Chapter 14 – A Dream Within a Dream

IMG_3733He wiggles it, shakes it. Laughs at it like it’s a novelty.

‘Ha, wow, you are right! Jo-lo’s arm is fine. It repair itself.’

‘Maybe,’ I say, turning away.

The slash across my back is no longer there, either. I run my fingers along the place where the tear should be, half-expecting to find blood, but there’s nothing but smooth, cold skin. I can feel myself shimmering, flickering somehow. Like I’m not really here. A dream within a dream.

‘Maybe it was that woman,’ Jo-lo says, stroking his elbow. ‘That one with the knives for arms. Maybe she sent us here.’

‘I don’t think so,’ I say.

But I think of her, just for a moment. Not now, but the way she used to be. Her dark, streaming hair. Her staccato laugh. Her sweet, velvety voice before she sacrificed her tongue and her limbs to the Assassins. I suppose, in our own way, we all made sacrifices for the war.

Beyond the dark cave of roots we are in, I can see light. I try to peer out, but the roots continue to slither. And when I reach out to part them, they panic and weave tight into one another, sealing the light out completely, leaving us in the black.

‘We have to find a way out of here,’ I say. ‘Any ideas?’

Jo-lo begins to say something but before I can hear it, I am gone. We both are. There’s nothing but the swimming darkness and a blinding, suffocating feeling that reminds me that at some point in the far future, I am going to die.

Chapter 13 – An Ordinary Arm

IMG_4277When I wake, it’s in the cold and dark. I’m on damp dirt, a weave of silvery roots arching over me. I can hear the sound of water, gushing, dripping, gurgling. A forest? I think.

Kroma, where are we? 

Beside me, a few feet away, Jo-lo is on his back. He looks peaceful, his eyes shut, as if he’s only sleeping. I sit up, watch the rise and fall of his chest. He’s alive, at least, I tell myself.

Kroma, can you scan him? Are his vitals okay?

Something rustles in the black, behind the trees, and I leap to my feet. Again, I look down and for the second time today, my gun is gone, holsters empty. I swear and search around me, assuming it’s tumbled out in the fall, but it’s nowhere to be seen.

I pace one way, then another. The glistening roots twist and churn for a moment, baulking at my presence. Finally, they settle, as if deciding I’m not a threat.

There’s a shuffle behind me and I turn. It’s Jo-lo. He’s standing now, rubbing his eyes like he’s just woken from a long, sweet sleep. At the sight of him, I almost fall to my knees, gasping. Almost.

‘What this place now?’ he asks. ‘Where you take us, lady?’

‘I don’t know,’ I say and like a dream, those huge coils of red and orange come back to me. ‘But I don’t think this is real. It can’t be. Something’s not right.’

Jo-lo frowns, his face scrunching up and for a second, he looks like the confused child that he really is. ‘What you mean? This is just another planet, no? Isn’t that what you do?’

‘Yes, but … this isn’t real,’ I say again. ‘This place. I don’t think we’re really here.’

He lets out a string of laughter, a bellowish yelp that doesn’t sound like it would come from a scrawny little boy. ‘Why you say that?’ he asks.

‘Because of your arm,’ I say, pointing at it. It hangs by his side, like nothing out of the ordinary. Like it hasn’t been sliced off just below the elbow. ‘In this place, it’s still intact.’

Chapter 12 – The Inbetween

IMG_3733The vortex races over my head, surging into the air, and lets out an enraged howl. I glance down just for a moment and glimpse the black, winding river of Idris II, and finally the universe catches on, and we’re gone.

There’s a sharp flash and now the darkness of space. It envelopes and swallows, steals us away, sets us free.

I hug Jo-lo tighter as the fall tears at me. My head swims. My limbs feel as if they are coming undone, unravelling from my torso like loose strings.

Between us, his loose arm rests, pressed in the gully between our bodies, bloody and severed neat. I want to grab it, to tuck it into my belt or my uniform for safety, but I’m terrified that I’ll actually lose my grip on it … or him.

My chest bucks and threatens to cave in on itself and all of a sudden, I can’t breathe. I’m hanging, suspended, like a poor bug in a web, and no matter what I do I can’t seem to move, even though I know I’m still falling.

But something is different now, the black seems to be shifting in bursting patterns, the distant stars are burning bright and melting together, like something from those old-school kaleidoscope realities.

Jo-lo stirs and I notice his mouth moving, muttering something in his strange language.

