Masters of the Maze
The following story contains some sexual
scenes between an adult man and a minor boy.
If for some reason, this offends you, than
read no further. I will welcome all responses
and flames will be cheerfully ignored and
then blasted into space. Please send comments
Enjoy the story.
Quace awoke with a start, sitting bolt upright, bathed in sweat. The dream had been so vivid, that even now he questioned the validity of his sons' deaths.
He had been running towards the sound of their young voices, distant and unseen. Eventually he had caught sight of them off in the distance. He had begun to run harder, his heartbeat quickening to match his pace, the image of his boys growing fainter with each step taken until they disappeared altogether. Even the voices had grown quieter until vanishing as well.
For a few moments he sat there numb, firmly believing that his boys were not gone, merely misplaced and in desperate need of his love and attention. In need of rescue.
A slight moan brought him from his reverie and he shook the dream from his mind. A glance to his side found Kyler huddled under a small blanket, Quace's jacket still balled up under his head.
A pang of guilt surfaced, accusing Quace of abandoning the boy during the night, but was soon quelled by the knowledge that had he lain with the boy, he would have awakened him in his nocturnal stirrings.
The boy lay on his back, head tilted towards Quace, mouth slightly opened. Quace felt the stirrings of desire begin to resurface and tried to push them back into the dark recesses of his mind. But they would not be contained and double their attack, flooding him with a burning desire to kiss this lovely boy and to caress the silken skin.
Noticing that Thor was gone, the possibilities of guilt disappeared altogether and he slowly advanced on the sleeping boy, his emotions running rampant.
If anyone had ever touched his boys like this, he would have killed them without preamble, and yet, here he was with a like mindset. He desired this boy and it went against every grain in his body, yet it didn't. If it truly had, he would have plunged himself off the cliff face he had rescued the boy from.
Slowly pulling the blanket from the sleeping boy, he allowed his eyes to roam over his inert form, watching his shallow breathing and wondering what it would be like to roam his hands over the youngster's naked body. Every fiber of his being that warned him to refrain from this course of action, also screamed at him to pursue it at the same time. He tried to picture one of his sons lying there hoping that the image would chase away these foreign feelings, but the image would not surface. He had never had these feelings before and they both confused and angered him.
Gently, he grabbed the zipper just below the boy's neck and began to slide it downward. Kyler's face was inches from his, his lips slightly parted and his left hand lying just above his head, small hand cupped in sleep, as if to hide something in his palm.
The zipper reached the sleeping boys crotch and Quace stopped it just below the navel. Freed from the restraints of the zipper, the fabric had slid down each side of the boy's chest, exposing twin dime sized nipples the color of a Hershey's Kiss. Leaning into Kyler's chest, Quace kissed each of the small morsels and then gently licked each one, running his tounge over each tender bump.
His mind was racing but the guilt did not return. Had his guilt at losing his own boys been taken to a new level? Was he so upset about the loss of his own sons, that he was now somehow acting out some previously hidden sexual fantasies in a vain attempt to keep this boy?
Cupping Kyler's soft cheek with his right hand, Quace pressed his lips to the boy's and slid his tounge between them, lovingly tasting the inner moistness, his mind still refusing to believe what his body was acting out.
Suddenly, Kyler's tounge responded to his kiss, pushing itself into Quace's mouth. Simultaneously, the boy's small hands sprang to life and clasped themselves together behind the big man's head, as if in an effort to pull him closer.
The flash of guilt at being caught flashed through Quace's mind, but disappeared just as quickly, replaced with a strange sense of relief. Had he wished the boy to awaken and respond in this manner or was he just dreaming?
"Well, I'm glad to see that the two of you are getting better acquainted, but we really must be moving along if we are to save the remaining three Prince's." Thor's voice boomed in his head, shredding the moment of pleasure and snapping Quace back to reality. He begin to pull himself from Kyler's embrace, but the boy clung to him, refusing to allow the moment to end. For a brief moment, Quace entertained the idea of following his lead, but realized that Thor was right. Three boys still remained held hostage in this madman's paradise and time was not their friend to begin with. Any time spent indulging in the pleasures of the flesh with one boy would do nothing to assist in the search for the remaining three.
The rules of this game seemed to be changing constantly and Quace realized that he would need to face these changes wordlessly and rapidly if the remaining three boys were to be found within the parameters set by Krost.
Gently, he pulled Kyler's hands from around him. The boy's brilliant blue eyes were focused on his. "Don't leave me Quace. I love you." he murmured.
Quace kissed him on the forehead. "I'm not going anywhere that you can't go, little man." he replied and offered him a conspiratorial wink.
Kyler smiled his gap toothed smile and Quace suddenly knew that this little boy and his three friends would somehow change his life for the better. He stood and brushed the dirt from his jeans and tossed a glance at Thor. The big cat's eyes twinkled back at him as if in understanding. There was no hint of accusation anywhere in his eyes or in his demeanor that would indicate future betrayal of this little secret. In fact, Quace sensed that Thor approved of this little tryst. Either way, Quace felt a sense of relief wash over him.
Kyler reached down, clasped the zipper that Quace had relocated and slowly pulled it back up to his neck. Pulling himself into a sitting position, he began to stand.
Quace quickly knelt beside him. "Whoa there cowboy. You have a broken ankle there." he said, pointing towards the now melted ice pack that remained tied to the small foot.
"But I feel no pain at all." the boy replied.
Those puppy dog eyes were going to be the death of me yet, Quace thought. He ignored the chuckle of agreement offered by Thor and looked into Kyler's eyes. "You may feel no pain, but that doesn't mean that the ankle isn't still broken. You took a nasty little fall back there and a little piece of rope saved your life."
