Alex Inoue

Dead End, Zo's Journey, and more

Dead End

Posted by on June 26, 2020


Preview for the Story

When a robotics researcher stumbles into a magical portal and ends up on a world not too different from Earth, she radically changed and advanced the development of Andoa.

Now, almost 50 years later, Andoans are still dealing with the influx of Earth-based technologies and the influence of a godlike “Knight of Andria.”

Ceric is just a defense force soldier sent to go through the Portal to fetch the “Knight” to protect Andria from a sudden attack, but when the portal fails, he finds himself stuck on a completely new planet instead of Earth or Andoa.

Meanwhile, others back in Andria must repel the attack while trying to figure out what happened to the “Knight.” Will anyone figure out how to get Ceric back? Will the Portal ever work again? Or is everything turning into a Dead End?


Please enjoy this SF and Fantasy story that’s a work in progress

Or check out other completed or paused projects linked below


Read More:


Dead End

Jump to Section



Prologue

Alice

Alice stared at her perpetually 26-year-old fingers as she wiggled and curled them up, revealing scars from electrical fires, nicks and cuts from sharp steel, and other imperfections. Some of the marks reminded her of when they happened, such as the large cut on the webbing between her forefinger and her thumb—one she got while still working in the North American Robotics Facility on Earth.

That was nearly fifty years ago.

Feeling the pang of hunger for the third time in the past few hours, Alice conceded to fetching herself something to eat.

Her home was quite simple, especially considering her amassed wealth and notoriety. It was a cozy mansion mostly buried underground, and complete with modern Earth electronics. The lights above were tuned to diffuse comfortable tones and colors based on the time-of-day, and the granite and andesite walls and floors were perfectly polished. Her doors and furniture were shaped precisely out of metal-plastic composites not too dissimilar to what she would have used on her old robotics job demanded of her to create. Of course, Alice had access to something on her new home world, Andoa, that Earth did not: magic.

Alice had lately thought of the magic that Andoa and humans (and occasional reports of other creatures) could use as something that made a little more sense in English words. There were no wands or staves, no runes, no scrolls, potions, dolls, or anything else of the manner. Magic on Andoa was fairly straightforward. The best word to describe it, Alice had decided, was psionics.

But she already told natives of Andoa the word “magic.” They probably wouldn’t want to learn another word all over again. From what she heard, English was a pretty annoying language to learn. Obviously, Alice thought the same of Andrian, the main language she mastered before just picking up little bits of another dozen from around the globe.

Alice finished eating another printed sandwich (today was tuna, which there were no perfect analogs to the taste on Andoa as far as she knew), cleaned up with her long, coarse black hair tied up in a low, loose tail, and then relaxed on her bed several rooms and a few minutes walk away.

Maybe she should have a walk outside today? It’s probably only around -15 degrees. Might not need the suit if it’s just a short walk . . .

Seche

Seche Arnyu gave the standard chest salute to her guildmaster and waited for instructions along with the rest of the assembling Knowledgers.

Looking around her, most fellow Andrians noticed and looked down and back at her wandering brown eyes. Seche typically blended in well with her subdued style and tendency to drift to the edges of the room, but considering the small group of researchers, of which there were only a couple dozen, she stood out as being oddly still and quiet while the others seemed to whisper conversations as they waited. Seche was moderately young at 25, and thus inversely as experienced. Like most Ks, or most any Andrian working in a guild, she joined at the age of 16. And yet, it had only been two years since she started work in a more specialized field—in her case, it was in the Research department as her combat and infiltration skills were minimal at best.

But that was exactly what she aspired to become, anyway. Ever since she was a little girl, she looked up to the stories of the Knight of Andria, Alice Utada, and her strange armor with advanced spell-technology. More than the woman inside the suit, however, Seche was far more fascinated by the marvels of something so compact that reportedly made Alice utterly immune to any attack while also allowing her to jump as high as a mountain or fire impossibly fast projectiles.

After joining the Ks, Alice slowly faded away as if trying to hide—some even claimed they had defeated her in battle.

But over the past two years, Seche learned enough about Alice’s origin and actions as recorded by the Ks to know she last claimed that she would stop bothering all citizens of Andoa entirely because it “had little effect, and made things worse.”

More interestingly, Seche learned that Alice was from another world than Andoa called “Earth,” and that most of her technology came from there. Even more intriguing was the fact that Earth had no spells—the word “magic” apparently described what Earthlings like Alice would call fantastic abilities that were mundane on Andoa. Instead, everyone on Earth had to make do with machines that functioned arguably far more like magic than any advanced technique Seche knew of.

Today, they were meeting to discuss the potential reopening of the Earth portal without Alice—and for the first time in a very, very long time.

Ceric

The Zoan family of Andria had lost their former fame and prestige after their support of the old emperor during the coup nearly a hundred years ago. Most Zoans quickly sought out partners to marry away themselves to leave behind the disgrace and failures of their previous generations.

Ceric Zoan was the last Zoan left once his older siblings took up the names of other families—their parents both had passed away soon after Zoan was born, leaving him in the care of no one household for more than a few years at a time.

When he turned 16, like most Andrians, he signed up to several guilds. Unfortunately, his lack of skill in any field but manual labor and endurance left him with few options. Ceric decided it would be better to join the Andrian Joint Guilds Force over something more menial like the Transporters.

After several years of training and placement, Ceric’s assignments often put him with the Administrators or the Knowledgers due to his reasonably high communication and problem-solving skills. At least, that’s what he was told—Ceric knew it was because he couldn’t manage even the most basic manipulation skills, much less anything that might be used in combat. He figured it was just his supervisors, most of whom were ambassadors from each guild who lead the Joints, trying to say things in a nice way so as not to discourage him.

Now 20, Ceric accepted his role as a special kind of errand boy bouncing between the guilds that lacked enough laborers with a decent head on their shoulders while being largely incapable of tasks like creating air, bending materials, or other such basic skills. In practice, this meant that Ceric stayed indoors, walking across town so he could be indoors somewhere else, or accompanying a weaker technician or accountant when there was no cart available—which was still just a temporary, albeit slower variation on moving from an indoors back into another indoors.

Today’s mission was just slightly different, however. At least, it had the potential to be so.

“You’re exactly who we need. Report to the Ks Zatyon HQ office immediately.”

Ceric finished suiting up in his Joints uniform, scratched his face while looking in a tiny mirror in his one-room apartment in the Joints barracks on the edge of town, then walked out wondering what in the gods’ names they would want specifically him for a mission so early in the morning.

Maybe they knocked over a large storage shelf—twenty of them, probably. And everyone else is feeling sick today.


Chapter 1

Two figures stood in a claustrophobic room dominated by a large spell-ran portal device. The stone room was sparsely dressed—old oil lamps helped light up what the LEDs, which denoted power and stable connections for the portal, couldn’t. The two Andrians knew little of how such a device worked, only that it was how they might find one of its creators, Alice.

“Ceric.” Seche looked up from her messy leatherbound book. “Ready?”

“Of course.”

Ceric stood still, almost as if the suit he wore anchored him to the cold, smoothed-stone floor. His suit was a poor mimic of Alice’s, but it was the best that the Knowledgers could develop with only one small piece of the technology available to reverse engineer.

Seche carefully read notes in a leather book, confirming several lights and cables before flipping an encased switch. “There,” she said. “It should—”

With a hum full of frequencies, including vibrations that could only be felt, the portal buzzed into existence. A pale-blue light shimmered just beyond the edge of the metal doorframe.

Ceric flipped down his visor. Then, through the glass, he said, “Is it supposed to look like that? Like, as if it should be bright, but not. And where’s the other side?”

“‘. . . with light that almost darkens the room’ is just as how it’s described.” Seche flipped several pages while glancing at the portal. “But you’re right—it should be showing the inside of a house by now.”

“Maybe the book is wrong. Or just old.” Ceric walked forward, his metal boots clicking against the stone. “You need me to find the Nightmare or someone else from Alice’s world, right?”

“Yes, but—”

“Then I’m going.” Ceric stepped right through the blue-white and evaporated from sight.

Despite closing his eyes and a helmet to shield him, Ceric saw a blinding sea of pale-white light. After what felt like several seconds of motionlessness, his foot naturally caught ground as if his step through the portal was just like a step through any other door.

Ceric blinked his eyes and adjusted to the new environment he found himself standing in.

It was bright. Brighter than the deserts of Inceon, brighter than that light he passed through—not even the “Earth” lights seemed to make the kind of bright he felt surrounded by. And there were rocks. Lots of rocks strewn all about like it was the side of a mountain and there was a construction project going on with those new explosive techniques that moved more out of the way all at once. Great piles of gray; small rocks, dusty-sand or just plain gray dirt, bigger rocks, and rock formations with cracks and rounded edges.

Was this Alice’s home? Was this Earth? Where are the houses that are supposed to be here? And the trees?

Ceric thought to turn around and check on the portal. Maybe they got the wrong place—if that was that even possible. He took a few small steps and rotated slowly, waiting for the blue-white shape to save him. That strange blue-white portal would stand out like crazy, and it should be just a step behind.

More rocks and brightness. After at least a full turn around and back again, only a hillside of rocks and sunshine was all that he saw.

“Wait . . .”

Ceric turned his head left and right, twisting his shoulders as best he could while encumbered by this bulky, multi-layered metal suit. He jogged carefully up the hill he arrived upon, though still slipped a few times. By the end, he had to crawl and climb the last few meters until he came to a brief plateau.

The land around him appeared to be mostly dirt, rock, and dust. Nearby, along with his hill, the rocks had a light gray tint while in the distance, he saw lines of yellow, red, white, and orange rocks and dirt. Other hills and even mountains in the distance filled the horizon, but little else seemed to exist.

“Where—this can’t be Earth . . .”

Despite feeling quite warm already, with sweat building up where his Joint Forces uniform bundled up or got sandwiched between his limbs and the suit, Ceric began to climb the rest of the hillside. And, as he reached the last ten meters or so, Ceric got to shimming up the nearly cliff-like tor that stood in his way to the summit. But when he nearly made it up the smooth rock-face, Ceric’s leather gloves slipped.

THROUGH!

Ceric, out of instinct, imagined his fingers gouging the rock he climbed. If it were Andoa, where such techniques functioned, he could have formed a handhold with his focused thoughts.

His entire upper arm was jammed through the rock as if he had punched the air.

There, for many, many seconds, arm half-eaten by a wall of stone, Ceric hung. That’s not how it’s supposed to work—and such techniques weren’t functional on Earth, anyway.

So this isn’t Earth.

This also can’t be Andoa.

The weight of a metal suit half his weight, along with a whole weight of himself, eventually caused Ceric to stop thinking about what was happening and start thinking about how to get back on track—specifically, how to stop dangling from a cliff. Ceric wanted to keep his arm attached to his body, and his life attached, too.

Okay.

Ceric slowly forced himself to think through the situation and toward a solution.

Okay. We just have to get up there, for now.

Ceric wiggled his arm around, but his suit didn’t budge. He didn’t just punch through the rock—he had put his arm into the cliff, and then the cliff returned to being a solid cliff, again.

If that’s the case, then . . .

Ceric focused with his left arm ready above his right. While anchoring himself with the stuck half and both legs, Ceric regulated his breathing and cleared his mind of all thoughts again. Then, he thrust his left fist. THROUGH!

With an image of his left fist shoved into the stone wall, he took another breath and looked at the result.

Perfect! This is easy!

Ceric slowly checked his left arm, pulling and leaning into it to make sure that it was secure. Then, he repeated the new style of technique that only seemed to work now and at this wall—or in this new world, if that was really where he was. With his right free again, he continued to climb up the remaining two meters using the three-point anchoring method with one fist at a time plunged into the solid rock. Ceric tried to ignore the fact that there weren’t any holes left by his fists until after arriving at the peak.

The view stole his attention, though—Ceric saw a distant valley past the hills he saw earlier, where everything looked flat and much worse than where he stood, but he also saw green in the opposite direction where the mountains continued at higher elevations. Trees! And snowcaps!

Food and water!

It was a very long way until the greenery.

Ceric had long since stripped his suit down to his gray Joint uniform, and even that was loosely hanging with his belt untied and tunic unbuttoned. The metal and leather layers of the suit were back near where he had arrived, buried using the beyond “magical” effectiveness of his matter manipulation techniques. Only the underlying skeleton, the main “trick” of the suit, remained, safely tucked underneath his outfit. Since it was a set of cloth straps and a little box held by the harness against the flat of his back, Ceric decided it was worth the minimal extra effort.

Besides, the spell held within that box probably protected him more than that heavy suit, anyway.

What felt like hours since he arrived, the sun above was irritatingly busy, still high above with barely any sign of having moved.

So Ceric continued onward, sometimes covering his body with his gray tunic as he walked, sometimes leaving it draped over his messy, sweat-filled brown hair to let his arms rest, and sometimes putting it back on when it felt heavy on his head. Ceric’s dull brown eyes kept half-closed as his precious water slowly dribbled down his face. Sure, he had been on long, arduous missions before. Ceric had been in the Joint Force since he was sixteen, and yet those four years never really put him out in the middle of an actually hot desert. Perhaps Inceon got this hot during the peak days of summer?

Then it certainly couldn’t be Andoa because it was currently winter.

This was probably hotter than anywhere on Andoa, and about as desolate as either pole.

There was no direct sign of other humans living in the area—no paths or roads, no buildings, and no signs of technique usage beyond his own. Ceric concluded that if any other humans existed, they would surely have discovered just how many times more powerful their techniques had become, thus there would be far more evidence of shaping objects, digging, jumping, and—

Ceric immediately stopped. The obvious solution finally broke his heat and isolation-induced delirium.

Of course!

Ceric sat down on the hot dirt and covered his head, including his face, so he could better concentrate.

Cool air, cool breeze, cool . . .

He closed his eyes and focused his thoughts on the concept of a refreshing breeze to bring him relief from the heat.

Back on Andoa, Ceric lacked the skill and the training to execute more sophisticated techniques, especially creation spells. It’s partly why he just joined the Joint Forces instead of a particular guild—Ceric was far better at using his own strength than anything beyond minor matter manipulation.

Within seconds, however, dust whirled around Ceric, bringing soothing temperatures right away.

Of course, seconds after realizing he had achieved what typically took months or years of practice, Ceric lost enough focus that he lost his cooling dust devil. Sand and dirt quietly settled in encircling lines about the still seated Andrian.

How in all the gods did I do that so easily?

Still feeling dry and exhausted from walking across a desert, Ceric decided to try something even more difficult. He kept his eyes closed and cupped his hands together near his face, then began focusing on a new concept.

Water—cool, wet, in my hands . . . water.

Ceric suddenly felt a chilling, wet sensation between his fingers and in his palms. Not only had his thoughts manifested something from thin—and horribly hot—air, but it had happened instantly!

Without thinking further, Ceric quickly sipped up and gulped down his newly created lifeblood, and then he created more.

* * *

Seche blinked slowly, trying to process what had happened.

There was a portal that only looked blueish, and then there was Ceric, who walked in as if passing through a flowing waterfall.

Then, they both ceased to exist—gone from sight before her eyes could register the change.

Seche remembered to breathe again after trying to understand what had just transpired. Then, she said to nobody, “Um—what? Wait a second . . . no!” She looked at her guidebook, a copy of the Knowledgers Guild notebook for the portal, and flipped through progressively more and more pages when there continued to be no answer. “It can’t be like this—it’s not supposed to do that, right?”

The old, lightly rusted oil lamps kept glowing, but Seche discovered that the machine that created the portal showed no signs of life. At least, the “LED” lights that eerily shone in unnatural colors to describe some of the functions of the machine were no longer lit. And, of course, there was no more hum or even much warmth where there was before around certain areas of the main box of the large, metal monstrosity.

Seche saw no notes on how to turn the machine back on again. In fact, the log entries specifically said that it had never, not since it had first been rebuilt over twenty years ago, ever been turned off or shut off on its own.

“Ceric . . .” Then, Seche realized that his disappearance meant for the future of Andria. “Oh, gods . . . what will we do without the Nightmare’s help?”


Chapter 2

Seche ran down the long, dimly lit tunnel underneath Bachron as best she could without tripping over the occasional crack in the stone floor. Above, Seche knew there would be a mass-evacuation of Andrian citizens to their various Guild shelters and bunkers. It might have already begun, she feared. But it didn’t matter much. Without the self-declared “peacekeeper” of the world, or as she was usually called, “the Nightmare,” it was going to be a violent battle. Everyone would have to defend themselves once the Joint Forces ran out of infantry.

The tunnel came to an end at a secret basement—the building was far newer than the old tunnel and the portal machine it hid, so it had better lighting and better-kept floors. Seche pulled out a match and struck it, and then, with the pull of a cord, she turned off the recently installed “Earth” lights that ran off of a loop-spell power generator. Careful not to trip, she climbed the wooden stairwell up and pushed the trapdoor open.

It was time to report her failure to the guildmaster.

Seche sighed, knowing that she would be treated well as a fellow Knowledger by the leader of the Ks—it would be better to be yelled at so she could hate the Ks and run away from the upcoming invasion that might get her and everyone else she loved killed. Instead, Seche felt there was no other way than to fight to the death, and that it might be because she somehow messed up in her mission to activate the portal back to Earth.

That poor Joint boy, Seche thought. I hope he didn’t feel anything when he died.

* * *

“I have taken it upon myself to start a journal.

Just in case nobody finds me, and I can’t tell my story, I hope that at least there might be some other way to know what I discovered and who I was.”

Ceric paused, pondering on how to continue his entry.

“You may not believe this, but I created this journal and pen like it was nothing! It’s like that word from English I hear the Ks speaking. Magic. That’s how crazy this place is. You can literally just make whatever you want!”

Ceric stopped writing, feeling tired already. Andrian writing was bothersome. Perhaps he should figure out a way to magic what he wants to say onto the page tomorrow . . .

There was a weakness to the magic of this world—Ceric tentatively called it “Oppildoa,” which was Andrian for “Gray Rock World.” Oppildoa’s magic was too powerful.

On Earth, Ceric heard that you couldn’t use your thoughts to slightly affect things around you, which was commonly called “spells” and “techniques” on Andoa. Instead, they had to tinker around with crazy advanced machines to do simple actions like shaping rocks or conjuring air.

No matter how much one trained on Andoa, though, there was never a story of someone accidentally creating random things without meaning to—at least, nothing more than a basic concept like rushing wind or a change in temperature.

Ceric had about a dozen “accidents” since he woke up in his self-built burrow home, including a very crumbly dirt sandwich that still tasted slightly of bread.

“Day 3:

I will go to the trees soon, but not today.

Instead, I think I will focus on preparing myself. And I want to test the limits of what’s possible.”

Ceric finished the entry, and then he set his journal on a shelf made of a sort of sandstone he had shaped out of a wall of his burrow.

Now, his room was expanded into two—a sleeping quarter and an “everything else” room.

In the corner of his gray and orange layered room was a pile of failures. Some of them fell apart after a few hours, their composition being inappropriate for the intended object. There were a few inedible meals now oozing and crumbling, several attempts at a door now in various pieces and general disarray, and about twenty other things Ceric wished he could have.

If there was one thing Ceric had learned, it was that creating objects seemed like a bit of a gamble instead of a test of training and mental clarity. Either that or the fundamental system of matter manipulation and spells was not the same as the one for Andoa.

Ceric’s living space of his burrow was complete with a multi-colored stone table that he carved out of the rock as he dug out the room. Just like on Andoa, it wasn’t difficult to dig at hard rock if you had the right mind for such a task—there was a whole guild back home dedicated to such construction tasks.

Funny thing, though. Ceric was turned down by the Builders Guild when he was looking for work, and yet he was confident that he was at least twice as fast as their guildmaster while on Oppildoa.

Even with all the strange errors and mistakes, he felt like a demi-god from those old tales.

“Day 3, still

Okay, little change of plans,” he hastily wrote with quick strokes.

Ceric wiped his palms on his thick cotton uniform pants, trying to clear away the sand and dust covering him—he had to spend extra few seconds to get it out from between his fingers, and he left it underneath his nails.

