Art by Annie Zhu, Story by James Wylder
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Chapter 18: Graelyn and Arch in the Super Swell Beach Party!
Archimedes however let out a string of curse words as he realized he hated sand and it was not in between some of the cracks in the carapace around his feet.
“You alright there?” He grumbled, but nodded. They were on a long beach, filled with scattered beach goers. Volleyball nets were set up in the distance, and up on a slight hill was a single line of buildings, stretching far into the distance... In fact, the whole beach was stretching far into the distance. She tried to make out a horizon, but there wasn't one. It just kept going, like there was no curve to the earth. She looked out at the ocean, and there was a horizon, but it also looked wrong. The angles were all incorrect, like she was in a badly rendered video game. There was a sun in the sky, but it looked wrong to. It didn't seem bright enough... But there was also a line in the sky going on forever as well, white and hot, that seemed to be spewing out light. Looking in the other direction of the beach, she saw it extended out that way towards infinity as well. But there was something else wrong about that to.
“What the hell?” Graelyn said.
“Arch, take a look around, what do you see that seems off?”
“Well, there's a volleyball tournament starting tonight with no entry fee.” He said pointing at an overly colorful and cheerful sign that said exactly that.
“Okay, yes, but I meant about the Horizons.” Arch looked around at the Beach. He looked at the flat horizon of the ocean, and the endless beach running in either direction. His internal computers went into overdrive, mapping the angles and the distance.
“What the hell?”
“We're on a cylinder?”
“This planet is a cylinder.”
“It would appear so.”
“But that's impossible.” Graelyn took her glasses off, and put on her sunglasses from her pack. She could have just adjusted her glasses, but changing them felt like she was somehow getting in the spirit of being on the beach.
“Its possible that this planet is a cylinder that extends infinitely in either direction, so not actually a cylinder. Its also possible it does hav ends we cannot see, and they do something funny we can't imagine. But at the very least, it seems clear the planet is cylindrical. Which means the laws of reality have to be pretty massively different here. She reached down and ran the fine sand through her fingers. It was warm from the sun on the top, and cool under the surface.
“If this planet is a cylinder, than its probable that that line in the sky is the sun, with the celestial objects in this universe rotating around each other like as parallel rods. Well, okay that's a pretty big guess, but it seems reasonable so far.”
“I mean, it makes sense.... As much as that can make sense. Wait.” Arch caught on, “So what's that big orb in the sky? The moon?” Graleyn shook her head.
“I don't think so. If every celestial body in this universe follows the same laws, which might not be the case, that orb has to be like us.”
“A foreign body.”
“Lets go with tourist, after all, this is a beach.” A group of teenagers came out of one of the beach huts in swim gear with milkshakes, giggling, and Graelyn gestured with her head towards it.
“Lets get changed and start seeing what we can learn.”
Trudging up through the sand, they reached the hut, where everyone was sitting around eating hotdogs and hamburgers with milkshakes, a band was gently playing a Buddy Holly song on a low stage (“Maybe baby, I'll have you.”), giving them a distinctive surf pop twist. The lead singer had the full Buddy get up, and was really rocking the blue suit.
Graelyn pointed towards the restrooms, and they slipped in to change. Graelyn had picked out a two piece swimsuit with a skirt, as well as flip-flops and Arch was needlessly wearing Hawaiian print swim trunks over his carapace, plus a wide brimmed sunhat, which was also unnecessary. Graelyn noticed the flip flops had little impressions on the bottom so when you stepped it left the Dawn Logo. Dawn may be a lot of things, but she was increasingly coming to realize that subtle was not a word that ever applied to them. Johnathan's words came back to her: “We're not powerful.”
They overthrew planets, but in the big scheme of thing, they were putting their logo on flip flips so somebody might notice them. The realization terrified her, it caused her bare skin to break out in goosebumps. Still, she smiled as she went out into the room filled with beach goers. Many of them seemed too fit, like they were in a film about attractive people meeting on a beach. She felt a little self conscious, and for a moment wished she'd chosen something that covered up more of her bony torso. A bit more looking around revealed some patrons who were of different body and weight types, and she reassured herself she wasn't alone.
