I glanced back and forth between Lena and Hondo, feeling sick to my stomach.
“Please,” Hondo said. “Get us out of this.” He was crying, tears making tracks through the dirt and blood staining his face.
Ink leaned up on his elbows. The salamander didn’t get up immediately, just watched us with his big black eyes. Gareth was shuddering. “System reboot in progress . . .” I heard a soft female voice murmur. Rainsong was still sprawled out following the electrical shock the Emissary had delivered, but I could see his chest rise and fall, so I knew he was alive. Queen Ophelia was gone from the lookout tower.
“I can’t choose,” I said. “I won’t.” I loosened my fingers, ready to drop the Moonstone to the dirt.
“You’d better,” Future Hondo said. He pulled a laser pistol from his long, black coat and pointed it at Lena’s head. “Or spirited Miss Helena gets emergency laser surgery.”
“Why?” I said again, though I’d resigned myself to never getting an answer that would make sense. This wasn’t my friend Hondo. This was his future; a man twisted toward darkness by terrible circumstances.
“I do as the End commands,” Future Hondo replied. “We’re slaves to the past. All of this has already happened, whether we realize it or not. You can’t change the past. You’ve always done whatever you did. Travel backward in time a thousand times, and it’ll all happen the same.”
“So you’re saying I have no choice?” I asked. “Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of forcing me to choose?”
“Just because your choice is set in stone doesn’t mean it wasn’t and isn’t yours,” he replied. “Now hurry up, and send me to the past.”
I studied Lena. My sister. We’d survived the streets of ruined New York, played the rocket game, gone to the Roseworld. Together. How could I not save her? But if I send her to the past, I thought, I change the past. Maybe that was the key. Send Lena to the past instead.
But if this was what became of Hondo ...
I couldn’t do that to my sister. I couldn’t take that risk. I truly had no good option. Refuse to act, and Lena died. Send Lena back, and I lose my sister. Send Hondo back, and I lose my best friend.
I felt a tear slide down my cheek as I realized what I was about to do. “I’m sorry, Hondo,” I said, taking a step toward the older boy.
“Don’t you dare!” he screeched, sliding backward on his butt, crying himself now. “Don’t do it, Theus! Please!”
“Make sure you release as you strike,” Future Hondo said. “Otherwise you’ll go with him—I mean me—and we can’t have that.
I took another step toward Hondo. Could I go back with him? It was worth a try. Ten years would certainly be enough time to save Lena, and maybe I could prevent Hondo from turning into Future Hondo. It was the only option. I raised the stone and closed my eyes, ready to go back to the past with my friend.
Hondo cried out and raised a hand to shield himself. His palm struck the rock as I lowered it. I lost my grip as my hand struck his, surprised by the erratic swing. He vanished from sight, an odd pop! sounding as air rushed to fill in the space he’d just vacated.
“I was going to go with him,” I said, my voice small and defeated.
“Wow, you really are a moron,” Future Hondo said. “You. Can’t. Change. The. Past. It’s set in stone, dum-dum.” He took a deep breath, inhaling slowly. “Do you feel that?” he asked.
“What?” I could barely dredge up the will to speak.
“It’s the future! I have finally escaped the shadow of my past. Today I escape the prison you dropped me into.”
Now that I knew why Future Hondo hated me, it didn’t seem fair. He’d forced the choice on me. I remembered one of the lessons I’d learned early in life, struggling in the slum where I’d been born.
Life isn’t fair.
“Do you know what’s going to happen next?” Future Hondo asked, sounding giddy. “Because I don’t! Well, that’s not precisely true. Couple little things to cross off our to-do list! Let’s get Lena here gone!”
He pulled a Moonstone out of his pocket. Lena kicked and struggled, and Future Hondo danced a little back and forth, waiting for his opening. After a moment he darted forward and struck Lena on the shoulder, then leapt back. She vanished, taking the manacles and a strip of pipe with her.
I watched with an air of defeat. I could only hope Future Hondo was going to keep his promise and give us a Moonstone so we could follow.
“Oh, maybe I should have told you this sooner, but I super lied about little sis. I sent her two hundred years into the future, and your Moonstone is calibrated for the present, one hundred and forty-two years in the future. Hope you like waiting! You’ll be an old man before you see her again!”
“No,” I breathed. I took a step back, stunned. “You... how could you?” The enormity of what he’d just done hit me like a brick wall. My little sister was lost in the future now.
I charged forward. Laser pistol or not, I was going to kick his butt. To my left, Ink crouched with sword in hand, waiting for the right moment to spring. In that moment he seemed more lithe jungle cat than salamander.
“Buh-buh-buh,” Future Hondo said. “One more step and I vaporize you both.” We both stopped. I clenched and unclenched my un-gauntleted hand in fury. “You’re quick with that hand ray thing,” he continued. “But I’m pretty fast too. Maybe you won’t get me before I get you and your salamander buddy.”
