“You came back,” I said after spitting out a mouthful of water.
“I couldn’t just leave you knuckleheads to die!” Rainsong responded. “I knew you needed me.”
It was hard to argue when he’d just saved my life. We were treading water in the middle of a sea that stretched for miles. A few of the taller hills in the area had become islands.
“I went to that Pit,” he continued. “And I looked down into it, and I realized I didn’t want to just go home. How could I fit in now? I’ve seen so much, and yet I feel like there’s so much of the universe I’ve never seen. There’s got to be more to life than guarding a hole in the ground, right?”
I nodded, unable to think of anything to say. There was such earnestness to his voice, a longing mingled with confusion. It was a side of the toad I’d never seen before. He’s lost, I thought. Another lost boy. Maybe all of us were at least a little bit lost.
Tell the truth, I told myself.
“I’m glad you came back,” I found myself saying.
“Don’t go soft on me, Prometheus Jones,” the toad said, but he smiled a little. “Where’s the lizard-boy?”
As if on cue, Ophelia and Ink burst from beneath the water with huge gasps for air. Ink seemed to have pulled Ophelia up the same way Rainsong had rescued me.
Ophelia floundered for a moment before seeming to gain her bearings. “Welcome to Skywater,” she said after spitting out a mouthful of seawater.
“You knew,” I said, brow furrowed. “Why didn’t you warn us?”
“I told you! I can’t tell you anything!” she replied, defensive now that I was truly getting angry.
“Why should we trust you, then?” I said. “If you’re not even going to warn us of danger!”
“Do we really have to hash this out again, in the ocean? Let’s swim to that island and dry off before we get any colder.” We began to paddle for a small hilltop that had become an island.
“Whatever,” I said. I hated to concede, but I couldn’t argue when my teeth were starting to chatter. “Let’s go.” The water was biting cold, perhaps a product of having been floating up at high altitude. I’d been sweating from the heat only moments ago, but that warmth was just a memory now. I stroked for the island, grateful for the chance to get moving and warm myself up a little.
“You came back,” I heard Ink say to Rainsong behind me. The salamander sounded surprised to see the toad and in little hurry to get out of the water. It wasn’t as cold as the frozen wasteland, but it was still uncomfortable.
“Yeah, yeah. It beat mopping floors in a dusty old castle. Besides, someone’s got to look out for the kid.” Rainsong surged past me, shooting through the water like a missile. I thought maybe he was embarrassed that he’d given up his ticket home to come back and join us on another weird planet.
“Do you know why the ocean flies upward, noble friend?” Ink asked Ophelia, swimming beside her. I understood then why he wasn’t in any rush. He and Rainsong were such strong swimmers they could reach the island in a fraction the time it would take us humans. Ink was taking his time for our sakes. Rainsong was by far the strongest swimmer among us. He stayed several yards ahead and pretended he couldn’t hear us talk.
“Nope. Never figured that one out. The running theory was wicked gravitational forces, like a crazy high tide. Three black holes up in space surround this planet.””
“How’d you live here then?” I asked.
“We couldn’t. That’s exactly why we had to move on as soon as we could. We tried—” she spluttered and spat out water. “Can we talk on the island? Can’t swim and talk without getting water in my mouth.”
“Sure,” I said.
Ophelia and I dragged our tired bodies onto a crumbly beach that was mostly dirt and long, tangly vines. I collapsed. Ink trotted out of the water and began wringing out his robe. Ophelia stood watching the water, eyes seeming to study the distant horizon. Long tangles of dark hair dripped with water, but she didn’t seem to notice. There was nothing to see but the ocean and a few distant islands like the one we’d stumbled onto. The air was cold now, a fog veiling the edges of the world in mist.
Despite arriving first, Rainsong was last out of the water. “Are there any monsters we need to know about?” he asked.
“Nah,” Ophelia replied, finally moving. She squeezed some water out of her cloak. “Everything on this planet lives in the ocean. With the ocean up and down all the time, the land isn’t really safe.”
Rainsong hurried out of the water, feet slapping up a spray of water.
“I’m more worried about falling into the sky,” Ink said. “Tell us more about this flying ocean.”
‘We’ve got a few hours until we need to move.” She sat down and hugged her knees to her chest, not tearing her eyes away from the shore.
“Is there perhaps some method I could use to start a fire?” Ink asked, eyes roving the ground in a hopeless search for firewood.
“Nope, and we’re not staying long enough for it to be worth the effort. You know, we tried building houses on these hilltops, but if you’re not careful, you can get sucked right up into the sky.”
“So how do we get back down to the . . . to the sea floor?” I asked. It still seemed odd to think of the swamp as the bottom of an ocean, but that’s what it was now.
“The same way we got up here,” the former queen answered. “Through the water.”
“How did you ever stay on such a wretched planet?” Rainsong asked.
“We lived underground. There are old houses and storage caverns built into most of these hill-islands. Some of them have tunnels that lead under the sea floor. Where is that blasted robot?”
“Why do you care so much about Gareth?” I asked.
“I can’t leave anyone behind, robots included.”
Before we could get any more out of Ophelia, a sword burst from the ocean near the shore. Gareth stumbled out of the water, blade held high. Seaweeds clung to his metal body, and a fat, purple starfish was wrapped around one side of his head.
