Hunts Epilogue: A Borderlands Tale Part 5

Chapter 20

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Underground

Gaige looked around, wrinkling her nose at the smell permeating the place as she reluctantly closed the door behind them. As it closed with a thunk that somehow made her think of a coffin closing, Artemis spun around and wide eyed mouthed ‘What’re you doing?’.

“Allowing us to talk,” Gaige whispered back.

“Think I’d rather have an escape path.” Came the equally soft reply.

Gaige couldn’t fault her for that, but knew that she’d made the right call, so she ignored the faint bitching coming from the other girl and started forward when Artemis held up a hand. Instantly freezing out of fear that one of the mascots must be in the room, she threw a glance back at the shut door, cursing herself, only to catch herself.

If Artemis had heard something in the room, she wouldn’t have talked just then, instead, she would’ve bolted for either the door or the enemy. Gaige steadied her nerves and shot the other girl an inquisitive look, which was ignored as she moved the lantern around, looking for something.

While she worked, Gaige became more aware of a smell lingering under the usual oil and metals she associated with robotics. Of course, there were other smells that she wasn’t as used to, like the plastic and a faint smell of ozone and burned plastic, but this was different, familiar, but off putting. It was causing her nose to instinctively scrunch up as she looked around for its source when everything went white.

Suppressing a scream of pain, she threw her arm in front of her eyes, trying to shield them from the blinding radiance that was trying to stab through them and into her brain.

“Oh god, that hurts.” Came the cry from next to her.

“What is it?”

“My fault. Sorry. I hit the light switch, should’ve warned you.”

“You what?”

“Hit the light switch.”

“Why?”

“Cause I figured they’d have power here, I mean, if they’re making more of these abominations, then they’d have to have power for the tools, right? So, they’d have power to the lights. My mistake was forgetting that it’s been hours since I had any proper lighting and I fried my retinas.”

“Yours? What about mine? You at least knew what you were about to do.”

“Yeah, my bad.”

After a few agonizing seconds, they started to be able to see again, though Gaige hoped they wouldn’t have to try and readjust the other way any time soon, since she’d just had her night-vision blown.

Soon enough, they lowered their arms and looked around, blinking rapidly as they continued to adjust. Now able to fully see the room, Gaige was amazed at the size of it, not that she had thought that the animatronic workspace would be small, it was just that she hadn’t really thought about it at all.

The room stretched for a good ways, easily four times the size of the office they’d been in a little while ago, with most of that space dedicated to shelving, much of which was starting to become bare.

On one side were what she would’ve described as cages, vertical spaces with mesh sides and backs, with a frame up the back that jutted out at the top with chains dangling from them. It took her a minute to recognize the animatronic work-spaces. They were where the mascots would come and get hung up so that they could have their maintenance done, as was evident by the tools that were scattered around the small tables that had been pulled off to the side.

Moving deeper into the room, the smell continued to get worse, till she said out loud “What IS that stench?”

“Huh?”

“Don’t even pretend you can’t smell that.”

“Of course I can smell it, I was just distracted by some of this stuff. And it’s blood and viscera, by the way.”

“Why would…”

“I know that? Or why is it here?”

“The latter.”

“Cause this would be where they made the, well, let’s call them ‘second generation’ mascots. And I wouldn’t look over there if I were you.”

The instant she heard that, Gaige turned and looked where Artemis had indicated and immediately regretted it.

The table by the wall was covered in screws and bits of mechanical parts that would’ve been used for the construction of the mascots, but they were all drenched in dried blood, which looked like it had been poured liberally over the table and splattered on the wall.

“Eh, not as bad as some of the bandit camps I’ve seen,” she said, trying to cheer herself up “Or for that matter, Dr. Zeds’ lab.”

Artemis nodded at that, though she had no real idea what Zed’s lab looked like, “Well, at least we know that they really did make abominations down here.”

“But, why?”

“Why what? Why make them? Or why not clean up after themselves?”

“Yes.”

“No idea on the first, and as for the second, I’d guess that it never occurred to them.”

“With all this blood?”

“You think that’s bad, look at the tools.”

Gaige glanced at the table again and saw the tools that were scattered around the stainless-steel table to the side, the saws, the screw-guns, everything was splattered in blood, which made her want to cry at the mistreatment of the tools.

“I mean, with the amount of rust on them now, even if you survived the surgery, you’d definitely die from that,” Artemis continued

“That’s what bothers you about this?”

“Well, I mean, it’s true. You wouldn’t want to be operated on by these things.”

“Obviously. But it doesn’t bother you to see tools mistreated this way?”

“Well, yeah, but they’re, you know, not human.”

“So, it’s alright to mistreat tools?”

“No, when did I say that?”

“You just used the excuse that they weren’t human.”

“Well, they aren’t, I mean, you can’t expect things like them to treat their tools well.”

“Wait, what? Hold on, you mean you were meaning the animatronics and not the tools when you said they weren’t human?”

“Yeah. I mean, obviously the tools aren’t human. Not that it’s any reason to mistreat them, but I just figured I’d kinda give the mascot things a little bit of a pass on their mistreatment of the tools since they really weren’t designed to be using them in the first place, if anything, it’s their programmers fault.”

“Sorry, you’re right and that makes way more sense than what I was misinterpreting what you were meaning as.”

“Yeah, it’s alright, probably my fault for not being clear in the first place.”

“You know, not everything’s your fault.”

“I do, but me not being clear is kinda my fault.”

“You know what? I’m not even going to get into this right now.”

“Uh, alright. So, what should we be doing next?”

Gaige paused and gave it some thought “Well, normally I’d be saying that we should be getting the heck outta here, but this might actually be a good spot for a moment.”

“Seriously? In this creeptastic place? I mean, it’s like it can’t make up its mind on being a robot storeroom, a mannequin reposito…repoos…”

“Reposition?”

“What? No, you know, a storage area.”

“Repository?”

“Yeah, that’s it, repository, it’s like a mannequin repository and a slaughterhouse.”

“Right, that totally makes sense, and you’re not wrong. I mean, I don’t wanna be in here any longer than I have to, but think about it, this’ll be our best chance at figuring out how to take these things down easier.”

“You mean it’ll be your chance to figure it out, cause let’s be honest, I’m not going to be much help here.”

“Sure you will, you’re smarter than you think.”

“Not about this stuff, you’re the expert. Tell you what, you get to work on that and I’ll keep an eye out for anything trying to get in here.”

“Why don’t you also look for some melee weapons for us while you’re on that.”

“That’s not a bad idea.”

“Plus, you can see where the exits are in case we need them.”

“Also, a fair idea.”

“Also, could you maybe clean the place up a bit, maybe string some festive lights around.”

“Wait, what?”

“Just trying to lighten the mood.”

“Whatever, get to work so we can get the heck out of here.”

Gaige waved her off and got to work on the stacks of papers and electronics cluttering up the desks, so Artemis started wandering around.

She first headed back to the entrance they’d come in and looked for a lock. She quickly found that she wasn’t able to lock it, due to the fact that it had a keyhole, but she wasn’t able to find any keys and she wasn’t all that versed in lock picking, especially not going the other way with it, so she looked around and found a chunk of one of the animatronic’s torsos to jam into the next shelf over, wedging it so that it could be removed easily, but until then, would prevent the door from opening.

Moving on, she headed around the room, trying not to look too closely at the pieces of the mascots that littered the shelves, even though she was forcing herself to glance around in the hopes of finding anything that could be used as a weapon.

She hadn’t found anything by the time she’d made it halfway around the room and found the next door. Looking at it, she found that it was identical to the one they’d come in through and like that one, had no identification on it, so she couldn’t tell what was on the other side without opening it, something she had no intention of doing until she had Gaige with her.

Making a note of it on her mental map, she continued on, circling the rest of the room till she was back at the area that Gaige was digging through.

“You find anything useful?” Was the first thing out of Gaige’s mouth, uttered without even bothering to look up, like she knew the answer already, that Artemis had failed her again.

“No. Well, I did find a second door.”

“And where’d it lead?”

“I wasn’t going to open it.”

“What’s the matter? Scared?”

“No! I just didn’t want to wake anything up that might be on the other side, at lest not until you were ready to go.”

“Really? Cause I would’ve been scared.”

“Wait, what?”

“You heard me. I’m not an idiot, there’s plenty of stuff down here that’s worth at least worrying about, but if you weren’t scared, then either you were lying or you’re braver than me. Well, or you’re insane.”

“Alright, I was a bit, er, apprehensive about what I might find. There, happy?”

Gaige shrugged, like she didn’t care one way or the other.

“Oh yeah? Well, what about you? What’d you find out?”

“Not entirely sure yet, but I think I’m onto something. It’ll only take a minute longer, until then, you can either sit around and wait or go look through the tools.”

“I don’t think we’re going to want any of them, we’ve got better.”

“Not here we don’t. Especially not the good heavy ones, ones that’d be great for bashing in an animatronic.”

Artemis got what she was getting at and headed over to the work table, trying to ignore the stench that seemed to have been ground into it.

At first glance, she didn’t see anything that would be useful. Most of the tools weren’t the kind that lent themselves to being used as clubs, things like pneumatic impact ratchet guns and omni-splicers. Even the welding equipment was either too weak or too bulky to be used offensively.

After carefully digging through, she gave up. There wasn’t anything on the table that could be used, at least not that she could see.

Just as she was giving up, she spotted something that she’d overlooked. Beyond the table and just off to the side was a wall covered in hooks with a cabinet sitting next to it. Stepping closer, she realized that the wall had once been covered in tools, each one hung with care in its spot. Tools that had long since been abandoned elsewhere.

Moving around the table, she glanced over the wall and down to the floor, hoping to find something of use there, but only found dust, so she headed for the cabinet. Opening the doors, she found herself facing a set of shelves covered in cases.

Dragging the first one off the shelf, she quickly discovered that they were where almost all of the tools on the table had once been stored, with the extra bits and specialty tools for adjusting them still sitting inside, not to mention the instructions.

A quick check of the rest of them told her that they were all empty and of no immediate use, though she thought that if Gaige had been looking through them, she probably would’ve taken any of the tools with.

Stepping back in disappointment, she felt her brows roll together. Glaring at the area, she felt she was missing something, something obvious, so she focused on what she knew. The tools that had once been here were now scattered around the improvised surgical table, the boxes that they’d once been in had been returned to the cabinet, which she found a bit odd. Nothing else had been returned to where it had belonged, so why these. The only solution she could come up with was that they’d been taken by the animatronics before their programming had gotten too far out of whack.

But that wasn’t the only thing that was off. Sweeping her eyes over the rest of the area, she found them returning to the wall, where the hooks for the tools still hung.

It took a bit, but she suddenly realized what was bothering her, if most of the tools that were on the work-space were from the cabinet, then where were the tools from the wall?

Looking around, she spotted a few that would’ve come off of it, but nowhere near the number of hooks, so she kept looking, but she didn’t see any more around. Determined not to give up, at least not until Gaige was done or she found something, she kept going until she eventually found something under one of the shelving units.

She’d dropped onto her hands and knees on the dusty floor to search around, trying to put her head close to the floor in an effort to find anything sticking up, when she spotted it, something under one of the shelves.

Moving over, she hoped that it wasn’t going to be a dead Ratch or anything like that, but when she put her lantern close so that she could see, she realized that it was at least something useful.

Gaige was still sorting through the documents when something entered her vision from the side, nearly causing her to unseat herself out of shock.

“Damn it, how many times? How many times do I have to tell you not to do that?”

“Sorry, but I did clear my throat like, twice, but you didn’t respond.”

“So what? You thought you’d give me a heart attack to make sure that I wouldn’t respond ever?”

“Huh?”

“Forget it, why’re you bugging me? I’m still not done here.”

“I thought I’d give this to you and let you know that I’m done looking around.”

“And what’s this?” Gaige snapped, snatching the wrench out of her hand and looking at it “Seriously? Why’re you showing me this?”

“I thought you should have it.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“It was the best I could find, alright? But if you don’t want it, that’s fine, just don’t come complaining when you get attacked by another one of those mascot things.”

“Oh, you were meaning for me to use it as a melee weapon.”

“Yeah, why else would I be giving it to you?”

“That’s what I was wondering. But this is seriously the best you could find?”

“Well, it was either that or one of their arms and since I didn’t think that’d actually work all that well, yeah, it’s the best I could find, so be grateful.”

“I am, it’s just that I was hoping for something better.”

“Like what? A sword? A buzz-ax?”

“Like they’d have a workshop and you could make us something, but lookin at this place, I guess that’s a bit farfetched.”

“Well sorry for not finding the right stuff to work with.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine, really, I’m grateful to even have this much, but are you sure that I should have it?”

“I’ve already got something,” Artemis said with a shrug, letting the previous confrontational attitude they’d had wash away “So, what’d you find?”

“I think I’ve almost got it. Here, look at these.”

Artemis took the printouts and started trying to decipher what she was looking at.

It was mostly technical jargon, but a few places had notes that seemed to be from other departments, namely the complaints department.

Scanning through them, she quickly put together what Gaige was getting at. There seemed to be a common theme to them. All of them were reports of the mascots acting oddly.

It seemed that on nearly a dozen separate occasions, the mascots had tried to prevent people from leaving, most often groups with crying children.

“What’s it mean?”

“You haven’t found the pattern yet?”

“I found it, that’s why I was asking what it meant. I mean, did you find anything that might explain why they were acting like that, or is this just one of those things that you’re extrapolating that their behavior’s continued to get weirder.”

