Woes in Wukice
I woke up to the sight of bright sunlight filtering through the leaves of the tree beneath which I lay. A little jarred by the sudden contrast, I sat up and rubbed my hair. It was just a dream? It felt so real that I expected to find that I was still wet from the lake.
I wasn't wet, but I was fully dressed. Glint was hanging from a snapped tree branch, and my sandals were sitting beside me, right where I had left them. Sifting through my pack, I found nothing missing; every keikogi and hakama I'd brought with me was neatly folded and awaiting use.
I was still wondering about my actions the previous night when Terry, Arc, and Mick emerged from the cabin. Terry and Mick were talking animatedly, while Arc looked as though he could use a little more sleep.
Terry tapped a button that I thought was a doorbell. Instantly, the house began to fold in on itself until it was once again the size of a backpack.
Glancing my way as he retrieved the cabin, Terry said, “Good morning, sir. Did you sleep well?”
“I don't know.” I said after a moment, not sure if I should tell them or not. I decided to go ahead and tell them; they were my friends after all. “I had a strange dream last night.”
“Really?” Arc said, perking up, “What it was about?”
I told them about the lake and my encounter with the fional. Part of me wanted to keep it to myself, but if I was going crazy, my teammates deserved to know.
“Sounds like a nice dream to me.” Arc said once I finished. “If you dream up one of her sisters, let me know.”
Terry smacked Arc in the arm, but I wasn't offended. If anything a little levity made me feel better about it.
“I can't wait until I'm capable of dreaming.” Mick sighed wistfully.
Terry said nothing. After a moment, I realized he was digging in his pack for what turned out to be some kind of fruit bar rations.
I usually forget my dreams in a matter of minutes unless I write them down as soon as I wake up, yet I could remember everything in vivid detail: the cool rush of water, her smooth fur, her soft, supple … er, suffice it to say, I remembered everything. Still, I had no way to confirm or deny that it was anything more than a dream.
After our breakfast of fruit bars and river water, we continued on our way. The weather was perfect; Thick white clouds obscured the sun enough to let the cool breeze running along the road to keep us comfortable as the days passed.
The mood of the party was pretty good. Everyone seemed to have a little more spring in their step, even Terry. He joined in the conversation, laughing at jokes and commenting here and there. He was back to calling me sir again, but seemed less stiff about it. He never did take off so much as a gauntlet, however. I often wondered about this, and made a mental note to ask Devon about it when we were back in Iniagusville.
The weather remained fair as the days became weeks. Our conversations often fell to the matter of the dragon; was it still in Wukice? Were we wasting our time? What were we going to do if we actually caught up with it? While we never really came up with a better plan than 'grab the princess and make a run for it', we at least came up with a few ideas to potentially make it less horrifically dangerous.
Three weeks after we first set out from Iniagusville found us at the edge of a large city surrounded by a wide expanse of glittering sand. While appearing the same as sand from any other desert, the sand around wukice had a high crystallic content, making it a natural amplifier for the various forms of data-signals used across Vinta. It is this natural amplification that made Wukice the communications center of not just Wenapaj but all of Vinta; all radio, VTS, and digital transmissions were either made in a Wukice studio or passed through their links and relays at some point and beamed out all over the world.
The city itself was a grand affair; castles, skyscrapers, space-age constructs and modest hovels all smashed together around the massive silver dome. A ring of green leaves surrounded the edge of the dome, while one much larger tree rose through the very center, its wide branches spreading over much of the city. It was in its own way somehow stranger than Iniagusville, something I hadn't thought possible.
The road was surprisingly uncrowded; most of the travel in and out of the city was via one of the many highways that led into the city. Most of the other people on the road were tourists. They gave us a wide berth, hardly surprising, what with most of us being armed and one of us being synthetic.
We were still just outside the city when Arc grabbed my arm and pointed at a trail of smoke rising above the city. The flicker of flames was just visible between several buildings.
We all looked at each other, saying simultaneously, “The dragon!”
