Vicks was a bright young soldier who had recently been transferred to Hub security. It was an easy job, if a bit hard on the feet; Vicks’s route alone took well over six hours on foot. Still, Vicks had heard stories: stories about guards going crazy from lack of stimulus, stories about guards being dragged to the bowels of the Central Core by machines, and most horrifying of all, guards being ambushed by superiors checking to see if the new guy was following procedure.
Vicks was sure the more experienced soldiers were just messing with him. He had finished his basic training a full year earlier than most of his classmates, and was already in line for a promotion. He knew that some members of the Security Force thought he was just a know-it-all brat, which was exactly why he had accepted the transfer to the Hub in the first place. He wanted to prove he could handle anything. Now, however, he was beginning to wonder if he had been a bit fool-hardy.
There it was again! It sounded like footsteps, but from where? He ran up and down the corridor at least a dozen times already, but the only thing he ever found was one of the little robots that seemed to live in the Hub. That little machine’s tiny pincer legs couldn’t possibly have made the footsteps he was hearing.
Private Vicks clutched his rifle nervously. The idea of an invasion of Ronisgald was ludicrous, what with all the security fields and safety measures and the armed security force at every possible entrance, not to mention the surface patrols.
The footsteps started again, much closer this time. Perhaps it was the reverberation off the metal corridors of the wall, but it sounded like there was more than one source.
“Stay focused,” Vicks breathed, “It’s all in your head.”
This time, however, the footsteps didn’t stop. They grew closer and closer, growing louder and louder until it sounded as if a whole army was approaching.
“S-stay …” Vicks’s mind went blank with terror.
The footsteps abruptly stopped. Vicks waited a few moments before wiping the sweat from his brow. Just as he chalked it up to nerves, something hit the ceiling panel directly above him with enough force to make the metal bulge toward him.
What little courage Vicks still possessed fled like a frightened mouse confronted with a tiger. With a wild scream, he legged it down the corridor as fast as his legs could carry him.
Moments later, the ceiling panel was knocked from its moorings. One hopped through the opening, his boots hitting the damaged ceiling plate with a harsh clang.
Glancing around for a moment, he looked up through the hole he had made and said, “See? I told you there wasn’t anything down here.”
He caught Teria easily as she leapt from the duct. As he set her down, she muttered, “I’m sure I heard someone.”
Teria replied with a dismissive snort. “Yeah, right.”
Still, Teria couldn’t help but feel a surge of excitement as One hammered the plate back into the ceiling. They had slipped past the supposedly advanced security of Ronisgald. She couldn’t wait to get back home and brag about it to her hacker friends.
Stepping back, One asked, “You think anyone will notice?”
Teria glanced up at the ceiling panel. The center still bulged inward from One’s repeated kicks, and the edges all looked as though someone had knocked the panel back into place with a sledge hammer.
Glancing at One, Teria asked, “Can’t you Dreamer it back to the way it was?”
“Eh, I suppose.” With a wave of his hand, the plate returned to its original condition with a loud wobble.
Cocking her head to the side as she looked at the repaired plate, Teria commented, “Somehow I expected it to be flashier.”
“It takes more power to make it flashy. There’s not much of a point, if you ask me. I’d rather save the strength for something big.” Glancing at the display on one of his Headache units, One pointed down the right corridor, saying, “This way.”
As they started walking, Teria asked, “Y’know, I think that’s the first time I’ve seen you use your Dreamer magic.”
“It’s not magic,” One replied, keeping his eyes on the corridor ahead, “Our abilities are linked to the dream realm. There’s the flashy stuff, sure, but for the most part it's perspective kinda stuff.”
“Perspective kinda stuff?” said Teria with a laugh, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Perspective is pretty much what makes the Dream realm, there are dozens, hundreds, even thousands of different perceptions for everything. That’s why cities that were destroyed or renovated still exist as they were concurrently in the dream realm.”
One stopped and scratched his head for a minute. “Say there’s a town called Blue from my time that was destroyed and rebuilt as the city of Green when you were born. If I was a dreaming norm, I’d see the town as Blue, while you’d see the town as Green.”
“Actually, I see the town as being a white or brown.” said Teria, smirking.
One chuckled. “Cute. You get the idea though.”
“I guess, but what’s that got to do with Dreamer ma … er, abilities?”
“Well, with practice, anyone can use their perception to alter their dreams. Lucid dreaming, they call it. Dreamers like me have the ability to do the same thing in the mainstream. I want an apple, I imagine having it, and bam! There it is. I have to be careful, though. Sometimes the results can be hard to predict. I might end up with a rotten or unripe apple if I’m not careful. Two once ended up with a handful of applesauce, though I’m not sure he wasn’t just goofing around.”