“There’s a fair amount of stuff here pertaining to the tests that they ran on them, I won’t bore you with all the details and technical jargon, but it seems that there was a recurring error in the code, some task that they thought they were supposed to do or something like that, but they couldn’t figure out why it was happening or what it was exactly. I mean, they wiped a few of them, only for them to do it again.”

“Faulty components? Or was the bug in the, uh, you know, thing they copied the program from?”

“The source copy? I’m not sure, well, they weren’t sure and I’m still trying to go over what they’d found, but it seemed that this contributed to the collapse of the park in a major way.”

“Can’t imagine why? I mean, who wouldn’t want to stay at a park that wouldn’t let you…”

“What? You’re onto something, aren’t you?”

Gaige turned and gave the other girl an appraising look. She could tell that Artemis was trying to put the pieces together, though some part of her wondered how the other girl could figure out what she couldn’t, but she knew that Artemis excelled at animal behavior, so maybe she could see the problem from a different angle.

After a minute of muttering to herself, Artemis looked up with an odd expression on her face.

“Just tell me, no matter how weird you think it is,” Gaige said.

It took a few more seconds for Artemis to get her thoughts in order and get them out.

“They didn’t want the guests to leave, right? That’s what they were stopping them from doing.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, and I’m not too sure on this, but, well, what if they got something wrong. I mean, obviously they’d got something wrong, but what if they were just doing what they thought was right, the right way to interpret one of their orders, something like, I don’t know, make the guests happy?”

“But why would they want to keep them here then?”

“I’m not sure, maybe they didn’t want them to leave unhappy, or they were happy here, no wait, that doesn’t make sense.”

“Actually, it does. If there was some kind of order given to them, something in there about making the guests happy and they were trying to do that, it’d actually make a lot of sense,” Gaige said, quickly shuffling through the pages on the desk.

“But why would they want them to stay then?”

“Working on that. Ah, here we are. No, this doesn’t relate to why they’re acting the way they were, but what you said reminded me of something I’d just read and here it is, the founder’s last announcement to the mascots.

“Let’s see, ah, here it is 'When I’m gone, I want you to keep making the guests happy, to ensure that they have the best time imaginable. To take the frowns off their faces and replace them with smiles.”

“Alright, so you think that they got that into their programming and somehow misinterpreted it?”

“Maybe, I mean, we’re working on pure speculation at this point, aren’t we?”

“I guess.”

Artemis fell silent, eyes narrowing under a brow that was compressing. Gaige let her think for another bit.

“What if they thought something like 'We need to make the guests happy. They are sad when they leave, so they should stay?”

“That would actually work. Especially if they thought of this place as some kind of place of joy and whatnot.”

“You mean like, 'If we’re happy here, they’ll be happy here?”

“Yeah. I mean, that might actually explain something else too.”

Artemis raised an eyebrow, asking Gaige to continue.

“Think about it, if they wanted people to stay, to make them happy and they thought that this was one of the happiest places in the galaxy, they’d want them to stay.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said.”

“Yep, but carrying that thought on for a bit, what if they continued to corrupt that thought as the years went by, till they got to the conclusion that they’re happy serving here, this is a happy place, people need to stay happy, people need to stay here”

“So they need to stay. As mascots?”

Gaige nodded. The thought made a sick kind of sense, if the mascots were happy doing their jobs, then the happiest people could be, would be to join them in staying here forever, being mascots.

“That’s horrifying.”

“Yeah, but it makes sense, doesn’t it?”

“Not in any way that I would like, but if we assume that we’ve got their logic down, then yeah, it does.”

“I didn’t say it was sane, I just said that it makes some kind of perverse sense.”

“Fine, great, can we get the heck out of here now?”

Chapter 21

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Underground

They headed out, only for Gaige to stop when the door they’d entered through crossed her sight.

“What’s that?” Gaige said, pointing to the torso stuffed against the door.

“I was trying to make sure nothing snuck in on us while we were working.”

“Oh, good call. I’m assuming that the other doors got something similar.”

“Of course.”

Gaige nodded and motioned for Artemis to resume and soon enough, they’d made their way to the other door.

After removing the torso, Artemis paused, listening intently at the door, but apparently she didn’t hear anything, because she leaned back and said “You think we should turn these lights off?”

“Why?”

“Try and get a little low-light vision back before we head out. I mean, I kinda doubt that whatever’s on the other side of this door’s got the lights on, so we’re probably going to be back to lantern light for a ways.”

“On the other hand, if there’s a light switch just on the other side of the door, we’re gonna be blinded again.”

“Exactly, that’s why I’m asking.”

“Hmm. Good point. But I say we should just throw open the door.” She held up a hand, telling Artemis that she was going to explain her reasoning “Let’s look at it this way, if there’s no light switch on the other side, then we’re gonna have to wait and let our eyes adjust, but if there it, then we’d have wasted our time. And if there’s anything else, they’ll attack us, so we can fall back in here, where we’ll have light.”

“I guess.”

“It works. Trust me.”

Artemis shrugged but grabbed the door handle and yanked it open.

Both girls flattened against the wall and waited, but nothing came through. Artemis cocked her head and after a few tense seconds, shook it.

Gaige nodded and poked her head out, tensed up and ready to yank it back at the first sign of trouble, but nothing happened, so she leaned a bit further and glanced around the frame. In the light spilling through, she could see all kinds of metal, from large bits of machinery to the grating of the walkway, which told her that the place was likely what they were looking for.

She also spotted a heavy switch on the side of the door and reached for it, only to pause. She’d seen emergency switches placed around rooms like this, switches that would slam the doors shut in case of an emergency. Since she didn’t know what the switch was, and since she didn’t want to risk getting cut in half, she slipped through the door before reaching for it, only to have to wait as Artemis slipped in on her shadow.

Not even bothering to roll her eyes, she hit the switch and to her relief, the door didn’t slam shut. Instead, nothing happened for a good number of seconds. Just as she was starting to think that there was something wrong with the power, a faint buzz came from overhead, followed by the distinct sound of a light flickering on, illuminating a pool around them, followed by another and another going out into the room.

Soon the lights were illuminating the entire room as best they could, but with a number of them being burned out, it threw the place into an eerie series of shadows.

Looking around, Gaige could tell what kind of equipment had been used, though she wasn’t all that sure about how well it would work since it didn’t seem that anyone had done a bit of maintenance since the park had closed, not that that surprised her, but it did make her a bit nervous about how well it would work.

Still, it wasn’t like she had much choice but to start it up and find out.

Looking around, she realized that while she recognized some of the machines sitting around and could extrapolate what a number of the others were, she didn’t have any idea about some of them. She knew that if she took her time and examined them, she’d be able to figure it out, but since they’d already wasted a bunch of time in the last room, she wasn’t feeling all that comfortable on how long they’d be able to screw around without getting caught.

Worse than the fact that she didn’t know what some of the machines were at a glance, even some of the ones that she did recognize, she didn’t know the manufacture, which would make operating them significantly harder. She lamented that the park hadn’t chosen to use DAHL or even Hyperion products, though the instant she realized that she’d thought that about the latter, she had the sudden urge to bash her head against one of them.

Putting aside everything else, she focused on the task and quickly figured out a number of things. First and probably most importantly, the machines had to be in working order, or at least some of them, since there was still power to the room. Which meant that she wouldn’t have to jury-rig as much as she feared.

The next thing that crossed her mind was that it didn’t matter if the manufacturer was an unknown. Sure, she would’ve had a much easier time if it had been a brand she was familiar with, but they all did the same thing, so as long as she could find a few of the proper switches and dials, she should be able to get things up and running.

As she convinced herself of that, she also reminded herself that it didn’t matter if she didn’t recognize everything in the room. All that mattered was that whomever had set this place up hadn’t done anything stupid, like wiring the circuits backwards or something like that. As long as that wasn’t the case and she could identify the important machines, then it didn’t matter what the rest were, so long as they worked.

Moving through the room, she began identifying the different machines, mentally marking where the control panels and access hatches were. Out of the corner of her eye, she noted that Artemis was also walking around and wondered briefly what she was up to, but quickly went back to the task at hand.

For her part, Artemis didn’t think that she’d be able to contribute anything to getting the machines up and running, so she set off on a different task, namely finding the doors and other ways in and out of the room.

It took a bit, mostly because she felt the need to check the top of a few machines to make sure there weren’t any access hatches or vents on the ceiling near them and found a few that she would’ve otherwise have missed, though she didn’t know whether any of the mascots could fit in them.

In the end, she was the one that found the central power board and wound up calling Gaige over to have her identify it.

“Yep, that’s what we need. Provided that the machines themselves are working, not to mention that they actually are connected. And it goes without saying that it also hinges on whether or not the power grid is still viable. Of course, there’s also”

“You know what? Pretend that I just understood anything you just said and tell me what you want me doing.”

“Huh? But that was all pretty clear. I mean, I hadn’t even started talking about…you know what, you’re right, why don’t you go make sure all the doors are locked while I give this a once over. Hopefully by the time you’re back I’ll know what I’m doing and we can get started.”

Artemis nodded and headed off, leaving Gaige to do whatever it was she needed to do with the massive panel of switches, dials and knobs. Heading around the room, she quickly finished checking the doors, though she did regret not having anything to wedge them shut with.

Actually, at that point, she wouldn’t have minded having something to use as a crutch. She’d been on her feet too much, especially considering how bad her hips were hurting, though her stomach had faded to a dull tightness, which was a bit of a relief, though it would still cause her problems if she had to move too quickly.

Even her back wasn’t really all that bad, just a severe bruise really, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t aching and all the walking she’d been doing was making it feel any better. She knew that it wasn’t just the walking that was doing it, it was more of the long pauses that she was taking, then stretching it again with the schlepping she was doing, at least she thought that was the word that Gaige had used.

Giving up on actually being able to bar the doors, she felt that she’d need to be content with simply marking them and shoving some random crap she’d found against them so that it’d fall over and hopefully alert them that a door had opened, before heading back to where Gaige was still working.

She found Gaige examining the board and not wanting to interrupt her, found something to lean against and waited, even though she knew that it wouldn’t do her back any good.

Eventually Gaige looked up and noticed her with a bit of a start.

“How long’ve you been standin there?”

Artemis shrugged, she didn’t have a watch so she couldn’t really tell, but she just hoped that she wasn’t being creepy.

“You should’ve said something when you got back.”

“I wouldn’t have been able to help anyway.”

“Maybe not the way you’re thinking of, but having someone to bounce ideas off of is always helpful.”

“I suppose.”

“Well, no matter, I think I’ve got this figured out.”

“See, you didn’t need me.”

“Sure I do. Who else is gonna run around and flip the switches that I need?” Gaige smiled, trying to lighten the mood that was seeming to be headed into a rather depressing direction.

“Great, is that all I’m good for.”

“You’re also in charge of keeping the mood light.”

“We’re doomed.”

Gaige nearly commented, but saw the slight smile on the other girl’s lips, which told her that she was at least trying, which was something.

“Alright, enough of chit-chat, let’s get some power in this place.”

Artemis didn’t have time to feel down, or much of anything else actually, since Gaige was ordering her to run around and make sure different things were operating properly as she flipped various switches and adjusted the dials. Occasionally she broke it up and had Artemis flip a switch on one of the machines, but it was mostly run to this one and read the dial, when it gets to this reading, yell back.

Soon enough, Gaige had whatever she’d been hoping for all set up cause she called Artemis back and gave her a nervous look.

“Well, like a wise man once said, hold onto your butts.” And flipped a switch.

For a moment, nothing happened besides a dry sputtering, coughing noise and then it seemed to catch and a low hum started through the place, building in intensity till it was nearly deafening. The lights that still worked seemed to brighten as the room filled with the cacophonous noises of the machines coming to life.

“We should’ve grabbed ear protection,” Artemis shouted, clutching the sides of her head.

“What?”

Artemis just shook her head and motioned for Gaige to follow her.

Soon they’d staggered through the room and out the door they’d come in from.

“What?”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“WHAT?!”

“Are you being serious?”

“No, sorry. But I do feel like I’m shouting a bit,” Gaige said, jamming her finger in her ear and grinding it around, as if she was trying to dig the source of the ringing out.

“Yeah. What’d you do back there?”

“Turned the power back on.”

“Wait, all of it?”

“Yeah, it’s not like we know which thing went where, so we couldn’t be selective. Why, you afraid we woke something up?”

“I thought you were the one that said we shouldn’t joke like that.”

“Eh, not really. I mean, sure, the rides will be light up and some of them might even be able to run, but the big thing is that the control room will have power.”

“Wait, the lights are on? Everywhere?”

“Probably. I mean, it’s a distinct possibility. Why?”

“Then won’t all the mascots know that we’re here?”

“Oh, crap.”

The two of them ran across the room, ignoring the aches and pains that plagued them and threw open the far door. Like Gaige had said, the lights were now one, illuminating the tunnel and allowing them to get their first real look at it, not that they paused to spend much time doing so. Instead, they continued running, heading down the tunnel, only to slide to a stop after only a dozen or so feet.

Massing ahead of them were the mascots, shuffling down the tunnel at them. The one in the lead spotted them and in a high-pitched clear voice declared “This area is off limits to guests, please follow me back to your family. Tee hee.”

Neither of the girls knew whether it was the clarity of the voice or the giggle at the end, but both felt a cold sweat pop up on their backs, along with every hair on their bodies standing up.

Spinning, they ran back the way they came, trying to figure out where they should go. They could dart back into the maintenance room, but they felt that they’d be trapped, even with the power room on the other side with its multiple exits, something told them that going in would only lead to bad things, which left going left or right.

