Friday, June 25, 2010

Chapter 11


The security officers led Mike, Callie, and the pickpocket boy downstairs to an elevator with grate doors. They entered, and one of the officers pushed the button for basement. The cabin clanked and groaned as it went down. When they reached the “Bargain Basement”, which looked empty and kind of spooky, they stopped. The officer pushed the basement button once more, and the cabin began a second descent.
When they stopped again, the doors opened this time on a white tiled hall, which seemed to slope downward to the bowels of creation. Personnel in similar outfits as the security officers walked up and down this hall to different offices, represented by white doors along the walls.
They were led out of the elevator, and to one of the doors, labeled: DETAINMENT CELL 1. The cold-voiced officer opened the door to an empty white room, and pointed them in.
The boy was to go in first, but didn’t get far. He grabbed the sides of the doorway in a panic.
“No! I can’t! I hate cramped places!” he cried.
The officer gave him a hard shove, and the boy fell to the floor inside.
“I’m not going to have the same problem with you two, am I?” he asked Mike and Callie.
Angry as he was with the kid for getting them into this, Mike nonetheless found what he had just seen intolerable. “Listen, you---“ he started to say, but Callie pinched him hard in the back.
“No sir! No problem from us!” she said in a loud voice, to drown out Mike’s “Oww! What?!”
“Shut up, Mike!” she hissed in his ear, and pushed him ahead of her into the room.
The officer addressed the three.
“A frain officer will be called to pick you up and take you to Ragginarck. You will stay here until then. If you have parents, you will be allowed to call them from there to pay whatever fines or penalties are imposed. If you don’t have parents, you’ll most likely stay there for good. Understood?”
Before they could answer, he slammed the door. The sound of it being locked followed.
“Well, that’s just great!” Mike said.
“He’s a full on crapstick.” the boy, now calm, cool, and collected, said. “The frain don’t take you directly to Ragginarck, they take you to a Judicial Complex holding cell first. After a few hours waiting time, you get maybe a quick two minute visit with a judge, maybe less; and then they haul you off to Ragginarck.”
“Oh wow, that’s so much better!” Mike said, “I was afraid there for a moment that we were totally screwed!”
The boy paid Mike no mind; he crouched down low with his ear to the door, listening for something.
“What’s your name, kid?” Callie asked him.
“What are you talking to him for?!” Mike asked, “He’s the one who got us into this! And by the way, why did you pinch me?!”
“I pinched you because you were going to tell off that jerk and get us into even more trouble!”
“How do you know? Can you read minds all of a sudden?”
“I know because I know YOU.”
Mike waved her off.
“The name’s Rakkadakkar.” the boy said, without taking his ear from the door, “But my friends call me Rak.”
“Hi Rak. I’m Callie, that’s Mike.”
“Hi.” Rak said, “Sorry again about the wallet, guy.”
“Sure, whatever.” Mike shrugged, “Fill us in, though. Ragginwhak. What is it? Where is it? Why do I get the feeling it’s not a vacation retreat?”
“Ragginarck.” Rak corrected, “It’s the prison for juvenile offenders. They don’t call it a ‘prison’, but that’s what it is, in effect. This city is pretty harsh on roundicants and travigants, especially since that shigging phote Stromen Freath became Vignach.”
“Roundicants? Travigants?” Callie asked, “Shigging phote?”
“Oh, that’s just the verbex of the inviduii.”
Mike and Callie looked at him as if he had just sprung antlers.
“Wow, you guys really aren’t from around here, are you?”
Mike and Callie shook their heads simultaneously.
“Slang.” Rak explained, “Roundicants and travigants are runaway and throwaway kids. You don’t want to know what ‘shigging phote’ means! Anyway, unless we want to end up in Ragginarck, I think it’s time we leave. I don’t hear anyone outside anymore.”
