What had happened to the jungle?
Tony kept taking in this forest, trying to figure out where that TeK scout was going. This place was just as funky looking, but not as dense as the jungle Tony had traveled through right after being dumped out of the pod. He doubted the thickly wooded, tree-looking growths that towered overhead, or the more open terrain at the base of the trees offered any more safety.
‘Specially for a Camden-raised dude.
Eyeing the red moon through the canopy of branches, he used that marker to keep track of his direction since leaving the village. That moon kept sliding down.
What happened in this place when the moon set?
He swatted low-hanging branches that smelled like petro-chemicals out of the way and kept that scout, Phen, in sight. The Tek guy wound through knee-high, berry-covered bushes and trees with twisted limbs. If you could call these things he ran past trees.
Trees were supposed to have brown or gray bark, not chartreuse stripes and tubular leaves. Not puffy and corkscrew shaped things in shades of black, pink and purple.
Tony stumbled over jagged breaks in the ground that could be roots and pushed through a clump of spiky bushes that looked like the barbed wire on top of prison fences. Sweat stung his eyes, streamed down his neck and soaked his shirt.
Where was this scout going? Why hadn’t he headed the other way through the jungle? Didn’t he want to snag a pod, or transender as Mathias had called it, and fly home? The guy moved through this big-ass forest as though he had a specific direction in mind, but kept looking around as if he watched for someone. Or wanted to avoid someone. Who?
Don’t let there be any other crazies out here running loose.
What if this guy stayed somewhere in this place, like in a guard shack, and was heading there instead of back to a transender pod?
Don’t think that way.
This whole place was jacked-up crazy enough.
Tony had never touched anything that could screw with his brain, but just this once, he almost wished he was tripping on acid. That’d mean there was an end to this nightmare. But no, he was lucid and breathing hard from more exercise than a Jersey boy needed to work on computers. The muggy air he slogged through reminded him of a heat wave in Camden last summer.
Xena is cut out for this native crap. Not me.
But Tony wouldn’t admit that to anyone.
Once he found a way home, he’d prove who’d had the skills for getting away from here.
The scout slowed down just before the woods thinned ahead.
Tony hurried, closing the distance to fifteen feet and tucking in behind a sprawling tree. He scanned the wide-open space beyond the tree line.
No towering pod, transender or other transport unit out there. Crapola. This might’ve been a big mistake.
Phen stood in knee-high, weedy grass, clearly looking for something, then must have found it. He ran two steps and shoved his hand into a...pink flower!
Tony had no time to yell a warning.
But even though the flower looked just like the one that had attacked him earlier, it made no threatening move toward Phen.
In fact, in the next five seconds, a holographic screen appeared chest high in the air near the scout who stood up, withdrawing his hand from the flower.
The screen lit up and a hot feminine voice announced, “One hour, twenty-eight minutes left to request transender return from Sphere.”
Tony’s heart rate soared. There was a time limit for calling up a transender. He had to find Gabby and Rayen fast.
Lifting his hand, Phen placed his right palm against the translucent screen. A red line streaked around the outline of his hand then started blinking until it turned bright green. The minute that happened, the scout yanked his hand back and the woman said, “Request acknowledged.”
Then the screen vanished without a sound.
When Phen hurried toward the open space, Tony took off right behind him. Cobra dude was going nowhere until he told Tony how to get out of this hellhole.
A high-pitched whining started.
He knew that sound and increased his speed.
Bursting from the trees, he noticed a gigantic burned croggle–had Rayen fought that?–lying dead fifty yards away. Tony closed to within three steps behind Phen who’d been jogging along. Phen must have heard Tony’s footsteps. He cast a ragged glance over his shoulder. “What the–”
Phen kicked up his speed.
You don’t grow up on the streets of south Jersey and not be fast in a sprint.
Tony raced ahead, cringing as the whining grew louder.
On the far side of the clearing, dirt and other particles spun an orange-red tornado in one spot. The whirling image of a huge bullet-shaped metallic object started taking shape.
