Out of Space

A Tale of Sfstory by Dave Menendez

Part 3: Downstream

Horlun awoke on the deck of a small river craft. That was where he had fallen asleep, so this didn’t especially concern him. He hadn’t opened his eyes yet—preferring not to unseal them if there was a chance he could fit more sleep into his schedule—but he could feel the warmth of the local star on his side and the uncomfortable hardness of the boat’s deck on his other side, both suggesting that getting up and moving around might be a good idea. It was a chance he felt comfortable taking.

Carefully making sure he wasn’t too close to the edge, he rolled onto his knees, sat up, and looked around. The forest looked about as he remembered it, only much more colorful now that it was lit. The dense foliage kept visibility down; beyond the closer layers of reeds, bushes, flowers, hanging moss, and trees, all he could see was an occasional glimpse of shadow. Some distance behind them were the mountains they had left the night before, barely visible over the treetops. (The trees weren’t especially tall, just closer and therefore more prone to blocking distant objects from sight.) It was, in short, a remarkably difficult place to locate; the research center they had escaped from the previous night could be in almost any direction, given the meandering route of the river and the tendency of one mountain to look rather like another. This was problematic, as the only way off the planet that they knew about was in the research center.

There was a good chance that Orliss had considered this already—he was training to be a hero—and almost no chance that Roy would remain silent on the subject if the others failed to mention it. Hopefully, they had already reached a conclusion.

“Hungry?” asked Jen politely. This was another area of concern, as they had stolen the boat while on the run and no one had thought to bring any food along with them. But Jen was leaning over from her seat near the steering wheel and passing him a small, silvery package. He turned it over in his hands and failed to find any identifying marks.

“What is this?”

“Part of the boat’s rapidly-dwindling supply of emergency rations. There’s a tab on the top, there.”

Sure enough, there was. It even had the character for “pull” on it, in case there was any uncertainty surrounding its purpose. Horlun did as it advised and, to his surprise, the packet tore open cleanly with a minimum of fuss. Somehow it seemed appropriate that an organization as evil as the Sonar Men would unlock the secret of easily-opened food packaging. It was probably patented with really restrictive licensing requirements, too.

The food itself—which, in addition to being a product of evil, was also stolen, thereby complicating the issue to the point where Horlun felt comfortable ignoring it—was a gray slab of indeterminate origin. Figuring that the Sonar Men probably didn’t give their own people poisoned emergency rations, Horlun tried some and found it quite tasty. Reminiscent of the odd gray food they had eaten at the banquet the previous evening, actually. (Had it been so recent? It felt as though months had passed.)

“It’s good,” he told Jen, in case she hadn’t noticed.

“Yeah. We’ll have to get the recipe.”

With some food in him, Horlun felt more awake, although something in the back of his mind was nagging at him. He took a look around the boat. Orliss was still piloting, looking very alert for someone who hadn’t slept at all. Jen was sitting next to him on the padded bench in the back, keeping her attention on Orliss. Just in front of her was Anme, who was looking very intently at the water near the side of the boat. Roy was in the bow, staring forward at where the horizon would have been if it weren’t blocked by the forest and a curve in the river.

Apparently, Horlun had slept through another argument. This, in his opinion, was not a great loss. Nonetheless, he moved over to Anme so he could do his duty as a supportive boyfriend. With luck, he wouldn’t get more than a quick synopsis out of her before she felt better.

It was when he moved that he realized what was bothering him: his shadow was too long. They had been out pretty late last night, but even he wasn’t likely to sleep into the next evening. He squinted for a moment at the sky. The sun had climbed perhaps a quarter of the path to its zenith. It was well before noon. Far too early for him to be awake.

“What time is it?” he asked his cousin.

“About midnight,” replied Orliss, “but I haven’t reset my chronometer since we left Foobarh, and the local day is a different length here, so….” He spread his hands in mute testament to their helplessness against a universe so inconvenient for wristwatch usage.

“Right.” Good thing he wasn’t a believer in strict scheduling. Of course, he was also stranded on an unknown planet, which tends to keep the appointment books sparsely populated at best.

Continuing with his original plan, he kneeled next to Anme and joined her in staring over the side of the boat. The churn kicked up by the hull was kind of hypnotic, actually, but Horlun suspected Anme had other reasons for staring so intently.

