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.
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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.