“Isn’t that rich?” Future Hondo went on. “You just ruined our friendship, and you don’t even get what you want!” He stepped close. He smelled like dirt and sweat with a fading hint of cologne. His face and his tone darkened with barely restrained fury. “Consider this my revenge.” He gave me a hard shove backward. I landed hard on the ground.
I was speechless. I crawled backward on my butt, crying freely now.
“I am keeping one promise though,” Future Hondo said, holding a single finger up. “You and your band of freaks are going back to the present.”
“What happened to you?” I asked, rubbing at my eyes and trying to get ahold of myself. “This is about more than a trip back in time.” He seemed like a completely different person. Could ten years really do so much?
“YOU DON’T KNOW ME,” he roared suddenly. He dropped to his knees and punched me across the eye in one swift motion. Ink tore forward.
“Stand back!” Future Hondo ordered, pressing the nozzle of the laser pistol into my forehead. “Lower the sword.”
Ink did as commanded.
Future Hondo laughed. “Let’s take this down a notch, shall we? Done is done. No use fighting it anymore. Just do as you’re told, and we all get out of this alive.”
“No,” I said. I could feel my eye puffing up. “You’ll send me after Lena.”
“Couldn’t if I wanted to,” he replied, passing his pistol to his off hand and shaking the one he’d punched me with. “The stones were all preset a long dang time ago.”
“I’m not going anywhere but after Lena,” I said.
“You say that like I’m giving you a choice. Can we just get on with this?”
“Perhaps Hondo is right, noble friend,” Ink said. “To be returned to the present is better than trapped in the past.”
I hung my head in defeat and nodded. “Give me the stone,” I said without raising my eyes.
A moment later the Moonstone was dropped into my hands. I glanced around for my sword but couldn’t find it. I picked up the lighter sword I’d tried to use against Hondo.
“Is Rainsong awake?” I asked Ink. He was crouching by the toad’s limp form.
Ink shook his head.
“Gather him up,” I mumbled. A few more tears slid down my cheeks as I stumbled to Gareth. The robot sat up. “R-r-ready for battle, sir!” he shouted, mechanical hands fumbling for the gigantic sword he fought with.
“It’s over, Gareth. Time to go back to the present.”
“Oh!” he said, sounding surprised. He took in the scene around us with unblinking eyes. “Did we win?”
“Yeah, buddy, we won,” I said. I didn’t want to lie, but it seemed safer than the unstable robot starting something.
Gareth and I walked to where Ink had thrown Rainsong over his shoulder. I could barely see out of my swollen left eye. What a pathetic band we made.
“Wait!” Queen Ophelia cried from the edge of the forest. “What’s going on?” She had her bow trained on Future Hondo. I started to raise my gauntlet. Perhaps now would be my opening?
Future Hondo jumped and pulled a second pistol from his coat. “Holy—I forgot about you,” he said. “Ugh, not knowing what’s going to happen next makes everything so much harder.”
“We’re going back to the future now,” I said. “You can come with us.” I sighed and lowered my hand. There really was no point in blasting Future Hondo anyway. It would accomplish nothing.
“You really are time travelers?” she asked. “I never knew whether I really believed it or not. My place is with my people. Could you take us all with you?” she asked hopefully.
“The weight of roughly six people is the maximum,” a dour voice said, Merc floated from behind a towering digging apparatus. He looked worn. All the shine was gone from his finish, which was covered in scratches. If I didn’t know better, I’d say he somehow looked even older than when I’d seen him above on the planetshard.
“Merc?” I asked. “You’ve been here all along? You could have helped us!”
“I serve a different master now,” the little robot said. “You and your foolish crew will never give me another stupid order again!”
I sighed again. “Whatever.”
“Mercury, my old friend!” Gareth called.
“Oh rust off, you malfunctioning scrap heap,” the robot replied.
I turned back to Queen Ophelia. “I’m sorry we couldn’t be more help.”
“Well,” she replied. “For better or worse the dig is completed. We’ll go on to the next world. Farewell, my friend.”
“Farewell, Queen Ophelia. You won’t try to stop them?” I asked Future Hondo.
“That’s actually exactly what I want them to do,” he replied. That wasn’t comforting, but I didn’t know what more we could do here, even if we stayed.
“This isn’t over,” I told the man.
“No,” he agreed, “but it will be in a few seconds.”
Linking arms with Gareth and Ink, I smacked the Moonstone against my palm.
The night vanished, and I was dropped into day. I half expected to be returned to the frozen wasteland, but that had been on the planet shard far above, so we were safe. The machines were still there, now reduced to jagged heaps of rusting metal beams. The grass had returned, the field overgrown with knee-high vegetation. There was no one around.
I was safe, but Lena was... where? When?
