On The Road
After three years of captivity, they were finally free. Free from their cells of concrete and metal. Free from spying eyes with malevolent intent. Free from the world where their worst nightmares had become reality. Free to go wherever they pleased. Free to do whatever they wanted. Free to stay up late partying, watch TV, and eat junk food.
Freedom didn’t matter much to Paul. When he was young, he did what his Uncle said. During these last three years, he’d done what the Facility or Dr. Adelaide said. Now, he’d be doing what Lea said. He wasn’t the kind to go off on his own or refuse to do as he was told. It was never worth the effort.
His uncle had been kind. The Facility’s tests had never been more than a little embarrassing or tedious, at least for him. Dr. Adelaide knew how to be downright fun at times. And Lea was… Lea. The perfect girl. Pretty, smart, graceful, and confidant. Why would he avoid her, or oppose her? As for romance, Paul knew he didn’t stand a chance with Lea. There was no point in trying. It was enough simply to be around her. He would look elsewhere, and test possibilities as they came.
Anyway, this was a relaxed morning—post celebration. There were a few random conversations going on. They had television for background noise, watching some show from half in their sleeping bags. A silver ring contained a portal open to a secluded corner of the Eastwood Forest large enough for Cassie to receive satellite.
The bat girl sat cross-legged huddled under a blanket, wings folded around herself, leg-hand holding a crystal ball swirling with dark clouds. Two huge conical ears that made her seem tiny by comparison served as satellite dishes. She was passively recording a hundred channels of broadcast to her Shew Stone while projecting one station as an illusory widescreen television. Her attention was on Rana as they talked, an adorable half-smile on her girlish face as she scrunched her cute leaf-shaped bat nose at something she found funny.
Daniel seemed more interested in the crystal ball Cassie was using to project the images than the human broadcast. The young Angel of Ruin was looking much better than when they first met. Ever since Rana healed his mortal wound, his face had been less skull-like and his chest less skeletal. There was no mistaking what he was… but his dark skin was healthy, his face was well-rested and relaxed, and his appearance overall had shifted away from ‘starving’ toward ‘skinny’.
There was a small fire going, and Kenta was cooking breakfast. He had tentacles of hair holding pans, prodding the fire with sticks, and whisking ingredients in bowls while he sat on a hair highchair overseeing things. The young man was the oldest of them, around fourteen, and had a stern yet handsome face with slightly slanted eyes. He filled out his white collared shirt and black vest well, loose red tie dangling from his neck. Wisps of black hair drifted around him like twisting streams of smoke as they unconsciously exploring his surroundings, catching on rocks and empty cans or the tacky carpets they had rolled out around the campsite.
Paul tried some of what the others were having, though disappointment was inevitable. The yellow forkful didn’t smell or taste like anything, was lukewarm, bland, and had the texture of chewing gum. Frankly, he didn’t understand the appeal. What bothered him was how the others were eating hot, fluffy, delicious scrambled eggs with bacon bits and chopped onion. Even Rana had an extra spoonful.
The frog girl ate like a machine, fast and efficient, but couldn’t resist a second helping when she really enjoyed something. It was no wonder to Paul, considering her superhuman vitality. Rana was strong, both magically and physically. She had to have been exercising during their confinement to keep her svelte, athletic figure. Her composed bearing was slightly discordant with her body’s riot of color: green skin, white belly, blue yellow-striped sides, and orange padded fingers and toes; but matched her straightforward brown top and shorts.
Now Daniel was smiling as he watched the breakfast ritual—still high on human contact despite his lack of participation, not that Paul would blame him. In fact, Paul admired the way he didn’t try to play along. Paul looked down at his smooth white hands and rubbed them together. He felt nothing, never had. He was wax. He inspected the nails carved into his paraffin hands and saw no prints on his fingers. No bellybutton, either.
In movies, those were the things that proved you were you. Clones, evil twins, and doppelgangers could never get these things right because these were the things that marked you as a special, unique person. Paul didn’t have them, never had. Not that it mattered to him. Those were human things. To the Children of The Way, it was your Flame. It was the unique Flame on your head that proved you were you, that made you special. His uncle had said so.
Paul looked up. They were really enjoying the eggs. All except for Lea, who was too busy to linger on unimportant details, “Remember, every second saved on meals is one more down the road,” she said. Lea was beautiful as always, having chosen a long summery dress in white with blue designs today.
“But every hour we spend here is a hundred we can watch later thanks to Cass,” Kenta argued. The bat girl was definitely hearing this but clearly ignored the conversation. “Surely there’s time for a warm bath, perhaps a cup of hot tea—”
Paul agreed, deciding to take it a step further, “—Why not stay here for a few days?”
This, however, upset Kenta, “I didn’t say we shouldn’t leave!”
“Where are we going?” Wendi asked with a kind of oblivious curiosity Paul found… disturbing. If he could, he would be sweating bullets.
