“You’re telling me the End is holding your future self prisoner?” I asked.
“Not exactly. I’m not a prisoner in the future . . .” Hondo said. “I’m just not free to leave.”
“Sounds like a prisoner to me,” Ink told him.
“Does this make sense to anyone?” Rainsong asked. “Because I am completely lost.”
“I came here with two versions of the same man,” I said. The concept was so strange to think about. An older version of Hondo had tricked us all into coming to the Pitworld.
Everyone was quiet, no doubt puzzling over how that was even possible. Thanks to the confusion of time travel, a person could be in two places at once.
Or three, I thought. In my head there were three versions of Hondo now. The kid who had once been my best friend, the man who had betrayed me at Frostbane, and Commander Brink, who had seemed like a good man until we’d gotten into the Pit, and I’d learned he’d lied to us.
“You’re your own doom,” I said. “Why would you do it? Why bring yourself here?”
“It’s what I always did . . . was going to do. It was inevitable. You can’t change the past, and for me it was the past and the future. Set in stone.”
“Yeah, that’s a crap answer,” I replied, trying, and failing. to keep my anger in check. “Why did you do it? You escaped this mess, and you come right back? That’s crazy.”
“I believe in the End,” Hondo said, a hint of zeal creeping into his voice. “Possibly even more so in the future than I do now. I’ll admit, right now I’d be tempted to leave and never look back, but in a few years from now I guess I get over my doubts.”
“This is very weird,” Rainsong said. “I don’t understand anything anyone is saying.”
“I was born on the Roseworld. When I was fairly young, a man appeared, claiming to be my long-lost uncle. My mother had passed away when I was young, so my dad bought it because there was no one around to dispute Future Me’s lies. When this so-called uncle put the expedition together, it seemed like the internship would be a great opportunity,”
He looked at the ground, studying his bare, dirty feet. “So great I decided to share it with my friends.”
“This is all very weird,” Rainsong said again.
“Are you satisfied now?” Hondo asked. His voice was flat. If he felt any emotion over his strange fate, he wasn’t betraying it now. Beyond the devotion he showed toward the End, he didn’t seem to feel anything at all.
“I suppose,” Ophelia said with a shrug. She glanced at me to see if I objected. I shrugged back. “What’s the best way to get into the pyramid?” she asked.
“I’ve got a plan for that,” Hondo said. “Three of us will create a diversion to distract the Emissaries, and three of us will sneak into the ship and find the Moonstones.”
“How do we decide who does what?” Rainsong asked. “I want a spot on the non-suicide mission.”
“Which one is the suicide mission, noble friend?” Ink asked. It sounded like a genuine question. Ink didn’t seem to have a problem taking on giant evil robots.
“That Emissary nearly killed us all before,” Rainsong said. “What’s different this time? Other than there being more of them?”
“More of them,” Hondo agreed. “Plus better armor plating and weaponry, advancements made in the last hundred years or so.”
“I have a plan for that,” Ophelia said. She reached into her quiver. “Explosive arrows. These should give us a chance against the robots.” She pulled an extra bow and five strange arrows out of her quiver and handed them to Rainsong.
“I’m in,” Rainsong said, clutching the bow close to his body as though he wanted to hug it, his eyes lighting up.
“Careful with those arrows,” Ophelia warned. Instead of the standard points, they had tips like thin sausages, long and tubular. “Those tips will blow up.”
Rainsong held the weaponry a little looser and a lot more cautiously.
“Okay, here’s what we’ll do,” Hondo said. “Prometheus, the Queen, and I will sneak inside while your band of freaks makes noise and kills Emissaries.” He waved a hand to indicate Ink, Rainsong, and Gareth.
“Yes!” Gareth shouted. “At last, a true test of our capacities!”
We shushed the robot, glancing around to make sure no one—or no thing had heard him.
“I believe we are up to the task,” Ink said. “I have been hoping for a rematch. I will not make the same mistakes I made last time.”
Rainsong cracked his neck, the red plume on his helmet waving. “Yep,” was all he said, face set in a grim smile.
What odd friends I’ve found, I thought. Not only willing to enter battle for me, but excited about it.
I wished I could share their enthusiasm.
The dread I’d felt on seeing the pyramid earlier increased every second. You’re being paranoid, I told myself, but I couldn’t help feeling like this was the end. Like reaching the edge of a cliff, this was a tipping point. You either jumped, or you didn’t. And when you jumped . . .
You either died, or you didn’t.
- - -
Ink took me aside as we walked toward the hulking spaceship. Dead leaves and branches crunched underfoot. “I wonder, noble apprentice, if I might borrow that device you wear on your hand?”
I glanced down at my gauntlet. I often forgot I was wearing it, usually until I was in a life or death situation and needed it.
I hated the idea of giving it up, of not having it when that need arose.
“I don’t know if it will work for you,” I said hesitantly. I still didn’t fully understand the technology. Obtained in what had seemed like a pile of junk, it had saved my life more times than I could count. I had a feeling I hadn’t fully unlocked its power yet.
“You do not have to,” Ink said. “But I feel it may give us an edge in what may prove a very difficult battle. These servants of the End are tough. I would like to enter combat with more than simple steel.”
