Duplex slightly squinted. Ocean waves lapped around the Inkling's humanoid feet, and the sea breeze drifted over its inky form. By all means it should have felt these things, or smelled the sea salt wafting through the air, or appreciated the warm, orange glow of the setting sun; but these things existed in naught but a memory. But to the strange alien creature, it felt as if these things should have been familiar. Something tugged at Duplex that it couldn't describe.
"There you are."
Duplex didn't even turn, recognizing the voice of Quincey immediately. It continued to stand in silent contemplation several meters out from the ocean shore, where the water acted as a sort of platform for it to stand on. It did not sink or submerge, making clear that the ocean stretch was little more than a dreamscape within Quincey's subconscious. The porcine girl in question had called out to Duplex from the shore, but when she received no response she stepped forwards and tentatively dipped the toe of her shoe into the water. Her toes hit a ‘floor' and bent, proving that she could also walk upon it. She did, and with the waves lapping at her socks, she approached the alien creature.
"Host body, you seek answers," Duplex spoke in its strange tones that seemed to come from it and whisper around the girl.
Quincey only got so close, leaving a car's length between them. "You know that already?" She asked.
"We exist within you. We see as you see, and hear as you hear. While we sleep, we experience your life. While we wake, we explore you mind," Duplex spoke almost cryptically, "But… if you seek answers, we shall try to provide you with them. In turn, we would like you to answer our questions."
It seemed odd that Duplex would even have questions for her. Quincey's mind jumped tracks to that teasing notion, and she wondered what the alien would have to ask. There was only one way to find out, so Quincey slowly nodded.
"Okay," She said.
"Echelon," Duplex spoke, knowing already what its host was going to ask, "… Echelon is… was, once a part of Osoth's army. But that would bring us to Osoth, who has a tale of her own."
Duplex paused. Quincey stared at the back of her silver, inky double's head in confusion. Sensing the girl's unease, Duplex struggled to find the words. "Do you know of the invasion of Earth by Osoth's forces?" It asked.
"It was on the news," Quincey explained, "That was you, wasn't it?"
"Us? No," Duplex shook its head, "We were not present during this attempted attack on Earth. Osoth… our Empress… she arrived here with the intent to grant Inklings more formidable hosts. And indeed, you humans are… complex. But it was that complexity that must have been her undoing. Echelon, a rebel against Osoth's power, arrived here first on Earth and fought back. It is why Osoth is no more today. Echelon achieved this with the help of her host and her fellow… We suppose you might call them ‘Freedom Fighters,' host body."
"And why do you need Echelon's help?" Quincey asked.
Duplex furrowed its brow in frustration. That question spurred its mind into actions not akin to a blind struggle through darkness. "We do not know," It answered simply.
Quincey glared in disbelief. "What?"
Duplex turned to face Quincey and approached her with its head hung. "Our memories are in tatters," It said, "We are confused. We do not remember what has happened to make us this way; but we are certain that something threatens us and all of our kind."
"… How? How could you forget?" Quincey asked.
Duplex almost pouted, but then turned its gaze upwards to Quincey's. "You must answer us now, host body," It said.
Quincey would have protested, but she didn't forget that she'd agreed to twenty questions with the alien. It wasn't as if she had a choice in any case, because she was stuck there with it until she woke. Duplex seemed distracted with something over her shoulder, however, as it leaned somewhat to glance around her. Quincey heard it, too; the laughing and frolicking of a couple of young kids. She turned to see something she remembered actually happening in reality, and at first she was confused before realizing that Duplex claimed to be able to ‘explore' her. It must have been going through her memories.
A twelve-year-old Quincey in blue, skirted, polka-dotted swimwear bumbled across the sand with the grace one would expect from a small, rotund little piglet. Her little feet kicked sand up going a mile a minute as she fled from a just-as-young Daxton looking cute as ever in his little swimming skivvies and the dark-lens swimming goggles that were serving as his eyes that day. Daxton's hair was much longer back then, but he was typically stocky just as he'd always been. It didn't take long for the older Quincey to determine just what memory had been pried into, and it made her cheeks burn.
"Where are we?" Duplex asked.
"Locksmouth," Quincey answered truthfully and quickly, "Or the beach anyway, in June, when I was just twelve. If you look past the trees, you can see the city."
"This is not Locksmouth?" Duplex puzzled.
"Not exactly," Quincey shrugged, "I didn't go there much when I was little but sometimes Edward would bring us there. Every time he did, Daxton and I went to the beach all day… well, if it was warm enough."
Duplex looked a little troubled, shaking its head. "We chose this memory because it holds the strongest connection to our destination," It explained, "Why are we here?"
The young Quincey squealed in such a pitch, and fell in a fit of giggles when Daxton finally caught her. She squirmed and wriggled, but couldn't escape the boys grip no matter how hard she tried. She was being tickled like wild, making her squeal and snort beyond any capacity of her own. The sounds were terribly embarrassing, and Quincey knew Daxton used to tickle her just to hear her make them. The older looker-on smiled because she knew that despite this, she had been truly very happy. That and she knew she was going to be even happier after her younger self turned onto her back under the boy and fought his tickling assault until she managed to pull his arms against her chest and hold them snug and tight.
"This is the first time Daxton and I ever… had sex," She admitted with a blush.
"Sexual relations?" Duplex quipped most curiously, "… For reproduction?"
"No! No…" Quincey grinned despite herself, "Because we… it just felt right. I kind of always wanted it to happen."
The young figments of memory had stopped their laughing and merriment, and instead had fallen into one another. The young Quincey held Daxton's arms tight against her chest while the two of them shared a kiss that she remembered quite clearly - something within her just… exploded and in no time at all that kiss felt like the two of them were trying to suck each other's faces off. It was clumsy, too… their tongues were just… everywhere, without any mind towards anything other than just how passionate it all felt in that moment. Even looking on as she was, Quincey could feel that familiar tingle of anxious desire well up deep within her stomach.
"We just… did it. Right here, on the beach," She smiled, not even looking away as the younger versions of herself and Daxton started to try and tear each others' swimwear off; clawing desperately at one another to feel one another more fully than ever before. Even their understickers would be shed in favour of a more… engrossed experience.
Duplex looked at Quincey with an almost robotic thirst for knowledge. "This memory brings you joy, host body?" It asked.
"I just never felt anything like it before in my life," Quincey turned to Duplex, "And, really, it's never really been exactly the same since… But I don't think I'll ever forget it."
"What feelings did you experience?" Duplex asked.
Quincey paused. She'd never had to explain what sex felt like before, let alone what it felt like for the first time with someone… let alone when that first time left an impact on someone as strongly as her first time with Daxton left on her. "Well…" Her face reddened, and she glanced towards her younger self. It looked a lot less magical watching it like that. "I felt… scared," She explained, "Like it was going to hurt. Sometimes when he grabbed my arm, he squeezed too tight and it did hurt… but then my whole body would just go crazy. I wanted to kick my feet, or… or roll around, or something… I think I was even crying, but I wasn't sad."
Duplex stared at her, and the creature's look made her nervous - especially with how closely it resembled her in shape. She gave it a somewhat crooked smile, "I guess… I didn't just want it. I needed it. It had to happen. I was scared at first but when I finally… let him inside, I just… I don't even know. I could have stayed there forever."
"Is this common on your planet?" Duplex continued to ask its innocent questions.
"Very," Quincey answered honestly, "I've… well I've had sex with Kenny and Laila too. I-I don't do it very often though, just sometimes…"
Duplex looked back towards the scene unfolding before them, and stared at the tangled mass of teenaged hormones at work far, far too studiously for Quincey to be entirely comfortable with it. "And this is what makes you happy, host body…" It seemed to trail off in thought as it spoke.
"… Yeah," Quincey nodded, watching as Duplex tried to think, "Did… you ever…? I mean, do Inklings…?"
"We… do not know…" Duplex shook its head woefully, "We cannot recall these sorts of feelings."
"R-Right…" Quincey looked down towards the water she still curiously stood upon, watching their reflections twist, ripple, and distort on the rolling ocean waves.
"Why did I get so tired yesterday…?" She decided to change the subject, "Or… today, or… I don't know what time it is now."
"We are part of you, host body;" Duplex explained promptly, "To use our ability is not unlike performing any other bodily function that requires a continuous effort. When you run, you tire. When we become an extension of your body, we tire. When we tire, you tire. Your bodily functions are powered seemingly by energy received via nutrients in your food… ours comes from your prana. In essence, to exert ourselves is to take from you."
Quincey could barely look at Duplex during its explanation. One conclusion weighed heavily on her mind. "That's how you'd kill me…" She spoke grimly.
