The pale blue sand stretched endlessly in all directions, hard, flat and wet. The sky was also a sempiternal stretch of blue, paler still. Heat haze seemed to curl at the horizon, but the air was saliferous and faintly damp.
Three black, wavy shapes wobbled through the haze, leaving dark footprints in the blue. They became clearer, solidifying into humanoid forms dressed in long black coats with hundreds of buttons. They had long pale faces and dark round sunglasses. Their dark hair was either covered by square black caps or, in the case of the leader, pasted to its pasty forehead.
The leader stopped, holding up a long skinny finger with a fingernail that was more claw. The other two halted, kicking up wet sand. Water pooled by their black-booted feet.
“Where are we?” the two hatted beings asked.
The leader pulled out a black pocket watch and flipped it open.
“Ah,” he said, consulting the multiple faces. “We are in a spatial interim caused by the accordance of the Annums.”
“Explain this to us,” the other two said in unison.
“It is like so,” the leader said, slipping his watch back into a pocket and gesturing with his elongated digits. “The Seven Magnitudes are only relative one to another through the Twenty-one Annums. Normally they are in disagreement, but occasionally Annums will overlap, causing simultaneous existences. But,” he punctuated the word with a jab of his finger, “when all of the Annums are in accord, the Magnitudes and Annums fuse in an exo-reality, creating what you now see around you.”
“Ah!” the two capped beings said together. “Next time,” one muttered, “I didn't ask.”
“Why are we here?” the other follower asked.
“Ah...good question. Very good question,” the leader replied. He tapped his lips with one long finger. He frowned. The other two waited patiently, their round lenses impassive.
Their leader spun in a confused circle, eyeing the emptiness, his heel digging a gouge in the sand. He flapped his arms helplessly.
“How did we get here?”
“We were walking, I think,” the other two said.
“Yes, and before that?”
“We follow, you lead; we ask, you enlighten.”
“Before that...” the leader pulled out his watch again and consulted several of its faces. “Hmm, before that this,” he waved at the seemingly physical landscape, “wasn't here. The
Annums were in disagreement. Now they have fused for a time and so I conclude that 'before that' we were not.”
“Ahhh...” the followers said.
“And very soon we will not be again, after which I do not think it likely that we shall be again.”
The followers looked alarmed, their eyebrows shooting up over their glasses. They both opened their mouths to speak, but their leader silenced them with a flick of his hand as he gazed at his watch.
“It seems we do not have long,” the leader said. “The Annums will soon break apart again and return to their normal state of separation…Our simultaneous existence will end ere the hour is out.”
He turned to look at his followers. Their shoulders sank in dejection. Then one of them looked up and pointed excitedly. “Look!” he exclaimed. “I see something!”
“Impossible,” the leader said, “there’s nothing here…” he trailed off as he gazed across the blue plain in the direction his follower indicated. “Impossible,” he repeated.
In the shivery distance something protruded from the ground. It was a twisted, broken, bluish silver tower or stump—or city—or—or something.
“Minas Central Terminus,” the leader breathed.
“Qu’est ce que?” the followers asked.
“Hurry!” the leader shouted, checking his watch. “That may be our only escape, but it will not last!” he broke into a wild run. The followers glanced at each other, and then hurried to catch up. Source-less light blazed through the sky, causing them to run even faster, their hearts jerking like accelerated atoms. They raced across the endless expanse, heading towards the only other thing in sight.
The followers didn’t know what their leader meant by escape, but they hoped it meant they wouldn’t cease to exist in an hour. They strained towards the tower, clawing at the air with their skinny fingers as if they could pull it towards them.
Suddenly, in the blaze of source-less light a broken statue appeared to the left. A headless god of blue-white stone, crumbling into the sand. Another one disintegrated into existence on the other side.
“Faster!” urged the leader. Wet sand flew behind their black booted feet, their black coats streaming like wings. The sand sucked at their feet, their coats caught at the wind, trying to hold them back, anchor them until they winked out of existence. Their dark glasses flared with the reflection of the source-less light.
The colossal arm of a god came crashing down on them. Sand exploded everywhere, the leader and the first follower dove to the side, but the second was too slow.
The hand came down over him like a cage, its thumb pinning his coat to the ground. Blue water pooled around him. The Leader and Follower One (F1) scrambled to their feet as more wet sand came streaming around them. A massive nose hurtled past, only to smash into its foot, sending debris flying.
“Where’s Follower 2?” Leader asked, looking around at the new landscape of dissolving limbs. F1 pointed at the hand, slowly wearing away, burying F2 alive. Leader ducked between the fingers and yanked on F2’s coat.
“Why?” F2 asked.
“What?” Leader asked. There was a ripping sound, but F2 was still trapped.
“Why are you saving me? We have no past, and no future unless we escape. Go!”
Leader shook his head. “No. I am the leader, you are the follower; a leader takes care of his followers.” The ceiling was lowering, the hand pressing flat.
“How did you become Leader?”
“You followed me.”
The coat ripped and F2 came loose. They scrambled out from under the smashing hand just before it collapsed completely.
“Look!” yelled F1, pointing at the sky. Weird blue lights of various sizes were pulsing off to the right. Wind whipped through the ruins of the statue, blowing wet sand against their glasses.
“Come on!” Leader finally yelled, grabbing his followers and hustling them out of the statue. Back on flat sand they ran towards the tower. The blue lights seemed to be fading and fewer statues were crumbling onto the plain out of nowhere.