The Caprid girl was impossibly strong and carried inside her an evil twin they called, ‘Wendigo’. She was a pretty girl with red skin, dark red hair, blue eyes, huge curving horns, and cloven hooves with bare girlish legs. Wendi’s most prominent features, though, were her enormous hands which had to each weigh as much as the rest of her.
“We’ve got to get back to—” Kenta was interrupted by Rana’s elbow to the ribs. The frog girl seemed to always be in the right place at the right time.
“—Exploring.” Daniel finished. Paul hadn’t expected Daniel to be so in-the-know at this point. Had it all come back to him, last night? Or only parts? Daniel had seemed distracted this morning, getting a faraway look in his eye when he had a moment to himself.
Wendi smiled and said, “That does sound like fun, when can we leave?”
:Bullet dodged,: Paul privately sent to Daniel, who smiled back. Daniel distracted the Caprid girl with idle chat and simple tasks, packing up as the others continued the discussion. When Wendi walked her arms swung to match her gait, massive hands falling short of scraping the ground by a margin of a few inches, and her thin spade-tipped tail waved from side to side.
Lea’s sending was open to the group, minus Wendi, but clearly addressed Kenta, :We should all be careful what we say.:
His grumbled response came through the mental Rosetta Stone connection perfectly.
:In all seriousness,: Cassie sent, :Why can’t we stay here for a while?: He was only a little surprised to find her agreeing with him on this. At any rate, whatever reasons she had were likely better informed than his and probably less selfish.
Kenta shook his head, :It’s out of the question. We have to find the Traveling Orphanage right away.:
:Hold on,: Daniel got their attention, :I hate to be blunt, but how can we be sure they’re alive if they never came back for us?: Paul supposed, if Daniel had remembered what happened three years ago, he at least seemed to be taking it well.
Ready with an answer, Lea cut off Kenta before the angry boy could reply, :We have discussed this before at length, but I shall repeat for your benefit. There is no evidence the Demon slew the other members of the Traveling Orphanage. In all likelihood they escaped Persephone’s blast range, mistakenly assumed we had been killed, and departed through one of the other nodes—ignorant of our survival.:
:Even so, it wouldn’t hurt to consider our options,: Daniel sent.
The response from Kenta was incredulous, :Options?:
Not wanting to earn the boy’s ire, Daniel clarified, :We should examine different ways to approach the problem. That’s efficient puzzle solving.:
Cassie nodded, :Yes, we wouldn’t want to go in blind.: The others agreed.
:Rana,: Lea began, :You were the only one of us who lived in the Wilderness before joining. If anyone knows our options for finding the Traveling Orphanage, it is you.:
In the spotlight now, Rana looked like she regretted letting them remember her existence this morning. She set down her bowl of eggs and straightened her back to rigid, :Are you asking for my opinion, or looking for me to spout some common knowledge?:
:Why would we not want your opinion?: Lea asked.
The frog girl sighed, :Because I think we should give up.:
Paul’s feelings were mixed. On the one hand, he missed his uncle. On the other… there were so many ways things might go wrong trying to find them.
:You craven—!: Kenta choked on the indignity of the idea, :You’d give up on finding your own brother?:
:Yes… at least for now.: Rana stared him down, :We’re just kids. This would be easier as adults when we’ve really figured out ourselves and our abilities. I haven’t seen him in three years, why not wait another ten?:
Arms folded, Kenta tapped his forehead with a tendril of hair, :Are you insane?:
Lowering her lids to slits, she sent back, :Only if you’re an idiot.:
Ten more years, Paul thought, Would be Harumi’s whole childhood spent thinking her brother was dead. She would become a completely different person by the time they are reunited. If they did finally find each other, the two of them would be total strangers.
Kenta strode off, though it wouldn’t put him out of range, :I won’t be a part of this “discussion”. I’ll go by myself if I have to… but I’ll wait here for the rest of you to come to your senses. The Kaminoke never leave anyone behind.:
Rana continued, doing her best to ignore him, :As we are, we won’t survive the Wilderness. The fact we’re alive and free after three years without parents or guardians is a miracle.:
The experience of escaping the Facility was still so fresh and vivid in Paul’s mind, the tension, the terror, the moments of hopelessness. It had been so horrible, he couldn’t imagine doing it all over again, or trying to face something worse. Rana went on.
:As I see it, we have three options—all bad, but workable. First, staying here for ten years or so isn’t as insane as it sounds. We have everything we need, there doesn’t appear to be much traffic in the area, and Cassie should be able to hear anything big coming in time to run away. Ten years of practice with our abilities should give us the experience we need to survive in the Wilderness.:
:Plenty of space to spread our wings,: Cassie joked, flapping at the wide expanse of hills.
:All the television and junk-food we can stand,: Paul added with a chuckle.