There was nowhere to hide from the pain, the shame, of having lost my little sister. I disentangled myself from my friends and staggered to the edge of the Pit. I dropped to my knees with a wordless scream, hot tears sliding down my cheeks.
I’d never felt so beaten. Having Lena so close only to lose her made me feel so worthless. So completely useless.
After a few minutes of kneeling there, crying and staring into the endless abyss, I heard the crunch of Ink’s footsteps. I could tell it was him because of their lightness. Gareth clattered, and Rainsong slapped the ground, but Ink always glided.
“I don’t know what to do,” I said, hating how pathetic I sounded. I’d led us into such a mess, and now it was all for nothing. I’d been bumbling from one situation to another, spared from my own stupidity by some incredible fortune. Now the curtain had been pulled back, and I was exposed. I was a helpless idiot, lucky to even be alive.
“Put your hands in the dirt, noble friend,” Ink told me, “and you pick yourself up. That’s all there ever is. You pick yourself up, and we go find your sister.”
I stared into the darkness, wondering what planet lay on the other side of this Pit, and what planet might wait beyond that. What had become of Queen Ophelia’s people? I’d failed them too. The dig had been completed, but Future Hondo had hinted he still had plans for the Pitworlders.
And Hondo was a bad man now. I’d turned him into one. I knew it wasn’t all my fault, but I was still grieved by what had become of him. I’d been too weak to change anything. Hondo had said I couldn’t change the past? I was so weak I couldn’t change the future, either. Where did that leave me?
I’d never felt more desperate, more lost, or more miserable.
“Teach me,” I whispered.
“What’s that, noble friend?” Ink asked.
“Teach me,” I said again, louder. “The way of the sword.” Next time trouble came, I wanted to be stronger. Next time I wanted to be more like Ink.
“To be a Senna samurai is more than swordplay. You must know when to pick up a blade, and when to put it down. We seek peace first, and we do not kill.”
“All of it,” I said. “I need all of it. Please.” A well of desperation in my chest was trying to burst out in terrible sobs, but I held it back. At some point I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and get moving again. I’d come to the end of myself a complete failure, and now it was time to do as Ink said: to pick myself up and try again.
“Very well, noble friend. I would be honored to take you as my apprentice. You are quick and clever, and—”
Whatever else Ink was going to say was lost when Queen Ophelia suddenly materialized a few feet from us, dropping to the soft grass. She appeared between the Pit and where Gareth waited holding an unconscious Rainsong, some fifteen feet back.
“Oh, thank goodness I finally found you,” she said. The Queen was maybe a year or two older, and a little taller. Her crown and her royal trappings were all gone, replaced by a dark tunic and hooded cloak. A quiver of arrows peeked from under her cloak, a bow hung from her waist.
We stared, struck speechless.
How did you get here?” I asked.
“A Moonstone, obviously,” she replied. “There will be time enough for explanations. Best for now if we get moving.”
“Moving where?” I asked.
“Where else?” she said, jerking her head towards the gaping hole at my knees. “Into the Pit.”
Future Hondo knew everything we were going to do. How easy for him to get us right where he wanted us, when he was with us. We should have knocked Hondo unconscious and tucked him away somewhere, I thought. I brushed aside the cruel idea. Too late now. We would just have to deal with things as best we could.
“Back away,” Hondo called, straightening his bow and squinting to sight down the arrow. His grip was awkward. He seemed to be pulling too hard on the arrow, drawing it back too far.
“We just need the old man,” the Emissary said. “I want to kill the rest of them.”
“Patience,” Future Hondo said. He was still stroking that long, thin scar of his.
“No, Hondo!” I called. “Wait!”
“It’ll be okay, Theus,” Hondo said. He let his arrow fly. The bowstring snapped, slashing Hondo across the face. He let out a terrible shriek of pain. His arrow flew straight regardless. The older boy’s aim was perfect. The arrow thudded against one of the beetle monster’s eyes and bounced away harmlessly.
“That really hurt, you know,” Future Hondo said. He took a spear from one of the nearby bird-men.
“Enough! Get off of me!” the Emissary shook his back, sending the two robots flying. One of them fell into the Pit without a sound. The other landed on its feet near me. Ink crouched and managed to stay balanced for a few seconds longer, just enough time to raise his heavy sword, leap into the air, and drive the blade into the beetle monster’s back. The salamander let out a brief howl of pain as electricity danced from the sword and ran through his arms.
Ink fell to the ground, dropping nearly fifteen feet. I tried to run forward to catch him, but I was too slow. Queen Ophelia’s remaining bodyguard managed to catch the salamander instead. It gently lowered him to the ground, the salamander twitching as he recovered from the shock.
I raised my hand to fire my gauntlet up at the beast. “None of that!” Hondo yelled, smacking my hand with the butt of the spear. The blast I launched flew harmlessly into the sky. I swung my sword in a clumsy arc, cutting the tip off the wooden weapon. Hondo laughed and dropped the spear, not threatened in the least.