“Whaddaya mean, leave?” Mike asked, “The door’s locked.”
Rak smiled, stood up, and opened the door.
“How did you do that?!” Callie asked.
“During my ‘panic attack’, I stuck a special wad of clay into the lock hole.” Rak said, “No hole, no lock.”
He carefully extricated said clay and put it in his pocket, “A pounder’s gotta think ahead.”
“Way to go, kid!” Mike said, with newfound respect for the little thief, “I think it’s time we depart these premises.”
The three moved quickly and quietly out of the cell, and made their way up the hall toward the elevator. They were almost there when they heard a voice from somewhere behind them shout: “Hey! You!”
They turned and saw a security officer a short distance back. He had apparently just come from out of one of the offices. He was one of the two that had caught them and brought them here.
“HEY! GET BACK HERE!” he bellowed, and barreled toward them like an angry bull.
Mike, Callie, and Rak turned and ran for the elevator. They got there, opened the doors, and got in. Mike pushed the button to go up. The grate doors closed just as the officer reached them. He hit them with such force; the cabin shook as it ascended. They saw him retrieve a walkie-talkie from his belt, and bark orders into it, before he was obscured by the next floor.
They reached the bargain basement, and then the elevator stopped.
“Uhh-oh!” Mike said.
The elevator shuddered and began to descend.
“We’re going back down!” Callie said.
“I was afraid of that.” Rak said, and pushed the STOP button.
The elevator stopped again.
“Here, help me open the doors.” he said.
The three forced the grate doors open. The bottom half of the basement opening was all they had to go through, but it was more than enough. Mike helped Callie and Rak up through it: then they in turn pulled Mike up.
The basement was immense; tables and tables of bargains, and huge bins filled with clothes, shoes, and stuffed toys, cluttered the place.
“There’s gotta be a staircase around here somewhere.” Rak said.
The elevator closed its doors, and descended.
“Better find it quick.” said Mike.
“I see it!” cried Callie up ahead of them.
They followed her to the far corner of the basement, and there found a deep staircase, which led upwards to closed double doors. Behind them came the sound of the elevator, as it lumbered its way back up.
“Time to go!” Rak said.
The three scrambled up the staircase and exploded through the double doors and into the mall proper. Rak led them through the main thoroughfare, and to the nearest exit. The automatic doors swished open before them, and out they went, into the parking lot. A friendly warmth enveloped them, and they stopped a quick moment to catch their breath.
“Will they come after us out here?” Mike asked between gasps.
“They might.” Rak replied.
“We should get to our wagon then.” Callie said.
“You guys have a vehicle?”
“Where is it parked?”
“Row ten. Over there.” Mike pointed to the distance.
“Too far. Not enough time.” Rak said, “This way, follow me!”
He ran towards the first car he came across in the parking lot, and crouched low behind it. Mike and Callie did likewise; Mike took the car behind Rak’s, Callie took the one behind his.
“Get ready to haul, if I yell ‘run’.” Rak said, and raised his head high enough to peek through the windows.
He saw four mall security officers blow through the mall doors, look out and around at the vastness of the parking lot, and deflate. They turned, conferred, came to a decision, and headed back into the mall.
“We’re clear!” said Rak.
The three stepped out from behind the cars.
“Let’s not tempt fate.” Mike said, “Let’s get to the wagon.”
They hurried to row ten.
“So, Rak,” Callie said, “Need a ride?”
“I wouldn’t mind one.” he said, “Where are you two headed?”
“Good question. What do you think, Mike?”
“It’s been a long day.” Mike said, “I say we call it a night, and look for a place to---“
He stopped. They had reached row ten, and the spot where the wagon had been parked.
But the wagon wasn’t there.    