Kyler pecked him on the cheek, sending another surge of warmth through him. "You saved my life, Quace and I love you."
"You won't love me very much if that ankle never heals properly." Quace stated matter of fatly, his love for this boy growing with each passing moment. "How about you ride Thor for a while, until such time as that ankle begins to heal?"
Kyler's eyes lit up. "I can ride the big pussycat?" he asked, the smile spreading across his slightly freckled face.
Quace returned the smile along with another knowing wink. "Of course you do. Someone needs to keep him from chasing every mouse that we pass along the way."
Thor said nothing, but a quick look into his eyes couldn't belie the mirth that flickered there. For a moment Quace found himself jealous of the big cat. Kyler would be closer to Thor than he would be to Quace, yet Quace knew that this must be. Should something happen suddenly in this bizarre world, he would need to react immediately. He would have a limited reaction time as it was, but a boy on his back would decrease his reaction time exponentially.
Lifting the boy into his arms, he set him onto Thor's back. Kyler quickly hunkered down, laying forward and wrapping his arms around the panther's neck, his feet dangling just above the dirt floor of the cave.
Quace gathered the items that would be needed for the trip and dropped them into the bag. Ordinarily, he would gather the garbage as well, but the need for conservation seemed to be far fetched for him now. Garbage would only weigh down the bag and may wind up costing him valuable time. The need remained to travel as lightly as possible and remnants of their time here did not enter into the equation.
With Quace in the lead, they exited the cave.
The first half of the day went uneventful. They walked for miles, trudging along slowly and cautiously. Quace took point, his solar pistol drawn, while Thor advanced along behind, Kyler firmly wrapped around him.
At one point, the path forked into two separate directions. Turning to Thor, Quace inquired as to which path to take. For a moment, Thor pondered this query, eventually suggesting they move to the right.
"You know every inch of this maze, yet you pondered our direction. May I inquire as to why?" Quace asked, slightly confused.
"My knowledge of this maze is not unlimited. The maze itself is my domain, yet many of the rooms that lie beyond it are not. I rely on my senses to guide me in the direction of the best places to forage. As such, it is this intuition that suggests we move to the right. My senses indicate that something lies in wait for us up ahead that only the act of confronting it will assist us in our quest."
These words sat heavy with Quace. His concern for Kyler's safety had taken hold and the uncertainty in the panther's statement made him yearn for an easy out. Pushing these thoughts aside, he realized that Thor's direction was the only solid lead that any of them had. Besides, he trusted the animal implicitly. Had he not, he never would have allowed Kyler to ride atop him.
With a nod of approval, he ventured down the path to the right, Thor directly behind him. The thickness of the foliage was beginning to annoy him. It seemed that every other branch and thicket had been created for the sole purpose of attacking him at every opportunity.
His annoyance was short lived as a small figure suddenly darted across the path in front of him, bursting from the heavy underbrush on one side and disappearing into the thick safety of the other, all in the flash of an eye.
The image still registering in his mind, Quace suddenly bolted into the underbrush after the figure, unconcerned for his safety and no longer annoyed by the prick of every other thicket. He pushes his way headlong through the heavy foliage, his mind set on locating this new addition to the story unfolding around him. Maybe this creature or whatever it may be would have some answers, or maybe it would opt for a fight to the death. Either way, Quace would find it and answer a question or two.
As quickly as he had entered the thicket, he had exited on the other side. He was standing in a small clearing, roughly the size of the one that he had originally awakened in, only this clearing had no path to betray its discovery or act as an outlet.
At the opposite end of the small clearing stood a dwarf clad in a chainmail armor vest hastily draped over a worn nylon jumpsuit and an orange scarf wrapped twice around his thick neck and hanging loosely at each side. Atop his head sat an old fashioned aviators cap, complete with goggles.
"Cannot be! Cannot be! Fixed maze, I did! Just as asked, just as promised!" the dwarf barked, his small wire framed glasses, bobbing up and down atop his bulbous nose as he spoke.
Quace stood transfixed at the sight of this odd little man. He had encountered alot since first arriving on this strange ship, but this would have to take the cake in comparison. For a moment, he entertained the idea that this may, in fact, be one of the boys attempting to outwit the Mazemaster, but thought better of it and discarded the idea altogether.
"Who are you?" he asked the dwarf.
The small man began to shake. "Kill me not! Maze not completely fixed, but time not friend. This time tomorrow, maze fixed right!" he responded.
"Dingo, you little shit, open the path." the voice of Thor boomed into Quace's head.
"Oh my, oh my." the dwarf uttered nervously, kicking a nearby rock. With a slight whoosh, the foliage behind Quace parted slightly and Thor strolled through in a nonchalant manner, Kyler still draped over his back.
"Thor not happy with Dingo. Dingo explain." the dwarf stumbled backwards as he spoke, a small quiver of arrows and a bow falling from the hidden spot on his back and crashing to the grass.
Thor's eyes twinkled at the sight of the frightened dwarf. He turned to look at Quace. "Meet Dingo. He's a stowaway on this ship and if memory serves me correctly, he has a map of the entire maze, including portions of it that I am unfamiliar with. You see, Dingo here is a scavenger and he maps out new parts of the ship as he raids them."
Quace was confused. "Then why does he believe that we are here to harm him for not attending to the maze properly?" he asked.
Thor shifted his stance slightly. It was obvious that the added weight of Kyler on his back was beginning to take its toll on him. Quace lifted the boy from the cat and sat on the ground, Kyler in his lap.