:The problem being,: Lea countered, and the black marbles orbiting her head spun faster the more agitated she became with the idea, :What is safe for us, is not necessarily the best for us. Another ten years by ourselves? Ten years of the same shows and the same food and the same stealing and the same argument about what we are going to do when we finally get started. What will change?:
Daniel objected, :It wouldn’t be so bad, there’s a whole world to explore,: he looked around, :Two, in fact.:
:They are not our worlds!: she shot back, :Those shows were not made for us, and the people of this world will not accept us.: Lea turned to Rana, :You were the one who told me a year of sparring is not the same as a minute of life and death battle. We will stagnate if we stay here.:
After nodding her tacit agreement, Rana announced, :Option two, nobody’s going to like.: They braced themselves. :We march up to the gates of the City itself, and surrender.:
The response was overwhelmingly negative, with exclamations, moans, and head shaking. Except for Daniel, who was trying to cover the confusion he must be feeling. He probably didn’t know anything about the City or its mages—he may never have known, regardless of any possible holes in his memory. Paul resolved to talk to Daniel later.
Lea thought about the second proposal, :If we cross the border without being caught, we could apply for Citizenship. By their own rules they would have to allow it, and then we could negotiate contracts to keep us working as a unit,: then she frowned, :But if we do get caught we shall be sold separately into slavery.:
:Working for the mages at all is slavery,: Cassandra sent, and she shivered.
Playing devil’s advocate, Rana said, :Even as slaves, our lives are all but guaranteed. We’ll get that battle experience through the safety of a Guild and eventually be able to buy our freedom… Though that may take longer than ten years.: She paused a moment to let them digest. :Both of those options were awful in their own way. The third option is, by far, the worst.:
Paul wondered what could be worse than stagnation or slavery.
:Option three, we go looking for the T.O. Years gone, they’re probably on the other side of the Wilderness by now and moving constantly. To catch up, we’ll be forced to take shortcuts through dangerous territory—exposing ourselves to the worst the Wilderness can throw at us. All we can do is pray our luck holds out. It won’t. I guarantee you, as we are now, we will die before we find them.: Rana’s deadpan delivery gave her words a sobering certainty.
Yet Lea was unbelievably stubborn, :As much as I respect your opinion, I cannot help but feel you are underestimating us.:
After quickly glancing at each member of the group, with Kenta glowering back, Rana replied, :I’m really not.:
Lea apparently didn’t register the comment, :We have a Guide,: she pointed to Paul, :Defense,: meaning Kenta’s hair, :Muscle,: she glanced at Daniel, who responded with a double-take, :An Expert,: she granted Rana the title, :The Intimidator,: nodding to Wendi, who was currently pursuing a butterfly with her larger than bug-net sized hands, :Our Early Warning doubles as a Quick Getaway,: that was Cassie and her full bat-form, :And we have a Leader,: indicating herself. :I think we will be able to succeed, provided we are not unnecessarily distracted or choose our fights poorly.:
Cassandra saw where this was headed, and her enthusiasm seemed to deflate. Rana said nothing which, Paul thought, meant she was resigning herself. Kenta was excessively pleased with how things had gone, and Daniel wasn’t arguing for either of the other options. For himself, though, Paul couldn’t keep the sour expression—that’s what they called it, though Paul wasn’t sure what the phrase really meant—off his face.
:Shall we put it to a vote, then?: Lea asked, and they reluctantly nodded. Appointing herself moderator, she began, :First, I know not everyone here has someone waiting for them in the T.O. However, I remind you we truly have nowhere else to go. Where else in this universe can we find a home?: Unable or unwilling to voice a legitimate objection, no one could match the combined stubbornness of Kenta and Lea. Not that any other choice was appealing. Once again, it was unanimous.
:So that’s settled.: Daniel raised a thought, :Though I wonder what, exactly, is our next step? What’s the plan?:
Lea turned to face him, :Is it not obvious? We have our supplies, now we set off to find the Traveling Orphanage as soon as possible.:
:That’s fine as an ultimate goal,: Daniel agreed, :But should we be charging forward recklessly?:
:What are you getting at?: Lea’s skeptical look wasn’t a good sign as far as Paul could recall.
:I’ve been told there are more of these things,: Daniel gestured to the Gate Ring on his finger, :Available at the nearest Terminal. Shouldn’t we stock up first, maybe look at some ‘road signs’ to figure out where we are in the grand scheme of things?: Paul suspected Rana had given Daniel the idea.
Lea seemed as if she might have rejected his plan out of hand if it hadn’t been so darn sensible. :Well-reasoned. We shall find this world’s Terminal within the hour and better prepare ourselves for the journey.:
Paul breathed an inward sigh of relief. Finding this world’s Terminal, an unchanging, unmoving, ancient location, was a simple task. Secretly, he waited for the axe to fall.