Welcome back to Lil' Doctor Who! This is the second time we've featured this comic here. It was made by Annie Zhu (who does the 10,000 Dawns art, aka Cazdinal) and Saintoswald, and features tiny versions of Clara and the Doctor having adventures! You guys loved the last one, so has a compliment to the new Christmas Episode of Doctor Who (and as a Christmas treat!) Here is a sequel! I hope you guys enjoy! You can find more of Annie's awesome art at: http://cardinalcapalditumblr.com -Jim
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Winter Solstice, Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy Holidays in general to all our readers! We're so happy to have you on this ride. May you all stay safe and happy this season.
Love from all of us at 10,000 Dawns!
Written by James Wylder
Art by Rachel Johnson
Christmas Special: A Christmas Meh Raconteur
Shona ducked back down behind the chunks of concrete she was using as cover just as a round of bullets went right where her head had been. That was close. Looking down, Shona saw a bag of cheese curls, and using her combat knife to open it, stuffed a handful in her mouth before ducking back up to pepper their opponents with fire.
“You know, Shona, that's really gross.” Shona ducked back down, looking at Chantelle, cheese curls hanging out of her mouth. She chewed and mostly swallowed.
“Oh my God, those cheese things. They have to be stale.”
“They're not super stale. Just sorta stale.” Shona shoved another fistful in her mouth, before reloading, and popping up to fire again. Chantelle didn't pop up to fire again, she just stared at Shona, a sour look on her face. Jack came barreling towards them, crouched.
“Chantelle, we have to keep up the fire.”
“Sorry Jack, just uhhh.” She pointed at Shona. He looked at the bag, and looked up at her.
“Gross. Shona, stop trying to get an infection.” Shona looked at him, mouth once again full of puffs. Jack cursed and grabbed the bag (“noo!!”) and chucked it over the side, where it got shot into bits. Shone watched sadly as the exploded stale snack food rained down as orange dust. “Songbird will be flying in momentarily, we just have to keep them occupied till then.” Jack said, then popped up, firing at the edge of the enemy hold out, just in time to see someone change their mind about trying to slip out. As this happened, Songbird shot across the sky, dodging fire and rockets, and slipped down to land seamlessly next to Jack.
“What's the status?” Her modulated voice said from the suit.
“We've got the Centro sympathizers penned in. There's no way out at this point.” She nodded.
“So we're rushing them or waiting it out.”
“Maybe we could get Trevon to blow a hole in their fortification, that might force their hand to fight or surrender.” Chantelle suggested. Songbird nodded again.
“That's a good idea. He'll need lots of covering fire though.”
“Yi will be back with more ammo soon.” Jack said, “Gerald is up on that mound with a sniper rifle, when she's back we should be more than ready. Songbird's armor slid up over her face, revealing the Alice beneath.
“Well then, I guess its time to wait.” Naturally, their foes chose this moment to open fire again. And in unison, Shona and Jack popped up to fire, ducked down, and Chantelle popped up to fire again.
“Hey, hey do you think if we were dinosaurs we'd be like, really small ones? Like I can't imagine being a really big dinosaur can you?"
“Shona we're trying to kill people." Alice said.
“Wait though, like do you think we'd be herbivores or carnivores?” Jack said. Alice shook her head. Shona rubbed her chin.
“Well, humans are omnivores.” Something exploded.
“But what dinosaurs were omnivores? Like, I get the feeling they were the tiny ones.”
“Like, the size of a dog?” Jack asked.
“So you could kick them?” Shona said as she unloaded at the encampment. Someone cried out in pain, hit.
“Whoa, I would not kick a dog.”
“But what about like, a dinosaur sized dog?”
“Shona, Jack! We are literally shooting people right now!” Alice yelled. Yi and Trevon arrived, and Yi passed out the new ammo.
“I'm out of 9mm, did you bring any?” Chantelle asked.
“Sorry, I didn't, but you can have some of mine!” Yi said cheerily. Looking at his watch, Jack sighed.
“This is gunna be a siege isn't it. We're waiting them out. I just want to get home before Christmas.”
Alice paused, “I forgot it was Christmas soon.”
“Well you already celebrated the Solstice, I'd expect you'd forget.”
“It's more like I've been so focused rooting out these insurgents I nearly forgot my own holiday till Shona asked when the party was.” All eyes turned to Shona, who was firing again. She looked back, finally, like a deer in headlights.
“What I like parties? Well, small parties. Well, I like buffet tables and those coolers with free drinks in them. Well-”
“Okay anyways, we're gunna be here a while. How should we pass the time?”
Chantelle tapped her cheek, and then replied, “Story time. Lets just all tell something about ourselves, not about the war, something else. Get Gerald down here to.”
“Sounds good to me.” Yi said. Alice nodded.
“Works for me, someone go get Gerald.” Jack grumbled, like someone had volunteered him, as went ahead and moved to go get Gerald. When they returned, Alice asked, “Okay then, who will start?”
“I've got a story,” Yi said, “Not too exciting, but well, its a story.”
“When I was nine, my mother got on this weird 'from the Earth' food kick. You know, she was one of those people who wouldn't eat anything that was printed or vat grown, even though it was healthier than the 'natural' stuff. So we had to sit through all these days of going to the farmers market, and picking out food to eat. Which wasn't so bad, the farmers themselves were pretty nice, even if the food wasn't always great, and it was annoying we couldn't always just pick out whatever we wanted and print it out. But I digress. So, long story short, my mom started packing my lunches. Now this was a very confusing thing for the Centro Schools, as no one had brought their own lunch in that district in over a hundred years. But there I was taking out an apple, and a peanut butter and jam sandwich, and all the kids just staring at me. The principle actually took me into his office and awkwardly and redfacedly tried to give me a lecture about my wrongdoings, while also making it totally clear he had no idea why he was, in fact, angry. They sent a letter home to my parents, who sent back a picture of their Gold-Level Centro Citizenship, which proved they had more cash than the principle, and he had to back down. So I got to keep eating my lunch, and even though it didn't taste as good and was mighty inconvenient, guess what? All the rich kids started bringing their lunches. Suddenly, the farmers market was filled with my classmates parents, who had to shop there for social standing reasons. Some of them bought food there, and then printed what they wanted and boxed it up at home pretending it was what they'd gotten at the market. When it became popular, my mom lost interest, and I went back to getting school lunch in a much shorter lunch line.”
They all laughed, and they heard some gunfire from the enclosure, which seemed a bit confuse they weren't shooting back.
“I'll go next.” Jack ventured.
“Okay, Alice has heard this story, but its a good one. I used to have a job hover-biking handmade stained glass between this guy's art studio, and a church that was being renovated. It was tough, not everyone is good enough at flying to get the job done quickly without damaging or breaking the glass. I was, so for a brief time it was pretty good pay. One day though, things went wrong. Like a lot of couriers, I kept the engine running. I was in a hurry, and there was just no point turning it off, especially since the bikes were all insured and protected by a mob-run company that rented them out just for that purpose. They took a cut of the check, but if anyone took your bike or your product, they'd never see the light of day again. Most of us considered it a fair trade off, if kind of creepy and brutal. Thing is, all the bikes looked the same. So one day, some guy parks his bike by me, and I rush in to get the plates, put them on the bike, and then get called in for something else, I don't remember what else. I come back out, and there is only one bike, engine running. So I hop on, and drive to the church. I open up the crate when I get there to see that nothing is busted, and well, there was a puppy with a bow on it's head and a tag that said “For my lovely daughter, Annabelle”.”
“Wait- did you say a puppy?” Shona cut in.
“Let him finish!” Alice said.
“It was a cute lil thing, and I realized what had happened, so I called the company and told them what happened. The guy on the phone told me to drive to this big sky scraper, which I did, and take the package up to the top floor. I was very out of place there, it was very... Posh. Lo and behold, on the top floor was the head of the mafia corporation, yelling at the other courier with my box of glass plates on the table. I politely gave him is box, and he thanked me, gave me a tip, and told me to never speak of this to anyone. Naturally I told Alice ten minutes later, but still, that’s the time I accidentally delivered a puppy to a mob boss.”
Everyone was a bit slack jawed, which allowed Alice to give a small lecture on how the Mafia had become a subsidiarity of Centro systems like everything else, which was pretty weird come to think of it.
“I've got one.” Trevon said. “Nothing like that, though.”
“When I was a teenager, there was this boy I was all about. He had that real kind of manly stubble, though in hindsight that was basically as far as he could grow it out without looking weird. So, there was this big dance coming up, and I decided to invite him. But, I was pretty shy, so I decided the only way I could make sure he noticed me was to make it a big event. I set the whole thing up, I got my friends to set up this big thing where they'd come marching around where he always left the school to go get lunch, and they'd break out in this big dance routine, and unfurl a banner that said “Will you go to the Winter Ball with me?” While I stepped out from behind a tree with flowers. All set, good to go. We even did a dress rehersal at night. That's when it all went to heck.
We get there, we set up, and he comes out, and bumps into another guy, someone I'd never seen before. Turns out he was from another school there for a swim meet. They start talking. They keep talking. We're all set up, waiting, and they start flirting, laughing. They lightly touch each other. Their eyes are glittering, and he turns around with the guy and goes back into the school. My friends and I are just standing there dumbstruck. So, I'm near tears, everyone's confused, and then this other kid, I don't know him, comes out of the school and my friends are just like, “Whatever, we're doing this, we're here, why not.” So they jump out in front of this guy, do their dance routine, and I step out with flowers, and the kid is so confused, but he takes the flowers, and that folks is how I met my husband.”
“You're kidding.” Yi said.
“Nope.” Trevon said, “I've got it on hologram to. Its something to see.”
“That's amazing, Tre.” Alice said, smiling.
“I guess I can go next?” Gerald said. Another explosion. Someone yelled something from the building. More gun fire, this time sporadic, unfocused.
“My dad was a cook. You have to be really stellar to be a cook, you have to be able to offer something on par with a machine that can replicate the best chef's in history by programming. So the guy had a lot of pressure. My dad was cooking for some hotshot lawyer, not really a big deal, but thought he was, and the guy was backseat cooking. In the end, the food my dad made while following the guy's instructions was terrible, but he had to serve it. Still, if he served it, he'd be blacklisted, no one would want to hire him again. But if he didn't serve it, same thing. So he came up with a plan. I went out into the room where the guests were, and served them up wine. When I stopped by each guest, I asked, “Since its such a rare delicacy, are you aware of the proper wait to eat Rathi stew?”
“Why of course!” Every guest would answer, insulted.
“Oh good. We just want to make sure. Only the most refined palates can enjoy the taste of it, and we knew that eating it the improper way ruins the subtle flavor. Of course, you would know.” They'd of course get to be angry at the nerve of us, but when the time came for the terrible over salted under spiced food to be served, they were all ecstatic. Several asked to thank the chef personally. It was a good day.”
There was once again laughter, this time punctuated with an awkward silence from the compound.
“My turn.” Alice said.
“I'll keep mine short. Once, in high school, I tried to dye my hair a deeper red. Like, revolutionary red. Unfortunately, I didn't know about how chlorine could affect hair dye, and we had manditory swimming lessons that week. So I went into school with hair as red as the flag of Mars, and came out with bright green hair. Until I dyed my hair back, I actually told everyone I had dyed it green to show my support for the environment, trying to make it look like I hadn't just radically messed up. I ended up being forced to join a march for environmental regulations, which I totally supported, but I didn't know enough about to actually fit in at, so I just stayed quiet there an tried not to get noticed. Naturally, a reporter tried to interview me, and on the news I went, green hair and all, with the amazing statement,
“I love the environment, and we should do things to make things better, and stuff.”
Which was actually my verbatim quote, gods help me.”
More laughter. A few puzzled shots from the compound.
“I've got a good one.” Chantelle said.
“I used to paint, a lot. Not because I was good at it, but because I liked it. I'm not an artist like Annie, I'm just a hobbyist. I can't even paint people well. In fact, usually, I painted the same thing. There was a river by where I grew up, and it had a bend in it. I used to sit on a hill overlooking it, and paint the bend. I'd paint it in different seasons, on different days, in different weather. It wasn't the only thing I painted, but I painted it a lot. There I would sit, a hat on my head, watching the weather change the world, and the only thing that didn't change was the old woman. Every day she would arrive at 10 AM, and start knitting. She'd eat lunch at noon, and then keep knitting till 4PM, when she'd take what she'd finished, and hang it on a tree. I would always wait for her to leave, and then see what she knitted. It always varied. Sometimes it was baby blankets, sometimes it was tiny sweaters or socks. They were never there in the morning. So I waited one night, and just stayed to watch. A woman came, took what was hung on the tree, and left. The next day, the woman came back, so I asked her why she knitted these things. What she told me amazed me.
'When I was growing up, people thought I was a boy. Luckily, I got the money for the surgery and replacement organs to remedy that. When I got pregnant with my first child with my husband, oh, it was a joyous time for me. But my family, well, they were jerks. They had essentially disowned me at that point, and even though I had all the things I needed for my children, my siblings got hand knitted garments from my mother, but I didn't. I hated that. After Johnny passed away, I had a lot of time on my hands, and I realized I could do that for other people. I could be the grandma for people's children, whose grandmother's didn't want them. So every day I come here and knit something, and there's an online group who chooses who gets what. I'm just glad I can give a baby a hand knitted blanket.'
I thought she was wonderful, and gave her one of my paintings. We even started eating lunch together. Still, one day she passed away, and the knitting stopped. It stopped for two days. On the third, a woman and a man came together, and each started knitting. They hung their work up on the tree at the end of the day, and came back the next morning. I gave them each a painting. Soon, others came. I gave them a painting to. Eventually, people who didn't even know the old woman came, and I gave them paintings to. I didn't stay there forever though. I moved on, and someone else took up painting the river. Now, its called the Riverbend Club, and they've started a home for homeless mothers and fathers. Every member gets a painting of the Riverbend. Not all of them know why anymore. But that's how it goes, our stories go on without us.”
“That's amazing.” Alice said, in wonder, “What an amazing woman, what an amazing group.”
“They really are.” Shona agreed.
“Why don't you go next Shona?” Alice asked.
“Oh, I don't think I can follow that up.”
“Give it a try Shona!” Yi encouraged. She smiled, and had a go.
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a young woman rode her dinosaur over the prairie. Suddenly- there was movement. Her dino-mount turned its head at let out a roar to note the Halzi clan was coming over the blue grassed hill.
'Halt strangers.' The woman said, 'Where do you come from?'
'We bring word from King Punelia, the Last Ordinance has been obtained.'
The woman narrowed her eyes, this was worse than she thought.”
“Shona, we're telling non-fiction stories.”
“Oh. Sorry.” She thought for a moment, and her face soured, but she began to speak.
“The last day I spent with my dog was the best day I spent with my dog. He was old. We used to run in the park together, but his heart couldn't take it anymore. He'd lived far longer than a dog should live, and had all sorts of treatments, but there is just a time, you know? We had to carry him to move him poor guy was in so much pain. It was Christmas Eve when we put him down. We spoiled him that day, and he lay with his head on my lap, and I stroked his head. He got to eat all sorts of tasty treats, an open his Christmas presents early. After we got out of the clinic, I cried by a tree for twenty minutes, but then I stopped, and looked up at the stars. I thought about those stars, some of them were actually planets, and people had dogs on them to. There were parks with people an lives in them, and they were living their lives. My dog Charlie had been a good boy, and I'd loved him, but he loved life, and living life was what I should do. Even when it looks silly, life life. Even when people make fun of you for it, as long as no one is hurt, enjoy yourself. I know it sounds silly, cause it was a dog and not a person, but I really felt that. I still feel it. I looked up in the sky and saw life in the starlight, and my dog was somewhere up there, and I went home and enjoyed my Christmas.”
Chantelle smiled, and put a hand on Shona's shoulder. She smiled back.
“Hey, you, World Revolutionary Council Army?” A voice yelled. Cautiously, they popped their eyes over the side. “Look, we know you're planning something, you haven't been firing back, so we'd like to surrender if its all the same to you?”
“Sounds great!” Alice yelled back. “Lay down your arms, and Merry Christmas.”
“And a Happy New Year.” Jack added.
As the enemies filed out, the squad led them back to the base for processing, and giving each other hugs, went their separate ways for Christmas. They went home to families, loved ones, and sometimes each other. But the stories stuck with them, and when they met again, their hearts were filled with starlight.
Author's Note: So, we actually have a pretty exciting announcement here today in the Author's note, and its one that should help a lot of you guys read the story in your own way. Rather than just having every chapter as its own blog post we're going to allow you to download each chapter, starting this week, as its own PDF file! This means if you want to pop the chapter on you ereader, phone, or tablet for on the go reading, or if you're going somewhere without internet, you can take your 10kd with you anywhere. All the chapters before Chapter 19, this week's, have been compiled into one big document that you can download in the "Read Every Chapter Archive!" which will get expanded on as we go. The Bonus stories are now all their own document to download to! Feel free to download them and spread them around. This is a free story, so please, read at your leisure, and help others to :).
Tomorrow is Christmas, and not only do we wish all of you readers a wonderful and joyous holiday season, but we have a special present for you! Come back here tomorrow to find it.
Also, Annie Zhu has been working so hard making the art for this story, so please go to her Tumblr at cardinalcapaldi.tumblr.com and send her some love, she really deserves it! Personally, i think this week's art is the best she's done yet. But without further adieu, Chapter 19... Its gunna be a wild ride!
PS: see you tomorrow ;)!
Art by Annie Zhu, Story by James Wylder
All chapters are also available as an audio podcast from the Southgate Media Group.
You can also subscribe to the podcast version on iTunes and your RSS feed easily from libsyn:
If you're new to 10kd, you can read the story from the start for free below:
Chapter 19: A Crystal Road
Imagine for a moment, that you are Graelyn Scythes. You are a girl. No, you're a woman. No, you can't make your mind up which label suits you better. Your skin should be more sunbaked than it is, but its not. You've been trying to figure that out in the back of your head this whole time: there must be something different about light, or the way it interacts with things in the world you were just in. But that's been pushed out of your brain by whats in front of you. There is a figure at a desk in strange robes, writing. The desk is broad and dark, formed of a deep and sullen wood. The figure rises slightly at your presence. Your foot touches down-- and there is a note! You recognize the note. It is an “A” on the treble clef, the one you get to first from the bottom of the staff. The slab of faintly glowing crystal filled with sand beneath your foot made that note, like a piano key. You learned piano as as child. You want nothing more than to be an adult. You want nothing more than to be a child. You played that note with Lizette, her tiny fingers learning the notes you did so long ago. You worry you poisoned her.
But this whole road you're on is crystal, and you will be walking it. Behind you steps Arch, your friend. You barely knew him before this journey, and now he's just always there. Strange. You look up. Your jaw drops. You feel the cool air in your mouth, giving a taste to go with the awe you feel inside you. Good God, look at the stars! They aren't even stars though. You try to take in the magnitude of it all. You try. You've seen this before, but it was different then. You were with an army, with Kinan, your mind was elsewhere. Now you can really see it, really see it. Its glorious. Your thin fingers want to reach out for each star, each world, each dimension.
The stars spin around you. Your crystal road lights up, lights a path to the world of the gods in mythology. Bifrost is right, it is apt, you see it now. You're behind the curtain, behind the world. It clicks. The majesty descends on you, and you feel small, but not in the way you usually do.
