*ding dong bing bong*
A thousand monitors hummed to life, all showing the smiling face of a twelve-year-old boy. His hair, already blond, had been augmented with streaks dyed orange, and though the camera was zoomed in on his face, one could see just enough of his shoulders to tell he was shirtless.
“Hey, hey, hey! As Chief of the Temple of the Wheel, I want you all to know… it is now 7 AM! That’s right! 7 AM! Time to start a brand new day! It’s looking pretty overcast, but I don’t think it’ll rain. Shame, I really feel like rain today for some reason. See you around!”
That was a joke. The Chief was barely ever seen in person, and when he was, it was always bad news.
As the monitors clicked off once more, Nara Mai discovered to her annoyance that she had somehow managed to roll out of bed and sleep through it. She grunted at nobody in particular before standing up and dusting herself off. Then she washed up, made a futile attempt to straighten her matted hair, and began to eat. Most of the village ate breakfasts communally, but she hated going outside first thing, so Fi usually left food in her room. It was never as good as what they had – Fi wasn’t exactly known for culinary prowess – but it wasn’t bad either.
While she ate, she considered her options. Her hair was still… unacceptable, so she would have to fix that before going out. But then what? Karami had found something in the forest the other day, and she really wanted her to see it, really really really, but that was hardly new. Logiol was always down for a chat, and up for a chat, and in every other direction for a chat as well. No matter where you went, he would find you, and he would talk your ear off. Nara certainly didn’t mind talking to Logiol, but she’d have to be prepared first. Bringing insufficient topics to a Logiol conversation was a death sentence.
She finished her meal, went to the bathroom to fix her hair again, and tripped and fell face-first onto the floor.
“Oh! Sorry, Nara Mai,” came a thin voice. Nara looked at its owner and shrugged.
“No problem, Fi. What do you need?”
Fi was a robot. It was a little under two feet tall, and roughly cylindrical, with two wings nearly the height of its body. Its head and neck were comically small by comparison, but its beak jutted out more than enough to compensate. It waddled on two unsteady webbed feet, supported by its tail, which also served as a broom when it was cleaning.
“Nothing in particular, Nara Mai,” Fi said, after allowing the narration a moment to stop and describe it. “I came to inform you that Karami Adyo is waiting outside your door. Impatiently. I believe she has forgotten that residential suites are soundproof.”
“Or maybe she just feels like shouting because it’s the principle of the thing,” Nara said.
“She is also pounding on the door as hard as she can.”
“It’s… still the principle of the thing?”
“She rang the bell enough times that, even though the bell is muted before the wake-up call, she triggered the annoyance guard, and now the bell is muted again until she stops.”
“So she called you to pester me.”
“She did.” The front panel of Fi’s ‘torso’ extended in a mock show of pride.
“Well, thank you for letting me know. If there’s nothing else, you can run along now.”
“Good-bye, Nara Mai.” Fi vanished without another word, and Nara finally got a chance to fix her hair.
“Finally! Dude, I’ve been waiting for SO long, you have no idea–”
Karami used to have to strain to meet Nara’s eyes. Nara was of course the tallest person in the village by far, but she was also Karami’s best friend, and so Karami had recently taken to platform shoes. When she wasn’t wearing them, as now, she meant business. Or pleasure. Could be either.
“What is it?” Nara kept her voice level, trying not to let Karami know how tired she was.
“You know the river-stair at the far side of the forest? By where Gecko hid when Log was after her?”
“Get this. There’s a hatch at the bottom!”
That got her attention. A hatch under the river-stair? Karami was excitable, yes. Forgetful, also yes. But she was never mistaken. If she said there was a hatch, as implausible as it sounded, there was a hatch. “So what’s down there?”
“I couldn’t get it open, is the thing.” The change in Karami’s tone was slight, but Nara understood. “Maybe you could? You’re stronger.” She was too scared to try it alone, much less without telling anyone.
