“You brought a robot with you?” Queen Ophelia asked. “Of all the . . .” her voice trailed off.
“It’s been a long time, Prometheus,” Future Hondo said, eyeing me with that ugly smile on his face.
He hates me, I thought. I could see it. But why?
“Still hanging around with that clanking rust pile?” another familiar voice called. An unhappy voice.
“Merc?” I asked. The Endeavor’s robotic mechanic had floated up to Future Hondo, hovering near one shoulder. Unlike Gareth, he didn’t look unchanged by the passage of time.
“We should go, noble friend,” Ink said, tugging on the hem of my shirt.
I glanced back at the doorway leading into Kallus’s office. He was the only one standing there. Hondo, Ravio, Gareth, and Queen Ophelia had already fled.
“It’s time to run away, isn’t it?” I asked with a sigh.
“I should think that was obvious, noble friend,” Ink replied.
Two guards were advancing from the throne room entrance, stepping past Merc and Future Hondo with swords drawn. Both wore gold masks.
“Through here,” Ink said, heading back toward the door we’d come through.
“Palpitating pineapples!” Kallus cried, slamming his door shut. I heard the loud click of a bolt slamming into place.
“What’s with you and fruit?” I cried, angrily hammering a fist against the door.
“It seems we must fight our way out,” Ink said, drawing his sword.
I reached for my own weapon, for all the good it would do me. The imperial guard would undoubtedly be better trained than I was.
Ink lunged forward, parrying strikes from both the lantern rangers. Their swords were long and slender, so thin they wiggled as the men slashed. With his far heavier claymore Ink was hard-pressed to keep up, but he never let an attack through. I stepped forward with my own blade, trying to figure out where I should step in. One of the guards eyed me, but both kept most of their attention on Ink. I was good for a little distraction, at least.
Ink stepped back, so we were side-by-side, then let the tip of his hefty sword hit the tile floor with a loud clink. “We must end this conflict quickly, noble friend.”
I nodded. More guards would be here any second. There was no more time to speak before the lantern rangers were on us again. Ink kept his sword down until the last possible second, then raised it with a roar and swung so hard both men were disarmed as their blades collided with his. Their weapons flew back into the wall and stuck there, hilts shivering up and down. They took several steps back, hands raised as if to hold us off.
“Let’s go!” I said. Tall double doors waited ahead. A few robed courtiers cowered in the corners of the room. Even as my words echoed across the throne room, more guards piled in through the front entrance. Future Hondo stood to our right, near the throne. Merc hovered between the man and the emperor.
“I don’t know if we can fight them all, noble friend,” Ink said. “They are quite well trained.”
I eyed my gauntlet, all but forgotten in the chaos. “I have another idea,” I said. I turned back to the doorway Kallus had closed and charged forward. I raised my hand, concentrating the way I always did right before I fired.
“Kallus, step away from the door!” I called.
I heard a muffled protest that sounded like “Flatulent figs!” from the other side of the door.
A moment later I let a burst of energy fly from my gauntlet. The door vaporized, along with part of a rug. The far wall was singed, but not too badly. The more I used the gauntlet, the more my fine control improved. I just didn’t get to use it too often. . . .
We tore through the second minister’s office, through the long hallway beyond, and burst out into daylight. The brightness momentarily dazzled my eyes. I studied the crowd, looking for my friends and where they might have fled. No sign of anyone.
The stone walkway led back around to the front of the palace, but that was about the last place we wanted to be just then. Ink hopped the wrought iron railing that lined the walk. I sheathed my sword and followed a second later, only to realize on the way down we were several feet higher than I’d expected. I stumbled as I hit hard stone, spraining my ankle and banging my knee. Maybe that was why there were no guards at this entrance; it was difficult to reach without the benefit of that path.
“Quickly, Prometheus,” Ink said, helping me up. I staggered to my feet. We ran for the city gates, back through the marketplace. I limped after Ink as best as I could, desperate not to slow us down. The guards at the gate were in an uproar, but word didn’t seem to have spread yet to the rangers on the city walls. Maybe if we hurried, we could get out safely.
“Why did I expect anything other than trouble!” Rainsong called out from behind us. “What did you do this time?”
“It’s not my fault!” I yelled over my shoulder. “Hurry up if you’re coming with us!”
