Chapter 17 - Surfacing
I kept an eye on Smokes as we walked back to the hub, hoping to keep him from just wandering off. I didn’t want to have to go searching for him later, especially if Terra was in danger.
Unfortunately, my attention should’ve been elsewhere. Jenna was having an increasing problem walking. As we re-entered the hub room, one of her legs suddenly froze in mid-stride. Ell and I caught her before she fell.
“Thank you, both of you.” She told us as we helped her to one of the chairs. After scanning her leg for a moment, she let out a sigh. “Joint’s rusted solid.”
“They used iron in your construction?” I asked curiously.
“No, but I damaged my leg once while helping a small merchant ship. They fixed the joint with a hybrin-iron alloy that hasn’t held up well without contact to my regular joint lubricant.”
“Don’t worry about it, Jen.” One said, hopping up to the console and patting her on the arm, “Once we get you to another facility, they’ll have you up to spec in no time.
She smiled. “Thanks, One. I …” Her cheeks turned gold again. “I wouldn’t want Core to see me like this.”
“Sounds like you two have a history.” Flip said, hopping into her lap.
“Oh, well …” her whole face turned gold, “He’s a great man. He had a hand in my construction, though my father-”
Flip suddenly sat upright, her ears perked. “You guys hear that?”
I listened. At first I didn’t hear anything. After a few moments of concentration, however, I could hear the soft notes of an oddly familiar song. It reminded me strongly of the sound of wind rushing through the leaves of a tree, which helped me realize just where I had heard it.
“It’s Terra’s suon!” I tried to figure out which way it was coming from, but it was too faint for me to make out.
Fortunately, Flip had better hearing than I did. “Come on!” she said, running down a corridor with an unfamiliar symbol.
I started to follow but looked back at One and Jenna uncertainly.
One waved me on, “I’ll stay with her. You go find your girlfriend.”
Nodding thankfully, I hurried after Flip.
The corridors in the area were particularly devastated, but some of the blast marks on the wall were still shiny, indicating that they had been damaged recently. I quickened my pace.
Flip stopped at a closed door a good distance down the corridor. It was no different from the others along the way, except that coming from beneath it was the soothing music of Terra’s suon.
I banged on the door, shouting, “Terra? Terra! Are you in there?”
The music stopped instantly. I heard someone run up to the door from inside.
“Jimmy! Oh, thank the Creator! I was worried that Zig might have found you! Can you open the door?”
I twisted the handle, but it was shut tight.
“Stand away from the door.” I warned her and Flip, grabbing Glint with both hands. I didn’t know if a Force Edge would be strong enough to break the locking mechanism, but it was worth a try.
I channeled the lifestream through my arms and into my blade. When I took a step back so my sword could swing without hitting the wall, however, I bumped into Smokes.
“Daah!” He said falling back against the floor. His legs flew out as he lost his balance, catching me in my calf. I stumbled forward, unintentionally thrusting Glint toward the door and releasing the charge as Flip quickly darted away to prevent herself from getting squashed.
The blast hit the door dead center, knocking it clean from its hinges and hurling it across the room, narrowly avoiding Terra in the process. From what Zig had told me earlier, I apparently managed to pull off a Force Blast ... by accident, no less.”
Terra jumped through the open door moments later, anger radiating off her as she said, “That scrap Zig locked me in here. Little wuss was losing, so he-”
She stopped and looked down, where Smokes and I were still laying. Her anger faded almost immediately at the sight of us. Trying hard not to giggle (and failing, I might add), she asked, “Um … are you okay, Jimmy?”
She took my hand and hauled me to my feet. I caught her by surprise by immediately pulling her into an embrace.
“I was worried about you.” I whispered, holding her tightly. Too tightly, part of me worried, but she didn’t seem to mind.
“About me? I was worried about you!”
She started to kiss me, but pulled away when she realized Zig and Flip were watching. Still holding my hand, she told us, “If I wasn’t fional, I’d probably be a smudge on the wall right now. Zig’s fast, inhumanly fast.”
“But that’s normal, right?” Flip asked, raising an eyebrow. “He’s a cyborg.”
“I’m not talking about the arm-cannon. He’s fast, almost faster than me.” Glancing at me, she said, “It reminded me of your reports of the rogue core units, to be honest.”
A dark suspicion began to grow at my mind, bringing with it old memories I long wished I had forgotten. “No.” I said aloud, shaking my head vehemently. “It’s not coming to that.”
“Jimmy?” Terra asked, her hand on my arm.
I shook my head, saying, “It’s nothing. We’d better get moving; Smokes saw Zig running back toward the center.” I couldn’t resist running my hand through her hair as I added, “Probably scared that you’d find a way out.”