The spinning stopped at once. There stood the pod again.
Busting a gut, Tony growled and powered forward with everything he had. He went airborne, body tackling Phen, taking them both down hard and rolling.
Just like back home when an a-hole kid had pushed over Tony’s little brother and tried to run.
Sucking gulps of thick air, Tony jumped on Phen’s back while he was still face down. He shoved his knee hard and wrenched one of the guy’s arms behind his back. That move exposed the rest of the guy’s cobra tattoo that wrapped around a triangular shape like an A with three circles worked into the design. It had a small barcode beneath it.
“Let me go!” Phen yelled, pounding the dirt.
“Not gonna happen until you tell me what I want to know. Asked you nice back in that hut. Not askin’ this time.”
“I’ve only got minutes to embark since the transender is here. Or it returns without me.”
Good to know. But even better was the panic in Phen’s voice.
Tony growled, “Then time’s of the essence, right, buddy? Stop wasting seconds. What happens if you don’t get inside in time?”
Phen slapped his free hand on the ground again. “You can’t make it work.”
“Pay attention, dweeb. I’m not a MystiK and I can sit here for hours. Won’t take the others long to figure out we both escaped. They’ll be here soon.” And Tony had to have information before that happened.
“Okay. I’ll tell. I’ll tell.”
Tony loosened his grip, but only a bit.
Phen continued, “Doesn’t matter anyhow since you can’t travel without an authorized scout. Once a transender is called up, you have to get inside in three minutes or it’ll leave without you.”
Tony leaned down close. “Letting you go depends on how well you convince me that you’re tellin’ the truth. I’ll know the second you start lyin’. One lie and you’re stayin’ here with me. Understand?”
“Yes. Just hurry. What do you want?”
Nothing like fear to loosen a tongue. Another Jersey lesson learned early and well. Tony started firing questions. “Saw you call it up with your hand on a screen. I’m guessin’ it works for more than one hand print.”
Phen expelled a pained noise as if he’d made a grave error by allowing Tony to see him activate the holographic panel, but he kept answering as fast as he could spit the words out. “My palm print calls up the transender that brought me here. No one can call that one but me during a moon cycle.”
“Transenders can only travel to and from this Sphere while the red moon is in view overhead. Once the moon sets, the lunar surface energy diminishes to the point that it’s too dangerous to risk coming or going.” Phen continued without needing a nudge. “Human molecules have to be suspended while the unit transcends from one dimension to another. We still have a few flaws that haven’t been worked out yet.”
Oh, man, why can’t I have an hour with this guy? Tony asked, “What happens if you miss this transender?”
“You can’t do that to me,” Phen pleaded in a voice pitched high with hysteria. “Transenders are reprogrammed daily. I can’t call up another one once I’ve activated this one. And if the MystiKs find me again they’ll torture then kill me.”
“Then talk faster. What happens if a MystiK takes a transender without an escort?” If Tony had something to offer Mathias that his group could use to escape here he might be willing to let him, Rayen and Gabby leave.
“Not possible,” Phen whined, stomping on Tony’s hope. “The palm screen is programmed not to work for a MystiK. Even if they could call a transender, they’d die of asphyxiation once the transender returned if they didn’t have the daily exit code entered as a secondary security.”
That’s no use. If he, Gabby and Rayen found a way to the transender that brought them, would a return trip suffocate all of them? But he doubted this guy’d know that answer.
Phen drew a quick breath. “I’ve got to go in the next thirty seconds. Have to take this one. Let me go...or be responsible for my death.”
Decision made. Tony had no reason to cause Phen’s death and he wouldn’t trust Zilya not to kill this guy.
Getting up, he helped Phen off the ground for the second time today and told him. “You better hope I find a way home. If not, I’m gonna to be your worst enemy if you come back and hurt any of those kids.”
Of all the things Tony expected Phen to say, “Thanks,” had not been on the list.
A whirring noise started again.
