“We need to watch out for Endmen,” Hondo said. “They’re almost certain to be on board, guarding the ship and preparing for take-off.”
The interior of the spaceship was brightly lit, almost glaringly so after the dim hustle across the field outside. We stood in a corridor big enough for an Emissary to walk without hunching. It led out of sight, to the right and around a corner just to the left.
“Endmen?” I asked.
“They’re like little Emissaries,” Ophelia explained, looking disgusted. “Awful things in the shape of men.”
I tried to combine an Emissary with a man in my head and got enough nightmare fuel for a lot of bad dreams.
“Let’s… go fast?” I said haltingly.
“Yeah, fast is good,” Hondo said. He suddenly began to rummage through my backpack.
“What are you doing?” I asked, trying to shimmy away from the man. He used one hand to keep the backpack in place, so I could only squirm unless I wanted to shrug the bag off.
“I can’t let the End see my face. He’s got my future self and the rest of our crew. Probably should have done this outside…”
“Ugh, this will have to do,” he said, pulling out a cloth napkin in a plastic bag. He tore slits in the thin fabric with his thumbs and wrapped it around his eyes to create a crude mask.
“You look ridiculous,” Ophelia said, grinning.
“Is that really going to fool anyone?” I asked.
“Let’s hope so,” he replied. “And get moving,”
“Are you sure you don’t want to stop and knit some socks?” Ophelia asked with a smirk.
“Tempting,” Hondo replied, glancing at his bare feet.
“I’d take a pair of fresh socks,” I said. I could feel the cold metal on the soles of my feet.
The ship hummed with life. Harsh lighting illuminated bronze walls decorated with symbols I didn’t understand.
“Are those…” I couldn’t remember the word. Pictures that were used as words. It was on the tip of my tongue. Most of them looked like birds.
“Which way?” Ophelia asked Hondo, ignoring my question.
I reminded myself this was no time to study the walls. It felt strange to be back in a spaceship. Despite having traveled to nearly half a dozen worlds in the last week, this was my first time on a spaceship since I’d stepped out of the Endeavor so long ago. It felt strange, like returning to civilization after a trek in the wilderness.
Hondo glanced back and forth, softly clucking his tongue as he studied both hallways.
“We can hear you thinking,” Ophelia said.
“The Vault is in the center of the ship,” Hondo said. “The Moonstones should be stored there. “This way.” He waved a hand toward the left-side corridor.
“All right, let’s move out,” the former queen replied, starting in the direction indicated. “Keep your weapons ready.”
Hondo made a throat-clearing sound and held out his empty hands. I drew my sword and followed the two. It occurred to me that Hondo could be leading us into a trap. I’d never gotten the sense he was—and obviously neither had Ophelia—but it had to be considered.
I watched his exposed back as he walked ahead of me. Scars traced lines across his shoulder-blades.
The second Ophelia rounded the corner she stopped and drew back, her bow held up and ready. She turned back to us, dark hair flashing in a wave as she snapped her head our way.
“Endmen,” she hissed.
“Guarding the entrance to the Vault,” Hondo said. He kept his voice low but he didn’t sound as concerned as Ophelia.
“Let’s take them out,” I said.
“With a sword and a bow?” Hondo replied. “Be my guest.”
“Don’t you have any more of those exploding arrows?” I asked Ophelia.
“I gave them to Mister Toad,” she replied. She leaned her head back against the wall.
“Don’t spend too long thinking it over,” Hondo said. “A patrol will stroll through here any minute now.”
“I thought you had a plan,” I said to him.
“To get inside,” Hondo said. “I didn’t know you two were going to give up all your firepower.”
He sighed. “I suppose now’s as good a time as any.” He pulled a small, silver laser pistol out of the waistband of his shorts and brought it up, pointing it around the corner.
Ophelia jumped and pointed her bow at the man, eyes wide. “You’ve had that the whole time?” she asked, her voice a hair too loud for comfort.
“Of course,” he said with a sly grin. “I always have a backup strategy.”
Ophelia lowered her bow, but only halfway. “Lead the way then,” she said, lowering her voice.
He’d had us all fooled, feigning helplessness the whole time when he could have easily drawn a laser on us the whole time.
Keeping as close to the wall as he could, Hondo squeezed past Ophelia and glanced around the corner. We followed. I could see two dark shapes close to the wall on the right. Endmen.
“Okay,” he whispered. “I’ve got a plan.”
“Heard that before,” Ophelia said, rolling her eyes.
“Fire an arrow, will you?” Hondo asked.
“Why—” Ophelia seemed to grasp what Hondo was after. She raised her bow and fired an arrow around the corner. Fired poorly, It plinked against the metal floor some ways past the two Endmen. One of the figures turned to track the sound of the arrow.