"Yes," Duplex responded with an affirmative nod and a look directly at Quincey, "We would."
The absolute tone of Duplex's answer was as much a confirmation as it was a reminder.
"… We understand you more, host body," Duplex said, "It will become easier in time as your body adjusts to our presence. You gave us your word that you would see us to Locksmouth. We will not betray that unless it becomes clear that you will fail."
It never really did anything for her confidence. Duplex was all about results and offered nothing for encouragement. "I promise I'll try as hard as I can," She said.
"You must," The alien said, its tone not entirely empty.
A sudden booming vibration from the ocean jarred both Duplex and Quincey, and the water felt like a shaking floor beneath their feet. It grew louder and louder in short order and the water began to rise up behind their feet. Both turned to see the water forming a dome around a massive object that rose from below, and as that water poured away a strange creature emerged. It bore a likeness to a colossal squid creature, with a number of tentacles rising up from below around its large form to wave threateningly in the air. Its appearance darkened the sunset with menacing storm clouds.
"RELEASE THE KRAKEN!"
The child versions of Quincey and Daxton flew past the older Quincey and Duplex, barely missing them as they tore between them. They zipped past on what appeared to be jetpacks while holding saber-type weapons made of glowing light, and they charged the beast boldly. Its tentacles swung, but the children maneuvered too swiftly around them to be caught, and they proceeded to lock into combat with the giant squid while still in various states of undress from their earlier coitus.
Duplex slowly turned its gaze to Quincey, who met its gaze with a look of surprise.
"D-Don't look at me as if I'm weird," Quincey said, "You're the alien."
A cool breeze rustled the fallen autumn leaves and bathed Quincey's exposed legs in a chill. She curled up reflexively to hide from the cold, clutching to the fabric where she laid her head. She was awake then, that much was clear. She didn't want to open her eyes; she wanted to sleep in a little more if she could get away with it… But she wasn't at home in her bed. No, what she laid on was no mattress - it was a person. She identified this person easily because she was laying her head on their chest. It was Daxton - she'd recognize those strong chest muscles anywhere.
She didn't know where she was, and she knew she couldn't linger in whatever place she was in. But even so, she resigned to the feeling of comfort she got just by resting against Daxton. She was sprawled out on top of him, resting astraddle his lap, where she had slept soundly on his shoulder. It turned out that falling unconscious easily granted her the best sleep she'd had since first stumbling upon that strange alien creature in Harbington, back when her biggest concern was that Kenny hadn't joined her for the pack's Thursday ritual. The thought seemed silly by that point, but then it seemed like that was so long ago; back when life was simpler, the aged might say.
She took a moment to simply rest her hand on Daxton's chest and stroke it. After remembering their first time, whether Duplex was cracking into her memories like an egg or not, there was no more perfect place to be than with the corgi boy. She was pleasantly surprised when he'd respond by lifting an arm and resting his hand on the back of her neck where he'd rake his fingertips oh-so-gently through the hair on the back of her head. She loved that, and made a pleasant coo of satisfaction as she rubbed her face fondly against his neck in return.
"Moooorning…" Daxton forced through a heavy yawn that momentarily squeaked his voice.
Quincey trapped some of his fur and skin between her lips, giving him adoring suckles against the side of his neck. Daxton exhaled through a genuine smile as a silent laugh and shifted somewhat beneath her. "I guess you're feeling better," He said.
"A little," Quincey admitted. She knew her morning bliss suffered from an underlying dose of reality. Obligation was nipping at her ankles to get her to move, and a sense of urgency washed over her. There was daylight about, meaning the group would have to get moving. She'd withdraw from the boy's neck and sit up to open her eyes and get a look at his face. She wasn't wearing her glasses, so everything looked a little blurry, but she paused when she realized that Laila had also fallen asleep next to Daxton. They were sitting up against a tree just wide enough for the two of them, and the giraffe had slumped over in her sleep and her head was resting atop Daxton's. Her mouth was agape and her breathing passed through her throat to cause a whispering snore.
Daxton handed Quincey her glasses. He'd been keeping them safe all night. When she put them on, he tried not to laugh as she smirked a little. "I think she's been drooling on my head all night," He said, tilting his head just a little to try and angle his nose up towards Laila in a gesture. Laila's head rolled with his movements, and she shifted in her sleep to remain comfortable.
Looking aside, Quincey saw that Kenny had simply dozed off in Laila's lap, using her bosom as a pillow. He slept so soundly that it was hard to tell he was even breathing.
"Oh…" Quincey remembered the circumstances that preceded her passing out, "Oh, no… How far did we get?"
"Pretty much nowhere," Daxton admitted, "After you fell asleep, we couldn't really go anywhere. No one came though; I've been up almost all night. I couldn't really get comfortable."
Quincey frowned, "I'm sorry…"
"Quit apologizing so much, you dork," Daxton shrugged, "I kinda expected this when we had to sleep outside. It's not your fault anyway, it's Duplex's. I feel like crap, but it's nothing I can't handle for a day."
Quincey laid her head on Daxton's shoulder and breathed in a sigh. She couldn't help but get a whiff of his scent, too, which had started to only show very small traces of Edward's fruity shampoo. Daxton was starting to smell like sweat and autumn leaves - a not entirely unpleasant smell. She peppered his neck in little kisses again, and he embraced her in a gentle hug.
"I wish you didn't have to come…" Quincey said, "But I can't make this sort of trip by myself…"
"Ah, sure you can…" Daxton said, "I mean, why not? We'll just have to take it slow. You always told me to never say never, so why not try it yourself?"
"Well, you can run track and hike. I'm not like you," The girl sighed.
"Eh, being me isn't as great as I make it look," Daxton grinned, "I like you better."
"Aww, ya'll're so cute…" Laila murmured from atop Daxton's head, "Shush your faces, I'm tryin' to sleep."
Daxton blushed a little and shook his head to disturb Laila's rest, making the giraffe sit up. "Better idea," He said, "Stop drooling on me and get up. We've got to get moving."
With a little rousing, the teens began to really wake up and get ready for another day of walking. The morning was far from favourable though - they felt tired from waking up earlier than usual and not sleeping all that well against a tree. They were sore, they felt hungry, and the lack of sleep made them feel generally… icky. They had to go without morning baths or showers, or even a change of clothes. They couldn't have possibly felt grungier if not for the fresh air; at the very least they could breathe in cool, crisp morning air that would stick their nostrils together, but fill them with some sense of freshness that would allow them to tackle the day ahead.
The first task was to get food. That rest station wasn't too far away, under an hour's walk if they were driven enough. Breakfast turned out to be a rather driving force, not to mention being completely unaware of where their pursuers may have gone. They had no idea how far the police would go to search for them, but it was more miles than they cared to count to reach Locksmouth. They were far from being out of the woods, and no one had any ideas. The only thing they could do to fill time was talk while they moved, so Quincey explained what she'd learned about Echelon and how Duplex's ability took its toll on her body.
"So Echelon is a good guy?" Laila asked.
"That's what it seemed like," Quincey said as she stepped over a tree root.
"So maybe this whole thing isn't so bad?" Kenny pondered.
"Maybe not," Quincey shrugged, "But… well, I don't know."
"We just have to do what Duplex says for now," Daxton said as he pushed a low-hanging branch aside, revealing the rest station they were looking for, "We'll just figure out what to do when we get to Locksmouth, and maybe Echelon can help us."
"Either that or we're walking into a trap…" Kenny grumbled.
Quincey stared down at her feet for a moment with a bit of a glare. "… I beat it once, I'll do it again if it comes to that," She said before turning her attention to Kenny, "So stop worrying."
The look on Kenny's face wasn't the sort of relief Quincey expected, but rather some look between doubt and irritation. He nodded though, giving her the benefit of that doubt - if there was any time to exercise a little belief, the crazy adventure Kenny had found himself on would have to be that time. "I'm holding you to that," He said.
Daxton gave a look around the clearing. Not a soul was to be found around the mini-dome that acted as the rest station. A small, strong-force containment field stood around what looked similar to a gazebo with a halo of lights around it and one door leading inside. There were obviously a few cots waiting for weary hikers to rest on, and a storage unit with a clear front showing that it was indeed full of foodstuffs. It looked so comfortable inside, much more than the cold, hard ground they'd slept on the night before.
They approached both cautiously and quickly, and when they stepped up to the door it slid open.
"Welcome," An automated voice spoke, "Rest here and await ranger assistance."
