Starspire

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Chapter 14: Alec’s Second Chance

Bahati soared through the air, the peaceful expression never leaving her face. Matt leaned out as far as he dared, his hands outstretched. Their hands connected only briefly and then she slipped away. Bahati whispered a single word and immediately Matt felt the air around her fingers freeze and he stared down in shock. A chunk of ice had materialized around both of their hands, cementing the two of them together.

Matt braced himself against the railing, Bahati’s weight nearly taking him over the edge. Then slowly, he gained traction and inched Bahati back up until they both collapsed on the platform. They lay there frozen together for a few seconds. It was kind of weird, but also kind of cool, probably the sort of thing he’d brag about to his friends, if he had any.

“You can let go now,” said Matt with a wry grin.

“Oh, yes.” With another word, the ice melted, leaving them free to move about.

Over the next minute, the platform ground to a halt at the bottom. Bahati’s smile broadened across his face. “You literally held my life in your hands today. Thank you, Matt.” She leaned in and planted a kiss on his cheek.

Before Matt could wrap his brain around what had just happened, his dad swung his legs over the railing, looking like he was strutting over to tell them that his birthday had just been declared a national holiday. “So, how did I do? I think after that one, you’ll have to start calling me Sir Neil, the White Knight.”

Matt patted his dad on the shoulder. “Let’s stick with dad for now. Maybe if you find a suit of armor, we can talk.”

“It is good to see that you two made it,” said Bahati. “So I suppose there were two portals? Quite unexpected. We will have to keep that in mind in the future.”

“Yeah yeah, great,” muttered his dad. “Why don’t we get out of here? I don’t know what you did to that mob, but I think they want to rip you to pieces.”

Bahati coughed and wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve. “It’s not important. Luckily, I think they are distracted for the moment by that.”

She pointed to the burning wreckage of a plane. The natives had turned their attention from Bahati to fighting the blaze. The flames spread rapidly, fueled by the abundance of wood around. Not far from the inferno, knelt a blonde-haired youth who showed no sign of moving from the path of the flames.

Bahati leaned on her staff and surveyed the situation. “This is getting out of hand.”

Before either Neil or Matt could stop her, Bahati dashed toward the other firefighters, staff upraised. She called out in a loud voice that carried over all the commotion. The clouds above them darkened, swirling, writhing, and releasing a torrent of ice and snow. The storm intensified into a gale of blizzard proportions. Within minutes, the blaze had been reduced to an enormous snowdrift.

Bahati lowered her hands. The rest of the firefighting team had gone still and silent. For a long moment, no one moved, until one of the men rose and approached Bahati, his jumpsuit still stained from her earlier aerial assault.

“So,” he began in a gruff voice. “You’re one of those wizard types. I don’t suppose that your stainfighting is as good as your firefighting.” He gestured to the dark blotches on his jumpsuit.

Bahati swallowed hard and extended her staff to the stain. She whispered a few words, and the tip of the staff glowed. The three snakeheads sprung to life and latched onto the man’s coat. As they watched, the stain lightened, almost disappearing completely. Finally, the snakes could do no more and Bahati withdrew the staff.

The boy glanced down at the faded stain and nodded. “Not bad. The rest of it should come out in the wash. Consider yourself lucky.”

Bahati nodded and backed up a step. “I am sorry for this unfortunate…incident. I’d be happy to do the same for the other victims.”

The leader nodded and motioned for the others, who approached and received the same treatment. Afterwards, Bahati’s staff looked noticeably different with swirling bands of color, resembling nothing so much as a gigantic candy cane.

As soon as Bahati had completed her work, the leader of the group approached them again, gesturing to the fair-haired boy by the plane who still had not moved. “He with you? Poor idiot almost went up with the plane. I think he’s the pilot.”

Matt’s dad shook his head. “No, never seen him before.”

The leader grunted and gestured for his other boys to follow him. “We’ve got better things to do than to play guidance counselor. Those balloons don’t stay afloat by themselves. He’s your problem now.”

The group turned and stomped off without a backward glance. The trio who remained glanced at each other in awkward silence.

