I watched him go for a few moments before I realized that someone was asking me a question.
“I beg your pardon?” I said, turning to address the Galden woman who had spoken.
“First time to Wenapaj?” She asked, her smile looking as though it had been chiseled onto her face. From her clothing, I guessed her to be some sort of attendant.
“Yes, actually.” I admitted. I started to ask her about sending a message to Devon but she cut me off.
“I know exactly where you want to go; the Penumbra district.”
I raised an eyebrow at this. “The Penumbra district? What’s there?”
She spread her arms. “Why, only the greatest deals in all Wenapaj! Cybernetics, magical artifacts, the latest in technology, and a wide variety of restaurants; no matter what you’re looking for, you’ll find it in Penumbra.”
I looked at her skeptically. I could tell from her perfectly practiced tone that she had rehearsed that very speech hundreds of times, to say nothing of how many times she must have said it to passersby. Still, I was planning on doing some shopping anyway, so I decided to take her advice.
“Sounds interesting.” I said, nodding. “Before I go, however, I do need to send a message to Devon …”
I stopped, realizing for the first time that I didn’t know Devon’s last name. He had told me when I first arrived in Wenapaj, but that was ages ago. I did remember his rank, though it would be hard to forget a title like that.
Shaking my head, I continued, “… to the Mox Wazoo of the Royal Guard. We were separated, and I need to let him know I’m all right and where I’m going.”
She began typing at a small metal armband on her wrist. I could just make out glowing etchings of the Vintan standard alphabet on its surface. “Message to the Mox Wazoo from Specialist …”
Seeing her look at me in askance, I said, “Jimmy Sakamota.”
“Thank you. Jimmy Sakamota is well, heading to Penumbra district.” She finished typing and looked back up at me, her smile back in place. “Well then, please follow me.”
She led me inside the building. There were about fifteen egg-like node pods lining the inside wall, each marked with a different symbol. All around the room, pod doors were opening and closing as people traveled to and from various districts.
The attendant led me to the pod I assumed led to the Penumbra district, advising me, “Make sure you stay perfectly still while the pod is active.”
Well aware of the risks, I carefully stepped forward with my sword held tightly against my chest. With a polite nod, the attendant activated the pod. The world suddenly swam in my vision; light seemed to dance all around me as I spun wildly in midair. It was quite unpleasant, not at all like the smooth teleportation nodes back in Rimstak.
Fortunately, it didn’t last for long; within moments, the world had settled and I was once again in a pod.
A woman and her daughter were waiting outside with another attendant. Oddly enough, the little girl was fional; she was either adopted or her father must’ve been fional as well. The girl quickly hid behind her mother, holding on to a stuffed rabbit with floppy ears nearly as long as hers. The woman bid me a polite hello as we changed places, the little girl looking at me curiously as she kept her mother between us.
“Can I help you sir?” The woman asked, blushing slightly.
“No.” I replied, realizing that I had been staring. “No thank you, ma’am. Sorry to disturb you.”
As I stepped out of the waystation, thoughts of the mother and her child was jolted from my mind in an instant by the sights that surrounded me. “By the Creator!” I whispered, looking around in astonishment.
The difference in atmosphere was staggering; whereas the district I had been in moments ago had been a thriving metropolis, the area I now stood looked more like a tropical resort town. Bright sunlight, waving palm trees, worn cobblestone roads, tourists wearing shirts with obnoxious flower patterns; there was even a salty smell to the air. If it weren’t for the skyscrapers on the edges of the district, I would have thought that I had left Wenapaj altogether.
The road curved in what I suspected was a great circle surrounding a massive Zuen Technologies building. Shops lined the road, ranging from tiny stalls peddling trinkets to enormous retail outlets with big parking lots complete with sullen-looking teenagers in orange vests gathering shopping carts. Barkers stood outside every store, shouting out deals and promotions to the shopping crowds.
“Two-for-one cybernetics installation! Get scrapped, save big!”
“Sentient fruits, aged geen wine, all fresh from the gardens of Emperor Claudius Melbourne!”
“Need a quick pick-me-up? Calliban’s Crystallic, one vial crystal or a cup liquid only seventeen shards!”
