Hunts Epilogue: A Borderlands Tale Part 5

This is the fifth and final part to my Hunter’s storyline, which started in Hunters Folly and continued in Hunter’s Quarry, Hunter’s Will and Hunts End, all of which can be found on these forums, as well as on fanfiction.net 1.

This part picks up after the events of the forth one and does not contain any form of recap, so it is strongly recommended that you read the other ones first in order to understand what’s going on.

That said, like the previous stories, the characters contained are my interpretations of them, the way I envision them, so if it doesn’t line up with how you see them, know that this is just my version of them.

I hope you enjoy this story, or at least some part of it entertains you.

That said, any form of feedback would be welcome, though I would ask that it try and be constructive. If you dislike it, then by all means, dislike it, though at this point, you’re probably not still reading, but if you can, tell me why or what part you didn’t like. If you liked something, also let me know. This is the only way that I will improve as a writer.

All that said, I hope you enjoy my contribution to the Borderlands setting.

Note

I do not own the characters, setting, nor items used in this story. Nor do I claim to. They belong to Gearbox and whomever else created them. They have been used in good faith, with good intentions, with hopefully evident love and without permission.

This story is a work of fiction. Any similarities to actual people and/or events is purely coincidental. Any comments, derogatory remarks or offensive comments are not intended to be, if a character is saying it, it is being said by that character, and should not be taken personally. Any social message or real world allegory is likely not intended, I’m not that clever. But if you find one you liked, feel free to give me credit anyway.

Warning:

This story contains depictions of violence and gore, language, disturbing situations and the usual grievous grammatical errors, if any of these things are offensive to you, proceed at your own risk.

A cover for the story

Chapter 1

Fe’iae

Resort Beach

“You really need to learn how to let go and relax.” Gaige said with a sigh somewhere between amused and exasperated, but leaning more towards exasperated.

“I am relaxing,” came the terse reply that didn’t sound very much like someone sitting on a beach in paradise. “There’s nothing to do but relax.”

Gaige sighed at the slightly bitter tone in the other girl’s voice. She couldn’t blame her, after all, it was Gaige who was stopping them from doing anything. It wasn’t that she didn’t want them to have fun, she did, desperately. It was just with the cost of things on the beach planet, she couldn’t help but worry about their finances.

The truth was that her bank account wasn’t all that healthy at the moment. It wasn’t that she was hurting, but it was thinner than she liked. So, she found herself worrying about the future, what were they going to do next? How much money would they need? Where were they going to get it from?

She supposed it was a sign that she was growing up, which was a bitter thought.

The worst part of all of that was that they were supposed to be on vacation. They were supposed to be relaxing on the beach and unwinding after a painful number of months, but the constant thoughts about the future were stressing Gaige out, which meant that she wasn’t gaining any benefit from the vacation, which made her worry about the money she felt she was wasting, causing her to stress out even more.

She knew that she needed to just let it go, but she couldn’t.

She looked over at the other girl, sitting on a towel hidden under an umbrella and thought back, it had been just over a month and a half since Gaige had confessed on Galia, changing their relationship from being just friends to, well, Gaige didn’t know. Nothing seemed to have changed. Sure, she told people she was dating and she did hug Artemis more than once a month now, but other than that, things were pretty much the same. She supposed it didn’t help that they had a rather odd relationship before then, living together, sharing a bed and all that, so she didn’t know what she’d been expecting, but some part of her was comforted that things had just stayed the same.

Of course, not everything had stayed the same, she’d had to tell her dad what was up and that conversation had turned out to be more awkward to go into then it had been once it happened.

Her dad had nodded and said “Oh, well, good for you, I guess.”

“That’s it?” She’d replied. She’d expected more, some kind of reaction, like him being happy for her or shouting that Artemis wasn’t good enough. Something more than the noncommittal reply she got.

“Well, I mean, I’m happy for you and all, but…”

“But what? You don’t think she’s good enough for me?”

“Of course not, but don’t take that too hard, I don’t think anyone’s good enough for you.” He sighed and held up his hand, forestalling her reply “I am happy for you. Really. It’s just that, well, are you sure? I mean, you said it yourself, she’s got issues and, well, so do you. So, are you sure of what you’re doing?”

Gaige had wanted to snap back that of course she was, but he’d brought up some rather valid points, so she took a breath and replied “We’re taking things slow, just to make sure that we’re not screwing things up. So, yeah, I think we are, or at least I hope we’re sure.”

“Well, as long as you’ve thought this over, I’ll do what I can to support you. But you’re telling your mom that she’s not having grand-kids.”

“She wasn’t getting them anyway,” Gaige snapped.

“You say that now, but give it a few more years,” he said sagely.

“Doubt it, I’ve never liked kids, remember? Besides, I already have one.” She watched her dad’s face change as he sputtered and tried to ask more. She gave him a few seconds to freak out before adding with a smile “What else would I call Deathtrap?”

“Oh. You were talking about him. Thank god. Don’t do that, you nearly gave me a heart-attack,” he snapped back at her, causing her to laugh.

Other people she’d told had reacted a lot more positively.

A.I.ngel for example had been surprised, not that they were starting to go out, but because she’d thought they were already, which led Gaige to wonder later why she’d wanted to sleep with them, but decided not to ask.

They’d gone to pick her up after they’d finished on Galia, on their way to Jaka, which had turned out to be a mistake.

Like Gaige had promised, they had gone there to find Artemis a set of Honeystuck Wibbler wings, but that had turned out easier said than done and had taken them nearly a month to accomplish, during which time Gaige had grown restless.

She’d originally gone with, joining in on the hunt to try and keep Artemis company, not to mention keeping an eye on A.I.ngel, but as the days ticked past, she grew more and more tired of it. She knew that she’d promised, but deep down, she’d thought that they would find one of them in one of the first nests and that would be it. But it turned out that other colored wings were actually super rare, meaning they didn’t find any until their thirtieth nest and even then, it had been a red wing one.

Eventually Gaige had decided to stay back in town as Artemis headed back out, trying another direction. She’d taken Deathtrap with, on Gaige’s insistence, and left Gaige to try and figure something out to keep herself occupied.

It didn’t take her long to wind up helping out at the foundry, to many of the workers’ delight.

Brandibarry had repeatedly told the workers off and even put a few on notice for their behavior, trying to get them to leave the girls alone, but they all seemed to be too excited at the prospect of having their hero around to seem to care.

Eventually Gaige had warned them off, telling them that as flattered as she was by their attention, she had a girlfriend and the other girl was under the protection of not just her, but friends of Wainwrights, which seemed to calm them down a bit. She still got a number of invites to go drinking which she declined. It was in those moments that she was glad to have A.I.ngel along since she needed someone to rely on, she wished it had been Artemis, but she was making do with what she had and more than anything, she didn’t want to disappoint her when she got back.

It wasn’t easy staying behind, even with the work and A.I.ngel for company, she found herself missing the other two. She wanted nothing more than to go after them, to join them on their hunt, so much so that when they returned after almost a week, she nearly went with them. In the end it was Deathtrap that talked her out of it, reminding her that if she went, A.I.ngel would also need to go, so she reluctantly stayed behind.

Eventually Artemis returned with the wings she needed. For a while Gaige had been starting to worry about her depopulating the planet of the Honeystuck Wibbler, but it turned out that Artemis had snuck close to each nest and observed them for a while, long enough to determine that it didn’t contain the color she was looking for, or for that matter any other color she wanted. If it did, she would wait till the Wibbler she wanted went out and followed it, taking care to kill it far enough away from the nest to allow her to harvest it without getting attacked by the rest of the nest.

But in the end, she came back with not only the purple wings she’d been after, but a rather extensive color set. Additionally, she’d also taken out two threats that had been terrorizing the area, a rather large Fire Emperor Diomos that had been burning the forest and a Great Plumed Thunder Wing that had grown into a monstrous creature, both of which had rewarded her well with their bounties.

That combined with the money that Gaige had made working on fixing up the factory had been enough that Gaige had felt comfortable going on a small, but well needed vacation, or at least it had until they’d got back to the casino and Artemis gave away a good portion of her savings.

In a move that Gaige was still trying to figure out, when they’d gotten back to the casino Artemis had asked Moxxi if she had been serious about them investing in the place and when she said she was, Artemis had gone on to question what that would entail. After a bit of back and forth, she’d decided to invest some of her money into the place.

Gaige had wanted to stop her, to ask her what she was thinking, but it was ultimately Artemis’s choice. It was her money after all, and when Gaige had asked her about it later, she’d responded that she thought it would be a good way to plan for the future.

The genuine level of confusion that she had when Gaige had asked her made Gaige feel like she’d done something wrong, enough so that she’d ended up calling her dad about it. While he’d agreed with Gaige that it wasn’t the best place to be investing money, he had pointed out that it was better to invest in the house rather than play the games, as well as point out that it was Artemis’s money to do what she wanted with. Plus, he’d pointed out, it wasn’t like she’d invested all of her money, so they were still able to survive, but if Gaige wanted to break things off with Artemis, he’d be glad to support her, which had nearly got him hung up on if he hadn’t quickly yelled that he was joking and apologized.

Still, Artemis spending half of her money had made Gaige rethink the entire vacation thing, but Artemis had convinced her to do it, which had surprised Gaige. She’d been sure that the other girl would jump on any chance to call off the beach trip, but instead she’d insisted that they go. It wasn’t that she herself actually wanted to, but more that she wanted Gaige to be happy, that after everything she’d been through, she deserved some time off, which had made Gaige warm inside.

Then Artemis had spoiled it by adding that she’d promised that they’d go, so she still thought they should. Still, Gaige couldn’t bring herself to hold it against her, so she’d agreed to the trip.

Gaige had started by finding the right planet, eventually deciding on one that she’d been to before for a wedding. It had been surprisingly reasonably priced for the quality of the views, so she’d figured that it would be as good a place as any.

After deciding on their destination, she’d turned to the next factor, preparing. She’d long ago learned that it wasn’t wise to try and find things on a resort planet, they’d all be insanely overpriced so she made a list of what she thought she’d need and went over it with the other two.

To her surprise Artemis told her that she already had a swimsuit, she hadn’t been sure that the other girl even could swim, not that she’d doubted her, but she’d never seen her show any interest in it, not to mention the fact that she had a pair of cybernetics, which Gaige knew from experience could royally screw with her buoyancy.

But then she’d seen what the other girl had considered to be acceptable swimwear and had demanded that they go shopping, after all she wasn’t about to be seen in public with someone wearing a wetsuit.

Artemis had just looked at her confused as they entered the store, so Gaige had told her not to worry, she would help her choose a new suit. Artemis had narrowed her eyes and fixed her with a flat look for a solid few seconds that seemed to stretch on to minutes for Gaige. In the end she’d accepted Gaige’s offer with one caveat, that her suit had to have at least twice the amount of fabric as Gaige’s.

Gaige’s initial reaction had been to swear. Followed by debating getting the other girl a suit covered in ruffles, since the extra cloth should still count, but she immediately dismissed the idea, feeling that it violated the nature of the agreement, not to mention felt like cheating, so she’d went out and tried to find something that flattered the other girl as well as looked like she would wear it.

It took her the better part of an hour to find something acceptable, but in the end they’d both been happy with the result. Still, Artemis had bought a second suit, one that was more traditional.

Gaige had just been forced to shake her head, but she had understood the other girl’s logic. If she was going to wear a new suit for Gaige’s sake, she’d also want one that was more practical, not that the one that Gaige had chosen wasn’t functional, it was just a bit showier then what the other girl was used to.

So they found themselves sitting on the beach on the second full day of their weeklong vacation.

Gaige looked over at Artemis sitting on a blanket in the shade of an umbrella and sighed, the other girl didn’t seem to be stressed about anything at the moment, with the possible exception of the sun. She didn’t seem to be relaxed in the traditional sense and most people on the beach who did notice her tended to give her an odd look, but someone who knew her as well as Gaige did could see that she was trying. The main impediment she was facing was her inability to wear her shield and armament with her current swimsuit, a tasteful purple and black affair that accentuated her slim physique.

Gaige wasn’t used to seeing the other girl dressed like that, it wasn’t just the fact that Gaige could get a good look at her cybernetics, it was that Artemis was exposing enough of her scars that it couldn’t help but make Gaige aware of how much the other girl had been through. She’d tried to keep that in mind while looking for the girl’s suit and had managed to cover a number of them, but the rest of them made her look like she’d led one hell of a hard life. Or maybe that was just what Gaige was thinking, sitting around looking at all the people walking past, with their unblemished skin that looked like it had never been near a gunfight, or any of the other hazards that had hit the girls over the years.

Gaige herself couldn’t get used to sitting around in her own bikini, black with a stylized skull very similar to her trademark one on one breast. She wanted to do something, to go swimming, play in the sand, surf, something, anything. She knew that there was no reason for her to be reluctant to leave the other girl and go do something herself, not just because she knew that Artemis could handle herself and because Deathtrap was floating nearby, which she’d been surprised didn’t violate any of the beach’s rules, but because she felt that it wouldn’t be the right thing to do, dragging the other girl out here only to abandon her. Besides, she wanted to do something with her.

So, she tried again “You wanna do something?”

“We are doing something. We’re relaxing. Didn’t you just tell me that I needed to relax? So that’s what I’m trying to do.”

“I meant something different.”

“Why, are you bored?”

“No,” Gaige lied. She felt bad about it, but she didn’t want to admit that she was already bored. Besides, it wasn’t that she was entirely bored, it was just that she was tired of doing nothing but sitting around, watching the waves. Not that there was anything wrong with that, it was just that after a few hours, she was through with it.

She couldn’t figure out why Artemis wasn’t bored out of her mind, it was bad enough for Gaige who was at least soaking up the sun’s rays, but for the other girl, who was doing nothing but sitting in the shade, it should’ve been excruciating.

She knew that the other girl had more patients than her, but still, Gaige couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t going out of her mind with boredom and begging them to do something. She wondered if it was that Artemis didn’t want to seem ungrateful or disturb Gaige’s relaxation so she was just willing to sit there and do nothing. Gaige hoped it wasn’t that, but after spending that much time with her, she didn’t put it past her. In fact, it seemed more likely than not, so Gaige steeled her resolve and pressed forward.

“I just figured that, well, as long as we were here, we should do something. Other than sitting around I mean.”

“Ah.”

Gaige ground her teeth at the non-committal response. Even after all this time spent trying to get the other girl to come around, she still couldn’t get a better response out of her, which frustrated Gaige no end. She took a deep breath and looked out over the sparkling turquoise ocean, at the swimmers frolicking in the surf, the couples floating lazily further out, at the people surfing even further out, allowing the large kites they were attached to drag them along, all of which looked like fun, but for some reason she couldn’t seem to get Artemis to go along with any of it.

Letting out the sigh she’d been trying to hold, she kept pushing forward. “So, other than sitting around, what do you wanna do? I mean, we could try that surfing thing.”

“Renting that stuff costs a bit of money, doesn’t it?”

“Surprised that you care about the cost.”

“You complained about it when we arrived is all.”

Gaige winced. She had made a bit of a fuss when they’d arrived about the cost of things, not just because they were overpriced, as she’d expected, but because she was worrying about their finances. Still, this was supposed to be a vacation, so they should do something.

“All right. Yes, I did mention the price. But what about going swimming? We could do that.”

“If you wanna, go ahead. You don’t need my permission to go.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Gaige snapped. Taking a deep breath, she tried to steady herself. In the last month, she’d gotten better about her temper and shortness with being sober, but there were still times that she could barely contain herself and this was turning out to be one of them.

Letting her breath out, she tried continuing “I know that, I just wanted to do something with you.”

“Oh, I thought we were.”

“We are. I meant something else. I wanted to do something else with you.”

“Oh, uh, what?”

“I don’t know, I was hoping you wanted to do something.”

“Uh, alright. I’ll, uh, I’ll think about it.”

Gaige nearly groaned in frustration. She’d been the one that had wanted the vacation and now she was making Artemis miserable by badgering her. She’d hoped that the other girl had wanted to do something specific, but instead, she’d taken it as some kind of mandate to figure something out, which would only stress her out, something that Gaige hadn’t intended.

“Ah, forget it,” Gaige said a bit harsher than she’d intended and stood up “I’m gonna look around, see if anything jumps out at me.”

“Oh, OK, I’ll…be here.”

Gaige ignored the look Deathtrap was shooting her and walked away, feeling the scorching hot sand even through her sandals. She focused on the heat, it at least was something to distract her from the anger she was feeling at herself.

She knew that she should turn around, explain things to Artemis, apologize for being short with her and for lying. Tell her the truth, that she was bored, that she wanted to do something, together. That she just wanted them to make happy memories on their first vacation as a couple, but she couldn’t figure out how to get the words out, so she’d done what she always did anymore, flee.

If this had been a gun battle or an engineering problem, she would’ve dove in with gusto, but these interpersonal things she couldn’t face. She didn’t know why. It wasn’t that she was a coward, or at least that’s what she kept telling herself. The truth was that she didn’t know. She wished she did. She wished that she knew what was wrong and what to do about it, but she was so scared of making things worse, or driving Artemis away, that she couldn’t seem to confront her about anything and she knew that she was just making things worse.

As she walked along the beach, she suddenly became aware of a presence next to her and turned, hoping that it was Artemis coming to spend time with her, but was disappointed to find a buff dude about her age smirking at her.

“Hey, here alone?” he asked, tanned face splitting open in what she was sure he thought was a charming smile, gleaming white teeth sparkling like the sea.

Gaige sighed. This wasn’t the first time she’d been hit on since arriving, and this guy certainly wasn’t the worst she’d had to deal with. But some part of her wondered at the sudden influx of would-be suitors. She’d heard tell before that once someone was, as she’d heard it put, off the market, they’d suddenly find themselves inundated with offers, as if the simple fact that they weren’t available anymore suddenly made them seem more attractive.

She’d never experienced it for herself, but she was starting to wonder as she turned slightly to the man and answered “Sorry. I’m with someone.”

“You mean your friend over there? Why don’t the two of you come join us? The more the merrier, right?”

“No thanks. My girlfriend’s kinda not into that kind of thing, neither am I for that matter. Not to mention my robot doesn’t approve of this kind of thing,” she said, nodding to Deathtrap floating next to the umbrella, staring their way.

“Oh, uh, s-sorry.” The guy managed, the smile vanishing off his face leaving him looking a bit feeble before he hustled away.

This had been happening a lot to Gaige since they’d arrived. Thankfully most of them took the hint and left as soon as she said no. Some of them didn’t though, like this guy, until Gaige either told them she was taken or pointed out her robot bodyguard. A few persisted past that, seeming to think it was either hot that she had a girlfriend, or thought she was bluffing to get rid of them. Those ones had required Deathtrap to stop Gaige from getting rid of them. The truth was that Gaige was trying to do it for their own benefit, since she’d seen Artemis reaching for the pistol she had hidden, something that Gaige had thought was overkill and a bit troubling even as she was envious of the fact the other girl was armed.

She didn’t get it, maybe it was the beach that got everyone like that, but she hadn’t been hit on that much, ever, and she was sure that the same could be said for Artemis. Which had been part of the reason that she’d wanted them to do something, if they were out in the water or playing together, she felt that the number of guys that were hitting on them would go down. But mostly it had been because she was bored.

Shaking her head, she continued down the beach, feeling a bit more reluctant to get out of Deathtrap’s protective range. Still, she had decided to look for something to do and she was determined to do so, so she kept walking, even though the sand wasn’t all that fun to walk in, which was something that she’d forgotten about the beach.

That, and how the sand seemed to get everywhere.

Trudging ahead she wove her way around a family trying to set up on the beach, the mother desperately trying to keep the kids from running off into the sea, at least until she’d slathered them with sunscreen, reminding Gaige of the amount that Artemis had used, and at that level of SPF? She’d never get a tan like that. When Gaige had pointed that out, she’d merely replied “That’s the point.” Before reiterating the fact that she didn’t tan all that well, she merely burned.

It wasn’t like Gaige didn’t get it, she was a redhead, so burning was what she tended to do in the sun. Still, that didn’t prevent her from toning down the sunscreen to try and let just a little through so that she’d wind up with a nice healthy glow, but she supposed that they each were doing what they wanted and as long as neither of them got burned, or complained about it if they did, it should all be good.

She made her way back up the beach, figuring that if she observed the area from a better vantage, she might be able to spot something that looked fun. It didn’t hurt that she was able to make her way under the shade of the local trees, tall strange looking things with large fronds that provided ample shade to anyone beneath.

Looking out over the beach, she could see a number of people doing all kinds of activities, from burying each other to making castles, but none of them looked fun, though she supposed she could ask Artemis if she wanted to try one. Other than that, there were a fair number of swimmers and other water related activities, which wasn’t surprising, it was a beach after all. About the only other thing she could see was a volleyball game going on a ways down, but she knew that Artemis had no interest in sports and Gaige still harbored a vague sense of dislike of the game from her time on Pandora.

Shaking her head, she turned away from the sea and looked back at the rest of the island.

A lone mountain rose behind the main resort, splitting in two near the top. Around its base were smaller hills and deep valleys, all covered in thick forests, despite the resort village at its base, or maybe because of it, she supposed. It wouldn’t look like a tropical getaway if there were only buildings from mountain to beach.

In fact, the only buildings that could be seen were the resort itself and the surrounding bungalows. Each building was well built, able to withstand the occasional storm that swept through the area, but had been built to look almost tribal, something she couldn’t entirely figure out, but that did seem popular with the crowds.

The only other thing she’d seen was a rather well-hidden fence to keep the wildlife back. She’d missed it until Artemis had pointed it out, before doing her usual thing of going through the wildlife that would’ve inhabited the area.

She’d been surprised that the resort hadn’t used the Ramaloo for its mascot, especially since they practically looked like one already, with their thick reddish fur, large eyes surrounded by white rings and black tipped ears, they looked like a living plush toy. It was only after Gaige learned that they could grow taller than her that she stopped wanting to find one to pet.

Instead, the island seemed to have chosen the Carcinus as their mascot, and Gaige had to agree with what Artemis had bluntly stated when they’d first seen one, no amount of work could make one look cute.

They were large crustaceans, the normal variety grew to be nearly three feet tall, with multi-segmented bodies trailing back from their head to a wide flat tail. Under the overhanging chitin plates, they had around ten legs that they scuttled around on. They had large eyes near the top of their face, and their mouths were hidden behind six mandibles that fit tightly into them. But the most dangerous part of them were their two large pincers, each one nearly as wide as Deathtrap and strong enough to punch through the hull of a boat and crush concrete.

The only good thing about them was that when they were steamed with butter, they were rather tasty.

There were other varieties, most of them having the uppermost segment of the body being significantly larger and some even losing the tail, but they were rarer and considered a delicacy.

It was a cartoon version of one of the regular ones that Gaige found herself looking at. It was by no means cute and she had no idea why they were using it as a mascot, but she’d seen it everywhere, from the maps to T-shirts, on the signs, using its claw to point the way, all the way to a shop selling stuffed ones, but she still found them to be incredibly ugly, though she supposed that it might have something to do with her dislike of insects. Not that she’d mistake one for an insect, but they were large and had an abnormal number of legs.

She ignored the Carcinus and focused on the announcement underneath, a smile spreading across her face. She’d found something for them to do.

Chapter 2

Fe’iae

Resort Beach

Artemis sat on her blanket, looking out over the beach and sighed. She was bored. She’d predicted she would be, but still, she’d hoped she would’ve been wrong. Part of her wondered if she wasn’t in one of those self-fulfilling prophecies she’d read about, where here expecting to be bored ensured that she wouldn’t do anything and thereby, became bored? She tried to dismiss it, but couldn’t entirely shake the feeling that she was the reason she was bored. She knew that she was supposed to be relaxing, letting the stress of the last few months bleed out, but she’d done that while hunting the Wibblers, so she wasn’t all that stressed.

Still, she hadn’t said anything, mostly because she knew that Gaige needed this, especially with everything that had happened. Not just with the Holloway’s, but with what had happened later, between the girls.

Artemis still couldn’t figure out what she was supposed to do or feel about what had happened on Galia. Sure, she’d been happy that Gaige had said those things, but she was still worried about the inevitable fallout. She knew that something bad was going to happen, but so far, nothing had, which had made her even more nervous, she knew that it was coming, so she wished it would just get it over with.

She supposed all that worrying did mean she needed a vacation, but sitting next to the other girl wasn’t helping, especially not with her dressed like that.

It wasn’t that Gaige was dressed provocatively, her swimsuit was actually rather tasteful compared to some of the things they’d seen on the beach, but it still caused Artemis to be a bit uncomfortable, like she wasn’t sure if she should be seeing Gaige in that light.

Part of her couldn’t blame the men that had been coming up to hit on Gaige, she really did look good, though Artemis did wish she’d stop telling everyone that they were dating, whatever that meant. The other part of her wished the men would leave them alone and stop ogling her friend.

She still couldn’t get herself to add girl to the start of that, somehow it felt odd, like if she did, it would be real and then she’d actually have to think about it, to figure out what that meant for her. She was happy, but with that came worry. Worry that somehow this wasn’t real, like it was all some kind of joke or that it was going to end, that she’d screw it up somehow and ruin everything.

The fact that her worrying about it and pushing Gaige away so that it wouldn’t hurt as bad when it all ended was more likely to screw things up escaped her.

She found herself lost in thought, trying to figure out what they could do, she wasn’t opposed to going swimming, she was actually fairly good at it, not that she had much call for it recently, but she didn’t like the crowd in the water. Most of the activities on the beach looked boring, though building one of those sandcastles might have been fun, except that the sand seemed to be scorching hot, which would make it uncomfortable to work on. She supposed she could splurge on some of the diving gear, but if she was going to rent something like that, why not invest in something that she could reuse later. Which left some of the resort sponsored events, but they really weren’t any better. She thought about trying one of the nature hikes, but she knew that she’d want to get off the path and go exploring, maybe try and bag one of the Ramaloo if she could, which she didn’t think the resort would appreciate. Which left the other events, she couldn’t go to any of the provided feasts without worrying about the alcohol being served, which meant that she wasn’t enjoying them. The same went for just about all of the parties, they all had a large amount of alcohol being served, which did nothing but make her worry about Gaige. So, she didn’t want them to go and she didn’t want to go off on her own, she didn’t think anything would happen, but she couldn’t help but worry, so she found herself sitting there on the beach, wasting her vacation.

Part of her wondered if she was going to resent wasting the money on it, or if Gaige would. The other girl hadn’t seemed too happy with her when she’d invested in the casino, something that had surprised her. She’d thought that Gaige would’ve been proud and happy, she was thinking of their future, but instead, she’d seemed disappointed, as if getting in on the house side of the business was somehow the wrong thing to do.

As they’d come in to the island, she’d seen the casino a few islands over and pointed out that a place like that was a business and that they had to be making a lot of money to keep it up, so wouldn’t it be better to invest early, but Gaige hadn’t seemed receptive, causing her to wonder if she’d screwed up somewhere.

Stewing it over, she suddenly noticed a presence approaching. Cracking an eye to see if it was Gaige coming back from wherever she’d been, she was disappointed to see a couple of guys walking up.

Bracing herself, she desperately wanted to reach for the pistol she had hidden in her things, but restrained herself, knowing that it would ruin the vacation if she shot someone.

“Excuse me.” The lead guy said with a smile “My friend and I were wondering something.”

‘Here it is.’ She thought, mentally bracing herself ‘What kind of cheesy pick-up lines he gonna try?’

“Well, see the thing is,” the man continued, missing her trepidation “we’re looking for another player and were wondering if you wanted to play some volleyball with us?”

“Huh?” Artemis blinked, not hearing what she was expecting. ‘Was this some kind of line? Is he gonna turn it into something gross?’

“See, we need four players and my girlfriend’s not really in any condition to play, so we’re looking to try and find another player.”

“Uh, sorry. I don’t like sports.”

“Oh, well that’s cool. Sorry to bother you and enjoy the rest of your vacation,” he said with an apologetic smile, before turning away.

As he did, his friend spoke up “Sorry to bother you again, but you wouldn’t happen to know anyone that would like to join us, would you?”

“Uh, sorry,” she said, shaking her head, still waiting for things to go sideways.

“Oh well, didn’t hurt to ask. Sorry to waste your time.”

As the two of them headed off, she could hear them discussing who they should try next, but it seemed that they had been putting her up as their last hope, so they were trying to figure out what to do as they traveled out of her hearing range.

Shaking her head, Artemis realized that not everyone was up to something, some of the people just wanted to have a good time. In fact, even the people that had harassed her were looking for a good time, it was just that they were going about it by bothering her.

As she sat there thinking that, she spotted Gaige hustling over and as soon as she was close enough asked “What was that about? Those guys weren’t bothering you, were they? If they were, I swear…”

“It’s fine, they just were looking for a fourth player for their volleyball game.”

“Wait, that’s it? They didn’t ask it in a weird way or anything, did they?”

“No, in fact, they seemed rather nice about it, thanking me for my time and wishing me a pleasant vacation and everything.”

“Oh, uh, well in that case I guess it’s fine.” Gaige scratched the back of her head and looked after them before muttering “Guess there are some decent people here.

“I think most of them are,” Artemis replied, surprising Gaige, not that she’d heard, she was used to that, but because she was speaking up in defense of others. “It’s just that the ones we’ve had to deal with are jerks. I mean, look at the number of families out there, the couples, the groups just hanging out. Most of them are probably decent, it’s just that we’ve had to deal with the ones looking for the wrong thing. I think we’re jaded, and not just from this.”

“Yeah,” Gaige said sadly “I think we are. Dealing with scum for so long, makes you forget about the normal people. Should’ve known that from bein a wedding planner, plenty of decent folk out there just lookin for a good time away from it all.”

“Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty of scum out there who I’d like to punch in the face.”

Gaige smiled, glad that the other girl hadn’t really changed, at least in that regard.

“So, uh, you, ah, you want something to drink?”

“Sure.” Gaige said, plopping down next to the girl. She felt her tense up slightly but Gaige refused to scoot away, letting her get used to being close to her. She would’ve liked to throw an arm around her shoulder or something, but restrained herself. She could barely get Artemis to allow that when they were watching a movie on the ship, so she knew that she’d freak out if she tried it in public.

“Thanks.” She said taking the cold drink and just holding it against her cheek, letting the condensation seep into her skin with a sigh. Eventually she took a sip, trying to savor it before it warmed up too much.

“Oh yeah,” she said after draining the can. “Found something for us to do tomorrow.”

She glanced over out of the corner of her eye, trying to gauge the other girl’s response, but found her expression to be as inscrutable as always.

Still, she held out on continuing until she heard a soft sigh followed by a “What?”

Once she’d gotten the other girl participating, she smiled and nodded slightly before continuing “There’s gonna be some kind of fishing contest, free for guests.”

“Oh.”

There it was, Artemis’s lack of enthusiasm, Gaige had been afraid of it, she’d worried that she couldn’t convince the girl to go, that she would rather spend her day on the beach.

“Yeah. I know it’s not really your thing, but it would be something different. Plus, if we get bored of it, we could just go swimming or something. And if nothing more, we’d get to see the ocean, spend some time away from all these people.”

Artemis just sighed.

Gaige felt her anger rise. She knew there was no reason for it, but still, she felt the heat roil through her. She was trying, really trying here and all Artemis was doing was being a pain. She wouldn’t commit to anything, she just sighed, or gave a non-committal answer and Gaige was nearing her breaking point. She knew that this vacation was all her idea, she’d been the one that had wanted it, but she’d wanted to do it together, for them to make some good memories after all they’d been through. And maybe, just maybe, move their relationship forward.

She’d been a bit peeved at Artemis on Jaka, they’d just started to go out or whatever they were when they’d got there and Artemis had abandoned her to go running through the jungle. She understood why she’d done it, at least rationally, but that still didn’t make it any easier to deal with. It was like the instant their relationship got a little serious, a little more defined, she’d scared the other girl off and that she’d fled to what she’d known, which, while Gaige had understood, had still hurt. So, she’d been hoping to try and mend that bridge here, but instead it was like Artemis was still shunning her.

Pushing the ire down as best she could, she desperately tried to keep her voice level as she continued. “Don’t you wanna do something? I mean, I’d like to try. Besides, it’s something I’ve never really tried before.”

“If you wanna, feel free.”

“Damn it,” Gaige snapped, barely stopping herself from losing it “I wanna do this with you. It doesn’t have to be this. It could be anything, surfing, swimming, whatever, I just want you to show some interest. I’m trying my best out here, but it’s like you don’t care.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, show some interest, tell me you want to do something, whatever it is, just be part of this relationship.”

“I…I don’t…know how.”

The anger left Gaige as suddenly as it’d come. Deflating she said “I know. Neither do I. I’ve never, well, done this before, so it’s all new to me, and I realize that what we have isn’t, well, normal, so I can’t even use much of anything as a frame of reference, but I’m trying to make this work, I just wish, I mean, I hope, I mean…let me start over. I’m trying here and I wish you would too.”

“I am.”

“I know, I didn’t mean it like that. OK, maybe I did, but I just wished that you’d show it a bit more, that’s all. You know, show some interest, tell me you wanna do something, or if you don’t, then say no. But not these non-committal noises and then silence.”

“Sorry.”

“Yeah, me too. Sorry.”

They fell into silence for a moment and eventually Artemis shifted slightly, as if she were nervous and said “So, uh, fishing?”

“What? Oh yeah, apparently they’re gonna hold a contest or something. There’s gonna be more information at the feast tonight, so we’re gonna need to go to that. I mean, we should be going anyway and before you say it, I know. I know why you’ve been against going. I appreciate it, really, I do, but we should go at least once and if you’re with me, I’m sure you can steer me away from temptation.”

“Are you sure?”

“Look, I’m not an idiot. I don’t wanna shove my face into the bar, I know how hard this is gonna be to resist, but I think we should go, at least once anyway and this is killing two birds and all that. But you’ve gotta promise me that no matter what, you’re not gonna leave my side. Either of you.”

“I won’t.”

“I’m serious. Even if someone says something about us or there’s too many people, whatever, you can’t leave me alone.”

“I got it, you want me to zip-tie myself to you?”

“I just might.”

Later That Evening

The beach was lit by torches that had been stuck into the sand, something Artemis wondered if it wasn’t dangerous. If anyone burned themselves, wouldn’t they sue the place? But she seemed to be the only one worrying about that. In fact, she might have been the only one there worrying about anything.

The party was loud, with a local band playing off to one side. The music was some kind of strange ethnic sounding music that she wondered where it was from, not because she liked it, but because it sounded like every other ‘island’ music she’d ever heard, making her wonder where it was originally from, if anywhere.

People of all kinds were dancing to the song, while others crowded around the long tables groaning under the weight of the food piled upon them. From a massive Carcinus that had been steamed and split open, to an assortment of seafood, there was food for all tastes. Shells stuffed with fruit and some kind of thin cut meat were lined up on platters next to heaping mounds of sweet bread.

Each one would’ve smelled delicious, but when they were all piled on top of each other it did kind of put ones stomach off, which Artemis wondered if that wasn’t the point, to make everyone want stuff, but to make it just unappetizing enough that they wouldn’t require more food to be made.

Past the dance floor and a little ways away from the end of the food tables was the one place on the island that they wanted to avoid, the bar.

Gaige shot it a longing look. All of those bottles lined up behind the shirtless man casually grabbing them and spinning them as he expertly made the drinks. The smells drifting under the smell of food, taunting her. The people walking around with their drinks in hand, sloshing bits of alcohol out and onto their skin or the sand. The occasional collision in the crowd, splashing an entire drink onto someone would cause her to lick her lips each time, the thought of that booze being wasted scratching at her throat. She wanted nothing more than to run over and get something to drink.

Only two things stopped her. The first was Artemis next to her. The steady presence that seemed to press into her as if it were scared of losing her in the crowd. In fact, Gaige suspected that she was more scared of being separated then Gaige was. The press of the crowd wasn’t bad, but it was still a lot more people than she liked, which Gaige understood.

The other reason that Gaige was able to stay away from the bar was how ridiculous most of the drinks looked, poured into shells, stuffed with fruit and little umbrellas. The strange colors did intrigue her, but she couldn’t get over how weird they looked.

The price didn’t help either, nor the names, but she still wanted a drink, so she leaned against Artemis slightly, feeling the reassuring warmth seep through her shoulder. She reached for her hand, not wanting to get separated, only for it to pull away at the contact, which hurt.

Gaige wondered if Artemis hadn’t thought it was someone else, or if it was that she didn’t want to hold hands with her. She suspected it was the latter, but she wasn’t going to say anything, especially now. She’d just have to try again some other time and see if the other girl would warm up to her.

They stood off to the side, picking at the food on their plates. Gaige was surprised that the food, while good, was kind of underwhelming. It was tasty, well-seasoned, but had a slight blandness that she associated with mass produced food, which she supposed was natural, since it had been cooked in bulk.

Eventually the band stopped and an announcer took the stage. Like the ones that Gaige had seen at more weddings than she could remember, he practically screamed ‘desperate for attention’ to her, but the rest of the crowd didn’t seem to mind.

“Who’s having a good time?” He shouted out, to which the crowd roared back, spraying the people in front of them with bits of partially chewed food and drink.

“Alright, alright. That’s what I like to hear. Now, as you know, tonight is a special night and not just any special night. We have two announcements to make, so let’s get into them, alright?”

The crowd cheered back as he cupped his ear before nodding.

“That’s good. Now first, we have the ‘Reel Big Catch’ contest going on tomorrow. For anyone that doesn’t know, we’re gonna go over the rule’s ‘reel’ quick. Eh?” He said with a conspiratorial eyebrow bob, letting everyone know the pun. “Now the rules are simple, you just need to go out there and catch the biggest fish you can. You’ll be provided with a chart telling you how many points each kind is worth per inch, so do your best. There’s also going to be a prize for the most points total, so don’t be afraid if you aren’t landin the big ones.

“Boats will be provided, along with all other necessary fishing tools. We apologize to those of you who brought your own, but in an effort to be as fair as possible, we ask your indulgence. The only things you will need to provide are yourselves and a signature on our standard waiver.

“Now for the part you’ve been waiting for, the prizes.” He paused as the band’s drum player started a soft roll “This time around, first prize is a waiver for seventy-five percent off of your next stay, provided that you haven’t won before that is. If you have won before, you can still participate and if you win, you get ten free bar tokens. Second prize is also ten free bar tokens. And everyone that participates gets one.

“If you get the most points, you get twenty-five percent off your next visit, again provided that you haven’t won before and best of all, they stack, so if you get the biggest fish and the most points, your next stay is on us, restrictions applying.”

He said the last part so soft and low that Artemis was probably the only one that caught it.

“There will be a brief safety seminar in the morning, it is mandatory, even if you’ve already participated in the past and then you’ll have until sundown to fish. That’s all and good luck all around.”

He started into the second item on his note cards as Gaige turned to her companion and asked “So, what do ya think?”

Artemis sighed and tried to tune out the rest of the crowd “Well, I don’t really care one way or another, but if you really want to try this…” She trailed off with a shrug.

Gaige ground her teeth for a second at the lack of commitment and managed to get out past them “No. I wanna know what you think. Do you or do you not want to go?”

Artemis wanted to say no, but she also didn’t want to sit around with a moping Gaige tomorrow. Besides, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world and it wasn’t like she didn’t understand the basics of fishing, she’d had to do it a number of times out in the wild, though she doubted her favored method of chucking a grenade in would be allowed here.

“It’s fine,” She said “We can go. If you wanna go out there, I’ll go with. If you’ve got something else, you’d rather do, I’ll try that.”

Gaige let out a tired sigh, she shouldn’t feel this tired on her vacation, but her girlfriend was wearing her out, which she realized as she thought it, most people would take an entirely different way. Taking the bit of humor, she could from the situation, she let her frustration go.

“All right, let’s do this.”

Chapter 3

Fe’iae

Somewhere in the Ocean

The seminar had drug on for the better part of an hour and had been mostly about the basics of fishing safety, which had been of interest to Gaige, but Artemis had already known most of it. Still, she’d paid attention to try and see if there was anything else she could learn and she’d at least picked up what kinds of bait she should use for each kind of fish, not to mention how to properly store them once they were caught.

A couple of the older, obviously more experienced fishers there had offered to teach them a few tips and tricks, but their condescending attitude had ticked off the girls enough that they had turned them down. Besides, Artemis had spent a bit of time the night before reading up on such things, so as long as she didn’t expect to win, she figured she’d be fine, not that she’d ever mistake book knowledge for real knowledge, but it while she would’ve listened to the experts, she could tell that Gaige wanted to get away as fast as possible.

The thing that had bumming them out the most though was that they’d been told that Deathtrap couldn’t accompany them. The resort representative had told them that he’d be too close to bringing their own fishing supplies and cheating, even when they promised that he’d just be going along to keep them company.

In the end, Deathtrap had reluctantly stayed behind, promising to keep an eye on them with his sensors and told them to try and enjoy themselves as best they could.

With that, they’d said goodbye and set out, heading out to sea to try their luck at fishing.

After an hour of boating away from everyone else, Gaige had finally cut the motor and looked around.

“Well, this looks like as good a spot as any,” she said, turning to her companion.

Artemis shrugged from her spot in the shade as she started getting the fishing rods together. Her smooth motions impressed Gaige, especially since she knew that Artemis hadn’t had time to practice. After a few seconds she tossed one of the poles over to Gaige and got to work baiting her line.

Mimicking the other girl’s motions as best she could, Gaige was secretly glad to have a cybernetic, so that she didn’t have to touch the grub with her skin. Still, the instant she had it hooked onto the line, she dunked her cybernetic into the water to clean it off.

She cast her line as best she could and waited. And waited. After a few minutes of nothing happening she glanced over at Artemis lounging in the shade that the small canvas top made.

As if sensing the eyes on her, she said “This is why I was surprised that you wanted to fish. It’s a whole lot of sitting around waiting for nothing to happen.”

“You coulda said something.”

“I thought you knew. Still, this can be nice.”

Gaige sighed and leaned back opposite the girl, watching as she dug out a bottle of sunscreen and started applying it. Unlike the previous day, she was wearing her other swimsuit, one that looked a bit sportier. It was a simple one-piece that seemed to be made out of a more durable material, which was a bit of why she’d wanted it, it was a practical purchase, one that would be useful in a lot more situations.

Over her swimsuit she was wearing a pair of wide, loose shorts and a t-shirt, though she pulled that off so that she could spread the sunscreen on everywhere that would be exposed.

Finishing, she handed the bottle over before tugging her shirt back on, setting a wide-brimmed hat onto her head and laying back.

Gaige looked at her, stretched out like that and sighed, she really wanted to curl up next to her, to pull her close, but she knew that this wouldn’t be the right time for it, and the heat would’ve stopped her even if Artemis would’ve allowed it.

Despite having been going out for more than a month and a half, they hadn’t really got any closer. In fact, Gaige worried that they may have actually gotten further apart. She understood that the girl might be testing the waters, so to speak, in trying to see if something bad would happen as a result of them starting to go out, but Gaige wondered if they shouldn’t actually do something that might actually count before seeing, but she knew that this was what she’d signed up for and didn’t regret it.

She also wished that Artemis would offer to spread the sunscreen on her or would’ve asked Gaige to spread it onto her, something she’d always wanted to try, but she felt that asking would be a step too far. Sighing, she went about spreading the cold sunscreen everywhere while part of her mind wondered how the stuff always seemed to be cold when it came out.

After making sure that she’d gotten the stuff everywhere, especially under her bikini straps, she placed the bottle back where she’d seen Artemis get it from and found an odd bag sitting there.

“What’s this?” She asked, pulling the net off of it.

“Oh that? That’s just an emergency kit.” Came the offhanded reply.

Suppressing another sigh, Gaige sat down “You brought an emergency kit to the resort?”