“So where do we start?” Arch said.
“We need to find out some basic stuff about this place. Like, cosmologically speaking.”
“That's pretty broad. How are we going to do that?” Graelyn looked around the room.
“Well, lets get some lunch and figure it out from there.” They went up to the counter, walking across the hardwood floor to the bar.
“Hey.” Graelyn tried to say mysteriously.
“What would you guys like?” The man behind the bar said smiling, as he put a straw in a milkshake and handed it off to a girl in a purple one-piece swimsuit. Graelyn tried to flip her pony tail playfully, but just hit herself in the side of the face.
“We're looking for some... Information.” She said with the subtly of Dawn Logo flip flops.
“I'm happy to help! Are you guys from down the beach.”
“Yes.” Arch cut in, “we're from down the beach.”
“Which way? East or West?”
“What if we said North or South?” Graelyn asked. The guy stared at her.
“Never mind... East.” She said. The man nodded knowingly. “So, what's with the big orb in the sky?” Arch winced, expecting the guy to be confused, but instead he looked uncomfortable.
“You must be from pretty far East.”
“Very far East.”
“Look, its... We don't know. It just showed up. I... Never mind, I shouldn't be talking about this. Would you guys like anything to eat?” Graelyn looked up at the menus.
“What on the Hula Burger?”
“Sure, that, and a milkshake. Vanilla.” The guy looked at Arch.
“Er, same, except make the milkshake a dark cherry bomb peppermint swirl with fudge topping.” Graelyn pulled out her card to pay. Kinan had given them it, just like the other Dawn equipment, it was totally unsubtly branded, and was bright orange with a big logo on it. The card had software that would tap into the software of most universe's monetary systems and register a payment. Miranda had dryly recommended keeping transactions small and not trying to buy a battleship. They hadn't answered her when she'd asked what to do if there weren't electronic payments somewhere. The man accepted the card, and it worked without a hitch. Graelyn watched with deep interest as someone behind the counter began pulling out beef patties and cooking them.
“They're not just... printing the burgers?”
“Printing them?” The man asked. Graelyn looked over at Arch.
“They're cooking the burgers Arch.”
“Uh, yes? You saw a woman cooking yesterday.”
“Yeah, but...” she make a broad hand gesture as if trying to express why this felt different inside her, but logically she couldn't see one, just feel it. She couldn't make the words, and just gave up. That was when she heard the voice:
“Graelyn Scythes, I never thought I'd see you in here.” Graelyn turned to see Alice McLeod, her hair not just red, but red like the color of a crayon, standing in a bikini with a group of other swimsuited people behind her. Her bikini was naturally red and black.
“Uh, do you know me?” She replied awkwardly.
“Graelyn Scythes, you know very well that you're the biggest bully on this side of the beach. You think you and your gang can win the tournament tonight, you've got another thing coming. I'll have you know we've been practicing, and the Red Terror is ready to beat you with the power of teamwork!” She gestured grandly as she said this. Graelyn looked at Arch, and then slammed her forehead into the bar.
“You have to be kidding me.”
“Who is this guy you have with you? I haven't seen him around here before.” Beach Alice asked.
“Hi, I'm Archimedes.”
“Look, I think you have me confused with someone else. My name is... Graelyn Koca.”
“Koca?” Arch whispered.
“Long story.” She whispered back.
“Graelyn Koca?” Alice squinted.
“Wait, your hair is black. Are you Graelyn's... Cousin or something?”
“Yes, that's exactly it. I am Graelyn's cousin. From the East.” The whole group behind Alice burst out laughing.
“I'm so sorry! What a wacky misunderstandign! Welcome to our beach. As long as you treat us right, and don't litter, you'll be alright by us!” She gave Graelyn a big thumbs up, which she and Arch nervously returned. “Have you two considered joining the Volleyball Tournament tonight?”
“Not really, no.” Graelyn said.
