Author’s Note: This story is the culmination of our interactive activities over on our Twitch livestream. Characters and their fates were partly decided based on audience participation. Check out the earlier sessions if you wish to learn where these characters came from.
People often feel trapped in dreams. They sink into the ground, encounter locked doors, or become surrounded by shadowy figures. Sometimes it’s enough to pull one from sleep, sweating and clutching at their heart as if the nightmares tried to steal it out of their chest.
The survivors of the minefield had to deal with that feeling constantly now. Their world had been destroyed in a cataclysmic event, something that ripped apart both time and space. There had been only one avenue of escape: one sliver of their world flung far enough to act as a bridge between their sinking ship and a new one.
That was the Minefield: strange debris from across the entire history of their world. It had claimed the lives of many who tried to traverse it. Those who made it through didn’t fare much better. They hoped for paradise, or at least a warm welcome. What they found on the other side of that wall of fog… was cages.
Cages stacked upon cages in great, groaning, leaning towers. They came in a thousand styles and materials: wood, bone, concrete, steel, clockwork, ethereal magic, vague ideas, and in one instance hardened cheese. These cages extended into the distance as a skyline of bars and prisoner silhouettes. The survivors couldn’t see past that. At the moment, they couldn’t see much of anything.
Twenty refugees of the Minefield were clustered together, united only by timing, luck, and skill, under one of the largest cages. Even to them, a large cage used to mean something that could perhaps house an elephant. This place, this world, was different. The cage they had burrowed under was as wide and tall as a skyscraper. There was a ceiling of extremely thick concrete over them that dripped dew like a leaky roof.
Under them was barren ground. None of them had seen so much as a blade of grass since they passed through the fog. Even the Minefield had flora. This had lit a fuse in most of them, as there was no food to be found unless you were already caged. Then the guards would come along and give you scraps.
They had large beasts in their group, and it surprised them all that neither of the creatures attacked them for food. One of them, a giant dragonish lizard by the name of Wollid, had even been the one to do most of the digging, providing their current burrow away from the eyes of their potential captors.
All twenty gathered in a circle, around a hologram of a campfire provided by a technologically-absurd pirate by the name of Bitbeard. Not all of them were gifted with speech, but there was more than enough intelligence to go around. They pooled their information and together crafted a picture of their bleak future.
“So what have we got?” the Red Huntress asked. She sorely missed the warmth of a real fire, and already hunger clawed at her insides. She’d been moments away from suggesting they kill and eat the two large beasts, before one of them spoke to her, greeting her in a very friendly fashion. More than eight hundred pounds of meat were on the beast named Pudda, under her thick furry coat, but it was inaccessible because that meat happened to be polite. “Anything?” She picked up a rusted tin cup, a piece of garbage, that they were using to gather the dew falling from the concrete. She took a swig of the nasty water.
“None of you humans bothered to bring anything bigger than your egos, but I have this,” a voice burbled. A man-sized squid by the name of Duid pulled something forward with five of his tentacles, dragging it to the center and dousing the hologram fire. It was a featureless black disc, big enough for six or so humans to sit around its edge.
“Okay, you brought it. What is it?” asked a man named Byron as he stroked his smooth chin. His beard, now animated to life by the magic of the minefield, hopped in Byron’s lap to let him stroke it instead. It groaned happily and wiggled about, unaware of the brewing arguments and struggles.
“It’s a pip!” Pudda said, spraying spittle with her big fleshy lips. “Pip, pip, pip, pip!” Her head bounced up and down, a movement mimicked by Bonzai: a small magical creature resembling a blobby fish with a tree growing out of its forehead. It laughed and hovered up and down, squishing against the pip.
Sertin stepped forward. She was a young dark-skinned woman in yellow and green robes, a fellow to Bonzai, as they were both thoughts incarnate: she of hope and he of whimsy. She wrapped the fish in her sleeves and pulled him back so his frolicking wouldn’t interrupt their planning. As thoughts they had to be attached to a specific mind to survive, and in this case they both belonged to the mind of one Cassandra Dender.
Cassandra felt silly around all these strange people, entities, and creatures. Many of them looked straight from pulpy scifi magazines, like they carried magical gems that could destroy the world if not polished properly. She was just a cheerleader, far from her home crowd. She still had her uniform on. For now she decided to let Sertin and Bonzai be her representatives; they more closely resembled the team-less mascots all about her.
“Pudda, calm down,” Techtet urged. She was a ballerina, with computerized shoes that could control other machines via dance, but the only machine in the group had a mind of his own. She wasn’t supposed to mess with him, but she was going to have to mess with something soon. The urge was almost as bad as the hunger. “Tell us what a pip is, and whether or not we can use it to escape this place.”
“I don’t know what it is!” Pudda said, none of her excitement dying. Her head continued to bounce. “Its name is pip, it’s very important, you can be very rich if you have one, and it does stuff that I don’t know!” She stopped bouncing suddenly, as if she’d forgotten the subject completely. She looked around for any grass to munch on, and found nothing but all their footprints in the mud.
“How does that thing know about it?” Vince asked. He was a grizzled man, partly because of the actual grizzlies he’d encountered, though his specialty was crocodilians. He wrestled them for sport and money. Like the Red Huntress, he had to restrain himself from just attacking and subduing Wollid on sight.
“I have a theory as to that,” a mechanical voice announced. Its owner, Mr. 32, a rectangular wheeled robot with no face to speak of, rolled to the center of the group. He turned and flashed a light, forcing the others of his kind to line up in a row and present themselves to the survivors.
In truth they had more than the pip; they had Mr. 32’s small army. They had no arms with which to hold weapons, and much of their information was locked in their hard drives, but they at least fit in with their enemies.
While the Mr. 32 line of mobile cryo-prison robots was an invention of the survivors’ world, the guards in the land of cages had found all the ones that crossed over quite useful, reprogramming them to capture anybody that made it across the Minefield, so they could later be dumped in a more appropriate cage.
The Mr. 32 that belonged tot he survivors was of the original run of the model, and thus had more authority over all the others. He silently ordered them to change their behaviors, to dump anyone captured there, under the giant concrete cage. Even with all his directives ordering him to maintain his prisoners, he couldn’t bring himself to lock up Trish, the woman he’d brought with him across the field, a second time. This world of cages was different. Its justice was different. He needed to figure out who the bad guys were first.
“As you can see, I have near complete control over my fellow prisons,” Mr. 32 continued. “Their data banks, and thus the identity of our foes, remain inaccessible, above my pay grade as they say, but they have told me things they believe to be trivial. All of us received a signal coming from here, urging us across. Yet, most machines that made it were turned away or destroyed. They only wanted us. This is a utilitarian place.”
“Get on with it!” Bitbeard urged. He hated when machines talked; that was why everything he kept around mostly beeped, booped, or whirred.
“Sertin and Bonzai are living thoughts,” Mr. 32 continued, his voice having sped up by exactly fifteen percent. “It is clear that signals, thoughts, and data were all mingled in the Minefield. I suspect Pudda has a similar sort of signal that she is interpreting as a memory. Her horns may have acted as antennae to receive it.”
“What good does that do us?” Techet asked, hands out, feet dancing back and forth as if she needed a restroom. She sighed and got out some of the frustration by dancing around the group.
Mr. 32 explained further, including every detail his fellow prisons had managed to gather but didn’t feel the need to hide. There were other pips in the land of cages, a land the prisons referred to as the Trap. The pips had to be powerful, because they were kept under lock and key by the guards, and kept separate from each other.
He laid out the rest of his theory regarding Pudda. With the lines of thought and data crossed, it was possible Pudda remembered a pip because it was stored inside her as information. He suggested they try to extract it via surgery.