“Well, yeah. I mean, I just, you know…”

“Didn’t feel safe without it, like you couldn’t relax, right?” Getting a nod from the other girl, Gaige smiled softly “Yeah, I get it, I mean, I feel naked without a shield.”

“That’s why you brought one to the resort with you?”

“You knew?”

“Of course I did.”

“Of course you did,” Gaige said with a self-deprecating laugh “Knew I should’ve just told you, I mean, you weren’t hiding the fact that you had one with or anything. At least not to me.”

“Got a spare in there if you want it,” she said, indicating the bag.

“Seriously? What else?”

“Just the essentials.”

“You wouldn’t happen to have another shirt in there, would you?”

“Sorry, no.”

“Really? You didn’t pack another set of clothes?” Her surprise was genuine enough that Artemis didn’t misunderstand.

“No. There was only so much room, so I had to leave some things out. Sorry. I’d offer you mine, but, um, well, it’s just that, I don’t think it’s, er…” She looked over at Gaige with pleading eyes while tugging it away from her chest.

Gaige instantly figured out what she was trying to say, that while the shirt was comfortably roomy on Artemis, Gaige would have a little difficulty fitting into it.

“Ah well, thanks anyway. Still, I’m surprised you brought all this stuff with you.”

“Better to have it and not need it and all that.”

“Better still would be for you to relax, this is a vacation planet, you’re on vacation, so just let the stress melt off.”

“That stuff helps me relax.”

“You’re hopeless, you know that? And I love you for it, so don’t ever change that part of you.”

A Few Hours Later

Gaige was getting frustrated. So far, she’d had only one bite and it hadn’t been big enough to bother keeping. Artemis, on the other hand, was reeling in her fourth large fish.

“What’s your secret? I mean, we’re using the same poles, the same bait, so why’re you catching things, but I can’t?”

Artemis shrugged and continued reeling in her latest catch. “I donno, maybe cause I’m relaxed and the fish can sense that I’m calm?”

“Oh come on.” Gaige snapped, only to be brought up short by the smile on the other girl’s face.

“I really don’t know why. You do need to relax though. Why don’t you get something cold to drink? Get me one too, as long as you’re in there.”

“You just don’t wanna get it yourself, don’t you?” Gaige grumbled, even as she leaned over and popped the cooler. Pulling out two bottles of chilled water, she placed one against the back of her neck and sighed in satisfaction while rolling the other across her forehead.

Eventually she handed one of them to Artemis, waiting until after she’d stabbed her fish and thrown it in the bin with the others.

“Thanks,” she said, taking the bottle, choosing not to comment on the fact that Gaige had done her best to draw as much of the cool off of it as she could.

Still, the cool water still tasted great to her parched throat, making her realize just how thirsty she’d been. Closing the bottle, she gazed out over the ocean.

“Well, this isn’t all that bad really.” She finally conceded.

“Really?” Gaige said, eyebrows leaping in surprise.

“What? Is it really that surprising?”

“Well, kinda. I mean, you haven’t exactly been the most engaged person on this island.”

“Hey, I was trying to relax alright? Besides, we’re not on the island, are we?”

“Sorry. You’re right, we aren’t.” She joined in looking over the edge of the boat at the endless blue, “Wonder where we are now?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well, I think we’ve been drifting along, so I was just wondering how far we’ve gotten is all.”

“You didn’t drop the anchor?”

“Uh, no.”

Artemis bolted upright and pulled her sunglasses off, which would’ve caused Gaige to crack up if her expression hadn’t been so serious.

“You mean we’ve been drifting all day? That we have no idea of where we are?”

“Uh, maybe. Relax, it’s not that big a deal, we just have to head back in that direction.” She waved off the stern.

Artemis buried her head in her hands and let out a soft sobbing laugh, “That only works if we’ve traveled in a straight line and haven’t moved since.”

“Oh. Oops.”

“Oops? Oops? That’s all you’ve got to say? You got us lost at sea and all you can say is oops?”

“Back off.” Gaige snapped “It’s not like you thought about dropping the anchor earlier, cause if you had, there’s no way you wouldn’t have mentioned it so you can lord it over me.”

“Is that what you think I do?”

“Yeah,” Gaige snapped, leaning forward. As she did, something pulled at her mind, an echoing warning to shut the hell up and apologize. She looked into the face of her girlfriend and the anger drained from her. She knew in an instant that she was going wrong and with a great effort pulled herself back. “No. I mean, you never would. I almost wish you would sometimes, but that’s just not you. Sorry I got carried away, I’m just…you know what, no, I’m not makin any excuses this time, I screwed up and I’m sorry.”

Artemis didn’t say anything, but slipped her sunglasses back on and looked down, like she was trying to figure out what to say to make things better.

“Hey, you don’t have to say anything. Just nod and let me know that we’re, well, not all better, but at least that we’re good,” Gaige said, wanting desperately to put her hand on the other girl’s shoulder.

Artemis looked up and nodded, adding “Yeah, I know. Too much sun, I guess. And you’re right, I should’ve said something earlier, I just didn’t think of it. I mean, I guess I assumed that you’d done it since you always seem to know what you’re doing.”

“When have I ever known what I’m doing? I mean seriously? How many times have I gotten through something by the seat of my pants? Almost always. And if I seem to know what I’m doing, it’s more than likely just me putting on a brave face.”

“You always seem to know what you’re doing.”

“Seat of my pants,” Gaige said, patting the shorts she was wearing over her bikini bottom. “I just always make it look planned out, but seriously, how many times have I asked you what we should do. Or how many times have you heard Deathtrap set me straight, so by now you should know that I’m mostly winging it.”

Artemis shrugged, like she understood, but wasn’t quite sure if she believed it.

“So back to the matter at hand.” Gaige said, trying to move past the embarrassing debacle that she nearly caused “Even if we have drifted, all we need to do is check our ECHO and get our current position and then home in on Deathtrap’s signal. Easy.”

“And did you pack your ECHO?”

“Erk. I mean, uh…no,” Gaige said looking around with rising panic. She was so stupid, she’d forgot that she hadn’t packed it, she’d been too excited at the thought of spending the day out with Artemis to double check her stuff. Besides, it was a resort planet, what would she need it for?

Artemis sighed and leaned back “Well, then it’s a good thing I packed mine.”

“Wait, seriously?” Gaige shouted, leaning forward so quickly that the boat rocked beneath them, “You’ve had yours the entire time and let me panic thinking we were lost? That’s cold. Where is it?”

“I was trying to get you to learn a lesson. And it’s in the emergency bag. Where else would I store it?”

“You are a bitch. A genius, but a bitch.”

“Um, thanks?”

Gaige shook her head and leaned back, the knowledge that she’d been saved was both comforting and frustrating. She was glad that Artemis was with it, that she’d thought far enough ahead and saved Gaige, again. But that was what was frustrating. Gaige should’ve thought of that herself, before they’d left, but instead, she’d just jumped onto the boat and took off.

“So, uh, you’re not gonna check our position?” Artemis’s soft question broke through Gaige’s thoughts.

“Nah, it’ll change again before we’re ready to go back, plus it’s just a comfort to know we aren’t entirely screwed, at least not that way.” Catching the cocked head Artemis was giving her she continued “But this entire contest, there’s no way we’re winning it, not with just the fish you’ve caught. Well, I suppose that the others could all suck, except the pros, and if they’ve already won before, you’d have a chance, but realistically? No way are we winning. And to make matters worse, bar tokens as a prize?” She spread her hands and shook her head.

“Didn’t know we were trying to win.”

“Of course we’re trying to win, what other point is there to taking part in a contest?”

“Having fun together?”

Gaige froze and slowly turned to Artemis, “You win.”

“It wasn’t a contest.”

“No. I mean, you’re right, that’s the entire reason I wanted to do this in the first place, to get away, just the two of us and I kinda forgot that.”

“Oh, it’s alright.”

“No, it’s not. You shouldn’t be alright with being pushed to the side. You need to stand up, tell me that it’s not cool to treat you like that. That I should think of you before some stupid contest or money or anything like that.”

“But you do. You just sometimes lose track of it, that’s all.”

“You’re way too good for me.”

Gaige was met by silence. At first she thought that Artemis must have been embarrassed, but when she looked at her, she found the girl looking off into the distance.

“You know, this is usually where you argue with me. Where you tell me that I’ve got it backwards or something wrong like that.”

“You’ve got it wrong and you are too good for me.”

“Then what is it?”

“I was just wondering, doesn’t it seem like it’s getting dark over there?” She pointed off into the distance.

Gaige squinted her eyes, trying to see what the other girl was looking at. Despite how good Artemis’s eyes were, Gaige could still make out what she was talking about, if only just. The sky near the horizon was darker than it looked like it should be. Turning around, Gaige checked the other direction, just to be sure, but it was light until the sky and sea seemed to blend together.

“It’s not getting dark already, is it?”

“No, suns too high up for that, plus we’ve only been out here for a few hours.”

“Then what is it?”

“I think it’s a storm.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, I just saw a flicker, like lightning.”

“So do you think it’s headed this way?”

“Possibly. So, do you think we should head back?”

“Eh, we’ve got time till it gets here, we’ll see which way it’s going, then make our choice.”

Chapter 4

Fe’iae

Somewhere in the Ocean

The storm lashed at them with walls of water, making them feel like they were drowning in the boat. The sky was blacker than they’d ever seen on Fe’iae, so dark that they felt they were in a cave, except for the rain pounding down in large, heavy drops that stung their skin as they pelted them.

They clung to the gunwales as the small boat thrashed back and forth in the waves. Both of them were worried about being capsized, especially since they couldn’t see the waves except for the brief moments when they were illuminated by the lightning splitting the sky. But even that, as often as it was, didn’t do much to help since the rain was so thick that it obscured everything beyond a few feet.

The rain pounded Gaige, flying in nearly horizontally, completely missing the thin canvas sunshade that snapped and rattled in the gale. She pushed her ponytail back for the hundredth time, trying to keep her wet hair from slapping over her face, but the wind kept dragging it around, wiping it against her face with a stinging slap. The only consolation was that the rain was warm, so they didn’t have to worry about hypothermia.

“You think we should check our position?” She shouted, trying to be heard over the howling wind.

Artemis shook her head, then, because she didn’t think Gaige could see her despite being only a few feet apart in the blinding rain, shouted back “No. Wouldn’t do any good even if we knew, I mean, can you steer us?”

“Barely.”

“So we should wait till it’s calmed down. Plus, I’m afraid I’d drop it.”

“Right.”

Gaige had been about to suggest that they send an S.O.S. to Deathtrap, not just to let him know what was up, but in the hopes that he could mount a rescue, but she had to concede that dropping it in the ocean would be far worse. As bad as their chances were, losing the ECHO would drop their chance of survival to almost zero. Even if they survived the storm, the chances of them finding an inhabitable island in time was slim and even if they did, the chances of anyone actually finding them there was negligible, so she nodded and kept trying to steer them so they didn’t get rolled by the waves.

Still, she wished they’d sent a message to Deathtrap when they’d had the chance, if for no other reason than to tell him they’d drifted off course. She realized that they hadn’t had a set course to begin with, but she still wished he knew. She supposed that if he was keeping an eye on them, he would need to be tracking Artemis’s ECHO, so he would know where they were and also making not losing it even more important.

She watched as Artemis wiped her goggles again, a futile gesture that Gaige could barely see despite there only being a few feet between them. The rain was coming down so hard and fast that the goggles were already drenched as soon as her finger was past. She thought that Artemis must’ve had them in case she wanted to go diving, she couldn’t figure out any other excuse. Still, Gaige wished she’d packed another pair, or at least had them at hand, for as little good they were doing, it would’ve still been nice to not have to squint till her eyes were nearly closed.

Despite the fact that she was piloting the boat, she let the other girl keep them, not because they were hers, but because she figured that if anyone could see something in this storm, it would be Artemis. Besides, she didn’t figure that she needed to see much beyond which way the waves were coming from.

Artemis was feeling bad. The storm had caught up to them in less than an hour, way faster then she’d thought it could. In fact, by the time she’d realized that it was going to hit them, there was no way to avoid it.

She should’ve known better, after all, she was the outdoorsy one of them, so she should’ve known that without hills and mountains to stop and alter the winds, without the different vegetation and rocks creating different thermals to affect it, the storm would rush at them without impediment. She should’ve remembered reading about how fast the sun set on the sea, so there should’ve been no reason that the storm would be different.

But there was nothing she could do about it now, the only things she could do were keep an eye out for anything that could serve as a port and continue bailing water out of the boat.

She lamented that she’d only had one pair of goggles with, not that they were doing any good. She reached up and wiped the lenses off again, only for them to be splattered with rain instantly.

“I feel like I’m drowning here,” Gaige shouted at her back, before bursting into a fit of coughing that caused Artemis to look back at her in concern.

“You alright?”

“Yeah, just breathed in some water.” Came the wheezy reply. “Can you see anything out there?”

“Not really.”

“What? I thought you had better eyes.”

Artemis winced at that, she was failing again. “Sorry, but that’s only if there isn’t something blocking my sight. The rain’s too thick, it’s like it’s forming a wall,” she called back, trying to clarify.

“Damn,” Gaige shouted back, before wincing slightly. Her voice was getting horse from trying to shout over the storm. It wasn’t all that bad yet, but it was enough that she was worried that she might lose it before they got out of trouble.

Artemis suddenly leaned forward slightly, it was enough that Gaige decided it was worth it to shout “What?”

“I thought I saw something.” Came the reply, barely audible over the howling wind, which seemed to pick up as if it didn’t want them to talk about this.

“Where?”

“Over there.” She pointed at the wall of water that was briefly illuminated by a flash of lightning.

Gaige nodded as best she could, knowing that they’d have to wait until they could crest the wave again before they’d get another chance to see it, if there was anything to see. Still, she had to ask “What was it?”

“Donno.”

“No, I mean, what did you think it was?”

“I just saw a flicker of light, or I thought I did.”

“Lightning on the water?”

Artemis shrugged. She didn’t think so, but in this maelstrom, she couldn’t be sure of much of anything. She was sure her mind was playing tricks on her, with all the shadows and the brief illumination, compounded by the swirling, pelting rain, so she couldn’t be sure if she’d seen anything at all.

“I’m gonna try and head that direction,” Gaige shouted back, feeling her voice rasp with a wince.

Without waiting for a reply, she started to angle the boat, fighting against the waves and her own blindness. She had to guess which way she needed to go, there was no way to tell without a compass, which she unfortunately didn’t have. She couldn’t even use anything as a guide, there were no stars visible, not that they normally would be at this time of the day she realized with a start. It wasn’t going to be night for at least six or seven hours, not that she could tell it with the blackness of the storm.

Still, she did her best and when they got to the top of the next wave, she waited with baited breath, hoping that Artemis could spot something. But she didn’t, despite looking everywhere that she could. Gaige wished she could try and cheer her up, but she needed to save what remained of her voice. Part of her was surprised that the other girl’s was holding up as well as it was, it wasn’t like she shouted a lot so it wasn’t like she was used to it, but she hadn’t sounded like she was struggling. Gaige supposed she might be as bad off as she was and was just holding it in, so she didn’t worry Gaige, which sounded like something she’d do, but Gaige wasn’t sure.

She continued thinking about it as she plunged into the next trough between the waves, squinting as best she could as she watched Artemis continue to bail the water that was constantly building up in the boat.

Situations like this made her wonder why the resort had let them go out in one of their boats without a guide in the first place. Sure, they’d signed a waiver, but this still felt like it was a lawsuit waiting to happen.

As she continued kibitzing in her mind, she made it to the next peak and this time Artemis nearly stood up in the boat, which drew a shout out of Gaige’s wounded larynx as she worried about the other girl going overboard. If she did, there was no way that Gaige would be able to fish her out before she was swept away and drowned, so she was immensely relieved when the other girl dropped back so her knees were pressed against the hull and gripped the gunwale with both hands.

She spun around and pointed, shouting “There, off that way there was something. Might’ve just been a rock, but it was big.”

“Better than nothin,” Gaige muttered and corrected their course.

She plowed through the waves as best she could, correcting her course each time they crested a wave, trying to follow Artemis’s arm. It wasn’t like she could see where they were going, she barely could see the other girl pointing. It was times like this that she was actually grateful that her girlfriend was so pale, it helped make her arm stand out better in the gloom.

Artemis would stop pointing almost as soon as Gaige saw her so that she could go back to bailing water as fast as she could. It was a futile effort, they both realized that, it was like trying to block the rain with a cocktail umbrella, sure you could get a few drops, but you were still going to get soaked. Still, Artemis bailed, if for no other reason than to try and keep them afloat for a few seconds longer.

Still, it was only delaying the inevitable and before long Gaige could feel the water sloshing around her as she moved. She wanted to yell, to see if Artemis could think of anything, to see if they shouldn’t change places, but she knew that they couldn’t, trying to move past each other in the roiling sea would certainly spell disaster.

Eventually Gaige could see the island ahead of them, mostly when the lightning flashed behind it, throwing the jagged range into stark silhouette. It was a lot closer than she thought, which was a good thing since the boat was barely above water by that point.

Suddenly Artemis shouted back at her “Look out!”

Directly ahead of them something loomed out of the dark. Gaige couldn’t make it out clearly, but she threw her entire weight against the motor, trying desperately to shift the boat, but the craft was bogged down by the water filling it, so it was sluggish to respond, turning slowly as the shadow rose in front of them.

Artemis suddenly jumped up and grabbed the gunwale, launching herself over the side and slamming her feet into the sharp jut, pushing with all her might. It was barely enough, but it pushed them off from slamming into it too hard. It still hit with a hideous scraping noise of the wood splintering and coming off as they slid past.

As they did, Gaige could see that it was part of a boat, sticking out of the water, the metal side having rusted and twisted into juts that would’ve torn their boat apart.

Ducking under the prop, she glanced forward to see Artemis hanging over the side. Suppressing her urge to dive forward for her, Gaige remembered what she’d been taught and leaned over the far side, allowing the smaller girl to pull herself up without tipping the boat too far.

Almost as soon as she was in, she yelled back “Turn!” but this time Gaige couldn’t react fast enough. She’d just glanced in the direction that Artemis was looking when the wave slammed into them, rolling the boat and throwing her underwater.

Panic set in as she lost which way was up in the blackness. Something slammed into her, sending stars flying through the inky darkness. Another impact hit her stomach, blasting the air she’d managed to hold out. In a dim part of her mind she realized that this was bad. Really bad, but she couldn’t figure out what she was supposed to do about it. She tried to struggle upward, but she didn’t know which way it was, but still, she struggled.

Suddenly something hard wrapped around her waist, pulling her. She wanted to fight back, but her mind wasn’t working, so she let the object slip up till it was just under her chest and drag her down. Only after a few seconds, her head burst out of the water and she let out a desperate cough.

Sucking in as much air as she could, she was suddenly wracked by a coughing fit as the air coming in mixed with the water trying to leave.

Before she settled down, she realized that she was still moving, the metal arm around her ribs dragging her along as best it could. But she was losing ground and Gaige could feel the water splashing against her chin.

Struggling to draw a breath, she suddenly felt a splash of water against her back, as if someone had just spat a mouthful out. Turning as best she could, she spotted someone trying to keep afloat directly behind her and did her best to swim on her own, only for her to be caught with a wracking cough.

The person behind her suddenly pulled their other arm up and thrust what they’d been carrying in it into Gaige’s chest. Instinctively grabbing it, she recognized it as Artemis’s emergency bag, so she held tight to it while she felt the other girl, now free from its weight, start dragging her more effectively.

Taking a second to try and look around, Gaige found that she still couldn’t see anything. It wasn’t just that it was black out, or the waves and rain were obscuring everything around her, but the water in her eyes wasn’t helping.

Still, after a few seconds of blinking she did see something rising out of the water next to them. About the same time, she realized that the waves, while still bad, were lessening, a fact that she hoped meant that the storm was dissipating.

She quickly realized that the shape rising next to her was another boat, a waterlogged and rotting boat.

“I’m gonna need your help.” A voice next to her ear called out, straining to be heard over the wind.

Turning she spotted Artemis’s face next to her, so she called back “How?”

“Can you toss the bag over the side? No, forget it, we can’t afford to drop it. Just sling it on your back and cup your hands.”

Gaige was about to protest, it wasn’t that the bag weighed all that much, but it wasn’t inconsiderable either. But she quickly realized that the other girl probably knew what she was doing, so she got to work at getting the bag onto her back, while waiting for Artemis to continue.

After she got it secure, Artemis continued “Now, you’re gonna get dunked, sorry about that, but I need you to push me up as soon as my foot hits your hands.”

Gaige blinked at her. She didn’t get it, she had no idea what Artemis was trying to do, but she nodded anyway, figuring the girl knew what she was doing. As soon as she did, Artemis took a deep breath and submerged, surprising Gaige. She quickly wove her fingers together, kicking with all her might to try and keep above water.

Almost before her hands were locked, the water in front of her exploded upward and she felt a weight settle into her hands. Holding her breath and closing her eyes, she shoved upward as hard as she could, tossing Artemis out of the water, while simultaneously dunking herself.

Artemis shot out of the water and scrambled against the side of the boat, feeling the wood break off in her hands in rotting chunks. Starting to fall back, she managed to catch onto one of the metal supports that though it bent and flaked rust off into her hand, managed to hold her for long enough to pull herself onto the deck.

Not even giving herself time to catch her breath, she spun around and hung her torso back over the break in the side, jamming her cybernetic hand into the deck to hold herself while offering her right hand to Gaige.

Pulling with all her might, she managed to drag Gaige out of the water far enough for her to grasp onto the mushy side while she readjusted her grip and pulled her the rest of the way.

They sprawled onto the deck, ignoring the slimy texture pressed into their backs and let the warm rain pour onto them. Eventually they had to sit up and look around.

“Where are we?” Gaige asked, looking at the shadowy shapes around her. From where she was, she could make out the fact that the boat was considerably larger than the one they’d been on. It had an enclosed area in front of them, no doubt where the pilot would be, as well as a way below deck.

“We should try to get inside,” she declared.

Artemis nodded and sat up, clothes sticking to her awkwardly. Doing her best to ignore everything around her, she pushed herself onto her feet and staggered around the cabin till she found the door. Grabbing the knob, she turned it, surprised that it wasn’t locked and pushed, only for nothing to happen. She tried again, but the door didn’t even rattle. Pushing on it as hard as she could, she noticed water oozing out of the wooden frame and realized that the wood had swollen with the waterlogging it was suffering from.

Stepping back, she took a moment and then kicked it as hard as she could with her cyber-leg, only for the force to knock her off her feet as her right foot slipped on the wet deck.

Landing hard on her back, she wheezed slightly, before breaking into a fit of coughing as she inhaled the rain. Rolling onto her side, she kept coughing till Gaige made it to her.

“You alright?”

“In a minute.”

“Oh, then get on your feet, we can rest inside.” Gaige said with a smile, holding her hand out.

After pulling the other girl up, Gaige turned back to the door. The truth was, she’d seen the other girl fall and hadn’t know whether to rush over or laugh at her, which was why she was covering for it with a bit of snark.

“So how we gonna open this thing?”

“Well kicking it didn’t work.” Came the bitter reply. “Give me a hand.”

Artemis twisted the knob again and slammed her shoulder into the door. After bouncing off painfully, she glared at Gaige.

“Oh, sorry. Let’s go again.”

This time they both hit the door and with a horrible shriek, the wood gave and they went sprawling in.

“Ow.”

Gaige rolled a little to the side and gave the door a shove with her foot, swinging it closed as best she could, but the wind blasted it back open, spraying them with rain. Grumbling, she sat up and used her back to push it closed.

Setting the bag down next to her, she turned to Artemis, who was still coughing and sympathetically said “Yeah, when I get water in my lungs, it always takes a while to get it clear.”

Artemis nodded and sat back, motioning for the bag. As soon as Gaige handed it over, the girl started pulling things out of it.

“Shouldn’t you wait till we’re somewhere a little less…damp?”

“If anything could’ve been damaged by some water, it would’ve been wrecked a long time ago.”

“Yeah, point.”

She watched in silence as Artemis pulled her ECHO out and quickly keyed it in, only to curse. “Damn, no signal. I don’t know if it’s the storm interfering, the island, or if it’s just the planet?”

“Let’s hope it’s the storm. Can you figure out where we are?”

“Not really, but it looks like there’s a network on the island itself. We’re either too far away, or the storm’s messing with reception too much for me to get a proper signal, so I can’t tell what it’s for.”

“Sounds like a good reason to head in, not that we weren’t anyway. So, what else do you got in that bag of yours anyway? And speaking of the bag, how’d you grab it anyway?”

“When we went over, I dove for it.”

“Wait, so you weren’t down there for me?” Gaige didn’t know whether to be offended that she ranked below the bag or grateful to it cause it caused Artemis to dive.

“Well, I had no way of knowing that you were in trouble, but I knew that we’d be if we didn’t have the bag.”

“I know, it’s just, well…”

“Sorry.”

“For what? You saved me. Again.”

“No. I’m sorry that you weren’t the first thing I went down for.”

“Nah, you’re right, I should’ve been fine. I’m just glad that you spotted me. I mean, I couldn’t see nothing down there.”

“Yeah, it was dark, wasn’t it? Not that it’s light up here mind you. Hold on a second.”

She rooted around in the bag some more and a second later a soft bluish light suddenly illuminated the cabin as she came out with one of her lanterns.

“Nice. Got another one?” When Artemis shook her head, Gaige just shrugged “Oh well, one’s better than I had. What else you got in that thing?”

Artemis continued going through the bag, pulling items out as she did. “Let’s see, there were two pistols, with five reloads each.” She said, placing the two Jakobs pistols in front of her. They were both heavy ones, much like what she usually carried. In fact, Gaige recognized one of them as the one they’d found on the ‘Ranger’s Iron’.

“I’ve got a pair of shields, a couple, let’s see, six Insti-health vials.” She set them out in a line before continuing to pull things out. Gaige saw a couple of canteens, a lighter, a number of emergency rations, two tool kits, one for cybernetics and the other more generalized and a knife that she’d seen Artemis use to skin an animal once.

She looked it over and was immediately tempted to say ‘Not much’ but it was still way more than she’d brought, so she swallowed the comment, instead opting to be more positive “Well, looks like we’re gonna have to be a bit frugal with our supplies. Still, good job bringing this much.”

Artemis looked a bit pleased, but also depressed, which caused Gaige to think ‘Now what?’ but she knew that that comment wouldn’t help so she placed a hand on the other girl’s shoulder and when she looked up said “It’s way better then what I thought to bring, so quit being so down on yourself, you did good.”

She got a nod, but could tell there was still something bothering Artemis, but she’d had enough experience to know that it would be difficult to drag it out of her, and no doubt even harder to beat it into her head that whatever it was, was wrong.

Deciding to put that off, even though she knew it probably wasn’t the best idea, she helped repack the bag before looking around.

With the light of the lantern, she could see the small cabin they were in, the steep stairs leading down, the couple of steps up to where the control panel was, the way the wood was covered in blackish-green slime which made her skin crawl, especially since her back was still pressed up against the wet door.

Her immediate thought was to bolt away, to dive back outside and wash whatever was clinging to her off, but she resisted, instead opting to speak up.

“We can’t stay here forever, I mean, we might be able to try and weather the storm, but this door won’t close again so unless someone stays holding it or we find something to block it, we’re gonna flood. So why don’t you do a quick once over, see if you can’t find anything useful, like a radio or anything like that and I’ll stay here, unless you wanna take my spot, which I certainly wouldn’t say no to.”

To her disappointment, Artemis took the lantern and proceeded down the stairs.

From her position by the door, Gaige could hear the sounds of stuff being shifted around, alongside some splashing. It went on like that for a while, causing her to start to worry, she didn’t like being forced to try and imagine what the noises meant, so she was relieved when the glow of the lantern got brighter again.

Soon Artemis came back into view and quickly climbed the stairs.

“Find anything?” Gaige asked, not even waiting till the other girl had reached her.

“Jeez, impatient much?” Came the reply “And yeah, I did find a few things, but you’re not gonna like them.”

“Well, why change the day now.” Came the muttered reply “So, lay it on me.”

“First, we can’t stay here, the boat’s sinking. Not fast mind, but the water was getting noticeably deeper as I went. So, we’ve got a bit of time, but we’re gonna wanna be outta here within fifteen minutes or so, just puttin that out there.”

“Great, so any good news?”

“Not really, but while I was down there, I did think of something I wanted to look for.” She walked up to where the pilot would’ve been and crouched down, rooting through things till she grabbed something off the shelf. “Here we are.”

“What? What’d you find?”

“Flare gun.”

“Oh, that’s it?”

“Hey, it could be useful.”

“Not anyone we can signal to, is there?”

“Not right now, no. But in the future? Who knows? Besides, it makes one more weapon to have.”

“Seriously? You’re gonna try and shoot someone with a flare gun?”

“If it comes to that, yes.”

Gaige stared at her for a few seconds, before sighing “Yeah, you’re right. Bag it up. But you really didn’t find anything else down there? Like clothes?”

“No, the dresser and stuff was already underwater.”

“Oh, shoot.”

“I gotta ask, if you were looking for something like that, why didn’t you insist on going?”

Gaige turned away, not wanting to admit the truth, but she knew that she owed Artemis at least that much so she turned back and said “Cause I was worried. I figured that there’d be booze down there and I didn’t think I could resist at the moment.”

“Oh, well, good call then.”

“You found some?”

“Yeah, but it was all low proof stuff, like beers and wine, nothing flammable or useful for disinfectant. Well, we should get going before we go under.”

“About that, I was wondering something.”

Artemis raised an eyebrow, as if to say ‘go on’.

“Well, it’s just, why are we sinking now? I mean, this ship’s been here a while, right? So, why’s it sinking now?”

“Hmm, first off, I don’t know, but I can guess. Second, who says that it’s been here a while, it could’ve been pushed in by the storm.”

“Alright, fine. It could’ve.”

“But if it hadn’t, it’s probably our fault.”

“Are you suggesting that our weight caused this?”

“Yes and no.” She quickly held up a hand to forestall Gaige’s angry rebuttal and continued “Us getting on would’ve wiggled it, not to mention us forcing the door. Plus, us just moving around on it could’ve wiggled it loose. I mean, if it was pierced by a rock, but the rock was plugging the wound, then it wouldn’t have leaked all that much. Maybe the weight of the water it had taken on was holding it down enough to seal it, I don’t know, but when we got on, we shifted it off, caused the weight to start shifting and now it’s filling up.”

“Or maybe the storm did it.”

“That could be as well.”

“Damn, I’m supposed to be the engineer here, why didn’t I think of that?”

“Probably cause you’re too smart. You were looking at it logically, why would something that hasn’t’ changed, change on its own. Since I don’t know any better, I thought of a solution.”

“The burden of being too smart for my own good, eh? Well, I guess that’s better than the opposite. Enough of this, let’s go.”

She double checked that Artemis was ready and had the bag secured and then stood up, letting the door blow open along with a wave of rain. She wished she had goggles as she held an arm up and stepped outside. Artemis followed along after her, holding her lantern aloft.

“You think that’s a good idea?” Gaige shouted over the wind.

“What?”

“I asked if you thought that was a good idea.”

“I heard you, I was asking was what a good idea, not what did you say.”

Gaige rolled her eyes and replied “Is having the lantern out a good idea?”

“Why, you think there’s someone out there that might see us?”

“No, I was worried about you dropping it. Why would anyone seeing us be a bad thing?”

“That’s what I was wondering, and yeah, dropping it would be bad, but it’s tied to my wrist. Plus, we need to see, at least a little bit.”

Gaige couldn’t argue with that and struggled to look around. “That might be, but I still can’t see anything in all this rain.”

“I can. It seems like a lot of ships are out that way.” She motioned off the bow and a bit to port.

“Great, so what do we do?”

“I think we’re gonna have to repeat the Garden.”

“Oh, that’s just great.” Gaige shouted back, immediately understanding what Artemis was meaning.

Bracing herself, she followed the light as it started running towards the edge of the boat and leaped into the storm. Gaige waited until she was sure the light landed before following along, grateful to Artemis for waiting for her.

A few times she slipped and Artemis had to grab her and help her back up, but fairly quickly the boats got closer together, to the point where they could just step off the side of one of them and onto the deck of the next, though a few times they had to climb up. Most of the ships were smashed, leaving only jagged chunks above water. They figured that the years of storms and tides had crammed them together till they broke apart, which meant that they had to pick their way around them and on a few occasions, carefully climb over and across the chunks, which was a nerve-wracking affair.

Each time they made it to a bigger boat that was still intact, they took a short break to try and break in and see if they could find anything useful. Boat after boat they tried yielded them nothing. Each radio was either broken or couldn’t get through. There were no guns, though Artemis did keep adding flares to her collection, along with another gun. The best they found was a floral button-up shirt for Gaige, which immediately stuck to her skin, but was still better than just the bikini top she’d been wearing.

Eventually they found a pier, the wood long since splintered and rotting, but it was still secure enough for them to be able to make their way towards land. It went on for quite a ways, making them wonder how many boats were supposed to be able to dock there at one time, but eventually they made their way to solid land.

They were glad to have the hard stone under them after the roiling of the sea. Despite being drenched in rain and potentially slippery, the fact that they didn’t have to worry about falling into the water was a huge weight off their minds.

Gaige just about fell to her knees the instant she got there and Artemis crouched down next to her. After making sure that Gaige was fine, she lowered the light and looked at the ground.

Used to the weirdness of her friend, Gaige gave her a second before asking “What?”

“I don’t know. It almost looks like there’s something here.”

Gaige looked down to where Artemis was running her fingers over the fake stones that made up the path. It didn’t take her long to spot what she was meaning, at the center of each ‘brick’ was something, but it was faded with years of wear and covered in algae and moss to the point of being entirely obfuscated. Moving to the next ‘brick’ she found the same. Even when she tried wiping the growth away, she still couldn’t make out what it was, so she just shrugged.

“Looks almost like a logo or something,” Artemis said, barely audible over the storm.

“Well, whatever it is, we’re not gonna be able to figure it out here, maybe we can find a more intact one further away from the beach. Or if not, maybe some shelter.”

Artemis nodded, but her face looked a bit reluctant. Still, she stood up and started walking. Before long posts began to pop out of the darkness. They were short, only about waist high, with the black paint flaking off. They had half-rings welded onto either side near the top and after walking through the posts for a little ways, they started encountering ones with chains running from one to the next.

Gaige stood in front of the first one for a second, looking both ways, trying to decide which way to go, but Artemis just ducked under it and kept going, prompting Gaige to follow.

It didn’t take long for something to start coming into sight ahead, but it was too dark to make out at first. After crossing another few of the stanchions they started going straight ahead and soon the massive form emerged from the darkness.

The structure arched above them with small dividers straight ahead. Each box-like space was set next to a gate. Artemis stepped forward, holding her lantern aloft and across the top they could barely make out what appeared to be a stylized Ramaloo and beneath it, some words that spelled out W__CO_E TO CE_O WON__WORL_.

Chapter 5

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Entrance

“Ce…what?” Gaige said, one hand shielding her eyes from the rain as she struggled to make out what the sign said.

“I think it says ‘Welcome to Ceto Wonderworld’, though I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean.”

“Ceto, Ceto,” Gaige murmured “I think I’ve heard that name somewhere before, but I can’t place it.”

She turned and looked at Artemis, who was looking at the gate with a sense of trepidation. “You wanna go in? See if we can’t find something useful, or at least somewhere to wait out the storm.”

Artemis shrugged “Don’t see that we have a choice.”

“Yeah, I know. Well, no use bitching about what we can’t change, so you want me to take the lead on this one?”

“No, I’ve got the light.”

Gaige nodded, she knew she could offer to take it, but she figured that with Artemis’s eyes, not to mention the fact that she still had her goggles, she should be in front, not that Gaige liked it.

Artemis walked forward with a confidence she didn’t feel, it wasn’t that she was unused to going into the unknown, but it never got easier. She was always weighed down by the sense that something was about to go wrong, which it often did.

She made it up to the gate and looked around, the clear teller booth was covered in a thick layer of mold and mildew, built up from the corners. She resisted the urge to wipe it away, not because she was afraid of finding a corpse on the other side, but because she just didn’t see any reason to, the few of these things she’d encountered had just entered from the back so there was no reason to try to see in from this side.

The gate blocking her path was a simple turnstile at waist level that refused to budge when she pushed against it. Looking around, she placed her hands on either side and hopped the bar, hoping that there wasn’t any kind of alarm. She didn’t see any lights on around the area, so she figured that the place must be shut down, but didn’t trust her luck on that, so she held her breath and hopped over.

Nothing happened so Gaige joined her. As soon as they were on the same side again, they started looking around, but the darkness and the rain made it difficult. Artemis could just make out that the area widened a bit and that there was something out there, but she couldn’t see what. Gaige couldn’t even see that much. They both looked at the back of the ticket booth, hoping to find a radio inside, instead they found a solid wall. Taking another look at it, Gaige realized that the booth must have had a subterranean access, probably so that the guests wouldn’t see the workers changing shifts.

Turning back, she found Artemis looking around, her expression a bit hard to read behind her goggles, but her posture was that of confusion. Eventually she spoke up and asked “What is this place?”

“It’s an amusement park.”

“A what?”

“Wait, you’ve never been to an amusement park?”

Seeing the other girl shake her head, she tried again “They’re also called theme parks.”

Again, Artemis shook her head which left Gaige feeling a bit confused. How had she lived her entire life without going to one, and for that matter, how was Gaige supposed to explain them to her?

“So, uh, they’re these places you go, usually with your family or with someone special or sometimes on a school trip, but they’re filled with rides and things, you know, like overpriced food and souvenirs, as well as shows and things.”

“Why would you want to go to a place like that?”

“Cause it’s supposed to be fun.”

“Then why haven’t we gone to one?”

“Well, we are. Joking aside, it’s cause I didn’t really think of it. Plus, they’re seriously overpriced, so I doubt we’d have a good time there.”

“Oh. But then why do people go?”

“Cause you’re supposed to forget about how much money you’re spending and make good memories.”

“Ah. Well, I guess that makes sense.” She looked around as if she could see anything and asked “So, where should we go?”

“How would I know?”

“Well, you sounded like you’d been to one of these before, so I was just thinking you might have an idea.”

“I haven’t been to this one,” Gaige snapped “It’s not like they’re all the same you know.”

“Oh, I guess that makes sense. So, should we look for a map? Or maybe one of those shops you mentioned?”

“Yeah, I guess either of them would be fine.” She scrunched up her face, as if trying to dig something out of the recesses of her mind “Yeah, I think they should have a map somewhere around here, probably straight ahead. Least I think the one I went to did. Don’t give me that look, it was like fifteen years ago or something, be glad I can remember anything at all.”

“If you can’t remember it, then why’d you go.”

“Cause it was fun at the time,” Gaige snapped before spinning and storming off.

Artemis rushed and caught up with her as they walked down the middle of the area. She thought they should probably be walking closer to the side, at least to find out what was there, but it seemed that Gaige didn’t want to risk missing whatever it was she was looking for in the rain.

They went forward far enough that Artemis was sure they’d missed whatever it was they were looking for and was about to speak up, when she spotted something in the rain, a faint glinting of something reflecting the light of her lantern. She tapped Gaige on the shoulder and pointed. Gaige squinted that direction, but couldn’t find it, so she just shrugged and motioned for Artemis to take the lead.

They moved in that direction and soon enough Gaige spotted what the other girl had and picked up her pace, which still wasn’t all that fast, neither of them were wearing good footwear, so they both had to be conscious of their footing, especially with all of the puddles and running water partially concealing the cracking and broken stones they were walking on.

Soon enough though, they saw a large board emerge from the darkness. The bits of glass that were exposed amongst the moss had been what Artemis had spotted from the distance. Most of the surface was covered in green and the rest of it didn’t seem to be very clear, making Artemis wonder what had happened to it, but as she got closer, she realized that it was just that the case wasn’t entirely waterproof and whatever was inside must have been absorbing the moisture for years.

She knew better than to get her hopes up as they approached it, when she detected motion behind them. Instinctively ducking, she saw something large moving around both sides of her, trying to capture her between them.

She rolled away even as the arms closed in, at least she thought they were arms, they were too large to be proper arms, but they moved like they were.

Coming to her feet, she spun around, facing her attacker when a flash of lightning illuminated it and caused her to take an involuntary step backwards.

The creature was monstrous, standing more than two full heads taller than her and was as broad as it was tall, inhumanly so. Its skin appeared to have been covered in ratty fur that was matted down before it had been soaked and was dark, that was all she could tell in the split second of illumination.

But the real horror of the thing was the fact that it was dead. The skin on its face was torn open, revealing a gleaming skull underneath. One of its arms was similarly torn open, the hand groping towards her exposed and skeletal.

Wasting no time, she backed away, but out of her peripheral, she realized that Gaige wasn’t realizing the danger they were in, slowly turning to see what her friend was up to.

The creature turned to the closer girl and started moving forward, forcing Artemis to shove Gaige from behind to throw her out of the beast’s range.

She heard a muffled yelp, but ignored it, trying to keep the thing in sight as the darkness deepened thanks to her dark-vision being blown out by the lightning.

She felt more then saw the creature lunge for her again and threw herself back on instinct. The creature chased after, moving stealthily for its size, but she realized that it wasn’t that the creature was being quiet, but that her hearing was being overwhelmed by the storm.

She was so used to being able to hear her enemies approaching that she’d nearly missed this one and the next time she tried to back off, her foot caught on something and the beast’s skeletal hand raced for her, nearly catching her and tearing at her shirt.

Falling hard, she did her best to roll with it, but when she started coming up, she felt something slam into her side. For a brief second, she freaked out, thinking it was another one of the undead creatures, but she quickly realized that it was some kind of pillar sticking out of the ground.

The creature shambled at her, letting loose a strange noise as it did, something that almost sounded like laughter.

‘I need a weapon.’ flashed through her mind as her hands scrambled around, trying to find anything. But despite how dilapidated the park was, she couldn’t find anything, no trash, no derbies, nothing.

She continued scrambling backwards as she searched and eventually, she had to concede that she wasn’t going to find anything, so she rolled to the side as the creature came close and came up to her feet popping her Digi-blade as she did.

Holding the blade behind her, she wished she could take the time to wipe her goggles, but she didn’t want to lose sight of the creature, even for a second.

It stopped and turned its misshapen head towards her. It lunged at her suddenly, bringing its arms up and reminding her of one of the horror movies Gaige had made her watch. Taking inspiration from it, she lunged forward, bringing her right arm up and grabbing onto the rotting fur of its arm and tried to hold it away from her, but the flesh sloughed off as it displayed amazing strength. But she’d bought enough time to bring her Digi-blade up on the other arm, severing it near the elbow.

Ducking under the remaining arm as it tried to grab her, she waited for it to turn back before diving forward, driving her blade into its stomach. Like she’d expected, it didn’t do anything to stop the creature, so she slashed upward, slicing the creature from its stomach through the top of its head, splattering her with chunks as it staggered back and fell over.

Not wasting any time, she dove back to where she’d run into the pillar stuck out of the ground and slashed at it. It took a few strikes, but eventually it came loose. Grabbing it in both hands, she strained to lift the heavy stone and took a few steps till she was over the still thrashing monster.

With a roar of her own, she lifted the pillar as high as she could and slammed it down on the creature’s head, obliterating it in a gory splatter. Not stopping there, she grabbed the pillar again and lifted it up, slamming it down on the creature’s torso.

Staggering back, she panted, trying to catch her breath as she felt the rain dragging the chunks of it off of her.

“What the hell was that?” Gaige asked, moving up next to her “And are you alright?”

“What. Do. You. Think. That. Was?”

“Donno, didn’t get a good look at it before you smashed it up, what with you shoving me out of the way.”

“Would you’ve preferred me letting it eat you?”

“I wasn’t complaining, I’m grateful, really, it’s just that I didn’t get a chance to see it because of that is all. So, what did you see?”