“Okay,” said Matt. “What do we say? Hey, sorry for your loss?”

His dad pointed to Bahati’s candy-cane staff. “You could freeze him like that. He’d make a great ice sculpture.”

Matt rolled his eyes. “So much for being a white knight. I’ll try to talk him.”
Matt made his way carefully across the slick ground and knelt beside the grieving boy. He noticed that the boy looked every bit like an old-fashioned pilot, complete with flight jacket, aviator’s glasses and scarf, which looked even stranger on someone not even old enough to get his driver’s license.

“Hi,” he began. “I’m Matt. Sorry about your plane. Have you been flying her long?”

The boy stared into the snowdrift that had buried the plane, barely blinking. After a long pause, he nodded. “Probably since before you were alive. She was like an old friend.”

He sighed deeply and rose to his feet. “I suppose all good things cannot last. I should be glad that I’m still alive and not buried under that rubble.” He dusted himself off and met Matt’s gaze for the first time. “I’m Alec King. I flew bombers during World War II and had just come out of retirement to take aerial photos of this place.” He leaned in closer, “We are in the Tower, right?”

“Yes, somewhere in the middle. You were flying the plane when it pulled you in?”

Alec ran his hand through his hair. “That’s right. My plane was going down anyway and I thought…“

He paused in mid-sentence his hand stuck in his hair. “Wait, what happened? I don’t have hair like that. Heck, I don’t usually have hair.” His hands roamed over his face, poking and prodding, feeling his cheeks and the top of his head again and again.

Seeing his puzzled expression, Matt walked over and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I didn’t know you hadn’t realized yet. Once you’re in the Tower, you become to a thirteen-year-old version of yourself. It’s hard to believe it, but that’s my dad over there, not my brother.”

Alec examined his hands and stretched. “Remarkable,” he muttered. “I can’t believe it. This feels great. No creaking, old bones and muscles. I could stay in here forever. I wonder if it’s like Peter Pan where you never have to grow up, ’cause I’d be fine with that.”

“It does get old after a while. Not such a big deal for me, because I’m really only sixteen, but my dad…” He turned to his dad and Bahati and motioned for them to come over. “Why don’t we tell Alec here about what we’ve seen so far? Maybe then we could something else to fly to get us out of here.”

His dad stepped forward and started with his version of the story. Matt interjected a few times, but Bahati remained silent.

When he had finished, Alec glanced all around him. “That’s one whopper for a story. Wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t already seen so many strange things. As far as getting out of here, ’fraid there’s not much around here. Chances are we’ll have to take to the skies if we want to find this next portal…thing.”

“Maybe we could hitch a ride on one of those balloons,” said Matt’s dad. “They have to come down to refuel sometime. Flying will probably take us up the tower and up to Tyson more quickly than anything else. Can you fly a balloon, Alec?”

“I think so,” said Alec. “Though I don’t have any real experience. Give me something with wings any day over those flying party favors.” He signed deeply. “If only I had been able to put her down safely. At least I could go looking for the portal.”

As they stared at the snowy lump, it moved. Inexplicably, the contents shifted under the snow like a hibernating bear coming out of his long rest.

Without thinking about it, Matt stepped back to his dad’s side. “Okay, Mr. knight. Time to see if you can really slay dragons.”

“Don’t I get a sword and a horse? Even King David got a sling against Goliath.”

His dad inched toward the pile, trying to put on a brave face. Bahati advanced as well, staff held at the ready. Matt and Alec followed behind them, and Matt raised his fists, figuring that it was better than nothing.

The mound of snow exploded, turning all four of them into snowmen. The parts of the plane swirled in a gigantic whirlwind, hitting each other and clanking and scraping, sending sparks in all directions. A swirl of starlight, like that from the portals infused the circling column of metal, ash and air.

They had all scarcely removed the snow from their bodies when a flash of intense light and heat melted all the remaining snow. Matt remained stunned on the floor for a minute, but gradually came to.

Though Matt had seen some crazy things during his stay in the Tower, they all still gasped when they saw what stood in front of them: an elegant private jet with four seats covered with thick transparent glass. The plane was covered with long strokes of blue paint in all different shades with bolts of lightning intertwined along the entire length. The name “Typhoon” stood out near the front in bright golden letters.

