The summer break is over, and it’s finally time for more amazing adventures in the furthest reaches of the galaxy. It’s time for…
Earthian! Today, our intrepid adventurers make landfall after the disastrous events of Chapter 14.
Alrighty… let’s get our footing.
There are five of us.
We’re standing on a paved circle while some kind of mist peels off our suits and crawls across the ground. The sky above is red, filled with lumpy pink clouds shaped like balloon animals.
This is Poloff Prime, an alien world somewhere in our galaxy. I’m told it’s the capital of the Star League, but to me, it’s the last place Michael Oxbow was seen.
Cam Trinh marches across the circle and punches me in the face, dropping me right on my ass. As I tumble backwards, she follows after me intent on continuing the beating, but Alejandra gets hold of her first.
Adia’s standing over me now, too. “Where’s Michael?” she asks calmly.
Cam surges against Alejandra’s grip but can’t break free.
I can hear the strain in Alejandra’s voice when she asks, “What did Jace do?”
“Tell them,” Cam growls at me. She’s staring right through me, and I don’t think she’d hesitate to end me right now. Luckily, the vegaray remains on her hip.
“I don’t know,” I say. I’m shaken. Dizzy. So lost. “He was there, and then…”
“Some kind of lightning struck him. I couldn’t do anything.”
We’re all silent. The air is dead, until I hear a soft breeze howling through rock canyons.
Adia says, “Jace didn’t do anything,” and I breathe a sigh of relief. “He couldn’t sabotage a phone, let alone an alien drive.” Ouch.
Cam breaks free and storms away, howling like a caged wolf, while Victor chases after her. “Cam? Come back. What did you see?”
I’m stunned. I can’t believe this is happening. Any of it. I must be inside another instance, and I just haven’t found the goal post yet. We’ll beat this in a few minutes and find Michael waiting outside with a mischievous grin.
It has to be a game…
I look up from the ground, and notice five of the baby-like plasmeroids hovering in the air around us. They’re a slightly different design than the ones on Valiant Base, like sedans from different manufacturers. These are boxier and more mechanical, like something we might build back on Earth.
For the first time since this all began, the way they’re staring at me feels uncomfortable. It’s like I’m on an operating table while they just float there, watching me be taken apart.
Then I see a figure walking toward us, a black outline against the dark red, and I slowly climb to my feet. It looks… kind of like a human.
There are floodlamps on posts all around us, shining light the color of a faded blue tuxedo. When the figure crosses under them, I can finally see that it’s an ape-like creature walking upright the same awkward way chimpanzees do. It’s wearing a clear mask over its mouth and nose, connected by hoses to a pack on its back, and… nothing else. Its fur is blond around the chest, speckled brown and grey everywhere else, and it looks exhausted head to toe.
It squinches the big bags under its eyes, looks at each of us carefully and scratches its head. Then, in a rather male voice, he says, “There are only five of you? I watched six leave. Owijer assured me all six would be here.” Then he taps his wrist and starts mumbling to someone on the other end of the line.
I look to the others and see confusion, anger, despair. They look how I feel.
“Mister… umm… Mister,” I say. “Michael Oxbow didn’t… he didn’t arrive.”
“He what?” the ape says. “Where? How?”
“There was some kind of green lightning, and he’s gone.”
“Impossible!” the alien barks in surprise. “The spin drive is quantum-locked to its target destination. There’s simply no way to interrupt the transmission… unless the drive encountered another alter-magnetic field.” His fingers start to dance. “If some outside force knocked the drive out of synch, the drive wheel could…”
Blah blah blah. I always knew there’d be a bunch of this in space, but not even eight years palling around with Wiley could prepare me for it.
“…accelerate beyond the critical capacitance threshold. We’re talking a total blow-out, with several gigawatts instantaneously conducting through the…” His voice disappears, and he looks at us with apologetic eyes. “Subject,” he whispers. “I’m sorry.”
Another field. Some outside force. Someone wants us dead.
“We need to leave,” I say. “We’re not safe here.” I see some of my teammates’ heads nod in agreement, and I add, “Somewhere with guards. We need protection.”
The ape-alien tilts his head, then scratches his shoulder. “Uh, no,” he says. “You have no reason at all to worry. I’m sure… I’m absolutely sure that this was just an unfortunate accident. A terrible, tragic accident.”
I’m not convinced.
“Can you please just take us somewhere safe,” Adia pleads.
“Yes, of course,” the alien replies. “Come along, it’s not far.” Then he turns and marches away and we jog to catch up.
The gravity here is just a smidge lower than normal. It’s familiar, and I’m sure we practiced in something similar once or twice.
“With all the… everything going on back there,” the alien says, “I neglected to introduce myself. I’m Gar Barlybar, Chancellor of the Star League, and co-director of the Peacekeeper Project. You’ll be under my command here until Owijer arrives. Call me Gar.”
My phone flashes a message: Identity Confirmed!
Victor says, “Pleased to meet you, Gar. I’m Vic…”
“No need,” the chancellor says. “I know who each of you are.”
And so we walk in silence. The landscape all around us goes from sandy and flat to rocky and steep, and our path leads into a small canyon, maybe ten yards across with a small creek running down the center. The walls are red rock, with some kind of scraggly bushes sprouting out of every crack, but the ground beneath our feet is smoothly paved.
We follow the canyon for a few hundred yards, and as I go, the violent shock of Michael’s disappearance is mixing with anxiety about the next step; a bustling alien city, no doubt overflowing with more intelligent species than I can imagine. How many will be hulking monsters with curved talons? How many long necked brain monsters than can control my mind with their gaze, or yodeling orangutans eager to tear my arms off?
Am I prepared for any of this?
We turn one last bend, and my eyes are full of bright lights in neon red, green, and blue. I can’t make anything out at first, like driving into Las Vegas with bleary eyes, but I can see more as we get closer.
The city rises up in front of us, cloaked in a wispy mist that glimmers in the light of a billion colored signs. Swarms of small shapes flit through the air in grid patterns, pausing at intersections and flowing again. They’re cars. Flying cars.
But I’m confused about what I’m looking at. As we walk, the city approaches faster than I’d expect, and something just isn’t right.
It’s a scale model. Someone’s built a miniature city out here in the boondocks, like a prop for an old fashioned movie. The only thing missing is a giant lizard breathing fire and stomping everything into dust.
It’s awfully large and intricate for a model, stretching so far into the distance that I can’t see the end of it, while its spires, blocks, pyramids, and swooping skyways only reach so high. The very tallest structure, a downtown skyscraper shaped something like a thick snowboard, towers a mere hundred feet into the air.
When we’re still a few yards out from the model, Gar raises a hand to stop us, turns, and says, “Welcome to Boluzai, one of the greatest cities in all the Star League.”
This has to be a joke. I look everywhere for cameras but don’t find any; there’s just us, six floating plasmeroids, and the chancellor.
“What?” Alejandra says indignantly.
Gar smiles broadly and says, “Welcome, and please walk lightly. Don’t mind the traffic.”
That was the moment I realized I’d been mistaken all along.
So much twist! So very misled! That’s it for Chapter 15, but we’ll be right back here on Tuesday with Chapter 16: Petite. Stay tuned!