Rust is basically about a pilot who delivers secret
messages during a war. She runs out of fuel and
is forced to land in a deserted ghost town, full of
mysterious monsters. Someone is following her,
but will not show himself.
The morning light ran its long fingers across the carousel, shining in the eyes of a dozen dusty animals. The light then cast itself upon the murky swimming pools, the silent bandstands, the creaking broken rides and long abandoned shops. The light seemed to be searching for any who might remain, as it peered in through the glass of a dozen broken windows.
Sun beams pierced the wooden web of the rotting roller coaster, a sleeping colossus imprisoned by weeds. The only sound was of the seagulls stirring, and the only movement was of the waves, until the wind picked up and the fog rolled in.
Shore birds scurried along the beach unshaken by the thunder, or the weathered wooden mountain looming above. Echoes of past seasons seemed to linger on the breeze, the screams of adventurous youth and the whispering rush of the trains.
An ancient bi-plane appeared suddenly out of thin air and buried itself deeply in the tangle of timbers.
The birds scattered.
The pilot woke from the sleep she had never fallen into. But she must have been sleeping. How else could one explain an obstacle appearing out of nowhere? Last she recalled, they were nearing their destination. This had to be it.
A whimper from the rear seat, a cold, wet mussel against her hand. It was only for the sake of Shiner that she was thanking her lucky stars for their deliverance. As Amelia A. Jones would rather be dead then suffering the ruin of her long record of perfect landings. She watched the propeller slow to a stop and was instantly struck by the silence.
Sooner or later someone would come for her – a man most likely. Then there would be the look on his face when he found that, indeed, there was a woman at fault. “Well tuff” she thought to herself. “All the men are dead and you’ll have to make do with little old me.” Normally, she did not mind being held to a higher standard, but that was before she totaled a plane. Not that the Buckler was much of a plane; the things were hard to come by in any condition.
Where the heck were those cretins anyway? Amelia was already giving her rescuers names and faces – and insults to go with them, not that she was an ungrateful sort. Earning the respect of her new comrades after a stunt like this would mean giving as good as she got. They would scold her for not being dead. She would call them cowards for the same reason. Then all of them would laugh at how the whole world seemed to be running out of people. Life was joke and death was a punch line. Those who knew what was good for them laughed.
Shiner, the black eyed bull terrier in the back, turned his roman nose sideways as she unbuckled herself and rose from the taped upholstery to peer outside. “Ouch!” her head met the ceiling of the cockpit, pressing her goggles into her skull. She looked up and found the corner of a large, wooden beam piercing the top of the plane a mere six inches from a fatality. The roof around it wasn’t even bent – as if the thing had just ghosted right through. The end of it seemed burnt, almost.
She then found herself staring at the Buckler’s odd controls. “Just ignore the covered panel” Welsh had said. “Who knows what it does. ‘Could be a harmless-enough radar detector or, lord forbid, one of those suicide devices. Either way, don’t fool with it. People put things on these planes you won’t find in any manual. I mean it. You are a great mechanic but so were the Buckler’s former owners.” He never elaborated on their fate, but Welsh was not given to saying more then was necessary. He was a very busy man, with very little time to spare. “Otherwise, she runs great. Except for that panel, she’s a standard Fury just like the one I’ve taught you on, same controls, same guns, same everything.”
Of course she would follow orders. All since that summer morning some, twelve, no, twenty, years before, following orders had been her job. Maybe it was sixteen? Amelia wasn’t sure. Life had been so different then, like a dream.
PART TWO – BACK STORY
As far back as she could clearly remember there had been boarding school. Her parents were always busy, busy with the war. The war hit home the morning a stranger barged into her room, blindfolded Amelia, and whisked her away. When the cloth was removed she had seen Welsh, standing before her.
Welsh was the closest thing to a father she would know after her family had chosen to replace itself with a series of private tutors. He captained a massive dirigible that went by many names, names such as Dirty Alice, or the Slate Steer. From it’s undercarriage had hung a number of battered biplanes, including the one she’d be destined to fly.
It was on her first solo mission she’d found Shiner. The Buckler was fully detached from the Steer’s belly and well on it’s way, when a whelp of greeting had nearly sent her into a tailspin. Soon she’d discovered the pimpled white puppy with the big, black spot on its eye. He’d been tossed in as part of the deal by – it could have been anyone. Her friends had known she’d want company. That and it was traditional for lone wing dogs to carry their signature pets, smallish pooches equipped with EMF weapons to deter saboteurs, hijackers and thieves. Amelia had spent many long hours teaching him how to use his gear and her efforts had paid off in spades for those who sought to cross either of them.
Amelia removed her goggles and flight cap, digging her fingers into her itching scalp. Her primary purpose these days was to act as courier for what she presumed was important information. All they’d send her was instructions for it’s delivery, as well as fuel and parts to keep the Rusty Buckler in flight. At first there had been novels and other treats such as spiced coffee. Now there was only dehydrated quip, toothpaste and the like. These things were appreciated, but the absence of the occasional luxury caused Amelia to fear that conditions for her distant friends had worsened. She hoped it was only some new commander outlawing friendly banter. Yes, that’s almost certainly what it was.
Amelia took a thermos bottle from the seat beside her and finished off the lukewarm liquid it contained. Think, girl, think back. What had gone wrong? In her mind she retraced the series of events that led her to this sorry state.
Her last assignment had involved stuffing an envelope into a colorful coffee tin and dropping it off a certain bridge. She had returned to the Buckler and there found the tin resting in the pilot seat, wet from the river, it’s message still inside. Near by Shiner had munched his bone. Obviously a gift from their shy visitor. Certainly a friendly face. Her pet knew better then to except food from strangers. Amelia wished he could have told her who it had been but a name would mean nothing, nobody ever used a real one.
After seeing that Shiner was situated she had taken up the controls and, noticed someone had opened that forbidden panel. Uh oh. Her thoughts had raced. She wondered then if it would be safe to use the plane, or – no, she had no other means of travel.
She had lifted the loose lid and under it found what appeared to be a user’s manual for the mysterious accessory. There was no name for it. There was only a picture of it. The picture was badly faded with age. Under the picture were two sets of coordinates, one of them had been recently circled with bold red ink, so recently it was staining her gloves, also recently added was the picture of a switch with arrows indicating how it was to be pulled, and when. She checked the rest of the booklet but it all seemed to be in a code.
Clearly these were her new orders, mindlessly she had followed them out to sea. She pulled the sealed-off lever when she reached that circled set of coordinates, sighing with relief when the plane didn’t explode. Nothing else happened though, and Amelia had been disappointed. Sighing, she had sought the remaining set of coordinates.
Despite being offered only a limited view of the water, she had glanced out anxiously, searching for the outline of an island or mining rig, preferably one with a runway, all the while sending signal after signal on the secure band she’d been told not to abuse. Only garbled snatches of music on a single pirate station, had answered her pleas. Misuse of Airband could land one in a heap of trouble, yet anything that might send an enemy bomber screaming to his death was commendable in these dark times.
She had been growing tenser by the minute. Not a situation that lends itself to boredom and consequent sleep. Her senses were on high gear. Her goggles adjusted to allow her to see through the deepening fog. Her instruments had given no indication of a problem, other then the dwindling fuel supplies. Then she had crashed.
PART THREE – CALLING FOR HELP
She had made no mistakes. To suddenly find herself wedged in a wall of scaffolding, made no sense at all. “We hit some kind of raised track way.” She mumbled to her pet. “It goes all over the place. What was the architect thinking?”
More scaffolding was visible past the cracks that covered the plane’s windows like spider webs, but the thick, white fog made everything less then ten feet away an indiscernible shadow. She remembered the checklist one was supposed to run before and after a flight, and wondered what the Buckler itself could tell her about its location, or its less-then-perfect landing.
Nothing. All her recording devices, were blank. Her coordinates, blank. Her heading, blank. Her vertical speed . . . wait a minute – nope, it was blank. She noticed the turn indicator was upside down. It had probably gotten jostled in the crash. She would be on the ceiling if that were the case. She punched the thing and it fell back into alignment, something else that should have been replaced . . . That felt good. She hit it again – and again.
Two gloved fists slammed the control panel. She’d been jammed, Amelia was sure of it. The thought brought anger and also relief. The crash hadn’t been her fault after all. She turned up the dial on her radio. Proudly she stated, “This is Catamount One Twenty Six B, code clearance Agamemnon to the Aster, Burn, and Noah Towers do you read?”
“Do . . . you read?” She repeated. Praying that someone would answer. Strange noises rose and fell above the soft static. Sounding almost friendly at times, at others like a jarring high pitched whistling, buzzing, banging.
“That’s weird.” She said to herself. Having never heard anything quite like it. Perhaps she was still being jammed. Amelia switched off the sender, and turned up the receiver, gritting her teeth against the cacophonous drone. It gave her the creeps. A few minutes passed, and she found herself unable to endure any more. She turned it down, then turned it off.
Amelia relaxed as she breathed in the cool, damp, air pouring into the cockpit through a crack in its broken door, the draft causing it to waver as if Beckoning. She pulled down her scarf and left it to rest on her shoulders.
Close was the unmistakable roar of the sea. This wasn’t a tethered rig, for she sensed no motion beneath her, nor was it a platform as the waves beating it’s piers would be deafening. This must be an island, a small island or a promontory. Anything larger would have filled the horizon and she certainly would have seen it.
Something made of metal was hanging loose out there swinging, a large thing, as it moaned rather then creaked like the cockpit’s broken door. Passively listening, she let it hang there, till the yearning of her restless legs became too much, and bracing herself against them, turned and stretched out to her full length, throwing open the door and kicking her buckled boots heels in the white misty space.
She let out a long breath, then figuring no one was going to come for her any time soon, crept forward and planted both feet on the – nothing. Huh, what? The drop-out ladder must have been sheared off.
Under her dangling feet was a vacant, white void with no hint of anything to stand on. The mist made it impossible to see the ground. It could be twenty, thirty, even a hundred feet away. She was stranded by the sea, in a fog, and she was caught, lord knows how high up, in a rotting wooden web of crisscrossed beams. No wonder it was taking them so long to reach her.
“Hello!” She Shouted into the misty outside, eagerly awaiting an answer from somewhere down below – only the far-off moan of that broken machine then silence save for the ocean’s roar and the steady, distant bark of a dog. “So what now?” She said to herself.
PART FOUR – HANGING HIGH
Sensing his mistress was at a loss, Shiner whined fearfully. “Might as well check the bay door.” She said, hoping the confidence in her tone would reassure him. Except when loading the hold, she seldom used it, preferring to climb a ladder up to the cockpit’s extraction hatch, rather then worm her way through a brick wall of boxes. It was slow going but she reached her goal, fumbling for the release valve in the dark. She threw her weight against it, and it gave, a sudden burst of grey daylight filled the dusty space. Amelia looked out upon a vast network of wooden beams. None were within immediate reach, but they were close enough for her to discern dense lichen growth.
She dragged her hand over the outside to check for pixie dust. That is, magnetized, radioactive pellets that adhered to a plane, scrambling it’s instruments and jamming it’s communications. Normally suspended within small balloons and hidden within dense cloud it could turn a stretch of sky into a mine field. There was no tell-tale glitter on the glove Amelia examined. A pass of the hand was hardly conclusive anyhow.
Her comrades never sent her into danger without at least the knowledge of how she might survive it. There were friends here, if anyone, and there would certainly be a large cache of supplies, far more then enough to sustain her till the next lone transport arrived and could give her a lift back to where ever it was that the Steer was now nesting. She’d give them the news that the Buckler had finally been spent, there would be grumbling, but eventually there would be a replacement plane. Perhaps a newer model, with a faster, more efficient engine, and a fresh coat of paint. She would let that thought sustain her, as all that stood in her way now was a few yards of empty space. It wouldn’t be the safest thing she’d ever done but Amelia had time. This perch was stable and there was several days ration for both of them.
A deep grown from the cockpit pulled Amelia’s head from the crate in which she’d been taking inventory. She struggled through the boxes and found that the wooden beam piercing the roof of the Buckler had slid inward into the seat. Change of plans, they had to leave – now.
PART FIVE – DESPERATION
No more beams stabbed the plane but there were ominous groans from above as Amelia grabbed her pet and headed for the bay door. Looking out, she saw the scaffolding had buckled, as the structure above was pressing it’s weight upon supports surely weakened by the crash. She could leave the plane, or stay in it, and the wooden colossus would finish it’s feast of human and dog.
She went to the cockpit instead, the windows had been further damaged by the collapsing beam. Through them, she could see something emerging from the fog – a tower with a golden steeple. She broke a damaged pane and crawled out on to the nose, dusting away the shards with a crowbar, and saw a raised track way looping around the tower. She inched closer, pushing aside the propeller and her fear of the engine suddenly kicking back on.
Almost right beneath her was a section of track, a clear and solid path down. Only some ten to fifteen feet below. She could reach it, but what about Shiner? First things first. She slipped back into the Buckler, entering the hold in search of rope. She kicked some of the supply crates out the open bay door, shouldered her pack, and pocketed some of her smaller tools. She’d need a bigger one for what she had planned. Her eyes settled on the massive EM wrench, perfect.
She felt the plane shift beneath her as she climbed back on to the nose. She tied a rope to the window frame, and her wrench to the rope, and dropped it – right on target. It hit the tracks and stayed there, she pulled it left, right, all till the wrench fell between the wooden slats, then up and down till it caught sideways between them. Yes. She tightened the rope on the window frame. Now what about Shiner. He would not be able to slid down.
He stood between the front seats, looking apprehensive. It would be hard to lower him, for her position was precarious and the track was off by a few feet. Amelia could think of nothing short of pushing him off, swinging him, dropping him – Shiner was one of the bravest souls she knew. He would do anything in his power to serve, but this could prove too much. Amelia’s fears were confirmed when she undid the lead, and tied a rope to his harness. The little brute was much heavier then he looked. It took a lot of effort to lift him and when his paws left the ground he started to struggle. This wasn’t going to work.
A sturdy yet flexible looking tree branch emerged from the clearing haze. She reached for more rope. Finding herself fresh out, she considered the belts wrapped around her hand-me -down flight fatigues to keep them together. “Bingo” thought Amelia as she removed three of them and made a chain. She slipped one through it’s metal hoop, creating a lasso with which she was able to snare the limb, and bind it, to the window frame above her own bridge to safety. It was a long shot, but it was all they had.
Amelia again tied the thinner rope to Shiner and told him to stay, she then gripped the end of it in her teeth, took hold of her own rope with a grease rag and proceeded down her make-shift cable to the track. Arms and legs gripping it firmly, she tried not to look down. This was easy as her back was to the ground. How high up was she? Best not to think about that right now.
Not nearly soon enough, it was over. Her boot heels found solid purchase, and she was able to follow up with her hands. After pulling herself on to the corroded tracks, she lay there breathing heavily. Struck for the first time by the danger of what she’d attempted.
Amelia had risked her life before, and she wasn’t afraid of heights. She’d worked on the Steer, miles above the ground with only a harness between herself and the world below. Then she’d been acting on the orders of persons far more experienced, now she was on her own and unprepared, not the best combination. A plaintive yelp reminded her of what had to come next. She gripped the rope that linked the two of them together. Tying it tight around a metal rail, she began to chant. “Shiner, Shiner, come on.”
The branch above her shook, sending down a shower of heart shaped leaves. The dog soon realized he would not be allowed to turn back and stepped reluctantly off the nose. Amelia prayed he’d get close enough for her to lift him down before – Shiner’s right front paw slid off and he stumbled, slipping down the branch and falling. A startled screech scattered the silence.
PART SIX – THE DESCENT
She held fast to the rope and was pulled to her knees and nearly off her perch, but nearly, the knot was secure, and the wooden railing had caught the rope and leaned outward, sparing the dog a fatal collision with the cross beams beneath. Without pausing for thought she hauled her companion up by his harness and on to the track beside her. There they both rested, collecting themselves. Fourth Wing Wight Amelia Jones had never questioned an order in her life, but she planed to question this one. Just as soon as she made contact with her superiors Amelia would question the hell out of this one.
A lick from Shiner brought her back to the present. What were they doing sitting around. This track had to go some where. She pulled a knife from her shin strap and worked the rope until it was severed, drawing it up to retrieve her wrench. The pristine corpse of the Buckler hovered overhead like a phantom. The belts she’d used to secure the branch would just have to stay up there till some bird had the thought to make a nest out of them, and a fine nest it would be.