“I’ve heard enough,” Vince said as he rose to his feet and crossed his arms. The gator wrestler surveyed the other survivors, judged them in an instant, and made his decisions. “Do we all agree these pip things are important?” All of those who understood nodded. “Do we all agree we can’t just live under here until we turn into skeletons… or whatever you’d turn into.” He looked at Codagula, an artificial intelligence housed in a body of vaporized blood, but the entity didn’t seem offended. He nodded along with the rest.
“You want to go find more pips?” Trish asked. Her speaking disturbed Blurry, the animated sketch of a fat cat currently acting as her tattoo. His fluffy head popped out of her shirt, but she quickly shoved him back down and against her skin. This was serious. She could pet him and come up with different fat-based nicknames later.
“I do,” Vince said, cracking his knuckles, ankles, shoulders, neck, and, somehow, sternum. “If they’re so powerful we can use them to break out of this prison. If they’re not, we can bribe the people around here with them. Either way we gain power. Agreed?” Everyone nodded again. “I’m a good judge of character. I take one look at your throat and I know exactly how many pounds per square inch I would need to apply to choke you to death.”
“How does that make you a good judge of character?” Sertin asked curiously.
“How strong your neck is is how strong you are, even accounting for spirit.” he answered.
“Yeah I get that,” Trish agreed casually. She smacked the lump under her shirt once more.
“Since I’m such a good judge of character, I’d like to be the one to break us up into teams and send us out on tasks. Not the leader mind you, I haven’t done enough strategizing in my life for that, just the head forager. Everybody good with that?” Another unanimous nod.
His plan was simple, and thus easy to agree to. They needed pips and they needed food. Going after the pips would most likely create conflict, so some of the strongest would leave their burrow in search of them. Trish would lead a group that also contained Techtet, who could manipulate any machine they crossed, the Red Huntress, who was eager to use her bow once more, Bitbeard, who was just as eager with his malware flintlock, and Sertin the living hope, just to keep them away from each other’s throats and that exact amount of pressure that could choke them.
The second group was made up of survivors that Vince referred to as ‘smart-asses and weirdos’. It consisted of Pudda, Byron’s beard, Blurry, Codagula, and himself. The weirdos, who he knew didn’t exist the right way, would try and open up Pudda’s memory and extract the pip lodged in it. He would oversee to make sure they didn’t wander off or do anything stupid.
The third group would leave the safety of the cage as well, but they would go in search of food rather than pips. It consisted of Cassandra, Byron, Duid, and Wollid. The rest of them would be on standby, in case anything went strange with Pudda or the pips. They were mostly a shy crowd anyway. They busied themselves telling stories while the others prepared to leave.
Maddy the park ranger talked of her ex-lovers while Macawl the parrot woman laughed like her namesake. Petra, the selectively invisible woman, shared a kiss with Bitbeard before he went off on his pip hunt, then her lips vanished as well and she stayed out of sight. The Dying Light, a man-shaped brightness, was still weak from its journey across the Minefield, so it slept alongside the renewed fire hologram after they all pushed the pip off to one side.
They all set off on their paths. The path to Pudda’s past was most difficult to parse. Vince didn’t know where to start, but that was where the weirdos came in. He approached the silly furry beast just as Mr. 32 marched his stolen army out to the edges of the burrow, to act as camouflage. Blurry, having jumped from Trish’s skin before she left, tried to weave his way between Vince’s legs, but his fat sides nearly tripped the man.
He restrained himself from kicking the little penciled-in fatty. That cat belonged to Trish, as both pet and body decoration, and he thought it best to not piss that woman off. This was especially true as he’d been the one to ask for their separation. Blurry’s existence was clearly weird, so perhaps he could move or manipulate memories better than the others. It was the same reason he tolerated that barking beard that now managed to distract the cat with its playfulness.
Vince came up alongside Pudda’s massive head to speak with the only one of them that was hard at work: Codagula. Vince didn’t care to learn his history, he suspected it was gross and inhuman, but he also suspected it was key to delicate operations like this. Codagula was stitched together from ghosts and wounds by a likely-deceased god of their world: the bloody dome over their history called Murdurlur.
“What do you say red guy?” Vince asked, clapping the bloody phantom on the shoulder. His hand came away stained and popping with static electricity; he simply wiped it on his pants like it was nothing. “Can you open this girl’s head up?”
“I can,” the A.I. responded, “but not without killing her, and I would only succeed in predicting the future I just destroyed or projecting her fears into reality. I need some help from… whatever that is over there.” A bloody finger grew out of the phantom’s chest and pointed at Bonzai. The fish responded by sucking on the finger like an ice pop and laughing through it, spraying blood everywhere.
“How does that help?” Vince asked.
“It has both a physical form and a spirit of thought,” Codagula explained. “It will make an excellent conduit for my attempt to open the memory without murdering the mind.” A huge bloody bubble popped on Codagula’s head, where a mouth should’ve been, right when he said murder.
“Okay,” Vince answered, turning and snatching the blob fish out of the air. Its protective pink bubble popped and its laughter died down as it caught its breath. He handed the ridiculous creature off to Codagula, who pressed it, with a nasty wet sound, against Pudda’s forehead. Codagula had already lulled her to sleep with a strange humming sound, but Bonzai did not respond in the same way. The fish’s laughter picked up again.
“One more thing,” Codagula said. His strange voice dropped into something like a whisper. “How much agency do we assume this thought has?”
“I don’t follow.”
“This is an experimental interaction. Harm may come to this fish. Do we care? Do the others care?” Codagula didn’t care himself, but his standing in the group had become important to him. The greater his bond to the rest of the survivors, the more utility he could eventually draw from their blood. If he angered them now by killing one of their pets, he might end up making their innards as useless as tomato paste.
“Do what you have to to get the pip,” Vince whispered back. He looked over at Bonzai and the fish’s floppy smile. He poked it in the eye, and it laughed in response. “There are nobler creatures to worry about.” Codagula nodded.
Vince urged everyone to step back, everyone except the weird beard and cat. The gator wrestler took up a firm stance, like he was about to tackle a bull head on, and gave Codagula the signal to begin. Bloody rivulets spread over Bonzai and then Pudda’s forehead. The liquid spiraled up the seams of her horns and fell from the corners of her closed eyes. Bonzai stopped laughing. His fleshy mouth popped open like a mailbox, and a river of blood issued forth. This secondary stream was imaginary blood, the blood of Pudda’s soul, and it was solid enough to see.
The stream rose and spread, becoming a red fountain and dome. It silently moved over Vince and the two strange animals. Moments later, when the false blood hit the wet ground, they were completely encased. The other survivors could only watch, barely able to make out their silhouettes through the red. This was supposed to be a dive into memory, but already it had more gore than that implied. It seemed they dove into an internal organ.
Inside the dome, shapes bubbled out of Codagula’s back, somewhere between illusion and reality. These shapes turned into grass under their feet. They turned into others of Pudda’s species milling about in a meadow. Vince maneuvered between their great furry flanks, careful not to touch any of them. Byron’s beard and Blurry followed close behind.
“You two,” Vince growled down at them, “find Pudda’s memory of herself. That’s where the pip’ll be.” The creatures didn’t nod, but they did round his legs and take point, their heads moving about between massive feet curiously. Vince followed them, something that proved difficult as they scurried under the belly of a remembered beast. He dropped to his elbows and knees.
There came a sound: a great whistle only audible inside the bloody dome. It drew closer and closer with incredible speed, until Vince guessed a giant arrow was about to pierce his midsection. Luckily, the memory of some meteoric object struck quite far away. Vince scuttled forward, but he wasn’t free from under them before the shock wave hit.
The herd of Pudda’s family turned instantly and ran from the impact. A foot struck next to Vince’s head, feeling all too real. This was the memory of a pip? The pip they had never moved or made a sound, never threatened to trample them to death.