“Likely story, troublesome friend!” Rainsong replied, but he hurried up to my side as he spoke. For all his bluster, I could tell the toad was afraid of being left behind. “Why are you limping?” he asked. “We’d be able to run a lot faster if you’d stop that.”
I grunted in pain as my ankle protested the slight weight I put on it. I bit back an angry, sarcastic answer. “We’d be able to move even faster if you carry me,” I replied instead.
“Nonsense, you’re far too large for me to—”
“We are near the gate, friends.” Ink interrupted. “We should slow down to avoid suspicion.” Onlookers in the crowd had taken a great deal of interest in our flight, but the guards ahead looked as bored and disinterested as they had on our way in.
We slowed to a walk. At first, I was grateful for the break from running, but after a few steps, my foot began to throb. I forced myself not to limp, to stride as normally as I could, biting my lip each time my ankle came down. We stepped out onto the drawbridge. Clouds hung below us again. My eyes began to water from the pain. Traffic had slowed. A human and a toad—both dressed in dirt-stained overalls—were coming from the other direction.
“Hey! The king wants them detained!” a ranger in a white mask yelled, pointing at the three of us with a sword.
“Poop,” I muttered, readying myself to dash past the last pair of guards.
“Now is really not the time, noble friend,” Ink said.
“You should have taken care of that in the forest,” Rainsong added with disgust. Then the two stared at each other as if surprised they’d agreed about something.
“Not what I—RUN!” I cried, giving up on explaining myself. I led the way, staggering past the guards. One of them grasped at my shirt and managed to grab a fistful. He let go with a grunt of pain as Ink brought down his sword—still in the sheath—down on the man’s arm.
The three of us raced down the road outside the city. I scanned for our friends, wondering where Hondo, Gareth, Ravio, and Queen Ophelia had gotten to. I spotted them standing just beyond the edge of the forest, apparently watching for us. The queen’s robotic bodyguards stood behind her, a pair of deadly shadows.
“What took so long?” Queen Ophelia asked.
“We had to fight our way out,” I replied, wincing at the pain in my ankle.
“Were you injured?” she asked with concern.
“No,” I replied. “I’m fine.” I was too proud to admit I’d hurt myself.
“Good,” she said, then spun on her heel and began to walk. “Let’s go.” Her robots turned and followed her without a word. The head of one turned to face forward. The head of the other didn’t move. Its eyes stayed trained on me even as the robot moved away. I decided not to let it creep me out.
“Go?” I asked. I glanced back, wary of being followed. No sign of pursuit.
“If you want the dig stopped,” she answered without turning, “then you’ll have to come with me to the surface. We’re going to stop it the old fashioned way.”
“What’s the old fashioned way?” I asked, following the girl into the forest.
Queen Ophelia stopped and turned, sweeping back dark curls and pushing her precarious crown higher onto her head. She favored me with a sly smile.
“Why sabotage, of course, sweetie.”
- - -
“A flying whale?” I asked again, needing to hear the words repeated for a third time. I’d seen one high in the sky when we’d first arrived on Frostbane, but it was still hard to believe. How could a creature so large stay airborne?
“Yes, it’s how I got here,” Queen Ophelia replied, losing her patience. “What don’t you understand? You’ve seen whales before.”
“Yes, but most of them weren’t of the flying variety.”
“Have you been living under a rock? Flying whales are all over the place on this world.”
“We come from a different world,” Ink replied. “Actually, multiple different worlds.”
“You told me that, but still. . . .” She laughed. A light, pleasant sound after so much stress and danger. “You’re in for a treat. It’s the only way to travel.”
We had been trudging through the forest for nearly an hour. The novelty of smelling fresh pine began to wear off, and breakfast seemed like something that had happened to someone else. I walked near the back of the group. One of the queen’s robots led the way, while one brought up the rear. Everyone else was ranged out in front of us. I hadn’t been able to hide my injury for long, but so far it hadn’t been a problem. I could limp along well enough, and the lantern rangers seemed to have given up on catching us, so there was no need to run.
“Might we have more of that delicious coffee?” Ink asked Hondo.
“Coffee is disgusting,” Raingsong cut in. “Is that your way of asking for a break? If you need a break, we can stop for you. There’s no shame in it. Well, other than being outpaced by a crippled child.” He finished his short diatribe with a wave toward me.