This was all turning into a real mess. I was surrounded by enemies, and my friends were dropping left and right. The bodyguard stood protectively over Ink. I was glad the salamander was safe, but as the most capable fighter among us, he was the most likely to have been able to get us out of this alive.
One of the bird-men in a white mask drew his sword. He had finally overcome his shock at the arrival of the monster, me, and my friends. “Orders, Minister Brink?” he asked, as if waking from a stupor. Several others raised their own weapons. Swords, bows, and spears quietly slid out of sheathes, straps, and quivers.
“Capture them all,” Future Hondo said with a shrug. “Or try to, at least.”
“May we kill, sir?” a bird-man in a silver mask asked.
“You can try,” Future Hondo said, his tone amused.
One of the men fell suddenly, an arrow in his knee. Rainsong let out a gleeful chuckle, then raised his bow and fired again, taking out another guard.
“At last, I’m armed!” he cried. I would have never expected to be happy about that, but I was relieved to have the help.
“Yes!” Gareth shouted, pumping a mechanical fist in the air. “Fight, frog man!” The knight-robot was engaged in battle himself with several lantern rangers. With his arm laser gone, he was stuck fighting them sword to sword.
“I’m not a—you know what, never mind.” Rainsong launched an arrow at Future Hondo, but the man stepped to the side, and it bounced off one of the beetle monster’s legs.
I looked at Hondo where he crouched on the crates, a hand to his bleeding face. He had one eye open as he watched the battle unfold around him.
“Hondo! Close your eyes!” I called out, but he couldn’t hear me. A second later I was forced to duck to the side as a lantern ranger swung his sword at me. I fired my gauntlet at his feet. The bird-man and a spray of dirt flew up.
I took several steps toward the bodyguard robot, trying to take stock of the situation. Most of the Pitworlder workers had fled into the woods. There were still almost a dozen lantern rangers in the fight, all of them swift, well-trained bird-men. Ink and Hondo were down. Gareth, Rainsong, the bodyguard, and I were the only ones left able to fight.
The bodyguard robot rose from Ink’s limp form to enter the fray. The beetle monster snorted and swung an arm to bat the smaller robot away. With a terrible screech of metal on metal, the robot flew upward in pieces. The broken remains scattered along the treeline.
I was at the edge of the battle. Four guards faced me, ready to fight. I suspected the monster didn’t kill me for fear of taking out one of his own people, or else he was worried about losing another tentacle. Future Hondo stood behind them, watching everything unfold for the second time in his life.
I raised my gauntlet intent on trying to blast the beetle monster again.
The gauntlet was drained of energy. I’d never tried to use it more than three times in a row before. It was powered by kinetic energy, so the more I moved my hand the faster it charged, but I’d never actually drained it before. I had no idea what it would take to fill it back up.
I held my sword before me in a tight grasp as the four rangers advanced on me. Four swords, all about to slice me to ribbons. They seemed hesitant, perhaps afraid of my gauntlet—down for the count or not. I tried to picture Ink’s fighting stance, his grip, anything that might help me stay alive for a few minutes longer.
The rightmost ranger got tired of waiting and darted forward. I raised my blade in a clumsy parry and almost dropped the weapon as our swords clanged. I tightened my grip even more to keep hold of the weapon. Another ranger was already upon me. He was about to skewer me right in the side when an arrow suddenly seemed to sprout from his knee. He dropped away, and I barely managed to block another stab from the first ranger. The impact made my wrist ache, but I kept hold of my sword. The weapon was my lifeline, the only thing keeping me alive. The third and fourth rangers stepped forward. Desperate, I tried firing a blast at their feet. The gauntlet delivered, releasing a small blast that sent the two bird-men stumbling backward.
One stubborn lantern ranger remained. He charged again, and this time when I blocked his sword, he twisted his blade upward. My weapon went flying. I could see the triumph in the bird-man’s eyes as he brought his sword up to finish me off. The light went out of his eyes as an arrow hit home in his chest. I stumbled back as his sword lost momentum and nearly landed in my foot.
I looked up to thank Rainsong but was surprised to see that he’d abandoned his bow in favor of a stolen sword. I saw a figure in one of the lookout towers, and Queen Ophelia waved, a bow in one hand.
The lantern rangers were all on the ground now, most of them moaning from arm and leg wounds.
On the battlefield, only five remained standing. Gareth, Rainsong, Future Hondo, the Emissary, and myself
“You told me you were going to win this battle!” the Emissary raged. Again he had the chance to kill me with a blow of his tentacle, but he ran the risk of losing another one if I blasted it off.
“Oh, I win,” Future Hondo replied with a smug grin. “Maybe just not the way you’d hoped.”
My stomach plummeted as I sensed the confidence in his voice. I felt on the verge of throwing up. What did Future Hondo already know? Were my friends and I all about to die?