Once again the luxury of mementos had proved transient. Ah, well, Se la vie. She still had her friend and that’s what mattered most. She gave Shiner’s head a scratch and they pressed on.
Amelia took the low road, following the track downward. The going was tough as the way was lumpy and bumpy, not to mention narrow. Other sections of track loomed into existence around her, supported by tightly woven networks of scaffolding. A tattered black sheet lay across a loop to the left, like moss on a tree limb, swaying slightly in the breeze. The sight left her keyed up. She pulled her pulse glove from her pack and bound it tightly to her hand.
There was that dog again, low steady monotone, a big one or so it seemed. It reminded her of the moan of that great metal thing, whatever it was. Shiner answered under his breath a low whiff, whiff, sound. Seeing how the raised tracks looped and curved back on themselves made her suspect that this was no practical piece of engineering, like a lift-line or a sled-way. The golden steeple sitting atop a tower in the midst of it all had seemed to be a missile of some sort then a rocket, now it seemed like a decoration, as anything else would be painted in low visibility earth tones.
Amelia’s heart began to sink, partly due to the sight of such a happy thing withering away but mostly due to the fact that the path down would be fraught with more twists, turns, curves, and steep drops then a person in her situation deserved. Amelia Jones stood on a roller coaster.
PART SEVEN – SHADOWS
As she feared, the low road went up again so sharply that a hard climb would be necessary. Perhaps if she went in the other direction there would be – footstep.
Shiner started growling, timidly positioning himself behind his mistress. She smiled, full of ill-disguised uncertainty. “Some help you are.” “Hey you out there!” Cried Amelia, in a possible direction of the noise, a clear sharp clang against the wooden track’s metal rails.
“Some guard dog huh.”
It seemed further away then she had previously thought, perhaps the metal of the track –
. . . dog barking.
Yes, it was a big one, but it was somewhere down below. The person on the track would not have it up here anyhow. Shiner was having a hard enough time keeping balance and he was on the shorter side of things, not that it was any easier for a human. “Be careful” she called off to her unseen friend. She hoped it was a friend.
Another clang, then a clatter. She felt a trimmer in the rickety railing she gripped with both hands. It was getting closer.
Just to be safe she readied her weapons. The large copper gear on the back of her wrist spun slowly as she as she turned it with the fingers of her other hand. The cell was fully charged but she’d charge it some more anyhow. The action was comforting, like petting the head of a loyal attack tiger, though as weapons went a pulse glove could hardly be called a tiger. It had been made for riot work mostly, a glorified can of electromagnetic mace. She gave her wrench an experimental swing. There was also enough power left in it to deliver a decent jolt if pressed against an oncoming assailant, but it was a tool not a weapon specifically, and the weight of it swinging might cause her to fall. Better make it a last resort.
Another clang, then a few more softer ones, and what sounded like a staff being dragged along the railing behind her.
Amelia whipped around and let the gear spin releasing it’s pent up power.
An invisible wave of force hit the apparition in front of her sending it stumbling backward off the track.
Unleashing a pulse at this range was foolish. The wave reflected when it hit a solid object. The danger of being thrown to the ground rose steadily with the nearness of a target. One could use it in hand to hand combat but it required much skill. As Amelia lacked a turbine her only option was to charge it manually, an impractical process that made practice out of the question, and yet Amelia hadn’t cared about her inexperience, for the thing in front of her had banished all reasonable thoughts.
She forced herself to relax as she heard it fall, lots of loud crashing from the unseen ground below then silence. What was it? It seemed that only now the image had appeared in her mind, as that first time, her thoughts had been blank. She stared vacantly at the missing section of railing that had followed it over the edge, the timbers clearly being weakened by rot.
A face, only a face had registered in her memory. It was a crude face, looking to have been etched with a burnt stick into the white air itself, two shadowy eyes and a slack yawning mouth hole. Had it all been a mirage? Had the railing been all that had fallen and had she wasted one of the precious two shots her weapon contained? No. The backwash had been too great, the railing was too far off and too insubstantial to reflect that kind of force. There had definitely been something there, something solid.
She recalled the sound it made, the clang, the clatter. “A puppet.” She sighed, as if saying it aloud would make it the god’s honest truth. This was an amusement ride after all. Perhaps they had installed some automated monsters to liven up it’s slower sections. Perhaps the Buckler’s crash landing had jostled the things, perhaps she was going crazy.
Amelia considered braving the steep climb so as to avoid traveling in the direction that thing had come out of. Then she thought of facing something else in a position where she couldn’t bring her weapons to bare and decided against it. Puppet or no, it still could have caused injury, and there still might be more, but next time, she would just up and wrench the bastard.
They turned up a gentle rise on the narrow path that seemed to hang in the misty air, till slowly, it began to drop rather steeply, passing under another section of track through a wide archway in its web of supports. Vines clung loosely to the high rafters, painting them green.
Another shape blocked the way ahead. Amelia readied her weapons and nearly used them on a stony eagle face that seemed to scream at her out of the fog. She half choked, half laughed, to see the symbol of the Silver Faction adorning the lead car of one of the old coaster’s parked trains. Amelia was not part of the Silver Faction, at least, she didn’t think so, however she’d been told time and time again that they were friends.
Beyond the blue, white, and silver train with it’s pitted chrome head, Amelia could see other structures vaguely among dense mots of tangled weeds. They had reached the ground.
PART EIGHT – THE CAROUSEL
Wanting to put something solid beneath her boots, she clambered clumsily over the cars doing further damage to their crumbling plastic seats and dry rotted belts and getting covered in the leaves and pine needles that filled their cabins.
Her feet hit dirt at last and she let out a deep sigh of relief. Shiner wined shrilly and Amelia lifted him down. His weight was the final straw. She collapsed in a heap between him and her dropped wrench.
High above them a tri-plane hung, painted with the same blue, white, and silver design of the old roller coaster‘s train. Grey eagles flanked it’s empty cockpit now a nesting place for wrens. Briefly it seemed that some other lost soul had entangled himself, but it was only a scale model, a fancy sign board for the roller coaster they’d recently traversed.
“The Silver Falcon” breathed Amelia as she read the cursive title on it’s side. It was the language from her childhood, the one she had spoken before the onset of school. A mossy awning was not far off. Amelia heard thunder, felt rain, and headed toward it.
It wasn’t long before she saw the other train. There appeared to be two separate tracks forming two separate continuous loops. The tracks crossed and courted each other as if dancing. The other train was predominantly purple, black, and silver. Its lead car made to look like a very different beast. A ninety pound, jet black mongoose known as the hellcat or thersh. Legends claimed their looks could kill. Put simply the creature was merely so swift in combat and so lethal, that that it smacked of the occult.
Naturally, its pelt commanded a high price, as did the heads of the shadow faction, it represented.
According to the few strands of gossip that passed for news, this faction had refused to choose sides in the conflict that had engaged so many, and when pressed declared war on the war itself, viciously attacking both fronts till they had earned the hatred of all. Amelia often wondered if it was their intention to serve as a scapegoat and provide a common enemy and in turn a kind of peace.
Would they succeed? Not if the fallen tri-plane before her was any kind of omen. “The Black Berserker” was painted boldly on its side, the fanged face of the hellcat hissing up at her from the crumpled model. “Dueling Aces.” read a long metal mesh panel attached to the edge of the awning. It seemed in poor taste, but then maybe there had been better times before, more innocent times.
Amelia waited for the rain to sense, her apprehension growing steadily as her mind and body rested, providing just enough energy to feel fear once again. “Better gear up.” She said to her dog. Opening her pack and several pants pockets to assemble all the components of his armor. “These places have always been safe enough but there’s a first time for everything.”
Thunder rolled and the rain fell harder, Amelia was glad it wasn’t cold, as her flight fatigues would have offered little protection, being so old and torn up. She grabbed her homing box, shook it, changed the batteries, still didn’t come on. Thing was fickle, a combination of being obsolete and being dropped one to many times, she clipped it to her belt anyway, in case it ever felt like working. “Look” she said, standing and walking up to the falling curtain of rusty rain, beyond which other long neglected attractions could be seen. “We Match.”
Standing out was a tarnished carousel. Cyborg animals made of fiberglass seemed to represent the various nations. They ran side by side as if in some idealist fantasy. She knew that carousel – or one just like it. She’d ridden the yale at a fair or something, some way, way back when. It was all in a photograph lost the morning Welsh came for her. It was the last she’d seen of her parent’s faces. Her parents were busy, the letters from home had claimed, always busy with the war. It was that summer morning the war came to call, the war she had known nothing about, the war Amelia still knew nothing about, but had apparently been fighting herself for the past decade or so.
A concession stand with a weathered wooden facade and a large array of copper piping on its roof, may have once sold quip, as evidenced by the Q and P still visible beyond the vines reaching down to the unattended counter. “Funny” thought Amelia, they might as well have sold oatmeal, perhaps some far more luxurious variety had existed before things had gotten ugly.
She thought of the supply crates lying somewhere below the tangled plane, and considered her chances of reaching them. Better not risk it just yet. There would certainly be more where that came from, there always was, not that she took it for granted. Worrying about it would only waste vital energy.
The sudden stream of barking caused her head to whip toward Shiner. Then toward the object of his attentions.
A tall, splotchy mongrel, stood out in the rain, beside the carousel, staring at them silently.
The black areas on the dog’s pale hide made it resemble a painted figure who’s latest coat was flaking off to reveal it’s older, darker underside. Two long vertical patches crossed it’s equally dark eyes, giving its face the appearance of a corroded carnival mask.
Amelia wished it would bark, or move, or something, but it just stood there like the statue it couldn’t have been, as but a moment ago the space it occupied had been empty.
Shiner’s whining caused her to glance in his direction momentarily. When she looked for the four-legged stranger again it was gone, leaving no trace. Only distant, regular barking could be heard. It sounded like a chant, compelling Amelia to continue her journey, as if in agreement, the rain stopped.
PART NINE – SETTING OUT
Beyond the carousel and the quip stand was a ride entitled Wing Whelps. Cutesy fiberglass planes with fiberglass puppies at their helms marked each of it’s twelve mechanical arms. A goofy gorilla made menacing by a cover of saplings stood at the center and seemed to be under attack.
“Hey come out of there!” Amelia called to her own Wing Whelp, only to find that one of the figures bore an uncanny resemblance to Shiner, who had right just then, disappeared.
“Shiner.” she called, fighting a sudden chill. It died quickly when he emerged from behind a bush with a dirty plush toy that was once, in it’s heyday, a beagle. He dropped it at his mistress’s feet. “Sky Land.” read the winged cogwheel embroidered on the vest. “Where did you find this?” Amelia didn’t expect an answer, nor was one given. Still, the name rang a bell.
Out of the forest loomed yet another wrecked aircraft, its propeller buried in briars, the mannequin pilot – sitting rigidly up in the seat, its face obscured by peeling paint. “This better not be another omen.” she whispered, noting the craft was a Fury. Something hanging from a low branch brushed her face, as she made her way around the plane. It felt like leather. She turned and found it was a belt, decorated with silver charms. It was the one she had worn that summer mourning, one of the three she’d left up on the Buckler. How did it get here? “Hello!” She called.
Nothing, not even a bird chirped.
That deep moan started up again. Whatever it was, seemed to be right on top of them, she raced down the cobbled trail and onto an open stretch of pavement. A gigantic swing shaped like an airship, was hanging loosely in a massive steel A frame. Its title was spelled out in blue boxes across the top, letters in a spray-stencil font reading “The Zeppelin”. Behind it, was a quaint, town square-like ring of abandoned shops and stages. The primary building components were corrugated steel and stained wood, save for a Tudorbethan clock tower with it’s hands frozen at eight thirty.
Amelia stepped out into the open. Shiner hung back to introduce himself to a stranger seated under a bush. It looked somewhat like a small black fox but smelled clearly of dog. His mistress liked for him to report humans. They could mean danger or food, anything else was just part of the scenery. He saw her leaving and rushed to keep up. His new friend slowly stood, and followed.
Between the moans of the swaying Zeppelin ride, the sound of many moving bodies could be heard. Shiner yipped but it was unnecessary, Amelia was already aware of them. “Hello!” She announced, maintaining a firm grip on her wrench. “Hello!” She repeated, using the language she’d seen on the rides. If these were the types that required a password so as not to blow your head off, she was in deep trouble, for her orders, that is, what she’d assumed were her orders, hadn’t included any.
She pulled the weathered manual from the left patch pocket on her thigh and read the coordinates, but the coded pages contained nameless symbols, she couldn’t begin to recite.
From within the quaint, crumbling structures there issued, furtive, shuffling noises, crashes and clangs of things falling and braking, noises that in Amelia’s experience, were never made by people.
She spun around until she became dizzy hoping to catch even a fleeting glimpse of what she was starting to think were poltergeists, and there it was, the thing she’d encountered on the track.
PART TEN – THINGS THAT DWELL IN SILENCE
She recognized its face, two eyes and a yawning mouth. The mouth was nose hole, on the emaciated head of a white fallow deer. A damaged antler bore witness to their recent altercation, “Sorry.” was all she could think to say.
It had four spidery legs attached to a snake-like whip of a body that ended in a long thorny tail. Its fore quarters, resembled the work of a second-rate taxidermist, with the two front legs and shoulders of a fallow deer held high off the ground.
A machine, what else could it be. Someone had wired the skin and bones of a dead animal on to a radio controlled drone. One they were using to investigate – or intimidate, some intruders. It kept its position. This reassured Amelia, and confused her as well, like an enemy sentential making idol threats rather then opening fire. Perhaps it wouldn’t attack, perhaps it was only meant to frighten and would keep its distance.
Amelia started to back away. It followed, step for step, remaining at a distance of thirty to forty feet, its long brown legs creeping carefully along like fingers playing a harp.
It didn’t move like anything mechanical, being far too fast and fluid, yet there was nothing else it could have been, nothing at all. She veered right, toward a dry fountain made of oversized copper pipes, capped with bronze spitting lion faces.
Quickly three more of the deer things filed sideways to block her path.
Without pausing to consider the implications of there being so many, she went left, back toward the Zeppelin. Now a whole heard confronted them. Surrounded, there was no where to run.
She whispered a command to Shiner. He charged a group of the smaller does, biting the muzzle strap on his helment and scattering them with a blast of his forehead mounted pulse plate, the force sent him flying backward. He’d live, it was what the armor was for. Amelia slipped through the opening, looking to make sure he followed.
She found a narrow passage between a shooting gallery and a stage. Most were stopped at the entry, but the fawns slipped through easily. A large stag ran around to the end, sealing them in with its horns. Amelia swung her wrench and it dodged aside. She swung again and again, till it let her through.
Shiner slipped under its legs. The things didn’t seem nearly so interested in her dog. Amelia wondered why. Could it mean that someone, somewhere, figured he wasn’t a threat? If so she wanted to talk to them, as she wasn’t about to surrender to these.
PART ELEVEN – THE FUN HOUSE
Ahead was a rusty water tower encircled by a giant open faced pipe. “The Aqueduct” it read. Amelia went around it, stepping over a barrier and on to a racecourse. An old watch cart sat before them, she knelt to wind it. Then realized the crank was a prop. The sweating thing was wired into the course. Who in their right mind would pay to enjoy something everyone owned and used daily? Amelia then wondered weather her whole world had been a theme park all along, and if so, why it hadn’t been more fun.
“Sorry Shiner” The dog had bounced into the cart at the prospect of a ride and now looked fairly disappointed. The shuffling sounds of the deer monsters were drawing nearer.
She glanced down the course to find it circled an island where a cracked concrete eagle spread it’s wings. Further on a stone bridge arched its way over a steep ravine. A thunder clap then rattled her bones, its lightening flash hidden in the overcast.
Only when they approached the bridge could Amelia see that it entered a dense wood, made far denser by years of neglect.
A shuffling behind them, merely a fox tailed stray dog waddling past. She took the sight of this normal creature as a good omen and crossed the bridge. In the basin below lay a large dead tree, part of a boat, and many smaller colored fragments from somewhere up stream, as well as a trickle, proof of a river asleep but far from dead.
Other less discernible attractions could be seen through the trees; a Farris wheel, or something like it, in the shape of a huge gear, a smaller roller coaster all but consumed by the forest. A length of its vine shrouded track straddled the path like an arbor. “Or a bridge.” thought Amelia as some creature raced across it, sending down a flurry of leaves. It was much larger then a squirrel, clumsier then a cat, and far faster then a raccoon, had all those secret twists and turns finally landed her in ape country? It was possible.
