re rare. Or rather, all the good spots were taken by aristocrats and vein programming plants. Zenny’s dad was pretty wealthy, so she was able to get into a clinic––but me? Not a chance. The place was heavily quarantined. Best I could manage was a few visits a year.” He paused. “That’s when I found Parlay. He was trying to study the virus, but couldn’t get in. We became friends––I showed him some tricks. We’d sneak into the compound together. For months it went on like that: I’d visit Zenny while Parlay did the research.”

“Was he trying to find a way to cure it?” Mean asked, pulling one leg up and resting her chin on the knee.

Vornis shook his head, and his sparse patches of black hair waggled with it. “You know that magic he uses? The whole ‘I’m alive while everyone else is dead’ thing? Well, that virus is how he discovered it. Slate sends a command to one particular nerve; it tells the body to die, and it does. Studying this, Parlay was able to duplicate the process. And besides the harmful patterns, he found he could relay beneficial ones, too.”

“So wouldn’t he be able to use it to save Zenny?” Mean asked. “All those people?”

Vornis narrowed his eyes at her. “He couldn’t,” he growled. “Why do you think Parlay had to sneak in? Pursuing cellular magic was a crime––a taboo.”

“But it helps people!” Darrow said.

“It was seen as something with just as much potential to kill,” Vornis grumbled. “Parlay tried to tell others about the discovery, but no one would listen; they’d lecture him about ethics––list all of the vile acts done in the past. When Parlay and I stood up for ourselves and the diseased people, we were banned from the facility––with the punishment of death for even setting foot in the zone.”

“Geez,” Trisk said. “Mackaba would have loved this place.”

“And no wonder Parlay is so ticked off,” Dark broke in, “He tried to do something good for his people, and he was treated like a criminal in return.”

“Oh, we were angry all right.” Vornis said, the whites of his eyes growing round. “So angry, that we decided to give them what they feared:”

The monster rose from his perch and towered over the group, caressing the spikes jabbing out from his sides. “A vile, monstrous nightmare!” he bellowed, rattling the scales hanging over his chest. Darrow and Mean teetered back on the bench.

“I let him warp my body,” Vornis went on. “I didn’t care; I was never going to see Zenny again anyway. He infused me with pieces and instincts from our world’s most vicious creatures; I was going to get back at the system––I was going to go on a rampage and tear it all down.”

Vornis looked over the group, his white grin lingering for a second before vanishing with a hiss through his teeth.

“But that didn’t happen,” he finished, sitting back down. “As fired up for revenge as I was, I knew it would upset Zenny if anyone ever got hurt. I could never do anything to make her feel sad. I think Parlay knew this, too.”

Vornis tugged at a patch of crooked, black hair at the side of his head. “So we parted ways,” he lamented. “It took awhile, but Parlay’s ideas found favor among some of those aristocrats I hated––even that fancy blowhard King. But I don’t know much about what happened after that; I got as far away from civilization as I could.”

As the beast finished speaking, Dark wandered over to the broken piano where a toppled portrait and smashed metronome lay in a blanket of dust. “Well, at least that explains how you lived through what happened,” he proposed. He rested his arm on the piano’s flat top. “You must have been too far away to be affected.”

“Yeah,” Vornis muttered. “Still have no idea what killed everyone.” He looked out the door at the dry leaves crackling in the wind beyond it, and a smile crept over his thin lips.

“Nice to see that two others survived besides Parlay and I!” he went on. “Even if one of them hasn’t got a body!”

As Vornis said this, Mean dipped her head down, locking her hands at her knee.

“What?” Darrow asked, laughing. “Tome’s the only one of us that’s a native; the rest of us are from Jesice.”Vornis’ half-bald forehead wrinkled as he cocked his eyebrow at Mean. “But I can hear”––he caught himself––”Oh––right!” he stammered. “Just one of you! My senses must be getting stale!” He shut his mouth, clenching his thin, grey lips tight.

“Wait, you can tell what planet we’re from?” Darrow asked, whipping his head around to see Trisk dodge his glances. Vornis fidgeted. Darrow’s eyes narrowed under his wide monobrow, and he got up from the bench.

“I knew it!” he cried, sauntering over to where Dark leaned on the piano. “You’re not Jesian!”

“Darrow, what are you talking about?” Dark asked. He stood up to full height as he was approached.

“You can’t fool Vornis’ senses!” Darrow accused, jabbing his finger at Darklord’s breastplate. “You’ve been lying to us––and he sees it!”

“Oh come on!” Dark argued. “You didn’t even trust him a minute ago!”

Darrow flicked the armor. “Well why don’t you just take off your helmet and show us who you are then?” he challenged. “Oh, that’s right––it’s because you don’t trust anyone.”

“Darrow! Dark! Guys!” Mean interjected, leaping up to her feet. “It’s me! Vornis was talking about me.”

The beast shook his head, lowering himself to his knees. “I’m sorry; I sensed you were one of us; I thought they all knew!” Vornis pleaded, bowing his balding head down.

“It’s all right;” Mean groaned, “I needed to tell them sometime anyway.”

“Mean, it’s true?” Darrow whimpered, ignoring Dark and heading over to where the petite girl stood. She turned her head down.

Trisk stepped to Mean’s side, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Oh, you weren’t able to figure it out?” she said. Darrow cocked his head at them.

“Pffff, there’s no way you knew,” he scoffed.

Mean kept looking at the rubble on the floor. “I told her after she took me to Tenny’s Tower,” she explained. “We were in there like a month; I would have starved if I hadn’t said anything.”

You eat!?” Darrow shrieked, causing Mean’s face to redden––and earning a glare from Vornis as he rose on his haunches.

“Oh! Not that that’s bad!” Darrow stuttered. “I’m sure there are lots of good things to eat! Lots of great things!”

“Like annoying brats?” Vornis suggested, baring his white teeth.

“Darrow, you idiot!” Trisk scolded. “Can’t you tell she’s sensitive about it?”

Darrow shrunk back, pulling at the hem of his flowery shirt. With a gasp he called out:

“Tome says someone is coming.”

Vornis turned toward the door, one of his long spikes swishing through the air past Darrow. “It’s Parlay,” he growled. “Weird––how did your friend sense him before me?”

“We can sneak out the back, right?” Darrow asked.

Trisk snorted. “Sneak out? No way––we’re going to finish this.”

Vornis swept his arm through the air at the group, causing the plates hanging at his chest to clatter together. “No!” he commanded. “Listen––that door in the garden is the only way out; I’ll stall him while you all get to it.”

Trisk looked into the wide eyes of the monster. “Darrow,” she asked, “does Tome know if that hex door kid is with him this time?”

Darrow stood still for a moment, then relayed: “It’s just Parlay––and he’s almost here; we gotta hide!”

Trisk smacked her hand with her fist. “No way; he can’t run!” she argued. “We’ve got him!”

Mean shook her head. “Trisk, I don’t think that’s a good idea. Let’s just do what Vornis says; he can tell us more later.”

The tall girl stood silent, flexing her long, slender fingers.

“I’ll be able to tell where he’s been with my senses,” Vornis said. “We can find him again.”

Trisk relented. “Okay, fine,” she said. With a quick sigh coming from Darrow, the group headed out the front door.

Outside, the path grew darker beneath the shadow of clouds: Its grime-covered surface bearing scant splotches of rain. Vornis walked with them as they marched over the cracked stone to the hex door, his scales clinking together. At the half-way mark Parlay stood with a hand on his hip.

“Unbelievable,” he remarked as they drew close, looking at each person as they walked up. “It wasn’t enough to invade my body, but my private abode as well? And Vornis––you let them in? Whatever happened to confidentiality among friends?”

“Got in themselves,” Vornis replied, giving Darrow a small push from the back. “And they were just leaving.”

“Yeah, your place is all ruined,” Darrow said as he strolled with Dark, Mean, and Trisk off the path. Parlay smiled, watching them step around him.

“Oh? I thought your murderer friend Sing would enjoy the destruction,” he chirped. “He once leveled an entire building, did you know that?”

Darrow stopped in his tracks, but Trisk pulled him onward: tugging at one of his flowery, short sleeves.

“You know, Trisk,” Parlay said, turning, “you shouldn’t lead a guy on like that––making him think that you can protect him.”

Trisk bit her lip and continued with her friends to the hex door. Parlay followed, his long, white sleeves swishing.

“Tenny thought that he could save his friends too,” Parlay said at their backs. “Or did you miss that first painting hanging up in the tower?”

Mean turned to Trisk as she heard her steps slow. “He’s just trying to get to you,” she warned.

“I’m trying to help,” Parlay continued, his lips curving up in a grin. “That ‘ego’ technique has a crippling weakness, and that weakness is what killed his friend. The man in the painting laughed as it happened, but he was not responsible.”

Trisk’s boots clapped to a halt. Parlay chuckled.

“Ah, but go on then––run away,” he purred. “At least you’ll carry on Tenny’s tradition of failure.”

Trisk spun on her heels. Brushing past Dark, she tore back down the path, her long hair whipping behind her as she tore at the blond man. Parlay did nothing; a grey blur leapt up from behind him.

“Stop!” Vornis boomed, crashing on all fours between her and Parlay. With a hand on his left spike, he sprung at Trisk: The right spike flashing through the air and catching her in the stomach. Leaves crackled as Trisk fell; she crashed on her back as the long blade pressed her down.

“Vornis, What are you doing!?” she wheezed, pressing back with her hands on the bladed edge. The tip dug into the dirt as Vornis crouched down; his left arm flexing as it held the other blade back.

“Lovely!” Parlay laughed, walking through the light rain that was falling. He stood over the spot where Trisk lay, pinned.

“None of you move!” Vornis growled, halting Mean in her tracks. “Parlay programmed my instincts. If you show any anger toward him I have no choice––I have to protect him.”

Dark, Mean, and Darrow stood still. Parlay smirked down at Trisk. “That is how you do it,” he told her. “Tenny couldn’t protect me, so I found someone who could.”

He let out a chuckle and reached for Vornis’ shoulder.

“Back off!” the beast snapped, glaring up at Parlay’s hand.

“I was just having fun with them,” the blond-haired man objected. “Besides, I don’t need your protection anymore. I can revert you to your normal state if you want.”

“I don’t want you touching me!” Vornis said, baring his teeth. “Parlay wouldn’t taunt people like this––laugh at their suffering! The Parlay I knew was nothing but kind. Who is this person I’m looking at now? Who is it!?”

The blond-haired man scowled, drawing back his hand. He clutched at his white sleeve.

“That person was a coward,” Parlay uttered. “And I do not wish to be reminded of that. I never want to see you again.”

He wiped the rain from his face and continued on to the hex door. After he vanished, Vornis yanked the blade from the ground.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, pulling Trisk up by the arm.

“No worries;” she answered, “you can’t hurt me.”

“I mean your shirt,” Vornis said, pointing a claw at her exposed stomach. Trisk gasped at the clean, horizontal gash in her sweater.

“Oh, Trisk, your tank top too!” Mean lamented, coming over and having a look.

“It doesn’t matter,” Trisk grumbled, pulling the hem up and tossing it down again to let the slash hang open.

Dark joined them, and the falling rain left shining streaks on his armor. “Vornis, did you sense what you needed to?” he asked. “Can you tell where Parlay has been?”

“Yeah,” Vornis answered. “He’s been hanging out in a place I don’t know: The patterns are foreign.” He pointed at Mean and Dark with two of his fingers. “I can tell that both of you have been to the same place recently––probably within the last couple of hours.”

“That museum?” Darrow wondered.

“No, Hardpan.” Dark said, looking at Mean.

“But we were just there!” she cried. “Where could he––oh! The hex door back!”

“The one back to our planet, yeah,” Dark continued. “But why would he be there all this time and never go through?”

Vornis wiped the dirt from his blade with his fingers. “Don’t know,” he said with a scowl. “But that person––whoever it is––needs to be stopped.”

 

—–

 

Parlay burst through the large doors of the building’s garage.

“No one is left,” he muttered, arms swinging. He marched over the aluminum tread plate on the ground. “Even my oldest friend is against me.”

The room towered above him, with bare, steel supports spanning from ceiling to floor. On three of the walls were massive, segmented doors: All closed tight. Muddy tire tracks stretched out from them and met at the room’s center.

“Dhaston!” Parlay cried, reaching the middle area where a hexagon was marked with yellow paint on the floor. A blue, branching structure sat inside of it, extending to the ceiling with thick, tube-like limbs. “Call for Dring; we’re sending the model.”

Tyle Dhaston was watching a wall of monitors attached to the far side of the garage. Only one of the screens was lit, and it showed a news program with captions scrolling at the bottom. “Just a second,” he said, taking a sip out of a bottle he held.

Parlay backed up and lunged at the blue structure, smacking its side with his shoulder. A creak came from high up as it teetered, followed by a hefty whoosh as it tipped and fell. Tyle spun on his orb as the large object collided with the tread plate, shattering and scattering pieces upon it.

“I said we’re sending the model; call for Dring,” Parlay growled, reaching down and taking a sharp fragment from the floor.

“Yeh––yes!” Tyle stammered, “I’ll go get him––I’m going!”

The cyborg rolled off, his orb humming as he exited through a small door. Parlay watched him go, taking a bag of dried jerky from his pocket. As he kicked the blue fragments out of the hex door, he slashed the bag open with the shard in his hand.

 

 

17 – Error

 

 

The bald officer fed his dollar into the soda machine, grimacing as the money was spat back out with a buzz. A man’s cry came from outside.

“Hey! Hey, Lanz!” The call was muffled, coming from outside the building. “Get out here!”

Lanz pocketed the wrinkly bill, jogging down the dim hall and bursting through the far door. Another officer was gesturing him over: Younger, but with only a bit more hair on his head. He was standing in a yard barricaded with barbed wire and fences, and it was all lit with electronic lights that hung on poles. Smaller, colored lights flashed on a hexagonal slab of concrete.

“Lanz, check this out. Something came through.” the younger officer said.

“Where is it Noldy?” the first officer asked, his radio and equipment jingling as he neared.

“Here––see it there?” Noldy replied, pointing at the illuminated slab. On the bare concrete lay a small, plastic bag.

“Aw geez, Noldy,” Lanz whined, running a hand over the top of his head before squatting down. “You’ll do anything to get me to pick up your trash.”

Noldy slapped at his chest. “No––I swear! Not this time!” he stammered. “It just showed up. There was this ‘pop’ and––”

“Right, right,” Lanz dismissed, scooping up the bag and standing up again. “Someone fixed the door just so they could litter. You want me to write him up? Land sakes, this wrapper stinks––what’d you have in here? Dog treats?”

“Well,” Noldy said, scratching the short hair by his neck. “I guess it could have blown––”

There was a pop and a crash; a rough gust of wind tore the bag from Lanz’s hand. A large, flattened bronze box fell upon the concrete slab, its impact ringing throughout the yard. The two officers backpedaled away from the object: Noldy going for his pistol while Lanz snatched his radio.

“5-L-1 to HQ,” Lanz spoke. “There’s an activation on the hex door––some kind of metallic box came through––”

“ERROR ELEVEN; LIMBS NOT FOUND,” a booming, monotone voice interrupted. “RUNNING ELEVEN DASH A.”

In an instant four arms materialized at each of the box’s angular corners: Long, jointed, and constructed of bright bronze rods. They extended beyond the hex door’s boundary, scraping over the yard in staggering movements.

The two officers dashed back further, with Lanz’s words to headquarters sounding faint as the machine’s voice boomed again.

“ERROR TWELVE;” it announced, “MOVER NOT ACTIVE. ENABLING MOVER.”

A ring of dust swept out from the concrete as the machine rose, hovering higher than the men’s heads. The four arms hung beneath the rectangular base, with two pincers snapping at the end of each one.

Officer Noldy swept his gun out of its holster.

“Halt!” he announced. “You are trespassing on Jesian property––”

“ERROR; UNIT 15 ENGAGED,” the machine interrupted, lurching to face him. “RUNNING COUNTERMEASURE.” A long, segmented arm swung at Noldy as he fired a shot; the bullet pinged off the bronze and the pincer clanged shut around Noldy’s waist.

“Lanz, help!” he cried. He was lifted into the air, kicking. The machine wound back its arm and tossed Noldy over Lanz’s head. He bounced and came to a rest in the grass.

“RUNNING THIRTEEN,” the machine hummed, floating off. Lanz raced to the Noldy’s side, his radio at his lips.

“Officer down!” he cried into the mouthpiece. “Eleven-Forty-one!” He took a quick look back and saw the machine’s gleaming body on the other side of the barbed-wire fence, the arms dangling down just over the street. It zoomed away, following the road’s path.

“Unknown vehicle is northbound on L. D. Access,” Lanz spoke into the receiver. With a groan, Noldy stirred.

“That’s some litter, huh?” he coughed.

 

—–

 

A squadron of patrol cars rolled across the dark bridge, their armored, spiked tops tossing red and blue lights over the street.

“This is Captain Leen of the Jesice Police,” a woman in the lead car announced. “All civilians are ordered to clear the Pale Bridge; it is being blockaded.”

A truck and a bus buzzed at her left as they passed, and she glanced at them from behind her stiff hood. She continued speaking above the siren’s wail.

“If you are caught between the bridge and the unknown vehicle, exit your car and move away from the road. An officer will arrive to instruct you further.”

She tapped a button on the glowing dash of the car, flipping its indicator from ‘Civilian’ to ‘Squad.’

“Alright––let’s make the wall right at the end,” she commanded. Many affirmative replies sounded off through the car’s speakers.

The end of the bridge rumbled as the squadron fanned out across it, their headlights stretching into the highway a moment before snapping off. The vehicles swiveled on their Dhaston orbs and lined up end-to-end: the numerous fenders and bumpers maneuvered and interlocked with each other.

“Wall complete––tops down,” Captain Leen called out from her spot in the middle. With a snap, every car’s roof slid off to the side: carried along rails to cover the passenger doors, falling with a clang into place. A solid, spiked barricade formed across the width of the bridge.

“Ready arms!” the captain boomed from her car, pulling her squat frame out of the seat and standing to address all her men. Around her came shouts of confirmation and the bustle of weapons being pulled from their cases: men and women in uniforms preparing pistols, shotguns, and rifles.

A short-haired girl in Leen’s car pulled out a pair of goggles, peering over the barricade as she sat with her knees on the seat. “Captain, I see it; it’s coming right down the road––33 mph.”

Leen nodded, squinting her eyes at an oncoming glimmer of bronze in the streetlights. She rose a megaphone to her lips, flipping a switch to extinguish the sirens. “This is Captain Leen of the Jesice Police,” she boomed across the lit road. “Halt and exit your vehicle with your hands in the air!”

The machine’s boxy, hovering shape came into focus now. It continued at them.

“Second warning,” the captain commanded, pointing her hand at the car next to her.

“Yes sir,” a man in a crash helmet replied, resting the long barrel of his rifle on the top of the wall. Taking a moment to aim, he squeezed off a shot: a tracer soaring over the road in a bright streak.

The oncoming machine made no movement; the colored discharge banked off to its right. It kept floating ahead, moving its four arms in jerked increments.

The officers, their guns in their hands, looked to the captain.

“Take it down,” she told them. They all opened fire.

The bronze machine made no effort to avoid the men’s volley: pressing ahead as hollow clangs resounded over its front. Muzzles kept popping and flashing in a line over the steel barricade, and after a few seconds, Leen ordered a cease fire in a thunderous voice. As the last echoes of gunfire faded, the short-haired officer peered through wisps of smoke caught in the blue and red lights.

“Target was not damaged!” the girl squealed, her eyes fixed to her binocular’s lens.

Captain Leen’s lips puckered as she glared through the haze. She tossed her megaphone into the back seat, hefting a tube-shaped launcher onto her shoulder.

The backseat officer dropped her binoculars and pressed her palms to her ears as her captain slid a reflective blast shield over her face.

“Firing!” Leen announced, her voice being carried electronically through the visor that now hid her face. Her squad ducked; the weapon spat smoke from both ends; and the approaching machine became engulfed in a thick cloud. As a sharp boom rang out back through the tunnel, the officers lifted their heads.

“ERROR TEN;” came a voice, “BALANCE MOTIVATOR DISRUPTED.”