“Alright, I’ll take a look. After lunch, though. I have things I need to do first.”
“You’re the best! I’ll be waiting there!” With that, Karami was gone, sprinting toward the forest. Nara managed a halfhearted “Without lunch?", but nobody heard. She sighed and kept walking.
Eventually, she arrived in front of an unassuming apartment. From the outside, it was the same as all the others, hers included, but she knew it was the lion’s den. She took a nervous breath, adjusted her posture, and rang the bell. After a tense moment’s wait, the door opened on its own. Nara took a cautious step forward, and someone tackled her from behind, pushing her in.
“Nara! Nara, my best friend in the entire world! What can I do for you today?”
Logiol’s enthusiasm was infectious. He rushed Nara inside and onto the couch and ran into the kitchen. Barely a minute later, he came back out with two cups of something sweet and milky. Nara gladly took one. Logiol’s beverages were never the same twice, and he never explained how they were made, but they were so good nobody had ever been known to refuse.
He sat next to Nara and smiled eagerly. Apparently forgetting about his still-unanswered prompt, he launched right into his own gossip. “So, Bo says Van and Tan are planning a surprise party for his birthday. Which is obviously nonsense, right? Those two are smart enough, they wouldn’t let it slip like that, but Bo’s clever enough to catch them. I haven’t tracked down Van yet, but Tan backs it up. What do you think?”
“You’re right, there’s no way.”
“What? That’s it? Surely you have an opinion of your own. Come on, I won’t tell.”
Both of them knew he absolutely would, but that was beside the point. Nara was missing her cue. Logiol talked about whatever had his interest, but he expected comments in return, more for him to think about and spill to other people. Nara had nothing to offer him this time. She knew Van and Tan only distantly – mostly through what Logiol himself had to say about them, and in Van’s case, occasional come-ons. Fortunately, he could be just as easily satisfied with a new topic.
Logiol preferred the subject to change quickly and obviously, the better to keep his thoughts straight. So, even though it didn’t remind her at all, she said “Actually, that reminds me. Karami showed up banging on my door this morning.”
“Oh, dear, is she in trouble?”
“No, she found something a little weird again, that’s all. There’s a hatch in the bed of the river-stair. Says she can’t open it on her own – between you and me I think she’s just scared – so I’m going to see it later.”
Logiol leaned forward a bit. “Oh? Now that’s certainly something. But what could be down there?”
“No idea. Who would build below a river? No, scratch that, how? The water would flood it before you could get anywhere.”
“Maybe they built it before the river was there.”
Nara laughed. “That would make it, what, hundreds of years old?”
“It’s a thought!”
And just like that, they were off on another topic. They bounced back and forth for at least another hour before Nara could make her excuses, gently decline Logiol’s offer to make her lunch, somewhat less gently decline Logiol’s offer to eat lunch together even if she insisted on getting it somewhere else, and leave, but she left with a spring in her step nonetheless. Logiol, everyone who had met him agreed, had to be enjoyed in moderation.
When Nara arrived, Karami was staring absently into the river-stair, and when Nara called out “Hey, I brought lunch for you!", she jumped in surprise.
“Oh, um, sorry, I was just, uh, daydreaming! Yeah,” she said.
“No big deal. Where’s the hatch?”
“Didn’t you say you brought lunch?”
“Yeah, but I wanted to see it before we ate. If you’re hungry, though, help yourself.” Karami had already grabbed at the food before Nara had even finished speaking.
“It’sh pretty shallow, you can’t mish it,” she mumbled through a mouthful. Nara rolled her eyes, knelt by the water, and began to look.
The river-stair was only a few inches deep, and today as ever it was remarkably clear. People called it the river-stair because here, instead of following the gentle slope of the terrain, it made little flat rungs separated by tiny waterfalls. Most people agreed that rivers weren’t supposed to do that, but this one did anyway, because rivers don’t care what humans think is impossible.