Soon she reached a cul-de-sac that appropriately enough, was the sight of an eerie fun house contained in a brooding bay windowed brick mansion barely identifiable under it’s blanket of Ivy. “Ebon’s Keep” read a sign above the door. She gulped, recalling a nursery Rhyme.
Darkest visions in your sleep,
things that dwell in silence creep,
stirring in the shadows deep,
within the walls of Ebon’s Keep.
PART TWELVE – CORNERED
She‘d been here before. Amelia recalled fighting her cousin so as not to be led in. They had stood beside the greenish gargoyles lining the path. In the end he had relented, perhaps at father’s urging, and she had been relieved. Perhaps it was that past incident fueling her gut impulse to keep away, even though it was sprinkling, and the door was ajar. “Hello! Hello! Anyone Home!” Repeated Amelia over and over. “Wha- ” She backed into something, turned, and choked back a scream.
Again, they were surrounded. Stags stood at the forefront horns lowered, leaving her only the option of entering the house. She had not heard them over her shouting and Shiner, to her surprise, was rubbing noses with that black and yellow fox-tailed four eyed stray. She didn’t blame him, Amelia herself would have liked to see another human. The little dog was much smaller than Shiner, with yellow cheeks and eye spots on it’s forehead. Its real eyes were foggy with age. It squinted, as it looked up at them, then slipped in to the old fun house past the gothic double-doors where Amelia would not follow. As it was a perfect place for an ambush.
Maybe the person behind all this was waiting in there, yet if they were, Amelia wasn’t going to face them on their terms. She was going to face them on her terms and hers alone. After all she had been put through she deserved no less. “Hello!” She said. “If there is anyone who can hear me please give a yell. I am not here to hurt anyone.” That sounded lame, she thought of the one thing that always worked, no matter the situation. “Catamount! Reporting for duty, your orders, Sir!” There would be no answers for Amelia Jones, nor a response from the antlered apparitions surrounding her. It was certain now that their purpose was to drive her like a wayward sheep toward whatever awaited at the end of this infernal game.
“No.” she said to Shiner, stopping him from wasting a pulse on the crowd of creatures. There were simply too many. Amelia had been issued a real weapon, a real gun with real bullets, had been. She’d been ordered to give it up on the promise she’d receive a new and better one. Supplies had been short and it had been needed elsewhere, after all, she already had two sweating rotary cannons mounted on her plane. She forced herself to look at her enemies. Their skull-like faces unwaveringly fixated on hers, and the door that was her only option. There had to be another way.
High wooden fencing flanked the house. Just past the deer. She swung her wrench, it made them back off a little. They did nothing but watch as she applied it to the boards. Amelia broke her way through, then pulled Shiner across, into the near solid hedge that met them. Only then did her pursuers file forward to block the way back. Now she was trapped in an overgrown garden. Fortunately, the deer stayed outside.
She felt something brush the few straight strands of hair peering out from under her cap, and stumbled forward past wet leaves and stickling branches. It could have been a web or a deer demon, either way, she was tired of looking back. That never went well.
Something under a pile of burdock vines toppled over, it was a concrete chair shaped like a mushroom. There had been a table too, she climbed over it, beating some saplings aside with her wrench.
Out she stumbled, into a covered clearing, it had once been a green house, filled with large exotic flowers, many thrived still, spilling out of their former containers to vie for a space in the wilds beyond. The still air was full of soft beams of light where various tiny gnats swarmed like dust motes, and barely, but surely, there was water running somewhere.
PART THIRTEEN – THE GREENHOUSE
Amelia pushed through a stand of bamboo and came upon a soothing scene. Benches surrounded a birdbath in which a large number of bright orange butterflies rested. Shaking her depleted canteen and listening for the source of that water, she ignored Shiner, who ambled over to relieve himself on the birdbath. The dog, then realizing he too, was thirsty, stood on his hind legs and flicked out his long tongue in attempt to reach the still liquid hovering just over his head. “Wait a minute! I think I just found us some. That old water is for the birds!” Amelia laughed at her own comment and went back to listening.
A belt hanging on an ivy wall made her pause, and quickly forget about the water. “Why won’t you just come out and explain yourself!” She demanded of her surroundings, knowing full well her abandoned possessions weren’t wandering back to her on their own. Though it was possible her predecessor had already gone.
She stepped closer and found that the sound of running water grew louder. She pulled aside the ivy and found it concealed another lion face, this one still dribbling down its chin. “Thank you!” She told the resulting silence, and cupped her hands beneath it. No good, it tasted of algae. She pulled up a flagstone to reveal a layer of black bubbling mud. She reached into it, looking for a handle, valve, or something. She chugged some more of the rusty rain she’d gathered earlier, hoping this was the last time she’d taste creosote. Something gave, and a strong fresh stream hit her face.
She pulled away more of the vines, as she filled her canteen, discovering the decorative spout had a plaque beneath it. “Sanskrit Spring” She went on to uncover it completely. “Named in honor of the founding of the Sanskrit Zoological Garden. 1886. By the Dean of Sanskrit University Patrick Pren.” A natural well, that explained why the old fountain still worked after being sealed off and forgotten for so long.
“Here, have some.” Amelia called to her pet. Shiner gave the birdbath one last shove for its insolence and it toppled over, upsetting the butterflies.
His mistress whipped around with the intention of scolding him but was struck dumb.
All those bright orange wings belonged to the same creature. A flying centipede, its many legs webbed, like the fingers of a bat, slowly swam the air like a ribbon of fire. She gasped, for it was over a foot and a half long, and bugs, simply didn’t come in that size. Creep factor aside, it was very beautiful. “No” she said to Shiner, who seemed intent on snapping it up. He returned to her side and remained seated, continuing to follow it with raised ears. Amelia was calmed to see it fiddling with some honey suckle, obviously eating, yet there had to be fairly potent nectar there to sustain such a large thing. Amelia set the basin back on its post and the creature came to rest there once more. Its eyes reflecting the orange glare of the filtered sun.
Keeping a wary eye on their new friend, Amelia pulled off her cap and let her goggles hang at her neck. She then caught water and splashed it over her freckled face, drying her hands by running them through her short red hair. Perhaps they should rest awhile, charge their weapons some more if nothing else. She spun the gear that fed her pulse glove. Generating enough power this way could take hours of tedious winding, so she never let a moment escape. The action had become a soothing ritual, akin to meditation. Often ideas would surface . . . The message in the coffee tin! She pulled the envelope from her boot and tore it open.
The message had been intended for another’s eyes, thus she couldn’t make heads or tails of what appeared to be an ad for quince flavored quip and yet, Maybe it was returned to her for a reason.
Amelia examined it closely . . .
Dun labs, Nontoxic, Rendered, Vitaquince;
Amazing! – Unbeatable! – Edible!
(Buy it, or starve)
She started with the bold capital letters, seeing how many words she could make by rearranging them. The first clue would always be there, hinting at how she could uncover the rest. These puzzles were never urgent. Someone somewhere probably just wanted an extra few pounds of spices to liven up their rations.
A familiar name quickly surfaced as she bit the corner of her mouth in concentration, Velduran, a common component of higher level clearance. She’d been mistaken, this was important. It was very possible, she’d found her password. “Velduran!” She announced. The more she said it, the stupider it felt. She looked outside for the deer, even they had gone. There was no one, no one and nothing to hear. “Looks like we’re it, Shiner.” He whimpered, unconvinced by her bravado. “Where to?” she said, gesturing widely, once again startling the centipede. It fled from its cradle like a wind blown ribbon.
PART FOURTEEN – THE ZOO
Keeping a respectful distance they followed the strange arthropod out of the fallen rear gate of the green house garden and into an open gallery with walls of sturdy chain-link fencing looking out on scrubby meadows. The hall way ended at a closed door with a plywood sign bolted to it. “Zoo closed.” it read. “No Trespassing.” “Ha! Think again.” said Amelia out loud as she pulled on the handle, and found it locked.
“Alright you win.” she said to the door, it was at least an inch thick and metal, with a window too small to fit through even if she could break it. Amelia took a long hard look inside, and saw only stacked boxes.
As soon as she turned from the window. Shiner saw a shadow pass in front of it.
He hurled himself against the door and snarled, the shadow vanished, slipping upward as his mistress returned to inspect it again. Only more boxes silhouetted against the light of another window somewhere behind them. “It’s just my reflection, you idiot.” Shiner put his tail between his legs. She sighed. “Ah, that’s alright.” She split her wrench and flipped it backward, now it was a hefty set of bolt cutters. A snip, snip, here, and a snip, snip there and a section of the chain-link wall fell ringing to the weed choked pavement as she tossed it aside, and stepped through, into the scrubby meadows beyond. “Onward.” she said to her pet. Behind them, a tattered curtain in one of the higher windows of a mildewed lime-stone building stirred only slightly.
“This is getting ridiculous” thought Amelia as she trudged forward, the flying centipede cavorting in their wake like an orange streamer. In the distance another, much larger, water tower could be seen, its tank left unfinished. Off between the trees and through a maze of fences meant to contain unheard of hoofed stock they wandered, hoping to eventually make contact.
She stepped over an antler that seemed to be a yard long, and walked the trunk of a fallen tree until it left them upon another cobbled path. A long row of cages trailed off to the right, one of them containing a large skeleton.
What were those white backs she was seeing over the tall grass to the left?
A head rose from the ground to look at her, yet another of those pale deer, a female it seemed, alive and whole.
Those stationed here could be preying on the heard, using the meat for sustenance, and the left over parts as a means of making their radio drones more intimidating to potential enemies, “or friends” thought Amelia. it could be she was being hazed, if so, her hidden watchers would come to regret it.
PART FIFTEEN – THE KITCHEN
They soon came upon a low metal complex littered with the bleached skulls of some thirty deer, perhaps this was where the meat was prepared. She inhaled deeply, not knowing if the sent of spicy grilled fare was a product of her imagination or not. Either way, it made her empty stomach ache all the more. She placed a few fragments of an off white quip strip in her mouth and offered some to Shiner. The dog snorted and sniffed at the pellets so she returned them to the pouch on her main belt. With any luck there would be people in there, if nothing else but to guard the food. She called out a greeting as she approached the door and was met by a smell that confirmed it was, or at least had been, a smoke house.
There was stainless steel everywhere, a thoroughly modern kitchen, yet the leaves on the floor suggested it hadn’t been recently used. On a long counter some bones could be seen, among them a pelvis, some ribs and a large set of antlers. “No meat on them though” she said to her dog. “Perhaps there is more stored up.” They entered the close space and began to check cabinets for canned or cured proteins. As a human Amelia was used to going without meat, and in the right circumstances capable of eschewing it entirely. Shiner was a dog though, and not too happy about being made to subsist on quip.
They went deeper into the small, hot space. It connected to other buildings and seemed to have been part of a feed lot for the zoo. Finding no food and fearing they would overheat, she shared a swig from her canteen with Shiner and they retraced their steps. Amelia turned a corner and immediately jumped back, grabbing Shiner’s harness to keep him from reacting. Through a window she’d seen that front room. Those antlers had belonged to a head. It was behind the counter so she hadn’t seen it. Had she passed inches from one of those creatures without knowing it?
So far, the things hadn’t attempted to harm her only drive her. Perhaps if it was just a spare part she could learn more about what she was up against. Telling Shiner to stay, she approached the window. Long dark, rust brown legs were folded behind forequarters. It was a whole deer demon, but maybe it was deactivated. While undergoing repairs perhaps? It’s back was to the counter, giving Amelia more confidence, if she could catch it off guard, perhaps she’d have time to escape it if her theory proved wrong.
Amelia lost sight of her prey briefly as she rounded the bend and entered the front room to see it already peering over the counter. A head twisted backward on a thin neck. The sight was so shocking she retreated immediately. Only to meet the thing as it came crashing through the glass of the window.
Her momentum carried her forward as the apparition stumbled over them, getting pushed completely over in the process. She and her dog started to run, hearing it crashing and clattering down the hall.
A blow to the stomach by another metal counter left her winded. She got her bearings and went around just as the deer demon sprang on to it. The thing’s two hooves and four spider limbs sliped on several shining trays, till it fell to its feet and continued the chase. “There has to be a way out” pined Amelia as she dodged swinging sides of venison, that were now only macabre wind chimes of barely articulated bone. The deer demon soon met them, its charging head and antlers, shattering and scattering the hanging bundles of ribs till it hit the chain-link door Amelia had locked and barred in its path.
PART SIXTEEN – ATTEMPTING TO REASON
She stood outside in the not much cooler but far fresher air watching it throw itself against the shut gate. Either this one was far more aggressive then the others or these things simply didn’t like being thwarted. Eventually it stopped, stepping back as if considering her. Amelia noticed it had a very weak jaw, almost as if the entire bone was missing. The nose, as she noticed before, was gone, only a large opening on the end of the sought remained, between the black holes it had for eyes. Something in their centers caught the light, marbles perhaps, or tiny cameras, how else could it’s head follow her every move.
There was something at the end of the tail, like a claw, three golden hooks that curled and straightened as it stood idol, shifting its weight to its rear portion, and the two black fingers on each of its long brown legs. They certainly didn’t look like any machinery she’d ever seen. It came forward and gave the door another push. Then its weak jaw expanded as its thin mouth was forced open by a pair of smaller legs. They passed through the chain link door and wavered as if trying to reach Amelia and her pet. What looked like the antenna’s of a mouth, unfolded themselves from the nose hole, fluttering as if sniffing.
Amelia stepped back. Staring hard into it‘s darkened eyes. “Velduran.” She said. After about a minute, the thing shook its head and turned, turned and headed back to the rear of the complex. Had the word registered, or had it given up? Was it reporting to its operator, or was it just searching for another way to reach them?
She looked around for a means of escape and couldn’t help but notice the fence behind her, it was another high wooden one, covered in red stemmed ivy and jasmine. Someone had positioned over it, a small slide, made of yet more of that blue-green piping. From the top of the slide she was able to see the big brown creek that supplied the ravine further down, and the rocky boat tunnel on it’s opposite bank. Sky Land had been slowly expanding its borders into an older zoo. It’s structures had cut across and completely replaced some of the older animal pens. Boats resembling tarnished cybernetic swans were strewn about, perhaps, by a past flood. One of them rested well above the water line and within her reach.
She wrestled Shiner up the latter and pushed him down the slide, then followed, noting it had seen a lot of use. Use by something with scratchy feet. Kids with charms and buckles on their shoes, thought Amelia. She and all her friends had worn shoes just like that, made her yearn for days gone by.
PART SEVENTEEN – KNOCKER FALLS.
Once over the fence, she tried out an old peddle powered swan. Surprisingly it was functional, if not a bit squeaky. She shoved it over an embankment and into the brown murk. Amelia mumbled, “Safe enough for a quick crossing, I guess.”
They climbed in and drifted out, into a drone of frogs and cicadas, gently colliding with a another swan, that was up to it’s neck in the creek. A reflector eye glared up at them. “Must not be very deep then.” She concluded when it’s hull scraped a sandy bottom. “Still wouldn’t swim in it though.”
That flying centipede was sitting on their figurehead. It could have been a different one, or maybe the things were just attracted to water. She ignored it and continued toward a warped wooden pier. There were many tall structures ahead. Once across the water she would seek a vantage point, and hopefully, be able to peer over the fence from a safe distance, to see if anyone responded to the password.
Amelia had been hazed before. The last person she’d seen. A woman who identified herself as The Synchronizer, (as she could fire high caliber slugs through a spinning propeller with out so much as nicking the blades), had allowed Amelia to wander the decks of a vacant aircraft carrier for an hour before pouncing.“Good enough to get herself killed” said Amelia to Shiner as if he could understand, yet with ears raised and a head turned on its side, he was nonetheless trying.
Over the croak of the frogs and squeak of the pedals she heard the sunken swan scrape bottom again. She looked and saw it drifting out towards the center of the stream. Had she bumped it a second time? Suddenly she felt the urge to peddle faster. Amelia wasn’t looking forward to meeting the kind of people who would play these kinds of games, or being graded on her awkward tactics afterward, but when the swan she was desperately peddling turned on it’s own and headed for the boat tunnel she would have been happy to see even that synchronizer nut case.
Amelia hadn’t noticed any machinery attached her swan. She stopped peddling. The boat still moved against the current. She turned the wheel but to no avail. Shiner joined the fight by barking at the water. Someone barked back. Amelia looked up to see that fox-tailed dog sitting on the bank. It was the last thing she would see as a condemned, concrete cavern drew them in.