The other swung to look right at us.
“Wow,” Hondo said. “I really thought that would work.” He raised his pistol and fired wildly at the closer Endman. Two of the shots went wild, but one glanced off the Endman’s shoulder.
It stepped away from the wall. The Endman was nightmares brought to life. At first glance, they looked like the Grim Reaper. Both stood tall with hoods draped over skeletal bodies. I caught sight of birdlike talons gripping the floor. Another pair of claws gripped scythe-like weapons, completing their Death-like appearance.
Hondo fired on the closer Endman. Its head snapped back, shooting a fountain of sparks into the air. I saw what might have been a wickedly curved beak reach out of the hood’s shadow.
The other one hurtled right at us.
It moved faster than I’d ever seen a robot move. Startled, Ophelia launched an arrow into its chest that ricocheted harmlessly away.
Hondo fired his pistol again, but missed. He said a bad word, and the robot was on us, raising its claw-like hands.
I closed my eyes and swung my sword as hard as I could in a horizontal arc. The blade caught in the monster’s neck. Hondo fired a third shot into its chest. The Endman collapsed in a sparking heap, a dry hiss crackling from the depths of its hooded face. Its scythe stopped inches from cutting into my shoulder.
It fell to the ground, pulling me down with it. Leaning awkwardly over the dead robot, I tugged, but my sword was stuck. Grunting with the effort, I planted a foot on the robot’s chest and pulled again. This time my sword came free. Sparks danced down the steel edge. The electricity made my hands and arms feel tingly all the way up to my elbows. After a few seconds, the strange sensation passed.
The three of us stood there and stared at each other for a minute, eyes wide and breathing hard. My eyes darted down to the wrecked robots and back up to Hondo and Ophelia.
“Did you close your eyes just now?” Hondo asked.
“No,” I replied.
“He did,” Ophelia said. “I saw it.”
“Here’s some free advice, man,” Hondo said. “Don’t close your eyes in the middle of a battle.”
Hondo led us to a big, golden slab of a door. It was flush with the walls and could have blended in were it not for the lack of decoration on the plain door’s surface.
There was no obvious way to open the door, control panel or otherwise.
“Well… poop.” Hondo said. He peeled off his mask and studied the door.
“Um… what?” Ophelia asked.
“It’s locked,” Hondo said. “I was hoping it would be open. I’m not sure I know how to open it.”
“Poop,” I agreed.
“I don’t know what that word means,” Ophelia said. “Can you… shoot the door open?”
Hondo shrugged and raised his gun and let a short blast fly. The little red burst of light bounced off the wall and nearly vaporized Ophelia. The former queen shrieked and threw herself to the ground.
“I should shoot you for that,” Ophelia said in a low, dangerous growl. “but I suppose it was basically my idea.”
“Opening door with the pistol,” Hondo said. “We’ll mark that one down as ‘probably not’.
“Now what?” I asked.
“Backup plan?” Hondo replied.
“You have a backup plan?” Ophelia asked.
“I do now, I just made one up. Fetch me an Endman. No, that one.” He pointed at the one with its head intact.
Ophelia and I hauled the robot over and Hondo removed a panel on the back of its head and began fiddling with wires.
It gave an angry buzz like a hive of bees, then a cheerful beeeep! and the great door slid aside with a sound like the distant rumble of a thunderstorm. A bright room with five tall, bronze plinths lay within.
“More Endmen!” Ophelia cried, reflexively launching an arrow at one. It bounced off harmlessly as before.
“You might want to stop wasting those,” Hondo said, calmly raising his pistol. We backpedaled into the hallway, Hondo to the left side of the door, Ophelia and I to the right.
I’d caught a glimpse of two more of the robots. Hondo was hastily pulling his makeshift mask back up over his face. This done, he waved a hand toward the Endman, then used two fingers to mimic walking, then made a bang-bang kind of motion with his gun.
Ophelia and I just stared.
“What?” Ophelia asked, too loud.
“Let them come to us,” he whispered.
We didn’t have to wait long. The first one scurried out in a frenzy, eyes darting back and forth. I realized we were in Hondo’s line of fire and gave her a push. We moved away from the wall as three blasts from Hondo’s laser pistol fried the Endman’s head, chest, and the air where I’d been standing.
The second one crept along more carefully. It stopped at the entryway, taking in the wreckage of its three ruined companions. Hondo leaned out and fired his pistol at it.
Or tried to.
A dry, metallic click echoed through the big corridor.
“Well… crud.” Hondo threw the depleted gun at the robot and ducked back into the hall. The pistol clanked uselessly off the robot and clattered to the floor.