A terrified Blurry, his fur frazzled like iron shavings, ran straight at Vince. He held up his arms, thinking the cat was mad with fear, thinking he was going to scratch the flesh off him. Instead the cat dove into the man’s forearm and turned tattoo once more. His skin was the safest place around.
Another giant foot struck the back of his head and knocked him flat. He had landed on Byron’s beard, which had already been thoroughly trampled. It resembled a welcome mat that had welcomed the wrong crowd of cleat-footed hooligans.
He didn’t have time to pick it up and flap it back to life like a dusty carpet. He had to find either Pudda or the pip. Vince forced his way back to his feet, knocking giant beasts over with his shoulders. Only when he was running at full speed, alongside the herd, did he realize that he couldn’t pick Pudda out of the crowd. All their faces were the same.
The ground rumbled behind him. Was this a memory of the death of their world? He never knew what had killed it exactly, nobody did, only that the destruction was varied and that most saw it coming. Perhaps this meteor had been the first taste of it. Meteor… An object from beyond their world…
Vince jumped up onto a beast’s back. An object from beyond their world. It had to be the pip! He jumped from back to back, in the opposite direction of the stampede. They kept trying to pull him forward, all running and bleating, but Vince had the stamina. He’d once spiraled in the grip of an alligator underwater for ten minutes straight without losing his arm. One of the beasts stopped and looked back; only one was curious as to the shape of the approaching death. It had to be Pudda.
His foot landed on her forehead as he leapt off and kept going. He needed the pip. There was the crater. He could see it now, all fire and smoke. The pip was at the center. He could feel it. At least, Blurry could feel it. The cat tattoo prickled across his chest.
He jumped off the last beast and rolled into the fires. It was incredibly hot and he couldn’t make out much of anything. His hand found the surface of the pip, and it burned his fingers. There was something else there as well. This was the center of the dome. The pip was right under the sleeping Pudda and the unaware Codagula and Bonzai. Pudda’s feet kicked as if in a nightmare. She threatened to buck Vince away.
He pulled his shirt open, tearing off all the buttons and forcing Blurry to flop out. The cat did his duty, nuzzling the side of Pudda’s head until her feet calmed. Vince had a chance, but only a sliver of one. The heat grew. It might’ve been a memory, but soon Pudda would remember him burning to death. With one hand on the pip, he reached out with the other.
There was no procedure for deactivating the interaction. Codagula did not respond to his orders; the A.I. was lost in the trance. Vince wrapped his free hand around the bloody blob that was Bonzai. He squeezed. He knew the exact amount of pressure. Destroying the conduit would destroy the memory. He squeezed.
Bonzai laughed and sputtered, blood choking out of his small bloated body. Vince squeezed.
“Ahahahahahahaha!” Bonzai guffawed. More blood. More laughter. A tighter squeeze. The fish exploded in his grip, the last of its laughter echoing away across the concrete ceiling. The dome was gone. The beasts and fire were gone. He collapsed against their new pip, burned, gasping, and bruised.
“You did it!” Macawl squawked, before she and the others realized. The poor little fish was gone. They heard its laughter for a moment more, and then only silence. Maddy rushed to the flattened beard and pulled it out of the mud. It whined weakly, filthy but alive. Blurry ran from Pudda to nuzzle the beard back to health instead.
Pudda was fine. She had no memory of the events, or of the pip anymore. That one backward look that had lodged it in her had been neutralized. With the exit of the pip, her intelligence went as well. She had no more words. All she had as compensation for her part was the small tree now growing from her forehead.
Two pips now. All the survivors felt it. Cassandra, now miles away, felt her heart skip a beat at the death of the whimsical thought that had set roots in her mind.
Miles further than that, the other pip hunters couldn’t stop to dwell on it. They were in battle with the humanoid guards that threatened all their freedom. It was an ambush, at the base of a tower of cages. Their enemies had colorful plastic armor and bright, almost toy-like, firearms. The bullets still bit though, and they bit hard.
A Red Huntress arrow, already tipped in blood from reuse, flew up the barrel of one such gun and made it explode, raining colorful bits onto the battlefield. Bitbeard blasted another one away with his flintlock, even as he stomped on one that still grabbed his leg despite its missing head.
Sertin held one down while Techtet danced across its body, shredding its armor and skin. Trish got a hold of the last guard as it tried to flee. She examined its uniform. There was a label where a name tag would go: Ratcatcher. So they had a name. They fought the ratcatchers in a place called the Trap. Trish didn’t like the way that sounded, and she expressed her disapproval by ripping the man in half by the shoulders.
Wires poured out in a jumble and sparked. A robot, but not entirely. Something furry and squeaking squeezed its way loose of the wires and ran off, under one of the cages. Ratcatchers indeed. It seemed their enemies were controlled by the rodents.
They looked up at the tower of cages. This world was all bars, barriers, and the things scurrying between them. It would stay that way unless they could harness the pips. They looked up. Skewered atop the tower’s spire, there was another great black circle, another talisman of fate in this new prison of a world.
“Do you think there’s an elevator?” Red Huntress asked.
“We can hope,” Sertin answered. That they could.
Once the last rat had fled, the survivors had a chance to examine the tower more closely. It was made of six distinct parts: six different cages stacked atop each other. Inside each set of bars was a stack of individual rooms that likely housed their enemies. These rooms were connected to each other by glass, metal, and plastic tubes that wound between the bars of the cages and moved between levels.
“Any of you ever seen a building like this?” the Red Huntress asked the others.
“It wasn’t planned,” Bitbeard observed. He removed his purple hat and fanned himself. “None of this place was planned. Maybe these rat-bots threw it all together at the last minute. I get the sense it was a prison before we got here though.”
“Nothing inside is responding!” Techet squealed as she danced about and kicked in the direction of the tower. “My shoes can’t control any of it… at least not from out here.” She twirled towards the entrance: a set of double doors with lacquered red and gold paint like an old theater. The others followed her. They were not a group to voice their fears, and any that existed in them were quickly being overpowered by hunger. The last thing they wanted was to return and find their fellows had slayed the few animals left from their world and feasted upon the meat without them.
They stopped a few feet from the doors. Bitbeard tentatively tapped a handle and recoiled. He preferred automatic doors; he preferred everything automatic. He could barely remember the last time he did that much legwork.
Trish, despite her recent history stuffed in an icy box, showed no concern. She grabbed the other handle and pulled, strolling inside. Waves of air conditioning poured over her, calming her pores and drawing out a sigh. The others entered around her and spread out in what looked like a lobby, complete with an emptied snack counter and a wall covered in ten foot tall posters. Past those they could see the entrances to arenas built into the cage: domes of curved metal bars stained with blood and oil.
“It’s some sort of gladiatorial theater,” Sertin guessed, sticking her head into one of the arenas and looking around. As a living thought she had no need of nourishment, but the others had their heads buried in the various glass cases and compartments of the snack stand. They searched for something, anything left to eat. When she turned back she saw Bitbeard licking an artificial butter stain off the side of a popcorn machine.
“We should’ve grabbed some of those rats,” Trish lamented. “We could’ve eaten them.”
“They might be intelligent,” Sertin said.
“Not smart enough to stay out of our way,” Trish countered. She grabbed Bitbeard by the shoulder and pulled him away so she could have her own turn with the butter stain. The Red Huntress and Techtet had too much dignity to follow suit, but not too much to bend over like stalking storks and search the garish carpet for any rogue pieces of chocolate or gummy candy.
They all stopped when they heard the peel of an electric bell. Their heads whipped around in its direction. Elevator doors. A small round light atop them, blinking yellow. The brass doors squeaked open. Had it been sent for them? Was it just an old motion tracker still chugging along?
“It’s probably a trap,” Techtet reasoned as she vaulted over the snack counter and stuck the landing elegantly, “but I’m not taking the stairs. We’ll starve to death by the third flight.” She didn’t bother to ask if the others were with her, but they all filed into the elevator as well. The bell tolled again and the doors closed slowly.