"Yeah, nuts to that," Kenny huffed as he stepped into the comfort of the dome. It was just like walking into a warm house - the temperature was comfortable compared to the outdoor climate, programmed to adjust for the season. They all breathed a sigh as they stepped in, with Laila needing to bend down slightly to avoid hitting her head on the doorway.
Laila made for the food storage immediately, opening the air-safe container to what may as well have been a buffet. There were all kinds of things to eat, like dried fruit pieces, more nature bars, even chewable protein strips and trial mix. It may have been nothing more than rations to anyone with a real kitchen, but those teens would call it "breakfast…" and lunch and dinner, too. There was a lightweight carrying case nearby that Laila made a grab for after she tossed some food and water to her friends, then she started filling it up for later. Surely the rangers weren't going to miss any of it, and the water casks just made sense - they could just refill them at the river whenever they ran out.
Daxton sat on one of the cots and quickly opened up the bag of dried mango pieces that were tossed to him. To his sense of smell, the aroma that wafted from the air-sealed bag was amazing. For a moment he just took it in, happy to feel his butt on some kind of cushion if even for just a little while. It wasn't long however before Quincey's rotund rear planted in his lap, her heavy body giving a jiggle as she pounced down playfully. She was more than happily munching on maple nuts, crunching them between her teeth almost by the handful. Daxton let out a little sigh - the initial impact hurt a bit - but then he smiled to the girl.
"Don't get too comfy," He said.
"I won't," She insisted, "I just feel good today… better than before anyway. I had a dream about us last night too."
"Is that so?" Daxton lifted a brow even if the expression was totally lost under the fabric of his hat.
Quincey went a little red in the cheeks and nodded. "Mhm," She hummed, leaning towards him to plant a kiss on his lips. Daxton, however, leaned backwards and lifted a hand to block her. She stopped and sat back with a bit of a puzzled look.
"I said don't get too comfortable," Daxton repeated, "We can't sit around here long."
"It's just a little kiss," Quincey scrunched her brow a little, not seeing any harm in the act. She tried again, but Daxton stopped her. She reached up and pulled his hand away, but he turned his head and avoided her lips touching his. It seemed like he was being playful, kind of; but it also seemed like he wasn't even laughing whole-heartedly about it. Quincey didn't feel like he was playing at all.
"What, does her breath smell?" Kenny asked from across the platform, seated on another bed.
Quincey breathed into her hand and attempted to test how her breath may have smelled. Daxton shook his head, "No, it's just that we can't really mess around right now."
Laila and Kenny kind of cocked their brows at that, looking at one another with the same question on their minds. Was Daxton not feeling well or something? "Well," Kenny spoke up, "I guess that's true. We can probably eat this stuff while we walk."
Laila slipped the strap of the case full of food she'd taken around her shoulders so that it rested across her chest. The case would rest at her hip, opposite her other hip where she'd slipped the neu-rod from before into her belt. "Guess so," She said with almost unnerving quickness.
It felt like they couldn't even have a conversation any more. Quincey let out a sigh, not even being subtle with her disappointment. "Yeah…" She mumbled, removing herself from Daxton's lap.
From the distance, wood snapped. To most, the sound wouldn't have been much, but Daxton's ear twitched as it sounded off in the distance. He suddenly turned his head, and got very quiet as he tried to listen. That sound wasn't just a twig happening to break - that was man-made. Someone stepped on that wood and splintered it underfoot.
"Well, let's go then," Kenny got to his feet and stretched a little.
"Shut up," Daxton said suddenly.
Kenny blinked as if he'd gotten smacked in the face. "I'm sorry, what?" He questioned.
"No, seriously, be quiet for a second," Daxton repeated, raising a hand and holding out a finger to prompt his friends to wait. Everyone fell silent, and Daxton sat still for a few moments. When he did turn his head back to face his friends, it was sudden, and he spoke quickly, "We have to go."
"Well that's what we were doin', Daxton," Laila gave the boy a look.
Daxton got to his feet and held took hold of Quincey's free hand, causing her to fumble some of her snack and drop some nuts onto the floor. "No, I mean like yesterday," Daxton hurried, walking Quincey to the door, practically dragging her as he went. The doors slid open and he stepped outside with her, looking around with his ears perked high and rigid. Kenny and Laila followed behind him, and just as Kenny stepped out last, he too heard a rustle in the forest. Focusing his gaze, he could see some movement in the brush, and someone ducked behind a tree.
"Shit, we have to go," Kenny planted his hands on Laila's back and pushed her to speed her up, "We have to go right now!"
Suddenly, a figure stepped out into the open, and held out what appeared to be some kind of weapon. A low hum sounded out, picking up in pitch quickly until it released a shot in one mighty boom that flew through the air in a flash. Kenny was just barely able to shove Laila forwards and scramble out of the way himself as the shot, looking like nothing more than a ripple in the air, struck the side of the rest station's force field. The containment field rippled like water, distorting the image of the cots and empty food storage within.
"RUN, RUN!" Daxton suddenly yanked Quincey roughly, causing her to drop her bag of flavoured nuts and scramble along behind him. More shots sounded out in the same manner, flying through the air to smack hard against the force field. Kenny tripped, stumbled, and scurried along on his hands and feet as the shots whizzed over his head, and the deafening impacts of them hitting the rest station boomed into his ear.
"Is that some kind of fucking gun?!" Kenny shouted as he tore into the forest with the others.
"There ARE no guns!" Laila yelped as she ran. Her long legs and powerful stride made it easy for her to keep up with Daxton and Quincey. Kenny had to work twice as hard to keep up on his smaller legs, with his heart pounding somewhere in his brain.
Daxton came to an abrupt stop and clenched his jaw, tensing up as Quincey ran into him and almost shoved him forwards. A stray shot from one of those strange weapons tore into the tree beside him, blowing wood chips out of the bark. "Tell that to them!" He shouted, giving Quincey a tug to get her moving again. The four of them continued their mad dash through the woods with whomever it was chasing them down. They didn't know how many people were following them, and the weapons fire didn't make it any easier on them. The only saving grace was that it all seemed to come from behind them, meaning that they were at least running away.
They made the smart decision to duck and wave. They scrambled around rocks, behind trees, and seemed to two-step all through the forest. While their almost mindless zigzagging was smart, it was most unintentional - they were really just running around in frenzy. They had no idea where to go or what to do, and were scared half to death at the impact shots that were snapping branches and blowing large divots into the dirt around them. Sometimes a shot would even kick up a bunch of fallen leaves, making it that much harder to run, having to go straight through them. They banked left, turned right, and long last track of where they were even going by the time they stumbled across a stone rise that stopped them in their tracks.
"Shit," Daxton spat as he eyed up the several-foot-tall half-circle of stone. They'd stumbled into what seemed like a little grotto, but it wasn't much of one. The over-hang of stone that would have made a cave mouth just gave away to flat wall a few feet in.
"O-Oh… oh no!" Quincey panted, "Quick, let's go!"
They all turned to dart away, but saw figures rushing through the trees. It was tough to tell just where they were, since they seemed to wear colours that blended with the forest around them. They were obviously human, however, and indeed carrying something that looked like a weapon. They were so boggling that it made the teens take pause just long enough to get properly trapped. As far as they could see, their heads practically being thrown left and right to look around, they were surrounded anyway.
Kenny practically bounced on his feet, wanting to dart away, but the shots had stopped. Instead, he shuffled backwards with the others, retreating into the mock-safety of the rock-face. "Shit, shit, shit," He cursed, "Fuck, shit, what do we do?"
Quincey started looking around for something. She wanted to find a rock or something to throw at her pursuers, but was coming up with nothing. That was when she noticed something - it looked like some kind of hole at the base of the rock-face that was covered mostly by fallen leaves. She wasn't entirely certain, but it looked like it could fit a person, and when down perhaps far enough to make for a good hiding spot. She broke away from the others to check on it, and Daxton whipped around to see where she was looking and followed quickly. It wasn't just a narrow hole… it was a tunnel! It went deep into the earth, so deep that there was no way of knowing where it ended.
"Guys, over here, now!" Daxton shouted.
Quincey didn't even wait. She dropped down to her rear and shoved herself into the hole, where she squealed as she fell into it. Daxton was close behind her, leaping in himself to hit the rocks and slide right along with her. Laila and Kenny scrambled to catch up, with Laila stepping in and sliding down, and Kenny being the last to go. Unfortunately, before Kenny could hit the bricks with everyone else, one last shot flew through the air from one of those strange guns. The projectile, whipping through the air like a concussive blast, collided with Kenny square between the shoulder blades.