“Your insolence will not endear you to the End!” the monster roared. “I’ll finish this myself if you aren’t capable!”
The air suddenly became charged with static electricity. I could feel the hair on my arms and neck stand up. My shirt clung uncomfortably to my chest. A burst of electricity flashed outward from the beetle monster, dropping all of us to our knees, even Gareth. I heard Lena cry out; the first sound I’d heard from her since I’d lost sight of her on Senna so long ago.
Lighting skittered over the ground, leaping from one metal object to the next, using swords and ruined robot parts to move. It struck me in the stomach, and every muscle in my body seemed to catch fire. The electricity was gone almost as fast as it came, but it left me breathless and weak, every muscle excruciatingly sore.
I put a hand to the dirt to steady myself and took stock of the battlefield. The Emissary was the only one standing now. The blast had even struck Future Hondo. He was crouching like me, holding his chest and wincing. Rainsong and Gareth were both down, either unconscious or...
I wouldn’t consider that possibility. No more death today.
After a moment, Future Hondo leapt to his feet. Despite the shock, he still looked happy. Of course, he’d known it was going to happen, had been able to brace himself for it.
“On with the show!” he said, grinning. “You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for this moment. Ten years! I’ve had this day hanging over my head for ten years.”
“Get on with it!” the Emissary yelled down.
“Mother of pearl, you are obnoxious,” Future Hondo said, rolling his eyes. “Do us a favor,” Future Hondo said to me. “Blast him away.”
“What did you say?” the Emissary screeched.
“Why do you hate me?” I asked.
“Let’s talk, just you and me,” Future Hondo said. “Go on, blast him to pieces.” He pointed to a spot where the beetle monster’s front-most legs connected to his chest. “Right there and boom, done for.”
“Will you tell me why you hate me so much?” I asked again. It felt weird, being ordered to kill the monster. I’d been trying to do it just seconds ago, but it felt wrong somehow now that I was being told to kill it.
“KILL HIM,” Future Hondo roared, flecks of spit flying out from his sudden rage. “I already know you’re going to do it, just get on with it!”
“I am not to be trifled with,” the monster roared. “The End will not suffer this insolence!”
It’s just a robot, I told myself, and I raised my gauntlet and fired a blast, full power right where I’d been told to.
The robotic monster let out a terrible, metallic shriek. Its remaining tentacles scrabbled for purchase on the sloping edge of the Pit as its abdomen burned.
“Have you forgotten we have your future self? I’ll have your head for this!” it cried, its voice rising to a piercing screech as it struggled to stay alive. The proud robot seemed pitiful now. I felt a pang of sympathy until I remembered what it had done to Queen Ophelia’s robots, and almost done with the rest of us.
“You won’t, actually. Give the End my regards,” Future Hondo said. He turned to me. “That’s better. Ugh, I hate that guy. Didn’t think I’d really go through with that, honestly. Gonna get me in some hot water, but it’s not a deal breaker. In the end, the End needs me.” He chuckled. “Lighten up, I made a funny. And besides, he’s not really dead anyway. He’ll get downloaded back into the End’s mainframe.”
“What is the End?” I asked.
“The End is the end. The end of war and chaos and death. The End is going to change everything.”
“Really?” I replied. “And what does he need with our crew?”
“Eh, that would be telling. You know enough to be trouble. Speaking of trouble, let us get on with the show!”
“What are you doing with Darkeson and Lena?” I asked. “I need you to let them go.”
“Can’t let Darkeson go, sadly. He’s the last piece in a puzzle I’ve spent ten years putting together. Your sister though, I could be talked into releasing her. You and she aren’t terribly important to the End, beyond being a thorn in the butt-ocks.” He was amped up, way too happy about the way things had gone. We were in the middle of a battlefield, and he was carrying himself like he’d just won the lottery.
“So release her,” I said. I knew I should try to save Darkeson too, but maybe that would have to wait for another day.
Future Hondo all but pranced over to where Lena was chained to the digging machine. “Hear that, little sister, big brother Prometheus is gonna get you all rescued!”
“You’re an idiot,” Lena replied. Her voice was scratchy; her face covered in bruises. “Blast him!” she said, nodding at Future Hondo.
“Ah, there’s the famous Helena spirit!” Future Hondo said gleefully. “You’re scary when you’re angry!”
He ran over to the crates where his past self was still crouched atop a crate, hands against his wound in an effort to stop the bleeding. “Come on down,” he told Hondo. “Time for you to meet your destiny!”
“Now,” Future Hondo continued, looking at me. “I’ve got three Moonstones. One for handsome young Hondo here, one for little Miss Lena over there, and one for you and your buddies to use. You’re going to send somebody back to the past. My past self, or your little sister, your choice. Then you’re going to send someone back to the present, one hundred and forty-two years in the future. Then you and your bizarre little posse are going back to the future to join the lucky winner.”