“Well, you’re not gonna believe me.”

“Try me.”

“Zombie.”

“You’re right, I don’t believe you.”

Artemis threw her hands up.

“You really believe it was an undead?” Gaige asked, trying to find some kind of middle ground with her friend.

“Well, it’s head was half rotted off, so was one of its arms. And when I slashed it, it didn’t bleed, instead I got splattered with chunks.” She motioned to her front.

“That’s pretty compelling, but couldn’t it have been something else?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t get a look at it, it’s just that I don’t believe in zombies.”

“Fine, it’s over there.”

“Yeah, I know. Bring the light so that I can see what I’m looking at.”

“Still amazed you wanna examine it,” Artemis muttered.

“And I’m amazed that you don’t wanna know what we’re up against.”

They walked over to where the thing lay smashed on the ground, the rain washing across it. In the light, Gaige could see the arm laying out to the side, the flesh peeled off exposing the gleaming internal structure.

It took her a minute to realize what was wrong with that, “What kind of bones gleam like that?”

“Like what?” Artemis asked, brow furrowing as she looked over at the corpse. Seeing the arm in question, her brow knit together even tighter, “That doesn’t look right.”

“I know, that’s why I’m asking. How’d you miss that anyway?”

“Oh shut up, I was in the middle of fighting for my life, it wasn’t as if I could just say ‘excuse me, may I have a second to examine you and figure out what you are’ could I?”

Gaige shook her head and crouched down and let out a snort a second later.

“What?” Came the peevish question from behind her.

“I think you killed the greeter,” Gaige said, indicating the destroyed robot in front of her.

The outer covering of faux fur was matted with years of neglect, the foam underneath was waterlogged and rotting, but the metal endoskeleton was still gleaming within. On top of the metal were plastic parts attached to bulk it up. Bits of electronics were visible where Artemis had smashed them and oil was slowly leaking out.

“That thing wasn’t trying to greet me,” Artemis snapped, “It was trying to kill me.”

“Maybe you just mistook what its intent was.”

“Mistook!?” She cried, tugging on her torn shirt “Does this look like a mistake to you?”

“Well, possibly. I mean, it could’ve been malfunctioning slightly, I mean, it doesn’t look like it’s had its maintenance kept up, so it could’ve been trying to stop you from falling and getting hurt.”

“Are you serious?” Artemis nearly shrieked, voice skyrocketing in pitch “I think I can tell the difference between something trying to attack me and something trying to do…whatever it is you’re suggesting that this was trying.”

Gaige nearly snapped back that she wondered about that, she really didn’t think that Artemis would’ve mistaken a friendly gesture for an attack, but she had seen and felt how she reacted to a friendly hug, one that she’d known was coming, so she had to wonder. Instead of answering, she shrugged and immediately regretted it as the other girl’s face started to contort in anger.

Just as Gaige was about to try and say something to make things better, Artemis’s head snapped up and she looked off to one side. Following her gaze, Gaige couldn’t see what she was reacting to, so she whispered as loud as she dared “What?”

“Well, if you really think that thing was only here to greet us, you’re about to get your chance to prove it.”

She motioned subtly and out of the rain Gaige spotted movement. Slowly shapes shuffled into sight, a few of them looked a bit like the thing that Artemis had killed, which looked like it might have once been a Ramaloo, but the rest looked like they were supposed to be different creatures, though Gaige couldn’t figure out what since they were all rotting and falling apart, which she had to concede, made them a bit horrifying.

She stood up and stepped forward, trying to squash down the murmuring voice that told her to run. Holding a hand up she smiled as best she could and said “Hi. Sorry about your friend here, bit of a misunderstanding. Funny story really…”

She trailed off as the voice grew louder. There was clearly something wrong with the animatronics coming at her. It wasn’t just how they moved, which was odd, but she could chalk up to lack of maintenance, and it wasn’t that they weren’t speaking, she could hear a few trying, but couldn’t make out what they were trying to say. It was something else, something more primal. It wasn’t bloodlust, but something close, something that sent the hairs on her neck standing up, an old danger sense.

Before she could figure out what exactly it was, one of them stepped forward and lunged at her, causing her to leap to the side. In an unexpected move, one appeared out of the rain in the direction she’d just fled. She didn’t think it had been planned, just bad luck on her part, but she still didn’t have enough time to avoid it as the rotting arms closed in around her, pinning her to its body.

A wave of stench hit her, rolling off the thing, damp and rot and something else, something worse, a different kind of rot. It was enough to make her gag even as she struggled to break free.

The thing turned away from the rest and started carrying her away. As it did, something suddenly landed on its back, knocking it forward. Gaige couldn’t move to try and see what it was, she was struggling to not just break free, but to get her face out of its chest so that she could breathe.

She heard a ripping noise, followed by sparking and realized that Artemis must have slashed at the thing, probably the back of its neck, judging by the way its head started twitching. Hearing a curse over the storm, she felt the body shudder again as the other girl slashed at it again.

This time one of the arms loosened and fell away, allowing Gaige to twist and break free, though she lost her shirt in the process. Staggering back, she saw one of the things arms hanging free, connected by only a thin strip of fur and a few cables.

As the thing turned and tried to grab her again, she watched the arm twist and spin and something inside gleam oddly. It didn’t look right for metal, but she couldn’t place it.

As she was trying to, a hand grabbed onto her arm and she nearly shrieked until she realized it was Artemis.

“Come on!”

With a tug, the smaller girl tried to get her moving. They turned and ran, not having the weapons to fight the robotic creatures, they chose to fall back until they could figure out what was going on.

Running into the darkness, they held an arm up, trying to shield their faces as they ran, hoping they didn’t run into anything on the wide path as they fled deeper into the park.

Chapter 6

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Main Entrance

“We need to stop,” Gaige huffed, trying to catch her breath. It wasn’t that she was out of shape, it was that she hadn’t had enough time to catch her breath after nearly suffocating in the animatronics’ fur.

“Might be a good idea.”

They slowed down and looked around, trying to see anything in the gloom. So far, they’d been lucky and hadn’t run into any more of the robotic creatures, but neither of them thought their luck would hold.

“Where are we?”

“Where…you were the one leading, how would I know?”

“I was trying to save you from those…those…things.”

“Well why didn’t you lead us to the entrance then?”

“Cause they were between us and it, besides, I don’t recall you trying to change our path.”

Gaige stopped the reply she was about to hurl and sighed, Artemis was right, she hadn’t tried to do anything, she’d been so glad not to be near that animatronic anymore that she’d bolted away from it without thinking. She hadn’t thought about where they were going, only about getting as much space between her and it as she could.

Letting out a breath, she realized something else she had to do, something she never liked, but needed to do for the sake of not just her relationship, but herself, apologize.

“You’re right, I didn’t do anything and I shouldn’t blame you, you did the best you could in the moment, which was better then what I’d done.” She rolled the next words around in her mouth, like she was trying to feel their shape and didn’t like them “Also. Sorry, you were right about those things not being friendly. Don’t rub it in my face, but they certainly weren’t friendly.”

Artemis nodded “Are you sure that it wasn’t just trying to give you a hug? I hear that’s supposed to help calm a lost child.”

“I ain’t a damn lost child!”

“Maybe its programming’s a bit screwy.”

“I think your programming’s a bit screwy,” Gaige muttered. “Look, I’m sorry I doubted you, can you just drop it and let’s move on?”

“Fine. But we need to know where we are.”

“We could keep looking for another of those ‘You are here’ signs.”

“How often do they have them?”

“Donno, it’s been a while since I’ve been to a place like this and it’s not like I was one to pay attention to them anyway.”

“Great. So, we can either go forward or back.”

“Let’s try and go forward, see if we can’t loop back around to the entrance and see if the things haven’t cleared out a bit and if not that, at least see if we can’t find a place to wait out the storm.”

“Before that we need to find a place to equip the best we can,” Artemis countered, jiggling the bag over her shoulder.

Gaige nodded emphatically and they continued walking, moving towards the edge of the path. As they got closer, they found a fence to keep people from getting on what had once probably held floral displays. Gaige could still see the outlines of the shapes and realized that they had once been artistic stylized directions for getting around the park, but now there were just enough stones and guides left to let her know what had once been there.

As happy as she was to have figured it out, it was also a bad sign cause it meant that there was less chance of there being an actual map around.

She followed Artemis for a ways as she walked, looking for somewhere to get out of the rain. Soon an archway came into view announcing Kirimu’s Playground. Stopping and looking through with a bit of trepidation, Artemis spoke up. “So, uh, what do you suppose this is?”

Gaige bit back her snark and just said “I donno.”

“There’s a sign over here.”

“Why didn’t you lead with that?”

“Cause I just saw it.”

“Fine, alright. What’s it say?”

Artemis shrugged and walked over to it. It, like the previous signs, was covered in plant-life so she wiped it away as best she could before raising the lantern and squinting at it. Gaige looked over her shoulder, but could only make out mildew and a number of different kinds of lichens growing inside.

“I think it says that the petting zoo is closed and then apologizes for the inconvenience, though there’s something else there, but I can’t make it out.”

“I couldn’t even make that out, so don’t feel bad.”

Artemis stepped back and looked into the area “You think we should try it?”

“No. That seems to be the kid area, so they’re probably going to have a fair number of the mascots wandering around in there. Probably more than the entrance in fact.”

“Right, so should we move on, try across the way or what?”

“Let’s see what’s over there before we make our call.”

They turned and walked across the wide path and soon a small area with a roof came into view. Grinning slightly, they ran over to it, being sure to keep an eye out for any more of the animatronics as they did.

As soon as they were out of the rain they started wiping their faces and arms off, flinging the water away. They both knew that it was a futile gesture, but it still felt good to at least lessen their wetness.

Artemis hopped up onto one of the tables there and started digging into her bag while Gaige looked around, trying to figure out what the area was for. Before Artemis had everything out and organized, she’d figured it out, off to the side was the entrance to one of the ride areas, she could make out the warnings for one of the roller-coasters, the usual, height, heart problems, pregnant woman and so on. Which meant that this was a waiting area for friends and family, no doubt one of the windows in the building would’ve also served overpriced food and drinks.

She couldn’t see any prices, which she figured would either be on the other side of the window, or had been taken down, maybe by the wind. Shrugging, she turned back and sat down across from Artemis and let her distribute the gear.

Gaige picked up the belt and ran it through the loops on her shorts, grateful that she’d worn them. Onto the belt, she attached the shield that Artemis handed her and as it fired up, she sighed, feeling the sense of security it imparted, but immediately after, her face fell.

“What?” Artemis said, looking up “That’s not the look of someone that wants to trade shields, so what is it?”

“Nothing. It’s just, well, I got this wave of relief when I fired the shield up, like I hadn’t really been able to relax without it. I know you know what I’m talking about, probably better than I do in fact, you didn’t even leave your shield behind at the beach.”

“You knew?”

“Of course I knew, we talked about this earlier, knew about the pistol as well. I’m not blaming you or anything like that, if anything I’m envious. You knew what you needed to feel secure, while I was fooling myself. That’s kinda what this is about, not really, but kinda. It’s just that, it’s a little hard to put into words so let me fumble around for a bit.

“I guess it’s that when I strapped the shield on, I felt complete, like I was whole again and could relax despite the environment we’re in, like I couldn’t be at peace without it and that kinda depressed me. I mean, is this what the rest of my life’s gonna be like? Am I gonna need to wear a shield everywhere, I mean, if I ever get married, will I need to be wearing a shield? Will you?”

“No.”

“Really? You think you’d be comfortable standing there without your shield?”

“No, of course not. I meant that I’m never getting married.”

“What! Why not? I mean, do you really think we’d never…or, uh, you know…”

“We?”

Gaige could see her blush despite the offness of the lantern light. “Sure, what’s wrong with me? I mean, I’m not proposing or anything like that, but we are kinda together and all that, so maybe someday, you know, if things work out.” She paused a moment and decided to take pity on the other girl “But that’s for a different time, my point was that I don’t even feel comfortable without a shield anymore, that I know I need it, that it’s somehow part of me at this point and that I’m so used to everything being dangerous, I feel naked without it.”

“Oh that, yeah, I get that. I mean, we both wore them when we were visiting your parents, right? I know that’s a fairly safe planet and all, but it was the same as the beach, I just felt like I couldn’t relax without it. Actually, it was better than the beach, at least there I could wear my shield, it’s kinda hard to strap it onto a swimsuit.”

Gaige smiled a bit sadly at that. The thought was amusing, and she understood, but the fact that they both knew that they wanted a shield, even on vacation, was still a bit of a downer. “Yeah, I hear that.”

Artemis nodded and pulled the pistols out of her bag. “Speaking of not being comfortable without.”

Gaige smiled ruefully at that, but waited for Artemis to choose which gun to keep. It didn’t take her a second to reach out with one of them in her hand. Gaige noticed that she’d kept the higher powered one, not that there was a lot of difference.

“Yeah, I’m keeping this one, if you don’t mind. I mean, you can have it if you want.”

“No, you’re right, you’ll get more use out of it.”

“You sure? It’s not like we’re actually gonna be able to use them that much anyway. We don’t have that many shots.”

She said it like an apology, which bothered Gaige. “Hey, it’s a heck of a lot more than I packed. Still, you’re right, we need to conserve ammo.”

“How many of those things do you think are out there?”

“No idea. I mean, I know I’m the only one that’s been to one of these parks before, but that was a long time ago and each place is different, so it’s a bit hard to tell, but if I had to guess, and mind you, this is just a very rough guess, including the ones that normally wouldn’t be out and all that, probably a hundred or more.”

“We’re gonna need more weapons.”

“I agree, but where are we gonna find them? It’s not like these places are sponsored by Marcus Munitions, though I did hear that he considered making his own theme park, idea fell through, but still, that woulda been something.”

Shaking her head, she turned back to the conversation at hand “But that’s not important right now, like you said, we need more weapons. I’m totally agreeing with that. But I gotta ask, why? It’s not like we’re planning on eliminating all of the animatronics that’re here, we just need to keep them away from us till we find some way off this island, some way to contact the outside and to wait for the storm to end, so why do we need to worry about getting more weapons that bad?”

Artemis looked at her like she was crazy, so Gaige quickly added “Like I said, I’m not arguing with you, I completely agree, I’m just pointing out another argument is all.”

“We need more weapons cause the ammo isn’t gonna last long in a fight and when it runs out, we’re screwed. It’s better to find weapons before we need them then after we’re outta ammo, so we shouldn’t even use the guns, except in emergencies, which means we need some other way to fight. It’s times like this that I wish we’d been able to bring Deathtrap along.”

“Only times like this? I’ve been lamenting leaving him behind since we left.”

“Yeah.”

“I mean, if he’d been along, we wouldn’t even have been in this mess, he probably would’ve just warned us about the storm and got us home.”

“Yeah. Or if I hadn’t been along, you woulda been fine.”

“If you hadn’t been along, I’d be dead.”

“No, you wouldn’t have even been out here.”

Gaige recognized what was happening, she’d seen it enough with Artemis, she was blaming herself. Gaige ground her teeth, she hated this, hated how the other girl never let herself off the hook for imagined slights, for things she had no way to control.

“You know something, you’re right, if you hadn’t been along, I wouldn’t have been here. I would be dead, quite a while ago in fact. So, knock it off, I only got through all of this cause I had you by my side, so accept the fact that we’re in this together and it’s nobody’s fault.”

“But”

“No buts. It’s the storm’s fault. Or whomever made this park. Or what about the resort, I mean, they let us go out without a guide and they should’ve warned us that there was a storm coming, I mean, how irresponsible can you get.”

“They might’ve warned us about the storm.”

“When?”

“Last night, I mean, there was a second announcement that they were gonna make, but we didn’t listen to it, we were more concerned with the fishing part to pay attention to whatever they said next.”

“OK, point, that’s an actual possibility. But my point also still stands, this is in no way your fault.”

Artemis shrugged, which nearly set Gaige off again, but the other girl turned away and finished setting things out, continuing like she hadn’t noticed Gaige’s response.

“We can’t conjure weapons from nothing, so we’re gonna have to keep an eye out for anything we can use. Speaking of which, did you notice how clean the place is?”

“Clean?” Gaige said, looking at the moss and ivy growing over the building and fences around them “You think this is clean?”

“Well, yeah. I mean, have you seen any trash around, any broken off pieces of building or fencing? Anything at all like that?”

“Uh, no. No, I haven’t, now that you mention it.”

“Yeah, I only noticed it cause I was looking for something to fight that first creature with.”

“I guess they’re still keeping the park clean.”

“Why’s that more creepy?”

“Don’t know, but you’re right, it is. So, let’s finish with this and get the heck outta here.”

“Right. Well, you know what else I’ve got, so what do you wanna do with it?”

“Remind me again what you’ve got.”

“Uh, alright. Let’s see, there’s the Insti-Health vials.”

“You got anything to hold them in?”

“Couple of cases.”

“In that case, give me half and a case and you take the rest.”

“Here. Next we’ve got a couple of tool kits.”

“Why don’t you hold onto the cybernetics ones and I’ll take the others.”

“Here, why don’t you take the knife.”

“You sure? I mean, I’m not very used to these things.”

“I’ve got my own.” She held up her arm, prompting Gaige to nod and take the knife, slipping it onto her belt “So all that’s left is the food and drink at this point. Oh, and the flare gun.”

“You hold onto all that.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, you’ll be better with the flares and the food and stuff might as well be kept in the bag.”

Artemis shrugged, slipping the flare gun into her belt before tying the bag closed and getting to work on gearing up. As she did, Gaige mulled over something and eventually said “I guess this should go without having to be said, but I’m gonna say it anyway. We don’t have enough supplies, food and medicine mostly. We should be good on water for a while, plus you had some kinda purification thing in there, right? Good, so like I was saying, we need to find more food and medicine if we’re gonna be stuck here for a while. If the weather clears up, you might be able to fish some, so that would help, but we have no idea if or when that’s gonna happen. Besides which, you’d need a pole and some bait, but we can worry about that if it comes to that. I guess what I’m saying is, like our ammo, be frugal.

“Actually, be more frugal then with the ammo. We can’t be using our Insta-Health’s for anything but an actual emergency. That also means we should be on the lookout for a medical station. There’s gotta be a number of them around the park, probably in some of these buildings, but we should hold off on breaking in for the moment, at least until we get further away from the entrance and all those animatronic monstrosities.

“Speaking of which, we should probably get going, not that I’m lookin forward to getting soaked again, but we can’t stay here much longer.”

Artemis nodded and slung the bag onto her back, as she did, Gaige looked at her with a familiar look, so she asked “What?”

“Nothing, I was just wondering how long you were planning on wearing that rag for?”

Artemis looked down at the torn t-shirt she was wearing and shrugged “Until I need it for something I guess, why, you want it for some reason?”

“No, just wondering if you’d noticed is all.”

“Well, I had, kinda hard to put on a belt without noticing.”

“Alright, alright, you’ve made your point, let’s go.”

They headed back into the rain, Artemis in the lead. They’d switched so that Gaige had the lantern at the moment. Artemis had insisted on it, since she had the only real weapon, so she figured that she should be the freest to fight as she could get. Gaige wasn’t happy about that, especially since she felt that the animatronics would be attracted to the light, but she understood.

“Do you think they can communicate with each other?” Artemis asked, keeping her voice low.

Gaige mulled it over a minute before answering “Maybe, I mean, if the park was still up and running, then the answer would definitely be yes. But the place’s been shut down for a while, so I don’t know if the central network’s still up or not.”

Artemis nodded and fell silent again. Now that she’d had a bit of time to think about their situation she’d come to an inescapable conclusion, one that she shouldn’t have been surprised by.

This was all her fault.

She should’ve known that someone like her couldn’t get the girl, that her not outright rejecting Gaige had caused all of this, it was the universe’s way of punishing her for stepping out of line. She’d known what she was doing was wrong, that she was just going to hurt her, but she’d wanted it so badly that she’d ignored the truth and now they were being punished.

She’d hoped that on Jaka, when she’d gone into the jungle alone, that if there was anything bad that would befall her, it would choose then to strike. She’d even gone as far as to speak aloud things she’d never say in public, but nothing had happened, so she’d started thinking that maybe Gaige had been right, that it was only in her head. She should’ve known that disaster would wait, to let her drop her guard before striking.

So here she was, stuck on an island of monstrous animatronics hell bent on killing them, alone and without much hope of survival. Despite that, she resolved to save Gaige one more time, to get her back to safety and then, if Artemis was still alive, end things. Tell her that she couldn’t do this anymore, couldn’t put her at risk for her own greed. She’d have to be strong, to stand up to Gaige, but she could do it, she had to. After all, if she couldn’t do this for the person she cared for the most, then there wasn’t any point in liking her.

She was so lost in thought that she nearly missed the path breaking off. It wasn’t as large as the one they were on, but it was still wide enough that a dozen people could walk shoulder to shoulder and not touch.

At first, she’d thought she’d wandered away from the edge of the path, but as she looked up, she spotted a large arcing sign over the path announcing what was down the path.

“Botanical Gardens.” Gaige read aloud, having followed the other girl’s line of sight. “You wanna check it out?”

“No. I don’t want anything to do with any kind of garden, not after the last one.”

“Aw come on, you know that was a completely different kind of garden, right? Doesn’t even count as the same thing.”

“I know that. But tell me something, what do these places have? You know, for guests to look at?”

“Plants. Usually pretty ones, or exotic ones. Think some of them have rare ones, like carnivorous ones, why?”

“And what do you think they’d look like without anyone to tend them? To keep the plants where they belong? I mean sure, they might all have died out. They might’ve been overrun by local plants, but what if they’re not?”

“Yeah, let’s keep going, gotta be something better ahead.” Gaige said, moving away from the side path.

As they resumed walking, Gaige ran a hand over her hair, pushing a few strands that were clinging to her face back into place. She was frustrated, things weren’t going well, not just here either.

As worried as she was about the strange behavior of the animatronics, she wasn’t entirely sure that they were homicidal. That didn’t mean she wanted to find out where they’d planned on dragging her off to, only that she was curious about what they were actually trying to do. After all, if they’d wanted to kill her, wouldn’t it have made more sense to do it there?

No. She felt like she was missing something, but since she couldn’t figure that out, not without either being captured by one of them or finding some kind of log, she put it out of her mind and went back to the problem that she’d been having. The same one that she’d been having since they’d met.

Artemis.

She’d thought they were at a good point, that they were moving forward, and she knew that they needed to move slowly due to the girl’s hangups, but she wished that Artemis would show some interest. She didn’t need to do anything major, but she hadn’t initiated anything. She hadn’t hugged Gaige on her own, hadn’t leaned into her while watching a movie, nothing.

To make matters worse, she wouldn’t allow any form of public displays, not sitting on the same towel on the beach, not leaning against each other, she barely let them eat at the same table. Gaige got the feeling that if there’d been more room, they would’ve sat at different places. And the few times Gaige had tried to hold her hand, she’d yanked away like she’d been burned.

Gaige knew that she needed to give her time, she really did, but it was so frustrating to not see any form of progress. And then this had happened.

She knew it was her fault, there really wasn’t any way to blame anyone else. She knew that this had all been her doing, from the choice of the planet, to the resort, even them going out fishing had been because she’d suggested it. So, them getting shipwrecked landed squarely on her shoulders, which meant that if anything bad were to happen, she’d be at fault.

That thought depressed her, that something might happen. She knew it was a possibility, that something bad might happen to one of them, that they might not survive, or at least not entirely intact and it worried her. There was always that possibility, she knew, that something might happen, but this was different, not just cause the chance was higher, but because it would be her fault and she didn’t know if she could live with that.

As she continued trying to resolve herself to help make sure that Artemis got through this alright, they walked a good ways, not really noticing the path gently curving. They had noticed that the wind was dying down and the rain was coming in more vertically, which really didn’t change much besides the direction they were getting hit from, but it meant some kind of shift, either in the weather or their environment that was affecting it, but since neither of them knew much about that, they didn’t give it much thought.

After a while a large shape emerged from the gloom. Upon closer inspection they realized it was a large faux sandstone wall, done up to look like a desert. Something about it looked familiar to them, especially Gaige, but she couldn’t place it until the large archway came into view.

Straddling the entrance to the area was a large pointed arch with a circle around it, the symbol of the Vault.

“You don’t suppose they built this place on a Vault, do you?” Artemis asked, like she didn’t believe it herself.

“No, I mean, who’d do that?” Gaige stated, though she had to wonder about it herself. She’d seen plenty of weird and stupid things in her years, so someone building an amusement park over a Vault wasn’t something she had to stretch to imagine, but she still didn’t think so.

She saw a sign on the side of the arch and as she stepped forward to examine it, something came out of the shadows and grabbed Artemis.

Chapter 7

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: The Great Vault Adventure

Something came flying out of the dark and hit Artemis from the side. She’d managed to spot it in her peripheral just as it attacked. Her left arm, which she’d been bringing up to attack with, was stopped by an incredibly strong force as the animatronic clamped down on it. The amount of force it was exerting on her arm would’ve been enough to break any normal arm, or at least twist it back painfully, but her cybernetic was far stronger than it looked, stopping the attempt, but the force was still strong enough to shove her backwards, feet sending sprays of water around them as they lost traction.

The creature continued forcing her back as it let out a strange noise, like it was laughing in a slow-witted way, a consent “Ehe, ehe, ehe.” that she found annoying even as it sent shivers up her spine.

Its head suddenly dove for her, as if it was trying to bite her, forcing her to jam her right hand against it in an attempt to stop it. She felt the damp fur surrounding its mouth squish and splurt out some kind of liquid as it tore loose from the under-structure, forcing her to readjust her grip to prevent it from biting her.

Feeling her back slam into the faux-stone wall, knocking the air out of her, Artemis struggled to push the thing back, but despite having her back braced on a wall, she couldn’t compete with the strength of the mechanical monster attacking her.

Gaige rushed forward the instant she’d seen the creature attack, only for her path to be cut off by another one of them. She didn’t recognize this one, it was different from the others, looking more like it had once been some kind of lizard instead of the furry ones they’d fought up till then.

She instinctively reached for her pistol, only for her to stop the instant her hand hit the unfamiliar grip, reminding her that she needed to conserve ammo, so instead she drew the knife Artemis had lent her.

She wasn’t overly fond of blades, having long preferred bludgeoning weapons like her hammer. There was something about the durability, the lack of finesse that appealed to her. Plus, she liked hitting things. She was always worried about the blades snapping if she struck wrong, the edge dulling if she hit something inside, the way the blood always sprayed across her that made her hesitate to strike with an edged weapon. She knew that it was a bit silly, blades were effective weapons, very effective, but she still had her preference.

Still, that didn’t matter if she couldn’t get her hands on a blunt object, so she’d have to make do with what she had.

She held the knife in front of herself, the way she’d seen others do, but quickly realized the fault in her plan. One of the main points of holding the knife out like that was so that your opponent could see it, to intimidate them. She knew there were other reasons, like to have it ready to strike and defend, but she also knew that the psychological aspect was important, but only against opponents that understood what they were facing.

Since she didn’t have the skill to back up her threat with the knife and her opponent probably didn’t understand what she was doing, she was really only making a fool out of herself, but it still made her feel a little better, so she maintained the stance even as she tried to figure out how she could win against the creature.

Despite using a different type of creature as the base, the creature was remarkably similar to the ones they’d encountered before, especially if she looked past the things’ appearance and focused on what the under-structure must’ve been like. Its arms were slightly shorter and its legs were slightly longer. It must’ve had something inside to control the tail, which she needed to look out for, but the basics would be the same. The only problem was she hadn’t had time to examine one of them, so she didn’t know what the basics were.

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Artemis get pushed back into the wall and struggle against her opponent. Gaige knew she needed to get over there and help, but she couldn’t figure out how to get past a metal monster with only a knife.

Was she going to have to use a few rounds from her pistol? She hoped not.

As she was hesitating, the lizard stepped forward, spreading its arms, whether to block her escape or to offer her a hug, she couldn’t tell, but it was in her way, so she didn’t care.

Lunging forward she ducked under one of the arms, slashing at the rotting covering in an attempt to cut it loose, if for no other reason then so that she could see what she was dealing with inside.

The material offered next to no resistance as it tore apart exposing the metal and plastic underneath. Spotting an important looking wire, she lunged for it, only to be slapped aside by the creatures’ tail, knocking her to the ground.

Artemis struggled against the rotting husk in front of her. Giving up on keeping her feet on the ground, she brought them to bear and started pushing against the creatures’ chest, only to have them keep slipping off as chunks of the fur came loose, sending her feet around the outside.

She kept going, if for no other reason then she’d eventually tear enough loose to find purchase, but as the last of it slid out of her way, she found that the inside was smooth metal and plastic that she couldn’t find much purchase on.

As she kicked against it, she felt her back sliding up the wall, which made her glad for the remnants of her shirt which was preventing her from getting abraded too badly. It still hurt, but it wouldn’t impede her.

It didn’t take long for her to be above the creatures’ head height looking down, from her new vantage she realized something stupid she could do and let go of the things head with her right hand and jumped over it, twisting her left arm around and out of the creatures grip.

Landing behind it, her feet went out from under her the instant they hit the wet ground.

Gaige rolled to her feet, shaking her arm where she’d been hit. The lizard turned and looked at her, making her realize that the thing had one rather severe limitation, it couldn’t turn its neck. She wasn’t entirely sure how to use that to her advantage, but she was going to try.

Darting towards it, she faked at its exposed side before diving around it the other way. Catching the tail that came wiping at her, she let her feet glide across the water to absorb most of the momentum and stabbed down, slicing the covering off of it.

Using one hand, she tore the material back and spotted the cable that contained the wires to control the tail. Stabbing the knife into the lizard’s back, she let it go and quickly pulled out one of the tools on her belt and with a quick, sure motion, snipped the bundle, causing the tail to droop.

Smiling to herself, she jumped onto the creature’s back. Now that it had lost its ability to fight behind it, she was free to get to work. Pulling the knife out, she sliced an opening in the back and started clipping wires till the creature started stuttering and shaking. Ignoring that, she spotted what she wanted and reached into the torso to grab the bundle of wires trailing out of an important looking box. With a yank, the lizard froze and toppled backwards, forcing her to leap off.

Looking away from her animatronic, Gaige saw Artemis roll backwards, avoiding getting grabbed again by the creature she was fighting. Darting forward, she slashed at its arm, cutting through something, but as she tried to fall back, she lost her footing on the slick ground and wasn’t able to avoid being caught by the other hand, which wrapped around her, pulling her into a one armed hug.

Gaige ran forward, but before she could get there, the animatronic froze up and slowly fell to the side. As it did, Gaige saw Artemis extract her hand from the creatures’ side where she must have jammed it in as it tried to hug her. Shaking it, she tossed the bits of wires and internals she’d yanked out and turned to see what Gaige was up to.

“Jeez, I guess you really don’t like to be hugged,” Gaige muttered.

It didn’t seem that Artemis had heard her, instead she was looking out into the dark while backing up slowly.

“What’s up?” Gaige hissed as soon as she got near enough to hear.

“There’s more of them.”

Gaige picked up the lantern from where it had fallen and held it up, catching the glinting of the creatures’ eyes in the light. There were dozens of them, moving through the rain at them.

Deciding that they couldn’t fight all of them at once, at least not with the tools at hand, the girls spun and fled under the Vault arch, racing away as fast as they could.

As soon as they were through the arch, they did a quick look around, trying to figure out which way to go. Despite the gloom they were able to make out something rising out of the dark. As they moved forward, they realized it was a tiered stone mesa so they went around.

Part way around, Artemis turned to the side and hustled over to something, causing Gaige to swear.

“What are you doing? We need to get outta here.”

“I know that, but there’s a map here.”

She grabbed the lantern and winced slightly, the back of her hand was rather scraped up from plunging into the animatronic, something she’d have to look at later, but right then, her attention was completely taken by the map.

It was only of the area, something called ‘The Great Vault Adventure’.

Part of her was disappointed that the area wasn’t shaped like a Vault symbol. Instead, it was an amorphous blob that widened as it went back, hooking out at the end. On the map she could make out just the edges of the next areas over, on those sides were additional exits, which she pointed out.

“Good catch. You think we should go for the Botanical Garden route?” Gaige asked, running a finger over the board, as if trying to memorize it.

“While they probably wouldn’t expect that as much, no.”

“Yeah, which I guess leaves us two choices, either we run a loop through this place or we go for this one that says it’s near the Wailing Winder, whatever that is.”

“There also looks to be some kind of rail system around here, maybe that could get us somewhere.”

“Oh yeah, that’s right, most of these places have some kind of transport to get around quicker, so that might be an option, but there doesn’t appear to be a station here, just the tracks going past.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“No, it’s a good spot, something to keep in mind. But we need to get outta here, like now. So, I guess we need to pick a direction and I for one think that exit would be the best.”

“Agreed.”

“Good, so we’re gonna need to go around this way, back to…what’s that say?”

“I think it says ‘The Typhon Deleon 4-D Extraordinary First Vault Experience’.”

“First, I don’t know how you even read that and second, what?”

“I donno, that’s what it says.”

“I’m not doubting you, I just don’t get it.”

“Yeah, well, neither do I. I mean, what’s 4-D anyway?”

“It’s…you know what, I’ll explain on the way, we need to get outta here. Path should go this way,” she traced a line around the area “And if things go wrong, we might need to duck into this Vault Hunter Adventure area.”

“Right, let’s go.”

They turned and started hustling down the path, hoping that they’d read the map right and that nothing had changed in the park since the map had been made. It helped that the place was relatively straightforward in its layout, with wide paths running around the area. What didn’t help was that they frequently crossed with others, mostly to allow guests to get around, but also to try and trap them in a maze so that they’d spend more time there, or at least that’s what Artemis was thinking.

The bit of the area they could make out was done up like a twisting sandstone canyon, which they had to admit did remind them a bit of Pandora, though the complete lack of bandit’s kind of ruined the impression for them, not that they weren’t grateful for the lack of psychos, they already had enough to deal with.

After they’d gone a ways, Artemis suddenly stopped and looked behind them.

“What?”

“Just checking, I mean this rain’s playing havoc on my hearing and this canyon’s not helping.”

“So, we good?”

“For the moment, so I guess I need to find somewhere to stop for a second.”

“Why? What’s up?”

Artemis held up her hand and said “I should probably wrap this up.”

Gaige looked at the hand in question and nodded. It wasn’t all that bad, nothing that would’ve required an Insti-Health even in a normal place and definitely not worth one when they were in short supply. Still, wrapping it up was a good idea since it was fairly scratched up.

“What happened to it?”

“Shoved it into one of these…things.” She sighed and looked around. “We really need to figure out what to call them.”

“You mean like their names? Maybe, but that might, I donno, humanize them or something.”

“Not likely, I mean, think of all the bandits whose names you knew, you still killed them, right? That’s my point. Ah, there’s a bench, come on.”

She headed over to where a beige bench was sitting at the side of the path and sat down, pulling the remains of her shirt off as she did. Popping her Digi-blade, she got to work cutting it into strips and after a moment started wrapping her wrist with one of them.

As she got near the end of the strip, she started trying to tie it when Gaige rolled her eyes and spoke up “Here, let me do that.”

She crouched down in front of the other girl and quickly tied the ends together. “That good? Not too tight or anything?”

“Yeah, it’s fine.”

“Good. Now what’re you doing?” She asked as Artemis started examining the bench.

“Just seeing something. Nope, this won’t do. What? We need weapons so I was seeing if the bench could be used for anything.”

“Ah, good idea, but unlikely.”

“Yeah, that’s what I figured out.” Came the slightly bitter response. Abandoning the idea, she stood up only to have Gaige grab her shoulder and turn her around.

“What happened?” Gaige asked, her brow furrowing as she stared at her friend’s back.

“What do you mean?” Artemis asked, trying to look over her shoulder to see what she was talking about.

“Your back, it’s scrapped up something awful.”

“Oh that? Kinda pushed myself up a wall while fighting that creature back there. It shouldn’t be too bad, I mean, it won’t interfere with my ability to do anything, though I might be a bit stiff in the morning.”

Gaige cursed under her breath and glared back the way they’d come from.

“It’s nothing, let’s go.”

Nodding reluctantly, Gaige allowed herself to be led away from the area. They headed around the path in silence for a bit until Artemis looked up and said “It’s really dark, isn’t it?”

“You’re just figuring that out now?”

“No, I mean, this storm…you know what, forget it.”

“No, I’m sorry. What were you asking?”

Artemis was silent long enough that Gaige worried that she’d screwed up and the conversation was over, but eventually she spoke up “It’s just that this storm, it’s been going awfully hard for a while now. I mean, I’ve seen storms that last for years, but I wouldn’t think they’d make a resort on a planet like that. Plus, it’s gotta be awfully dense to block out the sun like this.”

“Ah, yeah. That makes sense.” Gaige looked up, feeling the rain pounding on her face “Maybe it’s a seasonal thing?”

“Whatever it is, it sucks.”

Gaige gave a snort of laughter at that. She needed the laugh, this place was wearing her down, the dark and the creatures jumping out of it were starting to get to her. It wouldn’t be so bad if she were properly armed, heck, that might actually be a bit of fun, but with nothing to defend herself, she felt like she had to constantly be ready to flee. And then there were the creatures themselves, it wasn’t like she wasn’t used to fighting robots, but there was something about these ones that put her off. Maybe it was the fact that they weren’t designed for combat that was messing with her. Maybe it was the way they reminded her of the shows she’d watched as a kid, but turned into a rotting nightmare that made her want to run, but whatever it was, she didn’t like it.

As she was thinking that, Artemis suddenly stiffened and motioned with her hand to get Gaige’s attention. Freezing where she was, Gaige looked cautiously past the other girl and spotted what she’d seen, the backs of a few of the animatronics shuffling in the rain.

Backing up, they slipped across the path as fast as they could and turned down the side path. Gaige realized that if they were where she thought they were, the only way back was to go through the Vault Hunter Experience.

Tapping Artemis on the shoulder, she motioned to the entrance as it came into view. The other girl gave her a look begging her to find a different way around, but Gaige just shook her head with a sad expression, letting her know there wasn’t one. After a brief flicker of annoyance crossed her face, Artemis nodded and turned in.

There was a small gate house, built up to look like a shack, that Gaige surmised was for keeping the flow of guests under control so the area didn’t get overwhelmed. Artemis immediately went over to it and glanced inside, only to drop down and press up against it.

Following suit, Gaige scuttled over to where the other girl was pressed up against the box and mouthed “What?”

Artemis pointed upward and then spread her arms slightly, opening her mouth and giving a silent impersonation of a monster.

Gaige blinked for a second before realizing that the park must have been run almost entirely by the animatronics. It made sense, the reason that the entrance hadn’t had a way in for the employees was because they wouldn’t leave, but that made her wonder if they were still inside like this one, or if they’d left their posts.

Crawling around the shack, they moved into its blind spot and hustled off. After a short ways, they stood up and paused, looking around. The path split and the sign that had once been there to help direct guests was worn down, the paint long since faded to nothing.

Artemis leaned in, running a hand over it to dislodge the moss that had built up on it, which made it feel less like Pandora and more like a jungle and examined the sign as best she could.

“I can’t make heads or tails outta this. It looks like a bunch of odd symbols with arrows pointing both ways.”

“You must’ve been given something when you entered that would help you decode it, so we’re kinda screwed that way. Can you tell which way the people went?”

Artemis slowly turned and stared at her.

“Yeah, I guess you couldn’t, especially after all this time.”

“Well, here’s the real problem, how many people went the right way through. I mean, there’s a bit of wear still visible going each way, so that won’t be useful.”

“Oh. Guess that makes sense. So how we gonna do this? Pick a direction and go with it?”

“As good a plan as any, except maybe trying to climb the wall and go across the top.”

“That might work, but I doubt they’ve got it set up so that you can do that. Come on, let’s go this way, it’s the direction we eventually wanna go anyway.”

Artemis shrugged and started that way, walking into the maze of corridors. Despite being in a theme park, the dark and rain, combined with the threat of the unknown animatronics made them feel like they were somewhere dangerous. The intermittent flashes of lightning did little to illuminate the way forward and the lantern served better to remind them of how dark it was around them then to light their way.

Before long they came to another intersection, again with an illegible sign in front. This one was larger than the first, with more words in code on it and three ways forward.

Gaige didn’t slow and took the left-hand path again, figuring that it was closer to the direction they wanted to go, so it should lead to a way out. But when she rounded the corner, she found herself facing a dead end.

Cursing loudly, she turned only to have a Skag leap out at her from a hidden alcove.

Throwing herself backwards, she drew her pistol and was bringing it up for a shot when Artemis stabbed the Skag through the neck.

Both of them froze as the Skag stuttered and sparked as it was retracted into the hole it had come from, the hydraulic system resetting it for the next guest, minus its head.

Gaige blushed furiously and took the offered hand. As soon as she was back on her feet she turned and hurried away, flipping the Skag off one last time.

Getting back to the hub, she paused and tilted her head back, letting the warm rain pound her face till her cheeks cooled.

“Don’t say anything.”

“What would I say? I mean, it got me too, didn’t it?”

“Yeah, but you didn’t end up on your butt.”

“If I was going to comment on anything, it would be how trigger happy you are. I get it, we’re both used to being able to solve our problems with a quick draw, but we can’t waste ammo here.”

“I know that,” Gaige snapped, more frustrated with herself than Artemis. Taking a breath, she tried to calm down and continue “I know. And I don’t even have the excuse you do, I mean, I was a wedding planner for a year or two and I couldn’t solve issues with my clients with a well-placed shot, no matter how much I wanted to. It’s just, well, when something jumps out at me like that, I tend to freak out a little.”

“I get that.”

“Then start wearing the bell, would you?” Gaige said with a smile, referring to a joke of a present she’d gotten the other girl, a nice choker with a silver bell.

“I thought it wouldn’t work with my swimsuit. Probably look better with yours.”

“Was that a joke? From you? Lord have mercy, the island must be cursed.”

Artemis turned away, shrinking a bit as she did, causing Gaige to roll her head back and stare up at the rain for a second, as if the answer could be found on the bottom of the clouds. Realizing she couldn’t see it even if it was there, she lowered her gaze and lightly bopped Artemis on the head. “I was kidding, it’s not the first time you’ve told a joke. It’s just a bit rare is all. Sorry for being such a bitch about it.”

“I was just trying to lighten the mood.”

“I know, so was I, guess we both kinda screwed it up, but you did good in trying.” Gaige patted her on the shoulder and looked at the remaining paths “Tell you what, why don’t you choose the next path.”

“That way when I’m wrong you get to pick the right one?”

“A second joke? Seriously cursed.”

Artemis stuck out her tongue, which made Gaige laugh, before turning back to the choice in front of her. Since she didn’t know anything about them, she made a calculated guess and chose the one in the middle, mostly because she thought that the one on the right would probably reconnect with the right-hand path.

She started walking down it, keeping her eyes peeled for more tricks, but instead the path curved and twisted and after another two splits, went for a little ways before coming to a wide area broken up by a number of pillars. In front of it was another plaque that they couldn’t read, so they ignored it and moved ahead.

What had seemed like an open area quickly turned into a maze as they stepped around the first set of pillars to find most of the paths were blocked off by walls. Artemis quickly spotted a number of symbols on the pillars which would’ve no doubt been helpful in navigating the maze. Since she didn’t have any idea what they meant, or even if she should follow one symbol or if they were supposed to spell something out, she turned her attention to the ground.

Gaige waited, used to letting the other girl take the lead in situations like this. She figured that even if they ended up taking the wrong choice, they would make short work of this puzzle. After all, it was for kids.

Even as she thought that, she had a flashback to her childhood and her parents struggling with some kind of puzzle, one that she’d solved in seconds. She didn’t think that her parents had been humoring her to make her feel smart, though she didn’t put it past them, but the fact that adults had trouble with the puzzle aimed at kids just meant that their minds worked differently, something that started to worry her, especially when she remembered that not only was this a puzzle, but one that they had no clues about.