"AUGH!" Kenny cried before falling into the hole as well. He hit roughly on what had to be a sharp-angled turn in the tunnel, because he continued to slide down through rocky twists and turns, clipping his arms and stomach off of protrusions on every side. The obstructions weren't enough to stop him, but they served to slow him as he went deeper and deeper into the earth.
Eventually, the ride was over. Kenny slid front-ways into an opening, his chin pushing up soft, cool dirt into his face as he slid along flat ground. He came to a stop where he just laid there, struggling to breathe. Every inhale caused his back and ribs to flare up in pain, and moving his arms brought that pain into his shoulders. He was far from unconscious, but definitely would have appreciated some help as he lay there in the dark.
A light came on, shining from a square device that seemed to hover through the air in the dark. "Is everyone okay?" Quincey's voice echoed. The light turned, illuminating where Daxton was trying to clean sand out of his ear, and then shined over on Laila who was rubbing her rear as she tried to stand. Lastly it turned its attention towards Kenny, shining right in his eyes and causing him to wince. It came closer, and the light kicked back off the wall enough to show that it was Quincey, who looked relatively fine, considering. She knelt down next to Kenny and tried to examine him.
"Kenny? Are you alright?" She asked.
Kenny let out a cough and tried to push his upper body up off the ground for their benefit. It hurt like the Dickens, but he managed to fold his legs in so that he was up on hands and knees. "S… Shot… shot me…" Kenny wheezed. He still could barely breathe.
"What?!" Quincey gasped. She immediately placed a hand on Kenny's back, causing him to give a yell.
"GNGHFNGH…!" Kenny grumbled incomprehensibly, "Don't touch me, god damn it!"
Quincey jerked her hand back with a gasp, "Oh my god, where did they hit you?!"
Laila had fished her PET out and turned on their assistive light. It illuminated a rather large area altogether, but were all focused on Kenny. They studied him as carefully as they could.
"My… M-my back…" Kenny hissed through grit teeth.
Laila and Daxton knelt down at either side of Kenny and examined his back. For having been shot there, it didn't even look like his clothes had suffered any damage. His red and black jacket was still completely intact, and a brief examination of his white shirt beneath showed no signs of it being damaged either. Carefully as she could, Laila un-tucked Kenny's shirt and lifted it up over his back, and saw immediately that his skin, barely visible through his fur, was discoloured. She furrowed her brow and gently rested her hand down on his back, causing him to hiss in pain yet again.
"Looks like you got whacked in the back," The giraffe withdrew her hand and looked at it, "No blood neither."
"I didn't…" Kenny coughed; the undulating of his back as a result causing him all sorts of pain, "I didn't get hit, I got shot!"
"If that's what happens when you get hit by those things, then those are some weird weapons," Daxton released Kenny's jacket and looked up to the girls, "Those were guns, right? I'm pretty sure those were guns."
"Sure scared the heck outta me like a gun," Laila said, still panting just a little bit, "And they were blowin' everythin' apart like nuts."
The word ‘nuts' reminded Quincey of her fallen snack, and she frowned a little bit in their memory. She shook her head to clear those thoughts and stood from where she was to cast the light of her PET all over the cavern they'd found themselves in. Slowly she let her eyes take in everything that her light cast over. There seemed to be things like stone blocks and her light seemed to catch off things that seemed metallic. Carefully she stepped, the dirt on the ground giving way to actual stone flooring that resembled something like marble linoleum that her shoes tapped against with every step. There were cracks in the floor and what seemed like chunks of rubble that had fallen from the cave ceiling as well, but it all looked very man-made… albeit in ruin.
Turning aside she felt a tinge of fear run through her as a shadow cast off her light - a strangely person-shaped shadow that made her jump. Her breath caught in her chest and she held it for several seconds, unmoving, until she was certain that whatever was making that shadow wasn't going to make a break for her. She waited five seconds, ten seconds… fifteen seconds, and it didn't make a move. Releasing her breath, she approached slowly, adjusting her glasses as she squinted at the object in question. The light she shined reflected back at her in a sloppy sort of gloss, and when she got close to what was causing it, her eyes went wide.
"… Oh… Oh my… You guys!" She shouted, her voice echoing, "You guys, come quick!"
Daxton and Laila looked at one another before grabbing hold of Kenny's arms and hoisting him up. The lemming boy made a pitiful whine of pain as he was lifted to his feet, but finally was able to stand upright with that help. The three of them approached Quincey as she wandered several feet away, going from one end of the cave to the other while shining her light on various objects. She wasn't slowing down or stopping as she climbed over rubble and proceeded into the dark with little to no fear. Not being scared was… uncharacteristic of Quincey, to say the least.
"Slow down, bacon bits!" Laila shouted, "What's goin' on?"
Quincey stopped only to shine her light up towards the ceiling, where a surprisingly intact plaque seemed to sit above a doorway - a man-made, stone portal, clearly no act of nature.
The plaque read "Neo-Medieval Exhibit."
"WE'RE IN A MUSEUM!" Quincey squealed.
Her three friends kind of narrowed their eyes - her two friends, more specifically, with Daxton giving a rather blank expression to accompany his artificial stare.
"That's… that's great," Laila crookedly smiled, "That's just great."
"Okay, time to rain on the parade," Kenny immediately piped up as he sat atop the rubble his friends so readily climbed over. He nursed his sore shoulder as he settled up there, "One, we're being chased by people with guns. Two, we're being chased with people by guns. Thirdly... We are being chased. By people. With guns! This isn't the time for a field trip!"
"Wow," Daxton said after a moment of silence, "I feel like just saying it is going to make me break out in an allergic reaction, but Kenny's right. Quincey, this is serious."
Quincey frowned, "I know that, I just…"
"This place gives me the jeebies," Laila commented as she cast her PET's light over a rusted, crumbling suit of metal armor on display, "Let's just get outta here."
"Well we're not going back out the way we came in," Kenny looked towards the darkness that had swallowed the cave that the museum had seemingly given way to sometime in the past.
Daxton breathed a sigh and turned to look into the dark. He picked out his PET and started typing on it, activating dark-light vision on his stop. His world suddenly became rather clear, clearer than anyone else's anyway as the images he received from his STOP were bathed in green light and heat signatures. "… Maybe there's another way out?" He proposed.
"Let's get looking," Kenny urgently suggested. He hopped down from the stone rubble, stumbling as the impact of landing shot pain through his back. He was caught by Daxton and steadied before the group would turn and begin their trek deeper into the museum. Quincey remained behind for just a moment, reflecting on just how unfair things seemed. They were inside a piece of natural history and she couldn't even enjoy it! The scowl on her face told of slights she wouldn't soon forgive… This was all Duplex's fault!
Just as Quincey's thoughts turned to the Silver Devil, it spoke. The sound didn't seem to be inside her head though; she heard it from her PET in a way no different than if she were getting a call. She turned her screen to face her, her glasses reflecting the light shining from the screen to completely illuminate the lenses and hide her eyes. Among the light from the screen, plastered over her home screen, was the familiar face of Duplex, shining almost brilliantly against the backlight, its blue eyes staring at its host.
"Oh what do you want?" Quincey almost growled.
Duplex seemingly ignored the tone. "This place, what is it?" It asked, "These objects do not appear similar to that of your kind."
Oh, fantastic. The one person interested in history was her inter-planetary slave driver. Quincey couldn't hide her sullen look. "It's a museum," She explained, looking up to follow her pack. It was difficult to traverse the dark and pay attention to the screen at the same time, so Quincey instead held her PET out once more to light her way. Not looking at Duplex's robot-face would do her a lot of good anyway. Why did it literally have to ruin everything she likes?
"What is a museum?" It asked.
"A place where we basically archive our history," Quincey responded, "Everything you see in here is from the past."
They had stepped into another exhibit, which prominently displayed things the people of the time had dug up. There were things such as documents and photographs that had been unearthed that belonged to bureaucratic agencies of the pre-splice era that gave a particularly surprising insight into how things such as social security worked. There were forms for pension plans, tax returns, even workplace compensation. Those times were confusing indeed, even to Quincey who had studied it. Why did it seem like no two people were ever considered equal? Why were things like interest percentiles and deductions to wages always fluctuating? It seemed like there was just no stability back then.
There were other things, too. Things like a portable computing system that was said to have been made out of some plastic alloy that was surprisingly durable for its time. The exhibit called it "Nintendonium," based on some sort of hunch from a word that was half scratched off the front. It was said to have still operated, but whatever charged the device had long since disappeared and the cartridge storage devices that came with it had been lost to the sands of time. It was fascinating; especially considering a new PET’s computing power exceeded even ten-year-old devices by leaps and bounds. One could only wonder what such a primitive device was used for so many centuries ago.
