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.”
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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.