Friday, June 18, 2010

Chapter 10

Metromax City

They entered the city through a labyrinth of overpasses and underpasses that seemed to loop and loop around forever.
“I’m not sure if we’re coming or going anymore.” Mike said.
“Just follow the other cars.” Callie said.
“They’re lost too, by the look.”
They had tried to follow the road map, at the cost of devastating confusion. Callie gave up on it and tossed it in the back unfolded. She now tried to make sense of the road signs as they zipped by.
“Look, there’s an exit. Take it!” she said. She didn’t know if it was the right one, but she was tired of the endless loops.
“Okeydoke!” Mike said, and turned the wagon into the exit. She was right; the turn took them straight into the heart of the city.
“What now?” Mike asked.
“Let’s start with something simple. We find a phonebook and look up the name Longstreet. See if she's here.”
“And if she’s unlisted?”
Callie gave him an exasperated look. “One problem at a time, please!”
“Maybe we should try a mall.” Mike said, “Malls have public phones, and it’ll give us a chance to take a break from the road and stretch our legs a little.”
“Okay, let’s do that.”
They meandered through the city’s streets, letting the flow of traffic guide them. At last they found what they were looking for: the CityScape Mall. A big three story building with all the architectural beauty of a painted brick. The parking lot was huge, and still mostly full. They drove in, parked in the closest space to the mall they could find, and got out.
“Remember where we parked.” Mike said, as he locked up the wagon, and joined Callie in gawking.
“That’s bigger than any mall I’ve ever seen.” she said.
“That’s not saying much. We haven’t seen that many.”
They walked towards the mall. Even from a distance, they could see that the place was a beehive of activity.
They reached the entrance, and the automatic doors swished open. The place exhaled upon them it’s cold air conditioned breath. Mike and Callie shuddered at the unexpected frigidity, and entered.
“Shoulda brought a jacket.” Mike said.
They walked first to a “you are here” map. Backlit and color-coded, it was a square monolith that stood in the center of the entrance hall like a solemn guardian. Callie ran her finger over its shiny plastic face.
“The phones are here.” she said, and tapped the spot with her fingernail, “Let’s go.”
They walked past the map, and entered the mall’s main promenade. A beautiful pool-sized water fountain encircled by benches took up its wide center. They jostled past swarms of loitering shoppers. On the top floor, which housed the food court, two kids leaned over the railing and spat down at the people that walked by on the ground floor.
Mike and Callie reached a square pillar with phones on all four sides. Each phone was bracketed with sheets of curved stainless steel as a concession to privacy. Fat phonebooks hung from absurd metal cords and bindings. Callie picked---or rather, heaved---up one of these phonebooks, and thumbed through it. As she did so, a blonde haired boy of about twelve bumped into Mike.
“Sorry, guy!” he said, and scooted away.
“Sure.” Mike said, and turned his attention back to Callie and the phonebook. He put his hands in his pockets to warm them, and noticed something missing.
“I don’t believe this! That kid just took my wallet! All our money’s in there!” Mike said, and ran after the boy, who was already hightailing it.
The kid led Mike on a merry chase. Mike was faster, and managed to close the distance, but the boy dodged him at every turn, and weaved through the crowds in expert fashion.
The kid ducked into a clothing store, and Mike followed him into it; but lost him amidst the shoppers and the racks. Mike backtracked to the entrance in time to see the boy running up an escalator to the second floor.
Clever little snot! Mike thought to himself, and ran to catch up. 
He reached the escalator and, hop-skipping two steps at a time, ascended to the second floor. He skimmed down the rows of stores, and looked inside each one, hoping to catch a glimpse of the little thief. He got to a bookstore, and to his surprise saw Callie walk out of it, with the kid in a headlock.
“Were you looking for this?” she asked.
“How did you---?”
“I’m the smart one, remember? As for you,” she squeezed the boy’s head a little harder, “Give him back his wallet.”
The boy yelped, retrieved the wallet from inside his tucked-in shirt, and handed it to Mike.
“Sorry, guy.” he said with a sheepish grin.
Mike took the wallet and counted the money. Once he was sure everything was there, he put the wallet back in his pocket. “Well, it looks like we got you, kid.” he said.
“It looks like we got you.” a voice said, from behind them.
The voice belonged to one of two severe-looking mall security officers.
“We have strict rules here against kids running around and disturbing the customers.” he said, “You three better come with us.”
“Not today!” the boy said, and stomped on Callie’s foot.
Callie, who had loosened her grip on the boy’s head in the distraction, yelled “Oww!”, and let go of him.
The boy made to run off, but one of the officers extended his long arm in a lightning quick reflex, grabbed the kid by the back of the shirt collar, and pulled him back.
The other grabbed Mike and Callie’s arms, to prevent a similar attempt. People began to stop and stare.
“By resisting, you three have just made your situation worse.” the one with the boy in hand said, his voice as cold as the mall itself.
“But we didn’t resist!” Callie said, “We don’t even know him!”
“Officer, this kid stole my wallet! I had to run to catch him!” Mike explained, in his best grown-up voice.
“Tell it to the frain.” the officer said, “We’re taking the lot of you downstairs.”