Artemis instinctively wanted to go left, despite the fact that the resort was to the right and was more likely to have better communication equipment at it. She didn’t have time to ponder why she thought that, but she immediately turned and started heading away, even as she heard Gaige try and say something behind her.

Gaige had been intending to head to the right. After all, the resort was that way, and if they couldn’t make it to it, then they at least knew what the areas over there were. Sure, one of them was flooded, but there wasn’t any reason to assume that the other side hadn’t had a similar incident. So, when Artemis turned the other way without slowing down, she let out a noise of displeasure and nearly yelled something, but figured that the other girl must’ve had her reasons, and if not, she’d get an earful later.

They ran down the corridor for a short ways and found that it split, with one path going along the outside of the maintenance room and continuing on past the power room. The other way angled away, heading generally back towards the park, but at an angle away from the tunnel that they’d taken to get there in the first place.

It was the second tunnel that Artemis turned into and continued running, despite the fact that she knew that some of the mascots would be heading their way.

Soon enough she spotted movement off in the distance, so she ducked into one of the side paths, darting towards the first door she saw and diving inside.

What she found was a dusty room that must have been beneath one of the rides and was filled with all kinds of boxes.

Pressing up against the door, she listened to see if she could hear the mascot attempting to follow, but to her relief, she heard it shuffling past them and continuing on its way to meet up with the others.

Seeing her relax, Gaige followed suit, and slipped over to where Artemis was looking at one of the boxes with a quizzical look.

“Why’d we go this way?” she asked in a whisper.

“Huh?” Artemis looked up from the box.

“If we’d gone the other direction, then we at least would’ve known what to expect.”

“I had a bad feeling about it.”

“That’s it? A bad feeling?”

“Well, giving it more thought, maybe it was that we’d been in that area before, so the mascots would’ve been gathered on that side of the park to catch us.”

“Er, that makes a bit of sense. Provided that they could communicate that is.”

“Speaking of communicating, that one back there was pretty clear.”

“Yeah.”

“That’s it? Nothing else to add?”

“I’ve got a few ideas, but nothing I wanna say at this point.”

“Why, afraid I’m going to mock you if you’re wrong?”

“No, nothing like that. I’m more of the one that’d do that anyway. It’s just that, well, I’m hoping I’m wrong. But if I’m not, we should get outta here.”

“Back into the tunnels or see if we can find another route?”

“We’re gonna have to go back into the tunnels, the only way up from here wouldn’t work for us,” she said, pointing to the small lift in the corner, one that wouldn’t fit a human bigger than a toddler on it.

“Right, well, where should we go?”

“Hey, you’re leading this mess.”

“I was asking how far you wanted to try and run underground?”

“Let’s go as far as we can for now, head for the front or the center if we can, cause we’re gonna need to get back to the castle if we’re gonna send a signal.”

“Right, well, let’s go.”

They slid the door open as carefully as they could, checking to make sure there weren’t any of the animatronics lying in wait, but the hall seemed clear. Stepping out, they looked around, trying to decide the best way forward.

If her internal map was anywhere close to being accurate, Artemis put their position near the back of the park, a bit to one side and behind the tree at the center of Kirimu’s Jungleland, which meant that they’d need to go back the way they’d come from to get where they wanted to be, but with the number of mascots that had been headed their way, she doubted they could get through that way, which meant a detour was in order.

She calculated that if they continued down the path they were on, away from the main path, they weren’t likely to encounter as many animatronics, but it would take them away from the park, which meant they’d have to go the riskier route and head back towards the angled path, hoping that they wouldn’t encounter any animatronics but would find a branch that led back towards the center of the park.

Suppressing a sigh, she turned and motioned for Gaige to follow her as she set out. She padded as quietly as she could while maintaining speed and soon got to the intersection. Glancing out, she didn’t see anything, but that didn’t really mean much, since there were all kinds of side paths that she could see from there.

Slipping out, she sprinted down the corridor towards the next intersection and slid up to it, listening to see if anything was waiting, more out of habit than any real expectation to hear one of the animatronics standing there.

Still, she heard nothing, so she dared to take a peek and to her relief, found nothing waiting.

After a brief internal debate, she decided that she didn’t want to risk this path, it would put them too close to the mob of mascots, if it even connected with the main hall, which part of her doubted since she hadn’t seen any cross paths for a ways while heading down it.

They continued on like this, Artemis sliding up to the next intersection, waiting for a moment to listen, then dashing around to find nothing before moving on. The process was wearing on their nerves. The agony of their wounds wasn’t helping either, but the constant tension was killing them, made all the worse by the fact that they knew that the mob would be heading down their tunnel any second, meaning they had to choose a side path soon or they’d be spotted and have to flee them while still searching for a path up.

Realizing that it couldn’t be put off any longer, Artemis glanced at Gaige, who nodded, her mouth drawn into a thin line and they headed down the latest side path.

The corridor was exactly like the last, heading out with a number of breaks making them both worry that they’d somehow entered into a labyrinth of identical tunnels that they couldn’t find their way out of and since neither of them had been marking their path, they wouldn’t know if they’d crossed over one route before or not.

Trying not to give it too much thought, they started hustling down the corridor, trying to figure out where they were, but at this point even Artemis was starting to lose track of which direction was which. Just as she was starting to get worried, she spotted movement ahead of them and quickly dashed around the next corner, motioning for Gaige to follow.

Rushing away from the intersection, they sprinted down the corridor, only to spot more motion ahead. Without much choice, they glanced around and Gaige tapped Artemis on the shoulder, pointing to a door set just down the hall from where they were. Realizing that it was the best option, she reluctantly nodded, sending Gaige dashing over to it to make sure that it would open. To their relief, the door swung in without a noise, allowing them to slip inside, with the hope that they hadn’t been seen.

Quickly glancing around the room, they were surprised to find themselves in a rather large room filled with boxes neatly stacked on shelves.

Despite her desire to tear into them, Gaige dashed down the aisle, looking around till she found a large cluster of boxes on the bottom shelf. Working quickly, she shifted a number of them to form a hollow in their center and motioned for Artemis to get in.

Despite the confused look on her face, the other girl obeyed without argument and as soon as she was in, Gaige slipped in after, dragging one of the boxes in to obscure the entrance.

The space was cramped, but still big enough for the two of them, if they were careful. Stretching out as best she could, Gaige kept one eye pressed to the small opening so that she could keep a lookout and make sure they hadn’t been followed.

After a minute of silence, she let out a breath, relaxing a bit.

“Seems we’re in the clear for the moment.”

“What’re we doing?”

“Hiding. I mean, this is kinda like one of those, what’d you call it? Blinds?”

“That’s more for hunting.”

“Well, we’re using it to hide while our enemy moves past us.”

Artemis nodded “I wish we could lean against the outside a bit and relax.”

“Yeah, well, I’d be worried that you’d fall asleep if we could.”

“I’m not that tired.”

“I know, but relaxing in one of these situations can be deadly.”

“I know that, but how long are we gonna wait here? I mean, I don’t think they’ll find us here, though I do feel like we’re forgetting something.”

“Yeah, me too. Still, take the rest you can get, right?”

“Yeah. Still, what is this place?”

“Some kinda storeroom, I think.”

“Yeah, I kind of got that, I was meaning what are they storing. Hold on, let me adjust myself a little. Sorry, didn’t mean to put a hand there.”

“I didn’t mind.”

Artemis didn’t reply, instead she spoke volumes with her eye roll. “Let’s see. Blah blah blah, internal numbering system that I can’t understand, manufacture numbering system that I can’t understand, ah, here we go, let’s see, stuffed Skags? That can’t be right.”

“Really? Now I really wanna open these boxes up.”

“I said it couldn’t be right, why would they have a crate of stuffed Skags? I mean, they wouldn’t even fit into one of these boxes, not unless they were kind of small Skags…what?”

Gaige was trying to suppress a laugh “Not that kind of stuffed.” She finally got out.

“Then what kind…oh.”

“Yeah, plushies, that kinda stuffed animal.”

Even in the dark of the hiding hole, Gaige could tell that Artemis had gone red. “Don’t worry about it, seriously, considering your past, the first thing you should think of would be an actual stuffed animal, not this kind.”

“Still should’ve got it.” Came the sullen reply.

“It’s fine, plenty of things like that that I should’ve got, but didn’t. Still, I really wanna see one of these now. Definitely gonna have to come back if we survive and have a look.”

“Way to curse us.”

“It’s not like that. Besides, it’s more of wishful thinking really.”

“Wait, it’s wishful thinking for us to survive? How bad is this situation? Have I been misjudging how much danger we’re in? I mean”

“I didn’t mean it like that! I meant that it’s wishful thinking that we’d come back down here.”

“Oh, whew, you had me worried there for a second.”

“Yeah, I got that, sorry by the way.”

“It’s fine, probably my fault for not getting it.”

“No, I kinda misstated it, definitely laid it out so that it could be misinterpreted. But still, wish I could take one of these with me, I’d love to give it to Tina next time we see her. What? She loves her Skags, you heard her talkin about her Enrique the whateverth. Still, if there’s stuffed Skags here, maybe there’s a box of shirts or something to wear sitting around.”

“Before all that, would any of this stuff still be any good? I mean, you saw the mascot things, right? Wouldn’t this stuff be in bad shape as well?”

“I thought you knew about all that rotting stuff? Why would it be rotting if it was stored in here?”

“I didn’t say that it’d be rotting, just that it’d be in bad shape. I mean, I thought this type of stuff was designed to break down after a while, you know, to force you to come back to buy another only to find that they no longer make the kind you wanted, that kind of thing.”

“Wow, sounds like you’ve had a bad experience.”

“Not really, just something I remember overhearing somewhere.”

“Ah. But back to your point, as cynical as it is, I can’t say that you’re entirely wrong. Still, that’s not gonna stop me from looking for something to wear, as soon as the coast is clear that is.”

Gaige paused and glanced back out the crack before turning and absently picking at some dust that had accumulated on her footwear.

Artemis stared for a second, mind itching at the sight, like it was almost there. Just as Gaige flicked away a bit of dusty fuzz, it clicked into place.

“Oh crap.”

“What?”

“Something’s been bothering me for a while, ever since we took shelter here and I just got it.”

“What?”

“You know how all the places that the animatronics shuffled around, the way the paths have been kind of cleared of the dust and stuff? Well, they’ve had no reason to come in here, right? So, this place is awfully dusty. Meaning, we’ve left a trail across it for anyone to see. One that leads right to here.”

“Oh crap. We gotta move.”

They quickly extracted themselves from the box fort and looked around. Sure enough, there was a clear trail of footprints leading up to the boxes, with a fair amount of displacement around them where Gaige had moved as she worked.

“You want to check some of the other boxes on the way?”

“Are you kidding me right now? We need to get outta here,” Gaige snapped as she led them across the room, heading for the far door. Artemis followed along with a shrug.

Soon enough they got to the other side and found another door. Motioning for Artemis to take the lead, Gaige stepped aside and let the other girl slip up to the door to listen.

Just as she was about to give the all clear, the sound of a door being opened echoed across the room, prompting Artemis to yank the door in front of her open and dash out.

Gaige was right on her heels, even as she heard the sound of one of the animatronics spotting their trail. Knowing they didn’t have any time to waste, she led them in a mad dash away from the room, but they’d only gotten a little ways when an animatronic stepped out in front of them.

Not pausing, Artemis dove forward, driving her blade into its chest as far as she could and tried to shove the thing over, only for it to stagger back about half a step.

Gaige swung around her, slamming her wrench into its face, smashing the plastic that held things in place, but not doing much actual damage.

“Hit it here.” She punched it in the chest before hopping back and letting Artemis dash in and stab it in the indicated spot.

The mascot toppled over without another sound, aside from it crashing to the floor with a floomping sound.

Not waiting to see if they’d drawn any unwanted attention, they started dashing down the corridor, only for another mascot to emerge in their path.

Swearing, they spun around to find another two coming up from behind at what must have been their top speed. Even as they watched, another three came out of side corridors and joined those already there.

“What the heck’s going on?” Artemis spat.

“Aw nuts.”

“What?”

“I think when I turned the power back on, I turned everything back on.”

“So?”

“That must’ve included whatever internal network that these mascots were on.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning they’re now able to communicate with each other.”

Chapter 22

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Underground

With the way forward and back rapidly closing off as more and more of the mascots showed up, and with the knowledge that the longer they waited, the worse things would get, Artemis decided to plow forward, especially since there were fewer that way at the moment, so she took off running, nearly leaving Gaige behind.

Gaige felt the smack on her arm as Artemis dashed off and stared after her for a moment, trying to figure out what she was up to, only to realize that she was being left behind as the other girl made a break for it. Deciding that she didn’t want to test her chances against the growing mob behind her, she sprinted after.

Getting as much speed as she could, Artemis tried to ignore the pains plaguing her as she pumped her legs for all they were worth as she aimed at the two mascots in front of her. They didn’t seem to quite understand what she was doing, since they’d froze up and were just standing there, trying to fill the corridor with their fuzzy bulk, which was fine by her since she saw a path through.

Getting up almost in their face before she dropped into a slide, she shot between their stumpy legs, using all the momentum that she’d managed to build up to clear them before popping up and moving forward while checking to make sure that Gaige was following.

Sure enough, Gaige hopped up next to her and blitzed past while shooting her a look that might’ve been considered dirty, though whether it was due to nearly being left behind or something else, she didn’t know, nor was she going to spend the time trying to figure out, instead, she joined her in trying to put as much distance between them and the ever-growing mob of animatronics behind them.

