Second Home

Casey Ruiz opened the door to the crew barracks to find Captain Michaela Johns sitting in the common room.

“Michaela, get your people together. Now.”

She looked at him with some anxiety. “Seriously?”

Casey nodded. “Yeah. I’ve got VIPs inbound. You need to get going.”

“Okay, but . . .”

“No. Later. I’ve got to get ready.” Casey left to head back to the command center.

T-minus two hours.

As soon as he entered the center, his assistant, Kendra Samara, found him. “Senator Ellis is waiting for you.”

“Is everything as it should be?”

Only the tiniest flicker in Kendra’s eyes betrayed anything. “Yes, sir.”

“Good. Have the senator wait for me in meeting room A. We’ve got to get this show on the road.”

“And what show would that be, Mr. Ruiz?” Senator Ellis’s voice boomed off the walls.

Casey kept his reaction hidden behind a polite smile. “Ah, Senator. Nice of you to visit.”

“This isn’t a social call, Ruiz. I have some news.”

“Can it wait? We were going to run a few tests before tomorrow’s launch.”

The Senator shook his head. “This is about tomorrow’s launch. We need to talk. Privately.”

Casey sighed. The Senator always assumed his interests were of the utmost importance, no matter what else might be going on. But he also couldn’t say no. To Kendra, he said, “Call Captain Johns. Tell her to delay the tests but continue prep.”

After Kendra nodded acknowledgement, he turned back to Ellis. “This way, Senator.” He led the man to the meeting room down the hallway.

Once the door had shut behind them, the Senator began without preamble. “I have a crew change for this mission.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have five people that need to be on this flight.”

“Impossible. The team was set over a year ago. There is training to consider, expertise . . .”

Ellis held up his hand. “Stop. This isn’t a request. These people will be on this flight.”

“Who are they?”

“Adrian Fenney and his family.”

“The tech billionaire?”

“That’s him.”

“Why does he get a spot?”

“Because he paid for it.”

“This jeopardizes Second Home. It’s insane.”

“The mission will be fine. You have . . . what? . . . 30 people on this flight? Add 5 more.”

“Fuel. Resources. It can’t be done.”

“So replace 5 of the current crew.”

“We need everyone. I can’t just replace experts with civilians.”

The senator sighed. “Casey, this comes from the President. It has to be done.”

“Do you understand what we are trying to do? We are establishing a colony on Mars. Before climate disasters make it impossible. We need everyone we can send to make this a success. I won’t destroy that.”

“This is all a fantasy. The climate is not going to go haywire. You can send more people next year.”

“If the climate isn’t a real issue, why does Fenney want on this mission so badly?”

The Senator glared at him. “Are you refusing?”

“Yes.”

“Then you are off this project.”

T-minus an hour and 30 minutes.

Senator Ellis stormed out of the room and back to the command center, with Casey right behind him. Half a dozen soldiers were hovering just outside the door and followed the two into the room.

“Ms. Samara. Mr. Ruiz has been removed from this project. Will you follow orders from your President? Or do I need to have these soldiers take over operations?”

Kendra gave Casey a questioning look, but Ellis intervened.

“Don’t look at Mr. Ruiz. Give me your answer.”

“Very well. What are the President’s orders?”

Just before the Senator was about to respond, something caught his eye. “What is that?”

Kendra looked around. “Senator?”

“Those numbers!”

“It’s a countdown.”

“Sergeant! Stop the countdown. Now!”

One of the soldiers walked over to a panel and confidently threw a switch. The countdown stopped at an hour and twenty minutes.

“What was the plan, Ruiz? Delay me long enough to proceed with the launch a day early?”

Casey wore defeat on his face but said nothing.

Senator Ellis turned to Kendra once more. “You will determine the five least critical members of this crew and replace them with the five VIPs that arrived with me. Prep them and get them on board.”

“That will take at least two hours.”

“How long is your window open?”

She checked the clock. “We have roughly five and a half hours left today.”

“Good. Get it done.”

Chewing the inside of her cheek for a moment, she turned to another member of the team. “Go prep the Senator’s people. As quickly as you can.” The man nodded and left. Kendra sat down at a terminal and began reviewing the roster.