“Want to learn a foreign language, but don’t have the time? Want to play piano like a virtuoso without the hassle of lessons? Memo-com has the best technology to give you the skills you need without the hassle of having to learn them!”
Needless to say, I was enthralled. Before long, I had a brand-new backpack that was supposedly reinforced with selanium threading (given the price of the alloy and the price of the backpack, I doubted that; selanium is rare and extremely expensive, especially in thread-form). I also picked out some carpets for the Saybaro Mansion along with a nice armchair for my den; years of pay without any way to use it other than online purchases had left me a sizeable shard reserve.
As interesting as the shops were, the people were infinitely more fascinating. I watched as a street-corner evangelist from Earth preached damnation and salvation to two Rimstakkens, a male tigreth, and a Sirenes-tribe sentient with an amused look on her face. I listened as a Rimstakken and an idestan arguing about the price of crystallic in a nearby shop. I grinned as a tigreth took a swat at a greasy-looking fellow whispering in her ear who was apparently unaware of how dangerous it was to antagonize a tigreth.
As I wandered the roads, I noticed a small toy shop shaped within a tree in the style of the vuestan people. It was a quaint little shop, but what caught my attention were the plush dolls of historical figures in the window: the mad Emperor Lucaius Calliban, Sir Thomas Windstar of the Jai Vye Light Brigade, the Lady Death, Skims the wild, and many more. Heroes and villains spanning over three-thousand years of Vinta’s history stared back at me through the toy store window.
The dolls seemed remarkably well made. Lady Death had a small, ornate scythe, Darcones’s wings had little scales carved from ebony, and Skims had a strange fire burning in his tiny artificial eyes.
I was about to move on when one doll caught my eye. Shoved into the corner of the window, almost buried under a strangely fat doll in a pink tropical shirt, was a lone plush doll that could only have been modeled after the Dreamer known as Narrator Number One. I knew it was supposed to be One from the green and gray-striped shirt that he was purported to always wear.
A bell jingled as I entered the shop. I walked to the plush doll display and picked up the One doll, the tales of the famous Dreamer’s exploits my father once told to me now running through my head. The doll smiled at me, its plush arms and legs hanging down from my hands.
Ever since I was a boy, I had been fascinated with One and the Dreamers of The Elsewhere Incorporate. Dreamers were mysterious beings that always seemed to appear just at the right moment with just the right bit of equipment or advice for a troubled hero.
Narrator Number One, however, has appeared throughout the histories of almost every Vintan culture. Not content to just sit on the sidelines during a crisis, he crashed repeatedly into our world, taking out threat after threat. His image was even found on an ancient Kindred ruin, displayed as a being leaping from the sun, wearing his green and gray-striped shirt and blue jean shorts, his twin gauntlet weapons, ‘Headache’, firing beams of light upon the forces of darkness.
“Can I help you?”
Jarred from my thoughts, I glanced up at the speaker, a short woman with curly red hair, cat-like ears and a fuzzy tail. She looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties, maybe younger. It was hard to tell; I had read about the vuestan, but I had never actually met one before.
“I beg your pardon, ma’am.” I said politely, “I was just looking.”
She took the doll from me, smiling as she examined it with gentle hands. “We make every doll by hand. Each one is a masterpiece.”
Her lips didn’t move as she spoke. I was surprised until I remembered that the vuestan didn’t have vocal cords; they communicated through telepathy.
She glanced up at me curiously. “Have you ever met One?”
I shook my head. “No, but I’ve read just about every story ever written about him.”
She smiled a little wider. “I see him every now and then. He’s not quite what you’d expect. Still, you can tell just by talking to him that he’s something special: a hero, as they say.”
I smiled back, feeling more than a little uncomfortable under her gaze; it felt like her eyes were digging into my soul. She may have very well been digging into my soul; even in my isolation, I had heard some strange stories about the vuestan race and their latent telepathic talents.
After a few moments, she pressed the doll into my hand. “Take it. No charge.”
Astonished, I opened my mouth to offer to pay, but she stood on her tiptoes and put a finger to my lips. “No charge. I insist.”