The Red Huntress wasn’t used to such machines, but she thought it easy enough to figure out. There was a collection of buttons and numbers. They wanted to go up, so she pressed the top one. The elevator didn’t respond. She pressed it again. Nothing. She pulled a knife from her belt and stabbed the button for its disrespect, but it still didn’t move.
“Let me fiddle with this finery,” Bitbeard said. The Huntress extracted her knife, taking the face of the button with it, and stepped back. She leaned against the opposite side of the elevator and sank to her bottom. Sertin noticed and sat down next to her, holding her hand.
“Aren’t you Cassandra’s hope?” the Huntress asked her with a weak smile as Bitbeard and Trish pried the panel off the wall.
“I’m currently hosted in her mind,” Sertin said with a nod, “but I can be anybody’s hope. I’m here with you four now, so I’m yours.” Her grip tightened around the Huntress’s knuckles. She sensed cracks. No, something more subtle. The Huntress was weathered, the skin of her soul blasted away by something.
“This is a piece of shit,” Bitbeard said as he examined a bundle of wires inside the elevator. He tapped his hat, causing small embedded flashlights in the brim to illuminate the compartment. The wires were patched with bits of tape, plastic wrap, and pink bandages. He reached in, endured a small shock, and reached in further.
“Is that a problem?” Trish asked.
“No, I specialize in pieces of shit,” Bitbeard answered with a smile. He forced his second hand in. The elevator grumbled, as if Bitbeard was its nagging dentist, and finally moved. Trish slowly clapped for the man, as did Techtet. The Red Huntress had to swallow a fresh lump of fear in her throat. Were these feelings of hers psychic visions? Could it be called psychic if it only ever saw the worst possibility?
Sertin saw her despair as plainly as the red on her cloak. Something had to be done. It wouldn’t help if the others knew the depths of her sadness. She had to disguise her plan if she was going to get the woman back on her feet, but she needed time. At this rate, the elevator would be at the top floor before…
Eeeerrrrnnnnnk! The machine ground to a halt once more, knocking Bitbeard out of its components and onto his back. He swore up a storm, but it refused to budge any further. Techtet tried her hand at it this time, using a subtle series of tap steps to try and force the elevator up. It repeatedly collided with something in the shaft, making a horrible noise each time.
“We don’t really need to be knocking on their door,” the Huntress hissed.
“There’s something blocking it,” the ballerina said without acknowledging her. “They’ve put a literal lock on it or something. Nothing electronic.”
“Well, we can get out and climb up the shaft,” Trish suggested.
“We need to do something first,” Sertin insisted. She stood and grabbed Trish by the shoulders. If she’d been an ordinary person, anything more solid than a happy idea brought into reality, Trish would’ve pushed her away and struck her. As it was, she felt something akin to beams of light shoot out of Sertin’s fingerprints and bounce around inside her. She let the idea speak, and not only that, she let her push her down until she was seated across from the Huntress.
Before she said anything else she moved Bitbeard out of the middle and Techtet into a crouch as well, though she refused to actually sit on the grimy stubbly carpet. When Sertin joined them, completing the circle, they all suddenly felt like they sat around an invisible campfire.
“I can see we are not the strongest,” Sertin said. “That does not mean we are without hope. If we share what we have, we can work better together. I’ve got a ceremony in mind. When it is done, we should all feel better about tackling the upper reaches of this tower. Even though the pips are of the darkest shadow, we will see them as golden medallions. Please, join hands.”
They did as they were told. Sertin was not capable of true sorrow. She could feel an undercurrent of it, empathize with it, but that was all. Without the full emotional palette of a human being, she had little compunction when it came to lying. Sometimes hope was made of falsehood. She told them it was a ritual of sharing, of redistributing each other’s hope and pain, but it was really a transfusion. The Red Huntress needed some hope of her own, and it would have to come from the other four.
One by one she pulled their visions for the future out of their minds as radiant golden bubbles and let them dance about in the cramped elevator. She could see that these people were mostly selfish, but that could always change. Being trapped with the few survivors of their entire world could accelerate change like that. For now all their visions revolved around only one person. Trish saw herself reclining on a wooden porch, sipping whiskey from a bottomless glass as the desert sun caused everyone else around to shrivel up like earthworms before they could reach her home.
Bitbeard’s hope took the form of a massive cruise ship under his command, sailing metaphysical waters between worlds rather than belonging to any of them. In this vision he traded private important data without a thought to the consequences, because consequences only existed within the worlds.
Surprisingly, Techtet did not see herself upon the grandest of stages. No, she danced alone in a place that was barely a place. There were no rocks on the ground to trip her and no air to slow her twirling. Her entire body had been replaced by machine parts. She dreamed of turning herself into the ornament atop a music box.
Sertin siphoned small bits of radiant energy from each of these visions and let them pour into the Huntress, giving her heart something to mull instead of the bitterness it had been chewing on. The transfusion was nearly complete when someone crashed their intimate get-together. Something smacked the top of the elevator and then scurried across it, its flaking nails making a grating sound. One of the hope bubbles popped, and all the others quickly followed suit. The party slowly rose to their feet.
“Rats,” Bitbeard growled. Another struck, falling from somewhere above them. Another. Four more. A torrential swell of rats hit the elevator and shook it. The access panel at the top slid partly open, and a few of the rodents slipped in. They wasted no time in biting at ankles and squeaking savagely. If all of them got in they might not be able to kill them fast enough.
Techtet took the matter into her own feet. She couldn’t make the elevator rise, but she could make it drop. She danced with abandon, and the machine immediately obeyed. One step on the floor. One step on a rat. One step in the air. They were all suspended as the box dropped at an accelerating speed.
“Slow it down!” Trish demanded. “You’ll kill us all!” Techtet seemed not to listen. Her hope was fresh in her mind, and in it she cared for no life, not even her own. The elevator had other plans. It, like the rest of the tower, was a mishmash assortment of discarded machines and death traps. Its rapid descent triggered and old cord it was attached to.
The box was pulled sideways, ripped through the weak walls of the shaft and the rest of the building. It swung out like a tire swing, arcing up the side of the tower. A spray of rats were thrown into the distance as it went. The elevator turned out to be attached to something gigantic, plastic, and red, like the arm of a toy crane. At the end of its arc, after its passengers were thoroughly tumbled and battered, it slammed into a balcony much higher than where they’d started.
The elevator was on its back with its doors facing up. Trish pried them open, bending the metal with her bare hands, and helped the others out, all except Techtet, who did not need help. She leapt out and continued her dance all the way tot he edge of the balcony. The crane arm shivered and groaned along with her moves. She hummed something classical to herself.
“Where in Kansas.com are we now?” Bitbeard grumbled. He realized his hat-light was still on, so he smacked it a few times until it extinguished.
“Let’s ask him,” The Huntress said. From under her cloak she pulled her short-bow and one arrow, firing it before Bitbeard even saw her nock it. It whizzed by the few pieces of balcony furniture and struck the side of a door leading back into the tower, but not before it struck the loose skin of a rat haunch. The scrambling vermin was pinned to the wall, so the Huntress went to retrieve it.
Her lingering despair prevented her from hurrying, even as the whole building shook. It was the work of Techtet. With such a high vantage point she now looked out at the entire expanse of the Trap. She saw all its cages, all its towers, and all its machines. High on hope pulled to her soul’s surface, Techtet wanted to see how much of it she could move at once.
The crane that brought them there flailed alongside her will, pulling the elevator back off the side and swinging it like an ancient ball-and-cup game. It smashed into the side of the tower repeatedly, but was barely heard in the growing cacophony. One building moved up and down in the ground, like a piston. Techtet jumped, and three buildings in the distance did the same, creating shock waves and giant clouds of dust.