Casey tried to appeal to Senator Ellis once more. “Please don’t do this. This is humanity’s best chance at survival. We aren’t going to get another shot.”

Ellis ignored him and spoke to the soldiers. “Take Mr. Ruiz back to the meeting room. Keep him there until I arrive.”

T-minus one hour.

Out of the control center and away from even the possibility of affecting events, Casey paced the room. He needed to get back, to ensure Michaela’s, and her crew’s, safety. To help Kendra navigate this crisis. But he was helpless; he had to rely on the abilities of others. The launch would have begun in just under an hour if everything had worked out. He had rushed things, but there was no help for it. Even before Senator Ellis’s arrival, they had the forecast to worry about. A massive hurricane – Nelson, they had called it – would be coming ashore in the next 24 to 36 hours. Despite his talk of launching tomorrow, if they didn’t get off the pad today, they would have to pull the ship off and protect it from the storm. Then it would be anyone’s guess when, or even if, they would ever get to try again.

Did the President even know what the Senator was doing here? He couldn’t be sure the President would be above this stunt. On the other hand, keeping him under guard may have been Ellis’s way of making sure Casey couldn’t investigate his story. Neither politician had much use for Second Home. They, with too many others, didn’t think the predicted crisis would be so severe. Why not profit from a billionaire’s overblown worries?

T-minus 45 minutes.

Who would Kendra come up with to be taken off the mission? Casey couldn’t even imagine. With the careful planning, the genetic selections, the different expertises, built-in overlaps . . . No one person was so essential that they couldn’t be replaced. But five from this one group? There probably wasn’t enough redundancy to make the choices without serious consequence. He tried to go through the list from memory, but it seemed an impossible task.

T-minus 20 minutes.

Every minute seemed to creep by more slowly than the last. Ellis had obviously brought at least one person with some knowledge of the center’s instruments. He knew immediately which switch stopped the launch countdown. Could he manage things even without Kendra? There was too much he didn’t know, that he couldn’t find out sitting in this room. His guards did not seem ready to relax, and he was unlikely to be able to overpower them even if they did. He had no choice but to wait. And worry.

T-minus 5 minutes.

The human race may not have much longer on this planet. The climate was growing more and more unstable. So he had put all of his efforts into establishing an outpost off-world. When he joined Second Home in 2030, the task of setting up a self-sustaining colony on Mars seemed insurmountable. Now, nearly 15 years later, they were on the verge of making it real. Five ships had already been sent. This mission would have provided the final necessities. More could follow if there was time, but that seemed increasingly unlikely. Now it had all been threatened by Senator Ellis and his well-connected friend.

T-minus 1 minute.

The rumbling began. After exchanging questioning looks, the soldiers guarding him left the room. Casey made his way back to the control center where chaos was in full bloom. Two soldiers were frantically working boards while team members who had been pushed aside watched.

“Stop it! Shut it down!” The Senator was screaming.

The monitors showed smoke, billowing up around the launchpad, and the ship began to rise.

Ellis caught sight of Casey. “What did you do? Bring it back.”

“Sorry, Senator. She’s gone.”

“How?”

“I disconnected the control room before you got here. Captain Johns has been in charge of this from the beginning. This whole room is a useless show piece.”

“I’m going to make sure you rot in jail for this.”

“Fine. At least the human race has a chance.”

The Sacrifice

The sun shone mercilessly overhead as they walked. Their sandals protected their feet from the rocky ground, but only just. Ahead loomed the mountain that served as their destination. The boy looked at his father, walking without any visible signs of discomfort and considered asking him again, but then thought better of it.

They had been traveling since yesterday, and wouldn’t reach the mountain until tomorrow. In addition to the heat and the uneven ground, his father’s silence contributed to the trials of their journey. The older man was often quiet, but more so since they left the boy’s mother behind when they set out on the journey. He was distant and not his usual friendly – if a bit withdrawn – self. The boy did not know what might be wrong.

Finally the sun slipped below the horizon, and the air began to cool. The two servants began unpacking supplies from the donkey and set up the tent. His father prepared a modest meal for him and his son, leaving the servants to their own food.