The gleam of bronze appeared in the headlights as smoke fell to the street. The machine was tilting back in mid-air: Its two back arms contracted and pressed to the road, while the front two flailed in wild circles above it. The body’s surface remained smooth and polished.

“Reload!” Captain Leen growled from behind her blast helmet, spurring the other officer to dig another grenade out from under her seat.

“STABILIZING,” the machine hummed, pushing away from the ground with its back arms and floating level again. It hung motionless.

“Quick! Hurry!” Leen pressed, keeping her aim on the target as the other officer struggled to load the next bomb into the launcher.

“ERROR; UNITS TWO ENGAGED,” the robot cried out. “RUNNING COUNTERMEASURE.”

The pair of frontal arms flexed, swinging outward and snapping two pincers together. The four, angular fingers formed a small hexagon.

“Get down! Get down!” Captain Leen ordered, sinking below the spiked wall as her troop did the same. From the tip of the bronze arms, a sparkling light rocketed out: Soaring over the barricade and lighting the tunnel behind it. It flew in a streak all the way to the other side of the dark bridge.

The officer in Leen’s backseat swept her short hair over her ears. “Reading as a flare,” she announced, looking at a monitor readout displayed on the car’s glowing dash.

“Really?” asked the captain. She rose up and peered over the steel barricade. The road was empty, save for a cloud of smoke where the machine had been.

“What happened? Where is it!?” the squat captain asked, looking into the black, starry sky and letting the launcher’s long barrel droop.

The short-haired girl yelped, snatching Leen by the arm and yanking her around. “It’s behind us! Behind us!” she cried out. At the far end of the bridge, the rectangular machine hovered in a circle of six lights.

“What in blazes!?” Leen roared, dropping her weapon into the back seat. “Squad, disband barrier and pursue target!” she commanded, plunking into the driver’s seat and waving an arm in the air. At her order the line of patrol cars spread out from each other: The metallic, flashing plates on the sides sliding up to cover the roofs with a snap. They all swiveled ninety degrees on their orbs, and took off down the tunnel again.

“SAVING HEX DOOR POSITION: BRIDGE,” the machine said out loud on the far end of the tunnel. The six flares flickered in a circle around it, their reflections bright on the bronze arms. A far-away lapping of water could be heard before the chorus of approaching engines drowned the sound out.

“UNITS 2 PURSUING; RUNNING COUNTER,” the machine said. It directed its two rear arms at the oncoming cars. It waited as the troop of vehicles neared, its body alight with multiple headlights and the flashing red and blue beacons.

As the cars reached the end, the robot swung its arms down. A wall of thick cubes formed in a line: crashing to the street with a clang over all four of the lanes. Another row appeared right over the first––then again––slamming down to block off the tunnel. The sirens were now overcast by long squeals and screeches.

“RUN THIRTEEN,” the machine said as it drifted away from the wall, the many bricks shuddering from loud crunching sounds.

 

—–

 

The rising sun glinted through the glass wall at Ley Ledge, and it cast its orange light at a sharp angle up to the ceiling. Nearby, a Lord Judge in black robes smacked his pedestal with a small gavel.

“The measure has passed,” he announced. “Military action against the intruding force will commence.”

“Wonderful!” Lord Ley Lickwolf squealed from his desk. “Shall we go to the window to watch the fighters take off?”

Lord Ley Hinge’s seat creaked as he glanced over his shoulder; Prayler and Vail were the only others in the room.

“This event is unprecedented;” he stated, tugging at his wide belt as he stood, “and while fascinating, I still think we should call for our peers.”

“The other Lords Ley have been called,” Prayler said, starting down at his monitor. In the image, Captain Leen helped carry a man to a stretcher, with the camera’s view stationed over the hood of a battered patrol car.

Lickwolf chuckled, marching through the vacant aisle to the wall of glass and pressing his bowl-cut head to the window to peer out at the vast city. “They’re sending jets armed with Staccatos;” he said, “this will be over before the others are even awake.”

He was joined at the window by Prayler, Hinge, and the judge, and Lord Ley Vail stood and watched their backs as they peered out. Putting a hand in his lab coat pocket, he turned and crept out the back door.

 

—–

 

On the sheer face of the cliff, an embedded hangar’s doors opened just below Ley Ledge Citadel. Birds were roused from their nests as alarm klaxons blared, trumpeting the emergence of three jets as they whooshed out. They soared over the top of the city––the tall, sleek buildings held to the rock by steel trusses––and engines beneath their wings shot out white-hot flame. With a shriek and a boom the three fighters surged ahead, leaving long streaks in their wake as they curved off to the south.

 

—–

 

The bronze glinted as the dawn streamed between branches and leaves; the machine was moving through a forested road. A white ambulance raced away in one direction; in the other, a clear road led to a hazy view of sideways cliff. Three gleaming jets appeared in the pale sky, soaring without a sound. The machine hummed onward, and three instantaneous flashes intersected at its position.

A clap shook the forest; branches flexed away from the road and ignited. The machine struck the pavement and bounced, flipping end-over-end. The jets roared as they passed.

“UNITS FORTY-SIX ENGAGED,” it said as birds fluttered out of the thick trees. “RUNNING DEFENSE.”

The machine stabilized and the four arms swung up, beginning a series of short, precise movements. The pincers snapped at the air, creating small points of light every time that they did so. In a matter of seconds flares surrounded the body: all suspended at near-uniform distances from each other.

“SETTING HEX DOOR DESTINATION: BRIDGE,” it called out. The three jets swerved to make another pass.

 

—–

 

“Tell them to call off the attack!” Leen sputtered, her round, flustered face pressed to the pavement near the bridge. The six flares winked on the ground nearby, and the frame of the bridge stood above them, glowing white-hot in places where the metal had melted to slag.

The short-haired officer raced to her captain, holding her hands over her neck.

“Get down, get down!” Leen called out to her, and the officer dove as a brilliant light rocketed out of the hex door that the machine had made. A car split in two as the energetic blast cleaved it, the halves with the wheels remaining in place as the middle vaporized.

“Tell the military to cease all fire!” Leen shouted into her headpiece, holding a hand at the side of her hood. “It’s sending the Staccato shots back to the bridge!”

Another streak leapt from the hex door and sent a punctuated crack through the air, toppling part of the bronze wall that the cars had crashed into.

“Hurry––tell them to stop!” Leen cried out as yet another boom resounded with a blare of pure white.

 

—–

 

Dring howled, watching the array of monitors hanging in the massive garage.

“They can’t even touch it, Pa-lay!” he squealed. “They can’t even touch it at all!”

Dhaston scoffed, his orb rolling over the tread plate floor as he went in for a better look. One of the monitors displayed a scene where police officers cowered near their cars. “That hex door trick is the only advantage it has,” he said. “Without that, our tech could beat anything you could come up with.”

Parlay stood behind the two, his arms folded. “Goodness, you may be right,” he hummed. “Without the hex doors I might have need two models to make fools out of your army.”

As Dring giggled again and Dhaston scowled, Parlay twisted around and stared at the wall.

“What is it, Pa-lay?” Dring asked, pushing up his hexagonal sunglasses.

“Five people are on their way here,” the blond-haired man explained. “I guess I was careless after leaving my mansion.”

He sighed, turning back to Tyle Dhaston. “You stay here and guard the hex door––Dring, I need you at the engines and the model’s manual override. If either of you see that Trisk girl, come and get me.”

Tyle chuckled as Parlay made his way to a small door labeled ‘elevator.’

“Oh, one more thing, Mr. Dhaston:” Parlay said with his finger on the ‘up’ button, “There’s an old friend of mine with them. If you really want to test your world’s ingenuity against mine, then by all means––don’t call for help when he arrives.”

 

 

18 – Paths Met Again

 

 

Mean’s convertible car swerved out of the gazebo, braking to a stop as it reached the silvery stretch of the Nine-Mile Road.

“Can you tell if he’s here, Vornis?” Mean asked from the driver’s seat. She swiveled the car so that it faced the city.

“Yeah,” Vornis answered. His legs were crossed at odd angles as he squatted in the back seat. “Somewhere in that town over there; his pattern really stands out. Never seen buildings without patterns before. Where are the rest of your people, though? Why would they build all that and not live there?”

“Oh, there was an outbreak,” Darrow said as he squirmed beside the large beast. Vornis’ left blade was sticking out from the driver’s side of the car, while the right one jutted by Darrow’s face. “A virus. Everyone infected had to get off the planet. Some of us didn’t catch it though.”

“A virus?” Vornis asked. He twisted in his seat, his white eyes and teeth bared. The blade at his side pressed closer to Darrow’s chest. “What were the symptoms? What happened?”

“We called it Whiskers,” Darrow explained, pressing himself further back in the seat. “It just made little lines on your face. Well, cellular degeneration too, but it could be cured if you went back to our planet.”

Vornis turned his grey face forward again. “That’s what Zenny had: Slate,” he growled. “This can’t be a coincidence.”

“I knew it,” Mean said, pressing her foot on the accelerator. The car jerked forward. “Parlay did it. He’s so full of crap.”

“I’m sorry; I didn’t think he’d ever go that far,” Vornis admitted. “It may not seem like it, but Parlay has a strict set of rules––morals, you could say.”

“You’re kidding,” Trisk laughed from the front passenger seat. Kates’ old house passed by on the right.

Vornis scowled. He leaned forward and rose his voice. “He doesn’t believe in doing anything unnatural: he won’t alter anything unless it had the potential to begin with.”

Trisk twisted in her seat, holding up her arm. “When he grabbed me I was paralyzed. There’s nothing natural about that.”

“You let Parlay get that close?” Vornis chuckled. “He’ll use your nerves to send signals: Working his way up to the main one. It doesn’t break his rule since nerves relay commands anyway.”

Mean looked at Vornis in the rear-view mirror. “But he uses static to keep his body from, you know, getting hurt. Isn’t that a pretty big change from what’s normal?”

Vornis smiled back. “He also believes that preservation of the body trumps everything.”

Trisk laughed to herself, leaning an arm on the passenger door. “That that’s an advantage I have over him; I’ll do whatever it takes. You can’t beat an enemy by defending all the time.”

Vornis grunted. “I noticed that you weren’t hurt when I hit you with my blade. You also wear Tenny’s symbol. Are those guys still alive, or did you just find their place?”

Trisk bolted up in her seat. She twisted around. “I found their tower,” she said. “You knew them?”

“No, they were always Parlay’s friends,” Vornis said. “Well, ah, Tenny was, anyway.”

“Friends?” Trisk bellowed back. “Parlay said he hated them.”

“That’s strange,” Vornis said. “And you learned one of their arts without having them train you?”

Trisk held up her head. “I’ve learned two of their arts so far.”

“I thought you were only going to use the one art,” Mean cut in. “You know what happened when you changed between them.”

Trisk swept her hair back and turned to face front again. Vornis rose an eyebrow, and Darrow piped up.

“Well I’ve been woking on making drinks,” he boasted. “I get out my keg and practice every day.”

“Now there’s a talent I wouldn’t mind seeing in action,” Vornis said. He took a small pouch from where it sat on the floor. “And that reminds me: I have something for Mean in the bag of snacks I brought.”

Mean rose a hand and waved back to him. “No, Vornis, no,” she dismissed in a hurry. “I don’t think anyone here wants to see me eat.”

“It’s not a snack,” he said, tapping her uplifted hand with a bracelet. Mean’s eyebrows arched up in the rear-view mirror.

“Oh. Thanks,” she said, taking the braclet and holding it between her eyes and the road. It was a small, silver disc framed with an ornate filigree. On each side hung a leather strap.

“Noticed that you can’t tell when someone else is using magic;” Vornis explained, “it must be from living on that other world for so long. You can’t even sense other people’s presence like everyone else could. But if you wear that––that thing will let you know if someone’s doing magic nearby.”

“Where’s mine?” Darrow asked.

Vornis reached into the pouch. “You get a candy bar.”

“Wow––what’s it do?” Darrow asked as he took it.

The grey-skinned beast grunted. “You put it in your mouth so I don’t have to listen to you.”

“Oh man, this is food!” Darrow cried, peeling open the wrapper. He tossed the chocolate at the floor. “It even smells nasty; why would I want that?”

“Geez, you really are from another planet,” Vornis grumbled.

Mean, who had been staring ahead, pushed on the brakes until the car jerked to a halt.

“We’re here,” she stated, shutting the vehicle off. The cluster of buildings rose over the car, and the paved road continued between them in light shadow. Amber grasses swayed at the curved edge of the city, their noisy rustling audible now that the car’s engine had stopped. Mean opened the driver’s side door and pulled on a small lever; the trunk’s hatch on the back of the car swing up with a creak. A shiny, black boot and glove emerged.

“Sorry Dark,” Mean said, coming around to help him out of the trunk. “I never thought I’d be driving so many people around. Were you okay in there?”

Dark took her hand and leapt free of the car. “Let me put it this way––I’m used to it. Does Vornis sense Parlay in the city?”

“Yeah,” Mean said, standing on her toes, taking the trunk’s hatch, and slamming shut.

“Well, now I’m sensing three people in there besides Parlay,” Vornis announced. He stepped sideways out from his seat. Darrow was quick to dart out the other side of the car. “I can see a building at the end of this road. Some kind of flags are hanging out front. One of them is in there: asleep.”

“Oh, that’s Mackaba,” Mean sighed, coming around to the front again. She reached in and took the silver bracelet, strapping it to her forearm. She showed it off to Trisk, who nodded from where she sat on the hood of the car.

“Where are the others?” Dark asked.

Vornis paused. “Parlay is past that center building, in that tower back there that stands over the rest. He’s near the roof.”

Dark turned his helmet up the high tower. There was a circular “Dh” emblem painted over the windows of the top floors. “But the hex door leading to Jesice was at ground level,” he stated. “What’s he doing up there?”

“Well, there is someone at the bottom,” Vornis said. “There are strange patterns where his arm and leg should be.”

“Tyle,” Trisk said. She hopped up from the hood.

“And then one more, underneath the buildings,” Vornis finished. “There are more patterns down there: engines I think.”

“We should go where the patterns are,” Dark proposed, nodding over at Mean. “We should check it out while Parlay isn’t there.”

Mean pointed to a fresh, open trench at the city’s border. “There’s a way into the sewers over there––Dark and I saw it when we were here before. We’ll go see what’s up, then we’ll meet you above.”

Trisk nodded, stretching her back and flexing her arms. “I’ll go see what Tyle’s doing, then go up to Parlay––”

I’ll deal with him,” Vornis growled. “You just make sure they don’t use that hex door.”

“Fine,” Trisk uttered, then shot off down the road, her shoes slapping against pavement as she sprinted into the city. Vornis groused, and departed as well: leaping up in a burst to the roof of the closest building.

“And I’ll guard the car!” Darrow announced. “Good luck guys!”

“Alright!” Mean laughed, as she and Dark jogged off around the side of the city. “I left the keys in the front seat! We’ll be back!”

A path of brown, decayed grass lead away from the road, and the two followed it until they reached the small trench. Part of the city’s concrete foundation lay exposed in the pit.

“It’s kind of deep––I’ll go first,” Dark announced, bending his knees and taking a leap. His black boots slipped a bit on the bare clay at the bottom, but he caught himself and straightened up again.

“Here, I can help you down,” he said, turning backward and reaching straight past Mean as she floated down.

“Oh––right––” he said, withdrawing his arms.

Mean chuckled, her shoes clapping to the clay. “Did you forget?” she asked.

“Just not used to it yet,” Dark laughed. “Sorry.”

Mean smiled, walking over to a circular opening in the concrete. A dark tunnel stretched into the foundation of the city, and the ceiling of the passage was strung with small lights. They snapped on with a hum as Mean leaned in.

“No, Dark, you’re acting fine,” she said, stepping up to the tunnel and walking in. “I’m just glad you didn’t freak out when Vornis blurted out who I was. That’s what I was going to tell you when I showed you the bar, but, well––”

“I’d be the last person to condemn you over hiding your identity,” Dark said, keeping pace with her. “Or did you forget?”

Mean rolled her eyes, nodding, and then she went on. “Well, Darrow thought it was worth going nuts over.”

A room at the end of the tunnel grew closer as they walked.

“Yeah, I heard him going on about how disgusting food was through the trunk,” Dark said. “But he overreacts to everything––I don’t think he means any harm.”

Mean shook her head. “I just don’t want people to think of me as different,” she said. “Even Vornis––who just met me––gave me this bracelet. And why? Because I’m from this planet like him.” She let out a frustrated sigh that echoed through the tunnel. The passage ended just ahead, and a magic-based engine sat in the dank room beyond. The many-sided machine was bolted to the concrete wall with steel fittings.

“That might not be the reason,” Dark asked. “Maybe he just likes you?” Mean began to reply; as she stepped toward the room, six lights blazed in a circle around the mouth of the tunnel. She vanished with a rush of cold air.

“Mean?” Dark uttered. He stood rigid a moment as a faint voice called out far behind him. Turning, he saw Mean standing with her arms crossed in the middle of the passage. He took a step back into the six lights, vanishing and reappearing right beside her.

“Hex door,” Mean muttered.

“Looks like a trap,” Dark groaned, pointing to the side of the tunnel leading back to the trench: six lights shone in a circle around that end, too.

 

—–

 

Trisk slowed as she reached the foot of the building, stepping around puddles and keeping clear of the front lobby windows. She picked her way across the streets, circling the tower and glaring at the tall garage door shutters that barred her way. The edge of the city curved beyond the back of the building, and it was there that Trisk found a smaller door hanging ajar. She walked past some empty dumpsters and pushed her way in.

Tyle Dhaston turned from the wall of TVs he was watching, peering across the vast room at her.

“Ha! Parlay said some vicious monster was coming; I had no idea that he meant you, Trisk.”

Trisk smirked, and she marched to him with a slow stride.

“I should have figured you’d be at your building;” she said, her feet tapping over the tread plate floor, “you always loved your precious company.” She reached the marked hex door in the center of the garage, eyeing the trail of fragmented debris leading away from its side. The scattered pieces stretched to the wall and they had a red hue.

“If you came to stop us, you’re too late,” Tyle purred. He rolled sideways, indicating the monitors with his darker, tanned arm. “Check out what’s happening back in our world.”

Trisk walked closer and her black eyes rose to one of the screens. On it, a reporter spoke, muted, while an image of staccato fire flashed to his side. In the next monitor over, police cars were driving straight into a wall as a caption beneath them read: ‘Earlier This Morning.’

“All of this is being caused by a machine––a model, they called it,” Tyle said to her. “It went through the hex door and is making its way to St. Tra.” He pointed to a television labeled ‘LIVE’ with a bird’s-eye view of a forested road. The street was vacant: save for the bronzed, flatted cube hovering over it. The machine’s arms cast long shadows over the road, and another caption below it read ‘Day of Error!’ in a jagged, white font.

“It’s attacking our city? Why would you help him do this?” Trisk demanded, her eyes darting among the many stark headlines.

“I wouldn’t say I was helping him,” Tyle laughed. “And I have no idea what Parlay hopes to accomplish; this attack on our people will only turn everyone against him.”

Trisk tore away from the monitors, glaring at him. “So why are you doing this?” she asked. “Do you just like to see people get hurt?”

Tyle’s pale arm jerked twice and opened its palm. “I don’t like to see it; it’s for their own good,” he began. “This planet is bad for our nation, and they don’t know that. We even have morons in government––like that fool Tecker––who think that coming to this planet is a good idea.” He tapped at his dimpled face with a finger. “But mark my words: magic will be our destruction.”

A short, wary snort came from Trisk. “Of course it will,” she said. “You’re letting it happen right there on TV.”

“No,” Dhaston growled. “It started with that––” He gestured to the hexagon on the floor that was marked with bright, yellow lines. “That thing connects the worlds now. So who needs a space program? Not us; ships are too slow! Roads, busses, planes, lifts––what are those? We won’t need them; we’ll have hex doors!”

Dhaston’s orb ground over the floor as he ranted; taking his tall silhouette across the glowing TVs.

“I don’t understand, Tyle;” Trisk said, “people brought all those things with them when they built Hardpan City; there are roads all around us.”

Dhaston stopped. “Like the Nine Mile Road?” he inquired, swerving to face her. “Tell me––where does it go?”

“It goes to a fuel station.”