Friday, June 11, 2010

Chapter 9


Mike managed to salvage one of the halves of the broken binoculars, and used it to look ahead. The dots were now shapes, and they had gotten closer since Mike last checked.
“I see them.” Mike said, “The big one’s a man, the other one is either a really big dog, or a really small horse.” Mike adjusted the focus, “More likely a dog.”
Callie was off to the side of the road testing the span of the mysterious “event” that had trapped them in the Rough Country. Alas, it was distressingly not limited to just the road.
“So, how can we even see them?” Callie asked, as she returned to the front of the wagon where Mike stood, “Aren’t we essentially looking at that other stretch of road this thing opens into?”
“No.” Mike said, “If we were, you wouldn’t have disappeared when you walked through it. We must be looking at what you’d see if this thing weren’t there. By the way, we need to give this thing a name; I’m tired of calling it ‘this thing’.”
“I vote for ‘doohickey’.” Callie said.
“The ayes have it.”
“Alright then,” Callie said, “How will we know if the guy with the dog is the one that done this?”
“If he avoids walking into the doohickey, I would consider that proof enough.”
“So, if he’s an innocent, you’re just gonna let him get trapped here like us? How will that help?”
Mike scratched his head, he hadn’t really thought of that. “I guess we can warn him at the last minute; if it looks like he’s not going to stop.”
“Here’s the big question,” Callie said, “If this guy IS the one responsible for the doohickey...”
“What does it mean for us that he’s coming here?”
“It could mean he’s here to finish us off.” Mike said.
Callie gulped. “And what do we do about that?”
“I don’t know.”

As the shapes neared, Mike and Callie began to see details.
The bigger shape was an elderly gentleman. He had a snow white beard cut short and wispy white hair under a crude straw hat. Both hair and beard had the choppy uneven look that results when one tries to cut one’s own hair. He wore light tan canvas pants and shirt, both of which looked homemade and well-worn; much repair work had been done on them, in the form of patches.
As for the shape Mike had thought to be a dog; it became clear that the massive animal that walked beside the old man was no mere canine. It was a cwarna.
“Is that what I think it is, Mike?”
“Holy Gloeis in the sky!”
Related to wolves, cwarnas were bigger and more ferocious than their lupine cousins. They were well-known for being hostile towards people. Yet this one stood by the old man like a loyal dog, and growled at Mike and Callie in a low, menacing manner.
“Ja’sao, Rydu.” The old man said to it, and it stopped.
The two stopped short of entering the “doohickey”.
        “You know it’s there, don’t you?” Mike asked, his voice grim.
“Of course.” The old man replied, “I could smell it a mile away.”
“What manner of magic-maker are you?” Callie asked.
“I’m a Ma’jai.” the old man said.
“What’s a Ma’jai?” Mike asked.
“They’re kinda like hereditary wizards.” Callie said.
“How would you know?”
“I read books.” Callie said, “You know those things in the library with the flappy papers?”
“She is, more or less, right.” the old man said, “It’s a simplistic definition but…it’ll do for our purposes.”
“And what is your purpose?” Mike asked, “Why have you done this?”
“Who said I did this?” the old man asked.
“What?” said Mike, confused, “I thought…?”
“Just because I’m a Ma’jai you think I go around dropping spells on people willy-nilly? We may not be the most sociable of creatures, but we’re not monsters. At least not most of us.”
“Then why are you here?” Mike asked.
“I live here. Why are you here?”
“Trying to get the hell out of here!”
“I think the important question is: can you help us out here?” Callie asked, “We’re kinda stuck.”
“I can give it a whack.” the old man said, “I am a Ma’jai, you know. The name’s Kantry, by the way. Rufus Kantry.”
“THE Rufus Kantry?”
“Last time I checked.” Kantry said, “Now, I’m going to need some quiet time for this, if you don’t mind.”
Kantry closed his eyes and seemed to draw into himself, as in preparation for some exertion. He raised his arms up and forward in close proximity to the invisible boundary.
He opened his eyes and spoke in a loud, booming, supernaturally amplified voice that echoed throughout the Rough Country: “Abresiim!
A low rolling vibration, like that which presages a thunderclap, followed in the silence after this incantatory phrase.
Pel vras Maala’na, Jao’an e’yeug nebah zeuma!
As he spoke, bright sparks of green and red flashed outward from Kantry’s splayed fingers.
This concluding word echoed longer and deeper than it should have by natural laws. Kantry wiped his brow with his shirt arm and exhaled a long slow breath.
“That took some effort.” he said, “You can step forward now, the spell is broken.”
Mike and Callie took a few steps forward, and nothing disappeared.
“The doohickey’s gone.” Callie said, “You did it.”
“Of course I did.” Kantry said, “I may be older than dirt, but I’m not quite useless yet.”
“I’m still not entirely convinced you’re not the one who put the whammy on us.” Mike said, “It’s awfully coincidental that you happened to be strolling around just when we needed a Ma’jai.”
“Coincidence? There’s no such thing.” Kantry said, “All things serve the Voss Vedu’un. But I am NOT the one who did this to you.”
“Then who did?”
“Who’s to say?” Kantry replied, “Someone obviously has it in for you. Someone of great power.”
“We don’t know anyone of ‘great power’.” Mike said.
“Or ANY power.” Callie added.
“Well...someone knows you.” Kantry said.