As they ate, the boy spoke. “Why are we going to the mountain, father?”

The father made sure that the servants were a ways off before answering. Then he sighed. “I have already explained this to you.”

“You said that God required a sacrifice.”

“Correct.”

“But we have no suitable sacrifice with us.”

“God will provide. You must trust God.”

The boy nodded and said nothing more, returning his attention to the food. However, his mind summoned the image of his mother’s face when his father had told them about their journey. She had said nothing, but a sadness fell over her. He had not understand why, and he still did not, but the image of her face made him uneasy.

“And why must we go to the mountain? Can we not make a sacrifice at home?”

“The mountain is a sacred place; it places us closer to God. Now, please be quiet. I need to listen for God’s voice tonight.”

The boy obediently said nothing more. While had never heard God speak, he knew better than to continue to question his father. His father spoke with God often. It was another thing he did not understand, but he knew God’s instructions were to be followed.

The next morning, they continued in silence. The boy still wondered where the sacrifice would come from. No wild animals were evident, and there were no towns from which to buy one. What would happen if they did not find one. And why would God give them an animal only so they could give it back immediately? No answers presented themselves, and the questions made him more uneasy. Once more his mother’s face appeared before him.

Just before midday, they reached the base of the mountain. A path winding up toward the peak could be seen, but they did not climb immediately. Instead, his father instructed the servants to set up the tent here. He and his son would eat and then head up to worship alone. 

After a small meal, they set out. The mountain was dotted with rough, hardy bushes, but little else by way of vegetation. The path itself was steep and rocky. Still no animals appeared near them.

The boy dared to speak once more. “We are nearly there. Where will we find a suitable sacrifice?”

A darkness had settled over his father since they had started out that morning. The boy’s words seemed to deepen it, but he said nothing. They finished the climb in silence.

After a couple of hours, they reached the top. There, they found a clearing, in the middle of which sat a low stone table, clearly created as an altar. His apprehension became something akin to fear when the boy still did not see any animals nearby.

His father began taking out a length of rope and appeared to be struggling with it. “Come over here, and help me with this.

With all of his instincts now screaming at him in his head, the boy ran into the brush as quickly as he could. He changed directions several times before slowing down. Moving as quietly as he could, he found a dense bush to conceal himself in and listened for pursuit.

There was no sound in the brush itself, but he could hear his father yelling for him.

“Come back here! Why do you run from your father? God requires a sacrifice, and I need your assistance.”

His father paused. When he began to speak again, he was no longer calling for his son but was talking to someone else.

“I will not fail you. He is my son. I will find him. Please give me a chance.”

Another pause.

“No. You do not need to look elsewhere. You must know my only desire is to serve you.”

More silence.

“What? Oh, I see. Are you certain? I know I can bring him back.”

And once more.

“Very well. If that is your instruction.”

Then came the sound a bleating sheep. The boy began moving quietly back towards the clearing. He caught a glimpse of the animal bound upon the table just as his father brought down a knife upon it. The sheep went limp as blood pooled beneath it. Chanting the prayer asking God to accept the sacrifice, he lit the wood he had piled up around the animal. Soon the sacrifice was engulfed in flames.

When the flames began to die down, without turning around, his father said, “It is done. You may come out now.”

Whatever it had been in his father that had frightened him before was now gone. He left the brush and reentered the clearing. His own gaze was fixed downwards even as he knew his father was not looking at him.

Whether it was anger or shame, something held his father’s tongue all throughout their descent. His mother never would forgive her husband if she knew what had transpired this day. He knew he would not break her heart with the story, just as surely as he knew he could never see his father the same way again.

An Imperfect Solution

The door opened then closed. Several quiet footsteps indicated it was her attendant.

“Yes, Maire, what is it?”

“Excuse me, Miss. You have a visitor.”

“Who?”

“He refused to give me a name. Merely insisted I informed you of his presence.”

“Send him away. I am not here to be gawked at by anyone who decides to drop by.”

“Very well.”

A thought occurred to her, and she stopped Maire before she could leave. “What did he look like?”

“Miss?”