“Knock it off,” Trish warned as she stomped closer to the ballerina. Techtet responded by dancing around Trish, mocking her, treating her as a set piece. All the while the the chaos of the Trap’s machines grew. It was like a whole city finally convinced to scratch its chicken pox. The infrastructure was possessed by wild abandon, and things began to crack and crumble.
“I could be god here!” Techtet blurted mid-flip. She never got to finish it. Trish grabbed her ankle while it was at eye level and held the girl upside down. An image of Blurry, her now beloved tattoo, flashed before her eyes. The butterball wasn’t with her at the moment. He was off under some of the cages, cages Techtet might have just shook from their foundations. If her cat had been squished before she had a chance to wear it again…
With blood boiling in her ears and behind her eyes, Trish ripped the shoe from Techtet’s foot and dropped her. Before the girl could hop back up the buffer woman snapped the shoe in half, undaunted by its spray of sparks. She tossed both halves off the side of the balcony, each in a different direction. Techtet couldn’t believe her eyes. She crawled to the edge of the balcony and leaned over, nearly sloughing off the side like a thin pickle slice.
“Waaaaaaaaahhhhh!” she wailed. “Waauuuuuuuughhhhh!” Rage sated, Trish wiped the shoe dust from her hands and walked towards the other three and their rat prisoner.
“Can it talk?” she asked of the rodent. Its little black eyes were wide with terror, but the Huntress held it in place by the scruff of its neck.
“That’s a fat no,” Bitbeard answered, “but this bilge-beast understands us alright. He’s going to show us how to get back inside and how to get to the top of the tower, or he’s dead. Isn’t that right little fella?” The rat nodded. It turned its head and pointed at the balcony’s middle door. Apparently that was their next stop.
“Techtet…” Sertin mentioned when the ballerina didn’t follow them to the door. She still hung off the edge of the building, like a corpse, her one exposed sole looking as pink and vulnerable as an embryo. Trish sighed, her throat thick with exasperation.
“Look,” she shouted at the ballerina, “if you want to fall off and die be my guest. If you’re coming we’re leaving now. You could’ve wrecked everything with that stunt; you’re lucky I only broke one of your toys.” Techtet’s head whipped around. Her eyes were full of stinging tears and her cheeks were swollen, like she’d been holding her breath since the shoe had started its fall. She got to her feet and limped towards them, even though her naked foot was fine. She acted as if everything below the ankle had been ripped off. Trish anticipated her tirade. “And if you say a single damn word about what I did to your shoe or what you’re going to do to me, I’ll just throw you off the side.”
That bottled up whatever frothed inside the petite ballerina. She stormed past Trish, opened the tower door, and led the way, wincing with every other step. The others followed quietly behind. After a dark hallway the rat had them turn twice and then take an opening on the left. Past the threshold the building immediately opened up again, into a large arena.
This time its floor was like a basketball court, down to its fresh gleaming wax. There were empty bleachers big enough to hold hundreds of people, but they were the only ones watching the current game. The sight of the two players was so confusing that the Red Huntress accidentally dropped her prisoner. The rat scurried away, back the way they’d come.
The two players clearly had some relation to the humanoid robots they’d battled earlier. Those had been labeled ‘ratcatchers’ and were piloted by the intelligent rodents. These two looked different. They were much taller, each one about nine feet high at the shoulder. Their uniforms were the same garish colors, like outdated candies mixed with bits of easy-to-choke-on plastic. They wore no armor beyond that, probably to keep their range of movement for whatever game they played.
They had mostly human faces, but with the round ears of a rat. Long hairless tails hung out of the back of their pants. It seemed these models embraced their heritage a little more. Animals respected size as an indication of power, so these giant machines were likely in charge of those that had attacked them at the tower’s base.
Neither of them had noticed the intruders, as their eyes were set on the flat black object between them: another pip! Both giant ratcatchers held large hockey sticks. One of them blew a whistle around his neck, initiating their game. They smacked the pip back and forth, trying to drive into one of the two goals set up at the opposite ends of the arena.
“Looks a little like field hockey,” Bitbeard whispered.
“What’s a game of hockey without a fight?” Trish asked, cracking her knuckles and strolling onto the court. One of the ratcatchers smacked the pip, the sound echoing, and it flew straight towards her head. Trish braced herself and stopped it with her palms. It clattered to the floor as she shook her hands back and forth. Her palms had immediately gone red. These robots hit hard. She quickly composed herself and planted one foot on the pip to claim it.
Bitbeard, Sertin, the Huntress, and Techtet took up positions beside her and tried to look ready for battle. Bitbeard pulled his malware flintlock. The Huntress nocked an arrow. Techtet balanced on her remaining shoe. Even with their display, the ratcatchers didn’t seem intimidated. They walked over to them, sticks in hand.
“Who are you four?” the one with the predominantly orange uniform asked.
“Well their not rats or catchers,” the one with the largely purple uniform noted. “They’re from the killed world.”
“I know that you idiot,” the orange one said as he smacked his underling across the back of the head. The purple one didn’t flinch. The survivors noticed. That likely meant the rats controlling them were situated in the chest, just as before. “I want their names.”
“There’s five of us,” The Huntress whispered to her companions, “not four.”
“They can’t see me,” Sertin said. She waited a moment. “They can’t hear me either. That means these creatures are without hope. They’ve always been here. Always been prisoners. Perhaps that’s why it’s called the Trap.”
“Our names don’t matter!” Bitbeard exclaimed. He pulled back the hammer on his flintlock. “We’re taking this pip from you idiots, and the one on top of the tower too! Now shove off!” The ratcatchers looked at each other for a moment before breaking out into laughter. It sounded very unnatural, as there was no build-up, no quivering lip or snort. It was just a recorded laugh.
“Well,” the orange one said, “good luck!” He pulled his stick back and swung it like a scythe. Trish was caught on the end of it and thrown into the bleachers. The others fell back in time to avoid it. The purple ratcatcher stole the pip out from under them, went down on all fours, and started pushing it across the court.
“Don’t let the pip go!” Bitbeard shouted, but the Red Huntress and Sertin already chased after it. The orange one prepared for another strike, aimed right at Bitbeard’s heart. The stick came down. Its head exploded inches from the man’s chest, blown apart by a bluish burst of malware. The ratcatcher sniffed at the smoking blackened end of the stick. His sharp rat ears perked up, twisting his body out of the way just in time to dodge a falling stadium light.
Techtet bounced up and down on her remaining shoe, convincing the lights to either blind their foes or drop on them. She managed to land a hit on the purple one, allowing Sertin and the Huntress to catch up and reclaim the pip. The Huntress, with four arrows nocked, loosed them all into the purple one’s head. Its body quaked, sputtered, and went still. Its chest opened up, jettisoning a regular-sized ratcatcher. Apparently these two were robots controlled by robots controlled by rats.
“Coward!” the orange one screamed as the smaller ratcatcher fled out a set of double doors. He backed up once he realized he now faced all five of them on his own. “Slow down,” he urged, dropping his shattered stick and holding out his hands. The survivors closed around him. “How about a proposition? Surely you had business back in your world? I’m head cheese of the cages around here. I can make things happen for you.”
“Start with your name,” the Red Huntress ordered. What was the name she could put to the death of her companions back in the Minefield? She already knew which one she wanted to burn into the ratcatcher’s skin.
“We don’t do names around here. You tell a rat mama she has to name all fifteen hundred of her kids and see what kind of reaction you get.” The rat-eared robot chuckled again, just as artificially. “I guess you can call me… Ratcatcher Catcher. That’s what the model of my suit’s called anyway.”
“What’s your offer?” Bitbeard demanded. “And that’s a terrible name by the way. It’s important you know that.”