As they got closer, the form of the tower grew clearer. It appeared to be constructed or grown in tiers, rings of stone or wood or something in between, rising off the plain. Among the twisted towers that sprouted from each level stood large archways, and in the center rose a massive rock that jutted up through all the layers and stuck out over the plain like a knife.
All fell still again as they neared the massive structure which appeared to be rooted to the ground by gigantic hands that grew from the lower bastions and roots, like a trees, and huge chains that disappeared into the sand.
The only sounds were the Slap! Squuck! of their feet in the sand and the Hu! Hough! of their breaths. The Minas Central Terminus soared above them and they slowed to a jog, out of breath, the seams in their sides ripping. All of the arches and windows were dark.
“What is that?” F1 panted.
“It’s…it’s…” Leader gasped, “the Terminus!”
“The end?” F1 exclaimed, skidding to a stop, plowing up the sand.
Leader and F2 also stopped, hands on knees, huffing. “I thought you said it was an escape!” F1 said, he now stood in a little pool of water. “You’re leading us to the End! Terminus! I want to exist! What kind of leader are…” he couldn’t finish, his lungs were seared. He coughed up blood. Dark purple splattered in the blue water.
Leader opened his mouth, but he couldn’t start, his heart was seared.
“We made him leader,” F2 said firmly. “We follow.”
“Blindly into that?” F1 choked, pointing at the Terminus. “He popped into being just like us, what makes him qualified?”
“He came into being as a leader,” F2 said. “And he came back for me,” he added defensively, almost accusatorily.
F1 was almost up to his knees in blood stained water.
“Move!” Leader exclaimed, whipping out his watch and grabbing F1’s arm. But he couldn’t pull him from the pool, it was swallowing him.
“Help!” F1 screamed. F2 screamed louder.
“Help!” Leader repeated. F2 stopped screaming and grabbed F1’s other arm. “One! Two! Heave!”
F1 popped out of the pool and went sailing over their heads into the sand. Leader and F2 hurried over and helped him up.
“We can’t stay in one place too long here,” Leader said, consulting his watch. “The fusion is thin where the Terminus stands. The Void seeps in easily.” He pointed at the pool. “Let’s go,” he said, leading the way towards a gaping maw in the Terminus. F2 followed. F1 stood and brushed off the wet sand.
“We’re the ones with the hats,” he muttered, but he hurried after Leader and F2, glancing back fearfully at the pool. He caught up with the other two just before the hole/gate.
The water of the pool rippled, the purple blood stirring. A violet colored baby octopus lifted its tiny tentacle above the surface and planted its suckers on the sand of a temporary world.
“Hurry!” Leader said, ushering the followers towards the hole/gate.
A blazing blue light fell upon their distinct black shapes. They threw their hands across their dark glasses, which did little against the glare.
The followers whimpered, wind gusted through their coats, not stirring the plastered hair of Leader. The light dimmed, floating off of them and they saw its source.
High above the plain, hovering silently just a half mile away from the lowest tier of the Terminus, was…something. Something between a rock formation and a vessel, for Leader could make out seven thruster engines, four at the back, three scattered around the things midriff. The thing was misshapen, grey, and dripping. Odd towers and canyons divided its rocky surface. Greenish plants or liquid leaked from pores.
“What is that?” the followers asked in unison, their voices trembling.
Leader consulted his watch. He looked back at the floating thing, sending down its blue spotlights, sweeping across the plain and the craggy surface of the Terminus.
“I don’t know,” Leader said in a very small voice. The light swept over them again and he pushed his followers into the hole/gate. The shallow pool they’d been standing in slowly started to recede.
Leader urged F1 and 2 through the darkness of the hole/gate, stumbling over vague shapes of a smooth, cold material. Leader took of his dark glasses, but he could still see nothing.
“We can’t see!” the followers cried.
“Keep going,” Leader said.
“Ow!” said F2.
“My shin!” said F1.
“What is that?” Leader asked, coming up against something hard and poky. He reached out his hand. He felt a ring. "I think…” he pulled on the ring.
“Ah!” all three screamed.
Blazing light nearly blasted him back into the followers. He threw his pale hands across his exposed eyes.
“Dark glasses on!”
They all threw their glasses back on, hurriedly dusted off their coats and strode out through the tall arched doorway.
Impossibly tall walls of undulating cyan glass curved away from the doorway on either side. Opposite stood a mangle of doors, windows, apertures, stairs, pillars, walls, and a thousand other architectural features growing in and out of each other with no sense of decency.
In the space between the structural nightmare and the three beings was a sort of courtyard or street. In the middle stood a fountain; a shapeless pool with a statue of a woman, naked, holding a dagger of silver. The water gushed from her eyes into the pool, dark purple.
“What is it?” F2 asked breathlessly, reaching out a tentative hand.
“It’s a she,” Leader said, consulting his watch.
F2 withdrew his hand. “Do they bite?”
“It’s a statue,” F1 pointed out.
“But, it’s crying blood,” F2 said with a shudder. Dark purple rivulets ran down the statue’s ankles, making hardly a sound as they entered the wine colored pool.
“I’m…not sure it’s real blood…” Leader supplied. “But I think we go up.” He led the way over to the crushed dreams of an architect. There were seven total staircases. Three went down, one, toppled on its side, ran sideways through eight windows and into a dark hallway. The last three stairs led up. One fused with a pillar, one ended in midair, high above the street, and one disappeared up through a trap door.
They filed up the steps into a gallery filled with endless rows of pillars. Leader hesitated for a moment then declared, “This way!” and smacked into a mirror. He fingered the surface. “Hmm, odd. This must be a reflective surface, yet…I don’t see myself…”
“A see-through barrier?” suggested F1.