Phen rushed to the transender and put his hands on the side. He swung his head around and yelled, “Same person has to palm the outside of the transender to open it.”
Freebie intel. Sweet.
Two of the tall panels covering the exterior slid apart.
Phen dove inside as the panels snapped shut and the pod started spinning...then poof, it vanished.
Dusting off as much of the red clay as possible, Tony strode back to the trees to find that flower. When he did, he couldn’t convince himself to stick his hand down into those pink petals. But the longer he studied the plant, the more he became convinced it was one heck of a reproduction.
Nothing moved. No breathing in and out like the killer flower had done. But now that he thought about it, there had been other big-ass pink flowers around. While hiking through the jungle, Rayen had told him about watching for the flower breathing.
This one acted dead as a corpse.
Good camouflage for a TecKnati transender call panel.
As much as hesitating put him at risk of being discovered, Tony couldn’t go back without knowing for sure that he could find this panel again. When he convinced himself to walk all the way up to the plant, and after he’d left his phone several yards away, he thought he’d beaten his nerves. But his fingers shook like old Mr. Belokov waiting for Sol’s bar to open. When Tony stuck his arm toward the pink petals they might as well have been shark jaws.
Sweat broke out on his forehead. He leaned over, looking inside the opening that was wide enough for two arms. But he couldn’t see all the way to the bottom of the dark hole.
Just do it.
But Phen and these crazy MystiKs were from another world even if Phen had called it Earth.
Time was of the essence.
Ah, hell. Tony took one for the team and jabbed his hand down into the hole. His fingers reached tentatively further...more...until he touched a round knob. Okay, good sign. Breathing hard, he pushed the knob.
Curling his fingers around it, he tried twisting one way then the other.
That’s when the knob turned and he heard a loud click.
A holographic screen came alive just out from his left shoulder and that killer female voice announced, “One hour, twenty minutes left to request transender return from Sphere.”
So this place was a Sphere? More to figure out later. His ticket home was calling.
Looking around to assure no one was sneaking up on him, Tony lifted his hand to the screen. The same red line traced around his palm, blinking, then stayed solid red.
The female voice came on again. “Request denied.”
Tony knew, now, that this was not the same location where he, Rayen and Gabby had exited the transender. Would this work for Rayen if Tony could find a similar holographic screen near where the three of them had arrived in this place? Rayen’s hand had started the computer freaking out back at the lab. So maybe that’s what was needed here.
He wouldn’t find out if he didn’t get back to the village and figure out a way to break out the other two in the next eighty minutes. Based on what Phen had said, if they didn’t find their original pod they might not be able to return at all. And they couldn’t get the transender activated unless they found the right panel.
Blowing out a breath and cracking his knuckles, Tony looked skyward until he had a bead on the moon position that he’d noted on the way here. Using that, he started double-timing it back to the village.
Now all he had to do was find his way without getting lost. Not get killed or eaten by vines. Not become dinner for some weird-ass animal. Not get stopped or caught by some of the village gang.
If he managed all that, and survived, he still had to pass through the skin-peeling fog around the village.
And he’d thought growing up in Jersey was rough.
Tony found a stick that had a velvet-like bark and started thrashing his way back. He kept checking the moon through the speckled leaves and could swear that orb had picked up speed on its downward slide to the horizon.
Unless the moon was moving around, it should stay on his left all the way back. Simple astronomy.
Between keeping up with the moon’s movement and trying to find his way back, he started sensing he was lost. His cell phone was stuck on the time displayed when he’d entered this place. Who knew technology could backfire? His best guess was that he’d been walking for about fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. That meant he had somewhere around an hour to find Rayen and Gabby, figure a way out of the village and call up the transender.
And what if I can’t find a freakin’ fake pink flower at our transender site?
Or if Rayen’s palm wouldn’t activate the holographic screen?
Or if Rayen hadn’t returned to the village and still wandered around this godforsaken jungle with that crazy warrior and his friends?
