Eldnium, p.33
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       Eldnium, p.33

           Enoch Pyle, Jr
 

  Landon didn’t know how long he’d been descending the staircase. He did know, however, that the gaping mouth of the well had been reduced to a small circle above him, and beyond it, the daytime sky had become a dark tapestry sprinkled with stars. For a moment, Landon wondered just where this planet sat in the universe and what kind of galaxy it was in. Spiral? Irregular? Based on their technology, Landon thought that even the inhabitants themselves didn’t know.

  The darkness overwhelmed him. If not for the flawless and even construction of the stairway, Landon imagined he’d have tumbled down them long ago. But by keeping one hand on the wall and making even strides, he was able to continue on his way at a steady pace.

  Until he stepped face-first into a wall.

  It was something he hadn’t planned on. When you descend a flight of stairs in the dark, you never expect them to end in such a bizarre way. But there he was, rubbing his forehead in the dark like some kind of idiot.

  “Great,” he whispered to himself. He didn’t know what his next move might be. He could walk away from the edge of the well, but if there was no floor…if he wasn’t at the bottom of the well…he’d just fall. Probably to his death.

  “Wait a minute…” he said, rolling his eyes, though no one could see how frustrated he was, and he plunged his hand into his pocket, retrieving the small eldnium stone. He rolled it in his fingers, letting it warm him, and just when he felt his body change, he stepped off the side of the staircase, ready to plunge into the abyss.

  But he didn’t have to plunge anywhere, because his foot hit solid metal. He had made it, indeed, to the bottom of the well. Still, however, he wished he had used the eldnium to just fall straight to the bottom, saving him the time it took to walk down the staircase. Then, at least, there may have been a few rays of light by which to see. As it was now, he could see nothing.

  He kept a hand to the wall and walked around the wide circle until he found an opening. He went through, using the wall as a guide, completely unaware of where he was going, testing each step to make sure there were no odd drops or traps, though the eldnium should have protected him from any unannounced impacts. Though the path wound on and on deep beneath the planet’s surface, nothing of that sort came up.

  Soon, a small white light appeared ahead, and Landon quickened his pace. It became larger and larger, and Landon could finally see the faint outlines of the floor and walls. As he came closer, he saw that the light came from a large, cavernous room, and as he passed through the doorway, he found himself overcome with awe.

  It was the largest structure in which Landon had ever stood, and it appeared to be constructed entirely of massive blocks of solid eldnium. The shapes were perfect cubes, with extrusions jutting out from the six sides of the room at different lengths but tapering down toward a large flat area at the bottom of the room. There in the center stood a slender boy with black skin, cuts on his forehead, torn jeans, and his mouth moving with little twitches, his eyes rolled into the back of his head.

  Landon climbed down toward the boy, and as he approached him, a faint whisper crept its way to his ears. But it wasn’t the boy’s voice. It seemed to be coming from all around him in response to the tink, tink, tink of his footsteps echoing against the metal. He couldn’t make out what the whispers were saying. They were the first foreign tongue Landon had come across since leaving his own planet.

  “Hey,” Landon whispered to the boy. “Hey, are you okay?”

  But the boy didn’t respond.

  Landon didn’t know whether or not to touch him, so he just stood there staring at him. He’d never seen someone with skin so dark. And this boy looked to be not much younger than Landon. It made Landon wonder why so many rescued heroes were rescued as teenagers. Maybe it was something to do with coming of age? But over so many planets with so many cultures, such a thing could hardly be universal. Even the rate of aging couldn’t be universal, could it? Wouldn’t things age according to the rate and presence of seasons on the planet from which the life evolved?

  These were questions Landon felt he may never be able to answer. The universe was just too large. Too dynamic. Full of too many variables.

  The boy’s mouth was still moving, but no sound seemed to escape it. Landon tried to read his lips, but found it difficult. He could make out “mom”, but that was it.

  Landon decided to touch him.

  He slowly and cautiously reached forward, feeling his arm pass through some sort of invisible field without much difficulty, and with his fingers he pressed against the strange black skin on the boy’s arm. Immediately…

  FLASH!

  Landon no longer stood in the eldnium cavern. He was floating in the trees, staring down at the boy, who was hugging a woman in a small clearing in the woods.

  “Jackson,” she said, and Landon suddenly realized that this was the boy Isaac had died trying to save. He strained his ears as she continued, “I’ll be fine.”

  “No, you won’t!” Jackson shouted. “You have to believe me! You have to stay home tomorrow. Call in sick! Please!” He was crying, sobbing into his mother’s chest as she stroked his hair.

  “I can’t, Jackson,” she answered. “We need the money.”

  “I don’t want to lose you,” he cried. “I don’t want to lose you. I won’t. I’ll smash up the car. I’ll make it so you can’t go!”

  Jackson’s mother crouched down eye-level and waved a hand at the trees, “Jackson, do you see these trees?” Jackson gave a frustrated nod. “These trees start from the soil. They grow and grow, and they become these massive, beautiful things we see here. They become homes for animals. Shelter from the hot sun and pouring rain.” She pointed to a fallen tree. “And then they topple over. They rot away. But they aren’t forgotten, Jackson, because they become the nutrients needed to grow more trees. Do you see? Through death, they give more to the world than they ever gave in life. Some people might think that’s why trees don’t fear death.”

  “They’re trees, mom. No one loves them. No one is afraid if a tree dies.”

  “I love them,” she responded, and Jackson looked surprised. “I love them for what they bring to the world. Even if they don’t have a choice. They are trees, and they live because they live well.”

  Landon watched Jackson wipe a tear.

