Hondo groaned and rubbed weakly at his eyes. Dressed in nothing but a pair of shorts, his dark hair was flecked with ice crystals. He began to shiver. He looked older, but nowhere close to the 142 years he should have aged since I’d seen him last.
“When am I?” he asked, reaching feebly for the IV in his left arm, one of several sprouting from each limb, their thin strands running into the pod interior.
“Why?” I asked Ophelia.
“I told you; the council didn’t know what to do with—” the former queen began.
“No,” I interrupted. “Why did you free him? You should keep him locked up.”
“I agree,” Rainsong said. “The last black eye he gave the kid is still healing.”
That was the least of the wounds Hondo had delivered at the Frostbane Pit. I had hoped never to see my old friend again. My former friend. My stomach turned just looking at him.
“You again,” Hondo said to me, his voice hoarse. My companions barely seemed to register with him.
“We need his help,” Ophelia said. “He’s in the league with the End. He might know where my Moonstones have been stashed away.”
“But he’s been in a hyper-napping pod,” Rainsong said. “How should he know anything?”
“The term is hibernation, noble friend,” Ink told the toad.
“He was put in there for causing all this,” Ophelia said. “He might know where the Moonstones wound up.”
“I thought he was in trouble with the End,” I said. “For destroying that Emissary.”
“A trick to gain our trust,” Ophelia replied with clear disgust. “Brink was under orders from the End to destroy that robot. The Emissary was set up. It had no clue its master would betray it like that.”
“You’re one to talk about betrayal,” Hondo said, smirking at the former queen. Coming to his senses, he began to rip out IV lines. “Don’t suppose I could have a blanket? Bit frosty coming out of those pods.”
“Whatever you think you know—” Ophelia began. She’d pulled her bow out of her quiver, I noticed. She was fingering the fletching at the back of an arrow, ready to draw at a moment’s notice.
“Don’t worry,” Hondo said with a wink. “Your secrets are safe with me!” He sucked in a deep breath. “I won’t tell them what you did. I mean, what you’re going to do. Time travel is so disorienting. Our language really wasn’t built for it.”
“You’ll tell me where my Moonstones are?” Ophelia asked.
“This is crazy,” I said. “How can we trust anything he says?”
“What makes you think he knows where the Moonstones wound up, noble friend?” Ink added.
“He probably doesn’t. He’ll say anything to save his own skin I’ll wager,” Rainsong said, pushing his helmet out of his eyes for the hundredth time.
“We’ll run him through and chop him to bits, then tie his corpse to the wall outside as a warning!” Gareth shouted, waving his sword and stomping one foot.
We all stared at the robot for a moment. Hondo swallowed hard, as if afraid we might do just that.
“Would you all shut up a minute?” Ophelia said with a little shiver at the thought of Gareth’s plan, perhaps. “He was caught right in this room. The survivors of my council managed to let me know they caught him sneaking around in here during the city’s fall.”
“I’m not sure that proves he knows anything, or that he’ll help us,” Ink pointed out.
“No, he will. Because Hondo wants to quit and side with us,” Ophelia said.
“I do?” Hondo asked, squinting. He stepped out of the pod, wobbling on unsteady legs. No one made a move to help him. Ophelia nocked an arrow but kept her bow at her knees.
“You do,” Ophelia said, her voice steely. “Because you know it’s your best option.”
“Are you sure?” Hondo asked, wrapping his arms around his chest and shivering. His skin was pale, making the scar across his face stand out sharply. “My life would count for nothing if the End found out. Besides, we’re not exactly buddies.”
“True,” Ophelia admitted. “But you’ve been gone a long time. The End put a price on your head years ago.”
“You’re a terrible liar, dear,” Hondo replied through chattering teeth. “Seriously, could I have a blanket? I can’t help you if I die in your dirty old basement.”
“Fresh out,” she replied, waving a hand at the room around us. Other than the pods themselves, everything was in tattered disarray just like the rest of the city.
“Well I suppose we’re wasting our time,” Ophelia said. “Back on ice you go. For good this time.”
“No,” Hondo said quickly, “Please don’t. I’ll tell you where the Moonstones are. I can lead you right to them. I’ll do it for him.” He didn’t look at me when he said it, but I knew he meant me. For the first time, I noticed what a strong resemblance he bore to his uncle, long-lost Commander Brink. Now that they were almost the same age, he could have been the Commander’s twin, were it not for that awful scar.
“Why?” I asked.