At the edges of my vision I begin to see long wisps of colour. Oranges and reds twisting like giant ribbons of light that I have never seen before. They flare out towards me and even though they’ve taught me, back at the Academy, to be composed, I’m panicking. What is going wrong?

Out of nowhere there’s a bright, white zap of light. I feel a thundering iciness wrap around me. My head stabs with pain and I can’t think. I’m tumbling towards something else, not into the corridors but somewhere else. What is this? I want to shout. What is happening?

Something back there, beneath the piercing pain, my mind races. A solar flare? A black hole? An artificial gravity zone? Or even some trap that Kendrick has set up for me?

I wonder if it’s the Assassin Ships, somehow on our tail, but something tells me, no. This is worse.

My body feels like it is stretching and contracting and even though I’m holding on, I feel myself slipping. Just as we race through another wave of orange, Jo-lo opens his eyes and begins, although I can’t hear him, to scream.

Chapter 11 – Chase II

IMG_4278Kroma, what the hell are you doing? I scream, my eyes fixed on the Assassin ships. You’re sending me straight to them!

I know, she says, just keep going! 

I curse her and moments later, I see them. Looming on the horizon, the edge of jutting cliffs. They are the colour of red, dropping away into god knows what. The perfect platform.

The vortex seems to breathe in life and it bulges and howls, whirling and expanding.

Above us, the ships begin to retreat  in a wild panic, terrified that the thing is going to spring up and snatch them out of the air and and twist them into nothingness.

But I know what it’s doing.

I run towards the cliffs. Jo-lo is barely conscious now. Blood has seeped all over him, but he’s managed to keep hold of his severed arm and is muttering unintelligible words to himself — or to me, I can’t tell — every now and then.

I glance back and see that the vortex is sweeping around in an arc, calculating my path. It knows where I’m going and it wants to cut me off, to grab us both just as we get there.

It knows, I think to myself. How is that possible, that it knows what I am? 

I bound forward and see that I’m almost there. The cliffs are rising in my view and I scramble up their rocky slopes, leaping for the top.

‘Hold on, Jo-lo!’ I shout.

Are you serious? Kroma cries, aghast. You can’t take him, he’ll never make it! 

Well, I can’t leave him here! I snap and before she can reply I hit the edge of the cliffs where a raging river of black water gushes below and I pull Jo-lo into my body, and jump.

Chapter 10 – Chase I

IMG_3724The tunnels shudder. From somewhere outside and above, I hear a roar as the ground explodes. Behind us, the vortex blasts through the passageways, sucking them up, sending rock and sand hurling.

Jo-lo is sinking in my arms, growing heavy and saying something to me I can’t hear.

In the back of my mind, early learnings drift back to me … from some alien planet, they came? Spreading across systems … hitching rides in ships … eating up worlds.

I half expect to see ladder leading up to a box and a door but instead the tunnel begins to slope and lift upwards and I burst out onto the sand. The heat stabs through me but I ignore it and keep running.

Seconds later, the vortex erupts behind me, exploding out of the tunnels and expanding to twice its size, a freak of a whirlwind. Sand whips around us, pelting against my skin like slicing splinters and I’m blind, but I keep racing forward anyway.

I make it over one dune before I start to feel the whole thing pulling me back, tearing the air out of my lungs, darkness descending from above.

I’m heaving for breath, inhaling sand, lost now even more than I was before. I run to keep the wind at my back, but something in me, not Kroma, whispers, you can’t outrun this thing. It’s only a matter of time.

And suddenly, I’m a child again, clinging to my father in the midst of some great gale. I hear the endless smashing of glass and … when had this been … ? Where? A glass castle of some kind, I remember, but that’s all I can recall … and now it melts away, sliding towards the periphery … a memory for another time.

Kroma, I need direction, I shout in my head.

For a moment there’s a deathly pause and finally she says something about cliffs opposite the location of the suns and I pause for a moment and double back, crossing the same ground that I just snaked through in the tunnels.

I tell Kroma to activate one of my adrenalines, then another and another, and I feel the breath of life sweep into me as I sprint across the dunes into the light, Jo-lo lolling in my grip.

And just above me, on the horizon, I see them. The Assassin ships. Three of them, in a steady line, waiting to engulf me.

Chapter 9 – A Visitor From the Past

IMG_4281A sharp swoosh, the shuffle of feet and I yell again at Jo-lo to run. The Huntress is in front of me, behind me, metallic arms slicing out in every direction.

And suddenly Kroma is screaming in my ears. Assassins! Assassin ships are on their way! Get out of there!