“Well you should! I'm sure you can find a team before then. See you later!” Alice abruptly left with her entire entourage, and their lunch was placed in front of them at the counter.
“Lets eat this outside.” Arch muttered.
“Yeah, for serious.” Graelyn said. They searched a bit, and found a big tub of beach umbrellas to borrow and Arch jabbed one down into the sand. They spread out a (Dawn branded) towel out on the perfect sand, and ate their lunch, watching the tides roll in and out. A group of children ran into the ocean and began splashing each other. Graelyn stopped mid bite as she recognize Lizzette, and had to hold herself back from running to go say hello. She wouldn't recognize her anyways. Manuel Salazar and his wife were a hundred feet away under another beach umbrella, watching their grandkids.
“There are so many of us, everywhere. So many of everyone.” She mused.
“Not of me.” Arch said. “We've met a few of you, but not many of me.”
“We met you as an Owl.”
“We did, but who else?” Graelyn thought about it. He was right, there hadn't been a version of him they knew of in Songbird's world. Presumably he had to exist in more places than just as an owl? Picking up their trash, Graelyn dumped it in a nearby receptacle (don't litter), and got back under the umbrella.
“So where are you here? And why aren't you in most places.”
“Maybe I never leave the space station. Maybe I just... Stagnate there. Or I die.”
“Don't say that.”
“It seems likely, doesn't it?”
He was right, but she didn't affirm it. The bright blue sky seemed too nice to darken with such clouds.
“Excuse you, but you have no right to be here, imposter!”
Graelyn looked at where the voice was coming from, Arch was pointing already towards it, and Graelyn immediately covered her face with her hands upon seeing the sight.
It was Graelyn Scythes. With purple hair, and a beach ball.
“People told me I'd find you here, Graelyn Koca, if that’s your real name! There is only one Graelyn on this beach, and that is I, the Queen of the Beach!”
“Oh my God why are you talking like that?” Graleyn begged behind her hands.
“Ha! 'Talking like that'. You only wish you could talk like the great Graelyn scythes!” She pointed at Graelyn, and then gestured at herself with her thumb. “You should leave before I truly embarrass you at tonight's volleyball tournament!”
“We're not playing the tournament.” Arch answered as Graelyn gently moaned into her hand.
“Cowards! Ha! Well if you change your minds I shall destroy you. My squad of volleyball players is the best there is.”
“And Alice MacLeod will soon find that her team will have an... Unhappy accident!!! HAHAHAHA!!!!” She continued what was undoubtedly a cartoon character laugh. “So be seeing you, Graelyn Koca... More like Graelyn looser! Good one me.”
“Please go away.”
Beach bully Graelyn kicked sand at them and then walked away, strutting. They sat in silence, dusting the sand off themselves, and then the beach bully returned, as if she was a badly written character who was about to lead in with “and another thing!”
“And another thing! You can tell Alice if you see her that she'll never get that meteor as the prize tonight.
“Meteor?” Graelyn and Arch said in unison.
“Its the prize at tonight's volleyball tournament!” She said as though she was stating a plot detail for the audience. Graelyn squinted at her. There was something weird about her. As beach bully Graelyn threw her arm up again to gesture, it hit her. It was like she was slightly badly animated, even though she was a real person. “See you later, losers!” the bully finished, and strutted off again.
“I might not have a lot of experience with people,” Arch said, “but that didn't seem natural.”
“No, that wasn't. There's something really wrong with this place. Its like everyone is a caricature of themselves.”
“Like we're cardboard cut outs of ourselves.”
“Like we're a badly written fanfiction.”
“Its a story where people write what they want to happen to characters from a story on their own. Like, imagine there is one story that is real, people call that story canon, it comes from religious stuff with the bible-”
“Exactly like that. Tubol-Cain is sort of.... Well, hes apocrypha, but apocrypha is just a fancy word for really important fanfiction. Fanfiction stands outside the narrative, it needs to have a canon story to exist.”
“So what, you're saying that this universe is badly written?” Graelyn lay down, and stretched her feet onto the sand.