Hondo was carefully studying the wall behind Ophelia. “Revenge wasn’t what I thought it’d be.” His voice was hollow. “There was nothing afterward. I beat you in every possible way. Took everything. And I didn’t feel anything.”
“What have you been up to since?” Ink asked.
“Bit of this, bit of that. I was assigned to keep tabs on the people of Chronos, so I followed them through Skywater and then here to the Crossroads World. I told them I got exiled because of that Emissary I forced Prometheus to destroy, but as you know, that was a trick. I was under orders to destroy him. I used a Moonstone to return to the present not long after I got here. I, of course, found the city had been sacked decades ago. I asked the Emissaries here about it. They told me to mind my own business, then, ironically enough, sent me back in time right to its fall to search for Ophelia’s special supply of Moonstones.
“I was caught in the act, but that was a trick too. The Moonstones were already gone when they found me. I didn’t know I would be saved at the time, but the End must have known about these blasted pods. Surprised no one’s using the rest of them! Good way to save a little time,” he said with a shivery chuckle.
“Of course you wouldn’t know anything about loyalty,” Ophelia said. “My people chose to remain at their posts rather than hide away down here.”
“And how did that end for them?” Hondo asked her with a hard stare.
Ophelia broke gazes first. She still had her bow drawn and dangling. “Enough talk. Let’s get moving. Holding onto her bow with one hand, she held up the arrow she’d had ready, letting Hondo take a good look. “This has your name on it. I’ll be keeping it ready. If you make trouble for us in any way, we’re following the robot’s plan.”
“Noted.” Hondo sighed and looked down at the simple pair of shorts that were his only clothing, then turned his gaze on the ruined room. “I’m really not getting a blanket, am I?”
- - -
We slipped outside through the main entrance. Ophelia didn’t see the point in sneaking back out the way we’d come from. Our footsteps echoed in the dusty foyer, punctuated by the slap of Hondo’s bare feet.
My own feet were just a step above bare. The bottoms of my threadbare socks were mostly holes. I’d lost my shoes two worlds ago and never found another pair. I’d gotten so used to it I often forgot I wasn’t wearing any.
My feet had gotten tougher. What about the rest of me? I wasn’t at all sure about working with Hondo. I’d lost my sister to the future, thanks to him. I found myself looking at the man as we stepped outside. I couldn’t tell if he was sincere, but I didn’t feel any of the hate that had radiated from him like a furnace at the Frostbane Pit.
“I don’t hear anything,” Rainsong said.
“That is not necessarily a good sign,” Hondo said, arms folded tight against his chest to conserve warmth. “I like knowing where those blasted robots are. Don’t let that howling fool you. They can be quiet when they want to be.”
“You still haven’t told us where we’re going,” Ophelia said. “I want to know where you intend to take us.”
“Easier to show you, dear queen,” Hondo said. He pointed at a gap between two buildings. “The last I heard, they were being loaded onto that.”
“No,” Ophelia replied, her voice leaden with dread.
Hondo was pointing at the pyramid we’d seen when we arrived.
“What’s the big deal?” I asked. “It’s a big, black pyramid.”
“Look who’s ready for kindergarten,” Hondo said. “You’ll be graduating to scissors and glue before you know it. That monstrosity is more than just a pyramid.”
“What is it then?” Ink asked.
“A spaceship, of course,” he replied, as if we somehow ought to have figured it out on our own.
“A spaceship? And it’s been sitting here for . . .” I tried to remember how many years Hondo had been asleep. “Forty years?” I guessed.
“Forty-two years, to be precise,” Hondo replied. He ran two fingers down the length of the scar on his chin, a nervous habit I’d never noticed before. “It’s kind of hard to move giant spaceships when they’re broken.”
We moved through the ruined city, back to the outskirts near the Pit we’d arrived through. I could see now that the pyramid wasn’t as dimly lit as I’d first thought. A few weak lights lay scattered near the base, and I spotted the silhouette of an Emissary wandering through, moving like a grotesque insect guarding a hive.
We stopped at the last grassy wall at the edge of the city. There was nothing between us and the pyramid now but the stretch of an empty field.
“How do we get inside?” I asked.
“There’s no cover between here and there,” Ink pointed out. “Nowhere to hide.” The field between the edge of the city and the pyramidal spaceship was just a big, pockmarked expanse of dirt, scrub grass, and vine-choked garbage.
“Don’t expect me to help with that,” Hondo said. “I’m half-naked and still waking up from a forty year nap. I’m not going anywhere near an Emissary.”