“Why are you doing this?” I asked.
“Are you kidding me?” he replied. “That gives us almost a century and a half with you out of our hair! The grownups need time to work, Prometheus. Time to plan. I know what you’re thinking, I can fight my way out of this. But please don’t try.”
I bent to the ground and picked up a sword. It was lighter than the one I’d lost, maybe better suited to my size. That little bit of good fortune gave me hope. “You know I have to,” I said.
“Yep.” His eyes darted along the ground until he found what he liked. He picked up a small dagger and held it in a loose, lazy grip. “En guarde.”
I stepped forward cautiously. His blade was so much shorter. I could strike without having to get too close. I tried an experimental stab. He sidestepped and swung his knife down so hard onto my sword I nearly dropped it. He laughed, then darted forward, danced under my clumsy swing, then swept a leg across my ankles. I landed hard on my back, letting go of my weapon as I fell. Future Hondo grabbed my sword out of the air, gingerly catching it by the hilt with deft fingers.
“Yield,” he said, holding the sword at my throat. His eyes were electric; his smile broad and genuine. “You can’t beat me.”
I nodded, and he dropped the sword at my feet. “You can keep it,” he said. “You’ll probably need it.”
I stood and raised my gauntlet. “Let us go,” I said. I tried to keep my voice level, but it shook.
Future Hondo laughed. He didn’t even turn to face me, feeling no need to acknowledge the threat. The younger Hondo was still on the crates. Future Hondo dragged him down, pulling him over to where Lena and Darkeson were chained up.
“But... why make me choose?” I didn’t understand. It just seemed cruel.
“I didn’t get it either, not at first. But it’s how I was born,” he said, patting his own chest. “Your impending betrayal is what made me the man I’ve become today. I’ve spent ten years living in the shadow of this day, hating you, waiting for the moment when my future could do it.
Just like he knew what I’d decide.
When Future Hondo spoke again, all traces of glee were gone from his voice; the words stripped down to hard rage.
I’ve had a lot of experience hurtling toward what felt like certain doom. Careening off the whale was even worse than falling into a Pit. There was no mystery here. The world was waiting below to crush me. I could see water beneath me, the broad, blue expanse of a crystal clear lake, but that was small comfort. Water will kill if you hit it hard enough, and I was going far too fast to survive.
Ravio was just above me. A thin trail of blood streamed out of his neck like a bright, red ribbon flapping in a breeze.
There was no time to think about it though. I was going to join him if I didn’t do something. I had my sword, my gauntlet, a half empty backpack, and a used up Moonstone. Nothing that could save my life.
Unless . . .
I held my gauntleted hand out below me and closed my eyes against the rushing wind, shutting out the sight of the lake zooming toward me. I focused on letting out just a little puff of energy. Not a full blast. Using the gauntlet at full power would just launch me higher into the air. I’d wind up falling even faster than I was now, and get just as dead when I splatted against the water.
A little ball of yellow light like a tiny sun emerged from the gauntlet. The energy worked like a small jet, slowing me down. Or rather, it slowed my hand down. The rest of me kept falling. I expected to continue plunging down and get hurled into the lake at only slightly slower speed, but the ball clung to the air as though caught on an invisible thread. I stopped in midair, my shoulder nearly wrenching out of its socket.
I hung like that for a second. I was still dropping, but at a much slower speed. The water was almost fifteen feet below. Ravio’s body hit with a splash, the water soaking my ragged socks. I lost my concentration, and the ball vanished. I crashed into the water hard enough to knock the wind out of my lungs.
I struggled in icy water, fighting to keep my lips closed as I thrashed for the surface. The water wasn’t deep. When I stood, it came up to my chin. I gasped in the chilly water, fighting to catch my breath. Ravio floated nearby.
I can’t leave him, I thought. And I can’t take him with me. There was no time for a proper burial. An enemy was out there. I scanned the low hills that lined the lake, looking for the source of the arrows that had gotten me knocked out of the sky. Two lookout towers rose in the distance, tall and thin like giant needles sprouting from the ground. More of the conical mountains rose beyond the towers.
I couldn’t see my friends.
Had they been shot down? Flown over the hills? Retreated back to the floating planet shard? There was no way to know. For now, all I could do was continue with the mission. I would investigate the dig site, then decide what to do next, once I checked the area out.
I eyed the lookout towers again. They were capped by small, roofed platforms. Each one was manned by two lantern rangers. The platforms were so small they had to be standing room only. I couldn’t see their faces. I would have to hope I was too far away to be a viable target. I had to get out of the water.
I glanced back at Ravio’s body again. His body. He was dead. Someone had died. That thought kept racing through my brain on an endless loop. Someone was dead. It didn’t matter that I had hardly known him; didn’t make it any less horrible that I hadn’t lost a friend. So far on this long, strange journey, no one had actually been killed. Situations before had seemed dangerous, but everyone had come out okay.