“I mean, its a pretty bad way of talking about it, but yeah, basically.” It was at that moment that Alice McLeod ran up to them again.
“Oh gosh, guys, we need your help! It looks like two members of our team ate something bad and got sick, if we don't find two new team members, we're gunna get disqualified from the tournament!” Graelyn let out a long groan and looked up at the orb glinting off the line in the sky. As she stared at it, she began to see faint lines on it, like it was made of crystal. Pushing up her sunglasses and rubbing her eyes Graelyn, Alice held the same facial expression till she was finished. She barely blinked.
“Hey Arch you wanna play some Volleyball for the fate of the universe?” Arch shrugged.
“Sure, I downloaded a program for that.”
“Awesome, its just like cheating.” Alice put her hands on her hips.
“We can't have cheating! Cheating is wrong.”
“Its not cheating, I promise.” Arch said. That seemed to be all he needed to say for her to believe him.
“Its not cheating, that was a bad way of phrasing it...” Graelyn thought back to children's television, and tried to think of what to say. In a voice as montone as Kinan's she finally replied, “Arch just needs the power of teamwork to unlock his true secret talent.”
“I mean, I already downloaded it-”
“Great! The power of teamwork is truly important. I couldn't do anything without my friends.” Alice put her hands on her hips as she smiled. “You should never be afraid to ask for help! You'd be surprised what kind of new friends you can make if you only ask.” Graelyn rolled over and burred her face in the towel.
“I think that's sound advice.” Arch said. Graelyn groaned again.
“Lets go meet your new team!” Alice gestured, and Arch and Graelyn followed (even as Graelyn dragged her feet). The team was, unsurprisingly, the exact same team Alice had in Songbird's world... Mostly. There were a few people Graelyn didn't recognize, like a couple who introduced themselves as Eve and Roxanne. They were very lovey dovey, and Graelyn wondered what version of Alice hung out with them. How did she know them? What were they like when they weren't cardboard cut outs. These people, at the edge of the 10,000 Dawns, they were off, rough sketches of the people she knew. Their most noticeable traits amplified till that was all that was left of them. It made her skin squirm, like it was a worm trying to crawl off of her bones.
But if these people were less than her, it led to a second equally horrible possibility: if there was a real universe, if Kinan was right, and there was a place that spawned all of them from its own possibilities, where those people were fully realized, despite what Kinan said, wasn't she less than them?
The version of her in that reality had to be so much more realized than her, she was probably successful, her motivations deep and layered, her tastes elegant. More realized didn't necessarily mean better... But it had to? That version of her, that real Graelyn, that one who had been born and lived and breathed and ate in that world had to be everything she could have been. Graelyn, this Graelyn that had run away so often, she was her shadow. She tried to strangle the knot in her throat, but it just grew. She felt lightheaded. If she made it through to that “prime universe”, that real universe, she'd pale in comparison to her real self. But that was for the best, maybe. She'd see how she was supposed to be, at her best. She could fill her own sketch in based on the full portrait.
God, she was so inferior. She felt guilty for taking the internship in Atlantis at all. Someone else more qualified could have done it. Kinan could have dropped in a better version of her even. She rubbed her arm uncomfortably.
“Graelyn, are you okay?” Arch asked. Jack was trying to introduce himself to her, after dropping his milkshake in a badly comic fashion (“Jaaaack!” everyone said shaking their head lovingly at his wacky antics), and she was just staring off uncomfortably.
“Oh, sorry. I'm fine. Just thinking about the math of this place. Its good to meet you, Jack.” She shook his hand.
“Alight guys, enough chit chat, lets get some practice in with the new team before the game starts!” Alice spun the volleyball between her fingers, “After all, there is no better way to express your freedom in this world than Volleyball!”
“Yeah!” Her team shouted in unison. Arch joined in. Graelyn raised an eyebrow.
“So, Arch, lets see how your serve is!” She threw him the ball, and he flawlessly calculated when and where to catch it, seamlessly grabbing it out of the air as he walked to the net.