Blades swipe through the air and I dive into a backflip, dodging them one by one. When I land, she smiles at me. She speaks to me with her stare, her mouth moving in silence. I know she wishes she could utter the words out loud, but she can’t.

It’s been a long time since we last encountered each other and I think, with a pang of sadness, Rashida.

I charge at her and but she’s too fast, tracking backwards as her arms lash out at me. I jump them but she lands a kick into my stomach, knees me in the chin. I grab her leg and twist, but as she falls she slices me across the back of my shoulders and I feel a burn and a sting as I tumble backwards.

With a frenzied shout, Jo-lo is there. He leaps onto her, clinging onto her back, punching and clawing like an animal.

‘Jo-lo, no!’ I shout.

In seconds her arm morphs from blade to claw and she plucks him off her, holds him up to the light, kicking. I see it before it happens and lunge for her but I’m too late.

Jo-lo lets out a shrieking scream. Half his arm tumbles away from his body, from just below the elbow. Darkened red gushes onto the ground. She drops him and he smacks the ground, wailing, scrambling for his stray limb.

‘Put it back!’ he screams. ‘Put it back for Jo-lo!’

They know where you are, for Christ’s sake, Kroma cries. They’ve found the tunnels. Leave the boy and go!

But I barely hear her. The Huntress whips around, rattled, and a horrendous gurgling swells up from the ground and echoes over the entire planet.

Our gazes lock on the vortex. It is churning, agitated, water crashing and tumbling. Slowly, it begins to rise from its hole, a gushing whorl that sends terror into my blood.

I glance back at Jo-lo and try to think straight, but I have no idea what to do.

The Huntress has already fled, her white robes fading away into the tunnels.

Run, I tell myself. Just run.

It takes a second to scoop Jo-lo up. He feels like a rag doll. I fold his good arm around his severed one, tight and whisper to him to hold on.

As the vortex bulges and grows, swirling up out of the pond, I see another open tunnel in front of me, weaving into the dark, and I bolt.

 

Chapter 8 – The Vortex

IMG_3733There’s a sound of furious water and I step into the cavern and see what he sees. He’s kneeling, cupping his hands, sipping. He’s jittery and excited, like his old self, before the tears.

I freeze. I want to speak but I cannot move. I feel my blood run cold.

My hand moves to my gun, rests on it, though I know it will be useless.

‘This good,’ he cries. He slurps and gulps, wipes at his mouth. He’s thirsty. ‘You come taste. Fresh? See? Grows plants. Plants is food.’

He gestures to the edges of the cavern where patches of thin-stemmed plants with some kind of purplish fruit have sprung up through the dirt floor.

What did he say his father had been? A vegetation farmer?

Before him, the vortex turns slowly, assuredly. He’s drinking from the perimeter of it like it’s his saviour. A triumphant oasis in the depths of a desert planet. The perfect disguise.

I recall something from my early school years … cities that run on vortex hydro power, even whole planets that operate on them. But this one is not what it seems. It’s moving too leisurely.

‘Jo-lo, pay attention,’ I say. ‘It’s very important. You need to step back. It’s not safe.’

‘Is ok,’ he replies. ‘Jo-lo drink here often. Just from outside edge, see? No go near middle.’

‘It’s not what you think,’ I say. ‘Get back.’

His gaze flares, curious. He stands up slowly, as if I’m trying to trick him. ‘You crazy, lady,’ he says. ‘It’s good stuff, see? Keep you alive in this place.’

‘Not for long,’ I say. I lift my gun out of its holster and steady myself. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. Were we ever even taught how to defeat one of these?

The vortex begins to turn more quickly now. It’s waking up, beginning to whirl.

‘Jo-lo, run,’ I say.

He scrunches up his face. ‘Run where? What’s your problem, stupid?’

‘Listen -’

And that’s when I see it. A whisper of movement from behind me, a swirl and blur of bright, white cloth. And the glint of black steel coming straight for my neck.

Chapter 7 – In the Tunnels

IMG_3727In the tunnels, darkness reigns.

They zig and wind beneath the sands of Idris II, breathing and expanding like secret, spreading passageways. Routes that lead to this or that, that cut across half the planet. Jo-lo tells me they were once used all the time. Two worlds, he says. One above, one below.

He walks quickly, small steps padding across the dirt. He seems almost excited.

Around us, the walls are howling. The wind has picked up outside and it is screaming into the cracks and crevices, driving trickles of sand down the walls.

I have my gun out, the strange stick in my other hand, just in case.