A plan formed in my mind as I studied the floating corpse. Perhaps the Pitworlder could help me one last time before I said goodbye.
Holding on to Ravio’s ankles, I pushed his body ahead of me, swimming with most of my own body below the surface. That way, if anyone did try to shoot, they would hopefully aim for Ravio and miss me. Using the man as a decoy made me feel sick, but I had to stay alive. I was determined that there would be no more death.
Including my own.
Sneaking into a hostile camp might not seem like the best way to survive, but as I swam, I became more determined than ever to stop the dig. These people needed to be stopped. They deserved to have their plans ruined. Queen Ophelia was right. There was evil afoot, and we needed to do something about it before anyone else died.
I reached the shore without getting shot, or having Ravio turn into a pincushion. I left his body on the rocky beach, stepping gingerly to avoid cutting my feet. Maybe it was the adrenaline, or the cold, or some combination, but my ankle had stopped bothering me. My teeth were starting to chatter, but the sun was still out. I was confident I would warm up soon enough. It seemed like afternoon now, but I didn’t know what season it was on Frostbane, so there was no way to know how long the day would last.
I was all alone on a strange planet. Enemies ahead, but nowhere else to go.
I kept my eyes on the towers as I crept in the shadow of the hills. Tall, hedge-like shrubs grew along the side of one hill, creating perfect natural cover. I had to assume the guards would be on high alert. That didn’t mean I couldn’t sneak into the dig site; it just meant I would have to be clever and careful.
I could see the guards more clearly now. Two bird-men stood in each tower. Each one had a bow held in a loose grip, a sword and quiver slung on their backs. They were scanning the horizon, perhaps watching wherever Jimmy and his passengers had disappeared to.
The dig site was open. There were no walls or barriers I could see. Towering machines rumbled and clanked as they worked. Through the valley between hills, I could see the metal struts of one device rising to my left. I couldn’t see the actual Pit yet, merely machinery and the workers tending them. I also didn’t spot any guards beyond the hill where I crouched, but I could hear the scratchy voices of bird-men commanding workers, so I knew I would still have to be careful to avoid detection.
I needed a diversion so I could get closer to the Pit and look around. Perhaps sabotage would be as simple as damaging one of their great digging machines.
I scanned the area for a rock, but discarded the plan even as my eyes roved the ground. There were four bird-men above, which meant four pairs of eyes. A simple little sound might not be enough. I needed all eyes away from the valley.
I stared down at my gauntlet. A blast in the right spot would certainly draw attention. Perhaps if I knocked out a strut for one of their lookout towers.
I was raising a hand, poised to fire, when suddenly a burst of blue light lit up the area, bright against the hilltops and machines. I heard several shouts of surprise, and moments later, an odd clamor as machinery shut down. The steady thrum faded away, leaving an eerie silence in its wake.
I craned my neck upward. The guards were definitely not watching me now.
I slipped closer. The next bend in the valley revealed tall, wooden crates to the right and a broad, open plain to the left. A massive Pit dominated much of the plain, which was heavily trampled from the workers hustling back and forth. A few sad patches of grass struggled to survive. Hulking machines surrounded the Pit, contraptions that looked exactly like the ones I’d seen on the Pitworld, save with no trace of rust or advanced age.
The blue glow shone from inside the Pit. It washed the workers and bird-men ranged nearby in a ghostly light.
I hid behind the crates to watch, afraid a lookout would glance down and spot me if I stayed gawking out in the open.
A pair of writhing black tentacles reached from inside the Pit and gripped the edge. A nightmare stretched its body up and out. A black body with dozens of glistening black eyes rose on even more tentacles, higher and higher until it loomed over the watching crowd. It had no mouth that I could see.
Another tentacle reached up, out of the Pit, and the monster hoisted itself fully out of the Pit. The tentacles were long, sinuous legs, I realized. It had six of them, and a body shaped like a beetle. Small mandible-like digits clattered all over its underbelly.
I shivered in fear and revulsion. I’d never seen anything so hideous.
“Where is Hondo Brink?” it called in a voice like a crypt tearing open. There was an odd stereo effect to the words, as if three voices were saying the same words at the same time.
“I’m here, my lord,” I heard Future Hondo yell back. He stood at the front of the crowd, kneeling as he spoke.
“You have done as commanded?” it hissed.
“Yes, My Lord. I have the final crew member with me,” he replied.
The final crew member? I thought. What did that mean? My mind jumped to the crew of the Endeavor, and my heart leapt into my throat. I scanned the area anxiously for my long-lost crew. Wondering how any of them could possibly be here, over a century in the past.
My eyes fell on two figures chained to a pipe on one of the excavation devices, and my pulse quickened even further, my palms tingling.
She was here.
Lena and Darkeson were impossibly here. After so much searching, and the longest, craziest journey of my life, I had finally found her, and when I hadn’t even been looking.