Sensing its advantage, the robot lurched after Hondo at top speed. I closed my eyes and swung. I had already found a weak point in the creature’s armor, and I aimed for it again, bringing my sword down on the Endman’s neck.
Sparks flew, but the creature descended on Hondo, intent on its prey. My blade had left a mark, but my strike had fallen short of a killing blow. I took a deep breath and swung again, managing to keep my eyes open this time. More sparks. The Endman turned on me, raising claws that would tear me open.
I felt something bristly brush my cheek. Thwack! An arrow hit the gap in the Endman’s neck. The red lights in its eyes went out, and the creature dropped, falling on Hondo, who had fallen to the floor.
“Ow,” he complained, struggling under the weight of the robot.
I glanced back at Ophelia, who lowered her bow and nodded at me. “Nice shot,” I told her. She’d had to fire the arrow so close it had almost hit me instead.
“Glad I didn’t miss,” she replied. We helped Hondo up. His ribs and belly were beginning to bruise up, but he didn’t seem too badly hurt.
“On with the show, I suppose?” Hondo said.
We stepped back into the Vault. The five plinths—short metal columns—were the only thing in the room. They were all laid out in a line in the middle of the chamber. Beams of light shot from the ceiling to their tops. Each beam of light was a different color. Blue, green, red, yellow, and white.
And within each beam of light floated a single Moonstone.
I found myself drawn to the red beam, which lay in the center. I studied the Moonstone inside. Smaller than my fist and slightly angular, it almost looked like a large, blunt-ended arrowhead.
Ophelia had stopped halfway into the room. She tugged on her quiver and fingered each arrow, counting softly to herself. “Five left,” she said aloud. “Perfect.”
“Why is that perfect?” I asked, glancing at the Moonstone before me. “Where do these lead?” I asked, immediately distracted from Ophelia’s strange behavior by the arrowhead-shaped rocks.
“The distant past,” she replied. “They’re the strongest Moonstones I ever commissioned.”
“But I need to go to the future.” I felt my heart sink. I’d come all this way for nothing. “I thought you said we’d be going to the future.”
“Nope,” she replied. “Actually I just said I was taking you to the Moonstone lab, and we’ve already been there.” She was right. I’d just heard what I wanted to hear, and like a fool I’d never stopped to question any of it.
“Well then let’s go back,” I said. “Moonstones leading to the past are useless to me. We got what you wanted. Now it’s my turn.”
“Why don’t I leave you kids to figure this out,” Hondo said, and he turned suddenly and walked away.
“Hey, wait!” I said, but I didn’t know why. He was the whole reason I was in this mess. What was there to say?
I grabbed the Moonstone in front of me, pulling it out of the light.
“Prometheus, no!” Ophelia cried, too late.
An alarm sounded. Hondo stopped in the doorway and tilted his head back, sighing. “Poop.”
“Poop,” I agreed.
“You keep saying that word,” Ophelia said. She was hurriedly grabbing the other four stones. “I don’t know what it means!”
“Can we run now and poop later?” Hondo asked. “Wait, that didn’t—. Run now, and talk later!”
And then he booked it out the door.
I raced after him. I could hear Ophelia’s boots behind us. We tore back into the first hallway, the exit right in front of us. It was blocked by the bulky body of an Emissary, who had lowered itself on its black tentacles to squeeze into the doorway. It let out a horrible screech. The air filled with static electricity. I could feel the hair on my arms stand up. It was about to hit us with a burst of electricity.
The robot exploded. Tiny bits of debris bounced off our chests, but nothing big enough to cause any real harm. Ink appeared in the entry a moment later.
“Good to see you, noble friend!” Ink replied.
“Likewise!” I said.
Ophelia had dropped back and knelt with her legs tucked under her body. She had the five arrows and the four moonstones arrayed before her, along with several short strands of twine.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Hold on,” she said.
“We have to go back to the lab,” I told Ink. “These Moonstones aren’t what we need.”
“Perhaps we should have asked before we set out after them,” he replied.
“Yeah, I just got caught up in everything. I never thought to question what we were doing.” Rushed in again, like the old Prometheus. Exactly what I’d sworn I would stop doing.
He nodded. An arrow flew clumsily across the corridor and thudded into the salamander’s chest. With a look of shock frozen on Ink’s face, he vanished from sight.
“What?” I asked, the word bursting out of me in surprise.
I turned to see Ophelia, still kneeling with bow in hand. She had tied Moonstones to her arrows and used one to send Ink… where? When?
“I’m sorry, Prometheus,” she said, pointing an arrow at me. “You can’t go to the future yet.”
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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.