We rushed along the road, Terry falling a bit behind. Actually, I was more surprised that Arc was able to keep up; the massive sword strapped to his back couldn't have been any lighter than Terry's armor. Mick ran alongside me easily; he could have easily outrun me, but I got the impression he didn't want to show off.
We made surprisingly good time to the flaming building, but our haste wasn't necessary. A group of townspeople had already managed to quell the fire. A quick inspection of the building from a distance showed a distinct lack of claw or teeth marks … nothing, in fact, to suggest that the fire was even remotely dragon-ish in nature. I can't say I was disappointed.
Alargish man with a bushy black beard and a wide grin seemed to be heading the fire-fighting effort. Once the last of the flames had been doused, he wiped the sweat from his brow and called out, “Good job, everyone!”
As the people began to filter away, he approached a young boy, saying with sternly, “I hope this will teach you to not fool around with energism without the proper training.”
The boy lowered his eyes, and kicked the back of his heel, murmuring, “Yes, Elder Harris.”
The big man smiled kindly at him, and patted him on the back. “Go on now.”
The boy was off like a shot. Elder Harris stood up and smiled at us. “Ah, no worried my friends. Everything's under control. You are new to this city, yes?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir. I'm Jimmy Sakamota of the Royal Guard, and these are my associates, Terry Ulyndia, Luminous Arc Skylad …”
“Don't call me that!”
“… and Mick Sakamota. We've come to investigate the communications blackout.”
“Hmm? Blackout? What are you talking about?”
“We heard about a strange communication directed to Yesrej.”
“To where?” He asked, looking genuinely confused.
With a sigh, I said, “Iniagusville.”
“Oh, right. Still, I wasn't informed of any disruption in the grid.”
“Well, why would you be?” Terry asked, “Wouldn't that be an issue for the techs?”
The man thumped his chest. “I'm one of the Elders of the outer city. I know everything that happens here, absolutely everything.”
“Then why didn't you catch that boy before the fire started?” said Arc, a smirk on his lips.
Seeing the Elder bristle, I quickly said, “To be completely honest, we heard reports that that a dragon had attacked the town.”
“A dragon?!” The Elder let out a deep laugh, his hands around his sizable stomach. “There's no dragon here. I may not know every tiny detail in town, but I'd think I'd know if there was a dragon attacking.”
That did make sense, I reasoned. A rampaging dragon would have been kind of hard to miss.
“Still,” Harris said, “if the link to the capital's down, you should probably have a look at it. Creator knows the studio's techs won't lift a finger. You boys got experience teching?”
“About as much as we have in hunting dragons.” Arc said. Terry promptly elbowed him in the ribs.
Mick had been staring silently at Elder Harris for the entire conversation, which is why it surprised the rest of us so much when he reached out and tore Harris's beard off.
“What in the blazes?” Harris roared, but his voice wasn't booming; it was rather high-pitched and tinny.
Mick held up a small black box that had been tangled in the beard, satisfaction in his voice as he said, “I thought as much. Voice synthesizer.”
“What?” Terry said, sounding surprised. “You can detect that?”
My hand on Glint, I demanded, “Who are you really?”
The man sighed, and pulled on his right ear. His girth deflated with a loud rush of air. In moments, a thin and gangly man of no more than thirty years stood before us.
“My name is Uven Boule Harris. I am one of the city Elders, believe it or not. It's not really a political officer or anything; more of a group of the oldest actors in town.”
I exchanged a doubtful look with Terry. Unfortunately, with all his armor, I couldn't tell if he felt the same.
Noticing my expression, Harris let out a laugh. “You know how it is; people want young, vibrant characters in their movies, not old-timers like me. Most old actors move out and settle somewhere else. Heck, the only reason I'm still in town is because I'm a producer of some renown.” He made a show of dusting off his shoulders, his tone nonchalant as he said, “Perhaps you've seen the movie version of 'The Dreamer's Knight'?”
I had. He had cut out several important scenes and replaced them with unnecessary action sequences, much to my chagrin. I was particularly annoyed at how they had gotten the title wrong; it was 'A Dreamer's Knight', not 'The Dreamer's Knight'.
Forcing a smile, I said, “It was a memorable film.”