I was being selfish, I knew. I peeled off the gauntlet and handed it over. The glove fit loosely on the salamander’s slim fingers.
“Thank you, noble apprentice,” he said, wiggling his fingers.
“Will that throw off your sword grip?” I asked, hating the hopeful note in my voice; the wish that he would remove the glove in distaste and hand it back to me.
“No,” Ink replied. “Part of samurai training is learning to use both hands with skill. I will, at some point, need to teach you to use both hands. Injury or circumstances can prevent one from being able to use a single hand or arm. In life we must learn to be flexible and adapt to whatever circumstances come our way.”
I would have to be flexible myself and hope that a sword would be enough to get me in and out of the pyramid.
The lights at the base of the pyramid were growing brighter. We would need to be careful soon to avoid any Emissaries.
“Oh no,” Hondo said.
“What now?” Rainsong asked.
“Look how clean the landing field is,” Hondo said. “Normally there’d be a mess of smaller ships and supplies. They’ve already pulled all that stuff in.
“So?” I asked.
“So the ship is ready to launch! We need to hurry!”
“I suppose this is where we split up,” Ink said.
Ophelia nodded. “Good hunting,” she told the warriors. Rainsong drew his bow, and Ink laid a hand on his sword hilt.
“Glorious battle!” Gareth cried.
“Yes, ‘glorious battle,’ you clanking fool!” Rainsong said. “Now shut up, so it doesn’t come before we’re ready for it!”
Ink, Rainsong, and Gareth hustled off. They were going to veer right, while we would veer left. I watched the three retreating forms, thinking about my gauntlet and wondering what I would do if I needed it.
- - -
There weren’t any good words to do the pyramid justice. It was truly massive on a scale like nothing I’d yet seen in all my travels. The Palace of the Ancients on Senna had seemed mountainous, but even that great fortress would have been dwarfed by the pyramid spaceship.
It hulked hundreds of stories into the air, rising up and up to dizzying heights. The thought of searching the whole thing for a handful of little rocks filled me with dismay.
Hondo, Ophelia, and I stood in a little copse of trees just a few hundred yards from the ship, near one of its immense corners. Our trio of warriors was waiting at the opposite corner of the ship, preparing to wreak havoc on the Emissaries guarding the ship. I’d seen them slip behind the ruins of an old building.
Hondo sniffed the air. “Smell that?” he asked. “They’ve fueled up recently. Definitely ready for launch. If we don’t hurry, it might take off with us on board!”
“Where’s it going?” I asked.
“You don’t want to know,” he said.
“That’s not an answer,” I replied.
“Last I heard, they were headed for Earth.”
“What?” I let out the words in a shriek. Startled, Ophelia shoved a hand over my mouth. Her palm was dry and cold against my lips. We watched the closest Emissary. Two of the hulking beasts stood near a tall door.
“Be cool, Theus,” she told me, pulling her hand away. “We can’t risk drawing attention to ourselves.”
“This is Proxima,” Hondo whispered. “Near the star Proxima Centauri? Closest star to our solar system.”
Ophelia had said the Crossroads World was also called Proxima.
“The End is planning to attack Earth?” I asked.
“Theus, remember how I said this was the past for me?” Ophelia said.
I nodded slowly, not liking where this conversation was going.
“The End already conquered Earth.”
I felt like the floor dropped out from under me. Time was set in stone. Hondo had said that. So even though the End’s victory was in the future, it had already happened.
Set in stone.
Even though I’d grown up in a terrible, burned out slum, most of Earth was nice. I’d entertained dreams of returning there someday, rich enough to buy an apartment in one of its big, buzzing cities. No pink dome overhead, just blue sky.
I pictured it crawling with End robots and shivered.
“How far in the future does this happen?” I asked.
“We don’t have time for this,” Hondo said.
“I’m sorry, Theus,” Ophelia told me. She pulled her bow from her quiver and held it ready. “Your questions will have to wait.”
I flexed my naked right hand. I had nothing but a sword now. An explosion blossomed against the night sky, a tiny mushroom cloud that burned against our eyes.
The distant figure of an Emissary reeled, smoke and fire and burning oil leaching from a wound on its side. Metallic screeching tore the quiet night apart. The great, spider-like robots near the door trundled toward the commotion.
“Move!” Hondo said unnecessarily. Ophelia was already dashing across the strip of land between us and the broad ramp that led inside the ship. I tore after them, feeling exposed under the bright lamps strewn about, but none of the End’s servants spotted us.
The distraction had succeeded. I could hear sounds of battle, but I couldn’t see our friends through the haze of smoke; I only spotted silhouettes of the mighty robots.
I stared up at the open doorway. A huge, black square of darkness, an angular black hole. The dread was overwhelming now. I felt an urge to throw up, suddenly nauseated. I forced it down. Hondo and Ophelia were already inside and somehow out of sight.
It occurred to me I was not among friends. I barely knew Ophelia, and my last interaction with Hondo had been a disaster. The people I could really count on—Ink and Rainsong—were risking their lives for me on the other side of the pyramid.
I couldn’t think about that now. I focused on what I needed to do. Find Lena and maybe hurt the End somehow.
Shoving aside all my doubts and second-guesses, I stepped inside the pyramidal spaceship and into darkness.
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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.