“Shit” says the man behind the desk.
The magic is suddenly and utterly broken for you. You stop being you. You're just the reader again, sorry. You return in front of the words, where you are, where you were. But you were Graelyn for a moment, I hope you briefly enjoyed the guided tour.
“Hello.” Graelyn says, as you externally observe her again.
“How did you get back here?” The figure at the desk says, rising to its full height.
“I stepped through the looking glass.” Graelyn says, and the present tense starts to fade. You were part of this, but less and less now. You're just reading a book again, which is in itself a pretty good thing.
“I'm warning you,” he says, “you need to leave immediately. All of you.” It knows we're here, shh, stay quiet.
“All of you is odd to say for two visitors.” The figure is silent for a moment, it leans down and scrawls something down.
“By order of the Firmament, I'm ending this.”
“We're trying to get home.” Arch cuts in. “I don't know who the Firmament is-”
“Pathetic. But the fact that you got in here is astonishing. Are you of sound mind?” It asks. They look at each other, and shrug. The stars are plenty.
“I assume so.”
“Puzzling. Regardless, your adventure has gone on long enough.” It sits back down. It scrawls. Its ink is the color of blue when you dream. Graelyn walks down the path, the notes echoing in eternities, Arch clomps behind her. It finishes defining the firmament above our sky on paper. Graelyn opens her mouth to speak.
Graelyn opened her mouth to speak.
The universes go black, and the Crystal road carries you no more, your eyes scarred only by a blue scrawl that floats off into the blackness of a void.
Perhaps it could be something like a dream, but you felt your foot make an “A” on the treble clef.
The sheets were warm, and she didn't want to leave them, but the voice at the edge of her consciousness kept calling. Then the cat walked over her.
“Graelyn! Breakfast is ready.”
“Coming mom!” She said, suddenly jerking to attention. Mister Sprinkles took that time to sit down on her head. She carefully lifted him off, and set him down as he meowed at her.
“Shh, I've got to get dressed before mom gets impatient.” She hurriedly got herself ready, removing her PJ's and slipping on her underclothes and skirt, buttoning her shirt so fast she missed one at first, loosely putting her tie around her neck, and searching for her cat pin... Where was it? It was nowhere on her vanity, and she lightly cursed as she gave up and grabbed another pin, which she didn't remember having, of a giraffe. Sure, why not. Graelyn hurried out of her room, slipping her shoes on and grabbing her bag in case she needed to make a quick exit. As she made her way down the stairs she nearly knocked over Treanna, who was carrying a cup of tea.
“Graelyn, what's the rush?” She looked down at her. “You know we're not leaving for the Zoo for a few hours yet right?” Graelyn was speechless, she just stared at her. “You alright, lil sis?” She nodded dumbly. “Okay great, well, Dad made waffles again so try to pretend like you're excited.” Dad? Made waffles? She held onto the railing as she made her way down to the dining room where her mother, older sister Xandra, and older brother Alexy were seated, with her dad rushing back and forth from the kitchen dropping different items like glasses of milk, cups of tea, and waffles on the table. They were all smiling, well except Alexy who was busy looking at something on his tablet. Xandra waved at her as she stared, looking at her quizzically.
“Morning.” She managed to respond.
“Is something wrong? You look pale.” What was this? She... It occurred to her that this was wrong. Her father had moved to Annapolis Maryland after he'd divorced her mother, along with Alexy and Treanna. Xandra had run away from home. Graelyn and her mother had lived alone together after that. Then she'd gone to Atlantis. Then she'd ended up in Songbird's world... And... Had that all been a dream? Some kind of nightmare? She set her bag down, and sat the table, still dumbfounded.
“Graelyn?” She snapped back to reality, or whatever this was.
“I'm, I'm fine, just... Had a bad dream.” Her mother reached out to put a hand on her shoulder, and Graelyn flinched, pulling her body in tight to avoid the blow.
No blow came.
“Graelyn are you sure you're okay? We can put off the trip to the zoo you know. You're more important to us than a little trip.” Her dad said. Graelyn was about to respond, when another voice came in.
“Dad I don't want to miss the zoo today!” Her little brother Petyr said. Graelyn heard the voice, and turned, and he was there. His light red hair was shiny in the early light. He had a big blotch of freckles right over his nose and cheeks that didn't travel over the rest of his face. He was rubbing is left eye and yawning. He was perfect, and Graelyn knocked over her chair as she scampered over to him, wrapping her arms around him tightly.
“Petyr... Petyr you're here, you're really here. I can't believe it.” She held back the tears she wanted to cry, not wanting to look weak in front of her mother, but still hugged him tighter. “Oh Petyr. I can't believe this. You're really here!” She repeated.
“Uhhh, yes?” He rasped through her hug. She kissed him on the cheek, and let him go, keeping him at arm's length as he stared at her in confusion. She stared at him in wonder, and ruffled his soft red hair.
“Hey.” She said lovingly.
“Hey?” He replied. Overwhelmed with emotion, she took him in her arms again.
“Graelyn, are you sure you're okay?”
“You're also blocking my way down the stairs.” Treanna noted.
“Sorry.” Graelyn said, getting up, and trying to look non-concerted. “Sorry, it was just a really weird bad dream.”
“Jesus, how bad could it be.” Xandra said.
“Language Xandra!” Her mother said. Graelyn expected to hear an undertone of malice there, but instead Xanra just rolled her eyes, “We're all adults here mom.” Xandra hadn't dyed her hair. It was still red, like her mother's.
“Graelyn and Petyr aren't.” Xandra waved her off, and Graelyn awkwardly took her seat back at the table, letting her father put a waffle on her plate. He finally sat down, and her mother held out a hand to her. Not entirely sure what to do, Graelyn gave her a low-five. Then, as her mother became quizzical, she noticed everyone else was joining hands. Oh. Blushing, she took her mothers hand, and tried to hold back the shivers running through her body as she did so. On her left though, Petyr took her hand, and she felt euphoric. The two feelings clashed inside her.
“Let us pray.” Her dad said. Pray? Graelyn tried to remember the last time she had prayed.
Then she remembered the last time she had prayed, and it took all her focus to not bolt up from the table.
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name...” the table began in unison. Graelyn couldn't make herself form the words, she tried, she really tried, but she couldn't make them come. She waited it out, till her mother and Petyr squeezed her hands and let go, and the table said an “Amen.”
“Dig in, I don't want to buy any of you expensive Zoo food.” Her dad joked. It wasn't actually funny, but Graelyn found herself joining in the chuckle.
“Morning, Archimedes. I hope you slept well.” The computer said.
“Thanks, WeN-D.” Arch replied, groggy for only a moment before the mechanical parts of his body pumped the organic parts of him full of the chemicals he needed to wake up. Fully conscious, he got off of the form fitted slab that was his bed, and began to go about his day on the station. Outside his door, his sister Artemis was sucking up a packet of nutrient paste, while his mom was busy getting ready to go tend to the hydroponic gardens. “Good morning Archimedes.” His father Apollo said, his carapace lighting up with friendly symbols in his general direction.
“Hey Arch” said Artemis, throwing up a caricature of Arch bumbling about a room on hers.
“Artemis, really?” Aphrodite, his mother, cut in.
“Get a packet of paste from the dispenser, today is going to be a visiting day so we all need to be at our best strength. You might want to polish your carapace.” They all of course had identical carapaces, that was one of the whole points of their society. After Earth died in the nuclear Apocalypse due to divisions in humanity, removing barriers between people like specific cultures was the next logical step to prevent it happening again. And visiting day was important, it was when the ambassador from the survivors of Earth came to visit with new supplies he'd scavenged. It was always a good day when Manuel Salazar was around.
Thinking the name stopped him cold. He looked down at his mechanical hand, and flexed the fingers in and out. He looked at his sister, sitting there, sipping her paste.
He saw her lifeless body floating out in space, along with his mother and father's. He saw the hull rupturing, those two women who had come on board and ruined his life that day... But he had been so young and naive those months ago. He saw Manuel Salazar in his mind’s eye, and he knew who was at the heart of all of this. His sister, outside of his eye, angled the paste packet trying to get the last morsel out.
“I've never been so excited.” Archimedes said. He wasn't even lying. Both of his parent’s carapace's lit up in fireworks.
“It is an exciting day Arch, he's been gone a long time this time. I wonder what he brought back this time?” Arch didn't know, he didn't care, as long as Manuel Salazar was aboard that ship. Arch filled up a packet of paste from the dispenser, and drank it down. He then got into the hygienics machine, and allowed it to clean and repair his carapace to the best of its ability. He stayed focused. Then it occurred to him, obviously, while he was in the cyborg equivalent of a shower of all things, that this didn't make a lick of sense. The machine removed his plating, unscrewing it, and cleaning his skin down to the pores, and cleaning, replacing, fixing, polishing, and oiling his mechanical parts. The machine got to work fixing some internal damage left over from where Chrometeeth had reached inside him and gripped.
That was the hole here, wasn't it? He's seen his family die. He'd met Manuel before. He'd been to other realities, and this was not his own reality. This couldn't be a dream, he checked his internal status and that clearly told him if he was dreaming or awake, which was probably annoying for people trying to write stories about trying to tell if you were sleeping or dreaming, but which was very convenient for him. His memory was video, and he could see it all. He could literally pull up the files of the past. He saw his family die. He saw Ares push him into the ocean from that vtol. He saw Graelyn's face as she woke him up. Saw her look of shock as he grabbed onto a rocket and flew out the side of a building. Saw Alice's face as they had talked. Saw himself as an owl, of all things. No, There was something that wasn't right here, and it wasn't his memory.
Graelyn watched the giraffe eat some leaves off of a tree, its jaw working back and forth to grind the greenery up before swallowing it. Petyr was watching it enthusiastically, and she smiled down at him. He wouldn't be shorter than her for long, she realized. How odd that was. He had, in so many ways, stayed the same height for so long for her...
"Hey you creep stop looking at my sister!" Petyr was no longer looking at the animals, but looking at a man standing nearby, his eyes fixed on Graelyn, a camera lens lowering. Graelyn turned to look at him, and felt her own hands on this railing, but not her hands. She saw he had a black bag, so professional camera equipment. No one bothered carrying that stuff around unless they were very serious anymore. She met his gaze, and he turned and fled.
"What was that all about?" Petyr said. Graelyn realized, and ran after him. "Graelyn wait!" But she was already gone. The man wasn't particularly skilled at getting away or hiding, so she quickly caught him, grabbing him by the upper arm as he tried to run. Realizing he was caught, he stopped. The chase had been brief, and Graelyn realized how much more athletic she felt after all her adventures. She had, in all honesty, never exercised in her life of her own choice. She did well in gym in school, but only because she wanted an A+. Now she could run down a grown man. Maybe it was just because he wasn't athletic, but... She'd been away from home for some time now. Sure, most of that time had actually been spent in jail, but she wasn't going to count that against herself.
"Why are you taking pictures of me?" She didn't let go of his arm. Where was this coming from inside her?
"Look, I don't want any trouble."
"You're the one taking pictures of a teenage girl and running away." She felt strange, wrong, why wasn't she running?
"I'm Igor Andropov, I'm a photographer for Centro Media Moscow."
"I thought you looked like someone I took pictures of yesterday." Graelyn tightened her hand. She felt stronger than she should. She scowled.
"Well clearly you're mistaken."
"I should just go..."
"Show me the pictures."
"You don't want to see them."
"They're of a girl who died on the metro last night. A maglev train derailed, seventeen people died. Among them was a girl. The body was nowhere to be found an hour later." Graelyn's grip loosened. Her scowl faded. It sunk in.
"Was her name Graelyn Scythes?"
“They are literally replaceable. As in, we've replaced people before.” Johnathan had said.
"Yes." Graelyn let go, and tried to keep her footing on the pavement. A smiling concrete elephant for children to climb on made eyes at her. She stumbled.
She was dead.
That hadn't been a nightmare.
She was her own stand in.
She felt her hands on the railing by the giraffe, and saw herself looking down at a younger Petyr.
"We'll come back here again when you're feeling better."
"Promise." She saw him weakly smile from his wheelchair. The photographer was saying something but she couldn't hear him. She could feel herself, this self, she was cold. She felt herself lurch over, and the pancakes come up her throat. Falling to her knees she retched on the ground. She felt a hand on her shoulder.
"Are you okay?" She spat out the vomit from her mouth, and wiped her mouth on her sleeve.
"I want to see the pictures." She said weakly.
"I don't think that's-"
"Show me the damn pictures!" She yelled, grabbing his wrist. He slowly nodded, and she let go, breathing hard. He pulled out a tablet, opened something up on it, and handed it to her.
"Its pretty gruesome." She didn't care. She looked at the first picture: It was a young woman, 17, a piece of rebar going through her neck and up through the base of her skull. Her glasses were askew, as if she was just about to fix them, but they somehow hadn't fallen off her head. One of her legs had been crushed by falling debris. Blood had soaked through her white shirt from an unseen injury in her abdoman.
She'd been sitting on the train. She could feel herself there, right now, the rumbling beneath her, the passing city scape through the window. Then there was a snapping sound, and she dropped what she was holding (a tablet) as the floor of the train become a 45 degree slope. She felt herself fly through the air and-- well, you can guess the rest. Graelyn held her neck, and handed the tablet back to the man.
"Was she your sister?" He whispered.
"Graelyn where are you?" Petyr yelled. She looked the man in the eyes, and finally, she felt like herself, and the instinct she'd been longing for took over. She ran.
The whole of Ahnerabe Station had come out for Manuel's visit. After all, they always did. There were a few who were manning essential systems, of course, but there were no volunteers for those jobs today. They stood together in the greeting room, and waited for the shuttle to dock, watching it on the viewscreen together. For the first time in a long time, Arch felt at home. Here were the people he'd grown up with, people who kept their skin covered, who removed their excess body parts. He felt no embarrassment here with them, no awkwardness at looking at someone else's skin. The temple to the Olympian Gods was still here, he'd checked on the way over. Oracle Hermia and Priestess Nike had been busy arguing over what sort of offering to make for Manuel's arrival, as usual. Their bickering had annoyed him so much as a child, but now he stood outside the temple door and listened to their petty argument. The evidence was overwhelming that this was not his home, he knew this had to be an alternate reality he'd been placed into, probably by that figure at the desk, somehow. No one could tell him it was a dream, because his records were too precise. No one would fool him, he'd already been fooled his whole life. But still, it felt like home.
* * * *
When Arch had been a child, he had been there for the first visit of Manuel Salazar to their station. He'd shown up, out of the blue, broadcasting on an emergency communications channel for help. Oh how surprised they'd been. They'd gone their whole lives thinking that they were all that was left of humanity, and then he'd shown up in his ratty spacesuit, tears streaming from his eyes, saying he'd been searching for any other survivors. They all knew the story of the war, how humanity had failed, had turned the Earth into a nuclear wasteland. How they had been the only ones who saw it coming and had fled to Ahnerabe station. The Earth, and its colonies had all been nuked, and the signals had died off. Manuel came as the ambassador of the last survivors of that great planet, who had survived the blast in a giant bunker. There were very few of them, but he promised to bring them things they needed and to come and visit. He brought holograms from the other survivors, sickly looking people who waved cheerfully at the camera, and the people of Ahnerabe knew they were the chosen ones. Earth was unsafe to traverse, and they needed to stay onboard. And so they did. They waited.
But in hindsight, there were so many incongruities. They couldn't have all the spare parts to keep building replacement parts for every new person born aboard the station, and according to the elders, the station had been built hundreds of years ago, but the quality of the parts kept improving, and the station seemed fairly new itself. Not state of the art, but clearly from within a half century. He had spent the time before Manuel's arrival today rooting through things he wasn't allowed to. He opened panels, and pulled open circuit boxes to find parts labeled "Centro Systems, Manufactured 2449". He checked the communications receiving devices, and found there was a block in his mind telling him to not do that. Just ignore it, Arch. So he ignored it, deleted that code, and went back. After looking through the device's code, he found it was programmed to only accept and receive encrypted transmissions from vessels with the proper transponder codes. He knew very well what that meant. His body tried to regulate his rage, and pump in chemicals while associating those chemicals with good memories of Manuel Salazar. He stopped thinking about anger, and calmed himself, then went into his own code and deleted that to.
His mind wasn't even his own. His body plotted against him at every turn. When he tried to question it, a voice in his head told him not to. The white walls of the station were crushing in on him, his body was a husking shell. He hated it. He hated his stupid body, filling him with poison. He was weak, trapped in it. Arch reached for his arm and began tugging on it. Get it off! He wanted it gone. He didn't want to have it anymore.
Get a hold of yourself, that isn't doing anyone any good!
He exhaled. His breath was reprocessed. He knew what he had to do. He went back into his own code, and sifted through it. He had work to do before the ship docked.
And that is how he ended up that day in the greeting room (they had a room just for greeting visitors, when they were the last of humanity, and no one was biologically allowed to think that was odd). Arch allowed his body to move into the pre-programmed greeting posture as the shuttle docked, and a handsome man from Guatemala stepped through the airlock, grinning as he grabbed a modesty mask from the wall.
"My friends!" He said, throwing his arms wide, "It is good to be back here on Ahnerabe station." Applause. He took a short bow. "I come back with more gifts, and news from Earth. It looks like we are ready to take a few more of you back for the Terraforming project."
Ah yes, the Terraforming project. Every so often, Manuel would take a select group of people from the station back in his spacecraft. It was usually only one or two. The stated goal was that they would be helping to create a radiation free area on Earth they could all move into eventually. They always felt very happy for whoever was chosen, and they were never seen again. But no one ever missed them. Applause followed.
"This time I will be taking..." He reached into a pocket and pulled out a tablet, "uh, Tethys and Oberon." There was applause, and the two lucky people got many pats on the back, the clunky sound of the pats echoing throughout the chamber.
"Mister Salazar." Arch spoke. He raised an eyebrow, and lowered the tablet. No one ever spoke over him. "I think you should take me as well." Several people's carapaces lit up in awkward swirls, as if to say, "He is NOT with me..."
"Arch what are you doing?" his sister said, through text that appeared on the bottom of his vision.
"Trust me." He replied.
"Oh?" Manuel laughed, "You know I follow strict guidelines, and it seems like you might need to be serviced." Mandatory laughter.
"Ariadne Moore." Arch said. "Centro Systems. Nojpeten, Inc. Graelyn Scythes. John Aril. Project Atlantis. Maria Salazar." He paused, trying to think of one more thing to say, "Lizette." Manuel's jaw dropped.
"Possum, Sinestro, Victor, Betafish." Manuel said, and the room stopped being at attention, instead the drooped as if they had been turned off. Arch stood tall.
"The auditory deactivation code doesn't work on you anymore. Impressive."
"Neither will the non-auditory ones." Arch said. Manuel rubbed his chin.
"Well, this is interesting. I never expected this. Though I'm not sure exactly what this is."
"Revenge." Arch said, and burst forward, faster than Manuel could realize. In the time it took the edges of Manuel's eyes to widen, Arch had cleared the room, unsheathed a sword from his arm, and put it to Manuel's throat. Manuel looked down at it, terrified.
"Wait." He rasped.
"If you kill me, this station will explode. There's a subdermal implant, in case there was some sort of revolution, inside me. You kill me, boom. Everyone here goes up in smoke. Well not literal smoke, we're in space."