“Well, I did my best.” said Harris, attempting to feign modesty and failing spectacularly. “Now let's get you to that link station, eh?”
Elder Harris led us through the outer city. He talked constantly about his theatric 'masterpieces'. Even Arc, our resident egoist, found it a bit hard to stand.
Toning the babbling 'elder' out, I observed the city and its inhabitants. I couldn't help but notice that everyone seemed to be acting badly. I don't mean misbehaving; they were acting, as though they were practicing for some campy movie. It was actually quite humorous. I saw one man approach a woman who was leaving a laundry shop.
Holding one hand on his chest, and the other out to the world, he proclaimed, “My dear madam, if your heart is kind and just, couldst thou tell me the current price to utilize a washing machine?”
She replied in equally disjointed speech, “My good sir, it gladdens my spirit to tell a noble knight such as yourself that it only costs fourteen flicks to clean one basket of clothing, but beware! If you wish to dry your vestments, it will cost you another five!”
It wasn't just the acting either; everyone seemed to be in some manner of costume; knights in armor, cyborgs with blaster arms, women in wide sweeping gowns, all sorts of people wearing clown suits (which I found more than a little creepy). In fact, everyone seemed to be in costume. It was pretty much the only place in the world a group such as ours wouldn't attract any attention.
Passing a group of annoyed-looking tigreth wearing armor that reminded me distinctly of Princess Sera, I spotted the fional woman again. Her back was turned, and she seemed to be conversing with a vuestan wearing a chicken suit.
“Wait a sec.” I said, hurrying forward. When I reached her, I put a hand on her shoulder. “Pardon me, miss ...?”
She turned, and regarded me with an air of annoyance. “Yes? You're the new assistant, right? I need some spring water with a twist of lemon. Remember, I want lemon; not lime, and make sure none of the seeds get into it this time.”
It wasn't her. Her face was only half-covered in fur. A glance at the vuestan showed him to be a makeup artist.
I pulled my hand back quickly. “I'm sorry, Miss; you look like someone I met recently.”
She snorted and turned away, muttering, “Amateurs.”
My face burned as I walked back to the group. “Sorry about that.”
Arc patted me on the shoulder, feigning concern as he asked, “Are we feeling lonely?”
I shot him a venomous glare before shrugging his hand off. We continued through the outer town to the edge of the massive dome that housed the studios. The trees surrounding the dome provided us some much needed shade as we neared one of the outer gates, where people waited in line for entry.
“Ah,” Harris said, strolling straight past the crowds, up to the man in charge of admittance, “How does this day find you, kind sir?”
The gate guard did not look impressed. “What is it, Harris?”
“These four people are part of the Royal Guard, here to examine the link station to Iniagusville.”
The guard said in a bored tone, “Names and roles?”
“Jimmy Sakamota, specialist.”
“Terry Ulyndia, White rank.”
“Luminous Arc Sakamota, Kindred research.”
“Mick Sakamota, Glyche studies.”
The officer stared at Mick for a few moments before shaking his head. “You might want to keep studying. That's the worst core unit costume I've ever seen.”
“I beg your pardon?” Mick said, sounding offended.
Shaking his head, the guard said, “Max has been expecting you. You four can go in.”
He let us pass, but stopped our guide. “Not you, Harris.”
“Look, I just wanted to stop by and offer some suggestions on Machinations!” Harris said as he was led away by two guards who were even more disgruntled-looking than the first.
Once he was gone, Arc asked, “What the heck was that about?”
Shaking his head, the guard said, “He's been trying to sneak back into the studios since they started making the film adaptation of the second Dreamer's Knight movie. After the uproar from the fans following the first movie, Max decided it would be best to not even let him near the set. Ah, Miss Jones!”
A young idestan woman with bright eyes hurried forward from a line on the other side of the gate. I recognized her as the assistant of the art-lover I had met after crashing in Iniagusville.
“Sorry to bother you, Miss Jones.” The guard said, his tone now respectful, “But we've got a delegation of the Royal Guard here about the link to Iniagusville.”