"What do these objects signify?" Duplex asked.
"When we hit Neo-Medieval times, we'd lost everything," Quincey explained, "We had nothing that you saw in Harbington. But when we started digging stuff like this up, we started understanding some of the things people before us used to have. It took a lot of reverse-engineering, but then we just improved on what we found. We kept doing that until we got to where we are now."
Duplex blinked, "Neo… Medieval?"
"Yes, as in… After the Skin Plague, we actually got set back many, many centuries; technologically and culturally," Quincey explained, "It was a disease that nearly wiped out humanity. That's what the history books say anyway."
"History… renewed?" Duplex squinted, "How old are these relics?"
"Who are you talking to?"
Quincey practically leapt out of her skin when Kenny suddenly turned around and questioned her. His face was just all of a sudden… there, after she'd zoned out going on about old artifacts to Duplex. She'd squealed and jumped back, lifting a leg and both her arms to try and defend herself from her sudden accosting, but the only thing she got was a confused stare. "I-I'm talking to Duplex…!" She said, blinking a few times.
"What? You are? Where?" Kenny looked around. Ironically enough, Duplex was staring at him from Quincey's PET.
"Right… right here!" Quincey eased, and then held out her PET.
Kenny narrowed his eyes at the screen, but saw nothing more than Quincey's set wallpaper and a digital clock stating the time, "I don't see crap."
"They cannot see us, host body," Duplex would say, "Only those touched by Inklings could ever see us in this state."
"O… Oh…" Quincey pulled back her PET, "You can't see it because you don't have an Inkling…"
Kenny gave the girl the most puzzled of looks. If his brows had furrowed any harder, his forehead would have shifted shape. "O… Kay," He said, "Whatever…? I'll just take your word for it."
Quincey was starting to hate those looks. Kenny and Laila were the worst offenders by far, but that was simply because Daxton was at a… facial disadvantage. She knew that sometimes he looked at her the same way, with confusion and doubt... She huffed and lowered her head to step past Kenny and hurry along towards the others, fuming every step of the way. Kenny followed along, not sure if he had said anything particularly wrong, but with Quincey so angry he just couldn't be sure. Listening to her talk like that to someone he couldn't see or hear though? It was more than a little worrying.
The pig girl lifted her PET to look at the screen and grumbled, "Stop talking to me."
Whether Duplex complied for her benefit or not was unclear, but its visage faded from the screen at that moment. Quincey's PET resumed its normalcy, displaying her background image of what appeared to be an exotic locale with waterways and gondolas. The time ticked on visibly taking up most of the screen, the colon between the numbers blinking time and again. There was a notification as well - an envelope that informed her she had received messages… sixteen of them to be exact. She'd felt her PET vibrating between her breasts with every one, having stuffed the device there to forget about it. She had a feeling she knew who they were from.
Her parents must have been worried about her, but she couldn't bear to check the messages. What had they said? Rather than know, she wanted to believe that they were just asking if she was okay, or asking where she was. As long as she could keep from looking at the messages, she'd never have to know for sure just how terrified her mom and dad must have been. As long as she never saw the words "we miss you," she'd be just fine. There was so much already eating away at her that she wished more than anything she could just turn around and go home. She knew it was selfish to even ask, but she needed her parents to just hold out for a while, until she could say for sure that she was safe.
It made her wonder if the others got messages as well. Surely they had. There was no way that their parents wouldn't have at least tried to get in contact with them too. Did they ever check them? Did they respond? She looked ahead at Laila and Daxton's backs as they walked, with Laila waving her PET around to shine light on their path, wondering just what they were sacrificing for this crusade. They were in trouble with the law, they were being chased and attacked, and now they walked around in the dark just to get her where she needed to go. It was difficult to blame Duplex for all of it. It was just too hard to believe that she was free of blame. It made her feel terrible, and made her eyes water more beyond the irritation of dirt and dust from the ancient, underground facility they'd found themselves in.
Eventually they came across a door. It didn't look grand or impressive by any means, being old and rusted beyond belief. The handle wouldn't turn much on its own, but for the sake of exploring Daxton wrenched on it just enough so that it would open. The old thing must have been somehow warped or pushed crooked, because it dragged and screeched along the floor with every tug as Daxton opened it up. They didn't find anything even close to an exit, and instead found just a room. The room was small and reeked of old metal. Shining light inside revealed what looked like it ought to have been some kind of generator room - whatever the giant metal tank of a device was inside, it had gauges on it and pipes attached to it that seemed to run into the wall and ceiling.
There were other things inside too, adding to the pungent aroma. Small cans were scattered around the room, many of them simply lying on the floor. Quincey had questioned at first just how old the museum must have been, but that smell answered that question for her.
"Gasoline fumes…" Quincey spoke in a nasal tone as she pinched her fingers against either side of her snout, "This place must have been Neo-Victorian… maybe Stockweight. That means it's around… three hundred years old, give or take a decade or two. "
"Ugh…" Laila gagged, "Guess we're not turnin' on the lights?"
"No. We should go, this room is probably pouring fumes," Quincey coughed.
Daxton shoved the door closed again and waved a hand around before covering his face and retching visibly. "I can see why we don't use this stuff anymore," He coughed.
"It's actually because it's a fossil fuel," Quincey explained, "So the reason is in the root of the term - fossils! Back in the pre-splice times, fossil fuels were widely used, but by the early 2200’s, after we rediscovered fossil fuels, there weren't very many fossils left aged well enough to contain enough carbon to make enough petroleum to create large amounts of gasoline. It became very rare, and started a major push in the Stockweight era to find alternative forms of fuel and energy. They used gasoline in the meantime, but not everyone was able to afford it and not many machines actually used it."
As Quincey unloaded that historic information, the group walked through the dark. Even at her crabbiest, the pig-girl couldn't help but explain things of historic significance as if she'd lost control of her thoughts, whereupon they simply poured out of her in a verbal barrage. "We discovered solar-power after that," She continued, "And it worked for a while until technology caught up so rapidly that it failed to satisfy power needs. We'd sworn off coal based on the smog it bellowed out of factories, so we combined hydro electricity and motion-power with wind power turbines in the 2300's, and by late in that century we discovered fusion energy. That's when we started making huge strides towards the modern conveniences of today, most of all the Containment Fields."
Kenny rolled his eyes as they walked, trying to drown out Quincey's babbling with his own thoughts. He found that very hard to do, until something caught his eye as they passed by a particular display case. He stopped and turned his light onto the glass case, where inside stood a blade on prominent display, accompanied by its leather, metal-braced scabbard. Compared to the rest of the rusted, smashed, or otherwise ruined objects in the museum, the sword in the case reflected the light with a decent shine and seemed to be in pretty good condition. "Hey," He said, "Quinn, is this a sword?"
Noticing the others had stopped, Daxton and Laila back-tracked until all four of them crowded around the glass case. "It is!" Quincey exclaimed, "Ohhh, but it doesn't look like the same kind of swords the Knights of House used in Neo-Medieval times… I think this is even older."
"Even older?" Laila asked, "But it looks brand new!"
"I know!" Quincey smiled, "Isn't it wonderful? They must have restored it or preserved it really well. I think… Mm, I don't actually know what kind it is off the top of my head…"
The moment of silent pondering they allowed the pig was broken by a sound they could all clearly hear echoing throughout the old museum. It was difficult to discern what exactly made the sound, but it was definitely a constant, bustling activity and lots of metal jingling. The only answer they could come up with was that they must have been followed. It was an answer not one of them had to speak, but to get to the bottom of it, Daxton gestured for them to stay put and then darted off into the darkness. He backtracked to the last corner they'd rounded and pressed flush to the wall so that he could lean his head around.
Any regular pair of eyes would have simply seen lights flickering and waving about, but Daxton's STOP made everything so much clearer. Three people were coming from the same direction they had come from, no doubt having followed them down the hole they used to escape. While it was difficult to make out any particular details about these people, it was obvious that they something like rifles in their hands, and based on the way the lights they used were sweeping around, they were searching rather thoroughly for the escaped teens. They took their time, and so Daxton tried to strain his ears to pick up the murmurs of conversation echoing from down the corridor.
He could only pick up a few words, being thrown back and forth, making the fragmented conversation difficult to understand: "Search… Boss wants... lennots… messing around… tea."
Daxton grit his teeth, and quickly made way back to his friends. "We have to go," He said, even though they all knew that much already.
"Quiet as a mouse now," Laila ushered the group along, "Don't make a peep!"