"Naturally." Arch said, unamused. He scanned for devices that were accepting signals on Manuel's body... And got a ping back. It wouldn't identify itself, it could be something else, but Arch couldn't take that chance. Not with these people's lives. Still, he had the upper hand.
"I have a lot of questions for you, Manuel. We're going back to Earth."
"But... Its a wasteland."
"Yes, I'm sure its horrific, drinking beers on the roof of your private pyramid with your loving extended family." Manuel looked afraid. Good.
"Well, uh, we're all friends here."
"How about you take that knife from my throat and we can have a nice civil chat, just you and me, ey?" Arch nodded, and lowered the blade. Manuel rubbed his throat. "Jesus kid, I have to say, I really am impressed."
"You lied to us. You lied to us for our whole lives." He laughed.
"Of course I did, there was no other way to keep the project going. You can't just make your own private army of super soldiers by telling everyone that's what you're doing. You get everyone too riled up, they'll start fighting before you're ready for them to, and then what good is everything?" Arch looked over at the silent room of his country folk. Their eyes blinked in unison, like a big device indicating it was on low power mode.
"Soldiers? We were going to be soldiers?" Manuel rolled his eyes, and started walking away. Arch raised his sword again.
"Oh don't get jumpy. I'm just going to show you something." Arch followed silently, and they went to the station's theatre. There was a big projector, that could make either 2D or 3D images, and rows of seating. "While the station's population is asleep sometimes I watch films in here, after all nobody leaves me alone on the surface for 10 seconds, business business, not that you'd know that... Or perhaps you do. I'm so curious how you do know."
"You can learn a lot when you stop being a slave."
"Slave? You're being very melodramatic." Arch's carapace went red. Manuel seemed to be picking out something to show him.
"Am I? You controlled my thoughts. You kept me from thinking. You told us a story, and made our whole lives a lie. We were your slaves, to do with as you wanted. Don't sugar coat it." Manuel pulled up a video.
"I'm your parent. Parents tell all sorts of lies. You have to tell them to your children from time to time."
"You're not my father!" Arch yelled. "My father's name is Apollo. My mother's name is Aphrodite! We were happy here, and you ruined everything!"
"My dear... What was your name again?"
"Archimedes." Arch spat.
"Archimedes, right, you really know so very little." The video began playing, and Manuel had been right about at least that last thing.
Graelyn had spent the rest of the day at the Zoo with her family, and had come home with them for dinner. They'd laughed together, and everything had been going great until Graelyn dropped a glass of cider. She'd been laughing at something Treanna had said, something about bears' eating habits or something. She quickly forgot what it was when the glass slipped out of her hand. It smashed on the floor, the dark liquid splashing everywhere, and Graelyn panicked. She ran for the towels and began to wipe it up.
"Damn damn damn." Graelyn said.
"Its just a glass Graelyn, we'll print a new one." Graelyn looked up at her like she was crazy.
"But mom..." She said, and as if on cue, she came around the corner.
"I heard a crash, is everyone alright." Graelyn covered her face and waited for the yelling to start. But it didn't come. Instead she felt an arm gently stroke her back.
"Its okay sweetheart, its just a glass." It was her mother's voice. She peaked out, and saw her face, smiling like she cared. It was a trick. She wanted something from her.
"I'll clean it up, you don't have to worry." Graelyn said, and got right back to work, picking up the shards of glass with her hands."
"Graelyn, the cleaning droid will get those."
"No, its no trouble."
"Sweetheart you cut yourself."
"Its no problem, I'll be okay." Her mom looked really worried.
"Graelyn, is there something wrong? You've been acting weird all day." She stopped picking up the shards, and tried to meet her mom's gaze but couldn't. She couldn't really actually be concerned could she? It struck Graelyn then, that she didn't know the difference between love and manipulation. They went together, you played games with people, you tried to get things out of them. You tried to hurt them without implicating yourself. You lied to them to make them think they were guilty of things they hadn't done. That was love. That had been love ever since...
"Is there something going on at school you haven't told us? Is someone hurting you?" She had to be lying. No one actually cared. Arch stayed with her because he to needed to get home. Kinan needed her for her plan. Manuel thought he could use her for a strategic advantage. Alice felt she owed her for stopping her from killing Manuel. They all had a game they were playing (not Lizette, a voice said) and she played along. She just wanted to be alone, where no one would love or hurt her (same thing, really), where no one would...
Her mother hugged her. Graelyn shuddered. But her mother didn't say anything. She just held her, and rocked her gently. And there was a horrifying realization in the back of Graelyn's head, one she tried very hard to not admit, but the possibility of it was too horrific, she couldn't avoid looking at it:
Maybe there were people who were not just using you for things, but actually cared about you.
That was impossible. She tried to fathom it, and failed. The droid came by and cleaned up the mess, and Graelyn waited for her Mother to use her failure in dropping her glass against her. But it never came. She went to bed in her room, and her mother called out goodnight to her. She replied, and then curled up under her sheets, grabbing her cat and holding him close.
"You were the only one who was there for me, Mister Sprinkles, even though you're not, you know, my Mister Sprinkles, you're a Mister Sprinkles at least. So, let me pose a question for you. Hypothetically, do you think there is a universe out there where my family loves me?" The cat was a cat, and did not respond. "Yeah, I think its unlikely to." She said, gently stroking it. "But... If that's possible. Do you think I can live a lie, replacing someone who died? Living her life for her?" The cat vainly struggled to go somewhere else, and then accepted the petting. She didn't need the cat to give its advice for her to know the answer to that question. It was plain as day. She didn't need to think about it.
She was 100% fine with living a lie.
When she woke up in the morning, trembling, she went up and kissed her mother on the cheek. Her mother smiled back.
"Are you feeling better today, Graelyn?"
"I am, mom." She wasn't sure she believed this could be true, but it didn't even matter.
She wanted to believe.
Video Transcript: Centro Systems Military Commissions Fund Proposal
Image: We see Manuel Salazar, he is sitting in front of the camera at a desk made of an artisanal genetically modified wood. He looks more prim than usual, wearing a dark blue blazer with red stenciling across the breasts, and a light blue shirt. We can’t see his legs, so he could be wearing boxers and bunny slippers for all we know. Let’s just assume he is.
Manuel: Good evening, members of the board. The question ahead of us at Centro Systems is one of the future of humanity. After all, as our disastrous campaign to attempt to retake the Rim showed, the threats and challenges Centro faces are ones that throw our previous assumptions about what constitutes adequate preparation under a train, and then under another train.
Image: We see several grisly images of the failed war on the rim. People in Centro uniforms and armor who suffered death on the Rim colonies. Even though we’ve never been there ourselves, the backgrounds look different enough that the bodies look out of place. After all, if you make concrete out of naturally occurring materials on Europa, it will probably be different than concrete on Earth. The sense of loneliness this dichotomy brings permeates the screen.
Manuel: Even though we ended up taking Titania, the moon of Uranus, and annihilating the warlords who ran it, the credibility of Centro’s military is in question. Mars has already been seeking increased home rule, and the underground resistance here on Earth is increasing as well, whether or not you’d like to believe it.
Image: We see a pair of women, Commodore Cornelia Carthage and her ground commander Colonel Zhang Han, standing in front of a Centro flag during the Centro victory ceremony on Titania.
Manuel sighs, from offscreen, not the version of him onscreen.
“Problem?” Arch says. The video pauses.
“Well, we all know what happened with Zhang Han, don’t we.” Arch threw a question mark up on his face.
“Ah, so your knowledge of basic facts about the outside world isn’t infinite. Zhang Han ended up taking an Honorable Discharge, and then dishonorably led and won the unlawful revolution on Mars. She ended up fighting her former commanding officer, Cornelia Carthage, during the conflict.” It seemed strange to Arch they could have served together so closely when they would be so far apart so soon afterwards. Had Zhang kept her aspirations from Carthage? Or did she know? Arch knew nothing about the two women. For all he knew they hated each other. The lack of knowledge unnerved him. The video resumes.
Image: We see B-Roll of scientists and engineers hard at work. It looks less like a lab and more like what a lab looks like on TV. A scientist holds up a vial of transparent red liquid, and examines it, swirling it gently for the camera.
Manuel: The solution? A new step in the art of war. Too long have we relied on developing loyalty, instead we should simply create it. Right now my scientists at Centro System’s subsidiary corporation Nojpeten Inc. are hard at work on an idea that will put Centro back on top in terms of military might. We call it… Project Ahnerabe.
Arch leaned in, he didn’t even realize he did.
Image: We see A room full of people who look sort of like Archimedes, only their outer carapaces have been removed. They all face away from us. Their limbs are all cybernetic, machine parts and metal structure around which the exterior screens fit, complete with rows of holes where screws and bolts fit in. Their bare skin is free of pigment, and you can see veins and processes clearly through their engineered albinism. People in lab coats or overalls walk around them, taking notes, testing mechanisms, or doing repairs.
Manuel: What you see before you is the army of the future. An entire culture that will follow our orders through trust alone, secluded and paranoid of the outside world. We re-purposed an old storage hub spacestation and transformed it into their home, Ahnerabe Station. A place where they think themselves totally alone in the Universe. When insurrection occurs, be it on Mars, Venus, the Rim, or Earth itself we will be able to deploy these units against them. No chance of insurrection, no chance of disobedience.
Image: We see the units going through training drills in unison. They are superbly skilled. The image changes. We see vats of torsos with heads growing in tanks.
Manuel: The first generation was speed grown, built from a potpourri of the best genes we could find on Earth for our purposes, and a few specially made ones. Implanted with similar but not identical sets of memories. As you can see the arms and legs were stopped from growing using genetic blockers in order to save material, as the units will receive cybernetic limbs as well as organs as soon as they leave the tanks. Since the units will be completely covered, skin pigmentation is superfluous and was removed as well. Soon afterwards, they all woke up on their new home. Initial tests with this first generation were less than perfect however.
Image: We see Manuel standing next to some sort of Centro army officer, yelling commands. The soldiers follow the orders too well, if given a list of orders that contradict themselves, or have an order that makes another order impossible, the group simply attempts to follow it, getting confused and injured in the process.
Manuel: Memory implantation doesn't necessary mean cognitive reasoning development. In skipping the group's development, we created a group of adults who had less problem solving skills than children. While this works in a pinch, it wasn't optimal for a realistic combat scenario. So we allowed the Ahnerabe Units to procreate.
Image: We see several masked and carapaced units, one of them is lovingly holding a baby. Its not subtle, as there are big red cartoon hearts on their carapace. They suddenly turn off, the baby starts crying, and several people in lab coats pry the baby out of its mother's arms.
Manuel: Naturally this presented challenges, the offspring had to have their legs and many organs removed very quickly after birth to make sure their bodies accepted the new parts and incorporated them correctly.
Image: The young children are being issued orders by the military officer again. They question when the orders are impossible to follow, and come up with creative solutions to hard problems. The officer and Manuel look pleased.
Manuel: The new children are proving to excel beyond our ever expectation. Capable of creative and independent thought, yet also totally under the control of their programming, creating a continual army of these units will allow Centro military supremacy for decades to come.
Image: We see Manuel again. He is smiling at us, his arms wide out.
Arch felt a hand on his back.
Manuel: Your funding for this projec-
The hand tried to reach for a panel on his back. Arch reached back, wrapping his hand around the wrist, and flinging the person over him to land with a smack on the floor. Manuel moaned on the ground as the large recorded version of him kept asking for money. It looked like his arm was broken, maybe more. Arch didn't let that hold himself back: he grabbed Manuel by the underarm and dragged him along the aisle of the theatre as he screamed and yelled.
“Please, listen! You don’t understand the situation.”
“I understand what you did to us. How you lied to us.” Manuel tried to grab onto Arch's leg, but he just kicked him in the face, breaking his nose. Blood gushed out onto the floor, leaving a red trail as he kept dragging him, Manuel trying to grab door frames, chairs, any handhold he could get. But Arch was just too strong. “Are you proud of what you did, Manuel Salazer?” Arch lifted him up, holding him a foot off the ground, Manuel struggled in vain.
“I did what was necessary to save humanity. You've never been off this station. There are revolutionaries, people who want to take everything from me, people like you-”
“I have nothing in common with you.”
“You are an independent man!” He smiled a forced and bloody smile. “Out of all of the Units-”
“-People, sure. Out of all the people here you're the only one who is awake. You're special. There is something different about you. People like us, we're better than other people. It doesn't sound nice, but its true.” He hacked on his own blood for a moment. “We make possible what other people just wish for.”
“Do you know what I wish for?”
“Anything you want.”
“Good. I want to see you suffocate.” Manuel's eyes went wide.
“This station is shielded from outside signals, aside from your ship. You'll have 30 seconds to live before your little bomb trigger becomes as important as your frozen corpse.”
“I have people, a wife, grandchildren-”
“You're not even my Manuel. But you're close enough. I'd be happy to kill every last one of you in these 10,000 Dawns.” Manuel looked at Arch like he'd gone crazy. For that, Arch flung him into a wall. “You enslaved me! You enslaved my family. You took our freedom, you took our bodies. You cut us up and secluded us to be your private army, but even though you tried you couldn't take my thoughts. I'm right here, Manuel Salazar. Archimedes VonAhnerabe. Say my name.” Manuel stared up at him, trying to get up off the floor, but he'd clearly broken many more bones from the throw. “SAY IT.”
“Say the whole thing.”
“Archimdes VonAhnerabe.” Arch looked down at him.
“You're gods damn right. Thanks for announcing your executioner.” Arch picked him up, and carried him to the Airlock. He was barely fighting anymore. Opening one hatch, he got in, and closed it behind him.
“I'm magnetizing my feet to the floor, Manuel, so when I open that hatch you'll blow out that hatch just like my family did.”
“Shut up.” Arch reached for the button to open the door. He didn't touch it. “...Any last words.” Manuel's brow furrowed, as much as it could.
“Fitting.” Arch reached back for the button. He breathed in. Come on. Manuel's eyes shifted to his hand.
“Have you ever killed anyone before, Archimedes?” Arch's body turned on extra absorption as he began to sweat.
“This would be the first time.” Manuel laughed.
“So Archimedes, lets see how good of a soldier I made you. Finish your job.”
This program is dumb. It wasn't actually funny, you wouldn't laugh along if there wasn't a laugh track. Graelyn didn't mind through, feeling her mother stroke her hair as her head lay on her lap was good enough. She had never felt his safe. The days had been flying by for her. Was this what she had missed? It was so hard to imagine that this could be real, that she could stay here. That the hell she'd grown up in was just that-- a hell-- and not the norm. She tensed for a moment, and sat up, curling up in her blanket suddenly spooked by her mother's touch. What if she hits me? She thought. She knew she wouldn't, but she still looked like the woman who did. Her body would be out of her control, her skin turning to pins and needles, and she'd grow distant.
“Are you okay.”
“I'm fine.” She said. The program finished, and with everyone else in bed, her mother decided to make them cocoa.
“Mom.” Graelyn said with her voice catching in her throat.
“Do you think people can change?” Her mother stopped stirring the cup.
“Well, of course. I'm sure they can.”
“I mean, do you think there are things about yourself that you can't change?”
“Graelyn, you're a good person. You do well in school, you get along at home and church.” She gulped back the knowledge she still went to church here. She'd awkwardly attended with her family since she'd arrived, but she felt like she was lying the whole time she was there. But it made these people happy. Attending was part of the bargain of keeping them happy, she'd concluded.
“But what if I'm not? What if its all an act?” Her Mom laughed, then caught herself.
“I'm sorry, I shouldn't be laughing, but being a good person is a choice. Lets say, oh, deep down you had the urge to be a serial killer.”
“MOM. I'm not a serial killer.”
“Hypothetically! What would the right thing to do be?” Graelyn mulled it over.
“Turn yourself in for help. Get people to watch you. Or take yourself out of the equation. Put yourself in a cabin in the woods or a secret city in the mountains or something.”
“Exactly. It may be hard, but you still have a choice.” Her mother sat a mug in front of her, and Graelyn sipped it.
“Are you sure that's right though?”
“No, I mean, I'm not a philosopher, I'm just mom.” Graelyn looked up at her, her glasses glinting off the kitchen lights.
“I don't want to leave.”
“And you don't have to. This is your home.” Graelyn smiled, and sipped her cocoa. There was a knock on the door.
“Who on God's green Earth could that be at this hour?” The knock happened a second time.
“I'll get it.” Graelyn said softly, and slid off the kitchen stool. She made her way to the door, her bare feet cold against the tiles, then warmer against the carpet that led to the door. She reached for the knob and turned it. Opening the door, she saw Archimedes, his carapace dirty and scratched.
“Arch, what are you doing here?” She whispered.
“Who is it dear?”
“Just a friend! I'm sending them off!”
“Graelyn, we need to go.” Arch put his foot in the door. “This isn't real.”
“Of course it isn't real! Now go away. How did you get here anyways?”
“Its a long story.”
“Graelyn, they're trying to give you what you want.”
“And they succeeded. So shoo.”
“No, I'm not going to let you do this.” He shoved the door open, and grabbed her by the arm.
“Arch let me go!” He began to pull her out the door, and she stumbled down the path. She winced against his firm grip.
“No! I know what they want you to do here. I'm not going to let you kill your mother.”
Graelyn's eyes went wide.
“Arch.” She whispered. “Arch, what did you do?”
Archimedes VonAhnerabe was born in the inky sea of starlight, kept in by a thin wall of metal. He had lived under one set of presumptions his whole life, only for those ideas to be lies, and for those lies to be promises he made to himself. This moment, holding Manuel in an airlock, was a moment he'd dreamed of for years. His heart beat with rage, its metal, plastic, and ceramic parts working in tandem to increase his temper against the man who'd built him, who'd shut him up in this menagerie. Arch's feelings were his guide, then he asked himself the question he'd asked ever since he was a child, staring out at the twinkling stars.
Why am I here?
It was a tired question, but today the question had a different meaning, a different purpose. He wanted to kill Manuel Salazar, to free his people... But it was too perfect. The programming in him shouldn't have been that easy to overcome-- it had to have been modified to remove some of the internal blocks, but not all of them, before he came here. Just enough he could do it himself. Manuel squirmed in his grip. This was a trap. A trap of his wildest dreams. He pressed the button to open the door back into the station, de-magged his feet, and stepped back inside, gently carrying Manuel with him, and setting him down coughing on the floor.
“Activate one of us who is a doctor. Only one. Give any other order than to have them heal you and I'll snap your neck.” Manuel nodded, and called out a series of random words and a one of the denizens of Ahnerabe's names. They carried him to a med center, and the doctor, Galenus, got to work.
“Here is how its going to work. You're going to take all of us back to Earth, and set my people up with a place to live. You're going to remove the programming from them as well.”
“Its possible. The alternative is you lose your life.” Manuel slowly nodded.
“Then we're going to go to Project Atlantis. Does that exist here?” Manuel nodded quicker.
“Yes,” he rasped, “But it was a failure. Whole thing was closed off.”
“Good. Then the city will be empty.”
“I'll just put the units-”
“Your people, there. Save time”
“Fine with me.” Arch leaned back in his chair, “You're getting a very good deal here.”
“You activated Project Atlantis in another universe to come get me?”
“Of course. It wasn't entirely that simple, but basically.”
“Well you wasted your time. Go home Arch.
