Allie was floating.

Well, no, she wasn’t really, but with her eyes closed she certainly felt like she was. She wondered if North and Rosa felt the same sensation when they passed through their gate some time ago. It felt like a lifetime had passed. She had spent her time after their departure reading, then studying. The Keeper’s library was enormous and filled with volumes left over from a thousand worlds past. She dove in headfirst, seeing opportunity where her friends saw challenge.

Allie clutched Justin’s ring as she walked on air, hoping the fear would subside. Her breath changed.

Soon her feet touched a harder surface, and her lungs filled with rusty air. The sounds of life picked up around her, but were dull and quieted like a hushed motor. She opened her eyes again to find herself in a darkened, dusty alley between two metallic apartment complexes. There were jet-black pipes crisscrossing above her and two silent computer terminals blinking quiet red lights. There were no car horns or footsteps. The sky held no stars.

Allie looked down at herself. She felt like an alien in this place, with her bright yellow jacket and running shoes. Justin’s ring caught the faint glimmer of the red lights, standing out from the sickly shadows like sore thumb grasping at her neck.

“What the hell is this?” Roy said, walking forward.

His boots thundered against the empty corridor. The sounds made Allie feel like her Principal was marching down the hall to give her detention. Kaylee followed him. She wore a darker jacket, hung open and loose. The ends of her zipper clattered against her thin belt buckle. Her hiking boots clacked more gently than Roy’s, but the echoes still bounced around the walls like mad.

“This isn’t my world,” Kaylee said. “And it sure as hell isn’t yours.”

“The Keeper said that we would have to pass through here to get home,” Allie said. “All we have to do is find the next gate, right?”

“Anything in your books say anything useful?” Roy asked.

Allie knelt down and slipped a small notebook out from her knapsack. She rose and paged through it. She stopped on a page with a pink sticky note attached to the edge.

“Metal world. Real dull and uninspiring. No stars. No sky. No luck,” Allie read. “He doesn’t say much after that, just lists some numbers and gives a timescale of about fifty years, ”

“Does he mention locations at all?” Kaylee asked.

Allie shook her head.

“Well how the hell are we supposed to travel through them if we can’t see them?” Kaylee said. “It’s not like we have Thunder here to sniff one out for us.”

Roy turned to ask Allie something, but stopped after the first word.

“You guys hear that?” he said in a hushed tone.

Allie felt it before she heard it. First there was a low-grade vibration underneath her feet, then heavy rolling and stomping. Roy backed into the alley again waving at the girls to back up. His eyes grew focused, then he looked back with rash, sharp glances.

“We need to get up. Now,” Roy said quietly.

Allie grabbed her stuff and followed his eyes to the ladder behind them. Kaylee’s boot was already on the eighth rung when Roy reached Allie.

“Go, go!” he said in fear.

Allie didn’t think twice. She hurried up the ladder, with her knapsack dangling over her back. She rushed over the top ledge, where Kaylee was waiting to pull her behind massive steaming pipes. The rolling and stomping was louder, then came to a stop. Roy rushed over the top and laid flat on his stomach. A wide, red spotlight moved up and down the alley, and flickered around the ladder for a few seconds. Allie was hot and she couldn’t breathe. She felt like she was floating again, but in a trembling, falling way. Her knapsack dug into her collar. The red light crested over the lip of the roof, and just missed Roy’s foot. It travelled slowly towards the pipes, and Allie’s breath shortened to nothing. She hoped the pipe was wide enough. She hoped her stupid bright jacket didn’t give her away like a neon sign. She hoped her knapsack wasn’t dangling out from the side, giving her away like a little kid hiding behind a sapling. She pleaded with the red light to turn off and go away.

The rolling and stomping started up again. It got closer.

Beneath the deep, grumbling roll, she could now hear slow, methodical whirring noises and metallic clicking. Whatever was making them was stomp-rolling through the alleyway.

She dared not move from her spot. If anything came up that ladder, all three of them would be spotted in an instant. She grabbed Kaylee’s hand. It was chilled and sweaty with failing nerves, but her grip became gentle and firm with reassurance. Allie wanted to turn her head to look at her, but she was afraid of seeing another pair of frightened eyes stare back at her. She wouldn’t be able to handle that.

A single “ker-thunk” stopped the whirring and clicking down below.

The red spotlight turned off.

Silence.

A minute passed. Then nine more. Allie peeked her head out and saw nothing. She heard nothing. She looked back at Kaylee. She had her eyes closed and her head tilted up to the sky. She breathed deeply and quietly, waiting. Roy shifted so he could lift his arm. He motioned for Allie to get back behind the pipes. Allie obeyed and watched him closely.

Roy inched closer to the edge and peered over the alley below. He slowly inched back and crawled over to the pipes.