The one problem with escaping was that they had no idea which way to go. With Daxton leading the group, they scurried through the darkness both as quickly and as quietly as they could. They tried desperately to make sure their shoes didn't make a single sound against the cracked stone floor, but Quincey's style of footwear in particular made that difficult. Her feet clacked on the floor time and again, albeit quietly. The sound echoed through the subterranean museum to make clear that they were still inside, though their pursuers already knew that. Daxton had to use the head-start they'd secured to their advantage, and he moved quickly to try and do so!
There was no map, no floor-plan to tell him which way to go. Nothing but darkness and debris met him, which he had to guide his friends across safely. He warned them of exposed gaps in the stone tiles that made up the floor beneath them, and fallen displays or debris that had loosened from the stone-block walls that they either had to go over or around. For all his effort, he didn't seem to be making much progress… maybe he should have gone the other way at the last T-junction? He turned around, stopping the group as he looked around - aside from what was once an entryway into a wing of the museum on his left that was covered by debris, and a more open portal to his right… there didn't seem to be a way out.
Beams of light came from further away around a corner cutting time short.
"Crap, hurry!" Daxton whispered, taking hold of Quincey's hand and hurrying to hide. He and the porcine girl ducked in behind a square of stone acting as a pillar that was fragmented in many places with large chunks chipped right out. Kenny and Laila got down especially low to hide behind a stand for what may have once been an exhibit of some kind.
"Turn your lights off!" Daxton called in a hushed voice. Each light shining from the PET screens was shut off one at a time as the teens scrambled to comply. This cast them into darkness, aside from the lights far down the corridor that swept over their hiding spots.
Laila strained to hunch herself down, knees practically around her ears, without laying prone entirely behind the stand; and Quincey held her breath in fear that her breathing may give away where they were. As the only one able to see clearly, Daxton just barely pushed his head out from his hiding spot to peer around its edge and try to pin-point just what their chasers would do. They seemed to spread out, with one standing at the junction, one moving away deeper into the other end of the museum, and one approaching the hiding teens.
Daxton couldn’t put his finger on the one who approached. They seemed to wear bulky clothing of some kind, the details of which were fuzzy at best even with the canine's granted sight. One certainty was that they did carry a weapon, clearly a long firearm humming with energy, held two-handed, with some sort of bulky barrel. It must have fired those concussive blasts from before, and Daxton was willing to guess that it was some kind of strong-force field weapon. He was no expert, but it would explain how it could have come into contact with solid objects and strike with force. It seemed the person wore a belt with some things hanging off it as well, as well as other protective gear like elbow and knee guards.
Their lights were very bright, mounted atop their weapon that they held at the ready, carefully sweeping the area with its sight. While this made hiding more difficult, it also made the strangers easier to see even for Kenny, Laila, and Quincey.
Daxton waited for the light to sweep by the pillar he hid behind before taking Quincey’s hand and darting out from behind it to hide elsewhere before the stranger got too close. While they tried to be as quiet as possible, they did make some noise as the scurried into hiding with Laila and Kenny. The four of them scoot until they were at the opposing end of the exhibit stand from their would-be villain. The light was pulled back to shine over their heads for a moment, and then quickly aimed towards the end of the hall again.
“I can hear them,” The stranger, a woman, said, “Somewhere. Garrison, round back here, I think they might be in one of the wings on my end.”
Poor Laila was lying with her front to the dusty old floor, the case of food she’d swiped resting against her back heavily. Daxton would give Kenny a pat on the shoulder and try and point him in another direction, signaling a move-out order for the group. The giraffe would have to haul herself up off the ground without the case or her boots making a sound, nor any labored grunts from having to strain herself, constantly squatting down and standing up to try and fit behind her surroundings. Using only the lights from the strangers’ sights, the teens made their way hopping from one bit of cover to the next, until they were perhaps half-way back to the junction.
Whoever Garrison was, they were returning to help the woman look for them. They passed the junction and continued on towards the young four, taking a different route around the debris than the woman from before. This halted whatever progress the teens could have made as they had to hide from sight with more urgency. Looking back, it seemed the woman had stopped in front of whatever exhibit wing rest at the far end of the corridor and was awaiting her backup – she kept a keen eye, however, and was constantly guiding her light back and forth around the surroundings. Laila had to once again get down excruciatingly low with the others just to avoid being seen.
“I can hear them shuffling around too,” Garrison’s voice was deep and booming, “Where the hell is it coming from… I don’t want to be caught by some alien freak.”
“What, are you afraid of a little girl?” Called the younger-sounding man standing at the centre of the T-junction, “Just nab her if you see her. Easy notes.”
Garrison sneered, “Damnit Kris, use your communicator and shut the hell up.”
The baffled and alarmed teens were hiding behind some fallen chunks that had collapsed from the ceiling some time ago – giant slabs of what seemed to be marble stone jut up from the ground to provide decent cover for every one of them save for Laila. A wave of discomfort trickled down their necks as Garrison passed them right by, each of them holding their breath as the tense moment dragged passed with the lumbering bear’s march. No one wanted to be caught by that one, who looked nearly as wide as he was tall, and made all the more imposing by his toted weaponry.
The pack tried not to shuffle to ease their discomfort, with their stillness just making their joints feel funny and fill them with the desire to move. The air they had to breathe was stale and dusty, and they couldn’t even take deep breaths lest their panting become noticeable. None of them could understand… just who were these people? Why were they chasing them? And why did they have rifles? No one had rifles any more, not since one hundred years before. The only thing anyone carried for self-defense would have been the very same rod that Laila had attached to her belt – a non-lethal stunning device. These weapons that their pursuers carried weren’t just illegal; they were dangerous and could inflict physical harm.
Seeing that Garrison passed by, Daxton pat Kenny’s rear again. “Go, go!” He whispered.
Kenny took off from hiding to hurry to the next spot he thought was safe enough, with Daxton and Quincey close behind. Laila was the last to move, pushing herself up from the floor and stepping out just the same. She was silent as could be, at least until her boot caught a stone. Stepping directly on it shifted her whole balance, turning her foot almost sideways, and with a gasp she fell. She tried to catch herself with her hands, but ended up twisting to fall on her side, the case she carried clattering against the floor. It wasn’t a whole second after that when she looked up towards the others wide-eyed and frightful.
“I heard something! Here!” The young man, Kris, called. Lights crossed over Laila’s head as the men quickly hurried towards the spot.
“Laila!” Quincey gasped, before gripping her PET without a second thought. “Duplex, we need a distraction!”
Duplex’s visage appeared on the screen again briefly, “Very well, host body.”
Duplex’s silver ink seemed to secrete from Quincey’s pores, gathering at her arm and pushing off her body to form a pile next to her. It was able to form a vaguely Quincey-shaped blob before the armed people got too close for comfort. Unable to wait for Duplex to mimic her form entirely, Quincey urged the Inkling-extension to step out into the open. It seemed to pause for a moment before simply nodding and rising from its hiding place. One of the lights just barely managed to catch its inky, silver form.
“Whoa!” Kris shouted. The others’ sights were set quickly on the Quincey-copy that was just in the midst of taking on Quincey’s pigments and finer details. The fleshy pink skin of a pig-girl and the coloured fabric of her clothes were unsettlingly blended with silver slop.
“I’m taking it!” Garrison shouted. He was quick to raise his rifle and take aim at the alien creature, and the dull hum of a charging shot began to bellow immediately. It was accompanied by a second identical sound from Kris’ weapon, the two men charging a shot and then firing one just after the other. Their rifles jerked backward with recoil as they shot their concussive blasts, and the near-invisible projectiles rippled the floating dust in the air as they tore past, right over Laila’s head. The first shot connected with the copy’s chest, blasting a sizable chunk of its body clear off in a dazzling silver spray, the second shot connecting at a high impact to literally rend the copy’s top half apart from its lower body.
All at once, the silver-speckled Quincey broke down into little more than shiny paint splattered across the floor and onto the objects around it.
“Holy jeez!” Kris shouted.
“Call your damn shots!!” Garrison barked.
“Oh my God,” Quincey breathed.
“Laila, get outta there!” Daxton shouted. The giraffe immediately scrambled to her feet and made of a run for cover.
“I got this one!”
Kris, the smaller, reptilian armed male, took aim quickly. His light followed Laila, and his rifle charged up a shot that quickly launched through the air and connected with Laila’s boot. At such a force the impact on the side of her leg was more than enough to kick her feet clear out from under her. She yelped as she collapsed onto the floor in a tumble, the case she carried jamming into her side as she struck the ground. Immediately the pain of the rifle shot coursed through her leg, feeling as if her bones could have suffered from the blow while landing awkwardly on the case drove the wind from her lungs. Every breath became a painful gasp for air.