Rushing down the corridor, they both realized that their time underground was rapidly coming to an end. They needed to get above ground, not just because it would give them more options to get to the castle, but because fighting in such an enclosed space definitely favored their opponents.

Since neither of them had any idea where they were or which path would lead them to the castle or the surface, they continued choosing paths at random, always trying to turn away from any of the animatronics they spotted, especially if it seemed that they hadn’t been seen in return.

After a little while of not seeing any of the mascots, they ducked into a room that they felt might lead up and did a quick search. It was the third such room they tried that they finally got lucky and found a stairwell that led up.

Not wasting any time trying to figure out what it would lead to, they dashed up it, taking the steps two at a time, and instantly regretting it as their aches slammed into them, reminding them that they weren’t in the best of shape.

Ignoring the pain as best they could, they slowed down as they came to a door set at the top of the stairs. On their side, it was a plain metal door, painted with a rather ugly blue, which matched the walls making them wonder when the paint had changed. Not caring enough to even look back to find out, Gaige slipped to the side so that Artemis could press her ear up against the door and give a quick listen.

Shaking her head, she grabbed the handle and waited for Gaige to give a nod, which she did, so Artemis threw it open and dove through, rolling across the ground as she cleared the frame and came to her feet, ready for a fight.

Instead of any opponents, she found herself backstage. The room was ratty, with most of the cables and ropes having broken over the years. Ahead of her was another corridor leading off to whatever the ride would’ve been and to her side was another door.

Gaige had followed her in and was in the process of looking around, when Artemis pointed at the door set into the wall. Something about it made Gaige think of a spaceship hatch or some kind of sea vehicle, but she couldn’t immediately identify why.

The door itself was metal, with a closed portal in the center at eye level and lined with rivets around the outside. A wheel sat in the center of the door at the height that the knob normally would’ve been and to its side was a heavy metal bolt next to an electronic pad.

Finally able to do something, Gaige dashed over and got to work. Even as she got the panel off, she noticed Artemis closing the door they’d come through and moving over to the door she was working on. Before Gaige could ask what she was doing, she rolled up on her tiptoes and wiggled the closed portal open.

Glancing through, she leaned one way and then the other, trying to see what was on the other side before the door opened, which Gaige had to reluctantly give her was a good idea.

“Well?” she asked as the other girl leaned back.

“Nothing. Seems to be some kind of hall, there’s something painted on the wall, but I couldn’t make it out and there were some of those, what’re they called? Stanchions?”

“You mean to make an organized line? Yeah, those are stanchions.”

“Some of them.”

“That’s it?”

“Well, it’s not exactly the biggest opening is it, plus they’re not going to have whatever this ride is just sitting on the other side of the door, waiting for me to see, are they?”

“Sorry, didn’t mean it as an attack.”

“Yeah, I know. Sorry I snapped, this whole thing’s got me a bit, well, stressed out.”

Gaige nodded and shot what she hoped was a sympathetic smile her way. “I get you. So, we ready to get out there?”

Artemis nodded so Gaige connected the wires she’d been holding and gave the door a shove, only for nothing to happen. Looking at it, she started muttering that she’d been sure that she’d had it, only for Artemis to grab the wheel and give it a spin.

The door slid open and they stepped out into the room, Gaige conspicuously not looking in Artemis’s direction.

Like she’d seen, the room appeared to be some part of the line for a ride, though they couldn’t tell which one at this point, only that it had an underwater motif, with coral and kelp painted along the wall, rising above a layer of sand. It seemed that the further in one went, the deeper it was made to look.

Along one wall were portholes, through which Gaige could see the line continued, making her wonder if it was for aesthetics or just to torment the attraction goers with how much further they had to go.

Looking around for a second, they determined that if they continued straight ahead, they’d be following the line to the ride, so their best bet to get out would be to head the other direction, so they turned and started back that way.

True to the mural on the wall, they weren’t all that far into the line and soon enough an entrance came into sight, with a set of doors standing closed at the end of the hall.

Hustling down the slight incline towards the doors, Gaige let Artemis take the lead and watched as she moved up to the door and listened for a few seconds before shaking her head, but with a different expression than before.

Noticing Gaige’s arched eyebrow, she clarified “Can’t tell, too much other noise.”

Gaige nodded and motioned questioningly towards the door, to which Artemis nodded and grabbed the handle. Giving it an experimental tug, she found that it was locked, prompting them to search for a lock.

Gaige found it on the bottom of the door and got to work trying to pick it while Artemis kept an eye out.

It didn’t take long for the lock to give and Gaige stepped back to let the door swing inward. What greeted her eyes was the park, lit up like it was open. She didn’t even notice that a number of the lights were burnt out, instead being amazed at how different the place looked.

The rain had let up noticeably, though it was still coming down, it had nowhere near the volume nor the force as earlier, which allowed them a better look at their surroundings.

The park was covered in standing water which hid the faded walkways, which had once been maybe orange or some other shade, but was now a faint tan beneath the water. The buildings they could see were equally faded, washed out from the years of sun and neglect, once bright colors faded into shadows of their former glory.

From where they stood, they could see another few rides, though they couldn’t quite make out what they were, but one of them looked to be some kind of roller coaster, judging by the photo kiosk standing next to it and the broken board with one of the mascots on it, still smiling despite the missing top of their head, holding a sign that would’ve told how tall one had to be to ride the coaster.

A store stood across from the coaster entrance, its doors shut and no external clues as to what kind it had once been. The only reason that either of them thought it was a store was that they couldn’t think of what else it could be.

But the most pressing thing was the group of mascots heading their way.

They didn’t know whether the animatronics were onto them, or if they were just searching in this direction, but they knew that they couldn’t stand around and find out.

Quickly slipping the door shut, Gaige got to work trying to re-lock the door before they backed away from it, waiting to see if the mascots would start banging on it to try and get them.

Soon enough they heard the distinct sounds of one of the animatronics scraping against the door, followed by the door shaking in its frame as the mascot tried to get in, rattling the door and giving them a start.

Not wanting to wait to find out if the animatronics had some kind of override for the lock, or if they’d just give up, the two of them turned and sprinted away as quietly as they could, dashing up the slight incline and racing past the door they’d entered from.

Leaping over the stanchions, they flew around the corner and continued heading up, racing past the port holes they’d seen on the other side. Continuing around, they switched back again and this time the port holes showed water. Not a painting of water, but actual water, making them wonder in the backs of their mind’s what kind of ride this actually was.

Hitting the next corner, they entered into a fair-sized room lined with stanchions that divided the area into rows.

Gaige instantly knew that this would separate the guests into seats for the ride, which seemed to be some kind of brightly painted submarine, though she didn’t get what it was supposed to do.

Looking around, she couldn’t see a way out, the ride must’ve disembarked somewhere else and then come back here, making her curse out loud.

“We’re gonna have to find a way around,” she said, looking around, but to her surprise, the room didn’t have an exit, not even for the sub. She looked around, expecting to find at least an emergency exit, but couldn’t spot one, which she knew was some kind of safety violation, but complaining about it now wouldn’t do her any good, maybe she’d missed it on the way up, that was the only explanation that she could think of.

Artemis looked around and moved to the edge, looking down into the ride. It seemed that the sub would close properly, which made her move to the side, looking down so that she could spot the rail that it ran on, which dove down, going under the far wall and continuing on for a way.

She was of the opinion that they should head back, either to the front door, to see if the mascots had moved on, or at least the door they’d come in and wait on the other side of it until a bit of time had passed, if for no other reason than it was better than standing around waiting.

She headed back down the entrance, only to freeze. Something about her posture told Gaige something was up, from the way her head was cocked to the way she was inching forward, everything told her that she needed to prep to run.

Artemis slipped back down the way they’d come in, till she hit the corner and glanced around it. At the far end she spotted a pair of the animatronics rounding the corner, causing her to yank back before they spotted her and dash back up to where Gaige was waiting.

“We got to go,” she hissed, “They’re coming.”

Gaige mouthed a few choice curses and looked around before hissing back “Where? I haven’t found an exit yet, have you?”

“No, we’re going to have to swim for it.”

“Swim?” Gaige started even as Artemis hustled away towards the edge of the loading area. Hurrying after, Gaige spotted the track heading away and got a bad feeling about this.

“Are you crazy? We don’t have any idea how far this goes!” She hissed as loud as she could.

“Well, it’s either that, or we stay and fight the mascots, which’d be fine, except that they’ll be contacting the rest of them and they’ll be coming here.”

“Why don’t we just find somewhere to hide?”

“Where? They’ll be able to check the back of the sub, not to mention the inside’s rather exposed.”

Gaige swore again, mostly because she knew that Artemis was right.

“Besides, I doubt that the ride goes very far underwater.”

“Why’s that?”

“Cause if the seal isn’t very good, then they’d all drown.”

“Maybe. Well, no use talkin about it, let’s get this over with,” she said with a deep sigh. She’d just started to dry off and now she was going to have to swim for who knows how far, which would’ve been a bit nerve-wracking at the best of times and she wasn’t in the best of shape, and she knew that Artemis wasn’t either, but she couldn’t think of another way around this, so she followed the other girl over to the edge and watched as she slipped into the water with barely a ripple, easing herself over the edge and lowering herself down with a wince.

Gaige did her best to follow and soon enough she was bobbing along in the warmish water, following Artemis to the edge of the room. Part of her was wondering why they weren’t going the other way, trying to find the exit, but she quickly realized that they had no idea how far away that was, so it would be safer to go forward, especially since they didn’t have time to check both ways.

Taking a deep breath, even as her side made itself known, she dove down and kicked forward, following the lights and the track laid into the floor.

Time seemed to stretch out as she kicked forward and panic drifted across her. She suddenly knew that Artemis was right, that she was cursed and this was going to be it, they were going to drown doing this stupid swim. They should’ve stayed put and tried to fight, at least then they’d have had a chance, but this, this was suicide. She couldn’t think straight, even as her limbs continued driving her forward, towards the unknown.

Soon enough the tunnel turned to the side and Gaige followed, even as her lungs started to burn. She knew that she should turn back, that she might still be able to make it back, but if she went much further, that chance would soon run out.

She glanced back to see how far they’d come, only to be met by Artemis dragging herself forward, cheeks bulged outward as she struggled forward. Noticing that Gaige had stopped, the other girl made a motion that looked like she was trying to tell her to keep going, without interrupting her swimming.

Gaige motioned for her to take the lead and joined next to Artemis as she caught up. It wasn’t that Gaige had the oxygen to spare, nor was she worried that Artemis might turn back without her, but she wanted the girl next to her so that they would make it together and if either of them ran into a problem, the other would be there to help.

Finishing the turn, she noticed the light quality change and saw Artemis kick towards the surface.

Soon they both breached the water and struggled to take in deep breaths as they looked around.

The area around them was rather huge, a borderline massive pool broken up by protrusions done up to look like some kind of rocky islands, complete with strange crystals and plants. The largest was at the far wall, though they couldn’t see it all that well from where they were.

Gaige kicked her way over to the nearest one and drug herself up and out of the water, checking to make sure that she couldn’t be seen from anywhere before flopping out on her back.

The room around them was painted to resemble the ocean, like they’d gone through a tunnel and out to the sea, which she supposed was the intent. If she was right, that’d make the ride itself be situated near the outer wall, though she supposed that was just speculation on her part.

“So now what?” she whispered to Artemis as the other girl bobbed next to the island.

“Well, we can wait here for a while, see if they give up, though I doubt it or we can search for another way out.”

“Yeah, I can’t see them figuring that we got away, so they’re probably gonna keep searching until they find us, even if we’ve actually left.”

“Yeah, I was afraid of that, which I guess leaves us two options, find a place to try and wait it out, hoping that Deathtrap or someone else finds us or we could try and make our way to the castle and see if we can call for help.”

“As tempting as option one is, I’d say it leaves a bit too much to chance.”

“So, you’re for option two? Guess we’re going to have to search for another way out of here then.”

“Yeah, so where should we start?”

“Well, we could wait here for a bit, see if the animatronics finish clearing the place and move on, otherwise we’re going to have to search for either the exit or a way over the wall and since the exit seems like it’d take us through another of those dive tunnels, I’m not sure which way we should proceed.”

Gaige shook her head and sat up “Well, how long you wanna wait before we go back and check?”

Artemis didn’t answer, instead, she’d froze up, staring at the path ahead.

“What?’

It took a bit for her to answer, but when she did, there was a nervous energy about her. “You think the rock you’re on’s a bit odd?”

“Not really. I mean, sure, it’s not normal, but why’re you askin?”

“It doesn’t seem like it’s a bit flat, like a stage to you? Like there might be a door hidden in those rocks?”

Gaige looked around and realized what she was getting at, the area just beyond where she was laying was a bit flat, like the stage Artemis had indicated and the rocks did have a strange look to them, like she could almost see a door being hidden in them.

“Maybe, why do you ask?”

“Cause I think there used to be a mascot on here. You know, as part of the ride.”

“I guess.”

“And I think this is part of that show we saw advertised, you know, the one about Kirimu versus the Leviathan or Kraken or whatever it was.”

“I think it was King Tako, or something like that, but why would you think that?”

“Cause I think I hear something moving. Something large. And it’s coming this way.”

Gaige sat up and looked around the rock at the rest of the area, straining her ears as she did.

At first, she didn’t hear anything aside from the rain hitting the water as her eyes scanned across the area, taking in all the other islands, each one with their own look, making her wonder what the ride had been exactly.