“Right. So, there’s a small metal bird-dragon thing flying around outside my home. It didn’t like me very much.”

He paused, still breathing heavily while holding his hand on his chest to measure his heart rate.

“Yeah, never ran that fast before. Also, I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to run that fast. I swear I was digging holes into the gray rock ground with my feet and making sorta forward jumps as I thought about how to go faster.”

Ceric then tried to draw how it felt with a stick figure. It was barely recognizable, but he figured it might help.

“Like this”—he drew an arrow to the figure—“picture here. I want to say that my legs felt a bit longer by the end of it, too.”

Then, Ceric drew a shoddy recreation of the object he saw, and then he wrote, “this thing right here. It was either very angry or very interested in me. Either way, if I hadn’t gotten to my door in the ground and promptly recycled it into a mound of sandy rocks again, I’m sure it would have gotten in.”

Well, it wasn’t great going outside, anyway.

Ceric sighed, then got back to work.

He focused on burrowing deeper and filling the way behind him back. All things considered, he was quite fast at replacing rock. Maybe he should make traps? If that—thing—was able to think like a human, then it might figure out where the rock had been disturbed.

Ceric stopped again, realizing he shouldn’t just make one tunnel and fill in behind him.

Gods damn me!

It was time to do more than mindlessly dig in the dark—but lighting a flame would be dumb. He knew better than that, at least. But then, how was he supposed to see?

Those Earth lights!

Ceric calmed his breathing and imagined one of the Knowledgers’ new light fixtures that shone without a flame, affixed right above him in the ceiling of his cramped space. The glass ball screwed into a plate with a thick string attached and a cable going off somewhere—he was quite surprised when he first saw one, so it was easy to recreate the image in his head. Ceric felt around until he found the pull cord.

Click!

A sudden light in the dark, especially after about an hour of digging, was arguably far worse than what he had experienced upon arriving on Oppildoa. In fact, Ceric was so blinded that he let go of the pullcord and covered his eyes—and at that moment, the light went out.

Feeling defeated, Ceric conceded to lying on his side for a minute, loosely balling up as he found nice niches in the shaped stone. The “floor” was cool, but not completely chilling. The air was warm and moist. His space was just long and tall enough to allow him to lie down for a minute.

Ceric was so exhausted that he fell asleep within seconds of feeling comfortable.

Ceric snapped awake to the sound of muffled shouting. At least, he tried to snap upright—his body felt weak and abnormally lethargic while his mind had trouble wading through a sort of mental haze. Along with the strange, almost inhuman shouting from far away, there was a peculiar taste in the air, unlike any he had experienced before.

Maybe he should try to get up anyway? But that would require moving despite his extreme exhaustion. And realizing how tired he felt made Ceric all-the-more tired.

The sounds of talking and shouting came closer, and now there was a bit of a rumbling in the ground, too.

“—in there?” said a warbly, mechanical voice.

Before Ceric understood what had happened, there was a light. Then, there was an assortment of noises as his escape tunnel opened up to reveal the light’s owner. Behind, fresh air slowly flowed and revived Ceric enough to wake him a bit.

Ceric groaned, feeling cramped pain and a growing headache. “Hello?” he asked, his eyes still blurry with sweat and incidental tears.

“You might have died, person. Might have well died. Not me, I don’t need air. But you, person . . .” the blurry figure remained quite still as if pondering what it should say next.

Ceric slowly pulled himself up and sat against the wall of his tunnel while he let his eyes and his brain slowly recover.

The voice suddenly returned to its thought. “. . . you really could have died, I believe. Air is important—oxygen, specifically. And tunnels without a hole to the surface—or a filter, I suppose. Anyway, I think this is where I say, ‘you’re lucky to be alive, good person!’”

Ceric finally saw what had been speaking to him, and doing so made it hard to find a reasonable response. So, he said the first thing he could come up with.

“What are you?”

“Me? I’m one of Master’s constructs. Construct 37—but you can call me ‘Ekky.’”

Ekky stood upright on two metal legs like a human and spoke with human words. Ekky’s body was seemingly all metal, but Ekky wore ragged clothes that reminded Ceric of what he might see in a historical painting. Ekky had a leather hood and mantle, a sunbleached, hand-formed linen shirt with frayed edges, equally washed-out linen pants that were so worn down to look more like shorts, and leather sandals—only the sandals seemed to be maintained.

Of course, it was all a bit farcical to Ceric when all these clothes were on what appeared to be a storage locker with long limbs and an extra-wide spyglass melded on top.

“What’s your name, person—wait, can I name you? Do you have a name, yet? You know, I didn’t have a name when I came to be. When Master made me. Did you just come to be? Did someone make you, too? Surely it wasn’t Master, right?”

Ceric couldn’t pay attention to much Ekky said when there was no face and certainly no mouth where words could be made. There was only the single telescope that Ceric assumed was “eying” him.

“Person? Hello?” Ekky carefully reached out and gave Ceric’s shoulder a nudge with a thin, metallic digit. “You don’t look dead—are you sleeping?”

“Sorry,” Ceric finally replied. “I’m Ceric. I’m glad you’re not trying to kill me, 3-7.”

Ekky backed up half a step, then leaned back closer. “Don’t say it like that. It’s so stiff! ‘Eq-qi’—yeah, I like ‘Ekky’ better! It sounds like a person name, but maybe not a traditional name. Unlike your name, Ceric. Good name that is. Reminds me of Master. Master used to talk about people.“ Ekky looked back toward the tunnel, then at Ceric. “You want to head up, Ce?”

“Kilk saw you wandering out here, you know. Real nice of Kilk to try and show you a way out of the desert—said you ran away, though. Kilk can’t dig, so I came out. Glad I did.”

Ceric crawled behind Ekky. It seemed that Ceric’s filled-in-tunnel did lead the machine to where he had stopped to rest, and that Ekky made even thinner tunnels than Ceric. As they went up, Ceric nearly got stuck twice when the tunnel bent and turned.

“Come on,” said Ekky, “almost there. We’ve got to get you out of this mess, Ce. Not fit for living, deserts. Even for us—and we don’t eat like you probably do, you being a person and all. If Master was anything to go off of, at least.”

The only light Ceric had to work with was the one Ekky held in one hand—a metal tube that shone like an Earth light. Without a cable, Ceric couldn’t figure out how in the world it managed to stay lit as it did since the device wasn’t likely fueled by oil like a more traditional lamp. Unfortunately for Ceric, Ekky used the tube-lamp to see ahead, but Ekky and his clothes blocked most of the light. At least Ekky’s tunnel was relatively smooth, so there was little reason to worry about where he placed his hands and knees.

“Here we are! Good-old sunlight!” Ekky took the tube-lamp and slid it into his metal body, somewhere around what might be considered a shoulder.

They arrived at a final bend, and soon, both were standing outside, right next to Ceric’s broken stone door.

“Ready to get out of here, Ce?”

Ceric looked all around, then back at Ekky, who was a good head shorter than himself. “Nowhere looks near.”

“Nonsense!” Ekky looked at the still distant greenery, then at Ceric. He pointed and said, “It’ll only take maybe two hours to get there.” Ekky looked at Ceric, then to the sky as if thinking. “Oh, wait! Kilk did mention how you ran funny . . .”

“Ah, yes.” Ekky scratched the top of his “head” with one metal finger, then pointed at Ceric panting. “That’s not going to work. Well, it might. Probably not, though.”

Ceric doubled over and put his weight on his knees, then straightened back and held his arms above his head, trying to catch his breath.

“Tell you what, Ce. I will go run toward where I have to go. I’m due for my meal, as it were. Not exactly what you’d probably call a meal—do you eat spells, by any chance?”

“No,” Ceric said, mostly back to normal breathing. “But I can make something on my own.”

Ekky nodded. “Makes sense, Master was good at that, too. Oh, but Master also said that it didn’t work most of the time—well, that it did work, but not really really, actually. So, you know—well, be careful, Ce. I’ll be back after I eat. Might bring you something if I can find a bag. Gotta check with The Lib—Lib knows better than I about food.”

Ceric waved at the construct, still in disbelief such a contraption could act so human. “See you later, then, Ekky.”

Ekky waved back with great vigor, and then he ran with unimaginable speed.

Ceric pondered the mechanics of Ekky’s running and the best runners on Andoa.

Maybe I’m going at it all wrong? Using air, creating gusts of wind to push me, just doesn’t end well. I can’t focus on running and creating wind at the same time like we’re supposed to do, at least on Andoa. And I certainly can’t use advanced dashing techniques. I still don’t know how they “skate” on balls of air.

Ceric looked at the settling dust in the wake of Ekky’s path.

Wait . . . why am I even trying to run?

With hardly a single obstacle within sight, Ceric closed his eyes to focus.

Someone threw me really hard. I am a stone being thrown across the land, flying fast.

Wind rushed for a moment, and Ceric left the ground for just long enough for his thoughts to revert back to normal. Then, WHAM!

Everything, but mostly his face, was now very upset that he had tried to cheat gravity.

Ceric got up and tried again. Then, again, again, and again. His nose was bloodied now, and he was covered in dirt and scrapes. In the distance, Ceric saw the sky begin to darken in color. It reminded him of the sunsets on clear nights when the bay of Zatyon would glisten with orange and red. The birds would often fly out from the city, toward the sinking sun.

Birds! That’s what I should imagine! I am a bird, soaring high in the sky.

After imagining himself as a bird for a minute straight, he suddenly stopped out of pain and confusion. For a quick second, he noticed a constricting, choking sensation, and Ceric swore he saw his body shrink a bit—there was an even smaller fraction of a second where he didn’t even want to believe that he had feathers on his arms.

But, like rubber, he snapped back to himself. When Ceric looked carefully at his body, he saw a few gray feathers stabbed into his back.

“Holy and damned gods of creation, that was dumb!” he said to himself, so shaken by the experience to let his thoughts outside of his head.

Bad direction. Oppildoa isn’t to be messed with . . . let’s just go back to running, but with some throwing.

After an hour of less falling face-first, though plenty of sliding along the gray rock, Ceric felt confident he had made good distance. He took a break to make some water, then got back to “assisted running.” After a while more, once the sun had all but completely left the sky, Ekky caught up to him empty-handed. Ceric dismissed Ekky’s apologies, and the two eventually covered the rest of the desert within the next few more hours.


Chapter 3

Though the machine behind was off, a blue-white shape filled the metal doorframe in the dark tunnel beneath Zatyon. For a moment, the correct room appeared—the one that Ceric was supposed to enter. If Ceric had been standing there, he would have seen little but concrete walls, a pale, diffused light, and a thick metal door—and a large, all-white human-shaped figure.

The figure immediately walked through and out into the room.

No lights, the figure thought briefly. “Lights,” she declared in English. The room lit up from the several sources of white and blue LED light from the figure.

Now revealed by sufficient light, it was apparent who had arrived: Alice.

She was completely covered in a white metallic suit as if meant for space, complete with a shielded visor. From the inside, Alice saw with cameras and a glowing display on the innermost visor layer. The display told her where she was and what various essential factors to watch for, such as the current temperature and oxygen levels.

Alice promptly strode out of the portal room and hunched down so she could traverse the long tunnel, wasting as little time as possible while still keeping safe and maintaining control of the situation. After all, she could never be caught off-guard. Not as the Knight of Andria and the Peacekeeper of Andoa. Any weakness was enough to ruin her purpose.

When Alice arrived at the end of the tunnel, her sensors reported new sounds and vibrations.

It was already happening. The fight had begun.

Alice sighed. I just can’t take a break, can I?

Utilizing her stored jumping and landing spells, Alice launched herself several stories up into the air and cratered the empty cobbled street. In the near distance, just a few blocks away, waves of Andoans from several neighboring countries spilled deeper into Zatyon with torches, spears, swords, bows, and oil lamps. Behind and to the sides, out toward the eastern edge of the capital of Andria, billowing smoke and dancing flames lit up the twilight sky.

Alice leaped twice more, landing just a short distance ahead of the nearest mass of soldiers and mercenaries.

“Must I constantly make myself obvious?” she said in Andrian through speakers on the sides of her visor.

Most replies were in other languages as the mobbing force slowed down and encircled her. None dared come within her reach, and all held weapons ready as if such things could protect them.

“Leave now.” Alice then repeated the warning in Fercian and Rhynnan. “I will kill you all if you do not leave or surrender.“

“Hah! Like you could!” said one Fercian in accented Andrian. “I don’t care what the tales! Your Andrians are hiding, and their defense have fled or fallen.” He then charged Alice with an empowered air-dash, thrusting his longsword with intent to plunge it into her neck.

Alice stood unwavering, allowing the blade and its owner to crash into her. However, before the sharp tip could even reach the softer, more flexible section around her neck, a bright, spark-filled flame ignited the steel of the sword. With part of the edge and most of the tip melted, the remaining thrust went far to the side of Alice—the Fercian nearly fell over from the extreme force of the spell-parry. Little did the man realize that Alice spent no effort in such a move. In reality, it was merely another layer of her suit’s protection, one of several automated spell-based force manipulations, that threw him and his blade aside.

* * *

“Ekky, are you sure these trees work?”

Ceric and Ekky now walked in a deep forest, already ten minutes past the strangely straight border-line of dusty dirt and browner soil. At first, Ceric was more confused at the lack of other plants or even insects despite the hundreds of evergreens surrounding them. Now, however, he realized that even the tall, needle-bearing trees had several issues that became apparent once he noticed something was off with them, too.

“What do you mean? That’s a strange way to speak, Ce. Did you misspeak, maybe?”

Ceric stopped and pointed. “There should be dead leaves—needles, I guess. And branches.”

“Really? Is that how trees work?”

“Yes, Ekky. They grow, too. But these all look about the same. They’re the same height, and their trunks look similar, and . . . it’s like someone just made the same tree thousands of times over.”

Ekky looked carefully at a tree, slowly panning, and then around as he inspected the other trees. “Hmm. Master and Lib both should know how trees work, and they never said anything about this being wrong. Maybe trees work differently where you’re from? Probably. Have to, really.”

Were trees just different on Oppildoa? Were the rules of nature not at all the same? No, that can’t be right. Ceric continued his line of logic aloud, saying, “Ekky, I’m pretty sure someone from Earth or Andoa, the two places with these trees I’ve ever heard of, came here. And I think they made all these trees using our trees for reference.”

Ekky looked at Ceric with an uncharacteristic stillness. Despite being a sort of machine creature, Ceric suddenly realized just how animated he had been until now. Then, finally, Ekky spoke.

“Ce, I think you should be careful about what you say to the others—I like you, Ce.” Ekky nodded for emphasis. “I do.” He then looked opposite of Ceric, toward where they were heading. “Be careful about what you say that might be about Master—and Lib, too, really. I don’t know what will happen to you if you don’t. I can’t save you again if it’s from my family.”

“Welcome to The Library!” said Ekky, waving arms about with his electric lamp in hand, lighting up the entrance and the walls of the massive building they arrived at in a show of grandeur. Then, Ekky called out into the dark distance of the tall hallway they stood in front of, his mechanical voice echoing. “Hey Lib! We’re coming in, okay?”

Ceric watched Ekky step through the wide-open gateway of the massive stone structure seemingly carved out of the same grayness that covered the desert he had just crossed. It was a very straight and rectangular structure with pillars that stretched at least three times as tall as himself, even making the “library” taller than the perfectly uniform trees that still filled Ceric’s view in all directions.

The maw of the Library remained ominous despite Ekky’s cheer.

“Come on, Ce! We’ve got to have Lib look at you before long. Don’t want the others to get confused or anything—some of my family might get funny ideas, you know? You’re kinda scary to some of them. Or maybe not—just gotta make sure, though, right?” Ekky then walked straight into the hallway with his light shining into the void.

Ceric followed behind, prepared to bolt if anything actually jumped out of the shadows. He realized how much better it was to be in the dark in a small, claustrophobic space than somewhere so wide and tall. Perhaps it would have been lit up if the sun hadn’t long gone down?

As they were engulfed by the Library, which managed to hold not a single book as far as he could tell, Ceric gave up on thinking about what might happen next and trusted in the sheer oddities that Oppildoa seemed filled to the brim with—Ekky felt almost normal at this point.

“Lib says, ‘hello,’ Ce!”

“Where’s this ‘Lib?’ I don’t see anything.”

Ekky pointed his light-beam at a giant mechanical contraption hovering over a bedroom-sized hole in the ground. Deep in the hole, Ceric spotted brief reflections of light pass over like sparkling glass shards lit up by the passing lamp-beam. It looked like boxes or shelves housing thousands or more discs packaged up and stacked neatly in rows.

Then, Ekky’s light came to reveal the massive contraption that stayed above with metal arms reaching down into the hole for a particular glass disc. Once one was selected, the machine placed the chest-sized disc into itself carefully, and then it rested its arms along the edges of the hole. Ceric couldn’t make out exactly what the contraption looked like since the light was only from one direction, and the various rough shapes and complicated parts coming around from multiple angles only confused him further. Other than the arms, only a second pair of limbs that reached straight into the ceiling was particularly distinguishable—Ceric could only guess that they were how the whole metallic beast kept itself just above the hole without falling.

“Lib, this is Ce. Ceric, I mean. I came and got him—he was nearby, just beyond Home.”

Ceric heard scraping stones, like chalk or another rock being scratched against something harder. From somewhere deep in the labyrinthine chutes and shapes, the contraption Ceric figured had to be “Lib” produced a bit of dark rock.

With a rusty groan, Lib grabbed the stone tablet and held it up for them to read. With chalked letters written in, it said, “how? no creation. construct astray?”

“No, nobody is astray, Lib.” Ekky looked up at Ceric. “We’re not allowed to make more constructs, Ce. That’s what Lib is worried about. But I’m pretty sure you’re not made by one of us—right?”

“I’m from a place called Andoa. I think it’s another world entirely different from this one.”

The tablet was already back inside Lib, and so it was the scratching that made Ceric realize the machine was busy replying. More quickly, it showed Ceric what it wanted to say, even facing the tablet directly at him.

“like master. curious. stay. learn ce.”

“ce. explain arrival.”

“There’s this portal that was kept secret and left unused. We turned it on and—”

“explain oho tol. new word. distant and door?”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right. That’s what the creator called it, anyway. So we turned on the portal, and I stepped through.”

“portal blue circle?”

“More of a blue-white rectangle. Well, maybe it could have been a circle, but it was in a doorframe. A metal one.”

“master research. same portal. master word er funno.”

“Ah, literally ‘blue circle,’ huh?”

“yes ce.” Lib paused after its last message, setting down its chalkboard on the floor and quickly retrieving the glass disc from somewhere inside of itself. Lib showed Ceric the glass circle carefully, letting Ekky shine his electric lamplight so he could see better.

The light passed through the object easily, but there were many marks filling the edges. At first, Ceric thought it was dust or something else, but then he realized they were almost impossibly tiny etches using a rough form of Andrian—in fact, some of the letters looked more like Old Andrian from over a hundred years ago. Lib then returned the disc and wrote a new message.

“see plate? records. add ce and story.”

“I guess that’s fine. I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do, anyway. Though I’m a bit hungry—could I make myself something? It will take a few minutes, but I could figure out a fruit or something again real fast.”

“construct 37. fetch master food. ce same type.”

“Okay, I’ll find something, Lib. See you in a bit, Ce!” Ekky handed over his light-tube, which was surprisingly heavy. “Well, hopefully soon, not in a bit. I don’t know why I say confusing things sometimes.” Ekky produced a strange, awkward laugh that didn’t feel right, and then he waved and ran off toward the entrance of the library.

Ceric decided he was probably cute if he could just get used to the sound of his mechanical voice.

Lib carefully waved its board at Ceric to get his attention. “might take days. please explain all.”

Ceric sat down and sighed. “As long as I get some food and some answers about this place, then sure. Why not?”

“good. want answer too. provide food. ce provide insight. understand master.”

* * *

“Morning well to you, Mr. Ceric, sir. Would you might enjoy some breakfast, mayhaps?”