“We need more information,” Ophelia said. “Are they repairing the ship? Why leave the Moonstones there for all these years?”
“The End is infinite, or something like it,” Hondo replied. “He doesn’t see time the way we do.”
“What is the End?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Hondo said flatly. “But he’s got power. His reach extends across many worlds. You can’t beat him. You can only . . . delay him. I’m not worried about helping you all because in the end, the End always wins.”
“So you believe in the End even though you’ve never seen him?” I asked.
“Sure. I don’t need to see the emperor to know there’s an empire.”
“How do you talk to him?” Ink asked.
“I suspect you’ll find that out for yourself sooner or later,” he replied. I didn’t like the cryptic answer, but before I could ask what he meant, Ophelia spoke.
“Your buddy the End is going to pay for what he did to my people,” Ophelia said. “I’ll delay his sorry empire right into the ground. With my bare hands if I have to. I don’t care whether you think he’s infinite, or a god, or unbeatable, or whatever. He messed with the wrong queen. The Dawn will prevail.”
Hondo didn’t chuckle or offer a snarky comment like he usually did. He just stared at Ophelia appraisingly and nodded. “Well let’s get you into the pyramid, and we’ll see about all that.”
The dark pyramid dominated the skyline ahead. It was bigger than I’d thought, and further away. I got a deep, almost dizzying sense of dread when I stared at the hulking, angular spaceship.
“Okay, so it was great hearing you ramble about this stupid End moron,” Rainsong said, “but you didn’t actually answer any of Ophelia’s questions.”
Hondo bristled a little at the toad’s insults, but let it slide without comment. “The ship was sabotaged a long time ago, during Chronos City’s fall. I don’t know the particulars.”
There was something shifty about his answer. I didn’t buy it, not fully.
“Our crew,” I said. “Why did the End want our crew?”
Could it be he’d needed them to fix his spaceship? Darkeson had been captured 142 years ago now. What about everyone else? They could have been here, in the present still. Even Darkeson could be here if a Moonstone were used on him.
Hondo flinched but didn’t answer.
“The End needed them to fix his spaceship?” I asked.
“It’s not quite that simple,” Hondo said. “He wanted them for their overall knowledge, not just mechanical know-how.”
“Why would a god need human scientists?” I asked.
“They have insights into modern Earth technology the End was lacking,” Hondo said.
“So you helped him kidnap them,” I said, my hands shaking. I’d thought maybe I could work with Hondo, but the more I thought on all the evil he’d done, the harder it became to swallow. His answer was strange, but it made sense. It explained why the End hadn’t cared about Lena and I. Being just kids, we didn’t have any useful information for the End.
“It’s not that simple,” Hondo said again. “If you knew everything—”
“So tell us,” Rainsong interrupted. “Everything.”
“I can’t,” he replied. “Look, do you want me to take you to the pyramid or not?” he asked with an angry wave toward the giant structure.
“You did take us to the pyramid,” Queen Ophelia said. “Any reason we shouldn’t kill you now and be on our way?”
“You’ll need my help getting inside,” Hondo said. He glanced at me and swallowed. His eyes shifted away before they met mine. “I didn’t bring you this far to watch you die.”
“A minute ago you couldn’t help us,” Rainsong pointed out. “Which is it?”
“I’ve thought it over, and I have a plan,” he replied.
“Tell us everything you know,” Ink said. The salamander was perhaps the only one of us left who could remain calm. I didn’t count Gareth. While silent, the robot was no doubt impatiently awaiting the start of the next battle.
“You know what I know. Most of it,” Hondo swallowed again and rubbed at his old scar.
“Except for one thing,” I said. I could tell he was keeping something from us.
“It’s not important,” Hondo said. “Let’s go.”
“Let us decide that,” Ophelia said. “Tell us, and we can get moving.”
“It’s . . . I’m the Commander.”
“What?” I asked, confused.
“I don’t know exactly how it comes to pass yet, it’s in my future. But someday I’m going to escape this mess and lead a small expedition from the Roseworld. One spaceship called the Endeavor will set out on an off-the-books mission to illegally explore a recently discovered mystery planet.”
“That’s impossible,” I said, confused.
“No, it’s not. I don’t have an uncle. Never did. Didn’t know that until recently.” Hondo still couldn’t meet my gaze. Everyone watched the two of us talk, even more puzzled than I was.
“No, you’re . . . that’s crazy.”
“If only,” Hondo said.
“I can’t accept that,” I said.
“Prometheus, I am Commander Brink.”
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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.