“There’s a bunch of rusty robots down there. I think they got turned off,” Roy said with the barest whisper. “We’d better get moving in case they wake up again.”

The three crept across the other side of the building. Allie hurriedly moved behind Kaylee and Roy, clutching her knapsack to her chest to prevent it from swinging around or getting lost.

“Down here,” Roy whispered.

He hopped down to a lower rooftop, and then down to another alley. This one opened into a covered walkway leading back up to a more traditional bridged walkway. The bridge was on the wider side, and had both steps and ramps branching off from the darkened opening. As they ascended the steps, Allie briefly thought back to the non-world and seeing Justin laying, sputtering, and gushing blood. There were no wyverns in the air here, just dust and red dots of light. There were also no super-strong, ageless warrior women to protect them, just the dark and the quiet.

Roy led them across the footbridge, staying low and crouched. Allie peeked over the low wall and through the window to the street below. There were cars parked neatly end-to-end on both sides of the road. Rows of red guide lights shimmered meekly like a dying heart monitor. Doors were closed and several windows were covered by metal shutters. All the buildings were on the short side, and spaced neatly apart. The sky remained black and solid.

“What happened here?” Allie asked the world.

The end of the bridge led to two wide doors. Roy tried one and slipped inside without any resistance.

He slipped right back out immediately. He put up his palms to halt the girls in their tracks, then indicated with one hand that there was a robot right inside. He pointed back the way they came and they quietly turned just in time to see red spotlights emerge from the opposite direction. Whirs and stomp-rolls buzzed to life just out of view, and they were close enough to sound more like the yawns of a mechanical dragon. Allie tensed up and goosebumps raised the tiny hairs on the back of her neck.

Roy pushed them back as the door swung open. Allie finally got a good look at what they had been running from. It was six feet tall and humanoid in shape around the top, complete with rigid arms and a single offset eye staring at them. It advanced slowly, stomping forward with wide, heavy legs supported by a third wheeled one. Its head tilted sharply to one side and made furious clicking and clacking noises. Allie ran back for a few steps and saw more of them beyond. They weren’t leaving the way they came.

Allie turned to face the first robot again. Roy and Kaylee clumped up near her. The swarm was coming for them.

Allie tried to clear her mind of the fear and think. With a single, offset red eye a mere ten feet away and stomping closer, she thought how similar it was to the raging eyes of the wyverns that attacked them on the Elemental Ascent. They couldn’t be more different in size, shape, and color; but somehow, between biological and mechanical, across worlds and non-worlds, the same desperate, hungry rage locked onto them.

What would Rosa do? 

“Roy, Kay, when I tell you to go, get going and don’t look back,” Allie said, pushing her knapsack into Kaylee’s hands. “Keep this safe for me, okay?”

Kaylee didn’t have time to respond as Allie rushed towards the single stomp-bot just in front of the door. It reached for her as she approached, and she deftly leapt to the right. Instead of landing on the floor, she aimed for the glass window and kept her momentum going. The stomp-bot swung quickly to its left to catch her, more swiftly than it should have been capable of just going by its rusty, twitching demeanor, but it missed by a few inches.

Allie ran up the side of the glass for three steps, left-right-left, just as she had done performing in front of audiences of millions, however long ago that had been. In brief snippets, Allie was reminded of her past life. Learning the ropes. Taking bumps. Moving with artful purpose, like a rugged dancer. All the gold, lights, and cheers seemed like a hazy dream she had finally awoken from. Staying with the Keeper in his patchwork world, reading his collection of books and maps, studying the essence of what magic was– that felt more real to her than running up turnbuckles in skimpy outfits and showing off.

She landed and the stomp-bot turned to meet her. It growled.

“You growl? You don’t even have a throat,” Allie said as it swung a hissing arm towards her, claw-fingers outstretched to grab her and missing again. “Woo, those look kind of sharp. Who does your nails?”

The stomp-bot jerked closer as Allie backed up towards the glass.

“Come on, come get me. I’m not going anywhere,” Allie smiled.

Her heart raced. Her fear was still there, but by its side was something new and different.

Excitement.

The stomp-bot lurched forward again, and Allie dove to her right. The bot’s arm smashed through the pane of glass like frozen tissue. Glass fell to the street below as the growling, twitching metal thing turned again to Allie.

“Go! Go now!” Allie shouted, pointing.

Roy and Kaylee didn’t need any elaboration. They raced to the hole in the window as the red-eyed machine focused on her. Roy pushed Kaylee first as Allie closed the door. She ran down a darkened hallway, lit only by the ambient light bouncing around from outside. This light gave everything a reddish tint, but there were also bits of yellow and white in the distance, illuminating the edge of the cityscape with the darkest of silver linings.

*****

Distance is a science fantasy novel by Gregory Trombley.

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