“I’m not crippled,” I said. “Or a child.”
“The emperor seemed to think you were quite young,” Gareth said.
“He was a bird! How would he know?” I protested. Traitorous robot, I thought.
“There’s no need to stop,” Queen Ophelia said. “We’re almost there.”
“In fact, he seemed surprised by how young you were,” Gareth continued as if he hadn’t heard. “I am not programmed to understand the nuances of human puberty, but I would guess you haven’t even started—”
“Gareth?” I interrupted.
“Don’t ever use the word ‘puberty’ again.”
“Ah, yes sir.”
Queen Ophelia giggled, and then the lead robot brushed aside a tree branch. An open vista spread before us. The world dropped away, and we could see the planet below. Jagged, conical mountains soared up toward the little shard of planet we stood on. I couldn’t tell how big the broken-off planetoid was, but the land stretched to either side out of sight.
The flying whale lounged near the edge of the drop-off. An elongated blue blob, it looked like a cartoonish representation of an Earth whale, with huge eyes and a jolly, smiling mouth. The biggest difference was its fins, which were longer, broader and more wing-like. Leather straps on the side facing us formed a ladder leading up to the beast’s broad back.
“Our fair steed,” Queen Ophelia said, fondly patting the monstrous creature’s side. “I call him Jimmy.” It was almost forty feet long. It waggled one of its fins and let out a friendly burbling sound as though happy to see the queen.
“Aww, hello to you too, buddy,” the queen said, trying to wrap her arms around the whale. The result was the girl leaning against a wall of pale, blue flesh with her arms outstretched.
“This is very touching and whatever,” Ravio said, “but shouldn’t we get moving?”
“Yes, of course,” the queen said. “Okay, buddy,” she said to the whale. “We’re gonna ride on your back. Don’t buck anyone off this time!”
“That’s happened before?” I asked, eyeing Jimmy the Whale dubiously.
“I’ll wait here,” Rainsong said, taking a big step backward.
“We might not be coming back,” I replied.
“I want to go home.” Rainsong spoke in an almost pleading tone, wide eyes studying Jimmy the Whale.
“So far, going backward hasn’t been an option,” I said.
“Oh, it was just a robot,” Queen Ophelia chided.
“That does not inspire confidence!” Gareth said, “but I will follow Hondo and his friends into certain death!”
“No one’s going to die,” I told the robot, wishing I felt as certain as I was trying to sound.
“You are way too excited about ‘certain death,’” Hondo scolded.
“I was programmed for glorious battle!” the robot replied, swinging his fists as though boxing an unseen enemy.
“No, you were programmed for security,” I said. Something was definitely wrong with the aged android. Too many years in the forest?
“We gonna talk all day, or get riding?” Ravio asked.
“Let’s go,” I said. At my words, everyone filed over to the ladder and began to make their way up, led by Queen Ophelia and her robotic bodyguards. It made me uncomfortable how quickly everyone followed my lead, but whatever helped me find my sister I would go with.
My sister who was over a hundred years in the future.
One thing at a time, I told myself. We would stop this dig, then try to find a working Moonstone. The Pit that led back to Senna would be nearby. Despite what I’d told Rainsong, I was determined to return. What else could I do?
The whale’s back was as soft and squishy as a waterbed, giving under our feet. I felt wobbly as I walked, and I could see why someone—even a robot—could have fallen off.
“Where are the handholds?” Rainsong asked as he climbed up. He was the last to come aboard. I was glad to see him; I’d been worried he’d really try to stay behind. I refused to admit that maybe I was growing fond of the grumpy amphibian.
The leather strap for the ladder ran across the width of the creature’s back. Queen Ophelia tapped it with her foot. “You can hold on to this.”
We all sprawled out, and took hold of the strap. The queen’s robots settled in on the far left. I wound up in the middle, with Ravio on my left and Hondo on my right.
Queen Ophelia was the only one who didn’t hold on. She crawled forward and sprawled on Jimmy’s head, between the creature’s enormous eyes. She whispered something to the vast creature I couldn’t make out, and the whale lifted off the ground with an unsettling lurch, then tilted as it flew away from the floating planetoid, nearly knocking all of us flying in the process.