PART EIGHTEEN – TUNNEL OF LOVE
A few threads of water poured on to them from atop the painted cliff, where there had been a fall. The recent rain had collected in the top basin, causing it to overflow. A sign reading “Knocker Falls” drifted past, barely readable in the shadows of the artificial stalactites that lined the tunnel‘s mouth like teeth.
Amelia thought of jumping into the creek and swimming for shore, so as to avoid being ambushed in the dark. To hell with what lay beneath her, yet a faint hint of light stained the blackness ahead, cooling her desperation. Perhaps they should hang on for the ride.
Within the tunnel composure was impossible, as they were constantly straining to hear sounds of danger over the ghostly barking and splashing of bull frogs. She glimpsed fun, fairytale scenes played out among the resin stalagmites’ their ticky tacky figures rotting in the dark.
A pale wraith sprang from the water, then sunk down again into the gloom. Of what it had been Amelia neither knew nor cared. It was only a puppet after all, a mere mechanism. As for what could have triggered it, certainly the passing peddle boat, and not the mysterious force pushing it along, as that, for all intents and purposes didn’t exist.
She relaxed as they approached a turn. An opening in the wall labeled, emergency exit, was dead ahead. Amelia stood to step out of the boat, and was thrown to her back.
All she recalled was Shiner’s cry as the small vessel was hurled through the opening by something behind it, slid across a stretch of paving stones, and dropped into a shallow basin.
It took them several moments to recover from the shock. The swan drifted back and forth in opaque brown water smelling strongly of ammonia. Sky blue walls surrounded them. She blinked and noticed a giant faucet hovering unsupported in the air. She’d stood under that faucet before, wondering what it’s secret was, water pouring out as if from some other dimension. Now the magic had stopped flowing, for a tall silver pipe was exposed at it’s mouth, both supplying the thing and supporting it. “Deceptively simple” she thought to herself, ashamed that all these years she had thought it would be mirrors.
She sat up. Three yards off was a purple-stemmed mushroom with a red white spotted cap. The water had come from beneath the cap, looking like a flawless crystal bowl turned upside down in the shallow pool, it was like being able to touch a bubble, with out it suddenly vanishing. This was Fountain Town.
PART NINETEEN – FOUNTAIN TOWN
The indoor playground, once had skylights, now rotting boards replaced the glass. They still let in light to see by as she stepped out into the muddy murk that once had been clear and blue. Slosh, Slosh, easy enough for a two-legged human who’s head would be well above the stagnant sludge, not so for a low slung terrier whose far more sensitive nose would barely breach the top of it. Shiner put his paws on one edge of the ornate swan-shaped peddle-boat, then the other. Voicing his intense levels of uncertainty by screeching at the top of his lungs.
“I’m not going to carry you!” snapped Amelia in a tone Shiner recognized as – “To hell with it, I’m just going to carry you.” He smiled, wagging his tail as she groaned under his weight. The boat drifted away and Amelia saw just what it was that had been bothering her dog.
Though the wading pool was murky it was clear there was a deep end, as it darkened to mahogany and then to a deeper black, just beneath the pedal powered swan. It was in that black water what looked like an eye could barely be seen, staring passively into the thin beams creeping in through the boarded skylight. There were hints of a massive head and body drifting. Was it dead? Was it even real? Amelia tried to remember if there had been a statue here. The thing soon sank, sending not so much as a single bubble upwards. Slowly, she began to back away.
A vast pink cavern roared open behind the swan. Amelia ran backwards, not even thinking to turn around. Out of the massive toothy maw, sprang two giant claws on two skeletal fingers, they caught hold of the boat and pulled it into the gaping jaws of the, the, Amelia couldn’t tell. In her haste she stumbled onto one of the lotus shaped frog fountains where short silver streams once leapt back and fourth as if alive, though it was doubtful they’d ever work again, being frothing witch caldrons of algae.
They sloshed through the reeking water garden as the beast wrested with the boat. The exit couldn’t be much further. Yes, finally. Dry ground ahead. Splash, another sink hole. She dragged Shiner into it, kicking and complaining, then pushed him across. Wait, what was that? The sounds of the thing fighting the boat had ceased. What was it up to? She stopped treading water as her feet met something large, rising beneath them. The glove had one more shot in it so she pressed it squarely into the oncoming mass and released it’s power.
Amelia was thrown upward in a violent burst of white foam, to land haphazardly on a pile of straw and what appeared to be rubbery cobwebs. Was this the creature’s bed? She rolled out of it, still somewhat stunned, and caught a glimpse of a jointed rust brown leg, this one the size of the roof supports, and clearly corroded, disappearing beneath the murk. Sprayed on the blue wall behind it, between laughing frog murals, black paint running to the flooded floor, was the message. “Beware of the hippo.” It was the only graffiti she’d seen so far, and it looked fresh.
PART TWENTY – CLUES
Amelia stormed from the indoor playground hoping to catch someone, and was met by a sight almost as baffling as the things in pursuit of her. There had been a small water park, an outdoor arrangement with an entry overarched by pipe work. The pipes were shaped into letters. “The Waterworks”, it read. A tall array of air ducts stood to the north, proving itself to be a tangle of slides, the switches and valves of course, being purely for show. Beyond it there were other rides, and buildings, all as one would expect. What was so very startling, so very, very, very startling, was that many of the rides and buildings had their highest extremities sheered off. Sure, rogue scrappers striped unattended equipment and sold the metal, but why work form the top down when more valuable parts were easier to reach?
That water tower she’d seen on her way to the kitchen loomed just across a cobbled street. The tank that seemed to be under construction, now appeared to have been burned. Scratch that – Amelia felt prompted to slip her goggles back on and adjust her vision to grade ten acuity. She bit her lip as she studied the damage. Dissolved was more like it. She could see the rusted out remnants even at grade four.
Tell-tale orange marked some of the lower structures but it seemed the very tallest were the hardest hit. Had there been some kind of chemical attack? Some insidious, caustic, smog passing low over this section? Amelia could only make wild guesses as to the age of the damage, and how close they might have come to being brought down by something infinitely worse then pixie dust. “Looks like we may owe that roller coaster an apology.” She said to Shiner’s panting, vacant grin.
Beyond the pipe work sign, the land descended. Striping a slope were concrete channels. All painted blue. More slides it seemed, but there was water running through them still, clear water, clean water. Where was it coming from? She hadn’t heard it flowing. Had they just now been turned on? Something far to the right gave her pause. She squinted across a vast unkempt air field, shielding her eyes against the sun.
It was always reassuring to see a control tower, especially when there was an actual controller present, but there just weren’t enough of them to go round she supposed. Wait, something on the outer rail was flashing and flickering in a sequence. A sequence chiseled across her brain by Welsh and his inner circle. Unless her eyes were playing tricks that tower wasn’t empty. Unless her eyes were playing tricks, there were friendsup there. Idiotic, obnoxious friends, but friends just the same. She smiled sheepishly and waved, then throwing caution to the winds, sat down in the nearest channel and pushed off. She hit a catch basin after a refreshing trip down the hill, the force of it scouring the long stagnant scum from her clothes. Feeling, for once, like this place could, and would be kind of fun, she called to her dog and they raced each other down a weed choked landing strip past an old steeple clock face that had long ago fallen and rolled down the hill. Eight thirty read the orange stains where hands once hung.
PART TWENTY ONE – THE TOWER
A wrecked triplane lay to the left of the sun-parched tarmac. Shreds of it’s once bright body littered the ground underfoot. A show craft certainly, from back when planes were wonders not weapons. Judging by all this space left open they’d been the main attractions of Sky land.
A pair of drab grey buildings and a crumpled cage Amelia was quick to identify as the burned out skeleton of an airship marred the western horizon as they approached the tower.
The control tower was only some six stories of red brick and white railings, more akin to a lighthouse then anything. It appeared to have been ignored entirely by whatever had attacked the water park, and also seemed to be ignoring her, for the flashing continued it’s constant pattern even as she tried the doors. They creaked open at the slightest touch, to reveal a hall way littered with papers tumbling and shifting to a rough scratchy record playing somewhere upstairs.
“Hello!” she called out. Then, recalling the message, she added “Velduran!” The papers continued to shift in the breeze through the door, and the record continued to play. Still, no answer. Dare she proceed? She kissed her wrench, and held it close, praying it wouldn’t fail. The glove would be spent. This was the first time she’d go without it, a dreaded, unthinkable task. A task she would undertake in the name of that signal. That signal she’d learned to trust so completely.
With utmost care and Shiner’s keen senses she searched the small building that made up the ground floor. There were store rooms and offices in near pristine condition, only the scattered paper hinted at anything unseemly. She glanced at a few pages and found them to be innocuous charts and weather data. In the end there were no hidden dangers waiting in closets and beyond closed or even open doors so she breathed deeply, and mounted the stairs.
The muffled music grew louder till she almost tripped over the record player. She then looked up through the glass walls of the control room to see Sky Land spread out before her, but she hadn’t come up for the view. A tattered swivel chair turned slowly to face them. It was unoccupied.
She’d missed her pursuer again. The only other things moving were the record and the loop of string tied to a mirrored device outside. The song now seemed familiar, it was either the same piece she’d heard on the way in, or was performed by the same band. She turned up a dial on a random bank of equipment and found the thing to be functional. It was fairly clear that this was the source of that pirate station, but not the strange banging noise – though it could be picked up on the receiver. She switched bands and tried sending a few signals of her own, finding no answer, she turned off the transmitter and stopped the record least it jam something important. Amelia then left the control room to examine the device tied to the rails outside.
Something on the far horizon beckoned her away from the balsa wood wheel and it’s attached mirrors. She used her goggles to examined the movement more closely.
The widest smile ever spread slowly across her face.
Amelia raised her fist high and let out a mighty shout that was somewhere between a battle cry and a laugh. “Ha!” she cheered. Atop a distant spire a large white flag was flying prominently. All the fears Amelia harbored of the coming night were dispelled by it.
She experienced a sudden burst of confidence that was quickly quelled by a slamming door somewhere far below.
She hesitated for only an instant, fearing what she would meet on the way down. Concluding she’d rather not wait for it she charged madly down the stairs, yelling “Show yourself!”
PART TWENTY TWO – SCULPTURE GARDEN
Amelia raced from the tower without incident, and found she was still able to see the flag, but there was no sign of the trap she’d anticipated, that is, until the doors slammed behind her, creaked open, and slammed again. She slapped her face. It was only a draft. She considered the flag, sighed, and went on.
A sound that could almost be music, drifted toward them on the breeze, perhaps that song from the record was stuck in her head.
It was awhile before the distant form caught their attention, it was shaped like a mushroom, then a tree, then a twister. A collection of long thin canisters made of some gleaming orange plastic or brass. The wind blowing through it made an eerie sound that was almost music. It may have been an art piece, an organ to be played by the wind, or it may be a spent casing of artillery, having once held that rusting agent or worse. Not wanting to take any chances, Amelia backed off immediately, turned and gave the thing a hundred meter berth.
A lone, tin windmill, missing half it’s blades and some of its south face, its fan awkwardly creaking, met them as they reached the southern limits of the field. The damage appeared to be of the same type she’d noticed at the Waterworks but seemed more recent. Whatever the case, knowing what stalked these grounds in daylight made Amelia fairly sure the night would bring terrors of it’s own.
The chirping of a cricket reached an unreasonable pitch as they neared a set of stands in a sort of park beside another stretch of river, stopping as Shiner stood up and ate the offending insect off a nearby leaf. “That wasn’t very nice.” Muttered Amelia “Say your sorry – hey what’s this, a scarecrow?”
A human figure stood in a tangle of blackberries. It had a large round voltmeter for a head, and oversized clock hands for arms. The rest was a crudely configured skeleton. It had a spring for a chest. It had an actual pelvis, from a deer. It had a bicycle pump for a leg and beside it there was the leg of a mannequin. It wore a pristine bucket hat but badly tattered overalls, through them Amelia could see that one of those flying centipedes had been formed into it’s spine.
Weather the creature was a dead one or a model of some sort was uncertain, but a live specimen was hovering about investigating it intently. Amelia wondered if it was her friend when another of the creatures joined it. Blue lights were apparent along their stomachs and legs, flashing in sequence so that they appeared to race up and down their long bodies. A third appeared and Amelia decided it was time to move on.
The flag flew atop a steeple on a green copper dome. The dome decorated a large building located within a walled off section. Tall, overgrown hedges blocked everything else from view. To see more, they would have to cross the river. As if to answer Amelia’s prayers there was a swan, chained to a lichen encrusted hydrant practically right in front of them. “Jigs over I’ll bet.” said Amelia to Shiner. “Now they want to meet us.”
PART TWENTY THREE – PLAYTHINGS
This time there were no surprises, at least not in the water. After climbing ashore and plowing through a thick stand of cattails Amelia found herself in a decomposing play area with gutted swing sets and a line of rusting spring riders standing like sentinels over the bare banks where a fence had long ago washed away.
Smiling airplanes, winged horses, and Silver Faction falcons faced the field where stunning feats of aviation once made her feel like part of the show. Yes, she recalled playing here, she even recalled the very toy she had chosen, a zebra that probably dated back to the zoo. It was old and didn’t much fit the theme, but it was the only zebra and thus special. The glint of polished metal led her to it, as it was missing most of its paint. That glint was a buckle, a buckle on a collar, no, a belt, a belt embossed with raised Furies. The belt had been an unofficial diploma, given to her upon the completion of her first solo flight, and it was the last of the three she’d left behind.
Amelia started to shutter, started to sweat, started to look around, franticly. She struggled to remember the smiling faces once seated at the picnic tables, for now it was certain, that she wasn’t the only ghost here.
“Mom? Dad? Who the Hell are you! Why are you doing this to me!”
The only answer was provided by that giant white sheet, a whip and a ripple she was now close enough to hear.
The smaller, wooden coaster would have to remain nameless as she wasn’t about to go looking for a sign. It cut across their path multiple times, swooping and diving through the woods as they struggled down an overgrown trail in pursuit of the flag. It was as if the thing had gone feral, taking on a life of its own as it sought to rejoin the living trees it had once been.
She hadn’t expected to find what she was looking for so soon , but there it was. A crack in the high hedge looming darkly over them.
PART TWENTY FOUR – SWALLOWED
It was a tight squeeze through the thorny hedge and when she got to the crack in the wall behind it, it was a tighter squeeze still. “This must be where everyone is.” she told Shiner after several feet of rough inching. “Its definitely a base, must not see a lot of action though if they can afford to play these games.”
Grit from the narrow crevice clung stubbornly to her wet clothes as she stumbled free, collapsing under an ice white concrete formation ringed by a moat. She walked a red plank laid across the moat, a deep, blue basin for penguins or seals. The basin was drained fortunately, or it would have been as foul as the watersof Fountain Town.
Inching around the outer edge of the exhibit Amelia was treated to a full view of her objective.
Flying the flag was a large, square building, big as a church and sporting a massive double door. It’s mold striped facade was tall and turreted, with a green copper onion dome dead center. A pool, round and bean – shaped, flanked the building alongside a dried out mud pit lined with tile.
Not for the first time was she so shocked at the lack of graffiti.
She dropped Shiner on the other side of a railing before stepping over. They then stood on a walkway between two side passages barred with tall loads of cinderblocks, left there years ago, perhaps to keep out vandals. Confronting Amelia now was another railing, the last thing standing between her and a possible outcome.
Knowing they would be visible from the high windows of the onion domed building, she raised her hands, in a sign of surrender. “Please, don’t shoot.” she said. “I want to talk” To drive the point home she removed her pulse glove, and stowed it in her jacket, it was out of shots anyway, also she was sure to hold her wrench in a manner not indicative of a firearm. It would however, remain in her possession, and stay there until a human voice gave her the time of day.
“Velduran.” She shouted.
The sun sank lower.
The first move would be made by her, or not at all.
That alone was clear.
She hopped the second railing and slid down a steep incline meant to keep whatever had once lived in the onion domed building from reaching the walkway. Now she’d be the one trapped here, as retreat would be an act of congress if anything gave chase, yet Amelia was tired of running. If these people meant her real harm, why hadn’t they acted?
The flap of her damp jacket echoed the rippling of the flag as she raced across to the building, where the oversized doors had been left ajar. They moaned on their giant hinges, and yet didn’t seem to waver an inch in either direction as she pushed through.
Shiner pawed at the railing but kept silent, as per Amelia’s instructions when she had told him to stay. First impressions were important, better for all if they didn’t involve the antics of hair triggered terriers. He was well trained though, both to keep still and stay close to his mistress, yet often, the two contradicted. When Amelia failed to emerge he barked once, twice. Then he struggled between two warped railing bars, and found himself sliding down the incline, tumbling to a stop, and perhaps – wanting to preserve his dignity, trotting matter of factly toward the doors.