“His appearance. Describe it to me.”

“Older. His hair was unkempt and his face unshaven. A shabby overcoat. And I do not think he has had a bath in some time.”

“Very well. Bring him here, then leave us.”

“Miss, I must…”

“Just bring him, Maire. No arguments.”

It did not require sight to know that her attendant was glaring with disapproval, but Maire knew better than to voice it.

“As you say.”

Several minutes passed before the door opened again. The footsteps were slower and heavier this time.

“Why did you not give Maire your name? I almost refused your visit.”

“I prefer my comings and goings to be quieter than that. As you know.”

“Yes, well…”

“It is good seeing you again. How are you?”

“Was that a joke? Do not make me regret letting you in, engineer.”

“What? Oh, no. No joke. It is good to see you. I meant no offense. Indeed, it is your lack of sight that brings me today.”

“Is it? And why is that?”

“I may have a solution for you.”

“Do not toy with me. You work with machines. How could you solve my blindness?”

“Humor me. If it does not work, the only thing you have lost is a few minutes of your day.”

She thought for a moment, considering his reputation. “What does it involve? Describe it to me.”

“You only need to wear a special set of goggles I have constructed. They are connected to a box, which captures images and sends those images to the goggles. The goggles, in turn, stimulate the eyes, or the area around them. This should let you see the images.”

“And this works?”

“Yes. At least it should. It worked when I tested it, but I am not blind.”

“So you come to me to be your test subject.”

“I wanted to offer it to you, first.”

After another moment of consideration, she agreed. “Let us see how your contraption works, then.”

A sense of joy permeated the room as the engineer placed a pair of googles on her. She felt him adjust them and then listened to him throw switches, presumably on the box he mentioned.

“Are you ready?”

“Go ahead.”

“This may be disorienting for a moment.”

The first thing she noticed was tingling around the goggles. Then light seeped into her mind. She had nearly forgotten what it looked like. Slowly colors turned into shapes, and she could see her room. Her attention was drawn to her own body and the goggles strapped to her head.

“Oh!”

“Yes, disorienting. You are seeing from the vantage point of the box. It is not… ideal.”

“No, it is not. Still it works. You have given me quite a gift.”

“I am glad you think so.”

The engineer faced her – her body – and it was difficult to see his face from the perspective of the box.

“Is something wrong?”

“You cannot keep it.”

“I can afford to pay you for your efforts.” The thought of losing her sight, after reacquiring it, was difficult to bear.

“It is not a matter of payment. You know better than that.”

“Then what?”

“There are… imperfections in the device.”

“Such as?” Normally, it was impossible to stop him from talking for hours about his inventions. She was growing uneasy.

“For one, I need to make it all smaller. If I can get the mechanisms to take up less space, I can make it portable, fit on your head. That should minimize the perspective discrepancy.”

“But that is not the problem.”

“No.” He paused again. “My tests indicate that, over time, the machine will stop working for a given user. What remains of the sensitive powers of the eyes seem to burn out with too much exposure. In other words, this fix is temporary. And it would make your blindness immune to any other possible treatments. I am sorry.”

She laughed at that. “Sorry? My dear engineer, no other treatments have ever presented themselves. You rob me of nothing. And you have provided me at least one last opportunity to see the world around me.”

“I suppose that is true.”

“How long?”

“My best guess is six months.”

“Can I spread the time out by not using it continuously?”

“Perhaps. I believe so, but I cannot be certain.”

She chewed the inside of her cheek. When she saw how that made her face look, she immediately stopped and vowed never to do it again.

“Look at me.”

“I am looking at you.”

“No, engineer, look at the box, let me see your face.”

He bent down to the table where the box sat.

“Fix this device. Remove its imperfections. You have created something wonderful. Do better.”

“I will try…”

“No! You will. I demand it of you.”

A smile slowly spread across his face, and she knew he would satisfy her.

“Now, do you not have things to see to?”

He nodded, his face already half vacant for being lost in thought. “Indeed. If you will excuse me.”

“Of course.”

She watched him hurry out. With great reluctance, she removed the goggles. The returning darkness seemed deeper, more ominous. Under her breath, she whispered, “Hurry.”