“It goes to a hex door!” Tyle roared. “Our people built a city like this out of habit; they didn’t know yet that magic could make anything––anything––in an instant for them! Make anything! Go anywhere! Poof––just like that!

Trisk shook her head, staring up at him. “So what’s the problem? I don’t get it.”

A vein on Dhaston’s forehead bulged out. “Of course you don’t understand; you only think of yourself. You ignore the whole of society,” he explained. “There are countless jobs linked to transportation alone, and all of them would be worthless here!”

“This is about your Dhaston orb company,” Trisk sighed with her hand at her temple.

“Trisk!” Tyle said, throwing out both of his hands. “Will you try to think of the big picture for once? Centuries of technological achievements will be trivialized! Our infrastructure––ruined!”

“So why let this happen?” Trisk burst in, pointing a long, slender finger at the cluster of screens. One monitor flashed a message calling for evacuation, while another pictured armed militia surrounding the Jesice-side hex door. Tyle Dhaston looked over the scenes, straightening the white sleeveless shirt that he wore.

“See that?” he indicated with a small nod. “Already they’re placing mistrust on the things. Parlay thinks he’s going to be some kind of driving force in our world, but he’s wrong: no one will listen to him after today. I’m only helping him so that everyone can quickly see that placing faith in magic is a mistake.”

Trisk’s mouth sagged open. “You idiot,” she told him, “Parlay doesn’t care about popularity; we’ve gone to his house––we’ve heard his whole story. He’s had something like this planned since before his people all died. He’s not trying to be famous; he’s just going to force his will on everyone.”

The dimples in Tyle’s cheeks deepened as he chuckled. “How? With that clunky model? It doesn’t even have enough magic power to last that much longer.”

“You don’t know what this world is capable of, Tyle,” Trisk said. “Parlay even created a monster. A monster to carry out his plan.”

Dhaston rolled backwards a bit. “What?” he squeaked. “He wasn’t just joking about that?”

“No, he wasn’t,” Trisk said. She reached up and ran her thin fingers through her hair. “And it’s obvious: you’re his new monster now.”

Tyle’s orb squealed as he zipped off to the side. “No!” he bellowed, “This is all for our people!”

“He’s just using you, Tyle,” Trisk said, her voice low. “Just like your father sold you out to be nothing more than a glittering showpiece.”

A sharp screech cut through the garage as Tyle stopped. He grit his teeth together. His pale arm was shaking: the hand balled up into a fist.

“Let’s just get this over with,” Trisk stated.

 

 

 

19 – Disillusion

 

 

“Trisk, I’m going to have the operation.”

Trisk caressed Tyle’s right hand. “But why? Your arms are good––see?”

“No,” Tyle said. He pulled away from her. “My new arm will be better. And I told you––the company needs me. I can help them out the most this way. I won’t just be the boss’s lame son.”

“But you can’t get them back,” Trisk said. “What if they’re able to fix your hearts some day? Then you could use your arm and leg just fine.”

“And then I’ll just be the normal boss’s son,” Tyle argued. “I can be useful this way. I can influence investors. Maybe I can even inspire other people like me.”

Trisk pouted, getting up from the bed. “You just want to be an advertisement.”

Tyle laughed. “Maybe. Now are you going to escort me there or not?”

 

—–

 

The garage was empty, save for the two. Trisk took up fighting stance: her fists raised above the slash in her sweater. Tyle’s orb kept him directed towards her as he circled her, his pale arm poised.

She dashed forward and Tyle wheeled back; Trisk spun on her heel as he retreated and bolted for the hex door.

“Hey!” Dhaston yelled, screeching after her in a blur and catching her by the sweater. He dragged her away from the painted boundary, and Trisk wriggled right out of her top. As he tossed the sweater away, her foot snapped from the floor: smacking Tyle in the ribs. A second kick flew at his face, only to be blocked when the pale arm shot up to protect it. He snatched her ankle, spun in a circle, and tossed her away from the hex door. The tread metal floor rang as her body bounced to it.

“You haven’t learned anything,” Trisk said, bounding to her feet. Tyle rubbed his side, keeping himself between her and the marked hexagon. “You’re still dependent on machines, people––you’re even counting on Parlay to do all your work for you.”

Tyle glanced around, checking each of the tall garage doors. The dimples at his cheeks deepened as he smiled.

“Why are you still talking like that?” he asked, rolling a bit closer. “Your new friends aren’t here; you can drop the whole ‘I’m a strong individual’ act.”

Trisk put up her fists up as she braced herself once more. Tyle folded his arms.

“Did you even tell them about our relationship?” he purred. “How you used to cling to me wherever we went?”

“It was to help you stand,” Trisk argued back.

“Oh, so you were my crutch, was that it?” Dhaston laughed. “You didn’t need me for a family like you always said?”

“That was a long time ago, Tyle!” Trisk said, dropping her arms.

“I want to get married!” Tyle sang in a higher-pitched voice. “I want lots of kids!” He laughed, edging closer. “Didn’t mention any of that to them, did you?”

Trisk’s eyes reddened. “I decided I didn’t want any of that.”

Tyle guffawed. “You decided? I’m the one that chose the job at the company over you. I’m the one that chose to stand tall on my own. You came to this world, alone, because you believed it to be the only road left––you made no decision.

Trisk’s breathing became heavy and a tear fell over her face. Tyle dipped his head down to her level, and whispered:

“You’re the crippled one, Trisk, from where I’m standing.”

He straightened back up as the tall girl swung her fists, striking at him as she let out a sob. Each blow was stopped before meeting his face; the mechanical arm intercepting her hands with swift precision each time. As she let her guard drop, the arm sprung out again: clasping her neck and raising her high. The stalk that Tyle balanced on whirred as the Dhaston orb struggled to keep him upright.

“I may be his monster,” he growled, “but it is my choice.”

 

—–

 

The cold tunnel rang with Mean’s yelp as she hopped up from where she leaned on the curve of the wall.

“What is it?” Dark asked, walking over. Mean held out her left arm with a frown on her face, displaying the silver bracelet that was now glowing orange.

“It’s hot!” Mean told him. “Vornis didn’t say anything about that!”

Darklord watched as she wiggled her arm through the air, the bracelet glinting.

“It’s not that bad, is it?” he asked, watching her blow on her arm with her lips.

“Not really; it just surprised me,” she said. “It’s more of a sensation than actual heat––like eating something spicy.”

“And what’s that like?” Dark laughed.

“It’s just weird, okay?” Mean said, watching the bracelet glow. “Someone must be doing magic, though.”

Dark tipped his head back to check the far end of the tunnel. “But who? Where? Can it tell us that?”

Mean touched the bracelet’s lens and the orange light shone through her fingers. “I don’t know,” she said, looking up at Dark’s featureless helmet. “If it’s Trisk it means she’s in trouble; she only uses magic to keep her static going. If she runs out of power––that’s it.”

Dark turned from Mean, looking to the end of the passage and the room beyond the six glowing lights. The engine stood there, out of reach: the steel fittings and large bolts holding it tight to the concrete.

“Well, that’s right; everything burns energy as its used––even the hex doors,” he said. He pointed at the engine. “If we can get it to run out of power, there’ll be nothing to stop us from escaping.”

Mean shook her head. “How?” she uttered, “Keep running down the pipe until the hex door gives out?”

Dark thought for a moment. “We could throw something––use your gravity skills to keep it falling down the tunnel.” He took a quick look around. Mean smiled.

“Great idea,” she said, backing up past the half-way point of the tunnel. “But where would we ever find something to throw?” She slapped her open-ended gloves together, cracking her fingers. Dark stopped his search as she looked him over.

“At least you have a reason this time––” he said as he was hurled backwards.

 

—–

 

Warning lights flashed in the cavernous hall of conglomerate factory NeatTea/Bar7, and the people inside were all rushing to the lifts.

“All routes south are closed!” Lord Ley Tecker shouted. He stood on a bench, directing the crowd and waving them forward whenever they slowed.

“You can watch that later; get going!” he cried at a boy. The kid, his eyes locked on a screen showing footage of the attack, snapped to attention and scampered away. Tecker shook his head, then paused as a tone rang in his ear.

“Yes?” he said in a lower voice, tapping the device woven into his hair. “Vail, what is it? Is there another vote?”

He motioned for more people to move as he stood on the bench, listening. Lord Ley Vail’s voice answered in his ear, his tone steady and slow.

“Tecker, this is going to sound strange, but I need you to meet Hatchel,” he started. “Unlock the lifts and get him up to the south part of the city.”

“What?” Tecker laughed. “Hatchel? The one I go jogging with sometimes? I can’t unlock the lifts––what are you talking about?”

“I need you to listen;” Vail hurried to say, “he is the only person that can stop that machine. He knows what it is; he was born on the planet it comes from. You don’t have to go with him once you get to street level; I can send the express down to pick you up as soon as you get there.”

Tecker stepped down from the bench, pressing a hand over his ear as he strained to listen.

“He’s what? Born on––you’re not kidding, are you?” he said, turning away from several passers-by.

“Nope, I’m not laughing about this one,” Vail said. “I told him to meet you by the overseer’s car.”

Tecker looked to where the car sat on the floor of the factory: The hydraulics on the flat roof fully extended from the rails overhead. The door was ajar, and a tall girl in uniform stood arguing with a middle-aged man in a white headband.

“I see him,” Tecker groaned, trotting past more stragglers. “But you’d better have one great story to tell later.” He squeezed the device in his hair, terminating the connection as Vail let out a short laugh.

“Lord Ley Tecker!” the girl cried as he approached, raising her hand and waving it around. Hatchel looked over at Tecker, his eyes expectant.

“Hatchel and Overseer J,” Tecker addressed the two in a curt manner. “You’ve already met.”

“Lord Ley Tecker,” the girl whined, “this guy is asking me to open the lifts!”

Tecker nodded. “Yes, please do. Just the one going furthest south, though––and lock it behind us. I don’t have time to explain.”

The girl pouted at Tecker. “Alrighty, but only because it’s you. And you’d better pardon me for breaking protocol.”

“Thanks J,” Tecker chuckled, patting her on the back as she climbed back into her car. “And you get out of here after we do!”

He nodded at Hatchel and they both ran off, all the way through the lift loading area. Alarm lights strobed the high walls nearby, and the two ducked under rows of roped dividers. When they reached the large double doors they slid open at once, and Tecker gave one last wave back before entering the elevator with Hatchel.

“Alright, Hatchel,” Tecker said as the doors closed. “Vail just told me that you’re an alien. And that you can stop the machine that just shrugged off our military. Anything else you want to add?” He leaned on the rail near one of the three windows, watching Hatchel nod his head at each accusation with a bit of a grin.

“Just that I have a good reason for keeping quiet,” Hatchel answered. His head bobbed as the car lurched its way up.

“Well, yes, you’d never have any peace,” Tecker admitted as the rock face through the window began to scroll past. “Everyone would be watching you all the time, like a Lord Ley. But how did you even get to this world in the first place? How did you survive the extinction?”

Hatchel’s thin face lit up. “It was Vail: The early space program. He brought me here with my family, instead of the rocks or whatever he was supposed to be collecting. He saved our lives before the worldwide accident even occurred.”

“It was our technology that got you here!?” Tecker cried. “Vail did all this and kept it a secret from everyone!?”

“He’s something, isn’t he?” Hatchel said. Tecker held his hands to his temple for a moment, breathing deep.

“Can’t believe it,” he sighed at last, slouching back on the rail. “I’ve always wanted to meet an alien––turns out I’ve known one all this time. No wonder Vail’s always laughing.”

Hatchel cast his eyes at one of the monitors in the upper corner of the lift: The robotic model was on it, being filmed from an aerial view. Tecker looked too.

“So what is that?” the lord ley asked. Hatchel scratched at the silver hairs spilling over his headband.

“An infiltration model designed by a man named King,” he explained. “It manipulates space to avoid interference until it reaches its destination. Once there, it opens hex doors as a method of troop transport. Although weapons, supplies––anything at all could be sent through.”

The car slowed its ascent and halted for a moment. A long tunnel came into view though the window behind Hatchel, and light shone at the far end. The lift lurched toward it after a series of mechanical clicks.

“So how can we stop it before it gets here?” Tecker asked, clutching the rails as the car picked up speed.

Hatchel lifted a finger to the screen overhead. “I saw on the news: An ambulance slipped by it. These models have to be programmed––told what threats to recognize. Now, we’ve seen that whoever built that machine told it to react to things like tanks and police. But if we approach it in something the programmer didn’t expect––like a cab or bus––we can get to it.”

Tecker beamed, giving the metal railing a slap. The walls through the windows were lined with steel now, and many posters displaying advertisements were spread over them. The light at the end grew brighter.

“But wait, what can we do once we reach it?” Tecker asked, his grin fading. “Don’t tell me there’s just an ‘off’ button on top or something. I do have a gun, but even Staccato fire didn’t make a dent.”

Hatchel flexed his fingers, glancing out the window before turning back to the lord ley.

“Well,” he started, pausing, “I’ve been visiting my daughter: She’s on the other world. I don’t stay long, but it’s enough to soak up some magic again.” He rose his hand to stop Tecker’s next question before going on. “And yes, I’ve had my own way back for a long time. I wouldn’t have risked my family’s life in the space probe otherwise.”

The lord ley’s half-open mouth clenched shut as the elevator slowed. Tall buildings framed a wide street through the side window, and orchards lay further beyond, lit by sunlight, shining in contrast to the vacant, shadowy city.

“Then let’s do this fast;” Tecker said, pulling off his grey coat, “trust me––we don’t have much time.”

 

—–

 

“Oh! Look at that, Trisk!” Dhaston cried with a wide grin. “They’re going to set off mines as it reaches the south edge! They haven’t done that since the last war––this is better than I hoped!”

Tyle tore his gaze away from the television screens: He still held Trisk tight at her neck, pressing her against one of the garage’s bare, steel supports. She clawed at the synthetic skin on his pale arm; she kicked at the air under her feet.

At last she sighed, and her limbs relaxed.

“Ready to give up?” Tyle asked.

“I did make a decision,” she murmured. “I’m going to tell you what it is––I made it just now.”

Tyle lifted his eyebrows as the bleak reports on the monitors continued.

“Each member of Tenny’s group had their own style,” she went on. “I’ve been using one but I just learned another.”

“What,” Tyle said. “Are you making this up?”

Trisk smiled, wrapping her hands around the pale arm at her neck. “But switching styles drains everything; you have only a moment. I was going to save this for Parlay, but you’ve convinced me to make a new choice.”

Tyle twisted a bit on his orb, holding the tanned parts of his body as far from Trisk as he could. Her eyes were wild now; her teeth bared through the wet strands of hair snaking over her face. With a cry that echoed out through the room, she kicked at his mechanical stalk with a swift sweep of her leg.

Tyle shrieked as the sleek chassis shattered at once; her shin tore clean through, shredding the cloth from her own jeans. Falling two feet to the floor with a clang and a spark, the stump he was left with slid on the steel. His other, whole leg––now touching the ground––wobbled in a struggle to keep him upright. He let go of Trisk, and she stood on the floor again.

Tyle steadied himself and their eyes met: she swung her arm near his face; his pale arm reacted. Trisk’s hooked, slender fingers sliced through it and scooped out a portion.

The cyborg gasped, his hand jittering above the wide gouge in his forearm. Black liquid oozed over the thin piece of material that remained between his wrist to his elbow. He fell.

As Tyle toppled, he held his damaged arm out: the exposed bone warping as he impacted, twisting his hand askew from the rest of his arm. Oil spritzed from where the wound met the floor––then his pale arm slipped to the side and his face smacked to the steel. He writhed and gurgled as the unattached Dhaston orb trailed shattered components: rolling around on the floor beside him.

Trisk crumpled against the support pillar. She watched everything with staggered breath. Wincing, she slumped over and closed her dark eyes.

“You always looked better without those,” she mumbled.

 

 

 

20 – Clash of Automatons

 

 

Darrow’s shoes sent sharp squeaks echoing through the vacant city as he ran, crossing a wide intersection.

“In here, Tome?” he asked. The street he had crossed lead out of of the city and ended in the field beyond, and the yellow grass there swayed beneath the shadow of a tall tower. Darrow rushed past several tall garage doors before reaching a smaller one with a handle. Keeping his body pressed to the ‘Dh’ insignia on the door’s finish, he pushed it inward and swept inside. His eyes darted to Trisk’s body, huddled next to the steel pillar.

“Trisk!” he cried. Tyle Dhaston was crawling away from her, and he glanced over and froze as Darrow’s shout pierced the room. Darrow ran forward.

“What did you do to her!?” he accused. Dhaston ignored him, his whole arm and leg slapping over the steel tread floor. No trace of the artificial limbs remained on his other side; only small, glittering components lingered on the fleshy stumps.

Darrow glared down at Tyle as he scampered over to Trisk and fell straight to his knees. He felt for a pulse, touching her neck. Her face was sallow and her eyes were closed; a deep breath whined past her half-open mouth. “Oh man, thank goodness,” Darrow whispered, wiping sweat from his head with his sleeve. He took the sweater from the oily mess of scrap metal nearby, looking next to the array of glowing screens on the wall. The bronze machine was featured on most of the channels, with warnings and theories being flashed in bright letters.

“What is that?” he stammered. “Is that thing on our world? Is that attacking Jesice!?”

He laid Trisk’s head on her sweater and stood to watch.

“Unstoppable––jets useless,” Darrow read aloud, his brow twitching as his brown eyes took in everything. “Oh no––they’re going to bomb the South Side!?”

Tyle laughed. “Don’t pretend like you care.”

Darrow turned away from the monitors, nearly stepping upon Trisk’s slender hand. Dhaston was sitting inside the hex door, and a stiffened, oily, arm-shaped prosthetic lay near his leg. He picked it up with his tanned arm and worked it onto his shoulder.

“What’s that supposed to mean!?” Darrow demanded, bracing himself and standing as straight as he could.

“You abandoned our world just like she did,” Tyle said. “You spat on our society and never looked back.”

Darrow dipped his eyes to Trisk’s body. “Is that why you hurt her?” he muttered.

“She did that to herself––her fighting arts or whatever,” Tyle explained. He pointed at her with the newly-attached arm. A scar graced the limb: running from the elbow and ending between the first and middle fingers. Greasy smudges spread out from the seam, blackening the forearm and hand. “No wonder she needed me to make all her decisions for her.”

Darrow scoffed, standing resolute over Trisk’s body.

Tyle chuckled as a new leg fell to his side with a ripple and clang. “She doesn’t even know how to choose friends,” he went on as he positioned himself near the leg. “When she needs a new one, she just latches onto the first person she meets. It’s pathetic.”

Pulling the prosthesis into place with a click, the Dhaston orb at the foot of the stalk began spinning in its socket. It whirred in mid-air and Tyle slammed it to the floor. The orb caught, skidded a moment––and with a strained, buzzing noise lifted the stalk upright along with his body.

Darrow shrunk back as the cyborg rose to full height. A decorative chassis did not cover this leg; every shock, support, and bare wire lay exposed. Tyle placed his left foot on the pedal that jutted out over the orb. He slicked wayward strands of hair back into place. A creak came from the far wall and he turned toward it; a monstrous, clawed hand was opening the door.

“Vornis!” Darrow cried.

“Yeah, yeah––hold on,” the beast said, poking his head in. The blades at his sides scraped on the door’s frame, and he grumbled, retreating a moment. He squeezed his fingers through the crack at the hinge. The door shivered, creaked––and popped from the frame.

“Parlay did make a monster!” Tyle cried as the door banged to the tread metal floor. Darrow bellowed and cheered as Vornis turned sideways and maneuvered his way in.

“Enough. What happened to her?” the beast asked of Darrow, nodding down at Trisk as his left blade cleared the door.

“She was laying like this when I got here,” he answered. “I think she passed out from her fight with that guy.”

Vornis glanced at Tyle for a brief second: the cyborg was rolling backwards with wide eyes, examining the spines at the beast’s neck and sides.

“Stay near her. Don’t move,” Vornis instructed. Darrow nodded. “She has no magic left at all; probably just did whatever Mean told her not to do on the way here. I’ll take care of this guy, but I can’t be feeling any aggression from you; I might attack.”

Dhaston reached to the pants pocket at his left leg and patted it. Vornis snarled, circling away from Darrow and into the open room. He spotted the row of debris that Parlay had toppled from the hex door.

