“Okay, people, do not engage,” Ophelia ordered. We were pinned between three of the monsters, with more screeching electronic howls echoing from somewhere out of sight.
“We shall slaughter them all in glorious battle! Their oil will soak the streets like blood!” Gareth cried, waving his sword in the air.
“No, there’s too many of them. Follow me! And close your eyes!” Ophelia darted toward a back alley to our left, opposite the looming Emissary above.
“We can’t close our eyes and run!” Rainsong protested.
“Squint and look at the ground!” The queen fired one arrow high into the air as she ran. I did as instructed, watching Ophelia’s heels so I would know where to go.
The arrow burst like a firework. A dazzling light flashed, bright even against half-closed eyes. The Emissary robots let out more horrible screeches in protest. One of them cried out in English. “We saw you, Ophelia the Fallen! We’ve come for you!”
“It’d be super if we knew what was going on!” Rainsong protested as we hurtled down the alley. He’d finally given up on riding on Gareth’s back and was racing alongside him. There was an intersection ahead leading left and right.
“Giant robots are trying to kill us, and we’re trying to find a lab filled with time traveling rocks,” Ophelia said over her shoulder as she led us around a corner and down an even narrower back street. “What don’t you get?”
“Well, when you put it that way,” the toad mumbled, hopping over a root that sprawled across the ground.
“I believe we are out of immediate danger, noble friends,” Ink said. The sounds of the End’s servants had grown more distant.
Ophelia nodded. “This way,” she said. She’d led us to a steel slab of a door. Heavy-duty rivets stood out along its surface. The walls here were far less overgrown than elsewhere in the city. I could see the building on the right was made of small, red bricks.
To my surprise Ophelia ignored the door and turned to the opposite side of the alley. She tapped a brick at forehead height. A hidden door slid aside, revealing darkness within. The obvious door was a decoy or else just led somewhere less important. Anyone in pursuit would have searched the wrong building first.
“Your laboratory has a hidden door?” I asked.
“Everything about this lab had to be of the utmost secrecy,” Ophelia said, fumbling along one wall for a light. “I didn’t want the power of time travel in the wrong hands. In fact, I only wanted it in my own hands. Not that it mattered in the end. The End.” She chuckled wryly. “The Cataclysm still got ahold of this place.”
“Then why are we even here?” Rainsong asked, pushing his helmet away from his eyes.
“I kept most of the more powerful Moonstones locked in a special vault,” she told us, stepping to type on a dusty control panel. The ceiling gave a gentle hum and lights recessed in the ceiling whirred to life. We stood at the far end of a cramped and dusty hallway, the light filtering through a veil of cobwebs. “The fact that this building hasn’t been torn to pieces tells me the Dawn was right, and they’re still here at the Crossroads. The last time I saw them, they were in my office.”
“The Dawn?” Ink said.
“Forget I mentioned that,” Ophelia replied.
“She can’t tell us,” Rainsong explained with a roll of his bulging eyes.
“What he said,” the former queen added.
“That line is getting pretty old,” I told her. I sighed. I was annoyed, but we’d gone too far to turn back, or even look back.
Ever further down the rabbit hole.
As long as Ophelia was my only link to finding Lena, I’d follow her. I’d all but given up on ever seeing my long lost crew again, but I needed to find them too, if possible. Home, wherever and whenever, was a distant third goal.
Silly words filled with hope that the future would somehow work out, that a lost boy would somehow find his sister, his crew, and a place he belonged. I didn’t think it was a coincidence that if possible sounded a lot like impossible.
“Where’s your office?” I asked Ophelia.
“Just this way,” she said, waving a hand toward a staircase barely wide enough for walking single file. It was so choked with cobwebs Ophelia had to use an arrow to sweep them all away, grimacing when a few strands stuck to the shaft as she slid it back into her quiver.
There was a door every ten steps up. Ophelia ignored the first one, then opened the second, revealing an enormous atrium. We peered over the shoulders of the former queen. Ornate crystal chandeliers loomed above a floor checkered with tiny, black and white tiles. The spiders had made palaces of them all. Diffuse moonlight shone through tall picture windows high above.
Tarnished brass doors sat at haphazard angles, giving us a view of the street outside. I could hear the Emissaries’ electronic screaming. It echoed distantly, as if they’d moved off somewhere, perhaps hunting the city for us. A winding staircase spiraled up into darkness, most of its spindles broken and strewn across the tile floor.
“Wrong door,” Ophelia whispered. She pulled it closed, and we strode up another flight of stairs. The next door opened into an office.
Or perhaps more accurately, what used to be an office before it was clearly trashed by people looking for something.