Ceric startled awake for the third day in a row, still surprised by the even-more-bizarre sounds that other constructs made despite Ekky’s voice preparing him. “I’m up, 14. Yes, I’ll go to Library and continue explaining whatever else he wants—I don’t care what food you find for me as long as it’s fresh.”

The squat, bulky lump of metal on four wheels replied, saying, “Okay, good great sir. Mr. Ceric’s desire to go depart with haste has been acknowledged. Forgive this one’s pesterings please.”

Ceric watched with blurry eyes as 14 slowly turned around with a 5-point turn, and then he saw him roll into brightness with a bit of a meandering path as if he were exhausted or drunk. After several incidents, he already expected the poor thing to continue his strange, grumpy behavior no matter what he did—even Ekky’s cheer had little effect. Ceric quickly gave up doing anything but reacting quickly and to the point to avoid getting trapped in some long debate with the odd construct.

“Hey! 14, huh? How funny! Just like him.”

“Hi, um . . .” Ceric sat up in his inherited bed, an ancient relic from an older era left alone for possibly 60 or 80 years, if not more. “Sorry, I don’t know you.”

This time, it was a little hovering fan turned blades-down so the construct could spin and generate air to keep aloft. There were dozens of other smaller fans that helped her stabilize, and they all made a soft humming symphony that Ceric thought similar to a swarm of buzzing insects.

“38! Ekky’s sister. Month younger! Ekky named ‘Piluho.’ Abbreviation for 38!” Her voice sounded just like Ekky in tone, except there was a slight humming added thanks to her multitude of spinning blades.

Before Ceric dressed in his already stiffened uniform and left the massive stone bedroom filled with odd, dusty wooden furniture, another four constructs joined in and took turns chatting with him and each other.

On his way to the library, which was a decent walk, Ceric let the growing team of constructs visit. After a few days of dealing with them all, he was hardly shocked when a new contraption appeared before him, especially before he heard them speak. Indeed, today he met 9, who had to be brought up in a wheelbarrow due to a lack of mobility, and 10, who was the wheelbarrow.

Just like the past several days, too, the sun shone neatly through the artificially cloned pines—created by 51, who was still working with three other constructs of a similar number far away from “Home,” due to return in a few more weeks. And, just as he felt since he arrived, everything around that wasn’t the library or his sleeping quarters remained a complete mystery.

First, there were the nice, smooth concrete paths that went off in several directions through the trees and into other buildings. It bothered Ceric mildly that, despite the effort to shape so many structures out of the only seemingly natural material of Oppildoa, mostly gray rock, someone or something had bothered to create a more complex compound for debatably lower aesthetic results.

Then, there were the buildings themselves. While he was told that a few specific constructs had built some, mostly those numbering in the 60s and all of whom were currently “resting forever” in a building on the far edge of Home, Lib and the others refused to explain where the remaining majority of the absurdly large structures within sight came from.

This bothered Ceric, mostly because it should be simple to state that it was their old master. But when he brought up that word, it seemed to worry several of “the Family.”

The only thing Ceric could gather so far was that their master was either long dead or something far worse. For now, he just went along with whatever they all wanted of him—even if that meant long, tiresome history and science lessons with Lib, complete with constant interruptions by one or two constructs every hour or so.

At least the food was decent enough to look forward to. Today’s dinner was declared to be fish.

Let’s hope it’s actually fish . . .

* * *

“ce must be new master.”

Ceric choked on his bite of dry, bread-like fish fillet. After clearing his mouth with water and taking a few calming breaths, he looked at the board again.

Lib rewrote the message. “please be our new master.”

“Why do you need a master, Lib?”

For now, it was only them and a better, more diffuse lamp—and a plate and cup for Ceric’s dinner. But, knowing the constructs, someone was likely to enter in, soon.

“What would the others think about this? I don’t want to be a master, and I don’t think they want me to replace your old master, either. Ekky was right about how touchy some of your family gets.”

“bad name. perhaps leader? master still master. ce just leader.”

“Aren’t you sort of the leader, Lib? Ekky sure treats you like one, and I think the others agree.”

“unsure. job is recording. not built to lead.” Lib quickly continued with a fresh board of words, saying, “unsure if achieving anything as current leader. ce better.”

“I’m just trying to go home, though. That’s the problem.” Ceric set down his unfinished meal and stood up with a stretch. “You know I just want to go back to Andoa, right? I can’t stay on Oppildoa to help you all.”

“need portal, right?”

Ceric sighed and paced back and forth.

Lib tapped the board to get his attention again. “master knew how to open. need to find master.”

“We both know that your master, well . . .”

“dead. body is gone. 10, 41, and 43 buried him. very long time ago.”

“Exactly. So, who’s there to find?”

“master created copies. some survive. some 100 model constructs. some flesh and metal. at least one was like you and young master. quite likely more. if possible to do once. they all avoid Home. but we see them. last time not long ago. they only ones. no one else can get you back. want to understand master. want to see what has happened. ce needs master. we need master.”

Lib finally stopped writing in a fury and set down the board on the ground in front of Ceric. In a show, it pointed at the words “need master” on the board, at Ceric, and then it waved its arms slowly as if representing itself and the other constructs.

Ceric sat back down and pondered some more.

Was he really going to go through all that work? Was there no other way back to Andoa?

* * *

Seche stood perfectly still, doing her best impression of a small tree along the road. No, a pebble would be better. Or a grain of sand.

“Go on, white paragon of peace. Come closer.” It was an ex-Andrian, of all people, who stood with his arm raised to give the order. And it was his previous countrymen and women who his call would terminate. “You should have stayed in Zatyon, Alice.”

From across the underground shelter hallway, just beyond the entrance, Alice replied with a raised voice through her external speakers, saying, “What do you want me to do, then?”

“Lie down on the floor with your arms up, then take off your helmet—slowly, of course.”

Seche watched the white-suited shape of Alice move as instructed, causing her to relax slightly despite the weapons pointing straight at her and another several dozen citizens.

One blink later, and the leader of the enemy group was collapsed on the floor with several bloody splotches quickly forming all over his body.

During the next three seconds, several more things happened.

First, Seche felt a searing pain, unlike any she had ever felt in her life. It was so sudden and surprising that she couldn’t even figure out she wanted to scream in agony. Instead, she also fell to the ground and slowly balled up as warmth flowed around her right leg and shoulder.

At the same time, almost everyone else who stood nearby and as far as Seche could tell also joined her—some of them managed to cry out, others made worse sounds, and a few shouted in a fury. It seemed one or two nearest to her had the ability to turn and attack the dozen or so enemy soldiers with their strange projectile weapons that immediately chewed through the crowd before Alice could even move a single foot toward them.

Finally, within the next second or so, Seche heard an explosion that soon brought a huge blast of dust and wind down the tunnel and into their large entrance room just outside the second section of the shelter.

The following ten seconds were filled with dust, shouting, heavy blows, and breaking bones, and then, there was the sound of Alice’s boots approaching Seche and her fellow Andrians bleeding out on the smoothed floor.

“Don’t move—I can at least stop the bleeding. You’re going to make it,” said Alice as she approached an older man ahead of Seche.

Seche sighed and rested her head on the packed, cool dirt, relieved that at least now, she might just have survived for another few hours.


Chapter 4

After slipping into black and timelessness, Seche suddenly regained consciousness. Nearby, she heard Alice and a few others speaking—more were quietly talking in small groups further away. They seemed to be discussing the defeat of the invaders, and about the resulting casualties and damage to the city. Nobody else around seemed to speak as if they were inches from death. Seche did realize that over half of those in the large room weren’t moving or speaking, however.

It was a strange sensation, really. She knew several projectiles—bullets, she remembered they were called—had struck her body. Fearing the results, Seche refrained from feeling her shoulder or leg. Instead, she just remained there, laying down on her back and enjoying the pleasant touch of the cool dirt floor.

A heavy strain of metal rang around the large room from behind. Seche knew the situation had to be safe again for the metal door that led deeper to be opened again.

“Alice,” said the leader of Seche’s guild. The same woman who she used to respect and the person who Seche thought would protect her and the others. She came out with several other leaders as she assaulted their savior. “Where were you? You’re some ‘knight,’ letting so many die like this.”

Several others who followed soon joined in on spitting venom. They blamed her for hiding, for letting the enemy build up a force, and for all the results of the attack. All the while, Alice stood there and took the words without flinching. In all honesty, Seche almost agreed with the sentiment of all that was said. But it felt wrong when others raised their voice and even began to yell with anger. It felt cowardly for those who stayed safe behind the thick vault door to come out now and attack Alice.

Seche just watched quietly, now sitting up and realizing that pain still existed in great quantities despite her wounds seeming patched.

I would have done the same. There was no better option. It’s not her fault. Seche thought to herself on how she supported the faceless white figure with a slightly inhuman voice coming through small speakers where her mouth should be. Alice is only one person, after all.

The Andrians speaking with rage despite waiting in safety, especially leaders like her own, were wrong. They shouldn’t be given respect anymore. They didn’t deserve it.

* * *

“Leader Ceric!”

It wasn’t at all what he thought it was going to be. Lib tricked him. It was almost abuse, really. Ceric didn’t want the responsibility, sure, but he decided it was right and good to take it.

“Ce, I’m back with a few more. Well, quite a few more. You know we’re pretty bored, having no orders and all, right?”

Ceric sighed slowly, with vast volumes exchanged through his lungs and back out into the rapidly warming morning air. The sun wasn’t even above the distant edges of mostly gray and orange rock mountains, but somehow, he felt tired already.

Maybe I can outrun most of the family . . .

A wobbly voice buzzed with a familiar hum of blades. “Ceric! We got food! And you food. Of course. It’s a long trip! Gotta be prepared!”

If I just let go of this non-construct wagon and took off—they wouldn’t expect that, right? Might take them days to send 49 after me.

Ceric shuddered at the memory of his first experience with 49.

Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t.

“Mr. Ceric leader, sir. This venture may be arduous and draining, but this one will dutifully fulfill any applicable role required to alleviate some of our burdens and, perhaps, such that we may all find some semblance of joy and strength within each other.”

14 was on the wagon Ceric had to drag across the dusty gray rock desert, along with a few others, including 9 and 10.

What’s the point of a wheelbarrow that only feels comfortable rolling on safe, flat concrete?

Oppildoa’s great expanse of gray rock was irritatingly infinite. Except for a few irregularities, it seemed the name he had given the world was quite fitting.

Ceric stood along the opposite side of the mountains he saw two days before when he began the journey toward where Lib claimed there were signs of their master. From up high, the temperatures were far more like that on Andoa, though there was no sign of ice or snow as far as he had seen. Ceric wondered if he would have even made it so far without a combination of strange contraptions some of the constructs stuffed into their wagon that they later deployed to block the sun’s debilitating stare and the occasional moment of relative silence where he could conjure himself some water or just a cool breeze.

As usual, even while standing on a “break” so that they could observe the valley below, about five constructs were talking at any one time. This was an incredible feat considering there were only nine in total that had followed Ceric on Lib’s mission. He couldn’t imagine what torture it might have been if there were twice as many, but it probably would have been enough to be intolerably distracting and draining.

Ekky was the only other family member who spent a decent amount of time quiet, seemingly mimicking Ceric in silence and stoicism as they both just slowly observed the landscape all the way to the distant horizon.

First, there was the usual gray rock with a few other colored layers here and there. Then, as if a river used to flow through and cut down, there was a small canyon that strangely ended in the near distance with a wide, round opening a few times the width of the more narrow path. The canyon’s start went off in the other direction, too far away to tell where it really originated from. It looked to be annoying to cross and was most likely completely in the way of where they had to go.

At the edge of the horizon straight ahead was another pack of green, not unlike Home. However, it was too difficult to make out exactly what was there since it seemed to be nestled between more mountains.

Ceric didn’t even want to think about just how many days or weeks it would take to get all the way over there. And if Lib was right, then it might be even worse to deal with whoever or whatever lived so far away.

* * *

“Leader Ceric, sir, we require a full day to rest ourselves and charge our spell-core jars with electricity.”

“Oh, alright. I mean, I’m not going to go running off, and all my supplies are with all yours, anyway, so . . .”

Ceric debated actually sneaking off but figured it was a waste of effort at this point. Now a week away from both Home and where the portal to his actual home, or at least where it opened up when he stepped foot on Oppildoa, there would be little benefit to running away. In all honesty, it would be quite difficult to find exactly where that was. Ceric regretted not putting some sort of sign so he could find his spell armor.

Wait, maybe that shouldn’t be easy to find . . . who knows what else lives on this stupid rock-world. Then again, it was more burdensome than useful.

The constructs were already busy unpacking the large wagon they had all haphazardly moved across the desert and up and down the smaller mountains.

Ceric realized that, despite it taking more than a day to cross, the first round of mountains were not at all as tall as proper, dizzyingly high mountains like back home around the south pole of Andoa or the ones that split up Andria into eastern and western halves. In fact, when he thought about it some more, Ceric realized that most features around were far closer to flat and even than what should even make any sense for a world.

“Hey! Leader Ce!” said Piluho with her usual cheer. “Ekky told me! What’s ‘Andoa’ like? Ekky says it’s cold. What else is different?!”

While the others continued to slowly pick apart their wagon, their machinery delicately placed on the ground, and then as they flattened an area of particularly flat-looking rock, Ceric began to explain the laundry-list of differences.

By the time the others had carefully built up a large contraption with strange cranks, pipes, and all sorts of metal boxes and bits, Ceric was already discussing the intricacies of the various major nations of Andoa.

“Andria sounds like Master! Well, maybe Lib!”

“Why do you say that, Piluho?”

“Seems bossy. Not mean. Not nice, either. But always doing something. You know?”

* * *

There has to be a better way to generate electricity . . .

Ceric pondered to himself while the others broke down the levers, pumps, pipes, and all sorts of other strange odds and ends that went into the cobbled together machine. Once in pieces and safely stored back on their wagon, they all got up and went back to walking. Or, of course, resting in the wagon, flying, or rolling.

That canyon sure seems far away, thought Ceric. From down here, I still can’t see where it is, yet.

With the morning sun already up in the sky, Ceric blinked his eyes so he could focus on maintaining a reasonable temperature until the sun made it higher—his source of shade was only good for about half the day since it just hung over him like a large, metallic leaf.

Really wish I had spent more time outside, recently. Before coming to a gods’ forsaken desert planet. I feel like the sun on this world is twice as mean.

Ceric wriggled his face, scrunching expressions and rolling his mouth around.

Yeah, my face is probably all burnt by now. I’m not even pale like some people, like Old Andrians, either. I can practically feel the heat stiffening my skin.

Ceric sighed, still walking on pace with his hands pushing a rope-padded metal rod. His position was the only one human-sized, and as far as he guessed, the only one that actually moved the cart substantially. There were small mechanisms along inside the wheels that seemed to run tiny spell-loops to spin when spun, so it wasn’t like the whole thing was as heavy as it looked. And the others occasionally found spots to push, too. After dragging it up a mountain—with help from most everyone, of course—flat land was hardly a problem at all.

How long had they had this thing lying around, anyway?

He took a look at the rope more closely. It felt ancient, but it was so stiff and tightly woven that he had no good guess. Considering there was hardly any moisture in the air, if at all, it seemed to make sense that little had changed.

What a terrible place Oppildoa is. No natural water, no natural plants, no natural anything. Ceric looked casually at a few constructs who were floating and walking nearby along with him. They’re alive, I guess. Doesn’t feel right to call them dead, but they’re not technically living, right?

Ceric went back to cooling himself with a spell-created breeze and occasional drips of cool water, feeling too tired and too hot to bother thinking about much anything else.

Just keep walking forward, I guess. And cool. Cool breeze. More cool wind.

31 approached Ceric during their dinner break about an hour before sundown. “so ekky and piluho really believe that you are from another planet like master was,” it said.

31 was shorter than Ekky, though the general design, including a simple square chest with rotatable arms, remained largely the same. In 31’s case, instead of long, flexible limbs with many joints, it had more human-like joints, and it was a lot thicker. Out of all the constructs, 31 always spent the most time helping Ceric move the wagon, though 31 would stick to the back and outright shove it forward.

“Do you have a nickname like the others nearby? Or is that mostly an Ekky thing?”

“well those two decided that i was piop but i didn’t like that name because it’s a strange abbreviation so they called me a few different names like ‘short’ ‘grumpy’ and ‘serious.’”

Ceric took a few bites and sips of his mostly food creation, this time made in the likeness of soup and bread. His makeshift stone bowl probably needed to be bigger and thinner, and he lacked a spoon at the moment, but it was fairly delicious after he warmed it up and held the bowl carefully with the sleeves of his Joints jacket.

31 sat down next to Ceric like an old, tired grandfather might, complete with a sense of mild pride and nostalgia as it looked out toward the others setting up the charging machine.

“i guess i’m a bit of an older brother to them or maybe something older. master made them years later and it was my fault that he paused. master instilled in me a personality that made him reflect on his life choices.”

“That sounds a bit scary. What did you do to him?”

“master made me long for better times but he also made my speech a bit dry and boring. at least that’s what he told me one day early on. he said he shouldn’t have made me sound so similar to library.”

Ceric looked out at the others, too. Then, he turned back to 31—also like Ekky, he had a head, but it was more human with a short neck, a round shape, and two glass eyes. Ceric felt a sense of emptiness and even depression after staring for a few moments as 31 remained unmoving.

“i don’t like being this way some days but master said he wouldn’t change a construct once they were made,” he said with an even more meticulously tone, almost as if he was trying to emphasize his point despite being created with an extremely monotone voice. “i wonder if that’s a reflection too. i think master also couldn’t change no matter what he did. that’s why he had to leave us. he couldn’t stand us anymore.”

* * *

Ceric was getting used to the desert heat, at least enough not to require constant cool breeze or water—he still needed the shade. Obviously.

The flatness of Oppildoa still amazed him. It was highly unlikely, in his mind, that such a world could exist. After several days since leaving the nearby “mountains,” they had covered no real, noticeable distance as far as he could tell. But as the sun rose high to its apex, Ceric finally felt a sense of relief.

At the edge of the hazy horizon was something irregular.

“Hey, Ekky?” he called out.

“Yeah, Ce?”

“Do you see the canyon out there, or is that something else?” Ceric, like always, was too busy moving the wagon to stop and point.

Ekky broke away from the other constructs he was chatting with and carefully climbed onto the wagon behind Ceric. After a few noises, some of which were the sounds of 14 complaining politely, Ekky answered. “Looks like it. Most likely, I’m sure. I mean, what else would it be, right?”

“Right. I thought so.” Ceric strained his eyes and tried to get a clearer look, but the mirages and the heat fuzzed it all up.

“How long do you think it’ll take to get there, Ce? Because I’m thinking maybe we might get there by the end of the day.”

“I have no clue.” Ceric thought about it for a minute while Ekky sat down just behind his shoulder. “It’s hard to figure that kind of thing out when we’ve been going toward nothing for so long.”

“Well, not ‘nothing’ nothing, right, Ce? We’ve at least had the tips of the mountains to look at, right?”

Indeed, straight ahead of them were the mountains that kept greenery and, potentially, whatever there might be left of their master and his 100s constructs.

Ceric shook his head and blinked his eyes clear after imagining what exactly the flesh and metal constructs might look like. “I just hope we can cross the canyon, get to your master, and then I can get home—preferably with all my limbs still attached.”

* * *

From the bottom of the canyon, Piluho’s voice echoed along with her humming. “I’m fine!”

Apparently, she had never hovered more than a few feet above any ground before—and her difficulties scaling the steeper portions on the still relatively tame heights of the short mountains they crossed several days ago hadn’t exactly prepared her expectations or tempered her confidence.

“Maybe an hour! I can get out!”

Ceric sat a few feet away from the edge that Piluho had carelessly flown over to “scout ahead” for them. The wagon was already parked, and most of its contents were being pulled out by the others. Ekky broke away from unpacking to shout back.

“We’ll get you, Piluho! Don’t worry, it shouldn’t take too long—maybe only a few hours, or at least by tomorrow!”

It was quite strange for a canyon, really. Though, Ceric had hardly seen any on Andoa, so he didn’t feel confident in judging the one right before him.