“Vein,” he uttered as his small pupils ran across the trail of shattered pieces. “And what’s that model doing on the monitor over there? Is that your world?”

Tyle laughed. “Explaining things to a freakish monster would be a waste,” he said.

Darrow stepped forward, his face set in a scowl. “You’re the only freak here, you––”

“I told you to stay calm!” Vornis roared, silencing Darrow.

Seeing the beast’s attention diverge, Dhaston rushed at him with the orb squealing. Vornis grimaced once, grasped his left blade, and swung back as Tyle sped forward. The right blade responded, sweeping out; Tyle dodged, his wheel swerving him in a sharp turn to miss the spike as it arced.

“Ah––swords,” Dhaston realized, retreating back to the hex door as his face reddened a bit. “Primitive, primitive.””That wheel acted on its own,” Vornis said. He brought both blades to rest at his sides again, and the plates that hung at his chest clinked. “You’re like me; acting on instinct and reflex.”

“I am not like you; it is called technology,” Tyle spat. “Would you like to see some more?” A padded object appeared in the hexagon’s center, and his oily, mechanical arm darted to catch it. He leered over at Vornis, fastening the large pad to his tanned shoulder with straps.

“I was modified by technology too,” Vornis offered. “I thought it was the only way to get what I wanted.”

Tyle yanked the strap tight. “Parlay’s witchcraft is not technology––we are not the same!” he growled, jabbing his greasy finger at Vornis again. “I make decisions; I do what it takes to succeed; I sacrificed my own limbs to get where I am! What have you accomplished, hrm? You never did what Parlay made you to do; you’re a wandering nobody like Trisk and the rest of her friends.”

Darrow began to say something, but Vornis motioned him back with snarling white teeth and an outstretched, clawed hand. “Sir, if you don’t calm down––you’re going to see what Parlay made me to do.”

“Unlikely,” Tyle chirped, catching the long barrel of a rifle as it popped through the hex door beside him. The greasy arm dipped from the weight for a moment, and Dhaston hoisted it up, fixing the stock to the pad on his shoulder. He leveled the muzzle at Vornis and rose his left hand to the trigger.

“This is a Staccato,” Dhaston stated. “Goodbye, monster.”

He clicked the trigger back and Vornis was struck by the instantaneous flash.

 

—–

 

A quick, punctuated pop echoed throughout the long corridor. Mean winced, holding her ears. Dark was sailing away from her, centered as he flew down the tunnel. He hit the end, vanished, and reappeared next to her.

“What was that!?” Mean shouted as Dark fell away once again.

“Sounded like gunfire!” he shouted back.

Mean checked her bracelet, and the orange glow pulsed. “This is still taking too long;” she announced, taking a few backwards steps, “I’m gonna hop in.”

Waiting until Dark appeared in the middle again, she bounded forward and flew. The tunnel swished past as she rocketed face-first: Dark shouted ‘Be careful!’ as her small body veered close to the wall. Correcting herself, she swerved to the center, following him to the hex door and through. They both remained silent as they shot down the tunnel again; along with the rhythmic pulse of the hex door’s continued activation. Mean’s hair whipped back as her eyes focused ahead. The room rushed at them, blinked away, and rushed at them in a dizzying sequence.

“Mean, stop!” Dark blurted out; he had passed the door, flying out of the tunnel. He fell into the next room and past the bolted-down engine. With a smack he hit the far, concrete wall. Mean spun herself in mid-air as she trailed him: stomping his chest with her feet and springing away. She whipped her feet down to the wet floor, wobbled, and stood up straight. She took a deep breath. Dark remained stuck to the wall.

“Whew––good thing the power cut out on your turn!” she said, tugging her clothes and hair back into place. “Otherwise I might not have been able to react fast enough.”

“I would have crashed on top of you,” Dark responded, crooked on the wall. “That was dangerous, Mean.”

She raked her hand at him with a smirk and he clattered free. “It was still kinda fun.”

“Oh, yes, we’ll have to come back sometime,” Dark remarked, rapping his fist on the engine. “Do you think we can make it back to the entrance before it powers up again?”

Mean shook her head, pointing up. “There’s a ladder and manhole: We need to get to Trisk and the others; I’m worried. After you, of course––just to be safe,” she added.

 

—–

 

Hatchel followed Tecker as he lead the way out of the city, a wall of buildings at their backs and a siren wailing. A long fence stretched along the side of the road, and Tecker ran across dew-covered grass toward it. An orchard lay beyond the flimsy wire, spotted with trees and trellised structures. A vehicle with fat, rubber tires was parked there as well.

“A harvester!” Tecker said, stopping at the fence. “I can drive one of those––think it’ll work?”

Hatchel vaulted over the barrier, sprinting across the brush on the other side without stopping.

“Okay. Good,” Tecker said with a nod, checking the gun at his chest before climbing over. By the time he made his way to the abandoned machine, Hatchel was ascending on mud-caked rungs that lead to the roof. A retracted crane and bucket lay at rest there.

“The controls for the crane should be in the fruit-picker,” Tecker yelled up. “I’ll drive you up, but you’ll have to use that to get any closer.”

Hatchel hoisted himself into a bucket at the end of the crane. “Right,” he said. “Let’s go, let’s go!”

The lord ley rushed now, scrambling up to the harvester’s cab door. The inside was thick with dust and crossword puzzle books, and Tecker swept them aside and began tapping buttons at the controls.

“Government seizure code: G V Eight Tecker Ponce,” he spoke out loud. Indicators on the dash lit up, pointing to various spots on their gauges. A deep rumble sounded as the engine turned over.

“Great!” Hatchel expressed through a radio. “Now let’s get to the road; I can see the model from up here; it’s coming!”

Tecker hesitated as the harvester’s engine grew to a loud purr, then he clamped a hand onto the wheel, worked the gear lever, and pressed on the throttle. Hatchel yelped over the radio as the vehicle jerked forward, the fat tires tearing over grassy ground and bare dirt.

“Sorry––” Tecker said, “been a while since I’ve driven anything without Dhaston orbs.” As they came to the short wire fence he braced up and his reaction was brief; the large tires carried them over with only a few gentle bounces. After a slow turn with the rubber grinding on pavement, he was staring out the windshield at the stretch of road leading away from the city. In the distance, a bronze glint shone with the rising sun.

“Well here it goes,” Tecker uttered, bringing the machine to a steady acceleration. And as the harvester rolled forward, he was able to make out the shape of the oncoming machine: the four arms hanging below the hovering base, searching the empty air––their movements quick and precise.

Tecker looked once to the sky, where helicopters buzzed at a safe distance behind. In a few minutes he had closed the long gap, easing off the throttle as they neared.

“I’m gonna put it in reverse; match its speed,” Tecker said. “Get ready.”

“Roger,” came the answer through the radio speaker, along with a whir and creak from the roof. As Tecker hit the brake and jerked the gear lever back, the shaky arm of the crane extended into view through the front window. The bronze machine was upon them now: it made no effort to alter its course or behavior. Tecker began wheeling back, synching his speed and lining up the bucket so that it dipped near the flat top of the model. Hatchel swung both legs out and gave one last cry before leaping: Dropping down and catching himself on all fours. The metallic, bronze base sank down for a moment, correcting itself with no announcement.

Hatchel looked back to the harvester cockpit and gave Tecker a wave. The lord ley backed off: the vehicle snaking to the side of the road and back as he struggled to keep his course straight.

“Alright, let’s see––” Hatchel muttered. He crawled over the top of the robot as his silvery hair fluttered over his headband. He felt the metal with his palm, tapping in places. After a few tests in this manner, he settled on a spot: Arching up his fingers and yanking his hand away. A small portion of the polished plate vanished. Reddish material glowed inside the dim hole.

“ERROR TEN: BODY DAMAGED,” a monotone voice announced. The machine jerked still, and tires’ squeals could be heard in Tecker’s direction.

“Stay back; I see the engine!” Hatchel called, thrusting his whole arm into the gap. As his hand collided with something inside, the four arms of the model curled upward and closed in upon him.

Two clasped at his ankles and another pinched at his shoulder; a crack resounded from the model’s bronze shell. Hatchel––withdrawing his arm from the gap––grinned as the three clamps released him, shuddering and jerking at its sides.

“ERROR FUH-FI-SIX–” the thing stammered, its voice garbling as the arms fell limp. Hatchel sprung up as the hovering body wobbled and sagged, and he caught on to the crane as Tecker brought it close. Hatchel dangled from the bucket’s side, and the bronze model fell against the street with a clang.

“That was amazing; you did it!” Tecker shouted from behind the windshield. Hatchel pulled himself into the bucket, then clicked the intercom button along with the one that retracted the crane.

“Ha,ha––yeah, it almost had me,” he said with a loud gasp of breath. “Now I need to get down and dismantle it; don’t drive off.”

“Alright, but those reporters will want an interview if you stay,” Tecker laughed, watching the swarm of helicopters dive down. As the crane withdrew to the roof again, the bronze machine’s arms snapped up from the road.

“Lowd Ley Tecka!?” the robot screeched, swinging a metallic arm forward and clamping onto the harvester’s grill. “Lowd Ley Tecka! My model––you bwoke my model!”

“What!?” Tecker gasped, reeling back from the windshield as the monstrosity dragged itself onto the hood. The helicopters in the distance swerved and bobbed back to the sky.

“You always wuin ev–wething!” the model screamed, flailing the long, segmented arms. Tecker fought with the gear lever as the cab rang with the sounds of metallic impact; the roof clanged; Hatchel’s body smacked against the harvester’s hood.

“Stop!” Tecker pleaded, “Why are you doing this––who are you!?”

The machine lifted one of its arms, taking a long swipe over the front of the cab. Hatchel was caught in the chest and tossed off the side.

“Hatchel!” Tecker screamed as he heard a thud on the pavement. The gleaming, jointed arm drew back again; Tecker ducked as the glass was split by its punch.

“Mean only likes you because you aw a lowd ley!” the model accused, the attacking arm trembling. Grasping the wheel tight Tecker pressed on the throttle, and the harvester lurched backwards with a sharp skid. The bronze machine was dragged along as they both sped in a diagonal path from the road. Tecker’s eyes fell on Hatchel’s body: curled and still.

“You stupid thing!” Tecker spat, wrenching the wheel to the side. The scenery through the windshield blurred and the model was whipped along; the harvester raced over the fence and back to the orchard. With a growl and a sneer, Tecker aimed at the thickest tree he could find. He braced himself and shifted gear; he stomped on the throttle and the tires squealed. The trunk let out a crack as they hit––the model ringing hollow against it. Tecker seethed, keeping his foot on the pedal as the tires whirled in a black cloud. The model remained wedged between the tree and the grill, its arms thrashing and a child-like voice squealing.

A calm voice called out from the clamor: “That’s quite enough,” he said. “Please run zero now.”

The machine obeyed, relaxed, and lifted an arm.

Tecker squeezed his eyes shut as a flare sparked bright on the end pincer, shooting up and blazing past the tip of the tree. He pushed on the brake and the bronze machine ceased all movement, making no more noise as the trailing light soared above them and sped toward the clouds.

 

—–

 

A dim light filtered through the hole in the punctured garage door. The metal plating was warped outwards and the snapped-off tips of Vornis’ blades were embedded on either side. Darrow dropped his hands from his ears.

“You killed him!” he cried.

“Yes, what a shame,” Tyle lamented, lowing the gun and turning back to the wall with the screens. As he glanced over the monitors his countenance waned; every image now displayed the bronze model––in pieces––at the foot of a tree.

“What?” Dhaston squeaked, rolling forward to read the scrolling captions. “Lord ley and local dominate alien machine!? Bombing aborted!?”

Darrow laughed, looking over at the news footage. “Ha,ha,ha––it was some guy in a tractor!” he told the unconscious Trisk.

Tyle fumed on his mechanical perch. “I can still win this,” he said. His eyes darted between the TVs. “If they see that monster Parlay made, they’ll never trust him. I need that thing’s carcass––I can still tell them it attacked me and I killed it.”

“That would make you a liar,” Vornis said. Tyle yelped, swiveling to see the great beast squeeze through the gap in the garage door. The plates hanging at Vornis’ chest were charred black. One dangled from a tendril and fell to the floor with a clatter. He made his way into the room and stared over at Tyle.

“And you don’t seem to have any problems with using our hex door technology,” Vornis chuckled. “Guess that means you’re a hypocrite, too.”

Dhaston swung up the long muzzle at Vornis again, resting the butt of the rifle at the pad strapped to his shoulder.

“And you said you gave up your limbs,” Vornis continued, walking forward. His arms brushed past the stubby, shattered blades at his side. “Parlay would have given you some form of payment––the pattern for your old body, I’ll bet.” Vornis hunched down, placing a clawed hand on the floor. “I gave up everything for nothing; you gave up nothing for everything.”

Dhaston clicked on the trigger; his shoulder jerked back; a flash streaked from the muzzle. As the punctuated round pelted him, Vornis sprung: His body twirling sideways in a shower of sparks. Darrow’s hands clapped to his ears once more as the rapid beat of the shot echoed between the high walls.

“Be quiet!” Tyle yelled, rolling forward and lifting his eye from the gun’s sight. “Choices are always better than indecision! You and Parlay had your chance, and you choked! It’s my turn––my right––to set the path my world takes––”

 

—–

 

The words and their meanings fade as my instincts emerge; the bright colors on the monitors behind him grow dim. The foul smell of that weapon’s discharge is dulled, and I know an end to this confrontation is nearing.

His lips move in silence now. I pick myself up. A few more scales fall off, but at least the sting from my wound is gone with them. My senses await now, blocking out all but the patterns I need to sense for survival: those two tiny noises that warn of the threat. A blank room wraps around me. No distractions.

And out of the still the patterns pierce my mind: the joints in his finger; the click from the trigger. With my eyes on the barrel, I leap out of its path; no conscious effort carries me now.

Now the force that tore at me the first time is a breeze at my side: The shot misses, the shockwave flexes past. I tear a loose scale from my chest and fling it the instant I land. With the gun held to his eye he doesn’t see it fly at him, yet the wheel that he rides hurries him out of its path. This is his programmed reflex again, and I tear off two more scales to make use of it.

It’s a shame that we’re fighting, I think, as I drive him to the side this time. He reminds me of how I used to be––zealous for a cause––and I’m sure that’s what Parlay noticed too. I fling the second scale at his mechanical leg, this time forcing him back. He slows and stops as he rolls into the red fragments of vein Parlay left scattered over the floor.

His greasy, pale arm lowers the barrel a bit as he mouths curses, distracted. Another scale rips loose in my hand and I charge; he won’t be stuck for more than a second. I need more time to reach him. I whip the scale at his eyes.

In a blink his pale arm reacts––another reflex––! Still clutching the barrel, it snaps up to protect his face. My scale bounces off but the gun is yanked loose from the pad at his shoulder: the barrel pointing up and the stock pressed to his chest.

The click snaps through the silence again, as his finger brushes the trigger.

The shot flashes in a streak to the ceiling; the recoil drives the butt of the gun in a path down his front. Any normal man would have been knocked to the floor, but that stupid wheel holds him upright as his torso is crushed. I feel sick as my senses return; I hear every crack. The threat to me is gone.

He releases the gun, and the clang as it falls stings my ears. His eyes grow wide, and his arms droop. I rush over, staring, helpless, at the red splotches spread over his shirt. He tries to say something but no sound comes out. His left leg slips off the pedal and he slumps over. The wheel still works to hold his body straight up.

I sense Parlay on the roof of this building. I shout––I beg for him to come save this man.

Of course, I hear no reply.

I realize that the person I knew is dead.

 

 

 

21 – Hall

 

 

Alarms buzzed and ceiling sprinklers pelted the tread-steel floor with water. Dring stood inside the painted hexagon, staring at the glowing hole that dripped red-hot blobs from the ceiling.

“Tyle?” Dring called out as he scanned the room. The monitors at the wall were all blank. A steel support groaned, its side melted into steaming slag. A trail of crimson debris lead away from the hex door, and Dring let out a small whine as he spotted Dhaston.

“Tyle!” he shouted, sputtering and taking off his sunglasses. The mechanical leg still held Tyle aloft, though his arms hung limp and his left foot sagged from the pedal. Smoke rose from the wheel and the exposed wires above it, and Dring jerked back when he saw the blood on his chest. After a few more frantic looks around the garage, he left with a flick of his hand and reappeared on a high, sunny roof.

“Pa-lay!” he cried, wiping drops of water from his glasses. He slapped them on again, rushing out from between two air conditioning units. Parlay stood on a polished floor partitioned from the rest of the roof by short, cushioned walls. Dring vaulted over and his wet shoes squeaked on the wood. Parlay turned to face the boy with a smile.

“Pa-lay!” Dring sobbed. “I just saw Tyle down in the garage––he needs help. He might be dead!”

Parlay folded his arms. “What?” he laughed. “What were you doing in there?”

Dring’s gaunt face drooped into a frown. “I’m so sow-wy!” he blurted out. “Some people got through the twaps I set in the tunnels! Then the model––a lowd ley and some guy twashed it when I wasn’t paying attention! I twied to take control, but––” He finished with a sniffle, rubbing his nose with the back of his hand.

“Oh, that,” Parlay realized, setting a hand on Dring’s shoulder. “The model got far enough to mark the city; everything’s fine; you did quite well.”

Tears rolled down from behind Dring’s dark lenses. “I did?”

“Yes,” Parlay said, withdrawing his hand and sliding it into his pocket. “And you get to see the plan now.”

Dring watched as Parlay took out a remote control embossed with ivory. “What about Tyle?” the teen remembered.

“I repaired his body once;” Parlay stated, tapping some buttons, “that is more than most people get. It is a small sacrifice for a world that will never suffer unjust accidents ever again.”

Dring’s eyebrow arced up over his glasses. “But how? You nev-ah told me,” he said.

“Look around you,” Parlay hummed, and Dring did so: catching sight of a flare streaking up; flying out from the field beyond the edge of the city.

“What is that?” Dring asked, twisting in place and seeing more points of light rise up from the far-off yellow plains. There were five in all; spread around them at equal distances––with the city and the buildings in the center. “What aw those?”

Parlay did not answer, grinning at the five flares, all of them higher than the tops of the buildings and rising above the scarce clouds overhead. With a flash, five lines flung out across the great distance between points––stretching between them and forming a miles-wide pentagon in the blue sky above.

“We’re in the middle;” Dring gasped, “Is this––?”

One of the points on the five-sided shape flickered; the two lines nearby snapping together for a brief second to pass over the city. As the flare winked back in, another flickered out; and like this it went on: the five points blinking in sequence, forming methodical lines crossing in the heavens above.

“It is the next step in King’s hex door technology: A hall,” Parlay said, his yellow eyes growing wide. “All the machinery was right here, in this area. Instead of warping space for only a moment––it makes the path between two places permanent!”

What!?” Dring squealed, his gaze lost in the dizzying lines that now flashed overhead in an overlapped blur.

“We placed the destination on your world with the model––” Parlay said, “now watch!”

The flickering lines snapped solid; their edges creating a smaller pentagon inside the first. The blue sky dissolved, and the overhead view of a long, rocky plateau came into focus. Buildings hung at the side of the cliff, and more buildings beyond that: their tops masked in haze.

“It’s Jesice!” Dring cried, flinching back as a delayed boom hammered the roof from above.

“Yes, yes! There it is!” Parlay laughed as the shock echoed. “The tall mesa and the city at its side! How many people live there, I wonder!? Thousands!? Millions!? I’ve been waiting so long––and it’s happening! It’s happening!”

Dring wobbled as a hall emitted a dull, continuous roar. Parlay ignored him, his loose sleeves and feathered hair rippling about in the breeze that was rising––his head turned upward with an open grin at the hall in the sky.”Clear perimeter debris!” he shouted into the remote, “Nullify gravitational forces on the foundation! Salvation comes, Jesice––It falls!”

 

—–

 

A sudden gust tossed the unconscious Trisk’s hair as Vornis set her in the convertible’s back seat.

“What is that, Vornis!?” Darrow asked, his head twisted upward. The scant clouds above Hardpan City were all inching toward the pentagon shape. “That looks like Jesice. Why is Jesice in the air!?”

“How should I know!?” Vornis growled, looking up. “We need to get back; I think Mean just got to that building Parlay is in.”