“No…this gallery appears endless, it’s just reflected eternally upon itself. See, there are thousands of trapdoors. But somehow, we are not reflected, it’s like we’re invisible or…we don’t exist.”
The followers shuddered.
“Right,” Leader said, feeling along the wall to the right of the trap door. Suddenly he vanished.
The followers gasped and ran forward, alternately clinging to each other and pushing each other away. “Leader!” they squeaked.
He reappeared right in front of them and they piled into him, all falling around the corner where Leader had seemingly vanished.
“What?!” Leader asked.
Leader stepped back around the corner, observing the effect, then rejoined the shaken followers. “Interesting placement of mirrors,” he commented, leading the way along the hall.
“Why aren’t there any pillars?” F2 asked, trailing his hand along one wall, then crossing the floor till he hit the other wall and tracing the cool, flat pillar reflections. “What’s making these?”
“Why are there pillar reflections, and no us reflections?” F1 asked.
“I…don’t know,” Leader said, quickening the pace.
“You seem to know everything else,” F1 said.
“You should, if you’re the leader.”
“I can’t, minds like ours just can’t know everything,” Leader smacked into another invisible barrier. He splayed his skeletal fingers across the glass, feeling for a corner. “There are just things in my head,” he explained. “They’ve been there since…well, a few minutes ago. Things I see bring them to the forefront. But I know them beforehand.”
“Why should we believe you?”
“I’ve gotten you this far, haven’t I?”
“We’re wandering in an endless hall.”
“Look,” Leader said, stopping, “this is some kind of tunnel or maze, it reflects itself infinitely.”
“So you say,” F1 argued, “but you keep going on about reflections and how they work and all this nonsense, I see infinite pillars.”
“Feel the mirrors,” F2 said.
“Who felt them first? How do we know they’re really there? Is any of this really here?” F1 demanded.
“Use your eyes!” F2 exclaimed.
“Think about it,” F1 said. “We’ve believed everything we were told from the beginning, what if none of that was ever true?”
“But we knew what we were from the beginning, no questions asked,” Leader said. “In fact, you told me who we were.”
“Because you told us first subconsciously,” F1 said. “Don’t either of you feel any different than you did at first? Don’t you think you might be something else, something you want to be?”
“What’s ‘subconsciously?’” F2 said.
Leader frowned. He did feel a bit different. He felt…unsure.
F2 glanced around. “Do you hear something?” he asked.
They all cocked their heads. A rumbling echoed in the distance. “That way,” Leader said heading off between the pillars.
“Are you sure?” F1 asked under his breath, following Leader and F2.
They emerged quite unexpectedly onto a parapet that ran over a muddle of broken streets. It had crenellated walls and led to a winding stairway, broad enough for an army, that circled a fat, desolated tower. At the top of the tower a bridge connected it to the third tier of Terminus, a faceless wall with spikes along the top. Rising from the top of the tower, grew a pedestal of dripping limestone with steps cut into the side and smaller towers jutting out as if the pedestal had crashed down on top of them.
The massive rock formation vessel swam just above the surface of the pedestal, its thruster engines echoing off the thousands of walls, rumbling like thunder and lightning as the thrusters flashed, sparked and went out. Leader and the followers ogled up, open-mouthed.
The vessel hung for a moment, then dropped the last fifty feet onto the pedestal. Dust, rock, fire, and noise cascaded around the pedestal in a torrential rain. The shock wave passed over Leader and the Followers, vibrating and cracking the bridge, jarring their teeth and shaking F2’s glasses off. He threw his hands over his eyes.
One of the towers jutting from the pedestal cracked and fell, shattering like an icicle on the tier below, sending shards raining down on the lower Terminus. F2 scrambled around on the parapet after his glasses whilst Leader and F1 cowered under a hail of particles.
F2 slapped on his glasses and stared in awe at the colossus wrecked on the pedestal. It shivered like a living thing and belched a cloud of black smoke into the sky.
“That’s a vessel…” Leader whispered. Surely that was their escape. They had to reach it and find out what was wrong. “Come on!” he said, striding across the parapet. F2 and F1 followed reluctantly, looking up at the precariously wobbling towers.
The parapet was cracked. Stones crumbled from it as they ran towards the wide staircase. One last chunk of Terminus fell from the pedestal, crashing down onto the tier and sending a house sized rock flying down at them.
Leader looked up with terror, slashing his hands in the air, running faster, urging his followers onward. The rock obliterated the parapet behind them, huge cracks wove across the stone, crenellations dissolved, rubble slid down into the streets.
“Go! Go! Go!” Leader shrieked. He and his followers darted up the steps, the cracks right on their heels. The parapet fell away completely into the city below, dashing several cafés into grounds. The first few steps followed and Leader and his Followers fled higher.
At last the dissolution ceased, the steps hanging hazardously over the lower tier. Leader and the followers collapsed on the wide stairs, eyeing the drop with mistrust. The sky overhead remained pale blue, the plain stretched out beyond Terminus and silence reigned.
“Look!” F2 shouted, pointing up at the higher levels of Terminus. Leader craned his neck. High on the chasms and pinnacles of the upper Terminus swarmed dark little scuttling shapes, flooding out of a maw-like opening and pouring up, curling around the structure and streaming into Terminus's eyes, vanishing.
"What..." F1 began.
"I don't know," said Leader, "but they make me feel all...crawly." He shuddered and stood shakily. The followers rose and together they ascended the staircase. The stairs were even bigger than they'd appeared from a distance and rose straight and steep for a couple hundred feet before beginning to slowly encircle the gargantuan tower.