Smiling, she said. “He better be scared. Once I’m determined, nothing can stand in my way.”
“Nothing?” I asked, pulling her close again.
“Not a damn thing.” Smiling, she moved to kiss me once again.
Smokes took a puff and let it out before saying, “Look, I appreciate that you’re into each other, but I’m thinking this thing with Zig might be a bit more urgent at the moment.”
“He’s r-” I began before Terra kissed me in mid-word. Flip giggled and Smokes rolled his eyes as we embraced a little more passionately than I intended.
When she finally released me, she said, “Now let’s go catch his scrap ass and get it done!”
As we ran back to the hub, Flip and I filled her in on what we had discovered so far.
“Another functioning core unit and a missing Core. Sounds like a villain from a Schrade comic.” She commented as she jogged along beside me. “So this makes … what, five facilities in Wenapaj?”
“Four.” I replied. “Saybaro, Natalya, Barenz, and now Cylell. Five, if you count Yaevin as a facility.”
“Yeah, but isn’t it more of a space station?” She grinned at me as I spoke the words ‘space station’ simultaneously with her. “Just checking. How is our new Glyche friend, anyway?”
“One was working on her when we left. Apparently, a few thousand years without maintenance hasn’t been to kind to her.”
“Well, if anyone can fix her, One can.” Her brow furrowed. She glanced over at me, asking, “It is him in the doll this time, right?”
“I sure hope so.”
One was still poking around with Jenna’s leg when we returned to the hub. I was always amazed to see him working with the tiny replica of Headache.
Glancing briefly at us, he said, “Hi, Terra! Glad to see you’re okay. Give me a sec and I’ll be done here.”
Terra and Jenna stared at each other for a long moment.
“Is something wrong?” Jenna asked, sounding worried.
Terra quickly shook her head, her cheeks a little red. “Sorry; you look like someone I know. I’m Terra, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m Jenna White.”
As they shook hands, One lifted the tiny welding mask off of his head and stepped back. “That should fix ya until we can get to a proper constructor pod. I wouldn’t recommend jumping around a lot, but you should be just fine for walking.”
Jenna rose to her feet and took a few experimental steps. She seemed a little stiff, but functional. Brushing a hand through her hair hair (and sending a wave of dust into the air in the process) she asked, “So, where are we going now?”
“We need to catch Zig.” I told her. “Something’s seriously wrong with him, and I’m beginning to think it may not be his fault.”
“Jimmy?” Terra asked curiously, but I shook my head.
“I hope I’m wrong; just in case, we should be ready for a fight.”
“I don’t understand.” Terra said, putting her hand on my arm. “How did he know this was even down here? I mean, look at this place; are you telling me the people from the Center would have left it like this if they knew it was here?”
“Probably for the best.” Smokes said. It sounded like his euphoria was wearing off, and his face looked visibly strained. “They woulda just dissected Jenna here.” He smiled at her. “I think you’re much nicer in one piece.”
Jenna’s cheeks went slightly gold. “Um, thanks.”
“Smokes,” I said, “If you need to light up again-”
“I can’t. I’m out of my special herbal mixture.” He sighed, muttering, “I’d kill for an Elizer Gold right now.”
“Well, I don’t know what Zig was looking for down here, but something tells me he didn’t find it.” Flip leapt up into Ell’s arms and climbed up to his broad shoulder again. “Of course, we could go ask him.”
“Right. Let’s get moving.” Squeezing Terra’s hand, I followed Jenna down the corridor that presumably led to the Center of Knowledge.
The Glyche corridors gradually transitioned into the colorful walls of the Center of Knowledge, eventually ending with a surprisingly normal-looking door. It was a nice door, a bit dusty on the inside, but virtually identical to the hundreds of doors in the Saybaro Mansion.
Glancing uncertainly at the others, I closed my hand around the handle and pushed the door open.
A massive chamber filled with doors of every shape, size, color, and design awaited us behind the first.. There were doors on the floor and ceiling as well as the walls. Even more were stacked on shelves, propped up against the walls, and in some cases, simply hanging in mid-air.
The room wasn’t just a big open space either; there were curves, strange angles, extra walls only a few meters tall, and at least six different floors, all in the same room. It looked more like a carnival fun house than any sort of standard room.
“Wow.” One whispered as we walked into the room. “Never thought I’d see a grey room out-done by reality.”
Terra spun about, her eyes flitting from door to door. “No wonder no one ever found this place! Even if they knew the facility was there, it would take hours to find the right door!”
“Weird, but cool.” Flip said, eyeing a door that was so small that only she could fit through.