He peered inside.
He raised his ears, then his nose. Amelia couldn’t be far.
He ventured further, following the familiar sent, until it vanished.
He stopped at the last place she’d been and sniffed some more, standing on his hind legs to test the air.
Whimpering, he ran about in circles, mumbling and sniffing.
BOOK TWO – DENIZENS OF DECAY
PART ONE – IMPRISONED
Shiner was swiped away with the speed of a vacuum to instantly find himself scrabbling down a wide plastic pipe in almost pitch darkness.
Amelia’s voice, then her arms, pulling him out.
It was all well and good for Shiner. Here was Amelia, now everything would be fine. He went to lick her cheek but she absently turned aside. As the brains in this outfit, it was her job to get them out of trouble. The whelp had learned the hard way that he was no match for it and yet now, in this dark cell, neither was Amelia Jones.
A faulty light bulb flickered and flashed to life, revealing a cave like room stuffed with corpses.
Amelia screamed, forgetting that Shiner, being a dog, would have been rolling about in all that gore like the adorable little maggot impersonator he was. Even easier to notice was the smell, or more specifically, the lack there of. Amelia felt stupid for not realizing the bodies were fun house props.
With an upswing of confidence she rearranged the disturbing dolls to uncover the thick, black bars of a cheesy dungeon cell. She threw her weight against them, but they were real iron bolted into real concrete. She grabbed an unnecessarily large padlock and pulled to find that it was real as well. She checked the door and the hinges. All was not only real but meant to contain something much stronger then human beings. She wondered if this had originally been a lion’s den for the zoo.
Amelia considered waiting patiently for someone to arrive, but figured that planning an escape was the best way to kill time.
She studied the pipe they had entered by. It was your fairly standard tube slide. Perhaps the rubber zombie dolls were thrown down it to startle the people looking in. Amelia tried to climb back up the slide. It was coated with a chalky white powder that made it impossible to grip. She rolled back out.
Amelia tapped the cell walls with her wrench instead.
The wall behind the slide crumbled like plaster. Amelia knocked out a hole large enough to crawl through and escaped into the darkness beyond. A penlight on her wrench revealed only a small room with a door that had been bricked over. Undaunted, she continued to search for an exit. A dead centipede creature curled in the corner caught her attention. She lifted it with the handle of her wrench and studied it in the weak light coming in through the broken wall.
Back in the cell, Shiner pressed his mussel between the bars. An odd smell was gathering. His ears perked up at a single wet slap then another followed by a trickling. The dim bulb just barely illuminated a human figure slowly crawling. He barked, once.
Amelia raced to his side in time to see movement behind the bars, a sense of something quickly retreating.
A single ball of crisp, crumpled paper bounced off her head. She couldn’t straighten it out fast enough.
it read, in that language from long ago, that language she barely remembered.
“Friend, I don’t know what those bug things are or where they came from, but seeing as what happened to me, I’d be careful.”
Amelia was so shocked by finally being spoken to that she nearly forgot the message and it’s meaning.
She tossed the dead centipede back through the broken wall and plugged the hole by stuffing it with one of the gruesome dummies.
“Hello!” She called into the darkness after disposing of the centipede. “Thanks for the tip. Who are you? Why are we down here?”
The bare bulb flickered, then went out.
A loud, insistent thumping came from inside the cell. Shiner snarled as Amelia shined her wrench light on two struggling figures. One was her dog, the other was the rubber zombie in which he’d entangled himself.
The thumping continued, it was coming from the props piled up in the corner.
She threw them all aside in twos and threes to unearth a small low window, once used to observe whatever beastie might have belonged to this place.
Now Amelia was the one being observed.
When the light came back on Amelia could see a sunken eye staring at her from behind the glass.
The eye was part of a mummified face, a face half covered in straight wet hair.
The eye blinked.
A scream tore it’s way out of her throat as she crawled back up the pipe yet again.
The slide twisted itself in ways that made gravity an irresistible foe.
She slid back into Shiner and the two poured out of it.
Amelia turned to see that face still hovering behind the glass.
A white sheet of paper was slapped against the pane.
“Hi.” It read.
PART TWO – HELL FAUNA
The thing tried unsuccessfully to smile with it’s paper cut of a mouth.
Amelia continued to stare.
It flipped the paper over. A sentence had been scribbled on the other side. The sentence read, “That note there, turn it over.”
Amelia pulled the crumpled wad from her belt pouch but was extremely reluctant to take her eyes off the window, even though that thing had backed away from it, leaving only it’s message, stuck to the pane.
Amelia turned her own letter over and noticed an additional message she had somehow managed to miss.
“We can speak more easily through the bars as soon as you calm down, promise not to attack me, and place your weapons on the floor at least three feet away and where I can see them. I’m very fast, and can escape should you choose reclaim them, but please don’t take this as a challenge. Are we in agreement then? If we are in agreement, knock six times on the glass, it’s in the right corner behind some stuff.”
There was a postscript.
“Never mind the light, it’s rigged. I tried to fix it but there wasn’t much time. Maybe you could give it a try seeing as you carry a great big, enormous wrench around and therefore must be some sort of repair person.”
Amelia took a deep breath and knocked on the glass.
She only jumped slightly when the face reappeared, another slip of paper in it’s mouth. “Will you promise?” was scribbled on the sheet. Amelia nodded vigorously. Placing her weapons on the floor as she had been told.
The apparition shot backward into the darkness, leaving Amelia to wait on pins and needles for it’s return.
The lights went off again. She had her terrors but would cast them aside till they were proven, yet there was no way her suspicions could be wrong. As she found when a candle was lifted and it’s bearer slowly crawled into view.
It was just like one of those deer, but human. It walked with it’s arms, and with all below the pectorals replaced, by four insect legs and a snake body.
It regarded her fearfully, it’s insect joints rattling.
The candle, in a dusty, dented holder splashed it’s wax every witch where as it bounced uncontrollably at the end of the tail, who’s rib-like spines were curled under in submission. The nose was gone. The jaw was weak. The cheeks hollow on a face that once was full. The eyes, or at least the eye that was visible, had receded so far into the skull, only a faint glimmer from the candle proved it was more then just an empty socket.
“Are you a ghost?”
Strangely enough, the question didn’t come out of Amelia. It was spoken shyly in a soft, subtle tone with the barely noticeable background buzz of a recording.
“What?” barked Amelia. “Why would I be the ghost?”
The thing fell silent. The short spines that ribbed it’s tail bristled at Amelia’s comment, as if it was angered.
“Sorry.” she said. “What I meant to say was -” She backed away and sat down. This could be an interrogation and she had no idea what other meanings might apply to the term ghost. She chose her words carefully. “What I meant to say was, What makes me seem like a ghost?”
The thing seemed to sit down. “Your outfit, the fact you stepped off a plane crash all bright and bushy.”
Amelia sighed. “It certainly didn’t feel bright and bushy. What’s wrong with my outfit?”
It spoke quickly, as if excited. “The performers used to dress just like that, at least the ones who sighed autographs, took pictures, and stuff. Look Annie, is this some kind of stunt? Are they planning to rebuild, reopen?”
It leapt on to the bars and hung there. The bulb snapped back on.
Shiner snarled, Amelia fell over. “Annie?” She barked. “Why are you calling me Annie?”
Its voice rose with increasing eagerness. “Annie as in Annie Osprey. She was the one with the armored dog, though, if I remember right, Wing Nut was a Scottie. Come on!” It said. “You can’t speak with that accent and not be in character, seeing as you own and operate a tricked out vintage plane you must also be a performer!”
Amelia shook her head. “but that doesn’t make any sense! This place is a ruin!”
“Therefore.” It said, slowly sliding down to the floor. “You must be a ghost.”
Amelia smirked. “If I were a ghost what would stop me from stepping through these bars right now and kicking your butt?”
“The . . . fact I don’t have one?” It offered. Whipping its tail to indicate its lack of an abdomen.
“Then how about a key.” pressed Amelia, “before my dog makes a mess in here.”
Shiner sensed he had permission and – “No.” she barked in time to avoid an incident.
The long space that followed made her fear she’d been too forceful, but her captor caved in.
“I was wondering when you would get around to that. One moment.”
It shot backward until it reached the end of a hall and turned, not around, but left, it’s pale pink face always watching them.
Amelia didn’t want to think about what had just happened or what it could mean for her and her dog. After reclaiming her weapons, she lay back on a stony shelf protruding from the brown painted concrete wall and closed her eyes. This was no time to relax but, God, she was tired.
The screech of the cell’s thick hinges prompted it’s occupants to quickly recollect themselves.
“I brought you a candle.” said their captor, standing awkwardly on its delicate rear legs, a good ten or twelve steps back. “It’s lavender.” Amelia rubbed her eyes and, noticing that it was dark again, laid claim to the item at her feet. “Uh, thanks.” It was unsettling how close the thing had come to them, even though its intentions had seemed pure.
“I turned off the light.” It said. “That thing is hopeless.” “Thank you.” said Amelia. “Uh.” She stood up to see that it was already half way down the hall. “Um, are you just letting me out?” She noticed the open door and stepped trough it immediately. “Yes” It said. “Why.” said Amelia. “Why not?” It replied, as it continued to shuffle away, then stopped. “There’s food in the pavilion. It opens out to a pasture where you’re dog can, uh, be excused.”
Amelia followed the thing down a wide high-ceilinged hall lit only by their candles. Cages identical to her own were placed at intervals. Polished plaques beside them flashed the names of other nightmares such as werewolves, wendigos, and generic giant snakes. A large, rubber tail nearly tripped her.
“Oh watch out for that.” Her captor stopped and returned, it‘s pointed feet making a trickling noise on the damp, tile floor.
“I’m fine.” She said curtly, wanting to forestall idol chit chat until shown the promised daylight. Her captor wasn’t as inclined. “So you finally got to see our gallery of Hell fauna – things that in the silence creep.” Amelia felt obligated respond. “Within the walls of Ebon’s keep.”
It backed away again, staring as if her face was a puzzle it intended to solve. “Everybody knows that one.”
It went on, both with it’s journey and it’s one sided conversation. “Ingenious isn’t it? Used to be you’d slide into a ball pit, an eye-ball pit – but then that was too cheesy so they closed it off. Each monster had it’s own special trick – those zombies for instance – one of them would be a real person in a suit, but you would never know till you were close enough. My uncle designed these mechanical puppets, as they were cleaner then zoo animals, and far more ethical.”
Past a green wooden sign marked “employees only”, it led them. This section had more cages, but they were filled with boxes and other storage. Soon it raised it’s candle, to reveal a row of heavy logs lashed together with crossed iron girders. More giant doors, guessed Amelia, more relics from the defunct Sanskrit Zoo.
“Just a minute.” it said, Leaving it’s candle on the ground, and leaping effortlessly on to the dull wood. It climbed up and out of view. A few scraping sounds escaped the darkness, then a large chain fell into the pool of light. “Done.” It dropped to the ground in much the same way as the chain, then threw itself repeatedly at the log jam like a large bug against a light. Confused by it’s actions, Shiner started to growl under his breath. Amelia cleared her throat. “Is there a problem Sir?”
“Thing’s stuck.” It said. “May I?” said Amelia, eager be outside again.
It scurried around to stand behind them.
“Hurrrraugh!” She threw her weight against the doors once.
They gave a tangible shriek of protest that boded well.
PART THREE – THE PAVILION
“Hurrrraugh!” The doors flew open. Dim daylight rushed in.
Amelia hadn’t expected to find herself Indoors, but it was just as well. Thick beams of afternoon sun fell from many tall, arched windows upon a blue and white checkered floor strewn with rubble. High above her hung a large, tattered, hang glider, a breeze stirring it slightly. She looked for the source and was disappointed to find a broken window rather then a functioning fan.
The thing crept around her and into the light. The light made it worse. “This room used to be full of kites” it said. “Winners of the annual kite competition would often donate their kites. Some of them were really large and elaborate. Before that it was the starting point of the zoo parades – and before that – ” Amelia sensed, by the long pause, that she was expected to finish the sentence. “Before that it was the gymnasium of the Sanskrit university.”
It stopped again and stared. “How did you . . .”
“It’s written on the wall.” She said, pointing to a round seal carved into the masonry.
“That makes sense.” It hopped into a booth and began to clear the table. “You can sit here if you’d like.”
The booth was near a kiosk labeled Two Brothers Café, beyond was the door to a kitchen, and the hum of at least one small appliance.
Amelia swallowed hard and decided she’d force herself to sit. Occupying her seat was the black bushy tailed mongrel she’d come to know so well. She looked for her own dog and found he had left by way of a side entrance. “Have my seat.” said her strange companion, tumbling out and on to the floor. “I’m not quite built for this anyway.”
Amelia took the bench she was offered, sliding smoothly across the vinyl upholstery, that, unlike most everything else, was in fairly good shape. “Thank you.” She said to thin air, for her unnerving host had gone.
A sound from the kitchen meant it hadn’t gone far. Amelia turned her attention to the binders and books it had moved to a neighboring booth. In a large yellow album she found bright color photographs, of a world she never thought she would see again.
There were pictures of her parents, Peter and Victoria, an aunt Lily, and one of an older cousin she had never met before or since. He was sneaking up on her from behind an ugly green gargoyle in front of Ebon’s Keep. She hadn’t remembered his name, so much as the fact she hadn’t liked him much.
There she was, with her parents on the carousel. She’d have to ask if there was an extra copy. Ugh, the adults had been so insistent that she pose for every photo op. She really wasn’t all that cute. If only she had more images of her family to cherish, and less of these costumed strangers smiling so unconvincingly up at her.
Wait, what the heck was Welsh doing here, and in full dress uniform too. He was holding her up for the camera, behind him was his famous fighter plane, the Gunwale. She lowered the album, wracking her memory for an explanation.
Amelia soon found what she was looking for. A poster plastered to the side of her booth depicted a truly magnificent figure standing against a backdrop of burned wreckage, hand to it’s forehead in curt salute. “Fall of the Nimbus.” read the poster. “Air Fleet Commander Lord Windham tackles the terror of the skies. Show at two o‘ clock, first Saturday of the season, weather permitting.”
Amelia knew the story of the Nimbus. It had made Welsh a legend at the tender age of nineteen. It wasn’t something he liked to talk about, much less reenact, yet there were those who worshiped him because of it. Knowing how such things often marked the end of one’s perceived personhood, Amelia respectfully turned away only to find herself facing her host. A scarf and flight cap identical to the poster’s was hanging loosely from it’s emaciated head and shoulders.
“Um, Sir,” said Amelia, not knowing exactly how to respond.
It continued to stare at her expectantly then slunk away, dejectedly, to the kitchen. “Never mind.” It said.
Amelia reexamined the album and found there was something strange about the face of young Windham. Welsh’s nose was large yet narrow and slightly hooked at the end like a bird of prey. It would have been prominent even on a much younger man, but the person holding her aloft bore no such feature. The features it did possess, matched those of her obnoxious cousin perfectly. Naturally, they had used impersonators, though why she was sent to stay with a decoy was a question crushed beneath a far more obvious issue.
The smell of freshly brewed coffee wafted out as the peeling white door creaked open, and a low figure glided swiftly toward the booth with two plates in it’s arms. It placed one in front of Amelia, and another on the outside edge. After that it left again, and she wondered if anyone else was to join them.
She wondered until a chair slid across the dusty floor and collided with the table, splashing their drinks. “Sorry about that.” Said her host as it gripped the chair, with it’s four thin legs, and rested it’s crossed arms atop the back. It couldn’t exactly be called sitting, but seemed to work well enough.
“So.” It said.
Unfolding an appendage from it’s mouth to toy with it’s food.
“How are you?”
Amelia absently studied her – quip. It was cut in the shape of an airplane, and garnished with blackberry exhaust fumes. “I think my lunch is experiencing an engine fire.” “Those are rain clouds.” Said her host. “Being as they are full of juice and sort of purple.” She smiled, feeling the calm before a storm, and for a few seconds pretended to eat.
“Sir, what the heck happened here?” finally burst fourth.
It looked up from a rearranged but otherwise untouched portion, and whispered “Gremlins.”
PART FOUR – SPEAK OF THE DEVIL
Amelia whispered back. Wondering if there was some special reason they were whispering.
“Those flying bug things? You said you didn’t know what they were.”