  His mother continued, “I will die one day, Jackson. I will. And maybe it will be tomorrow. Maybe it will be in a hundred years. But I’m not afraid, because I know…I feel…that when I die, I will have given the universe more in death than I could ever have given in life.” She brushed Jackson’s cheek. “So be strong, Jackson. And give me that honor. Give me the honor of giving back to the same world that has first given so much…” she kissed his forehead, “…so, so much…to me.”

  And things began to flicker, harder, faster, and Jackson looked into the trees, and Landon was certain they’d made eye contact just before…

  FLASH!

  …Landon and Jackson were met face-to-face, eye-to-eye.

  Jackson spoke first. “Who are you?”

  “My name is Landon…and I’m here to save you.”

  “You’re the second person to tell me that,” Jackson said. “The last guy didn’t do so well.”

  “I know. I watched him die.”

  “He’s…dead?” Jackson’s eyes fell to the floor. “Was that you in the trees while I was with my mother?”

  Landon felt a little ashamed of being caught eavesdropping. “Yes. I didn’t mean to be there. I just touched you, and there was a weird blue flash, and I was floating above you. What was happening?”

  Landon didn’t think Jackson wanted to answer. After a few moments of silence, however, he did. “I…I think I can change the past…like rewind myself to places I’ve been. I’ve been trying to save my parents’ lives, but it never works. It’s almost like the only choices I can change are my own.” He gave Landon a bit of a perturbed look. “Why am I here? What do these people want from me?”

  “That’s a long
story,” Landon started. “Our first priority is to get you out of here.”

  “Good luck with that,” Jackson said sarcastically. “There’s some kind of energy field keeping me contained in this place. I spent my first few hours banging on it, but it’s made to resist that, I guess.”

  Landon reached into his pocket and pulled out the eldnium stone. “It might not be able to resist this.”

  “A rock?” Jackson asked.

  “No. It’s called eldnium. It’s a metal. This whole place is built out of it, but it’s supposed to be nearly indestructible.” Landon stepped back through the force field and turned to face it, raising his fingers, which clutched the little stone like the tip of a pencil, and began to grind the stone into the force field with all of his might.

  “I don’t think that’s going to work,” Jackson said doubtfully. “It needs to be smashed.”

  “No,” Landon grunted, “first we weaken it, then we smash it.” And as he pressed harder and harder, the field began to turn a cloudy white color that radiated outward in a small circle from the pressure caused by the eldnium. With a little more effort, the field cracked. It was just a small crack, but it upset the entire field. Little bursts of energy, like lightning, arced from the weakened site, and Landon felt confident that it was now ready to shatter.

  Jackson stepped up to the spot and banged on it with his arms, but nothing happened. “It’s no use,” he said, stepping backward, out of breath. “It’s still too strong.”

  “Stand back,” Landon ordered, and he rolled the stone between his fingers, absorbing its strength. “Step two…” And Landon threw his shoulder into the weakened point, causing a sound like metal clanking together. The crack grew larger and began to split into more little vines and webs. Landon rammed it again and again until, finally, a piece of the field gave way, falling to the ground and creating a hole large enough for Jackson to squeeze through.

  As Jackson came forward, he saw electricity arcing over the hole. “How much voltage do you think that is?”

  “I don’t know,” Landon admitted. “Hold on.” Landon put a hand to the electricity, and it surged into his body, causing him to shake convulsively, but leaving the hole free of arcing electricity for the moment. “Hu-hu-hu-hu-hu-hurry!” Landon shouted as best he could. He felt himself bite his tongue. He felt blood coming out of his mouth in large splatters. He was unable to control it. He shook worse and worse the longer he held on.

  Jackson hurried through, and Landon was, with difficulty, finally able to break himself free.

  “Why did you do that?” Jackson asked, panicked. “Are you okay?”

  “I think so,” Landon answered, wiping the blood from his mouth. “Bit my tongue.”

  “That was crazy.”

  “I thought I’d be able to absorb it and control it, but…” Landon dabbed at the blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. “I couldn’t.”

  “What made you think you’d be able to control electricity?”

  “Long story,” Landon answered. “We can talk about that later. Right now, we need to…”

  Landon was interrupted by the sound of metal grinding metal, and he and Jackson watched in horror as one of the large metal blocks began to recede into the wall, opening a passage to another corridor.

  “They’re coming back,” Jackson whispered.

  “Who?”

  “The Control.”

  Landon’s mouth dropped. “We’ve got to get out of here…NOW.”

  But it was too late. A shadow filled the newly revealed doorway, and a man stepped through wearing a gas mask and red cape. Landon quickly stepped in front of Jackson, hoping the eldnium would help deflect any attack.

  The thing locked its eyes on Landon and began speaking, “Option…” click-click-click, like a movie reel run out of tape. “Option…” click-click-click, “Option…” click-click-click, “Option…” click-click-click, “…unidentified.”

  Landon and Jackson exchanged glances. The man stood, staring. Unsure of what would happen next, Landon drew an arrow into his bow and targeted the man in the cape. As he did this, the man continued, “Option…” click-click-click, “Option…” click-click-click, until Landon released his arrow and it struck the man in the face with a spark, causing him to collapse onto the floor.

  “Let’s go,” Landon said.

  “Which way?”

  “Not the way he came. He’s a commander…an upper-level officer. There’s bound to be an army down that path. We’ll go back up the well and head back to the portal. It should get us off of this planet.”

  They both turned and ran back through the entrance Landon had used to enter the chamber, followed the dark path blindly to the well, and climbed the metal stairs to the surface, where the pieces of the circumplex began swirling and squealing again until the well was closed up…nothing more than a small, round, deadly hole in the middle of nowhere.

  Ashes in the Wake

 
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