I walked to a white door with pink spots and opened it, curious as to what was on the other side. At first, I thought it opened to another room with doors, but then I saw Terra looking curiously at me. She turned to look at the back of someone wearing a black hakama and keikogi, who I realized was also me. I glanced back at her and once again saw myself through a door on the other side of the room.
“Hmm …” I stepped through the door. Sure enough, I found myself on the other side of the room. As I walked back up to Terra, I said, “Have to admit, that’s one heck of a stealth mechanism.”
“Shouldn’t be a problem.” One said, wiping his hands together. “If it’s like the Door Room back in the Elsewhere, the door to the Center will be identical to the door to the facility.”
“Jimmy,” Terra asked uneasily, “Which door leads back to the facility?”
The smile froze on my face. I hadn’t bothered to take note of the door as I walked through, and now we were inside.
The next hour was lots of fun, and I really mean that. Sure, Zig was out there causing trouble, but it was hard not to laugh when One and Flip jumped through a door on the floor and shot out of a door right above me, or when Ell had to grab Smokes as he fell from a door in the ceiling, or when I spotted Terra passing a door I had just gone through and poked my hands back through to tickle her. She got me back later by swiping Glint from a horizontal doorway on the third floor. We chased each other around for about ten minutes before I finally caught her and tickled her until she gave it back.
The doors continually shut themselves. This would’ve been a problem had One not produced a pad of sticky notes, which we began to slap on the doors as we passed through. Despite this, we still went through every door except two; the one leading to the Glyche facility, and the door that happened to be right beside it.
The correct door opened out into a massive open-ceiling courtyard surrounding an even more massive tower. Well-tended plant life and empty benches provided what I assumed was a relaxing atmosphere for students between classes before the conflict between the sects.
Moments after the last of the group left the door room, every door in the chamber abruptly opened and slammed shut with a resounding boom that made us all jump. Dozens of sticky notes fell to the floor, no doubt to keep the next person who entered from simply walking through. Smokes just shrugged at me before continuing forward.
The area around the tower was deserted and eerily silent. I was understandably cautious as I led the group forward, Terra close at my side.
“Terra,” I said, “You hear anything?”
She shook her head, though I noted she had drawn both of her spurs. “Nothing. You?”
I shook my head. “No, but it’s not like that means much here. Smokes, where are we?”
“The Seed’s Tower.” Smokes said. “It’s been closed since the Seed blew himself up. It’ll take Golbez and Kanook to re-open the doors.”
“So neither could really seize control.” Terra said thoughtfully.
Smokes let out a dark chuckle. “I didn’t say it’d take all of Golbez and Kanook; just their right hands. The doorway’s coded to their handprints. Archaeic, yes, but effective.”
“Could you open the doors?” I asked curiously.
“Me? I guess I could. I don’t wanna be the Seed, though. Too much responsibility. I’ve got enough to do with my own studies.”
“Just what are you studying?” Terra asked him as they continued walking.
“My business.” He replied shortly. He was looking more haggard by the minute; whatever effect his herbal concoction provided him was obviously gone.
“We’ll try and stop by your lab on our way back to Kanook’s people.” I told him. “Provided we get back there, of course.”
One raised his hand. “I can definitely help there. I’ve seen a few Centers in my time.” He pointed to a set of doors on the far side of the courtyard, saying, “Lobby should be that way. Should be simple enough to get to wherever you want to go from there.”
We circled the tower until we were in front of a massive set of golden doors that led into the Seed’s Tower. Nodding at One, I led the group to the twin doors directly across the courtyard. A peek through the windows set in the doors showed that they did indeed lead to the lobby.
“Looks good.” I glanced back at the others and asked, “Still, it looked clear before too. Everyone ready?”
Terra raised her spurs. Ell hefted his massive blade. One, again riding Flip like Vinta’s smallest calvary, raised his tiny, Headache-equipped arms. Jenna readied her own arms, her hands quickly configuring into the barrels of energy blasters.
Smokes, however, seemed a bit nervous. “What if they’re all waiting to ambush us in the lobby? What if Zig’s there?”
“Then we might need you to try to get that door open after all.” Terra told him matter of factly.
This was not particularly reassuring to the tense Idestan. “But what if I can’t? What if I screw up, or if it doesn’t work?”
“Then we’ll find another way.” I told him, trying to make it sound as simple as watching a bridge. “We’ll find a way out, Smokes, trust me. If we all do our best, we’ll be fine, no matter what happens.”
It was a corny line, but it seemed to calm him somewhat; he nodded and rolled up his sleeves, muttering something beneath his breath. It sounded like he was trying to remember incantations, though don’t quote me on that.
“So, everyone ready?” Seeing my friends’ smiles and nods, I turned back to the door.