Alec was the first to approach the plane, reaching out with one hand as if worried that it might turn out to be a mirage that could vanish at any moment. His hand hovered over the surface for a moment before lowering to run his hand along the hull. “I don’t believe it,” he muttered. “How is this possible?”

Matt considered the golden letters. Next to the name were a series of six black numbers. “040697,” she read. “Dad, that’s Tyson’s birthday.”

“And it starts with the letters ‘T-Y’. It must be another one of the helpers.”

“Created from the wreckage of his plane,” said Bahati. “Incredible.”

Bahati slapped the side of the plane, a huge grin breaking over her face. “What are we waiting for? Let’s take to the air. Any objections?”

She looked at each of them in turn, and they each shook their heads. A ladder led from the entrance to the ground, and they each took their turns climbing in and taking a place in one of the covered seats.

Each of the black leather seats fit its occupant perfectly. One armrest in each chair held a cold drink in front of them sat a control panel that boasted climate control, a drink dispenser, and a large intercom button. They found that by pushing the button and speaking, they could talk to all of the other passengers.

After strapping in, their captain came over the intercom. “Okay, all ready to go, folks? Takeoff in T-minus one minute.”

Alec glanced around, pressing buttons and flipping switched, and noticed a slip of paper taped to the inside of the cockpit on his left. Matt saw him remove a slip of paper from the inside of the windshield.

“What’s that say?” he asked. “Don’t push the big, red button if you want to live?”

Alec chuckled. “No, no. See for yourself.”

Matt accepted the scrap of paper and read the typed letters. “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.”

“I don’t get it. Humpty Dumpty?”

The pilot chuckled again, taking the paper back from Matt. “No, I don’t suppose you would understand. My last name is King, and my old plane was called All the King’s Horses. It had a great fall, and something put it back together again. This place is something else.”

Alec turned to look back and nodded. “Everyone buckled in back there? We’re just about ready.”

The flat wooden platform provided a perfect runway. They accelerated rapidly and took to the skies, more smoothly than Matt had experienced in a plane.

Matt glanced out the window and saw that the sun was already sinking low on the horizon. “We’ll probably have to wait until it gets a little darker to see the portal. Why don’t we get a closer look at the balloons?”

“Yeah,” said his dad. “But just in case, everyone keep an eye out. Shouldn’t be too hard to reach this time even without a flying carpet.”

They flew for over an hour, but couldn’t see an end to the wooden platform below them. Other small planes and balloons launched from the platform, so many that Matt lost count. Matt pointed out the window as he glimpsed a huge flying pirate ship, sails billowing in the stiff wind.

“How long do we have up here?” asked Neil. “We’ve got to run out of fuel sometime.”

“Don’t know,” replied Alec. “There is a fuel gauge, but it hasn’t moved from full. I think we should be fine. Guess things work a little different around here.”

They wove in and out between the balloons, waving to the passengers, but even that got old after a while. “I haven’t seen anything that looks like starlight,” said Matt, leaning back in his chair.

As they flew, the sun sunk completely, and all of the towers below blazed to life with hi-powered floodlights and smaller lines of lights, which reminded Matt of Christmas.

“Don’t worry,” came Alec’s voice from the cockpit. “This plane is equipped with some of the finest navigational systems I’ve ever seen. I can sense a barrier a few miles out, circling off a huge area. We’ve barely covered a fraction of all that’s out there.”

Neil sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of.”

They flew on in silence for a long time, sipping at their drinks, and trying to pick out something different out of all the lights that twinkled below.

After sitting for so long, Matt felt his eyelids growing heavy. He had no idea how long they had been in the Tower, but he knew he hadn’t gotten enough sleep in that time. Why couldn’t they find themselves in a world where everything was made of pillows and blankets?

The thought weighed on his mind, dragging him toward sleep. In that place between awake and asleep, a familiar twinkle flashed in the corner of his vision. Immediately, he snapped up in his seat and punched the intercom button. “Hey, do you guys see that?”

“What?” asked Alec. “Which direction?”