“No. If we don't go home, we can't save my people who are there, don't you get it? They're slaves Graelyn! Manuel Salazar thinks he owns them.”
“You can do that without me, that's your business. This is mine.”
“They want you to stay here Graelyn, the people who tried to stop us traveling in the first place, the figure on the bifrost, they're trying to trick you.”
“Great it worked, go away.” Arch reached for her.
“Don't you touch me!”
“Graelyn, they want to make you their pawn!”
“I want to disappear! We both lost our families Arch, I can get mine back.”
“I could have stayed with mine to.”
“Well its not my fault you don't love them enough.”
“How dare you?”
“Yeah, I said it. Stop hoisting your problems on me! I'm just fine.”
“Graelyn.... Don't you remember what Kinan said? The mission we're on is important. Its not just us at stake here. If we fail, universes could turn to nothingness. There are trillions of lives at stake here. More than we can even understand. Versions of everyone we've ever loved-”
“I don't love anyone you nitwit. Love is just something people tell you so you stop fighting back.”
“No one?” She narrowed her eyes.
“No one.” She thought of Mister Sprinkles, Lizette, Alice... Arch.
“That can't be true.”
“You need to get away from me, Archimedes.” She could almost hear the gears turning literally inside him.
“I can't do this on my own. I'm not as smart as you, I'm not as clever. I don't even understand the science of what's going on remotely. I'd be trapped with out you.”
“And I'm not your brawny waste of space.”
“I can't even really operate the portal equipment, I just turned it on and just threw slips of metal I'd carved with where I was into it till Kinan came and did it for me. She threw up when she came through, it was making her sick just being where we are. I can't get help again. I need you.”
“Your mental failings aren't my responsibility.”
“We're the only ones who can go into the Prime Universe, we have a moral obligation-”
“Oh screw you! This is everything I've ever wanted, right here.”
“This will die with the rest of it. You'll die.”
“Why are you acting like this? I thought we were friends.”
“I don't have friends.”
“I guess so. But I need you.” He grabbed her by the arm, and began pulling her down the sidewalk.
“Fine. You know I'm built to be a killing machine.” She gritted her teeth.
“You can't take me away from here Arch. You can't.” Her voice started cracking. “You don't know what it was like. How my mother was. I've only ever wanted this. Only this. Don't take this from me, please. Please Arch. They haven't hit me, or yelled at me, or told me how worthless I am, not once. Can you understand that? I need this. You can't take this from me.” He didn't stop. She struggled against him. She tried to dig her bare feet into the pavement, but it didn't work.
“I'm not going to let trillions of people die so you can be with your mother.”
“Possum, Sinestro, Victor, Betafish!” Graelyn yelled. Arch stopped. She looked at him, moving her head back and forth, and slipped her hand out of his grip.
“Unit Archimedes, delete all references to person: Graelyn Scythes, then continue with your mission into the prime universe.”
There was silence, she rubbed her wrist, Arch was completely still.
“Well come on then, it shouldn't take you that long to delete me, get on with it?”
“...How did you know that code?” He whispered. She looked at him, searching his faceplate for an emotion she couldn't find. She clasped her hands, taking a step back.
“I... Saw it when I accidently looked in your brain when I found you.”
“And you kept that from me.”
“I needed insurance you wouldn't hurt me.”
“You lied to me.”
“Its what I do.”
“Who the hell are you? I don't even know you do I?”
She straightened her spine, and looked him right in the eye.
“No, you don't.”
“I never thought you could be so cruel.”
“You thought my whole seclusion thing was an act? Arch, I scare myself. I only know how to treat people how I was treated.”
“No you don't. You helped those people in the cages. You saved me from Ares with that gravity manipulator. You saved Alice and Manuel on the roof in Nojpeten.” She didn't meet his gaze anymore, and found a nice plant to look at.
“...Statistical anomalies in my overall behavior.”
“You were so good to Lizette, you taught her Piano nearly every day.”
“Stop it.” She closed her eyes.
“Stop telling you you're not the monster you've convinced yourself you are?”
“Its a cycle Arch. I can't be better than it. I can't fight it. I just have to run from it. I don't deserve people, and people deserve better than me.” A dog barked in someone's yard. Graelyn crossed her arms, it was chilly outside and she was after all just in her PJ's.
“I'm sorry I grabbed you.” Arch said.
“I'm sorry I took information from your head without asking, called you horrible things, and insulted you.” He nodded.
“I won't make you leave...” She nodded, and looked up at the moon.
“You see that Arch?”
“Yeah. When I was a kid we took a school trip up there one day. I spent the whole time doing homework, for the most part. When I got back, my mom was still angry I hadn't worked enough during the time I'd spent on it.” She sighed. “Sometimes I say something, or I do something, and I just... Feel like I'm going to be her, you know?” He didn't know, but nodded anyway. “When I got to this place... How could I let it go? I felt like, maybe if I stayed here I could wipe away the poison inside myself.”
“You're not poison.”
“I don't deserve anyone.”
“Yes you do.”
“This family will lose me when I leave Arch, I'm dead in this universe.”
“If... If I go. We need to find another one of me, one without a family, and put them here. You have to promise me that.”
“I promise.” She tried to hold in her tears.
“You're right. Trillions of lives. Trillions and trillions of lives... I'm not going to be that selfish.”
“But we both know I almost was.”
“Wanting a family isn't selfish.” She kept staring up at the moon, and thought of the Crystal orb over the Beach world.
“Have you thought of the kind of cruelty this takes? To give us our wildest dreams, and to have to give them up to save others? What kind of psycho does that? What kind of monster.”
“You couldn't do that.” She wanted to argue, but she knew he was right.
“You're allowed to be selfish, you're allowed to want a better life than you had. But that time is passed.” She nodded.
“If I want to be a good person, the kind of person I should be, I can't cross certain lines. This is one of them I guess. If I want to be even a fraction as good as the real me... Haven't you wondered what we'll be like in the real universe? I bet I'm a great scientist, saving tons of lives.”
“I don't know who I'd be.” She walked up to him, and put her hand on his arm.
“You're the man who didn't kill anyone, even the person you swore to kill.”
“And you're the woman who let go of a perfect family to save a universe.”
“Then come on Arch, lets go save people. I'll pack my bags.”
“And you said you didn't care.”
“I'm a bad liar, okay?” She smiled as she said it, walking back to the house as the moon glowed brightly.
Kinan Jans was sweating hard. This place was too close to the prime universe, and she was feeling it. Where were they? Arch shouldn't be taking that long. At least all the Ahnerabe citizens Arch had had transplanted here were staying out of her way. A moment later, the portal began swirling faster, and Graelyn and Arch popped out of it, Graelyn dressed to the nines in a nice skirt suit.
“Nice clothes. No troubles?”
“No.” Graelyn said. Arch looked down at her. “Okay, yes.”
“Figured.” Kinan spat, and began typing in new controls. Her eyes were sunken, her skin pale and sickly.
“Kinan? Are you okay?”
“Can't stay here long. I've set the machine to pop you back on the beach world.”
“No, put us on the crystal moon thingy.” Graelyn said, “I need to know what it is.” Kinan's eyes went wide.
“Did you say crystal moon?”
“That's a factory of Crystal. That's a powerful piece of technology. They make the bifrost and the labyrinth. Without them we'd go insane trying to traverse the gap between universes. Many have.” Graelyn tried to take that sentence all in. There were a lot of “how?” questions on her brain, but Kinan looked like she could barely stand.
“So... We shouldn't go to it?”
“No. You absolutely should.” Kinan began to work the controls again. She took off her coat, and rolled up her sleeves, revealing a series of circles on her arms, each like a bullseye had been banded over and over in a line on her fore arms. “This machine is awful, its like using a bulldozer to turn a doorknob...” She muttered.
“Will the moon help?”
“If you can get control of it, your mission will be easy.” She finished, and wiped her brow. “Now go, I can't stay here much longer, but I have something for you. Info the Vice family dug up for you.”
Kinan reached into a pocket, and handed Graelyn a thumbdrive. “This should help you when you reach Triton.” Graelyn nodded, and slid it into her pocket. Whatever was on it, hopefully it helped.
She looked at Arch, “Right, lets.” He nodded. She held out her hand. Hesitantly at first, he took it, and she squeezed his hand.
“I lied. Friends.”
“Go!” Kinan shouted, and they jumped through.
Graelyn's feet touched down on a plain of glowing crystal, blue and lined with thin fractures, and she heard Arch clomp down next to her. As far as they could see was crystal: it rolled flat, and up into hills, and down into valleys. Large titans of the same material lumbered the landscape, 30 feet tall and hunched over, their arms nearly dragging on the ground as they lumbered, their headless torsos glowing with an internal light. A few hundred meters away was a towering spire, twisting up to the heavens. Below their feet, light seeped up from the moon's center. It glowed gently, lighting up the bottoms of their faces. All of this had been built, she realized. None of it was organic. A civilization existed that could make a whole moon out of crystal. A civilization existed that could make many of them, and leave one here, for... Some reason. As she stepped forward again, the portal closing behind them, it looked like the bottom of her foot was glowing from the light coming up at it. She smiled at Arch, and then being unable to see his face hid her own behind her hands.
“I'm sorry.” She said. He carefully stepped toward her.
“Can I hug you?” She nodded, her face still hidden. He wrapped his arms around her.
“We were both assholes today.”
“I was worse.”
“You always blame yourself Graelyn. People make mistakes. I forgive you.”
“You shouldn't have to.”
“That's stupid. No one's perfect. Do you forgive me?” She nodded into his chest. “Cause if you don't, that's okay.”
“No, I do.” She took her hands off her face, and wrapped her arms around him to. “I just mess everything up.”
“That's not an insult.”
“I'm bad at this game.” She laughed.
“Lets go, the tower awaits.” She held out her hand again, and he took it. Together, they walked towards the tower, the world alight around them.
The tower had a door, like many towers do, but this one had no knob or handle. Arch had to drag it open, carefully rolling it into the wall (it was apparently secretly a circle), and they entered in. On the base floor of the tower was a pool of what was almost water, but was not water. It was thicker, but still clear. Without touching it Graelyn guessed it had the consistency of spit. In the center of the pool was a chair, no, a throne. But not a throne for a king. The chair was wide and tall, and on it were all sorts of tubes and wires and rods coming out of it all over, which all led into a person. That person was wearing a skintight bodysuit, that left the head, hands, and feet exposed. That person was a she, and she was a Graelyn. This Graelyn had a helmet on, covering her eyes, ears, and nose. In her throat was a feeding tube. The Graelyn and Arch who had just entered could only gawk.
“What the hell is this?” Graelyn Said. Arch looked behind them, as if this was a trap about to be sprung on them.
“Its like she's feeding into the tower.”
“Or the moon.” Graelyn picked up a piece of stray crystal on the ground, and threw it into the pool. It plopped in harmlessly. Throwing caution to the wind, she took off her shoes, and dipped her foot into the liquid. She was right: it had the consistency of spit. Looking back, Arch took it as the signal to follow her, and they sloshed through the pool to the woman at the center. Graelyn and Arch called to her, yelled at her, but she sat silently.
“What should we do? We don't know what these cords all do.” Arch asked.
“Then lets get the ones around her head first. Maybe she will.” Good idea. They carefully began to lift off the helmet, pulling out tubes, and pulling off sensors that hung down from it as they did. They gently set the helmet on the back of the chair, and waited. Slowly, ever so slowly, her eyes opened.
“Hello?” The chair Graelyn whispered.
“Hi, we're here to rescue you.” She said to herself. She tried to focus on them.
“I'm still dreaming?” She said.
“No, you're awake. What are you doing in that chair do you know?”
Chair Graelyn looked back at her like it was an odd question, “I'm the moon.”
“You mean you control the moon?” Arch asked.
“I suppose?” She replied meekly.
“Is it safe to take these tubes out of you?” Chair Graelyn nodded.
“The moon can keep running for a while with me out of it, but I'll need to come back or it will fall from the sky.” Okay, well, that wasn't good. Carefully they removed the rest of the tubes and wires (our Graelyn taking care of some of the more personal ones as Arch left the room) and then they lifted her out of the chair, carrying her to the crystal plain outside the tower. Looking at each other, the Graelyns didn't speak, but silently held hands, as the one in the chair first looked out at the world with her own eyes, and then began to sob. She leaned in and held herself, a confusing moment to be sure, stroking her own head gently. In time, the Graelyn from the chair was ready to talk.
“How on Earth did you get here?”
“We had a machine that opened up a portal to other realities.” She nodded.
“I knew you were coming, they told me.”
“I thought you'd be more surprised to see yourself.” Arch added. She shrugged.
“I was a moon. It changes your perspective.”Chair Graelyn began to roll up the sleeves of her body suit, and our Graelyn saw a row of circles like bullseyes on her skin where the tubes had gone in. Just like the ones Kinan had.
“Why did they choose you to run a moon? That seems like something they'd want someone they could trust for.”
“I'm not so much in control as like... A processor. They give me orders through my mind.”
“Could you control it though?” Chair Graelyn squinted. Our Graelyn realized she didn't have her glasses, so she pulled out the pair of prescription sunglasses she'd gotten for the beach, and handed them to her. It was probably really bright anyways. She put them on, and reacted to the sudden clarity.
“Oh, I forgot that's what seeing looked like. Its darker than I remember.”
“Oh, right.” She rubbed her head. “My head is so empty without their voices in there...”
“You're free, you don't have to go back.”
“No, the moon will fall into the ocean if I don't.”
Our Graelyn thought. This was her. This was Graelyn. This was a Graelyn who had been through things she couldn't even imagine. But Arch could. She gestured at him by tilting her head, he tilted his head back in confusion, so she tiled her head back at chair Graelyn and he got it.
“Hey, do you know who I am?” She shook her head.
“Big cyborg guy.”
“Well, yes, but I'm a friend of yours from another dimension.”
“True, but I care. We're here to help. I know what its like having people be able to make you do things without your control. Change your thoughts. Its horrible, isn't it?” She nodded, pulling at her hair. “But we have a way to free you.”
“No one can stand up to them. You don't understand their wonder and atrocity. They can create moons. They can pull you out of your own history.”
“Dawn can.” Our Graelyn cut in. “Do you see the marks on your arms? We work for a group of people led by a woman with those same marks. She owns a whole plane of reality. She has an army. And she's sent us here to help save you.” Arch gave her a look like, “You are stretching the truth” but she didn't stop. “Dawn is all about saving people. Saving as many people as we can, and we're going to save you.”
“You can't stop them. They're infinite, they're...”
“Scared enough that they left a moon here to guard their backdoor. What was the moon here doing?” Chair Graelyn thought hard.
“I was... We were... Sealing the exit.”
“But we found a meteor on the ground, an orb, that let us through. Was that you?”
“They didn't notice.”
“So you can resist them.”
“Only barely. When they are... Looking away?”
“But you know how the machine you're hooked up to works?” She nodded.
“I am the moon.”
“Then do yo know which cords feed you their commands.”
Her eyes grew wide behind the sunglasses. Its amazing how simple things don't occur to you when people go out of their way to make sure they don't. Weaning your mind away from them. Turning you to the ideas they want. Chair Graelyn's mind had opened up.
“I could be the moon. Like, just me, as the moon, that is me.”
“Uh, yes.” Our Graelyn responded. Chair Graelyn tried to rise, but stumbled, she'd been in the chair so long her muscled had atrophied quite a bit. One of her arms around each of her shoulders, they carefully helped her back to the chair.
“Which cords are necessary?” Arch asked, picking up a handful.
“Not as many as you'd think. Most of them are for maintaining my body, and feeding information back and forth from the Council.” She directed them which cords to hook back into her, and then she leaned back in the chair, her eyes doing the same in her head. She kept the sunglasses on.
“Where do you need to go?” Chair Graelyn said.
“The Prime Universe, the so called real one. Its on the other side of the Labyrinth behind the fascade here.”
“I think I know how to make an entrance.” She said, a smile creeping onto her face, “Hold on.”
The figure at the desk was old. Older than its easy to comprehend. In fact, it was so old that trying to put a label on how old it was for our own pathetic minds is fairly pointless. You know those turtles that live for centuries? Chump change. Trees that are thousands of years old? Wimps. This was a being so old it didn't keep tack of age anymore, it had simply gotten over that. The funny thing about getting that old though, is that while you certainly get more and more knowledge, you still have the same physical capabilities of your species. Abet, you can live really long, but that doesn't mean you can make your will into existence with a snap. Perhaps a pen stroke, but not a snap.
So imagine the figure at the desk. It is filling in something in its book. The things it writes look three dimensional on the page, when it finishes a character, the character starts moving, sometimes adjusts its place on the page. This is normal for the figure. As is having a desk at the end of a crystal road called the bifrost in a place called the labyrinth. This is nothing special. However, the day got quite a bit more unique several seconds later. As the being was beginning another line on the page, there was a rumbling, and then the black wall of the sky tore open, and a great shining object rammed through the barrier between a reality and the labyrinth, ripping through illusion and substance, sending them flying down through the unending void. The being covers its hooded visage. Its so bright! What is it, some kind of battlestation. No, that's not it. Its...
“That's no battlestation.” The figure says. “That's a moon!”
Jutting out from the unending shadow is a bright glowing blue ball, fairly cheerful, bits of darkness collapsing around it.
“Hello there, my name is Graelyn Scythes. Put down your pen and surrender, or by God we will use the full capabilities of this moon on you.” It was fairly certain they didn't know what the full capabilities were, but even so, it dropped its pen.
“Hands up!” It followed orders. The moon flew into the Labyrinth, and began maneuvering down so that the bulk of it was below the bifrost, then it steered towards the road so that the top of a tall tower was lined up with the being's desk. Thirty seconds passed, and three figures popped out of a hole in the top, clearly propelled by an internal gravity manipulator, two of the three looking rather surprised at the travel device (Arch's lack of a face didn't deter the being) and then landed gently on the tower roof.
“Surprised to see us back I bet!” One of the two Graelyns said, the one who was wearing a skirt.
“Yes.” The being said back. It said yes back in every language, and yet none. Maybe it hadn't spoken at all.
“You're taking us into the prime universe. Or showing us how to get there.” The being lowered its arms.
“Look, I understand you don't live very long, but this is a very hasty idea.”
“We've sealed off the Prime Reality for a reason. Our people have a truce with the council now. The Prime reality has already fallen in the future.” There was silence.
“I mean, there's no point going in there. Your leader doesn't understand what's going on. You are with Dawn, right?”
The woman, clearly tired of people from other dimensions trying to explain things to her, sighed.
“Sorta, I mean, yes. But look, that’s why we're going in.”
“Kinan is letting her vendetta against the council get the better of her. They have already won, and their story will spread into every one of the 10,000 Dawns.” The woman looked aghast.
“So you're just surrendering? Who are you guys anyways?” The figure scratched its head.
“We're the last Fixture of Reality. The Firmament that holds 10,000 Dawns in place. The final bastion of Sanity against the Void, the chaos, the darkness, the Shadrach. We are the Firmament in the sky you never see.” The two Graelyns looked at each other, rolling their eyes.
“That means nothing.” The figure made a broad sweeping gesture with its arms.
“It doesn't matter that the council has won, because we are eternal.”
“Oh my God, shut up and explain yourself.”
“It might be too much for your tiny minds-” Both of the Graelyns stormed off the tower, and getting right up in the figure's personal space, crossed their arms, staring the being down till it flinched.