Right as she was starting to panic and debating suggesting heading back to the entrance, Artemis started forward, heading into the maze. Casually stepping around the pillars she made her way through with only one misstep, something that made Gaige jealous of her. She knew that it was probably something like the wear on the ground that she’d been following, but it was still a bit frustrating for Gaige to have to be led around like this all the time.

She resolved to do better at the next challenge right as they came into a moderately sized area, curved on the side they entered and flat across from them. The wall in front of them was made to look like some kind of ancient building, built of stone and made to look worn with the years, but it was faded and chipped from the weather, exposing the material underneath.

In front of it were three pedestals, each one topped with a button, which reminded her of the center of the Garden in a rather unpleasant way.

“So, which one do we push?” She asked, turning to Artemis.

“How would I know?”

“Well, you led us through that maze, didn’t you? So, I figured you’d have some insight into this.”

She met the flat gaze until Artemis said “You’re doing this to punish me for always asking you what we should do, aren’t you?”

“What? No. Why would you think that?” She was met by the expressionless stare until she finally said “Alright, I can see why you’d say that, but the answer’s still no.”

“Fine. This would be easier if it wasn’t raining and they weren’t covered in years of grunge, so give me a moment and I’ll see what I can figure out.”

She went around and looked at the different buttons, examining each of them in the lamplight. Gaige was starting to get antsy when she finished her second pass and returned to the center to stare at them. Eventually she walked up to one of them and shrugged before pressing it.

Ahead of them they heard a grinding sound and the wall slid up, revealing a dark entrance behind it.

“You think they reset this thing between guests?” Artemis muttered, staring at the wall.

Before Gaige could answer her, she spotted movement from the dark recess as something staggered out. At first, she couldn’t identify what it was supposed to be, not used to the strange outline the thing had. Only when it came into range of the light did she see the mask it was wearing and realized it was supposed to be an animatronic psycho.

As it shuffled clear of the door, a pair of smaller creatures emerged behind it. Moving on four legs, they walked out, or rather one walked, the other drug its back half behind it. They spread out to the sides of the psycho animatronic and into the light. It took them a moment to recognize what they were supposed to be since half of the walking one’s head was missing, but as it spread its jaws, they realized it was supposed to have been a Skag.

The psycho stuttered and tried to lift the buzz-ax in its hand to threaten them, which was made even worse by the rust running down the weapon and the fact that half of its arm was missing.

They backed away slowly, trying to decide if it would be better to go back through the maze and find a different route, when a scuffling noise came from behind them.

Turning they found that the way back was closed off as a pair of animatronic Ramaloo stepped in.

Chapter 8

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: The Great Vault Adventure

Looking back and forth between the threats flanking them, Artemis backed away slowly, heading for the wall to one side. Gaige moved alongside her, eyes darting from one threat to the other as if she couldn’t figure out which was the bigger danger.

Artemis didn’t have that problem, to her, the animatronics that had come in behind them were the bigger problem, so she nudged Gaige and motioned subtly to start heading around to behind the psycho.

At first Gaige didn’t get what she was after, she was too busy trying to figure out which side was going to attack first. It wasn’t until Artemis hissed “When I give the signal, run for the door that the psycho came outta,” did she get what was about to happen.

“Oh no,” She hissed back, “This isn’t gonna be another of those self-sacrifice things, is it?”

“No, I just have the best chance at doing this. I mean, I’m the only one that’s armed, right?”

“Oh, as long as you’re right behind me, I’ll follow your lead.”

“Good, now get ready.”

As they’d been conversing, the animatronics had been shuffling closer, trying to pen them in. As they continued moving forward, Artemis nudged Gaige and took off running. She headed straight for the Skag that had circled around to right in front of them and as she got close, it opened it’s rotting head to howl at her. The recording of the howl was terrible, cracking and popping in a way that actually made it worse.

She jumped over it, popping her blade and letting it trail through the Skag, silencing it. Ignoring the sparking halves as they fell to the ground, she ran back to the central pillars and spun around, checking to see what the rest of the animatronics were doing.

The two animatronics that had followed them in were turning to follow her, but to her surprise, the other two were following Gaige.

The instant she’d felt the signal, Gaige had bolted, trying to get around the broken Skag, only to have the psycho move to block her.

She pulled back slightly, taking a good look at the faux-psycho. Half of one of its arms was peeled back, exposing the inner workings and it had two long gashes through the side of its torso, making her wonder what had happened to it. She supposed it must have worn over time and caught on something as it wandered around its area. She also noted that it was dragging one of its legs slightly, as if the joints were starting to seize up, which she supposed made sense, there was an obvious lack of maintenance going on in the park, so she wouldn’t have been surprised to find one or two of the animatronics frozen up with rust and worn-out joints, she just wished a few more of them had, like this guy so she didn’t have to deal with him.

Still, knowing that her opponents had mobility problems was a help, so she started to move to follow Artemis and the instant the animatronics followed, she changed direction, darting for the wall and slipping around them, only to have the two of them keep coming after her.

Seeing that Gaige had at least got around the two that were shuffling after her, Artemis took a second to glance back at the other two that were coming at her. Contrary to her initial thought, the two mascots were quite different from each other, despite being of the same design.

One of them, the one she thought was newer, was shorter and moved slightly different, almost like it was stiffer, but it had nicer fur, not as faded or matted and it wasn’t torn through anywhere. Watching it, she was reminded of the one that had initially attacked Gaige, right after they’d arrived. That one had moved a bit like this one, which made her wonder, were they different generations of them, or had some of them been in storage? And as long as she was wondering things, she decided to add why these things were nuts in the first place, was it a bug in the system or was there someone at the center of all this directing them to attack. Or was it something else entirely, like black magic.

Putting that aside for now, she turned away from them and ran after Gaige, dodging around the broken Skag, still trying to chase after and past the Psycho, who was giving a fair effort at pursuing the girl.

Gaige had run past the two that were attempting to catch her and ran for the door, hoping that Artemis wouldn’t be too far behind, as well as hoping that there wasn’t anything else ahead of them. Knowing that at least the latter was probably futile, didn’t stop her from hoping, after all, as someone had once told her, hope was free. Someone else had told her that it was also the first step to disappointment, but she decided to temporarily forget that one.

Bolting down the corridor, she noted that the architecture was changing, where it had been all-natural canyons and rock looking, now it was more futuristic, with strange things carved into the walls. It took her a minute to figure out that this must have been what the designers thought that an Eridian ruin must’ve looked like.

They missed the mark by a mile.

Ignoring the mistakes around her, no matter how painful it was, she kept going and soon found herself in a chamber with an archway ahead of her and another pedestal.

Groaning, she slowed down so that she stopped just as she got to the thing. Glancing behind her, she hoped that Artemis would be following closely behind, but she didn’t see anyone. Belatedly she realized that she’d taken the lantern and fled, leaving the other girl in the dark.

Just as she was about to head back, she heard swearing and saw Artemis come stumbling out of the entrance.

“Sorry,” was the only thing Gaige could think to say.

“It’s a damn good thing that corridor was straight.” Came the bitter reply.

“Sorry,” Gaige repeated.

Artemis waved her hand, as if to say she was letting it go, which didn’t really help how Gaige felt, but she knew enough to drop it.

“What’ve we got here?” Artemis said, moving up to the pillar.

“Donno, haven’t had a chance to examine it.”

“Well, be quick, cause those things’ll be right behind me.”

“You didn’t finish them off?”

“Kinda hard when my light goes running off.”

“Oh, right, sorry.”

“Stop being sorry and get working.”

“Yeesh, fine, I’m sorry I was sorry,” she said, but turned back to the pillar in front of her and examined it.

On it she found a simple sliding puzzle, that when the plates were put into the right place would form a Vault symbol. She smirked, this was easy, she could already tell what she needed to do to solve it, so she grabbed the first plate and slid it, only for it to go about halfway and stop.

“Um…”

“Now what?”

“It’s not moving all the way.”

“Did you clear it of moss and crap?”

“Uh, no.”

“Well do that, otherwise it’s going to muck it up.”

Gaige rolled her eyes, but slid the plate back and tried to dig her finger into the space to get out as much gunk as she could.

“Just use one of the tools,” Artemis snapped.

“Fine.” Gaige dug one out and ran it around the edge before trying to move the plate again. This time it slid into place like it was supposed to. Grinning, she started moving the next one, when she caught Artemis backing up out of the corner of her eye.

“Now what?”

“I didn’t think you were supposed to say things like that.”

“It doesn’t matter when it’s already happened.”

“I really don’t get that.”

“Enough of that crap, what’s up?”

“We’ve got company.”

“Why didn’t you start with that?”

“Sorry.”

“Yeah, I get it.”

“No, I meant, sorry but could you speed up whatever it is you’re doing.”

“Bitch.”

“Whatever.”

“No, I meant, I’m done.”

With a flourish, Gaige snapped the last plate into place. For a second, nothing happened, causing a bit of panic to set in, but then the wall beneath the arch started grinding up.

They started running for it, but the door shuddered and halted a foot off the ground.

“Ah crap,” Gaige muttered.

“Don’t stop,” Artemis said as she ran past.

The instant she got near the door, she dropped into a slide, easily clearing the door. Gaige didn’t hesitate to follow, trying to shrink down as much as she could to get under.

Popping up on the other side, she joined Artemis in rubbing her backside.

“I’m so used to doing that, I forgot I wasn’t wearing pants.”

“Count yourself lucky, I’m only wearing a couple of strings on my top,” Gaige countered the complaint.

“Oh yeah, this is lucky, silly me to forget that.”

“We’re still alive, aren’t we?”

“No thanks to me,” came the muttered reply almost too soft for Gaige to hear.

Before she could say anything, Artemis continued in a louder voice “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

Gaige frowned, she was sure she’d heard Artemis blaming herself and wanted to interrogate her, but she knew that this wasn’t the time. She wasn’t worried about the creatures getting through behind them, but she was concerned about more of them coming from the front, pinning them in.

They hustled down the tunnel, watching the light reflect off the walls, making the place brighter than anywhere they’d been since the storm had begun. It took a bit, but Gaige realized that this was supposed to be the inside of the Vault.

“Oh, this is a load of ■■■■,” she said, looking around.

Catching the glance from Artemis she pointed to a sign declaring ‘Congratulations on Opening the Vault’.

“Wait, this is what they think the inside of a Vault’s like?” she said, glancing around at the fake gold and treasures that made up the walls. “Where’s the monsters? The Guardians? All that stuff?”

“Yeah, most people don’t actually know about that stuff. Besides, I think we’ve already found the monsters.” Seeing Artemis open her mouth, Gaige quickly cut her off “They’re outside.”

Artemis shrugged and continued on. Gaige felt her jaw hurt and had to make a conscious effort to relax the muscles around it.

Being around Artemis was making her fear for the integrity of her teeth.

A moment later they emerged into a large room. Straight ahead was a doorway and on one side was a large area with shelves. Against one wall, near the doors were a set of registers, leading Gaige to realize what this place was.

“It’s the Vault gift shop,” she said, taking a step towards it to see what was still on the shelves.

Unfortunately for her, it seemed that the shop had been closed and all the merchandise removed, which saddened her. If she was going to be made to survive this hellish island, the least they could do would be to provide her with appropriate junk.

Turning to the doors, she found Artemis examining one of them. While Gaige was surprised that they weren’t automated, she supposed that they might just be powered down. But she worried that Artemis wasn’t opening one up and heading out.

Her worry got worse when the other girl popped her Digi-blade.

Then to her surprise, Artemis sliced through the push-bar.

“What’re you doing?”

Artemis turned back to her, holding the bar that had previously been angled across the door. “Arming myself.” She held up the bar and gave it a swing, before rotating it slightly and trying again. Nodding to herself, she switched hands and clenched her jaw as she squeezed down on the bar. Gaige heard the groaning of metal and cocked her head. After a second, Artemis stopped and changed hands again, this time she immediately nodded and Gaige realized she’d crushed the bar slightly to shrink it so that she had a better grip.

Before Gaige could speak up, Artemis went back to the other door and cut the bar off of it. Turning, she tossed it to Gaige, who struggled to catch it.

“Should’ve just handed it to me. I mean, what if I’d dropped it.”

Artemis shrugged “The things that know we’re in here would’ve heard it?”

“Alright, no need to be a bitch about it.”

“Hey, if you don’t want it, I’ll take it back.”

“Fat chance.”

“Then quit complaining and let’s get outta here.”

Gaige nodded and headed for the exit, feeling much better with the bar in her hand. It might not be much, but it was something.

As she approached the door, she suddenly stopped and stared at it, or rather above it.

“Now what?” Came the exasperated sigh from next to her.

“Nothing, it’s just, well…”

Artemis held her tongue, waiting for Gaige to continue. After a few seconds of stewing, she said “It’s just, where were the exits? In the maze I mean. Usually, these things have a way for people to quit part way through, I mean, can you imagine getting to the, um, whatever that place was with the Skags and realizing you couldn’t go any further? You’d have to go back through the entire maze to get out, and if someone was freaking out, they wouldn’t be able to stand it. And what about a medical emergency?”

“There were probably exits around, you just missed them with the lights off is all.”

“Yeah, maybe. Sorry for stalling us, let’s get outta here,” she said with a slight smile, like she wasn’t entirely convinced, but knew they had to keep moving no matter what.

Artemis shrugged, deciding not to press it, especially since there was no reason to. Knowing the answer wouldn’t change anything, nor would it help their current situation, so it wasn’t worth thinking about. Instead, she needed to focus on what was in front of them, so she gently pushed the door open and glanced outside.

Finding nothing, she slipped out. The rain resumed pounding on her immediately, cutting her visibility down to nothing. Squinting behind her goggles, she couldn’t make out anything that seemed like an opponent, though she didn’t know what the area looked like normally so she couldn’t be sure, but she knew that they couldn’t wait here any longer, so she motioned for Gaige to follow as she headed towards what she hoped was the exit.

Gaige followed along as quietly as she could, the little sound she was making as she splashed through the growing pools were drowned out by the pounding of the rain. She wondered if the animatronics were communicating somehow. The first thing that came to mind was some kind of internal network. If it was that, and she could get access to it, she wondered if she could remotely start shutting them down. If not, could she at least figure out where they were so that they could be avoided.

Without access to the network or a computer with power, it was a pointless exercise, but she still gladly did it. It was something that she was good at and if they, by some chance, found a working computer, she wanted to be prepared with all the things she would want to do.

They rushed across the wide area outside the exit to the Vault Experience, angling to the side. After a short ways without running into anything, they came to a curved wall, still done up to look like a desert.

Realizing they’d missed the exit, they started following it when they came to a sign. Artemis glanced at it and started to move on when she realized that Gaige was more intrigued by what was on it.

“What?” She asked “You want to check out this 4-D Typhon Deleon thing?”

“No, I was just thinking that my dad would’ve liked a poster from it, if it was in better shape.”

“Oh. He likes this sort of thing?”

“He kinda liked the old Typhon Deleon serials, especially the ones with that Silver guy in them.”

“Silver guy?”

“Yeah, what was his name, something like Montey, but that’s not right. Ontay? Ontay? Dante? That sounds about right. I mean, it doesn’t really matter anyway. Especially not right now. But they were these features by Thesbionic Electronics and were all directed by Adams, Yabber Adams, that’s right. Never could see his name without laughing. But anyway, I think that’s what this ride was based on.”

“Right. So, you wanna check it out or something?”

“What? No. Not with all these animatronics wandering around. Let’s get outta here.”

“Sure. But what’s…you know what, forget it.”

“What’s what?”

“Forget it.”

“No. I wanna know.”

“You are such a brat. Fine, I was just wondering what this 4-D thing was, that’s all. But we can get to it later, or never, I don’t care. Right now, I want to get out of here.”

Gaige looked like she wanted to argue, but seemed to realize that this wasn’t the place for it, in that she had to agree with Artemis, so she nodded sadly and followed along.

It didn’t take them long to find the archway leading out and leave the area. Artemis paused at the edge and glanced around, before turning back.

“So, we can either go back towards the central…whatever, lane? Path? Thing? Whatever, and try and continue around or head back towards the boats, or we can try finding the entrance to the next area over and cutting through it.”

“Well, we’re gonna be running into more of those animatronics if we go back towards the center.”

“And we’ll be running into new ones if we cut into the next area.”

“Right, but I think it’s gonna be fewer of them if we go that way, don’t you?” Getting a nod from Artemis, she continued “So I say we should cut into the next area.”

Artemis glanced back out and nodded. Gaige took that as an agreement, so she stepped out past her and started hustling forward, trying to get a look at the area to the other side.

She could just make out the wall, which was made out of what appeared to be a stone wall topped in wrought iron done to look like an old-fashioned fence, though that didn’t help her figure out what the area was, only that they weren’t going to be climbing over it easily.

She suddenly was yanked to a halt by an iron-like grip catching her wrist. Spinning back, she brought her bar up, only to find Artemis clutching her arm, staring past her with a rapidly paling face.

Turning back, she strained against the dark, trying to see what the other girl saw as she tried to pull her backwards. Gaige resisted for a second, until she spotted the glinting of at least a dozen eyes. Deciding that falling back would probably be the best idea, she let Artemis drag her back the way they’d come from.

They ran for the gate back into the Great Vault Adventure only to find another four animatronics shuffling their way through the gate. Gaige debated trying to force their way past them, only to spot another one joining them from behind. Realizing that they had no way of telling how many more were behind those ones, she turned and continued running down the path.

She quickly spotted a sign off to one side, but it was too far away to read, at least in the gloom. Tugging on the other girls’ arm, she managed to angle them towards it and made out Wailing Winder. Realizing that the direction they were headed was likely to dead-end into a roller coaster, she swore, but didn’t see any way around it. She cursed that their best bet was the hope that they’d be able to find a way over one of the walls if they continued or perhaps some kind of help desk, maybe for treating people who rode the coaster.

They dashed into what amounted to a cul-de-sac that served as the waiting area for the ride. On one side was the exit and just past that was a long series of stanchions set up to funnel the crowd to the ride. Past that was a small building that was probably a bathroom. Continuing around there was a series of buildings with the fronts closed off that had probably once served food and in between them was an open stall that Gaige had no idea what it was for.

Glancing around, she found herself disappointed by the lack of anywhere to go, there wasn’t even a building that she thought they could break into and hide.

As she was looking around, she felt Artemis let go of her and head forward, trying to figure out where they should go. Feeling like that was probably the best idea at the moment, Gaige followed.

She quickly started circling the opposite direction from where Artemis was going. Since Artemis was headed towards the ride, Gaige figured she should head towards the buildings, since she figured they would provide the best cover. She immediately discarded the idea of getting behind them, it seemed that whoever had designed the park had built it in such a way as to keep the guests out from there, or at least make it hard to get to. She figured there had to be some way for maintenance to get back there, but she couldn’t see it from where she was.

She’d just got to the open stall when she detected movement next to her. Thinking it was Artemis, she turned only to catch the towering mascot out of the corner of her eye.

Gaige threw herself over the stall’s low wall as the creature’s hand closed around her and she felt a searing pain as she heard something tear.

Artemis had made her way past the entrance to the roller coaster when she heard the scream from the other side and spun around to find the animatronics lurching in. In the thin lantern light, she saw a number of them swarming around the open stall and upon realizing that she didn’t see Gaige anywhere, felt cold dread sink into her gut.

Without hesitating, she drew the flare gun from her hip and fired at the mass, hoping to drive them off the other girl, or at least increase the light there to help her find her. What she hadn’t expected was to hit one of them in the back, sinking the flare through the fabric that covered it and lodging it into the plastic undercoat, where it continued to burn. Despite the fact that the thing was soaking wet, the flare burned brightly and after a few seconds, the animatronic burst into flames.

Though the fire was being actively dampened by the torrential downpour, the creature went up rather well, the heat from the fire drying the area around it out, causing the fire to spread, and once the plastic joined in, the fire started to crackle merrily.

The rest of them froze, staring at the animatronic thrashing out on the ground and slowly turned towards her. She didn’t know whether it was that she’d burned one of them, or if it was that she’d destroyed park property, but she suddenly felt a cold wave run up her back, despite the warm rain running down.

Still, she waited, making sure that they all were following her and with the exception of the one blazing away on the ground, they did. The instant she was sure, she spun and jumped the fence, landing in the line to the coaster. Glancing behind her, she saw the entire hoard lurching towards her with renewed fury.

She bolted up the slope, turning back on the hill a few times as she went up, keeping as much of an eye on the chasing hoard as she could, but with the rain and the lack of light, it was getting increasingly difficult. Still, she could make out the hoard of animatronics shuffling up the incline after her.

It might have been the dark, but she swore they were speeding up, as if they were sure they had her trapped and couldn’t wait to get their hands on her, which prompted her to speed up as well, dashing up the incline in the dark.

It was so hard to see that she nearly went over the edge when the path suddenly switched back, forcing her to slam into the railing with a painful thump. Wincing, she clutched her side, only to let out a yip of pain as the scorching hot flare gun brushed her skin.

Taking a second, she popped the gun open and let the spent cartridge slide out, hearing it ting off the ground even through the rain and slid a new one in. She didn’t want to use up too many rounds, but she would rather be ready then not.

Resuming her way up, she made sure she was going slow enough to not collide with anything that popped out of the dark and soon enough made her way to the top.

When she got there, she found herself faced with a winding line of stanchions. Rather than run down and back, she took a risk and jumped up onto the nearest one and started hopping between them. Grateful that they were wooden, with wide tops that were designed to look rustic and therefore had a decent amount of grip, despite being covered in water, she made her way across the area in short order.

After a little ways, she realized that she’d made it under the roof of a building and the rain stopped pounding her.

Hopping off the railing, she found herself standing on a platform. Glancing around, she wished she had the lantern, or anything to provide even a bit of light. In desperation she popped her Digi-blade, which did provide the smallest touch of light, enough that she could see a few feet with. Ahead of her a line of cars sat, waiting for the passengers that would never arrive.

Though she could barely make out anything, she felt the entire place had a dismal air about it, a forlorn sense of abandonment.

Behind her she heard the procession of animatronics getting closer and looked around desperately. She debated making a run for the exit, but even as the thought crossed her mind, she spotted the first of the creatures shuffle its way out of there.

Swearing at it she ran towards the end of the platform, hoping to find something, but didn’t. Realizing what she had to do, she changed tact’s, she couldn’t run anymore, which left her only options being either give up or fight, so she knew which she’d choose.

The first thing she needed was to control the battleground, her opponents had numbers on her, so she needed to take that away from them.

It wasn’t that she was completely ignorant of roller coasters, it was just that she’d never been anywhere that had them before, so she was hoping what she’d seen in the movies was true.

Jumping onto the track, she ran back out into the rain. She had no idea if this would work, but it was the only thing she could try. Soon enough the ground turned upward, turning into stairs as she ran parallel to the track.

After what felt like forever, especially with her heart feeling like it was trying to burst out of her chest and her lungs burning, she made it to the top and had to slide to a stop.

Gasping for breath, she squinted at the small area she found herself. It couldn’t reasonably be called a platform, it was more of a last flat spot, just big enough to stand on.

Looking back down, she couldn’t see anything. Not if the creatures were following her, nor if they were only a few feet away and that was what was really making it hard to catch her breath, the fear.

Normally she would’ve been fine, even without her eyes, she could’ve heard them coming, possibly even felt the metal shake as they clanged their way forward, but in this weather, she was blind and deaf, unable to tell where things were, and it was a terrifying change for her.

Right then, the sky lit up as a bolt of lightning crashed horrifyingly close. For a second, she wondered if she’d been hit, but the thought passed faster than the lightning itself.

Still, a part of her mind couldn’t help but point out that it might not have been the best idea to climb a metal structure in a thunderstorm. She knew that her cybernetics were electric proof, but she didn’t know if they were that electric proof and even if they were, the rest of her wasn’t.

Still, there was nothing she could do about it now because the lightning had revealed the hoard of creatures had made it more than halfway up the structure towards her, rotting heads looking upward at her, jaws hanging open.

Bracing herself as best she could, she rolled her shoulders, trying to get ready to fight.

Part of her thought it might be a good idea to fire a flare at them, if for no other reason than to aid in seeing them, to help tell how close they were, but she decided against it. She didn’t have all that many rounds for it and even if she did fire, she’d have to take the time to reload and by now the first one of the things would nearly be to her.

As if called by the thought, she spotted the first animatronic step into the wan light of her Digi-blade and lunge for her.

She twisted to the side and brought the bar she was holding down, smacking it across the arms. Moving a step towards the creature, she backhanded it with the bar, feeling the solid hit across its face.

The creature staggered back so she pressed the attack, bringing the bar down on its head, attempting to brain it. But the things skull was harder than she’d thought and the blow left her hand stinging, especially where it had already been scraped up earlier.

The creature ignored her blow and loomed at her, spreading its arms wide as it attempted to encircle her with its arms.

Abandoning the attack, Artemis ducked, allowing the arms to go over her. As the creature unbalanced itself slightly, she countered with a desperate slice across its right leg, cutting deeply with her Digi-blade and causing it to lose its balance completely.

Even as it tumbled over the side, the next one stepped up to take its place.

Letting out a whimper at the prospect of fighting the seemingly unending line coming at her, Artemis lunged forward, meeting the new animatronic with a thrust to the stomach. Hitting the thing low, she slashed her arm upward, slicing easily through the creature’s front.

As she stepped back, the front of the creature opened up and chunks of its rotting entrails spilled out all over the ground.

Chapter 9

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Wailing Winder

Despite the rain pushing the smell down, the revolting stench of rotting viscera hit Artemis like a physical blow, staggering her back.

Black chunks continued to dribble out of the creature, splattering against the ground in glistening piles. Some distant part of her brain made note to check with Gaige to make sure she had the right definition of animatronic, cause this wasn’t what she’d been imagining.

The rest of her mind was seizing up in a silent scream, which might’ve been a good thing cause the stench was so bad that she felt bile crawling up her throat. She desperately tried to get her throat working again so she could swallow it back down.

To make things worse, right then a massive chain of lightning ripped the sky open, illuminating the scene clearly for a few seconds, allowing her to see into the torn open cavity in the creature’s chest.

She could see the last bits of the intestines, still connected within, dangling and dancing in the wind.

She could see the gleaming bone of the rib cage.

See the way the metal was woven into and through it, the way it was welded and bolted together.

She could see the rotting muscles, the way they’d been pushed aside so that the wires and cables could run through them.

She could see that the creature was slightly smaller than the one she’d knocked over the side.

The way its fur was slightly more colorful.

The fact that it didn’t have any holes rotted through it.

Then, mercifully, the lightning ended, leaving her blind for a few seconds.

The thunder hit them like a hammer, nearly driving Artemis to her knees as the entire ride shook with the force of it.

She didn’t know if she’d screamed, nor did she care, but she dropped to her knees which wound up saving her because the creature took that moment to lunge at her. She felt it’s arms whip past her hair as they passed close by.

Giving up on fighting these monstrosities for the moment, she leaned out and fired the flare gun she was still holding past the torn open horror she was fighting.

She saw the burning projectile hit one of the creatures near the front of the pack and start smoldering. Not wasting any time, she slashed forward, slicing through the leg of the thing in front of her. Jumping up she let out an unconscious whimper as she grabbed the railing and slammed her feet into its chest, trying to hit it on either side of the gaping wound.

She felt her right foot slip off of something, but her left one contacted solidly, throwing the monstrosity backwards into the burning mascot and causing the entire hoard to fall backwards.

Panicking for a second, she thought the fire had gone out for a moment, but then she saw a flash of orange and the glow intensified as the burning mascot started to melt and spread the fire to the rest of them.

Abandoning escaping that way, she tucked the flare gun away and swung herself over the side. Finding what she’d thought she’d find, or rather hoped, she gripped the built-in ladder and started descending as fast as she could, making sure to keep herself against the outer edge of the rungs.

That turned out to be a good move since a few of the rungs welds gave out as she slammed into them without much care for their stability.

In the gloom she nearly missed the ground coming up and staggered slightly when she went for the next rung, only to find concrete instead.

Glancing around, she spotted a short path and rushing down it came to another walkway sloping downward. Realizing that it was the exit to the ride, she jumped the fence and rushed the rest of the way, hoping she didn’t encounter any more of those things on the way.

Staggering into the clearing where they’d been attacked, she doubled over for a second, desperately trying to catch her breath, but she knew that she didn’t have any time to spare, so long before she was ready, she was rushing over to where she’d last seen Gaige, praying that she was alright.

Dashing towards where the lantern was still glowing, she sidestepped the charred husk that had once been one of the mascots and slid up to the stall.

“Gaige?” She called out, feeling the panic rising. She didn’t know what she’d do if something happened to the other girl. She’d been trying not to think about it ever since they’d been attacked, but now it was all that occupied her mind.

What if the other girl was dead, or injured? What if she was scarred? What if something terrible had happened to her? It would all be Artemis’s fault. Just because she’d wanted to pretend she was a human for one brief moment, something awful might have happened to the one person who she cared about.

She should never have allowed that, no matter what Gaige said, she should’ve said no, pushed her away and ran as far as she could, at least then she’d be safe.

“Gaige?” She called out again, voice trembling “Answer me!”

“I’m here.” Came a voice to her side.

Feeling a wave of relief hit, her legs nearly went out from under her. “Jeez, if you’re that close just answer the first time. Now come on, we’ve gotta get out of here.”

“No.”

Artemis froze. Her first thought was that it was finally happening, that she was being abandoned. But a second later she realized that this was an odd place for Gaige to have had enough, had it been the hoard of mascots that had made her realize that she shouldn’t be with her?

Steeling herself, she asked “Why not?”

“DON’T LOOK!” Gaige shrieked as Artemis started to lean over the side of the stall, causing her to yank back, but not before she’d seen the other girl curled up, crouching on the ground and the open swath of her bare back.

“So, uh, we still need to get going and, uh…”

“I’m not leaving, not like this.”

“So, what, you want me to find something for you to use as a top before you’ll leave?”

“Yes. I’m not about to go, er, changing this place into an R rated theme park.”

“Uh, er…” Artemis struggled to articulate anything, so she closed her eyes, took a deep breath and swallowed. She knew they needed to get out of there, she hadn’t taken out all of the mascots that had chased her and there was no telling when more would arrive, so she needed to move fast. That meant this was no time to be stumbling over herself. “What happened to it? Your top I mean?”

“What do you think happened to it? One of those pervy robots took it. I mean, when they tried to grab me one of them got tangled with the strap and yanked it off of me. Luckily I was on my way over this wall when it happened or I might’ve died of embarrassment.”

Artemis nodded and suddenly felt cold. Looking down at the still smoldering remains of the mascot she’d flared she prayed that it hadn’t been holding the bikini when it had gone up. A quick investigation of its hands revealed nothing, so she decided to move on.

Grabbing the lantern she dashed around the area, trying desperately to find something, anything that she could use to make a top out of, but she found nothing. All of the buildings were locked up and that was just the ones she could get access to the doors of.

Just as she was considering taking her bag over and slicing it up, she heard a gurgling noise through the rain and following it, spotted a drain.

Gaige crouched, curled up into as tight a ball as she could. Part of her wished she was out in the rain, cause at least then the scorching heat in her cheeks might have been lessened. She couldn’t remember a time she’d been more embarrassed in her life. Disgusted with herself, sure, but not straight up embarrassed. To make matters worse, she was forcing her girlfriend to find her something to wear, admitting to her what had happened. Deep down she wondered if this wasn’t some kind of punishment, some kind of cosmic retribution for not being happy with what they had. Not like Artemis was always going on about, but Gaige not being able to admit that she’d been bored back at the beach.

She knew this was all her fault, if she hadn’t wanted to go out fishing, none of this would’ve ever happened. She knew it was a little late for regrets, but that didn’t change anything.

She sighed and squeezed herself tighter, wincing in pain as she did. Her side hurt. Rather badly. She knew it wasn’t lacerated, only bruised where her top’s strap had yanked against her. She didn’t know how bad it really was, whether it was just a bruise or if she had a friction burn, but she wasn’t going to waste an Insti-health on something that minor. She needed to save them for life-threatening instances. She’d just have to suck it up and deal with this.

Noticing that it was suddenly getting lighter, she hoped that it was Artemis returning with something. She wondered what she’d find, maybe she’d cut a fur bikini out of one of the animatronics. A smile played on Gaige’s lips at the thought.

“Here.” Came the unceremonious voice as soon as Artemis got back.

“Well turn ar…” Gaige cut off, seeing the other girls back as she extended an arm backwards over the stall’s wall. In her hand was a familiar black and white bikini top.

Snatching it, Gaige started slipping it on, extremely self-conscious of the other girl only a few feet away.

Unable to take the silence, she ventured a question as she tried to slip the top on without removing one arm from her chest. “So, where’d you find it?”

“Caught in the drain.” After a moment, Artemis shrugged slightly and continued “There was a drain over there, which is why we’re not knee deep in water and it had caught on the grating, which was lucky, cause there’s nothing else around here to use. Now are you ready? Can we get the heck out of here?”

“Almost. What’s got you so antsy anyway?”

Artemis paused, which Gaige knew meant she was struggling to find the words she needed to convey what she was thinking. Figuring she could do two things at once, Gaige interrupted “While you’re thinking about it, can you give me a hand?”

She stood up with her back to the other girl and when Artemis turned, she saw the strings to the top were dangling, waiting to be tied.

“Erk, uh, d-didn’t you get this on yourself earlier?” She managed to sputter out.

“Yeah, but it’s a little different now, so hurry up.”

Artemis choked slightly, but eventually got her hands moving. With shaking fingers, she managed to grab the strings without touching the other girl’s sides and started bringing them back, when she noticed the slight twitch from Gaige.

“What?”

“Nothing, it’s just, be a little gentle is all.”

Confused, Artemis shifted the lantern slightly and spotted the angry red line across Gaige’s ribs.

Realizing she’d been found out, Gaige sighed and explained what had happened as quickly as possible, but Artemis didn’t move, instead she asked “Then shouldn’t you change the other knot? I mean, give it either a little more or less slack so these land somewhere different?”

“Doesn’t work that way, if we lengthen them, it won’t have enough tension to keep things in place, no matter how tight the lower part is and if we shorten them, then, uh, things might, um, pop out if things get hectic and that would be the worst time for it, trust me.”

“Oh, I, uh, I’ll take your word for it, but we’re going to need to look at this and soon. I knew I should’ve packed a med kit.”

“You packed enough, seriously. Now get that knot tied so we can get outta here.” Gaige smiled over her shoulder, trying to pacify the other girl’s innate self-doubt. As much as she would’ve liked to bop the girl over the head, this wasn’t the right time for it and not just cause she was holding the strings to Gaige’s top.

Trying to distract them from the job at hand and in an attempt to lighten the mood, Gaige stated “Oh yeah, as glad as I am that you found my top, I almost expected you to come back with a bikini made out of one of these mascots.”

Her smile died a bit when there was no immediate reply. Glancing behind her she found Artemis with an odd look on her face prompting Gaige to ask “What?”

“Nothing, it’s just, well, I wouldn’t want you wearing anything made from one of those…things.”

“I mean, I get that some of them are a bit, well, rotty, but they’re not all that bad.”

“Wait, you’d wear one, you’re not kidding, you’d actually wear one, considering what they are?”

“Yeah. Wait, why? And why do I feel like we’re talking about the same thing, but not?”

“I, uh, I guess it’s what I wanted to say earlier, it’s just, well, how do I put this? I guess they weren’t what I always thought they were, that’s all.”

“What weren’t?”

“Animatronics.”

“What’d you think they were?”

“Promise not to laugh?”

“Yeah, well, as long as it’s not something completely ridiculous.”

Artemis paused and stared at the string in her hand, deciding to finish the knot before continuing.

“Nope, gotta be tighter than that. Little more. OW! No, no, it’s fine, but that’s good, right there. Now, you were saying?”

“Well, um, I” Artemis sighed and braced herself “I always thought they were like, some kind of robot or something, just covered in a stupid outside. That’s not quite it, but close enough.”

“That’s what they are. Why do you think they’re something else?”

“Uh, you mean there’s no one inside? Or at least there’s not supposed to be?”

“No. Wait, you mean some of these things are ■■■■■■■■ in suits? I’m gonna kill them. Then I’m gonna find out why they’re doin this, then I’m gonna kill them again.”

“No. They’re, uh, already dead, I think. At least the one I found was.”

“Wait, what?”

“I cut one open, while I was fighting and there was a person inside. Well, really a corpse. So that’s not normal?”

“Hell no. That would’ve been a cyborg or a nightmare.”

“Then it was the latter.”

“You sure you saw what you think you saw? I mean, you didn’t have a light with you, remember? So, you might’ve mistaken the endoskeleton for ribs or something, couldn’t you?”

“That might’ve fooled my eyes, but that stench wasn’t my imagination.”

Gaige nodded and hopped over the side of the stall. Landing carefully in the water, she moved over to the scorched remains of the mascot and poked it with her pipe. “See, only metal here.”

“This was a different kind.”

“You mean like the lizard I fought?”

“You fought a lizard?”

“Yeah, back, um, outside the Vault Experience place.”

“Oh, that. No, I mean this looked like a Ramaloo but was smaller than this one.” She nudged the burned mascot. “You don’t believe me.”

“No, I believe you, I just don’t get it. I mean you say it was a person inside? How well did you see it?”

“Well, there was a huge chain of lightning right after I cut it open.”

“Nice timing, very horror movie.”

“Forget it.”

“No, I’m sorry, continue.”

“Actually, we need to get out of here, like now.”

“Why?”

“Wha…so we don’t get swarmed when they make it back down here.”

“Oh, yeah, that. ■■■■. Let’s go.”

Gaige turned and started dashing back the way they’d come in. Artemis followed along, hoping they hadn’t wasted too much time talking.

They didn’t encounter anything as they passed the exit to the Vault area and continued on, making their way down the wide lane.

Gaige kept wincing as her bikini strap rubbed her side. It hurt. Not bad enough for her to stop, but it felt like it was being rubbed raw. She wanted to put her hand up, to try and adjust the strap, but she was afraid that if she did that, Artemis would demand they stop so she could examine it or worse, use one of their Insti-health vials, something that Gaige wouldn’t allow for such a minor injury.

Despite that, she worried that it would impede her if they got attacked, that she would twist and it would scream in pain or that she would hesitate and it would cost her or worse, Artemis. She resolved to mention it the next time they found somewhere to stop for a moment, to see if the other girl had anything in her bag that might help and if not that, then they would have to look for a medical station.

There had to be some around the park, she knew it, but she hadn’t seen one yet, not that she’d been looking that hard before. Most of the time, they’d been running, dashing through the entrance to a place and heading deeper inside immediately, so the next time, they needed to take a bit more time, be a bit more cautious. Not just to look for the med-station, but to see if they could find a map.

A short while after she resolved to do that, Artemis spotted an arched gate leading into the attraction to their right.

The wrought iron fence gleamed in the rain and as they got closer, they could make out ‘Lamara’s Haunted Hollow’.

“Do we really want to go into an area declaring it’s haunted?”

“Sure, it’s just fake. Why, you scared?”

“You didn’t see what I did.”

“Yeah, we need to find somewhere for you to finish telling about that.”

“No time now, we’ve got company coming,” Artemis hissed as she shoved the other girl through the gate. She didn’t think the mascots had seen her through the rain, but she wasn’t sure how good their sensors were, or whatever they were using to find them.

Rushing through the gateway, they found themselves surrounded by a cemetery. Withered and gnarled trees loomed out at the path, barely visible through the gloom, giving the place a completely appropriate vibe.

They rushed down the path, feeling the cobblestone under their feet and soon started spotting open graves to the sides, which led Artemis to want to laugh, though she didn’t know why. She worried that she was starting to crack up.

Gaige on the other hand had no problem with what she was seeing, she knew it was all fake, though what Artemis had said worried her. She needed to get the rest of the story out and fast, so she was scanning the area when her eyes spotted the perfect place.

Turning off the path, she jumped up and grabbed the fence that was lining the path, trying to ignore the way the motion ran her bikini strap over her ribs and quickly scaled it. Dropping down on the other side, she caught Artemis landing next to her out of the corner of her eye and motioned for her to follow.

To her surprise, what had seemed like rolling hills was actually a rather steep hill.

Forced perspective she cursed inwardly, hoping that the spot she’d seen was in fact as good a hiding spot as she’d hoped.

It wasn’t, but the mausoleum still provided enough cover that they wouldn’t be spotted from the road, even though they had to cram together a bit more than she’d expected.

Leaning against the back of the building Gaige brought her hand up and felt her ribs, partially amazed that she couldn’t feel blood, but then again, with the rain, she doubted she could’ve even if she had been bleeding.

Next to her Artemis started rooting through her bag, prompting Gaige to let out an exasperated groan and say “I’m not takin one of the Insti-health vials, so don’t even bother trying.”

“You should, but that’s not what I’m looking for. Ah, here we are.” In her hand was the tattered remains of her shirt.

“And what am I supposed to do with that? Wear it under the bikini?”

“No. But that might work. I was going to cut a strip and have you wrap it under the strap. If I can find a long enough strip that is.”

“Oh. Thanks, that might work. Probably be better than nothing.”

“We still should find you a medical kit.”

“Yep. Next on the agenda, right after not getting grabbed by these things and having you finish telling me whatever you were trying to back there. Also, there’s getting my heart rate back under control, but that’s about there.”

Artemis turned and looked around the side of the mausoleum, squinting to try and see the road from where they were hiding, while simultaneously trying to give Gaige as much privacy as she could so that she could attempt to bandage herself.

After a moment she heard a soft clearing of a throat and asked “You good?”

“No. Sorry, but you’re gonna have to tie this one too.”

Suppressing a groan, she turned and found Gaige’s back facing her. Grabbing the ends of the strip of shirt that were sticking out, she quickly tied them and let Gaige readjust her straps.

“That thing seems to be more pain than it’s worth,” Artemis muttered.

Gaige’s shoulders slumped slightly “They’re supposed to be attractive, but I guess there’s only so much you can do when you’ve got a base like me.”

“That’s not, I mean, why would you think…” Artemis sputtered, feeling her face heat up “I mean, it looks really nice on you.”

“Oh, so it looks nice despite me?”

“I didn’t say that! You, um, it compliments you.”

Gaige gave her a light nudge with her shoulder and smiled “I know what you meant, I was just teasing you a bit, trying to get you to loosen up.”

“Not funny. You shouldn’t try and make me say things like that.”

“Like what? If you like the bikini, say so. If you think I’m attractive, tell me. After all, that’s where we are in our relationship, aren’t we? Or I guess that’s the step we’re working on.”

Artemis turned away, she knew she should call Gaige out, tell her that she shouldn’t say such things, but she didn’t think this was the right time for it, nor the place. After they got somewhere safe, somewhere those animatronic things couldn’t get to, she’d have to tell Gaige that they shouldn’t be together, that she couldn’t keep doing this to her, but right then, she didn’t want to have the fight.

Though if Gaige didn’t back off, she might have to.

Gaige felt the strangeness coming off her girlfriend and couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. Maybe she was starting to feel a bit put off by the fact that they were stuck here or maybe Gaige had been pressing her a bit too hard about them being a couple and she couldn’t figure out how to tell Gaige she wanted them to slow down.

Gaige really didn’t believe it was the latter, after all, they couldn’t really slow down any more than they had. She felt a wave of frustration at the fact that they were the same as they’d been when they’d started a month and a half ago. It wasn’t that Gaige wanted them to jump into bed together, well, in the traditional sense, but she would’ve liked it if Artemis was a little more willing to show that she cared, even if it was something as small as leaning on Gaige when they were like this or holding her hand. She knew anything more than that would be out, but she at least wanted to start moving forward.

But she’d promised Artemis that she’d be in control of how fast they moved, so Gaige was willing to wait a little longer before she said anything.

