The Ones in Crystal Cove
I awoke to the sound of dripping water echoing against the stone walls of the cavern in which I rested. I promptly rolled onto my side and retched out a lungful of water.
“Oh, good.” Said a pleasant voice, “You're awake.”
I couldn't reply; my stomach was still heaving. Thankfully, I'd eaten little that day, so there wasn't much to expel.
A different yet familiar voice said, “That's it. Take your time and let it all out.”
I drew in a shuddering breath before slowly pushing myself up. Something soft and slighty damp patted my hand, nearly making me jump to my feet.
“Whoa!” Plush One said, “Easy there! You all right, man?”
“One.” I breathed, relaxing somewhat. “Thank the Creator, you saved me.”
“With my assistance, of course.”
Realizing the sound was coming from my left hand, I looked down to see the skull staring back at me.
“Gah!” I dropped the skull, which bounced across the floor of the cave with a series of thunks, each punctuated with a loud, “Ow!”
“Careful, Jimmy!” One said as he hurried over to where the skull eventually stopped. To my amazement, he turned the skull over and turned it to face me. “If Dee hadn't started shouting, I wouldn't have realized you were in trouble.”
“Dee?” I said.
“Yes, Dee!” The skeleton said in a mildly indignant tone. “And after your friend did this to me!”
“I'm sorry, Mister-”
I paused for a moment to consider this before nodding. “Fair enough. I'm sorry about your body, but to be fair, you did attack me.”
“Of course I attacked you. That's my job. Classic horror, that is. Lone hero walks down covered bridge, gets assaulted by spooky horsewoman? I was even gonna throw my head at you.” The skull let out a sigh, though how it did so without anything a living being would need to even breathe was a complete mystery. “People would've loved that.”
“But your sword-”
“Neat effect, eh?” She said brightly. “My idea. Eats through the metal in about a minute, but you have to admit, it looked quite amazing.”
“It did.” I said, still feeling confused. “So when you were grabbing me …”
“Well, you fell in the river!” The lady skull said. “You're the first proper patron this park's ever seen! I couldn't just let you drown!”
“I see.” I said, rubbing my forehead. “And the screaming?”
She let out a wicked cackle that reverberated through the stone walls of the cavern. “I've been practicing that for years. Good, eh?”
I started to nod when something the skull had said clicked in my head.
“Terra! You saw her, right?”
“Your friend? The one who cut off my head?” The skull asked, irritation seeping into her voice. “I didn't get a clear look or anything … you know, before she decapitated me.”
“I'm sorry about that.” I said, “Did see her at all? Even just a glimpse? Please, I need to know.”
“Well, whoever it was moved fast and used some kind of plasma weapon; my bones are made of reinforced heat-resistant polymers. She’s need a top-of-the-line plasma weapon to cut through that so quickly.”
“Polymers?” One said. “Wait, you aren't a real skull?”
“Oh, my skull is real.” Dee said, “But you can't blame a girl for having a little work done.”
“I suppose not.” I tried to stand, and banged my head on the ceiling of the cave.
Dee let out another cackle. “Watch your head, Jimmy.”
“Where are we?” I asked, rubbing the bump on my head.
“Some kind of maintenance tunnel.” One said. “The left passage goes back to the river, though if you go that way, you can pull yourself out.”
A mental image of a skull and Plush One dragging me out of the river briefly played out in my head before I shook it away. “Arc's stuck in Crystal Cove. From the sounds of it, some kind of animatronic's chasing him.”
“Doesn't surprise me.” Dee said. “That lot have always been a bit … strange.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, after the park fell through, they started thinking they were real pirates. They've gone through the rest of the park, picking up anything that looked gold … not a single actual bit of it real, I'd imagine. Peaceful enough, if you play into their delusions, but they can get seriously mean fast.”
“They ever bother you?” asked One.
“Nah. The Shadowlands is spook territory, and like any good pirates, Foxy's crew is superstitious. I sometimes rode through the stands at the edge of Crystal Cove just to give 'em a good scare.”
“So you know the area?” I said, picking Dee up and looking into the flames of the skull's eyes. “We could use a guide.”
“Know the area? Ha! I know Crystal Cove like the back of my hand. Er, you'll have to trust me on that, I'm afraid.”
“All right.” I said, holding up a hand. “Just … let's keep the 'no body' jokes to a minimum, okay?”
“Cross my heart.”
I frowned at Dee as she let out a cackle that eventually faded to a sigh. “Okay, I'm done. Let's go.”
The cave area turned out to be another part of the employee tunnels, and was even connected to the Sewer Level; every now and then, we'd find a hub room with tunnels leading in all directions, much like the hub of a Glyche facility. Each corridor out of the hub rooms bore a different theme, one of which was that of the Sewer Level.