"I thank you and my back thanks you." the panther telepathed. Returning his gaze towards Dingo, he continued. "You see, the Mazemaster knows that he is aboard and allows him these little raiding parties just as long as they don't intrude into the controlled areas of the ship. In return, he insists that Dingo keep up with the maze, grooming it as it were. He believes that I am an enforcer of sorts and that any stepping out of the boundaries will be dealt harshly with by me."
"Cool! A real midget!" Kyler chuckled, adjusting himself in Quace's lap and sending another wave of desire through the big man.
"Dingo wagged his finger at the boy, his beady eyes narrowing and his bulbous nose growing red as he did. "Dingo a dwarf, not a midget!" he admonished. "Big difference." he spread his short arms as wide as they would go in a vain attempt to illustrate his point.
Quace doubled over backwards in laughter, falling onto his back an taking the giggling Kyler with him. For a few moments, the two of them laughed solidly.
Composing himself, Quace sat upright and gave Kyler a gentle squeeze.
"Dingo will only hear what I wish him to hear, so let's allow him to continue believing in my enforcer status. I think he will be more inclined to be more cooperative that way."
Dingo stood there silent and red faced with mock rage at having been called a midget, yet powerless to react without fear of retribution from Thor.
"Go into your warren and pack a bag little man. We are going on a hunt and I need a navigator. You just volunteered." the cat telepathed his message to Dingo.
Dingo's eyes grew wide. His gnarled hands rubbed his stubby chin thoughtfully as if this would offer him a second choice. "Mazemaster know of this?" he asked as if to give himself an edge.
"Get your bag, little man." Thor repeated threateningly.
Abandoning any hope of other options, the dwarf quickly turned and disappeared into a small hole, making odd grunting noises as he descended into its depths.
"What if he tries to get away?" Kyler asked. "I can go in after him and make sure that he doesn't."
Quace smiled down at the boy. His innocence was refreshing. In his world, he could easily scramble into the hole after the dwarf and insure that he returned through the same opening, undoubtedly invoking Thor's name in doing so.
"Somehow, I believe that he will be popping that ugly little head of his out very shortly. I really don't think he feels like meeting up with Thor again and having to explain his actions to either him or the Mazemaster, do you?"
The boy shook his blond head vigorously and settled into Quace's lap.
So much like his youngest son, Quace thought. The boy was constantly seeking some form of escape from the rigors of shipboard life. He would lose himself in a world of books, becoming the character and sharing his adventures along side his current hero. Kyler was so much like him, trusting in the innocence of youth and believing that the bad guy was always caught. Little boys in trouble would always be rescued in the nick of time, just as had happened yesterday.
Quace kissed the boy on the top of his head, inhaling the fragrance of his scalp, and Kyler nestled deeper into him, secure in the knowledge that he was safe and that soon, his friends would be as well.
Dingo reappeared, grunting and groaning comically as he exited the entrance to the warren, dragging a rather large leather rucksack behind him. Standing, he brushed off his short body. "Things Dingo finds go in here." he pointed to the rucksack. With a small effort, he hefted the bag over his shoulder, a rough task as the bag was nearly as large as he. From a side pocket on the bag, he extracted a worn burlap map and spread it out on the grass. Quace, Kyler and Thor all gathered around as the dwarf began his little speech.
"Sixteen hidden rooms in maze. Some rooms empty, but maybe that change."
Quace furrowed his brow. "Why sixteen rooms? Why not ten or fifteen rooms?" he asked.
Dingo raised his hand into the air, his finger pointed skyward, giving him the appearance of a boy in school who knew the answer and wished to be selected to inform the rest of the class. "Maze not geometrical in any form. One dimension separated from another by door. Go from jungle to cave or from hallway to catwalk, just by opening door. Sixteen rooms fit into non geometric pattern." he explained, his round face brightening as he did. Quace got the feeling that this little man now felt the need to belong to this group, even without the coercion factor applied by Thor.
"Dingo asks boy what room looks like."
Kyler looked up at Quace, as if seeking approval and the big man nodded.
"It was like a hospital room. It was white with nothing but a metal table, and only one door."
Suddenly, Dingo jabbed the map with his thick and stubby finger. "Aha! Three rooms like that in area here." he cried out in triumph. It sounded to Quace as if the dwarf expected them to believe that he had just solved all of their problems with one stab of a finger, but his skepticism prevailed. It would not be that easy.
"We take this path to tunnel and then to room." the dwarf said, sitting back on his haunches and smiling a crooked smile.
"Then let's not waste any time gloating." Thor said. "We have little time as it is."
"I'm hungry." commented Kyler, patting his stomach to emphasize his point.
In a heartbeat, Dingo was at another pocket in his rucksack. Pulling out a long leathery looking slice of something, he handed it to Kyler.
His fatherly instinct and newfound concern for the boy's safety took over and Quace plucked the thing from Dingo's outstretched hand. "What is this?" he queried, eyeing the little man suspiciously.
"Dingo recipe. Best rabbit jerky around. None better." he reached out and plucked the meat back from Quace, tore off a piece and popped it into his mouth, chewing it vigorously. He handed it back to Quace, who took it. He ripped a piece off for himself, sniffed at it and then slowly slid it into his mouth. Maybe his concern was over the top, but the need to protect this boy was a feeling that he couldn't shake. he doubted that Dingo would try and poison them, but he needed to be sure, even if it meant tasting all of the dwarf's food.
It tasted very good and Quace suddenly remembered how hungry he really was. He passed the meat to Kyler who quickly made history of the remainder of it. The smile on his face told Quace everything that he wanted to hear.