“How are you?” he asked casually. Caring, but safely non-committal.

Anme glanced at him. “Remember when we started this trip? We were like, ‘Oh, we’ll just borrow Anme’s father’s ship and pop on over to Barbados, Planet of Physical Delights.’ Instead we visited Planet Gloom, got involved in a terrorist action on the Anonymous, and ended up stranded on some jungle planet being chased by mad scientists. It’s like the Mads sent us this trip to punish our arrogance.”

“Nah,” said Horlun, eager to turn the conversation away from religion, “we’ve just had an extraordinary run of bad luck.”

“I guess. But maybe this would be easier if I weren’t forced into close proximity with a certain elitist.”

In the bow, Roy exhaled heavily in irritation and turned to face them. “All I said is that there are certain cases where command-line interfaces are more flexible and expressive.”

“Bah!” Anme stabbed an accusing finger at the alleged elitist. “You just want to keep the power restricted to an elite cabal that can untangle the arcane terminology!”

“Hey,” interrupted Horlun smoothly, “there’s a hill coming up.” He gestured towards the side of the river where, peeking over the forest’s edge, they could see what appeared to be a hill, or possibly some very tall trees. “We should stop and go take a look.”

“Yeah,” agreed Jen. “We can’t stay on the river; we’re too exposed. We need to find another way back.”

“Another way?” asked Orliss, sounding disappointed. “You mean walking? But we have transportation: a boat.”

“That limits us to the river,” explained Jen. “Where the Sonar Men can easily find us. I’m with Horlun on this. We should check out the hill.”

“Besides,” added Roy, “if cartoons teach us anything, it’s that all river escapes inevitably lead to waterfalls. I say we quit while we’re ahead. What concerns me is the prospect of getting lost and disoriented in the forest—assuming we figure out where we’re going.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” said Orliss. “I’ve got a compass.”

“You have a compass?”

“It’s one of the features on my watch.” The student hero held up the chronometer in question. “It also tells the altitude.”

“Really? What’s it say?”

“Uh, about two meters below sea level. But I haven’t adjusted it for the local air pressure.”

“I see. The compass part doesn’t need any adjustment, does it?”

“It shouldn’t matter. Orienteering is all about relative direction, so the exact location of magnetic north doesn’t matter.”

Horlun looked sideways at his cousin. “I thought you got a ‘C’ in orienteering.”

“It’s a tough course!” protested Orliss as he steered them towards the bank. “Plus, I missed some of the homework because I had Advanced Sentence Fragments that semester, and that took a lot of my time. But I got the basic concepts.”

After some quick discussion, they decided to drag the boat onto the shore and conceal it in the bushes. It was a lot lighter than they expected, and, with the five of them well-rested or possessed of heroic stamina, the upcoming hike through unknown wilderness didn’t seem so forbidding after all. Horlun listened to the forest, trying to decide if the silence meant no bugs or lots of stealthy bugs, while Jen and Roy made sure their landfall wasn’t obvious. Once that was complete, they were ready to brave the forest, and Horlun was starting to feel a lot less confident about the plan. Staying with the boat was risky, yes, but forests had many dangers, and getting lost would be a picnic compared to some of the less likely threats. He glanced at his cousin and reminded himself that this was the sort of thing Orliss had trained for.

“Our only real problem,” declared Orliss as he checked his watch and the direction the hill had been, “is that we don’t have a map.”

And so they entered the jungle.

Horlun was a big supporter of wildlife. Back home on Foobarh, he was an active member of several wildlife-related organizations, where “active member” meant someone who sent checks regularly. He had even accompanied Anme to a protest at the Fesia Zoo which had argued that it demeaned animals to remove them from their habitats, cage them for public viewing, and write corny jokes on their descriptive plaques. (The two had made dinner plans, so they slipped out early to avoid getting arrested.)

Occasionally, people would invite him to join a camping or rafting expedition, to enjoy what remained of Foobarh’s natural beauty, but he always declined, explaining that he wouldn’t feel so happy if a bunch of wild plants and animals barged through his house, so he felt it only polite to extend them the same courtesy. In truth, forests made him nervous.