Aren’t canyons formed by rivers or something? he thought to himself with his arms crossed.

For starters, the walls were almost perfectly vertical. Secondly, the width was almost perfectly even in either direction with no real turns or flaws in the carved rock. Finally, the path along the bottom was also quite flat, and Ceric had a feeling that it very, very slowly went deeper out to the left, and was ever-so-slightly shallower the further along in the opposite direction. It would be perfect for water—anything, really— to travel down to avoid most of the day’s direct sunshine.

Water leaves little dips and flows unevenly, though . . . right?

Ekky returned to Ceric and Piluho’s echoing rotor buzzes after putting down another piece of their generator. “Don’t worry, Ce. Once we set up for the day, you and I will get to digging. I mean, with the two of us, I bet we could get down there in no time. No time at all!”

“Yeah. I guess so.”

Piluho continued to push her motors with little results down several tall buildings’ worth of distance between them. It almost felt as tall—in the opposite kind of way—as the mountain they had walked over to get there.

Ceric shook his head at the long night that was coming. “We’ll be lucky to get down that far by tomorrow morning,” he said under his breath.

After spending nearly an hour digging, Ceric finally spoke again.

“How come you can dig so well, Ekky? Piluho can’t, but then, if I remember right, 41 and 43 can,” said Ceric in between calming breaths and drinks. He was sitting in an elbow of their corkscrew tunnel, drinking water he had made earlier from a makeshift canteen while Ekky kept moving chunks aside and squishing it into the rock walls.

“Well, actually, I was supposed to push things. I mean, I really just push the rock really well. I push too well, at least for normal things—I pushed a few important things in half soon after I was made. Master told me to refrain from pushing things, though I’ve figured out how to push things nicely since then.”

Ceric shoved his canteen into his tunic and took over his position behind Ekky, mostly just smoothing out the path a bit. Ekky was far faster at “digging” than he was, probably three times as much so.

No wonder why—he’s not even thinking of it as digging . . .

Above, about a dozen rotations away, 31 did his best impression of shouting. “so the sun is set and the light will fade soon. we were thinking of letting fire burn beside your mirror thing leader. i’m not confident it will give you enough light but the others are feeling optimistic.”

Fire’s voice chimed in, saying with excitement, “I’ve been dying to BURN for weeks, Leader. I mean, like, actually BURN—not just for a little baby flame so you can see at night to do human things. I mean, actual FIRE like a CAMPFIRE that you don’t even want normally, so I’m just—”

31 cut her off. “ok fire you go ahead now if you’re that excited. it’s not like you’re risking it by overworking yourself.” He then tried to shout once more, his head again pointed into the deepening hole. “get ready for more light.”

Ceric and Ekky kept working for a few more hours while the others took turns watching over them. Then, well past twilight, Fire suddenly flicked her flame off—apparently, she had a small reservoir, and it was entirely out. Thankfully, she had a little backup storage in her that kept her personality and motor skills available.

When they were climbing in the dark, after hearing about Fire needing emergency charging, Ceric couldn’t help but ask Ekky, “So what happens when you guys overwork or forget to charge?”

With uncanny cheer and in his usual tone, Ekky said, “We die!”

Ceric stopped dead along the tunnel. “You don’t actually die, right? You can always recharge and turn back on—right?”

“1 died immediately, 2 died in minutes, 3 through 6 died after a few days, and 8 died after several years, according to Lib. 7 is half-broken—she’s still around, but her personality is half-gone, and she can’t talk much, either. 9 was supposed to be able to write, but he lost that ability after a few years. Lib was made after, but Master took so long that he made and lost several new family members during the construction. 10 is still around and fine, but 11, 12, and 13 passed away. It’s probably why 14 was made with his personality—Master said he was feeling angry and upset at how he lost so many being too focused on Lib.”

“What happens if you get charged anyway? Did your master never try to bring anyone back?“

“Dunno. Lib won’t say anything, and Master didn’t want to tell us—well, maybe he was honest about it, but maybe he wasn’t, and he just felt bad or sad about it.”

“Why haven’t you guys tried once he was gone?”

Ekky pulled out his personal light and pointed it further up the curving tunnel. “We have rules, Ce. Important rules. Shouldn’t break rules, especially rules like that.” He then moved on and left Ceric to follow or sit in the tunnel and ponder as if to show he was done talking.

“Wait! I can’t see! And I don’t want to climb in silence with you gone. Hey—Ekky!”

Ekky came back and laughed. “Sorry, Ce! I think my personality is getting old and weak. Too old. Young me wouldn’t have left you—probably not. Surely.”

After making it back to their wagon camp, Ekky charged up with the help of the others while Ceric prepared his bedroll made of suspiciously not-cotton, magically fabricated fabric, and laid down inside the mostly empty wagon. The others spent the night, like most nights, sitting around and talking just far enough that Ceric wasn’t disturbed in his sleep, occasionally checking up on him to make sure he was still asleep and not dead or gone off somewhere.


Chapter 5

“Ekky! Ce! A bit tired. Could use food.” Piluho laid flat on the smooth rock at the bottom of the canyon, her body “sitting” instead of hovering like normal.

“Ce, could you bring my sister up? My hands aren’t great at carrying stuff, and especially not with someone like Piluho.” He closed and opened his four digits. “I can’t grip. Not easily—metal on metal, you know?”

Ceric bent down and carefully picked up Piluho. Her body was about the size of a toddler, though with arguably far more weak-spots.

Gods, please don’t break, he begged in his thoughts as he cradled her and went back into their corkscrew tunnel.

“Leader Ce. Feeling tired.”

Ceric carefully moved as quickly as he could, but it was a long way up the tunnel. “Don’t move or talk—save your energy,” he said sternly in a quiet tone.

“Okay.”

Behind, Ekky climbed on all fours, his limbs less short or bendable as Ceric’s. “They have the generator ready, Ce. Just need her up there. Should have plenty of time—hopefully.”

Minutes went as they climbed. Ceric wasn’t sure just how many—20? 30? He kept moving. And by the time they were halfway up, thoughts started to creep into his mind.

Why, out of all of them, did she have to get herself trapped without access to the generator? Even Fire lasts longer so long as she doesn’t burn. Piluho’s the worst one who could have fallen down—well, except falling would have destroyed and killed anyone else. Still . . .

Piluho spun a single fan blade a single revolution. Ceric tried to ignore it, and instead focused on moving up even faster.

“Hurry, Leader!”

More voices called as they came up and out of the tunnel.

“Here, let me, Ce.” Ekky walked past and held his hands out at the generator. When Ceric held Piluho, he plugged a cable into her jack while the others worked the levers and wheels to generate energy.

“Come on, Piluho . . .” Ceric closed his eyes.

The sounds of metal creaking and moving gears overtook all others while everyone remained busy trying to save her—no one talked until they knew enough energy had passed into Piluho’s body.

For a moment, nothing happened. Ekky unplugged the cable and stood motionless. The others came around and watched, standing equally still and silently. Ceric held Piluho’s body loosely in his arms, waiting for her to start humming and buzzing again.

* * *

“You’re alive.”

Seche rolled onto her back to see her guildmaster untouched and unfazed as she walked up to her.

The Knowledgers Guilmaster bent down with a smile. “I don’t know if you found Alice or not—it doesn’t matter, really. We fought them off and survived.” She then stood up and walked off too swiftly for Seche to follow, her body too stiff and angry to let her move with any rapidity.

The room was full of pain and death. To her surprise, however, Alice remained—she was still in her suit, helping anyone else who still moved. Seche felt around for her wounds but found only tears in her uniform and dried patches of blood. She slowly pulled herself upright, fighting the aches and the screaming signals to stay put.

“Knight of Andria . . .” she called out in something just barely louder than a whisper. Seche tried to clear her throat with spit, but she swallowed nothing. Shambling forward, slowly gaining strength to walk normally again, she passed over dozens of Andrians still lying on the cold dirt. “Knight of Andria—Alice . . .” she said, and this time with more clarity.

Alice remained knelt down beside a young man—his uniform told Seche that he was a Transporter, likely caught up in the sudden attack and utterly unprepared for war.

“Hold on—I’m focusing. Just give me a minute, please.”

Seche stood still, too tired to let herself onto the ground again, and watched.

Given time to inspect everything about her, Seche noticed many small details about Alice’s suit. For one thing, it had a beautiful smoothness, but it strangely lacked the luster that metals typically had. In some ways, it reminded Seche of a kind of polished leather, but it looked far sturdier as if it were perhaps even a kind of rock. Then, it dawned on her that there wasn’t any blood or dirt anywhere—not even on her gloves as she pulled the Transporter man’s bloodstained undershirt open and carefully hovered her fingers over the worst area where he had been struck.

Before Seche could try to guess just what kind of material Alice’s suit was, she saw her draw out several bits of metal without touching them or the man. Then, after all the bits were gone, Alice spent several minutes more closing the wound with some kind of extremely effective skin manipulation spell Seche thought shouldn’t be possible.

So that’s what happened to me, huh? I wish we learned how to do that as Ks—as anyone, I guess.

“Finally!” Alice turned with her visor facing the man who seemed partially conscious and said, “You’re going to be fine, now. You were prolly fine without me, but I might as well keep you from getting infected.”

“. . .Knight of Andria?” asked Seche. “You seem a little friendlier than I expected.”

Alice suddenly stood up. And, while she towered over Seche, she did seem shorter than before.

I thought she was like seven feet tall? she thought to herself, scouring her memories of the stories about Alice.

“Sorry.” Alice cleared her throat with a cough—through her speakers, it was quite startling and louder than Seche thought coughs could sound like. “I see that you have recovered quite well, young K.”

Seche briefly forgot about the aches all about her and asked inquisitively, saying, “You are Alice, Knight of Andria—right?”

“You are quite sharp, there, young K. I suppose it is only natural to assume something different from a character with such history and infamy as myself—but who else would have access to this suit, especially of such fantastic quality and perfection?”

“Well, maybe you stole it from Alice when she was asleep or something?”

Alice laughed, which came off as slightly unnatural thanks to the speakers, but also because it just sounded nervous to Seche. “There are far too many fail-safes in place to prevent damage or theft, even when I do not wear my suit. The technology is far too advanced for you to understand, but it is impossible to use this suit without proper training and customization, anyways.”

Anyways? “Okay,” Seche said, wanting to push a little more. “Then why were you late? Alice is supposed to come through the portal, but that thing looked at least two or three years untouched with the layer of dirt and the weak power—which, by the way, cut out halfway through sending someone to fetch you. I don’t think he made it, to be honest!”

“But—I came through the portal, though.” Alice backed up half a step, then she said, “Look, if you would like to talk about this, then wait over there until I make sure everyone is healed—okay?”

Seche crossed her arms—immediately regretting the decision due to the new pangs of pain it awakened—and sighed with a little extra emphasis. “Fine. Don’t run off—I have a poor Joint boy stuck in gods knows where beyond the portal you helped make. Once everyone is safe and healed, I’d really like it if you helped me get him back.”

* * *

Seche waited at the edge of Zatyon’s southernmost district, one that was largely empty after the ports slowly moved north along the coast.

Wearing an old woolen jacket and thin clothes from before she joined the Ks, she stood behind a particular warehouse now derelict and almost completely broken-down.

Steps came from the edge of the evergreen forest a bit too far into the twilight for Seche to see the source—then, finally, she saw Alice. Alice walked up to her wearing her pristine suit, but it was almost entirely covered up by a gray linen robe with a large hood.

Alice beckoned Seche to follow her back, and so she peeled her back from one of the few metal bits of wall that still stood firmly and joined her back into the woods.

A small click came from Alice. Then, with a clear voice instead of through a speaker, she said, “So, how much do you like the Knowledgers Guild and your guildmaster?”

Alice’s voice felt younger than it should, considering the Knight of Andria had been around for at least 40 years. She has to be 70 or something, right? thought Seche. But the stories always said she never aged, too. Or that it was a title that was passed down along with the suit.

Alice spoke again, interrupting her thoughts. “Well?”

“Sorry.” Seche tried to keep up with Alice’s pace, but it was increasingly more difficult to follow. She regretted not spending more time walking in nature or in general, even. But, at the same time, she couldn’t help but think Alice was somehow powered by her suit like how trains were powered by a massive steam engine. “I guess I’ve become a bit angry and confused at how she has been, especially after yesterday.”

“Ah. That’s why you came here, then—you’re not happy with them?”

“Not just that.” They came upon an open field, allowing Seche to speak more easily without dodging roots and fallen branches. “I was already curious about what you said last week. But then, when I explained what happened to my guildmaster, she just shrugged and told me to forget about it.”

“Forget about me? About the surprise assault on the city while all our soldiers are busy clearing out the Coalition armies on our borders?”

“No. Not exactly—she told me to forget about the portal to Earth to get you. And about how we lost a Joint—I think his name was Ceric—somewhere that wasn’t Earth. At least, I’m pretty sure it’s not Earth. And he hasn’t come back, as far as I know.”

“You’d give up your country for someone you don’t really remember?”

“It’s not like they need me—I’m surprised they even told me what they did about Earth. I guess it’s not much of a secret now, anyway.”

Alice turned around, a smirk barely visible in Nu’s moonlight just below the hanging brim of her hood. “Sounds like something I’d do.”

Alice’s eyes gleamed hazel in the weak moonlight, and strands of dark-brunette hair peaked from inside her helm—she appeared to be about the same age as Seche, if not younger, and far more similar to an Andrian than the depictions and stories described.

“You said your name was Seche, right?” she asked as she pulled off her hood and unlatched her white helmet. “My name is Zo. Zoeca Zepyst. And if you tell anyone, they won’t believe you, so I would just keep this a secret for your own sanity. And safety, because someone might come and find you if you’re too talkative.”

A Zepyst?! Seche racked her brain, then gave up and spoke her thoughts aloud. “That family has a long history with Andria—especially the Ks. How come I’ve never heard of you?”

“You should have, especially considering how everyone knows about my dad.”

“There was a rumor that he either has dozens of secret kids spread across Andoa—or that he has a habit of saving abandoned children on missions and bringing them home. But I thought that was all just part of the story around him.”

“I mean, that’s not completely inaccurate, but not at all that bad. He only has two kids. Otherwise, I’m going to be very upset with him when I meet him again. Speaking of which . . .” Zo put her helmet back on with a clack and two clicks, then flipped the visor down and pulled her hood back over it all.

“Are we going to meet Mr. Zepyst? I heard he’s dead—pretending or for real.”

Zo merely shrugged and told Seche it was going to be a while more of walking before they found out for sure.

Seche couldn’t help but contemplate the sudden revelation of new, bizarre information as they continued through fields, forests, and a few hills while bathing in the midnight light of Nu.

Zo’s suit did resemble Alice’s though it seemed to have a few adjustments made. The paintings always made Alice seem a head taller, and her armor always looked very sharp and shiny. That meant Zo’s suit was either a new suit or was taken from Alice and modified.

Then, there was the issue of Zo herself. She had many features quite similar to most Andrians, including Seche herself—though perhaps her tone was a bit lighter, like an Old Andrian. Zeke was too sunbaked and rugged to even know for sure, but Seche always figured he was more likely from another country like Fercia with how he looked—not much at all like what Zo looked like. But, then she also didn’t look quite like Alice, either. Alice was supposed to have black hair and eyes, nearly pale skin, and a sharp face with soft, youthful skin. In fact, that was part of the mythos behind the Knight—she was supposed to be more like one of the High Pantheon than a mere mortal.

The Knight Seche followed felt too human—almost as if she were not any different to herself. As if she were just an average person, a normal Andoan, and not some space alien from a magical planet called “Earth.”

“Zo, who is with you?”

Seche heard a quiet yet stern voice from the other side of a small stone cottage wall.

“Don’t worry; I brought a friend with me. Her name is Seche Arnyu.”

A short sniff of air and a cough later, and the voice spoke in reply. “Fine. You haven’t done anything stupid lately. I don’t have a choice, regardless . . .” He then opened the wooden door and let them inside the cozy room with a pleasantly warm lamp glowing in the middle of the bare wooden floor. “Take a seat, Arnyu.”

Seche found one of three chairs and sat down. The other two did so soon after, though Zo spent an extra minute and a half de-suiting herself. When Zo finally sat down, her white suit was folded up in a large heap with her boots, gloves, and helm set neatly beside.

“So. Why have you followed Zo out here, Arnyu?” Seche could only guess the old man who spoke was Zeke Zepyst, also called “The Tempest” for his chaotic methods of solving problems and winning fights when he was far younger. Some still called him “The Gray Tempest” because his short hair was now approaching white instead of the reddish-brown it used to be.

“It’s hard to explain. I mean, not really, but sort of . . .” Seche couldn’t help but avoid his gray-eyed gaze, his face twitching slightly with expressions of mild curiosity and seemingly of irritation.

“Don’t worry about Dad. He’s just a bit scary looking, but not actually mean. I promise.”

Seche looked at Zo and slipped into a little smile of relief when she saw her friendly and casual demeanor. “Thanks,” she said before returning to face Zeke. “Right,” she continued, “I’m just not sure I can trust the Ks anymore.”

“And why would that be?” he said in return without hesitation or reaction.

Seche sighed, pondered on the right words, and then, finally, she shook her head and said, “I thought they cared about us—about Andrians, at least. But now—well, I’m not so sure, now.”

“See? I told you she’s a friend, pops.”

Zeke leaned back in his chair, the wood groaning from his shifting weight. “I could report you to my superiors. You would hang. Perhaps worse.”

Zo rolled her eyes. “Stop it, pops! You’re going to scare her off, talking like that.”

Then, Zeke turned to Zo and said, “You should wear a robe when you take that off. I bet Arnyu is more afraid of a half-naked adult sitting in front of her than some old man.” He turned back to Seche and pointed to Zo. “Right, Arnyu?”

It felt like she were in a dream—a confusing, half-crazed dream bordering on a nightmare. Seche shrugged and let the other two argue in a strange, slightly difficult-to-follow yet seemingly playful way. Zoeca didn’t seem to mind the fact that she wore tight underwear made out of some alien fabric, most likely one of Earth’s miracle technologies. Seche wanted to ask if it felt at all cold for her, or if the gray, full-body jumpsuit was somehow keeping in the warmth.

Zeke, in contrast, seemed content to sit with his long, worn leather jacket still hanging onto his still surprisingly-fit frame. Or, perhaps he merely wore several layers of clothing to give the image of more muscle—he wore one of the recently trendy gray button-shirts over a thicker white cotton one.

How did I end up here . . .

Suddenly, Zeke got up from his seat after Zoeca said something that Seche, preoccupied with regret, missed. “Arnyu, it that true?”

She sat upright and blinked her eyes, returning back out from her thoughts. “I’m sorry, I missed what was said—is what true?”

“The portal underneath Bachron district. Is it nonfunctional? Zo said it was off when she came in from Earth.”

Seche tilted her head slightly. “I thought that would be obvious—how did she come through it, though? It stopped working right after we sent . . . right—Ceric.” She looked directly at Zo, who looked increasingly perplexed, and said, “How did you come through there if there wasn’t any power?”

Zo slowly stood up and paced briefly within the confined space available. “Then . . .”

“We will have to talk with your mother,” said Zeke with a long sigh. He suddenly looked a lot less energetic as if just the thought of such a person was tiresome.

Zo nodded. “Yeah, she might know what happened to the portal. And she’s a lot closer than Mom.”

“Well, and we don’t want to go to the bottom of the globe. For all we know, she’s moved her house again.” Zeke now sounded worried.

Seche didn’t want to know what in the world could worry someone with so much experience and personal achievement. Giving up, she spoke her thoughts aloud, asking, “What’s wrong? And who is Mom? Is that someone’s name?”

They stopped, looked at Seche, then smiled at each other.

Zo answered her, saying, “Mom is English for ‘mom.’ And I have another mom—it’s complicated. And what’s wrong is that one mom, the one from Earth, is probably in trouble. Otherwise, it makes no sense why she’d let me go to Earth a few months ago only for her not to check the state of the portal in the capital. And, since I ended up in Zatyon, her portal was turned off. Even though I left at our prearranged time.”