Behind them, across the gap of the broken parapet, the purple cephalopod dropped down onto the rubble with a plop.
Finally the wide stair entered the tower through a five story arch, flanked by a cluster of seven pillars on each side. Leader paused on the threshold of the huge chamber. The interior was divided into four darknesses by two shafts of bluish light from tall slit windows.
Leader waved his pale skinny hand and led them inside.
The middle of the room was dominated by a seven tiered platform on which stood a massive chunk of silvery rock. Leader and followers were silent in awe.
The room seemed to echo strange hollow notes. Slowly, their eyes adjusted to the gloom and they could see the photographic frescoes painted onto the glassy smooth walls. One depicted a noble figure, a kingly boy, drawing a black sword out of a chunk of rock…the same silver rock that stood on the pedestal.
Beside the fresco, was another, showing the same king on horseback, leading armored knights, pointing the way with the black sword. More paintings ringed the room, but Leader stared at the last.
The king knelt, crownless, his hair plastered to his forehead with sweat. The black sword was clutched in his grasp, but he did not raise it. Above him loomed a green scaled knight, raising his green sword to decapitate the king. Above the painting was an inscription and below, a map.
The inscription was in some ancient language, carved in squarish symbols.
"Due to massive delays and the closing of one of our main lines, only two tickets will be valid for exiting of the Minas Central Terminus. Sorry for the inconvenience," Leader read the inscription aloud.
"What's that mean?" F2 asked.
"It means...it means..." Leader faltered. He thought he knew, and he knew what he had to do. He was the Leader and he would do his job. To the very end.
"You made it up," F1 interrupted. "That's a bunch of scribbles up there."
"You mean you can't read?" Leader asked.
"Of course! But that’s not an alphabet, it just…it’s…”
“It’s the first alphabet I’ve ever seen,” Leader sniffed. F1 opened his mouth, but F2 interrupted.
"What's this map?" F2 said.
It was a complicated grid laid out in several sections cut through with spirals and labeled meticulously in tiny script.
“Excellent,” said Leader, “we shall find our way to the platform!”
“How?” pointed out F1. “We have no idea where we are.”
F2 drooped, staring at the hopeless tangle.
“’You are here’” Leader read, placing a thin finger on a triangle on the map. F2 brightened. “If we go along here,” Leader said, drawing his finger along the map. “We will come to this, see it says ‘up,’ and we go up to here and along here, up again and out to the…Landing Platform A, off limits.”
“Off limits?” F1 said warily,
“What’s that?” F2 asked, pointing to a silver inlaid symbol.
“That says Departure Gate 3B,” Leader said.
“That sounds good,” F2 said, staring at the map.
“Departure can also mean disappearance,” Leader said, consulting his watch. “Which is what we’re trying to avoid. I think it best to investigate this vessel on Landing Platform A.”
“What’s that?” F2 said pointing at another symbol.
“It says Transport Museum.”
“Lavatory, but we must be going, we’ll have time for reading lessons once we ensure our state of being is of a more permanent nature.”
Leader led the way through one of the slit windows and out onto a parapet that curled around the tower.
The purple cephalopod, now much larger, oozed its way into the chamber they had just vacated.
Leader and his Followers trudged up around the tower. The blue distance shimmered, the heads of massive statues emerging from the sand until the plain was dotted with colossi. Then the colossi flew into the sky, flicking weird shadows over the trio. The statues vanished in the infinite blue. Leader said nothing, but F1 and 2 looked at each other, their fear visible, even with their dark glasses on.
“Look!” exclaimed Leader, pointing up to a set of silvery doors just a little ways up the parapet. “That’s the way up!”
“Ah!” replied F2, who had just glanced behind and seen the cephalopod rolling towards them on its nine tentacles. Leader whipped his head around and gasped.
“Run!” he yelped.
Spindly limbs flying, the three beings fled up the parapet towards the silver doors. They thudded into the doors side by side, white hands splayed, searching for a handle, pushing on the doors. They didn’t budge and there were no handles. The cephalopod was closing in with elated squelching noises.
Leader saw the set of two buttons. He pushed one. Nothing happened. He pushed the other. Still nothing. He turned to face the cephalopod. The doors dinged open behind him. F1 and 2 spilled through. Leader leaped to follow. The doors began to slowly close. Leader and Followers turned to run, but there was nowhere to go. They were in a tiny room.
A purple tentacle came through the door, reaching for F1. The door sliced it off. It wriggled on the floor for a moment, squirting pink juice, then lay still.
Leader looked around the room.
One wall was covered in buttons. Leader scanned the buttons. “Hmm…ah,” he pushed one and the little room jolted.
“What was that?” F2 asked.
“What a peculiar feeling!” remarked F1.
“We’re going up!” explained Leader.
Leader consulted his watch anxiously, tapping his foot. “Takes a long time,” he muttered. At last there was a quiet ding! And the doors slid open.
The three beings cautiously stepped out. A hallway led to the right, another to the left, and a third directly ahead. There were more pictures along the walls, even more realistic than the ones in the chamber with the stone. And all of them were decorated with words.
Leader spun on his heel, looking down each hall. He scratched his head. F1 was looking at a picture with the words “Escape! Starring Mia Wasikowska and Ben Barnes.” F2 pointed tentatively down the left-hand hall. Leader shrugged.
“I’m afraid I can’t rightly remember,” he said, his shoulders falling. He was supposed to be leading and he couldn’t even remember a simple map.