She sighed and shook her head. “Creator's Grace, it's down again? Very well.”
Her eyes widened as her gaze fell on me. Smiling, she held out her hand. “If it isn't Jimmy Olsen Sakamota. This is certainly a surprise.”
I accepted her hand, saying, “Nice to see you again. Casey, wasn't it?”
“That's right; Casey Anastasia Jones.”
“Well, Casey,” I said, “These are my friends: Mick Sakamota of the Saybaro, Arc Skylad of Naidyr, and Terry Ulyndia of Yesr- er, Iniagusville.”
Mick bowed his head respectfully, tapping the brim of his hat. Terry, on the other hand, didn't say anything. Given what it took for him to open up to me, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised.
I could tell by the look on Arc's face that he was about to say something that was likely to get him slapped. I started to intervene, but the guard beat me to it.
“Well, I'm glad that you're all acquainted.” the guard said sarcastically, “Maybe now you'd like to quit blocking the line.” He jerked a thumb impatiently toward the studios.
“Touchy, touchy.” Sighing, she motioned us to follow. “Well, let's get going.”
Casey was much more pleasant to be around than Harris; she chatted amicably the whole time, asking us about who we were and what we had been up to, occasionally stopping to scribble something in the notebook she carried. She even took our picture with an old-fashioned camera she was inexplicably carrying around.
The studios were quite large, so we ended up telling her what had led us to Wukice, all of us making a point to leave out the bit about the Natalya facility.
“So,” She said, scribbling in her notebook again, “You're on mission to rescue the kidnapped daughter of King Iniagus: two members of the Royal Guard, a junior researcher from the Naidyr Center of Knowledge.” Looking Mick over, she asked, “What about you?”
“Mick is, er …” I faltered. Fortunately, Mick was a faster thinker than I.
“Not much to tell.” He said with a shrug. “I'm a prototype android made by Jimmy's Uncle Ann. I was made to help Jimmy rebuild the Saybaro Mansion.”
Fortunately, this seemed to satisfy her curiosity. As she led us through the first few studios, she said, “Okay, the Iniagusville relay's near studio C-32, which means we'll have to go through the studios to get there. A word of warning; be on your guard. There's a very thin line here between 'Special Effect' and 'Dangerous Threat'.”
I looked worriedly at my companions. Terry tightened his grip on his plasma rifle, and Arc undid the top straps of his sword with some difficulty. Watching us with interest, Mick said. “I prefer not to engage in physical combat. If you are broken, however, rest assured that I will repair you to the best of my ability.”
“That's reassuring.” Terry said, frowning.
“Don't worry, I can repair you as well. Your bio-form is essentially the same as … oww!”
I glanced back to see Mick holding his arm. Terry was checking his weapon, muttering, “Sorry, Mick. I think my power coupling's out of alignment again.”
“Quite all right.” Mick said, looking at Terry with distinct suspicion.
The sets are holographic, but once you're in one, getting out can be hard. If you do accidentally wander in, try to find a door or a window or some form of exit; in the very least, you'll enter another set.” She snapped her fingers and added, “Oh, and if you bump into a familiar character, go ahead and call him or her by the character's name. The directors like to keep accidental shots. Heck, you might make it into a movie.”
Casey hadn't been joking; one step into the area, and I thought I had stepped into some kind of crossroad of dimensions; there were explosions going off everywhere, some inside buildings, some high above our heads. Faint landscapes stretched over wide areas, only to abruptly join with dark cities, crystalline palaces, and more. From our perspective, these were only faint images, but that just made it more surreal. It looked like dozens of imaginary landscapes hiding on the very edge of reality.
As we made our way through the studios, I saw something in the distance take to the sky: something large and winged. As I watched, it shot a blast of fire that made it all too clear what it was.
“Okay.” Arc said, “That's definitely a dragon.”
I slapped Terry on the arm. “Looks like our friend was easier to find than we thought. Come on!”
“Wait, Jimmy!” Casey shouted as I rushed toward the distant dragon, “If you step past the boundary-”
I stepped over a thin red line that had been painted on the ground. Instantly, everything went dark.