She was tempted to put her head underwater, to see if she could spot anything there, even if it was only a clue as to what the ride had originally been, when she spotted a strange ripple emerging from the far wall. It took a bit, but by the time the ripple hit the island where they were, it had been reduced to a small rise in the water, not enough to cause her any alarm if she hadn’t seen it start.

Keeping her eyes on the area where the wave had started, she couldn’t see anything, except that out of the corner of her eye she saw Artemis rapidly scanning the rest of the room, looking for another way out.

Just as she was about to make a comment, the water on the far side of the room suddenly started to rise, pushing upward till it was almost as high as the island behind it when it finally broke, revealing the cause.

It appeared to be some kind of gigantic octopus or kraken or something similar, with waving tentacles thrashing against the water and a massive bulbous head that had protruded from the water. It had once been some shade of red or orange, but was now faded to a mottled grey, making it look more natural than it should’ve, especially given its face, which was like the rest of the mascots, cartoony and the silly crown stuck on its head.

The tentacles slammed down against the water and it let out a noise akin to a foghorn, nearly deafening them with its “AH-HOO!”

“It just had to have tentacles,” Artemis groaned.

Gaige couldn’t fault her for making the bitter statement, even as she tried to figure out how the thing was moving, if it was connected to the ground beneath the water, or for that matter, what it was. Giving up on figuring it out herself, she asked “What is that thing?”

“I think it’s the Kraken Baron, or King Tako or whatever that thing was called.”

“Great, and does that help us in any way?”

“No, of course not.”

“Didn’t think so. How’re we getting outta here?”

“We could try the way we came in.”

“We might run into those mascots that came in after us.”

“Yep, not to mention that this thing might follow us out, plus there’s the fact that the doors probably locked.”

“Great, any other way out?”

“We could try and get to that wall, I’m pretty sure we could climb it.”

Gaige glanced at the wall in question and nodded. Though it did seem to be a ways away, she was fairly sure that Artemis was right, they could climb it. The problem was, if they could, King Tako probably could as well, if it could move that is.

“That’d probably work, but there’s two problems I see with that, namely, do you think we could make it without being seen?”

“We’d have to go underwater to the next island and from there, maybe?”

“Right, which leads to number two, do you think that thing’s hooked to the ground? And for that matter, number three, is it on the network? Cause if it is, then we’re gonna have a number of those animatronics waitin for us when we get to the other side.”

“First, I’ve got no idea about that thing, I mean, you’d be the one of us more likely to figure something about it out, and for the second, no third, the network one, I’d guess that it probably would be, but once again, your area.”

“Yeah, I second the thought that it’s on the network, as well as that it’s my area. But survival’s yours, so you think we can make it?”

“It’ll be a gamble.”

“What isn’t?”

“Yeah, good point. Get in here so we can give it a try.”

Gaige slipped back into the water, trying to keep the rocks between her and the thrashing monstrosity. Once they were both in, they started filling their lungs with air, while checking the situation with King Tako. To their horror, it seemed to be moving around the area, though whether it was following an underwater rail, or was able to move on its own, they didn’t know.

As soon as it got behind another island, though they could still see its head, they dove down and started kicking towards their exit. Artemis shot a glance back towards the animatronic, but due to the cloudiness of the water, not to mention the distance and the islands, she couldn’t make anything out.

It didn’t take long for them to get to the next island and pop their heads back above water. Trying to make as little sound as they could, even though the rain was still covering most ambient noise, they paused with just their eyes out, finding King Tako before fully emerging and gulping down fresh air, prepping to make the final leg of their watery trip.

It didn’t seem that the animatronic had heard them, if it could hear at all, since it was still moving around the other side of the area, steadily moving their way. It seemed that it was searching the area for something, probably them, which lent credence to the theory that it was on the network.

Not wanting to wait to be found, they sucked in another breath and dove again, kicking hard for the wall, trying to ignore the pains that plagued them, as well as the sense of dread at being hunted.

Hitting the wall, they poked their heads out, making sure they weren’t in a direct line of sight, though they knew that it would only be a matter of time once they were out of the water, but it seemed that the animatronic was still moving methodically along the wall, searching for them.

Pulling themselves out of the water, they scrambled up the wall, which looked a lot steeper up close. Gaige let Artemis take the lead, since she felt the smaller girl was way better at this kind of thing, something she proved by scrambling up the wall, finding handholds that Gaige couldn’t even think of. Following along, somewhat grateful that the handholds were now marked in her mind, she trailed as close behind as she could and they’d nearly made it to the top when they heard a deafening bellow from behind them. It seemed that King Tako had spotted them.

Wasting no time, they flew up the rest of the wall, hitting the top as the massive animatronic started towards them and looked around. From their new vantage point, they could see the next ride over, separated from them by a wide path.

In fact, glancing around, they got a fair look at the park, the rain had even let up enough that they could see the castle through it, but what drew their eyes were the number of mascots shuffling their way from all over.

Knowing they didn’t have time to go about this in a good way, they scrambled down the wall, feeling the surface scrape and tear at them, leaving them distinctly worse for wear. Gaige felt her elbows, knees, fingers and other assorted body parts stinging as they were scraped as she managed to slide down the nearly sheer surface of the wall, barely managing to make sure that her top stayed on and wasn’t torn by the wall.

Landing next to Artemis, who was in similar shape, they started limping away at top speed, both of them wondering if this would be the time to use one of the Insti-healths they had, but ultimately deciding that they weren’t that bad off yet.

Picking up speed as the adrenalin covered up the pain they were feeling, Gaige led them back towards the main path, even though it was more likely to have mascots on it, she didn’t think they had a good enough grasp of the layout of the place to try anything fancy, like taking the back way. Besides, it wasn’t like the mascots wouldn’t be there too.

Hitting the main path, they did a quick glance around, as they heard another foghorn blare from behind them, prompting them to take an involuntary look behind and to their horror, saw King Tako climbing the wall, tentacles flailing against the sky.

Suppressing the string of profanity that sprung to her mind, Gaige dashed away, suddenly not caring as much about the mascots that might be in their way, Artemis right on her heels.

Rushing down the main path, now brightly illuminated, they splashed through puddles and dodged around the mascots as they started to get closer, which was much easier now that they could see them coming.

But the mascots were communicating with all of the others, meaning they were able to mass up and soon the path forward became impossible to traverse, as the hoard of mascots stretched across it. Giving up on moving on the path, they darted into the attractions, dodging around the mascots that were coming that way and jumping the fence in front of one of the rides. Dashing up the path towards it, they sprinted out onto the floor, which tilted slightly this way and that and had evenly spaced giant cups around it, each one with an opening on the side and a wheel in the center, the mere sight of which caused Gaige to go pale.

Swallowing the bile that rose at the sight of the ride, she sped up, leading them across the ride and leaping off the other side.

Hitting the ground in a roll, she felt her back scratch up against the walkway, but did her best to ignore it while glancing around to try and figure out where they’d need to go.

The problem was that the routes were rapidly closing off, as more and more mascots swarmed the area. She began to think that they might be trapped and started looking for a place that they could defend, or maybe get back underground from, but nothing jumped out at her.

Artemis dashed past her, angling towards one of the edges of the path and slipped around the mascots that had blocked most of it off, giving the end one a hard shove as she went past, which gave enough space for Gaige to follow.

Puffing and panting, they ran on, till Artemis huffed out “We, can’t, keep, this, up.”

“No, kidding.”

Artemis shook her head and looked around. At the moment, there weren’t any mascots around them, but they were still visible down the path, shuffling towards them at top speed.

“We need, somewhere to, defend,” Gaige managed, her breath starting to return.

“I don’t, like it. Sounds too much, like, a last, stand.”

“Call it, what you want. But, we’ll have, a better chance, if they can’t, get to, us.”

Artemis shot her a look that spoke volumes about how obvious that was.

“You know, what I, mean.”

Artemis nodded and looked around. It would be best if they could get out of sight before choosing a place, try and keep the mascots from pounding on the door immediately, but that would require them to not only find a place, but to get the door open and get inside before being spotted, and buying that much time wasn’t going to be easy, especially since she could hear the foghorn like cry of King Tako echoing around, telling her that it hadn’t given up.

“We’re going to, need to go over, another wall.”

Gaige gave her a tired look, but understood the reasoning, so they started back up, running faster than the mascots could, checking side paths till Gaige spotted a workable wall.

The wall itself was nearly vertical, designed to keep guests from climbing, but near it was another building, one that had a few broken parts that they could climb up without too much difficulty, so they ran at it as fast as they could, bouncing up the side of the building and leaping over the wall to land on the other side, where they found themselves in what appeared to be some form of outdoor theater, with tiered seating separated by metal bars leading down to a stage. On the other side were a series of doors that would let the audience in and out.

“Maybe we should’ve waited on the roof,” Gaige muttered, glancing around. Her problem was that there were too many entrances, too many angles to cover for them to be able to defend properly.

Artemis on the other hand was a bit more pragmatic and moved to the nearest metal bar and popped her Digi-blade. Slicing it into lengths, she glanced back at Gaige and hissed “Don’t just stand there, get over here and help.”

Gaige blinked, unsure for a moment what the other girl was doing, but quickly realized what was up and grabbed the first couple of lengths. Hustling up to the doors, she started wedging them in between the handles and then propping another length against each door, driving it into the ground as best she could so that the doors couldn’t be opened.

By the time she’d finished with the first handful, Artemis was already hustling over to the next set of doors, so Gaige grabbed the last of the poles that had been cut and dashed as best as her aching body would allow to the last set.

Finishing bracing them, she started to relax, only to spot Artemis heading down the steps as fast as she could, holding another couple poles. Pushing herself off the wall, Gaige started after her, if for no other reason than to find out exactly what she was up to, and to hopefully find somewhere for them to hide backstage, when Artemis froze, turning towards the wall they’d come over.

Gaige reluctantly followed suit, turning just in time to see the massive frame of King Tako’s tentacles curling over the wall.

Chapter 23

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Kirimu and Friends Stage

The girls backed away from the wall, even though they were more than half the amphitheater away from it, while glancing around, looking for any cover they could, but found none. Gaige wondered briefly about making a break for one of the doors, but just as she thought that, all of them started rattling as the mascots arrived on the other side.

With nowhere left to flee to, she decided to make a break for the stage, only for King Tako to start coming over the wall nearer to it, effectively cutting it off. With nothing else to do, Gaige prepped to fight, hefting her wrench and giving the tentacles a baleful look.

Next to her, Artemis was doing the same, but instead of readying her blade, she was working on the safety rails in the area, hacking them off as close to the ground as she could and then cutting them into lengths, making sure that they had only one sharp end.

Without a word, she held out a pair of them, which Gaige gratefully took as they watched the giant animatronic crest the wall.

Once the majority of its bulk was over the wall, it teetered for a second before losing its balance and falling into the arena, catching itself with the flailing tentacles, which should’ve lent it an air of silliness, but instead just served to make the girls more uneasy.

Turning itself, King Tako shifted sideways so that it was fully cutting their way to the stage off, before facing the girls. Despite the slightly silly look that the animatronic’s face had been built with, the entire thing gave off a menacing air as it thrashed its tentacles against the ground, fixing them with a look that made them feel that they’d somehow offended it.

“Well, guess it wants us to go first,” Gaige muttered, signaling to Artemis that she was about to start things off.

Even as she said that, Gaige was unsure of how to approach this, she knew that they’d have to take the thing down, but given its size, she couldn’t figure out how they were going to get at the vital components they’d need to, to stop it.

As she started forward, hoping that something would either come to her or that it’d work out, King Tako gave a swipe with one of its tentacles, trying to drive her back or maybe flatten her outright, considering the fact that the tentacle whistled through the air mere inches above her as she ducked, close enough that she felt even her plastered down hair yank after it.

Swearing, she debated falling back, but even as the thought crossed her mind, Artemis dashed past her.

Knowing that the most force was generated at the end of the whip, Artemis decided that she’d have a better time fighting the monstrosity if she could get closer. Sure, she’d have to worry about it rolling onto her and crushing her, but the whip-like tentacles wouldn’t be as much of a threat, so she grit her teeth against the pain in her back and charged forward, trying to time it so that she’d be immediately after one of the tentacle swings.

Unfortunately for her, the tentacles could operate independently, unlike a real animal where there was at least some connection between them, so as she moved in, a second tentacle came at her from the side.

Ducking under it, she dropped into a slide, raising her Digi-blade to try and slice into it as deeply as she could. The blade bit in, easily cutting though the outer skin of the animatronic, but whether it was the force of the swing, or the material that made up the interior, the blade didn’t cut all the way through, instead it caught and sent her flying across the ground, skidding on her back for a good twenty feet before she ended up rolling down two steps to slam into one of the posts.

Groaning as she pulled herself up, shaking her head against the dizziness. Knowing that something inside hadn’t taken the hit well, she didn’t hesitate to draw one of her Insti-health vials and get the medicine working.

Gaige watched as Artemis went flying and immediately turned to run after her, only to be forced to jump back as a tentacle thrashed across the ground in front of her.

Eying the animatronic, she took note of what the one tentacle that had just been slashed into looked like, especially since its skin had torn back, revealing the mechanical interior.

Like the rest of the animatronics, the tentacle was comprised of metal with plastic attached to the outside, filling up most of the space. But what she found interesting was the way that the joints were designed. At a glance she could tell that whomever had designed it had sacrificed strength and durability for flexibility, which explained why the tentacles could bend the way they did.

Still, knowledge of how it was put together alone wouldn’t do anything if she didn’t use it to take the beast down, so she hefted the first of the pipes she was holding and dashed at the main body, keenly aware of the thrashing tentacles around her as she ducked and wove.