“Would you have taken me seriously if I had mentioned gremlins.”
“Is that what they are?”
“That’s what I call them, who knows what they are.”
Slowly, she slid her arm across the table, praying it wouldn’t touch her, but hoping the invitation would be enough.
“What did they do to you?”
As Amelia feared. It reached out and took her hand. It wasn’t warm. It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t anything. But then, she was wearing gloves. Its grip was firm though, and the thing seemed reluctant to let go.
“It wont happen again. You’re safe, I promise.”
“What, won’t happen?” Choked Amelia.
“Doesn’t matter, it was years ago. Look at Harlequin he’s fine.”
It placed a chunk of blue quip to the left of it’s plate. The scraggily little face of the fox dog appeared briefly to pick it up. The thing tried to smile. “My other mutt Coney is always chasing the things and she’s okay too. Still wouldn’t trust them though. They land on you sometimes. Shoo them off but don’t hurt them. Don’t get to friendly with them either, leave them alone is all I am saying. Don’t get too close.”
Feeling that she’d struck a nerve, Amelia changed the subject. Perhaps once her host was at ease it would tell her more. “Is Coney a big black and white thing?”
It dropped the fork it had been fiddling with.
The utensil fell with a clang.
“No she isn’t, you must have seen Knave.”
“No.” It said, with a sigh that was more a product of it’s rattling mouthparts then its lungs. “Knave is not my dog. Knave is no one’s dog. In fact, I don’t even think he is a dog. Sometimes you’ll hear him barking, but your better off just ignoring it. They used to see that spook when the park still ran. Knave was what my uncle called him. ‘This world is full of strange things.’ he’d say, and leave it at that.” It picked up the fork. “Come to think of it Annie, I would add Knave to the gremlins on my list of stuff to stay the hell away from.”
It went back to rearranging it’s quip then froze. “Oh, and there’s one more thing – ”
The sudden appearance of Shiner interrupted them. The stocky, armored brute shot in under a rusting roller shutter that covered most of the building’s main entrance. It was clear by the dog’s terrified screeching that he was being pursued.
“Speak of the devil.” it said as the shutter was forced upward by something very large and terrible.
Amelia’s first impression was of a single dark eye above two long fangs, and the flap of what might have been wings. This couldn’t be real. This simply couldn’t be real.
She slipped out of her seat anyway, causing her host to fall backward. It flipped to it’s feet and raced to the doors they’d entered by. “Don’t worry” it said. “Moai won’t hurt you.”
“Won’t hurt me huh.” She panted, hot on it’s heels. “This how you dispose of your prisoners?”
It reached the log doors, meaning to close them in her face. “Your not my prisoner your Moai’s.”
Amelia threw herself into the doors, causing the thing to rush backward. It hissed like a broken conveyer and fled down the dark hall. Shiner gave chase, blasting their betrayer even further with his pulse plate. Amelia tried to follow, but was yanked backward by three hook-like fingers, on a claw that was vaguely familiar.
Soon she was hanging upside down in front of a vision made even more disturbing, by the fact it could now be identified as an elephant.
The face had been drastically disfigured by the missing trunk. The thing gripping Amelia’s legs was the mutant’s massive tail. The beady eyes remained, dwarfed by the great pit in its forehead. The pit that still seemed to watch her though it had never contained an eye.
Two structures shaped like rubbery ferns crept out of the nose hole then were sucked back in like errant strands of mucous. The maimed beast then threw back its head, and spat two long whips out of an incredibly elastic mouth.
The whips ran over her clothing, pulling out pockets and letting their contents fall to the floor.
A second set of jointed legs emerged from the mouth and unzipped all the compartments of her pack.
Amelia was shaken till her pack was empty then tossed roughly on to a stack of blue tarps piled in the corner.
Stunned but unhurt, she watched the massive abomination rummage through her effects, occasionally, using a long fleshly whip to pick something up and eat it. From her vantage point, Amelia could see the hollow chest cavity and the sprawling rear insect legs that seemed to fill the room along with the subtle, sickly-sweet odor of rancid lilies. Off to the side was her abandoned meal, quietly being consumed by an unconcerned Harlequin. Perhaps, Amelia could go about her business as well.
As Amelia started to get up, a pressboard panel exploded on the wall above her head, sending down a cloud of white powder. When it cleared, Amelia found her wrench, protruding from a gash not six feet from where she was sitting. The abomination could do anything it wanted, and yet it had tried to kill her with her own weapon.
The wrench fell on to the tarp beside her. She took it, and turned to notice the abomination was staring her down. Amelia stood, wrench in hand, ready for a fight that would certainly be her last.
Instead her enemy left, shuffling out the way it had entered, causing the remainder of the crumpled steel shutter to come loose with a crash.
It was awhile before she felt safe to leave the corner, as the slightest movement could bring the nightmare raging back.
It wasn’t till the log doors were nudged open by her canine companion, who then safely crossed the room, that Amelia found the confidence to do the same.
They walked past her remaining belongings, scattered widely across the dingy tile. She picked up her glove and a few other small tools that happened to be close, but forsook all else in favor of a hasty retreat.
The log doors looked big enough to admit the monster she had faced, but they were very sturdy and could be locked. It was also the way her betrayer had gone, and the surest way to catch up with it. As much as she disliked the little freak she knew it was capable of answering questions, and this time, she planed to pull out all the stops.
PART FIVE – STAND OFF
Amelia reached the doors and re-secured them, retracing her steps in search of her target. The thing was surly still frazzled by Shiner’s weapon.
Her quest led her back to the cell she had been trapped in.
She tried the latch and found that, this time, she’d been locked out of it.
“Go away.” came a weak voice from the hole in the rear plaster wall of the cell.
Realizing she had it cornered, Amelia relaxed a bit. “Sir, um, What are you doing?”
“Hiding from you, and Moai, but mostly from you.”
She snorted. “and why is that?”
“You attacked me.” It said.
“My dog attacked you.”
“You egged him on.”
“I was fed to a monster!”
“And yet here you stand.”
The freak had a point. She was angry, and terrified, but she was alive. Still, there was a lot that didn‘t make sense.
“If that Moai thing is so harmless, why did you run away from it?”
“I said, ‘Moai won’t hurt you.’ I never said she was harmless.”
“What made you so sure it wouldn‘t hurt me?”
“I wasn’t sure so much as I was sure Moai would be a much bigger problem if you were to keep resisting capture. Someone has to be on her good side, and it sure as heck ain’t me.”
“What does she have against you?”
“Let’s just say that an elephant never forgets.”
“What happened?” said Amelia, wondering if she really wanted to know.
“I’ve tossed you some bread crumbs Annie, not much, – but a lot more then you’ve thrown to me. Let’s hear a name stranger, and a motive. Then we’ll see if this truce of ours can continue.”
“I can’t do that.” she said. “I have orders.”
“Orders to kamikaze a roller coaster?”
Amelia had been waiting for this one. “The evil king of the carny rides had to be destroyed at any cost.”
“Alas, your efforts were in vain.”
“Yet I‘ll live to fight go-carts another day.”
There was a long pause.
Then it responded.“Okay, how about some real answers.”
Amelia’s blood boiled. “How about some real questions. Clearly the crash wasn’t intentional! Can we move on?”
“Not till you check that attitude indicator.”
Something about its last line had touched upon a primal hatred deep within Amelia, stirring up memories of a smug smart aleck who laughed at his own jokes and always seemed to be blowing his nose.
Nothing more came from the broken wall, except a clicking as her inquisitor settled itself in. Amelia took a deep breath as if she too was prepared to wait a very long time. She turned around and sat cross legged on the floor.
She hadn’t been able to find her pocket watch in the rush to escape Moai and wasn’t about to go back and look for it, so time would be hard to quantify. She knew better then to count out the seconds herself. That only ever made it seem longer. Shiner lay his stomach on the cool tiles, and closed his eyes, but his mistress was already starting to fidget restlessly.
She thought of all the potentially lethal information at her disposal, especially the information concerning her current mission, about which she new absolutely nothing. Nothing. There would be no harm in mentioning nothing.
She curled her lip around her left canine and bit down.
“Alright!” She said after what felt like an hour had passed. “They call me Catamount. I was given a set of coordinates and nothing else, I assumed I was to reach these coordinates, land, restock, and await further orders. I thought maybe there would be a job for me, or at least some room and board till the next assignment. Sorry if I’m imposing, perhaps there has been a mistake.”
More nothing from the wall behind her.
She waited, then added, “Got that, Schnoz Wipe?”
A quick shuffling, then nothing else. She turned to see her captor standing quietly before the bars.
“AJ?” It stuttered. “L, Little AJ is it really you in there?”
Amelia swallowed the lump in her throat. “What are you?”
“Think AJ, It was your last hurrah before school started. We wanted to make it special. Everyone was there. I was the one who was always trying to startle you, but my allergies kept giving me away. You’d get mad and call me Schnoz Wipe, an insult you never used on anyone else. Amelia Artemis Jones, is your name, your real name, I don’t know who gave you that fake one -”
“Catamount’s a title, not a name, and I don’t remember yours.”
“It was only one day, and you were very young. I’m impressed enough that you remember me at all.”
Amelia shook her head, still refusing to believe it. “You were my cousin?” she said, just to make a noise.
It crept closer to the bars. “Father was sensitive about the divorce. He remarried and your mother thought we should meet.”
It fixed her with that expectant stare. Only when she didn’t respond was “I’m your brother.” spat out.
“My half-brother you mean.” said Amelia coldly in the impassive mindset she would adopt until things started to make sense. Too late did she realize how awful it sounded.
“That’s not nice.” said the head, two arms, and chest fragment crawling on the floor supported by some unspeakable insect parts. “What if I was to start calling you my halfwit-half-sister.”
“What would you prefer to be called then.” said Amelia, genuinely regretting her lack of foresight.
It climbed the bars so as to meet her face to face and offer its hand. “I am Theodore Blythe Jones. Friends call me Skitter.”
She shook the hand, grateful she was still wearing gloves. “Pleased to meet you, Theo.”
It frowned. “Does this mean your not a friend?”
Amelia sighed. “I don’t know, even if you are who you claim to be, you‘ve – changed.”
“So have you, AJ, you’re huge! I mean, your all grown up and everything. You, know stuff.”
She found its awkward excuses to be as good as an apology, or she would have, if taking offence had been higher on her list of priorities. “Where is everyone.”
“I don’t know.” it said. “I was supposed to stay here and wait. That school you were attending let out in the spring. I figured a bus or something would bring you, but that was years ago. It was the off season, only a skeleton crew remained to watch for trespassers and care for Sanskrit’s remaining animals. Uncle Cody planed to sell them but was very particular about the buyers. After – ” It wriggled it’s tail. “this happened, even that small crew had gone, though I can’t say that I blame them.”
Theo glared at Amelia. It was an unspoken message banning any further discussion of his gremlins and their deeds.
She smiled, hoping her next question would sound innocent enough. “What about the rest of our family, where are they?”
It handed her a brittle envelope that seemed to have appeared magically. “This is all there is, I’m afraid, it’s from Uncle Cody.”
It took all the self control Amelia had left to avoid shredding the letter in her haste. Considering it had already been opened once upon a time, she was able to remove it intact.
Theo said, “Sorry about that. After a while it really started to seem like I’d never see you again so I – ”
“That’s alright.” said Amelia, examining the postcard. Her discretion had been pointless, for the heavy duty plastic thing would have been impossible to damage unintentionally.
A vivid Lenticular print of a rampant winged unicorn over a sunset sky, rife with thunderheads, flapped it’s wings and flashed it’s lightening as she tilted it back and fourth in her wrench light. After a few deep breaths she turned it over and slowly, started to read.
I bet your awfully excited to be free of all that class work, and what better way to celebrate summer then to spend it here. Sure, the parks a bit creepy with no one in it, but that’ll change in a few weeks when the season opens and the rides start running. Till then you’ll have the beach all to yourself, and can peddle the swans up and down the rivers all day. Say, why not invite a few friends? Have a party! All you have to do is mind your cousin and not go wandering off by yourself. If he’s not at the shuttle to meet you, then you’ll find him in one of the “Cosmic Condominiums” on the shore. (They are new, you can’t miss them.) I can’t quite remember which one he moved into. Just keep an eye out for the big concrete dolphin.
Enjoy your vacation.
P.S. I know you were looking forward to going home, Amelia but your parents haven’t returned yet, and you are still too young to stay by yourself. Your father tells me he’s very impressed with your performance and your mother tells me the job is almost done. Their hoping to see you soon. Till then, Theodore will take care of you. He really is nice if you’d give him a chance. He’s matured somewhat and shouldn’t be too much of an oaf. I’ll expect the two of you to stay out of trouble in the meantime, over and out!”
Amelia held the postcard close to her chest as she kneeled on the floor. “So this is home?” She said to no one in particular.
“Its not what it used to be.” Said the creature behind the bars. “but it’s safe.”
“That remains to be seen.” said Amelia. “How long has it been? Have you heard from no one?”
He shut his eyes. “No one save you, and as for time, just forget about it. I Live in the moment.”
“Have you tried sending for help?”
“Yeah, that doesn’t work.”
“For a while I used that old tower to run a radio station, figured that if I used illegal bandwidth – they would at least send someone to arrest me.”
“Is that what happened?”
“I don’t know, there was this one song – ”
Amelia hummed a few bars and recited some lyrics.
Theo shouted, “That’s it!”
She continued, “There was a record playing in the tower.”
Her half brother raced backward, almost striking the wall. “You turned it off right? Please tell me you turned it off.”
“Yes, why is it so important?”
“Let’s just say the stuff it attracts will make you run to that elephant and call it mommy.”
Amelia was finding it harder to hide her fear. She tried to smirk and could only manage a grimace. “Is that what your doing?”
“Hiding behind Moai, yeah that’s pretty much it.” said Theo, not the least bit offended. “But, hey, you sound like a hotshot that’s got her act together, whoever sent you will probably send more, lets just bide our time till the situation changes.” He lay on the shelf, curling up his legs like a dead spider, but Amelia wasn’t done.
“Who played the record then? If it wasn’t you?”
“Oh it must have been me. I’ll admit it’s pretty stupid. I only needed the player to power the wheel. To tell you truth, I didn’t think a record was even on it, needle must have slipped when I saw the flag and had to leave.”
“The flag wasn’t your doing?”
“It was my back up plan. When Moai raised it, I thought something was up. She may have just been playing, but heaven help me if she wasn’t.”
“I’m guessing luring me into that tower was plan A?”
“Yep, that’s why the com was open, if all had gone as planned I could have explained everything via walkie, instead that elephant jumped you when you entered her house.”
“Who taught you the signal?”
“That would be my – our father, cool guy, even after he got strange. Till now I’d thought that signal was only part of the strangeness mother warned me about.”
Amelia thought of the piece she’d heard on the way in, the word just used to describe her father, and countless other questions she could ask. Now, only one seemed appropriate.
Amelia lay backward against the floor. Too tired to continue. “I think I‘ve heard enough, I‘ll need a break just to digest it all. By the way – Where do I sleep?”
The cell door swung open and her half-brother, skittered out. “Okay AJ, you mentioned room and board and we’ve got it. Right this way.”
PART SIX – RAINBOW’S WARF
Amelia followed her brother out through the café, stopping to gather the rest of her scattered possessions. They left the pavilion by stepping over the ruined roller shutter Moai had trampled.
Amelia spoke quietly, for fear the monster was still around. “Are you sure she won’t come back?”
Theo stood on his rear legs and looked around, “Who Moai, nah, she’s had enough of your quip jerky to last a week.”
Amelia checked her pack again, to make certain everything was there. “I’m missing a book.”
“Ooh.” Theo said. “Was it a good book?”
“Don’t know, It was in some other language I couldn’t read.”
“So it’s no huge loss right?”
“I would hope not.” said Amelia. “I often handle items I’m not allowed to see.”
“You’re a spy?” He crept closer and whispered. “That’s really cool.”
“More of a glorified delivery service.” she said.
“Every job should be glorified.” said Theo. “There’s no such thing as an easy one.”
“I’m guessing getting that book back, wouldn’t be classified as easy then?” said Amelia, pulling her alleged sibling back on topic.
“No, that would be classified as impossible, actually – cause either Moai has eaten it, which is far more likely, or she’s added it to her shrine. If your book was really colorful and attractive then that’s where it is, but I wouldn’t try to retrieve it any time soon. Like I said, it’s imperative that Moai not hate you. Since you’re a stranger, you’ll have the benefit of her doubt. If there were two of us incurring her wrath things could get really difficult really fast. Besides, if that book contains important spy stuff maybe it’s for the best. The secrets are safe if it’s destroyed, well guarded if it isn’t.”