“You give me a chance to get out of here. Let me go further up and actually prepare for a fight with you, instead of you squashing me right here,” the rat-piloted machine proposed. “Take that pip and give me a ten minute head start.”
“Why should we do that?” Trish asked.
“Because if you beat me for real, with no ambushing in the middle of my favorite game, I’ll give you all the information you’re surely lacking. I’ll tell you what the Trap is. I’ll tell you why your world was killed. I’ll tell you everything I know about pips. If you beat me that is…”
“We could just beat it out of you right now,” Trish argued.
“Some of us prisoners would succumb to torture,” Ratcatcher Catcher admitted, “but not me. I’ve had fingers and toes gnawed off. My real tail,” he grabbed the large false one hanging off his back and then dropped it, “is gone. I know torture. You won’t get a single squeak out of me if I don’t want it to escape.”
The survivors looked to each other. Perhaps it was the lingering mingling of their hopes, but they seemed to know what the others felt. Let him have his minutes. If they could have their answers they could finally know what they fought for, or whether they should just give up and die. They nodded. Ratcatcher Catcher turned on his heels, dropped to all fours, and ran towards the double doors.
“Wait!” the Huntress yelled after him. He looked over his hunched shoulder. “Why were you playing with this pip? Surely there’s better things to do with it.” Catcher sneered.
“If you want to be a master of your own fate you have to learn to play the games,” he shouted back. “You can’t be a player if you don’t play with everyone and everything else. You can’t ascend if you’re too low to see the board.” The robot turned and vanished through the flapping double doors.
The ten minutes passed laboriously, especially with Techtet tapping out every second, her remaining shoe acting as a metronome. The five of them said very little, despite acquiring a pip. Bitbeard and Sertin silently examined it, looking for a way to move it easily. Eventually Bitbeard found that, with the application of a mild electrical current from one of the ports on his bandolier, the pip’s size could be altered.
Once he got it down to the diameter of a regulation hockey pock, he stored it away in his satchel. That was right around the time Techtet’s foot stopped. She immediately marched towards the doors Catcher had fled to.
“Do we have a plan of attack?” Sertin asked as they all followed the high-strung dancer. None answered. “Surely he’s off equipping himself with something we’ve never seen before.” She glanced at the Huntress, whose eyes were cast down, so far down that she appeared to stare all the way into the tower’s basement, her thoughts languishing in a dark puddle under a leaky pipe somewhere. If the hope transfusion had done any good, it was certainly wearing off now… after just minutes…
They weren’t the brightest group in terms of spirit. They were too leathery; the only things Sertin could play with were the hopes and dreams that slipped through the cracks. It wasn’t enough to overpower the tides of despair in the Huntress’s soul. All Sertin could do to help her now was keep them talking, keep her mind off the strangeness and the death of the Minefield and the Trap.
They found another set of elevators much like the first, but after their up-and-down adventure they decided to go with the stairs off to one side. They were immaculately clean, without a speck of rat droppings or popcorn hulls. Despite all the spectators that had moved through the tower, like acidic bile rising and falling in a throat, none of them had ever taken the stairs. Were the rats just lazy? That didn’t exactly track, given that the robotic suits could do most of the walking.
“Stop,” the Huntress said as they reached what they assumed was the top level. Techtet kept her hand wrapped on the knob of the ordinary door, displaying her impatience. The Huntress put her ear against the thin green wood. Scratching. Squeaking. Loose papers. “There are a lot of rats in there.”
“We don’t have much choice,” Trish said. “I promised that Catcher thing an ass-kicking, and I’m going to deliver.”
“And I would very much like to watch,” Bitbeard added. The Huntress stepped aside and nocked an arrow. Bitbeard pulled his pistol. Trish took a deep breath, smacked the side of her arm to ready it, and then barreled forward, smashing through the door with her shoulder. The others jumped out after her, but their entrance drew little attention from the horde of rodents before them.
“They’re… betting,” Sertin said, appraising the odd sight. The ceiling of the room was quite low, forcing them to bend over. Along one wall, despite the carpet of rats before it, they could see a long counter staffed by large spotted rats. They wore tiny hats and belts stuffed with strips of paper. These bits of paper went in and out of cheeks, swapping owners regularly. As to what was written on them, the survivors didn’t have to guess. It was spelled out in a font of big electric red dots scrolling across a ticker over the counter.
RATCATCHER CATCHER VS. MINEFIELDERS… ODDS: 6 TO 1 FOR CATCHER…
“They’re betting against us!” Trish said with a grimace. “I don’t think anybody’s ever bet against me.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Bitbeard said, grabbing a cord and unspooling it from his belt. He popped the end of the Ethernet cable into his mouth while he unfurled the rest, but spoke through it anyway. “What matters is what they’re betting! Let’s see what kind of money these little grubbers use. That should give us some answers.”
The rats scattered as they approached the counter, but it wasn’t out of fear. The tellers simply moved down the counter until the humans were out of the way. Some of the vermin could barely walk when they left, stuffed as their cheeks were with vouchers for their wagers. There were one or two rats that hissed at Bitbeard when he brought the end of the cord close to a computer bank behind the counter, but he just hissed right back.
The pirate reached his arm all the way in, like someone searching for a sock under the bed, and fumbled until the cable found its port. The other end was connected to an eye patch resembling a floppy disk. He pulled it over his head and scanned the white-on-blue lines of code he saw in it.
“Interesting,” he said, licking his uneven teeth. It certainly was interesting, but how much to tell his fellows? Their alliance hadn’t caused any problems so far, but any ship where he wasn’t the captain was doomed to sink. If he was going to claim that title, he needed some sort of advantage. They were all bringing the pips back, if they survived, and that Trish woman could certainly best him in hand to hand…
“What’s interesting?” Trish asked as she made a little more room by kicking some rats out of the way and threatening to eat them, a threat backed up by the growling of her stomach.
“This isn’t regular old money,” the pirate explained as he decided exactly what information he would stick behind his firewall until it was properly cooked. “This is all digital… well not exactly digital. Ethereal’s a better word. This money doesn’t live here permanently, not in the Trap. It goes places. I can see the experience on it. This is transforming money. Who knows how many places accept it.”
“That’s fascinating, but we’ve got a Ratcatcher Catcher to Catch,” the Huntress said, immediately moaning at how stupid it all sounded. She scratched her scalp with the tip of an arrow. “Even these blighters want us to hurry.” She gestured towards a very fat rat standing on its hind legs, pushing her ankle towards the only other doors large enough for them to fit.
“Just give me a byte of your time,” Bitbeard said. “I’m downloading all their data, just in case Catcher wants to lie to us about anything.” He did in fact download that data, the computer bank beeping helplessly in response to the flood of hostile programs stored in his bandolier, but he also uploaded something.
It was a little virus of his own design, something from the Bog 1.1.3 debacle he was immersed in a decade ago. That had some of that transforming money involved: money that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be gold or gold pixels. He planted it deep, and had it start swallowing some of the rats’ currency. Apparently the individual units went by the name ‘funzy’. Bitbeard had no idea how valuable an individual ‘funzy’ was, but he was going to siphon and launder as many of them as possible.
When he finally unplugged he stowed away his eye patch and checked a ticker on the inside of his bandolier. His new fortune grew swiftly, almost exponentially. The virus was doing better than he could’ve hoped.
“Can we go now?” Techtet asked.
“I think it’s time,” the Huntress said with closed eyes. Sertin patted her on the back and helped her forward. Better to fight now, before the despair collapsed her, before her bowstring loosened. The five survivors left the betting rats behind just as the odds hit nine to one against them. They passed through the doors and finally found the room to stand tall, along with much more.
It was another arena, another bloody playground for the games of the rats. The ceiling was open, and the field of artificial turf before them was punctuated only by a single spire that rose all the way out. If they looked straight up they could see the pip skewered on it that had drawn them to the tower in the first place. It was to be their ultimate prize, at least until Catcher had told them he was stuffed with answers.
