“You’re here for an adventure, right?”
A hidden voice cuts the chilly early-morning air in a forest of ancient trees so tall you can barely see the tops.
“That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?”
The voice approaches a narrow clearing in the forest. At the far end, a single grassy hill waits for daylight. A ray of weary sun breaks over the top of the soaring canopies and skims the top of the hill. The edge of sunrise creeps down the slope.
“Being scared won’t do you much good.”
A rocklike creature steps out of the endless shadow of the great forest. She stops at the edge of the clearing, showing herself to be a blue-green crystal several feet tall, with many tiny facets and smaller black crystals for eyes. On her head, a patch of seafoam-colored hair has been shaped into a short, functional hairdo. With a huff, she adjusts the strap of her canvas backpack. On the top of it, a stitched patch hangs on by a thread:
NEW FRONTIER EXPEDITION
A second voice calls to her from the forest.
“Hey, Adrian, what’d you say?”
“All I’m saying, Robert, is that you won’t find many adventures if you just hide in the shadows all day,” Adrian answers. “Mr. Noble won’t like that.”
A second rocklike creature emerges from the darkness—a slender copper-colored glob of metal several feet tall with thin legs and shaky knees. As he enters the clearing, his chocolate-brown crystal eyes stay locked on Adrian a few steps ahead.
“So, is this the spot?” Robert asks her.
“I’m not sure. I’m just taking notes today,” Adrian huffs. “Normally, I’d help plan the routes too. But today, since the team split into a bunch of smaller groups, I’ve been left in the dark on a lot of things.” Without another word, she begins to scrawl away with a quill and paper.
A thunderous whisper rumbles through the air behind them.
“This is the spot.”
Robert turns around and squints through the shadows at a huge broad-shouldered figure made of polished blue stone, standing twice as tall as him and Adrian.
The figure takes a step toward the light.
A pair of golden eyes pierces the darkness.
Veins of brilliant gold reflect the sun like living lightning on his arms and face.
“You know where we’re going, Warren?” Adrian asks the figure.
“I came up here to scope things out over the weekend. For Mr. Noble. Clearing looks safe, but lots of unknowns on the far side,” Warren says in the same powerful whisper. “Whatever happens, just keep taking notes.”
He steps completely out of the shadows, revealing his dark, neatly parted hair and thick black beard. In the early light, a striking red-and-black flannel shirt barely holds together across his huge chest.
An ID badge hangs from his collar:
“We’ll cut straight through the field. From there, it’s anyone’s guess. Stay in the light whenever you can. Stay where you can be seen,” he explains. “Oh. And one last thing.”
He holds up a few steel hard hats.
“Sorry. Noble’s orders,” he says.
Robert hurries to keep up with the now-silent Warren heading off into the clearing. Keeping close, he matches Warren step for step as they follow the creeping daylight across the grassy plain, the ground itself trembling under his leader’s hefty boots.
“All right, this is going to be the most dangerous part of the whole trip,” Warren says, stopping at the edge of the forest at the far end of the clearing. “Not a lot of space. Not a lot of light this time of day. We need to move quick if we want to make our target by nightfall. You picked quite a day for your first outing, Robert.”
“You sure this is safe?” Robert asks.
“It’s about as safe as anything else we do out here,” Adrian says.
Warren throws Robert a subtle nod before vanishing into the thick late-spring vegetation choking the space between the trees. Not a second later, Adrian does the same.
Robert gulps hard and jumps in after them, the brush growing thicker with every step. After a few minutes, the light around him disappears almost completely, leaving only a handful of beams streaking down through the canopy high above.
He pushes through branch after branch, looking for a brief glimmer of living lightning to guide him along.
He listens for Warren’s booming footsteps. “All right, where’d they go?” he mutters to himself.
A low huff rolls across the ground a few feet to his left.
Something rustles the bushes. Something big.
Robert takes a single step. The supplies in his canvas backpack shift around.
A huge horrifying beast explodes at him, driving him hard into the dirt.
“What is it?! What is it?!” Robert screams, pinned face down.
A set of claws, four inches long, scratch at his waist. They take him under the arm and toss him several feet into the air.
He lands on his back, staring up at a mass of dark black fur and shining yellow-white fangs.
The beast pushes him across the ground with a stubby, rounded snout.
He sees two stripes of white fur crossing in an X between its eyes.