Negotiations (part two)

The next day, I sat in a hotel room with the representatives who had been negotiating with me. I had no idea what they might really look like, but they appeared human. The technology they had demonstrated at our first meeting was sufficient to prove otherwise.

The news was on the television screen; it was showing scenes from a factory somewhere in Eastern Europe where hundreds of people stood on the roof. Responding to some signal I couldn’t detect, the people all began to jump off, falling over fifty feet to the ground.

“I can’t believe they actually did it.” The one who looked like a human female said to me.

I nodded, still staring at the television, trying to seem shocked. “I knew Howard was a bastard, but even I didn’t think he would actually go so far. This is who you are dealing with.”

The other one, who wore a male countenance, asked, “And what did he say about this?”

“He threatened to kill more of the population if you didn’t give him everything he demands.”

The two exchanged glances I couldn’t interpret. Then she spoke. “And what would you have us do?”

“I think it’s pretty clear we have to stop him before more people get hurt or even die.”

“Very well.”

*     *     *

An hour later, we had all reconvened in the meeting room. All except Tucker. Just as I was about to ask Tess where he was, the negotiators walked in.

Howard spoke before anyone else had a chance. “Was that an acceptable display?”

“So that was your doing?” the female asked.

“Indeed, I …” Before he could say another word, Howard disintegrated. I didn’t even see her draw a weapon.

I was shocked. Yes, it was the result I had been working towards, but the perfunctory nature of the execution was unexpected.

Leslie slammed her hand on the table. “What the hell? We did what you asked! Why kill him for it?”

This time I caught a glimpse of the small device in the negotiator’s hand before she used it. Without a word, Leslie vanished into dust. I began to feel a genuine fear. I thought only Howard would be at risk. Would they kill us all? Had they already gotten Tucker?

As if in response, Tucker entered the room. And the female turned her attention to me.

“Is there anyone else to implicate in this crime?”

“Well…” I began, but her glare silenced me.

Instead, Tucker spoke up. “You already know everything. Just him.” He pointed a finger at me.

“Your sister wasn’t part of it?”

“Um… well… I mean, no. Of course not,” Tucker stammered.

“Tucker, what is going on?” Tess’s voice betrayed only the slightest hint of unease.

“What did you do?” I asked, before he could answer his sister.

He turned to me with an accusatory look. “I told them I thought their demand was absurd. That’s when I found out you had made the whole thing up. They never asked us to arrange a mass suicide.”

“WHAT?!” Tess was on her feet, her face bright with anger.

“You seemed fine with it at the time,” I shot back.

“That’s because I …” Tess vanished in a cloud of dust.

“No!” Tucker sobbed.

“You heard her. She admitted to going along with this plan,” the female negotiator said calmly.

“What about him?” Tucker managed to spit out through his grief.

“Did he agree to the plan?”

“Yes.”

“I thought you said he offered to come to us to try a different route?”

“Well, yeah. But if he hadn’t lied to us, Tess never would have agreed.”

“But he didn’t agree?”

“No, he didn’t.” Tucker slumped, defeated.

I exhaled a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “Now that that is out of the way…”

Another look from her stopped me. “Your former colleagues were unworthy of sharing the planet with their fellows. But you have proven yourself untrustworthy. We are done with you.” She turned to her partner. “Have you arranged the next meeting?”

“Yes.”

“Then let’s go. I don’t want to be here any longer.”

After they left, Tucker stood and tried to look menacing. “I will ruin you for this. For what you did to my sister.”

I laughed. “Your sister did it to herself. You can do what you want, but we’re done.” I stood and left without looking back. I still had to finalize my take over of Howard’s empire. At least this hadn’t been a total waste of time.

 

fin

Negotiations (part one)

Four people were waiting for me when I walked into the meeting room. The man at the head of the table was also easily the oldest person present. Howard Massey had become ridiculously wealthy selling weapons to anyone who could pay. To his right sat the twins, Tess and Tucker van Auk. They had made their billions in the tech sector, though no one quite understood how. I’m not even certain they knew. Finally, across from them was Leslie Switt. Her financial firm had its hand in nearly every market.