“I think I get what you’re saying. Are there any limits?”
One slowed his pace. “Well … yes. You're not going to tell Tirinia this, right?”
“Of course not.” Teria said honestly.
“Cause if this ends up on the weave, I'm gonna be upset. Unless she says it came from Narrator Number Two.”
“Cross my heart, hope to die. C'mon Glen, tell me!”
One stopped walking and turned to Teria. “Our powers need dreams, specifically energy from the dream realm. Using dreamer abilities essentially creates a small hole in the barrier between the dream realm and the mainstream. The bigger the change in the mainstream, the more dream energy we need to pull it off. Pull too much, and the hole gets harder to close. Pull way too much, and it might even cause a breach … and trust me, you don’t want the Dream Realm to start leaking into the mainstream. It can get a bit messy.”
“I’ll bet.” Teria said as they continued walking. “How do you fix it?”
“Constantly. All of my ability to alter the dream realm goes to fixing the hole. It's an automatic thing, we're not sure why. Unfortunately, if it's something really big, fixing the breach can keep them from doing anything else for days, months, years even depending on the triggering effect. We call it being 'normed'.”
“Has that ever happened to you?” Teria asked curiously.
“A few times.” One admitted. “Usually heat of the moment kind of things. I got stranded on a world called Illyanda for forty years once.”
“Don't remind me.” Shaking his head, One said, “That’s why I really don’t like to use my Dreamer abilities unless I just have to. Getting dependent on something like that’s nothing but trouble.”
He stopped abruptly. “Sometimes, though, there isn’t much of a choice.”
Teria turned to see three Galden guards staring at her and One through the sights of their energy rifles. She started to hold her hands up when One said, “Hand me an electro-spanner, sis.”
She turned, and that was when she realized her tail was gone. She brushed her hand against her backside and felt rough denim. A quick glance down showed her that she was now Galden and wearing a green tube top and a set of overalls.
“Sis?” One, now wearing a red shirt and overalls, was poking around inside an open wall panel. He glanced at her curiously, saying, “The electro- … oh. Hello there officers.”
“Show me your identification!” The lead soldier barked.
One tossed two laminated cards to the soldiers, saying, “Glen and Tia Gineros, IT Support and Maintenance.”
While the guards looked over the cards for a moment, Teria crossed her bare arms over her chest. Despite her clothing, she felt oddly naked without her fur.
The guard eventually nodded and handed the cards back. “Identification verified. What are you working on, Tech?”
“I got reports that some of the Hub-to-Surface lifts are randomly going up and down since the last thunderstorm. I’d have been on it sooner, but someone thought it’d be fun to screw around with the traffic systems in the Kelshira District.”
“Understood. Our border patrols have sighted possible spies heading toward Ronisgald. Just to be safe, I’m going to leave a security soldier to ensure your safety.”
“That won’t be necessary, sir,” One said nonchalantly, “I’m almost done here.”
“I’d rather not take the chance.” The leader nodded toward a rather shaken-looking Galden. “Private Vicks, stay with them and make sure they get home once they’ve finished their work.
“Y-yes sir!” Private Vicks replied, sounding as though the very idea terrified him.
As the group left, Teria asked, “Now what?”
“Now will you please hand me that Electro-spanner? I’d like to get this fixed and get back to Kelshira before we’re invaded or whatever.” One gave her a wink, pointing at the tool specified.
She picked it up and handed it to him, snickering. “Whatever you say, bro.”
“Will this take long?” asked Private Vicks once the other soldiers were out of earshot.
“Nah, not really.” One replied, “You in a hurry or somethin’?”
“Aren’t you worried about the invaders?”
“Not particularly.” One twisted the last wire of the console into place, linking it with Headache. The display screen flipped out, showing a map of Ronisgald. “Check this out.”
Teria and Vicks both leaned toward him as he continued, “Internal map of the Hub. See, we’re right here. Now watch this.”
He tapped a few of the buttons on the screen. Instantly, a series of dots appeared all over the map. Most were green with small bits of writing saying who they were: technicians and soldiers mostly. A small group of dots, however, were bright red. They were labeled, “Unable to identify”.
“See?” One said, “The intruders are on the other side of the Hub, well away from us.”
Vick’s face went pale. “We need to report … wait, what about these two?”
He pointed at the map, apparently unaware that the point indicated was right where he was standing.
“Eh, I wouldn’t worry about them. Teria?”