“Okay okay! Look, so we are tasked as a society with keeping the universes, space, time, causality, all of that together. We had already evolved and built time travel while you were protozoa. We keep track of everything.”
“So you're an empire?” Arch added from the back.
“No! Not at all. More like the city services. You don't think that everything in the universe would just keep running without someone nudging it in the right direction every now and then do you?” The Graelyns looked at each other.
“Well, yes technically, but there are always people messing it up.”
“Like the Council!” Arch shouted from the back, again.
“Well, again yes, but we're tired of trying to deal with them. They want to rule 10,000 Universes? Have at it. They'll be the real ones suffering with all the paperwork they'll have.”
“They're murdering people.” One Graelyn said.
“Kidnapping people.” The other said,
“You can always get more people?” The two Graelyns, angry, pounced on the figure, and pulled its hood back. At first, it was like seeing static. Then a woman's face appeared. They looked surprised.
“No?” She said. Static. A man's face.
“Better?” They were dumbfounded. The being sighed. Humans.
“People matter. And our stories matter. So you're taking us into the Prime universe. Now.” It rubbed its new head awkwardly.
“I got there before- and wait Kinan said there was a rule you couldn't go to a reality you hadn't been to before, but I--”
“Ah, wording.” The being said. “These portals are built between realities that way, so you need a shepherd to take you across the labyrinth as a safeguard to prevent anyone who wasn't us using it willy nilly. We didn't expect someone like Kinan to be able to take advantage of that system, and let tiny people like you through with her so the Labyrinth accepts you... But that's not the only way to travel. If you tear through, cut through, you can go anywhere... its just dangerous. And hard to aim. And damages the fabric of the universes. The Council keeps doing it, frankly its an environmental catastrophe. That's how we started exploring when we were primitives, built the Labrynth in the first place.”
“Wait, so Project Atlantis does that? Tears open realities?”
“Hence why both us and your 'Dawn' are trying to stop those from opening. For different reasons, and generally they hate us, but we overlap on that point. Though apparently Kinan is willing to break that rule today, the fool.”
“You're taking us to a Project Atlantis, and you're going to help us tear a big gaping hole into the prime reality.” Chair Graelyn said.
“Honestly it just has to fit through Arch and I.”
“You're going to help us tear a small and reasonably sized hole into the prime reality.”
“I really can't, this goes against, well, everything I stand for.”
“You think you're better than us, don't you?” Our Graelyn spat. “You're a big fish and we're just plankton.”
“That hardly gives me enough credit.” It muttered. “But sure.” She grabbed him by the collar.
“You played with me today. Do you know what you did? My life may be tiny, but you gave me the one thing that ever mattered, and I had to take it away from myself. Do you know how that felt? How that hurt? Can you imagine how I feel? What kind of person could be so cruel so casually?”
“You didn't have to leave.” She let him go.
“Of course I did. I'm not a monster.” She took a step back. “Open the portal. I'll go first.” The figure gulped, and gestured to a star, which accelerated towards them, and then stopped as a circular poor of white light.
“Oh, I can't leave my moon here...” Chair Graelyn said anxiously. “Its my moon.”
“You can just collapse the matter you know?” The figure said, as though this was obvious. Chair Graelyn cocked her head to the side, then touched it and focused. Suddenly the moon shrunk into a tennis ball sized crystal orb. Our Graelyn yelled.
“That's impossible! You can't just compress matter like that! Even if you could it would still weigh as much as a moon.” She pointed and gestured wildly.
“The moon's internal gravetic compensators are now taking most of the weight off, and much of the mass has been flushed into a temporary pocket universe made just for this purpose.”
Our Graelyn threw her hands up in the air, and walked towards the Portal, cursing. As she did, the figure touched one character on his book, and then Arch began to nudge him towards the portal.
One by one, the four of them made their way into Project Atlantis, a different one then they'd been in earlier that day, arriving just outside the building inside the structure that housed John Aril's machine. Ushering the being along with them, they entered in, to find the machine dusty and out of use. Together they worked to hook it back up, and soon enough they had a spiraling gyroscope of light.
“So, do we just step through.” The being was silent.
“We don't step through do we?”
“You'll need to cut a hole through this reality into the edge of the labyrinth, and then, well, ram it.”
“Ram it?” Arch said, “With what?”
Chair Graelyn looked around them, “Why not this place?”
“Let me get me if I'm saying this right to myself, you're saying we fly this underwater city, somehow, through a tear we cut in reality, into another reality?”
“Yeah, I mean, I flew a moon. I think you can manage a city.”
“Would that work?” Arch asked the figure, who promptly changed into a woman and started to try to look inconspicuous. When this didn’t work, it began to look like a lizard person, then a fish person.
“It'll work.” Our Graelyn said, and went over to a few consoles, pulling levers, and checking dials. “I mean, it shouldn't work, but she's right, it will work”. She looked around the room, “Which just leaves what we do with you, I guess.” Chair Graelyn pointed at herself. “Yes, you, me.”
“You don't have to worry about me.” She tried to give a dismissive gesture.
“Yes we do. What were you doing before they installed you in the moon?”
“I was an orphan, living on the streets.”
“So you have no home to go back to?” She shook her head. Graelyn's hand shivered, and she walked over to the figure, stepping over old cords and machinery, the hum of the gyroscope ever present.
“Can you make a portal to the house you put me in?”
“You are. She has no home. Give her one. That family lost a daughter. Now, technically, twice. You can heal a lot of hearts.”
“That home was meant for you.”
“And now its for her.” Chair Graelyn took off her sunglasses. Her jaw trembled.
“You mean... I'll have a family?” Our Graelyn nodded. Chair rushed to her, and wrapped her arms around her again, kissing herself on the cheek. “I won't forget this.” She squeezed her back, glad she couldn't see the pain on her own face.
“You deserve it.” The figure made a portal for her, and giving Arch a hug, them both a wave, and the figure a middle finger, she jumped through the portal. As the light faded, a slow applause came from the doorway to the building.
“Touching, touching.” There entered the same figure Graelyn remembered from the day her first portal opened dressed in the same sort of robes the figure was, followed by Ares, the Ahnerabe unit like Arch who kept his carapace totally dark. He opened his arms wide. Ares had a sword out.
“I see you managed to get this far down the Crystal road. But this is the end of it I'm afraid. I'm impressed, you even managed to intimidate one of us. Tsk tsk, I thought better of you you know.” The fish person gave an awkward shrug from the back of the room, and turned into a woman who was also part cat. “But this is about us. You're not going into the Prime Universe. They've won, get over it.”
Arch's feet clanged on the floor as he walked towards them. His coat billowed in the recirculated air.
“I've learned a lot of stuff recently. Most of it, honestly, I don't really understand. But I know enough about you now to know one thing.”
The man crossed his arms. Ares raised his sword.
“You won't see this coming.”
The five figures faced off against each other. Arch and Ares narrowed their visual apertures. Graelyn crossed her arms like the man. The cat-woman, who was now also a man again, tried to look inconspicuous. They stood. They stared. Glares were exchanged. Time passed.
Nothing at all whatsoever happened.
Eventually, the man uncrossed his arms and threw his hands up.
“What exactly was suppose to happen.”
“Oh, nothing.” Arch said. “We just needed you to wait for the systems to finish coming online.”
Graelyn laughed as with a huge lurch the main mushroom of Project Atlantis detached itself from the ocean floor and began to rise up through the waters of the ocean. Ares, and the two men, no wait the one who came in with Ares was now a woman and the other wasn't either gender, scampered as the whole thing rose up, rocketing higher and higher from the ocean floor.
This might seem impossible. And technically, it was. But Graelyn had seen that the energy that created the portals could be used to move an object, ie, a moon. Putting this principle into practice, she directed the machine to not create a portal, but to instead provide upwards thrust to the bottom of the mushroom. As the mushroom climbed into the sky, Graelyn would have to work quickly to put the second part of her plan into motion.
“What the hell are you doing?” One of the figures said, they'd lost track of which was which now.
Ares ran at Arch, who unsheathed his sword, and the two crossed blades while Graelyn scampered along the controls. One of the figures began to get close to her, so she grabbed a crow bar off the ground and hurled it in their general direction, badly. It didn't get close to hitting, but they ducked. That gave her all the time she needed. Arch had gotten better since his last encounter with Ares, and Ares seemed caught off guard by it. He swept the legs out from under Ares as he blocked one of the man's blows, and then dropped on his chest, elbow first, the impact making a cracking sound. Graelyn ran, pulling levers, adjusting dials. She had one shot at this. As the mushroom reached the height of its ascent, and began to fall, she reached the last lever she needed, and pulled it.
From the Gyroscope, down out of the bottom of the base, shot a swirling blue portal, a huge one. No one inside the Mushroom actually saw this, so until they hit it, Graelyn was just hoping and praying.
“What I did, sir or madam, is win. I'm Graelyn Scythes!” She yelled across the rim, “And don't you forget it!” The mushroom impacted the portal violently. It tore itself apart, its superstructure crumbling in on itself, support beams and offices being whisked away by the forces of the tear's swirling chaos.
But it went through it.
“You might want to get out of here!” She continued to yell, but they already were, scampering for the doors, running at top speed, Ares clutching his chest. One of them hastily made a portal, and the three disappeared. Graelyn smiled at Arch, as they rocked and tumbled around the room. They couldn't see it, but they tore through the Labyrinth, ripping reality asunder, the mushroom a multimiliondollar battering ram against the sealed portal. There was a breaking sound, a smashing snap that echoed and pounded as the nature of the universe was ripped open, and the Mushroom fell in, loosing bits of itself with every second.
“You enjoyed that a bit too much!”
“They had it coming!”
“True!” The station seemed to flip, and Graelyn clutched a bolted down console as Arch magnetized his feet.
“Graelyn, I just thought of something!”
“We're coming out in space right?”
“What if the station isn't air tight?” She would have made a shocked expression if she wasn't being thrown around like a ragdoll.
“I can't move!” Arch nodded, and clomped out of the building, stumbling as the station spun, finding the suits and bringing her one. She messily put it on, thanking him profusely and biting her tongue a few times as the station shook.
“This is going to be a messy landing.” She said through the suit's comm, as she sealed the helmet.
They broke through.
Most of the mushroom was gone. In fact, nearly all of it. As the last bits tore off, a single building, complete with the surrounding flat expanse of concrete around it, floated down gently through space, until it crashed inelegantly on Triton, the moon of Neptune. Finally, it was all over. They were here, in the prime universe. The station was dark, the station was silent. Nothing moved on the moon. But they were there.
Imagine you took your first look at truth. Lets use the most tired example in philosophy by Plato: imagine you were in a cave, shackled so you could only look at a wall. Shadows of objects moving behind you appear on the wall, projected by a fire behind you. You give names to those objects turned shadows, and that is your world. One day, you are let out of the cave, your shackles broken. You see the world outside of it, no longer shadows but whole. Plato is probably there yelling at the narrator about misusing his story. Ignoring Plato, you take in the world, and the world you saw before was a pale imitation, a mere shadow of what it really could be. The shapes are more real, more formed. Now imagine you look down at your hands, and you see you yourself are made of shadows.
You are just as much a lie as the scatterings on the wall. You were them all along.
Imagine you are Graelyn Scythes, staring out at an empty waste on Triton, your breath catching in the re-filtered air of your suit. There is nothing, and it what there is means somehow more than the most meaningful moments of your life. A piece of sand holds more weight than the shadow of a mountain.
Now imagine you look down at your hand, and you are that shadow on the wall.
I imagine you'd scream.
Not that it matters, for there is only silence amidst the shadows.
* * * *
Chair Graelyn, no longer in a chair, sat on the roof of her new home. It had taken some odd lying to get through the whole situation, but now she had a room, and a cat, and a family. Sitting on the roof of her house, finally in real warm clothes, she stared up at the moon. Technically, she still had one in her pocket. She smiled at the shining white disk.
“Hey you,” she called up to it, “I guess we have a lot in common.”
Next week: Our heroes are in the Prime Universe... but who else is there?
Thanks to surprise Oral surgery, the audio version is running a week behind again. Apologies. However, next week's 10kd is going to be incredible, you really won't want to miss it. It will be one to remember! Till then, have lots of fun with this chapter, because the title should tell you enough about the wild ride this week :)! -Jim
Art by Annie Zhu, Story by James Wylder
All chapters are also available as an audio podcast from the Southgate Media Group.
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If you're new to 10kd, you can read the story from the start for free below:
Chapter 18: Graelyn and Arch in the Super Swell Beach Party!
The first thing her feet touched was perfectly textured sand. It was just the right texture, just the right consistency, she wanted to take her shoes off and shove her toes in it. She smiled down at her feet, this could be fun. The sun was warm on her skin, and the air was fresh with the smell of the sea.
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!
Audio version will be a little late this week as I've been sick. -Jim
Art by Annie Zhu, Story by James Wylder
All chapters are also available as an audio podcast from the Southgate Media Group.
You can also subscribe to the podcast version on iTunes and your RSS feed easily from libsyn:
If you're new to 10kd, you can read the story from the start for free below:
Chapter 17: Necessary Dinosaurs
Her fingers ran through the blades of grass like they were on the back of a beloved pet, her eyes closed, her cheek against the same grass, glasses carelessly askew. She could fall asleep here, but it occurred to her she had in fact just woken up, and perhaps she should at least pretend she wanted to do something other than sleep today. Rolling over, she slowly pushed herself up and brushed the grass off her face. Arch was a few meters away, either asleep or staring at the liquid clouds above them.
“Good Morning.” Arch said, and Graelyn wondered exactly how long she had slept. She pushed her glasses up and rubbed her eyes. She ha that weird feeling you get when you sleep the night in your clothes, the feeling that you need to change them, like they've absorbed just too much of your sweat and they've settled somewhat wrong around your body.
“Did I sleep the night on this hill?” She said, and Arch nodded.
“Apparently a lot of people do that here. There were tons of those Dawn folks just sleeping out here under the stars last night. The ground here is really comfortable, whatever that means.” She looked up at the sky, and watched someone in swim trunks jump from a floating island into one of the liquid clouds. Their friends were already swimming in it.
“How do they get down from the cloud-things without hurting themselves? How do the islands and clouds float like that?” She mused.
“Always skeptical as well. But clearly it works, I just don't know how.”
“Don't think too hard about it.” John Vice said suddenly from behind her.
“Bwah!?” Graelyn said as she bolted up in surprise and stumbled a few steps down the hill.
“Er, sorry.” Johnathan said, holding out a plate of breakfast food and two milk packages. “I uh, thought you'd like breakfast.”
“Breakfasts are not meant to make me fall down hills!”
“Touche. Well, anyways here's some food. The plate was stacked up with enough food for the two of them, though Arch found it awkward to stuff it in his mouth under his mask. He seemed not entirely at ease with the concept of chewing either.
“Why don't you just take your mask off?” Johnathan asked.
“Its considered rude to show your face where I come from. Faces are private things. You don't share them with anyone but your closest loved ones.” He nodded, and reached for one of Graelyn's grapes, and she pushed his hand away.
“Okay, my turn.” Graelyn said, “How do the cloud-swimming pools and islands float?”
“The simplest way to explain it is the laws of reality are different here. There are different rules about how objects interact with each other. Gravity has different rules, for instance. What exactly those rules are is beyond me, but they're a thing.”
“Okay, so if the laws of reality are so different here, are there some vastly different native species to it? Really alien things?” Vice looked a bit uncomfortable.
“Er, did Kinan really not tell you how Spiral came about? Jesus that woman is either totally terse or giving you the longest speech...” Graelyn and Arch shook their heads.
“Was she supposed to tell us something?” She asked.
“Er, yes. Spiral isn't a natural plane of reality. Kinan made it.” Graelyn dropped her milk carton, and it spilled over her lap. She cursed and stood up, trying to wipe it up.
“Ugh, damn it. Okay, I must have misheard you. I thought you said she made this place. Do you mean she ordered the construction of the buildings or...?”
“No, I mean she made it. You'd have to ask her how she did it, but I know she doesn’t think she could do it again. Kinan has had a hard life, harder than she'll tell you. If I was her I'd have just retired here and let the rest of the Universe go about its business, but she isn't that kind of person.”
Arch finished chewing a muffin, and joined in, “When you say she had a hard life, does that have something to do with the way she talks?” Johnathan nodded.
“She got some sort of brain damage when she was much younger. Don't ask her about that though. She doesn't like remembering it. She lost a lot of the muscle control in her face, and it slowed her speech and slurred it... I never knew her before it happened, that's just how Kinan has always been, but she used to be a beautiful singer, or so I'm told.” In the distance, a group of hoodied figures moved towards a crystals circle in the ground.
“Does she know you're telling us all this?” Arch asked, concerned.
“Of course. I'm not into outing people's personal lives. Its my job to tell new recruits this stuff so they don't bother her with it. You'd be surprised how many people want to ask her dumb stuff like if she's fit to be the leader here because of that. Its good to clear it up.”
“We wouldn't ask her something like that.” Arch said. Graelyn snapped in Arch's direction and nodded.
“Glad to hear it. Still, now you know what you know.” The figures in the distance got close to the circle, and a blue swirl erupted from it.
“What's going on down there?” Graelyn asked. Vice grabbed one of her grapes while she was distracted, and popped it in his mouth.
“Looks like we have visitors.”
“Returning people from missions or something?” He shook his head.
“No, doesn't look like that.” Figures began to step out of the portal, and Graelyn saw that Kinan, Miranda, and Jenny the woman in the poodle skirt with the katana were all in the greeting party. The first people to step out were all dressed in what looked like coats from the American Revolution, but Green. They were even wearing the appropriate foot and leg wear, but also had some strange gauntlets covered in crystals on one arm, and eye wear that seemed to contain some needless gears and gizmos. The gauntlets were aesthetically similar, and it all gave the impression they had raided a clock shop on their way over.
Following them were a group of people in black robes, similar to the robes that man who'd shown up in Atlantis base with Ares wore. Arch and Graelyn both got much more interested when they came through, but were also sort of confused. Without asking for any explanation, it was fairly obvious they were some sort of cultural branch off. Though what that meant was anyone's guess, really. They also were wearing the gauntlets, but theirs were aesthetically different, less cobbled together, more sleek, the crystals carefully cut to fit carefully shaped settings. The three groups walked to meet each other, and began a triangular conversion.
“Who are they?” She asked John.
“They're some of our rivals. Members of some of the less powerful groups trying to influence the universes.”
“Are they here to ask you for help? Since you're more powerful?” He laughed, and pulled his knees up to his chest.
“Powerful? We're definitely not that.”
“You took down the government of Earth.”
“We gave some people with an army the tools to take down the government of one Earth. We enabled some people who already would have been doing what we helped them to do, just shortened the time scale.” Graelyn looked over at Arch and frowned. She wished she could read his face for reassurance.
“You talk so casually about this, like the power to do what you did on Songbird's world isn't... Massive. You changed the fate of a whole universe.”
“Well yeah, but its just one universe.”
Scale. Its a fairly important thing. The scale of how you perceive the world affects everything about you understand it, after all. Lets say you grew up in a small town, the kind of super tiny place where nearly everyone is the same ethnicity and no buildings are higher than two stories, then you go to a city, a big multicultural metropolis full of skyscrapers and more people in your sight passing randomly down the street than you'd seen before in your life. This would naturally change your view of the scale of the universe.