Mike and Callie got back in the wagon.
“What do you think?” Mike asked.
“You mean about that whole ‘someone has it in for us’ thing?”
“I don’t know what to think, frankly. Why would anyone have it in for us? Who the hell are we to have an enemy of that magnitude? We’re just some dumb kids!”
“I know!” Mike said, “And if they’re that powerful, what’s with the stupid half-measure of trapping us here? Why not just smash us already and be done with it?”
“What about Kantry?” Callie asked, “Do you still think it was him?”
“Truth be told, I don’t. Not really.” Mike said, “I don’t know why, but I believe him when he says it wasn’t him. It’s just that no other possibility seems to make sense.”
“Let’s just go.” Callie said, “If it turns out that there IS some ticked off magic-maker after us, we’ll deal with it then.”
“Agreed.” said Mike, and started the wagon.

Rufus Kantry watched the wagon until it was lost to sight.
“So,” he muttered to himself, “Threed’s bloodline has resurfaced. A time of war draws close.”

After another hour and a half of driving, Mike and Callie began to see trees and houses in the distance.
Soon they were out of the Rough Country altogether.
There were many towns to go through before Metromax City, but the Longstreets stopped at the first they got to, and found a park full of families and laughing children. They stayed there a little while to rest. Later, they stopped at yet another park to have supper.
By nightfall, Metromax City loomed large in the darkness ahead.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Chapter 8

The Rough Country

Mike and Callie saw fewer and fewer houses as they drove, till there were none; just flat land as far as they could see. They reached a sign on the side of the road and slowed down to read it. It was an ancient plank of sun-toasted wood, with red painted letters cracked with age.
It read: THE RUF   K NTRY.
“Not sure if that’s rustic or just plain illiterate.” Mike said.
“According to Friq,” Callie said, “This used to be THE RUFUS KANTRY ROAD, way back in the olden days. Some of the letters peeled off the board, and no one ever got around to repainting it. It’s been called ‘The Rough Country’ ever since.”
“So who was Rufus Kantry?”
“Some guy who did something important here once, long time ago; Friq didn’t say what.”
“So they named a road in a barren waste after him?”
“It wasn’t a barren waste at the time. It once held towns and farms and fields. Then something bad happened.”
“Evidently.” Mike said.

It was a desolate place.
A place of dry cracked earth and weeds. The occasional trees they saw were twisted things that looked too wretched to hold anything heavier than a poojee bird upon their brittle branches. Yet many held aloft the black carrion birds known as wullarks.
“Are we in any danger from those things, Mike?” Callie asked.
“I don’t know. I think we’re okay as long as we stay in the wagon.”
To their left, numerous rock outcroppings arose in the distance.
“See those, Mike?” Callie asked, “That’s where the gallanashes and cwarnas live. They come out of their caves at night to hunt.”
“Wow, someone’s an almanac today.” Mike said.
“Well, I am the smart one.” Callie replied.