“It’s left,” F2 said. “I remember clearly.”
“Left?” Leader asked.
“Eh?” said F1, looking away from the poster to his compatriots.
F2 nodded. “Are you sure?” Leader asked. F2 nodded again. Leader pursed his lips. He checked his watch. Time was getting on without them. They needed to hurry. “Left it is,” Leader said, marching down the hall.
F2 and F1 hurried after him. “Didn’t bother consulting me,” muttered F1.
“If you’d pay attention to what’s going on…” F2 pointed out.
The hall led to some weird waist-high gates, barred with sets of rotating tripods. Beyond that a flight of stairs led up and out onto Landing Platform A. There was a large red sign and beyond that, the vessel loomed, pieces of it lying here and there, the thruster engines sparking and smoking. Several of the stone formations had cracked and fallen off. A large section was completely gone, presumably over the side of the tower, and the interior was visible as a network of ant-like tunnels, caverns, metal catwalks, stairs, and machinery.
Leader’s heart sank. It was more damaged than he’d imagined. Should have guessed, he said to himself.
“Eh?” said F2 pointing at the red sign.
“It says: This area off-limits to civilians.”
“Are we civilians?”
“No. A civilian is a member of the public.”
Leader swept past the sign and marched into the shadow of the vessel. Rubble and dust coated every inch of the platform. The odd sparking noise of the thrusters was the only sound. There didn’t appear to be anyone about. He wondered if it would be a bad idea to shout to attract the attention of the crew. They walked around the vessel to side of the platform where the bridge connected it to the third tier of the Terminus.
“Oooh” said the three beings in unison. A huge ramp lay open in the side of the vessel with stone steps and lampposts lining the ascent into the vessel’s interior. There was still no sign of anyone. Leader mounted the steps cautiously.
He crept up, F1 and 2 on his tail, all the way to the top. The ramp led into a massive chamber filled with struts and fountains that burbled from rock faces into natural stone pools. There were reptilian bodies in spiny jumpsuits lined out on the floor. Some had been smashed, burned, or partially melted. Others bore less apparent damage, but all were unquestionably dead.
“What-what are those?” F1 asked.
“People, I think,” Leader said, inching closer and peering at one. It’s yellow, slit-pupil eyes were open and glassy, it had more of a snout than a nose and a wide maw lined with jagged teeth. It was covered in dull yellowy green scales with odd black markings. It had little ear-holes with scaled flanges that swept up into points.
“What’s wrong with them?” asked F2. “Are they asleep?”
“Do they have a disease?” F1 asked. “Why is their skin flaky?”
“They’re dead and they have scales,” Leader pronounced.
“Dead?” said F2.
“Scales?” said F1.
“All of them?”
“No,” said leader. “Someone laid them all out here.” He turned and led the way back down the ramp. At the bottom he saw something he hadn’t noticed earlier. Tracks in the dust headed towards the bridge, three sets of three-toed footprints.
He checked his watch.
This wasn’t good. If only two tickets were valid for exit, then the three of them added to the three sets of reptilian tracks equaled an unfortunately large number. Where were the aliens headed?
“Do you happen to recall anything else about that map?” he asked F2.
“Departure Gate 3B?”
“Up that way,” F2 replied, pointing across the bridge and up at the highest tier of the Terminus. Leader set out across the bridge without further delay. F1 and 2 scurried after him. They were halfway across the bridge when the entire Terminus trembled to its core. Leader and F2 toppled over and F1 collapsed on top of them.
Leader looked out at the plain. The sand was heaving in great waves with spouts of dust and steam spraying into the sky. The Terminus wobbled and tipped, threatening to slide Leader and his Followers off the bridge and down onto the spires far below. Leader and Followers crawled along the sloping surface of the bridge as it slowly righted itself. The waves of the plain subsided and the sky started to change color.
Leader and Followers leaped to their feet and ran. They skidded to a stop, clinging to several gargoyles at the end of the bridge and gazed with impassive sunglasses, but fearful mouths, upon the plain. The sky bled darker and darker. The sand sank and drained away as if through a screen, leaving large carved chunks of stone, statue fragments sitting on nothing, suspended invisibly in a dark blue void.
“Egad!” exclaimed Leader, whipping out his watch.
“What’s happening?” asked the Followers together.
“It’s breaking up,” Leader said, putting away his watch. “The Annums are individualizing! Which way to Gate 3B?”
F2 pointed up a wide flight of stairs to a set of silver doors, gleaming out of a forest of twisted pillars.
They ran and piled into the elevator. Leader hit the Departure Gates button, and they sat in the shaky silence for a veritable eternity. The doors dinged open at last on a massive hall. The ceiling disappeared in darkness and huge squarish pillars filled the vast expanse like trees. There was one window, above the elevator doors, casting light down into the otherwise dark room. There was a torch in a bracket on each side of the doors. Leader took one and stepped into the darkness.
The trio had gone maybe a hundred and fifty feet into the room when a clicking sound came from behind. Leader and Followers spun around and looked up at the window. A large humanoid head, the size of Leader’s torso, fused to a large black spider’s abdomen, stood on eight spindly limbs.
“Ticket punch,” said the creature in a tinny voice. Its eyes were sewed shut and a red blinking light had been implanted in its forehead. “Ticket punch.” A red beam shot out of the blinking light and scanned Leader and his Followers.
A bweep bweep sound emitted from the creature and it said, “Negative, non-ticketed passengers. No ID. Security forces.”
“What—” began Leader.