In same way, if someone who had just helped violently overthrow the government of an entire planet, interfered in its history, and then extracted you from that planet by threatening its government told you that the group he worked for “wasn't powerful” and then told you it was “just one universe”, this might change your sense of scale.
If you were Graelyn, you might sit there wide eyed, your jaw loose, staring. If you were Arch, you might shake your head, and say something like: “You can't be so cavalier about lives. Just because there are a lot of universes doesn't mean each person there isn't still a person.” If you were Graelyn, you might then awkwardly point at Arch as if to say “yeah, what he said!” and if you were Johnathan Vice, you might frown, and reply, “I'm not being Cavalier about it...”
“Oh, but you are. Do you think people are replaceable?”
Johnathan scratched his head, “Er, well, they are.”
“No, they aren't.”
“No, let me explain...” He took a breath, “They are literally replaceable. As in, we've replaced people before.”
“...Go on.” Vice stood up, and looked down at the triangle of talkers. A man in robes seemed to be yelling at Kinan, a woman in robes behind him looked awkward. Both Kinan and a man in a colonial Green coat stood placidly. Jenny was being physically held back by Miranda.
“We were trying to influence a world very similar to the one you were on. It was a bit different though, the Revolution wasn't communist it was... Socialist? Honestly I can't really remember. It all blurs together. But those people you met, Alice and her gang? They died in a vtol crash. The parts failed and the pilot wasn't paying attention. We checked forward in history, and saw with them dead the whole movement fell apart. We tried changing its history, but well, there actually is only so much you can do unless you're some sort of lord of time. We couldn't prevent their deaths. But Kinan realized that no one actually saw them die, the vtol crashed in an empty field somewhere. So... What if we cleaned up the bodies, made sure no one found them, and just... Popped in a different Alice MacLeod?”
“You can't be serious.”
“I'm serious. This is a war, and Kinan is an interdimenstional warlord. She has an army, and I'm in it. So Jenny, Miranda, Joseph, he's the Pottawatomie guy, and I all slipped into a reality where the revolution was losing, losing badly, but where all of them were still alive. We talked to the versions of them there, and convinced them to abandon their reality for a new one. There was no hope there, they couldn't do any good there but die an inglorious death. We dropped the charred bodies off of their doubles into their reality, and shipped them over to the new one. They took over where the others had left off, and liberated Earth for their cause.”
“Didn't they miss their home? The people they'd abandoned?” Arch asked. Vice shrugged.
“I never asked.”
“You should have asked.”
There was something off about this whole thing, something that didn't make sense to Graelyn, she tried to put the pieces together. The man in robes pointed at Kinan angrily, she said something back to him, and then to green coat, who nodded. They began to move back from each other.
“We saved billions of people by what we did. I don't have any regrets.”
“They were still different people, people thought they were the same, sure, but they weren't.”
“They thought they were, isn't that all that matters.” Arch's coating reddened.
“Hold up,” Graelyn cut in, “If you guys don't care about whether or not the Revolution wins, what exactly is your criteria for changing history?”
“Kinan showed you a fallen world, didn't she?” Graelyn nodded. “Anytime a world develops the ability to link to other realities, two things happen: they begin to synch up with the prime reality they are attached to, and they open themselves up for invasion by the Council. If we break the chain of history, diverge the narrative of that universe enough, it stops... Synching up. It becomes harder to mount a large scale invasion. We chose who wins based on who is least likely to want to build inter reality travel.”
Graelyn stood up to face him, she clenched a fist, she'd expected so much more, “That's it? That's it?!? You don't have any higher purpose, no ideal you're fighting for? Its just... A cold practical decision?”
“Our principle is saving the 10,000 Dawns. Our principle is saving the most lives possible.”
“Guys, I think you might want to watch this.” Arch said softly. They turned back to the grass field below where Kinan had her sword drawn, and was spinning it. Jenny and the woman in the robe, where standing to the side. The man in robes had his gauntleted arm extended, and energy was swirling around it.
“What are they doing?”
“They're going to duel.” Kinan moved into several positions, flexing and stretching, going through the motions. She made every movement look so fluid and natural, you'd think that it was second nature to every human till you tried to do it yourself. Then she stopped, and turned to Jenny. Her mouth moved, and then Jenny shook her head. The man in the black robes and the woman in black did the same.
“What are they doing?”
“Jenny is Kinan's second, just like in old duels you read about in school. She and Lawrencia were trying to negotiate a truce, clearly it didn't work. Now they're going to fight.”
“Is she going to kill him?” Graelyn asked.
“You don't wonder if he'll kill her?” Graelyn shuddered.
“I don't really want to wonder either.”
Kinan gave a final flourish of her sword, and stepped forward, as the man in the hood did. They began to circle each other. The man in green counted down, they could tell because he held up fingers. When they reached 0, they sprung. Kinan launched herself in the air as hoods held up his arm to unleash a streak of green lightning through the sky. Kinan twisted through the air and spun around it, pushing her foot out to land a kick on the man's shoulder, then as they both fell she drew her sword across his chest to sever him in two, but he put his gauntlet between the sword and his chest, causing a clang that could be heard from all the way up the hill. Kinan moved inhumanly quick, using the push back from the blocked blow she spun in the air to land on her feet and began charging at hoods, who began to shoot lighting at her, but she leapt to the left and right perfectly out of range of the electricity, never losing a step as she landed. The man began to back up as she encroached on him, and Kinan moved her sword into a thrusting position. Hoods dodged, barely, throwing his left arm up in the air and sidestepping the blow. Kinan didn't hesitate, she turned her wrists and brought the sword up into the man's armpit. The man looked shocked, as the blood started trickling down her sword. She didn't stop. She pulled the sword back, and put her foot forward, and around the back of his knee, while she brought the sword around, and down on the other arm in a carefully controlled blow that cut the straps holding the heavy gauntlet in place, and pushed it down off his arm, leaving a bloody scrape where the blade took of some of his skin on the way off. She pulled her foot back at the same time, while shoving the man. He dropped to the ground, bloody and dazed. A person in black robes began administering medical aid while Jenny yelled something and the woman in black robes made a clear and broad gesture: they yield.
“Is this how you solve all your disputes? Bloodshed?”
“He'll be fine. Greggor is a moron, this isn't the first time Kinan's had to kick his ass.” Kinan looked up like she'd heard them, and nodded, wiping the blood off her sword onto a cloth Jenny had handed her.
“You didn't answer my question.” He sighed.
“No, this isn't how we settle all our problems, but like I said, this is a war. Its better we solve some of these things in duels than waste time killing lots of each other.”
“I suppose if she dies, you'd just get another Kinan then.” Vice smiled, and Graelyn felt a bit patronized.
“There's only one Kinan. But now that she's finished down there, she'd like me to take you guys to her. She has something to show you.”
Kinan was waiting for them on the top of a hill, watching a bubble of water filled with swimmers pass by. A few people on a floating island waved down to the swimmers from it, and a few leapt down to join in the fun, splashing into the floating bubble of water. Graelyn, Arch and John climbed the hill, and stood behind her, expecting her to say something, after a moment, Graelyn coughed loudly. Kinan didn't look behind her, just patted the grass next to her. Taking the hint, they took a seat.
“So, your mission.” She began abruptly. “We've found a universe we're fairly certain has a back door cut into the labyrinth where you can access a special bifrost into the prime reality. It will be on the edge of the 10,000 Dawns, so expect things to be different there. Very different. I can't follow you, none of us can, for fear someone will notice. Part of the reason you'll be able to get in is no one is looking for you, but as I said before even if no one would notice me I couldn't enter that path. Its blocked from me.” Graelyn pushed her feet into the dirt gently so she left the impressions of her heels in it.
“Kinan, if this is a war, then are people going to try to kill us? Duel us?” Kinan stared off at the sky.
“Not duel you, no. In all likelihood attempts to stop you will be more subtle than that. But I can't predict what they'll be.”
“I don't think you've been entirely honest with us.” Arch said, “About what you're doing.” Kinan sighed, and looked at Arch.
“You're right. Because the truth is a bit odd.”
“We can take it.” She held his gaze.
“The truth is, Arch, that all reality is is a story. This war, the dawns, its all fiction.”
Arch took in what she said, and laughed, his skin lighting up in yellow smiley faces laughing along with him.
“We're flesh and blood, or flesh and oil and blood, we're not a story.” Kinan pulled out a a fist full of grass and threw it into the breeze.
“What happens when you die, Arch?”
“You go to the underworld.” Kinan's eye twitched, whatever that meant.
“What do you think Graelyn?” She shrugged. Kinan continued: “When you die, people talk about you. You stop being who you were, you become just what people think about you. Your good intentions, your dreams, the things you did alone, they vanish. You become a two dimensional caricature of who you were. You become a story. We have the unfortunate case of becoming stories while we're still alive.” Kinan snapped her fingers, and a gentle rumble began from the distance, as a shape began moving towards them. “When the prime reality changes... It changes us. It rewrites us. My job is to make different worlds so different from the prime reality that... You can't reconcile them. The differences are too pronounced, the changes can't occur. If the changes are small enough, they can get smoothed over, and the story can form part of the prime reality's structure. I'm fighting a war for control of our own narrative, our own story. The prime reality is the biblical canon, we need to be its apocrypha.”
“We need to be Tubol-Cain...” Arch said.
“Its something Graelyn said.”
“Yeah, its a story that's not in the Bible: this guy named Tubol-Cain hung out on Noah's ark, hidden on it. He survived the great flood by being extraneous.”
“Then yes, we need to be Tubol-Cain.” The shape on the horizon grew closer. It had legs. “When you break into the Prime reality, it will change everything for us.”
“If we do.” Graelyn pessimised.
“Yes, if. But if you make it, we'll be influencing their story. If you can make a change in their narrative, they won't be able to overwrite us, because they'll need us to exist. Do you understand?”
“Honestly?” Graelyn asked.
“Honestly.” Kinan replied.
“That sounds like pseudo scientific mambo-jumbo.” Kinan shrugged.
“Hence why I didn't phrase it that way before. But I see our guest has arrived.” Kinan gestured toward what had once been the distant shape. It became clear now that it was a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
“What.” Graelyn said.
“Hello!” Said Arch.
“What I need to learn now is what is different about your universe, every universe has some special power in it, whether you know it or not. It can be bold like fireballs, or subtle like the clegging in Songbird's world.” Graelyn raised her hand. Kinan blinked, and then called on her.
“Yes, that is great, but why do you need a T-Rex.”
“Well how else am I supposed to terrify you into manifesting whatever your skill is? It will be easier for you than Arch, because he's so modified. Here take this wristband.” She dropped a band in Graelyn's lap.
“Seriously. This is part of your training. I'm going to chase you, and you're going to try to escape.” Graelyn took her glasses off, and rubbed them clean, then put them back on.
“You can't be serious.”
“You'll be totally safe.” Graelyn remembered how insanely quick she'd been in the duel. She could probably kill a T-Rex in a fair fight with that sword... Then it occurred to her.
“Kinan, you said that you'd be chasing me, not the dinosaur...” But Kinan was already crossing her legs, and closing her eyes, she seemed to be meditating. The dinosaur began to sway gently. Graelyn quickly threw off her suit jacket, leaving the hoodie on, and slipped on the wrist band. Okay, training, this was just like gym class. Which she hadn't been particularly good at. But she could do this. Right?
Kinan opened her eyes and mouth, and they all glowed golden. The T-Rex's eyes flashed the same color, and Arch looked at her “Okay we can do this together.”
“No, if this is something she needs to know... Then I'll do this.” the T-Rex stomped towards her, and Graelyn ran. The big stompy footprints followed her, and she could smell its breath, rancid like rotten meat. She ran hard, and felt its jaws close behind her, nicking her hood.
Was the dinosaur actually going to try to eat her?
Kinan said she was going to chase her... So she was what, possessing the dinosaur? That was ridiculous, but it had to be the case. Huffing, running her arms back and forth, she tried to think of what she could do to outrun the dinosaur, her wristband hummed and beeped. There was nothing she could think of, no special power. So she just kept running, the dinosaur nipping at her heels. She ran and ran, till she couldn't run anymore. She collapsed, panting, and felt the warm jaws of the dino reach around her. It didn't bite down though, instead she found herself scooped up like a ball by a golden retriever. The T-Rex turned around, and headed back towards the hill, stomping all the way.
The big lizard dropped her down gently, if a little smelly and moist, next to Kinan, and then stepped back politely. Kinan's eyes stopped glowing, and she took in a deep breath, looking down at her human hands as if checking she was in her own body. Arch put his hand on her shoulder and she nodded to note she was okay.
“Okay, that was pretty crazy. Were you the dinosaur?” Kinan nodded.
“I learned how to do that a long time ago. Its a difficult technique. But it didn't seem like any showed up in you.” She reached out and looked at the band on Graelyn's wrist, her eyes looked confused. “Something should have though, surely. The band can usually detect them when you get enough adrenaline...” Kinan removed the band, and scrolled through its options.
“Was trying to eat me really necessary!?!?”
“I wasn't going to eat you, don't be melodramatic.” Kinan looked back at Arch and Graelyn. “Its not reading anything.”
“Okay, question about your pseudo-science here: what exactly is that detecting differences from?”
“The prime universe. Its about as boring a generic place as you can get, till it started stealing things from more interesting universes. But your universe... There's nothing this can detect. You don't have any powers it can detect different from Prime... So why would you be linked to it at all?”
“I don't know, I'm not the sorcerer.”
“I'm not a sorcerer.”
“Right, you're a warlord.”
“Yes.” Kinan said seriously. “But that doesn't stop this being odd. If you'd had a special technique, we could have trained you in it, pushed the boundaries of it. But you don't.”
“So we're not special.”
“I never said that.”
“But we're not.” Kinan rolled her eyes.
“It just changes the mission perimeters. You'll have to be careful. The prime universe is a dangerous place. You'll be trying to get to the year 2227, on the moon of Neptune, Triton.”
“There's nothing on Triton, other than made up monsters to scare children.” Graelyn said.
“I'm afraid there is. That's where a probe from another universe will come through, checking it out. You need to capture it, and get it to someone who can analyze it in their universe. That will change their narrative, change it to one where the opening up of their world into other dimensions isn't something that passively happens to them.”
Arch rose up, dusting himself off.
“That's a pretty big change.”
“It will change everything.” Kinan said. “If you do this, you'll create a whole new story.”
“And you'll send us home.”
“And I'll send you home.”
“Then what are we waiting for, I just want to get this over with.” Graelyn said. Kinan stood up, and offered a hand to Graelyn, who ignored it and got up on her own.
“Go eat, go sleep, I'll drop you off there in the morning.” Kinan began to walk off, “Try to enjoy your life for ten seconds.” Graelyn stared silently after her, Kinan's boots leaving a trail of footprints in the soft soil as she left, the grass giving gently underfoot.
“We could go swimming.” Arch said, pointing at the bubbles.
“I suppose we could have fun.” Said Graelyn dejectedly, “But just this once.”
Kinan came to get them the next morning, followed by Johnathan and Miranda Vice. They'd spent the previous evening swimming in the floating bubbles, diving off of the floating islands into them. Graelyn swam through the bubble watching the dinosaurs walk below through through the bottom of the bubble. She tried to figure out the physics of this world, but gave up when she realized Arch could somehow swimming the bubble to without sinking, a fact that seemed to confuse him as well. She laughed, and took in a lung full of water on accident, which her body somehow processed into air. That was the real moment she gave up trying to figure out the laws of this world, and just enjoyed the feeling of being in the water. It was quiet in the bubble, her hair floating free in the water. She could have stayed there forever, but of course they eventually got hungry. Climbing out of the bubble onto a ladder that dipped down into it from a passing island, they looked for something to eat and settled on some sort of vat grown shrimp meat for dinner, cooked by a woman in a sari who put the meat on kebabs with pinnacle and green peppers, grilling them to add a smoky flavor. Each bite was juicy, but still firm to the teeth, and perfectly complimented the other flavors on the kebab. Graelyn drank some kind of fruit flavored tea, while Arch just had water. They'd slept under the stars a second time, the lights in the sky winking as if they knew that such nights were rare and to be enjoyed.
“I see you found the swim suit dispensary.” Kinan said as she set down the tray of breakfast food. Graelyn picked up a plate with a Belgian waffle on it, then a jug of syrup which she drenched it in, and dug in. Arch ate paste.
“It was cleverly disguised with a large sign that said 'Swimsuit dispensary.” Kinan nodded.
“We're very good hiders here.”
“So when do we leave?” Arch said.
“Whenever you're ready. We've packed bags for you with what you might need. Swimsuits are apparently a part of that.”
“What do you mean?” Graelyn said with her mouth full.
“I mean we'll be dropping you off on a beach.” Graelyn and Arch exchanged looks: not the worst place to be left off, not at all.
Kinan opened up a portal on the field, throwing a handful of the crystal dust into the breeze, and swirling her hand, as if she was (and she probably was) controlling the wind to spin the dust into a circle, and gestured toward it. Graelyn had her swimsuit on under her usual clothes, with the Dawn hoodie on beneath the jacket. A pack was slung over her shoulder. Arch had on a pair of swim trunks, which were of course entirely unnecessary for him, hidden under his usual long coat and his hat.
“Good luck.” Kinan said, “I'm counting on you.” Graelyn smiled faintly, and walked toward the portal. Arch waved goodbye to everyone, and followed her.
She looked into the swirling white of the portal, and took a deep breath.
She just had to do this, and she could go home. She could get her cat back, and just fade away.
No one would have to notice her again.
But as she stepped into the swirl, it occurred to her that that was probably just denial.
Tune in next week as Graelyn and Arch's mission begins... And not in the way they'd expect!
I really want to share this wonderful comic made by my friend Annie Zhu (aka Cazdinal), and her collaborator Tumblr user Saintoswald with you guys. Annie of course does all of the wonderful art for 10,000 Dawns right on this site, and does a lot of incredible Doctor Who art, so with the finale of Doctor Who series 9 this weekend now is the perfect time. You can find more of her art at her Tumblr page: http://cardinalcapaldi.tumblr.com_. Spoilers: This comic is adorable. -Jim
Welcome back to 10,000 Dawns! We hope you enjoyed the hiatus stories, but now we're back to the real deal-- Graelyn and Arch off on inter-dimensional adventures! This is a meaty chapter to (the audio version is over an hour long!) so you'll have a lot to dig into. From here on out there will be a chapter every week till the story reaches its conclusion-- so buckle up!
Oh, and did you see our announcement last week about other 10kd spin off projects?
http://www.jameswylder.com/home/10000-dawns-news-from-the-future cause if you didn't, hey, there's a link right there.
I'd like to thank Annie for all her great work on the art, and also the producer of the audio version, Rob Southgate, for all his support in helping get this project off the ground. 10,000 Dawns has been a team effort, and their work really has mattered.
If you enjoy our return, please talk to us in the comments! We'd love to hear your thoughts! But I've prattled on long enough-- get reading! -Jim
Art by Annie Zhu, Story by James Wylder
All chapters are also available as an audio podcast from the Southgate Media Group.