“I've never served before, so lets find out!” As it turned out, having a program made from the moves of the world's greatest volley ball players downloaded into Arch's brain was basically as good as it sounded. His movements on the court were flawless. Graelyn wasn't that great, though she wasn't bad, but it really didn't matter, Arch could probably win their match by himself. This would probably be anti-climactic to the extreme. They ate dinner with their caricature teammates, and after listening to enough jokes written for 4th graders, even Arch seemed to be getting tired of it.
“Send me over that ketchup!” Yi said, and Chantelle held out to her a the bottle and a handful of sand.
“Huh?” Yi said.
“I thought you said “sand it over”!”, the all erupted in laughter, except for Graelyn and Arch.
“When will this beach party nightmare of fun end.” Arch whispered.
“I wish I knew.” Graelyn took a bite of her burger, and as she chewed, looked up at the orb in the sky.
“Hey Alice,” she said after swallowing, “how did that orb get in the sky?” Alice stopped, and looked up, scrunching her brow up in thought. She looked like someone had just asked her why there was a second moon around Earth, and upon looking, there was one. The orb stared down, blue and crystaline in the dark.
“I... I don't know.” She tried hard to focus. “It... It wasn't always there was it?” Graelyn moved in closer.
“When did it arrive? Be as specific as you can.” Alice thought, hard. She might not have ever considered anything this hard in her life.
“It... Arrived when the meteor fell. At the same time the meteor fell.” So they were connected.”
“Did anything else odd happen when the meteor fell?” Alice closed her eyes. Had something been done to prevent her remembering? Or did just no one think here?
“It bounced off the sky!” She said suddenly. Arch's carapace lit up in exlamation and question marks.
“What do you mean it bounced off the sky?” he said. She pointed at the east side of the beach.
“That side. It fell from the orb, and hit the sky, and bounced off and fell down.” Graelyn looked back at Arch.
“Alice, have you ever walked over to the far East on this beach?” She looked confused.
“Why would I do that?”
“Have you walked to the west?”
“Why not the East?”
“You don't walk East.”
“You can't walk East.
“Well, the world ends, silly.” Graelyn rose, her eyes lighting up.
“Arch, this is it, this is what we've been looking for, well probably.” She turned back to Alice, “If we win this tournament, can we have that meteor?”
“Aw, I wanted to keep it, its so pretty.” Yi said.
“It would really help us.” Arch said. “Probably.”
“Oh, well, that's okay than.” Yi said.
Evening had come, and they could all see their opponents coming from the other side of the beach. Beach boys music came echoing out of the hut on the hill.
“Game faces everyone.” Alice said dramatically, “The time of destiny is at hand.” They rose, their back's straight, as Beach Bully Graelyn's team came up to the net.
“Well then, Alice McLoserface, it looks like your team of losers is ready to lose!” Her team laughed behind her.
“Oh yeah? Well I pity you Graelyn Scythes. Your team only sticks with you because you win. We've got the power of friendship.” She scoffed at Alice.
“Yeah right! Like friendship can do anything against my team.” She gestured at herself with her thumb. “Even if you do have my cousin on your team!” She said pointing at the other Graelyn now, apparently having given up on the whole imposter thing fairly quickly.
“Enough! Lets settle this where it should be settled, the place where heroes are made: the volleyball pitch.” Graelyn nodded.
A crowd had gathered, and a man stepped forward, with ribbed abs and a tanned body. It was Manuel Salazar. His hair whipped back in the wind.
“I am your referee today, Referee Salazar.” He winked in the general direction of the audience, and several men and women fainted. “Today's challenge: Alice MacLeod's Red Terror team, versus Graelyn Scythes Galty Gee team. The rules are simple: the team that scores more points in the time limit wins!” He spun the ball flawlessly on one finger while pulling out a coin. “This coin toss will determine who serves first. Heads or tails?”
“Heads!” Beach Graelyn said. Alice stroked her chin, as if she needed to think about this.