His family had lived near the Old Park when he was growing up, and he played with the neighborhood youth and picked up the local folklore. The older children were especially fond of telling horror stories about the Park. According to legend, it had been founded by a consortium of wealthy socialites who were concerned about the city’s poor and decided to knock down the decaying tenements near the center of the city and put in a large swath of nature to enrich their lives. (Most historians preferred the drunken wager theory.) In any case, those poor who actually lived where the park was going to go didn’t quite understand how a bunch of trees and bushes were an adequate replacement for their homes, and there was some unpleasantness.

Construction proceeded, the fires started during the riots actually speeding things along as the consortium was able to save on demolition costs. The first trees, planted in the hastily-buried ashes still stood decades later, huge and twisted, black like the curses of the evicted. The older kids said that the trees had absorbed the anger of those who had died there and sought revenge against the upper-income families who alone could afford to live near the Old Park.

To prove their valor, they would explore the older, wilder parts of the park, but Horlun had never enjoyed it. He could feel the oppressive hatred of the trees as they thought their dark, wooden thoughts and plotted against the moderately well off. Eventually, he stopped going, feigning an interest in televised sports. The others kept at it, until one day a local boy fell into a forgotten basement and had to be rescued by his unusually clever dog. After that, the neigborhood parents forbade expeditions to the forest, and Horlun had not set foot in the Old Park since.

Rationally, he knew there was nothing to be afraid of. This wasn’t the Old Park, and even if trees had the ability to hate—which they didn’t—the forests of Tangerine had no reason to dislike him. It wasn’t like they could exchange gossip with trees on other planets.

Even so, Horlun found himself eyeing the occasional satellite dish–shaped fungus with uncomfortable suspicion.

The land away from the river sloped gently upward, becoming firmer and dryer. This was fortunate, as Horlun’s shoes were not waterproof and seemed to have some unnatural affinity for mud. The squelching sound he made with every other step provided a counterpoint to the rustle and crackle of the others’ footfalls. Only Orliss seemed able to move without making a racket.

As the trees grew taller, the underbrush grew sparser, easing their progress. The air was still, with a faint hint of rot. Occasionally they saw some of the bird-like origami fly overhead, but the only sounds they heard come from their own passage. Eventually, Orliss, who had been checking his watch a lot lately, called them to a halt.

“Is something wrong?” Asked Roy, predictably interpreting things in their worst possible light. Horlun could think of any number of non-disastrous reasons for Orliss to frown concernedly at his watch and unexpectedly call for a halt. Like, say, wanting to take a lunch break or something.

“I have a pretty good sense of direction,” said Orliss, which was one of those statements that sound positive when taken at face value, but under certain circumstances are inevitably harbingers of doom. “According to the compass, we’ve made a significant change in direction recently, but I don’t remember doing that.”

“We’ve had to make a lot of little turns to get through the marshy areas,” pointed out Jen. “Maybe it just added up.”

Orliss shook his head. “No, something’s wrong here. I—” He cut off, staring at his wrist. “It moved.”

“What moved?” asked Roy.


“North moved?”

Orliss gestured helplessly, still staring at his watch. “It’s kind of waving back and forth. I’m not sure what it means.”

“North is moving?”

“Yes, we’ve covered that,” said Horlun. He turned to Orliss. “Will it be a problem?”

“Only if we want to know where we’re going,” said Roy.

“We need to reorient ourselves,” agreed Orliss. “Perhaps I could climb a tree.”

That seemed a reasonable enough suggestion, and the five began looking around for suitable candidates. On most of the trees, the lowest branches were well over their heads, but Anme found an exception that Orliss deemed satisfactory.

“I’ll just be a moment,” he told them, pulling himself up to the first branch. Above him, a few of the bird-like origami burst from a hidden nest and circled the trunk above him. When it became clear that Orliss wasn’t intimidated, they retreated to a neighboring tree.

Horlun watched his cousin for a while, then sat against the base of the tree and rested his feet. Back home, he had been proud to walk the city and avoid owning a personal vehicle, which was considered uncouth in his social circle (which was to say, Anme’s social circle). He was realizing now that part of his success lay in the fact that he didn’t generally go anyplace more than a few minutes away, except when using public transit. That certainly wouldn’t be the case here. Even though the percentage of the planet’s surface that the five of them had seen was so small as to be statistically irrelevant, he was confident they would find no public transportation here.