If any of the boys from back home were in his shoes and had his computer skills, they’d just skip the village, find their way back to the right transender location and take their chances with the holographic panel to access the pod.
But Tony didn’t throw his friends under the bus. No way.
Rayen might be clueless about technology, but she was turning out to be tough and decent.
And Gabby had paid for helping him fight the flower vine by getting an infection he hoped hadn’t killed her.
Tony couldn’t name one person who’d do what either of those two had for him.
Bottom line, he was going nowhere without Xena and Psycho Babe.
A wisp of movement caught his eye.
He shifted right and hunkered down behind a bush with feathery leaves that smelled like Mrs. Wolsinski’s cabbage soup she cooked every Thursday. Easing up to watch, he listened for the crackle of feet snapping twigs and branches.
Of course, these people were like Rayen who could move through a jungle or forest like a shadow.
There it was.
One of the pint-size warriors about twelve years old popped into view at a distance. One of those kids with the freaky purple eyes marched calmly through the woods, not sneaking as though they were trying to catch someone.
Tony could hide from them and try to make his way back, but even if he did find the village he still faced having to get through the fog wall.
And he was running out of time.
So he stood up and moved into a clear area, waving his hands. “Hey, guys. Over here. Glad to see ya.”
Etoi popped into view between him and the kids. She took one look at him and came flying at him, drawing back her arm to throw her spear.
“Whoa! Hold it!” Tony dove to his side. He heard the whistle of the weapon as it just missed his head. He dove sideways, crashing into a sticky bush, kicking his legs to get free.
He heard the sound of someone running all out. Were all the girls in this place insane? He pushed to his feet, pulse ripping with adrenaline. Had to get away from Godzilla’s bride.
Wheeling around quickly, he spied her.
She yanked her spear from the ground and hoisted it, spinning to face him from no more than ten feet away. Close enough for her to make him into a shish kebab.
Tony raised his hands above his head. “Wait a minute, babe. I was comin’ in. Givin’ myself up.”
Out of nowhere, Mathias stepped in front of him.
Tony had never been so glad to see someone. Not that he wanted the crazy witch to skewer anyone else, but he doubted she’d make the mistake of attacking her boss.
Mathias yelled, “Put down your spear.”
Etoi lowered her weapon, but pointed a finger at Tony. “He released the prisoner. The scout will report to SEOH.”
“We’ll deal with that if it happens. We don’t know that the scout isn’t still wandering around in the Sphere.”
Tony mumbled, “Glad someone in charge isn’t hormonal.”
Muscles bunched from exertion, Mathias turned on Tony, snarling, “Shut up. You’ve caused us enough trouble.” With a flick of his hand, Mathias called up his boys. “Restrain him.”
“Hey, I was wavin’ my hands, coming to you,” Tony complained. “That’s a sign of surrender.” Granted he’d had no white flag, but still. “Where I come from we talk after someone gives up.”
Sometimes. Other times they beat the crap out of you for being stupid enough to get caught, but he figured these guys wouldn’t know Jersey rules.
He hoped they didn’t know them. “I’ve been tryin’ to find my way back. You found me headin’ toward the village, not away. Doesn’t that count for somethin’?”
Mathias vibrated with anger. “You’ve released the TecKnati scout we captured. Nothing will save you from judgment now.”
“No, no. You got that all wrong.” Tony backed up, but two boys moved forward, spears jabbing at his neck. A third one stepped in front of him, wrapping Tony’s hands and arms to his body then winding those crazy red vines around his legs. He protested the whole time, “Listen to me. I didn’t break us out. The other guy did.”
Someone slapped a wide, flat leaf over his mouth then wound a vine around that twice. No matter how hard he tried, all the sound he could make was a muted mumble. Then they tied him to a long pole that two of the taller kids hoisted over their shoulders and carried him back toward the village like a pig on the way to being roasted.
Now he couldn’t even yell the information to Rayen and Gabby so they could get to a transender on their own.
Mathias might not let them go either if he thought they had any part in Tony escaping.
We’re so screwed.