Trying to get them back on track, she ventured “So, about what you were saying?”

“What was I saying? That you shouldn’t push like that?”

“Push what? What’re you talkin about? I was trying to segue into whatever you were saying before we ran, but now I wanna know what you were meaning?”

“Nothing. Just that, well, you shouldn’t say things like that, about, you know…”

“You mean me teasing you about the bikini? I said I was sorry, didn’t I? Actually, did I? Look, I’m sorry for teasing you. Really.” After a second where Artemis didn’t respond, Gaige continued “Are we good?”

Artemis shrugged, she really wanted to tell Gaige that wasn’t what she’d meant, but she decided to let it slide for the time being.

“Really, are we good?”

“I guess.”

“And I guess that’s the best I’m gonna get. So, like I was saying, or meaning, or whatever, what were you saying back there, about the animatronics?”

“I don’t remember.”

“What? You don’t remember?”

“Then what was I talking about?”

“Uh, something about what animatronics were, there being a body in one of them, something like that. So, let’s start there, what’d you mean, there was a body in one?”

“Exactly that, there was a body in one.”

“Give me details, you said they were dead, but were they dead when they were put inside or what?”

“How would I know?”

“I thought you might’ve seen something.”

“In the lightning?”

“Fine, alright, just tell me what you thought you saw.” Gaige wanted to throw her hands up in frustration, but she didn’t want to create any more motion then she had to, not with those mascots looking for them.

Artemis fixed her with a hard look, like she wanted to correct Gaige, to tell her that it wasn’t what she thought, but what she actually saw. Instead, she spoke in a rather flat tone, like she didn’t want to remember what she’d seen and was trying to cut as quick a path from her memory to her mouth as she could.

“What I saw was black, rotting intestines spilling out to splatter the ground in front of it, the stench of which told me that the person had been dead for a while, though it was hard to tell exactly how long since there were other factors involved.

“When the lightning struck, I got a clear look at it for a few seconds, which was a few too many. I could see the remains of its intestines swinging in the wind, all glossy and black and”

“Stop!” Gaige held up her hand, obviously trying not to get sick “Don’t need that level of detail, just what you saw. The basics relevant to what I need to know.”

“You asked.”

“And I regret it.”

“Fine. Let’s see. I could see its ribs. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I was the one that exposed them, must’ve happened when it was…turned…built into that? Whatever. Anyway, I could see its ribcage and the muscles were torn, but not recently, like when the wires and stuff were added. The wires went through the muscles in some cases and kinda through things. Oh, and there was metal welded to the bones.”

“Welded to the bone?”

“Yeah, not like it was glued or bolted.”

“Jeez, I hope they were dead when that happened.”

“I don’t think they were.”

“Oh jeez, spare me the gory details, but how do you know that?”

“It was the way the muscles were torn, like they’d still been moving after the cables and wires had gone through them. Plus, the way the bones looked around the weld, like they’d been trying to heal.”

“And you saw all of that in a second? Not that I’m doubting you, but that’s a lot of detail for a glance that short.”

“It kinda seared into my brain, I’ll be lucky if I can get it outta there before I try and sleep again.”

“■■■■, I won’t blame you if you get nightmares. Speakin of which, what kind of nightmare sleeper are you? I mean, do you wake up screaming or thrash about or what? I just wanna know so that I can be prepared, I’m gonna be next to you after all.”

“Don’t really know. I think I’m just the kind that wakes up with a start.”

“Yeah, same. I mean, I’ve never known anyone that wakes up screaming like they always do in the movies. Then again, I haven’t exactly spent the night with…forget it. Moving on. Anything else you wanna tell me?”

“About what?”

“About your sleep habits, what do’ya think I’m talkin about? These…whatevers. The mascots, animatronics, things.”

“Not really.”

“Really? You were mentioning something else back there, different kinds or something.”

“Oh yeah. There were two different kinds of them.”

“I’ve seen like six so far.”

“What?”

“Yeah, there’s the usual one, the Ramaloo. Then there’s the lizard and let’s see, there was the psycho and the Skag, and”

“No, no. Those are different types, granted, but I’m talking about something different.”

“You’re gonna have to explain.”

“I’m trying to.”

Gaige motioned for her to continue rather rudely, but Artemis chose to ignore it “Like I was saying, there’s two kinds of them. One of them, the first kind I fought, is slightly taller and generally worse looking, more rotted and decayed. The second kind, which is what this one was, are shorter, by varying amounts, but usually a couple of inches or so and usually have better fur. I mean newer. Less rotted.”

“That’s weird.”

“Yeah, I have no idea what it means and was hoping you’d have an idea.”

“Hmm, you said earlier that it was hard to tell how long the person inside was there for.”

“Yeah.”

Gaige rolled her eyes and motioned for her to continue.

“Now you want details? Fine. It depends on a lot of factors. Where they were located before they came after us, like inside or out, how air and water tight they are, things like that all greatly affect the rate of decomposition. But judging by the temperature and humidity around here, plus some other factors, I’d say between six months to a year, with the year being more likely. Why?”

“In other words, significantly less time than the park’s been closed for.”

“Well, since I don’t know how long that’s been, no idea.”

“Trust me, judging by the amount of deterioration around here, it’s been a while.”

“I’ll take your word for it. But that would mean that the…whatever, isn’t that old.”

“Exactly.”

“So, where’d it come from?”

“If I had to guess, one of those boats we saw out there.” Catching Artemis’s look, she continued “They probably got here like we did, or something similar and then, well, that part I don’t know.”

“That might be what the others were grabbing at us for.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Gaige leaned back against the back of the mausoleum and tilted her head back, letting the warm rain pound on it before muttering “Jeez, was this place built on some kind of ancient native burial ground?”

“How would I know?”

“The question was rhetorical.”

Chapter 10

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Lamara’s Haunted Hollow

“Heck Drop?” Artemis cocked her head staring at the map.

“I’m not sure I want to know,” Gaige replied, shaking her head.

They’d finished talking behind the mausoleum and had headed out, sneaking along the graveyard close to the wall. They’d figured that back there they were less likely to be seen by any of the mascots and it had worked, though they’d nearly missed the path diverging.

Once they’d made their way back down to the path, they’d done a quick check and hadn’t found any sign of anything, so they’d tried to head back towards the central area, or at least they thought they had. After a good ways, Artemis had spotted something, which had turned out to be another map board, which had told them they were closer to the far edge from where they’d come in, rather than the central exit.

They’d spent the next few moments trying to memorize the map and which way they needed to go, while also looking for any kind of medical station as well as the rides, which was what they were discussing.

“Still, it looks like the only med center that I can make out is in the ‘Ghost King’s Castle’ whatever that is.”

“Do we really want to go there? I mean, I know we need to get some medical stuff, but after everything we’ve seen here, are we really going to some ghost palace?”

Gaige leaned back “We could always try exiting this place and moving on. Of course, the problem with that is that we have no idea what we’ll find there. I mean, it could be swarming with mascots or worse.”

“And what do you consider worse?”

Gaige just shrugged in response.

“Great, so what should we do?”

“I guess we’ve got two choices, either we check out the next area and see what’s there or we go to this castle.

“You missed heading to the front of this area and seeing if we can’t find something there.”

“Fine, there’s that too. So, any preference?”

“Not really.”

“Damn, I was hoping you’d have an idea, cause I’m with you, I donno what we should do.”

Artemis didn’t respond, instead she just stared at the map.

“Screw it, let’s go to the castle. If we can’t get in or things go wrong, we can try and fall back to the rail station, here, and try and get out that way.”

Artemis shrugged, but started charting a path through the area. “The only problem I see, other than us going deeper into this place, is that if we can’t get into this castle or we have problems there and we get to the rail, we don’t know if it’s out or not.”

“Yeah, but if we start doing that, then we’d never go anywhere. I mean, there’s a chance there might be an entire army of these mascot things out there, just past whatever exit we choose, so maybe we shouldn’t go that way and on and on.”

“Yeah, but there’s been a real sense of dilapidation around here, so things falling apart seems fairly likely.”

“Alright, I’ll give you that. But my point is that we need to do something and this is the best we’ve got.”

Artemis nodded, but the tension around her mouth spoke volumes about what she really thought. But like Gaige had said, they didn’t really have many options.

“Right, let’s go.”

They headed out, moving through the pouring rain towards the back of the area. On the nearest side they could make out more of the graveyard, which created a rather unpleasant ambiance, especially since they could only just make the tombstones out through the gloom.

Soon enough the graveyard fell away, turning into a gnarled forest that wasn’t any better. Artemis felt that something was about to pop out from behind the trees, if the trees didn’t attack first. She knew from the map that the attraction on that side was something called the ‘Corpse Copse’ though neither of them had any idea what that was, nor any desire to find out.

The path split, one path going into the skeletal trees and an old, weathered signpost announced what was inside.

Ignoring it, they walked on, both trying to ignore the way the rain made it look like the artificial trees were moving.

Neither of them wanted to appear scared, so they kept the pace, even though both of them wanted to bolt. On top of that, they had no idea what was waiting ahead of them, so that also helped keep their pace steady. At least that’s what they kept repeating to themselves.

They kept walking, feeling like they’d been there forever. Neither of them had a watch, so they didn’t know how much time had passed since they’d been shipwrecked. They’d both experienced enough situations like this to tell that fear and the dark played havoc on your ability to keep track of time, so they couldn’t even rely on their internal clocks, but Artemis was starting to feel the first pangs of hunger when a distant roll of lightning broke, illuminating their destination from behind in a truly spectacular fashion.

The castle rose against the sky like a rotting tooth, jagged and twisted, inspiring a grand sense of unease. The lightning flickered again, completing the ambiance.

“Well, that was…impressive,” Gaige said, trying to lace her voice with a cheer she clearly didn’t feel.

“You still want to go there?”

“Not really, but I’m still in favor of it.”

“Great.”

“Come on, I know that was super dramatic and all, but it was designed that way, it just got a little help from nature’s all.”

Artemis turned and stared at her. Gaige, feeling her ability to convince her friend slipping desperately added “You know, like how an area that’s all fluffy and cloud-like would look super peaceful on a clear day. I bet this area would look a bit silly in the light.”

As if in response, another flash of lightning illuminated the area, throwing hideously twisted shadows dancing across their path.

“Oh yeah, I totally get what you mean.”

“Sarcasm? Now? Really?”

“Yes really, I mean, I thought this place was supposed to be for kids. I mean when it was open, not now. Definitely not now.”

“What’re you talkin about? Of course this place was for kids. But like you pointed out, not anymore. But back in the day, when they were open, I bet this place was super popular with the kids.”

She caught the flat stare Artemis was giving her “What? Kids love dark things. I mean, do you have any idea the number of movies that are aimed at kids that are beloved, but if you watched them as an adult, you’d be horrified? Quite a few. And they’re all awesome.”

“Uh huh.”

“You sound like you don’t believe me.” Getting a look from the other girl, Gaige continued “What about that one I showed you? The one with the singing skeleton? That was awesome, right? And that was totally a kids movie.”

“You’re bringing that up now? Seriously? Especially with the movie you made me watch afterwards?”

Gaige winced “Sorry. But my point still stands. Now can we get going?”

“We’re still going to the castle?”

“Of course. Unless you’ve come up with a better place in the last few minutes.”

“Yeah, back to the ship.”

“Hey, if you can get us there, I’m all in, otherwise, let’s go.”

Artemis’s shoulders dropped in defeat, so they continued on, trudging through the rain. After a minute, Artemis suddenly stiffened, causing Gaige to freeze up. Artemis quickly guided them off the road and into the trees.

After a short while, Gaige made out something moving on the path, though she couldn’t tell what it was due to the lack of light and the rain. Still, she pulled herself around the tree she was against, hoping that it would prevent her from being spotted.

She waited, and waited, relying on Artemis’s senses to let them know when the threat was gone and eventually she flicked the lantern back on, allowing Gaige to get a look at their surroundings.

The first thing she spotted was the well, only a few dozen or so feet away. The green slime that oozed between the stones looked too realistic for her to believe it was painted on and the way the roof had collapsed and fallen to the side gave it all an air of authenticity that made her stomach go cold and her feet want to flee.

Deciding that she didn’t want to see if the forest was really haunted or if there were any traps that might be sprung to scare people walking through the area, she hustled her way back to the path and wound up waiting for Artemis, who seemed to take her time coming back down.

Before long the woods ended in what they thought was a large clearing. On one side, a path headed off. She knew from the map that it would go a ways and then branch, with one path going around towards where they came in and the other looping around the castle to go to the rail station.

The rest of the clearing was surrounded by a small village. The buildings were designed to look rustic, with exposed timbers and what had once been white or brick walls. The entire place was cockeyed, with every building rising up and twisting and leaning, with strange bulges and stairs that seemed to grow out of their sides.

The juxtapose of the old-fashioned and the twisted construction was jarring to say the least. It made the hair on the back of their neck stand up. They kept looking around, expecting something to jump out or be looking at them through a window.

“Uh, let’s get to the castle,” Gaige said, trying to not project how uneasy she was.

“You mean you don’t want to look and see what they’ve got in these buildings?”

Gaige turned slowly, one eye twitching “No. No I don’t.”

“Alright then, you want point?”

“No. No I don’t.”

“Then what do you want?”

“I want you to get moving.”

Artemis shrugged and crossed the open space at a fair pace. Gaige followed along behind her, feeling the bar in her hand slipping. She wanted to believe it was from the rain and not sweaty palms, but she couldn’t really shake the thought.

She wished she had something to wrap the grip in, but she knew that even if she did, it would probably just slip off, so she didn’t ask.

“Hey, where’d your, um, bar thing, melee weapon thing, you know, this thing go?” She held up her bar and waved it a little.

“Huh? Oh, I dropped it when I was on the roller coaster.”

“And you don’t want another?”

“Yeah, well, it wasn’t all that useful really. I mean, they aren’t able to be concussed or anything like that. If I could get one that was sharp that would be one thing, but, I mean, it’s better than nothing.”

“Probably should still get another.”

“Maybe if I see something that looks like it would work, I’ll grab it, until then, I’ve still got my Digi-blade, so I’m good.”

Gaige shook her head, but held her tongue since they were getting close to the castle.

Up close, the castle seemed to stretch far above them, dwarfing anything they’d seen at the park to that point. Artemis wondered how big it had to be inside and what they were using all that space for.

Turning her attention down, she found the way barred by a set of barricades that looked woefully out of place given their surroundings. The simple metal gates were set across the path to stop anyone from casually approaching, but didn’t do much in the way of actually impeding anyone, which was easily proven when the girls jumped over them and continued up to the entrance.

At the top of the path they found the doors to the castle closed, which wasn’t a big surprise. Gaige sighed and looked around, but didn’t find anything. It was only when Artemis stepped over to one of the bricks and slid the cover aside, revealing the control panel that she realized that all of the locks on the doors were just decoration.

Gaige got to work, but gave up after a second and sat back, “No good.”

“What?”

“There’s no power, we’re not opening the door from here.”

“Well shoot, any other suggestions?”

“Well, do you see any other panels? Like one for an emergency open?”

“No. I mean, I could look for one, but it’d be harder to find since it wouldn’t be opened as often.”

“Yeah, I was afraid of that. Well, give it a shot and if you don’t find anything I guess we’ll have to move on.”

Artemis nodded and got to looking, but after a few moments shook her head. Gaige sighed but ended up shrugging.

“Well, it was worth a shot. Don’t feel too bad.” She patted Artemis on the shoulder, “We’ve just gotta keep lookin is all. Come on, let’s see what’s around back.”

This time Gaige took the lead, keeping close to the castle, they tried to make their way around, but quickly found that it was impossible. It seemed that the park didn’t want guests wandering around behind the scenes, so the girls were forced to go almost all the way back to the path to make their way around.

To their lament, the rear gates were similarly locked and since they were also without power, they found themselves unable to proceed as planned.

“So now what?”

Gaige looked over at the other girl “What do you mean?”

“How many ways is there to interpret that? I mean, it’s kind of a simple statement.”

“Bitch.”

“Well, you kinda did it to yourself.”

“I was meaning, are you asking if we’re gonna try and keep getting into the place or move one or what?”

“That’s exactly what I was asking.”

“Which part?”

“All of it.”

Gaige looked at her for a second, brow scrunching together and then sighed “Yeah, sorry, I’m just, well…”

“I know.”

“Thanks. So back to what you were askin, I’m not sure. I mean, there’s gotta be another way into this place, possibly in one of the buildings from before. Probably some way into an underground tunnel system that we’re never supposed to be in, at least from the park’s perspective. Other than that, we could either head for the train tracks or the front.”

“You got a preference?”

“Hmm, maybe, maybe not. You?”

“Well, going all the way back to the front sounds like a pain, but we’re gonna have to do it at some point anyway. Still, I don’t put that as my first choice.”

“That makes two of us, which I guess leaves trying to search the buildings or finding the train.”

“We could also look for another exit.”

“Yeah, but the nearest one on the map wasn’t all that close. I mean, it was close enough, but with those things out there, I donno.”

“Yeah, alright, so forward or back, I guess that’s what we’re looking at, isn’t it?”

“If you put it like that, I’m gonna have to say forward.”

Artemis nodded “Yeah, I guess. So, if I remember correctly, the train station should be this way.”

Gaige followed along and soon the station emerged from the rain.

The roof looked like it would fall in at any second and the paint had long since peeled off, leaving the worn and splintery wood exposed to the air, that is, the sections that weren’t covered in ivy. Thick strands of the stuff grew up the side of the building, twisting and spreading over the walls and windows, which were so covered in dust that light probably couldn’t have gotten through. The railings along the sides were twisted and warped.

It reminded Gaige of the train station in one of the old movies her dad had made her watch, if it had been left to the elements, which she knew it must’ve been designed to look like.

“Wow, wonder what it looked like back in the day?” Artemis muttered, staring at the building like she was afraid to try getting under the roof, despite the rain continuing to fall on her.

“Come on, it’s much sturdier than it looks.”

“And how’re you so sure of that?”

“Cause it was built to look like this, you saw the picture on the map didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but that was a drawing. Seeing it in real life isn’t very inspiring.”

“Then try and get through it as quick as you can, but I’m planning on takin a short breather under there, out of this damn rain.”

Artemis thought about it for a second and then joined Gaige.

Chapter 11

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Lamara’s Haunted Hollow: Ghoul’s Junction Station

They sat near the edge of the station, on a bench leaned against the wall. Contrary to how it looked, the station was in fairly good shape overall and Gaige swore it wouldn’t collapse on them.

The rain continued unabated and the light spray of it bouncing off the ground misted their legs as they stretched them out in front of them.

Gaige looked up at the clouds and wondered aloud “Wonder how long the storm’s gonna continue for?”

“No idea. But I think the rain might be letting up slightly.”

“Very slightly, if it is. Not that I’m doubting you, it’s just, I can’t see any difference.”

“Well, usually when a storm starts letting up, the clouds lighten, but since we have no idea what time it is, we can’t really tell if the sun’s setting, if it’s already set, or if it’s still out.”

“Yeah, I mean, I feel like we’ve been here for hours, but I donno, I kinda doubt it.”

“Why?”

Gaige shrugged “Lots of little things, but for one, considering the little area we’ve covered so far, I doubt it’s been that long. Plus there’s other things.”

“Like the fact that I’m not all that hungry yet?”

“Yeah, exactly. Though I suppose that might not be the best indicator, I mean, you’ve freely admitted that you’ve learned to eat when you can and to suppress your appetite when you can’t.”

“True. Wait, are you suggesting we eat something?”

“No. But now that you mention it, maybe it wouldn’t be the worst idea to have a bite. Just a small one.”

Artemis nodded and started digging in her bag, only to groan.

“What? You didn’t lose something, did you? Cause it’s gonna have to be mighty important for us to go back.”

Artemis just shook her head and held up her ECHO.

“Wait, you had that all along and you didn’t think to bring it out? Why?”

“For the same reason you didn’t, cause we forgot about it.”

“But how could you forget it? I mean, we use those things all the time, so why?”

“I don’t know, cause we’re on vacation, cause we’re wearing swimsuits, cause we’re being chased by mascots that have dead people inside, but mostly, cause we forgot.”

“OK, fair. So do you have a network?”

“Hold on, I’m looking.”

“Well look faster.”

“You wanna do this?”

“Yes.”

“Well too bad.”

“Bitch.”

Artemis shrugged and stared at the screen, sliding the device over so that Gaige could see easier. After a moment, the ECHO alerted her that it couldn’t connect to the ECHOnet, but that there was a local network that had limited access and was wondering if she wanted to try connecting.

“Well, what do you think?”

“Usually I’d say no way, but I’m not sure we have much of a choice. But we’re definitely going to have to remember to wipe its memory when we get back, no telling what it’s gonna pick up on a strange network.”

Artemis nodded and hit enter.

It took a moment for it to connect, but then the screen changed and a new message appeared.

Welcome to the Ceto Wonderworld network, we apologize for the inconvenience, but the network is currently down for maintenance.

Limited access is available.

Below that it listed a few headings, but most of them were greyed out. The ones that were left were Help, Announcements and Employees.

“Try help,” Gaige suggested.

Artemis wanted to roll her eyes, but hit the button.

The list opened up and new options appeared, though most of them were also greyed out.

“Ooh, map.” Gaige punched the button, nearly prompting Artemis to elbow her, but since she was about to hit it anyway, and since she didn’t want to risk hitting Gaige in her wound, she resisted the urge.

A picture of the island appeared on screen, with different areas that she could click on. Squinting she tried to make them out without zooming in too much.

“Let’s see,” Gaige said, nearly colliding with her as they leaned in, “Sorry. I think this says Ceto Island and this is…”

“Ceto Wonderworld Accommodations.”

“Wow, really? I was completely misreading that. What about this one?”

Artemis leaned in and read “That one’s Kirimu’s Tropical Resort. Wait, that’s another place to stay, right? Why would they have two on the same island?”

“Price,” Gaige said with a nod. Seeing the expression on Artemis’s face, she continued “Back when I was a wedding planner, I encountered things like this. See, a place like this wants to cater to as many types of clients as they can, but not all of them want to stay at the same place. I mean, a higher-class client doesn’t want to see…let’s call them less fortunate families, they don’t want to see them around. Or they’re there on a honeymoon and they don’t want to be disturbed, though not so much this place. Anyway, the other people, the ones just out on a vacation, who can’t afford to rent a suite or a bungalow or an entire floor of a hotel, they just want somewhere to stay, so the island offers a place for each of them so that they’re all happy. This way the rich guest doesn’t have to put up with seeing the poor families running around and the poor family still gets to have a vacation.”

She paused a second and then added “Of course there’s really not that much difference between them, I mean, they’re both hotel rooms. Unless you pay an exorbitant amount of money that is, then it’s a different world. But that’s not important, just click on the park itself so we can find out where we are.”

“We know that already.”

“Where we are in relation to everything else you nitwit.”

“That’s just mean.”

“Sorry. Now click on it.”

“That didn’t sound sincere,” Artemis muttered, but she clicked the map anyway, muttering even quieter “Not that I blame you.”

“What was that?”

“Nothing.”

Gaige shifted and stared at her “You’re not lying to me, are you?”

“No. It wasn’t anything important. Or at least not…you know what, just forget it.”

“Now I really want to press, but right now, I’m gonna look at the map.”

Artemis sighed and held the screen up. After a quick look they figured out the place was shaped roughly like an inverted heart, with the point dented in where the islands central mountain jutted up. In fact, the entire back of the park was against the mountain ridge, with two breaks where paths to the hotels were. On the back side of the island, they could just make out the indication for beaches, but they weren’t looking there, instead they were focused on the park itself.

They had entered at the center of the heart. The area around there was called Wonderworld Main Street and was lined with stores and information centers, as well as a whole bunch of other symbols that they couldn’t easily identify.

Most of the buildings were marked with numbers, which must have had a key somewhere, or else they could just click on them and bring up the information, but they did see the familiar symbol for a first-aid station.

Tracing the route they’d taken they found where they were and traced around the rest of the surrounding area. They were surprised to find that they were at the furthest point on the map in that direction. The only thing further out was the rail line and then some cliffs that were blocked off by a fence.

Continuing around the next attraction they would encounter was called ‘Phorcus’s Water World’ and seemed to be a collection of water themed rides including ones called “Phorcus’s River Rapids’, ‘Terminal Velocity’ and the ever present ‘Lazy River’.

Following the rail line around they would then hit the furthest back area ‘Kirimu’s Jungleland’, but if they could get off the line between those two, they had a clean shot to the Kirimu’s Tropical Resort, which they figured if they could get to, it would have the best chance to not have any of the animatronics wondering around.

They glanced at the far side of the map, but didn’t see anything that would inspire them to think anything over there would be any better. In fact, they thought it would be worse since there was a section for some kind of stage shows, including a few with names like ‘Kirimu and Friends’ and ‘Kirimu Under the Sea’, which promised an action filled adventure featuring King Tako, whatever that meant.

As Gaige continued staring at the map, Artemis remembered what she’d been in her pack for in the first place and dug out one of the ration bars and after tearing it open, broke it in half, offering Gaige one of them.

They ate in silence, forcing themselves to down the food. Usually, Gaige would’ve made some comment about the taste of the prepackaged bar, but even she wasn’t feeling up to it at the moment.

Finishing up, Artemis stuffed the wrapper back into her bag and dug out a canteen. Taking a sip, she passed it over and then packed it away as well.

“Finished with the map?”

“Almost, I’m just trying to memorize where the first-aid stations are as well as the main paths around here.”

“There’s really not that many aid stations, are there?” Artemis said, looking at the map.

“Not really.”

“Guess they just hoped no one got hurt.”

“Or maybe when the place was open and the mascots weren’t homicidal, they would keep an eye on the guests.”

“Guess so.”

They fell back into silence and Artemis looked around for a moment before trying to look at the map. The longer the silence remained, the worse her mind got and with nothing to do but sit there, she was starting to go nuts. She knew she should apologize to Gaige for getting her into this mess, but she couldn’t find the words, so she sat in silence.

For her part, Gaige was desperately trying to memorize the map to make up for her earlier mistakes. She knew that Artemis was getting odd again, but she was hoping that if she could just get them off the island, things would go back to being good.

Well, not good. They hadn’t been exactly good, but they’d been steady, which was something. If things continued crawling forward, she didn’t think they’d last, but she thought that after an adjustment period, they might start speeding up.

Or at least that’s what she hoped.

Unable to take it any longer, she handed the ECHO back and stood up, stretching to try and work the kinks out of her back and legs. She felt an uncomfortable twinge shoot up her side from where the bikini strap had dug into her side, reminding her that she wasn’t anywhere near a hundred percent, but she just had to hope that it wasn’t bad enough to slow her down.

Putting on a brave face, she said “Well, here we go again.” And stepped out into the rain.

Hopping down, they landed on the tracks. The rails themselves were starting to rust in spots, giving the entire thing an abandoned feel, which was actually a bit comforting at this point, since they didn’t want to get hit by a train.

In fact, the only train that they thought might appear was a ghost train, which given the state of the park and the station they’d just been in, didn’t seem that far fetched.

Shaking the thought off, they started forward, into the gloom.

The path started out easy enough, running fairly level. The only problem was the spacing of the ties between the tracks weren’t designed to be walked on, causing the girls to have to take odd steps to not trip on them, which got tiring very quickly.

After a short ways, they realized things were getting harder, since the ground was starting to fall away beneath them and the ties were now suspended in mid-air, meaning any slip would send them falling between them. The ties were still close enough together that they didn’t think they’d fall all the way down, but it would still hurt, not to mention scare the heck out of them, meaning they were taking even more time.

The best thing that they could’ve said about the rail tracks was that there was little chance of running into one of the mascots on them, which was a thin comfort, especially with the increased risk of getting hit by lightning they were feeling.

Both of them knew that there would be all kinds of things that should attract the lightning more than them, but in the gloom, they couldn’t help but feel that they weren’t there, especially every time that the sky lit up above them, reminding them that the storm was still raging, not that the constant downpour gave them any chance of forgetting.

The pouring rain was also the reason they were making their way along the ties instead of hopping up onto the rails themselves and hustling along. They both had confidence in their sense of balance, enough that they would’ve been comfortable running along the narrow metal bar, but when the bar was getting covered in water and the wind kept blasting at random intervals, that made things different.

As they proceeded along, the weather and the years became more and more apparent as the ties started to become rotten and they were soon becoming reluctant to put too much of their weight on them.

Moving steadily closer to the rail, it wasn’t long before they had to reluctantly get up onto the metal to proceed.

Gaige started looking behind them, prompting Artemis to lean back and shout “You want to head back?”

“No. Not yet at least.”

Artemis raised her eyebrows and shook her head, “Your call.”

She turned and continued down the rail. By then they couldn’t see the ground beneath them except when the lightning struck, illuminating the area just long enough for them to not be able to piece together what they’d just seen. Fragments of things that made no sense. Walls, the tops of buildings, water, rocks. Without any context, none of it made sense.

A few times the lightning chained across the sky, giving them long enough to see what was below and what they saw didn’t help. It seemed that at some point one of the walls had collapsed, crumbling away and falling into the sea, flooding the area.

To make matters worse, the lack of ties connecting the rails, combined with the years of weather and the lack of maintenance had caused the rails to start sinking in places, bowing downwards between the support posts.

They soon encountered what they’d been afraid of, one of the posts had broken off at some point, probably when the wall had collapsed, or barring that, from the years of water damage that had resulted from it.

No matter the reason, the pillar was gone and without the support, the rails had sunk lower than usual, till one of them had snapped off, twisting away into the dark.

That wouldn’t have been a problem if they had been walking on the other one.

Staring into the black void below them, they looked over at the other line, which continued on in the dark.

“You want to go back, try getting across at the last, uh, thing holding this mess up?”

“Pillar. I think. Or maybe there’s some other technical term for it.”

“Great, so aside from a faulty engineering lesson, you didn’t answer my question.”

Gaige rolled her eyes and muttered “Bitch.” before continuing “Not sure, I mean, trying to go up these things is a pain.”

That had been an understatement. It had been hard enough walking on one of the rails with just the wind and rain making their footing unstable, but then to try and climb it was a whole new level of challenge.

“True, but the way I see it, that’d be easier than trying to jump.”

“Nah, it’s only a couple of feet.”

“Not if we miss.”

“Then don’t miss.”

“Easier said than done.”

“Look, if you wanna go all the way back, be my guest, but I’m gonna jump it.”

Gaige didn’t wait for a reply and slid forward a step before jumping. She hit the rail and immediately dropped into a crouch, clutching it with both hands. Despite what she’d said, she’d been extremely nervous about the move, not just because of the reasons that Artemis had implied, but because she knew she was forgetting something.

That something let itself be known when the rail let out a terrifying screech as it twisted and snapped off, dropping her into the black below.

Chapter 12

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Phorcus’s Water World

Everything froze for Gaige, except for gravity, which yanked her down without mercy. Her mind locked up, barely registering the fact that she was falling, accompanied by the sensation of her stomach simultaneously freezing and staying where she’d been.

Before she’d realized what was happening, she slammed into the water.

Luckily for her, the area underneath her had been carved out by the tides and was deep enough that she didn’t reach the bottom when she hit. Unlucky for her, the stinging slap of the water blasted the air from her lungs. That combined with the stunning effect of hitting flat on her back meant that she wasn’t able to move as she sank.

The only good thing about that was that she was in fact entirely stunned, meaning that she wasn’t able to breathe in, which probably saved her from drowning. By the time she’d got her wits about her and her body under control, her lungs were screaming for air and she was able to burst from the water just as something impacted near her.

Fearing the rest of the rail system might be falling, she backed away as she heard the sound of rocks falling over. Digging around she spotted the glow of the lantern through the water and dove to retrieve it.

As she did, she felt additional impacts as more of the rail started falling, making her worry about something landing on her, so she kicked away as soon as she had the lantern in hand.

It was only after she’d emerged a ways away that she thought about the fact that Artemis had still been on the rails and started scanning the sky, looking for her.

Artemis had watched in horror as Gaige had slipped off the rail, reaching for the falling girl in a futile effort to catch her. Without thinking, she spun to run back to the last support pillar to climb down, only for her eagerness to get the worse of her as her own feet shot out from under her.

She hit the rail on her stomach, blasting the air out of her lungs in an extremely painful impact. Some part of her mind noted that she was going to have a wicked bruise across her belly and it was probably a good thing she wasn’t wearing a bikini, when she felt herself begin to slide.

The combination of her swimsuit and the wet metal of the rail were providing next to no friction as she slid down the bent metal, scrambling futilely at it. Just as she hit the end, her cybernetic hand caught the metal and clamped down, stopping her from falling, only for her to feel something give and the entire rail shudder, knocking her loose.

Flipping through the air, she didn’t have time to think before she slammed into the water. Sinking as she tried to get her mind and body back under control, she felt something slam her in the back, driving her to the bottom.

Twisting and thrashing, she found that the rail she’d been on had snapped off and fallen on her, pinning her to the cracked ground. Trying to push herself up, she found that she couldn’t shift the rail, nor could she get her left hand loose, when the rail had landed across her lower back, it had pinned her arm underneath her, meaning she couldn’t even attempt to cut the rail off her.

Thrashing futilely, she realized that there was no way for her to move, she couldn’t even shift the rail, let alone get enough leverage to get it off of her.

As the burning in her lungs got worse, the panic started to fade and a grim acceptance set in. There was nothing she could do, she was going to drown here no matter how much she fought against it. Part of her mind still was whirling through ideas, anything it could think of to try and get the rail off or alert Gaige, but since she had nothing, no way to signal the other girl, she couldn’t think of anything.

She couldn’t even reach the flare gun, which she could feel jamming against her side.

It wasn’t like she wanted to give up, it was just that she couldn’t think of any way out, she hated abandoning Gaige like this, to end things on this note. She knew that Gaige would blame herself, even though it wasn’t her fault. Artemis wished she could tell her that, to let her know that this hadn’t been her doing. If anything, she’d given Artemis the best memories of her life, even if they were brief.

She continued trying to fight, not giving up even as consciousness started to fade. Even the burning in her lungs was starting to turn into a dull ache and the pounding in her ears was slowing down.

Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a disturbance in the water near her, but didn’t pay it much mind, especially since it was getting dark. Well, it had been dark for a while, but even the wan light was fading at this point.

Suddenly she felt the rail move slightly, like a vibration going through it. A second later it shifted almost imperceptibly, but it shifted.

A few seconds passed and then the rail lifted off her back. Not much, but enough that she was able to slither forward.

Forcing all of her remaining energy into her tired body, she drug herself forward as fast as she could. Dimly, she heard a metallic clang behind her and then a pair of strong hands grabbed her under her arms and yanked her upward with surprising force, popping her head out of the water where she was able to take a deep breath of the moist air, along with a fair amount of water.

Breaking into a coughing fit as the water hit her lungs, she nearly passed out from oxygen deprivation, especially since she was already nearly out, but she managed to get a good breath in, before coughing some more.

Eventually she managed to start filling her lungs with air and feeling started coming back. The first thing she realized was that she hurt, all over, but mostly her lower back and her chest, but neither of them felt like anything was broken.

Trying to get her legs under her, she found that they didn’t want to hold her weight, forcing her to lean against whomever was holding her.

Turning slightly, she found herself getting drug through the water and over to a rock. Judging by the occasional squish against her back, she realized who was carrying her, which made sense, since she was the only other person there.

She was a bit surprised that Gaige hadn’t said anything by the time she forced her to sit on the rock, but one look at her face told the whole story. Even in the rain, the tears were visible and despite the lantern light throwing her face in strange light, the paleness was clear.

It wasn’t that Gaige didn’t have anything to say, she just wasn’t in any fit state to say it.

Eventually Artemis managed to get out “Thanks.”

Gaige nodded in response, plopping down next to her and throwing her arms around Artemis. The smaller girl wanted to push her away, to tell her that this is exactly why this had happened in the first place, but she couldn’t. Not because she didn’t have the energy, though she was a bit low on it at the moment. Not cause she didn’t enjoy it, she did, the warmth coming through from the other girl touched her core. But because she knew that Gaige needed this. She needed to touch her, to hold her, to make sure she was still there, that she wasn’t really gone, so she allowed it to happen.

She could feel the other girl quaking as she sobbed, trying to repress her emotions, to not lose it here, and failing. She knew that she should be as emotional, after all, she’d almost died, but she couldn’t. It wasn’t that she didn’t feel gratitude, or even euphoria at still being alive, it was just that she was still in a bit of shock. She was sure that at some point, if she lived long enough, she’d have to reckon with what had just happened, but that would be later, right then, she needed to be there for Gaige.

After a while, Gaige finally let go and leaned back. Not sure how to proceed, they looked at each other awkwardly. Gaige was a bit of a mess, with tears and snot on her face.

“See,” Artemis said, trying to lighten the mood. “This is why you shouldn’t strain yourself after eating.”

Gaige punched her in the shoulder, not too hard, but hard enough that she felt it.

“R-really? Now o-of all t-times?” She hiccupped out, but still cracked a thin smile “You b-bitch, I…I really th-th-thought I-I’d l-l-lost…”

She trailed off, unable to finish as tears resumed running down her face. It was a bit of a disgusting display of emotion, but Artemis wasn’t about to say anything, especially since it was for her.

She’d never had anyone who would express such concern for her, at least not since her parents had died, so she didn’t really know how to handle it. Glancing around, she knew that she wouldn’t find any help, so she did the only thing she could think of and patted Gaige’s shoulder awkwardly.

“There, there, I’m still here.” She managed to say, prompting Gaige to look up at her and laugh.

“You really suck at this, don’t you?”

“Yeah, told you I’m not a people person.”

“No ■■■■, come 'ere,” Gaige said, leaning in for another hug, only to be stopped.

“You’ve got snot all over your face.”

Gaige froze and blushed, quickly turning away and throwing handfuls of water on her face, before turning back, looking even worse, only to find Artemis inching away.

“Clean yourself up properly, would you?”

“Bitch. This is what I get for saving your life?”

“Hey, I’m grateful, really, I am, but you’re kinda a mess right now.”

“Get over here and let me share it with you.”

“Oh, gross.” Artemis gagged, moving away in disgust, only to freeze.

Something about that made Gaige stop teasing her, which she knew was only her way of trying to cover up how freaked out she’d been at nearly losing Artemis, and turned to see what she was looking at.

At first, she didn’t know what she was seeing, it appeared to be a spiky rock drifting towards them, but after a second, when the eyes turned towards her, she recognized it as a kind of Carcinus.

She’d known that some of them grew and changed, but the ones she’d seen pictures of had all been smooth shelled with the main difference between them being their coloration. This one however, looked like a rock with stalagmites growing off of it. The spikes weren’t sharp, but that still didn’t mean that she wanted to get hit with one, she was pretty sure they could easily gore her.

“We need to back away, slowly and then get the heck out of the water,” Artemis hissed, looking around as she slipped off the rock with a wince. It wasn’t just her back that cried out in pain, her stomach was letting her know that the bruise on it was forming up nicely.

Still, she was determined to keep going. None of her injuries were severe, only painful, so she could keep moving. In fact, she was pretty sure that if she kept moving, they wouldn’t get any worse but if she stopped, they’d stiffen up and then she’d be in real trouble.

The water helped, supporting her as she backed away slowly, trying not to cause too many ripples. She didn’t know how sensitive the Carcinus was, or how much the rain was disrupting its antenna, but it had come their direction, which meant that either it was just wandering around or, more likely, it was investigating the fallen rail line.

If it was the latter, then it would be searching for anything out of the ordinary in the area, which would include them, meaning they needed to get out of there before it found them.

She wished she’d taken more time to learn about the native species of the planet before coming down, but she hadn’t been intending to hunt any of them, so she’d just done a cursory check and left it at that, so she didn’t know much more than Gaige.

Glancing over at the other girl, she suddenly realized something, “Where’s your bar? I mean, the melee stick, thing, weapon, whatever?”

“Huh? Oh, I kinda dropped it when I was pulling you out from under the big bar holding you down. Needed to use it as a lever to get enough force to get that off of you, then I kinda dropped it to help you along.”

“Oh, that’s fine.”

“You think it would’ve been useful here? Like that was their secret weakness?”

“No, but anything would be better than nothing.”

“Yeah, I’m afraid I might have to shoot this thing.”

“Don’t. Not if you can help it.”

“Why? Is it one of those things where all the rest of the species in the area will know we killed one and come after us?”

“No, it’d just be a waste of ammo is all. I mean, don’t kill it if we don’t have to.”

“Oh, right.”

Artemis suddenly stiffened and slowly turned away from the giant crustacean coming at them. The instant she saw what was behind them, she let out a string of expletives that got Gaige to raise her eyebrows and look scandalized.

“Language,” she chastised, a bit aghast. “What was that about?”

Turning she spotted the large rock formation coming out of the water. Judging by its appearance, it had once been a ride that had sent the guests down a waterfall and splashed them into a pool at the bottom.

Now it was half submerged, with the mountain rising out and the rusting rails that the cart carrying the guests had ridden on glinting slightly in the light.

But what had grabbed Artemis’s attention and prompted her to swear was the clusters of eggs scattered around the rocks. Most of them were just poking out of the water, but some were stuck to the rocks and others were barely visible under the water. Still, it was clear even to Gaige what they’d been backing into, the Carcinus nest.

Gaige let out her own string of expletives, slightly more colorful than Artemis’s, speaking of the different life experiences she’d had.

“Language.”

“Bite me,” Gaige snapped back “Now what?”

“We need to find a way out of here. Any idea which way the exit is?”

“To the park or the ocean?”

Artemis nearly snapped at her, but then realized it was a valid question. “The park.”

If they tried to get out via the ocean, there was a good chance they might drown, especially in the storm, not to mention that would be the primary way the Carcinus were getting in and out so the chances of running into one of them that way would be extremely high.

Artemis didn’t say any of that, she didn’t think it was the time to explain her thought process, but she hoped that Gaige would just trust her and follow her lead.

To her relief, she did, pointing one direction with a look on her face that said she was fairly sure, but if she was wrong, don’t blame her.

Artemis nodded and looked that way, trying to find a way out.

The main problem was that it was only about ninety degrees away from the nest, meaning that half of that direction was cut off for their escape.

The next problem she spotted was that there wasn’t a good, clean path that she could see. Through the rain, she could just make out a few other protrusions in the gloom, most likely other rides and other park attractions. Interspersed amongst them were shallow rocks, barely poking out of the water. She wondered for a moment if they could somehow hop between them but immediately abandoned the idea, not just because the distance would be impossible to make, but because she recognized them.

“I think I made a mistake,” She groaned “That Carcinus wasn’t just investigating the disturbance, I think it’s one of the nest guardians.”

She motioned to the nearest of the rocks as it slowly rotated and started to rise out of the water, revealing another of the crustaceans. This one was similar to the other one, but without the spiky growths, instead it had a larger, more rock-like back.

“Uh, this might be a stupid question, but, um, if these things are guarding the nest, then, uh, where did the eggs come from?”

“I thought you were the one that always was going on about not asking questions like that.”

“Yeah well, slightly different, but, yeah, I get your point, forget I asked.”

There was an ominous cracking noise behind them causing Gaige to shriek at it “I said forget I asked!”

Despite themselves, they both turned and looked in the direction of the noise as rolling waves washed over them, coming up to their chests.

The water in the large open area at the base of the mountain, where the ride would splash down, was rising, like a dome, as something emerged.

Neither girl had any particular desire to see what was about to emerge, but neither of them could figure out how to get away before it did.

Finally, the water broke and exposed the creature’s massive bulk. It didn’t immediately resemble either of the other kinds of Carcinus that they’d seen before, but after staring at it for a few seconds with her mouth hanging open, Artemis started to see the species similarities.

The part of the creature that she could see was covered in barnacles, to the point where she had to wonder how big the actual thing was. They were grown up so far on its back that it appeared hunched, though judging by its build and the other things she knew about the species, Artemis didn’t think that it was.