Their prospects for food seemed equally grim. The origami didn’t look to have much in the way of meat on them—assuming they could catch one—and any of the plants potentially harbored poisons. How long would the rations on the boat last? Could they even find the boat again, given the problems with Orliss’s compass? How long would it be before capture by the Sonar Men seemed like a positive outcome?

“Try not to focus on the negative things,” Anme told him.

Horlun blinked. Sometimes it was spooky how well she could read him.

“You had that ‘we’re all doomed’ look again,” she explained, seemingly responding to his unexpressed thoughts. Horlun did his best to blank out his expression, and she laughed.

Horlun scowled and adopted a mock-threatening tone. “Oh, have I said something to amuse you? Have I inadvertently instilled within you a sense of levity? Is that it?”

Anme laughed harder, drawing curious glances from the others. It was a good thing Orliss wasn’t around, actually. He hated being left out of jokes, and didn’t quite get the concept of “you had to be there”.

“Do you hear that?” asked Jen, once Anme had quieted down.

Horlun blinked. He hadn’t noticed before, but there was a strange, high-pitched sound in the air. “You know what it sounds like? It’s like when you blow on the edge of a stiff piece of paper.”

“Yeah,” said Roy. “I’m guessing it’s coming from those origami up there.” The origami Orliss had scattered had been joined by others in the nearby tree. Roughly half had refolded themselves into primitive bellows and were blowing air onto the other half, which had unfolded completely. As they watched, a few more flew up and joined in the noise-making.

“That’s actually pretty clever,” said Jen. “I wouldn’t have thought they’d be able to make noise at all.” She looked up at the small crowd circling the tree above them. “I guess we’ve invaded their—”

Suddenly, the large Terran was standing with her back to the tree and her handgun pointed at the brush. She had moved so fast that Horlun had missed her intervening motions, such as drawing her weapon and turning.

“What?” asked Roy, looking frantically for the threat. “What is it?”

Jen relaxed, taking her finger off the trigger. “I thought I heard a rustling behind us, but I don’t see anything.”

“We are in a forest,” Horlun pointed out. “Maybe you want to ease off a bit on the hair trigger there. I mean, the only animals we’ve seen are those origami, and they look pretty harmless.”

“I don’t know,” said Roy. “They could probably give you a nasty paper cut.” He looked at the crowd in the nearby tree, which had grown some more while they weren’t watching. “I don’t like the way they’re gathering. I think someth—”

Suddenly, the not-quite-so-large Terran was lying on his back a short distance away, waving his hands and kicking his feet. This was because of the large, shiny blue creature that had pounced on him, apparently during some split-second when Horlun hadn’t been paying attention. Jen fired a few shots, but she was hindered by her desire to not hit Roy and the creature’s seeming invulnerability to her weapon’s fire. The creature turned its angular head to them, and flaunted the teeth-like ridges on the edges of what looked like its mouth. Every surface of the monster was the same shiny blue, even the insides.

Anme put aside politics for the moment and hurled a rock at the beast, which flinched and stepped back slightly. Jen, annoyed that her sophisticated weaponry had been outdone by a flying object, looked around for another rock, but Anme seemed to have found the only one in the area. The creature was watching them carefully. The only sound it made came from the sucking mud under its feet.

Horlun tossed Jen a large branch, and she struck with a heavy blow intended to get the monster away from Roy, who, hopefully, was merely feigning death. Instead, it countered her strike, splitting the cudgel into three unequal pieces. Before they hit the ground, the creature lunged at Jen, but she had already ducked and rolled, leaving the blue monster to smash head-first into the tree.

Disturbingly, it seemed to do just fine with a smashed head. It crouched low to the ground, waiting for a moment to strike. Somehow, it was still watching them and reacting to their moves despite the damage it had taken. It has no eyes, Horlun realized. At least, not in its head.