As the two turned from the car, the road at their feet shook with a tremor. Earth and grass bulged upward from Hardpan’s border, tearing up in strip along the paved edge. The ejected material flew past in a wave: shattering the single road leading into the city as it passed and showering Vornis and Darrow with a mud, rock, and grass.

The upheaval continued around the curve of the city, a low rumble building up from the trench that it carved.

 

—–

 

“What is this Pa-lay!?” Dring begged on the rooftop. “Why won’t you tell me what’s going on!?”

The building they stood on shook and the boy fell to the polished floor. Parlay did not notice, grinning at his remote and squeezing it tighter. “Activate balance motivators!” he called. “Clear the subsoil! Begin repulsion! Aim for the hall!”

 

—–

 

The plains were struck by a vacuous boom; the tall sheaves of yellow grass were pulled flat. Vornis clawed at the pavement and fought to stay standing, while Darrow’s flowery shirt billowed up to his armpits: flying off and whirling toward the city as he toppled over. His colorful shirt was sucked past the broken road, and into the deep trench it went––dipping from sight as the cement foundation of the city rose out of the planet.

Vornis ran with the roaring wind, toward the cluster of buildings. It was all being pushed up along with the immense slab of thick concrete beneath them. It shone white in the sun, and the monster bounded toward it from all fours. He spread an arm out as he arced through the air to the city, falling short of the broken-off edge of the street; it rose out of his reach. Slamming into the foundation’s side, he scraped with clawed hands: falling past spray-painted markings and sealed sewage pipes before dropping into the empty chasm below.

Darrow coughed, pulling himself up as the rough current died down. After checking the mud-flecked car where Trisk was still sleeping, he watched the whole city go: its foundation marked with large block letters reading ‘HARDPAN.’

 

—–

 

Lord Ley Prayler, his hair and suit flapping, dashed away from Ley Ledge Citadel. The flags at the walls were being whipped in every direction, and a new sky and yellow landscape hung above the zigzagged banners.

“Wait!” Prayler cried across the paved top of the cliff. “Don’t leave me up here!”

At the plateau’s brink, a small, winged vehicle dove out of sight. Prayler ran after it, stopping at the decorative railing overlooking the city. He screamed at the plane as it roared over the rooftops below. Three more lords ley came marching after him: Vail clutching his white lab coat tight as Hinge waddled behind Lickwolf.

“And where are you off to, Lord Ley Prayler?” Lickwolf accused. He squinted as his black bowl-cut hair slapped at his brow.

Prayler turned from the rail, glancing at his colleagues as he clung to it. “We can’t stay on Ley Ledge!” he pleaded over the wind that roared past him. “Something’s coming through that tear in the sky!”

“What are you talking about!?” Lickwolf asked. “Come inside; you’re the only one that will be falling if you stay out here!”

A new noise arose with the wind and Vail motioned to the cliffs below. The other Lords Ley joined Prayler at the railed edge, peering down as they reached it: and from the many rooftops beneath them, the people of Jesice stared back. Their screams and cries rose up, and the skies were thick with flocks of agitated birds.

“They see it too,” Prayler croaked, pointing above. Lickwolf and the rest turned their heads upward, looking at the round city and long road; tiny against the inverted, yellow plain.

“What––” Hinge said, his tie waving under his neck. “What is that black oval in the field by the city?”

Vail clapped his palm to his mouth. “A shadow––the city’s shadow,” he answered. “It’s moving.”

“It’s falling!” Prayler cried. “It’s falling on us!”

Lickwolf tugged at the ring on his lip, gazing up. “No––we can stop this. We’ll shoot it down; we’ll evacuate––”

“Evacuate!?” Prayler repeated, his jaw hanging loose and his eyes watering. “Those buildings down there are packed beyond full capacity; we evacuated everyone when you decided to bomb the south side, remember!?”

Lickwolf was silent as Prayler collapsed to the ground, still clinging to the bars of the rail.

“Someone planned all of this,” he sobbed into his sleeve. “There’s no way out.”

 

—–

 

“Why ah you doing this Pa-lay?” Dring cried through the din of the trembling city. The yellow fields were falling from sight, and the boy’s knees wobbled as he struggled to stand. Parlay pocketed the remote. He held out his arm. Dring flinched from it.

“Dring, I’m not going to hurt you!” laughed the blond-haired man. “You programmed the model, showed me maps of your city––you’ve done everything that I’ve asked. Now let me restore your body’s old pattern; let me erase that damage done to your throat.”

Dring felt at his neck with his hand as he swallowed. The city rocked to the side for a moment, bringing him closer to Parlay’s outstretched arm. The boy backed away.

Parlay rose an eyebrow, still speaking with a bright tone. “That girl––the one that you liked? I think she’s on her way up here.” He nodded up at the hall. “Forget about that world. Forget about me. You can take her and go wherever you want. You can speak to her with a confidant voice.”

“I didn’t want people to be killed though!” Dring squeaked. “I don’t––I just wanted––”

The teen sniffled as a breeze swept the roof, chilling some of the tears that trailed down from behind the dark glasses. He reached up to wipe them.

“I thought I knew you, Pa-lay,” he said. He stumbled back, turned, and broke into a run. His sneakers made sharp squeaks on the wood. “I thought I knew you!” With a sharp sniffle, he vaulted over the waist-high partition and made a beeline for a door leading down from the roof.

Parlay did not give chase; he watched him go and he let his arm drop.

“No, Dring, you never had that chance.”

 

 

 

22 – Two Lives to Play

 

 

Mean brushed against Dark as the elevator they rode in rocked to the side. “Why is everything shaking!?” she shouted, holding tight to the rail inside the car.

“Well you could have just flown us up!” Dark shot back. He lurched on his feet as the lift rattled again.

“I wasted enough magic getting us out of those tunnels,” Mean argued. “And look: we’re almost to the top. Do you think Vornis and Trisk made it?”

Dark checked the digital floor indicator near the ceiling. “Well Dhaston didn’t beat himself up. Get ready––we’re here.”

The double door opened with a chime. The two rushed out. Sunlight shone in through glass walls on the floor they had reached, and nearby a tall desk with no chair stood unoccupied. A painting of Tyle Dhaston hung on the wall: he was wearing a suit and a chrome-plated version of his mechanical leg. An older, similar-looking man––save for the cybernetic limbs––posed next to him. Mean surveyed the room, and the painting wobbled.

“Feels like we’re still moving,” she said.

“It wasn’t just the lift;” Dark announced, “look outside.”

Mean made her way over to the large window, slowing as she gazed out over the city: clouds were moving to cover the sun, and the gold fields beyond the high rooftops had sunken down out of sight.

“The city’s in the air? It’s floating––what’s going on?” she sputtered out loud. A muffled sob came from behind them, and the two turned to see Dring stepping out from behind a small door labeled ‘ROOF.’ He froze, his sunglasses in hand.

“You’re that kid with Parlay!” Mean accused, running up. The teen shrunk back.

“I didn’t know this would hap-pen,” he squeaked, turning his red, puffy eyes to the floor. Mean glared at him for a second, turned to Dark, then softened her voice and addressed him again.

“Hey, it’s alright––I didn’t mean to scare you,” she said. “What’s wrong? Is Parlay doing this?”

“I thought I knew him,” Dring spoke with a sniffle. “I just wanted him to fix what was wong with me. It was you. I wanted to meet you.”

“Me?” Mean gasped, glancing at Dark. “What for?”

Dring chuckled as he wiped at his face. “I saw you at the paw-ty––with the dwinks. You were so pwetty. I wanted to talk to you, but I couldn’t.”

Mean’s face flustered. “I––I think I remember that,” she said. “I saw you too, actually: you were drinking water so I figured you just didn’t want anything.”

The boy’s face lit up. “You wemember?” he asked. “You saw me too?” Mean nodded, smiling back. Dring went on, frowing. “But that’s when Pa-lay found me. He said he’d fix me if I helped him out. I just wanted to meet you. I just wanted to be no-mal.”

The floor shook and the building let out a groan. Dark stepped forward.

“So what’s happening on the roof?” he asked Dring. “Did you see our friends up there?”

Dring hesitated, arching a thin eyebrow at the tall, armored man. “No, I haven’t seen any of those other guys,” he said, looking back to Mean’s face. “But Pa-lay did something awful––he made a hole in the sky that leads back to Jesice. This city is going wight in!”

“What!?” Mean shrieked, turning her face to the ceiling.

“Why in the world would Parlay do that!?” Dark asked.

“I set up engines undergwound,” Dring admitted. “I thought they were just for the twaps, but––”

“The concrete!” Mean said, touching Dark’s arm. “It’s how I moved that cement truck when we first met, Dark. The concrete was made here, on this world––it has a pattern! The buildings aren’t moving; its just the foundation!” She turned back to Dring. “Can you go shut them off? Dark can help too––will you take him down there?”

The teen sniffled again as Mean addressed him, her light brown eyes on his.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’ll help,” he said. He set his jaw and stood straight. Mean gave him a pat on the shoulder. He nodded, stepped up to Dark, and swung his arm to form an array.

“Make sure you find the others and fly them out of here!” Dark called out as the hexagonal shape formed, with Mean nodding just as he was taken away. Dring shuffled in place, now left alone with Mean.

“Do you need help getting down?” he asked. “I can take you too if you want.”

Mean shook her head. “No, don’t worry about me; I really do know how to fly. Just please, make sure Dark gets down safe when you’re done. Can you do that for me?”

“Yeah!” Dring said again, and Mean reached out to hug him with one arm. When she let go he stood in place, smiling. Only when the city shuddered again did he move: waving his hand in the air overhead to make a quick exit.

As he vanished with a ripple, Mean’s cheery smile fell.

“Fly away my ass,” she murmured. “Bullying a kid, ripping up cities––where is that blond jerk?”

She walked to the door labeled “ROOF” and yanked it open: a curved ramp lead upward, and she took a deep breath, stomping up. She reached another doorway that lead out to the top of the building, and a cool rush of wind greeted her as she pushed it ajar. Above her, thin clouds converged and funneled into the hole in the sky. Inside the immense pentagon, the top of tall cliff could be seen through blue haze, along with the hanging city.

“Jesice,” she whispered, tearing away from the scene and back to the roof. Parlay was still standing inside the large, squared-off section of flooring. He looked over, grinning. Mean sprinted across the wind-swept rooftop, pausing at the barrier. It rose to her shoulders.

“What are you smiling about?” Mean shouted, hoisting herself over the padded wall. “Are you proud? Taking advantage of an insecure kid like that?”

“I didn’t see anyone else trying to help him,” Parlay answered. “Certainly not you, juice girl.”

Mean’s legs swung over and her shoes squeaked on the polished floor. “And what about Dhaston?” she asked. “Are you just going to let him die down there?”

Parlay folded his arms, cradling the ivory remote in one of his hands. “Once again, instead of doing something yourself, you choose to blame me. Whining and accusing––you’d fit right in with those from my world.” His loose, white shirt billowed against the tight vest that he wore, and he looked down at Mean as she walked closer.

“Is that why you want to hurt people now?” she said. “Just because you didn’t get treated right in the past? We heard the whole thing from Vornis––about how they wouldn’t let you use your magic to cure that disease.”

“Oh?” Parlay uttered, dropping his arms. He flicked the remote at the wall, clicking a button. “Funny you should bring that up; it’s the very same disease that I’m going to expose all those people to up there.”

From the surrounding walls steel bars sprung: Growing upward and weaving together. Mean’s hair whipped as she spun to look; watching the fence grow taller; curving inward at a sharp, ninety-degree angle and above both their heads. There came a metallic snap as the many bars flexed: forming a rigid, square cage.

“A virus! I knew it!” Mean snapped, “You liar! You––”

“You have no idea what the slate virus is,” Parlay purred. “It is blank until given a command to copy. I won’t give it the command to kill.”

“Then what will you give it?” Mean growled, eyeing the angular gaps in the cage. They were square, measuring a foot across.

“The command that I give my own body;” Parlay said, “the one your friend Trisk uses: the pattern of static.”

He clicked the button again and the cage lurched, splitting from the roof and launching upward. Mean staggered and steadied herself, bracing her legs as Parlay chuckled. The buildings and streets of the city dropped from sight; only blue sky could be seen through the bars of the cage.

“That’s your plan?” Mean said. “To make people like Trisk? You?” She pulled one of the leather gloves tight on her hand. “There’s no way that would work––there isn’t even any magic on Jesice.”

Parlay sighed. “Of course there isn’t,” he said, “hence: the miles-wide hole in the sky!” He snorted. “Honestly, girl, what did you think I was doing? Magic is drawn to areas that have none––like air to a vacuum. And your people, that entire city: It will all be saturated. The disease will have no problem spreading.”

“And how does any of this explain what you’re doing to the city!?” Mean cried. “It’s going to crash and destroy everything! What possible good will that do!?” Her knees buckled as the cage swerved, rising into a sharp angle.

“ENGAGING PRESSURE AND TEMPERATURE REGULATIONS,” a robotic voice called.

“I don’t understand why you’re against this,” Parlay said, running a hand through his feathered, blond hair. “I’m going to help your people; keep them safe. I don’t want another mass extinction––can’t you see that?”

“You didn’t answer me,” Mean said. “What is the point of making the city float around? The people living in Jesice don’t know about any of this; they’ll see a hole in the sky and something falling on them.” She trailed off, looking up through the bars to the hole roaring above them. “Like a comet.”

Parlay shifted backwards.

“That’s it, isn’t it?” Mean said. “You remember all the attention that guy back at the museum got––the hero Pinada––jeez, you are such a child!”

The blond-haired man’s eyes fluttered. “It is the only way that I have seen people learn,” he said through his teeth. “When they crawl from the rubble unscathed––when they survive the devastation. That is when they will accept me––not before.”

“That’s not true!” Mean argued. “They can learn! You didn’t even try!”

Parlay’s yellow eyes flared. “I wasted half of my life trying your way,” he growled. “I was kind, and ridiculed in return! I was patient with King and the others, and got a planet full of death for my trouble! It didn’t work. It does not work.” He grimaced, bracing himself as the floor shook. “Monsters like your little friend Sing are the ones who get all the attention. And Pinada––stopping that comet got him more praise in one night than I ever had. Pinada, the hero! Pinada, the savior! A planet of idiots––heaping limitless accolades on that childish fool!”

Sunlight shone into the cage, unfiltered by clouds. The bars above Mean and Parlay cast a black, shadowy grid at the floor, and the petite girl blinked her eyes at the bright, blue sky glowing through.

“But that’s what they want:” Parlay went on, raising his chin, “a terrible happening and a hero to save them. As the last of my race––both roles in this event fall upon me.”

The cage swerved, gaining speed, and Mean planted her foot as her body rocked to the side.

“People are still going to die,” Mean stated. “You saw for yourself at the party––lots of people resisted that virus.”

Parlay stared at her. He brushed some hair away from his eye.

“You’ve already justified it somehow, I’m sure,” Mean went on. “And I don’t really feel like hearing you whine anymore, so you can save your bull crap explaining why.” She sniffled at the air with a tug on her fingerless gloves. “Did you plan for someone that tries to resist, though? And how you’re going to stop them from kicking your ass all over this cage?”

Parlay glanced over––the hall was stretched out through the bars at his side. The hexagonal shape flattened out over miles, and the dull shadow of Ley Ledge hung behind trails of cloud spiraling in. He clicked the button on the remote and the enclosure glided to a halt.

“Indeed,” he hummed, his hand sliding up to several gold chains hanging at his neck. “I’ve thought of that too.”

 

 

23 – Mile-High Cage Match

 

A short-winged had flown out of the city, touched down, and settled on the road by the orchard. Police patrolled between the trees, marking off patches of wreckage with long, yellow tape. Tecker strode up to the idling plane, looking to the sky and the angular pentagon roaring over the cliff-side city.

“You can stay here; I’m flying it back,” he yelled over the humming engines, motioning to helmeted pilot. The man inside nodded back, and with a small hiss, the small cockpit door opened.

“Lord Ley, I don’t mind––I can take you anywhere you want to go,” the pilot said, lifting his faceplate. Tecker shook his head back at him.

“I need to take this man up to the anomaly,” he said. He pointed at Hatchel, who was limping over to the plane’s passenger side. “I’m not going to risk anyone else.”

The pilot unfastened his seat harness. “But there’s something big coming through; I heard them talking about it on every channel,” he explained. “That’s the last place you’d want to be.”

“I appreciate your concern,” Tecker said, smiling as the pilot stepped out, “but I didn’t take flying courses just to have someone else chauffeur me around.”

The pilot swapped places with Tecker, standing now at the side of the plane as the Lord Ley fastened himself in.

“That’s why I answered the call––when I saw it was you,” the pilot said. “You’re the only Lord Ley that doesn’t call for the Express every five minutes. Not like Prayler––’Oh, I need to go to the bathroom!’ or ‘fly me down to my villa!'”

Tecker cut him off as he reached for the door. “I’ll be sure to vote for larger pilot salaries next time it comes up––thank you.” He closed the plane door as the pilot stepped back.

“What was he talking about?” Hatchel said after the cockpit doors sealed. “What did they see?”

Tecker frowned down at the controls as he ran his fingers over the many buttons and switches. “I was talking to Vail while that medic looked at your arm: He said that the hex door up there leads to your world––where we constructed Hardpan. The city is floating through the air towards the gap. It’s going to impact with Ley Ledge––”

“We need to get going,” Hatchel interrupted, shifting the swollen arm that lay in his lap. “That’s not the only problem here. Every Jesian––every person on the planet, actually––is in danger as long as that pattern’s up there.”

 

—–

 

Parlay lifted the locket, sweeping the gold chain off his neck.

“Do you know what I have here?” he said. Mean leapt back as he held out his fist; the gold chain dangled and danced; the casing bulged outward with a squelch. Stepping back further still, she flinched as the gold bangle split open, and a reddish blob burst out from it and covered Parlay’s hand.

“This is vein,” he announced. “It is the third form of life that I learned to control.” The wriggling substance stretched up from his palm as he spoke, meeting the steel bars overhead. Mean wrinkled her nose and she stepped back to the padded lower wall of the cage.

“I never told anyone about this;” Parlay said, “I knew they would be disgusted. Although vein is used in every machine and magical device, mastery over it like this would appear quite grotesque.”

“No kidding,” Mean said offhand. She took a quick peek at the lens on her arm. Its orange glow was faint and a warm tingle pulsed on her skin. The column of vein, having affixed itself to the bars on the ceiling, grew solid now, and its red surface hardened and glazed. Parlay’s enclosed fingers could be seen as dark shapes at the base of the pillar, while half of a grin and blond hair peered around at Mean from middle.

“It took the smiths days to shape it naturally,” he chuckled. From the shiny vein pillar more vine-like protrusions appeared, all growing upward: twisting and wrapping themselves to the many bars criss-crossing the ceiling. Mean cupped her hands; the small remote Parlay held snapped out of his fingers and whipped across the cage to her.

“Oh, my!” Parlay laughed. “Did the Jesian learn a basic movement command?” The pillar of vein and its branches deepened to a dark blue.

Mean looked over the buttons on the remote: they were all unmarked.

“Do be careful with the control;” Parlay shouted over to her, “It is a tad more complex than twisting keg spigots.”

Mean jabbed the unmarked buttons; they did nothing but click. Parlay spurred her on, laughing.

“Why don’t you try sending that back, hm?” he purred. “I can show you how to work it; let’s see how you like being lectured like a child.”

Mean obliged, hurling the small remote at him. It clattered to the polished floor a few feet from her. She stared after it, gaping.

“What?” she uttered, sweeping her arm at the remote; urging it to fly further. It remained where it was. “What did you do?” she asked, pushing her arm at it. “Why can’t I move it!?”

“You Jesians are ignorant to everything,” Parlay hummed. “Vein in its receptive form can absorb any pattern created in its presence.” Mean lowered her arm, noticing several intricate markings now emblazoned on the vein’s glossy, blue surface. Parlay ran his free fingertips over the designs. “It is how the machines are programmed; it is the circuitry for every magical device on this world. And I can force it to do whatever I want. With vein at my command, I could have subdued King, Pinada––anyone in the world.”

He tipped his head at Mean, gazing at her with lazy eyelids. “It’s a little extreme against that petty magic you’ve learned, but I don’t have time to drag this out.”