I sat down next to Leslie. I was there because I had inherited control of so many patents, money was always pouring in. Also, I had something everyone else in the room lacked, charisma. I was our spokesperson.

Howard spoke up first. “How are the negotiations going?”

“They have agreed to our terms,” I said. I paused long enough to let everyone relax and begin planning their own celebrations. “But there is a complication.”

The scowl on Howard’s face was priceless. “You just said they accepted our offer.” He didn’t try to hide his disdain for me. Every chance he got, he made clear that only he had ever made anything to earn his money. It was a wonder to me that the others never objected or crossed him in any way. I, on the other hand, was constantly on the lookout for such opportunities.

“They did, but they want proof that the population is docile, that it is as easy to control as we’ve represented it to be.”

Howard began to rise to his feet in order to launch into one of his tirades when Leslie put her hand on his arm. She was the only one he showed even the slightest bit of respect to. She turned back to me. “What did you tell them?”

“I asked them what sort of proof they wanted.”

“And what did they say?” I had seen Leslie be abrasive on countless occasions, but she was only ever pleasant toward me.

“That’s why I called this meeting. I needed your input and agreement. They want us to arrange a mass suicide. At least a hundred people.”

“How the hell do they expect us to do that?” Howard screamed.

“They said it was up to us. If they are as easily controlled as we’ve said, it shouldn’t be a difficult feat.”

“Still,” Leslie spoke again, “that is a rather brutish approach.”

Tucker nodded with more energy than I think I’d ever seen from him.

Tess, who was almost always the one to speak for them both, sounded rather matter-of-fact. “And if we do this, we have a deal?”

I nodded. “Yes. Passage to another planet that meets all of our requirements as well as the resources to live as comfortably as possible.”

“And access to the bio tech they showed us?” Howard had calmed down as soon as he was reminded of what we stood to gain.

I nodded again. “In exchange for Earth, we will have everything we ever wanted. We just need to to prove the malleability of the people. So what do you all think?”

Tucker gave his sister a worried look, but she avoided turning his way. Leslie was chewing the inside of her lip, which she always did when she was weighing out risks and rewards. And Howard, uncharacteristically, was lost in thought.

“I can tell them no. See if there is some other way forward,” I offered.

Howard shook his head. “We would look weak, not in control. They came to us; if we started showing hesitation, they might think we weren’t the people they should be dealing with.”

Leslie indicated her agreement. “No sense getting squeamish now. The planet is doomed. We ought to see this through.”

Tess had to push Tucker off of her arm. “We, too, support going ahead.” Tucker seemed about to speak, but a look from his sister stopped him.

“Okay, so how do we proceed?” I stared at Howard, knowing he would have an idea.

“I will arrange it,” he said on cue. “Tell them to pay attention to this location,” he wrote down a place in China, “Wednesday, 4:00 pm local time. That gives me a little over 24 hours to set everything up through my contacts. Will that satisfy them?”

“It should. I’ll make sure of it.”

“Fine. I have work to do.” Howard stood and left the room without another word.

Everyone else sat quietly for a few moments until Tucker finally found his voice. “I can’t believe you’re all okay with this.”

Leslie sighed as Tess looked him in the eye. “Do you want to stay here? When they take over?”

“Well, no, but…”

“No buts. This is what we have to do, Tucker. This is how we survive.”

Tucker’s courage gave out, and he slumped back into silence.

“Well, as much fun as this has been,” I said, standing up, “I should go update the other side.” I looked at Tucker. “This will all be over soon.” I didn’t bother looking at anyone else as I left.

The Spell 2 (part five)

John woke first. He seemed to be floating in mid-air, a bright grey nothingness spread in every direction around him. His two friends floated nearby and had also begun to stir. There didn’t appear to be any ground under them and no landmarks to orient himself to. The boatman stood nearby.

“You are not used to the Astral Plane.”

“No, I guess I’m not,” John replied. 

“Well, you are delivered. My job is done.”

“Wait! Can you give us any advice? How do we find our way around?”