Jen was waving her hands around and drawing as much of the creature’s attention as she could. Horlun resolved not to let her diversion go to waste and started looking around for another rock. He reached for a possibility and suddenly had the creature’s undivided attention. It was about to leap, and Horlun suddenly knew there was no way he could dodge or that Jen or Anme could interfere in time. Inexplicably, he found himself wondering whether he had remembered to stop the mail before he left home. He didn’t want it piling up if he never came back, and Anme refused to deal with the post office.

He had forgotten Orliss, but the future hero had not forgotten him, and with a cry he launched himself downward, crushing the paper-like beast beneath his feet. The creature, displaying an alarming persistence, swiped at his leg with its undamaged claw.

“Gaah!” shouted the surprised student. “Needlewarp, that hurt!” While he hopped around, clutching his leg where the claw had struck him, his opponent thrashed about on the forest floor. Horlun couldn’t tell whether it was trying to retreat or counterattack further. Orliss took it upon himself to resolve the question and kicked the creature into a nearby patch of underbrush. Its arc was far too ballistic for paper; this was something heavier. They had already guessed that the origami were not actually constructed of paper—a substance known for being inanimate. Its evident weight was merely corroboration.

They waited for a moment, but it seemed their assailant was truly gone, either to heal or, hopefully, to die. (Horlun wasn’t one to wish violence against any living thing, but he wasn’t feeling especially charitable towards origami right now.)

Roy was not dead, they discovered, merely bruised, muddy, and annoyed, which even he agreed was preferable. According to Orliss, the hill was still ahead of them, despite his compass’s reading, and was fairly close. “We should be able to see quite a bit from the summit,” Orliss informed them. “It’s too steep and rocky for trees, so there won’t be too much to block our view.”

Despite that hopeful sign, the going was tough. The thinning trees allowed for a thicker bed of grass, which effectively concealed the rocks and holes in the ground. A sprained ankle would be difficult to treat under the circumstances, so each step had to be taken with care. Even the trees seemed to fight them, insofar as inanimate objects could fight, which, admittedly, wasn’t much.

They persevered, and well before Horlun’s feet made good on their threat to fall off they passed the last tree and found themselves unambiguously on the hillside. The rocks were bigger here, more easily avoided. They stopped after reaching the height of the treetops and took in the view. The forest lay below them like a green sea, lapping at the roots of the distant mountains. The mountains themselves were not particularly tall, for mountains, but they were way bigger than the trees. Somewhere, where the river met the mountains, was the research center and the only known spacecraft on the planet. All they had to do was get back, break in, and steal one without getting captured.

In theory, the first part was the easy one.

“I’m not seeing the research center,” said Jen, shielding her eyes from the noontime sun.

“Not a problem,” said Orliss. “We can follow the river back… and walk along the shore so they can’t see us.” The last part came out just a wee bit bitter. Orliss liked vehicles.

“Great,” said Roy cheerfully. “Where’s the river?”

“Back the way we came,” said Jen. “Even if Orliss’s compass is screwed up, it can’t be too hard to find something as big as a river.”

Orliss held up his wrist and glared at the expensive-looking device fastened there. “It’s still under warranty,” he said darkly. “I shall have to speak with the manufacturer.”

They took a break. That is, the four less-heroic but possibly saner of them did. Orliss went off to circle the peak, in case there was anything interesting on the other side of the hill. It wasn’t clear to any of them why that couldn’t wait until after their break, but even Roy declined to press the issue.

There was a breeze up there, above the treetops, and it felt good. Anme spread her jacket on a relatively flat patch of ground, and Horlun joined her on it, pleasantly surprised that it was comfortable in addition to blaster-resistant. Roy leaned back against a nearby outcrop of rock and watched the faint clouds in the aqua sky. Jen engaged in some stretching exercises.

“I’m almost afraid to ask,” said Roy quietly, “but did we bring any food for lunch?”

“I’d go with the fear,” Anme told him.

“Because we don’t have any food, or because you don’t want me to ask?”

“By asking, you reveal your ignorance,” Anme explained. “Do you really think we’d come all this way without bringing food?”

“We left the research center without bringing food,” Roy reminded her.

Anme didn’t have a comeback, so Horlun counted the exchange as a victory for Roy, making the total scores somewhat vague, as he hadn’t been keeping track.

“Guys!” shouted Orliss, running back from the other side of the hill. “There’s an abandoned city in the valley over there! We have to go check it out!”