Mean reached back and took hold of the grating behind her. She drew her feet up as she clung to it.

“So what about magic that affects your body?” she asked. “Does it take that too?”

Parlay chuckled. “Of course not; I’d be helpless if it did. What are you doing up there? Don’t tell me you’re going to jump out?”

Mean bounced; she sprung from the wall––soaring at Parlay without touching the floor.

“What!?” he shrieked. She closed the distance and grabbed his free hand. She circled around him in a whirl, planting a foot on the pillar of vein at his side. She wrenched his arm backwards and he let out a scream.

The vein brightened again to the red color now, and the lens on Mean’s wrist blazed to life with a fierce orange. It sent heat pulsing on her skin every time she jerked his arm back; it flared up on her face with a bright, golden glow every time Parlay cried out.

With a pop the vein released his right hand, and he twirled to snatch her. Mean leapt away as his arm swooshed through the air, with several red globs still clinging to his white sleeve.

“How––” Parlay roared, clutching his shoulder as she soared away. “How can you fly!?”

Mean’s shoes tapped the floor as she landed near a wall. “It’s just a basic movement command.

Parlay ground his teeth. The vein pillar and branches still hung from the ceiling behind him, dripping red chunks. “It was Trisk,” he spat out. “She taught you. No wonder you didn’t panic when we lifted off.”

The hall roared in the sky behind Mean. “I told you we could learn,” she said. “They can all learn if they want to.”

Parlay stamped over to her, the vein wrapping itself in red coils over his sleeve. “Flying wouldn’t have saved them,” he growled. “It won’t save you.”

Mean leapt, dashing forward––her heels skimming over the waxed floor as she jabbed him in the face with her palm. Parlay tottered back, caught himself, and swung at her. Mean weaved around his right arm, grasping the vein coils on his sleeve: Tossing him into the wall behind her. The cage rang as his blond head struck the bars, and the lens on Mean’s wrist blazed up again.

“Trisk is way faster than you,” she remarked, backing away to the other wall. Parlay twirled at her, pressing a palm to his brow. He glared and he hissed, rubbing his flustered face.

“Let’s see then,” he uttered, loosening a cord on his vest. “Let’s see how quick you can be.”

He pulled the cord out of his vest and held it up by the middle. The two ends dangled near the blob of vein at his knuckles, and twin tendrils shot up, took hold, and pulled the line taut at his wrist like a bow’s string. He peeled up another strand of vein near his elbow, pulling it loose with a snap and fashioning a thin, jagged spike.

“More needles––great,” Mean muttered under her breath, setting a hand on the wall and bracing her legs. She watched as Parlay strung the spike over a groove in the bow, pulling it back along with the cord. He aimed at Mean. She stared back.

As he fired Mean pushed away: The bolt striking the cage with a clang behind her. The glazed shards of vein tinkled to the floor, and Mean caught herself on the opposite wall and came to a stop. The large pillar of vein and its branches hung down between her and Parlay now, and he came strutting out from behind it: setting another bolt in the bow.

Mean’s bracelet pulsed, and she broke eye contact with Parlay long enough to spy the vein splinters that had fallen. They were in a viscous state once again, writhing and slapping over the wood floor, and she crouched and sprung as Parlay fired again.

The bolt swooshed past Mean’s ear and sailed right through the bars; she dove into the next corner. Her shoes squealed as she landed, her eyes still focused on Parlay as he raced to load another projectile. Digging in her heels once again, she rocketed out of the way.

She hit the opposite corner again, her hand caught the bar. A warm, slimy tendril curved over her wrist.

Mean yelped as ten thick, reddish vines dropped from the ceiling. Around her body they curved, inches away from her skin: solidifying into a glossy web.

“Crap!” she yelled out, banging on the stuff with her fists. They resounded with a dull thud, and Parlay laughed, lowering his arm and bow.

“That little thing on your arm tells you when I’m using magic, doesn’t it?” he asked, walking to her. “I had to distract you long enough so I could set up a snare. Even flying girls don’t bother to look up, do they?” He tipped his head, directing Mean’s gaze to the ceiling, where a path of vein ran over the cage: trailing from the pillar, snaking across the angular tops of the bars, and to the corner where they had enclosed her.

Mean kicked at the vein as he approached. He thrust his hand in.

“Don’t be frightened,” he purred, snatching her arm. Her skin tingled under his grip, growing numb; the sensation spread up to her shoulder.

“What are you doing!?” she cried, tugging. “Stop it!”

“I won’t kill you,” Parlay assured. His yellow eyes watched her squirm. “I’m just using your nerves to get to the one that I want: The one near your brain. Every day your body’s pattern is stored there, and I’m going to”––he recoiled as Mean lashed out at him––”going to revert it to a much earlier one.”

Mean grit her teeth and squeezed her eyes shut, clawing at his hand.

“You’ll be the person you were a few months ago,” Parlay hummed. “You won’t even know who I am––won’t that be nice? All the things Trisk taught you, all your friends––all gone!

“And trust me:” he said, “when you’re going through hell, forgetting is the best thing there is.”

 

 

 

24 – Accessory

 

 

Mean’s brown eyes flew open; she glared at the ground and it shook at her gaze: rocking Parlay off his feet and sending him tumbling back.

“STABILIZATION ERROR:” a robotic voice boomed, “PLEASE CORRECT INTERFERENCE.”

The entire cage rocked; it swung into a spin: Mean’s corner tilting up as Parlay slipped backward.

He gasped, flipping onto the floor, scraping at the polished wood with this fingers. The criss-crossed shadows of the bars swept along with him, escorting him down.

When the ceiling reached a near-vertical pitch, the hanging vein pillar snapped loose with a multitude of simultaneous cracks. It tumbled after Parlay and smashed to pieces against him as he hit the bottom wall.

Mean, watching from the high point of the cage, held on tight to the vein trap encasing her body, ignoring the sky and vast plain outstretching for miles through the bars. Taking a breath, she tipped the cage further.

A breeze rustled at her back as she whirled with the enclosure, then came more loud cracks as the vein holding her splintered. The cage was upside-down, and she stopped the spin there. She tucked into a ball, twirling upright.

“I’m not going to forget!” she muttered, kicking away at the fractured web holding her. The pieces that broke loose fell, joining the rest of the pulverized fragments from the pillar: Tinkling out through the bars and emptying into the clear sky. With the yellow plain spread out below, the shards flashed in the sun and vanished from sight. Mean pulled herself out and hovered over the square gaps in the bars. Parlay was on all fours on the other side of the cage, his limbs shaking as he struggled to stand.

“STABILIZATION ERROR:” the voice warned again, “PLEASE CORRECT INTERFERENCE.”

“Shut up––I’m trying!” Parlay shouted. Mean crossed the cage and tackled him down. His chest banged against the bars and his arms and legs dangled though; Mean pressed into his shoulder blades with her knees.

“I’m not going to forget Dark!” she cried, taking two fistfuls of his blond hair and driving his face into the steel. “Or Trisk, or Darrow, or Tome!” she growled at him, jerking up his head and slamming his face into the cage with each name. The lens on her wrist flashed along as Parlay was throttled, and the enclosure rang with the sound of each impact. A sudden lurch tossed Mean from his back: The cage was spinning upright again. Mean twisted and centered herself in mid-air as the ceiling and floor swapped places around her. Parlay clung to the bars as the cage rocked itself level once more.

When the floor settled Mean landed, looking up to the sun that shone through the gaps in the metal. Tiny remnants of vein remained affixed to the bars, their jagged bits pointing inward to the spot where the main pillar had been.

“You violent little thing,” Parlay said, dropping from the ceiling and landing on his feet. His white shirt was now untucked from his slacks, and his hair stuck out from the sides of his head in every direction. He swiped his sleeve over his nose and his mouth.

“So after all that––” Mean panted, “you’re not even hurt.”

Parlay touched the vein piece on his arm. The parts that had formed the bow were snapped off, yet the coils wrapped at his sleeve still remained intact. Its color deepened to blue once again, and the spikes on the ceiling changed color along with it.

“I still feel pain,” he hissed. “I’m always feeling it. More than you’d ever dream of. A brat like you wouldn’t know what it’s like.” Scowling at her, he reached for another amulet tucked under his vest––pulling it out with a trembling hand and snapping the chain as he yanked it from his neck.

Mean leapt back as he tossed the silver locket at her; its hinged cover popped open as it slid over the floor. Four pointed flaps whipped out from inside, cracking against the wood. Mean stepped back further still.

“What is this?” she asked, looking to Parlay and then back at the four, leafy things swelling in size. The blond-haired man remained silent, watching another set of green folds push their way out from under the first. These eight new, lush leaves were bent back in the middle, slapping open against the floor as they extended. And like this the plant grew: Foliage radiating out in layers as the ground thumped with a beat that grew louder as the leaves multiplied. Parlay stepped onto the plant as it spread over his way; Mean soared up, hanging on the metal grate overhead––her eyes darting to the many large, pointed leaves as they slapped their way across the entire wooden floor.

“W-well!? What is it!?” Mean asked as the cracking rhythm snapped to an end. The spread of jagged leaves lay still under her now, and a small breeze came in through the bars.

“Ignorance,” Parlay said, sliding his fingers across the vein at his sleeve, lightening its hue to red once more. A single strand grew out from the coil, stretching out past his fingers and curving into a long, bladed hook.

Mean let go of the bars and swung down to the floor. She bounced a bit when she landed, her shoes squelching against the spongy, fat leaves. Parlay charged and Mean regained footing at once: pushing off from the foliage and soaring at him. He wound up his arm and swung the scythe wide––missing her and digging the blade into the leaves as she rocketed past.

Mean landed on the green floor behind him, rebounding, and driving her elbow into his back. Parlay coughed and stumbled, his scythe dragging at his side, slicing a trail over the pointed leaves. As he steadied himself, Mean stood ready nearby: leaping out of the way as he sent the long blade swooshing through the air again.

Her shoes creaked against the floor as she landed, and Parlay shot her a smile from under the mess of blond hair at his brow. He inhaled and shut his mouth tight.

“Wait––what?” Mean said, checking the floor. One of her shoes hit a snag: the leaves’ ends were curling up into stiff points at her feet. As she lifted her head back to Parlay, his grinning face vanished in a haze of gray fog.

“OXYGEN LOW,” the robotic voice chimed, and as Mean took a breath, she hacked it back out at once with a cough. The sun grew dim overhead and mist swirled around her; she gasped for air again and sputtered with her hands at her face. Parlay strode over to her.

Taking her head by the hair, he smashed in her stomach with his left knee. As she let out a gurgle he tilted her face. Mean glimpsed his yellow eyes through haze for a moment as he drove his forehead down into hers with a thunk. The gray mist cleared out through the bars with the breeze, and Parlay shoved Mean away.

“You––you weren’t––” Mean wheezed, shuffling backwards over the creaking plant: blood dribbling out of her nose and over blue lips.

Parlay coughed into his hand. “I wasn’t,” he answered, taking the scythe and jabbing at a few pointed leaves on the ground. “And I won’t be bullied by you––I won’t allow anyone to trample over me ever again.”

He lifted his arm and swept the scythe forward, and bits of the plant scattered in its wake. The leaves on the floor were all curling now: the tips curving up with sharp points and fading into a dull brown. Sniffing, Mean took to the air, rushing at Parlay again.

He guarded his face with both arms; Mean’s first blow glanced off the coiled piece of vein. Her lens flickered as she twirled and connected with a hit on his ribs, and then the robotic voice called out again:

“OXYGEN LOW.”

Parlay whipped out an arm as the gray fog returned, clawing Mean’s cheek as she jetted off to the ceiling. She flattened herself against the steel bars and put her face through: Gasping at clean air as it whistled past. Her spattered face took in loud breaths. Beneath her, Parlay approached.

“Mm-mm,” he hummed from the mist, raising his scythe and hooking the blade around Mean’s stomach. It dug into her shirt and she winced as he tugged; he jerked the blade and Mean yelped, letting go. Sinking into the mist, she cradled one hand over her stomach as she hovered, and Parlay, looming over her, swatted her down with both of his arms.

The breath in her escaped in a scream as she slammed to the floor; a row of leaves and their blades pierced her when she landed. Arching her back off the ground, she scrambled, rising airborne. Parlay charged at her as she hung between the ceiling and floor, crunching into her with his shoulder: sending her body spiraling through the haze in a swirling trail. The far wall clanged as Mean collided with it. Coughing, gasping, she clung to the bars, letting her feet drop to the floor.

“I thought it would be hard to hurt someone, but it’s not––” Parlay said with a wheeze as the mist cleared again. “I’ve seen so much worse, after all.”

Mean’s unfocused eyes stared into the sky past the cage. Red smears streaked down her face and her back, and the leaves were creaking as Parlay approached. She leaned on the bars and took staggering breaths. The low, steady wail of a siren resonated through the cage.

Shaking hair from her eyes, Mean turned her head up to the sound. The cage had drifted beneath the hall leading to Jesice. Ley Ledge Citadel hung inverted above, along with the many towers attached to the side of the cliff. Mean’s eyes skittered over the rooftops––seeing hundreds of upturned faces atop each one.

“We’re there,” Parlay said. “I guess it’s time to do it.” He reached for one of the two remaining chains that hung at his chest.

Mean looked away from the city and out into the sky, swallowing the blood that had pooled in her mouth. She slid her arms through the steel bars, hugged the wall, and whirled the cage into a wild tumble.

Parlay was thrown from his feet as the floor swirled away, and he crashed to the barred ceiling as it swung under him. He rebounded with a loud cry as the cage whirled and rotated, banging against the floor where the leaves slashed his clothes; bouncing from that to the bars and back again.

Mean hung tight and spurred the cage faster as the wind roared in her ears. The lens on her wrist burned hot on her skin, and it blinked along with the steady impacts behind her. The fields, sky, and hall swept across her eyes in a blur; the sun streaking with them and leaving bright trails. A robotic voice called out again: the monotone instruction being lost among the thumps of Parlay’s body, the rush of the wind, and the clanging of the bars.

With a final creak and a long tearing of fabric, the cage slowed, rocked, and settled upright.

Mean, clinging to the bars, let out a long sigh. The wail of the siren crested again as the ringing of the steel cage tapered away.

“Okay––” she uttered, releasing the wall and pulling away. Red indentions marked her forehead and arms, and she turned to survey the inside of the cage.

The plant appeared to be dead; the leaves were brittle and pale. Ragged bits of foliage were torn loose in clumps. Parlay was sprawled out face-down in the mess: bare bits of his arms and legs exposed through his torn clothes. Above him, tatters of silk fabrics were stuck to the spikes of vein on the bars. He did not move.

“Now,” Mean wheezed, “just stay down––please, please, just stay down.”

She tipped away from the wall, wobbled, and fell back to it. She hung on with her fingers, twisting around and taking deep breaths of the air whistling through. When she looked through the bars, her head dipped to a large, round shape blotting out the field below: a cluster of buildings.

“Oh geez. You guys didn’t stop it,” she said, seeing some of her own blood sail off in the breeze. She poked her head through, wriggling her shoulders between the square space in the bars. As she got her slim arms through, she heard a shuffling on the leaves behind her.

“Oh come on!” she whined, jerking back and sliding free. Parlay was lifting himself on all fours with wobbling limbs. Mean lurched at him with a wavering cry, her arms swinging low and her legs flashing forward in dizzy strides. A back strap ran the length of Parlay’s beaten vest, and Mean hooked one arm through it and grasped his collar. With her shoulder jutting ahead, she rocketed them both towards the wall.

The sharp leaves crackled beneath them; pieces snapped loose and flew in their wake. Parlay’s blond head bobbed in a violent blur as his body was whisked over the hard, pointed tips. Mean lost her grip and sprung ahead––leaving Parlay to coast to a stop, settling in the trail of torn vegetation. Mean impacted against the lower, padded part of the wall with a squeal. Gasping, she collapsed to the floor.

The plant had not spread over this far; Mean’s breath rasped over the polished wood as she lay still. She squeezed her eyes shut, willing her body to move. Dragging her hands to her side, she groaned as she heaved herself up and sat with her back at the wall. She flopped her feet out and stared up. Parlay was on his feet, glaring down at her.

His black pants hung in tatters, and the vest that he wore was sheared from his chest. The skin underneath showed no sign of a scratch, and the two remaining lockets he wore dangled from their chains. Growling, he tore off a remnant of sleeve that hung on his wrist by the cuff.

“You––” he uttered, recoiling, then clamping his mouth shut. His hands flew to his lips and he screwed up his face: his yellow eyes watering and his skin pale. Pulling his fingers away, he squirted out something small from between his puckered lips. Mean watched as it clinked to the floor near her leg. It was a tooth.

“Oh, no––” Parlay slurred, working his tongue through the bloody gap in his teeth. He swallowed, held his arm up, and zipped one of his fingers over his skin: making a red, thin cut with his nail.

“I’m bleeding,” he stated, clutching his hair. “I can’t hold static. I’m bleeding.”

Mean snorted, rolling her eyes. She broke out in a chuckle, her tiny chest shaking as she laughed.

“You think this is funny?” Parlay said, kneeling down. “You sapped all my magic with your inane, childish tricks! I can’t show the slate virus what pattern to use now!”

“Good,” Mean coughed. Parlay slapped the floor.

“That city is still going to crash,” he said. “I made sure that it was beyond Dring’s ability to stop it.”

Mean grew silent and looked into Parlay’s wide eyes. “That’s right,” he growled, “I knew you convinced him. And I can’t even halt its course at this point. It’s going to kill everyone now––everyone!”

Thrusting his arms, he pinned Mean to the wall by her shoulders. She shouted as sharp pains stabbed through the wounds on her back. Creeping out from his fingertips, the prickling sensation spread into her skin.

“This is all your fault,” he spat. “You, and your moronic plan to pummel me senseless! How in the world did you think that would help!? Now it’s happening again––everyone is dying––it’s happening again!

Mean’s arms fell limp and her feet scuffed over the floor. The sensation seeped its way into her chest; her breath staggered, whimpered, and ceased. Her eyes glazed over and her head sagged; the only sound in her head was the hammering of her own, frantic heart.

“I was still being too soft,” Parlay seethed through his broken teeth, “I let you run loose. Now they’re all going to die––they’ll all die again! I should have just killed you all from the start––! I’ll just––I’ll just––”

He swallowed his last word, jerking his hands away from her body. Mean shuttered and took a loud gasp for breath. The tingling under her skin began to fade.

“What?” he whispered. “One heart. You’re not one of them.” He drew further back, his eyes darting over her body. “You’re not Jesian. You only have one heart––what is this?”

Mean coughed, clutching at her chest with her hand. “So what?” she gasped. “I’m not Jesian. Who cares?”

Parlay sunk down on his knees, studying Mean as she fought to recover. “I wanted to save all my people,” he said. “And you were one of us? This whole time? I would have never––I would have never harmed one of our own.”

Heavy footsteps thumped toward the two. “Oh yes you would have,” sang a voice from nearby.

A plump man walked out of the square cage’s corner. He wore compact, velvet attire that displayed his short, hairy legs and arms. A crown with triangular points topped his head, and he grinned through a large, curly beard as he strolled over.

“King!?” Parlay cried.

“Who else?” he answered, staring off-center. “I used to be on your side––remember?––I told everyone not to be scared of you.” He gestured at Mean. “Wow. Guess I was wrong.”

His laughter boomed though the cage as another man approached from the opposite corner.

“I tried to warn them,” the new person lamented, brushing at a bevy of medals that hung on his proud uniform. His beard was trimmed into several points. “Parlay belongs in a cage; Parlay is just like that animal Sing. I guess I got my wish.”

“They’re dead––” Parlay said, whipping his head back to Mean. “This can’t be real. Are you doing this!?”

She gave a tiny shake with her head, her eyes fixed on something beyond his left shoulder. Parlay turned: a teenaged boy was advancing on them from the room’s center. He had his fingers pinched together in front of his eye.

“I can’t see much from where I am,” the youth said as he sauntered over the leaves of the plant. His haircut was crisp and he wore a surcoat with an elaborate crest. “Your minds are so far, so far! Like stars.”

Parlay and Mean were surrounded by the boy, King, and the uniformed man. The sharp cry of the siren above fell in pitch, and when it rose up again it carried the murmur of many people.