Matt shook the sleepiness from his eyes. “Off to the right, and down a little bit. It looks like star magic.”

Alec changed course suggestion, and all the passengers craned their heads to find what Matt had seen. “Are you sure you saw something, Matt?” his dad said, not disguising his doubt. “I know we all heard you snoring into the intercom. Perhaps you dreamed it.”

“No,” countered Matt, “I know what I saw. I can tell the difference between a dream and reality.”

His dad crossed his arms and huffed. “Are you sure? They seem to be one and the same in here. Could be a dream within this dream.”

“No, no,” said Bahati. “I think I saw something too. “It is very faint. Alec, is there anything on your navigational instruments?”

“Yes, there are quite a few things on my radar. Even though it’s dark, the skies are still crawling. There are many things off in that direction.”

“Keep going,” urged Bahati. “Fly that way for a few minutes and if we don’t see anything, we can try something else.”

They flew on in silence, passing other planes and the occasionally glow-in-the-dark hot-air balloon.

“There it is again,” cried Matt.

“I still don’t see anything.”

Matt exhaled sharply. “Hey, if this is because of that stupid mirror thing-“

The intercom crackled and everyone’s hands flew to their ears. “It was not stupid, and this has nothing to do with it! It has everything to do with my eyes. I’ve been staring into that same black spot and it’s still as dark as a black hole.”

“I’m not making this up…”

Bahati’s voice broke in, drowning out their complaints. “Stop it, both of you. It is hard for me to imagine that you are actually related. Ever since I’ve met you, you have done nothing but gripe at each other. You do not know how good you have it. My father...”

Her voice trailed off, choking slightly with emotion. “My father lost his life in a most distressing manner. I watched it happen, and there’s not a night when the scene does not visit my dreams. We loved each other and we were careful not to forget that.”

The plane fell silent, leaving only the whirr of the engine. “So, if you have to gripe, be my guest, but kindly wait until I am out of earshot.”

They flew in the same direction, no one daring to make a sound.

His dad’s voice returned, flat and subdued. “I see it too.”

“What’s that?” asked Matt.

Matt cleared his throat and spoke a little louder. “I said I think I see the starlight.” She paused for a moment. “Sorry, son. I shouldn’t have lost my temper.”

“I’m sorry, too. I admit, I could have been wrong. It does happen sometimes.”

“And I’m sorry I shouted.”

Alec’s voice crackled back over the line. “I’m not sorry for anything, but I’ve got equally good news: I’ve got a lock on the object you’re talking about.”

“Great,” said Neil. “But why do you sound distressed?”

“It’s moving…in a pretty strange pattern. I’m not sure it’s an aircraft.”

“What then?” asked Bahati. “An animal?”

“Let’s go find out. Hang on everybody. I wouldn’t recommend using your drink dispensers in the next thirty seconds.”

The plane shot forward as the engines whined to a shill tone. Everyone but the pilot clutched their armrests, and Matt thought it might be his turn to throw up. Maybe it would make Bahati feel better.

The faint glow grew into a writhing shape that took form into a writhing golden dragon, composed of huge interlocking metal plates. It resembled a traditional Chinese dragon, and let out sparks of starlight at every movement. Alec kept his distance.

“So, what am I supposed to do, folks? Fly into the creature’s mouth?”

“I don’t know,” said Bahati. “This is not like the other portals. It cannot be that simple, can it?”

“What if we just have to touch it?” said his dad. “Fly in a bit closer.”

“Then again, how do we know this thing isn’t going to crush us or melt us with fire if we get to close? Alec, does this thing have weapons?”

Alec ran his fingers over the control panel, searching the rows of buttons and switches. “There is something called a Typhoon Cannon. If that’s not a weapon, I don’t know what is.”

“Why don’t we turn that on just in case?”

Alec pressed the button and a whirring sounded from deep within the workings of the plane. A screen lowered in front of each of the passengers and a joystick rose up in front of their seats. His dad gripped the joystick and watched as a blue set of crosshairs moved around on his screen. “Hey, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a gunner,” said Neil.