Robert makes a fist and aims for the center of the X.
The beast smacks his arm away and crushes it down into a patch of rocky ground beneath him. His elbow catches on a sharp edge and begins to bend in a way that it shouldn’t.
He groans in pain.
Robert squirms and tries not to think about his arm snapping back the wrong way, or worse.
A second huge creature tackles the beast back into the overgrowth.
Robert flies to his feet.
A flash of living lightning shines through the thrashing brush.
“Warren!” he shouts. “What are you doing?”
Adrian strolls over. “You still in one piece?” she asks Robert, her face buried in her notes.
“Wh-what?” he stutters.
She points at the ground.
Robert sees his hard hat at his feet, smashed to pieces atop another sharp rock sticking out of the dirt.
“You still alive? That thing could have cracked you in half,” she says, still not looking up from her notes. “Almost broke your arm clean off.”
The brush cracks and shakes from the fury of two wrestling giants.
“What are you doing?! He needs help!” Robert snaps.
“No, he doesn’t,” she says, her quill going a mile a minute across her paper.
The forest goes silent and still.
Something heavy crashes to the ground.
Hearty snoring shakes the leaves.
Warren creeps out of the overgrowth with barely a scratch on him. “You all right?” he asks Robert.
“Told you he didn’t need help,” Adrian adds.
“Wh-what’d you say?” Robert stutters.
“You okay? Are you in one piece?” Warren asks.
Robert checks himself over. “I’m good. I’m good,” he says.
Adrian cuts in again. “Warren’s got a nickname for a reason. He’s the Man Of Roar—”
“Ade, go on ahead. We’ll catch up in a minute. And make some noise. No more keeping quiet in here, not with all this growth on the branches,” Warren tells her before looking down at Robert. “I’m sorry about that. I’ll make sure to stay close from now on.”
“I’m all right. I’m good to go,” Robert says.
“Look at your legs,” Warren tells him.
Robert glances down to find his knees shaking uncontrollably.
“I’d be worried if you weren’t rattled right now,” Warren says. “You understand what could happen. Not just what does happen. That’s why you’re out here.”
Warren drops to one knee and looks Robert in the eye.
“This isn’t a normal job. And it isn’t easy,” Warren tells him. “Everybody you know is counting on you. On us. The Big Man is counting on us. This is his vision. We’re making a new life up here for everybody back underground. You and I are making it happen.”
Warren stands up. “Ade, what time is it?”
“5:37 a.m.,” Adrian says from up ahead.
“All right, we’re running a little late from all the excitement,” Warren says. “Let’s move. The other groups will be waiting for us.”
“Yes, sir,” Robert says, getting control of himself.
A twig snaps in the distance.
Warren stands up. “There’s something else following us.”
Warren’s gigantic dark-blue hand pats Robert on the shoulder. He fights to stay upright against the impact.
“We won’t always know what we’re getting into. Place is called the New Frontier for a reason. And there’ll be plenty more days like today. But we’re tough. The future’s on us. We’ll get it done.”
Chapter 2- Smoke and Mirrors
In a tiny stone bedroom far below the earth, a gray stone nightstand sits beside a heap of dirt cobbled together into the shape of a bed.
The gray stone walls begin to rumble and groan. The dirt heap shifts. A pink crystalline hand emerges from it.
Clumps of dirt roll onto the floor as something a foot or two across rolls around just below the surface. A boxy pink young adult crystal sits up and yawns. He stretches two rather thin arms, each one anchored to the center of either side of his square body. On the front surface of the crystal, two purple octagonal eyes come to life beneath a handful of narrow crystals shooting straight up from the center of his head.
“Time to get going, Geo,” he says to himself, his eyes half open.
He turns to an alarm clock on the bedside table.
The heap of dirt calls out to him.
He closes his eyes and lies back down.
The clock ticks.
A hideous alarm goes off, and a cloud of black smoke bursts from the clock.
The smoke burns his eyes.
Geo hits the snooze button and buries himself again, leaving the few thin crystals atop his head poking through the dirt. At the bottom of the pile, a pair of thin pink legs sticks out onto the floor.
“Five more minutes. . . .”
A streak of light breaks through a window on the far side of the bedroom. Geo peeks out of the dirt and checks the clock.
“Still enough time. I can still be up there before Warren and the others if I hustle,” he says to himself.