Amelia ignored the rest of what was said as she beat her way past the dense jungle of overgrown flower bushes outside the pavilion. Theo merely bounced across them like some uncanny arboreal imp, clearly more suited to climbing then walking. “I have a motor bike around here somewhere, lets hope Moai hasn’t trashed it.”
She helped him dig an ancient two-wheeled contraption out of the trampled foliage. It appeared to be a large bicycle that had it’s rear wheel replaced with a radial engine. The bike had been modified further to allow something like Theo to reach the pedals with its legs. Amelia doubted the dusty antique could manage anything higher then walking speed.
Theo said to Amelia.“Hold it up for me please.” She steadied the bike as he sprang on to it.
“Okay” he said “Now give it a push.”
The rickety thing bounced over logs till it reached a smooth stretch where only leaves had settled.
“Hey!” Barked Amelia. As Theo drew farther and farther away. “Wait up.” She stumbled free of the bushes and raced after him. The bike’s engine kicked on and its speed increased.
Amelia and Shiner ran through a gate with missing doors in a wall of wild ivy, and found themselves back in the empty ungulate pens. Far to the right was the open gallery, and the locked limestone building that had given Shiner such a fright. The barely audible buzz of the motor fell silent, causing Amelia to fear that their dubious new friend had deserted them again.
A strange hiss she recognized as Theo’s cry of distress, deepened her dread.
Had that Moai monster come back?
Swiftly she followed the shallow rut his tires had made in the grass, not sure why she was headed toward the danger and not away from it.
The trail lead them around the limestone building past a line of tall grey cats painted across what had been its front.
In the shadow of a large, empty birdcage, Theo sat fussing over his vehicle. It was hitched to a wheeled, wooden cart containing his lanky little dog. Amelia noticed that the bike was missing the parts that allowed him to reach the pedals. It was however, perfect for one such as herself.
Shiner needed no orders to jump into the cart beside Harlequin.
The Theo creature sprang out of the way as Amelia mounted the bike.
Theo whined. “AJ, just wait a second, Moai must have kicked it and the thing’s all bent out a shape.”
“Your all bent out of shape.” she told him. “You don’t need to reach the peddles when you’ve got me.”
“She’s a delicate flower not a two-ton war machine, you got to be gentile else she’ll fall to pieces.”
“Trust me.” Said Amelia. “I can handle temperamental devices.”
“Like the one you parked in the side of a – ”
She started the engine.
Theo was forced to jump on to the bike’s rear rack and hang on for dear life.
“Get your mouth out of my hair, please.” Amelia calmly stated as they passed a row of large, painted gears lining a relatively smooth path through the thick trees, the speedometer reading fifteen mph.
Up ahead was a wrought iron arch way with wooden letters crudely arranged along it. The letters spelled “Rinow’s arf.” The double-u hanging by a thread.
“Rainbow’s Warf!” Said Theo excitedly, though, as he was yet to let go of her head it was still “Rinow’s arf.”
Assuming this was their stop, Amelia braked slowly in the midst of several dozen kiddy rides surrounding a large kiosk containing a fiberglass winged unicorn, with a once multicolored mane and tail. Now it was almost entirely white, save for eyes someone had touched up with a pen.
Theo’s legs hit the ground followed by his hands. “I thought you’d want to see Rainbow again, since he’s on the way.”
Amelia approached the statue as Theo unlocked a panel on the exterior of the kiosk and fiddled with something inside.
A loud whinny caused Amelia to jump backward.
Two seconds later, a strip of rainbow confection poured into her hands from it’s left hoof.
Theo bounced up and down. “Got you again! Hey, you managed to catch the prize this time! Gimme some.”
Not caring much for carny sweets, especially when they had spent an indeterminate number of years inside a fiberglass dispenser, Amelia gladly relinquished all of it.
Theo, upon learning there’d be more for him, divided the strip between his mouthparts and consumed both pieces at once. “Improves with age!” He sighed. The insect legs withdrawing into his thin mouth.
Something else fell from the right hoof.
Amelia picked up a tube of toothpaste. “What’s this.”
“My uncle called it ’damage control’.”
“Uh, thanks.” She pocketed the tube, and returned to Theo’s motorized bicycle.
She did remember Rainbow, but wondered if this chummy apparition flaunting it’s knowledge of her past would be so innocent.
PART SEVEN – HOME SWEET HOME
To the south of Rainbow’s Warf, was a field where yellow discus-shaped buildings rested on stony stands. Tears of rust ran from their round port-hole windows, through which tattered curtains could be seen.
“Ever wanted to live inside a flying saucer?” said Theo as they passed the buildings. Amelia laughed. “I’ll live inside a dead whale right now if it’s got a bed.”
She slowed to a stop, but Theo’s hand caught the handle bars and turned the motor back on. “Easy there. These are just camps. The condo’s are on the beach.”
The condos, from what Amelia was able to see, were just like the camps only larger, multicolored and stacked neatly on top of each other. They also seemed to be in far greater disrepair, as many were missing entire walls and ceilings.
Theo clearly felt the need to explain himself. “The camps are all moldy inside. The condos however, are pretty much gutted, so the mold has nowhere to grow.”
Dark balconies and dark picture windows gaped at Amelia as she drove under them. She sighed, “The nights aren’t cold here I take it?”
Last in a row of cement skeletons was a denim blue unit with the number twenty three above it’s darkened entry. Nearby a weathered dolphin leapt from a concrete clamshell. She drove around it, braking before the black plywood on the inside of the blue building’s once transparent doors.
Her strange companion whispered. “Home sweet home.”
Theo entered the building by scaling its front to a second story window and slipping through a hole in the glass. The hole was ringed with a rubbery web of what appeared to be calking. That explained why the glass hadn’t cut him, but not what the mysterious substance was.
Before Amelia could figure out how to follow him, there was a click, and the front doors swung open.
“Come in please.” said the thing as it scuttled out.
She stepped inside, and saw nothing but grey stairs circling upward, and chips of grey stone in the corners and at her feet.
“Are you sure this place is safe?”
“Seeing I’ve been here since it closed, yes, most certainly. I’ve done some repairs to the really important stuff, so the roof won’t fall in or anything. I live at the top of the rear wing, facing the sea. I figured you’d want your own apartment so I put some of your things in the upper west suite, cause they said you liked sunsets.”
She followed him up the stairs as he continued to sing the dubious praises of his colorful yet forlorn little houses.
“This whole area was owned by a man named Jacob, he sold the whole thing cheap to my, our, uncle before these buildings were even finished. Then he left town and was never heard from again. Kit Cody planed to use them to house foreign investors. Several were in working order when – never mind, you know that part. Any who, there used to be water but now there’s not. In my section you’ll find a pitcher hanging above a sink, just pull the string to wash up and stuff, it drains into a bucket I’ll empty later. Oh, and, if you have to go, there’s a litter box and some banana leaves.”
Amelia stopped him.
“Have you ever considered a career real estate?”
He blinked. “No not really.”
“Good.” said Amelia.
Theo lifted a tattered curtain. It was a cloudscape print with rainbow water falls. “Here is your room. Please understand, I was expecting someone a lot younger, to arrive much earlier.”
Amelia entered the room and was nearly blinded by the bright glare of the late afternoon sun.
All around were shattered panes, and the cries of sea gulls over the whisper of waves.
The only corners in the round room were those beside the balcony. The only furnishings were the covered piles of stored items that filled those corners.
Stepping across the creaking, wood plank floor, she seized a sand soaked tarp and cast it aside. Beneath were several small pink duffel bags faded and adorned with moldering stickers.
She turned to the other pile. It was crates, crates stacked in a crude pyramid and covered in burned out candles. A large picture frame lay face down on the very top of the pyramid. She picked up the frame and turned it over.
It was a picture of herself, no older then six.
Surrounding the child she had been were several older people. Amelia’s mother and father stood beside her, a hand on each of her shoulders. Between the two was the woman Theo’s albums had identified as Lily and a man she figured was this Uncle Kit, behind her was her half-brother, keeling so that all their faces could be clearly seen.
“That’s mine!” said Theo’s voice behind her.
Then more softly, he added. “but you can keep it for now.”
“No, thank you.” She said. Handing it back to him.
The Theo creature hugged the picture much as she had hugged the postcard, and scurried back toward his rooms. His occupied arms made him top heavy, so he ran faster and strung out his tail for balance, but never let go of the frame.
Amelia continued to evaluate the room.
Holes in the ceiling were filled with the same clear, rubbery material Theo had used to line the broken window. The material had dripped through the panels in the ceiling to harden into stalactites. A large strip of the rubbery material had also come loose from the ceiling and was hanging down like a hammock. Other pieces stirred in the air like ghosts.
Amelia shrugged. If the flat turned out to be as uninhabitable as it looked she could always shelter herself in the hall way, sneaking back in later so as not to offend her host. Too bad her best bedroll was still somewhere under the plane.
She looked out and saw the offending roller coaster standing right in the center of what was supposed to be her awesome view. So much for those sunsets. Ah, she had had worse experiences. The tarps would be good enough for blankets, and some of her old duffel bags might contain enough dry clothes and stuffed animals to be used collectively as a mattress. Tomorrow she’d go and try to recover her supplies, or perhaps, when she awoke, all this would simply be a dream.
PART EIGHT – STATIC
A closet Amelia hadn’t noticed slid open, as Theo looked through it. She hadn’t been paying enough attention to realize he’d come back. After all, it had been an extremely tiring day. Theo started to speak when Amelia noticed him.
“I brought you some T-shirts and a few of my old board shorts, and some jeans that Uncle Kit gave me, he was short for a guy they should fit you, and some jackets.”
Amelia reached for the heavy bundle Theo’s tail was attempting to hang on the rod. He dropped it and she caught it, sending up a cloud of dust and moths. Theo shook his head. “Looks like we’ll have to wash these.”
Theo waited for his sister to stop coughing, and added. “The rain barrel outside building five should be full now. If not, there are others. Just stay away from building twelve.”
He whispered. “I think something bad happened there.”
Her suggestion that he elaborate was quickly interrupted. “Oh, and if you come across any seaweed, just bring it here and I’ll dry it for later, unless it’s the brown stuff. That, you can toss to whatever lives in the old pools.”
“What lives in the old pools?” said Amelia, recalling the murky water of a kidney shaped pond she’d passed on her way to their building.
Theo curled his lip around his left canine in much the same way Amelia did. “I don’t rightly know.” He said. “But I’m pretty sure it’s not a hippo so you can rest easy.”
Amelia tried to remember how many pools there’d been. The one she’d passed was beside a rockery. She’d seen parts of a broken slide near the surface, but no hint of anything else. She made a mental note to stay away from it as she gathered up her clothes and headed out.
“Where are you going?” said Theo as she descended the stairs.
“I’m going to wash these.”
“No your not it’s getting late.”
“but you said there was – ”
“I meant tomorrow AJ, aren’t you tired?”
She walked back up the stairs. “It’s really not that late. I’m used to this, it helps me sleep.”
“You know what also helps, reading. I’ve got all your old comics. I even added some really violent ones since your all grown up now.” Theo leapt into the sagging rubbery material after pulling a paperback from one of the covered crates. So the thing really was a hammock after all.
“I sleep on that?” she said, indicating the snarl of what seemed to be stringy glue.
“What else would it be?”
“Part of the ceiling?”
“It’s that too. I get this stuff from the deer, they wrap it around trees in the winter to make nests they abandon in the summer. The gremlins eventually eat it if it’s left outdoors, but in here, it lasts forever. Now come, sit.” He rolled out of the strange hammock and offered it to Amelia.
Just then, the sound of loud radio static came from elsewhere in the dilapidated building. Theo left and returned with a small device that appeared to be the source of the static.
Theo twisted a knob till the static was replaced by the same eerie, banging whistle Amelia had taken for a jamming signal.
“No.” He said to himself. “It can’t be happening again.”
Amelia snatched the device and examined it closely.
“What are you talking about?”
He left, and she followed.
The walls of her brother’s apartment were coated with flotsam, plastered with posters, and festooned with fish nets. There were so many decorations it was hard to ascertain the structural integrity of the floor, so she stepped lightly.
Theo was gazing intently through a telescope at the far end, what passed for his body frozen save for the occasional shifting of his legs.
“May I?” She whispered.
He jumped on to the ceiling and clung there.
Amelia smirked. “That’s a yes I presume.”
She was less concerned by his display of agility then she was with its cause. Through the telescope there seemed to be a hazy line of clouds on the distant sea. Above them was another line of clouds. Between these two cloud banks shot many silent bolts of lightening.
Her shivering six-legged companion whispered, “You know how I said there were things that could make Moai look cuddly? That storm is one of them.”
His dangling tail swiped the radio off an end table, and he cranked up the whistling. “Hear that?”
Amelia looked up at him, “What is it?”
“A weather report maybe? Don’t know who sends it, but I’ve noticed a pattern. This plays off and on but gets louder before a serious throw down. Weird though, you’d see clouds like this all the time when we were in business, but not so much anymore.”
“So you’ve seen a lot of these storms.” said Amelia. “I can’t help but notice this place still exists.”
Theo frowned. “I trust these buildings, AJ, but not in a fight, besides, it’s not the wind and waves that‘ll kill you so much as what they wash in. I’m real sorry but we can‘t stay here.”
PART NINE – THE STORM
Theo’s tail caught Amelia’s sleeve as he raced across the ceiling.
She pulled away, throwing him to the floor.
He flipped upright. “I forgot your still not used to me.”
The thing offered one of his more human hands. “We have to hurry.”
Amelia said, “The wind is calm and so is the water. All I see is a ridiculous amount of lightning.” Amelia wondered if the secret lever she’d pulled aboard the Buckler had activated some massive EMF weapon.
Theo rushing her along. She resisted. “We really shouldn’t go outside.”
Amelia left the building nonetheless, Shiner and Harlequin plodding along in their wake.
“Where are we going?”
“There’s a decommissioned air force base beyond the show field. It’s where they kept the planes, there’s barracks underneath it.”
“Barracks as in beds?”
“There are beds.” said Theo, turning around to look her in the eye. “and there is also your friend, Velduran.”
Amelia was thoroughly shocked. “So you do know about Velduran?”
“Yes, but we got to go.”
They reached the main courtyard of the complex just as a heavy sheet of rain slammed into them. Theo grabbed Harlequin in both hands, dragging Amelia toward a terraced white building with one of his legs.
The white building seemed to be a gutted strip mall. Its vast environs offered little relief.
Only when they paused to take shelter behind a concrete partition did Amelia dare complain.
Her voice was drowned out by the thunder, and the bark of a dog as it rushed to greet them.
“This is Coney!” said Theo, giving the colorful collie mix a belly rub. “She likes to ride in the jeep.”
“Jeep?” Shouted Amelia between the staccato beats of thunder. She’d never seen so much lightening. Theo was right, this was so much bigger then Moai.
“Jeeeeeeeep!” Theo screamed with a mouth stretched wide enough to hide his entire head.
Through the mist stirred up by the rain a small, red wilder car could barely be seen. Guided by her companion she reached it, and was pushed inside.
The whole world changed with the slamming of the door. The rain fell quieter, and though the strange thunder still throbbed like a head wound it seemed much further off.
No matter the situation outside, it was always cozy in a covered vehicle. Not even the three wet dogs on either side of her nor their accompanying stench could prevent her slow descent into sleep.
It was the start of the engine that met this challenge. Theo had many extra limbs. None were suitable for working the pedals. Amelia was thrown backward so forcefully she never got to see how he was managing to both reach the peddles and steer, though she feared it wouldn’t be to her liking. It wasn’t.
Amelia recovered and was horrified, but not surprised, to find that her alleged sibling had the wheel in his teeth.
“Feet well!” He shouted. “What?” She grunted, still stunned by the sudden acceleration.
He let go of the wheel, causing the jeep to swerve dangerously. “Seat, belt!”
Realizing he would unintentionally kill them if she ignored his safety regulations, Amelia dug one strap out of the seat, and failing to find a buckle, simply hung on to it.
The rhythmic thunder had grown to resemble the heart beat of a massive demon as they left the complex.
The rain fell so thickly it obscured much of her view. Passing glimpses of water and trees told of a woody trail beside a lake. Shapes resembling the quip stand and the Zeppelin led Amelia to believe her very life flashed before her eyes, assuming it began the instant she’d set foot in Sky Land.