Dingo extracted a second slab of the jerky from the pocket and passed it around. Quace passed on the second round, offering his share to the boy, who readily accepted it, thanking both him and the dwarf.
With most of their appetites sated, they made their way towards the first three of the sixteen rooms that held the possibility of discovery.
Dingo took point, strolling along as if on nothing more than an afternoon walk. Thor followed, Kyler wrapped around him and Quace took up the rear, his eyes searching every thicket for the possibility of ambush. Krost had mentioned that he may be able to teleport himself aboard the ship undetected, but had made no guarantees in regard to discovery once aboard. If something were to happen, Quace was ready.
The path forked again and Dingo veered to the left without hesitation, leading them into a section of the maze where the foliage began to block out the artificial sky, forming a tunnel of sorts. Quace felt himself tense as the dwarf continued into what appeared to be an opening in a rock face. In one sense, he welcomed the enclosure, laboring under the premise that they were now free from prying eyes. Yet he maintained his vigilance, equally aware that closer quarters made for easier and more deadly ambushes.
A string of dimly lit bulbs hung from a battered cord bolted into the ceiling of the rock tunnel. Dingo stopped and turned to face the rest of the party. "Dingo's idea. Make navigation easier. No hurt makes better headway." he proclaimed, pointing towards the bulbs with pride.
"Let's hope that the bulbs hold out." Thor mumbled. "Otherwise you may burn out as quickly as they." He could sense Kyler stifle a chuckle at the thought of what may be going through the dwarf's mind. Like Quace, he was amazed at the innocence of youth. Often times, things taken seriously by adult creatures were approached in a lighter sense by the younger of the species and Kyler was no exception. Thor knew that the boy wished no harm to Dingo, but found the situation that the little man found himself in to be humorous and Thor telepathically thanked him for not bursting into fits of laughter.
Another few hundred feet down the tunnel, Dingo stopped again, this time motioning for Quace to come forward. The big man wasted no time in passing Thor and the boy. He knelt by Dingo and followed the pointing finger.
They were at the entrance to a "T" shaped tunnel, the corridor up ahead running across the end of the one they now occupied.
"Dingo come this far. No sure where those lead. Balls get shrinked with each approach." he offered Quace a wan smile.
"So what do we do now?" Quace asked.
"Like Dingo say, no geometric pattern exist in here." He explained that following the tunnel up ahead could lead to a dead end or a beach, but since he had never ventured that far, he was uncertain.
"I'm not looking for a beach or a dead end, Dingo. I'm looking for a room like the one that Kyler described to you back in the clearing." Quace stated.
Dingo continued on as if he had not heard Quace at all. "This design good. It keep unwanted away from inner workings of ship. Any visitor get easily confused and lose way quickly. Maze gobble up many. Mazemaster smart like that." he tapped his temple with a stubby finger.
Quace remained silent, sensing that Dingo felt a need to prepare him for something that may happen up ahead.
Instead of ranting on, Dingo grabbed a small branch sprouting from the top of a pile of nearby rocks. Suddenly the wall beside Quace began to slide to one side as if built on tracks. Showering Quace with rock dust and small bits of rock, the wall opened up, thudding to a stop and revealing a metal door.
Jumping up in down in glee, Dingo exclaimed, "Room one! Room one!"
Without awaiting further developments, Quace reached for the doorknob and turned it. The door yielded without use of force and swung inward.
Kyler recoiled at the sight of the room, his frightening memories returning to him in floods. He had said that nothing had been done to him while in the room, but the memories of the isolation were proving to be too much for him and he began to sob.
Resisting the urge to take the boy into his arms, Quace ushered Thor into the sterile looking room. The boy increased his hold on the cat and burrowed his face into his mane.
Without warning, a laserblast exploded beside Quace's head, shattering a section of the tunnel and peppering him with small chunks of rock. The sound of Kyler's screaming tore through him and for a moment he entertained the idea of running to him and scooping the boy into his arms. Quickly, he chased those thoughts away. Whatever was firing at them needed to be dealt with immediately and consoling the boy would allow the attacker the window needed to put an end to this entire search and rescue mission. Besides, Thor was quite capable of taking care of the boy, now that the both of them were safely ensconced in the room. Quace returned his attention to facing his unseen enemy.
Another laserblast singed the leather of his jacket and powdering the rock beyond it.
"Oh my! Oh my! Cybots have found us." squealed Dingo.
>From the intersection of the tunnel, a small mechanical figure appeared. It stood no more than three feet tall and hovered just above the floor of the tunnel. Quace made out what appeared to be a rotating laser turret mounted to the top of the thing. Before he could react, another round purged itself of the machine and hit Dingo square in the chest, throwing him against the wall, the map flying from his hand.
With a reflex action borne more from desperation than from skill, Quace adjusted the setting on his solar pistol and fired off five rounds in quick succession, each blast catching the cybot and dropping it to the dusty floor of the tunnel.
Snatching the map from the floor, Quace stuffed it into his jacket pocket and reached for Dingo. His effort was cut short by a new round of laserblasts from a second cybot.
"S-save boy" Dingo stammered in pain. "Take bag."
Another blast disintegrated a section of the wall near Quace. Dingo's bag had been thrown from his body and lay at Quace's feet. Snatching it up, he retreated backwards into the room, his eyes scanning the tunnel for any other cybots. Taking aim at the rocky archway above the opening to the room, Quace fired a rapid succession of shots into it, then jumped back and slammed the door shut, sliding the deadbolt home. The sound of the collapsing opening on the other side of the door reverberated through the room.