“We do?” asked Roy. “Is there something interesting there?”

“Yeah,” said Orliss, “the ancient, abandoned city.” He shook his head, unable to understand how anyone could be unexcited by the news. “If we’re lucky, it’ll be full of mystery or ancient curses… maybe a supertechnology or two. Come on, when are we gonna get another chance like this?”

“Couldn’t this wait until after lunch?”

Lunch turned out to be a lot like breakfast, which was fine by Horlun, who often combined the meals anyway. He had a pretty good idea what dinner was going to be, too, but he supposed that monotonous food was better than no food. Even the prospect of another hike didn’t dim his mood.

They couldn’t see much of the city from the hillside, but the occasional building or square visible through the canopy were scattered widely enough to suggest it was very large. They were fairly close to an especially large structure with a series of wide, flat terraces and steep slanted walls. Anme in particular felt anything that ostentatious must have been the seat of power, so they agreed to check it out first.

As expected, there were many smaller buildings hidden within the forest, and the size of the trees growing through the gaps where their roofs had been indicated that the city had been abandoned for a very long time.

“Strange,” Roy commented while they rested near a ruin, “for ancient stone buildings, these are very sophisticated.”

“Why shouldn’t they be?” asked Anme. “You can’t assume they were stupid just because they didn’t make the same advances your people did.”

The Terran rolled his eyes. “I just said they were sophisticated, didn’t I? My point is, if they had the ability to make buildings like these, then they also had the ability to make buildings in other, much easier ways. Why go to the trouble to make advanced buildings out of stone?”

“Perhaps they were demonstrating their power,” said Anme thoughtfully. “They deliberately chose an inefficient building style to demonstrate their wealth and power.”

“Must you make everything political?”

Silly arguments aside, Roy had a point. If nothing else, the fact that a few building façades appeared to be constructed from single slabs of unbroken rock bespoke a construction effort that might be termed “excessive”. The holes for the windows and doors were weathered and worn now, but once they had been perfectly square. A few rough patches were probably remnants of decorative bas-reliefs.

They passed a few buildings strongly reminiscent of the more ancient parts of Foobarh, which were startling until Horlun remembered the concept of parallel evolution. Similar solutions to similar problems. (Not that his ancestors on Foobarh had dealt with vicious folded monsters. So far as he knew.)

Orliss seemed a little disappointed that they were skipping the smaller buildings on their way to the ziggurat, but Jen was able to convince him that they simply didn’t have time to examine everything unless they killed a few people to reduce their food intake. Then she had to convince Orliss that she had only been joking.

“Give me some credit,” she grumbled. “I wouldn’t seriously suggest we start killing each other.”

“I would,” said Roy, “but I think I’ve been out in the heat too long.”

“Me too,” agreed Horlun. “I think I’m getting sunburnt.”

“We’ve been in the shade all day,” Anme reminded him. “If you’re that pale, you need to forget being unfashionable and spend more time outside.”

With that, they stepped out into the sun-drenched plaza around the ziggurat. It was surprisingly free of plants and debris.

“We’re here,” said Orliss. He took a few steps into the plaza and turned to face the way they had come. “And there’s the hill we were on. Looks more like a small mountain, from this side.”

Roy shrugged. “Hill, small mountain… they’re all big, rocky things. At least it’s a decent landmark.”

“That’s true,” said Orliss. “Without the compass, navigation will be tedious.” He glanced at his watch. “I think it’s actually gotten worse. The man at the hero supply shop assured me it was top quality within my price range. I’m very disappointed.”

A few leaves danced in a stray breeze. Horlun looked up at the dark, empty windows in the upper levels of the ziggurat and imagined hidden eyes watching them. The city was abandoned, but that didn’t mean it was empty.

“Does anyone feel like we’re being watched?” asked Horlun.

Roy glanced at him, suddenly worried. “I didn’t until you said that. Do you think someone’s here?”

Horlun looked up at the ziggurat again. He couldn’t see or hear anything suspicious, and yet…

“What’s that smell?” asked Jen.

“It smells like pie,” said Orliss. He sniffed the air. “Delicious pie!” He ran to the left, following the edge of the plaza. “It’s this way, come on!”