“There is one part that comes through,” the youth said as he rose his pinched fingers up over his brow. “Guilt is the pattern people cover up most. And those patterns––oh, those pile up into something I can see quite well!

Mean looked past the boy as he loomed over Parlay; other people were staring in through the bars from outside. They were seated in bleachers that circled the cage. Their eyes were wide as they shuffled in their seats, sharing panicked looks and frightened whispers.

Parlay stood up, his eyes racing from person to person. “This is––this is––”

“Your pattern is more interesting than Kates’ was,” the clean-cut boy said amongst the clamor. “A wide canvas, rich with color.”

“I don’t want to see this,” Parlay pleaded, clutching his blond hair with both hands. “I don’t––”

“But I like this color. Do you know what it is?” the boy asked. The crowd recoiled and began to scream. They leapt up, pushing past each other; leaping over seats.

Parlay shook his head and cried out, “I don’t want to––!”

“It is the color of blood!” the boy laughed, his eyes rolling back. Red gashes split over his skin. A thunderous boom tore through the stands outside, and a fourth of the people there were erased. A flurry of clothing remained after them, exploding in all directions in a shockwave.

The uniformed man walked up to Parlay as this happened, spreading his arms to display his fine medals. “Blood, blood, blood!” he giggled, as, one by one, they became metal knives, sliding out of his chest with sharp, dripping blades. King laughed at this, tossing his head back and vanishing with a loud bang, sending his fine, velvet clothes twirling to the floor in a spiral.

“I don’t––” Parlay whimpered, dropping to the floor and curling up in a ball, grinding his forehead into the leaves. He smashed his hands over his ears, sobbing.

Mean watched as another crack sounded––the crowd and the stands outside vanished. Parlay sat alone in the cage’s center, and the sky through the bars turned black. A bright circle the color of rust slipped out of the shadows.

“It’s you!” Mean shouted, leaping up and scampering forward. She lunged at it and her thin arm sailed through; the ring vanished. Mean stumbled, and a ringing laughter echoed into the cage.

You’re the one that smashed my previous vessel,” a voice chimed from above. “It was twenty years old––weakened by time. Are you proud of that?

The darkness was broken by a red glow from above. It shone in through the bars as Mean tipped her head back.”Oh no,” she whispered, staring out past the cage. In the sky, the angles of the hall were writhing with a deep, crimson hue. The miles-wide shape twisted: it heaved and it cracked; the angles warping into a curve that encircled the sky.

I need an immense pattern in order to manifest on your side,” Hellzoo said as the circle flexed into completion, cradling the passage to Jesice in a vibrant, rusted ring. Mean shrank down as the edge of the hall wriggled: Thousands of smaller loops were growing out of the circular body. They interlinked and merged with each other, forming long chains that swung downward with clashing jingles. As they hung in a thick curtain around Parlay’s floating cage, Hellzoo chuckled.

Think you can crush me between two stones now?

 

 

 

25 – Intrusion

 

 

 

The Lord Ley Express soared over rooftops toward the face of the cliff, zooming through a storm of aircraft and birds heading the opposite way. Above it all, the shape in the sky darkened: the yellow fields fading to a dingy mustard and vanishing.

“What’s going on now, Hatchel!?” Tecker cried, his hands gripping the controls and his eyes gaping at the scene through the cockpit. “Is the hole closing?” Hatchel cleared his throat.

“No, it’s here; it’s what I was worried about,” he replied. “A being, an alien––I don’t know what to call it. I have no idea where it really comes from. But I was there the last time it appeared, and I was there as it killed the squad sent to stop it––my squad.”

Tecker glanced over a moment; Hatchel had removed his headband and was now wringing it in his fingers.

“I ran away, though. And I had to keep running––anyone involved with the incident was imprisoned or taken away. I don’t know why, but they eventually came for me. When that happened I fled, and it’s the reason I risked bringing my family here.”

Tecker was silent as he steered the tiny craft up: towards the cliff-side city, the citadel atop it, and the black void beyond.

 

—–

 

Parlay cowered against the curled leaves on the floor, and Mean dropped to her knees beside him. The many chain arms that hung from the ring were drawing inward, sweeping over the expanse of sky toward the cage.

“Parlay, we can’t stay here;” Mean pleaded, “you need to make this thing move. Are you listening? Parlay?”

So many people up there,” Hellzoo told them, and the chains clattered as they brushed past the cage. The linked segments were large: some nearly round, and others elongated and warped. They met by the thousands above the enclosure, clashing together in a writhing, red column.

I want to see them.

Inward the arms rushed, breaching the hall and spilling out the other side. Striking the plateau of Ley Ledge first, they flew past the citadel in a blur of dust: snaking over the edge in a cascade toward the city.

What are you doing––waiting to die!?” Hellzoo shrieked at the people on the buildings below. Those waiting to be rescued ran screaming across rooftops as the chains fell, and idling escape transports lifted off in a swarm. The arms twisted in mid-air, surrounding the towers, coiling around them all the way to their bases. The enclosed walkways in between structures were cluttered with crowds; they watched through the long windows as the arms tightened their grip.

Hurry up here! I will save you!” bellowed the eager cry from above, and the chains pulled taut with a unified rattle. On every floor of the buildings people buckled from the sudden shock, and anything loose was thrown from its place. As a mother and child were brought to their knees by a large window, they saw a singular craft zoom up at a near-vertical climb.

“Hatchel, what––what is it doing––!?” Tecker stammered, his head pressed back in the seat and his hands white on the controls. Chunks of metal fell from the constricted walkways, and the pieces rained against the cockpit with loud smacks.

“I don’t know; just keep going!” Hatchel replied. The chains trembled in rows as they pulled at the towers, leading back through the sky, over the cliff face, and converging into the black void above. “We have to cross that point;” Hatchel went on, “the hex door pattern is stretched over the gap. But once I close it––once we’re through––Hellzoo will still be there, and we’re going to be stuck on the other side with it.”

Tecker gave a quick nod, his eyes fixed ahead as they passed a network of vibrating metal struts connecting the towers and cliff. Onward he rose, pushing the craft parallel to the rock face, skimming over falling debris and dust that shook loose in wide sheets. A blinking alarm whooped in the cockpit as they cleared the top of the cliff, and a darkened Ley Ledge Citadel flew by beneath them.

“Hatchel––it’s ahead––do it!” Tecker cried, his face flashing from the colors of blaring warnings lighting up the control dash. The monstrous chains surrounded the craft now, their paths all leading to a solid black space ahead. Tecker did not take his eyes from this spot, gritting his teeth as Hachel planted a hand on the glass windshield. There was a jarring boom and a high, gurgling scream; the hall to Jesice ceased to exist.

Tecker and Hatchel were jerked in their seats as a roaring shockwave slammed the plane. Fractured, red circles twirled through the sky. The cockpit’s panel flickered as the shrieking continued, the glowing displays flashing errors and reading: “SIGNALS LOST.” Tecker fought with the controls as the vehicle rocked and swerved, yelping as an enormous, round shadow emerged from the gloom.

“Oh crap––the city!” he shouted, sending the plane into a sharp swerve away from the oncoming mass. The tops of the buildings dipped out of view from the window, and through the racket of alarms and booming wind outside, Hatchel spoke:

“There are people close by.”

Tecker took a quick swipe at the sweat on his face. “Where? In the buildings!? No, wait”––He checked an indicator’s blinking dot––”There’s some kind of craft.”

Pulling the plane in a tight curve, a hovering cage came into view. Tecker took them closer. Through the darkness, a faint, red light reflected over the tops of the cage’s squared bars.

“You’re right––it’s still up there,” Tecker said, flicking buttons that deployed landing gear and floodlights. “We’d better make this quick.”

He eased the craft down upon the tops of the bars, and the landing lights illuminated the floor. Mean sat near one of the walls, her face blinking at the bright beams; Parlay, still crouching, did not look up. With a worried cry, Hatchel flung open the door and burst out of the plane.

A cross-shaped section of bar disappeared at his glance, and he leapt through the large opening it made: landing in the room’s middle and catching himself with his good arm. Above, Tecker crept out from the plane’s pilot side, edging over remnants of vein as the engines whined in an idle.

“Mean!” Hatchel called, tearing across the leafy floor. The girl jerked back as he stumbled over to her, and only when he fell and embraced her did her wary face come alive.

“Dad––?” she whispered into his ear as he squeezed her.

“Yeah, it’s me!” Hatchel affirmed, pulling back long enough for Mean to see his greying hair and beaming grin. She sniffled, smiled, then buried her face in his shirt with a sob.

“I thought you were––I thought that thing was––” she choked out.

“No, I’m real; I know what you thought it was,” he whispered, brushing his hand through her brown hair. As the two reunited, Tecker dropped to the floor.

“Oh, it’s that girl,” he said, glancing at them before looking up through the large, square hole. Hellzoo’s ring was still hanging above, and no trace remained of the chains. The circle shone in the blackness, shrinking, contracting. Along its round edge, five red strips were peeling out from the body. They curved back and tore away more chunks from the circle, twisting the pieces into chain links again; connecting them. As the arms reconstructed, the main ring grew smaller––Tecker tore away from the sight and ran to Parlay.

“Hey, are you hurt?” he asked, glancing over his tattered attire. “Can you climb up to the plane?”

Parlay’s head tilted at the sound of the voice. His eyes went up from the floor and over to Tecker.

“Oh, Mr. Parlay, it’s you,” Tecker said. “You may not remember; I’m one of the Lords Ley that you talked to a while back. What happened? Did that thing trap you in here?”

Parlay touched at his ragged vest with his hand. His yellow eyes fell.

“I trapped me,” he said, looking over to where Hatchel was helping Mean up.

“What?” Tecker uttered, and a shift in the light caused all four to look up; the white beams from the Lord Ley Express were yielding to a crimson flare.

Through the bars, Hellzoo’s ring blazed through the sky: dragging five long, twisted chains and ringing with a furious scream. It jerked to a stop over the cage, and the five trailing arms spread out in the air, poised.

Do you want my world to be empty forever!?” it screeched down at them. First you let everyone there die––now this!” One of the chained arms swept down, swatting the plane and sending it spiraling off the roof with a crack. The floodlights swirled over the edge and out of sight. The other arms descended tips-first and clamped at the cage’s four sides. With a rattling shudder, the entire enclosure was dragged up next to Hellzoo’s bright ring. It glared through the square bars, tilting at Parlay.

You all could have stopped it,” Hellzoo hissed at him. “He killed them while you played your game. The one you trusted. Your enemies are the ones that are closest––I don’t need my magic to tell me that.

Parlay looked away from the ring’s empty, black center as it swiveled to focus on Hatchel next.

And you. She’s your daughter?” it asked.

Hatchel held Mean close. “I won’t let it hurt you,” he assured her.

Oh, yes!” Hellzoo laughed, “Tell her how safe your friends were at that mine! As you fled, they begged for your help! Do you want me to show her?

It shook the enclosure with its twisted arms, laughing. The four in the cage were tossed as the chains rang out.

“And Mean, where is Kates? You forgot about her, didn’t you? Failures, cowards––I hate you all!” Hellzoo screamed. “Abandoning your cities, your friends––while I sit alone in this wretched place!

With a clatter the arms returned to the air, and a tired breath rasped from the circle.

But I have you four, don’t I?” it chimed, dragging one of the chains over the bars. “And I am allowed to keep some here with me.

The chain lifted from the cage to the circle, and made long, looping movements over the center. For a moment, an image of Jesice flickered within the darkness inside.

Tecker hurried over to Hatchel. “What is it doing?” he asked.

“It fixing the hall’s pattern I broke,” Hatchel answered, putting his hands on Mean’s shoulders. “But it’s changing the destination. It shouldn’t be possible––”

“I’m afraid it is,” a woman’s voice proclaimed. It came out, clear, from a point of light that sprung up in the circle. The spot dilated with a hiss and revealed a bright space through the ring: Swirling clouds of differing colors, all clashing with no sight of sky in between. The light shone down on the roof of the cage, and the woman’s voice chuckled as one of the arms snaked down to the hole that Hatchel had made.

“No one will ever find you in Arsaling,” she said. “No one that you want to find you, anyway.

The arm met resistance as it squeezed through the gap in the cage; the misshapen links of the chain compressed and expanded as they each cleared the hole. Hatchel held Mean away from him as it as it dipped through the bars and into the cage.

“Mean,” he said, looking down into her eyes. “Goodbye, sweetie. I love you.”

She stared for a moment as he let her go, and he turned and ran to where the red chain was waiting.

“Goodbye!?” she called out, seeing the arm whip toward him and curl around his waist. He did not fight back as it hoisted him up.

“Hatchel, don’t do it!” Tecker said, joining Mean as they both scrambled over the leaf-strewn floor to him.

“Your friends will all scream for you,” Hellzoo purred, tipping the cage with two of its arms. Mean toppled backwards and fell against Tecker, and the two were tossed with a crash into the far wall.

“No!” Mean sobbed, fighting to stand. “Dad! Dad, don’t!”

“You’ll get your turn sweetie!” Hellzoo laughed, pulling Hatchel up to the barred ceiling. And it was there, among the steel glinting in the light above, that Mean saw something begin to move––the pieces of vein were coming alive.

In one quick blur they converged on the chain: forming a thick, solid mass and halting its staggered retreat through the hole. Hatchel was dropped as the arm thrashed and rattled, and Mean whirled around, gasping.

Parlay was near her, crouching at the base of the wall. The lower padding had been torn, a metal panel hung ajar. His hand was placed at an intricate formation of vein set inside.

“Everyone, grab the bars,” he commanded. “As tight as you can.”

“Don’t listen,” Hellzoo growled. “Parlay will kill you––let every one of you die!”

Hatchel picked himself up and ran to his daughter; they clung to the bars with Tecker soon following suit on their right.

“Mean,” Parlay said. He looked up at her, and his eyes were brighter, livelier and wide. “Can you”––he twirled his hand––”do the spinning again?”

“I think so,” she answered. Tecker grew pale and hung on tighter.

“Good,” Parlay said, smiling. “I promise, I’ll keep you all safe.”

He jerked the vein component out of the wall.

“ERRO––” the monotone voice croaked as the cage tilted into a dive. Through the bars, the city of Hardpan rushed up––the streets and the buildings blocking out the entire plain now.

“What are you doing!?” Hellzoo cried, the large ring and stuck chain trailing the cage as it fell. Parlay rushed to where the other three huddled, wrapping his arms around them as he, too, grasped the bars.

Mean felt a numbing tingle dig at her spine. She did not fight it––but tipped the cage further into a furious whirl. The chains that were struggling to break free of the vein became tangled and were wound along with the spinning enclosure––Hellzoo jerked and thrashed as its main ring was reeled in.

The vein spread across the cage now, rushing in long strands over the bars. It leapt every time a chain clanged to the side, holding it tight and running along it. As the large, glowing circle was drawn in and flung against the bottom of the cage, the vein pounced in one motion and locked it in place.

“You’ll just kill my puppet––you’ll just kill yourselves!” Hellzoo screamed as they dropped past the roofs. On both sides, many buildings’ glass windows rushed by, reflecting the cage as it fell: the tangled mass of vein-wrapped arms looped around it, Hellzoo’s ring that tugged to get free on the bottom, and the beam of light coming out of the hall.

“The real me is in Arsaling; I’ll still be here!” Hellzoo told the four. A cold wind whistled past as the cage leveled out.

“I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here,” she repeated as the street rushed to meet them. “I’ll be here all alone, why do you want me to be here all alone!?” she sobbed at them. “WHY DO YOU WHY DO YOU––”

The bottom struck first, snapping the ring. The light vanished along with the voice. Mean, Parlay, Tecker, and Hatchel were flung to the floor by the impact.

“Ignore the pain; you’re fine,” Parlay urged them. With their hands tight on the bars, their bodies were jostled along with the cage as it crashed into the sides of buildings and rebounded back to the street. With a screeching grind, it continued right down the road, flattening street signs as it slid.

“We’re sliding––we’re not stopping,” Mean gasped, flipping hair from her eyes. The vein clinging to the metal bars was cracking, the interlinked pieces of chain were shattering and tumbling off. Through the bars, she could see Hardpan Square now; Police cars rolled end-over-end in the streets, debris fell from all directions. The fishhook-bearing flags were billowing at a wild angle. Further back, the tall Dhaston tower cracked in the middle and fell to the side with a spray of thick dust.

“Dring did find a way to bring it down, I guess,” Parlay chuckled, and Mean twisted her head back to look. The blond-haired man smiled back at her with bleeding lips, his eyes bright over the swelling bruise and cut running over his cheek. The cage shuddered again as they struck a tree, and Mean’s vision was jerked back to the square.

“I’ll keep everyone safe this time,” Parlay promised. “I’m sorry for hurting you before.”

Mean nodded as tears blurred her vision and fell down her face. She stared straight ahead. Tecker and her dad were being held close.

Thundering echoes slammed Hardpan Square as the cage slipped down another wide street, and Mean glimpsed a smear of reddish chunks trailing behind them. Another tremor came, and they were spun; buildings buzzed by in a row before the cage jerked steady again. Mean saw the edge of the city before her: a clean end to the pavement, dropping off into the vast plain far below.

All went dark as they were launched over the side.

 

 

 

26 – Rekindled Soul

 

 

I can’t feel anything; the pain is gone now. After such a long time, I’ve rid myself of it. Hellzoo––the intruder. I’m glad it came when it did. I can die as myself.

I never should have done it. I thought that erasing those tragic last days would work; after all, an earlier me would have pettier troubles. And I thought that living in an empty world would be bearable when you don’t know how the end came to be. Such a mistake––the price was too high: my old, selfish ambitions came back. The lessons I’d been taught with time fled as well. No wonder Vornis stayed away––the spoiled parody I became must have been sickening to see.

And yet, here he comes. He approaches my body. What is left of it, I suppose. Darrow too, along with Sing. I can’t believe it. So many people were worried that he’d destroy it all. But it wasn’t him. It was––

Oh no. No, I remember; he survived that day! That means he’s still somewhere on the planet, isn’t he!? I’ll be leaving Mean and the rest here with him––what can I do? I don’t have time!

Wait. Wait––yes! The answer is here. It’s right here.

 

—–

 

Parlay’s body rested in a bloody sprawl on the dirty surface of the Nine Mile Road. His yellow eyes were fixed at some point in the distance, and quiet gurgling sounded along with his breath.

“He can just, uh, fix himself can’t he?” Darrow asked, his shirt still missing and his chest caked with grime. Through the hazy air, Vornis’ rough silhouette growled.

“Used all his magic to save the others; I’m not sure.”

Parlay stirred, raising his eyes to Darrow’s face. “There’s still one more,” he coughed. “Take my necklace.”

“Me?” Darrow asked, stepping around the rubble. A single gold chain ran around Parlay’s neck, and the locket at the end dangled among wet scraps of his vest.

“Don’t you need help?” Darrow asked, leaning down and snapping the trinket away from the chain. “Why do I get this?”

“I’m done for––It’s for Sing,” Parlay answered. “I sealed a copy of my physical pattern inside. Tell him to take my body; he can have it.”

Vornis lumbered forward through the fog. “What!?” he cried. “You can’t be serious! You can’t just give up!”

Parlay ignored the outburst and spoke only to Darrow. “Tell him to possess me the moment I die. Then––”

“You’re not dying!” Vornis broke in. “Just hang on until you can gather more magic. You can make it; don’t talk like that!”

“––Then break the locket,” Parlay went on. “Using Sing’s magic, it can repair the damage. With my spirit gone, his won’t be rejected.”

Darrow stood with his lips in a frown, and his hand quivered as he held the locket.

“No!” Vornis growled, stomping over and grasping Darrow by his shoulders. “Give me that thing––just break it right now!”

“Vornis, please,” Parlay asked. The color was gone from his face and his eyes were drifting again.

“Out of those that I’ve failed––let me save at least one.”

 

—–

 

Dark made his way through the haze, picking his way over to a crisscrossed section of bars driven into the grass. The metal was warped, and Mean sat beneath it: along with an unconscious Tecker and Hatchel.

“Dark, over here!” she called. She shook some bits of debris out of her hair, waving. Dark hurried, extending his arm as he came up beside her.