While Seche tried to process everything said, Zeke added to it all. “Celica is the only one who would know how in the gods’ names that portal even opened for you. And because you did not show up at Alice’s portal, something very wrong has happened. You were supposed to go back to Alice, right?”

“Yeah, that’s what I remember. Then, I figured she sent me to Zatyon instead because it was under attack at the exact moment I came back.”

“Well, you were a bit late—a few days late, really. We tried to find you—Alice, I guess—before they came. And when the portal turned off, I thought it was all over. They were already grouped around the city, and there were cannons firing from up along the hills outside of town. By the time you came, we had all fled and hid in shelters while we lost most of our defense force. If I weren’t supposed to report back about our attempt to get you, then I would have died. Or, perhaps, I would have made it out with most of the others.”

Zo bit her lip. “This is why I wanted Mom to fetch me if something went wrong.”

Zeke rubbed his face, seemingly just as frustrated. “And this is why I should have talked those idiots out of a large-scale counteroffensive push. Meanwhile, I was busy at the wrong end of Zatyon, reading books and relaxing while, apparently, Northside was under siege.”

“So what should I do, then?” Seche looked between the two while they pondered on an answer. “I’m in trouble if I go back—at least, I’ll owe a day of wages and a lot of explanations. And I know they would have checked my apartment for me, so I can’t lie and say I was sick.”

Zeke grinned. “Are you into traveling?”

* * *

No.

“Well, Ce, I guess it was time. Can’t help her now. Nope.”

This is ridiculous.

“Come now, Leader Sir. Place her in the wagon. Once we return from our journey, she will have a most respectful burial, and her form shall lay blissfully within the cool embrace of the earth.”

How does such a small thing even have a life to lose?

“she buzzed too much and it probably drained her charge. i mean she had a small space to store power and i can’t imagine her doing well for more than a day. it was rather lucky she even had anything left by the time we found her.”

Then, Ceric stopped hearing their voices. All of the constructs tried to speak to him about their thoughts or to comfort him as best they could, but Ceric’s ears seemed to refuse to work anymore.

This planet is worse than any underworld the Pantheon could have created. It’s a private hell for me to suffer in. I didn’t even like this stupid thing.

Ceric remained kneeling on the ground, Piluho sitting motionless in his lap, his hands carefully holding her still blades. He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the pressure building behind them.

I don’t cry. I didn’t even know her for that long. And she was always buzzing around, and her voice was annoying. Why do I want to cry?

Ceric clutched her frame and stood up, blinking to clear his vision.

This world is a terrible joke. A bad dream. A place I don’t belong in. I need to leave.

He placed Piluho inside a rough blanket he had made to help keep him cool at night, wound it delicately around her, and tucked her toward the top of the wagon where her body wouldn’t get crushed.

Ekky walked up and tapped Ceric, who kept standing still after he’d put Piluho away. “Hey, um, Ce?”

“We shouldn’t have rested. I shouldn’t have rested.”

Ekky stood still, and he let his limbs hang weakly, just as Ceric’s were. “Ce. It’s part of our life. We weren’t supposed to live so long. Not longer than Master. It’s lucky. She was lucky to live so long. We all are.”

“No.” Ceric shook his head and kept repeating the same word. Then, once he stopped, he took a breath and faced Ekky. “Everything on the planet is wrong. Your master was wrong. And you all shouldn’t have ever existed. And Gods damn me, I won’t let any of you die like that again!”

Leaving the others to do their own thing, which soon turned into an early charging session in light of a lost family member and from lacking anything else better to do, Ceric began working on bridging the gap across the canyon. Not even Ekky was going to be of any use in creating some kind of bridge for the wagon, and any other alternative would require what Ceric figured to be many more days worth of work.

As the sun came high through the morning hours and into lunchtime, Ceric continued to plan out his construction. He carved diagrams in the solid rock near the edge and attempted to design something appropriate. Ceric took time to climb back down the tunnel with some rope so he could measure the distance across the gap and found it to be just longer than two lengths of their wagon.

Several times throughout the day, especially when he usually had his routine lunch break, constructs came to ask Ceric about what he was doing. Then, 50 rolled over to Ceric while he was busy carving another design into the ground, startling him when it said, “Leader wants concrete?”

“Gods—hello there, 50.“ Ceric rubbed his eyes and sat across from the large, cylindrical construct. “Your voice caught me off guard. The others rarely talk about you, and I’ve not once heard you speak.”

“Concrete?” 50 said again, this time with more high-pitched intonation, exaggerating the question even more. “Looks like concrete plans. Concrete makes great constructions. Leader drawing plans like Master. Master always used plans for me.”

Ekky came running from the others when he saw 50 inching closer to Ceric. “Ce! Hey, don’t mind him!” When Ekky arrived, he tapped 50 on his side. “Don’t start putting concrete on our leader, 50.”

“50 likes concrete. 50 won’t put concrete on Leader unless Leader wants concrete there. Don’t worry.”

“Good.” Ekky nodded. “Good, 50. Thank you.”

“Has he put concrete on someone before?” Ceric couldn’t help but ask the question, though he didn’t want to believe it would have happened.

“Well, yeah. A couple of dozens of times. But it was fine. 50 was sorry. Right, 50?”

“50 follows plans. Master wants concrete in place, and plans show shape. Not 50’s fault Master and family sometimes sit where plans show concrete goes. Don’t worry. Won’t do again.”

Feeling brought out of his day-long drive to keep moving forward, Ceric remembered he was starving and horribly thirsty.

Gods damn me. And damn all of this world, too. I can’t get anything done, he thought to himself in anger while he walked toward some of the built-on shade on their wagon. And how can they just not feel even a little bit sorrowful or mournful about Piluho?!

Ceric quickly made a basic meal and lots of water, then went straight back to work on preparing for a bridge to be built.


Chapter 6

After resting in a warm, woven bedroll lined with leather, and which was one of three, and which was also about a leg’s distance apart from Zeke and Zo as they laid in theirs within the tiny wooden cabin’s only room, Seche was surprised she managed to fall asleep at all.

However, Seche’s next thoughts after being woken before the light even spilled through the single window built near the door soon replaced her surprise.

What have I gotten myself into? I really shouldn’t be trusted with such decisions—secrets, sure, but not life-altering, gods damning choices for myself. This is how I ended up looking for Alice in the first place . . .

“Sleep well enough, Arnyu?” Zeke was busy lighting a flame to heat up a pot of water, but he continued to speak with his back turned when Seche took to long to reply. “We have a long day ahead of us. A long several days if what I suspect happened has, indeed, happened.”

Zo opened the door without a word and left only a brief freezing draft in her place.

Was she just wearing her undersuit? Seche shook her head and assumed she was still waking up.

Zeke opened a strange container with an odd snapping noise, and then he lifted the transparent lid away so he could take out several fresh vegetables. After he cut them roughly in his had with a dagger, he dug around the objects stacked up nearby until he found one that looked to be made of pottery. But when he unclipped it and opened the lid, it became obvious that it was some sort of ice-box with mechanisms that she could only guess were based on Earth technology—or, perhaps, the same spell-storage systems that worked the Portal or Alice’s suits.

“Do you like fresh fish? Caught this last week, but it has kept well in my freezer, here.” Zeke smiled at Seche as he held up the silvery fish, waving it slightly as if to entice her.

“Yeah, I do—thank you, Sir.”

“Just call me ‘Zeke,’ Arnyu.” He turned back to clean and cut the fish while Seche found a chair and watched.

* * *

“Okay, 50,” Ceric said as he pointed at the diagrams, then to an area a small distance’s way from the canyon’s edge and their camp. “I want you to make the bridge I’ve designed over there. Can you do that?”

“50 will make bridge. Happy to make bridge. Bridge out of concrete. Thank you, Leader.”

And so, the day went on as Ceric thought of other designs until 50 finished the first. Ceric then tested the bridge, found that it split in half with just his weight, and went back to planning. The sun came down low into the horizon by the time they tried a new design with a taller arch, and the concrete anchored better into the ground, and this time, it took several constructs’ weight along with Ceric’s for the bridge to crack.

After creating more bridges, sleeping, eating, and repeating for three days straight, Ceric thought himself a decent architect. Of course, he hadn’t yet solved the issue of crossing the canyon.

As soon as he woke up on the fourth day, Ceric had 50 come with him down into the spiral tunnel down to the bottom of the canyon.

“Okay, 50.”

“Yes, Leader?”

Ceric pointed straight up. “Let’s build a support pillar from hereish. That way, we can build a flat bridge that the wagon can use easily, and then I don’t have to worry about figuring out weird tricks or geometry.”

So they spent the day building layer after layer of concrete, where 50 would lay down a wide circle that was nearly a fourth the width of the canyon gap, then Ceric would lift 50 up onto the higher half each time until they completed more. While it took all day to complete the pillar, they managed to get all the way just before sundown. However, Ceric only just then realized a critical mistake.

“50 places more concrete where, Leader? Where next?”

Ah, right. We still have to build the bridge. And we need to get back to camp for 50 to charge. Gods damn it all, I’m so stupid.

“50 likes concrete pillar. Concrete tower, made of concrete. Very sturdy. Just like instructions. Leader instructions led to beautiful concrete support for bridge.”

“Gods damn it, 50, hold off on the talking for a second, please.” Ceric sat with his back against 50, and 50 remained motionless for the most part. A roll or a step or two forward for either would result in great pain.

“50 can try to make bridge to wagon. Should 50 make concrete bridge?”

“No,” Ceric said immediately, “no. Not yet. We can’t just build across that far without any support. We’ll fall over trying.”

Meanwhile, the other constructs had all gathered around the edge of the canyon nearest to Ceric and 50, calling out and suggesting strategies to get them over safely. But with the sun now below the horizon, Ceric felt there was no good idea that they could think of in time.

Then, he remembered about 50’s lack of charging in a day. Damn it all! he yelled in his head. “Okay,” Ceric said calmly, slowly turning around so that he didn’t disturb 50. “Can you guys bring the charging machine close for 50? Maybe we can bring the cable close enough for him to stay here for the night.”

Ekky nodded in agreement. “Good plan, Ce. Let’s follow Leader’s plan, everyone! Come on, let’s go.” Ekky then led the others back to their camp and instructed them to move the massive machine over to the canyon.

While they waited, 50 spoke to break the silence. “50 made too much concrete? 50 put us in this situation, right?”

Ceric patted 50 on the top, though there was little room to move anyway, so it hardly felt right to do anything else despite his typical preference to keep personal space open. “No, it’s my fault. I mean, I told you to make the pillar, anyway, right?”

“50 always makes too much concrete, though. Concrete all over Home. Master never liked it when 50 made too much. But 50 just made to love concrete, not 50’s fault.”

As they sat quietly and waited for the others to figure something out, Ceric couldn’t help but pat 50 a few more times, even if it did no good.

Once Ekky worked with Ceric to use random poles of metal and the services of their melding construct, 21, who normally refused to leave the wagon and hated talking with the others, the long, flexible tube that let them all charge off of the electricity produced by the strange mechanical machine finally reached out so that 50 could connect and charge up for the night.

And, the moment his services were no longer required to save a life, 21 immediately rolled back into the wagon and wrapped himself in a blanket to never be disturbed for at least a few more days.

Now, we can see about getting ourselves off of here without worrying about another death. . .

Leaving 50 to spend the night on the pillar, mostly due to 50’s large and unwieldy size, Ceric found a spot to sleep near the wagon after the long, stressful day. During the night, 50 called out for Ceric, but he never woke. However, Ceric saw several dreams that had an overabundance of concrete covering everything, including a brief memory of his family home with the added situation of it all being slowly crushed by an ever-expanding sea of the gray material while a large cylindrical shadow loomed in the distance.

When the first signs of sunlight crept up into the indigo sky,  Ceric broke free from his latest nightmare with a start.

Ekky and several other constructs seemed not to expect this, and since Ceric immediately looked around him as he quickly sat up, they all tried to leave their spots just feet away from their leader.

Ceric blinked his eyes and rubbed his forehead. Did they always do that? he wondered to himself before calling out for Ekky.

“Yes, Ce? What’s up?” Ekky turned around and mosied his way back to Ceric’s side. “Did you have one of those ‘nightmares’ Master used to talk about? Those bad dreams? Was it your creator—your mother—being mean, like Master’s nightmares had?”

“What?” Ceric shook his head and finished getting up as he continued, saying, “No, not my mom. That’s—nevermind. No, I had too many dreams with 50 and 50’s concrete, and I think I can blame you for them, to be honest.”

Ekky crossed his arms with enthusiasm. It was a rare sign of mimicry that Ceric knew wasn’t from himself. “Well, I don’t know why it’s my fault! No, I’m innocent. 50 was in your nightmares, not me. And anyway, I bet your creator was in your nightmares, and not 50. That’s all Master ever had nightmares about, and Master had way more concrete placed on him than you have, Ce.”

Ceric sighed. “Ok, forget about that. I’m more concerned that you all crowd around me when I’m sleeping. It’s creepy.”

“Oh,” Ekky unfolded his arms and went back to his usual state of standing. “Well, I’m sorry then. Master always wanted us to keep him safe. Those of us who weren’t busy. You know, since we didn’t have anything else to do. And since we can’t completely go to sleep, anyway. Either that, or we sit near a place where we could get charged so we can eat once the next day starts. Most of us had jobs to do during the night, too, though. Gotta keep busy. But there’s less to do after Master died. Was a lot less to do.”

“Well, thank you then. Maybe just stand a little further back next time? And preferably be doing something else other than just staring at me?” Ceric scratched his neck, feeling a bit wrong asking for such a thing after hearing about their master and their lives in such a depressing manner. But he also feared for his ability to sleep well.

“Sure, we can do that. We’d love to do that! You’re the leader now, anyway, Ce. It’s nice to have new directions from a new leader. And it’s nice to have new things to do now! Ever since Ce showed up, it’s been a lot busier, again.”

Ceric smiled as best he could, and then he waved Ekky to go do Ekky things while he made some water for himself.

These constructs live the saddest, most depressing lives I’ve ever heard of . . . I need to hurry up and get out of here before I start living like them, Ceric decided.

So, after finishing the bridge, they all went back to travelling like usual. Except, now, Ceric slowly removed himself from the Family as best as he could. Unfortunately, even days after making it over the canyon safely, he couldn’t shake his new “best friend.”

“50 makes concrete next when?”

Never would be nice. Never while I’m within your line of sight, 50, but Ceric kept his thoughts to himself. “Well, once we find your old master, perhaps then?”

“50 quite enjoyed bridge-making. Should make another. Should make more towers. Tower in canyon was best concrete construction in years.” Resting comfortably in the wagon, 50 had continued to talk about the past several days while everyone else just let 50 go on.

After a brief lunch break, 50 was back to chatting with anyone who would reply. After four days and four hours more of babbling, someone finally snapped. But it wasn’t Ceric.

21 unwrapped himself from his blanket and said, “Would you just shut up, 50?”

Ceric kept pushing from the front bar, unable to watch what all happened directly. Still, he didn’t expect 21 to burst from his hiding place and start talking suddenly.

“50 just likes making concrete. Been years. Feels good to work.”

21 was relatively similar to Ekky in design in so far that he was also mildly humanoid in form. In fact, after seeing 21, Ceric wondered why Ekky was far more simple and arguably goofier-looking. 21 was about half Ceric’s height, though his limbs were more proportional to his body, so his chest was similar to Ekky’s in size. But unlike Ekky, 21 had a spherical head with two glass spaces and a mouth that produced a clean voice.

Why does 21 have to look and sound like a child, but then talk like an angry teenager . . . 

While Ceric sighed, 21 continued his rant. “You’ve been talking all damn day, 50. It’s getting outrageous! And anyway, can’t you think of anything else? Concrete isn’t that great, to be honest. You can’t eat concrete, can you?”

“50 tries. Has seen marginal success.”

21 stood up in the wagon, shaking everything slightly and disturbing the nice roll that Ceric had built up. “Really? I’d love to see how you managed that? Did you feed Master concrete? Or our brainless leader, Ceric? That might explain why he’s so damn stupid.”

Ekky walked up to wave at Ceric after seeing him sigh another several more times again. “Need a break, Ce? We can stop. You do most of the work—all of it, almost. It’s okay if you’re tired.”

“I need a break from Oppildoa. It won’t stop getting worse.”

* * *

The flat expanse of Oppildoa seemed to have finally met another end. After nearly a week of traveling straight out from the canyon, Ceric and the remaining eight constructs reached a slow inclination toward the now dominating mountains and the strange greenness nestled between.

Seeing the two towering piles of multilayered rock, Ceric couldn’t help but question Oppildoa’s formation all-the-more than before. What made those hills of broken rock around where he arrived? Was it the master and his creations? They all were capable of many works around “Home,” but there was little evidence of such massive productions coming from even whole groups of the “Family.”

Then, there was the canyon. It was so unnatural, yet so insanely long for any single person or group to make. And all the flat land for almost a week’s walk in either direction.

What am I getting myself into? Ceric thought as they began to ascend ever-so-slowly. Perhaps this is where the Gods live. It might explain a lot of things.

“What’s the matter, Ce? Something bothering you?”

Ceric turned to see Ekky walking up beside him. “Do you believe in the Pantheon, Ekky? In the Gods?”

“Master mentioned gods before. Early on—mostly how they hated him. But Master stopped talking about them. Master said he hated the word. Lib probably knows more about them than most of us—more than me, at least.”

“I think I agree with your master on that, Ekky.”

21, still charged with rage over 50’s now daily chatting routine, climbed over the edge of the wagon enough to join in on the conversation. “Master despised the gods of his world. I’m pretty sure I know more than Lib about it all. Master seemed so damn angry right after making me that he just kept ranting about them while taking a break. And then he got all strange when making the next in line, Fire. She might be a bit of his craziness incarnate. He really wanted to destroy things by the time he was done storing my ability to meld things together.”

“BURN THE GODS!” came a shout from the other side of the wagon.

“See? She’s gods’ damn insane, but especially when you start talking about gods. Fire is at least relatively normal when talking about anything else but fire and the gods of Master’s old world.”

“I see. I can understand the feeling, I suppose. How come your master seemed so much calmer when you talk about him, Ekky?”

“Oh. Not sure, really. Master did mention that he was going to surpass the gods a few times. Maybe he felt better after that? Master probably thought of a way to be better, so maybe he wasn’t so angry, after?” Ekky then made his best impression of a shrug with his long, flexible arms.

“Great.” Ceric felt the strain of pulling the heavy cart more and more uphill, but it was the realization that further burdened his stride. With a small, sarcastic laugh, he said, “I might have to deal with another almighty demigod—as if having our own running around in white armor was bad enough. This world’s current owner might be even more insane.”

* * *

Daylight was running out, yet they were still far from the growing green area that looked more and more like an actual jungle instead of whatever the freaky forest that surrounded the Family’s Home.

Lacking a better plan, Ceric had all the constructs help anchor the wagon into the foot of the mountain they were traveling up, and they all did their best to find or make flat ground for the night.

Once everyone ate and charged up, Ceric located a reasonable niche in the rock—which was currently a mix of red-orange and a dirty brown—and set up for the night. Placing his handmade bedroll, which he’d been improving every night thanks to the insanity that was the magic of Oppildoa, Ceric tried to find a comfortable position to get some sleep finally.

“Um. Leader? Um. Are you awake?” whispered Pilpe from behind him.

Ceric rolled over to see Pilpe carrying Piluho’s body in her arms. Pilpe carefully set her down and stood bent over as if trying to remain unseen.

He hadn’t talked much with the 39th construct, mostly because she never wanted to talk to him. Pilpe always preferred to speak with her nearest siblings, namely Ekky and Piluho. And when she wasn’t doing that, she kept to herself. Of course, she also did the most help with moving the wagon. Though her body was fairly small, her arms and legs were thicker than Ekky’s. Her job was not tied to a stored spell specifically, but more to lift or push things around.

The oddest part of her was how she had what Ceric figured to be a face directly on her body instead of up in some kind of head. It reminded him of some kinds of insects from back home.