They slowly spread out across the fake grass, trying to find their foe. It was nearly silent at first, but then rats began to file into the tiny red seats surrounding the arena, safe behind a twenty foot wall none of them could scale. The rats brought with them all sorts of nasty snacks that smelled like the floor of an abandoned movie theater. The stench dribbled over the wall and filled their noses: stale crackers, the foam inside cheap sneakers, the entrails of squished roaches, and the bites of plastic and sugar. The rats cheered and booed in a cacophony of squeaks and hisses. It was time for the fight. Time to see which world was better.
Nothing happened until the din reached its peak, when a large garage door at the end of the field, obscured by a massive advertisement for something called Catcher’s Mittens, rose and revealed two brilliant headlights.
A massive vehicle roared out of it, pulling up onto its back wheels like a bucking horse. It slammed back down with a splash of mud and turf. Its engine roared, somewhere between rusty boat propeller and giant mutant boar. It drove circles around them, spraying mud against the wall, inciting the rats to froth over its edge and smack their tails against it in disrespect.
Trish, Techtet, and Bitbeard recognized it as something akin to a monster truck. It had the same peculiar childish quality to it as everything else on the tower; its shell was garish thin plastic and it was covered in giant peeling stickers of cartoon animals with off-putting evil facial expressions. All of them recognized the creature behind the wheel, under the curved windshield: Ratcatcher Catcher. He sneered at them and revved the engine as a greeting.
There was something else they couldn’t help but recognize. The giant wheels of the raised vehicle were not tires; they were pips! Four more pips at stake. They didn’t have much time to marvel, as the pips spun up once more and pulled Catcher towards them. There was no announcer and no referee. It was just a battle to the death. A battle until interrogation or roadkill.
Ratcatcher Catcher was no idiot, though his floppy rat ears on a human face made him look the part. In his ten minutes, after strapping himself into his greatest toy, he’d reviewed security footage of the intruders. The weak and the strong were clear. Techtet only had half the power she used to. He needed to run the other three down first.
The only structure the survivors had to work with was the central spire, but it was barely wider than their own bodies. Still, they bolted for it, as Catcher would have a hard time running them down without ramming it. The villain’s toy truck tore up the turf, gaining on them with ease.
The Huntress swallowed her burning breath. She whirled around and stopped. She would give the others time to reach the spire. Her companions in the Minefield had never made it, never even sprung the Trap. She didn’t deserve it either. She should have died with them rather than get dragged in by the ratcatchers. She didn’t care about their designs, about what giant piece of moldy cheese they likely fought for. She only cared about what she could do in the moments before depression swallowed her.
She nocked an arrow and fired. Were it a tire, it would have popped. It would have forced Catcher off course. The pip could not be penetrated by something so simple. Catcher stomped on his big plastic gas pedal, the force chipping a piece off the top. The Huntress was pulled under and forced deep into the turf.
“Goodbye…” Sertin whispered under her breath as they reached the spire. She could not shed tears, but she could guess at the feelings. The Huntress had set out without even a shred of hope, so she couldn’t even harden one into the spiritual jerky the other members of their party mostly relied on. None of them were capable of shedding a tear for her, but Trish at least had something to offer. She would boil her blood and pour out a cup for the poor Huntress. Catcher just had to be stupid enough to try and run her down…
While Trish dug her feet in, Bitbeard lassoed the spire with one of his many cords and pulled himself up, out of reach of the truck. He braced his boots and back against it and started assembling a longer stock for his malware flintlock. A few good shots from it might disrupt any on-board computers… or at least crack the windshield. Techtet stomped with her remaining shoe. Catcher’s truck lurched to the left, but he corrected quickly.
“Make him crash!” Bitbeard urged. “I want him stil before I waste any ammo!”
“I can only make him go left!” the ballerina screeched back. “If I had two god damn shoes!”
“You’ve got a whole brain, use it!” Trish barked back. Techtet screamed at her until red in the face, but obeyed anyway. Every time it looked like the truck might smash into the spire, she stomped and forced him around. She spun faster and faster, trying to force him into an infinite donut, but her remaining shoe didn’t have the strength. Catcher’s metal hands on the wheel could always pull it back.
It did prove frustrating for the crowd. The rats chewed on the edge of the wall like a piece of cardboard, spitting it out as snowy flakes while they swore in their rat tongue. Their ire grew when a figure rose from the mud. The Huntress had not fallen yet. By all normal rules of mass and weight she should have been crushed, but that wasn’t how pips operated.
“Why must her torture be drawn out?” Sertin whispered under her breath. She knew hope, but she knew it only on the scale of her world. Whatever controlled the space between them, the space the Minefield had fallen onto like a log bridge over a ditch, she couldn’t fathom. They were the ones torturing her.
The pips did crush her, just in a different way. Ratcatcher Catcher knew their power was in luck rather than mass. Every time he ran them down, their futures became dimmer. Their hope shrank. The pip-tires wouldn’t kill them; the Minefielders would simply be ground into the mud until they didn’t have the will to lift their heads. Then they could be killed, butchered, and fried for use in the snack stands of the tower.
The Huntress nocked an arrow, aimed perfectly, but missed by a mile. She tried again, but it sailed off into the stands. Her luck was too low to ever hit again. Her muddy form did draw the attention of Catcher, who swerved to run her over again. Again. Again. Three more times he forced her into the turf, until she was a being good luck could not even touch.
That was too much. She was no defender of the innocent, but Trish knew when someone didn’t deserve something. She ran from the shelter of the spire, straight for the truck. Bitbeard took aim. If she could just stall him for a few moments…
Techtet’s interference allowed Trish to meet it head-on. She grabbed it by the bumper and lifted its front pips off the ground as the back two sprayed mud and spun. Her very breath was primitive grunting, as it took everything she had to hold it up. She tried to spot the Huntress in the muddy ruts, but couldn’t. She was doing her part, if that lousy pirate would just…
Bitbeard fired. The concentrated blast of bluish malware hit its mark, cracking the windshield. The rats gasped. Bitbeard pulled the hammer back again and fired a second shot. It sailed straight through, disabling every system of the vehicle and Ratcatcher Catcher’s immense shell. The headlights flickered and died with the engine. Trish roared and dropped it, backing away. The vehicle bounced once and settled.
“We did it!” Bitbeard hollered, throwing up one hand. “Well, technically I…” Before he could finish he heard something beep. The beep sped up. He grabbed his bandolier and checked the ticker. The funzies… They were still accumulating, but there was something else in his system. He’d tripped something, something non-digital. The currency had some sort of protection: an infectious agent from a medium or format he didn’t understand. It didn’t take kindly to his thievery.
The bandolier’s screens flashed a blinding white, before everything integrated into his swashbuckling garb exploded. His malware gun sailed through the air, landing like a spear in the garage door. His burning remains, smelling like old celluloid film had caught, dropped off the spire and hung from the cord he’d looped around it. A few of the funzies, freed from their non-physical nature, rained around him as tiny gold marbles with creamy white stripes.
Techtet shrieked and ran as the money struck her on the shoulders. She and Sertin made their way to Trish, who peeled the cracked windshield away with her bare hands, who already reached in to grab Ratcatcher Catcher by the front of his shirt. Sertin circled around the vehicle to check on the Huntress, but she was gone as well. Her luck had become so terrible that her heart couldn’t hit its beats. Without that most basic rhythm she had slipped away, into the darkness where her friends waited.
With their leader bested, the thousands of rats poured out of the arena, back into the holes they’d emerged from. They not only feared for their lives, but all the funzies they’d just lost with Bitbeard’s final shot. In moments the survivors were left in silence. Sertin dug the Huntress out of the mud and cradled her head. She closed the woman’s eyes. Maybe now she was allowed to simply stop, to not dwell on lives lost and called pawns.