Torn papers yellowed with age drifted in the gentle breeze admitted by a shattered corner of a window. The moonlight threw mysterious, hulking shadows against the walls, cast by the shapes of furniture broken to pieces. Paintings slumped against the same walls, all of them shredded. A quiet scene of past destruction.
“No!” Ophelia cried. “No! No! No!” she was staring at a hole in the wall behind a moldering pile of wood that might have once been a desk.
“Let me guess,” Rainsong began.
“They found your secret stash?” I cut in.
“I was going to say that,” the toad said, sticking his long tongue out at me.
“Yes,” she said. “They must have.”
A howl broke the calm, reminding us of the enemy outside.
“How did you not see this coming?” I asked. “I narrowed my eyes. Did you see this coming?”
“No!” she cried, defensive. “My future knowledge has . . .” she frowned. “Gaps. I mean, I didn’t live all this. I just learned about it secondhand from the Dawn.”
The Dawn again.
“Who is the Dawn?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about that,” she said. “We need to get out of here. I know we’re going to find the Moonstones. I just don’t know where . . .”
“But how can that be, if the End has them?” Ink asked.
Ophelia shrugged, then frowned again. “Ugh, I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this.”
“Come to what?” I asked.
“She can’t tell you,” said Rainsong.
“Glorious battle!” Gareth cried. “We shall fight our way to freedom!”
“Um. No. Follow me, you’ll find out soon enough,” Ophelia said, turning back toward the hidden passageway. The door was still hanging open. “Close it behind you,” she ordered.
We went back down the stairs to one of the doors we’d passed by earlier. Ophelia shoved it open, letting it bang against the wall. Clearly stealth was not a concern. At least, not on this floor.
We piled out after her into a freezing cold room filled with enormous glass pods. The pill-shaped chambers lay atop apparatus and computer terminals that blinked with small red and yellow lights. I counted nine pods all laid out in a row down one line of the room. Eight of them were just clear, dusty glass, but the final one was frosted with ice so thick I couldn’t see what was inside.
“There’s more than one way to travel through time,” she said. “I had my best scientists working on Moonstones for years to mimic the rocks of Senna’s moons. When they told me it would take decades to achieve that level of technology, I came up with a backup plan. Hibernation.”
“Uh, time travel by sleeping?” Rainsong asked.
“Like a bear?” I added, having read about bears hibernating for the winter on Earth.
“How can a nap keep you young?” Rainsong said.
“It’s not exactly like that. These pods freeze tissue on contact, allowing the person inside to sleep without aging indefinitely. It was far ahead of anything we had when we got here. Luckily I was able to use an old Moonstone to skip about forty years of research and development. Then I slept off and on for another forty-five.”
“That leaves quite a bit of time unaccounted for,” I said. “What about the other . . .” I couldn’t do the math quickly. “Sixty or so years?”
A pained look crossed the former queen’s face, and she looked away. A touchy subject, apparently.
“It’s only forty-seven missing years,” Rainsong said. “Don’t you know how to do math?”
“Forty-three, actually,” Ophelia corrected. “I was with my people for five years before I started skipping time. You have to understand. We were in a time of crisis, moving from one inhospitable world to another. When we got here, and everything seemed to be going well, I couldn’t just trust it. I had to be sure.
“I needed to be certain that my people could flourish. I didn’t want peace and prosperity to end with my death. So I used the Moonstones and the pod to extend my rule indefinitely. The people thought I was immortal, but in truth, I formed a small council to rule in my absence. Five men and women who alone knew what was really going on. Well, them and a few scientists. After I left for good about forty years ago, the council used one of my pods as a form of exile. They trapped a war criminal inside, so I could deal with them personally.”
“Who is it?” I asked, swallowing a lump in my throat. I had a sneaking suspicion I knew exactly who.
“See for yourself,” Ophelia said. She walked over to the occupied hibernation pod and began fiddling with the controls on the side. A warning chime began to sound, and a pressurized hiss sounded. Steam leaked out of the pod as the ice began to melt.
“What happened to your people, noble friend?” Ink asked. I glanced at the salamander, wondering if he was thinking what I was. Whatever had happened to Ophelia’s people was the key to figuring out her strange behavior.
The former queen seemed to ignore the question, but she turned away, rubbing at her eyes with her wrist. Wiping away a tear, I thought.
The pod lowered itself, then tilted at an angle so that the occupant would be able to step right out. The steam cleared, and I saw the face of the person inside. I wasn’t surprised, but my stomach lurched anyway. It was the face of the man who had exiled my sister into the future.
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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.