Effectively, they were sealed in this room and Dingo was gone.
Kyler had pulled himself from Thor and sat in a corner of the room, his knees drawn up, his broken ankle forgotten. His head was buried in his arms and he was sobbing. His childlike view of the situation was gone, overtaken by the gravity of the situation. In a more peaceful situation, he could offer suggestions and be a player in the game, but the reality of this situation had caught up to him in a manner that he was unable to deal with.
Determining that they were safe for a moment, Quace sat next to the boy and gently pulled him into his arms, comforting him the best he could. This boy had seen more grim reality in the last five minutes than either of his boys had in their entire lifetimes.
"I need a strong boy to help me get out of this sticky problem that I've got going on here." he whispered into the boy's ear.
Kyler lifted his tear stained face to his. Quace knew that he would be able to wipe away the tears, but the fear would remain for some time. For now, stopping the tears would have to do.
Kyler sniffled and wiped his tears on his sleeve. He was still scared, but he trusted Quace enough to nod his approval and understanding.
Rising to his feet, Quace quickly conferred with Thor. "What the hell were those things?" he asked, his eyes scanning the room frantically for another means of escape.
"A remarkable piece of machinery actually, " replied Thor in a low enough tone as to not alarm Kyler. "They do not think or reason and they do not discriminate."
Quace ran his hand through his thick black hair. He had found no evidence of a secondary exit from this room, but his mind refused to give in to defeat. His eyes returned to Thor.
"Just what the hell is it that they do?" he asked.
Thor turned his head towards the door and then back to Quace. "They hate."
A series of laserblasts slammed into the only entrance to this makeshift tomb and Kyler began to recoil, reverting back to the stance that Quace had just talked him out of. Resisting the urge to go to him a second time, Quace wondered if Thor would watch him momentarily.
"One step ahead of you, my friend." the big cat was already on his way to offer comfort.
Another blast from the tunnel outside rocked the small room, knocking acoustical tiles to the floor. Quace forced himself to tune out the frightened cries of the boy and the soothing voice of Thor as the panther cooed to him. Krost's statements about crushing a boy's wrist with his new arm came flooding back to him. In an instant, a thought was formed into a plan and Quace sprang into action. The blasts from outside were coming only on occasion, as if the cybots in the tunnel were toying with their prey before moving in for the kill.
Working with a renewed sense of purpose, Quace made use of his cybernetic arm. One by one he ripped each leg of the metal examining table from the bolts that held them to the floor. Dragging the table to one corner of the room, he leaped atop it. Reaching up, he slid the acoustical panel above him back and began to punch away at the concrete surface of the ceiling, showering himself with dust as he did. The map had not indicated any signs of other rooms anywhere near this one, but this was the front line in Dingo's quest to map the entire maze and the rooms beyond. He has never made it beyond this point so it was anybody's game at this point. Quace had no idea as to what lie above. It was entirely possible that he would still be digging when the cybots finally broke through the barrier he had made, killing them all. But Quace was not a quitter. After the death of his family, he had come close to the brink of quitting and had even mentioned as much to Krost's image on the vidscreen, but he now knew that he never would have crossed that threshold.
Another round of blasts hammered away at the entryway and Quace redoubled his efforts. What was left of his shoulder ached like hell and the hammering of his heart against his chest was matched only by the occasional blast that shook the room.
He was three feet into the concrete when the lights went out in response to the latest blast from the tunnel beyond. He no longer heard the sobs of Kyler or the comforting words of Thor. He focused on the task at hand. Doing something was better than doing nothing and if they were to die right here and now, it would not be due to any inaction on his part.
His next punch was met with less resistance and the punch after that was rewarded with a sliver of light. Saving the victory dance for later, Quace began to widen the breakthrough and eventually, artificial light from the room above spilled into the darkened interior of this room. Putting the finishing touches on the width of this newfound escape route, he leapt from the table and crossed the room to Thor and the boy. Lifting Kyler into his arms, Quace addressed the panther. "I'm gonna lift you through first. Make sure the room is secure and then I'll pass Kyler through to you. Can you do that?"
"As long as there is no water, there is no problem. Water equals problems for me." the big cat replied, that twinkle appearing in his eyes again. With those words, he mounted the table. Standing on his hind legs, he placed his front paws on the upper edge of the escape route and took a few moments to judge the thrust he would need to pass through. Like a coiled spring, he launched himself through the opening into the room above. Another round of blasts hit the door and it began to buckle under the strain of the onslaught. Quace knew that it was only a matter of time before the cybots broke through. With the sobbing boy in his arms, he climbed atop the table.
"I really could use a big boy like you to help me check out this new hideout that I found. Can you do that for me?" he whispered into the boys ear.
Without waiting for an answer, he thrust the boy up into the opening that he had dug. The boy responded just as Quace had anticipated. His small arms reached up and found each of Thor's paws. Gripping them tightly, he allowed the cat to pull him through the opening to safety.
Another blast slammed into the weakening door. Quace reached up, gripped the edge of the opening and pulled himself through. Once safely in the room above, he turned and reentered the opening, this time head first, the jagged edge of the freshly punched concrete digging into his midsection painfully. With a final stretch, he reached for the edge of the examining table, catching it on the third attempt. With a degree of effort he didn't realize he possessed, he lifted the table from the floor of the room and begin to swing it back and forth. It swayed slowly at first, but eventually gathered momentum and soon it was swinging freely. Releasing it on cue, Quace strained to watch its trajectory as it sailed towards the ever weakening door. It hit the door with a loud clang and dropped to the floor.