Not sure what else to do, and curious about the source of the home-baked aroma, the others ran after him. Beyond the edge of the plaza was a dirt road like any other road in the city, except for one thing. In the center of the road, about half a block from the plaza, was a steaming hot pie. Horlun couldn’t recognize the fruit, exactly, but it was similar enough to the ones he knew from Foobarh that he had no doubt about its identity.

Orliss and Anme were ahead, but Roy grabbed his and Jen’s arms and stopped them while they were still a few meters away. “Stay back!” he warned. “We don’t know who made that!”

“Relax,” called Orliss as he reached for the tin. “We’ll check it for poisons first.”

The ground around the student hero and Anme seemed to explode as a great net rose from its hiding place in the soil and ensnared the travellers a few meters off the ground. Horlun stared in shock while Jen and Roy scanned the area, in case whoever had set the trap was still around and ready to see what had been caught.

Nothing happened.

“You see?” said Roy once the chance for a surprise attack had passed. “Watching cartoons teaches us how to avoid this sort of problem.”

“That’s great,” replied Anme. “Remind me to gloat the next time you have a problem.”

“On the plus side,” said Orliss, “the pie is pretty good.”

“You’re eating it?”

“It kinda hit me in the face when the trap went off.”

Horlun and Jen, meanwhile, were investigating the trap mechanism nearby. The trap itself wasn’t too sophisticated—when Orliss lifted the pie, it released a cable which had suspended a heavy weight in midair; when the weight fell, it pulled another cable which drew up the net—but it was constructed from very sophisticated parts. The cable was thin and lightweight, but seemed unbreakable. The pulleys, at least those close enough to the ground where Horlun could examine them, were matte black and smoothly functioning. It was an odd inversion of the city: a primitive device made from advanced material.

“‘Class V Frictionless Pulley’,” Horlun read from the pulley’s label. He looked closer. “Made by Ace Scientific Supply. This thing is made from lab equipment?”

“That would explain why this cable is so tough,” said Jen. “I don’t think we have anything that could break them.”

“Could we detach it?” asked Roy, who had apparently grown tired of baiting Anme. “If we release the tension, there won’t be anything holding the net up.”

“Gosh, Roy,” said Jen, “that sounds so easy, I wonder why we haven’t tried it yet.”

“It’s all a question of having the proper tools.” He picked up a rock and slammed it into the catch holding the cable to the counterweight. It didn’t even move. “Clearly, I don’t have them.”

“Stand back,” said Jen. Once the two of them had moved a meter or so away, she reached into her jacket, pulled out her handgun, and was immediately shot in the side. She remained conscious long enough to glance at her attackers in surprise and then collapsed.

Roy instinctively reached for his own weapon, discovered that he wasn’t carrying one, and dove through the window of the nearby building, leaving Horlun alone to face their attackers. Horlun raised his hands in resignation and turned to see who had found them.

It was two men and a woman, all grim-looking and armed. Their faces were painted in a style that seemed half for camouflage and half to make them look like badass warriors. Both effects were undermined by their long, silvery lab coats and safety goggles. One of the men had a gun, the other two were holding sharpened sticks.

“Okay,” said the man carrying the spear. He pulled a weathered datapad from his lab coat’s pocket and quickly checked something. “Uh, ‘Put your hands up.’”

Horlun glanced at his hands, which were already up, and decided not to press the issue.

“‘You are now our prisoner. Do not’—uh—‘attempt to escape.’”

The woman patted him on the back and whispered, “Very good.”

“Who are you people?” asked Horlun.

The man looked at him blankly, then fiddled with his pad. “‘Silence. We shall ask the questions.’” He looked at his companions for support, and then added, “We’ll be taking you back to our, er, base first. Then we’ll do the question-asking. Is that okay with you?”

It took a few seconds for Horlun to realize they were waiting for an answer. Were they playing some sort of mind-games, or were they simply being polite? As they were armed and he was not, he wanted to make sure he gave the correct answer. The man holding the gun was getting more and more agitated as the silence stretched on. Hoping to avoid more violence, Horlun blurted out, “Yes?”

He wasn’t immediately shot, so that was a plus.

Who are these people?

What’s going on?

Where are my pills?

SFSTORY. Very, very old.