“Y'see?” Dee said, nodding at a corridor bearing the theme of the Sewer Level, “You want to get around the park, just follow the theme.”
“Which leads to Crystal Cove?” I said, my eyes catching on a black-walled corridor with nothing more than swirling streams of light for a floor.
“Oh, it's the caves. See how the lights are shaped like crystals? Clear give away, that. We're in the right area, Jimmy; I'll let you know when we're near one of the exits, don't you worry.”
“Thank you.” I said.
As we headed back down the cave-like tunnel, One and I gave her a quick explanation of what led us to the park.
“Looking for a princess, huh?” She said, “Well, you'd have to ask Cid about that. He's the only fleshie running around up there. Never knew a draconis when I was alive, but he's a decent enough fellow.”
“Draconis? Jimmy, he must be the kidnapper!” One said, looking to me.
“Maybe.” I said, “Where does he live?”
“The castle. He gives us all our space, and usually only steps in when there's a dispute.”
“I'm sorry,” I said, “But who is 'us'?”
“The residents of the park.” Dee told me. ”I don't know about him being a kidnapper, but we all owe Cid for all the work he's done here, especially any of the robots, androids, and animatronics he got back online. He's even been trying to fix up the park attractions. I doubt we'll ever be able to open, but it gives some of us hope, y'know? I mean, given the trouble they went to, building so much of the place.”
“Among other things.” One said. “I can't imagine how much it cost to enchant a skull to be as interactive as you.”
“I'm not an enchantment.” Dee said, sounding a little offended. “They resurrected me.”
I stopped in my tracks. “You're … then this is really your skull.”
“Yeah. We've been over this before.”
“But … I thought you were some kind of magical intelligence.” I said. “I didn't know they actually brought you back from beyond.”
To my surprise, Dee cackled at my words. “What, it was fine if the skull was real, but icky if the skull's owner's still hanging around?”
“I didn't mean-”
“I'm just messin' with ya, Jimmy. Nah, I never had much faith in any kind of afterlife, and there was still so much I wanted to do here. So I signed my body to the Center for experimental necromancy. I'll admit, the skeleton thing took me by surprise, but losing my flesh was a definite improvement.”
“Still,” One said, “To just be abandoned here-”
“Abandoned nothing.” Dee said. “I have a contract; three weeks of vacation a year, a nice coffin in the Macabre Motel, and anything I want from the food stands. I don't take 'em up on that last bit often though; I just don't have-”
“The stomach for it.” One and I finished in unison.
Dee let out a pleased cackle. “That's the spirit!”
That one made me groan, though I couldn't be too annoyed; were I a living skeleton, I'd probably milk the jokes as well.
Before I could say anything, however, Dee said, “Ooh, surface exit to the right!”
The right path didn't look much different than any other cave passage. Still, I followed Dee's direction and walked down the tunnel until it came to a sudden dead end. The wall felt solid, but became translucent the moment I touched it. This had the unfortunate side effect of filling my vision with the light of the suns.
“Yeah, sorry. I shoulda warned you about that.” Dee said as I tried to blink the spots out of my vision. “The idea was for these tunnels to be secret. Ol' Iniagus wanted employees to pop out of nowhere; all part of the illusion. There should be a lever or a button to open the wall proper somewhere around here.”
“Got it.” One said. A moment later, there was a loud rumbling as the wall slid into the floor, allowing us access.
As I stepped blinking from the cave into the sunlight, a warm breeze rushed over me. After the chilled air of the Shadowlands and the dampness of the caves, the warm wind of Crystal Cove felt nothing short of wonderful. I slipped off my keikogi and wrung it out as I walked out onto the sandy shore of a wide beach. Three large ships were docked at a large boardwalk down the beach; remembering that Arc had mentioned the name of a ship, I decided to walk that way.
By the time we reached the boardwalk, the simulated suns had dried off me and my keikogi, and left my hakama merely damp as opposed to soaked through. Still, I left my keikogi off for the moment so I could enjoy the feel of the suns on my skin.
The town around the boardwalk looked typical of the seaside; weathered boards, barnacle-encrusted posts, seagulls, and even a few crabs scuttling around. Most of the buildings were either linked to rides, or were the usual souvenir shops and restaurants in disguise. Again, the smell of fairground food filled the air, all the more tantalizing for my empty stomach.
“Just grab something.” One said after the third time my stomach growled. “There's about a zillion safety programs in place on those things; it'd take a hacking genius to get through that mess. Even Luck would have trouble.”
“All the more reason to be careful.” I said. “Who knows how long this guy's planned this?”