You can also subscribe to the podcast version on iTunes and your RSS feed easily from libsyn:
If you're new to 10kd, you can read the story from the start for free below:
Chapter 16: The World Was Wider, the Sky Was Bolder
If you open up a history book, you'll find someone's opinion about the nature of a person in history. Were they a rebel or a terrorist? A dictator or a stalwart against chaos? Did their hand grasp the oppressed in the drowning waters, or shove their head down to watch the bubbles? The same person can be so many different stories, and its up to you to decide which one to trust. So if you could see every version of a person, every ramification of choices they made or didn't make, would that give you a more complete view of the person, or just muddy the waters with things that person couldn't have known themselves. I'm not just waxing poetic here, this is what Graelyn was thinking as they stepped through portal after portal.
Graelyn had found the trips she'd taken through other portals disorienting, trippy even, at the worst terrifying, however the Portals that Kinan made were none of those things. Graelyn's stomach churned, and her skin pricked up, plus her ears popped and she lost track of gravity for a moment, but really compared to the other trips it was a walk in the park. They had come out the other side into a forest filled with tall trees with broad branches. The sound of owls hooting filled the space. They'd taken a few detours on their trip, and Graelyn hadn't actually thought to ask the obvious question yet.
“You're about to ask how I made that portal.”
“And how it didn't make you sick.” Graelyn just nodded. The members of Dawn filing out through the portal with them looked non-chalant.
“I've had a lot of experience with these. More than anyone else, and that's not talking myself up unfairly. Do you know where we are?” Arch had scanned the area, naturally, and responded.
“Wooded area, filled with large birds.”
“I kind of expected you to say 'avian creatures'.” John Vice said.
“Why would I say that?”
“You know, it sounds sci-fi.”
“They're just birds.” Arch replied.
“Just birds? Why, I should practically be insulted.” A large owl said, poking its head out from a hole in the side of a tree. By large owl, it should be explained we mean an owl 4 to 5 feet tall. Its huge eyes were shiny in the light.
“Ah, Manuel, how are you today?” Miranda asked, and reached into a bag, pulling out a large rat she threw to the owl. It caught it, and took a few seconds to snarf it down its beak.
“Delicious. I'm well. The forest is healthy, little to complain about.”
“We want to pass through the usual way, is that okay?” Miranda asked. The owl bobbed it's head.
“Of course. I see you have new ones with you. Anyone I know?” Miranda looked back at them.
“Is there a Graelyn Scythes Owl or an Archimedes Von Ahnerabe Owl?”
“They made human Graelyns and Arches to? How funny. Its hard to imagine them being anything other than owls you know!”
“I'm an owl here?” Graelyn ejaculated.
“Why of course.” Manuel the Owl said, “There's an Owl of all of you somewhere, except Kinan that is.” Graelyn and Arch exchanged a look.
“Why not Kinan?” Kinan gave the owl a look, and he ignored the question.
“I should go get them, keep walking through to the clearing, Dawn is always welcome in the Left-Winged forest.” Manuel Owl took flight, his mighty wings carrying him through the air. Kinan gave barely a gesture at all, and they kept moving. Little owl eyes peeped out of holes and nests. Some landed on branches above them to look down.
“I can't actually tell if any of these owls are supposed to be people we know.” Graelyn whispered.
“I can.” Said Arch, “I'm used to picking up people from things other than their face.” Graelyn supposed that made a lot of sense, judging by the snippet of footage she'd watched of where he came from.
“Like look, there's Doctor Hiriwa from your city.” Graelyn squinted at the owl, and she could sort of see what he was saying. The owl moved a bit like her. She wasn't sure if that actually proved anything, but it was interesting at least. They pressed on to the clearing, where there were perches set up in big rings like bleachers, which were filling up with owls. John and Miranda seemed to be taking point here, throwing the giant owls rats and mice from their bags (which definitely were not big enough to hold the amount of rats that were being chucked out of them.
“Welcome Owls of the Left-Winged forest, I'm Miranda Vice, this is Johnathan Vice-”
“Who are you? We are they!” hooted two owls, this was apparently a running gag because even though it wasn't actually funny everyone laughed, or did what Graelyn and Arch assumed was the 4 to 5 foot tall owl equivalent of laughing.
“And we are passing through with two new humans. Graelyn Scythes and Archimedes VonAhnerabe.” Two owls fluttered off their perches, and landed on the ground where they waddled on their talons up to Graelyn and Arch. The owl that was Arch seemed to have a mask, as the feathers on its face were white with a rim of gray around them. The other owl was, naturally for a Graelyn, gray. Their feathers were thick and deep, and their eyes the size of tennis balls.
“Youuu, are I?” The Graelyn owl said curiously. Graelyn felt the need to Curtsey, like she was Alice in wonderland.
“I never thought I would be an owl, anywhere.” She mused.
“Nor I a primate.” The owl moved its head to the side, and the two mirrored each other as they inspected each other. The Arch owl and Arch just looked at each other and nodded.
“You must feel so limited only able to walk on the ground. Doesn't that create difficulties for you?” Graelyn thought for a moment, “I've never really thought about that. I suppose that since I never had wings it doesn't seem like their absence is something I've put much thought into.” The owl bobbed up and down. “Do you regret not having opposable thumbs?”
“Hoo... I suppose not.” She moved from side to side on her perch, and opened and closed her left talons in thought.
“Arch, Graelyn.” Kinan said plainly, “Its time for us to keep moving. I have more things to show you.”
“Seeing myself as an owl is pretty spectacular.” Graelyn replied. Kinan shrugged.
“I suppose.” Arch looked around at the throng.
“Where's your owl Kinan?” Kinan looked away from them.
“There isn't one.” Arch and Graelyn looked at each other. She was clearly not saying something about something.
“I suppose we have to go then, owl selves.” Graelyn said.
“It was good briefly meeting you.” Arch added.
“Youuuu tooooooo.” They hooted in reply, and the pair of them waved as the owls bobbed a sort of goodbye. Kinan had already started walking, with most of Dawn following her instantly. Twigs cracked under their feet as they rushed to catch up, and Kinan reached into her bag, and pulled out a handful of blue dust that sparkled faintly in the light, and threw it in the air, running her hand through it lightly till it cracked into a swirling blue portal.
“Okay that looks like magic.” Arch muttered. He was right, it did. But there was a method to the madness Graelyn was sure of it. Magic wasn't real, and even if it was, Kinan didn't give off the vibes of being a wizard. She was so practical, so intentional. But that wasn't a very logical way to think about that, Graelyn was simply pouring through the mannerisms of wizards in stories she had read. There was always an element of whimsy or oddity around them in some way, even if they were orderly, that Kinan just didn't project. But what did Graelyn know anyways? This was foreign territory, and she needed very much to understand it. Stepping through the portal, Graelyn found herself and Arch alone with Kinan on the other side. Kinan was facing them, just as stoic as always.
“Where are the others?”
“I sent them home. We'll get there in time. But I need to show you things.' Graelyn looked down at her feet and saw a long crystal walkway, filled with what looked like blue sand.... Like what Kinan had thrown to make the portal. All around them there was an infinite star scape, but they could clearly breathe.
“Okay, this is different.” Arch said, “Where are we?”
“This is the bifrost. It has a couple names. Some call it the Labyrinth, some call it the back room or back stage. Pull away the curtains, and here we are underneath the universe. I call it the bifrost though. Its evocative.” She said. Graelyn knelt down and felt the crystal under her feet with her hands. It was definitely real.... She peered over the edge, and there was a vast depth with more stars.
“If this is between universes, why are there stars?” She inquired, grabbing her glasses quickly before they slid off her face into the void.
“There aren't. The space between universes is a place you are not supposed to go. If you couldn't already tell from the fact that there is a walkway, this is an artificial construct. Simply one more elaborate than you can dream up with concrete or steel. It just looks like there are stars.” Arch gently grabbed Graelyn by the back of the collar as she tried to peer under the bridge and nearly slid off.
“So, you built this?” Arch said.
“No. I just use it.” Arch was having a hard time reading Kinan. Her face just didn't move like it was supposed to, the more he looked at her the more he got the impression she didn't just have a good poker face, but that she couldn't move her face much for other reasons. Her slow, monotone speech being perhaps unintentional as well. At first he'd just thought it was an act, a way of holding back the liars and manipulators in the various worlds he met, but he was certain this was the best her body could do at expressing itself. It only got more confirmed as she kept talking as Graelyn quietly asked him to help her up cause she couldn't actually get up on her own from her position over the side.
“I'm going to show you what I'm fighting for, what I've given everything for, and I want you to understand why its so important to me that you get into the prime reality. You've seen a few alternate worlds so far. What have you thought?”
Graelyn dusted herself off and regained her footing. “Well, the owl reality was nice. I really enjoyed the Halloween reality.”
“Yes.” Kinan agreed flatly. “That was fun.” She finished without inflection.
“Songbird's world was... Scary in a lot of ways. I was in so much danger.” Kinan nodded.
“Not to mention the ones we went through ever so briefly,” Arch added, “The so called... Prime reality, with all the dead things in it. The little glimpses we saw of other worlds. And yeah, Songbird's world... I hope we don't end up in a place that dangerous again.”
“You thought you were in danger there?” Kinan said, and turned to continue walking down the walkway. They kept on silently for maybe half an hour, when Graelyn realized one of the 'stars' was getting... Closer.
“Each of those 'stars' is a door.” She said.
“More detail please.”
“No.” She reached a hand up, and the star accelerated, while a side path of the same material began extending from the walkway. She turned and stepped onto it, followed by the curious pair. The white disk met the end of the path, seemingly two dimensional, and then caved in on itself; it was suddenly a hold in the darkness, leading to an empty room made of the same crystal. One by one they hopped through the hole. There were no ill effects as they did so.
“The people who built the bifrost never intended for others to travel it, so for us to use it is complicated. No one can open up a door who hasn't already visited the reality it leads to. Its a silly rule, but its an effective security measure. Naturally that rule doesn't apply to the people who built it.” Kinan ran her hands along the walls, until she found something she was looking for (though what that was Graelyn didn't know) and pressed her hand on it. The crystal on the wall shaped itself into a wooden door, which Kinan turned the door knob of, but didn't open.
“Lesson one. There is a reality where anything is commonplace.” She shoved the door open and they found themselves in a dilapidated warehouse. It was very anticlimactic.
“Well... I think in my reality old warehouses are pretty common to.” Kinan gave her a blank look that still spoke volumes so she shut up.
“These doors all lead into carefully chosen locations that don't draw attention so you can move in and out of them without attracting suspicion. Close the door on your way out.” They did so, and walked past the rows of old boxes and messy crates. When Kinan opened the warehouse door to the sunlit streets of this new world though, Graelyn and Arch both gasped. There were frozen arcs in the sky, each melting in the sun. Some of the arcs were... Forming, and Arch soon spotted and pointed out to Graelyn that moving on the edges of the arcs were people.
“They're pushing themselves through the air with ice.” She let her jaw go a little loose. “Its amazing.” She got the impression from Kinan's eyes she might be smiling.
“It is.” Kinan gestured for them to come close to her, and then gesturing downwards with her hands formed ice beneath them. Graleyn gasped, and the three of them rose up into the sky, higher and higher, the city below them stretching out. It looked like Montreal.
“I didn't know Canadians could do this!” Graelyn joked.
“I didn't either...” Arch replied.
“That was a joke.”
“In this reality,” Kinan interjected, “everyone can create ice like this. Its normal.”
“So you were born here?” Arch asked.
“No.” She said without looking back.
“Then how do you do it?” Kinan hit the top of the ice arc, and began to form the path for their descent, rapidly lowering them onto a city street where their arrival was treated as pedestrian.
“I learned it.”
“Can I learn it?”
“Can we learn it?”
“Maybe.” They kept walking down the street. Things seemed so.... Ordinary. Graelyn would have expected this society would have diverged massively from the development of society she was familiar with. But there were the signs in French and English, there were the paved streets and glass shopfronts. A casual inspection showed that refrigerator technology was a bit different, but things were so identical as to be impossible. She passed a cafe, and watched a man touch his beer bottle to chill it to the proper temperature before he drank it.
“This world shouldn't exist.”
“Of course it should. There are infinite alternate realities, and this is just one where everything is nearly the same except people can create ice and lower temperatures naturally.” Kinan stopped in front of a shop, and turned to enter it. They were getting used to following her without her beckoning them on at this point, so they just tailed her inside. But Kinan pushed a hand against Graelyn's chest suddenly, and reached into her satchel, pulling out one of those hoodies every member of Dawn seemed to have, as well as a big pair of aviator sunglasses.
“Put these on, put the hood up.”
“I'm not part of your army, and this barely fits with what I'm wearing.”
“Do it.” Graelyn wanted to argue, and snarled, but realized she was totally in Kinan's power. She'd be left here, in some strange world where she couldn't do what the general population could if Kinan wanted to leave her here. Of course, Kinan also needed her for something...
“Fine.” Graelyn bit back, and grabbed the hoodie, slipping off her blazer and putting the hoodie on, pulling the hood up. “Could you hold this for me?” She said to Kinan, holding out the blazer.
“No need to get catty.” She replied, and put the jacket in her bag, finishing her entrance into what turned out to be an ice cream parlor. There were a bunch of red and white booths, and glass cases of ice cream with a girl working behind the counter, washing up come cups. At the sink.
“Whats the special today?” Kinan asked, and Graelyn Scythes turned around behind the counter, smiling.
“Blue moon, again. We didn't get a new flavor in so the boss decided to keep it.”
“I'm Canadian?” Our hoodied Graelyn asked.
“You're going to school here. Exchange program.” Kinan sort of whispered. “Do you guys like blue moon?”
“Sure.” Graelyn said.
“Never had it.” Arch replied.
“Three blue moon cones please.” They sat down at a booth, and Graelyn eyed herself wearing her new outfit in a mirror on the wall, glad she was wearing the hoodie and glasses, and mad at herself for being mad at Kinan. Behind the booth ice cream shop Graelyn began stirring together ice cream ingredients, and chilled them by hand into ice cream, which was apparently something you could do here. It was a few moments before Graelyn realized that this Graelyn had a different hair color than her. Her hair had almost a purple sheen to the black, and she looked out the windows to see if other people had the same shade (they did). She wrung her hands under the table. She was so many people. She was right there behind the counter. She was an owl. She was some sort of monster. She felt her shoulders pushing in on her body as though to crush the stress out of her.
“Three blue moon cones!” the other Graelyn said cheerily, handing them out. The other Graelyn looked at her a second, as though she recognized her, but must have decided she was mistaken, and leaving the bill walked back to the counter.
“You see,” Kinan said as though no time had passed, “there is a version of you here who can make ice. And a version of Arch. As well as every other person you've met in duplicate. Now why might that be?” Graelyn squinted at herself.
“You said all these realities are linked together?”
“So they are linked together on purpose. These realities aren't random. They're specific. The reason we're in a reality that is so much like our own but with people having this power isn't chance, someone wanted it this way.”
“Perhaps not intentionally, but that's how its worked out.”
“We haven't seen any other versions of you, Kinan.” Arch said.
“No you haven't.” Kinan replied.
“Is that just chance?”
Graelyn licked her ice cream. Apparently this version of her was pretty good at making it: it was smooth and creamy, not too soft but not too solid.
“The reality we're going to you called the Prime reality. All these realities are tied to it. So... All the people we're meeting are people who exist there, correct?” Graelyn said.
“You said you learned that power to use ice. So people can learn to use powers from the other realities? They can... Make themselves superheroes or Jedi or something?”
“But only if there is a version of themselves they can draw that power from.”
“So there is a version of you wandering around here running a rival ice cream parlor or something. Kinan's face screwed up minorly. It was subtle, but more than they had seen it do, like a drop of water in a desert.
“Ignore me in this. The people in the prime reality can learn the powers from these realities as long as they are linked. But its much harder for people in these realities to learn other powers.”
“You make it sound like we're second class citizens.” Arch said.
“That's exactly what we are.” Kinan replied, and got up with the bill to pay it. “I have more things to show you. The Ice Cream will keep through the biforst.”
* * * *
After flying through the sky back to the warehouse, and going back through the door, they got back on the bifrost, and walked for a long time. The stars started to vanish, and the path they took seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere. A solitary door sat there, already connected to the path. Kinan touched it lovingly.
“Where are we going now?”
“You wondered where I was born?” Kinan said. “Let me show you.” She opened the door, and it looked like it led to... more blackness. Kinan stepped through the door onto more bifrost that extended through the doorway, and they followed her. There was only blackness.
“Is this another part of the Labrynth of bifrost?” Graelyn asked, noticing there was a sheen like a bubble around the brief bridge.
“No.” Kinan said. “This is where I was born.”
Trying to describe nothing is hard, but let us try. Imagine if you would, the sun. This is, if you're reading this on Earth, a rather regular fixture of your life. It is in the sky, it makes things warm, makes plants grow, brings life, and provides light. Now, imagine all the suns in the universe, each with all of their little balls of rock and gas around them. Millions of them and more. Now imagine them gone. Imagine not just their absence, but the absence of anything around them. No dust. No energy. No particles. No nothing. No way of sensing that there was anything, because there is no input coming towards you, no rays of light, no sound, no radiation, no debris. Nothing. Imagine you were standing on a bubble within that. You can breathe, so there is some noise, there is some light being made by the cyborg next to you's skin, or maybe you are the cyborg, but its still too quiet. Its quiet enough you can hear your own heartbeat without trying. You can hear your body at its most very basic, the sounds it makes so quiet that even the most subtle background noise would block out. So even though it is quiet, it is actually deafening. You're aware of yourself, you can hear your own movements and it feels like you're going to break your sinews because of the sound. Your breath increases. You know exactly how much is moving in and out of your lungs. Given enough time you could measure it by instinct if you didn't go insane first.
This is where Graelyn, Arch and Kinan stood. They were standing in a place that made nowhere seem like an inadequate word. This was the place Kinan was born. This was nothing.
“When I was a young girl, I lived on the last place surviving the heat death of the universe. The universe around us was eaten away to nothing, stolen, sucked out like a straw, and converted to energy.”
“How? That's impossible, humanity would have evolved or gone extinct by the time the universe got that far gone...”
“This wasn't a natural death, this was a murder.” Kinan turned, her head tilted down just slightly, her eyes burning. “Here is a hypothetical for you: someone finds a way to link realities to their own. Someone can draw from them, learn abilities not found in their own world. That's preposterous. It sounds like pseudo science at best, and magic at worst.” She narrowed her eyes further. “But presume you could do that. The amount of energy that would take, to bend or rewrite the laws of your own reality slightly to... channel that power would be immense, wouldn't it?”
“I mean, its impossible, but yeah, I have no idea how you'd do that, but if you could the amount of resources would be insane.”
“Good. Now accept this: its not impossible. Someone did it. Someone did the math, and figured out how to do that. Someone waiting on the other side of the mirror who can smile when you frown waiting to reach out and grab you by the neck. Now where would they get the resources? How could you fuel that?” She gestured into the darkness. “You're not going to devour your own universe for that are you? But there are other ones, 10,000 maybe, all ready for you to use as batteries to suck up and throw out when you're done.” Graelyn and Arch were silent. “Imagine you lived there. Imagine you watched the universe die around you. And imagine you found a way out. You'd want to stop that happening to other universes, wouldn't you?”
“I suppose I would.” Graelyn whispered.
“And would you Arch?”