Nara reached into the river and brushed some silt off one of the rocks making up the riverbed. There was indeed a hatch. It was rusted, unmarked, and had no obvious handle, but it was definitely a hatch. She returned to Karami, who had at this point already finished most of her lunch.
“Wow, that hungry, huh?”
“Yup. You found it alright?”
“Easily.” Nara started to eat, much more gently than Karami had. “We’re going in, then.”
“To do that, we’ll need some way to reroute the water. It may not be much, but we have no idea how much space is down there, and we might well drown, or at least get sopping wet.”
“Right, I’ll get a bucket.”
“…Do you have a bucket that big?”
“I’m kidding!” Karami grinned. “Let’s see… Van’s weird plastic tubes?”
“If he’s willing to let you borrow them, and if you can glue them down, then I don’t see why not.”
“Van will have glue, too!”
“Ask too much and he’ll be suspicious.”
“What’s there to be suspicious about? We’re just popping down a weird underwater hatch. Nothing wrong with that.”
“There are, in fact, quite a few things wrong with that. It’s probably trespassing, for one. Also dangerous.”
“Yeah, but you know Van. He loves that stuff! He’ll want to join us!”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. He’ll probably be fine with lending us either the tubes or the glue individually without too much explanation. He doesn’t tend to get curious if you can pass it off as just one last part, right?”
“‘Kay. But we need both, don’t we?”
“We’ll get the tubes from him. Glue is harder, but Fi can probably figure something out.”
“Fi can figure anything out.”
Nara nodded. “That settles it. You worry about the pipes, I’ll get the glue, and we’ll come back tomorrow and get to work.”
“Tomorrow? And why do I have to get the pipes?”
“It usually takes a few hours for Fi to find things like glue that people don’t often ask for. And Van’s always liked you better.”
Karami’s eyes narrowed, but her smile made it clear she was only teasing. “Don’t go thinking you can pull the wool over my eyes like that. I know ever-wise Miss Mai has a crush.”
Nara rolled her eyes. “No, I don’t. He’s just annoying.”
“Suuuuure he is.”
Once she was back indoors, Nara clapped sharply. “Fi! I need a favour!” Part of the ceiling lowered obediently, and there was Fi standing on top.
“Yes, Nara Mai?” it asked pleasantly.
“I need glue. Can you find some in the Temple?”
“I will try. Might I ask what it will be used for?”
Nara hesitated. Exploring was hardly wrong, but Fi could get protective. Fortunately, it could take a hint. “No, you might not.”
“Understood. Is there anything else?”
“That’s all, Fi.”
It nodded, and the ceiling retracted once more, carrying Fi back into its crawlspace. Nara sighed – she hadn’t noticed she was holding her breath – and flopped into a chair. She stared off into space for a minute before deciding that that wouldn’t take her mind off things, so she grabbed a book off the shelf. Hold On To Anything. She’d been meaning to get to this one for a while, but she’d never found the time. Not that it looked very good – on closer inspection that must have been ten or twenty roses in that guy’s mouth on the cover. But she had been told it wasn’t a romance, which intrigued her.
Jake and Marc’s adventures at war, and occasional romantic troubles (Nara rolled her eyes at whoever it had been who recommended this to her), dragged on long enough that Nara quickly fell asleep. In her dream, the two got together after narrowly escaping a forest fire, and their mysterious mentor-slash-stalker Jesse interrupted, the jerk, and pushed them to get back to the war effort. They argued and bickered and fought and a sound woke Nara.
*bing bong ding dong*
“Hey, hey, hey! As Chief of the Temple of the Wheel, I want you all to know… it is now 10 PM! That’s right, 10 PM! Good night, everybody! Get your beauty sleep, or your regular sleep if beauty ain’t your thing. There’s no rule you have to sleep, ‘course, just advice. See you around!”
And it was gone. Nara glanced blearily at the clock, even though he had just announced the time. She grumbled, but went to bed anyway, prepared for an uncomfortably sleepless night.Next: The Hell Express