Quincey screamed when Laila was struck and watched the giraffe fall before her. She was afraid now, sitting on the floor with her knees against her chest, not knowing what to even do. She just saw a copy of herself splatter all over the walls, and Laila get struck by a high-power concussive shot. Her friend was now writhing on the ground in pain, whining and cursing breathlessly as she clutched her leg. It was too much for the pig, and she started to gasp for breaths of her own and her eyes started to water. She was paralyzed by fear.
“Don’t you move!” Garrison barked in his booming tone, “Just stop running and come with us, all three of you!”
Three of them? Daxton quickly turned to see that Kenny was nowhere to be seen.
“Bugger all! God damn varmint pieces’a…!!” Laila grit her teeth and clenched her eyes a moment, “Augh, sweet mother’a cracker barrel! S’like I got twenty bee-stings!”
Daxton had little choice but to comply with the armed strangers, and simply raised his hands. He was the only one who even remained standing, as Quincey tried desperately to curl into a ball and Laila wasn’t even considering being vertical as she nursed her leg. Garrison approached with the feline woman from before, supposedly to gather them up. They climbed over the rubble and cast their lights on the teens who shielded their eyes from the blinding rays. The last of the three armed people stood afar and watched them carefully, ready to fire again should any one try to make any sudden moves or try to get away.
The reptilian male quickly turned as a clicking sound echoed throughout the dusty corridor. “Hold on,” He said, “Wasn’t there supposed to be four of them?”
He slowly aimed his rifle to trail his light over everything. He didn’t see any evidence of a fourth teenager, just old exhibits, rusted metal objects, and one glass case left open, its door hanging on its hinges. But even without any evidence, he knew he heard something and knew that someone was skulking around in the dark, so he cautiously stepped away from his post to look around. His fellows wouldn’t have any trouble with a couple of kids, especially if one of them was injured, so he was free to look around. He did so as carefully as he could, his eyes moving this way and that as his light would catch off objects and distract him. Some things almost looked like something was moving out of the corner of his eye.
Daxton’s captors couldn’t see where he was looking exactly, which served to make him look a little less suspicious. But considering that he could see the orange-glow outlines of other human beings, he did catch a glimpse now and then of Kenny as he darted around the darkness. He never stayed exposed for too long, but seemed to be creeping around the exhibits again and cleverly avoiding detection from the searching man – one time just barely as Kenny got closer to him. Surprisingly enough, the lemming boy made hardly any sound either – Daxton’s keen hearing could pick up the occasional scuff against the dirty floor, but otherwise it was overwhelmed by the stomping combat boots of his captors.
“You see anything, Kris?” Garrison called.
“Surprise, dirt bag!”
Kenny had climbed up onto a rock, and immediately leapt off of it to fly through the air and come down on the armed, reptilian male. Kirs tried to lift his weapon, but found Kenny’s fist crashing down on his face in a Superman punch far too quickly to react in any other way than a stumble and a jerk. Kenny nearly took the guy down, but at least got him down to his level. He landed on the floor, gritting his teeth as his back flared up in pain, and forced himself to dart back at the man. Another light shined on him as the feline woman from before turned her attention entirely to the scene, but refused to make a shot as Kenny darted around the reptile and stuck close.
“Damn kid!” Kris shouted, turning quickly. When he lifted his rifle to take aim, Kenny was right there in front of him to smack it aside with his elbow. He hadn’t noticed at first until Kenny gripped something in his hand that the boy had been holding anything at all, but in one swift movement Kenny swung his arm. Some sort of object that Kenny grabbed in his left hand snagged on the strap that held the rifle securely to the man’s shoulders, and then somehow managed to tear through it. The strap was cut, and Kris’s eyes widened as the very tip of what seemed to be a steel blade swung right by his face.
“This kid’s got something!!” He shouted.
“Move, damnit! I can’t get a shot!” The woman harped back.
It seemed for a second that Kirs was trying to run. The man stepped backwards away from Kenny in a scramble that the boy used to his advantage, taking wide steps forwards and ducking down low to continue to dance around the guy. He’d suddenly be at the man’s side, and when the man turned Kenny would duck under the rifle he toted and suddenly be at his other side. Before the man could react again, Kenny gripped the sword sheath he’d stolen from the museum display and drew the blade once again. He took another swing, and the sharp edge of the sword caught the man’s hand, cutting into his flesh and making him cry out and drop his weapon. Thanks to the strap being severed, it clattered onto the floor and was kicked away by Kenny’s scrambling feet.
“S-Shit it’s some kind of knife!” Kris yelled.
Daxton watched, tense as ever as Kenny zipped every which way and seemed to run circles around the guy he was fighting. If there was one thing Daxton could always credit the smaller boy for, it’s the fact that he was quick. It helped that he was so small, it made him hard to grab onto, and that served to help as Kris actively tried to grapple him. After enough frustration and limbs batting away limbs, the man reached for something on his belt. With one lucky swing of this new object, Kenny found one of his wrists snagged by a half-circle of metal that quickly closed off by extending a bright blue, glowing tube that locked the metal around Kenny’s hand.
“Got’chya you little bastard!” Kris grinned, holding the other end of the manacles that Kenny found his hand stuck in.
Daxton twitched, eager to make a move to help, but as soon as he did he found himself staring down the barrel of the large grizzly bear’s rifle. “Don’t you make a damn move, punk,” Garrison grunted.
Quincey had leaned over Laila now, fussing over her and trying to check and see if she was okay. The man didn’t seem to pay her any mind, which worked in her favour when she noticed the rod that Laila carried attached to her belt. Her eyes went from the rod to the over-large man that towered over her, and then back to the rod as she got an idea. As subtly as she could – and it was easy due to all the commotion – Quincey gripped the rod at Laila’s hip and tugged it free of the giraffe’s belt. She then turned her attention upwards at the bear threatening Daxton.
“SCREW YOU!” She shouted, leaping to her feet as quickly as she could and thrusting the energy-packed tip of the rod right up against the bear’s throat.
A jolt ran through Garrison’s body and his body went slack immediately. He dropped his rifle, which hung around his shoulder uselessly as his limbs turned to jelly and he fell forwards. Quincey barely managed to scramble out of the way before the massive man fell in a heap onto the ground next to Laila.
“Gnh! D… Damn!” Garrison growled, “Yvette…! Get them!”
The feline woman whipped around, her light flashing in Quincey and Daxton’s eyes as she charged a shot without so much as a second to take proper aim. Quincey gasped, and Daxton lowered his arms to grab onto her shoulders and push her aside where they both stepped out of the way of the concussion blast that slammed into the pillar they were next to, sending stone shards flying everywhere. They wasted no time after that point, with Daxton trying to direct Quincey to help him snatch up Laila’s arms and drag the giraffe around the other side of the pillar. Laila kicked her feet as she was dragged along the floor, but was taken to safety just as another shock cracked the stone floor in front of her.
Kenny had wrestled with his own captor, and eventually managed to free his hand so that he could grab the man by his padded vest and quickly raise the blade he wielded to press the tip against the reptile’s throat. The man stopped fussing immediately, freezing as he felt the cold, and sharp steel scrape against his smoothly scaled skin. He felt it cut into his neck just slightly – more of a scrape than anything else – but he refused to make any sudden moves. Kenny stared the man in the eyes, and pressed the blade just a little closer so that he could start to direct the guy. Kris moved with him, taking steps backwards slowly and fearfully until he found his back pressed up against the pillar that Daxton and the others were hiding behind.
“If I hear that gun charge up, I’m going to make shish kabob out of this jackass’s Adam’s apple!” Kenny shouted, pushing his body right up against the man’s and attempting to crush his forearm over the man’s chest.
“Yvette? Yvette don’t shoot!” Kris shouted, “T-This kid’s got the crazy eyes Yvette!”
“I was in therapy once, you know,” Kenny said.
“Yvettethis kid’s a nut!” Kris said, wincing, “This he’s got it up against my NECK Yvette!”
The woman gritted her teeth, hissing at the boy, “What are you even doing?! Why are you protecting an alien?”
“I’m protecting Quincey!” Kenny grunted as he pushed a little harder on his captive, “That’s what we do, lady! Alien or not, if you do anything to her I’ll kill you!”
“You wouldn’t!” Kris gasped.
“You wanna try me?” Kenny asked, angling to blade to rest more-so across the reptile’s neck.
Daxton watched the exchange and looked to Quincey. He reached down so she could hand him the neu-rod, and then stepped out from behind the pillar with the weapon in hand. “Kenny, ease up,” He said.
