“How do you know all this?” Kallus asked, drilling me with a hard stare.
“Just putting the pieces together,” I replied. “The portal inside the Pit was obviously meant to be sealed away. The Cataclysm has to be below!” I didn’t feel very convincing, but I didn’t know what else to say. I couldn’t tell them how I’d really connected the dots. I didn’t expect anyone to believe we’d come from another time and had knowledge of what would happen in the distant future. I barely believed it myself!
“This is all very interesting, but I’m going to need more evidence before I can bother Emperor Titus with this,” Kallus said, frowning as he studied our faces, apparently trying to decide whether we were serious or crazy. “Do you have any of these ancient texts?”
“I’m not in the habit of carrying history books on my person,” the Queen of Chronos replied with a sniff. “Can’t you take our word for it? I want that dig stopped until the safety of my people can be guaranteed. Your men are working them far too hard!”
“Do you want it stopped temporarily . . . or permanently?” he asked. “I’m confused.”
“Permanently,” Ravio said.
“Temporarily,” Queen Ophelia said, at almost the same time. Ravio scowled at this, but she didn’t seem to notice. “At least, until we can determine whether it’s safe and that my people can dig under better working conditions. Anyway, I’m not here to talk to you. Is the emperor through here?” she asked, waving a hand towards a hefty, wooden door on the left side of the office.
“Whimpering watermelon, you can’t go through there!” Kallus cried.
She moved to the door anyway and wrenched it open while the second minister stuttered protests. I followed, hoping the Queen wasn’t about to get us both arrested. If Emperor Titus could help, I wanted to see him directly, not be held off by one of his advisors.
A short hallway separated the minister’s office from the next chamber, which was a tall, narrow throne room. In one sweeping glance, I took in the high stone walls, the small square windows above, the onyx throne, the bird-man emperor sitting at court. And the man kneeling on the carpet before the dais on which the throne sat.
The future one.
I choked down a gasp and stumbled backward. I tried to hide behind Queen Ophelia, but she was too thin to conceal me. As the bird-man turned a sharp gaze upon the queen, I slipped into the shadows at the edge of the hallway. A curtain hung there, all bunched up to one side of the wall. I peeked around its folds, able to see into the room without being seen.
“Are you hiding?” the Queen of Chronos hissed. “Coward!” She didn’t out me, though.
I couldn’t say what impulse made me want to hide from Future Hondo. Something in the way he’d acted in the wasteland, and in the way the Hondo I knew had described him.
“What are you doing here?” Emperor Titus asked. “I told my men to keep you out.”
“Did you now?” Queen Ophelia asked with hands on hips. “Well, that’s not acceptable to me. The dig must end. Your men are working my people too hard.”
“We have a schedule to keep,” the emperor replied. “You promised me a world of riches if I helped you. Riches I need to pay off my debts.”
“I promised you a world,” the queen said. “A world of untapped potential. We have no way of knowing how rich the next world down will be. And none of it will do us any good if my people don’t survive to make it to the world after that.”
“Well, if you don’t like it, you can take it up with Minister Brink here,” the emperor said, waving a wing-like arm toward Hondo, who still bowed on one knee.
“I will do no such thing. I am a queen, and I will be treated with respect!”
“You are a queen without a queendom,” the emperor replied. “A fact you seem to keep forgetting.”
“I sleep in a tent in woods. My people are laboring to dig a portal to another world I’ve never been to, after fleeing worlds where we didn’t belong. I will never forget that my kingdom is long behind me. Neither will I let my people die while I draw breath!”
“You exaggerate,” Future Hondo said. I heard a rustle as he stood. “Only three workers have died, and they all chose their own fates.”
“Three lives lost is too many!” the queen answered, balling her fists at her sides.
“I’d be inclined to agree with your majesty,” the emperor said, “but until Minister Brink got involved, this project was stalling. Perhaps your people need motivation to work hard. I’ve always found humans to be lazy myself.”
Queen Ophelia let out a low, frustrated growl. “I’m not leaving until you do something about this,” she said.
“Well, that’s fine. I’m about to retire for midday meal. You can sit on the throne if you like. You could pretend you have a scrap of power or sway here.”
This conversation was going downhill fast. The emperor seemed indifferent to the queen’s plight. By this time the rest of my companions along with Second Minister Kallus had crowded into the doorway. The emperor could see them, but I didn’t think either of the two Hondos could see each other.
“What’s this riffraff you brought in?” the emperor asked, curiosity seemingly piqued.
“Just a few . . . friends,” Queen Ophelia replied with a shrug. The gesture didn’t seem regal, or at all natural to the girl. She was trying too hard to be casual.
“Step forward friends,” the emperor commanded. “What’s with the hood?” he asked, apparently speaking to Gareth. “I don’t allow head coverings in my presence.” He turned to the front of the throne room and spoke to someone I couldn’t see.
“Whoever let them in is no longer a ranger,” he said.
“Yes, Majesty,” a stiff voice replied.
“Pull that hood back at once,” the emperor said to Gareth. I felt a pang of dread in the pit of my stomach. Hondo’s eyes went wide. Ink reached for his sword without seeming to realize what he was doing. I hoped the emperor wouldn’t see that as another insult.
Gareth’s mechanical hands reached for his hood, but he hesitated. Even from a distance, it had to be obvious he was a robot. They should have gotten him gloves, I thought. Or we could have left him outside with Rainsong.
“Go ahead, Prometheus,” Future Hondo said. “Tell him to pull it back.” He’d walked closer to the throne, so he could see into the side door. I felt another pang of dread.
Queen Ophelia stared at me. “Is he talking to you?” she whispered. “That’s a strange name for a boy, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I whispered back. “I mean no, it’s a perfectly good name,” I added, leaning against the wall and trying to decide what to do. Of course, Future Hondo knew I was here. I was standing five feet from his past self! I’d been an idiot to think I could hide from him.
We had both been stupid to think we could hide from him.
I eyed Hondo standing next to Gareth. The older boy shrugged helplessly. His wide eyes caught my gaze in a way that seemed to beg for me to fix this mess.
“Do as he says, Gareth,” I finally said. I stepped away from the wall and into the sight of the emperor and Future Hondo. Emperor Titus was glaring, while Future Hondo had a vicious smirk on his face.
“Okay what was that child doing hiding in my curtains?” the emperor said. “I don’t know how they do things on Chronos, Queen Ophelia, but on my world we show our rulers respect. We don’t hide little boys in the drapery!”
“I’m not little,” I replied defensively. “I’m almost thirteen!”
“Oh excuse me, you’re only mostly a little boy. I swear, all you featherless creatures look the same to me. Second Minister! Is this your doing? Explain yourself!”
Kallus opened his mouth to speak, but only a weak groan stumbled past his lips.
“Never mind!” the emperor replied, too fast for the minister to really reply anyway. “Didn’t I command the robed one to remove that hood? Why are they still standing there, hands up like they forgot how clothing works?” Emperor Titus’s eyes narrowed and his whole body began shaking with rage. I could hardly remember the last time I’d seen such anger. Not since my days as a child on Earth, living off scraps in a decrepit slum.
Gareth did as he was told, revealing his mechanical face.
The feathers on Emperor Titus’s crest seemed to stand straighter. I expected him to scream, to rage and kick and cry out; so great was the look of fury in his sharp, predatory eyes. Instead, he spoke in a low, dangerous voice just above a whisper.
“Guards . . . seize these intruders. Destroy the robot.”
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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.