As if annoyed by the fact that it wasn’t hitting her, King Tako slammed one of its tentacles down, trying to squash her underneath it.

Gaige didn’t dive to the side, instead, she slammed the butt of the pole she was holding into the ground, letting the tentacle hit it with all of its force, driving the sharpened end into the limb and into the joint with a spray of sparks that nearly hit her as she rolled to the side at the last second.

The limb flailed, thrashing around as the servos that still held it together pumped their last.

Standing in triumph, Gaige was hit in the side as Artemis dove in, tackling her out of the way as another pair of tentacles slammed down at her.

Falling back, the pair looked at the animatronic. Though its face hadn’t changed, they swore it was glaring at them, irritated that it hadn’t caught them yet and that they were putting up so much resistance.

“We need some kind of plan.”

“Well, what I’ve been doing seems to be workin.”

“And how many times do you think you’re going to get that lucky?”

“Luck had nothin to do with it, that was all skill baby. But, having said that, yeah, it was close.”

Artemis nodded, not saying what she really thought, instead she focused on King Tako, which seemed to be having some trouble deciding how far it wanted to chase them. On one hand, it seemed to want to chase them to the far wall and trap them, but on the other, it seemed to not want to let the back of the stage be opened up to them so that they could flee and as it tried to decide, it wavered forward and back, which contributed to it looking irate.

“Well, gonna have to do something,” Gaige said, hefting another of the poles.

Artemis nodded and shifted one of the poles she was carrying to her left hand and slid it back and forth, as if she was testing its balance. Suddenly she took a few steps forward and hurled it at King Tako. The pole flew fairly straight, catching the animatronic off guard, allowing the throw to strike where it’d been aimed, hitting it square in one of its eyes, but whether the throw was off a little or just lacked power, it hit with a bang and fell away without sticking, causing the girl to click her tongue in disgust.

“What was that about?”

“Seeing how close I had to get.” Came the reply even as Artemis shifted another pole to her left hand and charged.

Dodging around the first two tentacles, she aimed at the side that had already lost a limb, keeping an eye on the broken tentacle in case it tried to use it as a whip and managed to get close enough to lung forward, driving the pole’s sharpened end into the side of the animatronic, piercing its skin and sinking it into whatever was underneath.

King Tako let out another booming “AHOOH!” as if it had actually felt the hit and swung its tentacles in from the sides, manipulating them to try and grab Artemis, forcing her to leap back while taking a swipe at one of them with her Digi-blade.

Getting some distance between them, Artemis took a second to rearm, slicing off another chunk of one of the guard rails while observing the animatronic. It didn’t seem that her hit had done much of anything, aside from tick the thing off. She didn’t know whether that meant that she’d just not hit it in the right spot, or if there wasn’t anything there to hit.

As she was thinking about what to do next, Gaige ran past her, pole held low. Dodging around the broken tentacle, she tried to ram the pole into the next one, only this time it didn’t do much. The sharp end pierced the skin, but she felt the metal pole scrape off the inner workings of the animatronic, probably shattering one of the plastic plates, but that was about it.

Realizing that her first strike had either been lucky and hit somewhere vital, like a joint, or it had only worked because of the amount of force King Tako had put into the attack, she tried jumping back, only to get caught mid-hop with a backhand of a tentacle across the chest, sending her flying.

Luckily for her, she wasn’t lined up with the seating, so she didn’t ram into one of the remaining guard rails, instead, she bounced and rolled up the stairs, bruising herself and feeling more than a few things pop painfully as she went.

Coughing as she tried to push herself up, she felt a number of things that shouldn’t be broken, were. Struggling, she managed to get one of the Insti-health vials out, fumbling it as the world spun.

Suddenly, a hand scooped it up and stuck it against her side, injecting the healing contents into her. Feeling the medicine working, the world started to slow down its spinning, allowing her to focus on the situation around her. Finding a familiar hand offered, she grabbed it and allowed Artemis to help her to her feet.

“That thing hits like a ton of bricks,” she spat, shaking her head and making sure everything was still in working order.

“We need a better strategy.”

“Yeah, well, I’m all ears.”

“Damn, was hoping you had something.”

“If I did, would I’ve run in there like that?”

“Sure, if you thought of it afterwards.”

“I just got my bell rung, what makes you think I’ll have anything going on in my head, let alone a good idea?”

“Well, this thing does land more in your area of expertise than mine.”

“True, but the bit about my bell being rung still stands.”

“Right. So, any ideas now? Or is the bell still ringing?”

“Sorry, I’ve got nothing. If only I could see what we’re working with, then I might be able to figure something out.”

“That might work, but I’m going to need you to distract it.”

“What’re you thinkin of doing?”

“Nothing good.”

“Well, just don’t die on me, alright?”

“Wasn’t planning on it.”

“Good, well, here goes…something.”

Gaige hefted the remaining pole she had, but stopped as Artemis offered her the other two she was carrying.

“You sure?”

“They’ll just get in my way.”

Gaige shook her head and took the poles, eying King Tako as she did. The thing seemed to have decided to be content with just guarding the stage. It must have figured that they couldn’t escape any other way, since the walls were sheer and the other doors were blocked, not just by the poles wedged in them, but the mascots on the other side, which were continuing to pound on them, trying to get in.

Walking down the stairs, straight at the monstrosity in front of her, Gaige noted that Artemis had swung wide, getting close to the wall and was heading down the stairs there at about her speed.

Unsure of what the other girl was planning, Gaige set the poles down a little ways outside of the animatronics threat range and proceeded with only one in hand. She knew that they’d need to end this quickly, if the fight drug on too long, they’d miss their chance to escape into the underground tunnels and if the worst happened, then those vary tunnels would allow the rest of the animatronics in, and that was a fight that she didn’t think they’d win.

Rolling the pole in her hands, she watched the thing in front of her as it tried to keep both her and Artemis in sight, shifting slightly back and forth. Seeing this, Gaige walked around, towards the far wall from where Artemis was observing it, an action that seemed to irritate King Tako, since its tentacles started thrashing around, striking the ground behind it in an effort to keep anyone away from its back, but without the targeting, Gaige thought that she might have a chance at charging through them, and if she did, she was sure that Artemis would make it, though what she’d do after that, Gaige had no idea.

Knowing that she wouldn’t figure out what was going on in the other girls’ mind, not even at the best of times, Gaige focused on the task at hand. Bringing the end of the pole down against the ground, she let the metal ring, holding it loosely, feeling it vibrate.

She continued tapping the end over and over, clanging away to keep the animatronic’s attention, which seemed to be working, since it kept turning towards her, making her grateful that the thing didn’t seem to have a very complex program running it, though she wondered what the network that was linking all of the mascots together was feeding them for instructions. She wished she’d had the time to be able to get a look at the code, that might’ve proven useful, especially given the situation at hand.

King Tako seemed to be getting tired of the incessant noise coming from in front of it and started to turn to find the other thing it was supposed to be dealing with, forcing Gaige to attack.

Charging at the animatronic again, Gaige mimed the motion she’d done last time, keeping the pole low as she dashed forward. She knew that it might’ve been better to wave it threateningly in the things face, especially since her task was merely to distract it, but she felt instinctively that this was a better method.

Gripping the pole tightly in her left hand, despite the rain still pouring down on her, she dove forward, thrusting with all her might at the thing’s face.

Artemis watched as Gaige descended the center aisle of the amphitheater, moving slowly to keep King Tako’s attention on her, allowing Artemis to move down without seeming as threatening to it. She knew that it was still keeping an eye on her, but with Gaige taking most of its attention, it was only keeping a cursory observation of her. Still, she didn’t want it to have her in its sights at all for what she was planning, so she was grateful when Gaige started slowly moving her way around to the far side.

The animatronic was soon forced to choose to focus on only one of them and with Gaige making threatening motions with the pole she was holding, it forced it to keep its attention on her, allowing Artemis to dash forward, despite the fact that it was thrashing its tentacles blindly in an obvious attempt to ward off any attacks from behind.

Weaving around the flailing limbs, she made it up close to King Tako’s body and was able to get her first real look at the material that was covering it. The ‘skin’ was rubbery, like some kind of wetsuit that had been stretched across it and painted.

Not wasting any time to observe it more closely, she instead focused on how to get high enough to do what she needed to. Since she felt that climbing it would immediately attract its attention, she needed a way to get higher quickly.

Spotting a bad idea, she got to work. Charging forward, she leaped and planted a foot against its back, even though she knew that it might alert it to her presence. Springing off, she twisted and planted her other foot against the nearest tentacle as it thrashed menacingly. Using the momentum of the limb, she launched herself upward, marveling that it had actually worked as she plowed into the back of King Tako’s head about two-thirds of the way up.

Scrambling the rest of the way as fast as she could, keenly aware that the tentacles were agitatedly flailing behind her, till she’d made it to the silly crown perched on its head.

In a moment of petty spite, she decided that she might as well start there and gripped the crown with her right hand, pulling it up as hard as she could. As she’d expected, it didn’t give at all, almost like it was connected inside, making her wonder if it didn’t serve some other purpose. Not wanting to get lost in thought, she slashed her Digi-blade across the base of the crown, severing it with a spray of sparks.

Shifting her balance as King Tako let out a noise that might’ve been mistaken for a cry of pain and thrashed beneath her, she felt her feet slipping against the rubbery ‘skin’ that covered it. Giving herself over to gravity, Artemis let herself slide, jamming her blade into the ‘skin’ as she started to fall, letting the blade split through the outer layer as she descended.

She made it halfway when King Tako let out a sudden shout and thrashed so violently that it managed to dislodge her.

Flailing at the sudden loss of control of her fall, Artemis let out a squawk of panic as she suddenly found herself falling, until she felt something rubbery hit her stomach. The next thing she knew the tentacle was wrapping around her.

Gaige watched in amazement as her pole struck true, piercing the eye and clanging against the lens behind with a cracking noise. From her experience, she knew that she’d either broken the lens, or knocked it out of its housing. Either way, she’d effectively blinded it in one eye.

Realizing that she’d just pissed it off, especially since it let out a deafening bellow, she let the pole go and threw herself backwards, rolling away as the area was rained with tentacle strikes that came down hard enough to crack the concrete.

Staggering back clear of the attack radius, she suddenly spotted something that made her heart freeze, behind the animatronic’s head, she could see one of the tentacles wrapped around Artemis, lifting her into the air, whether to crush her or dash her against the ground, Gaige didn’t know, but what she did know was that she couldn’t let it happen.

Flailing for anything she could use as a weapon, her fingers touched the butt of the pistol she’d been wearing and drew it, even as she watched Artemis working on getting herself free.

She’d slashed through the outer layer of the animatronic, exposing the mechanical inner workings and with a decisive choice, slashed her Digi-blade through something. The tentacle immediately loosened, nearly dropping her.

In one last ditch effort to not lose its prey, King Tako whipped the tentacle, even as it lost control of the tip of the limb, flinging Artemis across the amphitheater.

The smaller girl flew over Gaige’s head and hit the far wall, impacting the door with enough force that Gaige was afraid that it had outright killed her. She watched in horror as Artemis bounced off the door and landed in an unmoving pile.

Giving up on anything else, Gaige dashed up the stairs as fast as she could go, cursing whomever had designed them and spaced them out so far, since it made it nearly impossible for her to take them two at a time.

By the time she was getting to the top, Artemis was stirring, slowly pushing herself into an upright position. With a cough, she spat blood onto the ground and wiped the back of her hand across her mouth while drawing an Insti-health vial. After giving it a near apologetic look, she injected its contents at about the same time that Gaige got to her.

“Are you alright?” Was the only thing that Gaige could get out, even as she knew how stupid the question was.

“No.” Came the bitter answer “I bit my tongue.”

Gaige blinked, that wasn’t what she’d been expecting, but then again, when you were hit hard enough, sometimes the only thing you could feel was one of the side injuries. Still, she couldn’t help herself as she declared “Really? That’s what you’re concerned with?”

“What? It hurts! I mean, I bit it hard enough that I was spitting blood. I’m just lucky that I didn’t cut it off completely.”

“Well at least then you wouldn’t have been bitching about the wrong thing.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You just got chucked across the room and slammed into the wall and your concern is that you bit your tongue.”

“Ah, well, it’s what hurt the most, but now that you mention it, how did I get over here?”

Gaige let out a snort of relieved laughter and smacked the other girl in the shoulder, before pulling her into a hug. After an awkward moment, she managed to get out “I’m just glad you’re OK.”

“Me too, but enough of this, we’ve got something more important to deal with.”

They both turned back to King Tako which hadn’t moved from its spot, instead it was just wobbling back and forth, like it was lamenting something.

“Why’s it actin all weird?” Gaige asked, feeling a bit creeped out.

“Don’t know.”

“Is it just me, or is it lookin a bit, um, wrinkly?”

“Well, I did manage to cut a bit into the stuff covering it, now I just need to get behind it again and I’ll be able to really do something.”

Gaige shot her a look, like she wasn’t sure that they should still be doing this after what happened last time, but she didn’t see much choice, they needed to get rid of this thing so they could get away, so with a sigh, she grabbed one of the poles that were still laying where Artemis had left them and started forward.

Artemis was grateful to see Gaige going without raising too much protest. Contrary to what she’d been implying, she hurt, really bad. The entire side where she’d hit the door was sore, as was her tongue, but it seemed that she’d been able to talk without lisping, so Gaige wasn’t aware of it. She knew that she should inject herself with another Insti-health, but they’d already used up half of their supply since this fight had started, which wasn’t good, they needed to make them last, so she couldn’t use her last one and she needed to make sure that Gaige kept hers for herself, so she made sure that Gaige couldn’t see her as she started limping down the stairs on the far side.