About three hours in, something began to bother Mike, but he was unsure what.
As usual, Callie cut to the heart of the matter with a simple question.
“Shouldn’t we be able to see civilization or something by now?”
“You’re right, Cal.” Mike said, “It’s been three hours and the frikking scenery hasn’t changed.”
“Maybe the map people just underestimated the drive.”
“I guess. Let’s just hope not by much.”
“You look tired, Mike. You want to eat something?”
“A burger and a soda would be nice. I can eat and drive.”
“Just watch out for traffic.” Callie said with a snort, “You know, one of these days you’re gonna hafta teach me how to drive this thing, so we can take turns.”
“I’ll take it into consideration.” Mike replied.
Callie brought out two of the burgers Jahu Friq had made for them. She gave one to Mike, and reached for the sodas from the cooler in the back. She popped their tops and put one on the cupholder for Mike.
They ate their lunch.

Bother turned to worry as another hour clock by with no apparent change in the forward horizon. Worry turned to unspoken panic, as yet another hour passed without progress.
Mike stopped the wagon.
“Something is wrong.” he said, “No way we should still be here.”
“How could the map be this wrong?” Callie asked.
“I don’t think it’s the map.” Mike said, “Call me crazy, but it’s like…” he struggled a moment to find a metaphor, “It’s like a play, where they create the illusion of motion by moving a loop of scenery-painted fabric around and around behind the actors. It looks like they’re moving, but no one’s actually getting anywhere. That’s what this feels like---like we’re not really moving. Does that sound nuts?”
“Well, yes.” Callie said, “But what is really happening here? It isn’t like we’re lost, there’s only a single stretch of road for gosh sakes.”
Mike thought for a moment.
“There’s a pair of binoculars in the glove compartment, Cal.”
Callie opened the glove compartment and took out a small pair of plastic binoculars. She handed them to him.
“Not exactly professional grade.” she said, “Didn’t you win that at the coin toss last county fair?”
“No, the duck pond.”
“The duck pond?” Callie smirked. “Isn’t that, like, for kids?”
“Now is not the time for that discussion.” Mike said. He opened his door and walked outside. Callie followed suit.
Mike climbed to the roof of the wagon, and glanced about with his binoculars, while Callie walked ahead of the wagon to stretch her legs.
Far off in the distance ahead of them, Mike spied a black dot; then another, smaller dot.
“We might just get an answer after all,” Mike said, “Someone is coming this way.”
“Well that’s a relief.” Callie called out, still striding ahead like she intended to walk to Metromax, “Maybe they know what’s---“
Callie disappeared mid-sentence.
Mike dropped the binoculars; they clattered and broke upon hitting the pavement.
“What the hell?!” he said, not believing his eyes, “Callie?”
She was gone.
Mike climbed down the front of the wagon and jumped off. He ran to the spot where Callie had stood before she blinked out of existence.
“CALLIE!!” he shouted and nearly ran into her as she suddenly reappeared.
“---IKE!!” she finished saying.
“What the hell happened to you?!!” Mike cried out, “Where did you go?”
“What the hell happened to YOU?! And the wagon?!!” she replied, “When I turned back, nothing was there!”
“You disappeared!” Mike said, flailing his arms spastically.
Callie noticed something, and grabbed his arm.
“Mike, LOOK.”
Mike did, and saw that his arm, the one pointing at the spot where Callie had disappeared, was missing a hand. He withdrew the arm quickly, and the hand returned. Callie moved her arms into this space and they too disappeared.
“Look Mike!” she said and stepped ahead, disappeared; stepped back, and reappeared.
“Stop that!” Mike said, “What’s it like on the other side?”
“It looks exactly like this,” Callie gestured to the scenery around them, “Only you and the wagon aren’t there.”
“That’s it then.” Mike said, “That’s the answer.”
“What do you mean?”
“Think about it.” Mike said, “Imagine two of these…whatever they are, spaced a few miles apart, in the center of the Rough Country. You drive past site A, no problem. You pass site B, and it sends you through site A again. You don't even notice cause it all looks the same.”
Callie’s eyes widened. “Holy Gloeis! That would explain why we haven’t gotten anywhere after hours and hours! But what if we just turn around and go back through the first one?”
“But you just did that. Twice. Where did it send you?”
“Oh, that’s right. It just brought me back here.” she said, “The doors must only swing one way. You can come in from outside, but once inside, you’re stuck in a closed loop. But if you’re right, and I think you are, we’re talking magic here. The real kind.”
“Someone went through a lot of trouble to get us stuck here.”
“But who? Why?” 
“We'll find out soon enough. Someone is coming this way.”