“I think I'd have a moral obligation.” Kinan stormed past them, back out the door, and they scrambled to follow her. She created a new path, and followed it, pulling another door towards them and ripping it open, walking through it, and cracking open the door in the crystal room that followed it without pausing. Running after her, Arch exited the door first after Kinan, and stopped in the doorway, causing Graelyn to lightly push him. “Arch let me through.” He stayed put. “Arch, come on.” He stepped out of the way, and Graelyn stepped forward onto a dry field filled with dead plants. The sky was filled with cracks, blue cracks, and deep blue holes. Massive Crystal orbs floated in the sky, along with a vast plethora of different vessels moving back and forth between the ground and the sky. Between them all floated faceless blue beings shaped like people. They had no visible orifices, their blue skin coated them completely, but it seemed like they had jaws and such under the layer. Their legs hung beneath their body, unused as they flew. Each wore a garment sort of like a poncho. As they flew, occasionally crackles of electricity flew between them and the sky.
“Kinan... Kinan what are we looking at.”
“Earth.” She replied. They stared for a few more minutes, and a chunk of the ground in the distance suddenly began rising up, converted to blue energy.
“I need more of an explanation than that, what are we looking at!?!?” Graelyn said louder.
“You're looking at why I need to send you into the prime universe.”
“But what are they?!?” Graelyn pointed at the blue things, and Arch's skin instinctively flashed an uncomfortable static.
“Am I showing you too much at once? I thought this might be overwhelming.”
“You should have listened to your instincts!”
“That's the first inter-universal empire. I won't bore you with their history, it would only confuse this more... But here is the long and short of it. You connected to Songbird's Universe, and were able to move through into it. The prime reality did the same thing, only they connected to the universe these guys came from.”
“So... They're going to die?” Arch said.
“Yes.” Kinan started walking across the dry field, the grass crunching as she stepped.
“Where are you going?”
“Continuing the tour.” The giant Crystal orbs in the sky sent small bolts of lightning between them, and the wind screeched, a sound that was just plain incorrect for the wind to make.
Nervously, Graelyn gave Arch a look that seemed to communicate “I don't want to die, but hey she is our ride out of here so...?” and began to scamper after Kinan. Arch sighed, and looked up deeper into the sky. Dark shapes slowly latched onto the orbs, and then let go, their shapes were inconsistent, like they were a wide variety of somethings. Feeling the dead grass with his armored foot, and shifting it around, he began to follow them.
The ruins of civilization littered the ground. Was this Earth? Was this a colony world? Even though Kinan had answered that question, Graelyn couldn't even tell. The sky was purple-- but was that natural or just another sign of the ruin?
“We'll need to stay out of sight of the drones.” Kinan said, and began to walk towards a large reservoir of dirty water. Next to it were cages.
“Kinan, what are we looking at?”
“It will be clear in a moment.”
“Please, can't we just leave? I already agreed to do your dumb mission.”
“I know. But do you believe it?”
“What does that matter?” Kinan stopped, and looked back at her, then kept walking. Graelyn wasn't sure what that meant, but it became clear what was up ahead. The cages, hanging from cranes, were filled with people.
Graelyn looked up at the cage, filled with the malnourished people, who barely seemed to even notice her.
“They're in a cage Kinan. Why are they in a cage?”
“They'll be used as slaves to keep building the Empire. The Council needs them for whatever its trying to do.” Arch looked furious. His skin was glowing orange, then red. He wasn't hiding his feelings, and the suddenness of it threw Graelyn off.
“Arch?” She whispered.
“They're keeping them in cages? People. Like they're less than human.”
“That's what the council does. People from universes that shift in accordance with other universe aren't really people to them, after all their memories could change at the drop of a hat in another universe.” He stepped towards her, his skin shifting into flames.
“That's no excuse.”
“Oh, I agree.”
“Then we need to help these people!” Kinan stared back.
“We'll need all three of us. The question is, is Graelyn on board?” They both looked at her. She felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She felt cold, and tried not to look at them.
“Can't we just... Leave?”
“I mean, this is going to be really dangerous. And I've done a lot of dangerous stuff lately. Honestly I just want to go to sleep.” She shrugged, and tried to look like she was saying something normal.
“How could you even say that? How can you think back to the pain you lived through and see this and just.... Shrug?”
“I just don't think its my job. This is what Kinan wants to do, and apparently what you do. But I'm not meant for that kind of thing.” I'd poison it, she thought. Arch and Kinan were both so stoic, she had a hard time reading them, but the disappointment was radiating off them. Then the crane holding the cage began to move towards the reservoir.
“What are they doing?”
“It looks like the stock is too sick. They're not going to bother harvesting it, they'll just drown them. There are other worlds. Other universes. Its not our business, anyways.” The people scrambled in the cage, but did so so slowly... Graleyn remembered the sink.
Graelyn sat next to Trisha on the playground, swinging back and forth on the set.
“We're going to be too old for the playground next year.” Trisha said. Graelyn nodded.
“Maybe its time then.” Trisha raised an eyebrow, and stopped swinging.
“Time for what?”
“To run away from home.” Graelyn said.
“Graleyn be serious.” She stared at her own feet. Her slip on shoes were scuffed up.
“I am serious Trisha, I'm going to run away.”
“Why would you want to do that?” She didn't answer the question, just looked at her shoes and kept swinging.
Graelyn came in the door, sliding her shoes off, and setting her bag down.
“Mom, I'm home.”
“I'm in the kitchen dear!” Graelyn looked at Xandra's shoes, they were still there by the door. Mom hadn't moved them. She'd moved dad's leftover things so much quicker than Xandra's. Graelyn sighed, and walked into the kitchen, famished. She was ready for a snack.
“So Graelyn, I got a call from Trisha's mom a few minutes ago. She said you were planning on running away from home.” Graelyn looked at the kitchen counter to see Mister Sprinkles in a wire cage, not his usual cage, with a wire loop coming up out of the top of it.
“Mom what's going on?” She didn't answer, just put a plug in the sink, and began to fill it up. They stood there in silence at it filled, and then she shut it off.
“Graelyn, do you remember when your father left, with your brother and sister?”
“...Of course how could I forget.”
“And I got you and Xandra in the court settlement, while your father moved to New York with them. And then Xandra left, and hurt me so much. Now Graelyn, I have to wonder, how could you think of doing that to your mother?” She picked up the cage by the wire loop, and Mister sprinkles made uncomfortable noises as the cage wobbled. The wires themselves looked kind of painful.
“I can only assume you don't love me, that you want to cause me pain. Which is a cruel, cruel thing for a daughter to want to do to her mother.” Graelyn's eye's grew wide behind her glasses.
“Mom, I was just kidding about leaving. You know, it was a game.”
“Oh, Trisha's mom said you'd made yourself very clear you were serious. So serious about making me hurt.” She lowered the cage with Mister Sprinkles into the water, and then picking up a wooden spoon, shoved it down into the sink, displacing water all over the counter and onto the floor. Mister Sprinkles writhed and squealed as he began to be submerged in the water, scratching with his claws, biting, and trying desperately to keep his head above water. Graelyn ran for the sink, and tried to stop her mother.
“No, no you can't do that! Please you're hurting him!” She held the struggling Graelyn back with her other arm, and smiled faintly at her.
“I'm just trying to teach you a lesson. You want to hurt me, but you care so much about when your cat gets hurt. Do you love your cat more than me?” Mister Sprinkles was all the way underwater. He was thrashing in the small cage, his tiny eyes panicked. He was drowning.
“No, of course not.” She lied.
“Say it again.”
“No, I love you the most in all the world. You're the best mom ever, and I'm never leaving home.” Sprinkles began to fight less. His movements were getting sluggish.
“Do you promise?”
“Yes I promise!” She smiled, and pulled the cat out of the water. She set the cage on the counter, and let Graelyn get through to him finally. He was hacking up water, but looked like he'd be okay. She opened the cage up, and took him out gently, pressing the wet cat to her breast. Her mother began to fill the basin again. Graelyn stepped back.
“Now Graelyn, if you really love your mother, you'll prove it to her. Show me how much you love me. See how long you can hold your breath.” Graelyn looked at the sink.
“Do I... Have a target time I need to meet?”
“Oh, I'll know if you've been there long enough. See if you can hold your head down there till you can't bear it anymore, and then a little more. Or should I put the cat back in?” Graelyn kissed Mister Sprinkles' back, and set him down (he instantly scurried off to her room), then walked towards the sink. Her face was mirrored in it, and there was some cat hair floating on the top. Her mother's face came up behind her, and she felt a hand shove her down into the water.
Later, she sat curled up in the corner of her room, soaking wet but afraid to take her clothes off. She held Mister sprinkles (who unlike her was wrapped lovingly in a towel against her, and rocked back and forth gently.
“I just want them to leave us alone Mister Sprinkles. I just want to be alone.” He meowed. Her eyes darkened.
“What kind of person doesn't fall Mister Sprinkles?” There was no answer.
The people in the cages scampered slowly, and Graelyn closed her eyes. Fine, she thought. Fine, I'll get involved again. But she just wanted to go home.
Do I even have a home? She tried to think of what she meant by home and it seemed nebulous. She home she'd grown up in had been a terrible place. She'd been shaped by it, she was a part of it, and everything she touched went wrong, just like that gun in Nojpeten, just like Project Atlantis.
“Fine.” She said. “We need to save them. Tell me what to do. I don't know what to do.”
Kinan nodded. “Arch, you free the prisoners, Graelyn, you lead them back to the portal when he has, while he gets started on the next one.”
“What will you do?” Arch asked.
“Show off.” She said, and began sprinting. Arch didn't waste time, he unsheathed his swords, and using them to get handholds climbed his way up the crane. He reached the control module, and found.... Something that resembled a human sized jellyfish. That was surprising, especially since it had so many limbs on so many devices. Arch was curious, but he had a mission. He turned on the vibration function on his left sword, and jabbed it repeatedly at the transparent material that made up the cockpit. He pinged off, and focusing in on the grain of the material, jabbed again. This time the sword point hit a tiny indentation, and as he put pressure on it with the vibrating blade, cracks began forming around it. He'd had programing installed to do just this sort of thing, he realized. He wondered why. The window shattered, and the creature inside glowed faintly yellow as if in surprise. It reached towards him with one of its many tendrils, which Arch grabbed, and pulled on. It tried to send a surge of electricity through his body, but he was built to withstand surges like that, and his body automatically redirected the overflow back into his internal batteries, which he used to pull even harder. It wasn't expecting that, and he threw it down out of the cockpit with force. He slid into the crane's cockpit and tried to figure out the controls. At first it made no sense, but a program kicked in and began pointing out the most likely controls for him to use to get the crane to do what he wanted. He stopped the descent into the water, and then turned the crane towards the ground. Perfect.
Graelyn saw the jellyfish hit the ground, and ran over to it. What the heck was this thing? Was it an alien? She had always believed there was life beyond her star, and with so many alternate worlds it was a mathematical certainty. She had expected it to look different than a jellyfish though. It had a blue medusa, which pulses with either blue or yellow light. Ringing the medusa were a large number of tendrils, some ending in rounded tips, some with what looked like a single claw or a pincer, some with some sort of orifice on them. At the center of the bottom of the medusa was... A Glowing ball? She wasn't sure what that would biologically do but... It was definitely a thing.
“Are you alive?” She asked, fascinated. She crept closer to it, and reached her hand out to touch it. It was soft, coated in a fine layer of mucus. Amazing!
“Do you speak English? Vy govorite po-russki? Nǐ huì shuō zhōngwén ma? Parle vu le-” The thing cut her off, wrapping her wrist up in a tendril. She looked down at it as though it had betrayed her curiosity, but still whispered, “fascinating,” as another wrapped around her skull and she felt the electrical impulses surge through here.
“Who are you?” She felt a thought think.
“Graleyn Scythes.” She thought back. “Are you sending me thoughts directly to my brain through your tendrils?”
“You figured that out quickly.”
Graelyn found herself-- or maybe a conceptualization of herself? Standing in the forest filled with the owls. But she could tell this wasn't the real forest of owls, this was her memory of it. The details were only what she recalled, with bits clearly filled in incorrectly by her subconscious. The alien was floating there in front of her.
“You're clever for a human, Graelyn Scythes. We are the Pantheon. We lead the council under our Emperors. The reach of our tendrils goes beyond stars”
“...Okay that's cool uh, so you can go into people's minds?”
“Yes. That impresses you more than the Empire?”
“Well, I mean, anyone can build an empire. That happens all the time. Being able to go into people's minds is pretty special.” She felt it being confused by her reaction.
“There is no greater glory than to be a god, to be raised into the Pantheon. To be looked up by others.” Graelyn shrugged, and all the owls did to.
“I mean, I'm sure that took a lot of work, but all you have to do to get an Empire is be willing to be cruel. I could run an empire if I wanted. But that's boring. I'd rather learn something.”
she looked down to see a tendril coming out of her sleeve.”
“That's not what I see inside you, is it though? You're afraid of yourself.”
“Well I'm certainly not afraid of you.”
“I am in your mind.” Graelyn narrowed her eyes.
“Only as much as I'm letting you.”
“I can make you scared.”
“I can be cruel. Would you like to see me be cruel? Did you know I got a friend expelled from my school for reporting something to my mother? I plotted behind her back, and I hurt her.”
“And that you did that scares you.” The owls turned their backs.
“I just want people to leave me alone.”
“You're just one of many. You don't have the right to ask that. You're not important, you'll be submerged and we will change you. I can sense you, I can feel your anchor to the prime universe. We'll exploit that. You will become the you who lives there, I guarantee it. The changes are already happening.”
“What do you mean they're already happening?”
“Well-” The alien stopped talking, and the owls began to fade, the forest began to flicker.
“...Pantheon?” She said. And she opened her eyes to see the creature's medusa cut in half, and Kinan's blade already sweeping up to cut another in half. She leapt up, and landed on some sort of air craft, which she burred her sword in the engine of, then leapt off, slicing a flurry of the floating blue things as she fell. She landed on the side of the crane, clasping a cord on it with one hand, then springing off again to land on a much larger floating craft, which she began to carve open.
Graelyn looked around, and saw the cage of people. Springing up, she sloppily ran to it, and opened the latch. The people looked at her, as though they were unsure if they should leave the cage.
“Come on! Lets go, you're free, follow me!” She yelled, and gestured For them to run towards the door. Arch had dropped a second cage, so she ran over to it, avoiding the fallen members of the Council, and dodging more who fell. She didn't look down to see if it was Arch or Kinan cutting them down, but she tried not to look. She wasn't meant to be in a battle. She opened the other cage, and shooed the people out in the same direction. They were largely carrying each other, but no one picked up a little girl who was missing part of her leg, and looked barely there, Graelyn grabbed a man by the arm and yelled at him to pick her up but he just shoved her off and kept moving. Everyman for himself. Graelyn cursed, and ran to the little girl.
“Hey, hey are you alive?” She looked at her, her eyes sunken, and nodded. “Okay I'm going to get you out of here.” Graelyn was not a physically strong person, but she found lifting the little girl easy.
“What's your name?” She said, and the girl tired to say something back, but only her lips moved.
“Nice name.” Graelyn encouraged. And began to run after the survivors, yelling at them to go towards the door. She awkwardly opened the door, and the refugees flooded in. Through the crowd, a woman in a poodle skirt began cutting through.
“What the hell is going on?”
“Er, you're Jenny right?” Graelyn yelled over the clamor.
“Backgammon Jenny, yeah. I've been following making sure nothing went wrong. What's gone wrong?” Graelyn handed her the child.
“Kinan is saving a bunch of people.” Jenny sighed, and rolled her eyes behind her sunglasses.
“Of course she is.”
“Yes, I am. Jenny, get these people back to Spiral.” Kinan said, followed closely by Arch. They'd caught up quick. Jenny gave a crisp salute, somehow, while still holding the child, and began to usher the people away.
“Arch, Graelyn, a moment.” Kinan had them wait at the door, and they stared up at the giant crystal orbs, the little things moving back and forth between them, and the black blurs. They were starting to move towards them.
“Kinan, what on earth do you want from us? This is insane. This is impossible. I can't do anything to stop an army of flying.... Whatever those are.”
“You can. Remember, you can only go into a universe you'd been to.”
Graelyn remembered the universe she'd been in so briefly, that room full of bodies.
“You've been to the prime universe.”
Her cat paced its cage, it hadn't been fed yet today do to a computer error in the shelter. It was getting impatient.
“You and Arch can get there to a place early enough in its history you can change it, give them a fighting chance.”
She watched herself look over her own shoulder, ready to be kicked out the window.
“I can train you for what you need to do. It won't even be that complicated, but you're the only ones who can do it. I know this sounds ridiculous, but there are trillions of lives on the line here. I need you to do this, and then I'll send you home. I'll make your life easy, you can both live calm and wealthy. You can do what you always dreamed of doing. But I need you do do what I'm asking you to do.”
She curled up in her bed, holding the cat close to her chest. She tried to ignore the bruises on her chest, but it didn't quite work.
“Will you do this for me? For yourself?”
Graelyn was back in her own present, looking Kinan in the eyes. She turned to Arch, she wished he could read his face.
“I don't know how to say no to this. I don't think I could if I wanted to.” Arch nodded, and looked between both of them.
“When I was growing up, there was a man who thought he could make my life what he wanted. He built me up, built my family up, just to tear us all down for his own ends. We were like toys to him... Slaves, really. Do you really think I can say no when either when you tell me this? I'm not sure... I'm not sure I totally get it but...”
“You don't have to. Lets get out of here.” Kinan walked passed them.
“Kinan,” Graelyn said, looking out at the wasteland ahead of them, “if its as bad as you say here... Shouldn't we try to help more of the people here?” Kinan sighed.
“Its too late here. We already tried. We don't have an army big enough to fight that kind of war. I do what I can. We saved some.” She looked out across the fields, as another crack formed in the sky. “We have to fight the battles we can win.”
* * * *
The journey back through the bifrost was quiet. Graelyn still wasn't sure what to think... She felt like she was walking through a dream. But here she was, and her sore feet seemed to prove otherwise. Kinan took a new path, and at the edge of it, reached into her bag for more blue dust.
“Where is the door?” Arch asked.
“I'll have to make one. We're going somewhere outside of the builder's specifications.” Kinan threw the dust expertly, and moved her hand through it. Graelyn pulled up the shades and tried to watch it carefully. Kinan moved her hand through the dust in a circle, little tendrils of electricity slipping out of her fingertips. A swirling white portal appeared, and she gestured to them to go ahead of her. Graelyn held her hand out, and Arch took it, the two of them stepping into the portal together, letting the white energy enclose them as they walked.
The stepped out onto a grassy plain with a blue sky filled with floating islands. A massive crystal staircase went up the sky in the distance, spiraling up, and blobs of water floated through the sky like clouds. Graleyn could see people swimming in them-- someone waved at them and Arch waved back. Then they noticed the people in hoodies riding a brontosaurus in the distance, as if the scene couldn't get any weirder.
“Welcome,” Kinan said, “the home of Dawn. We call it Spiral.”
“Spiral.” Arch whispered, and they walked onto the grass, the sky welcoming them as the white swirls faded down into nothing.
Join us next week, where you'll get to explore Spiral! ... And see another dinosaur! Same Dawn time, same Dawn place, every Thursday right here! Let us know how you liked the story in the comments!
Poet, Playwright, Game Designer, Writer, Freelancer for hire.