“Don’t get trigger happy,” said Matt. “Remember the last time you tried to play Xbox with us? We should probably wait ’til Alec gives us the signal.”

“Right,” said Alec. “Keep your fingers on the trigger though. I’ll be the first to tell you that things can get really ugly really quickly.”

Alec accelerated and Matt clutched his joystick, ready to unleash the Typhoon Cannon at a moment’s notice. Whatever it was.

They approached the dragon from the back and Matt almost lost his grip as he checked out the complex network of golden tubes, plates and carvings that made up the body of the dragon. For a time, they kept pace with the creature, and it did not seem to mind that there were there.

“Nothing yet,” said Alec. “I’m going to move in a bit closer.”

Still, no response from the dragon.

“Okay, folks, keep your cannons ready. I’m going to take her all the way down.”

The Typhoon descended slowly, gaining speed on the dragon. Matt held his breaths as Alec banked to one side, bringing the tip of one wing in contact with the dragon.

The contact point exploded with starlight and threw them into a spin in the opposite direction. They spun over and over, losing altitude. “Hold on!” cried Alec. “I’m not about to lose a second plane in one day!” He struggled and grunted as he twisted the controls around, regaining control only seconds before plowing through a formation of flying bicycles.

“Everyone all right back there?”

Everyone but Bahati answered “yes”. She only groaned.

“Where’s the dragon?” asked his dad, sliding back in his seat.

Alec arced around and put them on the same course as before. “I can’t see it!” he cried, pounding his controls. “Does anyone have a visual?”

Bahati spotted it first. “Reverse our course and fly left. It looks like that thing is really moving now.”

Alec corrected his course and they sped back towards the dragon, though not as quickly as before.

“So, does anyone have an alternate plan?” asked Alec. “Apparently ‘tag’ is the wrong game.”

“And we’ve already played ‘hide and seek’,” added his dad. “I suggest ‘duck, duck, goose.’”

“Real suggestions only, dad” said Matt, rolling his eyes.

“Do you have a better idea?” his dad said. “Twenty questions?”

Before Matt could respond, the streak of gold that was the dragon exploded like a firework, sending golden streamers in every direction. The night sky lit up, and for several seconds they saw everything as clearly as if it were day.

“Whoa,” cried Alec. “Didn’t think it was the fourth of July. Makes me want to have a barbeque.”

“Alec,” said his dad, sounding frantic, “is there a large blip on the radar in front of us?”

“Yes,” said Alec, a hint of tension entering his voice. “How did you know that?”

“Because I think the skull and crossbones means pretty much the same thing everywhere.”

Just then, a glowing shape loomed in the darkness above them: a huge glow-in-dark skull over crossed bones.

“Sky pirates?” asked Matt. “It’s good that we don’t have anything valuable on board. Why would they bother us?”

Alec cleared this throat. “Not all pirates need an excuse to pillage. Maybe they just like our ship.”

“What about the dragon? Maybe the portal opened when it blew up.”

“We’d have to get to past the pirate ship, or whatever it is to get there,” said Alec. “Maybe they are guarding the spot.”

“I say we give them a taste of the Typhoon Cannon,” said Neil. “They’ll think twice about getting in our way.”

“Or make them angry. They’re pirates. They probably have cannons too.”

“Alec?” said Bahati. “You are the captain. It’s up to you.”

The sky lit up as dozens of fires flared to life above the deck and the masts of the pirate ship. Instead of being made of wood, the entire ship was fashioned about of black metal that reflected the glow of the firelight. Along the deck glinted long slender tubes that could only be used for one purpose.

“If they were trying to be stealthy, why have the glow-in-the-dark sail?” asked his dad.

Matt sighed. “It is pretty good at being creepy.”

“We are lucky that the dragon exploded,” said Bahati. “Otherwise, we would have been none the wiser.”

The pirate ship turned, setting a direct course for their plane, and accelerated. “Get ready with the guns, folks,” cried Alec. “These guys aren’t coming to play.” He accelerated to meet the foe, and Matt gripped the controls in his sweaty palms.

Before they could get in range, the pirate ship opened fire, releasing a cloud of round black projectiles at the Typhoon.

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