“You’re filthy,” she remarked, taking his dusty glove and pulling herself up. His black armor was streaked grey.

“Well, Dring took us to that gazebo hex door after we dropped the city,” Darklord explained. “I ran through the dust cloud with Vornis and Darrow. Vornis said you guys were fine, but I had to check. Your shirt––are you bleeding?”

Mean peeked down her collar and felt at her back. “I was––I think Parlay fixed it,” she said. “Oh, Dark! Parlay helped us! Did you see any of what happened up there!? Hellzoo came back! And then––”

“It did!?” Darklord exclaimed. “But we smashed it! What happened!?”

“Dark, there were chains––it reached into Jesice!” Mean said, arching her fingers. “But Parlay helped my dad and got us down. Where is he? Did you see him?”

He swept at his helmet and the layer of dust clinging to the smooth visor. “It’s a miracle that I found you,” he mumbled. “I can’t see through this; I need to carry around a cloth to wipe off my helmet or something.”

A sharp smash carried through the fog. Mean and Dark looked at each other and headed off toward the noise, rustling through grass and weaving past rubble. They both stopped at the side of the Nine Mile Road, where an uncertain Darrow glanced at them as they approached. He had a large mug in his hand. It was chipped on the bottom. He knelt beside the broken locket.

“Parlay, you made it!” Mean cheered, running up to the blond-haired man that stood blinking, covered in dust. “Your face was cut before we fell; I was worried that you wouldn’t have enough magic.”

“He didn’t,” Vornis growled, his back turned, his head down. He sighed and the plates hanging at his back rattled. “Parlay is dead.”

Mean looked over at Vornis, her grin fading. “He’s right here, don’t joke around,” she began. “I know you don’t like him, but––”

“Mean,” the blond-haired man interrupted. His voice cracked and he coughed. “I’m Tome. Sing. Whatever you want to call me––It’s more than I deserve. Parlay let me have his body.”

Darrow stepped over, dropping the mug next to the smashed amulet. “He gave me this thing that had his pattern inside, but he couldn’t use it; only Tome could. And he seemed so different from how he acted before. He was acting, well––I didn’t see what else I could do.”

They stood for a moment, and then Dark went to Mean’s side as she sniffled, nodded, and smiled. “Yeah,” she said, wiping at her dirty eyes. “I mean, this just feels kind of weird. I’m happy that Tome’s back, but––geez, I don’t know what to think.”

Vornis placed his hands on his haunches and rose up, snorting.

“Well whatever we end up thinking, let’s just do it somewhere else,” he said. “All this dust is getting annoying.”

 

—–

 

In Hilo Water Plaza’s suite A, kegs and platters were set at the table. No water was flowing, yet a jaunty tune played. Trisk sat beside Darrow at the far end.

“I can’t believe I missed everything,” Trisk mumbled. “And why aren’t you wearing a shirt?”

“It got blown off while you were sleeping,” Darrow said. “What was I supposed to do? Go buy a new one? They told me to wait here with you until you woke up. Then I was supposed to do something else.”

Trisk reached for the steaming cup of tea set before her. “Like…tell me what happened?” she asked, taking a drink.

“Oh, right,” Darrow said. Vornis appeared at the hex door in the next room.

“Nice place,” he uttered, stepping out from the six stone pillars. He was clean now, yet the blades at his side were still broken. “It could do without the sappy music, but it’s better than dust.”

Trisk set her cup down, pointing at the snapped spikes at Vornis’ sides. “I thought you couldn’t fight Parlay,” she said.

“I was on my way up to get him, but then I felt your energy drop,” Vornis explained, sneering at the mannequin smiling down from the rafters. “So I went down and fought that guy with the weird machines. One of them backfired––killed him I think.”

“Oh, I see,” Trisk said, and her hair hung over her face as she gazed at the table.

Vornis sat down. “Well, there’s a chance he survived. If he was able to make it to the hex door before the city crashed, that is.”

“Oh,” Trisk uttered, brushing her long hair away and looking into the next room. “Hey, look––Mean’s here.”

“Trisk!” Mean called, running in, weaving around the side of the table, and hugging Trisk around the shoulders. The noise of several other people entering through the hex door carried into the hall. “I want you to meet my dad––and that’s Lord Ley Tecker––and Darrow didn’t tell you anything that happened, did he?”

“No,” Trisk confirmed, giving a quick shake of her head. Darrow buried his face in his glass.

“Well just don’t go nuts when someone that looks exactly like Parlay walks in,” Mean sighed, joining the others at the table.

“Fine, I’ll tell her,” Darrow began. “Hellzoo came back and Tecker and Mean’s dad came out of a portal that lead to Jesice. Then they killed it and Parlay gave his body to Tome.”

Trisk looked straight ahead with blank, dark eyes. “Okay,” she said, taking another long drink of tea.

Tecker walked over, his grey pants and shirt still dirty, but his skin washed clean. “If only the other Lords Ley could be so understanding,” he said, pouring a drink from the keg’s tap. “Hardpan was destroyed, the capitol was attacked––” He let out a sigh. “Any support for colonization––even from the people––will be gone for sure.”

The room fell silent for a moment before the hex door popped again.

“Tome!” Darrow shouted. “Or should I call you Sing?”

“I think I’ll just go by ‘Tome’ from now on,” the blond-haired man chuckled. He no longer wore Parlay’s clothes; a long, woolen coat ran down to his knees. “My old name has too many negative emotions tied to it. I want to think of myself as a new man now.”

“Well, whatever,” Darrow said as Tome joined them and sat in front of a large plate of food. “I didn’t know what you were like before, anyway.”

“Yeah,” Mean nodded, “even Dad doesn’t know about you; we left this world too long ago.”

Hatchel reached for a small sandwich, nodding. “And technically, I’m a treasonous criminal, too.”

“What for?” Darrow asked as Trisk gave him a near-simultaneous jab.

“I knew you’d ask!” she muttered as Hatchel chuckled.

“No, no––it’s alright!” he told them. “They only chased me because I knew about Hellzoo.” He turned to Tecker, who was staring at his drink with folded arms. “I’m sure you can just explain to the rest that there won’t be any danger––as long as they stay away from the types of magic that attract it.”

Tecker shook his head. “But what was that?” he asked. “And what was that bizarre place we saw? There’s no other planet in our system with clouds like that. Not on Jesice or on this one or anywhere. Where does something like that come from?”

“Didn’t that voice say this was her world, though?” Mean said. “Wouldn’t that mean she’s from here?”

Tecker frowned, watching his drink. “That creature spoke with the same tone as a dictator I met. Speaking of his country: not as a home––but as a possession.”

Mean looked over at Trisk, and Darrow’s eyes widened. “You can’t own a whole planet,” he said.

“I wouldn’t think so,” Tecker replied. “But it sure seemed to assume that it could do whatever it wanted with us. ‘I am allowed to,‘ I heard it say. Allowed! That means there’s more of them! I don’t even want to imagine what sort of authority governs a horror like that.”

Vornis reached out and took a sandwich from the plate. “This thing must have been wild––” he said, biting it in half. “You haven’t even noticed a monster like me.”

Tecker shrugged. “I was wondering who you were. Curious. Say––where is that man in the black armor? Lord Ley Hinge and I were trying to figure out where he was from, too.”

“Oh––!” Mean yelped, jumping up. “I forgot, I’m supposed to meet him!”

“Really?” Trisk purred. “Alone? Did Darrow forget to tell me about this as well?”

Mean circled the table and went to where her father was sitting. “We planned this earlier; I just wanted to show him something.”

Hatchel looked up from his plate. “I still think you need to be careful around that guy,” he said as his daughter hugged him from behind.

Darrow laughed. “You let her live on a planet of monsters and you’re worrying about Dark?”

Mean smiled, walking to the hex door. “Thank you, Darrow: you are very wise!”

 

—–

 

In the distance, through light haze and smoke, the cliff-side city gleamed in the noon sun. The red chains hung limp at the buildings’ sides, sagging down past their bases and interwoven between the many struts and walkways. Individuals in the crowd would stare at the far-off scene, while others hurried between makeshift tents and emergency vehicles parked at the road.

“The man in there had critical injuries,” a paramedic explained to a uniformed officer. “Two of his limbs were missing––”

“Why did you come running out of the ambulance?” the officer asked, eyeing the parked vehicle. “Tell me what happened.”

The paramedic looked around. “I was just shocked; he was carrying something in his clothes––it burst open during treatment. When I came back I saw that every wound he had was healed: even the missing arm and leg!”

The officer rose an eyebrow. “Seriously!?” he asked. Others began to gather around the two as they talked. “That guy came out of the hex door after you picked up my partner Lanz. If he’s been in that other world, maybe he can use magic.”

“Whatever saved him was nothing short of miraculous,” the paramedic confessed. “The ambulance camera recorded it all. I know some people have their doubts about the other world, but I’m going to use that man as an example––we can’t let any drawbacks we face stop us. We need to study their technology and get the hex door working again as soon as we can.”

Stumbling out of the van, Dhaston barreled towards them. He ran over to the group, a long patients’ robe flapping at his two legs.

“No, it wasn’t magic!” he cried. “I was fine; it was nothing!” A few from the crowd gasped.

“That’s Tyle Dhaston!” a kid shouted. “He got his legs back!”

“That right––those aren’t his prosthetics,” someone else said, as a woman with press tags motioned her camera crew over.

“No, wait, get those cameras out of here!” Dhaston pleaded, the group around him growing. “What about that creature that attacked the city? Wouldn’t you rather cover that?”

The reporter stood near him. “There is hope among tragedy,” she said into a camera. Every lens turned and trained upon her and Dhaston, and he stared back at them, his dimpled face reddening as the woman continued to speak: “Moments ago, Tyle Dhaston of the Dhaston orb corporation came back from the other world, mauled by some unknown force. And now––it appears magic has brought him back from the brink.”

“No, stop!” Dhaston screamed, flailing his arms at the cameras. “Magic caused this! Don’t you see!?” The onlookers gathered around him, laughing and waving their arms at the camera too.

“You hear that, chain monsters!?” one yelled. “This guy’s magic beat you!”

“Yeah, screw you robots!” Officer Noldy proclaimed. “I’ll learn magic and be ready for you next time!”

And Dhaston dropped to his knees, wailing, as the joyful crowd enveloped him.

 

—–

 

A long, wooden coffin was set in the garden outside Parlay’s mansion, with Vornis and Dring standing beside it. Tattered clothing lay inside the cushioned interior of the casket, and Vornis placed a severed, gold chain on top of the pile. Thick clouds rumbled and churned in the grey sky above.

“I’m glad he had anotha fwiend besides me, Vo-nis,” Dring sniffled, his eyes red and his sunglasses tucked into his shirt pocket.

“You knew him best these past months,” Vornis said. He closed the coffin’s hinged door. “You deserve to be here much more than I do.”

Dring turned his face up to the blackening sky. “I left him at the end though,” he squeaked. “I left him and he had to wes-cue Mean on his own. He even saved that Sing cwiminal that he hated so much!”

“That’s the real Parlay, Dring––” Vornis chuckled, “the one I gave up on. The person that sacrifices everything for the sake of the rest. You never saw that side, but you didn’t care; you still stuck with him and called him your friend.” The beast lowered his gaze to the decaying leaves at his feet. “I’m the one that’s guilty. I have no excuse.”

Dring wiped at his eye, then reached into his pocket and took out a remote that sat next to his glasses. After the press of a button, the casket descended into the ground. Dirt materialized with a whoosh and covered it all with a clean patch of soil.

“So––” Dring started, turning back to the dead trees that marked the hex door, “did Pa-lay have any otha fwiends besides you?”

The tight skin around Vornis’ lips drew back and exposed his wide, white grin.

“I normally don’t tell anyone the parts of the story that don’t involve me,” he began, “but I’ll make an exception––just this once.”

 

—–

 

Mean and Dark sat on opposite sides of a small table, next to a long window that ran the length of the room. An orange sunset shone in, glinting across Dark’s armor, past rows of empty tables, and twinkling on wine racks that sat behind a dusty bar. Shadows stretched over every surface; the lamps that hung from the ceiling were unlit.

“How often have you had to sneak away like this?” Dark asked. Mean held a slice of pizza up to her mouth, chewing at the crust.

“I never snuck away;” she answered, covering her mouth with cloth napkin. “I just ate at night before bed. Sometimes I’d meet Dad. We set up our own hex door leading back after the government opened theirs.”

Dark leaned back in his chair. “Why doesn’t he just stay here with you?”

Mean glanced over at the empty glasses and chairs at the other tables. “He feels guilty, I guess,” she sighed. “And he remembers what this world was like before everyone died. It isn’t the same for him––without Mom and the others.”

“I’m sorry,” Dark uttered. “I should have guessed.”

Mean took a drink. “Nah,” she said, picking up the pizza again. “You didn’t even know I was from here until today. It’s alright.”

Dark nodded. “So how did it go over at Hilo’s? They had food there, right?”

Mean took a bite and chewed. “Good,” she said, swallowing. “I didn’t eat anything in front of them, though.”

“Why not?” Dark asked.

“You know why,” Mean said, covering her mouth with the napkin again. “Only animals eat on Jesice; people think it’s disgusting there.”

The chair creaked as Dark leaned forward. “Darrow didn’t say something stupid about eating, not in front of your father and Vornis, did he?”

“No, no,” Mean laughed. “He was good about that. Even Trisk didn’t seem to mind at all. It’s just––” she wiped her mouth clean and dropped her hands, wringing the napkin. “I always had to hide it back on Jesice. Even then, when I’d sneak away to eat during school or work, people would notice the smell on my breath. The only way to fool them was to eat one meal––at the end of the day. I’m just trained that way now, I guess.”

Dark was silent as Mean set the napkin down and stared at her gloves.

“But I don’t mind eating around you;” she went on with a smile, “you can’t smell anything through your helmet. Shoot–you could even have your eyes closed, so you wouldn’t have to watch.”

“Is––what?” Dark stammered. “Is that what you think? I don’t have my eyes closed––”

Mean waved him off, laughing. “I’m just kidding, Dark; don’t freak out.”

“No,” he replied. “No, I think you’re right.”

He lifted his hands to the sides of his head: there was a hiss, and a crack formed at the top of his featureless helm. The smooth surface split from forehead to chin.

“Whoa, whoa!” Mean shouted, her smile disappearing as she leapt up from her seat. Her drink clattered and splashed over the tablecloth as she lunged at him; her hands clapping to the sides of his helmet. “What are you doing?”

Dark’s voice was steady as the seam stretched over the top of his head. “If it will make you feel better, I’ll get rid of this mask.”

“No!” Mean yelled at him, her tiny fingers squeezing at his gloves. “I was kidding; I told you!”

“I don’t care if you were,” Dark replied, the echo of his voice resonating through the crack. “I can’t do this. I can’t sit here and preach about being open while I hide in this suit!”

“So you’re ready to explain it all, then?” Mean countered. “To Darrow, Tome, Trisk? Ready to tell them that you tossed off your armor because of some stupid comment I made? If the reason you wear it was so trivial––so unimportant––then why in the world did you keep it on all this time!?”

She glared at the crack, with her reflection split in two over it.

“Look––you may think it’s wrong, or deceitful, but we don’t care. We all accept you like this,” she told him. “Please, don’t think you need to change because of us. Because of me.”

She let her hands slip away from his face, and without making a sound she lowered herself back into her chair. She watched as Dark’s trembling fingers balled up into fists, and the seam smoothed back over the helmet, leaving no trace behind. Mean took her napkin and mopped up the spilled drink in silence.

The edges of shadows in the room blurred now; the sun outside had vanished behind a hill: leaving only a pale, pink sky slipping into night. Mean took in a breath as she stared out past the trees. A voice cried from the wall near the bar.

“The beasts are loose!”

“What in the––!?” Dark exclaimed, leaping out of his seat as every hanging lamp in the room flickered on. A jumble of noises came from every direction; images were sprouting on screens: they blinked above tables, on walls, and even the bar.

“That’s what I did!” Mean laughed, pointing at Dark as he clutched at his chest. “All the games must be programmed to come on at once when the place opens; I freaked out the first time it happened!”

“Geez––scared me to death,” Dark said, easing back into his seat. “Too bad I can’t complain to the manager.”

A bright screen with the words ‘Rumble Farm’ hovered over the plate with the leftover pizza, and Mean’s brown eyes and hair peeked over the two-sided display as high scores scrolled past.

“Well?” she teased, taking a joystick and tossing it over. “You gonna play?”

Dark caught the controller and planted his arms on the table. “Of course,” he told her. “What kind of game is it? How does it work?”

Mean shrugged, grabbing a joystick by her plate. “Beats me!” she laughed. “But we’ve got this place to ourselves; let’s find out!”

And the two played through the night, meeting there many times after that. Mean worked her way through the restaurant’s menu, and Dark talked with her in between attempts to conquer the game’s high score. Every evening the games would light up, and the place would fill with buzzes and music––but only when those two arrived, did they bring life to the dead world once again.

 

 

THE END

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Surface is Glass

 

Rain falls in a storm on the city of Hardpan. One end of the solid foundation lies buried in a pit of debris; the other edge juts up toward the black clouds overhead. Every building has been shaken loose from the slab, and out of the wreckage a lone figure crawls. A golden sash crosses the back of his ragged uniform, and his hair is plastered in wavy strands at his brow.

“They’ll be so, so proud of me,” Mackaba says. He claws his way through the shell of the building: Pulling free of the wires, plaster, and brick. Water rushes down an inclined road in a stream, and he splashes into it.

“The Lords Ley will know I didn’t give up,” he sputters, grasping at the slick surface. “Tecker, the rest––they’ll come back and I’ll be the only one here. They’ll come back.”

He raises his head above the rushing liquid as he climbs, squinting past the torrent of rain. There, speared in the branches of an uprooted tree, hangs a fishhook-bearing flag.

“Lord Ley Tecker––he picked me,” he gasps out, his hands shivering as he pulls himself up the slick road. “I told him I’d do it. I won’t––”

His hand slips, the glove tearing open on jagged concrete.

“I won’t––” he utters as he topples backward; his footholds washing away as he falls. The downpour engulfs him and sweeps him down the slope––he twirls and the flag is lost in a blur––sending him splashing into the thick layers of settled debris at the bottom. He thrashes upright again in an instant.

“So where are you!?” he cries, peering up through the rain. Twisted steel frames of wrecked buildings loom above him; nothing else stands out through the storm; the flag is swallowed by the oncoming rain. Mackaba turns his face back to the pool of water churning around him.

“Well fine!” he sobs, wrestling his sash away and flinging it into the mud. “Stay over there! Stay on your stupid cliff!”

His gun goes flying next along with his soaked gloves. His nameplate comes off with a snap, and tosses that too. He sits in the muck, howling as the water sloshes around him. A flash of lightning illuminates the city. Mackaba sees it: a square piece of glass––standing upright on the water’s turbulent surface. A man in a heavy black coat stands, blurred, behind it.

“Hi,” the man says. He drifts over to Mackaba and the clear, glass plate moves with him: along with five others that are set at his sides in a cube.

“So what’s up?” he asks, motioning around at the rubble. His fingertips poke out of his long coat sleeves.

Mackaba chokes out a laugh. “I don’t know. I really don’t. I was left here. I don’t know.”

The man nods, leaning forward, tracing shapes on the inside of the glass.

“The same thing happened to me;” he replies, his loud voice making a hollow sound in the cube. “I was talking to a whole crowd of people––they just disappeared! Can you believe that? They just left me here.”

Mackaba chuckles, sweeping his soggy hair back. “That’s what they did; they just left. And they expected me to keep watch. They expected me to stop this somehow––”

“All by yourself, I know, I know,” the man says. He kneels down, looking at Mackaba through the rain-blurred glass. “But even the most sturdy structure can fall. Even the best-laid pieces can be taken apart.”

Mackaba sniffles. “Everything in my life is gone now. I followed every request––everything anyone asked––while no one ever stopped to help me.”

The man’s long, turquoise scarf drags over the bottom plate of the cube as he stands again. A glad laugh resounds in the box as he sweeps out his long coat sleeves. For miles, desolation and barren plains stretch under the bleak sky.

“Then you’re lucky that you found me today; I am the most helpful person there is! I am the wonderful hero Pinada!”

And as the torrent continues to pummel the city, the rain does not touch him.

 

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