“I’m awake, Pilpe.” Ceric sat up and pointed at Piluho. “Why did you bring her?”

“Well. Um.”

After she seemed to fail to find the right word, Ceric said, “I hardly see you, you know. You’re always at the back of the wagon. You know, I should thank you for helping push it. There are plenty of times when I feel tired, and I know it’s probably just you helping to keep it going.”

Pilpe covered her face with her thick arms and legs, sitting in a way while holding all four limbs together as if trying to stop herself from speaking. But she soon opened back up and held an arm out. “You see. Um. Leader. Um. I’ve been watching you very carefully for a long time.”

“Right. I guess that makes sense.”

“Right. Um” She scooted closer with her other three limbs, then pointed at Piluho. “Leader. You’re the only one who can bring my older sister back. Um. Yeah. You’re really just like our master from all those years ago. Right. And you’re a lot better than he was, I believe.”

“Better at making constructs like you?”

“Um. No. No, not that. Um.” Pilpe scooted even closer, and then she whispered, “You’re a good human, Leader. And you are like how our master even before he made me. Um. Yeah. We can’t try and remake each other. And our master said he would never do it again. Um. But. But that means he tried before, so that means there’s a chance. Um. And that means that you might have a chance. Yeah. Um. So you have to try, Leader. Please.”

Ceric looked past Pilpe and at Piluho’s body. What would I even need to do to try and reviver her? he thought. How do I make a construct in the first place?

“Um. Leader?”

“Sorry,” Ceric shook his head. “I can’t do it. I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do. I’ve never made something alive before. Your master had years to perfect the strange spells and techniques to form you all. There’s just no way I can bring her back.”

“Ok. Um. Ok.” Pilpe backed up, then she went over to Piluho and picked her lifeless body up and brought it to Ceric. “Just take her and see if you can bring her back. Yeah. Um. You can take care of her for now. Right. And maybe you will figure out how to bring her back.” After Ceric took Piluho, Pilpe quietly thanked him, and then she slowly snuck back to the camp where the others were charging and relaxing.

It’s a good thing I asked them to stop crowding me when I sleep, Ceric thought as he looked at the now-empty Piluho. What did she expect me to do with this? With Piluho.

Ceric shook his head again and sighed.

He looked at his recently upgraded pillow he had attached to his bedroll. For lack of a better solution, he tore out the padding and expanded the rough, clothlike material his Oppildoa-expanded magic had produced, and then he nestled Piluho inside. Once he filled the empty spaces with some of the removed padding, Ceric looked over the look of his new enlarged pillow.

This looks stupid. At least they will all believe anything I say since I’m as much of a mystery to them as they are to me. Well, except 21 and 31. And maybe Ekky. They might not believe me on everything.

Feeling all-the-more tired after twenty minutes of hiding Piluho, Ceric laid his head down and tried to get comfortable. Of course, it wasn’t pleasant, but it beat resting on a rock by a small margin.

Tomorrow, I’m going to have to find a better way to hold onto her. Perhaps I should just tell the others. They wouldn’t think any different of me if I kept Piluho around, right? Ceric then translated the scenario into his normal life back on Andoa. Yeah, this is insane.

Ceric did his best to clean his mind and forget just how odd Pilpe had acted and how troublesome it might be to deal with the Family if he broke one of their rules.

Soon, at least soon enough after another hour of not quite sleeping, Ceric slipped away until hours later. Then, he stirred and turned, a new dream taking hold of his mind.

Ceric saw himself standing at the start of his time on Oppildoa, with the way back evaporating once more. He wore the clothes he came with, but they were worn and frayed as they had become during the past two weeks. Around him was utter flatness, without any signs of hills, fake trees, or concrete towers. Not even a single distant mountain peak.

Ceric heard the distant sound of the constructs—the Family. But they were so far that he couldn’t actually hear anything they were saying or doing. He didn’t even know how he knew they were nearby, only that they weren’t anywhere within sight.

Then, Ceric was climbing up the side of a mountain, carrying Piluho. She twitched and made small sounds, but not a word came out of her. Ceric kept climbing up, but he only slipped back down again. The mountain was a pile of sand, and it refused to let him ascend. If anything, Ceric thought he was slowly falling—rolling, in fact. But he held onto Piluho while she kept quiet and motionless.

When he hit the bottom of the mountainside, Ceric realized that he had let Piluho go. Her body was smashed into a hundred pieces and spread out all around. He picked up each piece, one by one, and set them back together. Her four fan blades, her cylindrical bits of metal that formed shells, her central shaft where her fifth blade connected to—and her charging port.

Ceric then thought back to the few times he had of her talking and flying. No, she can’t fly anymore. Her blades are broken, many bent horribly out of shape. But she was moving just a moment before! He knew she still had life in her, somewhere. And when Ceric looked at all the pieces he had collected, he realized that they were back together again. She had cracks and bends, dents and nicks, and plenty of wear all about—but she was whole, again.

All he had to do was wake her up. He dropped her while falling down the mountain. It was his fault she no longer worked.

“Hi Ceric!” he thought he heard her say. “I’m ok! Not great. But good! Pretty good. I’ve been better. But I was dead. Now, I’m back!”

“Thank the Gods you’re back, Piluho. I really thought you were dead. And the others—your family—they just kept going on like it wasn’t a big deal.”

“Aw, Ceric!” she seemed to say with her usual cheer. “Thank you! They seem like that. But they’re good. Everyone is good. I know it!”

“Well, now we’ll have to go tell the others.”

“Wait. Don’t tell them. You shouldn’t. You know the rules. You can’t. They will be mad.”

Ceric then remembered the rules. He then saw them all gather around him. Many more came from Home. Several 49s flew high in the sky, ready to strike. Even 50 looked angry, somehow.

He had to leave. He had to get out. He had—

Something called out his name. Something near. Someone.

“Ceric? Hello? Don’t tell them!”

Ceric was already awake.

“Ceric?!” spoke a voice from his pillow. Spoke Piluho.

* * *

“Mom? Hey, Mom! Are you around?”Zo walked slowly, her suit awkwardly covered by large, baggy, and horribly dull clothes as if she were a monster trying to blend into society—there was even a low hanging hood to cover her helm. “Mom!” she shouted from outside the large, two-story house that looked to be many decades unkept.

Finally, the old wooden door with chipped and fading lavender-pink paint creaked open. “Yes, scary person?” It was a woman who looked to be in her 30s, with vivid green eyes and pale skin. It reminded Seche of the Old Andrians who were now few and far between.

“I’m not a scary person, Mom! That’s just mean.”

The lady hopped out of her house and stopped right in front of Zo with the biggest grin Seche had ever seen. “Zo! You’re finally back from all your crazy adventures! I’ve been waiting for an actual forever to see you again.”

“Hi Celica,” said Zeke, his hand waving pathetically.

Celica embraced Zo with care, then she bounded toward Zeke with terrifying speed—at least, without using a spell. Then, Seche watched the small woman hug the war veteran and international spy so hard that he seemed to have trouble breathing. “ZEE! You showed up, too!” She finally let the taller and far beefier Zeke down to point menacingly at Zo. “You, little miss miss, are getting a Real Hug once you take that crazy outfit off—yeah?”

Zo nodded promptly. “Yeah, Mom. Of course.”

“Good.” Celica turned to Seche and walked up with a series of strange expressions seemingly emoting curiosity. “Anyways. I’m Celica Aptyu. Who are you, kind lady?”

“I’m Seche. I’m with—well, I was with the Ks. Now, I guess I’m just trying to get a friend back. Well, he’s not even that—I don’t even know—”

Celica patted Seche on the shoulder and winked. “Shhhhhh. It’s okay. I won’t go tellin’ on ya. Your secret is safe with me, Seh.”

Wait—

“Anywaysie, nice to meet you, Seh! I can tell already that you’re an awesome person. You’ve just got that look, y’know?” don’t

“Celica,” Zeke said, seemingly in an attempt to correct her misunderstanding.

“Now! Let’s head inside. I’ve got to make sure my parents are keepin’ warm and stuff. Dad likes to wander around the house and mess with his engines without pants on, and, of course, Mom keeps sneaking outside to walk a few hours to the train so she can prank the passengers! I swear, they both will get into trouble if I leave for five minutes. I mean, last week, Mom painted a naked lady on the tracks!”

“Celica!”

Even Zo chimed in to help. “Mom . . .”

“Oh. Right. Sorry about that, guys. Seh. Anyways, follow me inside and take a seat while I check on Mom and Dad, okay?”

Everyone nodded and followed while Celica rapidly sped up until she was leaping four steps at a time to reach the second floor of her large, creaky but homely home.

I guess, with a mom like that, it might explain why Zoeca isn’t as serious as the real Alice, thought Seche, feeling a bit exhausted from walking and a lot more drained from watching someone older than her have about ten times her own energy.


Chapter 7

“She’s a bit weird, I know,” said Zo. “Anyway, let’s just have a seat for now. She should be back down in a minute.”

Soon after everyone found a seat in one of the dozens of unique chairs and benches, Celica came back down with both her parents behind her. Just as the house seemed to be at least eighty years old, so seemed the two parents. And though they were able to move without much issue, Seche could tell that each movement was careful and measured.

“Zoeca! Zeke!” They both called out and welcomed the other two with wide smiles as they descended. Celica, though full of energy, took her time while taking each step, always keeping only a few ahead of her parents. Once they all came to a seat in the wide but absolutely packed living space, the five family members all caught up on recent events while Seche let her eyes wander.

The room they occupied was not only filled with furniture and plenty of places for people to sit down for a visit, but it also contained shelves, bins, boxes, and barrels packed with all kinds of strange devices that Seche could only recognize to be similar to the moving parts of trains and autocarts. There were gears and pipes of all sizes, shapes, and colors—some bronze, some rusting, some silver, some black, and some even made of wood. Jammed between some of the furniture were more complete objects, some of which were complicated and confusing to try and guess their purpose, and many of which were so large that they looked to be twice Seche’s size. And when Seche looked beyond the stacks of smaller machines and their parts, she finally saw a door to another room—and that room seemed to be nearly as full of junk.

Then again, she thought as she nodded, it wouldn’t look like junk if I spent enough time trying to figure out what any of it is.

“What’s your name, young lady?”

Seche perked up and looked back at the others.

Celica got up and sat right next to Seche, even pulling a chair to be within inches of her. “This here is my new best friend, Ech!”

“Seche Arnyu, Kowledgers Guild Researcher until yesterday—currently missing from work.”

“Zeke!” said Celica with a surprising amount of still horribly soft anger. “She’s wonderful and cute, and a very respectable lady—not some lazy bum who’s not goin’ to work.”

“Well—I mean, he’s not—”

Celica hushed Seche with a sideways hug over her shoulder. Then, she turned to her parents with a smile. “Anyways, they want to talk about Liss and the portal. Did you want to talk with Seh here, Mom? Or,” she looked at Seche with a sideways stare, “maybe Dad would want to chat with you, actually. I think Seh was looking at all your messy mess strewn all around the house, Dad. What do you think? Wanna talk with my best friend for a few minutes?”

They nodded in reply. “Sure.”

“Perfect! Okay, Seh, we’re not going anywhere, but I need to talk with Zeel, and he’s super boring. Can you keep an eye on those two troublemakers? Please?”

“Um—yeah. Of course.”

“Thanks!”

Seche walked across the only gap in the living room to where the chairs Celica’s parents sat in and asked to take a seat.

“Of course!” said Celica’s father. “I’m Felch Aptyu.”

“And I’m Urse Aptyu, miss. It’s nice to see another young lady around here!”

Seche returned a greeting, and they soon were deep into small talk. They talked about their town, and how it slowly drifted away and joined the growing edges of Zatyon. Seche spoke about her family, and how growing up in the city was like. All the while, Seche took mental notes on Felch and Urse Aptyu. She didn’t usually act in such a way, but the sheer irregularities just piled up and forced her to succumb to her curiosity. Seche even found herself asking purposeful questions when she continued to see more odd details about the two elderly Andrians.

“You both sure are lively for your age. I can’t believe you’re both turning 90 soon—I would have guessed 75.”

“Oh, well . . .”

Urse took over when her husband trailed off. “We’re very lucky to have Celica taking care of us.”

Then, a few minutes later, Seche realized something else strange. “How old is Celica, by the way. She looks like she’s 35—even 25 if I didn’t know better considering she’s a mom.”

“Ah. Celica’s—”

“45. But she has our genes, y’know?” Urse spoke over Felch with a smile. “We had her when we were quite old. It was really lucky we had her. I haven’t believed in the gods my whole life, but I thanked Echeqi for allowing us to have Celica. It’s like, very rare to a kid at that age, right?”

Felch nodded along with his wife. “I’m always thankful for Celica. I’ll thank anyone who might have helped us, god or not.”

Then, while Seche was explaining her time at the Ks guild, Celica and the others stopped the conversation.

“We’re going to see Liss, Mom—Dad.” Celica leaned down and gave Seche a partial hug as if trying to rope her into something with her arms. “And we’re takin’ Seh here. Zeel said she likes adventures!”

“What should we do, dear?”

“You’re coming with us, of course! Can’t have you two doin’ silly things and makin’ a fuss while we’re out and about.” Celica let go of Seh and walked upstairs, saying, “Anyways, it’ll be safer if we all go together. And we haven’t been on a trip in almost five years!”

Zeke nodded at Felch, waiting until the older man nodded back. “Come on, Arnyu. We will help you find anything you need to get ready. You might as well get washed up while we clean your uniform. And it would be smart to find some better clothes for our journey.”

“Where are we going?”

“To the South Pole.”

* * *

It was still night. The morning purple veil that heralded dawn was still now drawn across the sky. And when Ceric realized the time, he thanked every God he could think of that the other constructs didn’t seem to hear nor see what had just happened.

“Ceric?”

No. Bad. This is bad. Real bad.

“Hello? Ceric! I can’t see!”

If dreams can do that, can do this—do things with Oppildoa’s magic—then why hasn’t it happened before?

“Fine! I’m being ignored. Fine, then!”

“You’re not actually there, right? This is still a dream. There’s no other explanation,” said Ceric, finally answering Piluho.

“Ceric! You’re there! Could you get me out? I want to get out of here.”

It was strange. Her voice was right. But it wasn’t the same as before, as if he was meeting someone again after they left for war. Or as if he saw a childhood friend after moving away. “Hold on. I’ll get you out of there.”

“Thanks!”

While he worked, however, Ceric realized that he was not where he had laid down to rest. Just like in the dream, he was back down the sloping foothill a ways. Why didn’t he hurt, he wondered. What else happened in the dream that also happened in real life?

No. This is not real. Ceric briskly shook his head. No way. There’s just no way this isn’t still a dream.

“Phew! Finally. It was getting really dark in there, Ceric. And boring.”

Ceric smiled as best he could while inspecting Piluho.

Her body looked like it had taken far more damage than he did on the way down the hill. When he remembered the dream, Ceric rubbed his eyes and tried to slap his face to force himself to wake up for real. And, when that failed, he realized that the events of the dream had affected the real world. All along Piluho’s body were cracks, cuts, dents—and her blades were bent and mangled.

“I’m sorry, Piluho.”

“Why are you sorry, Ceric? What did you do? I’m alive!”

There was something unsettling about her voice. Her new voice.

“Could I ask you a favor, Piluho?”

He couldn’t place what bothered him right away as the sheer shock of what he had done without even being conscious.

“Sure! What is it? What’s the favor, Ceric?”

“Could you not talk while the others are around? They still think you’re dead. And I don’t want them to get angry.”

“Ah, the rules? Yeah. I agree, Ceric. That’s a good idea. Best not.”

For a moment, he felt relieved.

At least they won’t know. Hopefully, he thought.

Then, his mind took the opportunity to tell him what was bothering him so much. For it wasn’t just the fact that her voice lacked the warbling, buzzing sound that she used to have while flying—that was gone when she was dying. No, what he realized was that she was calling him Ceric and not Ce.

This isn’t Piluho.

Then, from a short distance above, Ceric heard a familiar call. “Ce?”

He elected to remain still, hoping Ekky would leave him alone to sleep. Maybe he couldn’t see that he was sitting up?

“Guys, Ce is awake. And he’s fallen down the hill. Straight down.”

There were more voices of interest and intrigue, and soon enough, several of the Family were only a few feet behind Ceric as he remained frozen in place.

Then, out of all things to happen, it was the fake Piluho, who was still sticking out of his pillow, who said something.

“Hey! It’s Ekky! And everyone! Hi, everyone!”

Gods save me.

“Who’s that, Ce?” Others repeated Ekky’s question in their own words, and they all wrapped around to see what had happened.

“Good morning!”

“How did this happen, Ce? How? Who is that? What did you do, Ce?”

“Ceric brought me back to life! And while he was sleeping, too! It’s crazy! But I’m back, now.”

“You’re not my sister. You’re Ceric’s creation, not Master’s. We have different parents. You are a stranger. A stranger in Piluho’s body. And in a pillow. Stuffed right in. Stuffed like a corpse in the ground.”

The other constructs kept quiet, even the typically more vocal ones. Somehow, Ekky was the only one willing or able to say anything. Except, of course, the new Piluho. The fake.

“But it’s me! I’m Piluho!”

“No. You’re a new family. Not ours.” Ekky shook his head and sighed as he’d seen Ceric do many times before. “I’m disappointed with our leader. Very disappointed.”

And then, before Ceric could even think of something to say, the family all left back up the hill to sit back down around the wagon. Everyone but Pilpe.

“Um. Leader?” she said, her thick metal arms held limply behind her.

Ceric looked to the fake, lost at what to do or say.

After far too many seconds of discomfort, Pilpe spoke again—to the fake.

“Is it you? Um. Sister? Piluho sister?”

Flailing bent blades and spinning her motors with a strain, the fake said with cheer, “Of course! Hi Sister! It’s nice to see you!”

Pilpe moved closer delicately, leaving two paths of pressed dirt and several rounded footsteps. “Piluho sister. Um. Hi. Um. It’s been a while since we’ve spoken, now. Um. Do you remember what we last spoke of, Sister?”

“Of course I do! It’s—”

But the fake said nothing more.

Of course it can’t remember. Of course! Gods forsake this monster, and this hell of a planet, Ceric swore in his thoughts with a twinge of anger leaking across his face. To think dreamcasting was a real thing. A real thing on Oppildoa, at least . . .

“Ceric! What’s the matter? What’s wrong?”

He took her out of his pillow and carefully set her body down. Then, with a grim, brief smile, he turned away and spoke to Pilpe. “What should we do now? They hate me because of this—this fake.”

“Um. I don’t know. Um. Leader. But. But she’s still my sister, Leader.”

Leaving no room to dwell on his already draining morning and possible exile from his recent home with the Family, something caught Ceric’s eye far off at the edge of his vision. And while Pilpe gave a long-winded apology, which Ceric ignored completely, he squinted his eyes to try and see what the growing figure in the distance was. At this point, the sun’s tendrils were already clutching the edges of the horizon, and on that horizon was a human silhouette. Ceric looked to the camp to see if it was one of the Family, or if they saw the figure, too. Perhaps they called for backup? Or someone came from Home for some reason?

Who looked and walked like a human, though? Not even Ekky had such a lifelike shape.

“Um. Leader? Hello? Are you there. Um.”

Ceric pointed to where he stared, keeping his eyes fixed while getting up and onto his knee. “Do you see that?”

She rotated herself and lifted her central body higher so she could gaze with her large glass lens. “Oh. Um. That. Um. That person thing that’s running to us.”

“Running?” Great, Ceric added in his mind. More problems. “How can you tell it’s running?”

“Um. Well. My lens doesn’t do so well for close things. So. Um. I can see kinda far. Um. But. You’re really fuzzy instead, Leader.”

“I guess that explains why you attach yourself to the cart, waiting for me to pull.”

“Um. Well. Of course. Um. I usually just follow other people. Um. I used to trip all the time when I was new.” Then, Pilpe walked to the fake Piluho and picked her up with a clumsy embrace.

Ceric was already busy trying to get a better look at the while a shadow stretched from the tip of the sun’s rays peeking through the edge of the other end of the mountains they camped beside. “Should we run to the others, Pilpe?”