A teeming sound reached his ears. It grew impossibly loud as the creature lowered itself on a steel cable to the floor in front of the elevator. Then thousands more of the spidery things poured through the window.
“Run!” Leader yelled.
The spiders swarmed across the floor, ceiling, even jumping from pillar to pillar, gaining on the trio at an alarming rate. Leader caught sight of another door, flanked by torches, in the distance.
Then the spiders started to shoot cables.
“Ow!” yelped F2, falling and rolling several yards, a cable wrapped around his ankles, up his legs and manacled to his wrists.
“Help me carry him!” Leader yelled, turning back. F1 wheeled around and the two of them hauled F2 towards the door, ducking and leaping as cables lashed out all around them. A spider with too much lipstick snapped at Leader’s back. He bashed out her light with his watch. She staggered back into her fellows, piling up and tumbling into several cables. The resulting mess slowed the horde down enough to allow Leader and his Followers to reach the door, shove it open, leap through, and close it. Metal shrieked as the spiders scrabbled at the door.
Leader rammed his torch through the door handles. A spider voice came from the other side, “The unidentified travelers have entered Grand Terminal Hall. Door obstructed. Forced entry to commence.”
Leader and Followers backed away from the doors, right into three weapons.
“What’s this?” a slithery voice asked.
Leader turned around to see three reptilian beings in armored jumpsuits decorated with spines and flanges, especially around the neck where they formed a kind of frill. All three creatures had large canon-like handguns, made out of some smooth bluish grey chitin.
“Hello,” said Leader, “Are you naturally generated lifeforms?”
“I asked first,” the middle reptile hissed, its long purple tongue shooting out.
“Ah, that’s a difficult question,” Leader said. The middle reptile growled and reached into its pocket with one set of talons. “I think,” continued Leader, “that in light of the security commencing a forced entry, we had best take this conversation elsewhere.”
The reptile pulled a large watch from its pocket and flipped it open.
F1 and 2 gasped.
“You’re spontaneously generated!” the reptile leader exclaimed, looking up from its watch.
“Yes. Now, might we get on with it?” Leader suggested as the door behind him started to screech open. The reptile leader pocketed its watch and turned, signaling for the other two reptiles to follow. Leader and F1 dragged F2 forward.
The hall they’d entered was enormous. The ceiling, far above, was blue-green with constellations mapped out in gold. There were tall square arches along the sides with half circle windows cut into the curved ceiling. In the center was a kind of kiosk or round booth with glass windows and labels like “MTA METRO-NORTH TIMETABLES.” Crowning this monstrosity was a round golden clock, like a large head on a skinny neck. Beyond this, on the far side of the chamber, was a double staircase leading up to another set of silver doors with a large sign above it that read: “To Departure Gates B-C.”
The door behind them burst open and the sound of skittering legs rushed in like a tidal wave. The reptiles stopped in front of the booth and clock, hefting their weapons. Leader and Followers skidded to a stop beside them. Leader took another look at the spiders and pulled F2 and 1 behind the kiosk.
The spiders skittered up to the reptiles. A large one with lipstick and buck teeth stepped forward. It had lightning markings on either side of its abdomen and the letters TSA emblazoned on its forehead, just above its blinking light. It proceeded to scan the reptiles.
“You are TSA pre-approved,” it said to the lead reptile. “But the female is smuggling drugs.”
“It’s a scale fungus medication!” protested the female reptile in a voice that only slightly betrayed her gender.
“Seize her,” commanded the spider. Another spider leaped forward to shoot out a cable. The reptile leader raised his hand canon and blasted a burning hole in the spider’s forehead. The spider collapsed in a pile of limbs and slime.
“Terrorist alert!” wailed the TSA spider. The female reptile blew its brains out. The spiders surged forward, shooting cables like there was no tomorrow. Which there wasn’t.
The reptiles ducked and joined Leader and his Followers behind the booth.
The reptiles leaned out, fired a few blasts and ducked behind the booth again as cables flew everywhere, some live with electricity. The glass shattered, sparkling in the blue-green light of the plasma lasers.
The Followers cowered, clinging to Leader. The reptiles blazed away, felling spiders with every shot. Leader worked at F2’s handcuffs, consulting his watch. He finally entered the right sequence and the cuffs fell away. F2 proceeded to untangle himself.
The spiders had swarmed around the booth and now had the little group completely surrounded. The reptiles continued to barrage the spiders with plasma lasers of varying sizes. The reptile leader glanced at the three beings, then tossed them a couple of smaller weapons. Leader grabbed one, F1 the other. They took aim and fired at the spiders. The smaller blasts were still quite effective.
Spiders began to mound around the kiosk. The spiders were thinning out! A cable shot in, wrapping around Leader’s ankle. It went taut and Leader flew off his feet, dropping the pistol. The spider started to reel him in.
“Help!” yelped Leader. The spider clutched him with its forelegs, lifting him up to its mouth, all bright red lipstick and shiny steel teeth.
F1 raised his pistol and fired into her sealed eye. The stitching tore open and her black eyeball fell out, dangling from wires and dripping dark goobers. The spider shrieked and snarled, opening her mouth to feast on Leader. F1 fired again.
The spider’s light shattered and she fell to the ground, dropping Leader and spilling black fluid all over the marble floor. The reptiles gunned down the remaining spiders as Leader disentangled his ankle and stood, slipping in spider guts. His Followers ran to him.
“Thank you!” Leader exclaimed, hugging both Followers.
The last spider went down in a shivering mass of charred flesh and bubbling slime. The reptiles, apparently completely unshaken, marched towards the elevator.
Still shuddering, Leader followed.