Gaige knew that Artemis was worse off then she’d let on, her speech had been a bit hard to understand, though that was to be expected since she’d bit her tongue hard enough that she’d spat blood, but her general posture had given away the fact that she was trying to cover up how injured she really was, which worried Gaige. She’d been tempted to just stick the girl with one of her Insi-health, but she knew that they did need to save them, despite how badly she wanted to give one to Artemis.

In the end, all it meant was that Gaige was going to have to make sure that Artemis didn’t get into the fight again, so that meant that Gaige would have to deal with this thing somehow.

Twirling the pole in her hands, she tested the weight as she moved forward. For its part, King Tako was keeping its eye on her. It didn’t trust Artemis, but Gaige had been the last one that it had seen hurt it, so it wasn’t going to let her out of its sight, which worked for the girls.

Out of the corner of her eye, Gaige saw Artemis doing something, but with the bulk of the animatronic between them, not to mention the host of writhing tentacles, she couldn’t quite make out what she was up to. Not that it mattered all that much, since it wasn’t going to change what Gaige was about to do, or at least she didn’t think so.

Lunging forward with the point of the pole, she found it immediately slapped aside with enough force that it went flying out of her hands and bounced off the wall nearest her. Glancing down at her stinging palm, she looked back up in shock to find two of the tentacles raised above her, ready to squash her.

Just as they started to move, Gaige heard a strange sound come from behind King Tako, a loud pop followed by a hissing sound that she associated with Tina for some reason. The next instant, King Tako stopped attacking and started flailing its tentacles around, with most of them trying to get behind it and failing to stop whatever was happening to it.

As it fought with whatever was happening, it thrashed itself around, turning so that it was facing Artemis and giving Gaige a clean look at its back.

The slit that Artemis had made when she’d slid down its back was now gushing flames.

It took Gaige a few seconds to figure out what’d happened, Artemis had fired one of the flares into the opening, lighting the dry interior of the waterproof ‘skin’ on fire, and since the ‘skin’ must’ve been somewhat flammable, it was going up like a torch.

Gaige found herself backing away unconsciously as King Tako blazed into the night sky, the flames shooting up past the top of the wall, going almost twice the height of King Tako into the dark.

The two girls met back up and watched the pyre of the burning animatronic, even as the machine continued to thrash and flail as it burned.

Not wanting to waste any time, and with the fire blocking their path to the stage, Artemis staggered over to the nearest wall, trying her best to ignore the ache coming from her entire right side. Puzzled by the other girl’s actions, Gaige followed along, keeping one eye on the burning animatronic.

Once they’d got to the wall, Artemis looked up, trying to gauge the height and let out a disappointed sigh. “Well, no way we’re climbing this.”

Gaige blinked, if they could’ve climbed it, they wouldn’t have just spent the last few minutes fighting King Tako, would they? Still, with the mascot blazing away, she understood the desire to try and get out of there, so she looked up at the wall as well.

Like Artemis had said, it was too tall to climb, even if she lifted the smaller girl up, she wouldn’t be able to reach the top, which meant they were going to have to exit one of the doors, unless there was another way up.

Looking around, Gaige spotted one of the hacked off guard rails and wondered if it might work.

“What about using one of those?” She ventured.

Artemis glanced at it and shook her head, “Nice try, but I doubt we’re going to vault over the wall.”

“I was meaning jam it into the wall and climb up them.”

“Hmm, that might work, except for the fact that it’s raining, so they’re going to be wet, which means we’re going to slip off, so to climb them, we’d need a lot of them jammed into the wall. And that’s working under the assumption that we can jam them in far enough that they stick and hold our weight.”

“Shoot, was worth a shot.”

Artemis nodded, but before she said anything, there was a static-y bellow which cut out part way through with a strange pop. Looking at the source of it, they saw that the fire around King Tako was dying down, revealing the metal interior.

The creature looked completely different without its ‘skin’. The metal tubes that made up the majority of its body looked ridiculous with the lenses it used for eyes stuck to the front and the speaker positioned beneath them. Despite the stupidity of its appearance, Gaige could see that the tubes that were stretching as tall as it had been were actually hydraulic controlled and would allow the body to be mostly steady, yet move on command. The rest of it looked fairly much like she expected, with the tentacles mostly what she’d seen when Artemis had slashed one of them open earlier, though they were now jittering and moving a bit sluggishly, which confused her at first, wouldn’t they move a bit better without the ‘skin’ and plastic bits constricting them? But then she realized that those were the problem, when they’d melted, they’d run into the joints and now that they were cooling, they were interfering with its operation.

The rain hissed as it hit the heated metal, rising as steam around it as it slowly turned and fixed its remaining lens on them.

“I really hope you’ve got a plan,” Artemis whispered.

“Why would you think that?”

“Hey, you’re the one that wanted me to get its skin off so that you could see how it worked, so I was hoping that now that I’ve held up my end of things, you’d have some good news.”

Gaige gave a thin, wry smile, which wasn’t all that reassuring as she hefted the pole in her hands and gave a shrug, as if to say ‘Here goes nothing.’

“I was afraid of that.”

They both pushed off, walking down towards the metal monster as it started twisting and yanking, pulling itself loose from the melted plastic that’d formed around its base. Normally it wouldn’t have even given it a problem, but with the interference in its tentacles, it took a moment before it cracked itself loose and started lumbering to meet them.

The girls spread out, trying to make sure that at least one of them could attack, a tactic that had proven useful thus far and one that King Tako seemed to dislike, since it tried to slam its tentacles down, trashing them side to side in an effort to keep them back.

This time it focused on Artemis, since it had figured that she was the one that had set it on fire, which worked for them.

Though her side was still hurting, it wasn’t so bad that she couldn’t dodge if the animatronic got too close, so Artemis hefted her pole and moved forward, threatening it with the point. Keeping an eye on the closest tentacles, which she found much easier to deal with mentally since the ‘skin’ had been melted off, Artemis lunged forward, stabbing at one of the joints.

While the strike was aimed well and hit where she’d wanted, she wasn’t able to inflict any real damage, not that she’d been expecting to, after all, her job at this point was merely a distraction, so she slammed the point of the pole into the joint and hopped back, avoiding the retaliatory strike.

Gaige was amazed at how well the distraction was going. She supposed that it worked out that she’d been the decoy twice now, so King Tako now assumed that she was going for it again, so it was focusing on Artemis, not realizing that they’d switched roles, which made her want to shake her head at the poor programming. She knew that whoever had programmed the animatronic hadn’t set it up for combat, so it was actually doing rather well all things considered, but as someone that had programmed her own bot, she couldn’t help but think of how pathetic the animatronic’s was.

Shifting the pole in her hands, she waited, watching the back of King Tako as it attempted to fight off Artemis. She observed how the joints moved, opening it up for attack periodically and more importantly, showing her a glimpse of its interior, the boxes and other housing for the circuits and processors. It was taking her a bit to work her way through what was where, mostly because she was only getting glimpses of it and wasn’t able to examine it in detail, not to mention that she had never build something like this before, so she wasn’t sure of why they’d put things where they seemed to be.

Still, she knew that she didn’t have a lot of time to figure it out, so as soon as she narrowed down where the central processor was, she shifted her grip on the pole, letting it slide almost all the way out of her hands. Cupping her left hand behind the flat end, she balanced it with her right and waited for a second as the tentacles thrashed to one side before stepping forward and thrusting her left hand forward in a soft underhand motion, driving the point between two of the moving hydraulic pistons and into the desired box.

Stepping back, she watched with satisfaction as the King Tako shuddered once and went limp, tentacles splaying out as it leaned forward, as if bowing.

With a smirk, she glanced around it to make sure that Artemis was OK and seeing that she was, shot her a thumbs up. The other girl rolled her eyes and shook her head as she jogged around the stopped machine, moving with a bit of a limp.

“Come on, let’s get outta here.”

Artemis nodded and turned towards the stage, pausing only long enough to scoop something off the ground as she went.

Curious, Gaige hustled over to meet her. As she got closer, she saw that Artemis was dumping King Tako’s crown into her bag as she headed for the stage. Not bothering to comment on her girlfriend’s weirdness, Gaige took the more direct route and grabbed the edge of the stage before hauling herself up.

The instant her feet hit the top, she heard a commotion coming from ahead and froze. Looking on in horror, she saw the door to the back fly open and an army of mascots started pouring through.

Chapter 24

Fe’iae

Ceto Wonderworld: Kirimu and Friends Stage

Backing away slowly, they scanned the growing crowd in front of them. The mix of different mascots seemed to glare down at them, as if accusing them of murdering one of their own.

Artemis didn’t hesitate and lunged forward, driving the pole in her hands not at the mascots themselves, but at the door frame, driving the metal pole in as deep as she could with her cybernetic hand.

At first, Gaige was confused by what she was doing, but the instant one of the mascots hit the pole and couldn’t move forward, she got it, Artemis was trying to use the poles to limit the number of animatronics that could get through at a time.

Glancing around, she spotted the pole that had been knocked away earlier and scooped it up. With a shout of warning, she tossed it to the other girl, who caught it and lunged forward again, dodging around the animatronics that were trying to stop her, their hands clawing at her hair and shoulders, and drove the pole in near the first, effectively clogging the door, forcing the mascots to wiggle their way in one at a time.

Still, that mattered little since they had nearly a dozen of the mascots facing them already on their side of the fence, with more wriggling through already.

Artemis tried to back away after driving the second pole in, but was quickly swarmed by the remaining mascots, all of which were cheerfully declaring “Please stop damaging the park, if you continue, you will be asked to leave.”

“I’d like nothing better,” she snapped back.

“This is the most joyful place in the galaxy, why would you want to leave?”

“I’m not having this conversation,” she snarled, driving her Digi-blade into the chest of the first one that tried to grab her, dropping it in a spray of sparks.

“Continued damage to park, weapon detected, please do not resist being captured.”

“Bite me.”

Artemis stabbed another one, clearing enough room from the mob trying to drag her down to roll backwards past their legs and wound up falling off the stage. Landing on her feet, she quickly found herself sitting on the wet ground as momentum continued taking her back.

Gaige watched, wishing she had some kind of weapon like that at hand, especially since another one of the animatronics had wriggled their way out. While Artemis had been working on closing the door as best she could and struggling with the mascots, Gaige had dashed back and grabbed the remaining poles. Bringing them forward as fast as she could, she dropped them when Artemis was nearly grabbed, which caught the attention of some of the mascots as they tried to descend the stairs.

Spotting the pole that she snatched up, one of them tried to chastise her with a “Those are park property, please return them to where they were found.”

“I’ll return it all right,” she muttered, driving the point forward into the first mascot’s chest.

As it fell over in a sparking heap, the next two lunged for her while babbling about ‘destruction of park property’, which made her wonder why the earlier ones hadn’t commented, but she figured it had to be something about them now being connected to the network again, not that it mattered in her present situation, but her mind tended to go on tangents when in a fight, especially one that wasn’t pushing her mental limits.

Pulling the pole back out of the first mascot’s chest, she swung it laterally, trying to get it in front of the next one before it got too close and barely managed, as it impaled itself upon it. The down side to this was that it drove the pole clean through it, forcing her to drop it as the last one closed in.

Ducking under its clumsy attempt to grab her, she felt her feet slip out from under her as she stepped on one of the remaining poles. Landing painfully on her butt, Gaige winced even as she kicked against the back of the remaining mascot’s legs, rolling herself backwards and knocking its legs out from under it. Coming up with the pole she’d slipped on, she drove it into the back of the mascot, ending it.

Glancing around as she hefted the last pole, she saw that Artemis was back on her feet, even as the mob continued to funnel in. Hustling over to the stairs in an attempt to cut them off, Gaige paused when she heard a heart-stopping crash from behind her.

Turning around, even though she knew that she didn’t want to see what had caused the noise, she found exactly what she’d feared, the door that Artemis had crashed into earlier was now hanging open as the mascots started swarming in.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Artemis spin, drawing her pistol and fired six shots in rapid succession, dropping the first six that were trying to force their way through the door. Without pausing she fired the flare gun in her other hand, sending the blazing shot streaking across the area to impact the pile that had clogged the door. A second later, the pile caught fire and started burning, tongues of fire licking upward, engulfing the mascots that were trying to force their way through.

“Oh, so now we can use our ammo?” Gaige shouted, more out of frustration then anything.

Artemis didn’t respond, instead she backed away from the mascots on stage, which were all facing her, as she reloaded.

“Weapon alert, weapon alert, guest safety in jeopardy, restrain and contain the threat.”

“You’re the threat you damn failures of bots. I just wanted to leave, but oh no, you wanted to make us stay, forever and ever, well screw you.”

Gaige blinked, it seemed that Artemis had had enough as she snapped the cylinder of her pistol closed, she reloaded her flare gun and fired another shot, this time at the entrance on the back of the stage. The flare hit one of the mascots struggling to make its way past the pole barricade, lighting it on fire.

Sudden motion on her side brought Gaige back to the situation at hand and she found herself facing one of the mascots at a range of only a few feet. Not hesitating, she drew and fired, the bullet slamming through the chest, dropping it.

The rest of the mascots seemed to be trying to decide which of the armed threats to go for first and quickly gave up on anything that resembled tactics besides swarm the nearest one.

A group of them turned and charged off the edge of the stage at Artemis, while the ones closer to the stairs charged Gaige, who emptied her gun into them, dropping another five before it clicked empty.