I looked back down at the doll in my hands. It smiled back up at me, brown button eyes twinkling. Smiling myself, I gave the shopkeeper a respectful bow. “Thank you very much, Ma’am. I will take good care of him.”
She patted me on the arm. “Just remember that whatever happens, a real hero doesn’t ever give up. No matter how hard it gets, never let go of hope.”
“I’m not a hero.” I told her, blushing. “But it’s still sound advice. Thank you.”
I left the store, still turning the doll over in my hands. The vuestan woman knew her craft well; the doll was exquisitely made, right down to the tiny rune stitched on the back of its right hand.
As I looked up from the doll, I caught someone across the street staring right at me. In the moment our eyes met, I noticed her cream-colored fur, small nose, and the long rabbit-like ears hanging down her back which marked her as a fional with Galden blood, much like the girl at the waystation. However, before I could get a better look, she was gone.
Was it the same person who had been following me before? If so, why was she letting me see her now? I had read enough about the fional to know that if one was tailing me, she should have been more than fast enough to avoid detection. She wanted me to know she was there … but why?
I stared at where she had been standing for a long moment, wondering if I had imagined her when I heard someone nearby call out, “Jimmy? Oh, thank the Creator!”
Devon was standing not ten feet away. He looked as though he had been running; sweat was dripping off his nose and chin, and his face was as red as a beet.
As he ran over to me, I suddenly remembered just why I had come to Yesrej in the first place. “Sorry Devon. I just-”
“Wanted to do a bit of shopping? Not a problem. After that landing, I think we both needed a little time to unwind.” He paused a moment to wipe the sweat off his brow with a surprisingly lacy handkerchief. Seeing my curious look, he said, “Wife made it for me. Say, did the floater made it intact?”
I thought about the giant statue that now was flipping off the city. Suppressing a grin, I replied, “I doubt it’ll fly again, but no one was hurt.”
“Good to hear. What’s that you got there?”
Not wanting to explain to Devon why I had a doll, I quickly slid the plush One into my pocket. “Nothing important; a trinket I spotted in a toy shop.”
He shrugged it off indifferently. “Ah. Well, are you finished shopping? Ready to head to the palace?”
I nodded. “Indeed.”
Devon led me back to the waystation. Rather than stepping up to one of the pods, he stepped into the black stone ring in the very center of the chamber and said, “This is the Mox Wazoo with Specialist Sakamota, requesting passage to the palace.”
“Password?” Asked a squeaky voice that seemed to come from the floor.
Devon groaned. “Do I have to?”
“You know the drill, Devon.” The squeaky voice sounded unrelenting.
Taking a deep breath, Devon suddenly started singing. Everyone in the waystation stopped and watched as the king’s right hand man began to sing.
Ronald Pack and Charles Mack
were walking down the street.
Said Ronald Pack, “Hey, Charlie Mack,
let’s have a bite to eat.”
“Sounds good to me,” replied Charlie,
“But where’d ya like to go?”
“You’re kidding me, where else indeed!”
Ron laughed, “The Malboro!”
The greasy sty with sawdust pie
and mud cocktails to go,
for maggot stew and cockroach brew,
dine at the Malboro!
By the time Devon finished, his face had gone a deep shade of red. I can’t say that I was surprised; everyone else in the waystation was staring at him as though he had just gone completely crazy. Still, apparently the song was the password; the stone circle suddenly burst into light and began to shoot translucent rings of energy upward.
Devon vanished in an instant, leaving the ring empty. Taking a deep breath, I stepped into the ring, hoping I didn’t have to sing too. Fortunately, I did not; there was a bright flash of light, then I was standing beside Devon on a platform, in front of the walkway that led to the palace entrance.
“Sorry about the … er, strangeness.” Devon answered in response to my unasked question. “There’s a normal waystation a bit further back, of course, but Iniagus likes to use hologram emitters to make visitors run through an obstacle course … or just chase them away with monsters. Much easier to bypass it, even if it’s a bit awkward.”
He quickly started walking, still looking quite red in the face. I said nothing as I followed, knowing full well how I much I’d want to talk after singing in front of a bunch of strangers.