“Victory is mine!” he proclaimed, sheathing his sword. Despite the dip in saltwater, he didn’t look much the worse for wear. A little battered maybe. They’d been making robots waterproof for centuries, so there was no issue there.
“You beat the ocean?” Rainsong asked with a sneer. “Looks like it got the better of you.”
“Nonsense!” the robot replied. “What’s the plan of action, companions?” he asked.
“We were just discussing that,” I said. “Where’s this lab you talked about?” I asked Ophelia.
“Next world over,” she answered. “On a planet called Proxima. The minions of the End call it the Crossroads World.” Something about the name Proxima rang a bell for me.
“You said it was closer to the End,” I said, trying to put my finger on where I remembered the name.
“Two worlds closer,” she replied.
“Well obviously,” Rainsong cut in. “What we want to know is where the End lives?”
“Is there a Pit leading to the End on Proxima?”
“Yes and no,” Ophelia said. “One of the newer portals has been built there.”
“Newer portals, noble friend?” Ink asked.
“The End has access to the portal technology used by the Ancients. He used it to create a new portal leading right from his world to Proxima.”
“The Ancients?” I asked. “I thought your people were the Ancients, Ophelia,” I said with a glance toward Ink and Rainsong.
Ophelia snorted. “Maybe compared to modern Senna civilization, but no. The people who actually built the portals and buried them lived thousands of years ago. They’re the true Ancients.”
“I suppose Ancient can depend on your perspective,” Ink said.
“And which side of history you’re standing on,” I added.
“All right,” Ophelia said. “Enough chit-chat.” She started to walk inland.
“No,” I said. “I want more answers before we follow you anywhere.”
“You’re not getting them,” she replied. “Besides, what choice do you have? You follow me through the Pit to the next world, or you wait here until you fly up into the sky and freeze to death.”
“Where are you going, anyway?” I asked. I folded my arms in anger, but I took a step inland. She had a point. What else could we do?
“Where else?” she replied with a shrug. “To get a boat.”
- - -
“How much time do we have left?” Rainsong asked as we carried the boat into the shallow water at the shore of the island. Balancing his corner of the boat with one hand, he pushed his helmet back from his eyes.
The water had warmed up a little, but it was still a chilly shock as it soaked my tattered pants legs up to the knees. I was grateful for the cold this time though. It numbed my ankle, which was painfully swollen after a long trek across the little hill-island.
“Almost an hour,” Ophelia replied in annoyance. “Still. It’s only been like five minutes since the last time you asked.”
The former queen had led us to a cache of supplies hidden near the heart of the little island. Inside we had found non-perishable food, clean water, clothing (none of which had fit me, unfortunately), a length of rope (too rotten to use), some rusty weapons and armor (which Rainsong had helped himself to), a massive electronic device that apparently functioned as a radio (broken), and three small canoes.
And no tunnel to the world beneath the ocean.
We’d carried one of the boats back across the island, and now we were set to paddle out across the ocean back toward the waiting Pit. Ophelia, Ink, Rainsong, and I had each taken a corner. Gareth followed behind, weighted down with a massive pack stuffed with supplies and a pair of worn, chipped, wooden oars.
“You’d move a lot faster if you dumped all that gear,” I told Rainsong.
“Not going to happen, kid,” the toad replied, pushing the helmet back from his eyes again. A tall, red plume fading with age bounced with every step Rainsong took. He had also gotten ahold of a broadsword, a battle-axe, and a big, round shield. They clattered on his back as he walked. The toad had wanted to take a full set of the ancient armor, but the arms and legs had been too big for his skinny limbs, and the breastplate too small for his barrel chest, so he’d been forced to make do with everything else.
Ink, Ophelia, Rainsong, and I hopped into the boat, then took the pack from Gareth and helped the robot in. The boat sank noticeably in the water when the heavy robot clanked into a seat with his overstuffed satchel. I’d wanted his help carrying the canoe, but we’d weighed him down too much with supplies.
“Knew we should have brought two boats,” Ophelia muttered. She reached for an oar, but Gareth took them both and began to row, quickly paddling us out to sea. It had been hard enough to get one canoe to the shore. I couldn’t imagine trying to carry two. The little boats weren’t huge, but they were made from sturdy wood. Sturdy enough that the added weight was hard on my ankle.
We left the island behind, floating into open ocean. Ophelia guided us. It all looked like mist and waves to me, but Ophelia seemed to know where to go. The water was choppy, with waves splashing over the sides of the boat. Soon Rainsong was using his helmet to bail us out while the rest of us cupped our hands, everyone desperately trying to keep the little canoe afloat long enough for us to reach our destination.
“How long do you think we have now?” Rainsong asked after what felt like an eternity struggling against the waves.
“About half an hour,” Ophelia said, brushing a hair out of her eyes. She’d fished a small, metal cup out of the supplies bag and was using it to hurl seawater back out of the boat.
“Are you sure?” Rainsong asked.
“Mostly. Why do you want to know?”
Without speaking, the toad held his helmet out toward her. It was upside down and filled with water. Or at least, it had been full. Several droplets were rising into the air in tiny, glistening spheres. High tide had arrived, and we were on the wrong side of the ocean again.
“I’d say we’re out of time,” Rainsong said.
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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.