My brain told me now was the time to be careful. To hide and keep watching, and wait for the right opportunity to slink forward and free them.
Not a chance.
Throwing fear and caution both aside, I tore from my hiding spot, letting out a wordless scream of defiance. I drew my sword and held it high as I burst across the plain.
Heads snapped my way as I ran. The crowd seemed too surprised to react quickly, even the guards. They’d already been stunned by the arrival of the great beetle monster. A boy appearing out of nowhere waving a sword must have been too much for them.
I had covered half the trampled ground before I realized I had no plan.
Kill the giant monster and save everyone.
That was plan enough for me.
The beetle monster was the only one who didn’t seem stunned. “What is this, Brink?” it cried in its moaning, stereophonic voice.
It raised a tentacle to strike, and I swung my sword in a wild arc. It pinged off the creature’s limb and flew out of my hand.
Undeterred, I raised my gauntlet and fired even as my blade slid across the dirt. A burst of light struck the limb before it could snatch me and blew it clean off, spraying me in the face with black liquid. The monster screamed and thrashed a long stump, its leg shorter now by several feet.
The liquid had an acrid scent. Motor oil, I realized. Was I fighting a robot? The severed tentacle-leg thrashed on the ground, black oil gushing out in thick splurts.
The monster stretched out another tentacle and grabbed my backpack. I was yanked into the air, the straps digging into my shoulders.
The creature voice radiated fury. “Who is this insect?”
It hoisted me to face level, studying me with massive, unblinking eyes that shone with pinpricks of light, making it appear as though every eyeball were somehow packed with starlight.
“Prometheus, you truly are an idiot,” Future Hondo said from somewhere below. He sounded amused.
I kicked and struggled, trying to free myself, but I had cinched my backpack tight on purpose so it wouldn’t flop around. I couldn’t slide out unless the monster loosened his grip. I raised my gauntleted hand again, ready to fire another blast right into the monster’s face.
“I am the Emissary of the End. I will be afforded the respect I deserve!”
Before I could fire another blast, the creature threw me to the ground. I caught a brief glimpse of sky at my feet, then crashed painfully to the ground near my sword. The wind was thoroughly knocked out of me. For a moment I lay there, stunned and trying to assure myself no bones had broken in the fall.
I stared at the sky, helpless as the beast entered my field of vision, towering high above. Hondo and a few bird-men also approached.
“This is the one you hate?” it asked Future Hondo.
“Yes, Lord Emissary,” Future Hondo said. “Ever the fool,” he said to me. “Rushing in to save the day without stopping to think about the consequences!”
I rose to a crouching position, breathing hard, desperate to pull enough oxygen back into my lungs. My sword was at my feet, for all the good it would do. I couldn’t beat anyone here in combat. I looked past Future Hondo, my eyes locking onto Lena’s. Her face was drawn, her cheeks pinched and pale as salt. Darkeson looked even worse, his bald head covered in scratches and bruises. One of the old scientist’s eyes was swollen shut.
“Why?” I asked. “Why do you hate me?”
“You’ll know soon enough,” he replied.
A fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into this time, Prometheus Jones, I thought. I didn’t like any of my options. I could have used some help from my friends just then.
“Now’s a good time for the cavalry to save the day, wouldn’t you think?” Future Hondo asked, as though reading my mind.
“Leave him alone!” Hondo called. He stood atop the heap of crates I’d been hiding behind.
He held a bow, an arrow notched and ready.
“Careful, he’s got a bow and arrows,” Future Hondo taunted with dry, almost lazy sarcasm.
“Do we even know how to use that thing?” he added, fingering the scar on his chin.
“To battle, friends!” Gareth cried, coming through the same gap in the hills I’d snuck through earlier. Sword held low, cap flapping regally behind him, the robot was an impressive sight. Rainsong was running behind him, holding a bow. I glanced up at the guard towers. Sure enough, they were both empty now.
Ink landed atop the Emissary’s back. Queen Ophelia’s bodyguard robots dropped to either side of him with heavy thumps.
“I do not know what a cavalry is, but we have arrived to save the day,” Ink called down.
“You had better be right about this,” the Emissary thundered, apparently speaking to Future Hondo. I couldn’t understand what the words meant at first.
Then I realized what I should have seen all along.
This is a trap.
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A mysterious world is discovered with a massive, miles-wide pit torn through one continent. The planet is strewn with the remains of a fallen civilization. What happened to the locals, and what were they digging for so desperately? A young intern assigned to the first expedition into the Pit will be among the first to find out...
J.L. Ender was born on planet Earth, third planet in the Sol system, which is located in a spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy. Ender enjoys coffee, Mexican food, and devastating robot apocalypses. He has tamed a member of the local wildlife, a thing called a dog. In a fit of confusion he named it Bear and often finds himself walking the creature.