“Your companion asked to come here. I assume he knows how to get on. In any event, I did what I was paid to do. Good luck.” With that, the boatman stepped through a disk of swirling white and disappeared.

Jason and Kevin were now fully alert and looking around. Jason slowly stopped turning as he floated and settled into a standing position.

“How did you do that?” John asked, with more than a little surprise.

“Don’t you remember our last visit here?”

“No. What am I supposed to remember?”

By this time, Kevin had also righted himself. “Movement here is best accomplished by concentration. Just think yourself standing. When we move, just think about moving. Takes a little focus, but it’s not hard.”

“Says the mage,” Jason muttered.

John thought about standing upright and his body reoriented itself to match his friends. Feeling less out of sorts, he looked around again. It felt like he could see forever, but there was nothing to look at. “Why did you want to come here, Jason?”

“Because we should be able to find a way back home from here. Unlike the Ethereal Plane, there is only one Astral Plane. All the various Prime Material Planes link to here. We just have to find the doorway to ours.”

“How do we do that? There’s nothing around.”

“Do you see that?”

John followed Jason’s finger as he pointed. For a moment, he didn’t see anything, but then he caught a glimpse of a blue circle. It nearly blended in with the emptiness around it. “What is that?”

“It’s a portal. Those are going to be all around. We just have to find the right one to take us home.”

“Could that be the one?”

“No. That goes to… I can’t remember. But we’re looking for metallic colors. Our home should be behind one of them.”

“Well, let’s get started,” Kevin said.

The three began exploring, looking for color disks. They found several, unevenly spaced and appearing at odd angles. It took finding many different colors before stumbling upon a silvery one.

“This could be it!” Kevin shouted.

But Jason shook his head. “No. Silver represents the plane we came from. It would be the necromancer’s world. We’re looking for a different one.”

“Are you sure?” John asked while staring at the circle.

“Yeah. I remember that much. Silver is always the players’ home plane. That’s the necromancer’s plane.”

“That’s the home plane for our characters,” John said. “But it isn’t our home plane. Look.”

Jason stared at the circle until it cleared. On the other side appeared their school building. Before he could react, John was already through the portal. Kevin stopped before following suit.

“Come on, Jason. We’re finally home.”

He wasn’t sure he believed this was all over, but he went through the portal after his friends. They stood in front of their school in the late afternoon sun. Everything seemed back to normal, except…

“Wait!” Jason yelled. “Where’s Matt?”

The other two looked around, each of their faces betraying guilt for having forgotten about their friend.

“Did we leave him behind?” Kevin asked fearfully.

“When was the last time we heard him?” John added.

“Just before we left the Ethereal Plane,” Jason said.

“We have to go back for him.”

John gestured helplessly. “How do we do that, Kevin? I don’t see the portal anymore.”

“No. They’re usually one way,” Jason said.

Just then a police car pulled up and an officer got out of the driver’s side. “John? Kevin? Jason?”

“Yes, sir,” John answered.

“You’re parents have been worried sick. Where have you three been?”

“We…” John tried to think of an answer that might make sense. “We don’t know. We just woke up here.”

The officer gave them a skeptical look. “You don’t know where you’ve been?”

“No, sir.”

“You’re friend Matt said that you were together after playing a game, but that he didn’t know where you would go.”

“Matt? Matt’s here? Where?” Kevin asked.

“At his house, I assume. But we need to know where you were.”

“We told you, we don’t remember. But we need to go check on Matt.”

“Matt is fine. He didn’t disappear. You three did.”

The three friends looked at each other, confused.

“Matt didn’t disappear?” John finally asked.

“No. Now come with me to the station. We’ll call your parents from there.”

The end. For now.

The Spell 2 (part four)

“It’s a demon!” Kevin tried to whisper and yell at the same time.

Jason drew his sword.

“You guys don’t want to talk to him first?” Matt asked, uncertainty running through his voice.

“We don’t talk with demons,” Jason said.

The figure hadn’t moved. It simply continued to stare and grin, making them feel more unsettled with each passing moment.

“Who are you?” John asked loudly.

“What are you doing?” Jason whispered.

“It hasn’t attacked us. Maybe it can help.”

“A demon?”