Up ahead, light looms, overtaking the dark step by step. I can see the stony walls of the tunnel now, the dirt beneath us, the ceiling above.

In front of us, twenty metres ahead, it ends and opens into something like a circular cavern. I can see metal panels glinting over the sandstone walls.

‘This it,’ Jo-lo says. ‘You come see. You see everything.’ He hurries forward, shouting, and disappears into the light.

 

Chapter 6 – Jo-Lo

I career downwards maybe ten feet or more and it occurs to me, hilariously, that I am sick to death of falling.

I hit the ground with a thud and see that I’m on earth, that I’ve tumbled in down through the roof.

I’m expecting a struggle for death, a fight, maybe even something like an endless dungeon or a maze. Instead, I’m in a home.

Dirt floors, a dusty table made of some dark rock, thin slips of fabric draped all over the walls. From the ceiling, twirling contraptions like miniature windmills hang. More rocks for a fire, strange, cylindrical tubes of sand. Frosted windows glowing with light, though I don’t know how, and as far as I can tell, there’s no door to get back to the surface.

This is it. Now. No time to waste. I grab the nearest thing I see — some kind of long, stick-tool with a metallic bulb on the end — and make a dash for it, into an adjoining room, which seems to be a bedroom of sorts.

I paste myself against the wall, hidden from view, and fall into silence just as there’s a scuffle and a plonk. Jo-lo has landed, mid-rant.

‘You see for yourself, prisoner lady, now you’ll know – ’

His voice drops away when he realises I’m not there. I’m nowhere to be found.

I can hear his tiny footsteps as he paces, careful and slow. Up towards the kitchen-ish area, along the walls, past the windows.

‘I smell you,’ he says. ‘I know you still here. I find you any second now.’

He inches closer towards the place where I’m standing and I spring and lunge, driving the rod down onto his arm, then into his chest.

The gun flies away, smacking to the ground, and he stumbles backwards, gasping.

I’m breathing hard, holding the stick, ready to strike again. But he scampers away, one hand clutching his chest, tears streaming.

I feel horrible, but I tell myself that this is what it takes. I scoop up the gun, holstering it firmly, and point the rod at him as if it’s a glinting sword.

‘Get up,’ I say in my most grown-up voice, an echo of my long-ago father’s. ‘No more of this nonsense, Jo-lo. Do you understand? I’m not your prisoner. If you’ve heard these stories about me, like you claim to, then you know I could kill you in an instant. So, if you don’t want to die, stop messing around and answer my questions.’

He huddles in the corner and glares at me as if I’ve spoiled his fun. Which I suppose I have, in a way.

‘Where’s your family?’ I ask again. ‘I know you don’t live here alone. Where is everybody? Who or what is in charge here?’

Like Kroma, he has fallen frustratingly silent. I wiggle the rod. ‘Hello? Speak up.’

He swallows, wipes his tears away furiously. ‘Gone,’ he spits.

‘Gone where?’

‘Dead, turned to dust. Or taken away prisoner.’

‘By who?’

‘The Americans. Long time ago, during war. They took them all. My fa-fa, too. He was vegetation farmer.’

‘And your mother?’ I ask after a moment.

He shrugs. His face darkens as he looks right up at me and then his head sinks onto his knees.

Dead or captured, I figure.

I close my eyes and sit down next to him. ‘And there’s no one else? No one else here, even people you don’t know?’

He shakes his head, his eyes welling again with tears. ‘I explore whole planet. Not very big. I go walking in the sand, I find other boxes and doors, go walking under the ground. Look in other homes, tunnels. I see no one. Nobody here. Everybody gone but me.’

‘Why not you?’ I ask. ‘How come they didn’t take you?’

‘Hiding,’ he says. He points to the chute through which we’ve just fallen. ‘Hole in wall in door shaft. I crawl inside. I have blanket, cover myself. Very still.’

I don’t quite believe him. They would’ve found him on the scans, even through the sand and rock. He’s either not telling the truth yet again or it’s possible they just got lazy in their search. Or realised too late that they’d missed him and couldn’t be bothered going back.

‘How have you survived? There’s nothing here, Jo-lo. Do you eat? Food? Hibernate? Are you self-sufficient, self-regulating somehow?’

He looks up, his eyes red, lips pressed together. He shuffles and hugs his knees tighter, but there’s a kind of fire in his gaze now, a desperation to speak. He’s hopeful, I notice. He wants a friend.

‘I find something,’ he says. ‘Not too far away.’ And suddenly, he stands up. Leaps up, actually.

‘You come,’ he says eventually. ‘I show you.’