“Um. I can’t.” She lifted the reanimated Piluho who was trying to spin her blades and fly, complaining about her inability with eerie cheer. “Could you bring my sister with you? Um. I, um. I can’t hold onto her so well.”

Ceric sighed. “They already know, so why not?” He nearly took off, but then he remembered what Pilpe first mentioned. “You’re not slow, either, right? Just lift that thing if it comes after you like you’re lifting ten carts or something like that. Just don’t let it get you.”

“Um. Okay. Um. I will do that, Leader.”

“Okay. Good.” Ceric nodded, then he jogged as quickly as he could without losing his footing along rocky incline and while carrying Piluho’s body once more.

He never thought about what a child would weigh, but of all times, he suddenly thought, This must be what it feels like to go hiking with a five-year-old who gets tired halfway up the mountain. Then, when the others saw him and came close, Ceric realized, And this is what it feels like to have a big family, I bet. The Joints would have thrown me out and in jail if I tried to raise the dead.

“Ce. You’re back. Back with her.”

“BURN? I vote BURN.”

“i don’t think that’s a good idea but i won’t stop you mostly because i think you’d burn me too.”

“Nobody’s burning anyone! My vote goes to keeping our stupid leader in charge. We have nothing better to do, and it’s not like anyone else since Master has done anything much for us, anyway.”

“This one will cast a vote for our Leader, Sir Ceric. Leaving any individual alone and ostracized out upon this dreadfully desolate wasteland would be outright barbaric.”

Ceric cut in while 9 waved in greeting. “Banish me or whatever. I don’t care. But could you all look over there, first?”

“Look where, Ce? What’s going on?”

10 rolled over to Ceric and whispered, “carry both,” while 9 scooted his body and made room for the new Piluho.

“That way, toward the sun coming up.”

9 pointed for Ceric to place Piluho down, and Ceric quickly complied to better point out the oncoming figure.

“Yay! I was worried! Thank you! I can’t fly now. This helps tons!”

Ekky climbed onto their wagon and looked toward where Ceric had pointed while Ceric tried to look for where the shadow figure had gone to.

“I don’t see anything, Ce. What’s there? What did you see?”

Ceric ran past the wagon and scanned the horizon for the figure. “That’s strange. Scary, actually.”

From a short distance away, Pilpe let out a yelp. “Leader! Um!”

Standing beside Pilpe was a construct with a sleek, eerily human body completely lacking clothes while being the only one Ceric had ever seen who might actually need them. Ceric then saw its face, which was so uncanny that he couldn’t look away. While Ekky kept on ragged clothes when he was in the mood, this construct gave the impression that it wanted others to see itself in the full nude. From somewhere within the dark gray metal face was the semblance of a grin.

“Yes, I’m sure you’re all very excited to meet one of us up close and personal, Relatives. But I’m not here for my extended family. No, I’m here for—” the deep feminine voice spoke as she pointed straight at Ceric with a full-body gesticulation “—him!”


Chapter 8

“What? Me?”

“Yes. We’ve noticed you for a while now, Ceric. But now that you’ve brought all of your new friends to our old home, I was sent to fetch you.”

Ceric looked around to the other constructs, but none said a word.

Of all the times to be surrounded by expressionless creatures. I can’t even guess any of their emotions, much less a reaction.

“I’ll carry you to our base, Ceric. There’s no point in wasting time. And I, personally, wouldn’t want to see you turn yourself into another creature by accident like last time.” The construct woman marched straight to him, nearly knocking 9, 10, and New Piluho all at once. “Stand still, and don’t move while I’m running, or I’ll drag you across the desert by your feet.”

Piluho warbled in place with anger. “Who are you! Don’t take Ceric! And you almost sent us to the ground! Crazy person!”

The construct laughed. “My name is not as cute as yours, but I should tell you all, anyway. It will make things clear.” She crossed her arms and turned around just a foot before Ceric to face the others. “I’m the 3 20 13 version of the 5 20 18 series. But Eqpilquep i Lipilquholq is an ugly name, isn’t it?”

Ceric couldn’t stop himself from letting out a brief chuckle. “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t tell anyone I had that kind of name if I did. That’s a terrible name. I already thought ‘Eq-Qi’ and ‘Piluho’ were bad, but that’s another level of inhuman.”

“Then call me Elui. I thought of it myself last year after learning about names from Andoa.” Then, as she turned around, Elui swooped Ceric into her arms. “Now, Ceric, I think it’s time we move. Your friends are welcome to try and follow, but we couldn’t care any less if they do show up. Not a single one of them can do anything much. They’re bacteria while we’re gods.”

“Wait!” said Ekky.

Several others also tried to say something, but the cut of wind that snapped by Ceric’s ear drowned them from his ears. Elui took off with such speed that cracks spread like a thick spider’s web several feet in all directions from where she launched from—this time, 10 was fully knocked sideways, letting the other two also crash and slide across the rocky hillside.

Meanwhile, Ceric was busy trying his best to speak to his captor, but the weight of the air and even his body itself was too heavy to think clearly, much less allow him to speak.

If they’re. If the Family are. What was that. Word? It sounded. Small. I never. Studied. Science. Gods. Damn me.

Elui took a sharp turn, and for a duration he couldn’t fully track, Ceric lost consciousness. When he came to, they were rapidly leaving the desert that, previously, seemed endless. There was another strange line across the horizon, but it wasn’t trees or mountains. It was the last thing Ceric would have expected—an ocean.

Ahead was a bright blue sea with an infinite horizon of water and an endless beach of pale sand. Somehow, the water lapped and waned organically while still leaving a nearly uniform line of wet sand going out toward the edges of the border between the desert and the ocean as if some great machine had drawn it in with a perfect ruler a million miles long.

How in the gods’ are we going to cross that?

Ceric’s mind functioned slightly better for a few moments while he got used to the speed without sudden turns. But the ocean quickly came closer and closer without an answer.

We’re “. . . not. Slowing. Down?”

“No, Ceric. It’s not that wide of an ocean. And I have nearly infinite power, anyway. Just sit tight and don’t think too hard. You’ll lose consciousness again.”

After what felt like both several minutes and about five seconds, Elui hit the waterline and kept going as if nothing had changed. And while her speed felt slower than before, there was a new sensation that was arguably worse than when she was running across the flat rock of the desert behind them. While Ceric couldn’t exactly see what was going on with how Elui carried him in her arms, it seemed like she was kicking the water so hard and so quickly that it never had a chance to know that you weren’t supposed to run on water. Along with a slightly increased “bounce” with each stride, Ceric heard loud, hard splashes fall quickly behind them as if someone was shooting cannonballs into the ocean.

At least I’m free from that cursed desert.

The air still slashed at his ears and cut into his face, but with the added benefit of a slight, salty aftertaste instead of a dusty one. But within the now fully risen morning sun’s rays, Ceric didn’t mind the tradeoff since the salt was carried by a constant pinch of cool ocean mist.

After about three or four times as much time as what felt about right for what Ceric figured was the duration of the trip from the others to the ocean—he decided it was probably forty minutes or so—Elui slowed down. And in the growing distance came an irregular line of a real coast. A beach with rocky bits and sandy bits, and plants growing normally like they actually wanted to be there. And though it still seemed quite hot, Ceric felt slightly more comfortable for some reason he couldn’t quite place.

“We’re here,” Elui said when they came onto the closest beach. She then set Ceric down with a rapid but gentle motion. “It’s much better here, right? It should be somewhat like Andoa, or so I assume.”

Ceric stumbled and fell when he tried to walk forward while his innards reshuffled back into place. Then, after a minute of recovery, he carefully stood back up and took a couple of steps around Elui.

The air felt humid and warm, but when compared to the desert, Ceric couldn’t help but feel at ease. When he looked up, he realized the horribly large and murderous sun was quickly being obscured by a collection of clouds darkened by a future storm’s torrents. Yet just across the sky were bright, cheerful fluffs dotting the way above the ocean.

Didn’t rains come from oceans, not the other way around?

Ceric tried to think upon the rules of nature on Andoa, but he never had the mind for science or any time to study, anyway. But he was sure rain wasn’t supposed to go out toward the sea, having lived in a port city all his life. But, then again, Andoa was certainly less warm than Oppildoa as far as he could figure, and Zatyon was often covered more in light snow and ice than rain. Perhaps rain did different things along warmer coasts?

No, that’s not right. I’ve been to enough countries. Rain doesn’t do that.

“Well, Ceric? Does it bring you back? You . . . you are from Andoa, right?”

“Sorry. I was just thinking about the rain clouds coming this way.”

She nodded, saying, “Yes. You’re pretty sharp for a stupid person, Ceric. I guess everyone has their moments.”

“Um.” What? What do they want with a “stupid person?” he continued in his thoughts. “I’m sorry?”

“Nothing, Ceric. You’re obviously not well-educated, but perhaps you could have been. Considering the many twenties of years of disconnect from Andoa we’ve had, I wanted to believe the general level of knowledge would have gone up since our first had arrived. He was a noble, though.”

“Well, I’m just a random parcel-runner. At my best, I’ve been a soldier somewhere in the background of an insignificant patrol or one-sided fight. They don’t need to teach me how weather works, just how to fight and carry heavy things for long distances. I’m sorry I’m not what you expected, I guess.”

“That’s alright, Ceric. We don’t really need you for anything.” Elui beckoned him to follow before walking at a brisk but far more reasonable pace than when she carried him. “We have limited time, so best make use of it.”

Ceric jogged to catch up to her, dodging branches, shells, and stones along the progressively less-sandy beach to what he had to conclude was “north-ish. “Why bring me if I’m not needed?” he called out as he came closer to Elui. “At least the last group of constructs wanted something from me. What’s the point of taking me from them?”

Elui led them through a winding trail along a wide river valley surrounded by trees and shrubs. They kept moving along the path until it ran into a paved road that crossed over the river. Then, Elui stopped and had Ceric do the same. “It should be here in nine minutes.”

“What? What’s coming?”

“Don’t worry, Ceric. You’ll be fine. In fact, I think you’ll like riding our stones more than having me carry you.”

“Stones?”

Elui crossed her arms and smiled, her metal face somehow bending comfortably and naturally as a human’s. “I bet they can’t make them on Andoa. That world doesn’t support such advanced techniques, right?”

“That doesn’t explain what a stone has to do with riding something? We aren’t getting on a boulder, right?”

“No, no. That would be silly, Ceric. Of course not.”

Ceric then waited along with Elui, looking more carefully around the new environment she had brought him through.

What in the gods’ name was that place I came into if this is the same world?

Water flowed peacefully underneath them. Stones of many kinds tumbled and piled up along the banks, grass grew where bushes and trees couldn’t be bothered to, and there was even the faint sound and movements of small insects buzzing and hovering around the nooks and bends of the meandering river as it made its way back out to sea.

And the bridge they stood on was almost just as natural to see compared to the concrete nightmares of the others’ Home. It was formed beautifully out of some foreign material like wood, but it felt far studier and without weathering. And despite the nearly perfect smoothness of its surface, the bridge looked more like a hill of uniform dirt or clay had been pressed into a bridge shape like it had always been around. Just like the rocks and the river around, the tawny path flowed organically into the land not too unlike how the dirt path they followed to reach the bridge had. But Ceric knew it wasn’t just formed through repeated travel. Bridges weren’t natural occurrences.

Especially not bridges so smooth with a long, winding road on both ends.

“What did you want me for, Elui?”

“We’re bored.”

“Ah.” Ceric nodded softly, then went back to watch the river flow and listen to its susurration.

“You know, I just want to go back to Andoa,” he said a few minutes later.

“That’s nice. So do we, Ceric.”

“Ah.” Ceric nodded again. “But you’ve never been to Andoa, right?”

“No. Not literally. But we all share our first’s memories. He was from Andoa. So we’re from Andoa, in a way.”

“I see.”

A strange gnat cloud wobbled and fluctuated in oscillating oblong spherical shapes. Ceric was slightly worried to see gnats as large as flies. Perhaps they were flies? But flies weren’t the type to fly like that, right?

At least there’s life on Oppildoa over here, he decided. Even if it’s not quite like Andoa. Perhaps that’s how things are on Earth, too? Maybe their plants and animals are also a little different from ours?

In the distance, thunder sounded. The wind picked up speed and shoved the wobbly gnat flies back toward the riverbank. Leaves blew from the hillside above them and tumbled past their feet. Ceric felt a wet drop strike the back of his neck.

“That storm sure came quickly, huh?”

Elui nodded. “Yes, Ceric. They do that. But don’t worry, our ride will be here in under a minute. If you’re that worried about the rain, you could stand right next to me. I can make an umbrella for us.”

Still looking out toward the river, standing calmly beside his metal construct captor, Ceric shook his head. “I like the rain. I mean, I’ve been living in a gods forsaken desert for weeks. I would pray for rain if I believed there were any gods on this world or back home.”

“There may be no gods on Andoa, Ceric, but you’re talking to one now.”

“Right. You did say that, didn’t you?”

“Yes, Ceric. I did indeed.”

While he emptily pondered on what to say next, the drops hit with greater regularity while the wind tossed his hair about. And within a minute of gusty silence, Elui tapped Ceric on the shoulder and pointed.

“Looks like we made it before you became utterly drenched, Ceric. Our ride is here.”

With his back turned, Ceric never noticed the hovering object faintly reminiscent of an Andoan autocart.

Elui walked to the object and lifted up a glass lid. “Just take a seat over there, Ceric. Don’t worry, it won’t fall. In fact, it’s rather resistant to distractions like added weight and fallen trees in its way.”

That doesn’t sound very comforting.

Ceric walked around the smooth, rounded object and placed his hand to pull himself up. Though he expected it to bob down like a boat in water, the “stone” kept perfectly still.

“Hurry up, Ceric. These are instructed to stop for two minutes before they take off again.”

“Instructed?” But he quickly clambered inside and adjusted until he was lying on his back, reclined as if he were watching clouds on a grassy hillside.

Rain tumbled into the “stone” until Elui saw that he was still, and then she quickly pulled down the glass lid until there was a satisfying “click.” “Good. That would have been frustrating to close if this took off while it was still up, Ceric,” she said. “This should be a little better than earlier for you, I believe. But we shall soon see.”

Ceric dared not move, instead electing to brace for something to happen. He wished he had looked for it coming to where they had waited so he could know what to expect.

At least this is a better position to move quickly in than in Elui’s arms. It has to be, right? And why do they call this thing a “stone?” That still—

They jerked forward with such speed that immediately brought back Ceric’s memory of Elui launching from the stony hillside in the middle of the desert. This time, however, there was no rush of wind to tear at his eardrums, nor the weight of dusty air to sand his face down. Of course, Ceric still felt like he was being crushed into the seat of the “stone” as he had felt while in Elui’s metal arms. Both were just about as soft, which was only slightly more pliable than a polished granite floor. In some strange kind of way, Ceric marveled at whatever kind of metal they both were made of to feel even remotely softer than the typical iron or steel of Andoa.

Just like before, however, it took a minute of strained thoughts with distracted warning signals shooting across his body for Ceric to complete all these thoughts and come to such conclusions.

“It should be no more than an hour for us to arrive in the nearest city, Ceric. We’ll have you do your human things like eat and drink if you’d like. Our trip will then be most the day, so don’t waste the chance.”

Ceric tried to speak, but it was still difficult to move and enunciate properly. “Why. One. Stop?” was all he could say.

“Well, Ceric, I say most the day, but I say that to prepare your expectations. It should be about eight hours from the city we’ll stop at.” Elui started pointing around as she spoke, saying, “You arrived in a no-go zone. We leave that area alone for preservation purposes. We just crossed the small sea that surrounds that area taking the shortest path, so that brought us to the middle of nowhere. We have cities all across Win-Andoa, where we have created and recreated many things from our old home. The one nearest to us now has more human-based projects, including recreating food from Andoa and growing crops. We could stop at another city later, but only if you must relieve yourself. Count yourself lucky that it’s the nearest city that has some of our experimental human food, Ceric. Otherwise, you’d have to make your own again.”

“Is. My food. That. Pathetic?”

“I didn’t see it personally, but from what I’ve been told, you’re about as proficient at food production as you are at trying to fly. At least you made proper water. Else you’d have died a week ago.”

“Gods. Damn. Explains. Some things. I guess.”

“You’re probably short on several vital nutrients, Ceric. It’s not my specialty, so I don’t know for sure. We’ll talk to specialists when we stop, though, so don’t worry about it. The fact that you’re still able to walk and talk is probably a good sign.”

Ceric laughed painfully, his lungs angry that he didn’t stop himself in time. Then, after several minutes of silence, he did his best to speak more clearly, taking in plenty of air in preparation. “So why do you call this thing a stone?” Then, he ran out of breath. He realized that he might never get used to moving so fast, and he grew very slightly jealous of a metal construct like Elui, who could move around like it was nothing.

“Have you ever skipped a stone, Ceric?”

“Oh.”

“The version that created the stone system thought himself to be very clever, I believe. You might get the chance to talk to him someday, Ceric. That is if you live long enough out here. I’m not so sure what all will happen to you, but Win-Andoa large enough that a single human might spend their entire life without seeing everything we’ve done. Our first certainly failed to see much beyond the land you arrived at, Ceric.”

“Right. And I want to go home.”

“Ah, yes. Of course. That may happen sooner than you’d think. You’re not very necessary, but that’s because I don’t think you’ll be of any use.” Elui patted Ceric on the head. “That doesn’t mean we don’t intend on opening the way back to Andoa as soon as we can. If you’re a good boy, we might send you back when that happens.”

“Great.” I feel like a pet.

“If you actually make yourself useful, however, I’m sure we would be even warmer to the idea of sending you off when that day comes, Ceric. But for now, I think there are many others who would like to work with you. We’ll bring some of our researchers from Ene-Riuyon for you. I think they’ll be excited to see a new human from Andoa. Actually, you’re the first most of us have seen, Ceric. Imagine that!”

“I can’t wait.”


Chapter 9

Somehow, it only dawned on Seche that they were serious after arriving at the mouth of the so-called “Valley of Frost.” Seche preferred that colloquial name over the other one. But considering entire nations refused to send troops across the pole, it was no wonder the other nickname was “Frozen Death,” or whatever similar phrase between the two names each language made for the massive, desolate glacier system that most of Andoa’s mountains guarded.

“Everyone, make sure to say somethin’ if your heat spell stops working!”

Celica’s parents were busy laughing at some sly joke Zeke had just whispered with a straight face. He had spent most of their train and boat rides talking with them, leaving Celica to bombard Seche and Zo with her chattering and questioning. Seche was spared enough of the time thanks to Zoeca’s regular rebuttals and counter-questions, but it seemed that everyone liked to talk to some degree or another.

I’m surprised the Tempest is this talkative and even a bit silly, she shook her head as she realized in her thoughts. Maybe I’ll try to corner him for the rest of this trip. He might just be talkative because those two are so sociable. Seche nodded, feeling confident in her new strategy.

Celica then spoke aloud once more, declaring, “Onward! It’s gonna be several days until we arrive, so let’s not stand about anymore. We’ll run out of food in the most dangerous place on Andoa.” She then chuckled as she walked ahead of the pack, letting Zeke and Zoeca follow behind with the majority of their supplies in tow.

Maybe I should have asked to carry more.

But Seche shook her head when she looked toward the valley’s mouth and saw the sliding glacier and its chilling river that drained past them and into the sea.

I think I’m going to lose my fingers in a few hours walking across all that ice, especially if I’m dragging something behind me.

With a sigh, she followed the others, pulling together her jacket just a little bit tighter than it already was.

So Seche looked once more to the massive wreath of mountains seating a sheet of miles-thick ice that stretched out into the distant horizon before them. Above the ice danced flurries of many-times refrozen snow and ice as it was blown about like sand across a dune-filled desert. Past the mouth of the valley, Sech saw no signs of greenery. They had but an hour or less of remaining tundra land, with what little evergreens, hardy grass patches, and wiry bushes there were, to enjoy before they would have to climb onto the glacier and make their way to where Alice was said to live.