Stepping back to buy herself a second to reload, Gaige felt her heel hit something as she backed into the stairs, knocking her over again. Landing a bit awkwardly, she managed to keep the gun in hand, but had to give up on drawing the bullets as her hand shot out to catch herself.

Taking advantage, one of the mascots lunged for her, catching her by the throat in one massive paw and lifting her up.

Giving up on the gun, knowing that she couldn’t reload like this, Gaige flailed for anything she could use, but all she could feel was the handle to the knife she was borrowing. Drawing it, she knew that she couldn’t strike at the animatroinc’s core, not without seeing what she was attacking, and with the furry limb blocking most of her sight, she couldn’t manage, so, in desperation, she tried to return the favor, slashing the blade across the mascots throat.

She knew that that alone wouldn’t do anything, so she grabbed the flap of fur and yanked upward, tearing it loose as it pulled up and away from the plastic under-skeleton, blocking the eyes.

The animatronic dropped her and flailed around, allowing her to lunge forward, slashing downward through its chest, slicing the fur open and allowing her to jam her left hand through its chest, grabbing onto something important and yanking it out.

Throwing the component at the next one, she bent down and picked the pistol up, quickly reloading it, even as she heard Artemis emptying hers again. Knowing that they needed to join up, Gaige backed away, heading around the amphitheater towards her while holding off on firing too many times, instead she was picking and choosing, to make her shots count, something she wasn’t all that used to, but with their current ammo shortage, she knew that she needed to switch tactics.

“You doing OK?” she asked as soon as she got close enough, slipping bullets into the chambers of the pistol.

“No, I’m almost out, you?”

“I think I’ve used half my shots.”

“Not good.”

“No. And what’s worse is I think the fires are almost out.”

“Damn it.”

Artemis glanced at the two doors, true to what Gaige had said, the fires were burning low as the rest of the mascots worked to drag their charred comrades out of the way. Knowing that she needed to buy them some more time, she fired off another clip into the open door, before launching another flare to start another blaze. But it seemed that the mascots were getting used to that, since they backed off, allowing one of them to plunge in and start dragging the fallen out of the way, even as it went up like a torch.

Swearing, she worked on reloading, even as Gaige snapped a shot off at that one, dropping it, only for it to be replaced by another.

Artemis fired another flare at the stage entrance and barely made the shot count.

“I’m out. That was the last flare.”

“Damn it,” Gaige said, slipping another set of bullets in. “I’m running out. We can’t keep this up.”

“Got any ideas?”

“Maybe cut a number of those poles off and build a cage around ourselves?”

“Sounds tempting, but I doubt they’re going to leave us alone long enough to try.”

Gaige nodded, it had been a desperate, stupid, say anything plan anyway, not one that she thought would be taken seriously, though she supposed that showed how bad the situation was that Artemis was seriously considering it.

Before she could say anything else, a loud clanging echoed from the stage. Gaige barely managed to stop herself from shouting ‘Now what?’. Taking the second she glanced at the stage and what she saw made her let out the worst string of curses that Artemis had ever heard from her. Following her line of sight, Artemis suddenly thought that the expletives had been an understatement as a second clang echoed, signaling the last of the poles she’d drove in front of the door fell out.

It didn’t take long after that for the area to start flooding again. Almost simultaneously, both of them ran out of bullets.

Backing away, they felt the wall hit their backs and glanced at each other.

“Sorry.”

“Still not your fault. And if this is the end, I don’t want to go out that way.”

“Oh, I’m still fighting.”

Gaige glanced at her and debated hugging her, maybe throwing a kiss in there, but before she could decide on anything, the wave of mascots hit them and everything devolved into chaos.

Artemis lunged forward, stabbing the first one in the chest, dropping it. Even as it fell back, she was plunging her blade into the next one, while trying to shake off the hands that clawed and tore at her.

She couldn’t see Gaige, they’d gotten separated by the wave of fur, but she hoped that she was still fighting, she should’ve figured a way to save her at least, she regretted that.

Even as such thoughts ran through her mind, she felt an arm clamp down on her cybernetic, trying to restrain it, so she lunged with the pull, driving her blade into that one, but even as she did, she felt her right arm get grabbed, nearly yanking her shoulder out of socket and pulling her off balance and as she tried to slash at the arm holding her, another paw wrapped around her left arm, pinning it. The next thing she knew, she was being drug down, as the pile of mascots started suffocating her, while her limbs were pulled in all directions.

Gaige screamed against the press, swinging her wrench. She felt the impact as she smashed one of their faces, punching with her left hand into the next one. Something hit her from behind, staggering her and causing her to lash out in desperation, but even as she felt the impact of her weapon hitting something, she felt the rest of the mob pile in, dragging her down.

She desperately thrashed, but the metal hands were too strong for her to break. She knew that her only chance now was to try and break free when they took her inside, that they’d have to shift their grip, go single file, but she knew that it was a slim chance at best.

To one side, she heard the thrashing quiet down, and she knew that Artemis had been taken too and felt a great weight on her, that she’d never get to see where they would’ve ended up, but some part of her was still grateful, at least they’d go out together.

As the thin smile twitched at the corner of her mouth, everything exploded. Parts of animatronics went flying and the ones that had been holding her, dropped her unceremoniously onto the ground as she heard a familiar cry echo out.

“UGGRRUUUURG”

Poking her head up, Gaige spotted the familiar boxy torso and spiky shoulders as he dove into the mob, bisecting mascots with his Digi-claws and firing lasers with abandon.

“BABE!”

“Urggrr”

Gaige winced at the chastisement, not that she could blame him, after all, he was right, they’d screwed up. Still, she couldn’t wipe the smile off her face as she watched her robo-BFF grab one of the mascots by the head and slam it into another one, breaking both and then chucking the remains of the one in his hand into the roiling mass, flattening another group.

“Ur urguru”

Nodding, Gaige glanced around and spotted Artemis staggering her way.

“He’s right, we need to get outta here.”

“No ■■■■.”

Gaige didn’t respond, only threw her arm around the other girl to help her along and push their way towards the space Deathtrap was clearing. As soon as they got close enough, he scooped them up and shot out of there.

As soon as they were in the air, and felt that they were free, the girls slumped against the cool metal of the bot carrying them and after sharing a weary grin, Gaige rolled her head to look at Deathtrap’s crystal face and said “I’ve gotta ask, how’d you find us?”

As he flew, Deathtrap explained that he’d been keeping a sensor on their location and when he’d seen the storm approaching, he’d tried to warn them, but they hadn’t picked up, so he’d headed out to try and meet them, but by the time he’d got there, the storm was in full swing, and he couldn’t get to them. He’d tried to push his way into the storm, but even he couldn’t see anything, so he’d been forced to wait it out.

As he did, he’d been keeping a sensor on them, but after a while, it cut out, which had prompted him to plunge back into the storm, but again, he couldn’t get far in, which made the girls realize that the island they’d been on must’ve been blocking the majority of the storm.

Still, Deathtrap had tried to get to where he’d lost their trail, but it had taken hours for the storm to dissipate enough for him to find their trail, which he’d had to search for. He’d taken the spot that he’d lost them and overlaid a map of the region. Luckily there hadn’t been many islands around, so he’d been able to narrow it down rather quickly.

After that, it was a matter of trying to pin down where they were. He’d been circling the island when the lights had come back on, but unfortunately for him, he’d been looking at the resort to try and find them, but when he spotted the fire that had once been King Tako, he’d dashed in, knowing that they would likely be responsible for such chaos.

The rest of the trip back was made in awkward silence, neither girl knowing what to say, nor were they able to get comfortable against the metal body of Deathtrap, whose points and edges kept finding their sore bruises and scrapes.

Still, they did their best to enjoy the sensation of the rain hitting them as they relished being alive.

The Next Afternoon

After they’d gotten back, they wound up spending the next hour in an argument with the resort, the director of which seemed torn between wanting to sue them for the loss of the boat and being afraid of being sued himself for the trouble they’d been through. In the end, he’d decided that the best course of action was to offer them a complimentary stay, matching the one they’d currently been on and ban them from using the resort’s boats.

He’d also offered them each a set of complimentary drink vouchers, but when Artemis opened her mouth and declared that they didn’t drink, things threatened to spiral out of control again, forcing an extremely tired Gaige to intervene.

In the end, they’d taken the vouchers, figuring they could trade them to other guests for something, or at least trade them in for something from the kids drink list.

After they left the manager’s office, they’d been directed to the medical station, which had been their first stop when they’d arrived, but this time, rather than the cursory check, they got a good physical, along with the proper antibiotics and medical care.

Leaving the medical center, the sun was peeking over the horizon, which the two of them did their best to ignore, though they did stop and observe the sunrise, grateful to still be alive, before heading to their bungalow, flopping onto the bed and promptly falling asleep.

They woke stiff and sore, despite the care they’d received and despite the fact that it was midway through the day, still managed to get breakfast, which made them wonder if the threat of a lawsuit was actually that strong.

Still, they found themselves standing outside, watching the waves and wondering what to do next.

“So, now what?” Gaige asked, more to herself than anything, so she continued aloud “I mean, we’ve still got, what, two days left of our vacation?”

“Something like that.”

“So’s there anything left that you wanna do?”

“Got a couple of ideas.”

“Really?”

“I’m not completely helpless in that regard.”

“Wasn’t meanin it that way, it’s just that usually the ideas are more of my department.”

“Ouch.”

“Again, not like that, but you’ve gotta admit that you do ask me for that type of thing pretty often.”

“And just as often, you’re asking me.”

“Well, maybe not as often, but we’ll call it three-quarters as often, maybe two-thirds. But putting the semantics aside, what’re your ideas?”

Artemis gave her a flat stare for a few seconds, like she was debating arguing the numbers, but let it slide with a sigh. “Well, for one, I’m going to hunt down one of those Ramaloo.”

“Really?”

“After all those mascots that looked like them, I’m going to kill and skin one. Make a rug out of it.”

“So, you’re gonna vent. I can get behind that. Anything else?”

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I want to go back to that island.”

“Really?”

“Definitely. But this time properly armed, and I’m going to put every one of those animatronic mascot things down.”

“Now that is an idea that I can get behind. Mind if I tag along.”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“So, uh, you’re fine with me bein around?”

“What’s that mean?”

“It’s just that, well, back on the island you were all like, going to break up with me and all that, so I was kinda wonderin if we were good, or if there was something else like that I should be worried about and well, you know.”

Artemis didn’t say anything for a while, instead, she started slowly walking down the beach. With a bit of trepidation, Gaige followed along. She nearly said something to break the silence, but something about the other girl’s face told her to hold her tongue, that she was trying to figure out how to say what she wanted to say, what she needed to say.

After a while, she spoke up “Poison.”

“What?”

“It’s like poison.”

“What is?”

“You are.”

“OK, you’re gonna want to explain that, cause it sounds like you’re tellin me I’m toxic.”

“No, no, that’s not it. That’s not what I’m saying, or trying to, failing to.”

“Just start over and be specific,” Gaige said, starting to become used to how the other girl could screw up just about any conversation.

“I think you are like poison. If taken wrong or normally I guess it would be, it’s not good for you, but it’s also used to make medicine. Often the same thing that’ll kill you, can cure you.”

“I’m still not getting it, but next time, lead off with I’m like medicine, alright?”

“Uh, I wasn’t planning on having this conversation again.”

“For future reference then. Anyway, continue your explanation, cause I’m still not getting it.”

“Bad things tend to happen to me when I like someone, or talk about…what I am…what…who I like. But like you said, we’re still alive, despite all that, so maybe you’re like poi…medicine for me. If it was anyone else, any other, um, connection? Whatever. If it was any other way, we’d both be poison for anyone else, but together, our, uh, toxic…you know what, this made a lot more sense in my head.”

“Keep going, I think I get what you’re trying to say.”

“Then why don’t you finish saying it, cause I’m making a right proper mess of things.”

“I’d love to, but I think you need to say this yourself.”

“You just want to see me embarrass myself some more, don’t you? Fine, whatever, here goes. The way I am, it brings ruin around me, but, while you’re not immune, you do seem to be able to avoid or mitigate the worst of it, and you drag me along too, so I’m starting to wonder if you aren’t like medicine for my condition. Anyone else and it would be poisonous, for both of us, but together, maybe we cancel each other out, not totally, but enough or something like that.”

“So, you’re not breaking up with me?”

“I’m wondering if that wouldn’t be worse, for both of us.”

“Well of course it would be worse for us, I mean, you know what kind of mess I am, and I’m thinkin you’re right, we do kinda draw out the worst in each other and the best, but we kinda offset each other’s toxic elements. I guess my dad was right, it’s not about finding someone out there that fits your broken edges perfectly, but someone that helps hold you together, or something like that, I’m paraphrasing here. Point is, we work together, maybe we haven’t found the right balance yet, but we’re working on it and I think we’re getting close, so as long as you’ll have me, I’m with you.”

Artemis didn’t say anything, but the relaxing of her shoulders spoke volumes to Gaige about how nervous she’d been.

They walked down the beach with nowhere in particular as a destination. After a little while, Gaige felt something brush her hand and almost glanced down, but resisted the urge, mostly to not draw attention to it.

Artemis’s hand slowly met hers and after a second, wrapped around it, weaving through her fingers. Even without looking she could tell that the girl was blushing furiously, but Gaige didn’t mind, she gave the hand a soft squeeze, as if to reassure her that everything was and would be fine.

Gaige smiled to herself. Even though it was Artemis’s cybernetic hand, it was something, a sign that they were, no matter how slowly, moving forward.

It was something.

It was a beginning.