Wriggling backwards up through the opening, Quace slid the acoustical panel that he had moved originally, back into place. Thor had told him that these cybots were incapable of thought or reason, but he wasn't taking any chances. Should these floating death machines have onboard cameras, they might record the location of the table and the dust accumulated on it. An observer on the other end of the camera may be able to put two and two together and locate their escape route immediately. By tossing the table into the door and replacing the panel, Quace had hoped to buy them some time.
"Quace, you had better take a look at this." Thor's voice.
He was up in a heartbeat, his attention focussing on the center of the room.
"Wake up Ari." Kyler was leaning over a small inert form on a table similar to the one he had just tossed away in the room below. "You can't die Ari. I won't let you." the boy sobbed, his small head buried in the chest of the figure on the table.
Circling around to the other side of the table, Quace noticed a boy of Kyler's age lying on the table. He seemed to be asleep, but Kyler was under the impression that he was dead. Gently, Quace lifted the boys limp wrist and felt for a pulse. It was faint, but it was there.
Quace replaced the boys hand and used the same gentle lift on Kyler's blond head. The boy looked at him through tear stained eyes, tears rolling down his face. "P-please don't let him d-die, Quace." he pleaded.
Quace felt the tears welling in his own eyes, but choked them back. Looking deep into Kyler's eyes he smiled at the boy. "He is not dead honey. He is in a deep coma, but he is not dead. In a few days time, the two of you will be driving me crazy with your tales of boyhood escapades. I promise."
For a moment, Kyler was lost in Quace's eyes, unsure as to where to go, but he trusted this man and if Quace said that Ari was alive, then it must be true. In typical boyish manner, he wiped his eyes on his sleeve again, eliciting a smile from Quace.
"You were very brave when you climbed up through that hole back there." he jerked his thumb back towards the rough opening. "What I need you to do now, is get back on Thor so that you can store up more of that bravery for when I need it again. Deal?"
As if on cue, Thor was behind the boy awaiting the his mount.
"Okay." Kyler offered with a half smile. He turned and gently climbed onto the cat.
The boy called Ari was dressed in the same light blue jumpsuit as Kyler, and was equally beautiful to Quace. He had platinum blond hair and a set of dimples that matched those of his youngest son. Quace knew that if this boy should awaken and begin to talk, that he would be captivated by the way these dimples would twist his lips into a cute form. He remembered back to a time when Ty would talk his ear off about his boyish exploits aboard ship. He was fascinated by the way the small mouth would form words. He had never given much thought as to the why's of his attention to that little detail, but somehow he knew that with Ari, it would be a sensual attention to that same detail.
Scooping Ari into his arms, he advanced on the door, Thor right behind him. Drawing the solar pistol from his jacket, he slowly turned the knob. It was a fifty-fifty shot that he would be met with resistance but he was as prepared for it as he would ever be. He had located the second boy and he no longer enjoyed the luxury of anonymity. Gaston was aware of his presence now and he would be pulling out all the stops in an effort to prevent him from rescuing the remaining two boys. Even if he was successful in his attempt to find the them, their method of escape had never been discussed, but that issue would be addressed immediately upon the need to do so and Quace was confident in his ability to finish this mission. He had found a new lease on life and it had yanked him from the depths of despair. He was doing something more accustomed to his abilities now. He was thinking on his feet and the future of the entire GenStar Project seemed to be riding on the decisions made here and now. For these reasons, the door was not opened with wild abandon, but rather a sense of urgency.
No form of resistance was awaiting on the other side of the door, but the dimensional effect that Dingo had talked about earlier was in full swing.
He was staring down the length of what appeared to be a ships corridor. Rich mahogany panelling adorned the length of each wall and paintings of various seascapes were geometrically hung, accenting the look of the ruse. For a brief moment, Quace felt as though he were exiting his stateroom on board the Queen Mary or some other such ship. Twin polished brass handrails ran the length of the corridor, completing the scene.
Quace stepped into the hall cautiously, his senses heightened to the possibility of ambush and his arm wrapped protectively around the unconscious form of the boy in his arms.
Thor followed, Kyler securely wrapped around him.
Ten feet into the hallway, the door slammed suddenly behind them.
Refusing to be drawn into a battle of psychological wills, Quace turned his head slowly in the direction from which they had just come. He was greeted with what appeared to be nothing more than one more stateroom door, with one exception.
Emblazoned on the door of this stateroom door was the number 666.
Apparently, Gaston was turning up the heat and the second day was almost over. Quace felt as though he were a major player in a bizarre video game, being played for the sole amusement of the user. The appearance of the cybots and the 666 on the door told him that he had reached the next level and the game would do nothing but increase in it's intensity.
Suddenly, an explosion ripped through the corridor, throwing the foursome to the carpeted floor. In a reflexive move, Quace took the brunt of the fall, protecting the small boy in his arms. A brief flash of pain stabbed at him, then passed as he glanced back at Thor. For the most part, the large cat had managed the explosion well, he too, using his body to shield Kyler.
"Attention! Attention!" a loudspeaker boomed through the corridor. "The ship has been hit by a torpedo and we are taking on water in large quantity."
Quace braced himself for further explosions and stood, the boy in his arms suddenly becoming heavier.
"Captain Quace, please report to the bridge at once." the loudspeaker boomed. "Leave those less fortunate below decks where they can be aided by those of a like mind. Your experience is desperately needed on the bridge."