The reptiles turned on them.
“Only two can leave Terminus, spontaneous things,” the reptile leader said.
The female reptile aimed her canon at his chest. “We’re from a real world,” she said, “we existed prior to slipping into this place by accident. We shall continue to exist!”
“What are you?” added the third reptile. “You never existed before, you don’t deserve to take our tickets back to lives you never had.”
“We may not have existed before,” Leader said, raising himself up to his full height, “but we have come to love existence in the last forty-five minutes of it. We do not want to cease, we have just as much right to go on as you.”
“Only two tickets,” repeated the reptile leader, turning and hitting the call button on the elevator. The female held the three beings at canon-point until the elevator arrived. F1 still had his pistol.
He whipped it up and shot at the female. She blocked the bolt on the chitinous barrel of her canon. Then she fired at F1. Leader bowled him over and the blast of plasma laser shot overhead, flying across the room and decapitating the clock. The three reptiles jumped in the elevator and the doors closed.
Leader sat up, his shoulders sagging.
“Now what?” asked F2.
“We go up once the elevator is free,” Leader said dejectedly.
“But they’ll have left by then!” F2 exclaimed.
“There’s nothing else we can do,” Leader said, pulling his knees up to his chest and burying his face in his arms. He’d failed them, they wouldn’t escape. They would cease to be. He wasn’t Leader, he was Failure.
“Don’t give up,” F2 said, patting Leader on his plastered hair.
“Wait,” said F1, standing and staring through one of the archways along the side of the hall. “Is that a vessel?”
Leader and F2 followed F1 through the arch into another large hall, the entire wall of which was one massive window. A small biplane sat on a pedestal. Other modes of transportation sat on pedestals with little plaques, including a motorcar, a broomstick, a mechanical bull, two mummified horses, a bicycle, and a pair of rocket boots.
“Yes!” exclaimed Leader, reading the plaque. “It’s an aero plane! We can fly it up to Gate B3.”
“How do you fly it?” F2 asked.
“Oh, I’m not sure…I think you start it with that propeller and then drive with those pedals and that stick there.”
Leader looked at his watch.
“F1, you’d better drive,” Leader said, climbing into the backseat. “F2, man the machine gun.”
F1 spun the propeller. The engine coughed and hacked and then roared to life. F1 jumped in as the biplane rolled with a thump off its pedestal. F1 floored the gas and the plane zipped towards the window at full speed.
Glass flew everywhere and the plane shot out into empty air. It wasn’t enough of a take-off. The plane began to fall. At that moment, however, the Annum shook. Out in what used to be the plain, there was a golden flash as something snapped. The colossi fragments broke loose of their grid and floated free through space. The entire Terminus tipped on its side as the foundation was torn from underneath and the plane smacked down onto the now horizontal side of the Fifth tier.
F1 somehow knew what to do, as if it had always been there in his head somewhere. He floored the gas again and the plane shot along the side of the Terminus…and up into the air.
Not a moment too soon, for the Terminus’ essence reasserted itself and gravity returned to normal. F1 whooped as he spiraled the plane up towards the top tier of the Terminus. F2 clung to the machine gun, not making a sound. Leader smiled to himself. Perhaps they would make it after all.
The biplane soared above the Terminus. They looked down on the final citadel, standing on the massive ledge that formed the top of the giant rock that jutted up through the entire Terminus. The ledge tapered out from the citadel into a point, empty save for the dead tree perched on the edge of a pool in front of the citadel’s door.
“Land there!” Leader called to F1. F1 turned the plane down, descending towards the pointed end of the massive ledge.
The plane swept onto the smooth stone, touching down with a rough bounce. F1 slammed the brakes. The plane skidded towards the citadel, tires smoking.
“Look out for the tree!” F2 yelped. The biplane hit the pool. Its wing smashed into the tree. Tree and wing went down in a tangle and the rest of the plane flipped, bounced, and crumpled against the door.
Leader crawled out of the mess, coughing. F1 was lying nearby. F2 had fallen out in the pool. “Look out!” yelled F1. Leader ducked as the plane’s fuselage exploded, knocking down the citadel’s door.
Leader stood and brushed himself off. “Well done!” he said, helping F1 to his feet. “Is everyone alright?”
“Yes,” said a soggy F2, climbing out of the pool. “Too bad about the tree.”
The three of them climbed through the doorway into a white marble hall lined with statues. At the far end there was an elevator and another door, larger and more ornate, with the words “Departure Gates B-C” engraved in a curving script.
“Come on,” Leader said, striding through the door.
They found themselves in another mirror hall, but in this one, each mirror was framed in elaborate gold with a labeled panel and glowing button.
Leader scanned the panels. He consulted his watch.
“Here we are,” he said. “Gate 3B, Manhattan.”
“How do you know that’s the one?” F1 asked. “There are thousands of options!”
“Not all are functioning,” Leader explained. “See, the blue glowing buttons are working, the red are out of order. And we have no idea where they go, some might take us to unsafe places, some to the void. Some back to another section of the Terminus. But this one, 3B, is our best chance at a continued existence.”
“How do you know?”
“I just know.”
“That’s an awfully big gamble,” F1 complained. The elevator in the other room dinged.
“Uh-oh,” said F2.
“Quick, the two of you must go!” Leader said, pushing them towards the mirror.
“Why aren’t you going?” asked F1, resisting. “Which gate are you taking behind our back?”
“Only two can—” Leader began.
“Don’t move,” hissed the reptiles.