Teria gave the soldier a sharp rap in the helmet with a large wrench. He fell to the floor instantly.
Hefting the wrench, Teria asked, “What do you use a wrench this big for, anyway?”
“Comic relief, mostly.” He glanced down at the display. “Huh. They’re splitting up.”
“What?” Teria grabbed his arm and pulled it so that she could see the display. “Why are they splitting up?”
“I have no idea. Maybe something came up. Still, if we can sense them, so can anyone else who’s looking.” He tapped on Headache’s control panel for a few seconds. The red dots promptly vanished from the map display. “There! That should keep ‘em safe for a bit. Let’s get this guy into a supply closet or something.”
They found a maintenance closet not too far away, filled with brooms, mops, and the faint smell of industrial cleaning chemicals.
“Will he be okay in here?” Teria asked.
One grinned at her. “You’re worried about a Galden?” Seeing her scowl, he laughed. “I’m kidding! He’ll be fine.”
As the door slid shut, One smashed the control panel with a heavy fist, rendering it useless.
“There. That should keep him stuck for a few hours.”
Teria looked at One curiously. “How do you know he won’t be there for days?”
“Ronisgald maintenance is pretty quick. Besides, there’s a CIC down here; the moment his life-signs fluctuate, she’ll have a legion of scrievers down here. Hold still for a sec, and I’ll get you back to normal.”
With a wave of his hand, Teria’s form returned to normal. She swished her tail around a few seconds, relieved to have her own body back.
“Okay,” He said, his clothing turning back into his usual blue jeans and green-and-gray striped shirt, “Next stop; Kelshira district.”
He had barely taken a few steps before Teria grabbed his shoulder. “Kelshira? We aren’t meeting back up with Mikaen?”
One regarded her with a raised eyebrow. “Awfully inquisitive today, aren't you?”
“You want me to hit you again?” She gave him a smile that she hoped indicated she was only slightly kidding.
“We’re going to the Kelshira District so we can hack into the mainframe at the Security Force’s HQ and figure out what the Revs are up to, just in case Angela proves to be less than helpful.”
Teria nodded approvingly. “Good thinking.”
“Besides, I have to find the portal device the Revs used to get here. There should be some record of it in the Security Force’s Mainframe.”
They continued walking for a few moments before One’s words made it through Teria’s brain. She stopped immediately and grabbed his arm. “Wait, what was that about a portal?”
“Mikaen's portal,” One said, “It's how the Revs got here. My guess is Mikaen made it too close to a Rip and now the magical energy is keeping it open. Look, I’ll explain along the way.”
“You’ll explain now!” She said, anger seeping into her voice, “I’m not going to let Tirinia lose her one good chance at being with one of her own kind on a Dreamer’s whim!”
“Her own kind? I thought she was tigreth.”
She stared at him a moment. “How could you not know?”
“Not know what?” One asked, looking legitimately perplexed.
“Tirinia's not tigreth.”
One’s eyes widened. “What?!”
Teria nodded. “We overheard our parents talking about it when we were young. I’m their only real daughter. Tirinia was left in their care as a baby. They said she was a sentient.”
“Beratian, I'm guessing,” One said, feeling a bit dazed. “Explains why she looks tigreth. She having wing pains yet?”
“She hasn't said anything yet, but her twenty-third birthday is next month.”
“Gineros hits between twenty and twenty-five years depending on the tribe.” Shaking his head, One said, “Look, I’m here to destroy the portal device … you know, to keep him from going through? The Elsewhere doesn’t have a record of where the damn thing is, so I need to get to the Security Force HQ to find it. While we’re there, we can look for info on the Revs. C'mon. We need to keep moving.”
Neither spoke for the entire trip. When they reached the elevator, Teria strode inside without as much as a backwards glance.
“This shouldn’t take long,” One told her.
Teria was very careful not to give any sign she was listening: no twitch of an ear, no audible reaction, not even the barest of glances. She knew One; this ‘silent treatment’ would bug the heck out of him until he finally told her everything.
She was right.
“Look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.” One said, apparently unable to take the silence anymore, “I just didn’t want you to get all worried. I know you’ve been concerned for Tirinia. I really intended to pull the plug on the machine then move straight on to finding out about the Revs.”
The look on One's face made it clear that wasn't the answer he expected. Teria had to make a real effort to keep herself from smiling as One fidgeted awkwardly for the rest of the ride.
When she wasn't able to resist the urge to chuckle, One asked, “What?”
“Just thinking about the old days. You really haven't changed a bit, you know.”
The doors chose that moment to open, and Teria took the opportunity to walk past the flustered One.