Bitbeard could not be immediately retrieved, as the explosion had weakened the spire. It groaned and collapsed like a mast struck by cannon fire, landing in the mud next to the truck. Techtet had to step carefully to avoid contact with the funzies. How the little golden marbles had made the pirate explode she had no idea, but she wasn’t going to risk it herself just to fill her pockets.
Trish grunted and ripped apart the chest of the large robot. She expected to find a cowering rat, but Catcher was more cunning than that. The space he was supposed to occupy was empty except for an old cassette tape. When Trish growled about his escape, Sertin stuck her head under the truck and examined the turf. There was a small hole: an escape tunnel.
“There’s a note on the tape,” Trish said as she peeled a piece of paper with chewed edges off the front of it. “It says: Nice try. Don’t let it be said that I’m not a rat of my word.” She kicked the last of the windshield away and plopped herself in the lap of the dead shell. There was a player in the truck’s dashboard, so she pressed the tape in with a flat thumb: the most finesse she’d shown all day.
“A deal’s a deal Minefielders,” the voice of Ratcatcher Catcher crackled through the speakers. Techtet and Sertin perched on the edges of the doors, listening in. “Here’s everything I know about your situation, in no particular order, as I’m currently strapping in and preparing to run your asses down.
You’re in our turf: the Trap. It’s only ours in the sense that we rats live here. We’re connected to a bigger world, but it’s walled off. Think of this as that world’s prison or cesspit or timeout box. Our world is a game, just as yours was. Beyond the gods you know, beyond your morality, beyond your magics and knowledge, you’re being played with.
Your world was destroyed because one of those players got angry and quit. They flipped your board; they killed everything you knew. Who was it? I have no idea. I’m not on speaking terms with the scheming eyes beyond the sky. I’m not even on speaking terms with eighty percent of my own world. I just rule the rats.
Your Minefield was just debris, something that landed on our doorstep. As soon as our game realized you lot were coming over, they actually gave us some power. Gave us these nice suits. Told us to lock you up, kill you, enslave you, or anything else to keep you in the Trap. Gave us prisoners a chance to be wardens, so naturally we jumped at it. It’s not personal.
You’ve got the right idea going after the pips, just like I did. They control luck… or maybe fate… or maybe those two are the same thing. Whatever they are, they come from those scheming eyes beyond the sky. Gather them up. Make them roll. Then you can really make things happen. You need twenty-one of them.
I don’t know what your game was, but we’ve discerned a little about ours. It’s colorful. It’s all about weeding out things smaller than you and throwing them in cages. That elevator that threw you guys up to me? That happened because we have no idea how any of this stuff actually works. None of it makes sense. It’s all roundabout. The Trap is all those weird cages. We rats are the enemies of our world, no matter what we do about it.
That’s all I’ve got for you. If you’re hearing this, it means I escaped after you got the best of me. Know this: I plan to play these games myself, to see the cages from the outside and smash them. Maybe we can work together, or maybe I’ll have to beat you. Either way. Later days Minefielders.”
The tape stopped; the dashboard spat it back out. The survivors sat there in silence, thinking. Games? Flipped the board? Ratcatcher Catcher claimed everything they’d ever known was inconsequential. Trish thought back to the closet full of board games she had as a child. Perhaps the worlds were analogues. Perhaps every game she knew was just an echo of a distant world.
She pictured a world of gaudy plastic and eventual cages. That sounded familiar. There was a board game like that in her youth. It was even called Rat Catcher! The whole board was covered in an unnecessarily complicated multi-phase trap, just to drop a plastic bucket on a plastic mouse. Apparently, they were in that bucket.
So what game had their world been? She couldn’t find any similarities to any, and she’d played most. She shared her theory with Techtet and Sertin, but they didn’t have any ideas either. They were more distracted by their fallen friends.
“I guess we go back,” Techtet grumbled. “Do we leave their bodies? Even if we bury them we have to bury them… here.” She gestured to the entirety of the Trap.
“I’ll carry them,” Trish offered. “Just so the rats can’t eat them.” She hopped down and went about collecting their corpses. Bitbeard was torn open, so they first ripped an advertisement from the surrounding wall and wrapped him in it. Then there was the matter of the pips, which were too large to carry. They remembered Bitbeard’s tactic of applying electrical current. Luckily the truck had a few jumper cables in the back, which they attached to the battery and then to each of the individual pips. They shrunk all four of the tires and the one atop the spire, storing them away in a bag made from another poster.
Descending the tower normally might’ve brought them into conflict with the other rats, but as Catcher had said, everything was needlessly complicated. Surely, there was another way down. They eventually discovered a plastic track down one side that the rims of the truck fit into nicely. They pushed the vehicle to it and watched it invert. Then they piled in and rode its slow shuddering descent all the way back to the ground.
When they returned they were ushered back under the giant cage, through the fence of refrigerated prison-bots. Sertin knew the hope was low among them all. They were all of the same world, the same board, but different regions and times. They didn’t see each other as family, at least not yet. They were just a loose association of scouting parties, and they suffered for it. She kept this knowledge to herself as the others informed them about their time away.
Techtet’s bare foot was now sheathed in one of Bitbeard’s boots. She tapped her toes, adjusting them to their new home, as they heard about the destruction of the strange little fish and Pudda’s words. They also learned that the food-scouting party had returned victorious, with a large number of root vegetables, all clustered in multiples of six, and attached to something very interesting. Pips. Pips in the roots, among the potatoes, carrots, and heads of lettuce. Thirteen in total. When added to the two from the Minefield and the six from the tower, it made twenty-one.
Once Sertin caught them up with the tale of Ratcatcher Catcher and his tape, they boiled over with arguments. Macawl squawked that it had to be a lie; there world was not just a game. Some hid from the realization. Petra dragged the wrapped corpse of Bitbeard away. Her sadness could be heard, and was evidenced by shining tears that fell from her invisible cheeks. The kiss between them had been the only one among all the survivors. Wollid the dragon retreated into a nap, his forked tongue flicking in and out with the tides of anger and confusion.
No, not a game. Even if it was… what would they do next? With their minds pooled their thoughts eventually became a bundle with one clear shape. Catcher had told them to roll the pips. If everything was a board game, then the pips were for dice. They had to make one, roll it, and hope for luck to create a way out of the Trap.
One member of their party volunteered to act as its body. Mr. 32 was already rectangular and already armored. He was the perfect host to the pips. They used the charge from some of the other robots under his command to shrink the other pips, to make them all equal in size, before affixing them to each face of Mr. 32.
They marched, solemn and without confidence, to a ledge just high enough to make him roll without destroying him. Those who had accepted the truth all placed a hand on a face or edge. Maddy, Duid, and Cassandra started the count. They counted to six… and pushed him over.
In that moment they felt they had no control over their lives, but neither did anyone else. The scheming eyes beyond the sky couldn’t control the dice, only roll them themselves. This was an act of chaos and change: their first real action since their births or date of creation. Mr. 32 tumbled through the gravel and rubble. It looked like three… no, four…
He settled to a stop. 5. The Minefielders had rolled a 5. The ground shook. The whole Trap shuddered. Some towers toppled and fell. They could see it on the horizon, through the fog: rising land. The Minefield. Their bridge. It was moving because they’d rolled a die.
Their eyes couldn’t even take it all in. It would take them weeks of theorizing and arguing to realize that the world of the Trap was a great hexagon, and the Trap itself had access to only two sides. The Minefield moved from the debris of their game to the side of a new hex: a world that wasn’t dead.
Sertin had to keep so much to herself in order to keep hope alive. She couldn’t tell them that they had no reason to celebrate. She didn’t fully understand the knowledge herself, but the fact remained. They had rolled a 5. In the stormy words of chance and fate, 5 was the number of tragedy.