For the first time since arriving on this madman's ship, Quace exploded at the one responsible for this weird gameplay. "I am going to accomplish that which I have set out to do and then I am going to locate the bridge and take it out of commission entirely!" he screamed at the loudspeaker. He took a few steps and another explosion rocked the corridor, dropping him to his knees.
"Duly noted, Captain Quace. You are hereby relieved of command." the loudspeaker squawked in response.
On his feet again, Quace turned to check on the status of Thor and Kyler. The panther was weathering this new development as well as could be expected, but Kyler had glued himself to Thor like a second skin. Just beyond the two of them the door to stateroom 666 had been buried in rubble. Suddenly, pursuit by the cybots was no longer an issue for Quace. He turned to face the slightly tilted corridor ahead of him and braced himself for the newest threat. He didn't wait long.
An explosion just in front of him, ripped through the hallway, a hailstorm of debris pelting him, followed by a thick cloud of smoke that rolled towards them. Both Quace and Thor were on the floor at the sound of the explosion, their charges effectively shielded from harm so the smoke was less of a problem than it could have been.
As the smoke begin to dissipate, Quace raised his head to survey the scene. If this was the second level of gameplay, than the remaining levels would be sure to test his reserve.
A ten foot section of the floor was gone and several tongues of flame licked at each edge.
As the lead engineer on the GenStar Project, Quace had been forced to deal with those overlooked incidentals that required immediate attention, but had somehow been bypassed by the designers and architects of the project. His quick mind and the ability to embrace these sudden obstacles had made him a natural for the job. For a brief moment he wondered if that had been the reasoning behind his selection for this mission. Krost and the Committee must have known the potential threat posed by Gaston. Armed with that information, they would have accessed the computer files in order to locate the best recruit for the job. Quace couldn't imagine being the sole entry on the initial list, so the Committee would have had to eliminate other potentials, until they had whittled their way down to him.
Under other circumstances, this would have upset Quace and he would have voiced his discomfort to the Committee, arguing that he was a family man and that his specialties were best performed in a far less hostile environment. But he had not been in a bargaining position, lying in a hospital bed battered and bruised, his family slaughtered and himself accused. This offer had not been issued as an ultimatum, but placed a very close second.
It was this ability to reason through overwhelming odds, that forced him to assess the situation with urgency. In a matter of moments, he had formulated a plan.
Setting Ari on the floor next to Thor, Quace turned to face the scene of the disaster. Gripping the brass on the wall to his left, he yanked at it. One by one, in a domino effect, the bolts holding the handrail to the wall popped themselves from the wall and soon the rail was completely free and lying on the other side of the chasm created by the explosion. Dropping his end, he moved to the right side of the corridor and repeated the process with the second handrail. It too, was soon free of it's restraints.
Working quickly, Quace rolled each of the handrails into the center of the chasm so that they were spaced about a foot apart. He had formed a makeshift. Looking down at his handiwork, he vividly remembered the last time he had crossed a bridge and how close he had come to failure. This bridge was even less stable than the last, but his options had run out. This pitiful excuse for a bridge was the only means of escape for them. One mistake and it would all be over for the offender.
Quace turned and lifted Ari into his arms again. Thor was there immediately, the look in his eyes, telling Quace that he understood the plan of action.
"I'll cross and set Ari on the other side, then recross to take Kyler. You can follow right on my heels if you are so inclined."
"I don't believe that time will allow us that luxury, my friend. Leaving Ari on the other side could be a mistake in itself. Recrossing will consume valuable time and the price may be a life. Besides, the brass is already heating and will continue to weaken under the added weight and another explosion lies in wait to claim those foolish enough to wait. You take Ari across and I will follow with Kyler."
Quace wanted to argue but knew that Thor was right and wasting time arguing an academic point would most certainly kill them all.
Without a word, he turned and stepped out onto the rails. Like a tightrope walker afforded the luxury of two ropes rather than one, he began to take rapid but deliberate steps. The tongues of flame snarled at him as he reached the center of the chasm, increasing in intensity, the heat singing the cuffs of his jeans.
Bracing himself for the explosion that never came, he finally set foot on the other side. Immediately, he turned to notice Thor almost halfway across. The heat must have been almost unbearable for the big cat and Quace knew that he would need to find another stalk of the medicinal plant he had offered Kyler the night before. Thor would need it.
Kyler did not cry out, preferring to glue himself to the panther, his face still buried in the mane of the large animal.
Suddenly, Thor crouched and leaped into the air, just as an explosion ripped into the far side of the corridor. With a groan of protest, the two brass rails relented to the heated assault, snapping in the center and pitching into the flaming chasm below.
Thor landed with a sickening thud, breaking Kyler's hold and tossing the boy onto the carpeted floor. Kyler rolled into the bulkhead and lay still for a moment. Suddenly, he stood and looked over at Quace, a slight smile forming on his lips.
"I stored up that bravery, just like you said Quace." his smile grew wider.
Relief at the boy's safety turned to concern for Thor. The panther lay unmoving, his chest heaving rapidly.
Quace ran to him, kneeling at his side.
Slowly, Thor opened his eyes. "I mentioned earlier that I had a problem with water, did I not?" he asked.
"You did." replied Quace simply.
"I'd like to add fire to that list, if I may." the panther telepathed back, the twinkle returning to his eyes.
Quace fell on his ass and roared with laughter, Ari still wrapped in his arms. The situation had seemed so serious not less than twenty seconds ago and Thor had managed to snap the tension with a simple statement. The laughter felt good, given the events of the last few days.
"You may." he said upon recovering.