The three beings froze and turned slowly to face the hand-canons. F1 had left his pistol in the transport museum. “Step away from the mirror, faux-organisms,” the female said.
“What makes you more real than us?” Leader asked.
“We evolved properly out of the primal substances, ever fighting for existence, struggling to survive, for generations, millennia. You were just suddenly here today, you have no souls,” the lead reptile said.
“We also have fought ever since our genesis,” Leader countered. “Because you were born of the biological does not make you more real than us. Our generation must also have given us souls. Though spontaneous, do you not think it must also have been planned, as your metamorphosis was planned?”
“You are an accident,” the reptile sneered. “While I wouldn’t terminate you merely on that basis, I feel no remorse in allowing your abortion in favor of our escape.”
Leader was about to speak when the citadel shook.
“Blimey,” cursed the lead reptile. “We’d better hurry.” He marched over to the mirrors and consulted his watch. The third reptile followed, but the female kept the three beings at canon point.
“Aha, Gate 7B,” the lead reptile said. “Azhekaht. City of Life.” The reptile blew a kiss at the air. He reached to push the button. The female turned her canon on him.
“Who’s going through?” she asked.
“I am,” the lead reptile said.
“I suppose you’re taking junior with?” she said.
“Well, of course,” said the third reptile.
“You’re abandoning me?” the female said, narrowing her eyes.
“Only two may exit,” the lead reptile reminded her.
The female fired her canon at him. He ducked and the blast shattered Gate 7B. “Fool!” exclaimed the lead reptile. The third raised his own canon and fired a shot at the female. Leader shoved his Followers against a mirror. The blast went burning past, skimming along several mirrors before shattering one at the far end.
The female laughed, a leathery sound, and shot back. Plasma laser blasts filled the room as all three reptiles engaged each other.
Leader pulled the Followers to the ground just before a blast shattered the mirror above their heads.
“Come on!” Leader urged, crawling towards Gate 3B.
“I’m going to escape!” shrieked the female, letting loose a barrage of crackling energy.
“No! I am!” yelled the third reptile.
“Neither of you fools is coming with me, then!” screamed the lead reptile.
Leader reached up and pressed the button on Gate 3B. The light turned green.
“Ha ha!” cheered the female as the smoking legs of the third reptile toppled to the floor. A stray bolt from his canon obliterated the mirror next to 3B. Leader shivered in horror as a crack rippled the surface of 3B.
The lead reptile ducked a shot from the female and blew her lower half out from underneath her. She toppled with a squeal as Terminus shook again, cracks spreading down more of the mirrors.
“Followers,” Leader said, “go. Go through!”
“No you don’t,” said the lead reptile, turning his canon on them. But the female hadn’t expired quite yet.
As the lead reptile pulled the trigger, so did the female. Her blast knocked him off his feet and his shot went high, blowing a hole in the ceiling. Both reptiles deceased.
Leader stood, brushing himself off. “Right,” he said, glancing at his watch. “You two, get going.”
“What about you?” F2 asked, alarmed.
“Only two tickets are valid,” Leader said, “now go through the mirror.”
“It’s cracked,” F1 said distrustfully, glancing at the other mirrors.
“This is the way,” entreated Leader. But F1 had already wandered down the hall to the last undamaged mirror. “No!” Leader begged. “Come back, go through 3B!”
“I’m not a Follower,” F1 said. “I am my own Leader.”
“Yes, yes, that’s all very good,” Leader said, “but this is the way out!”
“Don’t do it!” F2 begged. “Leader’s sacrificing himself for us! You have to trust.”
“Is he?” F1 asked. And he pushed the blue button.
It was one of the gates that looped back within the Terminus. And there was something waiting in that part of the station. Purple tentacles exploded from the mirror and pulled F1 through. F1’s scream was cut short by the glass.
Leader fell to his knees, tears dripping out from behind his impassive glasses. The mirrors on the far side of the hall trembled and shattered, glass rained like sand and the walls behind them crumbled to dust. They could see out into the statue hall and beyond to the biplane crashed on the ledge. The ledge was beginning to break apart.
“Come on!” F2 urged, yanking on Leader’s arm.
“You go,” Leader said, his listless gaze settling on the smoking remains of the lead reptile, whose skin had turned bright green in death. He was supposed to sacrifice himself for his followers and he’d failed.
“Come with me!” F2 begged.
“Only two tickets…” murmured Leader.
“F1 went to another part of the Terminus,” F2 said. “The cephalopod is here. F1 didn’t exit. Come with me, I need you!”
Leader looked up and grasped F2’s hand. F2 heaved Leader to his feet and pulled him through the mirror, careful to duck the crack. Behind them, the Terminus heaved and shattered, dissolving, reforming briefly and then simply…ceasing.
The Annums were in disagreement.
Leader and F2 stumbled off the train into a mass of people. Leader looked about with alarm. F2 with awe. They were in a hallway, lined with realistic pictures covered in words. People were everywhere, teeming. The mass pulled them away from the train, fighting the mass that surged on. Leader and F2 jumped as the train started to move behind them. Then it shot off into a tunnel.
The two spontaneous beings stumbled past a man in dreadlocks beatboxing into a microphone. F2 covered his ears. Leader stared agog, his ears twitching to the beat. They stumbled through the turnstiles and up the stairs into the streets.
“We did it,” Leader sighed, breathing in the cold, gasoline laced, but beautifully sweet air.
“We exist!” F2 cheered, attracting only a few glances.
Leader consulted his watch. He paused, noticing something he hadn’t before. A black sword engraved in the casing.“Now,” he said. “Let’s go find a Starbucks.”
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