I let out a nervous laugh as we soared upward, the ground suddenly a mile away. Ink began to whisper a prayer. Rainsong let loose a string of what sounded like bad words. Ravio just grimaced and held on tight. The robots were silent. Hondo watched the sky with a distant expression on his face, perhaps thinking about his future self.
The queen kept on murmuring to the whale. I wished I’d asked how far it was to the dig site. I didn’t want to travel too far from the area. My only link to my sister was behind us. It occurred to me I didn’t even know where the previous Pit was. We’d seemed to emerge from the sky into a frozen wasteland. I assumed that meant the gateway to Senna was on the planet below somewhere. Ink, Rainsong, and I had been spit out to land on the broken off fragment, then traveled back to a time when that fragment was livable.
I turned back to study the planetoid. It was huge. Even though we’d flown out several hundred feet, it still stretched out of sight to the right and left. It floated somehow above the planet, a broad, flat chunk of dirt and rock hundreds of miles wide. It seemed like it should have fallen out of the sky to crash into the planet below, but there it remained.
An oddity occurred to me. The planet had been above before, but now it lay below us. Somehow in the time gap either it flipped, or the planet did.
“Does the little planet chunk rotate?” I called out to Gareth, who was on the other side of Ravio.
He turned and stared at me for a moment, as though surprised by my question. “Yes,” he replied after a moment. “Very slowly. “And yet somehow, it keeps gravity. I’ve never fallen off, at least.”
“I’ll settle for not falling off this whale!” I replied.
“Yes, that would be bad. We are high enough that you would reach terminal velocity as you hurtled toward the planet. You fleshly beings might even fall unconscious before you hit the ground! Not us robots though, we’d be awake through the whole, agonizing descent, and—”
“Gareth?” I interrupted.
“Sir?” the robot replied.
“Hey, what is that?” Rainsong called out. The last to board the whale, he was on its far right side. I followed his gaze and saw a small, dark shape hurtling across the sky. It looked like someone riding one of those octopus-horse creatures we’d seen when we’d first arrived.
“A lantern ranger leaving the city?” Hondo guessed. He was between Rainsong and me.
“Has to be someone with connections,” Ravio said from my left. “They don’t let just anyone fly those monsters.”
“That is the future version of Hondo,” Gareth said.
We flew on in silence for several minutes. Cone-shaped mountains towered to either side. I couldn’t see the ground from where I lay. My hands began to ache from holding on. I decided to risk loosening them for a moment and stretch my fingers. The flight had been smooth and uneventful. I didn’t see any reason to worry now.
“Hey, we’re almost there!” Ophelia called back to us. She had been up by the whale’s head through the entire strange voyage. Relief filled me.
“Whoa, what’s that?” Hondo cried.
“What?” I asked. Something whizzed between us, buzzing angrily. A high-flying insect?
“We’re under attack! Glorious battle!” Gareth cried. Something clanked off his face. An arrow had struck one metal cheek, leaving a dent. The robot didn’t seem at all fazed. He drew his sword from beneath his cloak, for all the good it would do.
“Get down!” Queen Ophelia cried. “I can’t believe they’re shooting at us! Hold on tight. I’m going to angle us away! Those arrows won’t hurt Jimmy!”
We’d fled the court of an emperor. Now we were about to pay the consequences. I didn’t think it was a coincidence that Future Hondo had flown by, and now we were under attack.
I heard a grunt, and suddenly Ravio flopped over onto me. “Hey,” I yelled. “You need to hold on!” In all the confusion, I hadn’t reaffirmed my own grip. The momentum of Ravio’s impact knocked me loose, just as the right side of the whale began to tilt down. It wasn’t a steep grade, but since I wasn’t holding on, I couldn’t hope to stay put. I rolled over Hondo and Rainsong, grasping desperately for a handhold and finding only smooth, blue skin.
I caught sight of Ravio, glassy-eyed, an arrow sticking out of his neck. Hondo grabbed at my arm, but he was too late. Rainsong tried to get ahold of my ankle, but my foot slid through his grasp. I saw Ravio’s body tumbling after me, couldn’t process the Pitworlder’s fate.
I slipped over the edge and fell off the whale, right out into open air.
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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.