“Tails then!” The crowd murmered, as though she'd made a bold choice. Graelyn looked at Arch exasperated. He played a video of a monkey clapping cymbols together on his carapace. She smirked. The coin flew up in the air, and landed tails. The crowd exploded in cheers.
Arch served first, and got an ace, scoring a point with his serve. In fact, he did that every time he got to serve. When anyone on their team missed a bump, he was right there, winding between them to knock it back up. Graelyn was more useful than she anticipated, actually scoring a point by hopping up to spike the ball against her purple haired opposite, who glared at her as she did. But frankly, it was a dramatically anti-climactic game. Beach Bully Graelyn looked like her whole worldview was shattered as Arch utterly shut her out. Her team of buff beach people didn't score a single point the entire game.
“The winners are, The Red Terror!” Manuel said. Beach Bully Graelyn looked horrified, and ran for the prize table, where the meteor sat under a towel, and grabbed it off the table. It was a glowing blue crystal, with white light pouring out from it. Natural faults littered the inside of the crystal. The light pouring out of it lit up the beach, and seemed to seep into their skins.
“Ha! Just because you have friendship and teamwork doesn't mean that you can stop me!”
“Oh no,” Alice said, “what do we do?”
“The meteor is mine despite your “victory”! Now what do you say to that.” Graelyn picked up the volley ball, and handed it to Arch.
“Don't hurt her.” He nodded, and threw the ball with pin point accuracy at Beach Bully Graelyn's hand, knocking the meteor out, which Alice ran to grab.
“Impossible!” Beach Bully Graelyn said, “That can't happen!”
“Your reign is at an end Graelyn Scythes!” Alice said. “This beach is ours!” The crowd cheered, and Graelyn kicked up some sand, storming off into the darkness. Alice turned back to them.
“How can I ever thank you.”
“Give us the meteor?” Graelyn said, and she handed it over. It was cool in Graelyn's touch, but it made her feel warm holding it. It was the size of a softball, and now that it was close up, Graelyn recognised the material.
“This is like the crystal the Bifrost is made of.” She told Arch. He nodded, and displayed it on his skin for reference. Graelyn held the orb up next to the one in the sky, like a second moon. It looked very similar.
“Lets get changed Arch, its time to go to the end of the world.”
They changed back into their usual clothes, Arch in his hat an coat, Graelyn in her skirt and jacket, and made their way to the east, holding the orb out in front of them. Its partner in the sky seemed to shine brighter as they walked, and the real cyllander moon continued its turn around the rod of the Earth, the celestial bodies shifting in their natural order. The orb cut through the shadows, till Graelyn ran into the sky.
“OW.” She yelped, rubbing her nose. She held up a han to the air, and felt a solid surface there. Arch did the same, running his hands along the nothing. It looked like there was something there though, the world looked like it went on forever, but you simply could walk no further. They ran their hands along the air, looking for something odd, before doing the obvious.
“Well,” Graelyn said, looking down at the orb, “if we're lucky this is a key.”
“And if we're unlucky?” Arch asked. Graelyn just shrugged, and holding the orb carefully, pressed it into the sky.
The air rippled around the orb, and light rippled out of it to, forming a white disk on the wall of air. Graelyn looked at Arch, and let out a breath.
“Behind that is the real universe. Or at lest our way to the real universe.” Arch nodded.
“There's not going back when we do this.” She looked at the portal, and held her hand behind her.
“I'm ready when you are.” She felt his cold fingers grasp hers. She closed her eyes, then changed her mind and opened them, walking into the white.
There was no gut wrenching, she just stepped forward into a sea of stars, a crystal roa beneath her feet, leading to a broad desk where a figure in hooded robes rose to their presence.
The stars shone like heaven.
The crystal sung beneath her feet. Her jaw dropped.
An infinite spectrum of universes circled around them. Possibilities incalculable and endless. Tears and laughter in every light, trillions of lifetimes twinkling in the dark. It was unfathomable. It was impossible. It was majestic.
“Shit.” The figure at the desk said.
Come back next week before Christmas for a super amazing, super long, super intense chapter of 10kd! You WON'T wanna miss it!