Its tail, longer in proportion to its size than the guard one, was as wide as an Outrunner. Its eyes were so sunken into its head that Artemis had to wonder how well it could actually see, but the twin pairs of claws that she saw as it reared up made her not want to find out.

Trailing from its mouth, in place of the usual mandibles, were long dangling strands that reminded her of seaweed or the plants that they’d encountered on Apate, long things that swayed and poured water back down.

It splashed back down, floating gently and letting out a strange bellowing noise. They could hear the chittering of the other Carcinus in the area as they responded.

Having no clue what was being discussed, the girls crouched low in the water, eyes darting around, trying to find any way out.

Suddenly Gaige spotted something. It wasn’t a good thing, but it was still better than waiting around here till they found out if the Carcinus could see movement or not. She wondered why Artemis hadn’t noticed it, but then thought that maybe she had and had rejected it for some reason.

Well, she decided, even if she had, if they could at least get close to it, they might be able to narrow the paths the creatures could take to try and get to them.

Tapping the other girl gently, she made the slightest motion she could with her head to indicate what she’d seen. Artemis strained at it for a second, before nodding and slowly started moving towards it.

They inched along, trying not to attract the attention of the crustaceans around them. As they moved, more of them popped out of the water, some scuttling over the rides that they could see, while others just poked their heads out of the water and ducked back down.

Occasionally they could make out a disturbance in the water where one of them was shuffling along the bottom on its way to do who knows what, but they didn’t disturb them so they left it alone.

After what felt like forever, they made it to the pile that Gaige had spotted. As they closed in on it, they were able to make out that it wasn’t part of another ride, at least not one they could see from this side, when suddenly they were hit by a painful impact in the stomach.

For a second, they both feared that one of the Carcinus had been in their path and had hit them, but the object didn’t move in response to them colliding with it, so Gaige reached down and found that they’d run into a fence. What it was there for, whether it was to keep them out of something or to form a line she couldn’t tell, all she knew is that it had hurt.

She glanced over at Artemis, who was clinging to the fence, wincing and whispered “You alright?”

“Fine, give me a second, just hit a bruise.”

“You sure?”

“I said I’m fine, just winded myself a little is all,” Artemis snapped back, a bit louder than she’d intended. Realizing the amount of noise she’d just made, she shot a look behind her and spotted a few Carcinus turning towards them.

Swearing, she hissed “We don’t have time for this, move, now.”

Gaige realized what she must’ve seen and followed as the other girl grabbed the fence and leaped over.

Artemis winced as she strained her bruised muscles, she hadn’t been lying about being alright, she was fairly sure that the bruising wouldn’t impede her too much, but it had hurt slamming into the fence in the exact spot she’d landed on the rail.

Her feet came down and she plunged into the water, sinking deep instantaneously. Feeling the panic clench at her heart she kicked upward, hard.

Her head burst out of the water, spraying the area as she took a deep breath and looked around frantically. A second later Gaige popped up next to her, swearing.

Glancing at her, she asked “What was that?”

“I think we’re in a ride.”

“What kind of ride?”

“Donno, either a lazy river or a cruise, there were both of them on the map.”

“Fine, we’ll figure it out when we’re out of the water.” With that she kicked off, swimming towards the jut of land in front of them, while giving a silent prayer that there weren’t any Carcinus hiding in the depths.

Nothing emerged from under them, but as Gaige paused in her stroke to glance behind, she spotted one of the guards climbing over the fence after them, giving her a good look at it, especially its claws gleaming in the wan light. Each one was the size of her torso and looked like they could slice a Technical in half with ease, not something she wanted to see any closer so she stopped looking as the Carcinus sank out of sight and kicked harder.

Suddenly her hand hit something, freaking her out and causing her heart to jump, only for her to realize that it was the other side. Glancing up, she spotted the towering shape above her, one that seemed steep enough that the creatures would have a hard time following.

Heaving herself out of the water, she glanced around to make sure that Artemis had made it and spotted her hanging on the edge.

Artemis had got there first, ignoring the creatures behind them and instead trying to focus on swimming. She was usually fairly good at it, but with the shape her torso was in, it was a fair struggle. Everything from her chest to her hips seemed to hurt, but nothing seemed broken, so she was able to push through it.

Getting to the wall, she’d grabbed it and pulled herself up, only for the muscles to scream and force her to drop back down. Trying to shift herself, she noticed Gaige hauling herself out, so she clenched her teeth and followed suit, trying to ignore the pain, or at least power through it.

Gaige grabbed Artemis’s arm and helped drag her out of the water. The light from the lantern danced across the surface as the pounding rain continued to cause it to bounce and reflect, preventing her from being able to tell where the crustacean was, which made her want to get out and away from the water even more.

Doing her best to ignore the pain in her side, she turned to the rock face in front of her. Upon closer inspection, she realized that it wasn’t very rock-like at all. She supposed that from a distance it looked fine, but up close it was obvious that they hadn’t done all that much more than the minimum amount of work which made her wonder what kind of ride this had been. Obviously not something that got the guests too close to this, or else there would’ve been a lot more detail.

Shaking her head to clear the distractions, she grabbed onto the nearest protrusion and started lifting herself up, grateful for her cybernetic, which not only made getting a grip easier, but help compensate for her injury, which was sending uncomfortable messages up her side.

Trying to ignore the pain, she glanced over at Artemis, afraid that she was the more injured of them and caught her sliding back down, wincing.

Artemis had tried to power through, but the instant she’d gotten out of the water, all of her weight landed on her back, nearly driving her to her knees. Squeezing her eyes shut, she held out, waiting to see if her back was alright. The top of her hips and the muscles around it were definitely bruised and that hurt, but she’d limped out of a number of fights in worse shape, so she didn’t think it was that bad. Pushing past the pain, she grabbed onto the faux cliff and started pulling herself up, only when she tried to hike herself up, she made the mistake of bending her torso causing not only her lower back to explode in pain, but her stomach as well. Hit on both sides by the suddenness of it, she let herself slide back down.

Exhaling slowly, she looked up and found the worst thing she could staring back at her, a very worried Gaige.

“I’m fine, just caught me by surprise is all,” she said, grabbing onto the wall and starting back up. The pain was more manageable now that she was expecting exactly how bad it would be.

“Don’t give me that,” Gaige snapped back, starting to dig through her things for one of her Insti-health vials.

“No! Don’t waste one.” She managed to not add the ‘Not on me’ that she’d thought, knowing that Gaige would explode at her and then probably waste one of their precious healing items on her just to spite her.

No, that wasn’t right, she knew that. It wouldn’t be out of spite, but it would be a waste. Gaige would probably insist on it no matter how much she protested, especially if she said something like that, so she kept her mouth shut.

Before Gaige could respond, something exploded out of the water beneath them.

Looking down, they saw the Carcinus that had followed them scuttling onto the small shelf where they’d drug themselves up and start rearing back, waving its antennae in the air. They thought that it could see them, especially since it snapped its claws in an almost rhythmical way and started trying to follow, only to be stopped by the sheer wall.

The crustacean seemed to not want to give up and started searching around, trying to find a path up to get them, prompting them both to stop bickering and start climbing.

Both of them grit their teeth, biting back the pain as they sped up the side of the wet wall. Neither of them was able to go very fast, picking their way with as much care as they were able, but they also knew that they didn’t want to wait to see if the Carcinus was going to be able to follow.

After a painful few minutes, Gaige crested the wall, immediately turning and helping Artemis up.

Sitting on their new vantage, they tried to look around, but the dark and rain kept them from seeing much, when a chain of lightning arced across the sky, illuminating the world and letting them see the water around their rock boiling with creature’s trying to force their way up.

Chapter 13

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Pharcus’s Water World

Sitting in the dark on top of the attraction’s mountain was nerve-wracking. Since they could only see the water when the lightning struck, they had no way of knowing if or where the creatures were. With the ambient noise of the pounding rain, they couldn’t hear them. In fact, everything they heard sounded like them coming closer, scuttling in the dark.

Sitting back-to-back with their guns out, they waited.

And waited.

Minutes passed like hours as they waited for the creatures to come for them, their minds unable to latch onto anything but the thought of those giant pincers, the black beady eyes, the mandibles.

Gaige was about at the point of giving up and charging down, figuring it was better to fight than to wait. Only Artemis’s warmth seeping in through her back stopped her. The knowledge that she wasn’t alone and that if she died, she’d be condemning the other girl along with her.

She’d opened her mouth many times, trying to say something, to apologize to her for getting her into this situation, but she couldn’t find the words. She couldn’t find any words, not to apologize, not to try and lighten the mood, not even to make sure that Artemis was alright, so it was with some relief when a chain of lightning revealed that the Carcinus had stopped attempting to get up the base of the hill, though it did create another problem.

“Where’d they go?” she asked, grateful to have anything to say, even as she felt a creeping dread.

“Hopefully they gave up.”

“Is that an expert opinion, or just wishful thinking?”

Gaige felt the other girl’s shoulders shrug against her back and sighed.

“Well, let’s hope it’s more than wishful thinking. But how do we tell, and how long are we gonna wait to find out?”

“Hmm, well, we should give it a little longer, my big worry is that they’ve given up on getting to us and have sunk into the water around here, whether to wait us out or just being too lazy to go back to where they were, I don’t know.”

“Yeah, that’s what I figured. So, any ideas on how to find out?”

“Maybe, but I’ll have to wait till we’re ready to leave. I’m not wasting any more resources then necessary.”

“Speaking of resources, I still think you should use one of the Insti-health.”

“Again, no.”

“Then at least let me look at it, make sure it’s not too bad.”

“Fine, if it’ll get you off my back.”

“So you do admit your back’s got problems.”

“Only you on it.”

Gaige shoved her weight backwards lightly, then got up and stretched, feeling her side give a painful twinge as she did. She knew that she should take something for it, it wasn’t all that bad, but it was bugging her, but she didn’t want to for the same reason Artemis kept giving, so she twisted her back and gave her joints a roll to limber up, hoping that would do.

Crouching back down, she realized there was no way to do that comfortably on the rock, so she ended up sitting back down, this time facing the other girl’s back.

Moving the lantern closer, she gave it a once over, but with the swimsuit in the way, she couldn’t see anything, so she reached out and prodded her, only for her to jump half a foot in the air.

“What the heck?” Artemis shrieked at her “What’re you doing?”

“Ah-ha, so it is a lot worse than you were letting on.”

“No, you suddenly poked me. It startled me, that’s all.”

“Hah, likely story, why don’t you just admit it hurts.”

“Of course it hurts, but not that bad. The only reason I jumped was because you suddenly touched me out of nowhere.”

“I told you I was going to, or is my touch really that bad?”

“What? Where’s this coming from? You told me you were going to look and we don’t look with our fingers, so of course I’m going to be startled when you touch me.”

“Fine, you’re right. But I can’t see it with your swimsuit in the way, so you can strip it off, pull it aside, or let me feel the area to make sure there’s nothing broken.”

“Fine, just warn me first.”

Gaige rolled her eyes and reached out, but the instant her fingertips touched the other girl, she jumped again.

“I told you to warn me!”

“I just did!”

“No, you didn’t, you said you were going to, but not when.”

“Oh, quit being a baby.” She realized that they were getting further and further away from the subject at hand and getting into one of their fights, so she took a breath and slowly let it out, trying to calm herself. She knew she needed to be the one to stop this, she owed Artemis at least that much, especially after getting them into this mess.

“Sorry. I’m a little on edge and there’s some other, well let’s call them things on my mind, things that I’m trying to figure out, about this place, about what’s going on, about us and my parents and the future and a whole bunch of other ■■■■ that has nothing to do with this place, but it’s on my mind and it’s makin me cranky and I want a drink to settle my nerves and, well, cause I want one. So, I’m sorry, I was takin it out on you.

“You’re right, anyone poking you in the back would make you jump, especially if you’ve got a bruise there or you’re ticklish. You aren’t, are you? Ticklish? At least not there?”

Artemis shook her head.

“Didn’t think so. So, tell you what, I’m going to touch you now, if that’s all right?”

“It’s fine, just be gentle.”

“I will. Alright, three, two, one.” She lightly touched her fingers to Artemis’s back and when the other girl didn’t jump, at least not too bad, she continued.

Feeling around, she tried not to be too self-conscious, but she didn’t have much experience running her hands over other people, especially not ones she liked. She also didn’t have much in the way of medical knowledge, just enough to get by, so she wasn’t sure if she was doing it right, but after a bit of feeling around, she pulled her hands back.

“Well, did any of that hurt too bad?” Artemis had flinched a few times, but there hadn’t been anything Gaige had felt in the area, so she thought it must have just been a more sensitive spot.

“No.”

“Would you tell me if it did?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Well, I didn’t feel anything broken or chipped, so I’m hoping it’s just a wicked bruise. Wait, that sounds wrong, I’m not hoping you’re bruised, I’m just, well, you know…”

“Yeah, I get it. So, we good?”

“No, I still think you should take a vial, but I don’t think I’m gonna convince you any time soon.”

“Then what was all this for? I mean, I thought this was to convince you that it wasn’t anything too severe.”

“Yeah, it was. But it was also to make sure that if you did use one of the vials, that you wouldn’t have anything heal wrong again, cause I, for one, don’t want to have to perform surgery on you again.”

“Well, that makes two of us.”

They sat there for a moment, awkwardly.

Eventually Gaige spoke up “So, uh, you said something about having an idea of how to get us off of here…”

“Well, not to get us off, but maybe to check to see if it’s clear.”

“Great, and that is?”

Artemis pulled out the flare gun and held it up.

“So, what? Am I supposed to guess what we’re doing with that? Or are you planning on frying one of them, cause I could go for some cooked Carcinus right about now.”

“If you’re hungry, we can have a bite to eat.”

“I’m not hungry,” Gaige ground out in frustration. “I was just being…me. Plan. Now.” She waved her hand to indicate for the other girl to keep going, or get started as the case was.

“Uh, right. So, first off, are we ready? Anything else we want to do before we go?”

“Maybe one last check of the map, figure out which way we need to go before we start running.”

“Ah, good point.”

Artemis dug the ECHO out of her bag, grateful that the rail hadn’t landed on it and flicked it to life. They spent a minute looking at it, arguing about which way the map should go, before settling on it and plotting their course.

Once that was settled and the ECHO packed away, Artemis stood up with a suppressed groan and waited for the lightning to roll again. She’d known that it would hurt, she’d expected her torso to have stiffened up, she just hadn’t expected it to be that much.

Everything from her breasts down to her hips hurt, front and back. She tried to ignore it, or at least not let it show. She knew if she did that Gaige would make her waste one of their Insti-health vials, which she couldn’t let happen, so she grit her teeth and stretched back and forth, trying to loosen up as much as she could.

To her surprise Gaige joined in, indicating she’d been stiffer than she’d thought as well.

Once they were limbered up as best they could, Gaige looked over and cocked an eyebrow, as if to say ‘Now what?’.

In response, Artemis held up the flare gun and stopped, waiting.

After enough time that Gaige was starting to make impatient noises a sufficiently large chain of lightning crackled across the sky, throwing everything into harsh illumination.

Almost simultaneously the thunder hit, causing Gaige to flinch downward, before letting out a hiss as her side twinged.

Artemis on the other hand didn’t move anything but her eyes, scanning the area as fast as she could, relying on her ability to detect prey when they were hiding. Satisfied with what she’d seen, she leveled the flare gun and took a deep breath.

“When I give the word, we go. And we don’t stop till we’re out of here. Agreed?”

“Yeah, fine by me.”

“Right, here we go.”

With that, she fired the flare, not upward like Gaige had been expecting, but down, at the water below.

The flare flew slow enough that she felt her night vision frying, so she looked away and found that she could barely make out Artemis with her eyes closed, no doubt in an attempt to preserve her vision, but it gave her a serene look that was completely out of place for their environment, but somehow gave Gaige a calmness that had been lacking in her a second before.

The flare plunged into the water of the ride and sank, throwing everything into a harsh red light and when Artemis snapped her eyes open, she saw one of the Carcinus scuttling around the flare as it hit the bottom.

In the light, she could make out another two of them, moving around the flare, as if they didn’t know what it was, or if it was hostile.

“Now,” she hissed and started sliding down the side of the ride, angling away from where the flare was burning away underwater.

Gaige hesitated for a second, watching as Artemis reloaded the gun even as she seemed to float down the side of the faux cliff.

Stumbling after as best she could, Gaige tried to follow the other girls’ movements, landing where she had, but despite how beat up the other girl was, she couldn’t match her movements and nearly went over. Barely catching herself, she continued following, but when she saw that they’d made it about half way down and Artemis sprung off the side, diving into the water, she couldn’t help but slow down.

Some part of her had known that they would have to re-enter the water, but seeing the other girl dive in, especially with three of the Carcinus mere feet away, gave her pause. But she remembered what Artemis had said, keep moving no matter what and let gravity pull her down, even as she saw the crustaceans start turning to find out what had disturbed the water.

Crouching down, Gaige closed her eyes briefly, steadying herself and shoved off, pushing as hard as she could with her legs, ignoring the twinging in her side and throwing herself into the air.

For a heart-stopping moment she wondered if she was going to make it, accompanied by the exhilarating feeling she always got when she dove.

The next thing she knew the water was slapping past her as she plunged below the surface and shot downward, coming close to the bottom. Ignoring the Carcinus as they turned at her, she gave a hard kick, pushing herself up at an angle towards the far wall where she could see Artemis’s legs thrashing through the water.

Catching up to her, Gaige’s head burst through the surface next to her. Artemis didn’t acknowledge her, focusing on her own swimming and soon enough Gaige felt her hand hit another fence.

Pulling herself over, she spun around and grabbed Artemis’s arms, helping her over as well and the instant her feet hit the ground, they were splashing off, trying to get away from the Carcinus that were starting to follow them.

The light had diminished greatly from when they’d had the flare illuminating the water, but the lantern still was throwing out enough light to make their way by, so they were able to spot the sign for the next ride, telling them which way they had to flee.

Gaige hated turning her back on an enemy, especially one that she could’ve taken, but she knew that she would’ve been hard pressed to take the nest on now. If they’d been properly kitted out, the crustaceans wouldn’t have stood a chance, which just made her lament their lack of gear even more.

As she was distracted by her regrets, a Carcinus burst out of the water next to her, causing her to have to throw herself out of the way as the large body of the crustacean came at her, claws open.

Artemis spun and drove her Digi-blade into the creature’s side, aiming for the arm joint. With a spurt of blood that seemed black in the light, the arm went flying, causing the Carcinus to back off, shocked and unsure of what had just happened.

“Move!” Artemis shouted at her, grabbing her by the arm and dragging her to her feet.

Gaige bit back the retort that ran through her head, not just because it wasn’t the time for it, but because she knew that soon enough, she’d be struggling to get her breath.

It wasn’t that she was out of shape, or that her side was hurting her, though it was. The reason she knew that was because no matter how good of shape she was in, running flat out through waist deep or so water was tiring at the best of times. Add in to that the threat of being attacked from the depths and the stress was enough to make her want another break.

They dashed through the area as best they could, sending waves of water splashing out of their way as they ran. Gaige had thought her height would’ve given her an advantage over Artemis, but it seemed that having a cyber-leg compensated a bit, allowing her to keep up fairly well, which, while grateful for, Gaige had secretly been hoping that she could slow down slightly to allow her to keep up, letting her save a little energy.

They jinked each time they saw something splash into the water, causing them to weave around, which didn’t help them. A few times they spotted the distinct ripples of something moving towards them from beneath the surface and had to change course accordingly.

As the next attraction came into sight, a Carcinus burst out of the water right in front of Artemis, waving its claws menacingly.

Without hesitating, she shot forward, inside its range. As it tried to back off and get its arms folded in to grab her, she stabbed her blade into its eye and slashed across its face before slamming her hand onto its head and vaulting onto it.

Jumping off its back, she hit the water and rolled, vanishing from sight for a second and emerging with a great plume of water.

Shaking her head, she glanced back to see the crustacean staggering around, waving its claws menacingly at nothing.

Gaige shook her head and kept going.

It was a short time later that they felt the water level starting to go down, which didn’t make moving forward much easier, but it was starting to help, at least in the sense that they could spot the Carcinus moving around which made avoiding them easier.

Artemis suddenly jumped up and landed on something. Running along it, Gaige realized that she’d found the edge of the path and was running along the top of the fence that surrounded the area like a child.

Despite the inherent juvenileness of the action, she was quickly out pacing Gaige, which made her clench her teeth in frustration and follow along.

She didn’t have as easy a time running on the thin bar, especially since she couldn’t really see it all that well, despite being the one with the lantern. More than a few times she nearly slipped off as she went, glaring at the other girl’s back as she tried to follow.

The hardest points were when Artemis jumped, hopping over some gap or something on the fence, which forced Gaige to try and mimic the action and hope that she didn’t slip and slam the rail into her.

After the tenth time she’d seen Artemis jump, she started to wonder if the girl was screwing with her, but before she could figure it out, the water level around them lowered again, exposing the fence to the rain and causing Artemis to hop off, splashing into the water.

Glancing back to make sure Gaige was still with her, she continued to plow ahead, when a terrifying noise echoed from behind them.

Quickly searching for the source of the cacophony, they spotted the mother Carcinus thrashing its way towards them. They had no idea why it was so intent on them, or if it was even after them, but it was coming their way and accompanying it had to be at least half of its spawn, causing the water around it to appear to be boiling with all of their thrashing.

Swearing, they sprinted off, trying to remember the different paths that would lead out. From the positioning of where they were and the direction that the Carcinus were headed, exiting out the side towards the resort was out, leaving the longer path back to the center of the park.

With no other options, they turned and raced that way.

The water that splashed around their legs continued to get shallower as they went, indicating a slight slope to the terrain and despite the fact that they were running uphill, they found that it was getting easier to move.

Soon enough the water was only splashing around their feet, at which point they slowed down and spared a moment to glance behind themselves as they tried to catch their breath.

The mother Carcinus was nowhere to be seen, though a number of the smaller ones were still skittering after them, along with one of the guards, but they were still a ways away, having slowed noticeably as they left the water. Still, they hadn’t given up on chasing them, so they couldn’t wait around too long.

Resuming their retreat, Gaige caught up with Artemis and jogged alongside her, relieved that they were able to take a more leisurely pace, though they were still hustling.

“Wonder how long they’re gonna chase us for?” She said, trying to fill the silence with something other than the incessant splashing and panting.

Artemis shrugged in response.

Gaige tried to roll her eyes, but found that it was a little hard to do so dramatically while running, so she was forced to say “Well, you’re the expert, so I was kinda hoping you had some idea. Or at least a guess.”

“Hard to say,” came the reply “There’s a lot of factors. First of which would be, why they’re chasing us. I mean, if they’re just trying to get the intruders out of their territory, then they’re going to stop once we get to the edge, but if they’re after us for another reason, then they could conceivably chase us till something stops them, it’s just a matter of their instincts at that point.

“Second thing is, what’s their instinct. Like I just said, if they’re chasing us for some instinctive reason, then they’ll chase us as far as that goes. But mostly it still circles back to the why and since I don’t know that, I couldn’t really say.”

She paused, glancing back at the few remaining Carcinus that were chasing them and added “But I do think they’ll chase us a bit further then they would on most other days.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“The rain. They’re usually aquatic, right? I mean, I know they’re amphibious and all, but usually they’re aquatic, which means that they don’t really go too far onto land. Except it’s raining, so they’ll stay wet for longer. Actually, in this storm, they’d stay wet indefinitely, so they could theoretically not know how far they are from the water and chase us past their territory.”

“Great, in that case, how would we stop them?”

“Kill them or have something else do it, or scare them off.”

“And what would scare these things off?”

Artemis shrugged “The mascots maybe?”

“Oh great, so we’re actually hoping to run into some of those things now?”

“No, definitely not.” Artemis shook her head violently “I was just saying that they might consider each other enemies.”

“Yeah, guess that makes sense, after all, the mascots would try and keep them out of the park.”

“Unless they consider them guests that is.”

“Sometimes you’re just weird, you know that?”

“Yeah,” she said in a small voice, reminding Gaige that she wasn’t alright and took things wrong all the time.

“Like I’ve said before, I like that you’re weird and see things differently than everyone else.”

Artemis stopped and sighed. The look on her face was enough to bring Gaige to a halt as well. With a quick backwards glance to make sure the Carcinus were far enough away that they could stop, she stated “What?”

“I was hoping I could put this off a while longer, especially till I could figure out a way to say it that wasn’t, well, as painful, but it looks like I’m out of time.” She closed her eyes and took a breath before continuing “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t. It’s just going to keep getting worse until I end it, I should’ve known from the beginning that this wouldn’t work, that I was just fooling myself. In fact, I did and I should’ve said something then, but, it’s just, well, I… I think we should, well, shouldn’t…”

“Wait,” Gaige said, figuring out where this was going “Are you breaking up with me?”

Chapter 14

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Pharcus’s Water World

Gaige froze, staring at the other girl in disbelief. She couldn’t get her mind around it, she had to be misinterpreting something, there was no way that it was what she thought it was. Her mind desperately ran through all the different ways that what she was hearing could be interpreted, but in the end, she always came back to the same conclusion.

She was getting dumped.

“Wait, are you breaking up with me?” She managed to get out, though her throat felt like it was closing off, trying to prevent her from talking.

Artemis wouldn’t look her in the eye, instead she just looked down and nodded.

Gaige felt something in her chest snap and a pain flare out, one that made the bruise on her ribs feel like nothing. She nearly sank to her knees, but instead she tried to work her throat. Some part of her thought that if she could swallow, it might get her throat working again, but her mouth was dry, so she just worked at it futilely for a few seconds.

Eventually she managed to get her mouth open and forced air out in a thin whisper to ask “Why?”

“I…I can’t do this anymore, not to you. I can’t hurt you like this, not when I…I…I can’t. I can’t say it, it’ll just make things worse, worse than they already are. This is all my fault. Everything. I should’ve known that I wasn’t allowed this, but I pretended it wouldn’t happen, so I didn’t tell you no, not even when I knew that this would be the result. We’re stuck here and going to die, and it’s all my fault, cause I let this happen, I let myself think that someone like me could have someone like you, and I didn’t deserve that. And you don’t deserve this and it’s my fault. I bring disaster to everything good I touch. I should’ve known. No. I did. I knew, but I pretended that it would work out somehow and I can’t do it anymore, I can’t make this situation worse.”

As Gaige listened, it slowly dawned on her what the other girl was saying and as it did, the pain in her chest evaporated as a boiling feeling grew, a rage she hadn’t felt in a while. If Deathtrap had been there, he would’ve dove in, grabbed her and held her back, cause he knew what would happen next, but unfortunately, he wasn’t there to stop Gaige from smacking Artemis, cutting her off.

“Of all the lame, half-assed, bull ■■■■ that’s come outta your mouth, this takes the cake!” She roared “That’s why you were breaking up with me? That crap again? Well, enough is enough! You think this is because of you? Of all the arrogant, self-important stupidity. You think you made me decide to come out here? You!? I’m the one that got us into this ■■■■ show! It was my stupid idea that got us here! I wanted to come to this planet! I’m the one that couldn’t admit she was bored off my ass on the beach and found that stupid fishing contest! Me! I’m the one that got us stuck on this island, so you don’t get to take that one, oh no, this is all my fault!

“You think you’ve got super powers, is that it? That the stupidity coming out of your mouth can make me, make the universe shift just to screw you over? Well, I’ll tell you what, if we die here, then you can claim responsibility. Until then, you’re still my girlfriend, so start acting like it!”

“Don’t say that!” Artemis shrieked “You’ll bring ruin onto yourself!”

Gaige grabbed the smaller girl and slammed her forehead into hers.

Staggering back, she groaned “After all the times I’ve bitched about your thick skull, you’d think I would’ve known that headbutting you would be a dumb idea.”

Shaking it off, she grabbed Artemis again and shouted in her face “Knock it off! I know you believe that crap, but we’ve been going out for over six weeks and this is the first thing that’s gone wrong! Don’t you see, it’s all in your head!”

“Nothing happened cause I was keeping away from you!”

“I know! And that was pissing me off! You’re my girlfriend and I want to show the world, but I can’t. I know you’re afraid, so I wasn’t pushing, but you wouldn’t even let me touch you, not put my arm around you, not to hold your hand, nothing. You’d barely tolerate me leaning against you while we watched a movie. How do you think that made me feel? I’ll give you a hint, like crap! Like you didn’t want to be around me, like my touch made you sick.”

“It didn’t! I was trying to protect you!”

“You should’ve been protecting yourself from me. I mean, look at this mess I’ve gotten us into, just cause I wanted to spend some alone time with you.”

“See, it was my fault.”

“That’s not true and you know it! You’re so keen on takin all the blame for yourself that I’m not even allowed to own my own mistake. This one’s on me, not you, me. I’m the one that brought us here, I got us into this mess.”

“Only cause I didn’t say no when you asked me to go out with you.”

“Nope, that’s got nothing to do with it. We would’ve needed a vacation no matter what, so we probably would’ve been here no matter if we started dating or were just goin along like before. Either way, I would’ve probably got us drug out here.”

“Oh, so what I know doesn’t matter, but you can run around with all the maybe’s and probable’s that you want?”

“Yes, cause I’m not spouting stupid nonsense like me likin another girl can cause others to suddenly change what they would’ve done and go do something that gets us into trouble just so this can all be my fault.”

“But this is my fault!”

“No, the only way this is your fault is that while you’ve been spouting utterly moronic nonsense, those Carcinus have been closing in on us.”

Artemis took the bait and glanced behind them. Sure enough, the crustaceans had been closing in and were now about twenty feet away.

“So, here’s what we’re gonna do,” Gaige continued “We’re gonna run away and then, when we’re outta here and I mean all the way out and safe, like back at the resort, we’re gonna forget this conversation ever happened, cause if you remind me of it again, or worse yet, act on it, I’m gonna get really mad.”

Artemis didn’t respond, but by the set of her mouth, Gaige didn’t think that she’d gotten through, at least not all the way. But she also knew that she wouldn’t say anything again for at least a little while, at least not until they’d gotten away from the immediate threat, so she’d have to take what she could and run with it, literally in this case since the Carcinus were nearly to them.

They turned and ran, quickly leaving the scuttling crustaceans behind. They were both steaming inside as the conversation echoed in their heads as they automatically wove around the different attractions and headed towards what they hoped was the entrance, though neither of them was all that sure at that point. The dark and the rain had a way of turning one around and getting them helplessly lost.

Luckily for them, that wasn’t the case for them and the back of the entrance soon came into sight.

But as soon as it did, another problem presented itself, there were at least a dozen mascots milling about.

Sliding to a halt, they ducked behind the nearby map sign and cautiously glanced out.

“See, disaster.”

Gaige punched her in the shoulder without taking her eyes off the mass of animatronics, electing a yelp of pain from the other girl.

“They’re not here for us you moron,” Gaige hissed, watching as the first of the Carcinus that had been chasing them arrived and immediately charged for the nearest mascot as if it had enough of a grudge that it had immediately forgotten all about what it had been after moments before.

The animatronics attacked the crustaceans with equal fury, lumbering towards them with their ungainly gait. The first one that got close was torn in half by the large claw of the Carcinus, but it in turn was attacked by a pair of the mascots, which flanked it and set about flipping it onto its back.

Leaving that one behind, they headed towards the next, but the smaller Carcinus that scuttled up snipped one of their legs out from under it and the instant it fell, more of them piled on, tearing it apart.

“Come on, let’s go,” Gaige hissed, spotting an opening around the outside of the fight.

They dodged around the vicious mess of a fight going on, ducking and weaving around the Carcinus that were scuttling towards the fight and out the entrance.

As they expected, there was another hoard of the mascots heading towards the Water World, leading them to believe that this wasn’t a new fight. If anything, they thought that it was a near constant push from both sides, one trying to protect their nest and the other trying to retake their park from the intruders.

Dashing away from the mess, Gaige led them around, away from the areas they’d been to already. They ran past the path that would’ve led to the resort when they spotted a number of the Carcinus trying to use it to flank the mascots.

Continuing on, they had ran for quite a ways when they spotted another entrance to the side, this one announcing Kirimu’s Jungleland across the top in what had once been bright letters set over a leaf pattern. Next to it was a cartoon of what they thought might have been what the mascots were based on, though the years had made that a bit questionable.

“So, shall we?” Gaige asked, nodding towards the entrance.

Artemis bit her lip, she really didn’t want to go in, something about the place made her think that it would be swarming with mascots and if not that, then there would be something else there, but up ahead on the path she spotted another mascot headed their way, so she reluctantly nodded, angling towards the entrance as she did.

Artemis’s initial intent had been to slip through the entrance and slid up to the side to wait out the mascots, but when they went through, Gaige didn’t stop, instead she headed deeper in.

Not being able to raise her voice to call out to her to question what she was up to for fear of attracting the attention of the nearby mascots, Artemis was forced to bite her tongue and rush after her.

She was still mad about their earlier argument. She knew that Gaige wasn’t all that happy about it herself, but they both knew that this wasn’t the place to get into it again.

For her part, Artemis wished she could just get the truth through to the other girl. It wasn’t that she didn’t like her, far from it. But that was exactly why she needed to do this, to protect her.

It wasn’t that she didn’t think that Gaige couldn’t protect herself, but she also knew that until she accepted the truth of what Artemis was, she wouldn’t be able to do so, because she wouldn’t be looking for the danger that would be approaching.

But nothing she said seemed to get through to her, either that or she was just being stubborn, which was more likely. It was one of the things that Artemis had found attractive about Gaige, her unwillingness to back down, her willingness to fight for what she believed in, to keep going for it, even when it seemed impossible to reach.

Well, she had to admit that Gaige had given up on herself somewhere along the way, but that wasn’t all that unexpected considering what had happened to her.

But it was still one of her more endearing traits, at least to Artemis, but now it was biting her and hard. She couldn’t figure out what she could say, what she had to do to get it through to the other girl that she was a danger to them.

She got the points that Gaige was trying to make. She really did. It wasn’t that she was an idiot or a masochist, it was just that she’d seen the truth too many times to not know it for what it was. She was a bringer of ill fortune and as much as Gaige wanted to deny it, the proof was clear, so if she was going to protect the girl she liked, Artemis was convinced she was going to have to break up with her.

Just as she opened her mouth to say something, Gaige slowed down and turned to her. “Don’t even try.”

“Try what?” Artemis was caught so off guard that she let slip the question without thought.

“Try and continue that moronic conversation you were spouting earlier. It’s not gonna work, it’s not even close to being real, so don’t waste our time on it. Just accept that this is happening and be glad.”

“How can I be glad when I keep doing this to you?”

“I’m the one that should be asking that. I mean, ■■■■, how many times have I drug you into one of these messes now? A half-dozen times? More? I think I’ve lost count, but you know what? You know what got me through them? You. That’s all, you. Well, and Deathtrap, but mostly you.

“I know you think this is somehow all on you, but you’re the one getting me through it, so it can’t be your fault either, can it? I mean, maybe you are bad luck, but me being around somehow mitigates it, like, not turns it into good luck or anything, just turns it into a situation that we can live through, make it so that the disaster isn’t as bad or something, not that I’m makin much sense right now, but think about it, when was the time you got really injured? I mean, yes, you’ve been hurt a number of times, and I feel terrible about that, I do, trust me. But the one time you really were bad, that ruin nearly did land on you, we weren’t together. And I don’t mean that we were just apart, I mean we were finished. That was the one time that you nearly died, really died I mean.”

“I nearly drowned back there.”

“And you nearly fell to your death back on Burgloth, but each time you were saved. Not that I’m happy with the amount of near-death experiences you seem to be having, but the point is, maybe having me around keeps the disaster you’re so afraid of from hitting you, or at least hitting so bad.

“I could be talkin outta my ass, but it’s at least worth thinkin about, wouldn’t you say?”

“I’d say the first part of that’s probably the most accurate.” Came the muttered response, almost too low for her to hear.

Gaige bit her tongue, which wasn’t easy, but then again, nothing about the other girl was easy and Gaige wouldn’t change that about her. Though she would change a couple of the things she was difficult on if she could.

Eventually Artemis gave in and shouted “Fine, I’ll think about it. Happy? Can we get going now, or is there something else you want to wait for?”

“Nope, that was it,” Gaige said with a slight smile. She did try and keep the feeling of triumph off her face, but she knew she wasn’t having much success, so she turned away and looked around, trying to figure out where they’d ended up. After a moment, she sheepishly turned part way back and asked “So, uh, any idea where we should be going?”

“Me? You were the one that wanted to come in here! I would’ve been fine just sticking near the gate and waiting for the mascots to move on, but you wanted to come barreling in here and now you expect me to know where we should go?”

Gaige nearly laughed out loud, something about the way Artemis had phrased that sounded so much like what she’d heard groups at these parks arguing about that it just struck her as perversely funny for some reason. But given the current situation, she clamped down on the humor and shrugged in response.

“Not really, but I’d been hoping.”

“Gah! If you didn’t know where you were going, then why’d you lead us so far in?”

“Cause I figured we’d need to talk. We always need to talk.” She muttered the last part, looking away. She knew that it was more of a dig at herself, but it seemed that whenever they got in a spot like this, they’d always end up needing to talk something out. Usually the same thing, but she wasn’t going to bring that up at the moment.

Instead, she glanced around and added “Plus, you do have the map.”

“You were the one hogging it.”

“I was not hoggin it, I was trying to memorize it, in case of emergencies.”

“And yet you don’t seem to be remembering it right now.”

“Well, I mean, I didn’t really get to this section. Plus, I do remember that there was a stage for shows, uh, I think it was…that way?” She pointed further back “And there was also a big tree back there, like with a, a, house in it, I think.”

“Great. We’re saved.”

“You know, rather than standing there and being a bitch, you could just get the map out and we could figure out where we are and where we need to go.”

“Sure. I could do that. You know what else I could do? Head back the way we came from and leave this place. I mean, we don’t need to be here, not unless you’ve got some really compelling reason, cause if so, I’d love to hear it.”

“Uh…” Gaige felt her mind forcibly grind to a halt. The truth was, she didn’t have any reason to go through there. “I mean, I had kinda thought about trying to get to the resort back that way and all but…”

“But that’s kinda closed off at the moment with all the Carcinus out, right?”

“Right.”

“And going further into the area will only increase our chances of running into another bunch of those mascot things, right?”

“Right.”

“So, any compelling reason you’ve got to keep going?”

“Well, uh, there’s a good chance that the central area’s crawling with mascots too.”

“Oh no, it undoubtedly is.”

“So shouldn’t we avoid it as well?”

“Yeah.”

Gaige felt the stare on her, like there was something that she was expecting her to say, but she couldn’t get her mind working enough to pull it out, so she just shrugged.

Sighing, Artemis continued “There’s undoubtedly mascots everywhere in this park, if you’ve got a suggestion on where we could flee to that we wouldn’t run into them, I’m all ears, but if you can’t, then we should try and avoid areas that’ll be hard to fight in.”

“Ah, makes sense.”

“Right, so…” Artemis rolled her hands and when Gaige didn’t say anything, she sighed and spat out a little harder “So, where’s an area like that?”

Gaige looked at her like she was crazy. “You think I’d know something like that?”

“No, I suppose not. If you had and hadn’t been leading us there, I would’ve been pissed, so I guess it makes sense that you wouldn’t know. But now that it’s mentioned, could you try and think of one.”

“You’re gonna try and pawn this all off on me?”

“Well, you are the one that’s been to one of these before.”

“That was, like, sixteen years ago. Probably more.”

“You are also the expert on robotics.”

“Those things land more in your territory, don’t you be trying to place them in the same grouping as my Deathtrap.”

“I wasn’t, I was actually putting them closer to a CL4-TP unit, or maybe even as low as one of the Holloway bots.”

“Ah. Still think they’re more of your thing, but I’m gettin where you’re commin from at least.”

“Good. And it might seem right at first, that they’re acting a bit animalistic, but they seem…I don’t know, odd for that?”

“Yeah, I’ll concede that they’re acting a bit more like zombies than anything.”

The girls shook their heads, neither one of them really understanding what the things were.

“Well,” Gaige ventured, trying to find a middle ground with the other girl so they could move forward, and not just against the mascots “I think if we could figure out more about these things, then we could handle them better.”

Artemis shot her a look that spoke volumes about the obviousness of that statement, so Gaige quickly continued “I know, I know, duh. But we really don’t know much about them, do we? I mean, both of us are, like you just pointed out, experts in our own areas and these things seem to be landing somewhere, well, else. But we’re smart enough that we should be able to figure something out.”

“Are you suggesting that we stand here and have a discussion on the nature of these things?”

“No, of course not. But I was thinking we should go over what we know. But as you pointed out, not the best place for it, which leads us back to the initial problem, where are we going.”

“I’m still saying back.”

“Alright, why? I’m not arguing that it’s probably the right choice, I’m just askin why you want to go that way.”

Artemis paused, clearly thinking about it. She’d been opposed to it, but when confronted with having to define a hard ‘why’, she found that it was actually fairly hard to do.

Eventually she spoke up “There’s more options. We’re at the top of the park, straight through from the entrance, so if we leave from the entrance to this section, we’d have the most options for where to go if one of the routes or places we want to try and get to is blocked off or gets cut off. Plus, if we go further back, we’re going to hit that mountain ridge, meaning we can’t get out of the back of this area, so we’d be forced to go to one side or the other if we want out, meaning our back would more or less literally be against the wall if we ran into something, which, let’s be honest, we would.”

Gaige nodded, she couldn’t find fault with the logic that had just been laid out. It hadn’t been that she’d been opposed to what Artemis was saying, but she’d wanted her to articulate why she didn’t want to go back.

“I also would’ve taken ‘Cause I’ve got a bad feeling about it back there’, but that’ll work.”

“I thought I wasn’t supposed to say things like that.”

“Only if we’re going in there.”

“But I thought if I said something like that, it’d guarantee us having to or something like that.”

“Yeah, OK, fair, that’s probably right, good call.”

“Do you really not understand your own superstition?”

“No, I do, it’s just that sometimes you say or do something stupid anyway.”

“I do that most of the time.”

“No, you don’t, now stop that and let’s go.”

They turned and headed back the way they’d come, both trying to ignore the pain that hit them from standing around for the few minutes they had.

“I’ve got a bad feeling about up here as well.” The muttered comment was lost in the wind.

Chapter 15

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Central Plaza

“So, which way?”

They’d made their way back to the entrance and after finding nothing there waiting for them, slipped out.

Standing just outside of the entrance, they looked around, but still couldn’t see much. Out of the gloom they could see the wall that cut the Jungleland off from the rest of the park stretching both ways and ahead of them, across the open path were a few vague shapes that they thought were probably buildings, but for what purpose, they couldn’t be sure.

“We should’ve figured that out before we ran out here.”

“Well, you were the one all keen on going this way.”

“You didn’t seem to have a problem with it back there, besides, I thought we were going to talk things over.”

“Oh, now what?” Gaige snapped.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Came the equally bitter retort.

“Oh, nothing, nothing at all. Couldn’t possibly mean that you want to talk about more things before the last ones have even had a chance to sink in. Nope. It’s no wonder we’re not makin any progress.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“What are you? A broken Delta 3 player?”

“And what’s that suppose”

“Supposed to mean? I get it, that’s all you can say.”

“I can say plenty, I just want you to explain what you’re meaning!”

“On which one?”

“All of them!”

Gaige paused for a second, brain trying to figure out what they were talking about, she’d gotten a little steamed about something and snapped, she remembered that, but she suddenly couldn’t think of what had caused this mess in the first place.

Sheepishly she had to say “Uh, why don’t you remind me of what stupid thing I said this time?”

“You called me a Delta 3 player.”

“Oh yeah. Cause all you were saying was the same thing, ‘what’s that supposed to mean’, over and over.”

“Well, you weren’t telling me, instead you were just saying something else that needed to be explained.”