“Not until she drops that gun!” Kenny shouted loud enough for the woman to hear.
“Damn it, Kris,” Yvette grumbled. She lowered her weapon so it wasn’t aiming at the kids. With further insistence, she was forced to remove the strap holding it around her shoulders and place the weapon on the ground. That was when Kenny did as he was promised and eased back on the man, who attempted to make a bolt for it as soon as he realized Kenny was going to let him go. Daxton, however, didn’t allow that, and grabbed the man by the scruff of his vest and jabbed him in the lower back with the neu-rod. Like the large bear man, Kris’ arms and legs went to putty in seconds, and Daxton caught the man to keep him held up as best he could.
“Don’t follow us,” Daxton spoke clearly, “If I so much as think you’re up to anything I’ll let my friend do whatever he wants to this guy.”
Reluctantly, Yvette agreed, and stood away from her weapon, fuming over the whole situation. Garrison shouted and cursed, but the teens ignored them for the most part as Quincey gathered up the rifle that Yvette dropped. She took it back to the group, trying to hold onto it while she helped a limping Laila by letting the giraffe support herself using her shoulders. Daxton dragged the reptile man along, keeping an eye on ‘Yvette’ as they got further and further away, and Kenny followed with his sheathed weapon in hand. They were all on shaky legs at that point, their breaths filtered through their pounding chests.
Kenny held out his arm as they walked. The glowing manacle lit the way very dimly as they went, the other unused manacle hanging off by the chain. The other end of the museum proved much more convenient. The teens were just big enough to fit through a hole in some rubble that led to a stairway upwards towards the surface. They were forced to leave the lizard man behind, who was too afraid by continued threats from Kenny to actually do anything. When they got up the stairs, the rather empty foyer they found themselves in had sunlight peeking through gaps and holes in what appeared to be fallen pillars and a rock face. Once more they were able to squeeze themselves through a gap and step out onto grass.
They shielded their eyes, particularly Daxton as the daylight lit up his STOP-sight like a flash bomb. He lifted the hat off his head a moment just to let it adjust before he tugged it back down and quickly entered a specialized code into his PET to disable to dark-vision. The rest of the group cautiously looked around, but were unable to see any more pursuers. It seemed like they were in the clear.
None of them could really say anything. They had to absorb all that had just happened, and recover from the fright they’d experienced from being shot at. Kenny in particular had an adrenaline rush that all but left as soon as he was safe, and his legs just didn’t feel like walking. He slumped against the rock face and sat on the grassy ground, his newly acquired weapon resting in his lap, still clutched protectively in one hand. Laila fell next to him, slumping awkwardly on the ground to compensate for her bruised leg.
“W… What the heck happened?’ Laila asked looking around in something of a stupor. When her gaze fell to her leg, she frowned, “Aw jeez… I’m sorry fellas.”
“No… Nah, no, we’re good…!” Kenny said breathlessly, “We’re… we’re just fine.”
“Those guys blew Duplex apart…!” Quincey panted as she leaned against a tree, “What did they want? Why did they have these?”
Quincey held out the rifle she’d taken. She wasn’t even sure why she took it, really… probably out of some sense of safety. But having a weapon like that… it wasn’t something that should happen. Quincey could have pointed it at someone and intimidated them, but she had no idea how to properly use a weapon like that. She had no idea what its capacities were, or what any of the knobs or switches on it did. The only thing that was obvious was that if she squeezed back on the trigger, she’d unleash the force of a high-speed baseball bat to someone’s body.
Daxton was mildly distracted. He noted the weapon in Quincey’s hands, and the weapon in Kenny’s lap, and the subdual weapon he held in his hand. He noticed Kenny’s strange posture as he tried not to slouch too much, and Laila’s awkward way of sitting because of her leg. He noticed how sweaty he was and how much he was panting as it all became very obvious to him… that something was very wrong. None of that should have been happening. They should never have been able to find themselves in a situation where they’d be stealing food from rest stations and swiping weapons of all sorts from all kinds of different places. It was all wrong.
He turned his attention to Quincey for a moment and just looked at her for a while. He started to wonder about the trip they were on and if they could even make it. It didn’t seem like it would be easy, but as he doubted himself he tried to shift gears. Resting his hands on his knees and bending over to catch his breath, he remembered what Quincey always said: never give up. Never say “never.” But that brought him to wondering… what could he do?
He reached into his pocket and pulled out his PET. Looking at the screen, it displayed clearly that he’d received many messages during his time out. He ran his thumb across the screen momentarily, a holographic keypad appearing under his digit, indenting and springing up as if he were running his digit firmly over a balloon. He typed in his password to unlock the device and began entering a number immediately. He let the call ring.
“Whoa, what are you doing?” Kenny asked as he pushed himself up from his spot, “Who are you calling?”
It didn’t take long for Eddie’s face to appear on the screen with Ed trying to squeeze tightly into frame. “Daxton!” They both gasped.
“Daxton, where the hell are you?” Eddie blinked.
“Please come home sweetie, we miss you,” Ed continued, “Are you okay? Are you hurt?”
Daxton looked around at all his friends, and then turned his attention to his parents. “No, we’re fine, but we ran into some strange people,” He explained.
Daxton’s fathers looked at one another. “Strange people?” They asked, “What do you mean? Naturalists?”
“No, they had a bunch of these…”
Daxton turned his PET so that Quincey would be in the frame, holding the rifle in her hands. There was a terrible silence from the other end of the call as Daxton’s fathers stared on in shock. They knew what that was, and they knew that finding a firearm in working condition was an impossibility. It also filled them with a sense of dread – just what had Daxton gotten into? First it was an alien from outer space, living inside Daxton’s best and closest friend and now it was men with guns? They were pale over the thought of what danger surrounded Daxton’s departure.
“Daxton, does that work?” Eddie asked.
Daxton nodded, “Yeah. They got Kenny and Laila with them. But they don’t seem like they’re supposed to kill people…”
“Good god…” Ed murmured, clinging tightly to his husband’s arm.
Eddie shook his head. “Daxton, you need to stay there and let the police come to you,” He said quickly, “They need to see that.”
“We can’t just turn around now,” Daxton answered.
“Daxton, you don’t understand,” Eddie said, “This is serious.”
Daxton looked to Quincey, then back to the screen. “So is Quincey dying,” He said.
“Sorry Dad,” He said then, ending the call as both his fathers yelled to try and stop him. He cut them off mid-sentence and everything. Then, he reared back and raised his arm before stepping forward and tossing his PET as far as he could into the woods. He heard it land in the autumn leaves somewhere with a rustle. He’d promptly disposed of his PET knowing that since he made a call from it, he could have been tracked most likely if his parents brought it to the police. Quincey and the others stared at him as he turned back around to face them and took a deep breath. He kind of let his arms flop to his sides in defeat.
“Well?” He said, “We should get moving before they get here. But we should leave the gun so they can find it.”
Quincey blankly stared at the rifle in her hands, her mind catching up to what had just occurred. “Oh!” She said, the lights coming on, “Oh, um… okay.”
Quincey knelt down by the tree she leaned on to set the rifle down on the ground. She quickly piled leaves on top of it to hide it from sight, should any of the owners of the weapon came looking for it. There wasn’t much she could do to ensure that the Harbington law enforcement would be the first ones to get their hands on it, but she hoped that would be the case. If nothing else, the one truth was that these men and women who were seemingly looking for her needed to be stopped… especially if they had weapons like that.
“Man… are you sure about this?” Kenny asked, lifting his one hand to show off the dangling manacle attached to his wrist, “How are we gonna avoid these guys?”
“Well we’re just gonna have to wing it, hun,” Laila cut in, “All we gotta do is make it to Locksmouth…. That’s all we gotta do, then we’ll be gravy. But Daxton’s right, we better get goin’ while the gettin’s good, because I think I’m gonna be laggin’ us behind a little…”
Kenny rested his head back up against the rock face he slumped against, and with a groan he pushed himself up to his feet. “Alriiiight,” He said, reaching down to help Laila to her feet. The giraffe stumbled a little as she stood, but was otherwise fit to limp along with them. “Hey, Quinn, make sure she’s okay, will you?” He asked, eying his porky friend.
“Okay… Okay!” Quincey breathed standing and walking over to Laila, “Don’t worry, we can be slow together.”
Laila smiled warmly at Quincey. “That’s fine with me, pork-chop… Just don’t go countin’ me out yet.”
Daxton had just stood there with his arms crossed, his breathing a little heavy from both fatigue and exertion. Once it seemed that everyone was ready to go, he lifted an arm and signaled them along. “Alright then!” He said, “Company… march!”