“We don’t know that. Kevin was just guessing.”

“If you are done bickering amongst yourselves, I would be happy to answer the question.” The voice was the sound of an arid desert wind. It wasn’t frightening, not exactly, but it spoke of death.

John waved angrily at Jason to keep him quiet. “Apologies. My friends and I had not expected to meet anyone here. Please go ahead.”

It was impossible, but the smile got bigger, as though the bone of the skull itself changed shape. “Your friend is not correct. I am a daemon, not a demon. Your kind often ignores these distinctions. You can tell the difference because I am not currently chewing on your bones. I can offer you travel around the planes. For a price.”

“What’s the price?”

“What do you have?”

John turned back to his friends. “Do you guys have anything?”

Kevin and Jason both just looked at him, shock on their faces.

“What?”

Kevin answered. “You are acting like this is normal. How do we know we can trust… it. A daemon? What is that even?”

“Look, I don’t know if we can trust it, but if it can get us closer to home, isn’t it worth trying? We’re stuck, with only a vague sense of where we’re going. This is the first help we’ve come across. I’m willing to give it a shot. Now what do we have?”

“We’ve got Rob’s ring.” Jason glared at John.

“What? That’s mine. I found it.”

“Well unless you found some pricey gems, too, that’s what we’ve got. We didn’t arrive here with any of our characters’ money. The only other things of value we have are our weapons, which we need in order to have any hope of surviving this nightmare. The ring is the only thing we can spare.”

“But…”

“Jason’s right, John. We’ve got nothing else. You want to see if it can take us home? Your ring is the price we can afford.”

John looked from Kevin to Jason and then back at Kevin. “Matt, any help here?”

“I don’t know, John. I can’t think of anything else you could use.”

The creature spoke again. “If you are not interested in my offer, I will take my leave. Good luck.”

John quickly turned back to him. “Wait! I have a ring of protection. Will it be enough to take all three of us?”

“Show me the ring.”

John took several steps forward as he held out the ring. Nearing the daemon, he noticed that the fog on the ground had almost completely hid a river. The creature stood on a flat craft floating on the surface. Faster than John could see, it snatched the ring from his hand and studied it carefully.

“Very well,” it said upon concluding its inspection. “All three of you. Get on the boat.”

Kevin and Jason hesitated but finally followed John in getting on the craft.

“Where do you want to go?”

Jason spoke up. “We’re headed to our native prime material plane. Can you take us there?”

“No.”

“What?” John sounded incredulous. “But I gave you the ring.”

“Indeed. But finding the correct plane for you would take too much of my time. The ring is not sufficient. Unless you have something else…”

John shook his head.

“Then get off my boat.”

Jason spoke again. “We paid you. Take us to the Astral Plane. That should be simple enough.”

The daemon looked at him for a long moment. “Oh very well. I can take you that far.”

Using the pole, it pushed the craft toward the middle of the river, and the current moved them swiftly along. No one spoke, though both Kevin and John kept giving Jason questioning looks. Jason ignored them and watched the boatman as well as where they were headed. The boatman was focused on steering his craft and paid no attention to any of them.

“What’s that?” Jason asked after they had traveled for a while. His friends looked ahead and could only make out an indistinct darker area some distance off.

“That is the entrance to the Astral Plane, as you requested.”

“It doesn’t look much like an entrance.” Jason squinted to see more detail.

“Few things appear as they are here.”

“It’s a tornado!” Jason exclaimed.

“A cyclone. But that is what I said. It is the entrance we seek.”

“You’re going to kill us!”

“Do not be ridiculous. It is not my place to kill. I simply deliver people where they need to go.”

“Using tornadoes?”

“Cyclones. They are more expedient than the curtains or other gates.”

They had gotten much closer to the violently swirling column of mist. Kevin and John had both sat down to make themselves more stable. Jason tried to judge how far the river bank was and whether they could make it.

“I would not leave the boat. If you do, I cannot say what might happen to you.”

Jason looked for anything he might hang on to, but there was nothing. He sat down next to his friends and put his head between his knees. The boatman began to laugh. They entered the cyclone, and the world turned upside down.