“Maybe to you, but to me it was pretty clear.”

“Well, if it wasn’t to me, then it wasn’t very clear, was it? Or are you going to call me dense?”

“Well, you are kinda socially inept.”

Artemis shot her a look that told her to choose her next words carefully, either that or she was just pissed off, Gaige couldn’t figure out which and quickly realized that it didn’t matter, she needed to diffuse the situation.

“You’ve said it yourself, you’re not a people person and I should’ve remembered that, I’m just a bit, well, you know, out of sorts, ticked off, messed up, whatever, so I slipped up and got my mouth ahead of my brain, as my dad would say. Sorry.”

“Fine.” Artemis snapped back before taking a slow breath and letting it out. “Sorry.”

“Accepted if you accept mine.” Getting a nod, she continued “So, uh, what was it you were originally saying?”

Her question was met with silence, but she didn’t get the impression that it was because Artemis was disgusted with her, or angry that she’d forgotten, if anything, it seemed like the girl herself was trying to remember what they’d been talking about, what had got this mess started.

“Oh, I was saying that we should’ve talked things over before we came out here and that there was something we needed to discuss.”

“Right.” Gaige bit back the comments that would’ve headed them back to having a repeat of the last debacle and instead added “Which was?”

“Well, before we get into that, what did you mean when you said what you said last time I said that?”

“Er,” Gaige closed her eyes, not to try and remember what it was, but to figure out a way to say it that wouldn’t start another fight, especially not when she was trying to get the other girl to accept that they should remain a couple. “It’s just that, well, you tend to say things that, um, well, tick me off, no that’s not right, I mean they do, but it’s not what I’m trying to say. Uh, I guess what I’m trying to say is that, well, it seems like, uh, whenever you say things like we need to discuss something, it always ends up going, well, bad, like you wanting to break up with me or you wanting to leave or something like that, so I guess I just kinda panicked and assumed that it was gonna be something like that.”

Artemis clearly bit back the statement ‘We should break up’ even though she obviously thought it, mostly out of a desire to not get into another fight, especially out in the open and instead, closed her eyes and took a couple of deep, hopefully calming, breaths.

“That’s not what I wanted to talk about, not even close. I’d thought we needed to compare notes on the, whatever, the animatronics or mascots or whatever we’re calling them, you know, to try and figure out what they really were and how to best stop them, but if you really want to get into the other stuff, like how I’m always disappointing you, we can.”

“You aren’t always disappointing me!”

“Only sometimes then.”

“Gah!” Gaige yanked on her soaked hair, regretting it instantly as she felt the wet clumps stick to her hands, forcing her to try and extract them carefully and still managing to yank a few strands out.

“OK,” she said, eye twitching as she tried to remain calm “For the hundredth time. You. Aren’t. A. Disappointment. Got it? You aren’t a freak, or at least not any more of one than me. You aren’t a monster, again, at least not more than me. What you are, is an endlessly frustrating, bone headed, self-destructive, pain in my ass with one hell of a case of self-esteem problems. So basically, a shorter version of me.”

“You’re not like that at all.”

“Yeah, I am. But we’re not getting into that here, right now, we need to get back to the matter at hand, which you pointed out was going over what we knew about these things.”

“I also pointed out that we should’ve done it before rushing out here, not standing around like this.”

“Right.”

“Right? That’s it? Just, right?”

“Well, what’d you expect me to say? I mean, you are right, we probably shouldn’t be standing around having this conversation, but here we are.”

“Oh, I don’t know, how about, let’s get out of here and then talk about it, I mean, we could run back into the Jungleland and do it or try and find somewhere else, either one’s fine, but instead all you say is ‘right’.”

“Geez, what’s gotten up your…” Gaige trailed off, noticing the glare coming at her “You’re right, of course, we should get outta here. Lead on.”

“Oh, so now you want me to lead?”

“Yeah, since I obviously did such a poor job of it when it was my turn.”

“Now who’s being the bitch.”

“Both of us.”

Artemis’s response froze on the tip of her tongue as she looked behind Gaige. Immediately noticing the way the other girl was reacting, Gaige let out a low curse and whispered “There’s one behind me, isn’t there?”

“Yeah,” came the reply “Just coming out of the Jungleland gate.”

“Well, least that makes which direction to go a bit easier.”

Artemis flashed her a look, but instead of acknowledging it, Gaige grabbed her arm and started hustling across the open area towards the buildings she could just make out in the gloom.

As they got closer, the round tables around the area alerted them that this had once been some kind of a outdoor restaurant, with everything being made of some kind of plastic looking substance that had once been some bright color, but was now so sun-bleached that they couldn’t easily identify it in the light of the lantern.

The familiar cartoony face of the mascot was visible through the mold that had grown up around the sign across the top of the building. The row of windows and the menu, barely visible through the grime covered the front amongst the dull pillars.

Weaving their way through the tables, Gaige led them to the far side of the building, but instead of being able to go around it, she found herself faced with a fence so choked in vines that it took her a second to recognize it.

She reached out to grab onto it, planning on climbing over, only to have her hand grabbed back.

“Wouldn’t do that if I were you, not unless you want another cybernetic.”

Gaige pulled her hand back and tucked it defensively under her breasts, clutching it with her metal hand and shooting the vines a suspicious look.

“How’d you know?” She asked, eying the vines warily.

“Was in the information packet on the planet, things to watch out for. I mean, most of it was stupid stuff, like if you see a Carcinus, don’t put your head in its claws and things like that, but I did make sure to remember which bits of wildlife were the most dangerous, including this little beauty. Meet the Flowering Triptacotal, also known as the Digestion Vine, along with a number of less polite ufa…eufam…”

“I have no idea what word you’re trying to say, sorry.”

“Other names for things.”

“Nope, sorry, drawing a blank over here.”

“Oh well.”

Gaige glanced over to make sure that Artemis wasn’t getting depressed and was relieved to find that she was just concentrating on trying to remember the word. Gaige would’ve liked to let her think, but since she didn’t want to waste too much time, she cleared her throat and ventured “Alright, so aside from the other names, what do you know? About the plant?”

“Huh? Oh, right, sorry. Basically, it’s a rather nasty thing. See, it’s covered in these small barbs that contain a powerful toxin that paralyzes its prey. After that, or even if that doesn’t work, actually, you know what, let’s back off from it and finish this over there.”

Gaige watched in confusion as Artemis started backing away slowly, keeping an eye on the plant. Confused, Gaige looked back in time to see one of the vines dropping towards her.

Acting on instinct, she threw herself back as Artemis dashed forward, slashing at the vine with her blade, severing it and throwing a gout of nasty looking liquid against the side of the building.

Hopping away from the vine as it fell, Artemis gave herself a quick once over to make sure she hadn’t been hit by anything, then glanced over at Gaige, indicating that she should do the same as they got out of there.

“What the heck was that?” Gaige wondered, even as she finished checking herself.

“That was what I was talking about. The vines attack their prey, paralyzing them if it can. Whether or not that works, it then starts sending smaller tendrils into the victim, injecting them with a substance much like stomach acid that breaks the creature down into food for it.”

“Why is it that I feel like I remember you giving another explanation like that before?”

“Donno.”

“Anyway. Other than it’s nasty eating habits, how’d you know what it was?”

“Oh, easy. The leaves have a slightly reddish tinge to the edges along with a scalloped leaf with small jags on the underside of the midrib.”

“You are way too observant about the most random stuff. Not that I’m complaining mind you, but it’s just, well, you know.”

Artemis shrugged sadly, prompting Gaige to smack her shoulder and say “I said I wasn’t complaining, it’s a good thing you spotted it, really, it’s just that your eyes are on a different level then mine.”

“Not really, I bet if it was a circuit board, you’d be able to tell me at a glance what it was to.”

“Alright, fine, you’re right. But you’ve still got good eyes.”

Artemis nodded and looked around. Before she could say anything, Gaige continued “You think there’s any more of that stuff around? The vines I mean.”

“Maybe. Probably. I mean, it shouldn’t be on the island in the first place. It’s the kind of thing you’d go way out of your way to get rid of if you were going to have people anywhere near it, so I’ve got to assume that it made its way here after the park closed and that no one’s been keeping it under control, which would mean that it would be spread around a bit, wherever it could find root. Though I guess its main problem would be finding a steady food supply, so I guess it would probably be more common around the Water World then further in, but that’s not to say that we won’t find more of it, so be careful of any plant life you encounter.”

“Will do. But, as long as we’re on the subject, was there anything else you remember from the information? Anything that we should note or be on the lookout for?”

“Not really. I mean, most of it was about aquatic stuff. Things to be on the lookout for in the water or on the sand, not so much for the jungle or amusement parks.”

“Touche.”

Gaige glanced around and when her eyes came back, she saw a familiar look on Artemis’s face, prompting her to ask “What?”

“Huh? Oh, nothing really, it’s just that I think I remembered where the vine would’ve come from is all.”

“Wait, how do you even know something like that so that you can forget it?”

“I didn’t really know, it’s just that, um, I kinda remembered something that would make sense. That might be a better way to put it.”

“Ah. And that is?”

“It probably came from the Botanical Garden.”

“Oh, that makes sense, or at least it would make sense that they’d have one here, I mean, it’d be a bit of a show to have the plant trying to attack the guests through some glass or something. But if it was that far away, then how’d it get here?”

“Quick guess? One of the mascot things.” Seeing Gaige ■■■■ her head, she continued “Well, if the Botanical Garden was let go, you know, to its own devices or whatever, then if the plants got out, which makes it sound like some kind of zoo or something. Anyway, assuming that the plants got out of control in the building, then anything that went through there would be attacked by any active plants. You know, carnivorous or whatever, like this one, but since the mascots aren’t alive or maybe they were or whatever, point is that if one of the ones that doesn’t have a person inside went in and got attacked by one of these things, then it couldn’t be paralyzed, biological attacks wouldn’t work on a robot, right? So, in that case it wouldn’t be able to be eaten either, so it would’ve been able to struggle its way free, but if it had gotten some of the seeds stuck in its fur, then it could’ve transported them elsewhere in the park. Of course, there aren’t a lot of places that plants could grow around here, so I guess it got lucky and found one of them and took root. At least that’s my guess.”

Gaige nodded, the theory sounded plausible at least and Artemis was more of an expert on nature then Gaige was, so if she thought that was how it happened, then it probably was, Gaige had no reason to doubt her.

“That works,” She said with one last nod “So, shall we get the heck outta here?”

“Yeah, but we still need to find somewhere to compare notes on those mascot things.”

“Right, I’ll keep an eye out, until then, we shouldn’t stand around like this so much.”

Artemis rolled her eyes, but joined Gaige as she left the area and headed out, only for her to pause and look around a bit confused.

“Now what?”

“It’s just…I thought we came in from that way,” Gaige replied, pointing to one side.

“We did.”

“Then why’s the building there?”

Following her indication, Artemis found herself looking at a rather familiar building, with a moldy logo and faded menu. She stared at it for a moment, before turning around and glancing behind her.

“It’s a second one, identical to the first.”

“That’s the best you could come up with? Really? I mean, maybe we got poisoned by the plant and didn’t know it, or maybe we got turned around, but you think they’d make two identical restaurants next to each other?”

“No need to be a bitch about it.”

“Well, it’s a ridiculous suggestion.”

“It’s not a suggestion, it’s the truth.”

Gaige froze and slowly looked at the sign. Now that it had been mentioned, she wondered if the mold was in the same position, she couldn’t really remember. As she looked at it, she suddenly realized that there were slight differences, like the fact that she could read this menu slightly, especially some of the drinks where she hadn’t before.

“Oh, uh, sorry. I guess I kinda thought that you were just throwing out a stupid suggestion, not that you were just pointing out their stupid construction.”

“Fine.”

“No, it’s not fine! I should’ve trusted you, not made fun of you and you should’ve stood up to me more. Look, I’m sorry. Guess the place is getting to me a bit more than I realized.”

“I said, it’s fine.”

Gaige looked like she wanted to continue arguing, so Artemis interrupted “Or is there some reason that you want to have a fight, that you want to make this into a bigger deal then it is. You made a mistake and apologized, I accepted, let’s just move on.”

Gaige reluctantly nodded, so Artemis continued “Great, so we came in that way, so we should probably continue in that direction, which if I’m correct, should lead us back towards the center of the park.”

“Yeah, that’s my read on it as well. But, uh…” Gaige trailed off, obviously trying to find the words for something which nearly caused Artemis to snap at her again. Luckily for both of them, Gaige continued before she snapped.

“I’m just wondering, if there’s one of those, um, vine thingies”

“The Flowering Triptacotal?”

“Yeah, that thing. If there’s one of them around, won’t there be more?”

“Possibly. But they’ll only be growing where they can find sustenance, which would include somewhere for their roots, so only a few spots around here, though we should be on the lookout for the flower beds around the central area, I seem to remember spotting a couple of them on the other side.”

“Yeah.”

“Good, so, with that out of the way, anything else? Otherwise, good question and we should be moving on.”

“Nope, I got nothing, lead on.”

Chapter 16

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Central Plaza

They stepped out of the restaurant’s dining area and onto a street lined with buildings. Each of them had a facade that made them seem retro, like they were trying to be some kind of old-fashioned planet, but not pulling it off very well.

The glass was smeared with grease and grime and glistened with water, making it impossible to see inside to tell what the stores had once sold.

Gaige eyed one of them and called out “Wanna bust one of them and see what’s inside?”

“Seriously?”

“What?”

Artemis rolled her eyes and sighed before resigning herself to dignify Gaige with a response “First off, you really think there’s going to be anything left inside? I mean, wouldn’t they clear these out before they shut the place down?”

“Not necessarily, it’d depend on how fast the place went down. They didn’t shut down the mascots after all, so there might be something in there.”

“Second, on the subject of the mascots, wouldn’t breaking a window summon a bunch of them?”

“Hmm, maybe, but that’d depend on how they’re communicating and if the window was on some kind of alarm, if not, then nope.”

“And third, what’re you hoping to find in there?”

“Well, to be honest I was mostly having a laugh, you know, suggesting something ridiculous to do to get outta this rain, but now that I’m thinkin about it, it might not be the worst idea. I mean, think about it, if there is anything in one of these stores, they might have clothes, or at least some kind of rain-ware and you can’t tell me that you would say no to that.”

“Sure I would, I’m already soaked and it would just get in the way if or rather, when, I got attacked again.”

“Alright, fine. You would turn it down, but I wouldn’t, I mean, I’m sick of getting pounded on by the rain, I’m tired of being soaked through and I’d like to get into something dry and more than that, I’m tired of fighting in this scrap of fabric, I mean, I like it, I think I look good in it, but it offers no protection and worse yet, no support and that might not be something that would bother you, but let me tell you, it ain’t fun.”

Artemis looked at her, obviously trying not to look at the item being discussed and what Gaige was implying about it and after swallowing a bit hard, managed to get out in a fairly even voice “I, uh, I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault, I’m the one that chose to wear this thing.”

“It, uh, it does look good. On you I mean.”

“Wow! An actual compliment?”

“I take it back.”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I wasn’t being mean, I was just genuinely surprised is all.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah, I mean, you don’t often compliment me on stuff like that.”

“Sure I do, back at your parents, I complimented you on your hair and that one outfit, plus when you actually wore it on Feno Phena I think I told you it looked good.”

“Oh, right, sorry. Those times I kinda had other things on my mind, or rather, things about those moments that kinda overshadow your compliments, not that I’m saying I forget about you or what you say, but, uh, damn it, I really screwed this one up, didn’t I?”

“No more than I’ve done.”

“Right, thanks. Anyway…what were we talking about?”

“Uh…oh yeah, why we shouldn’t go into the store.”

“And I’m saying we should.”

“Alright, then let me give you reason number, what was it? Four? Sounds right. How. How are you going to bust the window? I’m guessing this isn’t normal glass, otherwise someone might stumble and go through it, not that it’s actually that easy. What? I threw someone at a window once, it’s a long story, anyway, they didn’t go through like you see in the movies, they just kinda bounced off and landed badly.”

Gaige looked at her with a raised eyebrow, curious about the story there, but also getting the meaning. Turning to look at the grimy pane, she rapped it with her knuckle and felt the surface wobble in a way that indicated that Artemis was right, it wasn’t going to bust easily.

Still, she had a cybernetic, so she held it up with a smile.

“Think this would work?”

“Maybe, I don’t know, I’m not an engineer or anything like that, so I wouldn’t know about the strength of the glass, but what I do know is that we should at least check before we go busting in.”

“Check what?”

“Che…Seriously? Check to see what’s inside. What’d you think I meant? Check the weather forecast before we set out?”

“Sheesh, alright. I’m sorry I didn’t think of that. Happy?”

“That wasn’t meant as an attack.”

“Well, it certainly sounded like one.”

The girls glared at each other for a few seconds before turning away with a ‘Hmph’.

They stood there, getting pounded by the rain before Gaige turned slightly and said “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Well, are you going to check what’s in the store, or maybe share how you plan to do that?”

“Easy.” Artemis turned and ran her hand across the glass, smearing the layer of grime. After a little while it became apparent that a solid layer of dust was coating the inside, making the entire thing a bit pointless, but she still persisted till she had a small area fairly clean on her side.

Taking the lantern back, she pressed it against the glass, cupping her hands to try and direct the light inside. Squinting, she could just make out the interior of the store.

“Well, what do ya see?”

“Good news, bad news. Good news is that they didn’t empty the shelves, at least not of everything. Bad news? Bad news is that this wasn’t a clothing store.”

“Then what did they sell?”

“Looks like stuffed animals.”

“Wha? A whole store for that?”

“That’s all I see.”

“Well ■■■■, that’s useless.”

“Right. So can we move on now?”

“Sure, let’s check the next store.”

“Oh god, can we not? I mean, I get it, you want a new wardrobe, but the chances of finding one with anything left in your size isn’t the greatest, not to mention that the clothes will probably be rather mildewy, if they’re not rotting outright, so can we just move on?”

“Fine, have it your way.”

Artemis bit back the retort and turned away, marching back out into the storm from the little bit of shelter that the building provided, leaving Gaige stewing and glaring at her back.

Not wanting to get left behind, especially since Artemis still had the lantern, she hustled after.

They stalked forward in silence for a few minutes, both of them a bit angry at the other for no real reason they could identify, just a simmering sense of irritation.

After a while, Artemis suddenly turned to the side, angling towards something that Gaige couldn’t see, but since she still had the light, Gaige couldn’t do anything but follow, even as she grumbled to herself.

It didn’t take long for her to spot what Artemis had, a long building, which wasn’t very interesting on its own, but the fact that it had an overhang and a short fence that had once been used to separate the way in from the walk area around it was of note.

Gaige let out an inadvertent sigh the instant the rain stopped pounding on her, relishing in the lack of fresh water hitting her and feeling the strange buzzing sensation across her skin, as if it was missing the constant sensation.

Turning to the other girl, she braced herself and said “So, as much as I’m enjoying being outta the rain, I’m assuming that you drug us over here for some reason?”

“Wha? Of course I had a reason, this place is the best shelter I’ve seen in a while, plus we can crouch down and not be seen at a glance, so we can stay here while we discuss what to do next as well as compare notes on those mascot things.”

“Ah, should’ve known that you’d have an ulterior motive.” The instant she said it, Gaige regretted it. She knew that Artemis wasn’t cunning in the way that would be required to have a proper ulterior motive, nor was she the kind that would play with someone else that she liked, even if she was cunning enough to have planned something.

Doing her best to head off the other girl’s inevitable depression or freak-out, Gaige held up a hand and said “Sorry, that came out wrong. Well, no it didn’t, but I didn’t mean it. At least not the way it sounded. What I’m trying to say is, well, I’m a bitch, sorry about that.”

“Then what did you mean?”

“Uh…I guess I meant that you wouldn’t just want to take a break or something, that if we’re gonna, you know, take a moment, we’re gonna be doing something other than just catching our breath and the like.”

“Ah.” She paused long enough that Gaige wondered what was going through her head, was she finished? Or was she mulling what to say next. It turned out that she was just mulling as she continued “Yeah, I guess I don’t want to just sit around, not here, at least.”

They sat there for a moment before Gaige couldn’t take it and broke the silence “So, you wanna start, or should I? Or do you wanna get something to eat and maybe a glance at the map to try and plot our course from here?”

“I suppose we should have something to keep our strength up.”

Something in her tone caused Gaige to think about their situation and she quickly realized what was bothering Artemis this time.

“Hey, we’ll be fine. How much more food do you have with?”

“Uh,” She trailed off, digging into her bag “Five more of these emergency bars.”

“That’ll be plenty. I mean, we’re not gonna be stranded here for too long, I mean come on, you really think he’s gonna leave us here?”

Artemis nodded, there was no way that Deathtrap was going to abandon them, but there were a couple problems with that theory “No, but does he know where to find us?”

“He should be able to fix a signal on your ECHO.”

“But we can’t get a message out, so he might not be able to find it.”

“Maybe, but there was a transponder on the boat and he should’ve been following that, not to mention tracking your ECHO on the way here, so he should be able to extrapolate roughly where we are and provided there aren’t too many islands around here, he should get around to checking this one pretty quickly.”

“That’s only after he realizes that we’re missing, which would be when?”

“Uh, probably late, like after nightfall.”

“And then he’d have to get out here and with the storm, that’s not likely.”

“You’d be surprised what he’d go through to rescue us.”

“No, I wouldn’t.”

“Yeah, I suppose you wouldn’t. But even if it takes him a while, we’ve got food. I mean, if it comes down to it, we’ll just have to kill and cook one of the Carcinus.”

“Yeah, but without butter?”

“OK, so we’ll have to rough it, but my point is, we’ve got food. And I know you were makin a joke.” She added with a smile “Now, break open one of those bars and let’s get talkin.”

“Well, one last thing before we move on, do you think there’s any chance of us finding some kind of communication equipment around here? Something that could get a signal through to him?”

“Hmm” Gaige rested her chin against her hand and thought it over, mind racing through various scenarios. After a minute, she finally looked up and said “Maybe, a lot of it depends on the state of a number of things.

“First off, is there power? Or rather, can we get power to the equipment. And then there’s the equipment itself. Sure, an island like this would need some means of communicating with the outside, but whether that equipment is still intact and viable, that’s a different story.

“Then there’s the matter of finding said equipment. I would wager that there’s some kind of communication gear in the hotel and resort, but the real stuff would be in their operations center, but where they’d have that, couldn’t tell you.”

“Well, let’s look at the map and see.”

“It’s not gonna be on there. I mean, these places don’t exactly label ‘Secret Base’ on them, do they?”

“Wait, now it’s a secret base?”

“No. That was me bein me, but the same principle applies.”

“So, map’s out then, is what you’re saying?” Artemis asked, ECHO being held half out of her bag.

“Nah, whip that bad boy out. At the very least we might get some idea of how to get to the headquarters.”

“So do you think it’s underground?”

“What?”

“The headquarters?”

“What brought that on?”

“Well, if it’s not on the map, then the logical places for it would be in the mountain or underground.”

“This is a theme park, not some spy movie villain.”

“I know that!”

“But you have a point. Next time let me finish before you snap, please. Good. You’re right, despite how silly it might sound, the most likely place for them to have their headquarters is either in the mountains or underground.”

“Unless it’s in one of the attractions.”

“How big would the damn attraction need to be to hide a headquarters in it?”

“Depends.”

“On what?”

“On what they really needed it for.”

Gaige paused and stared at her for a minute “Oh, good point. I mean, there’s going to be underground stuff here, but that might just be maintenance and supply routes. If the park itself was mostly automated, and with the number of animatronics we’ve seen there’s no reason to doubt that it was, then the actual staff wouldn’t need all that much space, so one of the attractions might be able to hold it, like that castle we saw for example.”

“Or the one in the middle of the park.” Artemis countered, turning her ECHO around and showing Gaige the map.

Smack in the middle of the park sat a massive castle, like something out of a storybook.

“Yeah, that could work. Great. So, we’ve got our next destination, so I guess all that’s left is to get a bite to eat and compare notes on the mascots.”

“Oh, that’s a pleasant conversation to eat by.”

“I don’t wanna hear it miss injects it with acid to drink it.”

“Where’d that come from?”

“Back on the Project Odysseus station. Remember?”

“Oh, the Tessitract? What brought that to mind?”

“Those vines back there.”

“Huh, yeah, I guess they do eat in a slightly similar way, but they’re completely different, I mean, the Tessitract”

“Nope, don’t need a biology lesson.”

“Oh.”

“Now what?”

“I didn’t read that moment right, I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Oh boy,” Gaige sighed, bracing herself for what would come next. “You’re right, you didn’t read that right. But not the way you’re thinking. See, you’ve got to learn when to go into detail, and that’s generally when it’s going to be immediately useful, not just when you think it’s interesting. I’ve had the same problem in the past, really, I have. I used to think everyone thought that whatever I found interesting at the moment was fascinating and would want to share it with them. Turns out that unless it’s useful to them, most people don’t want to know about the intricacies of a model 37 cybernetic capacitor, or why lining up the circuits of your robot in one way is more efficient than another.”

“Fine, I get it, I bore you.”

“That’s not what I said!” Gaige snapped back “You just need to figure out when and whom to tell that stuff to. And for the record, I do find it interesting, just not when I’m eating. Or when I’ve just seen someone melt. Or…you know what, I’m still standing by my statement, but it’s just not the right time when you tell me is all. So, moving on, break out that food and let’s start comparing notes.”

Artemis broke another of the rations in half and handed one side over before starting to munch away on her half.

She got a little ways into it, before swallowing and starting up. “From what I can tell, there’s two kinds of these animatronic things. That’s not talking about what they look like or whatever they’re supposed to be, but the, uh, internals of them?”

“You mean the way they’re put together?”

“Sure. Anyway, like I was saying, the rattier ones, which are also a little taller on average and seem to move a little better, despite being older, well, I guess I should add except when they’ve got joint rust and wear and all that.”

“Got it, moving on.”

“Right, so those ones seem to be older, more worn down and all that. Like a lot of them are rotted through. At least their, well, I don’t know what to call it, fur? Hide? Outer layer?”

“Whatever.”

“Yeah, anyway, the outer whatever is worn through, which means their internals are open to the air.”

She paused for a moment and added “Speaking of which, why do they have those weird plastic parts all over their insides?”

“Huh? Oh, those things. They’re there to bulk them up without weighing them down, least that’s what I’d guess. Other than that, they’re there to keep the outer layer from getting caught in the mechanisms that move the animatronics. Plus, they’ve got these internal servos and stuff that allow them to move bits and pieces of them, you know, to make their faces move and stuff.”

“Ah, makes sense. Anyway, like I was saying, there seems to be two kinds of these things.”

“Right, older looking, rotting ones and newer looking ones. I kinda picked up on that with the last couple we’ve seen, though I probably wouldn’t have without you pointing it out, but what’s it mean?”

“No idea. I mean, I’ve only cut open two of them, so everything I say is just pure speculation based on that, but if I had to guess, the newer ones have a body inside.”

“But why?”

“I was hoping you’d have a guess.”

“Not really. I mean, I suppose they could’ve eaten them.”

“You’ve watched too many movies.”

“Hey, I wasn’t the one that thought they saw a person inside one of these things.”

“So, you don’t believe me?”

“Oh, I believe you, as much as I don’t wanna, I believe you, but until I see one for myself, I’ve got nothing. So what’s your guess?”

“Me? I’ve got no idea what’s going on. I mean, I don’t think that the park decided that they were in need of more mascots and that the guests would be happier as one of them.”

“No, not what caused it, though we’re gonna need to have that conversation at some point, I was more of meaning, what do you think about the second kind of mascot?”

“I think they’re creepy.”

“Yeah, they’re mascots, aside from that I’m meanin.”

“Other than that, I mean, they’ve got a body inside.”

“Tell me about it. The body I mean, that wasn’t supposed to be sarcasm.”

“Ah. But what’re you asking?”

“You’re the expert on this kind of stuff, not the animatronics, the bodies, you know more about that kind of thing then me, so I was wondering if you had any insights on the bodies, or rather body, since you’ve only seen the one. It was just one, right?”

“Yeah. And before you say it, I think there’s others.”

“Didn’t doubt it, but proceed.”

“Well, like I said earlier, it looked like the body was alive when it was turned into one of the animatronics, judging by the way the muscles were torn and the bones looked, though I doubt they lived very long afterwards. Other than that, couldn’t give you an accurate timetable for their death, especially since I’ve got no idea about how airtight the skin was.”

“Remind me again why that would matter?”

“Well, if the moisture can’t get in or out, then the body would decay differently. I’m not an expert myself, but I do remember hearing a story about a group of natives on one planet that would create a poison by wrapping a corpse in wet leather and then sewing it shut to make it as air tight as they could and then set it in a cave for months or years and then when they were about to hunt, they’d insert their darts into the corpse and the mess that the body had turned into would be a deadly toxin that even if they didn’t kill their target, it would still die from the poison in it’s blood.”

“Wait, wouldn’t that make it useless to eat?”

“Yeah, but only if they were hunting it for food, if they just wanted to get it out of their territory, or another group was attacking, it apparently was very good. Of course, this story was from a few hundred years ago.”

“You don’t look old enough to have heard that. I mean, you don’t look a day over twenty. Actually, who’m I kidding, you barely look sixteen.”

“Ouch. That’s just mean. And besides, I don’t even get where this is coming from.”

“Always ruins a joke to have to explain it, but here goes, you said you’d been told that on some planet and then said it was a couple hundred years old, so I joked that you don’t look old enough, cause it sounded like you’d been told it a few hundred years ago.”

“What? That’s not what I said, I mean, at least not what I meant, I meant that it was an old story that someone there told me.”

“I know, I got that, that’s why I was trying to make a joke about it, but apparently I failed, so let’s just forget it and move on.”

“Oh, uh, alright, where were we?”

“Something about the body being alive when the animatronic was made. But about that, do you think they’re using the body because they’re out of some parts or because of some other reason, or is this one of those things that we don’t really wanna find out the answer to? Oh, and by they, I’m meaning whoever is building these abominations.”

“No idea, I mean, robotics aren’t exactly my area of expertise, so all I can tell you is that they’re creepy and gross and out of a sense of safety and because we don’t have any antibiotics, I wouldn’t recommend getting injured by anything inside one of them.”

“Yeah, I got that. Pity about the antibiotics, but we’ll make due. And no, that’s not your fault, so wipe that look off your face. If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t even have the supplies we do have. But on to the point you were making, I get that you’re not an expert on this stuff, but I was just wondering what you’d seen and your thoughts on it, I mean, I haven’t seen one of these things opened up, so I’m having to build my assumptions off whatever you can tell me.”

“Ah, so, uh, what do you wanna know?”

“Well, let’s start with how much of the body do you think they’re using?”

“All of it, at least that’s what I think I saw, though I can’t say for sure on the limbs.”

“How much work was done to it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you said that they’d run cables and such through the body, but was anything else cut open or was it mostly intact?”

“Mostly intact actually, I mean, the areas around where they’d put things through was cut up, but only the immediate area.”

Gaige fell into thought and Artemis let her think, focusing on repacking her bag while the other girl tried to piece together what was going on.

After a while, Gaige let out a sigh and said “I hate to admit this, but I’ve got no idea what’s going on. Doesn’t mean I can’t speculate or make a wild guess, but that’s all they’d be.”

“Well, what’re they?”

Gaige shrugged “Maybe they ran out of a part, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense, human bodies don’t make good replacements, you’d know this better than me, but they rot and break down and need so much to keep them going, so unless they were desperate, I can’t really see that being it.”

“Well, speculation on why isn’t getting us anywhere, so let’s get to the actual important part.”

“Which is?”

“How to kill them.”

“Hmm, yeah, that makes sense.”

Artemis gave her a look that seemed to mean something, but she didn’t get it, forcing her to ask “What?”

“What do you mean, what? You’re the expert on this type of stuff, so, do you have any ideas or not?”

“Ah” Gaige said, leaning back and thinking about it. “Well, I’d say head shots wouldn’t do much, not unless they’ve got some kind of processor there, which I doubt, so I’d guess that the torso would be where to strike.”

“Wait. If it’s in the torso, then what about the ones that’re built around a person?”

“Damn. Mind you, everything I’m saying is pure speculation, I’d need to take one apart to find out for sure so I can’t say for sure, but they might be implanting something other than the wires and stuff, or it’s sitting next to them, or they might even be putting those ones in the head, I’ve got no idea.”

“Still, the ones we’ve killed, where’d you hit yours?”

“Um, I think I cut it open and yanked something out it’s back, you?”

“Smashed one of them, sliced another, punched into the chest of one of them and ripped something out and set a number of them on fire.”

“Right, so we can agree that there’s something in the torso that’s important, so let’s focus on that if we have to fight.”

“Speaking of which, I’d still like some more weapons.”

“You? What about me? I’ve got nothing but a short blade.”

“Right. Well, let’s move that up the priority list as we head for the castle.” She checked her bag and looked up “Well, with that I guess we better get going.”

Chapter 17

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Central Plaza

The building they’d been resting against turned out to be some kind of arcade and eating establishment rolled into one, not that either of them wanted to go inside and see more. In fact, both of them tried to hide the fact that sitting had led them to stiffen up to a painful degree.

Though Gaige hid it better, she was in considerable pain. Checking the rough bandage around her side, she found that it had stuck to her wound, which was rawer then she’d thought. It seemed that the bikini strap was still rubbing it, taking the top layer of skin off and making the entire line ooze painfully.

Without anything to do to help it, she tried to adjust the bikini strap a bit and despite her earlier statement, ended up loosening the tie behind her neck to give it a little extra slack, hoping that she wouldn’t need to run too hard in the future.

Near her, Artemis was in agony. It felt like her back was made of hot lead, not wanting to move and hurting every time it was forced to. Still, the pain was getting better since she wasn’t feeling any sharp jolts of agony when she moved, instead feeling it settle into a stiffness that would probably be just as bad in a fight.

Wincing slightly, she covered it by stepping out into the rain and letting the downpour hit her.

“I think it’s lightning up,” she said, glancing upward at the dark sky.

“Really?” Gaige snapped a bit, trying to hide her pain. “How can you tell?”

“Feels lighter.”

“Then why can’t I see ■■■■?”

“Cause I think the sun’s set.”

“Oh, that’s just great. What? Everyone knows all the really bad stuff comes out at night.”

“Not always. But usually, yes, I will give you that.”

“Really? You suck at cheering people up, you know that? Of course you do, I forget who I’m talking to. Sorry, that wasn’t meant as a dig, I’m just, well…”

“You’re tired of this place, of not having a drink, of not having Deathtrap around, of me, of this situation and all that, right?”

“What was that ‘of me’ part?”

Artemis shrugged, which got her a prompt whack on the head.

“I’m not tired of you. Exasperated? Sure. Tired of having these conversations? Definitely. But not of you.”

Artemis nodded, though Gaige suspected that it was just so that she wouldn’t get hit again, but she let her off with a sigh and indicated that she should lead on.

Artemis turned and looked around, trying to figure out which way would take them to their destination and quickly selected a way forward through the darkness. Gaige, without anything else to do or add, followed along silently, though part of her wanted to ask for the light back, so that she’d at least be doing something other than just following along, but she didn’t, instead, she focused on her surroundings.

After a little ways, she started to suspect that Artemis was right, it did feel like she could see a little further through the gloom and the rain. Not much, but a little, which gave her hope that the storm might be passing. Of course, they could also be entering the eye of the storm, so she made sure to not get her hopes up too much.

They trudged forward through the dark, occasionally some shape would come into view, which usually caused them to skirt around it, not wanting to take any chances and after a short time that felt like an eternity, Gaige spotted the buildings on their side grow out of the dark.

This time, they didn’t avoid them, since they were hoping that they were the outer edge of the center most plaza, the residence of the park’s main castle.

Sure enough, as they got to the edge of them, they saw what had once been flowerbeds set against the edges, leading towards something in the distance. As if on cue, lightning filled the skies, throwing the once proud castle in silhouette against the illuminated sky.

“Well, that’s…something,” Gaige said, squinting against the rain.

“Yeah. Let’s get going.”

Gaige suppressed her sigh, she’d wanted to have some kind of conversation about the castle, its appearance, its state, anything to distract herself from the pain in her side and the gnawing anxiety she was feeling with this place, but it seemed that either Artemis wasn’t feeling the same or, and more likely, she simply hadn’t picked up on the cues Gaige was sending, so they continued trudging forward in silence.

It didn’t take very long to reach the edge of the empty flowerbeds and step onto the wide-open clearing that surrounded the castle itself.

Even at the close range they found themselves at, they still couldn’t see much of the building. The dark seemed to swallow the feeble light from the lantern, making the darkness seem even deeper, like the castle itself was telling them to keep away, or at least that’s the way it felt to Gaige.

Shivering slightly despite the warm rain pouring down on her, she glanced around, not wanting to look up at the towering building for a reason she couldn’t identify.

The area around the castle was separated with a wall that was designed to look like a part of the castle, but it was obvious to her that it was there to keep the guests from getting too close to it in places that the park designers didn’t want, though why that would be, she couldn’t begin to guess.

“Something’s weird about this place,” Artemis muttered, squinting upward behind her goggles.

“You feel it too?”

“Huh? I mean, yeah, something feels off about the castle, but I can’t really put my finger on it.”

“Oh, uh, yeah. I mean, that’s what I was meanin, of course it was. What else would I mean.” She let out a thin laugh that got Artemis’s attention despite how dense she was.

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“Seriously. What’s wrong.”

“Nothing. I mean, yeah, I’m feeling a bit uneasy about something, but I don’t really know what, so it’s nothing.”

“We’ve both been through enough to know that that’s not nothing, something’s tripping your instincts, so you should pay attention.”

“This one of those ‘Hunter’s Instincts’ things?”

“No different from your ‘Vault Hunter Sense’ wasn’t it?”

“OK, fine. But I still don’t have any idea what’s wrong.”

Artemis stared at her for a second and then shrugged “Alright, let’s proceed, but be cautious.”

“Oh, like I was plannin on just skippin my way on in?”

“Fine, let’s be extra cautious.”

Gaige rolled her eyes, but managed a slight grin. Talking about it hadn’t made the anxiety go away, but it had made her feel a bit better about herself at least, like someone else out there got her and didn’t think she was crazy, which helped.

Artemis took point, eyes darting around as she went, not just looking for danger, but also trying to find some way into the building that loomed over them. She knew that there had to be some way in, it was listed among the attractions, so she knew that it had to have a public entrance, though which side that was on, she didn’t know. Or rather, she guessed that it would be on the side facing the park entrance, with a possible second one on the far side, but since she didn’t know where she was on the building, she just had to start to circle it and find out.

It didn’t take long for a massive portcullis to come into view.

“Well, guess that’s the way in.”

“No ■■■■.”

“No need to get nasty about it.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s fine. Let’s just hope that it’s unlocked.” She paused for a second and then added “And unguarded.”

Gaige let out a groan.

“Oh, right. I’m not supposed to say things like that. See, one of us can learn what not to say.”

“If you had anything that I actually believed that I wasn’t supposed to say, I’d 'ave learned it a long time ago.”

Artemis fixed her with a rather angry look till Gaige added “I ain’t apologizing because you’ve got an insane belief that you need to get over, but I’m sorry for insulting you just now. That better?”

“Not really, but let’s go.”

Gaige took what she could get and followed along, keeping her head on a swivel, looking for anything, either more of the mascots or something that could be used as an improvised weapon. Finding neither, she didn’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved.

Before she could figure it out, they found themselves standing in front of the doors that would have led into the building, if they’d been standing open.

“Huh, guess you might’ve been right, maybe I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“That’s not the part I was saying you shouldn’t say,” Gaige snapped, unable to contain herself. Taking a deep breath, she continued in a calmer voice “Still, I don’t think we’re getting in this way, but I suppose I should look at it to make sure.”

Artemis nodded and handed the lantern over without prompting before turning and keeping an eye out for anything coming at them while Gaige worked.

Gaige worked at the control panel as fast as she could, popping it off with one of the tools that Artemis had brought with and examining the inside before letting out a disheartened sigh.

“No good?”

“No, more like, no power.”

“Any way to get it open manually? There’s always some kind of override, isn’t there?”

“Yeah, I just gotta find it and then see if it’s a viable option.”

Artemis nodded and after a second asked “Want a hand?”

“As much as I’d like to say no, that I want you keeping an eye out for trouble, you are better at spotting these kinds of things than me, though I usually can find them, after all, they always follow the same general construction methods.”

Artemis blinked and was about to ask whether that was a yes or a no, but instead decided to do a quick glance at the wall and after a few seconds pointed to a stone.

“That one.”

“And how would you know that?”

“It’s the way the water’s running around it, it’s different from the ones around it.”

Gaige looked at it and didn’t really see what she was meaning at first, but after squinting for a few seconds, she thought she might’ve seen what the other girl was meaning. It did look a little like the water was seeping in around the stone a bit, though that might’ve just been an illusion since she was looking for something.

Shrugging she got to work opening it and without much difficulty she got it to pop out a little, only to hit the problem of rusty hinges. Gripping it tightly, she gave a mighty heave, only for her side to feel like something inside snapped, causing her to nearly collapse and curl into a ball.

Breathing hard, she leaned against the wall, clutching her side. She hadn’t thought that she’d been injured that bad, but she realized that it wasn’t just the initial injury that was really hurting, it was the constant rubbing that the strap had done afterwards that had really done her in.

Putting her hand against the strip of cloth, she felt the heat emanating through it, telling her that it wasn’t just in her head, something was in need of some attention, and soon. But she also knew that she couldn’t let Artemis know, otherwise she’d insist that Gaige take one of the Insi-health vials. Instead, she turned to the other girl and spoke up.

“Hey, these hinges are rusted solid. Think you can give me a hand with it?”

Artemis looked down at the partially opened door and gave it a second of thought. She knew that her torso couldn’t handle that kind of strain, not without giving away how badly it really hurt, so she’d need to come up with some other way to get the door open.

Then it hit her. Gaige had told her herself. A hand. She popped her Digi-blade and ran it down the side of the door, slicing through the hinges and the door fell to the ground with a thud as they both yanked their feet back, not wanting the door to land on their unprotected toes.

“Well, that worked,” Gaige said with an appreciative shrug, before leaning in to the now exposed inner workings and taking a look.

It didn’t take her long to figure out what needed doing, but there was still a problem.

“Well, good news is, I can get it working. Bad news is, I think we’re gonna need a bar.”

“I don’t think a drink’s gonna help.”

Gaige almost did a double take, trying to figure out if the other girl was being serious or trying to crack a joke. Deciding that it didn’t matter, she retorted “Not that kind. I mean a prybar, a lever, something to pop these locking pins over so that we can crank the handle. And now that I’m lookin at it, probably to crack the handle loose as well.”

Artemis nodded and breezed past her earlier statement to say “Ah, and where are we going to get that?”

“Heck if I know. Was honestly hoping you had some kind of idea.”

“Hmm.” Artemis fell into thought without much luck. “Nope, can’t recall seeing anything that would work. I mean, if I had, I would’ve grabbed it to use as a weapon, right?”

“Yeah, I was afraid of that. Guess that leaves us with two options. We can either try and pull this and see if we can get it to budge, or we can go looking for something to use to pry it with.”

“Guess we’re gonna need to go looking then.”

“Why, don’t wanna give it a try first? See if you can crack it loose with your cybernetic?”

“I’m still a little, well, sore and I don’t want to, er, make things, you know, worse.”

“So, you are in pain.”

“Of course I’m in pain, just not bad enough to need medical intervention right now. What about you? Why aren’t you giving it a try, after all, aren’t you the one always going on about how good your cybernetic is?”

“OK, first, I don’t always go on about it and second, I kinda sorta maybe pulled something trying to get the door open before I asked for your help. Nothing major, but it’s a bit sore.”