Beyond a track, beside an old concrete eagle, and over a bridge, toward a slew of other buildings that could barely be seen, stretched the barren air field. It was scarred with long neglected airstrips and rife with invading shrub. The shrub made it rough in places but it was still mostly smooth, and yet obstacles would have been welcome land marks in the ever thickening mist, flashing light and deafening wind.
Amelia shut her eyes. If this Theo thing had lived here as long as she guessed then he knew where he was going and would get there soon enough.
Amelia opened her eyes to see a tall chain link fence in the headlights.
Tall stalks of crabgrass were growing across it.
The constant flashing of the sky revealed the jet black skeleton of an airship, rolling and creaking eerily over head. This wrecked airship was certainly a mock up of the Nimbus, but the sight of it bread concern for the safety of the Steer.
The driver’s side door flew open, and Theo got in, his wet hair splashing the tattered seats. She’d never even noticed he’d left. “Not much further now.” he said.
They drove along the fence to an opening where a fallen sign marked “private property” presented no obstacle to the jeep. They bounced across several more piles of weed choked ply wood.
The ride became smoother, as the tires found pavement and carried them past hanger after rusting hanger.
Theo counted them with raps of his tail on the break lever. He then pulled left, under a half lowered door, and parked the jeep.
Raindrops racing across the windows like panicked tadpoles, stopped dead in their tracks and fell as if shot down.
Before Amelia could catch her breath, the door beside her was opened and two dogs piled out. Theo lifted Harlequin off the front seat where his pet had been sleeping, and placed the gangly creature gently on its legs.
Amelia was the last to emerge, dusting at muddy paw prints on her further damaged flight fatigues and squinting in the dim light coming in through the door.
Covered air craft were lined up on either side of them, vanishing into the vast dark space of the hanger.
Theo raised a single, lit candle. “Follow me.”
PART TEN – VELDURAN
Down into the dark hanger they went, past shrouded planes sitting silently in canvas and dust.
Planes were things, not people, and yet so much depended on their powerful engines and aluminum wings that it was as if they were entitled to the same manner of reverence. Would any of these still fly? It was more likely that they had been far too neglected in this understaffed back water to even crash properly. Such waste was unheard of. Soldiers often died by the dozens to procure just one decent craft. Here sat a whole fleet, maybe with even more locked away in the other buildings. This installment was unattended, unguarded and un-looted. This alone was unsettling.
A soft growling from Shiner, a shifting within the vast canvass shrouds. It was now completely dark. Theo’s candle was only a single spark in the blackness.
Amelia swung her wrench when a slender skull appeared in front of her.
“Don’t move.” Theo said. “They came in to get out of the storm, just let them look at you.”
Holding still was easier then expected, perhaps because she was so tired. The intentions of the deer also included touching however. She dodged left and right as their mouth parts brushed her clothing.
A loud clanging noise caused the deer demons to scatter.
Theo squelched his candle and whispered “Run”
Amelia was dragged through pitch darkness until they met a wall.
A lighter in Theo’s hand flipped open when the dogs caught up.
“Hit the thingy!” he shouted.
Amelia saw only a cracked rubbed lever so she jumped and yanked it downward.
The lever fell with a clunk, sending iron bars crashing down in front of the stag. Amelia was relieved to see it was only one of the deer that had been after them, relieved until the ground beneath her started to sink. Theo whispered, “Relax, you’re in an elevator.”
A thin, clammy hand gripped her shoulder, as they watched the floors rise past. She caught it, and turned around.
“That’s not very reassuring.”
“Sorry.” Theo said.
He looked so pathetic Amelia felt compelled to rephrase her comment.
“No, I mean, it’s not very reassuring that we’re going underground in a rainstorm. What if it floods?”
Two insect legs emerged from his mouth and lifted his lips into a smile. “When that happens the water is contained in the lower tunnels. There are so many it never reaches the higher ones.”
The ground seemed to rise slowly up into her stomach, like a plane descending, or an elevator stopping. Iron bars creaked up into the ceiling and they disembarked.
There was nothing to see but blackness until Theo flipped a switch to the right. A florescent bulb buzzed in a stainless steel shade, illuminating a dark and narrow passage.
Amelia shivered in the cold dampness of the bunker. “How’d you know the lift was safe?”
Theo shrugged. “There is a big poofy thing at the bottom of the shaft.”
“Oh.” sighed Amelia. Noting she’d have to take the stairs if humanly possible.
Theo re-lit his candle and wandered beyond the limits of the overhead light. Amelia followed him down the passage. Rotting doors were revealed at regular intervals. Theo opened the first one on his right. “One of these rooms is bound to be comfortable.”
“Ahem.” coughed Amelia. “You said I would be able to meet with Velduran?”
He paused. “I did say Velduran was down here, didn‘t I?”
She snapped, “Why mention something like that if you weren’t going to take me to him?”
Theo stammered, “V, Velduran is a he?”
“It’s a woman then?” said Amelia, eager for answers.
Theo turned away. “Actually, I don’t know what Velduran is.”
Amelia persisted. “You say that about everything. If your lying I want to know why.”
“I’m not lying, something called Velduran does exist down here, but . . . ” Theo didn’t finish.
Amelia pressed, “Could you describe it?”
“I’ll show you.” said Theo. “If that’s what you want.”
The air was cool and damp as they walked the length of the bunker, and exited into a small rail way tunnel. There the taps of her boots blended with the slap and trickle of Theo’s legs and the rustle of the three dogs following. Now more then ever was her dependence on the freak and his candle made evident. If they were to vanish could she feel her way back to the lift and if she were to flip the handle backward, would it carry her safely up to the hanger? She sighed, falling back into the upsetting routine of having to trust people she hardly knew.
Shadows moved across security checkpoints, those that manned them long absent. Pipes small and large, some steadily dripping, poured out of side passages to join a raging river of conduits on the ceiling. Amelia watched the river grow wider, till finally they reached it’s inner sanctum.
Surfaces covered with cracked gauges and dusty view screens lined every inch of accessible wall. Technologies old, new and never seen, were joined in pursuit of some unknown but clearly important end.
With every step and every sweep of Theo’s small candle it got bigger, this was not a place that could be properly explored in one night.
“Where’s Velduran.” said Amelia “I want to get this over with.”
Theo raised his candle to the room’s central hub. On the only space left bare was writing, jet black, bold calligraphy.
VITAL ENERGY – LIVING DATA
UNLIMITED RAW ANIMA NEVERENDING
PART ELEVEN – REALIZATION
“Alright.” She yawned. “I’m beholding. What is this thing?”
“I was kind of hoping you could tell me.” said Theo.
“It’s some kind of machine obviously.” Amelia muttered. “Ever try to get it started?”
Theo shook his head. “I think it’s broken. I mean, look at it. How could anything still work down here.”
Amelia grabbed a switch and pulled it sideways. Something stirred somewhere in the dense jungle of pistons and wires. She flipped the switch back and forth and listened appreciatively to the pattern. A stable mechanism, good sign.
Though her brain remained skeptical, her gut felt she had happened upon the core of everything that was anything. Velduran was a secret, a crucial, once heavily guarded secret, long forgotten. She raised her wrench to the great rusting beast and swore to herself, she’d crack it open.
There had been no further orders, just coordinates and an odd word. Now she’d run out of instructions and would have to come up with her own. Amelia, like Sky Land, had gone feral, beholden to no one, and having none beholden to her. Questions they had never allowed her to even ask might be answered now, about the things she wasn’t allowed to even think of. Knowledge was power, and for once she might have it.
Theo’s cold, boney fingers gripped the leg of her uniform. “It’s late. Can we go now?”
Amelia examined a console. “What’s the rush?”
“I’m just excited. Do you realize what this could mean?”
“It means you’re probably suffering some kind of delayed reaction.”
Theo’s head twisted upward in a disturbing display of concern. “You were in a plane crash just this morning. People don‘t usually walk away from those unscathed – if they walk away at all.”
She let a short, apathetic laugh escape her lungs. “This from the person who let monsters chase me around.”
Theo briefly let go of her leg, so as to wrap his arms around her.
It involved a running start and a flying tackle.
As he wasn‘t tall enough otherwise.
Amelia calmly noted he weighed less then her back pack, and felt somewhat like a large, fidgety frog.
Theo mumbled, “Please don’t take it personally AJ. I wanted to make sure no one would get hurt, what with Moai on the war path and you being highly trained and armed to the teeth.”
Amelia raised a brow. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, but if I’m your idea of dangerous you need to get your priorities straight.”
Theo slid to the floor. “This place bugs me.”
Amelia shrugged. “It’s just the EMF. All this metal is probably reacting to the lightening. The auras can make you uneasy, that’s all.”
His hold on her feet strengthened. “I’m scared okay.”
Realizing how hard it must have been for him to admit that, especially to a total stranger, Amelia started back to the barracks. She’d be more up to the task in the morning.
Though he seemed like a pushover, Theo had survived here when no one else could. Until she learned the truth behind everything he seemed to be hiding, she’d have to follow his instincts just to be safe.
Soon they were back to searching the seedy chambers for a suitable bed. Theo found some wrapped mattresses in a closet, and some blankets, also in plastic, though at this point, she would have gladly slept on the floor.
A derelict beach house would have been preferable to this mildew infested warren. She breathed through her scarf as a precaution, while taking stock of the depleted contents of her pack.
Theo had left his candle and was currently loitering in the darkness outside the room he’d chosen for Amelia. He’d chosen because he was familiar with the barrack’s and had seemed to be more concerned with her health then she was at the moment.
The room had a history as evidenced by the carved names and posters shellacked to its yellowed walls and battered bunks. Amelia wondered how many ghosts would be sleeping beside her tonight and weather they’d snore.
She cut open the bagged blankets, but left the mattress in its casing hoping to preserve it for later use. For a pillow, she’d have her pack. She slipped out of her damp uniform and into some drier clothes she had the foresight to waterproof.
Shiner’s front paws shoved her forward as she brushed her short hair with her fingers. “What about me?” he seemed to say. She took off his armor and rubbed him down. So glad to be free, the dog tore about the room until his mistress was forced to evict him.
When Amelia opened the door to let out Shiner, she found her eyes had acclimated to the darkness of the hall. Theo, clearly defined against the dim glow of the single florescent light, was fiddling with a radio. “Can you even get a signal?” She said.
He muttered, “It comes in through the shaft, off and on.”
“Any improvement in the weather?”
“The storm does seem to be breaking up, but we can’t leave yet.”
Amelia couldn‘t conceal her disappointment. “Why is that?”
Theo considered a faded green watch on his arm. “It’s almost eight thirty.”
Amelia yawned. “What’s wrong with eight thirty?”
“Nothing, it’s – just not a good time to be out. It stops in the morning – eight thirty a.m. Give me your watch, I’ll make sure it’s set.”
Amelia surrendered her pocket watch. “What Stops?”
He tweaked the watch’s microscopic dial with one of his mouth parts. “The really weird stuff.”
PART TWELVE – FAMILY
Too tired to argue, Amelia returned to her room and continued her preparations for bed. Force of habit made her insist on arranging all her equipment just so in case she’d need to flee quickly, though had the need arisen, she would have gone ahead and died.
Wait a minute. Where was her pulse glove?
There came a loud crash from outside.
She grabbed her wrench and inched cautiously out of bed, taking the candle in case the hot wax could be used as a weapon.
She twisted the door handle and left it ajar waiting nearby for an enemy to storm in.
When nothing else happened she called, “Theo is that you!”
His voice answered, “Yes.”
Amelia left the room and found a whitewashed foot stool slowly rolling down the hall. Theo had been using it as a stand for his small radio which was lying not far off. The three dogs sat beside it, looking upward.
She shined her wrench light at the ceiling, toward the source of a faint squeaking noise.
Orbiting a steel beam with the aid of his tail was her alleged sibling.
She barked, “Skitter!”
Theo caught the beam with his feet and hung upside down. “AJ. Hey, you called me Skitter, does this mean we’re friends now?”
She grunted “Sort of.”
He dropped to the floor, and handed Amelia her pulse glove. “Thanks for letting me borrow your Gamma Gauntlet.”
Amelia was confused. “Gamma Gauntlet?”
Theo went on. “Ever since I was five I dreamed of shooting one of these. That was before I learned the ones in the shows were just as fake as the ones they sold at the gift shops, albeit, a lot more convincing. The hope I’d ever find a working Gamma Gauntlet was like your dream of riding a unicorn.”
Amelia raised a brow. “Stupid?”
He smiled by raising the corners of his mouth with his oral appendages. “Magical.”
Amelia sighed. “It’s not a toy.”
He crossed his arms stubbornly. “I’m not a child.”
She couldn’t stop herself from smiling back at him, it was only a gesture after all, not a pledge of allegiance. “I thought it didn‘t have any shots left. What happened?”
Theo studied his four feet. “When looking for a windy key, I sort of shot the floor.”
Amelia laughed. “Always assume a weapon is loaded, even if that weapon is a stick. These can be confusing, especially if you treat them like guns, fortunately, they aren’t supposed to kill people, though it can happen if your not careful.” She slipped it back on his hand and quickly began a more in depth instruction, forgetting about sleep and the fact that the pulse glove was a largely failed experiment, to be fobbed off on amateurs, animals, and peons who couldn’t complain.
Amelia had commanded a certain amount of respect among her peers. This respect would turn to derisive laughter the instant she’d whip out her white elephant. She’d been rather fond of her pulse glove. To think, that her service piece would ever be met with admiration and awe, rather then awkward silence, ridicule, or overt pity.
Amelia backed away from him. “There, now you can fire.”
The weapon clicked, and the gear made a single rotation.
She smiled. “Now if that was a full fledged pulse, everything not nailed down would be history.”
Theo reset the gear. “Great, now how do I get more ammo?”
She frowned. “That’s the stupid part, you have to charge it by winding, each decent shot takes about forty eight hours of winding.”
Theo jumped up suddenly. “What!”
Amelia sighed for the umpteenth time. “Your not going to like this. A pulse is the release of tension built up in a polarite filament, the greater the tension, the greater the force of the pulse.”
Theo bit his mouth, “Why not just use a machine to wind it?”
“That was the idea. In theory you’d remove the spent filaments and insert them into a automatic winder, called a turbine. Since these never really caught on, not a whole lot of them were made, and most were scrapped.”
Theo put down the glove as if it was more then he‘d bargained for. “That must have been Hell for you.”
Amelia picked up her weapon. “Not really, I found it kind of relaxing. It’s like you, reach a higher state of consciousness.”
Theo followed her as she returned to her bed. “Really?”
He looked skeptical, but Amelia could tell that he was still fascinated by her weapon.
She grinned from ear to ear, knowing the perfect way to keep him quiet. “You should try it.”
He took the glove from her outstretched hand. “I will, and I’ll also make you a turbine, shouldn’t be hard as all it needs to do is spin.”
She crawled back into bed. “You have fun with that, but I wouldn’t work too hard, we only have one of these.”
“Two.” said Theo. “You dog has one on his helment.”
“Tell you what” said Amelia, “find us some more practical weapons and you can have them both.”
He shook her hand. “You got a deal sis.” Theo retreated into a corner to begin his pensive winding.
For a time Amelia lay there thinking about all the unanswered questions she had discovered after scarcely a day in this ghost town.
There was the song she’d heard wile desperately searching for a clearance to land. There was no way Theo could have set it up so early, as it was obvious her arrival was unexpected. Had it just been a coincidence, some similar piece in a similar style, or had it been a beacon, someone or something calling out to her for some unknown reason?
She thought of the picture so reverently enshrined in a room she’d never occupied, and the faces surrounding the person she’d never be again. She thought of her father, the woman he loved, and the woman he had supposedly loved before. Certainly this Aunt Lily wasn’t really her aunt either. Finally there was this mysterious Uncle Kit who seemed to have ran the park, and her brother. Who was he?
She pulled a picture out of her pocket, it was the picture of him sneaking up on her from behind that ugly green statue. She wasn’t sure why she had taken it with her. She listened to the sound of Theo’s winding, and figured that the picture was there to keep score. “It seems I‘ve found one family member.” she thought. “Four to go.”
She thought of Velduran, and what it might teach her. She thought of the world and how it seemed to have forgotten this place. She thought of the war and why she had been fighting, someone owed her an answer for that.
She thought of her home and how she had known it, and the people she’d never really known at all.
Theo continued to wind the pulse glove.
The sound of its gears had become a lullaby, carrying her far away into sleep.
The last thought that registered as she listened to it’s music, was that home had changed greatly, much like herself.