Whereas the laughter was a welcome relief, their situation in general had not changed. They still needed to find the remaining two boys and the fatigue of the last few hours were beginning to take it's toll. Daylight was waning and they would need to find shelter for the coming night. They all needed rest and a chance to regroup and Quace wanted to look over Ari for any signs of injury or condition that might require critical medical attention.
Another explosion rocked the corridor and it began to take on an unhealthy list. On wobbly legs, Quace stood and snatched his solar pistol from the tilting floor. In one fluid motion, he turned to stateroom 666 and fired off a series of blasts at the ceiling. Any remaining traces of the room that was 666 disappeared under the debris that avalanched downward, obliterating the first half of the chasm.
"Let's find a different room, shall we?" he said to Thor who nodded his approval and lumbered over towards Kyler.
Quace studied the boy as he mounted the cat and assumed a position that he had become comfortable with. He felt his heart swell with pride at the way the boy had weathered this latest tempest and smiled inwardly at the mention of his storing up the bravery. He would talk with Kyler tonight, when they had settled down and tell him just how proud of him he was.
For now, he turned his attention to the bend in the corridor. Whatever lay in store for them ahead, would be met with the same resilience that he had shown thus far, that much was sure. But he was beginning to tire and he was concerned for Kyler and the stress factor as it applied to the boy. He would recover from any physical wounds he may have inflicted, but the emotional scars were something different altogether. So far, he was exhibiting no signs of psychological wear, but if each level of this bizarre journey was to increase in intensity, than he might begin to break down and this concerned Quace. He would meet each encounter head on and do his best to eliminate each threat, but he felt helpless when it came to the emotional battle being fought in the boy's mind. He wanted to climb inside and beat back the demons as they approached, but his inability to do so left him feeling empty and useless. He resigned himself to the fact that he would fight that battle after returning all four of these boy's to Conastoga One. Failure to pay attention to any detail in this madhouse could get him killed and the battle for Kyler's mind would be academic for him.
Shaking these thoughts from his head, he shoved the solar pistol into his pocket and lifted Ari into his arms. The corridor begin to tilt even more, as if to prevent him from escaping.
Both man and panther struggled with their burdens, maneuvering the tilting hallway as vividly painted seascapes fell from their hooks and crashed around them.
Finally reaching the bend, Quace cautiously peered around to find a shorter hallway which ended with a door.
Emblazoned on the door was the number 666.
"Just great!" Quace mumbled as he started for the door. Going back was out of the question and the number on the door did nothing to settle his mind. The only way to go was forward. As quickly as he could, he advanced on the door, Thor directly behind him. With a sense of urgency, he turned the knob and the door opened inward, the flickering light from the tilting hallway spilling into the room beyond. From what Quace could tell, the room looked like a bunkroom on a submarine. Three narrow bunks were bolted to the wall on each side, stacked like bunkbeds. In the center of the floor was a hatch like those used on submarines to secure the vessel from the onslaught of the sea. The room was not tilting at all, but the corridor was becoming dangerously unstable. Quace stepped into the room and ushered Thor inside. For a brief moment, Quace stood safely ensconced in the room and watched, transfixed as he witnessed the hallway flip completely upside-down, as if he were watching the S.S. Posiedon be hit by the tidal wave that had swamped her.
With a sense of finality, Quace slammed the door.
"May I recommend that we spend the night here." Thor offered as Kyler climbed from his back and hobbled towards one of the bunks.
Setting Ari on the bunk opposite Kyler, Quace sat between the boys, while Thor plopped himself down at the head of Kyler's bunk. "I can't argue with that." he replied, the exhaustion finally catching up with him.
"I'm hungry." Kyler piped up.
Up until the boy spoke, Quace had not given much thought to eating. He had been preoccupied with saving them all from this prison maze. But now, he realized just how hungry he truly was.
"Let's see what we've got here." he said, removing Dingo's rucksack from his back. Rummaging through a pocket, he produced a neatly wrapped bundle of jerky and dispensed among the three of them. Ari was still unconscious and Quace attempted to awaken him by waving a slab of the preserved meat in front of the boy's nose to no avail. Cupping the boy's wrist, he felt for a pulse and found it to be slightly stronger than before. Eventually the boy would come too and Quace would be there waiting for him when he did. He returned the remainder of the jerky to the pocket of the rucksack and bit into the slice that he had set aside for himself. The slightly salted meat tasted good and he refrained from wolfing it down, choosing instead to savor each bite.
Thor insisted that he was not hungry and refused any of the jerky, but Kyler hungrily devoured the two slices Quace had given him. Quace smiled at the boy's appetite and silently vowed to keep the demons of emotional scarring from attacking this precious boy.
Kyler settled into the bunk that he had chosen and yawned. Quace shuffled over to him and leaned into his ear. "You were a very brave boy today and I want you to know how very proud of you I am." he whispered. He kissed the boy on the nose.
"I love you Quace." the boy replied, then turned his head away and closed his eyes. Moments later, he drifted off to sleep. In his world, the worst was over for the day and exhaustion demanded that he sleep for the night so that could awaken the next morning and face new challenges with Quace there to keep himself and Ari from harm.
"I want to thank you for all you've done so far." Quace said to Thor, turning to face the cat who had hunkered down by the doorway they had just entered through.
"You have proven to be a worthy adversary to Gaston and that makes it easy for me to follow your lead. No thanks is required. The way you treat the boys is unique and therefore merits my assistance." the panther replied.
No further words were spoken between them. Each of them sat lost in their own thoughts. Soon, Quace crawled into the bunk alongside Kyler and closed his eyes.
Eventually, sleep overtook him and put the second day behind him.