The girls looked at each other, both simultaneously hoping the other bought their story and wishing they could get the other to admit they needed to use one of the medical vials. But since both of them were incredibly stubborn, neither one would admit such a thing, so they just stared for a few seconds before Gaige shook her head.

“Well, this is getting us nowhere, so let’s get lookin for something to pry with. Let’s see, if I remember the map, there were mostly shops that way and we just came from over there. Maybe we could break into one of the stores and look for something.”

“What’s with you and wanting to break into the stores? You want to go looting that bad?”

“No. Maybe a little, but mostly I just want to look for something to wear and maybe a first aid kit.”

“Ah, but weren’t those marked on the map?”

“Yeah, but you never know where they’re gonna have one, you know, for just in case.”

Artemis shrugged and then added “Alternatively, we could search around the rest of the castle, try and find another way in.”

“Why you gotta bring up logic at a time like this?”

Artemis shrugged “I don’t know, cause someone’s got to.”

“See, that’s your problem, you’re trying to apply logic to a situation like this. There’s no logic here, just a nightmare that you can’t wake from.”

“It’s certainly starting to feel that way, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Gaige said a bit dejectedly. Shaking her head, she smacked her cheeks lightly and in a much cheerier tone said “Right, well, that kinda talk ain’t getting us anywhere. Let’s go around the castle once, see if we can’t find either a door or something to use as a prybar and if we make it back to where we started, well then, we can go out and do some lootin.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Gaige smiled and took the lead, heading around the castle at a pace just below a jog, like she wanted to get out of there as fast as she could, but didn’t want to seem panicked, which was just about her reasoning.

They kept moving, keeping their eyes out for any motion besides the rain, which wasn’t making it easy to spot movement. On two separate occasions they spotted a mascot going about their business, which forced them to cover the lantern and duck into any cover they could find, which really amounted to pressing themselves against the building and hoping that the animatronic wouldn’t come any closer.

Both times it seemed to work as the mascot continued on its way to do whatever it was doing, making both girls wonder exactly how the things sight worked. There’d been times that they’d sworn that they could see through the rain and find the girls with disturbing ease, but others, like these times, they’d completely missed them, as if they couldn’t see anything around themselves.

Gaige wondered if it had something to do with their programming, that they would only go after them if they weren’t in the middle of some other task, though she didn’t know why something that was arguably supposed to be helping guests would ignore them. But for that matter, she couldn’t figure out why something that was supposed to be helping would attack them in the first place.

Artemis on the other hand, was wondering what spectrum’s the mascots could see in, if it was thermal, then hiding wouldn’t do anything, but if it was just some form of enhanced optics in the normal range, then they could more easily dodge them in the future. On the other hand, if they had completely normal visual ranges, but were somehow tied into each other or the parks security system, then hiding would be considerably harder, but it would also be easier in another way, all they’d have to do would be avoid the cameras and the mascots would continue on their way.

Of course, she couldn’t figure out how the security would still be up since she hadn’t seen any signs of power, but she supposed that it could well be on its own system.

As soon as they couldn’t see the animatronic anymore, they let out a sigh of relief, though they still waited for a little longer just to make sure that it had really passed them by before they moved again.

They’d made it a good way around the castle, skirting the wall that prevented anyone from getting right up next to it, when Artemis spotted something. She tapped on Gaige’s shoulder and pointed to the door that was mostly hidden against the building.

“Good catch, I probably would’ve just passed it by,” Gaige said, moving up to the door and examining it.

True to what she’d said, she would’ve missed it if it hadn’t been pointed out to her. Its surface was covered in the same brickwork as the wall around it, most likely to hide it from the guests, though whether the door itself was an employee entrance or an emergency exit, she couldn’t tell.

After a quick examination, she determined two things. “Well, two things, first, it’s an emergency exit.”

“Is that a good thing or not?”

“In our case, not. If it was an employee entrance, we could’ve tried to work the lock or whatever they were using to get in, but since it’s not, there’s not much we can do.”

“Oh. Well, what’s the second thing?”

“Doors got no power to it, so we’re not gonna be able to override it either.”

“Any chance we could force it? Like the one on the Project Odysseus station? The lower supervisor’s office, you know, the one that you took the hinges off of?”

“Oh yeah, was wondering which one you were meaning. Unfortunately, I doubt it. I mean, we don’t really have the tools to be doing that kind of thing.”

“Any other way to get the door open.”

Gaige didn’t respond, instead she focused on the door itself, mind racing through the different things they had with and comparing them to the problem at hand.

After a few minutes of silence, she let out a sigh “There’s not much we can do, I mean, the hinges are on this side, but they’ve been set in pretty well.” She pointed to where the hinges were just visible against the faux rock surface. “Other than that, there’s no lock on this side to pick, nor anything we can really do to jimmy it open.”

“Any way to just break it?”

“Not that I can think of. You got anything? And I do mean anything, I’m not gonna be judgmental, at least not this time.”

Artemis looked at the door without much hope, after all, if Gaige couldn’t think of anything, what chance did she have.

With nothing better to try, a stupid idea popped into her head and she reached out towards it. Her fingertips struggled to find purchase on the door, but eventually they caught on the facade enough for her to pull and the door moved a little bit before catching on something.

“Of course, it’s gonna be locked, otherwise it would’ve blown open.”

“I thought you weren’t going to be judgmental?”

“Sorry, but that was a bit, well…sorry.”

“Eh, I just thought that maybe if it was an electronic lock, that without power it would just open.”

“Oh, that actually makes a lot of sense.”

“Turns out that something’s holding it shut though, but it did wiggle a little.”

She fell silent as her mind started scratching at something that was bothering her, something she’d remembered earlier was bugging her. She glared at the door, as if it was at fault for her being unable to scratch the itch on her mind, when suddenly she landed on it.

She popped her Digi-blade and after taking a deep breath, forced it into the thin gap between the door and the jamb, wriggling it back and forth despite the shouts of protest running up her back from the aching and bruised muscles.

Like she’d said earlier, the doors on the Project Odysseus station, that had been what she’d been trying to remember. She’d encountered a door by herself, one that she couldn’t pick the lock to, so she’d been forced to do this, slice through the lock itself, though in this case, she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to cut through it, but if she could wiggle the latch open, then she’d succeed either way.

In the end, her blade sawed through the lock without too much difficulty and the door swung open, revealing the blackness inside.

Chapter 18

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Delfenic Castle

The lantern did little to push back the blackness that crawled up to them and the closing door hadn’t helped, not that outside was any lighter, but something about the closing of the door made it feel like a tomb closing around them. Still, the girls looked around, feeling the strange tingling running across their skin as if it craved the constant pounding of the rain.

Artemis slowly pushed her goggles up her forehead and then ran both hands down her face, trying to dislodge as much of the water from it as possible before flicking it away into the blackness pressing in around them. She let out an involuntary shudder as she realized that the interior of the castle was noticeably cooler than the outside.

She quickly tried to brush as much water off her limbs as she could while glancing around to try and figure out where they were. To her annoyance, she couldn’t hear much, instead there was a dull ringing in her ears from them getting used to the constant rain, making her wonder how long it was going to take for them to get back to normal.

Behind her, Gaige was giving her shorts a decidedly unladylike tug, trying to get the wet fabric away from her skin, even if it was only for a second. She tried to ignore the water that was being flicked at her, mostly cause she didn’t want Artemis to turn around at the moment. Instead, she tried to distract herself by looking around the room.

From the little bit that she could see, they’d made their way into the side of some kind of display room, though what was being displayed, she had no idea, so she took the lantern and stepped up to the nearest one and held it up to get a look.

She found herself looking at a picture of an elderly gentleman with a balding pate, frizzy white hair sticking out the sides of his head, round glasses over a bushy mustache and a fairly kind smile.

Moving the light, she found the plaque next to it and read it aloud.

“With his motto of ‘A place of no frowns’ Pappy Delfenic set out to make his dream a reality and soon opened what would be the first Ceto Wonderworld, though at the time it was less than a third the size it is now, it still boasted some of the systems most advanced rides and was the first park in the galaxy to be entirely operated by his loving mascots.”

“What the heck was that?”

“Just reading what this says,” Gaige replied, moving the light around “Seems like we’re in some kind of memorial or historical exhibit about the park.”

“Great, it say anything about why the place is so screwed up?”

“That’s generally not something that you put up on the wall. I mean, how do you suppose that’d be up here ‘And everything was fine until the mascots started eating the guests’?”

“No need to be nasty about it.”

“Well, when you say something that stupid.”

“I was being sarcastic, or is that something that only you get to do?”

“No, sorry,” Gaige said with a sigh, hearing the disturbing echoing of her voice in the silence of the building “We should probably try and keep it down though.”

“No, really?”

“You know, sarcasm doesn’t suit you either?”

Artemis shot her a dirty look, but when she talked it was in as soft a whisper as she could manage and still be heard “Fine, you want to look around here some more? See if you can learn anything or should we move on?”

Gaige paused for a moment and gave it some serious thought, as much as she wanted to find out what this place was and how it had come to be, mostly in the hopes that there’d be a clue there about what had gone wrong, she knew that they couldn’t just stand around, in case some of the mascots were still inside the castle. Besides, she told herself, if they found the control room, there was a good chance that she’d be able to figure out what had gone wrong. In fact, there was a much better chance of finding out in the control room than here, so she shook her head.

“No, as much as I’d like to find out some more about this place, I think we should try and find the control room as soon as possible.”

“Good,” Artemis said with a nod, before looking around and sheepishly adding “So, uh, any idea of where that’d be?”

Gaige let out a sigh, not just at the way the other girl would swing from exuberance to helplessly in an instant, but because she had no idea herself.

“Unfortunately, no.”

“Wait, didn’t you say it was probably at the top of this castle?”

“No, I said the communications suite would likely be there.” She paused and scrunched her brows together “Or wait, did I say that the control room might be there as well? Whatever, doesn’t matter, it’s as good a place to start as any, so we’re gonna need to find the employee entrance to the behind-the-scenes area, but where that’d be, I’ve got no idea.”

“Oh well, worth a shot,” Artemis said with a shrug “Guess we’re going to have to look around.”

She seemed to be waiting on Gaige, which caused her to feel a flush of irritation. Why couldn’t she do anything on her own? Why was she always waiting for Gaige to take the lead? Why couldn’t she lead them for once? Only for it to hit her as she took a step forward to lead them out of the area they were in. She had the lantern.

Feeling a bit ashamed at herself, Gaige was glad that Artemis couldn’t see the flush that ran all the way to the tips of her ears. Resolving to try and be more patient with the other girl, she started walking, only to be instantly distracted by the uncomfortable squelching of her footwear and shorts.

Wriggling slightly in place, she tried to get things to a more comfortable position, but failed. She idly wondered why she hadn’t been uncomfortable outside, but she supposed that it must have been the fact that she was practically swimming as she walked through the rain, so things hadn’t had much of a chance to get as uncomfortable, though she did suspect that if she made it to the next day, she was going to have some ugly raw areas from the chaffing that she hadn’t been aware had been happening throughout the day.

As she tried to distract herself from her present situation, her eyes landed on what she assumed was the newest of the displays. Something about it prompted her to give it a once over and as she was reaching the bottom, she noticed Artemis out of the corner of her eye giving her a look.

“You sure you don’t want to keep looking?”

“Yeah, just wanted to see what this one had to say.”

“And?”

“Well, it’s, um,” her eyes rolled as she did the quick mental math “Twenty-nine years old, or there abouts.”

“Great. Anything else? Anything actually interesting?”

“Not really, least not that’s relevant. It’s just a notice that ‘Pappy’ Delfenic Ceto passed away and that his final statement, at least the one that they wanted to attribute to him, was something like 'As long as you keep smiling, I’ll never really be gone.”

“In that case, he’s well and truly gone from this place.”

Gaige wanted to call Artemis out on her callousness, but the truth was that she had to agree with her, she couldn’t see anyone smiling at the state this place was in and that was without mentioning the mascots and their bizarre habits.

“Come on, let’s go.”

She led them out and into what she thought might be the central chamber of the castle, which was a pitch-black cavern with a nice hardwood floor that was covered in dust. She froze, straining her ears to try and pick up anything, even the slightest sound, but since her ears were still buzzing slightly from the rain, she couldn’t pick anything out aside from the slow dripping that was coming from both of them.

She turned slightly to Artemis and when she got a small shake of the head started moving.

Keeping close to the wall, she started moving around the room with Artemis padding along behind her almost silently. Gaige tried to distract herself from the awful tension that was oozing out of the dark by wondering how the other girl was masking the squelching noise from her footwear, something that Gaige couldn’t figure out how to do, resulting in each step making a strange combination of a squish and a squeak that seemed to echo through the cavernous room.

Before she could figure anything out, a sign came into sight announcing ‘The Princess’s Tea Room’ and beneath that ‘Appointment Required’.

“What the heck?” Artemis muttered.

“Which part of it?”

“Why would you want to take tea in a place like this?”

“What? You never wanted to be a princess?”

“Not really and what’s that have to do with this place?”

“It’s a tea room where you can pretend to be at some kind of fancy soiree.”

“Whatever, not for me. More importantly, do you think there’s an employee entrance in there?”

“Hmm, might be, there’s at least access to some kind of kitchen, but whether you can get to the control room from there, I don’t know.”

“So, should we try it, or keep going.”

“Let’s keep going. Something tells me that we’d have to go through the kitchen to the supply routes and then try and find a way back up, if we could get up at all.”

“Right, well, we’re nearly at the front of the castle, so we should probably try towards the back.”

Gaige nearly asked her how she knew that, but realized that the other girl was undoubtedly right, she usually was about these kinds of things, so she might as well trust her.

She still made her way the rest of the way forward and soon enough the main door came into sight. Moving past it, Gaige couldn’t help but give it a dirty look, cursing it for not wanting to open for her.

They made their way around the far side of the room and soon a restaurant came into sight. Much the same as the tea room, it appeared to be based on some kind of fairytale type setting, with an almost enchanted appearance nearly hidden beneath the dust.

Not bothering to try it, they continued on, finding a set of restrooms next. They were tempted to try them, not just to try and see if they had running water to use them, but to see if the employee entrance was hiding amongst the supplies, but in the end, they figured that the entrance wouldn’t require an employee to have to head into one of the bathrooms to get to the office so they moved on.

It wasn’t long before they came to a large number of doors towards the rear of the castle, most of which were closed and all of which had once been beautiful, with stained glass set into them twinkling in the lantern light, despite the layer of dust that had settled across them.

Making their way to the center set, which stood open, they found themselves standing at the entrance to a massive room, one that might have dwarfed the room they’d just been in, if they could’ve seen the other side. The floor was covered in wood, with a gentle color shift in the boards as they formed an intricate pattern.

Stepping in cautiously, they slid around the outside till they got past the doors and found that the wall was done up in a lavish style, with what had once been magnificent scones, but were now draped with cobwebs and tarnished to a dull gleam.

After making it a ways, they realized that the room was roughly circular, though it had angles to the walls, they couldn’t tell how many sides it would’ve had without more information.

Eventually they found a raised platform on one side and off to one of its sides was a waist high barricade. Past that they could see a number of chairs, sized for the animatronics and on the front of the wall was a musical note.

“It must’ve been a ballroom.”

“Why?”

“Well, this would’ve been the orchestral area.”

“Pit.”

“What?”

“Orchestral pit, that’s what it’s called. But I wasn’t meaning how’d you know what it was, I was meaning, why have a ballroom at a theme park?”

“Ah, same reason as the tearoom.”

“Cater to a certain type of crowd?”

“Something like that.”

“Whatever. You think there’s an employee entrance around here.”

“Why would there be?”

“For the orchestra, I mean, they should funnel out to play, and whoever was doing the singing or hosting or whatever they were doing on that stage would’ve had to come out from somewhere, right?”

“Makes sense, go for it.”

“Why me?”

“Let’s be honest, if one of us is gonna find anything, it’s gonna be you.”

Artemis let out an exasperated sigh, but didn’t argue, instead all she said was “Give me the light.”

Gaige reluctantly handed the only source of illumination over, but immediately followed along after Artemis as she headed towards the wall, not wanting to be out of the small pool of light.

Artemis didn’t say anything, instead she just focused on the wall in front of her and soon enough popped a hidden latch, swinging a section of it open.

“Told you you’d find it.”

“Whatever, you would’ve found it too.” Came the awkward reply, causing Gaige to smile slightly at the fact that Artemis was still embarrassed at being complimented.

The door led them into a small room that was still fairly fancy, most likely in case someone peeked in while the band was emerging, or at least that’s what Gaige figured. On the far side was another door and behind that was a decidedly less opulent hall.

For the first time since they’d got to the island, they found themselves facing an area that was clearly not for guests. The walls were dull grey concrete with a thin stripe of paint running down the wall and open pipes on the ceiling.

Straight ahead of them was a T junction without any directions as to which way they should go.

“Well, looks like we’re in the right area.”

“Yeah, but which way should we go?”

“I’d say to the right.”

“Any particular reasoning, or are we running on your ‘hunter’s instinct’ again?”

“What’s wrong with instinct?”

“Nothing, except that we’re not trying to track anything at the moment.”

“Fine. If I’ve got to explain it, I’d have to say that the right would take us back towards the castle’s center.”

“Couldn’t the command center be in one of the turrets?”

“Maybe, but something’s off about this place, and I’m not just meaning everything, I’m talking about the castle itself, something feels off about it.”

“I still trust you on that, so, lead on.”

Artemis suppressed a sigh and started walking down the corridor. The hall wasn’t all that narrow considering it would be running between the guest area and the outer wall, but when she thought about one of the mascots trying to walk down it, she supposed it was actually fairly cramped.

The oppressive darkness and silence were nerve-wracking. The lack of power and the fact that nothing was making any sound, not even the faint buzz that the lights usually made was giving the place a creepy air, and when that was combined with the fact that the air itself was stagnant it made the place feel like some kind of tomb, so it was with a great sense of relief when the elevator came into view.

“Well, there it is,” she said with a sigh.

“Yeah, and it’s got an up button, which is good. Now all we gotta do is find the stairs.”

Artemis nearly questioned her, but realized before she opened her mouth that there wasn’t any power, so obviously the elevator wouldn’t work. Glad she’d kept her mouth shut, she glanced around and quickly spotted the universal sign for the stairwell.

She paused in front of the door and listened for a second to make sure it was clear before forcing the door open. To her relief, it didn’t screech as it swung in, telling that it hadn’t been exposed to the elements. In fact, the stairwell was slightly chilly and she didn’t think it was just the fact that she was still damp.

Her suspicion was confirmed when she spotted Gaige give a shiver next to her.

“Come on, we’ll warm up if we move,” she said, motioning towards the stairs.

“Great.” Came the sullen reply.

Ignoring it, Artemis started up the first flight while wondering how many more there were going to be afterwards.

They climbed in silence, aside from the huffing and panting as they made their way up the stairwell. Soon enough it started to feel like they weren’t traveling at all, but were just walking in a void. The lack of anything changing around them, coupled with the fact that the air was still and the dark stretched away above and below created the illusion that they were staying still as they climbed.

Just when it started to really get to Gaige and she was getting ready to shout, Artemis broke the silence.

“So, uh, how tall do you think this place is?”

“How would I know, I don’t even know where we are anymore.”

“Yeah, but does it seem like we’ve really gone up all that far?”

“I just said I don’t know!” Gaige snapped, before adding “Why?”

Artemis didn’t answer, instead she pointed up. Gaige shot her a dirty look before following her pointing finger and saw that the stairs continued on into the void. She nearly snapped, but was able to restrain herself by telling herself that Artemis wouldn’t just point at nothing.

Looking again she spotted what the other girl was trying to get at, after about two more flights, the stairs ended.

“No way,” she muttered, “That’s not right.”

“So, I’m not just imagining things. We shouldn’t be at the top yet.”

Gaige chewed on her lip for a second before answering “Like I said, I kinda got turned around in the dark there, but, no, no I don’t think we should be at the top, not for a while.”

“Yeah, judging by how my muscles and breathing were, I didn’t think so either.”

“Wait, that’s how you were measuring it?”

Artemis shrugged, prompting Gaige to just shake her head “Whatever, let’s just get to the top and see where we are. I mean, we can’t be at the top, so let’s find out what’s here.”

They exited to find the elevator door next to them in a small area with one door ahead of them.

“Huh, not what I was expecting, guess we don’t have any choice but to find out what’s behind door number one.”

“Don’t you ever get tired of making that joke?”

“Haven’t so far. So, you wanna do the honors, or should I?”

“Why don’t you do it, I’ll wait and see what’s on the other side.”

“Wait, are you throwing me to the wolves? Was it the door number one statement?”

“No. I meant, you open the door from over there and I’ll wait in front, or rather just off to the other side, and intercept whatever comes out.”

“Oh, alright, ready?”

Artemis nodded so Gaige got to work trying to open the door, but without power, she was forced to look around till she spotted the panel on the side. After popping it off, she found a lever that when she pulled it, gave a dull clunking noise as it disengaged the locking mechanism on the door. She then had to pull the handle with much internal cursing, which drug the door open a few inches. With a look of trepidation, she stuck her cybernetic fingers through the open door, not sure if she was expecting it to snap shut on them, or something on the other side to try and yank her though, but nothing happened, so she drug the door to the side with a grunt.

To her surprise, it slid rather easily, like the tracks had been greased recently, or more likely it hadn’t been opened since the park was in use and since this area was fairly sealed off, it hadn’t rusted yet.

Artemis waited for a second to make sure that nothing came out of the office before dashing around the door, Digi-blade out, only to find nothing there.

She found herself standing in the entrance to a rather small room, divided into three parts. Straight ahead from the door was a slightly raised area with a large desk and a bank of monitors behind it. To the right of the door was a set of work stations and on the left was the communication equipment they’d been looking for.

“Well, this is…odd.”

“Which part of it?”

“Well, if this is the central, well, command area, station, whatever, then why’s it so small?”

“Maybe cause they don’t need a lot of people?”

“Yeah, but they’ve got the entire castle to work with, right? So why not spread out some more?”

Gaige puzzled over the question, she didn’t think that the designers of the park would’ve wasted that much space, especially if they’d gone to the trouble of building an entire castle.

“I’ve got it. You said that something about the castle was bothering you, right? Well, I figured it out, what was bothering you, why this area’s so small, all of it. It’s the way the place was built, they used forced perspective or something like that to make the castle look bigger, but it’s really just built at an angle so that it looks that way.”

Artemis hit her hand into her palm “So that’s it, I knew something was off.”

“You’re not just pretending to understand, are you?”

“Uh, not entirely,” she said with a bit of a guilty smile “I mean, I get that you’re saying that the place was built in such a way that it looks bigger than it is, but how they did it, I’ve got no idea.”

“Yeah, well, I gotta concede that I don’t really get it either, it’s just something that I’ve read about.”

“Ah, well, that makes me feel a little better. Anyway, one mystery solved, so let’s look around and see what else we can find.”

“We’re not here to solve any more mysteries, we’re here to get a message out to Deathtrap and anyone else that’s listening, remember?”

“Yeah, well, we’ve still got no power, so I figured that we should at least look around as long as we’re here.”

“What makes you so sure that we’ve got no power?”

Artemis just turned and gave her a flat stare, as if saying ‘Really?’, which caused Gaige to squirm uncomfortably.

“Alright, fine. I’ll concede that it certainly doesn’t appear that we’ve got any, but this place should have some kind of backup, so maybe we can get it back on.”

“Right.”

“Well, we won’t know until we try.”

Gaige realized that she was mostly just trying to justify her mistake, but everything that she’d said was true, and as long as they were there, she figured that they should give it a look before just giving up, but after a few minutes of searching, she had to concede that Artemis had been right, there was no power.

Giving up on that, they turned their attention to the desks, looking for anything that might be of use. Sifting through the papers on that had been left, the ledgers and anything else, they had to give in that there really wasn’t anything, so they turned to the drawers, which required Gaige to work on them for a while before they finally gave.

It took them a while, with Gaige working the locks and Artemis dedicatedly going through the stuff inside, but after a bit, they had every drawer open.

To Gaige’s relief, they didn’t stumble upon any alcohol, in fact, at first glance, they hadn’t found anything of note at all. Not wanting to give up too easily, they poured over the papers till they had to sit back, rubbing their eyes.

“Nothing,” Gaige growled in frustration.

“Yeah, not much here either, about the only thing of any interest is that that sign downstairs lied.”

“Oh, which one?”

“The one about that creator guy’s last words, apparently he really said something like ‘I only ever wanted the guests to be happy.’”

“Odd, why wouldn’t they’ve put that up?”

“Don’t know, but something about it sounds weird to me, like it’s almost apologetic or something.”

“Yeah, that is weird. Anything else in there that might shed some light on it?”

“No, but after his death there were a number of reports of the mascots acting up.”

“How so?”

“Well, here’s one that says that one of them was trying to force a child to stay in the park.”

“Huh, I mean, were they trying to leave somewhere they weren’t supposed to?”

“Would they’ve really made a report if that was the case?”

“Yeah, I suppose not. Still, that’s a little odd, but it might’ve just been a short in the old neural networking. It happens, especially with older and slightly shoddy A.I.'s.”

“No idea, but apparently it was becoming a bit of an epidemic, wasn’t what ended up shutting the park down, but it looks like it didn’t help.”

“Yeah, I can’t imagine that a lot of people would want to come to a park where they wouldn’t let you leave. You think that’s what ended up happening to the people that ended up inside the mascots? That they did that to prevent them from ever leaving?”

“No idea. But I don’t think we’re going to find out any more up here, so what’s next. And before you say anything, you’re the only one that understands anything about this communication gear, that’s why I’m asking.”

“Right, sorry.” She fell into thought for a minute before letting out a sigh and shaking her head. “I guess we’re gonna have to find the power and get it back on, otherwise we’re not gonna get anything done.”

“I was afraid of that. So, any ideas of anything else that might come back on line if we power the place up, something that we wouldn’t want up and running?”

“Nothing comes to mind, but then again, it’s always the thing you forgot that comes back to bite you in the rear.”

Artemis nodded to that sentiment, but didn’t add anything else, so Gaige pushed herself up and said “Come on, let’s get this over with.”

Chapter 19

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Underground

They made their way back down and when they got to the first floor looked around. It didn’t take long for them to find the stairs that led down.

Standing there, looking down, Artemis had to ask “So, you sure it’s down there?”

“Why, you scared of what we’re gonna find?”

“No, not at all,” she said, not at all convincingly. “Just don’t want to get stuck down there, you know, once we’re down there we won’t be able to use firearms, more than likely.”

“We haven’t been using them up here, so why’s down there any different?”

“Well, the enclosed space of the tunnels will compress the shock of the discharge, which will damage our eardrums, potentially causing deafness or concussive shock to the ears.”

“I was being sarcastic, I know what happens when you fire in enclosed areas, remember?”

“Oh, right. Shall we?”

“After you. I insist, after all, if we’re not able to use our guns, then you’ve got the only weapon, remember?”

“This is payback for something, isn’t it?”

“Maybe.”

“What’d I do wrong this time?”

“You’ll just have to think about that as you go down, now quit stalling and get going, I’ll be right behind you.”

Artemis gave a dramatic sigh and started forward, moving as quietly as she could, which to Gaige’s ears was absolutely silent. They’d managed to dry off a little, enough so that her skin didn’t feel damp anymore, but her shorts were still sticking uncomfortably. In fact, she thought that they might be even more uncomfortable as she moved after the other girl. The only thing about them that she was grateful for, was the fact that they were distracting her from the pain in her side, even if it was only slightly.

They moved down, going for what felt almost as far as they’d gone up previously, till they once again were wondering where they were.

Just as they were starting to wonder whether it would end or they’d find their way to the center of the planet, they came to a door.

Artemis pressed her ear against it and waited. Gaige held her breath to try and make as little noise as possible, but even then, she had to wonder about the pounding of her heart. She feared the cacophonous sound it was making pounding in her ears would be so loud that it would drown out the sounds that Artemis was searching for, but in the end, it didn’t seem to have been as loud as she’d thought, because the other girl leaned back and opened the door.

They found themselves at a small room that seemed to be for some kind of maintenance group, almost like a mustering station where they’d hand out orders, or at least that was the impression that Gaige got looking at it.

On one side was another door that Artemis had immediately moved over to and started listening again while Gaige glanced around. She didn’t see anything of interest, no maps, no tools, nothing, so she turned to Artemis and waited.

After a few seconds, she leaned back and turned.

“Nothing out there,” she whispered, obviously trying to get any conversation out of the way before they moved out, so that it wouldn’t echo down the tunnels.

“Right, so, you have any idea which direction we’re facing?”

“How would I know where the tunnels go?”

“No, no, I was asking if you had any idea of which way we were facing. Like in relation to the front of the park. I’ve kinda gotten turned around.”

“Already? I mean, we’ve only just got inside.”

“Yeah, like what? Half an hour ago? More?”

“Jeez, fine. That way. The front entrance should be that way.”

Gaige nodded, but added “I have no idea how you can keep track of that.”

“Cause I’m a freak.”

“Having a sense of direction, or the wherewithal to keep track of it doesn’t make you a freak, it means you’re smart.”

“Sure, if you say so.”

“Damn it, I do,” Gaige managed to spit through her teeth as she ground them together. Taking a breath, she tried to shift back to the matter at hand “Now, if that’s the direction that the entrance is, then the generator will probably be in the opposite direction.”

“How do you figure?”

“You’ve got your skills, and I’ve got mine. The generator’s probably gonna be located closer to the mountains, it’d give it more protection from the storms.”

“Wouldn’t being underground do that?”

“Yeah, but you didn’t let me finish. Now, like I was saying, it’d give it more protection from the storms, not to mention be more centrally located so that it can send power to the various places, like the hotel and the resort.”

“But then wouldn’t it have further to send it to the front of the park?”

“It would, that’s why they didn’t put any of the high-power consuming stuff over there. I mean think back to the map, what was at the front of the park? The entrance, the botanical gardens and that rail glider thing.”

“You mean the Rail Glider?”

“Yeah, that’s what I said.”

“You made it sound like you weren’t sure of its name.”

“No, I’m just not sure of exactly what it is, other than what the little picture of it was.”

“Ah, not sure myself. Anyway, what’s the point of all of this?”

“The point is, you’re still a bitch and quit interrupting me.”

“Sor-ry. Sheesh.”

“Don’t sheesh me either, anyway, where was I?”

“Explaining what all this means.”

“What ‘all this’?”

“How would I know, you’re the one that was talking about the front of the park and all that.”

“Oh yeah. What I was sayin was that everything at the front of the park uses less electricity. Which means that the power plant could be further back.”

“Does it really work that way?”

Gaige shrugged, “Sometimes it does.”

“Wait, what about the roller coaster, whatever it was called. There was one of them up front, wasn’t there?”

“Yeah, but that would’ve had its own system, and it’s not like they actually use that much power, least I don’t think so.”

“Right. And all of this means, what exactly?”

“That I’m right.” Gaige snapped a little harder than she wanted to. “Sorry, I’m a little stressed at the moment.”

“Like I’m not?”

“Yeah, fair, but you’re not the one talking right now. Sorry, that sounded wrong. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve a fair guess that I’m right, and confident enough to suggest that we go that direction.”

“Alright, sounds good enough for me.”

“Anything else we want to discuss before we head out?”

“I’m sure there’s something, but I can’t think of it right now.”

“Well try harder!” Gaige snapped, feeling her irritation stir hotly in her chest, rolling up towards her brain and clouding her better judgment.

“Are you being serious right now? I just told you that I can’t think of anything.”

“Yeah, cause you didn’t even try, you just blurted out that you couldn’t think of anything right now. Right. Now. Like you know that you’ve got something you wanted to say, but couldn’t be bothered to think about it for even a second right now, so you’re just gonna say it once we get started, like you’d rather inconvenience us down the road rather than bothering to delay us for even a few seconds right now.”

“What the heck is your problem?”

“I don’t have a problem, you’re the one with a problem.”

“You want me to leave? Cause I’ll leave. Right now.”

“Fine, let’s go, just don’t say anything later.”

“Oh no, you seem to be misunderstanding me, I meant leave you here.”

“What?”

“You heard me, I’ll leave you here if you want to come at me like that. In fact, I think I’ll leave you in every way that phrase can be used, if you get my drift,” Artemis said in an icy tone, heading for the door.

It took Gaige a second to figure out what the other girl was meaning, but the instant she did, she felt her insides turn on themselves. One part of her wanted to shout at Artemis to go right ahead, to continue to berate her, to go after her. But the other part knew that she was serious and that Gaige was seriously close to losing her, for good. Not to mention being left alone in the dark.

“Sorry,” she quickly stated, sliding in front of the door “I don’t know what’s going on.”

“Then why’re you sorry?”

“Cause I know that I’ve screwed up. That I know that what I’m doing is wrong, heck, I knew that before I went off, but I’m at the end of my rope here. I didn’t want to have to say this, cause I know how you’re gonna react, but my side’s killing me, and I’m taking the pain out on you. It’s not your fault. It’s me. Plus, I’m in need of a drink, or something to blow off some stress or something. Not to mention that this entire place has me on edge. And that’s not even mentioning the fact that you’ve said you wanna break up with me for foolish reasons as well as the fact that I don’t know how our finances are gonna hold out, plus, well, there’s a whole bunch of other stuff, but the important thing is that I’m sorry that I’m being such a bitch. And I’m sorry that I’m takin all this stuff out on you. And this wasn’t even that big of a deal, not really, but I didn’t want you to suddenly remember something important later and have to speak up and I knew that as soon as we left, it’d pop into your mind and then everything would go wrong, so I wanted you to remember it right now, but I know that’s not how it works, so I’m sorry.”

Artemis kept giving her a cold look for an agonizing few seconds, before flatly saying “Show me.”

“Huh? I’m trying to.”

“What? No, you’re not.”

“Am to. I mean, how else am I gonna show you that I’m sorry? What, you want me to drop to my knees or somethin?”

“What? What’re you talking about?”

“Showing you that I’m sorry.”

“That’s not what I…I was meaning, show me your side, where it hurts.”

“Oh, that makes more sense.”

Gaige moved over to sit on one of the tables on the side, but suddenly stopped, feeling a bit shy.

“Look, I’ll show you, but I’m not takin one of the Insti-health vials for this, got that?”

“We’ll see.”

“No. Not we’ll see. Not happening.”

“We’ll see, now show me.”

Gaige realized that she’d probably screwed up in admitting to being in pain, but it had been the only way she could think of to keep things from ending right then, so she’d have to live with it.

Sitting down, she pulled the strap of her top up, exposing the strip of cloth she’d been using as a bandage. She flinched slightly as Artemis’s fingers brushed against the skin, but they immediately pulled back.

“What?”

“It’s burning hot.”

“What?” Gaige repeated, raising her own fingers to the area. Like she’d been told, the area was inflamed, feeling hot to the touch, which was worrying.

“Let’s get this out of the way and take a look.”

Artemis tried to pull the cloth away from the wound, only to find that it was stuck in place.

“Uh, that’s not good.”

“Just give it a good yank, it’ll come loose.”

“And tear open whatever its holding closed? Don’t think so.”

“Well, you can’t look at it without tearing it off.”

“And I can’t use one of the Insti-health on you with it stuck in there either.”

“All the more reason to leave it.”

Artemis glared at her as she fell into thought. As much as she wanted to see what was beneath the bandage, some part of her knew that it was probably keeping it from getting any worse at the moment and that the best bet would be to get the power back on so that they could call for help.

“Fine. But the instant we get back, you’re getting that looked at.”

Gaige bit back the ‘No ■■■■’ that ran through her mind and just nodded and then before she could help herself added “And you’re getting yourself checked too.”

“Yeah. Sure. Whatever. But I wish there was something I could do for this right now,” she said, eying the bandage, which had taken a bit of a yellow-pink cast, despite having been constantly rained on.

“Yeah, for once you wish we did have a bit of alcohol around, eh?”

“I’m the one who’s always pointing out that there are other uses for it besides drinking.”

“I know, that’s why I mentioned it.”

“Oh.”

“Well, let’s get outta here before I manage to put my foot in my mouth again.”

Artemis chose not to comment, which led Gaige to wonder about what other mistakes she’d already made, but also chose not to ask, mostly out of fear of finding out what they were as they headed over to the door.

“I really should take a look at your injuries,” she muttered, without thinking about it.

Artemis froze and her head slowly rotated around to fix an eye on Gaige, who thought she could hear a creaking noise as she turned.

“Sorry. You’re right, you’d have to, er, yeah. Yeah, you’re right, this isn’t the place for it, I mean, with them where they are and all, you’d have to…forget I said anything. You want me to lead or should you?”

She felt a cold sweat run down her back as Artemis turned back and without a word, reached for the door and threw it open, revealing another blank hallway made out of concrete and lined with pipes across the ceiling.

Gaige nearly let out a sigh at the sight of it, that combination of bland familiarity and slight disappointment. Some part of her had been hoping that the tunnels beneath the theme park would’ve been different, but she supposed that there wasn’t any reason for it.

Heading out, Artemis stopped and looked both ways and debated for a second before choosing one of them. Gaige followed along, realizing that the direction that she’d said wasn’t an option at the moment, and since they couldn’t see any turns with the limited light they had, Artemis must have weighed her options and chose the direction that she felt must have been the best.

The tunnel went on without anything to break it up for a ways. Eventually they came to an intersection, with the paths running at right angles away.

Artemis turned and headed in the direction that Gaige had indicated without a word, moving through the dusty corridors without a sound as Gaige hustled to keep up, keenly aware of how much noise she was making.

After a little while, Artemis slowed down slightly, her back indicating the irritation she was feeling at how much sound Gaige was making, though Gaige didn’t know what she was supposed to do about the squishing coming from her footwear. Still, she silently mouthed ‘sorry’ at the other girl’s back, hoping that she’d get it.

Whether or not she did, Gaige didn’t know, but she continued moving at the same pace, head cocked slightly to try and hear anything out of the ordinary, but she hadn’t by the time they came to another intersection.

Looking around, Artemis pursed her lips and frowned. She couldn’t keep going straight ahead, so she didn’t know which way to go. She knew that she needed to make a choice, but neither one of them looked particularly good. The dust on the floor had been disrupted by the feet of the mascots, so she couldn’t use that as an indication.

Just as she was getting frustrated, Gaige tapped her lightly on the shoulder, causing her to spin around a bit more violently than was absolutely necessary, speaking volumes about how on edge she was.

Gaige held her hands up with an apologetic look on her face, which got Artemis to calm down a bit.

Once she had taken a deep breath, Gaige continued by pointing upward. Artemis followed her finger and found herself looking at the grey ceiling and the caged lights that were connected to a conduit that ran along it.

She looked at Gaige and shrugged dramatically, which got the slightest eye roll from her. Gaige pointed again, this time gesturing with a bit more force.

Trying to figure out what was so important about the ceiling, she examined everything there. Her first thought had been that there was some kind of danger there, like a crack or weak foundation, but she couldn’t find anything. The caged light wasn’t any help either, unless Gaige had been meaning to follow the conduit back to its source, which was unlikely, since they didn’t know which way to follow. Besides which, there would be a power conduit running through all of these tunnels. Which left either something that she wasn’t getting or the other conduits running along.

Following them, she figured out what Gaige had been pointing at. The bundles of conduits running along the ceiling intersected with others traveling along from the other directions. The ones going in two of the other ways were about the same size, though one was a little bigger, but the ones in the last direction seemed to combine all of the others, meaning that the generator would likely be in that direction.

They followed the conduits through the darkness, always turning to follow the largest grouping of them. After a while, Artemis paused and crouched down, examining something amidst the dust on the floor.

Gaige waited for as long as her patients would allow before tapping her shoulder and mouthing ‘What?’.

Artemis suppressed an eye roll and pointed to the splotch on the floor that was obvious to her, but after Gaige repeated her question, she started to wonder.

Moving a bit out of the way, she traced its outline with her finger and when Gaige still didn’t get it, mouthed ‘Blood’.

Gaige cocked her head, confused at the significance of the stain, which nearly caused Artemis to shout at her, but she managed to restrain herself down to just an exasperated sigh. She carefully unslung her pack and dug out her ECHO and started typing as softly as she could

‘That’s blood.’

Gaige scowled at her and nearly snatched the ECHO device away from her, but restrained herself to just making a shrugging gesture as if to say ‘And?’.

‘There’s a trail of it, came in from the last side tunnel.’

‘So?’ Gaige mouthed at her.

‘Means someone was injured and being drug down here.’

This time Gaige motioned for the ECHO and quickly typed her response ‘So what? Could’ve been a worker, or maybe someone else came down here, maybe one of the crew of those boats.’

‘Whomever it’s from was being dragged.’

‘Could’ve been one of the others from the boat.’

‘And they drug them all the way down here?’

‘Well, what’re you suggesting?’

‘That it might’ve been one of the people caught by a mascot.’

‘Oh, that’s just a pleasant thought.’

‘You got a better explanation?’

Gaige had to shake her head, as much as she wished Artemis was wrong, she didn’t have anything to counter her with.

‘Didn’t think so. But this might mean we’re getting close to wherever they…built? Constructed? Whatevered the mascots. So, stay on your toes.’

Gaige shot her a look asking what she thought she’d been doing up till then, but the conversation seemed to be over since Artemis was stuffing the ECHO back into her pack.

They resumed walking down the tunnel, even more on edge then they’d been, something that made Gaige wish that Artemis had kept her mouth shut about the blood, though she supposed that she hadn’t actually opened her mouth, but the point still stood. She understood why she’d paused, it wasn’t like Gaige was any less curious, that she didn’t feel the same need to know when she saw something like that, but that didn’t mean that she wanted to know everything, or rather, that she hadn’t regretted it after the fact more than a few times.

The tunnel stretched out in front of them, illuminated by the thin light of the lantern that only just pushed the darkness back for a tiny bit around them, which served to create a bubble of space that they could see in, making it seem like they were traveling through a dream, or in this case, a nightmare.

Gaige kept squeezing her eyes shut and popping them back open, trying to rid herself of the sensation that they’d left the real world somewhere along the way and had found themselves in some kind of alternate realm, where there was no start or end, just an endless tunnel that they would walk through for the rest of eternity, without change.

Eventually they came to a change, a small room suddenly bloomed out ahead of them, with two tunnels running to the sides and a metal door standing directly in front of them.

The conduits ran through a small opening in the wall above the door, indicating which direction they had to go. They looked at each other and let out simultaneously sighs before turning back to the door and heading over to it.

The door itself was heavy, with reinforcements around it. The walls gave off an air of being thicker, like they were trying to keep something in. Even the lights around the door were in heavier cages then the ones leading up to it had been.

Gaige swallowed hard and turned to Artemis. For a second, she didn’t know how to proceed. Should she talk, ask for the ECHO or just mouth out her question? In the end, she decided that just mouthing the word would be the easiest, so she asked ‘Blood?’.

Getting a confused look in response, she tried again, mouthing the word while pointing towards the ground.

This time Artemis got it and nodded, the blood trail did lead under the door, which caused Gaige’s shoulders to involuntarily slump. Straightening herself, she steeled her nerves and slipped up to the door. Getting a nod from the other girl, she grabbed the handle and tried it. Finding it was open, she nodded and threw it open.

Artemis waited for a second before diving through. Rolling to her feet, she scanned the area, but to her disappointed relief, found no one there. Instead, she found herself in a room where she didn’t belong.

All around her were parts, stacked on shelves all the way to the ceiling. If that was all that’d been there, she would’ve thought that it reminded her of a number of places they’d been before, but what made her skin crawl was the rest of the stuff in the room.

Hanging along the walls and off the ends of the shelves were limbs. Each one was longer than hers and some of them had bits of clear plastic attached to them.

Ahead of her was a shelf of heads, all bare down to the metal skull, with plastic features attached to motors and servos, their great blank eyes staring at her, reflecting the light in a chilling way.

In short, they’d found the animatronic workshop.