If Alice does live here, I’d like to know how she stands the cold. Or finds food—or stays sane, for that matter.

* * *

Okay. This is normal. Flying a few feet above the ground in a fat disc that fits several people, but you’re the only people, and there’s now three other metal people—

“I think Ceric here will be able to help us quite a lot, Elui.”

“Are you sure we can’t get bigger samples? I’m confident we can put him back together without much damage.”

“Calm down, you two. You know we’re bringing him back to the Center. The Representative has the final say,” said Elui.

“We don’t have to listen to that old thing. It’s practically falling apart. I don’t think it represents the First at all.”

The other researcher interjected, saying, “Don’t talk about the Representative like that! It’s unsightly.”

Elui sighed and patted Ceric on the head while the other two kept arguing in the back of their larger stone. “Don’t worry, Ceric. No one is going to take you apart for at least another day. Besides, I think you humans don’t work so well after certain kinds of damage; the likelihood of you actually getting hurt are slim.”

Gods, please get me out of here. I’m surrounded by steel demigods with a mild lack of humanity.

Then, Ceric immediately imagined a little voice shouting at the top of her capacity. He wished for just a moment that the metal “gods” were flammable. Certainly, he chuckled quietly and thought, it would satisfy Fire.

Ceric tried to let the others keep themselves busy while he remained quiet, answering short questions that were popped onto him every minute or two. During the longer breaks, he thought back on the city they stopped in.

The food was alright, he decided, but it lacked a certain “made-ness.” Sure, his creations since arriving on Oppildoa were worse, objectively, but the food they made there was too mechanical. First, they gave him water with extra nutrients they calculated humans required. It tasted like rusty mud with a hint of salt, and yet it had a terrifyingly green tint, which only made it harder to drink without immediately gaging.

Admittedly, he did feel a bit refreshed after even just the first few sips.

They then had him try several different fruits and vegetables they were experimenting with. Out of everything, they were the most satisfying to eat. But he wasn’t confident that a single one would grow back on Andoa. They all seemed to lack certain qualities that made food food back home. Seeds, for example. Ceric wasn’t so stupid to not know how plants spread, though he was pretty sure it was the jokes made at his expense that taught him that some things have seeds on the inside, and later that plants won’t actually grow inside your stomach.

Nothing could have prepared him for the meat they had, however. They said that some of it was grown and later killed—those bites were the most reasonable, but Ceric also had to tell them that most of their selection smelled terrible and were therefore likely spoiled. Then, he had to remind them that people get sick and die from ill-prepared and spoiled meats. One of the researchers who argued with him was the one construct sitting directly behind him, debating about the amount of Ceric that could be removed without ruining the rest of him.

I’m going to have to make them stop in another hour or two. I can feel it already.

Ceric still tasted the acid in his mouth. Everything else was liable to come out just as pleasantly out the other way and as fast as it could.

But no matter their failures in “human” research, Ceric couldn’t help but admire their construction projects. If 50 were around to see their neat walls, paved streets, uniform buildings, and endless farms bordered with fences and dotted with more menial machines, Ceric was confident that he would just put more concrete everywhere, given enough time. But Ceric briefly imagined that 50 would respect and enjoy the sheer effort it must have taken these constructs to make what, at least from afar, looked like an actual human settlement somewhere on Andoa. Perhaps not quite like what he knew in Andria, but it certainly felt like it could have been made by some particularly quirky culture somewhere.

“Just wait until you see Center, Ceric,” said the other construct who was in the “non-dissection” camp, along with Elui. His name was long, something like “60 of 205.” But he was slightly more original than Elui and the other constructs Ceric had met because he actually had a normal Andoan name. Shul sounded like someone’s great, great grandfather, but it still sounded like an actual name instead of some number derivative. “It’s going to be twenty-times better than Ene-Riuyon. Easily,” he said with another metallic grin. His face and voice gave him the appearance of someone around Ceric’s age, which almost made his name comically unfitting.

The pro-dissection advocate spoke its mind in the absence of a response from Ceric. “I say we find one of us who might have a knack for recreating Ceric. We need more Cerics to share.” Many of the metal constructs he met in the city were quite minimally humanoid, and this one seemed quite happy to barely have a face at all. It’s voice, along with the fact that no one used a pronoun for it, reminded Ceric of the god with no gender, able to shift into anything it wanted.

That god liked to seduce people, though. If only this “god” was like Sesalethi, Ceric thought with a disapproving head-shake.

“Hoq, that’s a terrible idea. We’ll end up with a bunch of bad imitations. You saw Ceric’s reaction to our plants and animals. We aren’t nearly as accurate as we thought,” said Shul. He turned and smiled at Ceric. “Right? It’s a bad idea, isn’t it?”

Still trying to reduce his interactions with the others, Ceric took several seconds to say, “I don’t think a single bit of food I had was the same as they are back home . . .”

“See?” Shul turned back to Hoq. “We’ll have dozens of Ceric-looking us if anything.”

Hoq laughed in a way Ceric couldn’t help but hear as evil-sounding. “That would be fine with me. Maybe we’d reach a proper Ceric after a few generations? Might not take a year if we avoid taking the first one apart.”

Ceric cut in, unable to stop himself. “What, would it take a few days or something if you killed me and started looking at my insides, then?”

“That’s right. In fact, I think you might have a knack for my kind of research, Ceric.” Hoq reached out and patted Ceric on the shoulder and gave what could only be interpreted as a smile considering Hoq’s nearly nonexistent face. “Are you sure we can’t have you fetch another human to be dissected in your stead? I think I would feel a tad sad if we failed to put you back together or if you didn’t wake up now that I’ve been around you for a bit. You’re more fun to talk with than this loser sitting next to me.”

Shul shook his head. “You’re confusing an interest in Ceric’s insides with Ceric, Hoq. There’s no way you actually enjoy talking with someone you’ve heard about two minutes of conversation from.”

“I like him a lot more than you, that’s for sure. Besides, I would rather put something I’ve not gotten to know at risk of death than Ceric. Right, Ceric? You can find someone else so I don’t have to maybe kill you to further my research, right?”

Ceric pressed his hands into his face despite the speed of their travel still bearing down just as much as before. “Why did the gods decide to dump me here?! Why did I get picked to go through that portal?! Why did I confidently walk right in like it was my front door?!” He then proceeded to give an “AHH” for about two seconds before his chest remembered the pressures pushing on it, forcing Ceric to spend a full minute choking while trying to catch his breath.

With both hands splayed out, pointing at their captive, Hoq said with a chuckle, “What’s not to love about Ceric, Shul? It’d be a shame to lose this kind of entertainment!”

* * *

“So, when will Alice come out to greet us?”

The grandparents were sitting on Zo’s sled, holding onto one of the larger boxes lashed-on, casually chatting with each other about the neat sights they could see. Zo trudged forward in her suit, seemingly more like some god’s construct marching without pause than a woman Seche’s age. Zeke also dragged a sled with about as much equipment but just one person sitting on top for a free ride.

“Faster! Come on, Zeep, you can go faster. She has one more body to pull than you!” She yanked on the thick cable that was tied around his body, but it didn’t budge. Instead, all it did was make Zeke grumble quietly under his breath.

Who are these people . . . and how are they legends?

It was the third or fourth time Seche had let such a thought lose since they left for the south pole. She couldn’t pinpoint every moment that made her question such famous people, but they were all some kind of embarrassing, silly, or stupid situation such as seeing an old man and a young lady dragging around two to four times their own weight behind them on a glacier while lazy people harangued them.

“Are you sure you don’t wanna sit with me, Seh?” Celica patted a random metal box as if it were a comfy pillow. “There’s no need to trudge through the ice and snow on your own. You look sad and lonely over there, anyways!”

“No, I’m fine—thanks.”

I already fell into the snow a dozen times already, anyway. At least we’ve been walking on miles-high ice for the past four hours.

After a few minutes of chattering voices between the two “sleds” and Seche’s chattering teeth, Celica got up from her ride and walked over. “I think I’ve recovered enough, Seh.” She hugged Seche as they walked, nearly sending them both face-first into the ice, then laughed about it.

“Um. Celica?” Seche readjusted her pack and glanced at the older woman again. “How much longer will it be—until we find Alice?”

“Oh, well! That depends on if she’s doing alright or not. She normally finds us by this time. Then again, we’ve never done this. Well, I’ve never walked out there. I think Zee did once, and lil’ Zo did a few years ago. Zo was found within a day, but Zee said he ran into her within a couple of hours.”

“So, does it take her a day if she’s not doing alright, then?”

“No, prolly not. We’ll have to go and find her in that case! But don’t worry, those two already have a good idea of where her house is. It’s HUGE, anyways. There’s no way she isn’t somewhere in that thing.”

That’s not terribly reassuring, Seche thought reflexively. “So how long will it be until we get to Alice’s house, then?”

Celica looked at the dim, gray sky as if searching for an answer. “Dunno!” she said after presumably giving enough thought on the matter. “Could be a few days. Zee had us pack for a week’s worth of traveling, but he’s prolly overdoing it.”

Then, after everyone navigated over a long crack several feet wide and hundreds of feet deep, which terrified Seche while just irritating Zo and inconveniencing the others, and another twenty minutes more of their trekking across the glacier, Celica finally spoke again.

“Are you sure you don’t wanna sit down, Seh?” she said with a more concerned look than usual.

“No. I’m fine—really.”

Celica looked both ways, pointed at Zeke’s sled one last time, then jogged back over to sit down again.

There’s just something wrong with making him drag me all this way. I’m young, anyway. Seche nodded, feeling slightly better about letting Celica go after remembering she was far older than herself. How old is she, though?

Seche looked again at Celica’s parents, wondering what they did to look so young. Despite hardly walking since they left their boat at the mouth of the valley, the two seemed full of energy like two children sitting on the floor, talking all day about anything and everything.

Shouldn’t they be frail and worn out by now? Considering Master Zepyst is Celica’s old friend, and he’s as old as he is despite his health . . .

She inspected Zeke closely, walking up beside him as he marched with occasional grunts and mutterings. Zeke’s eyes were nearly as gray as his short, sparsely distributed hair. His beard was slightly more lively looking, and yet it still gave the feeling that he was well past his youth. And despite his strength and his stout frame, it was obvious from the wrinkles and deeply tanned and worn skin that Zeke had lived his whole life outside.

Yeah, he’s easily 70 years old. Could be older—75, maybe? 80? she mused in her thoughts, twisting her head as she glanced back at him again and again, inspecting every little detail she could use. It’s a wonder he’s still walking around with such vigor. I wonder if he’s found a technique to help him move, or perhaps some secret method of reversing some muscle and bone wearing from age?

“Yes, Aptyu?”

“Oh, I’m sorry—sorry, Sir.”

Zeke sighed, though he kept moving without slowing his pace. From behind, Celica seemed to giggle to herself, but Zeke kept his focus on Seche. “You should have spent more time looking me over when we first met. I am a little busy trying to maintain focus while this freeloader makes my job twice as hard.”

“Oh. I mean—yes, I imagine so.” Seche looked back at Celica, who gave a thumbs-up with a smile. “Um. Sir? Would you like to switch for a while? I wanted to ask you a couple of things if you don’t mind.”

Zeke chuckled. “Do you know how to manipulate to augment moving a load like this? Or how to reduce the force that a sled like this exerts?”

Yeah, of course he’s using a technique—it would be insane to ask someone his age to—

“Arnyu, what are you busy contemplating? Forgive my frankness, but you should have had a “yes” or a “no” within seconds. What is on your mind?”

“I’m sorry. Again. I’m just trying to figure you all out. I know it might be rude, but I don’t understand what’s all going on or who you all are—other than that you’re all not like normal people.”

Zeke waved at Zo and called out, saying, “Break time, everyone. I could use a drink and maybe a snack.”

So everyone gathered around and sat on a sled or stood beside one while water and food were unpacked. Unimaginably, they were still on an endless sheet of ice where only distant hints of mountains and wisps of clouds gave any sign that something else might, perhaps eventually, exist if they were to walk far enough in any direction. Though strange at first, Seche was now used to the different formations and the mild variation in terrain they had crossed. At the moment, it was exceptionally flat, even lacking dunes of ice or striations that she had seen before.

“Arnyu here wanted to know more about us,” Zeke declared after everyone got comfortable with a refreshment. “So I suppose we should explain what she felt too timid to ask the whole time we were together this past day.”

Everyone nodded or gave some simple form of affirmation—except Celica, who instead elected to tussle Seh’s hair and give her a sideways hug. “Why’re you so shy! We’ll answer any of your questions!


Chapter 10

“There, Ceric. Look outside. To the right,” said Elui as she pointed past him, her metal arm almost touching his nose.

Ceric wasn’t sure what exactly he should be looking for, but he was sure it had something to do with the gray mass peeking just at the edge of the horizon.

“Is that the city you’re taking me to? Is that ‘the Center?’”

“Yes, Ceric. We’re about twenty minutes away from the borders of Center, now. But it will be another hour before we reach the Representative.”

“You’re going to love it, Ceric!” Shul gesticulated with wide, open arms, saying, “It’s absolutely huge! You could spend years walking around, trying to see everything.”

Hoq said with a hint of irritation, “Most of it is a bit redundant. You wouldn’t need years to see all the important parts. Then again, maybe a human like you would, Ceric. Who knows?”

The three then spent time chatting about where they were going to go after they brought Ceric, or what they thought the Representative would want with Ceric, and so on, while Ceric shut them out and focused on the approaching city.

From the uncomfortable position they were all in, heads back and nearly lying flat in the speeding “stone” vehicle, he couldn’t quite make out everything without hurting his neck. But from what Ceric could see, it became all-the-more obvious just how strange the buildings and other structures were.

While still far away, Ceric could make out many towers of gray and glass. They must be hundreds of feet high, he wondered. Maybe a thousand or more!

And around the towers appeared to be smaller structures also made of concrete, though not all had as many windows or openings as many of the taller buildings. Despite the material used for the road or the bridge, it seemed these constructs still liked to create plenty of things out of concrete, too. But Ceric couldn’t figure out why they would even bother if they had something better already. Perhaps these were just a lot older? he thought for a moment. But that doesn’t make sense unless they were important. Or unless they were lazy.

Ceric laughed at the thought, which immediately gained the attention of the others.

“What’s funny, Ceric?” Hoq then pointed at Shul. “Other than this guy.”

“Nothing.”

Elui shook her head. “I don’t believe you, Ceric.”

Hoq slapped Ceric on the shoulder. “I’m telling you, Ceric would be a waste to dissect at this point. He’s such a funny guy to let die!”

Ceric smiled uncomfortably, trying to decide if Hoq was still going to take him apart or not. And so, eventually, everyone calmed down and kept quiet while they approached the outskirts of the Center.

Once their vehicle turned along a wide curve and faced the structures, Ceric could finally see what they were coming into—and it was even more massive and crazy than his first glances had warned him.

Where there was no city, there was an almost complete lack of disconformity in the landscape. Just like the desert he had arrived in when he came onto Oppildoa, the land was completely flat. However, it seemed that the constructs of the area decided to create trees and grass in and around their city, and in a slightly more organic arrangement than what those at Home had done.

But it was the city itself that dominated Ceric’s attention, its great variety and vastness pulling and shoving his eyes here and there at all the different strangenesses and oddly nostalgia-inspiring details.

While the buildings that reached many, many floors up and up were what he saw a while before, and the other large buildings with irregular shapes only a dozen or so floors tall in-between became more apparent now that they were facing the Center straight-on, Ceric could finally see everything else. And it was everything else that nearly held his mouth agape for several minutes while they rapidly rode straight into the city.

Hundreds of constructs, just like the three he rode with, filled the streets, going in and out of the buildings. And each building was labeled with different signs in Old Andrian letters—which Ceric couldn’t read. But even he knew that the letters felt slightly wrong as if the constructs decided to make adjustments to the style and form of the centuries-old language.

And that feeling of nostalgia didn’t stop with the letters. In fact, the letters hardly brought up such an emotion when he had hardly seen them before. But where Old Andrian faded from signboards and books, the architecture remained. Sections of Zatyon had the feel of slow, meticulous craftsmanship with material shaping taking weeks, months, or even years to complete. Many of the oldest buildings he’d seen back home were thick, adorned with intricate designs and carved dioramas of past events, and smoothed out along less-important surfaces. Now, in the alien ‘Center,’ Ceric saw strange hints of those older practices in the smaller buildings they passed by.

One had whimsical swirls and designs imitating air carved neatly along the front wall, all pointing toward or leading straight into the metal door left ajar. Though Ceric couldn’t peer into the place, it seemed to hold many shelves full of small boxes.

Next, a tall building stole Ceric’s attention once the windy storage shop left his sight. Though there were no carvings along the outside, it seemed the entire structure was one giant sculpture—a massive abstract statue loosely portraying perhaps the god of knowledge, the 8,000-eyed Epibruen. What else would someone need thousands of round glass windows spiraling upward for?

“Ceric?”

The vehicle was slowing down considerably. In fact, the reasoning for the remaining hourlong wait became apparent when he realized the crowd of constructs and the occasional stone vehicle clumped up ahead of them along the narrowing gap between the skyscrapers.

“Sorry,” he replied instinctually, “I was looking at the city. You guys sure have some unique-looking stuff here. Meanwhile, that first city was so uniform.”

“So, now I’m thinking it’s the younger ones that are smart, and the first was just rotten like the rotten meat Ceric complained about.”

“Don’t say that! And each sample of ‘rotten’ meat should have still been within the bounds of safety. Some of it was supposed to be what the records call ‘preserved.’”

Elui turned with a half-smile. “I think those two might be the most unique things in Center right now, Ceric. But yes, I believe what Ho Qepu was trying to allude to was that you seem to notice details intuitively, and more than we expected given the state of how we understood the First to have been, even including the accounts of when he first arrived in this world.”

“Well,” Ceric said, laughing, “I’m not terribly smart back home. I don’t even think of myself as particularly clever. If anything, I’m just good for manual labor and staying out of trouble—and I’ve failed at that last one since ending up here.”

Then, with an aura of unease in the stone—at least, as far as Ceric felt it to be—they all kept quiet for most of the remaining trip as the vehicle slowly crept deeper into taller and more narrow spaces within the messy, increasingly chaotic structures of Center. And while the others occasionally made small talk with each other, Ceric let the visuals fill his eyes and silence his thoughts.

As the skyline began to disappear underneath more abnormal and twisted buildings that stretched higher and higher, mimicking a forest canopy with branching bits connecting the structures here and there, the sunlight that used to dominate his life since coming to Oppildoa began to fade away despite it still being well above the horizon. And when the structures all began to blend together like a massive insect nest, more and more artificial lights took the place of that overbearing sun. But their light was not nearly as harsh, as hot, or as bland. Instead, there were fluorescent colors mixed with paler whites and softer yellows. Some were even fashioned into letters or were somehow bleeding out in many directions, diffused across some large wall or dome. There were more signs backlit by such lamps, more mechanical- looking text, and more alien designs along with the familiar. It was as if his journey at the fringes of Center had started him somewhere 200 years ago in some theoretical nation that might have wealthy and advanced, but still on Andoa, and was now entering some great future at least 200 years ahead of anything he had seen before. Somewhere even the fabled “Earth” didn’t seem to resemble. A-whole-nother level of alien.

Is this what it feels like to be an ant in an ant colony?

“Alright, Ceric. These two will meet back up with us if things happen as I think they might. For now, we must head-on without them. It was more efficient for them to share our ride, but I know they both have their own advisors to report back to.”

“Here’s hoping I get to run some tests on you, buddy.”

“Ignore Hoq.” Shul waved with a warm smile. “See you around, Ceric.”

And after another quip or two, the two walked off together, still arguing about something or rather while pushing through the merging swarms of other constructs walking in all other sorts of directions.

“Stay close to me, Ceric. Or, if you’d rather, I could just scoop you up and carry you through Zo-Riuyon. Would you like that, Ceric?”


Dead End

Want more from Andoa?

Read Zo’s Journey 1 – 5

Zo's Journey Book 1: Valley of Frost