Sighing, One hopped from my shoulder and started assembling a hamburger from the nearby grill.
“One!” I said, “Arc's in trouble.”
“That kid IS trouble.” One said, tossing a slice of cheese onto the sizzling beef patty. “And you're gonna be in trouble if you have to fight on an empty stomach. Now do you want mayo or mustard?”
With a sigh, I said, “Mustard.”
One finished prepping the burger and set it on a paper plate. After watching him struggle to lift it for a few moments, I sighed again and took the plate in my hands.
I stared at the burger for a few moments before taking a bite. When this failed to cause me to start coughing up blood, I eagerly devoured the rest of the burger.
“Ha! Jimmy was burgin.” One said, flipping another burger, presumably for himself. “Told ya it'd be fine. It is a bit odd, though; I mean, matter replicators eat quite a bit of power. You'd think the king would've cut this place off from the power grid after abandoning his little project.”
“That would be Cid again.” Dee said. “He's a clever one, there's no mistake. Hydro-electric power, cunningly placed wind turbines, and several stream generators give us everything we need. If we start getting brown-outs, Cid sets up a few more generators until the situation is resolved.”
Eager to learn more about the possible-kidnapper, I asked, “What can you tell us about him?”
“Well, the lad's the only person who's never given up on the park. He's been working here since before they shut down construction, always fixing up this and repairing that. No one took it harder than he when the place was closed down.”
I thought about my home, and the work I put into it over the years. “Maybe he hopes to open it again someday.”
“It'd be nice.” Dee said with a sigh. “Seeing you lot made me hopeful; I see your armband. Royal guard, isn't it? I thought that maybe the King was giving us an inspection. There's a lot more than me who'd like to see this place lively again.”
I realized that I might very well be putting Dee and the other park inhabitants in jeopardy, I realized. If this Cid was the kidnapper, I'd be forced to arrest him and bring him to the king. Without him to repair the park, it'd be truly abandoned by the living. What's worse, it might bring attention to the afterlife employees. There was still a definite prejudice to the undead on Vinta, and public outcry would likely cost them their jobs, perhaps even their lives. As for anything robotic with even a smidgen of an AI ... well, they'd be lucky if they were left functional. Feeling a wave of sympathy, I pulled out my walled and put what few shards remained into the till of the grill.
“What about the animatronics?” One asked. “Are they intelligent?”
“I'd call em dumb as posts myself, but I reckon you want to know if they've got AIs, right? Well, they do. It was rudimentary at first, but after a few years, they're as intelligent as any ... but don't tell 'em I said that. I think they're classified as props.”
The doors to the buildings burst open. Dozens of metal feet thumped across the boards as I was quickly surrounded by robots. Modeled after several Vintan species, the abundance of eye-patches, peg-legs, and hook hands made it clear these were the animatronic pirates.
“We not be props, ye scurvy land-lubbers!” Said the nearest robot as it waved a cutlass in my direction. “We be pirates! And this be our property!”
A chorus of 'ayes' with a distinct electronic edge answered him.
A metal hand came down on my shoulder, quickly spinning me around to face an angry-looking pirate with a luxurious beard and a black eyepatch. “You'll be handin' over that blade and coming along peaceful-like if ye know what's good for ye.”
He was right; animatronic or not, the fact remained that I was completely surrounded. The fact that Glint could do little against their endoskeletons made resistance completely futile. Although I was loathe to hand over my family blade, it was the only choice I had.
With a sigh, I handed Glint to the robot pirate. He raised the blade with a triumphant shout, echoed with much gusto by his crew. Turning to me, he said, “Grab the boy and his doll and bring them to the Cap'n!”
One pirate picked up Plush One and tossed him to the pirate who spoke to me, presumably their leader or similar person of authority. One struggled, but the pirate quickly slipped a rope around the toy Dreamer's arms and legs. Swinging the
“Hey!” Dee said indignantly, “What about me?”
The pirates all shrank away from the skull immediately. Some pointed and gibbered things like, “Tis a specter!” and “A demon from the Shadowlands!”
A perfectly captured snarl on his face, the lead pirate grabbed the skull and turned to face his men. “One skull and you lot turn yellow? Ye should be ashamed!”
“They're gonna be a lot more than that if the rest of the spook squad find out you've kidnapped me.” Dee said.
“Ha! I'm afraid of no man or woman, dead or otherwise!” He pulled out another short length of rope and quickly bound Dee's jaw shut. Pressing the now muted skull into my hands, he said, “Take yer rot-infested friend and follow us! And remember, try anything funny, and yer little dolly gets it.”
With that, he shoved me down the path now lined with pirates. As I was shoved toward the shore, I couldn't help but wonder how much stranger my day was to become.